Monday, October 25, 2004

theorama...martha, courts and foucault

The Sexuality that is Not One (Part 1):
(with apologies to Irigiray)

In a film in which the words “lesbian” or “homosexual” are never uttered, silence, that great semantic hold-all, reigns and the meanings of the terms rumor, speech, silence, friendship, and gender are all subtly and systematically destabilized, in ways that inform the understanding of issues of sexuality contemporary with the film and which continue to be part of the current debate. While it is true that “The Children’s Hour” is a piece of fiction, albeit one masterfully wrought, and the records of jurisprudence to which we have been turning our attention in the latter part of this week are within the realm of the factual, there are two important reasons why it may be helpful to re examine this film in the light of these readings, besides similarity of content: firstly, this version of the film adhering as it does to the original form of the play, lies alongside the records of supreme court trial in the realm of the textual, joining a narrative that “is embedded in the founding of the nation” and engaged in informing he discourse. Secondly, in that the film represents events as contemporary with its making, and the judgements of the cases of Griswald v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade occur within 25 years of the time in question and challenge legal precedent that far precedes them, the outcome and comment of these court cases speaks directly to the theoretical context within the film was produced.

So, for the purpose of this response, I shall take from these cases a few salient points to use as tools with which to prise apart the seams of meaning in the film. As we have discussed in class, abortion law has a relevance and resonance in the formation of both “persons” and “sexualities” and the link between these two terms that will become evident. Firstly we may note that Griswold V. Connecticut explicitly states the collapsing together of acts such as adultery with the “homosexuality” under the umbrella of “sexual misconduct” which “the state forbids” and frequently uses the term “mother” to indicate “woman” or “pregnant woman”. This may remind us of the recurring theme of Karen’s desire for a baby in the film, where having a baby immediately becomes of the utmost importance in the moments before she evicts Joe from the sealed off house. The house by this time in the film has become a site of contagion, where the “filling” aspect of pedagogy becomes a locus of dread as the hold of moral hegemony is threatened by the potential transmission of a miasma of alternatives to the cemented borders of the implicitly heterosexual, or indeed non-homosexual, meaning speakable, episteme. The house is bordered by a patrol of the seamier side of the heterosexual norm from the moment that it is seen to signify the edge of the heterosexual world, and it seems that in this place that has lost its purpose, that is significantly barren, the promise of productivity, of fecundity is the last desperate sign by which Karen may still cling, or struggle her way back into the heterosexual norm, or less rigidly, to the productive doctrine of the nation and the state, to remain a woman, and therefore a mother… an option which she has seen as safe and familiar. Joe’s ambivalence in the matter persuades Karen that although he may profess otherwise, (the average) Joe’s feelings and views of her have changed, that in his eyes she has indeed fallen out of the norm to which she once belonged. This it would seem is compounded by the fact that Karen knows herself to have been changed by this process, and that her understanding of normality…of words like friend, and woman is changed now and forever.

More than this however, the Griswald v. Connecticut case deals specifically with the legality, limitations and status of the private sphere, an area very much relevant to the plot of The Children’s Hour, where the ostensibly private becomes public through the whispered secrets of children at the heart of this pedagogical struggle. The judgement simultaneously privileges the marital (and therefore heterosexual) bedroom as the realm of the private, a private which is conceded not to be specified in the bill of rights, and yet undercuts the implicit premise that the state and the private individual are opposed by the insistence of the “interest” of the state in both the “mother” but more especially in the maintenance of the “unborn child” (n.b. as opposed to fetus/embryo, and with all the doctrines of potentiality that are contained within and to be “born(e)” out in Roe V. Wade). As stated above the context of the film implicitly runs into issues of transmission of knowledge, and the link that therefore must be seen to be presumed between knowledge and carnal knowledge, the sexuality of the teacher/student relationship. The private sphere as discussed in Griswald v. Connecticut is SPECIFICALLY said to include freedom to choose modes of education, a choice which as Poovey and others argue is necessarily limited and false due to the unequal availability of said choice/ It is interesting to note again that this privileges productivity and heterosexuality…indeed I would argue that one of the main reasons that the subject of gay marriage remains so hotly contested is that it essentially casts members of what is seen to be a gay “class’ in the role of educator and producer, and just as in the past the “homosexual” teacher (as in the Children’s Hour and the case of Marjorie Rowland and Mad River as outlined in Halley: “The Construction of Heterosexuality” in Fear of a Queer Planet) has been ostracized to an extent that would persuade against identifying outside of the heteronorm, today with the prospect of gay parenthood, the destructive consequences for heteronormative mores are taken seriously enough to warrant continued prejudice, Both in society and under the law.

In The Apparitional Lesbian Terry Castle argues that the apparition, the insubstantial state to which the unutterable and belief defying woman loving woman is relegated can be viewed not simply as a victimisation, and just as Goldberg would seek to reclaim Sodom, she seeks in the end to use this penumbral (cf. 14th amendment discussion) manifestation to create a fruitful way of opening up the canon to the excavation of a lesbian literature. This in many way is at once an acknowledgement and an unsettling of the “out” “lesbian” identity, and shows the paradoxical nature of the act of naming in the case of an essentialist equating of sexual “orientation” and personhood, ( as defined in the discussions in Poovey’s article). This too is the nature of the suicide in The Children’s Hour: Martha finds herself outside the heteronormative realm of the person, and consequently finds that her only recourse is to abort herself, to die and thus enter the only alternative space open to her, that of death, where she too may become an apparition.

(PART 2):
“Your existence will be maintained only at the cost of your nullification” (HoS p.84)

In the first section of this response piece I discussed the film “The Children’s Hour” in the light of the court cases of Roe v. Griswald and the articles of Mary Poovey and others. I ended by discussing the space which Martha occupied in the film with regard to what has been referred to as the “heteronorm”. In this section I wish to discuss the limitations, layout and shape of this “heteronorm” with reference to the first volume of Foucault’s “History of Sexuality”, to confuse and problematize the monolithic entity of “heterosexuality” in particular (and indeed “sexuality” in general) into a multifaceted continuum, a sexuality which is not One. De-unifying the box of the normal may perhaps be seen as particularly important for those engaged in the battles taking place in jurisprudence, and those in social movements seeking to overturn the “status quo” but my task here is not to form a single-bladed weapon (with all the phallic connotations that implies) of response to a monologic monstrous (the word at it’s center being the name of the Father) entity which would indeed not slay our proverbial dragon…it is to show how Foucault’s arguments on the pervasiveness of power through sex enable us to destabilize these categories within the limits of our own epistemic realms, the limits of a society which may well be that on earth which is most steeped in its own ”ars erotica” in the form of a “scientia sexualis” that now runs through it like a stick of rock. Because, after all Foucault’s argument is that we are that dragon, and all of us have the power to slay it (at least for ourselves, or in part) and also to breathe its fire, or perhaps that there are as many dragons and as many blades as there are loci of power, and thus sexual encounters. In order to destabilize our reptilian friend, our “heteronorm” then, we must in fact induce in it a multiplicity of “petites mortes”.

One of the chief points made by Foucault and others arguing for the discursive creation of “sexuality” and particularly the division between and creation of “hetero- and homo- sexuality” is that it is the reification of deed into person. And this conclusion is particularly interesting when comparing it to the analysis of Halley as discussed above; one can quickly see the limitations of an assumed group, the depth of fear of the “homosexual” perhaps relating to the very fragility of the content of the “heterosexual” identity, the fear of the latent and unspoken heterogeneity within the category itself, a heterogeneity that threatens to implode the neatness of normative assumptions. Thus we may outline the nature of the discourse that creates these “sexualities”: essentially because heterosexuality is an assumed norm although it is restrictive, in many realms it need not form itself directly against an object so that it is indeed, as we have seen above in the analysis of the “Children’s Hour” the indictment to silence and latency that categorizes it in general societal terms, just as the indictment of law as outlined by Foucault is the negative (“thou shalt not”), and not the act itself, and just as the construction of “gayness” or “queerness” in recent years seems to have been more based on the speaking, the naming, on “pride” in this discursive speaking of the person, and consequently creation of the other…the “non”. It appears then that in those sites of the enactment and transference of power heterosexuality, that is, the constructed “norm” must in some way privelege “the other”.

This is much the argument of many in the field of Postcolonial studies, and borrows from the Foucauldian notion of the eroticism of the speaker, the sufferer or victim within this episteme, and here we run into one of the difficulties in Foucault’s text. Although we may acknowledge that the confessional, and the space of victimhood are erotically charged, they are thus as a consequence of the imbalance of power, or perhaps vice versa which one could extend as the systemic replication of the inequalities in that first erotic exchange, the oedipal moment. But since it is the case that these powers are constructed as unequal, and since Foucault makes no claim that repression, that is the effects of certain powers believed to be operating within these spaces does not/do not exist then the net result, the psychic harm induced by this albeit constructed and forged process must also be seen to exist. An example of the gap in logic thus created in Foucault’s writing would be his story of Jouy, the mentally deficient peasant seeking sexual satisfaction from a child. We are led to consider it pitiable that this man should be penalized for his simple desire, but there is little point in lamenting the condemnation of the action…for although it is the nature of sexuality and of desire that relationships of power in sexual encounters should be unequal, the continuum of pleasure or harm induced to the individuals engaging in sexual relations is no less real than the inequality of power itself. Perhaps if our ars erotica were a different one this factor would be less in play, however the nature of desire at the base of our culture being what it is, I fail to see how there could ever be a utopia of bodies and pleasure in which inequality of power and the nexus of potential pleasures and harms therein inscribed would cease to exist. Foucault’s utopia would be a desire-less state, and without desire which pervades even our onanistic fantasies, whither pleasure?

To return to our reptilian analogy, what we find is that the relationship between the norm and the other is indeed complicated, because neither remain fixed. As Foucault argues, they exist in fluid clouds that condense at points of power interface, sex being one. But it is still fair to say that in those moments our actors take on their unequal mantles of power and that these, though they may change depending on circumstance, must also be considered in terms that relate to the lived experience through which Foucault arrives at his revelations, as he himself seems to point out, we cannot throw off power and nor would we wish to for each of us has it, but I believe we must also take into account the relationship between these valences of power in their different fora in order to truly use the power that is ours for our greatest benefit and pleasure.

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