Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele Icon Books 2016
I’m sure that like many a humanities undergraduate out there, I have had my academic bacon saved more than once by the Icon series on contemporary thought. Their pithy illustrated guides on topics and figures as wide ranging as Wagner, Jesus and Lacan, often provided an accessible doorway into some otherwise tricky territory. Histories were condensed and made vivid, and previously mind-bending theories were made moderately less so.
It was perhaps not surprising then that when I caught wind that one of my favourite authors Meg-John Barker was co-authoring an Icon book on Queer theory with illustrator and zine-smith Julia Scheele, I was more than a tad excited. I have already penned some reviews of Meg-John’s recent books on Relationships and contemporary mindfulness practice:
and I find their level of both openness and insight deeply helpful and inspiring.
Writing about Queer theory was never going to be a simple task! Not only does it touch upon some highly complex philosophical ideas and movements, it’s very existence as a concept is reliant upon fluidity and a desire to defy concrete definition. (I recently wrote something about these ideas here, looking at the way in which Queer theory might inform magical practice, and there are considerable overlaps in relation to the subtlety, fuzziness and process dependent sensitivity that both seem to thrive on.)
In the course of the book the authors deftly distill some of the primary concepts of Queer theory as follows:
“Resisting the categorization of people
Challenging the idea of essential identities
Questioning binaries like gay/straight, male/female
Demonstrating how things are contextual, based on geography, history, culture etc.
Examining the power relations underlying certain understandings, categories, identities, etc.”
Meg-John and Julia then spend time exploring what the implications of such ideas might be for topics as diverse as identity politics, contemporary sexology and the shape that relationships and concepts of family might take.
I’d imagine that writing a book like this might be a bit of a challenge: “How do I make it pacey enough to be engaging and yet detailed enough to capture the complexity of what we are trying to describe?” Frankly I think that the authors have done a great job. Partly this is due to it being a big comic book that Julia has done a great job in illuminating. Visually Queer is great to look at capturing great portraits, humour, sensuality and struggle.
Conceptually it touches on historical forebears (such as the existentialists) and engages heroically with much of the complex postmodern philosophy that has birthed much of the Queer revolution. The sections dealing with the ideas of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler are especially vivid and helpful, primarily as I have tended to find their work pretty heavy going.
Given that Queer theory seeks to explore the reality of what we do rather than being fixated on fixed identities, it is of little surprise that the authors spend much of this work exploring the ways in which Queer theory has shaped activism on both the societal and personal stages. Meg-John especially is noted for their excellence in taking complex ideas and challenging us to think about what this means now: how will this promote compassion and a willingness to hear the subtlety of our unique stories?
One of the things that I love about this book is the way in which Meg-John keeps popping up as an illustrated character within the text. Engagement with Queer theory and activism is something that they are deeply involved in, and their presence in the text, dialoguing with us, seems to embody something of the open process that the authors are inviting us to.
Curious readers might wonder why I was so keen to review this book on a blog about Magic. Apart from wanting to bump up a friend’s book sales, Queer identity is not only vital to me on a personal level, but it also profoundly shapes the way that us Baphomet folks practise our chosen spiritual path. As creative ritual explorers, our magical practice is highly relational (we enjoy working with others), context dependent and focused more on process than some imagined endgame. In short, ours is a profoundly Queer Magic and dynamic works like Queer provide great fuel for this journey.