Envisioning the World We Make -- Continued

This is the text of the talk I presented at the Gay American History @ 40 Conferernce, on May 6, 2016, at The New School, in New York City.

I began:

Here’s the mode of production of this conference. Daniel Marshall gave birth to the idea. He carried the baby to Claire Bond Potter at The New School Digital Humanities Initiative and she blessed it. Kevin Jennings, head of the Arcus Foundation, funded it. Nan Boyd, John D’Emilio, Steven Seidman, and Randall Sell advised. Kevin Nadal, director of the Center for LGBT Studies at CUNY lent the support of CLAGS.  Kevin Ewing was hired to organize the event, and he and many others unknown to me have made it happen.

Contrary to the structuralist/functionalists the human agents are agenting, the subjects are alive and kicking, the authors are not dead. The constructors are constructing, the producers producing.

This has been so exciting, and such an honor. Thanks.

Forty years after Gay American History I still love digging up the empirical evidence that reveals us humans in all our historically specific glory or debauchery. 

For example, thanks to a successful freedom of information act request, OutHistory recently published 92 pages from the Journal of the President of Mississippi Southern College, 1955-65. These document, in blatant, homophobic detail, the purging of homosexuals from the campus of what is now the University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg.

But along with such empirical, manual labor, I’m also deeply interested in the theorizing that helps us understand the human making of the human world, past and present.

In the essay I published on OutHistory in February, “Envisioning the World We Make,” I began to present my understanding of what I called the “social-historical mode of construction.“ 

To comprehend humans’ shaping of this world, I suggested, we need to study the particular historical character and organization of certain basic elements of the construction process.

I proposed that every human construction process includes a minimum of ten basic elements: actors, their aims, materials, means of action, acts, time, space, objects and effects constructed, the relationships among all these elements, and their modes of organization.

These abstractly conceived elements and modes, I stressed, exist and can only be studied in their empirically specific, social-historical forms.  

I presented this abstract, general model as a tool for analyzing the empirical data that illuminates historically specific arrangements of human activity.

The value of the proposed theoretical model, I suggested, will only become clear when this conceptual tool is applied creatively, to reveal the variable, infinite complexity of the empirically documented social world.

To suggest how this abstract model might work as analytical tool, I applied it to heterosexuality, the love whose history dares not speak its name.

But in the course of further study, I’ve become concerned. I worry about  presenting mode of production theory specifically as a tool for analyzing sexua lhistory. That may seem to limit the general application of mode of production theory.

So, today, I stress: a combination of social construction theory and Marxist mode of production theory is a conceptual tool for analyzing the social-historical ordering of all kinds of human activity.


Since publishing the “Envisioning” essay I’ve continued to study the close relationship between social construction theory, Marxist mode of production theory, and other social-historical paradigms.

I have looked at the various conceptual models applied to the social study of sexuality: Social Construction Theory; Scripting Theory; Network Theory;  Choice Theory; and Field Theory. 

I have investigated what models are informing the study a newly named “critical heterosexual history.”

I’ve begun to survey what’s been said about the social-historical construction of gender, with particular attention to the work of feminist, left transgender authors, and what’s been said about the subjective making of that weird thing non-trans gender.

I’ve begun to research the history of ideas about the social construction of race, and its intersection with other major social divisions.

I’ve considered what radical and Marxist feminists have said about the social–historical construction of women’s work in the capitalist domestic sphere.

I’ve read what feminists have said about the role of women in the organization of human reproduction, the mode of producing new humans.

I’ve looked again at sociologist Talcott Parsons’ formulations of his self-styed “voluntary” theory of human action. I’ve continued to marvel at how this once prominent thinker managed to completely ignore Marxist “mode of production” theory. That focuses centrally on the historically changing distribution among humans of the means of effective action.

I’ve looked at discussions of mode of production theory in works tracing the transition from one mode of production to another, from feudalism to capitalism, for instance.

I’ve studied works that develop mode of production theory in reference to colonialism and imperialism, economic development and underdevelopment. 

I’ve studied Marx’s  analysis of the production of “use values” in contrast to the  production of “exchange values.”  I’ve looked at works that contrast capitalism’s production of objects for profit, with a socialism’s production of objects for human use.


The purpose of those studies was to better understand the relation of Marxist mode of production theory and social construction theory. I’ve now concluded that those theories, as I understand them, are identical.

When Marx focused his analysis on the history and character of capitalism, he came up with a major insight about society in general. He saw human societies as different ways humans organize the construction of the human world. Societies, he saw, are different human ways of making things.

But because Marx focused on capitalism he failed to fully develop his general insight into human societies as ways of organizing all kinds of all kinds of production. That’s because, under capitalism, only waged acts which produce profit are considered “productive.” Given that criteria, women’s unwaged work in the domestic sphere is not productive. The procreation and education of new humans is not productive. Marx’s years of work analyzing the capitalist economy was not productive.  

Under capitalism, a major, qualitative distinction is made between profit-producing activities, organized as the “economy,” and “other” “fields” of activities distinguished as ideological, political, legal, scientific, cultural, educational, familial, etc. 

The capitalist economy is conceived of as distinct from the system of idea construction, the production of scientific knowledge, the creation of culture, the domestic, familial, and educational system productive of new humans, the political, legal, policing and military institutions that produce coercion.    

I suggest that all kinds of human activity are organized as historically specific, co-existing, interrelated modes of production.

I suggest that we extend Marxist mode of production theory beyond what is now usually thought of as “economic acts” and the “economy.” I suggests that we need to study the arrangements under which human activity constructs all sorts of things and effects.

We need, for example, to analyze the mode of production of ideas within today’s U.S. colleges and universities. 

We need to analyze the production within academia of ideas about the  production of ideas within academia.

We need to analyze the hierarchical division of manual and mental labor within academia that radically separates theorizing about modes of production from empirical research on modes of production. 

We need to critique from the left the obscure, high academic language used by many theorists to assert their brilliance, and establish their own social capital within the hierarchies of academia.

We need new, creative new ways of talking to people about relations between theory and practice, and the strategies for radical, progressive change.

In discussing the extension of Marxist mode of production theory to all human acts, I hope to stimulate public debate on the usefulness of these ideas about society and history.

I suggest that some of us might want to form local Critical History Study Groups, to discuss the relation between social construction theory and Marxist mode of production theory, and their application to sexuality, sex, gender, class, race, power, human action, and the creation of a more just social world. 

When an openly admitted “democratic socialist” can run for President of the United States, garnering huge numbers of enthusiastic supporters, it’s time to take a second look at Marxism as a theory of the human making, and remaking, of the human world.

I look forward to your response here, and emailed to OutHistory@gmail.com You will be able to read this talk soon on OutHistory.org.  

                                                                       Added to OutHistory May 24, 2016, 5:57 EST