Dianne Chisholm (2004) Queer Constellations: Subcultural Space in the Wake of the City

Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN: 0816644047.

Catharina Landström

In Queer Constellations (2004) Dianne Chisholm extends the territory of literary scholarship beyond the analysis of writing. She develops theory, reconfigures space and outlines a queer methodology. Her project is about articulating ways of approaching urban space from beyond the dominant heterosexual perspective, without producing a purely negative mirror image of it. The book is positioned as a contribution to a genre of critical analysis initiated by Walter Benjamin. The substantial introduction situates Chisholm’s project in a web of theoretical relationships — to Benjamin’s work, to studies of space, to literary studies and to queer theory. A theme that runs through the entire book is Benjamin’s non-explicit comprehension of the city as a sexual space. This thread serves as an historical point of reference for Chisholm’s reading of queer city writing and as the position from which the significance of both the queer in city writing and the city in queer writing becomes visible. 

Chisholm understands urban space as constituted in social and cultural relationships, and continually changing. She brings forward the queerness of city space in this ‘radical intervention’ that engages intimately with Benjamin’s work. Benjamin’s theorisation of the city is brought in contact with gay and lesbian ‘city writing’ in a way that illuminates the ‘critical affinity’ Chisholm sees between the two. The idea of ‘critical affinity’ is explicated in a discussion of Samuel R. Delany’s writing about coming out as a black gay man in New York in the 1960s. Chisholm argues that Delany’s city writing, beyond being ‘distinctively contemporary and American, and specifically “gay black male”‘ (6) also invites a systematic comparison with Benjamin’s Arcades Project and essays on Baudelaire. She claims that they share the approach of the flâneur who walks through the city, paying attention to its specificities. They are also said to share an approach to the city as an erotic space, although Benjamin’s allegory centres on the figure of the female prostitute and Delany’s on the cruising gay man. Chisholm takes care not to collapse the comparison of the two authors’ works into a claim that their writings are basically the same; her argument is not for defining queer city writing in the terms of Benjamin’s project but for reading them together. It is the ‘intertextual engagement’ of queer city writers with Benjamin’s critical praxis that is interesting to her. 

Chisholm introduces the notion of ‘constellation’ as a non-realist way of representing space that does not aim to re-establish an oppositional hierarchy, but to change the way we understand the relationships between fiction and space. ‘Constellation’ is presented as an important element in Benjamin’s work that, elaborated into a ‘queer approach’, can move writing away from realist and heteronormative ways of representing space. The specificity of Chisholm’s critique is achieved by coupling the concepts of ‘constellation’ and ‘queer’. With regard to realist representations of space that aims towards unified, exhaustive and singular pictures of urban development ‘constellation’ introduces multiplicities, contradictions and tensions that cannot be resolved and turned into one ‘true’ image. ‘Queer’ mobilises the sexual marginal that heteronormativity defines as deviant and dangerous and that thrives in the spaces obliterated in ‘urban renewals’. When brought together, these concepts capture specific ways of experiencing and shaping social and material space. The narrative and material reference points for these concepts are illustrated with Delany’s narrative critique of the destruction of subcultural gay space through the ‘renewal’ of Times Square in New York. This renewal was intended to turn it into a ‘safe’, upper middle-class place, where there was no dangerous sexual loitering, no sex shops, and no porn cinemas or peep shows that attracted a variety of people who had made it into a shared space, supportive of marginalised identities. Chisholm’s queer reappropriation of Benjamin’s notion is intended to display queer city writing as a way of ‘blasting apart’ dominant narratives of urban progress, to reassemble ‘fragments of collective history into dialectical images’ (30) in a way that rejects the possibility of achieving an exhaustive, unified account of developing city space. 

To me, a reader from a science studies background, ‘constellation’ is also a notion that points to a new way of understanding the relationships between texts and their subject matter. For quite some time different values have been attached to those texts that claim to accurately represent reality and those that do not make such claims, i.e. texts that are said to be ‘true’ to individual experiences or aesthetic values. The notion of ‘constellation’ rejects this hierarchy, which relies on the imagined possibility of some texts to be able to ‘tell it all like it really was’ and use this as the measurement of truth. Instead it insists on the multitude, on the marginal, on the tensions and the contradictions, which are not resulting from the lack of knowledge but are, instead, a trait inherent in all writing. Defining queer city writing as a constellation enables Chisholm to perceive New York, London and Paris in lesbian and gay narratives not as fictional images of real places but rather as traces of the material and social relationships that constitute lived space.

Chapter one presents a critical reading of gay writing on bathhouses by, among many others, Allan Bérúbe and George Chauncey, as a way to inscribe the queer past of cities. In reading history and fiction about gay bathhouses through the categories of ‘fossil’, ‘fetish’, ‘wish image’ and ‘ruin’ derived from Benjamin, Chisholm manages to criticise nostalgia and consumerism in gay bathhouse writing, while being appreciative of these queer spaces as locations for the construction of gay experiences and identities.

In chapter two the focus is on memory. Chisholm explores the city as a product of remembering, using Benjamin’s work to define queer writing as critical counter-memory that brings forth sub-cultural space. In relation to Benjamin’s argument for separating reminiscence from autobiography, because it is shared with others, Chisholm introduces the term ‘collective memory’. She states that ‘Memory is possible because it is collective’ (101). She also says that we know ourselves as continuous individuals because we share memory with others. The idea of memory being collective is suggestive, not just because it socialises the experience of remembering the past but because it implies an interesting new relationship between text and reader. If memory is understood as a collective recollection of a past that was shared with some at the time and by others in the act of recollecting in writing, the reader of a text also becomes part of the remembering – not remembering in the same way as the author (or those present at the time) but as a newcomer to an inhabited space. The reader becomes a part of the remembering collective through the act of reading. Subsequently, a juxtaposition of narratives by Neil Bartlett, Eileen Myles and Gail Scott enables Chisholm to remember the spaces written out of official history. It allows her to show that there were some ways of living in the city that did not find the lack of white middle-class ‘safety’ and comfort to be the biggest problem. These urban spaces were there at the time when the heteronormative capitalist gaze saw only urban decay; they had a positive function for particular subcultures in which people formed queer identities. These are urban pasts that differ from those underpinning the heteronormative narrative of economic progress, but Chisholm is careful to point out that they did not exist independently of the capitalist logic but in complex relations with it. 

Chapter three rearticulates the flâneur in a montage of Benjamin’s, Gail Scott’s and Edmund White’s writings on Paris. Chisholm reads the history of Paris as seen with a queer gaze from the margin. She pitches White’s nostalgia against Scott’s postmodernism. This chapter locates the queer flâneur‘s gaze as a way of seeing space differently, as construed in relationships other than those acknowledged in dominant heteronormative representations. Chisholm presents this ‘queering’ of the flâneur as an articulation of themes that are present in Benjamin’s work, although not made explicit. In chapter four the city is New York and the figure is the bohemian. Chisholm brings forth New York as narrated in Sarah Schulman’s three novels Girls, Visions and Everything (1986), People in Trouble (1990) and Rat Bohemia (1995). She finds a lesbian bohemia that constitutes a specific New York urban space, part of the gentrification of the East Village, part of the local infrastructure, yet too other to be easily assimilated into any established academic perspective.

The conclusion is where the reader (Chisholm) returns to the story to reflect on the queer constellations of city space brought together in the book through her ‘montage’. Indeed, montage is yet another interesting concept in this book. Chisholm’s usage demonstrates a successful transposition of this term – most commonly applied to describe certain formats of visual culture (film and photography) – into the realm of textual analysis. Her book is to be considered a montage of montages: ‘The montage of Queer Constellations reassembles the montage embedded or implied in these fictions with heightened illumination and reflection; it constitutes a visionary prosthesis that enables us to see the dialectical trappings of our own age’ (251). ‘Montage’ comes through not just as any new approach but as an interestingly queer method in that it does not order the works discussed in any established epistemic or aesthetic hierarchy. This is important because established hierarchies always tend to subordinate and marginalise that which is not in agreement with dominant views of what the core of a process is. A montage of montages does not claim epistemic privilege but rather a possibility of generating new understandings through taking a different position. ‘Montage’ is a way to see queer city writing not as a representation of minority positions but as one of many, equally valid, ways of creating, experiencing and documenting urban life. 

Queer Constellations provides a queer rearticulation of central themes in Benjamin’s theorising of the city. Although Chisholm’s use of the notion ‘queer’ is not fully explicated – sometimes it appears as an umbrella term for gay and lesbian, at other occasions it appears together with these terms, and in yet other instances it refers to an oppositional sexual subject position – it works within the framework of the book. At times I found that the ambition to apply Benjamin’s concepts blurred the focus on queer city space; some of his theoretical schemes appear to be too rigidly enforced. As a reading of queer city writing the text would have gained from a more independent relationship to Benjamin’s frameworks. On the other hand, the book demonstrates the usefulness of Benjamin’s work in understanding the way queer city writing works, and how it constructs space. In this it clearly advances queer theory, perhaps to a larger degree than it captures the queer city. 

I find Chisholm’s methodological discussions of how to approach the study of that which is not and never will be ‘representative’ or ‘general’ very important. The theoretical depth of this book makes it a valuable resource that one can return to many times. Queer Constellations also serves as an introduction to queer writing. Although Chisholm’s own preferences are clearly for lesbian postmodernist writing, her vivid accounts of the texts she analyses serve as helpful lead-ins to all the works discussed.

Catharina Landström‘s background is in science and technology studies. She has done ethnographic and cultural research on biological sciences in Sweden and Australia. Over the years she has developed an interest in queer theory, feminist theory and cultural studies. She is teaching new media in London during 2005.