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‘The Feeling of Kinship’ by David L. Eng

‘The Feeling of Kinship’ by David L. Eng

Author: Laura Heston

October 11, 2010

On September 22, 2010, a Florida appeals court ruled the state’s thirty-three-year-old ban on adoptions by gays and lesbians unconstitutional.

This ruling, along with legalized gay marriage in a fluctuating number of states and the 2006 Lawrence v. Texas decision overturning state laws against sodomy, is part of a movement toward what David L. Eng dubs “queer liberalism” in American culture and politics.

Lisa Duggan highlighted a conservative politics of neoliberal individualism in contemporary LGBT organizing when she coined the term “homonormativity” in her 2003 book, The Twilight of Equality? More recently, Jasbir Puar (2009) has expanded this idea with her phrase “homonationalism,” positing that the more rights and recognitions queerly-identified individuals gain, the greater their investment in both American moral exceptionalism and empire building.

Eng, a long-time contributor to queer theory, psychoanalysis, and Asian American studies literatures, intervenes in this burgeoning new field of queer theory in his latest collection of linked essays.

The Feeling of Kinship covers a lot of previously unexplored territory. While others have highlighted the costs of a politics based on “but, we’re just like you,” namely, that this benefits only the most privileged of queerly-identified people: the white, cisgendered, and middle-classed; Eng throws the hidden discourse of race into the light.

Remember the November 16, 2008 cover of The Advocate proclaiming, “Gay is the New Black”?  Eng pushes us to consider how this civil rights-based analogy both makes racial inequality an artifact of history and renders queers of color invisible—one must either be gay or Black.

To illustrate this point, Eng forces us to reconsider the Lawrence v. Texas case and how an interracial one-night stand became a key point in the gay liberation narrative, or as some would put it, “our Brown.”  Eng sullies the picture of this gay fairy tale when he speculates on how the case was brought to trial in the first place.

“People do not call the police when their neighbors are in flagrante dilicto.  They do, however, call them when they see an unidentified black man on their property, and under such circumstances, the police always respond.” (36)

Eng argues throughout the book that, in a colorblind society, race only ever appears as disappearing. We’d like to think it doesn’t matter, but of course it always does and in a way we can’t seem to articulate.

The book’s subtitle, Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy, reflects Eng’s view that the legalized nuclear family form to which pro-gay marriage activists aspire is a racially-privileged form of intimacy. Eng connects the historical possibility of white, middle-class domesticity with the disenfranchisement of Native, African, and Asian Americans.

While the first half of Eng’s book focuses on queer liberalism with the important intervention of critical race studies, the second half argues for the importance of affect for reimagining kinship forms. Eng uses a psychoanalytic case study of a Korean adoptee and an analysis of the documentary First Person Plural (Borshay Liem, 2000), to suggest that the privileged “Oedipal family,” to which Americans are encouraged to assimilate, does harm to transnational (and, presumably, all) adoptees who cannot imagine the possibility of two “good-enough mothers.”

Eng argues that this model blocks transracial adoptees from psychic racial reparation.  But, does this mean a family with same-sex parents should be thought of as “Oedipal” or as subversively non-Oedipal? Are two mothers never “good enough”? Eng is unclear on this point.

I am concerned with Eng’s implied link between specifically queer liberalism (as opposed to neo-liberalism generally) and the psychic difficulty of racial reparation. He discusses queer liberalism and transnational adoption but without direct commentary on gay and lesbian adoption itself, leaving the reader to only guess at the connection. I would have liked to see more of a dialogue with Kath Weston’s (1991) concept of “chosen families,” and maybe a closer look at the strawman of contemporary, gay sell-out activism.

We must resist both idealizing mythic queer kinship forms as a solution to Oedipal malaise and homogenizing queer politics, contemporary or otherwise.

The Feeling of Kinship traverses a lot of intellectual ground. Overall, the book feels like a queer theory cave-diving exploration beginning with the surface of legal discourse and going deeper and deeper into psychic life. The trip was both exciting and unnerving, but I could not imagine a better guide than David L. Eng.


Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy
By David L. Eng
Duke University Press
ISBN: 9780822347323
Paper, $23.95, 251p

Laura Heston photo

About: Laura Heston

Laura V. Heston is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her dissertation research centers on issues of homonormativity, adoption, and the commercialization of intimacy.

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