Is it possible to conceive of bisexuality without resorting to binary logic? The very nomenclature of bisexual seems to declare faith in a certain form of dualism. Where, after all, might one locate bisexuality except between heterosexuality and homosexuality, as a predilection involving both sexes? Harvard literary scholar Marjorie Garber goes to considerable lengths in her new book to reveal the fallacies of such ways of thinking. She ushers bisexuality into a postmodern realm where it may be seen in fruitful interaction with anti-dualistic discourses and practices such as those of cyborg culture and chaos theory.
Garber strategically avoids providing a clear-cut, delimited view of her central topic in Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. A reader’s search for hard definitions is contraindicated by the book’s sheer proliferation of material, which includes excursions into cultural and literary history, scientific and pseudoscientific inquiry, mythology, etymology, fact, fiction, and anecdote. Through the course of 584 pages, bisexuality amasses a bewildering diversity of connotations.
Indeed, without Garber’s sustaining critical presence, the views of bisexuality registered in the book would threaten to devolve into a kind of pluralistic rampage. We ascertain from “common wisdom” that “everyone is bisexual” and that “there is no such thing as bisexuality” (16). Bisexuality is either the most “natural” or the most “perverse,” “the most conservative or the most radical of ideas about human sexuality” (250). Conceivable in terms of experience, essence, or desire (176), it presents a Janus-faced (365) or Sphinx-like (178–80) emblem of enigma. It is alternately chic and “creepy” (146), ubiquitous and invisible (267); a “whole, fluid identity” (56) and a “phantom proposition” (481); a practice predating antiquity (252) and a contemporary fad (219). Bisexual tendencies can be expressed concurrently or sequentially (30) as well as defensively, ritually, situationally, experimentally, and “technically” (30); they may also involve triangulated desire (423–35) or erotic substitution (435–42). Persons who behave bisexually do not necessarily identify as such, and (appropriately enough) vice versa. We learn from journalistic and cinematic accounts that bisexuals are creatures of “uncontrollable impulses” (93), the “ultimate pariahs of the AIDS crisis” (Newsweek, 1987); that the bisexual male is “the bogeyman of the later 1980s” (New York Times, 1987); and that the bisexual female’s known proclivities include vampirism (The Hunger) and serial murder (Basic Instinct). Such accounts mingle with discussion of long-standing stereotypes which cast bisexuals as fence-sitters (21), double agents (94), and swingers (20); as people who are habitually flighty, promiscuous (28), confused, irresponsible (56), opportunist (351), indecisive (360), going through a phase (345), devoted to group sex (476), attracted to anything that moves (55), guilty of wanting heterosexual privilege (20), and incapable of making commitments (56). Further, the situation of bisexuality is “either allegorically universal or untenably conflicted” (473); and coming out as bi would be easy for a dozen reasons, hard for a dozen reasons (67–8).
Garber intervenes in this topical maelstrom to assert that bisexuality acts as one of the great destabilizing forces of postmodern culture: “Bisexuality means that your sexual identity may not be fixed in the womb, or at age two, or five” (86); it “unsettles ideas about priority, singularity, truthfulness, and identity” (90). “Bisexuality marks the spot where all our questions about eroticism, repression, and social arrangements come to crisis” (368); it presents “the radically discontinuous possibility of a sexual ‘identity’ that confounds the very category of identity” (513).
However, rather than simply declare bisexuality a dissolver of categories and proclaim herself a sexual agnostic, Garber devotes the bulk of Vice Versa to documenting the concrete cultural and social histories that inform contemporary notions of bisexuality. She chronicles varieties of Western bisexual experience in a great many guises and milieux: in bohemian circles from Bloomsbury to the Harlem Renaissance to Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico; in the confined space of barracks, prisons, and boarding schools; in the U.S. Congress, the Mormon Church, Hollywood, the world of early psychoanalysis; in the irreducibly plural affections of dozens of historical figures...