“What does queer feminism bring to sexual thinking and practice today that is surprising and transformative?” Lynne Huffer asks in Are the Lips a Grave? This essay on queer fem(inist) “lipthink” seeks to elucidate how and where, in Huffer’s ethics of eros, the post-Cartesian-Foucaultian legacy of “mad” bodily thinking gets rearchived, recharged, and resuscitated; and why this ethical madness, and queer feminist eros in particular, persists as a problem haunting the (para)cogitational void between one and the other, especially that queer living zone between bios and thanatos. It is as if the gaily autodephallicizing rectum, to which this or that queer feminist returns “fistingly,” itself needs rectifying.
[A]n ethics of eros begins to emerge for new ways of living “in the present, that difficult tense.”—Huffer, quoting Barthes
[T]hat dazzling, breathtaking beginning and its hint of an opening through those luscious, pleasurable lips. But I also worried [. . .]—Huffer
Read Aloud—Up with Acüte Gravity
“The queer as an experience sits on the threshold that I am naming the erotic. Eros names a nonself-identical force that resists the exclusions of moral rationalism, but that also moves beyond the pure negativity of ethical rupture” (Huffer, Mad for Foucault xvii), the task being “to make queer feminism stir once more under our feet” (2), as Lynne Huffer announces, citing Foucault at the beginning of her most recent book, Are the Lips a Grave?, her first book on a queer feminist ethics of sex, where her groundbreaking claim on a queer feminism is introduced through a “weave of voices: a crazy cat’s cradle” of her own “decades-old thinking about sex” (1).
Sex? Yes, I’m sitting here about to cogitate, with Dr. Lynne Huffer, on what is fundamentally “stirring” about queer feminist ethics today, this construction zone voiced and emerging through the feline insanity, I mean, insane sobriety, of that queer feminist thinker at work, who returns to her desk to oralize without moralizing stories—hers, ours, theirs, especially of sex, queer sexual matters in particular. An immediate, broader background we should also bear in mind, I should also note at least in passing, is the ongoing, queer turns to feminism and vice versa (Schor and Weed), as well as ongoing feminist autocritiques (Butler); also notable in connection is “queer-diasporic,” creative kinship for an alternative life (Eng), which would also embrace the thanatological shards and shades of negativities (Bersani), with its disjunctive futurities part of its counterteleology. When and where do such messily connective, eruptive, multiple, open-ended lives of eros move on and ahead? Where do we see the critical and creative edges of queer feminist love carried on “splittingly” (fifty-nine times in the book, my Kindle reader says), dialogically, or diacritically, to be more precise, given that “not for nothing does the oed list ‘communication’ and ‘conversation’ as the primary meanings of intercourse” (Berlant and Edelman ix). With Lynne, a fellow (fella?) reader of Descartes who thinks (therefore he is [there in his famous oven]) almost naked in his nightgown almost queerly, I would ask further: how and where does the post-Cartesian-Foucaultian legacy of “mad” bodily thinking get rearchived, recharged, and resuscitated otherwise in this age of “post-it,” where “it,” say, the decentered modern subject or liquidated objectivity, still floats around somewhere between postidentitarian confusions and performative ennui?
“[W]hat does queer feminism bring to sexual thinking and practice today that is surprising and transformative?” (Huffer, Are the Lips 1). Just what is it, and what does it rectify? How can we get “it” and get it right, if not straight, or else queerly straight, as it were? “On the most basic level,” I share with Lynne the impulse behind “[this] simple question” that “motivate[s]” (Are the Lips 1) her line of, I’d say, “lipthinking,” her way, as I see, of “going through the back door,” a hallmark of queer methodology:
By queer I mean we must, in Foucauldian fashion, ask whether what we imagine as the cause (people don’t want to think much about sex, let alone how sex is central to other projects of modernity like science and colonialism) is in fact the effect (of other forms of power, like Neoliberalism and the gay subject). I apologize if that was confusing, but that is the queer method of going through the back door that is central to queer theoretical interventions. Queer theory redirects us to look in the unexpected place. Queer theory surprises us with questions that other theoretical traditions don’t ask, even highly critical traditions. (Essig)
Lynne, too, follows, astutely (with l’accent aigu), those ongoing, maddening, magnified, Foucaultian, curious murmurs with rigor and success, and yet “splittingly,” as seen earlier, with her other eye on something else:
And because Bersani builds his argument by analogizing the rectum of contemporary gay men with the promiscuous vaginas of Victorian prostitutes, we could even say without hesitation what our cultural imaginary already knows: if the rectum is a grave, so is the vagina.
Or is it? What is the relation between vagina and lips? (Are the Lips 40)
So the book is a restless burial site, an unsettled grave. Are the lips a grave? It’s not just a rhetorical question. The answer is yes.
This figure of the grave returns me to the erotic ethics where I started. If the book is a grave where a queer feminist ethics is buried, the name I give to the ghost who haunts the graveyard is eros. Strange eros is Sapphic [. . .]. [E]ros precedes bios: the bios of biopower, of our sexualized present. Another word for life, eros precedes bios as Sappho precedes Plato: we don’t know her well. Her eros remains monstrous, unfamiliar. Eros precedes bios not in any historically absolute sense, but as problematization: as a problem to be thought, respectively. (Huffer, “Lipwork” 100–101)
Eros, queer feminist eros, in particular, as a problem that hauntingly returns in a tone both grave and acute, in the (para)cogitational void between the two, precedes and passes through bios and thanatos altogether as the mind of eros or “the eros of the mind”2 holds them in view, cuttingly connecting them along the way, as “the body is,” yes, I dis/agree, “a blade that sharpens/by cutting” (Vuong 83). Love here, then, not something that is or is not, like a life or a death, is perhaps something felt this way and or that, still buried alive, still alive even. Somewhere “[t]here I continue to look for ethics,” says Lynne, the sort of ethics springing from the very “discontinuities beneath the same anthropos Foucault saw disappearing at the edge of the sea: the lips of a world where new monsters are buried” (“Lipwork” 103), acutely, acütly.
Can this Sapphic monster lead us somewhere else, somewhere new even, or even newer? How? Should we follow her? How? And when?
Yes, the Hufferian queer ethical feminist, subscribing to neither phallogo-periodic determinism nor stiletto-specific reactionism, is rather interested in practicing this Irigarayan sex which is not one, which is anal inclusive but not centric or explosive (Are the Lips 40). Lynne lets the other in “through the back door” via stories to be recalled, retold, rediscovered, and re-unfamilarized. Her queer way is narratively oriented and disorientating. Turning to the constitutive if not constant intersubject in the scenes of nonstraight (forward) love, mad, bad, sad, all inclusive, and exclusively odd, she performs a micronarratological, often surreally seasoned theorization of queer feminist ethics, which she characterizes as “genealogical excavations”: “the proleptic transformations of genealogical retellings, thereby instantiating the ruptures in the present that register the ethical force of genealogical excavation. In this way narrative performance can lend itself to the project of developing a queer feminist ethics of eros” (157). This “thinking-feeling ethics of the other,” as an alternative gesture that remains more than “gestural,” enacts and embodies an ethopoiesis (43) of voiding: a circuitous avoidance? No, I mean more like a concentric accentuation, even if that means confrontation, a reciprocal alteration through an interfacial labor of love. This labial spacing of (what is) not-nought that Huffer envisages at the enunciatory knot of reflective articulation and textual instantiation rhymes with the successively transformative retraversal of the modern subject as a sexual(ized) being or thinking thing, to recycle the Cartesian idiom.
Read Along—Cuz Rectum’s Linked to Lips, No
“I am not gay; I do lips”: I did not see Lynne saying it, but I hear her doing such as I follow her articulating her way consciously and critically out of the “gay guyness”3 of queer discourses, even when she “does” Foucault and does him so expertly and, indeed, faithfully. Huffer’s post-Irigarayan, composite articulation of a queer feminist ethical “I” can be heard through such heterogeneously dynamic layers of feminist self-conceptions. For instance, we have the slogan almost everyone knows but nobody owns the meaning of: “I am not a born woman but have become a grown-up girl” (Simone de Beauvoir, my paraphrase); “I am not a woman; I’m a lesbian” (Monique Wittig, my paraphrase); “I’m no lesbian. I have no time for sex of any kind” (Valerie Solanas in Ronell 23); “I am not a lesbian. I am not bisexual. I am curious. If you are really alive, how can you be in one place that whole time?” (Alice Walker in Cutler). And here we also have Jeanette Winterson in 2010 talking about herself and her partner: “Susie calls herself post-heterosexual. I like that description because I like the idea of people being fluid in their sexuality. I don’t for instance consider myself to be a lesbian. I want to be beyond those descriptive constraints.” And of course, way before that, on this continent, a Truth asked, ventriloquizing herself once with such an ironic genius: “Ain’t I a Woman?” (Sojourner Truth)—to which, I am also hearing Lynne saying, “Ain’t I a queer woman, after all?”
Again, “I’m not gay; I do lips” as well, postsexually or not. Signaled in such moments of affirmative negation, autogenerating a series of counternetworks of not-nought-knot, is not some categorical fussiness, but rather a kind of queer openness and receptive creativity, say, “catachrestic” freedom: “I had recently discovered labial pleasures myself and loved those lips and their funny combinations. They were so outrageous: sexy, queer, but also feminist. They both revealed something there I hadn’t noticed before—sexual difference as what is—and held open an alternative space—sexual difference as what is not. In their singular plurality as ‘two lips kissing two lips’ [. . .] they brought together, as a catachrestic relation, what is and what is not” (Huffer, Are the Lips 40). The project Lynne tables through the tapestries of careful, resistant, irresistible analyses of sexual difference as what is and what is not is to “read” these “catachrestic lips—metaphorical figures for which no literal terms exist—as Foucauldian heterotopias” (41), listeningly, as lips “simultaneously here and elsewhere” get autogeneratively amplified into a “hovering” collective that “attempt[s] to speak otherwise” in an “ethical remaking of the erotic relation” (43), for as “a void, the space of a nothing, of something that cannot exist,” its ground is nonetheless “peopled [. . .], inhabited” (“Lipwork” 100), its caesura full of libidinal charges, fraught with tensional contradictions as well as contractions.
True, come to think of it, so much is going on in and through the mouth inseparable from the lips, usually four down the line in the case of average women, cis or trans: the oral dramas of speaking, eating, and kissing, for instance, hardly end there, however, insofar as they are linked holistically, or are infinitely annexable, to other orifices in animal bodies, and the specific, psychosexual, and ethico-political sites and modes of connection that interest Lynne, the sensual thinker, correspond to that submerged archive populated with “[s]trange strange strange” (Huffer, “Lipwork” 100) erotic beings with four lips, whose cartographies of desire are yet to be explicated and excavated, “genealogically excavated” (99). When Lynne says we know relatively little about Sappho, what she is saying, I sense, is partly that this philopoet’s lips are yet to be seen and heard. When Lynne voices her critical suspicion that the increasingly formulaic “movement from the particular to the general” in much of intersectionality discourse reminds her of “philosophical gatekeeping” (98), she is saying, as I gather, that the particular unwieldiness of problems at hand, rather than categorical specificities, need to be considered first. I take this critique to be about intersectionality’s static and sometimes cynical institutionalization rather than its intellectual impetus or discursive drive per se, since intersectionality “itself” as a theoretical concept and methodological apparatus is not so much a dot-producing machine as a critically responsive (Goswami, O’Donovan, and Yount) and autogenerative organism, closer in actuality to “interstitiality” (Lee), as I see it along with Patricia Hill Collins and Kristie Dotson. It is, in fact, such relationally oriented, situationally textured attention to the dead-living body as the very ultimate possibility of betrayal as well as belief that sustains the ethical force of the otherwise ephemeral Hufferian queer ethics as well, as we have already seen so far. Huffer’s catachrestic insistence, inspired by Jacques Rancière’s politics of dissensus, on the political importance of relational disagreement and dissonance rather than disrelational agreement (as in some neoliberal charade or innocuous ideal of tolerance and acceptance, for instance) could be appreciated from that viewpoint too.
What Lynne is proposing, then, seems not so much grand, paradigm-transcending ethical solutions to often extremely concrete, often recalcitrant sociopolitical issues as ethically infused, queer-alternative critical perspectives integrated into political projects and praxes. This connective position characteristic of Lynne’s trajectory and methodology—let’s say, “Huffering”—that remains intimately distant from both yes and no while alert to the analytic pitfalls of its structural binarism or duality, I find quite promising, invigorating. Huffering between suffering and buffering, you could try to give yourself as well as your ([truly] queer) lover(s) a kind of language à la Foucault trying to give the mad a language, the aporetic irony being just in the (un)doing. Live through that impossibly enduring queer love; that is your homework.
Further along . . . I just wonder about this, too, and want to say it: would it be then a stretch for anyone to extend this Hufferian insight into a queer labor of love, to a certain reframing of the “rectum-grave” paradigm? Isn’t the rectum too, after all, connected to the lips that, after all, remain inseparable from the mouth? On a more literal-general-conceptual-topoanalytic level too, if we cannot separate the head from the face, figuratively, I mean, who are we to say that the lips and the rectum could be equal but separate? This sort of queer corporeal (w)holism, or a kind of quantum borderline disordering I myself have begun to entertain, is in part inspired by this synchretic Hufferism I am reading into and out of Lynne’s work that is itself populated with and animated by, as you might recall, all sorts of queer couplings between, most notably for instance, Irigaray and Foucault.
And yes, before we split off, or I do, well, wouldn’t you want to talk, more, with Lynne—about this, a couple having . . . in some detail, please, still not enough.
Or more simply: we need to see an example, an exemplar even, to really understand what she is (on) about.
Read Apart—or Do You Mean Ripping Apart
Sometimes, the eros of alterity or, would you rather say, the otherness of love comes in the form of amorous altercation, lovers’ discourse—I mean, quarrels that could be as lovely as a “couple having a private moment”:
She should be seen being lifted out of sight: on a high trapeze still rising, say, and swinging above the stage, hissing “I hate you I hate you I hate you . . .” In the dimness far above she whispers spits and mumbles, she shrieks and flings down into the pooled light on the floor the various masks she’s been wearing: alternating “beautiful” (carefully made up) faces with monster visages, so lipstick-y smiles flop down along with snarling muzzles or gaping holes fenced with broken brownish fangs dripping reddish froth . . . “I haaaaaattttteee you!” She trills it out, standing on one foot, still in that silly bird costume they made her wear, singing it. And plop: the blond wig tumbles to the ground and then the brunette wig and so does, shortly, the silver mane and the nest of writhing snakes. I hate you, she thinks it hard enough so that it seems to fill the shadowed space, as she hooks her knees over the bar and swings, upside down, back and forth. “I h-aghydpn goooo” we hear (but faintly) as she rips apart the frilled and feathered gown—dropping fake breasts into the sawdust below, thump, floosh—and pulling the luscious rubber ass-mask around and up over her face. (Mullen)
Closing the book, having opened it twice already, I find myself reflecting again on the “upscale Italian grocery store in the heart of a wealthy white New Haven neighborhood” scene (Huffer, Are the Lips 142) involving Lynne and Tamara and a time-bomb often called someone or somebody, some random clerk in this case, whose “Oh” started it all over again, whatever “it” turns out to be:
“Oh,” said the clerk, scanning my pale skin, blue eyes, and straw-colored hair. “I assumed you were the mother.” She glanced over at Tamara, confidently interpreting her dreadlocks and brown skin: “And I thought you were the nanny.”
Feeling Tamara stiffen at my side, I vaguely understood that this reading of her in a place like this—an upscale Italian grocery story in the heart of a wealthy white New Haven neighborhood—was something she had encountered in similar contexts a thousand times before.
“No,” Tamara replied, glaring at the clerk, then pointedly looking at me. “She’s not the mother, and I’m not the nanny.” (142, my emphasis)
Secretly I was relieved that Tamara had spoken, allowing me to take the groceries and leave the store as if nothing had happened. And yet, even in that moment of saying nothing, I was aware that something fragile had just been punctured. Somehow the clerk’s failure to read us as family shattered the intimacy that moments before had safely bound us together. Even more acutely, my own failure to speak sharply threw into question an implicit trust between Tamara and me, an unspoken faith in each other without which our relationship could not continue.
Afterward, in the car, Tamara and I talked about what had happened, perhaps trying to stave off the threat of trust irrevocably broken. (143, my emphases)
Yet again, you see, Tamara is not an ordinary citizen or lady. What “secretly relieved” Lynne even slightly, the professor-theorist just standing there as if flash frozen, is the correctively tinted passive aggressivity of her partner’s no, her clear and strong contradiction, both factual and theoretical: “She’s not the mother, and I’m not the nanny” (142), and we are just what you perhaps simply cannot imagine. Some (angry black) lady is making a point here, whatever it is, the clerk might have thought to herself, that is, as you could imagine. To that extent, this queer “antisociality” (forty-three matches found, my Kindle says), quietly amplified by the virtual duet of solitude, becomes and remains theoretical but not just. At that point, thinking-feeling feminist queer ethics gets triangulated by the impossible and necessary (un)doing of some sorts . . . of “the other.” Lynne’s pronounced and autodocumented failure at collaborative counteraction, obviously still a scar, a sore point, for Lynne and Tamara both, is part of the heart of the book so movingly generated here with extraordinary candor and clarity.
So yes, the spilled milk again, that split second, and what are you going to do about it? What do we do? What else, apart from wiping it away with some choose-a-size paper towel, super strong and still soft whatever you do with it? You see how and why such “queer” moments of silence, the queer illegibility of quotidian suffering sometimes followed by buffering, could become particularly poignant, at times “more acute” than the straightforward shrill of “I haaaaaattttteee you!” by a supposedly heterosexual, über-hysterical bride in a wedding gown . . . but who knows? Truly.
Lynne’s autoethnographic theory-telling (as in, she’s not just telling a story but theorizing stories by weaving and fusing them together) regarding the poignant durability of queer erotic life, the socio-archaeological ontology of love and the very persistence of its fragility, unfolds like a book of love that should exist somewhere not only homospectrally but queer specifically, the sort that, seen more generally, cannot stop writing and reading itself and at once.
How are you—or we? How are we—not you and me (as another you), two fine or fraught subjects, but we as an entangled intersubject? Huffer’s assiduous search for a way out of the “masculine monosubject and of redemptive sex[uality]” (Are the Lips 33) is specifically queer feminist, rather than, say, generically or generally philosophical in the way the very terms and conditions invisibilized in the name itself, “philosophy (vs. nonphilosophy),” turns into a phallic object for her to tackle and tackle queer feminist fistingly, so to speak. This inaugural work on queer feminist ethics by Lynne that backtracks and interweaves years of thinking with and against contemporary gender and political theories and philosophies (why does “philosophies” still sound a little incorrect?), queer or not, quite understandably limits itself, topically and topologically, to a more localized and polemically inflected series of articulations of such alternative queer feminist visions and transformative implications. Yet, as I myself am handling or not handling, in my own ways, this issue of the monochromatic exclusionary phallogocentrism of theory-making, as a philosopher, in part, and a lady philosopher at that, this particular area where one feels the wrath and warmth, both, of Huffer’s lesbian theoretical fist(ing) holds some particular interest to me, where a refreshingly innovative social ontology of relation could (have) open(ed) up (more clearly and radically); for stressed throughout the chapters and in the new piece appearing here together with mine, as I should like to stress again and again if necessary, is a queer special or specific relationality itself, or should we say in this case herself, given her case that also comes with an Anglo-French accent: relational freedom over against discursive constraints, which again turns one mad, bad, even sad, off the grid . . . à la Foucault. How can or should ontology, for instance, relate itself, himself or herself or themselves or (why not themself?) to them-self? How is it to be “rethought in retrospect,” recast?
So, to refocus and repeat the key question with Lynne here by returning to that queer encounter at the checkout counter: in what way are queer women existent or do they become so? How? Perhaps the second sex of the day, later at home, however queer or proper, might diffuse this post-shopping unruly tension within the coexistential unit, and yet, as we also know, that just will not solve the problem as long as we are in “it” yet again, this deeply intricate, quotidian issue of marked or marketed identities, which neither of us can own or disown entirely since we ourselves, these embodied voices (persons), are and become both the reflections of the fossilized fractal present and their ongoing refutations as well as open-ended applications, exploitations, renovations, transformations, and so on. What I hear further in Lynne’s trajectory beyond these extremely timely contemporary pages on the queer feminist ethics of “the present” is precisely such a critically creative impulse of retheorizing: “In elaborating a thinking-feeling ethics of the other, I challenge contemporary thinkers of sex and difference not to escape sexual morality but to reshape it from within” (Huffer, Are the Lips 22). In my view, Lynne is not exactly trying to reconstruct or deconstruct or even repair anything, for she is asking, quite positively, what is between and beyond the binary, what remains blurry, clearly indistinct; she is revisiting it ethically, more vigorously, and is doing so with the focused singularity of her voice, as one who identifies herself in “an angry, kinky mostly francophone lesbian feminist tradition that has not been taken up by the primarily Anglo-American practioners of academic queer feminism” (118). Yes, you heard it right with those dual, triple, mixed accents.
My question? What does my inner “angry, and maybe also kinky” Anglophone Asian lady thinker of queer mixture have to say in response? I think I might have already said something, enough already, so for now, let me just read Audre Lorde, our Lorde: “The erotic cannot be felt secondhand. As a Black lesbian feminist, I have a particular feeling, knowledge, and understanding for those sisters with whom I have danced hard, played, or even fought. This deep participation has often been the forerunner for joint concerted actions not possible before. [. . .] For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society” (59)—and, now, of course, also with some of us who have become female or male or both or wherever, no, I mean, whoever else in transit.
This part, a “psychological sleep,” is missing from the original translation.
I owe this phrase to Cynthia Willett during a private conversation a few years back.
I owe this formulation to Magda Suriel, a student in my gender theory class.
See Huffer, Are the Lips 2, 9, 10, 15, 16, 23, 57, 108, 149, for example.