Prof. Susan Lanser (ENG) reflects on her legacy at Brandeis
“What I hope is that wherever I have been at Brandeis … that I have made something better. That’s the hope, even in small ways. And I think if we all did the small ways, we wouldn’t need anyone to do the big ways,” Prof. Emerita Susan Lanser (ENG) said in an interview with the Justice in which she discussed her most recent publication and her legacy at Brandeis.
The University will not lose Lanser with her retirement, especially given her work on the task force to address senior and emeriti faculty engagement on campus.
She describes her transition simply as “doing less of two things: being in the classroom three days a week and being on committees. … Almost everything else really continues.”
Lanser came to the University in 2001 and was hired as the chair of the Women’s Studies (now Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) program. Her research focuses on narrative theory, women’s studies and 18th century studies, the intersection of which has culminated in the publication of her most recent book, “The Sexuality of History.” The work has received critical acclaim; Lanser won the American Historical Association’s Joan Kelly Memorial Prize, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and received an honorable mention from the American Society for the 18th Century Studies Louis Gottschalk Prize.
Describing the nature of her book, Lanser declared that “history is written by those in the dominant positions of power,” in order to explain why queer history has been silenced for the most part. Homophobia and a general wariness of ‘other’ culminated in queer history being written out of mainstream history.
With this in mind, Lanser specifies why she wrote “The Sexuality of History.” “I am not so much interested in what the 18th century could tell us about lesbians, I am interested in what lesbians can tell us about the 18th century,” she said.
According to Lanser, “these queer dynamics are intersecting with issues of power. Issues of authority. Issues of governance.” Coupled with the silencing of queer history, the objective influence of sapphic (lesbian) relationships over mainstream history presents difficulty in finding primary sources.
Lanser explains that she looked at many different types of texts, though she limited herself to only what was in print. She explained that decision was not arbitrary, as she is “interested in how the culture was articulating to itself how it understood same-sex relationships.” This variety of sources was integrated into the book by way of examining how same-sex relationships were depicted in fiction and non-fiction writing, a means of drawing on Lanser’s prowess in comparative literature.
Lanser noted a pattern among portrayals of same-sex relationships during the period she studies. As a general rule, same-sex relationships would be converted or changed into “the right heterosexual coupling,” often via magical or divine means.
Lanser also points out that there are instances of resistance to this heteronormalization, which she sees as a sign that “the culture is recognizing that heterosexuality is not necessarily the only kind of normative possibility, the only kind of natural possibility.”
Lanser also considered the power dynamics portrayed in literature.
“I think it’s because if you have a relationship between two women, you don’t have the potential for the traditional power structure. And also because what that tells us is that women are really crucial to the traditional power structure. … There are also texts in which relations between women bring down the whole cult society — they are disasters. Those texts are warning people that if you don’t really have a male-female hierarchy, you’re going to have chaos.” Lanser construes her book as a history of representations in which she ties comparative literary analysis to wider, more traditional historical implications.
Lanser’s sphere of influence is not solely limited to the already wide net of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is among three core faculty members involved in the Brandeis-Al Quds Partnership and has been since the program’s inception. She has traveled extensively to Al-Quds, which she credits for refining her appreciation for bottom-up approaches to solving larger issues not only in the modern Middle East but also in her own work.
Lanser highlighted the similarity between prominent intellectuals whose expertise is the Arab-Israeli conflict and the rapid progress of the LGBTQ rights movements in the United States.
She discussed Ari Shavit, author of “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” who argues that the lack of political will at the governmental level (among both Israeli and Palestinian leadership) necessitates more individualized approaches working toward establishing peace (for example, the Brandeis-Al Quds Partnership).
Lanser identified the evidence in American society which supports this proposition. “We had a lightning quick change in Western societies around same sex relations,” she explained. “If you think about how fast something like same-sex marriage happened, I can tell you that I never ever thought in my lifetime that I would be legally married to a woman. … Part of the reason why the culture changed is people coming out to other people. … When that happens on an individual level, people let go of their assumptions … because they know the person.”
Lanser’s wide array of interests and firm opinions, in her own words, means that she is often a troublemaker.
She clarifies, “Sometimes I’m a pretty noisy person at Brandeis; I’ve sometimes been a person who has made waves, and I know that there are people [whose] heart sinks if I come into their office because I am a wave maker kind of person. But I also think it’s really worth saying that Brandeis, for me — and I think for many people — has been a place where we can really feel that we matter. I think human beings want to matter, and Brandeis is a place where any one person can matter.” Perhaps this is why Lanser has made Brandeis her home for the past 15 years.
She explains “When a job was announced at Brandeis, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to be connected with a university that I could really care about and believe in. A university whose values I respected, a university that in so many different ways really did seem committed to ‘Tikkun Olam,’ to repairing the world. … Brandeis is a place worth believing in and worth making as good as we can make it.”