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elisem

Beginning Undergrad Research Project

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elisem

Hi! My name is Elise and I am an undergrad in California. I am beginning work on my research fellowship. My topic is to be 'obligatory sexuality in literature.' 

 

Do any academics or book nerds have ideas for characters I could examine in my research? Any classical (or slightly more recent) literary characters who could be a-spec?

 

All academic discussion is welcome.

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elizabeth17

ahh this project sounds awesome! I'm majoring in english in undergrad so please feel free to message me about academic stuff whenever! If you haven't read it already there's a collection of essays called Asexual Erotics which I believe does some of this kind of work. I also think for this project it will be crucial to look at the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Humans who are racialized differently are also gendered and sexualized in specific ways that vary for different racial projects. So looking at the intersections of race and queerness will be critical. I personally haven't done a ton of this research (currently working on a project on metafiction, neoliberalism, and the creation of nonprofit publishing in the 1980s US) but know that Professor Jeffery McCune is currently doing great work on blackness and queerness. Also would be interesting to look into Asian American (specifically east Asian) racialization, gender construction, and sexualization (a lot of Asian American racial tropes cast AsAm people as cold and robotic, which often translates into aromanticism). There's a book called Ornamentalism on gender constructions of Asian American women that I've heard is good. 

As far as book recommendations I unfortunately haven't found any explicit portrayal of ace/aro characters in literature. However here are a few books I think could be interesting for you to analyze

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz- yes Diaz is super problematic but the book itself is important. It's about a guy named Oscar who is Dominican American. Dominican racial stereotypes cast Dominican men as hypermasculine, hyper-heterosexual, super cis (etc.). However, Oscar is super nerdy and doesn't fit into this hegemonic narrative of masculinity. The book documents Oscar's attempts to "get laid" and "become a true Dominican man." In the book is definitely not asexual. However, his "sexual failures" position asexuality interestingly in the construction of Dominican-ness. If you were to analyze this book it would be important to contextualize this in the Dominican's history of enslavement, colonization, US empire, and dictatorship. I've seen stuff on the book and queerness but I'm not sure if asexuality ever enters this discussion.

For more classical literature Mary Shelley's Frankenstein would make a lot of sense to look at. Obviously the book finds the possibility of a future(i.e. offspring) outside of heterosexual marriage monstrous. Victor Frankenstein could be read as an ace/aro character, although Shelley's novel is certainly unsympathetic to asexuality and aromanticism (i'd argue). I know a lot of critics conduct queer readings of Frankenstein (especially in trans studies some fantastic work has been done). However I'm not sure if asexuality comes up at all. 

Claire in Tenesse William's Night of the Iguana is the closest thing I've seen in a portrayal of an ace character on stage. 

I've also seen arguments that Hamlet is asexual. 

I'll try to think of more stuff. Is there any period you are specifically interested in? Or any angle you want to explore? I have more knowledge on contemporary stuff (my research is about the intersections of race, late stage capitalism, and literature so it's pretty contemporary)

 

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elizabeth17

ooo also research fellowship fun! I'm in a fellowship too that's very exciting congrats!

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elisem
Posted (edited)

@elizabeth17Thank you for your input!! I have read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and that is a fantastic suggestion. I also have Asexual Erotics checked out from the library. I am definitely looking into all sorts of intersectional asexuality. There are so many directions I could go, it is really exciting! 

 

I would be happy to chat research! I am keenly interested in the integration between research and identity. I have been low-key forced to out myself over and over for the sake of this research. Have you had a similar experience?

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elizabeth17

that sucks a lot and is super not ok yikes yikes yikes! I haven't had to out myself probably because my research isn't about a-spec identities. I also try to be fairly 'out' as asexual because I get really frustrated when people talk about sex and expect it to be universally relatable. So I'm already out to most people in my fellowship just because I want to be. 

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Cicero

@K. Derrick is also doing research on asexuality in literature and spoke at the UK Asexuality Conference last summer on this topic. You can check out his website here.

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K. Derrick

Hi, @elisem.  My name is Keith Derrick and I am working on my Ph.D. at Georgia State University on a similar subject.  The biggest obstacle to overcome is to contextualizing asexuality.  You need to make sure you are recognizing the difference between asexuality as an orientation and asexuality as an identity.  My approach is that Michael Storms created the identity of asexuality when he addressed the X category in the Kinsey Studies of people who felt no sexual attraction.  In his making that assessment, he exemplified Foucault's notion that sexual identity didn't exist until it was medically codified by sexologists in the late 1800's and early 1900's.  Foucault made the claim, in reference to homosexuality, that while the orientation existed since the dawn of man, the identity didn't exist until the academy codified it and created a discourse in which homosexuality could negotiate itself.  While scholars debate the veracity of Foucault's claim in its relationship to homosexuality, there seems to be a great deal of relevance to asexuality.  Prior to Kinsey and Storm, there was not much in the way of reference to asexuality as an identity.  So your first step should be to figure out whether you agree with that notion or do you disagree and why.

 

Then, when you have your foundation set, you need to identify how you will identify ace-spec and aro-spec characters in literature when they had no means to refer to them at the time.  In doing so,I think it is important that we recognize in our research that this speculation.  No final determination can be made about a characters sexuality because there was no language at the author's disposal to do so.  For example, people often point to Sherlock Holmes as an asexual character.  Arthur Conan Doyle even wrote in a letter that Holmes was quite opposed to romantic and physical relationships.  But without the word asexual and aromantic at Doyle's disposal, we can only assume that, were Doyle around today,he would simply have said asexual.

 

Now that you have your criteria and made your statement about the dangers of speculating about a person's identity, its time to apply it to literature.  Unfortunately, there is not a massive amount of scholarship on the subject.  But I recommend you look at that as a positive.  It gives you the opportunity to do something few have done before.  It is quite an exciting endeavor. 

 

I'd love to chat more and keep in touch to see how your research goes.  I don't update it too often, but you might want to check out my website.  I post some details here or there about my research.

 

My Research

Ace Reading List

Interview with Slice of Ace

 

Best of luck on your research.

 

P. S. Thank you, @Cicero, for tagging me in this thread.

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elisem

@K. Derrick Thank you for your insight! That is an important distinction. Language is closely tied to the framework we use to understand identity. I am focusing more on orientation than identity. I am interested in the social structures that impose obligatory sexuality. I have found that this opens me up to more easily examine asexuality as a spectrum. I am currently looking for texts that push back against society’s enforcement of hegemonic sexuality narratives.

 

Thank you for replying to this thread, I will certainly check out your research further.

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elizabeth17

I remembered some other stuff that could be interesting!

EM Forster's Howards End- the marriage between two of the main characters is sort of asexual. It would be interesting to compare Howard's End to Zadie Smith's retelling of it, On Beauty, which deals with the same themes of capitalism and aestheticism/ theory and practicality but in a contemporary US context that also discusses race (which is super missing in Howards End). Both books are pretty problematic in their treatment of class (just a warning). However, in Howards End a lot of the characters gender representations are interesting (one family is gendered femme and the other masc. So there are effeminate men and more masculine women) and I think to reconcile the gender-queerness of the characters in the context of the early 20th century Forester sort of codes some of the characters as asexual and even aromantic. Smith doesn't carry over the gendered elements of the two families in her retelling. However, the novel shows the intersections of femininity, class, and racialization come together to determine who gets sexualized (there are some super voyeuristic descriptions of some characters bodies and none of other characters at all). 

 

I'll try to think of more things, but I think looking at asexuality as a concept makes more sense than as identity because it allows you to look at characters that aren't aspec and ask why they are and what systems are at play to make asexuality even imaginable as an identity for some people and unimaginable for others--which intersects A LOT with regimes of power under capitalism- race, gender, class, ability, religion, the nation state, etc. 

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Silence4now

I have no research experience but have certainly been living some of this topic. I read almost everything I can find. I would offer the Sherlock Holmes character and his adventures with Watson as a possible option. It may sound odd but you could look at a lot of cartoon characters as well. They are not literary works of art exactly but there are endless numbers of possibilities in these shows. I would also suggest DaVinci and Socrates. Sounds like something I will definitely want to read.

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Hepalien

I would suggest Jane Austin novels such as Pride and Prejudice. It’s a romance and doesn’t have very out spoken sexual themes due to the age it was written in. Still the expectations were clear and the alteration from then to now on how expectations have changed in relation to marriage and children. Also it covers multiple views on the subject including Elizabeth who is shown to be more progressive versus her mother, the exact opposite. 
 

Also, this might sound a bit strange but Gilgamesh. An epic that follows a hero and king who at the very beginning is wifeless and that is all that the town, nobles, and his mother can talk about. The interesting backstory of Enkidu, a man made for him by the goddess of partners (or something close to that) who made enkidu for Gilgamesh instead of a wife that all were praying for. Homosexual themes including dreams of Gilgamesh caressing enkidu like a woman (an actual event talked about at length); all of which are over written by others around them. 

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