Jan 26, 2010

Grabbing myself by my own collar

Wendell Berry: "The reach of responsibility is short."

The ostensible reason to hide a homosexual or push a homosexual out of the civil rights movement (thinking Bayard Rustin here) was always other people. It was because of the way J. Edgar Hoover or Joe McCarthy and gang would use it against the cause of civil rights. Oddly, Hoover, the state department and more than one presidential administration used exactly the same logic of displacement of responsibility: it wasn't that they necessarily had any problem with people being gay, it was that communists would use it against democracy, etc.

This same displacement of responsibility happens in some of the public arguments against gay marriage, so that while an adult has no problem with gays getting married, he or she is going to go ahead and act homophobic for the children (in which case we're opposing gay marriage the same way we believe in Santa).

Displacement of responsibility is an interesting thing. It is one of the most effective ways homicide detectives have of eliciting a confession. The detectives, in the interview room, offer an explanation, a way for the suspects to explain how the death happened while, at the same time, not say they're responsible. It was an accident. He was coming at you. You didn't mean to. Feeling trapped, suspects are often sucked right into the confession, because the responsibility, and maybe the guilt, has been put somewhere.

Louis Althusser's idea of authorship and ideology makes exactly the opposite move, though, taking a responsibility which might naturally seem to be somewhere out there, and placing it with each person. We are, he said, "'hailed' or summoned by ideologies, which recruit us as their 'authors' and their essential subject … ideologies speak to us and in the process recruit us as 'authors.'" The word "ideology" makes it sound nefarious or something, but I think this happens with any story: first on a market level -- little poetry published, Conan canned, no more Haiti on TV, James Patterson, Inc? We get what we want. Collectively, yes, but the personal force of this can't be dismissed -- but also, this happens in the sense that we are invited into the story. We own it. Like authors. Ideology or not, be in Jesus or the Green Party, The Smiths or Quentin Tarentino, it becomes our story. If we follow Althusser's move, though, we quickly come to this place where we can't displace responsibility. It's never "other people." It's always me.