The Fags and the Cha-Ching

The late Christopher Chitty's groundbreaking book, Sexual Hegemony, is a truly queer work, an unconventional intellectual project that is of great importance for theologians who want to make sense of queer life.

Sexual Hegemony, Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System, Christopher Chitty’s exploration of the links between the rise of global capital and the progressive formation of homoerotic categories, is certainly queer work. I mean “queer” here not in the conventional sense that its subject matter is one of queer theory’s main objects of study, nor am I alluding to the fact that much of its theoretical and methodological apparatus is indebted to queer theory. I mean “queer” here in the sense that it is entirely an unconventional intellectual project. You see, the author died in the spring of 2015 before completing his doctoral work and what has come out in print is an organized assemblage put together by Max Fox who in the Foreword shares with the readers the process of compiling earlier, unfinished, fragmented drafts. Every written work, of course, is somewhat unfinished, always open to critique and further developments. In this case however, the nature of the (un)completed manuscript has a spectral tone to it, a haunted essence that runs through its pages, most notably felt in the spurts of Chitty’s brilliant insights as much as in the ways such brilliance has a drafty, sketchy patina.

It would be easy to fault Sexual Hegemony for its notable undertheorization of concepts (“hegemony,” quite ironically, as a term that figures prominent in the title is need of further development both as a contested category in relevant literature and, more importantly, in the way it is used in the book), for its lack of engagement with more recent contributions in queer theory (queer critique of color is notably missing), for its historiographical obliviousness to the European imperial project, or even for a quite linear and basic engagement with Marxian analytical categories such as labor, class, and surplus. We will never know what a finalized project would have looked like or how this promising brilliant mind would, in the years to come, have intervened in contemporary debates around sexual politics and neoliberalism. We do know, however, that Chitty haunts us through his firm writing with the gifts of a queer mind. Let me name some of these gifts and then suggest how they are relevant both for scholars in religious studies and theology. These gifts could turn into other gifts if those of us invested in queer historiography decide to mend his blunt dismissal of the category of religion with broader understandings of the cultural significance of theological discourse.

What are the causal links between shifts and developments in the capital economy and the configuration of various sexual hegemonies? How do economic micro-developments that follow wider financial trends, that conceptualize what counts as normal and what a deviant, worth incorporating, legislating, even persecuting? These are the general questions that structure Sexual Hegemony. Chitty expands and problematizes some of the topics that have centered queer historiography since its Foucauldian inception, namely the category of the sodomite–along with other deviant sexualities–and the epochalization of homoerotic identities. The overall thesis is that “the fault lines of transformed property relations in a process of combined and uneven development” gave rise to different types of queer sexualities (pp. 178-179). The first part of the book (Part I) devotes itself to tracing how transformations in the nature of capital relations affected the reorganization of different sexual practices, and how such arrangements were weaponized by the powers-that-be for different political and economic purposes.

Christopher Nealon pens a fitting and informative introduction (pp.1–17) that locates Chitty’s argument at the intersection of queer Marxist theorizations, suggests ways of further engagement, and pays eulogy-like homage to a mind gone to soon. For those less familiar with Queer Theory let me briefly supplement Nealon’s introduction with a recap of queer basics.  Foucault, credited as the forefather of queer criticism, convincingly and influentially argued that “sexuality” was an apparatus created in the process of science uprise at the end of the 19th century. Foucault argued against the “repressive hypothesis,” the suggestion that Victorian sexuality, and its aftershocks, was a force that had curtailed sexuality. He opposed the idea that religious discourses had forced sexuality to be silent, a suppressive effort that covered sexuality’s manifestations with a puritan coat.  

On this hypothesis, religion, mostly Christianity,  was a dominant/hegemonic factor against the liberative forces that would allow us to express who we “really” are sexually. As a If only, as the sexual revolution would have it, that pesky religion would go away or be transformed into liberation, we could be at home with our sexuality. Against this framing, Foucault argues that, in fact, it was not repression but production: science, religion, and a host of other institutions incited discourse around sexuality to the point that we no longer are able to understand subjectivity outside of it. This is an insight worth repeating particularly in progressive theological circles because sexuality continues to be explored as an essential trait of who we are. Calls for “tolerance” and “acceptance” are at the forefront of a discourse that seems reluctant to move beyond somewhat hackneyed liberal iterations.

The interrogation of the repressive hypothesis and the exploration of erotic subjectivities beyond identitarian categories constitute the starting point of queer theory.  Foucault’s classical observation that the homosexual was now “a species” inaugurated a historiographical search to understand what stood on the other side of contemporary history. It also offered an alternative to studying erotic configurations outside of psychoanalysis−oedipal and post-oedipal attachment would no longer hold an explanatory monopoly on who we are. Foucault’s understanding of power as both disperse and pervasive, stopped top-down Marxist understandings of power in their tracks. As this admittedly simplified story goes, the North American academy, particularly literary and cultural criticism,, would follow in the steps of Foucault, leaving Marxism and its analysis of class outside the analytical equation.

Sexual Hegemony seeks to interrupt this overly discursive analysis of sexual configurations by bringing  material conditions back into the picture. Chitty is aware that Marxism can be blamed for occasionally relegating sexuality to an epiphenomenon of different modes of production. Thus, he stakes out his analysis as an intervention in queer historiography, arguing that beyond discursive productions of male-to-male sex, different periods saw the rise and decay of homoerotic practices that were consonant with specific configurations of labor. More specifically, and as Nealon helpfully points out in the introduction, Sexual Hegemony illustrates how the would-be-bourgeoise policed deviant sexualities against the aristocracy and, more importantly, against the working class in order to achieve their long-sought-after economic hegemony. Hegemony, then, refers to the cultural forces summoned by ruling classes at different historic momentsto enforce their worldview, particularly the weaponization of sexual mores in the pursuit for economic profit.

Chitty’s working definition of queerness particularly helpful. He suggests that rather than consider queerness as a utopian opening for self-transformative play, “the queer would describe forms of love and intimacy with a precarious social status outside the institutions of family, property, and couple form” (p.26). “Queer realism,” as Chitty terms his approach, zeroes in on the nodes of intersection between class struggle and lived embodiments of sexual configurations. Queer analysis becomes “realist” because of its detailed unpacking of particular state bureaucracies and of the ways economic classes leveraged political and cultural power to enforce sexual normativity. The question is “whether and how sexuality outside marriage and property relations congealed into opposition, defiance, or open antagonism toward socially dominant groups and their institutions” (25). This form of realism has important consequences for those of us focused on how religious and theological understandings determine cultural production and vice versa.

On this matter, Chitty’s contribution offers both too much and too little. On the one hand, it discharges religion of its putative role in the history of sexuality. Or as he puts it: “my argument seeks to unsettle a commonplace that creeps into histories and theories of sexuality: that moral or religious ideologies are at the core of sexual intolerance and oppression, which, in the final analysis, boil down to a kind of irrational superstition or phobia awaiting the right conditions to break out” (27). Accordingly, Chitty’s approach offers a timely corrective to those progressive theologies (also the reactionary ones) that chastise themselves for having been on the wrong side of history. But it is one thing is to decenter religion, and another to completely dismiss its heuristic potential.

The book’s twofold structure presents first a set of national cases and second a theoretical reflection of historiographical nature. Accordingly, the first four chapters focus on specific historical and geographical moments located in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic basins. Florence and Venice set the stage followed by the Dutch hegemony to end, this historical part, with an exploration of sexual normativity during the French revolution “when the bourgeoisie openly declared war on the sexual libertinism of the aristocracy,” confirming how in the cases of France and the Netherlands “scandals of appetite index a wider failure of government” (p.39). These case studies, to different degrees, substantiate Chitty’s claim that sexual hegemony weaponized cultures of sex between males to enhance forms of dispossession, labor exploitation, and population control for the advancement of capitalism, making homoeroticism a thermostat of sorts to measure social tensions between the dominant classes and the proletariat.

Using a few examples, let me illustrate Chitty’s proclivity for fascinating insights that also miss the mark when accounting for the role of religion. I have mentioned above that Chitty’s exculpation of religious forces in the moralization of sexuality is a fitting reminder for practitioners of theology to “look somewhere else” when it comes to understanding the historical specificities of erotic configurations. In this case, however, the problem is not only that religion is untheorized, but also that obliviousness to religious enquiry works against some of the fundaments of Chitty’s argument. In part II Chitty blames Foucault for not having explored how “we got here,” for “assuming bourgeois sexuality to be hegemonic, rather than rigorously accounting for how it came to be so” (156). How is it then, that contemporary anti-sex discourses have their roots in theological reasoning? Such obliviousness to the religious factor drags both his overarching project and specific historical observations.

Concerning the first element, and given Chitty’s resort to Marxian analysis, the reader is left wondering about the exact the relationships between the crucial shifts in religious identity in the European continent and the evolution of capitalism from a feudal setting to a bourgeoise ethos. Before heading to the specific historical cases, let me briefly signal how, in the second part, queer scholars of religion will likely find Chitty’s analysis at fault, but also generative. Sexuality has long been understood as an important component of the accumulation of capital: the formation of the proletariat was possible, in part, through a decoupling of biological reproduction from ownership production.

Fast forward to the contemporary proliferation of queer sexualities that sit quite comfortably with a capitalism where “choice” has become the central motif of a global economy ready to exploit the new desires that it has created in the first place. Progressive theological discourse about “self-acceptance,” both buys into and feeds off such developments. Chitty seems cognizant of the role that the Protestant ethic played in the formation of a new sexuality centered about the nuclear family, but despite such acknowledgment, there is no elaboration of its role in this configuration. We get hints at how religious ideas contributed to the shaping to such state of affairs (“the protestants understood homosexuality according to a model of contagion, as a foreign influence having spread from the Mediterranean south” (p. 133), but there is no follow-up on how we got here. In other words, we are left wondering about how this model of contagion gave way to the contemporary progressive model of “sanitized” homoeroticism. Sustained attention to this shift–from contagion to sanitation–might help us explain contemporary liberal theological enamor with Pete Buttigieg’s late presidential candidacy.

What about the specific case studies? Take for instance the argument about the influence of Savonarola in the intensification of the sodomy legislation during the 15th century. Chitty credits him with being the visible head of a Florentine moral reform that intensified surveillance of same-sex practices. The result was a failure of sorts because, in contrast to the laxer approach of the Officers of the Night, the friar’s strategy was not able to find popular support. Chitty argues that previous persecutions of sodomy were not so much due to a “rabid moral campaign of repression and punishment” (p. 44) but a way of monetizing sodomy: a system of fines whose revenue was used for public work, a way to extract value from those sections of the population who had started to be superfluous to the economy because the overflow of agrarian citizens into cities, shifts in the markets, and different prioritizing of goods trades.

This is a generative example of the notion of “hegemony,” illuminating how homosex was a warzone between both elite classes searching for political influence and cross-sectional groups seeking to escalate economic echelons via the accusations of those who were below them. Sodomy was an amenable accusation levelled both at upper classes (as a discrediting force) or proletarian ones (as a stigmatizing one). It could be leveled to subtract wealth or topple a tyrannical government, a paradigmatic example of Machiavellian politics put to good use. There are definitely hermeneutical gains in exploring how the notion of sodomy sat at the intersection of class struggles and wealth exchanges. However, it is highly unlikely that Savonarola’s moral crusade can be understood without more attention to the history of theological ideas. It is here where Chitty seems to forget the Foucauldian lesson of power as capillary and where theological discourses would nuance a material approach that is oblivious to conceptualizations of the body, community, and marriage consuetudinary practices.

Take also the fascinating case-study of the proliferation of public urinals in 19th century France. Chitty shows here how a cultural history of these architectural feats, first built in Paris, throws into relief the ways homosex is entangled with public works, among other things because many men had no private spaces at their disposal. It also shows how historical configurations of gender and class impacted public homoerotic practices. As the case in Manchester demonstrates, women pushed for the construction of public urinals to stave off indecency and then pushed for their abolition when they become places of sexual activity.

Chitty concludes (pun intended) that 19th century “struggle over the phallus can be sketched in broad strokes” as the confluence of “middle-class women entering the public sphere” (p.125), serving as popular policing forces over men-on-men sex and prostitution. So far so good, but I can’t help to think that most of these attitudes can hardly be explained without resorting to entwined relationship between material conditions and religious conceptions, especially their imprint on the body. As a migrant myself, I am always fascinated to see north American puritanism stigmatize, even criminalize, public displays of affection, “indecent exposure,” and cruising practices. The differences between the present criminalization in the American subcontinent and the leniency in the Mediterranean basin cannot boil down to differential capital developments. Chitty’s work tasks theologians with expanding his material analysis, reminding us of the importance of taking notice of the economic conditions that shape queer life. 


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