Although queer theory in recent years has made a “materialist turn” from questions of language and performativity to those of precarity and differentially distributed life chances, materialist queer theory finds itself constantly reabsorbed into the liberal project of diversity management. Contending that this theoretical and political weakness stems from an incomplete understanding of capitalism’s contemporary transformations, of which China has been at the center, Liu shows that 1990—the year commonly regarded as the annus mirabilis of queer theory—coincided with the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the beginnings of neoliberalism in China, and the acceleration of US capital’s relocation to “the factory of the world” in search of cheaper and more docile labor. As the prolonged period of stagflation and decline in the rate of capitalist profit in the US induced a flexible mode of accumulation, these developments led to the financialization of China’s agrarian hinterlands, the creation of a novel hegemony and South-South Cooperation programs, the privatization of socialist institutions, and, significantly, new classes of gender and sexuality. Casting China in the age of the Beijing Consensus as both the economic beneficiary of late capitalism and a breeding ground for new crises, Liu offers a new history of collective struggles that are at once queer and labor-based. Through the analysis of how relations of gender and sexuality have been reconfigured or “subsumed” to meet the needs of capital in new regimes of accumulation and dispossession, The Specter of Materialism develops a new framework for understanding the nexus between queerness and material life.
Petrus Liu is Associate Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Boston University, where he teaches transnational queer theory, Marxist cultural criticism, and the literatures and digital media of Cold War cultures. He is the author of Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature and Postcolonial History (Cornell, 2012) and Queer Marxism in Two Chinas (Duke 2015), winner of the Alan Bray Memorial Book Award Honorable Mention and a 2015 Lambda Literary Award Finalist. He is also the coeditor of “Beyond the Strai(gh)ts: Transnationalism and Queer Chinese Politics,” a special issue of the journal positions. Currently a Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Petrus Liu is completing his third monograph on the nexus between queer theory, Marxism, and China’s postsocialist political economy.