- Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire
Edward Shorter's Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire announces itself, if only by virtue of its title, as a work of social constructivism. Its thesis, however, is unadulterated biologism. Desire may be subject to historical repressions, Shorter concedes, but it is not itself historical: sex is biologically 'hardwired,' and thus trans- or ahistorical. Civilization apparently suffers from fewer discontents than is commonly supposed, and all civilization – or at least all Western civilization – moves inexorably toward the Great Liberation: '[T]he history of desire is the history of the almost biological liberation of the brain to free up the mind in the direction of total body sex' (4). In the bad old days before the Liberation, sex was dull and dutiful, totally governed by the imperial hold of the genitals. Today, anything goes.
Shorter's position is, then, at an extreme remove from the social constructivism suggested by his title, which he seems to grasp not at all: only those given to a naive faith in sexual self-determination and self-expression are said to question the role of biological hardwiring in the production of sexual identities. But of all the charges that can be levelled at social constructivism, an unproblematic commitment to sexual free will is surely the least compelling. To his credit, Shorter concedes that he cannot 'prove' biological determination; the best he can do is make a 'reasonable case.' He notes, for instance, that a majority of gays and lesbians believe that they were simply born 'that way.' This is reasonable evidence, however, of precisely what? Certainly no social constructivist worthy of the name would be troubled by the claim: the identity categories that are imposed from without are nevertheless experienced as emerging spontaneously from within. By the same token, however, no social constructivist worthy of the name would ever make such unproblematic use of the evidence of sexual self-knowledge and self-expression.
Shorter's 'strongest' argument, as he terms it, is taken from Dean Hamer, the scientist perhaps most intimately identified with the search for the 'gay gene,' biological determination degree zero: 'The strongest evidence for the stability of sexual orientation is the consistent failure of attempts to change gay men to straight.' But if anything, the statement suggests why gay men and women should be encouraged in the practice of what Shorter terms, following Nadine Weidman, 'biodenial': the [End Page 159] search for the biological determinates of homosexuality is historically indistinguishable from the dream of its prevention or eradication. 'It would be unjustifiable to assert,' Freud cautions in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, that recent inquiries into the hormonal determinates of homosexuality will 'put the theory of inversion on a new basis, and it would be hasty to expect them to provide a universal means of "curing" homosexuality.' A dream deferred is not, however, a dream abandoned, and there is no lack of haste in Freud's own discourse, which moves from questions of etiology to prevention with grim alacrity. (Exactly how much time and effort has been lavished on the quest for the 'straight gene'?) True, social constructivism can easily degenerate into social engineering. But as Eve Sedgwick notes, it is the assumption that sexual identity is genetically or biologically based that, at least today, is most likely to mobilize respectable fantasies of a world-without-the-homosexual. Shorter dismisses social constructivism as an 'ivory tower' intellectual game, 'the triumph of a kind of perfervid academic ratiocination over the claims of biology.' Only someone woefully ignorant of the life-and-death politics of contemporary queer activism, which owes an immense debt to Foucault and social constructivism, could make such an 'ivory tower' statement.
This is not to suggest that Written in the Flesh is without its interest or charms. Shorter advances the cause of 'total body sex' with an almost evangelical zeal, and it is always pleasant, of course, to be confirmed in an image of one's own sexual heroism. But it is history according to Sex and...