Well, here we are – the final entry into my series on queer archaeology. I hope that in the previous three posts I have given the archaeological community some things to consider – how to incorporate queer theory in their work, how to queer field and lab work, and how to communicate queer and other politically sensitive archaeologies to the public. These posts were only intended to generate thoughts and provide critiques to get the ideas flowing; I encourage anyone wanting more to peruse the ever growing body of queer literature!
In order to wrap up this series, the remainder of this post will explore the state of queer archaeology today, and where queer archaeology may be heading in the future. To my mind, queer archaeology is in a transitional period in its intellectual development. It is no longer in its infancy, for there is a robust set of theoretical and methodological works that set forth its goals and aims, and how those goals and aims are to be achieved. Yet, it is also not a fully “matured” discipline in the sense that it is still rapidly developing, changing, and growing. It is exactly this transitional state that makes queer archaeology so enticing and exciting for me as an archaeologist. There continue to be countless avenues to explore and innumerable things to queer. This is an ideal time to jump into queer archaeology, no matter your geographical or methodological foci.
Fuzzy Boundaries and Black Boxes
Queer archaeology’s rapid growth and development, however, also forces us to confront and reassess its progress – where has it been, where is it going, and what is it going to be? Most importantly, what is its future impact? These are questions that must be addressed because as queer archaeology as grown, its boundaries have become fuzzy and ill-defined. On one hand, fuzzy and ill-defined boundaries are a crucial aspect of queer theory. Queering is concerned with all that is non-normative or positioned against the dominant. Establishing too rigid of boundaries creates a contradiction – a normative queer. Thus, queer archaeology, and queer theory more broadly, is consistently in a process of queering itself. For example, in its early days queer archaeology often placed the ontological foundation of queerness in the body – a practice Cobb (2006) has criticized as normative and unqueer.
While an ability to adhere to strict definitions is one of queer archaeology’s greatest strengths, it is also one of its greatest weaknesses – or maybe not a weakness, but a roadblock, an inhibitor. Many archaeologists have been reluctant to adopt queer approaches because they don’t know what the term refers to or what queering actually means. Queer archaeologists shouldn’t capitulate to the normative demands of their colleagues, but they do have to be able to define it and explain it (something I hopefully did in my first post). Proponents of queer archaeology must themselves must be careful about its loosely defined nature. Queer archaeologists expose and deconstruct the “black boxes” that silently permeate and underlie normative archaeological practice; however, often queer archaeologists often believe that they are not creating these black boxes themselves. Normative and incorrect assumptions do not disappear just because you slap the queer moniker on an analysis. Many queer works are built on top of black boxes – and these ones are even harder to expose. We should celebrate the openness of “queer”, but also be aware that this openness can lead to a reduction in our ability to ascertain whether our own black boxes are there.
Queer archaeology should also be concerned with forging its own identity. While queer archeology is an inherently feminist practice, what differentiates queer theory from feminism? At present, queer theory is more of a footnote to feminist literature – it’s a catchy provocative buzzword to be used for linguistic shock rather than meaningful impact. A perusal of the proceedings from 2009 Chacmool Conference, “Que(e)ryinig Archaeology”, illustrates this point. Only a select few of the papers contained within are explicitly and by definition queer; most of the papers could be described as “feminist”, gender of the disappointing “add gender and stir” variety, or even none of the above. This is not to say there is anything wrong with feminist archaeology, in fact all queer archaeology is feminist. What am I arguing is that queer archaeology should distinguish itself from feminist archaeology and establish its own identity; an identity that has its own defined goals and core tenants. If it doesn’t differentiate itself, than there is no need to have a queer archaeology – it would be only an add-on, an elective, a bonus feature of feminism. This is problematic because (1) its creates a problematic equivalency between gender and sexuality and (2) queer archaeology will never fully emerge if it is feminism’s stepchild. Queer will remain an empty term that is thrown into a piece so the author can sound avant-garde. As Voss (2000) notes, “queer” is often reserved for the introductions of edited volumes, or tacked on to other feminist works that have no interest in actually being queer.
This is not a problem everywhere or with all queer archaeologists. Many of the authors I have cited throughout this blog series, including Blackmore, Voss, Alberti, Springate, and Rutecki, have successfully incorporated feminist literature and thinking without sacrificing of the power of their queer analyses. Queer archaeology is at its best when it incorporates other theoretical perspective, because queer theory is a particularly oriented position rather than a positivist knowledge producer – but queer theory is too often the bridesmaid. Until queer critiques become formalized and a more common part of archaeological practice, queer theory should be explicit; it should be the shining star, front and center. Otherwise it will be ignored, languishing in the background. We must figure out a way to unite queer theory with other established methods and theories without queer theory being dominated (an unqueer thing itself!).
That’s All, Folks
Balancing on this line between remaining open, non-normative, and queer, while also maintaining of unifying, distinct identity is going to be one of queer archaeology’s greatest challenges going forward. And rise to the challenge it will, and it must. To end this series on the same note I began it: that queer archaeology is a necessary, meaningful, and impactful practice. Archaeologists should consider the critiques brought up by queer archaeologists because they poke holes in faulty, normative practices, expose misuses of evolutionary thinking, and create spaces for archaeologists of all genders, sexualities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Queer archaeology makes for a better archaeology.
That’s it for me and this series on queer archaeology. Thanks for reading and drop any thoughts or questions you have in the comments!
And never forget:
2006 (Dead) Bodies that Matter? Examining Prehistory from a Queer Perspective. Proceedings of the UK Postgraduate Conference in Gender Studies – Thinking Gender – the NEXT Generation 8.
2000 Feminisms, queer theories, and the archaeological study of past sexualities. World Archaeology 32(2):180-192.