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“Ruthless Personalizers”: Queer Theory and the Uses of The Personal

Personal writing is having a moment. The recent attention to autotheory has enlivened longstanding debates about the politics of the personal as a critical scholarly mode, opening out new lines of inquiry into genre, method, and argument specifically around minoritarian aesthetics and the potential of scholarly work to elaborate forms of social justice.[1] Across what Robyn Wiegman has called “identity knowledges,” the institutionalized fields of study that focus on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and nation, critics activate the personal to examine, in Saidiya Hartman’s words, “historical and social process and one’s own formation as a window onto social and historical processes.”[2] Much of this writing owes a debt to feminist uses of the personal and to subsequent formulations of identity as “the political.” For an earlier generation of feminist critics writing in the 1970s and 1980s, however, engaging the personal as a window onto history and its effects was also to risk a loss of hard-won or uncertain critical authority. To get personal was to risk the charge of feeling rather than thinking.[3] Now, several decades later, on the other side of the affective turn in literary and cultural studies, and amid conservative efforts to distort and ban the teaching of identity knowledge and history, the window of an individual life and its relation to social structures might be offered—if not accepted—as a gesture of resistance and a source of critical authority.

In this moment of heightened attention to the power of the personal and its relationship to the critical, we are witnessing what historian Robin D. G. Kelley has described as “a general assault on knowledge” at all levels of education (K–12 as well as higher ed), “but specifically knowledge that interrogates issues of race, sex, gender, and even class.” This assault encompasses efforts not just to restrict what students encounter in their libraries and classrooms but also to shore up certain subjects as authoritative knowers while disqualifying others. Legislation that denies transgender youth access to healthcare, for example, is an attack on transgender people as sources of knowledge about themselves.[4] Although identity knowledges now are not primarily in the business of asserting minoritized subjects as the producers of scholarly knowledge (and are more likely to advance a self-reflexive critique of a dominant framework, e.g., the critique of antinormativity in queer theory, the critique of intersectionality in Black feminism), it is abundantly clear that forms of ordinary and scholarly knowledge by and about minoritized subjects are precarious and threatened with erasure in this moment.

Queer theory has a vexed relationship to the personal and to persons: the former aligned with normative forms of social belonging (like heterosexual culture) and the latter tied to neoliberal, rights-based political programs that are focused on assimilation rather than resistance. Even as queer theory sought to authorize queer-identified people as the makers of scholarly knowledge and knowledge important to daily survival, it developed a framework for thinking about sexuality not as a quality or a possession of individual persons but as a product of modernity and a system of power relations. A field sustained in meaningful ways by critics’ personal investments, abiding attachments, obsessions, and passions made sexuality something impersonal—and allowed us all to study it. Despite a powerful and legitimating impulse in queer theory to depersonalize sexuality, the field has always been a space in which to think about actual persons and the ways we go about living. An ongoing question for the field has been, in other words, how to reconcile its critique of social identity and processes of normalization with an attunement to the everyday felt experience of being a person, or to the fact that, as Judith Butler once put it, “there is a person here” living and thinking “within the context of a . . . community.”[5]

“The personal” is the critical mode in which queer theorists and writers can navigate, if not always reconcile, these commitments. In this essay, rather than risk a definition of a concept, I consider what “the personal” as a mode of critical thought and writing has enabled queer theory to do. I turn first to an early work of antihomophobic literary criticism, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies (1990), where “the personal” names an excess that scholars of Crane had failed to approach, namely homosexuality. Thomas E. Yingling’s study raises the question: what does it mean to read a poet’s work and think, this is about me? Identification is personal work, although it can yield much more than self-knowledge, a confirmation of an already-held identity or theory. In a more recent work of queer and affect theory, Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011), the personal offers Berlant a bridge between a critique of normative personhood and a recognition of intimacy with one particular person, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. To reckon with Sedgwick, Berlant considers not simply the work that helped launch a field but also the person whose life and work have changed Berlant’s “own” story of intimacy. Sedgwick’s writing, like Crane’s before her, is significant to—a part of—sexuality’s broader history. Yet how it feels to have been altered by another person’s writing might tell another, much smaller story. Berlant’s tribute to Sedgwick reveals that there are limits to abstracting or enfolding anyone’s story into the broader historical narratives that queer theory has helped us to trace—and that there is value, in turn, in trying to locate “the person” or, as Berlant calls Sedgwick, “the girl” behind the work. Holding in one hand an attachment to another person’s writing, a book or a poem that seems to know you or to see you as you are, and in the other a recognition that this writing is not about you but rather the history of a social identity or a scholarly field—this is queer theory’s personal work.

Reading While Gay: The Trouble with Persons

Published in 1990 alongside two of queer theory’s foundational texts (Butler’s Gender Trouble and Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet), Yingling’s Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text contains a telling bit of history. When Yingling began the project, he notes, “gay studies” held “virtually no cachet in the academy.”[6] Although there were gay (and lesbian) literary critics, their identities did not have any bearing, or rather none that their work professed, on the way they read and interpreted literature. All the gay critics, in Yingling’s words, were “silent or oblique in their address to the question of sexuality and its relation to literature” (ix). To correct for the absence of male homosexuality in the study of American poetry, fundamentally a problem of reading, Yingling looks to the work of Hart Crane, “a figure who has always been problematic for American criticism, partly because of the inability of critics to address his life and work on its most troubled and crucial level: the personal” (2).

Yingling opts to name “the personal” rather than “the biographical” as the container of Crane’s queerness. By reading for and with the former, Yingling implies, the critic approaches work and life in a way that’s different to the biographer (who, for their part, might gloss over or ignore homosexuality). The personal has an affective charge; it telegraphs shame, indecency, and stigma. The personal clings to sad queer stories. Yet what is personal to Crane, what is of, affecting, or belonging to Crane rather than to anyone else, is also a part of sexuality’s history. Crane’s sad life “belongs” to many. To the gay critic, reading while gay, Crane presents at once a personal and historiographical problem: how are Crane and I connected? by what present, past, and future?[7] More than the facts of Crane’s biography, troubled and troubling as they are, I read “the personal” here as signaling the gay critic’s fraught relationship to and investment in those facts. Part of what’s “crucial” about the personal is the effect it can have on the critic. It can change the way we read, or it can alert us to the need to forge a different way of reading. Queer reading emerged in opposition to the protocols of a discipline that was committed, even “traditionally wedded,” as Catherine W. Hollis puts it in a contribution to this forum, “to the doctrine of modernist impersonality.” With the emergence of queer theory in and through literary study, it was okay—essential, even—to read while gay, to need certain books and permit that need to shape an analysis, and to insist that texts were queer in ways that exceeded the mark or influence of an author’s sexuality. Yet queer theory’s rise to institutional prominence, I would argue, owes far less to the field’s promotion of invested modes of reading than it does to the field’s broad theory of sexuality and its history, which abstracts relations of power from the facts of anyone’s life.

Thus, even as Yingling claims “the personal” as the most significant level on which to approach Crane’s work and status as an American modernist poet, he cites an emergent field’s depersonalizing account of sexuality, which has made his project possible by “[making] it possible to write about homosexuality not as an identity or essence but . . . as part of the history (and historicity) of modernity” (2). Yingling cites Sedgwick’s Between Men (1985), a project motivated by “reckless pleasure,” identification, and obsession, as being perhaps the most important “of a number of strong theoretical and historical inquiries on the construction of sexual minority” to have appeared in the 1980s (2).[8] As many have noted, noticed, and loved, Sedgwick explicitly links her work to her queer passion for her texts—and to her love for gay and queer people. This avowedly personal work has shaped and guided a field of study that, despite its institutionalization (and the ways in which the word “queer” travels widely as a general term that signifies resistance, contradiction, and surprise, unattached to “the construction of sexual minority”), remains committed to supporting stigmatized ways of being a person. Affirming non-normative ways of being, which are never not being challenged and denied their basic reality, involves being open to personal knowledge. Personal knowledge is affective and connective rather than owned. It might be vital to another person in ways we can’t predict, and it moves through the world by way of a sense that somebody else could use it.

Writing as Me

“I think of how I met the girl,” Berlant reflects near the end of the section on Sedgwick’s work in Cruel Optimism.[9] What has always struck me about this very short section is its warmth. It doesn’t tell stories about a relationship (save for skeletal sentences like “She gave a paper, and we talked about it.”) so much as blush in the face of one. The writing feels personal not because of what it discloses but rather because of its unashamed interest in the importance of an attachment to another scholar’s work:

Eve Sedgwick’s work has changed sexuality’s history and destiny. She is a referent, and there is a professional field with jargon and things, and articles and books that summarize it. For me, though, the luck of encountering her grandiosity, her belief that it is a good to disseminate the intelligent force of an attachment to a thing, a thought, a sensation, is of unsurpassable consequence . . . the force of attachment has more righteousness than anything intelligibly or objectively “true.” (122)

Berlant enacts the force of attachment as a tribute to “the girl,” to her belief in the force of attachment as a knowledge and a good. Berlant’s attachment to Sedgwick registers at the level of the sentence, resulting in very Sedgwickian, un-Berlant-like phrases like “For me.” Here and elsewhere in this section, Berlant personalizes themself against their scholarly inclination. Writing as “me,” as something that Sedgwick’s theories of reading and being have shaped, Berlant can signal the very personal ways in which the famous scholar’s work has changed their history and destiny at the same time as they do justice to an impersonal bond “transacted without harm to anyone” through the usual academic channels of reading, writing, and giving papers (126).

In The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008), Berlant argues that “the personal” is “the general,” or a production of an intimate public culture that presumes and thus perpetuates commonality—the conventions of normative personhood, which have little to do with “you”—in the guise of a shared historical and emotional experience. In their tribute to Sedgwick in Cruel Optimism, Berlant reveals their object of study and career-long preoccupation to have been a tool of survival. They gloss Sedgwick’s “public stories about becoming possible . . . in a crowded world of loving family and friends” in order to think about how their own story, “if [they] wrote it,” would be different (125). Berlant withholds their story while letting us know that Sedgwick’s work has changed it. Berlant survived by learning how to, in a word, depersonalize intimacy: “I salvaged my capacity to attach to persons by reconceiving of both their violence and their love as impersonal. This isn’t about me” (125).

If the impersonality of intimacy is what distinguishes Berlant’s story of becoming possible from Sedgwick’s own, then it is also, as Berlant makes clear, what brought them together as theorists and readers and, without harm, enabled attachment. Berlant cites reading as “one place” where intimacy need not be painful on account of its impersonality and the distance attachments must span. “Selves,” Berlant recalls, “seemed like ruthless personalizers” (125). Academics like Berlant can seem like ruthless depersonalizers. Many queer critics have struck me as ruthless in their critiques of daily-life structures like domesticity, marriage, and friendship that are important to many queer people, perhaps even to themselves. Queer theory’s “suspicious relation to persons” aside, the ordinary life of queer academia (reading a colleague’s work, feeling shy, giving a paper, hearing a paper—this is how Berlant evokes their getting acquainted with the girl) involves our selves and our relations, our unwritten and public stories.[10] The closest thing we get to a story about Berlant is simply this: Berlant meets Sedgwick, reads her work, and is surprised and pleasantly so by their attachment to this person whose story differs from their own: “To admit your surprising attachments, to trace your transformation over the course of a long (life) sentence, is sentience—that’s what I’ve learned” (122). Tucked away inside Cruel Optimism is a moment of genuine faith in something mundane yet everywhere threatened, right now: the capacity to be teachable.

Sedgwick models being teachable in response to one’s attachments that surprise, disturb, and ground us as we move through everyday life. Attaching to things, thoughts, and feelings of, affecting, or belonging to a particular person rather than to anyone else is risky business, if for no other reason than that it requires investing in the fantasy that such things—and such subjects in possession of them—exist. Berlant celebrates Sedgwick’s work by writing as “me,” supposing a self. Berlant’s tribute should remind us that whatever the personal is, it isn’t a fixed, unchanging quantity of experience, knowledge, or feeling but rather a long and arduous process of becoming aware of oneself in relation to others—one not unlike reading or writing, “a long (life) sentence.”


[1] See, for example, Lauren Fournier’s Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021), and the special issue edited by Robyn Wiegman “Autotheory Theory,” Arizona Quarterly 76, no. 1 (2020).

[2] Robyn Wiegman, Object Lessons (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 1. Patricia J. Saunders, “Fugitive Dreams of Diaspora: Conversations with Saidiya Hartman,” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal 6, no. 1 (2008): 1–16, 5.

[3] Nancy K. Miller makes this point in Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts (New York: Routledge, 1991), where she reflects on the stakes of referring—in an academic essay—to one’s need to use the bathroom. See “Getting Personal: Autobiography as Cultural Criticism.”

[4] In writing this sentence, I face the choice of staking a claim to a social identity category (trans) by writing “ourselves” or else sustaining the critical distance between myself and my analysis (a distance present irrespective of the identity terms I might use) by writing “themselves.” I opt for “themselves” to mark the fact that I am not, at present, a trans youth being denied access to healthcare and to mark the more consequential fact that my status as a knower is not in question in this way. Asserting trans people as “good” knowers while disavowing “pathology, mental illness, and feeling bad,” as Cameron Awkward-Rich has argued, has been essential to the emergence of trans studies as an academic field. Cameron Awkward-Rich, The Terrible We: Thinking with Trans Maladjustment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), 4.

[5] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), xvi.

[6] Thomas E. Yingling, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), ix.

[7] Christopher Nealon’s Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion Before Stonewall (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001) and Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009) both offer answers to this question.

[8] See the new preface (1992) by Sedgwick in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), vii-x.

[9] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 126. Hereafter cited in text.

[10] Michael D. Snediker, Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 4.