Escaping the Labyrinth: Suffering in YA Fiction and the Case of John Green’s [Looking for Alaska]

Front cover of John Green's Looking for Alaska (2005)

Front cover of John Green’s Looking for Alaska (2005)

 

How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? –A.Y.

– John Green, Looking for Alaska (p. 158)

What is the role of suffering in young adult literature? I’ve been obsessed with answering this question since one of my dissertation committee members asked me it a couple of weeks ago. My desire to answer this question has further increased as I continue to teach a course on young adult fiction this semester. I am constantly thinking about what defines this genre of literature, especially when considering that the line between literature written for adults and young adults is so thin. Part of this has to do with the ambiguity of what a young adult is, but for the most part, the trouble in defining young adult literature is found in the plasticity of the genre itself.

Young adult literature has become an umbrella term for an ever-expanding collective of novels, dealing with everything from the real, the everyday, the fantastical, the impossible, the painful, and the imaginary. Since the scope of young adult literature is so embracing, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish parameters for what it can or cannot be. Does a YA novel simply require a teenage protagonist in order for it to be categorized as such? An adolescent protagonist is definitely a must–but is there a further narrative strand that binds this collective of novels together? Perhaps an exploration of suffering in these novels can provide some answers.

I’ll be the first to admit that suffering is perhaps a universal element of most, if not all novels. After all, most events that a protagonists face are in some way driven by dissatisfaction or displeasure. However, it seems that most young adult novels go at great lengths to highlight the role of suffering in aiding the development of a character over a particular span of time. In the course that I’m currently teaching, we’ve read novels such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Arguably, all of these novels center wholeheartedly on a protagonist’s suffering. Holden Caulfield is tormented by phoniness and hypocrisy–including his own. Jess copes with the death of his best friend, Leslie. Charlie is distressed by his obsession for observation and his struggle to become an active participant. This week, as we begin our discussion of John Green’s Looking for Alaska, the notion of suffering has become front and center due to the novel’s explicit and reiterative questioning of the nature of torment and dissatisfaction in the lives of contemporary teenagers.

In a nutshell, the novel centers on a year in the life of Miles Halter (a.k.a. “Pudge”), a resident of Florida who moves to a boarding school in Alabama during his junior year to seek a “Great Perhaps” (5). It is during this year that Pudge befriends colleagues such as the Colonel, a lower-class math genius with a stoic attitude and sarcastic personality, and Alaska Young, an intelligent, free-spirited, impulsive young woman (and the source of the novel’s title). Much attention is given to Pudge’s somewhat unrequited desire for Alaska, and his attempts to understand her despite her impulsiveness and her candidness.

The novel is structured into two parts: Before and After. The Before section of this novel can be approached as a countdown, in that every chapter tracks the days that are left until an unknown event occurs. With this in mind, the reader approaches this first section with an awareness that a major, plot-shifting event is about to occur–thus creating an anticipation for the event that will mark the beginning of the After section (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD). This event happens to be Alaska’s death, as she dies when drunkenly driving to her mother’s grave to leave flowers on the anniversary of her death. The novel, however, is unclear as to whether or not this death was intentional. Thus, the After section, which comprises about 1/3 of the novel, focuses mostly on Pudge’s and the Colonel’s attempt to cope with the grief and guilt instilled by Alaska’s passing. Although Alaska’s death certainly comes as a shock, the novel foreshadows this event various times, the most notable instances being:

  • When Pudge questions why Alaska smokes cigarettes so quickly, she responds by saying “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die” (44). This claim gives the reader insight into the fast-paced fashion in which Alaska lives, and furthermore, it possibly indicates an affinity that Alaska has with the death drive.
  • Further exemplifying Alaska’s connection to the death drive and self-harm, when Pudge suggests that Alaska should stop drinking so much, she responds with the following: “Pudge, what you must understand about me is that I am a deeply unhappy person” (124).

What is interesting about this novel is that although Pudge is undoubtedly its protagonist, its narrative is driven primarily by Alaska’s suffering. Her unhappiness can be traced back to her early childhood, where she witnessed her mother dying of an aneurysm, yet was too shocked and confused to help her at the moment. According to Pudge, her impulsiveness and her desire to continue moving forward is her way of making up for her supposed lack of inaction as a child. Alaska’s dissatisfaction with life, and her connection with the notion of suffering, are narratively framed by intertextual references, the most notable being a reference taken from Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth–a historical novel on Simón Bolívar. Alaska points out that Bolívar’s last words are “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” (19). From this moment on, Bolívar’s last words become a significant motif in the novel.

The motif of the labyrinth becomes quite significant in an instance in which Pudge and Alaska are discussing futurity. Alaska expresses her disdain for the future, for it lures people into the trap of focusing on the not-yet-here rather than the here. It is in this rejection of futurity (a foreshadowing of her death, perhaps?) that the image of the labyrinth becomes associated with Alaska’s ideas of suffering:

You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present. (54)

What is significant about this passage is that Alaska clearly believes that there is no way of escaping the labyrinth that we are stuck in. The passage is imbued with a crushing pessimism–to the point where Alaska is unable to envision any reality besides the one she lives. Alaska views suffering as a static presence in her life. Suffering is so crippling for her, that she is ultimately unable to envision a way of being that is different to the reality she is currently living–which leads her to reformulate the question originally penned by García Márquez: “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” (158). In due course, Alaska’s reformulation of this question becomes the question that haunts the novel’s characters. How do they escape the labyrinth of suffering erected by Alaska’s death?

While the novel eerily suggests that death is the only way of escaping this labyrinth, I find it interesting how the novel ultimately emphasizes the importance of the labyrinth in our everyday existence. As Pudge reflects on Alaska’s reconfiguration of the big question, he recognizes a shift in his way of thinking. Originally, Pudge thinks that the only way to cope with the labyrinth of suffering was by pretending “that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in a back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home” (219). Pudge’s moment of growth occurs when he realizes that the labyrinth is ultimately an inseparable part of life. To live is to suffer. Life is more than the maze, but the maze is still an integral component of life. Pudge realizes that by trying to escape the maze, or by ignoring it, he is setting aside the very experience of navigating the maze, and he is focusing on the end rather than on the events that led him to the end. This exemplifies a moment of growth for Pudge, for it is here that he begins to distance himself from teleological notions: the process of navigating the maze is just as important as the process of escaping it.

The novel thus concludes with a glorification of adolescence, precisely because it is a middle ground between the beginning and the end. It is a time in which uncertainty reigns supreme–where possibilities are endless. It denotes the moment in which we navigate the maze, not when we enter it or escape it. As Pudge states in his teenage manifesto:

When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old.  (220)

John Green’s Looking for Alaska has given me serious food for thought, not only when it comes to the role of suffering in YA literature, but also in when it comes to considering how suffering is connected to the sense of invincibility and infinity associated with the concept of adolescence. Through the act of looking for Alaska, we find not only ourselves, but we also find more interesting ways of navigating labyrinths. When it comes to the labyrinth of young adult literature, perhaps it is time to stop finding a way out of it, and focus our energies in co-existing with it. Perhaps it is time to relish the interconnectedness of YA fiction–its ability to be all-encompassing, ever-expanding, and invincible.

Work Cited

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton Books, 2005. Print (Hardcover Edition).

You can purchase a copy of Green’s novel by clicking here.

Candle cover image by coloneljohnbritt.

Queer Time in Edmund White’s [A Boy’s Own Story]

Front cover of Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story (1982)

Front cover of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982)

Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a coming-of-age novel centered on the sexual awakening of a queer teenage boy in the Midwest during the 1950s. The novel discusses topics such as the corruption of innocence, the pressures of masculinity in the lives of young boys, the emergence of childhood sexuality, and the exploration of humanity through the lens of homosexuality. The unnamed narrator of the novel quickly addresses the issues that he has in terms of his body and his sense of masculinity. He feels as if his “feminine” qualities–such as his voice, his mannerisms, and his overall attitudes– not only prevent him from bonding with other people, but that they also prevent him from obtaining any of the power that promised to those who embody the masculine myth. The narrator notices that everything from the way he sits to the way he acts marks his body as Other, and he even goes as far as to point out that he often fails small and meaningless quizzes used to assess his masculinity:

A popular quiz for masculinity in those days asked three questions, all of which I flunked: (1) Look at your nails (a girl extends her fingers, a boy cups his in his upturned palm); (2) Look up (a girl lifts her eyes, a boy throws back his whole head); (3) Light a match (a girl strikes away from her body, a boy toward–or perhaps the reverse, I can’t recall). (9)

The structure of this novel can seem slightly confusing, especially since it deviates from the traditional linear narrative that we have come to expect when reading coming-of-age novels. The first chapter, for instance, begins when the narrator is fifteen years-old. In this chapter, he painstakingly describes a relationship that he has with Kevin, the twelve year-old son of a guest that visits his summer home. In this chapter, the narrator describes how he paradoxically wants to be considered heterosexual while still being loved by a man. His relationship with Kevin slowly but surely starts to teach him how sex is not only a physical act, but how it is also a discursive act–leading him to realize that sex is also “a social rite that registered, even brought about shifts in the balance of power, but something that was discussed more than performed” (198). Because of this realization, he notices how performance and discourse shapes and forms his relationships with other men. For instance, he approaches Kevin as the “older” and more “dominant” person in the relationship because he is the more confident person of the two, and because he controls what happens during sexual intercourse:

I was chagrined by [his] clowning because I’d already imagined Kevin as a sort of husband. No matter that he was younger; his cockiness had turned him into the Older One (23).

The first chapter concludes by depicting how the narrator and Kevin part ways, and the second chapter goes back an entire year, allowing the narrator to discuss events that shaped who he is in his present day. Subsequent chapters go back in time even further, depicting events that the narrator encounters when he was twelve and seven years-old. The jumping back and forth between the past and the present not only disrupts the linearity of the coming-of-age narrative, but it also presents, as Elizabeth Freeman would put it, a manifestation of queer time. 

In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman describes queer time as a “hiccup in sequential time” that “has the capacity to connect a group of people beyond monogamous, enduring couplehood” (3). Furthermore, queer time allows queer subjects to envision alternative structures and forms of belonging, precisely because it deviates from the linearity and “productivity” of chrononormativity–in which human bodies arrange their time and bodies towards maximum productivity. In A Boy’s Own Story, queer time manifests through this combination of the past and the present, precisely because the narration deviates from the productive and generative elements that are closely associated with narratives of personal development. White, rather than depicting growth and development as sequential events, the narrator approaches them as fractured and disjointed processes. Rather than offering readers an equation, in which event 1, event 2, and event 3 equal the narrator, White disrupts temporality by beginning with event 3, going back to event 1, and covering the decimal points (small or micro events) that occur between these numbers. I think that this novel embraces queerness through it’s denial of both chronos (sequential time) and kairos (significant time), in favor of small non-sequential and non-significant time. This is particularly clear in the fourth chapter of the novel, in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader:

in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts. One even composes one’s improvisations into a quite new face never glimpsed before, the likeness of an invention. Busoni once said he prizes the most those empty passages composers make up to get from one “good part” to another. He said such womanlike but minor transitions reveal more about a composer–the actual vernacular of his imagination–than the deliberately bravura moments. I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, willing to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, or a life, than the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist again. (84)

I believe that this passage is quite significant, because it highlights the role that queer time plays in the novel’s political agenda. By disrupting linearity and by painstakingly focusing on minor events, the reader must develop patience and spend more time concentrating on the narrator’s words rather than on major events. The narrator affirms that by reading his words, the reader becomes not only more respectful of the narrator’s life, but the reader also brings the narrator back into existence. Therefore, through the act of reading, one gives the narrator a sense of legitimacy that was denied to him during his childhood. This interpretation gains even more validity when taking into account that most of the novel is focused on the narrator’s struggle to survive in his society, and even more so, his struggle to be approached and categorized as a legitimate human being. The narrator, for instance, acknowledged that he has little time to focus on “theory” or “philosophy” because he is too busy focusing on pragmatic aspects of his life such as survival. This notion is evidenced when the narrator compares himself to his jockish friend, Tom, who spends most of his time daydreaming and philosophizing:

Ironic, then, that [Tom] was the one who did all the thinking, who had the taste for philosophy–ironic but predictable, since his sovereignty gave him the ease to wonder about what it all meant, whereas I had to concentrate on means, not meaning. The meaning seemed quite clear: to survive and then to become popular. (113)

Although popularity may at first be approached as a self-centered and selfish goal, it is important to keep in mind that the narrator believes that popularity will give him the recognition and the legitimacy that he has been denied in his life, not only because he is queer, but also because he is unable to situate himself within the frame of traditional masculinity that his father upholds. Popularity would give the narrator the means to become a legitimate person rather than an unreal subject:

Being popular was equivalent to becoming a character, perhaps even a person, since if to be is to be perceived, then to be perceived by many eyes and with envy, interest, respect, or affection is to exist more densely, more articulately, ever last detail minutely observed and thereby richly rendered. (127)

All in all, A Boy’s Own Story is a rich and provocative novel that definitely raises interesting insights in terms of the role that temporality plays within the issues of livability that haunt all queer lives. The narrative is at times convoluted and difficult to follow, but getting lost is definitely an essential component towards grasping the novel’s central themes and agenda.

You can purchase a copy of White’s novel by clicking here.

 

Works Cited

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

White, Edmund. A Boy’s Own Story. New York: Plume, 1982. Print.

 

 

An Analysis of Pastiche in Art Spiegelman’s [Maus I: My Father Bleeds History]

Art Spiegelman’s Maus revolutionized the perception of comics not only in academia, but also in popular culture. Not only is it the first graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer prize, but its presence has been ubiquitous in academia–appealing to scholars interested in areas such as the image-text relationship, animal studies, postmodernism, history, memoir, Holocaust studies, and race, among others. Maus possesses two intertwining narratives.The core narrative focuses on depicting the experiences of Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Holocaust survivor, as he struggles to survive the horrors triggered by the rise of Hitler and the German Nazi Party. The other narrative focuses on the speaker’s attempts to interview his father to get the information needed to craft the core narrative–making Maus a work that attempts to recover history through a depiction of the actual recovery process. This secondary narrative frames the discussion of Vladek’s tale of survival while simultaneously giving the reader a glimpse into the relationship between a son and his father.

The following set of panels are depicted on page 90 of The Complete Maus. These panels highlight how events from the past and the present are combined within the same pages--which sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of the narrative strand that is taking place. At times, Vladek's retelling of his story is interrupted by his son, who often demands his father to tell a more coherent and chronological tale.

Figure 1. The following set of panels are depicted on page 90 of The Complete Maus. These panels highlight how events from the past and the present combine within the same pages–which sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of the narrative strand that is taking place. At times, Vladek’s retelling of his story is interrupted by his son, who often demands his father to tell a more coherent and chronological tale.

The interesting aspect about these intertwining narratives is that many times they clash or interrupt each other. Vladek often tells his story in a very fragmented fashion. Sometimes he will interrupt a story to talk of another event, other times he adds details that he forgot to recall, and he often leaves gaps in his stories–much to the chagrin of his son, who is trying to create a comic book using his father’s story. The speaker, sometimes rudely, interrupts his father to ask questions, and to ask him to cover events that he skipped or that he didn’t explain with enough nuance. Thus, what manifests in Maus is a tension between the father’s efforts to recall past events and the speaker’s efforts to distill his father’s story into the comics medium. This tension is reminiscent of Fredric Jameson’s views on the postmodern historical novel, which he discusses in his book, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 

Given that postmodernity questions the ability to identify absolute truths, and given the awareness that the past is impossible to accurately represent, Jameson argues that the postmodern historical novel can only possibly represent one’s interpretations, notions, and preconceptions of the past (25). Postmodern historicism manifests in Maus in two ways: the father’s memories are often presented in a fragmented non-linear fashion that Art desperately tries to organize and make sense of–often leading him to reprimand his father for not presenting events in chronological order. Secondly, the graphic novel itself is a reflection of Art’s interpretations of his father’s story–which pushes readers to not only question the flawless authenticity of Vladek’s story, but also Art’s depiction of these events. The combination of different modes of temporality and narrative ultimately create what Jameson would call a pastiche, which is the amalgamation of many styles and discourses without specific norms or guidelines (17), which leads to the creation of an “ahistorical” product.

Despite this sense of ahistoricism and the overall distrust that exists towards exact history and truth, Spiegelman does an effective job of trying to persuade the reader into confiding in him by highlighting his unwillingness to censor his father’s story. This is seen in the instance in which Vladek is talking about his relationship with Lucia, the woman he dated before meeting Art’s mother. Even though Vladek makes Art promise not to include Lucia’s story within his work, Art not only includes the story, but also a depiction of the moment in which he promises not to share the story with others:

From page 25 of The Complete Maus. Here we see an instance in which Art depicts certain aspects of his father's tale, even when his father explicitly tells him not to include these details within his graphic works.

Figure 2. From page 25 of The Complete Maus. Here we see an instance in which Art depicts certain aspects of his father’s tale, even when his father explicitly tells him not to include these details within his graphic works.

When analyzing pastiche in Spiegelman’s work, it is important to closely look at the art techniques and the style that Spiegelman’s employs in the comics panels. I mentioned above that the past and the present blur within the panels due to Spiegelman’s amalgamation of the novel’s two narratives within the same pages and sections. One panel, for instance, could depict Vladek’s attempt to hide from the German forces, and the next panel suddenly jumps to the present, depicting an ill Vladek feeling chest pains as he strives to tell his tale (see pages 119-120 for this example). According to Jameson, since postmodernism is characterized by our loss of connection to history, what we know as the past is nothing but a style (or as he refers to it, a simulacrum) or a code that is commodified into our collective consciousness. Now, this is simply a fancy way of saying that we make used of clichéd and stereotypical signs in order to indicate that we are invoking history or a sense of a past (Jameson 19-20).

When watching a film or viewing an image, the past is invoked by signs like color (i.e. black and white imagery to convey a sense of antiquity, as seen in films such as Schindler’s List), certain styles of clothing, and even certain accents (people from older cultures, for instance, rarely ever speak in American accents in contemporary films). Something I noticed, however, is that Maus at times rejects using these codes and signs, thus making it a challenge to invoke a concrete sense of pastness. This blurring manifests not only through the combination of panels representing both of the novel’s narrative strands, but also through the application of the same artistic style for past and present events.

The fact that the entire graphic novel is colored in black and white, and the the images that invoke the present and the past are stylized in the same fasion,  it becomes even more challenging to distinguish between Vladek’s story and his son’s attempts to create a record of this story. Notice that Spiegelman could’ve stylized the past using different drawing techniques–as he did with the well-known comic book within the comic book–but he chose not to do so. If you take another look at figure 1, notice how the event taking place in the present and the event taking place in the past are colored and stylized in the same fashion. This blurring can either indicate Spiegelman’s attempt to highlight the relevance of his father’s events in today’s culture, or it can even be approached as a rhetorical device used to help readers connect the emotions embedded in both narrative strands. Could this be approached as an attempt to escape from the conventions of pastiche that are usually used in postmodern historicism?

The fact that Spiegelman represents characters as animals can also be interpreted as a symptom of pastiche. In order to grasp the complexities of the relationships that exist between Jews, non-Jewish Poles, and Germans, Spiegelman represents these socio-cultural demographics as animals–Jews are represented as mice, Germans are represented as cats, and non-Jewish Poles are represented as pigs. All of these animals are associated with strong signs and connotations, which Spiegelman appropriates to bracket a better historical understanding of the tensions that exist between these demographics. After all, the relationship between mice and cats is very well-known–and other well-known texts, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, use animals as an allegory for highly charged political themes. The use of animals emphasizes, in this particular case, Jameson’s views of pastiche, which he also approaches as a parody or appropriation of particular aesthetic forms due to the inability to create new forms with new meaning. Due to our inability to relive Vladek’s experiences, Spiegelman must make use of pastiche in order to allow us to grasp the pathos and logos of his historical account.

While I do buy Jameson’s views on the process of pastiche, I am slightly hesitant to embrace his negative and bleak views of the consequences of this process. Jameson would argue that pastiche creates what he calls a “pop history,” which approaches as an empty or blank stereotype of a time that can no longer be accessed or understood. If this is the case, do we necessarily want to imply that Spegelman’s Maus is nothing but a product of pop history? Sure, I think today, it is clearly understood that it is impossible to reach absolute truth or that it is impossible to truly understand the past–which explains our current cynicism towards historical depictions and distillations. However, should this prevent us from attempting to access or recreate history through art? This view is too unproductive and stagnant–not to mention frustrating. Is Maus simply a manifestation of pop history? A better question would be: is Maus nothing but a pastiche?

As always, feel free to discuss these ideas below!

You can purchase a copy of Spiegelman’s work here.

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996. Print.

Masculinity in Robert Cormier’s [The Chocolate War]

Front cover of Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War

Front cover of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War

It’s 1:53 a.m. and I currently can’t sleep because of this book. I was going to wait and write about it in the morning, but I really need to engage in the cathartic process of writing in order to make sense of all of the thoughts that are fireworking in my head. I was expecting a tale that discusses the triumph of good over evil–a tale of empowerment for individualistic resistance over systematic injustice. I received the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I think The Chocolate War has earned a place in my top-ten list of favorite YA novels, but I will warn you that the book is ultimately very bleak and depressing. If your positive judgment of a book depends on a happy ending, then I suggest that you skip this novel.

The Chocolate War is a book that is told from a subjective third person point-of-view, but this perspective carousels through the thoughts and emotions of particular students at Trinity School: a private, religiously-affiliated high school in the New England area. Although the story centers on the thoughts of various students in the school, it can be said that Jerry Renault is the novel’s protagonist, and he is also the source of the novel’s main tension. Although the Trinity School is technically run by the Brethren that teach and administer the educational system, the thoughts and actions of students are also dictated by a secret school society known as The Vigils, who use scare tactics and intimidation in order to secure their influence.

Students are often given “assignments” by The Vigils, which can be approached as a type of hazing that the secret society uses to assure that it is perceived as a force to be reckoned with. Assignments can include mundane things such as forcing students to get up from their seats every time a teacher mentions the word “environment,” to more serious matters, such as destabilizing all of the desks and chairs in a classroom. During the school’s annual chocolate fundraiser, Jerry Renault is given the assignment to deny selling chocolates for ten days–a problem, seeing as every student besides Renault decides to sell chocolate. The main issue in the novel arises when Jerry continues to resist selling chocolates after the ten day period in an act of defiance towards The Vigils and the school administration. The bulk of the novel focuses on the ostracism that Jerry faces when trying to defy The Vigils, and the measures that they take to assure their power and dominance in Trinity School. By taking a stand, Jerry tries to follow and understand the words of T.S. Eliot by asking himself whether he dares to “disturb the universe,” (see Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“) a quote found on a poster that Jerry has in his locker.

The Chocolate War is a very gendered novel, which is partly unsurprising given the fact that Trinity School focuses on single-sex male education. Various elements within the novel emphasize maleness and the traits that are usually (and stereotypically) associated with it, such as power, dominance, and violence. Sports such as boxing and football are the most popular and revered activities that take place within the school; their practice often demonstrates how physical prowess often trumps intelligence and creativity in this environment. All teachers within the school are religiously affiliated men, and they are addressed as Brother by students. As a matter of fact, there is little to no feminine or maternal presence in the novel. When girls are mentioned by students, they are usually presented as objects of sexual attraction. Even Jerry is known for his lack of a maternal figure, since early in the novel it is established that his mother passed away during the spring before his freshman year (the time period in which the novel takes place). This lack of a feminine presence is in no way a mishap, and it actually serves as a motif to foreground the power struggles and dynamics that are in the heart of The Chocolate War. 

The characters’ efforts to uphold a visage of traditional masculinity is overwhelming. Whenever certain characters, such as Archie (the novel’s twisted and manipulative villain), encounter another figure that is trumping them in terms of authority, they automatically regress into an irrational inner struggle of Patrick Bateman-esque proportions. Take for instance, Archie’s reaction when The Vigils’ president threatens him:

Blood stung Archie’s cheeks and a pulse throbbed dangerously in his temple. No one had ever talked to him that way before, not in front of everyone like this. With an effort he made himself stay loose, kept that smile on his lips like a label on a bottle, hiding his humiliation. (187)

Many other characters in the novel are unable to contain their fits of tears and frustration when encountering the many injustices triggered by the rule of The Vigils. However, the most salient trait that is exemplified through this constructed masculine space would be violence–not only subjective violence, as in fist-fights, bullying, and physiological reactions, but also objective violence as represented through hate speech and through the manipulation and control enforced by the secret society and the school administration (please see Zizek’s Violence for more information on these types of violence). At first, Jerry’s decision to refuse selling chocolates can be considered an act of resistance towards the objective violence that is systematically imposed upon all students at Trinity High. The downward spiral for Jerry, however, occurs when this objective violence flourishes into downright brutal and subjective violence. The moment of this transition is seen quite literally in the novel, when a bully by the name of Janza is blackmailed into harassing Jerry to the point that he reciprocates violence with more violence (rather than resistance). As can be seen in the following exchange between Jerry and Janza:

“Hiding what? Hiding from who?” [Jerry]

“From everybody. From yourself, even. Hiding that deep dark secret.”

“What secret?” Confused now.

“That you’re a fairy. A queer. Living in the closet, hiding away.”

Vomit threatened Jerry’s throat, a nauseous geyser he could barely hold down.

“Hey, you’re blushing,” Janza said. “The fairy’s blushing . . .”

“Listen . . .” Jerry began but not knowing, really, how to begin or where. The worst thing in the world–to be called queer. (211-212)

After this exchange, Jerry retorts by calling Janza a “son of a bitch,” which leads Janza to summon a group of kids that brutally bash Jerry. Note here that what fuels Jerry’s wrath is the fact that he is called queer. Up to that point, he had done a decent job of resisting the taunts and threats of his peers due to his refusal to sell chocolates. What I find interesting in this chapter is that in essence, Jerry can be approached as a queer (or non-normative) character due to the fact that he denies engaging in the activity that will make him normal or orthodox–if he didn’t want to set himself apart, all he had to do was sell chocolates. His resistance, however, can be approached as queer resistance because he wanted to break away from the norm: “Mainly, he didn’t want to fight for the same reason he wasn’t selling the chocolates–he wanted to make his own decisions, do his own thing, like they said” (211).

Despite his penchant for non-normativity, being called a queer was too offensive and disruptive given the masculine attitudes that permeate his surroundings. Thus, Jerry’s hatred towards Janza for calling him queer even pushes him to engage in the boxing match at the end, a boxing match that leads to his demise. The final chapters of the novel end with Jerry proclaiming his regret towards being non-normative, he proceeds to think about how one must ultimately comply with the will of “superior powers” and authority figures if one desires to have a livable life. He thinks about the new “knowledge” he has obtained as he lies bloodied and broken in the arms of his friend, Goober:

He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. He tried to voice the words but there was something wrong with his mouth, his teeth, his face. But he went ahead anyway, telling Goober what he needed to know. They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say. (p. 259)

The ending may be bleak and downright depressing, but I don’t necessarily think that the novel is designed to perpetuate a dislike of rebellion, nor do I think that it presents all resistance movements as futile. I think that Jerry’s loss of faith in himself and in his ability to disturb the universe rests not on his failure, but on the fact that he was left alone in his pursuit of non-normativity. What I found deeply disturbing is that nobody takes a stand for Jerry during the boxing match that leads to his demise, not even his close friend, Goober, who just sits and watches Jerry be beaten to a pulp with the rest of the students from Trinity High. Without a doubt, Jerry is presented as a scapegoat figure, meant to absorb all of the negativity, the tensions, and the evils of his community that are perpetuated through masculinity and through corrupt power.

The novel is ambiguous in terms of its stance on disturbing the universe. On one hand, we can accept Jerry’s defeat as a cautionary tale. On the other hand, we can accept it as a challenge to ourselves–a challenge that pushes us to question the extent to which we can or should disturb the universe ourselves.

Do yourself a favor, and read the book! And as always, please feel free to add to this conversation or to challenge anything discussed in this post!

You can purchase a copy of Cormier’s novel here.

Work Cited

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1974. Print.

Foucault and the History of Sexuality: A “Queer” Overview

If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom.

– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality – Volume I (p. 6)

Although Michel Foucault did not work within an established queer theory framework, he is undoubtedly one of the most important precursors to queer theory and the study of gender. His ideas and approaches not only helped to develop a useful framework to understand and contest normativity, but I would go as far as to posit that the ideas discussed in the three volumes of The History of Sexuality have become integrated with the gestalt of human culture and consciousness. His work has enabled conversations of the constructed nature of sexuality and the role of power, culture, and society in this construction. Furthermore, his work has served as a theoretical platform for prominent queer theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butlter. Foucault’s ideas have particularly helped Butler to approach gender as a construction, and to develop the concept of performativity as a way of exemplifying how language and discourse are reiterated in order to produce the very phenomena that discourse regulates and controls. Performativity is a very Foucaldian notion, developed partially from Foucault’s concept of genealogy (derived from Nietzsche’s approach), which outlines the development of discourses not on the basis of their linearity, but rather, on their relationships, their paradoxes, and their fixations.

The History of Sexuality is in essence, a three-volume study of sexuality, power, and regulation in the Western World. The most influential of these volumes is the first, often referred to as the introduction of the study. This first volume focuses its attention on attacking the preconception that discourses of sex were suppressed during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and how sex was very much an integral component of religious, scientific, and political conversations.

As mentioned previously, one of the most influential ideas discussed within this first volume was the notion of sexuality as a construct with social and cultural origins. This very much went against essentialist views of sexuality, in which sexual desire was exclusively deemed to be a naturally or biologically driven phenomenon. Foucault does a similar move in terms of approaching power as a hegemonic distribution that is not inherently present within a being or a thing, but rather, that is generated through discourse and through complex relationships that defy easy categorizations. Although to some extent sexuality is based on biology and desire, Foucault stresses that ultimately, these biological drives are shaped and influenced by institutions and discourses, thus creating the phenomenon of sexuality. The notion of sexuality as a construct inspired Foucault’s contemporaries and successors to focus their attention not on what produces sexuality, but rather, on what sexuality produces.

Another prominent concept discussed within the first volume of The History of Sexuality is the development of Scientia Sexualis, which is the introduction and proliferation of sexuality into psychoanalytic, political, and scientific discourse—which in turn illustrates the spread of sexual discourse despite its supposed repression prior to the 20th century. Psychoanalysis, for instance, focused much of its attention on ascertaining the source of sexuality through the processes of confession and truth-sharing. Confession has important connotations in terms of sexuality, its religious contexts, and even its contemporary contexts (as Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet, confession is crucial in terms of the coming out process that queer individuals face during their day-to-day lives). Because of the linkage between confession and sexuality, sexuality becomes closely associated to discourse, and consequently, truth. As Foucault posits, the evasive scientific discourse of sexuality

set itself up as the supreme authority in matters of hygienic necessity, taking up the old fears of venereal affliction and combining them with the new themes of asepsis, and the great evolutionist myths with the recent institutions of public health; it claimed to ensure the physical vigor and the moral cleanliness of the social body; it promised to eliminate defective individuals, degenerate and bastardized populations. In the name of a biological and historical urgency, it justified the racisms of the state, which at the time were on the horizon. It grounded them in “truth.” (54)

Because of the linkage of sexuality to truth, sexuality developed into a marker of identity. In other words, the practice of sexuality became tethered to truth, thus becoming an ontological categorization no different from racial or ethnic typologies. In order to evidence this notion, Foucault alludes the invention of the concept of homosexuality (and in tandem, the invention of the homosexual), arguing once again that homosexuality was not discovered, but rather, produced through dialectical exchange: “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43).

Although it is known that people engaged in same-sex relationships prior to the invention of the concept of homosexuality, this ontological category encouraged people to identify themselves or to view others as homosexual. The emergence of homosexuality as a “species” led to unfortunate developments, such as the classification of homosexuality as a pathology that had to be suppressed or regulated. It also led to the demonization of sexualities that were not deemed to be “productive.” It is here that we begin to see the roots of what Lee Edelman would call reproductive futurity, in which procreation is deemed necessary to meet the needs of a system based on production, capitalism, and futurity. Society’s increasing linkage to capitalism, thus, incremented the need of reproductive futurity in order to assure that the capitalist machine continues to run smoothly:

There emerged the analysis of the modes of sexual conduct, their determinations and their effects at the boundary line of the biological and the economic domains. There also appeared those systematic campaigns which going beyond the traditional means–moral and religious exhortations, fiscal measures–tried to transform the sexual conduct of couples into a concerted economic and political behavior. (26)

The 19th century, in particular, witnessed the emergence of doctrines and scientific approaches that had an intense focus on eradicating or handling forms of sexuality that deviated from the notion of reproductive futurity. Crucial to the development of identity politics, Foucault discusses how the categorization of homosexuality led to the emergence of a reverse discourse that challenged the negative valences associated with individuals who were now approached as homosexuals. Although people labeled as homosexuals did deal with negative effects due to the pathological nature of their categorization, this opened up the opportunity for these communities to have a voice. Homosexuality thus began to defend itself as a legitimate mode of existence, demanding its social and cultural recognition. Discursively, the fact that homosexuality was pathologized inevitably led many to conclude that homosexuality is a naturally occurring phenomenon—homosexuals are, as Lady Gaga would put it, “born that way.” The reverse discourse generated by the advent of homosexuality goes on to exemplify the circuitous nature of power established by Foucault, in which every instance of power also presents some form of resistance.

To what extent can Lady Gaga’s Born This Way be approached as a form of discursive resistance?

Volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality, respectively titled The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, focus more on earlier establishments of culture that surfaced before the advent of Western modernity—particularly Greek and Roman cultures. Within volume II, Foucault addresses how Christianity changed the Western view of sexuality and partnership not only from a moral stance, but also from an ethical stance:

it will be said that Christianity associated [sexuality’ with evil, sin, the Fall, and death, whereas antiquity invested it with positive symbolic values. Or the definition of the legitimate partner: it would appear that, in contrast to what occurred in Greek and Roman societies, Christianity drew the line at monogamous marriage and laid down the principle of exclusively procreative ends within that conjugal relationship. Or the disallowance of relations between individuals of the same sex: it would seem that Christianity strictly excluded such relationships, while Greece exalted them and Rome accepted them, at least between men. (14)

While it may initially seem that Christianity completely radicalized sexuality, Foucault posits that there is actually a continuity between “paganism” and Christianity in terms of the discourses of sex. A particularly illuminating example was the image of same-sex relationships. In the 19th century, homosexuals were pathologized as “inverts” and were deemed to have stereotypical and feminized behaviors and traits. The term invert actually alludes to an inversion of the subject’s sexual role–a motif that was very much present in Greco-Roman literature, in which the young boys who donned the passive role are approached as spineless, delicate, and ornamental. Foucault posits that

It would be completely incorrect to interpret this as a condemnation of love of boys, or of what we generally refer to as homosexual relations; but at the same time, one cannot fail to see in it the effect of strongly negative judgments concerning some possible aspects of relations between men, as well as a definite aversion to anything that might denote a deliberate renunciation of the signs and privileges of the masculine role. (19)

Thus, although same-sex relationships were deemed to be “freer” in Greco-Roman cultures, one can still genealogically trace negative valences towards homosexuality–thus exemplifying the discursive nature of sexuality even before the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. However, when comparing Greco-Roman cultures to later European cultures, there are some differences in terms of how sexuality was approached from a moral, ethical, and stance. Within volumes II and III of The History of Sexuality, the notion of individuality is quite important, especially when it came to its conjunction with concepts such as ethics and morality. Interestingly, morality in Greco cultures was not viewed as a norm or a standard under which people had to comply, but rather, it was viewed as a relationship between the individual and the self—thus making ethics an individualized process rather than a struggle of the individual versus society:

moral conceptions in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity were much more oriented toward practices of the self and the question of [severe self-discipline] than toward codifications of conducts and the strict definition of what is permitted and what is forbidden. If exception is made of the Republic and the Laws, one finds very few references to the principle of a code that would define in detail the right conduct to maintain, few references to the need for an authority charged with seeing to its application, few references to the possibility of punishments that would sanction infractions. (31)

However, the advent of Christianity broke with this individualistic model of the moral and ethical world. Christianity, according to Foucault, produces the meaning of sex rather than focusing its attention on the meanings sex produces—thus making Christianity a regulating and hegemonic force. In these latter volumes, it is of utmost importance to keep in mind that Foucault has hesitation in terms of approaching sexuality, ethics, and individuality through the perspective of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. This is because he does not necessarily approve of them in their entirety—especially when it comes to their perspective of who can or cannot be an individual (slaves and women, for instance, were very much excluded from being approached as individuals).

There is much more to be said in terms of the rich concepts and ideas discussed in Foucault’s work, but it is my hope that this overview has given you a substantial look at the most prominent ideas and concepts discussed in The History of Sexuality–especially the ideas that I deem most useful for queer theory and gender studies.

You can purchase The History of Sexuality by clicking here (Volume 1), here (Volume 2), or here (Volume 3).

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality – Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality – Volume II: The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

On Happy Endings and Gay Fiction: E.M. Forster’s [Maurice]

Front cover of E.M. Forster's Maurice

Front cover of E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1971)

“A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam in the greenwood. […] Happiness is its keynote–which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish.”

(E.M. Forster, Terminal note of Maurice – p. 236)

Maurice, a central text within the gay literary canon, is by far one of the bravest creative works written within the genre of LGBT literature; arguably, it is one of the bravest texts of the early twentieth century. The novel is an essence a Bildungsroman that traces the emotional development of the eponymous hero as he deals with the repercussions of being homosexual in Edwardian England. During his time at college, Maurice Christopher Hall becomes involved in a romantic (yet strictly chaste) relationship with his Cambridge colleague, Clive Durham, until the latter decides to marry a woman–leaving Maurice desolate and heartbroken. Through his attempts to “cure” his homosexuality through hypnosis and other means, Maurice meets Alec, a gatekeeper at the Durham estate. He becomes involved both romantically and sexually with Alec, and decides to start a life with him–all while affirming his “Wildean” identity to Clive as an act of socio-cultural resistance. As Maurice admirably states in his declaration of queer embodiment to Clive:

I was yours once till death if you’d cared to keep me, but I’m someone else’s now–I can’t hang about whining for ever–and he’s mine in a way that shocks you, but why don’t you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness? (230)

Although written by E.M. Forster during 1913-14, he refused to publish the book during his lifetime because of the negative legal and moralistic attitudes toward homosexuality that permeated England during the advent of the century. While bravery isn’t necessarily reflected in Forster’s (perfectly reasonable) decision to withhold publishing the text during his lifetime, it is reflected in the novel’s content: to envision a world, fictional or realistic, in which two men could “fall in love and remain in it” was beyond the scope of most modernist writers. It’s also brave in terms of its optimism, for in a world in which literary merit is driven by pain, suffering, depression, and unhappy endings, writing a novel with a happy ending is indeed a deviation from the grim albeit expected nature of the “literary.”

It is no coincidence, however, that Maurice was written just before World War I. One could only imagine how this optimism would be affected if the novel were written a year or two later. Forster did edit the novel during the 1960s, and it was known for having an epilogue in which Maurice’s younger sister (Kitty) encounters him and Alec working as woodcutters (and the consequent hatred she develops once she puts two and two together). Forster decided to discard this epilogue because the novel’s action is set in 1912, and the epilogue would’ve taken place a few years later in “the transformed England of the First World War (239). Thus, even though the novel is edited decades after it was written, its narrative essence and its optimistic outlook remained unchanged because it is meant to be approached as a snapshot of homosexual love during a period in which issues of class, aristocracy, politeness, and appearance are crucial to character development. This, in conjunction with the fact that the novel was published almost sixty years after it was written, leads it to be approached as a period piece (even though it was not written to be read this way).

Given the fact that the novel was written so early during the twentieth century, it is surprising to see how forward-thinking the novel is in terms of its views on sex, homosexuality, and queerness. Maurice is shown from his early teens to sense some discomfort in terms of heterosexual courtship. This is particularly noticeable when Mr. Ducie is explaining the act of heterosexual intercourse (with diagrams and illustrations traced on sand) to a fourteen year-old Maurice at the beach. The young teen is unable to grasp the adult’s approach to the birds and the bees: “He was attentive, as was natural when he was the only one in the class, and he knew that the subject was serious and related to his own body. But he could not himself relate it; it fell to pieces as soon as Mr. Ducie put it together, like an impossible sum (7, emphasis mine). The design and mechanics of heterosexual intercourse do not mesh with Maurice’s sensibilities, thus linking homosexuality to organic or perhaps even genetic roots. Indeed, this biological perspective goes in accordance with the view of homosexuality as pathological during this period, and the hypnotist that attempts to cure Maurice of his “trouble” in the novel goes as far as to diagnose him with a case of “Congenital homosexuality” (167). This diagnosis may indeed seem problematic, but before jumping to conclusions, I want to focus my attention on an exchange that happens between Maurice and Lasker Jones (the hypnotist/therapist) during the last failed attempt to cure the former of his so-called ailment:

“And what’s to happen to me?” said Maurice, with a sudden drop in his voice. He spoke in despair, but Mr Lasker Jones had an answer to every question. “I’m afraid I can only advise you to live in some country that has adopted the Code Napoleon,” he said.

“I don’t understand.”

“France or Italy, for instance. There homosexuality is no longer criminal.”

“You mean that a Frenchman could share with a friend and yet not go to prison?”

“Share? Do you mean unite? If both are of age and avoid public indecency, certainly.”

“Will the law ever be that in England?”

“I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

Maurice understood. He was an Englishman himself, and only his troubles had kept him awake. He smiled sadly. “It comes to this then: there always have been people like me and always will be, and generally they have been persecuted.”

“That is so, Mr Hall; or, as psychiatry prefers to put it, there has been, is, and always will be every conceivable type of person. And you must remember that your type was once put to death in England.” (Forster 196)

Although homosexuality is approached as pathological in most of the novel, Lasker Jones and Maurice seem to come to the consensus that homosexuality is simply a way of being that has been policed and suppressed in an effort to further wedge the divide between the cultural and the natural. This passage is emancipatory in that it problematizes the view of homosexuals being unable to assimilate to cultural norms through an inversion of agency: the problem is not the homosexual’s inability to mesh with society, but rather, society’s inability to mesh with the homosexual (i.e. people who have existed, exist, and always will exist). This is precisely why a happy ending for the novel, as Forster put it, was imperative.

Forster could have played it safe to assure that Maurice was published during his lifetime: “If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors” (236). But ending this novel in a tragedy would’ve not only followed the formula of countless other novels with gay content published during the time, but it also would go against the possibility of creating an active and effective identity politics. True, tragedy (and backwards feelings), in its own macabre way, has a way of inspiring and igniting a politics of identity; after all, it is pain that establishes the need for a politics of identity in the first place. However, considering all of the pain already portrayed in the novel, would it be necessary for characters to embrace death as a way of demonstrating the unfairness of the status quo? Forster suggests, in due course, that perhaps the shears needed to unravel the knot of (hetero)normativity are not found through death, solitude, and pain, but rather, through life, union, and happiness. Maurice, rather than basking in solitude, finds strength through Alec, and assures him that they “shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished” (225). And although the forever-ness present within the lack of this parting may only be found in fiction, it is a fiction I’m willing to live through vicariously.

You can purchase a copy of Forster’s Maurice here.

Work Cited

Forster, E.M. Maurice. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1971. Print.

An Overview of Judith Halberstam’s [The Queer Art of Failure]

Front cover of Judith Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure

Front cover of Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure

I usually steer away from aesthetic judgments when writing about theory books, but in this case, let me start by saying that Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure was an absolute joy to read. What else can one expect from a theory book that opens up with a quote from the Nickelodeon cartoon series, SpongeBob SquarePants? Not only is her book witty and deeply intelligent, but it constantly made me smile, and at times, laugh out loud. Given the fact that this book is centered on failure (and other elements discussed within the anti-social movement in queer theory), I find its use of humor and its use of clear prose absolutely refreshing and delightful.

Moving on to a discussion of the actual text, The Queer Art of Failure centers its attention on products of “low” theory and popular culture (particularly CGI animation movies) in order to devise alternatives from binary formulations and heteronormative traps such as futurity and linearity. Halberstam uses artifacts of popular and low culture to aid her discussion because she deems that they are “far more likely to reveal key terms and conditions of the dominant than an earnest and ‘knowing’ text” (60). Halberstam’s main premise is that success is a heternormative enterprise and invention, and that in capitalist societies, success “equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (2).

Failure (and other events/practices related to failure, such as forgetfulness and stupidity), rather than being approached as the inability to comply with a social norm or standard, is viewed by Halberstam as a way of unveiling creative and more cooperative ways of existing in the world. Her queer critique of success as a capitalistic venture stems from the fact that people who live in capitalist systems can only achieve success through the failure of others. To make matters more complex, many tend to view failure as the product of one’s own doing rather than a result of the system itself–and they are expected to remain optimistic despite of the inability to comply with an expected norm. Thus, the book explores alternative ontological and epistemological routes in life that are pessimistic, but this pessimism doesn’t necessarily entail an existential aporia: “It is a book about failing well, failing often, and learning, in the words of Samuel Beckett, how to fail better” (24).

Halberstam shifts her focus to a discussion of animation, particularly CGI animation movies, in order to illustrate how they exemplify topics (such as revolution and transformation) and structures that deviate from linearity. She argues that these films, either deliberately or unintentionally “recognize that alternative forms of embodiment and desire are central to the struggle against corporate domination” (29) by envisioning the queer as a collective rather than a singularity. One of the films she makes reference to is Chicken Run (2000), in which the queer community of female chickens escape their impending doom (becoming the meaty product of chicken-pot pies) by collectively joining forces to build and power a plane to escape the farm. Rather than complying with domesticity, rather than subduing to the demands of the male rooster, and rather then accepting their culinary fate, they transcend their “natural” flightless fate by working as a group to escape (embracing their failure to comply with the norms of the farm). Halberstam mentions other movies, such as Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Over the Hedge, that promote collectivity over individuality as an alternative mode of existing in the world or as a way of achieving utopia.

Screen capture from Chicken Run (2000). The "queer" chickens work together to build this flying machine.

Screen capture from Chicken Run (2000). The “queer” chickens work together to build this flying machine.

Halberstam makes an interesting claim: she posits that revolutionary movies are aware of the fact that children are not invested in adult enterprises (in other words, children are queer in that they deviate from heteronormative expectations): “children are not coupled, they are not romantic, they do not have religious morality, they are not afraid of death or failure, they are collective creatures, they are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents, and they are not masters of their own domain” (47). Thus, cartoons become conventional and fail to be revolutionary when there is an overemphasis on the nuclear family or a “normative investment in coupled romance” (47). Thus, revolutionary CGI animation movies (which she refers to as Pixarvolt films) depict a world where the “little guys” are able to overcome obstacles, and where they are able to revolt against the “business world of the father and the domestic sphere of the mother” (47).

Halberstam shifts her attention to a discussion of forgetfulness and stupidity, arguing that similar to failure, they “work hand in hand to open up new and different ways of being in relation to time, truth, being, living, and dying” (55). After all,  forgetfulness can be approached as a failure to remember, and stupidity can be approached as a failure to be wise. In her efforts to forge the relationship between stupidity, forgetting, and other forms of being, she alludes to films such as Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000) and Finding Nemo (2003) as examples of narratives that approach forgetting as an act that “arrests the developmental and progressive narratives of heteronormativity” (60). In Dude, Where’s My Car, for instance, the main characters are known for their relaxed approach that allows them to be receptive to others while at the same time being permeable and manipulable. This relaxed approach can especially be seen in the scene where the characters engage in a queer encounter in an effort to “compete” with Fabio (the infamous male model), The characters’ nonchalance (which might be perceived as stupidity) after the kiss, is deemed to be emancipatory because it is in essence a kiss between to straight men, yet it does not cause them to flinch in disgust or react negatively in any way. The kiss is a non-issue, and although it can be approached as an inauthentic representation,  it can also be approached as a way of resisting “the earnestness of so many gay and lesbian texts” (67).

Kiss between Chester and Jesse in Dude, Where's My Car (2000). Can this kiss be approached as emancipatory?

Kiss between Chester and Jesse in Dude, Where’s My Car (2000). Can this kiss be approached as emancipatory?

One of the more interesting discussions in Halberstam’s book centered around a discussion of forgetting, stupidity, and family within the Pixar film Finding Nemo. Halberstam mentions how the intent to break away the power of generation from the process of history is a queer project, precisely because “queer loves seek to uncouple change from the supposedly organic and immutable forms of family and inheritance” (70). Breaking away from family and forgetting family lineage becomes away of starting fresh even though it entails a failure from engaging in the heteronormative enterprise of the nuclear family. It is here that Halberstam begins to approach linearity and normative temporality, which favor longevity over the temporary, thus prioritizing family over other possible relationships that can be forged.

Can Dori's short-term memory loss be approached as a forgetting that facilitates a reconfiguration of kinship and being?

Can Dori’s short-term memory loss be approached as a forgetting that facilitates a reconfiguration of kinship and being?

Her examination of Finding Nemo thusly attempts to demonstrate what happens to queer characters when they forget their families and find alternative ways of relating and bonding with others. This is mostly exemplified by the character of Dori, who suffers from short-term memory loss. Since she can’t recall her relationship or her family due to the fact that she is constantly forgetting, she is forced to (happily) bond with other creatures in a fashion that avoids normative temporality. This, in addition to the fact that she can’t forge a romantic relationship with Marlin (Nemo’s father) due to her condition makes her a very queer character. Halberstam also notes that within Finding Nemo, the mother figure is absent from the narrative, leading to an erasure of the past that facilitates the visualization of new possibilities of being. Thus, forgetting provides a new way to remember, a way to move on from the failure of recollection, and even more so, a way of disconnecting the self from the linear and normative expectations of time, culture, and family.

You can purchase a copy of Halberstam’s book here.

Work Cited

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

A Queer Overview of Judith Butler’s [Gender Trouble]

Front cover of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

Front cover of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble

Rich, complex, difficult, and groundbreaking are just a few of the words that are usually associated with Judith Butler’s works. Despite the fact that her texts are often described as “tedious” and “overwrought,” reading Butler is well worth the effort, and I’m often amazed at the way she is able to wrestle with difficult ideas. Furthermore, I’m delighted by how she is able to add layers of complexity to the already complex domain of (gendered) identity politics. Gender Trouble, originally published in 1990, is not only considered to be one of the seminal texts of queer theory, but it brought into light many aspects of gender that we take for granted today (particularly the notion of gender performativity).

Picture of Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga's male alter ego. Calderone represents the common place of gender performativity within contemporary society.

Picture of Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga’s male alter ego. Calderone can be approached as an example of the ubiquitous and overt manifestation of gender performativity within popular culture.

Can a person “possess” a gender? Can a person “be” a gender? Or, can a person “act out” a gender? Even though many people may not be familiar with the concept of gender performativity, it is a phenomenon that is pervasive and somewhat obvious within contemporary society. The picture above shows pop sensation Lady Gaga assuming the role of her male alter ego, Jo Calderone, in Gaga’s attempt to blur the lines that are dichotomously imposed in society’s approaches towards gender and sex. Maleness and masculinity, in this case, are being performed through Lady Gaga’s actions and choices, rather than being a trait that pre-exists within the individual. Gender and sex, from Butler’s perspective, can be approached in a similar fashion to makeup in the sense of being a construction rather than an essential part of one’s being. However, keeping this metaphor of makeup in mind, it is important to realize that our surroundings and environment control (to some extent) the cosmetic options that are available to us. Gender is not ontological, but rather, it comes to existence through actions: “gender proves to be performative — that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the dead” (25, emphasis mine).

Early on in Gender Trouble, Butler alludes to the notion of drag performances in order to illustrate how they disrupt the “very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” (x). Since drag entails the performance of a gender that is supposedly opposite to one’s “true” gender, it pushes one to question the extent to which certain traits that are considered masculine or feminine are true, essential, and indivisible from the self. Rather than viewing drag as an imitation, Butler approaches it as an action that defines the parameters, boundaries, and practices that create the notion of gender in the first place. An important concept to keep in mind when approaching Butler’s notions of gender is the word style, which not only includes obvious factors such as clothing, but also includes other details such as composure, constitution, presentation, and above all, discourse. Butler thus defines gender as “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (33).

Although performativity is the concept in Gender Trouble that tends to resonate among scholars of queer theory, performativity is simply a heuristic Butler uses to achieve her main goal. Tantalizingly, she questions whether the intent to have a feminist politics based on a common identity that binds all women is practical and useful, especially when considering that it is difficult, and arguably impossible, to find a common factor that all women share (unless, of course, we resort to biological notions of gender essentialism). This notion holds particularly true when intersecting gender with other domains of identity, including race, socio-economic status, culture, among others. As Butler eloquently puts it:

If one “is” a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered “person” transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities. (3)

Feminist politics generally approach the concept of “women” and gender in universal terms, thriving on the assumption that there is a cross-cultural and cross-geographical quality or factor that ties a large group of people together. Butler rightfully points out that this feminist construction, even when designed with an emancipatory ideal in mind, can still be interpreted as damaging because it is not only designed to include and exclude certain individuals, but it fails to recognize and respect idiosyncratic differences. In simple terms, by establishing a factor as universal, one runs the risk of excluding all those who don’t fit within this particular model. This is why Butler suggests that “Without the compulsory expectation that feminists actions must be instituted from some stable, unified, and agreed upon identity, those actions might well get a quicker starts and seem more congenial to a number of ‘women’ for whom the meaning of the category is permanently moot” (15). Note that even with my use of the term women, there is an underlying assumption that I am able to label an entire community of individuals  based on an unstable, and perhaps ephemeral, trait–this is precisely something that Butler tries to challenge, but I ultimately question whether or not this is entirely possible or useful. After all, isn’t the notion of unity and community building crucial to a pragmatic rather than an academic approach to feminism? This is something I have to contemplate a bit more.

Butler ultimately connects the notion of performativity to feminist politics by questioning the “phantasmic” construction of the “we” that is nearly always invoked in matters of feminism. Despite the capability of “we” to connect people, it achieves this connection through exclusion while simultaneously denying the complexity of the issues at hand. When it comes to identity politics, many tend to assume that the identity exists prior to a political response. However, Butler asserts that “there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed” (142). We are what we do. There is no such thing as a “self” that exists before one is immersed into a culture, and there is no such thing as a self being corrupted or metamorphosed by its surroundings (how can something be corrupted if it doesn’t exist a priori?). “There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ‘taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there” (145).

Work Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

An Overview of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s [The Queer Child]

Front cover of Kathryn Bond Stockton's The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

Front cover of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

Why is there such a hesitancy to label a child as queer? Is it possible that all children are queer (at least in some sense of the word)? How does a child grow, when said growth is being heavily monitored, delayed, and controlled? These are just some of the many questions that Stockton explores in her insightful book titled The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. In this book, Stockton posits that the desire to create a distance between childhood and adulthood has intensified the queerness of the child, due mostly to the wedge that has been placed between the two categorizations. As she points out, “The child is precisely who we are not and, in fact, never were. It is the act of adults looking back” (5). Because of the constructed nature of childhood, the notion of a “gay child” becomes problematic, especially when taking into account that children are supposed to be viewed as innocent and non-sexual. Thus, the notion of a “gay child” not only implies that children have agency and sexuality, but it also challenges the view of sexual orientation as a phenomenon that emerges later on in life.

Part of what Stockton intends to argue in her book is that there are ways of growing (or developing) that deviate from cultural expectations and norms: “There are ways of growing that are not growing up” (11). In addition, the term “growing up” is finite, in that there is an expectation for the growing process to achieve a state of completion once a certain height is achieved, or once the process of physical growth comes to a halt. Stockton thus adopts the notion of growing sideways as a way of thinking of growth not only as an on-going process, but also a growth that is not restricted to age. Sideways growth entails that “the width of a person’s experience of ideas, their motives or their motions, may pertain to any age, bringing ‘adults’ and ‘children’ into lateral contact of surprising sorts” (11). With this in mind, sideways growth intends to minimize (and to some extent, eradicate) the distinction that is made between the “child” and the “adult” by exemplifying the queerness of children as a socio-cultural construct.

In order to broaden her discussion on the queerness of children, Stockton develops some archetypes, or versions, of the queer child which focus on varying expressions of childhood and queerness. These archetypes, or central versions, present children that embrace traits and characteristics that are antithetical to the idea of childhood, whether it be through sex, aggression, violence, closets, secrets, etc. These versions focus not only on the sexual connotations of queer, but to some extent, Stockton makes the case for reverting to the traditional definition of queer (i.e. strange). This, to me, was slightly problematic, mostly because I think that the term queer should be tied in one way or another to the issue of sexuality or gender identity–less we run the danger of turning queer theory into the study of difference (which becomes redundant at some point). The versions of the queer child that Stockton devises are the following:

  • The Ghostly Gay Child: A child with a definite and unmistakable same-sex preference. This version usually participates in some degree of self-occulting (hence where the term ghostly arises) due to the child’s inability to “grow up” according to the standards imposed by heteronormativity. The ghostly gay child also manifests when parents, peers, or guardians disregard or refuse to recognize the child’s sexual orientation–thus adding an ethereal or otherworldly presence to the child’s sexuality. When the ghostly gay child’s growth is stunted, he or she must find an outlet where growth can take place. Perhaps the best example I could come up with of the ghostly gay child was the character of Justin Suarez in the 2006-10 series Ugly Betty. Although Justin exhibits characteristics that are closely tied to gayness (such as a penchant for fashion and musical theater), and although Justin’s family suspects he is gay, the series does not disclose the character’s sexuality until the concluding episodes of the series (where coincidentally, Justin is no longer a “child”). Therefore, the ghosting process occurs on the micro (family) level, as it does on a macro level (the audience).
  • The Grown Homosexual: This category is used to denote a “retrospective” queerness, in which the adult homosexual is “fastened… to the figure of the child” (22) in a form of arrested development. In other words, this version of the queer child is in essence a queer individual who is unable to become an adult; someone who remains as a child “in part by failing to have their own” (22).
  • The Child Queered by Freud: Unlike the previous two categories, which discuss children that will never be straight, this category pertains to the “not-yet-straight-child who is, nonetheless, a sexual child with aggressive wishes” (27). This child is not queer in terms of sexual orientation, but rather, exhibits behaviors or attitudes that transgress the expectations of innocence and purity that are expected in most children (think of Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son).
  • The Child Queered by Innocence or Queered by Color/Money: As mentioned above, children’s innocence queers them, precisely because it distances children from the experiences that will turn them into adults: “They all share estrangement from what they approach: the adulthood against which they must be defined” (31). This expectation explains why children “as an idea” (31) are visualized as white and middle class. A childhood necessitates protection and shelter. Those individuals who are born into inferior conditions need a degree of experience in order to foster independence and to assure survival–they are not allowed to be weak or innocent. Thus, it is unsurprising that the media imbues “innocence” into these queer children by endowing them with an abuse “from which they need protection and to which they don’t consent” (33).

Stockton’s text proceeds to “braid” the different iterations of the queer child in order to ultimately demonstrate that the century of the child is in reality the century of the fictions of the queer child growing sideways (37). In order to support this claim, Stockton focuses on four “realizations” in terms of the queer child and its relationship to society:

  • Those who fetishize “delay” for the child must believe in sideways growth – when trying to determine the appropriate amount of length to delay childhood, it can be argued that children must find a way to grow (sideways) in spite of this imposed delay to eventual reach the adulthood that is being kept from them.
  • Evidently, we are scared of the child we would protect.
  • In the century of the child, the child is feared to disappear (just as the gay child appears to be emerging).
  • Children are vulnerable (and dangerous) as much by means of money as by means of sex – Children are made strange by money because they do not bring income into the family, thus enforcing the view of children as a non-productive commodity. Interestingly, money and consumerism has also allowed children to develop in unprecedented ways, whether it be through comic books that foster the child’s fantasies and imaginations, or playrooms, which are spaces where children share time with each other without adult intervention.

Work Cited

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Duke University Press, 2009. Print

J.D. Salinger’s [The Catcher in the Rye]: A Brief Analysis

Front cover of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye

Front cover of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

Experience is the greatest enemy of meaning and significance. When I first read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye during my late teens, I was absolutely captivated by the novel’s passive anti-hero, Holden Caulfield. I felt his loneliness, his distaste towards all of the “phoniness” present in the world, and his constant state of utter helplessness in an uncaring world. It had been a couple of years since I’ve last read the text, and I must say that revisiting the text was a difficult and heart-breaking experience… not only because the content of the text is charged, but also because I realized that I was no longer able to connect with Holden in the exact way that I used to. As I re-read the first half of the novel, I was disturbed to see that I was perceiving Holden as an annoying, whiny, and repetitive character. I found myself rolling my eyes and at times even groaning as I encountered some of his thoughts and actions.

I thought the text had lost its magic. Many people are unable to see what’s magical about this text. The New York Times posted an interesting article titled Get a Life, Holden Caulfield, which discusses how contemporary teens are unable to connect to Holden’s character in the way that older generations of readers were able to. And while my dislike for Holden was intense during the initial half of my re-reading, this dislike began to mellow down as the novel reached its conclusion. I began to realize how much hurt Holden was facing. I began to look back and think about how I also was a whiny teenager, and how I believed that there wasn’t a single soul in the world that could understand me. I remember how I had attitude problems, how I went through phases of intense depression. I was Holden Caulfield, and now I’m a different person. This thought hit me hard, to the point that I was unable to write an analysis of the novel after reading it. I was stunned. I had to sit down, think carefully, and digest the novel before writing about it. And even though my gut reaction was to bash on the novel, after careful thought and consideration, I truly believe this novel is great for three reasons: 1) It manages to encapsulate teenage angst and anger in a way that stirs strong and polarizing emotions within its readers; 2) COUNTLESS (and great) contemporary novels have been inspired by Salinger’s novel (including but not limited to Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You); 3) It is one of the few novels that’s successfully able to tell the coming-of-age tale of a sensitive male protagonist.

Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an interesting case within the literary world, for although it was written with an adult audience in mind, it became very popular among teenage and young adult readers. Since its publication, there have been numerous attempts to censor or ban the book from schools and libraries, and it is currently on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics, due mostly to its use of “profanity” and sexuality. Some even go as far as to classify Catcher as a precursor to the young adult book market. I believe this has to do a lot with why it was so easy for me to connect with the novel as a teen, and why it was very challenging to achieve this connection as an adult. However, during my re-reading of the book, not only did I notice/understand many aspects of the novel that I was oblivious to as a teen, but I also noticed that the book has many interesting points of discussion that are worth exploring, especially when considering how influential this novel was to the genre of young adult fiction.

What interested me the most of my re-reading was Holden Caulfield’s sexuality. Now, let me make it clear: there is no clear indication on whether this character is gay. On the contrary, the character makes it very explicit that he is interested in women, as can be seen in the following passage:

She was around forty-five, I guess, but she was very good-looking. Women kill me. They really do. I don’t mean I’m oversexed or anything like that–although I am quite sexy. I just like them, I mean. (70) [The term sexy means “sexual” in this passage].

Holden does not engage in sexual behavior with any male character (or any character for that matter) during the development of the novel. The character does express some hesitation when “fooling around” with female characters, but I don’t believe that this is a clear indicator of gayness, but rather, of overall sexual frustration and anxiety fueled by depression and loneliness. Nevertheless, I do think that it is possible to conduct a queer reading of Holden not based on his actions, but on his thoughts and opinions regarding other men and “flits” (a slang word for gay men back in the 1950s). There are many instances in the novel in which Holden thinks about people or events in a way that facilitates a queer or gay reading:

  • Holden notices (and seems to appreciate) Stradlater’s physical appearance: “He went out of the room with his toilet kit and towel under his arm. No shirt on or anything. He always walked around in his bare torso because he thought he had a damn good build. He did, too. I have to admit it” (34). Holden also points out that Stradlater has “gorgeous locks” (42).
  • There is a prolonged mental dialogue in which Holden discusses “flits,” focusing on his friend Luce, who knew “who every flit and lesbian in the United States was” (186). Luce used to tell Holden how some men are married and don’t even know that they are flits, instilling a fear in Holden that he might one day “turn into a flit or something” (186).
  • There is the infamous scene in which Mr. Antolini caresses Holden’s hair while he is sleeping, causing Holden to have an anxiety attack induced by gay panic. Holden later debates whether or not Mr. Antolini “was making a flitty pass” (253) at him, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was unable to withstand the teacher’s demonstration of affection.

The Antolini episode in particular left me with a lot of questions, especially when focusing on Holden’s reaction towards the teacher’s caress. The following passage expresses the thoughts that were going through Holden’s mind as he was escaping Mr. Antolini’s apartment:

Boy, was I shaking like a madman. I was sweating, too. When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it. (251)

This passage is really ambiguous to me. Is Holden referring to the fact that he’s received sexual advances from men in the past, or is he referring to the fact that he’s sexual advances from adults since he was a kid? It is possible that Holden is referring to past traumas that are affecting his current behavior as a teenager? I think an interpretation of this passage is difficult not only because of its ambiguity, but also because of its unstable use of language. What exactly does Holden mean by “perverty” or “that kind of stuff”? It is referring to gay behavior or sexually “deviant” behavior? Keep in mind that earlier in the novel, as he is looking out from his hotel window and watching a man dress in woman’s clothes, and a man and woman squirting water from their mouths at each other, he states that “the hotel was lousy with perverts” (81), which complicates a direct correlation of perversion with gayness.

What do you think about any of the ideas expressed above? What do you think about Holden being a queer-coded character, or at least as a character that can facilitate a queer interpretation? How do Holden’s views contest the notion of binary oppositions? Notice that we have an ostensibly straight character who is able to express some degree of attraction towards the same sex, while also demonstrating a fear of the possibility of being gay. This simultaneously complicates and perpetuates what it means to be a heterosexual teenage male, especially one who is sensitive, confused, and who is trying to comply with the demands and expectations of society.

In due course, re-reading this novel left me with many questions and doubts. And, although I was disliking the novel at first, towards the end, I rediscovered what made the novel great in the first place. It is an honest and unabashed depiction of a teenager’s pain. It is a depiction of a time in our lives when we all feel like the world is against us, and when we think we have all the answers. It is a time where everything and everyone seems “phony,” but we are unable to recognize our own inherent phoniness. It is a novel that posits questions that we are still unable to answer. It is a novel that continues to push us to ask questions… even if it is a question as simple as “why do I love or hate this novel?”. Thus, the text does not lack “magic” in any way… I’m just encountering a different type of magic when compared to the one I first encountered as a child. If we can move beyond the text’s apparent simplicity, repetition, and phoniness, we may find that it is truly a complex and thought-provoking read.

Work Cited

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print. (Hardcover edition)