Two terms combined to create another.
Hardly. Let’s break each down one by one–or at least attempt to.
To say that there are countless available definitions of both “queer” and “modernism” is something of an understatement; every commentator who uses either or both term essentially creates a new one, tailored to her or his particular purposes, methodologies, and needs. The definitions I provide below are certainly no different, and in light of the expansive, composite, and conditional aspect of online writing and blog-keeping–as opposed to, say, a published piece–I present here my own understanding of each term. Please consider them less as categorical statements than provisional conjectures always undergoing a process of further refinement.
Like practically every other scholar who uses “queer” (as opposed to “lesbian and gay” or “LGBT”) to describe the general orientation of their interests and personal identity, my own understanding of the term begins first and foremost with Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick‘s foundational essay “Queer and Now” where she writes that “one of the things ‘queer’ can refer to” is:
“the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (8).
An “open mesh of possibilities” might very well sum up, at least at an elemental level, my own understanding of “queer.” Terms like “gay” or “lesbian” or “LGBT” or even the more expansive “LGBTQ” all nonetheless denote very specific types of relational and/or gender categories: male/male, female/female, etc. “Queer” is by design more ambiguous, containing at once all these types of connections, as well as allowing the possibility for countless other alternatives, configurations, and arrangements. At its most broad, “queer” can end up encompassing anything that deviates from standards of what is considered “normal” or “natural” by the dominant culture.
This links directly back to the original meanings of the word “queer.” The Oxford English Dictionary attests that the term was being applied as a noun to denote “a homosexual” since at least the end of the nineteenth century, but the much older connotations of its use of a adjective are just as crucial: “strange,” “odd,” “peculiar,” and “eccentric” are just a few of the many synonyms provided:
[Source: Oxford English Dictionary]
The current use of the term in contemporary Queer Theory, however, deliberately attempts to retain the associations of the latter definition, despite–or perhaps because of–their traditionally negative connotations. This is a major way in which “queer” distinguishes itself from both “lesbian and gay” and “LGBT,” with “queer” containing a general disinterest in participating in the respectability politics (that is, the attempt to demonstrate that LGBT-identified individuals are no different than “normal”–that is, heterosexual–people) that has been so central to the post-Stonewall LGBT political movement. While fully recognizing the importance of this as an effective political strategy, from which I myself have deeply benefited from, when applied to art and creative activity in general I often find it too limiting and prescriptive.1
If “queer” required extensive explanation, then I could literally allot this entire blog to try and describe what “modernism” can mean and run out of space (there’s a reason why there are library shelves full of doorstop-size “introductions” and “guides” to modernism). In his preface to the Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism, Paul Poplawski emphasizes the sheer impossibility of providing any specific definition of the term, writing that “there is no universal consensus on precisely what constitutes modernism,” and that “the name itself remains radically unstable, shifting in meaning according to who uses it, when, where and in what context (viii).
As there is so much helpful and important scholarship already available on this topic, I have instead opted to list some reading suggestions at the bottom of this page, but in brief: modernism is generally agreed to have started sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century and extends through 1960 and the onset of “postmodernism” (a whole other vast subject in and of itself!). Furthermore, is also more or less recognized as a larger ideological shift in Western culture–though there has been interesting recent scholarship reexamining this long held perspective–that deeply affected not only aesthetics, art, and culture but all facets of life in the first half of the twentieth century (including science, social science, politics, religion, technology, psychology, and more).
In regards to literary modernism, until relatively recently it was common to apply the term only to a very specific group of individuals, movements, and creatives practices: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce are the figures that generally loom largest in these first accounts (along with artists in other mediums such as Picasso, Duchamp, and Stravinsky); Pound’s exhortation to “make it new!”2 became the rallying cry for several generations of writers and artists who strove to break away from the high value traditionally placed on unity, refinement, mimeticism, and beauty in art. Modernism instead celebrated abstraction, fragmentation, reflexivity, and other types of creative experimentation.
Also key is critic and essayist Clement Greenberg‘s 1939 essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” in which he contends that
“the avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape–not its picture–is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself” (6).
Greenberg’s arguments became so widely accepted that all types of art that fell outside these specific standards of abstraction were comparatively devalued and if not outright ignored. For example, most scholars today would rank Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein as just as crucial as Pound, Eliot, and Joyce to any understanding of literary modernism, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s and the development of feminist criticism that their work became recognized as such, which also prompted serious study of work by women, queers, artists of color, and other marginalized individuals. Which leads directly to:
At this point I hope it should be somewhat clear what combining these two words together possibly means. A term that has been gaining increasing currency in modernist studies and academia in particular, there are now whole book chapters and encyclopedia entries devoted to “queer modernism,” as well as issues of academic journals exploring various aspects of the topic.3
The rubric I personally follow here on this blog and in my academic work in general is that “queer modernism” can essentially be applied to any non-heterosexual artists and the work they produced. Sometimes it’s not clear what exactly a specific person’s sexual preferences and behaviors were, and thus the presence what appears to be a queer “sensibility” or “gaze” and/or their social connections to other known queer artists can justify their inclusion under the banner of queer modernism (consider the case of enigmatic visual artists Joseph Cornell and Florine Stettheimer, for instance). On this point, my own tendency is toward inclusivity, especially since many individuals who can be categorized as queer modernists participated in the extensive transatlantic social networks the established among themselves, and which also included heterosexual friends and colleagues that we would understand today as “straight allies” (Mina Loy‘s extensive affiliation with the lesbian community of 1920’s Paris perhaps best exemplifies this dynamic). To select material solely based on the gender a person went to bed with not only fails to account for a complete and topical view of the era, but is fundamentally opposed to the ideals that the concept of “queer” espouses.
At the same time, I do maintain a strong investment (both on this blog and in my academic work in general), in the significance of non-normative relationships, bodies, sexual acts, desires, and behaviors to queerness. A common critique of Queer Theory is that it has wandered too far away from its roots within the LGBTQ community and their sexual identity and behaviors, and this is a view I am sympathetic to. One of the great conundrums of “queer” is that anything non-normative can be queer, but not everything that is non-normative involves same-sex or trans* bodies and/or behaviors. My approach is that anything that strikes me as “queer” is fair game on this blog, but I will almost always prioritize material that foregrounds or directly links in some way to LGBTQ priorities.
Because something that endlessly fascinates me as I continue to study this subject and those involved is the degree in which the queer modernists were friends, colleagues, collaborators, and very often lovers, establishing networks of support socially but also for their artistic ventures. Often opposing the subjective standards of taste-makers such as Pound, Eliot, Greenberg, et al, they created alternative spaces for themselves to live and love and create in. And reconsidering their accomplishments through the lens of queer modernism often allows us to begin noticing how these artists were often following Pound’s dictum to “make it new”–it just often happened to not be the type of “new” Pound & co. wanted, let alone appreciated.
And, finally, why “queer modernisms” instead of the singular “queer modernism?” In short, to help prevent falling into the type of critical pitfalls I condemn above. With increased recognition of the aesthetic multiplicity that occurred during the modernist period, Poplawski has written that many commentators “now prefer to talk of discrete and disparate ‘modernisms’ rather than of one overarching ‘modernism'” (viii). Obviously, this is a view that I share as well. While I think that there are certain qualities and patterns that can be detected in most queer modernist art, what I love–and frankly, what keeps me continuously interested and surprised by this era–is the vast range of approaches, topics, and styles that queer artists adopted throughout the modernist period.
And as it is my contention that despite all the recent effort to recognize the achievements of the queer modernists, too many remain not only underrecognized but simply unrecognized in general (until recently, many didn’t even have Wikipedia pages!). It is my goal for this blog to play some small part in beginning to correct this situation.
1. Respectability politics is also eager to minimize and obscure the rich tradition of pre-Stonewall queer art-making that emphasizes failure, loss, suffering, and the complex realities of the closet. As introductions I highly recommend J. Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure and Heather Love’s Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History ↩
2. For an fascinating, in-depth account of this iconic phrase, I recommend Michael North’s “The Making of ‘Make It New'” at Guernica Magazine ↩
3. See for example entries included in A Handbook of Modernism Studies and XX; see also “Cluster on Queer Modernism” in PMLA (Vol. 124, No. 3, May, 2009) and “Camp Modernism” cluster in Modernism/modernity (Vol. 23, Number 1, Jan. 2016) ↩
Boone, Joseph Allen. Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism. London: U of Chicago, 1998. Print.
Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: an Introduction. New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.
Kahan, Benjamin. “Queer Modernism.” A Handbook of Modernism Studies. Ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté. Chichester, West Sussex; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. 347-61. Print.
Latimer, Tirza True. Eccentric Modernisms: Making Differences in the History of American Art. Berkeley: U of California, 2016. Print. (My review can be found here.)
Love, Heather. “Introduction: Modernism at Night.” PMLA, 124.3 (2009): 744-748. Print.
Nicholls, Peter. Modernisms: A Literary Guide. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-garde and Kitsch.” Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon, 1989. 3-21. Print. (PDF)
Poplawski, Paul. “Preface.” Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism. Ed. Paul Poplawski. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003. vii-x. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Queer and Now.” Tendencies. London: Routledge, 1994. 2-20. Print. (PDF)