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Queer theory, literature and the politics of sameness
Author: Ben Nichols

In its contributions to the study of material social differences, queer theoretical writing has mostly assumed that any ideas which embody 'difference' are valuable. More than this, where it is invoked in contemporary theory, queerness is often imagined as synonymous with difference itself. This book uncovers an alternative history in queer cultural representation. Through engagement with works from a range of queer literary genres from across the long twentieth century – fin-de-siècle aestheticism, feminist speculative fiction, lesbian middle-brow writing, and the tradition of the stud file – the book elucidates a number of formal and thematic attachments to ideas that have been denigrated in queer theory for their embodiment of sameness: uselessness, normativity, reproduction and reductionism. Exploring attachments to these ideas in queer culture is also the occasion for a broader theoretical intervention: Same Old suggests, counterintuitively, that the aversion they inspire may be of a piece with how homosexuality has been denigrated in the modern West as a misguided orientation towards sameness. Combining queer cultural and literary history, sensitive close readings and detailed genealogies of theoretical concepts, Same Old encourages a fundamental rethinking of some of the defining positions in queer thought.

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Ben Nichols

This chapter examines the place of uselessness in the history of queer representation by looking back to the moment of fin-de-siècle aestheticism. Whilst usefulness has been associated rhetorically with difference (legible most clearly in the idiomatic rendering of usefulness as 'making a difference'), this chapter explores how queers have been associated with sameness in the form of a perceived ineffectiveness that, rather than making a difference, tends to leave things the same. In particular, it addresses two aesthete protagonists from the novels of Henry James: Rowland Mallet in Roderick Hudson (1875) and Gabriel Nash in The Tragic Muse (1890). The chapter argues that the particular brand of aestheticism they embody (more attached to 'theory' than anything else) throws into relief some of the commitments of contemporary scholarship that has focused on queer failure and backwardness. Situated in a history in which queer theory itself has been subject to charges of uselessness from scholars apparently better attuned to the materialities of lived experience, Rowland and Gabriel serve to flag up a longer history of intimate connection between queers and uselessness.

in Same old
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Ben Nichols

This chapter examines lesbian feminist speculative fiction from across the twentieth century in order to reconsider queer theory’s widespread rejection of reproduction, particularly in the wake of Lee Edelman's critique of 'reproductive futurism’. In queer theory, reproduction often signifies as simply a dreary and repetitive commitment to more of the same thing, and is frequently linked intrinsically, in any form, to a dominant and conservative heteronormative order. However, the fiction that this chapter addresses demonstrates the value to queer worlds of biological, social and cultural reproduction. In novels ranging from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) to Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975), to Suzy McKee Charnas's Motherlines (1978) to Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground (1979) to Nicola Griffith's Ammonite (1993), the women-only lesbian worlds presented are structured around forms of reproduction – both biological and social copying (sometimes literalised in the form of human cloning) – that are none the less in no way heteronormative or even heterosexual. Moreover, these novels dramatise the importance of structures for reproduction – for keeping things the same – especially where the conditions being reproduced are the result of minoritarian struggle.

in Same old
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Ben Nichols

This chapter argues that 'lesbian middle-brow' writing from the early part of the twentieth century offers an important counterpoint to queer theory's long-standing opposition to normativity. Whereas early queer theoretical formulations opposed 'regimes of the normal' that specifically upheld heteronormativity, the sharpness of this critique has morphed into a more general position in which any kind of normativity or conformism is treated as intrinsically suspect. By contrast, novels with famous lesbian protagonists such as Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) and The Unlit Lamp (1924), along with Mary Renault's The Friendly Young Ladies (1944), show the manifold reasons why historical queers have been attached to the idea of the normal – for example, for the opportunity it offers of safety and protection from violence. Moreover, they show the importance of what might seem distinctly non-radical to contemporary readers – namely, middle-brow realism – in the history of lesbian representation and subjectivity. These middle-brow novels are the occasion to reflect on what keeps anti-normativity at the heart of queer theoretical strategy: the opportunity it provides of opposing a form of sameness framed as stultifying, conformist and assimilationist.

in Same old
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Same old
Ben Nichols

This Introduction lays the theoretical groundwork for the book by exploring the place of 'sameness' in queer theory. As with related approaches that have a similar basis in post-structuralism and the politics of social difference, queer theoretical writing often poses values like heterogeneity, variety and change in opposition to a dominant order that is imagined as seeking sameness in the forms of homogeneity, conformity and assimilation, often taken to be intrinsically reactionary or pernicious. The Introduction traces how this opposition manifests through the development of key queer theoretical positions and also addresses the scattered history of engagement with sameness in queer thought. It argues that queer theory's theoretical and rhetorical orientation has prevented engagement with the significant investments in sameness that we can see in queer culture. Turning to coming out stories and the boredom they have inspired in queer readers, this Introduction also provides an initial case study for the connection between queer culture and forms of sameness that the later chapters continue to elucidate.

in Same old
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Ben Nichols

This chapter argues that fiction in the genre of the 'stud file', or the catalogue of sexual partners, shows how queer culture has been reductive in precisely some of the ways that queer theory has been averse to. Works by John Rechy, for example, such as City of Night (1963), Numbers (1967) and The Sexual Outlaw (1977), amongst others, are repeatedly 'reduced' to descriptions of a gay cruising or casual sex world that is itself described as performing various kinds of 'reduction’. Works in a related vein, such as Jane DeLynn's Don Juan in the Village (1990), are similarly built around a restricted or reduced way of relating within a form of sexual seriality. For queer theory, and many other theoretical projects influenced by post-structuralism, reductionism has been imagined as the problematic expression of a pernicious 'logic of identity’. This chapter suggests that Rechy’s writing in particular encourages us to recognise the reductiveness of queer culture, which queer theory may prefer to disavow.

in Same old