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Before Queer Theory

Victorian Aestheticism and the Self

Late Victorian aesthetes were dedicated to the belief that an artwork's value derived solely from its beauty, rather than any moral or utilitarian purpose. Works by these queer artists have rarely been taken seriously as contributions to the theories of sexuality or aesthetics. But in Before Queer Theory, Dustin Friedman argues that aestheticism deploys its "art for art's sake" rhetoric to establish a nascent sense of sexual identity and community.

Friedman makes the case for a claim rarely articulated in either Victorian or modern culture: that intellectually, creatively, and ethically, being queer can be an advantage not in spite but because of social hostility toward nonnormative desires. Showing how aesthetes—among them Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Vernon Lee, and Michael Field—harnessed the force that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called "the negative," Friedman reveals how becoming self-aware of one's sexuality through art can be both liberating and affirming of humanity's capacity for subjective autonomy.

Challenging one of the central precepts of modern queer theory—the notion that the heroic subject of Enlightenment thought is merely an effect of discourse and power—Friedman develops a new framework for understanding the relationship between desire and self-determination. He also articulates an innovative, queer notion of subjective autonomy that encourages reflecting critically on one's historical moment and envisioning new modes of seeing, thinking, and living that expand the boundaries of social and intellectual structures. Before Queer Theory is an audacious reimagining that will appeal to scholars with interests in Victorian studies, queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, and art history.

About the Author

Dustin Friedman is an assistant professor in the Department of Literature at American University.

Endorsements

"An exciting and original account of late-Victorian aestheticism that joins intellectual history, close reading, and queer theory. Against narratives that emphasize queer fragmentation, marginalization, and social determination, Friedman tells a story in which autonomy and freedom are given center stage. The book's literary sensitivity is matched by its critical acumen; revelatory."

- Benjamin Morgan, The University of Chicago, author of The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature

"This impressive book, written in compellingly lucid and assured prose, offers a distinctive contribution to the study of both aestheticism and queer theory."

- James Eli Adams, Columbia University, author of A History of Victorian Literature

"Dustin Friedman writes rigorously and compellingly about the investment of Victorian aestheticism in earlier aesthetic philosophy, especially Hegel and Kant, but also brings that inspiration to the present day with an insightful thesis on the conceptual challenge of aestheticism for recent queer theory. A very smart and readable discussion!"

- Ellis Hanson, Cornell University, editor of Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film

"A stunning debut that traces a genealogy of queer aesthetic thought from idealist philosophy to modern queer theory and routes this genealogy through British aestheticism. Focusing on the 'erotic negativity' of Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Vernon Lee, and Michael Field, Dustin Friedman shows how queer aesthetes at the fin de siècle asserted a homoeroticized version of Hegelian negativity, one that continues to inspire queer thought today."

- Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, University of California, Davis, author of Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture

"In a study of great passion and unusual lucidity, Dustin Friedman proposes a bold recalibration of our understanding of the intersection of same-sex desire and the development of modern aesthetics. How does the passionate response to beauty relate to the lived experience of non-normative sexual identity? How might concepts of historical development often taken to ratify the most conservative tendencies in culture provide models for recovering subject positions that evidently run counter to such tendencies? Moving beyond widely-held conventions and critical commonplaces, this study revivifies the work of major philosophers and critics even as it compellingly illuminates the fundamental role of illicit passions in shaping their influence. Informed at once by close attention to central debates in queer theory, nuanced engagement with the nineteenth-century aesthetic tradition, and careful analysis of the intersection of desire, idea, and form in major works of British aestheticism, Before Queer Theory offers a sound introduction to the major fields on which it touches and a heartfelt polemical intervention into recent debates on the articulation of queer identity with the past and future."

- Jonah Siegel, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, author of Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth-Century Culture of Art
Johns Hopkins University Press
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9781421431475 : before-queer-theory-friedman
Hardback
September 3, 2019
$94.95 USD
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Paperback / softback
September 3, 2019
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Electronic book text
September 3, 2019
$34.95 USD

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