should scientists have to read foucault and adorno?

“In reality, a cycle of manipulation and retroactive need is unifying the system ever more tightly…. Technical rationality today is the rationality of domination” (Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of the Enlightenment 95).

I just read this LA times story titled “What does gay look like? Science keeps trying to figure that out.” In it, various biological characteristics of queer bodies are discussed as correlating or even possibly causing queerness. After reading it, I am disturbed by some (if not all) of the studies that seek to understand “the origins of sexual orientation.” Among those studies:

  • Having older brothers increases the likelihood of being gay for males. This might be because “After giving birth to a boy, [a mother’s] immune system might create antibodies to foreign, male proteins in her bloodstream. Subsequent sons in the womb could be exposed to these “anti-boy” antibodies, which might affect sexual development in the brain.
  • Left-handedness increases the likelihood of being gay or lesbian. One study hypothesizes that “development of a fetus might be disturbed by factors such as a mother’s illness, steering the fetus into being less than strictly right-handed — and, in some cases, less than strictly heterosexual” (emphasis mine).
  • Gay men report having larger penises than straight men. “One guess is that gay men could have been exposed to an odd mix of hormones in the womb. Testosterone levels might peak early, causing enhanced penis growth, then drop off later in pregnancy — leading to some feminine characteristics.”

As Eve Sedgwick has written in Tendencies, she’d be fine with these studies if the approached biological factors as conducive or productive of same-sex attraction. Instead, terms like disturbed are used.

But I think even if these studies used different terminology, I wouldn’t be okay with it. Why even look for the “origins” of same-sex attraction? First of all, these studies miss that sexual orientation is largely a historical and social construction, rising out of the nineteenth century. As Foucault has noted in History of Sexuality, before this period, Western society focused on acts, until the implantation of identities on bodies: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual. These implantations, he argues, give rise to the power of the medical and psychological disciplines: the more they invade bodies, the more power they get, and the more power they get, the more they can invade bodies. A search for the origins of sexual orientation is an invasion into queer bodies, for the purpose of controlling sexuality.

I am also disturbed by the search for origins of sexual orientation. Foucault also smartly argues that seeking for origins is an ill-founded pursuit. It marks a foundation and ignores prior causal influences, as well as other influential factors. Genealogy, Foucault argues, is a stronger method for understanding causations and cultural-historical (and perhaps even biological?) influences on our bodies. What if scientists, instead of looking for the origins of sexual orientation, instead looked at from a genealogical perspective, with so many different genealogical forces going into the orientation.

And what is up with the claim that an early peak in testosterone leads to femininity? I hope this is journalistic laziness and the authors of the study at least wrote “feminine biological characteristics,” because gay male femininity, such as flipping the wrist, is socially constructed: it’s a value put on an action. But even if the scientists who wrote this study meant biological characteristics, this is largely a stereotype of gay men. There isn’t anything inherently feminine about a gay/queer male body. Hell, I can show you some bears and some daddies that show this.

And this whole thing reeks of strategic rationality. As Adorno and Horkheimer have written, strategic rationality is the rationality of domination. It’s been a while since I’ve read Dialectic of the Enlightenment, but this rationality of origins, causations, and statistics seems wrapped up, to me at least, in domination.

No, my left-handed body is not disturbed. I’m reminded of the Feminist slogan “Keep your laws off my body.” I wonder if a queer politics slogan shouldn’t be “Keep your science off my body.”

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3 Responses to should scientists have to read foucault and adorno?

  1. chris says:

    Great post. I had a whole comment typed out in which I agreed with you. I even including a penis joke, but instead I decided to go the tasteful route and just say that, from one leftie to another, I really enjoyed this post.

  2. Laurna Tallman says:

    Hi, Michael,
    I am trying to discover what Foucault’s handedness was. Do you happen to know?
    I have written about the recovery of one of our sons from severe schizophrenia. In the process of observing his behaviour and researching things I noticed, I discovered why schizophrenia is considered “a disease of laterality.” The pieces of the puzzle I put together revealed why some left-lateralized people have sexual (and other) identity issues, also. I do not explore that topic at length although I believe my learning about the neurological relationship between the right ear and the left brain has a bearing on all identity issues. You can learn more about how high-frequency sound normalizes right ear function and behaviour at my blog Essentially, my discovery is that in schizophrenia and some other conditions, the hemispheres “trade sides” every two minutes: the person lacks the left-brain dominance that most people experience during their waking hours. In other words, it is a condition of alternating dominance or non-dominance.
    The mechanism of dominance lies in the middle ear, specifically the tiny muscle attached to the stapes (stirrup), the third bone of hearing. If that muscle is not fit, it cannot control the transmission of high-frequency sound energy to the left hemisphere of the brain, which is what keeps that hemisphere dominant. The means of correcting those audio-processing deficits is sound of the frequencies the person cannot process. Exposure for a couple of hours a day for 10 days usually stimulates the muscle sufficiently to get it into shape for those frequencies. (It takes much longer than 10 days to heal autism and schizophrenia.) I discovered that one does not have to provide ONLY those frequencies, which is the Tomatis Method also adapted by Bérard’s AIT. Dan recovered by focused listening to ordinary CDs of classical violin music using headphones. Twice.
    I think that headphones transmitting high-frequency sound do for the ear what glasses do for the eyes: they focus a form of energy (light/sound) onto the organ in a manner that allows normal use of the sensory organ (eye/ear). Except that, in the case of the ear the stimulation does not have to be constant; it is not like having to wear a hearing aid or always having to wear glasses in order to see. Once the ear-brain loop becomes self-sustaining, as it does when the muscle is in good shape, ambient sound and the voice keep the stapedius muscle fit and functional. And the left brain dominant, so the hemispheres can integrate at optimal speed.
    People lacking normal right ear function default to the left ear; the neurological route for sound entering the left ear is circuitous, unlike the right-ear/left-brain loop. The transmission of sound from the left ear through the non-dominant right hemisphere “colours” the sound with the characteristics of the right brain. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran provides useful information about the differing propensities of the two hemispheres. Thus, lefties have much more emotion feeding into the left brain, have greater difficulty adapting the controls extant in language for learning self-control over primal urges and emotions, develop anomalous beliefs about reality, and tend to losses of left-dominance in the range of behaviours loosely categorized as “mental” illness. Ignorance of these processes has given rise to vast amounts of theorizing and beliefs etc. that have no substance.
    However, everyone must try to rationalize his/her perceptions of reality in order to keep that “balance” between the hemispheres, meaning the unbalance of the left brain in control. If the perceptions are anomalous, the person must find means in language of rationalizing and justifying those anomalies in reference to a consistent body of beliefs.
    Foucault’s severe depression in and of itself is an audio-processing deficit already calibrated by the French Dr. Guy Berard of 2 and 8 kHz in one or the other ear. Foucault’s social philosophy (and everything else he wrote) should be read in the light of that physiology. Knowing Foucault’s handedness would help me to know in which ear Foucault experienced audio-processing deficits.
    Sorry, I did not intend to start rewriting my book here. I hope you find this of interest. And I would be grateful to know if Foucault’s handedness is on record somewhere.
    With best wishes,
    Laurna Tallman

  3. Michael says:

    Laurna, I have no idea what hand was Foucault’s dominant hand. Sorry. Best of luck in your project!

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