Style: A Queer Cosmology — Redefining Expression and Identity

Style: A Queer Cosmology — Redefining Expression and Identity
Taylor Black, assistant professor of English.

When we think of style, we usually think about the clothes a person wears, how they act, how they choose to present themselves to the world. In his new book "Style: A Queer Cosmology," Taylor Black, assistant professor of English, looks at icons of American culture who figured out how to express style in what he calls a “non-typical way.”

The book is divided in three parts. Part One, “The Mystery of Personality: Queerness as Style” revolves around Quentin Crisp and Flannery O’Connor. Part Two, “The Arrow of Time: Style and the Problems of History and Originality,” discusses Edgar Allan Poe and Bob Dylan. The last part, “The Critic as Stylist: Toward a Theory of Attunement,” moves around a whole set of figures, from William James to Nikki Giovanni to the obscure YouTube stars Royce and Marilyn.

We caught up with Black to chat about his definition of style and the icons he selected to represent it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

As a kid I was obsessed with the Wicked Witch of the West. As a little gay boy, perhaps this was predictable, but eventually, I realized that what I liked about her was her personality, her temperament, her untimeliness, her style. She was constantly showing up in places where she wasn't invited, and she was all about ruining someone else’s good time. She was burdened by the world, but sure of who she was. The Witch always knew what she wanted.

At the end of my second year of graduate school, I was introduced to Quentin Crisp in a documentary called Resident Alien. When I laid eyes on Quentin, I felt the same feelings of attachment I used to feel watching the Wicked Witch as a kid. I loved him because of his fundamental strangeness, his queer attachment to history and, of course, the way he presented himself. I started to write a dissertation about him, which was the beginning of this book.

Style a Queer Cosmology
Style: A Queer Cosmology by Taylor Black was released in Fall 2023.

Crisp was an effeminate homosexual man born in England in 1908 — a country that, he liked to say, didn’t even like effeminate women. He started wearing makeup not to look like a woman but to look more like an effeminate man, and he started walking in a more outrageously feminine way, like a peacock. This helped him deal with the angry mobs of people who used to follow him around, sometimes hectoring him and often simply beating him up. Rather than remain victimized by their angry confusion, Crisp decided to brazen it out.  

He learned to exaggerate the very things that he used to try and hide, which was fascinating to me. He was doing things the only way he knew how, as a mode of survival, learning how to overcome his fear of other people by becoming an exhibitionist and martyr, turning his would-be attackers into unwitting audience members and the streets of London his stage. 

Can you break down the title of the book? What does “cosmology” mean in this context?

I use the term cosmology capaciously and probably (to a scientist) a bit loosely. As I understand it, cosmology is the study of the origins and nature of the Universe. For physicists, this means searching the sky for traces of the beginnings of the Universe; religious and philosophical thinkers do the same through close investigation of mythologies and origin stories.

I am interested in style as a kind of origin story that begins with the human personality. Style is that fundamentally mysterious force driving our actions and revealing itself through our behavior. It speaks for and through us. As a way of being and becoming more like oneself, style is a kind of aesthetic practice of reimagining oneself in the Universe: it’s a world-building exercise occurring whenever we shake off the cliches and conventions forced upon us by society and replace them with ideas, habits and mythologies of our own creation.

My book leans into the study of things and qualities that are immanent and elude paraphrase or social scientific categorization. Style is whatever artificial intelligence is not. Style: A Queer Cosmology is about the possible rather than the probable, singularity over universals, personality instead of identity, the emergent and not the new — the mystery of becoming.

What do you mean expressing style in a “non-typical” way?

I’m talking about the difference between a personality and an identity. Queer theory says identities are performed, that they are socially constructed. And I believe that, but I don’t think it’s quite the same as talking about someone's personality.It’s about, as the children say, vibes. Picking up on someone’s vibes isn’t the same as liking a hat someone wears, for example. It’s about liking the hat on someone because it makes them look more like themselves.

Who is the book for?

This book is for everyone.  It focuses on overly stylized — even strange — figures in hopes that readers will commune with the strange parts of themselves that often hide behind or are boxed in by our identities. In other words, it is a book about eccentrics that tries to unlock the eccentric in us all.