Queer(s) Reading / Reading Askew, or the Benefits of Distraction / Karen Tongson

Amber’s Chihuahua

Queer(s) Reading began as a panel for the 2020 Seattle MLA—an event that was, for many attendees, one of the last physical gatherings they would take part in for quite some time.  We continue that conversation in this forum under the very different conditions generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our collective concern is the vitalizing possibilities of queer(s) reading—that is, of embodied and located modes of experiencing, engaging with, and interpreting the literary, visual, multimedia, and theoretical texts that inform queer lives. Queer(s) reading, as the six authors in this forum describe it, is both a radical relation and a radical refusal, working to expand networks of queer kinship, collectivity, feeling, friendship, love, and desire. Queer reading may be done alone, but it is never solitary.

This forum’s desire is to play with and expand the potential of how we read, see, listen, and watch. We engage and pursue critical conversations beyond the deadlocked opposition between “critique” and “description.” Queer(s) reading is an invocation, and a provocation, that finds value in the inventiveness of the situated, the sensual, and the relations between. 

Many thanks to our contributors, to the audience at MLA, and to the editors of ASAP/J for their support

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I begin with an epigraph that has stuck with me since I was in graduate school in 1999: “It can’t just be intellectual/the way I feel is sexual, the way I feel is sexual, when I’m next to you.” Readers who are old enough may recognize this chorus plucked from the Eurotrash dance smash, “Sexual (La Da Di)” by the Dutch-born German singer Amber, who holds Billboard’s designation as the thirty-fourth most successful dance artist of all time. For the rest of you, I’m sorry. The official music video for this gem features a lip-synching Chihuahua who responds excitedly to a wind-blown Amber canoodling with a shirtless metrosexual in boot cut jeans.


Before Amber and her horny chihuahua wormed their way back into my ears when I sat down to write this, I actually planned to open with a citation of the method in which I was being trained in 1999 by my dissertation advisor, Catherine Gallagher at UC Berkeley. The method I’m alluding to is called “the new historicism.” It takes an entire book for Gallagher and her co-author Stephen Greenblatt to explain and model the new historicism for us, though inevitably they refuse to define it, focusing instead on a set of transformative effects the method had on literary criticism of that time. I quote them at length here:

1) the recasting of discussions about ‘art’ into discussions of ‘representations’ [hence the journal of the same name], 2) the shift from materialist explanations of historical phenomena to investigations of the history of the human body and the human subject 3) the discovery of unexpected discursive contexts for literary works by pursuing their ‘supplements’ rather than their overt thematics and 4) the gradual replacement of ‘ideology critique’ with discourse analysis.1

I don’t have the space to address each of these effects point-by-point, nor can I adequately surmise how these effects have endured in a U.S. academy that is both gatekeepy and deeply suspicious of (yet also tremendously susceptible to) what is intellectually #trending at any given moment.

What I can say for myself, however, is that new historicism is a method I’ve never felt particularly good at, especially at the time of the video’s release, as I was reading for my quals, which were all oral. In 1999 I was too frequently distracted by questions about why the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” was infectious. “How is it possible,” I repeatedly asked myself, “for the Swedish songsmith Max Martin to write this, and Britney’s ‘Baby One More Time’ in the same year?! What makes the Swedes so apt at writing earworms? I mean, look at ABBA, or Robyn’s ‘Show Me Love.’  Why am I, a late-twenty-something, adult queer of color obsessed with this shit when I really need to be reading Daniel Deronda instead?!”

And though I obviously ended up passing my quals that year, contrary to the anxiety dreams I continue to have over 20 years later, I never quite fit in with my Victorianist cohort. At some point there were 9 of us on the job market in a single year. Every single one of them were more gifted than I at a lot of things, but especially at rooting through archives, and figuring out the exact window of history that a certain word or idea achieved its peak cultural circulation in an Anglophone context.

Mr. Miyagi and Daniel

And yet… and yet… in the same way that Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel-san in the Karate Kid how to kick ass by waxing his vintage cars on and off, or by weather-proofing his wood fence using a supple, fluid up and down wrist-motion, I’ve come to realize that in these last twenty years or so, I have, in my own way, been practicing the new historicism until I actually could. Or at the very least (or would it be the most?), until the crazy shit I’ve been doing that’s been jerry-rigged from the new historicism could be received with the dignity of a method, simply because I’m old enough and have been promoted by the institution enough times to “merit” such a thing.

In the intervening years, I’ve been able to rethink and reframe the value of my errant desires: the wayward passions eliciting accusations on a lifetime of schoolyards, from junior high to the university, that I was a “wannabe”—an even baser version of a dilettante—“distracted” by the detritus of cultural production. Several major projects into my career, I’ve come to discover that even though each book is always generated from my preceding work, the genesis for it may have only appeared as a pesky detail foraged from a thick description, a song lyric stuck in my head, or an incident from a lesser-known place. In other words, from the supplementary, rather than the overtly thematic, or item number three in Gallagher and Greenblatt’s list of new historicist outcomes.

Very rarely are the connections between my objects “obvious”—word cloud: queer suburbs, karaoke, Karen Carpenter, normporn2—though I sometimes fancy they’re digressively coherent. Isn’t it Byronic, dontcha think? The reading askew I mention in my title, and have modeled thus far, refers to the digressions and peculiar pathways that open to wider vistas of inquiry about how cultural forms, transformative ideas, and more precisely, how queer and racialized bodies find their ways in, out, and sometimes even through the clutter of mainstream popular culture. To read askew is to allow the songs lodged in our heads, the incidental and circumstantial distractions to lead us awry to some other entry point, some other way of comprehending notions that seem difficult, complex, or alien to us. It is to bring two very distant objects like a critical method (the new historicism), and a pop demo of kata (Mr. Miyagi’s kinesthetic lessons in form in the Karate Kid) into an irreverent, one might even say grotesque semblance in a manner that illuminates something more about each of them.

Though my training was beholden to a historicist method, my research (now rather “presentist,” or do we call it “recentist”?), combines the close reading of primary texts with a genealogical account of how we read, what we read, who is reading, and then in turn, how we write about that process. I’m pretty certain I’ve said some version of this here in the pages of ASAP Journal previously, in a forum on “Queer Form” back in 2017. For me reading and writing in ways that puncture the severity and self-righteousness of a very narrow sense of professionalism—that enter at a weird angle—is tantamount. Reading askew, then, is also to allow one’s self to be a promiscuous reader for whom the principles of sorting aren’t predicated on fit and continuity, but rather on what we are capable of conjuring. As it happens, I said as much in the dissertation on “Ethical Excess” I’m still stunned I was able to write on Victorian non-fiction prose.

Reading Matthew Arnold against the grain, in a manner that probably made me unemployable as a proper Victorianist, I argued that even Arnold’s most beloved species of criticism, “literary criticism,” refers to a heterogeneous and promiscuous model of textual analysis wherein the word “literary” fails to describe the range of objects within its purview. Rather “literary” seems to modify the very character, the very literariness in method of a “general criticism” without designating an area of study. In short, Arnold thought of literary criticism not just as a study of forms, but as a general account of the effect a work has on culture. And he was no stranger to getting hung up on the tiniest of details: on poetic hooks, or “touchstones” that in my mind are no better or worse than those earworms that continue to send me everywhere but where I am supposed to be.

In “The Study of Poetry,” his preface to The English Poets, Arnold describes the use he envisioned for the touchstone:

Indeed there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us most good, than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry. Of course we are not to require this other poetry to resemble them; it may be very dissimilar. Short passages, even single lines will serve our turn quite sufficiently.3

The model of critical evaluation encouraged by the touchstone is one of comparative efficiency. Arnold’s touchstones are basically soundbites, catchy expressions and memorable snippets of text that “lodge” themselves in the mind. These unforgettable lines not only have a good hook, but they have been presorted for excellence depending on who has produced them. According to Arnold, touchstones come from the “great masters” (casually assembled by Arnold himself, of course) and are thus preordained for comparative application. When brought into juxtaposition with works aspiring to like stature, the touchstone by mere proximity reveals whether or not a would-be classic passes muster. Strikingly, a “resemblance” between the touchstone and the text is not a prerequisite for excellence. In fact, dissimilarity and incongruity are among the benefits of juxtaposition afforded by this handy evaluative tool that the critic carries as part of their intellectual kit.

What is further remarkable about Arnold’s description of the touchstone is that it establishes a relatively simple, almost dilettantish methodology for the practice of criticism. The only tool one needs to practice one’s evaluative powers is a memorized repertoire of sampled moments—not even the greatest hits in their entirety. The touchstone, like the maxim, is the smallest unit of a comparative apparatus measuring a range of effects from a range of cultural objects. As much as Arnold is credited with establishing elitist and exclusive rules for literary criticism, which he truly does, we nevertheless see in his own method and practice of criticism a tendency to make light of rigorous methods and commitments. In other words, do as Arnold does, not always as he says. (Points like that are probably why no one ever wanted to hire me as a Victorianist. But once again, I digress.)

Dan Quayle, “Potatoe”

What do the errant details and tiny particulars open up for us? If I really, truly think about it, even my venerable advisor staked the second half of her storied career on a “potato in the materialist imagination.”4 In this chapter of Practicing the New Historicism, Gallagher’s opening paragraphs model a kind of playfulness we tend not to associate with the new historicism, given the charismatic Derridean-style deconstruction that was still very much in vogue at the time. She invokes Dan Quayle’s scandalous misspelling of the word “potato” (with an extraneous “e” at the end), as well as George H.W. Bush’s efforts to compensate for his veep’s ineptitude with an erudite quip about how Chaucer might have spelled it that way. She then riffs on the medieval potato as a Northern European “Ur-food,” before winding her way to her true object, the British potato debates of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: “The potato, to put it briefly, became an icon of the autochthonous body for certain late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century writers and hence it seems an appropriate topic for launching a discussion of the modern materialist imagination.”5

In other words, I’m not too far off from how I was trained after all, though my relationship to this training is obviously disidentificatory.6 To disidentify means to understand the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of things that are either too closely aligned to what people expect from us, or too far beyond our ken and therefore, distinctly NOT for us. The disidentificatory is a core affect in an approach to reading that is “askew,” or that requires entry points from odd angles to facilitate a deep reckoning with the cultural objects we are expected to either embrace or disavow because of our racialized and sexualized positionalities. It presents as wayward or errant, prone to distraction, and promiscuous, because of the fleeting nature of encounters with certain objects. To read askew, to come at things “not in a straight or level position” (as one definition of the word emphasizes), has become the bread and butter—or is it the meat and potatoes?—of this errant fool’s academic career. Let it be yours if you so desire, and like Amber’s devoted dance-party Chihuahua, I implore you to listen to your loins.

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This is one of seven essays from Queer(s) Reading. Read the other posts here.

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  1. Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing the New Historicism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), 2000, p 17.
  2. I’m referring, of course, to the monographs I’ve written, or am in the middle of writing: Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (New York: NYU Press, 2011), Why Karen Carpenter Matters (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019), Normporn: TV and the Spectacle of Normalcy (New York: NYU Press, forthcoming 2022), and Empty Orchestra: Karaoke, Queer Performance, Queer Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, in progress).
  3. Matthew Arnold, “The Study of Poetry” in The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, vol. 9: English Literature and Irish Politics, ed. R.H. Super (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1973), 161-188. Citation taken from 168.
  4. Gallagher, “The Potato in the Materialist Imagination” in Practicing the New Historicism, 110-136.
  5. Ibid., 111.
  6. I am always and forever indebted to my dear, departed friend José Esteban Muñoz’s formative first book, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).