Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fictionby Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
This is the first collection of queer criticism on the history of the novel. Eve Sedgwick has brought together contributors to navigate this new terrritory through discussions of a wide range of British, French, and American novels--including canonicalSee more details below
This is the first collection of queer criticism on the history of the novel. Eve Sedgwick has brought together contributors to navigate this new terrritory through discussions of a wide range of British, French, and American novels--including canonical
“This is brilliant. . . and it represents some brilliant critics at their best. These essays illustrate a different and immensely attractive discursive mode. I know of no work more resonant or anywhere near as generous. Beyond that, it marks Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s first move into reparative criticism—and that is a momentous event. ”—James R. Kincaid, University of Southern California
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Queer Readings in Fiction
By Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Duke University PressCopyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Prophylactics and Brains: Beloved in the Cybernetic Age of AIDS
Kathryn Bond Stockton
I. THE DEAD
We lean along their edges in the act of contemplation, for they reside, with strange intermittence, behind our eyes, in the boat of the brain. We wonder how they breathe, how air reaches them at the length of such an intimate remove.
Imagine, the dead are a cybernetic problem: a material problem alive in the virtual world of ideas—their storage and transfer.
II. LIVING DEAD
Claims to surprise us by the actual surround us. Scientific "thrillers," fertile in their forms of the factual, invoke the living dead, claiming that what is virtual is actually viral, the viral more than virtual.
"'Memes [ideas; memories; basic units of cultural transmission] should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain ... in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.'"
"Viruses are ambiguously alive.... They carry on their existence in the borderlands between life and nonlife.... Virus particles that lie around ... may seem dead, but the particles are waiting for someone to come along.... [Then] ["a motive without a mind"] the virus switches on and begins to replicate."
"Is there a way to control HIV'S replication without having to kill it?"
III. DISAPPEARING THE LIVING DEAD
Distill Beloved's climax down to this: A pregnant teen is "disappeared" by a group of mothers, who search for "the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words." Stranger yet, this teen is made to disappear, even though, years before, she died as a child (when murdered by her mother) and, therefore, all throughout the story, has been close to death ("C2D," as some contemporary teens might put it).
IV. C2D, OR VIRTUALLY BELOVED
Reading a context puts a needle to a narrative, opening a vein of investigation (we commonly say) that often has designs from the start. It may be a motive without a mind, a reading that is trying to get itself thought. One that wishes a novel would think it.
To this end, I open Beloved onto surface surroundings to read it as it is virtually never read—as a novel born in 1987, eight years old (in 1995) in the cybernetic age of AIDS. Untimely deaths and dangerous transmissions are the broad surroundings I have in mind, AIDS, specifically, would appear on the list of black American worries. But so would other versions of early demise that coincide with Beloved's double death: infant mortality (now often due to AIDS) and teen homicide (murders of and by teens). Media reports on early death in black American communities now routinely yoke together AIDS, teen homicide, and infant mortality—even as they slide into a dirge on pregnant teens, as if reproduction is being seen in the guise of transmission, the replication of early death. State propositions against "promoting gay lifestyles" suggest a kindred worry over queer propagations, even if they take, especially if they take, the form of ideas—as if queer children could now be copied from the idea of them. It's official: sliding the face of early death under disputes over making "copies."
Why should we not conceive a defense against these slides, pricking Morrison's narrative into a sliding reply?: It is the dead we must learn how to face as we copy them into a virtual future, one that travels alive in our minds. This reply will seem obscure, until I can produce it by reading through Beloved's back door of time, which makes us come around to the front. For Morrison's fantasy of a history, by which she conjures slavery's past, foretells a future that we are presently alive to read. I wonder, does her reading of the 1980s wish the history of slavery would think it? Writing out of her fictive interval (Beloved's 1873), Morrison makes herself a prophet of the future ills of 1987, making a teenage infant—pregnant, disappearing—her book's most infectious idea. I will even fantasize that she foresees two comers to the field of replication, both of which build a net to hold Beloved in 1995. I am thinking of the frenzy over cloning and the endless articles now appearing on the world of cyberspace.
The outcry over cloning human embryos is directly attached to the very idea of reproduction as replication. It is called "aberrant" by detractors—"a line ... crossed," "a taboo broken," even "a modern form of slavery." Many people apparently are horrified by these newly imaginable prospects. For example, being able to replace a dead child with its exact genetic equivalent, starting it over by raising its copy from an embryo, which becomes a child—again. Perfect tissue donors, flawlessly compatible, could be thawed and raised should need arise. And for less urgent reasons, couples who set aside clone embryos of a particular child "could give birth to the same child every few years" at different intervals. In that sense, says Time, "an exact template for what a child could become in 10 or 20 years could be before them in the form of an older sibling."
Never mind how this last remark ignores the whole question of learning, which might produce remarkably different children. Rather, understand this as a chance to see yourself in a virtual future—a future you could never possess for yourself as anything other than an idea, since your interval from your clone-sibling would always assure that you would live in different worlds at the same age. Contrary to the logic of Time, you could just as easily grow up watching the death of your future possibilities, just as a woman who gave birth to her own twin, by incubating her own clone embryo, could never truly relive her past. Her ungraspable past would become her baby twin's unfulfillable future, a future always C2D, or, when she got there, simply dead. Right now the future of such futures is on ice—literally, it so happens. Time conveys this actuality in suspense: "there are already 10,000 frozen embryos floating around in liquid nitrogen baths ... in a kind of icy limbo."
Since it is more confabulation than flesh, cybernetic advance would seem a more benign domain of transmissions and copies. Companies are scrambling to simplify the task of "cruising the information highway," making intellectual promiscuity more efficient and, intriguingly, more anonymous, where "the user" (an interesting term in itself) is always intended to be a cruiser. No wonder one such system, we are told, "is called Lycos, after the Lycosidae spider, known for pursuing its prey relentlessly." The goal, in the words of AT&T, is to enable users to find "where information is buried" without having to learn "where it comes from [or] how it got there."
The breakthrough began in 1993 with the creation of the Net's subnetwork called, spiderously, the World Wide Web, famous for its "hyperlinking." Hyperlinks are keywords—"Beloved" could be one—that appear in bold type. When clicked on, they transmit their users to further discussion of that keyword on other Web pages, which may be stored in other computers thousands of miles away. Sounds safe for such rampant transmissions. In fact, Business Week, which explained hyperlinking techniques to its readers, did not appear to notice the irony of their choice of a keyword example: "antigen" (a substance that, when introduced into the body, stimulates the production of an antibody).
And yet, fears of invasion are growing. Body condoms are quickly finding their equivalents in sophisticated cyberprophylactics, meant to protect against viral floodings of information and the pranks of cyberpunks roaming the Net. "The technology is in the hands of the children," Go Minutes recently complained, citing kids and teens as the masterminds of cyberinvasions and giving us, as their sole example, a black, streetwise, gold-toothed hacker with an infectious grin. The upshot? "No one is immune," says one article; "the potential for invasion of privacy [is] severe"; "[they] can get in and [they] can be you."
Hackers, for their own part, lend a viral edge to these fears. But—and let me lean on this point, since it matches key divisions in Beloved— hackers often celebrate their viral powers, their ability to invade the control of information. In this way they heighten generational divides between themselves and their seemingly cyberphobic elders who fear their invasions. Some see their stealth and viral tactics as corrective to official discourse on AIDS, the environment, psychedelics, sexuality, and spiritual life on this planet. Some writers praising and participating in groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP, founded in 1987) and the Campaign for Smart Drugs (a response to the 1987 release of the AIDS drug AZT) have appropriated Richard Dawkins's theory of "memes," or what he warns is the parasitic, viral nature of ideas (more on this later). Making celebrations out of his warnings, they press hard on his viral metaphorics while stressing that they're actually not metaphorical.
Take the example of Generation X writers R. U. Sirius of Mondo 2000 and Douglas Rushkoff of Media Virus! Both urge activist youth (and their elders) to inject their own "agendas into the datastream in the form of ideological code." They deem Generation X the first American generation "fully engaged in a symbiotic relationship with media" (MV, 31), due to what they say is their unprecedented ability to "feed back" and "change what's on the screen" (MV, 30) (also their tendency to view the datasphere as their natural environment—"as complex, far-reaching and self-sustaining as nature herself" [MV, 29]). In his characteristic rush of optimism, arguing for the "power of virology to effect social change" (what he calls "evolutionary" change), Rushkoff cheerfully distinguishes a media virus (such as those engineered by ACT UP) from the public relations ploys of a company such as Burroughs-Wellcome (maker and promoter of AZT), by stating that a virus makes an issue not "simple and emotional [but] dauntingly complex"; "a virus will always make the system it is attacking appear as confusing and unresolvable as it really is" (MV, 36). Santa Cruz hacker, Bill Me Tuesday, goes so far as to fashion "a healing medical model" when he suggests that "viruses can act like a logic analyzer.... [and] serve as a means of creating a self-repairing system" (MV, 248). A similar point was made in a recent Newsweek article on the unacknowledged benefits of computer viruses: "a few scientists [for example, Fred Cohen in his forthcoming book It's Alive] have begun to argue that [computer] viruses are actually living organisms, capable someday of evolving into autonomous Net-runners that will retrieve information for their owners."
With sadder tones, Beloved itself forges a model of data retrieval, one derived from older forms. We could tag it "viral gothic." For the novel's ghost, ambiguously alive, retrieves information, not just on the slave experience that the reader and author never had (though this is one fantastic effect, produced precisely through a fantasy), but on the virtual, viral life of dead bodies in our brains. "Beloved" is a version of autonomous retrieval: a viral hyperlink: a keyword with a life of its own. At first it appears as a name on a tombstone and thus as a site of buried information. This is a rather resistant site, since the name "Beloved" seems generically to cover for a body, occluding on the face of it "where it came from or how it got there." And yet, soon enough, "Beloved" becomes an idea on a romp, clicking on the living to get itself "inside." More than that. Sethe's single beloved seems to stand for the nameless dead, or perhaps for the "60 million and more" invoked in Morrison's dedication. "Beloved," that is to say, is a miniaturization and a compression (in the form of code) of a series of futures chain-linked in death. To encounter "Beloved" in this book is to find oneself carried away to hyperlinked files that exist as their failure to appear in our future. This is slavery in a way that we have often failed to apprehend it: bondage to a future of virtual remains.
Three assertions float this claim: Beloved is an embodied idea. Beloved is an embodied interval. Beloved makes her mother ill with interval when she enters her as an idea. When dead, Beloved is a virtual child kept alive in a watery limbo (she refers to "the water in the place where we crouched," to the sea, to a bridge over water where she waited; she speaks of coming out of blue water). When she returns as a teenage infant (no small trick), she seems to come back as a clone of herself: the idea of herself embodied at a different interval from herself. In fact, she is an interval. She is now the interval between her death and her mother's current life, as if she's been marking time while dead. Killed before the age of two, she returns, eighteen years past her murder at the hands of her mother, as a nineteen-year-old baby-woman. I'll argue that she makes her mother ill with interval. I'll suggest that, according to the book's depictions, Sethe becomes memory-positive, probably at Beloved's death, but recognizably (as if she were testing positive) at Beloved's return. By the end of the book, Sethe's gone into symptoms, which is why the women want to unload or dispel (delete?) Beloved from the house.
Interlaced with interval is a sense of latency, the feeling that something suspended pursues. Recall that "latency" or "interval" forms a distinguishing feature of the medical category HIV-positive. HIV disease is not only the infection of a body with the virus that is thought to cause AIDS. It is also medically conceived as the interval between infection and the onset of symptoms. For this reason, HIV, in the absence of symptoms, can be a strange state of limbo in which you are ill only with the idea of death, making you nostalgic for yourself before you begin to decline. You find you fall ill with nostalgia for afuture.
This is the tunnel Sethe enters when her daughter makes her ill with interval: Sethe increasingly starts going back by a series of hyperlinks on her web, activating keywords that open files on shame, beauty, fascination, and a future of virtual remains.
On our way to understanding how Beloved scouts the need for a mental prophylactics, a barrier against pursuant, invasive, viral memory, we need to grasp a different kind of prophylactic fiction, one that may haunt Beloved's dedication ("60 million and more"). "Hypolinks" (to coin a term) can be laid down under this reading. They will take you, not via hyperlinks over to files that are certifiably linked to Beloved, but under to a resonance. The hypolink, or underlink, is in fact an old technology, the staple of readers' speculations on the question of literary echoes or shadowy influence. Cynthia Ozick's Holocaust fiction (in this case, The Shawl) offers Beloved such reverberations, ones of the youthful dead alive in a drama of waste. In the brevity of an interlude, consider the contrast between Beloved and the stories I believe stand as Beloved's most unspoken influence. Is it telling that they divide over depictions of prophylactics and how one makes safe exchange with the dead? Are there any hints found here about the different injunctions to remember in Holocaust memorials and blacks' uneven invocations of slavery?
Excerpted from Novel Gazing by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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