Cataloguing desire

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 …


Filed under Affect, Devices and technology, Eroticism and fantasy, HIV behavioural surveillance, Online meeting sites, The statistical imagination

5 responses to “Cataloguing desire

  1. ana australiana

    “When we reformulate or engage the catalogue as a device that is affective, erotic and specifically inhabited …”

    Stalking sociologists meet sexy sociologists? 😉

  2. Geoff Honnor

    “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?”

    Me too – I’ll think twice before cheerfully owning my participation in a qualitative study of sexual adventurism in gay men to a meeting of the NSW Ministerial Advisory Committee on HIV/STIs, again 🙂

    But the really interesting thing for me is that ‘the block’ – at least in my direct experience of it – isn’t organisationally imposed, edicted by policy or indeed professionally wrought or framed in any deliberate or explicit sense – apart from unremarkable exceptions like the standard sanction on relationships with clients.

    I suspect that gay men generally have become more conscious of ‘prevailing propriety’ observance and community expectations and less inclined to ‘experience making reflectiveness’ -at least in a public and/or explicit sense – in other than quite specific, ‘safe’ contexts and circumstances. Add in the modern workplace and its regulatory-based emphasis on containing any nascent propensity to offend and well……

    I digress, but the increasing tendency for the almost Pavlovian offering of often quite hysterical ,Good Gay Citizen responses in what limited online discussion of balancing pleasure and risk exists, is instructive. Even talking about the theoretical possibility of an absence of condoms results in deeply uninformed moralising and hectoring and an almost panic-stricken desire to stop crazy dangeous talk because …’s not right…to talk about..thinking about it…or something…

    Back to the point at issue, I wouldn’t underestimate the influence of NGO ‘professionalisation’ in a more generic sense either.
    There’s a really interesting adjunct phenomenon that shapes around HIV positive gay men delivering NGO based HIV+ health promotion and care and support services to other gay men in an increasingly demarcated provider/client relationship context. The notion of ‘peer’ has an increasingly narrow practical, mutually acknowledged application (Genesis is about ‘it’ in my experience) though it remains as a kind of ephemeral ethos.

    By any general measure, the providers are examples of ‘living well’ with HIV but the oppressive silence around – and implicit lack of permission to explore – notions and understandings of , ‘living well” with HIIV in the public discourse, renders them invisible in serostatus terms, let alone open to considering the similarities and connection possibilities between themselves and the guys on the other side of the desk – and the reasons as to why desk positioning distinctiveness exists. .

    The clients on the other hand are kind of required to ‘live down’ to the framing that needs-based advocacy fosters and offers up as appropriate lived reality depiction; which possibly accounts for the fact that, for many/most? HIV positive gay men, a useful indicator of wellness lies in the distance they can put between themselves and any regular contact with the community-based programmatic response constructed to engage with them.

    To pick up on your theme, BBRT and nastykinkpigs may represent optimum distance attainment from imposed categorisation and classification – at least while you’re there..:)

    When we did the PLWHA(NSW) sex pigs campaign in 2006 and encouraged public discussion of the meanings and implications inherent in an energised gaypoz sexuality, a subculturally contextualised sexual ‘privileging’ of serostatus and the associated potential for diagnosis to offer a liberating – as well as a variety of other moments, it wasn’t the guys in the two day celebratory slamming sesh who complained about ‘validation’ outing – it was, in some cases deeply scandalised, sector professionals concerned – presumably on their disempowered client behalfs…..

  3. I don’t know what went down at the NSW Ministerial Advisory Committee Geoff – but that sounds a brave move. Thanks for your insights into how things play out in the context of community service provision too.

    Like you I’ve been interested in the implications of various gay ‘proprieties’ in terms of how they impact capacities for reflexive responsiveness to HIV/AIDS at an everyday level. I wouldn’t say professional frames or scientific practices are the only elements in the making of these proprieties, but I am very interested in the sense in which our dominant ways of knowing about sex and risk, and organising collective responses to these, is through practices of distancing and counting, usually in the name of accumulating ‘objective’ evidence. And how this in turn might reflect or ramify dynamics of shame, disavowal and moralism that characterise sexually conservative climates more generally, and which Michael Warner sums up nicely as follows:

    “The difficult question is not: how do we get rid of our sexual shame? The question, rather, is this: what do we do with our shame? …And the usual response is: pin it on someone else.” (In The Trouble with Normal)

    In drawing connections between these things and using them to ask questions of research/professional practice, my idea isn’t to advocate some new practice of sector naval-gazing or invoke models of self-development replete with familiar practices of expiation and atonement (which would surely play into the very forms of normalisation that are the source of concern) but just to pose the question (which is a practical and methodological question that calls for innovations in thought and practice): – What knowledge practices are needed to create better engagement with, and acknowledgement of, our sexual experience, in such a way that unwanted dangers can be addressed? I think part of the answer must be promoting more consideration of how experiences, desires, identities are historically produced (and are never just personal or psychologically individual)…

  4. Hi Kane, Have just belatedly discovered this blog via Facebook. Great blog and interesting post. I don’t like much to blow my own trumpet but I take up similar issues to the ones you’re talking about here in a book chapter, “Sexuality and the Statistical Imaginary in Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton” in Wendy Pearson, et al., eds. Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction (Uni of Liverpoool Press, 2008). There I talk about the interrelations of sexuality and statistical modes of perception/cognition/affect in relation to sexuality generally–the specifically gay inflection of statistical sexuality is somewhat tangential–but it might be of interest. I also talk about the statistical nature of gay sex culture in an earlier essay “‘Contagious Relations’: Simulation, Paranoia, and the Postmodern Condition in Wiliam Friedkin’s Cruising and Felice Picano’s The Lure,” GLQ 11.1 (2005), esp. p. 47. There I’m interested in the use of statistical/numerical terms to denote sexual partners or at least sexually attractive others (“type,” “number”). I arrive at this interest via a reading of Mark Seltzer and Deleuze and Guattari’s contention that under late capitalism “there is always something statistical in our loves.” Agree Sam Steward is a fascinating character, and looking forward to hearing more of what you have to say about him.

  5. Thanks for these references to your work Guy, I can’t wait to read them, they sound very interesting and very relevant to what I am trying to think about too! Thanks, K.

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