- Dead Letters Sent: Queer Literary Transmissionby Kevin Ohi
In recent years, queer theory has increasingly drawn attention to the limitations of linear historicity as an interpretive frame, both via debates over "reproductive futurism" (the notion, polemically argued in Lee Edelman's No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, that cultural attachments to futurity are enabled by the normative imaginary of heterosexual reproduction) and via critiques of archival historicism as an excessively teleological literary-critical method. This temporal turn draws energy from the field's longstanding commitment to recovering queer literary histories and, in the wake of Eve Sedgwick's work, of exposing the extent to which post-nineteenth-century western culture generally is structured by anxiety about the homosexual/heterosexual binary. It is in this context that Kevin Ohi's Dead Letters Sent: Queer Literary Transmissionposits as "queer" a paradoxical mode of transmission of literary texts through time that is primarily defined by failure and erasure. Through close readings mainly of nineteenth-century literary texts, Ohi extends the field's recent embrace of failure, backwardness, and antifuturity beyond structures of queer subjectivity or cultural life to characterize the dynamics of cultural transmission as a whole.
Literary transmission in Ohi's account is usually defined—surprisingly—not by any seamless conveyance of texts and traditions, but by interruption, contingency, and fragmentation. Transmission is "queer" not only in terms of content (writing by or about queer people), but also through the strangeness of the paradox that any transmission transmits failure. Often returning to Giorgio Agamben's writing about potentiality, Ohi makes a case for the literary as a privileged site for working out this paradox of transmission, since literary texts—like Bartleby's dead letters in Herman Melville's tale—contain multiple potentialities that may be differently activated, rewritten, and realized. The opening chapters discern this dynamic in William Shakespeare's The Tempest(1611) [End Page 320]and (more briefly) in Plato's Symposium. When Prospero claims power by renouncing it, he models a structure of literary transmission; Diotima's speech, read transhistorically alongside D. A. Miller's Place for Us(1998) and Rutgers student Tyler Clementi's 2010 suicide, places forgetfulness at the center of knowledge. Succeeding chapters carry out astute close readings of texts that, for the most part, have been recognized as central to queer literary history: prominently featured are Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Anactoria" (1866), Walter Pater's "The Child in the House" (1895), Oscar Wilde's "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." (1889) and De Profundis(1905), Henry James's The Beast in the Jungle(1903), and William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!(1936) and Go Down, Moses(1942). As this list suggests, Ohi's primary aim is not (with the exception of Faulkner) to challenge or expand a queer (indeed, mostly gay male) literary canon but to expose its persistent obsession with the paradox of literary transmission's necessary failure.
Ohi's detailed interpretations reflect a strong commitment to the value of close reading as, following Andrew Miller, a practice that implicates future readers and invites response. In an originary scene of literary transmission, the Sappho of "Anactoria" makes a claim to literary immortality in the guise of an irreversibly fragmented corpus. Drawing welcome attention to Pater's rarely-discussed "Hippolytus Veiled" (1899), Ohi characterizes Hippolytus's attachment to a vanishing Attic cultural life as a type of "queer atavism," or a mode of historical time in which the past is "irrecoverable" but "everything nevertheless reappears"—a temporality that is then formally reflected in the story's narrative repetitions (88). In two chapters on Wilde, queer transmission is understood in terms of reading and pedagogy: readerly absorption induces a recognition of queer desire that is irreducible to historical fact or proof in "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," while De Profundis's didactic register remains paradoxically aware—much like Wilde's fairy tales in which self-sacrifices are invariably wasted—that its lesson will fail to arrive at its destination. "The letter rules out the response...