Towards a Gay Politics of Play
This essay is concerned with one very particular question, which I will state clearly, directly, and without an aesthetically pleasing introduction: what does gay resistance look like today?
As a young gay man who somehow managed to survive a decade long detour through America’s fundamentalist subculture, I am familiar with oppression – in fact, I barely survived it. American culture as a totality (fluid as it is) may be moving in a progressive direction when it comes to issues of “non-traditional sexual preferences”, but this is not everywhere and always the case, and as the 2004 presidential elections made startlingly clear, social conservatism is enjoying a revival in this country that mirrors an upsurge in fundamentalisms globally.
Recently, accepting and deciding to remain true to my own desires, leaving the ministry, and detaching from active church involvement, I attended the “Gay Men’s Issues in Religion” subsection of the American Academy of Religion Conference. Sadly, I felt that the queer politics being espoused was all too typical. The rhetoric of transgression, of freedom and emancipation, and of radical democracy seemed hopelessly dated to my post-post-modern, post-orthodox ears. Once the Enlightenment Ethic of emancipation and the reign of reason is deconstructed, doesn’t the modern obsession with narratives of “freedom” sound a tad passé? Can those of us who accept communitarian notion of ethics really be expected to refuse communal responsibility? How does the queer quest for freedom from social constraint square with recent advances like the overturn of the California marriage ban, marriage being viewed as a vicious instrument of control in so much queer political thought? And what of those of us who for whatever reason find the formerly radical act of “queering” everything at every opportunity to be constraining when it becomes an orthodoxy?
Similar questions abounded. Dizzy and a bit bored, unable to think quite clearly, I went back to the hotel, made love to my boyfriend at the time, and went out drinking. Later, lying in bed, I attempted to process the day. Having heard papers contesting the notion of the “privateness” of sexuality in the court’s decision to overturn Texas’ sodomy law, construing the pursuit of the freedom of gay people to marry as an act of adjustment to a system of social control, and promoting the constant deconstruction and queering of every form of social life, what was I to make of my day? What did it mean that I chose to ignore the protest rhetoric and go out and party? Was it somehow wrong of me to find the idea of politicizing my relationship inappropriate? Furthermore, what of my desire, rather than for freedom, for being held infinitely responsible for fidelity to the man in bed next to me?
My very ability to ask such questions is, I realize, founded on the progress and freedom won by the very activists whose rhetoric I was currently puzzling over. Radical fairies, queer activists, gay liberationists – these are the agents who helped secure my freedom to openly and honestly check into my hotel with my boyfriend, to attend a panel convened at a theological conference, to introduce my lover to my Anglican advisor. However, it is the fundamental contention of this essay that any gay politics, any politics which encourages truth to the flow of desire, necessitates the continued reformulation of protest and progress. Living through the slow death of the Enlightenment narrative of liberation, the triumph of global capitalism, and the increasing destabilization of all identities, I want to articulate another politics – a politics beyond politics.
Allow me to take, for brevity’s sake, a few extremely complex issues for granted. Allow me to assert a Nietzschean/Deleuzian ontology in which desire is fundamental – in which all there is the constant flow and transformation of desire. Allow me to agree with Agamben’s analysis of the law and of political entities – in which all laws are founded on a state of exception, and all political bodies are formed by the persons they render non-persons and exclude. Allow me to agree with the post-secularists, who reveal all political projects to be religious projects in that they are concerned with a myth of the common good. Allow me to agree with Laclau’s recent rearticulation of the concept of hegemony, in which, after the deconstruction of various myths secular and religious, political projects are revealed in their radical contingency as one hegemonic project being selected over another. Allow me to agree with Zizek, for whom this aligning with a political project is a form of enjoying one’s symptom, of choosing to live out the Kierkegaardian irrationality of this selecting in the face of contingency with all of one’s heart – of leaping boldly into the dark.
In this conceptual milieu, I exist is a gay individual, and as a gay individual, as a reminder of desire’s original givenness – of the way in which desire is not selected by the subject, but generates the subject itself. I am, fundamentally, what and who I desire, and fidelity to myself involves faithfulness to these desires. This is something all gay individuals know, because we are forced to come to terms with it.
I contend that just as desire is prior to subjective projects, desire is prior to politics. Desire is constantly being rearticulated in various discursive contexts, and particular desires are always already articulated according to discursive strategies (a la Foucault). But the very existence of desire – this is precisely what finally cannot be accounted for. In the beginning was desire, and desire made, constantly explodes, and transforms everything that is - religious overtones entirely intended. Desire gives us to ourselves, and it gives us to ourselves as creatures of desire. I would like to irrationally assert, and to freely do so in the face of the primacy of contingency, that the only posture one can take towards something so fundamental as desire is one of reverence, and of seeking to multiply, increase, and magnify desire. This is, I believe, what radical queer politics has always been about.
Desire, given prior to the self and generating the self, frees us from the worship of freedom. Once we acknowledge that we are not free in choosing our desires, and that they are shaped by social factors, and that they always play out in a social field, we see that living desire to its fullest is not complicit with the logic of emancipation, but rather is an act of faithfulness to community. We desire not as a cogito alone in darkness, but in, through, and with others, and this reveals that when I violate your desire, I violate my own. The path of flight, of always refusing to obey, of sacrificing social cohesion at the altar of the individual – this is what I find most distasteful about “queer theory” per se. Furthermore, the constant dialectic of tradition and transgression leads nowhere, especially once transgression has become the norm. But queerness, evolving as it has in a broader social context, is not limited to academic homosexuals. It can (although is not always) be representative of the tendency all human subjects share to assert the freedom of self over the responsibility to the other, and this assertion of freedom is all too easily commodified.
Desire and its contingency (contingency being another word for its status as gift) necessarily points to a politics that exceeds its own boundaries. A politics of desire must be faithful to its grounding in an ontology of desire, and to its aim, which is the continued liberation and multiplication of desire. This politics seeks to create new technologies and economies of desire that increase the ability of all elements in a community to live their desires as completely and totally as possible. It furthermore would continually acknowledge new desiring elements as members within the community and thus function as a politics of expansion – an expansion that is not colonizing and totalizing but ever humble in the face of its own inevitable failure. This failure does not constitute a cause for despair, but the acknowledgement that the attempt always remains to be made again, the inevitable failure being cherished for its gift of the opportunity to repeat the political act again and again nonidentically. Acknowledging the contingency of hegemonic projects in an ontology of desire, politics as an attempt at the impossible ought not lead to a state of abjection but to a celebration of contingency, freedom, and chance.
What is the proper word for such a politics? Perhaps this posture towards desire, exceeding the political as it does, ought best be understood not as politics, but as play. Play involves not an instrumental mode of reason, but an aesthetic one, and this is why aesthetic practices and political practices have always been aligned in gay political life. The most frivolous and apolitical act becomes the height of protest, and vice versa - consider the drag queen. The refusal to politicize something becomes political, and all acts of politicization become poetic acts of making. A politics of play, abandoning the question of ultimacy and recognizing the ephemerality and irrationality of all human acts, exists in the between space of what is classically “political” and what is an aesthetic project.
This is why, for this desiring agent, I no longer bother considering the political meaning of every act of affection between a lover and myself. My declaration that my bedroom is indeed a private space of play beyond the reach of politics is the founding act of my existence as a gay political person. Furthermore, perhaps my ability to promise and to be held responsible, and my desire for responsibility, monogamy, and the “controlling” institution of marriage can also be construed as an act of play, as something perhaps bound to fail and impossible, but aesthetically pleasing to me nonetheless – and thus just as truly queer as any deconstruction of the usual queer stripe.
Maybe the promise to love someone forever, fail though it might, can be imagined as a technology of desire that seeks to increase, multiply, and explode moments of desire which prove all too ephemeral. To promise, to elect a particular desire - isn't this the root of subjectivity?
And maybe not. But in a politics of play, Zarathustra throws the dice – and we acknowledge that however the dice come down, they can always be thrown again.