Radical Psychology
2007, Volume Six, Issue 1

The Power of Homophobic Labeling:

A Post-Structuralist Psychoanalytic and Marxist Explanation

Jeremy Barris

Homophobia works in part and very powerfully through the medium of labels. By 'labels' I mean social categories, including the words, concepts, and attitudes that together make up the substance and meaning of those categories. And homophobia here includes feelings and judgments both of those reacting to the gay person and of the gay person herself ('internalized homophobia'). The specter of the label 'homosexual' (or 'gay,' 'queer,' 'dyke,' 'faggot'), all on its own, can and often does terrify or appal.

I shall try to answer two related questions concerning homophobic labeling in this paper. The first question concerns the power of labels in general: how can any label, mere words, mere attitudes even of strangers, affect a person so strongly, and even to the depths of her or his being? Labeling affects us radically, and probably all humans have experienced the profound effects of simply having one kind of label rather than another attached to one -- 'geek,' 'effeminate,' 'butch,' 'beautiful' -- whether or not any more 'concrete' consequences have followed beyond the labeling itself.

The second question concerns gay-related labels in particular: what is it about the gay-related labels that gives them the peculiar type and intensity of impact that they have? Where the prejudicial forms of being labeled black, or a woman, for example, involve being regarded as inadequate or inferior, the prejudicial forms of being labeled queer seem to involve an entirely different order of rejection: being unthinkable, not the way things really are, being 'unnatural.' This depth of rejection is, of course, not restricted to queers. Racially mixed marriage, or extremely tough women, for instance, may get the same kind of reaction (e.g., Fein and Nuehring, 1981). But it seems to be central in the rejection of homosexuality. Warner, for example, notes "the assumption that this group [queers] . . . does not or should not exist" (1993, p. xxv, insertion added). And as Butler (1990) writes, "The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of 'identities' cannot 'exist' -- that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not 'follow' from either sex or gender." Because these identities "fail to conform to those norms of cultural intelligibility, they appear . . . as . . . logical impossibilities" (p. 17).

The model I shall propose, to answer these questions, is drawn from cultural-political theory that was in vogue in the 1970s and early 1980s. At that time some influential syntheses of Louis Althusser's structuralist Marxism and Jacques Lacan's post-structuralist pyschoanalysis were developed. These syntheses offer a very fine-grained explanation of how social structures and meanings (Althusser) shape our most intimate psychology (Lacan). I shall try to show how this kind of explanation can illuminate both of the questions about homophobic labels.

With respect to the question about labels in general, Lacan argues that linguistic structures literally construct the fabric of our most intimate subjectivity, while Althusser argues that social-political ideology works by constructing us as the specific type of subject that we then experience ourselves as being. That is, for both theorists, our selves, and also our sense of ourselves, depend for their very existence on social meanings, including labels, and not the other way round. This explains why labels can have very deep effects on us.

With respect to the question about homophobic labels in particular, Althusser, along with Roland Barthes and other structuralist and post-structuralist Marxists, argues that the kinds of meanings that (at least Western, capitalism-informed) social-political ideology constructs, not only for human subjects but for things in general, have the particular feature of being ahistorical. That is, while the things that make up our world may undergo changes, in each case the thing that the changes happen to is understood as something already existing, as just unchangingly there, as something that has always been essentially the way it is. Everything that undergoes change has a 'nature' that just is what it is, that is simply given. The basic nature of things, then, has no history by which it came about and through which it could have turned out differently, or by which it still could become different. It just is as it is, and could not have been otherwise.

As a result, anything that might contrast with the way things naturally are, is literally inconceivable: it would be trying to be different from what simply could not have been different. And this applies to human life as well as to everything else. Modes of living that contrast with the 'natural' ways are literally inconceivable: they simply are not the way things are. Other ways of living life can only be seen as one or another kind of failure to exist properly, to be what one is. For example, they are seen as an ineradicable disease of character, or as a state of sin.

Lacan, on the psychological side, develops the concept of the 'imaginary.' This is a dimension of our subjectivity that results from the universal human need to feel that we have fixed and eternal natures. We often desperately need, for example, not to be an 'accident' or a random, chance event in the universe, something that might easily not have existed at all, or that could easily have turned out to have had qualities and values that we cannot, as we are, identify with. As with the ideological concept of nature, the result of the 'imaginary' fixation is that one cannot conceive that one could have been fundamentally different.

The result of combining these theories is a model in which powerful internal drives work together with pervasive social forces to subject us to a particular idea of what it means to be natural. This confluence of forces on a specific concept of nature helps to account for the intensity and character of the homophobic reaction to what falls outside the familiarly 'natural.'

In the first section below I shall outline the relevant elements of the structuralist and post-structuralist theories of ideology. I shall then, in the next section, discuss their part in explaining the power of homophobic labeling. In the third section, I shall discuss the relevant elements of Lacan's theory of subjectivity, and how his theory complements the ideological side of the explanation. In the fourth section, I shall briefly discuss an important context in which the concept of nature is in fact legitimate. Finally, I shall explore some further effects of homophobic labeling in the light of some central features of this explanation.

Ideology and the Nature of Things

'Ideology,' in this context, refers to widespread, politically relevant systems of ideas that present themselves with a certainty that does not depend on any grounds. Differently put, they present the world or parts of the world as unquestionably having certain characteristics that they do not unquestionably have. This definition does not require us to commit ourselves, either way, on the un-postmodern idea that there is a genuine truth of the way things are that can meaningfully contrast with ideology. {Though I do think that there is, in fact, room for an idea of truth of this kind. See, for example, Barris (1997). } The point here is that ideology claims a truth that it is not in a position to claim. Even if no ways of approaching the world are in a position to claim knowledge of the truth, ideology is still overstepping its bounds, and contrasts with acknowledgments of uncertainty or revisability.

The kind of presumed obviousness that characterizes ideology makes it very hard or perhaps impossible to raise certain kinds of questions. The result is that those who suffer from circumstances to which those questions are relevant are badly disadvantaged. This is how ideology has its specifically political effects, whether or not it is also deliberately intended to have those effects. It benefits some social groups and disadvantages others, prior to and without the possibility of negotiation.

These systems of ideas are present in our everyday forms of thought, and so also in the everyday forms of expression that structure and convey our thought (Larrain, 1979, p. 130). As Belsey (1980) writes, 'ideology is inscribed in signifying practices -- in discourses, myths, presentations and re-presentations of the way 'things' are -- and to this extent it is inscribed in the language' (p. 43). And as Volosinov (1973) argues of language itself, "a sign does not simply exist as part of reality -- it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore it may distort that reality or be true to it . . . Every sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation" (p. 10). In other words, ideology operates as a dimension of language, by signifying reality in certain ways.

In particular, ideology (at least Western, capitalism-informed ideology) typically signifies reality as being natural. In other words, although things in the world have a history, so that their being as they are is simply a happenstance that could have turned out otherwise, ideology presents them as though they are the only way they could ever have been, and as though they could not conceivably have been different. It makes what is really a particular historical development of things appear to be what things ultimately and absolutely -- in their very 'nature' -- are. As Plummer (1975) argues (though from a symbolic interactionist rather than a purely semiotic perspective), "for any individual of a society, there is a tremendous pressure upon him to apprehend his reality as if it were inevitable, absolute and unchanging . . . a man-made order becomes mystified as a Natural Order" (p. 118).

So, for example, marriage is by nature only one very particular kind of union, and it has always been that way. Capitalism describes how human economics has always worked, and people are naturally, and have always been, basically greedy and concerned primarily with monetary profit. Women and men have various characteristics by nature, and have always had them. And mammals are and always have been essentially heterosexual.

Ideology also disguises its own character as a form of signification that could, itself, have been different, as being a dimension of what is just one possible language, just one way of 'refracting' or categorizing the world among actual and possible other ways. Ideology presents itself as simply a reflection of the way things simply are, so that there just are no alternative views of reality to be expressed. As Bennett (1979) writes, "although bestowing a signification, a particular conceptual organization on reality, language constantly generates the illusion that it reflects reality instead of signifying it," so that language seems to be "the mere mirroring" of the way things are (pp. 5-6). In Althusser's words, "those who live in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology" (1971, p. 175).

Ideology, then, signifies the world as existing in the only conceivable or possible way it could: as without origin, without history, eternal, unquestionable. Barthes (1972), for example, writes of bourgeois ideology as transforming "History into Nature . . . the status of the bourgeoisie is particular, historical: man as represented by it is universal, eternal . . . bourgeois ideology yields an unchangeable nature" (pp. 141-142). As a result, ideological "norms are experienced as the evident laws of a natural order" (p. 140). And Coward and Ellis (1977) talk about this as

the production of an ideological vraisemblable which is effective
precisely for the reason that it appears as 'natural,' 'the way things
are' . . . The practice of ideology has succeeded when it has
produced this 'natural attitude,' when for example the relations of
power are not only accepted but perceived precisely as the way
things are, ought to be and will be (pp. 67-68).

Althusser, similarly, notes that it is:

a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to
do so, since these are 'obviousnesses') obviousnesses as
obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before
which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out
 . . . 'That's obvious! That's right! That's true!' (1971, p. 172).

Once objects and the relations between them are seen as existing in the only conceivable way they could, and as not conceivably not existing, these objects and relations cannot require or even be susceptible of explanation. It is literally nonsense to try to explain something that by definition is the only conceivable way it could ever have been. Looking for an explanation for the way something is presupposes that contrasting ways are conceivable. Without a contrast with other conceptions of how something might exist, there is no way even to have the idea of a 'particular way' in which it does exist, and so there is nothing to be explained. And, further, explaining how something came to be the way it is presupposes conceiving a time when it was not like that, conceiving it as having been different.

Certainly, things do undergo changes, and one can try to explain what produces those changes and what results from them. But the 'nature' of the thing characterizes what undergoes those changes, and it is understood as already given before the changes. It is what is already there for the changes to happen to. And as a result it is not itself involved in the changes or explained by them. There is therefore no meaning to asking for an explanation of that underlying nature itself: it is not part of the world of change, and so could not conceivably have been otherwise.

In Barthes' words, then, "ideology . . . records facts or perceives values, but refuses explanations; the order of the world can be seen as sufficient or ineffable, but it is never seen as significant" (1972, p. 142).

Among the things that ideology signifies as natural in these ways are people. As Barthes writes, ideology "produces the inverted image of an unchanging humanity, characterized by an indefinite repetition of its identity" (p. 142). And as Althusser (1971) argues, ideology induces the individual to think of herself, like any other 'natural' thing, as not produced, brought into being, by larger structures. Instead, a human being understands, and so experiences, herself as a source of entirely self-motivated actions, as an unchanging entity with choices that are explained by nothing beyond themselves. In Althusser's words, "ideology has the function . . . of 'constituting' concrete individuals as subjects" (p. 171). Ideology constitutes the person as a 'subject' in this way by constantly addressing her, through the host of social institutions that surround her, in ways that only allow her to respond as if s/he were this purely autonomous and unchanging kind of entity, not needing and insusceptible of further explanation. As Coward and Ellis (1977) explain,

the imaginary identity of ideology closes off the movement
of contradictions, calling upon the subject as consistent . . .
a subject who thinks himself/herself to be the point of origin
of ideas and of actions . . . an identity (a point of self-reference)
rather than a process (p. 77).

Althusser (1971) calls this act of constructing the subject by addressing her, 'interpellation':

ideology . . . 'transforms' the individuals into subjects . . . by . . .
interpellation or hailing . . . which can be imagined along the
lines of the most commonplace. . . hailing: 'Hey, you there!'
. . . [T]he hailed individual . . . becomes a subject . . . [b]ecause
he has recognized that the hail was 'really' addressed to him,
and that 'it was really him who was hailed' (p. 174).

Even before the individual is born, Althusser notes,

it is certain in advance that it will bear its Father's Name, and
will therefore have an identity and be irreplaceable. Before its
birth, the child is therefore always-already . . . appointed as a
subject in and by the specific familial ideological configuration
in which it is 'expected' (p. 176).

We are socialized, then, to experience and understand ourselves as having a certain fixed identity that has and requires no explanation beyond itself: a nature.

More generally than in the specific kinds of interaction Althusser describes, language itself induces a fixed understanding and experience of things. At any given time, language only offers particular ways of conceiving and expressing reality. And since we can only mean what our language gives us the resources to mean, we only have access to these particular ways of conceiving reality. This includes our conception and so our experience of the reality of ourselves. As Derrida (1973) writes, "the subject (self-identical or even conscious of self-identity, self-conscious) is inscribed in the language . . . he is a 'function' of the language" (p. 145). Because of the limitations of language itself, then, we are restricted to particular ideas of the way we are, without resources of meaning that would allow us to conceive ourselves in alternative ways. This dimension of ideology is already and automatically an aspect of language itself.

Now, the problem is not that our 'true' selves are distorted by ideology. The problem is that what we mean by a true self is already the distortion. What we think of as a 'true self' is exactly that 'natural' subject signified by ideology. It is only language, complete with its ideological effects, that allows us to mean what we can mean by 'ourselves' in the first place.

And this is so, not only because language is our system of meanings, but also because we can only participate in using language by genuinely taking on certain specific characteristics. Interpellation is one example of how this works: one becomes, for example, an equal, or a subordinate, or a threat. Or one becomes an 'I,' stably consistent as more or less the same personality from sentence to sentence, or a 'you,' reliable -- unlike, say, a mosquito, or water vapor -- to respond to requests or endearments in certain specific conventional ways. As Lacan (1977a) puts it,

the form in which language is expressed itself defines
subjectivity . . . if I call the person to whom I am speaking by
whatever name I choose to give him, I intimate to him the
subjective function that he will take on again in order to reply
to me, even if it is to repudiate this function (pp. 85-87).

This theory allows us to suggest the ideological side of an answer to each of the two questions about homophobic labeling I started with. I shall explore these answers in the next section.

Ideology and Homophobic Labeling


This theory of ideology allows us to understand, first, why social labeling in general can affect us so very deeply. Our very being is already a structure formed by social meanings, so that we are made of the same stuff that labels are made of. Consciousness, after all, is a structure of meanings, understandings, and acts of reference. Labels, then, affect us because they are continuous with what we are. As Lacan notes, "language is not immaterial. It is a subtle body, but body it is. Words are trapped in all the corporeal images that captivate the subject" (1977a, p. 87).

This theory also allows a first answer to the question about the intensity and particular effects of specifically homophobic labeling. Because ideology signifies the world as natural, if anything were to conflict with the socially accepted ideas about reality, it would conflict with the only way things can conceivably be. Consequently it would not just conflict with those particular accepted ideas, but with conceivability itself. And that kind of conflict does happen. I have already quoted Judith Butler's comment that "certain kinds of 'identities' . . . fail to conform to [the] norms of cultural 'intelligibility,' and therefore 'appear' . . . as . . . logical impossibilities" (1990, p. 17).

An 'unnatural' category violates the very 'rules,' the very structure and reliability, of meaning itself. As Hebdige (1979) argues, more generally,

any elision, truncation or convergence of prevailing
linguistic and ideological categories can have profoundly
disorienting effects. These deviations briefly expose
the arbitrary nature of the codes which underlie and shape
all forms of discourse . . . The limits of acceptable linguistic
expressions are prescribed by a number of apparently
universal taboos. These taboos guarantee the continuing
'transparency' (the taken-for-grantedness) of meaning (p. 91).

This offers an explanation of why 'unnatural' categories elicit such visceral rejections from people who encounter others to whom these categories apply. This kind of experience threatens their very sense of meaning and reality. But, more than this, because social meanings constitute our very substance as individuals, a violation of the general structures of meaning also violates the structure of what we most intimately are. Consequently this kind of encounter also threatens the reality of the person herself as a coherent subject.

If, more, such a category applies specifically to ourselves, it makes sense that the violation of our being would be all the more intense, and all the more complex for being specifically directed. Along with threatening our sense of reality and in particular of our own reality, it would also make us feel alien to the conceivable order of things. It would make us feel that we, the particular persons that we are, somehow violate the way the rest of the world does and should make sense, that we in particular are so fundamentally wrong that we ought not to exist. That is, it would make us feel that we are really a fake kind of existence, unworthily pretending to the status of the genuine and legitimate ones. These things are exactly what homophobic labeling does to its victims, and perhaps also, more indirectly, to its perpetrators.

Now, since the world is full of conflicting events and developments, there cannot help but be things that do not fit into the 'natural' order of things as ideology presents it. And given that deviations from this natural order literally cannot be conceived, ideological understanding can only deal with them by forms of paradoxical intellectual gymnastics. Since they must be noticed, it must be done in ways that insist that there is nothing there to notice; or they must discussed in ways that insist there is nothing to discuss. Foucault (1978), for example, describes this kind of talkative insistence on silence (although he argues that it is no longer the leading strategy of dealing with deviance) as "a sentence to disappear . . . an injunction to silence, an affirmation of non-existence, and, by implication, an admission that there was nothing to say about such things, nothing to see, and nothing to know" (p. 4). But it is necessary to dismiss these unnatural occurrences in these ways, since pretensions to being real by what is inconceivable, threaten sense or meaningfulness itself. Consequently these occurrences cannot help but also have enough reality to require being dismissed from notice.

But, since being natural is the only form that any reality can take, these unnatural things are also naturally the way they are. While the specific signifier 'unnatural' signifies them as not part of nature, every other signifier that is relevant to them continues to signify them as existing in 'the only conceivable way,' that is, as natural. And of course even the signifier 'unnatural,' itself, must be taken to have the kind of meaning that ideology presents as ultimately the only conceivable kind of meaning: an expression of what cannot be conceived otherwise, of what is naturally the way it is. The unnatural things, then, are naturally violations of sense: they could not have been otherwise. They naturally exist as incapable of existing. And they are by nature incapable of having a conceivable nature. In other words, they are naturally unnatural. As Foucault describes contemporary understandings of 'deviant' sexualities, for example, they are "a principle of classification and intelligibility, established as a raison d'être and a natural order of disorder" (1978, p. 44).

This powerful contradiction of natural unnaturalness is the fuller answer I want to propose, although so far only presented in the context of ideology, as to why homophobic labeling has the particular intensity and type of impact it does. Not only is the unnatural person alien to everything meaningful and worthwhile, but this is her natural condition. That is, it is part of the ways things are and ought to be, that this person should not exist, that his existence commits a terrible wrong. And this situation is unalterable and inescapable. The concept of change does not even apply to what is the only way it can conceivably be.

I shall now turn to discussing Lacan's theory of subjectivity, which explains how vulnerability to this same contradiction is rooted in core dimensions of our psychology.

Lacan and the Imaginary Dimension of Subjectivity

For Lacan, as for Althusser, language constructs or constitutes us as subjects. All meanings occur within language, and this includes the meanings of 'self' and of the many differences between ourselves and the world that are also necessary to defining our separate and specific existence. There is empirical confirmation that we and our world are linguistically constituted in this way. Infants have to learn to distinguish their bodies from the world around them and to distinguish their own hurts and joys from those of other people, and they have to learn that their own body parts all belong together in an integrated unity. And this learning occurs partly and necessarily through the process of learning language, of learning to refer to themselves and other things stably in many and various ways, including establishing some things as stable entities (that is, learning to relate to them that way, not finding stable things immediately given to perception) by, as part of that establishing process, naming them.

Until we have entered into the organizing structure of language, then, we have no particular meaningful reality, and we ourselves are not anything in particular. As a result, in Lacan's words, the "signifier determines the subjects in their acts, in their destiny . . . their innate gifts and social acquisitions notwithstanding . . . [A]nd . . . everything that might be considered the stuff of psychology, kit and caboodle, will follow the path of the signifier" (1972, p. 60). Lacan describes our initial lack of particular reality as "a certain dehiscence at the heart of the organism, a primordial Discord betrayed by the signs of uneasiness and motor unco-ordination of the neo-natal months" (1977a, p. 4).

Now, before the infant enters into language (roughly between its sixth and eighteenth month), Lacan finds that there is a first stage of its acquiring a sense of the unity of its own body. This seems to occur through its perception of the unity and coordination of others' bodies, or through seeing the whole of its own body in a mirror. And exactly because it does not yet distinguish between itself and others, or between itself and images that are separate from itself, it experiences that visible unity as the unity of its own, felt body. In Lacan's words, it seems to be the case:

that experience of oneself in the earliest stage of childhood
develops, insofar as it refers to one's counterpart, from a
situation experienced as undifferentiated. Thus . . . we see
. . . those gestures . . . by which a subject reconstructs the
imperfect effort of the other's gesture . . . that are all the more
remarkable in that they precede the complete co-ordination of
the motor apparatuses that they bring into play (1977a, p. 18).

Lacan refers to this stage of development as the mirror stage. It is the beginning of the dimension of human subjectivity that Lacan calls the imaginary, because it is based on visual perceptions, or, in other words, images, either of actual bodies or reflected in a mirror. The imaginary is a dimension of our psychology that structures our sense of our own identity, of the reality of ourselves, as being specific, stable, and complete, in the way that wholly perceived images are. The "specular image . . . is linked as a unifier to all the . . . elements of what is called the fragmented body" (1977a, p. 196).

The problem with the imaginary, however, is that it is built on an image that does not belong to the body it unifies. The infant establishes its sense of itself, and differentiates itself from others, on the basis of identifying with an image that is not itself. And in fact, equally paradoxically, this distinction between itself and the image can itself only become meaningful to the subject because of its initial identification with it, since that identification is the subject's basis for establishing itself as a self distinct from other things that are not itself, in the first place.

The imaginary, then, is also imaginary in the sense of being based on a fiction, a fantasy. The subject's sense of itself is based on a fiction of unity that it does not, at the time, really possess, and that in any case is not its own unity. But because the subject's sense of self is based on, made possible by, this fiction, it can never fully replace it with properly established knowledge of its own wholeness or integrity. On the other hand, because it is the subject's sense of its reality that is based on this fiction, it nonetheless must, in order to feel real, try to replace it with a sense grounded in genuine reality. As Lacan writes,

[T]his form situates the agency of the ego, before its social
determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain
irreducible for the individual . . . or rather, which will only rejoin
the coming-into-being . . . of the subject asymptotically, whatever
the success of the . . . syntheses by which he must resolve as
I his discordance with his own reality (1977a, p. 2).

As a result, it is built into the roots of the human subject to have a need for unity and completeness that it can never fully satisfy, an impossible need to be fully and properly what it is. This also emerges as the equivalent and equally unsatisfiable need to be completed by being in relation to objects that are fully and properly what they are. This is a need

which constitutes the ego and its objects with attributes of
permanence, identity, and substantiality, in short with entities or
'things' that are very different from the Gestalten that experience
enables us to isolate in the shifting field, stretched in accordance
with the lines of animal desire (p. 17).

That there is this kind of paradox of identity does not depend only on the soundness of this particular psychoanalytic theory of infant development. It seems likely that human development simply could not happen without this kind of paradox. In order to learn language, for example, we need to be able to understand ourselves as consistent and specific subjects, to which, for instance, 'I' and 'you' apply. But the meanings of terms like 'I,' or 'consistent,' or 'here,' only occur within the context of the established norms and practices of a language. Consequently we cannot understand ourselves as subjects without first having access to the meanings that language offers. In other words, we have to understand ourselves in the ways appropriate to engaging with language before we can understand ourselves in the ways appropriate to engaging with language. As a result, our sense of ourselves (and our grasp of the meanings of things in general offered by language) is necessarily partly based on a moment of logical incoherence.

The idea that we have an unfulfillable need for fixity helps to explain why we keep setting up new orthodoxies, and why we keep defending them as though they were self-evidently true and self-evidently morally and politically right. This explanation applies even if these are orthodoxies of the unorthodox: for example, the idea that concepts and identities are never appropriately fixed, but always necessarily unstable or requiring to be transgressed. This is just a sort of positive version of natural unnaturalness.

The deeply contradictory character of the imaginary is confirmed and intensified, Lacan argues, once the child enters into language. For language itself works self-contradictorily both to define the specific realities of particular things and to undermine those same definitions. Saussure, the founder of structuralist linguistics and consequently one of the sources of Lacan's structuralist psychoanalysis, argued that the meanings of words depend entirely on their differences from other words, and not on things and events in the world outside language. We would not be able to grasp information about those things and events, it could have no meaning for us, unless we already had access to the kinds of meanings that words have. That the meanings of words depend, instead, on their relations to each other, is confirmed by the fact that these meanings shift drastically depending on how they are combined with other words in particular sentences, and on the particular ways they are and can be contrasted with other words.

Meaning, then, is not a given, positive entity or quality that simply reflects the world. Instead, meanings are established entirely within the system of language, independently of the world. They are in fact the unstable result of a system of differences between meanings, guaranteed by nothing outside that system, and by nothing in themselves that precedes those differences or contrasts. "A difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms" (Saussure, 1959, p. 117). In Lacan's words, "we can say that it is in the chain of the signifier that the meaning 'insists' but that none of its elements 'consists' in the signification of which it is at the moment capable" (1977a, p. 153).

As a result, the very existence and character of any meaning depends, unstably, on an indefinite range of meanings that are not what it itself is. What it is on the 'inside' depends on what is 'outside' of it, on what does not belong to it. And this includes the meaning of any reference to the human subject. Language gives a meaning to the specific positive reality that each of us is, but only by defining it entirely in terms of an unstably shifting host of meanings that it is not. And because we are a structure constituted by language, language also builds into us a state of failure to be what we are. As Lacan argues,

If we choose being [given independently of language], the
subject disappears, it eludes us, it falls into non-meaning.
If we choose meaning . . . it is of the nature of this meaning
. . . to be . . . eclipsed by the disappearance of being [which,
since it is independent of language, is what might have validated
the reality of this subject that language claims to mean],
induced by the very function of the signifier
(1977b, pp. 211-212, insertions added).

As a result, then, language builds into the very fabric of our existence an unsatisfiable drive to arrive at what we are: to be complete and stable. That is, language itself works together with our pre-linguistic 'discord' to build into us the need for the imaginary, for a fixed and self-sufficient nature. In Lacan's words, "The drama of the subject . . . is that he faces the test of his lack of being. It is because it fends off this moment of lack that an image moves into position to support the whole worth of desire: projection, a function of the Imaginary" (quoted in Lemaire, 1977, p. 72). And the "imaginary process" that "begins with the specular image . . . goes on to the constitution of the ego by way of subjectification by the signifier" (Lacan, 1977a, p. 307).

Like ideology, then, our own psychological structure builds into us a need to experience ourselves as natural.

Now, because our subjectivity is constituted by language, it is also shaped by the specific social categories that partly make up language. Consequently, on the psychological side of things too, our experience of ourselves as natural is made what it is partly by particular socially accepted categories. As a result, when we experience ourselves as not fitting the specific social categories of what is natural, our imaginary need for naturalness, to be fully and properly what we are, is violated. We therefore experience ourselves as incoherent, unintelligible beings, as not completely or properly existing, as only fake realities. We have this experience in response to the same categories through which ideology works, but, over and above the ways ideology produces that experience, we have it because of our psychological structure.

But, further, our experience of ourselves as natural is not only shaped by the social categories, but also by the 'natural' signification that ideology gives them. And with that comes the whole logic of the ideological signification of nature. As a result, when we experience ourselves as being unnatural, we automatically also experience ourselves, again, as being naturally unnatural. We experience it as part of the right and proper nature of things that we do not have genuine, legitimate existence.

The structure of our own subjectivity, then, both makes us specifically vulnerable to the effects of homophobic labeling that ideology produces, and contributes powerfully to those effects in its own right.

In short, through the working of ideology, on the one hand, the 'unnatural' label violates our sense of reality, of ourselves, and of sense itself. And by treating this violation as our nature, this labeling holds our very existence responsible, condemns our very being, for this destruction of the meaningfulness and worth of our reality and ourselves. On the other hand, the structure and working of our own psychology ties us even more fully into these same effects of 'unnatural' labeling. And it does so with all the strength of our deepest striving to exist.

The Legitimate Context of the Naturally-Unnatural Contradiction

There is, however, an important context in which this contradiction of natural unnaturalness is legitimate. I want briefly to discuss this context, because it gives a more fully accurate perspective on the nature of this contradiction and on what is at stake in it.

First, the need for fixity, self-sufficiency, and completeness, for a dimension of reality that is natural, is not only psychological and subjective, but also logical. Language and meaning themselves presuppose it in order to function, in order to be language and meaning. As Weber (1991) writes,

Left to its own devices, the symbolic [or language, composed
as it is of differences between its own terms, with nothing to
ensure any stable consistency in those differences] . . . would
tend to dissolve and to displace the very determinations upon
which it 'itself' depends. In short, without the imaginary, the symbolic
would self-destruct. It is therefore no less dependent on the
imaginary than the imaginary is on it (p. 108, insertion added).

Similarly, Gallop (1985) notes that

There have been some thinkers who . . . argue that Lacanian
analysts have been so preoccupied with denouncing the ego and
thus the imaginary (for the ego is the agency of the imaginary),
that they have overlooked the positive and necessary function of
the imaginary . . . [I]t might . . . be said that the imaginary is necessary
to give 'consistency' to the symbolic (Montrelay), to 'embody' it
(Laplanche) (p. 218).

Now, if language and meaning presuppose a dimension of fixity, self-sufficiency, and completeness, then anything we might mean (because it is something we mean) by truth and reality themselves also presupposes a dimension of this kind, a dimension of naturalness.

Second and consequently, anything we might mean by truth and reality themselves, then, is contradictory in this respect. There are, necessarily, such things as the simply given natures of things, and, as Saussure's discussion of language shows, whatever we can mean by these natures is, necessarily, not simply given, but inherently insecure and questionable.

As a result, 'natural unnaturalness' is not just a product of ideological and psychological distortions of reality. It is also a dimension of meaning and reality themselves. Its expressions in ideology and in our psychology are therefore partly ways of genuinely dealing with something true of reality, as well as partly being ways of evading it. The distorting evasions of these expressions certainly need to be understood and countered; but the relation of these expressions, unevaded, to the truth of things needs to be recognized and respected as well. Perhaps part of an answer is to combine a constant respect for our need to establish what is genuinely natural, with a constant willingness to fight our need to believe that we already understand what our sense of what is natural means for the status of conflicting ideas of nature, and whether and in what ways it might be possible for those ideas to interact meaningfully with our own.

My concern here, however, is with the distorted application and destructive effects of 'natural unnaturalness' in homophobic labeling, and I shall now discuss some more of those.

More Effects of Homophobic Labeling

As I have discussed, one way of expressing the meaning of a thing's being natural is that it requires no explanation, and that in fact the very idea of explaining it makes no sense. By definition, it simply could not conceivably have been otherwise. It follows, however, that anything that is unnatural, does require to be explained. Something that appears to violate sense, to make no sense, inherently calls for an explanation. In fact, more, it requires to be explained away. Explanations are made in terms of what does make sense, so that, if the explanation is successful, the violation of sense will vanish away, and, with it, the thing that is a violation of sense.

But what is unnatural is also naturally unnatural. Consequently, it both calls for an explanation, one that is so thorough that it will replace the unnatural thing altogether, and it is meaningless to ask for an explanation of it at all, for an increased understanding of it in any way, since it could not conceivably have been otherwise. One effect, then, of the homophobic labeling of homosexuality as 'unnatural,' is that gayness is very powerfully experienced simultaneously as a violation of sense that desperately requires to be explained away, and a timeless essence that is absolutely insusceptible of explanation.

This helps to make sense of some of the kinds of paradoxical intellectual gymnastics that homophobia produces in dealing with homosexuality. One strategy for dealing with, and symptom of the effects of, this naturally-unnatural labeling, is simply to reject explanation, to recognize homosexuality as simply outside the bounds of sense, while also recognizing that it is always urgently necessary to insist on and re-establish its senselessness. One is then always freshly appalled at the existence of homosexuality, freshly shocked at its even making a claim to exist. One cannot accept it, because it is inconceivable, but one cannot simply dismiss it once and for all, because it also could not conceivably not be the way it is. It does not merit attention, and it must urgently be reprehended.

Another of these strategies and symptoms of the effects of naturally-unnatural labeling is to save the possibility of explanation by showing that the unnatural thing's difference from the natural order is ultimately only apparent. That is, it does not really exist and so does not really need an explanation, only an explanation for why it seems to exist. The thing is really only a deviation from the way things properly are, and so bears a coherent, understandable relation to the way things are and make sense. For example, homosexuality is an "adaptation consequent to pervasive fears surrounding the expression of heterosexual impulses. In our view, every homosexual is, in reality, a 'latent' heterosexual" (Bieber et al, 1962, p. 220). Gay people are really just afraid of members of the opposite sex, and so trying to find a substitute for what they really want (Socarides, 1979, 1981). Homosexuality is then only a pretend desire, substituting for the real, natural thing. Similarly, there is the theory that gay men, for example, are really heterosexual women trapped in men's bodies, which nicely eliminates homosexuality altogether (Marshall, 1981, pp.135-136).

Of course, this kind of explanation then confirms that these fake realities, these pretend desires and genders, really do exist, just by virtue of explaining them. Consequently they still have to be condemned, despite and because of this demonstration that they really are naturally understandable products of what is natural.

A third strategy and symptom is simply to offer contradictory explanations (which may include either or both of those found in the first two strategies), while nonetheless also maintaining an attitude of having a soundly respectable claim to sense, and an impeccable moral standing. So, for example, homosexuality is a sickness, but nonetheless morally reprehensible; it is genetic, but nonetheless licentious; it is definable only in terms of sexual acts, but nonetheless indicates inadequacy of the person's character traits in general; gay people are degenerate, but nonetheless no different from anyone else (Chesebro, 1980). This, incidentally, is a sampling of social scientists' explanations, no mere uninformed lay efforts.

Conclusion: Coping with the Effects of Homophobic Labeling

On the side of coping with these effects of homophobic labeling, perhaps one of the roots of, for example, camp sensibility, or of its particular appeal for gay communities, is the honest recognition of this naturally unnatural status. Camp celebrates an explicitly fake version of reality, what is meant to be experienced as only a copy of the real thing. But it also takes the fake version seriously, and is often moved by it, at the same time and in the same act as making a joke out of it. As Newton (1979) explains camp, it is a strategy for dealing with "a 'spoiled identity,' in Goffman's [1963] terms . . . an identity that is well defined but loaded with contempt" (p. 105). And it characteristically involves "the perception of 'being as playing a role' " (p. 107), a perception conveyed by "incongruous juxtapositions" (p. 106). The result is a kind of humor that "does not cover up, it transforms" (p. 109). Core (1984), similarly, explains that camp is, among other things, "a disguise that fails" and "a lie which tells the truth." It is, he says, "cross-dressing in a Freudian slip" (p. 7).

In a more explicitly political understanding of camp, Meyer (1994) argues that, because the socially "marginalized agent has no access to representation [the successful production of meanings], the apparatus of which is controlled by the dominant order,"camp", as "queer parody" of the socially dominant meanings, is

the only process by which the queer is able to enter
representation and to produce social visibility. This
piggy-backing upon the dominant order's monopoly
on the authority of signification explains why Camp
appears, on the one hand, to offer a transgressive
vehicle yet, on the other, simultaneously evokes the
specter of dominant ideology within its practice
(p. 11, insertion added).

In fact, if the suggestion is right that the natural-unnatural contradiction is part of truth and reality themselves, then camp is not only a psychological and political strategy for coping constructively with some of the deep effects of homophobia. It is also one expression of insight into a deep and rich dimension of the nature of reality and truth. This is a dimension that mainstream culture and some core features of our own psychology typically work to keep hidden. And it is consequently a dimension of truth and reality that victims of the 'unnatural' label are put into a uniquely privileged position to be able to understand, to do justice to, and to honor.


Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In Lenin and philosophy and other essays (pp. 127-186). (B. Brewster, Trans.) London: New Left Books.

Barris, J. (1997). That Foucault justifies truth and ideology critique. In Quarterly Journal of Ideology, 20, 61-98.

Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies (A. Lavers, Trans.). London: Granada.

Belsey, C. (1980). Critical practice. London: Methuen.

Bennett, T. (1979). Formalism and marxism. London: Methuen.

Bieber, I., et al. (1962). Homosexuality: A psychoanalytic study. New York: Basic Books.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Chesebro, J. (1980). Paradoxical views of 'homosexuality' in the rhetoric of social scientists: A fantasy analysis. The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 66, 127-139.

Core, P. (1984). Camp: The lie that tells the truth. London: Plexus.

Coward, R. and Ellis, J. (1977). Language and materialism: Developments in semiology and the theory of the subject. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Derrida, J. (1973). Differance. In Speech and phenomena and other essays on Husserl's theory of signs (pp. 129-160). (D. B. Allison, Trans.) Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Fein, S. B. and Nuehring, E. M. (1981). Intrapsychic effects of stigma: A process of breakdown and reconstruction of social reality. Journal of Homosexuality, 7, 3-13.

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality, volume one: An introduction (R. Hurley, Trans.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Gallop, J. (1985). Keys to Dora. In C. Bernheimer and C. Kahane (Eds.), In Dora's case: Freud-Hysteria-Feminism (pp. 200-220). New York: Columbia University Press.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London: Methuen.

Lacan, J. (1972). Seminar on 'The purloined letter' (J. Mehlman, Trans.). Yale French Studies, 48, 38-72.

Lacan, J. (1977a). Écrits: A selection (A. Sheridan, Trans.). London: Tavistock Publications.

Lacan, J. (1977b). The four fundamental concepts of psycho-analysis (A. Sheridan, Trans.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Larrain, J. (1979). The concept of ideology. London: Hutchinson.

Lemaire, A. (1977). Jacques Lacan (D. Macey, Trans.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marshall, J. (1981). Pansies, perverts and macho men: Changing conceptions of male homosexuality. In K. Plummer (Ed.), The making of the modern homosexual (pp. 133-154). Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books.

Meyer, M. (Ed.). (1994). The politics and poetics of camp. New York: Routledge.

Newton, E. (1979). Mother camp: Female impersonators in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Plummer, K. (1975). Sexual stigma: An interactionist account. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Saussure, F. de. (1959). Course in general linguistics (W. Baskin, Trans.). New York: Philosophical Library.

Socarides, C. W. (1979). Some problems encountered in the psychoanalytic treatment of overt male homosexuals. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 33, 506-520.

Socarides, C. W. (1981). Psychoanalytic perspectives on female homosexuality: A discussion of The lesbian as a 'single' woman by Nanette Gantrell, M.D. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 35, 510-515.

Volosinov, V. N. (1973). Marxism and the philosophy of language (L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik, Trans.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Warner, M. (Ed.). (1993). Fear of a queer planet: Queer politics and social theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Weber, S. (1991). Return to Freud: Jacques Lacan's dislocation of psychoanalysis (M. Levine, Trans.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Biographical Note:

Jeremy Barris is professor of philosophy at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. He is interested in the relations between reality, thinking, style, humour, and justice. His publications include Paradox and the possibility of knowledge: The example of psychoanalysis and The crane's walk; Plato, pluralism, and the inconstancy of truth (forthcoming).

Journal Page | Current Issue | Style | Editors | Mission | RadPsyNet.org