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  • The Apparitional Community
  • Sue-Ellen Case (bio)
The Apparitional Lesbian. By Terry Castle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. x + 307 pages. $29.95.

Book reviews represent, in part, the reception of a scholarly project within a particular critical community. More than many others, an evaluation of Terry Castle’s Apparitional Lesbian depends greatly upon which particular community of readers the review addresses, for the book will produce quite different evaluations in different critical communities. Although Castle organizes the opening “Polemical Introduction” as a common address for the wildly disparate articles, such as her work on the mezzo soprano Brigitte Fassbaender, or Marie Antoinette, just exactly what Castle intends as “polemical” provokes a range of receptions, from those who would argue with what she imagines as provocative, to those who would argue with the very premise of the book. Although not exclusively concerned with American culture, The Apparitional Lesbian raises theoretical issues of great significance for American studies.

First, Castle leads the reader to believe that her “coming out in print” will be polemical. She records that as late as 1989 lesbianism was still only a “phantom” in her scholarly work, although she had longed to come out of the critical closet as she read others who were already writing openly about [End Page 161] homosexuality. Perhaps the persistence of self-censorship that Castle relates marks the difference in the status of such studies within scholarly fields. Certainly, some might note that lesbian articles already have a shelf life of more than twenty years and have become a mainstay in many women’s studies classes across the nation. The early articles, in fact, do much of what Castle does in this book, that is, they address the issue of lesbian invisibility and correct it with studies of lesbian cultural artifacts. Thus, what some readers in the lesbian feminist community might find polemical in this coming out is its tardy occurrence and seeming lack of acquaintance with the field. Yet those same lesbian scholars might best be reminded of the stubborn, persistent blindness to lesbian studies within some disciplinary areas and academic institutions. While studies of the twentieth-century novel, for example, might be saturated by the critique, the study of music has only one newly published anthology in the field (Queering the Pitch). And if the Modern Language Association seems saturated by lesbian, gay, and “queer” panels, many assistant professors must still remain in the closet to ensure their tenure. Castle’s self-imposed repression might lead one to imagine that the field of eighteenth-century English literature has not long been inviting for lesbian critical work.

The adoption of the personal voice that breaks through scholarly discourse—a project once common among lesbian feminists but abandoned more and more as the rolling charge of essentialism gathers academic ivy—is certainly polemical in relation to poststructuralist lesbian theory. Castle’s starting point of discovery, the memory of her first crush on a butch woman in a public dressing room, abandons the faux-personal psychoanalytic rhetoric for the good old personal appropriation of the category of experience. Perhaps it is Castle’s late bloom that brings a refreshing simplicity to her argument—she is bold where others cover their critical backsides or uncover them, as Sedgwick would do. And here we have arrived at the crux of Castle’s intended polemic: an attack in simple, empirical language on the icons of contemporary lesbian and gay theory: “I fly in the face . . . of Michel Foucault” slaps Castle, for asserting that the term lesbian is an invention of male sexologists. Who dares to take on Foucault? Certainly not the numerous graduate students who have later worked out, in some detail, the exact historical tracing of those sexologists’ projects and their Foucault-laden, footnoted reading of them.

Castle gets even feistier and moves onto more dangerous turf in the subsection entitled “She [the lesbian] is not a gay man.” She dares to challenge the way the “lesbian is lumped in . . . with her male homosexual [End Page 162] counterpart”—particularly in the production of AIDS discourse, where she disappears. Not worried about that fragile alliance between gay men and lesbians, Castle puts in print what...

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