Thinking beyond heteropessimism: A Q&A with The Heteropessimist podcast

Author: 
Jennifer Hamilton, Christopher Marcatili

28 April 2022

 

One of this year’s ECR grant recipients was a project focused on Asa Seresin’s (2019) concept of ‘heteropessimism’. Seresin describes this concept as ‘performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality, usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about the straight experience’ (2019). To emphasise just how pessimistic, hopeless, and lacking in visions for an alternative this attitude is, since the publication of the piece Seresin has started using the term ‘heterofatalism’.

The interdisciplinary project includes scholars from philosophy, sociology, literary studies and history: Felicity Joseph, Christina Kenny, Jennifer Hamilton and Matthew Allen, all of UNE. The project consists of a website, a series of audio interviews, and other supporting research and publications to examine the concept and gradually propose an alternative vision for sexual liberation that does not rely on the hierarchical binary opposition of heterosexual versus LGBTQAI+. The episodes of the first ‘volume’ of this project will cover topics including straight culture, the family, masculinity, domesticity, environment, and desire.

With the launch of their new website recently, we took the chance to talk with the Heteropessimists about their research and their podcast. 

Your project investigates the concept of ‘heteropessimism’, a term made popular by a 2019 article by gender and literature theorist Asa Seresin. What is heteropessimism?

In late 2019, Asa Seresin coined the term ‘heteropessimism’. The term names an expectation that normative heterosexual experience will be disappointing, negative or regretful. At the same time, though, these folks remain tied to heterosexuality, possibly getting married, having children, and committing to a life of ‘heteronormativity’. This attitude is readily recognisable in common memes, for example, in which married women complain that their husbands are ‘man-babies’ who fail to take sufficient responsibility in family life or men who refer to their wives as the ‘ball and chain’. Although Seresin’s piece was not a traditional scholarly publication, he is an academic and the article ‘went viral’ in a whole range of ways, indicating it identified a recognisable phenomenon that needed more scholarly investigation.

In addition to the ‘heteropessimism’ Seresin names, we also note a related form of pessimism in our own fields of gender and sexuality studies. This is, in the first instance, a heteropessimism in sexuality studies about the everyday practices of heterosexuality and the ‘heteronormative’ family, emphasising an incommensurability between straight and queer experience. This critical reflex is referred to in some contexts as ‘anti-normativity’, and in recent years the tendency has been critiqued by scholars in the field as limiting the possibilities for critical thinking about sexuality and sexual liberation. In addition, in certain feminist spaces performative misandry can sometimes serve as a substitute for more nuanced critiques of masculinity, misogyny and patriarchy. Although that is changing rapidly now with the work of Jess Hill (2019) in Australia and new studies of misogyny abroad (c.f., Wrisley 2021), building recognisable new ways of talking about intimate partner violence, masculinity and hatred of women is important to avoid tacitly doubling down on gender constructions that should be carefully critiqued challenged and changed.

In relation to this paradox an idea that has come up in a number of interviews, with Asa Seresin and Sophie Lewis in particular, is that these critical practices (of critical heteropessimism and performative misandry) are just as problematic as more banal forms of heteropessimism itself. To resolve this issue, Seresin suggests that scholarship in this space needs to avoid any criticism based on the vilification of desire, and instead focus on challenging the logics of domination. Is the pessimism or the expectation of disappointment in one’s desires a feature of that desire, or is it something more complex and socioeconomic? For example, both Seresin and Lewis suggest that if there was no patriarchy, no misogyny, and no functional hierarchical gender binary, if there were guaranteed basic living wages and anti-racists and restorative forms of justice, heterosexuality or love of difference wouldn’t necessarily be the problem that it is today.

This first Volume of interviews and writings begins a much larger and longer-term process of excavating the complexity of this concept, and then locating it recognisably in Australian culture before suggesting ways we might move beyond it.

What can we expect from The Heteropessimists in this regard?

The website and podcast acknowledge this as a work in progress. We have called the first series of writings and interviews ‘Volume One’ to capture the sense that this will unfold over a longer period of time. This volume includes five chapters, each of which includes an audio interview and some critical writing. There’s also a blog that catalogues topical issues and other writing we are doing that is related or adjacent to the topic, but doesn’t yet fall into the official ‘chapters’. This structure emerged over a long period of creative development with experienced audio producer Daz Chandler from Origami Flight productions.

The series begins by defining the concept and situating ourselves in the project. We introduce Asa Seresin’s work defining "heteropessimism" with an exciting interview between Jen Hamilton and Seresin himself; our introductory chapter on the website also locates each of the core team in the project with short descriptions of how the concept resonates in both our lives and work. We then explore examples from our individual interviews with scholars from a number of disciplines (philosophy, literary, gender studies, history and sociology).

The chapter on ‘pessimism’ explores straight culture by building on a discussion between Felicity Joseph and Jane Ward. Ward is the author of The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (2020) and in the interview, and in Joseph’s accompanying chapter, we show heteropessimism as a structure of feeling that seriously limits the development of happy healthy lives.

The next chapter on domestic ecologies highlights economic and structural issues at the heart of heteropessimism – like house prices, over-work and underemployment, chores, and monogamy – and is especially interested in how these material practices limit both the capacity for fulfilling lives, but also (perhaps surprisingly) complicates our capacity to address the environmental crisis. This is examined via an interview package between Jennifer Hamilton and Sophie Lewis, author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism against Family (2019) and Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation (Forthcoming).

The final two chapters are on masculinity and desire respectively. In the chapter on masculinity, Matt Allen looks at how Australian masculinity relates to heteropessimism via a discussion with historian Frank Bongiorno. Christina Kenny investigates how desire itself complicates the social structure of heterosexuality via a discussion with sex worker Sir James.

The tagline for this project is ‘Towards Hetero-optimism’: what does that mean?

Let us be clear: heteropessimism is not a good or desirable thing. Although the website for the project is called ‘The Heteropessimists’ not all of us identify as ‘heteropessimistic’. As comes out really strongly in the Lewis interview, ‘heteropessimism’ should be describing something, not prescribing something. We ultimately want to get away from the affective and critical cul-de-sac that is heteropessimism and create more fulfilling, less bigoted lives. But at the same time, we need to understand the concept better in order to change it. One cannot simply demand someone stop being pessimistic about something – the pessimism has to be taken seriously and, at the same time, a vision for the alternative world beyond the one causing the pessimism must be proposed. Not everyone can adopt political lesbianism, for example, and not everyone is able to be a political lesbian (as much as they might want to be!).

In this vein, hetero-optimism is the utopian proposition of the project. But it is not straightforward, nor is it likely to be particularly straight! What would heterosexuality look like if it included a vision for a holistic project of liberation in solidarity with LGBTQAI+ struggles? What would masculinity and, by extension, heterosexuality look like if it was in non-hierarchical relation with femininity and had purged itself of misogyny? We don’t have the answers to all these questions, we’re so deep in the mess of bigotry based on sexuality and gender. But a sense that there might be something out there, some kind of ‘hetero-optimism’ or radical allyship and solidarity between ‘straight’ and LGBTQAI+ communities is what we have as our utopian horizon. We hope to imagine and theorise the possibility of sexuality studies beyond bigotry in and through this project.

What’s next for your group – any more collaborative projects?

We plan to seek more funding to develop volume 2. Now we have figured out the structure of the project (which took months of back and forth between the academic team and our producer Daz Chandler to settle on), we think it will be easier to do the second volume. In this volume we want to explore race and coloniality, and deepen our investigations of environment and masculinity. The analogy between heterosexual identity and ‘Whiteness’, whereby such an identity is usually ‘invisible’, is a promising one and one that is highlighted by several of the theorists we have interviewed. We would love to further investigate the problematic nature of ‘Straight Culture’ by eliciting the influence of colonialism upon the norms of straightness, both in Australia and globally, and to understand the variations in identification experienced by persons from culturally diverse backgrounds. Such an investigation takes the culture of heterosexuality from a ‘given’, the nature of which need never be described or defended, to a particularly located set of practices and beliefs with its own history, which has intersected in sometimes devastating ways with indigenous and non-Western cultures. Accordingly, we plan to diversify our range of interviewees and really dig deep into the intersection of race and heteronormativity. This is an area where Christina’s interdisciplinary and inter-cultural approach to researching queer identities and Matt’s interest in colonial histories and identities will really help power our continued investigations.

 

References

Hill, J. (2019). See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse. Melbourne: Black Inc.

Lewis, S. (Forthcoming). Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation.

Lewis, S. (2019). Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism against Family and Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. London: Verso.

Seresin, A. (2019). ‘On Heteropessimism: Heterosexuality is nobody’s personal problem’ The New Inquiry, 9 October 2019. Available from https://thenewinquiry.com/on-heteropessimism/

Ward, J. (2020). The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. New York: NYU Press.

Wrisley, S. P. (2021). ‘Feminist theory and the problem of misogyny’, Feminist Theory 2021): 14647001211039365

 

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Updated:  28 April 2022/Responsible Officer:  Freilich Project/Page Contact:  Herbert & Valmae Freilich Project