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“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.]

Teaching Religious Studies 14 October 2009

Posted by Todd in Uncategorized.
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I am teaching a bit out of my expertise this semester a course on the interaction of religion and politics in the United States. I expected conflict with believers in the course, but was unprepared for resistance from non-believers (I don’t really know why; probably because personally I come from a religious upbringing). Several of my students are frustrated with the course because we are not criticizing or evaluating or judging the beliefs and practices of the religions we are studying. I have chosen to focus the class on a social scientific course until the last couple weeks of the semester, so I have been trying to get them to understand how adherence to a religion occurs, the kinds of experiences that it produces, and then how they act in the public sphere as a result. But the frustration of about a quarter of the students is mounting, so I felt I needed to address it directly. This is a letter I sent to them in preparation for a discussion I hope to have in class next week; writing the letter forced me to think carefully about my approach and the problematics of religious studies in general, so I thought it would be worth posting to the blog.

Several of you have come to talk to me in my office, and I’ve received a couple emails about the class, and yesterday [student] bravely raised objections publicly in class.  It feels like it’s time to revisit the purpose and method of the academic study of religion and what exactly our project is in our study of how religion and politics interact in American culture. What follows is a high-level, meta-theoretical discussion; but my experience with you as a class over the past month and a half tells me that you are capable of having this conversation, if you put in a little time to work at it.


To begin, as I’ve noted in class, there are two extreme positions possible in the academic study of religion, both of which impede our ability to study and understand a human phenomenon. On one hand, believers tend to think both that there is an exterior spiritual reality and that their version of that supernature reality is the Right One and that it is True. This leads to two problems: a) believers tend to start evaluating or judging other religious beliefs and people based on their own beliefs; and b) they tend to be incapable of social-scientific analysis because they refuse to see the social, interactional origins of religion. On the other hand, non-believers have risks of their own in the social scientific study of religion, because they begin with the assumption that religious truth claims are false and therefore religion is not in itself worthy of study. This leads to a significant analytic problem: non-believers tend to get so caught up in refuting the truth claims religions make that they render themselves incapable of a detached, social scientific study of the beliefs or the people who believe them.


I feel like there are some fundamental misunderstandings going on for some of you. To clarify and address these, let me reiterate the assumptions of the social scientific study of religion:

1) Religion is a social practice, that is, it’s something that people *do*. Religion is, then, actually analogous to “politics”, “education”, “art”, etc. Each of these human practices, however, has particular characteristics that make it different from the others; these different characteristics can be both how people *do* them (their behavior), what people *believe* about them (their minds), and what people *feel* about them (their experience). To be clear, both “art” and “religion” are social practices, but they have different characteristics that push us to put them in different categories and study them separately.

2) Therefore, contrary to religious belief, the “sacred” is made by people; that is, it’s an emergent property of human interaction, a creation of human interaction and experience. The “sacred” is *not* an empirical object, thing, person, or phenomenon of any kind; nor is the “sacred” in any way exterior or beyond or different from the human minds and bodies that make it.  In this way, the “sacred” is similar to “democracy”; it is something people make and do. But as I noted above, it is also different from other kinds of social constructions, namely because it creates a different kind of mental state, which is empirically observable and measurable by neurologists and cognitive scientists. So the “sacred” is made and created by humans through their interaction with each other and the enviornment, and it produces a particular kind of mental experience. To say this differently, to study the sacred is to study how people make the sacred; to call something sacred is to name a particular, social, human practice. Saying that you can’t call human religious behavior “sacred” because it isn’t real or true is like saying that I can’t call a sculpture or a painting “art” because art is a social construction and not real or true outside of its cultural/social context.

3) There is a fundamental, eminently important, and huge distinction to be made between, on one side, the scientifically verifiable fact (what Durkheim calls a “social fact”) that human beings create religions and have religious experiences (i.e., they make the “Sacred” and experience it); and on the other side, the claims that believers make that their religion is True, and that their experience of the sacred is Real. Those are NOT the same thing.

This bears repeating: The social fact that humans create the “sacred” through social interaction is empirically true; whether or not the truth claims made by religion are true is a completely different question.


So what is the goal of a religious studies course? What is the purpose of studying religion social-scientifically? And what exactly is the object of study?

To be honest, this depends on the approach that you’re taking. For example:

a) A biologists would be concerned with evaluating the truth claims of a particular religion regarding the origins of life. That is, a biologist would be comparing the evidence available with the claims made by a religion to see if they have scientific value.

b) A humanist might study the aesthetic or philosophical value of the beliefs and practices of a religion. Are they beautiful? Are they philosophically worthwhile? Are their beliefs “true”, useful, human?

c) A social scientist would be interested in religion as a social phenomenon, as an aspect of human behavior and belief systems arising out of their interaction in and with the world.

Each of those three examples have their own advantages and disadvantages. I’m clearly a sociologist, so I’ve been framing the class in that historical/social scientific mode. But there are problems in doing so. For example, if you have a particular political value and it is contradicted by the religious actions of the people we are studying, it could feel really unsatisfying to be focused on the question of how and why they are doing what they are doing, when you want to evaluate and refute their beliefs.


Ethics and responsibilities. In social science method, there is often a discussion about what if any ethical responsibility you have to the people you are studying. Are you obligated, for example, to leave their beliefs unexamined? Is examination, evaluation, and criticism of their beliefs and practices unethical or harmful to them? But this also bleeds into other problems; If you are engaged in criticizing a people’s beliefs, are you capable of actually studying them, of fully understanding them at all? On the other hand, are there situations when a people’s beliefs or practices ethically require you to judge and refute them?

Social-Scientific Relativism: Methodologically speaking, researchers/students must acknowledge and be aware of their own values and world views, these must be brought into consciousness and addressed, or it will inevitably distort the results of your study. That is, researchers are ethnocentric, and at the base level, they must confront and, as much as is possible, lay aside their own values in order to understand people who are different from them. This should be reinforced by colleagues and experts who can often point out our biases when we are blind to them. It is, as all things are, a social process that moves toward an end-in-view that we never fully get to. But it is a worthwhile and fruitful goal to work toward.

How do you study people you don’t like or who you think are full of shit? That is really the fundamental question for some of us in this class, myself included. In the next section of the course, you see that we will be studying people who are actively involved in the political sphere attempting to keep me and people like me from full and equal participation in the American democracy. In many ways, they are my political enemies. This goes well beyond whether or not I believe in the supernatural. So the question remains: How do you study people you don’t like or who are enemies? And further, is it even worthwhile to do so?  To say this yet another way, is there any value to a detached, social-scientific approach to studying religion that we find abhorrent, wrong, or evil?


For next week: Please come to class prepared to discuss the following questions.

a) what exactly is the object of study in a class on religion and politics in America? What should be our object of study?

b) how can you maintain the distinction between social fact of religion and the truth claims that religions make?

c) what is the goal of our study? why are we even engaged in this project in this course?

d) what, if any, ethical obligations do we have to the people we are studying?

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)

Obama’s Inaugural Speech 20 January 2009

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Politics.
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I listened to it live and have re-read it twice. I think it deserves a place among the best presidential speeches in American history. Maybe not Lincoln’s 2nd or FDR’s 1st, but pitch perfect for the time and place.

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land—a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America—they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions—that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act—not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions—who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works—whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account—to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day—because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control—and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart—not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort—even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West—know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment—a moment that will define a generation—it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends—hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed—why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Is there a future for liberal arts education? 20 January 2009

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education.
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If Stanley Fish and his former student now professor Frank Donoghue are right, there is no future. We are on a train to nowhere, killed by American values and anti-intellectualism.  I really wish I hadn’t read Stanly Fish’s latest missive wherein he traces the history of the slow but steady decline of the humanities. It’s not pretty. But I fear that he is correct.

I think that it’s actually even worse than Dr. Fish predicts: The social sciences are equally underfunded and even some of the sciences, especially biological and theoretical sciences are likewise shrinking and for, in my opinion, similar reasons. Or if they aren’t shrinking, they are moving and shifting to a market instrumentality (e.g., genetics research yes, but for instrumental purposes, not for knowledge or understanding).  

I also think that the switch to an adjunct faculty across the higher education landscape spells the end (eventually) of universities as locales of research and pursuit of knowledge. The contingent faculty (of which I was a part for 5 years; I was one of the very few lucky ones who ever get into a tenure-line position) are both the effect of the diminution of the ideal of “the higher education” and harbingers of its death. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been in those trenches and it is hard work and thankless and low-paid and demeaning on so many levels. But by its very nature, it requires adjuncts to usually teach on multiple campuses and they are nearly always relegated to the very classes that are seen as the basic need for people to graduate (e.g., college writing courses) and not the courses that push forward the idea of yesteryear’s college and university. Adjuncts, no matter how hard they work or try, are outside of the institution that exploits them, and even when they feel they have a stake in their departments and classes, structurally they are excluded from participating in the building of their programs, curricula, majors, etc. And don’t even think about trying to research and publish and keep up in your field if you must commute between three campuses to teach five courses just to make enough money to pay the rent.

I already teach in an environment that is completely focused on results-oriented education (i.e., degrees as qualification for employment, with the budgetary lines a stark reminder of where the institution’s priorities lie: engineering and business).  And I don’t think my experience is unique.

I have read elsewhere and still wonder if really the best future way to organize things is to divide professional education from liberal arts education. My reservation with that, however, is that I firmly believe that people working in business or engineering *should* be deeply educated in the liberal arts as well. America already suffers from a culture of people who think that market instrumentality and personal well-being are the end-all and be-all of their existence.

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. 

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?

Is Marriage the Containment, Once and for All, of Homosexuality? 14 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Gender, Inequality & Stratification, Microsociology/Social Psychology, Queer Theory.
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A common thread in queer critiques of gay rights movements is that the aims of the movement are moving us toward a domestication or containment of our queerness, of the things that make us different and interesting in the first place. I have mixed feelings about these criticisms. 

On one hand, Michael Warner’s argument in The Trouble with Normal really resonate with my own sensibilities of the beauty and the possibility of queer culture and gay relationships (see also Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy). I worry that the movement’s goals are about conformity and respectability, rather than about the freedom to be different and, well, queer. My own research concludes that what makes gay community and culture possible are the social spaces necessary for gay people to work out the meanings of their difference with each other, rather than in relationship to the dominant heterosexual norm. I argue that one of the key areas of weakness in the current iteration of gay rights movement is that it seeks integration into the dominant culture, and ignores the necessity for queer spaces in their own right. If there are no more queer social spaces, there are no more contexts within which queers can create their own culture. Remember, culture is an emergent property of social interaction; without interaction, there is no culture. Do we really want to just blend in and accept the terms of ‘normality’ from the dominant? Is my desire for men nothing more than a quirk that can fit into the hegemonic American Dream?

There are at the practical level significant problems, sociologically speaking, with my position. Namely, the kind of social spaces, whose loss I bemoan, and the kind of emergent culture they produce, have historically happened oppositionally. That is, they happen because there was a need in the social environment for their creation. Or to say it yet another way, in my research, gay men formed social spaces and cultures because they needed to in their context in history. Could it be that to maintain gay male difference, for example, you must live in a homophobic or heteronormative society? If there is no institutional or social mountain to climb, is there still a difference worth fighting for? In some ways, this will be a question of history. You can look at places like Sweden which has integrated homosexuality to a great degree, so that there are virtually no queer spaces at all in the country: Then we can ask the question, are there still differences? If not why not? If not, should there be?

But since culture is emergent and context specific, is it even the right focus to mourn the loss of cultural practices that arose in different contexts and that may no longer be useful or meaningful in the current environment?  Because culture is nothing more nor less than the production of meaning that is useful to the group in a specific setting, should our critical focus be preserving a culture within a changed context? [I believe these questions must be asked of other minority groups as well, not just queer culture.]

There are still more levels to delve through. Warner is but one among many who argue that marriage is the wrong battle to wage. But we are left with two important empirical considerations: 1st and foremost, the liberal democracy distributes social goods based on institutions, in this case marriage, which means that when the legal definition of marriage excludes same-sex relationships, it necessarily distributes those goods unequally; and 2nd, because marriage is a part of a the current social environment and it carries significant cultural weight, across race, ethnic, class, and religious lines, it is an object of desire for many (most) people in the society.

On the first point, many activists argue that the institution of marriage should be eliminated altogether, not only because it excludes homosexual pairings, but because it has a long history of sexist and racist effects. Marriage has been a tool of containment for women, specifically controlling their bodies and reproduction and limiting their public participation and status. The cultural spectre of marriage has been used in many different ways to maintain racial categories and in their effect the subjugation of African Americans (think: social gospel movement, eugenics, contemporary debates about “welfare queens”, etc., not to mention anti-miscengenation). So should the government just scrap marriage altogether? Should we as a society just jettison the institution because it cannot be clensed of its past and/or because it still is used as a tool to maintain social boundaries and control the flow of social power? [A similar question has been asked at a much larger scale if liberal democracy itself should be overthrown for similar reasons.]

On the second point, we have to deal with the thorny issue of people’s desires, why the desire them, if those desires are ethically acceptable, if they should be allowed to consummate them. Clearly, this should be of utmost importance to queer thinkers, as our whole modus operandus revolves around the consummation of desires, sexual and otherwise. In traditional critical theory, the world revolves around, in some form or another, “false consciousness”, the belief that people who desire “bad” things are duped or ignorant, but that if they could only be made to “see” would desire something else. In this specific case, it means telling gay men and women and other queers, transsexuals and bisexuals, that if they desire to be wed, they are complicit in their own oppression, they do not understand, or that they are morally or intellectually inferior.

Both points are powerful, but both points leave me unsatisfied. Both points seem to rest on deeply flawed understandings of where meaning comes from in human populations, how social institutions arise and change over time, and the irreducibility of the connection of human meaning (and desire) to the context within which is emerges. Maybe I’m too past graduate school for this kind of critique, because it just seems to treat the question in ideal (in some ways Hegelian/Marxian) terms, disconnected from on-the-ground reality, with how societies build and maintain social structures and the degree to which state power can be coercive or not, without regard to the degree to which power flows in the other direction, and without accounting for the connections between institutions and meaning making by those who are supposedly oppressed by the institutions. It also risks lapsing into that “radical” netherworld where institutions are bad per se. It ignores that all institutions, no matter how they are constituted, both enable *and* foreclose possibilites, including whatever social institutions would fill the vaccuum after the state sanctioned marriages are removed. Importantly, all institutions bring with them a concomitant resistance, regardless of our personal political stance on the institution. To make an anti-marriage argument on the grounds that an institution has negative consequences seems nearly childlike in its naivete.

The brief piece “No State Regulation of Families”, while pointing to disturbing and important historical power-relations in marriage, also relies on an assumption that marriage (and by extension all social institutions) are static and unchanging, as if marriage in 2008 is the same thing as it was in 1808. I don’t think the authors actually think that, but their argument assumes that, as if the very humans who live and breathe within that institution don’t push against it and transform it constantly, both at the micro-, individual social level and at the macro level of overall constitution of the institution. Marriage isn’t essentially or inherently oppressive merely because it has been so in the past. Marriage is simply a category of a kind of social institution that humans have created in innumerable ways to organize relationships and structure society; but they have always then moved with and against it, to transform it over time so that it has evolved to meet differing needs in different contexts. You could argue that marriage is a particularly stubborn institution, particularly slow to change; yet you can’t argue that it is the same or that it oppresses in the same ways as the past.

There is some truth to the idea that gays wanting to get married works to conservative advantage and is in part a domestication of gay/queer culture. In fact, it’s true enough that it scares the shit out of me. Yet it ignores the opposite flow of power, which is that by their very insistance on participation in the institution, same-sex couples have and are dramatically changing the institution itself, how its power is constituted and how it constrains and enables behavior and meaning. One clear example is that queers, legally married or not, continue to negotiate the sexual boundaries of their relationships, rather than merely excepting sexual exclusivity as a norm. Another example is how male couples tend to negotiate and consciously arrange their finances in a range of ways that undermine the kinds of power marriage has had historically on unequal economies within the relationship.

Many anti-gay-marriage analyses also often have the problem that always comes from a kind of false-consciousness critique: Somehow, ethnic and racial minorities (and of course gay folks) who desire marriage and/or who want marriage are duped, that their desires are somehow less authentic or coerced. If blacks, for example, only saw that “traditional marriage” were deployed against them, they would no longer want to be married. Yet what African Americans have done for generations is insist on the validity of their own formations of marriage and family relations; while simultanesouly demanding the recognition of the state with all its accompanying rights and privileges. And yet in the social context within which all of these people live, marriage is one of the terms of social participation. That is, marriage already is, and so categories of people who have been oppressed by the terms of marriage (e.g., slaves who were married until “physically separated”, or women who were economically dependent on husbands) or who were excluded from it (e.g., interracial couples and same-sex couples) will naturally engage “marriage” as a cite of social transformation, rebellion, and change; and it necessarily involves a tension between wanting in and wanting it to be different once they are in. They redefine the institution necessarily by their very participation in it.

In an odd way, I believe arguments against gay marriage almost give too much power to marriage as an institution (and by extension to all social institutions), oversimplifying the flows of power and constant cultural change and transformation.