Reflection by Shannon Draucker

One of the most remarkable features of Abigail Joseph’s dazzling book Exquisite Materials , and the one I will focus on here, is the way in which it negotiates two urgent, related concepts in the field of queer theory: “antinormativity” (or “anti-antinormativity”) and “queer negativity.”  These frameworks, while crucial, can be difficult to implement in practice, when the violence of social norms is so real and our desires for subversion so strong.  Joseph’s book offers a model for how to grapple with these theoretical threads and capture the pains and pleasures of Victorian queer life. [1]

Thinkers such as Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson have recently argued that “antinormativity” has, paradoxically, become another “norm” within queer theory, threatening to erase the ways in which norms are often “garbled” rather than simply “restrictive” or “exclu[sive].” [2]  Similarly, Sharon Marcus has demonstrated that norms and institutions often have more “elasticity, mobility, and plasticity” than we often allow. [3]  In this vein, Joseph locates texts, objects, and stories that demonstrate the proximity, even inextricability, of queerness and “dominant” culture – moments when the “subversive” brushes up against the “normative.”  The “exaggerated, stylized” outfits of Fanny and Stella (Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton), for instance, reflected the “mainstream fashion” of Victorian upper-class women and revealed its “endemic leanings into queerness” (65, 36).  The cross-dressing female fraudster Jane Furneaux cultivated her friendships with “‘ordinary’ Victorians” (82) while performing “as a man in awkward, semi-accomplished drag as a woman” (85), revealing that perhaps “mainstream,” middle-class Britons were perhaps more willing to accept queerness – and even “ardently enwrap[p] themselves” in it – than we often allow (93).  The disgust, fear, and violence with which the “culture at large” often encountered queer people and things sometimes coincided with, as Joseph writes, “more complex strains of material, aesthetic, and relational interchange: influence and imitation, fascination and ambivalent admiration and unexpected affiliation, longing and desire” (7).

Proponents of “queer negativity” have also put pressure on more affirmative strands of queer theory and emphasize the need to, as Heather Love writes, acknowledge the “nostalgia, regret, shame, despair…loneliness” brought about by systemic social exclusion. [4]  Joseph pairs discussions of the “queer negativity” of Wilde’s De Profundis and the “bad romance” between Wilde and Bosie (200) with “profusely reparative” readings of their lives and works (29).  Not only was Bosie “bad” in his excessive consumption of objects, but was also, Joseph argues, a “Bad Object” himself (190) – “the “worst boyfriend in gay literary history” (203).  Yet, amidst this “bad romance” were glimpses of “gorgeous, injudicious luxuries” and moments of “delight and longing” (191), as well as the potential for aesthetic productivity and artistic expression (210-11, 220).  We might also, Joseph suggests, find reparation in Wilde’s insistent refusal to abandon the “bad romance” as a radical gesture, a “perverse yet powerful kind of political resistance” (226).

Exquisite Materials shows us that queer readings need not always center on the refusal of norms or the erasure of negativity.  Instead, Joseph shows us that the intermingling of norms and antinorms, repression and resistance, can produce especially nuanced understandings of late-Victorian queer life.  Works like Exquisite Materials, which make space for, as Joseph writes, the “vicissitudes not only of feeling but of its representation” (211), remind Victorian scholars that queer theory still has so much to offer us.

[1] Works such as Kadji Amin’s Disturbing Attachments (Duke University Press, 2017) and, in Victorian Studies, Dustin Friedman’s Before Queer Theory (JHU Press, 2019) also offer helpful engagements with anti- (or anti-anti-) normativity and queer negativity.

[2] Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson, “Introduction: Antinormativity’s Queer Conventions” (differences 26:1, 2015), 20.

[3] Sharon Marcus, Between Women (Princeton, 2007), 21-2.

[4] Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard, 2007), 4.

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