Erotic Negativity: Art, Sex, and the Queer Subject of Victorian Aestheticism

Erotic Negativity asks if art can be an effective site for resisting a hostile social world. I answer this question by restoring Victorian aestheticism to the genealogy of queer thought. My book argues that aesthetes such as Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), and Michael Field (Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper) deployed in their writings a concept I call “erotic negativity,” which they adapted directly from G.W.F. Hegel’s concept of “the negative,” to describe how art transforms feelings of alienation into a liberating sense of freedom from social strictures. While one of the foundational precepts of queer theory has been that the Enlightenment notion of the heroic, sovereign subject is nothing but an effect of discourse and power, I turn to the writings of the aesthetes to develop a new theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between desire and subjectivity.

My book articulates an innovative notion of subjective autonomy that is compatible with the queer theoretical project, one that inheres in the individual’s ability to reflect critically on his or her historical moment, and to give formal expression to new modes of seeing, forms of thinking, and ways of living that expand the boundaries of present-day social and intellectual structures. A book about the historical relations of aesthetics, sexuality, and the self, Erotic Negativity speaks to the vital role art can play in the development of oppositional queer identities, and asserts a claim rarely made in either Victorian or modern culture: that intellectually, creatively, and ethically, being queer can be an advantage not in spite, but because of social opposition toward non-normative sexualities.

©2017 Dustin Friedman