A review of Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus, by Jonathan A. Allan
Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus barely hit bookstores in the United Kingdom this spring when it received its first accolade. The custodians of the 38th annual Diagram Prize added this academic exploration of the socially neglected but culturally pervasive human anus to their shortlist of the oddest book titles of the year. Jonathan A. Allan, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Queer Theory at Brandon University in Manitoba, found his book sharing such dubious honour alongside Soviet Bus Stops, a photography book, and the self-explanatory Behind the Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers. The winner, if you must know, is decided by a public vote. And if you really, really must know, the prize went to Too Naked for Nazis with Reading from Behind a close second.
I mention the Diagram Prize not to undermine this rigorous and frequently brilliant book, but to show the pitfalls of mixing high-brow academe with the world of popular and mainstream culture. In Canada, Reading from Behind is published by the University of Regina Press, which, under the firm hands of director and publisher Bruce Walsh, has charted a middle course between the high mindedness of university presses and the wide reach and approachability of trade houses. James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life became a national bestseller in 2014.
The same strategy of making the potentially arcane accessible to the masses seems to be working for Reading from Behind. Allan and his book became the subject of a Q&A feature in Vice, with the Vice-worthy headline: “This Professor Spent the Last Three Years Researching Butthole Culture.” While the questions were often probing (no pun intended, honestly), they also included “Can we talk about twerking,” a reference to a choreographed move popular in hip-hop music in which dancers push out and wiggle their butts, of which there is scant mention in the book. The likes of Kim Kardashian and Pippa Middleton, and virtually all examples of contemporary popular culture, get nothing but passing references in a book that is steeped in queer theory, feminist criticism and men’s studies.
The subtitle, “A Cultural Analysis of the Anus,” is somewhat misleading since Allan’s primary concern remains a textual—and that includes film and paintings—analysis, and an idiosyncratic one at that. In a move that shows the book’s winning eclecticism (and to some extent its diffused focus), Allan applies his sharp critical mind to South American poetry, a Canadian indigenous artist, a pair of male-on-male romantic and pastoral tales, a collection of interviews with white American gay men, and a cult Mexican film, among others. He draws on an equally promiscuous theoretical framework, culling insights from Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as well as a host of other thinkers in queer studies, affect theory, film and American literature—not to mention the subgenres of both penis and anus cultural analyses.
All the readings in his book attend to what Allan terms “anal poetics” that asks readers to plumb new critical possibilities when they replace the primacy of the phallus with a re-examination of the symbolism and affects of the anus. Unlike the penis or vagina, the anus is a gender unifier with the potential to level the playing fields for all sexes. To read from behind is to question entrenched notions about gender roles, virginity and power dynamics of the sexual act of penetrating or pleasuring the anus. Is the person on the receiving end—the bottom in gay parlance—necessarily in the passive position, or can she or he indeed control the encounter by topping from behind? And is the representation of the anus as the ground zero for gayness a missed opportunity for straight-identified readers or simply a manifestation of collective homophobia?
After a general and sharply articulated grounding chapter, Allan turns his attention to a different text (or two) per chapter. He insists that his book can be read in any order and, in line with queer theory, deliberately eschews linearity and causality. For me, this strategy betrayed the book’s weaknesses as much as it highlighted its far-reaching insights. The insistence on self-contained chapters means a repetitiveness of its basic argument—the revelatory nature of reading from behind feels like a gratuitously inserted hashtag—and a certain dissonance between theoretical approach and textual choice(s). So when Allan turns to Frat Boy and Toppy, a male-male romance novel written by Anne Tenino, the chapter feels like the analytic equivalent of swatting a fly with a ten kilo brick. Although the novel questions the top-bottom roles within same-sex relations, Allan’s insistence on finding the hidden pleasures of the anus while championing passivity as an uber-masculine act sees him elevate a clichéd romance to the role of serving a “political purpose.”
But set Allan loose on a truly complex artwork and watch how his deep knowledge of queer theory and his culturally and racially attuned textual investigations reorient and challenge existing readings with authority and conviction. There is a semi-messianic zeal (of the rare, good kind) in the way he negotiates racial stereotypes in the landscape paintings of indigenous artist Kent Monkman in a chapter appropriately titled “Spanking Colonialism.” Allan begins by framing his discussion of Monkman’s work in a relic of gay pulp fiction called Song of the Loon by Richard Amory. In a refreshingly honest caveat, Allan admits that his copy of this novel remains relatively new, discomforted as he is by the eroticization of the indigenous body on the part of the thrill-seeking white settler in it. This shorthand into centuries of transferring power away from Native populations and placing it in the hands of the colonial masters sets two scenes: the one depicted in the art work and the one Allan advances in his own narrative. The paintings under discussion isolate two men against a traditional Canadian landscape. In each, the relationship between the Native man and the white Mountie not only reverses roles—the former is the one spanking or penetrating the latter—but tests our knowledge of shame, pleasure and phallic power, and, ultimately, leads us to question what we think we know about this exchange and the role of the butt in our confusion. Good works of art resist singular interpretation, and Allan’s focus on a reparative reading—a reading that privileges the unknown and undermines definitive outcomes—leads us to absorb and not resolve narrative conflicts. Allan reaches a similar state of analytic disequilibrium in his examination of Gore Vidal’s 1968 camp extravaganza of a novel, Myra Breckinridge, turning the famous (trans) woman-on-man rape scene in it into a lot more than the “how it feels to be a woman” reductive reading that has dogged the book (and its tawdry 1970 movie version) ever since.
Ultimately, Reading from Behind may not leave the big cultural footprint that its publisher (or at least the marketing team) may hope for because it has little or no interest in the behemoth of popular culture as the media understands it. However, readers outside the academy will be rewarded with a fine example of textual analysis—and, possibly, a new appreciation of the anus as the most democratic and empowering of our body parts.