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Dr. Emma Pérez Speaks at CSUN

by kualyque Thursday, Mar. 31, 2005 at 11:11 AM

Dr. Emma Pérez, Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas Into History, and Gulf Dreams, gave a lecture titled “Decolonial Queer Theory” at California State University, Northridge, on Thursday, March 17.

Dr. Emma Pérez, Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas Into History, and Gulf Dreams, gave a lecture titled “Decolonial Queer Theory” at California State University, Northridge, on Thursday, March 17.

Emma Pérez’s presentation on decolonial queer theory focused mainly on her efforts to confront and deal with her frustration over the lack of a synthesis/survey of queer people of color theory. The presentation was a very stimulating and effective beginning of a dialogue toward remedying this issue. As such, she used the forum to present the key ideas and projects of several groundbreaking queer theorists and to demonstrate how these ideas overlap across the larger, deconstructive project of decoloniality, which seeks to make a way of challenging colonialist assumptions and cutting and seeing through white heteronormativity in the time lag between colonial and postcolonial existence (a space Pérez compares to Gloria Anzaldúa’s nepantla) in which Chican@s, Puertoriqueñ@s, First Nation, and other colonized peoples currently live. Along with her own work using the archeological approach to history she terms the “Decolonial Imaginary”, Pérez also spoke about the work of José Muñoz, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and José Quiroga, and discussed David Halperin’s reading of “Saint” Foucault as a foundational text in establishing a synthesis of queer people of color theory because of its interest in exploring Michel Foucault’s focus on the production, and not the origins, of sexuality.

The key element in all of these theorists’ works seems to be an astute examination of how identity is constantly produced, negotiated, and performed by colonized and oppressed peoples in a colonial/oppressive situation. Understanding how people are able to not just survive, but to find ways of living, loving, and creating functioning, effective identities in dominated situations, is vital for obvious reasons. What Pérez made especially clear, though, was how the concept of production and reproduction applies not only to identity formation, but to racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression and domination ideology. Pérez spoke of her interest in exploring why these oppressions continue to be (re)produced, especially in war and coloniality, pointing to their performative nature and underscoring the effectiveness of countering with another kind of performativity that negotiates this reproduction with a resistant, (self-) conscious production/reproduction of identity.

Though Pérez didn’t bring them into this discussion, Dr. Chela Sandoval’s concepts of the “differential consciousness” in her work on the methodology of the oppressed could be a very useful tool in understanding how this performativity and negotiation can work in resistance. In fact, it was a little surprising that Pérez did not bring Sandoval’s ideas into the discussion, because they seem to provide a very effective model of resistance relevant to this discussion (see Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed, U of Minnesota P, 2000). Perhaps she wished to focus more on other theorists with whom we might not be as familiar.

Of the three theorists Pérez did discuss, the one whose idea was perhaps most interesting, but at the same time, most difficult to understand, was Muñoz, with his concept of “disidentification”. The basic premise seems to be that disidentification is a mode of responding to the dominant culture enacted as a performative negotiation in daily life by queer people of color. Muñoz, a teacher of Performance Arts at NYU, is interested in looking at the ways queer people of color constantly negotiate identity in response to dominant culture through the use of performance. He has developed a theoretical scheme describing how queers of color adopt racialized genders, and explores the “queer gaze”, which sees, acts, reinterprets and mocks everything, because in the white heteronormative mind, queer people of color are not seen. Pérez described how Muñoz’ “queer gaze” transforms the world where the white heteronormative mind erases queer people of color. Pérez noted that ultimately, disidentification may permit more cross-talk between queer theorists, an important goal in the context of Muñoz’ concerns with the apartheid of theoretical domains and ignorance of academics regarding third world theorists. In this, again, Muñoz’ ideas seem similar to Chela Sandoval’s, specifically, the “differential consciousness” which she posits as key to creating and maintaining effective coalitions and alliances and to addressing the academic apartheid that plagues the efforts of third world theorists. Muñoz is perhaps more specifically focused on queer identity, but his underlying premise and approach dovetail nicely with Sandoval’s own.

Pérez also talked about Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s concept of “Alter-Nativity”, a very useful idea in helping articulate the understanding of Chican@ culture as a parallel, alternative culture, rather than a “sub”-culture underneath the dominant. The linguistic depth of this term, which Pérez touched on briefly, exemplifies the best of what this writer sees as a kind of linguistic third-space “poetic terrorism” (author Hakim Bey’s term) practiced by Chican@s in their often highly subversive navigation of the dominant language and culture. More than just another sophisticated academic/theoretical term, “alter-nativity” invites a poetic archeological dig through overlapping and parallel layers of meaning and experience, thus simultaneously describing and exemplifying the Chican@ culture and art the term was designed to express.

Finally, Emma Pérez discussed José Quiroga’s work exploring the use of masks in queer identity performance. Specifically, she focused on Quiroga’s analysis of a gay pride march in Argentina in 1993, during which participants wore masks, thereby rupturing the border of the stage and in the process blurring and erasing boundaries of identity, performativity, and participation between marcher and audience, queer and “straight”, observer and observed, visible and invisible. Because of this effective breach of boundaries, Quiroga saw the use of open masking as a “brilliant tactical move.” Interestingly, Emma Pérez noted parallels between this open masking and a discussion she had conducted with queer students in El Paso, during which students suggested that open masking might be a useful tactic in mounting an unprecedented pride march in that city in a way that could maintain a higher level of safety for participants. Other interesting parallels and connections were suggested by an audience member at Pérez’ presentation who noted the use of masks by the Zapatistas, and their argument that by wearing masks, the invisible indigenous could now, paradoxically, be visible; this same audience member also noted the connection of masked performance with the demonstrations of las abuelas y madres de plaza de mayo against the disappearing of their men by Pinochet’s regime in Argentina.

Aside from her discussion of these theorists, Dr. Pérez also addressed the issue of the attacks on Ward Churchill, recently resigned Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies (a position Dr. Pérez took over in the wake of Churchill’s resignation) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Pérez identified the attacks as part of a larger plan by neo-conservatives to target ethnic, cultural, women’s, and queer studies professors and departments in academia. While ostensibly not entirely on topic, this information was chillingly relevant in light of Pérez’ mirror efforts to synthesize a comprehensive survey of decolonial queer theory. Being aware of and fully comprehending the well-planned, systematic attack on progressive academics underway by neo-conservatives is vital to grasping the urgency not only of Pérez’ call to formulate a synthesis of decolonial queer theory, but to stand up, fight, and defend our professors and programs from an attack that comes not coincidentally, as Pérez noted, at precisely the moment when more women and people of color than ever are successfully taking part in academia.
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