Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Power of Insult and the Politics of Sexuality

"The insult lets me know that I am not like others, not normal. I am queer: strange, bizarre, sick, abnormal."

I have been reading a truly riveting book Insult and the Making of the Gay Self by Didier Eribon. I haven't finished it yet but so far it's one of those rare books which almost seems to be telling my life. Eribon is a prominent French gay theorist and social commentator whi has also written two biographies of Michel Foucault. In this book he critiques, Foucault's proposition that the modern homosexual identity was a creation of late 19th century medical/psychiatric discourse. Interestingly, Eribon will highlight the way this argument by Foucault contradicts aspects of Foucault's earlier work. But I have yet to read Eribon's critique of Foucault because Foucault is very much the focus of the third section of the book but I'm still in the second section, "Spectres of Wilde". In this section Eribon explores the work of Wilde, Gide, Proust and others and locates it within earlier patterns of homosexual discourse, especially, for Wilde, the work of Pater and Symonds. Ulrichs is also quite important for the Continent, but Eribon also introduces the work of earlier figures in 19th century and 18th century Europe as well.

I was also fascinated to read Eribon's account of the impact of the emerging visible lesbian and gay (sub)cultures in contemporary France in the 1990s (the timeframe of the writing of this book). We in Australia and other Anglosphere countries are used to the multi-cultural pluralist nation state. In comtrast, for France and much of Europe, they work on a universalist model nation state. In other words, the nation/state provides all the main points of identity and community in which all the citizens share to build a commonality. This includes marriage too. In France the only legitimate form of marriage is that performed by the State. You can supplement it with a religious marriage, but a religious marriage on its own does not suffice. In the 1990s the emerging lesbain gay communities were denounced in French media (from both right and left) as a threat to this universal national model. Queer folks represented a particularity which disrupted the universal aspirations of the French state, la patrie. Oddly what Eribon describes seems to anticipate recent cultural panics in France about Muslim identity as a threat to the national ideal and the resulting moves to suppress expression of that particularity i.e. wearing of religious/Muslim dress, such as the headscarf and other symbols, especially in such prime spaces of the universalist state as schools and other educational institutions.

But it is the first section, in which Eribon describes insult and gay socialisation, what he terms the practices of "subjection and subjectivication", which are typified by the language of insult. Reading his analysis was like a kind of revelation for me. He was describing social facts that I knew all too well. He points out that the language of insult, of derogation of homosexuality, of the abjection of same sex love pre-exists each and everyone of us. The language helps to create the social space of marginalisation to which we are consigned by our sexuality. It's important to note here that he is not interested in an etiology of homosexuality. The futile and arid debates constructionism vs essentialism are quite irrelevant to Eribon's analysis.

Instead he makes his starting point te fact that there is a sexual hierarchy in our society and quite an ancient one too which place the homosexual, same sex love and passion and attachment, below those attachments of heterosexual household, procreation and biological family. 'Below' is probably too weak a term the homo-erotic is abjected, scorned, vilified. And for the greater majority of us who are queer we will first learn of our difference through the discourses of insult vilification scorn and abjection. Thus is homophobia internalised in both queer and straight. The mechanisms of the closet are pretty much inbuilt into this discursive process. Not every insult that we hear will be directed at us personally, we will overhear or be made spectators to such discourses of vilification and we will learn the strategies of hiding, of deflecting the sharp barb of insult, the arts of passing, the relief that once more I escaped being made a spectacle under the sharp spotlight of insult. But even if we do escape, such discourse of insult and vilification still serve to define, to explain our already perceived difference, to name it for ourselves even if (at first) we hide it, pretend that we are like the norm even though we know in our hearts that we are not. We are one of those. And Eribon points out that so often for so many of us that knowledge of who we are is compounded by the sense that we are such a rare breed, we might even be the only one of our type in the world (forget the myopic vista of the only one in the village). Eribon describes repeated accounts of queer folks who in their youth, really beleived that they were alone in the world, the only one in the world. And this would certainly be the case for people of my generation who grew up in times when public discussion of homsexuality was minimal and same sex love was rarely if ever portrayed in film or other media.

One thing I knew from very early on was my strong sense of difference. I knew there was somethng different about me. I didn't know what. I'm not certain at what age, maybe 5, definitely 6. Already at age 6 and 7, I was being targeted at school and I was starting to gravitate towards other kids who were in some sense different, such as the newly arriving Italians. I had another friend who was somewhat effeminate and who I would meet up with again as an adult, like me he was gay. He died beginning of 1985 from AIDS. Another boy in convent school was very asthmatic. His family eventually left our neighbourhood and moved out to Kedron. I remember he told me about the boys school he would be going to there. I have a memory of asking my parents if I could go to that school. The local convent school was only a primary school and so I would have to leave at high school anyway. And this particular boys school inlcuded the upper three or four years of primary school. It was at that time evolving out of a local parish school . Now how much my entreaties to let me go to that school influenced my parents. But I wanted to follow my friend, I did get to that school but tragically my friend didn't. And so I started there on my own. As was my way I befriended the odd ones out. But this was an all male/boy environment and the outsiders there were targets of serious brutality. My final two year of primary school were a horror story of hatred and violence, both verbal and physical.

I didn't intend to write about that aspect though and I'm surprised at how the autobiography of violence disrupted my flow. Maybe it didn't disrupt. It was somewhere around that time that my parent's got a Jerusalem Bible. In those days, bibles weren't a normal part of a Catholic home. Lives of the saints, perhaps, missals definitely. But I certainly remember at maybe age 12 or 13, checking out those bits in Leviticus. How I knew where to look, I can't remember now. We wouldn't have been taught that in school. But we had a dictionary and I also remember looking up words such as pervert and sodomite, maybe even homosexual. Many years later reading Well of Loneliness I could immediately identify with Stephen Gordon exploring her father's large library to find out more about herself, about what she was. For me though it wasn't my father's library ( a small book case in the lounge room ) but the public library that was the place of my researches (furtive of course). How did I find the words? I can only assume the words were available in the language of vilification and insult to which I had been subjected

But my earliest memory not so much of insult but of being made aware that I had crossed a line was in grade 1 or 2. I was friends with a boy then, Gary I think his name was, and I have the distinct memory of sitting or maybe standing beside him as he was sitting eating lunch in the school yard. I was playing with his hair, running my hands through it, twisting it around my fingers. I remember being called on that, perhaps by one of the nuns, or maybe by one of the boys, or maybe even by Gary himself. It's so vague. But I remember the sense of shame associated with it. I don't think Gary and stayed friends after that either. He certainly doesn't figure in later memories. That might have been the year. too, an older boy tried to hang me by the neck from the bag racks after school - a vague memory of a, thankfully, rare occasion of physical violence I expereinced in the convent school.

I've wandered far away from Insult, my memory seems to have become somewhat Proustian this weekend, all manner of things surfacing. There's a marvellous chapter in this book on gay melancholy, which Eribon describes as mourning for things that are lost or maybe disavowed through the project/discovery of one's different sexuality. As far back as I can remember I've had a strong sense of melancholy. I've always liked autumn for the melancholy nature of the light. And I've always had a thing for places after hours. In my school days, I got a strange nostalgic/melancholic thrill of being around the school buildings late in the evening when just about everyone else had gone. All that was left were the traces, the ghostly echoes of the days bustling. This after hours apreciation has continued into my adult life. I would enjoy working back on overtime (in the days when I had a regular job) on my own into the night because again the workplace become a place of traces and ghosts framed with a sense of yearning for something. Did they want me to set them alive again? And I spent so much of the PhD at University of Qld in the after hours especailly in the later years. Writing the dissertation woke up a lot of old ghosts as it was but they would find plenty of company in the corridors of the Forgan Smith Bldg

Melancholy, the project of mourning, it's been a regular companion. There is all the mourning for the possibilities that could not be. The mourning for the inevitable separations of space and person. The mourning for the grief that you know you will bring to others, in particular parents. I have a friend whose grandfather thinks that the penalties laid down in Leviticus should be law of the land i.e. us queers, including his grandson, should be stoned to death. How much sorrow does that represent?

Eribon points out that the project of queer emancipation, of lesbian and gay liberation, of acceptance and affirmation will always be incomplete. The sexual hierarchy still remains, albeit moderated through law reform and so forth over the last few years. But we can never be sure that we will get there, wherever there is, because we will always be on the margins. The closet remains exerting its power. I have met people in recent months who are still living lives mostly in the closet. And all of us have to decide every day just how out we will be on that day. I wish we could get rid of the silly notion that once you come out that's it. That's not true. We will keep coming out all the way to our graves. And it is the mechanisms of insult and caricature that keep it so.

Thus is not a review of Eribon's book. I'm certainly not doing it justice. Rather as with most of the stuff of blogs it is reflections and responses. But I strongly recommend this book. It tells much of my life. How many other lives does it tell? Plenty, I reckon. Plus his analysis of Proust and Ulrichs is definitely worth it. And I haven't finished it yet. And now I have more paid work for a few weeks I might even lash out and add it to my library.


  1. I think the comment about melancholy is important. If valid, and I suspect it is, it could link to the traditional role of gay peoples in tribal rites of burial and mourning. I theorized in my "Cosmic Father" that Jeremiah should be seen as a gay figure and whether or not he wrote Lamentations, the association of that book's mourning with him may not be too far off.

    But I think too that there is something there of the gay psychism, melancholy as an openness to the Anima Mundi, to World Soul, to larger vibes, to outer planet factors, not the Uranus that dominates gay feeling and character but the more sensitive and world-dreaming Neptune.

    I haven't read Eribon but I admit to be a bit puzzled with a work issuing from France that the insult factor is quite so emphasized given the extent to which France indulges all individualism. These days it is supposed to be quite socially unacceptable to show prejudice against gays. One could oneself be passed off as seriously ignorant and passe. It seems like the author would have to have been writing from some very Genet or in some way still very provincial perspective where prejudice may still thrive. But I suppose I would need to read the book to get the picture. After this your critique of the whole is needed.

  2. Rollan, the book was written back in the 90s whe there was a national debate going on about how gays and lesbians were a threat by way of their particularism to the universalist French state

    The book is really worth reading and I've bought myself a copy because it's also one worth re-reading too