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Archive for October 2011

The Invention of Heterosexuality, by Jonathan Ned Katz

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This book blew my mind a little bit, and I couldn’t be more pleased that it did!

In a very direct and easy-to-understand way, Katz takes a critical look at heterosexuality and finds that it’s not what many of us tend to believe: rather than timeless, inevitable, and categorically distinct from homosexuality, heterosexuality is a relatively new concept with specific cultural and historical limitations. This is not to say that different-sex love and attraction isn’t real and hasn’t always been real for a whole lot of people, but that the way in which we understand variations in sexual desire and experience is relatively new and very particular to our own time and place.

Because queer sexualities have been so thoroughly marginalized and discriminated against in Western culture’s recent history (and this book is specifically dealing with Western culture), the last centuries’ worth of activism has inspired a lot of academic work that aims for recognition by focusing on those sexualities which have been typically neglected or repressed by society at large. This work has been incredibly important and necessary for putting queer sexualities on the map but, Katz argues, the overwhelming focus on homosexuality and bisexuality reinforces the notion that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation that is so natural and normal that it doesn’t warrant investigation. The Invention of Heterosexuality is his attempt to challenge this deeply held assumption.

Katz starts by looking at the way the terms homosexuality and heterosexuality emerged together in the mid-to-late Victorian era as descriptions of pathologies. As the new middle-class grew, they looked for ways to distinguish themselves from what they considered the lascivious working classes AND the decadent upper classes. Re-evaluating sexual norms gave them a way to do this, and one of the ways they represented their new class status was through virtuosic sexual restraint and stricter sexual morality (though they were not in practice as sexually repressed as we often think of them now!). In order to define appropriate sexual behavior, though, they had to name what was considered inappropriate.

Heterosexuality was the term applied to men and women who had sex for pleasure or for any reason other than procreation. As women were seen as basically asexual (or hypersexual if lower class, non-European, any race but white, or inclined to pathological behavior), the history of heterosexuality has, since the beginning, developed along many entirely different trajectories dependent on intersecting lines of race, class, and gender*. Homosexuality was named as similarly deviant, but homosexual and heterosexual behaviors were not mutually exclusive, nor was it assumed that someone with either predilection had anything fundamentally in common with any other who shared it. These sexualities had yet to become “opposites”mediated by bisexuality, and they did not yet connote identity. That came later, with Freud, who actively normalized sex for pleasure by demonizing homosexuality and forcing them into two distinct and incompatible categories of desire. It was only at the expense of homosexuality that he was able to justify the dominance of heterosexuality and convince mainstream society that heterosexuality was normal and even desirable. Of course, Freud was incredibly influential and is responsible for much of what we think about sexuality today.

Only then, after discussing Freud, does Katz ask what kind of systems for thinking about differences in sexuality existed before. He finds that in pretty much all eras, there were systems of categorization that were organized around polarities; but again, one could engage in behaviors aligned with both poles and their sexual desires and actions had no bearing on them as people (meaning their character, personality, etc). He uses the obvious example of the ancient Greeks, who considered sexuality along the lines of Earthly love and Heavenly love. Those driven by the urges of Earthly love found satisfaction in men and women, whereas those who aspired to Heavenly love were drawn to those who exhibited most intensely the ideals of their culture: young men. Men, at least, often engaged both forms of attraction. A less expected example, though, was colonial America, where sexual desire and behavior was understood as being Fruitful or Barren. Adultery and sodomy occupied the same category of behavior, then, since neither was engaged for the purpose of bearing children (although because adultery laws were mainly concerned with protecting women as property, this is one of those areas in which this categorization played out in very different ways for men and women).

Some of his examples did seem questionable because he didn’t offer much context within which to judge his claims, though to be fair that context wasn’t necessarily within the scope of his book. There are too many gaps in my own knowledge to challenge him on anything, and though I do have a hunch that a lot of what he said was really over-simplified, it didn’t really detract from Katz’s main point–at least for me. Katz’s book inspires an overhaul of large and deeply ingrained concepts and forces us to confront their ever-changing nature so that we must ask ourselves: what might a better understanding of sexuality look like in the future?

*Sometimes it was difficult to know how much of what Katz was saying transcended multiple trajectories and which were likely to apply only to white men, so I wish that he’d gone a little more in depth about this.

Written by Emily Jane

October 23, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Emily Books: Something I Like a Whole Lot and Not Just Because its Called “Emily Books”, Although That Helps

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Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Emily Books. Promise!

It’s an independent e-book store run by two young women out of Brooklyn which offers yearly subscribers just one(!) exclusive e-book per month. It also functions as a kind of virtual book club as essays relating to each month’s pick are posted on their website throughout that month, and a literal book club as well for subscribers in New York who can make it to regular meet-ups. Subscribers don’t know in advance which books will become available, though a quick look through Emily Book’s tumblr and their first month’s pick, No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays by feminist music critic Ellen Willis, betrays their taste. Subscribers must be willing to take risks–some might consider this a disincentive, but it’s also pretty adventurous and gives readers access to books that they might never have read on their own, but really enjoyed.

I stand firmly on the physical dead-tree-book side of the line myself, though I don’t think that hard-book lovers and e-book readers constitute two mutually exclusive groups of people, either, and I agree with the women of Emily Books that e-books probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Emily Books isn’t about promoting e-reading though so much as they’re trying to build an independent business platform for selling e-books that doesn’t benefit just the corporate Big Guys like Google and Amazon (even when independent booksellers sell through them, they get a big cut). Personal preferences aside, I believe that this is a worthy goal and hope that others will take it on as well. Maybe they already have?

What do you think: all questions of cost aside (and it is expensive, I think), would you try a subscription to something like this? Does it spark your interest?

Written by Emily Jane

October 17, 2011 at 12:20 am

Posted in Misc.

The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir

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As anyone who’s tried to do it surely knows, writing confidently about The Second Sex is as mammoth a task as reading it is. The brick-like tome was our July read this summer for the Year of Feminist Classics project, but it took a few months longer to finish and will likely be a source of contemplation for innumerable months to come.

In what was a very radical and unprecedented move in the late 1940’s, existentialist philosopher Beauvoir set out to understand the social condition of Woman by examining women’s place in history, mythology, biology, and lived experience within and without the family through the lenses of philosophy and psychoanalysis. Only someone with the exacting brilliance of Beauvoir could pull it off–and she does.

As someone with little to no background in either existentialist philosophy or psychoanalysis, some parts of the book were less accessible to me than were others. In fact, Beauvoir’s scope and knowledge is so far-reaching that I doubt all of it would be completely accessible to any one lay reader, and that’s perfectly fine. I found the first sections of the book to be the densest and most intimidating, although the chapter on mythology was one of my favorites and was full of information totally new and fascinating to me. I did find the second half on “Lived Experience” much easier to follow and comprehend, though it was around this point too that I began to develop slight criticisms of Beauvoir’s presentation.

I’m not going to pretend that I understood all–or even most–of Beauvoir’s analyses. That said, and especially given my lack of exposure to theories of psychoanalysis, I found it’s application quite jarring and unconvincing at times. I just wasn’t sure I bought it, I guess, as an explanation for childhood sexual development and women’s inferiority complexes, amongst other things. And the ways in which she discussed both “frigidity” and lesbian sexuality made me uncomfortable; I wasn’t entirely sure what she was trying to say about them, but I thought it could be a conceptual disagreement. It could also be because the language she was using is now totally outdated. Most likely it was a combination of both those things. Also, she consistently picked the most extreme examples to illustrate her points, which I found counter-productive and distancing. But maybe that was a more widely practiced writing technique at the time? Or maybe it seemed necessary since the arguments were so new that the most extreme examples were warranted? I don’t know, but I found it off-putting.

At the same time, though, her chapter on “Girlhood” was equally reliant on psychoanalysis and REALLY struck a chord with me. It was eerie, actually. So many things I hadn’t considered before as potential sites for social and theoretical interrogation–girl’s interest in having and sharing secrets, obsessive friendships, and quietly inward-gazing narcissism–suddenly made sense in a whole new way. Not that all girls or women share any one quality or experience (and she does tend to generalize a whole lot), but I related to that chapter more than any other and it’s the one which forced me to concede, albeit hesitantly, that there might be something to this whole psychoanalysis thing after all.

Beauvoir is truly in a league of her own. Even when using questionable methods to arrive at contestable conclusions, her intelligence is tangible and dazzling. You may just have to read it to figure out how such a thing could be…and given the number of times I’ve thought back on The Second Sex in random “A-HA, I GET IT NOW” moments of total clarity about pop-culture* or daily life since finishing it weeks ago, I’d say it is worth the challenge!

*For example, when and only when did I apply concepts from Beauvoir’s chapter on mythology to the ridiculous female character in Cowboys and Aliens did that role make any sense to me. Sadly, this application only served to make that character even more absurd and offensive than she already was! Of course, the whole premise of that movie was…well, just don’t get me started on it!

Written by Emily Jane

October 10, 2011 at 5:49 am

The Waterworks, by E.L. Doctorow

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I picked this one up on a whim after having LOVED Ragtime, a novel by the same author set in the first decades of the twentieth century in New York City and featuring real-life characters like Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and J.P. Morgan. While The Waterworks isn’t as littered with famous figure cameos, doesn’t have the same comedic undertone, and takes place in the late eighteen-hundreds, Doctorow’s detailed historic rendering of the city was just as evocative and satisfying as in Ragtime. He really seems to know the city up and down, from the lowest rat-infested layer of abandoned underground tunnels to the very tippy-top of the Empire State building, and horizontally through centuries’ worth of time, too. All the gritty details of life in late nineteenth century New York City–the festering odors of life in the tenements, the outright corruption of the Tweed Ring, and the haughty aloofness of the aristocrats–are all brought vividly to life here.

It was too bad, then, that the rest of the book just wasn’t very good. It’s a detective story narrated by Mr. McIlvaine, the owner of a newspaper, who becomes concerned when his favorite, obdurate young freelance journalist, Martin, stops showing up for assignments. He starts digging around on his own and, in talking with Martin’s friends and family, finds that Martin had been acting in an increasingly strange manner following the death of his powerfully influential father Augustus Pemberton a few years earlier. Recently, it seems, Martin had been convinced that his father was still alive, and that he’d seen him in a passing omnibus one wintry night. What follows is the careful unveiling of a sinister and widespread conspiracy. The first major clue is a child’s skeleton found curled up in the otherwise empty dug-up coffin of Augustus Pemberton.

I was really into the first few chapters of the book, but it didn’t take long to figure out, at least roughly, what was behind the mysterious re-appearance of Augustus Pemberton. The resolution of the mystery was both predictable and entirely far-fetched; a bad two things to be at once. It was a pretty ridiculous ending, actually, and there wasn’t enough encouragement throughout the text to warrant such a suspension of reason. And there wasn’t a twist. Given the very direct, linear nature of the mystery’s revelations, I was kind of expecting one, so that was kind of a let down on top of what was already a too-obvious commentary on the fragile existence of a wholly unequal society cannibalizing itself in pursuit of never-ending progress. If The Waterworks was a movie, it might make for an okay late-night rainy mid-week viewing, but it’s not.

Just stick with Ragtime.

Written by Emily Jane

October 9, 2011 at 2:09 am

Posted in Novels

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