You are here

As If We Were a Community

The odd experience of attending both the Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco and the "25 Year Mission Tour" Star Trek convention in San Mateo.
Joe Sartelle

Issue #1, September 1992

We need new ways of articulating an oppositional political culture, and that means being willing to look for alliances and commonalities in what we may initially regard as unlikely places; it also means being willing to question some of the most cherished biases of radical and left-liberal politics. The following essay attempts to do both of these things. What I am about to offer you is a meditation on the odd experience of attending, during the weekend of June 27-28, both the Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco and the "25 Year Mission Tour" Star Trek convention in San Mateo. Both events were ritualistic celebrations of shared identity; each was a gathering of a particular "community." Both are "communities" to which I "belong." While my use of ironizing quotation marks here may be awkward or excessive, it's intended to make a point about the problematic nature of community as I saw it acted out that weekend. For it seemed that at both events, what was holding each "community" together were shared practices of consumption: in both cases, we came together around the combination of a spectacle and a marketplace.

The "25 Year Mission Tour" was held at the San Mateo County Expo Center on the evening of June 27. It was not a full-scale Star Trek convention; rather, it was an appearance by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. The chairs and bleachers set up for this occasion took up most of the warehouse-like building, but on the way to them one first encountered about a dozen dealers' tables, offering a variety of commodities of interest to members of the Trek "community." There were T-shirts, posters, books, comics, model kits, mock-ups of Trek gadgetry, self-published fiction, jewelry, pewter sculptures of starships, collectible plates, autographed photos and books, etc. (And not just Star Trek stuff -- collectibles from the Alien and Terminator movies, among others, were also in abundance.) Star Trek conventions are opportunities for identity-oriented consumption; attending the event and buying Trek products are ways of confirming one's membership in the larger "community" of fans. Such gatherings as this always provide some sort of spectacle to draw our attention (appearances by stars, but also panel discussions, showings of movies and TV episodes, poetry readings, etc.), but it seems to me that what our attention is really being drawn to are the opportunities for shopping. As it turned out, the plane carrying Kirk and Spock was extremely late (another disadvantage to living in our technologically primitive society), and I was gone before they showed up. I left satisfied, though -- I had bought things: a T-shirt, an official Next Generation communicator pin (a very high-demand item), and a "United Federation of Planets" coffee mug for a friend who shares my textual preference.

The next day I was in San Francisco for the Freedom Day Parade, and I was struck with a sense of repetition: here again were a spectacle and a marketplace. On a much vaster scale, though -- as opposed to the perhaps two thousand people at the Star Trek event, there were an estimated 400,000 Freedom Day attendees. The spectacle of the parade moved through the streets and led the crowds to a marketplace at Civic Center, where, as at the Trek convention, we could buy things that confirmed a perhaps otherwise invisible membership in a larger "community." Of course, you could purchase things that did not implicate you in any particular identity, like ethnic foods and beer. However, there was also booth after booth offering commodities signifying "gayness" : T-shirts, posters, services, memberships, jewelry (the rainbow-colored "Freedom Rings" were this event's high-demand item), etc. But what I think we were all primarily there to consume that day was a particular feeling, which I can only describe as shamelessness. The feeling ranged in its expression from a quiet sense of affirmation through numbers to outrageous acts of self-display. Shameless display was in fact an integral part of the spectacle of gay identity as it was performed on Freedom Day, as it often is in gay culture. The psychologically empowering effect on gay people of even a few hours of freedom from shame should not be underestimated in such a relentlessly heteronormative society as our own, yet however exhilirating that feeling can be, for me it only served to underscore the hard and ugly truth that this was all a special event -- one day out of 365 in the year when, in a few cities, gay and bisexual men and women get to feel almost normal, as if we were a majority, as if we really were a "queer nation." (But of course if we really were, we wouldn't be calling ourselves "queer" -- another "empowerment" that attests to an objective lack of power.)

But what exactly makes this so different from what Star Trek fans get out of their gatherings? For Trek conventions are also about a kind of shamelessness, the feeling that one is not alone in one's desires and interests, that there are others out there just like oneself. One of the more interesting (for me, anyway) similarities of Trek culture and gay culture is the important place of the "coming out" story. Trekkers often "come out" in much the same way as gay people. In paperback collections of material reprinted from Trek fan newsletters and magazines, one routinely encounters letters (less often essays) recounting the writer's experience of feeling isolated and ashamed because of her or his (more often her) intense interest in Star Trek. Friends, lovers and family members don't understand, runs the standard narrative, and think there's something wrong with me; how grateful and happy I am to know that there are multitudes of other people for whom this isn't just a show but a burning passion of the soul. The anguished emotional mixture of shame, gratitude, joy and relief is often just as poignantly rendered in these accounts of a textual preference as they are in similar accounts of coming out about sexual preference. Conventions, then, are also about the affirmation that comes from seeing all those other people who share your desire. And there is no shortage of outrageous display: you will always encounter people who have put incredible amounts of time and energy into their Starfleet uniforms. And Star Trek fans are sensitive to what people call them. Most think it's demeaning to be called a "Trekkie" -- the preferred term is "Trekker."

I don't want to push the analogy too far, since there are real and significant distinctions to be made between these two sorts of "shameful" desire. Most important is the fact that unlike Trekkers, gay people generally live in fear: fear of getting bashed, threatened, discriminated against, ostracized, ghettoized, ignored. In this country, people are occasionally tortured and killed because of their homosexuality; elsewhere in the world, this happens routinely. While many gay individuals (although far too few) are spared these experiences, gay people as a group are victims of oppression. This can hardly be said of Star Trek fans. While being "out" as a Trekker may result in contemptuous ridicule or accusations of being a nerd, I know of no instance of a Star Trek fan, even the most obsessively devoted, being deprived of a job, or housing, or personal safety on the sole basis of his or her textual preference. (There may indeed be such cases, but clearly it doesn't happen very often.) Perhaps this is the main reason that Star Trek fans, unlike gay people and other disadvantaged groups, do not organize as a group around political agendas. (There were "Kirk and Spock in '92" bumper-stickers -- red, white and blue, with a graphic of the U.S. Capitol -- for sale at the convention. I myself would prefer to have Picard and Guinan on the ticket.) Another way of looking at this is to say that Trekkers do not have an identity that is grounded in the experience of being a victim -- although it does seem that an awful lot of people who have been victimized in one way or another are big Star Trek fans.

But despite the many differences, these two "communities" have a good deal in common, which returns us to the fact that both of the events I attended were organized around a spectacle and a marketplace. Let's deal with the marketplace first. It should come as no surprise to anyone that gay people, like Star Trek fans, constitute an identifiable market. Once people identify themselves as members of a particular group, they also become available, in capitalist society, for targeted marketing strategies: they can be sold things that appeal to their identity. The commercial basis of a Trekker "identity" is obvious; even the most minimal degree of identification requires an act of consumption -- we have to watch the show, and the show belongs to a corporation (Paramount) that provides us with this gratification only because it makes money in doing so; and Paramount only allows us all that Star Trek paraphernalia because they make money from that, too. The two (soon to be three) television series, the six films, the dozens of novels (a new Next Generation novel, Imzadi, was on the national hardcover top-10 bestseller list for several weeks in July and August) -- these are the spectacles that lure us to the marketplace. It's an amazingly busy and lucrative marketplace: sales of Star Trek merchandise amount to roughly $500 million a year.

In other words, a Trekker's idea of what constitutes his or her "identity" is very largely determined by the market: you are what you consume. This is also true of gay identity, as critics have been observing for years. What it means to be gay, to feel and express sexual desire for individuals of the same sex, has been increasingly appropriated, commodified, and marketed by capitalist enterprise like every other kind of desire. Thus, as the marketplace of Freedom Day demonstrated, you can define a sexual identity through buying things; under capitalism, any group identity can be turned into an array of consumables. This is what is sometimes known as multiculturalism: if your identity is a function of cultural products like clothes, jewelry, cuisine, books, music, art, interior decor, etc., then it can be and probably is sold to you. So the question arises: if a gay person (or an African-American, or an Asian-American, etc.) produces something expressive of his or her sexuality (or ethnicity), and then markets it to a number of other individuals who also identify themselves as gay (you get the point) -- does this make them a community? Are the people who form the market for this commodity a community? Is a market the same thing as a community?

"No," I hope most of you are answering. But events like the Star Trek convention and the Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade work to confuse the distinction between markets and communities. They do this by suggesting that being a spectator and being a participant are the same thing, and that exchanging money for signifiers of your identity made by others is the same thing as forming your identity in ongoing relations with others. You can be "out" as a gay person by wearing a T-shirt or Freedom Rings bought at the Freedom Day marketplace; you can be "out" as a Trek fan by wearing a Trek T-shirt bought at a similar marketplace. But does wearing either, and thus expressing a particular kind of interest, make you part of a community? Yes, if shared taste s in consumption are sufficient to bind people together into something that can meaningfully be called a "community." But the answer is no if what we mean by "community" is something like a group of people who are consciously interdependent, who share a common history and project a common future, who participate collectively in decision making, and who also share in certain practices that demonstrate commitment to the community -- indeed, a genuine community can hardly be said to exist unless there are such practices of commitment to constitute it. Without these things, what you have is a market of people with shared tastes in consumption, what the authors of the 1985 sociological study Habits of the Heart call "lifestyle enclaves."

By these definitions, what I saw at both events that weekend were gatherings more of markets than of communities. Being part of a market is, to borrow a term from technoculture, an experience of virtual community. It looks like a community and even feels like a community, but it is only a very elaborate simulation, with a limited running-time. As I said above, what those of us in attendance seemed mainly to be consuming was a feeling of belonging -- for the time that we were there, it was as if we were a community. What linked together the attendees and gave us that feeling at both events was the shared consumption of spectacle: we all came to see the same show. The Freedom Day Parade is a perfect example of the fictional group coherence such spectacles provide. Dozens of different groups marched in the parade, presenting an image of diversity within unity; almost every gay spectator could probably feel represented by at least one of the groups. But it remained unclear what exactly these groups have to do with each other, beyond the fact that when put together they form "the gay community." Just because they followed each other in a series, all marching in the same direction (to a place where things were bought and sold), does not in itself in dictate any meaningful interconnectedness or shared practices of commitment. I am quite sure that at least some of these groups are genuine communities unto themselves. But the idea of one big community of gay people -- a "queer nation" -- is a fiction, albeit a useful and sometimes even life-saving one. The fact that we could all spectate together and then shop in the same marketplace linked as consumers, not members of a community.

Which is not to say that it was all just false consciousness and a capitalist illusion of freedom; it was indeed that, but there was also something deeply utopian about this gathering, even if what held it together is a fiction. At least it is a fiction worth believing in. Since the experience of real community is alien to most people, and especially to gay people, getting to feel as if you are part of a community can create a hunger for the real thing -- although it can also, we must not forget, dull that hunger with a temporary substitute gratification. Star Trek fan culture is also held together by "a fiction worth believing in." Both Trekkers and gay people (and others, of course) are committed to envisioning an alternative future for humanity: for both groups, the way things are is definitely not the way things should be. That's why people create fictions to believe in, after all -- because reality isn't enough to give us hope and sustain us. If you ask typical Trekkers why they're so into this particular fiction, they will probably respond with some version of "because it's about a better, more hopeful future." Look around you in our popular culture -- where else do you see such resolute confidence in the capacity of human beings to transcend their own weaknesses, build a better future and set a moral example for sentient beings everywhere? When a character on The Next Generation says that she lives in a perfect culture, we're supposed to take her seriously. Granted, the actual stories that get told within the framework of the Trek universe often fall far short of its professed ideals (this is especially true of the original series, the blowhard imperialism and sexism of which has certainly not aged well), but not being entirely able to live up to one's ideals is hardly a problem confined to Trek culture. The fictional framework of the 24th-century Trek universe is in fact a version of the fiction of Freedom Day's spectacle: "infinite diversity in infinite combination," to use the Vulcan phrase. For twenty-five years, Trekkers have been busily elaborating the fantasy of the United Federation of Planets, a utopian organization of hundreds of worlds, species and cultures, each free and self-determining yet interdependent with all the others. In case you miss the connection, let me point out that this fantasy is very much like the multicultural utopia that leftists advocate and dream of, with the global politics of the present displaced onto an interstellar politics of the future. Consider this interesting fact: both Star Trek and the "identity politics" of multiculturalism emerge at the same historical moment, the mid- to late sixties. They are different but related "responses" to the same historical conditions.

I said at the beginning of this essay that in order to articulate a new oppositional politics, leftists need to start looking for common interests wherever they can be found, and not just where we're habitually accustomed to finding them. I want to add that one function of the politically-minded academic is to identify these commonalities, which is precisely what I have been attempting here. While the idea of drawing an analogy between Star Trek fans and gay people may strike some of you as silly -- I don't know how many of you this applies to -- I hope I have established how much these two "communities" have in common. Analogies with other groups can and should be drawn, but I'll leave that up to you. The left characteristically aligns itself with the victims of society, which is to its credit, and shouldn't change. However, concern for the disadvantaged and oppressed is all too often accompanied by contempt for what we can call, for lack of a better term, the mainstream, the vast middle section of American society that is mostly white, heterosexual, more or less comfortable financially (but not too comfortable, and increasingly less so) -- the kind of people who make up the majority of the Trekker "community." Perhaps out of a sense of deep guilt over their own relatively privileged "identities", academic and other leftists tend to fetishize the cultures of the oppressed. The oppressed are envied because they're "different", they have "real" communities and "real" identities -- as though needless socially-imposed suffering were the very source of authenticity. However, the vitality of minority cultures, like their greater commitment to practices of community, is more a matter of survival than of some special essence of identity. An energetic, communally-oriented culture is the main way in which oppressed peoples compensate for their oppression and find hope, but just because people are able to find cool ways to respond creatively to their disadvantages should not lead anyone to think that the trade-off is worth it. A ghetto is still a ghetto, no matter how vital the culture it produces. Envying and fetishizing the identities and cultures of oppressed peoples comes very close to saying that their oppression is somehow good for them -- those lucky victims! How convenient.

Another way of looking at this is to say that one of the problems with the left's turn toward the politics of "identities" over the past couple of decades is that it in doing so it is confusing the logic of the market with the practices of community. As I have tried to argue here, when we talk, for example, of "the gay community" as encompassing everyone who feels primarily same-sex attractions -- that is, everyone who is gay -- we evacuate the meaning of the term "community." A genuine community is not a function of having (or should I say consuming?) an "identity." We can be an identity, but we have to make a community. The American left has been disturbingly complicit with the commodification of minority identity and culture in recent years. If the rich cultural productions of oppressed groups are expressions of hope in the face of suffering, then what the relatively privileged leftists and liberals who are a main market for such products are consuming is, finally, other peoples' misery. Just as minority "identities" are becoming increasingly standardized through commodification and marketing, so that gay people or, say, African-Americans can consume identifiably "authentic" (yet still mass-produced) "gay" or "African-American" culture and thus reinforce the process of stereotyping in the name of empowerment, so too the culture of the left marks itself as a "community" to an unsound extent through shared practices of standardized consumption. Leftists subscribe to The Nation and other progressive journals; leftists consume minority fiction and film while sneering at the "mindless" popular culture of the mainstream (which is enjoyed, but only with embarrassment); leftists purchase the "authenticity" of rap's rage and alternative rock's alienation; and so on. And a surprising number of us do this without reflecting on the fact that these shared tastes do not make us a community (let alone a political community), but only another market -- what we're being sold is mass-produced "progressive culture."

I am not arguing that this is all that holds leftists together -- or gay people, or Star Trek fans. Many members of all these groups (and others) are actively and deeply committed to practices of community. Rather, what I am trying to point out is how an "identity" based on shared taste preferences in consumption too often gets confused with an identity formed through practices of commitment and community. This kind of confusion does nothing to advance the interests of oppositional or left politics, while it does a great deal to advance the interests of capitalism. But what exactly are the interests of the left? Let's go back one more time to the "communities" of gay people and Trekkers. Behind the spectacle and the marketplace at both events I attended were the labor and commitment of the people who organized and participated not in each event's consumption, but its production. In both cases, people had engaged in practices of community in the service of a fiction they think is worth believing in. (Of course, it is the very nature of capitalist spectacles and marketplaces -- that is to say, it is the nature of commodity relations -- to repress from view the labor of each event's production, just as very few people at either event saw the working class labor that cleaned up after the mostly middle class rituals of consumption.) I think I can safely say that the currently prevailing left perspective would regard the fiction or shared culture of one of these two "communities" as worth taking seriously while dismissing the other as a kind of bad joke. This is where the crippling limitations of "identity politics" are revealed, since there are genuine practices of commitment and community going on in both the gay and Trekker "communities," just as both groups also largely define their "identities" through shared taste preferences and commodity consumption. My point is that the left needs to take practices of community seriously wherever they occur. Achieving political and social transformation requires learning how to connect practices of commitment and community with a fiction worth believing in, in order to make that fiction a reality.

But how do we decide what constitutes a fiction worth believing in? After all, community can be practiced by people on the political right as well as the left; and in fact, the right has its own "fictions worth believing in" which have been much more politically successful than the left's for at least fifteen years. The left's solution to the problem of a fiction worth believing in has been, for those same fifteen years or so, the politics of "difference" or "identity politics," which involves dividing people up into categories of "identity" rather than practices: your membership in a "community" is a function of who you "are", not what you do. This leads to all sorts of interesting yet irresolvable dilemmas, like whether gay bondage pornography reproduces the logic of domination or subverts it, or how to apologize for misogyny and homophobia in rap music. Sooner or later, "identity politics" ends up arguing over cultural commodities. But the real problem with the politics of identities is that, as recent events around the world make clear, an insistence upon the distinctiveness of one's "difference" or "identity" can just as easily exacerbate divisions among people and lead to murderous social anarchy as it might lead to tolerance, diversity, and "multiculturalism." The current global restructuring of capitalism ruthlessly pits one group against another in a struggle over limited economic resources; in a context of massive impoverishment and deprivation across a wide range of "identities," the spectacle of "difference" serves to distract our attention from the more fundamental difference between the few who own the means of production and the many who own only their capacity to labor. The left needs a new fiction worth believing in, one that can encompass both gay people and Star Trek fans, the margins and the mainstream, and one that is realized not through reified categories of identity but through participation in a collective practice. As a Marxist who refuses to consign himself to the ashcan of history, I would suggest that our much-needed new "fiction" can be found in a militant rediscovery of the old truth of class struggle. To paraphrase Marx and Engels, the marginal and oppressed "identities" have nothing to lose but their differences. They have a world to win.

Copyright © Joe Sartelle. All rights reserved.