A lack of first-hand accounts and an overemphasis on academic gobbledygook makes “Queer Politics” practically impenetrable
I don’t think I’m particularly stupid. But I have to admit that I struggled with this book for many hours, and only came out at the end with a tiny amount of information on the author’s position, and almost nothing about gay life in 21st century Taiwan.
The ostensible reason for this, of course, is that this is an academic publication. Academic books these days are academics speaking to academics, plus perhaps their struggling students (many of whom will find this book as difficult as I did, even more so when they’re reading it with English as their second language).
What Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan is about appears to include the consideration of a new kind of sexual orthodoxy in which self-styled feminist women ally themselves with the old male ruling positions. They adjust their “feminism” so that it endorses compulsory heterosexuality and the monogamous family system, and then set up as their targets homosexuals and prostitutes, not because they have much in common, but because they are both seen as the enemies of “family values,” supposedly so essential to Asian culture.
Books like this are all very well in their own narrowly-conceived context, i.e. the academic study of the relationship between sexual reality at a grass-roots level and the over-arching, often abstract, moral conceptions put out by the state. What they lack, paradoxically, is any extensive attention to this aforesaid grassroots reality.
Where in this book, for example, are portraits of gay individuals, with interview-based accounts of their experiences? Where are depictions of the clubbing venues, the swimming-pools, the beaches, the saunas, or the cruising parks that make up much of the gay life in a city like Taipei? Almost none of these are present in this book, other than an oft-repeated reference to 228 Peace Park and the 1983 novel Crystal Boys (partly set in that park), a book that’s very frequently referred to. But of today’s 228 Peace Park there’s scarcely a word.
Reading this book, my mind inevitably went back to the celebrated “beast love” case of 2004 in which Josephine Ho, the head of the Center for the Study of Sexualities of the English Department at Taiwan’s National Central University, was dragged in front of a judge at the alleged instigation of just such a “neo-feminist” grouping to answer charges of having culpably provided her graduate students in human sexualities with a hyper-link to a US organization devoted to sex with animals. She argued that she wasn’t promoting such activities, merely studying them (as one might study Fascism without in any way endorsing it), and was duly declared not guilty. The author of Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan teaches at this university, and thanks Ho in his acknowledgements, so that one knows what he means when he refers to a new kind of middle-class, married “feminist” who’s a staunch ally of state Confucianism and an enemy of everything he stands for, just as much as feminists 30 years ago would have been by and large his allies.
It’s important to point out that this book is better than many; indeed, in the context of “queer theory” and so on, it’s probably something of which Hans Tao-ming Huang can be proud. This doesn’t detract, however, from the general point that academic publishing in the humanities no longer speaks to the educated general reader — to, let’s say, doctors, lawyers, journalists or teachers — but only to fellow specialists in an often very narrow field.
The style and general approach certainly don’t invite easy understanding. Here, for example, is the book’s concluding sentence, a place where you’d surely expect something clear-cut and forceful. “Thus, while it is important that the tongzhi [gay and lesbian] movement takes on social inequalities in its articulation of citizenship, one must continually interrogate, from the space of political society, the notion of tongzhi citizenship so as to resist the violence of melancholic sexual modernity.”
In preparing the article on audio books above, I had occasion to look up my copy of the Ancient Greek historian Thucydides. It’s in the Barnes and Noble Classics paperback series, and it uses a slightly revised version of a translation originally made by a former Oxford academic in 1876. It’s a beautiful piece of work, eloquent and highly readable. Yet its author, though a Greek scholar by training, spent much of his life in insurance. To expect most of today’s highly-paid academics, by contrast, to enchant the contemporary general reader, and still go on doing so 136 years later, would be, as Samuel Johnson said of a second marriage, a triumph of hope over experience.
While on the subject of academic publishing, have you ever wondered just how many students or lecturers read the huge numbers of academic journals most university libraries display? I refer readers to an article by George Monbiot in The Guardian, published August 29, 2011 and entitled “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist.” It’s an assault on academic publishing, not in this instance for endorsing gobbledygook that even the ordinary educated reader can’t understand, but for the enormous cost their specialist periodicals impose on university libraries, and the double-binds that make it almost impossible for libraries to cancel their subscriptions.
In conclusion, I’ll quote a comment by a friend now teaching in a university in Taiwan. When I told him I’d had my fill of academic writers in the humanities, and would do my best never to review another, he replied that many of them take an inordinate pleasure in a self-referring “mysticism” disguised as “theory.” It’s a sort of private game that’s being played, he implied, that benefits the rest of us not a whit.
The students are the ones I pity most. My information, however, is that when they don’t understand something, which must be frequently, they learn passages of it by heart, and then reproduce it verbatim in their examinations. That way, at least they’re unlikely to fail. But what a sad state of affairs this all is!
Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan
By Hans Tao-ming Huang
Hong Kong University Press
By Bradley Winterton
14 August 2012
Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan, by Hans Tao-ming Huang.