“It is almost as if, starting from a certain point, every decisive political event were double-sided: the spaces, the liberties, and the rights won by individuals in their conflicts with central powers always simultaneously prepared a tacit but increasing inscription of individuals’ lives within the state order, thus offering a new and more dreadful foundation for the very sovereign power from which they wanted to liberate themselves.”
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, p.72
Giorgio Agamben, in the preface to Homo Sacer, frames the project that he is beginning (and has continued to pursue in subsequent volumes) as an interrogation of the unarticulated link between Hannah Arendt’s analyses of totalitarianism (in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem, etc.) and Michel Foucault’s analyses of power (in The History of Sexuality, Discipline and Punish, etc.). His engagement with the fundamental concepts of Western political theory (and their contemporary crisis) leads him many places, all of which are important, but only a few of which we will touch on here. Relevant to us is his extension of Foucault’s notion of biopolitics beyond the historical origin that Foucault assigned it (the end of the eighteenth century) back to the very beginnings of Western sovereignty. If Agamben is correct that our current mode of thinking politics is nothing more than an extension of the Aristotelian categories incinerated by analyses like his and Jacques Derrida’s (whose thought has been decisive in the formation of contemporary queer theory), then we must pay attention to the results of those analyses—namely, that such a way of thinking the world is inherently ethnocentric and violent. I will here discuss how we might apply the conceptual tools given us by these and other relevant thinkers to queer theory, especially as it does (or does not) relate to identity politics.
Judith Butler begins her massively influential Gender Trouble by noting that, largely and historically, “feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued”—but that this “very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms” (1). This is the case because “there is very little agreement after all one what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women”. Butler then situates this observation in the context of Foucault’s analyses of the ‘technologies of the self’ used by juridical systems of power to produce the kinds of subjects necessary for the systems to function. The category of ‘woman’, then, may be understood as arising from the similar historical process that created the category of the ‘homosexual’ (also the ‘deviant, ‘pervert’, etc.) as detailed in Foucault’s History of Sexuality.
Let us quickly gloss this notion of ‘subject production’ using some of Agamben’s language. Homo Sacer famously opens by observing that the Ancient Greeks had no one word that signified all that we mean when we use the word ‘life’. They instead had two related, but distinct, terms: zoē, which signified the fact of life (common to plants, animals, humans, and gods); and bios, which signified the form of life (such as that of the shoemaker, the musician, the politician, etc.). Zoē was seen as appropriate to the oikos (the home, the domestic sphere, the private), and bios to the polis (the city, the public sphere, politics). Foucault’s notion of productive power in the form of technologies of the self (as opposed to repressive power in the form of political techniques like the police and military) may be articulated as follows: when one enters a community of the sort that Western politics has always taken (and continues to take), she or he is forced to inhabit a certain representable form of life; a certain set of possible bioi may be imposed on the member’s zoē, and one of these must be chosen. The production of the categories of ‘woman’ and ‘homosexual’, then, may in fact be nothing less than an outcropping of the very power structure that the categories’ production was supposed to rectify (in the form of increased rights and ‘freedoms’). Indeed, if Alain Badiou is correct that the State is not founded upon a joining-together but rather the dissolution that it prohibits, then we may say that the purpose of recognizing a group or a political identity for the State (representing said identity in the laws it passes, etc.) is solely so that the group in question does not begin (or continue) to operate outside of State power. As Agamben puts it in The Coming Community, “[a] being radically devoid of any representable identity would be absolutely irrelevant to the State” (86).
This, then, is the aporia inherent in identity politics. When marginalized groups fight to be recognized as groups by the State, they cede some of (even most of) their freedoms to that sovereign power. This is even and especially true in the so-called ‘democracies’ of the West today. Indeed, Agamben argues, what does distinguish modern politics from its predecessors is not as Foucault argued the seizing of biological life as the object of sovereign power—but rather that this seizing has now come directly into the light, and has as such begun to ‘hide in plain sight’. Consider the following:
“If anything characterizes modern democracy as opposed to classical democracy, then, it is that modern democracy presents itself from the beginning as a vindication and liberation of zoē, and that it is constantly trying to transform its own bare life into a way of life and to find, so to speak, the bios of zoē. Hence, too, modern democracy’s specific aporia: it wants to put the freedom and happiness of men [the object of political science for Aristotle is eudaimonia, or happiness] into play in the very place – “bare life” – that marked their subjection. … To become conscious of this aporia is not to belittle the conquests and accomplishments of democracy. It is, rather, to try to understand once and for all why democracy, at the very moment in which it seemed to have finally triumphed over its adversaries and reached its greatest height, proved itself incapable of saving zoē, to whose happiness it had dedicated all its efforts, from unprecedented ruin.” (13)
This is a thought with which we must reckon. Rights and liberties that were decades ago unthinkable have accomplished incredible things; they have saved and improved many lives. But we must ask ourselves: are the forms of life we are winning those that we give ourselves, or those that are given us by the same violent and powerful State that previously denied us our happiness? There is no doubt that policies around the world toward marginalized persons need to be changed in some fashion. The Other must be included in discourse, but Agamben urges us that when this is done in the form of State representation (as it is in identity politics), that inclusion becomes an operation of power that consists in forcing the Other to assume a recognizable bios (which may then be included—or senselessly excluded, as was done with the categories of “Jew”, “Gypsy”, “homosexual”, and many others in Nazi Germany).
I now wish to turn to Edward Carpenter’s “Homogenic Love” as a case study of ‘homosexual liberation’ gone wrong. To do so is not to fashion a normative judgment to be bestowed upon the historical person Edward Carpenter, but rather to learn from his (perhaps ‘well-intentioned’) mistakes, that we might think a new politics today. I read the excerpt from class as divided into three sections, each with an operative binary (in the Derridean sense, wherein one term is prioritized over and preferred to the other). The first part of the piece states that there is a disjunction between science and morality, that is, that the former (at least most often) cannot influence decisions of the latter; and, that morality is in some way more immediately accessible to us than science (the first binary, then, is morality over science). The second part argues that homosexuality is, in fact, a moral good—that it builds character, fosters a Whitmanian “comradeship”, as a spiritual kind of love as opposed to heterosexuality’s gross materialism (the second binary is spiritualism over materiality). Third, assuming that the purpose of law is benefit to benefit society, Carpenter argues that it ought to be changed to reflect his character-based analysis; that is, homosexuals ought to be granted further rights (the last binary could be said, then, to be society/character over law).
Carpenter’s mistake by now should be obvious. He does not question the existence of the ethnocentric binaries handed down to him from history; he accepts them and manipulates them to argue for legal recognition of homosexuals as a political category. But it is this very representation within the juridical framework that allows for the systematic control of that form of life represented. And, indeed, Carpenter’s folly is even more sinister than this, for he does not just say that homosexuality is good—he says that homosexuality is better than heterosexuality. This means that the ethnocentrism of sovereign logic seeps through his writing. Consider, for example, his argument (contra Christian morality, for example) that sex for sex’s sake is more spiritual than sex reproduction’s sake. While this argument indeed furnishes a reason not to discriminate against homosexuals (and any who choose to engage in sex acts for non-reproductive ends), it also provides a foundation for the oppression of heterosexuals.
But we must be careful here—for there is a third way. We need not passively accept the discriminatory binaries that have characterized the history of Western metaphysics. We can find new nonviolent ways to think about the world. And this, indeed, is in some sense what contemporary queer theory does in continuing the legacy of Deconstruction. The important thing to recognize about the power of the label “queer” is that it is meant to be an anti-label; it is an identity that is an anti-identity.
I propose that we may draw some connections between it and Agamben’s exploration of the messianic form-of-life in The Time That Remains, a life that he has also deemed “whatever being” (in The Coming Community) and a “life of power” (in Means Without End). The messianic klesis (calling) is “essentially and foremost a calling of the calling. For this reason, it may apply to any condition; but for this reason, it revokes a condition and radically puts it into question in the very act of adhering to it” (23). It is therefore captured in the formula hōs mē, that is, “as not”. He cites Paul in 1 Cor. 7:29-32: “But this I say, brethren, time contracted itself, the rest is, that even those having wives may be as not having, and those weeping as not weeping, and those rejoicing as not rejoicing, and those buying as not possessing, and those using the world as not using it up” (emphasis added).
Here, I argue, is the (anti-)essence of the queer. It is not that we abandon any and all cultural signifiers that could represent masculinity or femininity—this would be impossible. We instead repurpose those cultural signifiers (this is the messianic theme of ‘recapitulation’ described elsewhere in The Time That Remains). We open these static signifiers up to new use; we take the sacred (here our ‘necessary’ cultural codes) and profane it. Just because I have a beard does not mean I must live a masculine life. Just because I listen to Britney Spears does not mean I must live a feminine life. Just because I do anything does not mean that I must live any particular culturally codified form of life that might include that anything—and just because you have x, y, and z qualities does not mean that I must make a judgment about your quality; it does not mean I must understand you keeping in mind what those qualities ‘represent’. I instead grasp you for who you are. I—and this is really as simple as it gets—love you. For, as Agamben writes in the short essay entitled “Whatever” that opens The Coming Community:
“Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): the lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is. The lover desires the as only insofar as it is such—this is the lover’s particular fetishism. Thus, whatever singularity (the Lovable) is never the intelligence of some thing, of this or that quality or essence, but only the intelligence of an intelligibility.” (2)