Embedded in much queer theorizing is the rhetorical practice of disidentification, or the ways in which one situates oneself both within and against the various discourses through which we are called to identify. Judith Butler, in Bodies that Matter, poses a central question of queer practice: “What are the possibilities of politicizing disidentification, this experience of misrecognition, this uneasy sense of standing under a sign to which one does and does not belong?” (219). Butler sees disidentification as a misrecognition, a simultaneous seeing and failure to see desirable identifications. This misrecognition is not simply missing what one desires in public discourses; rather it is a seeing slant, an identifying and a disidentifying to create or recover other kinds of (elided or disavowed) identifications. José Esteban Muñoz has perhaps advanced this concept more than any other queer theorist, offering this rich and compelling definition:

  1. Disidentification is about recycling and rethinking encoded meaning. The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture. (31)

For instance, the circulation of Physique Pictorial, a men’s muscle magazine of the 1950s, relied on practices of disidentification. In its pictures of scantly clad muscle men, it seemed on one hand to reify certain kinds of masculinity dominant at the time and characteristic of the patriarchy—strength, prowess, dominance. In this regard, Physique Pictorial was not unlike any other muscle or bodybuilding magazine of the era that continues to be popular to this day among straight men. At the same time, Physique Pictorial circulated primarily amongst mid-20th-century gay men, who fetishized the images. Indeed, Physique Pictorial seems in retrospect an early form of gay visual pornography, and some critics and historians have noted its place in the formation of mid-century gay cultures (see Meem et al. 269 ff). Physique Pictorial thus engaged a form of disidentification—a simultaneous identification with the masculinity represented and yet the use of that masculinity for homoerotic ends and interests, running counter to the starkly heterosexist aims of most muscle magazines.

One YouTube user queers old army fitness training footage along similar lines, performing disidentification by underscoring the homoerotic nature of an avowedly (then) anti-homosexual institution:

We don’t want gays (but we do!!). YouTube.com

Such videos remix images as part of a queer rhetorical practice that both acknowledges the frequently suppressed nature of much social interaction and, in doing so, allows for alternate, non-normative readings. The intervention acts rhetorically in that its posting to YouTube, with over 100,000 views, attempts to shift and retrain public conceptions of both military propaganda and the complexities of desire and identification.