Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)

Book Review, LGBT

Winterson, J. (2011). Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? New York: Knopf. 230 pp.

Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography explores her chaotic upbringing as an adopted child raised by Pentecostal parents in northwest England. She follows a linear trajectory, smattered with historical context, disturbing memories of neglect and abuse, humorous anecdotes to cope and tie together the narrative under the banner of “I am not a lost cause,” indeed, that she is and always has been loved. There are mundane moments when the text flexes between psychoanalytic and philosophical musing, and others when Winterson’s anger toward her upbringing blows the box off respectability politics and writing family histories. The text is not queerly, per se, but provides a nice approach to integrating – that is, making intelligible – her desires for women through the retelling of her personal history/ies. Especially surprising is her excellent grasp of working class conditions and how this class consciousness, in the end, drives her understanding of self even when she is faced with her origins. Why Be Normal is a light, easy read, compelling for its attention to historical detail and natural-sounding prose.

The Mundane Virus (2019)

HIV/AIDS, Theory

Ledin, C. (2019). The Mundane Virus. The Polyphony. 11 Oct. [Online].

The online medical humanities journal, The Polyphony, has kindly published some of my research on viral bodies and sexual health education. The short blog post examines the embodiment of a sexually-transmitted virus, called “the bug,” in Charles Burns’s (2005) comic series Black Hole. I argue that Burns’s construction of the viral body is a seminal graphic representation of chronic HIV and thus a quintessential post-AIDS narrative. Hence, I begin to think about what lessons post-viral representations might provide for sexual health education today. I end with a reflection on the relationship between the viral body and, drawing upon Sara Ahmed, the affective body. In short, I suggest that Burns’s “mundane virus” provides scholars with an opportunity to examine the centrality of the affective body to the viral body. This work derives from the critical work which is central to my doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. Further research on this topic will be explored in a forthcoming creative workshop as part of the Being Human Festival 2019.

HardWear (1994)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, SRE

Rigby, H., and Leibtag, S. (1994). HardWear: The Art of Prevention. Edmonton: Quon Editions. 176 pp.

Hugh Rigby and Susan Leibtag’s (1994) collection HardWear: The Art of Prevention presents a range of condom adverts, copy campaigns, and product packaging from the 1980s and 90s. It demonstrates rigorous tactical approaches for exposing sexual cultures to the necessity and usefulness of condoms. In addition to an excellent, short history of the condom in the introduction, the authors reflect on the purpose and centrality of condom use to sexual health histories. They then leave the various adverts and images to present their messages. Moving from issues of gay male substance use to the severity of AIDS illness among heterosexual couples, the collection compiles a variety of compelling materials for scholars and readers interested in the development prophylactic history and media representation. In short, HardWear is a simple and powerful collection of sexual history imagery. It is a very good companion for research and studies about HIV/AIDS and STIs.

Queer Intentions (2019)

Book Review, LGBT

Abraham, A. (2019). Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey through LGBTQ+ Culture. London: Picador. 327 pp.

Amelia Abraham’s (2019) Queer Intentions sets out to explore contemporary, global experiences of gay, lesbian, trans, gender-queer, intersex and queer communities. Speaking to a diverse cast of famous and lesser-known queer folk, Abraham dances through Berlin pride festivals, visits DragCon in Los Angeles, learns about trans activism and ball culture(s) in New York, and immerses herself in local queer life in Istanbul. Her narrative ranges from gloomy personal anecdotes to nuanced reflections on the intersections of theory and every-day life, providing a complex and compelling image of queer life. As many of her interviewees suggest, queerness might not be as different across societies as mainstream media leads us to believe.

Queer Intentions tackles difficult issues like gay pride and pink capitalism; the foreclosure of queer nightlife spaces; the gentrification of gaybourhoods; racism, misogyny and transphobia; monogamy, polyamory and queer family-building. Illuminating these issues across cultural, identitarian, political, economic and a/gender/ed boundaries, Abraham presents a strong analysis of how queer life might already operate within neoliberal, heteronormative society – even as it is at risk of becoming hegemonic under late capitalism (particularly, though not exclusively, in the West). Abraham does a nice job of paralleling her own life experiences through the process of writing the book. At times, it feels like she wants to say more, reserving herself in the name of journalistic professionalism. The book is very accessible, requires no special knowledge of queer theory (though that may help to recognise some of the nuances), and ends with a lovely – albeit brief – reflection on the distribution of queer/utopias in the present. Different than José Esteban Muñoz’s (2009) Cruising Utopia, Abraham’s Queer Intentions suggests that queer experiences today already live through and into the window/s that lead/s us to a better future/s. For some, a better time/s and a better place/s already exist in the queer(ish) present.

Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read (2016)

Book Review, LGBT

Morgan, N. (2016). Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read. London: Limehouse Books. 248 pp.

North Morgan’s (2016) novel Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read provides a not-so-elaborate, but entirely parodic, examination of affluent, white gay-male life in the metropoles of the Western world. Seeking a tongue-in-cheek response, Morgan begs the reader(s) to open their eyes to the contemptuous nature of those part-time employed, luxury-leaning, circuit-party bound gym bunnies who seem to occupy the spotlight of the gay imaginary. He goes as far as to suggest that the narrator – a laughable and unlikeable hedonist with a penchant for racist, misogynist and xenophobic remarks that debase more than 95% of Western society/ies and, indeed, glorify the Neo-Nazis vision of the ascending Aryan races – might embody the celebrity aspirations of white gay men in the 2010s.

As one reviewer writes, “This book is pessimism branded as brave honesty, but I wonder to what end.” Indeed, to what end does this pacification of gay life serve? To characterise gay life as such – to reprimand the vulgarities of consumerist image(s), which are not specific to gay life, but rather endemic to consumers who choose to participate in image cultures that enable the largely uncritical (and thus unconfronted) discourses about what qualifies as “petty,” “superficial” or “vain” – is to solve nothing and provide no values for growth, emotional and mental support or ideations of healthy futures. In other words, by blowing open the box on the gay elite (which has elsewhere been undertaken with fewer spelling and grammatical errors and greater nuance), Morgan attempts to deepen a conversation about the central ideologies, objects and values of “gay life,” not unlike Alan Downs’s (2005) seductive The Velvet Rage or Matthew Todd’s (2012) “revolutionary clarion” Straight Jacket. We are left with a stark portrait, without hope, a wasteland of the gay male body; to ascertain from the broken pieces with which the narrator ends the limited capacities to imagine that gay life, far from a perpetual cycle of drugs, sex, boredom and social media obsession, might also make room for critical awareness of non-consumer life. In short, the novel ends before it begins. It leaves no room for a future, and because of this, the book loses its critique and its impulse to grow sideways into other ways of living.

I Look Divine (1987)

Book Review, LGBT

Coe, C. (1987). I Look Divine. Berlin: Bruno Gmünder. 126 pp.

Christopher Coe’s (1987) novel I Look Divine provides fleeting insight into the life of two brothers: Nicholas, a proclaimed narcissist of the highest degree, and an unnamed brother, a whimsical, perhaps audacious and incredulous, onlooker on the sudden life and death of lyrical beauty. A retrospective narrative, the brother reflects upon Nicholas’s orientation toward the mirrored-edges that surround the Wildean portrait of his life. The novel ventures no further than Nicholas’s apartment, though transports the reader through time and space, across the Western world, into the geographical possession and dreams of the gay cultural elite at the heart of gay-male literature of the 1980s. It crescendos, as David Leavitt suggests in the 2013 edition, in the ultimate death of self-seduction. The excess of beauty (Nicholas as symbol) is overcome by its intimate ties with youth. Though we see indirectly the purpose and actualisation of his demise, we know too familiarly the demise of Dorian Gray, from which the book springs, and thus beg nothing of the author for post-mortem clarity.

Unlike the pensive, oft repetitive and lugubrious passages in his later novel, Such Times (1993), I Look Divine speedily ushers the reader through the waning of physical beauty so fundamental to gay-male life in the 1970s. Arguably, this portrait remains foundational to the coherence of gay-beauty standards today, which have tip-toed not an inch further from the mirrors that surround our desire to remain youthful even when threatened with the cultural construction of “gay death”. Parallel to this fear of beatific death is, as Leavitt poses, the presence and prevalence of HIV/AIDS floating in the novel’s margins. This at once periodises the novel whilst making it all the more timely for men who, today, remain bound to the logics of biomedical realism (i.e. ARVs, PrEP), and seek cultural validation through sexual desire regardless of age and beauty tropes. Far, now, from the present it unfolds, I Look Divine reminds its readers of the lasting legacies of gay-male beauty and the intimate affairs and aspirations of capitalism bound up in physical attraction. It is a text in line with Andrew Holleran’s beloved Dancer from the Dance (1978): an image culture in which we engender the reification of youthful beauty above and beyond the narratives of sexual and romantic excess.

Surrogate Humanity (2019)

Book Review

Atanasoski, N., and Vora, K. (2019). Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 240 pp.*

In Surrogate Humanity (2019), gender and critical race scholars Neda Atanasoski and Kalinda Vora argue that present-day racial capitalism sustains prior racial and gender imaginaries through the engineering and coding of technological innovation. They examine the racial logics of categorisation, differentiation, incorporation, and elimination (p. 5), and explore how new technologies, including war drones, sex robots, and domestic AI, serve as a surrogate for a “racialised aspiration for proper humanity in the post-Enlightenment era” (p. 10). Rather than simply “freeing” or “liberating” humans from burdensome and unfulfilling work, the incorporation of new, personalised (they equate the personal with enforced slavery and contract labour) technologies sutures states of freedom and unfreedom together within a “violent process of extraction and expropriation” in the name of universality (p. 11). In short, the authors unpack the colonial, imperial and racial logics encoded within technological innovation and resist technological futures, which they call technoliberalism, that reify contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Surrogate Humanity is an advanced text for students and scholars interested in science and technology studies, neo/liberalism, critiques of Enlightenment, and technical modernities.

*I was commissioned to review Surrogate Humanity for Fantastika Journal in August 2019. Full review forthcoming 2020.

Old Futures (2018)

Book Review, LGBT

Lothian, A. (2018). Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York: New York University Press. 333 pp.*

Alexis Lothian’s Old Futures (2018) returns to an archive of utopian, dystopian, and speculative artefacts to reflect on the insurgence of “futures” in the contemporary mediascape. Asserting the predominance of certain gendered, racialised, and reproductive visions of the future, Lothian looks closely at the uneven distribution of futures in the past and present. She argues that returning to “old futures” created in the past may enable her readers to navigate alternative futurities in the present to deepen their imaginative capabilities of the future. For Lothian, such notions look especially queer and resist the tantalising investments of neoliberalism, financial speculation, and capitalism’s foreclosures of risks yet to come. More than an attempt to reflect upon failed utopian ideations or speculative realisms in literature and visual media, Lothian incorporates creative practice into her discovery and analysis of old futures. Lothian takes from her own practice(s) to argue that vidding is a queer methodology which allows certain themes about race, gender, and sexuality to take priority over the dominant frames of mainstream media. Vidding elaborates upon the undercurrents of desire, pleasure, and futurity that emerge for subjects and viewers who experience (and are often displaced by) the normative messages of media cultures (p. 250). Readers interested in queer theory, Science Fiction studies, future studies, and feminist theory will find this book compelling. Lothian’s academic voice is full of passion, lending a familiar queer inclination to her investments in future-imagining projects.

*I was commissioned to review Old Futures for Fantastika Journal in April 2019. Full review is forthcoming 2019.

The Melancholic

Theory

What does it mean to remain attentive to negative (“bad”) feelings? Exploring mindfulness, I have learned to pose this question when faced with a quagmire of hurt or a pang of anger. The question manifests through the phenomenon of “badness” or what hurts in the moment and is perceived as out of place. I felt this, recently, on a walk to the outskirts of Edinburgh. As one often does, I crossed paths with a pretty young man in jogging pants and trainers. He never looked at me; likely he never knew I was in proximity. He couldn’t know I was there (with him) unless, of course, I had called out to him. I didn’t, as most people do minding their way.

There was silence. What he couldn’t hear, what I was telling myself, was “you don’t get that.” It was a feeling of (dis)comfort, upon meeting someone to whom I was drawn. It was a drawing in of the unknown to myself, which poses the possibility of (dis)comfort. “You don’t get that” emerged with this sense of (dis)comfort. The event became an encounter with the (dis)comfort of “not getting that“. It implied things in and between the desired audience (a fourth wall already and always impenetrable). As the young man sped off, I was left to wonder: “Why don’t you get that”? The “why” opened up the object; there was an object orientation at play (to use Sara Ahmed’s terms). The object being oriented was not the person I desired. Unaware of the man who compelled him, the young man was doubly unaware of his subject-desire and objectification.

Who was this person to compel a sense of (dis)comfort? Who, in other words, compels the (dis)ease of not knowing and not knowing “why” one does not know (him)? In proximity, I sought to know “the why” and how “the why” came to be. “Why is he there” in that orientation (that proximity of/to desire) and “why does this (dis)comfort suggest an (in)ability to orient myself toward him”? If there was something unique about the young man, it was not obvious. What he compelled was a loose shaking or creation of a subject who might be understood as knowable, however fleetingly. His being, his sense of proximity, became a place of objects: a body in which I invested my desire(s) through the possibility of un/knowing.

This orienting of objects in and of his body was a love-connect (the creation of a “happy object”). Amid the formations of lust, confusion, longing, curiosity, and hurt, a negativity of the unknown rose, too, in the positivity of this unknown lover. Far from occupying the space of that subjective orientation (the process of becoming “the loved one,” of meeting and becoming known), the (unknown) other–the potential loved one–remained in a space of negativity. He was not known, but also, not knowable and, knowing nothing, could not possibly provide meaning or significance where or when I desired.

The negativity took root. It deepened when the new loved one (the potential “happy object”) was countered (that is, projected upon) with a “lost object”. I perceived that which was lost to be a (dead) relic of a past happy object: the love and compassion felt in the image of a past partnership (conceived, now, as a spectre of the dead). When the new loved one could not provide–indeed, exceeded the ability “to do” by virtue of “not knowing”–the lost object returned in the form of melancholia. It mapped itself upon the new loved one and in spectral force. It placed upon the new loved one an unbearable burden (one that is not already known)–that is, the will “to know”. But the will “to know” was known only through the spectral projection. Because the new loved one did not know, and because he could not possibly know, the happy object was merely the spectre. It was thus open to the despair and melancholia of that which is lost, replaced by the signifiers of the lost object.

It seemed to me that filling the happy object with the signifiers of that which was lost left only the affect of what “is not” or the negativity of a past that no longer “is” and a present which “is not”. This melancholia rooted around the happy object so as to gentrify any further possibilities of happy-object orientation. This object could not (or can no longer) be happy because he was (in the process of becoming oriented as happy) lost in what is lost.

In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed understands melancholia to be “the risk of getting stuck in bad feeling or bad feeling as a way of getting stuck” (p. 138). She writes this in order to stay with “bad feelings,” to listen to what they might tell us beyond a desire to return to “good” or “happy” feelings. The person who embodies this “stuckness” in bad feelings might be called a melancholic. For Ahmed, “the melancholic may appear as a figure insofar as we recognise [him] as the one who ‘holds onto’ an object that has been lost, who does not let go, or get over loss by getting over it” (p. 139). That is, the melancholic is he who grasps a lost object and does not get over “it” through the processes of “getting over”. In my projecting, or perhaps in the mapping of a spectral “loss,” I wondered: have I occupied the body of a melancholic figure? Have I illuminated my attachment to a lost object which I refuse to relinquish or “get over”?

The process of projecting the lost object onto the new loved one was enabled by an (in)ability (or refusal) to let go of the lost object. The lost object was the memory of a previous (lost) lover through glossary citational practices. What was recalled in (and corrupts) the new loved one was a frankenstein image of a past-love blown to pieces by the reality that preceded the image. The reality (the emotional minefield that characterised the pastness of that very past) existed around the frame, at the margins, haunting, as it were, the image of what might become “new”. The image transposed its incompleteness and emerged as negative. It was an inversion of what once was and crusted over with the negative affect accrued through the process(es) of (not) “getting over”.

What emerged in the new loved one–what was supplanted in the image of what might be conceived as “new”–was a melancholic desire for the spectre. The lost object could not be reclaimed and could only make lost objects of future happy objects when captured (as with the fleeting shot of a camera) by the melancholic. Unlike Ahmed, I want to suggest that it is not useful to remain as melancholic for the purpose of re-orienting a personal politics of affection. To do so traps the subject in a cycle of signification that, while attentive to its negativity and to its ability to illuminate the underlying “goods” located in negativity itself, does not push negativity toward an occupiable position in the terminal of all meaning(s). Like a virus, it infects everything with which the melancholic comes in contact.

I want to believe that I can remain attentive to negative feelings like these–to make peace with my haunting, even while I haunt the pieces of my past–in order to grow and learn. Yet it’s clear that I cannot bear to linger as a haunting forever. Otherwise, I will have wasted my life as the embodiment of melancholia. I will only have learned through the flows (and changing signifiers) of affect as a spectral performance of what “is not”. But this is spectral and envisions only that which has no “future” as such. Moving through and away from these negative feelings, and the lost object, demands new attentiveness to affects and objects that emerge through the process of “beyond pastness”. By locating a past-time that is beyond, I want to move toward a production of the future by becoming attentive to new configurations of happy objects and new loved ones in the now.

Positive Images (2018)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Kagan, D. (2018). Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post Crisis’. London: Bloomsbury. 320 pp.*

Representations of HIV and AIDS grew sparse and laden with imperatives of recovery, respectability, and individualism during the 1990s and 2000s. For Dion Kagan, this period of “post-crisis” was a time in which gay men sought to redeem themselves from the “narcissistically sexual” construction of homosexuality which preceded the HIV pandemic. In Positive Images, Kagan undertakes a detailed study of the ways in which gay men negotiated this “post-crisis” period. He defines post-crisis as life after the introduction of effective antiretroviral medicines. His careful attention to cultural trends, using HIV prevention studies, queer theory, gay and lesbian studies, and television and film studies, provides a comprehensive look at how these men lived with a virus turned chronic illness, and how their lives impact gay communities today. This text is appropriate for scholars and graduate students interested in the HIV/AIDS historicisation project, histories of safer sex, media and television studies, and the politics of representation. Kagan’s writing is concise and exceedingly accessible for those concerned with the development of HIV histories and sexual politics today.

*I was commissioned to review Positive Images for The Journal of Homosexuality in March 2019. Full review forthcoming 2020.