jump to navigation

Mothballing the Hammer 24 March 2012

Posted by Todd in Blog.
comments closed

Like many bloggers, over the past couple years, I lost my direction and interest in the blog; so my postings on Todd’s Hammer have gradually slowed down to a bare trickle. Much has changed in my life, both personally and professionally—not least of which, receiving tenure—and I find myself in a different intellectual and emotional space that demands a fresh start and a new direction.

So I have decided to mothball Todd’s Hammer. Posts will remain up as a dubious record of my efforts to try ideas out, make a fool of myself, and work through intellectual and cultural problems in a public forum. But commenting will be disabled.

You can find my current blog posts and new writing at Doing, Undergoing, and Meaning. I look forward to many years to come of thinking, writing, and discussing ideas about human social and cultural life.


Gay Spaces, Gay Interaction, Gay Politics 27 June 2011

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Queer Theory.
comments closed

Earlier today I shared a link with some friends to a blog about a man’s frustration with the presence of so many straight women at Pride events here in San Francisco over the weekend, and sparked quite an argument / discussion. I have spoken about the issue of the necessity of queer spaces for ongoing production of effective meanings of gayness here before (and at length in my book). Here is my brief and admittedly inelegant effort to explain my position.

1) The blog post I linked to earlier is an emotional response after one gay man’s frustrating experience at last night’s Pink Party. I didn’t post it as a rational, scholarly analysis; but as an expression of a very real and very key dynamic that the LGBT community is now dealing with, ironically because of our success as a movement.

2) I spent 8 years of my life studying the social dynamics and the individual experiences of gay men (and to a lesser degree lesbians and transgenders) during a period in American history when they had to fight for over 20 years (before 1972) just for the social power to define their own lives and imbue meaning on their sexual desires, sex acts, affectional attachments, gender expressions, etc., in opposition to a world that saw them as criminals, mentally ill, and sinners, and which perpetrated physical and emotional violence against them regularly. They fought in the face of a dominant culture that did everything possible to suppress that expression. Let me get a bit technical here for a moment:

a) Dominant cultures function hegemonically, which is somewhat redundant, but it’s important: It’s dominating (that is, the master or controlling culture) and hegemonic (it does so through the exercise of power). Normally, this works by establishing its values, assumptions, practices, objects, ideas, symbols, etc., as COMMON SENSE. When someone violates that common sense, they are sanctioned by immediate social consequences (i.e., social control). Hegemonic dominant culture is multilayered and complex and multidirectional, which makes it really hard to talk about, because there are counter-examples and their are resistance movements (of which, the LGBT movement(s) have been one since about the end of World War I in the U.S.). Here, I am talking specifically about heteronormativity, that is, the particular meanings and structures and practices that define appropriate or acceptable sexual desire, sex acts, and affectional bonds–it’s not just that you have to be opposite-sex attracted, but it’s about how, when, with whom, how often, where you have sex, express your gender, reproduce, pair-bond (or not), interact with non-family, define a family, etc. They are experienced as COMMON SENSE by the majority of people who live them unreflexively, and they are enforced through everything from informal social interactions with intimates all the way up to state officials with guns.

b) Given our history in American society—but also considering the way that societies who have positive roles for homosexuals and transgenders treat them—it is clear to me that the most important thing going forward for gay liberation is going to be the ability of us to maintain and keep the ability to define and give meaning to our own lives. There will always be queers who want to lead relatively “normal” lives (marriage, kids, etc.) which is fine. But the key to maintaining freedom is to make sure that the “normal” does not become an enforceable normative. In order for that to happen, my expert opinion is that it is of utmost importance that LGBTs have social spaces where they interact with each other to create those meanings. Details below.

3) Heterosexual allies and supporters of gay rights are key to our success, because they create, as members of the majority, the social freedom to act and be, because we need them to create the critical mass necessary for us to be left alone to live our lives. It requires a certain ability to be self-reflexive to understand that being a supporter 100% does not mean that homosexuals are suddenly not a minority or that the social dynamics are simply going to disappear. They are, simply, what are called “social facts”. Majority-minority relations necessarily lead to power imbalances. Those imbalances only disappear when assimilation is complete, and assimilation is always a loss (although not necessarily a negative loss). I’m not sure that sexual and gender minorities can ever fully assimilate, as the difference itself is by definition a tiny minority in our sexually dimorphous species that doesn’t go away (by contrast, ethnic differences are cultural and can go away completely). Supporters and allies and friends and family will have to understand that there are spaces, contexts, times, issues where queers need to be with each other without them. Any respectful friendship among people of different religions, or ethnicities already knows this. It should be a no-brainer.

To make this a bit more personal, I do not know how to explain this, but even in San Francisco where it is more or less a non-issue to be gay, I physically feel the relief when I walk into a room full of gay men and/or lesbians. Moving into a queer space puts me in the privileged social position, where the space is by for and of me instead of for the (very supportive and friendly) majority. Any minority will describe for you the same dynamic. As always, this is a complex issue and highly differentiated, so I don’t feel safe in ALL queer spaces, and in fact there are queer spaces that feel highly dangerous to me. But I never feel completely safe in straight spaces. Ever (although sometimes I forget where I am and am usually reminded by a student’s eyeroll or a colleague changing the subject mid-conversation).

4) Culture matters. Pay attention for one day at every single moment when normal heterosexuality is enacted around you. Look at the people around you, the things they talk about, how they act, how they interact; look at tv and film; listen to the lyrics of pop tunes on the radio; listen to your pastors or rabbis. Then start digging under the surface: what goes unspoken? when are people disciplined for stepping out of line in their sexual/gender/relational feelings, thoughts, words, gestures, practices? what are the assumptions you and the people around you make about each other and their circumstances and behaviors? Why? What effect do these assumptions have on your behavior and attitudes and feelings and language, etc.?

Because heterosexuality is the Palmolive that we’re constantly soaking in, and because culture is created interactively on the fly through interaction, and because minorities are always swimming in the dominant culture, it is culturally and politically imperative that we maintain queer spaces for ourselves to keep and defend our ability to make our own meanings of who we are and our lives.

5) There are a LOT of gay men and women who want assimilation. Fine with me. The problem isn’t their desire to assimilate (and hell, in many ways, I want a pretty conventional life—I wish I had a husband and a kid or two), the problem is their political power. They tend to be middle-class to professional, mostly white, and politically active. They tend to live the lives they want, and in extreme forms, they are offended and fear the LGBTs who are different or resistant in their relationships or sexual practices or gender presentation or cultural practices. They tend to be either neutral about the loss of queer culture or openly hostile to it. And because they are “acceptable” to the dominant culture, they are often the face and voice of the movement (i.e., HRC). This means that there is a dominant culture within the LGBT movement, and they even without knowing they are doing it can create hostile environments for other queers.

I’m completely supportive of LGBTs who chose to assimilate. I am NOT okay with assimilation itself being normative or forced. I’m not okay with losing the ability to define our own lives, sex, relationships, gender expressions, etc.  In my opinion, the best way to guarantee that queers across the spectrum get to define and create their own lives, queer politics should be aimed at maintaining the social spaces and contexts that enable us and foster the interactions and arguments and struggles WITH EACH OTHER (and NOT with the dominant culture) to create the meanings of our lives. The goal should NOT be merely to create a world where LGBTs who look like average middle class Americans get to live *their* lives. The goal should not be to live in a world where we have relinquished the power to define our own lives as the cost of our equality.

And so I return to the original point—albeit emotionally stated in the friend-of-a-friend’s blog post—when a “gay” event is full of straight people acting with all the presumptions and expectations that life affords them, it is no longer a gay event. And it is drained of its ability to serve its vital function of enabling interaction, cultural production, and meaning formation by, for, and of queers.

Big News & a Note about Summer 2011 31 May 2011

Posted by Todd in Uncategorized.
comments closed

Some big news: I received word on Friday that I was granted tenure and promoted to the rank of Associate Professor. So I’m officially no longer on the tenure track. I’ve been working toward this for so long, I’m not really sure how I feel about it. Relief, surely. Like many people on the tenure track, I had let my personal life suffer and have become more or less a recluse over the past few years. So my biggest hope is to bring some more balance to my life.

I received a small research grant to finish a paper I’m writing about people who leave Mormonism, so I don’t have to teach this summer for the first time since getting my job at SJSU. For a professor with a 4/4 teaching load, this is huge. I will actually be able to move forward on some writing projects that have been languishing, finish up my current project, and start working on applications for sabbatical and grants for the 2012-2013 school year.

I also have the notion that over the summer I will be blogging more regularly. One of the things I’m most excited about is to actually be able to read. I mean, read stuff I want to read. Read stuff I’m interested in. Not just read for teaching. I plan to post 1-2 times a week about what I’m reading as a way to work through ideas and have a pseudo-conversation about it.

First up:

Martha Nussbaum. Upheavals of Thought:  The Intelligence of Emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

On Gay Male Subjectivity: Considering David Halperin’s Theory of Abjection 29 March 2011

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Ethics, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Culture, HIV/AIDS, Literature, Microsociology/Social Psychology, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
comments closed

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.

Stimulating Nuggets from Midwestern (and other) Sociologists 26 March 2011

Posted by Todd in Uncategorized.
comments closed

It has been a few years since I have been able to attend an academic conference. They have many social and cultural functions, among them mini-vacation from teaching, party and drinking, professional networking, etc. For me this month, having attended two conferences and having presented two pieces of my current research on ex-mormons, it has re-energized and motivated my “life of the mind” in unexpected ways. I have felt intellectually stunted the past few years, and like I’ve “fallen behind” or “out of touch” with intellectual conversation, scholarship, and what is for me personally, my life’s blood.

So here are a few key ideas, nuggets really, that sparked interest, provoked connections, gave that whoosh or excitement and energy as I’ve been listening to papers this weekend, in no particular order. It should be obvious, but these ideas belong to the scholars that presented them, and I cite their name and institution following my encapsulation of what I found stimulating so that if you want to explore further you can contact them directly and/or go to their published work:

1. Political moderation needs to be re-theorized as a political assertion, with concomitant political acts and power flows, in and of itself, rather than seen as merely splitting the difference between the two poles or as a wishy-washy fence-sitting. This was one of the conclusions drawn from studying Mainstreet Coalition in Johnson County Kansas, working to prevent or depose right-wing, religious Republicans with moderate, secular Republicans in state government.

—Alexander Smith, University of Huddersfield, UK

2. In a talk on a national organization for LGBT parents of children, the notion of “queerspawn” was raised as a self-identification of the adult children of LGBT parents. The children of LGBT parents are actually enculturated into gay culture, and when they leave for college and are immersed in hetero-dominant culture, they experience a cultural and identifying disjuncture, where even though they themselves are heterosexual, they feel they do not belong there. There is a growing movement among queerspawn to maintain spaces for them within queer cultural spaces and to create a way that gayness and queerness can be expanded to include them in the definition.

—Timothy Ortyl, University of Minnesota

3. Lesbian partners of trans-men who decide to stay with their partners during and after transition undergo acute identity crises in relationship to the masculinization of their partner’s bodies. This should have been a “no shit” idea, but it was like a light bulb going off in my head.

—Megan Tesene, University of Northern Iowa

4. Discussing Dr. Smith’s talk on moderate Kansans, Bob Antonio invoked a thread in Dewey’s theory of the public and democracy, where holding a position that is open enough to consider and handle ambiguity and respond to changes in the environment is a sine qua non of a functioning democracy. But there are moments when you’re facing muscular, ideological, inflexible opponents when a militant opposition is necessary to fight them (Dewey was framing his theory against the rise of totalitarianism in Europe and the anti-New Dealers in the U.S., wherein he saw what we would today call free-market ideologies as antithetical to democratic social intercourse). In other words, political moderation as a political strategy only works in a public where the constituents remain flexible and open enough to have the dialogue and to compromise. Neo-liberalism has become the unspoken ideological basis across the political spectrum, and the cultural and social issues that the “two sides” scream about obscure the actual ascendancy and dominance of neo-liberalism in american politics.

—Robert Antonio, University of Kansas

5. In an analysis of the rise and current fall of NASCAR as a cultural and economic phenomenon, the presenter referenced Guy Dubord’s work Society of Spectacle. Dubord argues that modern societies now create massive spectacles that function by dislocating an “authentic cultural core” and disembodying it, so that it no longer has locality, temporality, or sociality (i.e., a specific social context to which it belongs). The spectacle only works if there was at some point, somewhere an “authentic core” somewhere in the past. (In NASCAR’s case, it grew out of a formalization on competitions that southern bootleggers had with souped up cars to outrun the feds in the early 20th century…who knew?)  NASCAR has successfully replaced that historical cultural core with a massified spectacle, imbricated in local economies (tracks are funded by local bonds) and serving as ideological pumps (military, government, and corporate sponsorships). So the authentic core ceases to have salience; in the end, all spectacles “look the same”. Holy Shit. The cool part was his analysis of how NASCAR is trying to maintain itself since its precipitous decline in attendance and revenues since 2007 (between 40 and 60% drop offs from track to track). But I’ll let you wait for the paper to be published for that part. Holy cow this one blew my mind.

—Dan Krier, Iowa State University [He also wrote a cool book on Enron and “speculative management.”]

6. Alienation, anomie, and the protestant ethic remain the defining characteristics of modern society. Modern society is a self-justifying and self-reproducing “force field” within which those three characteristics are reproduced and intensified from generation to generation, which makes them feel like they are intrinsic to our identities and thereby renders it painful to interrogate and criticize them, to see them for what they are.

—Harry F. Dahms, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

7. In a presentation on the rather sudden decline (yes I said decline) of the popularity of the Tea Party over the past year (according to 18 months of poll data), there was an intense (and rather humorous) discussion of the emotional and symbolic dynamics between tea party membership and adherence to tea party ideologies. There was some obvious discussion of its roots in right-wing populism and proto-fascism, but what really caught my attention were two observations: the obsession with death and violence in tea party rhetoric as a kind of necrophilia (Fromm), and the drawing out of that an explanation of necrophilia (an obsession with death and violence) as emerging out of moments or contexts where self-realization is no longer possible or is thwarted in some way. Second, a reference to Nietzsche’s ressentiment, which means not a mere resentment of those with power over you, but a hatred of that which you yourself desire as a way to explain the self-defeating politics of the populist right.

—Lauren Langman, Loyala University (Chicago)

8. The liberal imagination or liberal consciousness is undertheorized and studied. He proposed that there is a projectability to the liberal imagination that renders liberals incapable of fully groking (verstehen, in the Weberian sense) radically opposed world views. The liberal imagination tends to explain away radical opposition as a temporary effect of an emotional event, or as someone who simply doesn’t have all the facts. So the liberal is in some ways hamstrung from the beginning in a conversation with ideological opponents, because the liberal believes that there is an underlying rationality or consensus that isn’t really there.

—David Smith, University of Kansas

Approaching Difficult Texts (For Students) 14 January 2011

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Teaching.
comments closed

I have come up against students recently who are resisting my assigned readings on the grounds that they are “too difficult”. This has been an increasing problem over the past few years, but it’s especially noticeable with texts that I have been assigning for several years, and which have received positive student feedback in the past, but that  are now being met with complaints that they are “too hard.” So I’m trying to design a document that I can give to students when they need some skills or attitude adjustments about encountering texts that they find difficult to read. Very often, I find that students get frustrated with difficult texts and give up, and they usually blame me (I’m a bad teacher) or they blame the author (the author can’t write). Rarely, they internalize the issue as one of their own inadequacy (they think they are stupid). Here is a draft of a document I’m trying to design to address this cultural shift in student attitudes toward difficult reading.


Difficult Texts

There are many reasons we may find a text difficult to read. For our class, which is an upper-division SJSU studies class, here are a few salient possibilities:

• the topic of the text may be new or unfamiliar to you, or may be outside your specialization

• the level of argumentation and evidentiation may be more complex than you are accustomed to dealing with; may be using unfamiliar methods; or may be drawing complex logical conclusions

• the level of the writing may be asking you to stretch and improve or increase your reading skills

Generally speaking, I carefully choose readings for a) topical relevance; b) appropriate level for university students (either upper or lower division); and c) good writing. In AMS-ENVS-HUM 159, I have chosen texts that are exceptionally well written and award winning (both Wade and Diamond). From time to time, I may choose a poorly written article because the contents are so important (and I will usually tell you in class what is wrong with the writing so you can learn from it (e.g., Zuberbühler)). There are a couple poorly written articles in the Agyuman collection, and we can talk about what makes them poorly written in class if you desire that skills discussion.

Faulty or Ineffective Beliefs

I have found that when students find a text difficult, they respond in a handful of unproductive ways that actually hamper and prevent their learning. I have enumerated here the most common problematic beliefs about difficult reading that I have encountered over the past few years.  Most importantly, these are beliefs, habitual ways of approaching the world, that can be changed if you desire to. The unproductive ideas have to be replaced with productive and more empirically accurate ideas. As you read these, ask yourselves which one’s most apply to you and engage in my suggestions for “replacements” to see what you might be able to do. The reward for taking this seriously is the shift in your ability to learn from reading challenging texts.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 1: “I am too stupid to get this text.”

This is a touchy one, but please read me carefully: If this is an idea that pops into your head in my class, do everything possible to immediately counter it with a fact: You are in university; you have already proven your intelligence. A difficult text is not evidence of your intelligence or lack thereof, but of other things entirely. So remind yourself that you’ve already proven your intelligence, and find the real reason why a text is difficult.

Replace with: “This text is about topics which are unfamiliar to me, so I’m going to have to slow down and read carefully and with my full attention to apprehend it. The rewards of doing so are learning and educating myself.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 2: “This text is boring.”

In some ways, this is a personal issue. If you find yourself bored, take some time to figure out where the boredom is coming from. In teaching, I’ve found that there are generally two sources of boredom:

a) It may be that you simply do not care about the topic of the course or of the reading. This can be common in general ed classes where you are fulfilling requirements for graduation. If this is the case for you, I urge you to find a way through your boredom (maybe just focus on successfully jumping through the hoops; or working to find something interesting or relevant to your interests that you can hang on to).

Replace with: “Although I’m not interested in this topic, I will focus my attention on this text for ___ minutes, because I need to know this material for ____.”

b) Often, however, boredom is an indication that you are encountering a difficult text and are feeling the “pain” of having to work to understand a text. If this is the case, please read on.

Replace with“I’m experiencing my discomfort with the difficulty of this text as boredom; that means I need to address directly the difficulties I’m having.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 3: “The author uses big words, when smaller words will do.”

What you’re really saying is that the author is using words that you don’t know. This is not an indication of a bad writer; but an indication that your vocabulary is being stretched and challenged. When you encounter words you don’t understand, work to make your automatic response to reach for a dictionary. Try to avoid Dictionary.com because it’s definitions aren’t very good; I recommend either the Oxford American English Dictionary or the Webster’s Collegiate.  You may also want to keep a running list of words that you learn in your reading.

Replace with: “There’s a word I don’t know. I will look it up in the dictionary, and then reread the sentence to learn a new word and understand the author’s argument.

Note: Sometimes scholars do make a writing mistake, when they write in jargon. Jargon is specialized words that only specialists know; sometimes, scholars use jargon as a short-hand when they are writing for each other. This is actually bad writing when the writing is intended for larger or more general audiences. You will notice, however, that Prof. Ormsbee assigns readings were nearly all specialized terms and concepts are defined in the text. This is not jargon. This is the author using the text to introduce you to specialized vocabulary in the field.

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 4: “This text is redundant, repetitious and wordyThere are too many details.

Although there are moments when authors are redundant, generally speaking Prof. Ormsbee is assigning texts that are offering up detailed and thorough arguments. If you find an idea being repeated, it is more often an indication that there is a concept, fact, or issue that is connected at multiple points and is central to the overall argument; it is usually not an indication of a bad writer.

Replace with: “The author is repeating this set of information several times, so it is my job to figure out why that idea, fact, or issue keeps emerging in the text, what is so important about that idea, what it’s interconnection is to the overall argument.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 5: “This work is too long. The author could’ve said the same thing in a much shorter space. There are too many details.”

From time to time, Prof. Ormsbee does assign lengthy pieces that could be edited down; but generally speaking, Prof. O has chosen texts that walk you through a complex and thoroughly evidentiated argument. The details presented by the authors we’ve read in class go directly to substantiating their argument; they explain the details of the research, the argument, the logic, and the evidence that lead them to their conclusions. If you only read the bullet-pointed conclusion, you do not actually understand why we should believe the author’s claims or why the author’s claims are important. If you only read bullet-points, you never learn how to build complex arguments yourself.

Replace with: “The author is spelling out for me exactly how s/he arrived at his conclusions and why his/her conclusions are reliable and important.”

Faulty or Ineffective Belief No. 6: “I should be able to read this text quickly and casually and understand its argument easily without working at it.”

Very few people would ever say this out loud, but I find by my experience that this is a common underlying belief of some students. Reflect carefully about your experience with difficult texts, and see if this is a belief that you hold. There are many cultural reasons why we expect texts to be immediately and effortlessly assimilable, but this is a belief that is detrimental to learning. Imagine that what you’re saying is that you learned everything you needed to know by 8th grade (the level most of us can read without having to engage our attention) and that 8th grade level of writing and argumentation is the most complex that anyone should be required to read at. This is detrimental to your learning, your attention, and your retention.

Replace with: I am a university student and am still learning, both at the level of information and facts, and at the level of argumentation and writing. Difficult texts are challenging me to learn new things and approach increasingly complex argumentation and writing. This is part of the learning process.

edited per feedback

No Redemption in “Angels in America” (Guest Post) 30 August 2010

Posted by Todd in Culture, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Culture, Literature, Mormonism/LDS Church.
comments closed

In a conversation with some friends last week about the brilliance and shortcomings of Kushner’s play cycle Angels in America, a friend of mine, Caroline Udall, wrote this piercing critique of Kushner’s choice to redeem every character except the gay Mormon. Her comment is in medias rex, as it were, but I think it stands on its own as an example of excellent literary criticism. The first paragraph is my comment to which Caroline is responding.

Even today, however, I find that it stings me to the core that the only character who doesn’t find forgiveness in the play is the gay mormon character. Everyone else, even Roy Cohn the evil monster proto-typical self-hating Himmler of American gay life from HUAC to AIDS, even *he* finds redemption. But the gay mormon character is simply lost, refusing redemption at the end of the play, a poison to his wife, his mother, and to the boyfriend he beats up.

This is the exact bone I have to pick with Angels in America as well (I mean the HBO version; I’ve never seen it on stage). To me Joe was a heartbreaking character–absolutely trapped and warped by his family, his religion, his whole right-wing mormon milieu. And I thought Kushner deeply, deeply betrayed that character.

I read a bit of an interview with Kushner once. I can’t remember where I read it, but it was shortly after I saw the DVD. Kushner said, essentially, that he didn’t want Joe to come away with ANYTHING. He wanted him to lose EVERYTHING—that he saw him as some kind of completely hypocritical closet case and wanted to set it up to punish that kind of figure. But the problem is, he didn’t set him up as a Ted Haggard type, or even as a Roy Cohn type. He set the character up as this lost soul who is deeply naive, believes in his religion and consequently hates himself, is really just as much a victim of the patriarchs and their patriarchal homophobia as Harper or his mother are victims of patriarchal misogyny. He develops Joe as having been wounded and rejected by a homophobic, unloving father and thus vulnerable to the warped father-figure of Cohn. That scene where Cohn puts his hands on Joe’s head and blesses him in this really twisted playing out of a mormon father’s blessing was absolutely seething with evil to me. And Joe absorbs it with really no awareness that he is under the hands of the devil. He even tells Cohn that he loves him in that scene–and he clearly means it in a son-to-father sense, not in an erotic way. So here he is getting the devil’s blessing and receiving it, in all innocence, as if it were something holy.

Joe doesn’t share Cohn’s values, but is sort of hypnotized into thinking that Cohn shares his values. That scene where he confronts Cohn about federal witness tampering (or whatever it was) demonstrates clearly that Joe was not inherently a dishonest man.

I fucking hated the character of Louis (which, I suppose may have been the point, lol) for partly this reason. Joe is clearly, CLEARLY ignorant about who Roy Cohn is and what part he has played in history. Yet when Louis finds out that Joe works for Cohn, that’s it. Knowing nothing more than that, he sobbingly rejects Joe in absolutely cruel, arrogant, judgmental terms. It’s not Cohn that’s the villain here–it’s Joe—simply for his proximity to Cohn. Louis even quotes that whole “Have you no decency, sir?” stuff at Joe, as if Joe were the one who had done all that shit during the HUAC hearings. And this is from a man who abandons his AIDS-stricken lover bleeding on the floor because he himself is too physically squeamish to deal with it. He doesn’t even bother to call the ambulance before he goes. It’s like Cohn’s sins have been pronounced on Joe’s head and JOE gets sent off into the desert to die. Joe’s been the innocent scapegoat and so enables everybody else to have basically a warm, lovely happy ending. (Hmm. D’ya think? It works for me. But maybe it’s too much of a stretch. Then again, considering the scene in the hospital where he gets Cohn’s blood all over him after Cohn lays hands on him–maybe it’s not such a stretch.)

If Kushner wanted to punish evil, self-hating, hypocritical closet cases who make life worse for other gays, then why does Cohn get to have Kaddish said for him (in the movie, by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, no less–a woman he participated in essentially murdering), but Joe loses everything, gets no comfort, no redemption of any kind? Joe was in no way a conscious betrayer, a conscious evil presence, in the way that Cohn was. In Joe, Kushner created what I thought was a beautiful, tragic, wounded, and essentially innocent character that was very, very true to what it means to be a victim of mormonism–gay or otherwise. And then he betrays him and psychically kills him off, while giving the TRUE villain of the piece on every. single. level. one of the most redemptive scenes in the play.

Yeah, lol. It clearly bugged me. Joe’s character broke my heart as much as any character in that play and I thought Kushner absolutely betrayed him. I’m still gnawing on it, five years after I saw the thing.

On the Uses of History 14 June 2010

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Social Sciences.
comments closed

While I was thinking out loud about history, lately, and its role in creating meaning (not in a cheesy self-help way, but in the social-psychological or symbolic interactionist sense of Meaning (i.e., G.H. Mead or John Dewey)), a friend suggested to me that feeling connected to the past can be mere nostalgia or sentimentalism. I’m not sure that the experience of connection to the flow of time is necessarily ‘sentimental’ (although it surely can be). As an undergrad, learning history started a long process (unfinished) of breaking me open. History has the potential to humble on two important levels. First, it starts that process of tearing down any illusions one may have of one’s specialness or uniqueness. With the sweep of time, one begins that process of gaining perspective on the boundedness and smallness of one’s own experience and life and influence. Second, history has the potential of highlighting the humanness of us all, as we come to see the foibles, joys, and lives of the dead, it might have the power to break down the ethnocentric barriers that block us across time. What I’m talking about here is a particular kind of possible experience of history, one possible process of meaning-making that can come from the deep study of history.

Of course, as my friend pointed out, this runs the danger of becoming a new age, sentimental, kumbaya morass of meaninglessness. I would add to that that it runs the risk of hiding from sight the particularity of the past, in a specific time and place, of a particular people. If history (the thing itself, not the profession of researching and writing it) is indeed an emergent effect of the interaction among specific people in a particular context (which can itself include knowledge of the past, however that is defined), then a universalizing experience of history, where history is apprehended as the ‘human’ story or ‘eternal recurrence’ (sorry Nietzsche!) risks eliminating particularity.

On the other hand, my friend averred, if I understood her correctly, that history is now, in the material, lived, embodied world today. History actually has created the present. We are history, which never goes away.

But this framing of history presents problems of its own. History as the stories we tell each other about “how we arrived here” also have the danger of reifying a particular teleology, and by extension, a particular ethno-orientation to the past, or more accurately, to the narratives we create about the past. In each individual’s and each generation’s own, unavoidable temporal situatedness, I fear that history becomes the means to justify, to make Right, the present. This kind of interested history has the very powerful effect of connecting the present affect to a narrative that motivates the here-now to become something else or to maintain itself, history here becomes a means to a political end.

So on the third hand, there can be a disengaged history that seeks merely to describe as accurately as possible “what happened,” using what John Dewey called “scientific mindset” in the gathering and analysis of evidence (see also: German method of documentation of historical scholarship). As with all scientific endeavors, such a goal of evidentiated, objective history can never be more than an end-in-view, an un-achievable yet worthy goal for scholarship. This kind of history is opposed wishful, traditional, folk, identity, or other interested or undocumented histories (which abound in all contexts, both oral and literate). But such disinterested, scholarly history can present new problems. History for its own sake, as an end in itself, strikes me as renunciation of sorts, a refusal to engage in the meaning-making project, which is at its core, for me, what it means to be human.

As a scholar, I find a value in a disinterested, documented history that seeks to accurately and dispassionately describe the past, inasmuch as any meaning we make out of fiction is suspect from the beginning. Speaking normatively, such history should serve as the base from which we begin to have the meaning-arguments about the past, when the past can become meaning-ful to us here-now. When new knowledge is produced from the disinterested historical project (again acknowledging its impossibility yet worthiness), that careful, “scientific” history necessarily changes meaning we make from history.

Out of Step with Queer 14 May 2010

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Modernity and Modernism, Queer Theory.
comments closed

An acquaintance of mine asked me this morning to explain what I meant in my profile by being “out of step with the queer left.” It’s a good question, but a complex one that I still struggle with and am not sure about. I find that I both love queer theory and am frustrated by it on many levels. I find that I get giddy when I think about some of the protest actions by Gay Shame here in San Francisco, but that I also find them problematic and elitist. So here’s my attempt to explain to him what I mean by this. In some ways, this is a personal intellectual journey, but it’s also about conclusions I’ve drawn after being immersed in archival and ethnographic research of gay men for the past 8 years.

A few caveats: I think of knowledge as always in process and emergent, so this is just where I am now. I am constantly thinking about this (and I’m currently writing an encyclopedia article about developments in Queer Theory since 2000), and reworking and exploring where I stand. So this is just a snap shot. Secondly, this is a blog, not a journal article, so what follows is necessarily gestural and incomplete, or in process. Third, it’s at a very abstracted level without actual quotes or examples to anchor the discussion. I would love to have more substantive, anchored conversations about this topic, and hope that maybe the conversation could move there in the comments. So here’s my explanation of what I mean by being out of step with the queer left:

1) I’ve always been pretty idealistic, driven by a vision of what the world should be like, especially in terms of justice and equality. My poor little conservative, Republican, mormon parents thought I was Satan spawn in high school. And my classmates and teachers in my tiny rural high school thought I was from outer space. But for better or worse, I find that I’m still driven by that deep belief in justice (although I find recently that I’m growing exhausted with the never ending academic discussions about it and banging my head against the wall trying to get students to break out of their own experience to see the world as it is for so many others around the planet).

2) Both in my undergrad and in my Masters program (where I did Native American studies, and wrote an embarrassing thesis about NA autobiography), I had been steeped in critical theory, especially in the postmodern/deconstructive vein (and not as much but still significantly in the old Marxist vein). But by the time I was into my PhD program (where’d I’d switched to a more sociological orientation) I had started to rethink the assumptions about empiricism and knowledge production that I’d inherited from my cultural studies background up to that point, and I started thinking in really hard terms about the disjuncture between academic discourse about “critique” and real human lives outside of the academy.

3) Around this time, I met one of the two Social Theorists on campus, Robert Antonio (his work most recently has been about Weber and before that Habermas and before that Dewey) who introduced me to the American Pragmatists, and I began reading Pierce, James, Dewey, and Mead voraciously. They begin with the demonstration of the emergent property of knowledge (and truth and culture (although they didn’t use the “c” word yet because it was before the ascendency of Anthropological terms in the field), the contingency (or situatedness) of knowledge (truth and culture), and the details of how human minds produce knowledge. Dewey after WWI took off from there, theorizing how to conceive of problems in the world and solve them given the emergent nature of knowledge. For me, this was a breath of fresh air. It jarred me out of the kind of helpless funk that the posmodern critique can sometimes lead to, and also reoriented how I frame social problems in the world. [And in my professional life, it also led me to symbolic interaction as a method for research, but that’s tangential to this conversation.]

4) I started doing my dissertation research (which eventually led to book research after I finished my degree) about gay men in the 1960s. I started off with a very “queer” lens and a set of values and provisional claims that I thought I was going to make. I worked hard, however, to keep my claims provisional and to allow the evidence to speak and to see what was actually there. If you read the intro and conclusion to my book, for example, you’ll get a good feel for my intellectual orientation in research in this regard. You’ll find that my divergence from “queer studies” per se is subtle, but there. I’m actually really interested to see what reviewers do with the book and how they interpret my intellectual orientation to what have become “queer” problems.

5) Let me now address my relationship to the ‘academic’ side of queer. In a more direct way, this is what I can tell you about “queer”, where I am right now, after having spent 8 years on a dissertation and book about gay men (bearing in mind that I’m being gestural here).

a) I find that a lot of queer theory is more normative than analytical. This is quite ironic, given queer theory’s ostensible eschewal of the normative. Often I actually agree with the normative it’s proposing, but find that the theorists leave their normatives unspoken or uninterrogated, and therefore weak.

b) I find that queer theory often relies on unsubstantiated or poorly evidentiated assumptions, for example, the universality of bisexuality (which is an old Freudian canard, which still shocks me when I find it popping up in queer writers). This more often than not comes from a refusal to address the actual embodiment of human agents, as queer theory most often sees bodies as mere symbolic effects. Here is, for me, an epistemological disagreement I have with a lot of cultural theory since about 1970 (especially that which is derived from French philosophy): Knowledge can only be produced by bodies, through means that evolved, in physical (and symbolic) environments that produce constant feedback to the organism. I find that queer theory most often rests in that line of cultural theory (though often unspoken) that assumes a priori that the symbolic world is completely self-referential and all correspondance to the exterior world of the subject is coincidental or illusory. I come at this from a baseline interactionist perspective, which is that meaning is more than the interaction of symbols and that it is an emergent property of interaction in an environment and that, although the connections to the exterior are contingent, change over time, and contextual, they are nonetheless real, not just in their consequences, but in their origins.

c) Finally, queer theory is often uncritical of its own historical connections to the eponymous “radical” gay and lesbian movement of the early 1970s. Like other liberation movements of the post-war period, the homosexual movement(s) ended up being constituted through an internal schism between the self-described radicals and the other side, called by the radicals everything from “liberal” to “conservative”, “Auntie Toms” and “shameful.” There is in contemporary queer studies an often un-interrogated aesthetic or even nostalgic longing for the movement of 40 years ago, which itself was probelmatically organized out of a desire for “authenticity.” So “queer” today, despite its critiques of authenticity per se, often unconsciously builds upon notions of authentic queerness (especially in its politics) and then produces the normative bent I mentioned above.

6) And now for actual politics in the public realm. This is where things get very muddy for me, and a lot of my discomfort comes from the research I did about gay men 1961-1972 in San Francisco. There is a long history in gay politics of what I’ll call “in-fighting” for lack of a better word; it’s as long as gay politics itself, that emerges (in my opinion) out of LGBT people’s interactions with the dominant culture and their various efforts to create a space for themselves and the consummation of their desires within society. What tends to happen (at least as far as I can see back to the founding of the Mattachine Society) is a sharp conflict over values among LGBT people that gets enacted in a deep moralizing conflict within the “community” (a word I use with great caution and discomfort (again, see my book for details on that point if you want)).

Take “Gay Shame” here in SF. I find that I very often agree with their social critique, and then can’t figure out what the hell they spend all their time protesting other gay people. This is an old tradition in San Francisco, where the moralizing left aims all its frustration and anger at other gay people. The baseline interaction becomes about who is doing gay (or queer) correctly, rather than on effecting social change that expands the freedom and possibilities of gayness in the lives of real life queers. To say this more clearly: The battle becomes over the right way to be gay, rather than over the transformation of the social structures of oppression.

Think of the battle over gay marriage. If you’ll allow me some cartoon caricatures for the sake of argument, to the far left, the critique is of the institution of marriage itself and the patriarchal relationship between genders, and between parents and children, and between individuals and the state. To the far right, the effort is for assimilation and acceptance, for full “Americanness” and normality. [I think both sides are far more subtle than this, but you see where I’m going.] So here in SF, you got queers-on-the-left protesting against the protests against Prop 8, because of course any gay person who would want marriage is a dupe or stupid or a tool of “the Man”. When I was marching in the massive shut down of Market Street the day after elections in 2008, I felt like I was in a time machine watching Gay Sunshine protest against S.I.R. in 1970. Surreal.

In the interactionist mode, marriage has already been massively transformed by the past 200 years of feminist and more recently LGBT action. Marriage today simple is not what it used to be even 50 years ago. And it will continue to change. LGBTs trying to get marriage can reinforce its social valence and power, but it also necessarily transforms it. This leaves aside the very real inequalities, some of them horrifying and inhuman (see the Governor of Minnesota’s recent veto for example) that result from the current state of affairs.  LGBTs having the right to marry can be domesticating, but it can also be transformative. Both. At the same time. Gays in the military can be a normalization of masculinity among gay men; it can also be a transformation of masculinity in the military and in society in general. So the real-world effects and the real-human desires at play seem to be both more simple and more complex than queer politics would have them be.

Whereas I want to create a society that gives the widest range possible for the expression of non-normal (in the statistical sense) sexualities by expanding freedom and access, and whereas I find that I often agree with the baseline criticisms of queer theory and activism, I find that queer practice can be normative, moralizing, and exclusive.

Naturalistic Theory of Culture 16 February 2010

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Teaching.
comments closed

I’m constantly working on explaining the naturalistic theory of culture to my students. I have posted on this several times in the past and am still working it out. I want my students to understand both that culture is plastic and context dependent, and that culture is also always embodied and emergent from interaction. My main beef with postmodern views of culture isn’t that they emphasize its contingency, but rather that they often elide the ways that it is connected to the material, biological, obdurate world  that produced it. Often (and I admit that I’m being glib and gestural here), postmodern cultural theory becomes a “nothing is real” stance, mistaking the fact that human culture is contextual and emergent for proof that it is disconnected from the world. Also, the constructivist view (which I am 90% in agreement with) often ends in a cultural determinism which is, for me, as problematic and irksome as a biological determinism. In short, culture is not an independent, self-referential, pure construction; it is rather a grounded, embodied emergent property of the interaction of brains in environments.

I begin my “Nature and World Cultures” course with a three-week crash course in human evolution where I attempt to demonstrate the emergence of the cultured-brain as an effect of evolution, and where I try to give the students the base for seeing at a base, empirical level the ways that minds (what brains do) and the “environment” (i.e., nature) are so connected as to blur into the same thing. My stance here is based on John Dewey’s extended argument in Nature and Experience, but has built from there from my readings in evolutionary theory, cognitive science, and from my own empirical research about gay men and meaning.

Here is my most recent attempt to explain to students my conception of a naturalistic explanation of culture. I’m using the word “umbworld” (a back formation from an Old English word) to emphasize that the human environment is both physical/ecological and social (as is actually true of all social species).

At the end of class today, we had arrived at the central thesis of the first section of the course, which is our working theory of culture: its origins, how it works, why it exists, how it changes over time. It is naturalistic (which is a word from philosophy) because it insists that the separation between “nature” and “culture” is a false one. Here are some key ideas that arise from the information we’ve discussed the past two class days.

1) Nature and culture are not separate, but are the same thing, or to say it differently, inextricably, constitutively linked.

a) the contents of our mind (culture), the very way we think and what we think about, come from our brain’s interaction with the umbworld (nature).

b) the contents of our mind (our culture) recursively acts upon the umbworld constantly transforming it (i.e., nature), which in turn, transforms the contents of our mind (culture) which in turn transforms the umbworld (nature), and so on.

2) Without the obdurate, physical environment (including other humans), our minds wouldn’t exist. Mind (culture) arises (emerges) our of constant, never-ending interaction with the umbworld (which includes nature). And the umbworld itself is emergent, and arises out of the constant interaction with human minds (cultures).

3) The naturalistic theory of culture, then, insists that asking the question “nature or nurture” or “biology or culture” is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking how our evolutionary biological form produced the cultural brain; how culture is an emergent property of brains in a society; that culture only exists in a body (culture is embodied) and could not exist without a body; that the beliefs, practices, and objects of any individual or group emerge over time in specific umbworlds; that the brain evolved to give a degree of agency over both the umbworld and its own consciousness to solve problems; and finally because culture is inextricably linked to the environment and because the environment is constantly changing, so is culture a necessarily emergent property of the brain, not a thing in itself.