The ABC of Queer: B for Binary

Across a range of writings the saint and sinner Foucault (see FOUCAULT, see FOUNDER) considered the primarily binary nature, as he saw it, of Western thinking. How everything is conceived so that value judgements can be made that are mostly positive or negative (good/evil, pure/impure, clean/unclean).

One of Foucault’s great achievements was to map how quite basic concepts like these could develop during the early-Modern period into increasingly complex and powerful narratives (see DISCOURSES) that held the power of life and death (see BIOPOLITICS).

However, in this vein Foucault wasn’t unique nor was he the first. Foucault was following in a tradition from Nietzsche and Nietzsche was following in a tradition from Kant (even if he profoundly disagreed with him). You could add any number of other European philosophers to this list who have considered the morally dualistic nature of Western thought.

Foucault’s great insight was to critique this tradition, of moral dualism, to consider sexuality and its relationship to the emerging psychological fields. In particular, Foucault is rejecting the Freudian Left (Freud, Reich, Marcuse)(see FREUDIAN LEFT) who remained tied to a morally binary and despondent thinking. To paraphrase, this went something like this:

Man, invariably man as woman is already lost and there being but two genders, can’t help but be impure/weak/lost under the weight of mass civilisation/totalitarianism/capitalism. Only the select few/elite/strong will survive without being corrupted. The best the rest can hope for is watchful care/counsel/mentorship…

Foucault points out that these binaries, these narratives, these discourses, aren’t entirely new. They’re bricolages (see BRICOLAGE) from earlier narratives. For example, monks in mediaeval monasteries were subject to a whole series of regulatory practices (when and how they got up, when and how they said prayers, when and how they ate, when and how they admitted their sins, et cetera) that constantly kept them in a state of self-reflection on their pure/impure behaviours.

According to Foucault, during the early-Modern period, these kinds of binary regulatory practices had mostly impacted upon the sexual behaviours and gendered identities of very small cadres of society: religious orders; the aristocracy; members of the jurisprudence (as their pragmatic effect was to regulate the transmission of property and capital). However, as the early-Modern period progressed, these kinds of binary regulatory narratives and practices proliferated (because these kinds of discourses of power are mimetic and that’s what they tend to do). They moved on to colonise other subjects and other locations: the prison and the prisoner (see PANOPTICON); the mentally ill and the asylum (see BEDLAM), et cetera.

Foucault’s other great insight was to suggest that, as important as these binary regulatory practices were in relation to the direct subject they imposed on (the prisoner, the mad, the sexual deviant, et cetera), an even more important affect was the impact they had on their audience. They (the law-abiding, the sane, the sexually normal, et cetera) could judge their behaviours from observing those occluded, othered and visibly marked by these binary regulatory practices.  These behaviours then became imprinted and self-regulated.

By the late 19th to early 20th centuries this had become so saturated into Western culture that it became moot to talk about sexuality being repressed in the conventional sense. Sex is repressed, socially controlled, by being constantly talked about – especially with the proliferation of the psychiatric regimes and psychological disciplines which enables these practices to reach virtually everyone. Everyone can now internalise self-regulatory ideals concerning sexuality and gender; everyone is an audience judging their own and everyone else’s sexual and gendered lives.

There are a couple of issues with Foucault’s approach to Western moral dualism and sexuality. The first being that he essentially, and endlessly to my opinion, deconstructs it without offering much in return. Foucault is not hugely interested to consider why Western culture has set such value considering the moral nature of Good and Evil particularly where sexuality is concerned. He is more concerned to point out the flaws in the argument, to nit-pick, then muddy his own hands in ethical judgements. As a result his analysis is often devastating, but perilously close to sophistry.

The second issue is that Foucault’s analysis of Western moral dualism and sexuality, for a historiographer, is always summative. There is no formative or contextual analysis of how those binary discourses can be compared. A good example is Foucault’s most famous statement “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” It’s witty, but Foucault is in some ways only pointing out the obvious – that sexual labels from different historical eras mean different things. In fact, Foucault often seems to be arbitrarily picking different historical discourses that suit his arguments (a flaw which follows much Queer Theory since).

The summative nature of Foucauldian analysis also means that there is precious little in it to account for the progressive improvement in the lives of many sexual minority people in Western cultures. This is a fundamental flaw at the heart of Foucault’s work and Queer Theory which cannot be accounted by appeals to homonormativity and homonationalism (see HOMONORMATIVITY, see HOMONATIONALISM). It also has to be said that there has been far too little critique in Queer Theory as to why Foucault’s analysis of Western moral dualism and sexuality is so linked to a nostalgic elitism.

The final issue is that the colonising impact of Queer itself has become a powerful binary discourse in global sexual and gender identities and politics. At least three times in the last month I’ve read academics talking about “queer” and “non-queer” research in the global-South on sexuality. But Queer Theory itself was a historically specific response to certain kinds of Western binary identities and the psychological disciplines in particular that grew up around them. It would be an irony indeed if Foucault’s work to interrogate Western moral dualism and sexuality had eventually transitioned into a global model of moral dualism and sexuality and gender.


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