- Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure by Sara Warner
“Lesbians and feminists are not typically associated with gaiety,” Sara Warner plainly states in her introduction to Acts of Gaiety (9). Yet by writing an affective history of ignored, erased, misunderstood performances of lesbian feminism that derive their power from fun and frivolity, Warner proves that humour has always been an important mode of lesbian feminist engagement. Warner’s vivid descriptions, close readings, and astute analyses of performances, culled from five decades of activism, constitute a vital archive of lesbian feminist work and show that pleasure can provide just as powerful a political critique as anger or stridency.
In her introduction, Warner provides a brief overview of LGBT history to show that, from early uses of the word “gay” to the recent commercialization of gay pride, the impulse toward an anarchic kind of gaiety has always been thwarted by the normalizing pull of assimilation. She hopes that, through the “reanimat[ion of] gaiety as a political value for progressive social activism” (xii-iii), we might combat what she terms “homoliberalism” – “a conservative program of social assimilation” that offers acceptance to “certain normative-leaning, straight-acting homosexuals” at the expense of nonnormative subjects without altering existing power structures (xi). She also sees gaiety as an antidote to queer theory’s “privileging of negative affects” in the recent work of scholars such as Leo Bersani, Lee Edelman, and Jack Halberstam (xiii). Instead of emphasizing a traumatic past, Warner writes a history of humour, calling for an embrace of laughter and joy; through these positive affects, she sees the possibility of a better future.
Although the entire book is an act of historiography, two of the five chapters are more explicitly so, working to correct historical misperceptions of lesbian feminist icons. Warner’s most compelling historiographical intervention comes in chapter one, in which, through careful archival research, she sets the record straight on the controversial Valerie Solanas and her body of work. Warner legitimizes Solanas as an important lesbian feminist artist, misunderstood and maligned in her own time, by disputing both popular misconceptions about her life (largely perpetuated by the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol) and correcting recent scholarly misinterpretations of [End Page 287] her work (such as those by Martin Puchner and James Harding). Warner provides a compelling close reading of Solanas’s 1965 play Up Your Ass, arguing that it is a smart comedy of manners, with a strong anti-capitalist critique. She cites the character of Bongi Perez, Solanas’s hustling butch protagonist, as “unapologetically queer” (38), an early example of female masculinity, and demonstrates that this pre-Stonewall “landmark feminist play” (62) provides a model for work by later groups like Split Britches and Spiderwoman.
In chapter three, Warner reconsiders lesbian Village Voice critic Jill Johnston’s personal performativity and her advocacy of lesbian separatism, through the lens of “joker citizenship” (107). Warner sees Johnston’s public behaviour – for example, at the Lavender Menace zap, in 1970, and at a roundtable discussion of women’s liberation, in New York City, in 1971 – as encouraging society’s outsiders to “creat[e] a public spectacle of their private shame in order to expose the operations of power and oppression in society” (107). Analysing Johnston’s Lesbian Nation (1973), Warner argues that Johnston’s concept of a “lesbian nation” is about capturing an emotional state of gaiety rather than creating an actual, physical, women-only location. Warner maintains that Johnston’s understanding of lesbian nationalism is not about disengagement from the public sphere or an “evacuation of nationality” (qtd. on 126) – as Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman claim – but about questioning and critiquing society’s limited definition of appropriate modes of citizenship.
Even as she encourages readers to find inspiration in the activist strategies of the past, Warner cites examples of recycled tactics that have ended up in the service of homoliberalism and homonationalism, rather than revolution. In chapter two, Warner analyses anti-marriage zaps by lesbian...