Queerness, Civilization and its Discontents

hones the monster, Going Postal
Re purposed Thomas Nast Cartoon – Public Domain

Foreward: I’m cross posting this in a couple of places. It’s bound to be a dramatically unpopular piece wherever I post it, but I’m providing it in hopes to stir thought on the subject, if not agreement.

It is impossible for a human being to operate without bias, and so I will make a good faith effort to make my biases known up front: I’m an ageing queer, a bit mad, and disaffected, but hopeful in the end. I’m a lifelong leftist anarchist that recently went over the high wall and saw some things I maybe shouldn’t have seen. Who knows? But there’s no going back. My politics around queerness, and my understanding of queerness is inspired largely by the work of Lee Edelman (“No Future”) and Baedan (“A Journal of Queer Nihilism”) which we’ll explore here, but please don’t mistake inspiration for total agreement. My understanding of human social functioning is informed by sociobiology and complex adaptive systems theory. I also readily employ scripture, but am not religious in any meaningful sense of the word. I’m not a fan of academia for its own sake, and I didn’t even go to college myself, so I’m going to try to keep this out of the ivory tower of academia Edelman tries to pull us into.

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.

– Paul the Apostle, on one of his characteristic rants.

Paul’s decree is perhaps the root of anti-queer sentiment in the west inasmuch as Christianity formed foundational western values. Paul understood queerness would be and must be outcast from society for the society to function. Here the kingdom is not just allegory for heaven, but we’ll take it to mean membership to the dominant social order in this life. He brands queerness criminal.

Edelman writes:

We might do well to consider this less as an instance of hyperbolic rant and more as a reminder of the disorientation that queer sexualities should entail: “acceptance or indifference to the homosexual movement will result in society’s destruction by allowing civil order to be redefined and by plummeting ourselves, our children and grandchildren into an age of godlessness. Indeed, the very foundation of Western Civilization is at stake.” Before the self-righteous bromides of liberal pluralism spill from our lips, before we supply once more the assurance that ours is another kind of love but a love like his nonetheless, before we piously invoke the litany of our glorious contributions to the civilizations of east and west alike, dare we pause for a moment to acknowledge that he might be right—or, more important, that he ought to be right: that queerness should and must destroy such notions of “civil order” through a rupturing of our foundational faith in the reproduction of futurity?

I’d like to focus on the very last bit, and strip away the purple prose some. He’s saying, like Paul that queerness is contrary to the social order. He goes further however, in saying that we’re disruptive to the social order because we break a fundamental faith in the idea of a “better future for our children” on which all politics are based.

This idea that queerness is disruptive to the social order can be found even 2000 years ago in Greece. Here Philo of Alexandria, with a similar background as Paul the Apostle makes it clear that queerness is more than simply about orientation or gender, and characterizes the disruptive and subversive nature of queerness and its impact on society in detail:

The Special Laws

I. 324-325 [referring to Deuteronomy 23:1]

But while the law stands pre-eminent in enjoining fellowship and humanity, it preserves the high position and dignity of both virtues by not allowing anyone whose state is incurable to take refuge with them, but bidding him avaunt and keep his distance. Thus, knowing that in assemblies there are not a few worthless persons who steal their way in and remain unobserved in the large numbers which surround them, it guards against this danger by precluding all the unworthy from entering the holy congregation. It begins with the men who belie their sex and are affected with effemination, who debase the currency of nature and violate it by assuming the passions and the outward form of licentious women. For it expels those whose generative organs are fractured or mutilated, who husband the flower of their youthful bloom, lest it should quickly wither, and restamp the masculine cast into a feminine form.

III. 37-42 [referring to Leviticus 18:22, 20:13]

Much graver than the above is another evil, which has ramped its way into the cities, namely pederasty. In former days the very mention of it was a great disgrace, but now it is a matter of boasting not only to the active but to the passive partners, who habituate themselves to endure the disease of effemination, let both body and soul run to waste, and leave no ember of their male sex-nature to smoulder. Mark how conspicuously they braid and adorn the hair of their heads, and how they scrub and paint their faces with cosmetics and pigments and the like, and smother themselves with fragrant unguents. For of all such embellishments, used by all who deck themselves out to wear a comely appearance, fragrance is the most seductive. In fact the transformation of the male nature to the female is practised by them as an art and does not raise a blush. These persons are rightly judged worthy of death by those who obey the law which ordains that the man-woman who debases the sterling coin of nature should perish unavenged, suffered not to live for a day or even an hour, as a disgrace to himself, his house, his native land and the whole human race. And the lover of such may be assured that he is subject to the same penalty. He pursues an unnatural pleasure and does his best to render cities desolate and uninhabited by destroying the means of procreation. Furthermore he sees no harm in becoming a tutor and instructor in the grievous vices of unmanliness and effeminacy by prolonging the bloom of the young and emasculating the flower of their prime, which should rightly be trained to strength and robustness. Finally, like a bad husbandman he lets the deep-soiled and fruitful fields lie sterile, by taking steps to keep them from bearing, while he spends his labour night and day on soil from which no growth at all can be expected. The reason is, I think, to be found in the prizes awarded in many nations to licentiousness and effeminacy. Certainly you may see these hybrids of man and woman continually strutting about through the thick of the market, heading the processions at the feasts, appointed to serve as unholy ministers of holy things, leading the mysteries and initiations and celebrating the rites of Demeter. Those of them who by way of heightening still further their youthful beauty have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs, are clad in purple like signal benefactors of their native lands, and march in front escorted by a bodyguard, attracting the attention of those who meet them. But if such indignation as our lawgiver felt was directed against those who do not shrink from such conduct, if they were cut off without condemnation as public enemies, each of them a curse and a pollution of his country, many others would be found to take the warning. For relentless punishment of criminals already condemned acts as a considerable check on those who are eager to practise the like.

He covers trans people, gay people, recruitment, social degeneration, the allure to taboo, all of the standard fears around us queers we enjoy 2000 years later. Here he’s saying that there are rituals to queerness, and that recruitment is part of the process. Something like 40% of teens that wind up in homeless shelters in the US are LGBT, where do they go? Often, someone takes them in, and it’s often a queer person. Statistic aside, we can focus on the blame (parents? queers? both?), or on the ends.

Returning to the general criminality of queerness: Some of my fellow queer anarchists had this to say in Total Destroy (2009) in a piece titled “Criminal Intimacy”

The machinery of control has rendered our very existence illegal. We’ve endured the criminalization and crucifixion of our bodies, our sex, our unruly genders. Raids, witch-hunts, burnings at the stake. We’ve occupied the space of deviants, of whores, of perverts, and abominations. This culture has rendered us criminal, and of course, in turn, we’ve committed our lives to crime. In the criminalization of our pleasures, we’ve found the pleasure to be had in crime! In being outlawed for who we are, we’ve discovered that we are indeed fucking outlaws! Many blame queers for the decline of this society—we take pride in this. Some believe that we intend to shred-to-bits this civilization and its moral fabric—they couldn’t be more accurate. We’re often described as depraved, decadent and revolting—but oh, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

I’ve purposely illustrated extreme left and right views to illustrate the point that queer relationship with the social order is one that is antagonistic from either direction.

Edelman has his own ideas as to why it’s necessary:

To figure the undoing of civil society, the death drive of the dominant order, is neither to be nor to become that drive; such a being is not the point. Rather, acceding to that figural position means recognizing and refusing the consequences of grounding reality in denial of that drive. As the death drive dissolves those congealments of identity that permit us to know and survive as ourselves, so the queer must insist on disturbing, on queering, social organization as such—on disturbing, and therefore on queering ourselves and our investment in such organization. For queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one. And so, when I argue, as I aim to do here, that the burden of queerness is to be located less in the assertion of an oppositional political identity than in opposition to politics as the governing fantasy of realizing identities, I am proposing no platform or position from which queer sexuality or any queer subject might finally and truly become itself, as if it could somehow manage thereby to achieve an essential queerness. I am suggesting instead that the efficacy of queerness, its real strategic value, lies in its resistance to a symbolic reality that only ever invests us as subjects insofar as we invest ourselves in it, clinging to its governing fictions, its persistent sublimations, as reality itself.

Let’s unpack this and strip the jargon away from it. What he’s saying essentially is that queerness is subversive by nature, and that queerness is most effective when it’s at odds with society and our notions of civil order. He’s saying furthermore that the foundations of society are little more than grand narratives imposed by existing power, a very post-structural view. The death drive is simply a persistent thread that emerges from any ordered socio-political system and undermines it, in this case occupied by queers, criminals, and the mad.

And here we have the convergence of Edelman, a radical gay queer theorist, a group of queer anarchists, the Christian Apostle Paul and the Jewish scholar Philo all on a singular point of agreement – queerness is dangerous to the social order.

Edelman makes a convincing argument that “a better future for our children” that is, reproductive futurity is the foundation for all of our politics – that ultimately they are all centered around a symbolic Child by way of whom we project ourselves vicariously into the future.

Queer people, being removed from the reproductive role are fundamentally severed from this notion. For the queer, there is No Future, hence the title for Edelman’s book. We must find our own way, and Edelman suggests that way exists somewhere beyond pleasure and pain:

Queerness undoes the identities through which we experience ourselves as subjects, insisting on the Real of a jouissance that social reality and the futurism on which it relies have already foreclosed. Queerness, therefore is never a matter of being or becoming but, rather, of embodying the remainder of the real internal to the symbolic order. One name for this unnameable remainder as Lacan describes it, is jouissance, sometimes translated as “enjoyment”:

a movement beyond the pleasure principle, beyond the distinctions of pleasure and pain, a violent passage beyond the bounds of identity, meaning and law.

Here, he argues that queerness strips us of identities, and undermines futurism itself – queerness is purely negative. In an effort to simplify this he’s saying in essence that queerness is about nullifying the social order, and we seek an unnameable enjoyment and fulfillment in this chaos – however impossible that may be.

Baedan elaborates on the concept of jouissance as it is used here:

We can locate this jouissance in the historic moments of queer riot: Compton’s cafeteria, Dewey’s, the White Night, Stonewall, and countless other moments where queer bodies participated in rupture—throwing bricks, setting fires, smashing windows, rejoicing in the streets. But more to the point, jouissance is located in precisely the aspects of these moments (and of others unknown to us) which elude historians, the ones which cannot be captured in a textbook or situated neatly within narratives of progress for queer people, or of rational political struggle for a better future. Jouissance is the rage which boils over in the first queen to set a fire; the hatred of an entire social order which flows through one’s veins while they set a dozen San Francisco police vehicles on fire. It is the ecstatic bliss that must have shivered its way through the spines of any blessed enough to hear the siren songs of those police cruisers wailing in flames. Jouissance is the way that the sexual encounters immediately following such riots were totally incommensurable to the mundane sex of daily life. Jouissance is the driving élan of queer sex culture, and yet it is precisely that element of queer sex which still cannot be locked up in an industry, sold as a commodity or scheduled at some mass commercialized ritual. While each element of the sex industry attempts to resolve some fundamental lack and to integrate one’s desires into a coherent subjective experience, jouissance is specifically that element of sexual desire which makes such a union impossible. It is a desire for jouissance which sends us into the night seeking to overwhelm our bodily capacity, to disintegrate the corporeal limits of ourselves, to truly flee from what and who we are. It is specifically this remainder, which defines the unbridgeable chasm between the public sex culture of New York and San Francisco in the seventies (massive squatted sex warehouses, perpetual orgies, a culture of cruising which entirely dissolved the distinction between sex and the rest of life) and the so-called cruising of the cybernetic era (Grindr, craigslist, sparsely attended and overpriced parties at failing sex clubs). This distance might also be understood as what separates the anarchy of an orgy from the democratic ideology of purist polyamory. Jouissance is the unnameable desire that one hopelessly attempts to summarize before giving one’s body to another: “I want to be negated.” Jouissance is that essence of queer criminality which cannot be reduced to any vulgar determinism. It is the joy found in the retribution of robbing some bourgeois john, the thrill of theft, the satisfaction of destruction. It is because we are addicted to the intertwining pleasure and pain which brings us again and again into the streets: seeking to riot or fight or fuck. It is specifically the pursuit of the unnameable jouissance which causes, without fail, to risk everything in sacrifice to some more grand chaos. This aufheben of the categories of pain and pleasure is also the overthrowing of our attachments and investments in political activism, stable identity, and reason. The negativity of jouissance is the same that drives us away from obligations to the economy, the family, the law, and, above all, the Future.

We also see it in Philo’s passage about us.

Edelman concludes about jouissance:

This I suggest is the ethical burden to which queerness must accede in a social order intent on misrecognizing its own investment in morbidity, fetishization, and repetition: to inhabit the place of a meaninglessness associated with the sinthome; to figure an unregenerate, and unregenerating, sexuality whose singular insistence on jouissance, rejecting every constraint imposed by sentimental futurism, exposes aesthetic culture—the culture of forms and their reproduction, the culture of Imaginary lures—as always already a “culture of death” intent on abjecting the force of a death drive that shatters the tomb we call life.

Clearly, this is utterly incompatible with a functioning society. The social conservatives, as stewards of the social order, are right to confront or even fear our queerness. Because of our severance from the social order both sought and imposed, and our lack of investment and regard for it, we are relegated to the role criminal with respect to it.

Liberals themselves, still beholden to the social order and The Child it preserves try to sanitize and repackage queerness for mass consumption, creating artificial boundaries around it. Pride was borne of this – the purest expression of jouissance that liberals can accept.

Nobody can reconcile jouissance with the social order.

Furthermore, people are both repulsed and attracted by jouissance – this is taboo in its purest form, and taboo can never be neutral despite liberal attempts at normalizing it.

It can be celebrated or it can be despised.

The only alternative to this taboo of ours is to try and normalize it, but such a task is dangerous when not impossible, because to normalize jouissance completely ruptures society. The attempt at normalization of gay people, to the degree it succeeded, led to the attempt at normalization of trans people. The death drive will always create new ways to rupture the social fabric. Jouissance will not be contained. There is always another level to it.

In its totality jouissance represents the crisis of our existence in the west. Both social liberals and social conservatives attempt to respond to this crisis and do so differently, but as a result queerness finds its essence is missing from all political discourse. As Edelman writes:

For the liberal’s view of society, which seems to accord the queer a place, endorses no more than the conservative right’s the queerness of resistance to futurism and thus the queerness of the queer. While the right wing imagines the elimination of queers (or of the need to confront their existence), the left would eliminate queerness by shining the cool light of reason upon it, hoping thereby to expose it as merely a mode of sexual expression free of the allpervasive coloring, the determining fantasy formation, by means of which it can seem to portend, and not for the right alone, the undoing of the social order and its cynosure, the Child. Queerness thus comes to mean nothing for both: for the [social conservatives], the nothingness always at war with the positivity of civil society; for the [social liberals], nothing more than a sexual practice in need of demystification. (emphasis added)

People will generally either war with our nature or try to deny our nature, but it amounts to the same – an inability to reconcile queer jouissance.

Attempts to destroy us haven’t borne fruit. Attempts to separate us by force of law from the rest of society receive massive resistance from liberals.

One potentially interesting option for us queers to escape the above conflict is to simply place ourselves outside Paul’s “kingdom” – selfimposed exile from mainstream society, where we are free to push the boundaries as far as we’re willing to go, and take our essential jouissance with us. Another is joint cooperative exile where we divorce society and all parties are prepared to sever ties, and possibly trade on our jouissance, our art, our sex, our fashion, our muse as service to society, a bit of a neo-pluralist approach. This could facilitate an honor/service social contract between heteronormative society and queer sub-society, whereby we serve society with our gifts, and can be respected and afforded our own place on those grounds.

One way to orchestrate this is through the foundation of an insular queer church – a positive prospect with which to root the negativity of jouissance within the larger social habitat – an oasis of sorts. We don’t have the baggage of family nor the need for familial infrastructure like private grammar schools or homeschooling because we typically do not breed. This also allows for legal protections for queer people under various “religious freedom” protections in the US.

If we are preserve queerness from liberal attempts to appropriate it, and we are to find peace with our nature we need our own space on our own terms. The larger social order cannot accept us on our own terms, we must change ourselves or separate. To integrate is to both reduce our queerness to liberal parameters, or to suppress it altogether. To integrate is destructive to the social order, and hence the family and to The Child which it represents.

In any case, we as queer people can either embrace our social niche or lose it.

© honey the monster 2019

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