More than any other area of late-twentieth-century thinking, gender theory and its avatars have been to a large extent a Franco-American invention. In this book, a leading Franco-American scholar traces differences and intersections in the development of gender and queer theories on both sides of the Atlantic. Looking at these theories through lenses that are both “American” and “French,” thus simultaneously retrospective and anticipatory, she tries to account for their alleged exhaustion and currency on the two sides of the Atlantic.
The book is divided into four parts. In the first, the author examines two specifically “American” features of gender theories since their earliest formulations: on the one hand, an emphasis on the theatricality of gender (from John Money’s early characterization of gender as “role playing” to Judith Butler’s appropriation of Esther Newton’s work on drag queens); on the other, the early adoption of a “queer” perspective on gender issues.
In the second part, the author reflects on a shift in the rhetoric concerning sexual minorities and politics that is
prevalent today. Noting a shift from efforts by oppressed or marginalized segments of the population to make themselves “heard” to an emphasis on rendering themselves “visible,” she demonstrates the formative role of the American civil rights movement in this new drive to visibility.
The third part deals with the travels back and forth across the Atlantic of “sexual difference,” ever since its elevation to the status of quasi-concept by psychoanalysis. Tracing the “queering” of sexual difference, the author reflects on both the modalities and the effects of this development.
The last section addresses the vexing relationship between Western feminism and capitalism. Without trying either to commend or to decry this relationship, the author shows its long-lasting political and cultural effects on current feminist and postfeminist struggles and discourses. To that end, she focuses on one of the intense debates within feminist and postfeminist circles, the controversy over prostitution.
“Brilliantly exploring the paradoxes of an American feminism inspired and invigorated by French theory and a French études du genre stimulated by American queer theory, Anne Berger offers a fascinating romp through the vicissitudes of feminist and post-feminist ideas, performance studies, and identity politics on both sides of the Atlantic, shrewdly articulating the differences as she explores the translatability of progressive ideas.”
Berger’s work spans two academic idioms and cultures—that of the United States on the one hand, and of France on the other—to examine the conceptual, performative, indeed theatrical work produced by the examination of gender. From a consideration of how gender produces all sorts of translational conundra, to how the theoretical apparatus for gender analysis is borrowed from one continent, developed in another, and then shuttles back and forth, she discusses how the forms of resignification that take place constitute the ground of queer critique and its relation to gender, identity, and non-binary, and non-identitarian thinking. Thinking through “gender” and “sexual difference” and understanding the possibilities ascribed to these traveling terms allows Berger also to consider the production and reproduction of difference in relation to the history of feminist and queer link to the advance of capital. Through a brilliant final chapter on prostitution or sex work, she questions the manner in which feminist and queer critiques embody a contradictory relationship to capitalist development even as they espouse a Marxist critique. She does not dwell on contradiction for the sake of it, but rather considers it as a lesson about the frames that break apart potentially under the pressure of current thinking around gender, sexual difference, and queer theory. The book is both intellectually stimulating and thoroughly teachable.
Even the most practiced readers of queer theory and feminist theory—perhaps especially those readers—will find that The Queer Turn in Feminism takes them into unexpected and exhilarating critical terrain. By staging the numerous critical encounters between “French theory” and “American theory” that continue into the present, by offering readings that are as theoretically nuanced as they are rhetorically engaging, Anne Berger reinvigorates old debates in order to open up crucial questions still to be addressed.
“The scholarship of the book is a treat, as is the care with which Berger attends to distinctions or crafts a sentence.”