Dr Jonathan Kemp is an author, an academic and a DJ. Ahead of his set at the huge Glamour Factory party this weekend Patrick Cash spoke to him about how all these facets slot together, and his work The Penetrated Male.
Tell us a bit about yourself – who is Dr Jonathan Kemp?
Who am I? Good question. It depends on which day of the week, or which head I’m wearing at that time. I’m from Manchester originally, born in Manchester, raised in Cheshire, moved to London in 1989. I am currently working as a teacher of creative writing and I write books and I DJ.
How did you become a doctor?
I did my first degree in the late 80s and by the end of it I was completely turned onto sexual politics and the emerging lesbian/gay politics which predated queer theory, and so when I moved to London I discovered there was an MA in gender studies at Birkbeck part-time which meant I could continue to work, so I did that for two years, and when that finished I inherited some money and I decided to something with it that I wouldn’t have been able to do without the money. And that was a Master of Philosophy in Sussex down in Brighton and when I was finishing that my money was running out and I started working for an academic who lived in Soho and she taught at the Greenwich University and she was very interested in the work that I was doing, and wanted me to do a pHD with her. I said ‘I’d love to, but I don’t have any money left’, and she said there’s a bursary going, why don’t you apply for this bursary? This was the late 90s – ’98 I started my pHD. So I applied for the bursary thinking I was never going to get it, and I got it. It took my five years to do my pHD and I completed my doctorate in 2003.
Who was the academic in Soho?
Her name’s Johnny Golding, she now teaches at Birmingham. She’s an amazing, amazing woman.
Fantastic. And, where did the inspiration for your pHD thesis come from?
Well as I was saying the other night [at a reading of The Penetrated Male], I didn’t set out to write a book on the penetrated male, it was just a couple of years into the research I realised that what all these books I was looking at had in common was that at their very heart was this male body being penetrated in some way, whether it was by the eye, through the ear, or in some cases the anus, but it was more a sense in which the male body was being constructed within discourse as an impenetrable entity and once it was penetrated in some manner it became a psychological and existential assault but it also became the source of a strange, fearful pleasure for the subjects that I was looking at in this literature. So I became interested in that ambiguity around the male body, that ambiguity between being necessarily impenetrable by the way in which he gets constructed into discourse that makes it originate from a penetration, a penetration that has to be subsequently disavowed and vigilantly maintained. So it came by accident, I think like most breakthroughs in research they are happy accidents – you set off in one direction thinking you are going to find a particular thing, then you completely stumble upon something else.
What did you think you were going to find initially?
I was looking to map a kind of genealogy of sexual identity, I was very interested in – I’m a kind of dyed-in-the-wool Foucauldian in many ways and I was looking for the literary equivalent to the genealogy of sexual identity he starts to identify in the late nineteenth century so I was seeing if I could map that through particular literary texts to see how those literary texts interfaced with the more medical, scientific development of sexual identity that was being mapped by other scholars like Foucault and post-Foucauldian scholars like Jeffrey Weeks etc. I really thought – because my bedrock in terms of myself as scholar is very much literature, but also that whole emergence of lesbian and gay, and queer studies is very multi-disciplinary, it covers all sorts of things so even analysis of literary texts became embedded with philosophical and more sociological and more scientific approaches to being human, I guess. So in a way it became multi-disciplinary in a study of literature that allowed to take on a greater breadth and a greater depth. And it wasn’t just looking at a text in isolation, it was looking at the ways in which these texts fit into a whole network of other ways of constructing knowledge.
What would you say is the main angle – I know this is asking you to condense this work of intricacy which you’ve laboured over creating – but the main angle of The Penetrated Male?
I think the main angle really is trying to destabilise monolithic masculinity as a penetrating force that should never be penetrated and can never be penetrated. The angle is to dismantle that, and to identify a moment at which the construction of the modern masculine subject necessitates a penetrability that it has to subsequently disavow. There’s a kind of paradox there that can be used to destabilise what is often seen as natural or self-evident about gender so it’s very much tied in with a lot of feminist and post-structuralist discourses about dismantling binary thinking.
So it’s a subversive work against patriarchal society?
In its own little way.