- Towering Inferno:Queer Theory, Shame, and History
Both of these works provide ample evidence of some of the major critical shifts in queer theory. Gay Shame is a compendium of papers given at the 2003 conference of the same name, organized by the book's editors and held at the University of Michigan, where they both teach. Anachronism and Its Others is a study of the origins of the contemporary analogies between the experiences of gays and lesbians and of African Americans.
Gay Shame, a loose, baggy monster of opinion held together by a shared premise, [End Page 112] makes gay 'pride' a battleground for queer dissent. The collection's essays offer diverse assessments of the current state of LGBTQ identity in an era of greater social acceptance for queer people, broadly defined. Twenty years ago, gay activists fought for recognition for the validity of queer lives. Today, LGBTQ activists spend more time questioning queer assimilation into the increasingly homogenous gay mainstream, with its emphasis on gay rights, same-sex marriage, and gays in the military. Shame becomes a rallying cry here for a host of other 'bad' affects and behaviors, and for queer personae who obstreperously resist their normalization.
Yet queer matters are, as always, not so simple. Just as some thinkers have embraced shame as a defiant mode of resistance to queer normalization, others have viewed it, with great suspicion, as anything but. To some, shame has itself become a banner for all that is wrong with queer theory today, namely its associations with white male privilege. Indeed, certain conference papers, such as Douglas Crimp's and, especially, Ellis Hanson's, apparently provoked such controversy that an entire issue of Social Text was devoted to the spillover (Eng et al. 2005). Surprisingly, Gay Shame does not engage at any length with the specific essays in this special issue of Social Text, which seems an odd decision. Indeed, Gay Shame seems to be the product of a number of odd editorial choices—coming several years after the conference itself, the papers largely still seem to be in their conference paper state.
Yet Gay Shame nonetheless comprises a significant body of work, although its significance is inextricable from what is so frustrating about it. Despite a high level of interest and a handful of strong pieces, which will be my focus here, the collection leaves one hungry for a more substantial, more thoughtful book on the subject. Indeed, it reminds one of those 1970s disaster epics with an all-star cast. Like those films, it is consistently entertaining; at times, though, one reads it wondering when a truly serious treatment of its subject will be offered.
The book opens (after the editors' lengthy introduction) with an influential 1993 essay by the late, great, queer theory queen Eve Sedgwick entitled "Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry James' The Art of the Novel." In the revised form printed here, the essay now makes specific reference to 9/11 as one of the most towering and infernal of American disasters. Opening the volume with this Sedgwick essay—which singlehandedly made shame a central topic for queer theory—is rather like starting The Poseidon Adventure with a staged reading of the first act of Hamlet. The depth and the rigor of Sedgwick's ideas make one's disappointments in many of the efforts that follow all the keener. [End Page 113]
Sedgwick puts the matter this way:
One of the strange features of shame, but perhaps also the one that offers the most conceptual leverage for political projects, is the way bad treatment of someone else, bad treatment by someone else, someone else's embarrassment, stigma, debility, bad smell, or strange behavior, seemingly having nothing to do with me, can so readily flood me—assuming I'm a shame-prone person—with this sensation whose very suffusiveness seems to delineate my precise, individual outlines in the most...