[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.