The Future of Queer Theory / The Usure of Modernist Form – Response by Diana Sacilowski

[On November 28, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “The Future of Queer Theory / The Usure of Modernist Form” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Andrew Leong (Northwestern U). Below is a response to the lecture from Diana Sacilowski (Slavic Literatures & Languages)]

The Past Futures of Queer Theory
Written by Diana Sacilowski (Slavic Literatures & Languages)

In answering the question, “What is the future of queer theory?” Andrew Leong follows José Esteban Muñoz in offering a retrospective glance that looks at the various “futures” of queer theory. Rather than looking towards the future as some horizon or blank space on which to posit something new, like Muñoz, he examines the futures of queer theory that “have been.” Engaging with long histories and with meta-narratives, Leong ultimately turns away from a de Manian undoing and dismantling of all narrative, towards an idea of usure, the erasure and rubbing away of inscription and form, which allows for a palimpsestic understanding of narratives and of the futures of queer theory.


Doing so, Leong, rather appropriately for the last lecture of this fall’s Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series, traced the development of the various theories encountered over the course of the semester. From German Idealism to Marx to José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of “queer futurity” in Cruising Utopia (2009), via Ernst Bloch, on the one hand, and to Lee Edelman’s idea of the queer as the space of no future in No Future (2004), by way of Derrida, Saussure, and Lacan, on the other, Leong explored these theories’ consolidation and convergence, their contact and mediation with one another.

In an effort to visualize this coming and working together of these various theoretical approaches, Leong provided a triangular scheme of his thought process, helping to outline his approach, to situate both Muñoz and Edelman within larger historical contexts, and to explain why he turns back in talking about the future of queer theory. The points of his triangle were marked by the terms “money” at the apex and “thought” and “language” at the bottom; “Future” linked “money” and “thought” on one side, “Figure” joined “thought” to “language” at the base, and “Usure” connected “language” back to “money.” Throughout his lecture, Leong referred back to this diagram to suggest various theoretical connections between money, language, and thought.

In linking “thought” and “money” by way of “Future,” Leong drew from a passage from Speculate This! (2013), which notes that in the seventeenth century the word “species,” with etymological roots meaning outward appearance, also signified coin, drawing a connection between form and money. The text also points to the double-meaning of the idea of speculation – with both cognitive and economic undertones, the idea of speculation involves a kind of conceptualizing or projecting into the future, whether intellectually or financially.

The base of his pyramid derived from Edelman’s Lacanian reading of social realities. Here representing the impossible Lacanian Real, or for Edelman any essentializing concept of identity or politics, “thought” is inherently inaccessible without mediation, without the structures of language, without figural relations that inscribe and sustain social identities. Indeed, for Edelman, queerness, while also not an essential identity, but a figural one, is precisely that which exposes this unstable structure, namely, the fantasies that underpin political and social realities.

The final side of Leong’s pyramid, connecting “language” and “money,” the linguistic and the economic, via the idea of “usure,” involves the “Exergue” of Derrida’s White Mythology (1971). In this opening section of the text, Derrida plays on the two meanings of the French word “usure,” looking at it both as usury, as excess revenue from interest on a loan, as surplus value, but also as usage, as wear and tear or deterioration. Derrida frames the issue as a philosophical discussion between Aristos and Polyphilos on the language of metaphysics. Polyphilos imagines a metaphysician’s use of language as a kind of grindstone rubbing away the exergue of a coin (and here Leong points out another play on words by Derrida, “exergue” meaning both the space on a coin used for inscription and something outside of a work, like an epigraph). The grindstone erases indications specifically identifying the coins in any way, freeing them from physical limitations, lifting them to a more abstract, universal level, and granting them an unlimited and immeasurable value.


And yet, perhaps no real value or signification at all. Derrida builds upon this connection between language and money by noting Marx’s own words on the interchange between the linguistic and the economic, as well as by pointing to Saussure’s argument that both language and money gain meaning, gain value, whether semantic or monetary, only through a system of exchange and comparison. Both signs and pieces of coin hold no intrinsic, fixed worth or significance, but rather operate according to their relative position, their similarity or dissimilarity, to others things, pieces of money, ideas, words, etc., as determined by their environment.

Leong completed his retrospective glance of the convergence of various theoretical currents in his understanding of the “futures” of queer theory by delving briefly into Marxist conceptions of money and commodity. He, moreover, pointed to Edelman’s and Muñoz’s own interesting instances of usure. Both of these texts, examining ideas of futurity and the queer, feature epigraphs, exergues, from modernist writers, inscriptions that have been, moreover, rubbed away and altered – Muñoz uses a modified quotation from a text by Oscar Wilde, placing a period where the original author used a comma; Edelman turns to Virginia Woolf, allowing the quotation to drift off with the use of ellipsis where Woolf had originally placed a colon. Both scholars, looking at the future of queer theory, usure modernist form and turn to writers writing at the end of the long nineteenth century (according to Arrighi’s formulation), showing the continued resonance of these forms at the end of the long twentieth century.

Leong concluded his lecture with a reading of Japanese writer Yoné Noguchi’s “Chicago” (1900), illustrating an interesting convergence of the key ideas of his talk – money, figuration, and  the queer.

Ariella Azoulay: Potential History of the Archive: The Micro Study of a Macro Institution – Response by Laura Elizabeth Shea

[On November 9th, 2017, the CAS/MillerComm Lecture Series hosted the lecture “Potential History of the Archive: The Micro Study of a Macro Institution,” given by Ariella Azoulay (Brown University). Below is a response to the lecture from Laura Elizabeth Shea, PhD Candidate in Art History.]

Ariella Azoulay: Potential History of the Archive: The Micro Study of a Macro Institution
written by Laura Elizabeth Shea (Art History)


Ariella Azoulay. Source: Mike Cohea/Brown University.

A “conceptually elegant and actionable” scholar is how Associate Professor and Chair of Art History, Terri Weissman introduced Ariella Azoulay, Professor of Modern Culture and Media and the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University on Wednesday evening in the Knight Auditorium at the Spurlock Museum. This term, actionable, is one used by Azoulay herself in her influential book on visual culture and politics, The Civil Contract of Photography, published in English in 2008. The text theorizes photography as a civil contract among the camera, photographer, photographed, and spectator, a contract which demands an accountability and responsibility from all spectators.

Similarly, in her lecture, Azoulay called for researchers to take decisive actions against the allure of the archive. She implored scholars to approach the archive as a place of imperial violence whose objects reveal more about the imperial project than they do about the categories and taxonomies of the people it organizes. She argued the archives must be approached by researchers who are not trapped by the seemingly sacrosanct status of the things it purports to protect and preserve. In the archive, documents of the remote past are sterilized, neutralized, and history is made to seem inevitable through the way material objects are presented and used, and thus, both the archive’s institutional structures and its material objects must be addressed with a sense of high alert, if it is interacted with at all. The material for the talk came from the last chapter of her new manuscript in which she analyzes reparations in various cultural contexts.

The Civil Contract of Photography, 2008. Source: MIT Press.

Azoulay’s lecture identified and then broke down the trust we put in archives to index, categorize and display documents for us to study, discuss and write about. While she did not identify a particular archive, in her talk she referred to visual documents surrounding the institution of American slavery, specifically prints, drawings, photographs, and maps, a topic which, she said, was influenced by her move to the United States several years ago. The images she chose to show in her presentation were many, and often depicted figures actually using the very kind of papers and documents now stored in the archive.

For example, she displayed a print of white, armed slave patrollers, reviewing the documents that were required of black enslaved people upon leaving the plantation where they were forced to live. Azoulay argued that this was not an image of slaves

and their lack of mobility, but an image of certain individuals we are supposed to recognize as slaves, who suffer from an unbounded archival violence through which they are forced to bear their identity solely as the category of slave, without a past or history. She proposed that we see the armed slave patrollers as archival guardians, placing the category of ‘slave’ over and above anything else the people appear to be or were. These archival guardians, she continued, rarely act alone, but alongside peers that approve of what they are doing, including, it is presumed, those that have accepted, kept, stored, and protect such documents without recognizing their violence. Imperial archives thus invent the past as a realm where enslaved people are reduced to ahistorical categories or archival tags. This effectively makes neutral the effects of abominable crimes. And, she added, merely writing about and preserving documents does not question the violence they helped to regulate.

Additional examples included photographs and maps. Azoulay showed a photograph of multiple sculptures destined for an “African Negro Art” show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in the early twentieth century. The black and white photograph depicted the sculptures laid out on display for a customs inspection before their transport to and installation in the museum. Actions such as stealing, looting, and purchasing diverse objects and displaying them together in one Western institution (the custom house) and destined for another (the Western museum), is, for Azoulay, destroying diverse social, cultural, and political fabrics. This reductive streamlining is an example of a strategy for fitting diverse and violently acquired things into the “neutral” imperial archive. Using an image of Elmina Castle, the coastal trade village set up by the Portuguese, she argued how the multiplicity of records regarding the sale of people at such places ensured the perpetrators would be shielded from accountability. The archive, through records and maps of relevant, testifying documents filled with dates and spatial demarcations, acted as a cover for actions that need reparation.

Azoulay also included documents of first-person accounts, including the 1847 Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. The projected quotation read, “The man who stole me as soon I was born, recorded the birth of all the infants which he claimed to be born on his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose.” The men and women kidnapped were never simply slaves, but carried a whole world, a whole history with them. However, in the archive, in such documents as the man’s record book, Azoulay argues, a slave is a slave is a slave. Stored in the archive and tagged as “slave,” even such rich texts as Brown’s can essentially become a document detached from the realm of human affairs. This is what Azoulay termed “paper-regulated destruction” – that is, to destroy whole worlds using the guise of documents which function – in protection of the perpetrators – as authorized scripts.

Azoulay acknowledges the seduction of the archive for scholars, and she warns of its invitation to enter as a trap. The scholar is first welcomed into the archive through the aura of the papers, believing they are not acting from an imperial vision, but from neutral documents, making them more receptive to the idea that history is formed by individuals who can act alone against imperial power. The scholar is then seduced to seek and reconstruct missing pieces that imperial actors themselves concealed. Thus, scholars are caught within the circle of the archive, led to believe these documents tell a true story of imperial regimes which only they can reconstruct. In reality they become trapped into the violent, circular logic of the archive.

Azoulay closed her talk closed by imploring scholars, her audience, to envision going on strike of the imperial archive enmasse. She cited historical precedents for this, including W.E.B Du Bois, who stopped going to the archive because of its circulatory trap. Azoulay purports a kind of scholarship that, in her words, keeps the shutter open instead of closing it, storing it, and labeling it.

The question and answer period addressed issues of applying the concept of the violent imperial archive to additional cultural contexts, including the construct of Orientalism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Azoulay responded affirmatively, arguing that the history of imperialism overrides any cultural taxonomies by its one taxonomy. She recognized the particularities of different contexts, but suggested that the destructivenesss of the imperial enterprise constantly renews itself. Another audience member queried the possible violence of the documents themselves, which Azoulay was careful to reframe, bringing the culpability back to the people who used them. She made a crucial point here, too: the rights that we often defend and advocate are, in practice, worldless rights because they are not applied to the worlds destroyed. Rights that are not inscribed anywhere else but in documents are not human rights because they require a document and an institution a priori.

Azoulay is also a filmmaker. A Thursday morning screening of her 2004 film, I also dwell among your people: Conversations with Azmi Bishara, in Hebrew with English subtitles expanded upon the theme of worldless rights brought up in the Q and A and further elucidated her ideas on citizenry, imperial violence, and, what she called, the “propaganda machine.” The film was a series of interviews with Bishara, an Arab citizen of Israel who formerly represented Israel’s Palestinian minority in the Knesset, but who has since been forced to leave the country. Through a series of news clips, speeches, and interviews, often framed as if he was talking to no one (symbolic of his political reality), Bishara made a passionate appeal to the need for full citizenship, rights, and political participation for Arabs in Israel. The film ultimately reveals, what Weissman called in her introduction of Azoulay, the incredible “impact and political urgency” of Azoulay’s collective body of work.

Gaurav Desai: Precarious Futures, Precarious Pasts: Climate, Terror and Planetarity – Response by Brandon Jones

[On October 17, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Precarious Futures, Precarious Pasts: Climate, Terror and Planetarity” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Gaurav Desai (University of Michigan). Below is a response to the lecture from Brandon Jones (English)]

Toward Reparative Justice: Climate-Induced Migration, Postcolonial Studies and the Politics of Representation
Written by Brandon Jones (English)

Building on recent efforts by Rob Nixon, Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and others to expand the purview of postcolonial studies to engage with pressing concerns of ecocriticism, environmental justice, and the Anthropocene, Gaurav Desai issued a rallying cry for the field’s continued political relevance. Framing the talk as a rare instance, for him, of direct political interventionism, he tackled the complex systems of national, social, economic, environmental, and representational factors and consequences involved in global processes of climate-induced migration. In doing so, he made a compelling and practical case for how developed nations can offer hospitality to ecological refugees—forced migrants that do not qualify for the rights and protections of international refugee law, which applies only to political refugees—through practices of reparative justice rather than neo-colonial benevolence and charity.

Desai bookended the talk with a reading of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008). In the novel, one of the main characters, Deeti, becomes a village pariah in the wake of her husband’s death and finds herself in indentured servitude on a ship bound for Mauritius. Her husband had worked in an opium factory in Uttar Pradesh, and when her companion on the ship hands her poppy seeds, she reflects on how much of her destiny has been shaped by this tiny crop. The seed comes to metonymically represent the range of forces, both natural and social, that have created the conditions of poverty, food scarcity, and displacement that made Deeti’s current plight possible. Not simply a symbol of Deeti’s vulnerability and forced migration, the seed is represented as a material-semiotic participant in the structural, causal chain of events that have brought her here.

Desai Blog image 1This moment in Ghosh’s novel, Desai contended, serves as a timely lens for helping us attend to the increasing impact of climate change and other ecological factors on conditions of forced migration today. Following Ghosh’s reflection on the role of the novel in understanding and engaging with the challenge of climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), Desai thus began by introducing the climate crisis as “also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination” (9). As opposed to the relatively fast-pacing and short temporality that characterizes the human scale of novelistic plots, the natural disasters and climate-induced phenomena we experience today are products of “slow violence,” to use Nixon’s influential term, that have unfolded over long, nonlinear timelines that the novel genre was never designed to represent.

Critical and postcolonial thought, too, encounter a new challenge under the specter of climate change’s deep temporality in terms of what an emancipatory framework for subjects of the developing world might look like. Empire, it seems, may not have been the vehicle of global capital and environmental degradation as it has often been conceived; the uneven manner in which it distributed wealth, industry, and subjectivity around the globe meant that less humans and regions were extracting resources and polluting the environment than would have otherwise. The irony, in other words, is that if justice and equality were more common historically, our planet would be the worse for it. If emancipation in terms of freedom to exercise the autonomy and access the resources of the modern rights-bearing subject means exacerbating climate change, what alternative is there? How can we achieve justice both for those in the developing world who have been denied the opportunity to pollute, as well as for our asphyxiating environment?

Turning to contemporary instances of climate-induced migration, Desai suggested, could be a fruitful strategy for both novelistic representation and postcolonial thought to contemplate what such an alternative emancipatory framework might look like. Considering first the Syrian Civil War and refugee crisis, Desai pointed us toward two different types of narrative responses. The first is the humanitarian and charitable response epitomized in the virality of the image of a drowned Syrian refugee boy on a beach in Turkey. The iconography of the image employs the rhetorical appeal of the spectacle—quick violence resulting directly from a body’s exclusion from the protections of a rights-bearing subject.

The second is an environmental justice response that takes a longer look at how the slow violence of drought and crop failure in the Middle East from approximately 2006-2011 displaced a large rural population from the countryside to the city. This population influx exacerbated tensions between ethnic groups, made it possible for ISIS to control water as a weapon of war, and contributed to Syria’s overall descent into national fragility. Desai additionally pointed us to the ways in which the shrinkage of Lake Chad and subsequent reduction of arable land in Nigeria created conditions of resource insecurity that terrorist groups like Boko Haram could exploit to control and displace vulnerable communities. His point was that it matters which aspects of such conflicts involving forced migration we focus on and narratively represent, for visions of justice and emancipation look markedly different from what we’re used to when we consider the widespread but non-spectacular influence of climate change.

In particular, they shed a sharply critical light on the fundamental inadequacy of our current rights-based legal regimes, and advocate for listening to the discourse, demands, and experience of actual refugees to understand the types of grievances requiring repair. The president of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, for instance, which is at a high risk of disappearing due to advanced sea level rise, has rejected the label of “climate refugees,” and by extension the rights-based framework of international law under which the categorization of “refugee” would qualify his nation’s citizens for protection. The president objected to the label because of how it casts his people as victims and downplays their strength and resilience. He opts out of the new identity category because he understands that the citizens of Kiribati have a stake in how they become represented in an emergent discourse.

The people of Kiribati are what Isabelle Stengers calls an “objecting minority” or “objecting public.” Objecting publics exercise “not as their aim but in the very process of their emergence the power to object and to intervene in matters which they discover concern them” (Stengers 160). Instead of being considered “climate refugees,” the people of Kiribati prefer to be trained as “skilled migrants” (Farbotko and Lazrus 383). Rather than charity, benevolence, and modern rights, they are asking those offering hospitality for aid in reconfiguring local practices so they can endure environmental displacement and establish new lives elsewhere. They are asking, in other words, for what Desai termed a more “reparative” form of justice than international refugee law and charitable hospitality allow. They are asking, as were those suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina objecting to the connotations of foreignness attached to them through the term “refugee,” for new options of practicing citizenship. These are grievances not against individual acts of spectacular violence, but against a now debunked social contract based on nation-state geopolitics.

Desai concluded by returning to the figure of Deeti in Sea of Poppies. He notes that there is no evidence in the text that she makes use of the poppy seed gifted to her. If only momentarily, it seems she finds a way of moving forward without succumbing once more to the environmental and political conditions of her displacement that the seed represents. These are the figures, and the manner in which they are represented, that Desai calls us to attend more closely to—those “refugees […] without refuge” that force us out of habits and feelings of charitable benevolence toward the displaced (Haraway 100). With more diligent vigilance over who cultivates what parts of the environment and in what ways, we may be able to envision a planetary future that adheres to more reparative principles of justice.


Richard Keller: Life After the Nation-State: Biopolitics and Beyond – Response by Michael Uhall

[On October 10, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Life After the Nation-State: Biopolitics and Beyond” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Richard Keller (University of Wisconsin). Below is a response to the lecture from Michael Uhall (Political Science)]

Living with Biopolitical Nightmares
Written by Michael Uhall (Political Science)

Richard Keller raises an urgent question for everyone who wants to understand politics today: Is biopolitics obsolete?

When we talk about biopolitics, we’re talking not only about Michel Foucault’s ambiguous, yet remarkably fertile foray into the historical mutations of power. We’re also talking about an entire research paradigm addressing itself to the capacious and idiosyncratic set of cross-cutting political theories that both criticize and integrate questions about biology and the life sciences. Our biopolitical archives consist of diverse fields ranging from the history of eugenics and racialization to contemporary problematics in bioethics, the medical humanities, and posthumanism. For Foucault, biopolitics refers to the partial transformation of sovereign power into various modes of biopower. He describes sovereign power in terms of direct political authority over death – characterized by him as the power to let subjects live and to make subjects die – whereas biopower articulates itself through anthropometric regimes exemplifying the obverse power to make subjects live and to let subjects die.

Other theorists approach and expand upon biopolitics in a variety of ways: in terms of philosophical narratives exceeding the constraints of modernity’s advent (e.g., Giorgio Agamben, whose eight-volume Homo Sacer series maintains that an originary conceptual distinction between βίος, or bios, and ζωή, or zoe, leads to globally disastrous biopolitical consequences), as a potentially affirmative site of interaction between our largely deracinated political communities and the vital materiality of the body itself (e.g., Roberto Esposito, who describes biopolitical modernity in terms of a self-consuming immunitarian dynamic), and through a broadly postcolonial lens (e.g. Achille Mbembe, who argues that biopower generates itself by imposing conditions of material and social death upon colonial subjects).

Figure 1Figure 1: “Untitled” by Zdzisław Beksiński.

For Keller, however, the question about the relevance of biopolitics today takes shape in a very specific context – namely, in our context, in the conditions of brutal austerity, ecological crisis, political decay, and state failure we observe around the world today. After all, for Foucault, biopower appears as an apparatus or a function of the changing state form, and modernity heralds the transformation of the state into an increasingly biopoliticized regime. Hence, Keller’s questions raises some very interesting additional questions for us to consider. Can or do biopolitical regimes outlive the states that birthed them? Is it meaningful or useful to speak of biopolitics when “traditional” modes of biopower might appear to be eroding? How does biopower articulate itself across torched landscapes and wastelands, through populations that states have lost or failed to track? (A multitude of speculative possibilities suggest themselves here, for we can imagine such failures of mapping either as occasions for the intensification of security regimes or as opportunities for rebellion and refusal. Might we not then read Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” as a parable of liberation – and its “Tattered Ruins […] inhabited by Animals and Beggars” as a testament to the failure of biopower to tame or trap the wildness of the world?)

Figure 2
Figure 2: “Untitled” by Zdzisław Beksiński.

Keller addresses some of these questions by examining several intriguing texts, all of which highlight the role and significance of liminality for any new biopolitics after the state. Specifically, he highlights recent work by John M. WillisDebarati Sanyal, and Peter Redfield. In various ways, all of these scholars direct our attention to novel forms of biopolitics that exceed the “normal” conditions of state biopower. Indeed, these three examinations of refugeeism, religious securitarianism, and state failure raise the question of whether or not this strange thing we call biopolitics (it is by now almost a platitude that “biopolitics” is too polysemic to be defined) was ever as European, state-centric, or Western in its diagnostic structure as it appears to be in the Foucauldian discourse.

Something to consider, however – and Keller does discuss this – is the degree to which the fetish for privatization in modern Western culture inflects the domain of biopolitics as we find it. The concern here is that state failures prove vulnerable for corporate opportunism. However, it is certainly true that Foucault himself always sutured together biopolitics and political economy into various hideous historical hybrids of domination. Indeed, even Foucault’s late lectures on the “Birth of Biopolitics” largely concern themselves with the emergence of neoliberalism as cultural form and norm. In this regard, we should wonder about the degree to which biopolitical liminality offers avenues of escape rather than more opportunities for market segmentation. (Potential examples abound: compare Google’s provision of emergency balloons intended to provide Internet access in Puerto Rico with stories of United States soldiers calling firearm customer service hotlines for technical advice during the heat of battle.)

Figure 3
Figure 3: “Untitled” by Zdzisław Beksiński.

I’m reminded of nothing so much as K. W. Jeter’s nightmarish imaginary of future human subjects so biopolitically constrained that they are not even allowed to die – those he refers to in his dystopian cyberpunk novel Noir (1998) as “the indeadted.” The near-future world Jeter depicts could easily be ours, and in many ways, it is. Consider only the afterlife of e-waste and the practices of shipbreaking>. There is no functional government, no state that has not collapsed; the de facto sovereigns of this dying Earth are massive corporations that do not “rule” so much as they sequester themselves within the high temples of profit. All products and services come at a price no one can afford. Consider the following as a snapshot of that future, a future where the wolf flow of climax capitalism binds everyone and everything together in a surveilled economy of infinite productivity from which there no longer appears to be an escape:

The entire economy of the dead – the indeadted – and of the dead territory in which they existed […] varied: there were high-functioning corpses such as McNihil’s wife, and low-level scrabblers such as the ones he had seen from the window of the train coming down here. A lot resulted from whatever shape the particular deceased was in when the reanimating transition was made. If some poor bastard had scoured out his neural pathways with various pharmaceuticals, reduced the cortex in his skull to a red sponge squeezed down to its last endorphins and catecholamines, then all the batteries and add-on sensors and motivational prods that could be retrofitted onto his chill-cased spinal column weren’t going to make him into anything more than a shambling scrap-picker. The little scattered herd of unfortunates out along the tracks used their low-grade but effective skills to pluck out recyclable metals or anything else of possible value from the rubbish heaps that the garbage-laden trains dumped off twice a day. Cheaper to let the idiot dead scavenge and collect, in their slow, hunched way, than spend the money for automated scanning machinery to do the same thing. Which proved that being in trouble was a relative thing. McNihil felt an old horror, familiar enough to be almost comfortable, deep at the floor of his gut, when he saw the pickers and scavengers going about their black-fingered rounds, like crows minus even a bird’s intelligence. But they didn’t seem to mind it. Rooting around for scraps of aluminum foil, the still-shiny tracings off busted circuit boards, probably didn’t even bring in enough to service the interest on whatever debt load they had died carrying. “Died” in that other world, the one the officially living inhabited. So most of them – short of coming across some lucky find, maybe an ancient collectible Lone Ranger and Trigger lunch-box at the bottom of some unexplored slag-pile – were actually just scrabbling themselves deeper into debt, becoming more truly indeadted with every bent-spined raking of splintered fingernails across the mulching discards of the world they were no longer part of. They could go like that for decades, McNihil knew. With no cellular regeneration, the scavengers would wear away their hands against the corrosive, sharp-edged trash, until they were poking through it with the stumps of their forearms, their backs permanently fused into perfect half-circles. And beyond: dismaying rumors circulated, of the torsos of unlucky deadtors scrubbed free of all limbs, chests dryly flayed to breastbones and spidery ribs, the exposed batteries draining down to the last feeble amperage fraction. […] Being in the territory of corpses made it difficult to put away the grim images. Of worse things yet, of poor bastards worn down to ragged skulls, trailing an umbilicus of batteries after them as they inched their way across the bleak landscape with little motions of their dirty-white jawbones. Digging out glittery bits of old gum wrappers with their eroded incisors, nudging like dung beetles their little wads of recyclable detritus to the redemption center at the zone’s border, making another meaningless nick at the tab they’d accumulated in that other, pre-death life. Like Marley’s ghost, dragging around a chain whose links were instead forged out of the enticing perishables of the cheap-’n’-nastiverse… (87-88)






Jodi Dean: “From Allies to Comrades” – Response by Benjamin D. O’Dell

[On October 9, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “From Allies to Comrades” as part of the Fall 2017 event series. The speaker was Jodi Dean (Hobart and William Smith Colleges). Below is a response to the lecture from Benjamin D. O’Dell, English]

“From Allies to Comrades”: What’s in a Name?
Written by Benjamin D. O’Dell (English)

Figure 1. Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (2012), Verso.

Leftists have long been divided on the subject of whether the diversity of groups within the left’s political coalition undermine or advance meaningful political action.  For those who sympathize with a Marxist point of view, categories like race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are often thought to divert attention away from the material struggles that play a more determinant role in a Marxist view of society.  Jodi Dean has renewed this debate in light of our current political landscape.  Her talk “From Allies to Comrades,” both identified the limitations of a divided left and made the case for the value of the term “comrade” as a foundation for a more decisive form of political engagement.

Dean— who previously spoke at the Unit for Criticism’s conference on Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25:  Theories for the New Millennium” in September 2013—sees the American left largely divided between “survivors and systems.” “Survivors” refers to the identity politics and theories of intersectionality that animate things like LGBT activism and the work of social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter.  “Systems” denote the left’s preoccupation with the apocalyptic dimensions of climate change and environmental devastation.  For Dean, the opposition between “survivors and systems” produces a left devoid of a coherent political platform; instead we find either the assertion of particularity, an emphasis on the unique survival of individual groups, or an obsession with the impossibility of survival.  Yet more and more, she believes that individuals on the left are recognizing the limits of the political practices that have organized the preceding generation.  In addition, new methods of communication including hashtags and memes have become a tool for breaking through the noise of previously entrenched talking points.  In her talk, Dean argued that these trends present the opportunity for a renewal of communist thinking via the idea of the “comrade,” a term that signifies a sense of belonging that cuts through the determinations wrought by the present.

Dean presented four interrelated theses in her talk:  first, that the “comrade” names a generic relation between individuals that is characterized by sameness, equality and trust; second, that “everybody” (but not “anybody”) can be a comrade; third, that the individual is “the other” of the comrade; and fourth, that the relationship between comrades is mediated by their relationship with truth.  The connection between these theses is perhaps best understood in the example Dean provides from Greta Garbo’s role in the 1939 comedy Ninotchka.  In that film, Garbo plays a no-nonsense Soviet envoy who is sent to Paris to steer three Russian officials back on track after they become seduced by western capitalism.  When Garbo’s character arrives at the Paris train station, the three men who have been told to receive the envoy but not given the name of the person, mill about the platform looking for “their man” before they realize that the comrade they are waiting for is, in fact, a woman.  On screen, the men’s surprise is used to invoke just how far they have slipped into the realm of western decadence.  When the men apologize for not bringing the envoy flowers, she sternly warns them not “to make an issue” of her womanhood.  Shortly thereafter, when they attempt to secure a porter to carry her bags, she rejects their offer and declares that the porter’s labor is a form of “social injustice” (to which the porter humorously replies, “That depends on the tip!”).

NinotchkaFigure 2. Ninotchka (1939), MGM.

In her talk, Dean used this scene to illustrate that, in its purest form, comradeship is not about a personal connection or similarity between individuals.  Rather, it is about a fidelity to certain political truths.  It involves a rigorous engagement to collectivity and an abandonment of oneself in the unfolding of the consequences of this commitment.  Although often confused with certain attributes (such as “the man” the Russian officials await in Ninotchka), “comrade” is a term that refers to a kind of generalized sameness that cannot be marked in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, or personality.  Being a comrade does not require an uniformity of identity but rather an expectation of reliant, consistent, and practicable action in pursuit of a common purpose.  The comrade is, thus, in Dean’s view, a figure that facilitates political action.

The Q&A following Dean’s talk found many in the audience questioning the history of the term “comrade” in various cultural contexts.  While listeners were intrigued with the idea of a term that could cut through contemporary social divisions, many were unsure that “comrade” could shoulder that weight.  How, one audience member asked, can a term like “comrade” be reclaimed in a place like Cuba, where the term has often carried notions of difference, exclusion, and separation, particularly in regards to members of the LGBT community?  Others noted the ironic usage that the term has acquired in other Latin American nations.  While acknowledging these histories, Dean remained committed to the necessity of reviving the best parts of the emancipatory and egalitarian struggles that are wrapped up in the idea of the “comrade.”  She suggested that in a crowded media sphere like today, one cannot simply create new terms.  Instead, we must occupy old forms and redeploy them for present struggles.










Geoffrey Bennington: “Derrida and Deconstruction” – Response by Patrick Fadely

[On October 3, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Derrida and Deconstruction” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Geoffrey Bennington (Emory University). Below is a response to the lecture from Patrick Fadely, English]

“The Logic of the Trace”
Written by Patrick Fadely (English)

palimpsestOne of the complaints sometimes lodged against deconstuction as a mode of critique is that it has little to say about the ‘real world’, that its focus on language and textuality makes it liable to overlook pressing social, political, and ethical problems. Professor Geoffrey Bennington’s talk showed the opposite to be true, and demonstrated how Jacques Derrida’s descriptions of the structure of language carry over into other domains, providing valuable insights into such exigent issues as political sovereignty and the ethical relation to other. Through his exceptionally lucid explication of deconstruction’s interest in language qua writing, Professor Bennington provided a sound introduction for those unfamiliar with Derrida, and at the same time presented a compelling argument that Derrida’s wide-ranging corpus can be thought of as a series of meditations on the logic of the trace.

In order to understand the significance of Derrida’s thought, Bennington pointed out, it is helpful to start with Ferdinand de Saussure, whose reflections on language gave rise to the “linguistic turn” in twentieth-century philosophy. Saussure’s name is often associated with the dictum that the relationship between a word (the signifier) and its meaning (the signified) is wholly arbitrary—that there is no inherent reason to call a leafy, fruit-bearing plant a “tree,” rather than “árbol” or “Baum” or, for that matter, “table.” But this had been established well before Saussure, and was really only a starting point for his thinking about language. From this observation follows a question about the identity of the sign: given that the sign does not get its identity by virtue of its relationship to the thing it signifies (because that relationship is wholly arbitrary), where can we say this identity comes from? It cannot be the result of some primal scene of agreement on shared conventions, because language is always already inherited and handed down. The radical implications of this question—which Saussure eventually backed away from, but which Derrida took as fundamental—is that the identity of the sign arises only by a relation of difference between itself and all other signs.


Deconstruction, Bennington explained, radicalizes this insight: once we have accepted that all meaning is the result of differential relations among signifiers, we are led to the conclusion that difference and absence must play as much of a role in our thinking about language as do identity and presence. This Derridean radicalization of Saussure’s insight inaugurates the logic of the trace, which served as the central concept in Bennington’s talk. In the logic of the trace, the presence of meaning is brought into being and accounted for by the play of a spectral and dynamic force field of differences—that is, traces. If we apply the logic of the trace to the field of language in general, then the structure of language comes to seem more in line with what has traditionally been said of writing (it bears witness to an absence, lacks vital motivating intention, and is subject to mechanical repetition) than what has traditionally been said about speech (it bears witness to a presence, is alive with the speaker’s intention, and exists uniquely in the moment of its utterance). If applied to politics, this same logic reveals that what we think of as sovereignty depends upon a prior set of internal and external relations that tends to dissolve the self-identity of sovereign power. When applied to the subject, the logic of the trace means that the self only emerges through a prior (ethical) relation among Others—that what we call the self is in fact always already an other. In all these areas, Bennington’s talk showed, these markers of identity—the sign, the nation-state, the subjective self—are compromised, spectralized, hollowed-out and in principle ‘defeated’ by the ‘others’ that bestow and disrupt their identification.

90df942fce11bc47110b7cc57d7633c8The Q&A raised several interesting issues. For example: is it not the case that we human beings are the agents that make meaning? Do we not stand outside the textuality of the real and establish is significance? Professor Bennington demurred, saying that although it is always tempting to try to find some meaning or agency that transcends the play of signification, it will always be pulled back into that orbit, if only because its entire raison d’etre is to put an end to the endless dynamism of difference. Professor Vicki Mahaffey asked about the relationship between deconstruction and psychoanalysis: couldn’t it be said that much of what Derrida posits about the logic of the trace bears a more than passing resemblance to what Freud (and, later, Lacan) describe in the relationship between conscious and subconscious, in which identity is based upon a prior relation to difference, and wherein intent and meaning are always haunted by unintended significance? Here Bennington pointed to Derrida’s reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology, where Derrida insists repeatedly that he is not doing a psychoanalytic reading—a gesture of refusal that will be familiar to readers of Freud and Lacan, and one that hints at a deep connection between the work of deconstruction and the work of psychoanalysis.

Toward the end of his prepared remarks, Professor Bennington had playfully staked out a ‘categorical imperative’ for deconstruction: “Be hospitable to the event of the arrival of the other in general; and be inventive when you can.” His talk met both demands admirably. 

Jennifer Doyle: "Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace" – Response by Tim Dean

[On March 30, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace” The speaker was Jennifer Doyle, Professor of English at UC-Riverside. Below is a response to the lecture from Tim Dean, Professor of English.]

Response to Jennifer Doyle’s “Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace”
by Tim Dean, Professor of English

Jennifer Doyle and I met for the very first time today; but I have admired her work for over a decade, and all the more so after reading her recent book, Campus Sex, Campus Security (published by Semiotext(e) in 2015).  One of the things I admire most is her capacity to keep the critical lens focused on sex, especially at a time when the field of Queer Studies has retreated from the difficulties of thinking sex in favor of other objects of study.  From her first book, titled Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (2006), Professor Doyle has focused on how libidinal energies and impasses shape the cultural and social fields.  This focus strikes me as deeply psychoanalytic, even when Doyle steers clear of particular psychoanalytic methods and vocabularies.  In my remarks today, I want to situate her reading of Freud’s “Case of Paranoia” in relation to her work as a whole, before opening the floor to discussion.  I would like to articulate a number of observations and questions, but I will try to be brief.

In both her reading of Freud’s case and her recent book, Doyle is interested in the desires, anxieties, and disavowals that structure the workplace—including our workplaces at public universities.  In her reading of Freud, she has an explanation for why the workplace has become intolerable for the woman in question.  And in her book Campus Sex, Campus Security, she has an explanation for why our working conditions at public universities have increasingly become intolerable.  But they are not the same explanation, even though both turn on “sex.”

In her reading of Freud’s case, Doyle raises the possibility of a non-pathological paranoia—what she calls “a healthy kind of paranoia.”[1]  When conditions are structured to prevent a certain possibility for a particular class of persons in the workplace (here, women), then something like a paranoid response appears reasonable.  Calling it “paranoia” is a way of de-legitimizing the response, a way of denying that what the woman has perceived is real.  It’s all in her head.  Doyle is right to claim that, no, it’s not all in her head, it’s structured into the conditions of her workplace by the gendered division of labor.  The woman in Freud’s case, quite apart from the “revenge porn” scenario she conjures avant la letter, is perceiving something that the professional men involved staunchly disavow, namely, the workplace as a sexual space.

But what exactly does it mean to describe the workplace as a sexualspace?  It means something different in Doyle’s reading of Freud than it does in her reading of public university campuses in the 21st century United States.  In her reading of Freud, Doyle draws on a particular Italian Marxist-feminist account of labor—associated with Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati—to argue that the woman in Freud’s case is caught in the contradictions that structure the capitalist division of labor between production (in the workplace) and reproduction (outside the workplace).  In this schema, sex is “not only administered as that which ‘happens’ outside the sphere of work; it is positioned as ‘the opposite’ of work.”[2]  There is thus no conceptual space for accommodating sex in the workplace and, indeed, no possibility of acknowledging sex as itself a form of work.  This is one way of explaining why our society cannot really think through the category of sex work—and why male sex work in particular seems to short-circuit rational thought.  To grasp how sex and work are not each other’s opposites likewise obliterates the distinction between pleasure and labor that organizes Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930).

At the end of her reading of Freud, Doyle refers to “the collective disavowal of the fact that ‘work’ is always already sexed.”[3]  Here, I believe the term “sexed” means gendered—i.e., the workplace is structured by a gendered division of labor that uniquely disadvantages women.  I have no quarrel with that claim, but I worry about how the term “sex” has slid from meaning something libidinal—sex as in fucking—to meaning sexual difference, sex as a term European feminists use where we would be more likely to use the term gender.  The fact, as Doyle puts it, that “‘work’ is always already sexed” is not the same as saying that the workplace is a sexual space.

Another way of articulating my concern would be to say that the Marxist feminist critique of the gendered division of labor, valuable though it is, keeps in place a distinctly heterosexual paradigm for understanding sex.  That paradigm makes it harder to see how, for example, same-sexsexual harassment functions in the workplace or on campus.  When gender difference organizes your concept of sexuality, certain things become invisible, or much harder to perceive.  This is a problem with the intellectual tradition Doyle is drawing upon in her reading of Freud; but it’s a problem that does not appear in her book Campus Sex, Campus Security, where she uses the term “sex” differently.

What Doyle describes as a collective disavowal of the libidinal dimension of the workplace takes an historically specific, neoliberal form on contemporary college campuses.  In my view, that disavowal helps to explain how queer theory, once it became institutionalized in the university, stopped paying attention to sex.  In the mid-1980s, Gayle Rubin announced—in an article (“Thinking Sex”) that inaugurated the field—that “The time has come to think about sex.”  But by the end of the millennium, queer theorists had simply decided they would prefer not to.  Jennifer Doyle represents a notable exception to that institutional retrenchment, and I am profoundly grateful for the searching brilliance of her latest book. 

One of the things Campus Sex, Campus Security makes evident is how “sex” has become what renders the campus and its administrators insecure.  The most acceptable campus discourse about sex is how to stop it from happening.  In the latest incarnation of a Foucaultian nightmare, sex has become something that must be, above all, administered.[4]  Outside of biology labs, there is virtually no space on campus for actually thinking sex.  There are plenty of campus spaces for thinking about how to getsex.  And every campus has multiple sites for engaging intellectually with questions of gender (even though those sites tend to be under-resourced and under attack).  But if you’re searching for a place on campus to theorize human sexuality apart from a biological model, you are basically out of luck.   

Sex is not supposed to contaminate the campus as a workplace.  Now, when I went to college in the 1980s, it was precisely in order to have sex (and perhaps secondarily to reflect on what that meant).  All my undergraduate feminist friends talked incessantly about which professors they wanted to shag; as students we speculated endlessly, and in minute detail, about what various faculty members would be like in bed.  I’m not sure how much has changed since then (you tell me); but what has changed is the growth of a large and complex bureaucracy to administer sexual complaints.  At universities such as the ones Doyle describes in her book, the campus bureaucracy has become increasingly militarized, not to mention paranoid about securing boundaries in a way that deserves to be diagnosed as pathological.  (We are not talking here about “a healthy kind of paranoia.”)

When my college friends and I generated a discourse whose sole object was our professors’ sex lives, we did so as a result of the phenomenon that Freud named transference.  “He whom I suppose to know, I love.”  Transference is a psychoanalytic term for describing the libidinal energies that pervade relationships structured hierarchically.  Transference is the engine that drives psychoanalysis in a clinical setting and it permeates hierarchical institutions such as schools.  It’s a way of talking about the libidinal component of our relationship to authority.  I would argue that sex haunts the workplace in large part because transference goes unrecognized and unacknowledged.  Freud said that the essence of psychoanalysis lay in handling the transference.  One might say that the essence of teaching lies similarly in handling the transference that permeates pedagogical relationships.  When a teacher or a student fail to recognize that what’s happening between them is transferential, that’s when they are most likely to end up having sex.  And by now we have a pretty good idea of how that story ends.

Let me redescribe what I’m trying to get at here.  In the Marxist-feminist critique of the division of labor that Doyle invokes, there is a division between production and reproduction that creates an impasse for women in the workplace and fails to acknowledge certain kind of labor as labor.  Partly in response to this impasse, Italian Marxist philosophers such as Maurizio Lazzarato and Antonio Negri have developed the concept of immaterial laborto describe “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge or communication.”[5]  In my own research on sex work, I’ve been using the idea of immaterial labor to think through forms of affective labor, aesthetic labor, and glamourlabor.  What psychoanalysis adds to this account of immaterial labor is the crucial idea of unconscious labor—the work that our minds do, in the service of pleasure, unbeknownst to us.  (Freud uses the term arbeit, the basic German word for work, to describe this mental labor)  We might say that the unconscious is the ideal laborer of capitalism because our minds continue working even when we’re asleep.  What they produce is a called a dream—an immaterial product if ever there were one.

Transference is a way of talking about the unconscious component of all human relationships that are structured hierarchically.  It acknowledges that there is another kind of work going on, work that is intentional but eclipsed by consciousness.  The workplace is a sexual space because every human being who occupies that space is accompanied by a ghost, namely, their unconscious.

[1]Jennifer Doyle, “Rethinking a Case of Paranoia as a Workplace Complaint,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, vol.18, no.1 (2017), 10.
[2]  Doyle, “Rethinking,” 11.
[3]  Doyle, “Rethinking,” 12.
[4]  Here Doyle’s account recalls political anthropologist David Graber’s brilliant critique of contemporary bureaucracy in The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (2015).
[5]  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000), 290.