I wonder about those Lost Boys of fundamentalist Mormonism, the boys ejected as teenagers from their families and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS): how do they make their lives intelligible to themselves? Lost Boys are exiled from FLDS life for various infractions, minor and major, that teenagers of dominant (i.e., mainstream) American society would consider the stock-in-trade of their own late modern adolescences and early adulthoods: expression of religious doubt, filial insubordination, sexually charged flirtation and even sexual experimentation, the consumption of mass culture, a questioning of authority that may border on insouciance, and so on. When these Lost Boys find each other on the edge of the non-FLDS world and live, sometimes dozens at a time, in what they call “butt huts”—unsupervised communal quarters where new and veteran exiles can land on their asses for awhile after getting kicked out of FLDS communities, and where rent is met by revenue from the odd or steady jobs of a few, usually older, boys—do they have tacit knowledge of the form of intimacy that they have cultivated so impossibly under circumstances of frequent governmental intrusion (namely, police officers in search of underage “runaways”) and the unforgiving nature of a larger neoliberal politico-economic order? How would they understand the form of association that their butt huts no doubt represent—or is their form of intimate association invisible even to themselves?
In the economy of marriage (the exchange of women) under conditions of polygyny—which FLDS members so infamously practice and which was the catalyst for its schism from mainline Mormonism—there will inevitably remain a “surplus” of unmarried, unmarriageable men. The situation is intensified by the hoarding of wives at the elite level: some churchmembers report that Warren Jeffs had taken scores of them. And such demographic conditions will persist unless males leave or are pushed out of the local marital economy. (Or else, according to Freud’s vision in Totem and Taboo, the boys might violently displace the patriarchs and inaugurate a brave, new—wrenchingly ambivalent—order.) In any case, the structuralist interpretation of the necessity of ejecting a surfeit of males from a local marital economy is often cited as the argument that makes sense of the dynamics that produce the Lost Boys: they are the innocent victims of their fathers’ patriarchalist polygyny.
Yet this structuralist account seems inadequate. After all, in Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss used the same logic to account for occasional homosexual pairings among the Nambikwara of Brazil as a “substitute solution,” an aberration necessitated by a scarcity of women created by the traditional perquisite of the office of chief: polygyny. It did not occur to him to think of monogamous homosexuality as anything but a “substitute” for heterosexual monogamy. But when we think of male homosexual pairings among the Nambikwara as a structural side-effect of the chiefly exception that proves the rule of the exchange of women, then we are likely to ignore its specific pleasures and desires and the forms of self-authorization it cultivates.
Because, epistemologically, we ought to see the individuals belonging to the aberrant “surplus” population of Nambikwara men intimately associating in the “normal” way (here, heterosexual monogamy for everyone but the chief), we cannot see—politically, say—that they may be citing the norm as an alibi by which to authorize themselves to form variant intimate associations. So the structuralist interpretation blinds itself to its own normative operations in two interrelated ways, in terms of knowledge and of power: it cannot recognize Nambikwara homosexuality as intelligible except as aberration, and it cannot see Nambikwara homosexual partners as empowered but rather only views them as radically constrained. When we call members of homosexual unions among the Nambikwara “victims” of chiefly polygyny, then we ignore the practices of authority that these supposedly “aberrant” forms of intimate association cultivate with and against chiefly sovereignty and Nambikwara gender regulation.
Similarly, it is unhelpful to see these boys as “victims” of structural effects of FLDS polygyny. To be clear: I am not suggesting that the Lost Boys engage in gay sex; Nambikwara-like homosexual pairings among the Lost Boys have gone unmentioned in news stories of them. (Fraternity is the trope invoked. “The kids I took in were like little brothers to me,” one Lost Boy was quoted as saying in a salon.com piece. “I loved them and I was doing everything I could to help them, but it was like trying to fill up the ocean with a teaspoon.”) Rather, I am analogizing the Lost Boys to Nambikwara same-sex partners because the ejection from FLDS communities of the former and the homosexuality of the latter have both been interpreted as “solutions” to “problems” in local marital economies. It is the unspoken politics of such interpretations that interest me.
To interpret the Lost Boys as “victims” of polygyny is misdirected for at least two reasons, and knowledge and power are wrapped up together in them both. First of all, many news reports coyly intimate, or at least they lend themselves to the suggestion that Warren Jeffs and his henchmen were seeking mere pretexts to eject teenage boys in order to stave off a surplus of men that would interrupt the smooth machinations of their polygynous designs. In such a story, even though the boys may have been caught red-handed with a DVD of a nearly soft-core Hollywood film, say, then the boys are still only “victims” of a bad, unsupportive culture. Such an interpretation eclipses the real contestations of power at work. There seems at work, namely, the implicit and later explicit partial rejection of Jeffs’s political-theological sovereignty by way of these boys’ performative struggles of self-authorization. Again, in and around the Lost Boys’ ejections, there is not only constraint; there are also trials of power and freedom, which we ignore when we acknowledge the boys as nothing other than victims.
Much more deeply troubling, though, is that heterosexual monogamy is the tacit norm that governs the very rhetoric of victimization. The Lost Boys are victimized by polygyny, which can only be understood as “wrong” in its divergence from those norms organized by heterosexual monogamy. Moreover, the very idea that the young men represent an aberrant “surplus” suggests another aspect of the norm at work: they are not productive within the local “fringe” marital system (and are only productive within dominant American society as negative examples to shore up the workings of the norm of monogamy); the Lost Boys are being wasted; their manhood is not being used. Having been ejected as surplus or waste by their own fringe community, then they must be made to fit in elsewhere. And here is how dominant liberal democratic American society can both express its moralizing intolerance (for polygynists) and its welcoming tolerance (for polygyny’s victims) in the same double gesture, while at the same time masking the power of its own regulatory norm of monogamy.
In short, it is incorrect to see the Lost Boys as victims of polygyny without also seeing them as victims of a dominant form of hegemonic heterosexual monogamy. For it is not the case that culture does its dirty work only in Colorado City, Arizona and other polygamous communities, but never in mainstream America. It is not the case that constraint and terror operate only there in a fringe community and that freedom reigns here in dominant American society. Marriage is not an illiberal and involuntary institution there and a liberal and voluntary one here. Just because the sovereignty of Warren Jeffs in his community is rendered visible by the terror of his rule does not mean that power is non-existent where it is less visible. Violence and terror are very much in evidence on “this” side of FDLS too: although racist lynching as an instrument for regulating intimacy across color lines is—barely—a thing of the past, violent bashings of lesbians, gays, and transgender persons are on the rise.
Hence, monogamy regulates the lives of the Lost Boys in another way. Not only does the norm of monogamy implicitly generate them as victims of polygyny, but also monogamy structures the very field of intelligibility of their lives together “outside” of FLDS. This is what I meant when I suggested earlier that their lives together—the intimate association that a butt hut represents—could be rendered invisible even to themselves. For, with regret, I cannot but conclude that so much about our dominant culture of intimacy in the United States—the norms that regulate intimacy and render only some versions of it intelligible—is stacked against the Lost Boys’ coming to see their relationships of love, support, and mutual dependence as anything but a way-station to “normal” lives in heterosexual monogamous marriage.
These boys especially—bearing the full brunt of all the moralizing discourse around polygamy’s abuses that circulates in American mass media—would be the most unlikely candidates for viewing their butt huts as (non-sexual) polyandry. Their form of intimate association is polyandrous—it is polyandrous now—but a hegemonic culture of monogamy renders it invisible as anything other than a temporary aberration. The butt hut as a mode of intimate association ends up looking like a structural aberration of both polygamy (of which it is a contingent expression of a necessary side-effect) and of monogamy (to which it is simply abnormal) rather than an enduring possibility.
And no amount of successful agitation for state sanctioned same-sex marriage could ever create the conditions for non-normative intimate associations, such as that found in butt huts, to thrive. For even an expanded institution of marriage only gives the force of law to altered norms—it therefore does not disrupt normativity but rather further entrenches it. When a norm is fortified with the force of law, operating through the late modern nation-state’s police and administrative powers, then citing the norm (marriage) as an alibi to authorize oneself to associate differently is difficult at best—especially when the regulative powers of governmentality work alongside the force of law as supports to the state. After all, historically, the modern nation-state has built itself up by colonizing and/or zoning out of existence and intelligibility other forms of association.
What could advance both state sovereignty and extrastatist governmentality more readily than inviting state institutions and law to define and to regulate more forms of association? The pluralization of associative forms earned Carl Schmitt’s censure in The Concept of the Political because “pluralism consists in denying the sovereignty of the political entity by stressing time and again that the individual lives in numerous different social entities and associations . . . [that] control him in differing degrees from case to case, and impose on him a cluster of obligations in such a way that no one of these associations can be said to be decisive and sovereign.” Hence, extending Schmitt, we can say that the late modern nation-state secures its political sovereignty by calling into existence a pluralism of associative forms and arrogating to itself a monopoly on enforceable decisions about which forms of association are licit and which illicit, how the licit ones are to be subordinated and disciplined, how the illicit ones are to be policed and punished, and so on. And, ironically, state institutions do not by themselves do this work of constituting the sovereignty of the political—the quasi-depoliticized normalization and regulation of intimacy and sociability saturate the social field “beyond” or “underneath” the state.
The desire for same-sex marriage, expressed as a yearning for official “recognition” for some lesbian and gay couples, willfully misrecognizes the operation of the powers of political sovereignty and governmentality. And since homophobia continues to pervade dominant American culture, legalized same-sex marriage might very well render butt huts and other homosocial intimate associations less available, not more. Because legalized same-sex marriage would participate in the sanctioning and codification of monogamy (merely making different combinations of the sexual identity of the partners possible so long as the partners number only two), it would contribute to rendering singles and queer non-monogamous intimate associations less visible and materially less available. Paradoxically, at the same time, legalized same-sex marriage, working in tandem with homophobic regulatory norms, would make some forms of same-sex intimate association too visible and therefore render them more coherent as objects of disavowal. (I can’t live with other guys like this—I don’t want to be associated with that.) In any case, legalized same-sex marriage, far from pluralizing the forms and diversifying the practices of intimate association, would narrow and diminish them.
Lost Boys in butt huts contend not only with the visible sovereignty of Warren Jeffs but the spectral sovereignty and governmentality operative in the United States, and I fear that, although they have reached a kind of impasse with the regime of FLDS, they are on the losing end of the battle against the hegemonic norms of intimate association in mainstream American society. I do not mean to glorify the lives of the young men keeping house together (after a fashion) in butt huts. By all accounts, the Lost Boys are subject to intense financial, emotional, legal, and other pressures. The circumstances which they endure seem in many respects unlivable, even as the intimacy they have cultivated is what allows them to survive. But we aid them not at all—indeed we do them and many others greater harm—by advancing and strengthening a normative conception of personhood that dismisses their now polyandrous bonds as nothing more than a mere rest stop on the road to a normal future.
This post gets to the heart of the tension between what Rorty called the “critical left” and the “progressive left”. I’ll recite here, via Wikipedia:
He criticizes the critical Left, which is exemplified by post-structuralists such as Michel Foucault and postmodernists such as Jean-François Lyotard. Although these intellectuals make insightful claims about the ills of society, Rorty holds that they provide no alternatives and even present progress as problematic at times. On the other hand, the progressive Left, exemplified for Rorty by John Dewey, makes progress its priority in its goal of “achieving our country.” Rorty sees the progressive Left as acting in the philosophical spirit of pragmatism.
Though I think a criticism can be leveled here against him. Without the critical left, how do we know what “progress” entails? Do those in California who enthusiastically support the legal recognition of same-sex marriage think they are advocating progress? Quite certainly. Though you disagree. I’d place you in the camp of the Critical Left.
Is the drive for same sex-marriage progressive? It depends on how one looks at it. If one believes that the drive for same-sex marriage amounts to only the extension of monogamous normativity, then it’s at best a horizontal move, so to speak, supportive of the status quo (albeit more inclusive). Not “progressive.” However, if one believes it to be more fundamentally an upset to that same monogamous normativity, by placing more weight on the feature of same-sex, rather than that of monogamous, then it’s a vertical move up the ladder of “progress.”
(Though the above ignores the existence of the gay community [I’m not ingratiated enough with progressives to be comfortable using “queer”] that is uninterested in monogamous same-sex marriage, and whose interests may very well be weighted higher than those advocating for the new law, especially as they are probably lower in socio-economic status.)
Thank you. I think you’re correct to say that my post reveals (and, I hope, enhances) a tension between the critical and progressive lefts. I do not shy away from affiliating myself with the former, and I consider it an honor to find myself at odds with Rorty and his boosters on this and a number of other issues.
Do you support polygamy, then? Or do you support a recognition among the general population of relationships other than monogamous unions (both heterosexual and homosexual) as possible and permitted? I can’t think that a significant number of people would desire such relationships for themselves; and aren’t they already possible, with the existence of swingers’ clubs and internet dating sites, among other things? It seems as though few people would ever even care. FLDS members would likely be relatively free to live as they wished without judgment, with any possible combination of wives and children in one house, if they did not so clearly distinguish and isolate themselves in compounds and communities. Perhaps the fact that legal recognition of relationships continues to be restricted to monogamous couples is not an expression of political sovereignty, but an effect of the lack of interest most people have in joining such complex and possibly transitory relationships as butt huts and communes.