“To accept the ways in which one is lost is to be found and not found.” — Muñoz, Cruising 73.
“I’m building the / archive of a life that shouldn’t exist, while it still does” — (Pico, Junk, 72).
A search for ghosts: that’s a way to describe reading queer literature. We hunt for familiar presences that hide, as some recently put it, in the “crevices of the normative,”; neither what Derrida describes as a “presence or absence,” they linger on the periphery of our vision, not quite seen until they are, but only fleetingly, before us. Sensing queerness can feel like a discovery of hidden progenitors, but it is also to experience the sharpness of loss. “We build on ruins,” as Heather Love writes, knowing that, for all our desiring, “we will never possess the dead” who had and have been marked as impossible, broken, degenerate (21). Even with the apparatus of queer theory that refashions queer ruins into sanctuaries, to build something from the detritus of the past is fraught; the queerness I see so vividly may not be visible to you.
One might feel that working on queer literature and theory acclimates you to ghosts. Reading Sam See’s Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies (2019), however, I feel a different kind of haunting. From the start of my academic career, I expected to meet See. I began graduate school at UCLA in 2010 and he had just left for a tenure track job at Yale a few months before. In the end, we never met; he died in 2013. Yet, even in his absence, he became a model of the teacher and queer theorist I wanted to be: rigorous, adventurous, and kind.
Just last fall, his advisors, Chris Looby and Michael North, edited a collection of his unpublished and unfinished writings, Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, hoping to encourage further study of the “original and compelling lines” of his unfinished manuscripts (2). See’s haunting voice is not alone: this fall, the unfinished manuscripts of José Esteban Muñoz’s The Sense of Brown and Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony were published. Muñoz died in 2013, Chitty two years later. These books place us once more in their collective wake.
To find solace in those who model academia’s imaginative potential makes their loss especially keen. In the face of loss, Muñoz wrote that queer theory necessitates confronting our attachments with our intentions; that we can reach past “our current state of siege,” through a queer “pose that carries our dead with us into battle for present and future” (Cruising, 46). And still, the fact of these losses accumulates — in the way we remove ourselves from chosen family, lovers, communities that uphold us for the sake of evaporating careers, among so many other losses. We might endure, but we do so without the promise of repair.
I wonder how See would have approached moments like these.
See wasn’t interested in the recovery of queer absences for their own sake; he desired to express the world-creative potential that extends beyond the empirical evidence they leave behind. One desire was to unearth affects beyond the alienation, sadness, and melancholy that often defines queer self-conception. Did queers imagine other worlds for themselves than the record expressed in these feelings?
See would answer resoundingly yes. Considering Richard Barnfield’s late-Renaissance poetry and homoerotic literary history, See writes that that queer desire need not merely respond to the conditions arrayed against it; it can also “create history” in ways that sidesteps modern narratives of queer pathology and extinction. In Barnsfield’s moment, See found an unexpected agency in queerness’ capacity to imagine queer life liberated from prohibitions. We don’t always have record of the imaginative worlds people like Barnsfield envisioned in very different times, but See emphasizes one point: that not all hauntings limn trauma; some linger as the positive worlds queers imagined, much of which we’ve long forgotten.
See desired to apprehend those unrealized, imaginative worlds. For Caleb Smith, his desirous interpretation intentionally blurred the line between a dead author and the critic; Smith calls this comprise a “vicariousness,” and sees it as a phenomenon towards which literary criticism, more typically, is either in degrees agnostic, suspicious, or hostile because they threaten to import our contemporary knowledge into the past we read.
See took such doctrinal suspicion personally. He believed, as Smith writes, that fiction and poetry are not to be kept at “a safe distance, so that they do not disturb the order of the reader’s personal or professional security”; he blows past this limitation because he was “serious about aligning life and art” in a way that “put himself at stake in his work.” It is imperative, in other words, to ask how queers thrived in the past so that, in the now, we can live off that knowledge.
Often, we treat tensions separating our desires and our objects as irreconcilable; for See, they make criticism an act of care. Revisiting Leo Bersani’s “renunciation” of Henry James’ theory of the novel, See finds symbiosis in disagreement. For See, James believes the novel can both “represent and generate history”; in this assessment, literature can consume the society from which it emerges, synthesizing its contradictions in the process (“Bersani in Love,” 200). Bersani, by contrast, distrusted the belief that novelistic metafictions could remove either art or artist from the world they inhabited; instead, “history is the tie that nearly binds criticism and art,” even as the critic illusions an authority over the past that always already desires its own shattering (202). Out of Bersani’s “painful” rejection of James, See excavates a pleasure of combative respect; this, he writes, is the experience of reading Bersani in love (202). It is that experience he wished to elicit for us, too.
If See’s writing was about love, his means was to disturb and incite our interest. Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies takes pleasure in provocation. When See pairs queerness with terms like the natural, he unsettles. I remain startled when the first chapter of this book turns to The Origins of Species to reclaim natural science as a space that can accommodate queerness as an aesthetic unbound from the teleology of reproductive futurity. How could Darwin, of all people, be a “queer theorist”? In fact, Darwin’s appreciation of “nature’s aesthetic diversity” actually accommodates queer feeling; as See explains, evolution’s eschatological ambivalence holds queerness’s reproductive uselessness at an equal value to reproduction (22). At first, I counted myself skeptical, and yet interested by the reminder that, if natural selection doesn’t select for nature, “it also does not select against it.” (24) As I read further, I saw how See transformed Darwin into the theorist we didn’t know we needed; like us, Darwin rejects fixed sexual identification, but does so as an act of a nature we’ve by and large forgotten.
Positioning queerness through the natural takes See into the unexpected once more. His second project, Queer Mythologies, traces how, after believing in their own naturalness, queer modernists mythologized their pasts in ways that created a historical record that was being erased. Nature and myth might seem at odds, but See shows their mutual dependency. Myth permitted the imagination of a “universally queer world” but also the circulation of the very real communities that modeled a “coherent and self-identifying” queer community (215, 217). If one articulation of queerness meant making it natural, the way that nature became knowledge was through myth. Incommensurate ideas pair, generating an unexpected relation.
As I read Queer Natures, I find myself considering how the vicariousness Smith found so provocative in See’s writing shapes my encounter with See now. To me, he is a kind of myth; my understanding of his nature is shaped by proxy, not experience. What I ask of his work, he cannot answer.
And yet, that account does not fully describe how See haunts what I know of his story or how he enters my own thinking still, a kind of specter. Hauntings never merely haunt. They have material, even natural, effects that persist alongside and shape our own. He encouraged—perhaps even forced—a confrontation between criticism and fiction’s world-creative capacities. In challenging our doctrinal suspicions, he asked that we re-examine the ideological predilections that shape how we string base data into narratives. He wished to remake the queer history we thought we knew.
Some things we know: See died three years into an assistant professorship at Yale. He died in police custody and that the coroner declared meth use to have precipitated his death. The story has much more to it that I feel neither the need nor right to unpack, but these paired data-points leave us with a difficult interpretative task in remembering a person to whom we, either directly or vicariously, remain attached.
It’s obvious that his death points directly to deep problems in our reliance on police for crisis management, as well as to equally deep failures in the accountability for the agencies that detain and incarcerate people. We face, at the same time, the stigma surrounding drug use and sex in gay men, a vestige of the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis, which is itself a refashioning of the same association between degeneracy and homosexuality which See dedicated his career to complicating. Both problems persist; we continue in their shadow.
I don’t have a single interpretation, just more questions. How do we hold these events in tension with ready-made narratives around gay shame, queer abjection, and loss? How do we do justice to the person himself and all the versions of him we either did or didn’t know? What world-making potentialities has he left for us to express?
The hauntology of queerness demands that we hold an attachment to what a person leaves in their wake knowing that our perceptions of them might not be right. Some losses are permanent like See’s. Sometimes we choose to let go of the lovers, family, and friendships that sustain us imperfectly, that we try to remember with kindness and care. We proceed nonetheless, errors aside. Is there another choice?
Sam wrote that his work followed the “desirous logic of queerness to its unloving limit” (7). He faced where our desires hurt the most, where words fail. I take solace in knowing that even where our queer ways of living in the world bring us to points of pain, they also remind us to desire beyond.
Perhaps that is where we are now. We remake him where he is silent, the worlds he envisioned through his criticism are ours to interpret. What might have been becomes what we now make. In this, we see ourselves anew; we confront where our methods of interpreting the past encounter their edges. See guides us to allow our longing for him shape the work we do in his stead. Through his words, we can reach for the world he desired especially where it remained incomplete. Through his words, we contact a queer pose that offers us a way out, even when that also means a letting go.
Will Clark is an Assistant Professor of English at San Francisco State University. He works in queer studies, US Literature, and the law. He lives in Oakland, CA.
Image: Maud Hunt Squire, Clam Diggers, color woodcut print, 1917