Sunday, 13 December 2009

Feeling Backward (why queer theory still matters)

I recently received a reader’s report for a book proposal in which the anonymous reviewer refers to queer theory as being ‘mid 1990s’ and ‘once cutting edge’. I was struck by the notion that queer theory was over, faddish and outdated and my first response to this was that queer theory will be over when homophobia, the closet, and so on is also over. In order to demonstrate the ongoing relevance of queer theory I would like to introduce a few ideas from a recent ‘queer theory’ book that also helped me make sense of pleasures that might be construed as wholly negative. The question then is why is Brokeback Mountain pleasurable when it also makes me feel bad?

In Heather Love's Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard University Press, 2007) she explains why hurtful, melancholic and depressing experiences constitute contemporary queer identity and thus need to be acknowledged, incorporated and negotiated since ‘many of these unlikely feelings are closely tied to the realities of queer experience past and present.’ (147) In this respect, Brokeback Mountain is a text that has a backward logic. It uses the past to speak to the present as it narrates a depressing story of historical injury and bad feeling in order to connect to a contemporary audience who may feel that they are still negotiating or finding it difficult to dispel a shameful and homophobic past – homosexuality is problematic! Love continues:

'Backwardness means many things here; shyness, ambivalence, failure, melancholia, loneliness, regression, victimhood, heartbreak, antimodernism, immaturity, self-hatred, despair, shame. I describe backwardness both as queer historical structure of feeling and as a model for queer historiography.' (146)

Many of the terms in Love’s quote may describe the characters and their narrative situations in Brokeback Mountain, as well as the spectator’s response to the film. It is important that the film does provoke negative and bad feeling. It is not a joyous experience; rather it is a film that leaves one feeling hurt and emotionally devastated in its backward turn. Yet, this is somehow what is rewarding about the film also. Brokeback Mountain’s stress on negative and depressive histories of the homosexual past help to constitute contemporary gay and lesbian identity and subjectivity since ‘the experience of queer historical subjects is not a safe distance from contemporary experience; rather, their social marginality and abjection mirror our own.’ (32)

The backward feeling and the pathos in the film articulate a refusal to see progress in the way it is often imagined by gay pride discourses. Brokeback Mountain demands us to accept that homosexuality is still impossible for many, that it is still permeated by tragedy and melancholia, and that it has a history that is still unresolved and needful of being properly negotiated in the present. Love’s work helps to unlock the process of understanding negative pleasures in political terms especially in relation to films like Brokeback Mountain. The film reminds queers that their modern subjectivity is constituted by a painful, closeted, homophobic history and that feeling backward and feeling bad are also important affective dimensions of queer subjectivity in the present.

(image: screen grab; permissions)

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