The Youth Issue: Jesse Finkelstein Chats Up Dr. Bertholdt Heindreich

We’ve been pretty artsy as of late, so for today’s installment of The Youth Issue we’ve decided to get all theoretical and shit with this fanciful conversation between homo-journo Jesse Finkelstein and queer theorist, Dr. Bertholdt Heindreich.

After the jump, see what Finkelstein and Heindreich has to say about the evolution of so-called “Youth”, the relationship between guppies and gays and why the Mark Foley’s scandal’s not only insanely boring, but speaks volumes about the establishment’s fear of children.

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Jesse Finkelstein: Dr. Heindreich, I want to thank you for sitting down with Queerty for our special issue on Youth. Your knowledge will certainly add a crucial perspective to our discussion of this topic.

Bertholdt Heindreich: You mean the old perspective! [Laughs]

JF: Well that, and the academic one.

BH: I would rather just the old. [Again with the laughter]

JF: You’ve written a number of recent articles on LGBT issues that refer directly to queer culture and its relationship to youth. I’m thinking, in particular, of your work on the Mark Foley scandal. I was hoping that you could talk a bit about this.

BH: Of course. Well, the thing to understand about Youth—and this is very much on display in your country—is its representative function. The notion of Youth, as an independent species, or subspecies, is a fairly recent phenomenon, not unlike the origins of Homosexuality as a medical condition and later a scientifically naturalized act. Both terms, Youth and Homosexuality, fit within a set of biological and psychological laws peculiar to the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.

JF: So what you’re saying is that Youth—with a capital Y as you write in your articles—is a historically conditioned term. But haven’t all cultures created that divide between old and young. I think of someone like Horace or Shakespeare: poets who made no secret of their reverence of youth.

BH: Yes, yes. Of course, there are things that you can do at your age that I could never do at mine. One’s body and mind changes. However, the arbitrary separations or divisions of youth that exist today— “well, you’re a teenager if you are between 12 and 15”, and so forth — are not neutral. Think of the accompanying medical discourse on each stage of youth. When you’re a teenager, you receive a general practitioner with expertise of the pubescent body, a psychologist who specializes on the adolescent mind, as well as medication to treat ADHD and depression.

You see there is an entire discourse that distinguishes and operates on Youth [as if it’s] its own species. In the Classical conception age was looked at as the transition from animality to humanity, so that Youth was considered the primitive stage of one’s development. The Classical treatment of Youth was retained through boarding schools, which surreptitiously imposed bourgeois values on [their] students. The notion of Youth as animals was transformed into the Modern view of Youth as early adults—humans awaiting their full potential. Despite this transition of terms, a similar system of confinement and surveillance was deployed, but this time it was justified not to control the animal propensities of the young, but to ensure the right biological and psychological maturation of the young into adulthood.

JF: So, is the concern in the Foley scandal that those Congressional interns that were harassed will not experience their appropriate maturation? That they will fail to normalize?
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BH: Yes and no. Certainly there is the implicit concern that those interns will fail to normalize, but we must now switch gears and understand Youth as not simply fitting within a scientific or medical discourse, but also serving a representative function. Beyond the political contrivances of Left and Right—as if there was a true difference—Youth served a function in the scandal.

What is so interesting about the Foley case, unlike let’s say the pedophiles of the Vatican, is the way the conversations were depicted in the media. You had very few interns come out and speak against Mr. Foley; instead we were treated to conversations held over instant messages. With no instance of physical contact with minors, the only evidence leveled against Foley was these IM come-ons. They were extraordinarily boring, right! “Oh, I bet you have a nice body;” “Oh, send me pictures of your chest.” Foley should have been arrested for his uninspired advances.

Regardless, two important issues are at stake. First, is the depiction of the internees, some of who willingly engaged with Foley in these sexual flirtations. We are terribly afraid of Youth sexuality, and all too often defer to representations of single direction of power focused entirely on Youths, as if they were non-agents. This is not to say that a person courts abuse, but that when one of these interns engaged with Foley, sexually, we refuse to recognize the intern’s agency.

JF: I’m sorry to interrupt, but just to clarify—you’re suggesting that the Foley case sparks controversy because it complicates our perception of Youth. That some of these interns enjoyed and even sought a sexual relationship with Foley. And this sexualized behavior contends with society’s attempts to normalize and socialize the young. Am I right, thus far?

BH: Very good, yes.

JF: But that doesn’t justify Foley’s behavior. He was in a position of power, and as such it is difficult to know whether the interns acted freely or because they were pressured to do so.

BH: That point is moot. I’m not interested in the sexual harassment implications, which, in my mind, are clear. Nor am I interested in providing a justification for Foley. My point is merely that the IMs, which were made available by the media, show an exchange [that] depicts Youth not just as the recipient of sexual advances, but also as the instigator and reciprocator. Furthermore, it is not just this idea of the sexualized Youth that is so problematic, but it is the sexualized Youth with agency in the context of government, who [then] communicate this agency through the Internet.
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JF: Ah, I think I see where you’re going with this. So the real issue here is representations of agency.

BH: Exactly. What Youth, and in particular gay Youth, represent is this fear of a “reversed” discourse. You see, power is not unidirectional—it’s polyvalent. When the literature in the nineteenth century framed Homosexuality as a subspecies, it also made possible a “reverse” discourse. Homosexuality began to speak on its own behalf, as Foucault says. Similarly, Youth, as a distinct biological and psychological unit, can speak on its own behalf, and is showing this through reclamations of sexuality and most powerfully through the Internet.

JF: That’s why the Foley case is so sensationalized.

BH: That and, I am sure, a host of other reasons. But for our purposes, since this is the Youth issue, we focus on this aspect.

JF: This has been extraordinarily enlightening. Thank you again for your time.

BH: Certainly, and next time you must come over and we’ll do this over a nice glass of wine.

JF: Are you coming on to me?

BH: Only if you want me to.

JF: Ha Ha. Ok, um, bye.

Image Notes:
Perugino, “Portrait of a Youth”, 1495
Mark Foley, in happier, younger times.
Artist Unknown, “Michel Foucault” (We have no idea who did this drawing of Michel Foucault, but we found it on this website. Everything’s in Italian, so if someone wants to translate…)