terms? what terms?

This blog is all about experimenting. Experimenting with blog writing. Experimenting with teaching ideas. And experimenting with how best to organize my posts, both for the reader who is reading it (in theory, at least) and for me who is using it as a reflecting-on-my-research-tool. Sometimes experiments fail. Well, maybe fail is too harsh. Experiments go awry or have unanticipated effects; they don’t work quite right. Like my “terms” category. If memory serves me right (ah, Japanese Iron Chef how I miss you so), this was my description of the purpose/goal of this category:

TERMS: While writing in this blog, I may come across terms that need some clarification or explanation. Perhaps they are loaded (with theoretical baggage) terms. Perhaps they come off as too jargony and inaccessible. Perhaps they are rich with meaning and require some unpacking. For whatever reason, I will devote an entry to explaining/reflecting on a term that requires additional consideration and file it under this category. Right now I am experimenting with how best to engage with (and explain/reflect on) these terms.

Here are the entries (all 10 of them) that I have done so far. They aren’t working quite like I had planned. Everything started out okay. My first three entries follow my goal as it is outlined in the “about the categories” post. But, then I lost steam. In the abstract, offering a glossary of loaded terms seems great. I even have a to do list, which includes:

  • liminal
  • abject
  • virtue
  • queer/queering
  • performativity
  • agonism (versus antagonism)
  • excess
  • livable life
  • beside oneself
  • truth-telling

If you are thinking that this looks like A LOT of work, you are right. Maybe that’s why I haven’t done these posts yet. Would this be a good assignment for students in my queering theory course? Hmm…

Okay, here comes a mini brainstorming session. Now you can really see how my brain works. Is the idea of creating a glossary terms just more work than I can do or is there something inherently wrong or too difficult about the task? I have assigned students certain terms in past classes, but it hasn’t ever worked out very well. Part of the problem could be that I made the assignment too informal–it was an in-class, small group assignment. Also, I didn’t offer any models/examples of how to describe/engage with the term. Would it work better if I made this term assignment formal (as in, built into the syllabus and with detailed instructions) and if I provided more examples of how to do it? Should students do these terms independently or work in pairs/groups? Or, what if I picked out a term for each week, one that the readings touched on particularly well, and then have students focus their reading/thinking around that term? Then, I could have the students get together at the beginning of class and compare their ideas before we launch into our discussion? Any thoughts? I will report back on what I actually decide to do.

Okay, enough of that musing. Back to the terms as I have written them on this blog. Even though they don’t exactly fit with my intended goal, I do still think that my posts are useful (for me? yes. for you? who knows). I have written about several terms that describe a particular way of embodying the troublemaker: the rebel, the whisteblower, the bullshit detecter. I have also written about terms that engage with the ethical implications of trouble: queer hope, queer optimism, curiosity-as-care. Perhpas I shouldn’t judge the terms so soon–maybe I should assess them later, once I have spent more time writing in this blog?

in these troubling times what we need is some queer optimism…

A few days ago I wrote about troublemaking hope here and queer hope here. At the end of my post on queer hope, which was primarily about Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive,  I pondered:

The idea of no future, at least at first glance, indicates that we need to function without hope. If there is no future (no better world on the horizon), there is no hope that things will be different. Because isn’t hope a futural term? Edelman seems to be rejecting the possibility for queer hope. But is hope fundamentally counter to queer? Can we imagine these things together?

In the midst of doing more prep work for my queering theory course (and by prep work I mean finding books on amazon that I might want to use and then skimming through the “customers who bought this item also bought” section), I came across a book by Michael Snediker called, Queer Optimism. The description of his project intrigued me:

Michael Snediker offers a much-needed counterpoint to queer theoretical discourse, which has long privileged melancholy, self-shattering, incoherence, shame, and the death drive. Recovering the forms of positive affect that queer theory has jettisoned, Snediker insists that optimism must itself be taken beyond conventional tropes of hope and futurity and reimagined as necessary for critical engagement.

-1Cool. So, we can have a positive vision of queer ethics/theory/politics that is not shaped by some futural vision of hope. Instead of queer hope we have queer optimism. This idea hadn’t occurred to me and I am very interested in reading more about what Snediker is suggesting. I haven’t had a chance to get the book from the library yet, but I did find Snediker’s earlier essay from 2006 about queer optimism. I am in the process of reading it right now. In this essay, Snediker assesses the foundational queer-as-pessimistic suffering theories of Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, Eve Sedgwick and Lee Edelman and argues for an alternative: queer-as-non-futural-optimism. Huh? Here, I will let Snediker explain. Queer optimism

doesn’t ask that some future time make good on its own hopes. Rather, queer optimism asks that optimism, embedded in its own immanent present, be interesting. Queer optimism’s interest–its capacity to be interesting, to hold our attention–depends on its emphatic responsiveness to and solicitation of rigorous thinking (2).

I am not sure if his explanation helped any better than mine. I will have to tackle this again once I have read the whole essay–all 50 pages of it! At this preliminary stage, Snediker’s counter to both hopeful optimism (what he calls utopic optimism) and queer pessimism has got me thinking about hope, troublemaking, and queer ethics as something more than just a rejection of ethics/politics/culture (which is Edelman’s position). I especially appreciate his critical approach to Butler’s emphasis on melancholy, suffering and grief. As someone who is in the process of grieving for a loved one (who, while still barely alive, has virtually no livable life), I have found Butler’s work to be very helpful in my reflecting on the process of grief/mourning/loss. Yet, as I experience the pain and suffering of that grief, I find myself wondering, should grief (being undone by others) be the only, or at least primary, foundation for an ethics of accountability to others/the Other? Are there alternative, more positive and perhaps joyful, ways in which to think about how and why we are accountable to and responsible for others? Personally, I think being in a constant state of grief is exhausting and overwhelming and one that I am quite ready to get out of. I like the idea of imagining an ethic that is queer (and full of troublemaking) but not predicated on this negative sense of loss.

Can Snediker deliver on the promise of his concept? Wait, am I imposing hopeful optimism on him? Hopefully (argh! there I go again), I can wrap my brain around his vision of optimism by the time I finish the essay.

Queer hope: Is it possible when we have no future?

no-future-7977791I have started the laborious (yet fun–I am a nerd, remember?) process of figuring out what readings I want to include in my syllabi for the fall. Today I am thinking about my Queering Theory course. Ever since I found out about in the spring of 2008, I have wanted to give some attention to Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. In this polemic, Edelman argues for a queer ethics that is counter to “reproductive futurism” with its emphasis on building better futures for our children. He writes:

Indeed, at the heart of my polemical engagement with the cultural texts lies a simple provocation: that queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.

So, what does this mean and what are the implications for our ethical and political projects? Some unpacking of terms is needed here. Simply put, reproductive futurism is the belief that our participation in politics–indeed, the political itself–is motivated by a belief in and a desire for creating better futures for our children. We are, in Edelman’s words, always “fighting for our children.” Reproductive futurism suggests two things: a. there is a future that we can make better–that has “unquestioned value and purpose” (4) and b. that future is emblemized by the Child. For Edelman, this reproductive futurism is linked to heteronormativity (heterosexual as the only normal, natural, right way to be) and renders any alternatives (queerings) of communal relations/kinship/visions of resistance as unthinkable–how could you possibly be against fighting for the children?–and outside of politics. Wow, I hope that makes sense. Now, why does Edelman make this radical claim? Because queerness/queering is not possible in a politics of reproductive futurism, he wants to encourage the stepping outside its logic and into the space of refusal and negativity–the space of the death drive (warning: psychoanalysis alert!)–where there is no future.

I have only just (barely) skimmed the introduction and table of contents of this book, so I am having a difficult time explaining all of this in coherent, compelling and intelligible (non-jargony) ways. Clearly, I need to engage in a much closer reading of this text. The more I think about his ideas, the more I think I want to use this in my class. It raises some great questions for my own work and for one way I am thinking of organizing the course: What would it mean to think about political and ethical projects outside of this logic of better futures on behalf of our children (especially for those of us who are parents and/or are heavily invested in children/youth)? What could a radically negative politics looks like? Are negativity and a refusal to engage in political projects aimed at transformation or ethical projects aimed at striving for the good what queer is essentially about? Is the only way in which to imagine a queer ethics negatively and in opposition to any claims, normative or otherwise?

halberstamIn what I have skimmed so far, Edelman seems to be theorizing queer theory in relation to time (queer time = no future, no linear progression) and space (queer space = outside of politics/social) which makes me think of Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place. In this collection of essays, Halberstam explores queer time and queer space in order to shift the perspective on queerness from an identity or set of activities to “a way of life” (1). I am fairly sure that I want to use several chapters out of this book as well. Now I just need to think about how to put them in conversation with Judith Butler, who remains a big focus of the class.

Final thought: It seems appropriate to follow my last post on Michael Jackson and hope (both the loss of it and how we might rethink it) with this one on no future and the death drive. There are some significant connections between my comments about Jackson (and my reference to k-punks posting on him) and any thinking through of Edelman’s idea of no future (which k-punk also writes about here four years earlier!). One connection between No Future/critique of reproductive futurism and Michael Jackson is found in k-punk’s post. K-punk writes:

Certainly, Edelman explicitly identifies the logic of reproductive futurism as ‘poptimism’, whose ‘locus classicus is Whitney Houston’s rendition of the secular hymn, “I believe that children are our future”, a hymn we might as well make our national anthem and be done with it.’ (143) In fact, though, ‘We are the World’ might be the better choice for reproductive futurist anthem: we are the world, we are the children (therefore it is OK for us to bomb other people’s children – because they aren’t the Future.)

Wasn’t “We are the World” a central part of the recent tribute to MJ? Interesting… In case you don’t yet have the song in your head, here it is:

There is another connection with which I want to end this post. The idea of no future, at least at first glance, indicates that we need to function without hope. If there is no future (no better world on the horizon), there is no hope that things will be different. Because isn’t hope a futural term? Edelman seems to be rejecting the possibility for queer hope. But is hope fundamentally counter to queer? Can we imagine these things together? In my last post, I pointed to Cornel West and his tragic hope as one that is counter to the vision of hope as innocent (the Child?) and naive. But is his notion of tragic hope entrenched in a heteronormative (non-queer/anti-queer) vision? After all, he is very invested in defending and revaluing parents. Hmmm…Queer hope. A future article, perhaps?

Michael Jackson, the 1970s version (pre-MTV, pre-surgery, pre-loss of hope, pre-spectacle)

So I am a little late (as usual) in commenting on the very sad death of Michael Jackson a couple of weeks ago. I never expected to write anything about it. What could I say about this that hasn’t already been said? What could his death/his tragic decline have to do with making and staying in trouble? Not much when you think about trouble as a positive, virtuous and potentially transformative attitude or set of practices. But, I do see a connection between Michael Jackson’s increasingly disturbing behavior and one common (and primarily negative) way of understanding trouble. For lack of a more clever way of putting it, Michael Jackson was troubled (in a worried, disturbed state) and his behavior/lifestyle/body/what he seemed to represent was troubling (worrisome, problematic, not quite right) to us.

There are all sorts of ways in which Jackson remains troubling to many of us–his family life, his behavior, his body–all raise questions for us: Just how many plastic surgeries can one body have? What kind of father could he possibly be? Why won’t he ever grow up? But, these questions don’t get at why I am (and have been for a while) troubled by Michael Jackson. For me, the most troubling set of questions revolve around this: What happened? What happened to him, and, more importantly, what has happened to us? What was lost when Michael went from a talented dancer and musician to a MTV spectacle and tabloid freak? And, what does this loss signify?

In their reflection on Jackson, k-punk laments the disturbing shift in Jackson (as musician, as person, as body, as image) from Off the Wall to Thriller. Jackson the wide-eyed, youthful, hopeful, happy, exuberant body in motion in the throes of disco-era Off the Wall becomes transformed (or distorted?) into the living dead, hyper-commodity, MTV staple, tabloid spectacle brought on by the enormous success of Thriller. While k-punk is disturbed by the juxtaposition of the images of Off-the-Wall Michael with Thriller Michael, there is an earlier image of Michael that has haunted me for several years now.

When I grow up, I’m gonna be happy and do what I like to do,
Like making noise and making faces and making friends like you.
And when we grow up, do you think we’ll see
That I’m still like you and you’re still like me?
I might be pretty; you might grow tall.
But we don’t have to change at all.
spoken: I don’t want to change, see, ’cause I still want to be your friend, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever.

In 1974 Jackson appeared on the ABC television special, Free to be…you and me. Singing with Roberta Flack on “When We Grow Up,” Jackson is sweet and funny and, most importantly, full of life and hope. For me, this song captures the (perhaps naive) hope and promise that some (but definitely not all) 1970s social justice movements against racism and sexism often exuded. When I watch Free to be…you and me I am always amazed at its hopeful and anti-cynical belief that anything was possible, that the freedom to be and love and do what you want was waiting for all of us if we just worked together as “Brothers and Sisters.”

Many may argue that this belief in the possibilities of a better (read: more just, more “free”) world is too naive and uncritical. Indeed, the hope represented in this special and in Jackson’s song with Flack do seem a bit too pollyannaish and ignore-ant (yes, I just made up my own word: to ignore + to be unaware = ignore-ant) of the real things that get in the way of a better present and future. But, is this the only way to think of hope and possibility? Can we be hopeful and troubled/troubling/willing to trouble at the same time? For me, one of the real tragedies that Jackson’s shift from 1974 Michael (the year I was born) to 2009 Michael is the replacement of all hope and possibility with ironic distance and cynicism. Is it really an either/or situation here? Must we either have uncritical and naive hope or realistic and thoughtful cynicism? Can’t we be both hopeful and critical, aware of injustice but still willing to believe that better futures are possible? And, is the progression of our lives (much like Jackson’s) a gradual move from hopefulness to hopelessness, from innocence to bitterness or freakishness?

What other visions of hope can we imagine/express/believe in? The prophetic pragmatism and tragic-comic hope of Cornel West or the visionary pragmatism of Patricia Hill Collins are good places to start…