The first essay of this issue, Milo Obourn’s “Racialized Disgender and Disruptive Futurity in Lorde’s and Engelberg’s Cancer Narratives” considers the relation between disability and “disgendering” as a “disabling process of racialized gender” by which “culturally-informed bodies come to inhabit a disgendered and tenuous subjecthood.” Thinking through complex modes of experience and representation rather than obscuring them with the terms of identity politics, Obourn’s essay asks us to think about how some genderings are already disabilities, how marked race can exist without a gender, and why disabilities cannot be reduced to any irredeemably negative status.That this disgendering often manufactures a negative subjective status helps to understand the ways in which the presumed narrative trajectories of gender, race, and disability are much more complex than categorical thought would presume, asking that we consider the both/and qualities of gendered, raced, and disabled subjectivities. The essay’s theory of disgendering complicates gender as an “identity” in the sense that gender’s presumed link to reproductive futures is not constructed in relation to the kind of absolute negativity that Edelman talks about in No Future. For Obourn, disgendering does operate within the imaginary confines of either/or logics that identity categories require to exist. Instead, disgendering disrupts logics of reproductive futurity by “[situating] us in relation to the future without…inherently presenting us with a promise” (26).
The work that Obourn’s essay does in thinking through “radicalized disgender” reverberates through all of the essays in this issue. Each of them attempts to complicate stagnant identitarian ontologies defined by rigid, imagined binaries by tracking the multiple, concurrent, sometimes contradictory modes of representation and experience that produce subjective fictions. The issue’s second essay, Robin Silbergleid’s “In Pieces: Fragmentary Meditations on Queer Mother Memoirs and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts,” situates Nelson’s text as the paradigmatic queer text in so far as it helps us to see the multidimensionality of pregnancy and motherhood as they clash with the expectations of heteronormative structures of narrative memoir. Silbergleid’s essay itself enacts the kinds of queerness that it defines in Nelson’s work, especially in its engagements with the evasiveness of categories. Circling around an origin, when the essay gets close (or thinks it gets close) to any definitive identity, it tries to attach a label to what it’s describing—as if in an attempt to grasp it. In its persistent attempts to grasp evasive certainties, the essay continually repeats its frustrations, making itself in unraveling itself, as it comes up against the same questions—and demonstrating what many (but not all) “queer” methodologies do: seek complexity outside of definition, and then reduce that complexity by defining the unmarked space.
renée hoogland’s “Obnoxiousness and Elizabeth Bowen’s Queer/ing Adolescents” offers the concept of obnoxious adolescence as yet another possibility for the narrative subversion, re-routing, and/or critical stasis that both Obourn and Silbergleid discuss. hoogland’s formulation of Bowen’s notion of obnoxious adolescence both addresses the tensions between flesh and representational categories and, like both Obourn and Silbergleid, latches onto a broad sense of negativity. This essay, too, complicates any tidy alignment of sex, gender, and sexuality categories—and, going a bit further, poses adolescent obnoxiousness as a concept that pushes beyond categorizing subjects in terms of gender and sexuality.
Underscoring the tensions between flesh and category is Beth McCoy’s reading of Percival Everett’s Zulus. Continuing Sadiya Hartman’s argument that the archival record of slavery’s “limited agency” makes “negation” the “central possibility for action.” McCoy proposes that “Zulus traces Alice Achitophel’s quest for agency through the archive. Specifically, Everett’s naïve, romantic protagonist comes to grips with that which she longs to refuse: negation of the human agent reads as the only agency possible.” Noting that Zulus demonstrates that truth does not combat archival record, McCoy shows that Zulus ends with a negation: knowing the record will never set anyone free. Instead, as McCoy demonstrates, “our freedom to interpret, [re]arrange, and make archival meaning is dependent upon the perpetual captivity of those who remain in and whose remains are the archive.” Taking on the idea that knowing the truth of the past will somehow ameliorate its victims’ fate, McCoy, like Obourn and Silbergleid, challenges the usefulness of correlations between the narratives assigned to set categories and subjectivities, histories, and experience.
Marjorie Worthington’s “‘Sex-Consciousness’ to Self-Consciousness: Second-Wave Feminism and Postmodern Autofiction” also takes up issues of the fit between category, self-conception and cultural narrative, in this case showing the compensatory nature of masculine literary self-consciousness in postmodern literature. Worthington’s study of the rapid increase self-conscious literatures, coincident with the rise of feminist movements and increased consciousness of sex and gender as discursive as well as lived categories, contrasts tropes of self-consciousness or what she calls “autofiction” with the questions of genre raised in both Obourn’s and Silbergleid’s essays.
This issue closes with a return to an essay from 2006—Mary Thompson’s “Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Motherhood.” Thompson’s essay already brings the possibility of any correlation between terminology—in this case “breeder”—and lived experience into question. Considering Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender’s Breeder: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers (2001) and Sapphire’s 1996 PUSH Thompson’s essay tracks the very different meanings of the term “breeder” in different cultural contexts, ultimately demonstrating the racial and classed “de-legitimation of other ‘breeders’.” The essay also shows that the question of category is never simply a question of words or any simple correlation with the complexities of groups, individuals and experiences: instead, perhaps violence is always done in the very appendage of categories to individuals.