An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


Queer’s a queer word.

The entry of the word ’queer’ into the English language is itself

a study in the queer ways of words. Chambers Dictionary defines the adjective as follows: ’odd, singular, quaint: open to suspicion: counterfeit: slightly mad: having a sensation of coming sickness: sick, ill (dialect): homosexual (slang)’. What’s queer about this synonymatic definition is the way in which it includes three apparently unrelated senses for the ’same’ word — clustering around ideas of strangeness, sickness and homosexuality. One question immediately arises: how do you get from ’queer’ as ’singular’ or ’quaint’ or ’slightly mad’ or ’ill’ to ’queer’ as ’homosexual’? While the answer may to some seem to be self-evident, the process is worth examining in greater detail. The Oxford English Dictionary shows the slippage from one sense to the other in action: its extensive historical account of the word reveals that in fact there was a delay of more than four hundred years between the introduction of the ’odd’ or ’singular’ sense of the word into English and the introduction of its ’homosexual’ sense. The first entry for ’queer’ in the online OED comes from the early sixteenth century (Dunbar’s ’Heir cumis our awin queir clerk’, from 1513 (adj.1, 1a)), while the first entry for the word in its homosexual sense is from a famous letter to Oscar Wilde from the Marquess of Queensbury, outraged at his son’s queer relationship with the queer writer, in 1894 (’queer’, n.2, 2). The second print edition of the OED (1989) has a slightly later date for the word’s first use in this sense: the straight (but also rather queer) language of a 1922 report by the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Labor (The Practical Value of the Scientific Study of Juvenile Delinquents), refers to the idea that a ’young man, easily ascertainable to be unusually fine in other characteristics, is probably “queer” in sex tendency’ (OED (1989) ’queer’ a.1, b). This early use of the word in an official document is intriguing for a number of reasons. It makes stereotypical assumptions about certain ’characteristics’, it expresses the idea that queerness is written on the body and implicitly identifies it with delinquency or illness. But it also holds the word at arm’s length — with so-called ’scare-quotes’ — as if the term is not fully accepted or acceptable, or as if the word is still in process, moving from a sense of oddness to a (related) sense of homosexuality. Homosexuality is ’queer’, then, because of the perceived queerness of queers, their difference from ’us’ (scientists, US Department of Labor officials, sociologists, and so on): queers are a category apart, a self-defining and identifiable group determined precisely by the queer difference of its members from the regime of the normal — from what Adrienne Rich, the contemporary lesbian poet and critic, calls ’compulsory heterosexuality’ (Rich 1986).

But the story of ’queer’ is not over yet. For the next 70 years or so, ’queer’ gained currency in the English language in the United States and elsewhere as (usually) a derogatory term for (usually male) homosexual; it was combined with ’coot’ to form the dismissive phrase ’queer as a coot’ (from 1949, according to the OED); and, in the 1960s and 1970s, was combined with ’bashing’ to denote (and thereby appear to sanction) verbal and physical violence against those who were, or who were perceived to be, homosexual (from 1970, according to the OED). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, partly in response to the spread of AIDS among gay men, the word took a queer turn: homosexuals themselves began to ’reclaim’ the word, to use it in place of the gender-specific and arguably effete term ’gay’ or the clinical and cheerless ’homosexual’ or the polite and even mythological-sounding ’lesbian’. ’Queer’ becomes a term of pride and celebratory self-assertion, of difference affirmed and affirmative difference. The very reason for the use of ’queer’ to denote homosexuality in the first place — the sense that homosexuality is associated with singularity and difference — is also inherited in this act of linguistic reappropriation, but the values afforded such strangeness are reversed. The fact that queers are different from ’straight’ people (from 1941, according to the OED) is seen as a source of power and pride — and ’straight’ now becomes a term with potentially negative connotations (conventional, dull, unadventurous). ’Queer’ also has the advantage of being an inclusive term which gains in prestige and power just in so much as it shakes up our codes and codings of male and female, or masculinity and femininity, or bi-, hetero- and homo-. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick comments, ’queer’ can refer to ’the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically’ (Sedgwick 1994, 8). Essentially, then, ’queer’ challenges all gender and sexual essentialisms.

In homage to this brilliant queering of ’queer’, its (re)appropriation as a device for the social and political empowerment of certain more or less defined, more or less discrete, more or less oppressed sexual identities, and linking up with our comments elsewhere on the association of literary texts with the uncanny or the strange, we would like to suggest that literature is itself a little (and sometimes more than a little) queer. By this we mean two things. First, we want to suggest that there is an eminent tradition of queer writing in English, writing by men and women who are more or less permanently, more or less openly, more or less explicitly, queer and writing about queerness. For reasons that will become clear, this tradition is all but invisible before the late nineteenth century, although it arguably includes Marlowe, Shakespeare, the debauchee Lord Rochester, the eighteenth-century poet Katherine Philips, Henry Mackenzie (author of the novel of exquisite sensitivity The Man of Feeling [1771]), Matthew Lewis (author of the Gothic high-camp novel The Monk [1796]), Lord Byron, Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. But the literary canon from the late nineteenth century onwards is full of authors who are queer, who write homoerotic poetry or write about the experience of homosexual desire — including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, A.E. Housman, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, Djuna Barnes, D.H. Lawrence, Dorothy Richardson, Charlotte Mew, H.D., Katherine Mansfield, Rosamund Lehmann, Radclyffe Hall, T.E. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Elizabeth Bowen, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Compton Mackenzie, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Patrick White, William Burroughs, Edmund White, Thom Gunn, Adrienne Rich, Joe Orton, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, John Ashbery, Hanif Kureishi, Alan Hollinghurst and innumerable others. We might say that there is a canon of queer writers in modern literature, except that the ’straight’ canon is itself everywhere inhabited by queers (many of the writers listed above, that is to say, are central to the canon of literature in English, whether they are read as queer or straight).

Our second reason for talking about literature as ’a little (and sometimes more than a little) queer’ is to suggest that literary texts in general might be open to what has been called ’queer reading’. Some of the strangeness or uncanniness, some of the power and fascination of literary texts, that is to say, has to do with the singular space which they offer for thinking (differently) about gender and sexuality. This point is illustrated by the work of Eve Sedgwick, one of the most influential queer theorists of recent years, whose notion of ’homosocial desire’ we discuss, above, in our chapter on ’Desire’. In an essay entitled ’The Beast in the Closet’ (first published in 1986), Sedgwick discusses Henry James’s short story ’The Beast in the Jungle’ (1903). James’s story is an apparently ’straight’ story about John Marcher, a confirmed bachelor, who has a terrible and overwhelming secret (the ’beast’ of the title), a secret which never is, never could be, articulated, but which is nevertheless understood by his friend May Bartram, a woman who supports him and who, it is clear, could — or should — have been his lover or wife. In a stunning reading of the story, Sedgwick examines a number of aspects of the story and its discursive contexts. She discusses the figure of the bachelor in the late nineteenth century, for example, as a role that allowed certain men to avoid the rigorous demands of the compulsorily heterosexual society in which they lived. (James himself, Sedgwick argues, was a bachelor whose complex sexuality seems to have been notable as much for the obstinacy of its heterosexuality as for anything else.) Sedgwick considers the dynamics of ’male homosexual panic’ as the unmanageable fear of homosexuality among heterosexuals, a fear that would also appear to be based on the heterosexual male’s fear of his own desire for other men. Sedgwick then examines certain linguistic and rhetorical aspects of the apparently heterosexual story and shows how, viewed in this light, the story turns queer. Thus Sedgwick notes that the story uses the word ’queer’ on a number of occasions to denote John Marcher’s condition: while it is clear that the primary sense of the word denotes a certain ’strangeness’ (after all, the homosexual sense of ’queer’ was not an explicit part of its official meaning in 1903), nevertheless, as we have seen, the move within ’queer’ from ’strange’ to ’homosexual’ is never far away — and is not as queer as it might seem. In this respect, James’s use of the word may be seen to be haunted by its semantic developments a few years later and to raise the spectre of an unacknowledged difficulty concerning Marcher’s sexual identity. Sedgwick also notes a number of less specific ’lexical pointers’, all of which are ’highly equivocal’ but which add up to a queering of the whole story. Phrases such as Marcher’s ’singularity’, ’the thing [May Bartram] knew, which grew to be at last … never mentioned between them save as “the real truth” about him’, ’his queer consciousness’, ’dreadful things … I couldn’t name’, ’his unhappy perversion’, and so on (quoted in Sedgwick 1994, 203), convey a strong sense of specifically sexual disturbance in Marcher’s character. In a complex and enthralling piece of literary critical detective-work, Sedgwick develops a reading of the text which compellingly suggests the ’cataclysm’ of Marcher’s condition to be that of (in Alfred Douglas’s poignant formulation) the ’love that dare not speak its name’, the unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable homosexuality of his queerness. As far as the normative values of straight society are concerned, queerness is devastatingly and catastrophically queer: the ’straight’ Marcher’s problem is his inability to deal with the problem of (his) queerness.

In her reading of the story, however, Sedgwick is not attempting to argue, definitively, that Marcher (or James, for that matter) is in any simple sense homosexual. Instead, she is queering the narrative by thinking through its linguistic and conceptual slippages and their engagements with the discourse that emerges out of and indeed energizes the otherwise bland, monolithic certainties of heterosexuality. Sedgwick attempts to bring out (from the closet, so to speak) the extent to which the discourse of homosexuality — the heterosexual discourse of homosexuality, that is to say, the way that homosexuality is conceived and expressed by so-called ’heterosexuals’ — may be read in a text that is apparently concerned with very different matters. And Sedgwick’s reading powerfully demonstrates that the discourse of heterosexuality is itself dependent upon that of homosexuality, governed, even defined, by that which it excludes. There is something rather queer, in other words, about being straight.

As well as opening up new ways of reading ’straight’ literary texts, then, queer theory — in work by Michel Foucault, Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, Alan Sinfield, Jonathan Dollimore, Lee Edelman, Joseph Bristow, Judith Halberstam, Sara Ahmed, Jasbir Puar and others — challenges our ideas about gender and sexuality by querying (or queerying) the very basis of the categories we use to talk about ourselves, us queers and us straights. Queer theory, that is to say, queers the pitch as far as sexuality is concerned. As a number of theorists have commented, there is something rather curious, rather queer, about the way in which we divide our human and social worlds into two supposedly discrete (if not always discreet) categories. Of all the possible categories that are available to us to define ourselves and others — our wealth (or lack of it), class, height, hair colour, dietary preferences, shoe size, baldness or otherwise, political or religious beliefs, aesthetic preferences, choice of holiday destination or smart phone — the one that our culture has fixed upon to define us most profoundly, in some respects perhaps even beyond that of ethnic origin, race or skin colour, is that of sexual preference, the sex of the person whom we desire. This is the case not least because, as Leo Bersani remarks, ’Unlike racism, homophobia is entirely a response to an internal possibility’ (Bersani 1995, 27).

In his history of homosexuality, David Halperin observes that ’it is not immediately evident that differences in sexual preference are by their very nature more revealing about the temperament of individual human beings, more significant determinants of personal identity, than, for example, differences in dietary preference’ (Halperin 1990, 26). The comment invites us to imagine a world, or a society, in which one’s identity would be defined by one’s choice of food, a world in which, say, vegetarians would regularly be discriminated against in terms of their careers (they would not be allowed to join the army, for example, for fear that they might seduce others into vegetarianism); they would be subject to physical and verbal abuse while walking quietly in the streets of our cities (veggie-bashing, it would be called, and would be caused by veggiephobia, the fear of being forced to eat carrots or green beans or even of finding out that one is, deep down, oneself a vegetarian); they would only be allowed to work as vicars or as priests on the strict understanding that they would refrain from actually eating vegetables; they would often socialize in special veggie bars and clubs generally avoided by carnivores; and they would be, or would be thought to be, immediately recognizable by the way they walked and the way they talked, by their clothes, their hairstyles, and their general demeanour. This imagined world might remind us of the pervasiveness and power of sexual preference as a determiner of our everyday lives. Indeed, the absurdity of this fictional scenario brings home how deeply embedded in our thinking is our definition of gender and sexual preference. Michel Foucault makes the point forcefully in an interview when he remarks that ’ever since Christianity, the West has not stopped saying: “To know who you are, find out about your sex.” Sex has always been the focal point where, besides the future of our species, our “truth” as human subjects is tied up’ (Foucault 1980a, 3). In this context we might think about how odd it is, how queer, that our social worlds and our social prejudices are organized around a choice — the biological sex of our sexual partners — which in some ways is similar to choices about eating, or not eating, meat.

One of the major projects of queer theory has been to examine the ways in which, in fact, the categories of desire by which we regulate our social and sexual worlds are not as fixed and immutable, not as ’natural’ and self-evident, as we might like to think. Indeed, according to the influential argument of Michel Foucault, our ideas about hetero- and homo-sexuality are a function of the ’invention’ of homosexuality in the late nineteenth century. While the precise historical configurations of any such ’invention’ have been challenged by historians of sexuality, many of whom see the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the crucial period of redefinition and ’crystallization’ (see Sedgwick 1985, 83; Glover and Kaplan 2000, 91—3), Foucault’s argument has been highly important in the development of queer theory. But it is crucial to understand that when Foucault claims that homosexuality was invented at a particular time in the recent past he is not arguing that men did not love, desire and have sex with other men, or women with women, before that time. Rather, he is suggesting that the apparently unequivocal distinction between being homosexual or being straight — the sense that you are one or the other, and the sense that who you are is defined by that distinction — is an aspect of sexual relationships and personal identity that has developed only very recently within certain institutional and discursive practices. According to Foucault, during the nineteenth century a series of shifts in the discourses of medicine, law, religion, politics and social analysis combined to produce the homosexual as a discrete identity. In particular, while medicine began to define a certain type of behaviour and certain desires as characteristic of a certain ’type’ of person (the so-called ’invert’, from Havelock Ellis’s groundbreaking 1897 book Studies in the Psychology of Sex), the law redefined sexual acts between men as ’gross indecency’ (an offence instituted in the so-called ’Labouchère Amendment’ added to a law passed in the United Kingdom in 1885 which was primarily concerned with the regulation of prostitution). The new law criminalized sex between men (it simply ignored sex between women), by contrast with an older law, against ’sodomy’ (’any form of sexual intercourse considered to be unnatural’ (OED ’sodomy’, n.1)), which covered certain forms of sex between men and women as well as various other kinds of ’unspeakable’ acts with humans and with non-humans, sexual and otherwise. Thus, for example, Jeffrey Weeks points out that nineteenth-century society imprisoned together atheists, the mute and sodomites, suggesting a strange homology of criminality (Weeks 1998, 693). As a result, the homosexual comes to be seen, within certain legal and medical discourses, as a particular type of person, as having a particular identity. In an eloquent and forceful passage from The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Foucault argues as follows:

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was coinsubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature … Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (Foucault 1981, 43)

Foucault is arguing that within ’the ancient civil or canonical codes’ homosexuality as an identity is more or less invisible before the mid to late nineteenth century. In other words, in the context of thinking about, say, Shakespeare, asking the question of whether or not he was homosexual is, in effect, an anachronism, inappropriate to the specific ways in which sexuality and sexual identity were constructed, experienced and defined in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

The notion of the historically and culturally constructed nature of sexuality, the idea that sexualities are differently defined and differently experienced at different times, is taken one step further by the influential theorist of gender and sexuality Judith Butler. For Butler, gender and sexuality are performative, rather than fixed or determined by biology or ’nature’: gender identity ’is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’ (Butler 1990, 25). ’I’m queer’ is not simply a descriptive statement but makes something happen: it not only states but affirms and even creates the identity it refers to. According to this argument, in fact, the more of a man or the more of a woman you are, the more obviously your masculinity or femininity is a performative construct, the more overtly it is acted out. Both gender and sexuality, for Butler, are always kinds of drag acts so that theatrical drag acts play out the implicit logic of sex and gender identity according to which our lives are, more generally, determined. As an example of such a performance of gender and sexuality Butler reminds us of the title of Aretha Franklin’s hit ’You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’. Butler remarks that on first sight the line seems to be affirming the notion of the naturalness of gender and sexuality: the singer’s love for the man makes her a natural woman. Butler comments that the line seems to indicate that ’there is no breakage, no discontinuity between “sex” as biological facticity and essence, or between gender and sexuality’ (Butler 1991, 27). But when we think a little more carefully we see that this naturalness is both something that is learnt or produced (’you make me feel…’), and something that is imitated (’you make me feel like…’). Playing out and articulating the performative logic of gender and sexuality, Aretha Franklin is singing about it, wittingly or not, as a kind of ’heterosexual drag’ (28). This, for Butler, is indicative of the way that all sexualities — homo-, hetero-, bi- and other — are forms of drag, performances of sex and of gender.

’Shakespeare’, declares Harold Bloom, ’largely invented us’ (Bloom 1994, 40). One way of understanding this claim would be in relation to the cultural construction of gender and sexuality. Reading Shakespeare can help us to think about ways in which sexuality is an unstable site of conflict and transgression, historically contingent, mobile, a performance. Writing at a time before categories of homo- and heterosexual desire had been institutionalized, medicalized, rigidified and policed, Shakespeare’s writing questions what it means to be a man or a woman, and what it means, as a man and as a woman, to desire men and to desire women. We might end by thinking about Shakespeare’s sonnets, 126 of them addressed to or concerning the (male) speaker’s passionate relationship with a young man. Sonnet 20 is a key text in debates surrounding his representations of sexuality and sexual identity: in this sonnet, as Bruce Smith comments, ’for the poet, for his readers, and presumably for the young man’, issues of love and sexuality ’reach a crisis’ (Smith 1994, 249). Here is a poem that has fascinated (and indeed horrified) readers and critics through the centuries, a poem by a man addressed to a man, his ’master-mistress’, which thinks about masculinity and femininity and thinks about the different ways in which they inhabit male and female bodies, thinks about how homo- and hetero-eroticism are performed, played out in language. It is a poem that both plays on stereotypes of gender and sexuality (including misogyny) and, at the same time, disorients them, queers them, plays with the idea of a ’natural’ gender and sexuality but also with the idea of the constructedness of such identities. This is a natural wo/man: a man who is all man, by nature ’pricked out’, but who is at the same time, curiously, queerly, female, his ’woman’s face’ by ’nature’ ’painted’:

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted

Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change as is false women’s fashion;

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

And for a woman wert thou first created,

Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,

Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.

Further reading

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s books Between Men (1985), The Epistemology of the Closet (1991) and Tendencies (1994) present inaugural and highly influential accounts of queer theory and homosocial and homosexual desire, focusing on a series of (mainly) nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts. We would recommend the 39 chapters ranging from Sappho to AIDS literature in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature, ed. E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen (2014). The opening two chapters of the groundbreaking Between Men offer a good starting point. Alan Sinfield’s brisk, polemical and entertaining books Cultural Politics — Queer Reading (1994a) and The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment (1994b) provide good accounts of many of the ideas encountered in this chapter. Both Nikki Sullivan’s A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (2001) and Donald E. Hall’s Queer Theories (2003) offer good short introductions to the field. A more detailed and scholarly discussion of queer sexuality in Renaissance England is Bruce Smith’s Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England (1994). For a thought-provoking study of nineteenth-century US literature in this context, see Scott S. Derrick, Monumental Anxieties (1997). Correspondingly, for a study of ’effeminate England’ since 1885, see Joseph Bristow (1995). For a brilliant and often excoriating examination of some of the presuppositions and prejudices surrounding cultural representations of homosexuality (including those of ’queer theorists’ themselves), see Leo Bersani’s Homos (1995). Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004) presents a powerful and provocative analysis of queer ethics, politics and culture; the essays collected in After Sex? On Writing Since Queer Theory, eds, Janet Halley and Andrew Parker (2011) also offer a good overview of developments in queer theory since its inauguration in the 1980s. For an important recent account of the historicism of queer theory and the history of homosexuality, see Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality (2002). Noreen Giffney and Myra Hird, eds, Queering the Non/Human (2008) is an impressive and often thought-provoking collection of essays on everything from starfish to nanotechnology. Other compelling work in this area includes Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure (2011), Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal (2000), Jaspir K. Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007), Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology Orientations, Objects, Others (2006), and Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman’s Sex, or The Unbearable (2014).