My reflections in this piece originated as a talk on a panel entitled “Queering Comparative Literature” at the ACL(x) conference, “Otherwise,” held at the University of South Carolina in February 2015. In it, I used a volume I co-edited with Margaret R. Higonnet and William J. Spurlin as the starting point for considering potential queer contributions to the ACLA’s 2014 State of the Discipline discussion. Entitled Comparatively Queer: Interrogating Identities across Time and Cultures, our volume assembled essays that attempted to queer comparative studies and theorize the importance of insisting on comparative approaches to queer studies in a “double crossing” that we playfully characterized as “going both ways.” Indeed, we argued, the expression “comparatively queer” would ideally become queerly redundant if the kind of intervention into field-defining we hoped to be engaging in were successful.

Already in the 1993 report, Charles Bernheimer had mentioned the possibility of including sexuality in an interdisciplinary notion of what it means to compare:

The space of comparison today involves comparisons between artistic productions usually studied by different disciplines; between various cultural constructions of those disciplines; between Western cultural traditions, both high and popular, and those of non-Western cultures; between the pre- and postcontact cultural productions of colonized peoples; between gender constructions defined as feminine and those defined as masculine, or between sexual orientations defined as straight and those defined as gay; between racial and ethnic modes of signifying; between hermeneutic articulations of meaning and materialist analyses of its modes of production and circulation; and much more. (41–42)

We were thus somewhat surprised that, 17 years later, so few seemed to have taken up this suggestion. Almost immediately following the Bernheimer report, Higonnet’s collection Borderwork: Feminist Engagements with Comparative Literature had taken on the project of comparatively feminist studies. Why had the queer counterpart taken so long? While I am not sure I can answer that question here, I would like to make a case for safeguarding a prominent place for queer scholarship within the discipline of comparative studies in its current state.

Without claiming to be exhaustive in the possibilities that Comparatively Queer explored for a “comparatively queer studies,” we did point towards a number of strategies for such a project. These consisted in part of insisting on 1) the importance of comparing and 2) an erotics of comparison. In relation to the writing of queer history, early lesbian and gay activists and scholars sought “to prove that lesbian and gay sexualities were not only ‘natural’ but also existed across broad historical, geographical, and cultural contexts” (Hayes, Higonnet, and Spurlin 11–12); they sought, in other words, gay and lesbian roots throughout history. By implication, then, much early gay historiography avoided comparison in its assumptions that a same kind of gayness could be uncovered throughout the past to reveal what had been “hidden from history” (cf. Duberman et al.). Yet, even though such research looked for proof of sameness in the past, crossing time often led to a historicization and denaturalization of sexuality and of the hetero/homo binary at its center. Lesbian and gay historians were thus forced into comparison with the object of their studies, forced into comparison with other erotic folks from the past. If queer studies denaturalized the contemporary sexual subject in crossing time, casting queer historical studies as a comparatist practice allowed us to understand this subject (including the queer scholar him- or herself) as an object of comparison as well (more on this below.)

Susan S. Lanser’s contribution to the collection Comparatively Queer, entitled “Mapping Sapphic Modernity,” would ultimately figure into the book project, The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565–1830, which she partially shared on the same panel in South Carolina (Lanser, “Comparatively Lesbian”). As it has turned out, my engagement with her project continued beyond the publication of Comparatively Queer, since I was asked to serve as the respondent for another talk she gave in relation to her project at a conference on lesbian historiography at the University of Michigan (Lanser, “Sexuality”). This engagement has also served as a catalyst for further reflections on the place of comparatively queer studies in the state of the discipline in 2014. The title, “Mapping Sapphic Modernities,” offers a starting point for a trajectory that Lanser describes at the end of The Sexuality of History; acknowledging the previously published versions of parts of the book such as “Mapping Sapphic Modernities,” she writes, “Most of these essays predate the 180 degree turn of my project and thus operate more fully within a ‘history of sexuality’ than as manifestations of a ‘sexuality of history’” (303). The titles of her Michigan talk and her book thus invert the key terms of the title of Foucault’s foundational History of Sexuality. This shift reverses the emphasis of his title in a way that would tempt me to say that this inversion out-Foucaults Foucault if this emphasis were not already implicit in Foucault’s insistence (and the insistence of many who have followed) that sexuality has a history not only in the sense that it has undergone transformations that can be traced, but also in that there is a before sexuality, that sexuality appears (not at once, of course) in a certain period, and that the history of this appearance or “invention” can also be written.

Now “inversion” is a term with its own queer possibilities. For it suggests that not only does sexuality have a history, but we might also think about how history might “have” a sexuality, might itself be thought of as being sexual, or that sexuality must be central to the writing of history, not just peripheral or one concern among many. As Lanser puts it, “sexuality is history” (“Sexuality”). So let me then acknowledge that, when I speak of “doing the history of sexuality,” I am also indebted to David Halperin’s How to Do the History of Homosexuality, in relation to which I should also say that “doing it” for me also suggests, even here, engaging in a sexual act. Doing Comp Lit, then, might be thought of as potentially being a similarly sexual act. It seems to me that Lanser’s trajectory also represents a move from modernity as Sapphic to a broader claim about history as sexuality, about how to “do” the history of sexuality. I suggest, then, that we think of “doing” the history of sexuality itself as a queerly comparative gesture, one with its own erotic pleasures.

When I, a contemporary gay subject, come into contact with Lanser’s sapphic subject, I must cross not only time, but also genders. I am forced to come to terms with the fact that my “object” of comparison is also a subject. The relation between my subject and hers is one of dissonance, and this dissonance, I suggest, should be a productive one. Rather than approaching her sapphic subject in a colonizing gesture of appropriation or a masculine gesture of objectification, I am called to allow my subjectivity, now somewhat less mine, to be challenged. These are just a few thoughts on how Lanser’s sexuality of history is queerly comparative and comparatively queer. Or perhaps I should say comparatively sapphic in the hope that “comparatively sapphic” can come to resonate as generally as “comparatively queer.” Indeed, the subject of comparison (in Lanser’s case, the comparatist who crosses time to examine early sapphic modernity) might also be understood as actually being partially constituted through comparison and the resulting denaturalization. The power of comparison to generate queer subjectivities has interesting implications that just beginning to be theorized.

As for Higonnet, Spurlin, and me, we thought that, by queering the discipline of comparative studies, we could make our own contribution to doing the history of sexuality in challenging (or adding our voices to the challenging of) a certain model of the writing of lesbian and gay history, a model which both pre- and early modern studies and postcolonial studies have a stake in challenging (even if their stakes are slightly different). In one model, lesbian and gay history looks a lot like a narrative of progress, in which the rise of “homosexuality as we know it today,” as the cliché goes, is structured much like a coming-out story. And, as we argued, this story—a colonial narrative of development—associates cultural others with a primitive past (see Fabian): “By coming out, the contemporary [lesbian or gay] subject leaves the dark continent of her past behind; by becoming homosexuality, same-sex desire does the same” (Hayes, Higonnet, and Spurlin 16). Comparison across time, we argued, transforming queer historiography into a comparative practice, could be therefore thought of as paralleling comparisons that have occurred across cultures as part of the multicultural movement as well as postcolonial studies, especially as these have now intersected with queer studies. In addition, a significant body of recent work grouped under the rubric of “queer temporalities” has taught us that sequence, linear narrative, narratives of progress and/or development (that is, the conventional if not dominant modes of history writing as well as the gay-history-as-coming-out-narrative model) have a certain sexuality, one that is hetero- and repronormative.

Regarding a potential erotics of comparison, we looked to Carolyn Dinshaw’s theorization of an erotics of cruising the past, which she articulated in Getting Medieval (whose very title, we remember, is taken from an expression for sadistic sodomy in the film Pulp Fiction). This erotics even allowed her to bring essentialist John Boswell and constructionist Michel Foucault into a surprising embrace. Dinshaw, we remember, also turned towards postcolonial theory in general and, more specifically, Homi K. Bhabha for queer models of embracing the past. It is the potential, and potentially dangerous, desire on the part of the comparatist for her object of comparison that I would especially like to push further in my intervention here.

As I look back on my first book-length project, I can now see that as a younger scholar I was much more pre-occupied with the danger of crossing cultures. As a gay graduate student, my first work on the Maghreb reminded some of the sexual tourism of European and American gay men who had “visited” North Africa before me. My initial impulse was to reject this desire of “Oriental sex” and distance myself from what I then considered to be the predominant paradigm by which gay Westerners approached the Maghreb. So in the first chapter of my first book, Queer Nations: Marginal Sexualities in the Maghreb, entitled “Reading and Tourism: Sexual Approaches to the Maghreb,” I thus aligned myself with a certain critique of sexual tourism while challenging the abjection of homosexuality and homoeroticism that one often finds in such critiques.

Yet even in that first chapter, I began to notice other ways of reading some gay men’s attraction to the Maghreb. Think, for example, of Jean Genet, who offered the impetus for the following remarks by Kobena Mercer in his 1994 Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies:

Under what conditions does eroticism mingle with political solidarity? When does it produce an effect of empowerment? And when does it produce an effect of disempowerment? When does identification imply objectification and when does it imply equality? … Genet’s affective participation in the political construction of imagined communities suggests that the struggle for democratic agency always entails the negotiation of ambivalence subjectively. (219)

Around the same time, the very author of Orientalism, Edward W. Said himself, would publish his own reading of Genet’s Screens and Prisoner of Love, in which he would write:

Genet was no ordinary visitor, no simple observer or Western traveler in search of exotic peoples and places to write up in some future book. … In the context of a dominant Orientalism that commanded, codified, articulated virtually all Western knowledge and experience of the Arab/Islamic world, there is something quietly but heroically subversive about Genet’s extraordinary relationship with the Arabs. (232, 235)

While I might not be as generous as Said—I hope that it is obvious that I am not advocating a “return” to sexual tourism—I think that embracing rather then eschewing the dangers of an erotics of comparison might produce possibilities for a comparatively queer studies hitherto unacknowledged.

Many Maghrebian writers, for their part, would find in certain Orientalist narratives an allegory of the very critique Said waged against similar narratives. Rachid Boudjedra’s 1979 Les 1001 années de la nostalgie [1001 Years of Nostalgia] and Leïla Sebbar’s 1982 Shérazade: 17 ans, brune, frisée, les yeux verts [Sherazade: Missing: Aged 17, Dark Curly Hair, Green Eyes] as well as her 1980 Le pédophile et la maman (L’amour des enfants) [Mommy and the Pedophile: Loving Children] first come to mind. Boudjedra’s novel is about an American film crew that comes to a North African village to adapt the Arabian Nights for cinema. Their Orientalizing take literally becomes a form of colonization as they expropriate local goods and labor to make their film; they even kill locals to use as corpses in the film. The indigenous governor Bender Chah becomes their accomplice in this endeavor. Yet this enterprise is ultimately met with an anticolonial—in this case, also anti-Orientalist—revolt. In Shérazade, the eponymous character is the object of a number of Orientalist gazes. Her boyfriend Julien is literally an Orientalist; he is a student of Orientalist paintings and obsessed with photographing Shérazade. Shérazade opposes his gaze by destroying all the photos in view but one, which she allows him to keep along with those he has not yet put up. Yet this anti-Orientalist resistance seems measured compared to her literal destruction of the means of production of Orientalist discourse when she destroys the camera of a photographer taking her picture at a party and ransacks the studio of a quasi-pornographic photographer with her friends.

Let me also stress how much sexuality plays a role in these anti-Orientalist double crossings. Bender Chah’s wife betrays her husband (and, allegorically, the institution of marriage) by reappropriating one of the giant fans used to propel the magic carpets in order to castrate the filmmakers. She thereby lays siege to a phallocratic colonialism and a phallocentric collaboration with the colonizer on the part of any indigenous elite. The eponymous pedophile in Sebbar’s other novel is a critic of sexual tourism, its second-wave feminists who are vociferous critics of pedophilia have homoerotic relationships with their daughters, and its eponymous mother identifies with the critique of Family articulated by the radical pedophile movement in France. And Shérazade’s rejection of the Orientalist gaze does not lead her to break up with Julien.

Yet their resistance to Orientalism is not absolute. Sebbar’s eponymous Mommy and Pedophile turn out to have something in common: loving children. In a sort of follow-up to Le pédophile et la maman, Sebbar published an essay entitled “Toute femme est une pédophile et une maman” [Every Woman is a Pedophile and a Mommy]. This is dangerous territory indeed. She even offers photographs of her own sons to accompany it. Boudjedra relies on the same Orientalist clichés and idées reçues as the American filmmakers to write his own story of anti-Orientalist revolt. And Shérazade, at the end of the novel, buys up all the postcard reproductions of Matisse’s Odalisque à la culotte rouge to place into circulation from various points along the route of the anti-racist Beur March, which she follows along her way to a return to the Algeria of her ancestors. Implicitly acknowledging that, when it comes to Orientalist representation, there is no original reproduced on the postcards (all Orientalist representations are copies of some prior copy), she writes her own text on and over Matisse, thereby rewriting him and recuperating and transforming his images to her own ends.

Such texts complicate Said’s Orientalism by indulging in the pleasures of self-exoticization to turn Orientalist desire back against the colonizer. To allude to one title, the empire does indeed write back in Sebbar and Boudjedra (see Ashcroft et al.), and it does so with a vengeance. Reading against the grain of colonialist texts, their acts of self-fashioning, unable to return to a before prior to colonialism, work their way into the fissures within the discourses that justified and accompanied it. Note the comparatist implications here. Othered by Orientalist texts, yet seeking out a possible subject position therein, writers like Sebbar and Boudjedra become both the subject and object of comparison in a splitting of the kind theorized by Bhabha, into more than one but not quite two. The relation between the Maghrebian writer and Orientalism is thus doubly comparative. Orientalism was already a comparatist act (although not one that we would usually want to embrace uncritically) in that it always compares the Orient to the West; but when writers like Sebbar and Boudjedra situate themselves as both “Orientals” and Orientalists, they transform the comparatist, usually the apogee of subjectivity, into an object of comparison as well. So as in both Boudjedra’s and Sebbar’s cases, double crossing Orientalist discourse constitutes a splitting of the colonial subject into one that is simultaneously Orientalizing and Orientalized, a comparatist subject that is also an object of comparison.

Higonnet, Spurlin, and I sought to make such a splitting of the comparatist central to the field of comparative studies. When the Western comparatist becomes an object of comparison as well, the object of comparison becomes susceptible to a denaturalization that destabilizes the Eurocentrism that has traditionally defined the field. And it is precisely this kind of denaturalization that is central to queering as a critical move, so we sought to explore connections and establish parallels between geo-cultural, historical, and sexual denaturalizations as one possible way of queering the comparatist and not just comparative studies as a field. This queering of the comparatist through comparison, then, might be thought of as a first step in a queer approach to the field that also queers it. Also key to our understanding of what queer comparative studies might entail is an expansion of what counts as comparison.

Obviously throwing the comparatist into the mix is part of this expansion. Comparative studies, of course, also crosses national borders, but one of the conventions of comparative studies we sought to highlight and challenge in Comparatively Queer was the “national” in “national literatures” that have conventionally served as the objects of Comparative Literature and whose borders are often reinforced, not challenged, in the crossings carried out through comparison. Upon entering the job market with a newly minted Ph.D. in French, at an MLA interview for a split appointment between Comp Lit and French, a prominent comparatist patiently explained that comparatists were expected to work in at least three national traditions. Misremembering the languages I had listed in my c.v., he then asked what my three were. Even then, I knew what not to say—Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia—even though these were the “national” traditions of my dissertation.

A challenge to such Eurocentric notions of “national traditions” has been an underlying current of the decennial reports since the 1994 Bernheimer report (see also Saussy). It continues in the current discussion, particularly in David Damrosch’s contribution, “World Literature as Figure and as Ground,” which interestingly thinks through the concept of world literature not only interculturally but also intraculturally, for example as the challenge to national literatures that minority literatures à la Deleuze can carry out from within. I would align our desire for inversion in making the subject of comparison its object as well with Damrosch’s notion of intracultural comparison. For this is where the double crossings I have already described take on their full potential as also a betrayal of Comp Lit’s national interests, which are always Eurocentric, in following the example of Genet who, again, cast his betrayal of Frenchness as a queer form of revolt.

So the crossing of borders in both ways becomes a double-crossing in the sense of a treason that goes both ways in both the literal and figurative sense of the expression, of which the latter refers to bisexuality. So whereas the colloquial expression “comparatively queer” can mean queerer than some, but nonetheless not too queer, we proceeded as if there could be no such as thing as too queer. “Comparatively Queer” thus became for us a way of naming our project of queering comparative studies and making comparatist strategies central to queer studies. This particular example of going both ways was inseparable in our minds from converting (or shall I say inverting) the subject of comparison into its object. Paradoxically, this becoming-object double crosses his (and I chose this word carefully) objectivity. Comparatively queer studies should, again, queer the comparatist as well.

In Death of a Discipline, Gayatri Spivak calls for “a new Comparative Literature” (68, inter al.), “a Comparative Literature supplemented by Area Studies” (72): “The new step that I am proposing would … work to make the traditional linguistic sophistication of Comparative Literature supplement Area Studies (and history, anthropology, political theory, and sociology) by approaching the language of the other not only as a ‘field’ language” (9). In spite of her characterization of these comments as “the last gasp of a dying discipline” (xii), she does not actually kill off the field as much as reimagine it. A comparatively queer studies, then, can further reimagine this betrayal, this death as what the French call la petite mort, the sweet and painful ecstasy of orgasm.


Works Cited

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---. “Mapping Sapphic Modernity.” Hayes, Higonnet, and Spurlin 69–89.

---. “The Sexuality of History.” Symposium on Lesbian and Queer Historiography. U of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 4 Feb. 2011.

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

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Said, Edward W. “On Jean Genet’s Late Works.” Imperialism and Theater: Essays on World Theatre, Drama and Performance. Ed. J. Ellen Gainor. London: Routledge, 1995. 230–42. Print.

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---. Shérazade: 17 ans, brune, frisée, les yeux verts. Paris: Stock, 1982. Print.

---. “Toute femme est une pédophile et une maman.” Sorcières 23 (1981): 32–35. Print.

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