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As a self-professed queer theorist and pop culture aficionado, I will be the first to admit that I see queerness in everything. While this certainly comes in handy for generating articles and essays (something I also freely admit to loving to do), it’s also exceedingly hard to “turn off” when I’m trying to unwind and simply enjoy something like a movie or television show.
All that being said, as I indulged my usual Sunday night ritual watching of my current obsession, Lifetime network’s “Drop Dead Diva,” my ears perked up and my mind shifted in to overdrive when one of the storylines embedded in the “Queen of Mean” episode introduced a transgendered (male-to-female) character who was involved in a battle over inheritance rights. I watched, transfixed, as cute—and presumably heterosexual—lawyer Grayson struggled to understand “Alison’s” transgendered status, particularly her insistence that, despite DNA evidence to the contrary, she was indeed a woman. But I was especially heartened by Grayson’s revelatory discovery (and subsequent winning argument to the court) that, in terms of true love or true desire, gender simply does not matter.
I say all this as introduction for “father of queer theory” Guy Hocquenghem’s slim, provocative essay The Screwball Asses which is ostensibly focused on the prickly arena of desire. Hocquenghem had already famously mapped this territory in Homosexual Desire, first published in 1972 (one year prior to publication of The Screwball Asses), but in The Screwball Asses Hocquenghem attempts to unravel the particularly conflicting and conflicted terrains of human desire writ large. He does so through a complicated, and often contradictory, mixture of Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalysis combined with the “desiring-production” theory set out by noted cultural theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as well as a soupçon of Marxist thought courtesy of Louis Althusser.
Central to Hocquenghem’s argument is a particular fixation on labels (i.e., homosexual, heterosexual) that he freely admits he abhors because of their implicit connection with the capitalist “phallocracy.” Hocquenghem writes, “Today’s homosexual does not embody polymorphic desire; he moves univocally beneath an equivocal mask. His sexual objects have already been chosen by social or political machination, and they are always the same… Politics has already done its underground work” (17). For Hocquenghem, desiring individuals should be free to love (and make love to) whomever, regardless of their gender. But, he insists, this ungendering of desire does not mean that society should embrace bisexuality, simply because reducing desire through naming it (and therefore its desiring object) risks compartmentalizing desire and reinforcing the existing capitalist organizing “system.”
Not surprisingly, Hocquenghem’s “free love” approach did not sit well with either French authorities (who seized all copies of the essay, fined publisher Felix Guattari 600 francs for “affronting public decency,” and ordered all copies to be destroyed) or French homosexuals, especially those members of the revolutionary group Homosexual Front of Revolutionary Action (FHAR). After all, jettisoning (albeit socially imposed) in-group labels risks disempowering those who are seeking to gain power (in this case, the FHAR) and reinforcing the existing “ruling class” power structure.
Yet Hocquenghem’s argument is actually much more sophisticated, complex, and nuanced than simply overturning desiring systems. In fact, in The Screwball Asses Hocquenghem suggests that by accepting desire for desire’s sake, the playing field for sexuality is leveled, and all sexualities (hetero, homo, bi, etc.) become equally empowered. In other words, Hocquenghem notes, “Desire must be allowed to function on any object. And not only on a body other than one’s own. And not only on one body instead of two or more, simultaneously” (61). Desire for Hocquenghem is, at least in theory, endlessly self-perpetuating and endlessly prolific, limited only by one’s own imagination. Ultimately, Hocquenghem concludes, “There are two sexes on earth but only one sexual desire” (69).
However, in spite of the “utopian” possibility this ungendered desire offers, Hocquenghem gets increasingly frustrated with the convolutions of putting his theoretical process into actual practice, at once declaring that “Even if one single lesbian exists, I wish to lie at her side, like someone on the point of fainting, like a future woman. For an instant, for the instant of the sexual revolution, I will think of myself as a lesbian” (66) while admitting, with no small amount of irony, “As gay as I am, I’ve been with the same man for eighteen years. (You can’t say I’ve got the right ticket for the revolution!)” (70). Implicit in these statements, I think, Hocquenghem believes that in spite of his wish for an unhinged, polymorphous desire, the systemic societal and capitalist structures and their attendant prohibitions make his investment in this desire problematic, if not impossible. Despite his interesting, controversial, and provocative intentions, Hocquenghem finally declares, “I am fed up with desire” (64), and, it seems, so too will be his readers.
THE SCREWBALL ASSES
By Guy Hocquenghem
Paper, $12.95; 88 pp.