Queer Theory's Utility
Jerry D. Thomas
CHRISTOPHER SCHMIDTTHE POETICS OF WASTE: QUEER EXCESS IN STEIN, ASHBERY, SCHUYLER, AND GOLDSMITHBASINGSTOKE: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2014
In his opening for Poetics of Waste, Schmidt conjectures, “What is Waste Studies? A joke about the increasing usefulness of esotericism of scholarly specialization? A keyword description for the oft-reproduced crisis in the humanities: Why Higher Education Is a Waste of Time?” (16). Schmidt acknowledges “[t]here may indeed be something in the work habits of academics, who spend months at a time in moldering archives poring over discarded and forgotten fragments, that has led to its currency” (16). Reading Schmidt’s waste study was far from a waste of time. His study gives rise to a currency for waste studies not because of academic egos, but because it is a welcomed, useful view of queerness as excess.
Questions surrounding queer theory’s utility are central to this review essay. Schmidt’s waste theory not only deconstructs and reimagines the role of queers and waste in society, but also suggests that the thing many of us find most unsettling about queer theory—that it refuses to be settled and therefore lacks metatheory utility—is as misconstrued as the idea that excesses (waste, shit, rubbish, queer bodies) are worthless in capitalistic societies and worth less in sexual hierarchies. Twenty years ago, the Modern Languages Association asked Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner “to pin the queer theory tail on the donkey.” They suggested that copious scholarship produced in the burgeoning years of queer studies was not queer theory but queer commentary—the former a metatheory by and for academics who “assimilate into a single discourse” a “propositional program,” the latter, of course, not an assimilated and propositional metatheory (343). If the extent to which academics in early queer studies queered x was so bountiful that formative queer theorists suggested that pinning down queer theory was “radically anticipatory” and “violently partial” (344), what might we say twenty years later about the extent of academic queering, which has accumulated yet more abundance: What use has queer theory? We might ask if queer commentary can transfigure itself into theory, not a rigid set of propositions, but theory with transferrable utility—a practice program accessible beyond the queer who experienced and shared the perspective, a practice program useful to, for example, law, policy, ecology, and sexual citizenship. While I do not privilege transferrable or generalizable perspectives over perspectives unique to the individual, I do consider Schmidt’s queer perspective and suggest that his queer-waste theory has particular utility for understanding, inter alia, sexuality and ecology.
Schmidt compels me to rethink queers and queer theory in society by reconceptualizing waste. The shortcoming of conceptualizing queer bodies and queer lives not as waste occurs when queers assimilate to programs that mimic heteronormativity. When we demand queer theory position itself as a variation of dominant political thought, we define queer against the normal, scarcely acknowledging that variations on a theme still privilege the theme. The death-ridden approach to queer theory has been to transfigure queers and queer theory so they no longer comport with extant conceptions of waste. That is, queers are not waste if they have heteronormative utility, such as when the helper-in-the-nest theory creates utility for queers by helping replicate reproductive futurity. The better approach, as Schmidt shows in the poetics of Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith, is to reconceptualize waste, forging queernesses with distinct utilities in their own right.
Schmidt grounds his study of poetics in waste theory “to clarify associations between waste and queer bodies, waste and hierarchies of value, as well as waste and artistic sublimation” (16). He writes:
[I]f waste is a euphemism, covering an entire category of materials too unsavory to identity, it is also metaphorically capacious, encompassing categories of garbage, shit, sexual excess, economic surplus, unproductive labor, idleness, and aesthetic imbalance. . . . Waste is simultaneously civilization’s other—a threat to the bonds that keep the obscene and the unspeakable repressed from the social sphere—as well as the trace or remainder of civilization: the pollution, discards, and unwanted productions of the past that haunt our present. Organic and inorganic waste share an ability to disrupt and trouble the stability of culture itself when it is not able to be repressed. The same disruptive quality adheres to the word itself, for the very multiplicity of the word “waste” allows for slippages in meaning that writers like Stein and Ashbery exploit in their work (16).
Schmidt’s study is useful in the ways he describes other waste studies: “a lens for rethinking obdurate stumbling blocks in critical theory, such as nature/culture and public/private binarisms” (16-17). Schmidt positions his literary study at the intersections of several disciplines, namely feminist-queer theory, capitalism, and ecocriticism. His analysis of Gertrude Stein grapples with the first two—feminist-queer theory and capitalism.
STEIN’S EXCESS IS HER PARADISE AND CONSTRUCTS HER SEXUALITY
Stein’s poetics typify excess; she writes copiously and repetitively. Stein “did not eliminate words to achieve a state of purity and efficiency” (28). Instead, her writings are replete with repetitions and indeterminacies. Stein’s poetry and personal letters to Alice Toklas—her partner (domestic, sexual, professional)—conflate her fetishes with excrement, the creative, the sexual, and the body. Often in response to the Frederick Taylor’s scientific management principles (Taylorism), Stein wrote to Toklas, who assisted in the production and management of Stein’s writing factory.
If we conceptualize queerness as a capitalistic construction first in a market sense, we might view citizens who do not produce something—a child—as expendable (i.e., waste); but following on from Gayle Rubin, Schmidt reinforces through waste studies that capitalism allowed American queerness to manifest and concomitantly become more visible since industry allowed citizens to move away from agri-social democracies where marrying and producing children workers was necessary to survive. Capitalism may be intrinsically connected to the oppression of heteronormativity and patriarchy and whiteness, but Stein’s excess is useful for understanding Rubin’s capitalist-created queernesses. Stein parodies the excess repetitions in factory settings to produce goods and profits. As her parodies slip into pastiche replications (as when she becomes infatuated with Toklas’ digestive patterns in reaction to Fletcher who espoused domestic and bodily efficiencies such as chewing each bite of food thirty times), she creates out of and with Toklas’ body domestic relations and professional arrangements that resemble a queer factory that decompartmentalizes (conflates) excrement, orgasm, creativity, and industry. She creates an industry of and out of queer excess. Stein’s poetics at once parody and pastiche Taylorism; she simultaneously lashes out at capitalism’s patriarchal heteronormativities and creates her own queerness. In the slippages, when we are uncertain whether Stein’s cow is a body or orgasm or feces or poem, we glimpse queerism that unsettles the status quo of waste. A passage from A Book Concluding with as a Wife Has a Cow a Love Story illustrates Stein’s poetics that blur the body (excrement, orgasm, and child birth) and industry in the Toklas-Stein writing factory:
Have it as having having it as happening, happening to have it as happening, having to have it as happening. Happening and have it as happening and having it happen as happening and having to have it happen as happening, and my wife has a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now, my wife having a cow as now and having a cow as now and having a cow and having a cow now, my wife has a cow and now. My wife has a cow (49, internal citations omitted).
Stein’s poetics provides a glimpse into her queerness, a constructed queerness (factory-like) dependent upon waste, excess, and repetition. In her obsessions with Toklas’ excrement and bodily regulation, she blurs lines among traditional conceptions of consumers (eating), producers (energy, labor), and wasters (defecating).
ASHBERY’S EXPLICIT EXPRESSION (NOT REPRESSION) DISRUPTS NATURE/CULTURE BINARIES
Schmidt shows that John Ashbery uses explicit expressions of waste and sexuality in The Vermont Notebook to disrupt nature/culture binaries. This explicit expression strays from conventional analyses that emphasize Ashberian sexual repression during the lavender scare in the post-war era (81). In the main, Ashbery sanitizes sexuality, waste, and camp from his corpus of poetry, leaving little for waste analyses, except The Vermont Notebook, a book-length poem released the same year (1975) as Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the former a more experimental work compared to the classical latter. It is as if The Vermont Notebook itself is a product of waste, made of recycled newspaper articles and Ashbery’s own poetry, perhaps lines he sanitized from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The Vermont Notebook directly references waste—leftover junk, brownish blobs, defecation, dump air, sewerage, cowturds, manure, slop, asshole—“as though the extraneous scatological matter that Ashbery has elsewhere flushed down the ‘garbage chute’ has finally come bubbling back up from the depths of the repressed” (79, internal citations omitted).
Schmidt’s analysis shows the existence of a distinctly queerer—unrepressed, uncensored, unsanitized—Ashbery. Straying from repression analyses, he writes: “I want to consider what Ashbery’s poem expressesrather than hides about the texture of queerness, in its lavish excessiveness and metaphorical promiscuity. There are many textures to queer life in the twentieth century, and they don’t all reduce to a story of repression. Mischief, deviancy, erotic pleasure, and freedom are all aspects of Ashbery’s queer sensibility expressed in The Vermont Notebook, often signaled through the poet’s use of waste to disrupt cultural and poetic proprieties” (82).
Ashbery’s explicit expression disrupts nature/culture binaries in what Schmidt dubs “queer nature.” Ashbery, a New Yorker, wrote The Vermont Notebook on a bus trip through New England. Ashbery reinserts queer into nature, a marked departure from conflating queerness with urban settings and conceptualizing queer sexualities as unnatural. His writings catalog human-made environmental elements in the countryside, urban associations that Americans decidedly view as not nature: “Industrial parks, vacant lots, yards, enclosures, fields, arenas, slopes, siding, tarmac, blacktop, service roads, parking lots, drive-in deposits” (62 in Schmidt). Ashbery shows that queerness exists in pastoral and urban settings the same as culture-nature, queer-nature, and constructed-nature exist in both settings. Quintessentially for Ashbery, constructed nature is the pageantry of “landscape architecture,” an artificial or counterfeit nature that disrupts the idea that nature does not include that which is made by humans.
Ashbery, as Schmidt notes, is no nature poet, but The Vermont Notebook with Schmidt’s analysis advances ecoqueerist philosophies. Although contemporary ecology identifies similar problems in the culture/nature binary, Ashbery’s work in the 1970s has been overlooked as a source of queer ecology that dislodges western ideas that artificial, queer, and counterfeit natures are not part of nature. Queer ecology suggests as Stein writes, “Nature is not natural, and that is natural enough,” (57 in Schmidt) as if to say that what is natural loses meaning when we deny that humans, including queer humans, as well as human constructions are part of nature. By exposing human pollution in the environment (suburban sprawl, industrial and consumer waste, market advertisements), Ashbery exposes the permeable boundaries between nature and culture.
SCHUYLER IS THE GARBAGE
If Ashbery disrupts the culture/nature binary by exposing cultural waste as nature, James Schuyler disrupts the binary by recuperating waste as part of his positive identity, much like activists who reclaim “queer” to disrupt power imbalances. Schuyler reclaims and embraces consumer waste in his queer camp poetics; quintessentially his garbage identity—“Baby, I Am the Garbage”—comes from a passage in his diary:
Just back from Sheridan Square cigar store, where a spaced-out young man was laying it on the line for unwary customers—the man just ahead of me got, “Ten billion years older than the oldest living maggot on earth.” My sentence was a little lighter: “Take the garbage with you.” Walking up Seventh Avenue and passing Tony Holland, who was looking very well, staircase wit made me wish I’d said, “Baby, I am the garbage—” but for that kind of repartee, a bodyguard is no bad idea. (97, internal citations omitted, Schuyler’s emphasis)
Schuyler’s position as an outsider resonates. He was not schooled in elite institutions like his New York School contemporaries: Ashbery graduated from Harvard, but working-class Schuyler flunked out of Bethany College in West Virginia for playing too much bridge (91). Unlike his New York School contemporaries, Schuyler was unable to stabilize his socioeconomic position through his writing and did not maintain regular employment past his thirties (91). His life is a simulacrum of his queer camp poetics, where he used society’s detritus not only as a medium and subject in his poetry (he developed a literary trash book from an unused address book), but also as a trope to “communicate something in excess of an object’s primary purpose” (106, Schmidt’s emphasis). Schuyler’s self-identifications with garbage, waste, and consumerist excess create space for his queer existence: “Schuyler’s camp poetics addresses economic imbalances in capitalism—a consumption that Schuyler represents in campy performances of overeating and profligacy—and by revealing the damage wrought on consumers compelled to gorge themselves on the excess” (99).
Schuyler, like Stein, parodies capitalist notions of waste: for Stein it is processes of production, for Schuyler it is market exclusions. In the opening line of “Dining Out with Doug and Frank,” Schuyler writes about the obsolescence of “Fairy Soap” in the market: “Not quite yet. First, / around the corner for a visit / to the Bella Landauer Collection / of printer ephemera: / luscious lithos and why did / Fairy Soap vanish and / Crouch and Fitzgerald survive? / Fairy Soap was once a / Household word!” Schmidt aligns Schuyler’s “Fairy Soap” obsolescence with the politics of queer subjects. By attending to garbage and waste the market excludes, Schuyler registers damages of capitalism on queers—“fairies”—who consume and identify with objects the market deems abject (like “Fairy Soap”), whether from disuse, obsolescence, or more prejudicial reasons.
GOLDSMITH’S WASTE APPROPRIATIONS
Appropriating queer methods in modernist/post-modernist form—reacting against the normal, the privileged, the extant—is the thrust of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “conceptual writing” that recycles writing from waste outlets such as a discarded volume of the New York Times: he removed all visual images and graphic formats, such as column boundaries and story jumps, to produce Day (2013), an 836-page book, the message of which (the “concept”) is expressed using waste as a medium—items we miss or skip and ultimately discard when we skim a newspaper, reading only the articles and ads of interest (Schmidt 2014, 123-32). Appropriating text from the New York Times, Goldsmith writes in Day:
Elsewhere today, a bomb exploded near a public market, wounding at least 13 people, officials said. The police said they suspected that another Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was responsible.
the original razor scooter
collapsible. six pounds.
Goldsmith’s work underscores waste contained in consumerist cultures as in the newspaper itself (unused page numbers, by-lines, anything unconsumed or unread). Text waste in society is his medium. Rather than producing “original” text, he appropriates extant text making him a “textual garbage collector[…], sifting through various archives to craft new text, often from Internet detritus sorted and rearranged with the help of various procedural forms” (127). The use of “textual abundance” —newspapers, weather reports, traffic reports, sports reports—through which he and contemporary garbage collectors sift, mine, and cull emphasizes not only extant textual waste as a subject of his books—day, weather, traffic, sports—but also the role of the “uncreative writer” (124-26) as a queer culturemaker who blurs art and waste.
Like other conceptual writers who write “against expression” to “subvert the received bourgeois notion that poetry is the proper vehicle to express inner emotion that only the lyric poet is sensitive and privileged enough to express” (124), Goldsmith reduces his books to a concept, which he frequently expresses in a one-sentence précis (e.g., “Here’s every word I spoke for a week” or “Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports” (Schmidt 2014, 131, quoting Goldsmith in “Against Expression”)). Goldsmith, Schmidt notes, is fond of declaring, “The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. All you need to know is the concept” (131, internal citations omitted). It might be inefficient, then, to read an 836-page book, which Schmidt notes is often unreadable; however, Schmidt argues that the expendability of content is Goldsmith’s medium to have the reader/listener question poetry as a category of writing that compels us to examine language more attentively than prose (131). In this regard, Goldsmith’s excess, like Stein, blurs boundaries between subject and object, subject and form, queer and nonqueer, producer (of waste) and consumer (of waste).
The Poetics of Waste offers a glimpse into queerness that will not allow us to see queerness as a byproduct of heteronormativity. Schmidt’s perspective on waste poets does for queerness and queer theory the same as he describes for Ashbery’s work— “alludes to the natural importance of a queer community to the larger ecosystem and economy” (88). As a queer analytic, Schmidt’s waste study shows us that we should not view queerness and queer theory like economic containment policies, both possessing seeds of their own decay. Rather, Schmidt’s waste heuristic suggests that queerness and queer theory thrive in waste (excess, repetition). Schmidt’s queer-waste theory is quite useful for conceptualizing queerness in its own right.
Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner. (1995). “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X? PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 110 (3):343-49.
Schmidt, Christopher. (2014). The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
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