Homophobia and the West: A Reply to Peter Gratton

Just a few words in response to Peter Gratton’s on-point remarks in recent post “Homophobia a Western Export?” over at Philosophy in a Time of Error.

According to Gratton,

This short article . . . argues that a specific type of homophobia is an American export to certain parts of Africa. Usually, we read about how “traditionalist” societies export their homophobia to parts of the West, but that misses the cultural distinctions at work, and the fact that Westerners with quite a bit of money are using that money to foster homophobia in other parts of the world . . . But one also needs to take into account the way in which Western homosexuality is indeed quite Western and one often goes wrong comparing women partnered marriages in Nigeria (allowable if one of the woman has been widowed and has property) to such coupling in the US, just as one would go wrong to compare Socrates’s relationships to any contemporary models of love under the heading of homosexuality.

Gratton couldn’t be more right on several of his points. Yes, homophobia is often a western export, and yes, there are often indigenous forms of same-sex relations at work in non-western societies. And yes, Socrates-style same-sex relations and contemporary western ones have little in common. I’ll post more on specifics in my next post, but first a little context.

Some Personal Background on these Issues

I know I usually post on philosophy and film matters on this blog, and that’s what I tend to do mostly these days in terms of my writing. But because I decided to switch from philosophy to comparative literature after my BA, in order to pursue continental philosophy in the US despite the analytic hegemony, but also in a desire to broaden things out a bit. my route back to philosophy has been pretty broad.

And in fact, much of my training in grad school, and much of my teaching history, is in queer, gender, and sexuality studies, and how these relate to issues of race. I’m also a ‘man who dates men’, for lack of a better word – I use ‘gay’ as shorthand for many I know, even though I find the word problematic in so many ways, and find contemporary gay mass culture REALLY problematic, to say the least. Queer probably works as well as a descriptor for myself, but it really explains my politics more than my personal existence. I think most of these labels don’t really work, don’t really apply, etc. Of course, this is a whole discussion unto itself.

I was hired at Pratt mostly as a scholar of queer studies as it relates to race, visual culture, and early twentieth century modernism, who was ALSO into post-structuralist and continental theory. Since coming to Pratt, I’ve had the blessings of being in a Department that is gearing up to put together a Media Studies MA program, so I’ve been encouraged to ‘let all the flowers bloom’, so to speak, and my teaching and research have led me back to philosophy, and networkologies in particular. And I often do wonder if this is a flagging of the activist side of my existence, because while I was adjunct teaching at Hunter College, one of the most diverse colleges in the country, I saw my work in the classroom as having a big impact in an activist sense. At Pratt, I feel this is less so, and perhaps this is why I’ve let my philosophy side take over as much as I have. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still working to really make change at Pratt. But now when I teach race and sexuality issues, I am teaching to a crowd which is MUCH less diverse. And it really does make a difference.

But anyway, I’ve taught a bunch of courses on the issues that Peter brings up, classes such as A Brief History of Sexuality from Sexology to the Digital AgeQueer Modernisms: 1880-1940 (mostly a lit class), Queer Cultures: Queer Crossings/Queer Critique, and Bodies on Boundaries: Marginal Selves and Hybrid Lives (basically an intro to race, gender, sexuality, class, citizenship, body modification, prostheses, basically any sort of boundary you can put a body on!), etc. Many of my early conference presentations were on topics like queer theory and the future anterior, but at philosophy conferences. Go figure!

Its actually odd, because I think that people sometimes think that because someone studies and teaches one thing, you can’t be good at another. Will you be taken as seriously if people realize you do more than one thing?

I think this assumption is part of the way academia hyperspecializes us, and how research institutions reproduce us in their own image. As someone who teaches at a place that is mostly undergrad, I’m SUPPOSED to be somewhat of a generalist. The fact of the matter is that what I research and write on (these days, philosophy) isn’t necessarily what I really spend most of my time teaching (mostly film, visual studies, but also gender/sexuality studies, etc.). And let’s face it, to study continental thought in this country, this is often what happens. I’m also not sure its the worst thing in the world to force philosophers to encounter other things! That’s part of what drew me to comparative literature in the first place. Then again, the fact that I had to repress the philosophical side of myself to ‘prepare for the job market’ was a very unpleasant experience. But I do think we need to fight our own disciplinary over-specialization, and the way it continually tries to limit our views on the world.

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~ by chris on June 7, 2010.

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