Friday, September 4, 2009

I Was Loud By Your Lows (so many creature fears)

(For J.)
I've been thinking about the sex/gender distinction a lot recently. I'm reading Drucilla Cornell's "Beyond Accommodation"--a Derridean reading of Lacan at its most powerful--and just finished Michael Warner's "The Trouble With Normal". Needless to say, the former is far superior to the latter. But still, both books attempt to get at the problem of "naturalized" or, in philosophical parlance, "essentialized" gender roles. Briefly, a naturalistic or essentialized account of gender takes recourse to anatomy, to "sex," to account for the "proper" actions of a gendered subject. Thus, the logic goes, a man, because he has a penis, desires a woman, sleeps with her, and towards the end of reproduction. The gendered "male" is a man insofar as he, by virtue of his anatomy, is directed by his anatomy to sleep with the "proper" sexual object, a woman, and for the purposes of reproduction. This is, obviously, immensely problematic. But let's attend to what makes such a notion problematic in the first place. After all, it wasn't so long ago that the idea of a difference between "sex" and "gender" was a radical idea--a radical idea we now are the beneficiaries of, and which we have the privilege of taking for granted.

Sex, it was once thought, to be "male" or "female," issued forth from anatomy itself. In a strange way, then, we can now--from the vantage point of contemporary queer and feminist theory--see that the body itself, the natural corpus, the text of the lived life, was always already moralized: a certain body "naturally" does certain things and with certain other bodies (never the same kind of body, a "homo" body). Plato, for instance, gives voice to this fantasy of biological determinism in the Symposium when he, through the voice of the comedic playwright Aristophanes, tells the myth of two bodies, once unified but split by Zeus, longing for reconciliation, for a re-joining that would complete them or fill the absence of the Others loss. That a penis fits into a vagina, the story was appropriated into saying, proves that the "rightful" union of two divided lovers is between a man and a woman. (Needless to say, this reading, so prevalent in Western civilization that my own gay mentor was taught by his [straight] mentor to "pass over the disgraceful indulgences of the Greeks," elides--actively erases--from the Symposium the very inclusion of gay and lesbian pairings articulated by Plato himself.) Of course, Plato interjects, in the voice of Socrates: just because the Other is your "other half" does not mean he or she is good for you: a person has been known to amputate a diseased arm because it is no-good, regardless of whether or not it is a "part of him". That is, and with an appeal to the body itself (to a certain form of [Nietzschean] naturalism), Plato introduces the necessity of ethical or moral or political standards or judgments into the idea of the "health" of the body: just because it "seems" to "fit" doesn't mean that the myth Aristophanes tells is binding: your other half, or what you are meant to take your other half to be, could be a gangrene appendage. Something other than simple biology, Plato is saying, must aid in deciding who the Other that will be your "compliment" will be.

For gays, and I speak in what follows from the perspective of a gay man, the problem of the distinction between "sex" and "gender" is particularly troublesome. Because the common understanding of sexuality is understood within the context of a heterosexual alignment of man/woman the idea that a man could love and fuck another man throws the whole concept of "sexuality" into chaos. Who is the man? people ask. Who is the, you know, the one who fucks? they ask. These questions, which for any gay man who speaks frankly about his pleasures are common-place, belie a deep-seated acceptance of a gendered assignment of sexual roles, so deep-seated that they seem natural: to be the man, this logic thinks, means to be the one who fucks. To be a woman, conversely, is to be the one who is fucked. Restated in philosophical language, the distinction between "masculine" and "feminine," between "fuck-er" and "fuck-ed," is phrased in the context of "active" vs. "passive". To be a man, it is understood, is to be the active penetrator, the fuck-er, rather than the fuck-ed. To be a man means to stick your penis into something (a woman!), to actively penetrate.

Thus, to be a man who enjoys and who takes pleasure in being fucked is to be the logical equivalent of a woman--at least by the logic of sexuality. (And I mean by 'sexuality' "heterosexuality" which only ever speaks of its Others with qualifiers--"pathological sexuality," "perverse sexuality," "homo-sexuality," "trans-sexuality"--which, as it were, takes itself as the norm that must distinguish itself through a series of ever increasing qualifiers from the "aberrations" of itself: "sexuality" always already presupposes "heterosexuality" upon which every other sexuality is but a derivative, and a less than worthy derivative thereof.) When my boyfriend says, with me, "I'm a gay man, I like to get fucked in the ass" we disrupt, we--as it were--fuck with the very logic of gendered sexual roles. We expose, with our pleasures, with our affirmation of our pleasures, the lie that grounds the logic of gender as determined by sex. As men, so the story goes, we are not men if we, as men, get fucked. Then we are women. But we say, and live, otherwise.

In the wake of the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, a movement which relied in no small measure on exposing the hypocrisy of White discrimination and demanding consistency, the Woman's and Gay and Lesbian Movements took recourse to a very politically potent weapon the Black movement made use of: biological determinacy. Before addressing the appropriation of this logic by gays, lesbians, and feminist women let's first attend to the logic Blacks used in their struggle. It is, first of all, a logic that directly appeals to a theological conception of "man" as the creation of God and thus equal: we are all children of God, and made in his likeness. Therefore, how can a Black man be any less worthy of divinely imbued dignity than a White man imbued with the same divinely imbued dignity? (It is no unimportant fact that MLK Jr. was a Reverend.) This line of argumentation dissipated, however, but what remained was the "fact of Blackness": I was born this way, I had no control over the pigmentation of my skin, and because of this, because of my being victim to the event of my birth as a Black person, you (you White folk) cannot rightly hold me accountable for all that "Blackness" means. An appeal not to God but to genetics is made in this case to justify the a-responsibility of being born Black: lack of control, being "fated" to "Blackness", contains within it a moral imperative for Whites to not discriminate.

In the same way gays and lesbians have made the same appeal to a perverse sense of biological determinism: I never asked for this, the logic reads, I was born this way: I had no choice, just like a Black person had no choice over the color of their skin! The analogy between race and sexuality allows the following point to emerge with brilliant clarity: being gay or Black is only something someone has to excuse or justify through recourse to lack of choice when the norm, the ideal, is White or straight. The logic, as it reads, says nothing more than this: If I could, I would be you--White, straight, male--but I was born this way--Black, gay, female/queer--and I can't help that I can't be "right"/"proper". Therefore, the logic continues, take pity of me. Don't discriminate, don't call me nasty names, don't beat me up, don't look disgusted or afraid when you see me: I can't help that I'm different, that I'm not like you. This logic amounts, ultimately, to an appeal to the privilege of the so called "Normal" (White, Straight, Male) population to not hold us freaks to their impossible standards, all the while promising with everything we are that we freaks will try to be normal--at least as best we can.

The question that strikes me is this: Why are we making any such appeal to "Normal" for pity, for allowance in their otherwise pristine world (if not for the appearance of us freaks), for permission to be who we are and to pursue the pleasures we enjoy? I think the answer to this question is to be found in the very same impulse that gives rise to the question in the first place: an acceptance of a biological determination of sexuality. The logic reads: Just like a Black man has no control over his skin pigmentation (though, to a limited extent certainly, he can determine what that pigmentation means) a gay man has no control over his desires: he is the victim of his homosexuality in a Straight World just as a Black man is victim to his skin color in White World. I reject the notion that to be gay or to be Black is to be a victim. I think, instead, the very impulse which seeks out such a refuge always already accepts that Straight or White is what is Normal, right, and proper.

Thus, I think about defending gay sexuality, but not exclusively gay sexuality, outside the context of the Black Civil Rights Movement and its tactics of justifying inclusion on the grounds of theological, and thereby biological, determinism. I am not a child of god, and even if I was born this way, this isn't a "defect" that needs to be accommodated: politically, and psychically, speaking biology has nothing to do with my oppression, with my frustration, with my confusion, or my sadness.

I, instead, ask the obvious question, which I alluded to above: why do I need to justify my pleasures, my body, my lover to you, Normal? What makes you, Normal, so pristine that everyone around you needs to legitimate themselves before they can just live? These questions (and there are so many more--just ask a wounded queer of their rage and pain) are decidedly political insofar as they strike at the public and socially accepted ordering of our bodies and our pleasures. Fundamentally, it is a question of where you can hold your boyfriends hand without fear of backlash. That is, it is a question of appearance in the public realm: who can and cannot "properly"/"appropriately" appear. It is a series of questions that invert the hierarchy of power: instead of "Normal" demanding of me that I justify my appearance on its scene, I ask of "Normal" why it presumes to legitimately dominate and order the scene in the first place. Instead of "Normal" "accepting" me so long as I'm no "too obvious" with my boyfriend I ask why "Normal" can be as obvious as it likes to be without fear of social punishment. Instead of keeping my desires and affections silent, I ask "Normal" why it can declare "I'd totally fuck her" with impunity, without fear of reproach. That is, in inverting the direction of power, I thereby empower myself: I can ask the questions now, and you, "Normal," have to answer up: now "Normal" has to defend itself.

Usually when such questions are posed, when answers are demanded, recourse to a naturalistic determinism is made: "Normal" is normal because that is how we are made, we are born this way: boys are supposed to sleep with girl: it's nature, that's how babies are made, the continuation of the species and all that. It's funny how when Normal wishes to justify itself it elides pleasure all together: no mention is made of how the act of sex might feel good, might be enjoyable. (Notice how when Normal is in the "hot seat" it retreats to the same tired position as queers: it denies its pleasures on the basis of a victimization, only that Normal happens to be "the right kind of victim".--Could not our shared status as victims to a restrictive Law of what is normal, ordered around a pleasureless functionalism, serve as the basis of our commonality? More on that in a moment...) Instead there is a retreat to a bare functionalism: sex is such only to the end of reproduction. Indeed, most straight people can't appeal to pleasure because there are, following the logic of sexuality, a whole host of pleasures they could (and probably would) enjoy that are denied to them: to defend their sex on the basis of pleasure would already be to start sliding down the slippery slope of de-naturalizing the gender roles they so adamantly need to defend. Freud, when he speaks to so called "perversions," includes kissing, looking, masturbation, oral and anal sex, and touching in the realm of "perversions" of the norm of reproductive, functional, naturalistic sex: such play is about pleasure, not "sex". Of course, Freud's "list" (as it were) is in the service of subverting the very concept of "Normal," to expose the "normal" (give or take) sexual acts that almost everyone engages in that fails to meet the standards of Normalcy.

Also, usually, such questions are never even allowed to be posed. Violence against gays and lesbians (and those who look a bit too queer for comfort) is aimed at not the actual being of the feared homosexual but rather the questions their very bodies pose to "Normal". The insult, the punch, the look of disgust: these are only ever defensive acts of effecting a distance between oneself and the feared Other: with the insult, strike, or disgusted look a gulf opens up, and that gulf keeps Normal safe from the challenges of the questions the very body of the freakish Other poses: What, after all, make you normal? A question the only answer to is either, "Nothing" or the debasement of the very desires and pleasures the answerer might feel in the reduction of sex to mere functionality. Why is it that Normal (or, rather, those who claim to fit into "normalcy") would rather preemptively silence the Other than face the challenge of a question of their normalcy? Doesn't this impulse speak volumes of the fragility of the very concept of Normal, a concept so fragile it cannot allow itself to challenged? In a certain sense, doesn't the vehement opposition to the appearance of us freaks on the scene belie, in fact illuminate, the very breaking-point that Normal is afraid it is being pushed towards? But still, why the need to silence the Other, why the fear of a "breaking point" the occasion of queers on the scene seems to threaten?

I don't as of yet have an adequate answer to this question. The critique, as it were, ends with this unanswered question, leaving in its wake a serious challenge to Normal on the one hand, and the prospects of a way of life that can exist "within" Normal while resisting normalcy on the other. For, while "Normal" may not exist and may not be able to justify itself--and I thereby answer what were, ultimately, a series of rhetorical questions--this does not enable the belief that now "everything is permitted." The loss of the norm, of "Normal," does not entitle us to act without constraint. Nor, more to the point, does it legitimate violence--whether physical or otherwise--against straight people, or one another as queers. Rather, with the rejection of Normal what remains are still the questions: what remains is oneself as a subject who poses, and who is subject to, questions, to critique. It is not enough, that is to say, to simply live in opposition to Normal; one must also challenge oneself with the same intensity that one challenges Normal. When Socrates is about to face death he strokes the hair of the young Phaedo who, anticipating the loss of his friend and exemplar is already in mourning, and says: the real loss, young Phaedo, would be to let the conversation die, to stop asking questions. The death of Normal does not thereby mean that the questions Normal poses for us, just as the questions Socrates posed for Phaedo, disappear: we can reject the norms of Normal without thereby being free of the questions born of that rejection. Indeed, so long as the traces of Normal are always with us--we cannot leave our homes without seeing is effects everywhere!--so too must we remain questioning, and questionable, subjects.

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