Queer theory and the neoliberal / neototalitarian order

From William A. Percy
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The following personal note was written in 2007 to a major queer theorist, whom precisely does not matter, after a chance encounter after many years at an academic talk. It's presented here slightly revised.


If the cocktail hour had been more conducive, I'd have buttonholed you on what I'd argue is queer theory's sorry condition. Its institutional success and current (I'd say) wheel-spinning follow from the circumstance that enshrined it in academia: the rise of the gay movement (cf., the civil rights movement and 'black studies'). That politically constitutive fact explains much of what's followed.

Homosexuality's acceptance in the West in the past generation came from a highly ideologized, ahistorical, abiological recasting of sexual morality in terms of contract theory, a theme you've notably addressed in different terms.

Queer theory's nominalism served the political purpose of theorizing homosexuality's emergence on the contemporary stage of legitimacy. Queer theory's insistence on the determinative role of discourse aided and abetted the sloughing-off of forms and aspects of homosex that didn't fit the New World Order (pederasty most of all, co-juvenile male homoerotics, gender-bending to some extent, but more broadly homoerotics as a field outside identity for burning-off male sexual excess or as a modality of male-group solidarity).

Social construction's nominalism provided a high-level rationale for homosex's new acceptability (and for a more open sexual regime generally, now that sex and societal organization and reproduction were gears increasingly disengaged). Queer theory served this purpose even if it went against the grain of more essentialist folk-gay ideology. But the opposition is merely notional. For the health and flourishing of 'Arayan' politics it pays to have both 'essentialists' (who conjure the iconic blond, blue-eyed ideal) and relative 'anti-essentialists' (who emphasize that 'Arayan' is flexible enough to embrace, say, swarthy Austrians). Given that 'LGBTQ' is a chimerical collation with none but ideological substance, queer theory's nominalist efforts have paradoxically only strengthened its apparent coherence, the way that partly melting a snowball can be step in forging a better-weaponized ball of ice.

Such ideological service is questionable enough. But the next step is worse, and it follows from what I'd say is the rise of a new post-death-of-God state religion emerging as reigning ideology in the West (which is veering toward something resembling totalitarianism). Oprah became a billionaire by casting Everywoman as Christ on the cross, her abused inner child understood as sacrificed to redeem the world of (masculine) sin. Madeleine epitomizes the new kind of saint, with wayward priests the new devils.

Queer theory questions just those categories that the new market / state / technological system itself questions and deconstructs (gender, sexual orientation) in the course of this system's dissolution of materiality, locality, and tradition to abet ever greater circulation and global metropolitan domination.

Queer theory resolutely does not question the provisionality and construction of categories ('child', 'abuse victim' 'sex offender', pedophile', 'sexual predator', 'child pornography') that are thrown up as substitute points-on-the-compass and are at the core of a massive new regulatory and penal apparatus -- one transforming Western jurisprudence in directions that uncannily replicate the totalitarian precedents (preventative imprisonment, post-sentence lifetime incarceration, mutilation, state-abetted vigilantism, lifetime public shaming, killing, and a perpetually inflamed public rhetoric of hate). The Nazis, for instance, made almost exactly the same distinction between androphile and pederastic homosexuality as the present-day West in deciding who got a warning or a short term in prison and who got killed.

Queer theory misses this elephant in the seminar room.

If categories of self and feeling are constituted by repetitive discursive practice (a claim of Butler's that puts the queer theorist in the privileged position of dissecting our very structures of self and sensibility, however Pavlovian that smells) then isn't there an especial responsibility to diagnose matters when those practices produce categories of monster who must be liquidated?

But you can read Judith Butler till you're blue in the face and there's never any acknowledgment that California police are rounding up sex-offenders right in her neighborhood and sending them to jail for violating the new apartheidesque pass laws (laws which are the very mascot of the state's 'care' for its citizens). Or there's the sex-offender sentenced to life in prison in Georgia over the summer simply for becoming homeless. Or the teacher in Arizona who got 200 years for possessing porn you could have bought with a wink on 42nd Street a dozen years ago. (The Supreme Court ruled the sentence was not excessive.) The latest 2006 federal sex law allows lifetime post-sentence incarceration for persons who simply fail to acknowledge the seriousness of their sex crime (which could be an 19-year-old's taking a Greyhound bus to have sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend, or an HIV-positive person french-kissing a partner without tell his status). In such a context, for one of America's most prominent and well-compensated theorists of sex to grandstand instead about Israel's maltreatment of Palestinians or ethnocentrism at the Berlin pride parade, however noble, has a whiff about it of changing the subject.

Which isn't even to address the inadequacy of Butler's theory about gender in not assessing the evidence outside its hermetic universe of reference. Is gender only constructed in humans but not in sparrows and dogs? Butler weighs in with a bold, pre-Copernican 'Yes'. There's nothing wrong with pursuing a line of thinking to the max, in the mode of theologians contemplating infinity, sometimes to the betterment of philosophy. But at some point, if you're making claims about the world, you'd better stand back and consider rival accountings to assess the adequacy of your own.

For Butler, gender is socially constructed but the minor is ontologically absolute. She writes dryly in 1995, "Although the dependency of the child is not political subordination in any usual sense, the formation of primary passion in dependency renders the child vulnerable to subordination and exploitation, a topic that has become a preoccupation of recent political discourse" -- as if such ideologically-induced frauds as 'Satanic ritual abuse', recovered memory, and trauma theory were not raging. (The Psychic Life of Power, p. 7)

Why are we now in the West constructing masculine sexuality as utterly demonic? Butler is grammatical and popular, I'd suggest, because she resonates with the singularly peculiar circumstances of this moment in history: the apparent end of the reign of the biological, locality, and patriarchy as humans are increasingly pickled in the brine of the global techno / market / state. (Whether the market-abetted rise of asexual monoculture will be our undoing is another question.)

Or take Lee Edelman's new book, No Future, full of iconoclastic bluster, but ending up just Pepsi-Cola revolutionary. Like Hegel, he bleats on about his transformative radicality, but at the end of the day settles into the slumber of the most conventional positions -- condemning the Catholic church for its tolerance of pederasty, for instance, even while the church is the target of a vicious, greedy, murderous witch-hunt. In those passages, Edelman could be writing in the Boston Globe.

The likes of Butler and Edelman, so far as I can see, are morally empty careerists who would lick the assholes of power no matter where they found themselves. They stand in the august tradition of deconstructive forebears such as Paul de Man, who argued for "the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe" while writing in collaborationist Belgian newspaper during World War II. Today's sex gulags and queer theory both are state-sponsored, and spill out of the same cloaca, flipsides of the same coin. We already have lifetime internment camps (expanded federally in 2010 with the help of presumptive lesbian then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan), and in 2008, with Obama cheering on, came close to having the death penalty in many states for acts on the order of consensually fondling a teenager, acts ascribable to Oscar Wilde or Whitman or Socrates. I'm convinced there is no further escalation that would cause our tenured queer theorists to object -- or stop cashing their state-issue paychecks, which they earn in part by how their very presence in high academe proves how tolerant is the gulag regime.

Queer theory's nominalism is its means of effacing memory in service to the amnesia on which totalitarianism depends.

Intellectual work and honesty means taking seriously what is inevitably a longstanding intergenerational dialogue. It is telling that queer theorists ignore the current ideological configuration -- in which their place is highly privileged -- and accede without pause to the liquidation of many of the figures that would count by anyone's measure in the millennia-old 'queer' pantheon. Like state intellectuals in any of the last century's worst regimes.

This isn't the fault of Foucault -- who had an instinctual alignment with the underdog that his present-day epigones seem to have lost, and with eerie acuity, pronounced already in 1979 the basic configuration of pedophile hysteria as the new fundamental structure of post-liberation Western sexual control. See Foucault's radio interview that year republished later in Semiotext(e).

Among queer theorists breaking the mold, there's Steven Angelides, though my sense of his work is that the queer theory is mostly just scaffolding to an admirably clearheaded position whose true supports lie beyond. But even if his work is a fruit of the queer-theory vine, Angelides is an exception that proves the rule. Kathryn Bond Stockton's The Queer Child deserves mention as well. But even here there's a disconnect between the direness of the situation and what tends to end up as a merely literary-critical response.

I know this is harsh, but I intend no personal animus. If you think I be unfair, and could point me in the direction of something that would address these concerns, I'd be grateful.

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