105. (Thomas Carlyle)

A featherless bipedal puzzle, but with wings: that Carlyle seems a distinctly queer, yet central, Victorian voice; that the word “queer” proves nebulous in theory and evasive in practice.

Let me begin with an orientation. Rather than turn to Foucault and Butler, I’ll enlist two social scientist cousins, one an anthropologist and the other a sociologist, to characterize what “queer” might mean:

First, the sociologist, Erving Goffman, from his essay on the discredit and discreditable, Stigma:

Even when an individual could keep an unapparent stigma secret, he will find that intimate relations with others, ratified in our society by mutual confession of invisible failings, cause him either to admit his situation to the intimate or to feel guilty for not doing so. In any case, nearly all matters which are very secret are still known to someone, and hence cast a shadow.

Second, the anthropologist, Maurice Godelier, from his summa on kinship, The Metamorphoses of Kinship, writing on the universality of sexual repression in societies (not as a consequence of societies, but as generative condition for society):

In all societies, sexuality is placed at the service of a number of realities–economic, political and religious–that have nothing to do with the sexes and sexual reproduction…

This ‘impersonal’, as it were, and general subordination of sexuality is the starting point of a mechanism that stamps into each person’s innermost subjectivity, into his or her body, the prevailing order (or orders) in society which must be respected if the society is to reproduce itself. The machinery works through representations of the body and the person, and of the role ascribed to each of the sexes and the other agents in the process that ends with the birth of a child, with life. It is through these representations that the social and cosmic order is incised in the innermost person…

In short, everywhere bodies and gender work like those ventriloquist’s dummies that are hard to muzzle and which speak to an audience they cannot see words that they themselves do not utter. Like those dummies, sexuality of course cannot speak. Speaking goes on inside it. Someone speaks through it. But who speaks? And why there? For it is precisely to the extent that sexuality is forced, beforehand, into serving as a language and legitimizing realities other than itself that it becomes a source of fantasies and imaginary worlds. It is not sexuality that fantasizes about society, however, but society that fantasizes about sexuality. It is not sexuality that alienates, but sexuality that is alienated…

These fantasized representations of the body are usually ideas and images shared for the most part by both sexes, which sum up and encode the social order and inscribe its norms in each and every body. It is this sharing of the same representations and their embodiment that, beyond language, seal a way of thinking and a given society into the body of each individual, thus making it a source of ‘obvious truths’ about the social and cosmic orders…

Sexuality as a ‘desiring machine’ is confronted with itself as a ‘talking machine,’ a ventriloquist’s dummy, which speaks on behalf of society. This is the source of the fantasized figures, which necessarily spring from our sexual nature. It is here that two opposing imaginary displacements and two symbolic productions occur. For society burrows in and hides here, disguised in the imaginary representations of the body. Desire, which has been repressed but has not disappeared for all that, buries itself in the body, beyond conscious awareness, only to resurface elsewhere, in ‘respectable’ forms and activities, betraying itself occasionally…

In the end, what the incest taboo stamps into the individual is not only that sexuality must submit to the reproduction of society. It is more basically that it must be placed in the service of the production of society. But for that, part of the spontaneous polytropism and (hetero- and homosexual) polyvalence of desire must be amputated. This is the insurmountable law that the many forms of incest taboo imprint into each individual. Partial ambition does not mean destruction of the individual, though, but rather promotion to the state of true human being, to humankind’s generic being, which is not only to live in society but to produce society in order to live.

I have quoted Godelier at far greater length than Goffman, but wanted to lead with Goffman for the beauty of his metaphor, “cast a shadow”–and I would like to tie it to what Godelier writes to suggest that what is queer is the shadow cast by the amputated desire. We might not have needed the figure, might have been able to suggest that the amputation draws attention to itself; but the shadow suggests the peculiar presence, the suggestiveness without presence of what is queer; what is recognized but not constituted within the established order; what gestures, but with a gesture that could not be other than a gesture, lacking as it does the potential to grasp or strike.

As I typed out Godelier’s words, the puzzle of Carlyle’s queerness dissolved; it might be obvious now to anyone who reads them. It would center, I think, in the idea that sexuality and society both operate through the body: as a desiring machine and as a ventriloquist’s dummy of the social order. And it would involve also the idea that the representations of the body that repress desire, that are spoken through it, are beyond language, at least at times (Godelier feels less confident on the point).

Carlyle would criticize the social order, but returns incessantly to the body, and becomes fixated instead on what bodies are, do, and would and should be in Victorian reality and in the common Victorian imaginary. His criticism of the social order is not blunted, but it is queered, as, say, Marx’s is not, by his (Carlyle’s) dissatisfied reckoning with bodies.

Marx blames ideology and the social order for what befalls the human body; he is not squeamish or fretful in his sense of what the body is. Carlyle frets and squirms repeatedly. All of the ironic, skeptical plays on tissue of flesh and tissue and clothing in Sartor Resartus are not controlled by a positive vision, or stable sense of what should be; the repeated hearkening to work and labor is itself more anxious than reassuring. Carlyle despairs over the social order, but it his beguilement over the body that warms his greatest, early writings.


And drawn recurrently to the body, purportedly dissatisfied with the society that speaks through it, and dissatisfied also with what bodies have become in that society, he willfully turns away from the amputation of sexual desire that a body undergoes. “But why would a Victorian talk so openly about sex?” one might object. But it is not a frank discussion of sexual behavior or desire that is missing; it is the banishment of the erotic from the body in his writings coincident with the dissatisfaction over the state, functions, realities, expectations, and representations of the body that falls on the page as a shadow of amputated desires. Banishing desire from his irked contemplation of what is, per Godelier, a desiring machine, and attending solely to the body as a social ventriloquist, Carlyle queers his work; the language groans and twists; the effort of avoiding what is beyond language can be as creatively taxing and creatively rewarding as the noble effort at arriving at it.



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