DD Johnston's review of Anarchism and Sexuality, a multi-authored book edited by Jamie Heckert and Richard Cleminson (Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 2011).
I first encountered anarchism in my late teens (I had encountered sexuality a little earlier). Undoubtedly, anarchism made me a less bigoted, less dangerous person. I renounced explicit forms of homophobia and sexism that I had previously repeated uncritically. Simultaneously, however, I also developed new anxieties and confusions and sources of guilt. I felt no more comfortable about my own flickerings of same sex desire than I had before; The Gays – the LGBTQI lot – were very definitely my new friends (I mean, I’d march for those guys), but they were still something other than whatever I was. At the same time, heterosexual desire (specifically male desire for women) was newly problematic. I remember as a young man attending a feminist discussion on pornography to which a comrade had brought examples to show the group. In the heat of the discussion, she hurled Fiesta magazine, so that it landed, spread open, on my right foot. Looking down, I saw that Tracy from Rochdale was smiling up at the camera/ the male gaze/ me, puppy-eyed and pouting. As I tried to discreetly toe the image away, I was racked with the guilt that however awful it was politically, something in me rather liked looking.
In those days, one dominant activist idea was an essentialist belief that ‘we’re all naturally bisexual’. It’s doubtless true that in certain circumstances all of us would experience desire for sexual intimacy with people of either sex, most of us will encounter these circumstances at some point in our lives, and some of us will enact our fantasies with another person. Indeed, the second chapter of Anarchism and Sexuality is a fascinating discussion of Alexander Berkman’s prison memoirs. Berkman was an anarchist activist who between 1892 and 1906 was imprisoned for attempting to assassinate a steel magnate who had deployed lethal force to break a strike. In the words of Jenny Alexander, Berkman entered prison ‘completely ignorant of the possibility of sexual intimacy between same-sex individuals’ (30), but there experienced love and desire for men, and emerged from prison to ‘endorse sexual love between same-sex individuals’ (31). But this is very different from saying we are all ‘naturally’ bisexual. Rather, we all have different, changeable socially-meaningful desires. Anarchism and Sexuality consistently refuses essentialism and all rigid sexual categorisations, and it is therefore a welcome addition to the literature on this subject.
And the subject – anarchist-influenced analyses of sexuality – has special contemporary relevance. The book has reached us as the limitations of the sexual revolution become clear. If the 1960s generation saw individual hedonism as a liberating force, today these desires have been recuperated to the service of capital, causing social and psychological damage. In an interview with David Lipsky, the late novelist David Foster Wallace said:
the face I’d put on the terror is the dawning realization that nothing’s enough, you know? That no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough. That there’s a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff. And my guess is that that’s been what’s going on, ever since people were hitting each other over the head with clubs. Though describable in a number of different words and cultural argots. And that our particular challenge is that there’s never been more and better stuff comin’ from the outside, that seems temporarily to sort of fill the hole or drown out the hole. (Lipsky 292)
In terms of sexuality, the stuff coming from the outside includes a bombardment of sexualised imagery, the proliferation of pornography, and the constant injunction, expressed in magazine articles and television shows, that we improve our sex lives and increase our pleasure. Our cultural moment is tragically captured in Michel Houllebecq’s novel Atomised:
women who turned 20 in the late Sixties found themselves in a difficult position when they hit 40. Most of them were divorced and could no longer count on the conjugal bond – whether warm or abject – whose decline they had served to hasten. As members of a generation who – more than any before – had endorsed a cult of youth over age, they could hardly claim to be surprised when they, in their turn, were dismissed by succeeding generations. As their flesh began to age, the cult of the body, which they had done so much to promote, simply filled them with disgust for their own bodies – a disgust they could see mirrored in the gaze of others.
The men of their generation found themselves in much the same position but this common destiny fostered no solidarity. At 40, they continued to pursue young women – with a measure of success, at least for those who had attained a certain position, whether intellectual, financial or social. For the women, their mature years brought only failure, masturbation and shame.
Dedicated exclusively to sexual liberation and desire, the Lieu du Changement naturally became a place of depression and bitterness. (125-126)
As Jenny Alexander asks in the second chapter of Anarchism and Sexuality, ‘In this world of the everyday everywhere sexual spectacle, are we not in danger of being constrained by the imperative to be sexual, as surely as pre-1960s’ generations were by the imperative to be sexually continent?’ (40). Even the emancipatory struggles against the heterosexism of the sexual revolution have in many ways been recuperated into the service of individualistic capitalism. As Gavin Brown puts it in his chapter on autonomous queer spaces, we have witnessed ‘the mutation of LGBT pride parades from politicised community events that protested invisibility, injustice and police harassment in the 1970s and 1980s into contemporary urban spectacles offering commercial opportunities for corporate sponsors’ (208). Meanwhile, racist opponents of new immigration have, in the words of Judith Butler, ‘recruited gay advocates who espouse personal freedom, the right to private property, and market relations’ (94). In societies where freedom is defined at an individual level, anarchism offers the possibility of a new sexual politics. As Heckert and Cleminson argue in the introductory chapter, ‘anarchism’s idea of freedom is relational: one person’s freedom is inseparable from another’s freedom’ (4).
What does the book contain? It is a multi-authored, heterogeneous, interdisciplinary collection that mixes traditional scholarly theory with autobiography and poetry (in short, it's a nightmare to review). Readers who have followed the development of Judith Butler’s work will be fascinated to read her interview with Jamie Heckert, in which she discusses, among other topics, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the philosophy of the general strike, anarchist responses to law, and problems with some mainstream versions of gay politics that she terms ‘gay libertarianism’. Similarly, scholars interested in Ursula Le Guin’s oeuvre will appreciate Laurence Davis’s analysis of her ‘almost entirely neglected’ (106) Four Ways to Forgiveness. But perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is to introduce a range of ideas, topics, and readings that will be new to many readers: I found just as interesting Lewis Call’s reading of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany’s speculative fiction (two writers whose work I have not read); the ‘poetic interludes’, which enliven the book and complement its themes with surprising success; and Stevphen Shukaitis’s analysis of Precarias a la Deriva, a situationist-inspired feminist project that originated to investigate how women who perform invisible labour could participate in a general strike. Gavin Brown’s socio-geographical study of autonomous queer spaces discusses, among other topics, interventions in mainstream Pride festivals that ‘satirise the commodification of LGBT pride events’ (208). Given that the book’s deconstruction of identity politics is in many ways written from beyond the first wave of gay liberation struggles, I was pleased that Anarchism and Sexuality did not ignore the role of anarchists in first-wave liberation struggles. In Eastern Europe, Queer Parades are regularly attacked by police and fascists, so I welcomed Marta Kolářová’s chapter on sexuality issues in the Czech anarchist movement; although Czech anarchism has recently neglected sexuality issues, she argues, ‘The active anarchist and antifascist presence in Queer Parades recently has shown that these separate movements can cooperate as part of a widening circle of activist movements’ (198).
It’s impossible to respond critically to each of Anarchism and Sexuality’s provocative chapters, but one can identify certain themes that run throughout the book. The first of these is a resistance to binary oppositions. As Heckert and Cleminson explain, they have:
attempted to craft a queer book, both in style and in content: a book that aims to question, subvert and overflow authoritarian divisions between the personal and political, between desires categorised as heterosexual and homosexual, between activism and scholarship, between poetry and prose, and between disciplinary categories of knowledge. (1)
I'm therefore wary of trying to separate one strand of the book from the others. However, I did note Anarchism and Sexuality's repeated emphasis on a micro-politics of love and intimacy, a taking care of one’s self and others. This is not just a question of sexual ethics. It is, as Judy Greenway argues in the preface, a recognition that part of a transformative politics is to ‘practise new ways of relating to one another’ (XVI). In the interview from which I quoted earlier, David Foster Wallace goes on to say that he thinks the emptiness at the core of the self is ‘probably assuageable by internal means’:
I think those internal means have to be earned and developed, and it has something to do with, um, um, the pop-psych phrase is lovin’ yourself. It’s more like, if you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. (…) I know that sounds a little pious. (Lipsky 292-293)
There are parallels between Foster Wallace’s argument and some of the ideas expressed in Anarchism and Sexuality. Heckert and Cleminson argue that ‘learning to listen to oneself, to acknowledge one’s own emotions and desires, is crucial to unlearning patriarchal hierarchies’ (4). Laurence Davis is inspired by bell hooks and George Lakey, whose theories about love and revolution he invokes in his readings of Le Guin. Bell hooks, of course, has argued that with the support of others we must learn to ‘love ourselves’, because ‘The more we accept ourselves, the better prepared we are to take responsibility in all areas of our lives’ (hooks 57). Davis writes that ‘Lakey recognises that meaningful social change is ultimately rooted in a loving transformation of the individual spirit’ (123). Meanwhile, Jamie Heckert states ‘I’m coming to realise, again and again, that for me to practise anarchy is to care for myself, to listen to myself, to offer compassion to myself’ (172). Lena Eckert suggests that every person should ‘anarchise perself’ (87-88).
I sometimes worry that in wishing for transformative political action, some writers believe that anarchism can (or must) begin with a project of the self. This makes sense if you believe that capitalism is merely an outcome of relationships between individuals, but it is problematic if you accept that individuals are also the outcome of capitalism (and other forces). Lena Eckert quotes Lewis Call’s view that post-anarchism ‘views capitalism and statism not as causes but as effects, not as diseases but as symptoms’ (72), but I am suspicious of any attempt to privilege one half of the structure-agency dichotomy. Micro-political and structural changes are different ways of theorising the same thing, and it is a mistake to think that we can transform one as a precursor to transforming the other.
Anarchism and Sexuality is a work of activism as well as a work of academic writing. It’s a work of theory that never neglects praxis, and so, in the remainder of this review, I’ll try to make some contribution to the debate the book pursues: what can we do practically to further a revolutionary sexual politics?
In the second chapter of Anarchism and Sexuality, Jenny Alexander invites ‘the re-reading of uncategorisable intimacy,’ imagining ‘a liberation of human relations which does not confine all closeness to concupiscence’ (3/4):
Sleeping beside someone which does not assume sex, running your fingers over the arm of a person you have just met without having to categorise that erotic gesture as ‘only foreplay’ with an expectation of ‘progression’, sitting with your arms around someone non-familial which does not mean seduction; acts of tenderness, gestures that cross and recross, belonging simply neither to friendship nor to orgasmic desire, at once possible between intimates and strangers. (40)
Most of the contributions to Anarchism and Sexuality derived from a conference held in Leeds, in November 2006 (10). I very much hope there will be similar events in the future, and next time I would like to attend. But I’m worried. You see, I don’t hug. I hug my partner, of course, and, occasionally, usually when drunk, I’ve been known to hug a few dear friends and relatives. But I imagine myself arriving at a seminar session, where, I like to think, the formally arranged chairs and desks have been put in a circle – no, they’ve been pushed to the side and replaced with bean bags. I sit in the corner, as far away from everyone else as possible. After a few minutes, an empathetic participant sees that I’m somewhat excluded and encourages me to move closer to the group. It occurs to me that to decline might seem unfriendly – homophobic, even – so I move forward. I badly want a drink. The discussion continues; it is relaxed, informal, constructive, and supportive. The other participants are good at being intimate. Not sexually intimate; they share food, hold each other at emotional moments, and demonstrate their tenderness even when they debate and disagree. They are aware of the dynamics of power and notice that I, a new participant, haven’t spoken. Suddenly, feeling a pressure to contribute, I blurt something confused about Deleuze. Gently, in a constructive manner, the woman sitting next to me offers an alternative reading. I realise my gaff and blush uncontrollably. She, empathising with my embarrassment, hurt that she has hurt me, seeks to heal us both with an expression of tenderness. She hugs me. Immediately, my body goes rigid. She recoils. The moment is horribly awkward for both of us. As the session breaks for lunch, I make for the door, planning to slip away for a solitary pint in Wetherspoon’s. ‘Hey,’ says the woman, touching my arm to get my attention. ‘Sorry,’ I say, flinching. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says, ‘if I made you uncomfortable before.’ ‘Not at all,’ I say, now even more uncomfortable. ‘Intimacy’s hard, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah,’ I say, laughing nervously. ‘It’s hard to unlearn patriarchal hierarchies, to free yourself from atomised socialisation, to learn to connect with others.’ ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘You’ve got to care for yourself, I think, before you can really connect with others. Meaningful social change has to start on the inside.’
Over the course of this well-meant exchange three things have happened. First, I’ve come to believe that there’s a problem with me that I should try to fix; I’ve been encouraged to think that I’m inadequate, and I’ve been encouraged to engage in a labour of the self. Second, I’ve learned that this is my moral responsibility, since undertaking this labour is a precursor to transforming oppressive social relations. Third, the combination of the first two points provides me with another reason to be self-loathing. This is a lot to be hit with at lunchtime.
If the above example seems far fetched, then I ask you to think of how easily recommendations for bodily self-improvement become violently-imposed moral imperatives. We see this in the stigmatisation of smokers, and, especially, those deemed to be overweight. The life expectancy in Calton, Glasgow, is lower than in the Gaza Strip (Jones 73), but British society avoids confronting the structural causes of health inequities by ‘locating the causes of ill health at the level of personal responsibility’ (Lupton 126).
There is a danger that we do the same with inner health, connectedness, and the capacity to be intimate and loving. We should remember the journey of the sexual revolution and Guy Debord’s warning that capitalism recuperates anything that doesn’t destroy it. Capitalism is a system that needs to grow and expand – money is invested to generate more money. This capital accumulation depends on marketing commodities to new desires. At a time when the aesthetic project of the body is nearing exhaustion, the project of the self presents a potentially enormous, and environmentally low-impact, growth area. A politics of the self that is even momentarily separated from the revolutionary project of communising the economy will result only in new industries that prey on ideologically-constituted insecurities: self-help guides, counselling, life-coaches, workshops to teach us how to learn to connect, new age spiritual services, residential courses where we learn not to fear intimacy, interactive media sites that appraise our capacity to love – much of this already exists. As with the imperative of health, those who don’t want to participate, or who can’t afford to participate, may soon be stigmatised and ridiculed. Their disconnectedness, isolation, and fear of others will be their own fault – as will be the structural social problems that result from an atomised society.
Of course, that vision has taken us a very long way from the politics espoused in Anarchism and Sexuality. It's a great credit to the book that in discussing a transformative personal politics – a project about which I’m slightly uneasy – it doesn’t neglect to discuss collective struggles that develop in response to structural contradictions. In particular, we should note the chapters by Stevphen Shukaitis – who studies the anti-capitalist women’s organisation Precarias a la Deriva – and Gavin Brown – who analyses the emergence of autonomous queer spaces (including an East London public toilet).
In this review I have referred to only a fraction of the material in Anarchism and Sexuality, but I hope this brief discussion has helped to characterise the book: anyone with an interest in anarchism and/or sexuality will find in it inspiring and provoking. It will make you nod in agreement one page, and sketch notes of rebuttal the next. Anarchism and Sexuality is a needed book, a sometimes brilliant book, and even, at times, a fun book. It is much more than a welcome addition to the existing literature.
D.D. Johnston's new novel, The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, will be published by Barbican Press in 2013
hooks, bell. All About Love: New Visions. London: The Women’s Press, 2000.
Houellebecq, Michel. Atomised, Trans. Frank Wynne, London: Vintage, 2001.
Jones, Owen. Chavs, London: Verso, 2011.
Lipsky, David. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, New York: Broadway Books, 2010.
Lupton, Deborah. The Imperative of Health, London: Sage, 1995.