Seminar in Cultural Studies

Derrick Higginbotham


Fridays, 3.15pm to 5.45pm

Body Talk:  Queer Theories/Queer Histories


“Body Talk” will offer an historical account of the emergence of queer theory in the US academy, inspired in part by the activism of ACT UP in the late 1980s and 1990s and by disenchantment with earlier feminist accounts of gender and sexuality. All too often, ‘queer’ acts as a synonym for sexual and gender minorities, although such a gesture flattens the significance of the concept; turning ‘queer’ into a synonym drains it of its interpretive potential by reducing it to an identity category that much queer theory would find suspect. The historical account that this course presents will enable students to grasp that queerness always was and remains an un-reclaimed term, rife with contested meanings.


The first half of this course will concentrate on key works by Michel Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Audre Lorde, Gayle Rubin, Gloria Anzaldúa, Douglas Crimp, Leo Bersani, Judith Butler, and Cathy Cohen, works that will highlight the unsettling aspects of queerness, its conflicted appearance, and its political potential to create forms of critical solidarity across lines of socio-political difference. Then, over three sessions, working with Leilani Dawson, an archivist in Hamilton Library, we will read Michelle Caswell’s speculations on community archives in dialogue with Ann Cvetkovich and Heather Love’s different scholarly work on the politics of queer history as well as select essays on queer cultures in Hawai‘i and the Pacific; Dawson also will walk us through the newly curated archive of materials on the HIV/AIDS movement and marriage equality movement in Hawai’i, housed in Hamilton Library. We will use this archive to critically reflect on theory and its engagement with local archives and communities.


The second half of this course will give students exposure to some of the new theorizing within queer theory through three vital trajectories: critical race studies, indigenous studies, and trans studies. Through a close reading of Sharon Patricia Holland’s The Erotic Life of Racism, we will explore the productive yet awkward relationship between critical race theory and queer theory, while also engaging with essays by Roderick Ferguson, José Esteban Muñoz, and Nadia Ellis. To examine the ways that queer theory productively engages with indigenous studies, we will read texts by Stephanie Lani Teves, Mark Rifkin, and Scott Lauria Morgensen. The final section will highlight what happens to queer theory as it interacts with trans studies; we will read essays by Susan Stryker, Andrea Long Chu, and Dean Spade.


In this course, we will not envision queer theory as a singular or coherent school of thought; instead, we will continuously question queer studies as a field and a mode of cultural analysis, asking: What kinds of bodies or desires does ‘queer’ describe? What are the promises of queer theory, and what are its perils? What are the key sites for queer theory and activism today? What, in other words, are the futures of queer theory?


This course is best for those interested in attaining a grasp of the complex field of queer theory as well as those who wish to think about the history of queerness, both locally, nationally, and internationally.


Student Learning Outcomes


In this course, students will:


  • Gain a rich understanding of queer theory as a body of thought that emerges in the 1980s and develops in complex ways over the course of the following decades
  • Identify and describe different theoretical traditions that inform and continue to shape queer theory
  • Strengthen their skills in historicizing texts and objects, in working within an archive, and in the practice of creating cultural history from local archives
  • Improve their grasp of critical race studies, indigenous studies, and trans studies as these theories intersect with queer theory
  • Acquire skills in working across academic disciplines and their differing languages of theory like English, History, Anthropology, Women’s Studies, Political Science, among others.
  • Better their capacity in crafting a research paper, especially in handling an array of primary and secondary sources to make an argument
  • Conduct oral presentations that effectively convey arguments to your audience


Required Texts:

Sharon Patricia Holland. The Erotic Life of Racism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.


Otherwise, there will be no books for this class since the essays are all excerpts from edited collections or full-length books; they will be provided via PDF on Laulima.



Participation                         10%

Presentation                         10%

Archive Assignment            15%

Book Review                        15%

Blog Responses                  10%

Final Paper                           40%