This conversation first appeared on Rather Be Reading, The Point podcast. To listen to an edited version of their discussion (and the rest of the episode) click here. What appears below is a more complete transcript of their conversation.
When I sat down to read Andrea Long Chu’s essay “On Liking Women” in n+1, I didn’t expect it to reflect back to me so vividly a key aspect of my own experience of being a woman: wanting to be and to have things I shouldn’t. The essay, which explores the origins of transness in desire on the one hand and in feminist politics on the other, sparked a debate long in the offing about whether desire, and in particular sexual desire, should be seen as the new frontier for social justice. The patterns of desire certainly seemed to follow discriminatory pathways. Was there something we could do about it? Should we try? Amia Srinivasan wrote for the LRB that while no one has the right to demand to have sex with anyone else, perhaps we have a duty to engage with our desire in the hopes of rendering it less exclusionary and less unjust. In late April, I sat down with Andrea in New York to discuss this further.
Anastasia Berg: So I thought we’d start by asking: What motivated this article? Is there a back story?
Andrea Long Chu: The material genesis of the project is that a friend of mine, Marissa Brostoff, pointed me towards n+1, and told me, “There’s an editor at n+1 who’s looking for someone to write something engaging trans folks and feminism.” And I said, “Well I have opinions about that!” So it was really just happenstance—I hadn’t been thinking of myself as someone who would be doing non-academic writing.
The story that begins the article is an account of me in high school, long before I’ve transitioned. I’m on the athletics bus as the manager of the girls’ volleyball team, and I’m the only boy on the bus, and we’re driving to an away game. And it was like this really intense erotic experience for me. And one of the things you do as a trans person, especially if you don’t have the luxury that some of us have of sort of always having felt “this way,” is when you do transition you go back and think, Okay, so what are the signs? So I was looking for signs. And this bus ride seemed to be demonstrative of something, of a way that I sort of felt without knowing that I felt that way. So that was where the piece came from in terms of some of the more personal aspects, but it was a lot of things I’d just been thinking about, and sort of dying to say and not feeling like I had a space to say it.
AB: You conclude the story of being on the bus by saying, “The truth is I have never been able to differentiate liking women from wanting to be like them.” And I think for some readers who are less familiar with how debates within feminist discourse and trans discourse have been going on this could sound pretty innocent. But actually this isn’t very much an innocent statement at all—to talk about liking women and wanting to be like women in one and the same breath—because this is the kind of thing that has been used as an accusation.
ALC: Oh, absolutely. Something that’s kind of lurking in the background in this piece that doesn’t get discussed explicitly, I don’t think, is that the first accounts of transsexuality and transvestitism—we’re talking about Magnus Hirschfeld and the Institute for the Science of Sexuality in Berlin in the early twentieth century—those first accounts are sexual accounts. Transsexuality and transvestitism are understood as being essentially erotic projects, you know. One hears an echo of that in the discourse around the bathrooms, for instance, as if the reason that trans women transition is so that they can have easier access to little girls in bathrooms. As a result, we’ve had a hard time talking about the role that desire, sexual desire, erotic interest—all of those things—play in transition, which is… it’s so—it’s so incredibly real.
AB: Why did that—transsexuality as having to do with desire—become something that got denied and replaced with the model that you discussed of identity?
ALC: Well, the problem with the Hirschfeld model or the models that followed, the difficulty with those accounts is that the sexual valence that was treated to transsexuality was a pathologizing one. That was a part of a way of marking it as a form of perversion, which is something that again continues to today. In recent sexology there’s this largely debunked theory that transsexual women are in fact men, and you can divide them into two categories: homosexual transsexuals, or straight trans women, and autogynephilic transsexuals, men who are aroused by the idea of being women.
This is, again, widely recognized as a pathologizing transphobic model, and so people are rightly skeptical of reintroducing sexuality in the equation. There’s been a lot of work both in terms of social activism and legally that has gone into keeping gender over here and sexuality over there. And where they have met seems to have been dominated by transphobic attacks on trans people. So that’s made it, rightly so, very difficult to talk about the role played by sexuality in transition, in transness, and by extension not just sexuality but wanting in general.
AB: Another hurdle that you have to clear in introducing your arguments is the strong connection between TERFs—“trans-exclusionary radical feminists”—and something that is captured under the title of “political lesbianism.” Can you describe what is that position and what are these connections?
ALC: Right, so, a TERF is this label that, gosh I don’t know the exact age of it—it’s got to be less than ten years old, could be even younger than that, this term that has sprung up to describe contemporary iterations of transphobic feminism which usually go along the lines of something like, “Trans women are in fact men; they are interlopers who are here because they have some kind of perverted interest in invading women’s spaces; and they (notably) reinforce gender roles, when in fact the feminist project should be dismantling those roles.”
It’s really important to say that this is not necessarily what we would call a biological essentialist position. This actually is often extremely copacetic with the thing we call social constructionism—which is spoken about now as if we all sort of understand what that means. In many cases TERFs are arguing, on the one hand, that gender has been socially constructed, and on the other hand that therefore the goal of feminism should be to deconstruct or to dismantle gender as it has been constructed. This is sort of the TERF position that you can find if you go online, you know, they have their own subreddits; they have their own websites. And honestly I thought I was going to get more TERF hate—I was sort of looking forward to that. [laughs]
AB: I was going to ask, what was the extent of it? You’re okay? You’re not getting bullied online?
ALC: No, I’m not getting bullied online the way some women do, but one of the potentially more controversial things about this article is that I am—sympathetic wouldn’t be the right word, but I’m generous in how I read TERFs. And I sort of love the idea that TERFs have no idea how much I agree with them about things. Not everything, but a number of things.
One of the things I argue is that this name is misleading insofar as it follows implicitly a kind of historiographic move where the radical in trans-exclusionary radical feminist is supposed to signify that the TERF is actually this sort of holdover from the Seventies. As in, she was a radical feminist in the Seventies, and she just sort of kept being a radical feminist instead of getting with the picture and jumping onto all the other waves and learning to be more, you know, “intersectional.” It’s an account of TERF as essentially a kind of anachronism. And I don’t think this is true.
It is indeed true that there are folks who, in the Seventies, were anti-trans, who continue to be anti-trans today. But the implication is that radical feminism as such, feminism from 1968 to sometime in the 1970s, was completely anti-trans. And that’s plainly untrue.
But where there is a connection is that the TERF is more rightly described not just as a radical feminist, but as having something in common with this thing that happened in the Seventies called political lesbianism. Political lesbianism being the idea that lesbian is actually a political position, sometimes a spiritual one, sometimes but not always a sexual one—so you could be a lesbian without having sex with women. [In this view,] lesbian was a political position that you could choose that represented a kind of separatism from men, or at least a kind of strike on heterosexuality, and it had to do, I think, with lesbian as a concept—which no one agreed on what this meant!
Today lesbian is kind of almost an anachronistic term because everyone is, like, queer. Lesbian sounds sort of old fashioned, and kind of dowdy… like you’re middle aged and you hike a lot—that kind of thing. (Not that there aren’t lesbians to whom that applies.) But I was just reading the Lesbian Tide, which was this magazine from (I think) ’71 to ’74. And this particular issue of the magazine was right after this infamous conference known as the Second West Coast Lesbian Conference of 1973. The fascinating thing about this issue is that it’s got pieces by different people who were at the conference; none of them agree with each other—there’s so much infighting, it’s incredible. And one of the things that they’re infighting about is the word lesbian. Like, this is called the West Coast Lesbian Conference and no one agrees on what a lesbian is! We wouldn’t argue about this now—we would argue about for instance what trans means, or potentially what queer means. Those are the terms in which people are storing their political optimism, but in the Seventies, among a certain group of feminists, the term that housed that optimism temporarily was lesbian.
AB: What is the connection to be drawn between today’s TERFs and yesteryear’s political lesbians? And why is it productive in introducing another way of thinking about being trans and transitioning?
ALC: Political lesbianism was the height of a contradiction that had developed within feminism: the more powerful your critique, the more you could enumerate the ways in which patriarchy functioned on an everyday level, the more impossible it seemed to just live your life without being immediately subject to all of these technologies of oppression. And what that produced is a kind of revolutionary subject in the Seventies, the political lesbian, who could through sheer force of political will change her own desires and reorient herself—decide that she was going to leave her husband, that she was going to abjure the company of men.
AB: And so would you say that the analogy between that position and the TERFs’ position is that in the TERF’s mind what the transgender woman does is, in fact, give in to a certain kind of desire that she refuses to engage with critically?
ALC: Yes, absolutely, but I think the other important thing is that trans exclusion, for instance at the famous 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference, wasn’t these feminists just sitting around and scheming about how to make trans women’s lives horrible. The skepticism, to put it mildly, among some of those feminists (but not all of them) of transsexual women was actually last in a long line of suspicions.
So, the radical feminist Robin Morgan, who spoke at this controversial conference in ’73, says in her speech that there’s what she calls an “epidemic of male style”—feminism has been invaded by an epidemic of male style. And what she means by “male style” is not actually transvestites or transsexuals, even though that’s sort of the extreme example. What she means is like, bar butches! Like, what she’s referring to are women who are listening to the Rolling Stones, or who are collaborating with the brocialist members of the New Left, or those who are just here to fuck and aren’t actually interested in the sort of tender, caring, emotional, nurturing environment that the lesbian conference is supposed to be.
What happened in the Seventies is that maleness was abstracted: you’re no longer actually talking about men, you’re talking about some sort of relation—which was in itself misogynist, patriarchal, oppressive. That structure could then be repeated across all experience. The dream of separatism was sullied by the fact that when you get a bunch of lesbians on the UCLA campus for a couple days for this conference they are just like at each others’ throats the whole time!
And there were some women, according to Morgan, who were collaborators, and what being a collaborator meant was that you still retain some aspect of this “male style.” So the trans woman, or the transsexual woman—Beth Elliott, in this case, at this conference—is just the last in a whole series of different ways that patriarchy could be smuggled into lesbian utopia.
I don’t think it was nearly as much about an anti-trans animus as it was about trying to take to its fullest consequences the implication of an analysis. And this is why maybe I have some sympathy for [TERFs], or why I want to read TERFs generously, because I think there’s a real experience of finding out that critique wasn’t going to do the thing it said it was going to do for you… And as [radical] feminist theory developed, in its nascent stages, the stronger it got and the more honestly compelling that it got, the more one came to realize that it was going to be impossible to live by it. I think there’s something very poignant that was happening, and that TERFs sort of haven’t acknowledged.
AB: It marks also a deep difference between that generation that you’re describing and what the term TERF gets applied to today, to go back to Twitter…
ALC: For the contemporary Tumblr TERF, or Twitter TERF, there is an adoption of some of these radical feminist positions or dilutions of them, but as I say in the piece I think it has a lot more to do actually with how the internet works. Feminism on the internet has become a fandom. And what I mean by fandom is that it’s actually a form of generating feelings of belonging that uses forms of knowledge, not insofar as they are true or false, but insofar as they help produce a feeling of being with others. So there are protocols that have developed on the internet about being feminist, and if you follow those protocols, then you can feel feminist, and you can feel part of a group. And I think TERFs are actually part of that. The protocols are different protocols, but I think in large part they’re doing what everyone does at the internet, which is staring off into the void of the thing and trying to trying to see if there’s life on the other end.
AB: With all of this put in place, after this very generous reading that you perform, where do you come in in the piece?
ALC: So I have a lot of sympathy for the separatist position on a personal level because it feels like it’s meaningfully descriptive of something that I felt myself in terms of my own transition. I did feel like it was an act of defiance or an act of just rejection: I have never wanted to spend time with men, least of all myself! And so at some point I just put that into practice. I was my own Second West Coast Lesbian Conference of 1973.
AB: And yet…
ALC: And yet! Well, one, it’s not like I don’t interact with men in my life anymore. But two, I couldn’t actually embrace the position that, well, I’m the most political lesbian that there ever was, because all the things that I want are still completely mired in the same patriarchal, misogynist culture that radical feminists are already discovering in the Seventies. The TERF position that I would through transition be solidifying and reproducing normative gender roles—I find that argument completely convincing. I mean I think it’s completely right, because I know that it’s right, because it’s the thing that I want! Like, I’m not interested, actually, not at all interested in dismantling gender. No… like, I am completely aware that these things are bad for me.
AB: Let me first read something that is one of my favorite parts of your article, and then I want to ask you what this claim means. So you say, “That trans lesbians should be pedestaled as some kind of feminist vanguard is a notion as untenable as it is attractive. In defending it, I would be neglecting what I take to be the true lesson of political lesbianism as a failed project; that nothing good comes of forcing desire to conform to political principle. You could sooner give a cat a bath.”
And reading this and reading the article I think I could hear two kinds of argument. One is, I can’t do anything with what I want. Desire is not something that I can change and affect by way of second order desires. And in another piece of yours, “Did Sissy Porn Make Me Trans?”—which taught me about a genre of porn I was not familiar with, which was exciting—you say, “Most desire is nonconsensual. Most desires aren’t desired.” So that’s one way of hearing your claim: we can’t do this, and so why waste our time? And then there’s something else, which is the question should we if we could? When you say something like “nothing good comes of trying to force desire to conform to political principle,” I hear both options.
So, before you answer, let me just introduce a recent argument made by Amia Srinivasan for the LRB. The main question she takes up in her piece is do we have a duty, or a responsibility, to try and work on our desires—especially insofar as they’re reflective of discriminatory political practices? So it’s not just a question of you enforcing the patriarchy by wanting to present yourself a certain way, or wanting to be in a certain kind of relationship. She’s also talking about the sexual choices that people make. And she’s saying that many are exclusionary—they seem to follow certain kinds of patterns of discrimination—and she asks whether or not we have a duty to try to change them? She’s subtle in her response, but I think she’s saying, insofar as we can change them, we do have a duty to try to do so. So, this is the question to you: Can we, can we not, and should we if we could?
ALC: I read with great pleasure Amia’s piece in the LRB, and first of all, I agree that these are difficult questions. I’m absolutely aware that desire is childlike and chary of government, but am I talking about a rapist’s desire, am I talking about a racist’s desire? Who gets to fall under that and am I prepared to take that all the way to the end? And gosh, I think it’s very complicated. But! She isn’t really talking about whether we need to acknowledge that the rapist’s desire to rape is as equally ungovernable as any other desire, though that’s an important question. The easiest fix there, by the way, is to say desire and action are different things, so like you can tell someone to do something, but you can’t tell them not to want something, because ontologically, it’s not going to work.
AB: Well, aren’t we as adults supposed to learn to control certain desires? We are not supposed to be acting on all of them. Forget who we’re attracted to! I mean basic things: you might be in one relationship and you might be attracted to someone else, and we all learn to govern that, and that seems to be a separate question from whether or not we should be trying to change our own desires. The latter is a much more radical claim. And Srinivasan herself says at a certain point “no one wants a mercy fuck…”
AB: And so what she’s trying to suggest is not, you know, as a matter of course you would get moral bonus points if you go and have sex with someone who normally less people want to have sex with. She’s talking about actually trying, to the extent that we can, to exercise our willpower on our desire. And then it seems to me that you’re totally right in putting that question of acting on and not acting on given desires aside: she’s talking about trying to want different things.
ALC: Yeah—actually, actually trying to change your desire.
AB: She references this exercise that Lindy West has written about where she looks at photos of women who are overweight and she asks herself, What it is to consider this beautiful? And the thought is that that is supposed to open her eyes to seeing, or finding attractive, things that she didn’t find attractive before.
ALC: I had forgotten that she brought up Lindy West. I can’t stand body positivity. I cannot stand it. It is just anathema to me. It’s moralizing. It’s really fucking hard to figure out a way to tell people to change their desires that isn’t moralistic, and that isn’t actually about doing the same kind of thing to desire that supposedly queer politics was supposed to be against in the first place. Queers are very, very bad at talking about desires that they are not supposed to have, especially considering that they are people who have, by definition, desires that they are not supposed to have.
The reason that I can’t stand body positivity—not just that I think there’s something very churchy about like staring at like a photo of someone who is fat like you are and meditating your way into affection for yourself—the reason I can’t stand it is because I feel implicated. Because what it says is that my self-loathing—and I don’t mean mine generally, I mean mine, mine, Andrea Long Chu’s self-loathing—is a result of a lack of having had my consciousness raised. I say churchy not by accident, I do think there’s a kind of Protestantism to the notion of, at least we have to try. No, my self-loathing is precious to me, and it is a form of knowledge about myself, and it’s also by its own very structure fundamentally incapable of being fixed through consciousness-raising because self-loathing is a form of consciousness.
There’s this scene that one can imagine if one is a woman, or even if one isn’t, of standing in front of the mirror and assessing one’s body and you don’t like your gut and you wish your nose was a different shape and you have a double chin and you feel like your breasts are too big or your breasts are too small—whatever it is. Now you can run all of your feminist analyses about how this is patriarchy, and it’s body-phobic and it’s fat-phobic and it’s sexist and it’s the cosmetic industry and beauty standards and the media. You can do all of this, and you will not at any point be wrong. But, you also won’t feel better. If anything now you will feel worse, because now you’re ugly and stupid.
AB: Or morally depraved. You’re wrong for wanting to be different, for doing anything to be different than you are.
ALC: Right. So with regards to the erotic preference thing, I’ve had this conversation with other folks, I know it’s a really important conversation. Often times the sort of “no fats, no femmes, no Asians” comes up, which I think Amia mentions, maybe.
AB: Yeah, that’s right.
ALC: It’s a real question.
AB: So in context she begins with a group of men called incels, “involuntary celibates,” whose main creed is to claim that they are entitled to sex—that they have the right to sex that’s being denied to them by evil bitches. So she dismisses that, obviously, but then asks, do we, nevertheless, have this duty to work on our desires? She says, “There is no entitlement to sex, and everyone is entitled to want what they want, but personal preferences”—and then she delivers these titles in caps, “NO DICKS, NO FEMMES, NO FATS, NO BLACKS, NO ARABS, NO RICE, NO SPICE, MASC-FOR-MASC—are never just personal.” And that is her invitation for us to think about the ways we can work on our desires because they are themselves the result of these political processes.
And I’ll say one more thing that has really been bugging me. She says at some point, “the question, then, is how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that “who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion.” And what really puzzled me for a while was: What does it mean that it’s “a political question”? I actually couldn’t parse the phrase. What does it mean that she says it’s a question? The only thing I could come up with is that she means it’s a political problem. That there is here an injustice (and I think this is the real controversial claim). We think, well, it’s unfair that I’m not as attractive as someone else, but is it unjust in the sense that it presents society with a political task that some people are not drawing the same attention as others?
ALC: The scarier question is, is it unjust and also none of us have a moral obligation to do anything about it? I’m not sure I want to endorse that claim, but that’s the real question that rears its head. Of course you can say any given person’s desire is produced through the interplay of power relations. That’s a truism of the post-Foucault academy: that everything is constructed and it’s all power. It’s not that that’s meaningless. Obviously something like “no fats, no femmes, no Asians” is a desire that has a history, and has a politics, that can be described by reference to political processes: imperialism, white supremacy, and also, like, the world-historical defeat of the female sex are all included in this desire. You can show how history has led to this moment, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that knowing that is going to do anything.
So say someone says, “I don’t like sleeping with fat, femme, or Asian guys.” The implication of the critique of that is that fat, femme, and Asian guys, (1) want to be slept with by that person, and (2) that being fat, femme or Asian requires you by definition to want to sleep with people who are fat, femme or Asian. The people who are victims in the ecology of desire are assumed to have, by nature, or by virtue of their marginalized position in the structure, desires of their own which are inevitably more ethical than anyone else’s. I think that is a kind of moralism that can be really insidious because it implies that there are people who are so oppressed that they are not allowed to want things that are bad for them. Everyone should be allowed to want things that are bad for them. I think I’m prepared to defend that statement at least.
So the journalist Meredith Talusan, who writes for this publication them., had this piece actually a year or two ago (it’s relatively recent): the headline is “Why can’t my famous gender nonconforming friends get laid?”, and she’s talking about folks who are friends of hers, nonbinary femmes, who are having a lot of trouble getting dates. When they sign up for Tinder they have to decide if they’re going to say that they are men or women. Are they going to say they are into straight guys or gay guys?
So there’s a lot of obstacles, just purely representationally. Tinder is not a happy space for them, which I’m completely sympathetic to. But the conclusion that Meredith comes to is not dissimilar to Amia’s, which is that other people’s desires should change: these men should be open to their gayness being changed and becoming bi in some expansive sense, or pansexual, or whatever. And this is actually, according to her, a kind of gift that trans people give the world, the sort of inherent queering of other people’s sexuality. What this misses is that it’s quite likely that the reason these gay men don’t want to fuck her nonbinary femme friends is because these gay men want to fuck the exact same people that her friends want to fuck, which is masc-er men—ideally, straight men! So the reason they can’t have sex, the reason their desires are not compatible, is that they share the exact same fucking desire, which is to be fucked by someone who is masc enough to pass as straight, or who is just straight period. (This is the famous top shortage, of course.)
It’s not that this piece isn’t responding to a real problem. It’s not that there isn’t real loneliness or pain or anxiety, all of these things: I completely affirm the affective experience of her friends on Tinder. But that’s not the point. The point is, how do you adjudicate when it’s not actually, one person wants something that’s good for them, the other person wants something that’s bad? How do you adjudicate when both people want something that’s basically bad for them? How would you then go about adjudicating between those desires? And the point here is not to say Meredith Talusan’s friends need to just suck it up because the world is hard, that’s not at all what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, her friends should be allowed to want things that are bad for them. That’s one of the ways in which I would part most strongly with Amia, in my worry that moralism about the desires of the oppressor can be a shell corporation for moralism about the desires of the oppressed.
AB: That’s really, really interesting because it means that the project that Amia’s describing, and she’s trying to make room for… She’s quite gentle about it, but she tries to make room for a certain kind of project of thinking critically about our own desires insofar as they reflect this political and moral principles. But the first step is then to recognize that the desires of the people that we’re now supposed to be more accommodating, that we’re supposed to direct ourselves with in our projects of self-fashioning, we would have to look at those. And once we start looking critically at those, it’s not clear why we’re looking at the desires of the oppressor to begin with—because now it looks like the moral responsibility of the privileged to be accommodating to desires that aren’t any better, or aren’t any less reflective of the same discriminatory patterns. And then that makes you think that maybe we should step back and rethink the whole thing—that something is messed up about the question.
ALC: Right, right.
AB: Is that right?
ALC: Yes! I think that is right.
AB: I think that’s fascinating.
ALC: My desire to, like, lose a bunch of weight may be indebted to all of these misogynist forms and patriarchal structures and all of that, and I might decide that I don’t want that desire. Or someone else like my therapist or my friend might tell me, “No! Love yourself, you should practice self-care, you should stare at photographs of fat women, and learn to feel better about yourself…” That’s another form of desire, and that’s equally as ungovernable as the first one. I’m not sure if you can moralize about even the desire to moralize. I mean, it does start to get a little heady, but I do think we can think about those shoulds, and we can think about ethical and political imperatives, in terms of a desire.
AB: When Amia’s article came about, one thought that I had was that it’s very hard for me to imagine—and perhaps this is a failure of my imaginative powers—but it’s very hard for me to imagine a society in which an individual’s desires do not include and exclude, or follow different gradations. Whatever people find attractive today they might find completely unattractive in a hundred years, but they will always find something attractive and something unattractive, and that’s essential to desire, that’s not just a function of a political system that works on unjust hierarchies.
ALC: I do think there’s sort of preferential nature to desire, period. Desire involves cutting a lot of things out of the world, so that you can imagine a space where your object is going to give you a thing that you want it to give you. That always involves a certain amount of fantasy and potentially a certain amount of violence. Desire has to be a process of subtraction. And I think it’s probably always going to be a process of subtraction. You can’t want everything. It wouldn’t be wanting it if it was everything.
The question of whether sexual desire is different from other kinds of desire in degree or kind is a really, really good question. My first impulse is to say well, sort of, you know, of course everything is sexual, all desire has the shape of sexual desire. But I think it might sort of be the reverse actually. I’ll put it this way: it’s very easy to show how lots of things that are not sex are in fact about sex. It’s also very easy to show that sex is very rarely about sex. Like people don’t have sex because they are experiencing intense erotic fixation on each other. They have sex because they’re bored, or they’re nervous, or they’re trying to renew a sense of kinship that is at risk of unraveling. You have sex for all of the kind of reasons that you might do anything, which is to say usually for sort of kind of oblique and ordinary and banal reasons. You know, I love Freud, but I’m not a sort of capital-f Freudian in this sense: it’s not like the libido in some great cosmic way. So I’m saying that sex isn’t really about sex, and yet I’m still talking a lot about sex, and I think the reason for that is that sex is one of the places where the structure of desire is laid bare, or becomes available. Insofar as sex is sort of pointless, desire can feel purposive in other places in life (even though it probably isn’t) but in sex like the purposiveness is shown for like the ruse that it is.
AB: I still think that there’s a way to think of the difference between desire and sexual desire, although we might then in a second step have to dismantle these differences. One way of putting it is something like, well, if you can imagine human life without the unconscious I can still make sense of the fact that we will do a lot of things—seek food, for example, but it will not make sense that we would have sex the way we do. We will procreate, maybe we will rub against things, but it would not make sense that we would do things that are strange and perverse and illogical and bad for us, as so many of our sexual desires demand that we do. The way you’re putting things now makes me think that it’s precisely the impossibility of imagining us without an unconscious that sort of undoes that whole thought experiment. Because we are not in actuality the beings that live with a lot of desires that make sense and then are burdened with one extra desire that doesn’t make sense, but we are beings that are deeply implicated sexually—all of our activities are not activities like a giraffe’s, who’s just feeding. And that’s where I stand, but I do think that there’s something, that there’s a certain kind of distinction that one can maintain. Another way of putting it is that, like we were saying about the slippage that goes with the concept of action, when you say don’t want it it’s one thing to say, “You can’t do it,” i.e., you can’t exclude people because it’s not right, and another thing to say, “No, you have to get hot for people that you’re not finding attractive.” These are different ways of thinking about desire.
ALC: Right. But because sex isn’t about sex you have to do other things. That’s why you have conversations or eat or go to the movies or read a book, or whatever—because the thing sex was supposed to be about it turns out it wasn’t about. So that would be a model of sublimation where it’s not that you have an unconscious desire to fuck and then you sublimate it into something like typing away at your computer in your cubicle; it would be that in the realm of sexual experience you actually have none of that, and in order to produce the thing that you thought was going to be part of sex, you have to go into your cubicle, or make great art, or run for office, or whatever else you might do.
AB: I think some of that has to be the case once you also realize sublimation is not an individual project, repression or sublimation is not something that each of us does, it’s a societal project. And Freud, at the end of his career, begins to think in those ways and suggests that an entire society comes out of our inability to organize our life around this purposeless activity of constantly trying to sleep with your mother.
Andrea, before we finish I would like to ask you about a project you’re working on, called Bad Politics.
ALC: Bad Politics is the name of my academic book project that I’m working on right now. The way I define “bad politics” is: bad politics is what happens when people who are living under oppression don’t feel like resisting and do something else instead. That’s responding to the state of the academy (first and foremost), so there are critical habits that have developed over the past twenty to thirty years that by now have their own genre conventions, and that can, in my opinion, limit the way that we do cultural analysis. And this is because of the formation of identity studies—women’s studies, gender studies, African American studies, various cultural studies that involve some sort of identity group.
What has happened is that identity studies has conceived itself from the get-go as being an academic discipline whose unity derives not from a shared object, nor from a shared methodology, but from a shared political commitment. There are these disciplines which are founded on the idea that doing academic work is a form of political action. This is the fantasy of critique as a political act. When I say fantasy I don’t mean something that isn’t true, I just mean something which you would believe even if it wasn’t true. And what this fantasy means is that we often tend to do one of two things when we look at objects: we either bludgeon them for being too complicit with the status quo, or we celebrate them for reflecting membership in the very same political project in which we as critics believe that we are, in this moment, in the writing of criticism, participating. So what that means is that we spend a lot of time looking for objects in which we can see our own reflections and not a lot of time sitting with objects that disappoint us.
So the project is about learning to be disappointed as a critic—not to quarantine disappointment as if it were some kind of infection which could ruin the project. And very simply this means remembering that most non-normativity isn’t anti-normativity. As anyone who has ever taught a class of student knows, most disruptions are not productive. That’s also to say most disruptions are not supposed to be productive. So the project is about thinking about objects whose non-normativity doesn’t amount to resistance in the way that we like to imagine in order to flatter ourselves.
AB: So certain things are non-normative, but they are not thereby anti-normative. They are not shaking up the fundamental structures. You call out sissy porn, and you show why we don’t have to overstate the political-moral virtue of the project of sissy porn just because it looks like it’s defying these standards of sexuality. That’s one side, but are you also saying that there are forms of kind of productive disruption that are not simply and recognizably political?
ALC: The project is invested in finding, or seeing if one can find, modes of valuing that are not necessarily political. It’s not like I am against anti-normativity. I just think something dangerous happens when we start to conflate validity as such with political validity. You see this on the internet all the time, where “I’m sad” is not valid. “I’m sad for X, Y, and Z political reasons, I can show how my depression or my misery, my self-loathing is like part of this system of oppression”—that has a kind of soundness intellectually, or is supposed to, that just being sad wouldn’t. I think that there’s good reason to think about, and good political reason even, to think about validity outside of the political. And what that means is that the project is really invested in describing shit. I like to say that almost everything in the world doesn’t have a name. Which is really an incredible opportunity. It means there’s a lot to do. And there’s a lot to be gained, I think, from coming up with names for things. We’re not done with that. A name sort of like lifts up the curtain on a previously undisclosed portion of reality, and that, I think, can be valuable in itself. We were speaking before about what is the intellectual for, and at least one of my answers would be, it’s for naming things, because we don’t have enough names. We should have more names.
AB: Thank you.