Queer Theory and Polygamy, Cupcakes and Candy, and Normal Soap

5 Feb

As I draw to the end of the prelims process (71 books and 24 days left!), I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel and have begun to enter the real world again.  As a graduate student, this means that I am beginning to attend academic talks again and that I am trying to limit my consumption of cupcakes and candy which have become my food of choice lately.

This week, I went to see Laura Doan give a talk entitled “Normal Soap.”  In the talk, she talked about the definitions of queer theory and the binary that they tend to place between normalcy and queerness.  David Halperin, for example, famously defined queer in Saint Foucault as being “whatever is opposed to the normal, the legitimate, the dominant.”  Doan argued in the talk that this definition reifies the normal, a concept that was not in common currency until the 1930s or the 1950s.  She argues that historians should focus on the multiple discourses and structures of meaning that occurring at any one time.  Sometimes, she argues, it would be more damaging for someone to be accused of losing their virginity than for someone to be accused of being a sexual pervert.

As I was listening to her speak, I was thinking of the ways in which polygamy underscores the fragility of the binary she was to bust.  Few people would classify polygamy as queer, and yet few would classify it as normal.  As such, it is difficult to place within the history of sexuality if we accept the binary that some queer historians have constructed.  Scholars of Mormonism have much to contribute to these discussions as a result.

Unfortunately, such conversations rarely happen.  Historians of American religion are the few non-Mormon historians who deal with Mormonism, and even their references tend to be few.  Mormonism is a side note in queer history, in the history of American radicalism, and in the history of sexuality.  Mormon historians tend to be allergic to queer theory, skeptical of its claims and reticent to apply it to their own work.

The result are academic conversations that go past each other like ships in the night, never engaging each other, never speaking to each other, and each missing out as a result.

9 Responses to “Queer Theory and Polygamy, Cupcakes and Candy, and Normal Soap”

  1. Jacob B. February 5, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

    By the definition of queer that you cite in your post, polygamy would absolutely be considered queer. But by the standards of many societies hundreds and even thousands of years ago, I wonder if monogamy might not have been considered “queer.”

    I agree with you that queer theory might have some apt applications in Mormon thought. Queer theory is representative of relational theory in general, a theory that seeks to account for the interdependency and relationality of identity. Philosophically, Mormonism contributes, it seems, its own insights into the relationality of ontology and ethics, and identity in particular. But queer theory also emphasizes the problems of normativity, particularly, of course, sexual normativity. Mormonism seems at home here as well, for many reasons, the least of which is its location on the margins of mainstream religions throughout the world. More to the point, Mormonism presses a radical universalism and a radical theory of identity that destabilizes “normal” universalisms and identities that that queer theory would usually reject. So Mormonism, on a certain level, troubles “normal” mainstream queer theory, while queer theory, at other levels, troubles “normal” mainstream Mormonism.

    These are still uncharted waters. Excellent job of pointing out some of the relevant issues.

  2. amanda5245 February 5, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    Thanks for the comment! Interesting thoughts. I’m not sure, though, that polygamy would *absolutely* considered queer. Part of the reason that it doesn’t fit for me is the word opposed. One of the ways that those feminists who are interested in Mormon polygamy are interested in it is because they believe that it gives them the opportunity to study the creation of patriarchy. Personally, I see Mormon polygamy as the multiplication of patriarchy through the addition of plural wives. Like all systems, however, there are cracks and fissures that present people living within the system opportunities to both challenge it and to create real spaces of empowerment for themselves. In queer theory, in order for something to be oppositional, it has to challenge what is normative. Most of the time that is assumed to be heterosexual behavior and the entombing of women within marriage. Mormon polygamy, for the most part, doesn’t challenge that. In fact,the women who I studied two summers ago who wrote for the Exponent argued that Mormon polygamy was actually better at promoting the norms and goals of nineteenth century than monogamy because it forced men to take responsibility that they had sex with and denied unworthy men wives. In so doing, they weren’t necessarily challenging the position of men as patriarchs and heads of households; they were arguing that certain men needed to be denied power so that more worthy men might have it. They also believed, of course, that this would improve the lives of women and provide them with greater opportunities for education and employment.

  3. amanda5245 February 5, 2011 at 10:10 pm #

    … And I think either way you look at it adding Mormonism to the equation forces people to identify what they mean by queer and what they mean by normal. I do also think that Doan is right on when she asks to question the application of normal to time periods before the 1930s or 50s. As she points out, the terms normal and average weren’t used in the same way until then. There were few, if any, references to a normal sexuality or a normal woman before the mid-20th century.

  4. DLewis February 5, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    I think you’re right, Amanda, about polygamy multiplying patriarchy rather than opposing it. I know some people like to point out that polygamy gave some women more flexibility with time, since more of the chores/child-raising was shared, but that’s a by-product of the system, not its objective.

    I’m not so sure about the “radical” universalism or identity in Mormon thought, largely because we still primarily think of identity in human terms. That is, when we talk of intelligences that have existed eternally, we still focus on the soul of human beings. This type of eternal identity, IMO, runs into serious problems when you try to bring evolution into the picture. I think you would have to develop a broader concept of spiritual, eternal identity that incorporated animal and plant life. Until then, while our notion of eternal identity certainly shakes up traditional theological categories, it is still not thoroughly “radical,” according to contemporary science and philosophy.

  5. Sara February 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    Amanda, fantastic post. I think you’re absolutely right that the queer theorizing Doan proposes could do really interesting things for the study of other sexualities, like polygamy. I actually think that her idea of what queer can do for study of sexuality goes further than the existing queer theory model that “in order for something to be oppositional, it has to challenge what is normative.” She argues that a queer historicizing will bring us into moments before the “normative,” where we may find a multiplicity of constructions of sexuality that do NOT fall within on our mid-to-late-20thC normative binaries. This is why I think you are absolutely right that the future of queer theory as advanced by Doan, specifically the methodology advanced in her pre-circulated article, could really help open up analysis of polygamy as ideology and practice.

    You should check out the article she wrote on WWI VD films. Let me know if you’re interested.

  6. TT February 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    Excellent points. I’d say that the history of polygamy itself is tricky for Mormon historians, let alone trying to put it in the context of contemporary debates about the history of sexuality. I think you’re right though that this needs to be done more.

  7. Aaron R. February 7, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    I wonder whether putting polygamy into the context of contemporary debates might provide new ways of thinking about this ‘tricky’ subject. Perhaps there has been a tendency among Mormon Historians of polygamy to try to think through this issue in terms of Mormonism own internal logic rather than exploring these other possibilities.

  8. amanda5245 February 8, 2011 at 7:08 am #

    @ Dallin – I’m interesting in your idea of eternal identity and evolution. I’ve always been a bit off by discussions of science and religion, mainly because of the venom between them and a bit of fear on my part, but your idea is intriguing.

    @Sara – I was planning to go that, but had to go to the lecture I GSI for. I had the person organizing it send me the article. What surprised me the most about that talk was that it ended up having relevance for me. I went because I loved her book, which I read for prelims, not because I thought my own work had any resonances with hers. Imagine my surprise.

    @TT and Aaron R. — One of the things that surprises me is how insular Mormon history is, well, maybe surprise isn’t the right word. Although I love the work that has been done on my Mormon polygamy and history and decided to focus my dissertation on the topic because of it, there hasn’t been much engagement with current feminist or critical theory. I read a book recently that suggests that friendship between Victorian women in the nineteenth century far from being subversive by setting up oppositional ties to marriage was actually seen as supporting it. The affectionate kisses that women gave each other and the intense emotions they felt for their sisters and friends were seen as preparing them for the love of a man. Mormonism has something to add to this conversation because of the existence of sister wives. Yet, I doubt it will be done any time soon (unless I can convince Liz that this is her calling.)

  9. ep February 8, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    Tee hee. We shall see. I am interested in studying life writings and I am going to start comparing the personal narratives of Mormon women and evangelical women. Jesus Girls just came in the mail today, along with a book by a Mormon woman I know in New Haven called Choosing Motherhood. You may be on to something, Amanda.🙂

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