(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in March 2008)
- Sex & Isolation: And Other Essays by Bruce Benderson. U. of Wisconsin Press, 2007, 208pp.
These are interesting times for queer politics. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. In the time before non-discrimination laws, LGBT studies programs, and corporate sponsored gay pride parades, living as an openly gay person required a life of uncommon courage, intelligence, and fortitude. These days one comes out of the closet armed to the teeth with ready-made political slogans and support systems. The activism of the Gay Liberation Front has been replaced with Brokeback Mountain and the LOGO channel. While the far leftists among us are loathe to admit it, the prevalence of mainstream gay visibility is progress of a sort. Now gay people have the privilege of being as dull and slow as the rest of the American populace. But in the age of Project Runway, what’s a sex radical to do? Bruce Benderson, for one, thumbs his nose at the sort of bourgeois identity politics behind all the niche marketing and the feeble gestures toward inclusiveness spouted by American politicians on the campaign trail. As he writes in Sex and Isolation, “whether a particular voice of today’s ‘multiculturalism’ has a black face, a woman’s face, a gay face or a working-class face is now beside the point. All speak the language of the well fed.”
I first heard of Bruce Benderson here at the Graduate Center, appropriately enough. He was a nominee at the 2005 Lambda Literary Awards hosted at the GC by The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. I later recognized his name in the dedication to Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) and hunted down some of Benderson’s own writing about Times Square – including the short story collection Pretending to Say No (1990) and the novel User (1994). Readers familiar with Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and Delany’s argument about the dissolution of public space and interclass contact in post-Giuliani New York will find similar ideas in Bruce Benderson’s writing. Benderson’s world is one populated by outcasts and iconoclasts of all sorts, whether they be down and out drug-using hustlers, or obscure artists and intellectuals. He often writes of his sexual exploits with young men from the underclasses here in America and abroad, many of whom eschew self-identifying as gay or bisexual. His 2006 erotic memoir The Romanian: Story of an Obsession, tells of his travels in Europe beginning in Budapest where he was sent on assignment by Nerve.com to write an article about brothels. Benderson eventually takes up with a young Romanian hustler, and The Romanian tells the story of their jaunts together in Europe, with Benderson weaving in his trenchant observations on sex, lust, love, and history. His latest book, Sex & Isolation: and Other Essays, brings together some of his previously published essays, including several that were only published in France.
The essays in Sex and Isolation contain an intriguing mix of memoir, sociological observation, and cultural criticism. The collection is anchored by two major essays, the titular “Sex and Isolation,” and “Toward the New Degeneracy,” a somewhat popular essay published first in French, and now available in the U.S. for the first time. (It was an excerpted online version of the latter essay titled “The New Degenerate Narrative” which piqued my interest in getting my hands on Sex and Isolation.) The two essays complement each other well. “Sex and Isolation” explores the changes wrought by the triumph of neo-liberalism and its ideology of favoring the “safety” of the private sphere over the “danger” of the public. “Toward the New Degeneracy” examines how the artist can make some intervention in the midst of this prevailing ideology. It is a proposal for how the next generation of creative artists might break through this vicious rhetoric of safety and security to create vibrant and transformative cultural work.
“Sex and Isolation” (the essay) ties together several definitive markers of our times: the rise of the information age, the decline of urban public space, the rhetoric of the bourgeois family (emanating from Left and Right), and the ever-growing hysteria over children’s sexuality. In Foucauldian fashion, Benderson sees these phenomena not as matters of increasing repression, but as matters of disclosure. He describes disclosure as a Protestant Christian mode of confession that insists upon the importance and sanctity of revealing the secret life, and he stresses that this is distinctly different from the Catholic version of confession. “Thus secret spaces, commensurate with urban space and adolescent sexual experiments, are disappearing to make room for a new, mindless kind of transparency.” I can’t say the disclosure distinction is entirely clear and valid, but it is a provocative one. It certainly helps to make sense of all those suburban married couples on Oprah confessing about their elicit affairs. Their vacuous emotional exhibitionism seems to have no real purpose and make no real difference in the world save for keeping Oprah’s self-help industry humming along.
Like Delany, Benderson was a frequent visitor to (and careful observer of) the old Times Square, a libidinous playground with its hustler bars, peep shows, and porn theaters. “Sex and Isolation” begins with Benderson not out in the streets of Manhattan, but securely in his apartment sitting in front of his computer screen in a webcam session with an anonymous young man from Egypt. Benderson calls attention to the shift in location. He’d rather be out in the streets. While the Internet makes such improbable connections possible, this form of distant, mediated electronic interaction pales in comparison to the physical sensuality of cruising the streets. About the demise of the old Times Square Benderson writes, “It wasn’t so much the assault on eroticism in New York as the new prohibition against interclass interaction that really depressed me.” His observation is timely, with rapid overdevelopment and gentrification continuing in New York unabated.
In “Toward the New Degeneracy,” Benderson draws on the work of several iconoclastic thinkers to make sense of the current cultural moment at the beginning of the 21st century, and also to make some propositions about how to infuse this moment with new cultural vitality. The title of the piece alludes to an 1892 book titled Degeneracy written by Max Nordau, a Jewish Hungarian journalist who saw the countercultural lifestyle as pathological. One of the epigraphs of the essay is taken from Nordau: “Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and pronounced lunatics; they are often authors and artists.” Benderson finds in Nordau’s theories of degeneracy some unsettling similarities to the rhetoric of contemporary middle-class liberal values, particularly in the emphasis on clean living, individual moral uprightness, and accessible art for the masses. In making the connection to Nordau’s theories Benderson reveals the contemporary middle-class liberal — with her yoga classes, organic foods, fastidious exercise regiments, and abstinence from tobacco and alcohol — as a closet Puritan.
In fact, Benderson goes on to argue that the self-preservationism among America’s centrist liberals is a direct outgrowth of the ‘60s counterculture. The usual nostalgic lamentation about the hippie movment is that it was viciously hijacked by a corporate machine all too willing to co-opt anything it deems commercially viable. But Benderson persuasively argues that these puritanical tendencies come from a built-in flaw in the political logic of ‘60s radicalism itself. While he is himself a member of the boomer generation, Benderson makes it clear that his political and intellectual allegiance is to the urban decadence of the ‘40s and ‘50s hipsters rather than to the rural commune utopia of the ‘60s hippies. “Unlike the Beats whose philosophical tone was colored by European café existentialism and by the old dichotomy between the avant-garde and the bourgeoisie, the hippies of the sixties believed that heavy intellectualizing hampered creative and spontaneous behavior and that art sprang from the popular culture that they already liked.”
Few people theorized the lifestyle of the hipster better than the late Norman Mailer in “The White Negro.” (Mailer passed away in November 2007.) Benderson boldly draws on and defends Mailer whose work is still a lightning rod, particularly among black studies scholars. Like Mailer, Benderson dares to suggest that there is such a thing as a culture of poverty, that life among the underclass is strikingly different from life in the more comfortable classes. This is intentional sacrilege. Left leaning sociologists have spent many years and research dollars combating this kind of talk. Benderson also enlists the work of Oscar Lewis who wrote La Vida: A Puerto Rican family in the Culture of Poverty — San Juan and New York. (1966), a little known work not read much now outside of the circle of academic sociology. To be fair, there are many reasons to reject this culture of poverty position. More often than not culture of poverty arguments have been used by social conservatives to blame the poor for the own failings, to dismantle state-funded programs and privatize pretty much everything including the schools and the prison systems. However, Benderson argues that Lewis merely pointed out that “economics and political control could create a lasting, uniform, inherited culture that was even more powerful than inherited ethnicity.” There’s a way in which such arguments could actually dismantle the racialist (and racist) logic of pathology arguments. Further, Lewis and Mailer audaciously suggested that there were positive aspects to the culture of poverty, traits that made it more humane than life in the middle-classes, namely “the sensuality, spontaneity, sense of adventure, and indulgence of impulses that come from living in the present time.”
I can’t say I’m on board with all of this. There is certainly a long tradition of the artist romanticizing the lives of the irredeemable, rebellious outsider. The problem with such a paradigm is that the artists romanticize rebelliousness so much that anyone from the underclass who might have intellectual or artistic aspirations and the discipline required to produce creative work of their own is always rendered “inauthentic.” Furthermore, contemporary gangsta rap has certainly shown that a supposedly oppositional urban culture can easily reinforce dominant bourgeois values of materialism and individuality.
Among the other highlights in Sex and Isolation is “The Spider Woman’s Mother,” a moving remembrance of Manuel Puig, the Argentinean author of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Puig was a close friend of Benderson’s and stayed in his apartment during visits to New York. There’s also “America’s New Networkers,” a hilarious satirical tale about a social climbing young musician who comes to Benderson to look for contacts to market his mediocre CDs. (Bruce is an “established” writer of course so the kid figures he must know some people who can help him.) Benderson uses the story to unleash a relentless tirade on the current generation of young artists, weaned on media and advertising, who have turned shameless self-promotion into a way of life. I find Benderson’s observations particularly prescient given the rise of a new culture bearing the name “hipster.” This new generation, raised under an unprecedented saturation of mass media, has perfected the look and artifice of rebellion. All the while they have spurred on the most vigorous era of gentrification and class stratification this city has ever seen. He nails the zeitgeist of this vapid contemporary hipster culture when he writes: “All you baby networkers are hip to the value of the seductive, sleazy come-on. If you’ve mastered any art to perfection, it’s how to project flirtation without ever delivering.”
Benderson is clearly drawn to stories about candescent and contradictory larger than life figures, like Puig, or the infamous boxer Emile Griffith (who Benderson knew from the seedy Times Square bars) or drag performer Consuela Cosmetic (the subject of one essay here about a film documenting the last days of her life). Like the subjects and characters he writes about Benderson is himself full of contradiction. There is no shortage of bourgeois artists who have gone slumming for ideas or inspiration, trying to invigorate their work with the vitality of the underclass. But to his credit he is unapologetic about the incongruities, and is willing to cop to his own sometimes unflattering desires and motivations. His writing directly addresses this tension between his own middle class upbringing in upstate New York, and the life he now leads as a cool, cosmopolitan urban flâneur in New York and Paris. In the foreword to Sex and Isolation Catherine Texier locates Benderson in the tradition of the “bohemian bourgeois,” naming Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and Paul Bowles among his antecedents. Benderson’s writing is the wrong place to look if you want anything like public policy or rigid political programs aimed at curing social ills. However, this collection is full of valuable and provocative observations about the country and society that we are becoming.