115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Archaeology of the Self: Objects and Desire in Call Me By Your Name

Heidi Arndt, "California State Polytechnic University, Pomona"

André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name offers a representation of bisexuality which undermines the expectation found in both queer theory and literature that a person’s identity should aspire to visible coherence. It achieves this through the protagonist’s cumulative readings of objects which are imbued with multiple, coexisting meanings.

Proposal: 

If the self is built on a structure of experience, then a person cannot be wholly represented by their topmost layer. However, according to queer theorists like Clare Hemmings and Elisabeth Däumer, the hetero/homosexual binary has created an obsession with categorization by which a person’s surface-level actions are misread as their essential identity. This reliance on outward representation overlooks the possibility of bisexuality. André Aciman’s queer coming-of-age novel Call Me By Your Name counteracts this visibility discourse through a nuanced representation of bisexuality. In the novel, a middle-aged Elio looks back on his formative sexual relationships with both a man and a woman in Italy in the 1980s. Over the course of one summer, Elio learns to look beyond what’s visible about people (himself included) to the complex layers of self underneath. One way to trace the declining influence of visibility on teenage Elio’s understanding of identity is through a chronological series of significantly layered objects: sheet music, bathing suits, a bed, two books, and a postcard. Elio’s initial fixation on reading “surfaces” demonstrates a belief that objects have singular, consistent meanings. However, if objects rely on people—with their mutable selves—for their meanings, what they actually reflect is inconsistency. Thus objects are an ideal focus for a study of bisexuality because they accumulate meanings over time, just as people accumulate experiences which invisibly inform their identities. In both cases, new meanings or experiences add to, rather than replace, what came before. Elio’s cumulative readings of these objects must be understood in relation to his epiphanies about his sexuality; this juxtaposition embraces a plurality of desires and draws our attention to the fluid production of identity.

Using the work of Judith Butler, Bruno Latour and others, this paper will examine these particular objects as representatives of the novel’s interest in layers. The sheet music prompts a realization about how one set of notes (i.e. the body) can be expressed in multiple ways. The bathing suits are an early attempt to tie the facets of Oliver’s personality to surface-level signifiers. When this system falls apart, and Elio can no longer deny his longing for Oliver, he lies in Oliver’s bed (which is Elio’s during the rest of the year) and symbolically acknowledges that desire as part of himself. Elio fully embraces his bisexuality when he buys books for both his romantic interests on the same day (and consequently has sex with each of them). Whereas he was previously feeling uneasy about the confluence of these relationships, giving them different books exemplifies how his desires can be both the same and different. Finally, a conversation with Oliver about a postcard after 15 years apart shows that Elio has come full circle: from over-reliance on appearances to looking below the surface for a more nuanced perspective. The novel offers a representation of bisexuality which undermines the expectation found in both queer theory and literature that a person’s identity should aspire to visible coherence.