Julietta Singh on the Passion of Queer Theory
In the cultural theory circles Julietta Singh traversed in grad school, “the archive” stood for the body of work one sought to claim as one’s unique site of study, from which one would ideally launch a dazzling academic career. Now a professor of English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, Singh has remained in academia, but her new book No Archive Will Restore You takes stock of a different kind of archive: her own body and all that has traversed its shifting boundaries.
The tags on her publisher’s web-page for the book—birth, bulimia, cancer, desire, diaspora, pain, queer theory, race, robbery, sexuality, texting, the body, violence—give a sense of its range, but No Archive is less a catalog than a contemplative ramble, structured by the kind of inner logic that might guide the owner of a vast and apparently disorderly home library to any volume sought in seconds. Via email, Singh shared her thoughts on the eroticism of theory, the radical politics of hospitality, and her never-quite-finished writing process.
Contra the “born this way” narrative of queer sexuality and its quest to ground sexual difference in biology, you write at one point that “my engagements with queer theory had produced in me an unabashedly queer sexual desire.” That unexpected motion—theory producing rather than accounting for desire—to my ear faintly echoes the political lesbianism movement of the last century. I’m curious in what ways that might or might not resonate with you.
I’m in full support of the science of queer life, in and beyond human sexualities. I write in the book about a childhood experience of meeting my older queer cousin for the first time and feeling an immediate and profound desire, even while then I couldn’t quite understand it. It’s also true that this moment was caught up—as were many other moments that comprise my early life—in navigating the slippery politics of race and “racial mixing” in the Canada of my youth. In a sense, queerness felt less urgent for me as I was confronting the social struggles that were literally inscribed on my skin.
What I was trying to resist in No Archive was the formulation that I had been in the proverbial “closet.” Instead, I wanted to emphasize the ways that theory—so often presumed to be entirely intellectual and removed from embodiment—could ignite passionate desires for other forms of intimate and collective relation. I have been made, unmade, and remade by theory in countless ways. For me, theory has never been something that simply accounts for the world, but a form of active engagement that gives rise to other ways of inhabiting and imaging this and other worlds.
It’s cool that you hear faint echoes of radical lesbianism here! The brown and black lesbian movement of the last century—Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, and their collectives—are all indispensable to contemporary queer of color critique. Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” in which she moves eroticism out of a purely sexual realm and into everyday acts of making and moving (she cites the act of building a bookshelf!) is a really provocative way to connect with our bodies, to feel in and with them against the socially proscribed sites of eroticism.
You situate No Archive partly within a recent tradition of feminist new materialism. I think it’s also fair to say we’re somewhere in the middle of a long, rich wave of works by feminist writers (both academic and popular) examining bodily female experience. I’m excited by these works—there is still so much to be said—while also sometimes wondering how they sit en masse against the age-old cultural imperative for women, in particular, to devote obsessional attention to the body. Does this ever register as tension for you?
This is a provocative question, and I understand completely why you feel some tension around what may seem like an endless return to the female body. Part of why I think the body is so exhausting for women is because we’re locked into very rigid conceptions of what the body is, and how we should or must be in relation to it. There are, of course, long traditions of being embodied that do not require an unrelenting subjugation or obsession with the body. There are traditions of being in the body that are not disciplinary, that do not police your gender, your size, your sexuality. And perhaps for me even more excitingly, there may be ways of invoking other relations to our bodies that have not yet been played out historically. We might, in other words, invent new styles and tradition of being embodied.
The feminist writing that engages me most—across intellectual and popular spheres—shares a mutual reach toward alternative ways of reading and abiding by the body. If the body has been a source of profound struggle for many women, this for me is not a reason to abandon it. In a feminist deconstructive frame, I could say that I don’t want to flip the binary of women being “all body” by moving us to be “all mind.” I want to displace this binary altogether. We are, all of us, body-minds. I’m interested in that tangled play of the psychic and the material. I don’t want to do away with the body; I want to let it ring and echo in registers that do not align with patriarchal capitalism. I want to bring our bodies into a full, messy, and unabashed embrace.
You had another book come out last year, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements. One could see No Archive as a companion volume, exploring what it might mean to inhabit a body that neither masters nor is mastered by itself or others—a body that’s more permeable and less bounded. What might happen at a broader political level if more of us were to reconceive of our bodies in this way?
I love the idea of No Archive as a “companion volume” to Unthinking Mastery, and it makes me realize that everything I write in some sense comes back to this primordial formulation: how can we be together in less coercive ways by reconceiving who and what we are?
One of the things I’ve written about beyond these two books, and that lingers palpably in both, is the ethical and political question of hospitality. A critical engagement with hospitality necessitates that we reimagine what is “ours,” and this requires us to rethink how we come into belonging, and why some are not eligible to belong. If we are to understand ourselves as embodied subjects that are fundamentally and infinitely bound up with the world at large, it becomes very hard to forget the refugee at the border. It becomes hard not to fight against a system that wants to wall out, or shoot, or arrest and detain the refugee. It also becomes very hard to turn away from those who are already here, and those who were here first as stewards of this place, who are excised from the systems that support healthy, sustainable life. It becomes impossible to continue to comply with an extractive capitalism that is maniacally destroying the conditions of possibility for life on this planet.
In other words, a radical re-conception of ourselves—of what and who we are—might open us to the prospect of giving up some of the things we have held as “rightfully” ours, and might urge us toward forms of living that refuse outright the very terms of exclusion and exploitation that drive contemporary geopolitics.
You end with the image of the burning book, which in a literal sense seems profoundly anti-archival. But there’s also something liberating in the image. It made me wonder: has writing this book put anything to rest for you? Or does the idea of the archive remain as fraught as ever?
Mulling over this question just made me realize for the first time that No Archive both begins and ends with the act of study! The image of the burnt book at the end marks a desire to turn toward those ideas that have been stamped out from above, that have been prohibited and destroyed. The act of burning books is certainly anti-archival, but the act of gathering up and studying the ashes of the burnt book can be said to be anarchival—demarcating a willingness to take up the partial, the fragmented, the destroyed, without needing to seek out something whole and complete, without needing to recreate the ashes into an “original” form.
No Archive itself falls apart by the end of the book, becoming somewhat fragmented in its form. Now that it’s making its way into the world, I’m still here studying, still desiring to gather up those scattered ashes, to think and feel with them. Much more than putting things to rest, I feel energized toward gathering, distributing, and holding together against the force of what burns us.