Has anyone seen the recent biopic J.Edgar? It’s the story of J. Edgar Hoover, who was head of the FBI between 1935 and 1972 and who was also a rumoured homosexual. At one point early on in the film, the young J. Edgar is depicted taking his soon-to be assistant, Helen Gandy, on a date to see the card catalogue system he claimed to have invented for the Library of Congress. (Gee, some date!) In a bid to show off the ingenuity and efficiency of the system, he asks Gandy to propose any topic for him to search within the archives. “Indiscretion!” she proposes, and in a matter of minutes, J. Edgar finds a book on the topic and retrieves it from the library shelves. He then goes on the rhapsodise about how wonderful it would be if there were a card on every individual in the United States: how easy it would be to solve crimes if every individual were as easily identifiable as books in the library.
The film sets up an interesting set of tensions and associations between information retrieval, the catalogue, surveillance, indiscretion and homosexual expressivity. The ‘theory’ of the film is that it is J. Edgar’s own inability to express his sexuality that leads to his obsessive interest in the private lives of others. (This licences the film to go on obsessively to explore the private life of J.Edgar. Not a happy thing, unless you like tales of repressed old gay men played by straight actors in bad ‘old person’ makeup….)
For me, this representation of the card catalogue connects in interesting ways to another historical figure who I’ve been researching, Sam Steward – a fascinating figure, and contemporary of J. Edgar Hoover’s, whose life is the topic of this recent brilliant biography by Justin Spring. Steward was a literature professor, who became a tattoo artist and also a writer of erotic fiction. He was friends with a range of prominent 20th c. figures, from Gertrude Stein to Alfred Kinsey. He was also a bit of a gay lothario and lover of rough trade.
One of the best known features of Steward’s life was his keeping of The Stud File, a 746 cross-referenced card catalogue system in which he recorded details of every sexual partner he had between 1924 through 1974 – their measurements, attributes, what they did together, etc. Steward used the catalogue system partly in order to refresh his memory and enable repeat encounters, partly as an upshot of his relentless enthusiasm for archiving.
This makes me think about the use of this device as part of male homosexual arrangements and erotic practice over the 20th century. The catalogue emerges as a distinctive mechanism or what I would call an infrastructure of sexual encounter. I’ve become fascinated with the place of the catalogue in the emergent homosexual subjectivity of the 20th c. Just as fascinating, I think, is the desire to enumerate; and the place of the statistical imagination in homosexual self-understanding more generally (I’ll blog about this some more another time).
Steward went on to become one the key informants of Alfred Kinsey, whose work is considered foundational for American sexology. I’m struck by the sense in which Steward’s practice of cataloguing anticipates and informs the scientific methods of this nascent discipline. For me the link to Kinsey connects in suggestive ways to the practices of HIV behavioural and epidemiological surveillance, which draw extensively on the techniques of sexology, and which have become the primary means of knowing about male-to-male sexual practice – a massive worldwide apparatus, intensively resourced and linked into policy, without which contemporary policy responses to HIV/AIDS would be unthinkable.
There’s a lot that can be said about this particular structure of scientific knowledge and the forms of authority it auspices (and I’ve begun to try to say some of it here and here): the sense in which the primary way in which we ‘know’ about sexual practice is by counting and measuring other people’s behaviour. I’m constantly struck, for example, by the fact that we have so many people working in the HIV field who are regular participants in affected communities/cultures, but who are blocked if not actively discouraged (by the professional frames within which they work) from reflecting in any sort of sustained or explicit way on the making of their experience …as part of their work . You have to ask: what sort of engagement with sexual practice are these epistemological arrangements modelling?
But I am also interested in the sense in which Steward’s practice of cataloguing anticipates or presages another contemporary device or formal infrastructure which now plays a major part in the facilitation of all-male sexual encounters: the online hookup site; and in particular, the online profile …which can be viewed as an active participant in the contemporary shaping of gay sexual subjectivities. Through the online profile, we catalogue ourselves – according to certain formats – and we use this device to facilitate sexual encounters, having it operate as the terms of our initial exposure to others. Could the popular participation (not to mention forms of disaffection and critical engagement) that surround this infrastructure be more widely or critically generative?
The difference of course between J. Edgar and Sam Steward, or between behavioural surveillance and online cruising, is that in the latter instance what we have – at least potentially – is a case of inhabiting the catalogue: i.e. an explicit use of the catalogue for embodied and erotic purposes.
And so what I am becoming interested in is the politics that emerges when we acknowledge (or get explicit about) our inhabitation of the catalogue: When we reformulate or engage the catalogue as a device that is affective, erotic and specifically inhabited …