Category GENDERS


The historical evolution and/or contemporary understanding ofterms such as Gender, Sexuality, Femininity, Feminism, Masculinity, Lesbian, Gay and Queer are treated at length in the book. This glossary offers clarification of other key terms and concepts used throughout.

Abjection In common sense usage the condition of being thought by others, or feeling, inferior. For feminist psychoanalysis abjection describes a landscape of feeling that places women – and femininity – before, below and beyond culture – so much so that they themselves or the feminine itself cannot be represented within it. For this latter use see in particular Julia Kristeva (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York, Columbia University Press). Cathexis; Cathection A psychoanalytic term describing the process of investment of mental or emotional energy in a person, object or idea.

Dimorphism Sexual dimorphism in humans is the systematic difference in form between individuals of different sex and the subject of much medical and scientific debate.

Phantasmatic A psychoanalytic term denoting the unconscious desires, fears and drives of the individual.

Hermaphrodite Someone who combines features drawn from both sexes. Heteronormative Those overt or implied rules, which may be social, familial and/or legal, that force conformity to dominant heterosexual standards of identity or behaviour. Related to Adrienne Rich’s earlier formulation of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, the term was introduced by critic and theorist Michael Warner in 1991. See Michael Warner (1993) Fear of a Queer Planet and (2000) The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life.

Intersexuality The condition of a living thing whose sex chromosomes, genitalia and/or secondary sex characteristics are determined to be neither exclusively male nor female. Now preferred by some to hermaphrodite. However intersex movement campaigners who critique current medical protocols of sex reassignment prefer other neutral terms such as disorders of sexual development.

Sensibility A concept alongside sentimentality that emerged in the eighteenth century, denoting an acute response to things or to people. While the two terms are close, sensibility refers to those emotions that seem instinctive or physical, rather than the discourse of moralized sentiment. Both excess sensibility and sentimentality were often associated with women and feminity.

Transgender The state of gender identity not matching culturally or physically assigned gender. It does not imply a particular sexual orientation but often designates moves between conventional notions of male or female gender, or a lack of identification with the gender assigned at birth. One of a number of terms now used to designate people along a continuum of gendered identities.


‘Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity’, writes Judith Butler. Instead, it should be seen as an ‘effect’, the ‘mundane’ product of regularly repeated ‘bodily gestures, move­ments, and styles of various kinds’ that create the impression of ‘an abiding gendered self’, to cite once more a passage that was quoted earlier (Butler 1990: 140). As we saw in the Introduction, Butler calls this impression an ‘illusion’ because she wants to underline the tenuous way in which gender is routinely realized through those performances that allow it to be identified or recognized for what it is, performances that are open to disruption, unexpected variation and transformation. Put like this, gender is apt to sound hollow, insubstantial, lacking in psychic depth; but Butler’s point is that ultimately gender is only as solid as the social and cultural practices that constitute it over time.

Butler’s emphasis upon the performative character of gender echoes a number of contemporary trends: the deliberate theatri­cality of issue-based political movements like Queer Nation, fashionable and typically gender-ambiguous forms of body-art such as tattooing and piercing, the increasing public visibility of erotic minorities including transsexuals and transvestites. Her

formulations seem to capture the fluidity and expressiveness currently displayed by gendered bodies, our belief in their plasticity and adaptability, the difficulties we face in ‘reading’ identity from appearances. Under such a regime of difference the putative distinction between sex and gender is frequently haphazard or obscured, just as the new signification of ‘queer’ discussed in Chapter 4 points to a blurring of the lines between heterosexual, gay, lesbian and bisexual practices.

Throughout this book gender has figured as a chameleon-like category, a name for a constantly changing phenomenon that can sometimes be more and also sometimes rather less than an identity: a system of hierarchical relationships, for example, or at the other extreme, the glimpse or trace of a style on a busy urban street. This is not to say that gender has not historically been a major component of people’s sense of who they are or what they would like to be. But it has not always been understood as the naturally occurring foundation of an identity. For, as Judith Halberstam has recently argued, gender has varied according to a number of different principles in both modern and pre-modern societies. In some circumstances what Halberstam calls ‘gender variance’ may be determined primarily by a woman’s marital status or its absence (the nineteenth-century ‘spinster’); in other instances, like transsexualism or hermaphroditism, it may be directly ‘measured on the body’ (Halberstam 1998: 59).

Halberstam’s challenging study Female Masculinity is exemplary for its insistence upon the multiplicity of forms that gender can take, refusing to lump them all carelessly together. But her arguments take us to the limits of present-day gender theory. Halberstam’s book is based upon the premise that women them­selves have helped to create modern masculinity, not just via the contrast with femininity, but by developing their own unique kinds of masculine personae. Female masculinities have prolifer­ated over the ages and include such different modes as the tomboy, the female husband, the stone butch and the drag king, to cite just a few. As their names suggest, these types are linked to particular roles or performances and are not necessarily defined by their sexual preferences. Halberstam notes that ‘some rural women may be considered masculine by urban standards’, yet ‘their masculinity may simply have to do with the fact that they engage in more manual labour than other women’ (58). Similarly, her brief discussion of American cowgirls makes the obvious point that their tough self-presentation is partly a product of an intensely physical outdoor lifestyle herding cattle and competing in rodeos. These manifestations of masculinity are not merely imitative, as George Mosse’s all-encompassing account of the Western manly ideal discussed in Chapter 2 would lead us to believe; instead, they represent an independent or alternative line of development: ‘masculinity without men’ (13).

Although, as this last phrase (and indeed the title of her book) indicate, Halberstam sometimes seems to want to unify these disparate identities, claiming at one point that ‘female masculinity is a specific gender with its own cultural history’, her main concern is to complicate and unravel our existing preconceptions (77). So, from her perspective, lesbianism is too loose a catch-all to do justice to the variety of positions that historically have been available and consequently it is a descriptor that is often blind to certain key differences in self-understanding. In her discussion of Radclyffe Hall, for example, Halberstam argues that what the author accomplishes in both her writing and her life is the articulation of ‘a complex female masculinity, one that neither copies male homosexuality nor male heterosexuality but that carves out its own gender expression’ (90). Against Terry Castle who in her book Kindred Spirits: Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall (1996) has attempted to chart the mutual influences, the hidden commonalities between lesbian and gay male styles in the 1920s, Halberstam contends that Hall embraced the medical definition of the ‘masculine invert’, a person who experienced herself as, and who looked like a man, but whose body was, according to strict anatomical criteria, female. Like her character Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness, Hall sought to find a mode of dress that would enable her to feel comfortable with herself, yet which stopped short of masquerading as a man, thereby distinguishing herself from the figure of the transvestite or ‘the passing woman’. On this reading, both Stephen and Hall (the boundary between character and author tends to be elided here) are portrayed as quintessentially modern gendered selves who see

their identity not as ‘organically emanating from the flesh but as a complex act of self-creation in which the dressed body’ rather than the naked or undressed body, ‘represents one’s desire’ (Halberstam 1998: 106).

There is a discernible tension in the argument at this stage, for as Halberstam clearly recognizes (and as Hall’s recently published letters show) she believed that to be an ‘invert’ was an entirely ‘natural’ phenomenon, despite the fact that it condemned one to a constant struggle against a blatantly discriminatory world. Indeed, in the 1920s the category of the invert was predicated precisely on its apparent fixity; and, of course, we will never know how many women would have chosen ‘gender reassignment’ by surgical means if such an option had then been available. Yet elsewhere in her discussion, Halberstam notes that Stephen Gordon’s ‘feelings about her body’ are ‘essentially contradictory’ and it is as if her choice of clothing (her ‘sartorial aesthetic’) functions as a cultural solvent of these corporeal anxieties (90, 101).

These questions are restaged and replayed — though always with a difference — in ongoing intersex and transgender campaigns to secure ‘the rights to technologies that facilitate gender reassign­ment’ raising, as Judith Butler notes in Undoing Gender, new sets of feminist theoretical and ethical concerns about the limits and possibilities of human perfectibility. The ‘important coalitional thinking’ that need to be done in the movements which comprise the ‘New Gender Politics. . . will doubtless have to do with presumptions about bodily dimorphism, the uses and abuses of technology, and the contested status of the human, and of life itself.’ Resolutions will not banish or more than temporarily resolve the conflicts that flow from the fact that gender ‘figures as a precondition for the production and maintenance of legible humanity.’ (Butler 2004: 11)

We return therefore not only to the vexed question of the relationship between nature and culture, or to the lived significance of discursive constructs and systems of classification, but to the problem of how far change is possible, and the extent to which gender can be imagined otherwise. For gender is never wholly protean nor totally fluid; at any given time and place it is configured within a range of technological, socio-economic and cultural constraints. And though these constraints may mark the discursive limits of our world, they are also the starting point from which our imaginations may defiantly begin again.


If late-twentieth-century publishing increasingly became a department or specialism within vast multi-media conglomerates, it is also the case that for many men and women reading novels is now inseparable from their wider consumption of cultural narratives via film and television. To a large extent, these media currently occupy the space that once belonged to the literary public sphere and they are among the primary sites within which our sense of ourselves as gendered subjects or individuals is imaginatively engaged and tested out across a variety of cultural forms. The multiplier effect of one cultural form upon another can be considerable. To take a relatively small example: the release of the Merchant-Ivory film of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View in 1985 led to the sale of two million copies of the novel, compared to a mere 50,000 in Forster’s own lifetime (Glover 1996: 30). As we have already noted, in Habermas’s view this massification of the media and their concentration in the hands of a small number of giant corporations have been central to the public sphere’s decline, turning a ‘culture-debating’ public into an audience of culture-consumers (Habermas 1989: 159). In the remainder of this chapter we will look at some of the weaknesses of Habermas’s position from a gender perspective.

While Habermas has recently conceded that his original analysis was ‘too pessimistic’, partly because it ignored ‘the cultural context of [media] reception’, his model of the public sphere was also flawed by his idealization of print culture and his corresponding failure to address fully its tendency to exclude female participants (Habermas 1992: 427—8, 438—9). At one level these criticisms suggest some fairly straightforward revisions. By simultaneously questioning the assumptions behind Habermas’s model and taking a fresh look at the history of the cinema, for example, it should become possible to bring women back into the picture. However, as we will see, it is debatable whether Habermas’s thesis can really survive this kind of close, gender-sensitive scrutiny.

To begin at the beginning: one of the main themes in debates about the impact of film on early twentieth-century society was a fear that it would radically destabilize the relations between the sexes. ‘Worst of all,’ opined the Chicago Daily News in 1907, the new cheap movie theatres or nickelodeons ‘may become foci for the spread of moral degradation’, places where ‘young girls particularly are in danger of forming associations that are ruinous’ (quoted in Rabinovitz 1990: 74). Behind the paper’s vague, yet undeniably sensationalizing language lay a number of what it believed were worrying developments: the rapid migration into Chicago of people new to American city life, especially young (often immigrant) working-class women, who were able to evade the control of their families in the vast metropolis. Again and again, gullible young women cinema-goers were identified as the problem generated by the new medium. In his satirical essay ‘The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies’, written in Germany in the 1920s, cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer turned this prejudice on its head and cynically suggested a two-way relay between cinema and society: if ‘sensational film hits and life usually correspond to each other’ it is ‘because the Little Miss Typists [ Tippmamsells] model themselves after the examples they see on the screen’, but it may also be ‘that the most hypocritical instances are stolen from life’ (Kracauer 1995: 292). In film it was possible to have the worst of both worlds.

This mixture of condescension and alarm was not untypical. On the one hand, women were attacked for failing to conform;

on the other, they were ridiculed if they were seen as conforming too much. Cinema appears therefore as a potential site of transgression, a setting that allows women to reveal their troubling otherness, their appetites and their desires. Above all it provided access to new experiences. In 1897 one of the most popular attractions in American movie theatres was a film of a heavyweight boxing championship that ran for nearly two hours. What was truly remarkable was that 60 per cent of the audience consisted of women who, through the medium of film, were for the first time able to watch an intensely physical contest usually reserved for the gaze of men only. Under these novel relations of spectator- ship boxing became visible as a sexually charged event.

Miriam Hansen, who opens her book Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1991) with this vignette, has argued that the vogue for The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight among women breached ‘the taboo on an active female gaze’, reversing the widespread assumption that it was men who alone possessed the right to look. She reads this episode as a symptom and sign of the emergence of what she regards as ‘an alternative public sphere’ for women, a space within which their needs and aspirations could be articulated, in however tentative a form. Drawing upon Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s critique of Habermas in Offentlichkeit und Erfahrung (1972; translated as The Public Sphere and Experience, 1993), Hansen’s methodology locates this female counter-public negatively, searching for those practices that seem to stand out against the dominant order of the modern city and were subject to regulation or adverse comment. Unlike Habermas’s concept of a public sphere, this alternative domain is disorganized, fleeting, evanescent: it springs to life in brief flashpoints or partial traces. Since female suffrage was not achieved until after the First World War, the women who frequented the movies during this period had little oppor­tunity to participate in organized politics; indeed, a remarkably detailed unpublished study of German women spectators by Emilie Altenloh in 1914 actually observed that ‘[w]hile the men are attending political meetings, women visit the movie theater next door where they’ll be met by their spouses when the screening is over’ (quoted in Hansen 1983: 178). At the same time, the cinema was one of the few forms of leisure available to working – class women outside the home that was not an exclusively male preserve. It was cheap and also convenient enough to be squeezed into the interstices of an ordinary day, as part of a shopping trip or on the way home from work, and this mundane accessibility appealed to more affluent women too. Not only was a cross-class audience coming into existence, but there is evidence of some convergence between the classes; Altenloh noted ‘a remarkably homogeneous attitude toward the cinema’ among her female respondents, despite differences of class and marital status (Petro 1989: 19). In a sense, the early silent cinema capitalized upon and extended the reach of the new consumerist economy, epitomized by the department store and the advertisement hoarding, in which women made the main purchasing decisions for the household.

No matter how much or how little money these women had, cinema offered them ‘a spectacle to be consumed’ (Mayne 1988: 78). Because of the growing prominence of female spectators within the movie audience, films began to appear which directly addressed them in a variety of forms. Serials like The Hazards of Helen (1914) ‘featured adventurous, physically active heroines’ and provided ‘pleasure in images of female competence, courage, and physical movement’ (Hansen 1991: 120). Although there were more demure images of femininity in the persons of Lilian Gish or Mary Pickford, representing the conventionally compliant face of domestic virtue, the figure of the spirited modern girl continued into the 1920s through such actresses as Gloria Swanson. But, for Hansen, the star who most dramatically threw the contradictions of female spectatorship into relief was the matinee idol Rudolph Valentino. In the course of an unusually short film career — he first began to attract attention in 1917, yet by 1926 he was dead — Valentino not only made women swoon, his appearances could lead to minor riots.

Valentino’s devoted following shows how the emerging star system was able to give expression to modes of female desire that were deeply at odds with the patriarchal cast of American culture. In the first place, Valentino’s star persona combined considerable exotic allure with a curiously indeterminate eroticism. As a wild

Arab chief, a French nobleman or as a Latin-American horseman and dancer, Valentino was both a sexual predator and a more ambiguous figure whose dress and demeanour often seemed to feminize him. Moreover, the very fact that the films frequently made him the recipient of a prolonged female gaze, an object of spectacular sensuality, served to invert the usual ‘gender economy of vision’ in which it is the woman whose desirability interrupts the forward movement of the narrative. But if Valentino appears to occupy the filmic position traditionally reserved for the woman, it is also crucial that his own gaze will eventually be brought into play, that he is shown to be a desiring subject who can bestow the gift of sexual rapture. However, neither of these moments is ever fully resolved: Hansen insists that Valentino’s look and the identification it provokes are always characterized by an ineradicable ambivalence. Even when the actor’s eyes are ‘riveted on the woman of his choice, he seems to become paralyzed rather than aggressive or menacing’ (279). In the Valentino text, mastery is always ready to yield to vulnerability.

Second, Valentino’s extraordinary appeal to female viewers was extended and consolidated through the medium of publicity: fan clubs and magazines, interviews, competitions and special events. This was a mixed blessing for the movie industry. For although the function of the star system was to guarantee and then intensify the spectator’s psychic and emotional attachment to each individual film, the creation of the star’s persona, of an imaginary identity believed to exist outside the frame of the cinematic text, could also operate in the opposite direction so that visual pleasure was no longer concentrated in the narrative but was instead dissolved into ‘a string of spectacular moments that display the “essence” of the star’ (247). In such a system the careful management of the fans themselves is inevitably a sensitive issue, since they form a collective body whose legitimacy derives from their claim to have brought the star into existence by their own grassroots support; and the fan subculture invariably has the potential to get out of control. In the case of Valentino the relationship between star and female fans was peculiarly obsessive and fetishistic and soon outstripped the bounds of moral and sexual propriety. When women sent him their ‘intimate garments’ in the mail requesting that he kiss and return them, he apparently did so (294). As part of his erotic ‘pact’ with his fans, Valentino arranged to have his corpse displayed before them after his death, to tumultuous effect. It is therefore possible to read the scenes of mass hysteria occasioned by his funeral not just as a collective expression of grief at the loss of an icon, but as a kind of last- ditch revolt by Valentino’s fans against the demise of a symbolic world in which the narrow confines of gender no longer obtained.

This vision of an alternative public sphere is a far cry from anything in Habermas. Yet it should be remembered that Hansen is not concerned with the possibilities for rational-critical debate, but with the opening up ofwhat Negt and Kluge term a new ‘social horizon of experience’, a place where ‘needs, conflicts, anxieties, memories, and fantasies’ can begin to achieve ‘public recogni­tion’ (92). Her arguments are cautious, necessarily provisional and carefully qualified: since it is hard to know how these women ‘received the films they saw and what significance movie­going had in relation to their lives’, the best that we can do is to ‘try to reconstruct the configurations of experience that shaped their horizon of reception, and ask how the cinema, as a social and aesthetic experience, might have interacted with that horizon’ (101). In a nutshell, Hansen’s credo presents the abiding methodo­logical dilemma confronting all historically based reception studies where first-hand accounts are unavailable, as they almost invariably are.

The most common route out of this impasse is to sift through the film review pages of newspapers and magazines in search of clues to the discursive or ideological context within which viewing took place. This is the approach adopted by Janet Staiger in her book Interpreting Films (1992), an avowedly Marxist analysis of the history of reception in American cinema, one of whose main tasks is to distinguish between the use of ‘dominant’ and ‘marginal’ interpretive strategies among film spectators at any given cultural and political moment. Staiger’s work is often ingenious: when considering the reception of the Judy Garland movie A Star is Born (1954), for example, she takes the opinions voiced by reviewers in the mainstream press as the dominant or hegemonic responses to the film and then takes these as the benchmark against which ‘alternative readings’ can be defined as the ones ‘that do not match’ (Staiger 1992: 157). She is especially interested in explaining the Judy Garland cult among gay men, but her immediate practical difficulty is that the criminal status of homosexuality in the 1950s effectively outlawed any written record of how the film and its star were regarded at the time of its release. Staiger solves this problem by taking the later writings of gay critics like Jack Babuscio and Richard Dyer and then reading them back into the earlier context in order to show how they focus on aspects of A Star is Born that were overlooked by mainstream reviewers. Her warrant for this interpretive move is the development of a new gay cultural criticism as part of the struggle for gay rights following the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, events that coincided with Garland’s death in June of that year. However, Staiger has to assume that this watershed in gay politics created the conditions in which long-suppressed ideas could be made public, a conjecture that begs the question of whether Dyer or Babuscio’s readings really can provide an accurate guide to how gay spectators saw the film several decades ago. In the absence of any reliable evidence Staiger can only hope that oral history will bridge the gap at some point in the future.

In their different ways both Staiger and Hansen set their face against the kind of analysis that regards the spectator’s response as always already encoded into the filmic text. Some of the most widely discussed work on cinema proceeds on this basis. So, for example, Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ draws upon psychoanalysis in order to argue that looking is typically divided ‘between active/male and passive/ female’ components. That is to say, in terms of the positions offered to the spectator in mainstream cinema, the ‘determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure’, while ‘women are simultaneously looked at and displayed’ and are the object of ‘erotic contemplation’ (Mulvey 1989 [1975]: 19). And in a similar vein, Steve Neale has suggested that the male body cannot comfortably be subjected to the same voyeuristic scrutiny as the woman’s for fear of the homosexual undertones this may evoke. Consequently the spectator’s absorption in the fight scenes of a western or a thriller has a protective quality, denying any hint of an erotic subtext: masculinity is to be tested or proved rather than looked at (Neale 1983).

By contrast, Staiger seeks to account for reader response without privileging a psychoanalytic reading of the cinematic text. For her, psychoanalysis is merely one interpretive strategy among others and what matters is the extent of its influence in any particular historical period. In Staiger’s view there can be no text without an audience, for, without people to interpret it, it could have no meaning: a proposition that she shares with Stanley Fish, though she deploys it to somewhat different ends. As we have seen, Hansen’s Babel and Babylon also aims to contextualize the act of viewing but, rather than dispensing with the filmic text, her approach is to historicize the text-centred model of gendered spectatorship advanced by Mulvey and others by claiming that what it really describes are the standardized ‘modes of organizing vision and structuring narratives’ put in place by classic Hollywood cinema from roughly the 1920s to the 1970s (Hansen 1991: 249). The value of studying early silent film is therefore that it allows us to see a looser, less monolithic set of relations between films and their spectators in operation before the Hollywood mass audience had been fully formed. And it allows us ‘to take the spectator seriously as a productive force’ that can never be wholly swallowed up by the movie industry (89).

Today the spectator is arguably less in thrall to Hollywood cinema than ever before. For despite the importance of feature films to the television industry, the rise of video, satellite and cable has altered the relationship between the public and the private once again. Whereas cinema broke with the private conditions of reading by setting narrative and fantasy in public space, now ‘the compulsive temporality of public projection has given way to ostensibly more self-regulated yet privatized, distracted and fragmented acts of consumption’, placing new stresses upon men and women in the home (Hansen 1993: 198). This is not to say that privatized viewing is completely replacing collective forms of spectatorship. The weekly American ritual of watching Dynasty in gay bars discussed by Jane Feuer in her study of 1980s television is an important contemporary example of the ‘subcultural appropriation of a text’, a moment of collective identity in a political climate not noticeably hospitable to gay rights (Feuer 1995: 135). And the development of the kind of intensive fan culture vividly portrayed in Constance Penley’s work on ‘slash fandom’ points to some dramatic new possibilities for, not only interpreting, but completely reconfiguring popular narratives (see ch.2).

The Kirk/Spock fanzines and re-edited videos go beyond the imitative idolization of stars — singing their songs, acting out scenes from their films — traditionally associated with their followers (see Stacey 1994). Penley argues that in re-imagining the working partnership between the captain and first officer in terms of a ‘passionate lifetime union’ these fanzines not only rewrite the codes of the romance genre, but also construct ‘new versions of female pornography’ through the invention of a guardedly non-heterosexual form of masculinity (Penley 1992: 490—1). These subcultures are part of a wider phenomenon of ‘textual poaching’ which overturns many of the assumptions upon which spectatorship is often thought to be based, giving it a more intensively performative twist. The world of the fan is:

characterized precisely by its refusal to respect cultural hierarchies (the boundary between high and low culture); its rejection of aesthetic distance (the boundary between text and reader); its blurring of distinctions between individual texts, genres, even media; its defiance of conventional conceptions of literary property (the boundary between reader and writer); and its attempt to integrate media content into its everyday social experiences (the boundary between fantasy and reality).

(Jenkins 1990: 151)

But, as we have seen, the irreverence of the fanzine world is far from innocent of gender politics. Cheek by jowl with K/S romances we find songs like Dennis Drew’s version of ‘I Need A Little Girl’ which paradoxically uses the image of an alien woman with dorsal fins and an extra eye to reinstate the normality of male heterosexual desire, a desire that is given a humorous if disturbing inflection, yet which is also reassuringly the same as it has always supposedly been (Jenkins 1990: 161—2).

The highly engaged modes of viewing discussed by critics like Constance Penley and Henry Jenkins belong to the new technological world of electronic reproduction and look forward to the consolidation of new types of fan culture via the worldwide web or the internet. Whether the enhanced possibilities for manipulating the image will completely change the conditions of spectatorship remains to be seen; though it is worth noting that among the fans studied by Penley the distinction between reader, viewer and writer is constantly blurred. If these viewers of Star Trek belong to one of the most creative audiences that have ever appeared, promoting extraordinarily sophisticated fan­tasies and identifications — Kirk and Spock are felt to have revealed themselves as more desirable because their romantic natures have been demonstrated on screen through a relationship between them that curiously cannot be imagined as gay — it is nevertheless also true that these female fans see their interpretations ‘as amplifying rather than negating or deforming the text’, bringing out elements that were already implicit within it (Penley 1989: 259). Though their adaptations have scandalized the ordinary Star Trek enthusiasts, trespassing upon the sacred preserve of the text, K/S fans regard their activities in a properly conservative light, ‘reading with the grain’ of the narrative instead of brushing against it. Here, at the crossroads of the future, cross-identifications are more star-crossed than ever as the lines between genders become hopelessly entangled in the wake of authentic desire.

The K/S appropriation of Star Trek returns us to many of the issues considered in this chapter and elsewhere in this book. For the practices of these fans enact a virtual stand-off between corporate capitalism, as represented by the owners of Star Trek, and local patterns of gendered consumer power; between the commodification of the body and the muddying of gender boundaries; between the unregulated consumption of porno­graphic imagery now possible through technologies like the internet and attempts by ordinary men and women to use both narrative and technology to gain greater control over their own lives. At the same time, they perhaps also indicate the vanishing – point of some of our most cherished assumptions: in the K/S world gay and straight, male and female, public and private seem to fold in upon each other and threaten to implode. Neither is quite thinkable without the other, yet as we boldly go into the era of electronic reproduction with its associated struggles around freedom of communication and access, no one can be quite sure precisely where the new frontier of gender truly lies.


As we saw in our brief account of the Victorian woman reader, the idea of a mass public has typically been a source of worry to the main centres of respectable middle-class opinion and has often been seen as possessing feminine characteristics. In the late 1850s the novelist Wilkie Collins was shocked to discover that ‘the great bulk of the reading public of England’ preferred ‘penny – novel Journals’ to his own novels, a semi-literate audience he half-imagined as ‘two timid girls, who are respectively afraid of a French invasion and dragon-flies’ (quoted in McAleer 1992: 1—2). But at least he believed that this ‘unknown public’ could be won over.

A long quotation from Collins’s essay subsequently appeared as one of the epigraphs to Queenie Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public (1932), one of the earliest attempts at a systematic analysis of the modern book market. But Leavis’s forecast was far less optimistic than that of her predecessor. Surveying the use made of public libraries, for example, Leavis argued that, despite the achievement of universal literacy, ‘the book-borrowing public has acquired the reading habit while somehow failing to exercise any critical intelligence about its reading’ (Leavis 1979: 21). Among the factors she cited as responsible for this lack of discrimination was the role of women in selecting library books and thus determining what texts will enter the home. According to one librarian:

if a woman is taken up with a house all day, she doesn’t want tales

about married problems or misunderstood wives – she knows enough

about these already; she can’t be bothered with dialect after a day’s work, and historical novels aren’t alive enough. What she enjoys is something that is possible but outside her own experience. . .

(Leavis 1979: 22-3)

For Leavis this turn to undemanding or escapist forms of literature represented the ‘disintegration’ of the serious reading public and in some respects her argument parallels the account of the structural transformation of the public sphere later advanced by Habermas. Both critics chart a process of decline from the eighteenth century to the present, much of it due to what Leavis calls ‘the increasing control by Big Business’, though she also mentions other causes like the growing anti-intellectualism of a governing class whose men are expected to be ‘simple but virile’ rather than cultured and intelligent (29, 155). Leavis’s account of the degradation of reading therefore seems to involve the feminization of a culture that upper-class men had largely abandoned. However, while she fails to think through the gender implications of this line of analysis, Leavis does paint a picture of a society in the grip of a shallow, feminine emotionalism. To help flesh out this claim she uses the impressionable figure of Gerty MacDowell from Joyce’s Ulysses to epitomize the modern reader, characterizing her as a young woman whose predigested attitudes are drawn from ‘memories of slightly similar situations in cheap fiction’, who ‘thinks in terms of cliches drawn from the same source, and is completely out of touch with reality’. The imaginary Gerty is thus all too ‘typical of the level at which the emotional life of the generality is now conducted’ (195—6).

In attempting to explain the success of the popular fiction of her day, Leavis argues, largely on the basis of extracts from readers’ letters supplied by twenty-five authors, that these kinds of novels ‘excite in the ordinary person an emotional activity for which there is no scope’ in modern life. But precisely why emotional expression is assumed to be blocked among the majority of the population remains unclear. Leavis variously points to the decline of religion, to the failure of many modern individuals to develop fully, and to the effects of an increasingly specialized division of labour. Yet, while she does concede that novelists like Marie

Corelli or Florence Barclay are ‘genuinely preoccupied with ethical problems’, her steadfast belief that these texts have very little redeeming value prevented her from looking closely at how they were read and how the act of reading was related to the reader’s social situation (63).

The sorts of assumption informing Leavis’s study were fairly commonplace among cultural critics in the 1930s and it took several decades before they came under scrutiny, not to say empirical investigation. To gauge the extent to which the questions asked about readers have changed in recent years, the best place to start is Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), first published a little over half a century after Leavis’s book first appeared. In broad outline Reading the Romance is not hard to summarize, though its detailed findings are sometimes quite complex. What Radway does is to take one of the most despised categories of popular writing discussed in Fiction and the Reading Public (though neither Leavis nor her book are explicitly men­tioned by name) and try to show that there is more to domestic romance or the romantic novel than critical prejudice would lead one to expect. Her boldest move is to shift the spotlight away from the formal properties of literary narratives and on to the meanings that women readers ‘find’ there. This might sound as if reading is a purely individual or subjective affair, a matter of each reader’s uniquely personal relationship to a given text. But, following the work of theorist Stanley Fish, Radway regards reading as an act that occurs within a community of readers using the same ‘interpretive strategies’: in other words, what a text is and how it might be read are to be understood through the shared conventions and social values of an ‘interpretive community’ (Fish 1980: 161).

The setting for Radway’s research is the suburb of a midwestern American city she calls by the pseudonym Smithton, a site partly chosen because of its physical and cultural distance from New York where most of the publishing industry’s major decisions are made. Radway focuses upon a network of women grouped around a bookseller named Dorothy Evans who published a regular newsletter that served as a guide to her customers and fellow readers by reviewing new titles, offering information and, perhaps most important of all, defending romance fiction against the ridicule that has often been heaped upon it in the press, the home and the workplace. This advisory and ideological work required a delicate sense of balance, moving between the authors and New York editors who increasingly sought her advice on their manuscripts and the regular romance readers who turned to her to help them save time and money. Dot’s proudest boast was that she would never usurp her customers’ ‘right to choose their own reading materials’, limiting herself only to making suggestions ‘from my own experience’. So while her judgements necessarily reinforced well-worn genre categories, she was also careful to insist on ‘respecting [the] personal preferences’ of her readers (Radway 1987: 52-3).

As well as looking at Dot’s pivotal opinion-shaping role, Radway carried out in-depth studies of forty-two of her female newsletter subscribers, asking them questions about their lives and their tastes in fiction. Her findings defy neat enumeration, for romance reading is revealed as an ‘indistinct’ or multifaceted activity, a ‘complicated, polysemic event’ (209). It is not possible to infer unambiguously from their reading whether these romance novels either help to reconcile these women to their lives or make them more restless, more critical. Not all romances are equally successful, for example, and those that are judged to fail do so because, however absorbing they might be, ultimately they leave their readers without a sense ‘that men and marriage really do mean good things for women’ (what Radway calls ‘the promise of patriarchy’) and consequently impair their feelings of self-worth and self-confidence (184). On the other hand, the social meaning of romance does not reside solely between its covers. Radway suggests that the act of reading itself, regardless of a particular novel’s content, is simultaneously ‘combative and compensatory’ for these women:

It is combative in the sense that it enables them to refuse the other – directed social role prescribed for them by their position within the institution of marriage. In picking up a book, as they have so eloquently told us, they refuse temporarily their family’s otherwise constant demand that they attend to the wants of others even as they act deliberately to do something for their own private pleasure. Their activity is compensatory, then, in that it permits them to focus on themselves and to carve out a solitary space within an arena. . . where they are defined as a public resource to be mined at will by the family.

(Radway 1987: 211)

What matters most of all, therefore, is that reading the romance signifies a break in family time, a point of relief or suspension within the everyday that arises out of, but is countermanded by, ordinary domestic routine. The keen sense of disappointment that is sometimes aroused by an unsatisfactory text is a product not just of the puncturing of utopian desire, but derives from the highly charged, intensely cathected moment in which reading takes place. Because the reader is literally pleasing herself, the temporary deferral of her responsibilities to others creates a volatile mixture of hope and a sense of guilt that can easily be triggered by frustrated narrative expectations.

Radway’s account of why these women read romances could be said to follow a kind of situational logic that is based upon the fit between the properties of the genre and the lives led by her respondents. Yet what bonds the women to their preferred texts is not their experience alone, but their involvement and participation in a collective discourse about romance reading that articulates their opinions and their enthusiasms. This discursive field or tradition serves as the medium through which the act of reading takes place, infusing it with meaning and value, principally via the circulation of Dot’s newsletter. ‘Dorothy’s Diary of Romance Reading’ activates the Smithton women’s ‘interpretive community’, making texts and readers what they are.

It is important not to literalize the notion of ‘community’ in this formulation. The Smithton women are not readers who are organized or who meet regularly. Rather, they represent a virtual community or a symbolic community, linked solely by the values which they share. As Radway notes:

Because the oppositional act is carried out through the auspices

of a book and thus involves the fundamentally private, isolated experience of reading, these women never get together to share either the experience of imaginative opposition, or, perhaps more important, the discontent that gave rise to their need for the romance in the first place. The women join forces only… in the privacy of their own homes and in the culturally devalued sphere of leisure activity.

(Radway 1987: 212)

Radway is therefore in no doubt that ultimately romance reading ‘leaves unchallenged the male right to the public spheres of work, politics, and power’ (217). In short, despite the self-awareness that the newsletter provides, this fragmented reading public lacks the cultural resources to challenge the terms of its own fragmentation.

Although she emphasizes the role played by a communal discourse in sustaining their reading habits, Radway often writes as if there were a natural affinity between women readers and romance novels. Indeed, if one reads Radway’s study in tandem with, say, Ken Worpole’s essay ‘The American Connection: Masculine Style in Popular Fiction’ (1983), it is easy to build up a somewhat exaggerated picture of how reading is gendered. Worpole argues that from the mid-1930s onwards many British working-class male readers found in American writers a tough vernacular realism that seemed to resonate with their own experiences of the harsh realities of living and working in the city. Yet Worpole is particularly concerned with those men who were politically active and his anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that it was their socialist ideology that drew them to the critique of urban corruption in novelists like Upton Sinclair and also in the hard-boiled detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett. Put another way, it is likely that socialist ideas provided the leading element in the popular aesthetic (or ‘interpretive strategies’) that governed or structured these men’s mode of reading. By contrast, the Smithton women’s preferences appear far more indeterminate. For, in their case, the suspension of time inherent in the act of reading is potentially compatible with a whole variety of genres or sub-genres (the racing thrillers written by Dick Francis have a wide female readership, for example). Yet, in practice, they seem to ignore these alternatives. One weakness of Reading the Romance is that, for all its plausibility, it does not entirely explain why it is this particular literary formula that appeals to the women Radway studied rather than another.

On the other hand, there are some indications that Radway’s sample is unusual. They are remarkably dedicated readers and very few are ‘avid television watchers’; rather surprisingly over half the sample never watched soap operas (Radway 1983: 76). As Steven Connor has warned, there is a danger here of ‘turning commercial into ethnographic homogeneity’ and then of mistakenly assuming that this group is ‘typical of the readers of mass-market fiction’. Before jumping to conclusions we should consider the possibility that:

Romances are not read only by romance readers but also by readers who are not ‘romance readers’ (academics, for example), or who will not remain so, or who have not always been so, or who are only occasionally so (though they may be intensely loyal during the periods when they are); to specify only these variables.

(Connor 1996: 21)

Connor’s point is that reading is generally far more fluid (or mutable) than Radway can envisage, especially under (post)modern conditions. Today, readers are increasingly likely to have what Connor calls ‘multiple allegiances’, moving between different kinds of fiction and different kinds of reading experience. This may well be true, but we can also turn this argument around by suggesting that the act of reading is in itself characterized by a greater degree of interior (or psychic) mobility than Reading the Romance is prepared to allow. Much of the psychoanalytically inspired work on fantasy and fantasy scenarios stresses that the process of identification is not fixed but passes from character to character, so that crossing the boundaries of gender can be an integral part of the reader’s imaginative absorption in narrative time (see Kaplan 1986). Responding to this criticism, Radway has conceded the possibility that women ‘readers do not identify only with the romantic heroine but in fact identify in multiple and wandering fashion with the seducer, the seduced and the process of seduction itself’ (Radway 1987: 243). And elsewhere, pushing this point one step further, she has begun to see modern subjectivity as ‘nomadic’, shifting ‘actively, discontinuously. . . via disparate associations and relations through day-to-day existence’ (Radway 1988: 366). The wheel has come full circle.

But in neither Radway’s early nor her slightly later arguments does reading figure as anything other than an individual practice. So, instead of swinging quickly from one style of analysis to its polar opposite, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider some of the evidence about the social occasions of reading, limited though this is. In fact, organized reading groups have a long and by no means negligible history, one that often connects them to the ideal of a public sphere. At the turn of the nineteenth century, American reading circles were linked to the women’s club movement, for example, and in Texas in the Progressive Era women’s reform groups also grew out of literary societies or book discussion groups. Indeed, according to current British research, reading groups continue to have ‘a discernible civic dimension’ in which serious reading is conceived as a means towards becoming a responsible and ‘fully informed’ member of society (Hartley 1999: 18). Political activity can bring reading circles into existence too, though sometimes indirectly: one of the Texas groups studied by Elizabeth Long (1986) in the early 1980s had its origins a quarter of a century earlier in a network of League of Women Voters members.

The women in the four groups in Long’s exploratory study were therefore very different from those in Radway’s sample. They were typically college-educated, belonged to affluent, white middle-class families, and tended to be in full-time professional jobs. The groups ranged in size from seven to nineteen members and would read a mixture of novels and nonfiction, excluding only those texts that they considered downmarket, undemanding or ‘trashy’ (reading romances or thrillers was out of the question, though an exception might be made for a writer like Dorothy L. Sayers). Books were selected according to an implicit ‘hierarchy of taste’ based upon ‘a vague humanism that defines reading truly great books as a morally and intellectually enhancing experi­ence’ or, in the case of nonfiction, because of their ‘social relevance’ (Long 1986: 598—9). While such judgements display a marked deference to established centres of cultural authority such as universities or elite cultural journalism, they are not set in stone: the New York Times Book Review started to fall out of favour once it began including genre fiction and mass-market paperbacks.

However, once a book has been chosen, its treatment in the reading groups is not particularly reverent or constrained. The women describe their discussions as ‘playful’, by which they mean that their talk is allowed to jump from topic to topic, and also that they ‘are willing to entertain a variety of readings’ (603). What matters in discussions is not so much the free expression of opinion as the tacit granting of permission ‘to take risks by making idiosyncratic connections, to bring forward personal experiences, to play with categories’: there is little evidence of any ‘interpretive community’ at work during group meetings (604). Within the general rubric of seriousness that legitimates the group, reading can combine a sense of exhilaration with self­exploration or self-analysis. Although its somewhat anarchic clamour of different points of view reflects the individualistic values of modern American life, the pleasure taken in the free play of ideas means that, unusually, these discussions are regarded as valuable in themselves rather than simply being a means to an end.

But is there anything distinctively feminine about such groups? This is a very difficult question to answer. Long’s subsequent work suggests that women are far more likely than men to start or join a reading circle. Out of over seventy reading groups she located in Houston, Texas, forty-two were women’s groups, twenty-eight were mixed, but only three consisted solely of men. Long provides little systematic information about the latter, but at least some of her evidence from the mixed groups shows male readers gaining insight into their childhood through memories released by reading about fictional characters in a way that is similar to the responses of women readers. However, these reactions are not necessarily typical of male readers and may possibly be encouraged by the experience of reading with women. For, as Long stresses, ‘women seem especially to merge psycho­logical boundaries in this fashion’ (Long 1987: 320). Nevertheless, it is clear that the male and female readers whom she studied shared a broad commitment to an unexamined realist aesthetic in which the credibility and psychological interest of the narrative reside in the possibility of identifying with its principal characters. And in this they seem to differ from the women whose reading consists exclusively of fiction such as romance aimed specifically at a female audience, since Radway’s respondents and also most of the women who took part in Bridget Fowler’s recent survey of Scottish romance readers, actively distinguish their preferred genre from the realist novel. In the eyes of these readers ‘formulaic romance’ provides ‘an idealised vision of an unalienated, yet hierarchical society’ in which ‘patriarchy fosters protective love and true nobility of mind justifies privilege’. For those who are ‘enmeshed within the confines of kinship and still dependent economically on men’ it remains ‘the “dream-book” of the family’ (Fowler 1991: 175).


One of the most important developments arising from the spread of literacy in the late-seventeenth century was the emergence of a new zone of free and open discussion, now known as the public sphere. Distinct from either the family or government or the royal court, this loose, unofficial network of social relations came into being through gatherings occurring in several different types of venue: receptions in salons or fashionable houses, meetings in private clubs and literary societies, casual conversations in coffee houses and taverns, all of them providing occasions when the leading issues of the day could be examined or thrashed out. What held these disparate encounters together (there were some 3,000 coffee houses in London alone in the early 1800s), informing and underpinning their many controversies and topical debates, was a rapidly expanding periodical press whose journals, featuring essays, criticism and poetry, were widely available in towns and cities. The public sphere was therefore more than simply a talking – shop; it was a highly literate urban reading public.

In his classic account of what he sees as the rise and subsequent decline of the public sphere, Jurgen Habermas (1962) claims that, at its best, it was distinguished by three mutually reinforcing characteristics. First, participants in the public sphere thought of it as an extended conversation among peers. Differences of social status were necessarily irrelevant to the clarity and cogency with which someone might convincingly state their case and thus should always be ignored. Moreover, in principle, discussion was open to anyone who had enough capital and education to enable them to become involved. And, by the same token, no one could ever be permanently disqualified from taking part. Finally and relatedly, debate was primarily conceived in terms of the exercise of one’s reason, so that no subject was beyond rational criticism and all disputes could be settled through logical argument. Put like this, the public sphere appeals strongly to the most hopeful humanitarian values: the commitment to a judicious, dispassionate exchange of views between free and equal individuals.

Of course, the weaknesses inherent in this formulation are also obvious enough. In practice, as the historical data on illiteracy would lead us to expect, the eighteenth-century public sphere was confined to a relatively small minority of privileged people, typically men, for whom mercantile capitalism provided the money, leisure and expertise to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in ‘rational-critical public debate’ (Habermas 1989: 43). Habermas is, however, well aware of these objections, noting that in Britain, the earliest example of a flourishing public sphere, the mass of the population were ‘so pauperized that they could not even pay for literature’, whether they were able to read it or not (Habermas 1989: 38). So it is important to see exactly why Habermas regards the public sphere as such a major cultural advance.

What matters most to Habermas is that, through the public sphere, independent rational criticism became an ordinary every­day occurrence, producing a lively, knowledgeable citizenry, at least among members of the reformed aristocracy and the commercial middle classes who formed the readership of journals like The Tatler. The aim of popularizing ideas, of reaching the broadest possible ‘publick’, while raising the general standard of conduct and discussion, was enshrined in the pages of the periodical press, or what Habermas has dubbed ‘the moral weeklies’, from the outset. Writing in his paper The Spectator in March 1711, Joseph Addison declared that he would be pleased

‘to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and in Coffee-Houses’ (Steele and Addison 1982: 210). His twelve essays on ‘The Pleasures of the Imagination’ which appeared in June and July the following year were precisely designed to instruct his readers in the subtleties of aesthetic discrimination, moving from the art of tea-drinking to the appreciation of fine writing and explicitly recommending ‘Conversation with Men of a Polite Genius’ as a ‘Method for improving our Natural Taste’ (366). Encouraged by such publica­tions, men from different social classes turned their attention to literary and cultural questions, as well as to matters of politics and public affairs. They were able to pursue their arguments further through the letter columns of their favourite journals, a device that vastly extended the operations of the public sphere across time and space. At Button’s Coffee House in London, for example, a lion’s head was fixed to the wall ‘through whose jaws the reader threw his letter’ to The Spectator (Habermas 1989: 42). In such small details Habermas discerns the origins of modern democratic public opinion with its constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech, assembly and expression.

What of women readers? Habermas paints a complex picture. On the one hand, he recognizes that some key institutions like the coffee house were closed to women, despite their protests: hence the appearance of pamphlets like The Women’s Petition against Coffee, representing to Public Consideration of the Grand Inconveniences according to their Sex from the Excessive use of that Drying, Enfeebling Liquor in 1674. On the other hand, he also suggests that ‘the intimate sphere of the conjugal family created, so to speak, its own public’, since the home was one of the private domains in which discussion could take place (29). At the grandest level, salons or receptions devoted to literature and the arts were largely organized and orchestrated by wealthy and influential women, especially in continental Europe, where they sometimes acquired a reputation as centres of political intrigue. In general, says Habermas, ‘female readers as well as apprentices and servants often took a more active part in the literary public sphere’ than male heads of households (56). Here, at least, women could distinguish themselves as something other than wives and mothers. Moreover, from the standpoint of ‘the educated classes’ the world of letters and that of political debate were two sides of the same coin: ‘in the self-understanding of public opinion the public sphere appeared as one and indivisible’ (56).

In their concern with manners and decorum, writers like Addison or Swift could be extremely condescending in their treatment of women. Addison’s 1711 essay on ‘the Faults and Imperfections of one Sex transplanted into another’ is actually an occasion for mocking women’s presumption in holding strong political views, chiefly on the grounds that they lack ‘that Caution and Reservedness which are requisite in our Sex’ and soon reveal their essentially emotional natures. Consequently,

When this unnatural Zeal gets into them, it throws them into ten thousand Heats and Extravagances; their generous Souls set no Bounds to their Love, or to their Hatred; and whether a Whig or a Tory, a Lap-Dog or a Gallant, an Opera or a Puppet-Show, be the Object of it, the Passion, while it reigns, engrosses the whole Woman.

(Steele and Addison 1982: 253)

Elsewhere, Addison distinguished between those women for whom ‘the right adjusting of their Hair [forms] the Principal Employment of their Lives’ and those ‘reasonable Creatures’ who ‘move in an exalted Sphere of Knowledge and Virtue. . . and inspire a kind of Awe and Respect, as well as Love, into their Male-Beholders.’ Part of his motive in writing is, he asserts, ‘to encrease the Number’ of the latter by diverting ‘the Minds of my Female Readers from greater Trifles’ (212). While couched in distinctly unflattering terms, Addison’s tendentious contrast does have the effect of aligning a version of femininity with progress and civilization. As Jonathan Brody Kramnick has argued, it was ‘the prominence of “gentle” readers from the “Female World”, whose leisurely domesticity put “so much Time on their Hands” that augured the mannered elegance of modern English culture’ which Addison and others sought to promote (Kramnick 1997: 1089).

However, the most comprehensive analysis to date of the female contribution to papers like The Spectator is far more pessimistic

in its conclusions than Kramnick’s brief but suggestive remarks on Addison and his circle might lead one to expect. In her 1989 study Women and Print Culture, Kathryn Shevelow surveys the overall pattern of development followed by the early periodicals and argues that, although the presence of women readers and writers indicates that they were able to make significant inroads into the male dominated public sphere, the terms on which they entered tended to confirm their subordinate domestic status. To document her point, Shevelow compares John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury from the 1690s with The Tatler and The Spectator nearly two decades later and notes their very different approaches to readers’ letters. The Mercury was essentially an epistolary publi­cation, consisting almost entirely of answers to queries raised by readers. For John Dunton women were a vital segment of his target audience and the first issue even carried a subtitle that promised to resolve ‘all the most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious of Either Sex’. How many of the letters were genuine and how many were devised by journalists in pursuit of good copy it is impossible to say. But certainly the Mercury displayed advertisements encouraging correspondence from female readers on ‘all manner of Questions’ (Shevelow 1989: 60). Not so The Tatler. Despite the dubious ‘Honour’ of being ‘invented’ for ‘the Fair Sex’ (who ‘tattle’ or gossip), women were never meant to be the primary recipients of Richard Steele’s periodical. Indeed, letters were not the mainstay of The Tatler at all, for it gave pride of place to essays or commentaries offered by a literary persona who would incorporate various communications, ranging from ‘Letters of Gallantry’ to letters from the country, into his ruminations or flights of fancy. Under Steele and Addison’s editorship the periodical moved to a more tightly structured, rather ‘monologic framework’ in which ‘the persona usurped the act of reader self-representation by determining its nature and its context’; hence the tendency for the ‘I’ of the essay to summarize or paraphrase or even ventriloquize his readers’ observations, rather than allowing them the use of their own voices (106).

When Steele and Addison discuss the relations between men and women they are essentially writing as moralists. In his essay on ‘Poor and publick whores’ (1712), for example, Steele attacks for their lack of compassion those society ladies whom he dubs ‘the outragiously virtuous’, noting that although ‘[t]he unlawful Commerce of the Sexes is of all other [Sins] the hardest to avoid;

. . . yet there is no one which you shall hear the rigider Part of Womankind speak of with so little Mercy’ (Steele and Addison 1982: 266). As this comment suggests, for Steele and Addison morals and gender were inextricably linked. Thus in an earlier review in The Tatler, Steele had argued ‘That the Soul of a Man and that of a Woman are made very unlike, according to the Employments for which they are designed’, so that the ‘Virtues have respectively a Masculine and a Feminine Cast’. Here the idealization of femininity is made possible through a parallel idealization of domesticity since, according to Steele, ‘to manage well a great Family, is as worthy an Instance of Capacity, as to execute a great Employment’ (156—7). This doctrine of separate but complementary spheres — Steele is careful to say that men do not have ‘superior Qualities’ — also underwrites Addison’s eulogy on the ‘Pleasures’ of ‘a happy Marriage’ with all its ‘Enjoyments of Sense and Reason’, from whose satisfied heights he deduced that ‘Nothing is a greater Mark of a degenerate and vitious Age, than the common Ridicule which passes on this State of Life’ (262). In the pages of The Tatler and The Spectator the elevation of women rested upon their effective confinement to the private domain of the home.

This raises a more general problem. As Shevelow points out, part of the market logic of including women in the periodical press was to move towards the specialization of content along gender lines. Publications that catered for women tended to concentrate upon ‘Domestick Life’ rather than ‘Publick Affairs’ and this was as true of the monthly ‘ladies’ issues’ produced by the Athenian Mercury as it was of Eliza Haywood’s Female Spectator, said to be the first periodical written by and for women and published nearly half a century later. To be sure, the latter represented an important new stage of development for, while it drew upon some of the essayistic conventions established by Steele and Addison, it also included readers’ letters and fiction and, above all, relied explicitly upon the editorial identity of a female persona that ‘substantially qualified or broke down altogether the hierarchical distance between writer and reader’ typical of previous male-dominated publications (Shevelow 1989: 168). However, in adopting a more intimate form of address, the Female Spectator was continuing to reinforce the assumption that the social world could be divided between distinctively masculine and feminine modes of experience. This stance paved the way for the early women’s magazines such as novelist Charlotte Lennox’s Lady’s Museum (1760) with its miscellany of poems, essays, serials, letters and illustrations; and by the mid-1770s titles like the Matrimonial Magazine or Monthly Anecdotes of Love and Marriage began to appear which also featured recipes, fashion items or needlework patterns.

Shevelow believes that these publications not only ‘offered images in which readers could locate themselves’, but that they put in place an ‘ideology of domesticity’ whose final form was the claustrophobic patriarchal household typified by the Victorian phrase the ‘angel in the house’ (Shevelow 1989: 193). Read beside Shevelow’s study, therefore, Habermas’s claims regarding women’s participation in the literary public sphere — at least if we take this as referring to those journals which tackle both political and cultural issues — start to look disappointingly thin. However, a thorough evaluation of the public sphere thesis also needs to consider Habermas’s account of its decline as well as its rise, in other words its ‘structural transformation’.

The test of whether this sphere of discussion and criticism could really be described as ‘public’ ultimately rested upon ‘the principle of universal access’. Clearly, ‘[a] public sphere from which specific groups would be eo ipso excluded was less than merely incomplete; it was not a public sphere at all’ (Habermas 1989: 85). Habermas’s formulation suggests that the ideal was always flawed, or perhaps more accurately, that there was a gap between its universalistic pretensions and the narrow class and gender base of its main constituency. As Shevelow shows, while a journal like the Athenian Mercury was relatively even-handed in its treatment of middle-class male and female readers, women correspondents whose poor spelling and grammar and social circumstances placed them beyond the pale of bourgeois propriety were often denied a reply and could instead find themselves held up as a sad warning of ‘what almost all those sort of people must at last come to’ (Shevelow 1989: 213). The democratic struggles of the nineteenth century exacerbated these tensions and one effect of these new demands for political representation was a heightened sense of anxiety about readers and reading.

Victorian Britain can be described as a golden age of modern print culture. Between 1837 and 1901 something like 60,000 works of fiction were published, a figure that takes no account of the huge number of short stories in journals and magazines. And from the 1850s and 1860s we also see the growth of a new species of periodical, like the Cornhill or the Saturday Review, whose editors and authors were determined ‘to establish between themselves and their readers common principles and standards on the major political, moral, religious, and cultural issues of the day’ (Keating 1991: 35). Indeed, one could argue that this was a key phase in the development of what Habermas refers to as the literary public sphere.

Largely because of his predominantly eighteenth-century focus, Habermas tends to underestimate not only its complexity and importance, but also the central role played by women in the nineteenth-century world of letters. Throughout this period gender provided much of the vocabulary in terms of which judgements of literary success were made. So Charles Reade’s highly praised, but now long-forgotten bestseller It Is Never Too Late To Mend (1856) was commended for the ‘superb physical strength’ of his writing, prose that was ‘powerful’, ‘vigorous’, ‘lusty’ and ‘daring’ and whose stirring narrative offered a welcome relief from ‘the sentimental woes and drawingroom distresses which form the staple of so much of our circulating library fiction’. Nearly three decades later this sort of language was still in play in the obituary published by Punch magazine which contrasted Reade’s ‘virile creations’ with the effete output characteristic of the many ‘twaddlers tame and soft’ whose work defaced the literary scene (Thompson 1996: 27—8). Signs of femininity were widely held to indicate a fatal weakness in a writer’s style, so much so that Mrs Margaret Oliphant could applaud her fellow-author George Eliot for perfecting novels that were ‘less definable in point of sex than the books of any other woman who has ever written’ (Tuchman and Fortin 1989: 186). This kind of thinking, as Eliot herself keenly appreciated, placed women novelists in a double-bind. For if literary greatness was predicated upon their being able to negate or transcend their femininity, the critical esteem accorded to ‘manly’ writing seemed to condemn women to the perpetual risk of producing either pale imitations or hypermasculine caricatures.

Behind this dilemma lay the larger question of who controlled the literary public sphere. In their study Edging Women Out, Gaye Tuchman and Nina Fortin trace a growing male reaction against women’s commercial success as novelists in the 1840s and 1850s and, using data from publishers’ archives, they show how by the end of the nineteenth century more male authors were finding their way into print than their female counterparts, despite the fact that women submitted more manuscripts than men. Equally important, Tuchman and Fortin argue that by the 1870s male reviewers were beginning to employ gendered criteria to distinguish between serious fiction and popular entertain­ment. Male writing was said to display ‘ideas capable of having an impact upon the mind’, while women’s novels were associated with ordinary feelings and the trivia of everyday life (78). But these and other, far harsher views had deep roots in the official culture of the Victorian era and could be found everywhere from medical texts to advice manuals. In E. J.Tilt’s On the Preservation of the Health of Women at the Critical Periods of Life (1851), for example, there is a warning that:

Novels and romances, speaking generally, should be spurned, as capable of calling forth emotions of the same morbid description which, when habitually indulged in, exert a disastrous influence on the nervous system, sufficient to explain that frequency of hysteria and nervous diseases which we find among the highest classes.

(quoted in Flint 1993: 58)

Echoes of this same argument can still be heard at the century’s close when Annie Swan, writing in answer to the question ‘What Should Women Read?’ in the periodical Woman at Home, insists that to dwell too much on women’s ‘imaginative and emotional side is to create the morbid’ (61).

This is not the whole story. There is no shortage of essays proclaiming the necessity of ‘food for the mind’ or praising books as the medium of self-development par excellence. But the idea that a woman’s reading capacities were always already inscribed in the female body itself, an integral part of her physiology, died hard and was reinforced by a tendency to associate other changes in the social order with feminine characteristics. As Andreas Huyssen has argued more generally, throughout late nineteenth – century Europe ‘a specific traditional male image ofwoman served as a receptacle for all kinds of projections, displaced fears, and anxieties’, so that a ‘fear of the masses’ was ‘also a fear of woman, a fear of nature out of control, a fear of the unconscious, of sexuality, of the loss of identity and stable ego boundaries in the mass’ (Huyssen 1986: 52). One can see this interpretive slide at work in the reception of the ‘New Woman’ fiction in Britain in the 1890s, texts in which their chiefly female authors attempted to challenge received ideas on sexuality, marriage, careers and health. Predictably, male critics were quick to diagnose this kind ofwriting as a ‘literature of hysteria’ or even ‘a literature of vituper­ation and of sex-mania’, a symptom ‘of a restless and fretful age’ likely ‘to widen the breach between men and women, and to make them more mutually distrustful than ever’ (Stutfield 1897: 109, 116). But, from a woman’s perspective, what this often didactic fiction achieved was the opening up of a social space in which issues like venereal disease or the male double standard might be publicly discussed. In other words, the intimacy of the household could become a site of controversy, something like a feminized literary public sphere (see Flint 1993: 300). And it was these controversies that prepared the ground for women’s suffrage.

However, there is an important qualification that needs to be entered here. The huge expansion in Victorian print culture meant that publishing of all kinds was gradually ceasing to be a ‘small handicraft business’ (Habermas 1989: 180). It now had the potential to become a large-scale commercial operation with a relatively small number of powerful, highly capitalized and technologically advanced companies reaching out to millions of readers. For Habermas, this move towards economic concentration combined with the growth of a mass audience spelled the end of the public sphere. In his view, by the close of the nineteenth – century print was ceasing to provide a means by which men and women could engage in reasoned discussion of the major political issues that faced them, including, we might add, the question of their unequal relationship to each other, a point that Habermas has largely ignored. There is a very real paradox in Habermas’s account of cultural change. For, as we saw earlier, the eighteenth – century public sphere may have facilitated remarkably open and democratic exchanges among the relatively small number of people who took part in it, but women were only allowed a subordinate role at best.

The creation of a truly mass audience initially took place in the newspaper industry where innovative printing techniques, new styles of popular journalism and a steady stream of advertising revenue helped to push daily circulation figures over the one million mark by the first decade of the twentieth century. If more men and women were reading newspapers than ever before, the industry’s exceptional profitability meant that they were being served by extremely powerful financial interests. Whereas ‘formerly the press was able to limit itself to the transmission and amplification of the rational-critical debate of private people assembled into a public’, Habermas believes that the modern newspaper industry and the mass media more generally now tend to shape the terms in which the key national issues are posed from the outset. Another effect of this unprecedented growth has been to transform ‘the public sphere into a medium of adver­tising’ in which the reader is increasingly addressed as a consumer, rather than as a citizen (188—9). And insofar as the home has become the major site of consumption, women readers have become a new target audience, though whether this has resulted in their empowerment or simply in new ideologies of domesticity continues to remain a controversial topic. Certainly, these changes have raised ever more urgent questions about gender and the nature of reading under contemporary conditions, particularly given the tendency for texts to be organized into male and female genres. Can we still hold on to the notion of a literary public sphere once texts start to be marketed to a vast, anonymous and sometimes international pool of readers? Or, to paraphrase Terry Eagleton, has all discussion become absorbed into the culture industry (Eagleton 1984: 107)? Although writers like Habermas or Eagleton can make these sound deceptively like gender-neutral questions, they have frequently been framed and answered in gendered terms, whether wittingly or not.


Reading is now such a basic skill, seeming to transcend consid­erations of gender, that it is hard to think of it as having a history at all, let alone a past that belongs to the history of the relationship between men and women. But the act of reading has itself varied enormously over time, a fact that is immediately apparent from the physical form that the written word has taken. If we think of the elaborately illustrated manuscripts copied out by medieval scribes, for instance, we are obviously in a different world from that presupposed by the mass production of printed books. An early fifteenth-century manuscript of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde pictures the author reading his narrative poem to King Richard II and Queen Anne surrounded by lords and ladies of the court, an image that underscores the oral, performative character of reading in an age of limited literacy. Indeed, in this period even reading to oneself seems typically to have meant reading out loud. Thus, among the rules of the early medieval Benedictine Order is a direction that ‘[a]fter the sixth hour, having left the table let [the monks] rest on their beds in perfect silence; or if anyone wishes to read by himself, let him read so as not to disturb the others’ (quoted in McLuhan 1969: 116). Reading

might be an aid to meditation, but the fact that the words on the page are spoken could also undermine an atmosphere of concentration.

Here we have two brief examples of what might be called the social relations ofreading. In the first, to put a text into circulation is to read it to an audience. Chaucer’s purpose is informed by a deep moral seriousness: he wanted to contrast the love of Christ with the precariousness of worldly passion, setting the majesty of religion against the vicissitudes of courtly love, and the illustration shows him standing in an outdoor pulpit. Yet his poem was also written to entertain and to amuse, an emphasis that came to predominate in the more secular, post-medieval period. When printed books started to appear in court society they were

intended less for reading in the study or in solitary leisure hours wrung from one’s profession, than for social conviviality; they are a part and continuation of conversation and social games, or, like the majority of court memoirs, they are substitute conversations, dialogues in which for some reason or other the partner is lacking.

(Elias 1982: 275)

Once again, reading has a public and occasional quality about it in that it is an extension of the everyday rituals and routines of courtly life. But Elias’s description also hints at a more modern relationship to the book in which reading is a silent and deeply private experience, an inner colloquy that entails a withdrawal of the self from the social whirl. On this view the colourful portraits to be found in the seventeenth-century Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon prefigure the minutely observed dissection of Parisian society two centuries later depicted in the novels of Balzac and Proust.

In general terms we can say that, despite its importance, the ability to read and write was an exceptional accomplishment until the middle of the sixteenth century. And only in the nineteenth century did literacy become at all commonplace. As David Cressy observes, ‘England, for most of her history, has been a partially literate society, in which the art of writing and record-keeping was confined to a clerical, governmental and commercial elite’ (Cressy 1990: 838). Reading, a skill that would have been learned before writing, was probably more wide­spread and was given a boost by the invention of printing, since standardized type was easier to read than handwritten script. Nevertheless, in the early years of printing the law was used to prevent some people from reading. An Act of 1543 outlawed the reading of the Bible in English among the ranks of the lower orders which included apprentices, yeomen and women.

It is hard to be sure how many people could read at any given time because, unlike writing, reading leaves no clear historical traces. A rise in the number of books or pamphlets undoubtedly shows an increase in the demand for reading material, but it is impossible to know exactly how many people could make use of it. However, taking the ability to sign one’s own name as a rough guide to the distribution of literacy, it is clear that reading was a highly gendered activity. ‘At the time of the English Civil War’, says Cressy, ‘more than two-thirds of all Englishmen — contemporaries of Milton and Cromwell — could not write their names’, whereas for women the figure was ‘as high as 90 per cent’ (Cressy 1990: 844). This gap continued despite the fall in illiteracy rates, but with the growth of towns and cities as commercial centres we begin to see significant variations. In London, for example, about half the women had become literate by the 1690s, about the same proportion as for men in the English countryside, and this advance continued into the eighteenth century. It is against this metropolitan background that the plays, poems and novels by the female writer Aphra Behn (1640—89) need to be understood, with their trenchant critique of male power and gender ideologies.

If the cultural context of London life was crucial to Behn’s achievement as one of the first women to make her living from writing, the absence of social support elsewhere created real obstacles. When Anne Bradstreet’s poem The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America (1650) was first published in New England it was prefaced by a long apologia from her brother-in-law assuring readers that she had not neglected any of her womanly duties in making time to write. In colonial America many women seem to have been able to read, but they were not expected or encouraged to write. Michael Warner cites the example of a printer’s wife in late-seventeenth-century Maryland who set type and ran the press after her husband died, but could not sign her name. Until the end of the eighteenth century the schools that taught colonial American children to read were called ‘woman schools’, while those that taught them to write were known as ‘masters’ schools.’ Women could not write without feeling some sense of inappropriateness or inhibition. ‘To write’, Warner emphasizes, ‘was to inhabit gender’ (Warner 1990: 15), but his aphorism is no less true of reading. Even instruction within the family was often gendered, the responsibility for teaching children to read being vested in the mother, while writing remained the pedagogic preserve of the father.


Historically, as Nightwood amply confirms, both modernism and same-sex passion have relied upon the twentieth-century metro­polis as a place sufficiently large and diverse to enable them to survive, and eventually to flourish. But this link between sexual dissidence and urban geography can be found throughout gay and lesbian writing and not only in its modernist forms. Thus in Radclyffe Hall’s distinctly non-modernist lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) it is in Paris that Stephen Gordon ultimately makes her home when she has been rejected by her mother Lady Anna and it is there that she most fully realizes her vocation as a writer. The novel requires that Stephen cannot find personal happiness since her tragic fate is to embody and articulate the crippling burden of social exclusion and denial that lesbians must bear, to use her literary gifts on behalf of the sexual pariah. Nevertheless, The Well of Loneliness does vouchsafe at least one positive glimpse of an alternative future via the gregarious and unbowed figure of Valerie Seymour, famed for her celebrated Parisian salon, who cheerfully predicts that Nature will soon redress the lesbian’s minority status by bringing ‘inverts’ into the world in ever increasing numbers.

Despite their evident stylistic differences, The Well of Loneliness and Nightwood have each been read as flawed anticipations of a new kind of community in process. As we have seen, Boone is careful to note the ways in which Barnes deliberately seeks to estrange her readers from the text, refusing them any comfortable points of identification in Nightwoods crepuscular narrative. Yet, at the same time, he argues that Barnes’s ‘perverse depiction of an entire universe of outcasts banded in solidarity under the sign of inversion’ is precisely what aligns the novel with ‘contemporary idioms of queer world-making’ (Boone 1998: 235). The key word in this sentence is of course ‘solidarity’, with its communal overtones of belonging, companionship and self-sacrifice.

This line of argument has recently come under sustained attack from Leo Bersani in his book Homos (1995), a polemic directed against some of the most cherished assumptions within gay and lesbian studies, including queer theory. Bersani suggests that there is a profound ambivalence about what it currently means to be gay, a doubt as to whether it is possible (or even justifiable) to speak any longer of a specifically gay identity. The call for social justice — the demand that gays or lesbians should be treated no differently than anyone else — might be said to have the aggregate effect of making them the same as everyone else, of reducing their cultural visibility or distinctiveness as a group by assimilating them into the general (straight) population. Or again, some commentators have questioned whether one’s choice of sexual partner should be regarded as the single most important index of who one is. In the words of Judith Butler’s forceful disclaimer:

The prospect of being anything, even for pay, has always produced in me a certain anxiety, for ‘to be’ gay, ‘to be’ lesbian seems to be more than a simple injunction to become who or what I already am. And in no way does it settle the anxiety for me to say that this is ‘part’ ofwhat I am. To write or speak as a lesbian appears a paradoxical appearance of this ‘I,’ one which feels neither true nor false. For it is a production, usually in response to a request, to come out or write in the name of an identity which, once produced, sometimes functions as a politically efficacious phantasm. I’m not at ease with ‘lesbian theories, gay theories,’ for as I’ve argued elsewhere, identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression. This is not to say that I will not appear at political occasions under the sign of lesbian, but that I would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign signifies.

(Butler 1991: 13-14)

The attractions of this position are considerable: it invites one to break free from the stigmatizing logic of gender differences, to stop thinking of one’s gender as some sort of fixed core or essence. Yet to refuse to be recognized as gay or lesbian is to abandon, or as Bersani puts it, to ‘de-gay’ gayness itself. Worse still, in practice it helps to make the homophobic dream become a reality by bringing about ‘the elimination of gays’ (Bersani

1995: 5).

What alternative does Bersani offer? His title Homos is designed to mark a distinction between his own work and queer theory by insisting upon the value of homosexuality — or what he calls ‘homo-ness’ — rather than simply seeking to dismantle the hetero/ homo binary and replace it with an unconstrained and largely free-floating model of desire. ‘Homo-ness’ directs attention to what is unassimilable in gay life, an embracing of sameness that challenges conventional ideas about community, yet which is also ‘a mode of connectedness to the world that it would be absurd to reduce to sexual preference’ (Bersani 1995: 10). In Bersani’s view ‘homo-ness’ provides an indispensable opportunity for re-imagining both the self and the social by pushing them to their limits, by taking them beyond what we would ordinarily understand them to be.

In a way, Bersani’s position could be described as simultaneously pre – and post-Foucauldian. His work is post-Foucauldian insofar as he accepts the claim made in The History of Sexuality that homosexuality was a product of late-nineteenth-century medical and juridical thought, but believes that the lessons drawn from Foucault’s genealogy have typically been too negative or too restrictive in their implications. It is ‘almost as if homosexuality were nothing but a reaction, the responses of a social group to its own invention’ (Bersani 1995: 33). Bersani therefore puts aside the project of historicizing homosexuality and turns for inspiration to three modernist writers who have pursued their own obsessive explorations of ‘homo-ness’ or ‘desire for the same’: Andre Gide, Marcel Proust and Jean Genet. In its attempt to find a more utopian space for gay desire, stepping outside the confines of contemporary theoretical debates, Homos is primarily pre – Foucauldian in its sources and in its substance, particularly where it draws upon (and invariably revises) psychoanalytic insights.

Bersani’s readings are incisive and brilliantly creative, but they are not without their problems. Take, for example, Bersani’s account of Gide’s novel L’lmmoraliste (1902), a book described by its author as a gorgeous ‘fruit filled with bitter ashes’, offering only a ‘cruel fierceness’ to the thirsty reader (Gide 1960: 7). In it Michel, a bookish young man who once cared for nothing but scholarship, tells how his discovery that he is suffering from tuberculosis while on honeymoon in Tunisia transformed him into an uncompromising hedonist. Bersani picks out two features of this narrative: the obscurity of Michel’s transformation and the strangely contradictory nature of his pleasure-seeking. In Bersani’s view it is not the threat of illness that changes Michel’s life, but rather his ‘discovery that he is a pederast’ (Bersani 1995: 114). However, this apparently stark realization is not only something that Michel fails fully to understand, it is also compli­cated by his delight in other, less obviously sexual sensations. Which is perhaps why the closing lines of the novel strike such a curious note: Michel has returned to North Africa and begins to spend his nights with a beautiful young prostitute, but immediately gives her up when he finds out that his liaison is upsetting the woman’s younger brother. In response she tells Michel that he ‘prefer[s] the boy to her’ and Michel tenta­tively admits that maybe ‘she is not altogether wrong. . .’ (Gide

1960: 159).

What is odd here is Michel’s belated, redundant admission of a preference that has been glaringly obvious all along and openly declared by Michel himself earlier in the book. How is it credible that Michel, in narrating his own transformation, did not know this? Bersani suggests that Michel’s desire is less transparent than it seems, that his homosexuality is both ‘unmistakable yet indefinable’ (Bersani 1995: 116). And in truth Michel’s epicurean sensuality really is peculiarly oblique, often solipsistic or remote. One of his most intense moments occurs on a visit to a lonely spot in Italy where, his body still exquisitely sensitive after the ravages of his illness, he takes off all his clothes and blissfully exposes himself to the sun. Bersani underlines the paradox at the heart of Michel’s desires, variously referring to them as ‘homosexuality without sexuality’, a ‘model for intimacies devoid of intimacy’, invoking ‘a community in which the other, no longer respected or violated as a person, would merely be cruised as another opportunity, at once insignificant and precious, for narcissistic pleasures’ (Bersani 1995: 121, 128—9). In short, an ‘anticommunitarian’ community in which relationships are fleeting, elusive, attenuated to the point of absence.

The kind of self that such a ‘chaste promiscuity’ presupposes is mapped out during Michel’s slow, solitary disrobing under the Italian sun (Bersani 1995: 125):

The air was almost sharp, but the sun was burning. I exposed my whole body to its flame. I sat down, lay down, turned myself about.

I felt the ground hard beneath me; the waving grass brushed me. Though I was sheltered from the wind, I shivered and thrilled at every breath. Soon a delicious burning enveloped me; my whole being surged up into my skin.

(Gide 1960: 55)

For Bersani it is the concentration of feeling upon the surfaces of the skin that is so remarkable and so instructive in this passage. What has been lost is the capacity for immediate or instantaneous pleasure, suffocating under the dead weight of cultured learning. It is therefore necessary for Michel to give himself up ‘to the luxurious enjoyment of my own self, of external things, of all existence, which seemed to me divine’ (Gide 1960: 52). There are no hidden depths here, no long-buried interior self waiting to be revealed to the world. Instead, in Bersani’s phrase, ‘the authentic is the superficial’ and Michel’s being is absorbed into ‘a desiring skin’, a ‘desire that is satisfied just by the proximity to the other, at the most by the other’s touch (analogous to the touch of the soil and the grass on Michel’s body)’ (Bersani

1995: 120-1).

Born into a life of privilege Michel (L ’Immoraliste) has set his face against the values of modern civilization that formerly provided the raison d’etre of his scholarship. Even art comes to be seen as a life-denying force (since it opposes itself to the artistry of everyday living) while the stultifying necessity of manual work (together with marriage) is held responsible for destroying the beauty of young male bodies, as Michel discovers when he returns to the boys he left behind in North Africa. Bersani regards this as an invitation to imagine a new kind of erotic community freed from property relations in which bodies are, in the strictest sense, self-less: ‘shifting points of rest in a universal and mobile communication of being’ (Bersani 1995: 128). Yet to activate this interpretation Bersani has quickly to slide over the novel’s sacrificial logic through which the price exacted for a fortified male homosexuality is an enfeebled and displaced femininity. Thus, just as the young Arab whore must be exiled from Michel’s bed in order to release him into the company of boys, so his wife Marceline’s tubercular lungs must fatally haemorrhage to enable Michel to ‘feel the presence of happiness’ in ‘the midst of splendour and death’ and to allow him ‘to begin over again’ (Gide I960: 157—8). As Naomi Segal observes, this is precisely why ‘Marceline must be brought to her final haemorrhage at the site of Michel’s erstwhile rebirth’ (Segal 1998: 187).

However, it is certainly possible to argue that these reservations do not altogether detract from Homoss central point, namely that desire and pleasure are forces that have a devastating effect upon us and upon our ordinary social relationships. In fact, Bersani would probably want to claim that the perverse consequences of Michel’s immoralism actually reinforce his thesis. Borrowing from the French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, Bersani refers to this experience of disruption as an effect of ebranlement (literally ‘shock’ or ‘commotion’) or what he calls ‘self-shattering’. In self-shattering the subject’s ego is thoroughly (if temporarily) undone and its boundaries begin to dissolve, loosening any clear sense of the difference between the self and others. Such ecstatic moments put at risk ‘the whole concept of identity’ and ‘even more funda­mentally, the notion of relationality itself’ (Bersani 1995: 42, 52). Self-shattering offers us an intimation of what it might mean to speak of ‘an anti-identitarian identity’, an identity that would erase any trace of what identity once was (Bersani 1995: 101).

Obviously a lot is at stake here. Bersani claims, for example, that same-sex passion is transformed through self-shattering, since its ‘privileging of sameness’ now derives ‘from the perspective of a self already identified as different from itself’, that is from ‘a desiring subject for whom the antagonism between the different and the same no longer exists’ (Bersani 1995: 59—60). Sameness seems to have the capacity to absorb — or perhaps to neutralize — difference, disarming the threat of otherness. From this stand­point gender divisions appear to provide the occasion or the resources for their own supersession; for example, ‘the gay man’s deployment of signifiers of the feminine may be a powerful weapon in the defeat of those defensive maneuvers that have defined sexual difference’. Identifying with women or incorpor­ating ‘woman’s otherness’ into himself is part of a complex trajectory of desire in which nothing is fixed in advance:

The gay man’s identification with women is countered by an imitation

ofthose desiring subjects with whom we have been officially identified:

other men. In a sense, then, the very maintaining of the couples man-woman, heterosexual-homosexual, serves to break down their oppositional distinctions. These binary divisions help to create the diversified desiring field across which we can move, thus reducing sexual difference itself – at least as far as desire is concerned – to a merely formal arrangement inviting us to transgress the very identity assigned to us within the couple.

(Bersani 1995: 61)

There are a number of points to make about this revealing passage. In the first place, one might question whether Bersani’s psycho­analytically inspired description of the restless volatility of the desiring imagination cannot be applied to all desire and not just to that of the gay man. In the next chapter we shall see that some of the recent work on how readers and viewers involve themselves in literary and film texts suggests that Bersani’s assumptions are less gay-specific than he tends to imply. For it may be that cross-identification provides the key to the intensest forms of visual and literary pleasure.

Indeed, the more Bersani stresses the mobility of subject positions and the instability and the inconvenience of desire, the more his argument begins to resemble the open-endedness of queer accounts of identity whose allegedly ‘de-gaying’ conse­quences he was at pains to critique. Part of his strategy for giving priority to sameness, while at the same time allowing free rein to difference, is to concentrate upon examples of gay texts that continue to confront the reader with their own provocative mode of ebranlement. But, as we saw in the case of Gide, attempts to move beyond gender divisions can sometimes merely strengthen them. For the violence and the pleasure of Michel’s trangressions surely depend upon a series of gendered binaries through which the untamed Mediterranean landscape is conceived as an all-male preserve so hostile to feminine domesticity that a figure like Marceline cannot survive there. And, as Mandy Merck has observed in one of the most acute discussions of Bersani’s work to date, to recognize this is to raise a far more difficult question for men and women, gay and straight alike: ‘How might the gendered opposition of wild and tame, savagery and domesticity, be thought otherwise?’ (Merck 1998: 235). That this question can even be asked may be one sign that Bersani’s argument is far less radical than he would have us believe.

Yet, caveats aside, it is undeniably the case that in Bersani’s work — as in the move from ‘gay’ to ‘queer’ more generally — we find the very notion of gendered identity placed under maximum pressure. Indeed, Homos, with its call for an experience of selfhood that is predicated upon its own dissolution, a mode of being that is at once ephemeral and episodic, a flux of pleasurable sensations and awesome intensities without an organizing centre, epitomizes the dilemmas faced by those who would seek an identity that does not simply mirror the alternatives offered by the straight world. Is such a search a contradiction in terms? Is the vocabulary in which we think about who we are so closely (and so damagingly) tied to the contrast between male and female subjects that, in order to do justice to the complexity of our desires, we need to abandon the lineaments of identity and begin to imagine a form of subjectivity that dispenses with the commonsense certainties of gender? For all its faults and incoherences, Bersani’s polemic shows why such a post-identity theory might be indispensable and what it might look like. Too militantly suspicious fully to endorse the label of ‘queer’, he nevertheless allows his readers a taste of a queer future.


Just as Warhol’s deadpan swishiness helped to open up new aesthetic possibilities for Camp as a cultural practice, so ‘queer’ is also a term that has been virtually reinvented by gay critics and gay activists in recent years. Roughly speaking, ‘queer’ seems to have passed through three main phases. When the word first came into use in the United States it was not a mark of obloquy or disdain; as one respondent who had been part of New York’s gay world in the 1920s told George Chauncey: ‘It wasn’t like kike or nigger… It just meant you were different’ (Chauncey 1994: 101). In deliberate contrast with the fairy, to identify oneself as queer tended to indicate a quietly controlled, ‘manly’ demeanour and a desire for other queer, or perhaps straight men. According to Chauncey’s evidence, the queer/fairy opposition reflected the social class backgrounds from which these gendered styles typically originated. From the middle-class standpoint of the average queer man, the fairy represented a tasteless, undignified, and above all lower-class mode of self-presentation that brought same-sex relationships into disrepute. But, on the other hand, class was not always a source of antagonism; for many men class differences could also stimulate desire, E. M. Forster’s wish ‘to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him’ (and then to write ‘respectable novels’) being a famous case in point (Forster 1989: 16).

By the 1940s queer had ceased to be a relatively neutral term. Thus, when his publisher wanted to call his second book Fag instead of Queer, William Burroughs was appalled. ‘I don’t mind being called queer,’ he wrote to Allen Ginsberg, ‘but I’ll see him castrated before I’ll be called a Fag’ (Burroughs 1994: 119). The year was 1952 and Burroughs’ response reflects not only the habits of mind of an earlier generation (not to mention his privileged upbringing), but it also carries the clear implication that being called ‘queer’ was now something that one might well mind. For the letters repeatedly show how powerful a psychological and cultural norm heterosexuality had become. In the early 1950s Ginsberg was so distressed by his desire for men that he was seeing a psychoanalyst to help him ‘to get over being queer’ (85). So it is crucial to Burroughs’ defence of calling himself queer that sleeping with women does not make him heterosexual: ‘Laying a woman, so far as I am concerned is O. K. if I can’t score for a boy. But laying one woman or a thousand merely emphasizes the fact that a woman is not what I want’ (88).

Revealingly, ‘queer’ also had another meaning in the 1950s. When David in Giovanni’s Room tells one of his male companions in a gay bar that ‘I’m sort of queer for girls myself’ he is turning the word against a would-be lover and also using the word in a somewhat different sense to indicate both the source and the intensity of his desire. To say that you were ‘queer for someone’ meant that you felt passionately about that person, that you were head over heels in love with them, and was a phrase that could be used by men and women. In his autobiographical novel Junkie (1953), William Burroughs writes of ‘queer joints’ (gay bars) and the wealthy ‘international queer set’, but just a few pages later the word’s inflection changes when a prostitute named Mary says of her boyfriend ‘I’m queer for Jack’ — though she subsequently tells the narrator that she is mostly attracted to women (Burroughs 1966: 9, 25).

Mad for a man, yet preferring women: this figure of a passion that is aberrant precisely because it is uncontainable and uncontrollable, carries over into queer’s latest incarnation, a phase in which queer becomes a signifier of attitude, of a refusal to accept conventional sexual and gendered categories, of a defiant desire beyond the regular confines of ‘heteronormativity’. According to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s marvellously eloquent and much-quoted definition:

Queer can refer to: 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 1993: 8)

This is desire in all its incalculable, inconvenient unboundedness and its corollary is, in Judith Butler’s celebrated phrase, gender ‘as trouble’ (Butler 1990: ix).

We should be careful therefore not to let the polymorphous accents of this more permissive version of queer eradicate either its radical edge or its unapologetically militant history. As Sedgwick herself adds in a crucial qualification, ‘to disavow’ the specific links between queerness and homosexuality or ‘to displace’ such associations ‘from the term’s definitional centre’ would be to rob it of its emancipatory potential (Sedgwick 1993: 8). For the first strategic redeployment of the word came in 1990 with the founding of the activist group Queer Nation in New York, a move that grew directly out of political work on behalf of people suffering from AIDS. By staging a series of daring affronts to contemporary civic culture, Queer Nation has sought to force the general public to face up to some of the unexamined lines of symbolic demarcation between gays and straights in everyday life. Queer Nation’s ‘visibility actions’ have combined the sardonic and the provocative, the theatrical and the confrontational to create vivid, highly charged moments of recognition: hence the surprise occupations of exclusively heterosexual bars or the organized ‘kiss-ins’ at city plazas and shopping malls, tactics designed to challenge the limits of the straight imagination. While these sorts of happenings are in one sense celebratory manifestations of a gay presence, they involve more than a simple transvaluation of ‘queer’ that turns it from a negative into a positive term. The popular slogan ‘We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!’ points a critical finger at existing institutions and articulates a far-reaching demand for change.

What difference might queer theory make to literary or cultural criticism? These are still early days, but on the whole queer critics have been more interested in developing new modes of inter­preting literary texts or in asking new questions of them, than in constructing a gay and lesbian counter-canon of great books, though it goes without saying that queer theorists certainly have strong views on what is worthy of their readers’ attention. The results have been extremely varied: ‘queer readings’ of such major writers as James Joyce and Henry James can be found side by side with discussions of less established figures like Vita Sackville – West, Audre Lorde or Neil Bartlett.

A sample from the recent critical history of Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel Nightwood provides an instructive example of some of the ways in which queer theory departs from earlier approaches. Barnes was rated highly by her peers — T. S. Eliot and James Joyce both championed her work — yet her writings stand at an odd angle to canonical modernism. And Nightwood, a book widely acknowledged as Barnes’s chef-d’oeuvre, has proved particularly difficult to place. Not surprisingly, it resists easy summary. The novel begins with the birth of Felix Volkbein in Vienna at the turn of the century, but then swiftly backtracks into a family genealogy that shows the pomp of the Volkbein coat of arms to be nothing more than the pretence of a Jewish parvenu. As a grown man, Felix cultivates the eccentric company of circus artists and theatre players who live on the fringes of European high society and through whom he meets his young wife, Robin Vote. But no sooner are they married than the novel swerves off into what will become its central narrative, the story of Robin’s intense affair with the circus publicity agent Nora Flood, a relationship that is violently disrupted when Robin is seduced by the voracious Jenny Petherbridge. Much of the rest of the book chronicles Nora’s agonized and inconclusive efforts to repair this loss.

But to outline the plot as if it were a simple sequence of events is to seriously misrepresent the true nature of Barnes’s achievement.

For one thing, Nightwood is, above all else, a novel of talk, a book that dazzles through its wonderfully inventive use of language, its obsessive exploration of mood and metaphysics, rather than through its analysis of character and situation. Thus it is entirely appropriate that Dr Matthew O’Connor, arguably the most extraordinary figure in the book, speaks almost entirely in lofty yet racy monologues, even when he is engaged in conversation. And so dense and ornate is the verbal texture of the novel that the puzzling question of what is being said often pushes a character’s motives for speaking into the background.

If the main relationships in the book are between women, doesn’t it make sense to read Nightwood as ‘a narrative of lesbian desire and power’ (Allen 1993: 181)? Especially, one might add, since the novel relies heavily for its setting upon the Parisian gay community in which Barnes herself lived and worked during the 1920s. Carolyn Allen succeeds brilliantly in tracing the ‘complex dynamics between lesbian subjects’, in revealing the forces that draw Nora and Robin together and wrench them apart (180). But the problem with this optic is that it drastically reduces the scope of the book, sidelining the carnivalesque world of misfits and outsiders whose ‘ranting’ and ‘roaring’ provide Nightwood’s true ambience, irrespective of place. The antinomianism of this strangely hybrid ‘crew’ is well illustrated by the promiscuous gathering at Nora’s ‘“paupers” salon’ outside New York, a mecca ‘for poets, radicals, beggars, artists, and people in love; for Catholics, Protestants, Brahmins, dabblers in black magic and medicine’, as well as the performers from the Denckman circus (Barnes 1961: 50). Fittingly, Nora was ‘brought. . . into the world’ by none other than the transvestite Dr O’Connor, who subsequently fulfils the combined functions of Nora’s phallic mother and father confessor, her priest and analyst (49). Never­theless, it is important for Allen’s reading to emphasize that Dr O’Connor’s ministrations must finally be seen to be defeated by Nora in order for lesbian passion to retain its integrity in the face of an unhappy ending.

O’Connor has also been described as a ‘witch doctor or medicine man’, an appellation which seems to position him as Nightwood’s principal shaman or magician. According to Sandra Gilbert,

O’Connor’s verbal magic bespeaks ‘the androgynous wholeness and holiness of prehistory’ that is ultimately invoked by the text in an attempt to escape from ‘the dis-order and dis-ease of gender’. There is, she argues, a sharp distinction to be made between the use of transvestism in the work of male modernists like Joyce and Eliot as compared to that of Djuna Barnes or Virginia Woolf. In the Nighttown episode of Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, when the ‘massive’ brothelkeeper Bella Cohen makes Leopold Bloom ‘shed [his] male garments’ for a ‘punishment frock’ and ‘don the shot silk luxuriously rustling over head and shoulders’, this ritualized unmanning is in fact a prelude to the restoration of Bloom’s ‘proximate erection’ (Joyce 1964 [1922]: 647, 867). But in Nightwood — read by Gilbert as ‘a revisionary response’ to Joyce’s Nighttown — the inconstancy of gendered identities produces ‘a symbolic chaos’ whose sign is a ubiquitous androgyny which precludes any return to patriarchal certainties. And it is this ‘wild reality beyond gender’ that explains Nightwood’s strong affinity for the mythic and the transcendental. At the novel’s close Nora follows Robin to a remote country chapel where her former lover gets down on her hands and knees and starts to behave like an animal. In Gilbert’s view this curious final scene has an almost mystical significance, for ‘Robin actually does become a kind of sacred Dog, a reversed God (or Goddess) of the third sex, parodically barking before a conventional statuette of the Madonna’ (Gilbert 1980: 413—15).

Each of these readings goes a long way towards illuminating the difficulties inherent in what is often an opaque and obscure text. But, if Allen’s specific focus on lesbian desire might be thought to leave too much out, Gilbert’s more inclusive claim that the novel finds its fulfilment in an all-encompassing androgyny could be said to overlook the extent to which Nightwood perversely refuses any such easy resolution. When Dr O’Connor suddenly exclaims ‘It’s my mother without argument I want!’ (Barnes 1961: 149) or when the anguished Nora cries out ‘I can’t live without my heart!’ (156), both characters are giving voice to their sense of desolation and incompleteness by naming the lost object that they cannot have. One of the many virtues of Joseph A. Boone’s excellent queer reading of Nightwood in his book Libidinal Currents (1998) is its alertness to precisely these moments of frustration and terror, its recognition that Barnes eschews any conclusion ‘that would impose final meaning on the queer desires of the sexually disenfranchised that this text so defiantly champions’ (Boone 1998: 242).

Though in no way seeking to diminish the force of lesbianism’s presence in Nightwood, Boone argues that the adoption of a queer perspective may have a special relevance here. In the first place, the world of the novel ‘transcends the limits of the hetero/ homo divide’ so completely that even those characters like Felix Volkbein who yearn for respectability and security find them­selves utterly undone (Boone 1998: 234). Indeed, the ordinary categories of experience are repeatedly stretched to breaking-point: O’Connor, the suspect doctor, is simultaneously ‘a boy’, ‘the bearded lady’ and ‘the last woman left in this world’, while Robin is ‘a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin, monstrously alone, monstrously vain’ (Barnes 1961: 100, 146). As these examples suggest, the term ‘queer’ can also be applied to Barnes’s language and style since her words tend to operate ‘on the level of surface, sound, and combination with other wordimages, rather than serving as an index of rational meaning’. Moreover, Boone sees a close parallel between the condition of ‘permanent alienation’ in which ‘the narrative’s queer subjects’ live as social and sexual outcasts and the way in which the constant use of oxymorons, discordant metaphors and almost surreal juxtapositions in the novel tends to exile words from their established meanings (Boone 1998: 238—9). In its radical will to experiment, to re-make language, Nightwood surely qualifies as one of the founding texts of what we might now call ‘queer modernism’.

Barnes’s persistent denaturalization of language, her preference for the artificial and the baroque, has an important effect upon characterization for which the circus or the theatre provides the most apposite image. Felix Volkbein, ‘the wandering Jew’, is a man in search of the means of his own self-transformation and what draws him to these actresses, acrobats and sword-swallowers is their love of ‘pageantry’, ‘their splendid and reeking falsification’ (Barnes 1961: 7, 11). Just as language runs away with (and from) the novel’s characters, so any hope that we might gain access to their inner thoughts is seriously undermined:

Rather, the intensely psychodramatic material of Nightwood is projected outward onto the narrative plane, rendering interiority a textual theatre where sexuality and identity are self-consciously staged and performed. Even those narrative moments that the reader may think provide glimpses into the inner depths of these characters ultimately reveal that what lies ‘behind the surface’ is pure theatre, a facade of surface upon surface that underscores the secondariness and estrangement in all representation.

(Boone 1998: 248).

There is something close to the spirit of Camp in this stress upon performance and superficiality and in Nightwood it occurs in the most unlikely places. When Dr O’Connor is called to Robin Vote’s hotel bedroom after she has fainted his first act is lightly to use her perfume, powder and lipstick to make himself up while Felix voyeuristically looks on from behind a jungle of potted palms. What promised to be a privileged moment of insight has turned into a carefully orchestrated spectacle, another reminder that ‘the performative play of surfaces is all we ever get’ (Boone 1998: 249). Robin’s emergence from her trance is no less theatrical, her voice adopting ‘the pitch of one enchanted with the gift of postponed abandon’, or of ‘the actor who, in the soft usury of his speech, withholds a vocabulary until the profitable moment when he shall be facing his audience’. Barnes’s queer sensibility brings form and content into near perfect alignment in Nightwood, ‘as an image and its reflection in a lake seem parted only by the hesitation in the hour’ (Barnes 1961: 38).


Gay New York is essentially a work of retrieval. In it Chauncey seeks to recover the lives and lifestyles of those gay men whose past has been hidden from history, whose culture has been forgotten and in part erased or distorted. One of Chauncey’s central claims is that the common idea that same-sex desire was necessarily a solitary, secretive longing that could not be given public expression is a myth, and a relatively recent myth at that. True, queer behaviour was parodied, proscribed and policed, but, in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century at least, it was by no means confined to the closet. The open portrayal of gay men and women on stage in such Broadway plays as Edouard Bournet’s The Captive or in comedienne Mae West’s work is just one sign of the extent to which homosexuality had come to be taken for granted in the city, leading the state legislature to pass the repressive ‘Padlock Law’ in 1927 in an attempt to outlaw this kind of subject matter, although allusions to homosexuality continued to appear in Broadway productions such as Noёl Coward’s Design for Living (1933). During these years drag balls were hugely popular events in New York and were held at major public venues like Madison Square Gardens, Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom or the Astor Hotel. Indeed, anti-gay measures like the Padlock Law were deliberately intended to roll back the increasing visibility of the gay subculture, particularly by targeting the social milieux where gay men and women socialized. After 1933, for instance, it became an offence for gays to gather in licensed public places like clubs or restaurants.

As a result of this legislative onslaught, homosexuals were forced to go underground, to cut themselves off from the mainstream of city life, and to exercise much more care and discretion about the ways in which they presented themselves — in other words, to enter the closet. The growing use of the term ‘gay’ as the most common synonym for ‘homosexual’ was related to this new experience of segregation for it presupposed a rigidly divided world in which heterosexuality was the norm. In the space of a generation ‘the lines had been drawn between the heterosexual and the homosexual so sharply and publicly that men were no longer able to participate in a homosexual encounter without suspecting it meant (to the outside world, and to themselves) that they were gay’ (Chauncey 1994: 22). This had not been true of ‘queers’ or ‘fairies’: these were contrasting, sometimes transitory, gendered personae or styles based upon an individual’s sense of himself as masculine or feminine rather than his choice of sexual partner.

Men who regarded themselves as queer could be intensely hostile to the more effeminate fairies. William S. Burroughs’ early writings are a good example of this frequently aggressive attitude. In a 1955 letter to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, for instance, Burroughs condemns those he calls ‘complete swish fairies’ and wishes to see them all dead, not merely because they are ‘traitors to the cause of queerness, but for selling out the human race to the forces of negation and death’ (Burroughs 1994: 298). Burroughs’ murderous invective shows not only the continuing survival of the older gendered vocabulary alongside the new, more capacious rhetoric of gayness; it also indicates some of the tensions arising from the policing of the closet and a fear and hatred of those self-endangering forms of public display that grated against the boundaries of heterosexual normalcy. As an antidote to the repressiveness of the American scene, Burroughs tended to idealize the sexual liaisons that occurred on his visits to South America and North Africa, applauding the uninhibited ease with which the ‘average, non-queer Peruvian boy’ will ‘go to bed with another male’ and underplaying the cash basis of this type of sexual tourism (Burroughs 1994: 176).

Many of the gay men interviewed in Gay New York regarded the 1930s as a relatively unthreatening time when compared to the virulent campaigns against them in the aftermath of the Second World War. The crude homophobia featured in bestselling crime novelist Mickey Spillane’s work, ranging from the punches and cold water thrown at gay men in I, the Jury (1947) to the depiction of transvestism as the most monstrous symbol of evil in Vengeance Is Mine! (1950), is symptomatic of the worst literary excesses of this period. But other texts from the 1950s provide more complex manifestations of this homophobic impulse. Robert J. Corber has recently shown how the films of Alfred Hitchcock echoed contemporary panics about the threat to national security arising from the presence of gay employees in the US federal government. In his 1951 film adaptation of the novel Strangers on a Train, for instance, Hitchcock significantly moves the narrative’s locale from New York and Connecticut to Washington DC and, by portraying the criminal Charles Bruno as a homosexual, dramatizes the widespread fear that straight men who became entangled with gays were likely to find themselves the victims of blackmail. Moreover, Bruno’s pathology is identified through one of the major medical explanations of same-sex eroticism prevalent in the 1950s: his homosexuality is a form of ‘arrested sexual develop­ment’, ‘an unresolved Oedipus complex’ stemming from an emotional overdependence on his mother (Corber 1993: 72). In one shot we even see her manicuring Bruno’s nails.

From the other side of the homophobic divide, so to speak, perhaps the most troubled and troubling American representation of homosexuality from within the closet is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1957). Despite the success of his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room was turned down by Baldwin’s American publishers because they were afraid that the book would make him known as a black homosexual writer. It was only taken up in the United States after having initially appeared in England. Giovanni’s Room is the story of a young white man’s struggle with his desires as he looks back at the devastating consequences his irresolution has had upon the other people in his life. At first the narrator implies that it is the sheer complexity, the disordered multiplicity of his passions that leads him to betray himself and the men and women who have loved him. ‘I am too various to be trusted,’ David confesses by way of explaining why ‘the great difficulty is to say Yes to life’ (Baldwin 1990: 11). But more is at stake than a failure of commitment, for David’s self-interrogation takes place under the shadow of his lover Giovanni’s impending execution for murder.

In a crucial passage, David queasily describes the gay bar, ‘a noisy, crowded, ill-lit sort of tunnel’, where he was introduced to Giovanni. Or, more precisely, he describes its clientele, ‘les folks’:

Occasionally one would swoop in, quite late in the evening, to convey the news that he – but they always called each other ‘she’ – had just spent time with a celebrated movie star, or boxer. Then all of the others closed in on this newcomer and they looked like a peacock garden and sounded like a barnyard. I always found it difficult to believe that they ever went to bed with anybody for a man who wanted a woman would certainly have rather had a real one and a man who wanted a man would certainly not want one of them. Perhaps, indeed, that was why they screamed so loud.

(Baldwin 1990: 29-30)

Superficially, this description resembles the anathematization of the ‘fairy’ that we found in Burroughs’ early writings and elsewhere in the novel David expresses disgust at the ‘fairy’s mannerisms’ that he sees Giovanni starting to adopt (139). But David’s desire lacks any point of lasting affirmation and his denial, condemned by Giovanni as an inability to love, is the product of a complex set of displacements, terrors that he scarcely knows how to articu­late. For, on the one hand, David both hates and fears women, often remembering or positioning himself as a vulnerable small boy in their presence; while, on the other, the love that he can never fully acknowledge is a love of black men: the brown-skinned Joey who was his first lover or the ‘insolent and dark and leonine’ southern Italian barman Giovanni (31). This gives a special tone to Giovanni’s final accusation that David cannot embrace the physicality of the other, that he wants ‘to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love’ (134). And so, at the end of the novel, when David tries to visualize Giovanni’s murder of the bar-owner (‘a silly old queen’) who has dismissed him, the scenario that David imagines is coloured by his own curiously involuted homophobia. The ‘blackness’ that ‘comes and goes’ before Giovanni’s eyes brings to mind the ‘cavern’ that opens in David’s mind, ‘black, full of rumor, suggestion, of halfheard, half­forgotten, half-understood stories, full of dirty words’, after he has slept with Joey (14, 146—7). Lucidity and self-hatred go hand in hand here: the more David sees, the more he is trapped by a revulsion at his own deepest desires.

Baldwin’s own views about homosexuality provide an instruc­tive counterpoint to Giovanni’s Room. In an early essay on the gay French author Andre Gide written in 1954, for example, Baldwin sought both to transcend the reduction of homosexuality to mere sexual behaviour, whether natural or not, and at the same time to insist that the division of the world into ‘two sexes’ was an unavoidable fact with which everyone must in some way come to terms, ‘no matter what demons drive them’. What Baldwin saw as the compulsive promiscuity of gay life (‘a meaningless round of conquests’) ultimately seemed to him to be as dehumanizing as the superficial commodification of sexuality manifested by ‘the breasts of Hollywood glamour girls and the mindless grunting and swaggering of Hollywood he-men’ — not forgetting ‘the heroes of Mickey Spillane’. For Baldwin human­kind’s greatest need was ‘to arrive at something higher than a natural state’, to strive towards the ‘genuine human involvement’ of love and friendship that must necessarily include ‘communion between the sexes’ (Baldwin 1985: 101—5).

Some thirty years later he was to push these ideas in a still more radical direction by arguing that our capacity for love had been wholly distorted by the false ‘American ideal of masculinity’ with its dead-end oppositions: ‘punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white’. To be called a faggot was to be ‘told simply that you had no balls’. Against this divisive and destructive logic, Baldwin argued that ‘we are all androgynous’ since ‘each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white’ (Baldwin 1985: 677—90). This formulation should not be confused with the old nineteenth-century notion of homosexuality as a ‘third’ or ‘intermediate sex’ in which male and female elements commingle in the same person. Far from being a special case, Baldwin identifies androgyny with the human condition per se. Indeed his essay, originally entitled ‘Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood’ (and subsequently re-named ‘Here Be Dragons’) was partly inspired by the gender-bending personae of performers like Boy George and Michael Jackson, figures who might be thought to play upon or externalize what is for Baldwin our unrecognized inner being. But the danger in Baldwin’s endeavour to deconstruct the category of homosexuality is that the very possibility, not to mention the value, of a specifically gay identity can all too easily be elided. Elsewhere Baldwin did speak of the need to bear ‘a kind of witness’ to ‘that phenomenon we call gay’; yet, as Kendall Thomas has shown, this insistence has often been ignored in some of the attempts selectively to lay claim to Baldwin’s cultural and political legacy since his death in 1987 (Thomas 1996: 56).

To move to the creative world of Andy Warhol is at once to enter a lighter, airier, apparently less serious domain, an oeuvre that seems deliberately to eschew hard moral judgments and to concern itself instead with style and pleasure. In that sense Warhol’s work is frequently closer in spirit to that of Boy George and Michael Jackson and indeed the Factory, Warhol’s New York production base in the 1960s, was a place that brought members of the worlds of art and pop together. To be sure, there was always a puzzling and much darker side to Warhol’s art: controversy still surrounds the possible meanings of his early Disaster Series from around 1963 — multiple images of electric chairs, race riots and car wrecks — and Warhol’s bleak 1981 series of Self-Portraits in drag remain among his most haunting and disturbing representations. But certainly in the 1960s Warhol’s name also quickly became a synonym for everything that was daring, outrageous, yet also fun.

One of the key terms deployed to make sense of Warhol’s art during this period was ‘Camp’. Like ‘drag’ or ‘queer’, the word ‘camp’ has a primarily gay provenance. At the turn of the nineteenth century it originally meant affected, theatrical or effeminate, and to say ‘how very camp he is’ was effectively to identify someone as a homosexual. While it retained this core meaning, by the 1960s the use of the term had broadened (and acquired a capital ‘C’) to signify a distinctive set of cultural preferences or a kind of taste, a highly aestheticized way of looking at things. Probably the single most influential account of this sensibility appeared in Susan Sontag’s 1964 ‘Notes on “Camp”’, an attempt to pin down some of the more elusive features of a contradictory phenomenon that seemed to resist systematic analysis. Sontag associated Camp with the artificial, the extrava­gant, the frivolous, the stylish, the playful. But the inherent complexity of these attributes means that none of them can be allowed to stand without qualification. For example, to say that Camp is typically ‘anti-serious’ is only half-true; rather, the serious element in Camp is always punctured by its own excesses; hence the paradox that in Camp ‘one can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious’ (Sontag 1966: 288).

While Sontag suggests that ‘homosexuals, by and large, con­stitute the vanguard — and the most articulate audience — of Camp’, she denies that there is any necessary or intrinsic connection, on the grounds that ‘if homosexuals hadn’t more or less invented Camp, someone else would’ (291). Yet one of her own most acute insights tells against this assertion. Early in her article, Sontag observes that Camp recognizes an ‘unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex’. This is why the figure of the androgyne is so highly prized by the Camp sensibility, but also why there is ‘a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms’: the overblown he-men and sex goddesses of the Hollywood film industry. In other words, Camp refuses to take at anything other than face value precisely those figures whom James Baldwin took to be symptoms of the modern American malaise. In Camp gender differences increasingly approximate to the condition of display or masquerade. Instead of looking for the inner truth behind appearances, ‘Camp sees everything in quotation marks. . . not a woman, but a “woman” ’ (279-80).

Warhol’s preoccupation with fashion, image and glamour can be traced back to his childhood when he collected signed photographs of film stars and celebrities. But it was given added impetus during his formative, post-college years as a commercial artist hired by luxury department stores like New York’s Bonwit Teller and was then carried over into his paintings, films and, later, his journalism. Hence, among many others, the potentially unlimited repetition of silkscreen images of Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn Monroe [Twenty Times], 1961) or Twenty-Five Coloured Marilyns, 1962) and Elvis Presley (Elvis 1, 1964). As in Warhol’s famous canvases of multiple Campbell Soup cans there is a provocative mixing of genres in these works. Publicity stills, product design and news photographs were absorbed into painting in such a way as to muddy the usually clear-cut distinction between consumer culture and high art. Moreover Warhol’s preferred techniques had the effect of foregrounding the constructed quality of the image: starting from photographs that he would first carefully modify or enhance, Warhol would prepare a coloured image on canvas and then overlay this with a silkscreen print that reproduced the details from the original photo; but the lack of perfect fit between canvas and silkscreen created a discordant sensation, as though the blocks of paint had been misapplied. Here gendered identity looks as if it has been poorly simulated or hastily assembled, an impression that is heightened by the garish and metallic colours Warhol used. In a sense, artifice and desire are being put into contradiction in the Marilyn Monroe portraits. ‘Marilyn’s lips weren’t kissable,’ Warhol once observed, ‘but they were very photographable’ (Warhol 1977: 54).

In the popular magazines of the period, the vocabulary of Camp allowed columnists to refer discreetly to Warhol’s gayness, or at least to label him as unconventional or eccentric in his cultural tastes. Reviewing his latest New York exhibition in December 1964, for example, Newsweek dubbed Warhol ‘Saint Andrew’ and placed him at the head of a ‘new hip world of blurred genders’ (quoted in Whiting 1997: 183). But this was just the beginning. As Warhol moved into film-making between 1968 and 1972, the gay content of his work became more overt (or one might say that his work became more Camp): his 1972 movie Women in Revolt! starred three transvestites in the lead roles playing ‘women in varying degrees of “liberation”’ and in 1975 Warhol produced a series of portraits of black and Hispanic drag queens called Ladies and Gentlemen (Warhol 1977: 54). Drag queens occupied an important place in Warhol’s imagination:

Among other things, drag queens are living testimony to the way women used to want to be, the way some people still want them to be, and the way some women still actually want to be. Drags are ambulatory archives of ideal moviestar womanhood. They perform a documentary service, usually consecrating their lives to keeping the glittering alternative alive and available for (not-too-close) inspection.

(Warhol 1977: 54)

Warhol was enormously impressed by the ‘very hard work’ required of ‘boys who spend their lives trying to be complete girls’, work which he saw as centrally concerned with the imitation of a fantasy — hence his droll one-liner on the paradoxes of desire: ‘I always run into strong women who are looking for weak men to dominate them’ (54—6). Nevertheless, according to the logic of Warhol’s position, drag queens are by no means an indispensable part of the show. For if drag queens were sometimes preferable to ‘the real girls we knew’ who ‘couldn’t seem to get excited about anything’, because ‘the drag queens could get excited about anything’, once ‘the girls seem to be getting their energy back’, then ‘real ones’ could be brought back into his movies again (Warhol 1977: 55). On this view, gender is very much a question of performance and gendered identity is largely a matter of whoever performs best, of who has the most style.

In her ‘Notes on “Camp”’, Sontag argues that the ‘flamboyant mannerisms’ associated with Camp are ‘gestures full of duplicity’, operating on two levels: ‘a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders’ (Sontag 1966: 281). Put like this, Camp can be read as an ostentatious strategy of dissimulation or concealment, a way of signalling that one is ‘passing’ among straights while simultaneously having the last laugh on them. But Warhol’s use of Camp was marked by a tendency to dissolve identity into a deceptive play of surfaces, cultivating a blank or disengaged persona that made the very idea of a self more elusive than ever. Reflecting on his visit to the Paris fashion shows in 1981, Warhol noted that ‘all the really straight-looking [male] models are gay, and all the really gay­looking models are straight’ and, after discussing this with a friend, decided to ‘start telling people that despite how we look and talk, that we’re not gay. Because then they don’t know what to do with you’ (Warhol 1989: 369). In Warhol’s hands Camp becomes more than an insider’s joke, it becomes an elaborate double bind in which to trap the unwary by both publicly flaunting and impassively denying his gayness at one and the same time.