Dialogue on Power and Ethics: the Polyamory and Queer Movements

The following dialogue is conversation between Daniel Cardoso and myself, which took place over six months (on Fetlife of all places). Daniel is a Portuguese polyamory activist and an assistant professor at Universidade Lusófona in Lisbon. He is doing his PhD in Communication Sciences along with a Masters’ thesis on polyamory. As you probably know, I am a San Francisco polyamory event organizer and amateur social theorist.

I ask for your patience while reading this piece. It was not written with the public in mind, so we cover a lot of theoretical ground quickly at points and we were not particularly careful about softening or qualifying our descriptions of people or movements. Also, we have barely edited it for readability. If any part is confusing or bothers you, please bring it up in comments.

Daniel:

A big thank you for your reflections on polyamory and your Foucauldian perspective on sex, which were very useful when writing my thesis on polyamory.

Pepper:

I am very glad that my writing was useful to you! Was there some essay in particular that was helpful?

Your thesis probably has not been translated into English, but if it has I would be very interested in reading it.

Daniel:

Yes, the most central essay was “polyamory is not about the sex, except when it is”, as it helped me to present polyamory’s relation with monogamy, and with the sex/gender system and the whole field of sexuality.

Unfortunately you are correct, my thesis is probably bound to remain in Portuguese (although it will get published in book format, so maybe there’s a chance there? who knows…), but please see the English abstract below.

Loving Many – Individualization, Networks, Ethics and Polyamory
Daniel dos Santos Cardoso

This Thesis aims to determine if the users of the alt.polyamory mailing list, by telling their personal experiences in writing, are actually performing in a queer way, questioning mono-normativity and a heterocentric view on society, by being self-reflexive and caring for their self (gnothi seauton) through writing (as ethopoiesis) and reading of the self, instead of being driven by the technology of confession. This should allow us to determine, by analogy, if polyamory is a queer identity. Given that polyamory is an iteration of Giddens’ pure relationship, the challenges and contradictions it poses present specific problems to the subjects, and those need to be interpreted in the light of the interactions between the alliance and sexuality devices, as Foucault describes them. The meaning and nature of virtual communities was also a focal point of reflection, in order to contextualize data retrieval. To obtain answers to these problems, the email exchanges initiated by newcomers to the alt.polyamory list in 2009 were analyzed: statistically, by performing content and by discourse analysis. The results point to a differentiation between the core group of the newsgroup and the newcomers, where only the first ones do actually maintain practices that can potentially be identified as non-hegemonic in how they produce subjectivity. Polyamory is thusly identified as being, more than a sexual or emotional practice, a moral positioning that deeply imbibes the subject in his production of himself, and where parrhēsia (frankness) is the main element that allows a polyamorous person’s actions to be morally judged. This parrhēsia is a sine qua non condition to maintaining the Self’s autonomy, and so it is given but also demanded of the Other; equity in alterity is fundamental to the subject who, without the Other, cannot be constituted as such. And if all of the above enables the subject to question the possibility horizon of the elements that constitute him as a subject, it also opens the door to a possible hegemony of this moral standard to all intimate relationships.

KEYWORDS: polyamory, alt.polyamory, care of the self, writing of the self, parrhēsia, queer, intimacy, pure relationship, sexuality, individualization, virtual community

Pepper:

That does sound like an fascinating thesis, and I am glad it is being published in book form.

If you ever want to discuss any of the above concepts at length (polyamory as queer, pure relationships, the poly ethic of frankness, etc) drop me a line.

Daniel:

Currently, what interests me the most (and since you offered your brains for the picking, so to say ;) ) is the importance of parrhēsia (frankness) in performing polyamory, how parrhēsia is in the core of polyamory (the poly “mantra” is all about parrhēsia), and how, more than anything else, polyamory produces a certain kind of moral (not so much sexual, or even sentimental) subject, through means reminiscent of the ancient Greek practices of the care of the self. It strikes me as deeply interesting how something that is usually seen as a relationship-centered affair (polyamory) is actually something very individual in nature (care of the self), albeit in a good way, and where the Other is never denied its rightful place.

So, indeed, “polyamory isn’t about the sex, except when it is”, but sex is then utilized as a medium to reach a different morality, and it’s interesting to see that several authors, like Gayle Rubin, have specifically said that someday a new moral/ethical posture will arise to deal with contemporary and post-modern sexual and emotional practices. Could poly be an extreme/refined/fringe example of such a new moral positioning?

Does any of this make sense to you?

Pepper:

I am reading “parrhēsia” as “honesty, disclosure, and communication”. I agree that parrhēsia is central to polyamorous ideology and practice, emphasized almost to a fault.

I think it is important to consider the source of this focus on parrhēsia, however. I don’t think it necessarily comes from a desire to have better relationships, except perhaps tangentially. Rather, I think it is a direct response to mono-normativity’s insistence that nonmonogamy must be deceitful, just cheating in another form.

Classic monogamy itself encourages deceit: most people must at least pretend not to be attracted to people other than their partner. Within monogamy, most attempts at having multiple partners tend to involve deceit, namely cheating (because otherwise you get dumped).

But at the same time, mono-normativity sets up cheaters as the Other, creating a false duality of monogamy versus cheating. This tends to give any kind of nonmonogamy an air of deceit, even when it is entirely honest and upfront.

The project of polyamory is to create a third path, something that is not monogamy but also is not cheating. Distinguishing ourselves from monogamy is easy – having multiple partners does that. However, distinguishing ourselves from cheating is extremely difficult due to the mono-normative culture’s insistence that anything other than monogamy must be deceitful.

This not only plays out in ideology but also in practice. Because deceit is worked into our monogamous training, and associated with nonmonogamy, we end up with a lot of cultural encouragement to deceive in nonmonogamous relationship situations, which tends to be fatal to the relationship due to the lack of cultural support.

So I think we create a strong ethic of parrhēsia to counter both the ideological and pragmatic associations of nonmonogamy with deceit. Not only do our honesty tactics aid us in creating relationships that are strong enough to actually be nonmonogamous, but they serve as a bulwark against stigma and the encroachment of monogamous power dynamics.

In my region when monogamous people are told of a poly situation, the first thing they ask is usually “does your partner know?”, with the implication that the partner does not know or at least is not okay with it. If one can respond with “yes they do, and they are totally fine with it”, it performs an end run around one of the more common mono-normative attacks on nonmonogamy.

This extends to what you say about poly people self-constituting as moral subjects. I think this is a necessary response, given that mainstream culture constitutes any kind of nonmonogamy as inevitably immoral.

However just because these steps are a response to mono-normativity does not prevent them from also being moves towards Giddens’ and Rubin’s idealized relationships. I think relationship mores are definitely in flux, and forays into nonmonogamy may be a part of that process of refinement. I am not sure if there is an endpoint as envisioned by Giddens and Rubin, or if this is an ongoing process of change.

On the other hand, we may see a situation where the necessity to respond to mono-normativity with elevated moral practices actually decreases over time, as polyamory gains more acceptance in the mainstream. If polyamory were already fully accepted, I’m not sure people would adopt the ethic of parrhēsia because it would not be a mandatory step in becoming nonmonogamous.

Daniel:

I do agree generally with what you say, of course, although there are a few points I would like to make. I think you’re spot-on when you say that the centrality of parrhēsia isn’t about having better relationships. But I think that the questioning of mono-normative culture is also a by-product of why parrhēsia is actually important, in my point of view.

Ulrich Beck says that the contemporary subject is under an obligation to be free, to invent itself, to be original, different, individuated (not to be confused with individualism as the idea that we are fundamentally alone and isolated in our own autonomy). That is the normative and contemporary way of producing western, Caucasian and middle class subjects (pardon the sweeping statement). Now, Giddens talks about the intrinsic contradictions of the pure relationship, and Beck also says that this individuated subject, as s/he claims to be more her/himself, adds another layer of difficulty to establishing intimate interpersonal relationships (relationships are more of a meeting of two or more individuated subjects, rather than the monogamous fusing together of two half-persons, as is the case of codependent love).

So here we have the need or will we often feel of having intimate relationships as part of living a good life, and the problem that that will creates when attempted through a fully normative relationship. So the subject, in order to be a better subject, has to come up with a different way to make relationships.

Hence, I see polyamory as a sub-set of responses to that need we feel, societally determined, for us to ‘be ourselves’, be ‘true to ourselves’. And a new (as in ‘really old, but meanwhile totally forgotten’) way to do that, is to be frank – to use parrhēsia. That frankness is not something we do for the Other, but for ourselves – parrhēsia isn’t just ‘frankness’ or honesty by itself. Parrhēsia is a reflexive way of communicating. And the parrhēsiastes (the person who uses parrhēsia) does it because parrhēsia is a way s/he has of constructing her/himself, of becoming a moral person. To do that, s/he needs to communicate himself frankly, so that the Other can then communicate back with her/his view and reflection of what was originally communicated. Parrhēsia is a technique for the care of the self, and so the self’s main concern is the self itself.

I know it doesn’t sound good, but I don’t think polyamory institutes honest communication for the sake of ‘the Other person’, but for the sake of oneself. The catch-22 is that the Self needs the Other to reflect upon her/his life and the Other can’t do that unless that life is communicated in the fashion of parrhēsia. Also, the inverse is also true, as the Other is too a Self that needs everyone else, and so on… So even if polyamory were to be more accepted and practiced, parrhēsia in the context of polyamory is actually a sub-set of something larger, and would probably still be used as it serves a much bigger point than just managing relationships.

As for Giddens’ and Beck’s position, I don’t read them as an end-point, but more like a land-mark along a voyage (to nowhere, admittedly). Moral technologies and paradigms will always change to adapt the circumstances, but I think that in a few decades, the new normative posture will be quite closer to nowadays’ polyamory than nowadays’ straight monogamy. Not that poly will be mainstream, but I think that relationship structures will become somewhat more fluid. So, yes, I do agree with you about it all being an ongoing process of change.

PS – On the meaning of parrhēsia: here and here.

Pepper:

I agree on the current society’s drive towards individuation, and the conflict that that causes with actually having long-term relationships.

I also think that polyamory (and perhaps other forms of modern nonmonogamy to a lesser extent) are part of that trend of adapting relationships to individuation. As you say, polyamory combines an individual perspective with a group dynamic. I was at a play party Saturday where this was very clear: my entire poly network was present, and people were operating mainly on individual urges, but at the same time were embedded in a complex web of relations and their corresponding responsibilities.

If we look at the reasons people get into poly, it tends to be a combination of individuation and a certain frankness (which might be what you are getting at with parrhēsia). Which is to say, having individual desires to have sex or relationships with multiple people, and then acknowledging those desires aloud to their partner. Which is to say, individuation I think is involved at the root of the urge to be polyamorous.

However, you lose me a bit when talking about the reflexivity of parrhēsia. I think there is a certain reflexivity in the poly communication dynamic, but I am not so sure that it is the urge to be heard and have one’s speech reflected necessarily. Rather, it takes a roundabout route through power. Let me explain.

I generally see polyamory as a truce of sorts, a deal where both (or all) partners in a relationship agree to drop their culture-given right to demand monogamy in return for something else, usually the right to be nonmonogamous themselves.

So there is reflection, but it is in the power dynamic itself. The frankness of polyamory I think is an aspect of maintaining this truce. When stumbling against all the little roadblocks that monogamous culture puts in our way, keeping a live discourse is typically necessary in order to move the monogamous power dynamics from the implicit into the realm of discourse, and in doing so disarm them. One must be able to see that one’s partners agree to this truce, but that does not necessarily mean that they are reflecting oneself outside of the domain of the truce – indeed, poly people often date monogamous people.

So it is still about the care of the self, but in a roundabout way. In order to take care of oneself, one needs nonmonogamy, which requires that one practice that nonmonogamy with others, which demands that one engage in a two-way communication of inner emotional state in order to ward off the traps laid by monogamous power arrangements.

Is this parrhēsia? I’m not sure. It is reflection, and given that discourse and power are all mixed up (per Foucault), perhaps it qualifies. Certainly this is an example of Foucault’s urge towards confession, described as part of the advancement of sexual power techniques.

There is an additional urge towards reflexivity that I think is closer to what you describe. Poly people often want to be around others like them, and date others like them. It is possible to relax much more when one is surrounded by other poly people. This is not strictly a necessity like the dynamic I describe above, however it is a commonly desired luxury. Perhaps this is what you are describing? It is this urge that creates poly community but at the same time limits it – once people get comfortable in their nonmonogamous practice they often do not feel the need to see themselves in others, find poly technique instruction, and so on. Is this latter dynamic what you are describing by parrhēsia?

Daniel:

To answer your thoughts, I think that the reflexivity of parrhēsia has to do with how and why we like to talk so much, in polyamory. The reflexivity I was talking about is the subject itself. Meaning that there is that roundabout way to address power and the status quo of monogamy, but as we talk and discuss and negotiate frankly, we do so not to be simply heard (as you quite accurately pointed out) but more so to be commented upon. We converse, we say what we think, but then we sort of “demand” a reply. Were it a soliloquy, and it wouldn’t be polyamory.

And the reason for that is that the challenge we take upon ‘against’ polyamory, and the way we choose to change ourselves, is very dependent upon that reply, upon the effect of what the Other says has upon us, and vice-versa of course. So we see ourselves reflected about and upon the discourse that the Other has about our own discourse, even though (or especially so) if and when the Other replies from her/his own point of view, about her/himself. We ourselves use that discourse of the Other to reflect upon us and our relation to monogamy, polyamory, etc – in the end, a way of constructing ourselves. This happens both in that social situation where polys meet each other and seek each other to talk, and in private and intimate discussions inside poly families/constellations. We see a lot of that in several social networking sites.

Although, just to wrap it up, I’d like to point out one other thing. Unlike what you say, my thesis was built as an attempt to prove that actually the ‘poly mantra’ is fundamentally different from Foucault’s confession technology. Parrhēsia is presented by Foucault as a technique of the self, like confession, but he places it in a different light, as something totally different. Different because the way the subject relates to power and, more fundamentally, to truth is fundamentally different.

Let me elaborate.

When I started studying polyamory from a Foucauldian point of view, I had this ‘gut feeling’ that there had to be something different and non-normative about polyamory (besides the very obvious ‘it’s not monogamy’ aspect, that is). And there was the fist stumbling block for me: it seemed to be the confessional situation all over again, a pressure into rendering to speech everything and then some more. But still I felt something was different – it was about emotions, it wasn’t about having a punishment or diagnostic dictated, etc. And so parrhēsia came along.

In the confessional technology, you are pressed into talking about everything, so that the Other can then interpret you, read you, sort of unravel you and tell you who you really really really are, and then on how you must behave (be it religiously or clinically). So, the confessional subject goes into the confession to gain access to a finished interpretation of who s/he actually and ontologically is.

Parrhēsia works differently. The parrhēsiastes doesn’t want or need for the Other to tell her/him who s/he is. The parrhēsiastes wants to hear what the Other has to say about the Self, and about the Other’s self, and utilize that to change, shape and reflect upon her/his own self. While the confessional subject is null and recipient/dependent on the Other’s interpretation that delivers the Self to the Self, and has the full and uncontested power of interpretation, in the usage of parrhēsia, Self and Other are inter-related and at the same time, independent from each other, ontologically at the same level, in a more horizontal flow of power (versus the confessional power, which is wholly vertical, top-down). The Other has a fundamental role in this, in parrhēsia, but it is not the role of the truth-speaker, which is the role of the priest/psychologist in a confessional setting.

And in this rests the non-normativity of polyamory as a sub-section of a technological apparatus of construing subjects – or so my thesis goes – the queerness of polyamory, or part of it.

Pepper:

Thank you for adding all that. I agree fully, and now I see a lot more of what you are trying to say about the discourse that poly people tend to engage in.

You are correct that the discourse in polyamory is different and sets it apart. This is pretty easy to see if I compare poly to other recent forms of nonmonogamy in the U.S., such as swinging, open relationships in the 70’s and 80’s, gay men’s nonmonogamy in the 70’s, and so on. These other types of nonmonogamy did not involve nearly so much introspective discourse.

An exception might be free love in the 60’s and 70’s, which definitely started from an ideological position. But even then, I think the conversation was not deep in the same way. It was more an exercise in establishing a new cultural alternative than an exercise in self-analysis. When I read documents from that era, they seem oddly shallow, like people were throwing a lot of words and emotions around but not doing what I see as the real work.

This all begs the question: why now? What is the motivation of poly people that leads them into these very complex and nuanced dialogues? Why do we have incredibly active online forums and a whole host of books written? I am not sure as to the answer to this question, but I’ll take some guesses.

I’ve given one answer above, which is that we have pragmatic cause to do so: our practice of parrhēsia is an effective pragmatic deconstruction of the cultural apparatus of monogamy, giving people tools to practice nonmonogamy in whatever form. I’m not sure why earlier movements did not happen upon this technique – perhaps the overall culture was not ready for it, or perhaps the goals of these movements (i.e. recreational sex as opposed to multiple relationships) did not demand an extensive deconstruction.

There are other possibilities. Polyamory books are definitely located in the self-help genre, so it may be that the overall culture’s emphasis on self-improvement birthed the sort of moral subject you are describing, and polyamory is that subject operating in nonmonogamy. Similarly, much of early polyamory was located in the neo-pagan movement, with its emphasis on life improvement via individual spirituality.

I’m curious: where would you locate the source of this difference? In the mainstream culture’s slow move towards production of the subject via dialogue?

Also, I should not have use Foucault’s confessional dynamic as shorthand, sorry. I wasn’t talking about what he described (the confessional and the clinic) – as you say, those are examples of confession as a technique of unequal power.

Rather, something has happened to confession since then. It detached from specific power relationships and became a personal tool for (as you say) the production of the self. We see confession everywhere, from talk shows to blogs to coming out. People confess not just to be heard, but also to publicly establish the truth of themselves, which is a very powerful political technique. We can see this in the advance of queer rights over the last four decades, which was largely achieved via coming out. I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t know in this paragraph, but I wanted to lay out my thinking.

Polyamory definitely shares this technique of power – it speaks loudly and from the self whereas previous nonmonogamy movements had been fairly closeted. That may be our difference right there: polyamory happened well into the coming out phase of queer rights, and so is following its model. It seems to be working, as polyamory is gaining mindshare fast, taking it from monogamy and other forms of nonmonogamy.

I don’t think these techniques of speaking are only useful at the macro political level, but that’s an easy place to see them in action. As you say, we seem to also be getting a lot of utility out of them in interpersonal interactions and the restructuring of the self.

All of the above (coming out, parrhēsia, etc) establishes polyamory as similar to queer movements, like you say. I think there’s a tricky political dance there, since polyamory in an individual instance isn’t necessarily queer at all, but I definitely see a lot of correspondence in queer and poly practices. This may explain the overlap: the attraction of poly to certain queer groups, the poly-positive queer movement and queer-positive poly movement, and so on.

Daniel:

I too think, as you do, that the free love thing is altogether different, as are several other forms of organized non-monogamy, and that it’s a risk just placing them as being chronologically related in a sort of cause-and-effect context.

I think the point you make about poly books being a lot about self-help is rather relevant. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Nikolas Rose, but he has a book called “Inventing Our Selves”, where he debates the role of what he calls the “psy sciences” (psychology, psychiatry, and so forth) in our understanding of ourselves. The rise of those psy sciences is directly liked with the rise of individuality and subjectivity as a central value in our society. We understand ourselves psychologically, and so turn to self-help books and the like to remake ourselves, shape us into what we can and want to be. Now parrhēsia can be thought of as a way to do the same, although as we’ve seen, it’s somewhat different in that psychology takes a defined subject for granted, one that can be objectified, whereas the act of parrhēsia does no such thing. Obviously we don’t do parrhēsia the way the Greeks did it; Foucault himself insisted that there is no turning back in time and pretending the interleaving 2000 years didn’t happen. Instead, we do a sort of a hybrid, where we indeed fall prey to the demands of society that we “be ourselves”, that we “be free”, that we “be unique”, but use that very same demand to, as you put it, engage in identity politics. And in those identity politics, at least some of us aren’t interested in defining poly as the One True Truth, or the polyamorous subject as morally superior, but as an ever-changing movement, although the danger of normativity is still present in polyamory (as is in any identity) – and it’s a fear that I feel looming closer as polyamory gains mindshare, but I’d like your input about this, since things here in Portugal are pathetically microscopic compared to the USA.

But here’s the funny thing – if one reads Giddens, Beck, Rose, they all say one and the same thing: they put the question you put (‘why is this happening?’) and then go on to say that it is an “answer to systemic contradictions” or other such term. [Note= «this», meaning the changes in individuality, subjectivity, intimate relationships, Giddens' pure relationship, and so on.] When I noticed that, I got the feeling that it needed further explaining. After all, from where does that systemic contradiction come from? What is in contradiction here? And where did I went to seek the answer? Well, Foucault, obviously.

There is, in Sexuality 1, a tiny passage where he says something like this: the sexuality device placed itself under the alliance device, thus supporting the alliance device and masquerading itself as the alliance device, but acting like itself nonetheless. So bear with me: visualize a web (of power) that is the alliance device, and that starts getting worn and weak. Now visualize another web growing under it, through it, inside it, supporting it for some time longer, but at the same time, being of a different nature, and thusly supporting-but-rupturing that pre-existing web. What is the end result? A systemic contradiction. Subjects who ‘see’ alliance (monogamy) but then are influenced and experience something altogether different (the sexuality device, id est, serial monogamy, non-monogamy, GLBT culture, queer movements, …). This, in my opinion, is the crux of the question, when it comes to changes in how we ‘do’ intimacy. We’re trying to reconcile ourselves with the functioning of the sexuality device, now that the mask of the alliance device is wearing too think, nearly going invisible, and we can no longer be fooled or fool ourselves (well, clearly the bible-thumpers can and do, but you get my point).

Also, it’s interesting to see that at last someone other than me shares my point on poly and queer, namely that poly-as-identity is in itself queer (as it queers the institution of mono-normativity) but poly-as-practice or polys-as-people aren’t inherently or necessarily queer. Usually that debate slides into the all-or-nothing model.

There is a lot of correspondence and more: statistics that I’ve seen point out that GLBT were spear-heading the pre-movement of consensual non-monogamy in a fashion much more like poly of nowadays.

Indeed this relation of the subject with truth in polyamory and other identitary movements is, I think, fundamental. It is only in asserting our own transience that we get to adapt and overcome (constantly, endlessly) the dangers of stagnation, of moral solidification. Interesting how having “solid morals” is seen as a good thing, when actually our ethical responses need to change and adapt to the circumstances, and so something too solid is inherently something incapable of dealing with change.

Pepper:

The free love movement was definitely distinct from the polyamory movement in the US, though some of the roots of polyamory can be found in free love ideology. Current polyamory is also significantly distinct from the various intervening systems that came after free love: open relationships, swinging, and group marriage/polyfidelity in the 80’s.

I agree with you that there’s a contradiction between the sexuality device and alliance device, though I think there may be some other things going on as well, which I will describe below. I read “alliance device” as economically-oriented marriage primarily, which was predominant in the Victorian era moving to the pre-war 1900’s. I read “sexuality device” as referring to romantic/sexual relationships, which have been gaining ground steadily against alliance marriage for some time now. (Stephanie Coontz does a good description of this advance in her history of marriage.) This was one of the things that came to a head in the 60’s and 70’s in the US, resulting in an ideological revolution in how people considered sexuality and relationships. So yes, this advance of sexuality and relationship concerns ahead of economic pairings is definitely leading us directly to a more individually-oriented concept of the self, along with relationship forms adapted to that self. It may simply be that the advance has hit a point where, as you say, old structures crumble. Certainly traditional monogamy qualifies for this, as it was originally produced to control the sexuality (and procreation) of women, and it depended upon highly unequal power arrangements to maintain.

I think there are other things going on here as well though. The rise of a strong middle class during the last century produced a situation where our web of social dependencies could be hidden, creating a strong sense of individuality. Similarly, the capitalism of the last forty years has tightened, killing the single-breadwinner family (still in its infancy) and creating a certain equality as companies end discrimination in order to compete better. The upshot is that relationships and marriages are rapidly losing their economic incentive, and so pleasures of various forms (love, sexuality, companionship, etc) are becoming more primary in relationship structures.

Also, I think the speaking-from-the-self individuation that we are describing (coming out, parrhēsia, etc) is perhaps a response to a certain form of power, namely the power of external authorities over the truth of one’s self. The confession gave priests and psychotherapists the ability to control people, but to do that it had to create this idea of inner truth (i.e. “be true to yourself” etc). But of course there was a certain rebellion after a time, or perhaps a commodification of the power of truth-telling, and so people wrested control of this mechanism away from authorities, and started telling truth all over the place, both diagnosing others and telling the truth of themselves.

In other words, we might be seeing a historically specific power response here, one which arose in response to a specific move by authorities and may recede once this technique of power is played out or deconstructed. I’m not entirely sure that we will be seeing forward progress on this moral subjectivity of the self.

This gets at my main point: systems of conceptual power always contain systemic contradictions, because they rely on ideological lattices (webs, as you describe them) of meaning. There are always points of weakness in those webs, which might take the form of internal contradictions, contradictions with other evolving power systems, points where power is insufficiently buttressed, and so on. Indeed, polyamorous people make these sorts of attacks on the system of mono-normativity as a matter of habit, engaging in a series of redefinitions, revaluations, and deprogramming techniques.

Is this what Giddens and others are referring to by “systemic contradictions”? I’m not sure. I think it is unfortunate that they have not explained what sort of contradiction they see. The clash between the mechanisms of sexuality and alliance is, as you state, definitely a big issue, which is obviously putting strain on the entire social system. But I think it is probably not the entire story.

Regarding identity politics and the danger of normativity in polyamory, I think that’s a good question. I think there is definitely a danger there. Indeed, I’ve cataloged one version of it (exclusion via definitional fiat) in a post to my blog. I would say that overall I am concerned that a more-mainstream group within polyamory may at some point attempt to take over the movement and start excluding others. Certainly I have seen individual attempts at this, though they have never gotten very far. And if we look at the way US queer movements have been diverted into the same-sex marriage battle recently, this sort of thing is clearly a danger.

But at the same time, that day may be very far off, specifically because of the power arrangements of mono-normativity. Compulsory monogamy has functioned via heavy stigmatization of any sort of nonmonogamy. Which means that having sex with more than one person in any context is considered by most people to be the same as having wild orgies all the time. There is no middle ground in the popular imagination, much as many poly people are trying to create one.

This creates an odd situation where the more normative polyamorous people are treated more or less the same as the less normative ones, which keeps them from having the sort of leverage required to create exclusion. Indeed, being less normative gives one certain advantages because one is not as beholden to mainstream concerns, while still laboring under a similar level of stigma.

I think this is why there is still a very sex-positive feeling within polyamory, for example. This is despite a steady influx of people who carry the strongly sex-negative attitudes of the mainstream. Being sex-positive is personally advantageous in nonmonogamy, and being sex-negative fails to confer advantage because people lose the backing of the culture as soon as they become nonmonogamous. Indeed, compulsory monogamy is arguably one of the prime purposes of mainstream sex-negativity, so there is a certain contradiction in being sex-negative and polyamorous.

We can see this in other areas as well. Poly groups in my area at least is still surprisingly friendly to the less popular queer groups (bi and trans people), along with sex workers. There is a certain white and middle-class hegemony within publicly announced polyamorous groups, but interestingly this seems to be reversing currently along lines of race: people of color are gaining ground.

However, I can definitely see this situation changing as polyamory gains acceptance. We may at some point create a situation where polyamory is acceptable enough that we end up with a class of “good polys”, who then make a bid for mainstream acceptance by enforcing stigma against “bad polys”.

Certainly I see people constantly trying to solidify polyamorous identity around their own personal practices. They are generally ineffective at this, but that may change as numbers get so large that people can segregate into sub-groups based on their practices.

I don’t think the current practice of parrhēsia insulates us from this necessarily. While it does create a certain level of understanding of others, that often does not extend to people from other groups or backgrounds. We can see this in the US queer movement, which is still heavily invested in parrhēsia but at the same time manages to exclude significant groups.

The good news is that I think we have some time before this all happens. If we were to draw a parallel with the queer movement, I would put us in the 70’s, during the period when radicals held sway. Which means that it will probably be around two decades before we see a situation where exclusion becomes common, and that is only if polyamory continues to gain positive mindshare.

As for poly-as-identity being queer, I agree, but that depends on us defining “queer” the way it generally is in academic circles. Outside of academia, “queer” generally translates to LGBT, which makes polyamory identity not queer. But in any case, it is a matter of semantics: polyamory definitely deconstructs mono-normativity in a manner similar to the way queer people end up deconstructing heterosexism.

Daniel:

I think you’re spot-on with your overall analysis of the situation, especially having to do with how we went from a setting based on rules (alliance) to a setting where what is produced is constant change itself, where there is a summons to focus on the body, on pleasure; but where a subject (an interiority) is also created and established.

Also, I agree that power in this situation (well, in all situations, as per Foucault) works not just focusing on what we call authorities, but in a microphysical way. But maybe the idea of wresting control away from those authorities isn’t the best way to address this. Nikolas Rose says that psychology is a very promiscuous discipline, and so our wresting away isn’t as clear-cut as I’d like it to be. This all relates to how Foucault sees power circulate: we can’t run away from power, we can’t just take control of it, we have to work with it, in it. So the claim to be able to speak the truth is still very much imbued of this notion of an interiority, something that is normatively produced still by those institutions.

This is, to relate to what you were saying, a systemic contradiction: the one encountered inside the escape of the normative system’s systemic contradiction. That normative system still acts upon us, and it’s been reproducing even inside our own attempts to find out other ways to subvert and contradict it. The blog post “defining polyamory”, which I’d read for my thesis, is a clear analysis on your part of this happening. All those sorts of definitions are attempts at normativizing something which is not normative from the get-go, and I fear I’ve seen that tendency grow, lately. But let’s not forget that this characteristic isn’t something that was added to polyamory after the fact, it was already there from the get-go (which you probably know better than I do): for instance, Jennifer Wesp’s first posts when she created alt.polyamory (on Usenet) where full of that “let’s not talk about sex, or STD’s, or anything bodily, please” attitude that is still quite common nowadays.

I believe that in Portugal there is some resistance to dissemination of polyamory, and the group has been growing, but slowly. Also, we’re a more conservative and catholic country, and that heavily influences acceptance and visibility; adding to that, we’re about 10 years behind the USA when it comes to awareness of polyamory’s existence. That stagnation may be dangerous, as it may lead to a solidification of specific kinds of polyamorous practices or views, something I try to avoid when giving interviews.

As for queerness: certainly, there is deconstruction, but lest we be careful, that deconstruction leads to yet another construction, and in that sense (which is actually what we’ve been talking about) it totally stops being queer in any sense whatsoever. And this is not a problem exclusive to poly, but to the LGBT movement as a whole – seeking acceptance has already made a lot of people think that trade-offs and selective discrimination are an OK thing to do, as long as it pushes a specific agenda. Case in point is the promiscuity/same-sex marriage debate. At least here in Portugal, the line of reasoning is something to this effect: one of the points that legitimizes same-sex marriage is that LGBT people aren’t necessarily as promiscuous as they’re assumed to be. Instead of deconstructing promiscuity as locus of discrimination, it is used, manipulated and its discriminatory power actually amplified in order to reach a certain goal.

Pepper:

I agree with you that the process of removing conceptual control from authorities (in this case, mental health authorities: therapists and psychologists) is always an incomplete process. Indeed it must be incomplete as you state. People may have started diagnosing each other in imitation of the authorities, but this only works because of the deference granted to those authorities in the first place. The diagnosis of others or oneself only works as long as one carries an internal truth that is diagnosable, and that internal truth is the linchpin of the power of mental health authorities.
This does mean that it is hard to see where this is all going. Will the system of diagnosis, internal knowledge, and speaking one’s truth remain so long as therapists and psychologists hold some power in the culture? Will the overall system be exposed as corrupt once people start rebelling against the diagnoses of their peers, or will that even happen? Will it continue to deepen and strengthen, with ever more complex and yet still diagnosable internal truths? I don’t know the answers here.

I was actually not aware that Wesp started alt.polyamory on a sex-negative note, so thank you for that. (In general I have not investigated the history of alt.polyamory in detail.) However, it does not surprise me in the slightest. As you say, bids for normativity have been present since the beginning of polyamory. People have generally taken the position that they should be able to access the privileges of being normative despite their nonmonogamy. As you say, the tactics of the mainstream are imported into polyamory in order to facilitate this maintenance of privilege. So a person might be engaged in the process of deconstructing monogamy, but at the same time upholding white privilege, sex-negativity, heteronormativity, and so on. This is I think what you mean when you say it is a systemic contradiction. These systems of power intertwine, and so challenging one while trying to uphold others leads to a certain set of conceptual deadlocks. Not that this prevents people from trying, and they are successful to some extent, as they get quite creative in their framing of concepts. But it definitely slows them down in comparison to people who lack or work against forms of privilege. Which again means the radicals hold sway and in some ways come more naturally to polyamory. Again, I think this will only continue so long as polyamory is condemned by the mainstream. Much like being gay or lesbian, there is nothing inherently radical about being polyamorous, and so cultural acceptance will open a space where a person can be openly poly and still maintain normativity on other axes of oppression.

Regarding privilege and group dynamics, heavily under-privileged groups are somewhat marginalized in poly communities: people of color, poor people, and so on. Radical sexual minority groups however have a lot of influence and are fairly central to the communities: queer women, sex workers, BDSM folks, bisexuals, transgender people, and so on.

It may be that the situation in your circles is different. Certainly I have seen poly groups harden around more privileged members, but eventually competing groups show up which do not have this issue. Which is to say, there are probably already people coming to polyamory outside of your group, and they may at some future point challenge it.

I agree with everything you’ve said in regards to issues in the queer movement. I think we can expect to see that in the polyamory movement at some point in the future (probably at least three decades away) once polyamory becomes accepted enough that people can actually succeed at bids for normativity. I would like to try to prevent that future, but I am not sure there is any way to do so.

Daniel:

I do wish that in a way that power of the psy-sciences (and of what is done in their name, or through them nowadays) would be contested, but it seems it’s getting harder to do so. Since to speak psychologically is, like you say, to posit an internal truth, then those who speak psychologically speak truthfully – they speak of a transcendent truth, a truth at the core of existence. Questioning psychological-type speeches is to question the possibility of truth-speaking, which is very threatening. Obviously I don’t have the answer as to what will happen, but it seems doubtful that it will just be matter of exposing the influence of psy-speech; it will probably evolve into something else, since we’re always, as a society, looking for a paradigm from within which to speak truthfully (or, to put it better, to understand what it means to ‘speak truthfully’).

The apt description you make of this our systemic contradiction touches a very sensitive issue for me. Discrimination and normativity are fought in a fragmented and niche-like manner, where each person has their own fighting field and that fighting field is equivalent to one form of discrimination and nothing more. But when we look at the rhetorical construction of discrimination, it’s all the same, everywhere. So in fact, fighting against one discrimination is fighting them all – or should be, from a logical point of view – and yet people pretend like it isn’t, and self-defeat their own arguments by discriminating while asking not to be discriminated, using the same rhetorical devices that they ask others not to use, only because the variables in the rethorical constructs are changed from something that affects them into something that (they feel) doesn’t.

And if indeed people who don’t work against special privileges are slowed down, I think it’s also true that the overall tendency is to favor that slowing down, as it is usually represented as maturity, as a coming-of-age, finding a middle ground, etc.

As for the differences between my experience of poly and yours, maybe it has to do with a matter of scale. Although people from radical sexual minorities are also very important around here, the fact is that it’s still a very white-and-middle-class thing. I do hope that things start to change for the better, but at the same time I need to remind myself of that 10-year delay over the USA. Which is to say, things around here, when it comes to polyamory, are just getting started. References in the media are sparse, and sometimes not quite done right, with a lot of that ancient catholic influence of centuries still peeking through.

Pepper:

Reading your description of the situation in your community, I was very much reminded of the situation in the San Francisco area a decade ago (or perhaps the late 90’s). There was a period after the early conventions and alt.polyamory but before the current (media, online, social group) explosion where people were very inward-focused in the way you describe. There are currently parts of the U.S. that have that dynamic, rural areas where poly has only barely taken root. So I think you are probably pretty accurate with your estimate of where things stand chronologically.

When I started doing organizing in this area eight years ago, there was a fairly settled group of people who had built out a social network together in the late 90’s. Most of them didn’t see much need to take it beyond that. While the email list was public-entry (and still exists today), the primary social venues were small dinners and discussion groups, people had their private social networks, and most folks did not see a reason to come out in public, engage with the media, or specifically create events to welcome new folks.

Within this group there was a certain established conformity, and at various points in the intervening decade when I have challenged this conformity, I have faced resistance, for example when creating a group for younger people or when setting up a poly speed dating event.
But at the same time, things were fomenting outside this group and their email list, and during the last decade I’ve seen a lot of other groups appear and in some cases become established: an explicitly political group, a set of discussion groups based on meetup.com, various social networks with regular parties and other events, a couple different communal living groups, and so on.

I think that you will likely see a similar progression. We can expect that there will be a certain steady flow of new people in your region who will start identifying as poly, and those who do not find your group or are not served by it will eventually start building their own structures.

This all isn’t to say that I don’t see a lot of closeting even today in the U.S. – most poly people here are still closeted at work, for example. But the ratios have shifted, and most people are out to at least some friends and family. Overall there is more of a spirit of openness, and the large public events in my area have been helping this. When people see a lot of people at an event, it tends to shake them out of the idea that they should be comfortable in their small social circle with their twenty poly friends. People realize that they might be trading too many experiences for the feeling of safety. Also, a series of media successes have helped. In general poly people here are starting to understand that there are a large number of people like them, and becoming more open as a result.

As for the situation with the current LGBT quest for normativity, I think you are largely correct. I do want to say that there is certainly a large and ongoing radical section to queer communities here, and these folks continue to be on the forefront of social justice campaigns of various sorts.
But at the same time there are also large numbers of folks who mostly just want to get their marriage rights and then to get on with a fairly standard American-dream lifestyle. Being revolutionary, while fulfilling in many ways, is at best uncomfortable and at worst life-destroying, and so I think some people turn away from it as soon as they can. Certainly, the main thing that gets people to attack normativity is when they themselves are inevitably non-normative, either because society has labeled them as such or because they must live in some non-normative manner in order to be happy. So I think there is a certain regrettable inevitability to this quest for normativity as a social movement actually starts realizing its goals.

The BDSM community out here is significantly less politicized than the queer community, which sounds like your experience there. People mostly want to focus inward, and they get involved in all the minutiae of in-group relating. So BDSM folks that I know will attend workshops, conferences, and social events in large numbers but typically do not see themselves as political and do not try to form a strongly supportive community. The gay leather scene does a much better job of this and there is a stronger community feel.

Overall I would say that the BDSM folks are in certain ways behind the poly folks in terms of social acceptance. I think the lack of political engagement in U.S. BDSM communities is likely because it seems hopeless. I don’t think it is hopeless, and we are getting positive energy from a number of places (most notably college newspapers, but also queer communities) but at the same time I think people are very aware of the stigma attached to their activities. Perhaps they are overly scared of cultural backlash, but it is a real concern in any case.

Daniel:

There’s an odd feeling I get reading your reply. At once, I feel hopeful for the future of the poly movement in Portugal and also it feels like peeking through a window into the future. It’s interesting to see some independent verification of my 10-year-lag theory.

The language barrier is indeed being broken little by little – more and more people are paying attention to the word, and all that’s associated with it, there has been increasing media attention – more people outside the poly group I’m in want to talk about polyamory. But at the same time, there’s a lot of people saying “all in all, it doesn’t differ from open relationships and the notion of polyamory isn’t really needed because people will just sort out their lives and that’s it”.

Of course there can be a double reading to this: on the one hand, the anti-identity and very queer reading that says we shouldn’t conform; on the other hand, and this is the one that’s most likely what they mean, the reading that says, as you’ve pointed out, that this doesn’t need to go out-of-doors, that it’s purely private and doesn’t call for public debate.

Pepper:

Regarding the people you hear saying that polyamory isn’t much different from open relationships, when I have heard that out here it has generally been an excuse to closet or otherwise hide. The two defining features of open relationships (in the U.S.) were that they were mostly a primary relationship with sex on the side, and that they were almost universally closeted, much like swinging. So mostly I read that statement as a defensive maneuver, trying to keep people seeing their activities as entirely private, in the tradition of open relationships.

I think it is important to remember that open relationships and polyamory are very similar in a lot of ways – much of what we are doing has been done before, and we should not erase that history or pretend that the new wave of polyamory is somehow inherently superior to previous waves of nonmonogamy. But at the same time, polyamory does bring some new things to the table – here in the U.S., open relationships rarely involved multiple dating-style relationships (and still don’t when currently practiced, as they are in the gay community here in SF), and it was not until the advent of polyamory that these became relatively widespread.

I also want to say that I appreciate the need for closeting. I think most of the resistance you are facing is because people want to stay closeted. And they have good reasons for doing so – they could easily lose their jobs, be disowned from their families, and lose their friends if they come out publicly. But what I find is that people make up all sorts of arguments to justify closeting rather than talking about the real reasons they are scared. A lot of the above fits this pattern. Which is not to say that people need to uncloset or the group needs to become more open, but rather that a direct conversation about people’s actual fears tends to be more productive in producing a sense of safety than these surrogate conversations. One way to address this to create actual support groups, or to have on-list discussions about the real good and bad things about coming out or staying closeted.

7 Responses to “Dialogue on Power and Ethics: the Polyamory and Queer Movements”

  1. Araliya Says:

    Thank you for sharing that discussion, Pepper. I found myself nodding along at various points, particularly at the very beginning when Daniel discusses the reflexiveness of parrhesia:
    “That frankness is not something we do for the Other, but for ourselves – parrhesia isn’t just ‘frankness’ or honesty by itself. Parrhesia is a reflexive way of communicating. And the parrhesiastes (the person who uses parrhesia) does it because parrhesia is a way s/he has of constructing her/himself, of becoming a moral person. To do that, s/he needs to communicate himself frankly, so that the Other can then communicate back with her/his view and reflection of what was originally communicated. Parrhesia is a technique for the care of the self, and so the self’s main concern is the self itself.”

    I was taken aback when you seemed to resist that idea, but the exchange that grew out of also made sense to me and was something I could relate to as much as that initial statement. The discussion on seeking normativity as a way of preserving privilege and the potential for polys to eventually sort themselves into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ camps is something I’ve been thinking about as a result of some of what’s happening in the (formal) poly community here in Australia. I wouldn’t say we’re a full-fledged example, but I get the sense sometimes that we’re headed that way.

    Would you consider the trend of seeking biological justification – ie, claiming that humans are ‘naturally’ nonmonogamous and using that as a justification for polyamory (As, I am told, the authors of Sex at Dawn do. I haven’t had the time to read yet) – as a parallel activity to seeking normativity or simply part of the same quest? Of course, this kind of biological determinism is also an argument for the ‘queerness’ (as in LGBTI-spectrum) of polyamory since the appeal to nature is one that we’ve seen help the case of members of the LGBT communities. In the case of polyamory-as-orientation, I have to admit I’m personally quite skeptical, but it’s a growing point of discussion in the community.

    I got a chuckle out of how the discussion ended almost where it began – with a reference to polys talking online.

    I’m also curious about whether this Daniel is the Daniel-from-Portugal Alan talked about on Polyamory in the News earlier this year: here http://polyinthemedia.blogspot.com/2011/01/poly-wins-media-notice-in-portugal.html and (http://polyinthemedia.blogspot.com/2011/03/more-from-portugal.html) (the link to the tv show is at the bottom of the post.

    • pepomint Says:

      Hello Araliya,

      I think for much of the conversation I did not understand what Daniel was getting at with parrhesia. It wasn’t until he dropped a bunch of links on me that I came around. So we ended up with a number of interesting side conversations, but it wasn’t until relatively late that I was addressing it well.

      Would you consider the trend of seeking biological justification – ie, claiming that humans are ‘naturally’ nonmonogamous and using that as a justification for polyamory (As, I am told, the authors of Sex at Dawn do. I haven’t had the time to read yet) – as a parallel activity to seeking normativity or simply part of the same quest?

      I think the search for biological justification is definitely a direct result of the quest for normativity. We are in an era which heavily privileges biological explanations for behavior, so sexual minorities and majorities both try to couch their behavior in bio-deterministic terms, in search of either liberation or regressive conservatism. If biological explanations were not heavily privileged, I doubt we would be seeing so much focus on them. As Daniel states, bio-determinism is dangerous. In The Trouble With Nature, Lancaster gives a good argument that biological determinism is inherently regressive, even when used for liberatory aims.

      I was disappointed by Sex at Dawn. The science was all good though somewhat cherry-picked – like they failed to discuss the obvious monogamous advantage of STD control. However, I’m going to disagree with Daniel here and say that the book was quite clearly saying nonmonogamy was biologically motivated. The authors were okay about hedging their language but I am not at all surprised by the many people who finished the book and concluded that nonmonogamy is biological in origin.

      I think they missed an opportunity here. The main thesis of Sex at Dawn was that the social conditions created from the rise of agriculture created a situation where cultural monogamy was advantageous and so people subscribed to it. However, they then go on to basically claim that therefore we are biologically nonmonogamous. Which I think misses an obvious third alternative, which is that there is no biological determinism for monogamy or nonmonogamy and humans are culturally flexible on this point. Much like monogamy was created by economic conditions of wealth, nonmonogamy in hunter-gatherer societies (which the book focused on) could have been created by the economic conditions of that form of subsistence. There was no science in the book which refuted this. The anatomical traits they pointed out (like the penis ridge, which would have developed from orgies) could have come about as a result of social nonmonogamy, and therefore should not be seen as evidencing biological urges towards nonmonogamy.

      As for polyamory as orientation, I think it is important to remember that people can have an orientation which is not biological in origin. For example, I am definitely oriented towards polyamory at this point – if I were forced to choose between a monogamous relationship and no relationship at all, I would choose the latter. But my orientation quite clearly comes from my history and socialization rather than biology. I tend to mostly disbelieve in biological explanations for polyamory (aside from “evolution makes us horny”) and often think that people are attaching biological justifications to their learned urges. But at the same time, I’m open to the idea that some poly people are wired that way – after all, evolution does make some of us really horny.

      • Daniel Cardoso Says:

        Pepper,

        Very well put indeed. And of course, evolution makes some of us really horny, but it never tells us how to reply to that hornyness.
        That is one issue with biological determinism – biological responses are, by its very nature, biological. They cannot and do not translate straight-on into very complex belief systems and interactions like LGBT/poly/BDSM, etc…, that far surpass just the biological in their construction.

  2. Di Says:

    Dear Daniel, and Pepper Mint,

    thank you very much for sharing your dialogue. I found it deeply inspiring. I’ve read (too?) much poly-blabla-crap-basics, so it is good to read something that is well thought, well written, and well reflected.

    The situation here in Denmark, where the poly community is certainly growing, is also suffering from being white-middle-class, quite mainstream and heavily heteronormative. While the queer movement, deeply anti-capitalist seems to refuse any identity politics, or even big academic discussions, as it tends to be more out in the streets, demonstrating. Our neighbors, the swedes, have come up (or rewritten) the idea of Relationship Anarchy. Which has, for me, deep theoretical merits, but is not so good in articulating a relationship with the outside world, providing we still have one :) …

    Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you.
    Warm regards,
    Di

  3. Daniel Cardoso Says:

    Dear Araliya,

    Starting from the bottom, yes, this Daniel is the Daniel-from-Portugal that Alan talked about. Hi! :-)

    I’ve read ‘Sex at Dawn’ and debated it a little with the authors and other people in academia, and I think their point might be more that “monogamy isn’t biological” more than “non-monogamy is biological”. I know it might seem the same, but the devil is in the details, as they say.
    I think that biological determinism is very VERY dangerous for LGBTQI – the identity of the ‘homosexual’ started out precisely as something biologically determined, a disease, a condition that could be treated. Also, I think this biological determinism flies in the face of the anti-deterministic discourse on sex and gender thought out by the likes of Butler, Foucault, Wittig, Beauvoir and many others. It is a stance that exonerates the subject from its own agency: “It isn’t me, it’s my genetics”. And yet, genetics does not and cannot account for the fact the a ‘homosexual’ identity is something that is absent from many societies that have (obviously) people from the same sex having sex with each other.
    In this, seeking out a biological determinism for poly is just as dangerous: because if it is biological, then it can be treated, cured, fixed – or imposed, manipulated, modified, institutionalized. (Maybe weaponized?)

    Di,
    I’m curious about this notion of relationship anarchy… care to ellaborate? :)

    To both,
    thank you so much for the feedback and, most of all, for sharing with us the views and histories of your poly communities. We lack, I think, a more global awareness of how poly is being built, critiqued and thought of in several parts of the globe, and how we may learn from each other.

    My best regards,
    Daniel-from-Portugal ;-)

  4. PolyCouple Says:

    My partner and I have been married for 5 years and poly for life. While we have been polyamorous together things have been a bit difficult, running into issues here and there. After we changed our ‘rules’ to be simply just open communication and honesty things got a lot easier. Thanks for your posting, we love reading about other people in similar relationships and how to navigate the emotions behind everything.


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