For all its innovative history, Comparative Literature has been slow to embrace two of the most significant movements in contemporary studies. It was not until 1994 that Margaret R. Higonnet’s collection Borderwork explicitly took up the question of gender within the field. It was not until 2010 that the anthology Comparatively Queer sought to achieve the same kind of visible synthesis (Higonnet, Hayes, and Spurlin). As the ACLA considers the state of the discipline, it is worth asking how and to what ends we might forge a queerer Comparative Literature. In raising this topic, I consider not only queer "content," but approaches that can advance the comparative study of sexual discourses, texts, and representations. Such critical methods might also, if more metaphorically, queer the assumptions and practices of comparative literature tout court.

I take the liberty to work outward from my recent book The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic 1565-1830 (2014) since the book embeds itself in comparative practice. Its most obvious aim is to reverse the usual emphasis of sexuality studies, asking not what we can learn about sexuality from studying history, but what we can learn about history from studying sexuality—or in my case, representations of female erotic relations. I argue that the period of reform, revolution and reaction that characterized seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe also witnessed an intensified discursive interest in lesbians. In scientific treatises and orientalist travelogues, in French court gossip and Dutch court records, in passionate verse, in the rising novel, and in cross-dressed flirtations on the English and Spanish stage, poets, playwrights, philosophers, physicians and pundits were placing sapphic relations before the public eye. Female homoeroticism became entangled with core preoccupations of the times: authority and liberty, power and difference, desire and duty, mobility and change, order, governance and, of course, the increasingly troubled place of women as persons and property. In short, a historically specific interest in lesbians intersected with, and stimulated, systemic concerns.

Because I am reading through sexuality rather than only reading sexuality, the significance I seek in such representations lies in the themes and tropes they share with other historical formations. I am not trying to ferret out "closeted" content, which has necessarily been the paradigmatic reading practice of queer studies; I am trying to trace the connections between erotic surfaces and other discursive spheres as a way to pull sexuality more fully into the historiographic mainstream: to see sexuality as a lens for reading the past and perhaps as a factor in shaping it. To this end, I use the admittedly vexed rubric of modernity as a conceptual anchor, and I invert the conventional wisdom – that modernity consolidates a heteronormative order – by suggesting that modernity can be read as the emergence of the sapphic – or what I call the logic of woman + woman – as an epistemic plausibility. And in relegating a gender marker to the subtitle of my book, I claim for female homoeroticism a central place in sexuality studies as an unmarked case. My research relies for its core claims and findings on a comparative approach, but it has led me to queerer versions of spatiality and periodicity than the ones I inherited. It has also led me to privilege confluence over the more traditionally comparative project of influence, to engage in "large reading," and to see the sign "lesbian" as itself a site for comparison.

In the context of early modernity, queerness is already geographically comparative: same-sex relations are often figured as a foreign vice or import, and queer folk real and imagined routinely flee unsafe social spaces for other countries or colonies. But comparativity became a deeper project in my research when I recognized divergent national patterns in the "distribution" of sapphic representations. I found a copious public discourse around 1600 in France, England, Spain and to some extent the Dutch Republic, but almost none in German or Scandinavian settings, followed by a falling off in Spain by 1700 and a rise in German culture in the last decades of the eighteenth century. What began simply as a comparatist’s desire to be comparative thus ended up becoming a critical methodology, leading to speculation about the factors that may have coalesced to foster interest in female homoeroticism in some places but not in others, and tentatively to map the sapphic in tandem with other national and regional investments.

One upshot is a less conventional approach to spatiality. The intersections between sapphic representations and social practices that crossed the pages of my book were neither nationally bounded nor broadly continental or even regional, so they invited me to think more deeply about commonalities and differences among European societies. I saw a shifting middle-ground in which odd national bedfellows converged as sites of sexual representation and then diverged again, in a series of temporal-spatial assemblages that defy both consistency and conventional expectation and are thus in the metaphoric sense queer. Reformation and enlightenment, colonialism and slave trade also, of course, involved major and minor participants, bystanders and opponents, yielding different national clusters on the European map, in effect making Europe a shifting complex of "interest groups."  Such an articulation opens up even Western Europe as more richly comparative and metaphorically queer.

My work also departs from the comparatist tendency to privilege influence as a methodological rubric. One frustrating problem for sexuality studies is the degree to which queer texts and their travels, hence both reception and influence, get covered up. For example, a fat, anonymous, and blatantly sapphic eighteenth-century novel, The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, went through four editions between 1744 and 1758, yet its textual traces are limited to one brief notice in a journal. A counterpart male example, the Love Letters Between a Certain Late Nobleman and the Famous Mr Wilson (1723), has left similar silences, as have queer plays of the 1630s respectively by the French Benserade and the Spanish Cubillo. This remainder of silence makes it difficult to pursue queer studies even at the level of the individual instance, let alone to figure out the "trade routes" by which one text might have influenced another. For all the noble intentions of new historicisms, then, thick description may be impossible to achieve when it comes to queer texts.

Where influence falters, though, there is ample ground for what I call "confluence"—the practice of exploring related phenomena that may share underlying causal connections. Unlike influence or the problematic notion of Zeitgeist, confluence allows us to study what Claudio Guillén called "genetically independent" instances in order to see whether they share a cultural deep logic (70). My model for confluence study is Walter Cohen’s 1985 Drama of a Nation, which explores the "remarkable features of kinship" between the public theatres of Elizabethan England and Golden-Age Spain that were largely "unknown to each other" and arose in societies "far distant from one another in physical, moral, political, and religious respects." Only in England and Spain, Cohen concludes, was there a concurrence of social and political forces, most notably the early growth of capitalism in an absolutist state, that fostered analogous "theatrical institutions, dramatic genres, [and] individual plays" (16-17, 120).

 That both of these theatres relied on cross-dressing starts to suggest why thinking through confluence might benefit queer comparative studies. But I also find something metaphorically queer about confluence itself. Influence looks for direct and presumably linear evidence, whether textual or collateral. Confluence recognizes the rhizomatic rather than axiomatic assemblages that make odd cultural bedfellows, encouraging a speculative search for intersections between textual and material phenomena and acknowledging the promiscuity of their intercourse. For example, a cluster of texts that take Turkey as the site of lesbian "contagion" begin to connect up with anxieties about incursions from the Ottoman Empire and about what counts as European in a colonial age. And it is queer confluence indeed when notions of governance get figured through sapphic alliances, as they do in eighteenth-century England in the wake of an incomplete Glorious Revolution.

Confluence may also help us to trouble notions of periodicity and the problem of period itself. In Why Literary Periods Mattered (2013), Ted Underwood argues that departments of literature built and legitimized their identities around, and thereby reified, notions of disruption and contrast between literary periods. Despite some scholarly pushback, periodization remains a tight professional rubric controlling jobs, journals, and academic identities. To some extent, comparative literature has resisted periodicity, all the more as trying to date movements across national borders already disrupts temporalities. But queer studies, even in its most temporally historicist forms, offers another layer of reinvention. My own book began as an eighteenth-century project, but early on, I found compelling textual confluences that led me back to 1565, and each of my chapters ended up suggesting a somewhat different periodization for a particular generic or ideational project. If I were mapping the sapphic more boldly, I would want—dare as I did not do in my book—to single out historically or spatially separated pockets of queer textual practice, perhaps connecting the "political lesbianism" of the U.S. in the 1970s with that of 1920s France and back to seventeenth-century England and Spain. And one might consider renaming literary periods in queer terms. The years from about 1590 to 1635 could well become the Age of Erotic Crossdressing or the Metamorphic Age, while the 1740s could be marked as a key decade of heteronormative struggle. Digital mapping might also allow us to see where queer texts of different sorts cluster and then to see whether periods emerge inductively.

In the interest of queering the field I would also encourage what I call large reading, a middleground practice that searches for cross-textual patterns in works that can productively be read together, whether those works cross time and place or huddle within a specific chronotope. My research surprised me, for example, with historically specific clusters of apostrophe and of elegy, on the one hand, and with historically recurring bouts of what we might call queer hypotheticals: utopias conditionally rather than connotatively posited. To move to a later period, we might speculate about the writers who pioneered the rise of free indirect discourse, that metaphorically queer form that Frances Ferguson considers the novel’s "one and only formal contribution to literature" (159). To push the demographic envelope, what might we make of the fact that so many modernist innovators of FID—James, Richardson, Joyce, Woolf, Barnes, Stein, Proust, Gide, Colette, Mansfield, Forster—were a rather queer lot?  Might the ambiguous elusivity afforded by FID – whereby, to evoke To the Lighthouse, "nothing was simply one thing" (Woolf 277) – have been particularly appealing to writers with queer investments?  A history of FID that is at once social, cultural and formal might be comparatively queer.

Finally, and without rehearsing either the longstanding and sometimes contentious feminist critique of queer studies and queer theory, or the equally longstanding and sometimes contentious queer critique of feminism and identity politics, I want to press for a strategic duality that recognizes historical dynamics of dominance and difference, and thus the historical effects of categorical identities, without promoting or even accepting those categories as essential, permanent, or predictive. Modifying feminist with queer resists a feminism that would promote stable or unified, cross-cultural or cross-temporal categories of sex, gender, or sexuality. But anchoring queer with feminist reminds us that however queer we might want comparative literature – or the world – to be, heteronormative and gender-based hierarchies, inequalities, oppressions and suppressions are global phenomena, if widely diverse in configuration. Queer feminism signals a conviction that gender must be theorized in tandem with sexuality in any project, whether focused on women or men; as theorists from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Biddy Martin to David Valentine and Tom King have insisted, the relationship between gender and sexuality is ethnographic rather than theoretical.

Within this understanding, I would ask Comparative Literature to reclaim the currently abjected "lesbian" from the dustheap of critical theory, with the reminder that some of the earliest queer theory came out of a movement that identified itself as lesbian-feminist. I would reclaim lesbian only as an adjective—maybe even an adverb--and with no wish to instantiate a Western identity category as a subject for cross-cultural comparison. As Annamarie Jagose argues in Inconsequence, such a reclamation would push back against the cultural production of lesbianism as "anachronistic," "imitative," and "second-best," a position that might be understood as a defense against the difficult knowledge that all categories of "sexual registration" are necessarily derivative and belated (Jagose xi, 23, 144 and passim). In this context, "lesbian" becomes a kind of warning sign. And precisely because of its uneasy coalescence of the legible and illegible, that sign, as Valerie Traub’s forthcoming book Making Sexual Knowledge sees it, provides "a point of access and leverage for reactivating historicity in queer theory" that may contribute "to theorizing how and what ‘queer’ will signify in times to come."

But "lesbian" also needs that modifier of comparativity. For starters, a "comparatively lesbian" approach opens the almost completely virgin scholarly terrain of comparing queer male and female representations in tandem, a project that Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard UP, 2007) exemplifies as a rare case. A "comparatively lesbian" approach would also embrace cultural differences of concept, practice, situation, and signification. Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (2005), for example, eschews the word "lesbian" for what she calls the "queer female diasporic subject," and from that position starts to provide the comparative basis for understanding how different queer female subjects can be understood.

I hope that by putting unlikely subjects into play and into conversation – lesbian, comparative, queer, feminist, theory, history – the title of my talk suggests the kinds of queer assemblages from which comparative literature might benefit. A commitment to queering comparative literature, which is arguably also a commitment to exposing and intervening in restrictive systems of sex and gender, has a part to play in changing more than an academic field. If comparative literature is to thrive in the twenty-first century, it needs to reinvent itself as the go-to field for thinking about complex globalities both present and past. The need is critical, and critically queer.


Works Cited

Cohen, Walter. Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. Print.

Ferguson, Frances. "Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form." Modern Language Quarterly 61.1 (2000): 157-180. Print.

Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. Print.

Guillén, Claudio.The Challenge of Comparative Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Higonnet, Margaret R., ed. Borderwork: Feminist Engagements with Comparative Literature. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994. Print.

---, Jarrod Hayes and William J. Spurlin, eds. Comparatively Queer: Interrogating Identities Across Time and Cultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Jagose, Annamarie. Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002. Print.

Lanser, Susan S. The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic 1565-1830. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2014. Print.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard UP, 2007. Print.

Traub, Valerie. Making Sexual Knowledge: Thinking Sex With the Early Moderns. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, forthcoming 2015). Print.

Underwood, Ted. Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2013. Print.

Woolf, Virginia.To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1927. Print.