Monday, June 4, 2018

"We Fell into Patriarchy": MLA 2018, part two

This is the second part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here is part one.

69: Queer Faith, Queer Love
[yes, it was Panel 69, I’m not making this up—jbl]

This was one of the many panels the membership of which was altered by severe weather. Kris Trujillo was stuck in the air, and Eric Selinger was attending by phone. About 20 people were in the audience.

Carrie Shanafelt began her talk on “Jeremy Bentham’s Queer Christ” by addressing the current thinking about queer sex. Queer sex, it is said, is Defiantly Useless in the face of the order in which sexual desire serves to perpetuate patriarchy. Queer scholars in the tradition of Lee Edelman refuse to instrumentalize pleasure; in the wake of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s God Between Their Lips, they assert that the queer subject is put beyond discourse. In a friendly addendum to the monasticism of queer discourse, CS wants to present an excerpt from her Bentham project. All this uselessness prompts the question, What is utility? Utility to what end? In Bentham, the end is not economic productivity or bare life or the bourgeois order: it’s the greatest happiness for the greatest number, among whom Bentham explicitly includes women, disabled people, people of color, and sexual minorities.

Bentham approaches queer sexuality from a great many angles and in less-than-flowing prose: he says he wishes for a great literary author like Beckford (then in exile for sodomy) to help him convey his ideas. He finds himself mobilizing an excess of methodologies to defend sexual freedom. Bentham’s Not Paul but Jesus, as published, is 500 pages refuting Paul and dismissing such Pauline ideas as the antichrist, asceticism, and self-denial. But Bentham originally intended for it to include more Jesus, depicting Jesus as a champion and practitioner of queer sex. To Bentham, Christ is a prophet and apostle of noneconomic pleasure, Who’s entirely at odds with colonialism, patriarchy, and empire: He encouraged His followers not to surrender their capacity for pleasure to those institutions. The religion of Jesus has been perverted into a religion of self-denial used for dominance, which saddened Bentham much as the results of the U.S. and French revolutions had saddened him by ultimately creating new small dominant groups.

Bentham is trying to understand the reason for homophobic violence—vide Paul Kelleher’s Making Love on how love became more heteronormative in c18 literature—and points out, We don’t gang up to attack drunks: their pleasure costs money, which entitles them to enjoyment. Queer sexual pleasure somehow becomes associated with love, luxury, and an excess of pleasure; but if it were a luxury good and fit into the capitalist order, Bentham observes, no one would begrudge it. Unlike Old Testament prophets who tended to use miracles as witnesses to the Lord’s power, Jesus instructed His followers not to tell anyone that He had lessened their suffering: let’s not force pleasure to stand for something else—let it be an end in itself [Here Shanafelt delivered a great final line that I did not manage to take down: my notes just say “great final line”—jbl].

Rev. Justin Crisp, the panel’s token theologian, spoke of “Joy and Jouissance: Mystical Theology and the Ecstatic Politics of Leo Bersani.” He observed that most early Christian thought about sex is notable for its astonishingly low expectations. Like queer theory, it dissociates sex from intimacy. The patristic thinkers find the good of sex outweighed by the sin or the incontinence associated with it: look at Augustine, for whom even marital sex bears the mark of sin. Sex, they teach, is not capable of fostering the kind of intimacy that Christ has with his Church. Couples should have as little sex as possible: look at Joseph and Mary, according to the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The Eastern church also perpetuates this stigma against sex: Gregory of Nyssa says God did not originally intend, before the Fall, for us to reproduce this way and as it is, it just propagates our mortal forms and ultimately adds to the number of corpses.

Queer theory shares the antipastoralizing attitude of Christianity. Sex to Freud and Lacan is not about a union with the other but is something more solipsistic: “There is no sexual relation.” What are its effects on the subject of pleasure? For Bersani and Laplanche, sex = masochism, the shattering of one’s ego and fantasy of unity via confrontation with a jouissance . . . it is a mode of askesis! Christians and psychoanalytic scholars reduce sex to pleasure and notice how much disciplining has been required to make a discourse in which it is instead all about reproduction. Consider Tertullian on ejaculation! Both the Christian and the queer theorist see pleasure as a threat to the self. Of course, they have different feelings about that self: Augustine likes it, seeing the self as manifesting reasoned sovereignty over the will. And we know Bersani’s so not into that.

St. John of the Cross identifies pleasure as problematic not in that it overwhelms the self but because, in pursuing it, we value attachment and possession, as “Dark Night of the Soul” suggests. These are the root of the spiritual sins: he enumerates all the self-denials that are made in the service of egoism. Active asceticism reinforces the very self that must be destroyed for our union with God. Life makes ascetical selves of us all. The jouissance shows sex as an act of dispossession rather than possession. It’s compatible with other ascetic techniques that help us prepare ourselves for grace. Theology opens up a range of ways jouissance can be experienced: ego-based agency, for example, is destroyed in a transcendent jouissance. The progressive Christian’s usual YAY SEX approach has an alternative, uniting two forms of sexual pessimism.

Eric Selinger’s “Abundant Life and Metafictional Aplomb: Deployments of Christianity in Queer Popular Romance Fiction” looked at the genre that’s marketed as “M/M romance by straight women for straight women” but that is in fact by two bisexual women, a gay man, and an asexual individual who’s unsure about this whole gender concept. One of these novels, Alex Beecroft’s False Colors, contains theological arguments between two self-punitive 18th century sailors: “Would a good God have created an appetite within us but forbidden us to satisfy it?” Beecroft’s Blue Steel Chain actively disaggregates the generic features of queer romance novels listed by [Roche?]. Invoking Christian discourse, it subverts the association of intimacy with sex. Whereas Beecroft identifies as a “committed Christian,” Alexis Hall styles himself a blasphemer. The hero of Hall’s Glitterland is felled by mental illness and poststructuralism. He and romantic love both have to be redeemed by a Saviour in the form of an “idiotic glitterpirate from Essex.” The novel makes overt and oblique allusions to Scripture as well as to Shakespeare, Philip Larkin, C.S. Lewis, et alia. Hall celebrates the use of dialect, and Christian discourse here is to some extent just another lexis.

A member of the audience asked Reverend Justin, Was early Christian sex-pessimism an aversion to the act of intercourse, to bodies, or to pleasure? Justin said, Pleasure is that which the ascetical life is supposed to extinguish. Augustine thinks that the chariot of the passions has run away from its driver. Pleasure coincides with concupiscence and therefore sin.

Another asked Dr. Shanafelt whether “this Bentham” was accessible to 19th-century readers. She said no, it’s from just-released notes and drafts. There were quite a few published Bentham works that suggest these points, but no it was not. And if you’re interested, the Bentham project is still seeking help in transcribing millions of words and deciphering his terrible handwriting. The newly-published stuff is very very messy, but some of it is so powerful that Shanafelt, reading it on a friend’s porch, fell out of a hammock. His concern with the rights of women and of sexual minorities is remarkable; his radical attention to people who are not himself is amazing.

A guy in the audience whose demeanor had reminded me of Narrative Medicine maven Rita Charon asked about the panelists’ reductionism, specifically the liberatory potential of reducing sexuality to pleasure, citing a “spiritually curative orgasm” such as appears in that one painting of Saint Teresa: is there a difference among these ideals of liberation? Shanafelt said Adam Kotsko had just blogged that morning about how the punishment of Eve is “And your desire shall be to your husband”: heterosexuality is a curse. “We fell into patriarchy,” Not-Rita agreed. Shanafelt paraphrased Bentham saying We can’t claim that two political equals desiring to have sex with each other is harm, especially when we don’t even claim that heterosexual intercourse is harm. Justin said he was trying to make a critique of the liberal Christian take on sex that’s analogous to the queer critique of foregrounding marriage rights, but he’s in favor of freedom to rather than freedom from. What we see in Saints Teresa and John is freedom to feel joy. But he admitted to liking prayer more than sex as a route to this jouissance.

A question was posed about affective experience beyond psychic organization. What about Tomkins and views that assert the primacy of affect? Affect as characterized by intensity, as opposed to pain/pleasure? I mean, it’s not as if we lack pleasure under late capitalism. Justin replied that he’d been thinking hard about Bersani’s attempt to synthesize the late Foucault and early Freud, and a move into the space of affect could be very productive. Eric suggested that the asexual hero of Blue Steel Chain may be going back to that line in Genesis that Augustine said was not about sex but about the societas of the married couple. Then he asked his copanelists, There’s been a lot more talk about sex and pleasure than about the “love” in the panel’s title: why is that? As the panel’s time slot came to an end and I departed, someone was asking about coming-out narratives and whether this is not a good discursive moment for love and whether there’s F/F Christian romance fiction . . .

1 comment:

Carrie Shanafelt said...

Thanks for this recap, Josh! It was such a great panel. My final line wasn't particularly concise, but you're welcome to it: "During his long career, Bentham focused on the oppression of various groups of people in turn—enslaved and colonized people, women, prisoners, the poor—but as he came to the last questions of his career, his attention turned to sexual irregularity because it, as Edelman writes, 'makes nothing happen,' which, in a world of infinite commodification, rapaciousness, and despair, is like a kind of miracle."