Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Virtuous Vice

An old book review that still seems very relevant:

Eric O. Clarke, Virtuous Vice: Homoeroticism and the Public Sphere (Durham, North Caroline: Duke University Press, 2000)

The truth most universally acknowledged by gay liberationists ever since the Stonewall riots in 1969 is that gay liberation depends on the abolition of secrecy.  The more we say we are gay, the more our rights will have to be taken into account.  The less rare we seem, the less shall we lay ourselves open to exploitation and abuse.  Let us invade and settle any social space but one: that which we have abjured for ever, the closet.  We arrived at a firm consensus that it was an absolute social duty, as far as each individual was able, to come out—to oneself, to one’s family, to one’s friends, in the workplace, and to the world at large.  Visibility at any cost.
Ever since, we have been trying to find a suitable alternative space for ourselves.  If not the closet, where else?  The fact is, if you take provincial towns in Britain as an example, the gay ‘scene’ has hardly changed in its essentials since before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.  Beyond a handful of pubs and nightclubs, the latter often run by low-level mafiosi, in each town, there is virtually nothing else.  So what kind of cultural space do gay people aspire to as they look forward into the new century?  The commonest answer appears to be: as far as possible, the suburban dream home of the 1950s—the very place which, since that benighted decade, we have consistently regarded as most alien to us because most dangerous for us.
The new homosexual is expected to form lasting relationships secured by legal ties; to want to have children, if not quite yet to be allowed to; to participate normally—that is, discreetly—in local institutions like the church choir and the PTA (but without laying hands or even equivocal words on the choristers or pupils).  Like the token gays in a contemporary TV soap, the new homosexual will socialise heterosexually, but only at a certain distance lest, by design or accident, they tempt hetero spouses from out of the definitive security of their marriages.  Lesbians and gay men will bring to the burbs their own special magic, amusingly helping out with tasks inappropriate to their gender: gay men arranging the flowers on the altar, lesbians doing the carpentry for the school pageant.  They will serve in the national institutions, and their patriotism will never be questioned—unless they start to form exclusive cliques or cells.  Eventually, like long-term immigrants, ‘they’ will become so like ‘us’ that we will be able to overlook the fact that they are them.  With watchful policing, perfect assimilation will have been achieved.
            This dream scenario is also, of course, a nightmare; and a paradoxical one, at that.  The logical consequence of this long process of coming out of the closet and then assimilating into hetero-bourgeois society is the re-entry of the closet all over again.  The aim is to become indistinguishable from anyone else—and on their terms, by following their model—which is precisely the effect of being closeted.
In his timely and lucid monograph Virtuous Vice, Eric Clarke subjects the goals of American lesbian and gay identity politics to sceptical examination. An increasingly respectable minority, still taking for granted the two cornerstone imperatives of 1970s gay liberationism—coming out and positive images—is seeking to assimilate itself into the mainstream, firstly, by making itself more visible and, secondly, by then being seen to consist of good citizens only. To accomplish this remarkable social transformation, as if swapping with each other, gay men have donned suits and ties, lesbians skirts and lipstick. More tellingly, they have systematically distanced themselves from the old stereotypes by distancing themselves also from fellow gay men and lesbians who are promiscuous, exhibitionistic, effeminate/butch, sadomasochistic, paedophile, fetishist, or otherwise conceivably anti-social. Imagine how concerned they would have been to hide that dirty old boy-chaser Walt Whitman, even though they still claim to value his poetry. Good gay citizens will prove the virtuousness of their vice by demanding that the authorities approve their long-term relationships and by joining up with the institutions of state--the military, for instance--without being tempted to spy for the enemy. You could be forgiven for thinking that all gay liberation amounts to is being given permission to marry your sergeant major.
Clarke takes celebrities who have come out as the main examples of the new visibility. He concentrates on Ellen Degeneres—perhaps a little unfairly when you consider how her career has suffered as a consequence.  Such figures, he claims, ‘have publicly argued that queer erotic diversity should be restricted to already valorized, heteronormative forms of erotic attachment and expression’.  Ellen’s coming out was widely welcomed in lesbian and gay circles.  But what happens when such a celebrity, willingly playing the role of role model, explicitly distances herself from ‘dykes on bikes or these men dressed as women’?  (She means motorbikes, not pushbikes, and men who live in drag, not entertainers.)
How can—if it can—the private vice of homo-eroticism, when outed into Habermas’ category of ‘the public sphere’, become valued as a public virtue?  Just how far have those who govern us really moved on from Kant’s notion that only in monogamous marital relations between a property-owning man and a woman can the objectifying and animalistic tendencies of sexual desire be, if not eliminated, at least minimised?  Clarke shows how far, in the USA, ‘moral conformity’ has become ‘the very precondition for enfranchisement’.  The normalisation of homosexuality proceeds apace.  Why, it looks as if it may soon be necessary, when coming out as gay, to add: ‘But I don’t sleep around, I don’t wear women’s clothes, I’m not into s/m and I won’t fuck your child’.  This drive for ‘moral enfranchisement’ also helps to explain the type of rights which are currently being demanded: ‘the right to marry, serve openly in the armed forces, parent, dispense with private property as one pleases’ and so on.  Of these, marriage has become the most important, to the extent that ‘marriage becomes one of the only rights deemed worth having, and conversely only those who desire to marry are deemed worthy of rights’ (Clarke’s emphasis).
            If it is true, as Clarke claims, that we have invested the whole of our social development in the commercialisation of our marginalised sexualities (‘Post-Stonewall urban gay men reek of the commodity.  We give off the smell of capitalism in rut’), what is to be gained thereby?  To what extent must the broader objectives of gay liberation be compromised by the more immediate desire to be catered for when shopping?  Clarke takes the sceptical line, arguing that ‘visibility politics mistakes commercial publicity as a democratically authentic representation of persons and groups’.
Clarke is meticulous and wide-ranging in his historical contextualisation of the problem.  There is an extremely useful sequence on how, during the Westernisation of Greece in the 18th and 19th centuries, supposedly ‘oriental’ customs returned to Europe, via a war zone reconstituted as the ‘cradle’ of ‘civilisation’.  And he gives a cogent account of the changing reputation of Percy Shelley’s personality, which was first characterised as consisting of an androgynous manliness, almost Christ-like in its purity, but eventually, after his death, came to be mistrusted as exhibiting signs of perverse effeminacy and degeneracy.
My reservations are few but perhaps not insignificant.  Clarke’s argument is entirely based on the narrowly American struggle for marriage rights and access to careers in the military.  Although these issues have arisen in Europe, they are regarded here as far less central to the gay liberationist struggle in societies which are less conformist than the Land of the Free.  Certainly, in Britain the armed services do not any longer have the social status that they still have in the USA; and in Britain not only do gay people seem to have recognised that marriage simply does not work for heterosexuals—to be truly normative, any provision for queer marriage would have to include provision for queer divorce—but our politics are still far less in thrall to the rhetoric of Christianity than the Americans’.  Moreover, in many (especially non-western) cultures the pertinent ethical question is much closer to being: should queer citizens, once identified, be allowed freedom of movement or action at all?  Or should they even be allowed to live?  This question, never addressed by Clarke, is still not wholly irrelevant even in the nation to which the gay student Matthew Shepard belonged.  (He was crucified by homophobes in Wyoming, the Equality State, in October 1997, and left to die.)
Clarke directs an appropriate but superficial glance at the lesbian and gay travel/holiday industry.  The matter is more complicated than he seems to notice.  He does not mention that many, if not most, American gay tourism advertisements are not about being out and about in the ‘public sphere’ at all, but about walled vacation ‘resorts’ (which in other parts of the world would be called ‘compounds’) in places like Palm Springs and Key West and specially chartered, heterosexual-excluding cruise liners.  When this aspect of gay privacy intrudes on the public sphere of the outside world, major problems can arise—as in April 1998 when the SS Seabreeze I was met by 300 local protestors as it debouched its complement of lesbians into the streets of Nassau in the Bahamas.  In January of the same year a Norwegian Cruise Lines boat-load of gay men had actually been turned away from the Cayman Islands.  Indeed, contrary to expectation, it may prove, in the long run, less difficult for us to come out in our predominantly urban workplaces than in the non-metropolitan and non-Western places to which we aspire to travel in our vacations.
It is odd that Clarke makes no mention of the Internet, where not only are the traditional parameters of private and public being systematically redefined (cyberspace being, strictly speaking, neither one thing nor the other), but so too, in many ways, are sexual identities.  MOOing and MUDDing in the realms of virtuality beyond the phenomenological confines of physique, it is certainly true that some people believe they are developing new configurations of gendered, or even ungendered, interaction and new ways of existing queerly.  Under the circumstances, it appears that we need to develop a more sophisticated sense not only of the public but of the private sphere—for which the gay-moralised concept of ‘the closet’ may not be the only conceivable metaphor.
A couple of problems which arise in Virtuous Vice are common to a lot of recent work in queer studies.  Clarke sometimes appears to want to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to matters of language.  Queer theorists have replaced the anachronistic use of ‘homosexual’ with the safer—because far more ambiguous—term ‘queer’.  Needless to say, this is no less anachronistic.  So, for instance, Clarke refers to Percy Shelley’s ‘queer peculiarities’ (p.155), where the adjective is redundant unless it carries the burden of a late-twentieth-century sexual meaning.  And when quoting an anonymous reviewer’s comment that at school Shelley refused to participate in the fagging system—‘he would not be a fag’—Clarke does not gloss what is, after all, an extremely narrow usage of ‘fag’ for his American readers.  It is clear that he wants it to carry the twentieth-century resonance of faggotry.
Clarke seems to be embarrassed by his own scholarship.  It is as if he knows—even if he does not admit it—that education is itself the most assimilationist project of all.  There is an uncomfortably revealing moment when he says, ‘As odd and nerdy as it may sound, I often think of Habermas when teaching alternative AIDS videos to my [sic] undergraduates in an Introduction to Popular Culture course.’  This makes me worry about what his teaching is like when he is not being odd and nerdy.  What on earth is the point of reading Habermas at all (or whoever else) if his work is not going to come to mind when we are thinking about relevant topics?  The very next sentence is startling in its curmudgeonly recognition that Clarke’s own career is not a completely lost cause: ‘Despite the inequities of power between teachers and students, the classroom at times can be an ideal arena for the exchange of ideas.’  It can, indeed.
Clarke’s assault on assimilationism raises all kinds of anxieties when one considers that it comes from a university professor: for the fact is that queer academics are themselves (ourselves, rather) a highly specialist academic √©lite whose goal has been, over the last decade, to settle a niche in some of the most conservative institutions in the West: the universities and their adjunct publishing houses.  Nobody who is, or aims to be, a professor working in queer studies should ever look down on a pair of gay men who want to get married or a lesbian who wants to join the navy. Besides, I am not convinced that the kinds of political and cultural strategy that Clarke labels as assimilationist all are, or always are.
For instance, to say that claiming to be part of a gay tradition is an assimilationist move tells us little. What matters is: assimilation into what, by whom, and to what end? There is surely a difference between claimants. Alexander the Great and Hephaestion dancing naked on the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus at Troy; Oscar Wilde, facing hard labour, identifying with Plato; a pre-operative transsexual reading up on the Native American berdache; an isolated moffie in South Africa looking to the Western gay movements for inspiration, if not a precise blueprint; a man with AIDS reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain; a guilt-ridden Christian sodomite, citing David and Jonathan or Naomi and Ruth rather than the cities of the plain... Thus implicitly to claim solidarity with known figures from the past, actual or invented, is an assertion of knowledge and not—contrary to the more heavy-handed queer theorists—a demonstration of ignorance. One of the major uses to which culture can be put is to give us a sense of, in Van Wyck Brooks’ expression, ‘a usable past’. To identify with pre-‘homosexual’ formulations of same-sex sexuality, or with other cultures’ formulations, may indeed be one of our best ways of not assimilating into the dominant American capitalist-commercial mode.


[This review was first published in Textual Practice 15, 2 (Summer 2001), pp.340-344.]

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