Phrases such as ‘lesbian and gay community’, or ‘LGBTQ community’, tend to invite sceptical responses: ‘so-called’, someone will add. The implications are various, but they include the suggestion that individuals within those groups – and frequently gay men specifically – are only interested in sexual satisfaction rather than any collective or political purpose. ‘Money’, writes Simmel, ‘has made it possible for people to join a group without having to give up any personal freedom and reserve.’ Sexual satisfaction is not a bad thing to be interested in, but the single-mindedness of that pursuit is clearly one consequence of the material developments (I explore this in chapter two of Sex, Needs and Queer Culture). Equally, however, it may be felt that the category of ‘community’ is felt to mask divisions. After all, what kind of community are we speaking of here, who is excluded from it, and who, if anyone, might be said to speak for it? Perhaps we should rather speak of communities? After all, we can always find more ‘difference’ if that is our inclination, but the logic of that quest directs us away from community altogether.
The problem with the category of community is that it is one of those terms everyone feels obliged to express support for because it suggests cohesion rather than fragmentation and instrumental relations. Miranda Joseph, however, suggests it also functions as a kind of (Derridean) supplement to capital by generating the use values that are transformed into exchange value, even as community and capital are construed as autonomous and even opposed spheres and principles. If part of the problem with community is therefore that it tends to suggest a cosy or romanticized view of a group and the relations that comprise it, a better term might be subculture.
For the most part, though, this is a category that is simultaneously ill-defined and taken for granted, rarely theorized, yet endlessly invoked. What, for instance, does the prefix in subculture refer to? Does it merely indicate a part of the larger culture, as in ‘subset’? If that were the case, would it make sense to speak of groups such as golfers or cyclists as constituting a subculture? Intuitively, we might think not – and so, perhaps more importantly, might golfers and cyclists. Golf, after all, may be a minority pastime, but that minority is a mostly privileged one often keen to protect the exclusions of its sport as the very badge of privilege. It would seem more in keeping with usage to suggest that ‘sub’ also suggests subordination, but if it is the case that we need to think in terms of a diversified dominant, claims in this respect are likely to be very much less compelling than they once were.
Other assumptions nonetheless tend to persist in relation to subcultures that follow from this presumed subordination. Are they necessarily dissident or radical, or should they be? And if so, does this mean that individuals who belong to a subculture, but do not consider themselves ‘political’, should be regarded as in some sense ‘inauthentic’ or suffering from a form of false consciousness? Subculture often appears to be used in terms analogous to counterculture, yet we have seen that the counterculture was a diffuse phenomenon, and was for the most part comprised of individuals and groups who were relatively privileged (or destined to become so). Members of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies argued that subculture had class implications, representing ‘a weakening of control over the youth of a subordinate class, [whereas the counterculture] was a crisis among the youth of the dominant class’. Note, however, that both phenomena are defined as youthful.
Judith Halberstam seeks to avoid the latter emphasis in order to expand the term’s relevance. She speaks of ‘queer subcultures’ as challenging normative temporalities, because ‘for queers, the separation between youth and adulthood quite simply does not hold, and queer adolescence can extend far beyond one’s twenties’. The problem with this way of formulating things is that it suggests a continuing fetishization of youth through its extension, rather than any deprivileging of it altogether. Why not speak more positively of the potential expansion of certain qualities said to be characteristic of maturity: reflexivity over spontaneity, for instance, or sensitivity over aggression? The answer surely has to do with the extent to which youthful energy has been commodified and sold to us as desirable. The attempt to maintain one’s youth may actually be a burden; it will certainly be a losing battle. Indeed, it is one focused on by much of the cultural production I look at in this chapter. A great deal has been said about queer temporalities, but we are fooling ourselves if we presume them to be free from more general pressures – indeed, their distinctiveness may result from a peculiar intensification of those pressures – or congratulate ourselves that they are necessarily more satisfying than others.
Halberstam also sees radicalism as bound to musical taste and identity, rather than a political commitment that is not necessarily associated with such things. That is in part because, following Judith Butler, she sees radicalism as performative rather than a matter of conviction: the punk she values ‘has always been the stylized and ritualized language of the rejected’, and therefore subversive of norms. She does not deal, however, with Dick Hebdige’s argument in relation to punk specifically that style is always commodifiable, and has been so in this instance. Still, Halberstam’s project is one that celebrates subcultures that offer alternatives to what she sees as the increasing conservatism of lesbian and gay communities, since she prioritizes those that are ‘nonheterosexual, nonexclusively male, non-white, and nonadolescent’.
Queer theoretical purists might object to Halberstam’s argument on the grounds that it serves to reify a term, queer, that neither can nor should be pinned down, one that is in principle diffuse, anti-identitarian and illimitable to persons or spaces. Halberstam’s formulation nonetheless shares with this abstract and idealist version of queer an avant-gardism that excludes those who don’t consider themselves very remarkable; those who may be middle-class, middle-aged and fairly liberal, or black, working-class and conservative, for instance, but who nonetheless frequent the local scene and maybe read the odd lesbian or gay novel. Are such people’s lives not also subcultural? Does their lack of radicalism render them inauthentic?
In briefly outlining here some of the problems associated with this category, I am freely drawing on the kinds of consideration informing what is surely the most extended and sophisticated theorization we have, especially in relation to sexually dissident groups, in the work of Alan Sinfield. That work has tended to be neglected within queer studies for a variety of reasons. For one, it emerges out of his powerful account of British postwar dynamics, though it certainly does not limit itself to consideration of British contexts. The most influential work, by contrast, comes out of the US academy and mostly reflects US traditions, conditions and priorities, as I suggested in chapter three. Sinfield’s work is also argued from the tradition of cultural materialism, and therefore contrasts with the poststructuralism of queer theory. It is true that his version of cultural materialism evinces certain superficial similarities with such thought – anti-humanism, for instance, and a privileging of particulars over universals – but these emphases emerge from precise materialist arguments rather than any abstract value placed on difference.
Sinfield’s account is first elaborated in the conclusion to one of the most important books in the British cultural studies tradition, Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain (1990), but it has been consolidated in other works since then, in part in order to engage with the diversification of lesbian and gay into LGBTQ movements and contexts, since his conviction is that in writing about subculture one should consider oneself actively engaged in its formation. This is not a matter of the archivism Halberstam proposes and executes in relation to subcultures that are presumed to be radical, but rather of critical engagement and intervention.
This is an extract from Sex, Needs and Queer Culture, written by David Alderson.