MD: Today, some of the most interesting voices in queer studies focus on different kinds of knowledge production outside the frames of the traditional academic archive. I think of such books as Ann Cvetkovich's An Archive of Feelings (2003) where she discusses the importance of an oral archive of feelings in telling the stories of lesbian activists in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) - or art historian Gavin Butt's book Between You and Me (2005) where he uses gossip about artist's sexuality in the US in the 1950s and 1960s as an archive for writing a history of post-war American art.
The discussion of the archive can also be related to the current interest in creating cultural canons that we have seen in Denmark and Norway as of lately. I find the political and nationalistic function of the “cultural canons” quite scary. In the US, the concept of the canon was lively discussed and criticized in the aftermath of the publication of The Western Canon (1990) by literature professor Harold Bloom in the 1990s, but notions of “objective” canons are still present today. I think your work is important in this regard, because it focuses on other and alternative archives.
JH: Yes, and I think people in general use the word archive as an alternative to canon. So instead of saying “these are the great works, this is the great tradition”, as T.S. Eliot would say, one should recognize that the “great” archive is just one among many. And the great tradition is actually just a tradition, and you can kind of never say that enough in academia, because it seems to be a default mode in the academic world or in the academic consciousness forming the canon. Even today we see this, and it is a very difficult thing to avoid, because you try to make sense of a lot of different text.
MD: The criticism of queer theory has since its early days been hammering on the theory's inaccessibility, usually referring to the use of complex deconstructive or psychoanalytical concepts. Especially Judith Butler's rhetoric has been harshly attacked, though this often seems to be by people who do not have cared, or even wanted, to read her work. It seems to me that many queer scholars today try to take on more accessible styles, using other archives, wanting to communicate to a broader public. Even though I think it is important not to position queer theoretical work and queer activism in opposition to each other, it still seems to be a certain antagonism for many people in this regard. Many so-called “difficult” queer theorists have also published quite polemical and accessible books, such as Michael Warner's Trouble with Normal (1999) and more recently Judith Butler's Precarious Life (2004). The Drag King Book (1999) that you did together with Del LaGrace Volcano was also written for a different audience than the academic, I suppose. What are your thoughts on the relation between queer theory and queer activism and practice?
JH: Well, a couple of things. One, I have to commend anyone who ends up writing an accessible book. I really do think Butler's recent work shows her range. She made her name as a high theorist, but she is very willing to write other kind of books. I think it is a mark of a certain kind of, not just greatness, but a certain kind of generosity, a desire to communicate and be understood. She has a certain recognition of her position, as somebody who represents something to people, and therefore she wants to communicate it.
The second thing is that it is remarkably difficult to write accessibly and maintain complexity. Academics are constantly involved in conversations with other academics, and the desire is to bring those conversations into your work, because that is what, sort of, has produced your thinking. But the minute you bring in an academic dialogue or conversation into a work that is supposed to be accessible, you just lose a huge piece of your audience who are not in academia, who are not having those conversations, and who frankly do not care. So it is very difficult and very schizophrenic because you want to communicate broadly, and I personally find it much easier to do in a talk, than I do in my writing. The Drag King Book, while I am happy that people are able to read it, I also think it is a little bit banal. It was very hard for me to make any real points in that book in the form that I was asked to write in.
And then in terms of a queer theory project in general, I do think that communicability is important, and not just having another audience in mind who might not be an academic one, but multiple audiences in mind, is really the key. The models for that kind of intellectual range, that is what I would call it - to be rangy - the model will be someone like Raymond Williams or Stuart Hall. Both Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall among many other people - there are for instance a lot of African-American intellectuals in the US like Robin Kelly, Michael Dyson, bell hooks, and Ruthie Gillmore - who are activists, public intellectuals and academics all in one. They have a really strong sense of commitment to an African-American community that is not well represented in the university; and therefore they have a very strong sense of having to represent people. And I think in queer studies, too. The queer population is far more educated in general. The white, middleclass, queer population is very well educated, and other parts of the queer community are often better educated, if not well educated, than the general population, so it is a different kind of responsibility to a politics than when you find populations who are not at all represented in the university. But I do think that many queer theorists feel that they want their ideas to be taken seriously, and to be in conversation with people who are not on campuses.
MD: You write in your latest book In a Queer Time and Place (2005) about the intellectual responsibility in America today...
JH: ...yes, to speak up!
MD: This responsibility seems related to something you discussed in your lecture Notes on Failure, where you talked about stupidity as a mode of domination. You used George W. Bush as an example of what you called “politics of not-knowing”. Can you elaborate on your thoughts on stupidity?
JH: There are a couple of different references here. One is Eve Sedgwick, who has this great anecdote in the introduction to The Epistemology of the Closet (1990) where she tries to show that knowing and unknowing are not in obvious relationships to power. It seems as if knowledge and power are linked, and not knowing and not having power are linked, and in many regimes they are, okay, but she gives the example of President Reagan meeting François Mitterrand in France. Mitterrand is the politician who speaks several languages; Reagan is the politician who is monolingual. So one politician is in more command of knowledge than the other, but because Reagan does not know French, they speak in English. Therefore, the people who are less educated, who have less range, dominate the discourse. Now, that is a pretty interesting analogy for what I am calling domination through the mode of stupidity. You can dominate by not knowing as easily as you can dominate from the position of knowledge. It depends completely on the context. It also depends on how the intellectual has been figured in any given community, and it depends upon class politics and suspicion of intellectual activity, sometimes from working-class people. Bush was able to mobilize this image of himself as a regular guy, despite the fact that he is far from a blue-collar person in the US. In fact, he is Yale educated and blue blood - a political dynasty brat. But through a certain kind of stupidity, he is able to represent himself in fact as “one of the people”. So stupidity, in many many different forms, works against people who are smart. I think that for academics that is just a really good lesson. It is also a different way of reading how stupidity functions in the US: Stupidity does not only function to blot out knowledge; it functions to produce knowledge in a different way. And then the final reference for that would be Avital Ronell, who is a deconstructive philosopher, who has a book called Stupidity (2002), in which she argues that stupidity is not what stands in the way of wisdom, it actually is another way of having wisdom.