Gay Academics Get Caught Up In Literary Hoax

Take the anonymity of the Internet and the volatility of a thousand academics debating the finer points of Queer Theory, and you've got all the makings for a truly head-slamming arena of debate. And you have the makings for a hoax that takes just about everybody in, as happened recently on the "listserv" known as QStudy-L, the unofficial forum for anyone answering to the name of queer theorist, social constructionist, or postmodernist follower of Michel Foucault.

Reported in the Summer 1998 issue of The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, the hoax was the work of Daniel Harris, author of the 1997 book, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, who posted a passage on gender from the fictitious Marie FranÁoise de Ricci and asked for comment. Harris's "translation" was calculated to use all the right queer theory buzz words but to say exactly nothing of substance. A number of QStudy-L members responded in earnest, some at considerable length, to Harris's vacuous verbiage. One member, a French sociologist, did spot the ruse.

The hoax attracted national attention when it was picked up by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the must-read weekly for college profs everywhere, which declared: "Another fictional postmodernist has sneaked into academic discourse, this time striking on an e-mail discussion list about queer theory" (June 19, 1998, issue). The article went on to compare Harris's hoax with that Alan D. Sokal, a physicist who in 1996 got a phony postmodernist article published in the respected journal Social Text.

Like Sokal, Harris is not just pulling a fraternity prank, but wants to call attention to what he sees as something of an academic scam: Queer Theory, which dominates gay and lesbian studies programs in the U.S., has evolved into a jargon-laden, hair-splitting, rigidly doctrinaire approach to the study of homosexuality. Harris offers example after example of passages posted on the listserv -- most of them unrelated to his "scam" -- that show QStudy-L members arguing over the smallest distinctions of language, sometimes lashing out at one another with invective that would be unthinkable at a scholarly conference. Writes one member: "My 'I' may be different from your 'I' ... and what do you mean by 'you'?" Another rails: "You are a monster of psychotic disturbance." The trouble with Queer Theory, Harris concludes, is that it starts with the premise that all categories are arbitrary, so it spends all its time trying to establish categories with which to communicate.

The host for the QStudy-L hoax, The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, is a quarterly journal that's widely read by gay writers, teachers, and intellectuals nationwide. The Review's editor-in-chief, Richard Schneider, Jr., commented that he ran the piece because he found it "brilliantly written and very funny." Observed Schneider: "It's actually two papers in one, a commentary upon the subculture of the Internet and a skewering of queer theory itself." Harris questions the common notion that the Internet "builds community," observing that the listserv's anonymity makes for an especially vitriolic style of exchange, even by academic standards. But he homes in on QStudy-L as a special case of academic pettiness, narcissism, and elitism -- qualities he sees as rampant in Queer Theory itself. Communicating in a languge so specialized, so rarefied, only initiates can begin to understand it, queer theorists have set themselves up as an intellectual elite that never deigns to communicate with the gay and lesbian masses. For this reason, Harris contends, they have not provided intellectual leadership for the lesbian and gay movement and are largely irrelevant to it.

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