Thinking with Sam See’s “Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies”: Introduction

SAM SEE, a brilliant young scholar of modern aesthetics and sexuality, was working on two big projects when he died in 2013. In the first, See reconsidered the meaning of nature, especially Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, for 20th-century queer and feminist literature. What modernism had discovered in Darwin, See proposed, was not a scientific justification for the straight norms of reproductive sexuality. It was a vision of endless variation and aesthetic play that could sustain what See called a nature-based queer aesthetics. In the second project, See analyzed how writers had turned to mythology, including myths of nature, to imagine queer community within and beyond a civilization that had grown hostile to queer life.

See was in the early stages, just a few years into his assistant professorship at Yale, and there was still a good deal of work in front of him. But his ideas were already attracting serious attention. In queer and modernist studies, where critiquing ideologies of nature had become something of an orthodoxy in its own right, his claims about the utopian prospects that come into view when “the human species publicly exposes its submission to nature” were highly provocative. See wrote devotedly in queer studies while unsettling some of its deepest commitments.

And he was coming to be known, meanwhile, for who he was. Many of us who met See felt that we had come into contact not just with a fierce and restless intelligence but also with an incandescent human being, a person for whom intimacy was a talent and a skill. It was a gift to stand in the light of his attention, and we wanted to keep encountering him, again and again.

In Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies (Fordham University Press), Christopher Looby and Michael North, two of See’s teachers in the doctoral program at UCLA, collect the scholarly work, published and unpublished, that See had completed before his death. The book is a volume of beautiful and sometimes beguiling essays, arranged in two parts, in a structure that follows See’s own plans for his two books. Presenting See’s scholarly achievements in a durable form, Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies also includes generous, illuminating appreciations of See’s work by Scott Herring, Heather Love, and Wendy Moffat.

To celebrate the book’s publication, some of Sam’s friends at Yale planned a symposium, originally scheduled for March 2020. Kathryn Lofton and I invited each participant to choose an interesting object — a picture, maybe, or a song or poem — and to consider it in the light of See’s ideas and habits of mind. Rather than a belated memorial, we wanted our gathering to be an occasion to think with See’s work in an ongoing, forward-looking way, to explore what new kinds of critical endeavors Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies might open up for us. We hoped that the conversation would deliver some surprises.

And then, just as we were about to get together, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, and it suddenly became impossible for people to get together. See, whose scholarship is animated by a glowing desire for community, would have had much to say about this turn of events. Not all of it would have been flattering. See would have read the details of our fears, our methods of coping, our altered ways of keeping in touch with each other. He could be scathingly honest in his sight without splintering the person he was looking at.

For our part, we are grateful to be able to assemble virtually here, to share our reflections on his work in a series of short essays. The contributors have honored our original invitation by thinking with Sam about some fascinating objects. Among them are Björk’s “Big Time Sensuality,” Thomas Eakins’s Swimming, and a World War I–era amulet fashioned from a wooden bullet. Along the way, the essays also range into personal recollections of our friendships with See and meditations on what it is like to think with him under the conditions of social distancing. None of these essays is a conventional book review of Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies. Together they pursue See’s invitation to imagine new communities in a time when what seemed ordered about nature and culture alike is coming undone all around us.

— Caleb Smith

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