What’s blood got to do with it? Reimagining kinship in the Age of Enlightenment

To pass the time on a recent rainy drive to Pittsburgh with my family, we listened to an episode of The Ezra Klein Show that consisted of a conversation between Klein and American novelist Richard Powers. Powers is the author of, among many things, The Overstory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel recently included in Barak Obama’s list of three books everyone should read. The main characters of the story are the trees, their stories told through the humans that form intimate relationships with them. While listening to the interview, I was struck by how, in describing the relationships between humans and trees (and plants, and other animals), Powers referred again and again to this vast network as one of kinship. He reframed kinship as an immense and powerful interspecies network that brings together all the matter that exists on earth.

In many ways Powers’ project, that of both re-imagining what kinship can be, and of exploring what these different forms of intimate communities can do, is also the project of Queering the Enlightenment. While firmly grounded in human interaction, my book establishes a strong link between kinship, knowledge production, and political critique in eighteenth-century France, arguing that one valid method of critique of the French monarchy was stories about queer intimate communities. Many eighteenth-century French authors were critical of the kinds of kinship that reproduced wealth and social hierarchies through practices such as primogeniture and arranged marriage, and so they turned to figures such as the orphan, the bastard, and the foreigner to imagine how the moving pieces of the family might be rearranged, and how these new kinship formations might change how we think about knowledge and power.

Each chapter of Queering the Enlightenment focuses on a single paradigm of intimacy as unearthed through readings of various canonical authors of eighteenth-century France. A chapter on Crébillon fils, for instance, shows how the author harnesses the power of cruising in his novels to propose that random hookups and one-night stands can lead to meaningful methods of sharing the human experience with others. Kinship, gender, and sexuality lose all fixed meaning in a world such as this one. Another chapter turns to several works of Pierre de Marivaux to examine the possibility of a feminine symbolic that emerges from the space of the maternal and circulates among women who nurture and care for other women. In so doing, it invites us to imagine a queer motherhood capable of nourishing the French Republic in ways unavailable to the bare-breasted Marianne that serves as a symbol of France to this day. Other chapters question the heteronormative family structure guided by analyses of the literature of Voltaire, Montesquieu, the abbé Prévost, and Françoise de Graffigny to see how certain outcast figures find hope in unlikely encounters, and how the relationships they form question the very idea of a cultural knowledge based on (sexual) reproduction.

François Boucher, Le Déjeuner (1739), Louvre Museum, Paris (Wikimedia Commons).

It is not without a hint of irony that I began this post with an incredibly banal scene of heteronormativity. What could be more normative than a family of three driving an SUV to the zoo while listening to a New York Times podcast? And so, to close, I would like to attempt what Voltaire, and Graffigny, and Crébillon, and the others did so eloquently almost three hundred years ago – I would like to take these pieces and see how we might understand them differently. Yes, we were a unit on the same journey to the same destination, but we were also three bodies sharing a space but experiencing the time in different ways. As one body drives, they may let their mind wander in and out of the podcast, thinking about the animals they would see, or the tasks they need to complete, or the bit of news they heard that they want to remember to tell their sibling; another might be riding, enjoying the beauty in the mountains and trees as they pass or wishing their arms were long enough to reach the stuffed animal or the used tissue on the floor – mentally exploring and learning from their interactions with the objects around them; still the third might be contemplating the ethics of visiting a zoo where animals are confined in spaces too small for their bodies, or drafting a blog post in their head, or maybe they are thinking about nothing at all. Or maybe the trees and mountains are watching them, wondering why they are there, or if the roads will ever decay to leave room for more flora to bloom. In any case, by decentering the experience of the nuclear family, we might be able to expand what we expect from kinship and intimacy, and we might be surprised at how such a perspectival shift can change what we think we know about the world.

– Tracy Rutler (Pennsylvania State University)

Tracy Rutler is the author of Queering the Enlightenment: Kinship and gender in eighteenth-century French literature, the November volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

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