[What hath Lady Gaga to do with Ingeld? To answer Alcuin's age old question ... and to pose a series of even more interesting queeries about gender, identity and temporality -- we offer you a special treat: an invigorating guest post from longtime ITM friend MOR. Enjoy! -- JJC]
Cycles of Salience
Valerie Traub has in an important recent article, “The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography”, attempted to “think through some of the larger methodological issues that currently face the field of lesbian history.”[i] She argues that “the future of this field depends on reconceptualizing some of the issues that have thus far informed our construction of the past” (124). Her essay is motivated by what she describes as the need to mediate between two differing approaches to the construction of the past, which she terms continuist and alteritist. She explains the two divergent historical methods in the following fashion: “scholars whose historical accounts take a continuist form have tended to emphasize a similarity between past and present concepts of sexual understanding; those who instead highlight historical difference or alterity (as it is termed by literary scholars) have tended to emphasize problems of anachronism, changing terminologies and typologies, and resistance to teleology” (124). Traub is convinced that both the continuist and alteritist positions have “outlived” their “utility” (124). In their place, and the same set of arguments could be used to talk about the essentialist/constructivist and acts versus identities debates, Traub suggests we look for what she calls “cycles of salience”. She explains that what she calls “the present future of lesbian historiography-by which I mean those methods that might enable us to imagine a future historicist practice—necessitates analyzing recurring patterns in the identification, social statuses, behaviours, and meanings of women who erotically desired other women across large spans of time”(125). “Doing so” she believes “could result in a new methodological paradigm for lesbian history” (125).
A newly re-tuned tele-historical Lesbian Studies would take up precisely this methodological challenge as laid down by Traub[ii]. This reinvigorated Lesbian Studies would be alert to questions of historicity, temporality and the variegated methods which queer theory draws on to reshape the ways we do history, the history of sexuality in particular, without of course completely displacing the twin traps of transhistoricism and constructivism and by appealing to Traub’s notion of “recurrent explanatory logics” (126). If the continuist method insists that the lesbian is a transhistorical category and the alteritist method avows that the lesbian doesn’t carry the same meanings (since lesbian as a category didn’t exist as a possibility prior to its historical invention), then a tele-historical lesbian historiography would follow Traub in refusing to privilege the twin emphases on naming and identity. This cross-temporal lesbian studies, which crosses and blurs temporal boundaries and is both backward gazing and forward gazing , creates a mutually transformational conversation between historicized lesbian/Sapphic histories and under (or even un-) historicized presentist, postmodern lesbian studies and this concerted attempt to straddle temporal periods will ensure the “curious persistence”[iii] of lesbian studies into the future as well as its curious persistence into the past, or what Traub, in an incredibly useful formulation, calls the “the present future of lesbian historiography”. This cross-temporal approach would re-draw the lines we work with, problematizing notions of linear history and discrete historical periods or epochs, and complicating the dating of the so-called invention of homosexuality, the most tenacious example of which has been the suggestion made by Michel Foucault that the birth of the homosexual occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Bringing sapphism and lesbianism into productive conjunction highlights the ways in which lesbian history is discontinuous, heterogeneous and plural, how lesbian temporalities are non-sequential and multiple, and how bringing modern critical modes to bear on the past, surfaces issues around identity, naming, subjectivity, sexuality, representation, friendship, ethics, and politics, to name just a few. The mission statement for the inaugural issue of the journal postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies[iv] is worth paraphrasing (where the editors, Eileen Joy and Craig Dionne talk about the post/human I substitute the lesbian) since the aim of this crucially important and socially interventionist new publication is to examine “possible productive intersections (of any type) between studies in earlier historical periods and ongoing discourses” on the lesbian and contemporary discourses on the lesbian, to think about “how certain aspects and discourses of premodern historical periods might problematize the assumptions” of a lesbian studies that “considers itself to be either thoroughly modern or somehow outside of a ‘deeper’ history”, and, finally, to excavate the “ways in which the history and culture of premodernity might help us to address and perhaps begin to adjudicate some of the troubling questions raised by contemporary discourses on” the lesbian[v]. We might say then, that a postmedieval tele-lesbian historiography participates in a lesbian studies which is both before and after The Lesbian Postmodern, the title of Laura Doan’s important 1994 collection, which set out to “test the limits (of epistemology, of identity, of subjectivity, of disciplinarity) and problematize and undermine polarities (such as political efficacy and theoretical formulation, or essentialism and constructivism, or modernism and postmodernism [I would add premodernism], or margin and center [I would add canonical and non-canonical]”[vi].
Traub hypothesizes, as we have already glimpsed, that the “recurrent explanatory logics” she conceptualizes “seem to underlie the organization, and reorganization of women’s erotic life” (126). She goes on to say this: “sometimes these preoccupations arise as repeated expressions of identical concerns; sometimes they emerge under an altered guise. As endemic features of erotic discourse, these logics and definitions, as well as the ideological faultlines they subtend, not only contribute to the existence of historically specific figures and typologies, but also ensures correspondences across time” (126, my emphasis). As I re-read Traub’s essay (and it repays multiple readings so rich and thought-provoking are its hypotheses and suggested rubrics) the word faultlines (one we associate with the work of Alan Sinfield[vii]) pressed itself upon me and I wondered if we might learn from another great theorist of faults on the line, not Avital Ronell[viii], but Lady Gaga, about the configurations of female-female desire, past and present.
Gaga on the Line
Lady Gaga is someone we might not think of as out of place in the pages of Traub’s essay which tentatively proposes the tribade (Gaga is widely rumoured to possess a penis), the invert (Gaga’s bodily morphology and gender inversion are a constant source of speculation) and the romantic friend (Gaga’s videos with Beyoncé consistently make intertextual reference to earlier models of romantic friendship, most notably Thelma and Louise as they ride off in their “pussy wagon”) as “transhistorical figures of lesbian history” (132). Traub is at pains to point out that the explanatory “meta-logics” (133) she proposes don’t all focus as “axes of social definition” but may provide points of “access to them, as well as a better understanding of the moments they accrue social significance” (133), and reading her list of “substantive themes” alongside Gaga’s video for Telephone (Interscope Records, 2010)[ix] provides several lines of communication between Traub’s historical methodology and Gaga’s epic narrative.
Traub’s long list includes “the relationship between erotic acts and erotic identities (Gaga’s video contains a passionate kiss between Gaga and a butch lesbian); the quest for causes of erotic desire in the physical body” (Gaga’s penis or lack of a penis is a source of fascination for the guards in the semi-nude female prison “for bitches” in which she is incarcerated); the status accorded to the genitals in defining sexual acts (this status intersects with technicity in the video since the telephone functions as a prosthetic penis or lesbian phallus)[x]; the relationships of love, intimacy and friendship to eroticism, including the defensive separation of sex from friendship (while Gaga and Beyoncé never explicitly have sex the relationship between Gaga and her “honey bee” is clearly coded as a romantic friendship); the fine line between virtue and transgression, orderly and disorderly homoeroticism; the relationship of eroticism to gender deviance and conformity (Gaga’s female homoeroticism is clearly disorderly, perhaps explaining why she is imprisoned at the beginning of the video); the symbolic and social functions of gendered clothing (Gaga’s fishnet tights play an important role as we shall see shortly, but the other frontal crotch shots tell a different story about her bodily morphology); the relevance of age, class/status, and ethnic/racial hierarchies to erotic relations (Gaga’s bad romance with Beyoncé is an inter-racial one); the relationship of homoeroticism to homosociality (the prison dance sequences and the kiss in the yard are clear instances, to more than paraphrase Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, of the potential crossing of the line which should remain unbroken between homoeroticism and homosociality); the role of gender-segregated spaces, including ... criminal ... institutions (the prison is of course a space we more readily associate with male homoeroticism). And the list could go on.
Eh, Eh (Everything Left To Say)[xi]
But, perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Gaga about lesbian historical methodologies is that we ought not to get ourselves so hung up on issues and questions of naming, identity, or acts[xii]. In a particularly salient scene near the beginning of the video two scantily clad female guards escort Gaga to her cell. Once inside they strip her of her prison clothes so that she is left wearing only a pair of fishnet tights. She turns to face the camera and where we expect to see a penis or a vagina all we get to see is a blurred frontal crotch-shot. What this teaches us is that we need to stop calling up, or only calling up, figures like the tribade (with her enlarged clitoris) when we are looking for lesbians in the past; and we need to stop looking, or only looking for genital acts and/or phallic substitutes (dildos or other mechanical devices) as proof in our lesbian cryptological projects[xiii]. What Gaga shows us is that the lines between homosociality, friendship, genitality and eroticism, continually cross and tangle. And what Traub also demonstrates is that approaches and temporal lines continually cut across one another, so many heres, nows, thens. Traub echoes Beyoncé’s stuttering “eh ... eh ... eh...” by advocating a “proliferating and contestatory syntax of ‘and, but, and, but’” (138). Her wonderfully inspiring conclusion is worth reiterating at length since it describes what a re-charted lesbian historiography ought to try to do:
It is, admittedly, difficult to imagine how such a multifaceted dialogue might happen or take place. Given the highly periodized institutional conditions within which we pursue our scholarly work, and given, as well, the mandate to examine such an enormous temporal and spatial expanse, its creation clearly is not the task of any one scholar. Such a complex act of creation would require a collective conversation, or rather, many conversations imbued with multiple voices, each of them engaged in a proliferating and contestatory syntax of ‘and, but, and, but’. This collaboration, born of a common purpose, would not erase friction, but embrace it and use it. I imagine such voices and the histories they articulate coming together and falling apart, like the fractured images of a rotating kaleidoscope: mimetic and repetitive, but undergoing transformation as each aspect reverberates off others. Such a kaleidoscopic vision of historiography is, no doubt, a utopian dream. But like all dreams, it gestures toward a horizon of possibility, provocatively tilting our angle of vision and providing us with new questions and, perhaps, new ways of answering them” (138).
Gaga’s video ends on a similarly utopic note, a “feeling of forward-dawning futurity”[xiv]with Beyoncé and her driving off toward an imagined horizon of possibility in their “pussy wagon”, as the words “to be continued” blaze across the screen. Tele-lesbian studies doesn’t offer any definitive answers to methodological questions, but rather stages multiple dialogues, collect(ive) calls “imbued with multiple voices”, and a “kaleidoscopic vision” of lesbian historiography. We might, in a more expansive mode, with Lady Gaga, call this new “angle of vision”, this set of conversations, a tele-historicism, one whose call we cannot refuse[xv].
Michael O’Rourke, June 2010.
*This essay has benefitted from multiple conversations with Karin Sellberg, Helen Butcher, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Anna Klosowska, and Eileen Joy about anachronicity, historicism and poly/inter-temporalities and, of course, Lady Gaga. I continue to benefit from their friendship, love and inspiration and I am especially grateful to Jeffrey for allowing me to publish it here at ITM.
[i] “The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography” in George Haggerty and Molly McGarry, eds., A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Studies, Blackwell, 2007, p. 124.
[ii] Two recent books, published in the Queer Interventions series, founded by Noreen Giffney and Michael O’Rourke, do take up this challenge. Queer Movie Medievalisms (edited by Kathleen Coyne Kelly and Tison Pugh, 2009) and Queer Renaissance Historiography: Backward Gaze (edited by Vin Nardizzi, Will Stockton and Stephen Guy-Bray, 2009), each focus on a particular historical period, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance respectively, but bring presentist modes of theoretical enquiry to bear on those earlier moments.
The rationale for and current titles in the series can be accessed here.
[iii] Linda Garber, “The Curious Persistence of Lesbian Studies”, The Ashgate Research Companion to Queer Theory, edited by Noreen Giffney and Michael O’Rourke, 2009, 65-77.
[v] Eileen Joy and Craig Dionne, “Before the Trains of Thought have Been Laid Down So Firmly: The Premodern Post/Human”, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, 1-2, 2010, p. 6.
[vi] Laura Doan, “Preface” in The Lesbian Postmodern, 1994, p.x). The publication of The Lesbian Premodern: a Historical and Literary Dialogue, edited by Noreen Giffney, Michelle Sauer and Diane Watt, forthcoming in the New Middle Ages series, is eagerly anticipated.
[vii] Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading, University of California Press, 1992. See my re-appraisal of Sinfield’s work here at In the Middle: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2009/11/unfinished-business-sinfield-of-early.html
[viii] Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
[x] See both “You Cannot Gaga Gaga” by Judith “Jack” Halberstam, Bully Bloggers, March 17, 2010, http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2010/03/17/you-cannot-gaga-gaga-by-jack-halberstam/, and “Lady Gaga’s Lesbian Phallus” by Tavia Nyong’o , Bully Bloggers, March 16, 2010, http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2010/03/16/lady-gagas-lesbian-phallus-2/). For a comprehensive list of articles associated with the nascent field of “Gaga Studies” see Steven Shaviro’s workblog: http://steveshaviro.tumblr.com/post/549537867
[xii] This short article is heavily indebted to Julian Yates’ brilliant essay “It’s (for) you; or, the tele-t/r/opical post-human” in the inaugural issue of postmedieval, 223-224.
[xiii] This is a reference to Anna Klosowska’s wonderful Queer Love in the Middle Ages, Palgrave, 2005. See my enraptured review of it at In The Middle: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2007/02/loving-new-middle-ages.html
[xiv] José Esteban Munoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 2009, p.7). This text has also inspired Jeffrey Jerome Cohen:
[xv] While this brief essay has focused on female-female desire, we might hope, with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, that a generously imagined tele-historicism would “admirably bring together male-male and female-female eroticism in ways that mutually illuminate”. See http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2010/06/diane-watt-why-men-still-arent-enough.html