CapitalismO.O.P.S.Sex & GenderThe LeftTheory & Practice

On the Regulation of Sexualities

A set of well-executed arguments in Judith Butler’s essay “Merely Cultural” (1997) and Nancy Fraser’s response to it present a springboard from which we should analyze a crucial link between the social regulation of sexuality and social reproduction. An exemplary instance of this appears in the final chapter of Kevin Floyd’s 2009 book The Reification of Desire: Towards a Queer Marxism. Here Floyd presents a specific analysis of “the contemporary, ‘homonormative’ privatizing of sexuality and the evisceration of queer social formations that accompanies it” (p. 207) — and, by extension, accumulation by dispossession — in Times Square, Christopher Street, and Jackson Heights. Floyd links this “neoliberal dispersal” to the “strangely asexual” but “overtly sexualized appeal to newly legitimate gay consumers” (p. 200). His evocative example of early-‘90s Calvin Klein ads featuring Marky Mark put me in mind of the company’s recent campaign featuring J-Beebs (on view now in Times Square, of course). Though both ads give us an airbrushed and chiseled Marxian fetish object, I can’t help but compare the differences between these generations of images — the fuzzier, faker sexuality of Marky Mark and the smooth, nearly metallic sheen of the Bieb. Is that what de-sexed neoliberalism tastes like today?

Nearly twenty years ago, Butler took up claims in “Merely Cultural” that a cultural focus within Left politics had abandoned the material project of Marxism and that such a move failed to address questions of economic equity and redistribution. (In short, poststructuralism thwarts Marxism.) In tandem, she points to “a resurgence of a theoretical anachronism” based on an objective analysis of class, and on an “orthodox unity” from a neoconservative Left, which discounts and universalizes variations of cultural materialism to Marxist theory (p. 36). She argues that queer struggles are therefore seen as “merely cultural” because homosexuals occupy no distinctive position in the division of labor and do not constitute an exploited class; their struggles are only for “recognition” (and here she glosses over Fraser’s work on misrecognition).

Departing from a Marxist-feminist framework of social reproduction, Butler claims that without the “expansion of the ‘economic’ sphere” sexuality becomes a moot point as it is not directly related to unpaid and exploited labor, nor to the reproduction of goods and the social reproduction of persons (p. 40). With this focus on normative sexuality and the redistribution of rights and goods as the defining moment of political economy, she asks how we might fail to recognize “how operations of homophobia are central to the functioning of political economy” (p. 41) and, by extension, how non-normative sexualities are marginalized, debased, rigorously circumscribed by cultural norms, and produced as abject. In sum, she claims this suppression is essential to the operation of normativity and the naturalization of the family.

In “Heterosexism, Misrecognition, and Capitalism: A Response to Judith Butler,” Fraser (1998) contends that the heteronormative regulation of sexuality does not structure the social division of labor nor the mode of exploitation of labor power in capitalist society. She focuses on injustices of misrecognition (as an “institutionalized social relation” and a “material construction of a class of persons impeded from participatory parity”), which are as serious as distributive injustices (see Fraser’s book Fortunes of Feminismp. 176). Fraser maintains that late-capitalist forms of sexual regulation are only indirectly tied to mechanisms for the accumulation of surplus value, and that struggles against heterosexist misrecognition do not automatically threaten capitalism but must be linked to other anti-capitalist struggles. Moreover, she notes that feminist theorists should historicize an economic/cultural differentiation within the rise of capitalism and not assume that injustices of misrecognition must be immaterial and non-economic (p. 179). Fraser claims that while Butler threatens to de-historicize the idea of the economic structure and drain it of conceptual force (p. 181), ultimately, the issue between them is an economic/cultural distinction and not material/cultural.

These are just some of the arguments. A host of generative questions and problems linger. What’s clear is that the unity of the Left needs to be built; it is not a given. In his book, Floyd wonders what a Marxian analysis would look like that doesn’t assume that capital mediates sexuality in relatively consistent, predictable ways — via privatization and commodification, for instance. In Rosemary Hennessy’s essay “The Material of Sex” from her book Profit and Pleasure (2000), she defends a materialist approach to sexual identity, and claims that Butler ignores many of the historical materialist efforts to formulate the complex ways class relations never operate on their own or simply subordinate certain kinds of social difference (p. 57). To various degrees, all four of these writers want to confront a split in society between the cultural Left and the social Left, and to various degrees they pinpoint how frameworks of social reproduction need to understand how the production of gender is linked to the production of sexuality. All seem to argue that there is more capacity for considering this under a Marxian lens, and they might all agree that queer and feminist struggles do not threaten the capitalist order alone — which may lead to a dual-systems theory, such as Marxist-feminism. Yet, to go back to Fraser’s points, the problem with lumping sexuality under a Marxist lens will bring us back always to the question of labor, which is a category that, unfortunately, may not be so elastic.

Yet broad questions should still be raised. How might feminism continue to expand the realm of social reproduction (which indeed seems elastic) to show how all forms of sexuality are shaping, and indeed shaped by the historical and social? How can feminist theory and practice expose how capitalism is a differentiated social order that does many things at once and with multiple and often conflicting points of view? How can feminism think this differentiation to also think unity? And finally — with the slick, de-sexed Bieber ads and our “cleaned-up” Times Square still in mind — how does feminism confront the economic/cultural distinction that was critically highlighted by Butler and Fraser’s dynamic exchange? In what ways does retooling a Marxist framework help with showing how all sexualities are constructed and regulated?

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Lauren O'Neill-Butler

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