Summary of Scott Herring, from Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism
Scott Herring’s introduction satirically titled “I Hate New York” is arresting to say the least. For people like me, and I suspect for many of his readers, to hear this sentiment coming from a Gay man is tantamount to sacrilege. The placement of gay male bodies in the urban sphere continues to be reinforced in literature and in the American cultural imaginary. One is left to wonder, “Where will YOU go?” But as the book continues, Herring calls up the spaces of “interrogation” In the rural United States that have always existed and the “perpetual gaps and silences that accompany the perpetual urbanization of lgbtq politics and queer studies.” Clearly part of Herring’s project is to redeploy rurality “to promote a critical form of queer anti-urbanism.”
Herring also wants to “differentiate between a reactionary anti-urbanism and a critical anti-urbanism.”. Herring proposes that the difference between the two lies partly in intent and partly in “politics.” For Herring reactionary anti-urbanism is marked by a citified xenophobia that believes in the unruliness of the city; the inherent “sodom and gomorrah-ish” of it. Whereas a “critical antiurbanism is marked by a willingness to recover those rural histories of queer presentness and an interrogation of those spaces so that a fuller, less, “This is no place for a queer” picture can emerge.
The first site he troubles is the very definitions of “rural” and “urban”. In these foundational points he finds inconsistencies and coastal biases. For instance, the ways in which New York and New Jersey are somehow combined on the national census categories is one example. After investigating the slippage in these categorizations, Herring concludes, “I return to my earlier claim that any urbanism as well as any ruralism is as much phantasmatic as it is factual.”
Herring uses a variety of medias and texts, citing the scholars who have queried the non urban and indigenous spaces and those in the Deep South. This archive or as he more precisely named it “catalogue” mirrors the prismatic complexity of the queer imaginary, and further supports his troubling of the simplistic rural to urban narrative trajectory.
Herring uses the technique of making the reader see that moments of queer critical anti-urbanism have always been there, they have just been subsumed by the dominant narrative. Citing Willa Cather, Charles Demuth and James Weldon Johnson, he reveals how they “intuited the exclusions, the foreclosures, and the normalizations that this gradual shift toward queer urbanization entailed.”
One of the more striking archival pieces is Willa Cather’s “Solomon Valley”, which Herring writes, ” does not comply with these idealizing stories: it undoes the Whitmania that continues to champion certain facets of New York till this day.” Via Cather’s work Herring traces the main characters transformative relationship with a rural partner and the rural landscape. Further, Herring traces the ways in which the characters stand in opposition to metronormitivity, expressing wholeness and affection in rural places and with rural partners.
Herring reaches some of his most astute moments when he is able to distill the parts that make up the whole of metropolitanism. One example is Herring insightful list of points of departure from metro normativity. Continuing in the section punnily named “Autobiography of an Ex Urban Queer”, Herring uses James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man to zone in on five areas that the main character rejects in favor of the rural. They are: “cosmopolitanism”, “urbanized migration”, “bohemian subculture”, “queer sophistication” and “queer metropolitan belonging”.
Herring distilled these zones more completely when he purports, “we can amplify metronormativity’s “physical” and “psychological” makeup to sketch how its multi-tasking must balance six analytical axes.”
Another important exploration is contained in the section named “Southern Backwardness” which discusses the photographic installation entitled “Eastaboga”. In Herrings’ words, the photographs feature the subjects as they, “share pornography in the cramped quarters of a trailer home, embrace each other in the nude, brand each other with their initials, and drape themselves in confederate battle flags.” Interestingly, the belief that all Queers would embrace left leaning politics is troubled here. Some of the subjects are draped in confederate flags, a typical marker of a stereotypical southern racism in which the civil war is looked at as a loss for southern values, the main of which was the legalized kidnapping and enslavement of African people. One could make a bit of a leap and glean from Herrings’ fourth “analytical axis”, (“Temporal”), that Herring is including this belief that Queer equals progressive when he writes (as a way of clarifying his meaning of temporal ) that “metropolitan-identified queer will always be more dynamic, more cutting-edge, more progressive.” But the truth is, with out explicit political language, language like “will always be more politically progressive”, this axes only partly speaks to this metonymy of queer progressiveness.
The book ends with a look at a community of queer migrant workers, who have forged a space of queer critical anti-urbanism that is a decade old. The section bodes toward the continual complicating of the narrative around Queerness and whose bodies get to encounter or inhabit queer spaces. As a way to protect the safety of these “occasional” workers, Herring does not name them, causing me to immediately think of “the love that dare not speak its name.” As undocumented workers, these queer men are caught in a double level of silence and one wonders how their positionality intersects with the aforementioned political leanings of the American queer community. The communities of rural queers are in a special position to advocate for an even more expanded notion of queer diaspora because they are physically closer to America’s corporatized farms and indigenous reservations. But several questions remain around these notions of what “progressive” can mean in a queer context, as well has how the archive Herring has expanded can be further deepened and interrogated. I’ll end with just a few of them.
Is one automatically a kind of progressive if they live as an “out” queer person?
Can queer spaces of critical ant- urbanism, like the American south did for the civil rights movement, serve a particular special purpose in the liberatory narrative for queer identities?
With respect to archive building, in what ways have queer women negotiated rural lives and how might gender roles, proximity and silence have been deployed in order to inhabit rural spaces?
What other folk literatures, songs, practices and ways can be recovered and resituated as foundational to not just queer histories, but national history?