MOR was kind enough to forward this book review to me. Because it touches subjects we've discussed in the past at ITM, I thought I'd share. The review appears in the spring edition of Sixteenth Century Journal 40.1 (2009): 264-266. [JJC]
Unfinished Business: The (Sin)field of Early Modern Queer StudiesMichael O’Rourke, Dublin.
Queer Studies, both (post)modern and early modern (however problematic those temporal designations and divisions may be) has been turning its attention more and more to questions of temporality, historicity and futurity in recent times. One book in particular, Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), has sparked a debate which has divided many who work in queer studies (across all periods) into two radically opposed camps. For convenience, we could designate those who have an affirmative faith in the future as the queer optimists and those (following Edelman) who eschew, indeed say ‘fuck you’ to, the future as queer anti-socialists. The problematic as a whole has been dubbed the ‘anti-social thesis’ but might more productively be called the ‘anti-political thesis’ for what matters (and I’m activating all senses of materiality and materialization here) most in this dereliction (or cleaving to) the future is nothing less than the politicality of politics itself. Before posing an alternative (from an early modern queer theorist) to this aggressively negative turn in queer studies it is worth very briefly rehearsing Edelman’s argument. No Future asserts in coruscating prose that queers ought to reject the coercive and inescapable logic of ‘reproductive futurism’, by which he means that the cult of the Child becomes ‘the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention’. The queer, as opposed to the Child who is on the side of life, falls on the side of death, sterility, non-reproductivity. Edelman argues that queers should reject this political logic which privileges the Child as guarantor of a better future (the child Annie is symptomatic here) and embrace a kind of political futility. Queerness for Edelman can only ever disturb or disillusion identity and figures ‘the place of the social order’s death drive’. This position outside of social and political viability is one which queers are urged to positively embrace, to accept this socially unviable position by saying a ‘constant no’, by refusing ‘the coercive belief in the value of futurity’.
This anti- or non-politics has proved tenacious for queer studies and also been widely ‘embraced’ and ‘accepted’ by many in early modern queer studies (Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon’s work for example) who stubbornly refuse the ‘the insistence of hope itself as affirmation’. Of course, this sense of the queer being associated with death has been there since the very beginning, most notably in the work of Leo Bersani and Jonathan Dollimore and the fact that Edelman has recently been writing about Shakespeare is sure to further insinuate this political negativity into the field.
One viable alternative to this trend is to reinvigorate the ethical and political project of cultural materialism which is most associated with Dollimore and with the founder of the field Alan Sinfield, who has recently argued that cultural materialism has much ‘unfinished business’ left to do. Before moving to the arguments outlined in his book Shakespeare, Authority, Sexuality: Unfinished Business in Cultural Materialism (2006) it is worth considering Sinfield’s own response to both Edelman’s book and to the broader anti-social turn in queer studies. In a Radical Philosophy review wittily titled ‘Am I bovver’d? Do I look bovver’d?’ (in which Sinfield is mimicking the English comedienne Catherine Tate) he worries over both the wholesale rejection of the Child and the desertion of the future and political goals: ‘Some queer readers[ that reading is at stake here is what I will go on to demonstrate is of the utmost importance] may suppose, nonetheless, that there is a place for us with children and the future. Lesbians, gay men and bisexuals may bear offspring and take part in the rearing of them; they may contribute distinctively’. This, Sinfield avers may be ‘an end in itself’. He goes on to say that ‘The future, meanwhile, though it must include cross-gender coupling, may be focused on other goals too, such as the development of freedom, equality, and justice; we might add artistic accomplishment and the scientific study of nature. Such aspirations may be equally experienced as good in themselves; many people are prepared to die for them. But to Edelman, such negotiations are futile; they buy into heteronormative ideology’. Sinfield is most troubled by what he sees as a ‘reassertion of a defiant anti-assimilationism, rendered ineluctable through an attempted embrace of the so-called death drive’. But in a counter-move Sinfield suggests that we ‘might turn the argument around, however: perhaps reproductive futurism is capturing and abusing other political aspirations and they should be reasserted’. This contortion of Edelman’s argument, finding its fault line and twisting it away from negative refusal toward an aspirational politics contains all the symptoms of classic Sinfieldian argumentation. Sinfield’s queer readings have always been dissident readings and they share with Edelman an oppositional stance to the status quo, to the hegemonic. But Sinfield’s cultural politics are determined to question that status quo (to question ‘agency and the dominant ideology; author; reader; interventions; and gender and sexuality’) and to intervene so that things might get better.
Above all Sinfield is a hopeful theorist. In Shakespeare, Authority, Sexuality he calls this dissident reading practice ‘reading against the grain’. Drawing most obviously on Foucault, Barthes and Macherey (but also on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick) Sinfield describes this resistant reading practice as breaking with ‘the dominant, affirmative habit of literary criticism’ by engaging in ‘strenuous readings’. Cultural materialist critique, reading against the grain of the text, shares with Edelman’s anti-heteronormaive approach a concern to expose the affirmative habit and a provocation to thought. This differs from Sedgwick’s queer reading practice which Sinfield interrogates here, for Sedgwick ‘resists heteronormative assumptions by refusing marginalization’. Steering a course between Edelman and Sedgwick, Sinfield posits that it is a ‘mistake to regard the grain as a property of the text, for in practice, what Macherey calls the intended meaning is very often the meaning that is consecrated in the hegemonic critical tradition, which has claimed the text for its ideology’. However, despite his de-emphasizing affirmativity what Sinfield is really engaged in here is what Sedgwick has called ‘reparative reading’ a non-paranoid, non-gloomy reading practice anxious to foment a better future. This model for reparative reading resonates with what Sinfield performs in his review of No Future and provides the tools for what he calls a ‘good, gay reading’ and we might call reiterative reading. Such a queer reading practice would question Edelman’s ‘alternative or oppositional reading’ which works through its ‘tone of self-conscious refusal’. But Sinfield also cautions that the aim is not to ‘replace one reading with another, but to expose the conditions of reading. The aim is to dislocate and disturb, laying bare the implicit ideological assumptions of established practices’. Both Edelman and Sinfield can agree that queerness and queer reading are disturbing and perturbing forces. However, Edelman’s reading practice is closed to the future while Sinfield’s is perpetually open to it. Far from embracing or blindly accepting anti-sociality Sinfield prompts a ‘critique of patriarchy—its display of oppressiveness and its inability to accommodate a range of human relations—and explores the scope for dissident interpersonal intensities’. That the work of cultural materialism is ‘unfinished’ means that the revivification of cultural materialist criticism is urgent and timely, but that the project is an open one. And at this point it is worth recalling that queer studies was influentially shaped in the 1990s by early modern theorists such as Jonathan Goldberg, Carla Freccero, Carolyn Dinshaw, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stephen Orgel, Jonathan Dollimore, and of course, Sinfield. In the recent writing on temporality the queering of history has paid a great deal of attention to the past and the equally contested present but there has been a dangerous and unethical swerve away from the future. What we can learn from Sinfield’s work past and present is that we need to do justice to the past but also remain open to the unimaginable future. No less than a more equitable, just and democratic future is at stake in such careful, strenuous, and pressured readings. And Sinfield’s ‘unfinished business’ is something early modern queer theorists should be ‘bothered’ about. To paraphrase Slavoj Zizek, the legacy of cultural materialism is very much worth fighting for.