Romantics Today: Where art thou, Queer Theory?

By Talia Vestri

Ten years ago, literary scholars initiated some compelling re-evaluations of what the term “queer” in queer studies might now mean for twenty-first-century academia. By 2005, the radical wave of activism that had once propelled this theoretical trend had begun to dissipate, and it had been fifteen years since the publication of foundational texts like Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. In social and political realms, LGBTQ human rights issues were making headway in the mainstream: Massachusetts had taken the initiative on marriage equality, Stonewall was an experience remembered by an earlier generation, and women’s studies courses and programs had sprung up around the country. By 2005, academic theorists had recognized that gender was a questionable and fluid term, that sex roles could be performative, and that the personal had become political. Where to go from here?
This question was raised in 2005 on several fronts, exemplified by the title of an article from David Eng, Judith Halberstam, and José Esteban Munoz, asking “What’s Queer about Queer Studies Now?” (Social Text 84-85, nos. 3-4 [Fall/Winter 2005]: 1-17). Today, in 2014, this question seems to still require asking, but in slightly different terms in our own field. We might wonder: What’s Queer about Romanticism Now—or Has Ever Been?
Others’ experiences or assessments of this query will of course differ from my own, but it seems that the most evocative work today emerging from under the encompassing umbrella of “queer studies” has rarely sprung from Romantic circles, and I find this to be a perplexing omission. Despite some of its more progressive impulses, Romanticism as a critical discipline has been somewhat slower over the past two decades to embrace queer theory as a political or a literary tool than other period-based fields.
In a special issue of Romanticism on the Net on “Queer Romanticisms” published in 2005, editors Michael O’Rourke and David Collings observed this very fact: “Romanticism in the academy has tended to be rampantly hetero.” They continue: “We have had Queering the Middle Ages, Queering the Renaissance, Victorian Sexual Dissidence, and Queering the Moderns, but no Queering the Romantics or Queering Romanticism” (“Introduction: Queer Romanticisms: Past, Present, and Future”).
Since the time of these observations, the critical scene does not appear to have drastically changed. We have had Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval (1999), Carla Freccero’s Queer/Early/Modern (2005), Heather Love’s modernist Feeling Backwards (2007), but no Getting Queer with the Romantics. In the age of the internet, we might assess this scene in broad strokes of search bots: for whatever validity we affix to Google Scholar’s analytics, keyword searches of terms like “victorian,” “renaissance,” or “medieval” paired with “queer” yield ranges upwards of 34,000 to 37,000 results, while “romanticism” and “queer” generates a mere 13,000. Such a differentiation becomes apparent in the conference scene as well. Only one paper at the ICR conference in September marketed itself as a “queer” project, and only three papers touted the term in their titles for NASSR 2014. Compare this to, for example, the Modern Studies Association’s upcoming meeting, which will feature at least a dozen paper titles foregrounding their “queer” approaches.
These impressions are, of course, limited and anecdotal at best, and should not suggest that significant studies in Romantic criticism have not utilized queer theory to important ends. O’Rourke and Collings’s introductory essay in 2005 offers some crucial examples, particularly in propositions for re-thinking Austen, Blake, and Byron. Yet even as O’Rourke and Collings remark, this queer vein in Romanticism has been reduced to a mere hunt for the “homosexual” in Romantic texts—or through the texts to detect the non-normative sexualities of the authors themselves. We persist in searching for the figure of the “protoqueer,” as they call it.
If Austen, Blake, and even Wordsworth have become a little bit sexier as a result of this sluggish movement into queer arenas, then all the better. But today’s various offerings of queer methodologies could suggest some additional ways in which we might apply the techniques, concepts, ideologies, and formal practices of reading via queer theory, beyond simply assigning the arousing, titillating labels of “bisexual” to Byron or “masturbating” to Marianne Dashwood. A number of derivative approaches available today might invigorate the field of Romanticism in unexpected ways: What about queer affect, for example? Queer temporality? Queer ecology? Queer history and queer historiography? Queer theory no longer finds itself adhering explicitly to aspects of sexual identity, in searches for the missing homosexual in the otherwise heteronormative text, and these subsidiary fields are now part of a larger scale of methodological opportunities that could enhance the Romantic project.
Understandably, the generation that initiated queer studies has challenged this current trend of moving away from explicit aspects of sexuality. As Valerie Traub recently conjectured in PMLA, the new tendency to intertwine notions of sex, time, and history from Lee Edelman’s No Future onward may simply be instituting the same hermeneutics of teleology that it accuses “normative” history of promoting. In her reconsideration of these linkages, Traub asks why we have even come to associate sexuality with time and history in the first place, for “sexuality… temporality… and history, historicism, and historiography,” she reminds us, “are not intrinsically connected” (“The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies,” PMLA 128, no. 1 [2013]: 31). Using sexuality and desire to re-think categories like time and space may be as oddly queer and problematic now as “queer” once was in relation to heteronormative cultures.
As a new scholar, I find the fact that queer theory’s horizons continue to expand and meld to be an exciting, generative source of inspiration, rather than one for concern. Whether the reality of sex, sexuality, and sexual identity and desire can be bound to the realities of time and history are questions that I find to be somewhat misdirected; if one way of thinking enables yet another way of thinking, why must we limit our critical capacities by enforcing the origins of the original source of the original thinking? Why not, in essence, think Time through Sex? For that matter, why stop there? In Romantic studies, if we continue to ask these more perplexing and complex versions of queer theory’s continually evolving, provocative quandaries, we might end up in new and more interesting places—places where the questions will no longer be restricted to whether Byron or Keats was actually gay or whether Emma and Harriet were erotically involved. The question must not be where do we go from here, but are we willing to go there at all?

One Reply to “Romantics Today: Where art thou, Queer Theory?”

  1. A very astute post,thank you. When Dave and I first put together the Queer Romanticisms conference in Dublin we had the exactly feelings as you., But something happened and a bumper issue of Romanticism in the Net was published in 2005. Just looking through the programs to the conferences you linked there is heart to be found in seeing Geri Friedman and Laura George. But we do need a queer romanticisms which would (not solely be about sexuality) but rather attend to issues like climate change, the future of the humanities and futures of reading.

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