Plumb Lines

April 8, 2009

Re: Imagined by Stigma, Actualized by Desire

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 1:01 pm

You can’t predicate characteristics of a group until the group exists in your imagination. Simple induction no doubt plays a necessary role in the invention of new social groups, but not a sufficient one. There are characteristics shared by all individuals who are possessed by some peculiar or distinct desire–any particular sexual fetish provides an apt here. We do not imagine a class of foot-fetishists to be actualized by their shared desire, even if there may be objective similarities–even above and beyond their shared desire–among the group of people who experience pathological sexual longing for feet. The history of the social understanding of homosexual desire is no doubt very complicated, but I think my point stands: by singling out people who experience homosexual desire for stigma and exclusion, “conservatives” of ages past created “homosexuals” who must now be singled out for destigmatization and inclusion. What was once “queer” has become merely different, like race, and must therefore become normal.

Thus Schaengold.

I’m getting lost in unfamiliar terminology: Is there some special meaning of ‘actualized’ here? As far as I can see, the ordinary and immemorial use of the term ‘homosexual’ is not to pick out an immutable essence (on which one could found an ‘identity’) but to group sufferers of a distinct pathology. If I suffer from consumption I am a consumptive, if from depression I am a depressive, if from kleptomania I am a kleptomaniac, and if from homosexuality I am a homosexual. Women don’t suffer from mulierity. From the perspective of the 19th century doctors we’re holding responsible for the past 150 years of social history, are foot-fetishists not also ‘actualized,’ qua foot-fetishists, by their sexual desire for feet? And are they not a group in our imagination, though not one we think much about (and so don’t bother to predicate much of)?

What accounts for the difference in the way we think of homosexuals? Perhaps homosexuals are considered to have more substantial social identity in part because the ordinary psychological concomitants of that desire and the ordinary lifestyle concomitants of regularly acting on it are more obvious and objectionable. And perhaps they have become more obvious and more objectionable over the past century because late modernity increasingly liberates desire.

This question might help clarify some things: How, David, would you explain the difference between a ‘homosexual’ and a ‘molly’? The first answer that comes to mind is that a molly must be actually in the habit of committing sodomy, while a homosexual in the medical sense need only feel this desire strongly and persistently (hence the non-redundancy of the phrase ‘active homosexual’).

But this is of very limited significance unless, in real life, the stigma was historically applied with anything like the same stringency whether or not homosexuals were practicing. I do not think it was. Let me suggest that, generally, ‘homosexual,’ just like ‘molly’ picked out those with an abnormal and persistent inclination to sodomy and a habit of acting on it. (And let us be fair to our august Victorians and to the contemporary common man–there is a very strong mutual correlation between having an abnormal and persistent inclination to sodomy and committing sodomy.)These people, it was noticed, also tended to share many other characteristics, and the whole complex was the object of a stigma. As with ‘mollies.’

I see nothing unreasonable in any of this. Sure, it is impossible to destigmatize if there is no stigma or to include where there is no exclusion, but how does this observation really help us? Is ‘there is no death without life’ a compelling argument against life? Stigma and exclusion can be perfectly sensible self-protection on part of a society, but it’s no surprise that the stigmatized and excluded don’t like it. If I could find one out of ten chaste homosexuals who are campaigning for “acceptance” I might believe your characterization of the stigma as primarily directed at those who experience a particular desire. But my bet is that, almost to a man, chaste homosexuals care far more about overcoming their pathological desire.

Unlike David, I find it extremely hard to believe in the good faith of Andrew Sullivan et. al., who continue to spin this as a question of acceptance or rejection of “difference.” I think Sullivan knows full well that the Catholic Church would accept him if he’d simply stop having sex with men.

-Keith Staples

Update: Ignore references to Victorians and 19th century doctors. David’s original post blames the widespread medicalization of homosexuality of the 1940s and 50s in the US. Rational-technical campaigns against deviancy probably did bring ‘homosexuals’ as a group to the fore of the national consciousness, but this hasn’t even a tendency to show that homosexuals weren’t really a group. And though campaigns against deviancy savor of managerial fascism (so I don’t support them), evidence suggests that homosexuals were indeed a pretty distinct and pretty deviant element in society.

1 Comment »

  1. “Actualized” used thrice in one day on the same blog (this post, David’s, and mine). Huzzah?

    We need a thesaurus for the group.


    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — April 8, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

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