Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (review)
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Reviewed by
Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007

Heather Love’s work is haunted by figures from the past, both real and fictive, who have refused to behave themselves as redeemable (queer) subjects for (queer) critics. Reacting against “the need to turn the difficulties of gay, lesbian, and transgender history to good political use in the present” (104), Love contends that the faith in the power of Foucauldian reverse discourse, best exemplified in the ideology of gay pride that transforms sexual shame into social affirmation, has resulted in a critical blind spot. Armed with this insight, Love thus participates in the recent (re)turn to temporalities in queer studies that reexamines conceptions of time in queer historiography and that seeks to envision a queer future. Annamarie Jagose, for instance, wonders about “the ease with which we reify queer temporality” (2007, 186). Too many critics, Love points out, have promised “to rescue the past when in fact they dream of being rescued themselves” (33). Resisting the idealization of cross-historical intimacies, Love postulates a queer critical practice rooted in a “backward future” (147) that both insists on a rigorous embrace of the past and orients itself towards the future. Love not only turns backward, but also cleaves to the negative affects from the past that seem especially “bad” for political agency. Because contemporary queer subjects continue to experience shame and stigma, what is needed is not necessarily an affirmative genealogy but “a politics forged in the image of exile, of refusal, even of failure” (71).

Focusing on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Love analyzes authors whose works fall under the rubric of “backward modernism” (7): Walter Pater, Willa Cather, Radclyffe Hall, and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Against the emergence of modern homosexual identity, these artists have clung to the past and turned their back on any attempted rescue from the “future.” Of particular interest is the chapter on Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, a work that has continued to vex critics who seek to incorporate it into a progressive teleology. The novel’s protagonist, Stephen Gordon, named and raised by her father as a boy, is [End Page 327] “mannish” in every physical and psychic way except her genitalia. Exiled from her family’s class privileges, Stephen leads a life marked by failures, stigma, and loneliness. Love, while acknowledging the critical tradition of the novel from hostility in the 1970s to cautious embrace post-2000, resists an unproblematic labeling of Stephen as a transgender ancestor. To do so would constitute another act of historical/self rescue, and Stephen is “beyond the reach of such redemptive narratives” (119). Love attends, instead, to Stephen’s loneliness as “a social experience insistently internalized and corporeal” (108). The question, for Love, is not whether Stephen is a pretransition-FtM, but whether Stephen’s existential negativity can be confronted, not redeemed.

Despite the “politics” in the subtitle, Love’s book remains a work of literary criticism and not a political manifesto in the usual sense. The objects of her study are first and foremost aesthetic artifacts. At one point, Love cites Herbert Marcuse, who reads the mythic figures Orpheus and Narcissus as symbols of pleasure and death associated with art, and who sees “the difficulty in translating these figures out of art and into politics” (68). The tenuous divide between art and politics extends to the nebulous fissure between academia and activism. Elsewhere, Love has noted that “perhaps the most insidious aspect of academic life is the constant pressure to be interesting” (2004, 258). But maybe the real pressure for academics stems from their complicated relationship with “real” politics. What Love offers in Feeling Backward is an examination of the uneasy histories of queer activism and queer studies, which have not always moved in parallel or complementary courses. Harking back to the early days of activism, she observes that “while queer studies borrowed from the general approach of queer activism at the time, it did not always fully embrace the ‘forcibly bittersweet’ tone of the movement” (157). And it is this “bittersweet” tone, Love cogently argues, that...