- Queering the South: The Plantation as Homotopia
In Cotton’s Queer Relations, Michael Bibler adds to an emergent field of scholarship that seeks to uncover both the presence and significance of same-sex desire in southern literature. Bibler offers illuminating and suggestive readings on a range of mid-twentieth century plantation narratives, arguing that same-sex relationships are both a constant, if previously unacknowledged, feature of the southern plantation and a potentially powerful threat to the same.
Bibler focuses on three configurations of same-sex coupling—between white men, between white and black women, and between black men—and he frames the project by foregrounding the transgressive potential these same-sex couplings can have in a plantation context. Drawing on queer theorist Leo Bersani’s notion of “homo-ness,” which maintains that gay couples’ sexual sameness has the potential to equalize other forms of social difference, Bibler argues that instances of same-sex intimacy in plantation narratives provide models of egalitarian social relations that challenge the hierarchical, heteronormative power structure of the plantation. In addition, Bibler maintains that homosexuality constitutes a privileged site from which to rethink the vertical networks of power and authority that enable white men’s domination of blacks and [End Page 155] women within both the structure of the slave plantation specifically and American society more generally.
However, Bibler’s individual readings of novels present a different, albeit equally fascinating, picture of homo relations on the plantation. More often than not, his analysis reveals failures of homo-ness by showing the ways in which same-sex desire either is unable to obviate other forms of social difference or is in fact made possible only by the very race and gender hierarchies it supposedly challenges—in other words, how the plantation’s racial and gender hierarchies corrupt and neutralize the emancipatory potential contained within “homo-ness.” Whereas Bersani’s notion of “homo-ness” refers to a state in which sexual sameness overcomes all other forms of difference, Cotton’s Queer Relations dramatizes the reverse, the way in which other forms of difference—e.g. race and class—disrupt sexual sameness’s ability to produce egalitarian social relations.
For instance, in Part I, which considers the same-sex intimacy between the white elite in William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, Bibler concludes that such intimacy is enabled by the continued subordination of black men in slavery. On the one hand, he maintains that the homoerotic relationship between Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! constitutes a form of “homo-ness” insofar as “it challenges the heterosexist conventions that define male homosexuality in terms of gender inversion and male difference.” Yet such homoeroticism, Bibler suggests, was tolerated because it ultimately posed no threat to the forms of masculinity that underwrite white patriarchal authority; as long as the plantation’s race, class, and gender hierarchies remain, thus guaranteeing the white planter’s superiority, entering into a homosexual relationship with another elite white man will not undermine his masculine identity. Similarly, in a reading of Tennessee Williams’s neo-plantation narrative, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which more explicitly imagines the possibility for homo relations among plantation patriarchs, Bibler attends to Williams’s sympathetic portrayal of black and female characters to draw out more fully the way in which “networks of racial and gender oppression . . . enable the homo-ness that [Williams] longs to celebrate.” In both texts, “homo-ness” produces a narrow form of social equality enjoyed only by a wealthy white elite, who achieve such egalitarian relations through the continued subordination of blacks and women.
In Part II, Bibler turns to representations of “kitchen romances”—relations between white and black women—in works by Lillian Hellman, Katherine Anne Porter, and Margaret Walker. As with his readings of Faulkner and Williams, Bibler foregrounds the transgressive nature [End Page 156] of these relations, arguing that the intimacy between black and white women constitutes a form of “homo-ness” in which their sexual sameness undermines...