Comments on the excerpt from Numen, Old Men

There are a number of interesting comments over at Reality Sandwich to the excerpt from Numen, Old Men, which I archive below with my replies.

One commenter notes, “I think that setting up gay spirituality as something preferred for people if they are straight or gay is problematic as people may not be comfortable enough with gayness to apply it to something that is in many cases much more intimate than sexuality”.

Consider this quote: “They are not, by nature, territorially aggressive and do not impose their political claims on others. They are not, by nature, competitive but are passionately interested in sharing with others. They are not interested in conquering nature but are interested in harmonious living with all of nature. They are not interested in denying bodiliness and carnality but are passionately involved in celebrating all aspects of human sexuality.”

This is the schema Harry Hay, founder of the modern “gay men’s spirituality” movement offered around gay men. What I find interesting is that there’s nothing inherently gay about it: just an alternative way of doing masculinity. When I say “queer” I’m referring to the theoretical usage of the word, which is separate to a gay orientation. Queer theory is simply about the breaking down and troubling of categories. We queer pretty much anything when we question the categories we are talking about and the power structures that hold them in place.

Various comments note how valuable they have found Deida, and how important they find issues of duality and polarity (which can be mapped onto the masculine and feminine) in their relationships. They note that Deida refers to “your man” in the same way as “your woman”, so it seems a bit unfair to ignore the former and privilege the latter. I’m a little suspicious of polarity/duality, as it echoes a binary logic which rarely bears witness to the diversity of our experiences: I prefer to think in terms of multiplicity. Also, the difference between “your woman” and “your man” is to be found within gender power dynamics. If we assume history has been patriarchal, there is a power statement implied in “your woman” that is absent in “your man”.

A couple of comments suggest I am too critical and take Deida too seriously. One of the things I talk about in the book in regard to all types of problematic masculine spirituality is the difference between intention and effect. Hardly anyone involved intends to perpetuate a problematic masculine spirituality: indeed their conscious involvement in such a thing indicates their desire for change. However, good intentions do not necessarily result in good effects. What often happens is simply a retreat into old ways of doing masculinity rather than opening up the new. Why does this happen? It happens because the people involved are not looking with a sufficiently critical eye at their underlying assumptions, they are not taking them seriously enough. So I don’t believe that I am being too critical or taking it too seriously, rather there is not enough of being critical and being serious.

This distinction between intention and effect is not just about the participants of masculine spiritualities, but also the literature. Authors often moan that their work is being “distorted” by critics. It is certainly possible that a critic can genuinely distort a text, but it is more likely that the critic exposes in the text underlying assumptions that the author never realized in the first place. In this way, ostensibly liberal (even “radical” and “enlightened”) authors are shown to have deeply conservative roots which have remained obscured by a lack of critical thinking, and reinforced by an audience in the same position. To acknowledge and move beyond this position is a genuinely radical gesture.

One comment highlights that there are problems with “feminine spirituality” in much the same way as “masculine spirituality”, and that perhaps we should do away with gendered thinking. This is a good point. If we take, as I propose, a genuinely queer critique on spirituality, feminine spirituality is just as problematic as masculine spirituality, as both trade upon a normative understanding of gender. I’m not sure there is a need to do away with gender altogether, but there is a need to revision it away from duality into multiplicity: as Deleuze says, “a thousand tiny sexes”.

Another still suggests we should let go of gendered positions and that “As visionaries we must therefore create the language, the ideas, the ideals and imagine the potentials never conceived of in the millions of years of hominid experimentation thus far”. This is a very good point. One of my concerns with archetypal models is that they do precisely the opposite. Rather than imagining new potentials, they revert to the old: most of the men’s movement literature (such as Robert Bly and Robert Moore) locates archetypes within the depths of the psyche (Bly) or reptilian brain (Moore). However, as the commenter says, we need potentials never conceived of rather than drawing upon this dry well, even if in a metaphorical sense.

My only concern is that before these new potentials can be realized, we must fully deal with the problems of the past and the now, rather than glossing them over. This is a stumbling block for a good deal of allegedly “integral” thought: it aspires to new modes of second tier thinking without fully working through the full business of the first tier; often it does not, as we are told, “transcend and include” rather “bypass and include” which leaves those “negative forces of dominance and submission” the commenter rightly refers to festering away in the heart of the second tier, only this time more potent than ever before as the faulty assumption is they have been transcended. Let’s not forget the warning of Baudelaire, “the Devil’s cleverest wile is to convince us that he does not exist”.