Queer Rhetoric



But sometimes, the status quo isn’t enough. Sometimes anger, outrage, fear, and embodied boldness must intervene to break silences, to launch critique, to provoke. Indeed, Warner’s conceptualization of the public sphere as significantly “poetic” strikes us as a very queer understanding. For is it not in the poetic that we encounter the excesses of the rational, the margins of logical understanding, often brought to the center of discourses as persuasive appeal? We call this a queer understanding in the sense of “queer” that follows on the heels of the work of queer theorists and activists, who broadly understand the notion of “queering” as a deep questioning of normative understandings and practices of identity as figured on and through sexual (hetero)norms. As theorists from Michel Foucault to Judith Butler to David Halperin have made clear, our identities and modes of figuring self are dominated by discourses of normative gender and heteronormative sexuality, which discipline how we articulate both the truth of our being and the values in which we invest. The figure of the queer insists on disrupting such normative understandings, creating a space—a poetic space, as Warner might have it—to address and potentially give voice to the excesses of normalization, the excluded others, the residuals of the processes of economizing desire along “straight” and narrow pathways.

With this theoretical backdrop in mind, we argue here that queer rhetoric names a constellation of discursive practices that emerge at different times for different groups in order to articulate resistance to regimes of sexualized normalization. Such strategies seek to remedy the impoverishment of our imaginations, of our sexual and gender imaginary, and to re-introduce into public discourse the imagination of bodies that exceed the normalizations of the juridical, political, medical culture that “fixes” things. Our particular exploration of queer rhetorical strategies emphasizes two dimensions. First, we take seriously Warner’s sense of the “poetical” nature of rhetorical play in the public sphere. To that end, we offer a brief genealogy of the emergence of poetical rhetorical practices in the public sphere in the nineteenth century. Second, we show, in a few contemporary examples, how those practices actively queer (hetero)normative understandings of rhetorical practice: ethos, logos, and pathos. Indeed, our intervention in this essay will argue that as they circulate in the public sphere, ethos, logos, and pathos (reflecting as they do Aristotle’s own ethos as it is articulated in histories of Western rhetoric) circulate in the service of heteronormativizing rhetorical strategies. We maintain the necessity of queering such normalization to create productive rhetorical space for alternative views, critical differences, and possible freedoms.