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Anarchism & SexualityReview - Anarchism & Sexuality
Ethics, Relationships and Power
by Jamie Heckert and Richard Cleminson (Editors)
Routledge, 2011
Review by Michael Larson, M.A.
Nov 1st 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 44)

Anarchism and Sexuality is a post-anarchist collection of perspectives on the intersections of ethics, power and relationships. Post-anarchism treats the core emphases of anarchist critique (an emphasis on the value of human freedom, a commitment to equality and suspicion of all forms of power and dominance) from a theoretical framework influenced by Psychoanalysis, Deconstruction and Michel Foucault. Some entries in this collection take upon an anarchist approach to sexuality and sexual practices. Others take sexuality as a realm for developing anarchist practices. There is also exploration of how sexuality and gender are treated within anarchist communities and anarchist politics. The book features four "poetic interludes" which are interspersed between essays and an exclusive interview with Judith Butler, relating her own thought to the concept of anarchism. 

In her preface, Judy Greenway states "If there is one thing that unites fundamentalists and bigots of all persuasions, it is their attachment to the so-called 'natural order' of sex and gender hierarchy, and their horror of those who threaten it. In this world view, sexual liberation is a variation on anarchism"(xiv). This makes a connection between anarchism and sexuality via a negative perspective: that each area faces common enemies and takes abuse for similar reasons. There are numerous reflections in the text considering how power has operated shaped how people experience and relate to themselves as sexual and gendered beings.

But sexual practice and a (post)anarchist ethics also become connected in a positive fashion. My favorite essays here are those which focus upon overcoming imposed limitations by taking an affirmative, creative approach toward self-fashioning and relationality. We can begin to see positive affinities open up between explorations of sexuality and sexual intimacy and anarchist aspirations of achieving greater freedom and less (non-consensual) domination in the world.

Editors Heckert and Cleminson state that their intentions in putting this book together were "first, to make fresh anarchist perspectives available to contemporary debates around sexuality; second, to make a queer and feminist intervention within the most recent waves of anarchist scholarship; and, third, to make a queerly anarchist contribution to social justice literature, policy and practice"(1).  They discuss their three guiding principles at work in the volume: "a commitment to diversity as an ethical stance in itself... a radical commitment to equality...[and] an ongoing process of empowerment"(3-4).

The editors consider the process of working on the book itself to have been a transformative experience. Many of the entries here have origins in a conference and workshop convened on the theme of anarchism and sexuality. It is evident in the text a sense that the participants are opening up to explore their own experiences and work through difficult issues together. 

I feel in reading some of these pieces that the participants have invested a lot of themselves in their contributions. There is an immediacy and liveliness in a lot of these pages. The personal investment on the part of the authors helps make it so that there is much to relate to in Anarchism and Sexuality, on both an intellectual level and an emotional level.

Some unique efforts are made here to explore possibilities for living meaningfully, considering how we may open ourselves to pleasures and how doing so can impact our lives in many ways.  The ethical and political importance of sexuality and sexual practice are taken seriously. Sexual practice itself becomes a means of practicing a positive and life affirming ethos.  Sexual liberation takes center stage as a means of practicing freedom.

The authors also work through some major social, political, bureaucratic and family systems problems which can get in our way of freely expressing and enjoying our bodies.  Some of these experiences emerge from the context of being in anarchist and/or queer communities, but the spirit and insight found in pieces like those from Jamie Heckert, Lena Eckert and Lewis Call resonates well beyond these confines.

Leading into a reading of Beatriz Preciado's Contrasexual Manifesto and its concept of 'dildotopia,' Lena Eckert reflects on the concept of 'utopia,' which she defines as 'critique in itself because it proves that envisioning something different is possible"(69). Eckert states plainly that "We can't do what we can't think, so why not think what we could do?"(69). Her essay is playful, imaginative and shows her willing to take risks in her exploration.  She "does not claim to be coherent"(88). This lack of concern with coherence is in fact at the heart of what her essay is all about: disconnecting our thinking about sex from notions of necessity, identity and hierarchical construction. She aims to dismantle the bureaucratic organization of desire.

In doing so, she operates with three premises that foreground her entry. These express her utopian approach to sexuality mirroring a political ethos of post-structural anarchism. She explains the premises as follows:

"First, sex, gender and sexuality are produced by societal practices, technologies and discourses. Second, the bodily and psychological structures which emerge from these productions are governed and organised by hierarchical symbolic power structures (such as the phallus). Third, if we take into account that we are no longer 'humans' but rather 'becomings', we might be able to conceptualise ourselves as non-hierarchically organised... This opens the possibility of 'becoming-resisting'"(87).

Eckert attempts "a utopian critical commentary on the arrangements of society... to rearrange certain narratives"(88). The figure of the "dildo" (which can be anything) here becomes a disruptive and productive tool for opening new possibilities.  The "dildo" enables us to expand our notion of what sex is and what it can become or be imagined as. Her utopia considers "anal equality" (and oral, as well), by exploring the erotic potential of areas that are shared across gender lines, for a sexuality which can be freed to explore. A sexuality not oriented by a notion of the phallus, or even of orgasm. Eckert writes that "The anus is for Preciado the centre for the 'work of a contrasexual deconstruction'"(83). So part of "dildotopia" involves taking sex beyond the constraining notions of explicitly genital contact in order to take desire into an exploration of diverse avenues of pleasure.

This expansive notion of sexuality requires a "cyborg ontology" of subjective becoming. The "cyborg ontology" that Eckert borrows from Donna Haraway "skips the step of original unity"(84). There is no pure and true starting point.  This ontological perspective does away, then, with the negative constructs of "deviance" and "perversion." Combining this ontology with Preciado's concept of "dildotopia," Eckert playfully rejects conceptions of necessary structure and hierarchical arrangement. This approach to creative becoming as a sexual subject translates quite nicely into (post)anarchist political subjectivity. 

Lewis Call introduces the concept of "postanarchist kink." Taking power as "possibility," following Foucault, he explains that "kink theory attempts to theorise the consensual exchange of erotic power... interprets such power exchange as a viable ethical alternative to the non-consensual power structures which permeate the modern world"(132). Call looks to Foucault's analysis of BDSM practices. "For Foucault, kink was important because it showed that even in a world where power is omnipresent, some of that power flows in accordance with an ethics of freedom"(133). Some critics have attacked kink practices for being based on dominant/submissive relationships. However, the liberal critique based on the concept of "consent" actually contradicts itself. Call cites Wendy Brown who draws out the distinction between liberal and erotic notions of "consent." While "the liberal form of [political] consent actually 'marks the subordinate status of the consenting partner'... structures of erotic consent are deeply informed by desire... The consent of the liberal political subject or the capitalist economic subject can be grudging, indifferent or apathetic. Relations of erotic power... require desire"(133).  Call interprets desire in light of the Hegelian-Lacanian observation that to desire is to desire the other's desire. This is a "reappropriation of the master-slave dynamic"(150). In kink, "the dominant desires the desire of the submissive" and vice versa (133). There is thus a level of equality and empowerment in the contract between partners in kink unlike anything found in the liberal economic-political model.

Again in Call's essay we find sexuality treated as a possible "way out" of oppressive forms of political domination, by playfully enacting subjective desires in an empowered, ethical context.  But Call warns we must be careful not to slip back into a liberal-humanist construction here. He writes, "The risk here is that kinky desire might inadvertently produce a problematic kind of identity politics."(135) Instead, Call has in mind a structure of desire befitting "postmodern subjects: deeply embodied, without fixed or stable identities... This would also be the structure of kinky desire"(135). So, it is not about liberating an essential kernel of "true sexual desire" within our nature, but of allowing ourselves the freedom to explore possibilities of sexual subjectivation, in a fluid, relational context.

Volume editor Jamie Heckert contributes an essay of his own titled, "Fantasies of an anarchist sex educator." The essay covers some interesting territory in imagining possibilities for conducting sexual education and opening conversations on the topic of sexual identity. 

Heckert's essay reads like a journaling exercise and this style helps to connect with his ideas. Heckert is candid with his autobiographical portrayal, reflecting on how his experiences have shaped him and how he has at times struggled in responding to these forces (growing up in an abusive household, dealing with social alienation, homophobia and an awareness of economic and political injustices.) 

In the section entitled "I have fantasies of erotic anarchy," Heckert looks back at how he had learned to block off his feelings, to take on an "arrogant rationalism," by becoming judgmental of others, and himself. Committed to keeping his guard up, it is only later that he realizes how much he has incorporated the repressive values he sought to escape into his own superego. He can now see that: "In my efforts to deny pain, I diminish my capacity to experience pleasure"(169). To protect himself from feeling helpless in the face of trauma, he cut himself off from feeling and became his own harshest judge. The superego manifested in an unforgiving perfectionism. Demanding the impossible of himself, he frequently has to "switch off" in order to cope. "I regularly anaesthetise myself in various ways (moralising, intellectualising or distracting myself, with porn or political theory, television or net surfing, with ideas of 'success'). And when I do, I end up feeling worse. Numb"(170). 

But Heckert works to get in contact with feeling "the erotic potential of everyday life" rather than wait for the time "after the revolution"(174). By focusing only on the negative, on how we don't measure up to ideal and absolute standards, we keep ourselves from enjoying the beauty and potential of the world we share. The affirmative and experiential nature of his essay exemplifies the approach of the contributors here, showing how effects of power intertwine with our relations to feeling pleasure and of how we relate to each other.

Each of the essays I have looked at tackles assumptions about what we conceive as necessary and absolute in regards to pleasure and desire. Each develops ideas for cultivating positive and creative forms of ethically and erotically relating to ourselves and to others.


© 2011 Michael Larson


Michael Larson, M.A. Instructor at Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA. Primary interests: Continental philosophy, Foucault, Deconstruction, Social and Political thought, Modern and Contemporary art.


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