Reflection by Richard Kaye

I am going to focus my discussion on the explicit, at times submerged theoretical premises animating Dustin Friedman’s Before Queer Theory—namely, his critique of Lacanian, post-structuralist and “utopian” critics working within Queer Theory as well as his counter-argument insisting on Victorian art’s exemplary power to reinvigorate the Queer self and that self’s successful resistance to hostile historical actualities. Although his readings of individual writers are impressively intricate, I question some of Friedman’s arguments, starting with his claim that Lacan “currently dominates queer theory” (18). In opposing what he terms “Lacanian negativity” Friedman really is thinking of more broadly psychoanalytically-oriented critics such as Leo Bersani, who he cites as one of the “theorists of negativity” for whom “desire’s shattering of the self leads to the conclusion that sex is not necessarily a ‘struggle for power’ between a subject and the object of desire, but instead provides an arena where the destruction of one’s subjectivity is experienced as pleasure” (18, 2).  Friedman is on much stronger ground when he observes that “post-structuralist models of subjectivity” have “dominated queer theoretical discourse” (6). He critiques, among other post-structuralists, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and José Muñoz, the latter for his “utopian negativity” and lack of a clear map for achieving the Queer utopias he valorizes (8).

Against the twinned forces of psychoanalysis and post-structuralism, Friedman marshals his Victorian aesthetes, for whom the “fragmentation of the self is not the end of the process. It marks the moment preliminary to an inchoate collection of erotic impulses crystalizing into a distinct sense of sexual difference, of being at odds with prevailing cultural norms” (5). This “disposition militates against society’s homophobia and visions of the self and the world that threaten to become static, limited, and moribund” (5). But in accentuating the potentiality of an aesthetic fortress of the self, forever victorious over oppressors, dynamically yet semi-covertly spinning away in endless reinvention, Before Queer Theory tends to downplay the pernicious effects of Victorian homophobia, particularly as the Labouchère Amendment was enacted in Britain, the Cleveland Street male-brothel case unfolded, and the three Wilde trials exploded in the British press, rendered life for many late-Victorian Queer people so fraught.  Rousing though it is, the notion that the cultivation of the self is a sufficiently powerful means to deter inhospitable social, psychological, political, and historical realities (as well as to counter newly constrictive legal and sexological models), is also a somewhat precious idea. The proposition sounds to me like a fundament of Ego-Psychology, with its stress on the importance of affirmative self-regard amidst external threats and against whose American practitioners Lacan famously railed, particularly for what he regarded as their norm-legitimizing “adaptationism.”

It is precisely the ability of psychoanalysis, Lacanian and non-Lacanian, to consider desire and sexuality in all of their positive and negative potentiality that makes it so attractive to critics such as Bersani (and to variously Lacan-indebted critics such as Christopher Lane, Jacqueline Rose, Adam Phillips, and Tim Dean). I am rather perplexed by the notion that one should oppose psychoanalytic and post-structuralist “negativity” with exalted claims for art’s autonomy and potential to fortify the self and would welcome thoughts on how that could be accomplished. Surely works of art themselves dynamically embody both positive and negative impulses, affirmative as well as destructive energies, both social and anti-social impulses, as Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, to take one late-Victorian instance, demonstrates.

Yet, tellingly, in writing of that novel Friedman invites readers to think of the “pleasure” a student experiences who “picks up a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray at his local library, expecting an expression of the universal theme of ‘the double,’ yet instead finds his desires echoed in the beautifully rendered, all but explicit gay love triangle described in the novel’s opening chapters.” Friedman then writes:

Such a reader might find a renewed sense of strength, solidarity, and coherence through his connection with Wilde and imagine a society where people like him are not just tolerated but celebrated. This is not simply because he shares a sexual orientation with a celebrated writer from the past. It is because he recognizes that, even within the limits of an otherwise phobic culture, art is a place where one can experience sexual difference not as a threat to the self but a source of a sense of self-determination gained through determined resistance to cultural norms and a commitment to social change. As a realm located within normative social life yet not strictly governed by socially predetermined concepts and forms of thought, the aesthetic is the venue most suited for queers to generate new concepts and reimagine how their culture might be radically reformed along practically realizable, nonutopian lines. Queer aesthetic experiences could be the source of an imaginative liberty and creativity that everyone in the world would desire for themselves, if only they could learn how to see it (185).

Pleasurable as reading Dorian Gray certainly is, it is passing strange that Wilde’s novel, a work of exultant aestheticism and coy homoeroticism but also a decidedly decadent text in which many ethical and legal crimes are committed by its titular protagonist, here serves as the highly functionalist repository for so many dreams of solidarity and self-enhancement. Moreover, leaving aside the challenge of extrapolating a newly-fortified Queer self from a novel of gothic and supernatural effects, we are asked to forget that one of the two men in this same-sex trio, Dorian, ends up murdering another, Basil, and that in the course of the novel he commits numerous murderous and monstrous acts. Isn’t it just as possible, too, that an equally notional charismatic serial killer might take cheerful sustenance from Dorian Gray just as much as any notional student on the precipice of gay self-identification?

I would note, as well, that in this passage Friedman makes a point, en passant, of excluding utopian Queer ventures from his exalted same-sex male sphere. I find myself wondering if his evident skepticism about utopias is actually true to the spirit of the Victorian aesthetes Friedman considers or if this is simply his argument within a prevailing strain in Queer Theory. After all, it was Wilde who declared, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing… Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

Interestingly, in its cultural positivism concerning the power of art over oppression Before Queer Theory recalls another recent work, Gregory Woods’ 2016 Homintern: How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World, a volume obviously intended for a non-academic audience and one that stresses Queer achievement in the arts over the last hundred years. Its title, Homintern is ironic, as the book expressly counters long-standing conspiracy theories concerning the supposedly dominant cultural influence of queer artists who supposedly represented a “homintern.” Woods thinks that oppressed LGBTQ artists compensate for––and triumph over––their oppression with artistic achievements. “The Homintern stories cohere as a single narrative of lives lived against the grain,“ Woods writes, claiming that its members “developed in their behavior and their art a degree of daring, stretching the boundaries of the complacently acceptable, out of which came new ways of experiencing and representing daily life” (343).

Because of its revisionist erudition and its polemical thrust, Before Queer Theory represents a serious work of literary scholarship addressing Victorian aestheticism. At the same time, it shares some of Homintern’s cultural triumphalism, in which the aesthetic realm becomes a haven, antidote, and a salve—the dividends, if you will—that arise out of Queer oppression. Still, a kind of Queer communitarianism does emerge in both Friedman and Woods’ accounts owing to all of that shared oppression and pleasure in the production of art. But the art-as-resistance claims nonetheless lead to the playing down of historical actualities—and not only repressive ones. Friedman writes, for example, of how “Pater’s early writings were a call for queer aesthetes” such as Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (Michael Field) who “would be modern-day Winckelmanns, finding their freedom from oppressive cultural norms through aesthetic experience” (159). But as Alex Potts makes clear in Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (1994), Winckelmann did not simply take isolated refuge in the glorious fortress of art but moved comfortably within the upper power centers of Italian clerical society in the early years of Clement the Thirteenth’s liberal papacy, a milieu that provided him with a social, intellectual, and homosexual freedom that was hardly possible in the stifling atmosphere of his native northern Germany. Although Friedman is astute in his assessment of Michael Field’s admiration for Winckelmann, Winckelmann’s experience in a specific, enlightened eighteenth-century environment is perhaps a poor model for Victorian aesthetes increasingly menaced by the twinned forces of the law and science.

Having said all of this, I salute Dustin Friedman’s Before Queer Theory for making the divergent practices of Queer Theory and LGBTQ culture cogently, abundantly, and provocatively evident.

Jill Ehnenn responds

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