Queer by Nature

the song of love“Love” is not single act, such as gazing fondly at another, but is a total way of living in relation to another person that is enacted through myriad activities each of which on its own is neither a necessary condition for love nor a sufficient condition for love. Saying “I love you,” for example, does not automatically mean one is in love with another, (so it is not a sufficient condition) nor does not saying “I love you” automatically mean one is not in love with another (so it is not a necessary condition). What we should, but often do not, recognize, is that the same situation is true of sex.

Sex, like love, is a way of comporting oneself with another, and it is enacted through a complex web of different attitudes and practices. Once again, there is no necessary or sufficient condition for sex: in particular, it is not reducible to genital contact, nor is genital contact automatically sex. What makes our interaction truly a situation of “having sex” is the fact that we are erotically oriented to each other.

What is striking about the erotic is what the Greeks might call its “huperphuos”—literally, “supernatural”—character. A body enters our field of experience, and the whole environment is transformed: a new order of meaning overlays the world, a new order in which my body and that of the other are suddenly highlighted in a magical, magnetic way. Erotic experience takes us out of the ordinary, and we experience the opening up of a world beyond the everyday, a charged world where the very fabric of things takes on a new, exciting texture, a bodily texture in which we find ourselves bodily implicated.

danceErotic experience is first a kind of calling, a beckoning from one body to another. One feels oneself called upon to respond, to act in such a way as to take up the charge of the situation, but the charge is puzzling, ambiguous. The pull of erotic attraction cannot easily be translated into conceptual terms—it is not something we grasp by “understanding”—but calls, rather, for us to act with our bodies in such a way as to apprehend it, rather as we must twist and swing our bodies in dance to apprehend the music. The bodily action is a kind of answer to the question the other poses to us, but, as in any real conversation, the answer to the question is not given in advance. We feel that something is called for from us, but it is not immediately clear what that something is. The various activities we engage in—caressing, kissing, etc.—are so many attempts to “grab hold” of that originating impulse.

The erotic is thus “supernatural,” a magical transformation of the world that takes us outside the terms of normalcy and demands of us an action we cannot define in advance, and in which we feel the freedom—and the vertigo—of initiative. Sex, in short, is precisely erotic because it is not “natural,” not a pre-defined set of reactions to a pre-defined situation. The erotic is what takes us into something new and unprecedented, in which we cannot rely on an already established set of terms and rules.

At the same time it can feel very “natural” to us to engage in erotic life, but natural in the way of entering into a reality that is experienced as “that’s what I was waiting for,” though one didn’t know to look for it in advance. Sex is natural, not in a biological sense, but in the sense that we feel especially brought home to ourselves when we are called, puzzlingly, to creatively mould our bodily situation with this other body. It is natural, that is to say, as a form of experience rather than as a biological given. (No doubt it because we feel this call and response as a bodily emergence that we are sometimes tempted to confuse it with what is natural biologically.) That form of experience is specifically the call to take the initiative to creatively enact a new relation with someone in a way that our “nature” does not prescribe for us: it is precisely the imperative not to be dictated to by biological or social givens, but to respond uniquely to unpredictable bodily magnetisms.

the questionErotic perception is as hard to maintain as is artistic creativity. The puzzling challenge of the erotic call is not easily answered, and it is easiest to evade the unsettling beckoning of desire by drawing upon the readymade. Kissing, fondling and all the other stereotyped practices so familiar to us from the movies are easily substituted for authentic erotic engagement, and treated as if they were sex. In this behaviour, however, we confuse answer with question, and effectively return to another version of sexual “naturalism.”

Aristotle described the human being as the “animal having logos,” and this, he shows, implies that we have the peculiar characteristic that what is natural to us does not occur naturally. Politics and language are two of the most striking examples of realities that we have to bring into being in order to be able to truly be ourselves. Sex, it seems to me, is of this same nature.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).