Friday, June 5, 2009

queer theory & speaking truth to power


As many of you may or may not know (either from discerning it yourselves or from actual conversations we may have shared), I consider myself a radical feminist. How this term is interpreted, of course, will all depend on the current state of your rhizomatic relation to the concepts involved - I'm not especially interested in discussing all the nuances inherent in that position (maybe another time). Suffice it to say, as a white heterosexual male of petty bourgeois origins, feminist praxis - like any radical philosophical commitment - involves constant re-evaluation and contemplation of behaviours, thoughts, etc. to ensure that I can avoid the pitfalls of that insidious sexism inherent in popular life. (That sentence may or may not make sense to anyone - I don't particularly care.) The road out of ignorance is winding and uphill. C'est la vie.

But I feel that one of my biggest blind spots in the area is in the area of queer theory - that is, it is one thing to recognise the social construction of gender et al., but what of sexuality? This is a bit of a complicated issue, since sexuality is (as Freud accurately observed) a matter of great personal and psychological distress for all of us in some way or another; questioning the construction and malleability of your own sexuality is daunting at best and agonising at worst even for the hardiest of souls, let alone contemplating it as yet another way in which oppressive social forces act to constrain our common humanity. I, myself am not homosexual - but I feel as though I can appreciate it as an equally valid and beautiful expression of physical human relationships. But is it enough to 'accept' (even this term smacks of pretension!) homosexuality in a society that (either implicitly or explicitly) condemns and marginalises it?

My current thinking on the matter suggests to me that it is not. For the same reasons I feel that anti-capitalism and anti-sexism are philosophical compulsions - how can I truly be free if any one of my brothers or sisters are in chains? - I feel that homophobia (i.e., heteronormativity) must be constantly opposed at all levels as well. Shouldn't sexuality - the cornerstone of a healthy life! - be totally liberated?

To this end I am putting up this introduction to critical queer theory I found in my travels across the internet. I didn't write it (I possess hardly any of the intellectual equipment needed in this field, I am still very much pre-occupied with the question of human agency in the last instance, i.e., in the socio-economic realm), but it was written by another layperson in the area so I found it extremely accessible and a great way to ease into what may be for many a foreign and intimidating topic.

Obviously the essence (and implications) of queer theory extend far beyond this meagre introduction, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But what a journey it is! The search for the Real, the efforts to grasp the tools for exploding the social facade that separates us from one another; this I believe is of the utmost importance, and it is this end which all radical critiques should serve.

So what are you waiting for?
HEY QUEER! - not your dads' sexual criticism

"[Homosexuality] is pretty bad, and I don't think they should be around to influence children ... I don't think they should be hurt by society or anything like that - especially in New York. You have them that are into leather and stuff like that. I mean, I think that is really sick, and I think maybe they should be put away."

What is queer theory?

In its purest form, it is a set of critical ideas and philosophies that can be applied to a text to reveal its attitudes and prejudices toward non-normative sexuality (disclaimer - i consider one's concept of gender to be part and parcel with one's view of sexuality, which is not to say one determines the other, but that they inhabit the same general space. for simplicity's sake i tend to shorten queer concepts of sexuality and gender to just "sexuality" but this is just my personal habit). Drawing on lessons from feminism about the construction of gender, the goal is to unveil the fact that the way we define ourselves sexually is the product of a heteronormative culture which seeks to eliminate all non-normative sexual expression.

So you mean like homosexuality?

Homosexuality is a singular orientation. It describes people who have come to identify as men or women who have sexual relationships with those they also identify as either a man or a woman. That is not the totality of queer theory.

Queer theory encompasses all those who question the links between sex and gender, gender and orientation, orientation and acts, acts and meanings, meanings and significance, so on, and have come to internalize those questions and their answers into a personalized identity. Queerness is not defined by a proclivity for any certain kind of sexual/gender identity or act, it is defined by an opposition to the heteronormative ideals of sexual and gender expression.

Okay but what is heteronormativity?

Heteronormativity encompasses all the issues that surround sexuality - object choice, sex, gender, so on - and normalizes those which are most acceptable by the dominant (straight white Christian male) culture, which is to say, provide the most benefit to society. The best example of this in our culture is the primacy of marriage: the institution of marriage rewards a person for accepting normalized ideals of gender and sexuality by granting them legal benefits as well as social legitimacy.

Heteronormativity proscribes that:

  • Gender is a product of biological sex, and is immutable.

  • Men are attracted to women, and women are attracted to men.

  • Sex is an expression of love between men and women.

  • Sex exists to produce pleasure for the man and woman, and to produce children for the future.

This manifests itself in a desire that gay people (and other sexual dilettantes) who question those orders simply not be:

The presiding asymmetry of value assignment between hetero and homo goes unchallenged everywhere: advice on how to help your kids turn out gay, not to mention your students, your parishioners, your therapy clients, or your military subordinates, is less ubiquitous than you might think. On the other hand, the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginatively large. There is no major institutionalized discourse that offers a firm resistance to that undertaking: in the United States, at any rate, most sites of the state, the military, education, law, penal institutions, the church, medicine, and mass culture enforce it all but unquestioningly, and with little hesitation at even the recourse to invasive violence
"How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay", Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

It is a common mistake to think that this is undertaken because homosexuality is considered bad. It is undertaken because heterosexuality is good. Heterosexuality produces children, and the unique construct of heterosexuality established by the dominant culture also assures those kids grow up obedient to authority and ready to serve.

Heteronormative culture attempts to control people through their understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality. Dominant culture will co-opt and utilize all modes of self-expression to maintain its hegemonic control over discourse, including how we structure our physical contact with other people. One of the primary goals of queer theory is to establish sexuality as not just a factory for the production of pleasure but a theater for a genuine mode of discourse. One of the most potent tools of heteronormativity in removing the discursive power of sexuality is to neuter its meaning and significance. What meaning is left in sex (pursuit of pleasure) is then easily directed toward a goal that benefits said power. Queer-feminist texts elucidate on this idea incredibly well:

Sex is an institution. In an oppressive society like Amerika, it reflects the same ideology as other major institutions. It is goal-oriented, profit and productivity oriented. It is a prescribed system, with a series of correct and building sensations aimed toward the production of a single goal: climax.
"Smash Phallic Imperalism" - Katz

One gay liberation manifesto paints a much less constrained image of what sex should be.

WHAT SEX IS: Sex is both creative expression and communication: good when it is either, and better when it is both.
I like to think of good sex in terms of playing the violin-(on one level) with both people seeing the other's body as an object of producing beauty as long as they play it well; and on another level the players communicating through the mutual production and appreciation of a thing of beauty. As all good music, you get totally into it-and coming back out of that state of consciousness is like finishing a work of art, or coming back from an episode of an acid or mescaline trip. And to press the analogy further: the variety of music is infinite and varied, depending on the capabilities of the players, both as subjects and as objects. Solos, duets, quartets (symphonies, even, if you happen to dig Romantic music) are possible. And the variations in gender, response, and bodies are like different instruments. And perhaps what we have called sexual "orientation" probably just means that we have learned to play certain kinds of music well, and have not yet other music.
Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto

Think of sex as literature. It is a theater in which ideas of relations of meaning and power and so on are expressed. It should also be of no surprise that the dominant culture will attempt to structure expression in this mode of discourse to inherently support and affirm its power. This is evidenced by the fact that sex has been constructed to embody little more than the production of pleasure, as embodied in the orgasm. This pleasure is further directed to another benefit for that dominant culture: the production of children, a future workforce for the capitalist power.

So how do BDSM and leather daddies fit into this?

The effect of alternate views of sexuality - such as BDSM - is to provide alternate models for sexual expression that are not in the interest of the dominant heteronormative culture. Why do you think conservatives hate the Folsom Street Fair?

The sexuality on display at the Folsom Street fair attacks heteronormative sexuality from every angle. Sexuality is infused with meaning and symbolism, which empowers its participants. Pleasure is not the unquestioned goal, as many willingly seek pain, which negates the ideology of production often found in sex. Classical constructions of gender and sexuality are put on display as a kind of burlesque satire. The masculine and effeminate is crossed, magnified, muted, obfuscated, and generally just fucked around with. Nothing makes sense, as nothing damn well should make sense.

Many conservative upholders of heteronormativity ask "Would you want your children to see this?" Of course what they really mean being "We don't want your children to grow up and do this." When people are found to not only be exploring but enjoying sexuality with symbolism, meaning, and intent outside of what has been prescribed as healthy for society, heteronormies boil over with disgust.

BDSM is not the only avenue for exploring non-heteronormative sexuality, but as its symbols and practices have become widely disseminated through the culture, it is the most immediate and best example.

That sounds great, but what does looking at sex critically accomplish?

Using the critical methods developed by queer theory to unravel the extant symbols and meanings within sexuality, a person can begin to understand the use of sexuality not only in its practice, but in its representation. It is like being able to critically read a newspaper. When you read a paper critically, you aren't only examining the content. You are asking: Who is providing this information, who is being provided to, and to what end is it being provided?

The same questions can be asked any time you come upon a representation of sexuality. Who is providing this representation, who is it being provided to, and to what end is it being demonstrated? For example, you open a children's book and see a short story where Johnny meets Jane and they go out for a date and at the end Johnny gets a little kiss on the cheek. This constitutes an image of sexuality that has been provided by a supporter of the heteronormative order, for the benefit of impressionable and developing children, with the intent that it will push the child toward an understanding of sexuality that is acceptable and beneficial to the provider of the information.

I have seen queer readings of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal which made an interesting argument about the way the United States government posits the Arab body as naturally receptive to torture. Queer readings have been applied to politics to question how the focus on the future - the embodiment of which being the child - shapes political discourse.

If you are not GLBT, or even interested in ropes, it would benefit you to understand how the construction of sex is formed and used in culture as it will allow you to question power, which is fun.

But aren't gay people becoming more and more accepted?

You could say that, or you could say that they are becoming more assimilated. One criticism of the gay rights movement is that its goal has often been to demonstrate that its goals are not at odds with those of the heteronormative culture: Hey! We can be responsible and raise kids to be obedient and straight just like you guys!! Many gays think it is hypocritical to criticize straight institutions, then to fight for access to them.

So is queer theory all about questioning power as embodied by the heteronormative male?

In my opinion yeah but I could be drastically wrong. I'm just one guy. I am trying not to make the introduction too long or cover too many topics to leave room open for more discussion and opinions from other people who probably understand this a lot better than I do.

Post-Script [5:35 PM]

For those other voracious readers: that study alluded to in the piece re: Abu Ghraib is apparently an excerpt from Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times by Jasbir K. Puar.

Here's Amazon's description:

In this pathbreaking work, Jasbir K. Puar argues that configurations of sexuality, race, gender, nation, class, and ethnicity are realigning in relation to contemporary forces of securitization, counterterrorism, and nationalism. She examines how liberal politics incorporate certain queer subjects into the fold of the nation-state, through developments including the legal recognition inherent in the overturning of anti-sodomy laws and the proliferation of more mainstream representation. These incorporations have shifted many queers from their construction as figures of death (via the AIDS epidemic) to subjects tied to ideas of life and productivity (gay marriage and reproductive kinship). Puar contends, however, that this tenuous inclusion of some queer subjects depends on the production of populations of Orientalized terrorist bodies. Heteronormative ideologies that the U.S. nation-state has long relied on are now accompanied by homonormative ideologies that replicate narrow racial, class, gender, and national ideals. These "homonationalisms" are deployed to distinguish upright "properly hetero," and now "properly homo," U.S. patriots from perversely sexualized and racialized terrorist look-a-likes--especially Sikhs, Muslims, and Arabs--who are cordoned off for detention and deportation.

Puar combines transnational feminist and queer theory, Foucauldian biopolitics, Deleuzian philosophy, and technoscience criticism, and draws from an extraordinary range of sources, including governmental texts, legal decisions, films, television, ethnographic data, queer media, and activist organizing materials and manifestos. Looking at various cultural events and phenomena, she highlightstroublesome links between terrorism and sexuality: in feminist and queer responses to the Abu Ghraib photographs, in the triumphal responses to the Supreme Court's "Lawrence" decision repealing anti-sodomy laws, in the measures Sikh Americans and South Asian diasporic queers take to avoid being profiled as terrorists, and in what Puar argues is a growing Islamophobia within global queer organizing.


No comments: