[I would like to thank Jeffrey Jerome Cohen for inviting me to contribute to In The Middle and for welcoming me into the unfamiliar territory of blogodemia. I first stumbled into the milieu of this Medieval Studies Group blog when looking for articles on Derrida’s Specters of Marx and was thrilled to read Jeffrey’s review of Steven Kruger’s The Spectral Jew. On a later visit I happened upon a mention of my own work on the Derrideaness of Queer Theory which I was greatly energized to find in a discussion of the Jewishness of (queer) theory and even more delighted to see described as hopeful, a tone I have been trying to adopt in my recent work. When I wrote to Jeffrey to tell him this he asked me for some thoughts on queer futurity in the past so the following is the (tentative) beginning of an article (a not obviously medieval one to be sure) for a special issue of Rethinking History on the iconoclastic American historian Sande Cohen. This is a prolegomena, or I am tempted to say a problogomena, to a longer article on queering history and responsibility to the future which will have more to say about Cohen’s History out of Joint, Jean-Luc Nancy’s ‘Finite History’, Lyotard on infancy and the event, and Caputo’s Against Ethics on the child]
“To be offered, or to receive the offer of the future, is to be historical”- Nancy, The Birth to Presence
In a recent issue of PMLA (2005) Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon revisited some of the terrain charted in Goldberg’s Queering the Renaissance (1994) just over ten years ago, in an effort to alter the ways in which we do the history of sexuality. The challenges they pose to historiography in that article will have, or ought to have, serious ramifications, beyond the field of early modern or Renaissance Studies. I also have no doubt that the methodological propositions Goldberg and Menon make will be enormously productive for those historians who seek to queer the past, and to undo the history of homosexuality. My worry, and it is a major concern, is that the kind of anti-teleological project they propose may only be useful for queering the past and challenging “the notion of a determinate and knowable identity, past and present”. That is to say, Goldberg and Menon’s essay closes off the future, refuses an ethical opening onto the queer future, says fuck the future in much the same way that Lee Edelman does in his polemical book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. (2004). What I wish to argue is that Goldberg and Menon have fallen under the sway of Edelman and this represents a dangerous turn not just for queer historiography but for queer ethico-political thought more generally. I suggest that Goldberg’s own turn away from Derrida and the problems it brings, both for the politicality of the political and the futurality of the future, could be averted by re-turning to Derrida’s Specters of Marx, a book which came out in the same year as Queering the Renaissance. It was, of course, Derrida’s Politics of Friendship which Alan Bray argued (in The Friend) would become the new political charter, rather than Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Volume One, for an anti-identitarian queer ethical project, one that does not block off the possibilities of differently imagined futures. Specters of Marx (1994) lays the foundations for many of the concepts developed further in Politics of Friendship (1996) two years later: mourning, spectrality, messianicity, hauntology, impossibility and the perhaps but it is to the earlier text, at once a brilliant reading of Marx and a virtuoso philosophical reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that I turn to find philosophico-historical concepts which might help us produce a queer historiography which bears a responsibility to the past, the present and the future.
But first let me briefly introduce some of the concepts which Goldberg and Menon develop in their article. The first is “unhistoricism” which they set up in opposition to “a historicism which proposes to know the definitive difference between the past and the present”. Rather than embracing ahistoricism, as Valerie Rohy does in a recent GL Q article, they argue against a prevailing historicism (misidentified by them as to be found in the work of David Halperin and Valerie Traub) which emphasizes alterity over sameness. In refusing the way that “history has come to equal alterity” Goldberg and Menon choose instead to practice what they call “homohistory”. Homohistory is set up in opposition to “a history based on heterodifference”. Now, this is not a history of homos but rather this history would be “invested in suspending determinate sexual and chronological differences while expanding the possibilities of the nonhetero, with all its connotations of sameness, similarity, proximity, and anachronism”. The third concept they propose is “idemtity”, invoking the earliest usage of the word in 1570 in opposition to what has come to be sedimented in what we call identity, usually in the concrete formulation, identity politics. They say that pursuing “the project of queering under the rubric of identity or alterity, then, might productively push categories-in this instance, the categories of sameness and difference that serve congruent normalizing purposes in both the field of history and the domain of sexuality”. Finally, Goldberg and Menon reject what they term “heterotemporality” or the compulsory heterotemporality which bedevils historicism whether it “insists on difference or produces a version of the normative same”. They set the historian two challenges, firstly a deheterochronologization which would seek “to resist mapping sexual difference onto chronological difference such that the difference between past and present becomes also the difference between sexual regimes”, and secondly “to challenge the notion of a determinate and knowable identity, past and present”. So far so good, but for all this emphasis on differàntial history, or homohistory, and resistance to the strictures of knowability and possibility, Goldberg and Menon still remain teleologically bounded, to the past and the present, a capitulation which in the end refuses and forecloses, is spooked by the promise of, the future.
Lest it sounds as if I am being, like any good deconstructionist, a little bit too suspicious, let me trace this resistance to futurity back to Goldberg’s recent collection of essays Shakespeare’s Hand, where he acknowledges his enormous debt to Derrida but admits his growing impatience with the politics of deconstruction, claiming that deconstruction, “is itself a politics of a kind of patience that risks maintaining the status quo in the belief that the divisions and differences that make any moment or regime non-self-identical are the resources of futurity”. It is hard to see how one can square this with the projects of homohistory or the new unhistoricism. Goldberg goes on to reject his own Derridean past more emphatically in ways which sound distinctly Edelmanian; he says “I do not agree with the stance of biding one’s time that seems to go along with a certain ‘proper’ philosophical attitude, and I have even less tolerance for the notion that some spectral regime may some day herald a future worth waiting for”. Now that book was written two years before Edelman’s No Future where Edelman argues that heteronormativity and compulsory heterotemporality are imbricated with reproductive futurism (something Michael Warner had already argued years before with the brilliant coinage “reproteleology”) and also explains how homosexuals and homosexuality come to figure the death drive, something he urges queers to embrace (how teleological is that? Freud’s death drive is after all about a return to origins, a determinable endpoint) when faced with the fascist figure of the Child. He coins the neologism sinthomosexual based on the Lacanian term sinthome, to designate an an-archic resistance to meaning which unsettles any (literal) belief in the subject (maybe that should be Subject) or in futurity ( I am all for the first but not for the sinthomosexual’s unethical refusal of the future,which amounts to a Zizekian disdain for all the “democracy-to-come-deconstructionist-postsecular-Levinasian-respect-for-Otherness suspects” as he calls Liberals like Butler and Derrida in The Parallax View). In her own recent article “Spurning Teleology in Venus and Adonis”, Madhavi Menon reads Adonis’ refusal of heterosexual reproductivity in Shakespeare’s poem and his embrace of failure in terms which implicitly recognize him as what Edelman would call a sinthomosexual. What Edelman, Goldberg, and Menon seem to be arguing for is a swerve away from intelligibility, a refusal of literality and meaning in the direction of a sinthomosexual or homohistorical embrace of “the logic that makes it [the sinthomosexual as pure sign] a figure for what meaning can never grasp?” This is a move which Edelman, Goldberg and Menon never make because it would give us over to futurity, to the telepoietic, to the event as surprise, to the promise of a kind of religio-political redemption, to what Derrida calls the emancipatory messianic promise. In opposition to the sinthomosexual which is only im-plicitly ethical (and in Edelman explicitly unethical), I propose what I would like to call the phantomosexual or more properly and in less identitarian fashion, phantomohistory (fantôme is French for specter or its synonym ghost), a queer history which is haunted by the past, the endlessly contested and contestable present, and the undecidable and unmasterable future to-come. Phantomohistoriography would also be what I would term, a little awkwardly, historiopitality, an ethico-affective history which is not about exorcising the ghosts of/or the past but to make them, as Derrida puts it in Specters “come back alive, as revenants who would no longer be revenants, but as other arrivants to whom a hospitable memory or promise must offer welcome-without certainty, ever, that they present themselves as such. Not in order to grant them the right in this sense but out of a concern for justice”.
Now, I turn very briefly to conjure the specters, or phantoms, of Derrida. From “Force of Law” in 1989, Derrida’s first explicit foray into the juridico-ethico-political sphere his work has taken on an ethico-political cast, is marked, or structured, by what he calls a certain “religion without religion”, a kind of political messianism or what he has continually called a “messianicity without messianism”. Derrida’s “political messianism” involves a Levinasian-Blanchotian aporicity, a crossing of the uncrossable, a passing through the impassable (or an experience of the impossible), an infinite resonsibility before and ex-posure to the Other, or as he puts it in The Gift of Death, “all the other others” (both living and dead), to what Levinas calls “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger”. This religious (without religion) political demand, to recognize the singularity of the tout autre entails a messianic waiting without waiting for the (in)coming of the wholly other, making way for an incalculable, undeconstructable, abyssal, khoric justice, for the democracy to-come. The democracy to-come makes a demand on us in the here and now but the present, as Nancy and Derrida aver, is always unpresentifiable. Derrida’s particular take on historicity does not involve “an end of history or an anhistoricity” but rather:
A matter of thinking another historicity-not a new history or still less a “new historicism”, but another opening of event-ness as historicity that permitted one not to renounce, but on the contrary to open up access to an affirmative thinking of the messianic and emancipatory promise as promise: as promise and not as onto-theological or teleo-eschatological program or design.
By structuring historicity as emancipatory promise and the monstrous arrivant of/as justice “the very dimension of events irreducibly to come” Derrida stubbornly refuses to program the future, choosing instead to tear up chrono-phenomeno-temporality (to tear up Being/Dasein and Time). This tearing, these abrupt breaches are “the condition of a re-politicization, perhaps of another concept of the political”. (In fairness to Edelman he never does set out a political program and this opens up the ethical possibility of reconfigured futures even if he disavows them).If this sounds like an untimely politics then that is because, for Derrida, the time is “out of joint” and this temporal unhinging and disjoining is closely aligned to what Derrida calls the specter, the phantom, or the ghost. In Dertrida’s ana(r)chronic view of historicity and temporality, the radical untimeliness of the spectre signifies both an event of the past and of the future (“it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again”) and skews the chrono-temporal dimensions of past event and future-to-come (“a specter is always a revenant and thus it begins by coming back”). The phantomohistory or spectrohistoriography I am arguing for is marked by similar circulations and returns of differential or differàntial repetition (here deleuze meets Derrida and Cohen recognizes this I think) and like Derrida’s hauntology “dislodges any present out of its contemporaneity with itself” and thereby determines “historicity as future-to-come”. Spectrality in Derrida’s ethico-political-messianic scheme is similar to homohistory and idemtity, but differs (and defers) insofar as it encompasses the infinite ethical relationship and the political precisely as messianic future-to-come, or what Nancy calls finite history. At the “end” of Specters of Marx Derrida encourages others to join him in lending an ear to the specters that hover around him and us and prophetically warns us that “If he loves justice at least, the ‘scholar’ of the future, the ‘intellectual’ of tomorrow should learn it from the ghost”. One scholar prepared to learn from ghosts is John Caputo who argues, following Benjamin and Levinas, that the historian’s cultural responsibility is to the past, the present and the future. In his article “No Tear Shall be Lost: The History of Prayers and Tears” Caputo agues that history and justice come too late for the dead but that the “irreparability of the past goes hand in hand with the open-endedness of the future, with the radicality of the to-come, so that the more intensely we experience the tension and intensity of the past, the prayers and tears of the past, the more radically we pray and weep on their behalf for a future to come, the more radically we pray and weep “viens, oui, oui, viens!”.
Before I conclude (and open up to others in the middle) I want to stage with Caputo a deliberately counter-polemical argument for the future to-come as it is embodied in the spectral figure of the child, merely to highlight the unethical trap into which historians who follow Edelman, as I think Goldberg and Menon do, will fall. Here’s Caputo:
The child is the future, the other that is the same and not the same, the one to whom past and present generations are asked to give without return. The child is no less a paradigm for the historian, for the children are the ones to come in history no less than in the family. History is being written for the children, to children, and it is to the children that we call “come”, for whom we pray and weep, viens, oui, oui. The historian writes in the time between the dead and the children, between irreparable suffering and hope for the unforeseeable to-come”.
To finish then, but not to have done with all these ghosts, I am arguing that the term queer, in its spectral indeterminacy, makes way for historiographical practices that do justice to the reven(an)tal effects of the irreparable past as they live on in the present and to the specters/revenants who will come in the unanticipatable future-to-come. For, as Derrida says “It is a proper characteristic of the specter, if there is any, that no one can be sure if by returning it testifies to a living past or to a living future... A phantom never dies, it remains always to come and to come back… The thinking of the specter… contrary to what good sense leads us to believe, signals toward the future”. What I am calling phantomohistory, is a phantomalization of queer history or what Carla Freccero in Queer/Early/Modern calls a “fantasmatic historiography”, a spectrohistoriography which extends hospitality and justice to the wholly Other, living or dead, dreams of, prays and weeps over, the messianic time, the time of what Goldberg was once able to call “the history that will be”.