This essay reexamines the relationship between deconstruction, especially in its American “Yale School” guise, and queer theory. Focusing on the work of Barbara Johnson, the essay explores how close attention to the ambiguities, opacities, and stylistic tics involved in Johnson's treatments of identity in general, and gay identity in particular, can productively unsettle the stability of queer theory as it enters its third decade. Where as commentary on Johnson's interdisciplinary writings has focused largely on her contributions to deconstruction, feminism, translation, and African American studies, the queer implications of her work deserve to be brought out — not in order to claim Johnson for the canon of queer theory but to help us rethink what counts as “queer” in the first place. Johnson's work explicitly and implicitly ties queer reading to the figure of astonishment, a kind of permanent twisting or shock that provides no guarantee that queer meanings can be pinned down in fruitful ways. Nevertheless, the interplay between ambiguity and astonishment in Johnson's work simultaneously loosens queer theory's investment, despite its own best intentions, in compulsory identity, knowledge, and meaning.

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