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Nationalisms and Sexualities.

Nationalisms and Sexualities, a selection of essays from a 1989 Harvard conference, grew out of the determination of its editors, Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yeager, to insert the missing term of sexuality in the growing debates on nationalisms. Drawing upon varied theories and disciplines, twenty-three essays examine convergences of sexualities and nationalisms in a wide range of cultural texts -- gay, feminist, postcolonial, African-American and Euro-American. While earning the plural nouns of the title, this breadth is never overpowering, largely because of the editors' grouping of essays along six themes.

The theme proposed for the otherwise absorbing essays in Part I, "(De)Colonizing Gender," is looser than most: the "alter|ations~" by "colonialisms and postcolonialisms . . . of national and sexual identities" (9). In a fine reading of Nuruddin Farah's Maps, Rhonda Cobham unveils the "crisis in gender and sexual identities" produced when anti-imperial struggles in Africa became nationalist; staged in African literary traditions as a whole, such crises have been ignored by critics intent on recovering "prelapsarian African innocence" (43, 56). Another determined silence, this time within Indian nationalist narratives, is challenged in Gayatri C. Spivak's impressive reading of Mahasweta Devi's story of bonded female prostitution; the essay is part of Spivak's ongoing scrutiny of the processes through which the "unaccommodated female body" is always positioned "elsewhere," outside the narratives of nation (112, 98). Also enlightening are Jonathan Goldberg's reading of the textual schizophrenia produced by the trope of sodomy in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, and Julianne Burton's study of the sexualized "packaging of Latin America" in post World War II Disney animations. Both essays reveal the inexhaustible anxieties and metaphors-of-othering generated by sexualities in U. S. nationalist texts spanning three centuries.

However, a fifth essay threatens the coherence of these four by raising broader, though not more compelling, theoretical questions. Proposing "nationalism as a subject amenable to deconstructive investigation," R. Radhakrishnan warns that some of these investigations are themselves fixed in totalized categories of, for instance, gender and subalternity (79). Though routine and perfunctory, this essay challenges the assumptions of the others in Part I; the book provides no forum for an answer.

In contrast, Part II, "Tailoring the Nation," is imaginatively titled and coherent. Focusing on the "(ad)dress of the national subject" (10), a neglected site for nationalism's tailoring of sexualities, this section offers three elegant readings: Ann Rosalind Jones's and Peter Stallybrass's discussion of the fixation, in sixteenth-century English colonial discourse, on the Irish mantle; Norman S. Holland's disclosure of the surprising ways in which a tailor's sartorial philosophy controls the production of "the modern |Cuban~ consumer as national subject" in Cecilia Valdes (153); and Marjorie Garber's dazzling analysis of a recent French transvestite spy scandal that disclosed the ability of cross-dressing to "figure not only the conundrums of gender and erotic identities, but also . . . other kinds of border crossing, like acting and spying" (125).

Part III, "The Other Country," looks at the nation's efforts to contain transgressions by "projecting beyond its own borders the sexual practices or gender behaviors it deems abhorrent" (10). Some of these five essays dwell too long on familiar matters. Cindy Patton scrupulously details a nationalist projection drawing on "the persistent Western descriptions of Africa as a catastrophe and as heterosexual" to invent "a distant African AIDS" (222, 219); and Donna J. Guy's essay on "White Slavery" offers an intriguing instance of how one such projection backfired. More literary and less remarkable projections are examined in Greta N. Slobin's reading of V. Aksenov's Island of Crimea and Sander L. Gilman's intertextual reading of two German novels. But as in Part I, a fifth essay dissolves the coherence of the section. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's warning against the temptation to fix nationalisms in tropes of the Other -- a theoretical move that will produce "always accurate but spectacularly unanalytic diagnosis" (239) -- remains outside the scope of other essays and unaddressed. Again, one wishes for a forum that could bring essays into dialogue.

Part IV, "Spectacular Bodies," is an interesting but uneven section examining how various narratives of nation "create sexed bodies as public spectacles" (12). The book's single African-American discussion appears here, in Joyce Hope Scott's tracing of the spectacle of the sexualized black female body across the male Black Nationalist literary tradition. Catherine Portuges examines the Hungarian filmmaker Marta Meszaros's staging of gender politics, sexuality and nationalism in the female body. In an exacting psychoanalytic discussion of the Dublin riots over Playboy of the Western World, Stephen Tiffts analyzes how the play unleashed the "perpetually mobile Oedipal crisis" of Irish nationalism by allegorizing its ambivalences: its addiction to parricide and its "embarrassment of fathers," both Irish and English (321, 319). The most incisive essay here is Lee Edelman's account of the "uncontrollably figuralizing effects" of homosexuality; the disclosure of the homosexuality of Lyndon Johnson's chief of staff turns the men's room and cloaca into an "unacknowledged ideological battleground" for the nationness of the United States, a site of dark imaginings about sodomy, the loss of solid manly essences, defection and defecation (277, 270).

Part V, "To Govern is to Populate," is again coherent and enlightening. Its three essays focus on the nation's production of subjects. Henry Abelove notes that as the production of goods and babies became privileged in eighteenth-century England, so were leisure and non-baby-producing sexual practice demoted to idleness and "foreplay"; Abelove then proposes a compelling hypothesis linking "the invention of foreplay |and~ capitalism . . . the invention of industrial work-discipline |and~ heterosexuality" (340). In another absorbing development of this theme, Geraldine Heng and Janadas Devan target the Singapore government's recent efforts to mandate birth-rates along racial and class lines -- a sign of unease before "sexuality for its own sake, unproductive of babies, or babies for their own sake, unproductive of social and economic efficiency" (347). Seth Koven's interesting study traces a different production in Edwardian England, that of manly British citizens among the "rough lads" and "hooligans" of the working classes (379).

Part VI, "Women, Resistance and the State," departs from other sections in its soberly descriptive title and its focus on gender over sexuality; by isolating this section from others, the book limits its efforts to interact with various cultural studies. Conflicts and parallels between anti-imperialist nationalisms and women's struggles are traced in three essays: Ketu Katrak's discussion of the reconfiguration of sexualities and gender in Gandhian nationalism; Valentine M. Moghadam's study of the contradictions in the gender politics of Afghani and Iranian nationalisms; and Mary Layoun's discovery of the "at least momentary fluidity" assigned to Palestinian women in the "narrative spaces" of both the nationalist struggle and the novels of Sahar Khalifeh (412). As in Part III, the essays sometimes dwell on familiar material, but remain sufficiently substantive and urgent to deserve better integration in the book.

Most of the essays in Nationalisms and Sexualities are enlightening, incisive, and highly readable; even those that cover familiar ground, or appear to be telling too good (too tightly-plotted) a story, remain open to exciting intertextual readings. With the exception of Part VI, the essays are grouped imaginatively and provocatively enough to evolve from a conference's miscellany into a book. My quibbles are over the book's poor integration of Part VI, its disappointing omission of Native American and lesbian perspectives, its minimal representation of the African American, and some aspects of its Introduction. Though generally helpful, the editors often adopt an annoying hands-off policy when describing differences between various approaches. Given a forum in which these differences could be theorized, Nationalisms and Sexualities would be an impressive book.
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Author:Sagar, Aparajita
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:1258
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