Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Caligari, Madness, Sexuality and Foucault

The other night I saw the classic 1920 German silent film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, at some friends’ place. I’d seen it once before many years ago, I think on SBS and probably on quite a small TV. My friends have got quite an elaborate TV/DVD/music set up in their living room with one of those quite large screens and so this time I saw the film in a lot more detail than before. It is really quite superb, not least for its sets which are quite surreal, astonishing in the way they distort angles and warp ‘reality’ (I wonder if H P Lovecraft might have been influenced by the visuals in this film for some of his stories, especially for his ‘Dreams in the Witch House’ in which the notion of distorted angles and weird perspective in room dimensions are key to his portrait of menace). Unsurprisingly, questions of what is real and what is illusion and fantasy are key to the film. That same sort of interplay of fantasy and reality was at play in a modern film, The Black Swan, I saw when down the Gold Coast. That film plays with fantasy and reality in such a way that towards the end the viewer has no idea of what is (meant to be) real and what not. Is the main character mad, has she been taken over from the depths, the Black Swan?

Curiously in both films, sexuality is interwoven with madness to signal that we are beyond the realm of the ‘normal’. There are several moments of queer slippage in Caligari, most explicitly in the final scenes when the Somnambulist character is presented as a kind of distractedly demented dandy. Likewise in Black Swan, at first, there’s more than a hint of (hetero)sexual desire in the interaction between the dancer, Nina, and the ballet director and I thought that maybe we were being given a narrative of young woman’s repressed creativity being released through eros and heterosexual eros too. But then suddenly as the boundaries between reality and fantasy really begin to blur there is a full-on lesbian eruption, much more graphic than any heterosexual scenes in the film. From that point on the story is swept away as the boundary between fantasy and reality collapses like the shattered mirror of Nina’s dressing room.

These links between madness and queer sexuality were even more striking for me as I’ve recently finished reading Lynne Huffer’s book, Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory. I think Huffer’s book is probably the most important publication in queer theory and sexuality studies for a long time, at least in English- there has been interesting work in French not least by Didier Eribon who I was reading and writing about back in 2009. Eribon’s book made me want to go back and read Foucault’s Introduction to the History of Sexuality again. I’d read it, at least in part, back in my undergrad days in the early 90s. At that time it didn’t have much context for me and I found a range of other authors that influenced me more. At the same time, here in Brisbane those years following decriminalisation and the first anti-discrimination law were a heady time for LGBT folks, especially folks like me who were active in community stuff and politics. At UQ too, these were the first years of a queer space, the Rona Room, the existence of which was really changing the dynamics of queer life on campus. Probably, a much more important influence for me back then was Homocult and the activism around ACT UP and Queer Nation. What most appealed to me was the stance of not regarding heterosexuality as the default – as one slogan went ‘heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common’ - and that led to a reading perspective of looking for queer possibilities in anything, destabilising the heteronorm and opening a space for the queer and homosexual. That perspective still largely describes my scholarly framework on sexuality. I don’t accept heterosexuality and its norms as the default or as something to aspire to. That’s one of my concerns with the push to same sex marriage (and something I saw earlier in the last couple of days, ‘gay family values’). It seems to me that one of the dynamics of homosexual/queer sub-cultures is imitation, pushing the boundaries of likeness. After Gay Liberation came the age of the Clone, at least for gay men. I hated it and, luckily, in Australia it remained very much a Sydney thing. And way back in the 18th century we find the molly houses of old England and their curious practices of parodic imitation of the heterosexual world of marriage and family. In our day, though, the imitation is more serious lacking any parodic element at all (the parody is more at the expense of the imitation as in the anti-marriage quip of a queer friend of mine ‘Gay marriage? Makes as much sense as a male tampon’). Are we reproducing the heteronorm as our own standard for homosexual life?

Returning to Foucault and Huffer’s book, to be honest I’ve not read a lot of his work. I own a copy of the second volume of his History of Sexuality. I’ve not finished it because like Huffer, I found it boring, not least because of its focus on elite males in ancient Greco-Roman society. Foucault didn’t inform my work on Sodom and Gomorrah much at all, although after reading Huffer I can see how I might have been able to deploy him quite productively but I don’t regret not doing so. More important for me back then was the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. She helped me to refine my reading position and lens and she’s still an important intellectual influence for me. Oddly, I don’t recall Foucault as a dominant motif in her work no matter how important he was for her theoretically. But periodically I’ve been rubbed up against Foucault by the way his Introduction to the History of Sexuality was being deployed in, to my way of thinking, quite uncritical ways. The crudest rendering of this Foucault deployment is the notion that homosexuality was invented as a category by sexologists and psychologists back in 1870 (or for some even later). This marked a new beginning and the creation of the homosexual identity as opposed to a time before when we can only speak of acts, certainly not identities let alone communities. As I heard one person say, citing Foucault, at a public forum about four years ago, there is no continuity with that time before the ‘invention’ of the homosexual and our modern LGBT worlds.

To which, of course, I say rubbish, and to which I also say you clearly haven’t understood Foucault if you think that was his argument. When I was reading Eribon, I was struck by the thought that maybe people hadn’t quite gotten Foucault. While he critiqued Foucault’s History of Sexuality, from memory especially its lack of sufficient historical depth, in relation to the ‘invention’ of the homosexual, Eribon also highlighted how important Foucault’s History of Madness was in giving more depth to his arguments in the Introduction to Sexuality. Eribon seemed to suggest that Foucault might have profited much more by drawing on his earlier work. After all, he asked, how was it that sexuality, homosexuality, should be the subject or object of discussion and study/treatment by psychologists and therapists. So I went back and re-read Foucault’s Introduction. I hadn’t gotten far before I realised that Foucault’s project here was not ‘history’ and certainly not homosexuality as such but much more about the discursive structures of social power. And when I re-read it, I was struck by the realisation that the famous passage about the homosexual being invented in 1870 was not about same sex love and eros as such, the people who lived it, their identities and communities. Foucault was not interested in identities and certainly not interested in aetiologies. I was struck by the thought that this was more a wry observation on the, one could say, vainglories of powerbrokers. In the late 19th century in the field of sexuality these were the therapists, the sexologists, who were above, outside of the realm of the deviant erotic just as a biologist of the day was above, outside the realm from which specimens were collected and returned to the halls of knowledge in the metropole for classification and study, or white male anthropologists might be above, outside the communities of ‘savages’ they were studying. (And no wonder then that the term homosexual was resisted for so long by queer folks of the past as a term that was being imposed on them and not cognisant with their own experience). I couldn’t also help but think that somehow Foucault’s wry observation had been mis-taken by so many people in the areas of queer theory and sexuality. It always seemed to be cited as grim fact rather than grim joke. Queer theorists spectacularly misread, and thus failed to get, Foucault’s wit.

I had planned to write more about Eribon and my new understandings of Foucault but last year my adventures with depression got in the way, although I think it’s quite appropriate that I re-read Foucault when I was myself off spinning in my own trajectory of soaring madness and collapse. Maybe it helps to read Foucault when you’re mad. So when the chance came to read and review Huffer’s book eventually I had to go for it and was most surprised that I could get it, that nobody else had put their hand up for it at all. The book itself is rich, very rich and rewards reading and re-reading. It is an excellent introduction to Foucault’s thought, his overall project, not just Sexuality or Madness. There is a key central thesis to the book, to wit, queer theorists who restrict their reading of Foucault to his History of Sexuality, even if supplemented by Discipline and Punish, are severely limited in their understanding of Foucault. Huffer goes as far as saying that you can’t really grasp History of Sexuality without also reading History of Madness, that the two complement each other, with Sexuality standing almost in continuity with Madness. She argues that Sexuality should even (only?) be read through the lens of Madness to be understandable. The problem was, though, that for those who don’t read French, an English translation of the whole text wasn’t published until 2006 (translated by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa). The 1965 translation, Madness and Civilisation, was a much truncated edition which omitted important content from the original work.

In tandem with her thesis, Huffer also provides a critique of queer theory especially as practiced in the United States. In particular she critiques the ‘straight’ reading by queer theorists of that famous passage in Introduction, a passage she describes as clearly ironic especially when read in the French. She provides both the French and her own translation with the standard English translation to highlight the ironic aspects in Foucault’s words. She goes further and says US queer theorists have seriously misread it by reading it as a statement of origins or aetiology of homosexual identity. It’s nothing of the sort, she declares, indeed Foucault ‘refuses to posit an origin of anything’ (75), a fact most clear from reading Madness. She goes further saying that to ‘read the date 1870 as other than ironic is to buy into the psychological, psychiatric, and medical authority Foucault goes to great pains to dismantle’ (75). In other words, queer theorists mangled Foucault in the press of US identity politics and obsessions. I was struck by Huffer’s repeated observation that in Madness, Foucault describes (and laments?) the suppression of a homosexual lyricism in Europe during the Age of Reason , a suppression that happens alongside the Great Confinement, the rise of the asylum for imprisoning the ‘mad’ and the ‘deviant’. (And hence, says Eribon, sexuality and its manifold variations becomes the field for doctors, psychologists, therapists, and not historians, ethicists, philosophers, or theologians and biblical scholars either for that matter.)

Huffer also reminds us that first and foremost, Foucault is a philosopher, or better anti-philosopher. He wrote Madness, amongst other things, as a critique of Descartes, of the Cartesian separation of the mind/self and the body, in which madness is explicitly excluded from the Cartesian cogito; but more than just Descartes Madness was also of the Enlightenment and its heirs. However Foucault writes philosophy with the use of the archive so his work is history-like. Foucault is the heir of Nietzsche and seeks to abolish the subject so constructed by Descartes and developed by Hegel and the Enlightenment and later too by Freud and psychoanalysis. In all these projects of the internal metaphysical self both madness and sexuality have been deployed in its construction, to demarcate its boundaries and essence. As the heir to Nietzsche, Foucault rejects such essentalism of the self, as Huffer puts it there is no inside to this outside, it is a false demarcation. In this context, it’s no surprise that the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick began exploring Buddhism towards the end of her life. The Buddhist doctrine of anatta, no-self (as opposed to the Hindu/Vedanta concept of Atman/Self) bears a certain resemblance to the Foucault-Nietzschian position. My understanding of Nietzsche is that he stood for an unmediated immediacy to life which again bears a resemblance to the Buddhist aim of living free of all attachment including to the illusory ‘self’.

But this brings me to my main critique of Huffner’s book. Queer theorists might have misread Foucault’s wit and worse uncritically elevated him to canonical authority, ‘gospel’, but queer theory remains a heterogenous and fluid project. Foucault might have authority but he is jumbled with all manner of other intellectual streams. As Huffner points out queer theory even tries to couple Freud with Foucault (Huffner strongly critiques Judith Butler’s Psychic Life as one example of this coupling), which is like coupling matter and anti-matter. Foucault stands opposed to Freud; Freud’s gift, psychoanalysis, ‘endlessly performs and augments the Cartesian coup of the seventeenth century’ (160). But Huffner wants to make queer theory a more specifically, completely?, a Foucauldian project. She is herself ‘in love’ with Foucault so I can understand her zeal; she has ‘met’ this Foucault ‘in the archives’ and realised his breadth and depth in contrast to the cardboard cut-out of the standard queer theoretical perspective. I can understand her ‘love’ especially given both the splits between much of queer theory and much of feminist theory (which she explores early in her book) in part based on that old misreading of Foucault and the fact that queer theory nowadays is, in my opinion, really kind of moribund and disconnected, having no real ethical grounding or political eros to use Huffner’s term. But I would like to keep the heterogeneity and fluidity of queer theory, which might in future be further fed by a specifically Foucaultian project, overlapping but neither separate nor totalising.

For those of us who don’t want to work on a specifically Foucauldian project, Foucault might yet be a model. I like the way he works from, with the archives. The philosopher writing history against philosophy, philosophy from the archives, Foucauld blurs categories. What I appreciated about queer theory has been that blurring, the lack of rigidity, the almost bower bird approach to thinking and the commitment not to accept the heteronorm as given. But it has also remained caught in an identitarian morass (and perhaps that helps serves interests of late capitalist society anyway). I’ve not been all that interested in identities but rather the way people have lived their same-sex love and desires, how they have dealt with the rejection, also those cultures and discourses of insult and denigration that reinforce the heteronorm. I’m interested in the way those discourses work and I look for ways to change all that, to maintain a critique that opens up different possibilities. I suspect the identitarian thing may be a displaced aetiology. One thing’s for sure I’m not interested in origins or causes, or gay genes. They don’t broaden our horizons or humanise us, let alone change our world.

My critique then is not really of the book as such. In fact, looking through my copy of Mad for Foucault I see that I have underlined on just about every page, reinforced with exclamation marks and asterisks as well as occasional comments. It’s a book well worth reading by anyone doing any sort of sexuality studies, especially if they’re doing so under the umbrella of queer theory. Likewise for those doing feminist and gender studies. I recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in Foucault in any way at all. After reading Huffner there’s only one more thing to do and that’s read History of Madness, the full version, itself. I’m looking forward to it, not least to catch a glimpse of that disappearing suppressed homosexual lyric for which he mourned.

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