Shock Therapy: The Obscene as a Mode of Queer Becoming in the Works of William S Burroughs and John Waters
This project expands on previous investigations into the cultural consequences of queerness being labelled obscene to ask what it means when obscenity becomes queer. If, as Bradway suggests, the ‘norms of reading correlate to acceptable content’ and delimit the ‘horizons of social engagement’ for any given text, this project asks how the deliberate deployment of material intended to shock, disgust, and repulse may subvert, bend, and ultimately queer the affective relations between reader and text. Moreover, the project investigates how such texts may redraw boundaries of social acceptability by addressing previously illegitimate ‘readerly subjects’ or, indeed, communities of readers.
The recurring struggles against obscenity laws throughout 20th Century USA by William S Burroughs and John Waters provide fertile ground to investigate how obscenity is deployed, not only as a mode of queer resistance, but as a part of an affective strategy Deleuze and Guattari describe as ‘becoming-minoritarian.’ Despite the individual prominence of Burroughs and Waters in literary and film theory as well as their well-known links in popular culture, the critical pairing has been left unexamined in the academy. Analysing the artists together, therefore, begins to interrogate a lineage of queer configurations that has been previously neglected.
This inquiry provides a timely intervention into the ethics surrounding questions of obscenity, censorship, and free speech at a moment when such discursive issues dominate the political landscape. How we as literary scholars distinguish between ‘harmful’ and ‘progressive’ modes of obscenity requires attention, not only in relation to the texts we study and canons we shape, but also for classroom dynamics and wider cultural contexts. As the fault line between protection and censorship becomes increasingly blurred and contested, it is integral to begin the theoretical task of creating an ethical framework which acknowledges the potential of obscene language to both liberate and confine.