David Halperin: Interdisciplinarian, groundbreaker, Brudner Prize winner

David Halperin, the W.H. Auden Distinguished University Professor of the History and Theory of Sexuality at the University of Michigan, has been credited with establishing the field of queer theory, though his relationship to the discipline is more complicated than you might think. Even so, he’s one of the best-known names in an amorphous but influential queer milieu. WEEKEND sat down with the 2011 Brudner Prize recipient to discuss theory and practice, academia and gay culture.

Q. How do you see yourself as a part of Queer Theory today, insofar as it represents an academic movement or discipline?

A. Well, I see myself both identified with it and at the same time, out of sync with it. My preoccupations have come to focus particularly on gay male culture — that’s not a particularly fashionable topic. And also, even though I’ve been involved in queer theory, my current work isn’t particularly theoretical, partly because, in order to work on gay male culture, I actually need to start from the empirical phenomena themselves. There is no ready-made theory that’s exactly right for trying to figure out what defines the distinctive character of gay male culture. So, my current work is kind of inductive and formal. Nowadays, a lot of queer theory begins with some theoretical propositions and then applies them to phenomena. That’s not what I’m doing.

Q. So, how would you characterize the work you’re doing now. Do you feel like it fits into a particular academic discipline?

A. It fits only into gay studies and/or queer studies. I’m not quite sure that queer studies or gay studies is a discipline, but really my work has consistently been situated in this interdisciplinary field. In the ’90s, with the emergence of queer theory, it became possible for the various traditional disciplines to reassert themselves within queer studies. Queer theorists could claim to be “queering” literary criticism, or the renaissance, or archaeology or anthropology, which meant that queer theory became compatible with maintaining the traditional disciplines. You could remain within them and queer them. In my case, there is no particular discipline I’m doing in a queer way. I’m dealing with a specifically queer issue. There would be no way to approach it except through queer studies. Still, my background is literary, so a lot of what I do involves close reading.

Q. Along those lines, how has your particular methodology changed over time to suit your various academic projects?

A. I think it’s become less theoretical.

Q. Interesting.

A. And more descriptive.

Q. Is that a trend you’d like to see develop in queer studies?

A. A bit, yes. I think the field is somewhat theory-heavy at the moment. I also worry that the way that theory is deployed in the field is very dogmatic, which is odd, because the theory we use is critical theory, which was invented to unseat various dogmas. And now theory seems to be invoked as if it’s a truth. So, that’s a problem. I also think we miss a chance to describe in detail a lot of the world which hasn’t been described previously. There’s a ton of stuff to do, besides invoking the same theoretical gestures again and again.

Q. How has your personal identity or conception of self affected your work over time?

A. I think it’s more the case at the moment that my work has affected my personal sense of self. I’m someone who always thought that being gay had to do with desiring people of the same sex, not having a particular cultural identification. So, in some ways, I’m the last person who should be working on gay culture, because I’ve never understood it, and everybody has always told me that I’m hopeless at being a gay man. But that’s also why I’ve been intrigued by this claim that there’s a right way to be gay, that you have to know something to be gay. I thought that having sex with men was enough. I’ve certainly given that everything I can. But, I actually think that workng on gay men’s cultural identifications has made me more gay, so I’m pleased with the effect my work has had on me.

Q. How would you characterize your role in the founding of queer theory or sexuality studies, and do you find that people who enter the field now address you in a particular way, because of that reputation?

A. Oh, I think most of the people that enter the field now have no idea about any of that. I mean, I’ve always wanted the field to move into new areas and to find ways of renewing itself, to keep expanding and changing and transforming itself. Otherwise, it loses its excitement. I do think there’s a particular problem when students who enter the field now seek to be credentialed in it, rather than to do what people in my generation did, including people who were students at the time, and that is, trying to change what could be thought and said.  And now, a lot of students enter the field not in order to change what can be thought and said, but to learn what other people have already thought and said. And that’s fine, I mean that’s what we fought for when we tried to create this field—that students would have the possibility to take courses in it—but it puts me in a weird relationship to my students. Because, instead of feeling like we’re part of a common enterprise, designed to change the world, I end up saying, “Well, you’ve got this right and you’ve got this wrong,” and my students respond to me in the way that students in any discipline do — like someone who’s grading them and calling the shots, like I’m telling them what to think. That might be normal in other fields, but for me it’s kind of aberrant.

Q. Do you perceive a trend toward the mainstreaming of the field?

A. Well, I worry about it. There are a lot of new things happening and all sorts of exciting developments. At the same time, I think it might be interesting, and I’ve tried to do this to some extent, to de-discipline the field somewhat, to try to open it out, to make it possible for it to be more porous to activists and thinkers outside the academy — for it to become more of a community possession. But then, of course, we also have to admit that the gay movement in this country no longer exists in the way it once did. So, in some ways, we’re in a paradoxical situation, in which some of the traditional values of the gay movement now exist within universities, rather than out there in the movement.

Q. What’s your perspective on the mobilization of discourses from queer theory or sexuality studies toward goals that are now part of the mainstream gay rights movement in the US, like marriage equality?

A. Well, my sense is that there are relatively few insights from queer studies that actually are inspiring those movements. Queer studies didn’t anticipate those movements and they didn’t advocate for them, which is one of the reasons for the split between the movement and queer studies that happened in the early ‘90s, and that has never been healed. It was over two issues: gay marriage and the genetic explanation of homosexuality. To some extent, it was also over gay people and military service, but less so. There was popular support for gay marriage, for a biological origin theory of homosexuality and for lifting the ban on gay people serving in the military, and queer theorists had serious reservations about all those issues. In my view, the problems have less to do with the cause of gay marriage or military service than what those causes mean. They’ve come to mean different things over time. Gay marriage or military service was once an issue that was about, among other things, economic justice, access to benefits, ending formal discrimination against gays. Those causes have since become about social symbolism—about the acceptance of gay people by society, about recognition, validation, citizenship, badges of normality. Obviously, what’s queer about queer studies has to do with its oppositional relation to normality. But of course there’s room in the world for all sorts of different causes, and I’m glad that gay people can now get married in some parts of the world. What worries me is when gay marriage is used to assimilate gay people completely to pre-existing heterosexual forms of life, rather than to inquire into what forms of life might be particularly suitable for gay people.

Q. Who are some academics that you admire?

A. Well! Especially people at Yale: George Chauncey, Michael Warner, Joanne Meyerowitz are all people I’ve admired enormously. George Chauncey’s 1982-3 article “From Inversion to Homosexuality” was the particular trigger for my historical work on Ancient Greece. Michael Warner’s work on normativity was crucial for some of my later work on Foucault and on sexual culture. So, that’s not just an idle compliment. I knew them both long before they ever came to Yale.

Q. What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing a career in academia and incorporating some aspect of queer theory or sexuality studies into their future work?

A. I would say, you have to know when to bow to the kind of pressure that academe puts on you to conform to its standards, but you also have to know when not to cave into that pressure. The name of the game is trying to make an academic career into a vehicle for what you want, rather than for what they want from you.


  • The Anti-Yale

    I wonder if it is possible to “study” something that is emerging. One can “record” its emergence and analyze it in retrospect.

  • yalie1420

    Why doesn’t anyone ask this guy about the plagiarism charges that have been brought against him?