Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire

July 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

The gargantuan, distracted catholicity of the dark lady's "will"

Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men is mostly about things that bore me. You know, like semi-obscure Victorian novels With a Purpose. Not that there’s anything wrong with semi-obscure Victorian novels With a Purpose, it’s just that I’m not all that invested in any analysis¬†of Dickens’ unpublished (and apparently all-about-anus?) last novel, no matter how cogent the analysis might be. I am however interested in Sedgwick’s analysis of homosociality, and the historical context out of which it is said to arise. Yes yes you can’t look at the historical context without thinking and talking about artistic digestion. Novels and whatnot, got it. Which happens to be Sedgwick’s opening salvo — as she explains, the development of these literary tropes emerge out of a rapidly changing social and economic milieu, all of which result in the creation and reification of an allegedly clear-cut boundary between ‘omosexuality and heterosexuality (more like heteroSUCKSuality amirite). This “dichotomy” subsequently fuels institutionalized homophobia, which Sedgwick explicitly frames as misogynist. A confession: the historical details here strike me as a little suspect — Sedgwick’s schema is awful totalizing, possibly even tautologically so, and relies on admittedly cherry-picked literary evidence. Granted we aren’t doing science, here, but still. The basic idea is that, for any number of reasons, men became wary of the specter of Teh Homosexual. He didn’t want to be one! And if he was one, boy did he try to hide it!

Of course, there were ways for men to express affinity for each other — per Sedgwick’s readings of like 7 books, “the use of women by men as exchangeable objects, as counters of value, for the primary purpose of cementing relationships with other men,” which she describes as sexual triangulation, allowed men to be gay without actually having to go gay. So like, there’s two dudes and some token vagina-haver, through whom the men were able to enact close –in some cases hate-fuckingly close– relationships without fear of cultural pushback or retribution (even if they themselves aren’t aware of the homoerotic undertones of their relationship?). But even this is a somewhat fuzzy, since per Sedgwick such triangulations happened long before the homosexual/heterosexual divide was codified — her most interesting chapter applies the triangulation model to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Also she’s talking about fiction, which isn’t real life, and often leaves much to the imagination (insinuations of sexual triangularity does not necessarily mean that triangulation is afoot).

Well that’s odd, I fired up the WordPress thinking I was on board with Sedgwick’s account, but now that I’ve written it down I’m like…hey wait this doesn’t make any sense. It’s an intuitive concept, and I’ve certainly encountered my share of sexually triangulated homosocial bonds between dudebros, but I’m not sure I’m sold on this argument using this particular dataset. Regarding the exam –and again, everything comes back to the exam– I might be able to channel Mary Douglas & talk about the ways in which homophobia (both in the Victorian long-long ago and also here & now) reifies the “pure”/unmarked/normative category of heterosexuality. As in, to the normative culture, ‘omosexuality is (said to be) an anomaly, something to be “dealt with” in a way that maintains the dominant order. This is a stretch, because again, the more I think about it the less I like Sedgwick’s argument. But I feel like I have to come away with something, I spent the whole GD day reading…

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