“But you know Terre, you have a problem with everything.” This comment came during the rather awkwardly titled “Charming for the Revolution: A Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness,” at Tate Modern in 2013. Thaemlitz (born in 1968, in Minnesota, currently living in Kawasaki, Japan) had just expressed her misgivings, during the symposium’s Q and A, about the role models (drawn from a mixture of pop music and avant-garde art) deployed in a prominent queer manifesto. Warding off the remark, Thaemlitz, in turn, further detailed her response, and as she has professed elsewhere: “I emphasize the need for strategies of negativity in reaction to this cultural climate of imposed optimism, and the experience of finding myself with incredibly few tools for discussing, let alone acting, otherwise.” Clearly, in this instance, it is not in the form of a queer manifesto or in the realm of queer studies that Thaemlitz recognizes those strategies and tools. For her, “queer” gains its strategic usefulness because it remains a term of homophobic slander.
In keeping with the humanities from which they emerged in the 1980s, queer studies has come to rely, to a large extent, on an underlying faith in “aesthetics” as an exemplary model of civility and education. We often forget, however, that aesthetic education, as conceived by the German playwright Friedrich Schiller, sought first and foremost to neutralize the instinct of revolt, with its potential for class retribution and violence. That model has long served to palliate the potential disturbance of words—to counter, that is, the necessary negative and potentially disruptive impulse of critical thinking or query. A patent example, in the case of queer studies, would be Jack Halberstam’s claim that “failure sometimes offers more creative, cooperative, and surprising ways of being in the world.” As a chosen trope of queerness, failure obviously loses its disruptiveness or negativity when it is endowed with such attributes. In Thaemlitz’s practice, primarily in the realm of sound, notably in her electroacoustic music and “accompanying” critical commentary (the recorded works Lovebomb, 2003, and Soulnessless, 2012, specifically), she irredeemably sounds out the popular phantasms of benevolence and spirituality—“love” and “soul”—for the discord they serve to dissimulate as much as dissipate. Such is the dominance of aesthetics as a model, however, that we often overlook the incongruity or discord in something as simple as a compound noun: “Gender Talents,” or even “Queer Pride.”