Epistemic politics, knowledge warfare 

In 1965, the scientist and novelist C.P. Snow gave his infamous Rede lecture The Two Cultures in which he lamented the state of the perennial debate on the relative merits of scientific and humanistic thought. In an oft-quoted passage, Snow described asking his literary colleagues about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. “The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”[1]C P Snow and S Collini, The Two Cultures, ACLS Humanities E-Book, e-pub (Cambridge University Press (Canto Classics), 1993), chap. 1. This comical situation might seem familiar today. How many literary critics keep up with current research in mathematics? Do material scientists follow the developments in critical theory? Equally pointedly: how do gender scholars understand the basics of human biology? Do pharmaceutical researchers have the tools to consider the socio-ethical effects of their lab research?

 CP Snow in 1970. Photograph: Jane Bown.

If these latter examples court controversy, it is because I want to argue that the conflict between the disciplines is as much one of competition for who can offer the most compelling description of reality or most effectively control resources, as it is one of fundamental attitudes to what knowledge is. How, for example, is it possible for an evolutionary biologist to maintain that there are only two human sexes[2]Xi, Meimei. ‘Biology Lecturer’s Comments on Biological Sex Draw Backlash’. The Harvard Crimson, 12 August 2021. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2021/8/11/biology-lecturer-gender-comments-backlash/. but for a historian to propose that the variety of gender expressions invalidates the sex binary?[3]The Washington Times, ‘University of Toronto Historian: Biological Sex a “Very Popular Misconception”’, The Washington Times, 2016 <https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/dec/2/university-historian-biological-sex-misconception/> … see more Without evaluating the merits of their positions, I’ll observe that the two scholars are not simply making competing interpretations of the available evidence. They are, in fact, in profound disagreement over what and how it is possible for them to know. Once they have staked their positions, it is in the interest of each to insist that those epistemic beliefs are beyond the reach of politics. After all, biology looks at nature objectively by definition, right? And gender theory, surely, always produces only impeccable politics. Best, then, not to query either.

Such differences originate at the disciplines’ epistemic foundations, that is in their divergent answers to the question of what and how we can ever know about the world. We may be used to observing these disagreements as they manifest in everyday culture as in my example, but I propose that they are more appropriately understood as a matter of epistemic politics that pertains to the nature and practice of research itself. A discipline’s epistemic politics (a term I borrow from the cultural theorist Tom Holert)[4]Tom Holert, Knowledge Beside Itself: Contemporary Art’s Epistemic Politics (Sternberg Press, 2020). is the propensity of a knowledge system to engage with others on adversarial terms. And so, science’s epistemic politics suggests that there is something politically particular to how scientists know science that makes them resilient to accepting the validity of humanist thought. In the humanities, vice-versa.

Epistemic politics emanates from the very first principles of knowledge-making and its primary applications. These politics do not easily translate to the everyday politics of progressivism and conservatism. In the liberal everyday, for example, we may be perfectly capable of holding conflicting knowledges, simultaneously embracing the certainty of science when it comes to climate change and rejecting it in favour of the social construction of gender. At the level of epistemic politics, this is nothing short of cognitive dissonance.

War of the disciplines

Epistemic politics has long been mixed up with political conflict. More than five decades ago, Snow identified that the knowledge gap between the humanities and the sciences was nearly irreconcilable. Not only would the 20th century Renaissance man struggle to cover the vast ground of multiple disciplines, but he lacked the conviction to do so. By the 1960s, it had become a point of pride for literary intellectuals who were for Snow synonymous with the incumbent ruling classes to maintain a pointed ignorance of the sciences. The day’s scientists and technologists reciprocated by ignoring the basic assumptions of the humanities as they challenged the traditional forms of power. The critic Stefan Collini highlighted the intensely political nature of The Two Cultures controversy.[5]C P Snow and S Collini, The Two Cultures, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Cambridge University Press (Canto Classics), 1993). This was a time of two opposing revolutions: one technological and one social. From his bench, Snow argued that for the literary scholar to remain ignorant of the scientific could only impede human progress because the uninformed humanities would waste everybody’s time attempting to invalidate scientific thought.

The faces of the technological revolution. Photo Yngvar/Wikimedia Commons.

Harsh but fair? No wonder Snow failed to win the sympathy of his audiences and his lecture is perhaps the first exhibit in the museum of the culture wars. But the power-play he identified persists. Today, we worry about holding runaway technological innovation in check using the tools of the humanities that often prove inadequate to the task[6]Gerard Delanty and Neal Harris, ‘Critical Theory and the Question of Technology: The Frankfurt School Revisited’, Thesis Eleven, 2021, 07255136211002055 <https://doi.org/10.1177/07255136211002055>. just as Snow had predicted. In the decades since his call, disciplines have staked their positions across an ideological divide[7]T Becher and P Trowler, Academic Tribes And Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Culture of Disciplines, SRHE and Open University Press Imprint (Open University Press, 2001). in what we may observe as the politicization of the academy. 

This is a grotesquely simplified view of disciplinary discourses, but it highlights a key problem of the academy’s epistemic rifts: that each faculty’s fundamental outlooks are inescapably political. As the disciplines develop a growing range of epistemic idiosyncrasies, we ignore them at our peril.

Academic drifts

It is easy to forget that the modern academy, with its disciplinary categories and faculty divisions, is effectively an 18th-century invention. Before the advent of the Humboldtian model of the university what knowledge meant was in part a matter of local fashion. In a world in which disciplinary boundaries were porous,[8]G. E. R. Lloyd, Disciplines in the Making: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Elites, Learning, and Innovation (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). ‘real world’ politics and the politics of research were nearly synonymous. But as much as this integrated knowledge world looks like an idyll from the perspective of today’s politically polarized academy, it was but a fiction. 

However much we might pine after a knowledge culture in which different fields complement each other and compete to find the best answers in areas of common interest, as the sciences, humanities, and the arts went their ways, each carried away the conviction that its fundamental dogmas were reality’s best bet. Are such narratives the result of the ongoing marketization of the academy[9]Geoff Whitty, ‘Marketization and Post-Marketization in Education’, in Second International Handbook of Educational Change, ed. by Andy Hargreaves and others, Springer International Handbooks of Education (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, … see more that sees researchers compete for resources and attention? If so, then epistemic specialization could be understood as a productive strategy in the marketplace of ideas and it would only be natural that scientists pose and answer questions in ways unintelligible to humanists who, in turn, would have a range of subjects and idiosyncratic epistemic approaches of their own.

But market capitalism cannot be blamed for everything, and it is not merely the object of knowledge but the nature of thought itself that is in question. Epistemic politics, then, concerns not what we know, but how or even why: the human relationship to truth itself.

Interdisciplinary dystopias

In his lecture, Snow proposed investing in interdisciplinary collaborations that have become commonplace in the academy since.[10]Christina Raasch and others, ‘The Rise and Fall of Interdisciplinary Research: The Case of Open Source Innovation’, Research Policy, 42.5 (2013), 1138–51 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2013.01.010>. Could disparate knowledge forces be brought together through greater dialogue between the disciplines? To further examine the disciplines’ attitudes to knowledge is to stumble upon irreconcilable conflicts: the success of one discipline often relies on undermining the findings of another on grounds of epistemic ideology rather than evidence. This is a tactic that the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak described as epistemic violence.[11]Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271–313. In the earlier question of the sex/gender binary, this tactic encompasses biology’s ideological refusal to accommodate the diversity of gender and the retaliation of critical humanities in undermining the validity of biological sex. One might seek to separate the disciplines and observe that their descriptions concern distinct aspects of a reality. But by the time we introduce a complaint of violence into the analysis, such nuance is unlikely to remain in the foreground.

How would we bring together today’s scientists and engineers with humanists and critical scholars in pursuit of unified theories when their beliefs are fundamentally misaligned? For the first camp, the idea of objective truth production and a rigorous approach to evidence is synonymous with political neutrality that nonetheless relies on the wholesale rejection of knowledges produced by the humanities and the liberal arts. For the latter, knowledge production depends on an investment in situatedness and complexity, and the freedom to disregard what to scientists look like incontrovertible facts, on grounds of the ethical and political superiority of this method.

Interdisciplinarity is difficult: any attempt to ignore the totalizing desires of competing schools of thought under its banner is at best naïve. Apart from relying on resources and conditions rarely present in the academy, interdisciplinarity requires a near-utopian non-hierarchical coming together of epistemes. But even under such rare circumstances, interdisciplinarity is not a practice for resolving the questions of epistemic politics. At best, it can create knowledge that builds an epistemic politics of its own.

Outside the ivory tower

If epistemic politics is only a minor constituent of the politics of the ballot box, does it matter outside the academy or indeed outside the rarefied discourse of epistemology? Nowhere have the conflicts of epistemic politics been more visible than in the recent arguments over the role of science in the public policy responses to Covid-19. Many political leaders repeated the mantras of ‘following the science’ while taking momentous decisions. And they would have got away with it because ‘the science’ was happy to maintain the politicians’ fiction of apoliticality as long as that fiction supported science’s epistemic politics. It took a significant amount of debate and pressure before that ‘science’ conceded that its findings weren’t always conclusive and that it had little to say about the trade-offs of policy decisions. 

The University of Oxford

And this denial of sciences’ epistemic politics did not go unnoticed as attention turned towards vaccine hesitancy and mask-mandate dissent. On the surface, some of the arguments put forward by the opponents of the more restrictive public health measures have been almost scientific in pointing to the limited evidence of vaccine safety or mask efficacy. Without suggesting that these concerns indeed have scientific grounds, shouldn’t mainstream science encourage calls for independent evaluation and effortlessly incorporate them into the balance of narratives? Aren’t questions of medication safety easily answered by well-practised evidentiary practices? 

It should, and they are, but science’s epistemic politics led it to concentrate on discrediting the political motivations of anti-vax, anti-mask, and anti-mandate sentiments rather than responding to their knowledge claims on their own grounds. In its misguided bid to appear apolitical while so doing, ‘the science’ gave up its ability to engage with fundamental questions such as the relationship between scientific determinism and human autonomy. As a result, science’s attempts of fighting misinformation proved to be largely ineffective and science was left open to attacks from disciplines with conflicting ideological priorities.

This is important because a science unaware of its own epistemic politics cannot participate in politics proper. And yet, the self-preservation instinct of scientists is to deny the possibility of any bias in knowledge-making politics. Latour and Woolgar’s 1979 exposé of the socially constructed nature of scientific practice[12]Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, 2013. did not convince scientists that their universalist and determinist paths to knowledge were more winding than they may have thought. If anything, the idea that science may be in some sense human-made has invited defences like Jonathan Rauch’s recent The Constitution of Knowledge[13]Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2021). which argues that scientific reason should be protected from corrupting social ideologies.[14]Laura Ford addresses some of the political limitations of this approach in her review of Rauch’s book. Laura Ford, ‘The Limits of Liberal Science’, The Bulwark, 4 November 2021, https://www.thebulwark.com/the-limits-of-liberal-science/ Which knowledge and whose politics take primacy when such differences remain unresolved?

At the limits of knowledge

In his recent work, the philosopher Nathan Ballantyne has addressed the problems of intellectual trespass and humility that affect scholars of all disciplines and the difficulty they pose for lay members of the public navigating between logically exclusive epistemic regimes.[15]Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Epistemic Trespassing’, Mind, 128.510 (2019), 367–95 <https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzx042>; Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Recent Work on Intellectual Humility: A Philosopher’s Perspective’, The Journal of … see more The bad news is that even knowing when one has considered enough evidence to solve a particular problem requires a high degree of epistemic flexibility. If we accept that choosing where to place one’s trust is an inherently political decision for a layperson, why wouldn’t we assume an even greater level of political investment of a scholar? 

Of course, this problem is present in the humanities and the liberal arts just as readily as it appeared in the sciences. The gender and sex debates that I alluded to are another example of political action hiding behind a ‘pure knowledge’ discourse. In one of her YouTube appearances, the feminist critic Camille Paglia lamented the fact that gender studies refused to involve biologists in mapping the field at the outset.[16]Camille Paglia and Jordan Peterson, ‘Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson’, 2017 <https://youtu.be/v-hIVnmUdXM?t=1701> [accessed 18 September 2021]. This is another example of a discipline excluding whole classes of evidence on political grounds. It isn’t that gender studies lack the understanding of biological sex: their epistemic politics dictates that they must deny the epistemic validity of thinking about their central question in scientific terms.

This epistemic politics comes long before the radical politics of that we recognize in liberation discourses of the critical humanities. So much so that the profoundly partisan politics of gender studies can be understood as a mere byproduct of the discipline’s epistemic disposition. And as with science, the political claims of the humanities are often unfounded: when humanistic disciplines present themselves as political antidotes to forms of fascism, they do so in a propagandistic manner that does little to support knowledge production, let alone the integration of disparate epistemic systems.

Like in my example of the vaccination drive, the success of gender constructionism relies on the complete invalidation of biology’s epistemic methods because the social theory of gender is unwilling to question its own epistemic politics in a manner legible to its perceived adversaries. As science inadvertently contributed to the anti-science sentiments of anti-vaxxers, so does the political certainty of gender theory give rise to the very opposition it seeks to fight.

Sometimes this has unexpected and far-reaching consequences. Even the law, a practice intimately concerned with the nature of truth and invested in translating epistemic politics into politics proper has fallen foul of the clash of the disciplines. The American Civil Liberties Union’s recontextualization of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s position on the nature of the bodily autonomy of women is just one example of the epistemic drift from the positivist to the constructed notion of what makes a woman.[17]Michael Powell, ‘A.C.L.U. Apologizes for Tweet That Altered Quote by Justice Ginsburg’, The New York Times, 28 September 2021, section U.S. <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/27/us/aclu-apologizes-ginsburg-quote.html> [accessed 1 … see more By the time it came to Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s SCOTUS confirmation, the question was moot.[18]Jonathan Weisman, ‘A Demand to Define “Woman” Injects Gender Politics into Jackson’s Confirmation Hearings.’, The New York Times, 23 March 2022, sec. U.S., … see more

Whichever side one takes in the real-world politics of this issue, the fact that these legal arguments rely on unresolved epistemic conflicts can only be a weakness. To some, epistemic polarization may appear as an opportunity for subversion, but it leads to a dead end. And as science’s vaccination campaigns run aground because they couldn’t contend with politics, I believe that the epistemic politics of the politics of gender will falter because it is not open to anything other than a predetermined set of radical progressive politics.

Staking our claims again

It was ever thus. That politics rules the epistemic is evident from the historical record of knowledge breakthroughs. Did the Catholic Church, for example, refuse to acknowledge Galileo’s work because it wasn’t convinced by his arguments or because its power relied on not sharing an epistemic primacy with mere mortals? But such gains as those of the Church are short-lived and if we allow this epistemic struggle to continue, we may be trading claims of political neutrality and supremacy ad infinitum. Or, perhaps, we could try and find ways of breaking out of it. 

To do so, we must stop treating our epistemic toolkits as politically determined and refrain from delegating the politics of knowledges to the fields of their application where their discourse is inevitably adversarial. Would it not be easier to acknowledge our politics and then treat its forays into other fields as acts of epistemic and political trespass over which we must maintain full ethical control? I am not suggesting ridding the academy of politics. On the contrary, I call for making its epistemic politics active and transparent at a much more fundamental level.

Many formidable attempts to employ this method have already been made. Kathryn Paige Harden’s recent book The Genetic Lottery,[19]Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, 2021. for example, builds a humanist argument from scientific data. Beyond its urgent topicality, the greatest value of this work is that it is explicit about the political dimension of its epistemic approach and therefore it can test its thesis outside its customary controlled (and limited) environment.

In Humanist Reason, a rousing manifesto for the reconfiguration of the humanist method, Eric Hayot questions his discipline’s oppositional epistemic politics. Do humanities scholars today truly believe that gravity or biology are merely social constructs?[20]E Hayot, Humanist Reason: A History. an Argument. a Plan (Columbia University Press, 2021). Perhaps not. Hayot challenges the stasis of pretending to earnestly hold such irrational beliefs just because it is easier than re-reading Isaac Newton. The stalemate is systemic: a critical studies scholar would be out of a job if they were to concede the validity of scientific evidence that contravenes their own episteme’s assumptions. Likewise, any scientist despairing at the difficulties of applying the neatly deterministic solutions of science in the social realm may benefit from simply ignoring the unruly complexities of the real world.

Eric Hayot’s Humanist Reason

The key concern is not merely that the humanities and the sciences do not readily engage with dissenting forms of knowledge production, but that they fail to see their own worldviews as negotiable. This is because most knowledge understands itself as is produced through the application of only a singular set of epistemic tools. Science must owe nothing to poetry, the humanities would rather mathematics didn’t exist. Hayot’s response is to confront the humanities with an epistemic challenge that stems from within, reframing their epistemic politics in a manner that acknowledges the arbitrary nature of their dogma. To maintain its command over knowledge, any practice must continuously question its most basic assumptions. 

I may be displaying my own naïve bias here: I took my first degree in Physics and am currently writing a doctoral thesis in the liberal arts, but my training in neither began with an in-depth discussion of their epistemic positions. I could flatter myself that like C.P. Snow I am well-equipped to evaluate ideas using the tools of their political opponents, but this could be an illusion (Snow was far less successful as a scientist than as a man of letters). To know as a scientist and a humanist at once is difficult. To do politics, much easier.

Notes[+]

Nina Power: What Do Men Want?

What Do Men Want? 
Masculinity and Its Discontents

Nina Power

Published by Penguin/Allen Lane, 2022
ISBN 9780241356500

Something is definitely up with men. From millions online who engage with the manosphere to the #metoo backlash, from Men’s Rights activists and incels to spiralling suicide rates, it’s easy to see that, while men still rule the world, masculinity is in crisis. Feminism has gone some way towards dismantling the patriarchy, but how can we hold on to the best aspects of our metaphorical Father? 

Nina Power speaks to Pierre d’Alancaisez about the challenge of accepting biological differences and the potential for men and women living well in a world where capitalism has replaced the values – family, religion, service, and honour – that used to give our lives meaning.

Nina Power is a philosopher, critic, and cultural theorist. She is the author of One Dimensional Woman, a co-host of The Lack, and she publishes a newsletter on Substack.

Gay time, memory, and the death drive

My generation of gay men has no memory. The infinite scroll of torsos and faces on Grindr alone is enough to induce short-term amnesia twinned with an oblivious sense of déjà vu. My generation of gay men has no memory because it cannot imagine what it could have been like to be gay in the time of their fathers since, for the most part, their fathers weren’t gay. My generation of gay men has no memory because its teenage rebellion conflated age, heterosexuality, and parenthood as complicit evils. My generation of gay men born in the 1980s has no memory because it grew up with no role models and no blueprint from which to build a future of its own. My generation of gay men has no memory because it descended from the last generation to be driven by an all-pervasive death drive for whom passing on memories was of little use. 

I’m being melodramatic here: the mid-life’s crisis invites reflection on one’s place in the succession of generations. Judging by what I know of my parents’ generation, the easiest way to assert agency over one’s time is to condemn succeeding generations as lacking in character and to position oneself as the true rightful inheritor of the generation before. For my generation of gay men, the former will be no struggle. The latter, however, requires becoming acquainted anew with a generation whose time came and went leaving a mere caricature as a historical record. 

However much in demand they may be, some stories simply don’t age well and are forgotten even while they’re still in progress. It’s hard, for example, to imagine that the historiography of the Covid pandemic will be of any more use to future generations than that of the Spanish Flu has been to us. Other stories may be forgotten precisely because the reach a terminus. As Michel Houellebecq said of Covid-19: this virus is “banal”. “It’s not even sexually transmitted.”[1]‘World Will Be Same but Worse after “banal” Virus, Says Houellebecq’, France 24, 4 May 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200504-world-will-be-same-but-worse-after-banal-virus-says-houellebecq.

Pandemic, epidemic

For my generation of gay men, that inheritance is also a story of an epidemic, the AIDS crisis that plagued the last two decades of the 20th century. It’s a story that has been told many times (from Angels in America to Philadelphia), recently in the revival of Larry Kramer’s 1985 stage play The Normal Heart. Kramer’s text, in with the main character Ned Weeks is based on the writer’s own experience as an AIDS activist and founder of the advocacy organisation Gay Men’s Health Crisis, tracks the acute epidemic politics. The play brings together the fears and desires of the New York gay community fresh from the Stonewall victory, the moral and scientific ambiguity of medicine, and the political apathy and conservatism of power that came together in the city in the early years of the 1980s. Each element and character takes a moment in the spotlight to reveal their ultimate fallibility and powerlessness when faced with the unknown killer: Ned is so angry that he cannot bring his peers along with his cause, his heterosexual brother harbours a lingering anxiety at Ned’s life, the city hall’s indifference barely masquerades hostility, and the doctor Emma Brookner’s compassion saves no lives and has no sway on the politics of research funding. There’s plenty of grief, rage, and resentment, but Kramer gives us little to navigate these with because at the time the play is set AIDS barely had a name.

Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart at National There, London. Photo by Helen Maybanks

As for Ned’s friends, the gay men who joined with him in the activism of pickets, op-eds, and support switchboards, they are portrayed as less terrified by the prospect of sexually transmitted death than by the choices it requires of them. When medicine’s only realistic solution is to advocate for a moratorium on the unprotected and promiscuous gay sex that defined the liberated gay culture of the metropolis, the play’s characters display an ambivalence rooted in their sexualities and their ideas of personal freedoms as much as in their social status. In the ensuing tactical battle between the fiery Ned and his more diplomatic activist compatriot and Wall Street banker Bruce Niles, it becomes apparent that the distinction between freedom and death is not equally clear-cut to everyone. Kramer never says it explicitly, but it seems that he is aware that some of the men whose lives Ned tries to protect may be under the spell of an extinction drive. Frustratingly, the text is unable to engage with the causes of such a fundamental misunderstanding, investing instead in externalising all the blame and anger that accompanied the horrors of the early days of the epidemic.

The politics of remembering

Why revive this script now? In the age of Covid, the questions of risk, freedom, individual and communal responsibilities, and the difficulty of translating a limited understanding of a threat into conviction politics are resonant and there are moments in Ben Cooke’s staging that make thinly-veiled gestures to 2021’s pandemic politics. Except that when they raise a laugh from the audience, it is for their Twitter-like banality: disappointingly, many of the questions that Kramer raised have seen more nuanced treatment in the public sphere in the past two years than he grants to his characters in the heat of a crisis. As a pandemic morality tale, The Normal Heart has been superseded by current events.

This staging of The Normal Heart was planned before the pandemic and perhaps it reveals the interests of a generation of gay men that influences, if not controls what appears on the bills of London’s theatres. Judging by the tearful reactions of the plays’ audience, for the most part as young and as dashing as the casts and for whom the AIDS crisis could well have been news, the story is compelling as a piece of costume drama. But as a cultural narrative that forms a lineage of ‘queer history’, the script feels at best a historiographic exercise that may as well be set in Tudor England. Can my generation and the next who narrowly escaped having to understand what AIDS is contend with the fact that only twenty years ago, HIV was an inextricable part of gay sex and gay life and that if there was such a thing as a gay community, HIV was its primary concern?

The artefacts left behind by those who died in the AIDS crisis like David Wojanrowicz’s memoirs Close to the Knives[2]David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991). or Derek Jarman’s elegy Blue[3]Derek Jarman, Blue, 1993. appear as rarefied relics that can hardly resonate with the post-Millennial mainstream. Some recent attempts to write a gay history for the present have failed because they rely on a shared understanding of a traumatic moment that most born after 1990 don’t remember. The Inheritance, a sprawling 2018 stage play by Matthew Lopez loosely based on E. M. Forster’s Howards End that over six hours lays the crisis over the generations that survived it, failed to convince Broadway audiences even despite the odd reference to Grindr contemporaneity. Can one blame Lopez, only a couple of years my senior, for failing to own Forster’s 1910 novel and the ghost of a generation he never knew as his own? 

Derek Jarman, Blue, 1993 (except).

Living outside history

Like me, Lopez likely navigated his coming of age between a series of activist victories and cultural shifts. Perhaps, like me, he led a rarefied existence that displays what is now termed ‘privilege’ and that by the time he was ready to make any declarations about who he was, his world was ready to accept him. I, for one, seem to have repeatedly been at the right place at the right time so as to just remain almost unaware of the struggles around me.

By 2017, when activist groups were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, effectively the moment of gay liberation in the UK, I felt new guilt for having contributed so little to the fight. I have excuses: I was at boarding school in the 1990s where nothing of any sexual nature was promoted, so Section 28 passed me by. When the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho was bombed in 1999, I was sitting exams and concerned myself with little else. At university, the dreaming spires made everything seem perfectly cosy. Civil partnerships and gay marriage came before I had any use for them. And AIDS? By the time I moved to the proverbial Sodom that is central London, the combination of developments in the antiretroviral treatment of HIV, the by then decades-long safer sex campaigns, and the nature of my own sex life made this a marginal worry. 

The Inheritance at The Young Vic, 2018. Photo Simon Annand.

Unlike those friends who are ten years my senior or whose lives didn’t spare them the anxiety or grief of HIV, my coming-of-age trauma was purely individual: I had to be reminded that I was thrown out of my family home by a homophobic father before I stopped blaming myself for not having been a member of Act Up. Such experiences, present as they are in reality and in the Lopez script, are no matter to build a generational legacy on.

The death drive and eros

Must it, therefore, come down to storytelling such as Russell T. Davies’ high-energy, high-colour TV drama It’s a Sin[4]Peter Hoar, It’s a Sin, 2021. which, unlike The Normal Heart, place the AIDS epidemic in the middle of a community for whom living and dying are more than intellectual or activist pursuits? Davies spoke of the ‘joy of representation,[5]Nick Levine and Russell T. Davies, ‘It’s A Sin Creator Russell T Davies: “Cast Gay as Gay”’, AnOther, 20 January 2021, … see more the idea that it is the subjects of a story that can reproduce it best and perhaps the fact that the cast of his TV series became cultural gay icons for the Instagram generation attests to this. But It’s a Sin shows something that The Inheritance doesn’t and that The Normal Heart narrowly shies away from: it depicts the confused death drive that ruled the behaviour of some gay men amid all the chaos, loss, pain, and fear of the AIDS epidemic. In Davies’ account, the gay men are for the most part left to do the dancing, fucking, and dying, while the care and activism is the domain of the straight female friend.

It’s a Sin, dir. Russell T. Davies, 2021.

Houellebecq’s suggestion that sexual transmission is a culturally ‘redeeming’ feature of a virus may play into the idea of the death drive, a concept developed by Freud as standing in opposition to eros, the propensity towards reproduction and survival.[6]Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. C. J. M. Hubback, 4 (London, Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Library, 1922), https://www.bartleby.com/276/. Freud explained the death drive by reference to traumas like war or simply characterised it as a pathology, but he was not concerned with homosexuality here. In his terms, however, the gay experience lies at the very mutual contradiction of death and eros: gay sex, a manifestation of the life-affirming drive shared by most humans, does not ultimately lead to procreation and therefore foreshadows the end of a genetic line. For countless gay men, whether participating in sexual reproduction by other means, gay life meant social ostracism and persecution, another form of extinction. 

No future

These biological and social conditions were in force long before AIDS, although perhaps the epidemic was the last moment when the gay death drive could take a decisive cultural turn. In his theorisation of the queer death drive in No Future,[7]Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Series Q (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). Lee Edelman argues that not enough attention was paid to the ‘culture of death’. When he cites Kramer’s call “to redefine homosexuality as something far greater than what we do with our genitals”,[8]Larry Kramer, ‘Gay Culture, Redefined’, New York Times, 12 December 1997. he finds naïve the implication that gay men should return to being understood as ‘artistic’ or ‘gentle, loving people’ worthy of communing with eros

Where the death drive found recognition and inevitably spiralled out of control was in the lens of the news camera. Edelman recalls that the story of Andrew Cunanan, a “gay club kid turned serial killer of (mostly) gay men” who included Gianni Versace gave the media a sort of ecstatic jouissance. One commentator observed that because “young men who have come face to face with the knowledge that their own lives are blighted and doomed”, they would “now want to experience the rush of killing in more traditional ways.”[9]Edelman, No Future, chap. 2.

And from here, it’s only a short trip to the likes of Dennis Cooper, whose novels are filled with acts of sexual cruelty that would turn Jean Genet’s stomach. Cooper’s antiheroes make death the most explicit and irresistible of aphrodisiacs and for many of them, the act of killing is synonymous with being killed. I am again, however, again unable to judge the historiographic value of such fictions, in part because the names of Cooper’s characters in Frisk,[10]Dennis Cooper, Frisk (New York: Grove Press, 1992). that of the serial killer Dennis and of his would-be victim hustler Pierre, bear an outsized sentimental significance for me. No wonder that in French, the orgasm is referred to as une petite mort. Todd Verow’s 1995 film adaptation of the novel, thankfully, changes some of the names to make for a mesmerising exponent of the death drive; even though (or because) it makes no mention of AIDS, it offers a clearer and alarmingly compelling insight into the thrill of sexual annihilation than any of the mainstream representations.[11]Todd Verow, Frisk, 1995.

Trailer for Todd Verow’s adaptation of Dennis Cooper’s ‘Frisk’, 1995.

Murder is a moral transgression reserved for only a few. AIDS, on the other hand, made the exulted act of sacrifice or killing accessible to all. For many years, the underground culture of bug-chasing, that is of HIV-negative men deliberately seeking unprotected sex to become infected with the virus, horrified onlookers. Who in their right mind would seek to contract HIV? Documentaries like The Gift[12]Louise Hogarth, The Gift, documentary (Dream Out Loud Productions, 2003), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oN4w8e432_o. made explicit the surprisingly widespread nature of the practice: it wasn’t just a fringe ‘kink’ far off to the side of the Kinsey scale. Instead, all the predictions that Freud and later Lacan made checked out and as much as part of the bug-chasing phenomenon was driven by abandon in response to generalised anxiety, another part of it was inextricably connected to its erotic appeal. Risk is hot.

Louise Hogarth, The Gift, documentary (Dream Out Loud Productions, 2003)

In the past decade, concerns over the spread of HIV have faded into the background as the key political concerns of the gay community. The availability of PrEP, the now near unaffected life expectancy of HIV-positive men, and the confirmation that well-managed infections do not transfer during sex mean that that HIV has become part of a general background of sexual health in the gay population. Social acceptance of gay lives is higher than ever. My generation of gay men that only glanced at the earlier crises in passing is now busy thinking about mortgages and marriages. Not many appear to have yet confronted the fact that they may not produce offspring. Edelman follows Baudrillard in suggesting that the lack of reproductive variation contributes to a state of stale sameness. I expect, however, that the above-average ownership of pet dogs that I have observed among gay men is only part of an ongoing transition to an existence where even the reproductive aspect of the gay death drive comes to an end, even if it is through simulacral reproduction. It’s not as though, as Nina Power observes,[13]Nina Power, Non-Reproductive Futurism: Rancière’s Rational Equality against Edelman’s Body Apolitic. Borderlands, Jacques Rancière on the Shores of Queer Theory, 8, no. 2 … see more children are synonymous with politics.

Part of a user profile on the Hinge dating app

The Straight Truvada

Was the death drive a product of circumstances that afflicted gay men for cultural reasons or is it somehow inalienable to male homosexuality? Assuming that Freud’s generalised diagnosis was correct, where does the drive manifest itself when the gay man gains more satisfaction as a perfectly formed neoliberal subject than as a sacrificial fantasist? In the DIS video UBI: The Straight Truvada,[14]DIS, UBI: The Straight Truvada, 2018, video, 4’52″, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcYdELt_gdc. Christopher Glazek compared PrEP to the contraceptive IUD that promised women liberation from the inevitability of reproductive biology, at the cost of turning them into economic subjects. “What good is a sexual revolution without an economic one?” The pessimism of the emergent generation of anti-capitalist activists represented by Greta Thunberg’s campaign Fridays for the future which bizarrely sees the future in the bleakest of terms suggests that your ‘the end is nigh’ placard may still come handy. But whereas Thunberg’s performance of the death drive is Instagram-friendly, the gay death drive was essentially a clandestine, closeted affair. 

DIS, UBI: The Straight Truvada, 2018, video, 4’52″, 2018,

Perhaps the gay man’s death drive has migrated to other arenas of queer culture. If Kramer’s unambiguous fear of death has ongoing cultural relevance, it may be in the imagination of a new generation of the LGBTQ+ community. This forcibly assembled political community, distinct in many dimensions from the earlier generations of LGB rights activists, seems united by the belief that its members are subject to more extreme threats than its predecessors. Reports of hate crimes abound and contribute to the understanding that the risk of harm is an inalienable part of belonging.[15]Libby Brooks and Jessica Murray, ‘Spate of Attacks across UK Sparks Fear among LGBTQ+ Community’, The Guardian, 29 August 2021, sec. UK news, … see more When it comes to death, it is trans activists who point to the shocking number of murders (43 in the first ten months of 2021 in the US alone)[16]Trudy Ring, ‘Here Are the 43 Trans Americans Killed in 2021 So Far’, Advocate, 31 October 2021, https://www.advocate.com/transgender/2021/10/20/all-trans-people-killed-murdered-violence-2021-record-statistics. which one recently described as a ‘Holocaust’.[17]Greame Massie, ‘Whistleblower and Transparent Creator Joins Hundreds in Netflix Walkout’, The Independent, 20 October 2021, sec. Culture, … see more

Death, performed

To echo the question I posed to bug-chasing gay men: who in their right mind would dare to put themselves at such great risk? It takes no great investigative effort, however, to understand that this new queer death drive is the most Baudrillardian of simulations: the harms and deaths mourned by survivors often act as mere symbols for events that may as well not have taken place. Stories of hate crime are rarely accompanied by context, such as the recent changes in statistical methods for recording what are in fact declining rates of hate crime in the UK,[18]‘Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2019 to 2020’ (Home Office, 28 October 2020), https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/hate-crime-england-and-wales-2019-to-2020 nor do they correlate with surveys of increasingly liberal social attitudes.[19]Eir Nolsoe, ‘International Survey: How Supportive Would Britons Be of a Family Member Coming Out?’, YouGov, 31 August 2021, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/international/articles-reports/2021/08/31/international-survey-how-supportive-would-britons-. A cursory Google News search of the names of trans murder victims reveals that the vast majority died for the very same reasons that cis-gendered people do: drugs, robberies, crimes of passion, sex work and that they die at rates lower than the general population.[20]Georgina Lee, ‘FactCheck: How Many Trans People Are Murdered in the UK?’, Channel 4 News, 23 November 2018, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-how-many-trans-people-murdered-uk. Where a motive is identified as homo- or transphobia, it sticks out like a sore thumb. 

The gay community has been complicit in perpetuating similar fictions too, for example, by clinging to the memory of the iconic 1998 homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard despite the significant evidence for its more quotidian motives of drugs and debt.[21]Stephen Jimenez, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard (Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2013). Likewise, many may refuse to accept that the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen did not seek out gay men for his targets.[22]Jane Coaston, ‘New Evidence Shows the Pulse Nightclub Shooting Wasn’t about Anti-LGBTQ Hate’, Vox, 5 April 2018, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/4/5/17202026/pulse-shooting-lgbtq-trump-terror-hate. Even if seemingly unstoppable deaths have not always been myths as Kramer’s play bitterly attests and all are tragic, the lack of a particular ‘hate’ or biological cause that underlies them should bring some muted relief.

Matthew Shepard

Much has been written about the deployment of vulnerability in the identity politics of the LGBTQ+ community, sometimes in needlessly combative terms,[23]Madison Smith, ‘Neither Marginalised, Abused nor Vulnerable’, The Critic Magazine, 21 October 2021, https://thecritic.co.uk/neither-marginalised-abused-nor-vulnerable/. and it is no far stretch to suggest that a death drive simulation is an effective tool for creating community bonds and ensuring a broadly empathetic hearing in the public sphere. But as Edelman and Glazek suggest, the desexualised nature of today’s performed death drive is a distraction from the reality of the next obstacle with which the individualised sexual subjects must contend. The performance also risks ingraining a kind of infantile Romanticism in the at-risk subject, painting them as someone capable of flirting with death for everyone’s entertainment. The next chapter of this history should perhaps be written by Michel Houellebecq.


Even if my personal and limited reading of a history to which I barely bore witness, one motive seems unchanged: the heteronormative liberal dream of a country house and a life filled with love underpin The Normal Heart as much as they represent the desires of today’s LGBTQ+ activists. In Kramer, the only character who is allowed to remain apolitical is Ned’s partner, an attractive and successful fashion commentator. Ironically, he’s the only one we get to see die on stage. 


Main image: Liz Carr and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart, National Theatre, 2021. Photo Helen Maybanks.

Notes[+]

Gemma Commane: Bad Girls, Dirty Bodies

Bad Girls, Dirty Bodies
Sex, Performance and Safe Femininity

Gemma Commane

Published by Bloomsbury, 2021
ISBN 9781788311267

What makes a woman ‘bad’ is commonly linked to certain ‘qualities’ or behaviours seen as morally or socially corrosive, dirty and disgusting. Bad Girls, Dirty Bodies explores the social, sexual and political significance of women who are labelled bad or dirty. Through case studies (including Empress StahRubberDoll or Doris La Trine), the book challenges the notion that sexual, slutty, bad, or dirty women are not worth listening to. Gemma Commane speaks to Pierre d’Alancaisez about her study of neo-burlesque, queer performances, and explicit entertainment as sites of power, possibility, and success.

Gemma Commane is Lecturer in Media and Communications at the Birmingham School of Media, Birmingham City University. She is active in research in the fields of media and cultural studies, and gender and sexuality.