Gay Marriage Redux:
Imagination, Queerness, and Sympathy
By this point, you all know that the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act today.
Literally within minutes of the announcement, my social media feeds started filling up with reactionary bullshit from queer “activists” and “thinkers” complaining about how horrible it was that DOMA had been struck down, “Gay marriage only matters to SOME queer people,” these eloquent defenders of equality explained to us. I guess they think we forgot the last 200 fucking times they pointed this out. So, thanks. That didn’t occur to any of us, we all thought rainbows would start shooting out of everybody’s asshole as soon as DOMA was declared unconstitutional. I’m glad you could set us straight.
There are two closely related problems here, and both of them have to do with the ideological formations of contemporary identity politics. First, though, let’s recall the definition of ideology offered by Louis Althusser in his famous essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” namely: “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”
The two problems I have in mind could be briefly describes as temporal-affective and conceptual-imaginary. The first is the simpler of the two, so let’s start there.
Namely: if gay marriage doesn’t matter to you today, presumably it didn’t matter to you yesterday, and won’t matter to you tomorrow. So the first question is, if you don’t care, why do you care? The queer critique of the “gay marriage agenda” is not new. Believe me. I’ve been debating these arguments for years. And you know it’s not new, because you’ve been harping on them since before the Court started deliberating, which was months ago. And we’ve heard you say it all before. So, honestly - maybe you could just shut the fuck up? Seriously. Just for today. Just for right now, while the rest of us are happy and giving each other hugs. It’s completely fair to say that this isn’t an issue for you and doesn’t affect you in any way (that’s a debatable point, but OK, let’s take you at your word). So if we take your claim at face value and accept that this has nothing to do with you, then a different question is begged, namely - if this doesn’t affect you at all but makes a whole lot of other people really, really happy, whence comes the impulse to shit on all those people’s happiness? So that’s the first point, which really has nothing to with queer politics so much as with individual people’s individual affective investments. This first point is given an extra twist of dialectical irony by the fact that so many of the people who complain about gay marriage base their arguments on its lack of inclusivity. So…your response to other people shitting on your investments is to shit on their investments? Let me repeat my earlier question - are you fucking 12 years old?
From this initial, affective issue follows the second point, which is more abstract and more conceptual, namely the notion of “intersectionality” that underpins many of the resistances to gay marriage.
Let me say explicitly and immediately that I am not unsympathetic to the concerns of intersectionality. I refer you to Janet Halley’s Split Decisions: How And Why To Take A Break From Feminism if you need a roadmap to the issues at hand. Not every queer benefits from gay marriage. And yes, marriage is a traditional, phallocentric, patriarchal institution. And yes, traditionally, marriage is a form of property management rather than a traditional form of loving commitment. But here’s the thing about institutions: they are what we make them. In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci warns repeatedly about the danger of “institutional fetishism,” which is, basically, the false belief that institutions exist outside of the people that constitute them and the economic flows that move through them. A university is a great example: if every single student, teacher, administrator, and employee of Harvard University stood up and walked off campus, would there still be a Harvard University? Actually, there would be. You know why? Because of the law.
There’s a reason that in the history of the USA civil rights battles have traditionally followed the path of legal challenge, the slow, winding path of battling through the system all the way to the Supreme Court. And to understand that reason, it might be useful to distinguish two senses of the word “institution”: the imaginary and the legal. An institution is both an idea and a legal entity. We have an idea of what an institution is or can be or should be; and there are a specific range of institutions that the law recognizes as existing as coherent, semi-stable entities outside of any individual actor or participant. A non-profit foundation is a perfect example: a group of people think up a non-profit they want to start. They submit the application to the government. If the request is granted, a non-profit is created and becomes, in the eyes of the law, an entity independent of its individual members. At that point, the entire board can be replaced and the foundation can keep functioning. But the crucial thing is that before there was an institution, there was the idea of one - the group of people who wanted to create the non-profit. When you submit an application for non-profit status, you need to fill out a form listing a certain number of founding board members. These are concrete, specific people, rather than systemic functions like “chairman of the board.” These people need to have names and addresses. Only after the legal recognition of the institution does the institution have a relation to the law independent of its participants. The crucial thing here is that institutions always, always exist in the imagination before they exist before the law. We confront the law in our struggle for political change precisely because we continue to exist even when institutions ignore us. But even when existing institutions ignore us, we can still imagine other institutions. Except that “not good enough,” unless followed by a positive argument of some kind, is an act of negation, not an act of imagination.
The mistake - what Gramsci calls “institutional fetishism” - occurs when we allow institutions to limit our imagination, instead of using our imagination to limit institutions. This is the moment at which we enter the terrain of ideology: “What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live” (Althusser). As soon as we come to think that institutions exist before the minds and bodies that affect and are affected by them, we limit our imagination, and, by extension, our own action. And the triumph of ideology, as an imaginary relationship, comes when it has convinced us that we are powerless to act in, with, or against any given institution, or even institutions as a whole. The terrain of ideology is not the limit that institutions place on our actions, but rather the limit we place on our own action when we allow institutional power to convince us we are powerless to act. Freedom is always and only freedom of action.
Now, the same conceptual principle of the imagination that applies to institutions applies also to “intersections.” Because the thing is, the things that intersect in intersectionality are not material entities but concepts. An intersection isn’t a place; it’s the idea of a relationship. I mean, good luck finding an apartment on the corner of Race and Feminism. “Queer,” “woman,” “race,” “class,” and every other piece of the intersectional puzzle are ideas in the mind - concepts. Which doesn’t mean they’re arbitrary, but it does mean they don’t have a fixed or inherent meaning. As with the relation between individuals and institutions, the relations between different “sections” are ideas in the mind - that is, they are ideological. And just as is the case with individuals and institutions, we limit ourselves when we begin to believe that concepts limit us. You’ve decided that gay marriage doesn’t matter to or affect you; OK, great. Good for you. But you’re not just talking about or for yourself. You’re speaking on behalf of an imaginary group, you’re speaking about a different imaginary group, and you’re imagining a fixed, trans-historical institution mediating the relation between these groups. Except that all these categories and distinctions are all in your head.
In one of the many astounding sections of his Treatise on Human Nature, the great philosopher David Hume suggests that the imagination is the foundation of human institutions. How can this be? The answer is Hume’s concept of sympathy. It’s a little hard to grasp in its literal sense, because is Hume’s time “sympathy” meant something closer to what “empathy” means today. The point, though, is that when Hume posits sympathy as the foundation of human institutions, he doesn’t mean feeling for someone; he means feeling with someone. The power of sympathy, for Hume, is the power to go beyond identity into the proliferation of difference: instead of two people mirroring each other’s emotions and investments, sympathy allows a relation of analogy to be established between the feelings or two individuals. This is the ethical power of the imagination, in Hume - it allows us to imagine that something we don’t feel might have a value comparable to, but not the same as, something we do feel. It’s not a question of you and I having the same investments; rather, it’s a question of each of us learning to think, “Ah, OK. That person’s investment in X has the same affective value to them as my investment in Y does to me.”
I have no problem with you saying that gay marriage doesn’t matter to you. Everybody has their own investments. But when you critique gay marriage because the equality it offers is not equal enough, you are confusing equality before the law with equality in your imagination. More importantly, you are allowing yourself to believe that institutions define people, when in fact people define institutions. The fact that the Supreme Court ruled as it did is proof positive of this assertion: if institutions were not subject to historical change, to ideological critique, and to human intervention, this ruling would never have been conceivable in the first place because the institution of marriage could never change. And instead of celebrating the fact that the institution of marriage is a little bit queerer than it was, you insist on insisting that gays who want to get married are a little bit more heterosexual than they were. But again - this is just an idea in the mind. And of course, you’re welcome to your ideas. But the idea that any group should give up a legal struggle against a very palpable discrimination just because it doesn’t fit with your idea of what your own interests are - I mean, wow. Talk about egocentric. You’re not defending “queerness” against heteronormativity: you’re defending your own personal investments by shitting on those of a very big group of people, for whom today is a very important victory. And your justification is that these other people aren’t sympathetic enough to the needs and investments of other groups.
Instead of allowing the weight of ideology to convince you that politics is a zero-sum game and that victory for anyone else means failure for you, try instead to allow the freedom of your imagination to convince you that where one change is possible, infinite changes are possible. Instead of letting identity be a barrier to collective action, try letting the possibility of difference be an incitement to greater collective sympathy. I can only end by quoting Deleuze’s essay “Hume”: “The problem is no longer how to limit egotisms and the corresponding natural rights but how to go beyond partialities, how to pass from a ‘limited sympathy’ to an ‘extended generosity,’ how to stretch passions and give them an extension they don’t have on their own. Society is thus no longer seen as a system of legal and contractual limitations but as an institutional invention: how can we invent artifices, how can we create institutions that force passions to go beyond their partialities and form moral, judicial, political sentiments (for example the feeling of justice)?”