As I read Ariel Goldberg’s The Estrangement Principle, a book-length meditation, examination, and critique of the term “queer art,” I was reminded of an essay I often teach: G. Douglas Atkins’s “The Return of/to the Essay,” in which he argues for a type of academic criticism which “reestablish[es] contact with the Anglo-American tradition of the personal or familiar essay without sacrificing intellectual rigor or forgoing the insights and accomplishments of recent theory.” Atkins claims that such essays would “foreground the experience of reading, relating it to the writer’s experience [ . . . ] moving back and forth between textual considerations and familiar experience.” He also surmises:
one result of the union [of criticism and essay] could be better, more vigorous, more interesting critical writing, commentary at once richer and more culturally responsibly [ . . . ] Whether this close relation would also help to bridge the gap between academic criticism and a general reading public, God only knows.
And so, though there are lots of ways to read Goldberg’s book, as I thought of what I might say about it, I narrowed it down to these two questions: 1) As criticism, is it interesting, better, and more vigorous because it reads less like a dissertation and more like the thoughts of an actual person? 2) Who is the audience for this book?
The answer to the first question is a resounding, Yes! Goldberg tells us that they are intentionally avoiding the academic structures, though the reader hardly needs to be told this, as it is clear early on, even obvious when, in the first chapter, Goldberg tells us that an important part of their early research into Judith Butler was getting a haircut just like hers. Another example that sticks with me: Part of the way through their criticism of the New Narrative school and the work of Audre Lorde, Goldberg tells about running into an ex-girlfriend for the first time at a film screening. The personal facts—the girlfriend had introduced Goldberg to the movie years ago—only greater show the importance of the movie, a bio piece about Lorde, as not just a piece to be analyzed, but as an enactment of art’s purpose: creating human connection, impacting lives. These interruptions in the criticism emphasize that more than just the logical side of theories, there are personal, sentimental, and tangential thinking when we confront art. That mixing makes Goldberg’s arguments about the phrase “queer art”—that it is complicated, perhaps damaging in its exclusions, too often political, too often just about cis white men, too often not used when it could be, too often used when other language might serve better—more relevant because we can see the way the term is working not just in a rhetorical sense, not just in a thing to be analyzed, but as a term that affects the lives and everyday thinking of real people. This level of analysis is only possible from mixing personal and critical modes. In this, The Estrangement Principle is masterfully crafted.
But, then I get to the second question: Who is going to find this book most impactful? I don’t think it goes quite far enough to meet Atkins’s second hope, that such criticism would bring in the general public. Goldberg uses words like “problematize,” “textual,” and “destabilize” too often and in too close proximity to really appeal to general readers. Though the structures are successfully unusual, the level of the language itself is still too embedded in theory to really escape it, and those without at least an introduction to literary or art theory will have a difficult time following the complexities of the argument. In a similar vein, those who are not already familiar with some of the key players may find it difficult to follow along.
I am not sure I would have understood the importance of some of the texts without already understanding who Butler and Lorde were. Similarly, I often felt that Goldberg didn’t do quite enough to enliven the texts or work of the lesser known artists and theorists they engage with. Indeed, Goldberg hints as much in one chapter—“I do no close readings of core New Narrative texts in this chapter. I hope you can do that reading elsewhere. Maybe in bed, maybe sharing copies of books between lovers and friends. Any literary movement is, at the end of the day, a group of people who need each other to make their writing exist.”—which is a lovely sentiment. It made my heart soar a little to think about all the people needed to keep books and ideas going, and as a writer and a reader I loved the idea of sharing a book with a lover in bed. But as someone who is not a queer theory scholar who had nevertheless been trying to follow Goldberg’s argument about the New Narrative’s importance when thinking about “queer art,” I had hoped for a little more meat in that respect.
Despite not being the ideal audience for such a book, I was still invited in—like any great and successful essayist, Ariel Goldberg felt like they were talking with me, not at me. And in the end of the book, in a chapter where Goldberg talks about ways in which “queer art” typically ignores the stories of people of color, they wonder if they are welcome to talk about such things, being white and Jewish themselves. It was a wonderful thing to come across, having wondered how a cishet like myself, who is a scholar of nonfiction broadly but not of queer theory, might review such a book. Goldberg says:
I don’t know how I could remain critically engaged with the world if I were only to engage with work that I personally identify with. Art needs to be seen as having many predictable and unpredictable vectors of connection [ . . . ] To not [do so] could just as easily have suggested I was unwilling to be uncomfortable with what it means to put my body in a room.
Which is to say, Goldberg’s critical engagement is far-reaching, often uncomfortable, and incredibly engaging. A worthwhile read to see how the language we use can be both inclusive and exclusive, political and sincere.