- Queer Experimental Literature: The Affective Politics of Bad Reading by Bradway, Tyler
Tyler Bradway’s Queer Experimental Literature is an ambitious study of the daunting topic of “experimental” prose. The book devotes chapters to the post-1945 US novelists William S. Burroughs, Samuel Delany, Kathy Acker, the British novelist Jeannette Winterson, and the influential literary critic Eve Sedgwick. (The book also includes a suggestive afterword focused on Chuck Palahniuk.) Bradway undertakes thorough and well-researched close readings of each author with the aim of correcting what he takes to be contemporary theory’s refusal of “queer reading practices that have failed to count as critical within the idioms of critical theory due to their unrepentant investment in affect” (xxx). Queer Experimental Literature’s framework is largely drawn from the work of French post-structuralist Gilles Deleuze and the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, among others. While Bradway acknowledges his debt to the abundant scholarship on queer affect over the last decade, Deleuze and Grosz in particular help him “to reframe reader relations as affective events or becomings” (xxxix).
The book produces bracing readings of Burroughs’ “cut-up fold-in” style as a response to homophobic American culture’s deployment of “spectrality” (7) as the dominant figure for queer experience; Samuel Delany’s unapologetically demanding hybrid texts [End Page 186] of the 1980s in the context of what Paula Treichler has diagnosed as the “epidemic of signification” (55) that accompanied the AIDS emergency; Kathy Acker’s “pirate[d]” (115) fictions, which both mourn the defeat of the avant-garde by capitalist hegemony and seek to rewrite the liberal “author-reader contract” (121) as an instance of queer becoming; Jeannette Winterson’s “unsettling” (161) aesthetics of “queer exuberance” (149), which furnish a way out of the relentlessly pessimistic style of much queer discourse; and Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling, which Bradway treats as Sedgwick’s effort to practice what she preaches by “reading with feeling” (193) in the context of her renowned assault on the dominant critical mode of “paranoid reading.”
What unites these diverse writers for Bradway is a prose style committed to expressing “affective events or becomings” (xxxix), a set of largely bodily responses beyond the threshold of our psychic awareness or control. Affects reveal the persistence of a material determinant in our essentially Cartesian conception of selfhood. Bradway’s writers engage in a rigorous effort to overcome subjectivity, understood (in Deleuzian terms) as a “disembodied and bloodless” mystification of our objecthood (22). While Sedgwick’s presence in the set thus might seem eccentric from the vantage of those who would prefer to maintain a distinct boundary between academics and creative types, it is her interest in “writing feeling without a first person” (198) that presides over the entire book. Whereas we like to imagine ourselves as independent pilots navigating the world “transcendent of . . . corporeality” (23), affect theory, which reveals our irreducible embodiment, proposes instead that our selves cannot help coming into close contact with that world and one another. If the “ontology of the subject” entails a “mystified investment” (105) in atomization, the essence of embodiment is what Sedgwick calls “touching.” In Bradway’s view, affect theory’s postulate that reconceiving sensations as objects in collision rather than the private property of specific individuals paves the way for an expansive and politically interesting account of “intersubjectivity” (215). By undoing the mystifications of “the heteronormative public sphere” (22), which rests on a “normative social imaginary” (241) of bodiless rationality, queer experimental writers “turn to the languages of the body” (107) to foster “queerness as a creative experiment in relationality” (vi; emphasis in original).
Queer Experimental Literature’s bold exegeses of iconic figures in postwar culture are to be recommended to any scholar of [End Page 187] contemporary letters. Its readings of Acker’s “unreadable” aesthetics, Winterson’s “refus[al of] the stigmatization of exuberance as a degraded form of false consciousness” (xii), and Burroughs’s perverse sociality of ecstatic organs are especially sophisticated. But the book’s overarching...