Today’s post is by Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System editor, Max Fox. Fox is also an editor of Pinko magazine, a former editor of the New Inquiry, and translator of The Amphitheater of the Dead. In Sexual Hegemony, Christopher Chitty traces the 500 year history of capitalist sexual relations, showing how sexuality became a crucial dimension of the accumulation of capital and a technique of bourgeois rule. Christopher Chitty (1983–2015) was a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
I met Christopher Chitty in 2009, in the context of a student movement against the university as presently constituted. We occupied buildings, issued communiqués and rallied support, statewide at first, then nationally and internationally. I had thought at the start we might not have had a resonant cause, but soon discovered that the financial crisis and ensuing recession ran directly through campuses everywhere. Though supposedly a machine for class stability if not mobility, the university instead was sequestering exotic social villains like credit default swaps and the end of economic growth in our tuition, stabilizing itself by immiserating us. In this, we discovered that the university was not apart from the world but showed us exactly how it worked.
The university held itself up as a refuge from the market where thought could take place. But the movement against it was my most significant teacher, and Chris personified it for me. And his research into what was revolutionary about the sexual liberation movement addressed another question, one that I hadn’t been able to formulate to myself. I didn’t yet know how to square the obvious shortcomings of the NOH8 era of lobbying for gay rights with the equally plain danger presented by its enemies, but Chris braided the critique. I took our arguments about the bankruptcy of the university seriously, and when I left school and committed myself to building a publishing infrastructure that could support and circulate left thinking outside of an academy that seemed unsupportive at best, it was above all Chris and his work that I had in mind.
So when he committed suicide, suddenly, in 2015, I almost collapsed. Grieving his death also meant grieving the political coherence that I felt his work had promised me. But it was not just my self concept at risk. His work concerned the meaning of the struggle in which hundreds of thousands had died, and its bearing on the future liberation and survival of everyone else. He had impressed upon me that the losses from the HIV/AIDS epidemic were not just private tragedies but formed a front in the wider war against the global liberation struggle of the 60s and 70s, and so represented a revolutionary legacy which we let fade at our own peril. With these as the stakes, I simply could not let his project end with him.
So taking on the work felt like no decision at all, though I had never edited such a lengthy text nor did I really see the level of intellectual preparation it would require going in. I had to play a number of different roles — researcher, archivist, fact-checker, copy editor, agent, etc. I drew the line at ghostwriter. Freud mentions in “Mourning and Melancholia” that neurotic identification with the lost object is “the expression of there being something in common, which may signify love.” But however much I loved Chris and however much I wanted to continue living out the aspects we shared in common, this process was a long confrontation with how much he eluded me.
Chris left numerous versions of the chapters he’d been working on. To adequately present his work I had to dig around in his digital files. I both craved and feared that I would uncover an intact manuscript that neatly presented a polished, compact system. But there were only drafts, notes, incomplete sketches of what even in its unfinished form struck me as monumental. I opened one google doc that promised a full chapter on the American century which stopped loading after the third page. I panicked, afraid that the file had been corrupted somehow, but scrolling to the bottom revealed that he simply hadn’t written any further. It felt like I had lost him all over again. I couldn’t work for the rest of the week.
Given such a volatile process, it’s not a surprise that it took about five years to publish Sexual Hegemony, though I had had much more optimistic plans. At each step of the way there was a new delicate, unrushable negotiation with his family, the publisher, the collaborators, etc. I was lucky to be graced with a supportive social world. I had generous friends and comrades who offered to let me watch their pet or empty apartment when I had to find a place to focus, and forbearing boyfriends and roommates who put up with what must have been difficult moods for years at a time. I was able to finish it thanks to cheap rent and flexible copywriting gigs I took on to subsidize the work. And the willingness of relative strangers like Christopher Nealon and Courtney Berger to agree to collaborate on such a project with an untested steward like me was an act of faith I can only attribute to the unmistakable power of Chris’s work.
I am grateful for everything that allowed me to share it with readers from a platform that encourages that it will be read. And I am proud that I refused to let mere death prevent his insights from getting out. But how do I register the simultaneous tragedy it represents? I find it very hard not to see him as a casualty of the university which we struggled against together. The fact that I was able to arrange support for my efforts with his work posthumously isn’t a triumph, either, just a story of differently distributed costs. The oblivion still menacing attempts at thinking and writing seriously outside of the academy is a grave political risk as the university now enters an even deeper crisis than the one which brought Chris and I together in 2009. But the fear that gripped me when he died, that he might somehow take the memory of this movement with him, has thankfully abated. Maybe because now the crisis we fought is so endemic as to be unremarkable, our strenuously defended political orientation is more widespread. As I wrestled him these past five years to preserve his legacy in a book, I didn’t anticipate another metamorphosis that continues, though without him. Behind my back grew a movement ready to see itself in him, take his thought, and begin the work of tearing everything down.