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David Seitz’ A House of Prayer for All People is a generous, generative book that is a conceptually sophisticated while accessible read. Seitz engages with some of the most important debates within queer studies of recent decades – debates around complicity, the intersections of sexuality with processes of racialization, the limits of ‘equality’, homonormativity, and proper/ improper queer subjects – and he does so by weaving them through the deeply researched case of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto [MCCT]. The text provides a compelling analysis of the messiness of one particular example of what, following queer theorists like Martin Manalansan, and Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, we might call ‘queer worlding.’
In this book, Seitz beautifully gets at the diffuse nature of power and makes a strong case for the need for constant vigilance and rethinking within queer politics and scholarship. He challenges the notion that there are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ queer objects and easily identifiable queer heroes and victims. Further, he traverses the historical and the contemporary in compelling ways, and weaves together an analysis that impressively crosses scales, taking the reader from the body and the building (of the church) to the nation and the globe in ways that give us a rich evocation of the problematics and promises of the city of Toronto. A House of Prayer for All People is, in short, a useful work of queer auto critique.
I want to use my space here to offer two provocations in the spirit of constructive debate. I focus on two of the core themes that, on my read, animate the text conceptually: queer of colour critique; and subjectless queer critique.
First, Seitz states that the book relies on queer of color critique, and it certainly does as he draws on a range of scholars whose work fits within this body of scholarship. It also, and at least equally, relies heavily on work from outside that tradition, though -- specifically the work of Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, and Melanie Klein. This juxtaposition of different queer intellectual traditions works well, and the text is anchored by powerful and sensitive analyses of interviews with people of color in the MCCT’s congregation. Indeed, the book opens with the story of Martine, a black bisexual congregant, and her discomfort with the ‘welcome home’ sign that hangs behind the church alter. For her, the presumption that the church is a home for all underplays the discomfort that many people of color feel in this white-dominated congregation and she would, instead, prefer to view the church as a perpetually unfinished project. Seitz delves into this discomfort extensively throughout the book, especially in chapter one, which focuses entirely on the affective experiences of people of color congregants. I longed, though, for an equally in-depth discussion of the affective experiences of white congregants as I would have liked to hear more about how their rather different position of comfort is attained and lived. In other words, while A House of Prayer for All People is clearly written in solidarity with queer of color critique, one important mode of solidarity is to interrogate queer whiteness and I would have liked to see more on this.
Second, Seitz advances a ‘subjectless’ queer critique throughout the text. Such a critique holds much potential to widen the remit and reach of queer critique, as many queer theorists have by now argued. For instance, Elizabeth Povinelli (2007) claims that “a certain literalism of the referent hovers over studies of sexuality as long as their proper object is narrowly construed as ‘gay worlds’, ‘lesbian worlds’ or ‘straight worlds’” (p. 575). Refusing to adhere to such constraints, Seitz argues, can yield a ‘capacious’ queer critique that gets beyond the limits of identity politics and the politics of visibility and recognition. This move then gives rise to analyses that capture the myriad ways in which sexuality is imbricated with other axes of difference in an unceasingly productive field of power relations. But while I too want to move beyond queer studies’ literal referent, I think it is important to hold on to some sort of referent for ‘queer’. In a chapter offering a queer reading of refugee claimants’ experiences, Seitz states:
at stake in subjectless queer critique is not simply a more expansive or interesting analytic understanding of queerness. Approaching queerness as figural enables critics and activists to recast our visions, to notice queerness’ heterogeneous proliferation of groundless grounds, precisely in order to nurture a capacious, improper queer citizenship. Taking cues from subjectless queer scholarship helps open up new approaches to LGBTQ migration studies that impishly sidestep questions of identity and practice and trace looser affinities and solidarities that hinge on vulnerability (191).
“Rather, the queerness of the claimant takes groundless ground in the spatial, temporal, and psychic vulnerability that ‘limbo life’ induces” (191).
‘Groundless ground’ makes me nervous, though, for it could move us from a ‘capacious’ queer critique to a ‘free floating’ one. For me, the bond that queer efforts to create solidarities brings to the table is not just vulnerability, but vulnerability tied to heteronormativity. In this section of the book, Seitz follows Judith Butler, stating:
“at issue for ‘improper’ or subjectless queer critique is not merely a more expansive or innovative way of reading or analyzing figurations of difference in social and cultural life but a more capacious, robust, dexterous, contestatory and playful orientation toward the political” (191).
He then notes that this point resonates with Cathy Cohen’s (1997) argument in ‘Punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens: The radical potential of queer politics?’ But Cohen’s analysis argues specifically for a queer politics that deals with the specificities of heteronormativity as a gendered, raced, classed, and sexualized mode of oppression. What if this call had underpinned (or ‘grounded’) Seitz’ analysis here? How would it look different?
Again, I offer these thoughts in the spirit of constructive conversation, and I look forward to the author’s response. A House of Prayer for All People provides a rich account of subjectivity, racialization, queerness, and religion that will surely help enliven debates within queer geographies and beyond.