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Dr. Chase Dimock

English Professor at College of the Canyons and Researcher in Comparative Literature and LGBT Studies

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Lambda Literary

My Review of Returning to Reims By Didier Eribon

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One of the most alarmingly overlooked issues facing lgbt politics is the impact of social and economic class divisions within the lgbt community. Today, as lgbt organizations increasingly promote the image of the upper middle class professional as the face of its campaign for rights, it is more important than ever that we understand the role social and economic class plays in the queer world as issues such as gentrification, homeless youth, and affordable healthcare affect the more vulnerable members of the community. Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims presents a fresh insight into examining social class as an integral part of gay identity. Part personal memoir, part philosophical treatise on the relationship between sexual identity and social class status, Eribon’s book is both a delicately told tale of a young Frenchman crafting a gay self in the working class world and a stunning analysis of how acculturation into a social class identity affects sexual identity and vice versa.

(Full Review Available at Lambda Literary Review)

My Review of Butch Queens Up in Pumps By Marlon. M Bailey

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For most of the lgbt community, knowledge of Ballroom culture in America begins and ends with Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. While the film’s release was one of the defining moments of lgbt culture with its masterful (though not unproblematic) depiction of the genius and spectacle of Ballroom performers balanced with the reality of urban poverty, racism, and the AIDS epidemic they faced, its subject matter has largely been frozen in time as 80s nostalgia and aestheticized in the lgbt imaginary. The snarky quotes, over the top fashions, and Madonna’s appropriation of Voguing have stuck in lgbt culture, but the film’s messages about black lgbt life seem to have faded from memory.

Although Marlon M. Bailey’s Butch Queens Up in Pumps is more than just an update on the last three decades of Ballroom culture, the mere fact that the lgbt community would need to be reminded that these same issues of racism, poverty, and public health remain as pressing today as they were 25 years ago is evidence for the importance of this book. It is not written as a companion or a correction to Paris is Burning, but as a fan of the film, I was struck by how the book reframed they way we view Ballroom culture. As a work of scholarship, Butch Queens Up in Pumps meticulously details how racism, poverty, homophobia and AIDS still challenge the black lgbt community and how Ballroom culture in Detroit provides a space of resistance, yet as a combination of ethnography and memoir, the book reads personally and emotionally in a way that few academic studies achieve.

(Full Article Available at The Lambda Literary Review)

My Review of Camp Sites By Michael Trask

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The gay community has always had a contradictory relationship with the notion of authenticity. We have delighted in the camp spectacles of drag on stage and marveled at the “realness” of ball culture in Paris is Burning, yet we maintain that to be “straight acting” is the pinnacle of masculine attractiveness and many lgbt rights groups preach assimilation and highlight our “normality” as a political tactic. In Camp Sites, Michael Trask traces some of the origins of this contemporary obsession with authenticity in the lgbt world and its cultural politics to a shift in the culture of leftist politics and American academia from the 50s to the 60s.

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Charging that the New Left of the 60s “drew with surprising frequency on the Cold War culture’s wide repertoire of homophobic suppositions,” Trask argues that “the New Social Movements had such difficulty with the queers” because “the equation radicals forged between authenticity and a meaningful life rendered gay culture’s uncommitted and artificial persons beyond redemption, even if such figures would serve a role in defining countercultural commitment by their negative example.” (1) Trask contends that the Left of the 60s saw the hallmarks of gay existence such as camp culture, male effeminacy, and closetedness as vestiges of the inauthenticity they sought to dismantle as they posited more utopian visions of cultural revolution. As Trask puts it “in the liberal mind, camp followers became so hopelessly beholden to surfaces that they were incapable of taking advantage of the opportunistic gap between appearance and depth, the gap in which realpolitik unfolded.” (8)

(Full Article Available at The Lambda Literary Review)

My Review of “New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut” By B. Ruby Rich

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When B. Ruby Rich coined the term “New Queer Cinema” in 1992, she was referring to an exciting moment in film when a wave of young queer filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, Isaac Julien, and Todd Haynes burst onto the film festival circuit with gritty, experimental films like My Own Private Idaho, Looking for Langston, and Poison that unflinchingly portrayed the provocative and uncomfortable realities of queer identity and existence. As Rich herself describes the movement:

“Emanating from a (mostly) new generation, the NQC embodied an evolution in thinking. It reinterpreted the link between the personal and the political envisioned by feminism, restaged the defiant activism pioneered at Stonewall, and recoded aesthetics to link the independent feature movement with the avant-garde and start afresh.”

Two decades later, Rich’s “Director’s Cut” revisits New Queer Cinema and the evolution of lgbt film through the turn of the century. Where Vito Russo’s work ends in The Celluloid Closet, B. Ruby Rich’s New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut takes up the mantle to document the last few decades of cinema when film itself came out of the closet.

Composed as a collection of essays, the book proves valuable as a resource on queer film history. Along with new essays that weigh in on the comprehensive history of the movement, argue for the international inclusion of Latin American, European, and Asian films, and forecast the future of queer fim, Rich also includes articles published decades ago that capture the political controversies and audience reactions to NQC as they happened. We get both the hindsight of 20/20 and the radical zeitgeist of the moment preserved as it was. Thus, Rich’s book is also a history of the past three decades queer culture and activism as it was projected on screen and debated among the audience. Rich takes us through “the arrival of AIDS, Reagan, camcorders, cheap rent, and the emergence of ‘queer’ as a concept and a community” that informed the politics of NQC. Along the way, Rich details the battles over the media representation of lgbt identity waged at the film festival circuit, from the censorship of external foes like Jesse Helms and the Moral Majority who branded NEA fellows like Haynes government-subsidized pornographers to the internal controversies dealing with stereotypes and queer narrative tropes: murderous lesbians, the man living with AIDS as “victim”, and images of cruising, drug abuse, and violence that many thought damaged the cause of lgbt rights.

(Read the full review at The Lambda Literary Review)

My Review of ‘Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal’ By J. Jack Halberstam

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From the Flower Power protest songs of the 60s to the socially conscious hip hop of groups like Public Enemy, popular music has long had the capacity to voice the desire for social revolution in rhythm and melody. In Gaga Feminism (Beacon Press), J. Jack Halberstam makes a case for Lady Gaga to be considered in these terms for the potential of her masterful subversion of gender and sexual norms to bring about a possible “end of normal” altogether. Describing the project of gaga feminism, Halberstam explains, “Gaga feminism proposes to be a new kind of gender politics for a new generation, a generation less bound to the romance of permanence (in the form of marriage, for example), more committed to the potential of flexibility (in the form of desire, for example), more tuned in to the fixity of power relations (in the form of capitalism), and less likely to buy the broken ideologies of uniqueness, American dreams, inclusivity, and respectability.”

Now, what exactly does any of this have to do with a pop singer in a meat dress? For Halberstam, the popularity of a decidedly avant-garde performer devoted to surreal spectacles that blur the line between homo/hetero and male/female signals a moment of potential transformation, perhaps even revolution, in the way we conceive of gender and sexual politics;

(Read the rest at Lambda Literary)

My Review of “How To Be Gay” by David M. Halperin

Contrary to what conservatives feared back in 2000 when he taught his first course at the University of Michigan titled “How to Be Gay”, David Halperin does not have a “Straight to Sissy in Five Easy Steps” method of indoctrinating youths into the gay lifestyle. How to Be Gay (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) is not an instruction manual, nor is it a “learning to love yourself” self-help guide. Rather, Halperin’s book is an intervention against those who trumpet the “death of gay culture” (which he argues has been declared for over 40 years now) now that widening tolerance and greater visibility of gays in the media should make Judy Garland, show tunes, and drag queens obsolete. Halperin is not interested in a nature v. nurture debate on sexual orientation. Instead he investigates how a “distinctively gay way of being” is rooted in a “dissident way of feeling and relating to the world” that continues to nourish a distinct gay cultural practice interested in camp, Lady Gaga, and re-runs of The Golden Girls, even though we have out gay entertainers and the melancholic realism of Brokeback Mountain to directly depict us. As Halperin argues, “Gayness, then, is not a state or condition. It’s a mode of perception, an attitude, an ethos; in short, it is a practice.”

Halperin very well could have titled the book “Everything I Know About Being Gay, I Learned from Watching Joan Crawford”, because he spends over a hundred pages of his 500 plus page tome analyzing iconic scenes from Mildred Pierce and the camp classic Mommie Dearest. Contemplating the influence of Crawford’s diva persona on gay culture, Halperin argues that femininity functions “as a kind of proxy identity for gay men. The combination of feminine glamour and abjection that gay men assume through feminine identification and appropriation—through drag, in other words, or through the cult of Joan Crawford—makes available to gay men a position that is at once dignified and degraded, serious and unserious, tragic and laughable.” It is not that gay men secretly want to be a woman like Crawford, but instead, the historical fascination with the diva-figure is based on seeing “its own plight, in the distorted mirror of a devalued femininity.” Or, as Halperin says of Judy Garland, “in certain respects she could somehow express gay desire, what gay men want, better than a gay man could. That is, she could actually convey something even gayer than gay identity itself.”

(Full Review Available at Lambda Literary)

My Review of “Queer Opacity” By Nicholas De Villiers

“The Closet” is an increasingly ill-fitting metaphor for queer men and women who wish to explore their sexuality outside of the two opposite states of either being “out” and having to confess their personal life aloud and align it with a specific identity category or being “closeted” and thus presumed to be living in shame, secrecy, or self-denial. It is this binary of being in or out of the closet that Nicholas De Villiers deconstructs in Opacity and the Closet with the advancement of a practice he terms “queer opacity.” Laying out the thesis of the text, De Villiers writes, “This book interrogates the viability of the metaphor of the closet and puts forth a concept of ‘opacity’ as an alternative queer strategy or tactic that is not linked to an interpretation of hidden depths, concealed meanings, or neat opposition between silence and speech.” Queer opacity is not the transparency of being “out” nor is it the concealment of being “in,” but it is instead a practice of queer living that resists confession, fixed identity categories, and public visibility as obligatory elements of LGBT identity.

De Villiers’ three case studies on practitioners of queer opacity, French philosophers Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, and American art icon Andy Warhol, have all greatly influenced the study and expression of sexuality in contemporary culture. Yet, none of the three ever fully came out of the closet in any conventional sense. All three engaged openly with gay themes in their work, and Warhol never denied his sexuality, but none of the three ever became openly gay self-identified voices of the community. It would be convenient and easy, as many biographers and cultural critics have done, to fault these men for not declaring their identity according to contemporary gay cultural standards set long after their deaths or to perform some one-size-fits-all, pop psychoanalysis to locate the source of shame or guilt that we have been taught to believe is the source of our sexual discretion. But instead, De Villiers’ concept of queer opacity allows us to see the sexualities of these men as they truly were expressed by widening our narrow narrative of sexuality to encompass the peripheries where the genius of these men flourished. Instead of seeing them as closeted, De Villiers praises their queer opacity for inventing new methods of queer expression and transgression.

(Full Article Available at Lambda Literary)

My Review of “Cruel Optimism” By Lauren Berlant

Judged solely by its title, Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press) could easily be dismissed by some as just another cynical work of cultural critique. Instead, Berlant strives to distance herself from “the ease with which intellectuals shit on people who hold to a dream.” It would be easy for Berlant to join the in tradition of satirizing optimists as fools and simpletons like Voltaire’s Candide or 30 Rock’s Kenneth. However, her goal is not to ridicule the optimist, but instead to trace the psychological disposition toward attaching optimistically to an ideal and the social and political impact that results when the entire public pursues their version of “the good life.”

Although the book does not specifically name queer studies as its main subject, it nonetheless bears the hallmark of queer theory’s challenging of normative categories of gender, bodies, and desire. Borrowing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work on affect and attachment theory, Berlant asserts that all attachments we have to ideals, objects of desire, and our dreams are inherently optimistic because we pin our hopes to them, believing they can satisfy our desire and recognize in us the identity we wish to inhabit.

(Full Review Available at Lambda Literary)

My Review of “The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time” by Jane Gallop

In my most recent review here on Lambda Literary, I considered the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s posthumous book The Weather in Proust and mourned the loss of one of our greatest queer scholars. In hindsight, I wish I had come across Jane Gallop’s latest book The Deaths of the Author (Duke University Press) beforehand, because Gallop meticulously yet gracefully analyzes the complicated relationship between a devoted reader and the author that inspires them. After reading these essays on Jacques Derrida’s memorial to Roland Barthes, Sedgwick’s elegies for two writers dying of AIDS, and Gayatri Spivak’s writing before the specter of Karl Marx, Gallop has given me a new language with which to speak about the passing of queer writers.

Amid the political turmoil and cultural revolutions of the late 60s, two gay French philosophers, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, forever changed the study of literature by proclaiming the death of the author. Much like Nietzsche’s announcement that “God is dead,” Barthes’ statement sought to demystify the “author-god” as a social construction and to emphasize the reader’s own interpretive powers. Gallop uses this statement as an inspiration to consider not just the figurative death of the author once we view him as a mere conduit of tradition and culture but also the literal death of an author when we are forced to reconcile the real life of the person with the literary persona they left behind.

(Full Article Available at Lambda Literary)

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