booknotes: the trouble with nature

This week's adventures in queer theory came in the form of anthropologist Roger N. Lancaster's The Trouble With Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture (University of California Press, 2003), which caught my eye on the shelves of Raven Books on Newbury Street. Yes, it really is the sort of thing I buy myself as a weekend treat.

Lancaster's wide-ranging examination of narratives around sex, gender, sexuality, and nature in both scientific and popular culture can be read as a single monograph or as a series of fairly free-standing topical essays. Grounded in research done largely in the 1980s and 90s, Lancaster charts the various ways in which evolutionary psychology and sociobiology have been deployed across the political spectrum to argue for a stable "human nature" in the face of social and political flux. "What is most obvious about these naturalistic and naturalizing representations [of sex and gender] is that they are so emphatic on matters which recent history has been so equivocal," he observes (8).

The language of the natural sciences are seen, in contemporary culture, as the voice of authority on the realm of the possible. Queer activists draw on the authority of supposedly innate desires to argue that they were "born this way" and therefore are eligible for equal treatment. Some strains of feminist theory ground their vision in an understanding of women as innately nurturing, pacifist, or cooperative. Religious conservatives, likewise, often utilizes the language of natural science to argue for a particular theological vision of destiny (consider the case made for intelligent design, or the "natural" complementarity of heterosexual relations). Free-market libertarians argue that human beings have a "selfish gene" and to put forward a communitarian alternative to capitalism would be inevitably futile.

In contrast to these fatalistic, mechanistic notions of humanity, Lancaster draws upon his training in cultural studies and anthropology to argue for the irreducable complexity and variety of human sex, gender, and sexual expression across time and space. While acknowledging that we are, indeed, physical bodies, those bodies are in turn never separable from the meaning we make of that matter: "Hormones, odors, and appetites do count -- but their effects are always called forth within a cultural context, which is to say, they count in dynamic and non-reductive ways ... it matters less that they are biological than that they are creatively articulated within a framework of arbitrary meanings and contingent practices" (204). To put it less jargonistically, "the body is enmeshed in social facts and human acts," not an ahistorical constant (205).

Lancaster's book is far from the most articulate or persuasive account of the cultural context in which science around sex and gender is practiced (the works of Anne Fausto-Sterling, Rebecca Jordan-Young, Cordelia Fine, Jeffrey Weeks, Gayle Rubin, and obviously Michel Foucault all come to mind, many of whom he draws upon in this work). If you're not already at least sympathetic to the notion that scientific research is done in the context of human culture, then you will not likely be convinced by The Trouble With Nature. However, what Lancaster contributes to this field is a thorough survey of the ways in which "bioreductivism" filters into (and draws upon) the language of sex, gender, and sexuality so as to become a feedback loop of "common sense."  He examines how, over the course of the twentieth century, the languages of sociobiology and evolutionary became the undisputed voices of authority on human behavior -- a realm once shared with practitioners in such fields as anthropology, history, and sociology.

Most interesting to me was the way in which Lancaster, himself a gay man, is uncompromising in his criticism of queer activists who use "innatist" arguments to advance the rights of non-straight sexual identity groups. "At best ... the new innatist claims carve out a protected niche for homosexual exceptionalism," he writes. "At worst, they reify the prevailing logic of heterosexual metaphysics and thus actively contribute to the reproduction of an exclusionary homophobic -- and sexist -- environment. For gays can only be gay 'by nature' in a 'nature' that already discloses men and women whose deepest instincts and desires are also different 'by nature" (275). As someone who shares Lancaster's skepticism that a "born this way" argument is a sound long-term political strategy for ending heteronormative policies and prejudices, I appreciated his articulation of an approach to queer rights activism that doesn't ground its authority in the notion of a fixed non-straight orientation, but rather the infinite variety of human sexual desires.

With that in mind, I'm closing this review with a lengthy quotation from the introduction to The Trouble With Nature in which Lancaster sketches out the talking points for how one might re-frame the political debate over human sexuality and queer practices. "The long-standing demand, made by religious conservatives, distraught parents, and liberal helping professions alike, is but this: Change your unnatural desires. Time and again, the response is given: I can't change them -- They're part of my nature," Lancaster writes. "Would it be as convincing to own one's sexuality in a volantarist fashion, to say, simply, 'No, I won't change them -- I'm as queer as I want to be?' " (22).  He suggests it might be possible to do just that:
"Desire and identity are inherently ambiguous," a different kind of contention might begin. "Some of us are more or less exclusively homosexual for most of our lives, many more are exclusively heterosexual," the argument might continue, rightly acknowledging the salient facts. "But sometimes even straight men find themselves infatuated with their best friends and -- as any veteran of feminist consciousness-raising can tell you -- women who think of themselves as heterosexual sometimes discover lesbian potential they didn't know was there. It's not unheard of for gay ment to fall for women, or lesbians to sleep with men." 
Now for the theory: "Freud believed that all human beings have bisexual potential. Research by Alfred Kinsey, Laud Humphreys, and others suggests that a lot of people act on that potential at some point in their lives. Anthropological studies of other cultures have shown that human sexual practices are remarkably varied -- that there's more than one way to organize the institutions of family, kinship, and sexual life. Some societies even require every male to engage in same-sex relations for extended periods of time. What all of this means is that nothing in 'human nature' gives us a heterosexual norm and a homosexual minority. Sexuality is largely what we make of it." 
Then, a dash of social context to make sense of how we "make" sexuality: "In modern America, people are very much in the process of making new things out of sex and sexuality. All around us, relationships are in flux: gender roles are changing, sexual practices are changing, all at a dizzying speed. None of this means that people 'choose' their sexuality the way a person might choose a pair of socks. But in fact, many individuals do change over time." Segue into the argument: "So much variation, experimentation, and change makes some people very nervous: they come up with absolutist claims about an unchanging nature, or, they fall back on the premodern idea of divine law as the last recourse in these matters. But 'nature' explains nothing here. And nobody really knows very much about why people have the feelings they have." 
Then, cut to the chase: "None of this is an illness or a disease. None of this means that the end of the world is at hand. There's nothing wrong with any way that people can express love, make community, or find consensual pleasure. What's wrong is trying to make people feel sick or evil or perverted about things that are just part of being human. What's wrong -- and dangerous -- is trying to narrow the range of pleasures people find in our wondrously human bodies" (23-24).
While I doubt The Trouble With Nature is a great starting place for those interested in the cultural history of human sexuality, I think Lancaster's book has a lot to offer on the subject and I'm glad I made it an addition to my growing library of sexuality literature.

1 comment:

  1. The comparison that comes to my mind is with promsicuity and pair bonding. It seems likely that most of us have the wiring for both long term (sometimes lifelong) partnerships and having many casual partners. Both reproductive strategies have been useful in our evolutionary past, both are of some use and appeal today and both are demonstrated in human behaviour all around us.

    And yet, many people in couples barely notice other sexually attractive people, and many single but sexually active people can't imagine only being with one person. Many people describe themselves as innately monogamous, others feel incapable of being with just one lover.

    However, culturally, we don't struggle too much with these two very different ways of handling love and sex - ways that to me, seem more diverse than the straight/ bi/ gay thing. Both are commonplace in novels and movies, as indeed are transitions between them - most commonly a person "settling down" after having "played the field", but occasionally it's the other way round.

    And whilst our culture doesn't treat all inclinations as equally valid and is generally freaked out by things like polyamory, we do largely accept, I think, that some people are more inclined towards monogamy while others are not and that these are things that can change over time.

    If we can deal with that stuff in a nuanced way, why not the far less dramatic matter of whether someone loves men or women?