Laura Doan on Collective Memory and Alan Turing: “Speaking on the Uses of the Sexual Past: History, Sexuality and Memory”

On Tuesday, January 28th, the English department, Gender and Women’s Studies and the URI LGBTQ IMG_4351Center kicked off our spring speaking series with a presentation by Dr. Laura Doan.  Doan is professor of cultural history and sexuality studies, focusing on modernism World War I and queer historiography at the University of Manchester in England; she is also co-director for the center of sexuality and culture.  Her publications include The Lesbian Postmodern, Sexology Uncensored: the Documents of Sexual Science, Sexology and Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desires, Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on the Well of Loneliness, Fashioning Sapphism: the Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture, Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality and Women’s Experience of Modern War.

Professor Doan was introduced by University of Rhode Island’s Jean Walton, Professor of English, Women’s Studies, Film Media and Comparative Literature.  Doan’s visit was a key event for Professor Walton’s course in Feminism, Gender and the Body.  After the talk, Professor Doan visited with the students of ENG 560 to discuss her work and answer questions regarding her most recent book, Disturbing Practices.

Professor Doan began her talk by describing the day on which Turing, British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist, was found dead in his home on Tuesday, June 8, 1954.  Two years previous to his death, Turing was charged with gross indecency under the Labouchere Amendment, in effect since 1885, after confessing to having a homosexual relationship with a local working-class man.  Turing chose chemical castration rather than imprisonment.  The deposition includes details about the condition of the house, Turing’s clothing and the cyanide-laced apple that was found at the scene.  Asking the audience to consider the historical document as enabling collective conscience, Doan sees the deposition as one that “allows the bedroom to become a site of memory.”  Doan cited Pierre Nora as the originator of the phrase, “site of memory.”

One of the challenges met by queer theorists is the apparent incongruity between historical inquiry and memory studies. Historians dismiss collective memory; queer scholars dismiss history as simply “empirical data collection.”  While Doan recognizes Turing’s scientific accomplishments, she summarized her own interests by saying that she is “less interested in Turing than in the interest shown in Turing to explore larger historiographical questions relating to the tensions between collective memory and academic history.”

Collective memory and queer temporality have many similarities, according to Doan.  She expressed the tensions between “queer time” (or collective memory) and historical time: queer time as cyclical or stalled versus history as linear and reproductive.  Doan wishes for academics to view these disciplines as related.

In her talk, Doan described the sensational contemporary and past culture surrounding Turing, exemplified in the texts available through the Turing digital archive at King’s College, Cambridge, the 2012 Turing centennial celebration, biographies and films.  Turing is seen by some as a “homo hero,” despite the paucity of information about his personal life.  Doan explored the many overlapping labels and related identities to the goal of collective memory: to join an “eternal present” to a political cause with its “roots in political activity and social identity.”  She reminded us that the point of collective memory is to select those details that serve a larger social function, saying that collective memory “confirms and consolidates, distills and simplifies.”  Doan claimed that the plaque installed at the Alan Turing Memorial in Manchester (“Father of Computer Science; Mathematician, Logician; Wartime Codebreaker; Victim of Prejudice”) is an “amalgam of gay pride and sacrificial victimhood,” revealing more about “commemoration than the commemorated object.”

Doan described queer time in this case as “asynchronic.”  She returned to the deposition as culturally significant to collective memory: the cyanide-laced apple becomes a continual and timeless symbol of Turing’s status as victim and hero.  Doan cited Carolyn Dinshaw’s theory of “queer desire for history” in relation to Allan Megill’s theory on the goal of collective memory and commemoration: “to affirm…community and commonality…strengthening bonds through a shared orientation to a representation of past events.”

Professor Doan situated LGBTQ communities within the context of history and memory.  IMG_4367Historiansare burdened with a disciplinary obligation to avoid assuming or projecting identities onto historical studies.  Doan points out the irony of this effort, exemplified by 1960s and 70s biographical works on Turing, since history is always informed by the affective practices, politics and ideologies of the present.  Doan reflected on the problems of embracing either the historical or the collective, saying that collective memory often rejects that which does not readily align with its values.  Likewise, Doan emphasized that we should not view these disciplines as mutually exclusive.  Professor Doan left us with the enigma and constructedness that is collective memory.

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