What’s a thing & what’s not. Bad abstractions, continued.

As noted, men and women are a thing, and always have been. But gay people are a pretty recent thing, and the creation of this category forms an interesting bit of social history.

There has always been same-sex sex; Leviticus notoriously takes a dim view of it, or at least, of some versions of it; Alcibiades not so much. Or maybe, on the other hand, there is more commonality than meets the eye between the two; a lot depends on just what specific activity or activities you think Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which contain essentially the same language, refer to – a matter which is by no means entirely clear, just from a textual point of view. Even among the Pericleans, some same-sex activities were okay and others, it seems, were shameful. The latter category seems to have mostly been defined by treating a man as if he were a woman, a thing seen as degrading and injurious to him. Which is, of course, just the thing that Leviticus, on the plain literal face of it, forbids – whatever particular practice or practices Leviticus had in mind, a thing now probably unknowable.

Leviticus, moreover, is solely concerned with things that might occur between men. He has nothing at all to say about sexual activity between women, and neither, so far as I know, has any other ancient moralist, though St Paul glances at it in Romans. (Even Sappho is pretty coy about just what happens when the lights are out.)

It is also worth noting that Leviticus casually drops his very brief and unspecific references to same-sex sex among men into a long list of things that you should and shouldn’t do, most of which have to do with the proper way to conduct animal sacrifice. It’s not exactly ‘foregrounded’ – quite the contrary. Leviticus is not preoccupied with gay-bashing. Nor is Paul, in Romans; his references to same-sex sex are made, as it were, in passing – “Once they started worshipping idols, then all bets were off. Why, they started having same-sex sex!” Clearly the ex-Pharisee from Tarsus took a dim view of such hijinx, but he doesn’t spend much time on the topic.

Any time you find a law against something, it’s because people are doing it. Same-sex sex, like other aspects of sex, has been variously regulated and regarded, interdicted and permitted, in human culture, across time and place. But the creation of ‘homosexuality’ and its positive inversion, ‘gayness’, is a modern Euro-American development. ‘Homosexuality’, as a category, seems to have arrived along with psychiatry – that is, it represents the medicalization and even the essentialization of what was previously regarded, at worst, as a vice, which anybody might fall into, like gambling or drinking too much. (It is interesting to reflect that the same latest-thing science which gave us ‘homosexuality’ in the latter 19th century also gave us, at more or less the same time, ‘race’.)

Policing and criminalization, along with medicalization, seem to have been important features of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century modernity in general. It wasn’t only same-sex sex that got criminalized; so were drugs and even, rather spectacularly in the US case, booze. One rather wonders whether the usual account – deviant behavior needs to be policed – isn’t topsy-turvy, and the fact is that police need deviant behavior to justify their budget. Certainly, police forces in the US and elsewhere have clearly, at this present point in history, gone well beyond the kind of instrumentalities of social control which Capital no doubt needs to keep the work force in line; they have unmistakably become constituencies in their own right, partially autonomous, self-directed, self-interested actors on the political plane. A modern police state, as an old comrade of mine once quipped, is run not only by the police, but for the police.

Perhaps this process of police autonomization is responsible for some phenomena which are otherwise rather challenging to explain – why, after all, should Capital care with whom its subjects go to bed, or what they drink or smoke? Is the normal, or at least normative, regimen of Capital laissez-faire, at least as regards matters which don’t impair Capital’s rule, and these episodes of autonomization a secondary, though clearly systematic, phenomenon – adventitious, perhaps, in a functional sense, though apparently somehow naturally implicit in the structures of control, as turbulence is implicit in the flow of fluids?

Perhaps indeed there is a systole and diastole of autonomization and re-normalization, where normalization is used in the sense above – i.e. reversion to the essential skeleton of social control under the reign of Capital. The great witch panic of the 16th and 17th centuries did – finally – end; so did Prohibition. There seems to be some indication that the drug war may finally be winding down. The demented Satanic child-abuse panic of the 80s and 90s collapsed rather quickly, as these things go, though a more general form of moral panic on the subject, without the lurid Halloween trimmings, continues to thrive. If some such pattern can reasonably be inferred, then Stonewall and its sequelae might represent a kind of homeostatic correction.

Boozers and potheads never developed into an “identity”, but gay did – perhaps partly because the undergrounding of same-sex sex, made necessary by criminalization, led to community formation; and then, of course, drinking and smoking are things one can do on one’s own, but sex requires meeting other people. The insurrectionary stance of people already stigmatized, and even reified, as ‘homosexual’ was, naturally enough, to embrace the identity (along with the reification) but reverse the sign into ‘gay’. Here as elsewhere one wonders whether it might not be time for the negation of the negation. The negation inverts stigmatized ‘homosexuality’ into fabulous ‘gayness’ – so far, so good. But what does the negation of the negation look like?

One can only dream. It’s a bit vulgar – just a matter of splitting the difference – to imagine it might be a world in which everybody is sorta gay and everybody is sorta straight. But perhaps it’s not unreasonable to imagine a world in which it doesn’t much matter. Nobody cares whether you like broccoli or not; why should anybody care whether you like guys or not? If that’s the way it turns out, then the curious triumph of the gay movement will have been the liquidation of gayness as a category.

Beyond gay and straight, people already recognize that not everybody is exclusively same-sex-oriented or other-sex-oriented. Hence the somewhat cobbled-together notion of “bisexual”, which always reminds me irresistibly of the Houyhnhnm’s puzzlement over Gulliver; he clearly wasn’t a rational being, but he also clearly wasn’t a Yahoo, either, so they came up with a new category for him: he was a lusus Naturae. Or we might remember Linnaeus, with his grab-bag category of Vermes, where he put everything that didn’t obviously fit anywhere else.

Of course there are people who practice the thing that the term “bisexual” describes – that is, they’re into guys and girls. And there are certainly people who “identify” as bisexual; if they must tick a box, that’s the one they tick. But I want to argue that the boxes box us in quite needlessly. ‘Bisexual’ is, in effect, needed to preserve ‘gayness’ and ‘straightness’ respectively from contamination: a kind of intermediary quarantine or buffer zone.

(To be continued)

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