Darwin’s finches or Galapagos finches. Darwin, 1845.
In 1984, an interviewer for The Advocate asked Michel Foucault to explain what sexuality was if not a “secret truth about oneself,” a nature that we can discover. Foucault demurred: rather than affirming sexuality as an innate human characteristic, he described it as a knowledge that “we ourselves create” by, through, and in defiance of the social world, a kind of “becoming” that we continuously enact.1 This position became a foundational tenant of queer theory, and scholars, activists, and artists after Foucault increasingly celebrated the agency of queerness’s slippery mutability, rejecting the sexological distinction of medical-social discourses that separated socially acceptable sexuality from a deviant queerness. Rather than an identity by which we interpolate ourselves, queerness became a possibilistic practice capable of leading us out of our inherited systems of power into liberatory socialities.
In Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, Sam See upends queer theory’s emphasis on social construction and its suspicion of an innate queerness. Instead, he argues that it is possible to frame queerness as a nature without capitulating to the sexological thinking that positioned sexual difference as a degenerate threat. Calling this doxa a “naturalistic fallacy” (130), See asks: how would positioning queerness as a nature change our understanding of seminal texts in queer and literary studies? How would such a consideration shift the methods of queer theory itself?
Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies approaches these questions by returning us to the modernist response to the rise of the modern sexual binary. How did queers understand their own nature even as they were being pathologized? How did they narrate their origins in the aftermath? These questions connect what editors Christopher Looby and Michael North have assembled here from the published work and unfinished manuscripts of two book projects on nature and myth in modernism that were left unfinished after See’s untimely death in 2013. In ensemble, See’s collected projects generate a sustained inquiry into the way we historicize queerness’s aesthetic and political rejection of normativity. In this, he anticipates Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson’s 2015 critique that queer theory’s “allegiance to antinormativity” rigidly positions queerness as the polar opposite of heteronormativity, an historical assumption that Valerie Traub, Greta LaFleur, and others have since complicated further.2 Unique to this vein of scholarship is the way See uses nature as it was understood at the dawn of the twentieth century—long a category to which queer theory has been antagonistic—to ask whether queer theory itself has come to reify the same normative sexuality that Foucault aimed to dismantle.
In his opening bid, See offers a provocation: that the origins of evolutionary theory itself accommodate a queer aesthetic. To stage this claim, See begins with a close reading of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), which articulates the theory of evolution from which the binary separating heterosexual from homosexual emerged in the nineteenth century. The ensuing science that found queerness to be degenerate is predicated on a misreading of Darwin that improperly described non-reproductive traits as the undesirable detritus of evolution. Positioning Darwin as a queer theorist, See reminds us that Darwin did not attach value to reproductive evolution in a way that devalued non-reproductive or atavistic attributes: “Darwin already includes queerness within nature by claiming that, although natural selection may not select for the adaptationally useless, it also does not select against it” (24). As he elaborates, evolution actively generates “traits like queerness that are of no exigent use to the species and therefore either exist in perpetual flux or become permanently useless features” (25). Dislodged from reproductive futurity, See focuses on the way Darwin’s theories not only allow for but celebrate the futureless products of evolution; these are what the former describes as aesthetic qualities produced by nature which circumvent the futurity that reproductive heterosexuality has weaponized to justify its social domination. In other words, unreproductive natures need not be synonymous with extinction—they might, in fact, open aesthetic avenues that vivify life itself.
At first blush, I confess that I found myself suspicious of See’s approach. His reading of Darwin in particular seemed to depend on a rigid, perhaps ahistorical binary that separated the value of reproduction from the failures of anything else. As I read further, I saw how See used this blunt dichotomy to unravel the way we have naturalized the post-Darwinian deployment of evolution to pathologize homosexuality and normalize heterosexuality, a value judgement that Darwin did not articulate in Origins. For See, this correction requires a further reinvestigation into the way queer literature and culture responded to cultural pathologizations that vilified queer natures, and to do so, See turns to the crucible of literary modernism, which circulated at the height of medical pathologization of queerness. Through literary modernism, he shows how queer authors conceived of sexuality in terms that asserted the very naturalness from which queerness was being ever more intensely alienated.
The chapters comprising the first half of the book focus on the way Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Langston Hughes, and others claim queerness as a legitimate nature in ways that have been largely unaddressed. Starting with Woolf, See suggests that atavistic tendencies in Between the Acts (1941) discard the ideological attachment of normative sexuality to cultural futurity. For See, Woolf rejects “misogynistic renderings of sexual selection” and celebrates non-reproductive women; he suggests that by refusing “reproductivity as the only natural state of sexual being,” Woolf recovers a nature to queer feelings that seemed impossible after the institutionalization of heterosexuality as the singular mode of natural sexuality (58, 59). Following Woolf, See recovers how Forster’s posthumously published novel Maurice depathologized sexual difference even while majority discourses relegated homosexuality into the domain of the unsayable: Maurice “does not fetishize the sexual other’s plight but depicts it as an exceptional form of social typicality,” claiming a space for queerness in a natural order that the normative world refuses to acknowledge (99). For Forster, queerness becomes a forgotten part of the “infinite variation and differentiation” that Darwin celebrated (99). The thesis accumulated across these examples is that modernist queer writers took a surprising aesthetic pleasure in repurposing the natural markers by which western science conveyed non-normative deviance.
This turn to recover the very tools by which western science pathologizes bodies it deems non-normative inadvertently illustrates the limits of See’s project to reclaim nature. That is because See’s project—perhaps due to its incompletion, perhaps reflecting a racial lacuna in modernist studies at the time of his writing3—devotes insufficient attention to the way nature, sexuality, race, and illusions of biological futurity create interlocking matrices of exclusion that have produced racial hierarchies within experiences of sexual difference. To be sure, See understands these hierarchies to be related. In a chapter on The Weary Blues, See illustrates how Hughes deploys tropes about the nature of Black and queer embodiment by “co-opt[ing] pathologizing taxonomies” in order to “debunk them even while retaining [their] nature-based premises” (111). In an extension of the argument about white modernist writers, See shows how the very features that marked Black and queer people as degenerate, too, can be repurposed as cites of aesthetic stimulation and celebration. But not all modernisms or embodiments of queer sexuality are alike, and the fact that Hughes stands alone in this volume leaves the role of race in hierarchizing queer nature undertheorized.
The problems and the promise of See’s reclamations of nature bring us to the second half of the volume, Queer Mythologies. Here, See explains how largely white queer modernist authors constructed their own myths by which to reject scientific and social pathologization and to ground their own communitarian memory. Myth allowed fiction to “structure the unstructured queer community” (205), but myth also exposes the way science naturalized its biases as objective truths. As he explains, “theories about sexuality are postulates of belief and feeling, not incontrovertible, universally true knowledge claims” (143). In the turn to myth, See reveals how writers, especially in the modernist moment, give us cues to revisit the discourses of oppression—including those we still mistrust—that sexual others deployed to understand their queerness in the face of social, legal, and scientific hostility. The deployment of myth, as See explains elsewhere, allows queers to “create history” for themselves in order to gesture towards a queerer future; in the end, however, the vision of a queer world these writers imagined retained race as a nature that even myth could not unravel.4
What surprises most about this argument is that See yokes myth and nature—seemingly incommensurate ideas—together. To my mind, See’s pairing generates an admirable and unusual optimism that emphasizes queer endurance even in a period when negative affects like shame, loneliness, and melancholy rose as primary indicators of queer feeling. Are these, as we often assume them to be, the predestined ways that queers would have felt? See argues that myth provided a countermeasure by allowing queers to “believe in their own historicity and in the possibility of transhistorical and transnational communities” after being made to feel unnatural both in medical science and in the polity generally (135). To demonstrate mythopoeia’s queer potential, See reviews modernist texts like T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922), John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925), Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), Harte Crane’s The Bridge (1930), and Charles Henry Ford’s The Young and the Evil (1933). On the one hand, myth’s modernist iteration accesses a “wider anxiety” about cultural shifts in the twentieth century that myth in literature was particularly adept at representing (195). But on the other, myth particularly allows writers to frame queerness itself as a “precondition for imagining in art” identities that were becoming “a fraught construction in historical reality” (197). Across these authors, he excavates ephemeral moments where “sexual desire attains a mythic status” to envision a “universally queer world” that medical and social discourses were making to seem unimaginable (215). That reach beyond the conditions of the contemporaneous is why myth is so important both for See and for the authors he studies: because of the possibility of reinvention.
The most provocative implication of See’s thought is that queer mythologizing might share something with the scientistic logic it was trying to escape. For See, myth and nature—much like the relation of normativity with its opposite—form a mutually constituting fabric that also implicates the theoretical assumptions—especially a reliance on queer antinormativity—under which we operate now. As he suggests, examining the mythic and the natural in tandem helps us to understand why claims like Lady Gaga’s “born this way” are so troubling for queer theorists as they are powerful for some gay communities (146). While troubling because of the scientistic logic such an anthem unwittingly supports, it also conveys a queer feeling of connectedness whose mythopoeic power remains a vital form of queer knowing. As Heather Love reflects in one of the response essays with which the book concludes, this kind of “conflict with the doxa of a field that defines itself through its iconoclasm and its unbending stance against nature” are necessary because of the way doxa become institutional (290). In the end, rather than dismiss feelings of nature outright, See asks us to re-examine what myths we tell about where and when to locate queer sensibilities vis-à-vis the hostile logics that helped to birth them.
See died before he could finish these paired investigations. Nonetheless, the paths of his thinking provide guides for our ongoing scholarship. As editors North and Looby write in their introduction, their compilation of See’s unfinished book projects is meant to “propel further study” of the “compelling lines” of inquiry his works drew (2). To my mind, the challenge to queer theory’s shibboleths embedded in See’s bid to “reorient the charge of degeneration” excite as much as they remain incomplete because of their inchoate, destabilizing potential (4). His experimentation with the complexities of this encounter prompt Scott Herring, Love, and Wendy Moffatt, who each contributed essays reflecting on See’s writing, to pronounce him “recklessly brave”; even if incomplete, his scholarship succeeds in that it challenges us to continue “queering the ancient modern divide” that so much post-sexological thinking has repeated (300, 271). If this was work See could not finish in a life cut abruptly short, it is work that we, as inheritors, can extend. In part, that continuation is the nature of scholarship. But it is perhaps even more a part of the mythos of queerness to imagine new worlds—especially from the fragments of thought that our peers, much like their predecessors, leave in their absence to our interpretation.
- Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (New York: New Press, 1997), 164.
- For further reading, see Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson, “Introduction: Antinormitivity’s Queer Conventions,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 26, no. 1 (2015): 1–25; Valerie Traub, “The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies,” PMLA 128, no. 1 (January 2013): 21–39; Greta LaFleur, “La Fleur – Histories of Sexuality and Gender Trouble in 18th Ce N America” 12, no. 3 (n.d.): 469–99; Annamarie Jagose, “The Trouble with Antinormativity,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 26, no. 1 (2015): 26–47.
- In 2013, Michael Bibby critiqued the “central role of racism in the formation of the academy’s conception of modernism and its exclusion of New Negro,” observing a persistent problem in approaches to modernism and race. Michael Bibby, “The Disinterested and Fine: New Negro Renaissance Poetry and the Racial Formation of Modernist Studies,” Modernism/Modernity 20, no. 3 (2013): 485–501, 486.
- Sam See, “Richard Barnfield and the Limits of Homoerotic Literary History,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13, no. 1 (2007): 63–91, 64.