- Dead Letters Sent: Queer Literary Transmission by Kevin Ohi
In his expansive and richly suggestive Dead Letters Sent: Queer Literary Transmission, Kevin Ohi beckons readers into queer scenes of literary transmission that are structured around paradoxical failures to transmit knowledge. For Ohi, such paradoxes are intrinsic to the queerness of transmission and literature alike; hence, each chapter delights in rigorously attentive (re)tracings of a literary work's narration of the failures of consciousness that are condensed in moments of loss, forgetting, and bafflement. Indeed, Ohi's ornate and intense close readings are central to his argument for conceiving of "queer theory as a mode of literary reading" (219). As evident from his book's archive—spanning works by Plato, Shakespeare, Swinburne, Pater, Wilde, James, and Faulkner—Ohi urges queer theorists to return to canonical literature in search of models of literary transmission that are unmoored from authorial identity or narrative [End Page 178] content. The "queerness" of these texts does not lie in their representations of sexuality but, instead, in their figurative moments of "thwarted transmission," which preserve literature's potentiality for the future (2). For Ohi, literary form preserves "potentiality," which he conceptualizes, via Giorgio Agamben, as an unrealized force that contests the "inevitability … of history" (82). Dead Letters Sent launches a broader argument for embracing close reading as the core methodology of queer theory and as a means of "offer[ing] a way to access the potentiality of the literary work—not to settle it, once and for all, in a meaning that masters it, but to rewrite it, perpetually" (29).
Clearly influenced by the work of Leo Bersani, Jack Halberstam, and Lee Edelman, Dead Letters Sent builds on queer theory's long-standing definition of queerness in terms of negativity—as a structural force of incoherence that undoes any ultimate synthesis or totalization of meaning. At the same time, Ohi's interest in transmission resonates with queer theory's temporal turn, exemplified in works by Elizabeth Freeman, Elizabeth Grosz, Carolyn Dinshaw, José Esteban Muñoz, Peter Coviello, and Carla Freccero, among others. Indeed, Dead Letters Sent similarly unfurls the queer potentialities harbored within cultural objects, which it recuperates through a luminous exfoliation of paradoxes in narrative and language. Given its investment in the potentialities of literary form, Dead Letters Sent also speaks to debates over postcritical reading. Although Ohi does not reference these debates, his argument for queer reading as close reading echoes critiques of symptomatic and distant reading for ignoring the work that aesthetic surfaces can do in their own terms. Dead Letters Sent is less interested in specifying the social utility of potentiality than in exploring it as an ontological condition of reading. In a queer collocation of Agamben with T. S. Eliot, Harold Bloom, and Anne Carson, Ohi rewrites the scene of reading as a paradoxical rapture—the subject dissolves in communion with its beloved object (lover or text) while also failing to disappear into ecstasy. "In its thwarted desire to merge—with text or beloved," Ohi writes, "the mind perceives its edge, paradoxically cognizes its own disappearance" (19).
Ohi locates the mind's perception of its edges at the core of his account of queer pedagogy, which emerges most vividly in his readings of Wilde and James. (The book is split into five untitled sections, each of which contains two chapters; the final three sections focus on a single author apiece: Wilde, James, and Faulkner, respectively.) For example, Ohi reads De Profundis, Wilde's 1879 prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, as a pedagogical injunction to feel shame that his reader cannot actually realize. Arguing that gay male readers, in particular, see themselves as being addressed by Wilde's words, Ohi praises the author for his "refusal to teach the right lessons, his refusal to be the exemplary gay writer we want him to be" (139). In fact, Ohi identifies Wilde's recalcitrance as the crux of his "critical legacy," and he urges readers to resist the temptation to "recuperate [End Page 179...