Sunday, May 25, 2008

Review: Queerly Classed

[Susan Raffo, ed. Queerly Classed: Gay Men and Lesbians Write about Class. Boston: South End Press, 1997.]

Queerly Classed is a straightforward, readable book that I appreciated not only for its specific content but because it approaches the world with a broadly left analysis that foregrounds issues of interconnection, desire, and passing.

The book is a collection of essays that are mostly what you might call analytical autobiography. Most begin from the authors' own experiences to map out some of the ways that their lives have been shaped by social relations organized around sexuality and class (with greater or lesser attention to gender and race). Each begins from a very specific location and expands to some degree of generality, whether explicitly or by implication, but none makes any attempt to become an all-encompassing Theory of Everything. I use the modifier "analytical" because they seek political insight from the experiences they relate, but most are primarily presented as narratives of one sort or another and not the kind of assault of technical marxist or post-structuralist verbiage that some might fear based on that word. Because the essays represent a cluster of starting points, the book as a whole paints a picture that is very rich and that shows an important slice of how real people's lives are organized but that is consciously limited in its breadth. It is forthright about these limitations and absences in a way that avoids the all too common practice in progressive or radical writing (particularly its academic strand) of providing a pro forma apology with no evidence of actual insight into how that relates to what the piece can be expected to achieve. Instead, its grounded look at how real lives have been put together provides raw material for attentive readers to gain from the book as a whole a more complex and abstracted sense of how particular parts of our social world work than any individual contributor in the book attempts to outline, and this is only possible because of the consciously limited project.

The limitations are, nonetheless, important to note. All contributors are gay men or lesbians and none are bi or trans. The majority had working-class families of origin, though the two with owning-class backgrounds provide an intriguing counterpoint from a class position that we tend to hear about frequently but from rarely within the left. Contributors with various experiences of racialization are included, though the book left me with a much richer overall sense of the intersection of class and sexuality than it did of the many ways that racialization shapes and is shaped by both. Perhaps least explicitly noted in the text itself were limitations of nation and era: almost all contributors were writing from the United States and the book was published a little over a decade ago.

In some ways, the least remarkable aspect of this book's approach among those that I named at the beginning of this review is its attention to interconnection. It is hardly a new observation that we do not live our lives in the neat silos into which they are often chopped by analysis and even by discourse and practice of many social movements. There is lots of writing and organizing out there that ignores this fact, but there is also lots that assumes it. I think what I liked about how this book dealt with interconnection, though, was that it treated it as something to be explored and the ways to name it and act on it as areas for experimentation. I appreciate that, as someone who is constantly wrestling with how to minimize the inevitable loss of interconnection and complexity in the translation from world to page while maximizing accessibility, and as someone engaged in local anti-war/anti-occupation organizing that is committed to experiments in integrating this insight into activism.

The value of the book's attention to desire is a little less obvious, I think. Certainly it has its obvious aspects -- the left in North America is often infected by the (hypocritical) puritanism that is a defining feature of mainstream culture in North America, and frank, politicized talk of sexuality is a good thing for its own sake. But including considerations of desire is also important because it forces us to think differently about the ways that different scales of analysis -- most broadly, the individual and the social -- are interrelated. I don't read much that is at either cartoonish extreme of that spectrum, either old-fashioned orthodox determinist marxists or out-and-out delusional classical liberals, but even so there is a way in which a lot of otherwise really strong race-class-and-gender-y kind of stuff neglects the importance of how desire (understood broadly rather than just in terms of sexuality) informs the ways in which individuals go about doing the things that constitute the social, while the social in both its material and discursive aspects plays a huge role in shaping both desire within the individual and the social space for expression of that desire. Explicit focus on sexuality as interconnected with other things helps open up the space for consideration of desire in this broader sense.

The final useful element I identified was the attention to passing. Many of the essays in this book apply the idea of passing in a broad way that I find personally useful. In most instances in the book, the authors talk about how they have felt compelled to pass not only in terms of sexuality but also in terms of class, and how the dances of hiding and revealing these elements of self intersect. Though it is important not to do so in a way that trivializes the potentially life threatening physical and social danger forcing many queers to deny self and to pass in the past and in the present, I think it is a useful idea much more broadly as well. I say this because I know that in my own life, including in many spheres that have no obvious connection to class or sexuality, I use silence and avoidance to hide self. This functions as a sort of intermingled complicity in and alternative resistance to social pressures organized around some notion of "normal" or "acceptable." I suspect this is true in many areas, in many lives, and I think it deserves broader attention when it comes to understanding how people's lives get regulated in oppressive ways.

This actually brings me to the reason I read this book: a friend recommended it and loaned it to me because in contains an autobiographical essay by the late Alan Berube called "Intellectual Desire." Berube was a Franco-American, gay, working-class historian whose work focused on gay, working-class history. Of particular interest to me, he was a community-based historian-from-below with no formal academic training, yet he did wonderful work and made some extremely important contributions to the field. Towards the end of the essay, he writes:

[N]one of us can do our best work until we believe that the life of the mind really does belong to us, from the pleasures of theoretical analysis and brilliant insights to the way an idea can save lives. When we who are independent scholars, or the first generation to go to college, or avid readers and writers, do claim our intellectualities as our own, we become a force to be reckoned with. Among our most valuable resources are the abilities to see the familiar in new ways, to question privileged assumptions, and even to use our intellects to dismantle the powerful systems that cause the class injuries we know too well. [63]

Neither my family of origin nor my present life are working-class, I am not the first generation in my family to go to college, and every message I received growing up was that "the life of the mind really does belong to [me]." However, in devoting myself to intellectual work in the absence of any of the expected pieces of paper or institutional roles to legitimize it as "real", I constantly wrestle with external messages and internal unease about belonging, appropriateness, seriousness, worth. Just the other day, when I related to an acquaintance that I wasn't sure whether the high status, well-paying, part-time job I had from January to April was going to continue in September or not but that I was fine either way since its not like I am lacking for things to do, I was faced with a reaction that made it clear that she thought I was putting a brave face on an undesireable uncertainty rather than relating honest indifference. This is in part because the intellectual labour that I understand as my primary work (other than parenting) is regarded as not really legitimate because it is extrainstitutional, but it is also in part because I tend to remain silent about my work precisely because I'm not entirely immune to feeling that way about it myself. In other words, it is partly a result of me sometimes using hiding and silence in ways that are both complicit in and allow me to navigate social messages that devalue an important element of self. It has broader social importance because it is one very minor example -- others experience it much more powerfully than I do -- of how dominant cultural pressures around particular norms regulates access to potentially politically important intellectual activity even beyond the ways in which material barriers regulate such access.

Anyway. I've veered away from the book a little bit, so let me briefly veer back towards it: good book, read it.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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