Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Abjection [II, 1]

We normally think of homophobic tropes as ones generated by the host society, while resisted by the victims. In some cases, though, the subjects internalize the negativity, manifesting various distorted and abject attitudes and modes of behavior as a consequence. As a form of self-inferiorization abjection is the reverse of the medal of disparagement by others.

Gays have internalized these hostile themes in various ways. In extreme cases the embrace of negativity may amount to self-hatred, what is sometimes termed internalized homophobia. In other instances the reception may be more playful, even constituting (according to some) a form of resistance. Some say that in adopting such epithets as queer, gay users are “taking back” the terms. There are limits to the applicability of this principle. During the sexual revolution of the 1970s a few radical gay men insisted on labeling themselves cocksuckers, recommending that others do the same. While most gay men have engaged in fellatio from time to time, it seems inappropriate to make this our defining concept. The argument would be similar if women, say, were joyously to call themselves sluts. Of course most don’t.

Expressed verbally, the phenomenon of abjection normally plays out on a much less theoretical and more mundane plane. In the appropriate context, embrace of a whole range of terms, from degenerate and anomaly to faggot and homo, can constitute abjection. But what is the appropriate context?

One useful distinction is between the inner and outer situations. That is to say, use of such a term in a closed setting in which only other gay people are present does not amount to abjection. That is the “inner” situation. The outer one occurs when the speaker presents himself to a heterosexual audience as an exemplar of inferiorization. A similar phenomenon occurs with African Americans, who feel authorized to use the n- word among themselves in certain contexts, but abject when it becomes overt in largely white contexts.

Some terms become detoxified over time. For example, in Britain one might refer to someone as “you old bugger!” without implying any real disparagement. That is because the word bugger, which possessed a powerful negative charge in the middle ages and the early modern period, has since lost it in the British Isles—-even though buggery was a statutory offense until 1967.

There are many gray areas. For example, at Gay Pride events one sometimes sees young people wearing tee-shirts bearing the motto: “I can’t even think straight!” The intent is ironic. Nonetheless, the motto feeds into the idea of the dizzy queen who can’t get it together.

There are exceptions to this general principle. The pink triangle reflects a color patch the Nazis required homosexual inmates of their concentration camp to wear. It might be thought the adoption of this symbol by gay-rights advocates in recent decades reflects the abjection principle. This does not seem to be so, and here we may have a successful instance of detoxification. S/M, camp flamboyance, and other dramatizing activities are probably not examples of abjection.

In addition to verbal embrace of the abjection principle, such behavior exists on the plane of action. This is the matter of so-called self-destructive conduct. Here again one must be careful. The accusation of self-destruction appeals to heterosexuals who view the “homosexual lifestyle” as itself self-destructive.

Still, most would agree that the bug chasers who deliberately seek to contract HIV are self-damaging; this is a form of abjection.

Clearly the concept of abjection has value, but it is hard to establish clear boundaries.


Post a Comment

<< Home