In this daring study of queer life and the public sphere, Eric O. Clarke examines the effects of inclusion within public culture. Departing from studies that emphasize homophobia and its mechanisms of exclusion, Virtuous Vice details how mainstream efforts to represent queers affirmatively continually fall short of full democratic enfranchisement. Clarke draws on contemporary writings along with late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English and European cultural history to investigate how concepts of value, representation, and homoeroticism have interacted and circulated in the West since the Enlightenment.
Examining the role of eroticism in citizenship and why only normalizing
constructions of homosexuality enable inclusion, Clarke reconsiders the work of Habermas and Foucault in relation to contemporary visibility politics, Kant’s moral and political theory, Marx’s analysis of value, and the sexualized dynamics of the Victorian cultural public sphere. The juxtaposition of Habermas with Foucault reveals the surprising value of reading the former in the context of queer politics and the usefulness of the theory of the public sphere for understanding contemporary identity politics and the visibility politics of the 1990s. Examining how a host of nonsexual factors impinge historically upon the constitution of sexual identities and practices, Clarke negotiates the relation between questions of publicity and categories of value. Discussions of television sitcoms (such as Ellen), marketing techniques, authenticity, and literary culture add to this daring analysis of visibility politics.
As a critique of the claim that equal representation of gays and lesbians necessarily constitutes progress, this significant intervention into social theory will find enthusiastic readers in the fields of Victorian, cultural, literary, and gay and lesbian studies, as well as other fields engaged with categories of identity.
About the Author
Eric O. Clarke is Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.
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Virtuous ViceHomoeroticism and the Public Sphere
By ERIC O. CLARKE
Duke University PressCopyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneVisibility at the Limits of Inclusion
Finally, the real me and the business me are the same. -AD FOR VICTORY! GAY & LESBIAN BUSINESS
Over at least the past thirty years, lesbian and gay political and intellectual struggle has focused an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources on the politics of visibility, a politics that strives for greater access to and presence within diverse cultural, economic, and political forms of representation. Visibility politics has demanded more "positive" lesbian and gay characters on television programming and in Hollywood films, promoted the election of lesbians and gay men to legislative bodies, agitated for gay-affirmative curricula within educational institutions, called for public figures who may be gay to declare themselves as such, and staged actions, such as shopping mall "kiss-ins," within the more mundane realms of the everyday. Each of these aspects of visibility politics, as well as many others, aims for both a quantitative and qualitative public representation. And each in its own way has helped to diminish the debilitating effects of homophobia, challenge intolerance where it simply went unquestioned, and gain familiarity and understanding in the face ofsanctioned ignorance. A barometer as well of more directly political goals such as juridical protection and civil rights, visibility signifies lesbian and gay efforts toward social enfranchisement in the largest sense. The quest for public visibility, however, has raised important concerns about the terms on which this visibility will be offered, and the terms on which lesbians and gay men themselves attempt to achieve it. By what processes of valuation does homoeroticism gain a visible public legitimacy?
This question has acquired more urgency as national lesbian and gay organizations, publications, and prominent spokespeople demand not only that mainstream media present "positive" queer images, but also that queers themselves conform to the restrictive terms defining such images. Animating these demands is a structuring contradiction: on the one hand, visibility as a corrective realism, a circulation of less stereotypical, more "authentic" representations; on the other, visibility as fundamentally normative, a circulation of images that conform to a proprietary calculus. Prevaricating between communal authenticity and a calculated normalcy, the demands of visibility are mediated through complex processes of determining value. However much an authenticating visibility might combat devaluing stereotypes of queer life, the very claim to authenticity disavows its mediation. This disavowal tends to elevate homogenized lesbian and gay images into damagingly conformist standards of value for the very constituency they are said to mirror. Yet lesbian and gay conformity, and the current disputes surrounding it, only name the most visible end results of the evaluative processes shaping "positive" representability. If the charge of conformity leveled against a disingenuously authenticating visibility is to have any purpose beyond conjuring a mythical high ground of political rectitude, the processes of value determination that shape this conformity must bear closer scrutiny.
To that end, this chapter will explore some contemporary determinations of homoerotic value in the public sphere, in particular those by which homoeroticism and the subject positions attached to it become legitimately visible. The evaluative dimensions of visibility, and public sphere inclusion of queers more generally, can be located in the three interpenetrating modes of value determination discussed in the introduction. The first legitimates only those aspects of queer life that conform to a heteronormative propriety. It enforces a moral valuation of only particular forms of erotic expression as essentially, constitutively human. By anchoring queer legitimacy in the life narratives and social privileges that normalize narrow versions of heteroeroticism itself, the public sphere constricts queer representation to a phantom normalcy. Overlapping and supplementing this constriction, the second mode grafts a normalized homoeroticism onto economic processes of value extraction directed by the imperative to elaborate commercially valuable market segments. This grafting both enters into and reproduces a preexisting confusion between commercial publicity and democratic political representation. While predicated on the extraction of value in the form of profit margins and market share, commercial publicity has nevertheless come to function as if it were a form of political representation that democratically recognizes and equitably circulates a constituency's civic value. Presumed in and interpenetrating the previous two, the third mode of value determination grants them the appearance of justice: the valorization of publicity images as authentic. The sign of authenticity triumphantly occludes the mediation of images via processes of constriction and extraction. In turn, this reinforces a confusion between traditionally disparate representational arenas and their particular logics: for example, market representation as indistinguishable from juridical protections or access to political deliberation and decision making. This confusion is what we might call a "real fiction"; insofar as marketing efforts and commercial media now perform the labor of "political progress," we must therefore come to terms with, rather than simply decry, the politicized functions that commercial spheres of representation have taken on. In this regard, the real fictions of publicity raise important ethical and political questions for leftist critique. These questions do not ask that we choose between an expropriative mediation and an "affirming" authenticity. Rather, they demand that our modes of ethical and political judgment be attuned to the mediations by which we live now, and those by which we might live in a better future.
With this demand in mind, I will explore how publicity dynamics compress processes of value determination and their effects into narratives of legitimacy and authenticity. I will argue that this narrative compression obscures the mediating effects of value that exceed, and often contradict, the emancipatory promise of public sphere inclusion. As entry points for understanding the relation between value and the historical, ethical, and political ambivalences of both exclusion and inclusion, two questions present themselves: How is it, exactly, that representations which narrow and expropriate value-lesbian and gay "normalcy" and corporate legitimation profits from advertising, for example-are also understood to generate an unequivocally progressive political value? What can this understanding tell us about the nature of a supposedly authenticating visibility in the public sphere?
I would like to begin to address these questions by recounting a rather remarkable event that occurred on U.S. network television on April 30, 1997. This event seemed to confirm for many that giant strides had been made in a relatively short amount of time toward equitable, nonphobic representation of lesbians and gay men in the public sphere. Like many others, I witnessed this event in a lesbian and gay nightclub. In contrast to the usually domestic quality of television viewing, this scene was organized as a public, "community" event in lesbian and gay spaces throughout North America. This particular nightclub was thus unusually crowded for a weekday night, and outfitted with two extremely large screens on which to project the television show we were there to watch. Local television news cameras vied for space with the patrons, scrambling for the best angle to record audience reactions. The event was the coming-out episode of the ABC situation comedy Ellen, and the audience, myself included, responded with laughter, clapping, and enthusiasm. Despite reservations about the publicity preceding the show, I as well as others with similar reservations found it difficult not to be caught up in the very public and communal sense of affirmation-and besides, the show was funny. Together with the months-long media buildup for the episode, and the gossip that had circulated for far longer, the broadcast had the feel of a quite momentous event.
The momentous feel of this event sprang at the very least from the intense anticipation its publicity generated. Indeed, it would have been difficult to miss the enormous amount of publicity in the United States surrounding comedian and actor Ellen Degeneres's decision to out her sitcom character Ellen Morgan, and the star herself, as lesbian. Before the hour-long coming-out episode of Ellen, rumors about Degeneres's plans, and ABC/Disney's approval, circulated for months in presumptively straight and explicitly gay U.S. weekly and monthly publications (thus occupying that curious open secret of entertainment news as really publicity in the strictly commercial sense). These rumors had been featured on ABC's Entertainment Tonight and the E! channel's The Gossip Show. Double entendres about Ellen Morgan's sexuality had been written into the show's scripts during the entire 1996-97 season. The month of April saw a media blitz over the coming-out episode: Degeneres was featured on the cover of the April 14 issue of Time magazine and the cover of the May issue of Out; she was inter viewed by television journalist Diane Sawyer on the April 25 episode of the ABC news magazine 20/20, followed by an interview with Degeneres and her parents after the revelatory episode of Ellen; and there had been many articles about the show and its star in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, People, and the Advocate, to name just a few national publications that regularly feature U.S. entertainment news and publicity.
According to the news-oriented publicity and the celebratory reporting of the lesbian and gay press, these events were important because Ellen Morgan became the first lead character in a U.S. sitcom to be openly gay or lesbian, and Ellen Degeneres became the first star of a U.S. sitcom to declare that she is herself lesbian. Finally, U.S. network television had a lead lesbian character in a prime-time show, and more importantly, one who was not tortured, pathological, predatory, homicidal, suicidal, serial-killing, drug-addicted, prostituted, pathetic, scheming, devious, or simply bad to the core. For these reasons, the coming out of the two Ellens acquired a tremendous political value in the struggle for legitimate, affirming, nonphobic inclusion of lesbians and gay men in the public sphere.
Yet the progressive sheen of this event represents only the finished patina glossing over complex, and often contentious, processes of value coding, both before and after the anticipated revelation. For example, the week following the April 30 episode featured Ellen coming out to her parents. During a strained discussion at a Los Angeles restaurant, Ellen's father expressed anger and resentment at his daughter's revelation, saying that "Your brother Steve had the same childhood and he turned out perfectly normal." Ellen turned to her father and, with exasperation, declared, "I'm normal." Despite her declaration, her father abruptly left the restaurant. Following a later, awkward discussion between the two in the basement of her parents' home-as her father fiddled with a model train set circling "Morganville"-Mr. Morgan unexpectedly arrived at a support group for lesbian and gay parents and their children, attended by Ellen and her mother; he had had a change of heart. The episode ended with Mr. Morgan, defending his daughter against a homophobic parent in the group, proudly exclaiming a slogan from the activist group Queer Nation: "She's here, she's queer, get used to it!"
Apparently, Mr. Morgan's use of the Queer Nation slogan was meant to indicate that he no longer feared for his daughter's normalcy. In this sense it underscores the confluence of Ellen's self-designation as "normal" and similar emphases in national lesbian and gay politics. There are, of course, generic televisual factors in this confluence. The constraints of the situation comedy dictate that even a dramatic conflict be presented not only with humor, but also in a way that allows for its humorous resolution within half an hour. Moreover, one of the basic premises of Ellen was that the title character was anything but normal. If she were, the show would hardly be a comedy. Week after week, Ellen Morgan consistently entangled herself in extraordinary circumstances played for comedic effect. For example, the February 18, 1998, episode featured Ellen's attempts to convince her South Asian neighbors that she is not strange. Needless to say, her attempts failed: they watched her play a game of Twister on the roof of her house with her best friend; as a friendly gesture, she delivered to her neighbors a gift basket with cheese, bread, a banana, cereal, paper towels, and toilet paper-all the while unaware that she inexplicably had a bindi-like red dot on her forehead; and finally, locked out of her house and stuck on her roof wearing a chicken suit for a friend's birthday party, she used a tree to climb into the second story of her neighbors' house while they were holding a wake, tried to make small talk, and was promptly and indignantly asked to leave. Given the extraordinary strangeness that defined Ellen Morgan as a sitcom character, her lesbianism was in fact her most ordinary characteristic. The logic of the show rendered Ellen's lesbianism the only normal thing about her.
Yet the generic constraints of the situation comedy cannot completely account for the show's emphasis on a normalized, albeit socially challenged, lesbianism. Understandably, lesbian and gay responses to a pathologizing homophobia have historically been much the same as Ellen's response to her father's fears. They have sought to render homosexuality less noxious, debilitating, and dangerous than clichéd representations have made it out to be. Degeneres herself had enunciated the rationale for emphasizing lesbian and gay normalcy in her Time interview preceding the coming-out episode:
If other people come out [because of her decision to do so], that's fine. I mean, it would be great if for no other reason than just to show the diversity, so it's not just the extremes. Because unfortunately those are the people who get the most attention on the news. You know, when you see the parades and you see dykes on bikes or these men dressed as women. I don't want to judge them. I don't want to come off like I'm attacking them-the whole point of what I'm doing [by coming out] is acceptance of everybody's differences. It's just that I don't want them representing the entire gay community, and I'm sure they don't want me representing them. We're individuals. It's like seeing scary heterosexuals on talk shows-it's like saying Joey Buttafuoco represents the heterosexual population.
While claiming not to judge the "extremes" like dykes on bikes or drag queens, Degeneres compares them to a "scary heterosexual" like Joey Buttafuoco (who, it should be noted, is a convicted felon). Thus bull dykes and drag queens are implicitly "scary" for two reasons. They are scary because, according to Degeneres, they have historically comprised the queer images offered in bad faith by mainstream media. However, given her comparison with Buttafuoco, they are also scary in and of themselves. On the one hand, Degeneres voiced a concern for a more accurate diversity of representation. On the other, she voiced an evaluative judgment, indicating rather forcefully that scary homosexuals not only need to be displaced from public attention, but also need to be implicitly repudiated.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Introduction: Homoeroticism and the Public Sphere 1
1 Visibility at the Limits of Inclusion 29
2 Autonomy and Conformity 68
3 The Citizen's Sexual Shadow 101
4 Inseminating the Orient, Disseminating Identity 126
5 Shelley's Heart 148
Epilogue: Beyond Tolderance 169
What People are Saying About This
This exceptionally intelligent study makes crucial contributions to ongoing
conundrums about the connections between capitalism and gay identity. With
remarkable sophistication, Clarke is able to connect the abstractions of
Kant’s categorical imperative to the everyday pleasures of watching Ellen
come out on TV. A powerful and sure-to-be influential book.
(Ann Cvetkovich, author of Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism)
Douglas Crimp, editor of AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural
The intensifying conflict between sex-radical queers and morally righteous gay citizens has lead to the ruination of contemporary sexual politics. Eric Clarke shows the way through the impasse with his viciously sharp analyses, which display the virtues of theoretical precision and historically informed scholarship. His book will transform how we think about sexuality and citizenship, about visibility, democracy, and the public sphere.
Virtuous Vice is an ambitious, subtle, and revelatory book, establishing
Clarke as a major voice in queer theory and in social theory generally. It
should be required reading for anyone interested in Habermas or Foucault, or
in the complex issues of contemporary sexual politics.
(Michael Warner, author of The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life)