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

What is the relationship between erotic desire and aesthetic contemplation? Can the critic be at once a lover and a philosopher of art? These questions were central to Victorian aestheticism’s most notable theorists and practitioners. “Erotic Negativity” contends that the aesthetes exercised the concept of “the negative” to describe the relationship between aesthetic experience and erotic response. The negative finds its most famous articulation in the works of G.W.F. Hegel, whose artistic philosophy was a direct and decisive inspiration for the Aesthetic Movement. He defines negation as an obstacle that paradoxically encourages self-development. This occurs when an encounter with the obstacle disintegrates one’s subjectivity, which subsequently allows it to be reconfigured in a way that integrates the obstacle. This upheaval marks the moment when an inchoate collection of erotic impulses solidifies into a distinct sexual identity at odds with prevailing social norms. The moment of sexual self-recognition both shatters and radically reconfigures the structure of consciousness, leading not only to increased self-knowledge, but also critical insight into the historical and cultural significance of the art object.

“Erotic Negativity” changes our understanding not only of aestheticism’s preoccupation with homoerotic desire, but also the theoretical framework through which we comprehend sexuality. While queer theorists have grounded their critiques of heteronormativity in an anti-humanist philosophy,  I show how the aesthetes developed a queer version of autonomous subjectivity from which to criticize social norms.

©2017 Dustin Friedman