HotE Review: Tim Dean’s “Hatred of Sex”
One could say that the academy hates thinking. Thinking is a messy process of mulling over concepts, entertaining notions, both rejecting and accepting ideas, and still exceeds all these processes. Thinking rarely comes easily to us, but rather comes unexpectedly, and perhaps at inopportune times. Academia prefers when ideas and arguments are presented neatly. Innovative ideas are welcomed into the light of day only after peer review or other side constraints that confirm their legitimacy. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find an organization more hierarchical than a university. It is both pleasing and uncomfortable when these hierarchies and academic processes are disrupted by thinking that is incomplete, novel, and interesting. Tim Dean’s Humanities on the Edge lecture “Hatred of Sex” was an example of thinking that disrupts academia’s usual expectations. As he began merging Freudian psychoanalysis and Rancièrian political philosophy, Dean worked through a new framework of subjectivity and politics in front of an audience, rather than in a secluded office. By first attending to the framework that Dean established in the first half of his lecture, the second half of his lecture analyzing the #MeToo movement can be discussed.
Dean’s framework for the lecture included a macropolitical component based on the hatred of democracy and a micropolitical component based on the hatred of sex. The working thesis Dean presented posits that the disorder of original democracy mirrors the disordering of sex. Jacques Rancière’s 2005 book Hatred of Democracy serves as the foundation of the macropolitical component of Dean’s framework. Rancière claimed in this book that any democracy contains a constitutive hatred of democracy. Democratic societies create hierarchical institutions that moderate and contain the ungovernable multitude. This containment demonstrates an integral hatred for the plebes, unwashed masses, or “deplorables” that compromise the people. Rebels are always in the social order, but these agents of disorder must be neutralized through institutional checks and bureaucracies. The hatred of democracy can manifest itself in many ways. For example, a politically unpopular celebrity would likely be protected from the mob’s justice by police in the event that a violent crowd surrounded their home. Violent protests that erupt from the multitude show that the multitude, if left unbound, is both unsettling and exhilarating. The heterogeneous multitude attempts to flatten hierarchies set up by the institutions of a supposedly coherent government of “the people.” Hatred of democracy bounds the multitude and constructs hierarchies. This operation is the macropolitical component of Dean’s framework.
Dean argues that politics not only occurs on the macropolitical level, but on the micropolitical level of the subject’s psychic life. The macropolitical hatred of democracy is mirrored in the individual subject’s hatred of sex. Rebels that threaten the coherence of institutional democracy reflect the subject’s internal rebel, which in turn threatens the subject’s identity and psychic coherence. Dean provides a vague psychoanalytic definition of sex, insofar as he claims sex overwhelms the ego, but it cannot be reduced to any specific experience. Dean’s framework may benefit from the development of criteria for determining what is and is not sex, otherwise it is not clear how one can determine what is the hatred of sex, and the usefulness of the framework is consequently damaged. Dean’s definition of sex would likely include orgasm because it shatters the subject’s coherence (or at least it should). However, does it include all non-psychoanalytic understandings of sex? If it does, Dean is calling for an expansion of our traditional understanding of sex. Although this is not the only possible reading of Dean’s psychoanalytic definition of sex. Could it be that Dean’s definition indeed expands our traditional understanding of sex, but also excludes practices or events that have been traditionally understood as sex? If this second reading is correct, the implications for our understandings of sex are not clear. It is possible that a mind-blowing painting could disrupt one’s psychic coherence, and would thus be understood as sex, but a sad and underwhelming hand job would not disrupt one’s psychic life and would therefore not be considered sex under Dean’s psychoanalytic definition. The definition of sex is not a trivial matter when discussing the hatred of sex. While Dean has a working definition of sex, the criteria of this definition should be further defined to decrease confusion and maximize the usefulness of Dean’s project.
Despite an ambiguous definition of sex, it is clear that the hatred of sex is more than a phobia or prejudice against sex. It cannot simply be reduced to erotophobia. Rather, Dean claims the hatred of sex is a constitutive fact of subjectivity. Just as a democracy cannot unlearn its innate hatred of democracy, subjects cannot unlearn their innate hatred of sex. Just as the multitude’s disordering is frightening and exhilarating, the disordering of the subject that results from sex is both tense and enjoyable. In fact, the enjoyment of sex is inextricably intertwined with the hatred of sex because one’s enjoyment of sex comes from the uncomfortable disordering it necessarily entails. Dean’s project is partially an attempt to disrupt dichotomies such as man/woman, straight/queer, guilt/innocence, etc. These dichotomies often end up reinforcing problematic institutions and systems such as heteronormativity. Dean’s conceptualization of the hatred of sex undermines the dichotomy of pleasure and discomfort because pleasure and discomfort are simultaneous and necessary outcomes of the disordering of identity and ego as a result of sex. Hatred of sex and enjoyment of sex are mutually inclusive. Just as democratic institutions question what to do with the rebels, one’s ego questions what to do with the rebel that exists within the subject but beyond the ego. Hatred of sex is thus the micropolitical component of Dean’s framework which mirrors the hatred of democracy, which operates on the macropolitical level.
One problem of ambiguity that troubles this framework, which was foregrounded as Dean proceeded to his analysis of the #MeToo movement, is exactly how the macropolitical hatred of democracy and the micropolitical hatred of sex interact with each other. Dean effectively theorizes how the hatred of democracy and the hatred of sex are similarly structured. His working thesis, that the hatred of sex and democracy mirror each other, appears to be well justified. However, this does not theorize how the hatred of sex and democracy interact with each other. Are they identical structures that exist independently, or are they mutually reinforcing structures? Are they forces that run parallel to one other, but never touch? These are certainly not meaningless questions. If these structures parallel one another but never systematically or incidentally interact, then it begs the question as to how these structures came to mirror each other in the first place. If these structures do systematically or incidentally interact, then it raises questions as to how that system operates and how one should name and theorize the overall structure that governs the hatred of sex and democracy.
The primary object of analysis in Dean’s lecture was the #MeToo movement. Dean prefaced his discussion of #MeToo by clarifying that #MeToo cannot be reduced to the hatred of sex. In a manner congruent with his problematizing of dichotomies, Dean claimed that the #MeToo movement is simultaneously reactionary and progressive. In some ways it has gone too far and in other ways it has not gone far enough. Dean said the #MeToo movement has generated necessary discourse and outcomes for those who have engaged in sexual misconduct, assault, and violence. However, Dean has problems with the #MeToo movement as well. Similarly to the sexual liberation movement in the 1960s, the #MeToo movement maps the hatred of sex onto the “Other” without interrogating one’s own hatred of sex. It is the Other who is the monstrous offender, not I. Even leftists in the academy cannot discuss sex without relying on the framework of identity to legitimize discussion of sexual practices. Dean argues that #MeToo has a tendency to perpetuate the dichotomy of guilt and innocence that papers over the guilt within every subject, even if not everyone would perpetrate acts of sexual violence. In Dean’s estimation, #MeToo discourses perhaps obfuscate the complexity of sex, demonstrate a certain amount of naivete about sex, and heterosexualize sex. #MeToo also demonstrates how sexuality does not sit well in hierarchically structured institutions. Sexuality complicates hierarchical systems such as businesses and governments, which might be one example of a systemic or incidental connection between sex and democracy. When sexuality disrupts organizations, what Dean refers to as the “juridical imaginary” intervenes to adjudicate sexual guilt and innocence. This perpetuates a myth of purity that ignores the inherent guilt within every subject while offering a false moral clarity of a predator/victim dichotomy. Such an epistemology ignores the inextricable connection between sexuality and power relations. According to Dean, a juridical imaginary that posits a dichotomy of power free sex and rape is harmful to everyone and impedes social justice. For example, perhaps Larry Nassar is a monster, but the #MeToo movement should avoid the misstep of ignoring and absolving the monstrosity in all subjects.
Undoubtedly there is always going to be disagreement about such characterizations of the #MeToo movement. However, perhaps it is more productive to examine Dean’s few prescriptions for the #MeToo movement on the terms of his own framework. Firstly, Dean’s lecture indicated that hierarchical structures such as businesses, the academy, and government demonstrate a hatred of sex. However, his analysis of the #MeToo movement indicates that non-hierarchical democratic movements also have a propensity for demonstrating a hatred of sex. Dean said online lists of people who have been accused of sexual violence are another example of the hatred of sex. This appears to trouble the neat mirroring posited in Dean’s thesis. The macropolitical institutions that embody the hatred of democracy and the multitude can both hate sex. This does not bankrupt the overall framework, but rather calls for clarification as to how the macropolitical and micropolitical interact. When the multitude demands for action to be taken against those who perpetrate sexual violence, Dean calls for a reorientation toward due process, which certainly feeds into a certain hatred of democracy in order to alleviate the pressures of hating sex. Secondly, while Dean is hesitant to prescribe specific actions, he did indicate the kind of #MeToo discourse that would correct for some of the reactionary trends in the #MeToo movement. Dean expressed his wish for survivors of sexual violence to preface their condemnations by saying something along the lines of, “I love sex, but I don’t like that kind of sex. Assault demeans me.” Asking survivors to preface their stories with “I love getting fucked,” as Dean calls for, will strike many as a peculiar or problematic prescription. Such discourse would almost certainly lead to slut shaming and the discrediting of survivors. Perhaps one would argue that the benefit of such a preface would be to reduce the hatred of sex. But this benefit is undercut by Dean’s claim that the hatred of sex is inevitable because it is a constitutive part of subjectivity. If this is the case, then what would be the purpose of such a preface for survivors? The utility of this prescription is questionable under the framework that Dean sets up throughout the lecture. Thirdly, Dean claims that we should do more with deplorables in the political sphere than simply clean them up and coopt them into democratic institutions. However, Dean’s framework seems to suggest that we are, in fact, all deplorables. Dean says that we should all be participants in politics, but it remains unclear what this politics, in which everyone is a deplorable, should look like and seek to accomplish.
There is certainly much to garner from Dean’s HotE lecture “Hatred of Sex,” and those who were present for the lecture will undoubtedly mull over the lecture’s ideas for a long time to come. Dean managed to overcome and rebel against the academy, both by questioning the identitarian frames of sex so often used to legitimize discussion of sexuality and sexual practices within the academy, but also by subverting academia’s pressure to avoid innovation by presenting neat and tidy ideas. Thinking is messy, uncomfortable, and pleasurable all at the same time, and “Hatred of Sex” was a great example of thinking without the bounds hating thinking.