The Afterlives of Queer Theory


Untitled, Albert Eugene Gallatin, 1939

by Michael O’Rourke

All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, to welcome it, that is, to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange [….] All of history has shown that each time an event has been produced, for example in philosophy or in poetry, it took the form of the unacceptable, or even of the intolerable, or the incomprehensible, that is, of a certain monstrosity.

—Jacques Derrida, “Passages—from Traumatism to Promise” (387).

Post-Continental Queer Theory

In an interview with Paul Ennis in Post-Continental Voices, Adrian Ivakhiv (2011) is asked about his opinion concerning the future of post-continental philosophy and he responds that:

In an increasingly global context, I’m not sure if either ‘continental philosophy’ or “analytical philosophy” have much of a future except as carriers of certain legacies; they’re carry-overs from a time when philosophy seemed exclusive to the North Atlantic world. In a globally mediated, technologically shaped world of shifting and intersecting biocultural contexts, philosophy will have to be more hybrid, viral, and shapeshifting if it’s to remain efficacious as a motivating and inspirational force for cosmopolitical world-making—which, to my mind, is what lies ahead of us (97).

Ivakhiv goes on to prescribe what such a post-continental philosophy would need to be: “post-analytical, post-feminist, post-Marxist, post-postcolonial, post-constructivist” (97) and so on. He does not explicitly mention queer theory here but we might ask, and this essay sets out to ask, what queer theory might look like if we were to consider it as a hybrid, viral, shapeshifting, post-continental philosophy with cosmopolitical world-making aspirations.

Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s essay “What does Queer Theory Teach us about X?” a guest column written for the PMLA in 1995 was already talking about queer theory in ways which we might now recognize as resonating with the term “post-continental.” The first thing we might notice about their essay is a refusal to succumb to the need to pin things down, to say what exactly queer theory is and does and to be entirely clear about what precisely it is that queer theorists do. Berlant and Warner are equally reluctant to accord a specific time to queer. For them, queer is radically anticipatory; it holds out a promise, a utopian aspiration, and occupies a time out-of-joint. Perhaps the appeal and the lasting power of queer theory then (and now) is that it is non-delimitable as a field and non-locatable in terms of a chrononormative temporal schema. Part of, perhaps all of, the attraction of queer theory is its very undefinability, its provisionality, its openness, and its not-yet-here-ness. Queer occupies a strange temporality; it is always, like Derrida’s monstrous arrivant, to-come, whether from the past or from the future. And it has a ghostly formlessness too. Berlant and Warner write that, in their view, “it is not useful to consider queer theory a thing, especially one dignified by capital letters. We wonder whether queer commentary might not more accurately describe the things linked by the rubric, most of which are not theory” (343). It cannot, they insist, “be assimilated to a single discourse, let alone a propositional program” (343). I share their desire “not to define, purify, puncture, sanitize, or otherwise entail [pin a tail on to] the emerging queer commentary” or to fix a “seal of approval or disapproval” (344) on anyone’s claims to queerness as I begin to think about the many and various afterlives of queer theory, if there is such a thing. Furthermore, I agree with them that we ought to prevent the reduction of queer theory to a speciality or a metatheory and that we ought to fight vigorously to “frustrate the already audible assertions that queer theory has only academic—which is to say, dead—politics” (344).

And, as we shall see shortly, there is a certain discourse which propagates the idea that queer theory (and not just its politics) is always already dead, buried, over, finished. For me, much of queer thinking’s allure is its openness, its promissory nature, and that much of what goes under its name has been “radically anticipatory, trying to bring a [queer] world into being” (344). Because of this very provisionality, and an attendant welcomeness to its own revision, any attempt to “summarize it now will be violently partial” (343). But we might see some value in the violently partial accounts, the short-lived promiscuous encounters, cruising impersonal intimacies, I will be trying to stage here in this article as I ruminate upon the post-continental afterlives of queer theory.

If, for Berlant and Warner, “Queer Theory is not the theory of anything in particular, and has no precise bibliographic shape” (344) then I would like to suggest—with a willful disingenuousness since after all Queer Theory [dignified by capitals] does have a working bibliographical and anthologizable shape which one can easily constitute—that queer theory is not solely the theory of nothing in particular. We might, a little hyperbolically to be sure, say that queer theory is (and always has been) the theory of everything. However, if we turn queer theory into a capital-t Theory (as we are often wont to do [and I cannot exclude myself from this urge]) we risk forgetting the differences between the various figures associated with it and the variegated contexts in which they work (as we shall soon see). As Berlant and Warner caution, “Queer commentary takes on varied shapes, risks, ambitions, and ambivalences in various contexts” (344) and if we try to pin the tail on the donkey by imagining a context (theory) in which queer has “a stable referential content and pragmatic force” (344) then we are in danger of forgetting the “multiple localities” (345) of queer theory and practice. No one corpus of work (Judith Butler’s for example) or no one particular project should be made to stand in for the whole movement, or what we might more provisionally—and more openly, perhaps a possible alternative to Berlant and Warner’s queer commentary—call the “culture” of queer theory (small-q, small-t).

If queer thinking were simply reduced to being the province of one particular thinker (say, Judith Butler or Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick) then its multiple localities would be worryingly narrowed and its localities would become merely parochial like “little ornaments appliquéd over real politics or real intellectual work. They [would] carry the odor of the luxuriant” (Berlant and Warner, 345). If the works of Butler or Sedgwick, were made into a metonym for queer theory or queer culture (or world-building) itself, and if they are held to be exemplary cases (either for good or for bad) then what we lose is the original edgy impetus behind queer theory in the first place. We lose, as Berlant and Warner state, that “wrenching sense of re-contextualization it gave” (345). And then we would really leave queer theory open to charges of political uselessness and glaciation, “the infection of general culture by narrow interest” (349).

The Many Deaths of Queer Theory

Were we to accept recent commentators, Queer Theory, is: over, passé, moribund, stagnant; or, at worst, dead, its time and its power to wrench frames having come and gone. Almost since it began we have been hearing about the death(s) of Queer Theory. Stephen Barber and David Clark wrote in 2002 that, “it is not especially surprising to hear that the survival of queer theory has been questioned or its possible ‘death’ bruited, however questioningly”(4). However questioning this may have been, a year later Judith Halberstam wrote, “some say that queer theory is no longer in vogue; others characterize it as fatigued or exhausted of energy and lacking in keen debates; still others wax nostalgic for an earlier moment.” One year later Heather Love reports that some suspect that “queer theory is going downhill.” Andrew Parker and Janet Halley, who edited a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly in 2007 entitled “After Sex: On Writing Since Queer Theory,” invited their contributors to share some “after” thoughts on what it might mean to be “after queer theory” since they had, “been hearing from some quarters that queer theory, if not already passé, was rapidly approaching its expiration date.”

Yet, despite the rumors of extinction, Queer Theory continues to tenaciously hold on to life, to affirm the promise of the future, even despite the dominant influence of Lee Edelman’s book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive which encourages us to fuck the future and its coercive politics which are, he tells us, embodied in the fascist face of the Child. With each new book, conference, seminar series, each new masters program, we hear (yet again) that Queer Theory is over. Some argue that the unstoppable train of queer theory came to a halt in the late nineties having been swallowed up by its own fashionability. It had become, contrary to its own anti-assimilationist rhetoric, fashionable, very much included, rather than being the outlaw, it wanted to be. But the books and articles still continue to appear, the conferences continue to be held. And, if it were true that Queer Theory has been assimilated completely, become sedimented, completely domesticated (or at least capable of being domesticated) then it really would be over. Nobody would be reading any more for we would already know what was to come.3 In a fascinating conclusion to her article “Busy Dying” Valerie Rohy (2011) suggests that we need not necessarily, “resist the death of queer theory, or not in the way one might think.” She explains:

While it is ironic that queer theory should also be enlivened by prophecies of its death […] there is no reason why that conversation should not continue. If we choose to accept the humanizing trope that gives life to queer theory, it must therefore be dying, like all of us: after all, the condition of life is its ending. And if so, the question becomes how long and how richly queer theory can live that dying, busy with the work of its time (219).

Of course, to speak of afterlives, as I do here, is to suggest that queer theory has already died and has come back as a ghost or ghosts. Certainly, this gestures some way towards the hauntological survival of queer theory and its weird temporalities. But, if it is already-dead (and queer theory does tend to get anthropomorphized in these accounts of its demise) then its ghost comes from the future as well as from the past. But, Queer Theory, stubbornly vital as specter, revenant, ghost, took a strange twist in the late nineties and early noughties (or whatever we might awkwardly name our present queer age). Suddenly, queer theorists were interested in ethico-politics, in world politics, in events outside of the texts they were so busy subverting. And it was this political turn which led David Ruffolo to call for a renaming of queer thinking as post-queer politics.

In Ruffolo’s (2009) book we catch a glimpse of what queer as a post-continental theory might look like and it is useful to read Post-Queer Politics alongside John Mullarkey’s (2006) Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline. At the beginning of his book Mullarkey admits that he is writing about something, the philosophical event of post-continental thought, which does not yet have a shape, has not yet come into existence:

This book may have been written too early. It is not about something, or some idea, that has actually occurred as yet, an objective event. It is about something that is unfolding, an event in the making. The ‘Post-‘ in ‘Post-Continental’ is not an accurate description of what is, but a prescription for what could be” (1).

Similarly, the “post-” in David Ruffolo’s (2009) book operates not as a description of something which has already happened in response to the “peaking” of queer theory (1), but rather describes (or prescribes) what could be, if queer theory were to undergo significant renewal. Ruffolo’s primary concern is to immanentize queer theory which, for him, remains rooted in subjectivity, language, representations, discourses, identities, and so on. Ruffolo rejects the queer theoretical insistence on transcendence which he finds primarily in the work of Foucault and Butler—where acute attention is placed on representations, significations, and identifications—and he aims to kindle a neomaterialist (in the spirit of Elizabeth Grosz’s work) post-queer thinking which is open rather than closed to the world. In my (2009) preface “TwO (Theory without Organs)” to Post-Queer Politics I gestured toward the idea that Ruffolo is reanimating queer theory, plateauing it in ways that can be diagrammed: he puts queer theory on the line and he maps the plane of consistency of queer theory as a kind of free-floating space that is formless, without subject, without development, without centre or structure, without beginning or end.4 Mullarkey’s wager is that post-continental thought (which he associates with the philosophies of Deleuze, Laruelle, Badiou and Henry) embraces “absolute immanence over transcendence” (1). Each of these philosophers insist, Mullarkey tells us, upon, “a return to the category of immanence if philosophy is to have any future at all” (2). In “rejecting both the phenomenological tradition of transcendence (of consciousness, the Ego, Being, or Alterity), as well as the post-structuralist valorization of language” (2) these four French philosophers take continental philosophy “in a new direction that engages with naturalism with a refreshingly critical and non-reductive approach to the sciences of life, set theory, embodiment and knowledge. Taken together, these strategies amount to a rekindled faith in the possibility of philosophy as a worldly and materialist thinking” (2).

Although Deleuze is the central figure in both Mullarkey’s and Ruffolo’s texts, it is perhaps Derrida (and his notion of the à-venir, the to-come) which springs to mind when we try to think about the attempt to make immanence supervene on transcendence in queer studies. The queer theory to-come (which Ruffolo refers to as post-queer dialogical becomings) is impossible to discern, to outline, to give precise shape too. If queer theory has reached an abyss (the heteronormativity/queer dyad Ruffolo problematizes) then re-mapping the co-ordinates of the field depends on an aporetic impossibility, a crossing of the uncrossable, a passing through the impassable.

For Mullarkey, Derrida’s later thinking was marked by an inability to stay still and a shift from the undermining of the “possibility of experience” to “the experience of impossibility” (9) in the later writings on the aporetics of ethical, religious and political experience. The queer theory to-come, we might wager, then, is an experience of aporetic impossibility and Mullarkey gives us a clue as to how Derrida’s writing on/about aporias might be useful for thinking about the regime of philosophical immanence:

In his own work entitled Aporias, Derrida tells us that the term’s philosophical use comes to us from Aristotle’s Physics IV and concerns the problematics of time. But it also concerns the issue of regress, Aristotle taking the view in the Categories that any relation (like time) must have distinct relata lest there be infinite regress. The relata need to be distinct if their relation is to be defined. And here is where we can begin to see a way out of our entanglement in immanence (9)

Mullarkey contends that, “the regress, aporia, or ‘vertigo’ of immanence” can never be undone, “indeed, it can never even be said, strictly speaking” (9). Rather, we show it by unwriting it. He turns to Deleuze for a theory of abstraction that, “would provide the key to how a discourse of immanence might be possible—namely the theory of the diagram or philosophical drawing” (9). He explains that the diagram operates metaphilosophically in that it is a moving outline which takes both, “a transcendent view (representing immanence) while also remaining immanent: it does this by diagrammatising itself—it reiterates itself as a drawing that is perpetually re-drawn, and so materializes its own aporia”(9). Ruffolo’s post-queer politics is perhaps only capturable spatially or rather diagrammatically and not chronologically (it does not mean after queer or leaving queer behind, the post-queer remains, after all, forever tethered to the queer) or genealogically. Post-queer does not mean after queer or leaving queer behind, the post-queer remains, after all, forever tethered to the queer genealogically. Mullarkey sums up his project in ways which are strikingly similar to Ruffolo’s central concerns about the stagnation or death of queer theory, “the news this nascent event brings is effectively the following: not only was the report of Continental philosophy’s death at the hand of self-inflicted aporia, obscurantism and anti-scientism an exaggeration, but a recent change has taken place that will allow it to regenerate and renew itself with unexpected consequences” (11).
The Many Afterlives of Queer Theory

The news of queer theory’s death (or many deaths) at the hands of “self-inflicted aporia” also came too soon, was a gross exaggeration. And, echoing Mullarkey, I would argue that recent changes to the shape of the field promise its regeneration and renewal with many unexpected (and indeed unforeseeable  consequences). So, in the remainder of this article I would like to speculate about some of Queer Theory’s afterlives by taking a look at some recent texts (all from the past two years and each committed to re-imagined queer futurities) which take the field in new directions and open up new spaces of enquiry, new worlds:

  • José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) on critical idealism, aesthetics and a Blochian educated hope,
  • Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness (2010) on affect,
  • Tim Dean’s Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (2010) on barebacking, HIV and intimacies,
  • Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child; Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (2009) on queer childhood, and finally,
  • Lynne Huffer’s Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (2010) which is a landmark text for queer studies because it shifts the emphasis away from Foucault’s three-volume History of Sexuality to his Madness and Civilization.

My “violently partial” readings of these five important texts and the immemorial currents sweeping Queer Theory towards new headings, new futures, suggests not only that there is life after death for Queer Theory, a future for queer thinking, but that, Queer Theory is the future, a theory of the future, one which still has much to teach us about the urgent cultural and political questions of today.

Queer theory and/as the Future

From its very “beginnings” Queer Theory has, like its pervert twin, deconstruction, been turned toward the future, a theory permanently open to its own recitation, re-signification and revision. It has always been a hopeful and hope-full theory. We see this in its earliest incarnations as the AIDS activism of ACT UP and Queer Nation, both of which are privileged by utopian political thought that promises an unmasterable future, and the “foundational” theorizations of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler (among many others), queer theory has always already been of, for, and promised, given over to, the future, to futurality as such. It has curved, “endlessly toward the realization that its realization remains impossible,” as Lee Edelman wrote in 1995 (346), the same year as Berlant and Warner’s guest column in PMLA. So, in the early to mid 1990s Edelman himself was able to celebrate the utopic negativity, and asymptotic, incalculable futurity of queer thinking as a site of permanent becoming. But what his No Future has almost single-handedly instantiated is a turn away from the future, or what he more recently has called the “Futurch” (2006, 821) as it is embodied in the saccharine-laden figure of the Child.

In the wake of Edelman’s book there has been an almost universal rejection of, a resounding “fuck you,” to the future and what has come to be called the ‘anti-social thesis’ now dominates the post-political, post-futural, anti-or post-relational landscape of queer studies. On the one side, the side of anti-utopianism and hopelessness you have figures like Edelman, Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon, and (much more problematically and equivocally) Judith Halberstam, for whom hope is imbued with and unable to be dislodged from a heteronormative logic. Theirs is a project calculated to give up on hope and by extension to refuse both the political and the futural. In a sense then the anti-social theorists are on the side of death, or of a logic which loudly proclaims and embraces the traumatized death drivenness of both queer theory and politics, raising a specter which has haunted it from the very start.

On the other side, on the side of affirmation, utopianism and socio-political hope, very much on the side of life, we have figures such as Tim Dean, Michael Snediker, Sara Ahmed, and José Esteban Muñoz (a thinker such as Heather Love falls somewhere in the middle but I don’t think an optimistic queer theory can afford to dwell for very long on loss, melancholia, trauma at the expense of feeling forward as her work does). These theorists, a little bit in love with queer theory as lure, return us to the affirmative, revolutionary potential of queer studies, and seek to re-imagine a hopeful, forward-reaching, world-making queer theory that matters as the future, as the telepoietic queer event, as the always already not-yet of the democracy to-come and the justice to-come. We might even say, affirming the far-from-dead politics of queer theory, that queer theory is radical democracy, that queer theory is justice, is all about futurity and hope. And it is worth remembering here that for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose death in April 2009 occasioned a new round of assertions that the work of queer theory which she inspired was over and done with, queerness is “inextinguishable” (1993, xii). And, to quote Beth Freeman (2010), “as much as sexual dissidents have suffered, lived as objects of contempt or oblivion, endured physical and emotional punishment, we have also risked experimentation with our bodies and those of others, with affiliation, and with new practices of hoping, demanding, and otherwise making claims on the future”(xxi).

Revolt We Said

Those who take up the anti-social argument (a position usually incorrectly attributed to Leo Bersani’s Homos) refuse to make claims on the future and so refuse queer theory as future dawning promise. To do so is to betray a certain spirit of Derridean deconstruction which has always animated queer thought. To take this anti-social argument is to give up on a Derridean understanding of the event as prospective and to remain in thrall to an onto-chrono-temporality. I would quite seriously suggest that we need to avoid this wrong turn by mobilizing a Derridean understanding of historicity, temporality (and by extension spatiality), relationality and the event. The latter being understood as that which ruptures onto-chrono-phenomenological temporality and is faithful to, or welcomes, that which arrives but which cannot be known or grasped in advance. This theoretical gesture, a reparative one, is in the service of what I have called elsewhere (2011, 53-69) queer theory as a weak force, queer theory as revolt. Julia Kristeva in Revolt, She Said understands the event as revolutionary, emphasizing there the etymological roots—which overlap with queer’s own etymological ones—of the word revolt, meaning “return, renewing, returning, discovering, uncovering, and renovating”( 2002, 85). This renovation is possible because at the moment of revolution, according to Kristeva, “I revolt, therefore we are still to come’ (42, my emphasis). Kristeva considers thinking as, “a revelation, an exploration, an opening, a place of freedom” (114). Similarly, José Esteban Muñoz, in his Cruising Utopia, sees queerness as, “a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present” (2009, 1).

For Muñoz, “Queerness is also a performative because it is not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future” (1). Following Muñoz, queerness occupies the space of the not-yet, is always promissory, horizonal. He begins Cruising Utopia by stating:

Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain (1).

I am not suggesting that it is easy to unmoor ourselves from linear temporalities, from what Elizabeth Freeman in her important recent book on erotohistoriographies calls “chrononormativities,” but I would like to draw attention to the way in which this capitulation in the end refuses and forecloses the promise of the future. In the remainder of this paper I would like to take a glimpse at some forward-glancing texts (or particular moments in those texts which we might encounter closely, even over-closely)12 which can be shored up against the so-called ruin(s) or death(s) or queer theory.

Child’s Delay

Firstly, let us take a sideways look at the child, from a parallax angle which Edelman’s No Future (2004), with its rejection of the child and of the possibility for queer children or queer childhood to even exist, explicitly disallows. Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child; or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (2009) asserts that, “if you scratch a child, you will find a queer” (1). In her readings of fiction and films from the twentieth century she returns the shadowy, ghostly, penumbral figure of the queer child to a central place. She will, she boldly claims, show throughout, “how every child is queer” (3). What this might suggest to us is that queer children stubbornly refuse to grow up, to follow arborescent, vertical, even Oedipalized models of development.13 Rather they make lateral, rhizomatic, sideways moves. The child is post-queer, then, in Ruffolo’s sense. It is important to note that these sweeping lateral shifts are also as such a rejection of the coercive politics of “reproductive futurism” (Edelman, 2004). But, having said that, the temporality Stockton’s queer children occupy is the time of Derrida’s différance, a time of delay. Their, “supposed gradual growth, their suggested slow unfolding, which, unhelpfully, has been relentlessly figured as vertical movement upward (hence ‘growing up’) toward full stature, marriage, work, reproduction and the loss of childishness” (Stockton, 4). The temporality of delay is, Stockton admits, a tricky one. Like the speeds of Derridean différance, the child’s delay “spreads […] sideways and backwards,” rather than simply accelerating and thrusting “toward height and forward time” (4). As a queer strategy, maneuvering sideways has the virtue of mobilizing the frame-wrenching unruliness of Berlant and Warner’s queer thinking, but also the power to bend the hetero-chrono-normative frames of temporality and History we are used to working with. These complicated asynchronicities, these luminescent moments of queer refusals to grow up, carve open new futures for queer childhood. If queer childhood—and here queer childhood becomes synecdochal for the childlike wonder of queer theory itself—is only ever recognizable after its death, retroactively, then this delaying or stalling of the forward-propulsion of growing up, allows the queer child, or simply queerness tout court, to live on, inextinguishably.

Utopia’s Propulsions

In his manifesto-like Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, José Esteban Muñoz enacts another sideways re-temporalizing move and makes a compelling argument for the anti-anti-relational thesis. We must, he states, “vacate the here and now for a then and there,” (185) leaving behind the contested present and its quagmire, for a re-imagined futurity. If Edelman emphasizes the lonely figure of the sinthomosexual who refuses relationality, then Muñoz wishes for, wants a, “collective temporal distortion.” This is a Kristevan revolt, “Individual transports are insufficient. We need to engage in a collective temporal distortion. We need to step out of the rigid conceptualization that is a straight present” (185). In a way Stockton’s queer child occupies Muñoz’s space (although the future is both a spatial and a temporal destination) of the “not yet here.” Rather than refusing the future’s pull in the way that Edelman rejects the tow of the à-venir (the to-come), Muñoz reminds us that, “what we need to know is that queerness is not yet here but it approaches like a crashing wave of potentiality. And we must give in to its propulsion, its status as a destination” (185), or we might say its status as a horizonless-horizon. In a rather compelling conclusion to his book Muñoz imagines this capitulation to the inexorable propulsive tug of the future-as-promise in terms of the ecstatic: “we must take ecstasy.” This has a whole range of possible registers from the pharmaceutical to the carnal but I want to place it alongside (or sideways with) Lynne Huffer’s more ecstatic moments in Mad for Foucault (2010), in which she is mad about her Foucault. She engages in moments of rapturous cross-temporal vibration with him in terms redolent of Muñoz’s own ekstasis (a Heideggerian standing outside of oneself which ruptures, tears up the linearities of straight time). Muñoz’s injunction, or request, for us to take ecstasy with him, to encounter a queer temporality thus,

becomes a request to stand out of time together, to resist the stultifying temporality and time that is not ours, that is saturated with violence both visceral and emotional, a time that is not queerness. Queerness’s time is the time of ecstasy. Ecstasy is queerness’s way (187).

It is in these ecstatic moments that we arrive (or move inexorably toward) “collective potentiality” (189). These ecstatic moments often take place in encounters with certain objects, objects like Warhol’s coke bottle which harbor potentiality and are illuminated by “the affective contours of hope itself” (7).

Queer Ekstasis

Those objects, which are illuminated by future- or forward-dawning-promise, can also be texts themselves. These are texts which take on qualities of the sentient as they vibrate with us across time and space. Lynne Huffer’s Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory dramatizes a feverish moment which she shares in the archive with Foucault, where she takes ecstasy with him. Her argument throughout this field redefining book is that we cannot properly understand Foucault’s work on sexuality until we learn to (re)read The History of Madness. This project of “re-queering Foucault” (24) actually turns on a rejection of the now-sanctified versions of his ideas which dominate queer theory.14 Huffer bravely suggests that our understanding of Foucault occupies the time of ecstatic queerness: if we have yet to read (or understood) his work properly, then another Foucault, a futural Foucault is always potentially dawning. She glimpses this wave of potentiality for unsettling the object-event that Foucault has become in the Normandy archive where Foucault’s unpublished texts are held.

While perusing a 400-page interview between Roger Pol Droit and Foucault, Huffer chances upon a moment of suppressed self-disclosure. Foucault had refused to publish this long interview text, embarrassed by how it forced him to resort to biographical answers, to a moi that his work—and the queer theory it has inspired— so assiduously moved to decenter. Foucault tells Droit that madness has always interested him, that “for twenty years now I’ve been worrying about my little mad ones, my little excluded ones, my little abnormals” (Huffer, 23). At this point, Droit presses him to explain the motivation for writing The History of Madness in the first place and he responds,

in my personal life, from the moment of my sexual awakening, I felt excluded, not so much rejected, but belonging to society’s shadow. It’s all the more a problem when you discover it for yourself. All of this was very quickly transformed into a kind of psychiatric threat: if you’re not like everyone else, it’s because you’re abnormal, if you’re abnormal, it’s because you’re sick (Huffer, 23).

Huffer admits that she is, “immediately thrilled,” to have, “discovered such a ‘confession,’” from Foucault (23).

This is a moment where, for Foucault, “individual transports are not enough” (Muñoz, 185). Rather he engages in a “collective temporal distortion” (Muñoz, 185) in which he declares his solidarity with his “little mad ones, my little abnormals.” Huffer calls this moment a “coup de foudre” which sparks a “fever” in her and engenders, “a loyal kind of disloyalty to Foucault,” (24) who after all wanted to suppress this “confessional” text that she erotically vibrates toward, or even with. Perhaps, she says, “it can be received as an event of discovery that engenders what Deleuze called a resistant thinking, ‘a thought of resistance’ to the despotic readings that refuse to see Foucault’s queer madness” (24). Huffer’s queer theory takes it chances with that which has been repressed but in so doing goes where Muñoz tells us queer theory needs to go: into the queer time of ecstasy and archive fever. Huffer’s encounter with Foucault, her queer “touch” which crosses temporal lines, reveals the inherent strangeness which inhabits the chrono-normative rhythms of time. And her seeming “disloyalty,” her overcloseness discloses what Freeman says is the, “messiest thing about being queer,” that is, “the actual meeting of bodies with other bodies and with objects” (Freeman, xxi, my emphasis).

The Promise of Affect

Huffer’s ecstatic moment, her stepping outside of herself in a moment of happy stance, a chancy happenstance, should remind us that we know, as Muñoz, puts it, “time through the field of the affective, and affect is tightly bound to temporality” (Muñoz,187). Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness (2010) turns its attention to an affect which has been downplayed in queer studies which has up until recently preferred to wallow in bad feelings such as shame (by far the most dominant affect in queer cultural studies), hate, fear, anger, disgust and so on. Negative affect, melancholy and trauma, as Michael Snediker points out in his gorgeous dance of a book Queer Optimism, have preoccupied queer theorizing at the expense of or to the detriment of positive affect, happiness, optimism, hope, utopianism. In his review of Ahmed’s book Snediker avers that, “arguments for or against happiness arise most provocatively in the field of queer theory,” which suggests to him that, “queer persons bear an acutely salient relation to happiness as that from which they’ve been excluded, but furthermore, that they bear an exemplary relation to a happiness always requiring sacrifice and compromise, a shady bittersweetness from which no persons are exempt” (2009, np).

Most queer theory has found itself cleaving to pernicious versions of happiness over and against its capacity for fungibility (there are many forms of happiness) and its constitutive (or at the very least etymological) potentiality for surprise. Happiness, then, occupies the strange temporality of Stockton’s child and his or her delay (and of Muñoz’s then-and-there, a not-yet-here). Snediker reminds us that Ahmed imagines an affective relation (which can be both happy or unhappy; there is, after all, no pure form of either happiness or unhappiness which tend, as Snediker puts it, rather to “equivocate around each other’s edges”) to an “experienced past as structurally analogous to a futural affect which we can speculate about but haven’t yet encountered”: “nostalgic and promissory forms of happiness belong under the same horizon, insofar as they imagine happiness as being somewhere other than where we are in the present” (Ahmed, 160-161). The anti-social theorists argue that, if one is to be queer, happiness is ontologically risky and therefore should be refused, given up. However, Ahmed much more promisingly (and promissorily) mines those times and spaces where we can in fact find forms of happiness beyond those we presently “trust and mistrust” (Snediker, 2009). In this brighter, more expansive world, Ahmed promises a differently-theorized happiness, which we might allow to migrate across other affects—both positive and negative. As Snediker concludes, Ahmed gratifyingly allows that, by swerving away from happiness’s compulsions and coercions and being drawn into near-proximity, “we might wish to be happy, without feeling theoretically unhappy in the wishing.”

Unlimited Promiscuity

Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity imagines what we “can possibly see, let alone know, here, and now, of future social relations, how we can dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds” (Muñoz ,1). The then and there of his subtitle insists on the now-cental question of how to bring about utopian futures from within a negating and seemingly hopeless present. How to introduce or bring exuberant futures (what Michael Warner would call “queer planets” maybe) into being. It may seem perverse to look for and to find ballast for what we can know of future social relations that would induce ebullient queer futurities in Tim Dean’s Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (2010), the opening chapter of which bears the confessional epigraph, “I like to bareback—to fuck without condoms.” But for Dean barebacking “concerns an experience of unfettered intimacy, of overcoming the boundaries between persons, that is far from exclusive to this subculture or, indeed, to queer sexuality” (2). What this might mean, of course, is that barebacking occupies the queer time and space of the not-yet-here. It also promises a shattering of the identitarian structures which presently underpin our theories of sexuality and potentializes the thinking of new relational modes or forms-of-life (an important point to make about a book which has the virtue of bringing HIV, AIDS, and death back into focus without falling under the sway of the death driven queer post-politics).15 If Foucault needs to be re-queered, unleashing his queer unreason or madness, then Dean suggests that queer theory itself needs to be re-queered. Barebacking (which he refuses to endorse or condemn) allows him “to defer judgement about it in order to open a space in which real thinking can occur” (Dean, 3). If for Stockton growing sideways is a queer strategy in practice, and for Muñoz taking ecstasy is a queer strategy in motion, then for Dean promiscuity occupies that re-opened space where real thinking and patient forms of attention can take place. In lieu of the politics of identification he argues for an impersonal ethics in which one cares about others (strangers in the Levinasian sense), “even when one cannot see anything of oneself in them.” So, in “contradistinction to the politics of identification, we have the ethics of alterity” (Dean, 25).

This post-continental approach which moves beyond the subject in favour of what Elizabeth Grosz (2007) calls a, “process of opening oneself up to the otherness that is the world itself […] that makes us unrecognisable,” might also be diagrammed using Lacan’s graphs of sexuation as does Levi Bryant in his work on the democracy of objects and what he has termed Object Oriented Ontology (OOO). Lacan plays a crucial role in both Dean’s Beyond Sexuality and Unlimited Intimacy as well as in Bryant’s onticology, his “flat ontology.” Bryant’s theory of withdrawal is one which—in conversation with Timothy Morton (2011)—asserts an opposition to any “phallocentric totalization. This is what Bryant (2011) has recently called “phallosophy.” Instead of interpreting Lacan’s graphs in terms of sexuation, he understands them in terms of ontology. He explains that, “on both the masculine and the feminine side of the graph of sexuation, what we get are two different ways of handling the withdrawal at the heart of being. The left side of the graph refers to masculine sexuation, while the right side of the graph refers to feminine sexuation” (2010, np). And in Bryant’s post-phallosophical onticology, queer theory is to be found on the feminine (“not-all”) side of the graph.

If David Ruffolo is determined to theorize queer desiring machines to counter an unproductive focus on lack then Bryant is equally attuned to the ways in which we ought to swerve away from Lacan’s phallic function (which of course refers to castration or lack). Bryant explains:

rather than referring to a masculine and feminine side of the graph, we can instead refer to a side of the graph that refers to object-oriented ontologies (the feminine [and subsequently he has placed the queer here too]). Moreover, rather than treating phi as the phallic function, we should instead treat phi as withdrawal. […W]hat we get in this schema are two fundamentally different ways of discoursing about being (2010).

Bryant reformulates the schemas for masculinity and femininity in terms of philosophies of presence where, “all are submitted to withdrawal with one exception,” and object-oriented ontologies where, “not all are submitted to withdrawal. But there is no exception. There is none which is not submitted to withdrawal.”

What Bryant is getting at here is that there is no master signifier outside the set of all objects and there is no top or bottom object anywhere to be found. He goes on to say that:

if the graphs of sexuation are rewritten in terms of ontology and withdrawal we can see  how we get radically different ontologies depending on whether or not we’re dealing with a metaphysics of presence or an object-oriented ontology. What the metaphysics of presence seeks and is always dependent upon is an exception or an entity that is not subject to withdrawal. In other words it seeks an entity that is fully present without any withdrawal whatsoever (2010).

However, Object-Oriented Ontologies give us a completely different schematization because, as Bryant argues, there is “no exception to withdrawal.” He explains that, “it belongs to the being of all beings to withdraw without exception. Not only do beings withdraw from one another, but they also necessarily withdraw from themselves.” In his democratization of objects Bryant develops the thesis that objects have a dual nature, that they simultaneously withdraw and are, “self-othering in and through their manifestations.”

If we look at Lacan’s graphs of sexuation we see a series of arrows traversing the two sides of the graph. As Bryant explains, on the masculine side we see an arrow pointing from the barred subject ($) to object a (a) and the “logic of metaphysics of presence” generates a situation in which “withdrawal is seen as a loss rather than as a constitutive dimension of being.” However, on the feminine side of the graph, which is on the side of object-oriented ontologies, there is a very different logic at work (something like Ruffolo’s creative lines of flight, a multiplicity of flows). The feminine article (~La~) is represented as a constitutively split subject. “On the one hand,” Bryant tells us, “we see an arrow pointing to the symbol for withdrawal (phi) indicating an orientation not to the presence or actuality of entities, but the manner in which an entity is always in excess of its manifestations. Likewise, we see yet another arrow directed at S(~A~) […] the signifier for the barred Other.” Bryant rethinks that barred other in terms of what Timothy Morton has called in various places the strange stranger, a figure akin to Derrida’s monstrous arrivant, and also in terms of Graham Harman’s distinction between the real and sensuous properties of objects: “the arrow pointing to the barred object would thus indicate a desire oriented to welcoming the stranger or that which disrupts the familiar world of local manifestations. Where the logic of desire underlying metaphysics of presence is predicated on overcoming a loss and thereby attaining presence, the logic of desire [we might call it post-queer desire with Ruffolo] underlying object-oriented ontology would emphasize the excess of all substances over their local manifestations (there’s always more) and would welcome difference or those eruptions within stable regimes of local manifestation where the strange stranger surprises and indicates this excess” (“Phallosophy”).

This is perhaps how we might diagram the virtuality of queer theory’s being constitutively open (to the world itself, and to go further, constitutively open to its future) and undomesticatable. If for Bryant, every “entity is a becoming that promises to become otherwise” then this is why entities are not only strange strangers to other entities but are also strange strangers to themselves” (2011). Morton has in his essay “Queer Ecology” extended his idea of the strange stranger to queer objects, guaranteeing a theory of withdrawn objects which recognizes the strange strangeness to everything.18 Any state an entity, say queer theory, happens to be in is merely provisional and there is always an excess or remainder beyond phallic identification and totalization. Bryant asks if his non-phallosophical thought deserves the title of a queer ontology, “in addition to a feminist ontology?” and the answer he provides is yes. His theory of withdrawal shares a great deal with Derrida’s abyssal aporetics, moving as it does beyond any epistemological limitation and “inscribing itself in the very being of the object itself.” If the object is withdrawn because, “it is never present either for-itself or for-another,” then we might begin to redraw queer theory as an entity which also deserves the name, “strange stranger” (2011). And we might now see Dean’s unlimited intimacy as a withdrawal from and reaching out towards strangers.

In the concluding chapter, “Cruising as a Way of Life” (a clear nod to the later Foucault and the invention of new alliances, modes of life and unforeseen lines of force) to Unlimited Intimacy Dean writes that, “cruising entails a remarkably hospitable disposition towards strangers. Insofar as that is the case, the subculture of bareback promiscuity, far from being ethically irresponsible, may be ethically exemplary” (176). Barebacking, as he makes very clear throughout, is a practice which anyone can perform and may not have any particular attachment to or origin in gay sexualities. Cruising, which also is not a gay-specific practice, “exemplifies a distinctive ethic of openness to alterity and that—irrespective of our view of the morality of barebacking—we all, gay and non-gay, have something to learn from this relational ethic” (176). Barebacking disintricates us, then, from the identitarian (or in Dean’s terms “identificatory”) focus of lesbian and gay studies and opens up a space for queer sexualities and relationalities. Barebacking, we might say, is a queer strategy in practice. Methodologically—not that queer theory is a methodology, it is just what happens—this relates to a certain promiscuity, to “thinking promiscuously about promiscuity itself,” extending promiscuity beyond the sexual realm to the philosophico-theoretical (queer not as a sexual orientation but as a theoretical one). If for Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner in 1995 queer commentary was attuned to the opening up of a world then for Dean fifteen years later pleasurable yet risky openness to contact with others, with strangers and “cruising […] involves not just hunting for sex but opening oneself to the world” (Dean, 210) and we might add, to a recalibrated futurity and erotico-relational ethic(s). Erotic impersonality, experimenting with viruses, for Dean, is an exploration of the ways in which we may, “relate to others and even become intimately engaged with them without needing to know or identify with them” (211). And this, I think, is what Bryant means by his own onticology of withdrawal which discloses the

relation that is a non-relation to the strange stranger. Such is the (non)relational ethics, the posthuman ethics of difference, that onticology and [Morton’s] dark ecology strive to think, an ethics where the “non” must be placed in parentheses precisely because it is oddly both a relation and an absence of relation, precisely because it is proximity and the impossibility of any proximity (2011).

Queer Theory, in moving outline (capable of being endlessly redrawn), we might say, could be diagrammed as a post-continental theory of precisely everything, a madly erotically impersonal mode of opening up to and meshing with the strangeness of others, of opening up to the incalculable strangeness of the future to-come, of opening up to aesthetic and political practices that do not yet exist but need to be envisioned as necessarily ec-static modes of stepping out of this enmired place and time to something cosmopolitically “fuller, vaster, more sensual and brighter” (Muñoz, 189).




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Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X? PMLA 110.2 (1995): 343- 349. Print.

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— Phallosophy. March 15, 2011.

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Huffer, Lynne. Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory. New York: Columbia University Press. 2010. Print.

Essay originally published in Continentin 2011 | Creative Commons License