Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Gender Criticism: What Isn't Gender
"Gender criticism" sounds like a euphemism for something. In practice it is a euphemism for several things, and more than that. One of its subtexts is gay and lesbian criticism. There can be no mystery about why that highly stigmatic label, though increasingly common, should be self-applied with care--however proudly--by those of us who do this scholarship. For instance, I almost never put "gay and lesbian" in the title of undergraduate gay and lesbian studies courses, though I always use the words in the catalog copy. To ask students to mark their transcripts permanently with so much as the name of this subject of study would have unpredictably disabling consequences for them in the future: the military, most churches, the CIA, and much of the psychoanalytic establishment, to mention only a few plausible professions, are still unblinking about wanting to exclude suspected lesbians and gay men, while in only a handful of places in the U.S. does anyone have even nominal legal protection against the routine denial of employment, housing, insurance, custody, or other rights on the basis of her or his perceived or supposed sexual orientation. Within and around academic institutions, as well, there can be similarly persuasive reasons for soft-selling the challenge to an oppression whose legal, institutional, and extrajudicial sanctions extend, uniquely, quite uninterruptedly up to the present.
Besides code-naming a range of gay and lesbian-centered theoretical inquiries, "gender studies" also stands in a usably unmarked relation to another rubric, "feminist studies." Feminist studies might be defined as the study of the dynamics of gender definition, inequality, oppression, and change in human societies. To the extent that gender is thus at the definitional center of feminist studies, "gender studies" can sometimes be used as an alternative name for feminist studies, euphemistic only in not specifying, as the "feminist" label more than implicitly does, how far inequality, oppression, and struggle between genders may be seen as differentially constituting gender itself. Women's studies today is commonly defined, at least in practice, by the gender of its object of study (at my university, for instance, Women's Studies will not cross-list courses unless a majority of the texts read are by women); by contrast to women's studies, feminist studies, whose name specifies the angle of an inquiry rather than the sex of either its subject or its object, can make (and indeed has needed to make) the claim of having as privileged a view of male as of female cultural production.
What, then, can or does distinguish the project of gender studies from that of feminist studies? In some cases, as I have suggested, "gender studies" is another, equally appropriate way of designating "feminist studies"--the reasons for offering the emollient name no more than tactical. In other cases, however, "gender studies" can mean "feminist studies" minus feminism; or, in another version of the same deadening equation, "women's studies" (in the most positivist meaning of the term) plus sonme compensatory entity called "men's studies." Although they offer an illusion of enhanced inclusiveness, these are the arithmetics that can give "gender studies" a sinister sound to the very scholars most involved in active gender critique. The assumptions behind these usages are intellectually as well as politically stultifying. To assume that the study of gender can be definitionally detached from the analysis and critique of gender inequality, oppression, and struggle (that is, from some form of feminism) ignores, among other things, the telling fact that gender analysis per se became possible only under the pressure of the most pointed and political feminist demand. It ignores, that is to say, the degree to which the otherwise available analytic tools of Western culture had already been structured by precisely the need to naturalize or to deny, and hence to allow the continuance of, a gender inequality already assumed. To figure gender studies as a mere sum of women's studies plus something called "men's studies," on the other hand, reduces both women's studies and the supposedly symmetrical men's studies to static denominations of subject matter, and reduces any understanding of relations between genders to something equally static and additive. That genders are constituted as such, not only in dialectical relation to one another, but in relation to the oppression historically exercised by one over the other, is a knowledge repressed by this impulse toward the separate-but-equal. Things get even worse when the rationale for an additive gender-studies agenda involves, not a nominally depoliticized and positivist study of women-as-women and men-as-men, but rather the conscious promotion of masculist viewpoints (under the men's-studies rubric) as a remedial "balance" against feminist ones. One can only summon up the foundational feminist assertion that colleges don't need something called "men's studies" because so much of the rest of the curriculum already fulfills that function: the function, that is, not only of studying the cultural production of men, but of furthering the interest many of them have in rationalizing, maintaining, or increasing their gender privilege over women.
It seems, then, that insofar as "gender studies" actually is the study of gender, its most substantive and intellectually respectable meanings make it coextensive with "feminist studies," and gender criticism coextensive with feminist criticism. Where, in that case, to look for the distinctive projects of gender criticism beyond its overlap with feminist criticism? In the context of this volume, where feminist criticism has its own topical assignment, distinct from this chapter as it is from that devoted to women's literature, it seems particularly possible to insist on the question. And where, for that matter, to look for the already fecund connection of gender criticism with the agendas of gay and lesbian-centered critique to which I began by alluding? Homosexual is not, after all, today understood as the name of a gender, though it alludes to gender and is defined by reference to it. Nor has the feminist analysis of mutually-constitutive relations and oppressions between genders proven to have an adequate purchase on how relations, identities, and oppressions are constituted, as in the exemplary gay instance, within them. Yet so far the greatest success--institutionally as well as intellectually--of gender criticism per se has been specifically in gay and lesbian criticism.
Let me suggest that the most distinctive task of gender criticism-not-coextensive-with-feminist
criticism may be, not to do gender analysis, but to explore what resists it: to ask, with respect to
certain categories that can't be a priori disentangled from gender, nonetheless what isn't gender.
"Gender criticism" might here be taken to mean, then, not criticism through the categories of gender
analysis, but criticism of them, mapping of the fractal borderlines between gender and its others. And
if gay and lesbian criticism is so far the typifying site of such interrogations of gender analysis, then
the first other of gender would seem to be, in this defining instance, sexuality.
Sex and Gender
Sex, gender, sexuality: three terms whose usage relations and analytical relations are almost irremediably slippery. The charting of a space between something called "sex" and something called "gender" has been one of the most influential and successful undertakings of feminist thought. For the purposes of that undertaking, "sex" has had the meaning of a certain group of irreducible, biological differentiations between members of the species homo sapiens who have XX and those who have XY chromosomes. These include (or are ordinarily thought to include) more or less marked dimorphisms of genital formation, hair growth (in populations that have body hair), fat distribution, hormonal function, and reproductive capacity. "Sex" in this sense--what I'll demarcate as "chromosomal sex"--is seen as the relatively minimal raw material on which is then based the social construction of gender. Gender, then, is the far more elaborated, more fully and rigidly dichotomized social production and reproduction of male and female identities and behaviors--of male and female persons--in a cultural system for which "male/female" functions as a primary and perhaps model binarism affecting the structure and meaning of many, many other binarisms whose apparent connection to chromosomal sex will often be exiguous or nonexistent. Compared to chromosomal sex which is seen (by these definitions) as tending to be immutable, immanent in the individual, and biologically based, the meaning of gender is seen as culturally mutable and variable, highly relational (in the sense that each of the binarized genders is defined primarily by its relation to the other), and inextricable from a history of power differentials between genders. This feminist charting of what Gayle Rubin refers to as a "sex/gender system" ("Traffic," 159), the system by which chromosomal sex is turned into, and processed as, cultural gender, has tended to minimize the attribution of people's various behaviors and identities to chromosomal sex, and to maximize their attribution to socialized gender constructs. The purpose of that strategy has been to gain analytic and critical leverage on the female-disadvantaging social arrangements that prevail at a given time in a given society, by throwing into question their legitimative ideological grounding in biologically-based narratives of the "natural."
"Sex" is, however, a term that extends indefinitely beyond chromosomal sex. That its history of usage often overlaps with what might, now, more properly be called "gender" is only one problem. ("I can only love someone of my own sex." Should "sex" be "gender" in such a sentence? "M. saw that the person who approached was of the opposite sex." Genders--insofar as there are two and they are defined in contradistinction to one another--may be said to be opposite; but in what sense is XX the opposite of XY?) Beyond chromosomes, however, the association of "sex," precisely through the physical body, with reproduction and with genital activity and sensation keeps offering new challenges to the conceptual clarity or even possibility of sex/gender differentiation. There is a powerful argument to be made that a primary (or the primary) issue in gender differentiation and gender struggle is the question of who is to have control of women's (biologically) distinctive reproductive capability. Indeed, the intimacy of the association between several of the most signal forms of gender oppression and "the facts" of women's bodies and women's reproductive activity has led some radical feminists to question, more or less explicitly, the usefulness of insisting on a sex/gender distinction.(1) For these reasons, even usages involving the "sex/gender system" within feminist theory are able to use "sex/gender" only to delineate a problematical space, rather than a crisp distinction. My loose usage here will be to denominate that problematized space of the sex/gender system, the whole package of physical and cultural distinctions between women and men, more simply under the rubric "gender." I do this in order to reduce the likelihood of confusion between "sex" in the sense of "the space of differences between male and female" (what I'll be grouping under "gender") and "sex" in the sense of sexuality.
For meanwhile the whole realm of what modern culture refers to as "sexuality" and also calls "sex"-- the array of acts, expectations, narratives, pleasures, identity-formations, and knowledges, in both women and men, that tends to cluster most densely around certain genital sensations but is not adequately defined by them--that realm is virtually impossible to situate on a map delimited by the feminist-defined sex/gender distinction. To the degree that it has a center or starting-point in certain physical sites, acts, and rhythms associated (however contingently) with procreation or the potential for it, sexuality in this sense may seem to be of a piece with chromosomal sex: biologically necessary to species survival, tending toward the individually immanent, the socially immutable, the given. But to the extent that, as Freud argued and Foucault assumed, the distinctively sexual nature of human sexuality has to do precisely with its excess over or potential difference from the bare choreographies of procreation, "sexuality" might be the very opposite of what we originally referred to as (chromosomal-based) sex: it could occupy, instead, even more than "gender" the polar position of the relational, the social/symbolic, the constructed, the variable, the representational.
In "Thinking Sex," an influential essay published in 1984, Gayle Rubin hypothesizes that the question of gender and the question of sexuality, inextricable from one another though they are in that each can be expressed only in the terms of the other, are nonetheless not the same question, that in twentieth-century western culture gender and sexuality represent two analytic axes that may productively be imagined as being as distinct from one another as, say, gender and class, or class and race. Distinct, that is to say, no more than minimally, but none the less usefully.
Under this hypothesis, just as one has learned to assume that no issue of racial meaning fails to be embodied through the specificity of a particular class position--and no issue of class, for instance, through the specificity of a particular gender position--so no issue of gender would fail to be embodied through the specificity of a particular sexuality, and vice versa; but nonetheless, there could be use in keeping the analytic axes distinct.
An objection to this analogy might be that gender is definitionally built into determinations of sexuality, in a way that neither of them is definitionally intertwined with, for instance, determinations of class or race. It is certainly true that without a concept of gender there could be, quite simply, no concept of homo- or heterosexuality. But many other dimensions of sexual choice (auto- or alloerotic, within or between generations, species, etc.) have no such distinctive, explicit definitional connection with gender; indeed some dimensions of sexuality might be tied, instead of gender, to differences or similarities of race or class. The definitional narrowing-down in this century of sexuality as a whole to a binarized calculus of homo- or heterosexuality is a weighty fact but an entirely historical one. To use that fait accompli as a reason for analytically conflating sexuality per se with gender would obscure the degree to which the fact itself requires explanation. It would also, I think, risk obscuring yet again the extreme intimacy with which all these available analytic axes do after all mutually constitute one another: to assume the distinctiveness of the intimacy between sexuality and gender might well risk assuming too much about the definitional separability of either of them from determinations of, say, class or race.
It may be, as well, that--as Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble--a damaging bias toward heterosocial or heterosexist assumptions inheres unavoidably in the very concept of gender. This bias would be built into any gender-based analytic perspective to the extent that gender definition and gender identity are necessarily relational between genders--to the extent, that is, that in any gender system, female identity or definition is constructed by analogy, supplementarity, or contrast to male, or vice versa. Although many gender-based forms of analysis do involve accounts, sometimes fairly rich ones, of intra-gender behaviors and relations, the ultimate definitional appeal in any gender-based analysis must necessarily be to the diacritical frontier between different genders. This gives heterosocial and heterosexual relations a conceptual privilege of incalculable consequence. Undeniably, residues, markers, tracks, signs referring to that diacritical frontier between genders are everywhere, as well, internal to and determinative of the experience of each gender and its intra-gender relations; gender-based analysis can never be dispensed with in even the most purely intra-gender context. Nevertheless it seems predictable that the analytic bite of a purely gender-based account will grow less incisive and direct as the distance of its subject from a social interface between different genders increases. It is unrealistic to expect a close, textured analysis of same-sex relations through an optic calibrated in the first place to the coarser stigmata of gender difference.(2) The development of an alternative analytic axis--call it sexuality--must be, therefore, if anything a peculiarly central project to gay/lesbian and antihomophobic inquiry.
The gravity of gender division and gender oppression does have, however, the consequence that it can never be taken for granted how much women's same-sex relations will have analytically or experientially in common with men's; so the sense of talking about "gay/lesbian" critique at all is itself always, and with good reason, contested. Nevertheless, it does seem that the interpretive frameworks within which lesbian writers, readers, and interlocutors are likely to process male-centered reflections on homo/heterosexual issues, and vice versa, are currently in a phase of destabilizing flux and promise.
The lesbian interpretive framework most readily available until recently to critics and theorists was the separatist-feminist one that emerged from the 1970s. According to that framework, there were essentially no valid grounds of commonality between gay male and lesbian experience and identity; to the contrary, women-loving women and men-loving men must be at precisely opposite ends of the gender spectrum. The assumptions at work here were indeed radical ones: most importantly, the stunningly efficacious re-visioning, in female terms, of same-sex desire as being at the very definitional center of each gender, rather than as occupying a cross-gender or liminal position between them. Thus, women who loved women were seen as more female, men who loved men as quite possibly more male, than those whose desire crossed boundaries of gender; the self-identification of the virilized woman gave way, at least for many, to that of the "woman-identified woman." The axis of sexuality, in this view, was not only exactly coextensive with the axis of gender, but expressive of its most heightened essence: "Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice." By analogy, male homosexuality could be, and often was, seen as the practice for which male supremacy was the theory.(3) A particular reading of modern gender history was, of course, implicit in and in turn propelled by this gender-separatist framework. In accord with, for instance, Adrienne Rich's understanding of many aspects of women's bonds as constituting a "lesbian continuum" ("Compulsory Heterosexuality" 79) this history, found in its purest form in the work of Lilian Faderman, de-emphasized the definitional discontinuities and perturbations between more and less sexualized, more and less prohibited, and more and less gender-identity-bound, forms of female same-sex bonding. Insofar as lesbian object-choice was viewed as epitomizing a specificity of female experience and resistance, insofar as a symmetrically opposite understanding of gay male object-choice also obtained, and insofar also as feminism necessarily posited male and female experiences and interests as different and opposed, the implication was that an understanding of male homo/heterosexual definition could offer little or no affordance or interest for any lesbian theoretical project. Indeed, the powerful impetus of a gender-polarized feminist ethical schema made it possible for a profoundly anti-homophobic reading of lesbian desire (as a quintessence of the female) to fuel a correspondingly homophobic reading of gay male desire (as a quintessence of the male).
Since the late 70s, however, there has emerged a variety of challenges to this understanding
of how lesbian and gay male desires and identities might be mapped against each other. Each
challenge has led many to a refreshed sense that lesbians and gay men may share important though
contested aspects of one another's histories, cultures, identities, politics, and destinies. These
challenges have emerged from the "sex wars" within feminism over pornography and s/m, which
seemed to many pro-sex feminists to expose a devastating continuity between a certain, theretofore
privileged feminist understanding of a resistant female identity, on the one hand, and on the other,
repressive nineteenth-century bourgeois constructions of a sphere of pure femininity. Such challenges
emerged as well from the reclamation and relegitimation of a courageous history of lesbian trans-gender role-playing and identification.(4) Along with this new historical making-visible of self-defined
mannish lesbians came a new salience of the many ways in which male and female homosexual
identities had in fact been constructed through and in relation to each other over the last century--by
the variously homophobic discourses of professional expertise, but also and just as actively by many
lesbians and gay men.(5) The irrepressible, relatively class-nonspecific popular culture in which James
Dean has been as numinous an icon for lesbians as Garbo or Dietrich has for gay men seems resistant
to a purely feminist theorization.(6) It is in these contexts that calls for a theorized axis of sexuality as
distinct from gender have developed. And after the anti-s/m, anti-pornography liberal-feminist move
toward labelling and stigmatizing particular sexualities joined its energies with those of the much
longer-established conservative sanctions against all forms of sexual "deviance," it remained only for
the terrible accident of the HIV epidemic, and the terrifying societal threats constructed around it,
to reconstruct a category of the pervert capacious enough to admit homosexuals of any gender. The
newly virulent homophobia of the 1980s, directed alike against women and men even though its
medical pretext ought, if anything, logically to give a relative exemptive privilege to lesbians,(7) reminds
un-gently that it is more to our friends than to our enemies that sexually nonconforming women and
men are perceptible as distinct groups. At the same time, however, the internal perspective of the gay
movements shows women and men increasingly, though far from uncontestingly and far from equally,
working together on mutually antihomophobic agendas.(8) The contributions brought by lesbians to
current gay and AIDS activism are weighty, not despite, but because of the intervening lessons of
feminism. Feminist perspectives on medicine and health-care issues, on civil disobedience, and on
the politics of class and race as well as of sexuality, for instance, have been centrally enabling for the
recent waves of AIDS activism; while the extensive repertoire of intellectual strategies amassed and
tested by feminism has been of incalculable benefit to emergent gay as well as lesbian theory. What
these developments return to the lesbians involved in them may include a more richly pluralized range
of imaginings of lines of gender and sexual identification.
It is indicative of the disjunctive positioning of "sexuality" in gender criticism that the book that made "sexuality" a usable critical term--the book whose English publication (1978) thus probably offers the best date for the inception of gender criticism in the present sense--should have been itself virtually uninterested in gender; so that the task of fitting analyses of gender and of sexuality to one another has remained a conceptually intractable, hence a vibrant one. That book, Foucault's History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, enabled a newly productive discourse of sexuality by making clear how fully modern sexuality is already produced through and indeed as discourse. Foucault first shows how heavily prior understandings of sexuality (including the psychoanalytic and Marxist) have depended on what he calls the "repressive hypothesis," the understanding of sexuality as a quantitative absolute of a distinctive kind of energy, immanent in the individual, whose silencing and regulation is the supposed task of political and cultural power.(9) Foucault, on the other hand, though he is far from claiming "that sex has not been prohibited or barred or masked or misapprehended since the classical age" (12), is more struck by the proliferation of modern discourses of sexuality than by their suppression. Or rather, he perceives that there may really be no "rupture" between "repression and the critical analysis of repression" (10); responding to the paradox of a society "which speaks verbosely of its own silence, [and] takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say" (8), he sees the modern period as defined, to the contrary, by "the multiplication of discourses concerning sex in the field of exercise of power itself: an institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail" (18). Thus, the would-be-liberatory repressive hypothesis itself comes to be seen as a kind of ruse for mandating ever more of the verbal proliferation that had also gone on before and around it.
Rather than envisioning "power" as something exercised prohibitively from the top of society downward, against a sexuality envisioned as forcing its way upward from the level of the individual, Foucault thus describes both sexuality and power as relations that are incessantly and locally produced and productive at every level of modern culture, through "the task of passing everything having to do with sex through the endless mill of speech" (21). He locates the imperative to utterance in the premodern institutional discourses of law and especially religion (both founded on protocols of confession), but most symptomatically in the newly prestigious ones of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, demography, medicine, and education.
By refusing to distinguish between sexuality "itself" and the discourses that structure, delimit, and (he argues) produce and reproduce it, Foucault undoes the positivist assumption that to write historically about sexuality involves increasingly direct, immediate knowledge or "understanding" of some unchanging sexual essence. To the contrary, he argues that modern sexuality itself is so intimately entangled with the historically distinctive contexts and structures that now count as knowledge, that such "knowledge" can scarcely be a transparent window onto a separate realm of sexuality: rather, it constitutes that sexuality.
Indeed, he goes beyond this. His ultimate argument is that sexuality per se comes into existence, not with the first sexual acts or even sexual prohibitions, but during the long process, culminating in the nineteenth century, by which, as sex learned an infinity of new paths into discourse, the value of Truth itself--in particular the Truth of individual identity--came to be lodged in the uncovery or expression of the Truth of sexuality.(10)
That is, what distinguishes modern sexuality from premodern sex is the extreme, indeed unlimited epistemological pressure everywhere placed on it, and the epistemological centrality in turn accorded it in the wider field of all knowledges and institutions.
No doubt it will be clear why the analysis offered in Foucault's book has proven problematical in relation to other forms of politically-oriented analysis. As in most of Foucault's writing, the accounts of agency, or for that matter of causality or change, are elusive at best. His dissolutory insistence on the most local or molecular vantage makes class identity, interest, or struggle, or gender identity, interest, or struggle extraordinarily difficult to keep in focus. His renunciation of any economic metaphor based on scarcity or deprivation would seem to silence most forms of materialism. His refusal to distinguish between the realms of power and of eroticism is only one example of the resistance his work mounts to moralistic--indeed, to any ethicizing--appropriation; and while fugitive utopian or elegaic moments certainly animate his writing, what is more solidly founded there is an analysis of the utopian impulse as yet another alibi of the repressive hypothesis (6-8).
No doubt it will also be clear, however, why this volume was to prove so catalytic for literary
study. Coarsely put: it justifies a view of writing as a form of sex, indeed as its most direct form; at
the same time it justifies a view of sexuality as the central repository of the truth-values of modernity.
How could these not be deeply energizing assertions for writers and scholars--at least if Foucault is
right in his estimate of the prestige, the promise of epistemological force, the "sex appeal," of
sexuality in our century? This is also to say, of course, that, far from offering resistance to the
modern "scheme for transforming sex into discourse" (20) and "interplay of truth and sex" (57),
processes that Foucault treats as historically unidirectional and inescapable, the effect of his book has
instead been to accelerate that trajectory and load it with ever greater explanatory force. Rather than
attempt vainly to impede it, he has, if successful, merely displaced and re-propelled it unpredictably
by making less tenable the "repressive hypothesis" by which its subjects have concealed its itineraries
from themselves. "Merely" displaced and re-propelled: but that is a more direct path of rhetorical
efficacy--of historical intervention, which is to say, in Foucault, of seduction--than most critical works
admit to undertaking. Thus, again excitingly for any writer, this work has seemed to offer new
accesses to the performative force of writing. In the unmentioned, only slightly displaced continuity
between what the book says and what it seems to make happen, readers can register the gap of
unrationalized rhetorical force that the author has already thematized in the distance between what
the "repressive hypothesis" says (sex is forbidden) and the almost hilarious proliferation of sexualized
discourse that it in fact effects.
So far we have discussed a fairly unified, though vast, field of phenomena around "sexuality" that Foucault's volume at once describes and enacts. But the fact is that its incitements have not issued in a new movement of "sexuality criticism." Rather, its strongest effects have been radically partial--partial enough, perhaps, even to call into question the mapping of that neatly unified "sexual" field. That is to say, the discursive progeny of The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction has been, not the mythic "sexuality criticism," but a renewed, ambitious, assertive, splendidly explicit, and unprecedentedly insitutionalized movement of gay/lesbian criticism. The metonym for "sexuality" that is effectually installed by The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 is homosexuality.
Yet the least clear thing about this book is in what sense it can be said to be a gay book. The
author is not explicit about his own sexuality between its covers; and discussions of the history of
homosexuality per se are few and brief (the index lists three references), and embedded in discussions
of other sexualities or of sexuality more broadly. Take, for instance, the book's most famous and
agenda-setting formulation about the history of homosexuality, under the heading of the
"incorporation of perversions and a new specification of individuals":
As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of
forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them.
The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and
a childhood . . . . [His sexuality] was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his
actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written
immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away.
. . . [T]he psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was
constituted from the moment it was characterized--Westphal's famous article of 1870
on "contrary sexual sensations" can stand as its date of birth--less by a type of sexual
relations that by a certain quality of sexual sensibility. . . . The sodomite had been a
temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (42-3)
Foucault's discussion here of the invention of "the homosexual" is presented as an exemplifying instance of a process of specification, of the emergence of identities where previously there had been acts, that also included "all those minor perverts whom nineteenth-century psychiatrists entomologized by giving them strange baptismal names: there were Krafft-Ebing's zoophiles and zooerasts, Rohleder's auto-monosexualists; and later, mixoscopophiles, gynecomasts, presbyophiles, sexoesthetic inverts, and dyspareunist women" (43), and those other "figures" and "privileged objects of knowledge," the hysterical woman and the masturbating child (105). The newly reified homosexuality, in short, is but one, representative example of "these thousand aberrant sexualities" (44, emphasis added) that came, in their plurality, to define sexuality itself.
Yet the discursive context in which Foucault's book does its performative work is not, as it happens, one that prominently features the classification of "these thousand aberrant sexualities." The rhetorical strategy of the book is to allow a reader to imagine, as it were by default, that the 19th-century social formations that emerge from its narrative are in essence those of the present day: "We `Other Victorians,'" the first chapter is entitled. But in the late-twentieth-century scene of the book's actual address, after the lapse of the century elided in "We `Other Victorians,'" to specify someone's sexuality is not to locate her or him on a map teeming with zoophiles, gynecomasts, sexoesthetic inverts . . . . Hysterical women are no longer taxonomized; and to imagine, as nineteenth-century psychiatry did, "the masturbator" as a particular kind of person distinct from other kinds of people would seem laughable.(11) This change does not reflect any lightening of the burden of meaning placed on issues of sexual definition since the period described by Foucault. Rather, it reflects an astonishing simplification of the fraught identity-categories through which sexuality is conceived. In the late twentieth century, if I ask you what your sexual orientation or sexual preference is, you will understand me to be asking precisely one thing: whether you are homosexual or heterosexual. And whether or not you find these terms inadequate or even irrelevant to your particular desires and velleities, you will be confident in interpreting "sexual orientation" as a reference to that differential and only that.
This startlingly coarse dichotomy-effect operates, unremarked, in and on the reading gestalt of Foucault's study. It operates all the more decisively for its silence, however, and in ways that inevitably drive wedges in at the joints between the book's constative and its performative projects. The first dichotomy-effect on the book is to install homosexuality in a more than just metonymically representational relation to sexuality as a whole. That the other "species"-identities attached to nonconforming sexual desires in the nineteenth century have only lost taxonomic power since then, while homosexual identity has so decisively gained it, implicitly installs homo/heterosexual definition as the (unasked) question of Foucauldian sexuality; but beyond that, as we must discuss further, Foucault seems to exclude even the hetero- side of any homo/hetero dichotomy from the purlieus of sexuality, insofar as "sexuality" itself is said to comprise more and more simply "a world of perversion" (40).
It happens repeatedly that dynamics and meanings attributed to "sexuality" in Foucault act and mean differently when they are read in the light of the homosexual metonym. There are many places where Foucault's generalizations about "sexuality" seem acutely truer when applied to homosexuality--but truer because different, and again, different because truer. He says, for instance, "What is peculiar to modern societies . . . is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret" (35). But what could be less secret than the, as it were, surplus the-ness of one particular secret within the open secret of sex, the one named by Christianity and multiple reinscriptions of Western law as the Unspeakable itself, nefandam libidinem, "that sin which should be neither named nor committed,"(12) the crime "of so black a hue, of so abominable a nature, that we cannot pretend to give any report of it," "so detestable and repugnant to the common feeling of our nature that by no word can it be described without committing an outrage against decency"(13)--videlicet, "the love that dare not speak its name."(14) The particular case of homosexuality here marks an intensification of, but by the same token a certain discontinuity from, the knowing reification "sex."
Similarly, if the regime of sexuality "in general" is seen by Foucault as instituting knowledge-relations that are ultimately productive of that obscure object of desire, the unconscious, how much
the truer must this be of the particular knowledge-relations around the secret, relentlessly
spectacularized, and therefore utterly social space of tacit homo/heterosexual definition: the closet?
The complex communities of blackmail, complicity, condescension, glamorization, and every sort of
cognitive leveraging that are incessantly generated around any closet or the mere space of the
possibility of one, enabled in the past century by the newly reduced homo/hetero meaning of "sexual
preference," render potent and priceless on many different markets the commodity of ignorance,
Thus sex gradually became an object of great suspicion . . . the fragment of darkness
that we each carry within us: a general signification, a universal secret, an omnipresent
cause, a fear that never ends. . . . We tell it its truth by deciphering what it tells us
about that truth; it tells us our own by delivering up that part of it that escaped us.
From this interplay there has evolved, over several centuries, a knowledge of the
subject; a knowledge not so much of his form, but of that which divides him,
determines him perhaps, but above all causes him to be ignorant of himself. . . .
Causality in the subject, the unconscious of the subject, the truth of the subject in the
other who knows, the knowledge he holds unbeknown to him, all this found an
opportunity to deploy itself in the discourse of sex. (69-70)
Here again, however, in narrating what appears to be the demystifyingly historicized story of sexuality per se and its centrality to a Western commonsense described in the tropes of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Foucault chooses not to make explicit the privileged referent of his "universal" noun phrases in the locus of a particular homo/heterosexual question. His refusal constitutes the closet of homo/heterosexual definition as "the unconscious" of this text: not in the sense that a certain homo/heterosexual specificity is cognitively unavailable to the author, but in the sense that the text's refusal to verbalize it forces its articulation or denial rather on the reader, whom it thus interpellates as "the other who knows  the knowledge [the text] holds unbeknown to [itself]"; it founds the reader as the knowing Other of "that which divides [the text], determines [it] perhaps, but above all causes [it] to be ignorant of [it]self."
Foucault's analysis of the confessional tradition makes clear, if nothing else did, both how
strongly and how resistantly this book is marked by its positioning at the end of the century that
stretched between Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs (arguably the first European man to come out as a
homosexual) and the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s. Even given the French context of
its writing, more urbane and less hygienically dichotomized than the American context of its reading
whose effects I here describe, Foucault's account of the confessional owes as much to the sacralized
new ritual of coming out as to the psychoanalytic ritual that appears to be its first referent: "a ritual
of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; . . . a ritual that unfolds
within a power relationship . . . ; a ritual in which the truth is corroborated by the obstacles and
resistances it has had to surmount in order to be formulated; and finally, a ritual in which the
expression alone, independently of its external consequences, produces intrinsic modifications in the
person who articulates it" (61-2). For Foucault to posit a historical continuity between religious
confession and coming out is also, however, to unfold the reasons for his scepticism about the latter
From the Christian penance to the present day, sex was a privileged theme of
confession. A thing that was hidden, we are told. But what if, on the contrary, it was
what, in a quite particular way, one confessed? Suppose the obligation to conceal it
was but another aspect of the duty to admit to it (concealing it all the more and with
greater care as the confession of it was more important, requiring a stricter ritual and
promising more decisive effects)? (61)
Characteristically, Foucault dislocates a conventional understanding of the individual will involved
in political action; the conditions that make sense of the speech-act of coming out, he suggests,
actually constitute it as a nominal defiance that marks the place of a more disabling acquiescence:
acquiescence in the lie of the repressive hypothesis, that speech and silence are, in the discourses of
sexuality, each other's polar opposites.(15) The dignified and, in his terms, more profoundly resistant
strategy of this book is to refuse either to conceal or to reveal the "sexuality" (i.e., either the homo-
or the heterosexuality) of its speaker; and concomitantly to articulate the reader, rather than the text
itself, as the agent of the implied disarticulation of the supposedly unified field of "sexuality."
Post-Foucauldian work in gender theory has both profited and suffered from the ruptures of this founding text. In Forget Foucault, Baudrillard remarks that Foucault's followers have tended to ignore how actively his discourse, "a mirror of the powers it describes," proffers disillusion about "the effect of truth it produces"; historians, as he points out, have instead used it to refine and perpetuate a positivist order of "the truth, nothing but the truth" (10-11). In its own terms, this historical work has been extremely valuable, taking up Foucault's challenge to denaturalize by narrativizing present understandings of what sexuality is and entails. Yet the violently contradictory and volatile energies that every morning's newspaper proves to us are circulating even at this moment, in our society, around the issues of homo/heterosexual definition, show over and over again how preposterous must be anybody's urbane pretense at having a clear, simple story to tell about the outlines and meanings of what and who is homosexual and heterosexual. Jeffrey Weeks points out the thoroughgoing, coercive incoherence of the homophobic etiological models that prevail in our culture, according to which homosexuality is classified at the same time as "sin" and as "disease," "so that you can be born with [it], seduced into [it] and catch [it], all at the same time."(16) Anti-homophobic analysis has the same divided conceptual heritage: the most current theoretical form in which this conflict is visible is in the debate in gay/lesbian studies between "social constructionist" and "essentialist" understandings of homo/heterosexual identity. The conflict, within both homophobic and anti-homophobic ideologies, has a long history; it is the most recent link in a more enduring chain of conceptual impasses, a deadlock between what might be called more generally universalizing and minoritizing accounts of the relation of homosexual desires or persons to the wider field of all desires or persons. Universalizing discourses are those that suggest that every person has the potential for same-sex, as for other-sex, desire or activity; minoritizing ones are those that attribute each of these desires to a fixed, unchangeable segment of the population. Each kind of account can underpin both virulently homophobic and supportively anti-homophobic ideological formations. As we have seen, historical narratives following Foucault have seemed to show universalizing paradigms, such as the terribly influential Judaeo-Christian proscription of particular acts called "sodomy" (acts that might be performed by anybody), as being displaced after the late nineteenth century by the definition of particular kinds of persons, specifically "homosexuals." A Classically-based but enduring honorific sub-tradition of durable and significant pedagogic/pederastic bonds between men of different ages was also seen as having been displaced by the new, minoritizing view of homosexual identity. It may, however, as we have seen in reading Foucault, be more descriptive to say that since the late nineteenth century the different understandings, contradictory though they are, have coexisted, creating in the space of their contradiction enormous potentials of discursive power.(17)
Other, more theoretically or rhetorically adventurous work "after" Foucault has opened new disciplinary territory by embodying or enacting its contradictions less numbly. This has been especially necessary, and especially powerful, in the critical analysis of what Foucault made it possible to think of as "the discourse of" AIDS. His conceptual centrality to activist understandings of the disease that silenced him is only one of the nightmarish overdeterminations typical of AIDS. Of those overdeterminations, the sickening rhyme between the disease's patterns of depredation and the lines of proscription already drawn by a homophobic and racist culture is the obvious and almost overwhelming one. To dismantle the murderous monolith that AIDS has kept threatening to forge out of the accidents of a virus; out of the established homophobic moralisms of state and church; out of the insatiable modern momentum toward increased surveillance; out of a centuries-old intertextual narrative linkage between fatality and male-male desire; out of the institutional consolidations of advanced medical research, and its ideology-drenched forms of figuration; out of an invidious capitalist health-care delivery system; out of the incoherences of modern discourses of addiction and the "foreign substance"; out of imperialist needs to constitute the third world as at once the incubator of western illness and the laboratory of western medicine; out of the vengeful iconographic traditions of both expert technical imaging and popular media--that pressing need has consolidated, under an academic banner of "cultural studies" but by no means confined to academia, a new axis of inquiry involving literary and communications theorists, film theorists, art historians, historians of medicine, artists, film and video makers, feminist community and cultural activists, and AIDS activist groups like ACT UP.
The generative energy that Foucauldian analysis has made available for this form of intellectual/political activism is still, however, intimately inscribed with the contradictory imperatives (of truth, of performance; of proliferation, of specification) transmitted by his work. For example, like thousands of other gay men lost to AIDS, Foucault acquired a sexuality visible to a broad public only when journalism (belatedly) specified his cause of death. It was AIDS that engraved the impoverishing homo/hetero dichotomy most indelibly on the retrospect of his work; slowly but unrelentingly, the obituary process revoked his potent refusal of (what he had figured as) confession. The epistemological stress that Foucault showed to be lodged in modern sexuality has not been dislodged by the crisis of AIDS, but rather yoked violently to an epistemological stress now also attached to death. In the decade of AIDS, the hidden sex of the obituary has been framed as a question of authority: in New York Times usage throughout the first decade of the epidemic, for example, cause of death was customarily given as an unattributed fact--that is to say, as one transparently known to The Times; in obituaries of unmarried, non-clergy men under 60 who did't die in accidents, on the other hand, "a hospital spokesman" or a sibling or partner of the dead person was always specified as the source of information, whether or not AIDS-related illness was given as the cause of death, and presumably whether or not it actually was.(18) Precisely by proffering a named authority--by making the authority-process, atypically, visible--The Times in these cases solicits and tendentiously points the skepticism of obituary readers: a skepticism normal obituary practice repels. It has been characteristic of the discourse around AIDS to be so tied to a truth-imperative whose form is intransitive but whose angle is killingly partial. Last year a friend of mine, being treated for a skin rash, came under pressure from his doctors to agree to an HIV-antibody test he had decided he did not want to take. The male doctor sent the female doctor out of the room, the better to set the stage for man-to-man epistemological heroics: "Don't you," the doctor, scalpel-eyed, at last bore down, "want to know?" "No, I don't," my friend bravely replied. "I think you're the one who wants to know."
Activist analysis can do everything but except itself from these dynamics, a truth dramatized in a pivotal text, AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism, edited by Douglas Crimp. This exemplary presentation of AIDS-related cultural radicalism deconstructs and critiques the scientific and media iconography of the disease, and suggests strategies of ideological and cultural resistance; authors of the essays include women and men, lawyers, gay theorists, a sex worker activist, named and unnamed people living with AIDS within and outside of academia, and scholars and artists in the cultural studies fields. The strategic enablements of Foucault's constructivist archaeology are everywhere visible in the volume, beginning with Crimp's introductory manifesto, "AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it, and respond to it."(19) The anti-idealist motive of Foucault's historicizing work is immensely productive here (in, to choose only one example, Simon Watney's useful formulation, "AIDS is increasingly being used to underwrite a widespread public ambition to erase the distinction between `the public' and `the private,' and to establish in their place a monolithic and legally binding category--`the family'--understood as the central term through which the world and the self are henceforth to be rendered intelligible" (86)). And it seems to mobilize by some relatively unproblematized mechanism a confident sense of political agency (Crimp: "We don't need to transcend the epidemic; we need to end it" (7)); an assertive ideology of rights (titles include "A Patient's Bill of Rights" (160) and "Further Violations of Our Rights" (177)); and a protean and utopian sex-affirmativeness (the volume ends with Crimp's words, "we are now reclaiming our subjectivities, our communities, our culture . . . and our promiscuous love of sex" (270)).
The dissonant note in the volume, but its most ambitious theoretical moment and in many
ways its effectual centerpiece, is an essay by Leo Bersani with the characteristically confrontational
title, "Is the Rectum a Grave?" Bersani's essay performs skeptical operations on what the volume
otherwise presents as uninterrupted continuities between analysis and politics. Bersani deprecates
as "pastoral" any gay-affirmative polemics, implicitly including virtually all the others in the volume,
that are based on an ideology of sexual "pluralism,"
the rhetoric of sexual liberation in the '60s and '70s, a rhetoric that received its most
prestigious intellectual justification from Foucault's call--especially in the first volume
of his History of Sexuality--for a reinventing of the body as a surface of multiple
sources of pleasure. Such calls, for all their redemptive appeal, are, however,
unnecessarily and even dangerously tame. The argument for diversity has the
strategic advantage of making gays seem like passionate defenders of one of the
primary values of mainstream liberal culture, but to make that argument is, it seems
to me, to be disingenuous about the relation between homosexual behavior and the
revulsion it inspires. The revulsion, it turns out, is all a big mistake: what we're really
up to is pluralism and diversity, and getting buggered is just one moment in the
practice of those laudable humanistic virtues. Foucault could be especially perverse
about all this: challenging, provoking, and yet, in spite of his radical intentions,
somewhat appeasing in his emphases. (219)
Bersani, to the contrary, is impatient with any assumption that sex in general "has anything to do with community or love" (215), or that the desires or habits of gay men are likely to be especially infused with political or protopolitical subversions of a status quo. A politically redemptive pluralism has, in his view, nothing to do with the real force of sex. Stubbornly locating both the cause of homophobic revulsion and the recalcitrant, invaluably resistant center of male homosexual desire in a single practice, a single organ, a single role, the receptive position of one man in anal intercourse with another, "a self-shattering solipsistic jouissance that drives them apart" (222), Bersani celebrates "the inestimable value of sex as--at least in certain of its ineradicable aspects--anticommunal, antiegalitarian, antinurturing, antiloving" (215, emphasis added). "If, as [Jeffrey] Weeks puts it, gay men `gnaw at the roots of a male heterosexual identity,' it is not because of the parodistic distance that they take from that identity, but rather because, from within their nearly mad identification with it, they never cease to feel the appeal of its being violated" (209).
Bersani frames his essay as an anti-Foucauldian intervention, by way of Freud, on a scene where Foucault's own analyses are viewed--by Bersani, by the other authors--as seamlessly continuous with an ideological praxis also identified with Foucault: the supposed "call for" a redemptive rediscovery of the pluralized body. Some features of Bersani's account, notably its refusal of diachronic historical narrative, do distinguish it sharply from any Foucauldian project. But I am much more impressed by the ways his essay performs, in relation to the volume as a whole, the propulsive rhetorical work of political refusal or blockage whose terms were also set by the same text of Foucault's.
In Bersani's treatment of sexual pluralism, as in Foucault's treatment of the repressive hypothesis, the exposure of a culture-wide lie supposed to inhere in liberal sexual politics is the most relished trope: "In short," as Bersani says at one climactic moment, "to put the matter polemically and even rather brutally, we have been telling a few lies" (206). But these emphatic gestures of disabuse must also entail, by reaction, an equally marked truth-effect; and for each theorist, the very strength of the truth-effect constitutes an argumentative obliquity. Bersani, after all, is asking readers to imagine a sexuality whose [redemptive] essence ("our primary hygienic practice of nonviolence" (222)) is that, given the irreducible opacity of its relation to the unconscious, it cannot be recuperated for redemptive projects. Meanwhile Foucault suggests a sexuality whose [true] essence is that it has no non-contingent connection to Truth. And Bersani's relation to the repressive hypothesis is in turn as double as Foucault's. His essay begins with the announcement, "There is a big secret about sex: most people don't like it" (197). Like Foucault, he disavows any connection between the secret he has to reveal about sex, on the one hand, and on the other the conventional exposure of how repressed and repressive are many people's relation to the "smoldering volcanoes" (198) of sexual desire. Noting that the aversion to sex he wants to discuss, the one that is not the same as repression, has "both benign and malignant forms" (198), Bersani first specifies that its malignant forms include the homophobic and AIDS-phobic manifestations also documented and decried elsewhere in the volume. The essay then moves to its withering appraisal of the redemptive gay-liberationist rhetoric of sexual pluralism, and from there to its own proposal of the "arduous representational discipline" (209) by which gay male desire, at least the specific one in which Bersani is interested, can be accorded its proper value on the basis of its dangerous truth "as a mode of ascesis" (222).
Interestingly, however, Bersani never explicitly identifies the "benign" form of the aversion to sex. Is that more properly represented by the gay liberationist position he sees as a pious, perhaps necessary lie, or by Bersani's own position, which celebrates sex precisely and exclusively for the way it creates, in its participants, aversion--the passionate turning away, the "anticommunal" and "antiloving," the jouissance that "drives" men "apart"? The introductory gesture of the essay seems to join speaker and reader in an enunciatory compact of people who "like" sex against some distinguishable majority of those who "don't." But what's "like" got to do with it? and what reader, on Bersani's rebarbative showing, could fully identify with her assigned, confidently sex-affirmative place in this schema? It seems as though, to the degree that the essay is structured by the revelation of the "secret" that sex is commonly aversive, it both makes a polemical point (the rather vulgar one that the repressive hypothesis so regularly enables: one's opponents can't say the truth because they are not truly sexual) and makes at the same time a theoretical point that quite undoes the presumptive community of its address. It positions a reader, if compellingly, incoherently. By the same token, although Bersani insists that the meaning of a particular sexual act is of far more consequence than gay life-style or identity, concepts with which he is especially impatient,(20) the rhetoric by which he sets out to unmask that normalizing minority identity depends, as it happens, on constant appeals to a conventional, identity-based semiotic presumed to be internal to each of his readers.(21) Note, for instance, his use of the second person (flattering? threatening? --full, in any event, of unspoken identity-presumption) in describing "the classic put-down: the butch number swaggering into a bar in a leather get-up opens his mouth and sounds like a pansy, takes you home, where the first thing you notice is the complete works of Jane Austen, gets you into bed, and--well, you know the rest" (208).
"And this brings us back to the question not of the reflection or expression of politics in sex,
but rather of the extremely obscure process by which sexual pleasure generates politics" (208). To
trace these multi-directional dynamics discredits Bersani's essay no more than it does Foucault's book.
To the contrary, what would most discredit the argument of either would be the very possibility of
a self-transparent, performatively inert relation among the politics of sexuality, the truth-claiming
language in which sexual epistemologies may be explored, and the experiential material that gets
called sexuality itself. What rather I hope I have assembled some terms to account for is a more
unexpected effect: that, far from discrediting either its own argument or (more predictably) the
impugned politics of the rest of the collection in which it appears, Bersani's essay, bursting as it is
with transverse aggessions, seems to have served for many demanding readers to legitimate the
project of gay-liberation-based AIDS cultural criticism represented by this important volume. If that
is so, it is not, I think, because it offers the generalized spectacle of what Trollope would call
"moderate schism."(22) The validation that Bersani offers is far more substantial than a mere staging
of internal controversy to confirm the elasticity and differentiability of a fairly new political
movement. He makes one assertion to whose truth the very frustrations of the felt pressure toward
programmatic clarity all minister: each eclipse, collapse, or collision of authorial or readerly
positionings makes more serious and present to the reader that extreme obscurity, noted by Bersani,
in "the process by which sexual pleasure generates politics." "While it is indisputably true that
sexuality is always being politicized, the ways in which having sex politicizes are highly problematical"
(206). It seems that to thematize, and at the same time but unrationalizably to dramatize, the deep
epistemological fractures that necessarily gape under the pressure of a new political need and
possibility, may actually render that possibility more intimately recognizable. It may do so especially
to an audience whose present need for both sexual theory and sexual activism is tied so closely to our
repeated, publicly specularized, politically motivating, shared, but at some level immiscibly private
and implacably privative experiences of loss, mourning, and dread.
In The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 Foucault performed the emergence of homo/hetero as the
defining axis of modern sexuality silently. But he does explain there how asymmetrical the speech-relations around the two poles of that axis have become and must presumably remain, in his
description of "a centrifugal movement," in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
with respect to heterosexual monogamy. Of course, the array of practices and pleasures continued to be referred to it as their internal standard; but it was spoken of less and less, or in any case with a growing moderation. Efforts to find out its secrets were abandoned; nothing further was demanded of it than to define itself from day to day. The legitimate couple, with its regular sexuality, had a right to more discretion. It tended to function as a norm, one that was stricter, perhaps, but quieter. . . .
Although not without delay and equivocation, the natural laws of matrimony
and the immanent rules of sexuality began to be recorded on two separate registers.
Thus, given that Foucault defines modern sexuality as the most intensive site of the demand for, and detection or discursive production of, Truth, it seems as though this silent, normative, uninterrogated "regular" hetrosexuality may not function as sexuality at all. Think of how a central concept like public/private is organized so as to preserve for heterosexuality the unproblematicalness, the apparent naturalness, of its discretionary choice between display and concealment: "public" means the space where cross-sex couples may, whenever they feel like it, display affection freely, while same-sex couples must always conceal it; while "privacy," to the degree that it is a right codified in U.S. law, is differentially centered around the protection-from-scrutiny of the married, cross-sex couple, a scrutiny to which (since Bowers v. Hardwick) same-sex relations on the other hand are unbendingly subject. Thus heterosexuality is consolidated as the opposite of the "sex" whose secret, Foucault says, "the obligation to conceal . . . was but another aspect of the duty to admit to" (61). To the degree that heterosexuality does not function as a sexuality, however, there are stubborn barriers to making it accountable, to making it so much as visible, in the framework of Foucauldian projects of historicizing and hence denaturalizing sexuality. Especially since Jonathan Ned Katz's notation of the relative novelty of the word "heterosexuality" in its current sense--his notation, in particular, that it postdates the coinage "homosexuality"--it has been widely felt that a history of heterosexuality was a necessary and possible project.(23) My impression is, however, that it has proven a theoretically recalcitrant one, and will continue to. Yet the work of undoing the exemptive discretionary privilege of heterosexuality is no less pressing than other tasks of gay and lesbian critique.
Foucault says that after the turn of the century, "if regular sexuality happened to be questioned . . . it was through a reflux movement, originating in . . . peripheral sexualities" (39); the same is true for future interrogations of normative heterosexuality, interrogations which can and (I would even rather say) must begin from, and parhaps return to, the definitional centers of the achieved and loved "perversion." It must also begin from gay and lesbian studies. My own instinct is that, in the discursive ecology of which we may take History of Sexuality, vol. 1 as a model--an ecology structured on the one hand by a plurality of perverse histories and local possibilities, on the other by an abyssally reductive homo/heterosexual divide which it seems impossible to stop performing--it will be productive for this purpose to go back and look further at the matrix of perversions that have not become distinct modern identities, asking, at the same time, why they have not, and how they do function within and around the identities, and in particular the heterosexuality, as it were violently carved out from among them. I suggest this not in order to resuscitate a "utopian" past of undifferentiated sexual plurality, which never existed and whose evocation on this scene tends most often to be a repressive evasion of the modern gay or lesbian subject; nor in order to invest heterosexuality with a speciously perverse glamor, designed to recruit impressionable youth into that sad, lonely, degrading, and ultimately dangerous lifestyle. Rather, I am interested in adding to the specificity and accountability of our understanding both of cross-sex possibility and of the heterosexist imposition.
As I have said, I don't think any denaturalizing project concerning heterosexuality can be conceptually simple, nor are any of its possible motivations likely to be perspicuous. Psychoanalysis--which, as Jean Laplanche explains, shows "perversion" to be already internal to the origin of any sexual desire--offers to teach us many useful techniques for this project (Laplanche 23-5); but to the degree that it is non- or even anti-historical, its denaturalizing work tends to perpetuate an atmosphere of chronic scandal or pathos rather than suggesting any possibility of change. At the same time, the making historically visible of heterosexuality is difficult because, under its institutional pseudonyms such as Inheritance, Marriage, Dynasty, Domesticity, and Population, heterosexuality has been permitted to masquerade so fully as History itself--when it has not been busy impersonating Romance. And these holding-company names accrue legitimacy by remaining in undefined and shifting relation to anything one might call heterosexuality-as-sexuality.
At present "the family" and "the homosexual" are functioning as each other's principal defining
Others, obviously in an intimate relation to the desperate and murderous denials and enforcements
around AIDS in this culture. The relation of domesticity to gender is also, as it has long been, one
replete with constitutive contradictions, perhaps best epitomized in Catherine MacKinnon's trenchant
dictum: "Privacy is everything women as women have never been allowed to be or have; at the same
time the private is everything women have been equated with and defined in terms of men's ability to
have" (MacKinnon 1983, 656-7). But the ecology of this, too, is subject to change. If we ask, for
instance, why the issue of gay and lesbian marriage should be surfacing so strongly just now, in the
late 1980s, as a potentially feasible, and to some a desirable, program of our politics, the answer will
have much to do with effects of AIDS, certainly, but also perhaps increasingly to do with the
untheorized, politically still unarticulated, but steady and growing pressure being brought to bear on
all urban lives by homelessness.(24) It seems telling that the movement for recognition of domestic
partners, oriented for so long and progressing so slowly around struggles over health benefits and
bereavement leave, should have scored major court victories rather on the issue of rent-control and
eviction. If, as it is hard to help fearing, "the homosexual" is being replaced by "the homeless" as the
definitional Other of domesticity, as the abyssal spectre against which the Name of the Family and
the Name of Marriage are to be brandished, then this may be a moment in which the tacit, exclusive
identification of "the domestic" with "the heterosexual" may be effectively challenged. But such a
challenge might depend on exacerbating other splits also internal to the community of those identified
by sexual dissidence: on excluding the poor, the racially marked, or those of us whose "primary
attachments" may be plural in number, experimental in form, or highly permeable. As it happens, the
most formally innovative writing now being done in gender/sexuality theory--I mean, for example,
the work of Cherrie Moraga and Audre Lorde--is stimulated by just the multiplicity of these
definitional fractures. To calibrate the costs and consequences of such a challenge is one of several
urgent projects that require new terms for analyzing class and race, along with sexuality, as--in the
fertile sense that "gender studies" makes possible--what isn't gender.
Professional Boundaries, Political Connections, Erogenous Zones
The difficult politics and erotics of representation, as all of us know, hardly stop short inside the threshold of the text. Although the present account of gender citicism has not focused, as it might have, on direct applications to readings of literary texts, I have meant it to suggest several distinctive ways in which gay/lesbian inquiry has raised specifically representational issues that traverse, exceed, and alter the definitional boundaries of our discipline. Let me say something, finally, about the representational issues raised by its presence, along with that of other explicitly political projects, within the university.
It is very hard to come up with useful images for the synecdochic relation of academic institutions to the larger world of productive institutions in our culture. One important thing about academia is how drastically it tends to condense. The very name of the university conveys that its ambition is to represent something huge in a disproportionately tiny space--a space that thereby tends to be rendered, of course, unreal or hyperreal, so that the desublimation of its untransformed relations across the local "real"--for instance, its infrastructural labor relations, its health-care provisions, its effects on real estate values and municipal tax bases, its symbiosis with various industries and communities--requires repeated wrenching acts of re-recognition. Moreover, the condensation that the university effects on its universe is not only uneven but tendentious, partial, and intermittent in its coverage: increasingly important segments of the society can seem to escape its purview entirely.
Beyond being condensed, and thus tending toward the unreal or the hyperreal, in its synecdochic relation to the universe it claims to represent, the university is also in an anachronistic relation to it. People may choose an academic vocation, not in the first place because of their cognitive talents or because they have particular political values or identifications, but because academic labor, at least at its most privileged and visible levels, is still in many ways so amazingly unrationalized. Compared to industrial or to other service labor--even compared to the other professions--our fealty to the stop-clock and to time discipline, to the bottom line of profitable or even of quantifiable results, to the public/private stresses of office or factory interaction, to the suppression or denial of affective charge, and in particular to the forcible alienation of our labor in the service of projects conceived by and for someone else, is still, for some, almost miraculously attenuated. Projects conceived in relation to identity politics, such as feminist or gay/lesbian inquiry, are continually testing and redefining the limits of such a professional exemption. Delusive as some of these freedoms may be, the space of work for at least some in this industry can seem strikingly close to an idealized preindustrial workspace of task orientation, work continuity, and the relatively meaningful choice of tasks based on perceptible need and aptitude.
The complex temporality of our representational space has a variety of consequences. First and most obviously, it means that academia and academics are always almost definitionally in danger of embodying various simply nostalgic or reactionary politics. Second, it means that the many, very distinctly rationalized and alienating aspects of academic labor, which form all or most of the conditions of work for so very many academics, always risk being occluded or mystified by this more elegiac ideal. Third, it of course marks the vulnerability of this space to the scouring triumphalism of capitalist rationalization; while the relatively decentered structure and diffuse status-economy of U.S. higher education pose some resistance to our instant, wholesale Thatcherization, this state's hypersensitivity to interventions into the discourses of gender and of homo/heterosexuality, in particular, may represent the threshold of an extreme risk. Fourth and more encouragingly, our anomalous temporality is one of the things that allows academia to function as a kind of cognitive gene-pool of precisely anachronistic ideas, impulses, or information that, un-usable under one set of political circumstances, might be preserved in this relatively unrationalized space to emerge with a potentially priceless relevance under changed ones. And fifth, I think many of us are very responsive to the utopian potential of this vision of a form of relatively unalienated, sometimes collaborative labor. No less dangerously grounded in the retrospect than any other utopian formation, it can nevertheless afford energies and leverages for change both within and around the institution.(25)
In an influential recent essay, "Theory, Pragmatisms, and Politics," Cornel West has written that "to be an engaged progressive intellectual is to be a critical organic catalyst whose vocation is to fuse the best of the life of the mind from within the academy with the best of the organized forces for greater democracy and freedom from outside the academy" (West 34-35). One image that keeps recurring to me, as a way of recording both the extreme condensation and the extreme temporal discontinuities by which our profession represents the world around it, is that of the progressive academy as one of several erogenous zones for our culture.(26) This image seems thematically available to me, no doubt, as it might not to some "otherwise-engaged" intellectuals, because the path of my own engagement travels so much through the politics of gender and sexuality. Even for other political projects, however, the erogenous-zone metaphor may usefully record some of the representational circumferences across which we struggle to orient ourselves. For example, Naomi Schor has identified the clitoris as the appropriate figure, in rhetorical theory, for the trope of synecdoche itself, a trope that she argues may be retrieved from the gender-binarized structuralist and poststructuralist conflation of all figures into (an often phallicly-figured) metaphor and (an often vaginally-figured) metonyny (Schor, 219). The clitoris also makes literal, as for that matter may mouth, anus, and some other zones chargeable as erotic, the space of an irreducible difference from procreation that homosexuality may be in the best position to represent, as well, for other sexualities--perhaps even, if it can stand for a displacing resistance to the untransformed reproduction of labor, for other institutions.(27)
Emily Dickinson writes, in her underquoted poem #1377,
Forbidden Fruit a flavor has
That lawful Orchards mocks--
How luscious lies within the Pod
The Pea that Duty locks--(28)
In this reading, of course, the P. that Duty locks would have to stand, in the first place, for the Profession or its Professional--the highly innervated node that might be hot enough to, as West puts it, "fuse" an individual history with a collective future, and the mind of the academy with (implicitly) the body of the political. The P. could also stand for the locked potentials of pleasure whose release in the form of unalienated labor would signify a decisive rupture in the arid economy of our current surround.
I value the erogenous image, however, also because it records, in addition to desire and pleasure, the equally strong pressure of the non-discretionary or even the compelled in any of our relations to political life. The local, intense, irrepressible throb that marks a site of "sexuality" seems in a way to militate against West's judicial, almost connoisseurial program of fusing "the best of the life of the mind from within the academy with the best of the organized forces for greater democracy and freedom from outside the academy." His formulation seems to suggest an apollonian--one might say Arnoldian--political privilege of distinction that must, after all, be thought to inhere in the life of the mind. I would be surprised, and indeed disturbed, to learn that that was how most of us arrived at the politics that really motivate us, or for that matter at our truly productive critical projects and insights. If each of us held an open competition of politics and ideas in the privacy of our mind, choosing the best and following it both within and outside of the academy, then we would be as likely as not to find an Edward Said in the vanguard of feminist theory, an Elaine Showalter in the private councils of the PLO. Or for that matter, some new movement of an even more right-thinking and ideologically sound description could sweep into view tomorrow--indeed, a new one could sweep into view every year--and each of us would perforce enroll in its train. Of course, the degree to which something like that is true marks at the same time a commoditized faddishness, a valuable sinuosity, and a very considerable level of underlying privilege and entitlement that do characterize a certain set of critical milieux. But the truth is, we forge our politics out of the impacted, anachronistic residuum of who we are and what we need, even as we do understand who we are and refine the art of our necessities under the pressure of our politics and theory.
This can hardly be to say that our theory or politics can be read in any transparent way off of anything so static or given as to be called identity. If gay and lesbian theory demonstrates any one thing, it demonstrates--more radically even than can the theory of gender or race--how difficult, distortive, and incoherent, though at the same time how profoundly consequential, are such processes as the self-assignment or allo-assignment of a definitional identity within a hierarchized system of specification. I would be the last critic to argue that the rigid notation of gender, class, race, sexuality could map the important data for anyone's locus of creativity and struggle. Yet the fact remains that each person, like each institution, has such loci of maximum potential, and has them characteristically. Our paths to them are very particular paths, and often--perhaps always--oblique; if cognitive work can expand or transform them, the process is a slow one that goes finger's breadth by finger's breadth. It is a rare figure (one thinks, perhaps, of an Audre Lorde) who has managed to feel and think a way through to an experiential understanding that makes more than one politics, one's own politics. The process cannot be an a priori one for the approach to any new or other politics.
One consequence of this condensation and embeddedness is the extreme difficulty, not at all
to say impossibility, of doing or thinking coalition politics at more than a superficial level. A second
consequence, one that has been severely underestimated by the current academy, is simply the
recalcitrance of the barrier that a relative privilege in our mode of labor is inevitably going to oppose
to most of our investment of real creativity, courage, and steadfastness in a class-based political
analysis. But another consequence is the very possibility of any political commitment that can be
responsive to a strong theoretical moment, but whose energies, needs, and desires (and for this we
are very fortunate) can also, in altered forms, outlast it.
Some portions of this chapter are adapted from the Introduction to my Epistemology of the Closet, @1990, University of California Press.
1. See, for example, MacKinnon, 1982.
2. For valuable related discussions, see King, "Situation," and de Lauretis, "Sexual Indifference."
3. *See, among others, Frye, "Politics," pp. 128-51, and Irigaray, "This Sex," 170-91.
4. See, for instance, Newton, "Mythic"; Nestle, "Butch-Fem"; Hollibaugh and Moraga, "What We're Rollin'"; Case, "Towards"; de Lauretis, "Sexual Indifference."
5. See on this, among others, Grahn, "Another."
6. On James Dean, see Golding, "James Dean"; on Garbo and Dietrich, see Dyer, "Seen."
7. This is not, of course, to suggest that lesbians are less likely than persons of any other sexuality to be contract HIV infection, when they engage in the (quite common) acts that can transmit the virus, with a person (and there are many, including lesbians) who already carries it. In this particular paradigm-clash between a discourse of sexual identity and a discourse of sexual acts, the former alternative is uniquely damaging. No one should wish to reinforce the myth that the epidemiology of AIDS is a matter of discrete "risk groups" rather than of particular acts that can call for particular forms of prophylaxis. That myth is dangerous to self-identified or publicly-identified gay men and drug users because it scapegoats them, and dangerous to everyone else because it discourages us from protecting ourselves and their sex or needle partners. But for a variety of reasons, the incidence of AIDS among lesbians has indeed been lower than among many other groups.
8. See, for example, Winnow, "Lesbians."
9. According to the repressive hypothesis, the history of sexuality could only be that of the "negative relation" between power and sex, of "the insistence of the rule," of "the cycle of prohibition," of "the logic of censorship," and of "the uniformity of the apparatus" of scarcity and prohibition: "Whether one attributes it to the form of the prince who formulates rights, of the father who forbids, of the censor who enforces silence, or of the master who states the law, in any case one schematizes power in a juridical form, and one defines its effects as obedience" (82-85).
10. "The important thing," Foucault writes for instance of early psychiatric investigations, "is that they constructed around and apropos of sex an immense apparatus for producing truth, even if this truth was to be masked at the last moment. The essential point is that sex was not only a matter of sensation and pleasure, of law and taboo, but also of truth and falsehood, that the truth of sex became something fundamental, useful, or dangerous, precious or formidable: in short, that sex was constituted as a problem of truth. What needs to be situated, therefore, is not the threshold of a new rationality whose discovery was marked by Freud--or someone else--but the progressive formation (and also the transformations) of that `interplay of truth and sex' which was bequeathed to us by the nineteenth century, and which we may have modified, but . . . have not rid ourselves of." (56-7)
11. In "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," I discuss further the relation between the history of masturbation and that of homo/heterosexual identities.
12. Quoted in Boswell, Christianity, 349 (from a legal document dated 533) and 380 (from a 1227 letter from Pope Honorius III).
13. Press characterizations of the accusations in the 1810 Vere Street scandal, quoted from Randolph Trumbach, ed., Sodomy Trials (New York, 1986), in Cohen, "Legislating," 200.
14. Lord Alfred Douglas, "Two Loves."
15. "Silence itself--the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers--is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses" (27).
16. Quoted in Watney, "Rhetoric," 77, from Weeks, Sexuality, 45.
17. Sedgwick, Epistemology (1990) makes this argument much more fully. We have recently witnessed a perfect example of this potent incoherence in an anomalous legal situation of gay people and acts in this country: while the Supreme Court in Bowers v. Hardwick has notoriously left the individual states free to prohibit any acts that they wish to define as "sodomy," by whomsoever performed, with no fear at all of impinging on any rights safeguarded by the Constitution--at the same time a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1988 (in Sergeant Perry J. Watkins v. United States Army) that homosexual persons, as a particular kind of person, are entitled to Constitutional protections under the Equal Protection clause.
18. For instance, on a day chosen at random: a married male law professor of 61 "died of a heart attack"; a twice-married 91-year-old female art collector, like an 85-year-old male ex-Cambodian Premier, simply "died"; a married male author of 74 "died of heart failure"; a married 86-year-old male executive "died of congestive heart failure"; an 86-year-old male dentist with a son and three grandchildren "died of a heart attack," as did a 70-year-old married male probation officer; a 91-year-old married male surgeon "died after a long illness," and so did another man, a 51-year-old Zairian band leader with 17 children; an unmarried but 90-year-old male jazz drummer "died of kidney failure"; and a Polish political leader who was only 47, but had a wife and son, "died of bladder cancer." But in the obituary of a 30-year-old actor, survived by his mother, grandmother, and two brothers, "a spokeswoman for the New York Shakespeare Festival, Barbara Carroll, said he died of a heart attack" (New York Times, 18 October 1989, p. 11 (national edition)). Interestingly, this invidiously differential practice seems to have changed literally overnight (on Sunday, 10 June 1990): since Monday, 11 June 1990, it has evidently been Times practice for all obituaries to specify the source of information about the cause of death. On 14 June 1990, for example, reports of non-HIV-related deaths were attributed to "a mortuary spokeswoman" or to the "family" or (in two cases) "wife" of the deceased; the epistemological status of these reported deaths is no longer different from that of an advertising executive who "died of complications from AIDS, a company spokesman said" (p. B13). The net result seems to be that AIDS has installed an evidentiary skepticism in the media's views of any report of death.
19. He continues: "This assertion does not contest the existence of viruses, antibodies, infections, or transmission routes. Least of all does it context the reality of illness, suffering, and death. What it does contest is the notion that there is an underlying reality of AIDS, upon which are constructed the representations, or the culture, or the politics of AIDS" (3).
20. "What," he retorts against a comment quoted from Foucault, "is `the gay life-style'? . . . More importantly, can a nonrepresentable form of relationship really be more threatening than the representation of a particular sexual act . . . ?" (220)
21. "All gay men know this" is the evidence he offers for one of his assertions--one that contradicts the theory he has just been quoting from several other gay men (208).
22. Trollope, Barchester, 169-70; the passage is quoted, and this understanding of "moderate schism" is elaborated, in Miller, Novel, 114-39.
23. Katz, 147-150, 232n; for a thorough overview of the vexed chronology of the two terms "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality," see Halperin, 155, notes 1, 2; 158-9 n. 17.
24. For a discussion of the current salience of the gay-marriage issue, see Stoddard and Ettelbrick.
25. Clearly, however, there are ways in which the very force of this utopian investment can work against what many would ordinarily think of as its guiding political principles. On hiring and graduate-admissions committees, for instance, I see in myself as well as in my colleagues how much this utopian investment in a potential for unalienated intellectual/affective labor and collaboration, leads us to think in individualistic terms of the choice of potential soul-mates for ourselves or companions for our deepest projects; where in any other context of economically consequential personnel decisions we would view very skeptically choices that did not have the firmest demographic/statistical support. It is this mechanism and our institutional defenses of it, of course, that have made academia so much slower than many other industries to show significant numerical effects under equal-opportunity laws. The possibility that mechanistic and number-based change may precede and even be a prerequisite for deeply-rooted imaginative change can be difficult for us to conceive, and the more difficult as we are more involved with the sense of our profession as a space that could be at once representative, exceptional, and transformational.
26. This image was suggested to me by Karen Swann's discussion of feminist criticism as an erogenous zone for the larger project of literary criticism.
27. I might make explicit, too, that I find I can only hear Cornel West's evocative phrase "critical organic catalyst" as a weirdly elongated way of pronouncing "clitoris."
28. It was Paula Bennett who, in an important article, first called attention to the clitoral salience of this poem (Bennett, 1990).