Bruce Benderson: Against Marriage
Author: Bradford Nordeen
April 22, 2014
Five fire trucks were trained in procession the afternoon that I visited the domicile of Bruce Benderson. This spectacular scene, which served to quell a modest basement fire next door, seemed humorously apropos, as I weaved through the narrow street in Alphabet City. Benderson is an infamous intellectual, known as well for his ruminations on the polyvalent sexualities of the Times Square scene of the 1970s and 80s as he is for winning the prestigious Prix de Flore in 2004. Coinciding with the release of a new “pamphlet,” Against Marriage, as part of publisher Semiotext(e)’s involvement in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, I sat down with the writer, to discuss marriage, HBO’s Looking and the recent history of performance art.
Just jumping in…
Jump right in baby…
…to your new book, which is included in the Whitney Biennial. Against Marriage is a 60-page tract, which separates marriage–to get down to brass tacks–into its legal properties and into the symbolic legitimating properties of the institution.
The question it asks is, why would gays have struggled for the right to marry rather than campaigning for greater powers for domestic partnership? Obviously, they want a certificate that says that the world thinks that they’re legitimate. Instead of opposing that obnoxious institution, marriage, they’re fighting to be accepted by it. To me that’s the strangest thing in the world. Why focus on a conservative institution connected to nuclear family values that has never respected the separation of church and state, when you can ensure the same rights other ways? Marriage is about family values in the most conservative way.
But I think one of the things that is interesting about the book is that people will pick up Bruce Benderson’s Against Marriage as a tract against gay marriage, but actually what you present in the text itself is much more aligned to the historical or philosophical trajectory of marriage–you even cover libertinage.
Yes! The book is not against gay marriage. Or any kind of marriage, as a private sacrament with no connection to government or law. It’s against marriage as a legitimate legal institution. And one of the things I’m trying to prove by doing a historical survey is that marriage is an empty institution. No one has ever been able to define it without starting with the assumptions of what they want it to be. Until the modern era, it was only used to form treaties, to consolidate money or property. It had nothing to do with love, very little to do with the nuclear family. It was just used for very non-romantic practical purposes. It has only a 150-year history of being associated with love or romance. And that’s already mostly over! It’s an absolutely meaningless institution. Wanting it is almost as repulsive as gays fighting to join the military, as opposed to gays fighting to end the military. What’s happening to people?
So how then did you decide to do a book about marriage? Were you researching it for a long time, or did you sit down and decide, I’m going to write this argument because of all the discourses around the topic at the moment?
Well, it was all boiling unconsciously in my mind, but it was set off by a catalyst. In the New York Times, I saw a photo of a very old lesbian couple–they were probably close to 90, and they couldn’t get married in the state where they lived, and they were talking about how cruel it was, that people who had such a long-term relationship were not going to be able to get that certificate. And all I could think to myself was, “You mean you think your relationship is incomplete unless the whole world applauds you? Does that make your relationship more meaningful? What do you want from this certificate? I mean, these ladies had lived through the most oppressive of times. Now they wanted to be accepted and patted on the head by the people who had probably made them miserable for 60 years of their life? “What is the matter with you?” I thought; and I began to get furious.
Then I began to think of my childhood in the 50s and early 60s and realized how unmarried people were treated then. They had names for them–spinsters, old maids, mama’s boys, Peter Pans–and they were all insulting. And then I thought–what happened to these unmarried people? Well, some of them just lived unhappy half lives as appendages of the nuclear family. But others, who were a little feistier–quite often because they had a different sexuality–came to the city, where you could be single without judgment. And the more talented among them created urban culture.
Then finally, I thought, “Oh my god! What’s going to happen to gays who are not married when suddenly gays can get married? Well, they’re going to be doubly excluded. They’re going to be the new old maids and pitiful bachelors of the new century. Maybe they’re even gonna have their gay brothers and sisters joining in mocking and excluding them. And this sickened me–which is why I decided to write the book.
One of the interesting figures to emerge from your historical approach was the cicisbeo… And the cisisbeo is a kind of male courtesan who was acceptable for ladies within upper-crust Italian society to have. I love the description of cicisbei standing in the shadows of the opera box whispering indiscretions in their ladies’ ear.
Yes. When I started examining marriage in different cultures, I came to the conclusion that the only time marriage is a vital institution is when it occurs within a culture that allows rule-breaking-off-the-books, untalked-about behavior. Indiscretions. These cicisbei–male courtesans–in previous centuries were for entitled women who were allowed to have boyfriends and appear in public with them. And their husbands tolerated it. And that boyfriend often provided what the husband was not providing–which included culture, wit, but sometimes also sex. What was interesting was that people who disapproved of this tradition were all from Anglo-Saxon cultures. They were the English and sometimes the Germans. They were disgusted by it.
And I began to think, “Well, what does that mean? It probably means that the Latin cultures, which accentuate the idea of family and build most
relationships from extended families, are the same cultures that allow you to break the rules of marriage. And that’s why the family and marriage in those cultures has more vitality than it does in the Anglo-Saxon cultures, like ours, our Puritan culture, which has also whittled down the extended family to a nuclear family.” I mean, when you see Mitterand’s mistress standing next to his wife at his graveside, you realize that something is a little different in that Catholic Latin country from what it is in America.
The way you said that makes me think you think people are going to think I’m nuts!
Very early on in the book you raise a point, and it’s a concept that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, the idea of “authenticity” as opposed to the symbolic. You say that marriage is merely a symbolic goal, because it symbolizes social acceptance, but that it has no authentic meaning aside from that. But I think there is also a want for authenticity in contemporary culture. I was thinking about the contrast between Looking, that new show on HBO, and something like the American version of Queer As Folk, which was kind of like a gay Looney Tunes on ecstasy. In comparison, Looking felt to me like a vie for authenticity in our Instagram culture, where everything carries that filter, has this golden hue but is nevertheless presented as real, as urban, as… queer even, not gay.
Well, you know I have my issue with the concept of queer, but first of all, authenticity and city life, because that is what Looking tries to portray. And I believe that authenticity is no longer possible in the megalopolis for the very reason that communication moves too fast. The minute that there’s an original idea or an idea connected to something authentic, it’s grabbed and it’s commoditized and it’s no longer authentic. So where are authentic things being done? In fragmented little cultures and ruined cities, like the bohemian neighborhood of Detroit, or in provincial Portland, where there are some authentic people who have not yet been swept up completely by the waves of global capitalism. New York? No, there’s no place to do it anymore. There’s little authentic happening here, in my opinion.
There’s a banality to Looking….
Well, that’s what’s authentic about it, if there is something.
Exactly. But I do think there’s an “authentic” aesthetic to the show.
There’s an attempt at it, but in terms of narrative it’s not authentic at all. They’re just little skits, like from Desperate Housewives. Slightly perverse practical jokes on the characters. “Oh my god! He went out with that guy and he wanted him to lick his balls and he’d never done it before! And then all of a sudden he starts to like it and the guy says, ‘Stop!’” It’s like a lousy anecdote you’d hear on the bus. But I suppose it’s an authentic one. What’s interesting is that they chose such ordinary people, such incredibly boring people, that’s probably what makes it “authentic.”
It’s a show that grows. It gets better, as they say. And for me, anyway, looking at Looking, there’s a discomfort in watching it, and it’s hard to break down what that discomfort is – and I think, in large part, it’s still about gay (self)representation in mainstream media.
So the discomfort is that it’s too authentic? Or that you know it’s not authentic?
I think it’s a blend of both, actually.
Yeah, I think it’s from both, too. But a lot of this discomfort I think comes from that director (Andrew Haigh) who made that film Weekend, which I thought was a very good film.
Yeah, I liked it very much.
That director is interested in the banality of average people. In a kind of positive way.
And also class, which I know is something that’s very important to your work.
Yes, he’s almost compassionate about the banality of middle-class experience. He has an awareness that people are caught in it, that it’s almost like a prison that’s grown around them, and I like that about that director very much. I think some of it comes through in Looking. At the same time, what exactly is there to learn from watching these people? I don’t know if there is anything at all. But it’s very hard to talk about this thing–it may actually end up being a very important document 70 years from now. And for that very reason, it’s depressing. I mean, I lived in San Francisco in the late Hippy years, and to compare those two experiences…. I just don’t know what to say about it. It was all about experimentation then. You didn’t know anyone who had that kind of job.
So let’ get back to your book, Against Marriage, if you don’t mind. Who is this book for? Who do you envision picking up the book and wading through this history? Isn’t the book coming out in conjunction with Semiotext(e)’s installation at the Whitney Biennial…
It’s out already.
We’ll provide the online link. Cause you can now buy it online–you don’t have to go to the Whitney Museum of American Art to do so…
Yaasss. Thanks to Hedi El Kholti (editor of Semiotext(e))
This is your second publication with them.
No, it’s my fourth.
Right, well it’s the second authored publication, with two translations, correct? How does it feel to have this piece of writing in the Whitney Biennial as, essentially, an artwork? How do you feel about that being the context for the book’s release?
Well, it was part of a set of 28 new mini-books, pamphlets, I suppose. And the exhibition was supposed to have a great effect on the book, as part of the Biennale, but since the Whitney forgot to put up a sign that said these were new books, everyone just thought, “Oh, what an interesting aspect of the history of Semiotext(e). I wonder when those pamphlets were written? Probably in the early 70s.” So I don’t think it’s had any effect having it in there. It was a wonderful concept, the idea of producing 28 pamphlets, all about the same size–all sold at once. Hedi’s even going to create a slipcase that fits all 28 books. But he did not assign the subject to me. I sat down and, over the course of a month, I researched and wrote this book, Against Marriage, which I think surprised Hedi. I don’t think he was totally thrilled at first, but now I think he sees the value in that particular title.
I’m also very excited about that Jack Smith picture disc that was part of their installation at the Whitney. Hedi made a record of the Sylvère Lotringer interview with Jack Smith…
Yes, with Smith complaining about Jonas Mekas and the art world… And how the only places the Abstract Expressionists are correctly displayed is in the homes of private collectors, et cetera, et cetera…
Tell me about that? That’s all he ever does, right? When he’s interviewed or when he’s talking, it’s about how the art world is destroying culture, doesn’t understand…
Well, Jack had a very detailed argument against capitalism. I mean, he was very angry at Mekas for taking Flaming Creatures, which was the last finished film that he would ever make, and touring with it, making money off of it, becoming famous, taking it to Europe for festivals, and Jack was like, “Why am I not going there and making money off of this?”
Well, Jack Smith also became famous from it.
Yes, but in Jack’s mind, and part of the reason he created this argument against capitalism in his mind, was because Mekas became more famous and, potentially rich, which, you know, no one really becomes rich off of experimental film, but he took this film with him for his own advantage, in Jack’s eyes. Same thing for landlordism–Jack’s landlord–because his loft was also his theatre space, and if Jack would feel that a play needed snow in it, he’d cut a hole in the roof, but he was also vehemently opposed to paying rent. So he created a lexicon of lobsters and landlordism and added pasties and moldy creatures, and all that other imagery..
In a way he was kind of like Artaud, who, you know, created a counter-ideology for the reality that had been constructed by society. You gotta be part nuts to do that. Still, at this point in my life, I’m a little bored by complaints about the gatekeepers, about the people who say yes or no to the work and then do something with it within the market. The minute that I finish work and it lands in the hands of a publisher, I don’t think of it as my own work anymore. I feel that the maw has taken it, is processing it, has created an object of it and now will market it. I have to accept that in order to move on to the next creative project.
Well, Jack was, in a weird way, optimistic, because he didn’t believe in putting his work into the world in that way, which alienated the hell out of him, but in the later stages of his film career he only made “Live Film,” which meant Jack Smith would come to your venue, edit the film live by cutting it and splicing it together while playing 45s in the back of the space, so part of his performance was what the film would turn out to be. Like, will it be 20 minutes, will it be 5 hours? You never knew. And Jack’s in the back, sort of tearing through all of the film, editing it, making a new event of it.
So he wanted living ephemeral art that was just as ephemeral as life? Well, I admire that very much. All that can happen for history is descriptions of what he did.
Which is very unfortunate, in a way. I mean, I was just talking to Cynthia Carr about her attempt to recreate a Jack Smith performance. All she could do was to pull together slides and a few short videos.
Happenings, many of which came before, were similar though, right?
Yeah, the point was not necessarily to document the happenings. What I mean is, there are films of say, Yayoi Kusama’s happenings, but they don’t really exist for the films themselves.
Right. And when you think that happenings were one basis of performance as a genre, and today you see someone who is little more than a stand-up comic get up on stage with only one interesting metaphor and call it performance art, it sickens me, actually. That is not performance. Performance came out of dance, it came out of philosophy, it came out of text and people like Steve Cannon and Simone Forte were the real performance artists, and I constantly wonder, what happened to that line of performance? It was something done by highly trained people who were taking movement and language to an incredibly interesting level. And one of the refugees from that world, Charlemagne Palestine, came back this year and installed some sound in the Whitney staircase, and I was so glad. He used to be a really good friend of mine. But that’s the tradition that I admire, the original tradition of performance. And I detest what’s become of it.