So-called queer studies is no stranger to provocative titles. I might be better off defending a more modest program of “gay integration”, but while men make their history, they do so not under self-selected conditions. “Assimilationist” has become the standard term of reproach for those who are critical of postmodern and identitarian queer culture. To avoid the appearance of a semantic argument, I have therefore adopted the term here. In what follows, I aim to defend a particular vision of gay assimilation into the working class; to recover a dialectical gay essentialism; and to demonstrate the possibility of a systematic, integral framework for discussing modern sexual categories.
Internalized homophobia is the specter that haunts gay theory and practice. So this is not just a prejudice, but an internalized one—well, is there any other kind? At the risk of being called hyperliteral (crude because honest thinking), the term itself suggests another, endemic homophobia by contrast, as if it were only natural for straights to hate gays and for gays to mechanically internalize this hatred. Here, we will bracket the conventional mistrust of “internalized homophobia”; like “class reductionism”, it serves as little more than an evasion.
Bearing this in mind, how do we begin to define queerness, which celebrates the indeterminate, the elliptical, the ineffable and the inassimilable? One is reminded of Wilde’s quip: ‘To define is to limit’, which itself bears an uncanny resemblance to Hegel’s and Spinoza’s omnis determinatio est negatio. Sontag’s erotics of art, her rejection of any interpretive or analytical approach, expresses the same rejection of determination. Still, she is forced to string words together in some syntactical arrangement in order to play the part of the public intellectual, and she determines her gay sensibility obliquely in terms of the epicene, the ambiguous, and performativity (being-as-playing-a-role).
Provisionally, queer signifies a refusal to be determined. As “performative”, one refuses specifically to determine one’s interior. An actor cannot be held responsible for the crimes of her character. In Liquid Sky, Margaret articulates RuPaul’s “the rest is drag” mentality quite nicely:
So your professor wore a three-piece suit and blamed you for your jeans. And your jeans were “too much.” And he didn’t understand that his suit was also a costume. You thought your jeans stood for love, freedom and sexual equality; we at least know that we’re in costume.
Liquid Sky (1982)
One is allowed appearances, but they must never constitute a totality. Actuality is expressly forbidden: the outside must not be allowed to dialectically infect the interior. For all of its shock tactics, queerness remains fundamentally a politics of purity, or rather, a depoliticized, puristic ethos. Kant annulled knowledge to make room for faith; the queer annuls reflection, sublation, necessity, and determinacy in order to accommodate the beautiful, because utterly vacuous, soul.
The judgment is a negation, because it distinguishes the predicate or object from the subject, dystonic from syntonic, not-self from self. This is the experience of sense-certainty in Hegel: Now is night, but it is just as much not night, and Now is really the infinite identity-in-difference of Night and Day in which each is mediated with the other and Now is just this mediation, or universality. But sense-certainty doesn’t accept this, because it wants immediacy without negation. It wants to take the object purely on its own, as simply and positively what (it) is, to apprehend without comprehending.
By taking “queerness” as something inherently indeterminate or inassimilable, as the indeterminate as such, by refusing to bring it into consciousness as a concrete content with a clear, determined referent and meaning, one commits oneself to this one-sidedness. I can point to queerness as This, make some elliptical statements about it: this takes the form of symptoms, acting out, various ways of exhibiting rather than articulating. The real negation is ignored, and what remains is an ambiguous “difference” with no identity, or a difference with no concrete differentiae. The result is a subjectivist nominalism.
Perception tries to resolve the contradiction of sense-certainty by taking the universal as its object, but it doesn’t recognize the negation of negation, sublation, absolute negativity. It holds its abstractions at a distance from one another, much as Sontag protects the gay sensibility from the straight intellect. For-self and for-other fall apart, and the percipient consciousness can’t posit them as a self-identical essence, an unconditioned universal. In Force and Understanding, that universal first takes the form of force and its expression, the experience of which duplicates force, but the unconditioned universal is revealed to be the category of life, which determines itself as the genus.
Hegel’s goal in the Phenomenology of Spirit is to make science the exoteric possession of the real community. To do so, he must take it from the hands of the Schellingians and Romantics in order to determine what in them is still only inchoate. This is the same “betrayal” that Sontag apologizes for: “To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it.”
For Hegel’s project to succeed, he must mistrust the mistrust of Kant and Reinhold, which only evades the heart of the matter. In bracketing the mistrust of internalized homophobia, my intent is not to legitimize homophobia or prejudice, but to clear away much of the fog that obscures our terrain. Sontag proves her loyalty to her aristocracy in her refusal to make any clear, unequivocal claims about her subject; in her examples, she indicates or points.
The notes on camp, despite Sontag’s many shortcomings, provide some valuable phenomenological observations—valuable, that is, as material for analysis, as content. Their standpoint is simply that of the closeted gay, for whom every act is a self-conscious lie, and to whom any attempt at interpretation or analysis must therefore appear as a threat. Ambiguity: this is nothing but to try to to bring events to Absolute Zero, the indifference point; such a one immediately sunders, is already sundered, and the Body without Organs, the schizophrenic on a walk, will continue to be conditioned from the outside all the more so as he shuts his eyes to the real world.
The fop, the dandy, the aesthete: the gay identity has long been tied in popular imagination to indolence and superficiality. The Baron de Charlus is not a flattering self-image. The trade abjects onto the fairy; the fairy is all too happy to oblige and even “camps it up” because he thinks this is what men find attractive. The queer and third wave celebration of queer femininity reduces ultimately to this. Situational sexual behavior, bisexuality, curiosity, and other such confounding variables facilitate the trade’s disavowal of homosexual impulses.
While the descendants of trade maintain their denial into the 21st century as blank Grindr profiles, contemporary fairies (including the nominally “radical” ones) have firmly established their own means of exculpation in academia and pop culture: camp, performativity, affectation. The postmodern elevation of style over substance, the mistrust of metanarratives, has apparently ensured for the hip, middle class homosexual his spiritual inviolability. Unlike the masses, who have “bought in” to society and march like ants, he remains indeterminate in his aristocracy of taste.
Here in the real world, I work hard and I take pride in my work. I do this not because I care about the company I work for, but because I care about my coworkers and the social fabric. The epistemology and ontology of a factory differ markedly from those of “queer culture”. There is no ambiguity: the nature of the collaborative activity precludes it. One must be able to call a thing by its name, to trust that one’s hands can do what one’s coworkers’ hands can do and that one’s experiences with the equipment resemble theirs. Such universality is established in and through practice; its objectivity and this-sidedness are proven on a daily basis.
A straight coworker recently began to call himself “gay Kris” and to refer to me as his “heterosexual friend”. The spontaneous display of solidarity, which resembles Hegel’s inverted world, was much appreciated. It is the sort of thing that might make a boss or a lawyer uncomfortable, and yet it flies in the face of so many stereotypes about industrial workers. My friend’s game has a simple message: we are the same but different; our relationship is one of reciprocity and of mutual respect and recognition. While some would be quick to discern some latent homophobia in the exchange of identities, its real rebellion resides in the specific absence of any homophobic sentiment, which gives the lie to a false antagonism and to a “progressive” bourgeois paternalism that depends on this false antagonism.
There is much to be said for the idea, recently invoked by Godard in The Image Book, of thinking with one’s hands. Skepticism, idealism, aestheticism, subjectivism—these are all impractical philosophies. The soul becomes actual when the body becomes its sign, and this is achieved through habit and discipline, through the development of skills and of course through one’s relationships with other people. When I can complete a task satisfactorily enough to be recognized by my peers as one of them, then I am no longer concerned that I am “playing a role”. The proof is in the pudding.
The concrete universal is human life, species being, the living, laboring body. These play a role similar to Kant’s schemata, allowing us to unite theoretical and practical consciousness, understanding and intuition, subject and object. It is no surprise, then, that the postmodernists are also by and large anti-humanists committed to the annihilation of the subject-self and the partiality of the drives. Foucault’s preoccupation with the limit experience is the necessary corollary of his immanentism. Episteme, discursive formation, and knowledge-power are only so many ways of discussing the understanding as if it were something contingent, hopelessly fragmented, and abstractly particular, a prison house of language. Foucault did not think with his hands, although he did think of hands, calling these “the partial object par excellence”.
The world does not belong solely to me as an individual. In fact, even I don’t. The words in which I think and the tools I use are social products; human existence is through and through social existence. I don’t have the luxury of being indeterminate, because I’m accountable to those who depend on me. I cannot “define” the world in accordance with my personal preferences, because it exists outside of me and every interaction with another person triangulates that which we both work in and on and with and as.
More specifically, one’s sexuality is a fact. Today, all available evidence suggests a historical rather than biological etiology of homosexuality as well as of hetero- and bisexuality. I can’t freely construct or (re)define my sexual orientation; I can only recognize or repress it. In the language of Force and Understanding, “force driven back into itself must express itself.” In order to determine or to understand it, comparisons are necessary. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are only two particularities of human sexuality, two expressions of human nature that are not inherently antagonistic. Whether or not such categories will continue to be applicable in a future society, they are undoubtedly applicable to the modern social world.
Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, homosexuality is far from a common occurrence in the animal kingdom. Only human beings and domestic sheep exhibit exclusive same-sex sexual activity given equilibrium sex ratios. Contra the anti-humanists, then, to be gay is as at least as human as to be straight; it is queerness that properly belongs to the rest of the animal kingdom, which tends to be less fussy about what it humps. Human bisexuality must also be distinguished from the sexuality of the other animals, which knows nothing of human, psychosexual development or human community.
In a large scale genome-wide association study, researchers led by Benjamin Neale determined that as little as eight percent and no more than twenty four percent of variation in sexual orientation can be predicted from genes. The history of sexuality, so dear to Foucauldians, cannot be ignored: human sexuality can’t be reduced to purely naturalistic categories independent of social processes. None of this warrants the injection of absolute “ruptures” and “discontinuity” that obscure the real historical movement, the development of productive forces, social organization, and culture. Homosexuality is not animal or merely biological; to be gay is to be human, is a particular way of being human.
When we conceive of homosexuality as a force, we are confronted with two options: the ontogenetic (individual) picture and the phylogenetic (universal). In other words, I can take my individual sexuality as confronting my environment in a dialectical, psychosexual interchange, or I can take homosexuality as a historical phenomenon confronting its other in heteronormative, bourgeois society. In either case, the force that we begin with is equally the product of the other force, and both dissolve into the play of appearances.
If we understand the interplay of the two forces as an organic process in which differences that are no difference establish and sublate one another, then we see how the universal particularizes itself in a rational, necessary way. Just as natura naturans posits natura naturata and loses itself in this positing, becomes its own other and is conditioned by its own otherness, human nature in its process of active self-development must also confront itself as a given, historical reality. Real freedom depends on the recognition of necessity rather than on a psychotic rejection of the facts. This body has organs!
The necessity in appearances is not established by fixing heterosexuality and homosexuality as isolated extremes, but by understanding them as moments of a historical process, by bringing them together without losing sight of their essential difference. When we bring order to our understanding, which requires suspending psychic resistance in all of its guises in order to be honest with ourselves and with others, we recover the rational order that makes appearances actual; furthermore, we establish the irrationality of certain social forms which are therefore condemned to the dustbin of history. More to the immediate point, the idea that gays are anything but human becomes self-evidently absurd, not to mention insulting— as it ought to be.
Freud framed the problem correctly in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, where he said that the interesting thing is not why some people are gay, but rather why most people are straight. It is clear enough that neither question would be very meaningful if it didn’t entail the other. To understand homosexuality, bisexuality, or heterosexuality is to understand how human sexuality particularizes itself in our present society. To understand myself, I must understand the other, and vice versa. The absolute antithesis has got to be posited as a self-identical essence, an I that is We and a We that is I.
The standard criticism of gay assimilation is confused and self-defeating, because it entails on the one hand a tacit essentialism, and on the other, a commitment to a queer anti-essentialism. In fact, homosexuality finds its essence in heterosexuality and in the ensemble of social relations rather than in a set of stereotypes or in a sensibility held apart from discursive, determinate thought. It is other people in their speculative identity with oneself and through their differences that give life its significance and that make it worth living. It is for other people and through other people that my sexuality has meaning, but this is just to say that they condition me as I condition them reciprocally.
The idea of a “strategic essentialism”, in which motley elements temporarily “essentialize” and coalesce in order to realize a practical goal, is a transparent sophism, a lie. Such lies are simply the stock-in-trade of the postmodernists and of many intellectuals. It presupposes the thing it is to establish, as it must, while hypocritically assuring us that it would never be so naïve as to take its presupposition seriously. In order to “essentialize”, there must already be the recognition of a common interest or condition; otherwise, it would be a purely contingent matter and not strategic whatsoever.
To strategize is to acknowledge limits; it is a form of discipline. Specifically, it involves constraining one’s activity in order to realize a goal. It cannot, therefore, be a contingent or arbitrary affair. It reflects the whole situation and specifically its essential movement.
Comparing the situation of homosexuality and queerness to the class struggle clarifies quite a bit: the essence of the working class is not something apart from its relations; it is defined by its relations and is nothing apart from these. Present day social relations involve more than just workers and capital. In The Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx criticizes the Lassalleans’ claim that, relative to the proletariat, all other classes form one “reactionary mass”. Both the petty bourgeoisie and even the lumpenproletariat are capable of aligning themselves with the proletariat.
The Leninist worker-peasant alliance was not a “strategic essentialism”; it was based on a recognition of objective, essential class relations and dynamics. Neither can the united front tactic be regarded as a subjective “essentializing”; in fact, it presupposes the revolutionary character of the working class and the whole materialist conception of history. It is based in a recognition of necessity, not its substitution by one’s chosen reality. Because essence and appearance do not directly coincide, one must discern the common class interests and conditions behind theoretical disagreements—but this is just essentialism, albeit a dialectical, materialist essentialism.
Queerness is a particular expression of human estrangement. As an ideal, it is a cheap substitute for species being or humanity. As an identity, it is a lie one tells oneself and others. The debates about “inclusivity” and “exclusivity” only indicate that we are dealing with an abstraction. By setting queerness apart from homosexuality as its semblance, as something that is not to be understood, the queers have made it impossible to include or exclude anything except according to some mystical, gay insight that is inaccessible to “straight” universalist thinking. Once cast out from the ranks of humanity, from the family, from the church and the workplace, the gay as queer not only shields his sexuality from the universalizing gaze but even emulates the aggressor in his business of including and excluding: not every gay is worthy of the appellation queer. One must “make the cut”; above all, one must not betray by asking the wrong questions, or worse, by answering them. All the while, the queer intensifies his own alienation.
The proletariat is the universal class both because it holds the future in its hands and because in its collaborative, practical activity, it establishes universality everyday. Class consciousness depends on this universality, which is why the middle class is incapable of an independent policy. To the extent that queers refuse to enter the spiritual daylight of the present, they are therefore incapable of class consciousness. And so far as homosexuality is held apart from the proletariat and even turned against it, the consciousness of the proletariat is also condemned to a certain one-sidedness, although this alone will certainly not prevent the workers from realizing their historical mission.
Breadth and depth of spirit are dialectically related: horizontal relations of difference imply vertical relations of subsumption and particular logical movements. To say that homosexuality is properly the possession of the real community is simply to say that heterosexuality and homosexuality mutually implicate one another, that each is an abstraction as long as the latter is not made exoteric. The whole earth is the inorganic body of humanity in its metabolic relation with the rest of nature; the scientific and cultural categories that make sense of it are our spiritual sustenance and necessary to that metabolic relation as well as to our social cohesion and human integrity.
If parts of the working class, particularly in rural areas, are relatively unfamiliar with homosexuality as a concrete existence, then these workers are at least cognizant of their one-sidedness. That much is clear in my coworker’s display of recognition. In a society where capital decks itself in all the kaleidoscopic signifiers of liberal progressivism, he knows that he is supposed to be homophobic and that this constitutes a real defect. To deny this worker the realization that, so far as he is a worker, he has the moral high ground, and so far as he is human, homosexuality is nothing really alien to him, is simply monstrous; it’s evil. We can call this projective identification, and we can even lament the antisocial conditions that produce it, but none of that obviates the very real necessity of shattering such a false and falsifying antagonism in practice.
Finally, it is clear that my framework and attitude are thoroughly opposed to queerness considered as a whole. Rather than contribute to the ‘stinking corpse’ of queer theory, my purpose has been to lay some potential groundwork for a critical anti-queer theory which would comprehensively invert the former. I do not pretend that this is of any great political import, but I do believe that many gays, bisexuals and lesbians are unimpressed with the queer outlook and deserve more substantive—and more honest—models as they struggle to orient themselves in the world. I have set out to describe gay reality and gay experience and to do so in terms that are literal, relatively straightforward, and practical. This alone constitutes a radical departure from a discipline that is saturated with superfluous neologisms, handwaving, unprincipled eclecticism, and so much bullshit.