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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.
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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.

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.


(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.

On the Uses of History 14 June 2010

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

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.
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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.

“The Homosexuals” (CBS, 1967) 10 February 2010

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gender, Homosexuality, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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In my book The Meaning of Gay, currently in press (sorry for the shameless plug), I briefly treated the gay male response to this documentary in a section on the media and homosexuality. I had tried several ways to find and watch the documentary in its entirety, but had never been able to find it (although since then, I discovered that the TV library at UC Berkeley has it in its archive). This is a fascinating window back in time when straight America were struggling with a relatively new kind of public homosexuality. The central argument of my book is how the move to publicity and public interaction transformed the meaning of gay and more specifically the meaning of gay-maleness. When you have 45 minutes, watch this little slice in the history of homophobia from CBS 1967. Specifically, you are watching in very stark and shameless terms, the heterosexual order asserting its power to control and contain deviant sexualities through control of the meaning of homosexuality (namely, as a disease, a sin, and a crime). h/t Joe.My.God

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 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)


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.


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?


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.


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.


(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.

Theorizing Sexuality: Introduction 15 February 2009

Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Gender, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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Over the past year or so, I’ve been working to rethink my theories of sexuality and especially what I think of Queer Theory. My dissertation and forthcoming book in many ways self-consciously ignore Queer Theory, a reflection of my effort to read the past (I studied gay men in the 1960s) and draw conclusions from my qualitative data without distorting them. [One of my serious objections to the way “theory” came to be used in American scholarship since the 1970s, especially in the Humanities and in Cultural Studies, is that it is treated almost like Holy Writ that gives you foregone, ready-made conclusions to what you are studying.] 

My primary purpose is to re-theorize one of the primary problematics that concerns Queer Theory, which is the nearly self-evident fact that humans are incredibly diverse sexually, from practices to beliefs to their emotional self-awareness of sexual matters. On the surface there seems to be almost nothing uniting human beings sexually, which leads many (not least of which, Foucault) to reconfigure Freud’s notion of “polymorphous perversity” into a sort of panoply of human sexual practices. Now any social scientist or humanist worth their salt would say that sexuality is a complex (some would even say, ultimately unknowable) relationship of the biological with the cultural/social. But, if you’ll indulge an unsubstantiated observation, the implication in this scholarship is nearly always that the social is dominant, and maybe even determining; in worst cases, the biological/medical data is rejected as having come out of the power-discourse of “Science” [scare quotes on purpose] and therefore is unreliable. [I’m throwing this out without an extensive review of the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment, here; this is only a blog afterall.] Much social theory (and Queer Theory in particular) has remained stuck in the old nature-nurture debates, and has been, at least since Franz Boas, firmly on the side of nurture.

Given the growing amount of research into sexual desire and behavior coming from physical anthropology, biology, genetics, ethology, medicine, and even psychology, it seems that a re-theorizing of sexuality is in order. The old Nature-Nurture model is utterly inadequate framework to understand any human phenomenon, not just sexuality. Having been highly influenced by William James, George H. Mead, and John Dewey’s (and by proxy, Charles Pierce’s) efforts to reconfigure the meaning of “nature”, I will be arguing here in a series of blog posts for something more integrated that seems to follow more easily from both the biological and the social/cultural data.

1) I think that social and cultural scholarship risks becoming obsolete if it doesn’t take seriously the research in genetics, ethology, etc., concerning sexuality.

2) In order to retheorize sexuality successfully, it requires a full rejection of the nature-nurture dichotomy. Although I’m not keen on using biological metaphors, it might be useful to begin with the concept of “phenotype” from genetics, where any trait (including behavioral and phenomenological) can only emerge from a constant, inextricable transaction between genes and environment. Dewey theorized this throughout the 1920s, for humans, as coming from an evolutionary history where our social environments are our environments. This jibes with current scholarship in human evolution, where it appears that the evolution of our behaviors and brains is directly connected to the environmental pressures of a complex social environment. In sum, my base assumption here is going to be that bodies (brains, hormones, genitals, genes, nerves, senses) are inextricably connected to environment (physical, object world; climate; food; world of social interaction; symbolic world of meaning). I want to emphasize here that the social world itself cannot exist without the bodies from which it emerges and are limited by the potentialities of the bodies involved. Both bodies and environment exist only in and through the other. So far, this is probably not all that revolutionary if you’re coming from the biological side of study; but from the social constructed side, this can have major implications for research and, in this case, our theories of sexuality.

3) Clearly, Western languages (i.e., English) is weighted down with 2500 year history of assumptions about the special place of “mind” or human consciousness outside of the natural world. So language is going to be a barrier here. One of my goals over the coming months will be to work out how to actually have this discussion in English without evoking all the precisely wrong connotations from the words we must necessarily use. 

4) A positive theory (yes, I really did just say “positive”, and I’m doing it to provoke reactions, on purpose) of sexuality, one which assumes the body-environment transaction, must also account for change over time, that is, for history. At present, history now stands more or less as proof of social construction of sexuality. But I will be arguing that history is better seen as evidence of the body-environment transaction.

5) Queer Theory (and social theories of other things, such as race and ethnicity) often fail to account for what exactly is being socially constructed. When we say, “It’s socially constructed”, what exactly is the antecedent “it”? Is it a concept? A phenomenon? An event? A qualia? And having assumed that “it” is socially constructed, Queer Theory (if you’ll excuse again a sweeping generalization) never accounts for the limits on that construction, other than social/cultural limits.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be using this blog as a means to work through these evolving ideas of mine. I welcome feedback and pushback from serious readers with whom I can hone, change, develop my ideas. To be clear, you don’t have to be a scholar to participate: layfolk and students should also dive right in to the discussion with questions and comments.

Please remember that these are ideas-in-process, so approach the discussion as open-ended and exploratory.

Here are, so far, the topics that I hope to treat in upcoming posts, in no particular order:

  • Category of ‘sexuality’ itself (origins, usefulness, limists)
  • accuracy of “orientation” as a category
  • Gender: Women, sexual desire, and sexual identity
  • social institutions and embodied desire
  • changeability and fluidity of desire within a lifetime
  • untangling normative from descriptive in studies of sexuality
  • mistaking discourse for the thing itself in sexuality studies
  • history & sexuality (Foucault, here we come)
  • theorizing the biology-culture-social connection in empirical human sexual behavior and sexual qualia (i.e., desire and sensation)

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.