Presidential Lecture Series
spacer spacer MARJORIE GARBER



Symptoms of Culture

Stossel, Scott. Symptoms of the Culture Wars. Atlantic Unbound [The Atlantic Monthly], September 2, 1998.

What makes Symptoms of Culture a worthwhile read is that in it Garber exhibits the best and worst of the cultural left. Though Garber would surely disavow its being a salvo in any culture war -- she's too savvy for that and always puts "culture wars" between ironic quotation marks -- Symptoms goes off like a depth charge at the foundation of the Bloomian battlements: it aims to blow up the idea of a clearly demarcated "high culture."

The contemporary Bloomians (William Bennett, Lynne Cheney, George Will, Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, and a host of others) say that our culture is ill and -- extending the medical metaphor -- that it needs to be cured. American culture, therefore, must be bled, purged, drained, or otherwise denuded of the offending elements, the bits of vulgarity, crassness, poor taste, and lack of judgment that sicken it. We must put culture on the operating table and amputate the gangrenous parts.

Garber, in contrast, puts culture on the psychoanalytic couch: it is not ill, she says, but neurotic. "I do not propose to diagnose culture as if it were an illness of which we could be cured," she writes, "but to read culture as if it were structured like a dream, a network of representations that encodes wishes and fears, projections and identifications, all of whose elements are overdetermined and contingent." Using Sigmund Freud's analysis of dreams as her model, she draws seemingly unconnected things together in often illuminating ways.


This is brilliant stuff -- but how elucidating is it? Garber's intellectual project here, while unique in some ways, is broadly emblematic of the cultural left in several others. By the traditionalist's standards, Garber's mode of criticism is deeply flawed on at least two counts. First, there is the characteristic flattening of any kind of cultural hierarchy, the typical postmodern effacement of any distinction between high and low culture. Homer (the epic poet) and homer (the base-clearing hit) are rendered equivalent. Second, and related, is the fact that all of her connections are textual; they all come at the level of puns and linguistic associations without ever descending to the level of what a Marxist would call material reality.

There is some value (and much fun) in following these ideas along their zigzaggy linguistic paths -- it helps to "recontextualize" things, as Garber would say -- but in the end this critical approach, while intellectually dazzling, fails the famous Samuel Johnson kick test: as Boswell reports, Johnson once rebutted a complicated proof of the nonexistence of physical reality by kicking a large stone and saying, "I refute it thus." In other words, it is simply common sense (though Garber would put that term in apologetic quotes) that the only connection between Homer and a homer is an accidental pun.

Yet Garber's approach to cultural criticism cannot be easily shunted aside. Her series of jumps from idea to idea -- exemplary of what is rapidly becoming the paradigmatic mode of discourse today, the "hypertextual" -- is similar to the series of jumps a Web-surfer might make as she clicks from link to link. Garber connects things by historical association, by cultural association, and sometimes only through linguistic association -- all ways in which one thing is linked to another on the World Wide Web. Though Garber never explicitly mentions the Internet or hypertextuality in her book, the Web is the place where the once way-out theoretical approaches of the postmodern cultural left have begun to achieve a certain realization. By my unscientific reckoning, the two words that appear with the greatest frequency in Symptoms of Culture are "link" (as in "a move that links Dorothy's adventures in Oz to Genet's theatrical brothel") and "overdetermined," by which she means a cultural meaning can be arrived at by multiple routes, the way lexia or nodes on the Web can be reached via multiple links. Garber's use of the hypertextual mode may in fact represent the early stages of not just a paradigmatic shift in our prevailing methods of cultural criticism but in our very way of understanding the world.


In accusing cultural conservatives of "historical forgetting," Garber tars them with the very brush they use to tar today's youth and the cultural products they consume. And it's a fair accusation she makes: nine years after the publication of Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, for example, Lawrence Levine finally published The Opening of the American Mind (someone had to), demonstrating -- in addition to the numerous factual inaccuracies in Bloom's book -- the contingent historical circumstances that gave rise to many of the "absolute" values the ideal Bloomian university was supposed to espouse. The proper historical grounding puts the arguments of Bloom -- and those of his many acolytes -- in a different light. Yet in her urge to firmly recontextualize Bloom, Garber betrays her own longing for a fixed, historical context that would anchor Bloom in his place. Elsewhere in Symptoms Garber seems to conclude that a work's cultural meaning is completely contingent, fully dependent for its significance -- like a link on the Web -- on its surrounding context rather than on any kind of intrinsic or "essential" value. Here, however, she demonstrates a longing for fixity, for an anchor that would give her aesthetic and cultural judgments some grounding.

Dog Love

1. Brock, Juliet Clutton. Hard hunting and heavy petting. Times Literary Supplement, June 20, 1997, p.6.

Marjorie Garber is certainly one of these new anthropomorphists [...]. In Dog Love, Garber describes and analyzes many, if not all, the facets of interaction between dogs and human society, both in fiction and in real life in the modern world She switches from the poignancy of dog lore to canine biography (Flush by Virginia Woolf), to the dog as a victim and the practice of bestiality, to the use of helper dogs.

2. Sullivan, Andrew. Dog and Man at Harvard. The New York Times Book Review, Nov. 17, 1996, pp.11-12.

The significance [Garber] ascribes to dogs, the profundity she sees in human relations with dogs, the depth of passion and knowledge she brings to the subject -- all these are, I'm afraid, beyond me. No doubt fellow dog cultists will lap up this dog book (sorry for the wordplay -- one of the most irritating characteristics of dog people is their almost manic appreciation of dog puns). But others, alas, will be either faintly annoyed by the tone of the book (as I was for much of it) or simply baffled.

One thing they won't be is uninformed. The bulk of this book is swaths of loosely organized -- and entertainingly imparted -- facts about dogs. [...]

There are shards of interesting psychoanalytic commentary to be sure, but also a great deal of philosophizing comes across as ruminative, rather than incisive.

Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life

1. Landers, Sue. Lambda Book Report v.4, n.12 (Sept.-Oct., 1995):19.

Marjorie Garber pries open the bisexual closet door a little bit further in her latest book, Vice Versa. This illuminating text fills a tremendous void within queer studies with its cultural, historical and literary examination of bisexuality. Taking its subtitle from the Pathology of Everyday Life, Garber grounds at least part of her analysis in Freud. But Freud's idea of the bisexual nature of humanity serves no more than as a starting point. Her text catapults backwards through time to the ancient myth of Tiresius and as far forward to Hollywood's Basic Instinct. She writes with a lucidity to be enjoyed by the theorist and layperson alike.

Freud serves as a subtle but central backdrop to Garber's arguments. Drawing not so much from Freud's concept of bisexuality but from his confusion surrounding the issue, Garber critiques the entire concept (and politics) of identity. She notes the conflict between viewing bisexuality as inherently representative of both sexes and the notion of attraction between any gender. The former suggests a primary heterosexuality in that even in same sex relationships in that one partner plays male, the other female. The latter suggests what Freud saw as "neurosis" precisely because of its ability to move between (or beyond) a fixed sexuality. Freud avoids the oxymoronic unfixed nature of bisexuality, and Garber makes up for his mistakes.

2. Kaveney, Roz. New Statesman & Society v.9, n.386 (Jan. 19, 1996):39.

It was a grim day when postmodernism taught academics that they had to be playful; there is nothing so leaden as earnest fun. Marjorie Garber's book on cross-dressing was called Vested Interests; her present one ends with a meditation on how we might sort pears into pairs. Vice Versa is a useful and necessary overview of the political and cultural ramifications of bisexuality. We could, perhaps, have dispensed with Garber's puns, innuendoes and elaborate flights of whimsy in favour of an even more comprehensive taxonomy of sexual behaviours. She is a scholar, not a bellelettriste or a comedian.

3. MacFarquhar, Larissa. Nation v.261, n.3 (July 17, 1995):102-105.

She tells some great stories. She lingers at the sexy girls' school outside London where Eleanor Roosevelt went as a student in her late teens and became the center of erotic attention for her newly hormonal classmates. She details the entertainingly tortuous love polygons of Bloomsbury, Taos and the Harlem Renaissance (in the first of which Virginia Woolf's niece, Angelica Garnett, married her father's--and mother's--ex-lover, becoming her own stepfather's wife). She unearths some funny terms, like "LUG" (Lesbian Until Graduation) and "hasbian" (a lesbian who starts sleeping with men), and judiciously quotes Gore Vidal ("Why, when young, even an unescorted cantaloupe wouldn't have been safe in my company"). She even makes up some good terms of her own--the "prurient wishful subjunctive," for instance, which refers to "the could- have, might-have mode so dear to (some) contemporary biographers" when writing about their subjects' sexual histories.


This is why Garber is writing a book on bisexuality, and why she wrote a book on transvestism: She believes that these "in-between" experiences prove that human qualities like gender and sexuality are far more fluid and mercurial than we tend to think. "'Bisexuality,'" she concludes after pondering Rock Hudson's marriage to Phyllis Gates, "is not a fixed point on a scale but an aspect of lived experience, seen in the context of particular relations.... Like postmodernism itself, it resists a stable referentiality. It performs." Call it pomosexuality.


I hope Garber does something different in her next book. I hope, therefore, that she didn't see the recent New York Times article about chimpanzees. The Times reporter quoted Noam Chomsky and other linguists vehemently protesting the idea that monkeys, as opposed to only humans, can develop language. I can see Garber now, at her kitchen table, reading that article, just itching to get to the root of this. Chomsky and the rest are protesting just a little too much, she's thinking. Clearly they are feeling a deep-rooted cultural anxiety at the thought that another pair of comforting categories--"animal" and "human"--is about to be challenged.

Vested Interests: Cross-dressing & Cultural Anxiety

1. Auerbach, Nina. Studies in the Novel v.25, n.1 (Spring, 1993):114-115

Vested Interests is defiantly non-historical; ignoring the political and cultural forces that shape cross-dressers in life and the theater, it goes over the same chronological ground over and again from different perspectives, whirling from Tootsie to Dress for Success to Shakespeare to surgically constructed transsexuals to homosexuality to Peter Pan to detective fiction to religion to spies to race to Lawrence of Arabia to Liberace to Elvis to Red Riding Hood. Along the way Garber stops to play with pirates or Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club or the monocled man on the cover of The New Yorker, who may really be Janet Flanner.

The sheer repetitive abundance of this book is both numbing and freeing. It aims to normalize cross-dressing, to display its power not as a manifestation of a deviant counterculture, but as a metaphor of culture itself. Rhetorically, Garber's refusal to diagnose or even to historicize her material frees her cross-dressers from the stigma of the case history. Garber is happier describing than analyzing; she evokes with relish everything she includes. At its best, Vested Interests is a wonderfully stylish collage showing the infinite variety of an impulse that had heretofore been analyzed almost to death.

2. Hollander, Anne. New Republic v.207, n.10 (August 31, 1992):34-41.

In case her theme doesn't strike everyone as quite so salient as she finds it, Garber, a professor of English at Harvard, makes it loom especially large by stretching the term "The Transvestite," the name of her main character, to mean the creature who comes into existence whenever any person of one sex is clad in any form or any part of the other's dress, in life or in art, for any length of time, and under any circumstances. Since something of this kind has been happening fairly often in the long history of culture high and low, Garber can make much of her central character not just as a current preoccupation, but as a recurrent presence. The figure can be both Cary Grant momentarily wearing a frilly negligee in Bringing up Baby and also Dr. James Barry, inspector general of the Medical Department of the British army, who, after serving for more than forty years as a physician and surgeon, was discovered to be a woman on her death in 1865.

The term "cross-dressing," a recent word coined to replace "transvestism" with something more respectable sounding and also to enlarge its scope, certainly does well for such a study as this, which wants to link together Boy George, Shakespeare's boy-heroines, Madonna, Lawrence of Arabia, Jan Morris, Lucy Snow in Charlotte Brunetās Vilene, Peter Pan, George Sand, and the 350 transvestite members of the Tiffany Club of Waltham, Massachusetts--"mostly male, middle class, and 90 percent married." A single new subject has been created out of various broad and ancient strands in civilized life. It has been isolated for theoretical scrutiny, sometimes in spite of the variegated textures from which its threads have been plucked. Since the subject involves sex at its most visible-- that is, in clothes--the result is naturally sensational, and this large book, filled with startling lore and vivid anecdotes, carefully tries to make it even more so.

In behalf of her protagonist, Garber makes both a plea and a claim. The plea is that the transvestite be looked directly at as a separate phenomenon, a complete figure, and not looked through, as a fleeting circumstance in an ordinary female or male existence. The claim is that this distinct figure fills an important role in collective emotional life, and hence in all of cultural life--that it does creative work in direct proportion to its disturbing power. Garber finds her personage appearing in art as a signal of what she calls a "category crisis," a moment in a given "text" when established cultural boundaries of any kind, not only sexual, are being crossed or put in doubt. The transvestite thus stands for, or "marks," any transgressive leap that creates culture itself; or as she puts it, "Transvestism is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture; the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category of male and female, but the crisis of category itself.... The transvestite is the figure of and for that crisis, the uncanny supplement that marks the place of desire."

3. Kaufman, David. Nation v254, n7 (Feb 24, 1992):239-232.

It would be nearly impossible, I suspect, to calculate the degree to which aspects of cross-dressing and gender-crossing permeate American culture. According to the International Foundation for Gender Education, 6 percent of the US. population are cross-dressers and I percent are transsexuals. But this is surely so only in the strictest of senses. The increasing number of organizations, magazines, newsletters and self-help books designed to cater to the cross-dresser of any persuasion or purpose, such as Tapestry, the SHAFT Newsletter," and Information for the Female- to-Male Cross-dresser and Transsexual, provide confirmation that interest in the subject is far more pervasive than these statistics alone imply.

An inventory of figures, both real and imagined, both contemporary and historical, would suggest the same. Consider Joan of Arc, Liberace, Oscar Wilde, Michael Jackson, Ganymede, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Rudolph Valentino, David Bowie, Candy Darling, Orlando, Jackie Curtis, Milton Berle, Garbo, Flip Wilson, Boy George, Chevalier d'Eon, Madonna, Rrose Selavy, Mr. T., Abbe de Choisy, Laurie Anderson, Dame Edna, Peter Pan, Pope Joan, T.E. Lawrence, Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, Barbra Streisand in Yentl, Song Liling (M. Butterfly). Nor is there anything particularly new or novel about transvestism, from kabuki theater to the use of "boy" actors to portray female characters on the Elizabethan stage.

As the phenomenon of cross-dressing has become ever more prominent in the past few decades, concomitant critical studies and commentaries have emerged to explore the implications both in history and for our era. But even with the unprecedented body of literature on cross-dressing now available, it remains hard to fathom what the common denominator might be that could fink the diverse names on the list above. It is in this respect that Marjorie Garber's Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety is bound to become the new, comprehensive bible on the subject.


In perhaps her most groundbreaking chapter, "The Chic of Araby," she explores the West's longtime flirtation with the Middle East as a hotbed of transvestism and sexual deviance by focusing on T.E. Lawrence, Rudolph Valentino and Isabelle Eberhardt, and by offering an in-depth re- evaluation of Salome. She ends the book with a fascinating, tour-de-force interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood" (the wolf is disguised as a woman, after all), relating it in compelling ways to Freud's famous case of the Wolf-Man. In the beginning of her discussion of Little Red Riding Hood and the "wolf," Garber herself proves guilty of exercising what she calls "the overdetermination of the name" as she italicizes the surnames of Virginia Woolf, Christa Wolf, William Wolff, not to mention the first names of Wolfram Eberhard, Wolfgang Mieder, and Hans-Wolf Jager, each of whom she relates to her discussion of the folk tale.

To be sure, Garber's perspicacity gets the best of her whenever she plays with words in this ostensibly meaningful but ultimately arbitrary manner. It's more affected than legitimate, even if her approach throughout the book is, in some respects, one that turns on similar caprices of language. Nor does she really answer well one of the key questions she asks in her introduction: "Why have cultural observers today been so preoccupied with cross-dressing? Why is it virtually impossible to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television or go to the movies without encountering, in some guise, the question of sartorial gender bending?"

Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny causality

de Grazia, Margreta. Shakespeare Quarterly, v.40, n.3 (Fall, 1989):345-348.

Shakespeare's Ghost Writers employs and intriguing tactic for removing Shakespeare from the empowered center: it makes him ubiquitous. Rather than dominating literary studies from the center, Shakespeare comes to haunt writing everywhere. [...]

The "haunting" metaphor pervades the book's discussion of the Shakespeare phenomenon. Legend has it that he played the Ghost in Hamlet; scholarship periodically discerns the presence of ghostwriters' hands in his playtexts. While only two proper ghosts appear in the corpus, once ghosts are defined as "present absences" or "legible erasures" (once, in other words, they take on the predicates of Derridean writings), their manifestations multiply to include such ghostly demarcations as wills (Caesar's, Portia's father's); signatures (Hamlet's subscribed and sealed commission); forgeries (Edmund's and Maria's); and women stifled by violation (Lavinia), madness (Ophelia, Lady Macbeth), or apparent madness (Cassandra). The plays not only thematize ghosts, but also theorize them: as writing appears to stand for speech, so ghosts appear the stand for the living; yet, as in Derrida's critique of logocentrism, the "questionable shape" of ghosts puts the concept of origin into doubt, lending itself to the alogic of the Derridean supplement that disrupts the fundamental binaries of Western metaphysics.

Yet Shakespeare's ghostliness extends beyond the confines of the plays -- beyond the corpse of the corpus and the tomb of the tome -- determining reception itself through its numinous "textual effects," the "uncanny causality" named in the book's subtitle. [...]

Shakespeare's Ghost Writers is a brave new book, for in justifying another book on Shakespeare, it has attempted nothing less than to make literature newly consequential.

Coming of Age in Shakespeare

Tassi, Marguerite. Sixteenth Century Journal, XXIX/3 (1998), pp.896-897.

It should come as no surprise to find that Marjorie Garber's influential book Coming of Age in Shakespeare, first published in 1981, has been reissued in paperback. Garber's publications in literary and cultural studies, such as Vested Interests: Cross-dressing & Cultural Anxiety and Shakespeare's Ghost Writers, have made for thoroughly absorbing and provocative reading. Coming of Age in Shakespeare is no exception. In this book, Garber raises issues of identity, sexuality, and maturation that became prominent in literary criticism of the 1980s and 90s, particularly among feminist and psychoanalytic critics. Notable for its broad intellectual scope and graceful style, Garber's book offers a highly readable introduction to Shakespeare's works in light of contemporary anthropological, sociological, and psychological thought. [...] Some readers may be disappointed to find that Garber does not pursue the question of English drama's roots in ritual, nor does she work rigorously with her models from the social sciences. What she does offer is a fairly cohesive reading of most of Shakespeare's canon that carefully avoids rigid categorization and demonstrates the ritual pattern (documented by van Gennep) of separation, transition, and incorporation as recurring throughout many of the plays.


Shakespearean scholars, students of drama, and cultural studies enthusiasts will be impressed with the rich array of insights offered in Garber's book [....] Touching upon anthropological, sociological, and psychological studies, Garber writes literary criticism at its best -- lucid, provocative, and capacious.


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