hermeneutics of desire and outing politicians

Outrage, a film about politicians who actively work against the interests of queers yet allegedly have gay sex, premiered on Friday in a few cities. It’s playing in Philadelphia, and I really want to go see it, but can’t really afford the drive to Philly at this point.

Mostly, I’m less interested in what the film has to say, and more interested in how it goes about saying it. I’m deeply troubled by the idea that there is some kind of retribution or justice in outing a supposedly closeted gay man, even if he actively works against queers. In The Use of Pleasure, Foucault discusses what he calls the hermeneutics of desire, which Lee Quinby describes in Anti-Apocalypse: Exercises in Genealogical Criticism:

The predominant mode of morality practiced in the United States today is a hermeneutics of desire. As Foucault defined it, this is a hermeneutics through which interiorized desire is deciphered. According to this system of morality, the attainment of the truth of one’s being involves bringing to light the shadowy impulses of one’s innermost self. Only in making one’s inner truth visible can the snares of desire be suppressed or regulated into normality. (69)

While Quinby’s discussion after this passage largely revolves around the compulsion to confess one’s innermost desires, there’s also the reverse to confession: rooting out others’ innermost desires. There is a compulsion to know another’s sexuality (played out in our everyday lives, when we wonder is s/he straight or gay).

As if gay and straight are ahistorical inner truths, as if same-sex desire necessitates a gay positionality, as if only closeted queers exhibit shame and internalized homophobia, as if hypocrisy were a charge of the highest order.

What does charging a supposedly closeted gay man with being a closeted gay man actually do? Perhaps my imagination is failing me, but it only seems to reinscribe the various tactics of discourse/power used against queers onto other potential queers. It seems like we have replaced the high school, where the queers are rooted out and ridiculed, with the political realm, where queers root out the closeted homophobes and ridicule them. And to elevate the stable gay and lesbian out identity as superior and wash this identity of any shame: To be out is to be mature and have escaped a society of shame; to be closeted is shameful, to be rooted out. It seems like a politics of ressentiment with little fruitful effects for queers. (And I’m not necessarily against ressentiment politics.)

What do we actually learn or do by attempting to out explicit homophobes as closeted gays? The Right is hypocritical, we can announce! But we already knew that! (Sedgwick might be useful here in her critique of the hermeneutics of suspicion, a hermeneutics that offers tautological arguments: the conclusion is already known.)

I’m not saying one’s intimate life should be protected as private, but I’m really struggling to finding political effects in such a “witch hunt” that are useful for combating an anti-queer society.

POST-SCRIPT: See Ta-Nehisi Coates’s thoughts here.

PPS: See Matt’s response to my post.

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5 Responses to hermeneutics of desire and outing politicians

  1. Pingback: Outing, of all things « Matt Weiss Online

  2. Matt says:

    I wrote a whole post in response! I finally put up another blog entry, thanks to you. Yay! http://mjw321.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/outing-of-all-things/

  3. Michael says:

    Thanks, Matt!

  4. Kyle Bella says:

    I really find this policy of outing homophobic politicians to be problematic for a number of reasons.

    The first of which is pretty straightforward, and is posed as a question: what exactly does outing these politicians do? Provide necessary institutional changes in regards to queer rights? No. Make other politicians who might be in a similar situation more willing to come out? Probably not. The only thing I might suggest that it does is make people question their assumptions about stereotypes and sexuality, though that seems significant in what DAMAGE I think this outing can do.

    This brings me to a second point. I do not intend to justify homophobia. I do, however, want to be clear on what this outing may obscure and how this obfuscation may let these queer-negative institutional structures flourish. Allow me to explain.

    Personal experiences and upbringings of these men are not examined. In what ways have their own parents, families and communities influenced their attitudes and beliefs about society? If they seek to gain prominent positions of authority on the basis of other ideological principles (however flawed we may view them as), isn’t homophobia a NECESSARY condition of their value system that has been tied to religious fundamentalism since the gay rights movement gained prominence in culture post-Stonewall? Who is to say that they haven’t battled their own desires and suffered psychologically because of it. (Fronts and facades are put up all too often.)

    The third point, tied to the other two, is that this outing distracts us from real, measurable goals and difficult questions that disrupt comfort. Rather than attacking the person, attack the ideas. Queer voices need to speak in conservative circles, in religious fundamentalist circles, in places that are “dangerous” and previously avoided because this is where IDEAS need to change the most. This is where heternormative attitudes are most entrenching (and celebrated). Embroiling gay homophobes in scandals will likely not change their own attitudes and beliefs and seems antithetical to coming out as a process of maturation and personal growth and development. To engage in dialogues, however unproductive they may initially seem, can have positive effects. And really, I think allows us (out and proud queers) to more carefully examine how we once treated homosexuality, what it took us to overcome psychical distress, and how we are still dealing with it.

    (I perhaps have more to say on this, but right now I will stop. I think I’ve written something fairly substantial.)

  5. Michael says:

    Thanks, Kyle, for your response! I pretty much agree, and think your third point is especially important. What does this outing work distract us from that might be more difficult yet more fruitful in both the short term and long term?

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