My interest in writing this text is guided by the hope that, as queer theory continues to interrogate the institutions by and through which the many forms of social oppression continue, we can find ways to oppose what appears to be our ever increasing complicity, as emerging queer subjects, in the ominous, seemingly unstoppable, global environmental crisis. In other words, my essay forges a self-reflexive critique which might converge with the exigencies of environmental ethics to accept responsibility for an otherwise uncritical incorporation and recuperation of behaviors that perpetuate ecological peril. More specifically, I want to subvert a shortsighted materialism that is invading queer cultural identity formation; which is to say that I am afraid that the relatively new emergence of queer subjectivity is being co-opted by consumerist ideologies. We are becoming increasingly complicit in the perpetuation of certain modes of social behavior that seem suspiciously similar to the heterosexist, androcentric, and anthropocentric modes against which ecologists, radical feminists, and ecofeminists exert so much critical energy.
Following a review of the deconstructive agenda, I propose a radical constructivist conceptual analysis. The next phase of discussion covers the question of rights and subjectivity; then an exploration of the concept of disposable persons and the disruptive power of such bodies. After an exploration of the ecological implications of compulsory heterosexism and symbiosis as an alternative metaphor, I conclude with the retextualization of the corporal.
The Deconstructive Agenda
If queer theory is already involved in the deconstruction of compulsive heterosexuality embedded in western concepts of nature, the discussion-this current moment in the deconstructive process--offers the possibility of expanding the horizons of critique to include the specifically material conditions through which new identities might emerge. A leading question, then is this: How are material conditions affected by our identity formations and what alternative metaphors do we have or might we create as emulative models? I believe this question must be addressed if our political interests are to move in the direction of radically democratic cultural change. I believe that this change, this demand for social justice, is ultimately about long-term survival, and that queer identity theory needs to recognize the eco-social implications of our desire to survive. Thus, we need to impel the project well beyond the artificial parameters of humanist interpretations of justice. That is, we need to wonder about the ways in which modernity has framed our debates and inquiries and take heed of the ecological impossibility of a purely human or merely human realm within which discussions about identity tend to circulate.
A wider context within which a discussion about queer identity is situated could be described as an anti- or post-modern attempt to deconstruct the relationships between the cultural production of western identities in general, and the corporeal conditions out of which such identities must emerge. In this context, the terms "anti-" and "post-modern" imply attempts to formulate a conceptual framework that overturns, or at the very least bypasses a longstanding tradition of dualistic, oppositional, value-hierarchical logics. Such logics have long since thoroughly integrated themselves into the textual narrative of what it means to be a legitimate Western patriarchal subject. An anti- or post-modern conceptual framework strategically deconstructs these logics in order to secure the possibility of forging alternative, eco-socially non-oppressed and non-oppressive personal identities and subjectivities.
In one sense, this project is a response to the west's preoccupation with difference. It seeks to establish a conceptual field within which we might investigate the relationships between various historically and culturally conditioned ontologies of difference--including those of space/time difference, of species difference, and of human sexual difference--and the identities, both human and nonhuman, that logically follow or conceptually flow from such ontologies. As such, the aim of inquiry is to understand how these ontologies depend upon historically contingent and culturally specific concepts of nature. It would analyze the interplay between concepts of nature and the ontological questions from which such concepts arise. The project would therefore require the deconstruction of various historical configurations of the concept of nature in order to understand the extent to which both human and nonhuman bodies are essentialized by such concepts. In other words, by exploring the ways in which the ontologies of difference have been articulated historically, we can understand how such ontologies work as mechanisms for human identity production, which would then allow us to analyze the interplay between human identity production and nonhuman identity production, perhaps to further articulate a radically non-humanistic, non-patriarchal, non-phallocentric ontological reconceptualization of who we are becoming as eco-social subjects-in-the-making.
Within this wider context, then, this paper is a cursory investigation into the progressive development of a queer feminist ecological theory of identity, a theory that no longer recognizes as valid many of the specific ways in which difference has been previously articulated in the West. For example, such a theory will reject the conceptual antagonisms between man and animal, man and woman, soul and body, mind and body, god and nature, being and becoming, heaven and earth, straight and queer, etc., nor will it recognize the value systems associated with these archaic ontological distinctions. Such an identity theory is a queer theory because the oppositional logics of our tradition have already identified certain bodies--my own being one of them--as illegitimate patriarchal subjects. To call this identity theory queer is then to mimic the category of queerness to subvert the logic that produces the category in the first place. It is a feminist theory because the oppositional logics of our tradition identify and define all bodies that do not win the status of the patriarchal subject as Other. And it is an ecological theory because identity itself depends upon the material conditions of the earth and because the political and ethical dimensions of identity production entail our relationships to both human and nonhuman beings. Thus, such a theory would be trans-human in scope, historically situated, non-racist, non-sexist, nonoheterosexist, non-anthropocentric, and whatever else such a theory needs to be for promoting the construction of alternative, ecologically informed cultural scripts.
Such a project is also interdisciplinary in its approach, inviting contemporary feminist, ecofeminist, materialist, textualist, environmental and queer theorists, among others, to an open forum of critical debate. The intention behind the interdisciplinary interplay is to explore by way of deconstruction, first, something like an ontology of species difference which would problematize the culturally articulated distinctions between human beings and "nature," between human beings and "animals," between so called "men" and "women," as well as between so called "straights" and "queers." Feminist theory is important in this respect because it secures the importance of sexual difference, reintroduces the theory of the corporeal body which provides a viable alternative to modern, masculinized concepts of scientific objectivity, deconstructs sexist patriarchy, offers unique narratives of situated experiences of sexist patriarchal oppression, and describes in detail the patriarchal ideology of material commodification and preservation. Ecofeminist theory is helpful because it deconstructs the Cartesian legacy, extends the deconstruction of patriarchal sexism to account for the domination of nature, and deconstructs the logic of domination governing patriarchal subjugation and exploitation of both women and nonhuman beings. Postmodern environmental theory is important because it deconstructs humanism, critiques textualist postmodern theories, and introduces the important ecological theory of symbiosis. Textualism is important because it deconstructs essentialism and provides the theory of constructivism as a platform from which to displace the dominant conceptual framework. Materialist postmodernism is important because it deconstructs idealism and ties corporeality to the theory of identity. And, queer theory is important because it extends the discussion of sexual difference to include the deconstruction of heterosexist patriarchy, offers narratives of situated experiences of heterosexist patriarchal oppression, describes the ontology of extermination, and provides us a unique position from which to speak.
The Constructive Agenda
In my opinion, the project would require a radical constructivist position as its guiding conceptual tool, as it takes seriously the textualist assertion that identities are not fixed in nature like the patriarchal system wants us to believe, but are instead products of a history, products of a particular textual narrative. Within a constructivist framework, ontological descriptions of nature, of human and nonhuman beings, etc., migrate from the tradition's nostalgia for the presence of being which guides the production of essentialist identities. In contrast to essentialism, it is no longer an intelligible move to imagine a pure nature withdrawing from or transcending the cultural text, just as it makes no sense to imagine an autonomous self free from the historical and cultural conditions of the body. The old Cartesian dualisms must be thought congruently, co-operatively, but this is by no means an easy task. The structures of language--grammar and syntax--seem to reinscribe the essentialist, oppositional logics magically and perpetually. Even the materialist vs. textualist debates within postmodern critique are framed by this Cartesian legacy. Thus, philosophers try to converge the opposing sides, struggling to embrace the pivotal moment in-between the oppositional logics, and it is this in-between that would act as a platform from which to begin to forge theories of identity, a platform that holds the Cartesian dichotomies--nature/culture, mind/body, self/other--together. In fact, from a post-modern ecological perspective, such dichotomies are now thought to be so inextricably and intimately intertwined that to talk about a human identity is impossible without also speaking of a corporeal reality, which itself opens up a whole realm of trans-personal, trans-human issues and concerns.
Perhaps most importantly, constructivism frees up the space for the development of a queer ecological identity theory by posing the question as to who is in power to define nature, and according to what paradigms. From an essentialist stance, questions of authority and authorship are always thwarted and mystified by references back to the reigning concept of nature with its mythical origin in God. But from a constructivist perspective the question of authority is a basic epistemological move, one that offers the possibility of revolutions in our understanding. Configured in the form of a set of questions, the biologist Gary Lease describes what is at stake; he says:
Who precisely defines 'nature'--that is, who is allowed to say what counts as nature and why? This is, of course, the question of the 'reinvention' of nature or, more precisely, the question of power and privilege: nor only do we wish to discover who reinvents nature, but who invented it to begin with? What are the tools (language, culture, nation-state, science, academia, and so forth) by which such inventions are sustained in power, and how does one supplant or overthrow them? In other words, this is the question of revolution and defense. (1)
Such constructivist questions are important because they investigate, as Lease says: "The scope or extent of inclusion/exclusion--that is, who belongs and why?" He goes on to say:
This is about nature's content, it touches not only on what is allowed to belong to nature and why, but also on who is allowed to participate in nature and what happens to those parts and beings excluded from nature. In other words, this is the question of survival and destruction. (2)
In this way, constructivism forces us to investigate the extent to which various traditional masculinist rationalizations about human privilege and stewardship, the proclamations of immanent domain, private property, natural rights, etc., are always culturally specific and historically contingent conceptual productions that have meaning only within a particular script or symbolic system. It's a grand narrative, as they say, developed over centuries, authored by men in the name of God, but actually forged through insider proclamations, by self written laws and self protecting decrees, and, of course, by colonial coercion and violent enforcement. Essentialism attempts to reach beyond the text to assert a pre-discursive understanding of the reality and the teleology of the world. But from a constructivist perspective, this project turns out to be an historically conditioned social and political interpretation of a metaphysical realm no human being can ever reach or realistically hope to know.
But, a constructivist perspective poses its own set of problems. Certainly, the textual system itself is relentless: Religious ideologies have an impact on philosophy, philosophy has an impact on science, all representing reality through metaphorical language, and all are controlled by historically governed methods of research and interpretation: sociology influences geography influences geology influences ecology influences religion influences philosophy. This is an interlocking representational system that seeks to find in nature the very structure the system produces. The resulting effects are read into concepts of nature, normalized and celebrated in cults of worship and entertainment, and written upon the bodies and flesh of a corporeal world. No matter where we begin our exploration, the parameters of every field of inquiry are laid out in advance. Every question is already captured by the dominant discourse through a set of solidified meanings already functioning, already in place. The constructivist conclusion to this dynamic, this all-too-human situation of ours, is that there is, in effect, no essential nature, no "wild" world, no "virgin" forest. Everything is a construction, from God to the Grizzly; nothing escapes the text.
The problem we face, then, is an archaic self-replicating system that captures, identifies and positions bodies within an interpretative framework based on very old mythically and metaphysically generated ontologies of difference, which were themselves based on extremely naive empirical descriptions of the human body and its relationship to the elemental world. And, the repetitive enforcement of this historically contingent logic is what actually secures a place of privilege for a singular identity, a singular autonomous subject, which traditionally, we all know, is that of the straight white property owning male. For us, then, if our so-called nature is only a matter of interpretation, and if the reigning interpretation is empirically and ecologically naive, and if we're actually concerned about putting an end to systems of oppression, it becomes something of a personal imperative to reinterpret the essentialist legacy, and to problematize its incorporation into the project of reconstructing ourselves.
The Problem of Essentialism
In my opinion, essentialism is one of the major obstacles we face when trying to establish for ourselves alternative concepts. Essentialism creates a certain nostalgia that drags us down and wastes our time. The logic of essentialism is insidious because it sets out to define a negative position in order to claim a positive one. In fact, the positive position absolutely requires a negative contrast. Without the negative position, the positive position would never arise. To essentialize this contrast is to normalize the positive pole, and to normalize it is to place both positions within a value hierarchy which defines the two poles according to the logic of superior-inferior, natural-unnatural, good-evil, and so forth. With that structure in place, we find ourselves already defined as the negation of the positive position and are coerced into confirming a negative definition of ourselves. Those on the positive side of the equation do not need to self-affirm any negative definitions. They, instead, must merely identify the negative positions of others. With such logic we can hardly help but yearn for the privileged position. Such longing, of course translates into self-loathing; we find ourselves wanting to be someone else.
Of course, the longstanding tradition of misogyny works from the logic of essentialism, as well. The essentialized female body is the negative pole of the male/female dichotomy. From early Greek philosophy onward, the female body has been defined and conceptualized as the privation and deformation of the perfectly formed male body. In order to say "I am a man," one must say "I am not a woman." The distinctions must be rigidly in place for the intended identity to stick. There must be signs. Differences must be stereotyped and fetishized in order for such essentialist notions of identity to work.
But an interesting thing about essentialism, a feature which seems to undermine the whole essentialist project, is that everyone with an investment in essentialist logic is continually trying to conform to the essentialist notions. Which is to say that one's identity is never finished, but is rather an existential project that must be maintained on a continuous basis. As Judith Butler and others have pointed out, identity is always a type of performance, and this goes for everyone, even those who supposedly fit the normalized categories. (3) Props, such as clothing, cars, weapons, gestures, etc., are continuously used to signify and to bolster a certain identification or identity position. In other words, everyone is in drag.
Subjectivity and the Patriarchal Pie
In a contemporary framework, the question then becomes: is it enough for us to win our rights to the traditional, essentialized, masculinized position of cultural privilege? Liberation traditions have been attempting to win rights of cultural privelage for the last several decades. Remove the sexism, then straight white women can be free to enjoy that privileged position of the masterful subject. Remove racism, then people of color will finally be free to secure it. Remove heterosexism, then sexual minorities can become autonomous subjects. But from an ecological perspective, it is impossible in a world of limited and dwindling resources for everyone to enjoy that privileged position of radical autonomy, at least in the way it is traditionally configured. If we take the so called "American Dream of prosperity" as a 21st century example of our interpretation of the autonomous subject, then the earth is in big, big trouble. In other words, if our interpretation of autonomy is so severely limited in its eco-social understanding, then the pursuit to secure this place of privilege for ourselves becomes ethically and politically suspicious. This, of course, is nothing new. The ecofeminists have been saying for quite some time now that they do not want an equal piece of the patriarchal pie because the pie itself is poisoned.
So, perhaps, an entirely different concept of subjectivity is in order. And, if the concept of the autonomous subject is, in fact, historically contingent, and if there really is no single word on the matter, no single story, if it is not Nature speaking through the canon, as the defenders of the canon would insist, then radically different interpretations of human subjectivity and human identity are perhaps possible. If this is so, then we stand at the threshold of an amazing creativity. Perhaps we can construct new identities that might have cumulative eco-socially restorative effects. In any event, this expectation, this hope, could be incorporated into the project to reinvent ourselves.
None of this is to say that changing the cultural narrative is easy. Of course, everything--men, women, queers, animals, plants, forests, oceans--virtually everything has already been claimed and captured by the reigning patriarchal symbolic system. Through this system, everything but the legitimate patriarchal subject becomes Other, magically identified as either preservable body, consumable body or disposable body. In other words, the symbolic system identifies and essentializes all bodies, and those that do not satisfy the conceptual conditions for subjectivity are rendered either as the basic material conditions which make the high-life of this culture possible--the high-life being all the so called natural rights and privileges of the patriarchal subject--or as invasive threats to the purity of the system itself. Women fall into the category of preservable commodity, essentialized by the patriarchal symbolic as the mothers and maids of present and future patriarchal subjects. Most animals and plants, of course, are essentialized as consumable commodity; that is, as essentially raw materials, reserved especially for the master's subjective enjoyment and bodily nourishment. Queer bodies, of course, fall under the category of invasive threat. We are conceptualized and identified by the patriarchal imaginary as the contamination of an otherwise pure symbolic system or natural order.
This is where we find ourselves: queer bodies fall into the category of disposable matter in our culture, and if we want to break with this predefined objectification, we need to understand how the logic of disposability produces such an identity, and once produced, how it is maintained.
The fact that queer bodies are conceptualized as disposable can be seen quite readily if we analyze the common term that is either reticently insinuated or aggressively applied to queer bodies (in differing ways according to sex, race, social status, visibility, etc.). The common term is, of course the word "faggot," a word that carries with it, among other things, the notion of a bundle of cut, disposable, burnable wood or weeds. Through this commonly reiterated term, the straight, homophobic, masculinized male subject constructs for us, a certain oppressive identity, represented as a body in ruins: a dangerous, unruly and invasive weed-like anomaly that intrudes itself into the otherwise integrated, systematic structure of the real. In the homophobic imagination, "faggots" are weeds to be eliminated because we threaten both the physical health of the species, as well as the moral fabric of the social order.
In The Social Creation of Nature, Neil Evernden analyzes the concept of pollution. In his text, he cites Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger, in which she claims that the concept of pollution suggests that something pure becomes impure, something originally undefiled is threatened by defilement. In this case, pollution implies a certain conceptual system of order governed by a concept of health or purity which renders the world in such a way that certain bodies will be or might be perceived as invasively out of place, as contaminants, or waste, defined as threats to the integrity of the system as a whole. In Douglas' words: "Where there is dirt, there is (a) system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements." (4) A reverse implication of this insight is that without the system in place within which a term like "dirt" has meaning, there is no dirt. The matter that would become identified as "dirt" remains indefinite, undetermined, unsymbolized where no contrast to notions of health or purity has yet occurred. But the very perception of dirt indicates that a symbolic system is in place. As Douglas says: "This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity." (5) Evernden suggests that there must be an understanding of the symbolic order, a comprehension of something like a "norm" for matter to appear as dirt or weed or pollution. And for both Douglas and Evernden, this implies that ideas about the "proper order of things" governs not only what we find within any given situation, but how we expect bodies to act and interact within that situation.
It is only according to the symbolic system itself that anything will appear as out of place or in need of fixing or in need of eradication. It is the ideologies themselves that invest the situation with meaning, meanings which prepare or appropriate the matter for a particular identity. An identity is then defined according to reasons that only exist because the ideological system exists, dwelling in the minds of those who have the power to enact the identification and then enforce its continual reiteration. As long as there is only one symbolic system functioning, and as long as no one questions or contests the authority of that system, the normative prescriptions for what appears within that system will be defined as proper, and the encoding process will continue unabated. It is only when other "exotic" symbolic systems converge upon the same situation that conflicts arise. As Evernden and Douglas point out, when multiple symbolic systems are in competition for the production of meaning, ideas become politicized and utilized as tools for persuasion, coercion and control. (6) "At this level," says Douglas, "the laws of nature are dragged in to sanction the moral code" (7)
The justification for vilifying sexual minorities, of course, finds its source in a concept of nature that defines sexual identity according to an ideology that reduces all erotic expression to procreative sex. Compulsory, patriarchal heterosexuality, once universalized, in effect, de-naturalizes and thereby, de-humanizes all bodies whose erotic desire and expression does not conform to the norms of procreation. Thus, the heterosexist symbolic, in what Eve Sedgwick calls the "hygienic Western fantasy" of a world without homosexuality, invents or reassigns the ontological status of queer bodies, not as primarily human, not as legitimate subjects, but as superfluous and disposable objects, disposable bodies."
The Disruptive Power of "Disposable" Bodies
Politically speaking, there is a certain irony in this pre-defined identity of ours. It is always already subversive, always already invested with elements of disruptive power. Our bodies pose a challenge to the status quo since our difference is defined as a threat to the natural order. Furthermore, the very presence of our bodies in the world, coupled with the reappropriation of our identities according to an alternative, conflicting symbolic system acts as a contestation of the reigning authority. I believe it is imperative that we exploit the subversive power of this position, but of course this is a dangerous prospect. Those who protect the status quo by policing the margins of the system all too often have power to eradicate the threat of intrusion by firing us from our jobs, denying us housing, academic funding, writing laws to deny equal status and social protections, etc. There is always the possibility that our bodies, if visibly identified, will be taken literally as invasive weeds or pollutants. This has been the case, for example, since the advent of AIDS, where suggestions have been made to contain us, to round us up, proposals just short of actual, physical eradication. Thus, to be visible as queer is to chance arrogation at a moment in history where we have been so ferociously blamed for polluting the symbolic order.
Deliberately taking on the status of queer is, of course, a continual struggle and poses the threat of constant danger as long as the reigning symbolic system is in place, and perhaps even more so since we've been wrongfully blamed for the advent of terminal infections into the bloodstream of the species. In light of this, it is fairly easy to understand why assimilation strategies are popular in queer culture. Panic engenders scapegoating and scapegoating engenders flight. To be sure, we face a lethal system that struggles irrationally to secure a sense of protection against poisoned and poisonous bodies.
But we know in our heart of hearts that we are not weeds, which is to say that even though we are defined as such by the patriarchal symbolic, we know at the same time that the definitions we must contend with have an external source. They come from outside us. We internalize them, to be sure, but they do not originate from us. We are queer and yet we are not queer, thus the symbolic order that defines our bodies as such is so rigidly intact that we must work from within the pre-established definitions. We are forced to live this mythical binary opposition between straight and queer in such a way that we must maintain it at the same moment we abandon it. This is not to say that there is no real difference between straight and gay. Instead, the problem we face is that those who are troubled by the contingency of the symbolic system, a situation which shows itself in the ambiguities and the slippages of erotic desire, feel compelled to both concretize and universalize the logic which holds in place the boundaries against which the difference is defined. In this way, the boundaries are conceptually set in stone, writ large across the elemental world, so that each side of this binary frontier requires the other to remain in place. But the distinctions are not fixed, and if the truth be known, few humans spend their entire lives firmly on either side of the divide. In other words, the truthfulness of the definitions are rendered suspicious, if not false, by their compulsively maintained rigidity. There is no absolute being, either straight or gay, and the demanded requirement of such only creates fundamentalisms and isolationisms on both sides of the frontier. This rigid line is what transforms language from an epistemological tool of communication across distances and differences to a weapon for the protection and repetition of superstitions and dogmas.
Ecological Implications of Compulsory Heterosexuality
The patriarchal dream to eliminate homosexuality from the face of the planet, I believe, has drastic ecological implications in that human sexual difference is parallel to the ecological notion of biodiversity, such that the eradication of difference within a discourse of "oneness" or "sameness" becomes the transformation of human diversity into a monoculture. Thus, queer identity theory is ecological in that queering the cultural symbolic destabilizes the essentialist either/or dualisms of heterosexist logic and thus, opens up the possibility of a radical pluralism for the human species, a pluralism which is needed if alternative, more ecologically literate symbolic systems are to become possible.
I am banking on the prospect that changes in our concepts of nature, gender identity, subjectivity, etc., will not only help to end our own oppression, but can actually begin to reverse the current apocalyptic trend of western patriarchal history. I am taking seriously the prospect that identity production can produce certain behavioral tendencies which, in mass, become geological in proportion and impact. As the situation stands right now, whole forests, rivers, mountains, species disappear because of who we think we are. Like the ecofeminists, I believe that the experience of Otherness can be empathetically extended into a much wider range of questions, considerations and demands for justice. So I ask the question: What if we were to follow the ecofeminist lead, and extend our experience of queer oppression as well as our projects to end it into this wider range of concerns? I believe this question is important because we are currently in a mode of self-creativity with very few historical models to emulate, and my hope is that we can, in our endeavor to forge our identities, consider how the material conditions of the earth, and the social conditions of both human and nonhuman beings are affected by this project. Perhaps we can migrate away from the androcentric and anthropocentric models offered to us by patriarchal traditions. In other words, rather than merely imitating or mimicking the traditional masculinized models, perhaps we can create new ones for ourselves which are less destructive and less colonizing. In this way, perhaps we can share in the very prospect of a post-modern, post-patriarchal, ecologically sane future.
Symbiosis as an Alternative Metaphor
I imagine a queer ecological identity theory to be a theory that takes seriously the claim that our western tradition radically misunderstands and misrepresents corporeality. Thus, it will be a theory that refuses the disjunctive-value-hierarchical logic of the human/animal binary. It rejects an insistence on oneness (human), sameness (male), and domination (animal). It refuses the corresponding justification of male-human privilege. It destroys the scopic "vision" of solids over fluids, of permanence over change, of mathematics over organics, of heaven over earth. It is an anti-essentialist, anti-patriarchal, anti-Cartesian theory that expands the field of identity to include what the old tradition abhors: the symbiotic body, the relational body, the body in mutual, interactive alliance with others, both human and nonhuman. Thus, a queer ecological body is a corporeal body, a site of difference, a body-self-other.
Symbiosis, of course, is a term borrowed from environmental science. (9) It is an ecological concept more than it is a concept of the modern tradition. It is a concept that is compared to the parallel concept of commensalism, and juxtaposed to the concept of parasitism. Interestingly, parasitism refers to the relationship between two bodies in which one, the parasite, lives and feeds off the other. The effects can range from benign, unobtrusive co-presence, to a prolonged, but minor loss of vitality, to severe loss of health, and even to the eventual death of the host. A defining difference between symbiosis and commensalism is that commensalism refers to the symbiotic relationship that has unequal benefits between the members of differing species, where one or more species benefits from others, but not in such a way that one is harmed by the other. Symbiosis, on the other hand, defines a closely associated, mutually beneficial relationship between members of same and of different species that promotes the survival of everyone involved. Symbiotic relationships, in fact, can promote the cooperative survival of different species within an environment or situation that, without the symbiotic relationship in place, would otherwise be uninhabitable.
Even though these ecological terms are usually reserved for the relations between animals, plants, forest systems, river systems, mountain systems, and other nonhuman beings, in a post-Cartesian framework, I believe these terms would be and should be applied to human beings as well. As our situation now stands, the human body is itself already "nonhuman" in the Western imaginary, and the antagonistic relationship between the mind (white-human-male) and the body (animal-female), or between culture (white-human-male) and nature (body-female) is characterized, not by mutual, beneficial alliance between differing members (symbiosis), but by a tendency to waver between something more in the order of carnivorousness on the one hand and parasitism on the other. But, of course, these are only textual/conceptual metaphors. Such figurative terms only reflect in an approximate way historically contingent symbolic arrangements. Certainly they might describe tendencies of habit or trends in behavior, but they are not necessary or essential descriptions of the human-animal or culture-nature relationships. Perhaps other descriptive terms could replace them. Perhaps retextualization could produce something new, a radically different symbolic arrangement that might translate into a radically different affiliation, giving rise to an alternative, but nevertheless, textual, metaphorical or figurative terminology for identity production. It might take a stretch of the imagination, but perhaps within a different scenario, a carnivorous identity would be replaced with a symbiotic identity, or a queer identity might avoid recuperating the characteristics of carnivorous and parasitic identities and instead, forge something like an anti-carnivorous, anti-parasitic, symbiotic identity, a reconceptualization of the eco-social body which would actually redefine corporeal relations.
Retextualization of the Corporeal
Of course, if we know what to look for, symbiotic relationships are discernable in the world, between bodies, both human and nonhuman, all the time. In fact, symbiosis seems to be a much more prevalent condition for survival than is either carnivorousness or parasitism. Furthermore, symbiosis is a condition that human beings rely on continuously, whether we like it, or recognize it or not, although hardly to the degree that the definition itself would imply, that is, to the degree that mutual survival between species or between differing members is maintained. What does this say? Does it imply that we have forgotten these conditions? Have they been buried by the cultural narrative? Can they be remembered? Can we reinscribe them within the textual narrative such that our lives begin to change by them? Have they been lost or obliterated, such that reinscription into the text will do no good? Perhaps this is the case, but if so, this possibility only reiterates the anti-Cartesian insight that corporeality and textuality are inextricably intertwined. That is, materiality and textuality must both be upheld if the text is not to become a doubly-fabled disaster, at once transforming by misrepresentation the corporeal conditions that make a materialization of the narrative possible (production of carnivorous identities when symbiotic identities would be more eco-socially appropriate), twice in being unable to transform material conditions into the projected identity (man the predator, nature the prey) because the material conditions for that transformative project no longer exist (drastically reduced biodiversity, inhospitable planet).
But, perhaps we are not too late. Maybe a refusal of the traditional story, a retextualization of the narrative can radicalize what is always, even if hitherto unrecognized, a semiotic relationship to the symbiotic. It can utilize the possibility of articulating through language a radically pluralist theory of identity production that upholds the corporeal integrity of identity. For example, perhaps we can learn from the resistance that certain human and nonhuman beings express when textual projections are violently applied to their bodies, and to ask who they might become if the enforced identities were not in place. In other words, can we retextualize the narrative in such a way that these buried and obliterated relations are (re)discovered or reemphasized?
I propose the development of this theory because I want to understand how our resistance to the patriarchal-Cartesian human/animal, subject/ object dualisms might incite, on our part, the reconceptualization of identity that addresses the eco-social conditions of justice and ethics, and what that reconceptualization might look like. I imagine that attention to how identities are produced--what sort of figurative metaphors they emulate-can and will have an effect on the identities of others, both human and nonhuman, and that attention to those effects could guide us in the creation of new conceptual scripts. The alternative, if not as extravagant, compensates by its bleakness, since clearly, the ethical systems of the patriarchal tradition are ecologically illiterate and productively sterile.
Thus, if a non-Cartesian recuperation of the corporeal body as a site of eco-social relations is to be a key feature of a contemporary post- or anti-modern queer theory of identity, then a conceptual refiguration of the relationship between the "human person" and the "corporeal body" will be necessary. This reconciliation of the traditional human/animal dichotomy implies a thorough reconceptualization of the corporeal body itself. Such a reconceptualization, for it to be responsive to our contemporary planetary situation, will need new, more ecologically literate models for identity production.
In my estimation, the concept of symbiosis holds promise as a guiding model. That is to say, it becomes increasingly dangerous for us to afford emulating wolves (carnivores) and vampires (parasites) as models for the construction of our identities, just as we can no longer afford to construct other human beings and the rest of the corporeal world as prey and host. In my opinion, to reject these traditional models of identity is to radically expand the notion of difference, where difference can no longer be merely a humanist enterprise. It is no longer ultimately a problem of merely human oppression. Thus, to speak of species difference is a more inclusive, more productive, and, from an anti-patriarchal-anti-Cartesian perspective, an inevitable ontological field of inquiry. Species difference includes human difference and reflects the destruction of the human/animal, nature/ culture dualistic binaries.
Not only this, but difference within a symbiotic framework destroys the modern notions of the body-object, of "isolated bodies," or "encapsulated bodies," bodies that are distinct facts of matter within a neutral environment free of any symbiotic alliances, governed only by exterior mechanical relations of cause and effect. A symbiotic understanding of difference expands the notion of body into a relational, interactive field of concerns which transcends the boundaries of the skin. For self-conscious creatures, such as ourselves, we could call this field of symbiotic relations a "field of care," to use the words of Neil Evernden, and the phenomenal body of that field (what the western tradition has seen as the site of consciousness), a "concentrated core" of a larger sense of self. (10)
A symbiotic understanding of difference shatters the quick and easy defining lines traditionally used to demarcate sites of difference. In effect, it erases the hardened (ir)rational separations between one body and the next. It shifts the location of the old divisions which allows the fluid interactive relations between bodies to take on more importance. Perhaps our identity emerges not in some recovery of patriarchal privilege, but rather, from what has never been able to emerge into consciousness, from the relations that continually transpire and transfix the in-between-us-all.
Who are we then? Who are we when the old distinctions between humans and nonhumans, man and woman, straight and queer loose their authoritarian force? What happens when we uphold the interactive, interconnectedness of body-to-body, subject-to-subject relationships? For example, how would our identities change if we refigure ourselves in light of the bodies we eat to sustain us, the air we breath, the water, the land? The symbiotic body extends between species and between members of species. Unlike our traditional notion of the masterful, autonomous self, the symbiotic self is always in relationships of alliance, of cooperation, and negotiation. In this way, we uphold the historically situated, contextual, embodied site of every corporeal production, thus understanding ourselves as a symbiotic field of exchange, a site of relations that extends beyond the layer of skin, beyond the merely human, and beyond the immediate present. In an anti-modern conceptual framework, the self is perhaps better understood, not as a discreet or isolated body, but as an extensive field of relations-in-process that can never be claimed as absolutely one's own.
Nevertheless, as Evernden describes, there does emerge a concentrated core of identity within this field of relations that we come to call the self. And it is this concentrated core that becomes a personal style of life, what we might call an ethics. And because the lines between bodies are not absolutely fixed, nor are they merely human, the questions we face about our place on this earth as queer subjects, our fight against oppression and the project to redefine ourselves in light of that oppression, will always be within an ecological context. Perhaps it's time for us to face this more extensive field of relations that we are, in fact, already.
(1.) Gary Lease and Michael E. Soule, eds. Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1995), 12.
(3.) Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990).
(4.) Mary Douglas, Purity And Danger (London: Roudedge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 35.
(6.) Nell Evernden, The Social Creation Of Nature (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins, 1992), 6.
(7.) Douglas, Purity and Danger, 3.
(8.) Eve Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 163.
(9.) Gareth Jones, Alan Robertson, Jean Forbes, and Graham Hollier, Environmental Science (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1992), 80, 306, 402.
(10.) Neil Evernden, The Social Creation Of Nature, 44 and 47.…