[This article was published in the Fall 2015 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 289-301.]
March of the PeeWOCs:
‘Queer Theory,’ Its Origins and Implications
Dwight D. Murphey
Wichita State University, retired
Within the past 25 years, major universities in the United States have introduced academic disciplines called “Queer Studies” and “Queer Theory.” The use of the erstwhile shocking word “queer” serves the predominantly far-left academic community in two ways: it is a “poke in the eye” for a long-detested mainstream culture, and it exemplifies what the theory itself calls for – the reformulation of language as the primary tool by which to undercut the existing sense of what is “normal” and thereby to substitute words that are “socially liberating” and will lead to a “new consciousness.” In this article, we will examine the “queerity” movement as it exists in academia; will trace its origins within the Left as far back as Rousseau; and will discuss the power of these ideas in guiding the worldview of the American opinion elite. This will provide occasion to examine a fault line that, though rarely remarked upon, sharply divides the American people – the distinction between “People Whose Opinions Count” (for which we will introduce a Dr. Seuss-like noun, “PeeWOCs”) and the tens of millions of people who, though they often hold passionate opinions, stand outside the hallowed ground of “political correctness.”
Key Words: Queer Studies, Queer Theory, academic disciplines, Frankfurt School, Critical Theory, Post-structuralism, Post-modernism, academic Marxism, Foucault, Derrida, Gramsci, Marcuse, Rousseau, Russian nihilists, American New Left, PeeWOCs, mechanisms of American cultural change.
It is likely that to call someone a “queer” will get an American television commentator summarily fired. It is doubtful whether many people realize it, but this manifests yet another double standard in American life. This is because the word “queer” has for ideological reasons been made prosaic in several major American universities, deliberately reduced to a commonplace as a “new normal.” During the past 25 years, academic disciplines of “Queer Studies” and “Queer Theory” have become prominent within “Women’s Studies” and “LGBT Studies.”
Rather quickly in historical terms, the American public has been brought into widespread support, enthusiastically for some and grudgingly for others, of homosexuality. When HIV-AIDS came along to ravage the homosexual community, the primary emphasis in the media was to condemn as “bigots” those who were judgmental. The drive for same-sex marriage moved quickly, and culminated in the June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court discovery that there is a Constitutional right for homosexuals to marry. It is said that “the culture is changing” or that “public opinion is becoming enlightened.” One can be sure, however, that very few Americans have the slightest idea of the long intellectual background that has led to these cultural changes, including “Queer Theory.” It is a background that goes as far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, threads its way through the rise of the world Left and such things as Russian nihilism in the nineteenth, the cultural neo-Marxism of the twentieth as seen in the thinking of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, the revolutionary rhetoric of the New Left, and finds expression now in the ambitious and by no means narrow project called “Queer Theory.”
To understand the social dynamic involved and how such an intellectual tradition can have the ideological, cultural power it has, it is helpful to grasp a phenomenon that is rarely remarked upon. This is that there has long been a significant division within American thinking. There are the “People Whose Opinions Count,” who number in the millions, and a much larger number whose opinions almost never prevail, except temporarily and locally. The first group, for whom we will coin the fanciful term “PeeWOCs,” are led by academia, the media, the entertainment industry, the legal profession and the major corporations (among others). To these elements are to be added the millions of “college educated” Americans who find it both virtuous and wise to adhere to whatever at the moment is “politically correct.” When we consider that the Left has predominated in American schools of arts and science (as well as colleges of education) for at least the past century, it can’t be surprising that its worldview permeates this “educated” population. We put “educated” in quotation marks because even the college-educated American public rarely touches a serious book outside a given individual’s own specialty after leaving college, showing very little continuing intellectual interest. If now you look back over the preceding few sentences, you will see that each generalization is subject to notable exceptions – which, however, don’t vitiate its truth in general.
The PeeWOCs have come to accept homosexuality and, if the leading universities are any guide, are on their way to embracing “queerity,” as they call it, as a normal part of a new consciousness. It is important to notice this “new consciousness” aspect of it. The central idea behind Queer Theory is not to stop with homosexuality, but, with Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, to produce a new worldview that will be “liberating” to all unassimilated or disaffected groups, as well as to a wide range of non-conformist sensibilities. This is, by the way, consistent with the Left’s change of direction after World War I (and especially World War II) from seeking allies within the “proletariat” (as envisioned by Marx) to seeking an ideological, political, cultural alliance with ethnic minorities.
‘Queer Theory’ in the Universities
It is said that the term “queer theory” was first used in a conference convened by Teresa de Lauretis, an “Italian feminist and film theorist,” in 1990. It caught on internationally, with courses on “Queer Studies” and/or “Queer Theory” now being offered in several countries, and with undergraduate majors, certificate programs, and even degree-granting programs existing within such American universities as the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, Yale, DePaul, Syracuse, Sarah Lawrence, Portland State, Mills College, North Texas, New York University, the City University of New York – and a growing number of others. “Queer Theory” is said to have emerged from “Queer Studies” and “Women’s Studies,” and is, as one would imagine, closely associated with them.
What is “Queer Theory”? The first thing to notice is that a distinction is made between “Queer Studies” and “Queer Theory.” The Studies look into such specifics as individual biographies, the history of homosexuality, and how sexual deviants are perceived. The Theory is the analytical side, and, dealing with homosexuality but not limiting itself to it, looks far more broadly for “new ways of seeing the world.” In the area of sexuality, it extends, according to Wikipedia, to “cross-dressing, intersex, gender ambiguity and gender-corrective surgery.” But for some it goes beyond sexuality: challenging the culture’s accepted notions of normalcy, the Theory explores ways to recast the perceived “identities” of women, minority ethnicities, the “disadvantaged” and the non-conformist. When applied with this breadth, it is tantamount to the same thing as the “critical social theory” we will see later in our examination of the intellectual origins of Queer Theory. The thinking of Charles Reich in his 1970 book The Greening of America was a perfect example of this, even though it preceded the queerity disciplines by twenty years. He spoke of “subversion through culture,” and said “music, the theatre, and the plastic arts have become major avenues of ideas critical of our society.” The core appeal of Jack Kerouac’s paean to a drifter lifestyle in On the Road is captured in Reich’s reference to “the sensual beauty of a creative, loving unrepressed life.”
As we will see, the academic work in these areas is hyper-intellectualized, as is the academic Marxism that is still strong in some other disciplines within American universities and that cultivates its own intricate, obscure language. “Queer Theorists” don’t see themselves as being in intellectual isolation, but rather as in the tradition of “post-modernism,” “post-structuralism,” and “critical theory.” Some strive for a Marxian economic-determinist foundation for their theory; others pursue a neo-Marxism that stems more from Freud, psychoanalysis and the Frankfurt School. But to mention these things points toward what we will be discussing next.
Intellectual, Ideological Origins
A broad civilizational estrangement. The most obvious thing about the Left is its alienation toward the “bourgeoisie” – those who are successful within a commercial culture. While important, this obscures the fact that the alienation has been even broader. It has been an estrangement not just from the bourgeoisie, but from civilization, particularly Western civilization, in general.
This goes back at least as far as the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who is unquestionably among the more influential figures of the past three centuries. In his Discourse on Inequality, he took a position completely outside the society in which he lived. His argument was based on a frivolous tautology: that when man was a beast, he had no problems, just as a lion, which lives in the present without memory of the past or contemplation of the future, has no problems. Rousseau used this meagre observation as the standard by which to eviscerate civilized society: “The savage… breathes only peace and liberty; he desires only to live and be free from labor… Civilized man, on the other hand, is always moving, sweating, toiling and racking his brains… [A]s there is hardly any inequality in the state of nature, all the inequality which now prevails owes its strength and growth to the development of our faculties and the advance of the human mind, and becomes at last permanent and legitimate by the establishment of property and laws.”
The reverberations have been immense. Rousseau’s thesis has been reiterated countless times since the mid-eighteenth century. Just one of many examples would be Theodore Roszak’s 1972 book Where the Wasteland Ends, in which it was argued that mankind made its fatal mistake when it rose up on all fours, thus becoming unduly cerebral. This deeply rooted objection to civilization underlay Sergey Nechayev’s 1869 Russian nihilist manifesto The Revolutionary Catechism. There, Nechayev declared that “the revolutionary lives in this world only because he has faith in its speedy and total destruction.” It was pure Rousseau when Jerry Rubin, of New Left fame, wrote in his 1970 book Do It! that “man was born to let his hair grow long and to smell like a man. We are descended from the apes, and we’re proud of our ancestry. We’re natural men lost in this world of machines and computers. Long hair is more beautiful than short hair. We love our bodies. We even smell out armpits once in a while.” It lead to this: “We are not protesting ‘issues’; we are protesting Western civilization.”
Although these are among the more outspoken expressions of the social disaffection, it is worth noting that the “alienation of the intellectual” in American history since the early nineteenth century has gone beyond an estrangement from business or the middle class, and has voiced disdain for almost every segment of the American population. In my book Liberalism in Contemporary America, I observed that “the caricature of the middle class has been accompanied by an equally slashing attack upon the rural American, who is often depicted as ignorant, provincial, vicious and narrowly limited….” Going further: “Actually, of course, the alienation has been a general one, not limited to either the middle class or the rural American.” I illustrated this by pointing to the media’s immediate reaction to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. The New Republic was representative of the reaction when it said the killings arose because “we nurture in our society a disposition to violence.”
Anti-bourgeois alienation. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Western civilization has been pronouncedly commercial. This would necessarily focus the direction of the alienation, since under the circumstances of the time it was the “bourgeoisie” (which eventually became a broad middle class) that was the force to be contended with.
One of the major facts about the modern era has been that since the beginning of the nineteenth century an alienated “intelligentsia” has amounted to a substantial intellectual sub-culture at odds with the larger society. The literary, artistic, academic worlds have been permeated by its alienation. The literature on the subject assigns several reasons for this, but one of the more striking explanations comes from the longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer in his book The Ordeal of Change. He says about the intelligentsia that “they had no clear status, and no self-evident role of social usefulness. In the social orders evolved by the modern Occident, power and influence were, and to a large extent still are, in the hands of industrialists, businessmen, bankers, landowners and soldiers. The intellectual feels himself on the outside… Small wonder that he tends to resent those in power as intruders and usurpers.” To gain the power it lacks by itself, the intelligentsia “has consistently sought a link with the underprivileged.”
It is this seeking of ideological/political alliances that has been the defining characteristic of the Left since the early nineteenth century. Marxism can be seen as a sought-after alliance between the alienated intelligentsia and the “proletariat.” During the decades since disillusionment set in about workers’ revolutionary potential, the alliance sought has been with all unassimilated or disaffected groups. Ideological content has followed in the train of the alliances, fashioning the specific intellectual content to which those on the Left subscribe at any given time. We will see much of this content in our review of the history of the neo-Marxist, culturally-oriented ideology of the Frankfurt School and its successors,
The Alienated Cultural Critique
The Institute of Social Research, known as the Frankfurt School, was established in Frankfurt am Main in Germany in 1923. Its goal was to advance Marxist thought in Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the School moved first to Geneva and eventually to Columbia University in New York City. It has continued through what is now four generations. Its well-known thinkers have included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm, Jurgen Habermas, Axel Honneth and Rainer Forst. When Adorno came on board in 1938, he took the lead.
The Frankfurt School’s Marxism struck off in a new direction. Fromm steered it to a combination of Marx and Freud. With the introduction of psychoanalysis, they sought an explanation for “domination” separate from economic determinism. The entry on “The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) says that “such a revision of Marxian categories became extremely crucial in the reinterpretation of the notion of dialectic in the analysis of capitalism.”
Opinions in the literature differ as to the School’s continued posture vis-a-vis Marxism. The IEP speaks of a “total abandonment of Marxism,” but then rather contradictorily explains how Habermas integrated several schools of thought “with Marxism and Critical Social Theory.” The Frankfurt School is said to have been the originator of Critical Social Theory, which we are told “expanded Marxian criticisms of capitalist society by formulating patterns of social emancipatory strategies.” Accordingly, the School is sometimes called “neo-Marxist.” It is possible that if Marx were alive today he would excoriate the whole thing as one of his detested forms of “revisionism,” as indeed some present-day Marxists do.
In any event, the concern is with “emancipation.” Honneth stressed the need for “recognition” as the door toward the “liberation” of social groups that have seen their “identity” repressed by conventional norms. The IEP paraphrases him as saying that “to come to terms with such negations of subjective forms of self-realization means to be able to transform social reality.” The idea is to “unmask wrong rationalizations of present and past injustices….”
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was one of the early fathers of this line of thought. His Notebooks and approximately 500 letters, written while he was imprisoned in Italy during the final ten years of his life, became public after World War II. According to David Chandler, Gramsci “rejected crude materialism, offering a humanist version of Marxism which focused on human subjectivity.” To Gramsci, a dominant social class would exercise its “hegemony” by “projecting its own way of seeing the world so that those who are subordinated by it accept it as ‘common sense’ and ‘natural.’”
All of this was not constrained to a narrow field of thought or to a few thinkers. During the second half of the twentieth century, theories about the humanities became centered on the analysis of “language, symbolism, text, and meaning.” Philosophy departments in American academia were transfixed by the analytic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Such thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault championed “deconstruction” to carry on the task of social reconstruction by recasting the meaning of words. It is no wonder that the Wikipedia entry on Queer Studies says the “founding scholars of queer studies” drew “inspiration from Michel Foucault.”
The Western intellectual community, at least at this rarefied level, has found great satisfaction in novelty, the ever-moving-march-toward-something-new, with its supplanting of anything “old,” even if “old” hardly goes back more than a few years. This is mixed with the hyper-intellectualization referred to earlier. We will avoid much confusion if we refrain from dipping a toe into such things as “post-modernism” and “post-structuralism,” each of which supplants something earlier and is said to be a source of queer theory. A reason to avoid them is that there is much confusion about what each of them really is. A great many people consider themselves a part of post-modernism or post-structuralism. The abiding ambiguity about what each means doesn’t prevent it from being chic.
Taking all of this together, it could be said that Queer Theory is the end-product – arguably the reductio ad absurdum – of the entire line of thought we have been tracing. At least it would seem to be the end of the line, with no further place to go. It’s predictable, though, that academia can look forward to doctoral studies on “post-queer theory.”
1. The presumption underlying the name “Critical Theory” should be noted, since the term arrogates to itself a characteristic that is common to all thoughtful intellectual work. The uprooting of existing social norms is only one of many possible lines of critical thinking. It is hard to imagine a conscientious intellectual, in any field, who does not examine the facts and ideas before him to make sense of them. (In saying this, we are not counting the many scribblers who satisfy themselves with parroting others.)
Indeed, one would think that if “Critical Theory” really stands for what the term suggests, more attention would be given to “deconstructing” Critical Theory itself. In a way, we have been doing that in this article, which doesn’t take it as a “given” but as something to be analyzed and explained.
2. Those who see Queer Theory as a form of high intellection might well ask themselves whether there is freedom of thought and toleration of difference, for students and faculty, in a course on “Women’s Studies” or “LGBTQ Studies” or “Queer Theory/Queer Studies.” Such freedom would ordinarily be a prerequisite for academic respectability. Can anyone survive there who disagrees? For that matter, will anyone in the United States be allowed eventually to have a contrary opinion? Or will it all be sacrosanct within the cocoon of political (i.e., ideological) correctness insisted upon by the PeeWOCs?
That those who disagree should be silenced received its intellectual imprimatur in Herbert Marcuse’s essay on “Repressive Tolerance.” There, he argued that the very tolerance that democratic society values has been one of the manipulative factors that have lulled the masses to sleep. He called for a “liberating tolerance” that would, he said, “mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.” Marcuse, as we’ve seen, was a member of the Frankfurt School and one of the precursors of Queer Theory. His reformulation of the concept of “tolerance” is a good example of the linguistic recasting called for by Critical Theory.
3. Western society will over time discover what sort of behaviors result from the changes. Now that male homosexuals can marry in the United States, will the erstwhile “bathhouses” go out of existence and will there no longer be many men who have from 500 to 1,000 sex partners? This is to say, how high will monogamy rank as a really preferred lifestyle among male homosexuals? (One suspects, but doesn’t really know, that it will rank higher among lesbians.)
4. Oddly, the “right of homosexuals to marry” has been a cause celebre during an historically recent activist movement at the very time when monogamy for heterosexual couples has been bruised and battered. “Cohabitation” is commonplace; the number of illegitimate births has soared; divorce is no longer rare; and homes where single mothers raise families with only the intermittent presence of a male have come to predominate in the black community and in an increasing portion of the population at large.
5. During recent decades, the overall thrust of American foreign policy during the administrations of both political parties has been to seek to universalize globally what are perceived as the enlightened attitudes of the PeeWOCs. In this context, queer theory, LGBTQ rights, etc., pose a profound “clash of cultures.” To many in the Islamic swath, for example, the West is already a degenerate culture. Will they consider the West less so now?
It is fair to say that, pulled along from one attitudinal change to another, most of the public in the West, almost certainly including the great majority of the PeeWOCs themselves, haven’t the slightest idea that what we have examined here lies behind the social changes they are now endorsing. But, of course, as we all know, rapid change has been occurring. The “course offering description” for Queer Studies 111 at Syracuse University tells how “LGBT rights now constitute a major national and global policy issue, as evidenced by the debates over boycotting the Sochi Olympics and Chelsea Manning’s gender identity.” The same-sex marriage decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is a part of this transition, and certainly not the end.
Parents invest considerable sums in sending their children to American universities, and many agonize over getting their children into the “finest” among them. Donors and members of alumni chapters give generously to support their “alma maters.” Legislatures provide millions of dollars. This goes on decade after decade in the most naïve fashion, since what is being supported often bears little relation to what the well-intentioned parents and donors, whose attention is captivated by the glitter of a school’s sports programs, presume exists. One suspects they have little idea of the full sweep of subjects contained in today’s curricula.
 LGBT stands, of course, for “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.” The acronym is rapidly being expanded into LGBTQ by adding reference to “queer.” In the public celebrations that followed the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the right to same-sex marriage, LGBTQ was prominent on the placards.
 The longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer takes the existence of an alienated intelligentsia further back, to the invention of printing. See Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change (New York: Perennial Library,1963), p. 38.
 Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 341.
 Ibid, p. 346.
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (no indication of publisher), pp. 70, 72.
 Nechayev’s Catechism is published in full in Robert Payne’s The Terrorists (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1957), at pp. 21-27.
 A reader will do well to reread carefully this statement, made by Rubin at the height of the New Left, to notice how perfectly it captures the essence of today’s “Queer Theory.”
 Dwight D. Murphey, Liberalism in Contemporary America (McLean, VA: Council for Social & Economic Studies, 1992), pp. 123-4. This book is available without charge as Book 3 (i.e., B3) on the web site www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info
 Consistently with the division between the PeeWOCs and the rest of the population, this “artistic, literary and academic” sub-culture has consisted primarily of those who are given recognition within the rather incestuous circles of the opinion elite. There are many thousands of artists, writers and scholars who do excellent work but whose efforts don’t gain notoriety and give them status as “names.” They do not for the most part share the alienation that prevails within the sub-culture. The works, say, that hang in the main art galleries and that are acclaimed as “art” are for the most part vastly inferior to the work that can be seen in the art shops of Taos or on the walls of the annual Prix de West show in Oklahoma City.
 See Liberalism in Contemporary America (see footnote 8 here), chapters 10 through 12, for a description of the alienation and an examination of its causes and consequences.
 Hoffer, Ordeal of Change, chapter 6 on “The Intellectual and the Masses.”
 The IEP entry referred to here is as it appeared on the internet on June 13, 2015.
 See David Chandler’s “Marxist Media Theory: Gramsci and hegemony,” on the internet on June 23, 2015.
 See Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance” in his book A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press), pp. 90, 109.