Re: Judith Butler

>Hugh, in your original response to my initial post on Rich, you quite
>clearly make a distinction between "a specific socio-cultural practice of
>heterosexuality" and "heterosexuality _per se_". Now, since Rich makes no
>such distinction, and since it is used as part of a critique of Rich's
>argument, I can only assume that it is part of *your* position.

Hi Malcolm (warning to other readers, this is getting into analysing our own
arguments, so if you haven't found this discussion at all interesting, you
should bail out here). Let me quote the bit from my post to which you are

> In order to argue that "heterosexuality" has some biologically determined
>component one need not hold that any specific socio-cultural practice is so
>determined. In other words, one could make the minimal claim that there is
a >strong biological determination that makes it highly probable that any
possible >human society will ensure that reproduction takes place. Such a
claim would in >no way be disproved by the example of a society which
exhibited none of the >features of "compulsory heterosexuality" listed
above. The claim that >"heterosexuality is natural", in other words, is not
equivalent to the claim that >"the Valentine's Day greeting card industry is
natural". A good analogy to >Rich's argument (as you outline it above) would
be trying to prove that >*language* is not "natural" in humans because we
see that any *given* >language must be learnt slowly and painstakingly. Rich
uses the fact that a >particular cultural *practice* of heterosexuality must
be learnt to argue that >"heterosexuality" _per se_ is learnt.

As you can see, I was proposing a hypothetical argument ("one need not",
"such a claim would", "one could make" etc). I don't use "one" as a
surrogate "I". And, indeed, I had prefaced all this by stating in so many
words that "I" (in propria persona) doubted that this argument was
resolvable. My point was, that *if* one chose to define "heterosexuality" as
simply the "biological" fact of reproduction (and if one is making an
evolutionary/genetic argument for the "naturalness" of heterosexuality that
would be a fairly reasonable move - not that sociobiologists are usually so
reasonable), and *if* one made such a definition then one would have to
distinguish between "a particular cultural *practice* of heterosexuality"
(romantic movies, poetry, valentine's day cards, rape etc) and
""heteroexuality" [note the quotation marks which you quietly dropped in
your citation of me] _per se_".
Now, you go on to say that Rich makes no such distinction (which was my
point - I think she _should_ make that distinction - at least so as to
address the issue and establish why the distinction is false). On the other
hand you also - in your previous post - claim in Richian mode that
"heterosexuality" has *nothing* to do with reproduction - a pretty extreme
statement of distinction, I think, but one which certainly indicates your
agreement that the distinction can be made.
I think Rich avoids the distinction because it suits her polemical
purposes. If she can show the "unnaturalness" of our specific discursive
form of heterosexuality, she can fudge that over to any possible definition
of heterosexuality without addressing the question of distinctions. Now,
that is a perfectly permissible rhetorical/polemical act, but I don't know
if it helps shed much light on how we define sexuality. It doesn't, for
example, help us address the question of whether Western "heterosexuality"
has anything in common with, say, !Kung "heterosexuality". If
heterosexuality is purely a discursive construct, then I guess it would be
remarkably unlikely - just as there is no reason European languages should
be cognate with !Kung languages. I doubt Rich, however, wants to think the
argument she is making is culture-specific (and I confess it is a while
since I read her, so I may be wrong) - so it is partially premised upon a
universalized conception of a "natural" sexuality (lesbian).

> If you
>reread your post, I'm sure it will be quite clear that, if your
>intention was to paraphrase Rich, you failed to signal that fact. In any
>case, I see no such distinction. "A specific socio-cultural practice of
>heterosexuality" *is* heterosexuality. There is no heterosexuality that
>is not completely a socio-cultural practice - so the distinction is a
>false one.

Possibly so - but the argument needs to be made, not simply asserted. And I
note again that you have made the distinction forcibly in your previous post.

>Vis-a-vis your charge of Rousseauism, I'd be interested to see where you
>get this from. In my reading, Rich makes no such assumption. One needn't
>(and Rich doesn't) assume a "natural" or "free" state of sexuality in
>order to criticize compulsory heterosexuality as (in this context) an
>element of systemic sexism.

Well, possibly so. But if you want the right "Shock! Horror!" reaction to
the word "compulsory" (which you clearly were trying to wring out of us when
you wrote "In fact, if it was so natural, why would we need so many things
to enforce it?") then you are implying that there is some possible social
system which would have a "non-compulsory" sexuality. Which was the point I
was criticizing more seriously, and which you still haven't answered. If all
societies' sexualities are, in Rich's sense, "compulsory" then the argument
loses almost its entire polemical point.

> Also, Rich might (or might not - it remains
>to be established) believe in the possibility of a non-coercive form of
>sexuality. This is not a Rousseauist or idealistic notion, but rather,
>one that arises out of quite concrete experience (in her case, of lesbian

Hmmm. Rich's personal experience isn't much to build an analysis of a total
society upon, is it? If she had happened to live in an exploitative and
unhappy lesbian relationship (sorry to disillusion you, but they do exist)
would this somehow mean that it was no longer possible that a society could
establish a lasting practice of sexuality which was "non-coercive"? Rich's
argument is about social coercion, by the way, not individual - that is why
she would discount the heterosexual person who would say "sure, there are
all these terrible things in our society but I *personally* don't in any way
coerce my partner's sexual preference". This is why "men" are supposed to
"benefit" from the fact of "rape" (though why rape is supposed to make women
think heterosexuality is a good idea I'm not quite sure - it always seems to
me - and clearly to Rich as well - one of lesbianism's bigger selling points).
I think, by the way, that when you refer to Rich experiencing a
"non-coercive form of sexuality" you are mixing up "sexuality" (a socially
constructed discourse) and "sex" (a personal experience). Please remember
that I am using "coercive" here in a Richian sense. Rich wants to equate
everything from rape to the "Sonnets from the Portuguese" as heterosexual
coercion. When I say that no society has a sexuality without coercion I
don't mean that I can't imagine a society without rape - I simply mean that
the society will have a literature, a mythology, a social/political practice
which reflects, and thereby works to recreate, that society's dicourse of
"sexuality". In other words, there can be sex (hetero or homo) without
coercion, but not "a sexuality".

>I've noticed a real tendency in a lot of people's deployment of
>post-structuralist thought. It seems that this way of speaking and
>approaching things has assumed the mantle of "truth-narrative" (not
>statedly, but effectively). That is, the invokation of post-structural
>ideas and thinkers is used in order to discredit or discount the insights
>of people writing outside of that system. Thus, it is claimed that
>someone like Rich lacks the sophistication of someone like Foucault, and
>for this reason, we can reject her work. This, of course, is not only a
>false belief, but also deeply sexist in its deployment. (Since we all
>know the real reason Rich lacks this sohpistication is because she's a

This is frankly shabby, Malcolm (anyone out there still looking for examples
of ad hominem argument?). I have taken issue with Rich's argument. I have
made my objections to it explicit, and they stand or fall as argument. At no
point did I belittle her, or suggest that she had no right to put the
argument forward. I did suggest that on one particular issue I thought
Foucault had provided us with an insight which helped us to see what was
flawed in Rich's analysis, but I didn't simply say "Foucault disagrees with
this, so Rich must be wrong". So what *are* you saying? That I am not
allowed to disagree with a lesbian woman? That if a lesbian woman is in
conflict with a gay man, the lesbian woman must always be held to be right?
Just what kind of bizarre mental contortions do you do, Malcolm, when you
find yourself in disagreement with a woman? Or is it only lesbian women who
"count"? Do you have some kind of list of who gets to be most right because
of who they are? Does a gay man outrank a straight woman? What about a gay
white man versus a straight black woman? Hey - perhaps the only reason you
disagree with me is because of my Jewish ancestry? (I guess if you can
blithely label me a misogynist homophobe I can equally irresponsibly label
you an anti-semite: what fun!)

> Rich anticipates and antedates Foucault in so many ways. I think
>Sedgwick's and David Halperin's investigations of what they call
>"heterosexist epistemological privilege" are relevant here. That is, it
>is part of heterosexist epistemological privilege (and sexist privilege)
>to assume that the work of someone like Rich can be understood at a
>reading, while the work of someone like Foucault (whose radical queerness
>seems to go unaddressed in most discussions) requires years of
>aprenticeship and practice. The reason one can make such an assumption
>about someone like Rich is that, secretly, we all know all about her
>anyway - and thus we don't have to take her seriously - we "know what's
>up with her" - so anything she says will be seen as just confirmation of
>what we already know about those queers. (Of course, I don't count myself
>as part of this we.)

Perish the thought, Malcolm. We all know you are pure as the driven snow.
That is why you get to sit in judgement upon the rest of us.

>Whether straight people know it or not, and whether
>they want it or not, the configuration of speaking-positions and criteria
>of legitimation and delegitimation function in our culture such that the
>speaking position "queer thinker" is impossible - since the queer is the
>object of knowledge in all cases, something to be looked upon, but not to
>be identified with, while the thinker is the subject of knowledge, the
>one who knows, who identifies. This enables the straight commentator to
>say just about asything he or she (but usually he) wants about queer folk
>and be taken seriously.

This seems a slightly paranoid position to take on a "Foucault" discussion
group, where people from all over the world - lesbian, straight, gay, and
uninterested - are meeting to discuss the work of a "queer thinker".

>I saw a relevant comic once: in two panels, in each of them a woman is
>standing in front of a lecture speaking. The first panel is captioned
>"What We Say" and the woman says something like "As a lesbian, I have an
>investment in coming to a critique of gender hierarchy insofar as this
>intersects with homophobia" etc. The second panel is captioned "What
>Straight People Hear" and in this word-bubble are the words "As a

This cartoon seems a fairly accurate representation of your attitude to
Rich's discourse. We aren't allowed to engage with the details of her
argument, in your view, we just have to hear her saying "LESBIAN . . .
LESBIAN etc" and assume she must be right about everything. I think it
rather *less* contemptuous to assume that she wants her arguments taken
seriously, and responded to seriously.

Hugh Roberts

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