Review: Marjorie Garber’s ‘Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety’

Right, let’s get the emotive bit out of the way before I get to the critical bit. I hated this book when I read it. I hate it now. I hate it for taking up 3 months of my life. It is an awful piece of writing. Okay, that’ll probably trickle throughout the review, but I’ll keep it as critical as possible. Also, my total lack of output for the last… several months is down to suddenly being made full time, and preparing for conferences. The next review is Catherine Spooner’s Post-millenial Gothic, which is a good piece of academic work.

Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety has a promising title for anyone interested in any form of cross-dressing. It’s a title that promises intimating something comprehensive, perhaps the book has been designed as an introductory text that won’t attempt grab at too many grand statements. It even has a nice pun.

Then, on opening the thing, alarm bells start ringing. You see it’s from 1992. Anyone who has ventured into the humanities academic texts of the 80s and 90s knows this isn’t a good sign. I’m not saying these texts are bad, but they mark a very culturally specific moment in Humanities scholarship. It is marked by texts like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Edward Said’s Orientalism. These are not bad texts. They are defining texts of many contemporary disciplines. They are, however, profoundly inaccessible. Humanities scholarship at this point decided it was going to write in an overly complex, comma heavy style. I have my own thoughts about this moment. They mainly situate this writing style as a kind of cultural anxiety that the topics being discussed need to be dressed up to be accepted by the established academe. It would make sense, considering the big academic texts (e.g. Orientalism) broached that entirely new and apparently ‘improper’ area of criticism: (very very) broadly, cultural studies. I think the writing style came from anxiety about new subject matter being ‘improper’ and was then popularised because these texts were also ground breaking. Vested Interests sits itself towards the end of the this period, where the writing style is firmly established, popular, and the dominant critical format.

The second alarm bell is that this person take a psychoanalytic approach. I am not in favour of this approach. Psychoanalysis has its place, but its grand unifying-ness makes it both easy to implement, and easy to get wrong. Garber falls into the latter often. The text overly applies this theory, as well as a crude attempt at being Derridean, in addition to its overly complicated writing style, to be totally inaccessible, and mostly incorrect. In terms of broad strokes, Garber uses the critical equivalent of a paint roller. In her own words, Garber ‘began this book by noting how frequently the phenomenon of cross-dressing, or transvestism, is looked through rather than at in critical and cultural analyses—how often, indeed how insistently, cultural observers have tried to make it mean something, anything, other than itself.’ To do this, Garber looks at every instance of cross-dressing she can think of: cross-dressing, transvestism, transgenderism (transsexualism in the book), drag, film, musicals, military shows. There are trips to the ‘Orient’, and time travel adventures to Early modern theatre. In all these examples, there is supposed to be this attempt to look at cross-dressing, rather than using it to an end. Garber does not do this. She does not focus on the cultural specificity of these instances of cross-dressing, working to collapse them into an archetypal ‘transvestite’ figure. In Vested Interests, cross-dressing in military shows serves the same purpose as drag and Harlem ball culture, which are the same as cross-dressing in Oriental cinema. Garber then collapses this further to fit this into a psychoanalytic lens. At this point, I’d also like to point out that Garber specialises in Early modern theatre, particularly Shakespeare. Yet, she has the audacity to lay claim to every instance of cross-dressing she can think of. There is no sense of self-awareness, no insistence that certain things are beyond the scope of her understanding (and judging by the bibliography, the scope of the research performed for this book.) There’s not even anything as simple as ‘I don’t really know much about this, and I will leave this area for other, better suited, scholars, but from what I can interpret, I think it’s really interesting.’ Or some similarly convoluted sentence admitting a lack of knowledge. It genuinely worries me how scholars can possibly be confident in their absolute knowledge of a field, just because no one has written directly on it.

Vested Interests is a hugely problematic text. It is mildly homophobic in places, has tended towards racism in others, and seemed to rely on a reader’s lack of knowledge to get away with certain theorisations of evidence. I remember the text referring to Marsha P. Johnson as a transvestite, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as some kind of performing troupe. The former is a gross misunderstanding of Marsha, who was a trans-woman and drag queen. The latter is a decidedly tactical use of language and reliance on a reader’s lack of knowledge. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were at no point simply a performing troupe. They have always (as far as my knowledge of them extends anyway) been an activist and charity drag organisation. Anyone using them as an example would know that context. I am somewhat astounded that such poor academic practice could be published, but perhaps that’s because of my own historical and contextual viewpoint.

With all that said, there are some positives to glean from this text. It is an influential text on cross-dressing, and it’s 390 pages of A4. There are a few select points of quality scholarship, once you’ve panned through all the silt. Its breadth is both a blessing and a curse in that way. If it was approached differently, with some statements admitting lack of total knowledge, whole swaths of text might have been viewed in a better light. And if anything, Vested Interests is a prime example of what not to do when producing academic scholarship.

Which brings me smoothly back to the title. At the point of entry, this seemed like a good title. When closing page 390, there is a glaring issue with it. It’s the word ‘anxiety’. It’s singular. Finishing the text, I realised this should have been my first warning signal. Cross-dressing, in all its culturally specific forms, with all the ways of approaching it, only enacts one cultural ‘anxiety’. On the front of the book is that attempt to collapse a highly varied medium that can only be fully understood within cultural contexts (plural) into a singular ‘anxiety’. Cross-dressing, for Garber, is the universal ‘third’, outside of, transgressing, and violating all binaries. It is singular, and enacts a singular ‘anxiety’, which expresses the book’s desire to collapse and reduce.

TLDR

What I liked?

There is an attempt to shed light on cross-dressing. There is an attempt to theorise it. There’s some solid stuff in there if you are willing to wade through the rest.

What I learnt?

There are some films, journal articles, and books I ought to follow up. What not to do when writing academic material. To keep it nuanced and specific.

What I didn’t like?

The breadth of material is too wide, and it’s obvious where Garber’s strengths and weaknesses lie. The Shakespeare was significantly more solid than the Orientalism. The needlessly complex language use. The overly complicated sentences. The grand sweeping statements, and attempt at grand unifying theories. They are bad. They go against the very intent of the book to look ‘at’ rather than ‘through’ cross-dressing by ignoring historical and (sub)cultural specificity. The bad academic practice of selectively ignoring facets of the material being discussed (e.g. the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence).

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