restricted access Cultural Politics -- Queer Reading (review)
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Reviewed by
Alan Sinfield. Cultural Politics—Queer Reading. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1994. xi + 104 pp.

Based on Alan Sinfield’s Thomas Sovereign Gates, Jr. Lectures at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, Cultural Politics—Queer Reading consists of four loosely structured chapters that pursue three interrelated goals. If one of Sinfield’s stated aims is to present the basic premises of a cultural materialist reading practice, this is almost synonymous with another of his expressed intentions, the undermining of the traditional analysis of English Literature as the study of “universal values” by demonstrating that this seemingly apolitical method of reading consists of both interpretive strategies and cultural beliefs that promote particular ideological positions. Not surprisingly, then, Sinfield’s final aim is the obverse of the latter project; ultimately, he is also concerned to explore the possibility for dissident modes of reading and for effecting cultural change. In a sense, then, the title of Cultural Politics—Queer Reading provides an apt summary of the book itself, suggesting both the rather relaxed organization of the text and Sinfield’s emphasis on how minority or oppositional (sub)cultures negotiate the dominant culture’s production of cultural meanings. As Sinfield notes about his title in the foreword, the dash is not a slash or a period or a colon or a hyphen, but rather “a break which is also a link,” signaling the ways in which cultural politics “comprises, advances toward, and is redirected by sub-cultural reading.” Moreover, the term “queer reading” is used here in a very precise and contemporary sense. Although Sinfield’s discussion of (sub)cultural dissidence tends to emphasize recent developments in gay and lesbian cultural criticism and politics, the book addresses the status of ethnic, racial, and gender minorities as well. [End Page 544] Thus, “queer reading” is meant to designate any individual or subcultural group that stands outside of “mainstream culture.”

Clearly intended to bring recent trends in literary theory to a wider audience, the book has both the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach. Written in a lively and engaging style, Cultural Politics presents many of the recent theoretical developments in cultural studies, queer theory, and marxist criticism with an admirable lucidity that makes these ideas comprehensible to the general reader without being reductive or simplistic. Thus, for example, chapter 2, which provides a brief history of British marxism and cultural studies and explains the idea that art and literature are politically interested forms of cultural production, is one of the best, and most succinct, summaries of cultural materialist critical principles currently available. By the same token, Sinfield has thoroughly assimilated the complex and often acrimonious debates about minority identity that have been taking place in feminist criticism, queer theory, and African-American studies, and his discussion of subcultural identity and dissident modes of reading in chapter 4 is a superb explanation of the latest thinking on these subjects.

On the other hand, precisely because Cultural Politics is an excellent introduction to cultural materialism, which even advanced undergraduates might read with profit and enjoyment, scholars familiar with recent developments in queer theory or cultural studies will inevitably find the work disappointing. Given the variety of material that Sinfield tries to cover in a scant, if rather densely printed, 82 pages, it is hardly surprising that there is little here that is new. One also regrets that Sinfield’s practical demonstrations of cultural materialist analysis, most notably the reading in chapter 3 of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the context of postwar attitudes toward homosexuality, are ultimately rather superficial. In the case of Williams, for example, Sinfield simply acknowledges the extreme homophobia of America in the 1950s rather than pursuing a more complete materialist analysis of the origins of the ideologies of masculinity, the family, and, ultimately, empire from which this anxiety about sexual orientation derived.

Yet to ask for this sort of detailed analysis is really to ask for a different book with a different aim. There is extensive work, including Sinfield’s own scholarship, on many of the issues raised here, from the sexuality of Shakespeare to the gender attributes implicitly associated [End Page...