03 September 2013

Book Review: The Trouble with Nature

Roger N. Lancaster is a professor of anthropology and director of the graduate Cultural Studies program at George Mason University.

This book is a repudiation of the world view of Simon LeVay's Gay, Straight and the Reason Why. LeVay's book is good in the respect that it summarizes, in a comprehensive fashion, the scientific research, up to the time of publishing, of the apparent biological origins of homosexuality. LeVay's book is a great read and I think it is worth reading. But for as long as I can remember, there is always something magical (and suspicious) about gay genes, gay brains and gay inheritability.

Lancaster's book does a number of things. One of them is to destroy the foundations of so-called scientific research on gay genes, gay brains and the like. Lancaster actually sets his aim more on the popular press who he criticizes for distorting the actual research on the scientific research.

The main thrust of the criticism involves bringing to like the naturalization process of what we believe to be truth -- the fact that what we believe to be the truth, in many ways, is the result of political decisions or choices and that the variation through cultures makes it impossible to make universal claims about humans. Nowadays, much of this naturalization process writes papers everything over as "nature" itself. Therefore, claims about gay genes regarding transitory and context specific cultural practices could not possibly have a basis in genes or brain structure. Is there a gene for being a Downton Abbey fan? What about the pasta-eating gene? What about the gene for preferring paper books to e-delivery systems?

Some of it gets a little tedious. I have always been a universalist. I believe that everyone has the potential to be gay. This is in opposition to the dominant theory, innatism, that being gay is something one is born to be and it is immutable like skin color or a congenital disability. I have always felt innatism or minority-ism was an effective political strategy for community organizing and for creating niche markets for extracting surplus capital from new emerging markets, but innatism has never been a good explanation for my experience of how people I knew expressed their desire (well except maybe my own). Yet as we know, gay identity and communities are proliferating around the globe. And this is why I think this 20th century debate on nature v. nurture gets a little tedious. It's not as romantic as LeVay's 19th century European worldview but it is interesting.

Then, near the end,  Lancaster lays out how postmodernism/post-structuralism is faithful to Marx. Example:
An unreconstructed socialist, I shamelessly sing the praises of comtemporary capitalism -- in much the same spirit as Marx and Engeles, whose Manifesto surveyed the dynamic and progressive role of capitalist exploitation in human affairs. "Wherever it has got the upper hand," Marx and Engels enthuse, the bourgeoisie "has put an end to all feudal patriarchal, idyllic relations." Capitalist profiteering has "torn from the family its sentimental veil," undermined "differences of age and sex," and brought "a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country," paving the way for the emergence of world culture. (p 317)
This appears a few pages after he mentions Alexandra Chasin's Selling Out, The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to the Market, although its a few chapters after I first thought that Chasin's book deserved a mention or some theoretical allusions thereto. If you're read this far, what I'm trying to say, is that the most useful post-structuralist theory is one that (1) hews closely to the facts and (2) addresses how the theory connects to Marxism. Otherwise, it's useless. Lancaster does this.

The Trouble with Nature is an excellent book and a necessary read for anyone interested in LGBT or queer studies. Although it's a little disorganized, it weaves an excellent literature review and addresses much of the current scientific research on sexuality.

The version I read was a 445 paperback published by the University of California Press  (May 1, 2003), ISBN-13: 978-0520236202. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was used at abebooks.com.

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