Published: May 1, 2007 By

[1] I spent several years of my life looking, waiting for the right time to die. In my early twenties, I fantasized about being martyred, killed for a purpose, a cause, something that would make my death bearable for the others, those who cared. I felt no risk in drugs, random sex, walking on the ledge of skyscrapers. I waited for a divine gust of wind to blow me over. I waited for my mouth to betray me, go too far, force me into a conflict where an unexpected gun or knife taught me a lesson. I grew exhausted waiting.

[2] To look at the human motivation that propels the actions of self-destruction is a complex and multifaceted investigation. Why would a person, let alone an entire community, consistently engage in self-destructive behaviors? How could self-destruction become so prevalent in a culture that the idea of mortification could arguably be a cultural value? Research on gay men, both younger and older, has indicated statistically a disproportionate percentage of drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, suicidal thoughts, and high-risk sexual behaviors (Herdt and de Vries; Macdonald and Cooper; Nicholas and Howard; Remafedi). Why do gay men have an elevated tendency to engage in acts of self-destruction? Theoretically, the question requires further inquiry. For me personally, none of the answers provided add up as I run theories through my body seeking some glimmer of identification. Simplistic answers, such as internalized homophobia, resonate from a distance, but don’t help me get close to what I feel. My love and acceptance of my gay friends and lovers is deep and experienced without conflict. My image of self is strong, compassionate, and empathetic. However, something exists under the skin that I continue to scrape at, tear through, in a fight to find release. Guilt lives within, and pain always feels magnificent, if only providing the slightest release of pressure. For me as an academic, queer theory opened a door of potential that has failed to mobilize, making a home for itself safely in the comfort of the mind. Queer theory worked on my head, but failed to provide release under the skin. It pushed my body further and further away from the mind, reinforcing the binaries it so valiantly hoped to dismantle. Still, I can’t seem to let it go. My head understands the whispered suggestions that queerness has run its course, has failed to fulfill its promise, has been high-jacked by white male academics, and reeks of an academic trend that is now passé. My guts refuse to loosen their grip on the naive thrill and hope it once offered.

[3] This paper works to negotiate these conflicting voices, refusing to bracket off the personal from the academic, the physical from the mental, and the embodied from the theoretical, in the hope that somewhere the voices becomes blurred, unified, speaking to and from body and mind without distinction. This nontraditional style marks a struggle to keep theory from slipping away into the mind, away from my body and lived experience. Additionally, the style aims to enact the concept of perspective by incongruity (Burke, Attitudes) in itself, dismantling the rigid orientations of the academic and the personal, continually climbing up and jumping off ladders of abstraction. First, I will look at gay male guilt, the pressure beneath my skin, through a Burkean frame of tragic mortification, suggesting that heteronormativity marks a trained incapacity of perfection that perpetuates self-inflicted, as well as externally inflicted, violence towards gays. Next, I theorize potential tactics for challenging heteronormative perfection through a Burkean comic corrective of perspective by incongruity. Finally, this analysis explores the potentiality of articulating queerness through perspective by incongruity, actively working to dismantle violent tragedy through a queer-comic perspective. This pairing of queer theory and Kenneth Burke marks a perspective by incongruity in itself, as Burkean thought is often restricted to, but fails to fit neatly into, categories determined by the historical context in which he produced his work. The question of “why go all the way back to Burke,” a straight white man who never completed a bachelor’s degree, lingers at the forefront of this essay. To answer this question, I defer to Biesecker, who argues, simply that “Burke’s work productively supplements contemporary understandings of the relations of structure to subject” (9). A dialogue of Burkean thought and queer theory assists in extending our understandings of the construction and power of heteronormative perfection, as well as suggests alternative tactics for queering antinormative positions. Using the application of gay male self-destruction as my personal entry point, this essay seeks to show the potential contributions Burkean comedy offers contemporary queer theory.

Gay Self-Destruction and Mortification

[4] The Burkean tragic frame, which will be explained throughout the course of this essay, is propelled by the human’s use and misuse of symbol systems, by which the human is “separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making” (Burke, Language 13). Through symbols, humans construct two key concepts that work to establish and perpetuate a tragic cycle. First, through language, the human animal constructs the negative (Language 9). For as long as I can remember, from elementary-school gym class, to the images and thoughts that brought me to erection, to the music I listened to, I knew I was not normal. Through our symbolic systems, an object or person is granted the capacity to not be something. In nature, removed from symbolocity, everything is merely what it is (Burke, Religion 18). Through this creation of the “not,” the human animal moves to the moralizing function of creating the “thou shalt not” (Religion 20). Grounding this idea in sexuality, the gay or lesbian, through language, can be understood as “not straight” or even “not natural.” “Thou shall not lie with mankind as with womankind, it is an abomination in the eyes of God,” further articulates this moralizing function of symbolism. I was not supposed to touch myself there. Watching him change in gym class should not have excited me. The second concept that is constructed through symbol systems is an inevitable hierarchy (Language 15). Through the negative and the “is not,” the tragic frame operates by establishing conceptions of good and evil. The hierarchy permits the elevation of a group to be deemed better, right, and moral, resulting in the inevitable lesser, wrong, and immoral other. Through this process, language allows the “is” and “is not” constructions to be endowed with value. I screamed at myself in the mirror, “Just admit it asshole, you are a homo! You are a fucking faggot!” Without constructions of good and evil, the tragic frame could not function.

[5] There is accessibility to the tragic frame that makes it attractive for illuminating social victimage (Burke,Religion 172) and scapegoating. Insofar as culture is rooted in the limitations of binary thinking, the tragic perspective works to explain the need for casting portions of society in the role of evil, wrong, or villainous. While tragedy has been used to analyze several forms of discourse, including campaign rhetoric (Brummett,Scapegoating), popular culture (Brummett,Rhetoric), apologia (King), and news reporting (Lule), the tragic frame, as an isolated concept, merely offers a framework to identify that tragedy is present. This man had never met me before. He swore he would have cut me over and over. The only reason I was still alive, according to him, was that he was afraid of getting my “perverted blood” all over him. While the tragic frame “fits” as a way to understand these events, the potentials for challenging tragedy require a further understanding of several key concepts: perfection, guilt, victimage, mortification, and hierarchy.

[6] Every day, on some level, I have to remind myself that I may not have children. I may grow old alone, without that person waking next to me. This terror of failure lingers in the back of my mind. This is the reason many of my queer friends dismiss the sappy Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts romantic comedies. I watch them all, and the crappier the formula, the more simplistic the resolution, the more satisfied I feel for a fleeting moment. Then I return to my life. Then I get depressed, smoke a pack of cigarettes, and listen to Nick Cave albums. By symbolically creating the “not,” humans have the capacity to envision and articulate a symbolic perfection for the social order. Perfection is the first key motivation in the tragic frame (Burke,Permanence 392). We can create, dream, idealize, and fantasize symbolically about that which is lacking. I knelt and pleaded with God to let me love this girl. The hollowness I felt when we kissed and when we screwed forced me to shut down every impulse I had. I wanted to feel what she felt. I truly did. In Christian terms, we have the ability to conceive symbolically of ourselves as Christ-like, and through this symbolic understanding of the negative, that which is missing, the inevitable result of this symbolic action is guilt (Burke, Religion 4). Guilt is the by-product of our ability to construct the negative, as we conceive of symbolic perfection and inevitably fail to actualize this symbolic construction. Guilt provides the second tragic motive, for the failure to achieve perfection demands a sacrifice or a purging of the guilt on some level (5). My high-school girlfriend slapped me across the face. I was so proud of her. She never understood why that was the moment I realized I really did “love” her.

[7] The centralized role of guilt to human motivation has always been my driving attraction to the tragic frame. Guilt was my point of entry, a visceral understanding that operates outside of language. The pressure beneath my skin screamed for release, the atonement for something I could not explain. I sought forgiveness for something indescribable, something beneath the surface. When I utter the words to myself softly under my breath, “why can’t I forgive myself?” my stomach drops and a chord is struck. Burke theorizes that this need for sacrifice is performed through either victimage or mortification. Victimage requires the use of a scapegoat, either factional or universal (Burke, Attitudes). While Christ is the exemplar of the universal scapegoat, the factional scapegoat is a product of social hierarchy. Those who fall outside the categories of normative race, class, gender, and sexuality are marked as evil (Attitudes 188), blamed for the social imperfection, and cast as factional scapegoats for the dominant culture. Although this imperfection is an inevitable result of symbolocity, queers, Mexican immigrants, and professional women, for example, are blamed and punished for a multitude of social failures. Factional scapegoating seeks the easiest targets, those voices that are disenfranchised and can be labeled as “illegals,” “villains,” “perverts,” “bitches,” and “sick” for any violation of the social norm. By blaming and punishing the nonnormative, social deviance is disciplined and the moral myth of normativity is strengthened. All social failures become the fault of social deviance and the punishment of the scapegoat symbolically atones for the social guilt.

[8] I hid my gayness in seventh grade, even from myself. Devon, a skater who was rumored to be gay, lived in my neighborhood. My disgust of him was blinding. One day my friends and I were riding our bikes home from school. Devon was skating alone. As we passed him, I yelled, “Why don’t you die, fag?” He was stone cold in his response as we laughed all the way home. I made sure he knew I was better than him. It was a temporary release, a strengthening of my own myths, and an act of cruelty that still haunts me. Tragedy produces victims, forever repeating itself. The binary simplicity of the tragic perspective suggests that there must be bad so there can be good. An intricate complexity of oppositional definitions constructs social hierarchy. The hierarchy then functions to maintain the balance of good and evil through victimage, not only symbolically purging the guilt of imperfection, but also reifying hierarchal status.

[9] To look at self-destructive behavior in gay culture moves us away from factional and universal scapegoating. The alternative to purging guilt through victimage is conscience-laden mortification (Burke,Religion 207). This concept calls for a purging of guilt through the punishment of self. The guilt of imperfection is symbolically atoned for through self-sacrifice. Every time I found myself close to death, I would feel a rush of calm sailing through me. Is this it? Is this the end? The seconds moved beautifully slow as my car turned over and over. The term “mortification” is commonly used to describe “the subjection or denial of bodily passions and appetites by abstinence or self-inflicted pain or discomfort” (Webster’s 758). Will this be the man who gives it to me? The fuck grew more thrilling. In dramatism, mortification becomes redefined through the context of the tragic frame. To equate mortification to death implies the natural cycle of the body, sidestepping the relevance of governance and dominion within the tragic frame (Burke, Religion207). Burke argues that mortification should be understood in the most extreme of terms, equating mortification to capital punishment within the sociopolitical order (207). I closed my eyes peacefully after downing a bottle of pills. I woke up vomiting in the emergency room. I didn’t know Excedrin has caffeine in it. Maybe tomorrow?

[10] Research continually indicates that gays and lesbians, as a social group, engage in a disproportionate amount of self-destructive behaviors. Alcoholism, drug addiction, unsafe sex, suicide, and suicidal thoughts are consistently present in higher numbers in gay communities (Herdt and de Vries; Macdonald and Cooper; Nicholas and Howard; Remafedi). The data indicates self-destruction, but what does that mean? It is easy to distance yourself from a statistic. After all, how hard is it to make sense of this data? Conservative Republicans preach our sickness, our perversion, and our disease. Our very identities are painted as a social ill that must be cured. We refer to gay communities as family, but the primary unifier within this extremely diverse population is that there are people like Fred Phelps who want us dead. Even with our progress in the last few decades, parents throw gay children out on the street, hate crimes continue, our rights are contested, and my students in my classroom feel entitled to avow that homosexuality makes them sick. How difficult is it to fathom the act of self-destruction in this context? Do we doubt ourselves as well? Do we hate ourselves as well? The problem with this frame is that we are once again reinforcing a tragic perspective. The Republicans become the villains. The religious right becomes our enemy, and while we may not have the social power to victimize them in return, we strive to continue the ongoing tragedy. The binary is reinforced. The cycle continues. A Burkean application suggests a different strategy.

Heteronormativity as a Tragic-Trained Incapacity

[11] The foundational connection between self-destructive behaviors and the tragic frame lies in the driving motive of the tragic cycle, the notion of perfection. What is perfect? How is perfection defined? While a product of the negative function of symbolism, perfection can be understood through the concept of orientation (Burke, Permanence). Burke argues that our orientation is our reality, although this is rooted in a biological basis. Our orientations result from our use of symbols, and thus our realities are symbolic constructions. The use of the term orientation should not be confused with the concept of “sexual orientation” in this discussion. As symbol-using animals, one’s orientation dictates and determines how life is experienced or understood, as orientation frames reality. Orientations become problematic when they fail to fit or account for a given situation. This is due to the nature of orientations, which inevitably produce a limitation of means. To adopt one orientation, or reality, limits one’s capacity to operate outside of this orientation. As one orientation is selected, all others are inevitably rejected, which leads to reduction. The inability to operate outside of one’s orientation reflects the existence of a trained incapacity (Burke,Attitudes 7). For the sake of self-reflexivity, one could argue that any philosophical perspective can mark a trained incapacity. To understand the world through psychoanalysis, pragmatism, poststructuralism, queer theory or even dramatism will result in some limitation of means. In Burke’s example, when chickens are trained to identify a specific whistle as a food-signal, the chickens will run to the bell each time it is heard. When the time for slaughter has come, the ringing of the bell brings the hungry willingly to their beheadings. For academics, trained incapacity always needs to be challenged, as our philosophical orientations will always be suspect to reduction. Regardless of the orientation, however, whether a lawyer, firefighter, or physician, trained orientations lead to these limitations.

[12] To understand gay self-destructive behaviors within the tragic frame as a site of mortification, it is important to understand that embracing a specific notion of perfection is an orientation in itself and results in trained incapacity (Burke, Permanence 7). To accept a conception of perfection not only orients one to that perspective, but disables an individual from looking outside of this orientation. In terms of relationship and life models, perfection is defined through heteronormativity. So many boyfriends in the past knew what relationship they wanted before they met me. There was no negotiation, no place for development, but only the enactment of boyfriends, dates, and rituals. We read from scripts, and we acted out roles. We broke up when someone violated the stage directions or broke character. Warner argues heteronormativity is “unmarked as the basic idiom of the personal and the social; or marked as a natural state; or projected as an ideal or accomplishment. It consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine than a sense of rightness produced in contradictory manifestations” (Warner,Publics 309). Yep extends on Warner’s argument calling for further research into normalization as a “materially violent form of social regulation and control” (18). Heteronormativity is the “invisible center” (18) of the social structure, and is the “quintessential force creating, sustaining, and perpetuating the erasure, marginalization, disempowerment, and oppression of sexual others” (18). The perfect gay man under heteronormative perfection is a straight man. With my boyfriends, no matter how true we were to our characters, no matter how believable our delivery, the performance fell flat. The audience was not with us. They wouldn’t play along. Our illusion became horrifically apparent as we went grocery shopping or bought popcorn at the movies. I felt transparent on stage.

[13] The familiar models for living associated with heteronormativity—marriage, children, generational sharing, and assumed heterosexuality—construct an image of social perfection that is mediated and socialized throughout our culture. I argue that heteronormativity marks a trained incapacity in our orientations to look beyond these models, thus presenting a key obstacle to queer thought and queer future-making. In moments of great frustration, I sit and smoke, trying to think of what life could be. If not the house, dog, wife, and kids, then what? I don’t know what that could look like. I try to envision other lives, other visions. I read Butler’s discussion of fantasy and try to imagine myself otherwise, believing that when the elsewhere “is embodied, it brings the elsewhere home” (Undoing 29). My mind gets off asking the question. The inquiry excites me, thrills me, and perhaps frees me for a moment. What is left? Eventually I grow exhausted. I realize I don’t have answers, nothing concrete that I can cling to. The ambiguity terrifies me. What does all this mean about today and, worse, tomorrow? I feel guilty once more, but this time it’s for failing to live up to my queer perfection. I turn to a crappy film with Julia Roberts to lull me to sleep.

[14] Studies indicate that gay male culture is centered on “youthism” (Berger, Gray 15), indicating a strong fear and avoidance of aging. “I’ve seen many gay men who feared growing old more than actually dying. They had such a negative perception of their growing old that it was an experience to be avoided at all costs, even of their own lives. Both HIV negative and positive gay men have found it difficult even to imagine growing old” (Kooden and Flowers 15). Society and media perpetuate the myth of the miserable, bitter, lonely old queen (Berger,Realities). Every gay friend I know, at one point or another, has broken down into tears and confessed their biggest fear. They don’t want to be alone. We don’t want to be alone. We see the old men at the bar and pray, “Please don’t let me end up like that!” Do you know any gay couples that have made it? I don’t, not personally. The sight of old Tom and Richard at the end of the bar “provides a cautionary tale about developmental failure” (Hostetler 160) to all of us as we drink our beers, avoiding their stare. Research has indicated that gay men adapt to aging as easily, if not more easily than heterosexuals (Brown et al.; Hostetler). The myth and the reality contradict one another. However, the self-destructive behaviors continue and the cautionary myth endures. I am afraid. I’m thirty-two, and I have no idea what forty could look like. My mother always tells me she can’t even imagine life without children. Is that a compliment or a curse? Berger argues this myth operates as a “social control function” (Gray155) to steer people away from “choosing” homosexuality. In the absence of other options, we have inaccurately constructed another binary. We can successfully perform the normative, or we can be Tom and Richard. These are the concrete images. These I can visualize. These are what we choose from. So I choose not to imagine it, Mother, because that’s the better of my choices.

[15] Placing heteronormativity as a perfected image, a representation of goodness or moral rightness within the tragic frame, endangers gays and lesbians from both sides of the sacrificial position. We’ve already established that gays and lesbians are often victimized through factional scapegoating, providing a source of social evil to purge the social guilt. However, if we approach heteronormativity as a construction of symbolic perfection, the tragic frame suggests that gays and lesbians will also be required to act out the self-sacrificial cycle. Failure to achieve this perfection, by heteronormative design, results in a need for sacrifice. There was brief moment where my body was suspended in mid-air, the noose tearing at my neck, before the fixture broke from the ceiling. The moment was calm. The action felt right, and my body accepted this without argument. I don’t think I even needed to bind my hands, as I did.

[16] The Burkean tragic frame suggests mortification as a potential lens to understand gay and lesbian self-destructive behavior. In response to Yep’s call for interrogating the material violence inflicted through heteronormativity, a Burkean application suggests a dual-sacrifice occurring in heteronormative tragedy. Under the devotion to heteronormative perfection, gays and lesbians face residual guilt that mandates punishment, either against themselves or against the larger community. In the “community” of our “family” I’ve witnessed fags blaming other fags (or lesbians, or transsexuals, or queers of differing races) for everything. The “straight actors” are repulsed by the “femmes.” The “femmes” resent the “straight actors’” choice to pass and enact butch masculinity. As I listen in on conversations at the gay bars I frequent, table-by-table I find nothing but tragedy. Even gay men, who are determined socially “wrong,” still fight for their tragic “rights” in order to seek out a victim to be sacrificed. Heteronormative orientations become trained incapacity for gays and lesbians, resulting in “faulty means-selecting” (Burke, Permanence 17). We tear each other down, each striving to achieve a perfection that will always fail us. Ironically, through this lens, all members of our heteronormative culture, gays and straights, exist within the same sexual orientation.

The Comic Corrective Through Perspective by Incongruity

[17] The perpetuation of violence through hegemonic heteronormativity is familiar terrain for queer scholars. Burkean Tragedy presents a new perspective to criticize and understand social scapegoating and mortification, but the identification of tragedy is only the beginning of Burke’s theoretical framework. Once this symbolic purging has taken place, there is the symbolic achievement of momentary redemption, and the tragic frame assumes a renewed state of order. However, the symbolic capacity to construct perfection perpetuates a continuous cycle of perfection, guilt, and redemption, called the “Iron Law of History” (Burke,Religion). Tragedy provides no emancipatory power but merely identifies the flawed cycle of human constructed perfection and victimage. Burke suggests the adoption of a comic corrective to remedy the tragic cycle (Attitudes 166-75). As Carlson argues, Burke’s intention was to promote his comic corrective as a way of dismantling the tragic cycle of human victimage to promote “peaceful social change” (310). In the comic corrective, rather than the tragic emphasis on good and evil, there is only the mistaken (Attitudes 41). Tragedy relies upon a strict definition of rightness and wrongness, where the bad element is punished. In comedy, good and bad are deemphasized in a story of mishaps and confusion. “It promotes the charitable attitude towards people that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation….It makes us sensitive to the point at which one of these ingredients becomes hypertrophied, with the corresponding atrophy of the other” (Attitudes 166-67). The key to the comic corrective is the notion of learning from mistakes. Tragic frames of heroism and triumph promote the idea of winner and loser. In comedy, the foolish grow wiser, and experience is used dialectically for the betterment of all. A comic perspective allows people “to be observers of themselves, while acting,” challenging passivity with “maximum consciousness” (171). The comic promotes a mission of reflexivity, working against restrictive binaries or polemical positions and “an integrative socializing knowledge” (Ruekert 188).

[18] In comedy, the either/or is replaced with the both/and. While tragedy leads to punishment, the comic leads to dialectic. War, murder, and suicide do not exist in comedies. There is no absolute good or evil. However, comedy should not be understood strictly as humorous or funny. Carlson argues that humor can exist in any of Burke’s frames, and should not be used synonymously with the comic (319). Ruekert challenged this notion of comedy with the example of Hitler, questioning how one can dismiss his actions as not evidence of the existence of pure evil (124). While more difficult to digest than some examples, comedy does not permit for pure evil, and thus would argue Hitler was limited through his orientation and faulty means selecting. While fully aware of his actions, he is, in the most extreme of cases, mistaken. I felt nauseous watching the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. This interview with Traudi Junge, who at the age of thirteen worked directly with Adolph Hitler, challenged every thing I knew in my gut to be true. To listen to her speak of a man who played joyfully with his dog, was warm and compassionate, and was always friendly screwed with my world. I am Jewish and he is a monster. This is not up for discussion. I grew ill trying to accept him as a human. To quote Steve Martin out of context, “Comedy is notpretty.” It is a challenge. In this extreme example, to attempt to read Hitler as comic does not attempt to diminish the horrific tragedy of his actions. In its purest form, comedy seeks understanding, reflexivity, human betterment through dialectic, and learning from mistakes. Comedy rejects the notion that one is better than the other, or that one “has the right to be right and impose it on others” (Ruekert 117). So how does one negotiate a comic approach in the face of unfathomable tragedy? Christiansen and Hanson argued that the ACT-UP protests in 1989 illustrate comic protest as a “complex, sophisticated response to some of modern society’s most daunting persuasive obstacles” (158). The protest tactics of ACT-UP problematized the tragedy of the AIDS virus and urged a response of “thoughtful action rather than tragic victimage” (161). Dealing with the tragic obstacles of homophobia, HIV/AIDS fear, and hatred, ACT-UP utilized strategies of irony, exaggeration, and camp to alter social perceptions (166).

[19] Comedy should not be reduced to an unattainable utopian vision, but ought to be approached as a critical position that can be actively adopted. While comic criticism involves a cluster of terms that cannot be overviewed in one brief essay, the primary tool for adopting a comic frame is “perspective by incongruity” (Burke, Attitudes 308). Perspective by incongruity is a way of clouding, problematizing, and interrogating restrictive orientations through “metaphorical extension” (309). The tactic is intentional incongruity, similar to the idea of the oxymoron, placing two differing concepts together, whose pairing works to alter or extend the limitations of an orientation. This creates new interpretations of events or situations “removing words from their ‘constitutional’ setting” (309). This process is not a demoralization or appropriation of terms, but rather an effort to “’remoralize’ by accurately naming a situation already demoralized by inaccuracy” (309). Through perspective by incongruity, terms firmly situated within a given orientation are intentionally paired with terms from opposing or diverse orientations with the objective of transformative reconstitution. I had not seen this woman, a person I called a friend, since high school. Her devout Christian faith was not a secret in our Economics class. My gayness was. Suddenly, five years later, we see each other across the facilitation space of a gay/straight discussion group. We were silent the entire discussion, I planned on leaving quickly, but she approached me afterwards. She was genuinely sad for my “choices,” and asked me to read the Bible. I told her I had. She asked me to read a specific verse. I paraphrased it to her on the spot. Confused and somewhat challenged, she asked me to pray to God. I told her I do each day. We both commented on how disorienting it was that we still hit it off as if nothing had changed since Economics. We were both challenged. Gay prayer? Gay Bible reading? A gay friend? A Christian I adored?

[20] Perspective by incongruity is the process of comic reconstitution, challenging the notion of opposites so that their opposition no longer exists (336). The project works to move from a tragic binary to a comic corrective through dissolving the tragic notions of black/white, right/wrong. These binaries are the demoralized and inaccurate motives of human tragedy. Comedy uses incongruity to problematize the oppressive and invisible lines that promote binary systems. Ideographs such as family, when faced with incongruity, can lead to a symbolic struggle for control. What does it mean to have a gay family? How do we approach the notion of gay marriage? How can one negotiate the reality of child molesting priests or a church that acquiesces in the sexual abuse of children? These contemporary debates articulate the challenges forged on restrictive orientation when faced with incongruity, as well as the work required by individuals to adopt comic correctives. Comedy, beyond being “not pretty,” is also terrifying, frustrating, and potentially transformative. Burke urges the social critic to engage in active incongruity as the tool for unearthing comic complexities. Looking at gay self-destruction and the violence of heteronormative orientations, what does Burke have to offer this tragic dilemma? How can perspective by incongruity and comic correctives inform contemporary queer theory?

Kenneth Burke: Queer Before Queer Was Queer?

[21] The task of articulating the parallels of Burkean criticism to queer theory presents the continual obstacle that most queer theorists wrestle with: what is queer, and how do we locate or define it (Yep 35)? The very concept of queer is resistant to definition, “a source rather than a destination” (Jagose 5). Butler suggests that any effort to define or solidify queerness will stop its potential in its tracks (Against21). Early caution about the death by definition eased many theorists into the comfortable nondefinition of queerness as antinormative positioning, specifically at the intersections of sex, gender, and sexuality (Jagose; Warner,Trouble; Yep). “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, or the dominant” (Turner 134), with an objective of problematizing, interrogating, dismantling, denaturalizing, and disassembling social norms and binaries (Kirsch). The key was to open up the potentiality of the inquiry, the theorizing of the “unimaginable future” (Jagose 132) by asking not “what is” but “what could be?” As an undergraduate in Communication in the early 90s, queer theory sent me reeling with giddy anticipation. The task of preserving and reconfiguring the limits of discourse, “this necessary ‘outside’” (Butler, Bodies 53) was in the forefront of my radical queer performance artist mind, high on the freedom of defiance, and genuinely thrilled with the empowerment and space to define myself. When someone asked me, “what do you want,” I proudly quoted Warner, declaring, “It cannot be predicted in advance” (Fear vii). The vast terrain of questions and options that were opened up before me provided, what at least I believed to be, a brief but profoundly relevant emancipation. It was a period of absolute potential. I still miss that high.

[22] What happened? Where did all that potential go? The naiveté that I so desperately enjoyed slipped away, as the “anti” became slowly submissive to the norm. I sat at my brother’s wedding, as he married his male partner, and found myself desperately aching for all the conventions. I log onto and I find “queer” right under “gay” and “bisexual” as a choice for marketing myself to other men. Queers are here, and they are queer, and we are so comfortably used to it. Queer is a television show on Showtime and a synonym for political. The term is defined all around us, in the present, no longer the idealistic and future-oriented door of potentials. So is queer theory dead? It depends on what you are reading and where you stand. Jagose states that if queer is to live up to its potential, it cannot solidify itself as just “another acceptable (though oppositional) category” (Jagose 6). Many argued it was doomed from its inception (101-26). Halperin suggests that queer theory exploded prematurely, beginning as a joke, and “had to be invented after the fact, to supply the demand it evoked” (341). Queerness fought definition from its beginnings because the positioning of the queer concept in opposition to the normative presented an internal contradiction, the creation of a new binary. Queer fought the rigidity of binary thinking, but the concept quickly fell into duality of its own. Returning to Burke, queer found itself back into the frame of tragedy: queer vs. the normative. Edelman’s recent queer project articulates this point to an insightfully extreme position. He argues that normative discourse links the child to all future-oriented images in his concept of “reproductive futurism” (3). The value placed on reproductive futurism and the child as the image of the future names the queer in the position of antifuture and not“fighting for the children” (3). The tragedy extends and continues.

[23] The normative is concrete, a clear set of images and representations that we experience on a daily basis. As a Communication scholar, one of the most fundamental principles we teach in public speaking courses is the power of concrete language to work in the minds of the audience. The abstract lacks a mental image. We can’t see it. Potential for what “might be” lacks physical properties and is less effective as a rhetorical strategy. We encourage visualization. What about queer theory? Sedgwick alluded to this concern when she questioned “how to stop difference disappearing into this air when it is only an idea” (as cited in Anderson 69). How does one get to the “space-off,” the inferred space that is not visible (de Lauretis 26)? How does the orientation of heteronormative perfection limit the potential or possibility of seeing, let alone inhabiting, such a space? Shifting focus from queer spaces to queering spaces, queer becomes a bridge to the unknown, rather than a predetermined destination. Perspective by incongruity marks a crossing, an act of undetermined generative potential that transforms meaning through relational dialectic.

[24] Although queer is both a noun and a verb, the term “queer” as an identity marker has been weakened through its appropriation and normalization. However, as a verb, “to queer” creates the bridge between the objectives of queer theory and Kenneth Burke. I suggest that the verb “queer” is strongly in line with the concept of perspective by incongruity. As a term itself, through its inversion and reappropriation as a chosen identity, “queer” is perspective by incongruity in one word. It mirrors the queer objectives of problematizing, interrogating, dismantling, denaturalizing, and disassembling social norms and binaries (Kirsch). Through the development of queerness, the word challenges orientations of an oppressive history and a voluntary acceptance. I remember, back in the early 90s, one of my professors questioning my use of the word “homosexual” to describe myself. We talked about the clinical history of the term and the baggage it carries. He asked me if I was queer. I said “no,” without consideration. We talked for an hour. I walked out of his office queer, and I was different. Sedgwick argues that the reappropriation of queer does not “disavow a lot of the negative stereotypes associated with it, but rather reinhabits them in different ways” (as cited in Yep 36). This process allows the term to extend and transform through incongruity. If queer theory seeks to “dismantle hierarchies by blurring the definitions of specific identity categories,” (Slagle 143) then perspective by incongruity provides a valuable tool for this objective. “To heal from the ongoing violence of heteronormativity is to understand, unpack, and demystify its invisible power” (Yep 26).

[25] While Burkean tragedy and perfection offer new tools for interrogating heteronormative violence, perspective by incongruity offers a critical tool that is useful for approaching and theorizing queer practice as a comic corrective. The tool of perspective by incongruity has already been used to theorize the strategies of camp and irony used by ACT-UP (Christianson and Hanson). Additionally, the theoretical work exploring the queering the hetero/homo binary (Sedgwick, Closet), the social constructions of sex and gender performativity (Butler, both Gender and Bodies) and queer camp aesthetic and audiencing (Meyer; Muñoz; Sontag) are each informed by the reconstitution of tragedy through comic corrective.

[26] Although the application of Burkean comedy to the entire lineage of queer thought is beyond the scope of this essay, a more recent example can be provided using Muñoz’s theorizing of disidentification, which “negotiates strategies of resistance within the flux of discourse and power” (19). Adopting Pêcheux’s three modes of subject construction—identification, counteridentification, and disidentification—Muñoz explores contemporary examples of queers who “work on and against” dominant ideologies in an effort to “transform cultural logics from within” (11). Counteridentification, similar to an antinormative position, “validates the dominant ideology by reinforcing its dominance through the controlled symmetry of ‘counterdetermination’” (11). He argues that counteridentification is sometimes called for when “resistance needs to be pronounced and direct” (5). Disidentification, as “a more democratizing affirmation of internal difference” (Butler qtd. in Muñoz 12), mirrors the strategic practice of perspective by incongruity offered by Burke. Additionally, it is sensitive to the privileges that antinormative strategies assume, which fail to account for the risks and dangers that adopting antinormativity entails. The white male academic queer theory has been strongly criticized for not accounting for the experiences of queers of color (Johnson; Muñoz) and glossing over the privileged position from which white male academics theorize. Theoretical positions, such as disidentification and perspective by incongruity, which refuse to embrace an extreme antinormative position, broaden the scope and potential of queer resistance to multiple forms of queerness.

[27] By placing Burke in discussion with queer discourse, the tool of perspective by incongruity offers two primary contributions. First, the queer concept is grounded, not in definition, but through an ongoing process that does not function to limit, solidify, or restrict its potentitiality. The queer objective is reframed from the potential of tragic antinormative positioning to the ongoing process of tactical interventions, bridges extending outwards from tragic frames. I still find myself undoing the work I’ve done upon myself. The rigid category of “faggot” that I placed upon myself over fifteen years ago as I cried in the mirror still infects me. Queerness is still seeping in slowly. I find small seemingly insignificant barriers to tear down each day, wondering why I ever built them in the first place. The project is moment by moment, calming the flinch of the body, the tightening of the neck.

[28] Second, queerness becomes a project of reconstitution and transformation, which locates queer objectives at the very sites queers have struggled to negotiate. Exemplified in Edelman’s theory of reproductive futurism, a Burkean approach would suggest actively working to problematize the solidification of children and future. The dominant heteronormative orientation carefully guards the parameters of the Child as a powerful and potentially oppressive symbol. Edelman’s critique of the “the Child as futurity’s emblem” (31) is powerful and dead on the mark. He calls for death of this child, arguing the future, by this orientation, leads to a repetition of an oppressive history (31). From Anita Bryant to the gay marriage debates, the cult of reproductive futurism places queers in a perpetual state of tragic sacrifice. So the Child must be sacrificed? If perpetuating binaries only reifies the dominant position, the Burkean response to this violent linkage would suggest a dismantling of these concepts. “The shrine of the sacred Child” (31), through perspective by incongruity, must be reconstituted through comic correctives. The Child is asexual, vulnerable to perversion, and is carefully guarded as a volatile instrument of dominant discourse. Additionally, this construction fails to acknowledge that gays and lesbian can be reproductive. The project calls for a depurification of the child and further emphasis on the child’s inherent sexuality, which is refused in dominant discourse. The child must be demoralized in order to be remoralized.

[29] I cannot write these words without the gorgeous image of my niece, my simplest joy in life, working through me. I am trained to protect her just as she is used to denounce me. Nothing is clean and clear with her face staring back at me on my bulletin board, above my computer. Can I look at her and see a sexual being, an imperfection, something beyond an altar of purity? How do I break the concept of a better future from the perfect little munchkin smiling back at me? I run this through my body and find immediate resistance, and then less resistance. I keep looking into her eyes, her two little teeth, and theFraggle Rockponytail on top of her head. My body settles into an understanding. This is a process. It is slow and will not happen immediately. The notion of future also requires further problematizing, challenging the ways we talk and perceive future through the image of the Child. The Child is not the enemy. It is the linkage of purified child with future that identifies a trained incapacity, wherein the queer project must work to cloud and complicate this equation.

[30] The roots of queerness lie in a future-orientation, a project to explore an undiscovered terrain. The idealistic core of queer theory was a project of the future, a term that has been hijacked by the sacred Child. Does the logic of antipositioning require us to become antifuture and abandon the future-orientation of queerness? Edelman argues that fantasy, in itself, in clustered within the cult of the sacred Child, and should be rejected by the queer position (Edelman 34). Are we looking to defeat the normative or problematize, rearticulate, and extend the normative?

[31] Herein lies the purpose of this paper, a perspective by incongruity. Placing Burke and queer theory together does not result in the queering of Burke, nor the “Burkeing” of queer theory, but an extension and reconstitution of the two. Queerness, although never using Burkean terminology, sought from its inception the potential dismantling and challenging of restrictive orientations. Kenneth Burke and the comic frame are very queer, and they were queer before queer was queer. Seemingly disparate, when placed in direct linkage, one project is greatly informed by the other. At this point I must pause. As the remoralizing linkage of child and sexuality will inevitably be met with resistance, a fight to preserve that which is sacred, a similar response is anticipated with the linkage of queer theory and Burke. These two symbols, rooted in their own constitutions, suggest a differing sacred violation in their pairing. What is lost? What is compromised when we remove the Child from the altar, or when we place a straight, white, male, mistakenly characterized as modernist literary critic next to the queer project? Is this wrong? The question is better suited in asking is this tragic or is this comic?

Tragedy or Comic Reconstitution: Queer Burke?

[32] Queer theory has been strongly criticized for its erasure of race, class, and gender, promoting the interests and needs of white gay male academics. However, Burke’s framework is not limited to one demographic group, but provides social criticism tools to dismantle multiple intersecting tragic binaries, while respecting the limitations of privileging antinormativity. Perspective by incongruity provides a tool that can extend beyond the limitations of previous queer theory. Burke’s research is not developed around the politics of sexuality, but is queer in the broadest sense of the term. It is comic. The question must be asked, does identifying Burke as queer change the queer project? Does queer now lose its foundational roots in the interrogation and dismantling of the homo/hetero binary? Do we place queer theory on an altar? Paralleling Edelman’s Child, we must ask ourselves how tightly we need to hold onto the roots of queer theory and at what cost? Are we limiting the potentiality of queerness by demanding its ties to sexuality? How then can the comic reconstitution of oppressive binaries impacting race, class, and gender take place? Perhaps the grounding in sexuality afforded the very erasure of gender, race, and class by white male academics through the privileging of sexuality above all? At this juncture we each need to decide, for ourselves, the difference between the verb “queer” and the noun “queer.” Can only the queer queer? Are we willing to let queerness transform and be remoralized? Here we run into the obstacle of definition, once again, and it “isn’t up to one person to define” (Sedgwick qtd. in Yep 36).

[33] Queerness does not present an alternative orientation or reality as much as the transformation and extension of existing orientations. The queer project must continue to ask the question “what else is out there” through both fantasy and incongruity, as incongruity and reconstitution open up the potential for fantasies that cannot be anticipated. Butler’s performativity articulates this point, presenting a queer terrain constructed through the reconstitution of existing orientations. Through her work, notions of gender and performance erupt, spewing greater complexities, providing fertile ground for queerness to extend. New doors open. I’ve always thought of relationships as perspective by incongruity. Two people meet, they come together, and they challenge one another’s constitutional positions. The crappy Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts films insist that, either way, something is learned from the experience. I’ll buy that, especially in life where the dialogue isn’t quite so cliché and scripts have the potential of deteriorating before us.

Conclusion: Holding Onto the Question

[34] The existence of self-destruction in gay communities marks the entry point to this theoretical dialogue of Burke and queer theory. The tragic frame provides a theory to understand the cycle of mortification, based on the concept of heteronormative perfection. The trained incapacity of heteronormativity broadens this subject to the larger objectives of queer theory on the whole, offering perspective by incongruity as a useful tool for theorizing and actively engaging in queer practice. Notions of future, the Child, family, and marriage all cluster around heteronormative models that violently sacrifice gays and lesbians externally as well as internally. How might my own negotiation, exploration, and participation in my own future “envision and activate new social relations” (Muñoz 5)? By approaching the verb “queer” as perspective by incongruity, this essay attempts to theorize queerness as a comic corrective of transformative reconstitution. How does this reconstitution inform the queer project? As a final example, gay marriage has often been criticized as an embracement of heteronormativity, at odds with queer positions, and subject to homonormative critique. However, can gay marriage be seen through the lens of perspective by incongruity? Is gay marriage not a fight to reconstitute both terms, challenging what “gay” and “marriage” could mean, and thus be completely in line with the queer project? The extreme efforts to preserve the sanctity of marriage and the fear that gays and lesbians will corrupt the institution indicate that marriage is a site of tragic tension. Marriage, as well as The Child, is a symbolic construction that operates in the service of the heteronormative machine. As tools of oppression, they are both carefully guarded, tied up in indecipherable ways with systems of whiteness, patriarchy, and economics. Burke’s answer is more dialogue and less tragedy. The goal is not heteronormative acceptance of marriage as we currently understand the institution. Normative inclusion is not the objective, nor is it a possibility. This implies that the potential achievement of legalized gay marriage would have no impact, no transformative effect on what marriage is, what marriage means. The meaning of marriage would radically transform, remoralizing the tragedy, and this is why it is so carefully policed, so adamantly protected. The queering of marriage will inevitably rupture, problematize, and dismantle the seemingly fixed concept. Our most violent enemies are correct when they say that allowing gay marriage would alter the institution. This is where gay marriage and straight marriage open the door to queer marriage, whatever that might be. That is comedy.

[35] Perhaps in this essay, the sacredness of queer theory has been challenged. Perhaps Burke has been slightly defiled through this queer encounter. My hope is that they have both been stretched and destabilized slightly. Hopefully I have blurred a sacred boundary a little further in these pages. Perhaps this offers a productive, though seemingly incongruous, perspective. Somewhere between abstract utopia and heteronormative perfection exists whatever my future holds. I can’t claim the ability to get outside of the discourse that haunts me, disciplines me, and turns me against myself in punishment. However, we can queer that discourse, remoralize it, and call it out for what it is (and isn’t), without predicting where this may take us. Through that process, perspective by incongruity, the queer future still remains a question mark of potentiality and possibility. What if?


I would like to thank Dr. Cheree Carlson for her guidance and assistance in crafting this essay. Additionally, I would like to thank Dr. David Foster, Sara McKinnon, Jason Zingsheim, and the editors at GENDERS for offering comments and feedback on previous drafts.

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