Two of queer theory’s leading contemporary scholars, Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, have collaborated on a slender, yet powerful, three-essay volume about sex and interrelational attachments.
Both scholars are coming off critical success in their previous works: Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, the 2012 winner of the Rene Wellek Award, is arguably the greatest theoretical text to be published in the last decade, while Edelman’s No Future, controversial for what some call its nihilist, and narcissistic, argument, offers an unrepentant critique “reproductive futurism” through the trope of the child.
Both these texts converge in this new endeavor, one in which the theoretical impetus is to advance the idea of negativity while denuding it of its anti-social tenor by thinking about the political significance, and the productivity, of negativity as an ethic. “The historic practice of LGBTQ studies has been toward reclaiming and repairing lost histories and ongoing practices of delegitimation,” they explain in the introduction, “Negativity as a source for social theory tends to reject the impulse to repair social relations that appear to us irreparable, and in that light, our work might seem quietistic, apolitical, nihilist, defeatist, or even irresponsible.”
In the history of queer theory in academia, the idea of negativity as a political and social ethic is born more recently out of the anti-social thrust—queer is that which resists political and social order and indulgently refuses all systemic complicity—and more broadly from the new historical strain of queer studies invested in recovering “negative affects,” most notably “gay shame,” as integral to re-constructing LGBT and queer history narratives.
Their working definition of negativity, in simple terms, aims to demystify relations of their idealism, on a meta-scale, as well as all optimism: “Negativity points to many kinds of relation in what follows, from the unbearable, often unknowable, psychic conflicts that constitute the subject to the social forms of negation that also, but differently, produce subjectivity. Generally negativity signifies a resistance to or undoing of the stabilizing frameworks of coherence imposed on thought and lived experience.”
This is why they focus on sex, because sex, “as a locus for optimism, is a site at which the promise of overcoming division an antagonism is frequently played out. But,” they contend, “the consequences of such efforts to resolve our social and psychic contradictions can include the establishment of sexual norms and the circumscription of sex for socially legitimated ends [....]”
“Would living with negativity entail the death of the optimism that animates desire an energizes politics?” This is Berlant and Edelman’s optimal question, although one has to wonder about the impetus of denuding sex of its optimism. What if I wanted a sexual relationship, one not predicated on homogeneity or driven by the desire to reproduce the liberal family structure? What does an intimate relationship look like without optimism, which is by definition is born in the present but which extends into the future? Are relationships impossible? This last question, to me, seems distinct from any reparative concern of either Berlant’s or Edelman’s, both of whom are critical of the socio-political desire to repair (a relation).
This is the problem with the queer discourse of negativity: it constantly defines itself in terms of the negative, in terms of what it’s not. Frankly, and to invoke the hot queer term of the moment, it’s quite a privileged position to delimit one’s ethics in terms of the negative—perhaps it’s a symptom of living within the confines of academia.
Yes, we all know that sex is powerful; we’ve all “become undone” by it. Berlant and Edelman’s point that sex is an unmooring of one’s sovereignty is insightful. “When it takes the shape of intimate relationality, [sex] is both disturbing and anchoring, and therefore never stilled enough to be a concrete foundation for the house of life or the house of pain; expressing a desire for disturbance, sex cannot also defend entirely against it.”
At the same time, when Edelman claims that the sexual “encounter, viewed as traumatic or not, remains bound to the nonfutural insistence in sex of something nonproductive, nonteleological, and divorced from meaning making,” and that “[i]n this sense sex without optimism invokes the negativity of sex as a defining and even enabling condition,” one has to think deeply about what kind of sex these scholars are having. This statement, in fact, lies at odds with a lot of queer scholarship concerning affect theory; if all interaction is affective, then surely there is meaning to be had? Or, perhaps this is the lesbian in me: I can’t imagine sex that is so lame that it is completely devoid of any affective force such that it has no affective resonance on my body or mind, and that, therefore, it has no “meaning.”
Structurally, the form of their collaboration takes the form of the dialogue, which not only provides both scholar the space for thinking through the possibility of “sex without optimism,” but it is perhaps a nod to a different methodological and critical investment in the future of the humanities, one that actually seeks to foster a dialogue with a community of readers outside the pedantically prescribed academic norm—you know, the dozen or so individuals who can navigate an argument through overwrought academic jargon. In this regard, Berlant’s language is more digestible, if only because her discourse works primarily within the parameters of cultural studies, as opposed to Edelman’s more cumbersome working from and within psychoanalysis.
While the central inquiry about the encounter between negativity and nonsovereignty is not radically new, Berlant and Edelman’s three-act dialogue is wonderfully intriguing, especially in regard to how the dialogue itself bears witness to the intellectual process of “thinking through” in the dialogic form.
Sex, or The Unbearable
By Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822355946, 168 pp.
A church and a bar are two very different institutions, but Marie Cartier, in Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Acumen Publishing Limited), proposes that the bar, and specifically the gay bar, served both a communal and spiritual function for many queer women in the mid-twentieth century, pre-Stonewall. (more…)
For most of the lgbt community, knowledge of Ballroom culture in America begins and ends with Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. While the film’s release was one of the defining moments of lgbt culture with its masterful (though not unproblematic) depiction of the genius and spectacle of Ballroom performers balanced with the reality of urban poverty, racism, and the AIDS epidemic they faced, its subject matter has largely been frozen in time as 80s nostalgia and aestheticized in the lgbt imaginary. The snarky quotes, over the top fashions, and Madonna’s appropriation of Voguing have stuck in lgbt culture, but the film’s messages about black lgbt life seem to have faded from memory. (more…)
Americans have had conflicted opinions about sex work since European colonists brought Christianity, slavery, and racism to North America. In the twenty-first century, the United States provides no federal protections to sex workers. Sex work remains illegal in most states of the Union due to its association with immorality, substance abuse, venereal disease, organized crime, and human trafficking. Significant percentages of gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans—particularly those from communities of color—have had to engage in sex work for survival. They have suffered abuse at the hands of law enforcement as well as clients and pimps; for these reasons, queer sex workers were the most likely to rise up against the system to fight for their civil rights.
In Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk (Beacon Press), author Melinda Chateauvert reveals the relatively unknown history of sex workers’ involvement in LGBT civil rights protests in the United States, as well as their efforts to organize for legalization and regulation of their trade. Chateauvert sits us on her knee and bluntly tells the story of how mainstream gay and lesbian historians—as well as activist groups themselves—marginalized, ridiculed, or left out the major contributions of sex workers to the Stonewall Riots, gay and lesbian liberation movements, and AIDS awareness campaigns. Predominantly white and cis-bodied, leaders of these movements believed that no one would want to hear from transgender prostitutes or other disadvantaged groups.
Chateauvert is an activist, historian, and professor involved in multiple campaigns to change policies and attitudes toward sex and sexuality, gender and antiviolence, and race and rights. Based on her experience, she has also taught courses on Community Organizing and Sex Work. Unlike other academics who would provide a well-researched but distanced account of sex worker organizing efforts in the United States, Chateauvert’s personal experience makes her a champion for the cause. Rights for sex workers, she says, are human rights.
While Sex Workers Unite is impressive in its documentation and mentions many historic American activist groups that included sex workers (Gay Liberation Front, ACT UP, COYOTE, and many others), Chateauvert only touches the surface of the parallel challenge to sex workers in modern America—the lack of unity of women’s rights activists and feminists on the issue of sex work as choice, as opposed to patriarchal oppression. The majority of American women have harsher attitudes toward female prostitutes than men; In Chapter 2, “Those Few Came on Like Gangbusters,” Chateauvert cites American feminist writer and activist Kate Millet:
PROSTITUTION AND SISTERHOOD?
Prostitution provokes gut-level feelings in women precisely because it reveals so starkly fundamental and tacit assumptions about women’s relations in a patriarchal society. It reminds us that we are defined by our sexuality: i.e., wife, spinster, lesbian, whore; and it reminds us that most women are dependent on men…in one way or another [to] secure our survival in exchange for the commodity that men want most from us. Feminists see this sexual objectification as dehumanizing and degrading—with the ultimate degradation experienced by women who sell their bodies to earn a living. (The Prostitution Papers, 1973)
Nearly fifty years later, this anti-prostitution still rings true for a significant percentage of American women whether or not they consider themselves feminists. In the twenty-first century, American women are more likely to support criminalization of prostitution because of its overlap with sex trafficking. While Chateauvert does mention this more contemporary issue, this reader would have appreciated deeper coverage of how women can be their own worst enemy at times in the quest for social justice. Chateauvert does an excellent job, however, of depicting how American transgender sex workers have historically been at the losing end of women’s and LGBT civil rights movements; crimes against transgender sex workers in the United States are most likely to go unresolved by law enforcement. Transphobia, coupled with American society’s disdain for prostitutes, puts transgender sex workers most at risk for disenfranchisement, abuse, and murder.
Readers of Sex Workers Unite will come away with an enlightened view of sex work and the contributions of sex workers to civil rights movements in the United States. The notes and bibliography of this book alone are a treasure trove for those who wish to learn more. Chateauvert’s book just may cause American readers to question our country’s policies toward sex workers, and wonder how other countries made them work.
Havoscope: Global Black Market Information. (2014). Sex trade: Prostitution facts and prostitution statistics. Retrieved from http://www.havocscope.com/tag/prostitution/
ProCon.org. (2014). 100 countries and their prostitution policies. Retrieved from http://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000772
ProCon.org. (2014). US federal and state prostitution laws and related punishments. Retrieved from http://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000119
Treasures. (2014). Statistics. Retrieved from http://iamatreasure.com/about-us/statistics/
World Health Organization (2014). Sex work. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/sex_work/en/
Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk
By Melinda Chateauvert
Paperback, 9780807061398, 272 pp.
Oh, sweetheart. How can I explain this to you, when you have so little experience of meanness? When your whole frame of reference for the grave injustices of the world is that you are typically restricted to one episode of Muppets at a time and are sometimes, non-consensually, covered with a blanket? How do I talk about the historical impact of reducing a person to an it?
S. Bear Bergman’s third book, Blood, Marriage, Wine and Glitter (Arsenal Pulp Press) does not begin with the above quote, but the way that Bear implores his son to understand the dynamism of subversion is implicit throughout the entire manuscript. Bergman, who takes on the monumental task of bringing into the world and co-parenting a child named Stanley, has crafted a well-wrought book of essays on parenting, non-traditional families, healing from old wounds, and intimacy that very nearly brought me to tears on several occasions. From Bergman’s essay “Constellation of Intimates,” which delves into the tender-hearted notion of polyamory, lovers, friends, and family as a giant web of never-too-much adoration and solidarity, to his story of how Stanley came into the world, the book rings true and clear in a modern queer world.
The book launches the reader immediately into Bergman’s world. Starting with the essay “The Really True Story, Once and for All, of How We Got Stanley (with Footnotes),” the origin, or genesis of how Stanley came to be in the world of Bergman and his partner Ishai is told in sweet detail: the insemination, the decisions as a couple, the discussions with community, the choosing of a donor, and finally, the gusto with which Stanley enters the world. The story of how Bear and Ishai’s son becomes a person is beautifully juxtaposed with the subsequent essays in the book that range from Bergman’s own disjointed upbringing to educational pieces on how to talk to trans folks.
I was particularly pleased to find the essay “Diesel Femme” among the pages of personal and educational story-telling. It is unfortunately rare for transmasculine or masculine-of-center narratives to pay necessary tribute or homage to femme identities, and here Bergman does a stand-up job. Not only does his essay talk about femmes with reverence, grace, and solidarity, “Diesel Femme” also subtly and yet poignantly acknowledges the colorful umbrella of the queer community—and all of the desires, wants, powers, weaknesses, and multiplicities contained therein.
This umbrella is captured well in the essay mentioned above, “Constellation of Intimates,” in which Bergman rejoices in the ways he is seen and loved by their closest people: “The ways in which the people with whom I have planted and grown great intimacy, whether while naked or dressed or both, make a lie out of the pervasive myth that people like me—fat or queer or trans or unrepentantly nerdy or polyamorous or difficult or some of those things or all of that—that people like me (and maybe people like you too) don’t get to have families.” Not only does Blood, Marriage, Wine and Glitter acknowledge that these myths are untrue, but they also make space in the world for them to plant and spread like the contagious fire they are.
Blood, Marriage, Wine and Glitter
By S. Bear Bergman
Arsenal Pulp Press
Paperback, 978155125112, 240 pp.
An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2001) retells the unbelievable story of a boy who grew to adulthood in the very heart of Hitler’s Germany. Yet the title is a bit of a misnomer. The leader of a wide network of Jewish resistance within the city, at the center of a vast web of international humanitarian efforts, Gad Beck’s (1923 – 2012) illegal life was very different from that we know best: the Franks’. (more…)
Evoking Leo Bersani’s notorious 1987 polemic, “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” Lynne Huffer strives to not only negotiate the divide between feminist and queer sexual ethics but tease out how the two intersect in her latest critical inquiry, Are the Lips a Grave?: A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex (Columbia University Press). (more…)
On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. That is a fact which no one can question, dispute, or deny. The photo of Matt shown on television and newspapers around the country depicted a blond, clean-cut young man with a friendly smile—an all-American boy—whom the nation could love. His tragic death led to multiple initiatives to introduce anti-gay hate crime legislation, as well as increased awareness of homophobia in American society. Few people questioned the possibility that Matt—this nice all-American boy in the photo–could be anything other than a terribly random victim of a hate crime. (more…)
The gay community has always had a contradictory relationship with the notion of authenticity. We have delighted in the camp spectacles of drag on stage and marveled at the “realness” of ball culture in Paris is Burning, yet we maintain that to be “straight acting” is the pinnacle of masculine attractiveness and many lgbt rights groups preach assimilation and highlight our “normality” as a political tactic. In Camp Sites, Michael Trask traces some of the origins of this contemporary obsession with authenticity in the lgbt world, and its cultural politics, to a shift in the culture of leftist politics and American academia from the 50s to the 60s. Charging that the New Left of the 60s “drew with surprising frequency on the Cold War culture’s wide repertoire of homophobic suppositions,” Trask argues that “the New Social Movements had such difficulty with the queers” because “the equation radicals forged between authenticity and a meaningful life rendered gay culture’s uncommitted and artificial persons beyond redemption, even if such figures would serve a role in defining countercultural commitment by their negative example.” (1) Trask contends that the Left of the 60s saw the hallmarks of gay existence such as camp culture, male effeminacy, and closetedness as vestiges of the inauthenticity they sought to dismantle as they posited more utopian visions of cultural revolution. As Trask puts it “in the liberal mind, camp followers became so hopelessly beholden to surfaces that they were incapable of taking advantage of the opportunistic gap between appearance and depth, the gap in which realpolitik unfolded.” (8)
What makes Task’s book compelling is its counter-intuitive arguments about the role of the academy and the counterculture of the 60s in the emergence of the Gay Rights Movement. While we tend to propagate nostalgic mythology about the peace and love message of the radicals of the 60s and envision the established liberalism of the academy as a bulwark of objective reason that would defend the homosexual against the irrationality of prejudice, Trask’s book paints a much different picture. Echoing Van Gosse’s sentiment that “homophobia united the left,” Trask shows how several figures of radical politics saw the homosexual not as a fellow dissident against the values of the establishment, but as a symbol of how a man can be emasculated by the established governmental and cultural institutions, reveling in his degraded servility. (88) While New Social Movements and radicals deemed homosexuals “not expressive enough” and saw the queer as a closet queen, “an emblem of the duplicity and anonymity characteristic of the invisible government,” the establishment liberals of the academy deemed queers “too expressive” and “poor students of the school, which demands a certain abstract aloofness.” (221) In short, for the established liberals of the academy, being queer meant you could not be objective enough, while for the radicals, being queer meant you were too used to assimilation and closetedness to be trusted.
Trask’s book makes an important contribution toward understanding how the conceptualizations of homosexuality of the New Left, the countercultural radicals, and the liberal establishment in the academy influenced how the Gay Liberation Movement emerged in the 60s. In this light, the historical tension in lgbt politics between a strategy of emphasizing normality versus fighting against the very idea of normality and for an upheaval of how society views sexuality is illuminated as a product of the politics of the Left as a whole in the 50s and 60s.
While Trask’s book is aimed at an academic audience with its detailed consideration of competing theories of higher education in the American academy in the 50s and 60s, its fresh readings of classic studies in camp by Esther Newton and Susan Sontag and its analyses of queerness and authenticity in novels by Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, and Ralph Ellison among others should appeal to the literary and gay studies crowd. For those new to the idea of camp and gay culture in the 50s to the 70s, I might suggest beginning with David Halperin’s recent How To Be Gay, which introduces this history of camp and lgbt politics through personal experience and studies in popular culture. With Halperin as a primer and a compliment to Camp Sites, then Trask’s counterintuitive arguments about leftist politics in the 60s can be better appreciated and understood in their complexity.
Camp Sites: Sex, Politics, and Academic Style in Postwar America
By Michael Trask
Stanford University Press
Paperback, 9780804784412, 277 pp.
There’s a danger in writing about performance art: something will be lost and something added in each retelling of the event. Liveness is swapped for the nostalgia of not being there still, or for never being there. The written word or the photograph, or even the video, will never capture the moment, will never stand in for being there. In the case of extreme performers such as Ron Athey no archive can replicate the audience’s thumping hearts at the sight of his flowing blood or the smell of his bodily fluids just feet away. (more…)