Ricky Hill on "Another Country"
Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism
Reviewed by Ricky Hill
Diverging from the metropolitan-centered interventions within queer studies of the past twenty-five years, Scott Herring’s Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism approaches a queer cultural critique from a non-urban framework. Grounding his analysis in a variety of media artifacts representing country aesthetics—from the underground, collectively published journals Country Women and Radical Fairy Digest (RFD) to Michael Mead’s collection of neo-Confederate portraits of white, working class men—Herring asks the reader to consider a move into what he terms “queer anti-urbanism.” Queer anti-urbanism is explicitly distinguished from the notion of ‘anti-urban’ in that it is not a system of reactionary rejection of ‘the city’; it is, rather, a critical negotiation of “the relentless urbanisms that often characterize any US-based ‘gay imaginary.’” Linking queerness with a conscious anti-urban analysis, Another Country allows the urban and rural to be examined “not as geographic spaces but as social spaces beyond the Census Bureau population count,” producing a topography of cultural connections between ‘country’ and ‘queer.’
Herring’s shift into queer anti-urbanism allows Another Country to situate itself within the larger conversation of queer studies work exploring non-urban visions. His project is greatly influenced by Judith/Jack Halberstam’s concept of “metronormativity,” described within In a Queer Time and Place (2005) as a dominant narrative of queer migration from the small town to the big city, with the metropolis being the only space within which a sustainable queer culture may reasonably exist. Herring builds upon Halberstam’s foundation of metronormativity in Another Country, creating a schema of queer anti-urbanism that encompasses six analytic axes: narratological, racial, socioeconomic, temporal, epistemological, and aesthetic. The balancing act of this rubric serves to illustrate the intricate interplay of multiple dimensions of queer identification. Herring’s explication of the six axes of metronormativity moves queer studies into a deeper understanding of the ways in which mainstream images of queerness serve to “support, sustain, and standardize the idealizing geographies of [a] post-Stonewall lesbian and gay urbanism...that facilitates the ongoing commodification, corporatization, and de-politicization of U.S.-based queer cultures in many locales.”
Structured through the introduction of a handful of semi-interrogated keywords, such as “critical rusticity,” “anti-cosmopolitanism,” and “unfashionability,” the book moves through a loosely chronological analysis. Beginning first with an exploration of historic representations of gay metronormativity in the early twentieth century and queer anti-urbanism from the immediate post-Stonewall era, Herring moves toward the more recent examples of Michael Mead’s photography from the late 1980s and early 1990s, a contemporary performance piece by Sharon Bridgforth, and Alison Bechdel’s much-lauded graphic memoir, Fun Home (2006).
Herring begins his critique of metronormativity through an interrogation of modernist queer cultural production. This historical moment is explored through the stylistic choices of artists Willa Cather, Charles Demuth, and James Weldon Johnson. Herring positions these artists as countering the dominant urban high-culture of their time period, being informed by varying degrees of queer anti-urbanism. Cather’s The Professor’s House (1925) is lauded as having very little vested in the queer cultural milieu of her time, favoring instead a pastoral framework based in the wheat fields of Kansas. Demuth’s oil painting, My Egypt (1927), is interpreted through a schema of compulsory able-bodiedness, as described by Robert McRuer. This is an intriguing turn taken by Herring, attempting to connect physical mobility and the narrative of queer migration within the modernist age. Linkages between Demuth’s diabetes diagnosis and the imaginary contained within My Egypt are to be paired against the era’s ever-present cityscape, and the contrast between the two highlights the often ignored complexity of rurality. Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1927) is taken up as one of the first novels to explicitly reverse the mainstream narrative of queer country-to-city migration and realize that the city is not always utopia. The use of the New York- based trio serves as a catalyst for the larger conversation surrounding queer anti-urbanism, and sets the scene for a post-Stonewall archive.
Herring’s concept of critical rusticity is introduced through readings of two journals: Country Women and RFD. Both are described as separatist publications, representing a culture niche within which queer people with rural sensibilities are able to create oppositional stylistics to those that appear in the mainstream. These publications are viewed as the primary ascending point of the queer anti-urban aesthetic, precursors to the collection of Michael Mead photographs Herring analyzes in the next chapter. The images highlight a white, working-class rurality, and are subsequently critiqued for utilizing a degree of disidentification. In Herring’s reading, scenes of the Confederate flag next to queer bodies defy “dominant imprints of gay metro- norms,” refusing to assimilate. This non-assimilation that is prevalent within a queer anti-urbanism is also found within “unfashionability.” Herring’s purpose in this section is to reconfigure a queer identity that exists “without a style.” Using Bridgforth’s no mo blues (1995) as a case study, he explores the possibilities of fashionable resistance contained within a queer anti-urbanism. Bridgforth’s performance piece directly challenges a strong push to incorporate within a larger lesbian-chic stylistic structure, favoring instead a non-normative stylistic.
Herring’s final chapter builds upon the prior pieces, albeit in a disjointed manner. The conversation turns to queer infrastructure, which encompasses not only maps and highways, but also those spaces that do not appear within mainstream travel guides and books. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is the primary artifact analyzed, focusing on her visual depictions of her hometown, Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, as a space of “narrow compass,” infiltrated by the national highway system and automotive flight. Herring highlights the contrast between Bechdel’s father, who is forever caught in the country, and herself, trying to escape into an urbane lesbianism. Fun Home is viewed as a work that literally depicts the mainstream gay migration, ultimately reifying city/country myths. Herring does not view this reification as a problem, but rather as an honest depiction of the mythological flashpoints created between the urban and the rural within queer culture. These chapters, as a complete body of work, seek to call attention to the fantasies of both urban and rural aesthetics as present within LGBTQ cultural representations. They ask “that we learn to live without metropolitan idealization,” making a critical turn away from the city and its “desire full of diminishing returns,” instead embracing the potential of an approach centered on non-urban queer existence.
Another Country covers a range of artifacts, suggesting future moves within the critique of metronormativity and building upon the framework laid for queer anti- urbanism. Intersections between cultural studies, queer theory, art history, and literary studies are suggested. The encompassing nature of this project is perhaps its greatest strength as well as weakness. The number of texts taken up by Herring can be overwhelming, and at times leaves larger theoretical connections unexplored. The six analytical axes presented in the introduction are tacitly present within the chapters, but might be better utilized if explicitly applied to a more narrow body of work. Despite his broad reach, Herring has created a work that will surely serve to inspire others to build upon the foundation of queer anti-urbanism that he has laid.