19 February 2009

The Crisis, Duty and Sexuality, Vol. 2: Putting the Queer Shoulder to Obama’s Inaugural Address

America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Allen Ginsberg, “America” (1956)
In the first part of this little mini-series of posts, I commented on a peculiar Russian video that encourages young viewers to respond to the historic call of their nation in its time of need by becoming productive workers, planning a family and building a strong country. Aside from the particular ham-handed manner in which the agit-prop was delivered, such injunctions should be familiar, I think, to pretty much every inhabitant of the modern world.

In his 1985 study, Nationalism and Sexuality, the eminent historian of political culture George Mosse explored these connected ideas of nationalism, duty, respectability and sexuality:
Analyzing the relationship between nationalism and respectability involves tracing the development of some of the most important norms that have informed our society: ideals of manliness ... and their effect on the place of women; and insiders who accepted the norms, as compared to the outsiders, those considered abnormal or diseased.
A few pages later he turned his attention to how these norms were translated into imperatives, or "common duties of life":
Sexual relations between men and women were stripped of sensuousness; marriage and the family were to be based on the joint practice of piety. Sins, real or imagined, were to be atoned through the single-minded concentration on one's vocation in life.
What does such a vision of pious respectability and nationalism look like? Allow me to quote at length:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

Our journey has never been one of shortcuts 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 Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.

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.

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.

...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.
Now, I know that I might be mishearing--or selectively hearing--the message. I might be getting caught up on little bits of language that call for manly sang-froid, sacrifice and endurance (despite Obama's choice of gender inclusive examples). But I tell you truthfully that when I first listened to these passages I felt a familiar suffocating sensation. What I heard Obama saying to me was this: “Don’t be queer.”

All the heteronormative hallmarks were there: think about your parents; don’t just seek pleasure, be responsible; have a family; and acknowledge the central place of the child in politics.

The point isn’t that some sense of common purpose isn’t a laudable thing. Or that the current situation doesn't force hard choices. Rather my point is that the sober language of nationalism that Obama uses—and uses well, I should add—is akin to that of the Russian PSA I highlighted earlier in that it ties together (as I said before) “economic productivity, social reproduction and biological reproduction” in ways that exclude queer life choices.

More than the choice of a bigot to deliver the invocation or particular bugaboos about masculinist language, what worries me is that this vision will inform the administration’s long-term policy choices (which I take to be a separate matter from his short-term tactical maneuvers, no matter how distasteful I may find them). And while groups have been organizing around how the economic stimulus will affect women and people of color, I have yet to see much concrete talk about the possibilities of this moment for changing institutions that marginalize queer existence.

To this end, I find myself strangely (or not so strangely) returning to a rather old essay by John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1983) [pdf here], in which the author worried about the “overreliance on a strategy of coming out—if every man and lesbian in America came out, gay oppression would end—[that has] allowed us to ignore the institutionalized ways in which homophobia and heterosexism are reproduced.” Following this line of thought, we need to think very seriously about the ways in which economic and political transformations will affect queers, especially because Obama's rhetorical framework--policy implications pending--doesn't allow much room for contemplating a future of play, pleasure and sexual expression--a queer future.

You want me to go out even farther on this limb?

Here goes.

I don’t think that this message helps with the task at hand (though it does make an effective argument for marriage equality):

Before you get carried away disagreeing or arguing the merits of this video, think about this sentence, again from Mosse:
…even feminists, homosexuals, and lesbians proclaimed their adherence to the basic norms and stereotypes of respectability, wanting only to bend the bars of their cage, not to unhinge them.
Or, for those of you who like to prolixly wax Lacanian (a habit I generally discourage), try this passage from Lee Edelman's "The Future is Kid Stuff":
The consequences of such a compulsory identification both of and with the child as the culturally pervasive emblem of the motivating end, albeit endlessly postponed, of every political vision as a vision of futurity, must weigh upon the consideration of a queer oppositional politics. For the only queerness that queer sexualities could ever hope to claim would spring from their determined opposition to this underlying structure of the political--their opposition, that is, to the fantasmatic ambition of achieving symbolic closure through the marriage of identity to futurity in order to reproduce the social subject. Conservatives, of course, understand this in ways most liberals never can.
What, still not getting it? OK, try this. Think about that Regina Spektor song being the soundtrack for the same campaign, but with this visual*:


Let it marinate.


* For the technologically not-so-savvy, you can accomplish this effect by playing the first clip with the volume on, scrolling down, and then playing the second clip with the sound turned off. Lizzie B thinks that it is a worthwhile experiment.


Anonymous said...

Terrific post, Buster--thanks. I was tormenting myself earlier today with the question of how a human being (specifically, but not only, Barack Obama) arrives at the point of being able to give a command that will directly cause the deaths of other human beings. This post goes some way toward answering that question, I think.

Renegade Eye said...

It's funny how some think one form of nationalism is progressive, while another is reactionary. anti-Zionists think Israeli nationalism is sinister, and Egyptian is ok or not something to have to struggle against.

With a world economy, and small nations being dependent on big nations, nationalism in 2009 is reactionary. It's not a time of nation building versus feudal kingdoms.

National liberation is only possible with socialism.

kg said...

While I fundamentally agree with at least some of your points, it seems to me that there's no small amount of irony in wanting to implement long-term policy change and social restructuring (yes, the kind that WILL affect future generation) in order to benefit people whose worldview is largely premised on celebrating presentism... There's a case to be made, certainly, but I do think that on this particular point, self-identifying queers are not forthcoming about their ambivalent, conflicting desires - in a way that right-wingers are never forthcoming about anything in their worldview being ambivalent... May be I'm wrong.

MasterGote said...

Buster, Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I think you're right in juxtaposing that Russian PSA, the Obama speech, and even the marriage equality video. The rhetoric is, indeed, analogous, if to a variety of (better or worse) ends. I have to say, I shared your reaction ("Don't be queer") to all of them, though perhaps not as acutely, since I've learned to suppress that gag reflex fairly well, I fear.

I'm not sure I'm with you, however, on the question of a queer future. Here's the thing: I've never imagined a queer future for anyone other than myself. I'm not even sure I understand what that even means. (Perhaps I suffer from a lack of political vision; I admit, it's crossed my mind.) As you know, this is something I'm struggling with not only in my life, but in my project - if you make artworks for a small circle of edinomyshlenniki, can you later, when the circumstances change, scale it up to transform society and art institutions more broadly? I'm not sure you can. And furthermore, I'm not sure you could without changing the nature of the art itself. Likewise, the queer; hence my nedorazumenie vis-a-vie the notion of a queer future.

I hasten to add that I see a difference here between institutions that marginalize queer existence and the very living of queer lives, the possibility of pleasure and play. These are two different levels - one requiring public action, the other involving private experience. While fighting against the former protects the possibility of the latter, it does not create it. As much as I want to change the world to allow for queer lives (my own included), I don't see the world turning queer anytime soon even under the best, most non-homophobic, non-heteronormative conditions. Perhaps I just don't fully comprehend what it would be like to live in a world that does not begin and end in heteronormativity. (Even this here blogger does not recognize the spelling, knows not the name of its own condition!) Perhaps my very definition of queerness involves in a large part my registering of my opposition. But then I would add - what would my queerness be without my oppressor? Would it flourish or shrivel away without a raison d'etre in this brave new world? We're getting in deep waters here. I'm not sure. I'll let you know when I've productively accomplished my societally-sanctioned project and perhaps I'll be closer to an answer by then as well.

Both I and my project would most humbly welcome a discussion...

kg said...

MG, as I was thinking more today about this post, I kept coming back to the idea you express when you say, "Perhaps my very definition of queerness involves in a large part my registering of my opposition." It's my sense that a big part of the self-definition of queerness (and concomitant camp) has always been, to paraphrase Auden, "If true equality cannot be / Let the more marginalized one be me." Given this, and the fact that true equality is a utopian, asymptotal dream, I think queerness as a way of life (as opposed to, say, friendship as a way of life) requires something to push against - which is why queer theorists go to town on on those poor misguided fags who actually wanna get married and become "normal." (Though I'm sure everyone writing here would concur that regardless of one's stance on marriage - mine is very negative - demanding recognition for gay marriage has as much to do with equal rights for ALL people to do stupid things as it does with the bolstering of the beleaguered institution of marriage).
That's all I got for now. I'll keep thinking, though :).

Buster said...

Good responses.

kg, I disagree with two points in your first response. I don’t think there is anything necessarily ironic about wanting to pursue life in the present and imagine that you will want to do so tomorrow and so will many of your friends. I tried to be careful with my language, though maybe I wasn’t clear enough (as the old Gote brings up the question as well)—there is a difference between planning a queer future and planning for queer futures. Second, this sentence strikes me as infelicitous finger-pointing: “…I do think that on this particular point, self-identifying queers are not forthcoming about their ambivalent, conflicting desires - in a way that right-wingers are never forthcoming about anything in their worldview being ambivalent.” Now, you don’t really levy this criticism against any particular person or argument, so it’s hard to know how to respond—it’s like when random cranky philosophers complain about “postmodernism.” But I also have the immediate reaction that almost all of the gay and queer theorists whom I cite or link to in this post—Ginsberg, D’Emilio, Edelman, Anna Marie Smith (see the “think seriously…” link), and, yes, even old George Mosse—are far more forthcoming about their desires and ambivalences than most liberals, or to name names, the people who made the “Fidelity” video. So in the context of this post, I say this to your claim: hogwash.

MG, I know, I know. I tried to suppress the gag reflex on the Obama thing, but eventually it just weighed to heavy. And you know what’s weird. It was really the “childish things” line that got me, even though I imagine it was mainly intended as a means to thumb one’s nose at GWB. It was something about how everyone celebrated this speech that made the suffocating feeling somewhat unbearable. On to your question of queer futures, see my point above re: planning for queer futures. I think that Edelman is still, probably, on your side regarding political form and futurity. But I’ve always thrown in with the more level-headed over the Lacanians—folks like D’Emilio, Anna Marie Smith and Nancy Fraser—who think earnestly and deeply about institutions, pluralism, and material conditions. Let me be specific, and quote a comment (from the linked blog post) from Smith on poverty and family law: “I want to maximize their freedom to choose to pursue their life projects according to their own values by removing the coercive effects of deprivation and heteronormativity.”

As to your final question, which I take to be a larger question about the possibility of liberation, I don’t think it’s something that will be worked out in a blog reply, a post, an essay or a book. It’s something to be worked in real life and in real time in conditions hitherto unknown. I wouldn’t stake my academic project on figuring it out.

But seriously folks, how about a little more appreciation of the Hunx and his Punx video?

Buster said...

By the way, the number of prose problems in the response above (e.g., using "levy" instead of "level", misplaced long dashes, failure to break paragraphs, etc.) can be directly attributed to lack of sleep. I hope, however, that my sentiment and thoughts are clear and I humbly beg forgiveness for the ugly writing.

MasterGote said...

OMG, I got so excited, I forgot to register my love for Hunx and his Punx. As someone said in some movie, he's H-O-T-T-hot.

Anonymous said...

I got it backwards first time around--watched the Courage video with the Hunx audio track. No, honest mistake. Interesting result though. The Spektor audio I couldn't finish--that choking melisma on "heart" makes me want to break things.

I think one point in your original post deserves further discussion: what is "the task at hand," and how do we know? Gloomy Bernsteinian that I am, I'm not quite so ready to dismiss bending the cage bars as not worth the (very considerable) effort; sure, I'd like to see them broken, especially if that would prevent the government of my country from committing murder, but I despair of actually achieving this.

Buster said...

Rootless, that is a good question, and is it just a dodge to say that "the task at hand" is something that is worked out in movement?

Yeah, it is.

I guess my answer is that the task is to think seriously about how the coming economic and political transformations will and can affect the possibilities for the myriad ways in which we can structure our intimate and personal lives. In my dream world (a nice place, I swear!), Obama would have someone like Anna Marie Smith as an advisor on LGBT issues and be thinking critically about these things. But all indications are that he thinks that repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is the end of queer civil rights (a troubling phrase if ever there were one--Shane Phelan talks about this). Ultimately, my point is simple. I wish that people would think about these things rather than retreat farther and farther into reactionary family values, however it may be re-packaged.

As to your gloomy Bernsteinism, I certainly agree that bending the bars is better than hardening them. Whether this happens without some people saying, "Fuck your cages"--I just don't know. Mosse's conclusion is worth reading as it is extremely balanced on this question. Also worth reading is Mari Jo Buhle's chapter on sexual emancipation in Women and American Socialism. I know I'm being a total historian-snob for saying this, but if people read their history, I think they'd be amazed by the "re-run effect." At least I am.

There's a rambling response that answers none of your questions, my friend.

Maybe I'm still distracted by the loss of Kiernan and Salih. I spent all night last night re-reading their books.

Anonymous said...

I hope the term "obscene hybrid" in my lsdt comment didn't set off alarms. I was thinking along the lines of a cross between Henry Kissinger and a cane toad. Taking ballet lessons.