The sixth in our series of columns about women is by the sociologist Sohei Yamada, whose research specializes in the relationship between art and region as well as between HIV/AIDS and society, and in minority rights.
About the Essay Series:
Kyoto Experiment 2018 focuses on women artists or artists and companies that identify as female. Bringing the words “woman” or “female” to the fore in this way encourages us to realize a wide variety of perspectives that offer a cross section of contemporary society, from the unease we feel from everyday conversations and customs to broader issues of gender seen in social and historical contexts. This relay-style series of essays presents texts by specialists from different fields that problematize feminism not as an issue only for women but for society as a whole. We hope that they will provide opportunities for audiences to gain deeper insights into the festival programs. (The articles will be published approximately once every two weeks.)
Neoliberalism, Gender Equality, and the Politics of Sexual Minorities
HIV and AIDS
I originally specialized in measures for dealing with HIV infection, an issue with which I have been involved in various forms since the 1990s. HIV is the name of the virus that causes AIDS. As HIV increases in the body, the immune system deteriorates. This means a rise within the body of the microbes like bacteria and mold that always exist around us but cause no problem if we are healthy, leading to the appearance of symptoms and conditions such as pneumonia. Today there are drugs that can curb the growth of the virus and, by learning of infection quickly and visiting medical establishments at an early stage, it is now possible to extend life expectancy greatly. HIV infection occurs when HIV invades the body for some reason. Since HIV can be found in bodily fluids—particularly in blood, semen, vaginal secretion, and breast milk—infection can be prevented through not allowing these bodily fluids to come into contact with mucous membranes or enter blood vessels. In terms of the way the infection works, there would seem to be an equal possibility of infection for everyone alive today. However, the reality of the matter is that people are more likely to be infected according to the region in which they live.
AIDS and Social Exclusion
In the United States, reported cases of HIV infection are common among women and East Asian men. In Japan, 90 percent of reported infections are among men, almost entirely due to sexual contact between men. AIDS is said to be an affliction that affects the socially vulnerable. In other words, it is an infection that particularly discriminates within society and spreads among those in weak positions. For example, let’s suppose there are people who feel that there is no place in society for them due to discrimination or social exclusion. For those such people, just living in the here and now is hard enough, so acting in the best interests of their health ten or 20 years hence (such as by using condoms if you have AIDS) would likely be impossible for many. The situation in Japan in regard to HIV and AIDS is one major sign of the social exclusion of or discrimination against men who have sex with men (MSM) in Japanese society.
When we consider these circumstances, we can tell that the campaign by the government and others encouraging people to use condoms is not necessarily enough as a measure to combat HIV infection. What is important is to eliminate the social exclusion and discrimination felt by MSM. However, MSM are not actually one single uniform group. Within MSM there are those who identify as gay or bisexual, but also those who do not. In public health contexts, the grouping of MSM is used for now, but the gender identification of the people included within the label is not limited to “males.” In that sense, MSM is in reality highly diverse. It encompasses a range of people, from gay to bisexual, those who consider themselves heterosexual but have sexual intercourse with men, transgender, and those whose gender identity is male but who cross-dress. In other words, we might say it refers to “every kind of person” other than those who are generally called heterosexual men—that is, people whose gender was determined to be male by doctors at the time of their birth and who today identify their gender as male (that is, not transgender) but whose sexual emotions are directed exclusively toward females. I think it is helpful to consider this in terms of a center-periphery structure in which heterosexual males occupy the center and all others are on the periphery.
Center and Periphery
As many others have already pointed out, the origins of our present-day systems related to gender (that is, the configuration of gender) as well as homosexual discrimination lie in modernity, which is supported by the nation-state and capitalism. While length limitations prevent me from explaining this issue thoroughly, let’s now examine it succinctly.
During the Industrial Revolution, it became possible to operate large machinery through utilizing steam engines, meaning that product manufacturing sites relocated from individual homes to big factories. This led to the birth of a new class structure comprising the capitalist who owned the factory and the people who worked at the factory. Selling the products manufactured at the factory produced earnings. Let’s say that the profit left from these earnings after subtracting the necessary expenses, such as the cost of materials and heating or lighting, is 100. At this point, if we were to divide this 100 between the five workers who work at the factory, each would receive a share of 20. However, in a capitalist society, the capitalist first takes 75 and the remaining 25 is then divided between the five workers. Karl Marx thought of this as exploitation. But a capitalist society regards this as a legitimate share for the capitalist. With that 75, the capitalist continues investing in the facilities by expanding the factory or buying new machinery, and aims to increase his or her earnings further. This is because if the factory doubles, the capitalist’s share will also double. At this point, the number of workers who work at the factory will double as well. This situation, where business investment rises, the numbers of necessary workers increases (and the unemployment rate falls), and the share taken by the capitalists also increases, is known as “prosperity.” It is at this point that another way of expanding revenue is found: long working hours for workers. This because if they work double the previous number of hours they had previous worked, the capitalist’s share will increase further. The system that was invented at this time was the modern family.
Particularly prominent in Japan in the postwar period, the modern family that became the general standard was a family unit in which the woman as a housewife supported the husband who was the worker. Through the housekeeping labor of the wife, it becomes possible for the husband to work long hours from morning until night. The wife engages in this housekeeping labor without compensation ostensibly because of her love for her family. Since the husband no longer needs to do household chores, he is able to work at a factory from morning until night. And through this, the share of the capitalist increases even further. The people who pointed out that this is another form of exploitation were Marxist feminists. The share of the capitalist is further increasing through the household labor of the wife. The capitalist should pay a wage also to the wife. They said that as things stand, the household labor is unpaid work. This structure produces severe gender disparity (female discrimination) in society. For example, when male workers hand their monthly salary over to their wives, even though the salary should be considered as including payment for the household work of the wife, almost none of the male workers will think of it in this way. Instead, they believe that it is the wages that they earned and through which they are maintaining their wife (and their children, if they have any). Patriarchy, in which the husband possesses and dominates the wife and children, becomes internalized by people.
And the modern family produces further discrimination. As mentioned before, capitalism is a system that presupposes population increase. This role is assigned to the modern family. And the “family” then became understood as a place for heterosexual men and women to produce and raise children. In postwar Japan, in particular, the ideal number of children per household was regarded as two, in order to maintain a stable labor force necessary for economic growth. In the postwar period, the phrase “family planning” became common and it is here that we see the background behind why today’s declining birth rate is regarded as a problem. And it is at this point that social exclusion emerged toward single people, divorcees, non-heterosexuals, the childless, and those who do not or cannot work. Michel Foucault said that this exclusion was caused by pathologization (in that such conditions were marginalized and discriminated against as abnormalities or illness) in modern society.
In short, the modern capitalist society has a center-periphery structure that is based around heterosexual men. Around the heterosexual men who are married with children are arranged such people as women, the single, the disabled, and non-heterosexuals (that is, sexual minorities), and who are all constantly excluded and discriminated against socially. This is a rough sketch of our society today.
Neoliberalism and Art
The reason I have been discussing the modern capitalist society and the structure of discrimination and configuration of gender that results from it is that I believe it forms an important perspective for considering art today.
For instance, that contemporary art is very closely interlinked with the movement campaigning for the rights of sexuality minorities in the United States and Europe needs no introduction here. Keith Haring is surely a representative example of this, though one can clearly understand the reason based on the structure I have outlined above. In short, it is an objection from the periphery to the center. More than just being itself a peripheral activity, contemporary art made it possible to fight alongside sexual minorities whose existence was likewise peripheral. Whether this was in thought or philosophy, in visual art or other forms of art, or whether it was Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, or Judith Butler, or Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, or Robert Mapplethorpe, these people’s sexualities attract attention and references to sexuality accompany discussion of these people for no other reason than that people see a “periphery” in this and in these “peripheral perspectives” can sense the presence of decisive perspectives for analyzing society today. At the same time, peripheral perspectives and objections are criticisms of and objections to the profit-making system that is capitalism as well as objections to heterosexual-centrism.
Recently, #MeToo has become well known as a movement campaigning against the sexual harassment and assault of women. This is also surely another objection from the periphery. What is important when investigating its practice is the point that is a challenge to the profit-making system that is capitalism. We lately often hear about neoliberalism, a term that includes the word “liberal” but here referring to economic liberalism. The liberty in neoliberalism is a liberty for the strong, for making it easier for capitalists to pursue profit. On the other hand, in the liberty that is unrelated to making profit—the liberty for protecting the existential nature or dignity of people, or what we might call the liberty for the weak—the value of “political liberty” undoubtedly exists. The practices of both #MeToo and Keith Haring are the pursuit of this political liberty and, in that sense, can be evaluated as phenomena loaded with the history of civilization, taking an overview of modern society, and exposing and denouncing the structural discrimination and violence within that society. It is for this reason that I attach great significance to Dumb Type performance S/N (1994).
But what about the situation in art in Japan today? Alongside my work discussing the relationship between art and society, I have also frequently come across situations at art projects where I observe women doing almost all of the auxiliary tasks and cooking, where a gender-based division of roles continues to exist between men and women, where there is no perspective that sex or gender is something that is based on gender identity (rather than something that is forced on people by others), and where sexual minorities are excluded from the project in advance. Right now, when we think of artistic practice—that is, contemporary art and performance—as looking obliquely at existing values or as a contrarian practice, and if this is a practice that is blind to gender structures and sexism, sexual minority rights, or the existence of others on the periphery of society, can we really say that this is “artistic practice” in the true meaning of the term? Is it not then merely the art of patronage that exists only for the strong to exploit the weak, for varnishing the current power structure? In which case, while the form is different, it is perhaps the same as the artists who created war paintings in cooperation with the military authorities during the Asia-Pacific War. That is what I think. I believe that now is the time for deepening discussions in art about political liberty in terms of gender, sexuality, labor, equality, and consent.
Sohei Yamada is an associate professor at Kyoto Seika University. He completed his postgraduate studies at Nagoya University and has a PhD in literature. He was previously a research resident at the Japan Foundation for AIDS Prevention, deputy director at the Kansai AIDS Council, and a researcher on AIDS prevention strategies for the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. He edited LGBT & Art That Fights (Osaka: Horitsu Bunka Sha, 2016) and contributed to Mille-feuille 04: How to Make Today (Kyoto: AKAAKA, 2012), Gender and Liberty (Tokyo: Sairyusha, 2013), Kunisaki Art Festival Document Book (Tokyo: Bijtsu Shuppan-Sha, 2015), Cocoroom, the Coffee Shop That Makes a Place for Expression in Kamagasaki (Tokyo: Film Art, 2016), and more. He is currently director of the nonprofit Art NPO Link, an executive committee member of HAPS, and a member of the selection committee for the Association for Corporate Support of the Arts grant program that funds arts and culture projects helping in the recovery of areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. In recent years, he also works as an artist, creating the installation Water Map (Beppu, 2013) as well as the performances Drinking Water (ARTZONE, 2013) and Story of the Well (atelier GEKKEN, 2013), among others.