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“Uncannily Queer Iberia: the Past and Present of Imperial Panic”
Mary Gossy, Rutgers University


It often happens that neurotic men declare that they feel there is something uncanny about the female genital organs. This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning. There is a joking saying that ‘Love is home-sickness’; and whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself, while he is still dreaming: ‘this place is familiar to me, I’ve been here before’, we may interpret the place as being his mother’s genitals or her body. In this case too, then, the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, familiar; the prefix ‘un-’ is the token of repression.

(Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” 245)

The introduction to the book that gives this Symposium its name does a great job of drawing together the words “queer” and “Iberia”, especially, I think, when it links Américo Castro’s project with a deconstructive understanding of the difference it takes as its subject: “Castro and his school effected in essence a ‘queering’ of Iberian history by exposing the Semitic roots of modern Spanish identity and by outing as the descendants of Jews or Muslims such icons as Fernando ‘el Católico,’ Teresa of Ávila, and Cervantes” (Hutcheson and Blackmore 3). The authors continue, “[i]t is in this sense that we might understand queerness, as that which normativity (in this case a cultural normativity) must reject or conceal in order to exist”. There is much evidence supporting the logic of the conscious or unconscious linkage of anti-semitism with homophobia. “[T]hat which is rejected or concealed” is also feminized; it is in this respect, too, that the “queer” is also uncanny. Freud says that the “uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (220) - known and embodied, but repressed. The “queer” is “always palpable in the incongruities, excesses, or anxieties of normative discourse, but it is only exceptionally given expression [one might guess, when the internal pressure builds to an intolerable level, or, conversely, when it seems safe or meaningless to do so], and this only at the margins” (Hutcheson and Blackmore 3).

The collection amply and convincingly demonstrates the ways in which queerness is embedded in the fiction that is the building and maintenance of empire. There are some clarifications I would like to add to that statement, though. First, although I know that the imperial is a fiction, I also know that it is a fiction with real power of life and death over bodies of flesh and blood. The queer can and does constantly point to the fictitiousness, the constructed-ness, that is, the unnaturalness of empire. “Queer” and “empire” can be read as binary oppositions, with “empire” ever dependent on, and ever denying, its need for “queer”. My concern for today has to do with advancing the project of Queer Iberia in this context, which brings me to my second clarification. To what degree is queer not only embedded in empire, but also in bed with empire?

If queerness is “what normativity must reject or conceal in order to exist”, then what does normative queerness disown? One would think that “normative” and “queer” could never work as a pair, yet millions of happily married straight couples sprint avidly to new Almodóvar films. An essay like Greg Hutcheson’s on Álvaro de Luna shows clearly how queer-baiting can help sustain myths of nation or empire. But I am suggesting a next move: are we willing to analyze the “queer” in Queer Iberia, now that the concept of a queer Iberia has been normalized as a canonical text by a prestigious series at a prestigious university press? (It even has a “life-partner”, Bergmann and Smith’s ¿Entiendes?)

In the past, we who study Iberia have sometimes waited for scholars in other disciplines to do this kind of work first, and then picked up their tools to do some groundbreaking in our still definitely peculiar field. It is a fact that the literatures and histories of Spain and Portugal are still largely unread and considered inessential, even for the study of modern imperialism (to me a most telling symptom of denial). This time, can we use our oddly privileged position -we can see things from here that they cannot see from over there- in order to expand the debate, to cultivate new understandings of queerness, not only for ourselves, but for students in many fields?

I still think this is the main challenge before scholars of Iberia. There is a reason why scholars in other fields remain ignorant of our work. It is a choice, albeit probably an unconscious one. What we have to say is too disturbing, hits too close to home. It is uncanny. Nevertheless, it pervades the global visual culture of the imperial pax Hollywoodiana. There is a reason why the pseudonym that Russell Crowe’s character chooses in “Gladiator” is “the Spaniard”. In that mishmosh blockbuster allegory of global corporate capitalism (either that, or academia), Spain (in the Roman sense, Hispania, Iberia) is the great disruptor, the unstoppable emissary who insists on demonstrating that the emperor, empire itself, is a big cheater. People who work in our field have some very interesting things to add to contemporary debates, and the more familiar we are with the past, the more willing we are to experience the uncanny, the better for our present. Our innovation will rest on our capacity to engage questions like, “What does queer ‘reject or conceal in order to exist’?”; “How do we keep queering queer?”

Iberia is definitely queer, but that fact has not been consciously engaged outside our small circle. Speaking from this location, literally around the corner from the place where some of the foundational texts of the US government were scratched onto paper, I wonder if it is too much to say that the lessons communicated by medieval and renaissance Iberia could be of use in our present situation of imperial panic. We can continue our honest work, not by normalizing “queer” as yet another commodity in the bizarrely overpriced academic marketplace, but rather by enjoying it as a tool for untying the pleasures and truths of the cultures we study. Through reading, teaching and writing, we can recognize our own flesh and blood in the strangest, most uncanny of places.


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© 2019 · La corónica
A Journal of Medieval Hispanic Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
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