Queer theory offers new views on daily life – even on infrastructure projects in Kenya

I’ll confess I’ve raised quite a few eyebrows when I’ve told people about my research linking queer theory and infrastructure development.

I understand the confusion. Queer theory is mainly associated with the study of gender, sexuality and queer lives. Specifically, queer lived experiences and how they are culturally or politically perceived and mediated. And how their struggles for recognition are accommodated or undermined by societies that LGBTIQ+ people live in.

Read more:
Being queer in Africa: the state of LGBTIQ+ rights across the continent

In my recent study, I outline how queer theory could be further explored beyond its established areas of inquiry. As one example of this broader application of queer theory, I focus on infrastructure studies – scholarship that analyses how infrastructure (like ports, railways and communication networks) is essential for understanding people’s lives, practices and identities. This is one of my areas of expertise, as I have written extensively about multiple contradictions of infrastructure development, its social impacts and politics in Kenya.

But in my new study, I show how my reading of queer theory highlights the complexities of people’s lives. This requires letting go of any neat conclusions about who people are and how they engage with the world. This is important because it highlights inherent tensions that exist in any attempt to make sense of the world, such as understanding different impacts and effects of infrastructure development.

Abandoning preconceptions

Since the early 1990s, as a specialised field of knowledge, queer theory has come to have multiple and often competing meanings. One of the central tensions has been the question of identity – how a subject understands her place in a world that is not of her own making.

One lasting critique that radical queer theory has voiced is that the very idea of identity – as something concrete and knowable – is a myth that entrenches socially constituted differences and divisions. That is, as soon as a person describes themselves, or “comes out” as “queer”, they normalise identity as something that is fixed. But “queer” or “straight” are not stable, natural categories.

Instead, they are expressions of specific historical developments of a society. One branch of radical queer thinking highlights that sexuality – its limitations and freedoms – is a result of specific power structures that aim to control different population groups, subordinating them to the state, capital and civil society.

In this sense, radical queer theory approaches identity as not something who we are but as something that happens to us. Identity, therefore, is never a simple thing, even if we think we know who we are.

I highlight this in my study, foregrounding queering as (un)knowing – knowing but not with absolute certainty.

This (un)knowability is a responsibility. Intellectually, it is a responsibility to acknowledge multiple tensions that constitute personal and social lives. Politically, this form of queer thinking is an invitation to engage with each other not in spite of, but because of, the impossibility of fully knowing each other.

This method of radical queerness has taught me to see my research subjects in a way that doesn’t jump to neat conclusions.

It allows me to think about and highlight how people’s lives that are shaped, interrupted and transformed by infrastructure development cannot be understood and narrated through one single story that attempts to explain the many different impacts and effects of infrastructure development.

Conflicting dynamics

My research focuses on the construction of Lamu Port as part of a regional transport corridor supposed to connect Kenya with Ethiopia and South Sudan via railways, highways and oil pipelines. As stories in my research highlight, local fishermen dispossessed by the new port construction struggle to make ends meet.

In this sense, infrastructure can be, and has been, understood as a form of structural and social violence that vulnerable populations are exposed to. And this is an important story to tell. But this is not the only story.

The very same people, in spite of their struggles, at the same time experience these infrastructures as a possibility of a better tomorrow. They hope that they will bring positive transformations – jobs, travel opportunities, political and cultural changes – even if in the present it seems unlikely, or barely possible.

Read more:
Kenya’s Lamu Port was meant to deliver great things. But, as the story of local fishermen shows, it hasn’t

These conflicting dynamics can’t be neatly explained through identity categories that we use to make sense of ourselves and each other. Focusing on “class”, “race” or “gender”, for instance, only tells a story up to a point. But the contradiction remains – infrastructure development is both a kind of violence and an uncertain possibility of a better future.

Neither of these accounts – of struggles and aspirations – is more accurate than the other. Both indicate how people make their lives in a world that cannot be contained within, nor explained through, one coherent narrative. In this sense, there is no conclusive way to reveal the truth of their experience, because different layers of a person’s life intermesh into contradictions that make sense at times but do not at others.

In my study, I outline how radical queer thinking can help make sense of these contradictions, while reminding us to remain humble and accept the inherent limits of knowledge.

Point of celebration

These limits include this article. At the end of the day, it (as any other text) is just one attempt – itself inescapably flawed, limited by my experiences, stained by inherent imperfection of language and words – to present something that cannot be rendered knowable in its entirety.

The point, nevertheless, is not to fear this (un)knowability. Of ourselves and others. Of things that we both want to know and are unable to know. The world and other people always withdraw from our attempts to understand them. It’s precisely the demand of knowing others on our own terms that perpetuates harm.

In this sense, there is a specific politics implied in the avowal of (un)knowability. It ought to be a reminder of our enduring responsibility to protect this (un)knowability – to let others be other. A point of celebration, a sort of pride if you will.

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