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In Conversation with Richard Hornsey's "After the Bathhouse; or, In Praise of Awkwardness"

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When I was shelving some journals today (yesterday, now), I stumbled across a special issue of English Language Notes (v. 45 no. 2, Fall/Winter 2007) entitled Queer Space (and there's a special issue of Social Text that I want to look at, too, called What's Queer About Queer Studies Now?). Richard Hornsey's piece "After the Bathhouse; or, In Praise of Awkwardness" raises some interesting questions for me. As I start writing, I've read about 7 of 12 pages. I will put summarizations of Hornsey's points in regular text and my own comments and reactions in italics.

Foucault considered homosexuality to be "a crucible of social possibilities" because it could unite men across social divides. However, so-called queer studies has become largely by and about white gay Western males. Part of the motivation for the foundation of transgender studies - one would think that 'queer' could and should encompass 'transgender' - was to create a space for scholarly discussion of sexuality that was not yet a preserve of the homonormative*. Citing David Eng, Judith Halberstam and Jose Esteban Munoz's critique (in the aforementioned special issue of Social Text): "queer studies ... has become increasingly stagnant, narrowly confined to the study of 'sexuality' and producing myopic work primarily invested in the lives, experiences, and agenda of the white men who largely write it... Eng et alia urge scholars towards an epistemological humility, to question the smug political certitudes of mainstream queer studies through encounters with marginalized subjects and occluded ways of being". Is it just me, or does the word 'encounters' suggest something like slumming? Maybe it's just how Hornsey is summarizing it - and Hornsey is so far as I can gather one of the gay white male heteronorm of scholarship who is "space, time and male homosexuality in postwar London" according the London Review of Books here. But it sounds like they're suggesting that those already at the center of queer studies should make an effort to 'encounter' more marginalized individuals. Whereas I would suggest that, both literally and metaphorically, they ask, "So, what do you think?" of queers not already in their club. And then they should listen.

Hornsey's "interest in this essay has less to do with taking sides in this debate than with exploring the critical rhetoric through which it has been framed". Which might be needed, but Professor Hornsey, based on what you seem to publish, you are very much in need of listening to the critique of Eng et al, because your scholarship is preoccupied with postwar London, particularly gay men in postwar London. Hello, they're talking to you. Well, we'll see where you go in the rest of this article.

So: gay (male, Western) bathhouses. Tricks by French (white, gay, male) writer Renaud Camus, which "documents twenty-five successive pick-ups that the author took part in between March 3 and August 20, 1978." Hornsey thinks this is an important text for the current debate because of the diversity of Camus' pick-ups: "the primacy of his erotic motivation, coupled with both his lack of commitment and the relative accessibility of the spaces he inhabits, still takes hiim beyond the endogamous class boundaries of normal French society". I'd have to read the book, but ... so what? People of higher classes have been fucking people of lower classes for centuries, the difference being that gay (male, Western) bathhouses weren't about prostitution. But you can't tell me that there weren't dynamics based on class in those one night stands. I'm reminded of Pat Barker's portrayal of Prior's affair with a man of a higher social class in The Eye in the Door (takes place in WWI-era England); Prior takes his military coat off and uses a working-class accent to get his blue-blooded pick-up to be comfortable with him sexually during their first encounter. There! Encounter! There's the word! 'Encounter' implies something brief, something that doesn't go deep. Bathhouse culture didn't promote the formation of new communities or identities, which is what would really be radical (oooh, that first clause needs some historical research and that second clause so needs to be unpacked; defining radicalism in sexuality, heh, not a job for a parenthetical). Social boundaries were overcome enough for sex to occur, and based on Hornsey's interpretation of Camus, that's all. I have this vague impression that SM communities did some of the radical work that bathhouses didn't. For one thing, based on what I know, they seem to actually be communities; and there is a mixing of straight and (out) gay and (out) bisexual and so on which is unusual.

I suspect the dynamics within the SM communities become fraught at times. But in communities explicitly based upon consent and saying what you want, well, if there's any hope for open communication it's going to be in that sort of environment. Though the kind of communication
invited is about sexual preferences, not issues of privilege/marginality, and so critiques on certain subjects may not be welcomed ... this is all supposition, of course, and I doubt there's been any work done on it.

If transgender studies is queer theory's evil twin, as Susan Stryker puts it, then BDSM studies or what-have-you is the weird auntuncle who lives in the basement (um, that word takes on unfortunate overtones since the story about Joseph Fritzl broke). I take as a yardstick (aside from the definite paucity of work done on kink, the fact that a lengthy book about gay communities in Philadelphia history doesn't mention anything about leather culture or leather bars, etc.)
the fact that Susan Stryker is out as a lesbian and as a transwoman, but despite how important her experiences in the SM community were for her, as one can gather from "My Words to Victor Frankenstein", she is not consistently out as kinky.

Not to go off on a tangent or anything. This is me not musing on sexual orientation vs. gender identity vs. kinkiness as sources of identity ...

Hornsey cites (white, male, straight) French sociologist Henre Lefebvre comparing Camus to Socrates: "Socrates enacted his philosophy only through a dialogue with those he met causally and always in response to the practical dilemmas of the day ... philosophy as an immanent praxis, a quotidian response to a living ensemble of urban situations".

And then going back to Tricks, discussing Camus' depiction of the social interaction, the small talk between him and his pick-ups: "What the book suggests is that here, in this strange mixture of genuine goodwill and ultimate indifference, a radical form of queer sociality might just be found". Speaking as someone who enshrines and trusts in friendship, if no other commonly-named human relationship, that sociality seems both radical and bleak, sterile, pointless except for the stated purpose of sex. My use of the word 'sterile' is interesting. Sterility is radical in a heteronormative capitalist society: it's bucks the imperative to produce, produce, produce, you know? I don't want to go off on a long tangent about how I experience friendship, but what I expect friendship to produce - which Camus' one night stands, as interpreted by Hornsey, do not seem to produce at all - sprawls and grows in a creeping vine-y way, and is not goal-oriented, except for those quotidian goals, the daily little needs for interaction and support. Friendship produces no capital. Friendship reproduces nothing. Friendship spins very pleasurably in place - when it moves or slows or speeds up or whatnot, and sometimes it needs to move, it is frightening and unpleasant. Continuing on with Camus and his pick-ups: "However banal the homeward chatting, a man who began as an incarnation of a projected type slowly comes into focus as something approaching a person. Social gulfs become apparent and, for the moment, have to be bridged." Which is exactly what happens between Prior and his blue-blood pick-up, which I mention above. Frankly, such negotiations are underwhelming to my mind. Two people adjusting to an unusual social situation, for the sake of sex *shrug*. Though ... now that I think of it, Prior and his lover (can't remember his name, aargh) end up having some interesting exchanges on the subject of class; in part, because Prior is a pugnacious, challenging sort of person who will call people on things. I guess I should think in terms of potential: Prior wouldn't have interacted with his lover at all, if they weren't both gay males, and the fact that they had shared a physical intimacy, as well as the intimacy of a shared marginalized sexuality (both are bisexual, each with a woman he cares about), causes Prior to voice his critiques to his lover, when otherwise he would have kept them to himself. But not everyone is Prior. (I have a bit of a crush on Prior. A lot of a crush, actually.)

Anyway. Sorry, Hornsey. You were saying? "Paradoxically, however, it is precisely this halfheartedness that is so politically suggestive. Neither partner has any real investment in properly surmounting their complex social differences or in understanding the totality of the other's experience; yet these very limitations produce a fertile space of irony ... The transient terms of this relationship, if it is to work, demand a certain type of lying ... it is also about finding different ways of reacting to social distance as it comes to light. the initial contact may have been premised on ossified assumptions [objectification], but he long walk home often provokes profound moments of destabilization". And more about Lefebvre and irony, but I've spent a lot longer on this than I meant to as it is ...

Hornsey discusses in particular an encounter (there's that word again) in Tricks with an African-American, Terence. At length about the awkwardness of the encounter, because of race. Camus has a "little theory" about Terence, which Hornsey describes as a "patronizing equivalence between the plight of homosexuals and the plight of black Americans [which] shows little understnading of Terence's position at the crux of these experiences. White men have been having 'little theories' about black men for too long for this to sit comfortably, and one longs to know how Terence's write-up of the encounter would read ... One wishes his 'little theory' had been worked through with Terence as they paced the streets of Washington ... Importantly, however, this is only one trick amongst many, a single weekend within a form of gay life that promotes ad sustains a multiplicity of such encounters with various forms of difference."

"In conclusion, we should be careful about dismissing the relational possibilities contained within the commercial gay leisure spaces of the northwestern metropolis. We must of course remain alert to their exclusions, their rehearsals of privilege and their wider complicity in unjust systems of urban capital; and these things must continue to be exposed in scholarship and resisted in life ... One way of doing this might be to shift the focus of our inquiry away from the pleasures, desires, and erotic intensities of contemporary gay experience and towards those moments of discomfort and tension that so often accompany them ... Political and epistemological uncertainties may already be ingrained within the quotidian practices of many gay lives, awaiting their gestation into a contemporary queer praxis."

I want to repeat this bit: "One wishes his [Camus'] 'little theory' had been worked through with Terence as they paced the streets of Washington." Indeed. And one wonders if Hornsey worked through this 'little theory' with a gay black man. I didn't quote from this part, but Hornsey conjectures about Terence's interpretation and feeling about his time spent with Camus. That Hornsey pays attention to the mutuality of the awkwardness is all well and good, but we only have Camus' version. Not only would it be nice to have Terence's side, but it should be sought and encouraged, considered necessary. I don't think Hornsey ever grapples with how problematic it is to have the white man's side of things without the black man's. Hornsey can interpret Camus' own thoughts about his interactions with Terence, but can only conjecture about Terence's thoughts about those same interactions: Terence never speaks for himself.

I think my objection to how all of Hornsey's argument is framed comes back to the word 'encounter'. It implies that the status quo remains intact, though better investigated. Those already in the ivory tower are looking at the world through new lenses, but there are no new voices. When Hornsey says that "we must remain alert to their exclusions", I think he is making an assumption about who 'we' is, I think he's assuming a white gay male scholarly audience. He is talking about exclusions and rehearsals of privilege in commercial gay leisure spaces of the northwestern metropolis, that's where 'we' must be on the look out for exclusions and rehearsals of privilege. Is this the kind of warning which one directs at the whole, or at the privileged?

I think that Hornsey hasn't taken up the challenge of Eng et al which he paraphrases in the first paragraph of this essay: "Queer studies ... has become increasingly stagnant, narrowly confined to the study of 'sexuality' and producing myopic work primarily invested in the lives, experiences, and agenda of the white men who largely write it..." For a piece which suggests that (a presumably gay white male scholarly) audience be more alert to "rehearsals of privilege", it is remarkably invested in "the lives, experiences, and agenda of white men". Also, in looking at the bibliography, Hornsey is up on the queer studies stuff, but he doesn't cite a single source relevant to race relations. Not having (yet) read What's Queer About Queer Studies Now, I'm not sure if Eng et al are proposing that the white men who have come to dominate queer studies ought to be less myopic, or if they think that other voices need to be heard. But if Hornsey's essay is meant to correct for the whitemaleness of queer studies, I don't think it's wholly successful.

*My first time using this term; it appears elsewhere in "After the Bathhouse". A problematic term: I see a potential for it to be used to create new hierarchies and play the Who's A Bigger Queer/Victim? game (you're more heternomative than me, I'm more genuine, my experience is more authentic, etc.; I know that I feel a bit of arrogance toward 'plain old' lesbians and so on) rather than identify and discuss existing hierarchies.