Unvicarious: Reading with Sam See
By Caleb SmithMay 3, 2020
Vicariousness has its pleasures and uses. It enables institutions to claim they cultivate unorthodox, disruptive ideas, rewarding innovation while enforcing ever stricter codes of personal conduct and political acquiescence. It permits professional scholars to taste the thrill of nonconformity while we try to grasp the benefits of security.
Sam See never seemed to learn the rule. The tradition of queer critique has always been ambivalent about vicariousness. Even more: about security itself. But in Sam’s case vicariousness seemed like a code, a double-voiced language, that he simply could not speak. He was a beautiful stranger to it. I think this may be why there is so little escapist romance about disobedience, so little sentimentality about resistance, in Sam’s critical work. (Here it is a sweet thing to shift into the literary present tense, signaling the work’s ongoing renewal, its liveness to anyone who picks it up.) What Sam is looking for in the art he loves is something other than escape. He is seeking forms of shelter.
Readers of Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies can see this desire at play in Sam’s discussions of “literary space” and “imaginative space,” or again when he invokes nature “as guarantor of the chance that queer lives might proliferate,” or again when he speculates about “a mythopoeic historiography […] as foundational for the formation of twentieth-century queer communities.” Sam acknowledges that queer community is — or was, at least — a paradoxical phrase, often an impossibility. He is drawn to it anyway. He analyzes mythology as a special type of “foundational falsehood,” while insisting on its sustaining power: “It’s only when queerness made mythologies that it was able to make a politics,” he writes.
But the fictions his imagination repairs to are not adventures in social rebellion. They are images of a more nurturing habitat. Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies: the same queer longing bridges the two parts of the collection. Nature is a word Sam uses to name one of his favorite forms of shelter. Mythology is what he calls the process, the labor of thought and imagination, that people use to make these forms of shelter for themselves and for each other.
At Sam’s memorial service in 2013, his friends gave his library away. The books were laid out on a big table, free for anyone to take. I picked up a small paperback copy of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure. On the cover was a gorgeous, androgynous figure, a 15th-century Apollo by Pietro Perugino, erotic and devotional all at once.
Sam and I had talked about Foucault. I was interested in him as a theorist of discipline. Sam was wrestling with him as a historian of sexuality. Thinking alongside (and against) Foucault in his essay on queer nature, Sam insists that theories of aesthetics need to maintain contact with human bodies and their sensations — and that, in turn, the history of sexuality needs a working concept of aesthetics. I thought that it would be a sustaining thing to hold this little book in my hands and reread it in the days ahead, in the days after Sam.
What I did not remember, just then, was that The Use of Pleasure contains, under the disguise of a conventional statement on method, Foucault’s extraordinary, incandescent meditations on what his work meant to him as he approached the end of his own life:
As for what motivated me, it is quite simple; I would hope that in the eyes of some people it might be sufficient in itself. It was curiosity — the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with a degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself. After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower’s straying afield of himself? There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.
Foucault published these sentiments in 1984, not long before he died. The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction had appeared eight years earlier, and in the meantime Foucault’s circumstances and thought had been irreversibly disrupted. Beginning to suffer from AIDS-related illnesses, he had continued to work but abandoned the original plan for his project, which was to chart a genealogy of sexuality in “modern Western societies.” For most of his career, Foucault had been writing about knowledge, power, and subjectivity in the modern North Atlantic world. Now he was moving further back in time, exploring the arts of the self in classical philosophy and early Christianity.
Introducing The Use of Pleasure, Foucault tried to account for what had happened along the way. In some measure, he explained, his turn from modern sources to ancient ones was a necessary extension of his original research program. What concerned him most about sexuality, he had come to realize, was a problem in the history of attention. He found himself seeking “to analyze the practices by which individuals were led to focus their attention on themselves, to decipher, recognize, and acknowledge themselves as subjects of desire.” The history of sexuality entailed a genealogy of the desiring subject, and it soon became clear to Foucault that this figure was nothing new, nothing particularly modern; it belonged to “a long Christian tradition.” To get to the heart of the matter, he would have to revisit the oldest beginnings.
The project would draw Foucault away from the intellectual territory he knew best, calling him far outside the field of his mastery, compelling him to deal with strange materials and read in unfamiliar ways. This reorientation was, in part, a scholarly imperative with which he forced himself to comply. As he went about his business, though, he discovered that moving beyond himself had its own allure. To slip the bonds of his own identity was something he wanted, perhaps even for its own sake. It was this desire and no other that made it worthwhile for Foucault “to go on looking and reflecting at all.” His new work had been animated, he confessed, by an impulse toward abandonment.
Analyzing the disciplines by which people become subjects of knowledge about themselves, Foucault himself had come undone. By continuing to pursue his inquiry through this experience of loss, however, he had accessed a peculiar kind of liberation. Foucault called it “getting free of oneself.” Revisiting Foucault’s introduction with Sam in mind has helped me to see another change as well. Straying afield from modern sources into ancient ones had given Foucault something more than a sense of getting free from a familiar version of himself. It had reoriented his way of thinking about just how a self, any self, can be fashioned and maintained.
Foucault’s earlier work had emphasized disciplinary coercion, the ways that power shapes us most profoundly when it makes us responsible for monitoring our own thoughts and actions. His critique of subjection was probably his signature contribution to theory. In his last books, though, he wrote much less suspiciously, even affirmingly, about “practices of the self” and the “care of the self.” He went so far as to define philosophical work, the work of reading and writing — his work — as “an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought.” He had come around to his own style of asceticism.
Foucault’s return to classical sources, then, was no antiquarian enterprise. It had a therapeutic function in the author’s own time. It was a search for figures and patterns from the past that might become resources for the living and the dying in the present. It was, in other words, what Sam would call “mythopoeic historiography.” The Use of Pleasure is, in its way, a queer mythology.
In Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, Sam writes that certain modernist novels “aid survival by slowing time.” Critics so often indulge in hyperbolic language to describe aesthetic effects that the reader might be tempted to pass over this assertion as a metaphor. But Sam does not take survival for granted, and when he makes his extravagant claim for literature, he means it literally.
The thesis appears within Sam’s discussion of what other scholars have called spatial form. According to one well-known account of the modernist endeavor, nonlinear narratives like Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, and The Sound and the Fury had discarded the momentum of novelistic plots for a stillness that was nearly pictorial. Rather than moving forward in time, as the fictions of the 19th century had done, these works broke their stories up and arranged the fragments, puzzle-like, to be reassembled in acts of spatial thinking.
In his early work on queer nature, Sam had already signaled his interest in “unplotted art, including not only poetry […] but [also] modernist narrative fiction, which characteristically abandons plot.” In exploring queer mythology, Sam pursues the question more deeply, revising conventional ideas about spatial form and advancing his own fantastic argument about how such forms might make a space that fosters survival.
He does so by reminding us in his gentle way of something that we critics know but allow ourselves to forget: that reading plays out minute by minute, hour by hour. Just as our contemplation of a painting has qualities of duration and development, just as we might spend a Sunday morning solving a puzzle, so our reading of a book unfolds in elapsing time. Under conditions of acceleration and mass distraction, the sensation of devoting our sustained attention to a carefully composed object is its own pleasure, one of the most enlivening gifts that any object can offer us.
Modernist literature, as Sam puts it, “reclaims the present moment as one of deliberation, not instantaneousness.” Naturally, modernist novels, emerging in a machine age, describe conditions of technological acceleration. But even as they depict a world of violent speed, they draw from the aesthetic resources of ancient art to make another, slower world within this one. Affording their readers space and time for reflection, they construct something like a sanctuary. It is this promise of shelter, I think, that Sam is invoking when he lets himself hope that novels might keep a person alive.
Does it need to be said that Sam’s reading did not, in fact, save his life? I do not press the point because I wish to expose a fatal gap between the flights of his fancy and the hard facts of reality. What I have been trying to say all along is just the opposite. I mean that he is serious about aligning art and life.
Reading fiction and poetry is not, for Sam, a way of indulging fantasies of vicarious self-annihilation or of violent transgression while keeping them contained, at a safe distance, so that they do not disturb the order of the reader’s personal or professional security. And though I suspect that Sam, if he were reading this, might say that I was making him into the stuff of my own vicarious imagining, it still seems true to me, when I read Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, that Sam believes what he is writing, that he appears willing to write only what he can believe, that he is testing literature against his own experience of the world and putting himself at stake in his work.
Inside the front cover of each book from Sam’s library, a bookplate had been placed. “From the library of Sam See,” it said, then quoted two lines by Sappho, in H.D.’s translation:
yet to sing love,
love must first shatter us.
The poet of these lines does not make her art in pursuit of a shattering experience. Being shattered, already broken, is the precondition for her love song. It happens in the singer’s life before she begins to sing, and fashioning the song is a way of composing a newly ordered form.
Here is a fragment from Sam’s essay “Charles Darwin, Queer Theorist.” I take the liberty of breaking it into lines, like verse:
all aesthetics may be said
to have their place in nature.
Developing the most ambitious thesis in all of Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, Sam is proposing a radical, disturbing idea. He is also ventriloquizing his own thought, transmitting it in a hypothetical voice, in the voice of no one in particular, as a thing that “may be said,” a notion that might be believed. I understand this deflection less as evidence of Sam’s shyness than as his way of offering the claim, opening it up to the reader’s provisional occupation, without possessing it for himself.
All the while, Sam is writing with a sense of balance and meter, with a feeling for poetry, in rhythmic prose that could almost be two lines from a ballad, the four beats of “all aesthetics may be said” followed by the three beats of “to have their place in nature.” Sam is giving the aesthetic pleasure as he theorizes it. It is not the vicarious intensity that some of us find elsewhere, the pleasure of fantasizing one’s way into an ecstatic negation. It is the pleasure of shelter, the sense of ample time to think and room to move, the feeling of having a place.
Caleb Smith is professor of English and American Studies at Yale University and the author of The Prison and the American Imagination and The Oracle and the Curse.
Caleb Smith is professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of The Prison and the American Imagination (Yale University Press, 2009) and The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2013). His essays on contemporary culture have appeared in BOMB, Paper Monument, Yale Review, and Avidly.org. His homepage is http://calebsmith.commons.yale.edu/.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!