Queer Composition Redux: Impossibility toward Futurity

Alexander, Jonathan

I appreciate this opportunity to reflect on the current trajectories of “queer composition,” and I thank the editors of this special issue of The Writing Instructor both for putting this collection together and for asking me to contribute a statement.

While I have been an advocate for nearly two decades now both for the incorporation of LGBTQ voices within composition studies and for a critical consideration of the challenges that queer theory might bring to the teaching and research of writing, I have to agree with Jackie Rhodes’s wonderful video, included in this volume: queer pedagogy seems an impossibility, if not in fact a contradiction in terms. Surely, we can queer a pedagogy, and we can queer teaching, and there are many queer teachers. But, as Jackie and I argue in our article in JAC, “Queer: An Impossible Subject for Composition,” the teaching of composition is itself anything but queer. Learning to “compose” is about becoming disciplined, even normed to particular ways of communicating and knowing. It’s about submitting one’s thinking and one’s identity as a composing subject to the shaping contours of genre and the expectations of reading publics, even as one might push the boundaries of both. Surely, that pushing opens up possibilities for queering, even as composition must realize that its goals are essentially un-queer. As such, queer can intervene in composition and question its cherished habits and predispositions. But composition itself is ultimately most often a form of straightening, of the reproduction of certain kinds of texts and ways of knowing.

This un-queerness at the heart of the enterprise of composition studies is one of the reasons Jackie and I call queerness an “impossible subject” for composition. The ecstatic excesses of queerness far exceed the disciplining pedagogies of the teaching of writing. To be clear, when I say “queer,” I am not talking about gay ways of knowing. Gays and lesbians might narrate at times “coming out” stories or craft arguments about equality—stories and arguments that have legibility to a wide range of readers; in such cases, we “compose” ourselves for mutual understanding with non-gay audiences. But queer writing confronts all of us with the incommensurabilities of desires and identities and socialities. I’m thinking, for instance, of the work of Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde, Jean Genet, and David Wajnarowicz—experimental writers whose work isn’t about articulating an identity as much as it is about exposing the wounds of living in a sex-phobic culture, much less an anti-queer one; it’s about the complexities of queer experience that are irreducible to simple narratives of self-disclosure; it’s about desiring subjects who pursue intimacies that are both empowering and self-destructive; it’s about self-love and self-hatred, self-empowerment and self-destruction; it’s about the ubiquity of the erotic as eroticism permeates social relations, never remaining discreetly in or directed by identity categories. If anything, composing queerly in these writers’ hands is about the impossibility of queerness because queerness questions everything we think we know in its capacious, promiscuous embrace of multiple possibilities, including a near frantic need for the desiring-phobic present to be other than what it is in the imagination of a less toxic future.

In gesturing to such futurity, I’m thinking of José Muñoz’s wonderful study on queer performance art, Cruising Utopia, in which Muñoz reworks both the affective and the anti-sociality strains of contemporary queer theory to argue that queerness is the desiring impulse for spatial and temporal differences—for thinking other than what is. In his ecstatic opening paragraph, Muñoz boldly states his claim: “Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now's totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there” (1). Such queerness lies beyond Lee Edelman’s controversial rejection of heterosexual reproductive mandates in No Future. But it’s also beyond Dan Savage’s hope that “it gets better,” which only imagines a better future within a current trajectory. Queerness is rather a profound movement toward radical difference, a groping and probing without always knowing where one is going—or why—in the longed-for pursuit of otherness. It’s thinking, living, loving without a net.

But I am also intrigued that Muñoz calls queerness a “structuring and educated mode of desiring.” Given earlier assertions about the impossibility of a queer pedagogy, such seems a challenge to us to think about queerness vis-à-vis pedagogy, the pedagogic vis-à-vis the queer. Ultimately, I don’t think Muñoz understands queerness as disciplining, but more as an ascesis, the term Foucault resurrects to describe the arts of living practiced by the ancients and that he saw as potentially present in some contemporary gay cultural formations—a ceaseless experimentation with forms of living and relating that do not imagine a particular future as much as open up the sheer pleasure of possibilities for radically different ways of living and relating to one another—and to ourselves.1

Indeed, many of us queers (whether gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, intersexed, or just deliciously and perversely experimental) read and write in order to imagine a different future, not just to cope with the present. And yet, so much of composition is concerned with preparing writers for particular, pre-envisioned futures. For instance, the recent focus on transfer offers us one version of futurity: the imagination of composition courses being productive, yielding fruit in subsequent courses. Surely, writing instruction that produces self-awareness of learning strategies is useful. But I also want queerly to imagine something less fixed, more open, less determined, more fluid.

In composition’s contemporary argot, we might imagine queerness as a perverse “habit of mind,” one not aimed at the cultivation of pre-determined skills and strategies deployable in the pursuit of career and citizenship, but rather a restless questioning of why things are as they are and how they might be different. Muñoz argues that such restlessness is fundamentally a utopian longing: “Queerness as utopian formation is a formation based on an economy of desire and desiring. This desire is always directed at that thing that is not yet here, objects and moments that burn with anticipation and promise” (26).

Along such lines, I envision an approach to composition that queers the future – that invites students to read and write not to fit into the current order but to use writing to imagine other social relations. Writing need not only be about learning genres and audience awareness. It can be—and is often most powerful as—a form of ascesis, a probing of possibilities, an unfolding of associative connections, a startling set of discoveries as we allow our words the force of desire—searching without necessarily knowing ahead of time what will be found. This is the motion of futurity, a working through impossibility. For marking an impossibility is not always an act of foreclosure but potentially an opening into futurity, a claim that that which is not imaginable as possible now might one day be.


1Foucault defined such ascesis as "those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria" (10-11).

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan, and Rhodes, Jacqueline.  “Queer: An Impossible Subject for Composition.” JAC 31: 1-2 (2011):  177-206. Print.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.

Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009. Print.

This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.
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