Delfina Bunge, a young Argentine aristocrat in the early 20th century, wasn’t trying to cause a scandal when she submitted a prize-winning essay to a Parisian magazine, but in the words of some historians, “the news exploded like a bomb in society.”
“Her family was aghast, shocked, that she, in the early 20th century, would have exposed herself this way, even though she published it under a pseudonym,” Joseph Pierce, assistant professor in the department of Hispanic languages and literature, said.
It didn’t matter so much what she wrote; rather, Pierce pointed out, for a woman in the upper class to publish a literary text at the time would have made her a target for ridicule and gossip, and brought dishonor on her family.
“In this moment, she has sort of a queer desire to perform in public as a thinker, and that was not normal, that was strange, that was odd for her, and the family in the same moment, tried to project an image of her as a desirable young woman, and that included necessarily not being a writer,” Pierce said.
In Pierce’s upcoming book, “Argentine Intimacies: Queer Kinship in an Age of Splendor, 1890-1910,” he examines not just Delfina Bunge, but her entire family, as “a prism through which to view cultural and political changes,” according to his dissertation. More broadly, his research focuses on queer kinship in Argentina at the turn of the 20th century, which he defines as “a form of orienting the body and its desires through the structural norms that adhere to kinship over time.”
“At its core, this is a book about how the concept of family changes over time, and what queerness we often overlook when we imagine that the family has always been a normative space; a normative practice,” Pierce said. “I wanted to understand how, in a moment of intense social change as with Argentina at the turn of the 20th century, the family became a space of negotiation, of contradiction, rather than simply a space of social conservatism. Family can do that, but it doesn’t always do that. And I wanted to try to figure out how kinship emerged queerly in that moment of stress.”
Pierce spent eight years on research leading up to the publication, set to be released in November.
Daniela Flesler, associate professor and interim chair of the Hispanic languages and literature department, wrote in an email that the department is lucky to have Pierce.
“He is an outstanding scholar and a committed and generous colleague and collaborator,” she said. “He is also an inspiring and supportive teacher and mentor for undergraduate and graduate students, offering courses that intersect with his research interests on queer Latin America, gender, sexuality and kinship.”
Pierce’s book studies the literary work of four children from the Bunge family at the time, which included Delfina as well as her siblings Carlos Octavio, Alejandro and Julia. All four have a distinct body of literary work, in addition to extensive diaries kept and shared by the two sisters.
The Bunge siblings lived during a time of tumultuous change. Argentina at the turn of the 20th century was in a state of flux — immigrants were pouring into the country, bringing new ideas that challenged established cultural norms. As members of the Argentine elite, the Bunge family pushed for a return to traditional values even as they themselves acted in ways that didn’t align with what they prescribed for other people.
In his book, Pierce examined their hypocrisy through comparisons of public and private texts.
“The book is about intimacy between people, but also intimate texts,” Pierce said.
One brother, Alejandro, actually wrote an essay called “Una Nueva Argentina” in 1940, lamenting the low birth rates in the upper class; he argued that if they didn’t reproduce more, they’d lose control of the country.
“So in addition to this being an essay of the national identity, it’s like, essentially a sex manual,” Pierce said. “He’s trying to invite people of a particular class to have more sex. And we see a similar argument being made today, in the United States.”
Pierce pointed out that many of the issues he studies — including themes of otherness, sexual diversity and immigration — are still relevant today.
“So, you know, this idea of — I’ll go ahead and say it — making America great again is an idea of returning to a past state of glory in which white people held uncontested hegemony in the United States,” Pierce said. “This is a very similar thing to what I’m talking about in Argentina in the early 1900s.”
Carlos Octavio, one of the siblings Pierce focused on, was a lifelong bachelor, which some historians interpret to mean he was a “closeted homosexual.” Despite this, Carlos Octavio was as conservative as the rest of his family, and actually — according to contemporary historian Osvaldo Bazán, mentioned in the book — helped to entrench homophobic discourse at the turn of the century.
He was an acclaimed sociologist, but also wrote fiction (a lot of which wasn’t as well received) about characters who were uncomfortable with their identities and could never quite articulate why. According to Pierce, his work expressed a lot of unresolved queer desire — “a yearning for something that is not yet here, an inexplicable desire that has no name, but which is surely felt.”
Pierce established that he wasn’t trying to be ahistorical when discussing Carlos Octavio’s queerness. “What I’m doing is talking about the contradictions that come from within the family, that come from within normativity,” he said.
He went back to the case of Delfina, who wanted to be a writer, but had to hold herself back, as her work seeks to reconcile the concept of women’s work with a woman’s place as a “mother.”
“It’s not that [queerness is] an identity,” he continued. “It’s an expression of a yearning, an expression of a desire for something that is outside of my present; something that might be there, but I don’t quite know what it is. She’s not identifying as queer, but she’s queering what it means to be a woman, she’s queering what it means to be a writer in this moment.”
As Delfina continued her pursuit as a writer, she rejected the views she had when she first published that essay in a Parisian magazine, and wrote in her diary that she didn’t want to get married. Only five years later, she was both married and a conservative, Catholic writer.
“I’m interested in demonstrating how the division between what we typically understand as queer and not queer is not as easily discerned as we think it is,” Pierce said. “That division is fluctuating in time and context. It’s not useful to say this is or this is not queer because this is going to change tomorrow.”
Correction: 2/14/19, 1:02 p.m.
The word “hegemony” was changed from “homogeneity.”