From the margins not the gutter

Cultural Politics - Queer Reading
February 17, 1995

In a recent review in The Guardian, Terry Eagleton lamented that in the once radical sectors of the academy "politics has yielded to sexuality". "The point of English," he continued, "is now less to savour poetic ambiguity than to provide writing skills for future dentists and hotel managers. English, once the queen of the humanities, is now a queen in a rather different sense, whoring around other departments to sell its technical wares." Sexual immorality is linked to the immorality of turning a literary education into a form of vocational training in which humanist values are ignored in favour of transferable skills devoid of any content except the most frivolous and sensational. Sex sells as the Arnoldian inheritance of sweetness, and light is given into the grubby hands of the Philistines and the market; from Soho down to Brighton, the gay, lesbian and queer theorists have, according to Eagleton, been making English studies "safe for Wall Street". As if it were ever a threat.

It is probable that little poetic ambiguity gets savoured on the sexual dissidence and cultural change MA programme run by Alan Sinfield at the school of cultural and community studies, University of Sussex. But this is for a good reason. As Sinfield writes in Cultural Politics - Queer Reading, it is for just that kind of thing "that working-class, African, and Asian Britons are expected to forsake their subcultures". For Sinfield the political left has shifted from culture, in the universal sense understood by Matthew Arnold and Terry Eagleton, to subculture. When high culture is approached it is read from a subcultural perspective. The task for "dissident reading" is to locate the political projects of canonical texts and prevent them from circulating "in the world today on the assumption that they are simply authoritative". So, from most subcultural perspectives, The Merchant of Venice is simply "a horrible play" and "sympathetic" versions merely authorise its anti-Semitism in the name of Shakespeare's complex humanity.

Sinfield's own subcultural affiliation is with the gay community, and the rest of his book addresses interests pertinent to gays. He sketches in the powerful case for the prevalence of same-sex eroticism in Shakespeare and his contemporaries and discusses the "dissident and containment strategies" enabling and distorting the work of Tennessee Williams. The last chapter of this short but engaging book attacks the object of Eagleton's nostalgic ardour, EngLit, and attempts to move beyond it.

The problem with EngLit, for Sinfield, is that it insists that a reader disavow his or her subcultural position. In pedagogical terms, studying a text's formal properties in detachment effaces differences between readers and universalises the reading position of the teacher. As Sinfield has written elsewhere, "if a gay student did not respond in an appropriate way to the text, it was because they were reading without insight, sensitivity, perceptiveness - ie not from the privileged academic position".

It is when he attempts to move beyond EngLit that Sinfield's own difficulties emerge, it seems to me, and he slides towards his own form of nostalgia. Like Eagleton, Sinfield is also suspicious of the "new vocationalism" sweeping through the humanities in Britain and America. He regrets that the cultural role of the academic "has slithered into mere professional expertise". To resist this, Sinfield suggests "resuscitating" Antonio Gramsci's idea of the organic intellectual. Sinfield now conceives of himself as organically dirigeant to the gay community. In this way, the idea of culture, under threat from market forces, may be revitalised in the form of the subculture or organic community. The latter differs from that imagined by the critics associated with Scrutiny, of course; the sturdy yeoman and the boy player of Elizabethan England exemplify a very different form of bonding than that imagined by F. R. and Q. D. Leavis.

However, the cultural-political appropriation of Gramsci's category, the conflation of the natural and the social in the term "organic", situates Sinfield in the same romantic tradition as the Leavises. As always with community, the key questions surround the figure who defines the essence, the common substance by which this form of community shall be known, the organic basis - be it sex, a religious or aesthetic idea, skin colour, nationality or whatever - of the political allegiance. These questions concern those whom this intellectual must necessarily exclude as inessential, inauthentic, inorganic, in order to define him or herself and the community. On what terms are the political allegiances accepted or rejected? What sort of work or regime must this intellectual require from those who would ally themselves with him or her? What form of discipline should be applied to those who slacken? Situated in this position of organic authenticity, Gramsci's and Sinfield's intellectual is closer to the traditional intellectual than is often assumed, still at the centre of the functioning of truth and power, the nodal point of intersection between the academic institution and the subculture.

While the Leavisite tutor stood as the embodiment of a certain moral seriousness and mature sensibility inscribed in a tradition of English literature that was so great no one could hope to live up to it, the cultural materialist organic intellectual serves, in Leavis's place, as the embodiment of a certain political commitment and sexual dissidence impelled to address the lack that Leavis's great tradition masked. This lack, what Walter Benjamin called the tradition of the oppressed, is what the student is now required to fill. And living up to the imperatives of one's marginality and oppression is as impossible as achieving Leavisite maturity.

Eagleton is wrong to make sexual dissidence a metaphor for the immorality of the new vocationalism. On the contrary, it is the latest attempt to save culture, in any shape or form, from the ravages of philistinism. For sure, culture has been diminished. Higher education is no longer about imparting high aesthetic and moral values, tutors no longer develop minds. Rather, universities have become large, bureaucratic, disciplinary machines that process students as units of consumption and utility. Neither do universities evaluate themselves according to cultural ideals. The key words are now "performance" and "excellence", terms that have no external reference to anything outside the bureaucracy's own system of differences. The political exigencies have changed, culture is no longer central, universities have ceased to function ideologically. As the late Bill Readings analysed brilliantly in The Oxford Literary Review, "the University is now analogous to the stock market or the American Basketball Association rather than the church".

But neither Terry Eagleton nor Alan Sinfield appears ready to tackle the politics of excellence.

Scott Wilson is a lecturer in English, Lancaster University.

Cultural Politics - Queer Reading

Author - Alan Sinfield
ISBN - 0 415 10947 7 and 10948 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £25.00 and £7.99
Pages - 104pp

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