Uncanny Recognition: Queer Theory's Debt to the Gothic

By Rigby, Mair | Gothic Studies, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Uncanny Recognition: Queer Theory's Debt to the Gothic


Rigby, Mair, Gothic Studies


Since the advent of academic queer theory in the early 1990s, the proliferation of publications addressing queer reading possibilities in Gothic fiction suggest that Queer Studies and Gothic Studies may be considered complementary fields of inquiry. Queer theory has certainly enabled important developments in the theorisation of the Gothic, developments which have led the way towards new and exciting perspectives on the genre. From Sue Ellen Case's seminal 1991 essay, 'Tracking the Vampire' to George Haggerty's 2006 book Queer Gothic onwards, I would not hesitate to argue that this productive relationship has had a beneficial impact on Gothic Studies.1 But thinking about the queer theorisation of the Gothic only in terms of what queer theory has done for Gothic Studies might be a limiting way of approaching the subject. As Michael O' Rourke and David Collings have observed, it is not simply the case that the Gothic is always already queer; queer theory is also always already Gothic.2 In the queer tradition of shifting the reading lens, I would therefore like to turn the question around and consider how Gothic fiction has benefited queer theory. It is sometimes all too easy to view theory as illuminating literary texts and, in this essay, I will propose that the Gothic has had an equal, if not even more important, role in enabling the production of queer critical narratives.

Queer Theory Recognises the Gothic

Queer theorists recognise something powerfully compelling in the Gothic, something that keeps them returning to the genre for insights. This compulsion might itself be considered a little 'uncanny', in the sense that uncanny effects are often 'indissociably bound up with a sense of repetition or "coming back" - the return of the repressed . . . a compulsion to repeat'.3 I have certainly found myself returning repeatedly to Gothic horror fiction: a fan of the gruesome and spooky for as long as I can remember and an avid consumer of horror stories by the time I was in my early teens, the Gothic has since become one of my primary academic interests. This enthusiasm underscores my MA dissertation, PhD thesis and all my subsequent work, including, of course, this essay. Reading around the field, it soon becomes apparent that an interest in the Gothic compliments, and even encourages, an interest in GLBTQ Studies. Judith Halberstam, for instance, now more well-known for her work on transgender politics, published her first book on Gothic horror fiction.4 George Haggerty publishes on both the Gothic and the history of sexuality, bringing these concerns together in Queer Gothic.5 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, sometimes called 'the queen of queer theory', also began her scholarly career in the Gothic.6 In her groundbreaking books, she draws on the genre extensively to address the relationship between male homosocial desire and homophobia.7

Moreover, this sense of an affinity between the Gothic and Queer Studies is not only found in the work of specific theorists who have an interest in both fields of inquiry: at times the language and imagery of the Gothic seems to suffuse queer theory more generally. In the introduction to a collection of essays on lesbian and gay theory published in 1991, Diana Fuss comments on the contributors' persistence in referencing Gothic tropes: 'A striking feature of many of the essays collected in this volume is a fascination with the specter of abjection, a certain preoccupation with the figure of the homosexual as specter and phantom, as spirit and revenant, as abject and undead'.8 In her introduction, Fuss 'consistently draws attention to the intersections between sexuality and hauntology'.9 Underlying her observations is an implicit recognition that queer theory does not simply cast new light on the Gothic, and that it may even be truer to say that the Gothic enables Queer Studies. More recently, the impact that this productive relationship has had upon queer and Gothic scholarship is demonstrated in the collection of essays entitled Queering the Gothic, edited by William Hughes and Andrew Smith.

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