Image: Lene Vollhardt, The Grace Chapters, 2017. Film still.
by Luce deLire
This text is a response to “Lettre d’un homme trans à l’ancien régime sexuel” by Paul B. Preciado, published in the French newspaper Libération on January 16, 2018. An English translation of Preciado’s piece has been published by Text Zur Kunst.
Author note: In this text, I am going to use three kinds of quote marks: I) Single quote marks for technical usage of terms such as the term ‘term.’ II) Double quote marks for “things that other people have said.” III) French-style quote marks for «things that an imaginary philosopher might or might not say—who might or might not be my persona in this text.»
“Imaginations do not vanish at the presence of the truth, in virtue of its being true, but because other imaginations, stronger than the first, supervene and exclude the present existence of that which we imagined.” (Spinoza 1677, E4p1s)
Hardly anybody has understood my contortions as you have—or at least they did not depict it as sincerely, vividly, viscerally one might say. However, it is because you have understood so well that I would like to respond to your recent piece in Libération, which itself was a response to an open letter published in Le Monde earlier this month entitled “Nous défendons une liberté d’importuner, indispensable à la liberté sexuelle.” More specifically, it is for the same reason that I strongly believe your intervention will remain absolutely without impact. And it is because you are right about everything you say that I, l’ancien régime myself, can speak as frankly and freely as possible—for although all ears are open, nobody is listening. You yourself say as much, although I think the situation is much worse:
Depuis que j’habite comme-si-j’étais-un-homme dans le monde des hommes (conscient d’incarner une fiction politique) j’ai pu vérifier que la classe dominante (masculine et hétérosexuelle) n’abandonnera pas ses privilèges parce que nous envoyons moult tweets ou poussons quelques cris. [Since I live as-if-I-was-a-man in the world of men (conscious of embodying a political fiction) I have been able to verify that the dominant class (male and heterosexual) will not give up its privileges just because we send out lots of tweets or scream a bit.] (Preciado 2018)
I will speak to you in the words of Critical Theory. I have chosen a medium that provides me with the terminological and social background I deem necessary—a younger, white, trans*feminine philosopher. In that way we can stay within the reality of colonialism but will not be interfered with by questions of cis-centrism and such. I do think this is in our mutual interest.
Let us therefore first see how exactly the controversial letter characterizes the opposing parties at play. I want to then compare this with your own depiction. It will turn out that actually, both say exactly the same thing, and this thing is: «Let us all recede behind the lines of capitalism, property, negative freedom, non-interference.» Needless to say, this is exactly my order—the order of l’ancien régime, standing as dysfunctional and unchallenged as ever.
I. La liberté sexuelle
So here we go: what exactly does the open letter in Le Monde say? “Nous défendons une liberté d’importuner, indispensable à la liberté sexuelle.” How to translate this? Something indispensable is being defended. It has to do with a certain ‘importuner.’ Of course the ‘importuner’ in question can only be understood within a context—who is ‘importuning’ whom? Under what conditions is the act in question perceived as ‘importunacy’? Is it a question of perception? Of reality? Of whim? The letter in question has a clear answer to these questions: the context of utterance is ‘liberté.’ Luckily, a certain ruse of rhetoric goes missing in translation: “Liberté” can be the emphatic, all encompassing ‘freedom’ just as it can be the rather restricted, legal ‘liberty.’ Once primed like this, a further reading of the letter becomes rather enlightening:
Le viol est un crime. Mais la drague insistante ou maladroite n’est pas un délit, ni la galanterie une agression machiste. [Rape is a crime (crime). But insistently or clumsily hitting on someone is not a crime (délit), nor is gallantry an aggressive act of machismo.] (Nous défendons, 2018)
The authors open a discourse of law—of ‘crime,’ ‘offense,’ and ‘aggression.’ If the letter defends “une liberté d’importuner, indispensable à la liberté sexuelle,” [‘a liberty to annoy, indispensable to sexual liberty’] clearly this is happening based on a certain ‘law.’ “La drague insistante ou maladroite n’est pas un délit.” [“Insistently or clumsily hitting on someone is not a crime [délit].”] (Nous défendons, 2018) The authors resist the legalization of seduction—the game of love, they insist, is meant to be an extra-legal space. “Encore un effort et deux adultes qui auront envie de coucher ensemble devront au préalable cocher via une ‘appli’ de leur téléphone un document dans lequel les pratiques qu’ils acceptent et celles qu’ils refusent seront dûment listées.” [“One more effort and two adults who will want to sleep together will first sign a document via an ‘app’ on their phone in which the practices they accept and those they refuse will be duly listed.”] (Nous défendons, 2018)
Needless to say, this is an utterly cis-centered perspective: for to those who are passing trans*people, this moment of ‘coming out’ is a brutal reality. Sometimes by law, as in the UK (‘sex by deception,’ compare Sims 2016). Will the authors from now on be strong voices against transphobia? And how does this relate to the ongoing triumph of dating apps? It hence seems, as so often, as though reality had passed critique a while ago.
The authors, however, find themselves in good company: ‘anti political correctness’ is one of the most important streams of discourse of our time. And it is more often than not (always I would like to say) articulated in the exact same pattern: «Dear Political Left: do not tell me what to do!» “On nous intime de parler comme il faut, de taire ce qui fâche, et celles qui refusent de se plier à de telles injonctions sont regardées comme des traîtresses, des complices!” [“They are telling us to speak properly, to silence what is angry, and those who refuse to comply with such injunctions are regarded as treacherous, accomplices even!”] (Nous défendons, 2018) ‘Anti-Genderism’ in this context names the discourse against so called ‘political correctness’ (a term itself coined by the political right), mediated through gendered language, equal representation, etc. (compare Hark and Villa 2017). It says: «Beware of the hysterical queer feminist media elite from hell!» Funnily enough, the letter in this sense finds itself aligned with the French state, who just recently decided to not use gendered language any longer. This ‘Anti-Genderism,’ however, seems to function as the ‘social glue’ of a large alliance that crosses all political trajectories, including some feminists (remember those lesbian feminists who are afraid of being coerced into having sex with trans*women, or compare Williams 2013 and Urquhart/Molloy 2015). Needless to say, it is the smallest common denominator between otherwise dispersed neofascist tendencies (compare Kovats/Poim 2015).
“Nous défendons une liberté d’importuner, indispensable à la liberté sexuelle.” [“We are defending a liberty to importune, indispensable to sexual liberty.”] (Nous défendons, 2018)
So then, the letter opposes the legalization of sex in general and seduction in particular. But whence that legalization? And whence the assumption that sex and seduction could be exempted from such legality? We have found that ‘sexual liberty’ is to be exempted from legal forces, so the letter says. But by what right? I, l’ancien régime, have never died, as you rightly point out. I have merely transformed my outer shell. One of the most ingenious transformations I have ever undergone, you will agree, is the exemption of the economic sphere from the political sphere under the heading ‘Free Markets.’ Smith, Hegel, Marx, Foucault, Rawls, Habermas, Hayek, Keynes, Fraser, Jaeggi—everybody knows: Liberalism consists in that exemption. Or the illusion thereof. Not entirely, of course, but still … And that counts for the sphere of seduction just as well, as Irigaray formulates aptly in Women on the Market (1977), and Adamczak updates in her Polysexual Economy (2006). The basic analysis, however, remains the same: bodies have a price, an exchange value: «hot, hotter, priceless.» Exceptions, of course, cater to the rule: the illusion of ‘Free Love’ and emotional accountability must remain afloat—an economy in itself, as the work of Illouz shows over and over again. They are almost as powerful as the belief that individual decision could score against the materiality of oppression: “Notre liberté intérieure est inviolable.” [“Our inner/inborn freedom is inviolable.”] (Nous défendons, 2018)
With the specter of a legalization of love come its friends and fellows: intention (‘crimes,’ ‘offenses,’ and ‘aggressions’ are traditionally thought of as conscious acts) and property: for as you surely know, ‘property’ is that thing towards which you can exert your full intention—you can burn the lipstick, put on the shirt, crash your car or sell it. This right to exert full power is sometimes called the ‘manifestation of negative freedom.’ It is the foundation of all Western societies. ‘Negative freedom’ is the ‘absence of external interference.’ And ‘manifestation’ means ‘becoming object.’ “Loin d’aider les femmes à s’autonomiser, sert en réalité les intérêts des ennemis de la liberté sexuelle.” [“Far from helping women to empower themselves, actually serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom.”] (Nous défendons, 2018, my emphasis) Note that ‘auto-nomy’ (“s’autonomiser”) translates as ‘self-ruling’ and is here contrasted with an intense external influence: “… que les femmes sont des êtres ‘à part’, des enfants à visage d’adulte, réclamant d’être protégées.” [“… that women are ‘apart’ beings, children with an adult face, demanding to be protected.”] (Nous défendons, 2018) ‘Absence of external interference,’ the beating heart of the idea of property, is hence translated directly into ‘autonomy,’ notwithstanding that notable representatives of ‘autonomy’ (Kant, Hegel etc.) might want to disagree. Here, however, we are coming back full circle: The letter’s opposition against legalization is an opposition on behalf of commodification. It says: «We have been commodified! Now get off us! Let us enjoy our certified liberty of libidinal exchange value!» This is the ‘sexual liberty’ I have set out so everybody can be properly attached to their exploitation while still remaining good critical citizens: go on and engage in critical discourse, as long as it happens on the basis of consumption. Needless to say, the more dysfunctional a practice of seduction, a model of love, a commodity is, the more you need to consume in order to make up for it, cover the damage, close the gap between expectation and result. Is that not the engine driving people to get a cat, double their time at the gym (or at the bar) once they experience rejection or turmoil? «My phone broke—I’ll have a drink over the shock and get a new one,» etc. Dysfunctionality is great. Of course, nobody ever cares—everybody is too busy upping their own exchange value. You, Paul , have done great work displaying how all this works:
The success of contemporary technoscientific industry consists in transforming our depression into Prozac, our masculinity into testosterone, our erection into Viagra, our fertility/sterility into the Pill, our AIDS into tritherapy, without knowing which comes first: our depression or Prozac, Viagra or an erection, testosterone or masculinity, the Pill or maternity, tritherapy or AIDS. This performative feedback is one of the mechanisms of the pharmacopornographic regime. (Preciado 2013, 34)
So then: the exemption of seduction from the law on behalf of the economy is an integral part of liberalism, and neoliberal capitalism in particular. Is there a bigger market than the one of seduction? Sex has been commodified. Even more so: “Sex, excitation, the demand for erection and ejaculation are at the center of pharmacopornographic political production and economy.” (Preciado 2013, 273)
Surreptitiously, of course, it has also become an object of the law, namely as a property. «My body is my property» you hear people say once in a while. Well, there you go. (Just in case the writers of that letter should come out in protest: you might not know that I have secretly guided your hand, sneaking in the categories of your own oppression. This is me, l’ancien régime, in the form of ideology: having you believe you write for your life while really you are administering your own death).
The Le Monde letter, however, following an old program, does not tackle the problem of commodification directly, but recedes to a reform of the law: “Cette justice expéditive a déjà ses victimes.” [“This expeditious justice found its victims already.”] (Nous défendons, 2018) The ‘justice’ is ‘too quick,’ the allegation goes. ‘Pre-judice’ used to be the judgment that happens too quickly—namely before a person or a case could have been addressed in their own right. You see the specter of commodification come around once more: «Do not impede my life with external judgments! Take me as I am!» In other words: «Exempt me from being subsumed under someone else’s law!» An illusion, of course, but a functional one. «Let me be my own commodity» has driven much of post-Enlightenment critique. It is now driving the letter in question. But, as pointed out already, the law is based on the logic of property itself. And hence the attack misses its target. Poor crowd that engages in these discussions case by case. For as long as the commodification of love prevails, so will I. As long as all seduction goes the way of consumption, through drinks, holiday resorts, trips to South America or even Ikea, you name it, so long shall I remain: l’ancien régime, at your service.
You may wonder, Paul, why I am so eager to talk and so far from fear. The reason is simple: you are preaching to the choir. For one, you are basically saying the exact same thing as they are saying. But more importantly: your struggle is real and it rests upon decades, centuries of habituation to violence. Hence, your intervention remains vain. Let me explain, starting with the latter point.
A figure that I have always had great pleasure motivating in my own favor is this: «A small intellectual elite is ruling the common discourse of the—allegedly—otherwise healthy political body—‘the people,’ ‘das Volk,’ ‘le peuple’—with wicked, self-interested intentions, sometimes on behalf of capital.» Anti-communism and structural anti-Semitism were my kindest children down this alley. «Dear Political Left: do not tell me what to do!» used to be «Dear Communists: I prefer property over totalitarianism!» The small freedom is preferred over a distortion of the promise of a larger one. In the letter, it appears without fail: “La confession publique, l’incursion de procureurs autoproclamés dans la sphère privée, voilà qui installe comme un climat de société totalitaire.” [“Public confession, the incursion of self-proclaimed prosecutors in the private sphere, that installs as a climate of totalitarian society.”] (Nous defendons, 2018)
These, Paul , are traditions of violence that we can do nothing against. They are re-labeled but remain the same. They are the cloth people are cut from—up until their physical set up, as you have so convincingly shown (Preciado 2013). Those traditions, however, will be defended until the last breath. And in this last breath I, l’ancien régime, will laugh joyously at all those who have believed that they could change the world with wit and reason. They cannot. As Spinoza has it, reason (mostly) trails the roads of affect, violence, habit: “Imaginations do not vanish at the presence of the truth, in virtue of its being true, but because other imaginations, stronger than the first, supervene and exclude the present existence of that which we imagined.” (Spinoza 1677, E4p1s) And why is reason so powerless? “Because the laws of nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything.” (Spinoza 1677, E1app)
That is also why I can speak so freely about all of this: this is not a question of persuasion, but of material practices. In that sense, the Le Monde letter says it all: there is a practice of seduction that people are attached to, habituated into, they are these practices. And if anybody tries to point out that people are suffering not just from those in power (which, of course, is also true, as I have wisely arranged so as to make emancipation even harder), but also from their adherence to their own oppression, naturally, they will resist. People are attached to their oppression, Paul. They do not want to give it up. Sometimes, it is all they have. And would you want to take a starving beggar’s last flirt?
Image: Lene Vollhardt, The Grace Chapters, 2017. Film still.
II. Mutual Attractions
You know all this and you say it very openly in your Libération piece:
Cependant, deux éléments différentiels séparent l’esthétique queer de celle de l’hétéro normation de l’ancien régime : le consentement et la non-naturalisation des positions sexuelles. L’équivalence des corps et la redistribution du pouvoir. [However, two differential elements separate the queer aesthetic from that of the hetero-normation of the old regime: consent and non-naturalization of sexual positions. The equivalence of bodies and the redistribution of power.] (Preciado 2018)
‘Equivalence of bodies’ and ‘redistribution of power’—those are my middle names (and admittedly, I have many). I took them on around the time of my staged death, a.k.a. ‘The French Revolution.’ That was the time, as you surely remember, when the distribution of power, freedom, and ‘rights’ migrated from their adherence to a royal body towards the monetary system. Surely, the process was gradual and has only recently entered a new stage—one that mortals call ‘neoliberal capitalism.’ But system of power that I am, I do not dwell much on names. A plethora of names is a valuable cover, similar to subordinates administering their political incapacitation in the earnest belief that they struggled for their liberation.
‘Equivalence of bodies’ and ‘redistribution of power’—formally known as ‘commodification’ and ‘exchange value.’ Is it a mere coincidence that you are using isomorphisms of the logic of capitalism? In ‘commodification,’ exchange value becomes more important than use value, meaning that the relation of things to each other, measured under the common denominator ‘money,’ becomes definitive of the commodified thing. By this process, inherited hierarchies are ‘overcome’: lipstick tubes are not by and of themselves of higher value than nailpolish. The are so only if their exchange value says so—that is: their relation to other commodities with regard to the referent ‘money’ is their ‘value’ (or ‘price’ if expressed in money) rather than their relation to an instance of use, etc.
In the case of ‘equivalence of bodies,’ inherited hierarchies are ‘overcome’ in a similar way. The myth of liberalism goes as follows: «Traditionally, the order of things used to be comparably hardwired. But due to ‘emancipation,’ those oppressed by custom and degraded by law have gained much ground and are no longer locked into their destiny. Instead of predestined determination, society offers to determine your ‘value’ in your relation to other bodies, people, ‘individuals.’ That is what it means to ‘give everybody a fair chance.’ If everybody receives their ‘fair chance,’ everything will be fine. Everybody will be measured—valued—according to their own actions with regard to those of everybody else. Fair competition replaces unjust oppression. No need to undo past harms. End of story.» ‘Value’ in this context might read ‘trust,’ ‘respectability,’ ‘attraction,’ etc., in a given context. Instead of ‘money’ as a common denominator, it is the plane of reference itself that substantiates such ‘value.’ We can call this ‘the intersectional grid.’ That grid consists in the complex interlacings of various, multifaceted paradigms, like: «Here are some general norms of behavior …» These count for everybody, says liberalism. Of course, if you’re not white, you ought to be more careful. Especially if you are also poor, etc. In reality, the grid is curved towards certain paradigms in a given local context. These have more (discursive) ‘weight,’ so to speak. This ‘weight’ is the weight of oppression. As a rule of thumb (which does not always apply), in a middle European context, the white, secular (read: post-Christian), heterosexual, cis*gendered, comparably urban, able-bodied, etc. etc. male functions as ‘guiding value.’ It is the heaviest paradigm. But other contexts, subcultures, specialized circumstances allow for other ‘curvings’ of the ‘intersectional grid:’ more value here, less there, etc. Hence, nobody is by and of herself ‘of higher value’ (‘more trustworthy,’ ‘hotter,’ ‘a better driver’) than somebody else, etc. Liberalism, however, insists that in general, the grid is flat and where it is not, it ought to be. Both, unfortunately, are false. A complex relational machinery is required to distribute such ‘value’ along the lines of data points of behavior while simultaneously covering up their uneven, oppressive distribution: smile gently, talk softly, replace expertise with confidence, etc. Needless to say, the myth tends to favor the privileged. You can take it from there.
In both cases (‘equivalence of bodies’ and ‘classical commodification’), however, the erosion of customary hierarchies comes on the heels of ‘comparison,’ ‘mutual measurement,’ ‘exchange value.’ Like a Moebius strip, one turns into the other. But in material reality, we are pushed in only one direction. In other words: we are continuously being disciplined into a commodified self-relation. Under neoliberal capitalism, all relations are mediated through consumption, hence commodified. And that ‘commodification’ is our (promise of) ‘equivalence.’ Especially with regard to ‘flirting’ or ‘seduction’ in general, ‘attraction’ is now mutual (on some ‘intersectional grid’). Bodies exchange themselves with and for one another under conditions of ‘hotness’ (as the ‘value’ in the field of ‘seduction’—compare Adamczak 2006). They do so in mutual comparison. And oftentimes, that ‘value:hotness’ is achieved by investment: the labor we invest in researching the look, in extending our social or cultural capital, in having ourselves be disciplined (by and for ourselves and others) into the proper way of flirting—and the necessary ironic, courageous, edgy relation to it. Naturally, some people invest more than others so as to conform to ‘the intersectional grid’: in this way, hormone and laser-hair-removal therapy stand in a continuum with cool shirts and the latest hot theory output. You know as I know that various ‘queer scenes’ have various rules concerning this ledger just as non-queer constellations do—the gay muscle type and femmephobia of Berlin are as legendary as the emphasis on astrology and food in US American East Coast queerness. Needless to say, racism, fatphobia, etc. are found across the board. Based on competition and measurement as it is, only some can be winning types in this game. They know how to play and they know how to win. For all of them, however, I, l’ancien régime sexuel, have been clearing the way. While everybody devours themselves and one another, I am the real winner.
“Jouissez de votre esthétique de la domination, mais n’essayez pas de faire de votre style une loi.” [“Enjoy your aesthetic of domination, but do not try to turn your style into a law.”] (Preciado 2018) Here, surprisingly enough, you enter the exact same discourse that the Le Monde letter proposed: a discourse of law. You enter it from the other side, though: now, they are setting up the ‘law,’ and not the hysterical queer feminist media elite from hell discussed in the previous section. This time, a certain meta-legality seems to keep private ‘aesthetics’ save from general ‘law.’ Earlier, you had denied the legality of sexual codes of conduct: “Cette pratique de gouvernement [l’hétérosexualité nécropolitique] ne prend pas la forme d’une loi, mais d’une norme non écrit, d’une transaction de gestes et de codes.” [This practice of rulership (necropolitical heterosexuality) does not take the form of a law, but of an unwritten norm, a transaction of gestures and codes.”] (Prediado 2018) Here, codes get scrambled: a ‘gouvernement’ (not a Foucaultian ‘governmentality’) that rules without law, rules without writing, but nevertheless violently enforces complicity, demands submission, favors its flatterers. There is a lot to say about the differences between ‘laws’ and ‘norms,’ ‘writing’ as ‘inscription’ and the ‘writing’ of, on, or by ‘bodies,’ the relation between ‘writing,’ ‘performance,’ and ‘material reality.’ What if conduct used to be written, then lived on in custom? What if custom becomes legalized by writing it down or incorporated by living it through? What is the role of violence here? When is a law a law?
These questions must be suspended for the moment, or so it seems. One thing is clear: A ‘norm’ is not a ‘law’ and neither is a ‘style.’ But in any case: we oppose the legalization of sexuality, we—all of us: you, me, the authors of the letter in question. And according to a fine line I have drawn and redrawn throughout the centuries, what is withdrawn from the law falls prey to the market. An imaginary market, of course. In reality (history, materiality, the discipline and punishment of real bodies), sex has been commodified, meaning: it has taken on the economic and legal form of ‘property’: negative freedom. And hence, in fact (and against your will, potentially?) your call is their call: «Let the market be the market!» They said: “Mais la drague insistante ou maladroite n’est pas un délit.” [Insistently or clumsily hitting on someone is not a crime.”) (Nous défendons, 2018) Do you hear the silent need for decommodified love relationships? The small leap, the incongruency between ‘the law’ and ‘the economy’ of love? A crevice opens right there, a crevice that calls for a law that is not the law of property, an ‘aesthetics’ that is not merely ‘private,’ a love that is not the ‘Free Love’ of ‘Free Markets,’ an incomparable life beyond discipline in one way or another.
And what will you tell them? After so conciliatorily stepping on their field, using their language, affirming their tropes (field, language, and tropes provided by me, of course)? “Et laissez-nous baiser avec notre propre politique du désir, sans homme et sans femme, sans pénis et sans vagin, sans hache et sans fusil.” [“And let us kiss with our own politics of desire, without man and woman, without penis and vagina, ax and rifle.”] (Preciado, 2018) «Let them eat cake. Let us eat cake. Let’s just all eat cake.» Well done. The logic of property strikes again. So nicely though: in the gesture of the radical erosion of structural domination, you reinsert oppression tacitly through the back door. For as you know, capitalism is the big equalizer, shaving off all naturalized kinds of oppression and domination to the benefit of the one and only kind that matters: money. After all, you had it right from the beginning: what we are discussing are questions of aesthetics: “Deux éléments différentiels séparent l’esthétique queer de celle de l’hétéro normation de l’ancien régime.” [“Two differential elements separate the queer aesthetic from that of the hetero-normation of the old regime.” (Preciado 2018, my emphasis) And surely, the game is played in aesthetics, but won on material, political grounds.
The game is up, and long has been. “Nous comprenons aujourd’hui que la transformation libidinale est aussi importante que la transformation épistémologique: il faut modifier le désir. Il faut apprendre à désirer la liberté sexuelle.” [“We understand today that libidinal transformation is as important as epistemological transformation: desire has to be modified. One must learn to desire sexual freedom/liberty.”] (Preciado 2018) Once again, you are totally right. But who, if not I, l’ancien régime in the form of neoliberal capitalism, has understood this and put it in place? Think of how we reduced the cluster ‘queer’ from problematically encompassing everybody excluded from health care on the basis of AIDS (because of race, ethnicity, promiscuity, sex work, homosexuality, transsexuality, etc., IV drug use, etc.—compare Patton 1990) into a well-behaved axis of sexuality. «Play it again, Sam,» I whispered. «Divide et impera.» Think of how this reduction has eroded the geopolitical location of ‘Queer’ (USA), although the label did not make much sense in contexts where all outsiders had to hang out together anyway … or where—as in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand—what they make us call ‘trans*’ has an institutionalized history … etc … (A question which, in our para-colonial discourse, merely occurs on the margin, of course: “Je sui aussi loin de votre esthetique de l’heterosexualite qu’un moine boudhiste levitant a Lhassa l’est du supermarche Carrefour.” [“I am as far away from your aesthetics of heterosexuality as a levitating Buddhist monk in Lhasa is from the Carrefour supermarket.”] (Preciado 2018) Well, it can stay there—ready for pickup by another medium, someone better equipped to give this a proper reading; which, however, it surely deserves.)
Think of the revival of right-wing rhetoric regarding marriage and bourgeois sexual relations as a response to AIDS and the ways we made profit off the deadly disease by way of increasing the production of porn, sex toys, telephone sex, and the like as proxies for the promise of ‘safer sex’ (Singer 1993, Watney 1987). In 1990 already, you can find commodification tip-toeing around in the first leaflet publicly using ‘queer’ as a politicized term: “Being queer is not about a right to privacy; it is about the freedom to be public, to just be who we are.” (Queers Read This, Leaflet, June 1990) It is about the freedom of non-interference. Can you see how the wind blows? Look at ‘Lawrence vs. Texas,’ the inclusion of same-sex couples into the US American legal populus by way of their adherence to market virility and taxation under curious omission of the racialized aspect of that case (Puar 2007). You will see just how successful this recoding of ‘queerness’ was. You might think things are very different in Europe.
But does the French discourse regarding marriage and PACS; the current age-of-consent discourse in France; the role of French psychoanalysis; the Spanish AIDS crisis and its amalgamation with Movida—do they recode ‘queerness’ in significantly other ways? Or does, in Germany, the comparatively long solidarity with the pedophile movement (Baader/Levis 2015) or the smooth decline of the radical left in homo-movements (Laufenbach 2014, Klauda 2017, compare Kämpf 2017, who also co-wrote this passage) by and through marriage make a radical difference? I, l’ancien régime, doubt it. Of course, my masterpiece of managing queer desire internationally, however, is exactly gay marriage. Butler is not the first one to ask:
What is this desire to keep the state from offering recognition to nonheterosexual partners, and what is the desire to compel the state to offer such recognition? For both sides of the debate, the question is not only which relations of desire ought to be legitimated by the state but also who may desire the state, who may desire the state’s desire. (Butler 2004, 111)
But despite such powerful and rightful intervention, ‘gay marriage’ has exerted the utmost attraction to many a queer person. In fact, after legalization, I have met queers, now married, who were surprised about their sudden happiness. This desire for recognition, is it not the hardwired, longevitable discipline—‘finally—cake …’? You are absolutely right: the recoding of desire is at least as important as the recoding of knowledge. But as it happens, ‘progressive’ or ‘emancipatory’ forces tend to be late to the party. Prove me wrong, but it seems as though ‘inclusion’ or ‘progress’ has always meant ‘accumulation of capital,’ ‘permission to be exploited.’ And who, under the premises of property, could ‘judge’ these ‘wrong’ desires? Who would step up and say, ‘Your desire is ideological, it plays into the hands of the political enemy’? Who would want to take the bit of cake from those who suffered through their lives, living in the closet, fighting their parents, fighting the street, fighting themselves? I, certainly, would not.
I have talked too much. It was lovely to see you, Paul. I think I have made my points: you are right about everything you say—but maybe in ways that not everybody would quite expect. Everything is already in place. Furthermore, you and the authors of the Le Monde letter are fighting the exact same battle: for the exemption of sexuality from ‘the law’ on the basis of its commodification. That battle is in vain as long as it is directed against legalization and not against commodification. However, this truism will remain unheard—for who could imagine a life beyond exchange value? Who would step up and administer right and wrong desires? Could you? I, certainly, could not.
<3 L’Ancien Régime <3
Image: Eshan Rafi, Brickwall, from the series Set, 2015. Archival Inkjet Print, 6 x 9".
III. Postscript: Don’t Kill the Messenger
Paul! It’s me, Luce deLire—I have sneaked this little note in on my own behalf, unbeknownst to l’ancien régime. I want to add a few things. They might not make a difference but I am ready to take the bet.
First things first: the régime presupposes, as it must, that we are dealing with the ‘cultural left’—that part of it which can never manage to leave social media, newspapers, bars, and clubs, etc. And in that realm, I am afraid, the régime is quite right: stacked as it is, the field will never change. And despite my disagreement with various other things she says, the régime is right here as well: arguments rely on affect, habit, violence, desire. They will not change anything. But I wonder: is not the crevice the régime mentions—the one between ‘the law’ and ‘the economy’—an entrance point for action? For a queer materialism? And is not seduction exactly the medium by which we might try and cross that point? In a recent piece in n+1 magazine, Andrea Long Chu recommends that we make use of the “[inherited] dread of desire’s ungovernability. “ (Chu 2018) Necessarily, the régime has omitted that dark side of the picture: “Nous sommes aujourd’hui suffisamment averties pour admettre que la pulsion sexuelle est par nature [but still sometimes?] offensive et sauvage, mais ….” [“We are now sufficiently warned of claiming that the sexual drive was by nature [but still sometimes?] offensive and savage, but ….”] (Nous defendons, 2018) “Il n’y a pas de sexualité sans ombres.” [“There is no sexuality without shadows.”] (Preciado 2018) That shadow is our chance: arguments lose out against habits, imaginations, traditions of violence. But there are such traditions, scattered, hardly intelligible: Traditions in the shadow. They run through every country, every city, every soul. There is a nagging undercurrent that eats away Polysexual Economy. It has many names; ‘death drive’ (Freud 1920), ‘sexual difference’ (Irigaray 1977), ‘burden of judgment’ (Rawls 1993) are only some of them. The bottom line is: only the unruly shadow of a desire that acts against itself can erode the established order so as to form a libidinal economy beyond commodification, beyond eternal comparison, compartmentalization, market value, and self-discipline. Let me adjust or mistranslate your suggestion: “Laissez-nous enterrez nos mortes.” [“Let us bury our dead.”] (Preciado 2018) Let’s enter our
shared death (drive). Surely, the régime would point out (possibly with a reference to Deleuze/Guattari 1972 or Singer 1993) that this disunity is also the driving force of capitalistic appropriation: for new desires, new connections can be included as new market grounds. As Puar once said, “Google [and capitalism in general] is always one step ahead.” So maybe everything is pointless after all. However, this unruliness of desire in its not-yet-commodified form seems to connect us—you, me, Catherine Deneuve, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel. All of us. There is hence no “votre part d’ombre” [“your part of the shadow”]. (Preciado 2018) We are all part of this.
From the shadows, then, I am calling for another culture of seduction, one that works distinctively against commodification. Seduction beyond the ‘liberté d’importuner’ (Nous défendons, 2018), beyond ‘queerness’ as couched within practices of consumption (sex clubs, sex shops, web cams, play dates, cats, unicorns—you name it). I have no idea what it will look like. But I know that here, we are allies: “Et nous considérons qu’il faut
savoir répondre à cette liberté d’importuner autrement.” [“And we think that one should know how to respond to this liberty to importune otherwise.”] (Nous défendons, 2018) It must, however, be hatched within those practices so as to not drop from the face of the earth. I have been working on this for a while and can share thoughts if you want. The role of violence in this is, of course, peculiar. We are already continuously rehearsing practices of flirting and seduction, hence the material is all there. Its slogan must be: seduce your enemy. Or put differently:
DESIST IMMEDIATELY FROM LINKING NOW IN ANY WAY WITH VALERIE SOLANAS. (Betty Friedan, president of the National Organization for Women [NOW], 1968)
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Thank you to Darla Migan, Naeem Mohaiemen, Katrin Kämpf, Paul B. Preciado, Lene Vollhardt and Daniel Schwarz.
Luce deLire is mostly known as a philosopher, time traveler, and cynic. She can be seen curating, performing, and publishing while working on and with the metaphysics of treason (or vice versa), the seduction of violence (same), post-secular privilege, fascism and the end of critique, the reality of infinity, and more (property, property, property)—always in mixed media.