“THE LARGEST-EVER STUDY OF GENETICS AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION:” A REVIEW

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“Nonbinary!” What a word! It fires up the imagination! Not only that, it’s scientific. And sexy. And freeing. I don’t know anyone who could have anything to say against it.

As a word.

But even words are powerful things, more powerful than things themselves, more powerful than feelings, more powerful than thoughts, especially if they make one feel like a progressive, radical scientist, against which no argument can be made. “World! I may be a shy vulnerable nobody, but I am nonbinary! Husband! I am nonbinary! Don’t mess with me.”

The once transgressive term, “gay,” or “homosexual,” seems almost quaint when put next to the profound and ever-mysterious, “nonbinary.”

When a word like “gay” begins to lose its buzzword power, the general population begins to do the unthinkable—no longer intimidated by the word, itself, there is an honest and earnest attempt to calmly and rationally discover things beyond the word, itself, and seek to understand what homosexual activity really means.

The most common explanation I’ve seen is:  homosexuality occurs in animals; its rationale is to “thin the herd,” when there has been too much breeding.

But I’ve seen a splendid explanation much less “practical” and more “enlightened:” homosexuality is actually a movement of evolutionary progress, where people choose a partner based on loving, virtuous characteristics, rather than on their genitalia.

Genitalia? Some heterosexuals will protest: I choose a mate based on both: virtue and sex.

These two positions illustrate something crucial, I think.  Homosexuality as a function of enlightened evolution assumes nature is interested in progress, interested in making a “better squirrel.” Like a Marxist philosopher, nature does not want to preserve itself—it wants to change itself.  Homosexuality, from this enlightened and virtuous perspective, belongs to progress.  Typically, we know that people have no choice. People will usually get insulted if they are told that homosexuality is a choice.  Since it is not a choice, homosexuality belongs to nature, and by the reasoning of this “enlightenment” position, to evolution. A person is born homosexual—for the sake of progress.  To make a better squirrel, or a better human being.

But does nature care about progress? Does nature care about a better squirrel? Not really. Animals adapt to environmental conditions. Adaptation is just that: adaptation. Adaptation is slavery, not progress. Nature presents two things: the ruthless environment, and creatures who have no choice but to live within that ruthless environment, or die.  The pearl may be beautiful, but it is a pearl for one reason and one reason, only: it came about because of its ruthless conditions, to which it had to completely and blindly adapt. Animals are not free. Evolution is not free. Adaptation is not free. And nature is not free. Nature does not care if there is a “better” squirrel. The squirrel is a squirrel precisely because it is wholly, not partially, beholden to its environment.  And reproduction is the absolute primary fact of a squirrel’s survival. Since every single thing about a squirrel is based on its ability to survive, and reproduction is necessary for its survival, there is no such thing as a “better” squirrel which “does not reproduce.”  The idea that homosexuality is “progress” in terms of natural evolution is absurd.

The argument that homosexuality belongs to the realm of virtue and not sex—whereas heterosexuality belongs to sex and not virtue—and an important way that nature can evolve or progress, is by producing homosexual humans, is a fascinating and attractive idea.  It’s a very simple, and rather obvious idea, based on the notion that ordinarily, the male is slavishly driven to mate with the female—but homosexuality short-circuits this, producing a male who is able to remove himself from the slavery of reproduction, and focus on more enlightened and virtuous things.

But there are some problems with this.

First, as we mentioned above, it is a simplification to assume the heterosexual is only interested in genitalia—due to the traditional reproductive task to which the heterosexual is supposedly enslaved.  It does not logically follow that a homosexual would be less interested in genitalia, or more interested in personal virtue. After all sex, in terms of meaning, defines the homosexual qua homosexual.

Sex, depending on the person, could have no part of that person whatsoever, but as soon as one is identified as a homosexual, that is precisely, by the strict definition of the word itself, a sexual identity. Even if one is too ugly to have sex, identifying them as a homosexual, makes them, at least in terms of terminology, a sexual being. Homosexual means sex, and nothing else.

Secondly, reproduction is important to nature, but how much time in a man’s life has to be devoted to reproduction? Surely a lifetime is long enough that if a genius is devoted to science or art, there is plenty of time to do their science or art, whether they are gay or straight.

How did homosexuality, then, come to be identified with genius?  It’s easy to see.  Ancient Athens is known for two things: philosophical genius and male homosexuality—but this was because Greek women were slaves, not because male homosexuality by itself produces genius.  The genius, devoted to their craft, will often eschew marriage, children, and sex altogether, and in male dominated societies, count men as their dearest companions, opening up speculation they are gay; but gossip and social relations alone cannot in any way tell us whether homosexuality more than heterosexuality belongs to virtue, or creativity, or genius.

Nature is interested in reproduction, not progress. The genius often does not have children. Nature has no desire to keep breeding geniuses to create a superman. This is not how it works. The genius creates products which transcend nature. The genius defies the slavery of nature by making nature adapt to genius. The genius does not adapt to nature; the nature adapts to genius. Mozart was a miracle, was divine. The reproductive agenda ceases with a creature like Mozart. Nature reproduces with a roll of the dice—it doesn’t plan Mozarts; Nature doesn’t care if the bad or the good reproduce. Poe’s siblings were half-wits. The genius of Poe was not planned by evolution, or nature.

But whether Mozart happened to be gay or straight has absolutely nothing to do with his genius. Nature and evolution have nothing to do with genius. Reproduction produces genius, but only by accident, and reproduction, or lack of reproduction has nothing to do with genius, per se.

There is no enlightened reason for homosexuality to exist, then. A homosexual is not more virtuous, somehow, than a heterosexual.

But what about the nonbinary?  Is this more advanced?

If we go back to the argument, which I think I have debunked, that homosexuality is an evolutionary advancement of some kind, because homosexuals are more concerned with the ‘person’ than the ‘genitalia (reproduction),’ I think it’s pretty clear to see that nonbinary travels down that same road—for unlike the homosexual, the nonbinary eschews not only heterosexuality, but the binary, as well—to which the homosexual, as well as the heterosexual, belongs. In the gender binary language of 1, 0, female, male, a pairing, or a relationship, still signifies a binary situation, within that binary language, whether it is 1/0, 0/1, 0/0, or 1/1.

However, with the nonbinary, we see the same principle in operation.  The nonbinary is supposedly more enlightened, not because the nonbinary is removed from reproduction, like the homosexual, but because the nonbinary is removed from gender.

Imagine a binary language in which heterosexual is 0 and homosexual is 1.  Now we know that a sequence of zeros or a sequence of ones is hardly a language at all. Compare that to the “nonbinary” language, a sequence of any combination of 0 or 1; this produces computer code—a real language.  The nonbinary person, then, in terms of evolution, should be miles ahead of the mere homosexual or heterosexual.  Is a nonbinary person superior to a heterosexual or a homosexual person?  Would that be fair to say?

For the same reason that the homosexual is not in any way superior to the heterosexual, it would be highly prejudicial and unfair to assign any evolutionary advantage to the nonbinary person.  People are not good, or bad, based on reproduction, lack of reproduction, gender, or lack of gender. Nature needs reproduction, and therefore her creatures reproduce in specific ways, based on how they navigate their environment, in completely fixed, reactive, slavish, methods. Nature does not believe in progress, but only in blind reproduction. The miraculous, or the divine, human creativity, is the only participant in progress, and this progress does not happen individually—Mozart did not reproduce a host of little Mozarts—but through art and science which forces nature to adapt to its products, rather than the other way around, where animals must obey and adapt to nature. The transcendent products of art and science reproduce completely apart from the reproductive instruments of nature, and therefore have nothing to do with sex or gender or reproduction. Genius is not nonbinary, heterosexual, or homosexual, and never will be. Genius belongs to a completely different realm, apart from nature.

If the nonbinary is a kind of corrective advancement over homosexuality, we see how it fails in this task, just as all attempts at progress in nature fail, since nature is not aware of progress, only of reproduction and adaption. Just as the word homosexual cannot escape the sexual, the word nonbinary cannot escape the binary—since nonbinary seeks to negate the binary, and therefore if binary does not exist, the nonbinary does not really exist, either. And as we saw above: 010011100 is a binary language, and this is the “language” of the “nonbinary,” which is absurd, just as the language of the heterosexual 000000, or the language of the homosexual, 111111, is equally absurd. The binary condition of gender exists for one reason: reproduction, and reproduction belongs to nature, and not progress.

Therefore, questions of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and the nonbinary will always be a mystery when it comes to the human, since these questions are finally immersed in the science of reproduction and nature—who obeys her own law, and which humans, when they are creative at all, will do best to entirely escape.

The best example we can think of nonbinary is the aggressive male puppy, who, one may notice, will hump almost anything.

Has the mystery of homosexuality been solved?

A recent, October 18, 2018, MIT Technology Review article summarizes the “largest-ever study of genetics and sexual orientation.”  The results are paradoxical—as one might expect—and quite fascinating.  The significance of the study has not yet entered the popular consciousness.  The so-called discovery of the “gay gene” in 1993—a discovery never replicated, and subsequently dismissed in many scientific circles—had tremendous impact on the non-scientific community.

Genetics and sexual orientation are related in mysterious ways. Most likely there is no “gay gene.”

There’s the science of sexual orientation.

And then there’s talk—among the non-scientific.

When it comes to genetics and sexual orientation—or just sexual orientation—there is the scientific, the unscientific, and paradox—the mysterious bridge between the two.

The MIT Technology Review article has an enticing title: “Genes linked to being gay may help straight people get more sex”

In the spirit of the paradox of sexual orientation, I want to examine the work not of a scientist, but that of a poet, who happens to live in Brooklyn.

Then I’ll return to the latest scientific study and the paradox of homosexuality.

We need to see what the poets are saying, too.

A recent short memoir published online by Redivider, is introduced on Facebook by its author, Joanna Valente, as “a thing I wrote,” which gave “me a lot of anxiety to share.”

But share it, she did. And her short memoir has a great opening.

It sounds like the start of the great American novel today:

“I came out to T as a nonbinary after we’d been married for a year.”

Reading Valente’s “thing,” I was reminded why I prefer non-fiction to fiction—the majority of fiction is unreliable memoir—an autobiography rather elaborately disguised for a publisher’s board meeting.

Memoir is not dressed up, but a memoir is no more immune than fiction from unreliability.

But a memoir features an unreliability of a different kind.

A memoir’s unreliability is more unreliable.  It’s less professional. A memoir’s unreliability is right there on the surface. It has the novel’s complexity, but nothing about the complexity is hidden, or airbrushed away.

Immediately after her marvelous opening, Valente, though not a scientist, makes it known to us that she has an understanding of the nonbinary which eclipses her husband’s:

Over dinner I told him nonchalantly, hoping that nonchalance would soften it. I was nervous he wouldn’t understand, that I would just feel ashamed like I was still in 5th grade and trying to fit in with my Ramona Quimby haircut and Doc Martens.

“Okay. So can I still call you my wife to my friends? And use ‘she’ as a pronoun?” he asked.

I smiled quickly, didn’t even let myself feel the disappointment. But in the back of my throat, I felt sad, unseen. It wasn’t about the pronouns for me, it was about the question. It wasn’t about what I wanted.

“Of course you can. So, it’s like O. O is nonbinary too, but is more masculine than me, whereas I’m more femme. I mean, we’ve talked about how I think binaries aren’t helpful anyway. It’s not like masculine or feminine traits even mean anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans. We’re just socialized to think in binary,” I tried to explain, using my best friend as an example. T always liked O, so I felt like this would help him understand.

“Sure, I mean, I don’t know. This whole thing just seems like a huge trend, a phase,” he said, laughing.

He always made everything a joke. I didn’t mind it unless I was trying to explain something serious—and this was one of those times where I didn’t want the answer to be a joke. I wanted him to see me. I wanted the person who married me to see me. Sometimes I wonder when I really stopped being a wife.

I realize now I that I stopped “being a wife” when I stopped feeling seen by T. How can we stay in worlds, in realities, that don’t feel true to us? We construct our own homes, our most personal and truest realities, in hopes that we can find a sanctuary outside of the capitalist heteronormative society we live in—as a way to dismantle a false world for another. We shouldn’t have to constantly navigate different identities that massage our authenticity into easy boxes and bite-sized ideas. It’s not about leading double lives or contradictory realities, but going between our different identities, like wife and colleague, so often we forget who we are—or try to change who we are to be seen.

A year later, he found an article about the third sex in history and culture; I remember wanting to feel proud of him, and I did, but I also remember feeling so alone. I was waking up as he mentioned it, and pulled the covers over my shoulders, bookmarking it to read for later. Sometimes I wondered if my love of language became too semantic to the point that I was destroying something beautiful; isn’t being too semantic a way to miss the point? Or was I simply just used to pleasing others? I remember how the word “wife” sounded weird in my mouth and offered partner instead. He felt it was too clinical, like a hospital bed. I wanted to find the right words, the right everything, for us. I’m not sure why I couldn’t.

The strange thing is, it’s not that I stopped finding him attractive or began to despise him over time, I just stopped wanting to have sex with him. There are, of course, a million reasons why this could have happened. I was sexually assaulted more than once by the time we met while I was finishing my MFA, I was still figuring out my queer identity, and I often suffered from chronic UTIs during our relationship. The UTIs became a scary cycle: we’d have sex, I’d have shooting pain, take antibiotics, try holistic methods to no success, and the cycle would repeat. Sometimes after sex, I’d spot pale pink blood blending into the toilet paper. My body was broken. I felt like I was broken.

My body was continually traumatized, so of course, I stopped wanting to do something that ended with pain. I became used to it. I shamed myself, as if there was something wrong with me. No doctor really tried to understand it, tried to help me in a real way. Were we just incompatible? I’d find myself thinking.

Valente’s memoir is “unreliable,” but not because she is unreliable—the author speaks, reliably, for herself, for her husband, and for her life. We have no doubt of that.

The unreliability, however, and this is ironic perhaps, lives in the very bones of her story.

Valente is unreliable with a perfect frankness and sincerity.  There is no author playing an unreliable character.  This is better.  The unreliability is sincere.  It is like us.

Fiction puts the burden of knowing on the reader—the memoir puts the burden of knowing on the author.

As soon as we publish on matters of any importance, we betray that world. This is why the dignified are not writers, and why so many good, honest people choose not to be writers. It’s a wise choice, actually, not to write. To write is to betray. If we are reliable in our writing, we betray. This is why Valente was honest when she admitted she had “a lot of anxiety” in sharing her memoir.

According to Valente, her husband makes “everything a joke,” but discussing her nonbinary nature, she doesn’t want to joke.

But what if the nonbinary is a joke?  What if the nonbinary itself is a profound, philosophical joke?

Well, it is.

When Valente presents us with her brilliant, searing, and yet oh so casual opening, “I came out to T as a nonbinary after we’d been married for a year,” she seems unaware that she’s being terribly funny. And ironic.

And here’s the further irony—the husband, according to the wife’s revealing and embarrassing memoir, is the stupid joke in response; we are told he is a joker. The husband’s response, however, is not funny at all; his response is a pleading attempt to “soften” the fact she is coming out as nonbinary; the husband speaks directly to the trope at the bottom of the memoir’s unconscious nonbinary joke: are you still my wife? Is what he asks, and this is very much not a joke.

The husband’s reaction highlights another interesting fact of Valente’s memoir—the fact that she perhaps married the wrong person: he is funny; she is not—her “partner” will not “get” her joke, the joke in which she tells her partner she is nonbinary, a joke she is telling, but, a joke she doesn’t seem to get.

Here’s the great irony: Telling him she is nonbinary makes him disappear. She wants him to see her—but she doesn’t see him.

Her marriage is tragi-comically nonbinary—yet she doesn’t notice the irony when she “confesses” she is nonbinary—she wants to be “seen,” but doesn’t “see” him, or “see” the marriage, or “see” how at every step, she contradicts herself. This is why, for me, she is a unreliable narrator—but not the unreliable narrator produced by the clever novelist. She is better than that.

T was supportive, to a point. It’s hard to understand how to help someone who suffers from sexual trauma, who stopped wanting to have sex with you even though they still love you. The problem was, I realized, I was expected to figure it all out by myself; T would listen when I would confront him, but offer little help or solutions. I was alone. I went to therapy on and off—to little success. One therapist even told me I wasn’t sexually assaulted in the first place, while another mostly listened, but never said much. Resentment seeping into me like a pus filling a wound. My entire body, my entire being, felt like a wound. A scab.

On the morning I moved out of my one-bedroom apartment with T, he helped me drive a truck with what I could fit into my new bedroom in an apartment shared with three strangers—because I couldn’t afford to stay in an apartment by myself. That’s the thing about New York City; it’s a city for couples, because hardly anyone without financial support or a hefty salary can afford an apartment on their own. I was delirious with fever, dealing with a chronic ear illness. It all felt too messy, too overwhelming, not real. I convinced myself this was good: I’ll discover myself and find ways to save our marriage—which largely meant, I’ll find ways to have sex with T again. After all, it was my idea to move. I craved space. I wanted a space to find myself.

During the beginning of our separation, we still saw each other a few times a week, slept over each other’s places; we were dating, basically. In retrospect, it’s hard for me not to feel like I was dangled, as if this was just a way to fade me out easily; perhaps that wasn’t  T’s intention, but I was still afraid. I was afraid if I didn’t  perform “wife” the right way or do the right things, he’d leave. I can’t say I wasn’t wrong. He was seeing someone else he met at work earlier that year, but I was hoping it was just a fling, something short-term and fun. I was going on dates, myself, but none of them mattered.

Two months after I moved, I started to feel him slip away; his fling was turning into a full-fledged relationship. I didn’t want to be unsupportive, so I supported him; I understood how it must have felt, having sex after years of intermittent sex that felt often very fragile, like a feeling for a cobweb in the dark. And yet, I felt abandoned, betrayed—left for someone else, someone new, someone fun—someone with less hang ups. I felt betrayed to be left when I was sick, dealing with an illness that left me with a hearing impairment, unsure if my hearing would return “back to normal.” It did, but with 24/7 tinnitus. Nothing, of course, is the same. A few months after our separation, we met for dinner. I couldn’t help but cry and say I missed him. I missed us. I missed my home. One of the hardest things about the breakup, any breakup, is rebuilding a home. I wanted us to work out, go to therapy, do something.

Valente’s behavior as a nonbinary is there for all the world to see, in her contradictory, nonbinary, behavior—she chooses to move away from her husband, a supporting husband, (perhaps clueless at times, but one she loves, at least she says as much in the memoir) to find “space”—in a four-bedroom flat with three random roommates.

According to her, dealing with medical issues and alone, she makes the decisive move to vacate her home with him, when she still loves him, and then (surprise) she wants him back, after she moves out, and after she gives him license to sleep with another woman, as she, the ever reliable narrator and wife, is, according to her confession, unable to have intercourse with him (and feeling guilty about it). Nonbinary, indeed!

The unrequited love she has for her husband becomes for her, unconsciously, the ultimate nonbinary affliction.

Her romantic longings are the old-fashioned parallel to the post-modern nonbinary of sexual politics—the heart-throb nonbinary and the sexual politics nonbinary are intimately connected on many levels, which she, able to lecture her husband on the nonbinary, doesn’t see. There’s more irony and paradox here than you can shake a stick at.

Perhaps she doesn’t love her husband, and he really is a monster, and every unconscious, gut-feeling, step she took was to save her dignity, and herself, from a marriage that was a (binary) mistake.

The narrative arc of either fiction or memoir, like all attempts at self-rationalizing thought, self-justifies itself during its inevitable forward movement in time. Fiction/memoir justifies everything, even as it betrays everything. And, of course, she tortures herself at what she could have done differently to make the marriage work.

This is the fate of all romance: nonbinary tortures the binary.

But just as Valente vanquishes her husband when it comes to the understanding of the nonbinary, the question arises: do we need to step outside of all narrative arcs, and philosophically and scientifically apprehend the nonbinary to understand what it really is?

Yes, even fiction, even scientific nonfiction is trapped in the narrative arc of its reasoning. If this review of Valente’s memoir so far is already an indication of a critic trapped in his review, just as Valente is trapped in her marriage, the critical arc yet demands philosophy (science) solve the tangle, a tangle related so calmly and deftly by Valente in her memoir.

It is hard to fathom whether Valente’s memoir is more like Anna Karenina or Judith Butler.

What is this, exactly? Old school romance or post-modern sexual blurring?

The wonderful opening line, “I came out to T as a nonbinary,” hints at Judith Butler, but there’s plenty of Anna Karenina, too:

I convinced myself this was good: I’ll discover myself and find ways to save our marriage—which largely meant, I’ll find ways to have sex with T again.

*

Two months after I moved, I started to feel him slip away; his fling was turning into a full-fledged relationship.

*

And yet, I felt abandoned, betrayed—left for someone else, someone new, someone fun—someone with less hang ups.

*

“How do you feel about us?” I asked him.

“I feel so, so guilty. I don’t want to abandon you, but I feel like we’re just friends. We’ve always been friends, but I need passion. I want something more. I want to see where things go with R… But I also don’t I’m abandoning you, since I’m still here for you. We’re still friends,” he said, firmly as tears formed in his eyes.

“I mean, if this is what you want, I want you to do it. I just want you to be happy. Obviously, I don’t want you to stay with me and then just resent me… I do feel rushed, though,” I said, trying to choose my words wisely, pausing and then said, “And I do feel blindsided. I want to try. Go to couples’ therapy. I just feel like it hasn’t been long enough to just give up.”

“But I’ve spent so much time with you,” he said. “I don’t want to keep prolonging this. I feel like we did try.”

“I know, and I’m not saying things would necessarily work out. I just want to feel like we did everything we could. I also wish the timing was better. I kind of sucks that a lot of this happened when I was sick. I did feel abandoned then,” I said, trying to push away that familiar ache in my throat.

So here is the question, as we observe the clinical truth of the “nonbinary” resting beside old-fashioned “binary” romance of Anna Karenina:

How much free will is involved in sex?

Here’s what Valente says:

“If life post-separation has taught me anything, it’s that love is a choice. You choose to stay in love, to work on love, to work on yourself.”

How much of this opinion is romance, and how much of it is scientific?

And remember, she says this: “The strange thing is, it’s not that I stopped finding him attractive or began to despise him over time, I just stopped wanting to have sex with him. There are, of course, a million reasons why this could have happened.”

When the general population uses the term nonbinary in terms of sexual orientation, are they using it scientifically?

Is being nonbinary a choice?

Is staying true to one partner a choice?

Is having multiple partners a choice?

Is sleeping with both genders a choice?

Is the nonbinary, which is replacing homosexuality in social importance, on some unconscious or pre-conscious level, The Revenge of the Cis?

Is the “nonbinary” secretly a heterosexual trope in an age of sexual confusion?

As a nonbinary queer person, Valente believes in free will and choice: “I’ll find ways to have sex with T again.” “No one ever talks about how you have to work at sex.” Contrast this with the following quote by the current U.S. president’s gay US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell:

“The truth for LGBT people is that we were born gay.”

It is almost time to return to the recent study on genetics and sexual orientation.

But permit me to rant and speculate a little further.

Is successful “partnering-up” a choice, or not?

Does the general population really understand the underlying truths of sexual orientation?  Is there a scientific test they can take? Do they only know after they sexually experiment? Or do they not know then, either, until they experiment some more? Or does too much experimenting confuse a person? Are they obligated to work on a relationship? Or do relationships happen based on how they were born? And what exactly makes them happen in the first place? What images or gestures matter, on a micro-level? How much is nurture, or nature? How can we begin to understand the complexity of a relationship? Who tells us this? Whom do we trust? A scientist? A potential lover? Ourselves? A wise aunt? The bible? The Oracle of Delphi? Teen Vogue? Jerry Springer? How much does scientific knowledge benefit the general population in this regard? How much of it is feeling and instinct? How much does popular culture impact how people feel?

And there’s a deeper philosophical question.  As Valente says when she first tells her huband she is a nonbinary:

“It’s not like masculine or feminine traits even mean anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans. We’re just socialized to think in binary.”

In terms of pure logic, if there is no binary, there is no nonbinary, either.

And again, in the strictest logical terms, “binary” exists in whatever relationship there is between two people—at any moment in time.

There can only be a “binary” relationship.  There is no other.

How does nonbinary exist at all, then? If a relationship doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist. A non-existent relationship is not nonbinary—it simply is not a relationship at all.

If nonbinary denotes, simply, “swings both ways,” one could make a case for nonbinary as having meaning, but if, as Valente points out, “It’s not like masculine or feminine traits even mean anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans,” then isn’t “swings both ways” essentially meaningless within this context?  If a relationship is just a relationship, then every unique relationship is, as a matter of course, binary.

Relationships, then, will always be binary, whether or not one has found “the right one,” and, in Valente’s case, she seems to have definitely toyed (is that the wrong word?) with the idea that her husband is “the right one.” She is quite upset when her husband tells her he has found someone else who is “the right one,” even as she says she is “happy for him.”

That night over dinner with him, I asked if he was happy with her, if she was the right one. He said yes. I wanted to rip out all the years from inside my body, but I knew I couldn’t. I wanted to be happy for him, and I was, so I said so. Antagonizing or trying to persuade him was useless. It would alienate both of us. So I didn’t.

Again, and this is quite natural, and surely this happens a million times a day all over the world—and in many cases, including this story of Valente’s, we find ourselves asking: Is this Anna Karenina or Judith Butler?  A Tolstoy romance or Post-Modern Gender Studies?  If Judith Butler is assumed to be more “scientific,” what does it mean when the general population of non-scientists feeds their hearts on scientific terminology, but terminology of which the deeper philosophical implications they haven’t thought through?  Is this bad, or good?

With this in mind, we now turn to the high paradox of sexual orientation genetics in the most recent study on sex and genetics, where science, poetry and unreliable narrators commingle.

After discussing Valente’s work, the irony and paradox of genes, sex, sexual orientation, choice, free will, knowledge, hearsay, love, romance, binary and nonbinary, should leap right out at you:

It is best to quote profusely from the MIT Technology Review article itself—written, thankfully, for the lay person. And in fact, the article is brief enough that we can quote the whole thing:

Across cultures, between 2% and 5% of men are gay. That amounts to an evolutionary paradox: gay men have fewer children, so one would expect that the trait would disappear over time. But it hasn’t.

Now a team of researchers has carried out the largest-ever genetic study of sexual orientation and found evidence consistent with one possible explanation. The very same genetic factors that predispose people to being gay may also, when heterosexuals have them, lead to more sexual partners and greater “mating success.”

Details of the unpublished study have been described in a public research  plan, in two scientific abstracts, and by researchers at a scientific meeting held in June at the Broad Institute, a genome research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The hunt for sexual orientation genes—which wades into the polarizing question of whether people are born gay or become so—is part of a boom in genomics research that aims to unveil how genes shape behavior, not just diseases.

Powering the new social genetics are huge databases, including the British government-funded UK Biobank and the DNA of millions of customers collected by 23andMe, a consumer gene testing company. Scientists have begun using this mass of data to successfully probe the genetic basis of a surprising range of behaviors, from smoking to insomnia, intelligence, marijuana use, and even time spent watching television.

The research is at its most sensitive when it touches on sexual orientation. Jeffrey Reid, who is head of genome informatics at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and who is gay, says he is concerned about how such discoveries are discussed in the press. That could have an outsize impact on already vulnerable people, he says.

“Supposedly ‘clear evidence’ of a genetic basis for homosexuality may lead a parent to deem their gay son irrevocably broken and eject him from their life,” Reid says. “Alternatively, maybe some evidence of a genetic basis of homosexuality may lead a parent to embrace their child as God made them, or lead someone struggling out of darkness and into self-acceptance.”

Because the work could be controversial, the team behind the new gene hunt opted to post their research plan online in 2017. They described their intent to perform a genome-wide association study, a technique originally developed to locate genetic susceptibilities to diseases like macular degeneration and diabetes.

But instead of scouring for associations between people’s illnesses and features of their genomes, they would carry out a vast statistical analysis comparing the DNA of hundreds of thousands of people with information about their sexual behavior.

It’s already well known that being gay is partly genetic—as in all other behaviors, genes play a role. Yet earlier attempts to identify specific genes involved were, by and large, unsuccessful. That’s mainly because there wasn’t enough genetic data available. The new study is about 10 times larger than any previous effort.

“With these large sample sizes, we are finally discovering things we can actually kind of count on being true,” says Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies sexuality.

The search was two-pronged. First, the team used DNA data on more than 300,000 heterosexuals who had disclosed in a survey how many sex partners they’d had. Then, to find genes linked to what the researchers call “non-heterosexual behavior,” the team also identified about 28,000 people who had answered yes to the following survey question: “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone of the same sex?”

According to a presentation by team member Robbee Wedow of the University of Colorado in June, the researchers located four positions in men’s genomes that were statistically correlated with their ever having had gay sex, and about 40 correlated with whether heterosexuals had had more or fewer sex partners.

“This is not saying that someone is going to be heterosexual or not—it’s really saying there is going to be a slightly higher or a slightly lower chance,” Benjamin Neale, a geneticist at the Board Institute and one of the study’s leaders, said during MIT Technology Review’s Em Tech conference in September.

When it comes to explaining who is gay, though, Bailey says the study is “not ideal.” That’s because it relies on people’s self-reported sexual history. This may be too broad, says Bailey: the researchers may have categorized people willing to experiment sexually along with those who consider themselves gay.

According to Wedow’s presentation, the team had less success finding genetic links among women who’d had sex with women. That could mean they need a still larger number of volunteers, or it could reflect the failure of the study’s design to capture the nuances of people’s sexual behavior.

Nevertheless, the researchers used the results to address the question of why homosexuality is relatively common. One possible explanation for why it is, they say, is that the same genetic factors also give a reproductive advantage to straight people who have them.

According to an abstract the team submitted to the American Society for Human Genetics, whose annual meeting is under way this week in San Diego, the DNA signals linked to gay sexual experiences also appeared more often in straight men who had a large number of sex partners. The team also notes that straight men with the gay-linked variants were, on average, judged more “physically attractive” than others (the researchers decline to say who did the judging). This, the scientists conclude, could mean that these variants also “confer a mating advantage to heterosexual carriers.”

Such trade-offs are a fact of evolution. For instance, gene variants that can cause sickle-cell anemia also lend protection against malaria. The resulting balance means the sickle-cell gene doesn’t die out. The researchers say their new findings about non-heterosexual behavior, though not conclusive, are consistent with such a Darwinian balancing act.

The mystery is solved!

The chief question is: if homosexuals don’t have children, why does the gay gene persist?

And it has a very intriguing answer:

The “gay” gene persists, because, according to this latest, massive study, it is not really a “gay” gene, at all, but a “promiscuous” gene.

Nature, who is always the boss, needs insurance that a least some portion of the population will actively and aggressively breed—and in heterosexuals, that’s just what these genes produce.

But since over-breeding is a danger, too, and too much aggression (promiscuous behavior) in a population is a also danger, nature siphons off a certain amount of these genes—they perish in the homosexual, who is bred not to breed.

Homosexuality is where aggressive genes go to die.

Are homosexuals aggressive?

Most people know the “soft” homosexual is a myth—homosexuals are often unsentimental, sarcastic, and “manly,” and drag queens are often tough as nails; the homosexual aches to be softer—and that’s precisely why they want to dress up as women.

Nature is cruel—she has ideas (articulated by the cunning and complexity of genetics) for the good of the whole—so results for the individual are often not ideal.

As the article so clearly puts it:

One possible explanation for why [homosexuality is relatively common] they say, is that the same genetic factors also give a reproductive advantage to straight people who have them.

According to an abstract the team submitted to the American Society for Human Genetics, whose annual meeting is under way this week in San Diego, the DNA signals linked to gay sexual experiences also appeared more often in straight men who had a large number of sex partners. The team also notes that straight men with the gay-linked variants were, on average, judged more “physically attractive” than others (the researchers decline to say who did the judging). This, the scientists conclude, could mean that these variants also “confer a mating advantage to heterosexual carriers.”

Such trade-offs are a fact of evolution. For instance, gene variants that can cause sickle-cell anemia also lend protection against malaria. The resulting balance means the sickle-cell gene doesn’t die out. The researchers say their new findings about non-heterosexual behavior, though not conclusive, are consistent with such a Darwinian balancing act.

We talked about the bi-part aspect of Valente’s memoir: Anna Karenina v. Judith Butler, the lay person’s feelings about sexual orientation v. the science of sexual orientation.  And isn’t that sort of what the science says? Genetics tells us, in fact, that gay and straight are mysteriously mixed.

Genetics is more complex than we know, and that’s why there is no simple “gay gene;” genetics works more like a sentence—“I came out to T as a nonbinary after we’d been married for a year,” in which “nonbinary” and “married,” two opposites, exist together in the genetic strand.  The individual—in this case Joanna Valente—is riven by contradictions, agendas and considerations of which she is hardly aware.

Nature and its genetic schemes feature trillions of hits and trillions of misses—and Nature is always attempting to regulate the ratio of hits to misses—too many hits is bad and too many misses is bad; Nature is ruthless when it comes to the hits and misses—scientists study genes looking for both behaviors and diseases, for the good and the bad, for the hits and the misses, and scientists often find genes working against each other in paradoxical tandem.

Paradox seems to be the name of the game.  Look at this passage:

The hunt for sexual orientation genes—which wades into the polarizing question of whether people are born gay or become so—is part of a boom in genomics research that aims to unveil how genes shape behavior, not just diseases.

Powering the new social genetics are huge databases, including the British government-funded UK Biobank and the DNA of millions of customers collected by 23andMe, a consumer gene testing company. Scientists have begun using this mass of data to successfully probe the genetic basis of a surprising range of behaviors, from smoking to insomnia, intelligence, marijuana use, and even time spent watching television.

The research is at its most sensitive when it touches on sexual orientation. Jeffrey Reid, who is head of genome informatics at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and who is gay, says he is concerned about how such discoveries are discussed in the press. That could have an outsize impact on already vulnerable people, he says.

“Supposedly ‘clear evidence’ of a genetic basis for homosexuality may lead a parent to deem their gay son irrevocably broken and eject him from their life,” Reid says. “Alternatively, maybe some evidence of a genetic basis of homosexuality may lead a parent to embrace their child as God made them, or lead someone struggling out of darkness and into self-acceptance.”

How non-scientists talk about the science impacts the science.

Scientists are acutely aware how a genetic discovery can be devoured by real-life non-scientific behavior.

The science of love and feelings will be swamped by those same love and feelings as they play out and actually exist.

When it comes to love and the nonbinary, science and fiction (poetry) are the same.

And here is where the “unreliable narrator, mentioned earlier in this essay, inserts itself into the scientific study:

“When it comes to explaining who is gay, though, Bailey says the study is “not ideal.” That’s because it relies on people’s self-reported sexual history”

A child is the parents’ genes in action, but where there is no proof of the binary, where the reality is nonbinary, we are always dealing with the unreliable.

Writers like Valente, and this is why they are writers, live in that ambiguous place where proof of love is impossible. Writers, even confessional writers, tend to thrive, silently, in ambiguity. We see this most clearly when the nonbinary Valente is confronted by her husband’s aggressive and binary-crazed lover. Note how the nonbinary Valente cannot speak in the face of her binary rival, who comes looking for precise “timeline” relationship information:

When I met R, T’s new girlfriend over dinner, I fumbled with my umbrella as she introduced herself and felt the metal dig into my finger—felt the irony of this new cut as I saw them together. She was walking arm in arm with T, both of them giggling. I immediately felt like Ursula, old and unattractive and outdated.

The three of us sat down and awkwardly looked at our menus, made small talk for what seemed like an eternity about her move from Australia, what she wants for her career, that time a snake broke her arm. She was light, like a pale lavender crystallizing into something bright. Except that lightness seemed to miss the point, there was something off, as if it wasn’t light I was seeing at all, but something else.

As I sipped my soda, slowly, trying to seem calm and collected, I wanted to tell her the only reason he asked me to meet her was because they got into a fight over dinner where he called her by my name. He asked me over lunch a few weeks before to “do him a favor” and meet her to quell “insecurities.” When I mentioned it sounded like she didn’t trust him or trust that he was over me, he added

“She does trust me, but I think meeting you would just help.” Why did it feel like everyone was missing the point but me?

I didn’t know what to say, and most of all, I didn’t want to ruin his relationship. If it didn’t work, I didn’t want to be the one at fault, the vindictive ex trying to destroy everything. I didn’t want to be Ursula. I wanted to be the cool ex. I wanted us all to get along. How naive. How foolish to put my own needs last—but also how typical of me.

“I’m sorry I have to ask you something awkward,” she said, all of a sudden.

“Go ahead…You can ask me anything,” I said, warmly, trying to be what everyone wanted me to be. Trying to be happy.

“Well, why did you two beak up? I just want to make sure our timelines are correct, you know, because men can be awful and I’ve been hurt before,” she said.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to tell her that I had been hurt, over and over and over by men. That I was hurt right now. Instead, I massaged my feelings into a softer batter.

“Well, we faded into friendship, basically. It’s hard to say when it happened, we had been together for five years from a young age. I think sex in general has been hard for me, because I was sexually assaulted only two years before we met. I was still dealing with that trauma. And I think, because of all of those things, it lead us to where we are today. We didn’t have a big fight or a falling out. We obviously don’t hate each other. I still love him, as a friend,” I added, looking at him as I finished.

He nodded, then turned to her.

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Thank you for telling me that, for being so honest,” she said.

She looked down at the table momentarily. Maybe she felt ashamed for asking me. Maybe she didn’t know what to say. I put my hands in my lap to prevent them from shaking. The rest of the conversation reverted back to small talk until she went to the bathroom and he asked if I wanted to split the check with him. I stared at him, feeling my eyebrows lift. It’s not that I didn’t want to pay for my own meal, but I also didn’t want to pay for a meal I didn’t want to be at—that was a favor to him.

When she came back from the bathroom, he put his card on the bill and gave it to the waiter. I held back a smile. Everyone’s performance was convincing.

It was still raining as I got off the subway and walked home, put Miles Davis on repeat until I didn’t even notice the sounds, didn’t even hear what was playing.

 

******

 

 

 

 

DE BEAUVOIR AND ADRIENNE RICH DANCE IN FIRST ROUND ACTION

DE BEAUVOIR:

A sentiment cannot be supposed to be anything. “In the domain of sentiments,” writes Gide, “the real is not distinguished from the imaginary. And if to imagine one loves is enough to be in love, then also to tell oneself that one imagines oneself to be in love when one is in love is enough to make one forthwith love a little less.” Discrimination between the imaginary and the real can be made only through behavior. Since man occupies a privileged situation in this world, he is in a position to show his love actively; very often he supports the woman or at least helps her; in marrying her he gives her social standing; he makes her presents; his independent economic and social position allows him to take the initiative and think up contrivances: it was M. de Norpois who, when separated from Mme de Villeparisis, made twenty-four trips to visit her. Very often the man is busy, the woman idle: he gives her the time he passes with her; she takes it: is it with pleasure, passionately, or only for amusement? Does she accept these benefits through love or through self-interest? Does she love her husband or her marriage? Of course, even the man’s evidence is ambiguous: is such and such a gift granted through love or out of pity? But while normally a woman finds numerous advantages in her relations with a man, his relations with a woman are profitable to a man only in so far as he loves her. And so one can almost judge the degree of his affection by the total picture of his attitude.

But a woman hardly has means for sounding her own heart; according to her moods she will view her own sentiments in different lights, and as she submits to them passively, one interpretation will be no truer than another. In those rare instances in which she holds the position of economic and social privilege, the mystery is reversed, showing that it does not pertain to one sex rather than the other, but to the situation. For a great many women the roads to transcendence are blocked: because they do nothing, they fail to make themselves anything. They wonder indefinitely what they could have become, which sets them to asking about what they are. It is a vain question. If man fails to discover that secret essence of femininity, it is simply because it does not exist. Kept on the fringe of the world, woman cannot be objectively defined through this world, and her mystery conceals nothing but emptiness.

RICH:

It is not enough for feminist thought that specifically lesbian texts exist. Any theory or cultural/political creation that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less “natural” phenomenon, as mere “sexual preference,” or as the mirror image of either heterosexual or male homosexual relations is profoundly weakened thereby, whatever its other contributions. Feminist theory can no longer afford merely to voice a toleration of “lesbianism” as an “alternative life style” or make token allusion to lesbians. A feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual orientation for women is long overdue.

I do not assume that mothering by women is a “sufficient cause” of lesbian existence. I believe large numbers of men could, in fact, undertake child care on a large scale without radically altering the balance of male power in a male-identified society.

Pornography does not simply create a climate in which sex and violence are interchangeable; it widens the range of behavior considered acceptable from men in heterosexual intercourse—behavior which reiteratively strips women of their autonomy, dignity, and sexual potential, including the potential of loving and being loved by women in mutuality and integrity.

Lesbians have historically been deprived of a political existence through “inclusion” as female versions of male homosexuality. To equate lesbian existence with male homosexuality because each is stigmatized is to erase female reality once again.Part of the history of lesbian existence is, obviously, to be found where lesbians, lacking a coherent female community, have shared a kind of social life and common cause with homosexual men. But there are differences: women’s lack of economic and cultural privilege relative to men; qualitative differences in female and male relationships— for example, the patterns of anonymous sex among male homosexuals, and the pronounced ageism in male homosexual standards of sexual attractiveness. I perceive the lesbian experience as being, like motherhood, a profoundly female experience.

Who can navigate the maze of ‘women’s issues’ touched on above by De Beauvoir from 1949, and Rich from 1981?

Simone de Beauvoir’s personal issues are well-known: intending to be a nun until she was 14, she had a devout Catholic mother and a free-thinking father; she was suspended from her teaching job for seducing a female student; she seduced girls and passed them on to the existentialist Sartre; one of these girls, who rejected Sartre, eventually married de Beauvoir’s male lover.

As for Rich, we have the suicide of Rich’s Harvard professor husband, father to her three children, in 1970, just as she was separating from him in Rich’s radical Black Panther days; also her shared National Book Award prize in 1976 with Allen Ginsberg, rejected by Rich, and instead ‘accepted’ with the two other woman nominees, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, on behalf of all women.

Arnold Rice Rich, Adrienne Rich’s father, was Chairman of Pathology at Johns Hopkins Medical School.  John B. Watson, the father of Behaviorism, was fired from John Hopkins in 1920 for having an affair with his student.

Behaviorism is the philosophical component of Simone de Beauvoir (b. 1908)  and Adrianne Rich (b. 1929)

Personal crisis and Behaviorism seem to go hand and hand, and we would not be a good behaviorist philosopher if we did not point this out.  Perhaps the philosophy should be called Bad Behaviorism.  Remove the ‘bad’ and it is no philosophy at all.  It fades into custom. We anticipate a certain amount of objection to bringing in personal issues; but without the personal issues, have the philosophical issues any basis?  Behaviorism is a bold response to crisis—the “bad” behavior is owned and accepted—as behaviorism—putting aside intellectual reasons, in the spirit of either existentialism or its mirror-reverse, moralistic and religious fanaticism.

De Beauvoir says, “a sentiment cannot be supposed to be anything.”  This is the door to behaviorism.  According to some views, “a sentiment” is not to be rejected—our feelings about an issue are of paramount importance, and not to be dismissed, no matter how authoritative the radical social science branch of learning is, which attempts to dismiss it.

The door is opened and de Beauvoir walks through: “Discrimination between the imaginary and the real can be made only through behavior.”

Any philosophical system which makes “behavior” the primary tool for discriminating between “the imaginary and the real” cripples thought, and hinders philosophy itself.

What is love?  What is gender?  What is sex?  If we turn these questions into mere descriptions of discrete patterns of particular behaviors, the ‘things anyone, at any time, might feel compelled to do’ becomes the ruling animus of philosophical investigation, and we strip ‘making sense of the universe in terms of both pleasure and reason’ from the whole process; we destroy science, ideality, happiness, morality, and reason, and replace it with experience—experience which justifies itself, no matter what. 

Behaviorism is used to justify behavior, any behavior—but philosophy is the way to determine reality above and beyond behavior.

In ordinary human experience, behavior creates our reality; in philosophy, our understanding of reality determines how we behave.  The two are radically different.

It begins innocently enough, with de Beauvoir, who, as we see in the example above, takes love away from its sentiments and attaches it instead to specific forms of behavior—love becomes utilitarian, in the name of making things better for women, even though, as de Beauvoir points out, it is not the utilitarian aspect which makes things worse for women; what de Beauvoir seems interested in is erasing the differences between men and women.  Turn the tables, she says; make the woman wealthy and the man poor, and the ‘mystery’ of the woman for the man disappears; in other words, there is no ‘sentiment,’ there is no ‘intangible’ factor; put the man’s dress on the woman and she is, in fact, a man. 

If a woman behaves like a man, she is a man.  Judith Butler already exists in de Beauvoir.

The ‘radical’ nature of de Beauvoir’s argument is based on simple equivalence.

Rich, though she might be considered more radical than de Beauvoir, a radical “advancement,” to some, actually travels backwards; Rich argues for lesbianism as a sentiment, not simply as behavior; in her pornography statement, for instance, Rich pleads for a woman’s “dignity,” which is not a behaviorist (or existentialist) term at all—Rich is more traditional and conservative than de Beauvoir.

We see “radical” philosophy developing in a “step-forward, step-back” fashion: a step forward with de Beauvoir, a step back with Rich, even though, as a whole, it moves forward in the same behaviorist fashion.

What is this “compulsory heterosexual orientation” which Rich mentions, but, in her view, philosophy at odds with reality, old philosophy at odds with behaviorism?

Rich wants more than an “acceptance” of lesbianism; she believes there is an unquestioned, mysterious core value to it  (beyond behavior) worth cultivating. Rich doesn’t want to look at the issue scientifically; she is not interested in cause-and-effect. “I do not assume that mothering by women is a “sufficient cause” of lesbian existence.” The philosopher would ask, “Scientifically speaking, what is lesbianism exactly?” Rich, like de Beauvoir, is hunkered down in behaviorism—there is no interest in a philosophy standing above the behavior; but unlike de Beauvoir, Rich invests a mystery and sentiment to the lesbian existence, precisely as de Beauvoir dismantled the mystery and sentiment of the woman’s existence.

Who wins, here?  The one who began the job.

WINNER: DE BEAUVOIR

EDMUND WILSON SEEKS TO ADVANCE OVER JUDITH BUTLER IN POST-MODERN BRACKET CLASH

Wilson. Knew everybody: Edna Millay, Hemingway, Nabokov, LBJ; a blue blood Harold Bloom, he called Lord of the Rings “trash.”

WILSON:

 

We are not accustomed, in our quarter of the world, either to having the government attempt to control literature and art or to having literary and artistic movements try to identify themselves with the government. Yet Russia, since the Revolution, has had a whole series of cultural groups which have attempted to dominate literature either with or without the authority of the government; and Trotsky himself, in his official position, even in combating these tendencies, cannot avoid passing censure and pinning ribbons. Sympathizers with the Soviet regime used to assume that this state of affairs was inseparable from the realization of socialism: that its evils would be easily outgrown and that in any case it was a great thing to have the government take so lively an interest in culture. I believe that this view was mistaken.

Under the Tsar, imaginative literature in Russia played a role which was probably different from any role it had ever played in the life of any other nation. Political and social criticism, pursued and driven underground by the censorship, was forced to incorporate itself in the dramatic imagery of fiction. This was certainly one of the principal reasons for the greatness during the nineteenth century of the Russian theater and novel, for the mastery by the Russian writers—from Pushkin’s time to Tolstoy’s—of the art of implication.  The stories of Turgenev, which seem mild enough to us today, were capable of exciting the most passionate controversies—and even, in the case of A Sportsman’s Sketches, causing the dismissal of the censor who had passed it—because each was regarded as a political message. Ever since the Revolution, literature and politics in Russia have remained inextricable.

But after the Revolution, the intelligentsia themselves were in power; and it became plain that in the altered situation the identification of literature and politics was liable to terrible abuses.

Lenin and Trotsky, Lunacharsky and Gorky, worked sincerely to keep literature free; but they had at the same time, from the years of Tsardom, a keen sense of the possibility of art as an instrument of propaganda. Lenin took a special interest in the moving pictures from the propaganda point of view; and the first Soviet films, by Eisenstein and Pudovkin, were masterpieces of implication, as the old novels and plays had been. But Lenin died; Trotsky was exiled; Lunacharsky died.

Friedrich Engels, in the letter to Margaret Harkness, warning her that the more the novelist allows his political ideas to ‘remain hidden, the better it is for the work of art,’ says that Balzac, with his reactionary opinions, is worth a thousand of Zola, with all his democratic ones. (Balzac was one of the great literary admirations of Engels and Marx, the latter of whom had planned to write a book on him.)

The recent damning of the music of  Shostakovich on the ground that the commissars were unable to hum it seems a withdrawal from the liberal position.

The truth is that the talk in Soviet Russia about proletarian literature and art has resulted from the persistence of the same situation which led Tolstoy under the old regime to put on the muzhik’s blouse and to go in for carpentry, cobbling and plowing: the difficulty experienced by an educated minority, who were only about 20 percent of the people, in getting in touch with the illiterate majority. In American the situation is quite different. The percentage of illiterates in this country is only something like 4 percent; and there is relatively little difficulty of communication between different social groups. Our development away from England, and from the old world generally, in this respect—in the direction of the democratization of our idiom—is demonstrated clearly in H.L. Mencken’s The American Language; and if it is a question of either the use for high literature of the language of the people or the expression of the dignity and importance of the ordinary man, the country which produced Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn has certainly nothing to learn from Russia.

 

BUTLER:

 

Contemporary feminist debates over the meanings of gender lead time and again to a certain sense of trouble, as if the indeterminacy of gender might eventually culminate in the failure of feminism.  Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, within the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.

I read Beauvoir who explained that to be a woman within the terms of a masculinist culture is to be a source of mystery and unknowability for men, and this seemed confirmed somehow when I read Sartre for whom all desire, problematically presumed as heterosexual and masculine, was defined as trouble. For that masculine subject of desire, trouble became a scandal with the sudden intrusion, the unanticipated agency, of a female “object” who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position. The radical dependency of the masculine subject on the female “Other” suddenly exposes his autonomy as illusory. That particular dialectical reversal of power, however, couldn’t quite hold my attention—although others surely did.

Power seemed to be more than an exchange between subjects or a relation of constant inversion between subject and an Other; indeed, power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender. I asked, what configuration of power constructs the subject and the Other, that binary relation between “men” and “women,” and the internal stability of those terms? Are those terms untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualizing gender and desire?

Female Trouble is also the title of the John Waters film that features Divine, the hero/heroine of Hairspray as well, whose impersonation of women implicitly suggests that gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real.

To expose the foundational categories of sex, gender, and desire as effects of a specific formation of power requires a form of critical inquiry that Foucault, reformulating Nietzsche, designates as “genealogy.” A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin. The task of this inquiry is to center on—and decenter—such defining institutions: phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality.

Is “the body” or “the sexed body” the firm foundation on which gender and systems of compulsory sexuality operate? Or is “the body” itself shaped by political forces with strategic interests in keeping that body bounded and constituted by the markers of sex?

In what senses, then, is gender an act? As in other ritual social dramas, the action of a gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.

Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived.

 

It is a truism that in any contest, success depends on unity and cooperation (including “healthy competition”) while division and strife leads to failure.  A whole is comprised of parts, but here’s the question: what are the parts doing to make the whole a healthy one? But how do we know this “whole,” in its context, is a good thing, unless we see it, in turn, as a part behaving to make a larger whole healthy, the health of everything eventually sweeping up all in its global good?  All philosophical investigation must be concerned not with parts, nor with their combination into something greater, but with the largest possible cooperative assemblage: here is where the lone philosophical genius seeks philosophical truth and the philosophical good—everything else is mere power-grabbing, strife and lies.

Edmund Wilson, a Critic more historian than theorist, a Modernist speaking of male Russians, faces off against Judith Butler, a Post-Modernist gender theorist, of French and German influence.  If the differences are profound, profound, perhaps, the match.

Wilson speaks from, and during a time of great American influence and power; confidently he asserts the 96% literary rate of the U.S., how in his country “there is relatively little difficulty of communication between different social groups,” and that “the country which produced Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn has certainly nothing to learn from Russia.”

Today, the remark about Leaves of Grass and Huckleberry Finn sounds naive; Wilson, the historical critic, is interesting only as a look back into history.

Butler, meanwhile, belongs to those who would change history as she speaks not for “communication between different social groups,” but rather exploding “social groups.”

Gender as a new, fluid identity within the realm of bodily desire is Butler’s focus—politics, history and aesthetics are thus, in Butler, replaced by psychology, a rather narrow psychology—the psychology of the drag queen.  Butler conspicuously fails to mention children as she comes to grips with gender.  The larger world is puzzlingly absent.  If desire is at the heart of heterosexuality, other kinds of desire can never be proven to be anything but a variation of heterosexual desire, and sexual desire can never be proven to be anything but a breeding device, unless we add aesthetics to the equation, and this, too, leads away from Butler.

 

WINNER: EDMUND WILSON

 

 

JUDITH BUTLER: COUPLETS

Who, then, is this Judith Butler?
Google her face.  Never heard of her.

Holy crap she looks like a man.
Theory does what theory can.

The couplet is an interesting device
For this poem—reproducing like mice.

It ridicules thick-necked jocks,
Brainless oafs in team-striped socks.

It notices girls with little bird faces,
Thinks of all the physical disgraces.

These are its children, the swarm
Of humanity, smelly and warm.

They say attention to looks is unkind—
And yet the body is the mind.

As a teen I had terrible skin
Which inside and outside almost did me in.

A few pimples? How can you complain?
But you do.  Ugly face means doubtful brain.

But then you find that beauty is lurking
Behind the ugliness—a poem starts working.

How did poems rescue disgrace?
Why’d you write poetry? I had pimples on my face.

But a life has phases: the beautiful child
With perfect skin, and mild

Becomes the haunted adolescent,
Ugly, hairy, angry, prescient.

Keats and Byron were my Superman.
I hated Beats, Modern, Ash Can.

So let’s unleash our ire upon
Eclectics who hate beautiful Byron.

And no, we don’t have a reason why
Beyond a truth that lives in the eye.

For truth that asserts itself in the mind
Is a light in the cave of the blind.

Everything under the sun is queer
To the liberals who hate Shakespeare

Kind of the way the subject of race
Matters to liberals of nervous grace.

Lost in Dante’s midlife-crisis wood,
Academic theory would be understood.

Academics need to express change
Far away from the shooting range.

After Sputnik made the sciences champ,
The Humanities became chilly and damp.

No one took out a loan for college
Until Sputnik caused the race for knowledge.

But now loans go for art and writing.
Billions in debt for questionable lighting.

If gender is performance, the audience is slow.
Ask Judith Butler, she ought to know!

We really wonder about Queer Theory:
Did a look in the mirror cause the query?

Butler’s a rat in the maze of her text:
“I look like a man!  Okay, what’s next?”

If one has a face that looks like a witch,
Perhaps it’s time for a gender switch.

When procreate beauty falls in disgrace
We call it the revenge of the ugly face.

God grants ladies reproduction.
Beauty is for reproduction’s end,

Since beauty inspires reproduction,
Love is our death as well as our friend.

But if ugly things reproduce,
What is beauty’s use?

Fleeting pleasure, food, attention,
A nice review, a poem’s mention?

In the higher realms, pleasure and hope
Push away the misanthrope,

The scholar, the rule, the task, obscure
Lose sight of beauty and make us poor.

Beauty, of course, can live within:
In Butler’s heart and in her kin.

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