Litotes Like it's 1985
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Litotes Like it's 1985

For Kathy Rossi

Long before I acquired, as a transfer student from Riverside Community College to UCLA, my first copy of the venerable literary scholar M. H. Abrams's A Glossary of Literary Terms or one of his numerous editions of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, I already knew my way around "litotes," "synecdoche," and the "denouement."1 As I mentioned in the acknowledgments to my first book, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, I have my teachers in the public Riverside Unified School District (or RUSD) to thank for the seemingly arcane flourishes of literary formalism that continue to rupture my work—sometimes to the surprise of my readers, who assume I came fully formed as a particular kind of queer cultural studies scholar, or that Berkeley made me that way. (Not.)

I blame my seventh-grade English teacher at Sierra Middle School, Kathy Rossi (who just retired in 2016), for my affinity for "form" as we understand it in the most fundamental sense of literary scholarship. Ms. Rossi—thirty years later, I still have a hard time referring to her as just "Kathy"—focused my many enthusiasms for literature and the arts (inclusive, by the way, of Broadway musicals, which she loved and ritually brought in as examples of some literary device or other). She demanded we acquire, at twelve years old, the most basic toolkit for analyzing cultural texts: words like "metaphor" and "simile," and the ability to discern the difference between the two. We took what was, at the time, a very scary ID exam, in which we had to define these terms while providing examples conjured from our own rhetorical imaginaries, or from the literature we read for the course. (I still think fondly about the moment my classmate Joe Spagna, who grew up to be an evolutionary biologist, asked whether the phrase "Go for that piece of tail" qualified as a synecdoche.) The seventh graders in advanced English the previous year had really pooed the scrooch on their exam, so we felt pressured to outpace them. And since she was the sort of teacher who both inspired us and scared us to death (in a good way), we wanted to do right by Ms. Rossi and ourselves. We wanted to kick the eighth graders' asses, now that they had moved just next door past the retractable partition to Mr. Lloyd's classroom.

This happened in 1985, in a public middle school, in a middling public school district with relatively crappy test scores, serving an increasingly diverse and sprawling suburban population in Southern California. That was the same year Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire came into the world, bringing with it the early stirrings of something that would come to define the rest of my scholarly life and shape my world view: queer theory. [End Page 271]

It would take another decade or so before I would ever read Sedgwick's watershed work, as I felt unmoored and way out of my depths starting the Ph.D. program in English at UC Berkeley in 1996. Adrift in the cross-currents of knowledges I hadn't fully acquired from my very traditional training as an undergraduate English major at UCLA—two Shakespeare courses, Chaucer, Milton, one Elizabethan poetry course, an elective in another period, and maybe one American Lit. requirement—I wasn't sure I'd be able keep my head above water, especially when topics turned, as they often did, to post-structuralism, deconstruction, Foucault, continental philosophy, etc. etc. etc. My only life raft in those early days of graduate coursework was my ace knowledge of those literary terms Ms. Rossi drilled into us during our precocious adolescence. I could keep up with conversations about "Paul de Man after Kant" precisely because I'd bothered, or was bothered into, learning how to define and describe "metonymy" before I was even a teen.

Gradually, I found my sea legs, owing in no small part to Ms. Rossi as well as the early Sedgwickian explorations of taxonomies and the axiomatic, which hailed me. Sedgwick gave those tools I'd tucked away in my...