A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Hanne Blank at an event for her new book, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality at the Harvard Bookstore. I enjoyed the talk — the gist of which is that our (where “our” roughly means Western European and Anglo-/Euro-American, and other cultures to the extent “we” have successfully exported our ideas) idea of sexual orientation as a more-or-less fixed component of identity — indeed, as an intelligible thing at all — is an historically contingent construction dating only to the mid-19th century. The history of that idea, the political tactics and strategies, it was formulated to serve, and the originally unanticipated constructions which have been put on it and uses to which it’s been put, can be traced, examined in context, and demystified. It’s a powerful thing, to see a prevailing way of understanding the world, and be able to say, “this is not decreed from on high; this is not unalterable natural fact; this is a human construction that arose for intelligible reasons.”
This discussion of historical constructedness put me in mind of a couple of my favorite short quotations, which you’ll see in the sidebar to the right. Edward Said, from the introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of Orientalism: “[N]either the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.” And Kai Chang, from his sadly vanished-into-the-ether blog (he maintains a presence on Tumblr, but I’ve never been able to figure out Tumblr) — the Wayback Machine does have an archived copy of the post, at least — “Because the world is not a floating sequence of unfortunate events; it’s an edifice with foundations, load-bearing walls, plumbing, wiring, ductwork; and in order to renovate, you need to study those structures.”
Between them, those beautifully expressed thoughts point the way to a great deal of the foundation ofmy way of understanding the world (itself, of course, alsoconstructed and historically contingent). No social convention, no matter how “natural” we’re accustomed to thinking it is — indeed, “nature” vs. “civilization” is yet another constructed dichotomy which obscures and mystifies humans’ relationship with their environment — is actually somehow encoded, immutably, in our DNA.
Almost a decade ago now, Joel Spolsky described his Law of Leaky Abstractions. The law is, “all non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky.” And what Spolsky means by “leaky” is that whenever you deal with an abstraction (he’s discussing software, but it applies much more broadly than that), details of the underlying system (“reality” if you like, or just a lower-level abstraction) inevitably operate in such a way as to prevent the abstraction from being perfect: some of the messy underlying workings leak through. In programming, we talk, and mostly think and act, as though we dealt in pure, logical concepts, free-floating in the air for us to manipulate as we please: but in fact what we ultimately deal in is electrical impulses traveling between transistors on nanometer-scale wires, and that physical reality constrains and warps the gloriously pure logic of our airy thoughts.
We still have to deal in abstractions: even the relatively low-level abstraction of logical 1 and 0 bits moving between ALUs and registers in neat groups of 64 is too much information for a human brain to hold and track all at once, never mind the electrochemical reactions playing out by the billions every second — or being able to also recognize any kind of higher-level meaning. All thought is abstraction; all speech is abstraction; all social interaction is abstraction. We are complex physical systems understanding ourselves through abstractions. And that’s all right! We can’t do away with abstractions; such a thing is so far outside the realm of the possible that even to ask whether we “should” is incoherent. But we do need to be cognizant that they are abstractions and that they do leak: if we mistake abstractions — historically contingent, constructed systems, which serve necessary functions but are not necessarily the only systems that could serve those functions — for uncomplicated, “natural” fact, we are ill-prepared for what on Lacanian terms* would be understood as irruptions of the Real into the Symbolic.
To come back around to Hanne Blank’s book, then: the binary system of “heterosexual” and “homosexual”, and indeed the entire concept of “sexual orientation” as a relatively uncomplicated, fixed characteristic of a person’s identity, is a leaky abstraction (though no less so, of course, than the system of “acceptable” and “deviant” sexual behaviors which preceded it in Western European thought). It’s a nice, simple idea, easy to think about and apply, and in most cases it seems to fit pretty well. But if you start digging you find it doesn’t have any ontological stability. Not everyone is attracted exclusively to one gender. Not everyone is attracted to ANY gender. Not everyone experiences their sexuality as a fixed “orientation” over their lifetime. If you dig deeper, you find it’s built on another leaky abstraction: the idea of “sexual orientation” rests (among other things) on the idea that there are two genders, masculine and feminine; that every person is either one or the other; and that every person is attracted to either one or the other. But gender, too, is unstable, as not everyone identifies with the gender they’re assigned at birth, or indeed with either pole of the standard gender binary, and not everyone experiences their gender identity as stable over their lifetime. Psychology, sociology, even anatomy, are all susceptible to these leaks.
Every level you try to systematize and stabilize turns out to resist that process. The wild multifarious variety of human biology and brain chemistry and all the complex interactions of systems with systems — all the way down, at the very root, to the perpetual randomness of quantum foam — filters up through the abstractions as instability. When we take these neat abstractions and try to impose them on the messiness of lived experience, at best they only mostly fit. Some people can’t or won’t fit into the mold, and some get hurt trying to fit, or more often, by others trying to make them fit. And I think the best way to deal with this, probably, is — if you’ll pardon my repeating myself — to recognize the constructedness, and the leakiness, of the abstractions we use, and to understand them not only as contingent but as provisional. That they are constructed means they are not immutable. We absolutely require sets of abstracting conceptual tools to manage our experience of the world. But there is no reason to presume a priori that the specific sets of tools we have are the only ones that could ever possibly serve the purpose. A worldview is not handed down from on high. It is learned and built up, and it can be revised and replaced as events and information warrant.
Accepting instability lets you adjust and adapt. Moreover, trying to prevent or quash it is an effort doomed to failure.
* in fairness I must admit I know very little Lacan and can claim to understand even less.