Sexuality Studies for Foodies
Let's Make Leftist Food Politics More Hedonic
It’s been a quiet few weeks here at Strong Paw. When I’m not publishing the newsletter, it’s usually because I’m spending my morning writing hours doing other things. In this case, I’ve been doing a fair bit of public facing writing that will be bubbling up in the near future. Some of it is co-writing about food with Jan that isn’t out yet, including a long-form and programmatic essay on the future of “lab grown” cultured synthetic meat and a review of Mark Bittman’s new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk. And some of it was my own academic stuff, specifically for my various book projects. Meanwhile, check out my latest academic article in Transgender Studies Quarterly on the Covid-19 pandemic in relationship to “zoonotic intimacy” in which I make the bold claim that “zoonoses are a problem of intimacy, with germs and bacteria transgressing speciative boundaries willy-nilly in an orgy of unlicensed somatic exchange.” The piece examines the forms of both imagined and material intimacy that emerge from our proximity with animals, proximity that is frequently propelled by our desire to breed and eat them.
Speaking of meat, Jan and I did drop a new piece in The New Republic on some of the potential ethical implications of cultured meat and it’s a good place to start today’s issue of Strong Paw. The article was controversial on Twitter and drew the ire of some folks, but I think it’s worth a read. I’m particularly fond of the suggestive nugget that we concluded with:
Cellular agriculture offers the rare opportunity to recognize, respect, and even fortify the cherished pleasures that many consumers take from meat even as we work to address the very real interest animals have in avoiding suffering and death. At the core of this approach is a commitment to a more democratically hedonic society that offers robust and accessible pleasures for all and where suffering and sacrifice are minimized or, if they cannot be avoided, are borne not just by the poor, weak, and vulnerable.
The term “democratically hedonic” is something I’ve learned from one of my other regular co-writing conspirators, queer legal studies grand dame Joseph J. Fischel (hey hey, darling!), and it flags one of the things that is distinctive about how Jan and I approach food politics: not only do we think that successful leftist food politics must attend to—indeed, fortify and multiply—the pleasures people take from food, but it also needs be a pluralistic understanding of pleasure that eschews moralism. And that requires a major course correction from the puritanical, scolding tendencies we see among too many neo-agrarian foodies.
I will radically oversimplify things when I blame this scolding tendency on Wendell Berry, but the truth is that I think Wendell Berry’s popularity among foodies is one of the worst things to ever happen to the food left. If you’re not familiar with Berry, he’s a prominent and beloved poet and essayist whose polemical critique of industrial agriculture, The Unsettling of America (1977), is a founding text of the alternative agriculture movement and inspired decades of locavore foodie writing, including Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Berry also owns a farm in Kentucky, which I believe he inherited from his family. My broader take, that I won’t explore in this post, is that Berry’s language around work creates the mistaken impression that he is a socialist, when he’s actually just a run-of-the-mill Christian moralist who has read too much of Martin Heidegger on technology. In one of my book projects, Bad Husband: Agriculture, Fantasy, and Queer Criticism, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to reading and tweaking Berry, but today I’ll just be focusing on Berry’s approach to pleasure in one of his most circulated essay’s “The Pleasures of Eating” (1990).
[Wendell Berry and his wood.]
(Before any irate Berry fans respond: Yes, I am being horribly cruel and unfair to Berry in this post. He’s written many, many things since Unsettling and “Pleasures” that, no doubt, complicate things. Fair. I’m not talking about Berry the human being; I’m talking about Berry the cultural figure who emerges and does political work through the text.)
The larger objective of today’s newsletter is to lay out what I think people who care about food politics should learn from queers and sexuality studies people. If you like the sound of a society and food system that is more “democratically hedonic,” then this post is for you! Making our food system more democratically hedonic will take policies, sure, but it will also take a shift in analytic approaches, and that shift is what I’m writing about today. Queers and sexuality studies people have developed a number of intellectual tools to think about the politics of sexual pleasure, and some of these may be handy for people trying to think about the politics of gustatory pleasure. The first section diagnoses the attitude towards pleasure many food folks have inherited from neo-agrarians such as Wendell Berry, an understanding I would call “anti-hedonic.” After that, I lay out some analytic guideposts drawn from queer and sexuality studies that I think are useful correctives to this tendency. Finally, I’ll talk a bit about what this means for food politics.
I. The Pleasures of Denigrating Other People’s Pleasures
Let me start with a confession that may (or may not) shock some readers. I hate Berry’s much beloved essay “The Pleasures of Eating.” This essay is, imho, bad. Very bad. Not boring bad, but sensationally, spectacularly irritatingly bad, the sort of bad where I will occasionally see or read something that reminds me of it and then be pulled into a vortex of grouchy mental rebuttals. It’s the sort of irksome bad that has led me to meticulously trace its every line and curve to catalogue just how bad it is. It has become for me a sensual bad. Perhaps pleasurably so. Oh dear.
Alas, my students love it and, brother, ain’t that just always the way. Many of my students take my food politics classes because of powerful political desires to change the food system that are routed almost entirely through thinking and acting on their own diets. I don’t know if they’re always aware of this, but the operative assumptions, frequently circulated in food politics circles, are that to fix the food system you have to start with your own diet (probably not true) and, through a flawed logical extension, by fixing your own diet you can fix the food system (definitely not true).
The commonsense for these students is what I like to call the “charmed food circle,” and it’s on full display in “The Pleasures of Eating.” It’s the belief that delicious food is healthy food, healthy food is ethical food, and ethical food is politically sound food, politically sound is environmentally sustainable food, and environmentally sustainable food is delicious food. In other words, the values of pleasure, health, nutrition, morality, justice, and sustainability can all be made to frictionlessly align in the correct diet. I don’t think such a diet is possible or actually even desirable. Something we struggle with over the semester is that each one of these values is functionally contested not the least of all because people are different from each other. (More on this in a bit.) Eaters have different preferences and different bodies. Philosophers, politicians, and poets disagree about definitions and understandings of justice and morality. Medical doctors argue about what is nutritious and healthy. Ecologists quarrel about what sustainability means and how to achieve it. And after differences in meaning and judgment, there are differences in access, interest, and embodiment that are not meaningfully open to debate.
By the end of the semester, I hope I’ve complicated this sensibility a bit. Doing so discourages activism and policies that are domineering, violent, and patronizing, but it also forces students to deal with the gruesome world of tradeoffs. Reckoning with tradeoffs—ugh, I sound like an economist—is not useful for writing rhapsodizing odes to your radish, but it is rather essential for engineering a functioning way to deliver edible calories to any significant population of people. I remain stubbornly committed to the idea that alternatives to the very bad capitalist food system must, in fact, offer alternatives that materially compete with that system to actually feed people the stuff they want to eat. That’s a pressing logistical and technical problem that becomes only more daunting and less actionable as one attempts to hand-wave away the not trivial issue of human diversity. It may be the case that transforming the food system may also, in the longer term, transform people’s food preferences, and that could be a good thing. But, in the more immediate term, we may need to start by offering people the pleasures they say they want rather than the pleasures we want them to want.
But the thing that is most striking about “The Pleasures of Eating” is that it is not really an essay about the pleasures of eating. It is, in fact, mostly about denigrating other people’s pleasures, which is to say a demonstration of the pleasures Berry takes from denigrating other people’s pleasures. The gist of the essay is that most people are what Berry terms “industrial eaters.” They eat mindlessly, without reflection, knowledge, or responsibility, and they want to eat without working very hard to feed themselves. When honest work is replaced by labor-saving technology, Berry say, you will eat whatever the industrial food system provides you even when it provides you garbage. These industrial eaters are “victims,” both of their own sloth and ignorance and of the agribusiness interests that dream of “strapp[ing[them] to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into [their] stomach[s].” (Kinky! And reminiscent of the “force feeding” scene that ends Berlant and Warner’s “Sex in Public.”) This is, for Berry, all part and parcel of the false liberation offered by industrial modernity’s separation from and alienation of nature. We are “liberated only by entering a trap . . . The trap is the ideal of industrialism: a walled city surrounded by valves that let merchandise in but no consciousness out.”
At the end of the essay, Berry juxtaposes the emptiness of industrial eating with what he calls “extensive pleasure.” This is the pleasure that is not wedded to the sensual, tactile, or gustatory—what Berry terms the pleasure of the “mere gourmet”—but emerges from “one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.” The pleasure of eating for Berry is not intrinsic to the experience of eating, but extrinsic to it, deriving instead from the knowledge of the food’s journey from life to plate. Which is to say that, he is not, in fact, talking about the pleasure of eating in any sort of conventional, literal, or phenomenological sense. Rather what we have here is a repackaging of the pleasure of work: you can only take real satisfaction from the memory of the labor and care you invested in whatever it is you are munching on. This becomes all the more apparent when we read Berry’s program for how the “industrial eater” can obtain extensive pleasure, which Berry dubiously asserts “is pretty fully available to the urban consumer who will make the necessary effort.” Want pleasure? Get to work! Berry’s suggestions are a familiar list of foodie chores: 1) “Participate in food production to the extent that you can.” 2) “Prepare your own food.” 3) “Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home.” 4) “Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist.” 5) “Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production.” 6) “Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.” 7) “Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.”
As I read through this list of chores, I reflect on the fact that Berry and I do have something in common: a class interest in making everyone do everything on this list! Part of my job is to teach people about food and agriculture, and it would be great for my book sales and class enrollments if everyone took this to heart, just as, for Berry the farm-owner and agrarian essayist, it would multiply his authority and fame. One should always be on guard when a speaker’s self-righteousness coincides with their self-interest. And, so, for most people—and most workers certainly—the upsides seem muddy while the downsides are crystal clear. Whether people will, in fact, experience more pleasure from completing this list of chores is, in fact, an empirical matter open to examination and evidence. And, as an empirical matter, some people will enjoy doing these things and other people will experience them as tedious chores. Some people will find that learning more about their food enriches their experience of it and enhances their enjoyment. Others will not. Some people strive for “accurate consciousness” and find the struggle to achieve it rewarding, stimulating, and enriching; others think you will never achieve it and the struggle for it is fruitless and stressful. And for each of the poles I have canvassed, most people will fall somewhere in between and where they fall at any given moment will depend on the day, their mood, the weather, and a million other factors. People are different from each other, and even quite frequently from themselves. I say this, before any judgment, again, as an empirical matter. Maybe the world would be a better place if everyone always wanted to garden, but, friends, it just ain’t so and wishing it were won’t make it so.
But I’m straying too far from the question of pleasure and that is where I would like to linger, for I think this underlying story of pleasure that Berry offers is quite unappealing. What quickly becomes clear it that Berry has contempt for pleasure tout court, that is pleasure as a sensual and experiential category. Pleasure alone he accuses. Or, more accurately, he demands to see pleasure’s papers when it is unaccompanied by work: Who brought you here? By what right are you permitted to be in this place? By whose authority and by what justification? Pleasure needs to be justified, you see, for pleasure alone is pleasure unearned, and, like all American reactionaries, for Berry there is surely no greater horror than the idea that somewhere, somehow, someone is getting a free lunch. Ecologists, like economists, tend to believe there’s no such thing as an ecological free lunch, but Berry’s version is the Protestant Work Ethic in eco-drag: because pleasure often has an ecological function does not mean that pleasure without (apparent) function is unnatural, degenerate, and in need of redemption. And call me a vulgar utilitarian—I’m definitely vulgar!—but I tend to think that the best pleasure is, contra Berry, the pleasure that comes at no net cost at all and that is precisely because I see ecological interactions as potentially positive-sum, not negative-sum affairs. When it comes to eating I have no problem owning up to being a food slut: cheap and easy? Yes, please.
I use the language of inquisition above because, stripped of its high-minded platitudes, Berry’s chief anxiety is not about pain but about banal ignorance just as his chores offer the satisfactions of work and knowledge not the satiety of food. One could be pardoned for wondering if Berry is aware that the absence of eating is not boredom but rather the pain of hunger and that knowing why you are starving is usually cold comfort for people without food. Regardless, Berry twists the old saw “knowledge is power” into the more dubious proposition that “knowledge is pleasure” which is better rebutted by Craig Finn than me: “He said ‘I’ve surrounded myself with doctors/ And deep thinkers./ But big heads with soft bodies/ Make for lousy lovers.’” At its root, Berry’s anxiety is about a desire for the control knowledge gives and a fear of being reduced to his base instincts, impulses, and reactions. Berry’s view, then, is hostile to sensual pleasure insofar as sensual pleasure’s intensity can thwart the reason, reflection, and control that bring “understanding and gratitude.” This is why, in the few instances where he describes it at all, Berry’s account of the experience of pleasure is poetic and lovely but thoroughly divorced from embodied imminence: “The thought of the good pasture and of the calf contentedly grazing flavors the steak.” Does it? Does it really? For all that Berry condemns industrial modernity for its interchangeable monotony, its pretense of mastery and control in the face of a vast and mysterious universe, and its evacuation of embodied specificity, when he writes about the experience of eating these accusations sound more like projections. It is Berry who is constantly fleeing the intensity of experience, holding it at a distance, and assuring himself that his pleasures are not hollow and empty, but evidence of his restraint and responsibility, his very thoughtful diet, his expanded consciousness. Must pleasure always be so freighted and heavy and must we feel shame when it is not so?
[CHESTER OFFERS TRUE AUTHENTIC EXTENSIVE PLEASURE AND CONSCIOUSNESS.]
If you have not recently flavored your veal with visions of the calf munching tender grasses but have, rather, used salt and pepper, you might feel a bit gaslit by all of this. For if you took pleasure from the veal’s savory juices and crispy rendered fat, or, for that matter, the salty crunch of a Cheeto, you are, according to Berry, suffering from false consciousness. You were not actually experiencing pleasure, which is about true consciousness, understanding, and gratitude for God’s mysteries as they can only be experienced by pious Christian who own country estates. You were actually experiencing something else and it is a “degraded, poor, and paltry thing” you should probably feel ashamed about. If your turnip don’t thrill, it’s because you haven’t prayed… errr… reflected on it enough, so get back on your knees, sinner.
Berry is confusing two things here: pleasure and accountability. On the one hand, there is the phenomenological question of pleasure, a question only answerable by those who experience it and whose opinions on the matter, I regret to tell you, are unimpeachable. Pleasure is a slippery concept insofar as, as experience, it can not be “carried over.” It is páthei máthos— knowledge that can only be suffered—which is to say you can yammer about it, describe it, write a diary about it, publish a very, very long newsletter about it, and even lie about it, but the one thing you can never do is transfer it. Whether something gives someone pleasure is, thus, not open to debate. On the other hand, whether and how we hold people accountable for the harm they do when they pursue those pleasures is another matter. Pleasure’s experiential quality does not offer us immunity from judgment for, if it did, no one could ever be held accountable: “Why did I kill my husband? Because it pleased me to do so.” What is odd to me is the tendency, on display in Berry, to try to invalidate pleasures that motivate the behavior we judge as harmful, which to me bears a suspicious resemblance to the role that disavowal plays in the psychoanalytic concept of reaction formation. In any case, this confusion, in fact, can be a serious impediment to effectively engaging people who are behaving in ways that harm other people: to understand why people behave in destructive ways for the sake of pleasure, it is helpful to reconstruct their motives even if, at the end of the day, we condemn their behavior and choose to hold them accountable for it.
That Berry insists that pleasure must always be redeemed by something external to experience is to conceive of intensive pleasure as a negation of thought, understanding, consciousness, and, ultimately, moral agency. Berry cannot really comprehend the possibility of an “innocent pleasure,” since intensive pleasure, insofar as it is experience, is making us cave inward and undoing all the ecological connections Berry contends are maintained through eating. Pleasure must be extensive, fleeing from the singularity and cage of experience, and, if it is not, it is not pleasure, but the opposite: harm—and harm, in particular, to the moral agent who thinks and chooses. Berry’s operative theory here is that through thinking about the ways in which food connects us we will come to learn about our dependence and personal limits, which will, in turn, make us sensitive and selfless. Perhaps, but I’m skeptical. For many people, the mental processes Berry is describing actually work to conceal how easily our “practical agency,” as Lauren Berlant puts it, is exhausted. Moments of intensity can make people reckon not with the completeness of our selves, but of our limits, fragility, and vulnerability in a world that is too often antagonistic or indifferent to our choices, reasons, and preferences. Freud maintained that pain and pleasure bleed together as intensity, which is precisely why páthei máthos is appropriate: intensive pleasure is a great teacher precisely because it undoes the fantasy that we are always in control.
But maybe you disagree! Maybe you don’t like intensity of any sort. Maybe you want it bland. Fine, fine. I have no problem being pluralistic about this. I will defend extensive pleasures as well, provided Berry stops dismissing the pleasures I value in such a careless fashion. Berry’s approach reminds me of certain family members who, when I came out as gay, told me I just hadn’t met the right girl yet. Oh my! Now enjoy the whole quotation from Berry that I gave you only a taste of before: “Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing.” I wonder earnestly what experience with industrial sex Berry has ever had to make such a judgment or, lacking that, whether he’s ever bothered to speak to, much less listen to, people who take intensive pleasure from sex and food. I doubt very much he has done any of that. In all of those cases, Berry invokes the industrial less to engage with the world-spanning supply chains to which every farm in the United States is bound—yes, even his—but more to smugly hand-wave away what other people are telling him they value. Berry was mostly selling books and poems to the converted, but a mass movement that is actually looking to materially transform the food system cannot afford to be so uncurious about what other people cherish.
II. Season Your Steak With Some Empiricism, Wendell
[Rubin’s “Charmed Circle of Sex” from “Thinking Sex” (1984).]
Perhaps it’s because I’m an archive rat, but whenever the topic of pleasure comes up I usually want more empiricism. Sexuality studies scholars—and queer theorists, in particular—have a nasty reputation for being empirically vacuous, but, in fact, some of our core texts actually offer important defenses of empiricism, although we tend not to say as much. But it’s true! Although some forms of queer study can be painfully obscure and opaque in language, most are, to some extent or another, invested, to quote Gayle Rubin, in the task of “grasp[ing] the subject [of sex] and hold[ing] it in view. . . build[ing] rich descriptions of sexuality as it exists in society and history.”
Rubin’s famous (to queers) essay, “Thinking Sex,” might be a good place to start. It was written as a corrective to the role that “moral panics” play in preventing people from thinking clearly about sex and, in particular, during a stretch of the 1980s when the feminist “sex wars” sometimes had people offering sweeping indictments of sex as a malignant social force. Without adjudicating Rubin’s broader argument—I disagree with some things in the essay—I think it’s useful to revisit for a moment what she identifies as some of the conventional assumptions that inhibit clear thinking about sex:
Sexual essentialism: “the idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life and shapes institutions.”
Sex negativity: sex is always “a dangerous, destructive, negative force.”
The fallacy of misplaced scale: In matters of sex, “[s]mall differences in value or behaviour are often experienced as cosmic threats . . . . Sexual acts are burdened with an excess of significance.”
Sexual hierarchy: The need to “appraise sex acts according to a hierarchical system of sexual value” and “to draw and maintain an imaginary line between good and bad sex.”
Domino theory: “The fear that if anything is permitted to cross this erotic DMZ, the barrier against scary sex will crumble and something unspeakable will skitter across.”
The lack of a concept of benign variation: “Sexuality is supposed to conform to a single standard. One of the most tenacious ideas about sex is that there is one best way to do it, and that everyone should do it that way.”
My students sometimes rush to the conclusion that the way to avoid each of these pitfalls is their opposite—the intellectual solution to “sex negativity” is something called “sex positivity.” But I think a more defensible reading of Rubin is that she wants people to practice just a bit of empirical scrutiny when it comes to assertions about sex. Instead of presuming sex is always a negative force, presume that sometimes it can be negative, sometimes it can be lovely and socially productive, and sometimes it can be just another wet fart. Similarly, just because some variations are benign, doesn’t mean that all variations are benign. A preference for having sex indoors on a bed as opposed to sex in meadow with vicious biting insects is, I humbly submit, a benign variation no matter what Herbert Marcuse might think. A preference for sex where you dismember, cook, and eat your partner? Not an example of a benign variation!
(Without getting into the weeds, I’m oversimplifying a bit here and doing some work for Rubin that she doesn’t really do in the essay. In general, she takes the position that you shouldn’t create hierarchies around preferences. She’s radically neutral about that and it has led to significant controversy about what she writes about “boy lovers” in the text, although I think she’s frequently misread on that point. But Rubin doesn’t hold that you cannot create hierarchies around behavior, just that you should be careful and cautious about it. Rubin does encourage a political analysis of consent—when and how it gets invoked and to what end—but she does want to preserve it as an ethical bright-line, which, by implication, means that sex that violates other people’s consent is not, in any meaningful way, benign. I actually disagree somewhat with Rubin’s nomination of consent as the relevant bright-line and find Joseph Fischel’s argument persuasive: consent is very useful as a legal standard for adjudicating sex, but it offers less to ethical inquiry than we might assume. Consent asks too little of us and, for the purposes of personal ethics and social conventions, we should be willing to call some sex bad that might get a free pass from Rubin because it met the thresh-hold of consent, even if it’s not sex we would want to criminalize.)
Many people will want to argue with Rubin about whether and where sex acts fall on a spectrum of benign to malignant, but I don’t think you can really quibble with her call for more empirical curiosity about sex. She’s saying that assuming the worst about sex, beyond the political injustices it creates, is intellectually lazy. If you want to make a claim about sex, you need to attend to its actual consequences and not just to your anxieties and fears about it. Those consequences need to be shown in measured, concrete, and causally constructed terms, not as vague and unverifiable universal harms. This point often gets lost, but that’s really what Rubin is getting at when she criticizes “the fallacy of misplaced scale” and the “domino theory” of sex. In both cases, they are causal narratives about sex—sex act A causes bad thing B—that strain credulity or are easily disproven: large amounts of gay sex doesn’t summon hurricanes (misplaced scale) and most people who masturbate don’t wind up pining to marry German Shepherds (domino theory).
Rubin’s point, one that will surely ring true to any queers or perverts reading this, is that the claim “Your sex causes vague, abstract, and unverifiable harm B” is often just a way for someone to say “I think your sex is gross and weird,” which, in turn, is often just another way to say “I have different preferences than you.” Maybe my sex is gross and weird, but as Rubin notes,
Most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere. . . . Most people mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone.
I’m not convinced that most people do, in fact, mistake their own sexual preferences for a universal system, since that would seem to imply most people are happy with their sexual preferences. But, no matter, the deeper point rings true: your yum is somebody else’s yuck, and your yuck is somebody else’s yum. If you pass a law against a yuck for being a yuck, indifferent to its yumminess to others, you will simply institutionalize the sexual preferences of those with power even if those sexual preferences—say rampant sexualized misogyny—wind up generating quite a bit of harm and not a lot of pleasure.
[Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990).]
It’s here that we might circle back to the important point from the preceding section: people are different from each other. That’s the first “axiom” offered by Eve Sedgwick in the introduction to her book Epistemology of the Closet, one of my favorite books of all time and a field defining work for sexuality studies. I think that axiom is fundamental and often neglected habit of mind not just for sexuality, but, basically, for thinking about preferences and society writ large. I think it’s so important that I have a tattoo on my left bicep that says “Axiom 1: People are Different.” (Yes, I edited Eve Sedgwick for brevity.) It seems like a banal observation but it’s actually quite robust! Whenever you’re asking why about a social phenomenon or probing its underlying experiential content, you should probably assume the answer is not one: people are different from each other and that means they may have different reasons for doing the same thing or they may experience the same thing in wildly different ways with different emotions, sensations, and intensities. This doesn’t mean you can’t do generalizations. My colleague here at Duke, Kieren Healy, has a delightful essay called “Fuck Nuance” that makes a good case for setting this axiom aside when you’re trying to build sociological models. Similarly, the splitters versus lumpers debate is not really resolvable nor should we want it be: it would be literally impossible to exist in daily life if you weren’t able to generalize at all. Generalization is a fine, useful, and even essential intellectual process, but on matters of consequence you should be aware of when you’re generalizing and what kinds of errors generalization may introduce.
This is generally true for sexuality (hah!). As Rubin noted, we can’t lazily assume that sexuality works just one way or means just one thing. For a time, the dominant conception in American society was that your sexuality was defined in relationship to the binarized gender expression of your object choice: if you were a man and the gender expression of your object choice was a woman, your sexuality was heterosexual; if you were a woman and the gender expression of your object choice was a woman, your sexuality was homosexual. Already, however, we can see how things such as “gender nonbinary,” “queer,” “transgender,” and “asexual” begin to unsettle that understanding and there are larger questions about when that system became dominant and how completely dominant it ever was. But even in this articulation we have a sense that sexuality must have something to do with object choice, even if we allow that maybe object choice isn’t adequately explained by recourse to binary gender expression. But perhaps that sense is too constrained. Sedgwick has a memorable riff on this that I adore and that I will reproduce now in totality because it’s my newsletter and this is the sort of thing you’re (not) paying me for:
One implication of what Sedgwick is saying in the complete paragraph after the list is that you may come up with a theory that sexuality is just one thing, but you should expect other people to say, “your theory doesn’t account for me” and you have to listen and reflect on that, not dismiss it out of hand. Reflecting on it may, in turn, reveal that your theory actually universalizes something, perhaps drawn from your own experience, that is not, in fact, universal. We could go a step further still: in recognizing that your theory is not universal, you may be able to locate important facts about your own social location that are relevant to the discussion and that may tell you things about your self, or, as MC Hammer sagely put it, “When you measure include the measurer.” Dismissing other people’s experiences of sex is not only arrogant and possibly violent, it also robs you of an opportunity to better understand your own desires, why they are what they are, how they inform your approach to knowledge and politics, and what it would mean to rework any of that.
Heretofore, in both this section and the last, you may feel that I’ve been treating pleasure as a somewhat immutable object and now I’d like to complicate that. In reality, I do think you can “rework” both desire and pleasure, and there’s a good body of literature in sexuality studies that deals precisely with this question at both the personal and social level, practically and theoretically. It’s not controversial—indeed, it’s a bit banal—to observe that sexuality studies has historically worked to “denaturalize” desire and pleasure, what Rubin was gesturing towards when she mentioned “sexual essentialism” as a barrier to thinking about sex. That is, the field has tended to treat desire and pleasure as dynamically engaged with social forces, institutions, and collective choices, not just biology and nature. But the field is also quite clear that just because a preference is open to, and perhaps constructed entirely by, social forces does not mean it is also easily affected by personal agency. There is, in other words, a loud theoretical investment is the plasticity of desire and pleasure that sometimes drowns out the more humbling recognition that pleasure and desire are ruled by habit, unthought, sticky, and elusive, which makes them tricky to work on directly. You can see this ambivalence in this riotous passage from Jane Ward’s Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men:
[W]hen straight women, several minutes into a rant about their husbands or boyfriends, gesture at alliance with me by bemoaning their presumably unchangeable heterosexuality with a dramatic sigh: ‘Oh I wish I could be a lesbian. I’d probably be a lot happier’ . . . . what I would like to say in response is . . . that I signed on to, and cultivated queerness in my life . . . that if you think you would be happier as a dyke you could and should be one.
At first glance, this passage is an affirmation of radical agency: not happy with heterosexuality? Quit complaining and choose to be queer! But just beneath the surface there are… complications. Cultivating isn’t the same as choosing. As Wendell Berry would certainly tell you, cultivation takes work, determination, effort, energy, money, and support. Cultivating queerness, then, requires mustering all of that, pooling it together, perhaps in an institutional or community form, and rolling up your sleeves. It’s queer world building! But, even then, cultivation is aspirational and speculative, never a sure thing, which means that, just as you can plant what you thought was a sunflower seed and wind up with a watermelon, you can try to cultivate queerness and wind up with something else. Indeed, queerness, in its most fabulous definition, is precisely a something else that is always just out of reach and never complete, the utopian possibility of another world that is preserved in the dreary, dreadful world we may inhabit. But how do you plan for that? That you can’t is precisely the point.
These sorts of questions about agency are vast and unanswerable. Needless to say, sexuality studies hasn’t definitively answered them, nor will it ever. But we have argued about them at great length and those arguments themselves tend to spark helpful thoughts for me. I suppose I’ll conclude this section by writing about just one more essay that I find enormously valuable on the subject, the aforementioned “Sex in Public” by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner.
The essay is a meditation on the criminalization and eradication of public sex in Manhattan in the 1990s. You’ll recall that until the 1980s, Manhattan had a thriving public sex culture supported by an infrastructure of bars, baths, adult bookstores, porn theaters, cruising parks, and tea rooms. That world was hardly utopian—it could be violent and dangerous and it had its own exclusionary hierarchies—but it was radically more accessible than what replaced it. Real estate speculation, gentrification, militarized policing, and restrictive zoning laws—all usually in the name of public health and safety—pushed sex to the margins, forcing it either behind closed doors or into ever more remote spaces that were isolated and dangerous. In sum, this process privatized space in service of what Berlant and Warner termed “national heterosexuality.” National heterosexuality, they noted, was less a set of sex acts than it was a fantasy structure. It was a story people told themselves about desire and pleasure, in which companionate heterosexual romance offered all the satisfactions and pleasures one could ever desire: a domestic bliss that supported prosperous family life which, in turn, sustained national greatness. But if everyone’s sex life was so blissful why was everyone complaining about it all the time on Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake and what not? You couldn’t take two steps without finding someone ruminating on the failures of heterosexuality to deliver the promised bliss and, yet, “no one ever blames the ideology and institutions of heterosexuality. Every day, even the talk-show hosts are newly astonished to find that people who are committed to hetero intimacy are nevertheless unhappy.” They do make some points!
The essay doesn’t leave it there. Rather, it taps out some fancy intellectual footwork about what public sex cultures can offer people who are unhappy with national heterosexuality, which is to say, potentially everyone:
By queer culture we mean a world-making project, where “world,” like “public,” differs from community or group because it necessarily includes more people than can be identified, more spaces than can be mapped beyond a few reference points, modes of feeling that can be learned rather than experienced as a birthright. The queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies. World making, as much in the mode of dirty talk as of print-mediated representation, is dispersed through incommensurate registers, by definition unrealizable as community or identity.
Their point is that people often assume that the aforementioned queer spaces serve the needs of a predefined group of people—queers—when, in fact, they are valuable because they are open-ended and capacious about who can enter and make use of them, undisciplined by preconditions about who or what one might find there. The point of a public space is, after all, that anyone can be there. Such a project of world-making is resolutely ambiguous about what people, pleasures, and desires will ultimately take root and thrive. The point is that you can’t know in advance. You create robust and accessible infrastructures that allow a thousand flowers to bloom, and then you let people explore and play. But you don’t over-engineer in advance precisely what pleasures are to be enjoyed and which are to be excluded merely as “degraded, poor, and paltry thing[s].” That’s not world-making, Wendell. It’s file-clerking.
[José Esteban Muñoz saw queer utopian world-making in Frank O’Hara’s poem.]
We often talk in sexuality studies, as Rubin does above, about essentialism versus constructivism. The distinction boils down to whether something is the product of social pressures or whether it is the result of a universal essence. This is usually associated with controversies about sexual identity and, specifically, homosexuality. It gets simplified along the vulgar lines of “people choose to be gay” versus “baby, I was born this way.” This is actually misdirection since essence versus construct doesn’t properly match onto choice versus destiny. Things that are socially constructed can be no less binding and immutable. After all, a brick wall is literally socially constructed but that doesn’t mean you won’t break your nose if you run into it. The deeper question is the philosophically vexing one of agency—what do I have the power to change?
Human agency as it attends to pleasure and preference is rather conceptually uneven in many conversations about food. Berryesque foodies functionally presume that consumers’ subjective pleasures and preferences are causally plastic and socially constructed. They try to hide this by distinguishing between “real” natural pleasure and “fake” industrial pleasure, but, at the end of the day, what they’re saying is that the reason consumers express certain preferences at the supermarket is because the industrial food system has indoctrinated our tastebuds through price, availability, and complex food engineering. In other words, if we structured the world differently, remade incentives and prevented agribusinesses from exploiting people, consumers would develop different preferences and different pleasures. So the goal is to reengineer the world to make that so—build an alternative food system that doesn’t train people to be industrial eaters from birth. Make something else. But what?
Meanwhile, these same folks tend to answer the normative question about what makes food good in the most essentialist ways possible. Good food is “natural” and (good) pleasure comes from the extensive bonds of devotion, care, gratitude, and consciousness, what Berry unironically calls husbandry. (This is, by the way, why the book is titled Bad Husband: Agriculture, Fantasy, and Queer Criticism.) Those all sound very lovely in abstract, but they are also highly moralized terms and they transform the problem of the pleasure of food from a subjective descriptive one—this is what I like—to a universal moral essence one—this is what you should like. For these foodies, then, other people’s preferences are always endlessly mutable and socially constructed, but their own preferences, those that they use to judge everyone else’s, are timeless essences.
When I think about where I see this logic when it comes to sexuality, I immediately recognize another group of people who believe that desires and pleasure are radically socially constructed but how you judge them is an eternal matter of black and white: evangelical Christians. They don’t believe people are “born this way.” They believe people choose sin and that with devotion, care, gratitude, and consciousness they can free themselves of sinful desire.
I suppose that, like Berry and his acolytes, I harbor the political desire to transform the food system. I believe that, once transformed, it’s very likely that people will find new pleasures and desires. I am, indeed, excited about that possibility. I am perhaps even naively optimistic about that reconstruction of pleasure. Where Berry and I part ways is that my vision of transformation is one of queer world-making, not Christian devotion. I’m not interested in returning pleasure to an Edenic garden, free of sin. That garden is abundant only with the pleasures I already know. I am hungry for new pleasures and the new worlds that will sustain them.