More and more, recently, I’ve been coming across articles by Justin E.H. Smith. I don’t agree with him about much but they’re often interesting. Today I read one in Lapham’s Quarterly called Working Arrangement, where he describes same-sex marriage as the logical conclusion of the capitalist transformation of marriage into a kind of labor and occupation. He sees this as maybe a good thing for some gays, but as bad for society as a whole, and, I think he implies, bad for some gays who preferred their “countercultural” status. The key paragraphs:
To see gay marriage as a blow to the august institution of marriage, then, is to fail to take into account the fact that the institution as we know it is a very recent invention. Marriage was already blown apart, or at least completely broken off from its traditional role, with the rise of the nuclear family. In this respect, gay marriage is not a reduction to absurdity of an ancient institution, so much as it is an instance of late capitalism’s voracious absorption of everything that might otherwise stand as an obstacle to it. Just as society has learned to absorb countercultural signifiers into advertising for the junk that must be hocked in order for capitalism to survive, just as the big oil companies have cultivated the ingenious art of “greenwashing” and incorporated eco-babble into their own PR campaigns—so too has bourgeois marriage absorbed what was left of the sexual opposition.
Certainly, there were always members of the gay community who would rather not have borne the burden of existential difference, who would rather have stayed who they were while seeing society change in such a way that who they are might be allowed to count as normal. The domestication of same-sex desire is surely a good thing for these people. But their individual advantage does not mean that the world as a whole is not losing something, and it has been one of the great fallacies of the liberal defenders of gay marriage to assume that what is good for any given individual is for that very reason good for society. The loss we have in fact suffered is one akin to the loss of some mighty species of wild boar as it is bred downward into a fat, ugly, lazy, edible pig; or to the move of indigenous Amazonians from the rainforest into squalid urban slums. In each case, one may insist that the absorption of these once-free beings into the dominant world order is a bit of progress for them: the pigs will now be well fed (until they are slaughtered), and the proletarianized Indians will eventually benefit from some small dose of welfare-state largesse. But in each case there is something the world is losing. With the right to marry granted, gay couples will visit each other in the hospital and will get in on the system of inheritance that is the very bedrock of the sedentist system that has in much of the world been held, since the Bronze Age, to be of higher status than nomadism or pastoralism, and that since the rise of capitalism has been practically imposed in all corners of the globe.
From what I’ve read of Smith’s writing, I would classify him as a rather typical “countercultural” liberal academic. But apart from the typical markers of academic Marxist ideology (“proletarianized,” really?), the above sounds rather like the standard argument I hear coming from the most strident opponents of gay marriage. I see two main differences between Smith and the traditionalists, beneath which are lie two deep similarities. First, the former makes the homosexual outcast into a mystical Orphic figure (I’m reminded of W.H. Auden’s saying that gay sex always carries connotations of occult magic), while the latter sees him as almost demonic, a danger to society and himself. But both see homosexuality as radically “other” and see efforts to normalize it as completely missing the point. Second, the former wants to bring us back to a pre-Bronze Age society (this came up as well in the other article by Smith I’ve talked about here), while the latter wants to bring us back to a medieval society. But both reject both consumer capitalism and a Hegelian/Marxist/progressive view of history in favor of a longing for an idealized past.
It’s the difference between primitivism and distributism, really.
I suppose I both sympathize with and distrust the frame of mind that underlies both positions. At best it’s an insistence on recognition of significant differences and a rejection of dangerous fatalism; at worst it’s a denial of an other’s humanity and a nostalgic longing for a falsified past. There’s no way to know which it will be before looking at the specific issue. That the frame of mind isn’t all-determining should be obvious from the fact that it can lead to both of the above positions, which are, I should probably emphasize, most definitely mutually exclusive.
If nothing else it’s interesting that the pro-gay-marriage consensus in academia can allow dissent if it’s offered in Smith’s terms, but not if it’s in the terms of traditional morality.