Ask a Scholar: Translating "Queering," "Race-ing," and "Worlding"

Peter Wood

A reader asks:

What do identity hustlers even mean when they use words like "queering," "race-ing," "worlding," etc.? I was reading Wahneema Lubiano, a professor at Duke who became marginally well-known during the Duke lacrosse fiasco, and encountered more nonsense English like that than I have seen in a long time.  

Peter Wood (Ph.D. anthropology) replies:

                Before “queering” came “defamiliarization.”  Queering is easier to say and has the extra advantage of sexual edginess.  Defamiliarization, which has its own Wikipedia entry, goes back to an early 20th century Russian theorist who argued that, for art to succeed, it had to break through the ordinary human complacency.  Art does this by defamiliarizing the familiar.  The technique can be read back into all kinds of art, but under the influence of the theory, various modern artists deliberately set out on a path of radically defamiliarization.  It explains a lot about the modernist movement in painting, music, performance art, etc.   

                Also it set off an arms race of sorts.  No sooner has someone achieved defamiliarization, than the new technique gets copied and familiarized.  When I was a child, women (and only women) wore earrings, and they were held to the ear with little clasps.  Then pierced ears came into fashion.  They were daring and sexy.   But they became familiar.  Then gay men starting wearing pierced earrings.  And you can fill in the rest of the story. To achieve a daring, transgressive quality with a piercing today, you would probably have to impale yourself on a pike.

                Queering is defamiliarization with a “queer theory” component.  Disrupt the straight bourgeois assumptions!   Appropriate a concept (e.g. marriage) and problematize it by applying it to something that doesn’t fit the underlying premises of the original.  “Queering” has become so popular that it is now used in contexts that don’t really have anything to do with gays or sex.   So you can “queer” any concept you want.

                Race-ing, which I’ve seen only a few times, works in a similar way.  I’d define it as taking an idea that does not obviously have a racial component and treating it in a manner that makes race salient.  Roderick Fergusin offers us “Race-ing Homonormativity:  Citizenship, Sociology, and Gay Identity,” in Black Queer Studies:  A Critical Anthology.  And then there is Race-ing Sexuality: Interracial Pornography and Asian American Male Audiences.  And Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power:  Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality

            And the paper that was always waiting to be written on the topic has indeed actually been written—a study of “race-ing racing,” that is critical race theory applied to automobile racing. 

                “Worlding,” however, is new to me, though it appears to have been around for a while.   I found it in the titles of two of Professor Wahneema Lubiano’s talks: 

“Like Being Mugged by a Metaphor, Part III: The Worlding of Political Subjects.” Presentation at “Translating Cultures: The Future of Multiculturalism?” Conference, University of California, Santa Barbara. November 1992.

“Thinking and Agency: The Worlding of AfricanAmerican Studies, or Praxis Makes Perfect,” Keynote Address at the “Theory, AfricanAmerican Studies, and Black Community” Graduate Student Conference, University of Pennsylvania AfroAmerican Studies Program and the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture.   June 1992.

But the search for an explication of the term leads pretty directly into the intellectual badlands. A blogger who writes at “Moria in Excelsis” in February begins an entry on “worlding”:

[…]my thinking is starting to circle more and more about the metaphorics of “world” – what constitutes a world, how a world works (phenomenologically, economically, poetically, representationally, technologically), what it means to live (and write!) in a world, and how a variety of different deployments of different notions of world-ing can be synthesized to understand...

And ends:

... It occurs to me that I don’t care for clarity, here. Clarity is for elsewhere, for the Professional Me gestured to in the last post. Here, no Professional Me (and no Monkey Me, either) to be found. Inchoate Me, alone in her kitchen with her sweet tea and her way-hopped-up-on-theory and her pretty new project.

All but the first ellipses are in the original. Moria’s fragmentary thoughts elicted Leggooo’s enlightening reply: 

For years now I've been thinking of this exact concept of "worlding" and calling it such in my own notes. I have been searching to see if anyone else has used the idea. So far, just about no one outside of world studies and feminist cultural studies, notably at UC Santa Cruz, where the term is used to indicate a radical decentering in discourse . . . yada, yada, yada. Great to find someone thinking about this.

There is also a book titled The Worlding Project edited by Rob Wilson and Christopher Leigh Connery, which confirms that this odd word comes out of the fevered imaginations of people in “cultural studies,” many of whom seem to share Moria’s distaste for “clarity.”   Shu-mei Shih blurbs The Worlding Project by saying, “‘Worlding’ emerges as a form of politics evoking the world Sixties and a critical method beyond prevailing academic fashions, offering a vision for a future that is divergent from neoliberal globalization.”

                I’ll take a stab at this. “Worlding” is an expansion of the notion that people create their own worlds by first imagining them.   The premise of “culture studies” is that everything is culturally constructed, so logically, the world is culturally constructed too. The sense that the world coheres and is understandable is a cultural construction, and rather than attempt to understand “reality” (how naïve!), we should pay attention to the different ways the world can be imagined into being. Doing so is potentially part of a radical critique of Western civilization since the West tends to assume that its imagined world (“neoliberal globalization” in Shu-mei Shih’s eyes) is just plain true and other “worlds” are mistaken. By “worlding,” critiques of Western civilization can help to empower the oppressed by giving voice to their alternative realities. 

                 I’ve just finished reading seven novels by the great science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, whose dark imagination conjured up sub-realities within realities and characters who could never be sure if they inhabited the real world, a dream, or someone else’s hallucination.  “Worlding” sounds like a Philip K. Dick-style debunking of the philosophical concept of an actual universe.  But I don’t know. Perhaps a reader can enlighten us.  

* * * 

Another reader asks:

Dear Ask a Scholar,

What am I supposed to think about Cambridge Scholars Publishing? Some say it is a vanity press.  Others say it's better than that. What is its business model?  What is its reputation?

NAS replies:

We’ve been searching for someone who could speak with authority to these questions for a while. Are any readers familiar with Cambridge Scholars Publishing?

Yet another reader has asked:

In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, is the encounter between Tess and Alec in the forest rape or seduction? Why didn't Hardy tell us one way or another?

NAS replies:

We have a literary scholar who is working on an answer to this. 

 * * * 

What is "Ask a Scholar"?

Once upon a time, scholars were among the best sources of odd bits of knowledge. If you wanted to know which species of bees are native to Newfoundland, how many vice presidential candidates wore glasses, or whether Gilgamesh had a first name, you might well find an answer from a scholar who had a Xerxes-like command of a multitudinous army of facts.

 Alas, Xerxes’ army came to grief and so did the idea of the professor as keeper of the archive of not-quite-lost knowledge. Today we have Google. And within the vast universe of Google, we have the endless corridors of Wikipedia. True, some of those corridors are blind alleys, but with a little patience, you can usually find what you need on the Internet and avoid having to move from your chair or speak to a person. Whether it is the Internet Movie Data Base or North American Bird Sounds, almost every domain of knowledge has its own easily-accessed reference tools. 

As a source of esoteric facts, the role of scholars has eroded. Fortunately, we still have questions that call for confidently rendered and dressed up opinions. “Ask a Scholar” matches readers’ questions to scholars who either have the answers or interesting ways of obscuring their ignorance. We invite readers to submit questions

Questions submitted for consideration should call more for educated judgment than for facts. “In 1492, who sailed the ocean blue?” for example, is a question of limited interest, since biographies of Leif Ericson are widely available, including on Wikipedia. We especially welcome questions that provide professors the occasion to draw erudite distinctions and incorporate mention of matters you had no idea were connected to the topic at hand. 

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