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The Disruptive Power of Social Junk

News Story

Women’s and Gender Studies Assistant Professor Jason Whitesel, PhD, talks to us about his recent research regarding the idea of social junk, and its implications for queer studies and queer theory.

“That society values some people more than others goes without saying. Those who are undervalued are kept out of sight, out of mind in the same way junk is kept hidden in our closets,” says Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Jason Whitesel, PhD.

Fresh off the publication of his book Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma, Whitesel was approached by the Norwegian queer cultural publication MELK to write an article regarding a particularly complex subset of sociological theory. The magazine was producing an issue entirely dedicated to the concept of “social junk,” and enlisted Whitesel, Harvard University Professor Michael Bronski, and folk singer Maia Jern to tackle this expansive academic concept.

Junkware, an idea recently popularized by French sociologist Thierry Bardini, defines junk as not just an old McDonald's wrapper or a discarded coffee cup (trash or garbage, as it were), but as a larger social concept. In the academic sense, junk refers to ideas that exist on the fringes, outside of and forgotten by the mainstream.

Says Bardini, “forget about it, and it grows anarchically.”

Says Whitesel, “In the spring, I taught Queer Theory and I had gotten very interested in what it would mean to talk about queer junk. Queer junk would mean something that bears a mark of material deviance.”

Whitesel then began delving into literature to help formulate his arguments. Among the ideas he came across were a book by Indiana University Professor Scott Herring, about hoarders and materialism. Herring charts the rise of modern day hoarders, examining the fine lines of what’s considered clutter, what’s considered threatening "deviance," and the idea of an “acceptable material life”—that anything falling outside of this acceptable definition was subject to ostracism, social exclusion, and possibly pity.

Whitesel realized there were a lot of parallels between this idea and the thoughts he was formulating regarding queer junk.

“I think [Herring], even though he’s writing about hoarders, he’s thinking of hoarders as queer. People that hold onto all of their junk, and then other people are afraid of them.”

In the article, Whitesel expands on this idea more thoroughly, arguing that groups with social and cultural influence often intrinsically administer definitions of what is and what isn’t acceptable behavior within a community, and relegate any socially "deviant" behavior to the fringe.

“Dominant groups attempt to ‘officially administer’ the lives of social junk and queer junk, seeking to contain them,” says Whitesel.

The risk of this, Whitesel argues, is that “sexual and gender minorities, or groups on the erotic fringe,” are ultimately defined as one-dimensional—meaning that any person or idea that falls outside the (somewhat arbitrary) culturally defined party lines is cast off as queer junk.

Whitesel tackles a number of different expansive definitions of junk throughout the article, commenting on fat junk, useful junk, junk as deviance, and gay junk. Regarding the idea of gay junk, Whitesel makes an observation that underscores the reality of junk as it pertains to politics and social causes. He notes that the modern day gay rights movement often discards what the mainstream defines as gay junk in order to attain social and legal progress administered by the dominant group.

Says Whitesel, “The contemporary ‘gay movement’ often prioritizes the desires of its most privileged, largely conformist, members and has succumbed to conservative mainstream politics. At the bottom of the gay heap are those individuals affected by older age, lower class, ‘aberrant’ body type, dis/ability, gender nonconformity, non-monosexuality, non-Westernity, or a ‘less-desirable’ race/ethnicity. These queer subalterns comprise ‘gay junk,’ which poses an ‘impediment’ to the privileged class of homonormative individuals receiving their state-endorsed rights from the dominant group.”

Ultimately, Whitesel concludes by looking at the bright side of this idea of junk—its potential to be reconfigured, and its ability to impact both academic and practical thought. He notes that the very process of asking these questions—what the idea of junk truly means, and its place in society—is the first step toward a fuller acceptance of junk and its mutability, as opposed to completely filtering non-mainstream ideas out of society.

Says Whitesel, “For me a junior scholar and queer writer, junk represents what it means to go out on a limb, to write something indeterminate, to put one’s inchoate ‘stuff’ out there.”