Wednesday, February 21, 2007

History's Tears

[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]

History's Tears

“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”.


Anonymous said...

Very lively essay in the making here. In some sense what you are doing, as I see it, is very productively rearticulating the differend between Foucault's and Derrida's work. Looking back at their acrimonious debate, one that ended only with Foucault's death and in such a way that Derrida was "haunted" by his interlocutor's absence (I think of the ending of his essay "To Do Justice in Freud" in CI), I do think it's time (now) to reappraise their difference in terms of its ramifications for an ethics. I think that by locating this investigation of ethical possibilities and impossibilities as you do in queer histories is a nice move, and one that shares some points of contact with Jeffrey Nealon's attempt to do the same with alterities more generally.

For my own part, I've always been more sympathetic to the Foucauldian position. The question that Foucault asks in "What is Enlightenment" ("What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday?") is, as I see it, immensely provocative for what it says about the material conditions of emergence (today) over against the Derridean emphasis on possibility and the question of the future. Foucault's investment in that difference (introduced today with respect to yesterday) seems to me to avoid the trap of transcendentalism that Derrida's discontinuous notion of conditions of possibility falls prey to. It's that originary "gap of deferred time," as Foucault writes in The Archaeology that gets monotonously exposed in deconstructive analysis, and as such it amounts to a reinvestment in the "historico-transcendental theme" (Archaeology, p. 121). Perhaps Foucault's reading of deconstruction is hasty, but I always found his sense that the metaphysical privilege Derrida accords to "the trace" or origin and the uncertain future engendered by it as one fundamentally unreceptive to ethics to be worth thinking about. Foucault talks (somewhere in The Archaeology) about the future as "shrouded" in such deconstructive orientations.

Your piece has also made me revisit Halperin's Saint Foucault. I'll try to pull together some thoughts....

Jonathan K. Cohen said...

I cannot help but express my disbelief that this is where theory has gotten us today. The nonce-words alone stupefy. I feel like one of those crusty conservative journalists whom the Wall Street Journal sends annually to make fun of the MLA.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

The nonce words don't bother me (Joyce anyone?); they are part and parcel of doing deconstructive work. That inventiveness with language -- that poetic practice, really -- is one of the many things I find appealing about Derrida's writing. He inspired me to make my French better, just so I could be in on the play.

Also, many of the neologisms are from Menon and Goldberg.

But that doesn't address the substance of the piece. I admit that it is the kind of writing that will take me a while to work through -- some breezy blog post it is not. I look forward to having some time to spend with it in the near future. I also need to return to Menon and Goldberg's PMLA piece, which I remember in very different terms.

I thank you for composing the post, Michael.

Anonymous said...

By using Derrida’s Specters of Marx to accuse us of being un-Derridean, Michael O'Rourke misses the irony of his own pronouncement. After all, at another moment in his blog, he characterises Goldberg’s and my essay as being shaped by Derridean différance, which it is. To argue for “his” Derrida against “ours,” then, is to champion the cause of a single Derrida that Derrida himself works tirelessly to undo.

I want to make clear that I welcome his comments, and very much enjoy the continuation of the conversation occasioned by our PMLA essay, and the extension of its ideas to other works (by Derrida and by others). However, I fail to understand two things: first, why does an engagement need to be riddled with misreadings? O’Rourke states we identify a teleological mode of reading sexuality with Halperin and Traub; nowhere do we say this in connection with the latter (in fact, we pointedly cite Traub’s latest book, at the beginning of our essay, as an example of homo-historical work). As for Halperin, his new book on How to do the History of Homosexuality contains charts proving how sexual regimes replace one another on the road to homo and hetero-sexuality. If this isn’t teleology, then what is?

Second, and this is my more substantive point: what are the politics of equating a suspicion of teleology with an absence of “hope”? Surely O’Rourke is aware of the immensely problematic history of “hope,” which includes every virulent aspect of homophobia. To “hope” for a future is never a desire that exists in and of itself; it is always tethered to our conceptions of time, and therefore, of sexual maturity and immaturity, normalcy and deviance. Goldberg’s and my essay points out that to compartmentalise time in the same old way as past, present, and future, is to reproduce a schemata that has been responsible for abjecting the homo, not only in history but also, as Leo Bersani would say, in all of us. Our investment in homo-history, then, is not only as a mode of studying the past and the present (a point O’Rourke graciously allows us), but also as a way of thinking of time outside these divisions, which necessarily involves other ways of reading (in) the future. To say, then, that our challenge to the temporal slant of sexuality ignores the future is not only to miss our point altogether, but also to try and discipline it into a straightness that our essay questions first, last, and in the middle.

Anonymous said...

The way Menon describes his article here does not accord with my sense of the article I read in PMLA. There is no question to my mind that the essay forecloses the future, as O'Rourke has specified that concept.

Also, it strikes me as hasty and ill-informed to brush aside, as Menon does, the history of hope, given, so it is asserted, its "immensely problematic history." I doubt Menon has engaged the scholarly work on hope that emerged first in the 50s and then continued through the 60s in the effort to refine the concept. If he has, then it may be time to return to that literature. I think of the work of Cantril, Farber, Frank, Frankl, Melges & Bowlby, and Schactel, among others. It would be overly generous to say that Menon's claim that hope "includes every virulent form of homophobia" because it is wedded to a notion of tri-partite time is absurd. Such a claim ignores not only the traditional theorists I mentioned above but, more directly relevant to the project of arguing for a new ethics of queer history, it reveals no awareness of so-called "hope theory" as it emerged in the work of those who followed Fritz Heider's suggestion in the mid-80s to elaborate a notion of hope anchored in both emotional and thought process. Relevant here is a body of work too large to summarize here, but at the center are theorists like Snyder, Rand, & Sigmon, Farina, Hearth, & Popovich, and Bandura. Two challenges then to Menon: 1. Locate the homophobia that he asserts imbues hope, and 2. Demonstrate how hope has anything intrinsically to do with the compartmentalization of time.

I'll just add a word about what should be an obvious inference based on my comments: While neither O'Rourke (thus far anyway) or Menon (most certainly) take up the literature on hope as it has been articulated in the social sciences, it is O'Rourke's vision of the importance of hope for queer history and ethics that is perfectly in sync with this tradition. Menon's sense of the meaning of hope, on the other hand, is idiosyncratic and unhistorical, amounting to the kind of lazy generalizations to which, unfortunately, tendentious theorizing is often prone.

Anonymous said...

That should be, of course, "her article" in my first sentence. Apologies.

I know Eileen has a reputation for typing out fast responses, but I may have set a record with that last one.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I think if there is one thing that a discussion of queer theory can't thrive upon, it is dismissiveness towards the arguments being considered. Look at what happened to our "Petard" thread, initiated by Eileen: now she is being pilloried for charges of totalitarianism at The Valve. Scholarly humility anyone?

It may well be that Madhavi's deployment of hope is idiosyncratic and unhistorical. What's wrong with that? Lack of being mainstream or of being situated within a revered discourse isn't reason enough to dead end the inquiry. Just the opposite, it obligates us to pose more questions: can you tell us more about why hope might be dangerous? Can you speak in more concrete terms about a queer theory beyond hope? Is there any hope for hope? (And here it might be useful to cite the tradition of theorizing hope, generously citing some of the productive points rather than gesturing towards the literature with a "too vast to summarize" line).

But that's just me. I believe that should an intellectually bracing project like queer theory cease to be collaborative, much of its promise withers. The same with this blog. If we're busy disciplining or bibliographically shaming each other -- if we can't approach the conversation with some measure of generosity -- then we'll never get much more done here than squabble.

I'm not saying we can't launch critique -- far, far from it. But I'd rather see possibilities opened than lines of inquiry bludgeoned.

Michael: the citing of Foucault on the material conditions/constraints on the emergence of the now and its relations to an ethics practiced in the present seems to me an especially productive way of approaching some of the issues here, especially since its temporal orientation is dissimilar to the Derrida-inflected theory under consideration. Could you say a few words more, though, on what you understand a Foucaultian futurity to be? Or, at least, the place of the future in Foucault? Though not his primary interest, it's certainly not a topic that he was agnostic about, esp. (for example) while doing his historical work in The Order of Things, or The History of Sexuality, or...

Anonymous said...

I'll try hard not to bibliography-shame anyone again. It just seems to me that if one makes a claim about the history of hope being this way or that, one ought to have done the reading necessary to make such a claim. Maybe I'm alone in such a belief. I don't know that the world really needs more ungrounded speculations.

I'll elaborate on Foucault in a pretty booked today with clients. Oh, and I'll say some more about hope...the literature is truly vast and I could only pull out the few names I did off the top my head. I've thought of many more now that I'm rested, and a couple of other minor traditions--psychoanalysis and philosophy--that might be helpful as well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Michael, for correcting my gender. I find your lapse into normative masculinity symptomatic of your larger reluctance to engage any assertion that might challenge the status-quo on temporality. The equation between hope and heternormativity is made by political discourses that repeatedly equate homosexuality with un(re)productivity, sterility, and dead-ends. Even as brilliant a theorist as Freud gave us a timeline according to which homosexuality would and should "mature" into heterosexuality. This is why many queer theorists are suspicious of living in "hope": because that hope is tied very often to a homophobic maturing into heteronormativity. And this is why we need to think of time differently -- in order to think of this kind of sexual hope differently.

Thanks also for branding my claims unhistorical -- one lives in hope!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Though I think you know this already, Michael, I'm not espousing the proffering of under-researched claims. Rather, I am trying to go back to our discussion in the BABEL humanism thread about collaborative modes versus critical heroic individualism.

In other words I am making the (uncontroversial, I hope) (there's that word again) assertion that there are methods of intervention into an argument that stultify, and there are methods that productively challenge while aiming to modify tack. Your first comment did the latter; your second, I believe, the former.

It's good to know that hope has a history that extends into 1950s sociology and psychology, and that much recent and cogent work has been done on the topic. I'd like to hear more, especially in its relevance to what is being debated here. But why stop there? Both Plato and Aristotle theorized hope. So did the Stoics and Epicureans, each in their characteristic way. Can we really talk about modern hope with classical spes? And so forth. We are all capable of deploying bibliography to express shock at the ignorance of others. What does that accomplish if we don't also add how such bibliography might engender a better argument?

My own opinion, voiced often in this blog, is that it is far too easy to inveigh against an argument ("Haven't you read ...??!!" "You used the word ...!!" and so on. Mock shock, or the verbal equivalent of a dismissive wave of the hand). That mode doesn't take much thought or seriousness. It's also the primary discourse of many blogs, where the arguments are really just pissing matches.

It's tougher, but far more productive, to find what is useful in an argument, to form an alliance with that, and to take it farther. I'd like ITM to be a place for the latter; when I want the former, I can read the little pieces of self-puffery often published by The Medieval Review.

Is that too full of ... hope?

Anonymous said...

Of course I see your point, and I know the good place it comes from, though I disagree with it, but let's argue it out in the very interest of productivity that you champion.

First, we can all agree that underresearched claims should be avoided.

Second, I do not believe that "we are all capable of deploying bibliography" with the same effect. If I believed that, for example, with respect to the topic of hope, I would have let someone else point out how specious Menon's claims were. Is this really heroic of me? I don't think of it as heroic, but essential.

Third, you talk about closing down others as if that were the only purpose such a deployment of bibliography serves. I don't see it that way. True humility on the part of an interlocutor would be to say something like, "this bibliographic information could enhance my argument by grounding it more thoroughly. I’ll check into it." Is Menon so humble? Far from it; she let herself off the hook by branding me heteronormative. (That made me laugh.) She chooses to remain superficial, and forgive me, but I see that as a problem. (As for my alleged refusal to rethink time, that also made me chuckle.)

Fourth, is bibliography actually a lack of thought? I see it as a starting point for thought, and thus it constituted my opening comment. I work inductively. I am not sure I see the point of pretending that Menon knows anything about the history of hope. Should we just let her misconstrual of Freudianism slide too? Isn't it ultimately her responsibility to have done the reading in psychoanalysis, rather than just have absorbed clichéd bits of anti-Freudianism in the feminist and queer literature? I am willing to help her round out her reading, and this brings me to the next point.

Fifth, I agree with you completely that it is more useful to find an alliance with an argument and take it further than to dismiss an argument entirely. O’Rourke made an argument, and I thought it would be productive to take a tack on it, and will do so again in a subsequent post. Menon did not make an argument; she made an ungrounded assertion. So, what if, what if, there is nothing to find an alliance with? What if the argument is just what you can say with absolute certainty it is—not an argument at all but an ungrounded assertion? Do you pretend it is something else for the sake of being generous? You could, and that’s not a terrible thing, generosity—don’t get me wrong. I guess I see my generosity as taking the form of a bibliography and then the form of a serious engagement. I would be happy to type up a bib for Menon—it would take a long time to do so, so it’s not a small sacrifice, but I would do it. It’s hard to engage someone seriously when there is nothing there to engage. I’m not trying to be harsh, I’m just stating what I believe should be a standard for how we proceed intellectually.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Michael, I feel like we're sliding back in that loop of semi-deliberate misunderstanding we always find ourselves strapped inside.

My assertion: Madhavi Menon is a pretty damn smart critic. Should she make claims about hope that you disagree with, then I want (1) to hear more about the history of hope and/or a precis -- brief but catalytic -- of some current, trenchant writing on hope from you, so that the discussion can proceed with greater depth, and (2) a fuller articulation from Madhavi of what she means by the dark or normative side of hope.

This is a blog, not a scholarly journal. One of its aims is productive and sustained conversation. That goal makes a blog very different from a journal, where wrangling over content and the incorporation of bibliography unfold over the long and solitary durations that characterize peer review.

Making a statement like It’s hard to engage someone seriously when there is nothing there to engage is dismissive, unfair, wrong. It's also the type of statement that made the lively comment threads of this blog wither last year.

Please let's not have tedious arguments over how best to argue. Trust me as the founder of the blog to know that there are ways of cultivating lively intellectual engagement, and there are ways of quickly filling a room with silent, fuming people who feel like they've been mislabeled or not engaged with comity.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS Why I want both (1) and (2): I feel like I have much to learn from both, and would welcome that opportunity.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I will add one more comment and then will be content to allow Michael O'Rourke to begin to respond to what has been accumulating here. This one is a personal aside that brings a few of the issues implicit here to the fore.

I went to my office early today to grab my old PMLA and reread the Menon/Goldberg piece. As I said earlier, I'm reluctant to respond to the post without rereading its point of departure first. After sorting through my stacks of old journals for a while, I realized that the issue was missing: I believe that I gave it, along with my copy of Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera, to a student of mine last fall. She had just told her parents that she was dating another woman, and they promptly cut off her tuition payments. This was just before the holiday break. She didn't return in the spring, and hasn't responded to my email, so you can draw your own conclusions. She was supposed to be working on a brilliant undergraduate thesis with me. Hope? Future? Both of those seem to have been swiftly cut off for her.

I'm not sure what else to add to this story other than I hope it doesn't seem extraneous. This student was queer in some affirmative and positive ways, and now I can't help thinking about some of the topics we've raised in relation to missing her this spring.

SEK said...

I'm going to stick my neck in here for a moment. Pardon the (partial) thread jack:

Look at what happened to our "Petard" thread, initiated by Eileen: now she is being pilloried for charges of totalitarianism at The Valve.

I wouldn't say Eileen's being pilloried -- and if she were, I'd jump in -- so much as being challenged on her claim that a single communicative space betrays a desire for univocality. In short, if you remove the term "totalitarian" from the discussion, I think it's turned (esp. with Ken Rufo's latest responses) into a conversation about the applicability of Habermasian ideas in academic environs.

That said, if you or she think the conversation unproductive, I'll do what I can to change the tenor of it. Not in a top-down sense -- such acts are reserved for the Troll of Sorrow -- but by jumping in and trying to change the nature of the debate.

(On another note: doesn't the fact that it's referred to as the "Petard" thread entail some sort of, I don't know, blow-back?)

As for J.K. Cohen's complaint about neologism and J.J. Cohen's response -- Who, me, confused? -- indulge me a little story. Once upon a time ... stop laughing. Once upon a time, a naïve little man, twenty-one if a day, came to Irvine to become a Joycean and work with Derrida. He loved them both for similar reasons, and thought he'd spend his career thinking about them in a language all his own. After a quarter or so, however, he began to have the sneaking suspicion that he was no Joyce, no Derrida. Their nonce words were the product of long gestation -- seventeen years for Joyce, decades of dedicated work by Derrida -- whereas his were created in flashes of "brilliance," beautiful at first, but quick to fade away. In the end, he was forced to admit that he was no Joyce, no Derrida; that his "talent" for clever neologism didn't quite stack up.

In other words, he had to admit that the compulsion to coinage, when unaccompanied by years of labor, or years of study, was as likely to produce crap as the crown. Like J.K. Cohen then, I'm troubled by many of the nonce words I encouter. Some seem unnecessary -- or worse, an attempt to create a discourse so specific as to be irrefutable on general grounds, in which accepting the terms of the debate determines its outcome. Others seem clunky -- less playful, more like the endless elaboration of academic sociologists in the '50s, in which a few more suffixes here and prefixes there were like water off a dead duck's back.

However, like J.J. Cohen, I can't deny the power and efficiency of the ones that work, those few whose flash represents a stellar birth instead of death. To complain about neologism per se is to chuck the wheat with the chaff.

Holly Crocker said...

Because I'm posting a passage from a book I've been reading, I'm perhaps transgressing some of the protocols of conversation that are unfolding here. But, because I really like the book, and I'd really like to know what Michael, Madhavi and Michael (or anyone else) have to say about the issues it raises in relation to this thread, I'm quoting anyway (and yes, here my bib. has done some thinking for me). The following comes from Sara Ahmed's most recent book, *Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others* (Duke, 2006), pp. 178-79:

"If orientations point us to the future, to what we are moving toward, then they also keep open the possibility of changing directions and of finding other paths, perhaps those that do not clear a common ground, where we can respond with joy to what goes astray. So, in looking back we also look a different way; looking back still involves facing--it even involves an open face. Looking back is what keeps open the possibility of going astray. This glance also means an openness to the future, as the imperfect translation of what is behind us. As a result, I would not argue that queer has 'no future' as Lee Edelmen (2004) suggests--though I understand and appreciate this impulse to 'give' the future to those who demand to inherit the earth, rather than aim for a share in this inheritance. Instead, a queer politics would have hope, not even by having hope in the future (under the sentimental sign of the 'not yet'), but because the lines that accumulate through the repetition of gestures, the lines that gether on skin, already take surprising forms. We have hope because what is behind us is also what allows other ways of gathering in time and space, of making lines that do not reproduce what we follow but instead create wrinkles in the earth."

Eileen Joy said...

This conversation is so cool, but I have to post something later, as I just exhausted myself posting a response to Joseph Kugelmass's critique of my critique of Scott over at The Valve, and boy are my fast-typin's arms tired. But one quick thought: in response to some of Menon's thoughts on the heteronormativity of narratives of hope: the recent film "The Children of Men" seems really instructive in this regard, as is, I would argue, "Pan's Labyrinth." In any case, ciao for now.

Anonymous said...

I’m doing this for Jeffrey. I love the man, and I am sooo masculine-hetero-normo.

Before I sketch out some of the developments in the history of hope, let me point out what has just become obvious to me. Menon appears not to mean literally the actual history of hope in her assertion that “the immensely problematic history of ‘hope’…includes every virulent aspect of homophobia.” It might sound like she does, but don’t be fooled like I was. What she means is that there has been, so she asserts, an “equation [made] between hope and heternormativity… by political discourses that repeatedly equate homosexuality with un(re)productivity, sterility, and dead-ends.” She appears to have in mind some (as yet unspecified) “political discourses” that, as she sees it, have set a chain of associations—metaphors—in movement: unproductivity, sterility, and dead-ends. This slippage is telling: what is at stake is a set of concepts metaphorically related to hope, not a “problematic history of hope” per se. It should have occurred to me earlier that when you’re playing with metaphors, with associative chains, you are apparently relieved of the burden of anchoring your statements in something like history. D’oh! (slaps his forehead.)

I wish we weren’t talking apples and oranges, but I fear we are.

Let me examine more instance of Menon disguising a historical claim. This time it appears she is attributing a particular take on hope to Freud, but things are less than straightforward: “Even as brilliant a theorist as Freud gave us a timeline according to which homosexuality would [sic--end] and should "mature" into heterosexuality. This is why many queer theorists are suspicious of living in "hope": because that hope is tied very often to a homophobic maturing into heteronormativity.” Who is tying hope to a homophobic maturing into heteronormativity? Is it Freud or the queer theorists? That the latter make arguments to that effect is hardly news, but that Freud ties hope to homophobic maturing into heteronormativity, this is news. A consultation of the “Gesamtregister” (volume 18 of the Gesammelte Werke)—a vastly superior index to the English one--reveals no connection between “Hoffnung” or even “Zuversicht” and maturation of any kind. Consultations of the Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, Freud’s complete correspondence with Ferenczi, with Abraham, with Fliess, with Jones, and with Salomé (I’m sorry, those are all I have to hand), as well as some quick checks of the major authors on hope in the psychoanalytic tradition—Mitchell, Fenichel, Gill, and Grossman, also revealed no connection between hope and maturation into heteronormativity. So I hope Menon will document for us her discovery that Freud ties hope to maturation into heteronormativity. I am very interested to see where those ideas intersect. But perhaps I am too, well, hopeful: what Menon is up to is more metaphorizing I suspect. I guess, metaphorically, maturing involves hope, or so Menon sees it that way. It’s interesting to note that the consensual definition of hope recently offered by Snyder (2004) makes no mention of maturation, let alone heteronormativity.

That Freud described maturation is indeed a fact. But that process, as he describes it, is, if anything, pessimistic. Infantile sexuality is a state of bliss he affirmed over and over, and maturation a decline into unhappiness—or worse. It is adult sexuality (hetero or homo) that was so problematic—internally complex and encompassing many different activities and attitudes. Freud was, nonetheless, clear that homosexuality should not be condemned for cultural reasons (1905).

So, let’s discuss hope itself, not the chain of metaphors (opposites like unreproductivity, sterility, and dead-ends) that, frankly, just about any PhD in English is pretty handy at generating. I know, I know, when aren’t we working in/with metaphors….bleh.

Hope has a long history in the social sciences, where the concept has been under continuous refinement and study since the 50s. Early in that history (Schactel, 1959), it became clear that hope represented a simultaneously cognitive, emotional, and motivational stance toward the future, and, as such, it might serve as a way to rethink the “illness ideology” (Maddux, 2005) of the then-rather-new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1952). And so, homosexuality, whose disease status was revoked in 1973, was identified much earlier as the key phenomenon for which normative or evaluative concepts would, under the pressure of the study of hope, be replaced by a language that would look at problems in living (no longer pathologies) as residing not inside persons but in the interactions between them and in the culture at large. The other human condition, I should note, that was subjected to massive revision was mental retardation, discussions of which began around the time of WWI: the retarded were characterized as not being capable of hope, as not future-minded, because they presumably did not engage in means-ends thinking (e.g., Mateer, 1917; Mulford, 1918). Intellectual connotations were stripped from the activity of hoping, and today refer to simply thinking ahead to what the future may hold and how it might come to pass (cf. Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999). The contemporary study of hope (e.g., Snyder, 1994; 2000, 2002, 2005; Tiger, 1979; Gillham, 2000) posits a meaning of it as somewhat grounded in reality—illusory perhaps but not delusional (cf. S. E. Taylor, 1989). Hope entails a belief about agency, to put it most simply. There is, in the literature, nothing to suggest heteronormativity—indeed, the most recent work, some of which is forthcoming, and which I have had a chance to review, examines the trait of hope entwined with sex roles and social settings with new measurements and finds that there is no difference in outcomes for men and women and for those who identify as heterosexual and those who identify as homosexual. More research needs to be done; there is no question about that, but the investigation of hope manifesting itself across important sociodemographic differences is well underway. So, there is lots of hope for hope.

A point to make here is that no reason for self-styled queer theorists to be wary of “living in hope,” as Menon puts it. The history of the concept in the social sciences is a pivotal point in the turn away from the kinds of approaches to the human condition that we can probably readily agree are inimical to it—e.g., pathologization, medicalization, and enforced dichotomies between normal and abnormal behavior, clinical and nonclinical problems, and clinical and nonclinical populations.

Anonymous said...

Could you say a few words more, though, on what you understand a Foucaultian futurity to be? Or, at least, the place of the future in Foucault?

As you know, Foucault insists that he’s primarily interested in a “history of the present,” not the arché or telos but the emergence and transformation of origins and ends. His projects are basically Kantian: as he says in “What is Enlightenment,” “not seeking to understand the present on the basis of a totality or of a future achievement,” but rather “looking for a difference: What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday?” (p. 34). I adore the formulation of that question, and so I repeat it….

For Foucault, and now we turn to “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” an important distinction is to be made between Nietzschean Entstehung (glossed by Foucault as a condition of emergence or event), “the moment of [force’s] arising,” and the condition of possibility. Of course this Entstehung is the very heart of the genealogical project, and, as such, is opposed to the search for conditions of possibility/futurity. The question of futurity is bracketed in favor of specifying the context as it emerges in the form of a series of exclusions. His projects aim at delineating “a specific history that does not refer back to the laws of an alien development” (Archaeology, p. 127). This is an obvious point of significant difference with Derrida.

Nealon has suggested that to build an ethics out of Foucault, you need Derrida, or vice versa. He found Butler’s performative imbrication of the two ethically compelling for the reason that in her work you have the enactment of a thinking of today and tomorrow, of politics and alterity.

Michael O'Rourke said...

Hello everyone,

Typically I am coming in right in the middle of this discussion (actually someone told me on my way home from work--in the post office, hence my love for neologisms and letters that don't reach their destination--that people comment on your blog posting and you can then respond in kind and kindly (thanks Asia!). This is all delightfully new to me so thanks JJC for expanding my (horizonless) horizons. Thanks also to Michael Uebel and Madhavi Menon in particular, for generously responding to my "History's Tears". I will try to address, very briefly, hurriedly, and provisionally, some of the points raised so far.

Michael Uebel (Hi Michael!) is right about the differend between Derrida and Foucault (and Nealon's brilliant reading of this which is so, so helpful for explaining how Butler's Bodies That Matter steers a via tertia--metaxology is my favorite neologism this week, used by Richard Kearney in The God who may Be-- between essentialism and social constructionism). However, I see a much more copulative relationship between Derrids and Foucault on futurity and ethics, or perhaps Derridean-Deleuzian since the "later" Foucault, especially on friendship, imagines new lines of flight and possibilities of relating which are not only ethical but deeply hopeful. It might be most helpful to read later texts and interviews like "Friendship as a way of Life" alongside The Politics of Friendship (or better the original article Derrida wrote with this title which did engage homosexuality--if I remember correctly this drops out in POF). I have written something about Foucault, Deleuze, S/M and recent work in queer theory on ethics and impersonality (Dean, Warner, Bersani) which I will revisit and maybe post to the blog if I think it can contribute something to this discussion. I also have to read the new translation of The History of Madness by Jean Khalfa—I bought it a few weeks ago for a whopping 50 euro really only for the exchange between Derrida and Foucault, wrestling over Descartes.

My queer theory of hope is consistent with Sara Ahmed's in Queer Phenomenology (thanks to the blogger for pasting the wonderful(l) quotatation from Ahmed's conclusion)--a book I recently read and would confidently assert is going to be *the* most important book in queer studies for quite some time to come (the chapter on Husserl and tables is simply amazing)--although I also draw on Sedgwick on reparative reading (in which we can find a Spinozan-Proustian joyous affirmation), Tim Dean's Beyond Sexuality (especially the chapter where Queer Theory encounters Lacan and Freud and Dean argues for a queer left utopianism and a politics of superhuman loving), Michael Warner's introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet, Jose Esteban Munoz's recent work on latino/a affect. On the philosophical side (thanks so much to Michael for the bibliographical list for the sociological material on hope with which I am unfamiliar) I side mostly with Derrida, Deleuze, Caputo and Nancy but I would say that Hardt and Negri's chapter in Multitude on queer flesh is perhaps the best way to get into an argument about hope, futurity and the possibility of/for a queer left critique. There is also Michael Snediker's emerging work on queer optimism and everything Bersani has written (on his own or with Dutoit--especially and most recently Forms of Being). Another PMLA forum on the so-called "antisocial thesis" edited by Robert Caserio brings together Edelman (still anti the future or what he calls the "Futurch" and still very very anti-Utopianism, and even more anti-religious than in No Future), Judith Halberstam (who sees herself as aligned with Edelman although I really don't think she is), Munoz and Dean, both of whom argue for a queer phenomenology of hope and openness towards the future. This is only a partial list of possible ways in, sorties, and forays into the question of queer hope but Beyonce Knowles perhaps puts it best when she urges us (queer theorists) to the Left, to the left, lest we ever get to thinking that we are irreplaceable. Thanks everyone.

Eileen Joy said...

Michael [O'Rourke]--there is so much to say regarding your rich [and densely packed and queerly neo-logized] thoughts here, which touch, in part, upon work I have been doing for a long time on Levinas and also on historical memory and present/future justice[s]. I sometimes wonder if all of the recent focus on temporality in queer theory, but also in other disciplines such as post-colonial studies, doesn't occasionally function as a theoretical diversion from how we actually live our lives [teleologically, no matter the efforts of some to disrupt or arrest that flow, mainly in *thinking* about it], while at the same time, I believe a renewed focus on queer temporalities such as the one your are attempting to work out could be politically powerful, but as strategy, not as phenomenology. I'm glad Michael U. has provided some cites for work on hope in other fields; I know that in sociology but also in medical anthropology, that the subject of hope [and "willing"] has been much researched and ruminated--in the areas of terminal and chronic illness, but also bereavement--it is quite important; you might look, especially, at Ernst Bloch's three-volume work "The Sociology of Hope" [1986; reprint MIT Press, 1995]. As to your thinking about the revenants of the past, and what it is they might still desire/need from us vis-a-vis the future, I think you would be very interested in the work of the scholar of religious thought [who has also written extensively on Levinas], Edith Wyschogrod, especially her two books, "Ethics of Remembering: History, Heterology, and the Nameless Others" [Chicago UP, 1998] and "Crossover Queries: Dwelling with Negatives, Embodying Philosophy's Others" [Fordham UP, 2006].

The ethics/politics of hope is such an important subject; I cannot comment more at present due to other obligations, but will try to revisit this in a few days.

Anonymous said...

I have written something about Foucault, Deleuze, S/M and recent work in queer theory on ethics and impersonality (Dean, Warner, Bersani) which I will revisit and maybe post to the blog if I think it can contribute something to this discussion.

I would love to see your work along these lines. If it doesn't make it to the blog, then perhaps off-line (

As you know, I'm working on a book-length project on masochism, and the essay I once promised to you and then tarried over until it was too late--that essay has become a section of the second chapter. Deleuze on masochism I treat in relation to Reik (and a bit of Jung of course).

Obadiah Fowler said...

Having just read Michael's piece, and then all of the following comments, I think my own interjection would be this: that "hope" and "children" are concepts that are going massively undertheorized in the discussion. The idea that the 2 things are synonymous--or at all related!--goes unchallenged in a lot of this. What Edelman is so good at in No Future is showing how "children" as a discourse has become a pervasive symptom and effect of certain modes of futurism. I like Madhavi's attribution of a notion of hope to Freud and his particular heteronormativity; for myself, hope smacks of Christianity in many guises. But really Edelman's book is not the first instance in which the idea of futurity has been put into its properly contingent place--how about Nietzche? What I wonder about from Michael's piece is simply this, and please forgive my flat-footed way of expressing it...but what really is the either intellectual or pragmatic anxiety caused by the Menon-Goldberg article? It is palpable yet, at least for me, goes most basically undefined by the piece posted on the blog. I feel as though we are living in a land of dire predictions concerning both Edelman's book and the M/G essay, and yet I'm not understanding the potentially, or fantasized, dangerous consequennces of either or both.

Mandy Berry

Michael O'Rourke said...

Hi Michael, Eileen, Mandy,

Great tip re: Edith Wyschogrod whose work is very much in dialogue with Caputo's. She is a postmodern saint!

Re: Foucault I would say quickly that the actual/virtual is precisely the place to think about a Foucauldian futurity. If Foucault is often considered as a theorist who privileges space and Deleuze as a theorist who privileges time Foucault-Deleuze assemblage would have to consider ways in which Foucault thinks space-time in ways which actualize the virtual in Of Other Spaces. There is certainly enough in that essay to formulate a queer temporality with. Mikko Tuhkanen is doing great work on this across many of his recent essays.

Mandy (long time no hear!), can you say more about these dire pronouncements? Sometimes I feel like a lonely voice in the desert...

Jeffrey H. Cohen said...

I want to tip the balance of the J. Cohens on the issue of nonce words in theory in favor of my cousin J. J. Cohen. J. K. Cohen, no offense I hope.

Cordially, Jeffrey H. Cohen