- Queer Objects: Gendered Interests and Distant Things in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Recent materialist literary criticism has freed the fictional object from its old duties—simulating verisimilitude or standing in for capital and commodity—and illuminated the structural, affective, and aesthetic roles of things in literature. But these newly visible objects are not easily interpolated into existing critical frameworks because they are neither properly material and independent from subjective description, perception, and concern nor entirely comfortable in the humanistic fabric of the novel. One practice well suited to describe such things is new feminist materialism, an umbrella phrase for a set of practices that share the goals of moving feminist theory beyond the impasse of the linguistic turn and reconciling the insights of constructionism with the thingness of the world. By balancing language and matter, new feminist materialism seems well situated to describe objects embedded in the aesthetic world of the novel.1 Yet a lingering [End Page 227] political and ontological unease around the relationship between women and things—and the consequent threat that a turn to objects necessitates a turn away from the subject—keeps new feminist materialism focused on the materiality of the body and indifferent to those things that conduct their lives beyond our ken. But as I show through a reading of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, objects are not antagonistic to gendered interests; they advance them. Winterson recognizes the inherent queerness of literary objects—as both language and matter and as strangely dependent on human amanuenses even as they insist on their own existence—and how such objects’ ambivalence allows the lesbian artist to thrive. The things that populate the novel—an uncanny pebble, a slice of fruitcake inhabited by a miniature township, mismatched felt Bible characters, a piece of whalebone—and their strange distance and closeness to the young queer protagonist model forms of equity and coexistence, radically extend liveliness into the world and onto non- and subhuman Others, recover spaces that have long been occupied, and provide a refuge from chauvinist ideology. The novel’s vision of a material world that is neither subsumed by nor completely withdrawn from the subject makes the bildungs plot possible even in the face of violent social strictures and models how materialist critics might balance gendered interests with the quiet clamor of distant objects.
The balance of commitments that I find useful in new feminist materialism is what drives the skepticism of other materialists. Object-oriented ontologist2 Ian Bogost writes: “The big question is how critical approaches like feminism (and political economy, and [End Page 228] psychoanalysis, and many others) will deal with OOO’s charge to extend beyond human interests.” Or as Paul Reid-Bowen puts it to Bogost, “The main problem for a feminist version of OOO will probably remain the focus on the human” (Bogost, “Object-Oriented Feminism”). We should be suspicious of this phrasing, which sets the too-human attachments of new feminist materialism against OOO’s cool neutrality.3 Object-oriented ontology’s displacement of the subject, which might appear egalitarian or at least doctrinally impartial, has destructive methodological and institutional consequences.4 The abnegation of the subject, which seems to occur more broadly in response to claims by outsider groups asserting their subjectivity, is a political move, one that makes the turn to objects seem neutral or natural while reproducing its own agenda and excluding others.5
Katherine Behar opens the collection Object-Oriented Feminism with an anecdote illustrating what kinds of subjects disappear under OOO. Bogost designed an “image toy,” a computer program that displayed random photographs from Flickr that users tagged as “object,” “thing,” or “stuff.” The idea was that “[i]ts surprising mismatches express a wondrously unpredictable and nonanthropocentric ‘universe of things’” (Behar 2). But then, according to Bogost, [End Page 229] “a (female) colleague had showed the site to her (female) dean—at a women’s college, no less,” and the image that appeared at that moment was of a Playboy Bunny (Bogost, Alien Phenomenology 98). In response to fears that viewers would see “object-oriented” as “objectifying,” Bogost changed the algorithm...