When John reached out across the space between them, he knew he was doing more than symbolizing how their partnership would bridge the gap between the divided halves of America. He was making an overture that could both save him and damn him, but as he took John’s rough-skinned palm into his own cool, smooth fingers, he knew he couldn’t resist.
That touch sparked something in him, something that made him dream of an end to so many cold, lonely, long Massachusetts nights, and a beginning to something beautiful and warm in the District of Columbia. He looked into those twinkling eyes and leaned forward, hoping to hear that soft Southern voice tell him, “Yes.” Just that one word, and then he could take so much more from those soft lips.
The above represents just one instance in the recent explosion of Kerry-Edwards “slash” fiction. Slash fiction (a label derived from its original designation as “Kirk/Spock” fiction in the years of the first “Star Trek” television series) traditionally places figures from popular culture in homoerotic situations; the genre was recognized as a legitimate branch of folk literature by a vote of the Brown University English department in 1998 (www.brown.edu/departments/english/enormouscock/slash.html).
The recent outpouring of Kerry/Edwards slash marks, however, is the first known occurrence of politically-relevant erotic fiction. What these texts signify in the current socio-political climate is best examined with special reference to Michel Foucault’s landmark 1976 work, Histoire de la Sexualité. We will see that the phenomenon of K/E slash confirms several of Foucault’s key theses.
- Sex as vicarious confessionality
For Foucault, Western sexuality is less fixed in a state of repression than part of an evolving discourse, the “scientia sexualis,” which attempts to anatomize carnality as an appropriate object of empirical enquiry. Key to this enquiry is the concept of confession, which has as its goal the exposure, rather than the repression, of sexual singularity.
A look at the above passage shows that its author, “Whitney,” is playing a dual role as confessee/confessor. As confessee, Whitney has sexualized her political motives, transmuting her implied goal of Kerry/Edwards victory into a narrativized fantasy of successful courtship in a process of reverse sublimation that makes her text available for public consumption on the Internet.
Even more importantly, Whitney is acting as confessor for Kerry and Edwards by imputing sexual motives to their political partnership and then publicizing those motives as actual fact. In this, she seems only to be in keeping with the trend in politics toward extreme personalization intended to bridge the mass-media-imposed gap between image and felt reality that was noted by Marshall McLuhan as early as the 1960s. Nor, considering the ’90s, is the politicization of actual sex a bridge too far.
So now we have the sexualization of actual politics. Whitney vicariously confesses a sexual encounter on behalf of Kerry and Edwards, and the result is no less “real” than any number of soundbites, photo-opportunities or convention balloon drops. In other words: If Edwards bones Kerry, what’s the big deal?
- Sex as meta-discursive power metaphor
Foucault also criticized the “juridico-discursive” conception of power as that which simply operates legalistically and hierarchically. Instead, power is better understood as a multiplicity of productive forces, working in every direction in every relationship. The sexuality-discourse is so pervasive, then, because it is a powerful metaphor for such subtle and complex power relations.
So even if the Kerry/Edwards encounter did not happen exactly as described, it is still important as a signifier—a means by which a disaffected public can grasp the details of an increasingly arcane and rarified political world. Edwards’s comparative charisma advantage is thus signified by a feminized sexual desirability, just as his “rough hands” serve as a metonymy for his working class background.
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The sex metaphor even has room for subversive elements. Consider this comment appended to another text by “nzrayza”: “I like how it’s now ‘canonical’ (!) that Big John is mesmerised by Little John’s ‘warmth’ and his neck. I like how you take that canon and build on it by adding the smell (Edwards looks like he’d smell good!). I like how Edwards is the one who’s really in control, from remembering the press to taking command in the bedroom.” Just as Foucault’s model would predict, K/E slash characterizes the running-mates’ relationship as much more multifaceted than a straightforward top-to-bottom one.
Let’s look at one last text, this one a rare instance of Kerry/Gephardt slash, composed by “marcusaurelius1”:
“Dick, there’s no easy way to tell you this... There’s another man.”
The former House Minority Leader’s muscles tensed in a brief spasm of agony, but Kerry’s hand was suffered to remain where it was. “Let me guess,” Dick said. “It’s some pretty young thing you met in the Senate.”
“It’s not like that! Listen to me, Dick, no one can ever replace you or your sterling ties to organized labor or your comprehensive national healthcare plan or, sweet Jesus, those eyebrows—not now, not ever. It’s just that the American people demand—”
“Shut up! Kiss me, John Forbes Kerry.”
We see, of course, the same tendencies at work. The writer reconceptualizes Gephardt’s rejection to be running-mate as romantic rejection and employs a trope that recasts the Congressman’s constituencies (“organized labor”) as physically attractive attributes on par with “those eyebrows.” At the same time, Gephardt emerges not as abject victim but rather as sexo-political aggressor.
- Further reading
Editorial constrains prevent me from continuing in this vein, but I have 17 more points. However, a full précis will be appearing in the October issue of the Journal of Social History, and I encourage all interested parties to give it their consideration.
Rob Goodman is a Trinity senior.