A couple of years ago I did a conference presentation called “The Difficulty of Working Out Who You are: Sexual Culture, Sexual Categories and Asexuality”. Or at least I gave a presentation this title. In reality it didn’t actually do what it said on the tin because I’d rather jumped the gun and given a definitive title to something which was then (and still is really) a loose amalgamation of thoughts in the progress. I started working on asexuality around 5 years ago now and my immediate interest was in asexuality as something approximating a sexual orientation (sparked largely by how extraordinarily overlooked the conceptual possibility, let alone the emirical reality, had been in the academic sexualities literature I’d engaged with for the MA I’d just completed). Two further interests emerged from this as I got more into it:
- The fascinatingly idiosyncratic frame of reference which asexuality (and asexuality studies) offers for engaging with well rehearsed questions about contemporary sexual culture and its history of emergence
- The broader issues of identity and alterity in late modernity which manifest themselves in the emergence of the asexual community (as well as the question of in what sense, if any, it’s meaningful to use the term ‘community’ here).
It’s the second question which has been on my mind recently. I’m talking about this at the Royal Geographical Society conference next week as part of a panel on the politics of anti-normativity and at a conference in Nottingham the following week on ‘normality in an uncertain world’. I like the second event theme in particular because it nicely captures the aspects of Archer’s account of late modernity which she’s only begun to draw out in her final book on reflexivity. This involves a situation where, as Archer (2012: 302-3) puts it, “the differences characterising each agent so overwhelm communalities with others that they increasingly engage in transactions with the system ‘as a whole’ (meaning raiding it for the detection of ‘contingent complemantarities’ and exploiting these novelties)”. What she’s suggesting is that increasingly atomised individuals, confronted with little to no socio-demographic possibilities for collective identification, look towards the cultural system for resources to help make sense of self and circumstances, which might furnish them with an ideal (which later provides a basis for value orientated collective action) but more immediately serves to increase the heterogeneity of their environment. What I think Archer misses is both how the cultural system can provide an immediate basis for social (re)integration and how socio-cultural relations can be digitally mediated. So the individual whose experience of not experiencing sexual attraction has been rendered problematic within their local environment, comes to recognise their commonality with (distant) others through direct and indirect accounts of experience which are encountered online. This in turn leads to an experienced difference (“I’m so weird! Everyone else is so interested in sex”) being transvaluated into commonality (“oh there are other people just like me!”) and provides a starting point through which many, though by no means all, come to pursue ‘offline’ relations on the basis of ‘online’ connections.
However I don’t think people who don’t experience sexual attraction are the only ones who follow this sort of biographical arc. To be clear: I’m talking about homologies at the level of individual biography and suggesting the existence of analogous structural and cultural factor which condition, though do not determine, the shape of that biography. I’m not subsuming a whole range of disparate phenomenon under one notion of biography (e.g. the existentially crisis prone individual in late modernity) though it occurred recently I sometimes talk as if this is what I’m doing. My point is to draw out a typological connection between disparate phenomenon which because of their particularity often have their connections overlooked (or are even ignored in and of themselves altogether). In terms of Archer’s approach, I’m gesturing towards a few things: a cultural account of contextual incongruity to supplement her structural account, a theory of how cultural systemic properties can provide an immediate basis for social re(integration) and a contribution to her thinking on reflexivity and collective action. After years of doing ‘my asexuality research’ and my PhD side-by-side, it’s really satisfying to have actually incorporated them into the same frame of reference at last… but I digress. What prompted me to write this post, which I’m stunned to realise is now close to 1000 words long without me having yet got to my main point, is the Myers-Briggs typology as another example of the weirdly specific cultural bases for social (re)integration which I’m convinced have come to circulate all around us without us having grasped their full implications yet. To those who don’t know, the Myers-Briggs is a taxonomic theory of ‘personality type’ designed for psychometric testing. It was ‘extrapolated’ from the work of Jung by two people with no psychological credentials or training (note: I’m not being a snob here, only stressing the important point that there the MB has, as far as I’m aware, zero empirical basis and little or no credentialised authority for its putative conceptual roots in Jung’s work). In effect it divides people up into 16 personality types through psychometric testing and there’s a massive industry attached to the development, promotion and application of the MB. I first did it long ago (I love this stuff in spite of my chronic cynicism) and have tended to be ‘scored’ as an INTP. This is the attached personality profile from the Wikipedia page:
Architects are introspective, pragmatic, informative, and attentive. The scientific systemization of all knowledge, or Architectonics, is highly developed in Architects, who are intensely curious and see the world as something to be understood. Their primary interest is to determine how things are structured, built, or configured. Architects are designers of theoretical systems and new technologies. Rearranging the environment to fit their design is a distant goal of Architects.
Architects are logically and verbally precise. In casual conversations, they may be tempted to point out errors the other speaker makes, with the simple goal of maintaining clarity within the exchange. In serious discussions, Architects’ abilities to detect distinctions, inconsistencies, contradictions, and frame arguments gives them an enormous advantage. In debates, Architects can be devastating, even to the point of alienation from the group with detailed logical arguments, which may be characterized as “hair-splitting” or “logic-chopping“.
Architects tend to analyze the world in depth. They prefer to quietly work alone and they may shut other people out if they are focused on analysis. This, coupled with the fact that Architects are often quiet, makes it difficult for other individuals to get to know them. In social exchanges, Architects’ interest in informing others about what they have learned is greater than their interest in directing the actions of others.
Credentials or other forms of traditional authority do not impress Architects. Instead, logically coherent statements are the only things that seem to persuade them. Architects value intelligence highly and are often impatient with people with less ability than they have. An architect often perceives himself as being one of the few individuals capable of defining the ends a society must achieve and will often strive to find the most efficient means to accomplish their ends. This perspective can make Architects seem arrogant to others.
According to Rational Role Variants, by David Keirsey:
“Architects take their mating relationship seriously and are faithful and devoted – albeit preoccupied at times, and somewhat forgetful of appointments, anniversaries, and other common social rituals. They are not likely to welcome much social activity at home, nor will they arrange it, content to leave scheduling of social interactions to their mate. If left to their own devices, INTPs will retreat into the world of books and emerge only when physical needs become imperative. Architects are, however, even-tempered, compliant, and easy to live with – that is, until one of their principles are violated, in which case their adaptability ceases altogether. They prefer to keep their desires and emotions to themselves, and may seem insensitive to the desires and emotions of others, an insensitivity that can puzzle and frustrate their mates. But if what their mates are feeling is a mystery to them, Architects are keenly aware of what their mates actually say and do, and will often ask their mates to give a rationale for their statements and actions.” The INTP’s long-term mate is the ENFJ.
I find it hard not to recognise myself in this. Turns out others have the same experience: this is why websites, web forums and twitter feeds seem to have begun to to emerge for those whose response to this subjective recognition has been to seek interlocutors who share this commonality: see here, here and here. What’s going on here seems to be very similar to some of the relational dynamics driving the biographical trajectories of people who identify as asexual. However unlike asexuality, where my outsider status a social researcher imposes certain constraints, something important seems obvious to me when focusing on the INTP: it’s an identity based on an exclusion. The experience of identification depends upon the accentuation of certain points which in turn distract from others. The INTP profiles seem so unerringly to capture certain aspects of my character (“They prefer to quietly work alone and they may shut other people out if they are focused on analysis. This, coupled with the fact that Architects are often quiet, makes it difficult for other individuals to get to know them”) that it distracts from those which aren’t incorporated within it descriptively or even run contrary to it (e.g. it’s hard to see a basis for political activism or shared engagement with live music in the NTP profile – both of which have been integral parts of my life since I was a teenager). In other words: the transvaluation of difference into commonality rests on confirmation bias. This is a strong and hypothetical suggestion about something which is ultimately an empirical question but it’s an important point: to what extent do the emergence of these ‘new commonalities’ presupposes the individual actively seeking them? What implications does this have for the putative social (re)integration I’m arguing emerges from these new collective identifications? This is why the asexual community fascinates me: the commonality becomes a basis for the emergence of new differences as dialogue unfolds i.e. behind the ‘umbrella term’ (asexuality as someone who does not experience sexual attraction) a diverse terminology for recognising and expressing (a)sexual difference emergences. I wonder if this is true elsewhere?