Reflection by David Agruss

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of poststructuralism. So as I was reading Dustin Friedman’s Before Queer Theory with enthusiasm, I found myself increasingly fidgeting and drumming my fingers with antsy resistance to his elegantly argued and seductively optimistic claims. As I read further, I found Friedman’s argument utterly convincing at the same time that it made my poststructural self—steeped in Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, among others—increasingly uneasy. And I came to realize that my response to Friedman’s book has more to do with me than with the soundness of his argument. What’s more, my response is precisely Friedman’s point and is the impetus for his intervention in Victorian studies and queer theory.

Turning to Victorian aesthetes and their engagement with the Hegelian notion of “the negative,” Friedman posits an optimistic and utopian alternative to so much of contemporary queer theory’s Lacanian valorization of failure, abjection, and shame. While queer theory’s engagement with Lacanian notions of the negative have been and continue to be incredibly valuable as a way of imagining nonnormative pleasures and the possibility of resistance in the face of the relentless teleology of capitalist production and biological reproduction, what’s so exciting about Friedman’s exploration of Aestheticism as “one of queer theory’s unacknowledged ancestors” (5) is that it offers a way out of what sometimes feels like the crushing poststructural dead end of impossibility and of Lacanian lack: Hegelian negativity, Friedman explains, “describes how consciousness, upon encountering an obstacle, destroys and subsequently rearrange[s] itself to accommodate that obstacle. This process paradoxically encourages, rather than hinders, individual self-development. By causing one’s subjectivity to disintegrate, the negative does not destroy it entirely but instead allows it to be reworked into a more self-aware and sophisticated configuration” (4). Not only does this formulation of the negative allow for a sort of subjective development (as opposed to blockage and lack) and ceaseless (re)production of the queer self (as opposed to nonreproductive stasis), it also happily and optimistically positions queerness at the very center of this sort of individual and cultural resistance: “‘Erotic negativity’…one of the foundational propositions of the queer aesthetes…describes the process through which value can be found in the possession of homoerotic desire not despite but because one lives in a culture where such feelings are condemned. By transforming the painful recognition of one’s queer desire into a profoundly consciousness-transforming experience, erotic negativity allows one to tarry at the very limits of what is thinkable in one’s culture” (4).

At times, Friedman’s analysis seems to imagine queer Victorian subjects possessing a kind of agency and freedom that seems at least partially at odds with poststructural understandings of the post-Enlightenment subject when he claims that aesthetes’ encounters with art enable them to “harness…that sense of fear and alienation and transform…it into a liberating sense of detachment from oppressive social norms,” thus engendering “a version of subjective autonomy that allows them to envision new modes of seeing, thinking, and living that expand the boundaries of contemporary social and intellectual structures” (2). Even so, unlike much recent queer theory, Friedman offers what feels like a utopian theoretical alternative that allows queer subjects to “resist a hostile social world” and provides them with “the ability to resist dominant power relations” (2).

Excitingly, Friedman’s emphasis on the power of aesthetes’ ability to understand that “feelings of alienation are not absolute and unquestionable, but historically contingent, and therefore can be imagined differently” (2) offers for queer theory an alternate way forward that is grounded both in poststructuralism and, uncharacteristically, in optimism, and that follows a poststructural, but not Lacanian, genealogy from Hegel, to Michel Foucault, to Judith Butler. And especially exciting for me, Friedman’s notion of erotic negativity sounds a lot like the ethics and practice of critique described both by Foucault in his essay “What Is Critique?” and by Butler in her essay “What Is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue.” Foucault imagines critique as “the art of not being governed quite so much,” “the art of voluntary insubordination…, [and] the desubjugation of the subject in the context of…the politics of truth” [1], and Butler, in her reading of and elaboration upon Foucault, understands critique as a simultaneous desubjugation and remaking of the self, “an act of courage, acting without guarantees, risking the subject at the limit of its ordering” that “put[s] at risk the field of reason itself” [2]. In these ways, rather than understanding Friedman’s theorizations as being somehow a turn away from poststructuralism, Friedman’s formulations might be understood as a way to position a different genealogy of poststructuralism at the heart of queer theory, in which queer optimism functions as an ethics of risk, and queer utopianism as a radical act of courage.

[1] Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?,” in The Politics of Truth (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 1997) 29 and 32.

[2] Judith Butler, “What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue,” in The Judith Butler Reader, edited by Sara Salih, with Judith Butler (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004) 319 and 311.

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