Heather Love's "'Spoiled Identity': Stephen Gordon's Loneliness and the Difficulties of Queer History"
A term introduced by social psychologist Erving Goffman, “spoiled identity” refers to the effect stigma has on one’s sense of self. A person is stigmatized when they are “disqualified from full social acceptance” for whatever reason—usually some sort of deviance from the norm—and their identity can be said to be spoiled. While Goffman uses the term “spoiled identity” in the title of his 1968 book, he in fact uses the term very scarcely, preferring instead “stigmatized”, which is synonymous. The stigma becomes an attribute discrediting or potentially discrediting both our sense of self but also the self or identity that we put forth when acting in the social (Goffman’s area of expertise). For this reason, people will often try, as much as possible, to hide stigmatized traits or, to quote Goffman, to “manage” their spoiled identity. Goffman devotes the greater part of the book to these various management mechanisms, chapter two addressing the act of “passing”. Passing, Goffman points out, depends on both perceptibility and knowledge, and is accompanied by permanent anxiety that passing might fail. Successful passing may, however, be as problematic, since it may lead to self-contempt and self-hate.
For various reasons—and despite its undeniable value—Goffman’s text has not aged particularly well. Some of his examples do not speak to readers anymore, and Goffman’s insistent focus on the stigmatized—rather than the stigmatizers—almost warrants the stigmatized’s desperate micro-management acts. The book’s weird functionalist finish, finally, is puzzling at best. More positive attempts at stigmatization management—like re-branding or re-claiming which focuses on accepting and making acceptable the stigmatized trait so as to make the “norm” more inclusive rather than accepting its dictates—are much needed. Luckily, Love ends up doing very little with the concept.
First, she uses it to explain to vehemently adversarial responses to The Well of Loneliness from people whom Hall “claimed to represent” (487). Faced with the book’s depiction of shame, sadness and loneliness, the critics find themselves with “their own kind”—to use Goffman’s words—and take their distance to better deny the kinship in stigma.
Next, Love turns her attention to more “positive” embrace of the novel, examining in turn T. DeLauretis, J. Halberstam, J. Prosser and J. Butler’s interpretations. Highlighting the different readings, her overarching goal here is to stress the importance of attending to the book’s negative feelings. “Put off by the darkness of Hall’s account of Stephen’s gender trouble”, Love insists, “each of these critics attempts to assimilate her narrative to a later, happier narrative of gendered existence” (508). Negative feelings such as shame and loneliness form what Love calls a queer “structure of feeling”—a term borrowed from Raymond Williams. Love maintains that
“The circulation of ‘pre-Stonewall’ forms of life and structures of feeling throughout the post-Stonewall world suggests a historical continuity even more complex, incorrigible, and fatal than individual character. The evidence is written in the subjectivities of queer men and women who grew up after Stonewall but are as intimately familiar with the structure of feeling” of pre-Stonewall queer people (495).
A fuller account of queer existence, experience and historiography must therefore take into account these negative feelings of shame, sadness and loneliness. For this reason, Love maintains that “we need a genealogy of queer affect that embraces the negative, shameful, and difficult feelings central to queer existence” (515). While I agree with Love’s pronouncement regarding the need to attend to negative feelings, I find the concept of spoiled identity rather unhelpful and, ultimately, superfluous to her argument.
Anchoring my project on Dorothy Arzner is an exploration of gender through Trans Studies. Here I post snippets of my research on the theoretical aspects of Trans Studies.