- Male Sexuality under Surveillance: The Office in American Literature
Graham Thompson's Male Sexuality under Surveillance uses American fiction to mount a wide-ranging and largely successful argument about the importance of the office as a site of surveillance and self-surveillance. The office, argues Thompson, is a key "arena of desire," to which we can look to spy the "perpetual commotion at the heart of straight male sexuality as it has developed in America since the middle of the nineteenth century" (xii-xiii). Drawing heavily on the work of Eve Sedgwick and Lee Edelman, Male Sexuality under Surveillance focuses not on relationships between men and women in the office, but on relationships among men, finding that straight male sexuality unfolds not in relation to female sexuality, but in a complex relationship to its own fearful and desirous scriptings of male homosexuality.
The book offers lively and original readings of individual texts, as well as a rich analysis of why the office has so often been the focal point of anxieties about masculinity and male sexuality. Thompson argues that representations of the office in American fiction evidence broader concerns with the impossibility of separating work from family and public from private. The book is divided into three parts: "Managing Desire," "Postwar Unsettlement," and "A Word for Windows." Part 1 contains some suggestive readings of "Bartleby, the Scrivener," The Rise of Silas Lapham, and Babbitt, through which Thompson demonstrates how the visual regimes of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century office produce a culture of surveillance in which intimate relations between men function to consolidate male heterosexuality even as these narratives entertain the possibility of same-sex desire. One of the most striking points Thompson makes here is that while "business" is celebrated as what makes America great in this era, the office and the actual work that sustains capitalism "started to become trouble for American men" (50). What Thompson really means here and elsewhere is that the office is trouble for white, middle-class American men, even though he does not acknowledge the racial and class parameters of his argument.
Thompson has many theoretical strands woven throughout the book, and he has some difficulty keeping them all going at once. This becomes particularly clear in part 2, where the chapters sometimes resort to argument by analogy rather than evidence. In his reading of Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, for example, he attempts the argument that the Organization so maligned by 1950s anticommunists is readable by analogy as queer because the gray [End Page 762] flannel uniform signals not only anti-individualism, but invokes, as well, anxieties about homosexual latency lying beneath. Similarly, his reading of Joseph Heller's Something Happened as expressing homosexual panic is based on the fact that the novel is obsessed with closed doors and the information they hide and reveal: "the very fact that the closed office door utilizes an economy of fear, paranoia, and self-pity means that the information can be seen to be operating against the backdrop of the discourse of the epistemological crisis of homosexual-heterosexual definition, so central to this crisis are these categories" (117). While I am prepared to be convinced of these points, more evidence is needed to get beyond an "it's in the air" argument.
In part 3, Thompson moves away from his reliance on Sedgwick and Edelman to suggest that homosexual panic and homographesis might no longer operate in new imaginings of straight, white, male sexuality. Noting a "generational shift" away from the homophobic methods of heterosexual male definition so central to Wilson and Heller, Thompson speculates that "the classification of sexuality into homo and hetero . . . may itself be degenerating" in novels by Nicholas Baker and Douglas Coupland (164). In his reading of Microserfs, Thompson traces the demise of the binary categories that organize space into public and private and sexuality into hetero and homo, finding that the "office is a site where the male body is still in the process of—literally—being written and where...