Feminist Approaches to Theory and Methodology: An Interdisciplinary Reader

By Sharlene Hesse-Biber; Christina Gilmartin et al. | Go to book overview
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The Evidence of Experience

JOAN W. Scott

Becoming Visible

There is a section in Samuel Delany's magnificent autobiographical meditation, The Motion of Light in Water, that dramatically raises the problem of writing the history of difference, the history, that is, of the designation of "other, " of the attribution of characteristics that distinguish categories of people from some presumed (and usually unstated) norm. 1

Delany (a gay man, a black man, a writer of science fiction) recounts his reaction to his first visit to the St. Marks bathhouse in 1963. He remembers standing on the threshold of a "gym-sized room" dimly lit by blue bulbs. The room was full of people, some standing, the rest

an undulating mass of naked, male bodies, spread wall to wall. My first response was a kind of heart-thudding astonishment, very close to fear. I have written of a space at certain libidinal saturation before. That was not what frightened me. It was rather that the saturation was not only kinesthetic but visible. 2

Watching the scene establishes for Delany a "fact that flew in the face" of the prevailing representation of homosexuals in the 1950s as "isolated perverts, " as subjects "gone awry." The "apprehension of massed bodies gave him (as it does, he argues, anyone, "male, female, working or middle class") a "sense of political power":

what this experience said was that there was a population -- not of individual homosexuals . . . not of hundreds, not of thousands, but rather of millions of gay men, and that history had, actively and already, created for us whole galleries of institutions, good and bad, to accommodate our sex. [M, p. 174]

The sense of political possibility is frightening and exhilarating for Delany. He emphasizes not the discovery of an identity, but a sense of participation in a movement; indeed, it is the extent (as well as the existence) of these sexual practices that matters most in his account. Numbers -- massed bodies -- constitute a movement and this, even if subterranean, belies enforced silences about the range

Joan Scott, "The Evidence of Experience", in Critical Inquiry 178:3 ( 1991):773-97. Reprinted by permission.


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