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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.
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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.