Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Un/making Sexuality: Such Is Life and the Observant Queer Reader

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Un/making Sexuality: Such Is Life and the Observant Queer Reader

Article excerpt

An organising trope of the critical response to Joseph Furphy's Such is Life (1903), especially since the 1940s, has been the novel's ambiguity (see Thomson). The focus of this scholarly interest is the unreliably erudite and sometimes labyrinthine musing of the 'bushman--bookworm' narrator, Tom Collins. Thus Frances Devlin Glass reads Furphy's creation as 'an unreliable philosopher' (84); John Barnes as 'an uncomprehending narrator' ('Observant Reader' 162); and Susan Lever as 'not merely unreliable but an unstable identity' (162). Sustained fascination with the equivocation of the narrator, and with the ironic structure of the novel, has highlighted an affinity not only with eighteenth-century literary traditions of Menippean satire (see Turner; Docker) or modernist writing (see Phillips), but also 'with postmodernist techniques of intertextuality and parody' (Lever 161).

A more intriguing and specific argument made by Lever is that the uncertainty of Furphy's writing is relevant to feminist literary debates, because 'his novels proclaim an interest in gender and representation, gendered writing and reading' (157). In this essay, I want to explore Lever's suggestive claim that 'there is no settled reality, even no clearly-defined sexuality' in Such is Life (161), using queer theory. To add productively to discussion of this trope of ambiguity, I want to propose that the incertitudes of Furphy's magnum opus provide the observant queer reader with an arousing focus on the late-nineteenth-century making of 'sexuality' as a new regulatory system of sexual organisation. In advocating an engagement between Such is Life and queer theory, I want to ask, how does Furphy represent sexuality in Such is Life? and what is the analytical purchase provided by a queer reading of the text?

In practice, queer has generally been mobilised in the service of non-normative sexualities and desires to destabilise and contest the often concealed hegemony of what Michael Warner has termed 'heteronormativity'. Warner's neologism helps draw our attention to the ways in which heterosexuality strategically operates within modern Western cultures: 'clothed in goodwill and intelligence' (xxiii), it seems a priori 'natural', 'normal', and trans-historical. Judith Butler describes this cultural phenomenon--the naturalising of heterosexuality as the only intelligible and meaningful form of sexual and gender organisation--as a violent effect of 'the heterosexual matrix':

   The heterosexualisation of desire requires and institutes the
   production of discrete and symmetrical oppositions between
   'feminine' and masculine', where these are understood as
   expressive attributes of 'male' and 'female'. The cultural matrix
   through which gender identity has become intelligible requires
   that certain kinds of 'identities' cannot exist--that is, those
   in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the
   practices of desire do not follow from either sex or gender.

Queer theories claim to provide techniques which disrupt and complicate this heterosexual matrix. Annamarie Jagose elaborates:

   Resisting a model of stability--which claims heterosexuality as
   its origin, when it is more properly its effect--queer focuses on
   the mismatches between sex, gender and desire [...] queer locates
   and exploits the incoherencies in those three terms which
   stabilise heterosexuality. (3)

Like much Furphy criticism, then, queer theories invest rhetorically in a trope of ambiguity, albeit a trope generally invoking sexual indeterminacy. In language that is almost poetic, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick claims that queer signifies 'the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically' (Tendencies 8). …

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