Book Review: The Reification of Desire: Towards a Queer Marxism


The Reification of Desire: Towards a Queer Marxism

By Kevin Floyd Minneapolis,

University of Minnesota Press, 2009

Historically, straight Marxists’ attitudes toward LGBT comrades and movements have ranged from the virulently homophobic (condemning homosexuality as a “bourgeois deviation”) to tolerance (Lenin decriminalized homosexual acts in the USSR, although Stalin later re-imposed Czarist-era repression), to wholehearted support. However, beyond defending the simple Leninist principle of keeping hypocritical ruling class morals off of other people’s bodies, most contemporary Marxists seem to have devoted relatively little time to theorizing how Left and LGBT activists and organizations can best unite and fight for common goals against common enemies.

However, Floyd’s teaser of a new “Queer Marxism” in this book is illusory. This book was not written for activists, queer or leftist. Floyd’s analysis is written at a rarified academic level and occasionally (as in his brief discussion of the 'reification of reification') comes close to a textbook example of how revolutionary theory can be reduced to mere word games. If one does not already possess an easy familiarity with the broad 20th century constellation of “big name” academic Marxians, Neo-Marxists, Post-Marxists, ex-Marxists and Postmodernists such as Georg Lukács, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, much of this book will be virtually incomprehensible. The “Marxism” Floyd references is certainly not one familiar to most readers of Political Affairs.

The larger part of the book is taken up with a fascinating but purely historic recounting of the early 20th century social construction of “masculinity,” and of how white professional and upper middle class American gay males gradually emerged from the closet during the course of the century. The author indicates that this was the intended limit of his focus. Lesbians and bisexuals receive short shrift, while the experience of African Americans, Latinos and other ethnic groups is specifically and consciously segregated out. Just as disturbingly for a book purporting to deal with Marxism, the author deals almost exclusively with prosperous urban middle and upper class homophile and gay male history, offering hardly a clue about how queer working people outside of New York or San Francisco might have made it thorough the 20th century.

The book also contains several factual errors. For instance, Floyd writes that America’s first published condemnation of masturbation dates to 1830’s, when in fact published polemics against “Onanism” and “self-abuse” are among the earliest American literature, going all the way back to the second generation of New England Puritans. And although the author contends throughout the book that theory must be “embodied,” he evidences a remarkably disembodied attitude toward the actual bodily delights of same-gender sex, which he delicately refers to only once, as “sodomitic practices.”

Floyd dismisses the question of same-sex marriage with a rhetorical wave of the hand, scorning it as a mere concession to heteronormativity. Equally vital real-world issues of educational, social and employment discrimination, same sex partner rights, adoption, child custody, military service and “don’t ask, don’t tell” evidently pass completely below this academic author’s gaydar screen.

Instead, his thesis revolves around “the reification of desire.” In Marxist theory, “reification” is the false identification of a person or dynamic as a static, material “thing” existing independent of human will or agency, exempt from ever-changing dialectical relationships of forces. That sexual or even consumer “desire” can become or be regarded as a quasi-material “thing” or force separate from the person desiring or the object desired is a familiar trope in some feminist, postmodern and queer theory, as well as in both gay and straight erotica. One is reminded of the well-known pornographic axiom that “male sexual arousal [not the original terminology] knows no conscience.” However, what this has to do with Marxism of any recognizable stripe remains a mystery.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of the book may be the final chapter, which the author repeatedly promises will contain a new and creative approach to a queer Marxist synthesis. However, on this count the reader ends up sadly disillusioned. The best Floyd can offer is an extended requiem for the long-lost, pre-AIDS Eden of Christopher Street, the Times Square porn shops, and especially the bathhouses, where “an undulating mass of naked males bodies, spread wall to wall” once materially accomplished “reification of desire” in the flesh.

Perhaps if this book were more honestly titled it would leave the reader with less of a feeling of being ripped-off. Factual issues aside, the book is a fairly decent graduate school dissertation summarizing and proving the author’s familiarity with the academic literature of late twentieth century queer theory and certain flavors of theoretical post-Marxism. However, a real, concrete “queer Marxism” is still a work in progress, being shaped as we speak by real-world activists. It will not be found in this book.