University of Queensland
While preparing an earlier version of this article as a conference paper  I was heartened to read what I took to be the conference’s motto; namely: that the job of the scholar is to: ‘subject structures of power, knowledge, and practice to critical scrutiny’. In my research and my scholarly and creative writing I have been concerned with the interrogation of compulsory notions of identity. As a child I soon became aware that one was expected, nay required, to be ‘Christian’ – an identification that was culturally and coercively imposed as the complete answer to all the directions my spiritual inquiries could possibly ever take. By that time I had also become aware that the masculinist codes that applied to my putative gender marked me out as decidedly deviant (sissy, pansy, homo, poofter, queer) and that the compulsory form that my sexuality should follow was to be strictly heterosexual (and that there were coercively sanctioned ways to make me conform to that culturally provided model).
To cut a very long story short (66 years at the last count) I can say that, dissatisfied with the options on offer, I became an exile within my own country, alienated not only from the Church, from psychological Medicine and the Law, but from Family too, within which I had to take up a position of hiding (this was later to be christened ‘the closet’), especially after a brutal rejection at the hands of my father, which really knocked me for a loop.
I am working on a memoir (The Boy in the Yellow Dress) that recounts this sense of exile and some of the confused pathways I pursued through extreme psychological and ontological disorientation. As I headed inexorably towards self-destructive oblivion, I dealt very poorly with all the attendant issues of gender and sexual confusion and followed a predictable spiral into drugs – in my case, the psychedelic variety. The memoir also reveals, eventually, the way I find out of what I could advisedly term these ‘dead’ ends, into more life-affirming pathways.
Along the way I discovered that meaning and power are inextricably related in contemporary constructions of identity, and that resistance to culturally prescribed models of identification has important political ramifications.
Michel Foucault would have it that ‘the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us’ AND ‘an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them’ (Foucault 1984: 32).
I would now argue that, rather than upholding a fixed notion of self that is culturally produced, historically situated and politically defended, in its quest for continuing liberation my nascent queer consciousness has reached beyond the cultural framings that have produced it to access technologies of selfhood that re-open neural pathways shut down by what Foucault’s biographer Didier Eribon (2004) calls the ‘culture of insult’ and the serious limits inherent in the construction of the ‘homosexual’ as a religious pariah. Noting the earlier work done by scholar of autobiography, Sidonie Smith, I situate my life writing praxis within this project of recuperation, even if Smith might be surprised to find her work applied to post-secular spiritual inquiry.
In my experience, both psychological medicine and conventional religion operated within an economy of power that sanctioned strictly limited possibilities for exploration and expression in modern culture as I encountered it. The authorised forms that identity – and meaning itself – could take, were prescribed by a dominant, privileged class in order to ‘normalise’ its majoritarian practices and shore up the shared beliefs that provide the foundation for complex, interlocking systems of domination. As JF Lyotard insisted: ‘knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided?’ (Lyotard 1986: 9).
Dominant expectations of what it might be possible for a so-called ‘homosexual’ to know are part of this complex economy of power, produced by those ‘regimes of truth’ described by Foucault, that constitute ‘a set of rules by which truth is produced’ (Foucault 1994: 297). According to those rules, ‘homosexuality’ was supposed to represent a degenerative failure in normal psychological development and – in the terms from another, dominant discourse that impacted my formative years – a religious pariah. By drawing on spiritual resources in the pursuit of self-knowledge, independent queer researchers inquiring into the roots of self are rehearsing what Judith Butler calls ‘unforeseen and unsanctioned modes of identity’ (Salih 2004: 10), effectively ‘changing the subject’ and disrupting authorized versions of masculinity and these disempowering constructions of the ‘homosexual’ as religious pariah.
I want to lead into the first excerpt from my memoir with reference to the theories of Louis Althusser. In his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’, Althusser explores the relationship between the state and its subject citizens, and analyses its modes of (re)producing power and ideology. He defines ideology as ‘the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ (Althusser 1972: 162). Althusser saw ideology functioning as a mediator between systems of power and individuals. It allowed for hegemonic power to reproduce itself not only by obscuring traditional forms of repression but also by cleverly incorporating individuals into the power structure.
Althusser developed this relationship between domination and subjugation by introducing what he called interpellation, the process whereby individuals recognize themselves as subjects through ideology, and he described how subjects become complicit in their own domination. In the simplest of examples: a police officer shouts out: ‘Hey, you there!’ in public. Hearing this calling out, or interpellation, an individual turns around, and ‘by this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion’, Althusser wrote, ‘the individual becomes a subject’ (1972: 174).
In the act of acknowledging that it is indeed he/she who is being addressed, the individual thus recognizes his/her subjecthood and not only accepts his/her place within the social, political and legal order but in effect endorses the ideology that empowers the order. (The notion of interpellation as a process was, of course, further developed by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler.) The exhortation could be to ‘know your place!’
Althusser emphasizes the ubiquity of ideology and interpellation by noting how subjects are consistently and continuously constituted by Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) such as the family, educational institutions, and media such as literature, radio and television. I would add religion to the mix, even though its influence is said to be waning.
In her discussion of the process, Judith Butler later raised the possibility of failed interpellations . Subjects who would reposition their subjectivities beyond such hostile constructions must perforce resist and disobey the ideology embedded in the interpellative ‘name game’ to assert and inscribe affirmative subject positionings outside the ideologies that would render their lifeways sinful, pathological, othered, excluded, thus becoming what Gillian Whitlock calls ‘disobedient subjects’ (Whitlock 1996).
In order to provide a sense from first hand testimony how this process impacts at the level of the individual, here is an excerpt from my memoir–a sequence titled ‘The Name Game’.
So here is a first person example of the notion of interpellation, and how it works to coerce the individual into conformity... or not. This process – an insidious indoctrination for a developing psyche – positions subjects ideologically within the social order and propagates a ‘violence of exclusion’ that is not only conceptual but can lead all the way to actual physical assault.
I propose that the praxis of life writing provides an opportunity to resist and ‘talk back’ (hooks 1990b) to this set of hostile constructions. As bell hooks would have it: ‘for us, true speaking is not solely an expression of creative power, it is an act of resistance, a political gesture that challenges the politics of domination that would render us nameless and voiceless’ (hooks 1990a: 338).
I want to bridge into the next excerpt with another, rarely explored piece of theoretical framing from Erich Fromm (1900-1980), the German-born social psychologist who worked mostly in the US.
Fromm was one of the first in his field to address the relationship of psychoanalysis to the practices of Zen Buddhism, and has helped me understand how dominant, homophobic metanarratives participate in the process of occluding the possibility of queer spirituality, at the level of the individual. In his long essay ‘Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism’, Fromm wrote:
And, he asserts, ‘experience cannot enter awareness unless it can penetrate this filter’.
Writing autobiographically, then, is a way of finessing Fromm’s filter effect, giving me a chance to recognise and recuperate areas of lost experience cancelled out by limited social indoctrinations giving voice to what has been silenced by dominant discourses. This praxis reaches beyond the frame of the familiar coercive constructions of my own culture, where I was subject to the violence of various forms of exclusion, including epistemic exclusion, to find integration, various forms of healing and original and hybrid ways of reconfiguring selfhood.
We are familiar with the tropes of ‘coming out’ and coming to terms with one’s sexuality in much life writing and fiction from queer writers, but little attention has been paid to the technologies of selfhood accessed through spiritual practice. So, to take my discussion a notch or two further I include another scene from my memoir. The book opens at my father’s funeral and, early in the first chapter, as I am preparing my parents’ house for sale, I find a photograph that triggers a chain of reminiscences. It’s a photo of a boy – it must be me, at 3 or 4 years of age – and it was taken in the sitting room of the first house I remember living in ...
What is the meaning of this child’s play? Will the reader expect the life story of a ‘transvestite’? You would be right if you assumed that, having the dress so thoroughly banished from his playmaking, the boy is left with a sense of loss, but what is it that he loses, and what will it take to restore him to the lost state of wholeness? And what atavistic impulse could lead a three-year-old boy to re-create a ritual more common in Siberian shamanism than in suburban West Australia?
At school, he will drawn to the intricate games with skipping ropes but, ears red with the shaming cry of ‘sissy’, he will shooed away, in the strictly segregated playground, to the boys’ area, to be tortured by the bruising bounce of a cricket ball. Sex has not reared its ugly head yet (whatever Freud might say). Gender has, certainly: Boys don’t do that!
But he doesn’t want to transform himself into a girl, nor does he develop a full-blown fetish for dresses. What he yearns for is the easy access to the light, that state of undifferentiated unity which preceded this rigid bifurcation: if this, not that; you can’t be both. For, being with the light was being with his self. And it is through gender, that his exile from the place of peace – his ‘homeland’, you might call it – will be made complete.
I suggest that what is queer about the sissy boy is his recall of, and yearning for, the lost spaces of the self that the forces of cultural conditioning are configured precisely (and coercively) to make him forget. The primary state he accesses is undifferentiated awareness, the field of consciousness from which his personal mind has barely begun to emerge; through gender he will be initiated into a secondary order and later, later, through sex, into a tertiary order of being. But he remembers the primary state, of unity, not separation. Dislocated thus, he is rendered blank, a tabula rasa, without this primal memory, to have his being scripted, written over. He is perverse, this sissy child, and his queer instinct will continue to remind him that this is not the whole story.
The narrative moves through further stages of dislocation and, eventually, re-location with the help of the patient instruction of a guru figure whom I meet at a crucial turning point in the narrative. Now, with the perspective of nearly forty years meditation practice, I have been able to re-visit scenes from my earlier life and recover zones of lost experience for which, following Fromm’s filter effect, there was simply no reinforcement from within my own culture to imprint. If my little moments of insight had occurred within acceptable frameworks, such as a ‘confirmation’, say, or a bar mitzvah, perhaps they would have registered, at least as socially sanctioned. Although I vaguely recalled the incident with the dress, the experience was lost. A door had been closed, and sealed shut with shame. I recovered several such incidents through this autobiographical writing praxis and that recovery, rather than repositioning my subjectivity within the fold of social approbation, served instead to relocate the centre of my consciousness within a deeper field of awareness than that offered by the warm glow of normativity. Marginalisation can be a blessing.
Unless I had been able to re-inhabit that space  through meditation practices (sustained over many years) I wouldn’t have recognised its significance. Gradually, the meaning of this lost zone of experience began to dawn on me and I am now exhuming further incidents of spontaneous spirituality, finally beginning to recognise their intrinsic value though none of them occurred within conventional religious settings.
Some further theoretical reflections
David Halperin has discussed how the political work around the AIDS epidemic has ‘multiplied the sites of political contestation and resistance beyond such traditional arenas as the electoral process, the power structure, and the industrial economy’ (Halperin 1995:28). Halperin agreed with Foucault’s insight that ‘power’s success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms’ (Foucault 1978: 86). Halperin and others may not have realised that the resistance and resistance might now begin to include the resources available from so-called ‘spiritual’ work. Autobiographical texts that work to recuperate the lost parts of self, add to the multiplication of ‘sites of contestation’ then, by resisting the unquestioned exclusivist claims to knowledge authorised by the hegemonic constructions of meaning operated by religion and/or normative psychology.
Discussing subaltern studies, Vinay Lal (2010) raised the issue of complicity in one’s subordination that Judith Butler has also explored. This suggests to me that many queer folk might now be re-considering that very issue in their own religious subordination. Life writing contests pre-scripted identities and intervenes to re-order toxic, hostile constructions. Hence the genre of the ‘queer spiritual autobiography’, identified by Stewart (2002) who has laid the groundwork for establishing characteristics of the genre. A cache of texts in the genre testifies to the recovery of the value of such experience, even in the lives of us pariahs. 
Relevant literary theories
Literary scholarship has recently come around to interesting theoretical positions that are relevant to my discussion. The first of these has to do with the opportunity provided by life writing to produce a counter-narrative to how hostile discourses have tended to position queer subjectivities. In an early book on women’s autobiographical practice, Sidonie Smith pointed out how women have effectively used autobiography as a ‘prominent ground for cultural critique and resistance’:
In a later book with Julia Watson, Smith identifies women exploring alternative notions of subjectivity which are based not on the humanist idea of a unique and universal self, but in ‘very complex collective identities which feature autobiographical subjects as existing at particular and changing intersections of race, nationality, religion, education, profession, class, language, gender, sexuality, a specific historical moment, and a host of material conditions’ (Smith and Watson 1996: 40). They claim that ‘the new geography of identity insists that we think about writers in relation to a fluid matrix instead of outworn binary oppositions of male/female or masculine/feminine, etc’.
Smith and Watson build a case for life-writing as a means of critical intervention into post-modern life. They describe ‘the many means by which models of acceptable identity are circulated and renewed in society’, analysing ‘how state, church, school, corporation, government and the advertising industry secure normative subjects in acceptable social relationships’ (1996: 12). In specific situations, Smith and Watson say, people may ‘choose not to narrate the stories that are prescribed for them’, opting instead to ‘reframe the present by bringing it into a new alignment of meaning with the past’ (12).
Writing autobiographically, then, becomes a resistant strategy for re-narrativising the self, an assertive reconfiguration that recovers meaning from the toxic narratives buried within hostile discourses. ‘Seizing the occasion and telling the story’, say Smith and Watson, ‘turns speakers into subjects of narrative who can exercise some control over the meaning of their lives’ and this assertion, they say, is ‘particularly compelling for those whose personal histories include stories that have been culturally unspeakable’ (Smith and Watson 1996: 13–14).
This positioning firmly established that life writing is an amplifier for the voices of marginalised peoples. If we recognise that early writing on queer experience was mostly been concerned with tropes of ‘coming of age’ and ‘coming out’, first sexual experiences, the struggle for civil rights, and later, issues raised by the HIV/AIDS crisis, etc., this rationale is familiar territory. My research however, has been concerned with the technologies of selfhood that are accessible through spiritual inquiry, a distinct if sometimes overlapping set of practices that differs in interesting ways from religious belief . Such theoretical groundwork, often laid by feminist scholars, leads into the possibility of introducing tropes of queer identity beyond the hegemonic construction of the homosexual as religious pariah into new possibilities of being and becoming.
Smith notes the destabilisation of old constructions of the self and how autobiography has shaken their ‘cultural hold on us’, noting how autobiographical subjects are compelled ‘to splinter monolithic categories through which they are culturally identified, such as the monolithic category of “woman”, and to reassemble various pieces of identity, experience, and knowledge into another kind of subjectivity’ (Smith 1993: 61). I am proposing that also applies not only to the ideological prescriptions surrounding protestant forms of sexuality but further, that it applies to spiritual research ‘unauthorised’ by historically privileged and socially sanctioned religious institutional teaching.
Self as narrative
For it is the very concepts and ideologies underpinning what constitutes a self that are problematised most directly in these new positionings of subjectivity. Recent work by a leading scholar of autobiography supports my position. In the late 1980s, Paul John Eakin, in Fictions in Autobiography, argued for an autobiographical truth that is not a fixed and stable content, but a complicated process of self-discovery and self-creation, recognising that the ‘self’ of all narrative autobiography is necessarily a fictitious construct. But Eakin, one of the late twentieth century’s foremost scholars of autobiography, has moved the theory on from that earlier position to develop the notion of self as narrative. Eakin first tackled the narrative identity thesis that is central to my own discussion: viz., ‘that we are or could be said to be a story of some kind’ in a 2004 journal article. ‘Autobiography’, he writes,
Working in the social sciences, Jerome Bruner had used the same notion, writing that: ‘the self is a perpetually rewritten story … in the end we become the autobiographical narratives we tell about our lives’ (Bruner 1987: 15). ‘Narrative’ has become a useful tool in many disciplines, including psychology for, if self is a ‘story’, it can be told differently, and psychotherapists have exploited the therapeutic potential of re-narrativisation. The Australian psychologist Michael White recognised the therapeutic potential of the narrative approach to self and developed what has become known as ‘narrative therapy’. If self is a story it can be told differently, and the narrative therapist works to assist the client in locating ‘alternative life narratives’. Susan Nicholson says this is a ‘deconstructive’ process by which ‘the dominant restraining narrative is unmasked and re-examined from a new angle’ (Nicholson 1995: 24).
For a pre-eminent scholar in autobiographical theory such as Eakin to embrace this approach was initially quite controversial. The philosopher Galen Strawson was very unhappy with the narrative identity thesis, dismissing it in Ratio as an ‘intellectual fashion’ in vogue among academics (Strawson 2004: 439) but, rather than backing away, Eakin took up the challenge and re-stated his arguments more fully in his book, Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative (Eakin 2008).
Technologies of freedom
Queer folk recognise that colonialism is a project operating within as well as across political cultures, and their life experience may lead to insights into how such a project outlaws identity positions that do not conform to the dominator model that colonises possibilities of meaning. To carry out an investigation of the power and influence of the coloniser, and interrogate its ruling principles, the colonised subject (in this case, the putative ‘homosexual’) needs to become aware of the infiltration of the colonising power within the internal infrastructure of his/her own sense of self. This inquiry, according to Michel Foucault, should be ‘oriented toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects’. Otherwise, he asks:
To Foucault, criticism is ‘no longer going to be practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value,’ then, but rather as ‘a historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying’ (45–6). In contrast to the search for ‘formal structures with universal value’, Foucault prefers
Foucault characterises what he calls ‘the critical ontology of ourselves’ as ‘a historico-practical test of the limits that we may go beyond, and thus as work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings’ (1984: 47).
The issue of freedom is a critical sub-text in all of the preceding discussion. In Foucault’s model, technologies (or ‘practices’, or ‘care of’, as he variously termed it) of the self are interlinked with his notion of ‘governmentality’ – the rationales whereby both individuals and social structures regulate and police norms of thought and behaviour. ‘Government’ acts as a kind of point of intersection where techniques of domination and technologies of the self meet and interact. According to Foucault, this point of connection is where ‘technologies of domination of individuals over one another have recourse to processes by which the individual acts upon him or her self’, so it can also be the site where techniques of the self are integrated into the very structures of coercion. Or not. The kind of analysis – or ‘critical ontology’ - of the forces operating upon oneself, that – in a sense – create one’s self, informs a conscious re-appraisal of one’s own complicity and co-operation in the practices of domination. Hence the possibility of resistance, in the kind of wilfully and consciously failed ‘interpellations’, as discussed earlier. The queer child may be able to awaken to the insidious, toxic ideological coercions that have been operating him/her and remove them, root and branch, from the psyche.
It has been my experience that through life writing praxis, I can resurrect key areas of experience from my own ‘history’ that had been filtered out of awareness and significance, previously. In this continuing process I find that I am fulfilling Foucault’s dictum that ‘the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us’ and ‘an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them’ (Foucault 1984). And that this resurrection is not only a political, ideological, or theoretical positioning but a reclamation of the possibilities of a richer life and a consciousness more at liberty to investigate and explore without suffocating in the miasma of provided identities, including those that emanate from Church, State, Family, Medicine and even from a ‘gay community’.
Victor Marsh is a writer, researcher, editor and former TV producer who returned to Australia in 2002 after 12 years in Los Angeles, where he produced stories for the sci-tech TV show, Beyond 2000. A student of comparative religion for forty years, he spent 12 years teaching meditation in a dozen countries on behalf of his guru. Originally an honours graduate from the University of Western Australia, he received his PhD in English from the University of Queensland, with a dissertation titled: “The Journey of the Queer ‘I’: Spirituality and Subjectivity in Life Narratives by Gay Men”. His critical biography of British writer, Christopher Isherwood, Mr Isherwood Changes Trains, was published by Clouds of Magellan in 2010.
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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy