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Queer Enough

As Janine Utell writes of her experience in the opening post of this forum, reader reports can helpfully push our work forward towards publication. But she also points out that they can (perhaps unintentionally) dismantle our attempts to draw attention to what is excluded from conventional scholarly inquiry. I, too, recently was struck by a particularly provocative comment on an article I submitted on the writer Katherine Mansfield, and similarly have now come to realize that traditional academic processes can interrupt the questions modernist scholars, informed by feminist, queer, and crip theory, are asking.

Reader number two suggested that while my article seeks connections between Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology and Mansfield’s work, it is not in fact “queer enough.”[1] On one hand, I agree with reader number two. The article is not queer enough. On the other hand, neither is the subject of the article—Katherine Mansfield—whose literary representations of white women’s pleasure were only sometimes queer (but almost always imprudent). Mansfield had many, and many different kinds, of relationships with women, yet historically biographers and scholars have spent more time revisiting her more public and publicly tumultuous relationships with men and the heteronormative, white couples that tend to anchor her stories.

At the same time I was digesting this comment, I was also working on an article on Gertrude Stein—arguably the other end of the queer spectrum—whose “marriage” to Alice B. Toklas was an open secret. Stein has long been received as a queer woman whose references to queer sexuality in Tender Buttons can be hilariously obvious to twenty-first-century English majors. But she also adopted a performance of the masculine to Toklas’s feminine: a queer marriage that nonetheless follows the trope of heteronormativity. In fact, I became intrigued that her odd, repetitive, and difficult language—more than her sexuality—was what her contemporary readers felt was “socially aberrant.”[2] At the risk of mixing Stein’s personal life with her literary oeuvre, I was suddenly in a rabbit hole of doubt: is even Stein queer enough? Do we need to queer her? Can she be neuroqueer?

As a feminist scholar, I have long engaged with writers who are not feminist enough, and yet I and other feminist scholars comfortably use feminist methodology to elucidate, for example, Mansfield’s portrayal of her characters as stuck in a gender and class dynamic that impinges on their sexual autonomy. And Stein’s centering of women’s voices, even when not necessarily feminist, has made her a familiar figure to feminist studies. With my feminist methodology and practice in mind, I suggest that to read women’s writing through a queer and feminist lens is to follow the direction that Ahmed takes us—beyond clear-cut representations of queer desire.

To out the queer is to demonstrate what is outside of “heterosexuality as a compulsory orientation” and to also imply much wider and interconnected cultural imperatives (Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 161). Ahmed writes that “being queer matters” and also that “queer as queer orientation ‘queers’ more than sex” (101, 162). Following Ahmed, in other words, means to seek out how a text represents the full house of cards upon which heteronormativity is built: what is not only near but what Ahmed describes as in the “background” (29). Thus when I further investigated this seeming binary I set for myself—Mansfield on the (relatively) “straight” side and Stein as straightforwardly queer—I began to see the many ways that queer orientation operates in their work.

For Mansfield, her characters are seeking a way out—not always out of the closet but out of a compulsory white, heteronormative, upper class, sexless life. Ahmed's concept of queer orientations serves to further reveal how Mansfield’s characters grappling with sexual desire is indelibly entangled with their experience of race, class, and gender. In other words, to queer Mansfield means also to look to where her characters’ white racial background orients them.

Stein’s Tender Buttons is certainly a queer text with her many metaphors of women’s pleasure and women’s bodies. But its sexual innuendos and queer content have overshadowed the neuroqueer qualities of the text that deserve closer attention. Stein's more obviously queer text shows Ahmed’s queer phenomenology might direct us towards the crip. Placing these two texts together suggests to me that it might not be preferable to parse out queer as sex or sexuality from compulsory whiteness, from ableism, or from sexism. The realities of intersectional queer experiences benefit from a wider and arguably limitless perspective. However, despite these generative revelations, engaging with reviewer two’s comments also leads me to ask not only if Mansfield, or Stein, or myself as a critic, are queer enough, but if academia could ever be queer enough to make space for the directions queer orientations can take us. While we endeavor to follow queer orientations, where in academia can they flourish?

The Queer Orient in “The Garden Party”

Ahmed writes, “Compulsory heterosexuality is the ground for the reproduction of . . . normative whiteness” (127). In “The Garden Party,” class interactions reveal what Ahmed calls “social orientation,” pushing the white upper class and the white working class towards each other (and the West) and, essentially, away from the racialized other, both native people and racialized immigrants (129).[3] But while some of Mansfield’s “New Zealand Stories” seek to make the indigenous Māori central to representations of white settler narratives, in “The Garden Party” the East is hidden behind a highly curated environment trying to be English. The way the Sheridan family in this story attempts to ignore the reality of their setting makes it all the more imperative that I meet Ahmed’s call to consider the significance of the “Orient” in orientation, a “queer departure” from the Sheridan family’s complicity with heteronormative colonialism (113, 24).

Mansfield describes the lustrous garden where the Sheridan family party will take place as a colonial landscape both exotically wild and tamed with flowers well-known to the English: “As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses impress people at garden parties; the only flower that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night” (Stories, 282). This garden projects a paradoxical image of a fertile English space, one which brings together the carefully managed and domestic with the unruly and out of control. In short, the protagonist Laura’s roses are gay, but at this point in the text, they are trying very hard not to be queer.

Significantly, it is in this “English” place, so stubbornly facing West but with its back to the East, where Laura engages with gender play and sexual desire. The garden is visited by a group of white working-class men who arrive to set up a tent. Ostensibly, Laura joins the workmen to instruct them on where to place it. Swiftly, however, Laura learns that workmen are not there to receive her instructions. As she’s making suggestions for locations, “the tall fellow interrupted. ‘Look here, miss, that's the place. Against those trees. Over there. That'll do fine’” (284). Before she responds, it is decided: “Already the men had shouldered their staves and were making for the place” (284). Whatever class privilege Laura has, it is trumped by the workmen, whose gender and working-class position provide them with the expertise to decide where the tent should go, and whose physical labor has made settler colonialism possible.

But as they install the tent, Laura notes their gestures are more characteristic of domestic life—one man sniffs a flower; another hums a tune—and she also admires their masculine work, enjoying the “chock-chock” of their “wooden hammers” (284). This gender play gives her the feeling that “she would get on much better with men like these” than the “silly boys” of her own class (284). Despite lacking the insight and life experience to know how to interpret her feelings, Laura is hot for the workmen. And further, Laura’s crossing of class boundaries and her attraction to both the workmen’s ironic femininity and brute masculinity suggests this desire is oriented queer.

But while Laura flirts with upsetting class and gender boundaries, she also demonstrates that the prolific, expansive garden setting of her fantasy is cultivated by the shared interests of racial purity and heteronormative desire. The fantasy of whiteness—a means by which queer desire is closeted—ironically provides this temptation towards a queer orientation. I suggest that Mansfield is ever so subtly outing this problematic whiteness of her settler narrative by queering white women’s sexual desire in such a way that it relies on, and even preserves, ideas related to racial purity. Laura’s desire for the workmen is queer, but because the narrative painstakingly maintains white, social relations as primarily a problem between white people (even of different classes), she is not queer enough. 

Queer is Queer is Queer: Gertrude Stein and Neuroqueer Rhetoric

Unlike the work it has taken me to unravel this queer orientation in Mansfield, and especially the significance of the “Orient” in a story where indigenous people never clearly appear, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons—a queer text written by an almost publicly queer woman that focuses on domestic spaces and references queer desire—at first appears overdeterminedly suited to being read through Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. But, as Alison Kafer points out, “queerness is always something to be queered.”[4] Taking Kafer’s suggestion, I am drawing attention to how queering the already queer Tender Buttons has the potential to reveal the neuroqueer: Tender Buttons can serve as what Kafer calls a “coalition” text between the queer and the crip (Feminist, Queer, Crip, 17). This reading, along with my work on Mansfield, demonstrates how pursuing queer orientations can offer multidirectional and multivalent tools for inquiry that harnesses the political, social, and aesthetic features of women’s writing of the twentieth century. It is consistent with the queering process of moving the marginal to the center.

When Ahmed asks, “What work goes into the making of things, such that they take form as this thing or that thing” (40), Stein’s long prose poem “Objects” endeavors to answer:

         Within, within the cut and slender joint along, with sudden

equals, and no more than three, two in the center make two

one side.

       If the elbow is long and it is filled so then the best example

is all together.

       The kind of show is made by squeezing.[5]

On one hand, I read “Objects” as an act of queer phenomenology, in which Stein works to “‘turn toward’ objects that appear in their perpetual ‘thereness’ as objects given to consciousness” (Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 25). In perceiving objects, Ahmed further suggests we attend to their “background,” which requires we engage with its use, history, social life, and labor (by it and upon it) (38). Tender Buttons drills down into the universal making of human-created objects, such as its “cut and slender joint” and mathematical equations, “equals, and no more than three.”

However, there is always a tension for me between reading Stein’s “Objects” as a Platonic ideal—a perhaps necessarily incomprehensible explication of objects—and as an invitation to unwrap metaphor. Tender Buttons plays with domestic objects that imply women’s bodies and women’s desire: Prose poems alternatively entitled “A Box,” “A Red Stamp,” “A Frightful Release,” and “A Purse” all serve as thinly veiled references to a vagina, menstruation, and orgasm, but also reference possibly nothing at all. In other words, the text appears to simultaneously disarm attempts to read it symbolically and ooze with innuendo.

However, Tender Buttons’s full potential as a queer phenomenological text remains latent in part because the critical conversation around it remains rooted in the reactionary claim of its unreadability (unlike James Joyce’s unreadability, which served as evidence of his genius). Natalia Cecire writes of the habitual pathologization of Stein’s work, stemming from contemporary reviewers who argued that she must be “half-witted” to write such nonsense.[6] Yet when the nonsense she writes is read, it must be interpreted through the pathologization of a woman who does not appear as a woman should: Stein’s “reception history . . . has always [been understood as] an emanation of her [fat and queer] body”  (289–90). At best, Tender Buttons was reputed to be either non-rhetorical nonsense or a deleterious refusal of women’s bodily and sexual purity.

Returning to Ahmed’s concept of background or social life, the “slant” of Tender Buttons compels us to look towards the crip as both endemic to the text and necessary to the ongoing queering of Stein’s role as a queer writer (107). Julia Miele Rodas digs further into what she calls Stein’s “queer language” that was often “devalued and pathologized.”[7] She explains that Stein’s “echoes, tones, patterns . . . [resonate] as explicitly identified autistic speaking” (Autistic Disturbances, 2–3). These resonances enable Stein to “[thwart] intuitive communication, ordinary expectations of transparent and transactional language” (2). In Authoring Autism, Melanie Yergeau writes of autism as a “neurologically queer motioning that is socially perverse” but nonetheless “a story of communication.”[8] Yergeau emphasizes that autism is “inherently relational in that it defines, reclaims and embraces the expansiveness that countersocialities can potentially embody” and cannot be dismissed as either involuntary or meaningless (19). Rather than foreclosing relationality, neuroqueer communication actually invites broader possibilities for connectivity.

As a queer and, more specifically, neuroqueer text, Tender Buttons might be read as “a story that structures and mediates . . . experiences of the world” outside neurotypical paradigms (Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 9). Stein’s neurotype will never be known. But reading her work through a neuroqueer lens invites additional possibilities. While the truth is I can no more make meaning of the last line of this specific prose poem “Objects”—“The kind of show is made by squeezing”—when I understand it as a neuroqueer text, I can sit comfortably with it as a place as Yergeau describes “not [...] for intervention but rather [...] of invention” (33). Thus engaging the neuroqueer along with queer enables me not only to rethink Stein’s work but to aim towards what Yergeau describes as a “queering of rhetorical conditions” in scholarly critique.

Queering Spaces of Academia

Researching queer orientation in the work of Mansfield and Stein has offered to me the realization that queer rarely operates solo: “The Garden Party,” like much of Mansfield’s work, is replete with metaphors of queer desire, fertility, colonialism, childhood, and class privilege; Stein, likewise, is known for engaging sex, race, queer desire, Jewishness, gender performance, national identity, art, and aesthetics. Ahmed’s theory has helped me to recognize many of these related encounters, yet the construction of an insightful, but non-meandering, article is a heavy lift.

Therefore, it is not lost on me that while I work to unravel queer orientations, the academic article is one of the many “straightening devices” enforcing a kind of heteronormative rhetoric (Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 107). My search for less straightforward orientations relies on what has at times seemed more marginal than queer. Ahmed writes that “[a] Queer object makes contact possible” (169). While it may risk my not being queer enough, I remain very interested in dwelling in this tangential but generative contact point.

I am encouraged by recent work that argues for an alteration in the structures that regulate scholarly communication. In “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism,” Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde seek an answer to the problematic scholarly tradition that also is not queer enough.[9] They appeal for an “amateur criticism” defined as “an evolving ethos and style of criticism cognizant of the changing same of structural inequality, but also responsive to the distinct conditions under which inequality endures and must be fought” (“Obliterature,” 519). Micir and Vadde call for “fundamentally reconfiguring the literary field in a weak theoretical way such that the institutional and para-institutional, the canonical and the obliterary, the disciplinary and the extradisciplinary orbit around one another rather than rendering each other secondary, useless, or passé” (543). Such an orbit could invite us to reorient towards that which at first appears as too marginal, uncertain, or unstructured, or not marginal, not uncertain or not unstructured enough.

In “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference,” Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò argues for a more “constructive approach” which “would focus on the pursuit of specific goals . . . rather than avoiding ‘complicity.’”[10] Táíwò explains further: “It would focus on building and rebuilding rooms, not regulating traffic within and between them.” This pull towards rooms reminds me of Audre Lorde’s insistence that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. I find this approach promising as well; the problem is the structure of the rooms, not the occupants.

I acknowledge I am not queer enough, in life or art. But academia in its current structures is not-yet-queer enough for me, either. I give due thanks and respect therefore to this Print+ platform and Utell’s steady hand that allows for deviating from the standard that is the journal article. Through this work, perhaps queer scholarship can finally be satisfactorily, albeit only briefly, queer enough.


[1] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

[2] Melanie Yergeau, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 93.

[3] Katherine Mansfield, Stories (New York: Vintage, 1991).

[4] Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 16.

[5] Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2014), 22.

[6] Natalie Cecire, “Ways of Not Gertrude Reading Stein,” ELH 82, no. 1 (2015): 281–312.

[7] Julia Miele Rodas, Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018), 2.

[8] Melanie Yergeau, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 19, 21.

[9] Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde, “Obliterature: Toward an Amateur Criticism.” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 517–549.

[10] Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference.” The Philosopher 1923 (1 May 2022): thephilosopher1923.org/post/being-in-the-room-privilege-elite-capture-and-eepistemic-deference.