Can Straights Be Queer?

I have seen tremblings of “discourse” on Twitter recently, making fun of straights who identify as queer. So far, this seems to come from one man’s well-meaning but inarticulate Twitter thread wherein he seemed to “come out” as straight, cursing him with the accolade of being Twitter’s main character for a day. But as easy as it was to make fun, given how he phrased things, I did feel a certain sympathy for his position.

I’ve written about my own feelings on this at length before, declaring that I want to explore a similar feeling of “queerness” in my own life whilst nonetheless being aware that I may not be the best fit for the label. But the paradox here is surely that queerness is defined by one’s being askew, relative to a more “straight”-line sense of self. My experience is that, whilst I have always felt at home in queer spaces and have frequented them since I was a teenager, I have only ever dated women. To hide away in another’s safe space was, at one time, a necessity. Though not identifying as homosexual, my teenage years were nonetheless defined by experiences of homophobic abuse and hatred, simply because of how I was perceived. Now that I’m not perceived a certain way any longer, it has often pained me when I’ve felt newly unwelcome in places I’ve spent time in for 15 years and where I’ve always felt safe.

I can’t say if this is how this other person felt, but suffice it to say, I can appreciate the sentiment of “feeling” queer, for not cleanly adhering to certain gender roles, whilst nonetheless dating “straight”.

Perhaps this makes more sense for people who identify as men. What’s difficult is that I think many men, who may not be gay but are nonetheless perceived as such, find themselves in a strange and peculiar (dare I say queer) space between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Though this is a hot topic now, I’m struck by the fact it hasn’t always been that way.

The other day, I was reading this brilliant 1995 book by Lawrence Schehr called Alcibiades at the Door, which touches on this in the introduction. He’s more broadly considering the role of gay discourses in French literature, but precisely how they have found a place in an otherwise broadly heteronormative culture. Gay life has often been present in these works long before it made an appearance in other countries’ literatures, he argues (speaking in terms of modernity at least). But he also argues that this isn’t the sign of some innate progressivism, but rather the acknowledgement of a certain sexual transference that takes place between members of the same sex, regardless of how they identify.

Men tell other men stories, women tell other women stories; the gender of the vanquished is secondary. If the apostrophes of love are alternately hetero- or homosexual, the discourse about sexuality is structured as homosexual sign, a sign of a shared lust or a remembered chagrin. Now, obviously there are cases in which, for example, a male narrator tells a story to a female listener, or vice versa. Still, even in cases like that there is a homosexual dimension. If the woman listens to a man telling a tale, she is asked to identify with the other woman, so that she too will get turned on, so to speak. […]

Thus there is always a homosexual component to hererosexual discourses about sex. Already at the beginning of these discoures, at the beginning of philosophy’s tales of love, Plato reminds us that the structure of the discourses of sexuality will be among men (or among women), as the deipnosophists extend their banquet into a symposium on love… [T]he discourses between sexes are reduced to closets within closets, tales of lust never spoken. Again we wonder if the figure of the closet, the metaphor of gay liberation of the last twenty years, should not itself be turned on its head: Is it not heterosexuality that is really locked in a closet of its own devising and that forces a similar closet on homosexuality out of spite?

[…] This is readily apparent in the concepts of social constructivism that gender studies have offered: If sexual and gender identity are only products of the crisscrossings of instruments, structures, and discourses of power, how could homosexuality not be in a “closet”? Then again, how could any sexuality not be in a closet? Even a white male heterosexuality thinks it is free because each individual instance identifies with the doxological discourses of social construction, is it not at that moment that sexuality is in its deepest, most tightly locked closet?

If we alarmist conversations around straights identifying as queer, is this not the background to take into account? Nothing is more stringent and oppressive than heterosexuality. Contrarian though this may seem, Schehr argues this is precisely why a closet of shame has been reinforced around homosexual discourses, as if this has been done purely out of spite. Gay liberation, then, spreads outwards. To identify as queer but date straight seems to suggest, to my ears, that someone has had it with the stringent sexual exchanges of heteronormative culture, which are so rigid and stagnant in their representations.

But perhaps this is just appropriation. Straights fed up of patriarchy should find modes of representation of their own, perhaps. But what is interesting about Schehr’s book is that he argues queer cultures have always had a close relationship to popular cultures or even avant-garde cultures. Modernism in particular was the coming to the fore of a “homosexual poiesis”. (Shout out Diana Souhami’s recent book, No Modernism Without Lesbians.)

“Homosexual poiesis participates in a model of production”, Schehr writes, “but not one, quite literally, of reproduction: that one needs straight lines and heliotrophic movement, and cannot admit any version of the spilled seed of Onan.”

Later returning to the “closet” metaphor, Schehr expands on how this homosexual poiesis is never wholly detached from its reproductive equivalent but rather “interwoven” with it. Recognising that this may be a product of patriarchy more generally, he argues heretically that, throughout our cultural histories, “homosexual discourse is always there and, more often than not, at center stage. Sometimes we choose to read the homosexual aspect publicly, sometimes privately. And when it is read privately by some, others do not read it at all.” (I’m reminded here of Leslie Fiedler’s infamous argument that so much classic American literature — even the American dream itself — is innately homoerotic, although these components seem to pass us by, filtered out by a collective heterosexual unconscious.) But this porosity, rather than diminishing gay culture as an outcrop, is integral. Indeed, the contemporary resonances drawn between queer culture and pop music are not new but persistent — queer and pop have long developed side by side, each intruding on the other. To this end, Schehr writes:

The image of the closet has at its attendant metaphors figures of closure, darkness, and impenetrable secrets. To open the closet door is to let in the light of truth. With the figure of visibility and invisibility, the heliotropic movement is neither central nor eclipsed, but part of a double trope that plays in light and in shadows, that moves both towards light and toward the dark. Homosexual poeisis is not marginal as much as it is eccentric: not repressed, not pushed off to the sides, it is there at the heart of things, sometimes seen, sometimes not seen, sometimes recognised, sometimes not. And its entry into the game recasts the disposition of the playing pieces or the figures: Alcibiades at the door [in Plato’s Symposium] is not retained as a marginal figure but forces the people in the room to recognise his eccentric presence. He is not merely the decorative figure of an arabesque at the margins but a decentering and revivifying figure who inverts center and edge as he bends the lines of sight.

It is not by chance that one of the older slang words used to describe a homosexual man was the word “bent,” and that one of the words from the same era has recently been revived as an empowering term: “queer.” Those two words, and especially the latter one, are more accurately the otherness of “straight” than is the word “gay”. […] A queer or bent line is one that is not orthogonal, not straight: it does not go directly for it. A queer line may, however, tell the right story even in being off the mark, off-center, or offhand in its observations. And, for purposes of equanimity, a straight line can be defined relative to a queer one just as easily as the reverse.

What does any of this have to do with Twitter’s recent main character: the man who came out as straight? I think, contrary to the reactionaries who insist that men can sort themselves out by doubling down on tired tropes of cishet masculinity, that what we are seeing is more men are recognising they do not fit into these stringent ideals of a reproductive culture, and indeed, that they do not want to continue replicating a society that makes very little space for how they feel. These men are instead finding themselves at home in the in-between, which society has arguably always made available to all genders whilst unconvincingly denying that fact. The idea that straights can be queer seems like a contradiction, but perhaps (and this certainly matches my own feelings) what is being expressed in that declaration is a desire that is other to the restrictions of a heteronormative society. If queerness can be the telling of “the right story even in being off the mark, off-center,” then there are surely many people who do not experience same-sex attraction but nonetheless find themselves out of sync with the symbolic exchanges they are otherwise pressured to conform to.

I was recently having a conversation with someone else who felt this way but in reverse. Having predominantly dated women, they have found themselves, very much to their own surprise, currently dating a man. As they feel the walls of heteronormativity closing in, they mentioned how they were struggling to keep a space open for their queerness in such a new configuration. They have experienced no hostility about this, but nonetheless feel uneasy about it. But that in itself is surely the mark of some kind of queerness: the very difficulty and uneasy that comes from walking a straight line.

Of course, as someone who feels like they very much exist on the peripheries, feeling like the token straight of many a queer friendship group, maybe I’m just wrong and reading too much into this stuff to calm my own insecurities and anxieties. But I do think there’s something here. To feel like you don’t fit in or can’t walk the line is surely a defining constant, and we do ourselves a disservice when we essentialise one way or the other, fueled by nothing more than resentment. That’s surely all this desire to don the mark of queerness is: an affirmation to the contrary.

To take a brief peek at the other side, this is also something we see constantly in trans discourses, for instance, where TERFs will shoot themselves in the foot by overdefining “woman” to such an extent that they exclude women who have been through or otherwise experienced certain bodily changes or medical conditions. Are women that have been through the menopause still women to TERFs? Are women who have had hysterectomies? They will say yes, of course, but their rhetoric always suggests otherwise.

It may be not be the case that these women suddenly find themselves at local drag shows, wholly affirming this slight othering, but at the same time, that these same women may find themselves run over roughshod by the loudest of essentialist voices is nonetheless an indictment of just how ridiculously “straight” straight culture can be (and may still become). As the pearl-clutching around such categories intensifies, more and more people may come to sense that straightness makes room for only a few. Most may strive for it anyway, but for those who start to think otherwise, that’s surely only a good thing for the world at large? Rather than deny straights their queerness, maybe its better for all if they’re allowed a little bit of it, as a treat.

Addendum: An interesting series of comments from Alexander Boyd below the Twitter share of this post. He explained how “my everyday experience of heterosexuality is less of oppression than of (privileged) freedom from scrutiny and insecurity”, which makes “thinking in terms of gender and sexuality … unintuitive.”

I thought this was a really interesting point, getting to the crux of what I otherwise meant to say above: what has long bemused and complicated my relationship to myself since I was a child was recognising a personal heterosexuality that has nonetheless felt deeply scrutinised from within its own structures. Not in the usual sense of “manning up”, but rather the assumption being made that it’s just not in my capacity to be manly / not be a bit camp (which is probably fair enough). But I also don’t know how to articulate that experience other than through queer discourses. What to do when others dislike a certain appropriation of language that is nonetheless better equipped to articulate the resulting (if only relative) indeterminacy that comes from this kind of scrutiny?

Perhaps the point is nothing more than this, offered up by @Syderas: “Straightness as a culture is safe for absolutely no one — not even straight people”.

Notes on Capitalist Surrealism

Surrealism, refusing any hereafter apart from this world and professing a doctrine of immanence, is nevertheless, inasmuch as it disqualifies the objective World, the messenger of some transcendence.

Ferdinand Alquié, in his Philosophy of Surrealism, makes clear a tension I have always struggled to elucidate in the work of Mark Fisher — the tension between immanence and transcendence.

It’s a problem that’s present throughout Fisher’s work but it is only following the unfulfilled promise of Acid Communism that people seem to take an interest in the innate “psychedelia” of his work, its emancipatory “trippiness”, as if it is only after saying the quiet part loud that people are able to take notice. And even then, only at the very end.

But it is a mistake to assume that the promise of Acid Communism is not already heavily foreshadowed, as if nothing prior to that unfinished introduction gave us a hint of such a project.

I tried to explore this in Egress, but then after a while I thought I’d got it wrong. For all the time spent exploring Fisher’s sense of the Outside, his more accelerationist mode insists that the only way out is through — there is no outside the capitalism. But then the inside, as he writes in The Weird and the Eerie, is only a folding of the outside… It’s easy to make yourself dizzy trying to figure out which it is…

But like the surrealists, it seems Fisher wrestles with many of the same tensions between this world and that of our imagination, the tension between matter and the idea. It is all too easy to superficially resolve this tension for ourselves when looking at the aesthetic outputs of this mode of thinking, just as surrealism is so often reduced to an absolute flight from objective reality rather than constituting its mirror image, or its unconscious, which is always ejected outwards by sur-. But as is the case with the language of the post- — which Fisher discusses in his Postcapitalist Desire lectures — surrealism always remains attached to that which is declares a break from. It is defined by its break, by its relation to some conception of realism.

This tethering tends to make people think of such projects as innately melancholic or pessimistic, as if any acknowledgement of our capitalist reality (and the mundane horrors that define it) serves only to remind us of the melancholic weight of our ball-and-chain, intruding on the fantasies of a prisoner otherwise hoping to forget himself and his predicament. But the point of surrealism, at least as Alquié explains it, is that this “thirst for happiness colors all the spirit’s motions and, in particular, precedes the attitudes of negation and revolt that are only its other side.” (Is it any surprise that so much of Alquié (sadly untranslated) work is about Spinoza.)

It is this same manoeuvre that makes Fisher’s postcapitalist desire a turn not to a different project but the (il)logical next step of his prior works — a capitalist surrealism.

In the work of Mark Fisher, negation (misinterpreted as pessimism) is often all that people see. They cherish the “key” works — Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life — but often ignore or skirt over what surrounds them. The Ccru is seen by many as a sort of adolescent aberration, for instance, rather than precisely the preceding mode of expression that makes the subsequent negation possible. Just as André Breton, in Alquié’s study, “never saw in [Dada’s] revolt and its negation anything but the necessary means for the positive realisation of man”, so did Fisher conjure the negative out of cyberpunk for the very same goal.

Then things come full circle, the negation gives way to a new positivity, feeding (on) a new era of hope, but perhaps too late or for too short a duration, so that the world is not quite ready to embrace the negation again. Hope is dashed in 2017 for many — and for so many reasons. But the process begins again. Fisher’s Acid Communism becomes fertile ground for hope and love, but this is never an end unto itself (which was arguably why be had so much distain for the hippies). Counterintuitively, love and hope are seeds for rage and revolt. But of course they are. Love Will Tear Us Apart is a post-punk anthem and mantra not for its innate tragedy but its promise that love itself requires, in every instance we encounter it, that we rip up our world and start again.

Alquié describes how Claude-André Puget, in his text for La Révolution surréaliste, makes use of love and hope in much the same way. He writes that, “after evoking a love crucified in one ecstatic moment, [Puget] ends his text by returning to a love’s deception which seems to me inseparable from a movement of critical reflection and some feeling of culpability”. This is why so many surrealist texts are ill-fated love stories or erotic fictions, he argues. Taking view of the whole process, from arousal to a kind of post-coital depression, love becomes ridiculous. But Alquié also notes how Breton’s texts, unlike Puget’s, never collapse fully into resentment. Breton’s lust for beauty and the erotic is never quite satisfied, perhaps because it is never really for some objectified “woman” in any realist sense — despite how it may superficially appear. “Woman” is a form given to a male desire but comes to represent so much more. It is for this reason that the women in Breton’s texts are not, Alquié argues, “the easy mistresses of libertine novels”, but instead “harbingers of the new Eve, always placed beyond our desires. They are the bond, and like a bridge, between waking and dream, and they seem to promise a reconciliation of the two.”

Mark Fisher does not fall for an all-too-French eroticism and its outdated gendered equivalences, but instead folds the whole project in on itself. If Fisher is never recognised as a surrealist, perhaps it is because his thought supercedes the mores of that particular project, coming at the end of a much longer trajectory: responding not only to Dada and surrealism but also to the situationists and punk’s various offspring, never settling and instead also seeking out that “something new” and unnamed, which he nonwrheless names for us with nifty neologisms, at least until these terms inevitably run their course through the hype cycle.

He continued to pick up new weapons.


I’ve been talking to my therapist a lot about home. Moving to Newcastle and saying goodbye to a relationship has felt like losing a sense of home. That is harder than anything, not least because it unearths so much adoption trauma. Home – both in terms of bricks and mortar, and being in each other’s arms – is the hardest thing to say goodbye to. It’s wrenching.

In recently reading Genet’s Prisoner of Love, I have thought so much about how many people experience this most painful of losses. As a new refugee crisis unfolds across Europe, it is so distressing to watch. People make promises and gestures and do what they can to help, but all I’m left with is a renewed sense of how shit the UK — and society in general — is at dealing with crises of this kind.

For all the lip service we pay to our own compassion, our daily life is marked by our refusal to make homes for the homeless — be that literally, or for refugees and migrants of other kinds. But despite exacerbating the nomadism of many peoples, whether chosen or enforced, we also do not make space for movement in our society either.

No matter the kind of displacement you experience, be it as a child or an adult, as a Traveler or as a refugee, one horrifying truth resounds: our society is defined for so many by the myriad ways we deny the homeless a sense of home, whether in houses or on the road.

Our Last Night Together

Lately I’ve realised how many songs have been written on the theme of a last night before a goodbye, but none feel as harrowing as the closer to Arthur Russell’s World of Echo. The simplicity of the song speaks not only of love let go but encapsulates the album’s very reverberations. It’s not certain who or what Arthur is speaking to: a lost love or the world of echo he has habited or some wild combination of the two.

At its most intuitive, to fall in love is to fall into a world of echo. Even when it ends, it never really goes away. It reverberates, whistles on the wind, but at its most powerful and all-consuming, it is nothing more than two people in a room, their words and their echoes enveloping the other.

Then, eventually, someone leaves. On rare occasions, you take each other by the hand and leave together, before going your separate ways. You can return, talk, be there, but so often the hardest thing is not being able to re-enter the room, the world of echo.

“Although you’re coming back, it’s our last night together. Although you’re coming back, I’m losing you for now.”

Tomorrow evening, I make the final spring journey up to Newcastle. All my stuff is up there now. I just need to go and join it.

I’m starting over. The last two weeks, the last four months, have been spent mentally adjusting to the hardest decision ever made, separating gently and consciously. Physically, the process is far less measured. It’s a sense of touch, a sense of proximity, a sense of coming apart. It is never not a wrench. Either skin is touching skin or it is not. Thoughts are repositioned, but feelings are torn. What’s underneath is bare and vulnerable, newly born.

The grief has been overwhelming, coming in and out of phase as we await the inevitable. I’m surprised by how grief-stricken I have felt. No one has died, but it nonetheless feels like one life is coming to an end whilst another is simultaneously beginning anew.

All day today I have felt like I’ve been grasping at air, trying to stop time or slow time or just hold it steady. She’s not even at home, but what’s so painful is that home is still how it feels. Tomorrow, it won’t be, or maybe it will, but not in the same way. And yet, nothing is really going to change, we keep telling ourselves. I’m coming back. We’re too important to each other to turn our backs and simply march off in separate directions. But something is changing. Oddly enough, it’s hard to say what. A mental state? A thought? A certain relation or configuration? We’re saying goodbye to an abstraction, an idea. That’s all. I’m losing her for now, but I’m coming back.

But to what? This decade-long echo, this tandem reverberation, this uneasy doubling is dissipating and coming to rest. The vibrations will be different from here on out. What comes next will be different.

It’s a strange sensation, but so fitting that Arthur would soundtrack these final few days for me. 2014, the year after the release of Arc Light’s vinyl reissue of Another Thought, felt like the year Arthur Russell fever was fully ignited. It felt like everyone discovered this idiosyncratic back catalogue at the same time. An album like World of Echo, usually quite a austere choice for listening in mixed company, was a strange world we were all inhabiting at the same time. We were all collectively in the mood for Arthur’s cello.

2014 was also the year we first moved in together, and Arthur soundtracked so many rainy Cardiff days, so many mundane profundities, so many deliveries.

I like when people talk about Arthur Russell’s “delivery”. His playing, his voice, is his and his alone, but in another sense his music truly acts like a postcard. It arrives, gets stuck on the fridge for a while, then maybe placed in a drawer, only to be rediscovered when you move house or have a spring clean, a madeleine de Proust that washes back over you, maybe stuck back on the fridge for a while. It defines and redefines your circumstances, it colours space, allowing for a return to a vibe when the sounds are replayed.

It’s a near-universal experience. When you listen to something enough and your bones get to know it. The hairs stand up on your skin as if responding to some acknowledgement from deep within. Arthur Russell’s music always felt like that, albeit folded back on itself. It’s one thing to reminisce with your one-time favourite band, but how do you respond to the music that you make yourself? That’s where Arthur seems to live: in some liminal space between constant creation and recreation. The dubs and versions and alternate takes are so central to the span of his life, as if another version indicates the return of a thought in another time. But after a while, you get the sense that, once their sung, the songs are not quite his anymore. Attending to the flow of his own creativity, Arthur’s songs fall through his hands like sand, and must be constantly reshaped anew.

It changes the entire feel of his music, which seems to rest so much upon that sweet jazz dichotomy of improvisation around the shared conjuration of standards. “First thought, best thought”? Maybe… But what about the conditions of thought? What about our attempts to rethink our first thought, and hold onto it, repeating it, echoing it? How many times can you think your first thought before it becomes your second? When does your first thought become your last thought?

A thought is coming to an end, but not a feeling. Still, it feels the dice have been reloaded. This changing configuration feels like it is about to change all the others. An opportunity has arisen to reconfigure how I choose to be. Nothing has hurt more in my life, but nothing has felt more right. Knowing something is right doesn’t make it any easier to do. Still, there’s no animosity, no anger, no rage. No resentment. Just a deep love and a mutual respect, which has culminated in a painful realisation: it’s time to let go. It’s the best reason you could possibly have to end anything, and perhaps the hardest one to get over.

I’m turning back to Arthur to get me through. He was there at the start. It’s only right he’s there at the end as well. But he sounds different now, and speaks new truths. Love songs that once brought joy, hummed in each other’s ears on Sunday mornings, now feel like laments. What I first heard as hello now sounds like goodbye. I feel more than a little lost.

Notes Against Reading Widely
(For a Pluralist Militancy)

Based on two Twitter threads from earlier, gathered together for posterity.

I made it three whole months without prodding any of the old Spiked Online / Zer0 2.0 network — as was my New Years resolution — but their creeping influence in the UK, as more people try and copy the US model of edgelord political podcast, is a disaster for leftist media in this country, and it (still) deserves challenging whenever it tries to take another drive at legitimacy.

This isn’t to suggest there has been some new concerted effort, however. In fact, since Zer0 2.0 was bought out, the attempts have been far more fragmented. But they are all the more dangerous because of it, in being far more easily absorbed into the bloodstream of the body politic.

This was made newly apparent by a series of “unlocked” posts from old Zer0 2.0 allies, The Popular Show, chatting up old RCP member and now Baroness Claire Fox (along with a few other Unherd columnists and the like). This isn’t much of a scandal in and of itself; the podcast is pretty inoffensive, allowing Fox and others to make themselves sound presentable and reasonable over the course of an utterly toothless hour-long conversation. But that’s also part of the problem. Though some may argue that it’s all in the service of “knowing your enemy”, this is just a continuing pattern of behaviour where edgelords continue to platform each other, and they always end up being someone who is a stone’s throw from Spiked Online.

In the past, people have claimed my assertions that Spiked and Zer0 are linked are tenuous, but it seems that few actually now the full scope of this network and its incestuous “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” approach to media appearances and co-signs. For a long time, Zer0 was the most blatant example. Beyond the constant appearances on each other’s platforms and podcasts, the main headlines are that Frank Furedi and Luke Gittos were both published by Zer0 2.0, with Furedi’s book being particularly popular with the UK far-right. Even as Zer0 3.0 attempts to distance itself from that era, the lingering and sadly binding contracts from Doug Lain’s tenure include the likes of LGB Alliance bigot Don Milligan. Zer0 2.0 and Spiked also engaged in something of a useful idiot exchange, with a dozen Zer0 authors writing articles for the website, including Ashley Frawley, Angela Nagle, Mike Watson, Philip Cunliffe, George Hoare and Christine Louis Dit-Sully, to name but a few. Leigh Phillips also returned the favour by writing a defense of Spiked for the Zer0 blog, which he titled “In defense of reading widely”, but which was nothing more than a sycophantic ode to Brendan O’Neill (of enormous forehead meme fame) that has aged so terribly it is now genuinely hilarious to read.

Granted, this essay was written in 2015. That feels like ancient history, in political terms. And anyway, surely no one in their right mind would think of calling Brendan O’Neill “left-wing” in 2022. Nevertheless, we’re told that this new generation of Spiked hangers-on are different. But seven years on, the tactics are the same. New faces, same insistent “leftism”. These people are real, traditional leftists, we’re told. It’s the left more broadly that has lost its way. As RCP historian Evan Smith has pointed out, it’s the Grampa Simpson approach to politics. “I used to be with it but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now, what I’m with isn’t it and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me.” (Alternatively, it’s the Bill Maher version of leftism, which is just as telling.) The same argument is made every time. We’re on the same side. Read more widely. Consider dissenting viewpoints. Don’t encase yourself in the leftist echo chamber. But it is very possible to do that without pandering to Spiked. What is it about this hot mess of a thinkpiece farm that anyone would think it contributes to a healthy media diet? In the end, this version of “reading more widely” just means reading more of their reactionary op-eds in an increasing number of places, from mainstream newspapers to government culture war missives, as a disturbing number have been part of Boris Johnson’s cabinet at one point or another.

For how much longer are people going to take their word for it? Giving them the time of day, accepting their “leftism” based on their own assertions and nothing more? It happens all the time, because people just don’t know any better, and it’s understandable. I fell into this trap myself. All they want is the benefit of the doubt, and many are willing to give it to them in the interests of balance and fairness. Never mind that you might, like I did, drastically change your mind. Any time spent hearing what they have to say is a win for their anti-woke salesmanship. “Let’s just hear them out” can be easily translated into “this person is worth listening to”. But we need to learn the history of the RCP and its ilk, else we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the last few decades where, from time to time, these idiots have been taken seriously. That is all we have to look forward to in platforming these people: a crowd of mini O’Neill’s, having gone fully mask-off for the culture war.

Many of them have already, of course. And once you’ve dealt with one of these people, you’ve dealt with them all. We don’t need to respond to them as a new threat — this lot are all Gen X has-beens and millennial man-children — but instead remain vigilant as they attempt to dilute a resilient cultural hegemony that the left has developed against all the odds since the financial crash and its aftermath made it a necessity. At the end of the day, that’s all their “anti-woke” agenda amounts to. These “leftists” are good for “critiquing the left” in much the same way that TERFs are “feminists” good for “critiquing gender”. It’s the current reaction against an ascendant leftist mediasphere and a broader changing world that pays lip service to leftist ideas — particularly capitalist realism, in Zer0 2.0’s case — whilst decrying those who have contributed the most to the denaturalisation of a neoliberal status quo. Over the years, this reaction has been very effective, to the point that the UK thought it warranted its own Fox News channel to seal the deal. But the right has been overconfident in its perceived cultural prowess and the tables are already turning. After years of the right holding court with moral panics against pro-Palestinian activists and supporters of trans rights, which caused real damage to an overall leftist project, the right are losing the overall argument. They won some battles but they’re losing the war. Support for both Palestinians and trans people (to stick with just two particularly prevalent examples) is increasing; the media narrative against both is faltering. The Spiked crowd are next for the chopping block.

The old response from this lot, when faced with their inevitable delegitimisation, is that this kind of vitriol makes the left less diverse and weaker. The left is too punitive, too morally stringent, they say. On the contrary, so many of those who hate this reactionary nonsense are sinning in ways that would make Brendan O’Neill’s forehead gain a few more stories. But still, they insist we should accept them as part of a 21st century rainbow coalition. No, sorry, entryists stay at the door. Cranks and TERFs aren’t wanted here, because their position is fundamentally one of closing spaces off to some of the most vulnerable and the most radical. For those well-meaning leftists caught in the fray, the point to be taken away from all this is that militancy and pluralism are not antithetical to one another, despite what these people would have you believe. To refuse to engage with this bullshit needn’t invoke yet another “so much for the tolerant left” eye roll.

This is the one lesson I find useful from Badiou (which I also find compatible with a deleuzoguttarian politics, though Badiou himself would no doubt disagree): “Against the idea of normal desires we must sustain the militant idea of a desire that permanently affirms the existence of that which has no name.” The idea that militancy insists upon a singluar and stationary position is wrong. Militancy instead marches onwards. The Grampa Simpson politics of the wider Spiked network could never.

So why kick up the dust again? Three months was a good run. Maybe three months more of Spiked neglect are in order. But for all those who decried this hostile sentiment as a personal or low-stakes vendetta, just look around you. Never have the stakes been higher.

As they wander recklessly into discourse surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, people are waking up to the fact that these useful idiots have been useful for foreign powers too. Their pro-Putin op-eds have been constant, and you need look no further than former Zer0 editor Ashley Frawley, a now-frequent pundit for (K)GB News, who was shilling her tired libertarian takes for Russia Today just last month.

This is where this sort of bullshit cashes out: what is little more than the most asinine political commentary during peace time looks a lot different from the other side of Russia’s invasion. For some time, their contributions to the culture war have benefitted few beyond a deeply reactionary establishment, now up to its neck in oligarchy. Sure, in December 2021 it might have looked like a pissing contest, but as things heat up across Europe and as we take a closer look at the information cold war of the last few years, it is becoming clear who among the commentariat has actively made things worse. The most deplorable, for my money, are part of the promiscuous Spiked network.

Peterson versus Foucault

Twitter is doing as Twitter does this evening. It’s a deeply ugly and uncomfortable place to be. But no, it’s not increasingly unhinged chatter about Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Philosophy Twitter is engaging in “Was Foucault a nonce?” discourse again.

Jordan Peterson is the reason why, somewhat unsurprisingly. He’s been on Wikipedia again and is using it as the basis for more of his hollow reasoning. But as myopic as it is, in this instance it unfortunately doesn’t make him wrong.

Michel Foucault kept uncomfortable company. Rumours abound about his conduct in Tunisia and there really was an open letter signed by many intellectuals at the time in favour of man-boy love. But having recently read the diaries of Foucault’s one-time lover, Herve Guibert, it seems to get much worse than that.

Guibert makes occasional reference to a friend — someone other than Foucault — who actively shared and lusted over photos of boys. At the time, this predilection seemed to be viewed, by some, as just another sexual frontier. As such, Guibert admits to looking and trying the fantasy on, and he even wrote a book about one ill-fated love affair, but he ultimately seems repulsed by his friend’s obsession, even if his own repulsion makes him all the more curious.

It all makes for queasy reading in the present. Suffice it to say, from what I’ve read, it is clear that the avant-garde end of French culture — particularly French queer culture — did a little bit too much soul-searching about having sex with boys. On that note, the unleashing of a unprecedented sexual revolution clearly went way too far.

Nothing about this suggests we need to make excuses for those involved. These are just the facts. It’s all there to be read. None of this has somehow been repressed or hidden away in archives. You can read it for yourself. And that’s how it should be. It makes the time in which these men lived much easier to understand. It still doesn’t excuse any of it, but the mildest way of putting it would simply be that these confessions have not aged well. It may have been a grey area for them; it is not for us.

All of this presents a real ethical quandary, given how important Foucault’s work on sexuality is to so many — not to mention how his own archaeological approach to the history of ideas has complicated our view of how sexuality has previously been understood and expressed. The irony is that Foucault presents us with numerous tools for critiquing his own sexual conduct and that of his generation more broadly.

But his work also helps us to see how errant bodies and “monstrous” or “abnormal” sexualities continue to be controlled, manipulated and suppressed. Read through Foucault himself — or anyone else with a couple of brain cells — it is clear that Peterson’s aim here is to do nothing more than contribute to contemporary bigotry and idiocy.

The very real pederasty of a subset of French queer intellectuals is being used, in this instance, to exacerbate a false equivalence between homosexuality and pedophilia that has seen a broader cultural resurgence of late. Indeed, this attack on Foucault is just a retreading of the old battlelines that Peterson made his name antagonising. It’s bathroom discourse supplanted onto intellectual history — trans women are an innate threat to our children, as are the gays and the postmodern left more generally. We need look no further than the recent implementation of anti-trans legislation in Texas to see how this false equivalence between queerness and criminality is made to further a far more real and current form of child abuse, which isn’t the preserve of some wrong-headed sexual vanguardists but the state itself.

Foucault isn’t directly relevant here at all, but surely the only reason anyone could be bothered to try and delegitimise him in this context is that he literally wrote the book on the historical precedents for criminalising those who do not express their gender as society demands.

All this is to say that Foucault doesn’t need to be defended. He also doesn’t need to be performatively condemned. We simply need to see this cynical attempt at whataboutery for what it is: the most abhorrent beliefs of one long-dead man are being used to justify the reactionary might of the state right now.

However, it doesn’t take a genius to see how the two things do not cancel each other out. Peterson himself even seems to be on the cusp of recognising this when he notes how no one denies his claims about Foucault, instead saying that he is a bad person. It’s because both things can be true. That Peterson can point out that this other man was a repugnant symptom of a rotten society does not negate the fact that he is a repugnant symptom of all that is wrong with the present one.

Was Foucault a pedophile? A terrible human being? Perhaps he was. He was also a brilliant scholar. Does that redeem him? Debatable. But the broader point is that Peterson doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. What he hopes is a “gotcha!” is destined to backfired when he finds himself even less respected than a suspected nonce…

Wound Stories:
The Orphan-Unconscious in Harry Potter and Anti-Oedipus

I bought the book recommended to me by my analyst the other day: Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I was expecting the sort of book I’ve read a dozen times before: the Hallmark adoption story of a child who seeks and finds wholeness. Instead, I got the most perfect and fragmented book of linked but disconnected chapters, all about Winterson’s search for her birth mother. The penultimate chapter, in particular, resonated profoundly with my own thinking of late.

She writes not so much about the prevalence of the “orphan trope” but of wounding stories, which nonetheless often overlap with orphan stories.

There are so many wound stories:

Chiron, the centaur, half-man, half-horse, is shot by a poisoned arrow tipped in the Hydra’s blood, and because he is immortal and cannot die, he must live forever in agony. But he uses the pain of the wound to heal others. The wound becomes its own salve.

Prometheus, fire-stealer from the gods, is punished with a daily wound: each morning an eagle perches on his hips and rips out his liver; each night the wound heals, only to be scored open the next day. I think of him, burned dark in the sun where he is chained to the Caucausian mountains, the skin on his stomach as soft and pale as a little child’s.

The doubting disciple Thomas must put his hand into the spear-wound in Jesus’ side, before he can accept that Jesus is who he says he is.

Gulliver, finishing his travels, is wounded by an arrow in the back of the knee as he leaves the country of the Houyhnhnms – the gentle and intelligent horses, far superior to humankind.

On his return home Gulliver prefers to live in his own stables, and the wound behind his knee never heals. It is the reminder of another life.

One of the most mysterious wounds in in the story of the Fisher King. The King is keeper of the Grail, and is sustained by it, but he has a wound that will not heal, and until it does heal, the kingdom cannot be united. Eventually Galahad comes and lays hands on the King. In other versions it is Perceval.

The wound is symbolic and cannot be reduced to any single interpretation. But wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. These is value here as well as agony.

What we notice in the stories in the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out – literally and symbolically – by the wound. The wound is a sign of difference. Even Harry Potter has a scar.

Freud colonised the Oedipus myth and renamed it as the son who kills the father and desires the mother. But Oedipus is an adoption story and a wound story too. Oedipus has his ankles pierces together by his mother Jocasta before she abandons him, so that he cannot crawl away. He is rescued, and returns to kill his father and marry his mother, unrecognised by anyone except the blind prophet Tiresias – a case of one wound recognising another.

You cannot disown what is yours. Flung out, there is always the return, the reckoning, the revenge, perhaps the reconciliation.

There is always the return. And the wound will take you there. It is a blood-trail.

Last week I was telling my analyst about Joe Bousquet, who I have been researching: the poet and writer who was shot in the war and made paraplegic. It was only once bedbound that he became a writer, and he wrote at length about his wound, and how it newly made him who and what he was. He would not have been a poet or a writer had he not been shot, he wagered, and so he embraced his wound and loved it, to the point it was just a part of him. It defined him, yes, but did not compromise him. On the contrary, it seemed to set him free. Or rather, the loss of bodily mobility set his mind free. He embraced it, overcoming his reality, becoming (quite literally and literarily) a surrealist.

That’s what I have long wanted for myself, and what I am discussing with my analyst at length. I want to embrace my second birth. Not my carnal birth but my wounding, my grief, as the thing that defines me but which allows me to also overcome my reality. It is a wound that is not an albatross around my neck but a portal into another world.

Asking me about Winterson’s book, which I think he was surprised I bought and enjoyed so thoroughly, he wondered what it was that I “enjoyed” about it beyond this single chapter; “scare quotes” because it is hardly an easy and “enjoyable” read. I told him about how Nick Stock had mentioned reading it with his students, who compared it to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and that was how it felt to me too. It is a book about one person, but hardly a “whole” person. It’s a fragmentary book about a fragmentary spirit that evades capture and containment. It is a series of snapshots, of a life disjointed and interrupted but also folding and multiplying, fragmenting like a kaleidoscope rather than some otherwise whole and intact object. It is similar to how Deleuze and Guattari talk about orphan-conscious (and -unconscious) and a sense of fragmentation in Proust in Anti-Oedipus:

In the literary machine that Proust’s In Search of Lost Time constitutes, we are struck by the fact that all the parts are produced as asymmetrical sections, paths that suddenly come to an end, hermetically sealed boxes, noncommunicating vessels, watertight compartments, in which there are gaps even between things that are contiguous, gaps that are affirmations, pieces of a puzzle belonging not to any one puzzle but to many, pieces assembled by forcing them into a certain place where they may or may not belong, their unmatched edges violently bent out of shape, forcibly made to fit together, to interlock, with a number of pieces always left over. 

This is the reality that (Freud’s) Oedipus cements over. The search for wholeness that Freud projects onto the tragic king is his own and not that of Oedipus himself. On the contrary, Oedipus left the family he believed to be his own on a line of flight, only to be caught up in a series of tragic coincidences. Indeed, that Oedipus achieves a certain incestuous wholeness is surely the worst outcome for a tale that begins with an attempted flight from destiny. That is the tragedy — that it was meant to be different. Freud, instead, affirms the inevitability of a very particular experience for all humankind. Other narratives since have since offered alternate approaches. For Deleuze and Guattari Proust is again a worthwhile example:

Proust maintained that the Whole itself is a product, produced as nothing more than a part alongside other parts, which it neither unifies nor totalizes, though it has an effect on these other parts simply because it establishes aberrant paths of communication between noncommunicating vessels, transverse unities between elements that retain all their differences within their own particular boundaries. Thus in the trip on the train in In Search of Lost Time, there is never a totality of what is seen nor a unity of the points of view, except along the transversal that the frantic passenger traces from one window to the other, “in order to draw together, in order to reweave intermittent and opposite fragments.” This drawing together, this reweaving is what Joyce called re-embodying.

I believe a sense of re-embodying is what most adoptees strive for. But rather than in the sense of a carnal return – returning to the womb, etc. – there is a certain desire to return to the wounding, to the second birth and make ourselves worthy of it (just as Deleuze argues of Bousquet in Logic of Sense). This is what Deleuze and Guattari later refer to as “the splendid affirmation of the orphan- and producer-unconscious”. The goal is seemingly always to do away with one’s parents:

Foucault has noted that the relationship between madness and the family can be traced back in large part to a development that affected the whole of bourgeois society in the nineteenth century: the family was entrusted with functions that became the measuring rod of the responsibility of its members and their possible guilt. Insofar as psychoanalysis cloaks insanity in the mantle of a “parental complex,” and regards the patterns of self-punishment resulting from Oedipus as a confession of guilt, its theories are not at all radical or innovative. On the contrary: it is completing the task begun by nineteenth-century psychology, namely, to develop a moralized, familial discourse of mental pathology, linking madness to the “half-real, half-imaginary dialectic of the Family,” deciphering within it “the unending attempt to murder the father,” “the dull thud of instincts hammering at the solidity of the family as an institution and at its most archaic symbols.” Hence, instead of participating in an undertaking that will bring about genuine liberation, psychoanalysis is taking part in the work of bourgeois repression at its most far-reaching level, that is to say, keeping European humanity harnessed to the yoke of daddy-mommy and making no effort to do away with this problem once and for all.

I think this is felt acutely by adoptees, who may wish to affirm the rickety nature of “the yoke of daddy-mommy” and so embrace their innate capacity to break free (or rather, the fact they have always already broken free and are instead passed, by society, through a series of well-meaning but insufficient simulations). This is what produces a sense of fragmentation, of never being whole. But in my own experience, this fragmented sense of self is not the sense of something being missing in me but rather something missing outside of me. It is a familiar sense of grief, in that regard. We are defined so often by our relations and by a sense of home or belonging, but that is precisely what I find feels interrupted. What I am finding increasingly positive about Deleuze and Guattari’s project is it makes the affirmation of this fragmentation feel radically possible, and so much of their theory already suits the phenomenological experiences of being an orphan or adoptee in the first place.

For example, I often reflect on how it felt to see a photograph of my birth mum for the first time at the age of 18; the feeling of seeing someone I saw myself in for the first time in my life. For most people, the faces of our parents follow us through life. I spoke to someone recently who started wearing glasses a year or so ago, for instance, but who often tries to get away with not wearing them. When I asked why, they said they feel weird about how much they resemble one of their parents. Since they have a complicated relationship with said parent, it’s a hard thing to be reminded of every time they look in the mirror. But my experience is almost the complete opposite. I don’t really have an image of anyone else in my head when I look in the mirror at my own aging face. I don’t see myself as part of some genetic continuum, not even fleetingly.

What was so striking about seeing my mum’s face for the first time was that I was given the photo aged 18, and it was an old photo, taken when she was 18. At first, I saw no resemblance. Then, over time, I saw that she shared a brow – a “T-zone”; the same nose, eyes and eyebrows. It was so novel to finally experience that sense of familial resemblance, but it was too late to really internalise it. I didn’t see a future when I look at her, only the present, because we were effectively the same age.

This sensation is thrilling, if only because it feels so unnatural, set against my vague understanding that most don’t even think twice about it. It’s fun. It makes me feel unique. But it also feels very lonely. To not have that genetic frame of reference feels a bit like being the last of a species, but it is still something worthy of affirming.

This is again found in what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as the orphan-unconscious, “in the sense that the unconscious reproduces itself wherever the names of history designate present intensities (‘the sea of proper names’).” I find myself produced far more readily when put in relation with others. I gain a sense of self from the mere proximity of my adoptive family, for instance. The relation feels generative, playful, like an adopted fiction. I have no genetic connection to it, and so embrace the sense of familial role-play. It feels creative. The same is true of my imagination when it engages with my biological family and the teasing hints of what could have been. And it is for this reason that Deleuze and Guattari argue the orphan-unconscious “is not representative, but solely machinic, and productive.” It inserts itself into relations with ease, rather than feeling tied to one family tree, to a sea of proper names. It is in this way that “the orphan libido invests … a field of social desire, a field of production and antiproduction with its breaks and flows, where the parents are apprehended in nonparental functions and roles confronting other roles and other functions.”

It is wonderful to read Deleuze and Guattari – and Deleuze on his own also – and find this wound be described as a productive machine. It denaturalises the melancholy of adoption, but also illuminates the inescapable counter-narratives that insist the orphan-unconscious must proceed otherwise.

It makes me think of Harry Potter. “Even Harry Potter has a scar”, Winterson writes. But he hardly makes himself worthy of it. In fact, the entire saga is about his attempts to negate it and what it symbolises.

Look at it this way: At first, Harry Potter, the individual character, also feels totally distinct, separate, unique. He lives with his aunt and uncle, his biological relatives, but they make him feel like a pariah. So, like Oedipus, he leaves the family he knows, his dead-end destiny, and hopes to reconnect with his ideal family in another way. He forsakes his familial destiny for another generative one. And so, he enters the wizarding world. Once he there, he feels newly connected to his parents, because he feels newly a part of their world and, more importantly, their relations. But things aren’t so simple. How Harry relates to those around him is split between what they see in him: do they see their friend’s child or do they see the wounded orphan? The people Harry trusts always see the former. They comment on how he looks like his parents, James and Lily. He is always told that he has his “mother’s eyes”. He embraces those who appeal to a representative and closed-mind orphan-consciousness. But to other people, who he seemingly can’t trust, he is always just “the boy who lived”. He is defined by his wound rather than the circumstances of his birth, and this is clearly what bothers Harry the most. Though we might see this as meaning he is a boy with the world at his feet, having broken free of destiny, an expected fate, he rejects it at every turn. Indeed, to define himself through his wounding is supposedly to side with evil.

By the end of the series, it is clear that Harry’s vendetta against Voldemort isn’t so much about revenge for the murder of his parents, but rather an attempt to sever the ties between himself and his unnameable double, his brother in wounding. (Cf. René Nelli on Joe Bousquet.) And so, in annihilating Voldemort, Harry wants to annihilate his wound, his famous scar. In the latter books, this is made all the more explicit and seemingly unavoidable when it’s suggested that Harry himself is a “horcrux”, a magical “partial object” onto which Voldemort has transplanted part of his soul, making him immortal. Harry believes, for a time, that he has to die for Voldemort to die too. And it seems that, for a moment, he does. Harry Potter not only has two births, but will eventually have two deaths. His partial death, in the fight against Voldemort, negates his second birth. From there on out, or so we’re led to believe, he lives happily ever after, finally creating a new family of his own, living out the dream of the nuclear family that his parents never could.

So many orphan stories are like this. They are framed as quests for wholeness. But wholeness feels impossible. It has been denied, fundamentally. For me, for example, similarly to Winterson, I’ve met my biological family. I know by birth mum, her sister, their kids, my maternal grandmother. I’ve met them all and I love spending time with them. But they also already have families of their own. Though I may have once daydreamed about it, I see no future where we suddenly start spending Christmases together, like families do. I see no reality in which I feel like an actual part of the family, with the sort of access one might readily expect from your family. (I have that with my adoptive family, to an extent, but it is never quite whole; I never quite feel fully at home there.) And so, as far as these romantised quests for wholeness ago, retold again and again in our popular media, I just cannot relate. Though the orphans and adoptees are held up as beacons of a kind of universal experience – the wounding, the adventures of self, the return home – the conclusions are always alien.

I don’t feel that way. I don’t have those desires. I don’t think Jeanette Winterson feels that way either. And I know, because he writes so eloquently about it, that Joe Bousquet does not feel that way either. We do not want to cancel out our second births but make ourselves worthy of them. We don’t want to strive for some false ideal, some hollow familialism that we can never actually possess. “You cannot disown what is yours.” Ultimately, the only thing that is ever truly yours is the wound. I certainly want to own it. The problem is that society, culture, the stories we tell ourselves, don’t think that’s the best outcome. But they’re all wrong.