Reflecting on today’s reading

Todd Haynes’s Poison and Queer Cinema. by Norman Bryson

Bryson writes a captivating read. He starts by defining the position he takes for a Queer reading of the film opposed to a gay and lesbian historical reading. The former is a ‘majoritarian’ position and the latter is ‘minoritarian’, he suggests that while the minoritarian position is justifiable in that it seeks to ‘restore visibility to the culture or social group, that having been cut out of history, rightly seeks inclusion and a place at the table’. Noting here the specific context of art history in which Bryson refers, I suggest it can also apply to all histories including that of graphic design. Bryson tells us that the minoritarian position is problematic in that ‘once the record has been revised and the canon extended…end of story. Minoritarian tactics turn on precise and delimited goals; that is their strength, but also their disadvantage’.

Reading this makes me question what position am I taking in this research project? I certainly feel that I should adopt a ‘queer position’ as this will be more powerful, more ongoing and extensive. At the beginning of the Masters course we discussed what defines a canon, what would we put include in the design canon? I chose a Stelton salt and pepper pot designed by Arne Jacobsen, a strange choice looking back. Important as the object may be to me, it is hardly recognisable or valuable to anyone else, it is exclusive, expensive, not mass market. I digress, in relation to my project, do I decide to create a canon of magazines? What would I include in the canon? What defines it, how do I categorize? Do I classify according to content or form? As this is primarily a writing course, text and language would make sense.

Will I – through focussing on ‘gay’ magazines – be taking a minoritarian position? How do I counter that? By comparing with or including the ‘heteronormative’ publications in my analysis?

Bryson tells us that the Queer position (in art history, but I choose to read it through a graphic design lens) is a majoritarian position because it is according to Bryson:

‘connected to all dimensions of cultural normalization…’not supplementing the literature with a monograph on such-and-such a gay or lesbian artist, but investigating the ways in which structures of heteronormativity pervade the whole of the canon and its organization’, not petitioning for membership in the club so much as investigating the ways the club itself has been profoundly determined by a compulsory heteronomativity that affects and shapes its entire visual field’.

I need to really dig down now into Queer theory, that’s for sure. As the concepts raised by Bryson have not occured to me previously. It’s not as simple as just analyzing magazines to define their gayness or language, you have to take into account publications that are part of the mainstream, or say have other agendas, the underground as opposed to mainstream, counter-culture in relation to subculture, under what conditions, and in what modes of communication and language do the operate?

Anna has already suggested to me that other titles need to be scoped and filtered, for example The Chap incorporating The Chapette a title I found in the wonderful Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury.

Bryson has some valuable and relevant thoughts, he says:

‘The majoritarian outlook of queer art history and visual studies cannot settle for adding anything – artists, works, styles, iconographies. the difficulty with a politics of formal inclusion is that it is not necessarily motivated to question the status quo. For queer art history, the status quo, by contrast, emerges as a prime object of knowledge’.

I wonder therefore that if all ‘gay publications’, (I feel it is legitimate to include this as part of visual studies), by their very definition are minoritarian. Certainly if you take into account Bryson’s distinction that:

‘a further distinction between gay and lesbian art history and visual studies on one hand and their queer counterparts on the other, over the issue of what might be called indiginous versus discursive understandings of the relation between desire and representation. An acute problem with minoritarian cultural politics is the tendency to dramatize and to valorize authentic expressions of the minority question: the minority is thought of as embodied in a particular radical or foundational way, as possessing a ground of being that is then, as it were subsequently expressed through art and other cultural forms’.

Bryson then provides an algebraic example to illustrate the point:

‘That is, an essential x, whether this be femininity, or negritude or gayness, is thought (i) naturally to express itself unless (ii) such self-expression is blocked by phobia and discriminatory practices; in which case (iii) the task is to clear away the screens and distortions imposed by the dominant regime, and to return to a vision of x – in this case, gay or lesbian desire – in its authentic mode, as a direct expression of the body: female body, black body, gay or lesbian body’.

I wonder if I am interpreting this theory in too obvious and simplistic a fashion as to say that gay publications specifically fashion-consumer led or sexually explicit free sheets are created as a direct result of minoritarian cultural politics?

Bryson goes on to talk about Timeless Desire:

‘Queer art history typically harbors a deep skepticism over the question of timeless desire: it may or may not be true that sexual acts and fantasies stay more or less constant over the long haul; but the place of sexuality in the culture, whether it is accorded a major or a minor role, how it is taken up by other social agencies, what discourses move in on the prima materia of sex, how they articulate and transform the sexual impulse, all that is a matter of history, and the history, specifically, of discourse. For queer art history and visual studies, gay or lesbian desire cannot so easily be isolated from discursive history, or approached as an authentic ground of being. From the time that the categories of heteronormativity came to be instituted in their modern form through the new juridico-medical apparatus of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, stigmatization of the category “homosexuality” has been profoundly constitutive of the heteronormative order, in all of its forms. From this perspective, central questions to be asked of gay or lesbian desire concern the latter’s positioning vis-à-vis discourse, its articulation with the institutions of law, medicine, religion, the family, the school, art, literature, cinema, television. Queer art history and visual studies have no less an ambition than to take on heteronormativity’s entire visual field.

At the moment I am reading Foucault’s The Will To Knowledge: History of Sexuality volume 1. Bryson has cited a key passage that elucidates his point, and struck me as giving legitimization and a causality to the existence of a 20th and 21st century ‘gay press’, the notion of a gay personage as opposed to isolated acts, Foucault says:

‘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’. (1976)

Later Bryson cites another passage by Foucault that appears to provide the basis for the definition of queer theory due to the concept of ‘reverse discourse’:

‘There is no question that the appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and “psychic hermaphrodism” made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of “perversity;” but it also made possible the formation of a “reverse” discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or “naturality” be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified. There is not, on the one side, a discourse of power, and opposite it, another discourse that runs counter to it. Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in…a multiple and mobile field of force relations, wherein far-reaching, but never completely stable, effects of domination are produced’. (Foucault:1976)

Bryson goes on to say:

‘An exemplary case of such reversal would, indeed, be the word “queer” itself, in its arc of development from an insult, a taunt, a strategy of dehumanization, that is now turned back on itself, made to buckle, is redirected and made into a flag, a rallying-point, a weapon’.

Is the ‘gay’ magazine/publication a physical, object manifestation of a social typology? Bryson tells us Typologies were an eighteenth century development, designed to categorize criminal types of a certain disposition, separated as it were from the criminal act itself.

There’s much more to say and I have lost the thread a bit, so I will read more of The Will To Knowledge later today and no doubt write reflect on that here.

I must ensure I pick up The Epistemology of the Closet, it’s been sitting with me for weeks now, and I think I’ve been hesitant to confront it, fear has played a big part in this journey, not fear of the subject matter, perhaps fear of failure, but as Sheena told me in July last year, don’t look down and don’t look back!

The author Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick died last year and in her obituary in The Guardian, Sarah Philips’ gentle style informs me of the importance of Sedgwick’s work, and a provides a useful precis of queer theory’s definitions.

Some salient quotes:

‘one of the sharpest and most committed exponents of queer theory, the exploration of sexual perspectives other than that of conventional straightness in literature and the humanities’

‘Queer theory rejects labels such as gay and straight, referring instead to a sense of identity that subverts presumed norms and social codes’

‘To Sedgwick, “queer” was “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’s ideas are perhaps best outlined in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), acknowledged by many, including her fellow pioneer in queer theory Judith Butler, as a founding text of the field. In Epistemology, Sedgwick uses Oscar Wilde, Henry James and Marcel Proust, to identify what is between gender and the increasing significance placed on normative sexual identities. As she states: “An understanding of virtually any aspect of modern western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition”.

“I’ve heard of many people who claim they’d as soon their children were dead as gay. What it took me a long time to believe is that these people are saying no more than the truth,”

I have just picked up Gender Trouble by Judith Butler and in chapter one “Women” as the subject of Feminism” Foucault’s The Will To Knowledge is cited almost immediately, so without going into the detail suffice to say that Foucault is at the epicenter in relation to gender and sexuality matters, in both feminist and queer discourse.

End

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