On Gay Male Subjectivity: Considering David Halperin’s Theory of Abjection 29 March 2011Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Ethics, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Culture, HIV/AIDS, Literature, Microsociology/Social Psychology, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
This is a somewhat unpolished, meandering piece that comes out of some serious thinking I’ve been doing lately about the implications of my own research for current gay male culture and queer politics generally. Apologies for the disjointed and wandering nature of my writing here; I hope that the ideas come through despite that.
When I wrote the conclusion to The Meaning of Gay (1) back in the fall of 2009, I was coming from having worked for nearly 8 years to try to understand gay male subjectivity in the 1960s, but without calling it subjectivity. I had described gay male desire by working from within the symbolic interactionist framework—building on the assumptions of a Deweyan notion of the subject and of experience as a radically contextualized activity-undergoing; and on a Meadian notion of the social constitution of the subject and of subjectivity as an emergent process of interaction. Gay desire had manifested itself during the period between 1961 and 1972 in a dynamic range between two poles that only existed because of their social-historical context: one pole was the desire to minimize, reduce, even to disappear gayness in favor of other aspects of subjective life (e.g., career identities, family roles, etc.); the other pole sought maximization, an expansion or extension of gayness into a pervasive and omnipresent aspect of life’s activity-undergoing. In my work, I had self-consciously avoided the language of identity, because I wanted, as much as possible, to avoid the individualizing tendency of identity discourse and instead to insist upon the social constitution of selves, communities and of gayness itself.
In the conclusion, I argued that the way forward for “gayness” would be to reduce as much as possible the normative, evaluative stances gay men take against each other across the spectrum between those two poles, which push them to situate themselves vis-a-vis what other gay men, elsewhere along the spectrum, are doing wrong; and instead to move toward an ongoing democratization of gayness that would seek to maintain the gay social spaces and other contexts within which gay men could continue to have the arguments between the minimized and expansive gaynesses they embraced with minimal intrusion from the dominant culture.
Over the past year since the book’s publication, I’ve come to see my conclusions as somewhat incomplete. I failed to account for the powerful normalizing forces both within and without the gay community (which I define at length in the book in their context in the past) and the effect those forces have on the possibilities for outlaw pleasure and subjectivity, indeed, the danger normativity poses for anyone whose experience of gayness tends to the expansive pole. Further, in my book, one of my goals was to deflate the importance historically of the “gay libbers,” as they have been often valorized unhistorically as the origin of liberation politics and because in their actions and values, they were often as problematically normative and as anti-queer (if my historian friends will excuse a bit of presentism) as the “assimilated” and “merely liberal” gays of the period. But as I live through the extended death throes of the Castro, and the gradual, ongoing assimilation of queer culture into the massified mainstream, and the constant exertion of hetero-privilege in formerly gay spaces, I have come to a re-invigorated critique of the normal, especially as it expresses among gay men themselves.
As a matter of full disclosure (confession?) here, my own desires lean to an expansive and resistant gayness, whereas my sexual desires float around in the undeniably vanilla and conventional, that is, I find that I want a sexually exclusive life-long partnership and I want to parent. This contradiction between, on one hand, desiring and taking immense pleasure in all kinds of queering, in your face, fuck you culture of drag, S/M, risky, defiant, unabashed queerness, and on the other hand my desire for a somewhat quiet, average, unexciting home sex life causes me no small consternation. In the irritating words of the current vernacular, it is what it is.
David Halperin’s recent book, What Do Gay Men Want? (2), explores the possibilities of a re-theorization of gay subjectivity in opposition to the psychological questions raised by the putative rise in gay men’s increasingly risky sexual behavior. Let me summarize very briefly: Halperin argues that the moralizing public conversation about “barebacking” slides easily and quickly into a psychologically (re)pathologizing discourse that locates gay male subjectivity in the perverse, abnormal, dieased, self-hating, etc.–the very discourses gay men and women have been working to overthrow since at least the 1960s.(3) Halperin explains the rise in risky behavior in signifantly different terms, seeing gay men as ongoing agent-negotiators-resisters who opt for safer strategies of risk reduction to maximize or maintain access to pleasure; he uses epidemiological and sociological research to demonstrate the rationality (as opposed to pathology, but not in a rational choice sense of the word) of gay men’s sexual choices in the face of what is known about HIV transmission, and moves to an etended engagement with an essay by Michael Warner from a 1994 Village Voice in which Warner discloses his own risky behavior and calls for an explanation and engagement with gay male subjectivity on its own terms. The essay is of great importance to those working in public health in HIV prevention among men who have sex with men, but I’m going to leave aside those issues for my purposes here in talking about the implications of Halperin’s emergent theory of gay male subjectivity (4) and what it ma reveal about the gay men I studied and the normative conclusions I drew from my research.
What struck me as most significant in my ongoing thinking is Halperin’s extended development of abjection as one feature of gay male subjectivity and as, perhaps, a possible way out of the psychologization of gay men’s motives. Moving from Warner to Jean Genet, Halperin builds an notion of abjection that rejects the search for intentionality (a psychological category), evades pathologization, and which becomes a survival or life-affirming social strategy for the abjected. Because abjection is an effect of social interaction (see note 4 below), it eschews the easy psychologization of gay male behavior and foregrounds gay male behavior is emergent in social contexts. Yes and yes.
Halperin’s insights are manifold in this rich section of the book. Here I list those that were most salient to me as I read. First, Warner points to and Halperin fleshes out how the insistence on “Gay Pride” can actually serve to deepen the shame gay men feel about their desires and practices, by re-relegating them to the closet in contra-distinction to an out-and-proud gay-maleness. Second, Halperin turns to a right-wing French writer, Marcel Jouhandeau, who extolled the virtues of social abjection and, in particular, humiliation at being different: Jouhandeau (and later, Genet) turn abjection on its head, into a kind of sacrilization of abjection. To tease this out, thirdly, Halperin explicates two scenes from Jean Genet’s opus, in which Genet depicts social abjection, humiliation, as a process and where the abjected, humiliated subject responds by resignifying the abjection as either a source of pleasure or as the signifying source of his difference. In Halperin’s interpretation, Genet’s narrators find freedom precisely by identifying with their abjection and embracing it, refusing its deleterious effects and instead creating for themselves a re-signifying and life-affirming defiance. The more they are humiliated, the more defiant and ecstatic the narrators become. Genet’s narrative insists that loving someone who is humiliated (socially abject) requires the loving of their abjection itself.
In my research on the 1960s, I found a significant amount of what Halperin calls the “glorification” or “saintliness” of abjection. I encountered gay men in the mid-1960s who were intensely frustrated with the growing gay publicity, as it encroached on their own pleasure in abjection, their reversal and refusal of abjection in the seeking out of sexual encounters in parks, public restrooms, and rest stops. These gay men loved and cherished their furtive, secretive, stealthy sex lives; and they found in them a meaningful gayness that was being shut down (at least in San Francisco) by the publicity forming gay rights movement. I also found it in the writings of drag queens and leather daddies who were resisting the gay libbers’, who argued (and protested) against them, claiming that to do drag or dig leather and bondage was to live in false-consciousness and self-hatred.
But what can abjection add to the conclusion of my book? What can the idea that one possible piece of gay male subjectivity may still be, even in the 21st century, the embracing of abjection do to the struggles among gay men to control the signification of gayness? In Halperin’s description of the ways that gay men respond to abjection by intensified defiance, I find today the femme-y gay kid in high school who resists his tormentors by becoming even more gay at an even higher pitch; I find the pleasure that ex-gays find in their furtive, deeply secret rendez-vous at “de-gaying camp”; I find the professor who makes explicit sexual metaphors a part of every-day classroom analysis and takes pleasure in the shock but refuses normalizing efforts to curb his/her discourse. But defiance alone may give us nothing more than an individualized, and contextually specific gay response, and not a notion of gay communal relationships, that is, the relationship of gay men to each other as a group.
One possible reading is that, if abjection arises out of subordinated and dominated social positions of gay men vis-a-vis the larger society, then the gradual equalization of gay men institutionally and the concommitant gradual acceptance of gay men in public as such may in fact be the end of abjection, the end of what has been for decades one feature of gay male subjectivity. Indeed, this is perhaps what those gay men feared in the 1960s about gay publicity, the loss of their subjectivity. To say this differently, and in the terms I raised at the end of my book, it is possible and maybe even probable that the equalization of gays within the institutions of the society (i.e., in the law) as sought by gay publicity since the mid-1950s actually forecloses the possibility of an expansive gayness. I’m not saying anything particularly new here, as Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal (5) covers similar ground. But I do think that the social view that Halperin argues, combined with the interactionist view that I offer, suggests something a bit more profound than a political choice to not be normal (with apologies to Warner for my severe oversimplification here).
The problem is that gay publicity in the past 16 years since protease inhibitors has been overwhelmingly normalized. The cost of equality is a required public face that reproduces as closely as possible a de-sexualized gay-maleness that is coupled, monogamous, married, and perhaps child-rearing. The largest resistance to gay equality right now is nearly exclusively from Christians who refuse the normalization of gay-maleness (not to mention lesbianness, bi-ness and trans-ness). The social context wherein resistance is in the form of retrograde Christians’ insistence that gayness cannot be, by definition, “normal” has pushed gay politics to insist all the more vehemently that it is indeed and in fact normal.
This produces an intensification of a dynamic that we’ve seen since at least the 1960s, where gay men (and queers generally) judge each other according to their presentability as “normal” to the watchful mainstream gaze. Gender nonconformity and any kind of femminess in gay men (or butchness in lesbians), sexual “promiscuity”, risky sex, kinky sex, group sex, anonymous hookups, public sex, leather, bondage, S/M, drag, etc., are all dangers to the normalization of gay-maleness and by extension to our equality.
One possible interpretation of this current social context I see (without, admittedly, doing any research here) is that the turn to internet cruising and hook-ups, bemoaned by many as the end of gay community, might actually be read as a resurgence of abjection within the context of intensified normalization. Internet hook-ups allow you to maintain the veneer of normality while embracing a dirty, promiscuous, abjected sexuality through the anonymity of the internet in the privacy of your own home, which allows a constant flow of disembodied cocks and assholes across one’s computer screen and, if you’re lucky, in yours or someone else’s bed later that night. Indeed, Craigslist and Manhunt are perhaps as secretive and shameful—and therefore as pleasurable—today as cruising the restrooms in the park was 50 years ago.
Another possible analysis is that today’s abjection is as much produced by gay men themselves upon each other, in their own social groups, where certain practices and desires are de-valued (or valued) in proportion to how much they resist normalization. I hesitate to go where Halperin so carefully wants to avoid going—to blaming gay men for their social subordination. Yet I think it is important to examine gay men’s own social behavior as part of the social world that produces gay male subjectivity. And I can’t help but see around me in my own association with gay men various levels of disciplining normativity at work, as gay men from across the spectrum between the poles I’ve theorized (minimization and expansion) work to assert and sometimes impose their positions on other gay men.
Whereas in my book’s conclusion I called for a kind of democratic move, a move to a gay community that fosters that debate; now I think that I would have to add a sharp accounting for and confrontation with the forces of normalization as they are created by our increasing institutional equality (which I am ambivalently in favor of, for the record, even as I criticize its costs) and by the dynamics that gay publicity now imposes on us to play the part of Normal as the price of our equalization. Although I would still argue for the maintenance of social spaces where we can work out our gaynesses with each other (and with minimized input from the dominant culture, to the extent that’s even possible), I would echo Warner’s call for a renewed emphasis on the pleasure of the abject, the abnormal, the resistant, the defiant, and I would argue for a communal ethic that recognizes the privilege attained by the visibly “normalized” gays (in contrast to what they might desire and do in darkness and secret, through the internet, or “business trips” to circuit parties, porn habits, sexual practices, etc.). The current state of gay (and LGBT writ large) institutional equalization gives the visibly normal a privilege that must be accounted for among gay men; and to some degree, the “normals’” secret acts and desires must be made explicit as we work out the meaning of gay going forward.
As a final note, I want to make it clear that I do not wish to romanticize or idealize a kind of abjected gay-maleness from the past. Reading about Genet’s early life in Halperin’s book only made me intensely glad that I didn’t have to live through that kind of abjection. But I do personally take great pleasure, really a thrill that sometimes literally brings tears to my eyes, when a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence passes me on the street, or when the leather daddy who lives in the apartment below me leaves his apartment in full regalia with a suitcase full of dangerous implements of degrading pleasure, or when two of the men I love the most in my gay life recount their sexual exploits in a threesome or in making a new porn video. These are all parts of gay-maleness that seem to me to be more than aesthetic and sexual throw-backs; but are pieces of our collective ongoing glorification of the abjection that comes now not from our social exclusion, but from our social normalization.
(1) J. Todd Ormsbee. The Meaning of Gay: Interaction, Publicity, and Community among Homosexual Men in 1960s San Francisco. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.
(2) David Halperin. What Do Gay Men Want: An Essay on Sex Risk, and Subjectivity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.
(3) I would actually trace it back even earlier than that, maybe even to the 1920s in the U.S. and as early as the 1890s in Germany, but the evidence is scarse for such an assertion.
(4) I have a small but important disciplinary quibble with Halperin. Early in his essay, he mentions in passing the importance of social psychology in undermining the normalizing effect of psychological discourses, but then ignores the social psychological research into gay men throughout his essay. In the sociological side of social psych, particularly in the symbolic interactionist tradition, researchers and theorists have been working out interactionist models of abjection and subordinated subjectivities for decades. Many of Halperin’s conclusions in the essay were arrived at by symbolic interactionists as early as the 1962 in Goffman’s Stigma. I do not wish to undermine or devalue Halperin’s contributions here; but rather to point to a much-needed dialogue between queer theory and the symbolic interactionist literature, especially about socially “spoiled” individuals (i.e., subordinate) and their strategies of negotiating social spaces of inferiority and abjection. I think such intellectual cross-fertilization can only enrich queer theorization. That said, as a dyed-in-the-wool interactionist myself, I’m fully aware that I have a vested interest in such a dialogue, so my critique is not neutral.
(5) Michael Warner. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.