Berlant and Warner

Assigned: Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. “Sex in Public” (2452-67). Also read the editors’ introduction (2450-52).

“Sex in Public” (1998)

There Is Nothing More Public Than Privacy                               

1. On 2452-53 (“An essay titled ‘Sex in Public’…”), what do Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner set forth as the goal of their study? In what sense is that goal, and the study itself, not solely or strictly about what we usually mean by the word “sex” (as in, “the sex act” or “sexual relations”)—how is Berlant and Warner’s scope broader than that?

Scene One

2. On 2453-54 (“In 1993, Time magazine published…”), Berlant and Warner refer to Time magazine’s cover photo for the 1993 edition titled “The New Face of America…,” which consisted of a composite profile made up of immigrant groups coming to America from around the world. What do the authors suggest was the ideological purpose of that gesture on Time’s part? According to Berlant and Warner, how does this comforting and optimistic composite image actually encourage a kind of national “amnesia” (2454) that would allow Americans to avoid discussions about racial exploitation in a country whose history is deeply marked by such exploitation?

3. On 2454-55 (“But more than exploitation and racism…”), Berlant and Warner suggest that “national heterosexuality” (2454) underwrites the comforting message of the racial composite cover profile for Time magazine’s Fall 1993 edition, “The New Face of America.” What analysis do they provide to back up that case? How does a certain conception of the family figure in this analysis, and what moral imperative does that conception of the family carry along with it?

Scene Two

4. On 2455-56 (“In October 1995, the New York City Council…”), Berlant and Warner refer to the passage of a 1995 zoning law in New York City that regulated (in part) adult businesses. How do they describe the effect of this law not only on the businesses themselves but also on the gay and lesbian communities who make up a large part of their clientele? In what sense does regulating a “sex” business, by implication, amount to a harmful ideological act?

Normativity and Sexual Culture

5. On 2456-58 (“Heterosexuality is not a thing…”), Berlant and Warner point out that “heterosexual culture” implies neither “a single ideology nor a unified set of shared beliefs” (2456). In spite of this, why are the conflicts among those belonging to this culture so seldom perceived or remarked upon? How is this lack of perception a function of what Berlant and Warner call “hegemony” (2457 top), a term they have adopted from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci—see Leitch 927-35)? In what “several senses,” according to the authors, is intimacy “publically mediated” (2457) rather than merely private? What is the further ideological and practical implication of this public dimension of intimacy—how, that is, does intimacy or “intimate life” function in America’s broader social and political discourse?

6. On 2458-60 (“But intimacy has not always…”), Berlant and Warner cite classicist David Halperin in addressing how notions of intimacy have changed over time—in ancient Athens, Halperin points out (in Berlant and Warner’s paraphrase), “sex was a transitive act rather than a fundamental dimension of personhood or an expression of intimacy” (2458). By contrast, in what way, according to Berlant and Warner, does intimacy take on a much broader and more significant or even foundational role in modern “heteronormative” culture? In the authors’ view, how is the dominant heterosexual culture’s “cruelty” and intolerance of failure to conform to its dictates registered in America’s popular and political discourse? (2459-60)

7. On 2460 (“Biddy Martin has written that…”), Berlant and Warner cite lesbian theorist Biddy Martin as suggesting that some LGBTQ+ theorists go too far in “actively repudiating the institutions of heterosexuality” and thereby promote “a reductive and pseudo-radical antinormativity” (2460) instead of providing positive, constructive frameworks of thought. How do Berlant and Warner (who consider themselves targets of Martin’s criticism) respond to such arguments that they are tearing apart any “norms” they encounter in favor of some radical vision of “life without [moral] limit”? What key point in their theory do they reiterate by way of opposing such criticism?

Queer Counterpublics

8. On 2461-62 (“By queer culture we mean a…”), what do Berlant and Warner apparently mean by their terms “world-making” and “counterpublics” (2461)? In what sense is a “world” different from what one means by a “community” or a “group”? In what several ways, according to the authors, does a “queer culture” (or “queer counterpublics”) emerge into being—ways that don’t have anything directly to do with the state, with the broadest kinds of “opinion culture,” or “the privatized forms normally associated with sexuality” (2461)? How do both Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault (in their respective ways), according to Berlant and Warner, explore how “a hegemonic public has founded itself by a privatization of sex and the sexualization of private personhood” (2462)?

9. On 2462-64 (“Like most ideologies, normal intimacy…”), Berlant and Warner address what they see as the gap between an official, public ideology and “how people actually live” (2462). In what sense, according to the authors (with reference to Habermas) has a contradictory but powerful structural relation between a bourgeois or capitalist economy and heteronormative subjectivity and intimacy served to “prevent the recognition, memory, elaboration, or institutionalization of all the nonstandard intimacies that people have in everyday life” (2462-63)? How, according to the authors, does gay male and, more broadly, queer culture differ from the contradictory and denial-based treatment of subjectivity and sexuality in heteronormative culture?

10. On 2464-65 (“This is particularly true of intimate…”), Berlant and Warner say that unlike heteronormative culture, which is materially supported in any number of ways (politically, socially, etc.), “Queer culture […] has almost no institutional matrix for its counterintimacies” (2464). It is, to borrow the authors’ word, “fragile.” What, then, is the “queer project” that they envision—how would that project respond to the dominant culture and try to strip it of the power to hurt the non-conforming? Why would the project not constitute an affirmation that sex and all aspects of one’s personal life—their phrase is “forms of affective, erotic, and personal living” (2464)—should be determined to be “properly private”? How does their vision of the “queer project” flow from their central insight all along; namely, that the manner in which a dominant culture wields key concepts such as “privacy” and “intimacy” can harm people who don’t fit easily into that culture or observe its norms, its sense of what is or is not acceptable?

11. On 2465 (“No group is more dependent on…”), in what sense, according to Berlant and Warner, is the viability of “out” gay or queer culture at least partly dependent on the existence of material spaces for the congregation of “sexual subcultures” or “public sexual cultures” (2456) and the sex-based businesses that support them? How are neighborhood zoning laws often grounded in what Berlant and Warner call “disturbing fantasies” about when and where “sexual politics” applies? According to the authors, how should a neighborhood and its proper interests be defined, and why is that the case?

Tweaking and Thwacking

12. On 2466 (“Queer social theory is committed…”), Berlant and Warner relate an anecdote in which they were turned into “queer advice-givers for the straight guy and gal.” (Sort of like, we may suppose, all those sit-coms and rom-coms in which it seems obligatory for the female romantic lead to have a sage, wisecracking “gay guy” as her sidekick.) A straight couple, that is, posed some very sexually explicit, intimate questions to people they recognized as queer. Why, in their own words (paraphrased, we may presume), did the couple think this was appropriate, and what social conditions had driven them to resort to it as a strategy for gaining perspective?

13. On 2466-67 (“Later, the question of aversion…”), Berlant and Warner relate a second anecdote, this time one about a young man who is into “erotic vomiting.” There’s no need to go into the messy details, but basically, how do the authors describe their own interest (and that of the audience who beheld this performance in a leather bar) in this unusual, eroticized form of consumption? What do they think unconventional “sex” of this and other kinds accomplishes in relation to the overbearing “heteronormative” social and political culture that they consider dominant in the United States?

14. General question: In “Sex in Public,” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, in discussing the importance of the businesses that cater to certain sex subcultures (S&M, fetishist, gay and lesbian, etc.), suggest on 2465 that “After a certain point, a quantitative change [in business traffic] is a qualitative change.” This brings up the interesting question of the “tipping point” for such normalization and acceptance of previously unacceptable identities and practices. How do things reach a tipping point whereby acceptance becomes all but inevitable? As was asked in a general question on Gayle Rubin’s Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. (Leitch 2192-2220), how (i.e., by the involvement of what specific factors or change agents), for example, did America go from being astonished that anyone would entertain the notion of two men or two women marrying to responding in a substantially positive way to the adoption of “marriage equality” as the law of the land in 2015? How did that happen? To what extent is such progress subject to a backlash on the part of opponents of sexual liberation—should we expect that positive change will be permanent once it has been achieved? Why or why not?

15. General question: In “Sex in Public,” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner briefly address the issue of same-sex marriage, but they are writing this text in 1998, seventeen years before the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 (the text of this case is available by searching on made marriage equality the law of the land. What was their assessment at that time of the steps that gay and lesbian couples had thus far taken in the direction of marriage? (See page 1264.) Do you think they would argue the same way today? Why or why not? In your view, what has the Obergefell ruling changed for same-sex couples? Does it more or less induct gay and lesbian couples into a conventional heteronormative practice (marriage), or does it have a more radical significance than that? Explain.

16. General question: In “Sex in Public,” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner explain their own interest in reducing or eliminating what they see as the destructive dominance that heteronormative culture (grounded in certain notions of male-female sexuality) has on American society and politics. As of this question’s writing in late February 2020, former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay man who is married to a male partner, for a time waged an effective (if not winning) campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. How do you assess the candidacy of “Mayor Pete” as indicating progress in the United States on the issue of full rights and equal opportunity for LGBTQ+ Americans? To what extent does such a candidacy challenge what Berlant and Warner call heteronormative culture’s destructive dominance? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake