Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Not Knowing In Advance What Forms Our Humanness Will Take

While ruminating Michael's response to JJC's questions, I would like to queerly insert myself here and also ask some questions. I was asked not too long ago to participate on a panel at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo this coming May on queer and feminist theory ["Affinities and Enmities"], which also includes Carolyn Dinshaw and Steven Kruger, and this has me somewhat beside myself with fear and anxiety since I am in many [oh, let's just say *all*] ways unsuited to speak to this subject, unless we consider my connection to this panel to be an instance of queer intermingling where I will join a queer assemblage long in the process of "becoming" . . . something. All kidding [kind of] aside, I have long worked in my own hidden corners without ever really attaching myself to any theoretical "school" or movement [becoming-movement or otherwise], while at the same time, I also recognize that much of what I do with Old English literature and its "linkages" and attachments to seemingly incongruous "non-Old English" texts, images, events, etc. has always been queer, with the purposeful intent of creating queer effects. But there has also always been this knee-jerk tendency in me to always, almost violently even, distance myself from any body of criticism that gathers itself under any kind of "sign," whether that sign is Marxist, feminist, queer, what-have-you. I cling tenaciously to the idea that any system of thought [because queer studies, for all its gesturing to the contrary, still constitutes a system of sorts, even a desiring-industry--however endlessly transmogrifying and "becoming" without beginnings or endings it might be] that I might "buy" into could mean the death of my creativity. Like W.G. Sebald, who is one of my heroes, I seek in my work to "patiently engrave and link together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still-life," and I don't want to subject this often felicitously serendipitous activity to the question of how it might ultimately be situated theoretically. There are certain “queer” pleasures in doing things this way, that I assume any good queer theorist could understand.

Having said that, the more I read in queer theory [in preparation for the panel at Kalamazoo], the more I can see its creative, and even its ethical, powers, while at the same time, I'm a little worried over what gets lost in its endlessly capacious modes of description and signification. In one sense, part of the power of queer studies, it seems to me, lies in the fact that it can be about pretty much everything, and everything, moreover, can be queered. But that also means it can be about nothing at all [and since even "nothing," like death, can be queered, then even "nothing" is not nothing]. Queer theory is generous, open, infinitely plastic, limber, forgiving of everyone and everything, and infinitely productive of different pasts and different futures. These are all good things. It is also exuberant, playful, joyful, and even loving. Good again. It attends to the marginalized, the dispossessed, the disappeared, the untouchables of history; indeed, it "touches" the untouchables, and even desires them and makes them lovable. Queer studies is affective and seeks relations that are always turning themselves inside-out, always multiplying their emotional and other affects so that they can be deployed across and beyond identities [human and non-human] and not ever remain enclosed within static residences or pressed under the weight of supposedly dead histories. This is, again, all to the good. But I sense, too, in Michael's, and in select other writings in queer studies [such as J.J. Cohen and Todd R. Ramlow's "Pink Vectors and Deleuze: Queer Theory and Inhumanism," RHIZOMES 11/12] a subtle disconnect between the idea, espoused by Michael O'Rourke in various places, here and elsewhere, that the future of queer studies will have something to do with a consideration of futurality [a futurality, moreover, that is tied to what might be called the unfinished business of (mourning) past human-becomings], and also with love and amity, and the idea, expressed by Cohen and Ramlow in their essay cited above, that queer studies ultimately aims at the "death of the human," where "the human is simply beside the point" and "death barely seems possible." Articulating this point in a slightly different way in his book Medieval Identity Machines, JJC wrote that queer theory, especially of a Deleuzan bent, helps us to see “the limits of the human as a conceptual category and demarcates a new terrain . . . where identity, sexuality, and desire are no longer constrained by ontology, 'muscle,' or lonely residence in a singular and merely human body” [p. 77].

I guess this is my long-winded way of asking Michael [and even Jeffrey] of how they might traverse or touch or negotiate this divide between a queer studies obsessed with things always about-to-arrive enclosed in "unlived possibilities" and the work of mourning and grieving [very human actions that are, so to say, bent over a certain absence or passing of what-was-human, and also interested in unfinished projects of loving and desiring what-was-human—in returning, even, to once-more-palpable romantic relationships with singularly beautiful human persons] and a queer studies intent on the death of the human. I was struck by a quotation of Judith Butler's [from Undoing Gender] that Cohen and Ramlow included in their essay [supposedly as a support for their assertion that Deleuze and Guattari aimed, together, not at the death of the author but the death of the human, and that Butler would concur]:
“We must learn to live and to embrace the destruction and rearticulation of the human in the name of a more capacious and, finally, less violent world, not knowing in advance what precise form our humanness does and will take.”

I see this statement of Butler’s as not one hundred percent in sympathy with a theoretical project that would aim at the death of the human, but instead as a wish for a differently articulated [spoken, but also lived] humanness that, while discarding [and, sure, killing off] earlier definitions of the human that depend on the demarcation [and suppression] of the supposedly “inhuman,” is somehow not ultimately inhuman, but more fully human. So I guess this leads me to a few more questions, such as: is it possible that, while “human” is a historically problematic description of who and what we are, that, indeed, queer studies is not possible without it? In other words, isn’t queer studies, to a certain extent, a type of flowering of that within us that is most human, most humane, most beautiful, most loving—but loving in a way and fashion that can only really be called human [and even, queerly human]? Not to mention, can queer studies even be thought by anyone/anything not-human? Is it not, in that sense, a very human production? Is it possible that, even if a certain form of queer theorizing could allow us the means whereby we might be able to throw the various atoms and molecules of our being across vast tracts of non-human spaces in order to hook ourselves, as it were, to an “infinitely connective machinery of desire” [Cohen and Ramlow], that our capacity to do this rests, to a certain extent, on our queerness as humans? Is being-human the most queer thing of all [if it involves our ability to always imagine what could be otherwise]? I have one other question, especially for Michael: in what way[s] is a queer studies concerned with futurality post-secular, even theological?

17 comments:

Michael O'Rourke said...

I used to think and have said in various places that queer theory is structured like, or even is, a "religion without religion" and like you say, Eileen, I have often emphasized its uncontainability, open-endedness (becoming), unconditionality and futurality. But, I woud be prepared, on reading your extraordinarily rich provocations, to concede that what I also mean to say is that queer theory is a "theology without theology" or what John Caputo, in the magisterial The Weakness of God calls "a weak theology". Listen to his definition of his theology and I think you capture ( I am your captive guest after all) *my* queer theory (substitute God for queer):

"The abstention that constitutes the diminished state of my theology-God is neither a supreme being nor being itself, neither ontic nor ontological, neither the cause of beings nor the ground of being-represents not a loss but a gain. Blessed are the weak! By untying the name of God from the order of being, it releases the event, sets free the provocation of this name, which disseminates in every direction, setting it free as a voactive force, as an evocative, provocative event, rather than confining its force to the strictures of naming a prsent entity. I approach God neither as a supreme entity whose existence could be proven or disproved or even said to hang in doubt, nor as the horizon of being itself or its ground, either of which would lodge God more deeply still in the onto-theological circuit that circles between being and beings. Being loves to hide, and being loves to cling to itself, but what is going on within the name of God turns the well-rounded sphere of being inside out, prying it open and exposing it, throwing the house of being into holy confusion, into a sacred anarchic disorder".

Michael O'Rourke said...

"Queer theory is generous, open, infinitely plastic, limber, forgiving of everyone and everything, and infinitely productive of different pasts and different futures. These are all good things. It is also exuberant, playful, joyful, and even loving. Good again. It attends to the marginalized, the dispossessed, the disappeared, the untouchables of history; indeed, it "touches" the untouchables, and even desires them and makes them lovable. Queer studies is affective and seeks relations that are always turning themselves inside-out, always multiplying their emotional and other affects so that they can be deployed across and beyond identities [human and non-human] and not ever remain enclosed within static residences or pressed under the weight of supposedly dead histories."

I recognize myself and my queer theory in all of this beautiful, Joy-ful description. Queer Theory is love; queer theory is love for the other, the least among us, the widow, the stranger, the orphan. But the question about queer theory and the death of the human seems to me to be one for JJC. I have never thought of QT as spelling the death of the human but with Butler would argue for the plasticizing or stretching of the human to include all those who have been left outside, beyond the limits of intelligibility, refused the capacity to be fully human. Even if some queer theorists have said they are calling for the end of the human, I'd like to think what they mean is the same as what Derrida meant in Of Grammatology when he heralded the end of the book: that it opens the way for the book to-come, and (as Butler hopes) for the human to-come.

J J Cohen said...

I see this statement of Butler’s as not one hundred percent in sympathy with a theoretical project that would aim at the death of the human, but instead as a wish for a differently articulated [spoken, but also lived] humanness that, while discarding [and, sure, killing off] earlier definitions of the human that depend on the demarcation [and suppression] of the supposedly “inhuman,” is somehow not ultimately inhuman, but more fully human.

Yes. I think we're all on the same page here: O'Rourke, Joy, Ramlow, Cohen, Deleuze, Foucault, Butler. By death of the human Todd and I were using Foucault and Butler as points of departure: not that "the human" goes out the window, defenestrated, RIP -- how could that EVER happen?? (As Sedgewick would say, Human as opposed to what?) Rather, a certain constricted, reductive, and violently limned notion of what it means to be human gets abandoned, making the category capacious enough for that which might otherwise be consigned to the monstrous and the inhuman.

But Eileen you do bring up an issue that I think is very tough to talk about within queer theory: death and mourning. Queer theory is an affirmative practice. It arose in part to disentangle the queer from the death-bound, the tragic, the unlivable. And that's good. But I think it is difficult to find a space within queer theory to think about death and not be accused of making those connections in a destructive way. That's why Todd and I chose to write about Deleuze's death rather than his life. I admit that it's a meditative essay rather than a tightly argued one, but we thought their has to be some critical space for thinking about death that doesn't necessarily get dismissed as wearily repeating that pernicious linkage between the queer and the moribund.

J J Cohen said...

I've thought a little more about my answer and can see that it is not very subtle. The theorists I name do their own projects and go their own way; I shouldn't have reduced them so quickly to a unity (Foucault esp. is probably the odd one out, but Butler famously has had many a problem with Deleuze). But I do think that each philosopher in her or his own way is trying to move beyond a constricted, overly predetermined, immobile notion of what it means to be human. Medievalists are probably not all that gullible in thinking that there ever was one way to inhabit that category, or that "human" has been immune from history ... and maybe that's why they make good allies of queer theorists.

OK, I hope that sheds more light on my muddled thoughts. The other thing I should have added to the note about the problem of death in queer theory is that suicide becomes an utterly unthinkable act (or thinkable as a compulsion that comes from the outside and is internalized, rather than an act with real agency). Suicide, Ia dmit, is almost impossible to speak of without romanticizing or seeming to imply that certain humans ought to end their lives.

J J Cohen said...

Ia dmit = I admit

J J Cohen said...

Here I am, continuing this little conversation with myself, and now thinking that ANOTHER way all this talk about the (in)human from me still lacks depth is its unnuanced use of the so-called Enlightenment conception of the human and of humanism. In other words, I think cautions like that from Karma Lochrie ("Sheer Wonder: Dreaming Utopia in the Middle Ages" JMEMS 36.3) ought to be borne in mind. She writes at some length about how humanism never was the clean break it is amde out to be (Michael Uebel makes a similar and related point about utopia).

J J Cohen said...

amde= made

Michael O'Rourke said...

Jasbir Puar, a barometer of the brilliantly risky in queer theorizing, has written quite a lot on suicide (bombing) and necropolitics in a Deleuzian vein. In the context of what we were saying about queer theory a few days ago and Jeffrey's point about the difficulty of confronting death head on, it is worth remembering that queer theory (however affirmative in its "beginnings") is a discourse that knows all about the future, well, knows that the future is death, that queer theory is always going to die (which is not to repeat what we keep hearing about there being no future, or that queer theory is dead), always will have been going to die. From the affirmative beginning its future will have been its end, which, more affirmatively put, is to say that its future will have been always to begin its ending again. The end of queer theory is the end of queer theory.

J J Cohen said...

this has me somewhat beside myself with fear and anxiety since I am in many [oh, let's just say *all*] ways unsuited to speak to this subject, unless we consider my connection to this panel to be an instance of queer intermingling where I will join a queer assemblage long in the process of "becoming" . . . something.

Can you say more about this Eileen? You've mentioned in the past through fleeting references in posts and comments some of the troubles you have with / ways in which you find troubling queer theory. And now you seem surprised to find yourself invited to the table. Why all the anxiety (other than not wanting to be a member of any club that invites you to the fold)?

Eileen Joy said...

Michael and JJC--I will have something to say in response to your rich provocations to thought [much] later tonight; I was hung up finishing an article all say yesterdau and am teaching all today, but definitely more later!

Eileen Joy said...

Aaargh--how frustrating, but it *is* official: I *am* a workaholic. For that and various other reasons, I have not been able to return to this thread, and now I am en route to S. Carolina for my spring break. If anyone still cares, I *will* return to this thread, which actually means a great deal to me, on Saturday. And in the meantime, cheers to everyone!

And thanks to YOU, JJC, I had to explain Deleuze and Guatarri's "tiny thousand sexes" last night in my monsters & demons seminar [the students had read your chapter on Guthlac]--let's just say, I got some really strange looks [haha].

J J Cohen said...

Just back from walking the dog on a beautiful spring day, thinking about Butler, Joy, the (in)human, and the conversation unfolding here.

Actually, it was the warm weather and the panting dog that made me think about this conversation, because when "climate change" entered my mind, so did Bruno Latour's explication of the machinery of human and non-human agents behind the creation and sustenance of the ozone hole (We Have Never Been Modern), and then I thought: I really like his idea of a democracy of things. That's where much of what I have been arguing about the (in)human differs from Butler and Joy ... like Latour, I was trying to imagine a nonanthropocentric world. It seems to me, Eileen, that in your post here and elsewhere, in your comments on Karl's posts about animals, you've worked hard to keep the human central (is that right?)

Eileen Joy said...

As fate would have it, I am "grounded," so to speak, at Dulles airport in Washington, DC. Apparently my flight to Myrtle Beach will leave at 2:20 am, and let's just say the people who work for United are are really, really grumpy and I'm trying to radiate some queer love their way [haha]. For some wierd reason I think it's kind of fun to be stranded, to be "in the middle" of my trip and here, also, at In The Middle. In this period of late-evening leisure, I can unspool some thoughts [perhaps--I think, perhaps, I say "perhaps" too much].

Working backward: yes, JJC, here in this post and elsewhere, I am working hard to "keep the human central," while at the same time, I'm fully aware of all the ways in which the category and even "state of being" [biological, historical, and otherwise] has not served us well as regards issues of equality, freedom, well-being, ethics, etc. Foucault's "death of Man" [with a capital "M"] I can buy into, but not the death of the human, whether by the posthuman technologies lauded [and fervently hoped for] by Nick Bostrom and his ilk [Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford] or by the embrace of a Deleuzan inhuman circuitry [while of course I love all those open-ended and unconditional becomings--I just see them as only temporarily habitable and also forms of life-as-art which can be sustaining, of course, but more finite in a way that some may be unwilling to recognize]. Maybe the best and worst thing about us is our humanness, but human we are, and I want my body ["mind" also implied here], frail as it is, to be the main point of my congress with the world. I'm not interested in escaping myself or becoming someone or something else [although I do believe in ethical self-effacements, but that's a little different].

As to why, in the past, I have had trouble with queer theory, the answer has something to do with why I have also been uncomfortable with feminist theory in the past: I have worried over how these two theoretical "movements," that have seemed to promise certain radical changes that I believe could be critical to reawakening the best humanist impulses, have often lacked ethical rigor [and can also quickly become dogmatic about certain subjects and stances and also often lapse into merely “fashionable” or “cool” ways of reading texts and history]. On another level, as silly as this might sound, I have just never liked belonging to a "group," if you know what I mean. I'd rather stand off to the side and kind of watch ["I like to watch"--haha].

As regards queer theory, specifically, while I understand that, implicity, at its very origin point, it had to be about sexualities, I found myself becoming disenchanted with the idea that sex and sexuality supposedly retains a certain radical and queering power [or rather, should be our main site of political contestation], and I wanted queer theory to be about more than sex. Just as queer theory may have always been interested in separating itself from the death-bound, why could it not also see, I wondered, that the sex-bound can be an equally stultifying dead-end? Against de Sade and those who read his work as liberatory, I have never believed sex can be a form of strong or efficacious political critique; what it *can* do, in a limited fashion, and in certain times and places, is provide embodied sites where small acts of defiance can be articulated, possibly empowering for a brief while, but then what? [Since I have ordered Edelman's book but have not yet read it, but have some notion of it from Michael O.'s earlier post, I can see how Edelman, in an interesting twist, is embracing the death-bound as well as un-reproductivity--this may seem provocative and daring at first, but is really awfully reductive and perhaps even cowardly and weak as regards ethics, but I also still need to read the book]. Queer theory is about more than sex and sexuality, I know, but over and over again queer theory has circled around issues of sexuality to the point where I felt the subject was being exhausted [and was even becoming boring--the horror!] and what else was there--what about love? In my own work, for several and more years now, I have been mainly interested in what I would call post-secular theological-type theorizing [Zygmunt Bauman, Levinas, Wyschogrod, Derrida, George Kateb, Jane Bennett, hell even Butler, and yes Michael O., some of us *have* been reading the more recent Butler], and I have concentrated upon that, almost like a religious study, thinking mainly about violence, ethics, love, regard for others, mourning, states of wonder, how best to live our lives alongside and *with* others, etc. I can understand why Michael Uebel likes Abraham Maslow so much--because Maslow was deeply invested in the idea that we could be better persons, that the psychic development of "the human" is something worth devoting a lifetime to, with loving optimism, even--the human, not as pathology, but as hopeful potentiality.

More recently, I have been reading much more deeply in queer theory to see if I can understand better its genesis and development, and then along comes Michael O'Rourke to our blog here and I feel like I am seeing a queer theory I had not seen before: it is concerned with ethics, concerned as much with love as it is with sex, and is considering questions of the past's relation to the future which I have normally only encountered in writers like Levinas, Benjamin, and Wyschogrod [and now, of course, I must read Caputo, and I will]. Thanks to Michael, I am now reading Derrida's "The Politics of Friendship" [and I wonder if he has read Derrida's amazing book on Levinas and hospitality, "Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas"?]. I have also just stumbled upon "The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology," with three essays by Eric Santner, Slavoj Zizek, and Kenneth Reinhard, and am wondering if Michael has also read this, and what he thinks about it. And what about Santner's recent "On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald"?--it looks to have all the earmarks of an approach that Michael has been advocating and that could also be called Deleuzan [without being Deleuzan]. This is all just to say that now I am thinking queer theory could be a very powerful ally with, in Michael's terms, Derrida, but in my terms, I would say with Levinas, or with post-secular and weak-ontological thought more generally. I think this is genuinely exciting, but I guess I would also like to ask Michael how he sees the ideas he expressed in his first blog post here more practically? How, more specifically, might a "queer historiography which bears a responsibility to the past, present, and future" look like when, say, applied to a particular reading of a text or even to the bones piled in a mass gravesite in Rwanda? Or, to put it another way, is queer theory now a philosophy [as opposed to, say, being a way to read texts or certain historical moments and events and persons]? And what, now, makes this philosophy queer? Is it not, instead, post-ontological, therefore also post-queer [because doesn't a queer theory require a queer ontology]? Is queer theory a philosophy of embrace? Could it hold open [and *hold*] a site for a new humanism, a humanism that has never happened but that has always been implicit in the human as a potentiality?

JJC [again]: while I know a big part of queer theory was releasing the queer from the "death-bound" trajectory, the human is, indeed, death-bound, but I think a *strong* queer theory would be obliged, nevertheless, to undertake the work of mourning--mourning can be, not a capitulation to death, but a resistance to it in the refusal to let mourning have a "normal" form and/or terminus [think of Cindy Sheehan and her refusal to *stop* mourning her son; as a form of political protest, she leaves her mourning permanently "open" and un-closed]. I was a member of Act Up and Queer Nation in the mid-1980s and I was one of the first, in other words, to embrace "queer"--I *am* queer, but I am also *more* than queer. It is in this *more*--to steal from Wyschogrod, in this unincorporable infinite of the human person--that I would like to see queer theory tarry and linger and study and love.

Michael O'Rourke said...

Thanks for your post Eileen. I'm really pleased to find someone who sees queer theory the way I do--it is not just about sex (although there is still much to be done on sex and sexuality so that QT will never get boring), embraces ethics, love, the other. Queer theory for me is a philosophy but while I would agree with you that we need the "more than" queer I'm not sure we need to start heralding the post-queer (if QT has yet to linger over all those things you describe then how can it ever have been queer). Also I would call queer a deontology rather than a post-ontology for similar reasons.

Although I rarely deal with texts in practical terms, by which I mean literary ones, I have been trying to work practically on the ethics of reading with a colleague here in Dublin, Eamonn Dunne. We are in the early stages of a project called The Pervert's Guide to Reading which uses Derrida, Caputo, De man and Hillis Miller among other to develop a queer or perversely deconstructive reading of texts--we wind through a number of tropes: perverformativity, anacoluthon, anastomosis, catachresis among others--and texts to think about pedagogy and our responsibility towards the text, in short, to the demands the text and the past and future make on us. On mass graves in Rwanda you could look to Jean-Luc Nancy on the melee and sacrifice to think about a queer philosophy of love wich bears a responsibility to the past, present and future.

I have read Adieu and the idea of unconditional hospitality is a useful one to think about how Queer Theory needs to facilitate or open up to that which has been outside its range of concerns. It also offers the resources for a queer work of mourning. I have read most of The Neighbor (I mentioned it in response to Karl's necrobestiality post) and Reinhard's is the most interesting essay. I quote it at the end of my "The Roguish Future of Queer Studies" article. I think there is much in Reinhard's Badiou to help us articulate a queer theory without condition, a queer theory of dissensus, and a queer theory which says I love (u).

Eileen Joy said...

Michael--I like your idea of queer studies as a de-ontology, as opposed to a post-ontology. Thank you for your further thoughts on all this, and for all the rich reading references you have provided here and elsewhere.

Michael O'Rourke said...

Yes, and by a de-ontology I also mean a weak ontology or an ontology without ontology.

decayetude said...

1.I think Sebald had a lot of the answers:
reparation of gay lives through re-telling many homosexual narratives(and some ambiguous ones involving a lot of homosociality!); he re-claimed these marginalised/spectralized lost lives through bringing them into the present; linking to
2. Bloch(reinterpreted in a "queer" way by Munoz) and his ideas of the better future having its roots in realizing what had gone wrong in the past; the past could be INCLUDED in the present, in sort of vertical time (or queerly so, in Munoz)so that we could LEARN from the past and go forward into the future.3. i too have problems with queer=mainly sexual freedpm; where do ethics and hurting other people come in here, in this Utopia of queer (sexual) self-actualisation; even if nonmonogamy is negotiated people still get hurt- I disagree with the premises therefore of "The Ethical Slut"; so
4. Queer i agree should be about treating people, of ALL differences/abilities equally/humanely; but wasnt that called "humanism"??!!.5
QT is exciting, freeing, joyful, yes but 1.the word "queer" is, to me and others i have spoken to, especially from my generation backwards,(however much we try to reclaim the word): it still has perjorative connatations and can drag you back into being the abject (subject), just by its name, so a continual cognitive effort to concentrate on the re-claiming is necessitated.2. When Queer is used in the sense of ANY difference, or, in fact, accepting anyone for whoever they are (sort of Rogerian here), it is not a term, that, ironically BECAUSE of homophobia, is going to be grabbed joyfully by people outside the academic/socially politically active world(s), especially, but not confined to, SOME straight men
6. Being more positive and pro-active, i would therefore suggest diversity(Theory) or Inclusivity(Theory); of course that then often gets into other lgbt people's sensitivities re "whats wrong with queer- we have taken all this time to reclaim and re-imagine this word", because, tho less restricted than lgbt terminology/classification, it is still a (if complex, multi-faceted, most-encompassing) other form of identity politics; we are using a word that was used(perjoratively) of gay people, and that association will never(wholly) go
7.By the way, i declare my credentials: I am a 52 year old very out gay man, who has two blogs both of which have many postings on queer(theory) issues, (hetero) normativity, lesbian and gay reparative readings of old (sub) texts etc etc. They are wholly uncommercial; so would be good to make links with this good sight:)Thanks Steve Bensonhttp://decayetude.wordpress.com/ andhttp://towardsutopia.wordpress.com/