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.