Peter Dickinson of Vancouver, an academic exponent of queer studies and the owner of a fresh PhD from the University of British Columbia, happily acknowledges that he's a performer as well as a scholar. He knows that, as a teacher or a critic, he's putting on a show. He likes to make an impression, and not just with the brilliance of his ideas. He says he had his right ear pierced in anticipation of his first academic conference on queer studies, and for a later appearance as a panelist he purchased velvet pants and marbled green Doc Martens boots.
Dickinson's book, Here is Queer: Nationalism, Sexualities and the Literature of Canada (University of Toronto Press), may be the first product of a Canadian academic publisher ever to include notes on the author's costuming for public events. Here is Queer contains so many bizarre details that readers may occasionally wonder whether Dickinson is bragging, confessing or simply describing his methods. Usually he's just trying to clarify his position.
His pretentious language can make that difficult. He likes to brandish words like "exemious" (which means eminent or excellent) and "imbrication" (which means overlapping), but that's probably just to annoy us. He weaves bits of his own life into his criticism, but he doesn't call this kind of writing "personal." That would be too simple: He calls it "personalist." He's frank about his anxieties and admits that some elements of Here is Queer may well make him "cringe" when he looks back on them in a few years. That admission probably counts as another first for a university press book.
Dickinson begins with Northrop Frye's famous statement that Canadian authors, baffled by their huge and unknown country, confront the question "Where is here?"
Dickinson, of course, can't answer that question, but he reformulates it with his mock answer, "Here is queer." Most of the standard books on Canadian literature ignore gay writing. So Dickinson works his way through literature made in Canada in search of homosexual and lesbian themes. He finds them in authors identified as homosexual, such as Sinclair Ross, Timothy Findley and Michel Tremblay, and also in heterosexual authors, such as Leonard Cohen. He then tries to relate them to the various forms of nationalism expressed in Canada.
People often accuse critics of wanting mainly to expose their own thoughts and their own talents rather than focusing on the artists they are ostensibly writing about. Dickinson doesn't mention this charge, but we can gather from his writing that he wouldn't consider it a gross insult. He's frank about the need for academics to take fashionable positions that will make them noticeable in what he calls "the mosh pit of academe;" in that striking phrase he equates professors and would-be professors with teenagers who form a writhing mass of bodies at rock concerts. A critic must always be on, he notes. He says that "the divas of this movement," such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, author of Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, and Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, face relentless pressure to produce more provocative books; or, as I would put it, every crazy theory creates the need for an even crazier theory next year. Academic critics of this type must constantly ask themselves, "What should I be seen to be thinking?" Their self-consciousness becomes a subject in itself, which they then discuss.
Queer theory is one of the contributions that the 1990s have made to the humanities. It started in 1991 and has now grown into a flourishing enterprise within the academic industry. It expresses, somewhere in almost every article and book, ambivalence about the place of homosexuals in society. On the one hand, queer theory favours a "politics of difference," a refusal to be seen as acceptable by the majority of society. So its adherents adopted "queer," a word considered (only a few years ago) an ugly pejorative, proudly elevating it to an undreamed-of new status on the university curriculum. (As Dickinson puts it, they "redeployed" the word.) That was, among other things, a way to maintain distance from straight society. On the other hand, writers in this field routinely express anger and disdain over any display of homophobia or, of course, any attempt to limit gay rights that follows from acknowledgment of difference.
Dennis W. Allen, of West Virginia University, raised this point last year in an article for College Literature magazine. Allen (who uses an adjective new to me, "lesbigay," meaning lesbian and gay, as in "lesbigay writing") said that he found the future of queer theory hard to imagine: "Once we're here, we're queer, and everyone has gotten used to it, what then? Do we insist on being mainstreamed into the structures of bourgeois patriarchy through gay marriage and the right to serve in the army?" He's still not sure whether gays should try to alter society's structures, questioning its central ideas about identity and sexual orientation.
These, and not literary matters, are the questions that excite queer theorists. In their writing, literature takes a distant second place, even though most of their work is done in university literature departments. The more thoughtful the writer, the less literary the book, because queer-theory thoughts naturally flow in a psychosocial direction. Literature becomes a platform on which the scholar stands while doing a self-absorbed academic act, and a book or a poem becomes no more than a collection of clues and hints that lead (with luck) to a bit of theory.
Peter Dickinson provides the perfect example with his discussion of As For Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross. For decades it was known as a powerful, oblique and uniquely bitter account of a desolate marriage endured on the prairies during the Depression. After Ross was posthumously revealed as gay, critics swarmed over the book, searching for homoerotic themes -- and did not come back empty-handed. Dickinson's analysis of that novel is not stupid or mean, but it contains no indication whatever that what Ross produced, out of his isolation and misery, was a minor masterpiece. Like many critics of the 1990s, Dickinson doesn't so much discuss the book as dispose of it.