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Generally conceived in terms of its resistance to meaning, the real has been aligned most commonly with trauma and hence with what hurts. This emphasis was necessary in part as a corrective to facile appropriations of French psychoanalysis that perceived in the category of jouissance a liberatory pleasure conveniently separable from the difficulties attendant upon psychic negativity. Yet as an instance of the failure of imaginary and symbolic differentiations, the real may be aligned hypothetically with ontological sameness—and thus thought apart from the primarily negative dimension of trauma, impossibility, and pain. To “think differently” at this juncture in the history of psychoanalysis may be, paradoxically, to think more about sameness than about difference, to become temporarily indifferent to difference, and to resist assimilating sameness too readily to the imaginary register. While I do not wish to attribute to psychoanalytic discourses of sexual difference all the problems of identitarianism, thinking sameness may entail bracketing or demoting sexual difference as an explanatory category. Thus it would be less a question of supplementing the analytic paradigm of sexual difference with consideration of racial difference or postcolonial difference (to invoke two of the directions pursued recently in psychoanalytic studies) than of thinking in an entirely different register—that of undifferentiation.
Rather than multiplying differences and discriminating ever finer particularities, we might suspend temporarily the differentiation machine in order to consider forms of existence for which the distinction between identity and difference is largely irrelevant.
While queer theory emerged as part of the ongoing pluralist project of “difference studies,” it has a stake in resisting the sexual differentiations of modernity. Critical emphasis on sexual difference, valuable though it has been, tends to reinforce heteronormativity by tying erotic relationality too closely to differences between the sexes. As I have argued elsewhere, the psychoanalytic preoccupation with sexual difference often leads to an elision of otherness with difference, such that one’s subjective relations to alterity get figured primarily in terms of relations with “the Other sex.”12 Consequently queer theory stands to gain from investigating how non-imaginary sexual sameness—a sameness irreducible to identity—may represent more than merely the mythic prehistory or default of sexual difference.
But perhaps it is misleading to speak in terms of sexual sameness, as if the category of sexuality—or, indeed, any category—could still signify meaningfully at the level of ontological undifferentiation that concerns us here. It may be more accurate to hypothesize instead that the sexual grants access to states 126 Penumbra or relations that dissolve the already troubled distinction between sexual and non-sexual. Certainly it is the case phenomenologically that relations of apparent sameness in homosexuality adumbrate some possibilities for the dedifferentiating imagination. For example, Leo Bersani’s recent work suggests that the sameness of gender in homosexuality points toward an ontological solidarity of being that makes the ostensible failure of difference ethically exemplary. Rather than betraying a disavowal of difference or a narcissistic immaturity (as some psychoanalytically inspired homophobes have claimed), homosexuality would lay bare, as it were, the relational potential of dissolving the boundaries between oneself and others, or of apprehending those boundaries as illusory. From this perspective the gay clone appears less as a model of stifling conformism than as an allegorical figure of what Bersani calls “inaccurate self-replication.” The idea is not that we should start trying to look alike after all, or should aspire to a single gendered ideal, but rather that the critique of queer culture’s manifestations of sameness may be missing something that a notion of the erotic “clone” makes visible. The critique of the clone—that it perpetuates an exclusionary ideal of masculinity—comes from the gay left as well as the antigay right: whereas the latter sees in sameness a narcissistic disavowal of difference, the former often regards the clone’s idealization of butch, self-sufficient masculinity as a racist, misogynist, and ultimately homophobic formation. Apart from the arousal he stimulates in many gay men, surely there is nothing good to be said for this figure?
CLONESIn order to distinguish cultural manifestations of sameness from the ontological de-differentiation that interests Bersani, it may be helpful to meditate further on the gay clone. The term refers to a post-Stonewall norm of masculinity, a particular “look” adopted in the 1970s primarily by American gay men, at a historical moment when it seemed newly possible to embrace gay and masculine identities simultaneously.13 Before Stonewall, being openly gay usually meant being flamboyant (conforming to the model of gender inversion), whereas sexual liberation ostensibly disentangled gender from sexuality, such that one could conform to normative gender expectations while nevertheless acknowledging one’s non-normative sexual identity. To put it in vernacular terms, after Stonewall the macho gay man and the lesbian femme came to supplement the nelly queen and the butch dyke as more readily available identities for non-heterosexual men and women. In this context the gay clone appropriated the insignia of American westernism—faded denim, flannel shirts, leather boots, often a bandanna, and the de rigueur mustache— to affect a look of rugged masculine individualism: think the Marlboro Man or, in its campier version, the Village People. It seemed ironically fitting that the model photographed in the 1970s as the Marlboro Man, that icon of American masculinity, happened to be gay.
Sameness without Identity Gay men adopted with such alacrity the visual styles of normative masculinity—and, increasingly, hypermasculinity—that it made perfect sense to speak of the clone look. While the term connotes a critique of gender homogenization—we endured the struggles of sexual liberation so that all gay men could try to look alike?—more often than not the clone functioned as an index of desirability, even for those who employed the term disparagingly.
When discussing the clone’s commitment to masculinity, Foucault connected his recent cultural emergence to the significance of “monosexual relations,” remarking on the lack of precedence for sexual intimacy between two adult men (rather than between an older man and a youth) outside the context of single-sex institutions such as prisons and the military.14 Here I am not interested in either praising the gay clone as subversive of sex-gender hierarchies or blaming him as conformist; neither am I especially concerned with what made this image so potent an erotic stimulant in the first place. Rather, I’m interested in how the clone has mutated in gay culture—how he has replicated inaccurately, we might say—and, ultimately, how the desire for sameness, or what Foucault speaks of in terms of monosexuality, may represent more than a stubborn refusal to move beyond the securities of the imaginary into the grown-up world of difference.
Of course, the term clone was always hyperbolic in gay culture, since no two persons can be visually identical unless they happen to be twins (and in that case the appearance of identity must be carefully cultivated if visual indistinguishability is to be sustained into adulthood). Rather than signaling visual identity, then, the clone signified a shared erotic ideal—albeit one that was subject to endlessly proliferating differentiations as gay men discovered they were each looking for something quite specific in bed. When we get down to the nitty gritty, a collective erotic ideal rapidly disintegrates into divergent preferences that vastly exceed any binary system yet devised. It is not just that desire divides along hetero- and homo- lines, but also that within each category numerous subcategories proliferate, in a manner that spurs the taxonomic imagination to redouble its classificatory efforts.
Perhaps as a result of experiencing the negative effects of erotic classification, gay men have become particularly adept at elaborating complex sexual typologies—a project in which the clone’s sartorial accessories were enlisted without hesitation. I refer here to the gay “hanky code,” a signifying system whereby differently colored bandannas signal the specific erotic activity one is pursuing. The hanky code is sufficiently complicated to warrant some explaining—even to rather experienced gay men. Worn on the left-hand side, a bandanna generally indicates that the wearer wishes to assume a dominant position during sex; worn on the right, it indicates the wearer’s desire to be dominated. However, even if one were content to remain positionally consistent and therefore in some sense non-promiscuous during a given erotic encounter, the array of bandanna hues is so variegated as to induce vertigo.
128 Penumbra A card I carry in my wallet lists no less than 59 different bandanna colors, each of which subdivides into two meanings depending on whether it is worn left or right. To ensure that one is getting what one is looking for, he must be able to distinguish, often under dim lighting, light blue from robin’s egg blue from medium blue from navy blue from teal blue—and be able to tell left from right consistently, a faculty not closely correlated with the gay gene.15 And naturally one needs to be sure of what one is looking for in the first place. Needless to say, gay folklore is as replete with tales of erotic misrecognition as is Shakespearean comedy; despite their carefully choreographed signals, gay men often end up with a surprise once they make it into the bedroom. Paying attention to the gay clone, we thus discover a bewildering multiplicity of erotic differentiation associated with this icon of erstwhile sameness. The taxonomic imagination frequently risks defeat at the hands of its own classificatory zeal. This would be one way of understanding what Foucault meant by his thesis that there is no power without resistance—that obstructions to power come not from some outside force but rather from inside power itself.
While the gay hanky code promotes differentiation based on the kind of erotic activity desired, it also militates against the clone’s monopoly on desirability by subdividing potential partners into any number of types. That is to say, the hanky code differentiates not only according to behavior (do you like to fist or to get fisted?), but also according to identity (are you looking for a black lover or a Latino? a cop or a cowboy or a Daddy?). By differentiating along the axis of identity and appearance, as well as along that of activity, gay semiotic systems permit virtually anybody to become a type. You might have considered yourself too nondescript to qualify as a clone (or a cowboy or a leatherman); so much the better for perfecting that “boy next door” look. Haven’t set foot inside a gym since high school? All the more likely that you’ll qualify as a chubby, drawing the ardent devotion of “chubby chasers,” men who prefer their sex partners very overweight (wear an apricot bandanna). Whatever your race, age, or body-type—and whether you’re hirsute or smooth, circumcised or not, tattooed or not, bald or not—you will qualify as some stranger’s erotic ideal. Increasingly HIV-seropositivity qualifies as an erotic type too.16 Even the condition of being without observable distinction carries its own distinction: it is considered sexy to be generic, since the generic counts as yet one more erotic type. In the gay world, being unmarked is itself remarkable. Thus while Bersani is right to insist—against those who idealize queer desire as utopianly democratic—on “the ruthlessly exclusionary nature of sexual desire,”17 nevertheless queer culture offsets desire’s exclusionary commitments by its paradoxical diversification of exclusivity.
From a psychoanalytic perspective we could say that if virtually anybody can be seen as a type and therefore as sexually attractive to someone, then this is because practically anything can be fetishized. Just as conventionally Sameness without Identity unappealing acts—defecating, urinating, spitting, hitting—can come to be regarded as erotically stimulating, so too can conventionally unappealing physical traits.18 Doubtless this fetishistic aptitude compensates for the impossibly demanding ideals of physical beauty that circulate so intensively in gay male culture: once slotted into type, even strikingly unprepossessing men can get as much sex as the most handsome Adonis. We might say that gay men represent the most resolute fetishists, capable of transforming any physical attribute or activity into an object of desire. But when we consider Lacan’s claim that desire is structurally fetishistic (insofar as its cause is the shape-shifting, multiform objet petit a), we see that the gay aptitude for fetishism represents nothing more than an intuitive grasp of the workings of desire tout court. In practice if not in theory, North American gay men are mostly Lacanians.
One of the more unlikely hanky codes is the grey flannel bandanna:
worn on the right, it signifies “likes men in suits”; worn on the left, “actually owns a suit.” This example suggests some kinship between the aptitude for making anything into a sexual fetish and the capacity for regarding any identity as a form of drag—a capacity represented most famously in Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s documentary about Harlem drag balls, and theorized most persistently by Judith Butler. Multiplying fetishistic “types” undermines normative objects of desire in the same way that expanding drag beyond female impersonation undermines essentialized identities. Thus what seems politically appealing about gay fetishism is its potential anti-identitarianism: fixating on one particular trait dissolves the culture’s fixations on normative objects of desire by proliferating the possible activities and sites of eros. Further, in highlighting the partiality of desire’s objects, fetishism throws into relief how human desire originates not in heterosexuality—nor even in the attractiveness of other persons—but in the impersonal operations of language on corporeality. Lacan’s theory of the objet a offers an account of how symbolic existence disintegrates human bodies, leaving intangible objects of desire in its wake.