Christine Varnado

The Shapes of Fancy offers a powerful new method of accounting for ineffable and diffuse forms of desire, mining early modern drama and prose literature to describe new patterns of affective resonance. It stages an impassioned defense of the inherently desirous nature of reading, making a case for readerly investment and identification as vital engines of meaning making and political insight.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read it?

Christine Varnado: The Shapes of Fancy is at its heart a book about reading: about how we read for erotic or affective energy in a literary text.  It asks how readers recognize and describe desires, ways of feeling, and relations that might be called “queer” in literature, and asks what that term means, theoretically and politically; what a queer methodology can uncover.  The book traces four recurring “shapes of fancy” through Renaissance drama and prose – being used to others’ ends; bottomless, promiscuous appetite; paranoid suspicion; and melancholic longing – that are qualitatively, structurally, stylistically “queer” modes of feeling, because of how, and not by whom, they’re expressed.

“Why will people want to read this book?” is a brilliantly META- question to ask about The Shapes of Fancy, since the book is centrally concerned with why anyone wants to read anything, and with the structuring condition of readerly want as a primary engine of meaning-making in a literary text!  I really intend the book to be used as a work of theory; I hope that people will adapt this affectively-attuned queer reading practice to other texts that attract their fancy.  I hope this book will invite reflection on the workings of identification and desire that animate its readers in the act of reading it, and I hope it will incite larger questions about where exactly desire, or queerness, inheres in any text or cultural object.

NOTCHES: You take a broad approach to the concept of ‘desire.’ Can you share one or two of your favourite examples to give us a flavour of the book and to illustrate your approach?

CV: Yes! Because my work is informed by psychoanalytic theory, I see desire as a pervasive, constitutive force circulating among bodies, material things, and aesthetic forms.  Desire doesn’t necessarily have a positive valence – more than half of the affective expressions that make up the book’s archive of feelings are quite unpleasant, ranging from the torment of incommunicable love to the things people say and do under torture. And desire is by no means always directed at a clear or apparent object, let alone a human love interest!  One of my aims in writing this book was to extend the ambit of queer theory or queer studies to include more non-alloerotic (non-partner-oriented), unconsummated (unconsummate-able?), and even multi-nodal or collective states of desiring.  To expand, in other words, what we talk about when we talk about desire.

For example, there’s a particular tenor of melancholic colonial desire, voiced by the failed Protestant colonizers of the French Huguenot colony in Brazil and the doomed English venture at Roanoke, that I explore in the book’s last chapter, “Lost Worlds, Lost Selves”: an impossible longing to be transformed into something you can never become, in order to possess something you can never possess. Jean de Léry, Thomas Harriot, and John White dream up these impossible, fantasmatic structures of relation and identification between themselves and native American people they encounter and then lose; fantastical relations which, as they’re figured in the texts, actually bend space-time.  I’m arguing that that’s a queer variety of desire.

NOTCHES: Do you think that historians and literary scholars have been too narrow-minded in their approaches to past sexualities? If so, how might we begin to change this?  

CV: I’m glad to be asked this question, because when I began writing this book (as my doctoral dissertation, so as long ago as 2006!), I felt a resistance in the field against departing too far from historicist agendas of re-constructing, as best we’re able, how subjects in the past would have viewed their sex acts, their relationships, or what we (and not they!) would call their sexualities. It wasn’t that that enterprise is narrow-minded – it isn’t! It’s incredibly rich and methodologically diverse and capacious!  It was more that historical questions had been so central in the discipline (back through the ground-breaking work of Alan Bray, Alan Sinfield, Jonathan Dollimore, Jonathan Goldberg, and of course the brilliant Valerie Traub); the focus had been so much on asking what was noticed, what was named, what were the emergent discourses and structuring material conditions and forces of historical change in the period, that I felt there wasn’t much space for interrogating weird shades of feeling that didn’t necessarily signal any big constitutive historical difference or discursive shift.  There wasn’t much space, I felt, for thinking about whether some “weird” erotics and affects might feel “queer” to some readers today because of how they resonate forward in time, through the centuries of literature and culture (including all of so-called “modern” gay or queer culture) stretching in between the moment of a text’s production and the moment in which it’s read.

But the most wonderful thing has happened since that moment in the mid-2000s – enough other people felt that way too, it seems, that the field looks completely different now.  Early modern sexuality studies has undergone a methodological explosion over the past ten years, a proliferation of new, diverse theoretical approaches to gender, desire, and embodiment…. This is represented not only in new work by leading scholars like Carla Freccero, Jeffrey Masten, Madhavi Menon, and Valerie Traub, but in the first books of people like Simone Chess, James Bromley, Will Fisher, Vin Nardizzi, Will Stockton, and Melissa Sanchez.  It shows no sign of abating, either: current work in the field is exploring technology, philology, material arts, trans theory, reproduction, race, performance, disability, class, and asexuality.  So my book now comes into the world on a rising wave of inventive, unabashedly political scholarship by Alicia Andrzejewski, Abdulhamit Arvas, Liza Blake, Ari Friedlander, Joey Gamble, Colby Gordon, Sawyer Kemp, and Aley O’Mara, among many, many others.

NOTCHES: In your introduction, you write about the challenges of pinning down historical desires, asking the reader ‘Are you perfectly sure that when whoever has survived to do historical research on this planet in five hundred years…tries to reconstruct early twenty-first-century sexualities, they will be able to read the totality of your desires in the archive.’ Can you tell us about the sources you used to research this book, and the challenges they posed?

CV: I’m obsessed with the long, long-durée problems posed by “deep time” and the question of what, if anything, will remain of us.  I hope that we manage not to burn the planet to a crisp so that there are people; and if they have the time and resources to be curious about us, to me that would be a giant win for humanity.  But I think this question, of what can be known about a life from the archive, ramifies on every scale down to the most intimate.  Like when you find old letters or journals by a family member – or even by your younger self – and you realize that the narrative written down on the page doesn’t come close to conveying the full emotional reality of what was happening.  So I really want to insist, in this book, that much of the erotic and psychic content of real, felt, lived human experience is not recorded at all, let alone in any way that might be legible by historical methods.  To me this is why speculative, fantasmatic interpretive practices founded in readerly identification and readerly desire – reading for desire – are absolutely legitimate and necessary methods of knowledge production.  Because there is affective content in human culture that cannot be accessed by other means.  And imaginative literature – the reading of literature, which is an essentially imaginative process – is one of the places where it comes out, or comes closer to the surface.  Towards that end, my archive in The Shapes of Fancy includes not only drama but popular prose literature – witchcraft pamphlets and colonial voyage accounts – which I’m reading as imaginative literature: as texts that dramatize the complicated webs of desire knitting together people and things in a specific scene.

NOTCHES: Much of your book is based on literary texts, but some of these relate to real-life events. For example, one of your case studies focuses on the witch-hunts and trials which took place in England and Scotland in the decades around 1600. In what sense can these processes be viewed as erotic activities, and how can ‘queering’ these events help us to understand them?

CV: Witches and queers have a long history of being associated with, and accused of being, one another.  (Do they really exist?  Are they born that way or made?  How can you tell when you’re looking at one?  Meeting at night, in secret locations, to do unspeakable things together; engaging in unnatural acts with animals and objects; overthrowing the government…)  The catalyzing dynamic for this chapter occurred to me out of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, with its historical allegory to the “witch hunt” of McCarthyism, and the persecution of gay and lesbian Americans in the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s. I realized that many witch hunt plots are founded on the underlying structure of a suspected secret – constitutively, a sexual secret, intimately tied up in class and gender disparities and sexual norms – that one party harbors and the other guesses but must try to prove; or that one party dreams up and projects onto another, who must defend herself against a libel that can be effectively, discursively made true through “discovery.”  As in McCarthyism (and other deployments of homophobia), the circulation of information about a person’s secret status becomes a powerful weapon.  Attempts to deny what the community (and soon the state) suspects or “knows” about you are futile – what we see narrated instead, in pamphlets like Newes from Scotland (with a few interesting exceptions) is that the accused start to play along, desperately naming names and trying to give the witch-finders what they want, in these overdetermined, collusive performances of “witch-ness.”

There’s been so much brilliant scholarship on the historical, material, and theological dimensions of early modern witch beliefs, but what I wanted to do in that chapter was to return to the role of eros in the witch panic – and all the dynamics of gender, sexuality, class, and nation implicated therein.  To see “witch-ness” as one kind of secret sexual status, which can be connected to and analysed alongside other kinds of secret, deviant sexual status (that of a bigamist, for example, in the play The Witch of Edmonton).  So I’m reading the witch hunt as an erotically-powered, queer-producing and queer-persecuting, paranoid mechanism of “truth” production.  One feature of witch hunt literature that’s highlighted anew by this queer reading – inspired, in fact, by Eve Sedgwick’s elaboration of how “paranoid reading” works, and her use of Melanie Klein’s psychoanalysis of object relations – is the central role played by nonhuman material things, scraps of linen, hairs, straw, tools, and familiar animals, which attract and attach the community’s witch-making desires onto the body of the witch.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it? Was there anything which you had to leave out?

CV: I realized more and more as I was writing The Shapes of Fancy that it’s a book about reading literature. I’m glad I was able to get the words “Reading for” in the title – “Reading for Queer Desire” – and “Reading for Desire” in the Introduction.  With each chapter, each queer affective mode, I had to limit myself to two major texts as case studies – with minor gestures at so many other attractive examples of the kinds of dynamics I describe.  I hope that readers will fill in the connections to yet other texts, and expand my ideas outward to generate a larger, collaborative picture of these unsung queer affects in literature.

NOTCHES: This book is about sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

CV: In addition to the big one, the question of what reading is and what kinds of knowledge literary reading – and queer reading in particular – can produce, I see The Shapes of Fancy as speaking to what I sometimes call “Freud / Foucault Problems”: that is, the question of how stable human nature is over time, or how innately, even essentially structured, versus how externally, culturally produced and historically contingent, the human subject and human drives might be.  I think this is a false dichotomy, both because universalizing psychoanalytic narratives are themselves profoundly historically contingent, and because there’s obviously something, some property of language to communicate intensities of feeling, that allows fictive descriptions of human relationality, human wants, and human affects to be perceived, and to affect readers, across the whole human archive.  It’s the intricate knot of conditions and causalities and possible critical narratives that you get when you bring Freud and Foucault together that I find exciting.

This book also offers a defense of humanistic modes of interpretation against what I call “empiricism envy” – an anxiety of legitimacy where scholars of literature and the arts risk forgetting what makes us distinct from historians and social scientists.  In my Conclusion, “The Persistence of Fancy,” I argue that the dominance of historicism has been conditioned, at many locations in the academy, by neoliberal administrative demands for quantifiablility, falsifiability, and the verifiable discovery of new information – STEM values which are being applied across disciplines as the uniform measure of scholarly merit.  Humanities scholars find ourselves in what Melanie Klein and Eve Sedgwick call a “paranoid position”: terribly alert to ever-present danger, and consumed by a defensive fixation on anticipating and averting harm.

Empiricism envy tempts because the paranoid position places its faith in exposure.  The empiricism-envious humanist’s imaginary monologue goes something like: “We must prove that we’re not superfluous by proving that we’re not in the least motivated by pleasure, but by the much more legitimate affect of pain.  If we can just prove that all of these horrible, violent things really happened in the past, and/or are still really happening, all over, right now – if we can document it beyond a shadow of a doubt – then the administrative powers-that-be will see that we really do provide value according to their metrics, and they’ll stop hurting us.”

This liberal faith in exposure is so entrenched in 20th century politics – it reaches back to Jacob Riis and Upton Sinclair, through the documentary projects of James Agee, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange, up through Woodward and Bernstein in Watergate, and the ubiquitous present-day politics of “raising awareness.”  But I think the events of recent years have demonstrated, more vividly than ever, what Sedgwick says about exposure in “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading”: that exposure – of facts, of historical events, of material, climatological, microbial, bodily, and structural realities, of “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism) – does not work.  It does not necessarily bring about political change.

So, then, what I want to insist that we must not do is abandon what the teaching and reading of literature can do – which is to offer our students flashes from alternative universes, bolts of sympathy and wounding and care and love and rage and beauty which can spark the ability to imagine worlds and selves that might be organized otherwise.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

CV: What a great question to ponder – one dream scenario would be to see (at least) my Introduction, “Reading for Desire,” assigned in non-early-modern literature courses, methods courses like the survey of literary theory, or critical approaches to interpretation, alongside people like Roland Barthes, Shoshanna Felman, Wai Chee Dimock, and Eve Sedgwick…

Happily, I’ve heard that The Shapes of Fancy is contributing to critical race studies classroom conversations about early modern colonial encounters, alongside Thomas Harriot and John White’s A Briefe and True Report of the New-Found Land of Virginia and Jean de Léry’s Histoire d’un voyage (my primary texts) and scholarship by Jennifer Morgan, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, and Hortense Spillers.  At the end of that chapter I take up the mythology of the “lost colony of Roanoke” as a form of colonial melancholia that extends from the Briefe and True Report to the present day, and a constituent element of the white supremacist mythology of the Trump era.  I would love to hear about what uses people might find for that section in the classroom.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in historical sexualities, and what drew you to this topic in particular?

CV: I grew up in the deep south, in a small town in Mississippi, in a very sexually repressive Protestant Christian culture.  And one of the lines that was always used to justify a strict patriarchal and homophobic code of sexual behaviour – the appearance of adherence to which was required for continued membership in the bourgeois white social world – was that this sexual code was immemorial, foreordained in Biblical times, an immutable moral law of the universe.  And this Protestant regime was very invested in the training and disciplining of desire; there was only one right thing to want, and you were not supposed to want anything else.  (Melissa Sanchez brilliantly historicizes the monogamy piece of this white Christian ideology in her new book, Queer Faith.)

But then, through reading literature and through acting in the theater, I would receive these encrypted signals from other universes.  I don’t even mean representations of same-sex desire; I mean the most fleeting hints of the unruly, perverse passions that have always swirled through human culture.  The Oedipal triangle of need and desire that binds Wendy and Peter Pan and Captain Hook.  It was what Eve Sedgwick describes as the queer child’s survival strategy of attaching intently to texts and cultural objects “whose meaning seemed mysterious, excessive, or oblique in relation to the codes most readily available to us.”  So with The Shapes of Fancy, it was important to me to keep faith with my early, experienced sense that flashes of queer, identificatory libidinal hailing, or recognition, or aspiration, strike readers at unpredictable moments, at angles that often don’t map on to topical representation or manifest content.  Because these flashes offer alternative affective possibilities, outside of the hegemonic regime on offer, which insists that things have never been otherwise.

Then, at the same time, around matters of race on the other hand, the brutal injustices of one generation past – the apartheid of the Jim Crow system, denial of the vote to Black people, and the racist violence against Civil Rights movement activists (the 1966 Klan murder of voting rights organizer Vernon Dahmer in the county next to mine) – were described as the events of an utterly bygone historical epoch.  White adults’ casually racist speech was routinely, apologetically, explained to me by other, well-meaning adults with the phrase, “they’re just a product of their time.”  That very historicist phrase was made to do the work of both totalizing causal explanation – as though “their time” were a machine that would inevitably spit out only this one possible product – and moral exculpation.

So as I became more politically activated around both feminist and queer sexual politics and American racism, I was drawn to think critically, as I became a literature scholar, about which human desires and tendencies and norms really do (and don’t) persist across long expanses of temporal and cultural distance, about all of the ways in which literary form can transmit erotic and affective energies across time besides direct representation, about how complicated it is for anyone or anything to be “a product of its time” – and about what assertions of historical difference and historical change can be used to obscure.

NOTCHES: Why does this history, and these texts, matter today?

CV: It’s becoming more and more evident every day that desire, and sexuality, and bodily sex, and gender identity are vastly more complex, more multivalent phenomena than anyone has previously acknowledged.  I hope that The Shapes of Fancy takes part in some way in the burgeoning conversation tackling the fact that the old binary models of same-sex versus opposite-sex, physical versus social, or even human versus non-human, don’t hold up.  There is so much important work being done in this area right now: in Trans Studies Quarterly; in the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies special issue on Early Modern Trans Studies; by Mel Y. Chen and Eva Hayward and Micha Cárdenas and many more.

NOTCHES: What are you working on now that your book is published?

CV: My second book project is called Queering Birth, Queering Death: Sex and the Problem of Life in Literature, Pre- and Post-Modern.  It’s a big theoretical inquiry into the problem of what counts as “life,” and how something recognizable as life enters and leaves the world.  It’s centrally focused on Macbeth, taking the old New Critical joke-question “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” (which was intended to mock older modes of character-based analysis) seriously as the central cosmological question posed by the play.  I’m also close-reading the figurations of liminal forms of life in early modern infanticide pamphlets and childbirth manuals next to the rhetorics used in debates over abortion, and the criminalization of miscarriage and stillbirth for women of color, in the U.S. today.  I’m arguing that “birth” and “death” are anything but straightforward, unidirectional, or even “natural” processes.

The “queering death” half of the book begins with a study of the intricate decorative art made from the bones of Capuchin brothers in the crypt of the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, reading it as a queer, ornamental, collective mode of death.  But it is certainly going to transform as I struggle to incorporate what we’ve learned about death and trauma and the human by living through the coronavirus pandemic.

Christine Varnado is an assistant professor in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo-SUNY- a newly-reconstituted department that is also one of the oldest women’s and gender studies departments in the United States. In addition to The Shapes of Fancy, she has published essays about “Invisible Sex”, “Queer Nature; Or, The Weather in Macbeth”, and “The Quality of Whiteness: The Thief of Bagdad and The Merchant of Venice”. She also teaches about and collaborates in preserving the queer history of Buffalo with the members of radical grassroots history nonprofit, the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project. She tweets from @eyweltschmerz.

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