Thursday, June 16, 2016

Islam and same-sex love

Sunday, May 22, 2016

My journey

Forty years ago, I appeared (at least in the eyes of some) to have "jumped ship," abandoning the field in which I had been trained - art history - in favor of immersion in the new, struggling field of gay studies (as it was then called). In reality I did not abandon art history but continued to teach it (with generally full classes). In addition, I am finally bringing to conclusion my experiences in my home field in my book The History of Art History (not a history of art, but of the discipline itself). It will be in two volumes, each of about 600 pages.

I am glad that I stuck with this original commitment, because my experiences in what is now sometimes termed gender studies have not always been gratifying. I began in 1973 by joining the fledging Gay Academic Union, which I believed had two tasks: removing the legal and social barriers to our equality; and through research obtaining a better understanding of the phenomenon of same-sex love.

I soon found that I was more suited for the second task than the first. Progress - and I am not sure, even now, that one can call it that - was hampered by what Maurice Merleau-Ponty called the Adventures of the Dialectic, the constantly changing definitions of the goals of the field.

The seventies was a period of considerable ebullition, with some assuming that revolution was at hand. I never thought this, but I recognized that a form of neo-Marxism was in vogue and that it was embraced, fruitfully or not, by some of my leading gay and lesbian activist/scholar colleagues. That was the first twist of the dialectic, soon followed by the Social Construction trend, which alleged, in its pure form, that there were no homosexuals before ca. 1870. Others saw our best hope in enrolling under the banner of radical feminism.

There were many other twists and turns which I won't attempt to chronicle here. Yet the story is one of extreme volatility in which a finding or position could be initially hailed as positive or innovative - and shortly thereafter dismissed as hopelessly dated and reactionary.
There were also reversions to earlier enthusiasms, as in the current demand for intersectionality, the linkage of LGBT concerns with other identitarian ones. This had been, forty years ago, the program of the Gay Liberation Front, which sought to make common cause with radical feminists, the Black Panthers, and Hispanic groups.

So I look back with some skepticism, but not entirely because all told it has been a fascinating journey.


Some gay men are known for having a multiplicity of sexual partners. Yet there is no generic term for this kind of person. Straights do much better. There are three, derived from personal names, for heterosexual womanizers: Casanova, Don Juan, and Lothario.

Casanova (1725 – 1798) was a real person, best documented via his Memoirs (Histoire de ma vie), just published in a sumptuous new edition in France.

Don Juan (Tenorio) is a legendary figure who may never have existed; he first appears in a 1630 play by Tirso de Molina, "El Burlador de Sevilla."

Lothario, originally a Florentine, figures in a story, "El Curioso Impertinente," embedded in Cervantes' Don Quixote. The character takes on fuller form in a 1703 play by the Englishman Nicholas Rowe.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Trans matters

Venturing onto any territory classifiable as a trans issue is to risk contact with the third rail of current discourse. For what it is worth, my own view is a kind of Sartrean sense that we should all be free to realize our authenticity in the way we deem best. If that quest involves body modification - or simply departure from conventional expectations - so be it.

That said. it does seem that there are two fundamental views in this realm. The first welcomes gender fluidity as a gift of reason and freedom - to us all and to society as a whole. The second view, espoused by many trans people themselves, is that early on they were subjected to a misapplication of the gender binary. Now they are seeking to affirm the gender that is properly theirs. They do not see themselves as espousing gender fluidity as such, though, if it provides an arena for their self-affirmation, that is good.

Monday, April 11, 2016

My credo

Now that I have reengaged with the Sartrean existentialism I once felt so vividly, let me try to state, in the simplest terms, its tenets.

1} We must strive with all our might to create ourselves according to our inmost necessity, never acceding to the subordinate status of being mere reflections of the thoughts, pressures, and aspirations of others; 

2) By the same token, we must acknowledge that this endeavor cannot be accomplished in a vacuum, for we constantly find ourselves in a situation, a set of external circumstances that surround and condition our valorous effort at self-fashioning; 

3) Combining these two imperatives leads to a third, the necessity for engagement, commitment to a cause or causes which we have reason to believe will make the world a better place.  Needless to  say, one must give careful consideration to the cause that one selects.

Sunday, March 20, 2016


Since I read Sarah Bakewell's brilliant book "At the Existentialist Cafe," I have made a renewed attempt - the third or fourth over the course of as many decades - to come to terms with the vast oeuvre of Jean-Paul Sartre. Despite the disdain shown by some, including Analytic philosophers unprepared to grapple with his magnum opus "Being and Nothingness," Sartre without question ranks internationally as the most influential intellectual of the 20th century.

He was massively active in a number of fields: fiction, the theater, literary and artistic criticism, political commentary, and philosophy. Nonetheless, his reputation declined after his death in 1980. This decline reflected disillusionment with his seeming dalliance with Stalinism, a fault especially glaring after 1991; his tendency to make provocative judgments which he then had to correct (or should have corrected); and the appalling style of some of his later works, so much in contrast with the careful crafting of his Nausea (a short novel), The Wall (short stories), and No Exit (one of six or seven plays).

A graphomane, he ground out the later works under the influence of opiates and alcohol. Yet now, as often happens, Sartre's reputation is reviving. Perhaps the most important aspect of this recuperation lies in his tireless defense (equalling that of Voltaire) of the downtrodden and dispossessed, especially people of color. With rising inequality both within and between societies today, these interventions seem very timely - though of course some of the details have not held up. His critique of anti-Semitism, though challenged in some respects, was courageous and innovative. Likewise the rare but generally sympathetic comments about homosexuals. Not to be forgotten is his close partnership with Simone de Beauvoir, whose feminism he encouraged.

I continue to struggle with my ambivalence, inflected by great admiration, with regard to J-P Sartre. As far as I know there is no comprehensive account of the fluctuations of his reputation since his death 35 years ago. At this distance, the dialogue is hard to trace as much of it is in periodicals.

Still, there seem to be three main areas of contention: 1) the record of Sartre and de Beauvoir in WWII, which was less sterling and more procrastinating than later accounts often have it; 2) his tendency to excuse Communist and third-world dictatorships as somehow the party of humanity (very late, he partially recanted); and 3) his tortured effort to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in the two ultraturgid volumes of the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Politically, and if you will, in terms of world historical development, the present situation in this country strikes me as extremely volatile and dangerous. With the rising tide of violence in some quarters, it may be that civil war looms. We must hope not.
At all events, in order to arrive at some semblance of understanding it is important to move beyond personalities: the oafishness of Trump, the callowness of Rubio, the seeming untrustworthiness of HRC. It seems to me that process (in Whitehead's sense) is more important than personalities.
The main development that has been occurring over the last few decades is the growing institutionalization of multiculturalism - a gorgeous mosaic according to the optimistists, a growing source of divisiveness according to the pessimists and (forgive my Latin) the laudatores temporis acti (the party of nostalgia).
Increasingly, we see appeals to form judgments according to one's ethnicity, and not one's individual judgment. It borders on treason to do otherwise. I find this herding into ethnic enclaves depressing - it is a form of retribalization.
Yet the process may be inevitable. If so, the roster of tribes will not be restricted to African Americans, Hispanics, and the other ethnics (including willy-nilly my own tribe of LGBT people). It will include a white-people's faction. This is the diabolical truth that Trump has seized upon. But, horresco referens, may not Bernie Sanders represent another segment of this identarian grouping?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Violence, is it ever justified?

The confrontation in Chicago, where Trump had to retreat. may turn out to be a portent, as we seem to be careening towards violent confrontation on both sides. I take no position on which side is right, though I would agree that Trump started it.
It is worth considering some of the positive approaches, if you will, to violence as a tool of political change. The first landmark is a book by Georges Sorel, a French syndicalist, who (perhaps fittingly enough) influenced both left and right in his day. His Reflections on Violence (Réflexions sur la violence) was published in 1908. Sorel argues that the success of the proletariat in class struggle depended on the creation of a catastrophic and violent revolution achieved through a general strike. One of his most controversial assertions claimed that violence could save the world from barbarism. He equates violence with life, creativity, and virtue. A major contention argued by Sorel in the book is on the importance of myths as "expressions of will to act".
The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre) is a 1961 book by Frantz Fanon, offering a psychiatric and psychological analysis of the dehumanizing effects of colonization upon the individual, and the nation, from which derive the broader social, cultural, and political implications inherent to establishing a social movement for the decolonization of a person and of a people.
In his introduction to the book, Jean-Paul Sartre supported Fanon’s advocacy of justified violence by the colonized people against the foreign colonizer as necessary for their mental health and political liberation. The political focus stems from the first chapter of the book, “Concerning Violence,” wherein Fanon indicts colonialism and its post-colonial legacies, for which violence is a means of catharsis and liberation from being a colonial subject.
For Fanon and Sartre, then, violence is only justified for the poor and downtrodden. The corollary though is that violence will also be applied by the forces of domination.