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“War on Iraq” and “sexual identity” showcase instructive new tactics for contemporary politics.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. In conventional warfare. The US military no longer needs nuclear weapons for its better-publicized outings when they’ve built a 10-ton conventional bomb and aren’t above firebombing civilian centers. At a moment when anti-militarist criticism had crystallized around activism against specialized forms of military machinery (the Bradley was too expensive, the School of the America’s too brutal, the nuke too indiscriminate), all such criticism can be blown with the broadcasted desert winds to the enemy and yanked on for leverage - thus permitting/demanding all the kinds of actions (with or without marked technologies) that were the initial object of criticism. Now it’s Iraq who has dangerous WMD’s, not the US (a country with a nuclear policy of first strike against non nuclear nations). What may once have been a criticism of military violence became one of the weapons themselves (Depleted Uranium Bullets, land mines, space weapons, ‘bunker-busters’), and now ‘we’ shall fight clean against an enemy who (gasp!) might not. Just as the crime becomes the criminal, Saddam becomes his weapons programs; he “is a homicidal dictator who is addicted to weapons of mass destruction" (Bush). Programs that are mostly despicable because they aren’t supposed to have these weapons (according to international agreements, and sometimes early 90’s US mandates, to which, of course, US policy and rhetoric always shows such commitment). The trick is simultaneous with, and analogous to, the more obvious game of peace versus threat. “We are resolved today, to confront every threat, from any source, that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America” (Bush), except threats from America, naturally. But, the weapon issue focuses on technologies in a way that makes the two rhetorical devices non-homologous and makes weapons more relevant here, because the question is not just of representations but also of instruments.
Such conditions are not governed by banker’s rules of an economy of power (we get some percent more, you get so much less), or by a monarchical power that runs roughshod over (innocent) individuals, trampling the green grass of knowledge. Rather, the banker’s rules matter in the bank, and work only if there is a commitment to the illusion of the bank. Go ahead, tell “Bush” he isn’t a good king, he isn’t using power responsibly.
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Now consider sexual identity politics. It doesn’t take marches of gay pride to constitute the kind of markets of promise that end up helping no one more than the spectacle’s audience. Performance of extreme masculinity is parody to its heterosexual audience no doubt, but can have all the most compelling staging of brutality, rejection, and cruelty that ‘patriarchy’ thing was so annoying about - both inside the bathhouse (Bersani 206) and on TV (Halberstam 111). Rallying around the body’s features (e.g. race), around the tradition’s magic particularity (e.g. culture), and around the global improvisations on a theme (e.g. ethnicity) carve out the markings in the earth into which whatever runoff may flow. And it’s not just rain from above, but the very grounding of identity, particularity, and a collection of further specifications that fails the strategy. To carve out identities relies on the absence of carving from the ground to begin with, the blankness of the slate that makes new writing legible. But this blankness needn’t be absolute. It never is. For, while it takes the (possibility of) nothing for something to exist, that nothing is itself conditioned by other nothings. There is no gay identity, so we need to make one, because either the old one does not exist, or because it was not good (a nothing of good gay identity). The days before identity were not silent on these issues, but familiar voices were hushed on these matters – so now we should speak out. Foucault takes the case of sexuality.
It may well be true that adults and children themselves were deprived of a certain way of speaking about sex, a mode that was disallowed as being too direct, crude, or coarse. But this was only the counterpart of other discourses, and perhaps the condition necessary in order for them to function, discourses that were interlocking, hierarchized, and all highly articulated around a cluster of power relations. (Foucault 30)
But this isn’t especially unique to sexuality. A military under wraps (in some discourses) gave way to a military exposed (in roughly those discourses, among others) – and so then we knew the true nature of its violence, and could be angry about it. However, with this precious knowledge, the US had only to take the attention it had attracted and pass the buck to Iraq. US military superiority adds up to some impressive skills at the grade school game of “smear the queer.” In a group, on the field, he who has the ball must be tackled and stripped of it. Repeat. Only, when you’re good at the game, you can keep the ball for a good long time, then toss it to (or at) someone else.
The development of new weapons continues when it’s discussed and when ignored, but discourses about weapons make them figure differently. Repression of identity, as of weapons technology, is always only partial, and thus the category of repression distracts discussion from the surfaces where something noteworthy is occurring, sliding it into areas where it is not. If we only talk about the repression of sexual identities before they are refined, declared, and paraded about, then there is nothing to speak of: they were absent, and that is that. Rather, what can be productively considered is the less than totally infertile soil in which the seeds of identity and behavior protections can blossom (or not, and how) as politics.
The tradition of classing individuals, within the context of social groups whose existence is necessary but presence is not, and enshrining a commitment to protecting that aspect of their lives in law is as American as Hot Pockets and date rape. First, the classes of individuals are not random, the soil has a substance and surface prior to its (re)engraving. In the case of sexuality:
We have not only witnessed a visible explosion of unorthodox sexualities; but – and this is the important point – a deployment quite different from the law, even if it is locally dependent on procedures and prohibition, has ensured, through a network of interconnecting mechanisms, the proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities. …never have there existed more centers of power; never more attention manifested and verbalized; never more circular contacts and linkages; never more sites where the intensity of pleasures and the persistency of power catch hold, only to spread elsewhere. (Foucault 49)
Classes and nuanced options, a big map of possible sexualities on which you get a point, are the implication of new centers of power brought by changed attention and discourses of sexuality. For sexuality to be made scientific (the fate, it seems, of ‘serious inquiry’), its object had to be discovered/created in a process of development, which required deviants. Each deviance was a something that came into being from the nothings of theorizing sex. The nothing of desire for not sex makes not only the something of desire for (a kind of) sex, but also desire for other kinds of sex. And other kinds of pleasures of the body.
Second, processing individuals for protection under the law (a place that is often also outside of the law) is not a universal condition of life. It is, in a way, the opposite of the punishing end of US criminal law, classing individuals for the enormity and nature of ‘their crime’, and punishing them on this basis. Indeed, the considerations and reservations are much the same. We shall not punish one who committed a crime if they were doing it for too weird a reason (insanity), too dumb a reason (children, developmental disabilities), or too honorable a reason (self-defense). Similarly, you are protected for, say, race, unless the act wasn’t ‘racially motivated’ or was too justifiable (given differences in ‘body type’ and ‘genetic makeup’.) In this sense, the legal part of carving out specificities of personal history and the production of your subjectivity is culturally situated within a (rather) Euro-centric body of law.
This sort of insertion and reassembly involved in the entry into institutional logic can also be found in the delimitation and overall reformulation of opposition to military violence into militaristic terms, with special emphases and exceptions lining up with military considerations, delineations, and priorities. Depleted Uranium is bad, but Tungsten is ok. Counter-force targeting is bad, but counter-value targeting might be alright. Yet in other discourses as well, the celebration of the thousand flowers – as opposed to a thousand flowers, diversity for itself - of specificity, history, and particularity of people, behaviors, populations, races, species, and traditions depends upon an often antagonistic relationship with the soil and conditions of growth which can easily be forgotten. But, there is no Japanese-American identity irrelevant to internment. And with this celebration, there must be the awareness that, even with globalization and global warming, no plant grows in all climates. Even the comfortable coupling and conflation of Euro and American social situations does not substantially extend the (far from) ‘universal’ appeal of political tools of identity and individual legal protection. “As we realize that the struggle for gay civil rights is becoming more global, we must necessarily also confront an uncomfortable reality: for many politicians, the identity "gay" or "lesbian" is perceived to be tantamount to a foreign threat” (Katyal 100). At one level, it cannot even be denied that “gay” and “lesbian”, still in the crate, are nothing but imports, and, as such, can be threatening.
The US uses bad weapons, activists complained. But now Iraq is the one with bad weapons, and the US will use nothing but good weapons (or, rather, ones that have not yet been protested or too thoroughly implicated in protest). These good weapons will be used against the bad weapons, which are their programs, which are their master (Saddam), who is an entire geographical space, minus “the Iraqi people”. At the same time, but for identity, we have demands to be differentiated from a presumed uniformity, in order for protections to be granted and freedom to continue apace. But now, the particular etchings of one place circulate about and are picked up such that it is these alternatives that must be excluded in order to maintain the integrity of the historic community. Or, well, now it has always been the historic community. “We” are a particularity, by which we mean our being threatened by “gay” and “lesbian” as imports (from what we consider our other) equals our tradition equals us. Please, please protect that us. Just like the “Asian exception” to human rights (because they have a communal culture, not a western individualist consumer society.) The legal reservations for protection, which center around motive in situation, become justifications for the wholesale neglect of any and all ‘gay’ issues, just as race discrimination law’s requirements of intent ensures that ‘unintentional’ racism go legally unnoticed. Fine, you are protected unless this one thing occurs, and guess what one thing happens without fail?
Trying to convince what you call players to abide by the rules of your version of the power game won’t work until they are ready to join. However, so long as they are doing something (that might not fit into your model) previous to joining the game, you’ll keep losing a hand you refuse to look at. Make them play your game, or make quitting winning. Making your refusal a winning move is, almost surely, already to make them play your game. And if you make your own game, remember to make it good. In the case of US weapons and international sexual identity, the activist games of people versus particular bomb and people for particular character have begun their inversion from what could be a productive tactic, to what has become a losing game. Maybe the captain will go down with the ship, but we needn’t be a whole ship of fools. Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Volume One is not so much a guidebook for ‘the right’ as it is a description of what he thinks has been the scam for some time, without anyone knowing that was the game being played. The political idea is to clue in your side to what’s been going wrong all along.
These are some of the tactics at play in “War on Iraq” (even a rhetoric that bears no trace of the daily bombings that have filled the 90’s) and ‘sexual identity’, but what can be done with them? The tactics themselves are subjectivizing but not subjective – they make people yet are not, in but the casual sense, used by people. What space of agency shall remain? What can the new counter-tactics be? There are always new tricks, as the nostalgic versions of leftist protest are constantly reminded. In a political game of opposition and decision that subsists at the level of discourse, the next move will certainly not be final. Foucault’s assessment of a new form of power makes it sound intense, slushy, and seminal, but this is quite precisely a property of (the appearance of) that form of power, and not a necessary character of all moves of power. As Eve Sedgwick writes of Foucault, theory should be
radically defamiliarizing and denaturalizing, not only the past and the distant, but the present. One way, however, in which such an analysis [Foucault’s] is still incomplete – in which, indeed, it seems to me that it has tended inadvertently to refamiliarize, renaturalize, damagingly reify an entity that it could be doing much more to subject to analysis – is in counterposing against the alterity of the past a relatively unified homosexuality that “we” do know today. (Sedgwick 44-45)
While the specific character of the shift of power Foucault describes may justify the theoretical incompleteness that she speaks of, her metatheoretical statement is interesting, if also an unfortunate product of a specific arrangement of power. If power is now in a decentralized form that circulates without the king’s seal, it may well also present itself as an historical turning point that sweeps along all power with it, in all cases, in a great gust of change. Maybe the control of increasing numbers by distributions of self-regulating bodies that encourage and enable people to police themselves and each other by mutual assurances has a discernable effect of superficial erasure: we are all so sure we are watching and being watched in a particular way that it becomes unimaginable there is an unfamiliar to the present. Sedgwick’s suggestion that sexuality does not have a stable form ‘as we know it today’ may depend on a kind of accuracy in representation that is simply not sustainable: Foucault can be read as not describing a real concept of homosexuality now versus a defamiliarized version in the past, but as taking ‘ours’ at face value. Right now power presents itself, in his situation, as something in fixed circulation and fluidity. Because it’s fluid, power can be neither created nor destroyed. Right? But power’s a’changin’. And its time we did so too.
In order to reoppose a general idea of military violence (against Iraq) and reoppose some sort of violence and discrimination that is against or related to homosexuality, one can take up several new games, none of which will last forever. Foucault’s fragmented narration of power, in its development and deployment, is less than always and still helpful. Its use, politically, is limited to its function as a set of trends, but these terms are subject to change without notification – and indeed notification is the least likely scenario. There are many games to try. One is opposing violence at the level of decision, rejecting semiological excuses and relentlessly pursuing agency as the locus of politics. Rather than let either debate come down to ‘the issues at hand’ (which take violence for granted and treat situations as excessively determinist), refuse violence as an acceptable action on anyone’s part. Another game is to avoid identification by trying to confuse or refuse allegiances and selfhood by erasing all the tattoos of the body or, alternately, by inscribing them all over every surface. Try to get no one to be a terrorist, criminal or lesbian, or mark every person (as comedy has already begun with terrorism.) We do not know in advance how power will respond to such moves, because it is the move beyond the predictions of the paradigm in which the game sits that will surely foil its workability. What it comes to is simply that these games must be played out to be thought out, and the failure of their predecessors just makes their urgency the greater.
Bersani, Leo. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1988, 197-222
Bush, George W. “The Threat of Iraq Stands Alone.” Cincinnnati Museum Center, Cincinnati. Oct. 7, 2002.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume One. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1978.
Halberstam, Judith. “Mackdaddy, Superfly, Rapper: Gender, Race, and Masculinity in the Drag King Scene.” Social Text. 52/53, Volume 15, Numbers 3 & 4. Durham, NC: Duke Press, 1997, 104-131.
Katyal, Sonia. “Exporting Identity.” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 14 (2002): 97-157.
Sedgwick, Eve. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992.