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Out of Step with Queer 14 May 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mumbai 29 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Inequality & Stratification, Islam, Modernity and Modernism, Multiculturalism, War & Terrorism.
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Note: I am no expert in Indian history or politics, so this is just a casual reaction from an outside observer. I would love to hear from readers who are better informed or have deeper analyses to offer.

There is a lot of really good commentary floating around the interwebs about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, this past week, and I have been trying to sort out all the intricacies of what happened. The social scientist in me (and my base personality) goes quickly to trying to understand such an event, the structures, attitudes, and practices that would lead us to such a show of violence. Unfortunately, much of the early analysis drew facile parallels with Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism(s), but I really don’t think that works. Although global Islam is (loosely) connected, it seems that this Indian event is much more deeply tied to a particularly Indian inter-communal conflict, one that has been brewing and boiling over for decades, if not centuries. Whereas terrorism born of Saudi malcontents is anchored in an anti-modernity and anti-Americanism, that is, a long post-colonial history, it seems that the Mumbai violence, while certainly connected to British imperialism, has as much to do with internal inequalities. It looks to be a domestic terrorism only loosely (perhaps even ideologically) connected to global interactions. Although Pakistan and India are separate countries, which makes it look like an “international” affair, I think that the partition of Pakistan from India in the late 1940s is evidence of internal divisions within the subcontinent more than of an international conflict. 

To me, then, the terrorism in Mumbai looks far more like a failure of pluralism, or more pointedly, a failure of plural democracy. One of the key weaknesses at the origins of the modern state of India, which Ghandi warned of, was the imagination of India as hindu, and all others as Others. The national imagination of the Indian state wove into it the pre-existing communal conflicts between Indian muslims and Indian hindus, and really hasn’t ever allowed for a true and equal pluralism to develop. See “India’s Muslims in Crisis” by Aryn Baker for a brief primer on the status of Muslims in India.

Unfortunately, the global Ummah is made up, partially now, of a culture of terrorism, where injustices (perceived or real) are dealt with through direct violence against anyone perceived as benefiting from or participating in the oppression of muslims. It is perhaps far beyond this now, but maybe not: Is there no Ghandi for Indian Muslims? Are there no other ways for Indians to demand their full equality within the modern Indian state without resorting to violence of this kind? Or am I just naive and idealistic?

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.]

Meaning of Life, cont. 11 May 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Modernity and Modernism, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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[A cyber-aquaintence posted some questions to my meaning of life post, and I thought it might be interesting to others who read my blog.]

What are examples of adaptive, maladaptive and spandrel meanings?

Well, it’s probably easier to speak in generalities, but here’s the skinny:

1) Humans are social animals, and like all social animals, our behaviors (or mode of interacting with the environment) are necessarily also always social.

2) Meaning must be understood as much more than the cognitive-linguistic explanation of something. We tend to think of “meaning” in terms of the dictionary: a discursive, linguistic representation of an idea. However, in social-behavioristic terms, language is merely a kind of behavior: so meaning becomes the whole set of circumstances, postures, consequences of a given behavior in a particular environment. We learn what something “means” not merely by hearing a dictionary definition of the thing, but by doing, observing, experiencing the thing. [Side note: Language is very cool because it allows us to experience something vicariously and abstractly, but the brain responses are the same as if we were directly experiencing it, which is why, for example, you get butterflies watching someone else jump out of a plane.]

so 3) adaptive meanings are those which, within a given environment (which remember is both physical and social) enable survival. There are some beliefs that only peripherally relate to the physical environment, but are key to survival in the social environment. Part of survival for a social species is successful interdependence in the social group.

Maladaptive meanings are those which inhibit survival and/or reproduction in the environment. And a spandrel is a meaning that is adaptively neutral.

Think of meanings as a kind of adaptation that persist or desist in the same dynamics as physical characteristics. If the environment changes, the meanings must adapt to the new enviornment. Adaptive could become maladaptive; a spandrel could become adaptive; etc.

There are a couple professors at UC Davis who have done a series of mathematical studies and have shown that human cultures have a balance of conservative and innovative thinkers within them. If the culture is too conservative, its members will fail to adapt to a changing environment; if a culture is too innovative, its members will adopt possibly maladaptive meanings in the wrong times and places. Cognitive scientists are finding that individuals tend to lean to one side or the other, and that both sides are necessary for survival. Evolution seems to favor slightly conservation, because our lifespan is so short and because when we evolved our environments were changing so slowly, that being more or less conservative culturally ensured survival: Once you find what works, you keep it.

Also remember a key part of evolutionary theory, which seems to also apply to culture/meanings: adaptation does not select for the best possible answer. Rather, it selects for the merely good enough. This seems to be true both biologically and socially.

And what’s the reader’s digest version of how you make that evaluation? Is it simply a matter of whether it’s constructive or destructive?

John Dewey argued that you make the evaluation based on outcomes. What is the consequence of believing such a thing (or doing such a thing) and is that the outcome you want? Then there’s the meta-level where you have to argue about what you *should* want in the first place (what kind of society/physical environment do we want to establish or maintain)? That, in simple terms, is the method of evaluation.

Finally, for Joseph Smith and True Believin Mormons nowadays (and I understand those are 2 vastly different mindsets from a social scientific or any other perspective) is the “meaning” of the plan of salvation simply an adaptive meaning to give “purpose” to life and give us comfort knowing that things are fucked up on earth but everything will be perfect in the next life (if you follow the rules of course)?

To answer this question, I would stand back and think about this scientifically. JS lived in a particular time and place in America, where there were many open questions and huge problems in the environment. The U.S. was still quite young, and it was not at all clear what it would mean to be free, what a democracy was, who was a citizen, who had power and who not, etc. Further, the older folk magic of the agrarian peoples (i.e., Smith’s magic hunting) was coming into direct conflict with the explosive 2nd Great Awakening and the increasingly influential Moral reform movements; so people all over rural America were unsure about their cultures, because there was conflict within the social environment. On a broad scale, the industrial revolution was causing major disruption to the social and economic lifeways of the entire nation, displacing 10s of 1000s of people and forcing them to radically change the way they lived their lives. I cannot understate the upheaval this caused during the first 100 years of America’s existence as a nation. Finally, even though it had been 200 years since the Euroepans had started colonizing north america, the question as yet had not been answered: Where does America fit in spiritually? is it the “city upon the hill” as the Puritans thought? And if so, what exactly does that mean? Combine all this with the growing ideas of manifest destiny and westward expansion, and you have a social and cultural environment rife with the need to be explained.

JS’s ever-changing mode of understanding Christianity and his place in it was both one man’s efforts to become powerful, and an entire people’s efforts to make sense of that world. JS was an innovator, in the terms I laid out above.

As it happens, mormonism was so outside the bounds of the environment as it was, they were harried to and fro for 75 years.

I think that contemporary mormons have carried into the present all those beliefs that still manage to fill in the wholes in the environments they live in, but it’s more complicated now: Mormons today have to survive in both the American social environment (they’re no longer isolated) and among each other. And all of these meanings are circulating again in a time of great upheaval, primarily in the form of massive technological changes and globalization, which have thrown into question every fundamental belief of every culture on the planet. TBMs reactions and retrenchments now are on the conservative side (although they are adapting at break-neck speed, as we see in the major doctrinal changes occuring in the past 25 years). Mormon belief systems are pretty adaptive in our current social environment: TBMs function mostly well in society, gain prominence in general (although not the presidency), are economically stable and reproduce at an alarming rate, both sexually and proselytically.

Marxism as Religion 31 October 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Modernity and Modernism, Philosophy & Social Theory.
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The September 21st New York Review of Books carried an essay about Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski by Tony Judt, in which Judt discusses at length the philosophers thoughts on Marxism. Kolakowski likens marxism to a religion or a faith statement in its social effect, and as I rode the commuter train this morning, I had one of those Eureka moments. I have never been able to make sense of the contradictions within marxism, and between the best of Marx’s ideas and the horrific outcomes of marxism in practice. I had never fully bought the apologists’ efforts to rescue Marx from his followers and practitioners, but hadn’t been able to fully comprehend why. Kolakowski’s idea that marxism is (or I would say functions like) a religion suddenly brought it all into focus.

As a graduate student, I was introduced to more in depth look at Marx’s social thought, especially his critiques of capitalism, and I even took a course where we examined Das Kapital in depth. For sociologists, Marx is one of the founders of social scientific thought, most notably in his insistence on the centrality of social relations to ideas (ideologies) and to material outcomes, his views of social systems as complex interactions, and his belief that such systems could be understood “scientifically” (that is, through systematic observation and analysis). Surely, Marx’s social science method wasn’t well developed (we owe that mostly to Durkheim and Weber), but his ideas proved central to the growing idea in European (and eventually American) universities that human societies could be understood scientifically and planned.

Marx as social theorist is pretty narrowly read today by most sociologists who don’t specialize in Marxist criticism, focusing mostly on his analysis of capitalism as a social system. In cultural studies, 20th century dialogues with Marx’s ghost is practically a rite of passage. The obvious critiques of Marx have been made over and over, particularly his historical materialism, which so often devolves into a kind of gross determinism in Marx’s writings as to make you want to throw the whole thing out. But starting with his writings on the 18th Brummaire and culminating in Kapital, Marx had shifted to a depth of analysis of how capitalism functions to mix ideologies and social relations together (his notion of the fetishism of the commodity is fucking brilliant, and more salient today than he could have imagined). That contradiction between the irritating determinism and the powerful insights has plagued my relationship with Marx for years.

As a sociologist who sometimes studies religious cultures, I instantly felt the resonance of thinking of marxism as a religion. Anyone with the most cursory knowledge of religion knows that all religious systems are morally conflicted and internally inconsistent in their morals. The same religious system can produce massive violence and suffering in one context, and on another occasion be the source of humanity’s shining moments of compassion and healing. This contradiction makes religious cultures (that is, their symbolic contents) difficult to deal with empirically, because their effects in the social world are mixed and contradictory. Further, most world religions as they have survived today rely on texts and often on founders. Again, these founders are often the source of contradictory ideas: Jesus taught both “love they neighbor” and that his religion would tear apart families and bring violence (“the sword”); Mohamed taught both that the diversity of humans was divine, and that Arabs were god’s only people; the buddha taught that enlightenment lies within and is available to alll, but forbade women to practice or learn his methods. Of course I’m being overly simplistic here to illustrate a point, that religious systems are ethically and ideologically mixed and that the mixture can be traced back to its founders.

The apologists for Marx often try to say that his followers didn’t understand his ideas; or they argue that communism wasn’t real marxism; or they insist that communism was corrupted by a handful of corrupt men. But Kolakowski sees in Marx’s determinism, specifically his view of the Proletariat as the “true people,” the ideas of inevitability and of moral certitude necessary to create the slaughters and oppressions in 20th century communist societies. Surely, Marx was in favor of a kind of radical freedom familiar to any good libertarian, but he also held ideas that, in Kolakkowski’s words, were nearly eschatological. That is, he saw history (in a modified Hegelian framework) in a way familiar to most Christians: as moving toward a glorious, if bloody, end, and the end was Good and would bring everlasting peace and happiness, despite being preceded by violence. These ideas are indeed contained in Marx, along with his biting and incisive critique of the inequalities and suffering produced by the social relations of capital.

And so to see marxism accurately, even to be able to gleen from it what is useful to me in 2006 while rejecting what is damaging or merely wrong, I can see marxism as a religion with millions of followers who, like religious originators and their followers elsewhere, truly believed what they practiced, and had in many ways left reason at least partway behind. Marxism had become, perhaps even for Marx himself, a kind of credo, an end-in-itself, an ultimate, unquestionable Good. The assumptions within Marx’s early works can and did plausibly lead to the repressions of the Soviet state; and his critiques can and did likewise lead to the social-democracies of western Europe. I think it might be interesting to actually study ‘marxists’ and see if empirically their interactions do indeed follow religious models. To be fair, I’d also love to study some market fundamentalists, a somewhat smaller and yet infinitely more powerful crew, to see if The Market doesn’t likewise function as a faith.