Preview of Queer Democracy: Desire, Dysphoria, and the Body Politic
Daniel D. Miller
For centuries, Western thinkers have imagined society as a body. But why? Why this metaphor to represent society? What conceptual work has this metaphor, the metaphor of the “body politic,” done? And what kind of body has society been imagined to be? Queer Democracy: Desire, Dysphoria, and the Body Politic considers these questions, arguing that the answers shed light on many of the most pressing social and political issues confronting the contemporary United States.
Spanning the centuries from the pre-Christian Stoics to the present, the social-as-body metaphor (as the name suggests) imagines society as a body. In its traditional expression, the social-as-body metaphor has been informed by the “natural attitude” of embodiment, according to which bodies, whether flesh-and-blood or social, are defined by their proper shape, or morphology. Expressing this logic, a morphologically normative body is one in which every member of the body is in its proper place, playing its properly assigned role. And as with flesh-and-blood bodies, so it is with the social body: the properly ordered social body is one in which all members of society are in their proper places, playing their properly assigned roles.
As this description suggests, the social-as-body metaphor expresses a fundamental social and political disposition to social order. Dispositions are the mechanisms of political desire that operate on a visceral level, structuring and giving expression to our social perceptions, affects, and practices. To imagine society as a body, then, has been to imagine society as “properly ordered,” as a social body in which all members of society occupy their prescribed social places, play their prescribed social roles, and stand in their prescribed relations with the social body’s other members. And the properly structured social body imagined by Western political and social thinkers has almost invariably been hierarchically ordered, with some members of the social body necessarily and properly situated above others.
The presumed naturalness of the body’s shape lends it a normative status, so that any departure from it can only be pathological. Thus, a body with members that are “out of place” is a dis-ordered body, a grotesque or monstrously structured body. And such bodies, perceived as departures from “nature,” evoke non-rational, visceral reactions, dysphoric responses aimed at reimposing the body’s normative shape. In the case of the social body, dysphoric responses are expressed in efforts to bring mis-placed members of the social body back into their proper social positions and roles, thereby reinstating the social body’s hierarchical, properly ordered shape.
Within the framework of the social-as-body metaphor, then, society has been imagined as a body with a natural, and therefore normative, shape. Any divergence from this normative shape, in turn, provokes dysphoric responses. And it is here, in these responses, that the real work of the social-as-body metaphor comes into full view. Within the social body, the members perceived to be out of place are precisely those who actively challenge or contest the supposed normativity of the social body’s shape. In political terms, we can understand this contestation in terms of dissent: the members perceived to be out of place within the social body are precisely those demanding a new place within it, those demanding liberties or the equality that would break down or level the social body’s hierarchical structuring. The disposition to social order expressed in the social-as-body metaphor has thus been a disposition to the quashing of dissent. This disposition evidences itself in the visceral, non-rational steps taken against dissenting members of the social body.
Stated in contemporary terms, if we understand democracy not merely as an institutional or procedural framework, but more substantively as the principle affirming the “rule” (Gr. kratos) of the “people” (Gr. demos) enacted in the extension of liberty and equality to increasingly broad sectors of social and political life, then the political disposition to social order expressed in the social-as-body metaphor is fundamentally anti-democratic in nature. The diverse politics of dissent challenging the normative shape of the social body are perceived as transmogrifications that render the social body monstrous or grotesque, and this perception provokes dysphoric responses aimed at countering them.
The responses are all too familiar: gerrymandered voting districts, purged voter rolls, and other efforts at voter suppression; floods of “dark money” transforming elections into “pay-to-play” schemes; the use of market-driven opinion polls to shape elections into popularity contests between competing ready-for-TV candidates; the use of social media and other privately-owned media to create fact-free informational ecosystems; the deployment of militarized police forces against communities of color; legislation aimed at marginalizing trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC) youth; the weaponization of the public education system to preserve foundational myths about race and patriotism; and on and on.
This incomplete list demonstrates that while the social-as-body metaphor may be millennia old, it is limited neither to antiquarian interest nor to the realm of abstract theory. On the contrary, the metaphor represents a crucial resource for understanding some of the defining social and political phenomena in our current America. Such phenomena include populism and nationalism in particular. While populists and nationalists in the contemporary United States do not explicitly invoke the metaphor of the social body, populism and nationalism nevertheless represent expressions of the political desire for proper social order. Populism and nationalism draw on complex identity domains, such as race, political ideology, gender identity, religious identity, sexual orientation, class, and so on to present an idealized prototype of the “true” member of the “nation” or “people.” Within the contemporary U.S. context, populism and nationalism take shape around an idealized prototype of the “real” or “authentic” American as White, cisgender, heterosexual, Protestant, English-speaking, U.S.-born, of northern European descent, and affirmative of patriarchy (if not male).
The social-as-body metaphor provides a distinctive means of understanding these social and political dynamics. Contemporary populism and nationalism in the U.S. therefore express the desire for a social body in which those who fit this narrow prototype occupy positions of social and political power and privilege, while all other members of the social body occupy subordinate positions. Populism and nationalism also represent socially dysphoric responses to an increasingly pluralistic and diverse American body perceived to have departed from this “natural,” proper shape. Their distinctively dysphoric nature is given in their visceral, affective negative responses to groups and movements who, in demanding their equal place within the social body, contest its supposedly normative shape. Such responses are myriad, including those outlined above in addition to numerous others.
An analysis of the social-as-body metaphor therefore brings to light the dysphoric, anti-democratic dimensions of significant contemporary social and political phenomena. This represents its essentially negative role. But the social-as-body metaphor also has a crucially constructive role to play regarding contemporary society and politics. Queer Democracy argues that the social-as-body metaphor can be imagined anew, opening up new futures for social and political practice.
The key to this possibility is given in the nature of embodiment itself. The natural, morphologically normative body imagined within the natural attitude of embodiment is a fantasy, masking the insight that the body has no natural, normative shape. Queer Democracy draws heavily on transgender accounts of embodiment to develop this point. TGNC individuals have long been marginalized because of their perceived failure to exhibit natural, normative embodiment. But TGNC embodiment reveals a profound truth: TGNC individuals do not fail to model “normal” embodiment — rather, they reveal that there is no normal embodiment. TGNC bodies do not depart from “nature,” but reveal that “natural” bodies are a fantasy. TGNC bodies reveal that all bodies undergo constant modification; all bodies are constantly changing and shifting; all bodies are marked by fluid and shifting morphologies; all bodies are transmogrified. All bodies are, in a word, queer.
These insights transform the import of the social-as-body metaphor, creating space for the expression of a political disposition diametrically opposed to the socially dysphoric responses expressed in movements like nationalism and populism. Recognition of the fundamental queerness of all bodies, whether biological or social, opens the way for a divergent political desire and practice, queer democracy. Queer democracy is an expression of the political desire for the queer and expansive social body, taking shape in the recognition that the democratic “people” itself (the demos, in Greek) has no fixed form. Rather, the shape of the demos as constantly shifting, fluid, and, in a word, queer, is constantly revealed as those who have been excluded from it demand their place within it. Irreducible to an institutional or proceduralism system, queer democracy names those diverse and heterogeneous practices of social and political dissent that aim at unmaking the social body in its current form, of contesting the current makeup of the demos, with a vision of making them anew, with a more expansive shape, even while recognizing that that novel morphology will itself always remain provisional and open to change.
Excerpt from the Introduction to Queer Democracy: Desire, Dysphoria, and the Body Politic
Two events proximate to the completion of this book, taking place in the spring and early summer of 2020, effectively illustrate the impetus for its writing. In the first, as state stay-at-home and social distancing orders instituted in response to the US Covid-19 pandemic wore on, protests demanding the reopening of businesses and economies arose in multiple US states. In Michigan, these protests took on a particularly intense form, when hundredsof protesters, mostly male and almost all White, occupied the state capitol building in Lansing, visibly and heavily armed with assault-style weapons and other firearms (Almasy and Riess 2020). Law enforcement responses to these actions were muted, to say the least. They resulted in few arrests, and there were virtually no violent confrontations between police and protesters. In response to the Michigan protests, President Donald Trump, who had previously made a number of dismissive, disparaging, and misogynistic remarks about Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, tweeted that “the Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal” (Liptak 2020).
Less than a month later, video emerged of Minneapolis, MN resident George Floyd, an African American man, lying face-down on the street, having been detained, handcuffed, and subdued by police, while a White police officer (Derek Chauvin) kneels on him, with his knee pressed against the back of his neck for nearly eight minutes (Carlisle 2020). Floyd can be heard screaming “please, I can’t breathe!” while other White officers watch, until he falls silent (Sanchez and Sutton 2020). Following the release of the video, the mayor of Minneapolis said in a public news conference that the kind of hold employed on Floyd, which experts say can be deadly (Pane 2020), was against department policies (Sanchez and Sutton 2020). The four officers involved in the arrest were fired, the FBI launched an investigation into the incident, and Derek Chauvin was charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder (Carlisle 2020).1Chauvin’s charges were subsequently upgraded to second-degree murder and the other officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder (Reyes 2020).
Coming in the weeks following the revelation of Ahmaud Arbery’s execution at the hands of two White men in Georgia (Mahbubani 2020; Griffith 2020), the police shooting of Breonna Taylor following the execution of a “no-knock” search warrant in Louisville, KY (Costello and Duvall 2020), and video of a Amy Cooper, a White woman, calling the police on Christian Cooper (no relation), a birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park, after he told her to leash her dog in accordance with Park rules (Griffith 2020; Vera 2020; Green 2020), the murder of George Floyd set off a wave of protests against police brutality and the routine police killings of unarmed Black Americans not only in Minneapolis, but across the country (indeed, around the world). In contrast to the Michigan protests, the response of law enforcement agencies around the country was anything but reserved or muted. Marking the contrast, for example, after having ignored thousands of mostly White protesters opposing the closure of public beaches less than a month earlier, protests of Floyd’s murder in Huntington Beach, CA were declared an “unlawful assembly” violating bans on mass gatherings due to Covid-19 (Hamedy 2020). Around the country, police responded to protests, many of which were peaceful, with militaristic force. In marked contrast to his response to the White protesters occupying the Michigan capitol building a month earlier, President Trump responded to protests in Minneapolis by tweeting,
these THUGS are dishonoring the memory of Gregory Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!Sprunt 20202 The president’s tweet was labelled with a warning by Twitter, which said it incited violence. Indeed, the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” echoed a phrase used by Miami police chief Walter Headley, in the context of racial unrest, in 1967. Headley had a long history of anti-Black bigotry, and his utterance of the phrase was a clear threat of violence against Black protesters (Sprunt 2020).
In the minds of many, the violent response to protests crystalized on June 1 in Washington, D.C., when Trump forcefully called for the imposition of “law and order” and threatened to mobilize the US military to put an end to protests. Clearly peaceful protesters were then forcibly removed from outside the White House so that Trump could walk across the street for a photo op in front of Washington’s historical St. John’s Episcopal Church (Liptak and Westwood 2020).
These paired events reveal a consistent disparity in police and political leaders’ responses to protests. As media professor Jason Johnson (2020) evocatively sums up this disparity, “right-wing groups spit in the faces of police in regular gear in Michigan, while SWAT teams show up like Storm Troopers for chanting teens in Minneapolis” (Johnson 2020). This differential response is also captured in differing accounts offered by elected officials and in media reporting. White protesters, such as those in Michigan, are often described as “frustrated” with stay-at-home orders and as people eager to get back to work at shuttered businesses. Protests against police brutality, on the other hand, are often presented as always existing on the verge of violence. When they do become violent, responsibility is often laid at the feet of protesters, with little acknowledgement of militarized and aggressive police forces’ role in escalating the tensions of the situation. Local and state politicians also routinely attempt to externalize the rage expressed in such protests, blaming them on “outside agitators,” even when evidence to the contrary emerges (Murphy et al. 2020).
Johnson (2020) also notes that, because they have an interest in drawing viewers/readers, media routinely focus on localized acts of vandalism and property damage, giving the impression that they are typical protest activities and that they are more widespread than they actually are. “Further,” he notes, “much of the property damage attributed to protesters is often the result of police action or inaction in the face of lawful public behavior, something I’ve witnessed from Ferguson to the far-right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.” Additionally, typical (and racist) “they’re burning their own community” narratives are simplistic, given that damage attributed to “protesters” is also caused by police, by “chaos agents,” such as anarchists, who infiltrate the protests, and by regular criminals emboldened to act by police attention diverted elsewhere. Descriptions of protesters’ actions as “reckless” or “self-defeating” persist, working to minimize the extent of people’s rage” (Dastagir 2020), thereby inoculating broader (White) society from the need to fully confront the events that spurred them. They also, by design, occlude the fact that “riots” represent “the actions of those who have exhausted every other way to be heard” (Dastagir 2020). Finally, application of the term “violence” to cover property damage has the effect of amplifying “property damage over the lost lives that sparked unrest to begin with” (Johnson 2020), a “ghoulishly misplaced” priority revealed not only in media accounts, but in Trump’s implicit encouragement of the use of deadly force in protecting property.
Crucially, the patterns of uneven response and media coverage are not limited to these two examples, exemplifying persistent and ongoing patterns. As Johnson (2020) suggests,
police seldom use force or even present in force (protest shields, black helmets, etc.) when conservative or right-wing groups protest. When is the last time you saw a group of anti-abortion activists get tear-gassed? Yet with left-leaning groups, and especially groups of minorities, their protests are often met with shows of force.3All of these points were reinforced with the tepid preparation and response of the Washington, D.C. Capitol Police in relation to the pro-Trump rally in Washington on January 6, 2021, which ultimately resulted in the deadly violent assault on the US Capitol building. The failure to anticipate and respond to the assault that led to the breaching of the Capitol building further highlights these dynamics of disparity. Indeed, the events of January 6, 2021 can be viewed as a symbolic culmination of these events.
On the one hand, accounting for the starkly different responses of elected officials, news media, and police to these different events is not difficult: they express patterns of longstanding and deeply ingrained systemic and structural racism, among other things, particularly in the case of law enforcement. And yet, such an answer is only a start, insofar as it opens myriad other questions: What, exactly, is racism? How does it operate? How should we understand the relation between racist social systems, institutions, or structures, on the one hand, and the individuals shaped by them, on the other? Can or should racism be understood in terms of individually held beliefs and conscious animus, or in some other way? What is the relation between racism and other axes of social marginalization or exclusion?
The chapters that follow represent my response to these and other questions. Specifically, this project takes shape around three areas of inquiry. The first concerns the reflexive, almost autonomous, and seemingly natural quality of these disparate responses. For virtually any critical or analytical social observer, these differential responses were entirely predictable, typical, and, unfortunately, expected; indeed, it would have been surprising if responses to these events had not followed the pattern they did. In responding to these events as they do, elected officials, members of the media, and law enforcement are responding in the ways that have become most natural to them. We might say that such responses have become not only “second nature,” but more properly “first nature.” Any suggestion to those responding in these ways that they might or should have responded differently is experienced as counter-intuitive and non-sensical, running counter to common sense, and is therefore met with incredulity, hostility, or defensiveness.
Such reflections indicate that these responses are not the result of conscious calculation or deliberation, that they do not reflect the careful application of consciously held ideologies. Rather, they are the concrete expression of what I refer to as social and political dispositions, which structure and express social perceptions, affects, and practices. To describe them as playing a structuring role is to suggest that the explicit reasons or explanations for these disparate social and political responses to acts of protest and dissent are necessarily post hoc in nature, after-the-fact justifications of actions which arise as expressions of antecedent dispositions. Further, insofar as dispositions shape social and political perceptions, they rarely arise as objects of perception in their own right, so that individuals shaped by them are rarely aware of this shaping, while their post hoc justifications for practices or consciously held beliefs rarely correspond to an account of their actions articulated in terms of dispositions.
Informed by a dispositional account of these disparate responses, indeed, of a dispositional account of social and political perception, affect, and practice more generally, a second question follows: what kind of disposition is expressed in such responses? My answer is that such responses express a disposition to proper social order. “Proper” here is intended to carry significant normative force: such responses express and flow out of deep-seated dispositions concerning the way the social ought to be structured and the proper or appropriate roles and actions of the individuals and groups constitutive of it. Those individuals who stray from their proper places within the social, who fail to play their proper roles, disrupt the normative social order, eliciting visceral social and political reactions intended to put them back in their place. For reasons we will consider in much greater detail in chapters 4-6, for many elected officials, members of the media, and members of law enforcement, the phenomenon of hundreds of heavily armed White protesters occupying the Michigan state capitol building is simply less improper than hundreds or thousands of unarmed protesters of color and their allies holding peaceful protests. The latter are simply experienced or felt to be a much greater threat to proper social order than the former, before and quite apart from any subsequent reflection on or rationalization of the perceived differences between these groups.
Finally, a third question (really a pair of questions), again following from the first two, presents itself: if the divergent responses to these acts of social and political protests express a disposition to proper social order, what, exactly, does “proper social order” entail? What else is involved, and how do we account for the interrelation of different dimensions of social order? To illustrate: looking over the mostly White, mostly male crowd of armed protesters in Michigan, a betting individual could feel confident wagering not only on their position regarding state-imposed shut-down orders, but on their political party affiliation, their general attitudes about undocumented immigrants, about sexual, gender, and religious minorities in the US, and their probable religious identity. Similar considerations hold for those actively involved in peaceful protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. How do we account for this? The thesis advanced in the chapters that follow is that the structuring effect of the disposition to social order is not limited to a single dimension of social order, but, rather, a gestalt of social and political dimensions. The perception of proper social order involves normative intuitions about not only race, but also about gender, sexuality, religion, and a host of other social dimensions. Perception of proper social order is, we might say, a package deal, orienting multiple axes of shared social and political life. No one of these dimensions is perceived or experienced in isolation from others, so that the perception of social order is comprehensive and totalizing.
A sustained and overarching argument in the chapters that follow is that the disposition to proper social order is effectively captured in what I will be calling the social-as-body metaphor, which is to say, in the idea that society as a whole can be understood as a kind of “body,” the healthy and functional operation of which requires its members’ proper ordering. The social-as-body metaphor has been a stock feature of Western social and political thought for centuries and, while it takes on specific concrete nuances depending on the historical period and context in which it finds articulation, it has consistently expressed a disposition to proper social order. I develop this point through a consideration of the body’s shape, or morphology: a properly ordered social body is one that has the proper shape, structured by members’ proper relation to each other.
This metaphor illuminates three issues related to the kinds of phenomena outlined above. First, it explains why a sense of proper social order is complex and multi-faceted: just as a properly ordered body is composed of many members in right relation, so a properly ordered society requires the appropriate relation of its members, considered along numerous axes. Second, it helps to explain the visceral negative reaction to bodily members that are perceived to be “out of place,” thereby threatening the social order. Third, building from this, the metaphor also sheds light on the seeming naturalness of these negative reactions: a body with members out of place is literally dis-ordered, pathological, and must be put back into proper order.
The account of the social-as-body metaphor in the chapters that follow is substantively informed by queer, and specifically transgender, accounts of embodiment. Trans-theoretical accounts of embodiment illuminate what kind of body has traditionally been presupposed within the social-as-body metaphor. Even the brief consideration above reveals that the social-as-body metaphor, in its expression of the disposition to proper social order, has traditionally operated according to the logic of what I, following Talia Mae Bettcher (2009), refer to as the “natural attitude” of embodiment (103). On the logic of the natural attitude, bodies are defined by their normative morphology, a presupposition that is clearly expressed in the disposition to proper social order. Trans theory provides a critical resource for theorizing the social-as-body metaphor and the disposition to proper social order precisely because questions of body morphology and normativity have been central concerns within trans-theoretical reflection.
Building from the base of a trans-theoretical approach to the social-as-body metaphor and the disposition to proper social order, I argue in the chapters that follow that viscerally negative social and political reactions to the dis-ordered social body represent examples of social dysphoria. That is, they represent visceral, affective, non-rational responses to the social body’s perceived disorder aimed at reimposing its proper shape. But I also draw on trans-theoretical accounts of embodiment because they provide a critical resource for contesting the social body’s presumed morphological normativity. Trans theory’s crucial insight in this regard is that all bodies are fundamentally queer, defined by a fluid and shifting morphology. I argue that recognizing this point allows the social-as-body metaphor to be articulated in different terms, expressing a disposition not to the imposition of proper social order, but to the social body’s ongoing emergence in new forms with shifting morphologies, to the emergence of a social body which is no longer defined by a fixed, normative form.
This matters because, as I argue consistently in the chapters that follow, the social-as-body metaphor, grounded in the presumption of the social body’s normative morphology, has traditionally legitimized the suppression of any dissent that would unmake its presumed normativity. Reflecting this, the disposition to proper social order has consistently, from the pre-Christian Stoic “concord” discourses to the nationalism and populism gripping the contemporary US, been fundamentally anti-democratic in its orientation. Reimagining the social-as-body metaphor in such a way to allow for the expression of alternative social and political dispositions allows for the articulation of what I call queer democracy. ♦
Daniel D. Miller is Associate Professor of Religion and Social Thought and Chair of the Department of Liberal Studies at Landmark College. He is the author of two books, The Myth of Normative Secularism: Religion and Politics in the Democratic Homeworld (Duquesne) and Queer Democracy: Desire, Dysphoria, and the Body Politic (Routledge, forthcoming), and is co-host of the podcast Straight White American Jesus.
Miller, Daniel D. “Preview of Queer Democracy: Desire, Dysphoria, and the Body Politic.” Canopy Forum, July 16, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/07/16/preview-of-queer-democracy-desire-dysphoria-and-the-body-politic/