GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 18, 2015

Queering the Normal, Norming the Queer: Taking Thought before the Lights Go Out

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:39 pm

What is a man? What is a woman? What is marriage? It might very well be that asking these questions, much less trying to answer them, now counts as a micro-aggression in the University of California system. The recent innovations in the gender system introduced by the LGBT, or, better, queer, movement would seem to open up these questions for scrutiny; on the contrary, they lock them down and throw away the key. The lock-down is a desperate attempt to evade the incoherence of the implicit answers proposed by proponents of same-sex marriage and defenders of the transgendered. After all, if the only differences between men and woman are culturally constructed, and if those differences exist only to perpetuate inequality between the sexes, what does it mean to “become a woman” (or man), and why is that act to be celebrated—after all, doesn’t the claim that becoming a member of the opposite sex, or realizing that one has been one all along, involves a fundamental and liberating transformation, further imply that the differences between the sexes are significant, after all? Even more, doesn’t the desire to “present” as the opposite sex imply that there are reliable markers of sexual difference? Judith Butler, back when she set Queer Theory in motion with her book, Gender Trouble, back in the 80s, made the very prescient, provocative, and to a great extent true observation that sex roles are “performed,” that such performance always involves a set of normative assumptions, while any given performance also varies from and hence destabilizes those norms. In that case, the norms can be deliberately destabilized, and in this possibility Butler saw the radical potential in what, long, long ago, was known as “cross dressing” and “drag queens.” By performing “femininity” in non-normative ways, these practices destabilized gender difference by showing off the arbitrariness and, “therefore” (this presumably logical connection is never made) oppressive character of the norms keeping them in place. Much of the left laughed at Butler’s arguments, but she has certainly been vindicated.

Still, all this might be true, and we could still imagine a biological basis for gender differences. The “reformist” version of Butler’s theory would acknowledge the claims I just worked through, and still go on to say that chromosomal, hormonal, brain, genital, etc., differences between the sexes still provides a kind of center around which all these variations of gender norms revolve and constellate. Yes, there are many ways of “being a woman” and “being a man,” and there are plenty of manly women and womanly men, and we are better and freer if we accept and even rejoice in this play of differences, and those performance artists who act out and parody what have come to be seen as unnecessarily restrictive versions of these roles are doing us a service by liberating us (in a non-coercive manner) from them. But none of that would change the fact that, left to their own devices, boys and girls and men and women will cluster around certain “male” and “female” characteristics, even if we may occasionally be surprised at what they turn out to be. Perhaps boys will someday come to enjoy feeding their dolls with bottles, and girls will become obsessed with massive toy truck collisions, but this has not happened yet, even with the best, or at least most determined, of intentions of a generation of liberalized parents. I suspect, though, that even this attempt at a compromise in the ongoing gender wars would be shot down with extreme prejudice if floated on Twitter—the cultural vandals of the left are in a take no prisoner mode, which might itself be a sign of desperation—but desperate measures are sometimes successful. The problem is that even the slightest possibility that a gun-toting, barroom brawling, alpha-male harem seeking model of masculinity, on the one hand, and a cradle rocking, stay at home, cooking and cleaning, obey your husband model of femininity, on the other hand, would in the end retain even a sliver of legitimacy presents too great an obstacle to the ambitions of the queer movement. All normative identities must be put through the victimary blender, with no exceptions, because if there is one exception, there could be another, and another, and then (as deconstructing queer theorists know very well) before long you have no rule.

As I composed the caricatures of masculinity and femininity in the previous paragraph, I noted an asymmetry—the masculine model is much more of a caricature than the feminine model. This is another way of saying that a more biologically grounded masculinity is much easier to parody, mimic, deconstruct, and so on, than a similarly grounded femininity. The norms of masculinity that have become objectionable, or obsolete, are those grounded in territorialism and the honor of the Big Man—those norms, involving boasting, bluster and intimidation, when transplanted into peaceful occupations, become ridiculous (even if not completely ineffective). But a woman completely devoted to her children, family and home can’t become ridiculous because the activities involved in such devotion still need to be performed. (Mocking such women always involves measuring them according to criteria secondary to those central to their chosen role: they are stupid, prejudiced, slavish, animal-like, etc.—in other words, they are, in a circular manner, not like the professional woman mocking them.) (The complementary male role is supporting the family economically, but that role is ambivalent, and hence an easy target of ridicule, because it often requires emasculation outside of the home, such as enduring the bullying of a boss, demeaning menial tasks, etc.) Even the modes of femininity that are more easily mimicked and caricatured (especially by the transgendered), those associated with attracting a mate precisely by exaggerating the physical features distinguishing the sexes, tend to be lovingly embodied, rather than ridiculed, by their mimics, male and female alike—because the function of attracting a mate cannot become obsolete either.

So, there are many ways of being male and female, and yet the transgendered seem to zero in on a few very specific ways. The female-to-male transgendered (who have garnered almost no attention in the current storm of interest in the matter) tend, almost invariably, to be austere, vaguely intellectual, self-contained, quiet, let’s say “nerdish”—the kind of man who mostly goes unnoticed anyway. The far more common male-to-female version, meanwhile, seems to tend toward the extravagant, adopting the most stereotyped version of a “pin-up girl” femininity. Bruce Jenner wants to dress up like a starlet and have girls’ nights out—there is no talk of a deeply rooted desire to nurture small children. He doesn’t want to be fitted out with breast pumps so he can nurse infants. This is all incredibly interesting but also, I fear, falls under the category of “micro-aggression,” because if we look too closely at these decisions and transformations we can see that they ultimately confirm, even as “exceptions to the rule,” the general “clustering” view of sex traits I presented above. Male-to-female transgenders seem to want liberation from the constraints of masculinity into a fetishized femininity focused on clothes, make-up, jewelry and theatrical flourishes—that is, the most attention grabbing features of femininity. Female-to-male transgenders, meanwhile, seem to want liberation from the intense scrutiny given to a woman’s appearance into a kind of nondescript maleness that can neutralize attention to external features. None of this is “inauthentic” or dishonest: indeed, negotiating the ways others attend to you, controlling that attention as best you can and accepting all the ways you can’t control it, is one of the fundamental and most difficult problems of life—and these solutions may be the best ones for at least some of the individuals involved. But they don’t solve the problem fundamentally, since the problem can’t be solved fundamentally—indeed, by making such dramatic changes one has made oneself an object of attention in a new way (and much depends here on how much one publicizes one’s transformations—again, it seems to me that the male-to-female variant is far more interested in the drama of the transformation itself than the female-to-male variant—which is probably why we hear so much more about the former, along with the fact that entrance into the workforce already has woman taking over many “male” characteristics, so the further transformation is not as astonishing. Of course, that would also mean that there is something inherently “reactionary” about male-to-female transgenders; perhaps something inherent victimary as well, even if it is the transition that is the central victimary category here, not the femininity). Maybe I’m wrong about much, or even all of this analysis. But that would just mean that there are better analyses, that there is more worthy of notice than I have noticed, in which case these questions of gender identification are, as I began by saying, inherently open ones.

What this would mean is that it will be impossible to police the way people speak (and therefore think) about the transgendered—since the questions are open by their nature, lashing out at those who, for example, insist on using the masculine pronoun when referring to Bruce Jenner (as far as I know, he has not yet legally changed his name, although it is perhaps a micro-aggression to note that), will simply drive the questions underground, leading them to be asked and answered in coded forms. In fact, it is very likely that we are going to see a revival of the method of writing that Leo Strauss called “writing between the lines,” and claimed characterized all philosophical writing up until the modern era. One would, for example, write an essay excoriating the retrograde refuseniks who continue to hold their ground on matters of sexual morality, and one would make a point of lampooning and attacking each and every repugnant element of their beliefs; along the way, one would give details about those beliefs that are normally not provided, one would almost unnoticeably lower the tone of one’s diatribe at strategic points, one would find ways of showing the weakness of one’s own stated or presumed beliefs, perhaps by deploring disagreements among the “transies” that highlight the incoherence of the thinking as a whole, and so on—all in order to preserve your livelihood (or even, possibly at some point down the road, avoid civil or criminal charges) while communicating with those fellow dissidents out there who know how to decode. It might be a very good discipline to recover and master. Perhaps modern openness (the principles implicit in our freedoms of speech, religion and association) was really a temporary phenomenon, more limited than we realize, and one that relied on common hopes and enemies that are no longer widely shared. Maybe the need to carve out a space of thinking against both the “people” and the “elites” is the more permanent civilized condition. And maybe it will encourage other subversive lines of thinking regarding sacrosanct categories like “democracy” and “equality.”

So, what is marriage? Part of the purpose of eliminating all relevant differences between men and women (either by eliminating the difference or declaring them irrelevant) is to quell any disquieting questions about the new definition of marriage. Which is what, exactly? The question is posed in all seriousness. Marriage used to be union between a man and a woman, implicitly (there wouldn’t have been any need to spell it out) for the purpose of grounding the link between sexuality and procreation in the shared and publicly recognized responsibility of the parties involved. So, if that understanding is now the equivalent of the Nuremberg Laws, what is the new understanding? As far as I know, a new one has not been forthcoming. In a rare highly civil conversation I recently had with an individual supportive of same sex marriage and well versed in GA and its critique of victimary politics, the following was proposed (I hope I will be representing this person’s view accurately): aside from the link between sex and procreation, marriage serves to take people off of the sexual marketplace, and explicitly signal that they are off, so as to reduce the tempestuous of that marketplace, thereby reducing the incidences of disease, licentiousness and potentially dangerous jealousy that follow from an “unregulated” sexual marketplace. This seems to me the best rationale for same sex marriage that I have seen, and the only one that I can think of that is not grounded in resentment towards the “benefits” married couples receive or the implicit condemnation of non-normative sexual practices still intrinsic to the traditional understanding of marriage. But it is problematic. The most obvious problem, one I pointed out in the conversation, is that this argument has not, in fact, been advanced by those pushing for the legal and political enforcement of same sex marriage, and for a very good reason: in leaving the firm legalistic ground of “equal rights” and wandering off into the realms of psychology and anthropology, one is left with an argument that can be accepted, rejected, or contested; and, furthermore, that can be tested over time and found wanting; or weighed against other consequences of undermining traditional marriage. In other words, it would slow the momentum of the queer movement and make it dependent upon the vagaries of civil discussion, which sometimes doesn’t go your way.

But the problems with the proposed rationale go even deeper. If marriage does indeed serve the proposed purpose, it already does so for something like 98% of the population. Are the disturbances to the social order from the sexual proclivities of that other 2% so unsettling as to require that they, as well, be incorporated? If the answer is “no,” then the argument depends upon the 98% being more concerned than we can expect them to be for the sexual morality of the other 2%. But if the answer is “yes,” that in turn raises disturbing questions, and requires us to make some distinctions. There are male homosexuals, and female. Do I really need to ask where the sexual “turbulence” comes from? Lesbians have, for a very long time, managed to arrange for relationships akin to marriage, living together for decades as “spinsters” in a manner that, to the rest of the world, seemed sisterly and unobjectionable, carving out a space of privacy and freedom while respecting the opinion of their neighbors. Such relationships have no doubt been formed among respectable “confirmed bachelors” as well, but the norm for male homosexual habits is very different. Same sex marriage, according to the rationale we are considering, is meant to solve the problem of male homosexual promiscuity. But it could only do so if the traditional understanding of marriage as monogamous and lifelong were to remain intact. Not only has this traditional understanding of marriage been steadily eroded through the sexual revolution, but it stands to reason that if we can revise the terms of marriage in one respect, we could do so in others. Indeed, why should gays conform to the terms of marriage, rather than marriage being reformed to fit the preferences of gays? In other words, same sex marriage is at least as likely to make promiscuity acceptable within marriage more generally as it is to reduce the promiscuity of male homosexuals.

So, same sex marriage does not, in fact, propose a new understanding of marriage even while it eviscerates the traditional understanding. It is easy to see how individuals wishing to form relationships would find same sex marriage beneficial, but under conditions of civil discourse it would also be recognized that the problems same sex marriage would solve could be approached and solved, or at least minimized, in other ways. So, the only rationale is the resentful one of destroying an institution and a moral tradition that excludes and demeans one. What is at stake in same sex marriage is the so far undiscussed (and, if its proponents have their way, it will remain undiscussed until it is too late, which is to say when it has become undiscussable) demand that all social discourse recognize same sex attraction as equally normal as opposite sex attraction. The feelings of a tiny minority must not simply be tolerated, respected or accommodated, but explicitly and on every occasion upon which the question arises, validated. If a parent is disappointed upon learning that his/her child is attracted to members of the same sex, that feeling must be ruthlessly uprooted, and certainly never expressed, except, perhaps, in a therapeutic setting entered into for the sake of uprooting it. Any suggestion that it is better that children be raised in a home with a mother and father must be extirpated—indeed, we must speak of “spouses” and “parents” exclusively, and not “husbands and wives,” “ mothers and fathers.” What has been taken to be the “normal” way of “acquiring” children must be given no “privileges” over any other way of “acquiring” them, which means that there is no longer to be a presumed relation of parentage between the “natural” mother and father and the child. Since marriage is no longer a natural relationship merely sponsored and regulated by the government but, rather, is a government created relationship, the relationship between parents and children is likewise to be presumed to be legitimate only upon the sufferance of the government. Of course, the state can already remove children deemed to be mistreated from the home of their parents, but the presumption remains in favor of the parents. No longer. There will be no obstacle to looking at any household, examining the options, and asking, “what is in the best interest of the children”? Is it in the best interest of, say, a sexually confused 12 year old to remain in the care of a male and female parent who not only cannot model the kind of relationship best suited (according to expert advice) to that child’s sexuality but are still evil enough to believe that gender has a basis in nature? Rather than in the home of an enlightened and welcoming gay couple who are even better able to support the child economically? Such questions will answer themselves, and our imaginations are currently far too limited to imagine what other questions will emerge.

So, there is my hate filled, homo- and transphobic diatribe. One can still say what I have written here, if one stays under the radar, that is below the threshold of the continual sweeps carried out by the social media mobs. But that threshold will continue to lower, to the point where such arguments as I have made will be unintelligible (perhaps it’s naïve to think they are still intelligible) to the vast majority of citizens of Western countries. That development will mean not so much a change in public opinion as a collective insistence upon living with lies, and stamping out any hint of the truth. And the effects will reverberate—the truth in one area of discourse threatens the lies imposed elsewhere. We can already see what similar lies on questions like race and the environment look like. But one useful lesson we have learned from the Communist devastation of Eastern and Central Europe is that people remember or re-member (piece back together) the truth, even out of the pastiche of lies they are told and forced to repeat. Those of us committed to thinking will have to draw upon the reserves of civilization available to us, upon the genres of writing and artistic production, the skill of “double-talk” a rich vocabulary and discursive equipment affords us. And we will have to get very good at it, because the victimocrats are far better at sniffing out heresy than the Catholic Church ever was. That addresses the “1984” dimension of the cultural revolution. The “Brave New World” dimension will entail recovering and inventing ways of speaking about “Nature,” as a horizon that always lies beyond technological, cultural and therapeutic interventions. In the end, we would have to believe that things have their own way of being regardless of what is done to them (and even as a result of what is done to them), and that limits what we should do to them, even if we could never state in advance what those limits are. Only if we believe that about things will we also believe it about people; and realizing that desire, resentment and an originary mistakenness informs our interventions into people will help us to mind the nature of things.

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