In deze rubriek brengt Historica een onderzoeker voor het voetlicht die vanuit haar of zijn discipline reflecteert op de (mogelijke) meerwaarde om te werken vanuit een genderperspectief. Op die manier willen Historica en de VVG actief het wetenschappelijke én publieke debat rond genderonderzoek stimuleren.

In het eerste nummer van 2014 verscheen het interview dat Marjolein Van Bavel had met Mark Turner (King’s College London).

Mark Turner (1967) is Professor of Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Literature at King’s College London. His two primary areas of research interest are the relationship between literature, media and culture since the 19th century, and Anglo-American queer studies. In his book on urban sexual geographies Backward Glances : Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London (2003), Mark Turner explores the history of male street cruising. He has published extensively on diverse aspects of literature, journalism, photography, film, painting and popular culture. His book Trollope and the Magazines : Gendered Issues in Mid-Victorian Britain (2000) provides a description of four periodicals of the 1860s using Anthony Trollope as a case study. Trollope, one of the most successful English novelists of the Victorian era, wrote fiction and non-fiction for a number of periodicals. Mark Turner also co-edited a major edition of Oscar Wilde’s journalism The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Volume VI: Journalism I & Volume VII: Journalism II) that appeared recently (2013). Offering the first comprehensive edition of the famous Victorian writer and poet’s journalism since 1908 – including all his known contributions, both signed and anonymous, to periodicals and newspapers – the book brings Wilde’s non-fiction rather than fiction into the limelight.

Marjolein Van Bavel


You have studied the history of male street cruising and you are an expert on 19th century literature, media and culture. Do you identify as a historian?

No, certainly not as a capital H Historian. Maybe as a small h historian or a cultural historian. I am facetious (ed. ironical) about capital H History. I do not see what I do as anything other than a very particular and often intentionally playful encounter with history, rather than a version of history. It is very much about the present for me. My work is not trying to recover or reveal history, though that might happen. I think of History in disciplinary terms, as a specifically configured discipline that has particular understandings about fidelity to the past and the need to truthfully, accurately represent that past. I am not pitched in those concerns. I am interested in representation of the past rather than the past itself, if you like (laughs). I am interested in images of the past and how we live with them, and in things like nostalgia and memory, rather than what actually happened.


Where does your interest in queer studies come from? Has there always been a gender or queer perspective present in your work?

As an undergraduate I went to a very conservative all-male college in the US, where you did not talk about feminism, let alone queer studies. It was a very queer place, however; apparently very straight, but full of homoerotic tensions (laughs). I did have one professor who was interested in feminism and she was quite influential. But I suppose that the interest in gender and sexuality came out of personal reasons, as a young gay man coming of age at the height of the AIDS epidemic, rather than anything else. I started my PhD at the University of London in 1991 and that was a really important queer moment, with Judith Butler laying down the gauntlet and other eccentrics out there. That Zeitgeist moment happened to coincide with my own personal interests in sexuality and this hot new thing called queer studies, which is the study of issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. It wasn’t actually called queer studies then, it had not formulated itself into the jargonaut that it is now (laughs). It was just an interesting probing term coming out of early nineties activism and anger around AIDS. The beginnings of queer theory were a place where the personal was important. A place where political activism was important and the academy seemed to have something to say about it. So it was really exciting then, whether it is quite so exciting now I do not know. But at the time it seemed to be a really vital, energetic intellectual place to be. It was an interesting shift, so you felt like you were part of something real and new.


How do you see the relationship between gender studies and queer studies?

I think that gender studies and queer studies relate to each other in as much as queer studies is at least partially about gender. They represent separate frameworks for how you study gender and how you study gender within a queer studies framework. They are sort of separate things. But ultimately feminism, gender studies and queer studies seem to me in the same place. If they are not always absolutely on the same page, they are still in the same book (laughs). There is friction between them around political issues, which is a good thing at times. But it seems to me that they are engaged in the same set of struggles.


What do you think is the potential added value of a queer perspective in academic research?

Well, this is tricky because queer studies is over twenty years old now and has become strongly institutionalized. So you can wonder whether it is still relevant. I think for me personally, one of the important things in queer scholarship is that it does still, just about, keep you in touch with the world outside the academy, to not only write for academics. My cruising book Backward Glances for example, I very specifically didn’t publish it with an academic press, but with a cultural studies press just in the hope that people beyond the academy might read it. I do worry about the divide between the academy and contemporary politics, contemporary activism or just interested readers in general. And I think one of the things that queer studies and feminism are partly about is communicating a set of ideas to the outside world. This may not be easy, but I still think it’s possible and important. The difficulty with any theory-led body of work is how you communicate those ideas to the rest of the world without it becoming overly theorized or jargonized. I think we need to find ways of making sure that what we are talking about makes sense to people. And that can happen by giving public lectures, writing and reviewing for newspapers, participating in different panel discussions at museums for example. There are many ways in which you can spread knowledge and engage with people who are living these issues day to day.


Although you felt very much stimulated by this movement twenty years ago, I notice that, looking back, you may feel a little disappointed today?

It is not quite disappointment; it is just a worry that once a school of criticism gets too established it ceases to be all that interesting. It starts to repeat itself. In much queer scholarship, like in other scholarship, you see the same ideas over and over again. Someone has set a theoretical model that simply gets spun out. And I think that the very definition of queer studies means that it should always be troubling, that as soon as the ‘thing’ becomes stable it needs to be undermined again or at least interrogated again. So we just need to keep that in mind. If we do that we’ll be okay, I think (laughs).


Do you think that personal experience has a fruitful role to play in academic research?

Yeah. I do not have any doubt about that (laughs). Others do. But I don’t. I think it is important in my own scholarship and I firmly believe that personal commitment is important in scholarly work. I don’t think there is any need for the critic to hide. One of the things I always liked about certain strands of feminist scholarship, and certainly gay studies scholarship and early queer scholarship, was this sense that it somehow mattered to somebody, that it was not only a set of abstract ideas. And I think it is quite important to have the person in there in some way. Many of the recent articles that I have published had significant autobiographical elements to them. For example, while the first half of a recent article I wrote called ‘Zigzagging’ is about the suburb in the United States where I grew up, the second half is more analytical and academic. In other words, the first half is ‘about me’ and the second half is me exploring and interpreting texts (which also says something ‘about me’, of course!). And the cruising book, Backward Glances, has these vignettes [scenes] with a sort of italicized, different personal voice that is sometimes me and sometimes is not me, in order to remind us that there is a person writing this and he has a life even if it is a made up life that I am fictionalizing (laughs). Even if it is a more fun life than I have lived, it is still a life (laughs).


Your book
Backward Glances has been described as the first gay urban history of its kind. Why do you think it can be described as such?

The book was published at a moment in time when London received attention in urban studies in a way it had not before, compared to cities such as New York, Paris or even San Francisco and Chicago. London and sexuality had not been written about, but then three books came out around the same time (my book, Backward Glances, Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London, and Matt Cook’s London and the Culture of Homosexuality), all valuable and interesting in different ways. And I think one of the things that I tried to do in Backward Glances was to look very horizontally across different times and a vast array of cultural materials [ranging from novels, poems, pornography, journalism, gay guides, paintings, the internet, and fragments of writing about London] to produce a type of, not a history in any straightforward linear way, but a set of interrogations that might produce something like a history of gay cruising. It is not a history of gay cruising, however, because what we are talking about is a history of an ephemeral and hidden thing. So what the book is actually about is how to engage with hidden things from the past.
What I was interested in was the question: how might we rethink the present, by focusing on the often neglected fragments of history from the past? How might alternative versions of the past help us to think about issues in the present? How do you assemble traces of the past into a history? The most interesting aspect of the afterlife of the book was that it reached many different readers. It was not a book of history, it was not a book of urban studies, it was not a book of culture or geography, but it had bits of all of these in it. The book is an eclectic, messy stew of traces from the past and does not have a disciplinary anchor to it, except that it is about representation and images.


What made you feel that it was an important book to write?

For one, there had not been anything written like it. Gay history started to look quite straight in a way, too tidy. Gay histories were mostly about community building and the establishment of gay areas within cities, but they were less so about everyday practices. On the other hand, I was mad into Charles Baudelaire and [ed. the philosopher] Walter Benjamin. Drawing on the poetry of Baudelaire, Benjamin framed the flâneur or “stroller” as an emblematic figure of urban, modern life, as an amateur investigator of the city and sign of alienation of the city and capitalism. And I noticed that every figure in the street in books and film started to be interpreted as a flâneur and I thought wait a sec, surely not every man is an alienated flâneur in the Baudelairean sense. So, teasingly, I started to think: what if they simply got sick of being at home and were looking for sex? What if they were cruisers in the past? And then I started to think about how you would prove this, which you can’t. This is why I can say it (laughs). But how would you start to assemble that very hidden partial history? What would be the evidence for it?

And then I started to think: how would a cruiser, someone who wanted to meet someone in let’s say 1870, know where to go? So I started to look for places where you could read things slightly differently. And sometimes you do not have to look very hard. Walt Withman's (1) poems, for example, are like a “How to Cruise” handbook, they are incredibly overt in the desire they express. Or you look at newspaper reports of two men being arrested for indecency in a park one night and others may have thought: “maybe I’ll go to that park”. Thus, you start to create a map in your mind of what things might have looked like. To me, that seemed an interesting project that hadn’t been done, to fill in that history as it were. Not to produce a singular history, but to produce a sort of method.


In 2006 you wrote an opinion piece for
The Guardian titled ‘Welcome to the cruising capital of the world’ stating that “from St. James’s Park in the 18th century to Hampstead Heath today, gay men have always gone cruising in search for sex. So why has George Michael been singled out for censure?” Why did you want to respond to the controversy around George Michael’s cruising behaviour?

There are moments in time at which cruising produces certain forms of hysteria in the way that smoking cannabis sometimes produces hysteria. So I simply wanted to historicize George Michael’s misdemeanours in a sort of playful history and go: “for fuck sake, what’s the big deal?” In part, this public response was there to defend a group of people for whom cruising is part of everyday life in the city. I wanted to make people think about what happened in the 18th or 19th centuries and also suggest that the city is a place with its own night-time world, with its own sets of divergent perverse practices. That is what a city is and to me it seems absurd to overly worry about that or to prosecute somebody for it. It is against the law, but that does not really bother me (laughs).


Which 19th century author is most remarkable regarding his/her representation of gender in your opinion?

Well, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), the very conventional 19th century realist novelist, really gets middle class women. He really understands certain day-to-day difficulties that women face which makes you think: wow, you are a man and wrote that in 1860. And I suppose Wilde (1854-1900) is still remarkable. I still find his work really interesting, particularly the children’s stories and plays. He is interested in how different voices work and operate and he is obviously very playful. So you get these moments, think of the society comedies, in which gender is often turned upside down. This is why so often today you actually get Wilde performances in drag or with all-male cast because there is a sense that at any moment this thing could turn in on itself. For example, when a middle class womanliness seems to be uttered, it is also in that same breath dismantled, like the idea that has within it its own undoing. That is why Wilde is very hard to do on stage, because you either do it as if it is realism and then it just looks twee [cute, sentimental] or you have to come up with some very radical interpretation which usually looks slightly ridiculous and out of place. And that is the strength of those plays, I think.


Why is the study of representations of gender in literary texts important? What possibilities does a queer perspective in a literary analysis open up?

Well, one of the things it does, chiefly, is that it seeks to unsettle our notions of what we think we know. We come to historical material with much baggage and we all think we know the Victorians through stereotypes. Thus, one of the things that studying gender and sexuality allows us to do is to unpack these stereotypes and to think about how these discourses come to be settled and to demystify them a little. This is why Foucault still matters (laughs). And it is an interesting way to think about some single issues like motherhood or marriage, the bedrock of the Victorian novel. To ask, for example, what marriage is and why it is interesting to think about in our own times of gay marriage.

I believe in historical moments, that certain things happen in different times, but I also believe in the long durée of modernity, and that for all of our postmodernity we are still living in late modernity. We still live with the pressures of ‘grand narratives’ that overly seek to define and interpolate us. I am not so interested in whether a text is relevant as such. I am interested in whether a text gives us something interesting to think about other than whether it tells us something about what happened in 1850. Historical texts are ways to reflect upon issues today. And because the Victorians were so concerned with gender and sex it particularly works for thinking about contemporary sex and gender issues. Although I suppose you can say that about any period. Shakespeare was desperately interested in sex and gender as well.

Although Trollope is mostly renowned as a novelist, you have looked at his periodical literature. Similarly, the edition of Oscar Wilde’s journalism focuses on Wilde’s work as a journalist rather than as a novelist and poet. Where does that interest come from?

I guess that it comes from an interest in popular culture and media history. I became interested in the relationship between literature and media and the structures of media in the 19th century; how print circulated for example. This was not really being done at the time. There were few books about serialisation. In the way I read 19th century magazines, there is something about genres that blends; articles and advertorials that pretend to be one thing but actually are another. For example, you think that you are reading a short story, but all of a sudden it becomes a political treatise. So one strand of my work has gone on, for example in the case of Wilde’s journalism, to think about the journalism that he wrote but also about the media world that he was part of or the way in which he was a journalist. We tend to think about these 19th century writers in very specific ways; that is, solely as the famous novelist. But Wilde had to write journalism because he had a wife and two children to support, he did not have any money and an expensive taste. He liked to buy blue china and to drink champagne so he needed the cash. He wrote many anonymous articles. That is a very different Wilde than we usually think of.


Then how do you understand the relationship between fictional and non-fictional work for authors such as Trollope and Wilde?

In Trollope’s work it is more straightforward than in Wilde’s work because there is some sort of separation. Trollope mostly wrote fiction or short stories. Although he also produced journalism, it remained quite separate. Both Trollope and Wilde were also editors for magazines, which was not unusual; many novelists did it because it meant a steady salary. Interestingly, Wilde edited the pioneering Woman’s World magazine (ed. published 1886-1890). And he was, very consciously, always challenging his form and moving across genres. His form of aestheticism was a materialist one in part. And Wilde was a great recycler. One of the things he does with his journalism, for example, is that he takes a big section of a review he wrote about the history of lace and embroidery and simply sticks it in the Dorian Gray novel three years later. We have no idea how he did that. Did he have a little cuttings file? Wilde is very useful to challenge our ways of thinking, because we still tend to think in very generic, singular and compartmentalised kinds of ways, and Wilde does not fit in with such thinking.


What do you think is the importance of this major, new edition of Wilde’s journalism?

 

Well, at one level it is just the first time there has ever been one (laughs). The book on Wilde’s journalism is part of a big collective works series, those blue volumes that sit on the library shelf, volume after volume. I hope that within that big project, it will also help us to reimagine who Wilde was and to unsettle the conventional notion a little; to think about him in relation to a whole other field of writing that was actually quite important to him economically and in his general development as a writer. And I really hope that we will start looking at the women’s magazine Woman’s World that he edited, which was quite important and ahead of its time. It did not do particularly well, but he had a vision for the modern woman and for woman’s reading of the future – ‘women of culture and intellect’ is how he formulates it.

In effect, what he hopes for is a women’s magazine which combines ‘serious’ thinking and ‘pleasureable’ reading, and he believes that the one can also overlap with the other. Sadly, the readers did not have the same vision (laughs). It is a very interesting project that points to women’s magazines in the early 20th century. I hope people will go in that direction and take Wilde as an editor instead of just as the brilliant witty writer, which he was not always in the reviews. He was writing anonymously, turning out work, and some of it is just bulk standard reviews. It was not all brilliant (laughs).

Recently, you have been developing a new project about the American gallerist Betty Parsons (2) and her queer artists, particularly Forrest Bess. Can you tell us a little bit more about this project?

 

Forrest Bess was a queer man who was a painter who earned his meagre living as a fisherman, living in a remote area in Texas. He painted very small abstract paintings of the visions he had at night. He was reading voraciously in Carl Jung and comes up with a theory of the hermaphrodite, which he then tries to enact on his own body through surgical procedures in order to realise this new, radical sort of visionary person. Remarkably, he does not bleed to death. Interestingly, this queer outsider in the margins of Texas is also showing his work in the Betty Parsons gallery, which discovered big abstract expressionists such as Pollock and Rothko. I actually came to Bess through my interest in this gallery, which was a Blue Chip American monolith at the centre of mid century art historical narratives to do with the birth of abstract expressionism.

I found out that Betty Parsons was lesbian and thought it curious that no one knew. Art history did not seem interested in that. And then I started to look at some of the other artists in her camp and discovered that there seems to be some sort of queer, alternative story to the gallery, precisely at this great mid-century abstract expressionist moment that is actually very heterosexual. As it often gets written in convention art histories, this period is about virile straight men engaging in ‘action painting’ and the like. I would like to unpick the sort of “queers in the gallery” notion, to explore those queer artists who were working at the same time, and think about how their work helps us to see an alternative view of that period in American cultural and art history. Over the last ten years I have had a split personality where I write both about 19th century and contemporary writers or artists. I guess, I have two tracks that both strangely come out of the same queer place. ///

 

Notes:

1       Walt Whitman (1819-1892): American poet and journalist. Identified as either homosexual or bisexual in his thoughts and actions, though he, of course, never openly admitted to that. Biographers disagree whether he had any actual sexual experiences with men.

2          Betty Parsons (1900-1982): American artist, art dealer and collector , known for her early promotion of abstract expressionism. She was lesbian.