The Queer Psychoanalysis Society

Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

Saint Turing: A Few Reflections on Gay Iconography and Martyrdom on the Occasion of Alan Turing’s 100th Birthday

In Gender Studies, LGBT, Mythology, Politics, Queer Theory on June 23, 2012 at 3:25 am

by Chase Dimock

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of British mathematician Alan Turing’s birth. In celebration of his enormous contributions to the fields of mathematics, computational science, cryptology, and artificial intelligence, the scientific community has dubbed 2012 the “Alan Turing Year”, commemorating the occasion with numerous conferences, museum exhibitions, a series of articles on his life in the Guardian and BBC, a Google doodle, and even a functional model of his famous Turing Machine made of Legos. By his mid 20s Turing developed his theory of the “Universal Machine”, thus ushering in the age of modern computer science. A decade later, Turing devoted his studies in cryptology toward cracking the German naval enigma. By developing machines known as “bombes” that could decrypt the messages the Nazis relayed to their U-boats, Turing’s intelligence gathering re-shaped World War II. Historians have argued that cracking the Nazi code shortened the war by two years and saved millions of lives.

Such accolades coming 58 years after his death evidence not only his importance as a historical figure, but also how his ideas continue to influence contemporary research and debate on computer science in our increasingly digitized society. As the “Father of Artificial Intelligence”, Turing’s 1950 article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” foresaw how rapid advances in information science would produce a future in which the line between human intelligence and artificial intelligence would become blurred. Asking, “can machines think”, Turing postulated that ultimately the true mark of artificial intelligence would be whether or not one could tell the difference between communication with a human versus a machine. Turing’s standards for evaluating artificial intelligence have not only framed the scholarly and ethical debate in the scientific community for the past six decades, but they have also proven to be a prophesy of daily life in the 21st century. Living amongst automated phone banks, internet chatterboxes, GPS navigators, and Apple’s Siri app, everyday life has become a series of Turing tests as we increasingly rely upon forms of artificial intelligence and speak to it as if it were real.

Yet, less emphasis has been placed on the tragedy of his untimely death. In 1952, Turing was arrested and convicted of gross indecency for a consensual sexual relationship with another man, the same 1885 statute under which Oscar Wilde was imprisoned more than half a century earlier. Instead of serving prison time, Turing chose to undergo an experimental hormonal treatment prescribed by the British government. While this chemical castration via a synthetic oestrogen hormone curbed his sex-drive, it had dire side effects. Turing began to grow breasts and developed a deep depression. His conviction also caused him to lose his security clearance, thus barring him from continuing to work with the British intelligence agencies. The man who did as much from inside a laboratory to defeat the Nazis as any general did on the battlefield was now considered a threat to national security solely by virtue of his sexuality. Two years later, on June 8th, 1954, Turing took a few bites from a cyanide-laced apple–an elaborate end designed to let his mother believe that his suicide was actually an accident due to careless storage of laboratory chemicals. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for Turing’s “appalling” treatment, but a 2011 petition to pardon Turing’s conviction was officially denied by the British Government.

While infinitely more qualified scientific minds have written amazing tributes to Turing’s contributions to computer science and mathematics this year, I am interested in what Turing’s life and legacy mean to gay history and queer thought. I first heard of Alan Turing when I was 14 years old and just starting to reconcile my sexuality with the images and stereotypes of gay men in the media. He was mentioned in Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Persons of the Century” and with just a brief blurb on his life and death my concept of what a gay man could achieve and contribute to the world was forever changed. I came of age in an era of unprecedented gay visibility, but the Elton John and “Will and Grace” imagery of an ostentatious, campy gay world did not seem to fit my shy, nerdy bookishness. Although I never excelled in math and science, Turing became one of my first gay heroes because he proved to me that a gay man—a nerdy man, can change the world through the power of his intellect, invent the future, defeat the Nazis, and stand up for his rights.

This brings me to the first of my appeals for Turing’s importance to the modern gay rights movement: Gay nerds deserve a gay icon. In this month of June, the month of LGBT pride I am reminded of our community’s production of iconography. From Mae West to Lady Gaga, we have been inspired by strong, sexually transgressive women that challenge gender roles and have supported their gay followers. Entertainers have Freddie Mercury, Ian McKellen, and a new generation of young talent like Neil Patrick Harris to look up to. Literary gays like me have Oscar Wilde. Gus Van Sant’s film Milk sold Hollywood on the idea that Harvey Milk was the gay Martin Luther King Jr. and Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign has launched him as the digital gay guidance counselor for queer teenagers. Yet, no place in the world of gay iconography has been carved for Alan Turing. Read the rest of this entry »

A Jungian Exploration of Thoreau’s Sexuality

In Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Queer Theory on June 13, 2012 at 11:03 am

by Chris Snellgrove

The goal of my larger research concerning Thoreau is to use Jungian psychoanalytic techniques to examine Thoreau’s Walden, which helps to explore the connection between Thoreau’s notion of transcendence and the Jungian notion of self-actualization. This subsection focuses primarily on the Jungian anima archetype (in Jungian terms, this is the feminine aspect of man, and the avenue by which he accessed his soul, or spirit), and how Thoreau, existing in relative physical and sexual isolation, encountered that archetype during his time at Walden Pond. The ultimate goal of both Jungian therapy and transcendentalism is that of actualization, in which a person has accessed their unconscious mind and found truths concerning both themselves and the larger world around them. The importance of the anima to this process cannot be overstated, as it represents man’s ability to access his own unconscious mind—essentially, to begin the entire process.

Such self-actualization can be understood in terms of removing a mask: Jung considered an individual’s persona as a representation of how they wished to be viewed by the world: individuals can only wear one mask (and, thus, embody one aspect of their personality) at a time, limiting not only their interactions with others, but their ability to access their unconscious mind. Self-actualization occurs when an individual eliminates the need for the persona at all, finding a way to dynamically embody the entirety of their self—as Thoreau emphasizes so powerfully, when an individual is able to revere both their spiritual and their savage side, they are more fully actualized than if they limit themselves to one perspective. Before they can embrace savagery, however, they must first pull back the veil of their unconscious world by accessing their inner femininity.

The Anima

The anima of Thoreau and his subsequent re-contextualization of the feminine is a central idea to this work, as an analysis of Thoreau’s “repressed” masculine side necessitates an examination of his anima. This Jungian examination offers a fresh perspective to the heterosexual/homosexual binary that splits critics, and unites several disparate elements of Walden—the carnivorous bloodthirstiness of Thoreau in “Higher Laws,” for instance, seems to have little to do with John Fields’ wife, until one considers the spirituality Thoreau sees in bodily taking what he wants from the land, as opposed to those whose adherence to capitalism keeps them poor.  Fields’ wife is portrayed as urging her husband to define success in worldly, material terms; the trappings of civilization are, to Thoreau, actually trapping civilization within a feminine framework.  The counterpoint, then, is masculine abandon, such as eating a live woodchuck; from a Jungian standpoint, Thoreau balances the best aspects of femininity and masculinity—forsaking the capitalistic repression of Fields’ wife while retaining his own sensitive appreciation of the natural world. Similarly, he does not condemn nor regret the urge to eat a woodchuck, yet implies that such beastliness is a necessary precursor to spirituality, just as hunting is ironically necessary to teach children to value the natural world (Thoreau. Walden 214). This exercise—liberating restrained femininity and restraining masculine abandon—allows Thoreau to perceive transcendental truths without being held back by his persona; in Jungian terms, he is individuating himself by overcoming his own mask.  The Persona is best understood as the aspect of Thoreau that helps him integrate into the collective consciousness—the so-called “mass of men” in Concord who Thoreau seeks to impress even as he distinguishes himself from them.  This is significant in this analysis, because the notion of such a mask extends to both the public realm of perception (how Thoreau desired others to regard him) and the archetypes of unconsciousness controlling how he views himself—one can actually view the process of Thoreau’s individuation by reading the transition between the teacher/student dichotomy of Walden’s first chapter and the open arms with which he greets a fraternity of free-thinkers by the close of the book.  By this point, the mask of superiority has genuinely dropped; a fully individuated Thoreau is presented as a changed man.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Erotics of Melancholia: Natalie Clifford Barney’s “The One Who is Legion: or A.D.’s Afterlife”

In Feminism, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Poetry, Transvestite Souls on June 8, 2012 at 10:18 am


by Chase Dimock

In the author’s note for her 1930 novel The One Who is Legion: or A.D.’s Afterlife, Natalie Clifford Barney writes: “For years I have been haunted by the idea that I should orchestrate those inner voices which sometimes speak to us in unison, and so compose a novel, not so much with the people about us, as with those within ourselves, for have we not several selves and cannot a story arise from their conflicts and harmonies?” Culminating in one of her few works in her native English tongue, this American ex-patriate’s “haunting” of multiple selves serves as a model to conceptualize an identity and lifestyle that had as of then not been granted an adequate discourse to describe it. As an unapologetic lesbian writer, Natalie Clifford Barney and her Parisian salon from the turn of the century well into the 60’s defied the heteronormative conventions of her era. She dared to write explicit love poems to women so as to ward off the “nuisance” of male admirers, she promiscuously romanced the great lesbian writers of her time from Liane de Pougy to Djuna Barnes, she created an alternative academie des femmes against the male dominated academie francaise to promote female authors, and she hosted theatricals based on Sapphic rituals in her own home garden.

For Barney, these “multiple selves” stand in for an identity that blurs the lines between masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual and penetrates to the depths of the human psyche and soul where desire is multi-form and multi-directional. As a literary project, The One Who is Legion embodies Barney’s vision of the erotic possibilities of a psyche and society unmoored from the constraints of binary categories and stable, self-same identities. In the aforementioned author’s note, Barney outlines the basic plot of the symbolist novel: “A.D., a being having committed suicide, is replaced by a sponsor, who carries on the broken life, with all the human feelings assumed with the flesh, until, having endured to the end in A.D.’s stead, the composite or legion is disbanded by the One, who remains supreme”. Barney’s summary of her novel is as confusing as the novel itself. The novel not only evades a sense of a stable plot or characterization, but it purposefully leaves the genders, sexualities, and even the number of individuals inhabiting singular bodies ambiguous. The “One”, the name Barney gives the spirit that resurrects and relives AD’s life on earth is in fact a legion of selves inhabiting a single body that refer to the body as “we”. The novel reads more like an extended prose poem, choosing to explore detours of philosophical musings and poetic contemplations rather than telling a linear or consistent narrative.

Natalie Clifford Barney with Renée Vivien

Yet, the novel is somewhat autobiographical and deeply personal. The suicided poet A.D. bears resemblance to one of Barney’s greatest loves, the poet Renee Vivien, whose self-destructive behavior, anorexia and drug and alcohol abuse caused her early death in 1909. Informed by this tragedy, Barney’snovel reads as a meditation on grieving the loss of a lover whose voice and presence remained fixed in her psyche 20 years later. Thus, I argue that Barney’s experience of grief is not aimed at successfully getting over loss, but instead she willfully submerges herself in the state of loss itself and perpetuates the existence and memory of her lover through exploring the dynamics of melancholia. Barney’s novel re-imagines melancholia as an erotic experience through which death does not diminish the memory of the lost love, but in fact amplifies the impact of its presence as it echoes in her unconscious and comes to inform and guide her desires.

Read the rest of this entry »