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Nostalgia for a Homogeneous Gay Masculinity
Ross Chambers. Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998. iv + 145 pp.
Michael Moon. A Small Boy and Others: Imitation and Initiation in American Culture from Henry James to Andy Warhol. Durham: Duke UP, 1998. iv +195 pp.
Reed Woodhouse. Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945-1995. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1998. 338 pp.
Three recent books published by quite different university presses and informed by sharply contrasting methodologies produce the same dispiriting conclusions about the current state of humanities-based gay male studies in the U.S. Why is it so hard for academics to describe or even discover what is culturally and politically compelling about gay men? The image of gay masculinity that emerges from Ross Chambers's Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author, Michael Moon's A Small Boy and Others: Imitation and Initiation in American Culture from Henry James to Andy Warhol, and Reed Woodhouse's Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945-1995 cannot but strike one as a little retrograde. It seems steeped in a nostalgia for the days when gay men could imagine themselves at the forefront of culture and politics, a time before those troublesome "others" [End Page 501] (women, queers of all kinds, lesbians of all genders, bisexuals, and transgendered and transsexual people) transformed "the" sexual and gender struggle. (Although one might infer from the title of Chambers's work that it is not in fact exclusively about gay men, Chambers hastens to assure us that it indeed is. "AIDS witness thus falls, for good and for ill, under the category of gay writing, and homophobia is consequently its privileged target," he asserts.) Gay masculinity, or in this instance, the criticism that seeks to canonize its cultural production, appears on the defensive, no longer quite what it used to be--or even sure what it ought to be. Possibly this position forms part of an overall defensiveness on the part of white middle-class masculinity, whether homo or hetero, at the end of the century. More particularly, the relative weakness of contemporary gay male culture, politics, and criticism might signal the beginning of an end to the stark sexual categorization of "gay" and "straight," and a consequent attenuation of the political force and social import of the category "gay." After all, if queer theory and lesbian and gay studies have premised themselves upon the assumption that all sexual identities are historically mutable, could it not then be possible to see the end of "gay" and even "queer" without pessimism, without nostalgia, without millennialism?
Such questions, however, are raised only by default by the three books under consideration. The authors' omission of lucid accounts of the social and historical circumstances of the texts they analyze, along with their marked lack of self-reflexivity, may be the most severe shortcoming of these books, and, indeed, of the field they represent. Moreover, for all their surface differences, the three texts share the same weaknesses. In addition to the already noted lack of historical reflection by the authors on both their own texts and the texts they discuss, which leads to a weakened politics, emphasized rather than ameliorated by appeals, whether overt or implicit, to some poorly presented and vague "political" as the raison d'être for their writing, there is a common unwillingness to elaborate questions of class, race, gender, or nationalism precisely where such elaboration seems central not just to the social frame but to the very coherence of each book. The predominance of white, middle-class, frequently bland, and fairly commonly U.S. gay men in these pages may evidence a particular imperviousness on the part of gay male studies to the practice of coalition and acknowledgement of [End Page 502] difference. A symptom of such unaddressed homogeneity is that Chambers, Moon, and Woodhouse do not convincingly explain why they have selected particular texts for analysis over others, especially...