Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Labels (from the last co-ed meeting)

This is something I got to thinking about when we were talking at the last meeting about the significance of labels, e.g. 'the heterosexual queer' and 'are you a lesbian or a dyke.' It has to do with a point Foucault makes in his History of Sexuality. The stuff in brackets and the bold text is mine, not necessarily Foucault’s.

“This new persecution of the peripheral sexualities [queer or ‘deviant’] entailed an incorporation of perversions and a new specification of individuals...The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage [an identity], [which includes] a past [“she were just done wrong by a man”], a case history [“she used say she was a lesbian, but...”], and a childhood [“he’s gay because his mother didn’t hug him enough”]...in addition to being a type of life...with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology [the “gay gene”]...it was a secret that always gave itself away...less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature.

Later Foucault says, “It [queer sexuality] was implanted in bodies, slipped in beneath modes of conduct, made into a principle of classification and intelligibility, established as a raison d’etre and a natural order of disorder. Not the exclusion of these thousand aberrant sexualities, but the specification, the regional solidification of each one of them. The strategy behind this dissemination was to strew reality with them and incorporate them into the individual.”

So, the western capitalist power structure wants you to think about sexuality as something inside you, a secret/inner self that you confess to or do not confess to. This is kind of like how some people say modern Christianity brings God down into you, where you have a personal relationship in your heart, and you’re just either “saved” or “not saved” in your heart. A different way to think about sexuality might be when you hear someone say, “When I’m with a guy, I’m straight, when I’m with a girl, I’m a lesbian.” Obviously there are lots of different cultures throughout history with lots of different ways of thinking about sexuality.

Foucault emphasizes that this secret sexual self is the sort of thing you confess to. Think about when you talk to someone about their sexuality. They usually have some story to relate about telling a family member or friend. There are all these important, powerful moments of confession.

So, Foucault says, “The power which thus took charge of sexuality set about contacting bodies, caressing them with its eyes, intensifying areas, electrifying surfaces, dramatizing troubled moments. It wrapped the sexual body in its embrace. There was undoubtedly an increase in effectiveness and an extension of the domain controlled [what two women do in the privacy of their own home]; but also a sensualization of power and a gain of pleasure...the intensity of the confession renewed the questioner’s curiosity; the pleasure discovered fed back to the power that encircled it. But so many pressing questions singularized the pleasures felt by the one who had to reply. They were fixed by a gaze, isolated and animated by the attention they received. Power operated as a mechanism of attraction; it drew out those peculiarities over which it kept watch. Pleasure spread to the power that harried it; power anchored the pleasure it uncovered.”

My point is that labels are not just labels. It makes sense that some people bristle at bisexuality. In a way, it is a betrayal of this deeply inner yes/no self, that is so important in pleasure, that is a turn-on. But we should worry, because this inner yes/no idea reinforces the power structure by constantly forcing us to examine ourselves for inconsistencies between this secret self and the self we are in public, which leads to isolation and alienation. Foucault wants to remind us that the patriarchy is not just something “out there.” It is inextricable from our pleasures, and can apparently even find its way into the discourse of hardcore activists.


chantelle said...

holy shit, this blew my mind, seriously, no clue where it is now

sam said...

Is the "power" of confession not masochistic- a willing (even perhaps exciting) submission to the vulnerability of sharing information about one's secret self?

If sexuality is an aspect of the secret self and the powers of society decide on whether or not we reveal these aspects of the secret self- then, in order to circumvent patriarchal power we ought to ________? can you clarify?

Sean said...

Yeah, thats the frustrating thing about "perpetual spirals of power and pleasure." One thing to think about might be the way the discourse on homosexuality in this country, on both sides, zeroes in on choice. The anti-gay line is, "its a personal choice to be gay." The pro-gay line says "its not a choice to be gay, its a hard fact." So, the pro-gay line is undermined by people who have more fluid sexualities. I think if there's a "we ought to ___" here its that that trip is nowhere.
In some ways its an obvious parallel to the abortion discourse. Choice or no choice. Or democracy vs. anarchy, choice or no choice. Poor people and schizophrenics doing crimes and filling up prisons, we ask did they make a choice or did they not make a choice.
I think we need to keep our eyes on specific prizes and not get hung up on this question whether 'queer' is an essential property.

Jenna Lyles said...

Hmmm. I really like this, but I think I need a minute to digest it. Could you maybe clarify what you are saying about labels? I know we also talked about this more at the meeting on Sunday. It also seems like the confessional aspect of sexuality points to performance. But I'm not sure how that ties in to the labels.