21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Queerversity: Desire and Sexuality in China Miéville’s Fiction

Christina Scholz

 

Antke Engel, who works in the field of gender studies and queer theory, points out that gender difference and heteronormativity are organised by two mechanisms of power, normalisation and hierarchisation. Binary constructs have a crucial function in these processes. They influence concepts of identity and self-identification but are undermined by a concept of difference that Engel describes along the lines of Derrida’s différance, arguing that otherness represents a deferred opaque paradoxical space that remains ultimately unsolvable (cf. Engel 2013: 2). Based on this observation, she suggests the strategies of queerversity and VerUneindeutigung (Engel 2013: 1) to change hegemonic models of gender and sexuality and aim at an even distribution of power.

Engel’s basic aim is to provide a definition of ‘queer’ that is not just a collective term for all possible modes of living connected to gender and sexuality, and that is more exact than a general differentiation from concepts of normalcy. Heteronormativity and hierarchisation are pointed out as the complex, historically based and dynamic basis of all social constructs of difference. In this context queer theory is taken further than simply providing and maintaining a critique. Engel thus explicitly stresses the potential of queer politics to further social change (cf. Engel 2013: 11).

 

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Engel stresses the potential of queer politics to further social change.

[Image by Charles Hutchins under a CC BY licence]

 

In a social context gender and sexuality play different but related roles in the creation of normative identity processes, the establishment of boundaries, exclusions and hierarchies. Sexuality is not an isolated concept. Engel states that biological sex, gender, cultural background, education, class, physical and mental ability, religion (and spirituality) and other factors contribute to the development of various sexualities (Engel 2013: 1). The politics of sexual diversity should not take the form of listing various sexual identities, lifestyles, and relationships, but, rather, take all of these factors into consideration. According to Engel, hegemonic power uses symbolic and normative violence to regulate sexuality. Achieving change calls for the integration of subcultures and for dealing with difference and otherness in a respectful way. Engel emphasises that otherness is always based in socio-political hierarchies and power structures as well as personal experience. Moreover, basing her presentation of difference and self-identification on Derrida’s concept of différance, she concludes that otherness always remains opaque to a certain degree. We can never really know or understand the Other (cf. Engel 2013: 2).

Sexual diversity is a fluid, ambiguous concept including sexual orientation, various forms of relationships (e.g. a lesbian couple with children, polyamory constellations, etc). It cannot be reduced to a single meaning. For some sexuality is connected to desire, for others to various concepts of love. It is not always connected to social relations either, since it is also a factor in individual processes of self-identification. Like other factors of identity, sexuality is performative, dynamic and heterogeneous (cf. Maalouf 2012). Interrelations of body, desire, imagination (including fear) and norm are not governed by rules or automatisms. Thus, Engel advocates an active approach to diversity rather than "the artificial, pseudo-scientific or legal establishment of a generalized order" (Engel 2013: 1).

'Diversity' in Engel's definition is explicitly about perceiving a conflict-laden and power-saturated heterogeneousness (Engel 2013: 4). Thus, the term 'queerversity' was coined by Engel and some of her colleagues to criticise concepts of diversity that ignore power relationships and the inherent potential of conflict. Queerversity's explicit aim is to render power conflicts transparent, so that hierarchies can be levelled, while at the same time acknowledging that difference is always more than, and different from, defined, classifiable, regulatable positions of identity and difference (cf. Engel 2013: 5). Following Foucault, Engel notes that it is essential to view power not only as repressive but also as productive in its influence on existing hierarchies, and moreover as dynamic and changeable (Engel 2013: 5). We are never talking about rigid systems, but about dynamics of power.

Problems arise whenever power is consolidated as authority – with structural or institutionally legitimated hierarchies directing or blocking existing power dynamics – and whenever power relations are dominated by violence. Engel's proposed aims are to encourage the development of dynamic power relationships and to find forms of communication that are not based on structural authority, privilege and violence (Engel 2013: 6). Symbolic or normative violence takes form in discrimination, in hierarchies of values, and in reactions of rejection based on the inability to acknowledge and/or understand certain experiences and ways of living. Misrepresentation or non-representation are problematic for the concerned groups and individuals as well as furthering misunderstanding, prejudice and violence (Engel 2013: 6-7). Symbolic violence, for instance, often takes the form of classification and normative violence then assigns these classifications values such as 'normal'/'abnormal' – establishing boundaries of inclusion and exclusion and thus legitimising social practices of regulation, discipline, criminalisation or pathologisation (Engel 2013: 7).

It may be useful to add that in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) Toni Morrison also mentions the hidden mechanisms of power. She stresses that romanticisation is as dangerous a misrepresentation as generalised, stereotypical depictions. This does not only apply to race, class and gender, but also to categories such as dis/ability and sexuality.

According to Engel, social practices – and by extension literary representation – should aim at finding possibilities to express and perceive difference without categorisation (Engel 2013: 7). Moreover, difference and paradox are part of a person's identity. They should not be respected in spite of, but because of, who they are.

To achieve this shift in perspective, Engel introduces the strategy of VerUneindeutigung, a neologism that roughly translates to “rendering something ambiguous” but goes beyond ambiguousness. The literal translation of VerUneindeutigung is "non-unambiguousness," since in German eindeutig [unambiguous] is what linguists would call the “unmarked,” basic, form of the word (this suggests a world-view in which the thinking in clear-cut categories is the norm).[1] VerUneindeutigung is an aesthetic, political and social strategy working against normativity and hierarchical structures by undermining an identity model that allows the definition of clear categories and their use to construct difference and hierarchies. Rather than demanding the integration of minorities, VerUneindeutigung problematises the mechanisms of the dominant order. This strategy calls for representations that cannot be easily classified, that indicate the constructed nature of meaning and truth, as well as the inherent power structures at work.

 

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The term 'queerversity' was coined by Engel and some of her colleagues to criticise concepts of diversity that ignore power relationships and the inherent potential of conflict.

[Image by Banksy used under fair dealings provisions]

 

And this is where China Miéville comes in. His writing is genre transcending, and it is always about levelling hierarchies and countering stigma and discrimination. In Miéville's Weird fiction, horror and violence most often result from the abuse of power. Rather than presenting normative models and having his characters negotiate them, Miéville creates integrative, diverse norms, including factors such as a fluid gender concept, race, class, dis/ability, religion and spirituality. Moreover, he takes care to show how in social practice these concepts are intertwined. He also implicitly argues that in an ever-changing world of dynamic, performative and heterogeneous identities static, exclusive models are likely to fail, while dynamic models with a focus on communication have a better chance at long-term success.

In the novels Railsea (2012) and Embassytown (2011), for instance, marriage and other relationships are presented as non-exclusive, negotiable and dynamic, as life, identity and desire are dynamic processes. Avice, the female protagonist of Embassytown, is married to an “off-worlder,” which may imply but never explicitly states that he belongs to a different species altogether. Their physical characteristics are never described, but several passages note that they find out early in their relationship that they are sexually incompatible:

We stumbled off after a while and spent a night and a day trying to enjoy sex together, sleeping, trying again, several times, with good-humoured lack of success. (Miéville 2011: 44)

We shared beds but fairly quickly we gave up on sex. (Miéville 2011: 48)

Still, Avice and Scile get married and are depicted as a happy couple until their (political) interests radically diverge. In Railsea, which is interesting in that it is largely marketed as a Young Adult (YA) book, the protagonist Shamus Yes ap Soorap – Sham – finds out about the death of two explorers, a married couple. He goes to find their children, at home with their other father, their mother's other husband, a stay-at-home dad.

“I thought, you said that was your dad who… that that was who I found,” Sham whispered.

“It was,” said Dero. “That’s our other one.”

There were almost as many kinds of families as there were rock islands in the railsea – that, of course, Sham knew. There were many disinclined to take the shape that their homes would rather they did. & in those nations where the norms were not policed by law, if they were willing to put up with disapproval – as, it was clear, the Shroakes were – they could take their own shapes. Hence the Shroakes’ strange household. (Miéville 2012: 147)

This family with a mother and two fathers is not presented as the norm, but shown as a functioning family that is not questioned by outsiders. Sham himself was raised by two men (cf. Miéville 2012:18).

Another strategy that furthers VerUneindeutigung is the use of “unmarked” linguistic forms where the reader would expect “marked” forms whenever language refers to gender, as in the descriptions of the couple called the Lovers in The Scar. Their relationship is depicted in a way that presents them as two parts of a whole; together they form a single unit: the Lovers. Most references to either character in the novel only mention "the Lover," only occasionally specifying whether it is the man or the woman who acts or speaks. To them, it is implied, both their actions carry the same meaning, the same impact or authority. They act like one person and define themselves by this role they have taken on. Moreover, when a retainer reveals the story of their relationship, we realise it is a story of defiance turned fetish, which emphasises the interrelations of sexuality and power:

On the boss's island, a man who loves strongly enough will cut his woman's face. […] He’ll mark her, to make her his, inscribe his property, notch it like wood. Spoil her just enough that no other will want her. […] Love, or lust, or something, some combination, overtook the boss. He courted the newcomer and quickly claimed her, with the masculine assertiveness he had been trained into. And by all accounts she welcomed his attentions and returned them, and she was his concubine. Until the day that he decided that she was his entirely, and with a kind of clumsy bravado, he drew his knife after coitus and cut her face. […] She was still; she let him do it… And then she took the knife and cut him back. (Miéville 2002: 284)

After that, the Lovers give each other mirrored cuts every time they have sex. They display their power equality and oneness to others by a growing map of scars that renders them a unit, a pair of mirror images. However, this static power relationship clashes with their dynamic nature and thus breaks apart as outside factors gain more importance to the female Lover and pique her ambition.

 

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In his rebooted DC comic series Dial H (2012-13) Miéville questions imposed, normative aesthetic standards as the basis for attraction.

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

 

In the same novel Miéville also addresses the difficulties faced by Shekel and Angevine, a couple consisting of a non-modified human and a (physically challenged) “Remade” – most of whose legs have been replaced by “a little steam-driven cart, a heavy contraption with caterpillar treads, filled with coke and wood” (Miéville 2002: 117). The contraption is a bit like a heavy steampunk wheelchair that Angevine can never leave, that is part of her, and that she has to feed with coal to stay mobile. Their relationship, with Shekel slowly overcoming his own trauma and prejudice, is all about transitions, and about finding creative ways to accommodate everyone's needs and desires (cf. Miéville 2002: 122). In Miéville’s fiction, therefore, systems that are presented as static – like the power relationship between the Lovers – break apart in dynamic circumstances.

Representations of homosexual desire and relationships in Miéville’s earlier “Bas-Lag” novels, Perdido Street Station (2000) and Iron Council (2004), consistently foreground the human factor. What is important in Miéville’s depiction of these characters is the emotional substrate, not the sexual orientation. For example, Ori's off-and-on sexual relationship with, and unrequited desire for, Judah in Iron Council is presented as a love story. As China Miéville puts it: "This is a man desperately in love, who knows that it’s not reciprocated in the way he wants it to be, but can’t stop loving anyway" (Anders 2005). The example of the interracial couple Isaac and Lin in Perdido Street Station – he a human, she a beetle-headed “khepri” – also shows that intimacy is not limited to male/female penetrative intercourse, as Lin lets Isaac touch her inner beetle wings, “invite[s] him to stroke the fragile things, totally vulnerable, an expression of trust and love unparalleled for the khepri” (Miéville 2000:18). In Miéville’s Weird fiction, normative, hegemonic norms are not simply replaced by new, alternative norms. Instead he problematises existent (static, repressive) norms – showing how characters are challenged, marginalised, or rendered invisible by them – and thus forces dynamic models of sexuality and desire into being within his narratives. Communication and trust are among the most important factors in the establishment of these alternative, dynamic systems.

Finally, in his rebooted DC comic series Dial H (2012-13) Miéville questions imposed, normative aesthetic standards as the basis for attraction. Another social taboo is broken when an implied sex scene between two social “undesirables” – the overweight, unhealthy (anti)hero and elderly heroine – takes place between issues #10 and #11. But Miéville does not show us an essentially unproblematic, idealised world. Even though the characters emphasise that this is what they both want before they kiss (cf. Miéville et al, Dial H #10), there is a strong possibility of what the exiled “Garuda” Yagharek in Perdido Street Station referred to as “choice-theft” (implying, but never openly referring to what happened as rape) due to the use of the H and S (hero/sidekick) Dials that generate dependence – possibly including sexual dependence. The sex scene itself happens “offscreen,” between the last page of one issue and the first page of the following issue, so that the reader cannot judge what has happened. The effect upon the reader of not witnessing this private moment between the comic’s two main characters, who may have other reasons not to discuss it afterwards (not least because they have superhero priorities), is the realisation that in Miéville’s graphic world, like in ours, not everything is knowable, not everything can be resolved.

The only instance in Miéville's fiction where a non-normative form of sexuality is actively questioned by another character occurs in Embassytown, when sexual acts with and between mentally synchronised clones are discussed from an outside perspective that arguably conveys more curiosity for such sexual practices than disrespect. We never gain an inside perspective, only a statement that shows that outsiders cannot understand this mode of sexuality or compare it to anything from their own experience (cf. Miéville 2011:104). However, this is presented in the context of a novel whose crucial element is the notion that foreign concepts can be integrated into one's world-view, thus bringing cultures closer together.

As I hope to have shown in this article, VerUneindeutigung and queerversity never offer a general solution to overcoming repressive sexual politics, and neither do Miéville's storylines. However, all three advocate creating a space for curiosity and dissonance, for dynamic power relations as well as the renegotiation of desires, values, norms, practices, and non-normative types of relationships. Differences are presented as dynamic processes of differentiation which reconfigure modes of being as moments in a sustained process of becoming, thus creating space for diversity, multiplicity, ambiguity and undefined difference. Miéville's fiction thus reminds us that disruptions of prevalent notions of “normalcy” which result from such diversity and ambiguity are not problematic but, rather, offer a promise of social change.

 

CITATION: Christina Scholz, "Queerversity: Desire and Sexuality in China Miéville’s Fiction," Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 5 (2015): n. pag. Web. 30 October 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.5.04

 

Notes:

[1] The linguistic theory of markedness examines contrasts between two or more members of a category. As Geoffrey Leech observes: "Where there is a contrast between two or more members of a category such as number, case, or tense, one of them is called 'marked' if it contains some extra affix, as opposed to the 'unmarked' member which does not" (see here: http://grammar.about.com/od/mo/g/Markedness.htm).

 

Christina Scholz is currently writing her PhD thesis on M. John Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. Her fields of interest include China Miéville's fiction, the further theorisation of Weird Fiction, Hauntology and the Gothic imagination, the interrelation of genre fiction and other forms of art, and depictions of war, violence and trauma in the arts. Her Master’s thesis, Thanateros: (De)Konstruktion von männlichen Heldenbildern im Mainstream-Film, has been published by AV Akademikerverlag in 2012. She is a regular reviewer for Strange Horizons.

Website: https://online.uni-graz.at/kfu_online/visitenkarte.show_vcard?pPersonenId=EA936DBCA1B318A2&pPersonenGruppe=3

Twitter: @weird_prophet

 

 

Works Cited:

Lou Anders (2005) "China Miéville [science-fiction author]". The Believer, June 2005. URL http://www.believermag.com/issues/200504/?read=interview_mieville (accessed 27 October 2015)

Antke Engel (2013) "Queerversity und die Strategie der VerUneindeutigung: Sexuelle Vielfalt als Prinzip für die Arbeit in Institutionen". Pro familia Fachtagung "Sexuelle Kulturen – Sexuelle Bildung in Institutionen". http://www.profamilia.de/fileadmin/dateien/fachpersonal/Engel_profa-Text_2013.pdf (accessed 27 October 2015)

Amin Maalouf (2012) In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. Trans. by Barbara Bray. New York: Arcade Publishing.

Toni Morrison (1992) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

China Miéville (2000) Perdido Street Station. London: Macmillan.

China Miéville (2002) The Scar. New York and Toronto: Del Rey.

China Miéville (2004) Iron Council. London: Macmillan.

China Miéville (2011) Embassytown. London: Macmillan.

China Miéville (2012) Railsea. London: Macmillan.

China Miéville, Alberto Ponticelli & Dan Green (2012): Dial H #10. New York: DC Comics.

China Miéville, Alberto Ponticelli & Dan Green (2012): Dial H #11. New York: DC Comics.

 

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