In the latest in the HKRB Interviews series with authors of new texts in critical theory, Alfie Bown interviews David Alderson about his new book on postgay culture, politics and theory since the 1960s.
David Alderson, Sex, Needs and Queer Culture (Zed Books, 2016) 256pp.
David Alderson is Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester and author of several books and numerous articles on sexuality, politics and theory from the 19th century to the present. He is also the Co-Founder of the Centre for the Study of Sexuality and Culture at Manchester. His new book Sex, Needs and Queer Culture, out recently with Zed Books, explores the culture, theory and political economy of the decades since the 1960s in their relations with the category of sexuality. Here I was able to ask him a few questions about his new project.
Alfie Bown: I’d like to start by asking you about the ‘autobiographical’ element to your book, which is something you use but also make certain clarifications about as an approach. Could you give us a sense of why and how you use autobiographical detail in the project? Why was this element important?
David Alderson: Good question. I begin the book in a loosely autobiographical fashion for a number of reasons.
First, I didn’t want to presume knowledge of relevant debates on the part of the reader, because I hope the book will not only be read by academics. Since the book is concerned with the transition from the sixties to the present and the theoretical grasp of that history, it seemed to me that it would be helpful to introduce arguments as I had encountered them from the mid-1980s on, though I have also reconstructed those argument on the basis of a perspective I have developed more recently. In part, I hope the book will serve clarifying purposes for others, as it has for me in writing it.
Second, I wanted to establish where I was coming from, in the sense that my trajectory – social, sexual, political, academic – has influenced the way I think. This is not to say, of course, that my position is merely subjective – I aim to be persuasive, and the book is polemical in parts – but it is distinctive in relation to the queer theory I critically engage with. Cultural materialism is a key influence on my thinking, for instance, but it is not widely understood outside Britain. Actually, it may not be widely understood there either, given the pervasive influence these days of the kinds of theory generated out of the prestigious institutions of the US.
Third, I wanted to highlight that the belatedness of my turn to Marcuse was bound up with certain received wisdoms that have influenced and continue to influence the reading and experience even of people like me who might be disposed to be sympathetic to his thinking. All of us inherit convictions to a greater or lesser extent, and I inherited a condescension towards Marcuse, partly influenced by Foucault’s dismissal of ‘Freudo-Marxism’, partly conditioned by other – and I have to say less casual – kinds of critique. I have always been impressed by Foucault – who wouldn’t be? – but have also wanted to resist his influence, and it seemed unwise to do so on the basis of ideas already convicted by many of naivety. While I had read some Marcuse in the early nineties, it was not until I actually took the trouble to read his most important work, Eros and Civilization, that I saw the wonderful potential that existed in it for shaping my own way of understanding the relations between sexuality and capitalism. I wanted to suggest to others that they should also be willing to challenge received wisdoms.
AB: I’ve noticed in the book, and I know from your teaching and our discussions, that you are particularly interested in Herbert Marcuse, though you also run against him in certain respects. In the interest of bringing out the importance of theorists who are not necessarily as dominant or well-studied as others, could you say something about why Marcuse is useful and important, either for your book or in general. Why should we read Marcuse today?
DA: Marcuse is wonderful. Even in his problematic aspects, he’s fascinating, and I would like to go on to think about the problems at a later date, since the issues they touch on must not be neglected.
Let me approach the question through a consideration of queer theory, which initially emerged as part of the more general repudiation of the ‘economism’ of which the Marxist left has habitually been convicted. At a certain point in that theory’s evolution, as Cora Kaplan noted, there was nonetheless an economic turn, in part because the (also belated) critique of neoliberalism was acquiring greater prominence. The problem is that queer theory was never equipped to deal with questions of political economy, having mostly shunned it from the outset, and has consequently struggled engage with it adequately. Instead, there is this persistent assimilation of neoconservatism to neoliberalism in order to demonstrate that capitalism continues to be normative, morally speaking. Admittedly, that assimilation makes more sense in the US than elsewhere, but it won’t do because markets have sponsored antinormative tendencies; that’s what makes them ‘progressive’. As I point out in the book, queer activists properly remind us that Stonewall was a riot; but it was first of all a bar.
Marcuse, by contrast, did set out to theorise the relations between sexuality and the market, taking Freud as his point of departure, though in fact his aim was to interrogate the western philosophical tradition in general, and his somewhat distorted presentation of Freud is symptomatic of that larger ambition. Marcuse nonetheless achieves an elegant revision of Freud by pointing out that the reality principle that demands the levels of repression with which Freud was preoccupied was an historical condition, not a permanent one. A different, ‘non-repressive’ reality principle is possible, but it requires social transformation.
However, Marcuse also famously acknowledged that postwar consumer capitalism functioned through the creation and satisfaction of certain pleasurable needs, and especially through the repressive desublimation of erotic drives on reductively sexual terms (that argument, more developed in One-Dimensional Man, is fully anticipated in Eros). Acceptance of the category of the libido on which notions of sublimation rest is problematic, however, so I prefer to speak in more Foucaultian terms of repressive incitement in order to indicate its apparently limitless potential. Even so, the point is valid: sexual pleasure binds us to the system, and therefore to that system’s modes of exploitation, as well as its spiralling inequality, its aggressive individualism, its ecologically catastrophic potential, and so on. Repressive incitement is productive of false needs, another Marcusean term I defend without qualification, and specifically because it is teleological in its implications. False needs inhibit us from realizing the potential for freedom that exists in the present. We need more teleological thinking.
Two further points in criticism of Marcuse, or at least of any attempt to appropriate him directly for the present. First, the reality principle of his time was a form of capitalism we now variously call Fordist, Keynesian, welfare capitalist or social democratic. In any case, it was regulated, and both Marcuse and his former Frankfurt School colleagues appear to have believed that this regulation would mean an end to capitalist crisis. Neoliberalism has changed that by restoring and intensifying systemic contradictions (among other things), and flexible accumulation has produced a greater, even bewildering variety of false needs. We must therefore recognize the shift in the reality principle.
Second, Marcuse was an austere dialectician (Foucault was not wholly wrong about that). He tended to believe that without uncompromising opposition there could be no progress; without two-dimensionality, you necessarily had one-dimensionality. Actually, he modified that view in later life (I’m thinking about Counterrevolution and Revolt, which is a terrific book). If we are to think strategically, we therefore need to think in a more Gramscian vein – though not in the kind of ‘radical democratic’ sense promoted by Laclau and Mouffe, and embraced in one incoherent form or another in much queer theory. Hence, my continuing commitment to cultural materialism, though that is a difficult tradition to reconcile with Hegelian Marxism.
Alfie Bown: I’d like to ask about the discussion of masculine desire and commodification in the book. You explain via David T. Evans that the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967 led to an increased commodification and market exploitation of gay sexuality. This problematizes the relationship between legal and cultural sexual liberation and ‘freedom,’ which you explore further via Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, showing that no sexuality is without power relations and so it cannot be ‘freed’, so to speak. Yet, at the end of the first chapter you come to how sexuality might be able to serve radical or dissident ends – perhaps by ‘rendering sexual pleasure both commonplace, to the extent that it is desired, and continuous with other pleasures’ so as to unseat ideas of sexuality as ‘essence’ or ‘source of fulfillment’. Could you explain a little of the books argument about how and why we need to transform our conception of sexuality in this way?
DA: I would modify slightly the point you attribute to me here. I do not think there can be any specifically sexual liberation, though I do think that we can speak of relative sexual freedom, even if it is currently of the sort I describe as repressive incitement. (I don’t think anyone who knows me has ever mistaken me for a puritan). I also think we can, and should, speak of a desirable human liberation from the exploitative system of capitalism, and that in order to achieve it we need to use more, not less, reason in imagining and theorizing what that desirable alternative would look like, how it would function and how we might go about achieving it. When Marcuse suggests that such a future might be more erotically satisfying, he uses ‘erotic’ in the most expansive sense to include, for instance, certain kinds of work.
So, what I find remarkable about Hollinghurst’s book – and he’s no Marxist – is that he manages a non-moralistic critique of commodified sexuality, drawing attention to its thoroughly pornographic quality. It’s like no other writing about sex that I know. There is a nostalgic quality to that critique, but it’s one that also knows that nostalgia has already reconstructed the past as an object that cannot be recaptured. It is less good at highlighting the socially exploitative nature of that past, however. So there is a dialectical feel to the novel, even if it can seem merely paradoxical and bittersweet. It is also, by the way, an intensely male homosocial novel in a way that also bears scrutiny.
AB: I found your comments on subcultures and terms like the ‘gay and lesbian community’ and ‘LGBTQ’ to be very important and quite radical. You address the problem of exclusion and inclusion when we speak of any singular ‘community,’ pointing to the problem that there will always be those who feel they do not ‘fit’ into these communities any more than they fit into more mainstream ones. It seems to me that you come at solving this problem through the work of Alan Sinfield. Could you explain this argument a little?
DA: One of the things I do in the third and fourth chapters of the book is to distinguish between counterculture and subculture. I think queer theory is a mutation of countercultural emphases, which themselves emerged from specific socio-political conditions primarily in the US.
Subculture is too often collapsed into counterculture, whereas it is more helpfully thought of in the terms Alan Sinfield proposes as emerging out of the experience of social marginalization and stigma, organized loosely through a variety of institutions that help give it definition, and presuming no necessary political commitments or common social experience. In other words, subcultures are not some pure, authentic repository of radicalism; they are heterogeneous in all sorts of ways (though this will differ, depending on the subculture you have in mind). If we have no illusions about the subculture’s radicalism, we are less likely to be disappointed by its potential for assimilation. But we may contribute radical ideas to that subculture.
The complaints about ‘homonormativity’, for instance, register what is possible under the contemporary reality principle; regretting this seems to me nostalgic, though that is to say neither that I consider subculture to be irrelevant nor that I think the development of alternatives to such normativity within them is unimportant. But there’s not much point haranguing middle class queers for taking advantage of the privileges available to them on the basis that they are betraying a certain legacy. The fact that the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party is an out lesbian is entirely uncontradictory the way history has turned out.
AB: Can we finish with some discussion of Channel 4 and what’s wrong with it?
Wrong? What could possibly be wrong with poking fun at plebs, reality tv featuring rampant narcissists and endless advice on how to make money out of a housing bubble? You’re so moralistic, Alfie.
Alfie Bown is the author of ‘Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism‘ (Zero Books, 2015) and a regular contributor to The New Inquiry and Existential Gamer. His next book, The PlayStation Dreamworld, is forthcoming with Polity.