Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A portrait of the mind at nineteen . . .

Through all of my years of education I don't think that any one author changed my world more than Michel Foucault, and no book more so than his History of Sexuality: Volume One.

I recently stumbled across many of my college papers, while rummaging through my mother's garage, trying to determine what to keep and what to discard from twenty-seven years of my hoarding, essentially, junk. As I re-read some of these pages, it was visible, tangible, palpable, the moment of change in my mind, the shift in perspective: the Jacob before Foucault, and the Jacob after.

There was something so captivating about those first few classes, that roped me in, igniting my passion for the study of sexuality and gender, luring me away from other, perhaps (in retrospect) more useful fields of study. Never have I felt so passionately about anything than in those years. So full of meaning and purpose, the world around me seemed so easy, its problems so fixable. Maybe we have all had that moment, where we must face a universal truth that lay right before our eyes. Something before which we had not even paused to consider, let alone question, like the sky being blue. This is what it was like for me at nineteen, learning about gender and sex and sexuality. A whole web of lies, of constructs, a whole hegemonic network of false realities, right beneath the surface of our lives. Like I had been pulled from the Matrix itself, I was at once shocked and overwhelmed, hungry, thirsty for more. If I could have been blind to this, what else had been out there in front of me left unexamined.

My favorite, and perhaps one of his most famous quotes is :

"As defined by the ancient civil and canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. . .The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species." (43)

At nineteen, in a paper I wrote for a sociology class (Sexuality and Power Structures) I cite this very line, and elaborate, going on to say:

"During this process we moved away from a system focusing on sexual aim–the acts that we perform–to a system which focused almost exclusively on sexual object–the person (or thing) with whom we desire to perform sexual acts. In this move, the act itself spoke not to what one had committed, but rather to the type of person one must be in order to do so. The subsequent “incitement to discourse,” or proliferation of new terminology and knowledge, spawn a peculiar development of fields within science and medicine in which emerged new truths that made possible the etymologizing of humans into subcategories. These new truths were then internalized by the individuals that they sought to describe in a move toward essentialistic modes of thinking: transforming from a “you are a homosexual” prescription to an “I am homosexual” self-identification. But as Foucault makes clear throughout his book, simply because something is socially constructed does not render it any less real or powerful. In fact, as was mentioned earlier, power is its most powerful when invisible; when something becomes commonsensical or ‘natural’ we no longer think to question it, and instead take it at face value, perceiving it as being self evident.

We see just how pervasive these ideologies have become over the last century in the ways in which ‘homosexuals’ have internalized the ideals of masculinity and femininity, which only served to support the ‘natural’ common sense behind sexuality, understood as being synonymous with being active and passive respectively. Thus, in this way, sexuality was able to become something “written immodestly on his face and body,” for if he showed traits of femininity he must be passive, and in turn homosexual. In gay culture presently, for example, the term ‘straight-acting’ is used extremely frequently; implying that although a male may practician ‘homosexual’ acts, it renders them, by appearance, no less manly. This is incredibly harmful, simply reifying the fact that ‘homosexual’ males are not men or masculine people, by definition, and are able only to theatrically portray them.

To begin with, ‘straight-acting’ individuals orchestrate themselves within a system which constructs heterosexuality as the ‘natural’ from which the ‘other,’ homosexuality, deviates. We see this first in the way in which the word ‘homosexual’ is now used almost exclusively as a noun rather than an adjective. The word ‘heterosexual’ is used to describe its subject, in this case the word ‘man’ or ‘male’ which follows it; whereas the use of the word ‘homosexual’ in reference to ‘man’(which deceptively masquerades as its subject) prescribes a status which precludes manliness and masculinity, which is supported by the use of both ‘masculine’ and ‘straight-acting’ as synonymous terms: the embodiment of masculinity is achieved only through heterosexuality. The phrase ‘heterosexual man,’ then, would seemingly be a redundancy, as the very definition of ‘man’ assumes heterosexuality. Thus, unlike the word ‘heterosexual,’ ‘homosexual’ ceases to be descriptive, and instead assumes a prescriptive authority, no longer describing a sub-group of men, but rather constructing a sui genres category of its own. ‘Homosexual,’then, becomes the subject, and ‘man’ the adjective used only to describe the relative anatomy, or sex, of this new aberrant (non-heterosexual) denomination .

This same process holds true for the more common social euphemisms we hear such as ‘gay’ and ‘straight.’ ‘Straight,’ itself seems to maintain that heterosexuality is a natural, unbending road, and homosexuality a divergence from it. Just as uncooked spaghetti, or so the logic held within ‘heterosexual’ would seem to argue, we all enter the world ‘straight’ and through a presently unexplained process one becomes flamboyant (or limp-wristed). Consequently, fields of etiology have emerged (psychiatry, psychoanalysis, etc.) taking as their mission the tracing, or regressing, of steps back to this metaphoric pot of boiling water; attempting to explain this ‘condition,’ or state of abnormality, searching for someone or something to blame: parents, gender non-conformity, or possibly a biological predisposition. The politically correct term ‘sexual orientation’ itself seems to imply that one is oriented either one way or the other, but never both or neither."

I include this, for a couple of reasons. First, as proof that I did, in fact, once have some sort of grasp of understanding of the world around me and a few brain cells with which to translate those thoughts articulately to others, before my brain eroded to my current state of complete nincompoopary. Second, because I still believe these things. This is still no different for me than it was then. Our world is slowly changing, yes, but we still look at people as black or white, and never stop to think why we do so. It hasn't always been like this. In fact, for most of civilization it was not. They had their own, albeit no less oppressive, rules governing sexuality, but what they did not have was an understanding of sexuality as being constant, static, a universal personal truth which pervaded every cell of our being. How can we not stop to realize that the very idea of "the homosexual" (and in turn, "the heterosexual") did not even exist until less than one hundred fifty years ago. It was created, invented, not too long after the civil war ended. And the categories themselves, of this new binary system of understanding, were constituted from the very moment they were characterized. And we just lined up to be labeled, like happy lab mice.

I have almost forgotten what it is like to explore my mind like this, to open it up to new horizons of understanding. To shed my own lenses to look at the world anew in wonder. How I long to have my world shaken again like that, by a book, an idea, a person. How many chances do we have? Are there still more surprises in store? Are there no more tooth fairies for us to dispel? Have we gotten too old, too entrenched to see or hear it at all when it finally comes along?

Here is to hoping not, to the old me, the me who once believed in everything at face value, to Michel Foucault for rocking my world with his brilliance, to that next big thrill, and to the nineteen year old mind!



Pamela said...

Jacob, you are very, very intelligent. Don't discount how much you have to share and teach - you've already done that with me more times than you're already aware.

I am so excited to look through your old papers and books. This has been something that I've longed to delve into for decades. The fact that you could bring it into my life means a lot.

I love you!

Cheyenne said...

The fact that you have brought nincompoopary into our lives also means a lot.