Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

31 July 2014

On Gentleness in Critical Thought

My dear friend Cassidy and I recently appeared together on a panel at the ATHE LGBTQ pre-conference in which we were asked to present manifestos. Mine was less of a manifesto (I tend to feel less sure about things the older I get), and more of an attempt to puzzle through some recent debates on the internet about cultural appropriation and cultural stylistics. (I posted it here a week ago or so.)

Cassidy's manifesto was a plea for more critical generosity (a term I've heard rather often in recent days), and what Cassidy specifically argued against was what my friend termed the "call-out culture" of the internet. Cassidy's argument – as I understood it – was that the internet is a place where we hide, where we say things we wouldn't normally say about people we wouldn't normally denigrate, where (because of anonymity) we have the ability to take stands and make pronouncements that we wouldn't normally make. This, Cassidy acknowledged, was both a good thing and a bad thing, but what my friend was hoping for was more conversation, more dialogue between parties who disagreed. Generosity, dialogue, exchange, Cassidy argued, was what queer community was about.

I haven't really experienced much of this "calling out" on the internet. I avoid the comment section of all YouTube videos and most articles I read. These comment sections are invariably filled with angry, incoherent screeds penned hastily and unthinkingly, and I find that very little can be argued in the usually very small number of words in a posted comment. I avoid long rants on facebook, too, and when someone is rude on my wall, I simply block them so that they can't comment on what I post any longer. This is all because (as anyone who is close to me knows) I value politeness a great deal. I think that society, propriety, is really important. We should be nice to one another. We should treat one another with care and avoid being rude at all costs. Nobody likes a jerk, but if I notice someone being publicly rude, I am apt to turn against that person forever. Politeness, to me, is paramount: a way of moving through the world with grace and generosity.

I did, nonetheless, recently get embroiled in a minor spat on the facebooks. (I didn't respond to anything at all, but others spoke – quite rudely and unthinkingly, in fact – about something I had said with which they took issue.) I have been deeply troubled by this impoliteness for the last three days. I know we oughtn't to take such things personally, and I know people can say things hastily and without thinking because of their own feelings and sensitivities, and so I returned in my own thought to critical generosity and the power of dialogue between parties who disagree.

Meanwhile, I've been reading Madhavi Menon's Shakesqueer: a Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare, a volume that collects 48 different essays by various queer theorists, each of which treats a different text from the Shakespearean canon (and some Shakespearean apocrypha, as well) and tries to excavate queer theory from Shakespeare rather than to bring queer theory to the texts. In a book with nearly fifty essays they are not all going to be great, obviously, but I am a little over a third of the way through now and there are some really great ones. And sure enough, a couple of days ago I ran across an essay by Cary Howie entitled "Stay" that theorizes exactly the kind of critical generosity for which my friend Cassidy was arguing. And Howie uses Henry VI, Part 3 to theorize this, no less!

Howie points to the many times that characters in 3HenryVI ask other characters to "stay", and theorizes that The demand to stay is always, in other words, a demand to stay with someone, to keep someone company, to inhabit a shared time or sense of time. To refuse this demand is to refuse what could be said to be common, a refusal highlighted by Edward's ironic "we": togetherness, the acknowledgment that the first person plural binds us somehow. Howie tells us that requests for patience are often coded in the text as "feminine": (to stay is to acquiesce to the demands of a "wrangling woman").

He further argues that King Henry's own tendency to go off and think by himself is a fundamentally solitary one. It does not solve the problem of the social; it avoids the social altogether. What Howie tells us is that To stay with a text like Henry VI, Part 3 is also, then, to stay with one another, to acknowledge patiently what happens in the middle of things, where we are reading and living, singularly and in common, but also writing and fighting and waiting and dying; where one of the hardest things to do, but also one of the most necessary, is to resist the impulse to say what we will or will not become. But the alternative to this is not retreat – not withdrawing into ourselves or our own cliques where we can avoid conference and community.

Howie then asks us: What would a gentle criticism look like? Could it disrupt the violence that so often attends this play's staging of the body in haste? Could it even disrupt [...] the brokenness, the ungentle extremes, of our critical habits, accustomed as we so frequently are to the form and the fantasy of disputation? How can we begin to treat our texts and one another more gently? Henry VI, Part 3 provides us with at least one gesture toward a response. It invites us to stay here. Stay longer. Wait a while. Something or someone may still – may even, and this is the most shocking thing, gently – take us by surprise.

I am thankful to Cassidy (and also to John Fletcher) for thinking through these things, and for putting me on a road to thinking about them myself. The importance of such critical generosity in acrimonious times such as these ought not to be underestimated, particularly within groups we refer to as our own communities.