Sweet Relief from Identity Panic

Reviews

Sweet Relief from Identity Panic

Sue Golding, ed., The Eight Technologies of Otherness, New York: Routledge, 1997.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

– “Dover Beach” (1867), Matthew Arnold.

If you find yourself somehow dissatisfied with the choice between being pummeled by a dom and a PTA meeting, you might want to read Sue Golding’s book. It presents much more subtle alternatives. And by this I don’t mean to say that the editor or contributors occupy some vague identarian middle-of-the-road. They clearly do not and don’t want to. Golding et al present tales that touch on a “selection” of identities (curiosity, noise, cruelty, appetite, skin, nomadism, contamination, dwelling) without trivializing or whinging. The title “the eight technologies of otherness” refers to the range of narratives in the text that effectively defy/ignore the constraints of identity politicization without losing (and, in some cases, while expanding) a sense of the political. The lack of black and white without comforting-compensatory earth tones might be enraging for those who are faint of identity. However, as Golding states in one particularly moving passage, the heart of identity in the 1990s might just be:

the mere fact of witnessing. Of bearing witness to the savage meanness of HIV-related illnesses playing violent-nasty with the bodies of friends. Over fifty dead (and this utterly minimal next to someone else’s story) – movement politics aside, one feels like standing on street corners, so bereft, except with a photo in hand, finally reduced to grabbing anyone in passing and asking: did you know David? or Brian? or Jamie? or Alexander? or Lorne? let me tell you what he was like, the music he loved, the nightclubs he frequented, the type of funeral he chose, the kind of breakfast he loved to eat, the humour, the anger, the pastiche in which he would engage, against the drug barons, the tabloids, the employer; against the nightmare of memory or the fear of forgetting. Against the movement itself.1

The distinctiveness of The Eight Technologies is that the text does not attempt to define and regulate, but, on the contrary, simply (without authoritative promise) expresses and (as Golding says) bears witness to otherness. The narrative strategy might very well be, intentionally or not, confusing to those in search of theoretical tidiness. In a society obsessed with the pretense of “really knowing”, it is difficult to grasp that many no longer

simply ‘tell’ their sexual stories to reveal the ‘truth’ of their sexual lives; instead, they turn themselves into socially organised biographical objects. They construct – even invent, though that may be too crass a term – tales of the intimate self, which may or may not bear a relationship to the truth. Are their stories really to be seen as the simple unfolding of some inner truth? Or are their very stories something they are brought to say in a particular way through a particular time and place? And if so, where do they get their ‘stories’ from? Once posed this way, the sexual stories can no longer be seen simply as the harbingers of a relatively unproblematic truth.2

The view that the development of scientific method and the systematic exploration of varieties of human experience and behaviour produced more and intensified forms of medical, legal, psychiatric and political control is an important current in contemporary social science research. This thesis is well known through the analyses of Michel Foucault and Jeffrey Weeks provided on the emergence of the sexualized identities after the mid-nineteenth century. The grand intellectual project in which Foucault and Weeks (among others) participate aims to contextualize the grandiose presumptiveness of post-Darwinian science, that is, the pretense to discovery of the “truth” of human beings and things in our material world. We all bear witness to the enormous folly of the “science as truth” school of thought as the twentieth century draws to a close. Our century is perhaps the most bloody in human memory, given the unsatiated propensity of the followers of rival truths to massacre their opponents. This collection rejects “truth as rationality”, positing itself as

a book about desire… It is about forces that draw us towards centres of attraction – human, animal, or insect; living, once-living, or never-living; physical, conceptual, or impossible – centres that possess the uncanny power to rearrange our rational faculties and judgment, our sense of action and consequence, so as to further purposes that we may not understand, now or ever.3

At another level, the Foucault-Weeks analysis also frames a process of human knowledge production that culminates in distinct and paradoxical narratives. One of these tales, for example, focuses on the generation and typologies of perversion. Jonathan Katz has recently argued that this tale began in the “invention of heterosexuality”. We can see it reaching a crescendo in contemporary sex panics, which express collective anxieties in the face of the infinity of desire. The construction of the “dangerous sex offender” in Canada during the 1950s fits into this model of analysis since it paralleled the definition of the “homosexual” as a social category and political threat to Cold War masculinism. To vaccinate itself against a perceived communist threat to de-sublimate gender relations, the state moved to regulate forms of behaviour, indeed varieties of “being”, that were considered anti-social or psychotic.

The sinister implications of this development in a Canadian context were typified in the Klippert case, in which a man questioned by police in connection with another offense admitted that he had been homosexual for 24 years and had committed certain acts with males. Klippert’s sexual activities were non-violent and consensual, but because homosexuality per se was then illegal, he was imprisoned for “gross indecency”. Once in prison, he was interviewed by government-appointed psychiatrists who reported that he was likely to repeat his crimes. Canadian law then provided that such prisoners be declared “dangerous sexual offenders” and sentenced to indefinite preventive detention. In an appeal to the Supreme Court, his lawyers argued that conviction for a sexual offense should not result in an indefinite sentence. The Court’s rejection of the appeal led to a legal-political uproar and at least partly underlay the rationale for Canada’s 1969 de-criminalization of homosexuality.

A Foucauldian analysis highlights the logic of control and regulation implicit in this “liberalization”. De-criminalization was followed both by the emergence of lesbian and gay social-cultural- political-legal movement and increasingly precise definitions of sex crimes by the Canadian state. When all homosexuality was illegal, there was after all no legal difference in having sex with a same-sex minor (in Canada, someone between 14 and 18 years – we’re not crystal clear on that 4) or a same-sex adult. What was important was that they were same-sex partners. Of course, not only homosexuals failed to make the grade. The process also sublimated, shamed and marginalized Joan Nestle’s mother’s “enjoyment of ‘the penis and the vagina’ as she puts it.”5 The emergence of a “gay and lesbian type” is major paradox. The Canadian case is one example among many of the emergence of a category of persons whose social, cultural, political and (well… let’s-say-it-even-if-it’s-not-obvious-in-the-bars) spiritual identity received substantive corroboration through state action. After the state legitimized a new behavioral space, thereby recognized what had been going on for a very long time (!), it moved to refine the limits and character of this space. In contrast to the situation in the 1950s, current legislation defines (shall we say) “appropriate homosexuality” on the basis of age and sexual behaviour or sexual culture. At the same time, the newly legitimate (i.e., the homosexuals) began to organize openly and pressed to secure/expand/qualify a newly recognized terrain of personal expression.

In a society and political culture in which power is linked to occupation of geographical and territorial space, group identities linked to the expression of difference present a deep-rooted challenge to the order of things. Stated otherwise, if traditional Western power relations depend on securing territory in order to extend the male-dominated-female-subordinated household, what does it mean to legitimate space for individuals or households whose identity does not explicitly centre on reproduction, inheritance and thus generational accumulation of property? Doreen Massey posits such developments as evidence of the “possibilities” of space: “constantly disconnected by new arrivals, constantly waiting to be determined (and therefore always undetermined) by the construction of new relations”.6 Initially euphoric, homosexual activists spoke of reinventing relationships and liberating sex, a wonderful-terrible burden. More recently, queer marriage activists have absurdly narrowed their activism to attempting a “sit-in” in the heterosexual institution of marriage as re-articulated near the turn of the twentieth century, that is, based on monogamy, accumulation of property and inheritance. This much prissier vision might flounder over what Clive Van Den Berg paints as “places where power has fled”.7

The Eight Technologies of Otherness dispenses with identity politics in their widely discussed contemporary form. Leaving aside the folly of constructing new hierarchies on the ruins of discredited predecessors, this volume literally embodies difference. Instead of posing as truth, identity is taken as relational, be it through sexual partners, parents, spiritual awakening, photo images or the text itself as cultural object. For those of us who did not think that RuPaul was being an air-head when he sang that he was going “back to my roots” (as a black man, a drag queen, an urban sophisticate, an American, an international sensation, a top model, etc.), Golding et al provide grounded politics that are sweet relief from identity panic.

Notes

1. Golding, “A Word of Warning”, The Eight Technologies of Otherness, New York: Routledge, 1997, p. xii-xiii.

2. Ken Plummer, Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds, London: Routledge, 1995, p. 34.

3. Allucquere Rosanne Stone, “In the language of vampire speak”, in Golding, p. 59.

4. The definition of the age of consent for homosexual relations varies widely in Western industrialized societies: from 12 years in the Netherlands, Spain and Malta to 18 years in Austria and the UK to complete illegality in 22 American states (including Florida and Minnesota).

5. Joan Nestle, “My mother liked to fuck”, in Golding, p. 160.

6. Doreen Massey, “Spatial disruptions”, in Golding, p. 222.

7. Clive Van Den Berg, “Battle sites, mine dumps, and other spaces of perversity”, in Golding, p. 298.

Michael Dartnell is a lecturer in Political Science at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Action Directe: Ultra-left Terrorism in France, 1979-1987. He has published several articles on both French political violence and sexual identity, and maintains the Online Resource Guide to Political Inquiry.