Fictions of Resistance

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

At the end of the 2003 HBO production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Prior Walter—the white, patrician gay man living with AIDS—proclaims the advent of gay citizenship in the United States: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” It’s a potent declaration. It is also intelligible as an advertisement for a social justice narrative in which state citizenship is the ultimate goal of queer struggle. In the years since the broadcast of Angels, much critical work has been undertaken to highlight the ways in which assimilation is neither a universal queer good nor, indeed, a universal queer possibility.

What opportunities, then, arise within cultural and political work—writing plays and novels, creating TV series, assembling critical anthologies, enacting protest—for creating effective resistance to the narratives of power? Two recent books of criticism explore the challenge of creating resistant discourses. Michael L. Ross’ Designing Fictions surveys anti-advertising novels and TV. Disrupting Queer Inclusion: Canadian Homonationalisms and the Politics of Belonging, edited by OmiSoore H. Dryden and Suzanne Lenon, interrogates the legal and social boundaries of queer Canadian belonging.

Designing Fictions proposes that, over the past century, anti-advertising art has been compromised both by the novel’s commodity status—the widget of mass publishing—and by the appeal to authors themselves of lucrative advertising jobs. Ross, Professor Emeritus of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, has earned a reputation for meticulous scholarship: Designing Fictions comprises attentive literary studies of paired texts, primarily novels, from the last hundred years. Ross uses the vexed friendship of Henry James and H. G. Wells to frame an origin story for two strains of anti-advertising thought, noting that “James’s objections to advertising were aesthetic, while Wells’s were social and economic.” Scholars of Canadian literature will enjoy Ross’ analysis of Margaret Atwood’s advertising satire in The Edible Woman, which—like the TV series Mad Men—occupies its own chapter.

Designing Fictions’ introduction is subtitled “Baudrillard’s Dream,” and there are some astringent references to the Frankfurt School, but the critical compass of Designing Fictions is Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. Ross cannily identifies the way that commodity culture might corrupt a novel’s critical strategies. A further layer of response criticism exploring the way these books were promoted, reviewed, and read would complement the literary analysis; where Ross includes such information, it is illuminating. For example, revealing Christopher Morley’s gift for self-promotion connects Morley’s depiction of détente between art and commerce in The Haunted Bookshop with his reliance on advertising to publicize that novel.

If these literary and cultural works attempt to resist advertising culture, what kind of resistance do they propose? They tend to suggest alternative discourses as more truthful or authentic. Wells uses science; Morley and Orwell high literature; and Atwood ludic non-sense. Across eras, Ross finds that success is elusive: advertising’s corrosive discourse tends to win out. What, then, might successful resistance look like? Would we know it when we saw it? How can resistance be generated and maintained in the face of the amorphous and amoral practices of advertising—or of a nationalism that employs the strategies of commercial promotion to position national identity?

Disrupting Queer Inclusion: Canadian Homonationalisms and the Politics of Belonging is part of UBC Press’ Sexuality Studies Series, which “focuses on original, provocative, scholarly research examining . . . the complexity of human sexual practice, identity, community, and desire.” The essays in Disrupting Queer Inclusion probe queer belonging and citizenship in Canada. Dryden and Lenon have curated a group of searching takes on Jasbir K. Puar’s conceptual frame of homonationalism, which names the invention of a “good queer (Canadian) citizen” whose acceptance, even celebration, is used to support the claim that Canada is a queer-positive nation. This collection explores the dangerous deployments of such a claim: to obscure the tolerant country’s foundation in colonial violence; to impart the symbolic entitlement to interfere politically or militarily with states deemed less enlightened; and to justify internal policies of exclusion based on less valorized categories like religion and ethnicity.

Disrupting Queer Inclusion explores this analytic model through a variety of national constructions, including citizenship, privacy, visibility, individualism, and economic theory. Sonny Dhoot’s “Pink Games on Stolen Land” considers the 2010 Vancouver Olympics’ creation of Pride House in the context of colonial occupation, comparing the gesture to “pinkwashing” in Israel. In “A Queer Too Far,” editor Dryden conducts an elegant close reading of the Canadian Blood Services donor questionnaire, which constructs—through negation—a “too queer” subject, inadmissible for blood donation not only through same-sex contact, but also via contact with an abstracted “Africa” constructed as a threat to national purity.

Such critique of the mainstream politics of acceptance calls out for alternate models of struggle that recognize all “queered” configurations of bodies and desires. In this vein, Naomi de Szegheo-Lang’s “Disruptive Desires” sketches an alternative praxis of fluidity and contingency, and Marty Fink’s “Don’t Be a Stranger Now” offers a study of queer prison-based cultural production, in the form of newsletters, zines, and blog sites like Tumblr. Like Ross, the creators of these “disruptions” find the possibilities for resistance vexed; for example, Amar Wahab observes how predominantly white fetish communities, once cast as sexual outlaws, may contribute ideologically to the exclusion of queerly raced bodies. Ultimately, both Designing Fictions and Disrupting Queer Inclusion may remind readers that no one strategy, vocabulary, or stance is sufficient; resistance must be as protean as power itself.

This review “Fictions of Resistance” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 241-243.

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