A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory by Rictor Norton

ESSENTIALISM

My traditionalist historical position is termed "essentialism" by postmodern theorists, which they regard with contempt, in the same way that I regard social constructionist theory as the main impediment to the understanding of queer history. The history of ideas (and ideologies) can be interesting and valuable, but it is tragic that homosexuals have been subsumed totally within the idea of the ‘homosexual construct’. The result is little better than intellectual ethnic cleansing.

In the social constructionist view, knowledge is constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed through ideological discourse. In my traditionalist or essentialist view, knowledge is discovered, repressed, suppressed, and recovered through history and experience. Social constructionism emphasizes revolutionary development (the dialectic); I emphasize evolutionary development, cultural growth and permutation, and sometimes mere change in fashion. Rather than the word ‘construct’, which implies building from scratch according to an arbitrarily chosen blueprint, I prefer the words ‘consolidate’ or ‘forge’, implying that the basic material already exists but can be subjected to shaping and polishing.

‘Cultural constructs’ are sometimes set up in opposition to ‘universal truths’ in an effort to force tradtionalists/essentialists into an impossibly idealistic corner, but ‘culture’ is a concept that can be claimed by essentialists as well as by social constructionists. The essentialist position is that queer culture is organic rather than artificial. Social constructionists see culture as a construct whose arbitrary foundation is determined by the builder; I see culture as the cultivation of a root, and I shall be developing the ethnic view that queer culture grows naturally from personal queer identity and experience and is self-cultivated by queers rather than by the ideology and labels of straight society.

I cannot reasonably object if critics wish to label me an ‘essentialist’ pure and simple, because I believe that homosexuals are born and not made, and that homosexuality is hard-wired. However, I also believe that queers fashion their own culture (using their own resources rather than being imposed upon by society), and this is a significant focus of my own version of essentialism, which might be called ‘queer cultural essentialism’. I take the view that there is a core of queer desire that is transcultural, transnational, and transhistorical, a queer essence that is innate, congenital, constitutional, stable or fixed in its basic pattern. However, I distinguish between queer persons, queer sexual acts and behaviour, and queer social interactions, and try not to confuse the constancy of the desire with the variability of its expression. Personal queer identity arises from within, and is then consolidated along lines suggested by the collective identity of the queer (sub)culture.

In the theoretical literature it is generally assumed that essentialism is the same as uniformism/conformism (often made explicit in lesbian-feminist theory). But the view that homosexuality is a monolith is not at all an essential feature of essentialism. The essentialist does not say there is only one gay root: in fact a diversity of roots has been a key feature of essentialism since the early 1970s – witness the plural title of the two-volume collection of essays from Gay Sunshine: Gay Roots. It is really social constructionist theorists who have forced traditionalism into this straightjacket, just as they have forced gay experience into the political straitjacket.

I have no problem in reconciling the view that queer desire is innate but that it expresses itself in sexual or social actions and (sub)cultures that may reflect to a greater or lesser degree the time and place in which they occur. Self-presentation can be carefully constructed even though it is founded upon an innate self-conception. There should be no difficulty in recognizing, for example, that modern British gay consciousness was well in place before American styles of presenting or performing gayness were deliberately imported into Britain: ‘Michael Glover, who started the London Apprentice [pub], had seen leather bars and cruise bars in the States and it was his intention to bring that style of bar to London’ (Healy 1996). The specific sexual custom of fistfucking appeared first in America and was exported to Europe and Japan, probably in the year 1971, but it is not likely that an entirely new mentalité arose in that year, or that decade.

Beneath a (fairly limited) variety of customs that differ from culture to culture can be discerned an underlying phenomenon of queer desire. That desire need not necessarily be expressed through sexual acts. Queer culture and queer ‘sexuality’ go beyond genital sexuality. Henry James as he walked along the river in Oxford in 1869, seeing the punts full of ‘the mighty lads of England, clad in white flannel and blue, immense, fair-haired, magnificent in their youths’, felt that his heart ‘would crack with the fullness of satisfied desire.’ This kind of diffuse homoerotic passion for golden lads or lasses is a central feature of gay and lesbian culture, whether or not it reflects the sexual longing and nostalgia that can arise from ‘sublimation’, and even though its avenues of expression are often restricted and controlled by society in ways specific to each society. Homosexuality is a broad stream which continues to run despite being dammed up and channelled off by social control. The evidence of history points to repression rather than construction as the shaping force of queer identity and culture. The opportunities for expressing queer desire have been increasingly restricted in modern times, but the desire remains the same.

Desire remains the same even though its manifestations are historically contingent. The inner drive has simply been repressed or liberated to varying degrees from one era and culture to another. Trevisan’s (1986) history of homosexuality in Brazil more or less confirms the perception of the early travellers to southern countries, that there exists a ‘Carnival instinct’, an ‘indisputable taste for lechery’, a homoeroticism that gives the bunda, the backside, a privileged place:

Any attempt at the historical systemisation of homosexuality as experienced by Brazilians will be less the history of permissiveness arising from the mechanisms of social control (from the Inquisition and police censorship to psychiatry and academic science) and more the insurrection of vestiges of an uncontrolled desire which flourishes underground, in the backyards of the provinces and the public conveniences of large cities.

 

The queer historian can adopt an essentialist position without having to clearly specify which popular scientific theory about the body is assumed to be most correct. Although the essentialist position assumes a physiological grounding, it is not incumbent upon a historian to offer biological theories concerning brain structure, chromosomes, hormones, or genes. The business of the historian, as opposed to the geneticist, etc., is to examine historical evidence for or against the issue of constitutionality itself. The historian of homosexuals in Renaissance Venice need acquire no more expertise in the field of genetics than a historian of immigration patterns of the Gypsies (Travellers) in the Balkans.

Earlier biological studies which tried to show a link between sexual orientation and the physical development of the genitalia proved inconclusive and have been abandoned. Current studies purporting to show a link between sexual orientation and hormonal influence upon the brain and genetic makeup may similarly prove inconclusive. The studies of Simon LeVay (e.g. The Sexual Brain, 1993), and others whose work has lead to tabloid headlines about ‘the gay gene’, have provoked criticism of methodological failings in defining the deviant group and inadequate control of many variables, and the inability to quantify very tiny differences in measurements of brain tissue (Vines 1992). The brain continues to develop for several years after birth, but the degree to which this allows for ‘social’ influences is debatable. The psychoanalytical theory that homosexuality is ‘acquired’ by experience during, say, the first three years of childhood may never be proved or disproved by historical research; recollections by modern persons about their first three years are untrustworthy, and testimony about the very early childhood of homosexuals in ancient and premodern periods is scarce. But in any case the idea that queerness is ‘nature nurtured’ is still an essentialist position rather than a compromise between the born vs. bred argument. The social constructionist position completely turns its back upon nature. Rather like exclusive heterosexuality, social constructionism lies solely at point 0 on the Kinsey scale: points 1 through 6 are all essentialist to a greater or lesser extent.

Historical research tends to support the essentialist position that queer desire is congenital and then constituted into a meaningful queer identity during childhood. The message of abundant personal testimony on the subject, in a wide range of sources, from fifteenth-century Italy to late twentieth-century Thailand, from biographies and autobiographies to novels, is that queerness dawns around the age of six or seven, or, if it comes later, it surfaces with the feeling that it is something that has lain dormant in the personality, but was always there. African-American lesbian Mabel Hampton said in 1981, ‘From a very early age, I knew that I would never marry. I didn’t see any sense in marrying something that I didn’t like’. Ira Jeffries says ‘I remember "fooling around" with other little girls at the very early age of five’. And Sue Hyde says ‘It took me about twenty years to come fully into lesbianism, but I was a baby butch at the age of five’ (Nestle 1992). E. M. ‘Monte’ Punshon, who died in 1989 at the age of 106, when she was chosen as the spokesperson for the 1988 World Expo in Australia because she was the only one living who had attended the 1888 Expo, revealed to the media that ‘she had known she was a lesbian for nearly a century – since the age of six’ (Richards 1990).

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(Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This critique may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

CITATION: Rictor Norton, A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory, "Essentialism", 1 June 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/social03.htm>


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