Thursday, February 23, 2012

William Faulkner--Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

Published in the same year as Gone with the Wind, Absalom, Absalom! is centered around the story of Thomas Sutpen, the man who came to Yoknapatawpha and set out to realize his great design, establishing himself as the patriarch of his plantation known as Sutpen’s Hundred and the siring of what was to be a great legacy.  However, it is just as much about the relationship between Quentin and Shreve, Harvard roommates who jointly create the narrative after Quentin chooses this story with which to answer Shreve’s famous question, “Tell about the South,” and about how such stories are constructed and reconstructed.  

Relying on recollections of Quentin and the stories he’s been told all his life, especially those by Miss Rosa Coldfield and his father, Jason Compson, as well as the documentary evidence of letters, tombstones, and Quentin’s own experiences, Quentin and Shreve tell the story of Sutpen’s marriage to Ellen Coldfield and their children, Judith and Henry.  In an incestuous love triangle, Henry brings home his Ole Miss roommate Charles Bon (whom it is revealed is also the son of Sutpen by his first wife, whom he married in Haiti before realizing that she, too, had “black blood”).  The love triangle in part allows for a homosocial bond between Henry and Bon, as Judith is described as the empty vessel which contained their love for each other.  After discovering that Charles is not only Sutpen’s son, but the truth of his birth (as well as Bon’s previous plaçage marriage in New Orleans, which produced an heir.  Henry ultimately shoots and kills Bon.

According to John Bibler, Quentin looks to Henry and Charles Bon as a possible precedent for the homoerotic bond he shares with Shreve.  Unfortunately, the realization that Charles Bon might have “black blood” demonstrates that, after the Civil War, racial status could not be determined for sure.  Unlike before the Civil War, when male/male relationships could be acceptable on the basis of what Bibler, relying on Leo Bersani’s concept of “homo-ness,” sees as a potential for a progressive possibilities for anti-hierarchical, egalitarian relationships.  What’s interesting to me is the not only fluidity of gender in the novel, but the very permeability of identity: at one point in the narration, as Quentin and Shreve narrate the story of Henry and Charles, they are described as being four, then two, then four.  Though John Matthew’s article “This Race Which is Not One” is referencing Light in August in its evocation of Irigaray’s concept of the plurality of female sex, it’s equally applicable to Absalom—not just in terms of race, but in terms of gender and individual identity as well.  Even Thomas Sutpen at one point is defined in terms of multiple identities.  

In class, we were asked to consider what work the novel does in positioning the South with regard to Gary Richards’ claim that the South functions as a way of quarantining queerness for the rest of the country.  If Light in August demonstrates the futility of putting “a white man through the process of establishing his identity and hence exposing the fiction of pure racial difference” (213), as Matthews claims, then perhaps Absalom demonstrates the melancholic repetition of this process: “there is no all, no finish; it is not the blow we suffer from but the tedious repercussive anti-climax of it, the rubbishy aftermath to clear away from off the very threshold of despair” (167).  Considering the question of the South specifically as a quarantined region of queerness, Absalom illustrates the process of trying to clear away the rubbishy detritus of despair, the effluvium which results from this process of trying to establish the unestablishable.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Luce Irigaray--This Sex Which Is Not One (1977)

Perhaps the most crucial part of this essay is its first line: “Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters” (23).  If, as Irigaray claims, the penis is “the only sexual organ of recognized value” (23), then Woman is conceptualized in terms of her lack (as she references in both Freudian and Lacanian schemas).  To counter this, Irigaray instead posits a different understanding of female sexuality, one outside of a phallic economy: 

In order to touch himself, man needs an instrument: his hand, a woman’s body, language…And this self-caressing requires at least a minimum of activity.  As for woman, she touches herself in and of herself in and of herself without any need for mediation, and before there is any way to distinguish activity from passivity….Thus, within herself, she is already two—but no divisible into one(s)—that caress each other. (24).

Within this schema, then, Irigaray characterizes penetration as “a violent break-in” (24).  Given the very differences in male sexuality and female sexuality, then, leads Iragaray to importantly conclude that, “Woman’s desire would not be expected to speak the same language as man’s” (25).  Irigaray’s conclusion here seems to align nicely with that of Hélène Cixous, whose “Laugh of the Medusa,” in which she posits “écriture feminine” as a women’s way of writing.  For Irigaray, because the Female Imaginary cannot be pinned down—as Woman’s sexuality is not one, is not even two, but is plural—so Woman’s language can similarly be pinned down: “What she says is never identical with anything, moreover; rather, it is contiguous.  It touches (upon)” (29).

Critics of Irigaray accuse her of essentialism, and certainly, quite a few of her claims about female sexuality—such as, “Woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking, and her entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies, again, her consignment to passivity” (26).  Certainly, her recognition that “her sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to see” (26) within this dominant scopic economy is crucial.  Still, I have trouble accepting such a not only essentialist but heteronormative claim.  Further, while I have great appreciation for her recognition of female genitalia as being understood and defined in terms of lack, at times it seems as though she’s accepting this characterization as truth.  I also take issue with the essentialist position she seems to be taking in terms of the scopic economy, when she claims that, “Ownership and property are doubtless quite foreign to the feminine.  At lease sexually.  But not nearness….Woman derives pleasure from what is so near that she cannot have it, nor have herself” (31).  However, this is a very narrow view of ownership.  What about a schema of property and ownership that relies upon consumption, rather than penetration?  

What is important in this claim, though, is her correct observation that Woman is always already placed within this scopic economy, and it is this subjectivity as a commodity which Irigaray interrupts female pleasure: “How can this object of transaction claim a right to pleasure without removing her/itself from established commerce?” (32).  Irigaray, despite her tendency to veer towards an essentialist position, does acknowledge the fact that “women do not constitute, strictly speaking, a class, and their dispersion among several classes makes their political struggle complex, their demands sometimes contradictory” (32).  Irigaray seems dubious that any sort of equality is possible with men, as she sees any interactions as ultimately reverting to phallocratism.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Barry Hannah--Airships (1978)

Though this collection contains a variety of stories, from Civil War story to science fiction, they all approach similar themes of American (and southern) masculinity, war, and our ability to connect.  The ways in which many of these stories reflect back on the past, and illustrate the wonderful Faulknerian idea that the past is always with us, remind me not only of Faulkner but of Roth, too, in the way that so many of these stories show men trying to navigate the present while the past is always with them. 

“Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet” is a great example of this, as a Vietnam War story about Bobby Smith, a young American soldier from Mississippi who encounters his old classmate, Tubby Wooten while on patrol one evening.  Tubby’s photographs of home—and in particular, one of Mississippi golfer White Whitelaw, cuts through Bobby’s bravado and pierces his heart, a wound made deeper with Tubby’s death while with Bobby’s platoon.  The juxtaposition of Vietnam stories with those set during the Civil War provide an interesting commentary on the similarities of the two conflicts: when a soldier in “Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” says, “We are not defending our beloved Dixie anymore.  We’re just bandits and maniacal” (145), his sentiment could just as easily be felt by Bobby Smith.

Though a few of the stories have female protagonists, the strongest pieces in the collection are those which follow male protagonists engaged in various kinds of battles.  One of the most recurrent symbols throughout the novel is the figure or specter of Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant Civil War general who was celebrated for much of the war for his daring cavalry strategies, but whose failure to convey intelligence led to the Confederacy’s defeat at Gettysburg.  Stuart functions in a couple of ways in this collection: not only does he represent the long shadow which the Civil War continues to cast over the South, but he also represents a certain kind of futility in life, that flamboyant victories in the past can be overshadowed by today’s defeat.  Hannah often writes about southern men who are at the moment of facing their first defeat, whether by women or in the eyes of other men.  

Hannah’s biggest strength to me is his prose style.  Though he writes in a rather straight-ahead narrative style, his sense of language combined with his darkly comedic view of the South specifically and people in general.  In “Love Too Long,” for example, the narrator tries to figure out how to survive his wife’s infidelities by thinking, “Maybe I need to go to church, I said to myself.  I can’t stand this alone.  I wished I was Jesus.  Somebody who never drank or wanted nooky.  Or knew Jane” (12).  Or in “Water Liars,” another character deals with his own wife’s sexual past (not even infidelity, but the idea that he wasn’t her first): “My sense of the past is vivid and slow.  I hear every sign and see every shadow…there is a blurred nostalgia women have that men don’t” (4).

Normally, this kind of romanticized misogyny (my term for this sense of obsession which some straight male authors have about women, which claims to be so obsessed with the wonder that is woman—an obsession which is usually unrequited, frustrated, or damned—that romanticization turns into objectification, and they cease to think of women as people, and can only see them as symbols (a process which I usually identify as rather narcissistic and immature))—normally this stance gets on my nerves, because of the misogynistic tones it often has.  However, this collection by Hannah doesn’t quite have that effect on me—it comes close at times, but the characters’ primary engagements are with the past than in each other, and how to live up to the impossible standards set by the Southern ideal and the American dream.

Friday, February 3, 2012

David Halperin--How to Do the History of Homosexuality (2002)

Following his 1990 One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, Halperin wrote the essays which form the core of this work to explore and clarify “certain historiographical problems raised by the history of homosexuality” (2).  Starting with his essay “Forgetting Foucault,” Halperin wishes to restore such a historigraphical approach—one having to do with “questions of evidence, method, strategy, politics, and identification in the writing of history” (2).  Halperin relies on foundations of queer scholarship by both Foucault as well as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in his consideration of the ways in which same sex desire has been interpreted and understood—both in by people in the past as well as by historians and others who have speculated about and studied the nature of such desire and relationships throughout history.

In his first essay, “Forgetting Foucault,” Halperin takes the title of this article (which was later included as a chapter in his 2002 How to Do the History of Homosexuality) from Jean Baudrillard’s 1977 pamphlet Forget Foucault (Oublier Foucault).  Halperin is not only critical of Baudrillard’s take on Foucault—which he disparages for Baudrillard’s insistence on “leaving the sexual aspects [of Foucault’s work and life] aside” (93)—but sees his work as symptomatic of the continued misreadings of Foucault’s work, especially that of his 1976 History of Sexuality, Volume 1.  In this article, Halperin elucidates two key misunderstandings of Foucault’s text: (1) the oversimplification and misunderstanding of Foucault’s differentiation between the sodomite and the homosexual; and (2) the misunderstanding of his deployment of “bodies and pleasures” as the “irreducible elements of sexuality” (112).

To Halperin, the most significant misinterpretation of Foucault has been to “mistake his discursive analysis for a historical assertion” (111).  What Foucault originally intended as an analysis of “discursive and institutional practices” (97) in his discussion of the differences between the early modern sodomite and the nineteenth century homosexual has been instead misunderstood as an almost dogmatic distinction between sexual practices and sexual identity.  Using the work of John J. Winkler (who examines the category of kinaidos in ancient Mediterranean societies) and Johnathan Walters (who compares Apuleius’s story of the baker’s wife to that of Boccaccio), Halperin explains how these works “challenge the orthodox pseudo-Foucauldian doctrine about the supposedly strict separation between sexual acts and sexual identities in European culture before the nineteenth century” (108).

Halperin intends his argument to encourage a more nuanced and complicated investigation and understanding of the ways in which sexual identities have changed over time, as well as a more nuanced and complicated understandings of Foucault’s work.  And although anymore it seems as if the inclusion of a section such as “Forgetting Foucault” is almost mandatory in queer scholarship, such clarifications do seem to continue to be necessary, as the examples Halperin gives amply illustrate.  In fact, I would argue that Halperin’s complaint that Foucault’s work has been reduced to “a small set of received ideas, slogans, and bits of jargon” (94) is true because Foucault’s work (even—or perhaps especially?) in translation uses such pithy phrases to convey quite complicated ideas.  It’s very tempting to pull a line like, “Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence” (History of Sexuality 60) out of context, simply because it is so enticing—though to do so completely undercuts the statement’s meaning.

Halperin attributes much of this misunderstanding to readings which focus solely on the aspects of sexuality in the work and don’t take into account his larger arguments regarding discourse.  It’s true that Foucault “deploys” sex and sexuality (and his very specific uses of these words) within a larger discussion of the history, meanings, and interactions of power and discourse.  However, I’m concerned that Halperin himself might be misunderstood as advocating for a kind of “leaving the sexual aspects aside,” similar to that for which he takes Baudrillard to task (93).  I wonder if these misreadings might be accounted for (at least in part) because the concepts connected to sexuality are more exciting (or graspable) than those connected to discourse?    

Halperin also addresses the equally misunderstood and misquoted Foucauldian phrase “bodies and pleasures,” with which Foucault ends his text.  As I personally found this to one of the more confusing aspects of the Foucault reading, I appreciated Halperin’s clarification that “bodies and pleasures” should be understood as being elements of a different sexual economy than the current one, which consists instead of “such familiar and overworked entities as ‘sexuality’ and ‘desire’” (94).  Halperin grounds this distinction in the post 1960s sexual liberation era within which Foucault was writing, which encouraged people to "liberate our 'sexuality' and to unrepress or desublimate our 'desire' (94).  

In the rest of the text, Halperin continues to focus on differentiating between categories of thought and subjectivities.  Interrogating various categories and classifications, especially those from the classical period, the early modern period, and the end of the twentieth century, he teases out not so much the changes in practices attached to same sex desire, but rather the different categories and classifications which are connected to gender deviance and same sex desire, and what the changes in these categories reveal about the assumptions and points of view at various points in time.  Throughout, Halperin emphasizes the historicity in these inquiries, reiterating the falsity of assuming any stable entity of “sexuality” which might exist transhistorically.  Rather, building on the foundational explication of Foucault in his first chapter, in which he explains that Foucault’s focus was not, in fact, on a theory of history of sexuality per se, but rather a historical examination of discourses, Halperin examines how these different categories—from the kinaidos in ancient Mediterranean societies to the nineteenth century medically diagnosed invert—reflect different understandings of gender identity, sex, gender roles, sexual identity, sexual desire, and other discursive categories.

I found his chapter on “Historicizing the Subject of Desire” to be quite illuminating with regard to some of Foucault’s more opaque claims, especially regarding bodies and pleasure.  Halperin explains, that hopes to illuminate
Michel Foucault’s proposition that sexuality is not lodged in our bodies, in our hormones, or in our genitals but resides in our discursive and institutional practices as well as in the experiences that they construct.  Bodies do not come with ready-made sexualities.  Bodies are not even attracted to other bodies.  It is human subjects, rather, who are attracted to various objects, including bodies, and the features of bodies that render them desirable to human subjects are contingent on the cultural codes, the social conventions, and the political institutions that structure and inform human subjectivity itself, thereby shaping our individual erotic ideals and defining for us the scope of what we find attractive. (102, emphasis added)
It is here that Halperin explicitly explains the concept of “sexuality”: “Sexuality is a mode of human subjectivation that operates in part by figuring the body as the literal and by pressing the body’s supposed literality into the service of a metaphorical project.  As such, sexuality represents a seizure of the body by a historically unique apparatus for producing historically specific forms of subjectivity” (103, emphasis in original).  Ultimately, what he wants is a “reconstituting of the body as a potential site of cultural activism and political resistance” (103).  [and, as an aside this is where he makes the wonderful emblematic statement, “No orgasm without ideology” (103)].

Finally, Halperin conducts a wonderful discursive analysis of five categories which have been used to describe variations of same sex desire: homosexuality, effeminacy, sodomy, friendship, and inversion.  Ultimately, he demonstrates how the historical emergence of homosexuality as a category (both as a “concept and as a social practice,” as he specifies (132)) at the end of the nineteenth century “significantly rearranges and reinterprets earlier patterns of erotic organization” (132).