After Queer Theory: The Limits of Sexual Politics – James Penney

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

After Queer Theory claims that queer theory has been made obsolete by the elaboration of its own logic within capitalism. James Penney argues that far from signalling the end of anti-homophobic criticism, however, the end of queer presents the occasion to rethink the relation between sexuality and politics. The question is, how straightforward can the language of sexual politics be? Is it all, as Foucault wrote, ‘an elaborate ruse designed to have us chatter endlessly about sex, all the while further tethering ourselves to the omnipotent forces of power’?

Through a critical return to Marxism and psychoanalysis (Freud and Lacan), Penney insists that the way to implant sexuality in the field of political antagonism is paradoxically to abandon the exhausted premise of a politicised sexuality.

After Queer Theory argues that it is necessary to wrest sexuality from the dead end of identity politics, opening it up to a universal emancipatory struggle beyond the reach of capitalism’s powers of commodification.

One chapter (‘The Sameness of Sexual Difference’) argues that each individual’s sexual preferences radically differ from everyone else’s. Penney wants to remind us that our idiosyncrasies should be kept in mind when linking sex with politics.  As strange as this sounds, queerness – or any sexual identity – should not be used as a starting point for political action, because otherwise we risk spreading divisive, over-militant or ‘identitarian’ sentiments. Sexual differences are ubiquitous and so ‘devoid of consequences for political thought’.

Penney examines many enlightening areas of sexual politics including perversion, sublimation, and family values

Like others of his ilk, he can’t write comprehensible English – he used adjectives as nouns., e.g.: problematic. The concluding chapter resumes where the first chapter leaves off: it examines one final thematic.

He’s certainly right that: ‘queer’ can sex up a philosophical tradition that makes for remarkably dry reading.

What planet does he inhabit when he claims: To be sure, there is no doubt that in the liberal and ‘post-oedipal’ global North, there are concrete material advantages to be gained from engaging in the queer lifestyle of which Morland and Willox speak. The queer is not only unburdened by conventional family obligations or the monogamous relationship. Also, the lifestyle values he or she embraces are inherently synchronous with the flexibility, mobility and precariousness on which contemporary capitalism so exploitatively thrives.

Some of his case studies are bizarre, though maybe I’ve lived a sheltered, vanilla life.

And what are we to make of ‘the phallus not as penis but as turd’?

However much of realty the ‘pink pound’ may be, there are young people begging on our streets after being thrown out by their parents because of their sexuality.

I had to look up: rhizomatic = an application of post-structural thought to education, it has more recently been identified as methodology for net-enabled education. In contrast to goal-directed and hierarchical theories of learning, it posits that learning is most effective when it allows participants to react to evolving circumstances, preserving lines of flight that allow a fluid and continually evolving redefinition of the task at hand

Also joissance – physical or intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy

Introduction: After Queer Theory: Manifesto And Consequences
1: Currents Of Queer
2: The Universal Alternative
3: Is There A Queer Marxism?
4: Capitalism And Schizoanalysis
5: The Sameness Of Sexual Difference
6: From The Antisocial To The Immortal
Notes
Index

Quotations:

within groups such as ACT UP  familiar with then-emergent queer academic discourse, wasn’t especially conducive to the creative imagination of strategies for countering the effects of the deathly state-sanctioned public indifference to the crisis. As Sedgwick insightfully argues, this apparatus tended to produce a paranoid and abstract vision of power, which actually worked against the development of productive strategies of resistance. By emphasising the determinative impact of power over the creation ofpositive alternatives, the Foucaultian framework that worked against the negotiation of relations and alliances.

Unfortunately, Sedgwick’s t professed inability to imagine how her intellectual concerns might relate to dass struggle and colonial history tells us all we need to know about her deepest political convictions. In particular, her inability to see any relation between her own involvement in the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States and the obscene devastation inflicted by that same crisis, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is deeply objectionable to say the least. In fact, one begins to wonder if Klein’s writing proves so seductive for Sedgwick not because it allows her to work through or overcome the infantile affects that haunt her, but rather because it provides a sort of intellectual alibi for wallowing in them, sheltered from any reminder that they might in part be determined by forces outside the boundaries of her own limited and very bourgeois construction of her intellectual identity. In short, Klein allows Sedgwick to take the sense data of her feelings at face value, reneging on the political and analytic responsibility to question the ideological parameters that set the terms of her experience of them.

No concerted effort was made to document the candidates’ perspectives on any other issue: gun control, education, the death penalty, taxation, foreign policy or health care (generally speaking, that is beyond the specific concerns related to HIV/AIDS and reproductive rights). Only policies obviously related to civil rights for non-heterosexual citizens were meaningfully broached. This briefest of summaries makes the leaflet’s general strategy quite patent. But the devil, as they say, is in the detail. The Agenda’s members made their endorsements on the basis of results from a questionnaire circulated to New York state queers. Questions covered ‘the following topics: comprehensive civil rights protections; protecting students from anti-gay harassment in schools; funding for our health and human service needs; anti-discrimination protections in the issuing of insurance policies; funeral and bereavement leave for same-sex partners; opposition to the state anti-gay marriage bill; No concerted effort was made to document the candidates’ perspectives on any other issue: gun control, education, the death penalty, taxation, foreign policy or health care (generally speaking, that is beyond the specific concerns related to HIV/AIDS and reproductive rights). Only policies obviously related to civil rights for non-heterosexual citizens were meaningfully broached. This briefest of summaries makes the leaflet’s general strategy quite patent. But the devil, as they say, is in the detail. The Agenda’s members made their endorsements on the basis of results from a questionnaire circulated to New York state queers. Questions covered ‘the following topics: comprehensive civil rights protections; protecting students from anti-gay harassment in schools; funding for our health and human service needs; anti-discrimination protections in the issuing of insurance policies; funeral and bereavement leave for same-sex partners; opposition to the state anti-gay marriage bill; support of multicultural curriculum in our schools; age-appropriate sex education; HIV transmission prevention and counselling for the seropositive; and recognition of our relationships through domestic partnership, civil union, and/or same-sex marriage legislation’. Bear in mind for the upcoming discussion that several topics on this list express interests that extend beyond the queer community strictly speaking, however one may wish to define it, to include the citizenry or people in general: health care, women’s reproductive rights, multicultural and sex education, in particular.

On the level of its address, however, the pamphlet presupposed a specific, clearly delimited community subtracted from the whole. The members of this community expressed the interests of an explicit `we’. The issues of health care and health insurance, for instance, were approached not as concerns that raise the general question of each and every citizen’s access to the benefits they provide, but rather as a question of ‘our’ specific needs and right to protection from discrimination.

To be perfectly explicit, the health care system’s status quo is left entirely unquestioned; the frame is limited to the ambition of preventing discrimination against queers in the system as it currently stands.

The interest of the pamphlet lies in the sort of political subject it presupposes. Scandalised, I realised that it enjoined me implicitly to vote for the fiscally conservative homosexual or queer-friendly Republican (rare, but not non-existent) in favour of capital punishment and low corporate taxes, instead of the Democrat pushing for a patients’ bill of rights and the regulation of the pharmaceutical industry, but who may have spoken out against gay marriage.

In sum, since the dawn of queer theory, non-libertarian and non-or post-liberal — not to mention explicitly Marxist — approaches to homosexuality have been extremely rare. Certainly, classical Marxism itself hasn’t helped matters. With the exception of a smattering of quite banal, decidedly unscientific, homophobic comments in their correspondence, Marx and Engels themselves were significantly unconcerned with homosexuality. The historical record shows that this oversight has since led many major Marxist strategists and theorists to the silly conclusion that homosexuality as such is objectively reactionary or bourgeois.

even in its most post-liberal strains, queer theory has been overwhelmingly confined within a narrow political horizon which fails to recognise how sexual rights and freedoms, not to mention the critique of this discourse of rights and freedoms, never appear at the top of the list of priorities of the most concretely disenfranchised the world over, queer and straight and everything in between.

Unjust and subtly devastating though it can surely be, the kind of homophobia queer theory talks about is a quite refined form of oppression — one that develops in comparatively benign social formations, from which the more physical forms of sexualised violence, from rape to excision to the proliferating forms of torture, have ceased to police and deform sexual relations in the widest sense.” Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, homophobia becomes part and parcel of a more generalised masculine sexual violence, which perverts the entire field of sexual relations, targeting primarily the sexual expression of women. Here, in Salafist Islam for example, it’s less a question of the direct oppressive targeting of homosexuality, however prominently this features in the programme, than .a masculine-perverse protest against the very libidinal conditions of human life as such.

consider the circumstances of a ‘badly’ educated, working-class lesbian toiling away at several part-time jobs to support her family. Or those of a young, crypto-gay Iranian man contemplating a sex-change operation so he can envision a sexual relationship without either violating religious principles he may in fact hold dear, or risk execution at the hands of the state. That either of these subjects should experience a spontaneous frisson of solidarity with a bourgeois and staunchly secularist queer movement is not nearly as obvious a contention as we might wish to think.

we agreed to allow the master signifier ‘capitalism’, with its indelible tie to Marxist economic historicisation, to be replaced by another, insidiously naturalising, term: ‘the market’. We have allowed this signifier to impose itself as an objective description of a natural law, one that conveys a direct knowledge of the economic real as such.

Certainly, there’s nothing novel today in asserting a link between the proliferation of sexual identities during the twentieth century and the expansion and globalisation of capitalist relations

the absorption by consumer society or libidinal satisfaction.’

in other words, social shame accompanied the admission in polite company of an inappropriate sexual dalliance, today shame accrues if one admits to not being interested in sexual (and back then, political) transgression; if one confesses that one’s sexual experience has never quite extended to flavours beyond vanilla.

homosexuality threatened the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie because the prospect of sexual enjoyment outside the confines of the heterosexual family unit threatened to sabotage the bourgeois state’s project to assign responsibility for the provision of social services to the private sphere, organised around the unstable institution of the patriarchal nuclear family. The Victorian working-class man had no choice but to adopt the protestant work ethic because he had a wife and family to take care- of at home, knowing full well that the state would decline to take over responsibility for the family should he prove unwilling or unable to do so himself. Bluntly, if the father is busy cruising men at the public toilets, it’s not dear who’s going to be bringing home the bacon. Properly socialist pressure on the state to provide public services then threatens to emerge.

the so-called linguistic turn of semiotics and structuralism, for Morton, is a symptom of critical theory’s regression back from historical materialist analysis. The growing emphasis on language in twentieth-century thought, on the construction and deconstruction of signification or meaning, is to be understood as part and parcel of the increasing hegemony and widening globalisation of capitalist logic. Capital superimposes an obfuscating but profit-generating cloak of empty value on the material conditions of production. Analogously, linguistic, textual and discursive modes of analysis introduce a distracting emphasis on rhetoric and representation into the more concrete political and historical problem of human need’s satisfaction.

Over a century of psychoanalytic experience provides inconvenient but overwhelming evidence that even at its basest or barest, human life can only fail to limit itself to the dimension of biological or physiological need. The argument that psychoanalytic experience shows this because it’s only the bourgeoisie who ever get analysed fails, unfortunately, to convince.

Here is the basic lesson of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1922): the essence of human life is its own excess over itself; an inhuman and immortal drive which, zombie-like, persists beyond mere biological death.’ Similarly, as Lacan argued in the aftermath of the socio-political tumult of the late 1960s, surplus value, which he translated into the neologism plus-de-jouir (surplus enjoyment), survives the socialist revolution. As impractical and politically irritating as the statement surely is, Baudrillard is entirely correct

 

The radical queer millionaire Internet pornographer who organises ‘sex-positive’ sex toy parties in his spare time (the new Tupperware?) has become one of the best emblems of contemporary capitalism.

These are the formidable forces that see us purchase that bottle of perfume or cologne despite the fact that we know better, that we’re not quite sure we even enjoy the scent. If the old project of so-called Freudo-Marxism ever had a point to make, it was perhaps that the two agendas, viewed on this level, are one and the same. Taking the literary cue from Freud, Lacan tied the destiny of the desiring subject to the vicissitudes of the tragic genre, from the desire of the destitute Oedipus ‘never to have been born’, through Antigone’s uncompromising perseverance at the limits of ate, to Sygne de Coiffontaine’s pathetic and suicidal facial tic. This tic indexes a pure negativity, an absolute ‘no’, whose possibility is carved out by the signifier, according to Lacan, in Paul Claudel’s dramaturgical trilogy. But, as Alenka Zupana’ insightfully argues, desire also belongs to the realm of comedy, here understood as the generic mode that exposes the difference between the lofty and otherworldly ambitions of desire and the inadequate objects that fail to satisfy it. This is the desire not to desire; the desire whose aim is to sabotage its own realisation, whose modus operandi is precisely to repress the knowledge of its own impossibility.

This desire is to be distinguished from what Lacan called desire’s real — the drive, that is — which does in fact deliver satisfaction. But we can only experience this satisfaction at the ego’s expense, as a consequence of the ego’s fleeting collapse.

Beyond Freud’s pleasure principle, in other words, there lies not the nihilistic negation of any future for humanity whatsoever, but rather the emancipatory affirmation of humanity’s excess over itself, an excess that is properly eternal in nature. If there’s no future, in other words, it’s because this future is not merely already (potentially) here, but also always has been, and always will be.

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