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Romanticism & Contemporary Culture

Reading Queerly: A Presentist's Confession

Gregory Tomso, Ithaca College

  1. There are probably any number of ways to honor presentist influences on literary criticism in general, and on literary history in particular, without necessarily contributing to an "end to history" or to "despair or chaos." David Simpson has recently associated both of these apocalyptic outcomes with presentist work in cultural studies, work that in his view "has no need for history" except in the "parodic or reductive" forms granted to it by recent inquiries into the operations of such "uncontested" hegemonies as orientalism, sexism, homophobia, and Eurocentrism. As someone who has always considered it both intellectually and politically vital to articulate the fundamental connections between my scholarly efforts and my own sense of ethics and social values as an out, gay man, I confess that my own work strikes me as precisely the kind of presentist scholarship that Simpson sets out to critique. Assuming I understand and indeed practice presentism as Simpson defines it, I'd like to explain here at least a few of the assumptions about history and reading that motivate recent presentist work in literary criticism and history. In clarifying some of these some these basic beliefs, my aim is to articulate both the historical and the more personal or subjective value of presentist scholarship.

  2. Since it is the status of history itself that most interests Simpson, allow me to begin with a specific, literary-historical concern that has been central to my own work: the complex relationship between discourses of illness and sexuality in late nineteenth-century American literature. I'm thinking here of writers such as Henry and Alice James, Mary Wilkins Freeman and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who used illness as an occasion to think critically about the body and about the relationships between physical sensation and self-knowledge. Seeking to understand the full range of corporeal and mental experience, writers of nineteenth-century illness narratives often combined, in ways that seem foreign to us today, depictions of pain and suffering with depictions of real or imagined episodes of self-fulfillment, many of which included experiences of sensual and even sexual pleasures. These narratives of illness have much to teach us about nineteenth-century intellectual history and about the shared discursive or narrative contexts in which thinking about illness and pleasure intriguingly coexist.

  3. From a presentist point of view, I'm interested in the history of illness precisely because I'm a real person living in a real world that still seems to be inordinately confused about its relationships to illness and to sexual pleasure, both separately and together. Many Americans, for example, have trouble thinking about sexuality in general, and non-procreative sexuality in particular, outside of epistemologies of pathology. Moreover, many of us still go about our lives drawing from a deeply impoverished repertoire of cultural and social responses to life-threatening and chronic illness. Consider, in this regard, President Bush's liberal politics of "compassion." In contemporary American culture, compassion now functions as the single most appropriate response to anything and anyone that is not straight, white, male, middle-class, middle-aged, healthy and able. A politics of compassion challenges us not to think differently about ourselves or anybody else, but encourages us to think exactly the same as we always have—that is, not to think at all about the vast demographic and social changes currently underway in this country, or about the dramatic rise of chronic and potentially deadly illness, such as cancer, AIDS, and tuberculosis, but to shore up "our" ontological, national, and hygienic distinction from all those other people out there who desperately need and deserve "our" compassion because of "their" national, sexual, racial, or physical difference.

  4. As it turns out, then, reading illness narratives from the nineteenth century has quite a lot to do with the politics of "compassionate conservatism," among other presentist concerns. In the current political climate it seems like the very act of reading may actually be one of the most profoundly political acts we have left as individual citizens. Maybe reading nineteenth-century literature isn't political in the most immediate sense of the term—I hardly expect Mary Wilkins Freeman to become a major counter-culture icon, although it's fun to imagine exactly what that would be like—but I do think that literary study provides one way to grasp the complex and contradictory currents of American social and intellectual thought that are increasingly lost to us in the ongoing homogenization of our politics and public discourse. In this light, reading in response to any particular presentist concern—such as the experience of discrimination or violence—seems less indicative of a desire for the end of history than it does precisely for the opposite: a desire to know history as such, and to experience whatever pleasures and disappointments such familiarity with history might bring. If anything, it is the present moment itself that feels like an end to history, a white-washing of America that threatens us with its own illusion of atemporality, of being frozen in place despite a desire by many Americans to move ahead. It is this feeling, and fear, that renews my sense of reading as a political act and that makes history so vital to my own work.

  5. Having grown into adulthood in the 1980s, a time when many popular and scientific understandings of queer sexualities were violently yoked to theories of contagion and to fears of bodily corruption and death, I'm more than a little sensitive to how ideas about sexuality and illness have very real impacts on people's lives. We still live, for example, in a society where roughly twenty percent of the population believes that people with AIDS have "gotten what they deserve."1

  6. Literary history provides one important access point for exploring the history of ideas, and for learning how it this that we have come to know the "things" we call sexuality and illness in the first place. The value of this intellectual history lies in the possibilities it offers for thinking differently about things, like illness and sexuality, that we often take to be stable, natural aspects of our "being." Knowing that our ideas and that our ways of understanding our bodies and our identities have very dynamic histories can help us, at certain times, to call into question some of the most violent and deadening ways of thinking about sexuality and illness, and I don't just mean our thinking about homosexuality as a disease. I also think that our contemporary cultural responses to the rise of chronic illnesses such cancer, AIDS, and tuberculosis are too limited by fear and by paranoia. Writers from the late nineteenth century seem far more able and willing to write engagingly and productively about illness and death than most writers in recent decades have been, though that seems to be changing somewhat today. In any case, we have a lot to learn from nineteenth-century writers' more familiar, less constipated and less metaphorically sterile relationship to chronic ill-health. Acknowledging this fact hardly seems a threat to history itself; if anything, any threat contained here is directed toward the present, since in reading tales from the past, we might learn to read our present experiences differently.

  7. Reading the present differently is, I confess, a reward I value highly in critical work, and I suspect that it is precisely this subjective, presentist relation to literary scholarship that has Simpson worried. I wonder, though, if what Simpson wants from reading and from literary history is really all that different, in the end, from what I want. "We want a history," he writes, "we—some of us—desire one." In literary history, he adds, we find "a space for infinite composition and endless mediation and meditation." If Simpson is suggesting here that reading literature and doing the work of literary history are first and foremost manifestations of desire, desires to compose, to meditate, and to do the much more difficult work of crafting and sustaining the self, then I certainly agree with him; and if he is suggesting this much, then what is really at stake in his critique of presentism may not be "history" itself, but how it is that we, as literary scholars, understand our collective and individual relationships to reading. How is reading an exercise of our subjectivity? To what extent is it an expression of our selves? And what, after all, is literary criticism, or literary history, if not the manifestation of a desire to tell compelling stories about our own past, our present, and our future?

  8. Asking these questions of Simpson's critique leads me to the conclusion that his antiquarianism may not really be so different from the presentist-inspired historical projects he critiques. The former is less explicit about its dependence on narrative than the latter, yet both are equally motivated, and indeed excited by, the promise of present or future meaning. This similarity may not be an obvious one, since Simpson's antiquarianism advocates a kind of history that might almost be thought of as decadent—that is, as history for its own sake, history that tries not to care about or perhaps tries to disavow its ideological, political or identificatory significance in favor of an ostensibly less subjective and more intellectually altruistic agenda that paradoxically values both randomness and thoroughness. The curious thing about this history, however, is that it values seemingly insignificant details for a very particular reason: namely, that someday those details might become important by being incorporated into a narrative of the past that is actually useful to someone—that is, to a particular subject. Thus Boswell, Simpson writes, included even the most trivial bits of information in his account of the life of Samuel Johnson, "knowing that what seemed trivial to him might seem important to someone else." It seems, then, that we can only speak of knowledge as being "nonapplied" or "unassimilated"—that is, as being the kind of "minimally political" knowledge that Simpson's antiquarianism purports to offer—when we use those terms in relation to the interests of particular subjects.

  9. Given this fact, it strikes me as a little ironic that it is the scholarly interests of few particular subjects from our own time that troubles Simpson the most. He seems to be expressing his unhappiness not only with the monolithic and anti-historical nature of presentist reading practices, but with the equally objectionable worldviews of presentist readers themselves. He imagines a whole generation of scholars "generally hostile to history itself" and, as mentioned before, takes an especially critical view of writers who, in his view, vainly attempt to expunge various "isms" from the present "by the fierce light of radical intelligence." Yet if it's fair to say that the critical menace posed by presentism and its practitioners is, for Simpson, the threat posed to history by a kind of all-assimilating critical subjectivity, then that threat seems far less real if subjectivity isn't always the imposing and monolithic force that Simpson sometimes makes it out to be. While the "antiquarian" methods that Simpson urges us to adopt invite us to experience reading as a "meditative" act in which our epistemological and ultimately our ontological relations to historical material are both tentative and multi-directional, he doesn't afford this kind of flexibility to presentist readers. It is precisely this flexibility, however—this possibility for exploring new forms of subjectivity—that makes presentist work so compelling. We might think here of Eve Sedgwick's recent description of queer subjectivity as "stretched" and "ragged," and of her description of queer reading as a rather unstable cluster of desires, interests and "competences."2 In this view, queer reading—like presentist reading more generally—is not nearly as "monumental" or as "monolithic" as Simpson would have it. With Sedgwick's understanding of subjectivity in mind, perhaps the most important question Simpson raises is ultimately one about how we might address, and come to respect, different understandings of the relationships among reading, knowing, and being. The "end to history" Simpson fears might only be a shift in how we, as literary critics, understand knowledge, and a corresponding change in the kinds of historical information we deem relevant, interesting, or serviceable. For the time being, at least, Simpson has little cause for worry. As readers we are not monumental, but historical, and queer.

Works Cited

"Americans Still Confused by AIDS." The Advocate 830 (January 30, 2001): 18.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You're so Paranoid You Probably Think This Introduction is About You." Novel Gazing. Ed. Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1997. 1-37.


1 According to a 2000 Centers for Disease Control survey, as reported in The Advocate, issue 830 (January 30, 2001), 18.

2 See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You're so Paranoid You Probably Think This Introduction is About You."

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Published @ RC

February 2002