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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.
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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.

Notes

(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.

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.
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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.

Gender Differences? 15 November 2009

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Culture, Evolution, Gender, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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In my ongoing quest to integrate genetic, neurological, biological, physiological, and evolutionary research and knowledge into my cultural sociological work, I am constantly trying to grapple with a way to theorize an integrated “nature/nurture” transaction in human behavioral and cultural characteristics. As I’ve said many times here before, I find it frustrating that English, because of its Western cultural heritage of separating humanity from nature, lacks a way to talk about the interaction of genetic/biological heritage with the umbworld (the combined physical, social, and cultural environment) in that intricate dance to create a phenotypical characteristic. The cultural baggage evident in the way we continue to talk of “nature v. nurture” forecloses our ability to think in terms of what is more or less the empirical emergence of human characteristics in an interactive dynamic of evolutionary, biological heritage and the social & physical environments.

Recently I tried to summarize where I stand with gender in my naturalistic sociological standpoint. I thought I would re-post this here on the blog to see what other people thought and get some feedback and pushback on these ideas. This was in response to two acquaintances who had taken very stark stances about the origins of gender, one hard to the biological side and one hard to the social constructionist side. This was my effort to offer a naturalistic and critical perspective:

This is an extremely messy discussion with no easy or clear answers. Both the biologically determinist and the culturally determinist position make me uncomfortable. Here’s where I am on gender difference right now:

There are average differences between the sexes in various areas of behavior and physiology. This however is complicated by several observations:

• in both behavioral and physiological characteristics where there are average differences, the bell curves overlap significantly, to that most individuals fall in the overlap area (the only exception to this that I know of off the top of my head is body mass, where males are roughly 20% greater than females, across geographic-races).

• the human brain is incredibly plastic, so that any characteristic that appears to be possibly an average difference (e.g., a preference for symbolic thinking or spatial reasoning) can actually be learned by any normal brain of either sex. in other words, many mental differences turn out to be preferences, but those preferences turn out to be so strong and universal that they appear to have at least some heritability

• it is difficult to tease out the differences that matter, and often the ones that we decide matter are because of our cultural biases; the best way to see through that is to do cross-cultural research, but cross-cultural research still risks being driven by the cultural biases of the researchers, regardless of their culture of origin

• early childhood studies consistently seem to show a base-line gender difference in behavior and cognition (meaning the *way* they think), even when conducted by feminists; but feminist researchers tend to explain it away as “constructed” difference; I’m becoming less and less convinced. This is completely anecdotal, and just meant for illustration my friends are generally pretty feminist, and all of them who have had both male and female children have been stunned at how gendered their small toddlers are.

• any individual man or woman can fall anywhere in the bell curve, and in any given characteristic be “masculine” or “feminine”, so even if there are generalizable, average sexual differences, they only function at a population and species level and tell us absolutely nothing about the person sitting next to us or about how we should organize our societies or how we should distribute social goods.

• finally, even if we are able to demonstrate clearly how exactly gendered phenotypes arise in human individuals, we run the risk of reifying them socially, so that they become normative: e.g., here’s the gendered mean for a male on characteristic X, therefore, men should or must behave like characteristic X. This is precisely the wrong conclusion to draw from any research that shows average gendered differences in behavior or physiology. This is why, especially for those of us who fall far outside the bell curve, such research feels threatening and dangerous and particularly UNTRUE.

[As a side note, I think the only two brain structural differences that seem to matter at all are the average size of the corpus callosum and perhaps the average sizes of the pituitary.]

Theorizing Sexuality: Vexing and Vexed Categories 25 March 2009

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Culture, Evolution, Homosexuality, Language, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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At the base of the problematic of theorizing any social/cultural phenomenon lies the task of defining the phenomenon in the first place. Definitions by nature are a process of creating useful categories of analysis, categories that draw boundaries in the world of phenomena in order to enable the analysis we desire. Here I’m going to attempt merely to point out the baseline problems of coming up with categories of analysis for a Theory of Sexuality. A warning that this isn’t a polished piece of writing, but meant to be more informal and conversational with other specialists and interested parties.

This discussion arises out of my reading of a book called _Homosexuality and Civilization_, where the author traces a predominantly Western history of same-sex sex, both in terms of socially sanctioned practices and in terms of social repression. Confronting the range of historical meanings of homosexuality (for lack of another word) at the same time as watching the author struggle to maintain his categories of analysis pushed me to think about whether or not there is a Homosexual in the past (not unlike Foucault, I suppose). What I found is that there are interrelated but not coextensive phenomena at play that must be carefully dealt with in order to adequately frame an analysis (or theory) of sexuality.

I.

I begin by laying out some of my basic assumptions about the source of knowledge categories at the meta-level. I’m not trying to be rigorous in my citations as I might in a scholarly article; rather, I’m trying to move through my assumptions so you, the reader, can understand where I begin my consideration of the problem of categories in the theorization of sexuality.

I am firmly anti-foundationalist, but in a Deweyan way, where I would argue that empirically speaking all human categories derive from a group’s interaction with its environment and it’s efforts to understand and in some way control its environment. I purposefully think of this as a group effort, probably because of my social science bent, but also because by definition, the human mind is shaped socially, in interaction with other humans. There simply is no human mind that is constituted in and of itself. My Deweyan orientation becomes more important when I compare what I’m saying against the extreme strands of post-structuralism (e.g., the hard-constructionists of the British sociology of science), who often conclude that all knowledge is self-referential and all symbol systems can only derive meaning from other symbols; and therefore that human knowledge is radically disconnected from the world it seeks to explain and can never be anything but a construct.

ETA: I cannot disagree with this hard-constructionist model more. All knowledge is inextricably linked to a transaction with the environment that produced it. It is, at its core, significantly more than self-referential. Anti-foundationalism in the pragmatic mode means a radical contextualization of knowledge, not a radical disconnection from the world that is known. Now onto language, really the sticking point for post-structuralism (IMO).

I’m more prone to accept the findings of cognitive linguists and neurologists who are finding that language, in the way our brain functions, is not the constituter of thoughts (i.e., is not the stuff of thought) but rather a tool the brain uses to think. When you “hear” yourself htinking with language, what you are experiencing is your brain using language to manage the phenomena it encounters and analyze them.  Language and symbolic representation of the world writ large are not the stuff of the contents of the brain, but rather a tool the brain uses to think about the world it experiences. Language is active and moving, like a hammer; not the thing itself.

Secondly, with Dewey, James, Pierce, and Mead, not to mention a whole raft of cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists(1) of the past 25 years or so, I would insist that knowledge is an emergent property of the brain’s interaction with its environment (including the social environment), so that knowledge can never be separated from the body’s experience of its environment or the collective and social experience mediated through language and interaction in the society. Knowlege and categories are always situated historically, that is, radically contextual; they are always without foundation, that is, without eternal, universal meaning; but they are always connected directly to the group’s experience of its world and are always embodied. (Always remembering that part of the world is the social, symbolic world of the group, including its history, tradition, language, practices, objects, etc.)(2)

II.

The first problem of categorization when theorizing sexuality is deciding how to draw the lines of inclusion and exclusion in the categories in question. Indeed, “sexuality” itself is a fraught category, already begging the question of its own usefulness. Is sexuality the bodily, embodied act? is it also the fantasy, the desire? does it include the acts unrealized and only imagined? or is it more than acts at all, including systems of meaning? or is it psychological, the “identity” of an individual and how the individual categorizes herself in terms of her sexuality (which again begs the question of “sexuality”)?

So any category to be used in any field of research includes a relationship of a) the word(s) used to contain the category; b) the phenomena to be included, and by extension, excluded from the category; and c) the social work of building and maintaining the category’s boundaries long enough for the conversation to be useful in lighting our understanding.

The first problem of the word-label is probably obvious. Since the words we use are shared in multiple contexts and have multiple meanings, we can only be sure of their rigorous use if we reiterate the meanings we need, or by coining new words (an often clumsy and opaque solution, but one which appeals to me). Language by its very nature always fails to contain that which it seeks to describe; there are always “leakages” of meaning.

But If “sexuality” is the word, then what phenomena will we include in it? Is it the only category that matters? For me personally, I’m interested in sexual dissent, secret behavior, minority sexual practices; these seem to beg for categories of their own in addition to “sexuality”.(3) As soon as we start deciding what phenomena to include in the categories, we engage in a process of exclusion; categories may also limit our perception, when we accept them as salient and representing something useful in the world. Categories can thereby eliminate from view important facts that might change our understanding. Perhaps there is simply no way to avoid this danger and it must be embraced as part of the process.  But the possible consequences can be dire, leading to the erasure from history or analysis entire experiences or populations, or misapprehending groups or individuals under our gaze.

I will argue here, briefly, that the categories used to analyze sexuality must include both biological, embodied knowledge and social, cultural knowledge.

III.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the very fact that I want to theorize “sexuality” necessarily arises out of my experience in my own place and time in human history, my situatedness in the 21st century, unitedstatesian culture of sexuality, and my gayness. Indeed, “sexuality” itself is a rather new category, at most about 150 years old in Western European thinking (see note (3) below).  Problematically, historical categories do not match our own; that is to say, culturally speaking, that in different times and places, human groups have categorized sexual phenomena in radically different ways. With homosexuality, for example, I have only to go back to just before WWII to find a significantly different world than the one I live in now (noting, of course, that in that sentence I couldn’t have even expressed it without the word “homosexual”).

If pre-contact Hawaiians, for example, had no concept of “sexuality” at all, did they have it? Is it even possible to analyze Hawaiian sexuality if their own culture didn’t have a category to describe it?  Or what about today, where in, say, much of the Muslim-Arabic world, homosexuality is seen as a Western-Christian phenomenon, so when men have sex with men, it’s not homosexual (to them) but something else altogether with completely different contexts and rules governing its meaning and behavior. What then would I even be studying if I tried to analyze “homosexuality” among Saudi men, for example? Or if I go to Taliban controlled Afghanistan (you’ll excuse me for using hot button examples, somewhat glibly, to illustrate), and women are so holy and also so dangerous to the spiritual health of men, they must be hidden, uneducated, and silent, and traded among men who control their very bodies (or at least outwardly so). Is that even “heterosexuality”? Does it make sense to call their marriages “heterosexual” just because they are opposite-sex composed?

Or is there something thin enough, something universal enough that can be laid down as the basis of a category that can be used to analyze across cultures?

IV.

In sociology and anthropology, there is a perennial problem of whether or not we use our current, accepted categories to understand the cultural, social Other, and if so, what effect that has on our ability to understand. If we use our own categories, does that merely reproduce our own cultural biases, our own situated context? In sociology, the idea is that is sometimes put forward that if the researcher can somehow reformulate the categories of analysis, it will increase the intellectual payoff and therefore usefulness of the analysis. By simply reproducing the old categories (e.g., race, class, gender), we reproduce the social phenomena we are studying.

In history, an analogous problem of “presentism” demands that to understand the past you must leave aside your current understandings to simply express what was believed in the past. For historians, the culture of the past can never be known if it is only in terms of the present.

While I’m sympathetic to both critiques, I’m also wary of them. In the sociological critique, I find the idea that new or different categories may better illuminate the phenomena in question; but I also think that asking questions from our own contexts is not only human, but deeply useful. I don’t mean to say that I would advocate using unexamined categories of my own culture; but that using them isn’t necessarily bad, when done so carefully and systematically and perhaps with a detailed explanation of why. So in the case of sexuality, we would need to ask up front why are we even studying what people do with their genitals and/or what they think about what they do with their genitals? Why would such a study matter? What knowledge is gained and why? Or why do I want to use my idea of homosexuality from the 21st century (and academic, I must add) context to understand, say 18th century America or 21st century Saudi Arabia?

I think the historical warning against presentism is extremely useful in establishing the phenomena to be analyzed. This is analogous, to me, to the anthropological warning against ethnocentrism in studying present others. But I think it hamstrings the analysis once you get there. I’m not sure there’s a away not to be presentist or ethnocentric when conducting an analysis of social cultural phenomena that we hope to be useful in some way, beyond the mere curiosity of understanding the other.

So I would argue for a three-part process: 1) a careful work through and definition of the categories to be used (kind of what I’m setting the stage to do here); 2) when gathering the phenomena (data) a strict effort to avoid presentism and ethnocentrism; 3) an analysis that brings what is discovered about the Other into conversation with what the researcher knows and experiences in their context.

V.

To set out where I think a useful and empirically sustainable theory of sexuality should base its categories of analysis, let me give some observations:

1) humans have sex (and also choose not to have sex);
2) they do so for a multitude of reasons;
3) those reasons are always both social/cultural and bodily/biological (ranging from social duty, to “love”, to boredom, to horniness, etc.);
4) humans constantly generate meanings for sex (4);
5) those meanings vary from context to context because they emerge from humans interacting with each other in a complex environment, which they do not control and which constantly changes;
6) there seem to be discernible patterns of sexual behavior over time and across cultures, though these patterns manifest in statistical distributions rather than in trans-cultural universals;
7) humans have sex because they want to, but defining and studying “want to” (i.e., desire) is probably the most difficult aspect of sexuality, because it seems to always bound in the reasons and meaning of sex.

Given the above, I think that the ground of a theory of sexuality must have three interweaving, moving parts of sexuality:

sex Act(s) and behavior [embodied and in some way connecting mind to genitals?]

Desire and affect [embodied, but affect focused]

Meaning [the organization of the acts and the desire within a social-historical context]

Two things to note. First, I do not think that identity is a good or useful way to categorize sexuality (although I do think there’s a history of sexuality as identity to be told).  Identity seems to be one of the possible outcomes of a culture’s efforts to understand or control its sexuality, rather than something that is necessarily attached to sexuality.

Second, from reading extensively about Greece and Roman meanings of sexuality in terms of today’s understanding of homosexuality (not to mention the vexing problem of defining “homosexuality” in today’s world) I think it necessary to insist on a relative independence of the three parts of Act, Desire, and Meaning to understand how the work together.

Acts: although the acts and embodied experience of sex do not exist outside of culture and are always attached to at least one actor’s desire, they can be studied physiologically as things in themselves. If we can think of embodied acts as separate (even if its just an intellectual conceit), we can come to think more clearly about desires and especially meanings.

Desire/Affect: There are layers of desires (always connected to bodies and emerging in cultural, meaning-full contexts) at work in sexuality, that may or may not have a direct correlation to the bodily act, the sensation of sex, or an orgasm. The desires may be social (e.g., for status), psychological (e.g., to affirm an identity), or bodily (e.g., to come). The most difficult to study, mainly because the fleeting affect within an individual rarely leaves a trace to be studied. And because defining “desire” itself can be vexing, from Freud’s “overestimation of the object” to a biological explanation of the function of oxytocin in the brain.

Meaning: Here we have the qualitative difference of acts and desires as they are manifested in social roles, symbolic explanations and representations, sanctions and repressions, etc.

Acts, Desires, and Meanings are all experienced in the Deweyan sense: They are both undergone (that is, passively put upon our senses, as stimulus upon our bodies (sometimes from the brain itself)) and a “doing” or activity (we always act in response to the undergone stimulus, be its origins in our own brains or outside of them). For Dewey, the experience must be always seen in this inseparable nexus of undergoing and doing; it is always both-and; it is always passive reception of what “is” and active reaction to change it.  So for me, sexuality in these three phases, is always a movement through time and place, the emergence of particular genital-desire-meaning formations.

For me, separating sexuality into these three phases allows a much richer analysis of the past. I will discuss some of this in detail in a later post, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but let me just illustrate with pederasty of ancient Athens. Much of the debate in historical circles boils down to whether or not homosexuality even exists, because clearly the cultures of sexuality were so different in other times. If in Athens, homosexual contact was allowed [you’ll notice I’m purposefully leaving “homosexual” undefined for the moment] between citizen men as a mentor-mentee relationship; and if citizen men could penetrate any other human legally that did not belong to another citizen; then homosexuality did not exist. [I’m being extremely gestural here to illustrate a point about theory of sexuality, not to make a detailed argument about Athens.]

But if we analyze Athenian sexuality in different terms, we may get another interpretation: separate out the acts in general terms of partner and genital use: e.g., age-differentiated males anal penetration, age-congruent males anal penetration, cross-class anal penetration, etc. Separate out possible desires in that context: e.g., age-congruent same-sex desire, age-differentiated same-sex desire, class-congruent opposite-sex desire, etc. Then separate out the meanings of sex acts and desires: e.g., sanctioned age-differentiated, class-congruent, same-sex desire and anal penetration of younger by older, etc. The historical case of Athens does not prove to us that there weren’t men who desired other adult men in Athens; it can only show us what the culture thought of particular sex acts and how the society organized them. It doesn’t tell us necessarily about the desires of those engaged in a particular act or practice. It tells us how a particular culture in a particular time and with a specific history sought to channel, organize, and control sexual acts and desires. This may seem rather painfully obvious, but in the historical literature and in much of the anthropological literature, the emphasis on difference is so strong and overpowering, that all categories of analysis get reduced to such tightly focused contexts, thereby limiting our perception of the phenomena to the terms of the people who produce them, which has the effect of erasing from view the human experience of having desires that need to be consummated in a given context, possible variations, misapprehension of normatives for empirical realities, and collapsing of possibilities.

Notes:

(1) Following the brilliant critique of evolutionary psychology in Buller’s _Adapting Minds_, I’m referring here to the empirical and provisional work in the field, not the sweeping and highly problematic claims of the more popular Evolutionary Psychologists (Buller distinguishes them by the caps).

(2) I’m stopping this discussion here, but could go on about it. For example, only when we understand language as a tool and knowledge as emergent properties of brains, i.e., the Mind, can we understand empirically how and why knowledge changes over time in useful, adaptive ways. Evolutionary metaphors can be exceptionally helpful when theorizing the flux of knowledge over time in groups.

(3) This is where I really still see the brilliance of Foucault’s analysis in La volonté de savoir (Will to Know (a take on Nietzsche’s Will to Power (volonté de pouvoir, in French)), in the first volume of the _History of Sexuality_, where he traces the Victorian sexological process of an ever more granular categorization of the most miniscule and narrow experiences, feelings, desires, fancies, and behaviors of the genitals. I want to avoid falling into the Victorian pit, but it’s a delicate dance around the edge of the precipice to create useful categories.

(4) I tend to use the word “meaning” in the way that G.H. Mead via Dewey would use it, to indicate not a dictionary definition, but rather the language-symbol combined with an experience of the interconnection of social practice and behavior and affect with a given phenomenon. So the meaning of “tree” isn’t its place on the biological typography, but rather it is the symbol “tree” in conjunction with the lived-experience of treeness in a social context by the individual experiencer and in interaction with the cultural group giving “treeness” its meaning.

Dewey and Artistic Expression 29 November 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Culture.
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A reader emailed to ask me about the connection of Dewey’s Art as Experience and “expression theory” for her undergraduate aesthetic class. She is especially concerned with the connection of emotion (of the artist, I think) with Dewey’s emphasis on meaning. My own work with Dewey’s philosophy focuses on his social theory and his cognitive theory, and it’s been years since I read AaE, but I think what I offered her is a good place for her to start in thinking about Dewey’s approach to art. It also reminds me that I should go back and re-read the work.

As far as Dewey is concerned, there are some key assumptions you need to keep in mind when thinking about his approach to art and aesthetics. 

First, all acts in the world are pre-conditioned by the contents of the individual organism’s mind. That is, the individual has a lifetime of experience that condition his/her mind and make acts meaningful before they occur. This *includes* emotion. Dewey in the 1920s distinguishes between emotion as a mere reaction to stimulus, and an emotion that has been considered and rendered meaningful by the individual (the first precedes the second). The emotion you’re talking about with artists would be the 2nd kind, considered and meaningful already, before the “expressive act” of producing a work of art.

Second, the contents of the mind are preconditioned by the environment in which that mind circulates. In other words, the environment in the largest sense is inextricably part of the mind, because the mind would not exist without having a lifetime of transaction with the environment. Dewey uses the term “transaction” because he wants to emphasize the two-way, inextricable connection between human meaning and the environment. Just as the environment conditions the mind in this transaction relationship, so does the human individual (re)act to the environment, interpreting it, acting against it, shaping it, changing it to match its needs, desires, values, expectations (all of which have emotional components).

Third, the environment is more than just the physical, material world; it is also a social environment. That means that the mind is always also social and depending on social transaction for meaning. To say it another way, the mind (the individual) is preconditioned by society.

So Dewey doesn’t speak of “expression” as an act in itself or per se, but rather art as “production” that expresses a particular transaction within a particular time and place.  In most aesthetic theory of the past 300 years or so, the artist is paramount and there’s a privileging of the artist’s unique and individual vision. Dewey undercuts that somewhat by insisting on the transactive nature of the artist’s mind and his/her acts. Any individual act of art production has been necessarily preconditioned (just as all human actions are preconditioned).  

Do not confuse preconditioning with thinking that human actions are predetermined. Not at all. They are predetermined. That is, they are inextricably connected to all the experience that preceded any individual act. The human individual, however, takes all those experiences and THINKS about them. The art-productive act could be thought of as the action that follows the THOUGHT of the individual about his/her experience. In that regard, it may have a connection with “expression theory”. Dewey sees human agency in their ability to think creatively about their experiences and then act in the world to enact their values or “adjust” to their environment by changing their own behavior or perception. That is always creative, for Dewey.

Art production is, for Dewey, the thoughtful and purposeful organization of discrete elements to create the artistic whole. The artist’s genius or individuality is in their ability to draw upon their (preconditioned) meaning-making mind and use objects, elements, sounds, etc., to convey that meaning with a consumer of the art.

Secondly, Dewey offers a different way of evaluating art which is based upon knowing the environment that pre-conditioned its production and its consumption. For Dewey, you don’t actually consume art (or view or listen to it). Rather, you participate with it. When that art resonates (his word) with your own meaningful experience in your environment, such that it adds meaning to your experience, that art is successful. Dewey argues that we can, through training and education, come to participate with art from different periods of time and different cultures (i.e., from different environments) such that they may also resonate with us in our own experience and add to our own meanings, even though our environments (and our minds) are different. A work of art that fails to evoke a resonance, that fails to invite participation, is a failed or inferior piece of art. The quality of art can be judged by the degree to which it evokes resonance and creates an experience that increases meaning for the participator.

For Dewey, then, meaning is an emergent property of mind, the effect of the transaction between the organism (and the society) with its environment.  Although I haven’t addressed emotion as such much here, I hope you can see that for Dewey, emotion is always a constitutive part of this process. 

Kosovo—A Failure of Pluralistic Democracy 26 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, History, International Politics, Race & Ethnicity.
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[Both commenters and doing a bit of my own research have corrected some of my misinformation, so be sure to read the updates and comments  before allowing your head to explode.]
[UPDATE/CORRECTION II, below (thanks to anonymous commenter)]
[UPDATE I, below]

I had a student from Serbia in a globalization course a few years ago who added an always interesting perspective on ethnic conflict around the world. During the section on retribalization and ethno-nationalism, his presence in the room always forced the conversation into more nuanced and careful discussions. Although he was deeply critical of Milosovic’s policies against the Albanian-Kosovards, he never let us forget that the Albanians were, for lack of a better word, immigrants and so the dynamics were far more complex than they had been portrayed in the “West”.

Albania over the past few generations has been poor and oppressive, and Yugoslavia had allowed immigrants from Albania into Kosovo. (I do not know this history well, and so this is very surface-level and from the perspective of my student, a Serbian man. If I’m misrepresenting the history here, I’d appreciate factual and interpretive corrections in the comments.)

My student tried to get his classmates to understand that for the Serbians in Kosovo, it was about a complete loss of control, of culture, of governance; he said it would be as if Mexicans in Los Angeles suddenly decided they wanted independence and wanted to wrest control of the society from Americans; then the government of California instituted ethnic cleansing policies against them; then the rest of the United States came in, defeated California, and made Los Angeles county a protectorate and allowed the Mexicans to come back. Three years later, I’m sure he would add, then the Mexicans declared themselves independent and the rest of the United States recognized Los Angeles as an independent nation even though California refused to and claimed that Los Angeles still belonged to California.

The point here is, of course, not to justify the ethnic cleansing policies of the early 90s, but to explain that the ethnic tensions are much more complex than we were led to believe. And my position is to keep pulling my hair out in frustration over the continual reification of ethnic identities, be they Serbian or Albanian or Kosovard.

For me, the ultimate tragedy of Kosovo isn’t that the Serbs lost their majority sometime in the past, nor that Serbia is “losing” the region that was the birthplace of its form of Christianity. Rather, the tragedy is that around the world, various ethnicities believe that they cannot live together and form democracies together; that the only way for a democracy to function is for everyone to have the same ethnicity, or that every ethnicity must have its corresponding nation. [Philosophically, this is why I have a huge problem with the establishment of Israel historically; although now that Israel has existed for going on five generations, that critique is purely theoretical.]

This is founded on a deep misunderstanding of ethnic identities in the first place: That they are permanent and essential, that they transcend other social considerations, that they necessarily exclude interaction and cooperation with other ethnic groups. It reproduces dangerous notions of purity. It precludes cooperation and compromise in favor of complete control.

Ultimately, it forecloses the possibility for real, pluralistic democracy and creates a world of ethno-Nations, reinforcing the power of dominant cultures instead of mitigating them, and permanently ghettoizing ethnic minorities. This is the continued fragmentation of democracies along ethnic lines. And that is a failure of democracy itself, which has been designed for the past 200 years to accommodate differences and protect minorities. Replacing Serbian dominance of Kosovo with Albanian dominance is not a difference in kind, but a difference in flavor.

[Caveat/Question: Are the Serbian-Kosovards in favor of independence also? Is there a move to make Kosovo into something new that is neither Albanian nor Serbian? Or is this an Albanian-Kosovard political action?]

UPDATE: I heard an interview with a professor at San Francisco State this morning on KPFA and he clarified a few things and reinforced my feeling that this was a failure in pluralism and highly problematic for the future of pluralistic democracy.

1) The albanians and serbs have been fighting over Kosovo for a lot longer than I had thought, dating back to several skirmishes with the Ottoman Empire. So my student’s analogy of immigrants to Los Angeles ultimately falls apart, in my opinion. The ethnic conflict is far older and the borders far more fluid than the analogy allows. The Serbs have never been a majority in the region, for example.

2) The Albanian-Kosovards were supported by the Maoists in Albania against Tito. The Albanians were known for their brutality and repression of the Serbian minority.
3) Tito had brokered an odd deal of semi-autonomy for Kosovo, with the Albanian majority in control, but with Serbia still having nominal control of the region.

4) Milosovic was more or less an opportunist who used Kosovo to fuel ethno-nationalism for his own political ends startingn in 1989. His adminsitration sent “settlers” from Serbia into Kosovo to “reclaim” it. The ethnic cleansing began in earnest in the early 1990s, and the northern part of Kosovo, the Albanian majority was forcibly removed (today, that northern section remains Serbian controled and the Albanians never returned).

5) The Albanian-Kosovards think of themselves as Kosovard, and *not* Albanian. They are kind of like Irish, who speak English, but don’t think of themselves or identify as English.

6) When the U.N. brokered the semi-autonomy for Kosovo at the end of the Balkans war, the backroom chatter was that Kosovard independence would be an inevitability, a matter of time.

So I’m left with the same critique: The history of the ethnic relations in Kosovo are as tortured and as convoluted as Israel-Palestine, with both groups having deep historical connections to the land. But both are insisting that they simply cannot live together and that the only possible solution is an ethnically pure state? I’m less concerned about Kosovo breaking off from Serbia now, than I am about the fact on the ground that the establishment of a free and equal Kosovo with minority rights intact and protected seems slim to none. It looks like all that’s going to happen is, at best, a kind of mutual apartheid, with separate government, education, and medical services.

As a side note: More irritating is the commentary from the West which speaks of this in that irritating Huntington mode, as a “conflict of civilizations”. In fact, both the Albanian and the SErbian Kosovards are relatively secular and non-practicing. Religion becomes a disingenuous ethnic identity marker to justify and explain what amounts to a refusal of Tolerance, the fundamental value and practice necessary for a pluralistic democracy.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION II]

Demographic history of Kosovo:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Kosovo

The 1921 Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes population census for the territories comprising modern day Kosovo listed 439,010 inhabitants:
By religion:
Muslims: 329,502 (75%)
Orthodox Serb: 93,203 (21%)

Does pop culture unify or fragment us culturally? 5 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Pop Culture.
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On another forum, I’ve been having a brief discussion with some cyber-acquaintances about whether or not pop culture is a barrier between generations. I was arguing that most pop culture references are time specific and therefore generation markers, not unifiers. Of course it’s complex and my friends pointed out that technology has made older pop cultural forms available again today and another friend pointed out that pop culture unifies us as we move from region to region, all of which I agree with. But I think the way pop culture works is more nuanced than that.

I’d love to hear what other people think about this. I’m really interested in the affect that consumer culture writ large has on democracy, which requires a minimum of social cohesion to function well; I think that we’ve replaced true freedom with the mirage of consumer freedom. This discussion is a small corner of my thinking on that wider issue.

1) “pop” in front of “culture” is only a denigration when uttered with a sneer by an urban hipster or a old-skool blue-haired opera goer. In social sciences it denotes a particular mode of producing and consuming culture (a subset of mass culture) as distinguished from pre-industrial cultural production and from local culture, and does not denote a de facto denigration. No one in my field at least doesn’t begin with the assumption that pop culture *is* culture; it is however significantly different in the way it’s produced and the way it’s consumed, necessitating a categorical distinction.

2) as in all things in a huge post-fordist society, pop culture and the technology that distributes it creates multiple contradictory effects, one of which has been the *availability* of pop cultural forms from history, so that younger people have direct access to the pop culture of yore. (all of which is relatively new, historically speaking). That means that you might meet young people with exposure the pop culture you consumed in your youth.

3) However, the mere availability of older forms does not make someone fluent in a cultural milieu, in fact, different segments consume pop cultural differently, ascribing it different meanings. That is one of the characteristics of mass produced culture: In order to sell it to as many consumers as possible (production of pop culture is big business), it has to be accessible by multiple cultural standpoints and open enough semiotically to have whatever meanings ascribed to it a given community wants to (there are, obviously, limits to the plasticity of the meanings that *can* be ascribed, but they are extremely wide in pop/mass culture). This is one of the reasons I study pop culture: It is an incredibly fluid and versatile mode of meaning formation that forms the raw materials out of which Americans seem to form their identities and group affiliations.

4) Since I spend my entire working life with 20 year olds, my anecdotal experience is that while they have often heard of things (usually through retro-campy-nostalgia shows like “I love the 70s” on VH1), they don’t have an actual cultural grasp, just a passing knowledge of pop culture past.

5) That one can find people who bond on common pop culture consumption is evidence of the way mass culture works, not that it works across generations. Namely, starting in the post-WWII era, consumer capitalism developed by an ever increasing segmentation of the cultural market, first by marketing cultural products specifically to “youth”, then to “children” then to “women” then by race and ethnicity by the mid-1960s. (Marketing for different classes began in the auto industry in the late 1920s, and got more complex and integrated in the 1950s-60s). If your experience is typical of an American, you work and associate with people who are of a similar or overlapping market segment that you grew up in, thus when you meet new people, you are able to “bond” over a shared cultural experience of the pop culture you consume(d) in your lifetime. The further outside your particular segment that you cross, the more evident it becomes that you do not share pop cultural commonalities.

Also, consumers tend to be unpredictable (another fun thing about pop culture studies) so unintended consumers will latch onto and consume products intended for entirely different segments and make them their own (think: urban white teenagers consuming black R&B in the early 1950s). The meaning of pop culture ultimately cannot be controlled by its producers, neither the corporations that fund the production nor the artists that create it.

6) That said, there are some huge pop culture phenoms that span across market segments, such as “Star Wars” that can be society-wide cultural unifiers. But most often they are usually, again, generationally inflected and the way you use a piece of pop culture serves to identify your class, race, gender, ethnicity and age.

On Pretension 18 December 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Culture, Philosophy & Social Theory, Pop Culture.
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A brief comment during a long stream-of-consciousness conversation with my good friend Oakland Chloë (who comments here frequently) combined with a comment from Wry Catcher in my Xmas post below have provoked in me a brief fuming rant, which follows:

Wry, I’ve become über-aware of pretension lately, and saying “Silver and Gold” as your xmas colors doesn’t even come close. I live in the city of pretension (San Francisco), although here it’s less about normal elitist/ruling-class pretension than about Bay Area hipper-than-thou, liberal-er-than-thou, critical-er-than-thou or tasteful-er-than-thou (in a SoMa/Haight/Mission kinda way).

I find most culture at the present to be mere pretentious window dressing and slight of hand, used to avoid real connection, communication, affect, and vulnerability. Everything feels fake to me, from ethnic “identities” to politics to “art”. I’m weary of everything having to be “ironic” in order to be acceptable. I mean, god forbid anything should be sincere or any human being should actually have a pulse and an emotional connection to anything. God forbid that someone should actually find meaning in something that anyone “in the know” knows is just stupid/tasteless/immature/common or, worst of all, “bourgeois” or “provincial” or “middle-class”. Most irritating of all is the that the people saying this shit are all, themselves, middle-class professional educated-in-the-humanities pretentious fucks.

I had a friend over the other day who looked at my Christmas decorations and said, “At least they’re ironic.” WhiskyTangoFoxtrot**? They are tacky, drawing fully and unapologetically from my white-trash upbringing. But they are not in the least ironic. I love the Winter Holidays, and I put them up as sincere celebration.

Let’s talk about pretention: You’re stupid/conservative/retrograde if you in anyway take anything seriously or derive pleasure from in anyway any thing that does not pass postmodern muster.

Fuck that shit. I’ll take good old class-warfare, WASPy ruling class elitist pretension any day over this bullshit.

**I’m stealing this witicism from Bard, a cyber-acquaintance who cracks my shit up; mother of multiple small humans and “non-traditional” undergraduate majoring in Econ at some school in Michigan, land of snow, race riots, shaky auto manufacturers (although no actual manufacturing actually occurs there anymore), and crumbing cities. (more…)

The “New Atheism” 16 December 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Evolution, Literature, Religion, Science.
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Yesterday I listened to a podcast interview with Richard Dawkins, wherein, among other things, he addressed the notion of the “new atheism” and some of the criticisms leveled at the “movement” in the media. A friend of mine this morning made a comment that, in combination with the Dawkins interview, pushed my buttons. Here’s my cranky response:

I’ve also been following the debates about the so-called “New Atheism” for the past few years. Here’s a couple things I am observing:

1) There’s no such thing as “new atheism.” This was a term/idea made up by the media and/or the religionists as a way to deflect away from the actual arguments being made. Nothing about what they are saying hasn’t been said and written for nearly the past 150 years (or 400 if you count Spinoza and the Dutch enlightenment). [sarcasm]Instead, these are arguments finally taken seriously by the public, so the best answer is to stomp your feet and insist that religion is pretty or that the “new atheists” just don’t get it. Oh yeah, and the new atheists are sinister and evil, they want your children and they’ll destroy civilization![/sarcasm]

2) There is no political agenda to eradicate religion from humanity. That is absurd hyperbole coming from religious apologists and doesn’t match the arguments these authors/thinkers are actually making. In fact, all three of the big names (Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins) argue that religiosity is in some way natural to human psyches. Harris, the most anti-religion in general, argues mostly about specific beliefs and points people to the effect their beliefs have in the social realm. His book is blatantly spiritual, in fact. So is Dawkins. Dennett’s not as much, but he’s a cranky philosopher.

3) We are in a historical moment when there is obviously a cultural thirst for this kind of argument, otherwise, none of these books would’ve sold millions of copies. Most likely this is coming from our growing awareness in America of the power of religion in the public sphere a la Christian Right, and those who are dying for 77 white raisins, er, virgins after blowing themselves to smithereens. What has changed is that we are *finally* as a society having a public and open discussion about what is irrational in religion and its effects. And rather than being shouted down, arrested, or burned at the stake, the voices for reason are actually being heard and taken seriously on a wide scale. That has never happened before in American (or even European) history.

4) The so-called “new atheists” aren’t going door to door asking people to be saved or else burn in hell; they aren’t putting tracts in people’s mail box or accosting them in airports; they aren’t organizing mass proselytizing campaigns. That’s what religionists do. They *are* making rational arguments and expecting reasoned responses. Wait a minute…what’s that? Chirping crickets?

History as an Academic Discipline 30 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, History, Modernity and Modernism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
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Last fall, a former student of mine, now in graduate school, asked me to give my impressions of the state of History in the academy. As a sociologist who’s first research project was historical (the book is almost done, damn it!), I see history as both an insider and an outsider. As I recently learned the hard way from a couple of brutal peer reviews on one of my articles, historians are often baffled by sociological methods of dealing with the past. Anyway, here are the five observations I made about History’s development over the past 35 years or so:

1. I think that the move to “social history” in the late 60s early 70s was a key development, as historians moved to write histories of populations, lifestyles, and cultures using some really creative applications of quantitative method. It was the culmination of a trend that had started in the 1950s (or earlier), but using the methods of sociology to answer historical questions broadened the scope of what we considered “history” in ways that, in my own bias, I find key to our understanding of how societies and cultures move through time.

2. The move to environmental history, seeing the environment as a historical actor, and as constraining the choices of historical actors transformed the possibilities for how we understand the ultimate and proximate reasons for cultural change.

3. I like that for the most part, during the 1980s, history avoided the most irritating parts of the “linguistic turn” (i.e., poststructural criticism/theory), but am irritated that in the history of sexuality, it was overly influenced by postmodernism (especially by Foucault) and has yet to extricate itself from the most problematic parts of postmodernism’s assumptions, which actually use historicism to make unhistorical claims.

4. I think the historical profession is doing the best of all the social sciences at reaching the public. But I find academically that, like many of the social sciences, the tightening of the job market for academic historians and the glut of PhDs has produced a lot of mediocre work, as new professors are under extreme pressure to publish at all costs (like I said, I think this is a problem in all the social sciences, not just history).

5. Despite what I just said in No. 3 above, I’d like to see historians engaging more in sociological and anthropological theory and methods (again my own bias), because although I love historical method, I often find basic mistakes in historical analysis of cultural and social phenomena, given what other social scientists have been researching about how societies and cultures function. [To be fair, I likewise think that sociologists and anthropologists should be required to understand the basics of historical method and especially the researched history of their areas of research, as I often find astounding historical ignorance in social scientific research. I’m not a believer in interdisciplinary utopias, but I deifnitely think that overlapping disciplines need to be aware of the research in the other social sciences.]