Thomas Waugh flirts with fantasy while fucking reality

0 Posted by - March 16, 2012 - Features

[Forward: When I saw that Arsenal Pulp Press had these two books on hand I immediately thought of Tyler. A thoughtful writer, Tyler had the pleasure of meeting Thomas Waugh last summer, and I knew he’d have an interesting perspective on both Out/Lines and Lust Unearthed. He certainly delivered. The following article is definitely worth a read to the end. – Amanda McCuaig, Art Threat Contributing Editor.]

In the summer of 2011, I had the good fortune of working with the organizing team behind We Demand: History/Sex/Activism, a three-day conference exploring the history of gender and sex activism in Canada. Held in the heart of Vancouver’s gay village, the event was the first of its kind since the early 1990s and marked the 40th anniversary of the 1971 We Demand protest, the first major gay and lesbian rights rally to advance on Parliament Hill.

It was a remarkable weekend. A new generation of young scholars, working firmly within (or in response to) the Queer Theory critical oeuvre, confidently shared their research with established academics and Liberation-era activists alike, many of whom had been on Parliament Hill forty years earlier, rallying against the Canadian government’s repressive stance on queer sexualities. It was living memory in dialogue with written history; reflection mingled with vision.

Perhaps it should come as little surprise, then, that the discussions that took place on that sweltering August weekend, diverse and wide-ranging as they were, ultimately seemed to fixate on one theme: queer archiving and the politics of remembrance.

In the wake of the Stonewall riots and the explosion of the gay rights movement at the end of the 1960s, once-clandestine networks of smut, fantasy, and desire were swept up into a densely regulated and eminently capitalist mainstream culture, raising dizzying questions around memory. What got collected in the frenzy of the Liberation era, and what got left behind? With the rupture of queer visual culture into heterosexual society, what kind of self-censorship took place? How did the increasingly deregulated and crisis-riddled economy of the 1970s interface with the secret word of gift, exchange, barter, and trade that dictated life in the collective closet?

After one particularly long day of such discussions, I found myself (mercifully) with a glass of wine in hand, looking out over English Bay, and chatting with one of the towering figures of the Canadian queer cultural landscape, Thomas Waugh. A professor at Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Waugh is an accomplished scholar of visual culture and queer film, with an uncommon affinity for early gay graphics; those rare, hand-drawn, worn-at-the-edges depictions of fantasy, lust, and flesh that circulated in the gay underground of the pre-Stonewall era.

His two most recent volumes on the subject, Out/Lines and Lust Unearthed (Arsenal Pulp, 2002 and 2004, respectively) are ravishing, titillating, and theoretically engaged; a pair of joyfully written reflections on the hardcore, the softcore, and everything in between. And while the world of leather daddies, swishy bellhops, and precocious sailors-on-leave might seem a far cry from the lofty theoretical debates that coloured my meeting with Waugh, a careful reading of this wonderfully depraved stash lends it an unexpected and, I think, timely, political gravity.

In Out/Lines, Waugh delves into a collection of 200 graphics (produced roughly between the 1930s and the 1960s) excavated out of the chaotic backrooms of bookshops from Montreal to New York to San Francisco. These are often hazy and poorly reproduced images; copies of copies of unsigned originals that themselves draw upon a kind of ‘common fund’ of cliché erotic tropes. Unlike most visual art collections of this ilk, then, the very concept of authorship is unmoored from the beginning. In kind, both the images and the artists who once stood behind them take on a dream-like, almost spectral quality. In the world of Out/Lines, what’s real, where it came from, and to whom it belongs matters far less than the senses that apprehend it–a nod to the spirit of the early gay underground itself.

The gaps in the book’s historical record, though, are amply filled in by fragments of anecdotal evidence and personal gloss that sketch out a never-quite-finished map of how these images came to be. The whole volume, in turn, drips with Waugh’s wry charm, biting wit, and absolute inability to let a good pun go. The number of plays on “hard,” for instance, is not to be underestimated.

An illustration of naked lumberjacks from Out / Lines

But it is precisely these personal inflections that make Out/Lines so much more than a deliriously funny “coffee table book.” Waugh’s own narrative of collection–of sorting through thousands of yellowing pages in search of forgotten fantasies–resonates closely with the vague biographies and patchy histories that populate the text. In much the same way that the book’s many “wankers” and “lechers” copy and swap bits of sinful pulp away from prying eyes, Waugh wanders back through unkempt webs of lust in pursuit of long-buried erotic treasures.

While Waugh himself continually returns to the language of “the erotic,” this subtle and elegant formal parallel seems to bring the collection more in line with the haptic, a quality that Laura Marks (2002) has described as a kind of synesthetic migration of touch into the visual register. Out/Lines isn’t just an exercise in rediscovering a mode of seeing lost to the meat-and-money-shot fetishism of the post-Stonewall hardcore industry. It’s also about re-inhabiting that pleasure through the sensual work of collection, archiving, and sleuthing; practices best understood (conveniently) as acts of tracing or sketching. This is a metaphor with which Waugh masterfully toys throughout the text, beginning with the title:

Why Out/Lines? The queer revolution has sparked dozens of titles playing on the word ‘out.’ They engage the metaphor of the closet and are predicated on a history of both secrecy and self-un-knowingness…But I couldn’t resist one last time, enchanted with the notions of the lines of a drawing that come out, bring out, move out, that are ‘out.’ Of the outline of an image—often anonymous, incomplete, damaged—that graphically suggests or delineates without filling in faces, textures, or flesh. Of lines that outdo everything else, lines that always threatened back then to ‘out’ the incautious artist or consumer, lines that contour a history that is fragmented and still being shaded in, filled ‘out.’

Lust Unearthed, for its part, dramatically amplifies this fixation on the sensuousness of collection. While of course still outwardly concerned its own delightfully raunchy and often beautiful collection of images, Lust is ultimately a study in archiving. The graphics, gleaned from the enormous and meticulously preserved personal collection of CBS designer and gay bon vivant Ambrose DuBek, are sorted by country of origin, by motif, by trope, and by period. Each recalibration ripples through the collection, forcing particular themes and sensibilities to the surface, while further submerging and dampening others. And so while Lust certainly trumps Out/Lines with respect to information about authorship, this ever-frustrated (masochistic?) project of categorization ensures that the complete fixation of meaning remains impossible; that tantalizing spectral quality, so central to Out/Lines, is never quite extinguished.

Fitting then, that in captioning the images that make up Lust, Waugh moves freely between original commentary and excerpts from a whole range of queer source texts: the poems of W.H. Auden, the angst-ridden prose of Jean Genet, the matter-of fact diary entries of Joe Orton. Working in the eminently queer mode of pastiche, Waugh delights in bringing disparate texts together in a filthy pas de deux.

And so where the archive typically conjures images of dusty shelves and unchanging legacies, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Waugh’s titillating collections. To borrow and slightly modify a term attributed to another attendee of the We Demand conference, Ann Cvetkovich: these are archives of feelings and sensations; haptic archives where hands are made to speak and eyes are made to feel.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the great French phenomenologist, once wrote, “the real is a closely woven fabric.” That is, what we perceive as inherently real is in fact an elaborate tapestry, woven by the forces of cultural and social experience. Swaddled in that fabric from the cradle to the grave, we lose the ability to extricate ourselves from it, and so come to perceive it as given. Out/Lines and Lust Unearthed, however, deliberately seek out those strips of fabric worn threadbare by age, use, and poor-quality darning; those are the strips that allow fantasy to drift through.

It is exactly the incompleteness of the narratives, the anonymity of the artists, Waugh’s own frustrated hunts for elusive images, and the physical impossibility of the sexual acrobatics depicted, that allow a slippage to occur between the fantasies of the past and the realities of the present. These are the rips in the fabric of the real that allow us to reach across the boundaries that the real itself establishes: boundaries between generations and political regimes, between ways of seeing and being seen, feeling and being felt.

[Waugh’s obvious reverence for this kind of intimacy becomes all the more pointed in the closing pages of Lust, where we find a small sampling of softcore graphics, dated to just before the Stonewall rupture. These images, which demonstrate a new obsession with the kind of indexical photorealism that would become dominant in post-Stonewall queer visual culture, are mostly dismissed by Waugh as formulaic, predictable, and bland. Given the sumptuousness of his language up to this point in the text, the shift in tone is sudden and jarring, and betrays Waugh’s not-so-subtle resentment of the contemporary pornographic commodity (a theme also developed to some extent in Out/Lines).]

Of course, this is not all meant to suggest that engaging with these graphics is some wholly cerebral, overly serious business of building cross-generational solidarities. Indeed, Waugh goes to pains to stress (channeling that most cultish of gay graphic artists, Tom of Finland) that in the world of smut, the cock is the best, um…measure…of success. Further, he wisely refuses to invest these images with any kind of resistant potential, making frequent mention of how they often reproduce gendered, racialized, classist, and colonialist hierarchies of power. While these images certainly transgress a number of sexual and erotic norms, both past and present, any attempt to interpret them as advancing some cogent and conscious critique of those norms would be, I think, an ill-fated exercise.

That said, there is certainly no doubting their relevance in the broader study of queer visual culture, and as such, no reason to believe that they cannot provoke or engage sweeping political discussion. Indeed, for me, that is just what they have done.

Today, LGBT and queer issues enjoy a measure of visibility likely not seen since the Stonewall rupture. With queers increasingly integrated into the institutions and rituals of ‘mainstream’ culture through the passage of marriage equity bills and the repeal of policies such as ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ our public visibility has perhaps never been greater. We are, in many places, equal subjects under the law, our desires are shown on commercial television, Pride is a major civic and corporate event.

With that in mind, though, I am compelled return to the question that began this essay; the very same question raised by Lust Unearthed, Out/Lines, and We Demand alike: In this rush to achieve visibility, what is lost? For Waugh, Stonewall ushered in a new queer visual and pornographic culture obsessed with the centerfold, the money shot, and the documentary function of the photo. Where these graphics, rare and ephemeral as they may have been, provided a “sense of how the underground actually worked, with its layers of visibility and invisibility, minorities within minorities,” the commodified photos of the post-Stonewall porn business sacrificed such nuance to a new regime predicated on a curious mix of hyper-visibility, outright exposure, and strict self-censorship.

And so it is once again in our own time. As we queers win mainstream airtime via schmaltzy romantic subplots on Glee, one has to wonder whether the real specificity of our erotic imagination is being scrubbed out. As we gain legal representation in marriage equity legislation, do we agree to a kind of self-censorship that denies the existence of transgressive erotic practices? What room remains for haptic fantasy in a visual culture where the sitcom industry seems to have decided that queer desire stops with the monogamous couple? Is ‘visibility,’ in this light, not simply a grand game of bait and switch?

Waugh’s witty wordplay and titillating images, then, seem to issue forth a challenge to our communities: to think expansively about our desires and the ways in which they appear to us; to understand them as fields of contestation where the question of who sees what, for what purposes, and to what e/affect should be taken seriously. To explore such questions, after all, is to once again tug at the loose threads of the real, that same playful act of undoing that, in Out/Lines and Lust Unearthed, transforms smut into a “touch across time.”

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