FEBRUARY 25, 2018
THERE IS A SIMPLE ELEGANCE to the art of survival, an elegance not forged in strength and resilience but rather one born of fragility and weakness. In The Modernist Art of Queer Survival — published this past November by Oxford University Press — Benjamin Bateman examines this simple elegance, offering an incisive and complex analysis of the ways in which queer survival plays out in the works of Henry James, E. M. Forster, Willa Cather, and Oscar Wilde. In doing so, Bateman “explores an archive of modernist literature that conceives survival as a collective enterprise linking lives across boundaries of race, time, class, species, gender, and sexuality.” The Modernist Art of Queer Survival offers a counternarrative to Darwinian notions of life and futurity, one that relies on collaboration rather than competition. With skill, depth, and intelligence, Bateman draws connections between these important works of literature, which ultimately link the past and the present, the then and the now. The central conceit of The Modernist Art of Queer Survival rings truer and is more essential in our current political climate. Bateman’s work shows us that vulnerability and precarity, rather than brutishness and domination, are the true markers of survival. Benjamin Bateman is associate professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Cal State LA, where he also directs the Center for the Study of Genders and Sexualities. He teaches and writes about modern and contemporary literature, queer theory, and ecostudies. Originally from the East Coast, Benjamin completed both his graduate and undergraduate degrees at the University of Virginia. He took time out of his schedule and lesson planning to talk about his book with me.
ALEX ESPINOZA: I want to open first by asking a really big question as we interrogate the central conceit of The Modernist Art of Queer Survival and it is this: how did you initially conceptualize your monograph?
BENJAMIN BATEMAN: The work that is represented in this book goes back a long way. There are elements of it that were in my PhD dissertation and some articles that I’d written over the years. The project has been reconceptualized over and over again, yet the thing that has run all the way through it from the beginning to end is an interest in the relationship between queerness and time and the way that queer people occupy time differently, most obviously because they’re often not engaged in the kinds of conventional reproduction that heterosexual people are.
Well, queer people have to imagine a different relationship to time and to the future. When I was first thinking about these works, I was trying to think of them in terms of what I was calling a messianic temporality so that the payoff for queerness, or what queerness is, would come later. Not now. We don’t want now to be determinative. We don’t want now to be all there is. I was thinking about these works as trying to imagine how the potential of queerness can come later. And you can see that in some of the chapters, for example in the Oscar Wilde chapter. There’s quite a bit about messianic temporality. Wilde wants his suffering and his tribulation to have more meaning than just the individual stigma that was attached to him when he went to prison. As I was thinking about the project, however, and revising and expanding, it came to me that I wasn’t so much interested in just futurity or some kind of relationship to time, but I was fundamentally interested in survival. What I started to realize is that these texts are thinking about survival in a very different way than we are often taught.
Survival as a collective act then? Is that what you are positing?
Yes! Instead of it being thought of in individualistic terms, where it is selfish and competitive. This is the baggage of Social Darwinism. It’s the baggage of certain strands of evolutionary psychology. I wanted to see how these late 19th- and early 20th-century authors were trying to think about survival in a more collective and collaborative way, in a way that included not just other humans but nonhuman animals, plants, the geological world … all of the various forms that I describe in the book. What’s queer about that is that it’s different or odd to think about your survival as implicated with creatures who are not immediately related to you. The “survival” of these case studies is queer, because it’s trying to move past the idea that you only care about your own survival or the people that you are related to by blood. Instead it’s trying to think expansively about whose survival is wrapped up in mine and vice versa. I argue that, for all of these authors — Oscar Wilde, Henry James, E. M. Forster, Willa Cather — this was of particular importance because all of them in various ways were queer. It’s almost anachronistic in every case to say that they were gay or a lesbian even though they’ve been read through those lenses. But no doubt they had anything from a quirky to an antagonist relationship to heteronormativity. I don’t want to say that it’s only because they were queer that they imagine survival differently, but I do think that there’s a relationship between those two things.
One thing that struck me about your analysis of Oscar Wilde’s writing — particularly in De Profundis — is the way in which that work becomes an opportunity for him to extend that need for survival not just through writing the letter to his partner but to the very letter itself.
Exactly. And the afterlife of that letter has in so many ways done that very thing. Scholars debate whether it was ever intended to be published. When Robert Ross published it, I believe it was in 1905, he redacted a lot of the portions that were about Lord Alfred Douglas [Wilde’s lover] and about the relationship and Wilde’s fury. In many ways, this redacted version was trying to whitewash Wilde to make him more palatable and reintroduce him to the public through this beautifully written letter read as a spiritual autobiography. This was very much the way in which Ross intended it to be read. But I, like many other scholars, think it’s more interesting to read the entire document un-redacted because you get this very different version of Wilde where it’s not just about putting on a good face or showing that you are a supreme artist after all but actually still being totally bitchy and angry and imagining what it’s like for queer subjectivity if we include all of that. Often various kinds of minorities — racial minorities, sexual minorities — feel this sort of pressure to put on a good face, to be upright and good and “sell” themselves. It’s understandable that Ross wanted to rehabilitate Wilde, but at the same time I think we today as LGBTQ people lose something of Wilde’s legacy if we forget that angry, selfish, repetitive, and failing and flailing Wilde that is very much on full display in the un-expurgated version of De Profundis.
It also works to remind us that the very act of survival is something that’s not simple. It’s messy and temperamental. We need to look at the rough edges in order to understand survival. We need to understand the way in which body is connected to time. You posit that queerness is linked to precariousness, that the queer body is one that remains constantly under threat. Yet, despite these constraints, queerness exhibits a resilience, an imperative to continue on. Can you say a little more about this?
I want to occupy a contradiction in the word queer. On the one hand, I want to celebrate it, as many scholars do, but I also want to simultaneously recognize that queer means precarious. Whether it’s an emergent subjectivity or it’s a subjectivity under threat, queerness is always going to have this kind of precarious dimension to it. In order for queerness to survive, we need to imagine survival as itself being precarious. It’s a concept that many people can identify with. It means not thinking of survival as the opposite of death. Instead we need to imagine the act of survival as a tightrope walk. This comes out forcefully in my opening chapter on Henry James and The Beast in the Jungle when there’s such a blurry line between Marcher surviving and Marcher giving himself over to the beast, to that trans-animal that he becomes. This really eclipses the idea of him being a strong survivor in some ways. But it also comes out very forcefully in the final chapter on Cather where she’s taking very seriously the appeal of suicide, where she imagines it not just as the opposite of life, as an un-doing of life, but actually as a micro-practice built into the act of survival itself. So here death is internal as opposed to external or diametrically opposed.
I was struck by the way in which your book presents the queer self as cognizant of its own corporeality, its own finality. How do notions of survival for the queer subject differ or are similar to those of other minority groups?
There is so much work that links queerness explicitly to disability and nonwhite bodies and recognizing the ways that these embody a sense of precarious survival. This is not unique to queer people. Think, for example, about A Passage to India and my chapter on Forster. There, race is very much a part of the picture of queer survival. So much of what Mrs. Moore is learning about her privilege as a white woman is coming within a context of the Empire, the colony, and racial Otherness. Part of what is happening to her there is that she’s having to imagine her survival not as coming at the expense of people in that text, but rather as the two being fundamentally interdependent. I think that’s an important part of the work. When I was conceptualizing it, I was working within this modernist canon of texts by the likes of Forster and Wilde, and these are big names. But I think that the ideas in the text are exportable to a number of contexts. That’s part of what I was aiming for when I was revising the book. How do I write a book about modernism that is very true to the spirit of these texts but is not trapped there? Instead there’s an idea that we can do more with it, so you see me drawing on a lot of contemporary queer scholarship in the book. The ideas of futurity that I’m working with are indebted to the work of José Esteban Muñoz and Jasbir Puar, for example, but also to the work of many other scholars working at the intersections of race and queerness and disability. I’m trying to imagine how it’s not just a question of saying that survival is going to be different for people who are queer or for people who are nonwhite, but that the alternative forms of survival that these people cultivate are actually ones that we might want to adopt across the board. It’s not simply a matter of identifying a minority version of survival but actually saying that that form of survival is the one that we need going forward.
Because the idea of survival of the fittest and the construct of Darwinism that we have bought into is a very heteronormative one, right?
It’s heteronormative and in so much of its deployment, fundamentally racist. The translation of Darwinism into Social Darwinism was very much linked to rhetorics of eugenics and various kinds of race hierarchies. In many ways this was about legitimating already existing racial hierarchies and creating new ones. I think that there are glimpses of groups of people at a particular time trying to imagine survival differently. There are many other archives out there engaged in similar projects both then and now. I would add that a selfish version of survival, where the growth of the self into an autonomous machine is intimately related to capitalism’s obsession with and dependency on economic growth, is ultimately unsustainable, as we are witnessing locally with the wildfires and globally with countless other ecological catastrophes.
I appreciate very much way in which you use these queer modernist writers to examine survival as a heteronormative construct and also using these texts to question how these ideas are applicable to conversations now so that we’re not stuck in this period looking at issues that were only relevant then. That gets into a larger discussion about futurism, and the fact that we, as queer subjects, have the opportunity to look toward a possible future. That the queer subject is not wedded to narratives of demise.
I think that there too, in the book, I’m responding to a strand of contemporary queer theory that has been very hostile to the notion of futurity. Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, for example, is probably the most classic of them. There are many people who have followed him in thinking about queerness as a cancellation of futurity or an antagonistic force against futurity. Part of what I’m trying to bring out is the temptation of that line of argument, that futurity and reproductive futurism and childhood are concepts that have been lorded over queer people in order to control them, eradicate them, or normalize them. It’s a tempting thing to say to persuasive theorists like Edelman, “You’re right. We are the enemies of futurity, and we are going to proudly occupy that position.” I think, unfortunately, that stance does not allow us to imagine how futurity can be seen differently or how, in a very different vein, we can think about the practices that queer people are engaged in now, which are fundamentally valuable. Maybe the change that we need in our relationship to time isn’t that we throw futurity out the door but that we move away from thinking about striving toward some kind of tomorrow or some future moment which will bring the change that we are looking for and instead look at the practices that already exist. This is in part why I dropped the messianism concept as the anchor of the book because it got too caught up in the idea of deferral. For Wilde, it makes sense that it is all about deferral because he is in prison and his physical and psychological health are deteriorating. It makes sense that the meaning of what he is going through needs to be deferred. I did not want to remain within that narrow line of argument because so much of what’s in these texts is not deferred — the experiments in animality that Marcher is engaged in, the kind of ecological consciousness that Mrs. Moore cultivates in A Passage to India. This isn’t really about deferral even though there are elements of deferral, like the famous “not yet” conclusion to A Passage to India. There is so much shown in the present that is valuable.
You write: “Messy messianism names the means of survival of the least fit, the fitful, the misfit.” I’m wondering if you could expand on this idea and how it complicates Darwinian notions of survival and procreation.
Maybe I’m generalizing it too much, but there’s the idea of the sovereign subject that we still work with today. I’m talking about the self that is autonomous, purposive, in control, independent. There’s this focused language on individual gain. Sometimes I get cranky when I look at social media and people post things about living their best lives or you see this rhetoric of people wanting to be more mindful. There’s this way in which we are still trapped in this mode, where we are still trying to be 100 percent of ourselves or that we’re trying to optimize ourselves or maximize ourselves. I think that still relates to Social Darwinism, but it’s Social Darwinism repackaged by neoliberalism, where the emphasis is invariably on the self rather than the collective.
Yes. Well, perhaps it’s not obvious, but consider how we still think of our individual survival as a maximizing of ourselves in this very individualistic way. What that doesn’t leave a lot of room for are the “misfits” and the “fitful.” They get left behind, then, and become the foils working against what we define as good “personhood.” Certainly, as I was revising the book and teaching more in disability studies, I was thinking about the ways in which so many of these people get figured as “disabled” or “less abled” or falling short of some norm of “able-bodiedness” and trying to imagine survival not as limited by the fitful and the misfits and their survival being less than. Instead I try to imagine a form of survival that is built around them. That became more important to me as the process went along.
In this current political climate, queerness seems to be under attack in some pretty overt ways. LGBTQ discrimination is on the rise. Donald Trump claimed that “transgender service members [are] a burden on the nation.” There was the Pulse nightclub shooting. Last November, the Human Rights Campaign reported that hate crimes against LGBTQ people have increased. Given the hostile and violent nature of these conditions, has “queer survival” evolved in any way to meet these new “threats”?
What queer people are waking up to in 2017 — well, I should say that what privileged queer people are waking up to in 2017 — is the realization that we haven’t come as far as we think we have. So much of the LGBT political movement in the United States has been built around marriage rights and military service. Those are great. Those are concrete aims and they’re also accomplishments that people can point to and they can be indices of success, but I think that what we are waking up to now is that there is a lot more work to do. The work is not done. The fact that HIV/AIDS is a more manageable and preventable condition and the fact that we have marriage rights and so forth does not mean that LGBT activism is over. On the contrary, it remains very, very important. I think part of what the book brings out is the need for a renewed notion of the collective. Not to speak too broadly, but one of the dangers of marriage and military service as the be-all-end-all of LGBT rights is that they’re fundamentally privatizing. They don’t help us imagine a queer collective or a rebellion that is collective which could really change the status quo in more fundamental ways. What I would hope is that the rise of Donald Trump is causing people to realize that we need to become part of a political project, and this project must cross lines of race and class and immigrant status. I think that the value of queerness as a concept has always been (and continues to be) that it is very elastic, that it’s not determined in advance who is queer. It’s not just one subset of the population. It’s not just a minority identity, but it always has this potential to include more people. Part of what I describe in the book are ways that queerness can make itself available to people who we may not think about as queer, like Ruth Wilcox in Howards End, Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, or John Marcher in The Beast in the Jungle. I think this is a project that still needs to be done, a project to queer the world, where queer is not an identity or a fact of the self but something that happens socially, collaboratively, dynamically, and in defiance of the mandate that we live in and for our discrete selves. Not just to say, “Here are these LGBT people over here. Let’s figure out some rights for them.” Rather, how can the practices that they have been engaged in year after year be used to rethink how we live today in order to be part of the world in a meaningful way? Also what I’m making the case for is the continued role of artists to imagine how queerness can spread and change the world — to show us the resistances and rebellions that are already there but to which we have to become attuned or re-attuned.