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January 25th, 2007 by slewfoot

Music: Labradford: Mi Media Naranja (1997)

Not too long after I recommended that junior scholars should not, in general, review books, I agreed to review one. I was asked to review Davin Allen Grindstaff’s Rhetorical Secrets: Mapping Gay Identity and Queer Resistance in Contemporary America for Rhetoric & Public Affairs, the most culturally conservative journal in my field. I originally declined, citing a litany of previous promised deadlines. I was told, however, that they believed I was really the right guy to review this book and, having read it twice now, I think I know why (aside from the conceptual focus on “secrets”): this is a performative text that many of the more traditionally inclined rhetoricians may not know what to do with. At least that’s what I’m telling myself, as I like to think of myself as open to unusual texts!

The challenge of reviewing this tome is that I do get it, but I’m just not sure how to impart that the book is both an argument and a peformance itself, that the author is trying to perform his argument, and often in strong, homoerotic, highly sexual narratives. [LATER EDIT: E! cautioned that people have a strong distaste for reviews in which the reviewer attempts to prove “she gets it”–they come off as condescending. So, I am taking much care NOT to do this]. Some of the conservative (er, homophobic) readers would hate it. So how do I (a) give a positive review that mirrors, in some way, its clever approach to advocating for public desiring; but (b) do my job of identifying who would and would not appreciate the book. I mean, book reviews are supposed to generate the right audience for a book. And then I have another mission of (c) convincing those who would originally dismiss the book because of its subject not to do so, but to look deeper.

My solution was to begin with the cum-shot. My read of Grindstaff’s book is that it performs jouissance, and I think the “shock” of the exemplar gets at the public/private issues that ground the book. It is also pleasurable for me to, you know, be the first explicitly figural money shot in a conservative journal. I do not want to exempt my desire from the review either—I want to play with the author too. One wonders, however, about the politics of journals versus books: Grindstaff writes of explicitly sexual stuff in his book, but there is something about a book that makes it “more ok” than in journal articles, or at least this is my perception. So here is a teaser preview of the review; stay tuned for the full version late this semester or this summer (and probably edited, if not outright censored):

One of the many pleasures of reading Davin Allen Grindstaff’s study—or I should say, one of the ways in which the reader is suspended between an erotics of pleasure and pain—is the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the author displaces the cum-shot to the off-screen of the book’s preconscious. At the literal and figurative center of Rhetorical Secrets: Mapping Gay Identity and Queer Resistance in Contemporary America, Grindstaff argues for an “ethic of fluidity” premised on “semen’s ability to function as synecdoche for male subjectivity,” but in a way that embraces its connotations of danger and contagion as an emblem of possibility (85; also see 131-132). Inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, Grindstaff writes that since antiquity semen has been yoked to male subjectivity in ways that implicate a troubling tendency toward (ideational) solidity and containment as a way to stabilize—or better, dam-up—male identity, a tendency that is no more obvious than in filmic pornography: either solo or with a partner, the male “pulls out” to spurt or squirt his “junk” or “load” deliriously into the air or—as is more frequently common—onto the face of a motionless yet ravenously passive lover. Although it is unclear if the cum-shot has since become a common, private practice in the everyday bedroom, most critics agree that “visible ejaculation” was originally a pornographic, filmic innovation “to ‘prove’ that the sex is ‘real'” and provide a sense of closure to a given scene. Insofar as the meaning of the cum-shot for spectators remains contested, however, Grindstaff’s argument about the synecdochic virility of the figure of semen would resist the cum-shot as a “closure” or the solipsistic scene of male self-identification (e.g., “I am cuming!”) in favor of exposing the paradoxical, open, and relational work of subjectivication betokened by ejaculate as a synecdochic figure of both cathexis and elusive mutability (e.g., “every-body, my body, your body, our body, cums!”). In other words, in Rhetorical Secrets Grindstaff is careful to describe the ways in which the figure of semen both rhetorically establishes and upends masculine subjectivity at the bodily and embodied scenes of enjoyment: “The body is more than merely the residence of one’s sexual identity,” Grindstaff concludes his study, it “is also a collective entity, responsive and responsible to others.” Signaling a Deleuzian allegiance, Grindstaff advocates a public “desiring” of multiplicity and both/and, which is the queer community’s “most powerful form of resistance” and the better route for cuming together as a queer body politic (156).

I’ve opened this review deliberately with the cum-shot because the shock it will invite in some readers helps to underscore the publicity of pleasure Rhetorical Secrets advocates as well as the liminal, performative place Grindstaff would seduce readers to go. Although male ejaculate is the topic chapter four alone, those who are easily offended by the “public” discussion of presumably “private” events may not take pleasure in Grindstaff’s study, and in particular, the deliciously erotic, first person narratives of the author’s intercourse with Melville’s Billy Budd (42-55); such readers may be repulsed by the arousing ways in which Grandstaff describes how a muscle-bound stud in a phone sex advertisement “fucks me with his eyes” (119-123), or turned-off by the (very) close reading of Allan Gurganus’s yearning yarn of a bloody and polymorphous “hooking” ho-down (139-148). Yet to ignore the monograph because of these hard-core hermeneutic hook(ing)-ups would be a mistake, for the significance of Rhetorical Secrets is precisely its willingness to publicize the heterosexist assumptions of propriety that render gay male subjectivity a “performative contradiction” in a way that is enjoyable for the queer and “straight” alike. In other words, Grindstaff’s book is not only for those interested in learning about the rhetorical construction of gay male identity. Rhetorical Secrets also endeavors to explain how that identity is discursively produced by and among those who both deny and promote homophilia. Everyone’s desiring is implicated the project of gay male identity, and Grindstaff achieves this insight not only argumentatively, but in the way the text is “performed” itself: after a many paged, highly theoretical discussions, sometimes the reader suddenly finds him- or herself in bed with Grindstaff as he slides to first person descriptions of his thoughts and feelings about bodies in homoerotic encounter. This said, in addition to detailing the basic argument of the book, it is important to foreground the author’s explicit commitment to the performative dimension of identity and politics and the way in which the book issues both desirous invitation and erotic repulse as techniques of self-evidence.


[i] Joseph W. Slade, “Flesh Need Not Be Mute: The Pornographic Videos of John Leslie.” Wide Angle 19 (1997): 129.

[ii] See Richard Dyer, “Gay Male Porn,” Jump Cut 30 (1985): 227-229; and Cindy Patton, “Hegemony and Orgasm-Or, the Instability of Heterosexual Pornography,” Screen 30 (1989): 100-112.

7 Responses to “sea men

  1. Angela Says:

    Thanks for posting the start of that review. I have been looking for a good reading of the cum-shot for my work on protest porn…and you opened my world to new horizons. By the way, any suggested reading on the form of porn?

    If semen truly does function as synecdoche for male subjectivity…well, that just sounds like a lot of work!

  2. E! Says:

    You can count on this coming up (stop it!) tomorrow over coffee.

  3. slewfoot Says:

    Thanks guys (misnomer intended): there is also the issue of responsibility and your comments help me to think about that. Is going with the cum-shot potentially unfair to the author? I worry that folks would avoid the book as pornographic. It’s erotic and, well, pornographic by etymological standards, but . . . well, huh. I’ll need to think more about this; I still think that “cum” is the central trope of the book so . . . how to impart that?

    Regardless: Angela, I have no idea about readings. I read some stuff to start writing this book review, which is a few articles and a book (all of which were skimmed–I just needed a sense of the role of semen in porn). In the past week, I must admit, I’ve never thought more about semen . . . Grindstaff really only features it in one chapter, but I find his argument really intriguing—that ectoplasm is always forced into a mold.

    There’s someting about ectoplasm and semen—a connection, a deep ideational connection. And Play-Doh. Yup. And on that associative note, it’s time to put me to sleep.

  4. mindy Says:

    I (though this is certainly not a shock) am not offended by opening with the cum-shot. I agree that it may be a bit off-putting as an entryway into the review in ways that just might make readers hesitate and/or shy away from the book. The descriptions that you offer about the way in which the text enacts (and compels the reader to particpate in the activity of) identity are really the compelling bits of the review and the cum-shot seems to be a possible illustration of how this type of stylistics in scholarship can reverberate out through readers…IOW, your musings on the cum-shot become possible because of the text’s performativity.

    In any case, I am totally going to buy this book :)

  5. james Says:

    I like the idea of a cum-shot being an entryway. In this case, the rhetorical speculum’s on the other foot… or in the other hand, or up the other orifice…

  6. Angela Says:

    To be honest, I would love to see a discussion on the cum shot in RPA. It would be like someone swearing in church. Josh, why do you think RPA wanted YOU (specifically) to review this book? Do you think the editor wanted a psychoanalytic reading of the gay male unconscious?

  7. slewfoot Says:

    Mindster: The book is not quite as performative as I would have wanted, as it tries to negotiate the norms of rhetorical criticism as well as gesture beyond those norms (usually signalled by a switch to the first person/quasi-confessional but not confessional, more, like I said, enjoyment in that French sense). I don’t want to give the wrong impression: it’s a book that is pushing at those culturally conservative norms of scholarship. This is why the cum-shot is in the off screen: it’s there, it wants release, but it never “goes all the way.” To do so, I suspect, would have prevented its publication (sad, but true).

    Angela: I think the reason I got tapped was (a) because the book is performative in its approach and, well, I like that kind of thing; (b) the reviews I have written for RP&A have all been on controversial books (e.g., History of Shit), and (c) I think the book review editor just got a review of my book, which is about the secret too. I suppose I could ask, but I bet these reasons are close to the rationale.

    What I’d like to know about the cum-shot: In my own life, I’ve never produced one in my intimate encounters, nor have I ever had someone request one. I don’t expect anyone to disclose, but I do wonder if folks ever replicate this gesture, as the stuff I’ve read clearly suggests that it was created for film (and loosely based on mythic forms of birth control). Hmm.

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