Gay identity, as John D’Emilio argued, has formed out of the capitalistic restructuring of society in the early 20th century. The increase in focus of wage earning and mobility away from the family household de-emphasized the family as a work unit—transitioning it to an emotional or spiritual place of fulfillment—and shifting that to the individual and their sale of their labor to pay, as it were, for their lifestyle (D’Emilio 2014, 241). This opened a window to allow the identity of “gay” to form, as the necessities of reproduction and family were relegated to secondary roles in the capitalistic society. Following John Andrew Evangelista’s (2013) analysis: “In early capitalism, sexuality is repressed to discipline laborers…On the other hand, late capitalism changed the construction of sexuality where it is seen as a commodity” (355). This way, capitalism has captured the identity formation of sexuality, whereas, in some time before, sexuality was not a vector of capitalistic enterprise; now, as stated, it is commodified and sold and, if that is so, work must be performed to produce these identity-commodities.
Taking this labor through the Marxist paces, this identity-commodity work produces identities that are divorced from the laborer. While this identity-commodity is not produced within a factory or some literally material place of production, it is found in the knowledge economies of social media, marketing and other spaces where ideas can be produced and often infiltrated in the audience in order to buy something else or more. In this way, late capitalism creatures a mesh of identities to multiply capture consumers who are often and increasingly those same producers of those identities. Importantly, this invokes Marx’s concept of alienation, through which laborers are divorced from their product (71-72); how, then, are workers disconnected from their very identities? As the identity is most often a marketing vector, these identities do not “belong” to the person, but to the business that is trying to sell something to the person. Interestingly, this is almost comparable to Butler’s work on performativity, but it is a failure—and a site of crisis—because “…performing ‘pure’ roles that gender categories like masculinity and femininity assume to be natural is impossible” (Evangelista 2013, 354). This is further seen in the sense of alienation between people; the heightened individualism that, under contemporary capitalism, is captured in the political system of society and increasingly extremed populations. All politics are personal and representative of no one; individuals are kept separate by the suite of branded identities captured, diluted and repackaged back to the consumer-producer. The object of labor becomes a product and re-alienates as it returns to the laborer as not-theirs. This is possible due to late capitalism’s reliance on sign value rather than use or exchange value (Evangelista 2013, 359).
I also argue that the process of alienation creates cycles of objectification and derivatization through which people attempt to reproduce their labor through relational tactics to both themselves and their estranged, “fellow man.” This is a feature of capitalistic brain rot that creates hustle culture and compels people to work continually (as well as produces admonishments like “friends are ‘useless’ unless they are enhancing you in some way”). Martha Nussbaum works through the specificity of objectification and Anna Cahill responds later with her concept of “derivatization.” In her words:
…derivatization echoes the grammatical structure of objectification while avoiding the somatophobic implications. As commonly understood (and as formulated by Nussbaum), objectification is the mistake of treating something that is not an object as an object, and it constitutes an ethical wrong precisely because it’s better to be a subject than an object. Derivatization is the mistake of treating something that is not a derivative as a derivative, and it constitutes an ethical wrong because it’s better to be ontologically distinct than ontologically reducible to another (Cahill 2014, 844-845).
Alienation producing cycles of objectification and derivatization presumes a labor in creating and maintaining relationships, as well as inscribing goals or outcomes into relationships. While this is readily visible in networking—the effort to make social connections related to the advancement of your career—it is suspect in personal relationships. However, the presence of a capitalistic state of mind forecloses most potential for relationships outside of a mode of consumption, particularly for gay relationships that are first imagined in the space of wage labor. This is not to say that these relationships do not exist or that, for some reason, gay people are particularly prone to the worst expressions of capitalism, but that the capitalistic mindset—and more so for the working class—prefigures experience within the world. Most importantly, this prefigures the family.
To advance D’Emilio’s argument and introduce Evangelista’s reappraisal of queer theory and Marxism: the family produces a child from which it becomes alienated. While the child “belongs” to the parents, it cannot for very long as both a subjective and an ontologically distinct person. It is, in fact, these cycles of objectification and derivatization that uncover the alienation as the newborn moves from object, lacking subjectivity because it relies so heavily on parenting (and even the ease of use of “it” as a pronoun for a newborn), to derivative, reading traits and imparting preferences according to the parents’. Both which of fail as the child grows older and becomes indisputably subjectified and non-derivative. This is the alienation crisis for parents as the child “no longer belongs” to them; they are their own person. As a person adopts a gay identity, however, they also break away from the “new” sense of family begotten by capitalism as they are unable to reproduce the ideal type of heteronormativity. “Homosexuality is not perceived as abnormal but as a failed normalcy,…” an alienation from the prefigured future of family and others who have and will have families (Evangelista 2013, 358).
With this in mind and returning to Nussbaum and Cahill throughout my analysis, I turn to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room to analyze the relationship of David and Jacques—though, at turns throughout the novel, the quadratic relationship of David and Giovanni and Jacques and Guillaume—which exemplifies the cycles of objectification and derivatization as a result of their alienation from heterosexual society at large. Beginning at David’s flight from his family and the United States, Paris becomes an expatriate site of the alien(ated) where all four characters negotiate one another’s objectivity and derivativity through their interactions; these could be read as attempts to form a chosen family, but, more often than not, the interactions reveal a failed normalcy instead. In David’s case, attempts at (re)creating a normalized relationship without simply reproducing what he fled from with his fiancee Hella. For Jacques and Guillaume, they are still beholden to the capitalistic framework that developed their alienation from themselves and each other, but each put no effort into recovering normalcy; instead, their effort can be located in the derivatizing of those around them, attempting, perhaps, to undo the alienation they feel trapped in.
When I finally did see [Joey], more or less by accident, near the end of the summer, I made up a long and totally untrue story about a girl I was going with and when school began again I picked up with a rougher, older crowd and was very nasty to Joey. And the sadder this made him, the nastier I became. He moved away from our school, and I never saw him again.
I began, perhaps, to be lonely that summer and began, that summer, the flight which has brought me to this darkening window (Baldwin 1988, 16).
As David is reflecting on his childhood and what path, possibly, could have led him to the eve of Giovanni’s death, he remembers his relationship with Joey. The above passage shows David’s awareness—a revealed consciousness after his experiences in Paris—of truth of his actions. The untrue story about a girl is the first act of David rewriting his history, the first step toward becoming “secretive and cruel” (Baldwin 1988, 24). This can be read as a tactic of objectification; Nussbaum provides the criteria of objects, which she uses a rubric to analyze instances of objectification. Her (1995) definitions of violability—“The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that is permissible to break up, smash, break into”—and denial of subjectivity—“The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings…need not be taken into account”—appropriately frame David’s actions. Following Nussbaum’s analysis that not all of her criteria need apply, though often more than one does, the texture and deniability of David’s actions—that is, how he could convince himself of the correctness of his actions, in fact deny them as objectifying—become apparent especially as he is reflecting on them himself (257-258).
While this is one small part of the novel and a concise example of objectification, it is useful to demonstrate the analysis of interaction. The richer examples to follow of characters in interaction and vacillating between objectifying and derivatizing acts and interactions fully demonstrates the invisible labor at work in relation between two or more people; all of this mediated by the capitalistic identity formation discussed in the introduction. Continuing through the beginning of the novel, Baldwin introduces David and Jaques’s relationship, which David frames as purely transactional, though their later interactions certainly suggest more intimacy.
So I went through my address book, sitting over a tepid coffee in a boulevard cafe, and decided to call up an old acquaintance who was always asking me to call, an aging, Belgian-born, American businessman named Jacques. He had a big, comfortable apartment and lots of things to drink and lots of money. He was, as I knew he would be, surprised to hear from me and before the surprise and the charm wore off, giving him time to become wary, he had invited me for supper. He may have been cursing as he hung up, and reaching for his wallet, but it was too late. Jacques is not too bad. Perhaps he is a fool and a coward but almost everybody is one or the other and most people are both. In some ways I liked him. He was silly but he was so lonely; anyway, I understand now that the contempt I felt for him involved my self-contempt. He could be unbelievably generous, he could be unspeakably stingy. Though he wanted to trust everybody, he was incapable of trusting a living soul; to make up for this, he threw his money away on people; inevitably, then, he was abused. Then he buttoned his wallet, locked his door, and retired into that strong self-pity which was, perhaps, the only thing he had which really belonged to him (Baldwin 1988, 33-35).
Here the exchange is put quite plainly: for funding David’s stay in Paris, he’ll associate with Jacques, alleviate his loneliness until Jacques once again locks his door and retreats into his self-pity. Clearly objectifying, this satisfies Nussbaum’s (1995) criteria of instrumentality and fungibility, though David is careful not to deny subjectivity; it is this trick that I will analyze next that allows David to continue these relationships and not fully alienate Jacques (257). However, again David is reflecting on this moment (still in the present of the novel before shifting into the past-as-present) and this declaration that “Jacques is not too bad” is repeated throughout the novel until they are no longer friends (Baldwin 1988, 33; 51; 153). But his reflection just after that, understanding that what he dislikes about Jacques is what he dislikes in himself, is part of the framework that David eventually comes to in the end, what his secretive and cruel nature has hid from even himself. That is, his refusal to derivatize the other gay men around him; as we see from objectifying Jacques, this creates a distance, a fallibility to admit even to himself his failed normalcy, and instead, for his own legibility, must reduce those acquaintances to objects. To derivatize them would be to accept himself as a gay man, first, before he can attempt to recast anyone else as his image of a gay man. Rarely does he relate to someone else in the book; either these are torturous moments of self-awareness and pity, deeply uncomfortable, or moments of near silence where his guard has slipped.
There was, in this tolerance of mind, a fund, by no means meagre, of malicious knowledge—I had drawn on it when I called him up to borrow money. I knew that Jacques could only hope to conquer the boy before us if the boy was, in effect, for sale; and if he stood with such arrogance on an auction block he could certainly find bidders richer and more attractive than Jacques. I knew that Jacques knew this (Baldwin 1988, 40).
This “malicious knowledge” is the means by which David knows how to objectify Jacques, yet also, what makes it truly malicious, is knowing the means by which to keep Jacques at an arm’s length. David fully understood how far, exactly, he would have to associate with Jacques; to the point where he would act as his wingman, as it were, and secure for Jacques Giovanni. The price, as David understood, of calling on Jacques for funds. Here Jacques retains his subjectivity, he cannot be be fully “used” by David, and this window between David’s objectification and, as I’ll show in the continuation of this scene, Jacques’s derivatization of David is where their friendship is created, where neither can mold the other fully, yet each comes to that relationship by way of objectification and derivatization of the other; expressions of each’s malicious knowledge which cannot be truly, fully acted on. While each is a reproduction of their labor, a movement through the relational framework of late capitalism, these actions and the way they frame them within their minds—their understanding of their relation to one another—are the means of relation. Why they continue to relate, continue to work on their relationship, is unclear under the identity politic that informs their actions.
I knew something else: that Jacques’ vaunted affection for me was involved with desire, the desire, in fact, to be rid of me, to be able, soon, to despise me as he now despised that army of boys who had come, without love, to his bed. I held my own against this desire by pretending that Jacques and I were friends, by forcing Jacques, on pain of humiliation, to pretend this. I pretended not to see, although I exploited it, the lust not quite sleeping in his bright, bitter eyes and, by means of the rough, male candor with which I conveyed to him his case was hopeless, I compelled him, endlessly, to hope. And I knew, finally, that in bars such as these I was Jacques’ protection. As long as I was there the world could see and he could believe that he was out with me, his friend, he was not there out of desperation, he was not at the mercy of whatever adventurer chance, cruelty, or the laws of actual and emotional poverty might through his way” (Baldwin 1988, 40-41).
David’s understanding of Jacques’s position in their relationship also shows the awareness each has (a later conversation will have Jacques speak plainly) of what the other wants from the opposite. Even this is foundational within the gay identity formed under capitalism: “Men learn to experience desire in connection with paradigm scenarios of domination and instrumentalization” and here David understands Jacques’s desire simply, to see David as yet another conquest, but Jacques does not desire David to be an object; he would have moved on if David were not available to be objectified (Nussbaum 1995, 268). Instead, the work Jacques does with David instead rests on his recognition that David is gay. In the beginning of their relationship—though this night moves fast and the character development quickly changes the dynamic of their relationship—this is the simple work to expose David to the gay underworld that Jacques knows; taking him to Guillaume’s bar, which David rightly, though only partially, interprets as a tactic of Jacques’s to acquire—dominate and instrumentalize—other men. But that is not what Jacques is doing with David.
At this point, let me return to Marxist alienation. It remains tenuous that work in a relationship is labor and the closeness of alienation in the sense of separation from the self to one’s labor, extrapolated to separation from one’s community, to the sense of an aloneness someone has to others or, in fact, an otherness, separating them out from those they should or could be close to. However, T. R. Young (1975) helps us understand that these concepts are not terribly distinct; “In the non-alienated individual, self and society are twin-born; one’s consciousness of oneself does not preclude a coexisting consciousness of others” (28). The hyper individualism is inculcated by the capitalistic identity/ies, commodified through the turn to late capitalism in order to continue subjugating the self to profits. This undoes the work of community-building as those communities become, in effect, branded and made up of alienated individuals, suspicious of themselves and others. David is caught in this alienated space, lying to himself and even interpreting Jacques’s actions in a way that support his worldview; an unconsciousness borne of each’s actions. The labor present in relationships under late capitalism produces sign value, “created in the sphere of production and distribution. The ambiance or aura of a commodity is created in the process of its production,” an inscription of meaning to the product of a relationship (Evangelista 2013, 359). David creates a questioning space when he accompanies Jacques to Guillaume’s bar that allows him to objectify Jacques and invites Jacques to derivatize David, creating the relation where each labors to form some meaning, some (new) identity to take on or incorporate, even if temporarily. With this in mind, David and Jacques have a long, seemingly truthful conversation after David and Giovanni have, however tenuously, began their relationship. The veil of their identities falls away and they seem for the first time to have a genuine conversation.
Jacques would shortly offer one of the boys a drink but, for the moment, he wished to play uncle to me.
‘How do you feel?’ he asked me. ‘This is a very important day for you.’
‘I feel fine,’ I said. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Like a man,’ he said, ‘who has seen a vision.’
‘Yes?’ I said. ‘Tell me about this vision.’
‘I am not joking,’ he said. ‘I am talking about you. You were the vision. You should have seen yourself tonight. You should see yourself now.’
I looked at him and said nothing.
‘You are—how old? Twenty-six or seven? I am nearly twice that and, let me tell you, you are lucky. You are lucky that what is happening to you now is happening now and not when you are forty, or something like that, when there would be no hope for you and you would simply be destroyed.’
‘What is happening to me?’ I asked. I had meant to sound sardonic, but I did not sound sardonic at all (Baldwin 1988, 73-74).
Jacques has already dropped any pretense. He is, perhaps, engaging with David without a derivatizing approach (“he wished to play uncle” and not, as David seemed to perceive earlier, a lover or conquerer). Simply asking after David’s feelings establishes the non-derivative relationship, not “[undermining] the ethical dynamic of relations by positioning one subject in a determining relation over the other’s identity” (Cahill 2014, 845). In previous scenes, Jacques wished for David to execute what he cannot, to be the younger or more successful Jacques, a version of success that David plays at in exchange.
He did not answer this, but sighed, looking briefly in the direction of the redhead. Then he turned to me. ‘Are you going to write to Hella?’
‘I very often do,’ I said. ‘I suppose I will again.’
‘That does not answer my question.’
‘Oh. I was under the impression that you had asked me if I was going to write to Hella.’
‘Well. Let’s put it another way. Are you going to write to Hella about this night and this morning?’
‘I really don’t see what there is to write about. But what’s it to you if I do or I don’t?’
He gave me a look full of certain despair which I had not, till that moment, known was in him. It frightened me. ‘It’s not,’ he said, ‘what it is to me. It’s what it is to you. And to her. And to that poor boy, yonder, who doesn’t know that when he looks at you the way he does, he is simply putting his head in the lion’s mouth. Are you going to treat them as you’ve treated me?’
‘You? What have you to do with all this? How have I treated you?’
‘You have been very unfair to me,’ he said. ‘You have been very dishonest.’
This time I did sound sardonic. ‘I suppose you mean that I would have been fair, I would been honest if I had—if—’ (Baldwin 1988, 74-75)
David attempts to recover the delicate balance he thinks he is solely responsible for. The objectifying work of his relation to Jacques, while leaving his subjectivity intact, relies on David believing he has the option to remove it. It is always an option when objectifying, but David will not do it as he relies on the transactional nature of their relationship, which requires Jacques to retain subjectivity. But Jacques’s persistent honesty breaks the transactional nature and appeals to David to be honest in turn; to drop the pretense of imaginary boyfriend, mysterious accomplice. After David and Giovanni become involved, Jacques gives up his work to derivatize David. Because of this, David cannot be a derivative of Jacques because Jacques, as David has already understood, would never “win” Giovanni. David cannot be derivative and, so, Jacques has no interest in being used by David. However, he now sees them as equals, as gay men, which David does not.
‘I mean you could have been fair to me by despising me a little less.’
‘I’m sorry. But I think, since you bring it up, that a lot of your life is despicable.’
‘I could say the same about yours,’ said Jacques. ‘There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.’
There was silence for a moment, threatened, from a distance, by that laugh of Giovanni’s.
‘Tell me,’ I said at last, ‘is there really no other way for you but this? To kneel down forever before an army of boys for just five dirty minutes in the dark?’
‘Think,’ said Jacques, ‘of the men who have kneeled before you while you thought of something else and pretended that nothing was happening down there in the dark between your legs.’
I stared at the amber cognac and at the wet rings on the metal. Deep below, trapped in the metal, the outline of my own face looked upward hopelessly at me (Baldwin 1988, 75-76).
And David accepts it, too: a possibility of being quite divorced from the illusions he had built up since his flight from Joey, from the United States. There is no rebuttal when Jacques accuses David of the very act David accuses Jacques of, just “the outline of [his] own face [looking] upward hopelessly at [him]…” A stranger David does not recognize, one identity David has not incorporated to his self and in contrast to the careful collection of identities kept secret that allow him to be cruel. Paris, which I called earlier an expatriate site of the alien(ated), holds no identity for David; he is not Parisian, but it does hold the possibility of gayness through Jacques (another expatriate) and Guillaume. This tension follows David throughout novel; the blurred reflection of what David was or possibly is and the unmarked self that David discovers with Giovanni. Of course, David chooses the former, which we can understand through Cahill’s (2013) discussion of privilege and heterosexuality: “…hegemonic male heterosexuality is socially constructed to encourage heterosexual men to derivatize women,…The role that derivatization plays in the construction of hegemonic male heterosexuality is marked by privilege;…” (851-852). In this way, the most productive relationship that David can have must be with a woman.
‘You think,’ he persisted, ‘that my life is shameful because my encounters are. And they are. But you should as yourself why they are.’
‘Why are they—shameful?’ I asked him.
‘Because there is no affection in them, and no joy. It’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact. All touch, but no contact and no light.’
I asked him: ‘Why?’
‘That you must ask yourself,’ he told me, ‘and perhaps one day, this morning will not be ashes in your mouth.’
I looked over at Giovanni, who now had one arm around the ruined-looking girl, who could have once been very beautiful but who never would be now.
Jacques followed me look. ‘He is very fond of you,’ he said, ‘already. but this doesn’t make you happy or proud, as it should. It makes you frightened and ashamed. Why?’
‘I don’t understand him,’ I said at last. ‘I don’t know what his friendship means; I don’t know what he means by friendship.’
Jacques laughed. ‘You don’t know what he means by friendship but you have the feeling it may not be safe. You are afraid it may change you. What kind of friendship have you had?’
I said nothing. (Baldwin 1988, 76-77).
In the final segment of this interaction, David is silenced, unable to imagine a relationship with a man outside of friendship. David knows what friendship is, even with (other) gay men, but Giovanni does not seem to want from him what he wants: a objectified person, a mother to take care of his children, an insurance of hierarchy, power and privilege. Giovanni also hasn’t tried to derivatize David like Jacques had, so David doesn’t have the techniques to mediate like he did with Jacques. This is the crisis of friendship that David does not know how to handle and becomes increasingly unsettled by; that is, until Hella’s arrival and the ability, once again, for David to rewrite his narrative and re-utilize his relationships. In the final scene with David and Giovanni, David’s reality is so rewritten as to be unrecognizable to both the reader and Giovanni himself.
‘And do you know why you want to get away from me?’
Inside me something locked. ‘I—I cannot have a life with you,’ I said.
‘But you can have a life with Hella. With that moon-faced little girl thinks babies come out of cabbages—or frigidaires, I am not acquainted with the mythology of your country. You can have a life with her.’
‘Yes,’ I said, wearily, ‘I can have a life with her.’ I stood up. I was shaking. ‘What kind of life can we have in this room?—this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? All this love you talk about—isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me. You say I want to kill you. What do you think you’ve been doing to me?’
‘I am not trying to make you a little girl. If I wanted a little girl, I would be with a little girl.’
‘Why aren’t you? Isn’t it just that you’re afraid? And you take me because you haven’t got the guts to go after a woman, which is what you really want?’
He was pale. ‘You are the one who keeps talking about what I want. But I have only been talking about who I want.’
‘But I’m a man,’ I cried, ‘a man! What do you think can happen between us?’
‘You know very well,’ said Giovanni slowly, ‘what can happen between us. It is for that reason you are leaving me’ (Baldwin 1988, 188-189).
There is no cycle of objectification or derivatization by the closing of the book. Even in this conversation, David is desperate to reify Giovanni’s status within the matrix of heterosexual privilege, even casting himself as the “little girl” that (he assumes) Giovanni wants to instrumentalize, deny autonomy, own and, perhaps most importantly, deny subjectivity (Nussbaum 1995, 257). David’s claim that “…[he’s] a man…a man!” is meant to be some sort of obvious evidence of that subjectivity and autonomy, making it impossible for David to play that role; as Cahill discussed, the privilege inherent that Giovanni—in David’s understanding—is willingly giving up. This is the “friendship” that David does not know what to do with, one without a goal or outcome, incomprehensible especially in comparison to David’s relationship with Hella who had already offered her own objectification to David, ensuring his privilege.
Giovanni’s Room demonstrates the fraught, relational politics of friendships particularly for gay men brought up under capitalism. From the alienation within the family and then the gay man’s alienation from the family, labor becomes the means of creating and maintaining relationships. These relationships vacillate through phases of objectification and derivatization, based on spur of the moment goals that become the relationships themselves, which illuminates the relationship as labor: David establishing transactional relationships or securing a status symbol in a wife; Jacques endlessly looking for the same man in different men or molding David to the “right” kind of gay man; and Guillaume ruthlessly objectifying and retaliating when Giovanni claims his subjectivity. Giovanni, however, demonstrates that relationships can be freed from the logic of capitalism, but is doomed all the same if those he is relating to can only operationalize their relationships with him.
- Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Dell Publishing, 1988.
- Cahill, Ann J. “The Difference Sameness Makes: Objectification, Sex Work, and Queerness.” In Hypatia29, no. 4 (2014): 840-856. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24542106.
- D’Emilio, John. “Capitalism and Gay Identity.” In Culture, Society & Sexuality: A Reader, 239-247. Edited by Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton. New York: Routledge, 2014.
- Evangelista, John Andrew G. “On Queer and Capital: Borrowing Key Marxist Concepts to Enrich Queer Theorizing.” In Philippine Sociological Review 61, no. 2 (2013): 349-369. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43486379.
- Marx, Karl. “Estranged Labour.” In Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 70-81.
- Nussbaum, Martha C. “Objectification.” In Philosophy & Public Affairs 24, no. 4 (1995): 249-291. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2961930.
- Young, T. R. “Karl Marx and Alienation: The Contributions of Karl Marx to Social Psychology.” In Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 2, no. 2 (1975): 26-34. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23262018.