Questions of Method

Presented at Queering Paradigms II, 8 April 2010. Detail, Das Gastmahl. Nach Platon (zweite Fassung) by Anselm Feuerbach (1871–74).

I’d like to begin by posing a question: What might it mean to queer heterosexuality? At first blush, what is at stake in this question is the verb ‘to queer,’ and the cathexis of intellection, affect, and political struggle conveniently labelled ‘queer theory’—as if this could ever constitute a single, determinable entity. In the light of these considerations, therefore, the correct response to these questions would be to, first and foremost, explore what exactly it means to ‘queer’ an object (in this case, heterosexuality) rather than to question the givenness of that term. Such an approach is visible in Calvin Thomas’s edited collection on the subject of the interface between heterosexuality and queer theory, entitled Straight With a Twist. In the title essay, the question Thomas poses is not one about heterosexuality qua heterosexuality, but rather one about the boundaries of queer theory proper: “To what extent does critical queerness … depend on a specific identification with the words ‘homosexual,’ ‘bisexual,’ ‘lesbian,’ or ‘gay’ and the outlawed sexualities those terms conventionally represent?” he asks. ((Calvin Thomas, “Straight With a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality” in Straight With a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality, ed. Calvin Thomas with the assistance of Joseph O. Aimone and Catherine A. F. MacGillivray (Champaign: The University of Illinois Press, 2000), 11.)) He continues: “and more to the point of this discussion, to what extent could an otherwise ‘straight’ subject elaborate a queer criticism?” ((Ibid.)) What follows is an extended discussion that centres around questions of privilege and appropriation: how is it possible for a ‘straight’ subject to utilise the intellectual apparatus of queer theory for an antihomophobic project of self-examination without appropriating queerness for heteronormative ends? Or without de-specifying the privileged link between non-normative sexualities and that intellectual apparatus? Perhaps unsurprisingly, after thirty or so pages of sometimes-tortured self-examination Thomas has not definitively answered those questions, since any epistemological certainty in such matters would only reflect the heteronormative fiction of the epistemologically-privileged straight, white, male intellect. Instead, Thomas offers us this slyly self-congratulatory remark in his introduction to the volume: “It is appropriation in these senses of the word”—by which he means appropriation as a tool of domination—“that the contributors to Straight With a Twist have attempted to avoid (though to claim assuredly that we have succeeded in our attempt would be to demonstrate that we have failed).” ((Ibid., 3.))

Approaches such as Thomas’s invariably gravitate around questions of authority, epistemological privilege, and sexual identity because theorists such as Thomas construe the question that I posed at the start of this paper—namely, “what might it mean to queer heterosexuality?”—as a question about queer theory rather than as a question about heterosexuality. For all of Thomas’s self-examination, he presumes that both he and his audience know exactly what a ‘straight’ person is, and what heterosexuality means. The burden of interrogation therefore falls on the verb ‘to queer’ and the political question of whether or not ‘straights’ have the right to arrogate to themselves the use of that verb. I hope that I’m not misconstrued as a believer in the heteronormative fiction of the epistemologically-privileged straight, white, male intellect when I claim that such an approach must almost invariably lead to some dense meta-theoretical thickets and unsatisfactory answers. Certainly, to assert that, ‘yes, “straights” have the right to appropriate queer theory’ would be in itself a manoeuvre loaded with heterosexist privilege, which means that at best the straight queer theorist (such as Thomas) can only weakly assert, with pages of qualifications, that they have a provisional right to employ queer theory. Meanwhile, as Teresa de Lauretis’s attack on Thomas’s book—an attack launched six years prior to its eventual publication ((Cited in Annette Schlichter, “Queer At Last? Straight Intellectuals and the Desire for Transgression,” GLQ 10.4 (2004), 547.))—demonstrates, there is no shortage of theorists ready to declare that ‘straights’ are anathema to progressive sexual politics. Given the rather unsatisfactory dilemma between a qualified, agonisingly self-reflexive ‘yes’ and a vehement ‘no,’ it is perhaps not surprising that Straight With a Twist has not cleared the way for an outpouring of queer theoretical texts that explicitly confront the question of heterosexuality. Indeed, when one surveys the small body of monographs that comprises what might be called ‘critical heterosexuality studies’ it becomes apparent that queer theory has been one of the least productive lenses through which the question of heterosexuality has been approached. Lynne Segal’s Straight Sex: Rethinking the Politics of Pleasure comes from a socialist feminist perspective that only briefly engages with queer theory; both Monique Wittig’s The Straight Mind and Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson’s Heterosexuality: a Feminism and Psychology Reader come from what might be termed, albeit problematically, as ‘lesbian separatist feminism’; Paul Johnson’s Love, Heterosexuality and Society and Chrys Ingraham’s White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture are explicitly sociological; while Jonathan Ned Katz’s The Invention of Heterosexuality positions itself as an extension of gay liberationist historiography and expresses several reservations queer theory’s celebration of Michel Foucault’s historical epistemology. Thus, despite some tantalising suggestions for further work opened up by canonical queer theorists such as Judith Butler, David Halperin and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in their own early works, it seems that where heterosexuality has been the subject of sustained critique it is not queer theory itself doing the questioning but rather queer theory’s intellectual forebears and antecedents.

Thomas is, of course, not alone in taking the notion of the heterosexual as always-already given. Indeed, such an understanding of heterosexuality is present in the work of a much more significant figure in the field of queer theory: that of Judith Butler, particularly in Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter. Butler’s famous concept of the “heterosexual matrix” in Gender Trouble troubles the relationship between the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ by revealing their radical dependence on what appears to be a logically and temporally subsequent term, that of ‘heterosexuality.’ Butler, following Wittig, inverts the commonly-understood relationship between the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’: ‘gender’ is no longer that which signifies in the social realm (and thus supervenes upon) the biological category of ‘sex,’ rather, ‘gender’ is the mechanism through which ‘sexed’ bodies are produced. ((Cf. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 9–10, 30–31.)) Similarly, where ‘heterosexuality’ is commonly understood as the erotic orientation that draws bodies of one ‘sex’/‘gender’ towards bodies of the ‘opposite’ ‘sex’/‘gender,’ Butler inverts the terms: “The institution of a compulsory and naturalised heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from the feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practices of heterosexual desire.” ((Ibid., 31.)) Thus for Butler the order of sex–gender–desire, in which biological sex is said to determine social gender, which is said to determine heterosexual desire, has the terms about the wrong way: instead, heterosexual desire leads to social gender, which creates the sexed body. The effect of this move in Butler’s work is to reveal gender as always-already troublesome and troubling. Yet it does so by creating a transhistorical category of a compulsory and naturalised heterosexuality that can dictate the production of masculinity and femininity across different cultures and epochs.

Butler’s understanding of this “heterosexual matrix” can lead to anachronism, as her discussion of Plato’s Timaeus in Bodies That Matter demonstrates. Reading, with Irigaray, Plato’s physis as the radically unrepresentable feminine ‘outside’ of the matter/form distinction, Butler offers a startlingly original explanation of the gendered nature of physis. For Butler, Plato understands the physis as that which is penetrated by the masculine, creative forms to give birth to material objects that instantiate the forms in matter; thus the physis is neither form nor matter, but is the unrepresentable that subtends the form/matter distinction and can therefore never itself be matter. Thus “she [i.e. the physis] will never resemble—and therefore enter into—another materiality. This means that he [i.e. the forms] … will never be entered by her, or, in fact, by anything. For he is the impenetrable penetrator, and she, the invariably penetrated.” ((Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: on the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 50.)) As we have seen with Gender Trouble, this entails that “the logic of non-contradiction that conditions this distribution of pronouns is one which establishes the ‘he’ through this exclusive position as penetrator and the ‘she’ through this exclusive position as the penetrated. As a consequence, then, without this heterosexual matrix, as it were, it appears that the stability of these gendered positions would be called into question.” ((Ibid., 50–51.)) The heterosexual matrix therefore forecloses other possibilities as the foundational move of Western metaphysics, according to Butler: “Can we read this taboo that mobilizes the speculative and phantasmic beginnings of Western metaphysics in terms of the spectre of sexual exchange that it produces through its own prohibition, as a panic over the lesbian, or, more specifically, over the phallicization of the lesbian? … [C]learly, this legislation of a particular version of heterosexuality attests full well to its non-originary status. Otherwise there would be no necessity to install a prohibition at the outset against rival possibilities for the organization of sexuality.” ((Ibid., 51.))

Although Butler’s attempt here to conceptualise the lesbian as prior to the heterosexual, and therefore to radically denaturalise the ‘obvious’ originary status of the heterosexual, is to be commended, the etymology of the terms that she utilises in her argument complicates the portrait that she gives. No contemporary of Plato would understand the term ‘heterosexuality’ as its etymology is a “bastard term,” to use Havelock Ellis’s mot juste, “compounded of Greek and Latin elements,” ((Havelock Ellis, Sexual Inversion, vol. 2 of Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Washington: American Psychological Association, 2002), 2.)) and one coined in 1868 in a specific context of German jurisprudence: namely, the relationship between the Prussian penal code and the Napoleonic code. ((On this, see Parkhill and Stephens, “Heterosexuality: An Unfettered Capacity for Degeneracy,” in A Cultural History of Sexuality, vol. 5, In the Age of Empire, ed. I. Crozier and C. Beccalossi (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2011), 27–42.)) Similarly, the term ‘lesbian’ only firmly acquired its current signification as a noun for a certain class of women who are exclusively sexually attracted to other women in the late nineteenth century, as Halperin notes; in the ancient Greek context, the verb ‘lesbiazein’ signified the act of performing fellatio. ((Halperin, How to do the History of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 50, 53.)) But these problems are not merely ones of vocabulary: ancient Athenian sexuality, as Halperin notes, was organised around penetration, but in a radical sense did not make the genders of the participants a concern. Instead, what was at stake was the social position of the penetrated, or erômenos, and penetrator, or erastês; an Athenian male citizen could penetrate others, male or female, but risked becoming the object of derision, a kinaidos, if he were to be penetrated by another. ((Halperin, “Plato and Erotic Reciprocity,” Classical Antiquity 5, No. 1 (1986), 67–68. Also cf. Holt N. Parker, “The Myth of the Heterosexual: Anthropology and Sexuality for Classicists,” Arethusa 34 (2001), 321.)) Indeed, those erômenoi that actively sought pleasure in being penetrated were assumed to do so for pay, and often had their citizenship revoked as a punishment for prostitution, a fact that, as Halperin notes, “is a telling indication of what [the ancient Athenians] considered sexually pleasurable and what they did not.” ((Halperin, “Plato and Erotic Reciprocity”, 68.)) Thus while Butler is assuredly correct to ascribe the non-penetrability of the masculine forms to prevailing social norms, it must be noted that boys and male foreigners and slaves were also sanctioned erotic objects for that masculinity, rendering the heterosexuality of the heterosexual matrix problematic in the Platonic context. These historical and etymological considerations are not say that Butler is decisively wrong about Plato’s Timaeus; they do, however, question the applicability of contemporary sex categories to the ancient Athenian context, and the rhetorical efficacy of locating in the foundation of Western metaphysics itself the operation of a concept that is only named some 2200 or so years after the Timaeus was composed.

My critique of Butler is not motivated by an opposition to her project of critically rethinking the relationship between the concepts of ‘sex,’ ‘gender,’ and ‘sexuality,’ as well as the relationships between those terms an a constellation of associated concepts such as materiality, mimesis, performance, and the body. Indeed, I believe that queer theory consistently points to the necessity of engagement with the concept of heterosexuality, and provides the theorist with some of the best tools with which to engage that concept. For example, Sedgwick’s critique of Foucault and Halperin in her Epistemology of the Closet draws attention to the fact that older means of classifying sexuality, such as the active-passive binary, often peculiarly inhere within the systems that are said to have superseded them. ((Cf. Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkley: University of California Press, 1990), 46–47.)) This insight allows us to understand why the concept of heterosexuality so stubbornly resists historicisation: since remnants of prior sex systems inhere within contemporary heterosexuality, it is possible to see those prior sex systems as evidence of a natural and transhistorical heterosexuality. Similarly, Halperin’s work in Saint Foucault clearly outlines the imbricated nature of the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’: “Heterosexuality … depends on homosexuality to lend it substance—and to enable it to acquire by default its status as a default, as a lack of difference or an absence of abnormality.” ((Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 44, emphasis in original.)) Yet his poststructuralist, specifically deconstructionist, epistemology presumes that to denaturalise one term of a binary—in Halperin’s case, the homosexual—is to denaturalise the other. Thus he writes in How to Do the History of Homosexuality that his “purpose in historicizing homosexuality [in his earlier book One Hundred Years of Homosexuality] was to denaturalize heterosexuality, to deprive it of its claims to be considered a ‘traditional value,’ and ultimately to destroy the self-evidence of the entire system on which the homophobic opposition between homosexuality and heterosexuality depended.” ((Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality, 10.)) Yet it is not at all clear that a contribution to sexual constructionist theory through a detailed examination of Athenian paederasty achieves this laudable goal: indeed, to demonstrate the fundamental ruptures between Athenian paederasty and contemporary homosexuality could be read as an act that affirms heterosexuality as a necessary transhistorical standard against which specific perversions contingently appear and disappear. With this in mind, we can better understand Leo Bersani’s deeply counterintuitive claim that queer theories, and particularly constructionist analyses, “while valuable, can have assimilative rather than subversive consequences … [they accomplish] in [their] own way the principal aim of homophobia: the elimination of gays.” ((Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 5.))

As my discussion thus far should indicate, it is my contention that one of the most productive means through which heterosexuality can be queered is that of intellectual history, by which I mean the study of the discursive formations that enable certain styles of reasoning about, and form the preconditions for, certain objects of intellectual or scientific enquiry. It is only within an historically-specific epistemological terrain that the object of human sexuality can be constructed as an object worthy of examination; the concept of “heterosexuality” therefore cannot be understood outside of the context in which it emerges. If I have been assiduous in using the term “heterosexuality” within this paper only to refer to a concept rather than, say, a range of sexual practices exemplified by penile-vaginal intromission, or a sexual identity that coheres around those sexual practices, or a series of social practices that privilege that sexual identity, it is because many of the sexual practices that are signified by the term ‘heterosexuality’ are indeed transhistorical. (It is equally important, however, to note that not all heterosexual practices, such as the relatively-recent phenomenon of ‘pegging,’ are transhistorical.) However, it is not the case that these sex acts have always borne the same meanings, or have upheld the same social arrangements. Foucault, in his Archaeology of Knowledge, considers the problem of the repeated statement: “The assertion that the earth is round or that species evolve does not constitute the same statement before and after Copernicus, before and after Darwin … The sentence ‘dreams realise desires’ can indeed be repeated throughout the centuries; it is not the same statement in Plato and in Freud.” ((Foucault, cited in and trans. by Arnold I. Davidson, The Emergence of Sexuality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 185.)) What has changed in each case is not the meaning of the terms themselves but the discursive context—or, to be more precise, what Foucault terms a“field of stabilisation” ((Ibid.))—in which the statement is uttered. Such an insight allows us to see that, for instance, Aristophanes’s just-so story about the genesis of sexual difference in Plato’s Symposium is put to very different purposes by Plato than it is by Jacques Lacan in his book The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Similarly, if we view sex acts as meaningful enunciations within certain contexts, or as the bearers of social meanings within those contexts, we can see that an act as supposedly conservative as vaginal intromission will not always bear the same meanings across cultures and history. Through approaching heterosexuality as a concept first and foremost, and attending to the intellectual context in which it has been produced, we can challenge its claims to universality and transhistoricity.

Concomitant with such a view is an emphasis on the positivity of the concept of heterosexuality. Post-structuralist analyses of heterosexuality from within queer theory often emphasis the secondary or negative nature of the concept, arguing that heterosexuality is a blank term that receives its definitional specificity from its subordinated other, the homosexual. (The locus classicus for this argument is D.A. Miller’s essay “Anal Rope,” in which he argues that heterosexual masculinity requires “not a desire for women, but the negation of the desire for men”; ((Miller, “Anal Rope,” in Inside/Out, ed. D. Fuss (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), 128.)) a less psychoanalytically-inflected argument along the same lines also appears in Halperin’s Saint Foucault.) By attending to the context from which heterosexuality as a concept emerges we can emphasise its difference from prior understandings of the sexual, and in doing so remove its guise as an enabling, epistemologically-privileging absence, instead revealing it as a locatable presence that can be critically examined in its specificity.

To conclude, I’d like to return to the question that opened this paper: What might it mean to queer heterosexuality? The literature that exists on this subject focuses on the possibility or impossibility of the ‘straight queer theorist’ or the ‘straight queer practitioner,’ and as such gives rise to a series of questions such as ‘do straights have the right to utilise queer theory?,’ ‘can heterosex be queered and therefore made politically radical?’ or, worse, ‘how can I queer my straight sex life?’ As Annette Schlichter notes, to reformulate the question in such a manner betrays one of the foundational insights of queer theory, first articulated by Foucault and elaborated upon by Butler: that subjectivities, straight and gay, are produced in and through a complex series of historically-specific power mechanisms. ((Schlichter, 555.)) In Schlichter’s words, “In a kind of textual self-interpellation, the speaking subjects [i.e. ‘straight queers’] position themselves as readers of queer authorities, thereby demonstrating the transformational impact of their scholarship on subjects not usually taken into consideration as ‘queerable.’ The conditions of possibility of their performative crossings into queer, however, remain largely undisturbed.” ((Ibid.)) As I have noted earlier, this line of questioning occurs when the verb ‘to queer’ is under question rather than the noun ‘heterosexuality.’ It may well be constructive to counterpose this definitional anxiety over queerness with Sedgwick’s definition of the term: “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive—recurrent, eddying, troublant. … The immemorial current that queer represents is antiseperatist as it is antiassimilationist. Keenly, it is relational, and strange.” ((Sedgwick, Tendencies (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), xii.)) In this light, the question of queering heterosexuality is not one about sexual identity politics or individual sexual practices, but one of rendering the concept of the heterosexual as strange, and as historically specific and definitionally troublesome, as we have rendered the homosexual.