Saturday, November 19, 2011

Excerpt from Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism by Rosemary Hennessy, (pp. 104-110)

Let me sum up some of the points I am making. First of all, heteronorms are cultural-ideological.  They depend on the reification of sensory-affect into identities that legitimate and enable certain historical processes of capitalism. The gender foundation of heteronormative sexual identities is directly related to the extraction of surplus value through the gendered division of labor both in the family's role in the reproduction of labor power and in the workplace. To the extent that heteronormativity is premised on a gender hierarchy, it has served to legitimate and naturalize the gendered division of labor. However, just because capitalism has made use of heteronormativity does not mean that it is necessary for capitalist production.  Capitalism does not require heteronormative families or even a gendered division of labor. What it does require is an unequal division of labor. If gay- or queer-identified people are willing to shore up that unequal division – whether that means running corporations or feeding families, raising children or caring for the elderly – capital will accept us, and in areas where production has moved far out of the patriarchal household and patriarchal gender ideologies have flexed or changed, it has done so, though unevenly and reluctantly. This limited acceptance is not just a freestanding cultural phenomenon any more than the emergence of "new families" includes all non-nuclear arrangements. While heteronormativity's dependence on gender difference continues to bolster an unequal division of labor in the home and in the marketplace, and the ideology of family shelters an unwaged domestic labor force - whether straight or gay - race still has to bear a great share of the burden for the production of surplus value. The companion to the “New (white) Gay Family” is the single workfare mother whose sexual identity is less relevant than her social status as excessive breeder.

Finally, I am arguing that reified sexual identities - straight, gay, queer - are tied to capitalism's class system in that they are ways of seeing and knowing oneself and others that shore up the logic of commodity exchange on which capital is based. This is a logic that abstracts social phenomena, including human relationships from the historical conditions that make them possible.  In this regard, claiming a queer identity or claiming a straight identity can participate in the same cultural logic.  The point I want to stress here is not that sexuality has a class character or that class trumps sexual identity, but that consolidation of new sexual identities that pursues the logic of commodification limits the development of collective agency.  The occlusion of class in theories of sexuality and the disavowal of class struggle or class affinities in sexual liberation movements are part of the legacy of capital’s commodification of consciousness.  One of the costs of the reification of eros into heteronormative identity and its homo-alternative is the separation of class and sex analysis.  Underlying this split is the loss of a way of seeing and a form of social organization that recognizes that human needs are collectively produced and that can address the immense human toll taken by the contradictory relationships through which this process is enacted under capitalism.

The rationalizing bourgeois subject Lukacs described so well in the 1930s still persists, but changes in the relations of production and the production of new commodity forms in late capitalism have adjusted its particular articulations.  What are these new commodity forms and what are their effects on the ways of knowing and forms of identity – especially sexual identity – that are historically available, even prescribed now?  By the mid-twentieth century, changes in the appropriation of relative and absolute surplus value under Fordism had made possible several important innovations in capitalist production:  the penetration of capital into new geographical and social spaces, including the export of consumer capitalism to the third world, an increased scale of economic activity, and an expansion of the commodity form in everyday life….  By the 1980s these innovations were already being displaced by the gradual introduction of new flexible technologies, deregulated labor markets, and the movement of standardized production to a “peripheral” position in the world economy.  These adjustments to production increased the rates at which relative and surplus value could be procured, dramatically altering the structure of those core relationships capitalism relies on.  The physical expansion of capitalism begun under Fordism continued through the creation and extension of markets, including the deeper penetration and commodification of the body and identity – the growth of health, food, fashion, and athletic markets, for example….  Changes in the intensity and organization of labor and to the means of production – the flexible character of modern production and consumption – issued in innovations to the ideal commodity-form.  The key commodities of the 1980s were those goods best attuned to freeing up the previously static and relatively fixed spatial and temporal dimensions of daily life; products like the Walkman and microwave are two examples….  The increased ‘fluidization’ of everyday life in turn implied changes in the composition of needs and the cultural framework within which needs are made meaningful.  The success of this new logic of consumption depended on and was accompanied by a resocialization of everyday consciousness, a historical condition generally referred to as “postmodernism”.

While we have by now an almost exhaustive catalog of the cultural-ideological effects of postmodernism, less readily available are analyses that explain how ways of knowing and living sexuality are linked to the changing logic of the commodity as the keystone of capitalist production.  What might some of these links be?  We know that the dominant discourses of sexual identity in overindustrialized sectors, spun across national lines through media and travel industries, seem to be changing, albeit in uneven ways.  In these parts of the world, the network of equations among sex, gender sexual practice, and desire on which normative heterosexuality as a matrix of intelligibility came to depend under Fordism is being disrupted.  The discrete asymmetrical opposition between male and female is being thrown into question, pressuring the imaginary logic of opposites and sex-gender equations that the prevailing heterogender system once relied on.  In the media images generated in overdeveloped capitalist centers especially, more permeable, fluid, ambiguously coded sexual identities are allowed, even promoted.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that even though heteronorms are being challenged and recast, capitalist production does continue to rely on compulsory heterosexuality as a way of organizing sex, gender, and desire, and it continues to exert its force on human bodies and imaginations through strategies of abjection, disciplinary, and brute violence.  There is no question that normative sexual identity remains a battlefield on which the lives of lesbian, gay, and queer-identified people are damaged, even lost, nor that the nation-state remains a prime enforcer of prescribed sexual norms through public education, marriage, immigration, and other state-regulated social policies.  Nonetheless, the fact also remains that middle-class professional lesbian, gay, and even queer-identified subjects are being welcomed into the cultural and corporate mainstream, an incorporation that bears testimony to the fact that capitalism does not necessarily need heterosexuality.  New, non-normative sexual identities support innovative “lifestyle” marketing niches, and in the academy and publishing worlds of the United States especially, they also furnish lucrative marketing vehicles for the knowledge industry, often under the rubric of cultural studies.  My concern is that these knowledges are producing subjectivities that seem all too congruent with the forms of reified consciousness required of the new stewards of capitalism, the middle class fraction of professional service workers.

What sort of consciousness is this?  What are the qualities demanded of service workers?  The answer reveals the degree to which new forms of cognition blur with new affective and physical demands on the laboring body.  Service workers are primarily knowledge workers who need to be able to carry out multistep operations, manipulate abstract symbols, command the flow of information, and remain flexible enough to recognize new paradigms.  Their work requires new affective and physical responses:  habitual mobility, adaptability in every undertaking, the ability to navigate among possible alternatives and spaces, and a cultivation of ambivalence as a structure of feeling.

We are familiar with this postmodern subject.  We see him in the deconstructions of hetero-homo identity that underscore the postmodern, performative queer whose identity is always open – not to history so much as to the shifting play of signification.  We see her in the reformulations of sexual identity that take a Deleuzean productive desire as their point of departure.  And she is often quite subtle, even appealing, in her free-form mobility.  IN the work of Elspeth Probyn or Elizabeth Grosz, for example, queer sexual identity does not seem to be reified – quite the contrary.  It is a matter of continuing movement and making strange, of desire freed from any location in individual or historical necessity, desire aimed not to a person but to individual body parts.

There is a rich and alluring evocativeness to much of this work, a mining of desire as a series of intensities that throws one onto the vagaries of the other, an exploration of the “psychic life of power,” to reference the title of one of Judith Butler’s books, that posits provocative ways of entertaining the desiring subject.  But there is also an eerie if familiar immateriality to this new queer subject, who moves in a milieu of virtual relations, whose desire is the unleashed mobility of disconnected images and whose body becomes the site of provocations, reactions, disruptions, and blurred boundaries “so that it is no longer clear where one organ, body or subject stops and another begins”.  These more open, fluid, ambivalent sexual identities – what I call “postmodern sexualities” – announce more flexible gender codes and performative sexual identities that are quite compatible with the mobility, adaptability, and ambivalence required of service workers today and with the new more fluid forms of the commodity.  While they may disrupt norms and challenge state practices that are indeed oppressive, they do not necessarily challenge neoliberalism or disrupt capitalism.  To the extent that they de-link sexuality from its historical connection to the human relationships of exploitation capitalism relies on, and to the extent that they reify desire, postmodern sexualities participate in the logic of the commodity and help support neoliberalism’s mystifications.

Certainly the restructuring of the labor market has not given all service workers more freedom and autonomy.  Yet some members of this new professional class fraction are indeed an elite group who can live and travel globally and who are rapidly developing a certain homogeneity, fed by consumerism, the media, entertainment, and tourism.  Theirs is a transnational culture that appropriates eccentricity, including the eccentricity of gay culture.  As Dennis Altman has argued, it is fashionable to point to the emergence of the “global gay,” that is, the internationalization of certain forms of social and cultural identity based on homosexuality and often conceptualized in terms derived from recent American fashion and intellectual style.  Most evident in cosmopolitan centers in Southeast Asia, South and Central America, and Eastern Europe, images and rhetoric of a gay culture linked to consumerism and the development of a gay and lesbian press spread from the United States to other countries after 1969.  Their most obvious indicator is the development of commercial space:  entertainment venues, restaurants, shops, catering to a homosexual – usually male – clientele.  In all of its unevenness, the consolidation of public gay identities transnationally follows in the wake of late capitalist commodification as it affects the growth of affluence and the formation of a free subject.  Wealth and education seem to be prerequisites for the adoption of new counter-heteronormative forms of identity, though as authoritarian governments in the Middle East and East Asia make clear, the operation of state repression and traditional cultural codes are clearly mediating forces.

Seeing through the lens of historical materialism, the ways cultural forms, including identities and desires, follow the logic of commodification in itself cannot eliminate the exploitative relationships on which capitalism relies.  But making visible the connections between forms of identity and capital’s historical processes can change the frame through which we might imagine the horizon for change and can perhaps enable us to forge new forms of subjectivity and political alliance that might target for transformation the exploitative, oppressive, and acquisitive relationship neoliberalism protects. 

My own professional work has offered me opportunities to travel to cities as far-flung as Sydney, Birmingham, and Berlin, where I have met and learned from lesbian, gay, and transgendered people and participated in the commercial and political spaces of gay and queer communities.  I know that these privileges of mine have been made possible by some of the very forces I have described:  the transnational network of knowledges that comprise cultural studies, queer identities, and the class relations of late capitalism that supports them.  I acknowledge my participation in capitalist relations not simply to display the contradiction s between my historical position in the professional middle class and the horizon of social transformation I am committed to but in order to emphasize that in the short term it matters a great deal what we do with the contradictory historical positions that for many of us are accidents of birth.  Cultural workers, in and outside of universities, have an opportunity to make use of our access to teaching arenas of many sorts to put into crisis the reified cultural forms we simultaneously strain against and enjoy, and – given the premium placed on identities as merely cultural constructs – I would say on identities especially.

Cultural theory and political activism that focus our attention only on the spectacle of sexual identity commodify sexuality by separating the organization of sexual identity from the complex historical ways capitalism shapes the human capacity for pleasure, affect, and social interaction.  The kernel of human relationships that is characteristic of transnational late capitalism condition the terrain on which these capacities are enacted and felt; they set the cultural agenda.  We need to ask, “Are cultural theories of sexuality and their accompanying politics directing our attention to this terrain?”  It is my contention that refusing transnational capitalism its foundational status as a mode of production makes impossible the cognitive mapping that needs to be the point of departure for radical sexual politics.  This is a way of knowing and a politics that does not rally around identities but rather inquires into their reasons for being.  It is a way of knowing and a politics attuned to the historical links between culture and political economy precisely because social reality is shaped by their connection.  And finally, this is a way of knowing and a politics that does not dismiss the human capacities for sensation and affect, but rather attends to their historical organization, and their commodification under capitalism especially, precisely because these human abilities are so integral to the process of transformative social change.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Lonnie,

    Haven't finished this yet, but this leapt out at me:

    " The point I want to stress here is not that sexuality has a class character or that class trumps sexual identity..."

    Here, I'd argue that class certainly *can* trump sexual identity, or if not 'trump' in the classic (gaming) sense, it certainly modifies the centrality of sexual identity that seems to be the common identity-locus of gay men of a certain age. I guess what I'm getting at is something like this:

    1. If we accept the idea that sexual minority oppression is central to the formation of a gay-specific consciousness (and again, I'll allow that this REALLY may be generational), shouldn't it follow precisely that...

    2. Class certainly *does* trump sexual minority status in that sense, since *class oppression* is so much more pervasive, and has been around so much longer?

    I suppose, more simply: if I'm a middle-class white gay man, even if I lived through stonewall and coming out in the 70's, even if I lived through the worst of the plague in the 80's and 90's, I *still* say I have a lot more in common with other white, middle- and upper-middle-class gay *and straight* men than I do men of color or working-class and working poor of *any* sexual orientation.