Contamination from Above

Carolyn D'Cruz

This paper is the written-down version of a keynote lecture delivered at the second inaugural Gender, Sexuality, and Diversity Studies postgraduate symposium hosted at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia) in December 2013.

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In Writing from Below today I’d like to start by acknowledging the Wurendjeri people of the Kulin Nations, on whose land we stand, whose land was never ceded, and upon which the violence of establishing Australia as a colonial nation created the conditions of possibility for other offspring from the conquests of British Empire, like me, to migrate this country. Everything that we will be discussing today takes place from within this context—and so many of the questions we will be asking today prompt us to keep reconsidering how we might negotiate and minimize the continuation of this founding violence. I hope that you can all hear this not as an empty or tokenistic performative gesture, but a promise and pledge to keep (re)marking respect for Indigenous people, both past and present, in this land.

It’s about one year since the inaugural GSDS postgraduate symposium, primarily enabled—over and above the call of duty—by the dedicated coordination of Wendy Mee who put all of you brilliant people in touch with one another to share your work and develop what I consider to be one of the most productive, savvy and sexy cohorts of postgraduate students at any university, let alone La Trobe. Last year, I sat around in a circle with many of you here today, feeling completely depleted and cynical about the future of GSDS—having had to confront the fact that what I thought was my vocation, my calling in life, in its institutional and professional instantiation anyway, was also just a job that could so easily be taken away from me. That day I could feel the energy in all of the papers that I listened to and was really heartened by the sheer will and desire to keep the GSDS postgrad cohort going – no matter what happened to the program. There were so many voices I heard during that time at ground level and voices from below; people who believed we were worth the fight and we would keep going anyway, in whatever form, even if the institution could not hear the amazing work coming from the voices that stretched across the spectrum that included our first year students, other undergraduates, GSDS and former Women’s studies alumni, community organizations, concerned citizens, other departments across the state, nation and even our international allies in other universities. The support was massive from the ground. Our voices came from people who continue to speak, listen and disseminate the knowledge and politics that all too often stays below the radar still in way too many public and private spheres of life. Sitting in that circle at the end of the postgrad symposium, I heard the first rumblings of the idea to get a journal going – and I am truly impressed by the work of Karina Quinn, Nicholas Cowley and Stephen Abblitt in particular, who put so many hours in to get the journal from below the ground, to the level of take-off and its rising. I am sure there are others who have put in the hours and work, which has not reached my register of audibility, so I am sorry if I have missed others in this acknowledgement. And while I’m not that optimistic about the turn that the university has taken, I am truly inspired by people here today, who have come together to speak ‘about’ and around the theme of Writing from Below and so it is to this theme and my own negotiation of its heritage that I will now turn.


In his book Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida writes that:

An inheritance is never gathered together, it is never one with itself. Its presumed unity, if there is one, can consist only in the injunction to reaffirm by choosing. ‘One must’ means one must filter, sift, criticize, one must sort out several different possibles that inhabit the same injunction. And inhabit it in a contradictory fashion around a secret. If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent, univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have anything to inherit from it (1994, 16).

So how and what will I choose to reaffirm in a heritage that organizes itself around the injunction to Write from Below? It is both by accident and with a sense of purpose that I am citing Derrida reaffirming a certain heritage of Marxism here. My first theoretical love was Marx (motivated by the accident of being taught by Marxist sociologists in the 1980s, but also finding affective allegiance with the working class as an historical subject). Now if there is a secret injunction that continues to plague Marx’s name, Marxism and all that gets associated with it, it is the interminable task of learning how to work through the undo-able knot that ties the actual, empirical history of social movements and their agents on the one hand to the conceptual inheritance of theoretical framings that attempt to give an account of our truth claims, political strategies and ethical negotiations on the other hand. The more we try to nut out precise relations between the empirical and theoretical, the historical agents of experience and the discourses available to make sense of collective narratives of history, and the difference in perspective, whether one is looking from below or from above, the more we see just how entangled such oppositional pairs are. The dividing line between what lies below and what gets viewed from above is not as clear cut as we would like it to be for our research projects, political aspirations or ethical compasses.

Nevertheless, we must go on and we do. Against the official history books that obscure the racialised gender relations inflecting the movements of labour, which privilege certain forms of doing sex, love, kinship and community building over others, we look below to find the subjugated agents and voices in the creation of social bonds and wealth of nations. Around the corners from the grand historical monuments, we find street art and graffiti, among other markings, often telling a different story. Underground from commercialized airwaves and broadcasting of Media Empires, we find DIY and community presses, music and film. Folklore customs and ‘plebian leisure activities’ (as Jacques Ranciere puts it) might not be propped up by the business and elite networks of bourgeois culture, but have survived nevertheless and are there for us to pass on to future generations. The life stories of extraordinary, ordinary and common people have been finding pathways to be heard, while at the same time we learn the importance of letting certain silences ‘speak’ themselves. I think all of this qualifies in some way or another as writing from below and as I was reading through all the abstracts for the symposium today I could certainly hear the resonance through all of your papers: working through questions of reverse discourse, making room for marginal voices, witnessing, interpreting, struggling with one’s own complicity in the power of the academy to re-appropriate the voices from below. So many papers deal with negotiating the narratives of everyday lived experiences against the larger backdrop of grand narratives of social transformations and the constant reordering of our private and public worlds. I notice the struggle to make sense of lives that do not readily fit the mainstream narratives that dominate our channels of representation and telling of history. We struggle to make sense of subjugated lives, but we also struggle with when and how we ought to remain silent, or how we negotiate what cannot be said. And let’s not forget the name of last year’s symposium: desire lines. Let’s not forget how some lines of desire are deemed as so much less worthy of a good life that finding the travel maps available for navigating this world and its creatures remain far too remote from the most common practices of socialization. There is so much work to do—so many archives waiting to be mined, so many bodies bursting to challenge the dominant grids of intelligibility, so few spaces where non-normative subjectivities are not called upon to give an account and explanation for their very existence. But still, speaking takes place. Looking at these papers today, I can feel the energy and impulse to make room for difference, to make explicit the power/knowledge relations that inscribe our senses of self and others, to find ways of making more room for marginalized voices, subjugated knowledges, whilst trying to minimize the types of violence that we might become complicit with as we do so.

And it is this question of violence that I want to turn to now, as I shift gears in sifting through the heritage of Writing From Below. Having identified that there is a privileging of marginalized and subjugated historical agents in Writing from Below, and implicit in this argument is an affirmation that such a view is tied to emancipatory projects that are uttered in the name of justice, it is time to confront the challenge hinted at earlier that the dividing line between what is below and what is above is not a straightforward negotiation.


While I side with the voices from below in writing a different kind of history and politics, this does not mean that there is somehow some pure, undifferentiated point of origin that merely needs to be uncovered in order to hear it. To explain, allow me a short detour of a question that Derrida once put to Foucault on the project of resurrecting the voices of madness (see Derrida 1978, 31-63; Foucault 1964). Foucault claimed that the voices of the mad had only ever been written about through the voice of Reason and not in their own terms. I am skipping much of the nuance on the debate between them, but we can draw parallels to much of the work being presented today, which I am going to analytically simplify to get home the point. We hear about Indigenous people less through their own voices, and more through the channels of Settler colonialism. Women are spoken about through phallogocentric concepts and ways of deliberating rather than on their own terms. Queer voices get spoken for through heteronormative lenses, migrants through the cultural homogenizing of the nation state and so on. Derrida’s question to Foucault was this: how is it possible to access the voices of the mad and make them intelligible other than through the (dominant) channels of Reason? And we can apply this to each of the categories in which I have drawn parallels here. The argument is much more complicated than what I am presenting here, but basically, Derrida alerts us to attending to and accounting for different orders of intelligibility and analysis. It is possible to show that there are moments in history where a particular opposition (say between Reason and madness, men and women, black and white, hetero and homo, and so on) appear as sedimentations into types of identity, where one marker gets privileged over the other. But accessing either of these sides of the opposition as an identity in some untouched, pure form –in order to make it intelligible – cannot take place without a prior ahistorical network of differences that order the world into sense through the process of signification. This seemingly pedantic philosophical point has enormous implications for how we approach Writing from Below. Allow me to elaborate by working through a key concept that is at work in I think just about all the abstracts I have read for this symposium: Experience. I will use sexuality as an example, but it can be applied to any identity.


Because the lived experiences of people’s lives are so pertinent to Writing from Below, I want to draw into sharper focus the metaphysical grounding of experience that enables the articulation of personal experience in the first place. By metaphysical ‘grounding’ I refer to the inescapable naming of a world and its inhabitants through which we develop our understanding of relations between ourselves and others, nature and technology, populations and states, and anything else that spurs our response(a)bility to communicate, co-habit and struggle. It has not yet reached popular opinion that words and things do not coincide in such a way that we can capture an eternal, unchanging essence for what gets named. And this is why the term ‘grounding’ does not quite give us a ground; the grounds are forever shifting, because they are entangled within the everyday muck of history and politics (see Derrida and Caputo 1997, 23).  At least in the academic world of queer theory, it has become well known that ‘homosexual’ is a historical category—that sexual practices and behaviours increasingly became measurements of a certain character typology in the disciplines of medicine and psychiatry, networks of power and knowledge whose experts are to this day authorized with the highest qualification to speak about sexuality in popular discourse (see Foucault 1984). My point of departure from the feminist and queer theorists like Joan Scott (1992) and Judith Butler (1992), who have outlined previously the limitations of experience as an analytical and metaphysical category, is to emphasize a Derridean, deconstructive strategy that is neither foundationalist nor anti-foundationalist in its treatment of experience and identification, but paradoxically both. This difference, I suggest, is crucial.

While both Scott and Butler have been invaluable in alerting us to the need to pay more attention to the historical contexts, institutional apparatuses of power relations, and the available grids of knowledge and language that grant us the means by which to articulate and understand our experiences, I argue that neither writer spells out explicitly enough the inescapable founding violence that accompanies the articulation of personal experiences to identity categories. Gayatri Spivak (1993) has argued this repeatedly in relation to subaltern studies, and Donna Haraway (1985) has emphasised that while one’s own experiences might be a good starting point to think about oppression, they are not a good enough ‘standpoint’  from which to base an epistemology or scientific knowledge. The heated and sometimes hostile debates that emerged in the 1990s around the status of ‘experience’ and the impact that so-called poststructuralist thought was having on area studies based on identity markers around gender, sexuality and ethnicity do not circulate even half as visibly now in the twenty-first century (see Alcoff et. al. 2006). This is not because the issues have been resolved—far from it. Rather, I believe it is due partly to the dropping of such arguments between the empirical and the more interpretive methodologies and theoretical frameworks as scholars within women’s, gender and sexuality studies departments have increasingly returned to questions and objects of study housed in their home disciplines (such as an empirically based sociology or theoretically inclined literary criticism) in preference to finding common protocols for developing interdisciplinary projects. While there is definitely a demand to form interdisciplinary collaborations and many departments persist in trying to make these work (including the one in which I am employed), the increasing acquiescence to institutional demands of disciplinary confinement and performance appraisals that accompany universities as they succumb to greater and greater corporatist modelling make such collaborations extremely difficult to achieve. My re-framing of the questions here is more invested in highlighting what Derrida might call the ‘groundless ground’ of experience as a platform from which to reactivate an affective movement for the disaffected (see Derrida and Caputo 1997). This re-framing calls for a closer look at the difference within the meanings of experience.


In German there are two words—Erlebnis and Erfahrung—which both translate into the one English word ‘experience.’ Peggy Kamuf translates Erlebnis as “conscious lived experience of the individual,” and Erfahrungas “experience garnered from the past, including the past of a tradition into which the individual is unconsciously inserted” (2004, 28). The first sense, Erlebnis, resonates with the expression of one’s articulation of an untheorized sense of self, expressed in terms of urges, feelings and observations of what an individual undergoes in everyday life (and here we might notice a resonance with the concept of ‘affect’).  Erfahrungsuggests a temporality based on learning processes, where moments of experience collectively accumulate into a larger narrative. It is this second sense of experience, I think, that forces us to confront what it means ‘to be’ queer or ‘to be’ any other identity category.

If my own measure of the pulse dominating ‘gay and lesbian rights speak’ in Western publics is correct, it is more commonplace than not, especially within the gay (male) community, to speak of ‘being born that way.’ The measure of this is often: ‘I know I can’t change,’ so I must have been born this way. For some older folk, such a view was violently reinforced through the inexcusable practice of behavioural shock therapy, a ‘therapy’ more prevalent in the 1950s. For those who endured such therapy the persistence of same sex desire could be translated to proof of ‘being born this way.’ These and other recourses to personal experience are used time and again as testimonies to one side or the other of a presumed nature/nurture divide. What is wrong with taking up a position on either side of this argument, as will be argued further below, is the failure to recognise that such a division is spurious to begin with. However, too many activists are still wedded to the idea that we need to prove we can’t change who we are for political purposes. This was highlighted only last year when The Huffington Post (2012) reported on the furore amongst gay activists aroused by actor Cynthia Nixon’s assertion that, for her, sexuality was a choice. So much pressure was brought upon Nixon that she was eventually compelled to write a statement retracting her claim that one’s sexuality could be a choice. The erroneous logic follows the imperative that a certain (gay) politics requires an immutable identity to establish its raison d’etre as both a way of ‘being’ and as an identity marker that underpins a social movement. As Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out in Beyond Good and Evil, philosophers are not honest enough about their dealings with ‘truth’ when they utter its name to ground their political and ethical positions: such philosophers are “not really searching for truth, but [are] presenting as truth what they want to be the case” (1990, 15).

In the academy in general, the analytics of biological determinism have provided an endless forum for debate, at least since the coining of the term homosexual (circa 1870, although this date is disputed) as a supposedly discrete marker of sexual identity. In biology, neuroscience, medicine, and psychiatry, studies continue to be funded—in what I consider to be one of the greatest crimes against the Humanities—to pursue a causal explanation, or isolate a discrete marker of difference between heterosexual and non-heterosexual orientations (see, for example, Johnson et al. 2007). The sad fact of the matter is that all the groundbreaking scholarship on sexuality in the last few decades is quite frankly rendered inaudible in popular discourse by the cracking pace in which the sentiments of Lady Gaga’s Born this Way can take hold: it is the fastest selling single in iTunes’ history, with album sales reaching over 1.1 million in its first week and in excess of 8 million copies as at October 2011. The Social Sciences and Humanities have their own versions of debating the issue off ‘born this way,’ which reached its climax in the early 1990s in what have come to be known as the essentialist versus social constructivist debates. The revolt against what gets called essentialism is understandable, for to speak in this non-reflexive Gaga way is to speak as if it were possible to think of identities as discrete, a priori categories of being that preceded their entangled relations with classification systems that were not already necessarily intertwined with theological, monarchical and imperial desires. To state the bleeding obvious, this message has not reached the mainstream; I believe this is work that remains before us, and one way to press the issue is to shift the way we speak about ourselves and our experiences from a mode of Erlebnis—our personal lived experiences—to one of Erfahrung, where we emphasise the acquisition of naming ourselves within the wider networks in which we have been unconsciously inscribed and always already named.

As such, we have to recall that the sciences of sexuality emerged at an historical time that cannot be divorced from the monitoring and regulation of populations bound to the needs of Empire’s division of labour, and marked by bourgeois morality, the sanctity of the nuclear family and its maintenance of property rights and inheritance laws. Such historical work is less concerned with locating a point of origin for identifying what it means to be gay as it is with charting the nuanced circumstances in which deviant sexualities became identified, regulated and monitored—the kind of work that took off from Foucault’s approach to the question of sexuality. With Foucault, we learn that the ways in which we have been marked could always have been otherwise. We can chart the “surfaces of emergence” (the places), the “authorities of delimitation” (the institutions) and “grids of specification” (classificatory rules and procedures) that “present” sexuality to us as ifit had an essence as a first point of analysis (Foucault 1972, 41-42). Foucault advises that we initially accept how these objects have been presented to us, if only to then dismantle them and track their points of dissension and transformations as supposedly the “same” thing (26). So homo/sexualities have different meanings through time and space, and charting this can help us mark what is not essential about our identities. But, having to accept at least initially that such objects and identities do get ‘presented’ to us before we have a chance to think about how our own life experiences fit in relation to such labels, we must give an account for why there is always a necessary essentialising moment in the very utterance of our self-naming, even as we work to create better life experiences for ourselves and others.

The recognition of this split in epistemology does have implications for how we organize ourselves politically. What we might not be attentive to when following Foucault’s genealogical methods—and I think Butler and Scott create the same impression—is that this necessary moment of a founding violence orients us toward a treatment of binary oppositions in a way that is far more affirmative and productive than is popularly and sometimes academically understood. Contrary to popular opinion (spread in newspapers as well as academic texts), deconstructive strategies of reading and writing are not a negative enterprise. Rendering legible a founding violence in the acquisition of meaning, including the meaning of experience, is one way of minimising the kind of violence that can occur when we maintain that the categories of a binary opposition, such as heterosexual and homosexual, are mutually exclusive, and naturally hierarchically ordered as if they were outside of history or metaphysics. In recognising that the ‘groundless grounds’ of metaphysics makes possible the historical foundation of an opposition, we learn that neither side of an opposition can ever function as if it operated without contamination from its other—whether a voice from above or below. While Foucault recognizes complicity between oppositions, he contends that he bypasses the question of metaphysics; both Butler and Scott are seemingly silent on this matter. However, for Derrida there is no such bypass: the complicity between the two sides of a binary is made possible by its dependence on the metaphysical presumption of thinking a presence (like homosexuality, for example) even though any search for such an original presence will be rendered impossible. This suggests that we must learn to work within a binary rather than attempt to exit the opposition as if we were able to get outside of it. In other words I am arguing that we need both a ‘metaphysical’ and an historical analysis of how homosexuality in this case becomes intelligible as a political identity category.

To boil this argument down to bite size: any shot at accessing an authentic voice of the marginal subject is contaminated from the start.

The paradox this presents us with is that we have to assume a unitary, accessible subject in the very act of writing—we cannot avoid an essentialising moment in our work—at the very same time in which we learn that no such purity will be made available to us—at least not in any form in which it can be communicated made legible, or be articulated as making sense. Contrary to the rumours spread about Derridean deconstruction, this does not leave us in a state of paralysis; rather it beckons us to think more carefully about strategies of writing. Many have followed a path from this by learning how to bend with language, to embrace the poetic in language; this can take the form of speaking in tongues (with at least one of them maintaining a link to ‘truthfulness’), of using different registers, and keeping attentive to different orders of analysis. Others, like me, work through trying to make as explicit as possible the necessary disjunction or hinge separating what we take to lie between, in this case, what lies above and below. I’ll leave all of you to work through and articulate your own negotiations of this paradox of experience.


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A version of the final section of this paper, “Accounting for the Split between Personal and Collective, Historical Experience,” originally appears in the article “Commemorating Homosexual: Rethinking Experience and the Disaffected through the Legacies of the Gay Liberation Movement,” first published in Sexualities (Vol. 17, No. 3, 2014).

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