Heather Love: “Feeling Backward”

2007

INTRODUCTION:

“The history of Western representation is littered with the corpses of gender and sexual deviants” 1. The project of the book is to look back at the painful, moving stories of queerness rather than only “affirming the legitimacy of gay and lesbian existence” 2. “The turn to the negative in queer studies was also the result of a deep intellectual engagement during this period with [Foucault, who] describes the ways that dominated groups may take advantage of the reversibility of power… discourse produces power ‘but also undermines and exposes it'” 2. For example, as homosexuality (“inversion”) was translated from religious taboo and legal violation into the discourse of illness, it became possible for it to ‘speak in its own behalf'” 2.

The contradiction of queerness as “delicious and freak… is lived out on the level of individual subjectivity; homosexuality is experienced as a stigmatizing mark as well as a from of romantic exceptionalism” 3. It also exists between celebrity gays and lesbians and the real violence and inequality of the everyday. Love is concerned with the deep emotions that painful texts (like Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 The Well of Loneliness) stir in us; even if the project of queer studies has to be to affirm, for Love, it seems it also has to be to dwell in the affects of pain and damage, to turn “attention to several late 19th and early 20th century literary texts visibly marked by queer suffering” 4. Whether vague or explicit, the texts of Pater, Cather, Hall, and Warner are all engaged in “feeling backward,” the “painful negotiation of the coming of modern homosexuality… an account of the corporeal and psychic costs of homophobia” 4.

The backward-looking image of the text is drawn from Lot’s wife, who could not but look back at the loss of the city as a consequence of sin 5. Like “trope,” which means a turn of the “word away from its literal meaning,” Love will turn characters and phrases out of context “to create an image repertoire of queer modernist melancholia in order to underline both the losses of queer modernity and the deeply ambivalent negotiation of these losses within the literature of the period” 5. Inherent in modernity’s insistence on progress are also its failures and regressions 5. Aesthetically, too, “the new” is prized alongside nostalgia, primitivism, and melancholia in modernism 6. Queerness is “a backward race,” “a past,” a confrontation with death for Love 6.

“Backwardness has been taken up as a key feature of queer culture. Camp, for instance, with its tender concern for outmoded elements of popular culture and its refusal to get over childhood pleasures and traumas, is a backward art” 7. “I also consider the backward feelings – shame, depression, and regret – that they inspire in contemporary critics” 8. If queer critics seek to “reach back and save” isolated artists, what happens when those texts “resist our advances”? 8. Horkheimer and Adorno “discuss the danger of lookng backward in The Dialectic of Enlightenment… the allure of the Sirens… [is] ‘losing oneself in the past'” 9. What saves Odysseus is that “even as he looks backward he keeps moving forward… an ideal model of the relation to the historical past: listen to it, but do not allow yourself to be destroyed by it” 9. (This also has some kinky implications – the S&M/bondage of history?)

The integration of queer life into the mainstream may come on “the condition that one breaks ties with all those who cannot make it – the nonwhite and the nonmonogamous, the poor and the genderdeviant, the fat, the disabled, the unemployed, the infected, and a host of unmentionable others… the temptation to forget is stronger than ever” 10.

For Love, Raymond Williams “offers a crucial link between cognition and affect” in Marxism and Literature in describing ‘structures of feeling’ – “the idea that feeling flows naturally from the subject and expresses the truth of that subject” 11. Since “literature accounts for experience at the juncture of the psychic and the social,” it is a privileged example for Williams 12. Love also pauses to consider Wendy Brown’s idea of “Left Melancholy,” where a “crisis of political motivation” also entails a focus on traditionally nonpolitical affects like shame and melancholia 12. Love also mentions Ngai, whose affects expressly do not inspire political action, but are rather, as Ngai herself writes, “diagnostic” 13. Critics such as Warner, Sedgwick, and Crimp have suggested the shared experience of shame and the shamed as a potential space for collectivity 14. Love wants to expand the “bad feelings” that seem apolitical and consider how they might be transformed into action regardless.

Love calls on Butler’s questioning of the term ‘queer’ in “Critically Queer,” where Butler suggests that the term queer itself will have always to be turned and queered to remain questioning, relevant, though for Love, it should also be aware of the past it is staging and overcoming 18. In other words, for Butler, we must not linger in the history of injury implied in the word. “D.A. Miller suggests a way to think about the relationship between the queer past and the queer present in terms of continuity rather than opposition or departure” that focuses on “the indelible nature of ideology’s effects” – the “before and after” of gay experience, in which “gay pride is a reverse or mirror image of gay shame,” even for those individuals who did not themselves experience events such as Stonewall 19-20.

Love, like Berlant, calls on Lacan’s description of love as failure, and in Freudian terms, “homosexuality is often seen as a result of a failure of maturation or a failure to overcome primary cathexes, and it has been associated with narcissism and infantilism as well as with incomplete or failed gendering… as selfishness… fleeting and doomed” 21-2. Here, “homosexuality and homosexuals serve as scapegoats for the failures and impossibilities of desire itself” 22. Lee Edelman, “recommends that queers embrace their association with the antisocial, while still pointing to the antisocial energies that run through all sexuality” 22. Rather than the antisocial voiding the future, Love focuses on failures of the social and ambivalence toward the future through a look at the past 23.

Love is skeptical of the systems and structures of psychological readings, and aligns herself instead with Sedgwick’s idea (in Touching Feeling) of “a swerve away from ‘paranoid’ toward ‘reparative’ reading… from exposure as a reading protocol… toward the descriptive rather than the critical” 23.

“Foucault’s legacy to queer studies is most closely allied with his critique of identity and his development of the method of genealogy…[in homosexual love] the best moment of an encounter is when you are putting the boy in the taxi… a historical real that is always receding, always already lost” 24. “Though bad feelings have been central to the history of queer experience and queer feeling, there is little room for them in the contemporary climate… While I do not argue for the political efficacy of any particular bad feeling in this book, I do argue for the importance of such feelings in general. Backward feelings serve as an index to the ruined state of the social world… It is true that the small repertoire of feelings that count as political – hope, anger, solidarity – have done a lot… not nearly enough” 26-7.

Love advocates for the term queer because “rather than disavowing the history of marginalization and abjection, I suggest that we embrace it… Modern homosexual identity is formed out of and in relation to the experience of social damage… it also makes visible the damage that we live with in the present” 29. “It is this disposition toward the past – embracing loss, risking abjection – that I mean to evoke with the phrase ‘feeling backward… It may in fact seem shaming to hold onto an identity that cannot be uncoupled from violence, suffering, and loss. I insist on the importance of clinging to ruined identities and to histories of injury. Resisting the call of gay normalization means refusing to write off the most vulnerable, the least presentable, and all the dead'” 30.

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