The Ethics of Opting Out
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The Ethics of Opting Out

Queer Theory's Defiant Subjects

Mari Ruti

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The Ethics of Opting Out

Queer Theory's Defiant Subjects

Mari Ruti

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About This Book

In The Ethics of Opting Out, Mari Ruti provides an accessible yet theoretically rigorous account of the ideological divisions that have animated queer theory during the last decade, paying particular attention to the field's rejection of dominant neoliberal narratives of success, cheerfulness, and self-actualization. More specifically, she focuses on queer negativity in the work of Lee Edelman, Jack Halberstam, and Lynne Huffer, and on the rhetoric of bad feelings found in the work of Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, David Eng, Heather Love, and José Muñoz. Ruti highlights the ways in which queer theory's desire to opt out of normative society rewrites ethical theory and practice in genuinely innovative ways at the same time as she resists turning antinormativity into a new norm. This wide-ranging and thoughtful book maps the parameters of contemporary queer theory in order to rethink the foundational assumptions of the field.

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Chapter One
QUEER THEORY AND THE ETHICS OF OPTING OUT
Lesbian and gay people see the opportunity for an identification with the institution of marriage and so, by extension, common community with straight people who inhabit that institution. And with whom do they break alliance? They break alliance with people who are on their own without sexual relationships, single mothers or single fathers, people who have undergone divorce, people who are in relationships that are not marital in kind or in status, other lesbian, gay, and transgender people whose sexual relations are multiple (which does not mean unsafe), whose lives are not monogamous, whose sexuality and desire do not have the conjugal home as their (primary) venue, whose lives are considered less real or less legitimate, who inhabit the more shadowy regions of social reality.
JUDITH BUTLER, “COMPETING UNIVERSALITIES”
Given that marriage provides the principal mechanism whereby nation-states regulate their citizens’ intimate lives, nonheterosexual people might have been expected to express more skepticism about the wisdom of entangling themselves in this institution…. Queers confront a kind of Faustian bargain, whereby we tacitly agree to renounce public sex—or to sell downriver those who find value in it—in return for the legitimacy afforded by the right to marry.
TIM DEAN, UNLIMITED INTIMACY
1
Though the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision of legalize gay marriage constitutes a considerable victory for the lgbtq movement, and though queer critics understand why many lgbtq activists view gay marriage as an important civil right, the pronouncements of Butler and Dean are representative of queer theory’s adverse attitude toward the issue. Butler’s statement is taken from a book—Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (Butler, Laclau, and Žižek 2000)—where she is debating her Lacanian nemesis: Slavoj Žižek. Dean, in contrast, has a track record as a Lacanian. But when it comes to gay marriage, Butler and Dean find themselves on the same page: marriage, according to both, represents a narrow political agenda that merely reproduces the core values of normative society, including its privileging of one relational modality (marriage) over all others.
The problem with a marriage-based organization of intimacy is not only that social benefits—including access to one’s partner’s hospital room—remain tied to a marriage certificate but also that it automatically vilifies those who reject monogamy, thereby threatening to wipe out queer subcultures that have historically been organized around promiscuous, anonymous, and fleeting sexual encounters. For many queer critics, the disappearance of such subcultures equals the death of queer culture as such. As Dean notes, “the mainstream gay movement [has] achieved considerable institutional success only by desexualizing queers” (2009, 19). Ironically, it is because the lgbtq movement has managed to make gays and lesbians seem “just like” straight people, eager to endorse the family values of married monogamy, that it has made such tremendous political strides. Essentially, the gay and lesbian subject has been sanitized, stripped of its disturbing “otherness,” in order to make it more palatable to straight society. For many queer critics, this is a shortsighted victory that undermines more radical efforts to gain social justice.
More specifically, queer critics accuse the lgbtq movement of pandering to the desires of the most domesticated—and usually the most privileged—members of the gay, lesbian, and queer community. From their perspective, relatively affluent, mostly white gays and lesbians are using marriage as a way to purchase their way into “normalcy” at the expense of those who cannot be so easily assimilated: poor queers, racialized queers, gendervariant queers, immigrant queers, and so on. As Heather Love argues, “the increasing media visibility of well-heeled gays and lesbians” threatens to obscure the fact that one may enter the mainstream only “on the condition that one breaks ties with all those who cannot make it” (2007, 10). Simply put, from a queer theoretical viewpoint, gay and lesbian mainstreaming—or homonormativity—merely intensifies the problem of social marginalization, so that while some gays and lesbians now “make it” in dominant culture, others are all the more irrevocably excluded and exploited.
In addition, queer critics of homonormativity question the mainstream lgbtq movement’s desire to “make it” in dominant culture in the first place. As David Eng explains:
While in prior decades gays and lesbians sustained a radical critique of family and marriage, today many members of these groups have largely abandoned such critical positions, demanding access to the heteronormative nuclear family and the rights, recognition, and privileges associated with it. Paradoxically, prior historical efforts to defy state oppression and to oppose state regulation of family and marriage have, to a striking extent, given way to the desire for state legitimacy, sanction, and authorization of same sex marriage. Once considered anathema to family and kinship, homosexuality in our current political moment is being legally and ideologically reconciled to its normative mandates, paving over alternative public worlds and social formations that previous generations of gays and lesbians have made.
(2010, 27–28)
Surely, Eng suggests, there is something problematic about gays and lesbians asking for legitimation, sanction, and authorization from the very entity—the state—that has historically excluded them, particularly as the plea for inclusion comes at the expense of the critical perspectives on family and marriage advanced by earlier generations of gays and lesbians. Along similar lines, José Muñoz chastises the lgbtq movement for seeking membership “in a corrupt and bankrupt social order,” adding that such assimilationist politics only speaks to “queers with enough access to capital to imagine a life integrated within North American capitalist culture” (2009, 20). Jasbir Puar in turn links the pursuit of gay marriage to the rise of “homonationalism,” to the attempts of mainstream gays and lesbians to align themselves with the state’s security systems against the onslaught of undesirable “outsiders,” particularly Muslim immigrants. According to Puar, gay marriage amounts to a ploy to differentiate between Muslims—coded as “sexually lascivious and excessive, yet perversely repressed”—who refuse to assimilate on the one hand and “upright homosexuals engaged in sanctioned kinship norms” on the other; in essence, it is a means of insisting on “the distance between barbarism and civilization” (2007, 20).
Such arguments are so common in queer theory that it would be hard to find a text published in the field since 2000 that does not at least caution us against the easy acceptance of gay marriage as a political goal. In many ways we are dealing with a rift that has always complicated progressive politics, namely, the battle between those who want to improve the existing system by making it more inclusive and those who want to blow this system into smithereens and replace it with something completely different. That is, we are dealing with a tension between rights-based political approaches on the one hand and more revolutionary approaches on the other: the supporters of gay marriage want equal rights within the system whereas queer critics of gay marriage see marriage as the rotten foundation of a thoroughly rotten system.
In this context, I want to reemphasize that the system under critique is fairly well defined: when queer theorists condemn the so-called system, it is neoliberal capitalism—and its biopolitical tools of control, such as marriage—specifically that they are attacking. As I explained in the introduction, they question the ideals of success that neoliberal capitalism promotes as the route to happiness, pointing out that these ideals blind us to structural inequalities such as poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia which make it impossible for some people to succeed no matter how hard they try. Basically, if the neoliberal creed tells people that their individual efforts can surmount any and all obstacles, queer critics of neoliberalism stress that this creed is just a convenient way to gloss over the fact that some people will never attain the American dream. From a queer theoretical perspective, gays and lesbians who hang their political hopes on marriage rights are caught up in the tentacles of what Lauren Berlant (2011) calls “cruel optimism,” hoping against hope that the heteronormative, patriarchal, and state-controlled institution of marriage will somehow make up for the legacies of gay and lesbian abjection.
2
Berlant defines “cruel optimism” as the stubborn, irrational belief that social arrangements and ways of life that hurt us will eventually pay off and make us happy, specifying that “a relation of cruel optimism” exists when something we desire is in reality an impediment to our flourishing (2011, 1). That is, cruel optimism entails the hope that our relentless efforts (say, our efforts to fit into neoliberal society) will bring us the love, intimacy, success, security, harmony, or financial reward—in sum, the good life—we crave even when they are extremely unlikely to do so. Berlant explains that what is cruel about such hope, and about the fantasies it spawns, is that we might not be able to endure the loss of such fantasies even when they threaten our well-being. This is because the continuity of our fantasies—of our psychic and affective attachment to various scenes of desire—sustains our sense of subjective continuity, our sense of “what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world” (24).
To the extent that our fantasies underpin our understanding of ourselves as beings who can somehow, however precariously, carve out a place in the universe we inhabit, they can be virtually impossible to leave behind. As Butler (1997) also suggests, optimistic attachments to wounding modalities of life often arise from the desire to feel like we are a part of something familiar, like we belong to—and are recognized by—the world in which we live, with the result that we go along with the expectations that render this world comprehensible to us. In Berlant’s terms, our investment in the notion of a “dependable life,” “a life that does not have to keep being reinvented” (2011, 170), can be so strong that we remain faithful to specific fantasies of satisfaction even after they have repeatedly disappointed us. We, in short, endorse forms of life that are not in the least bit good for us, coming, as it were, “to misrecognize the bad life as a good one” (174).
The hope that effort will eventually pay off, that things will eventually get better, keeps many of us loyal to ways of life that demoralize us; we are so seduced by the mirage of happiness that shimmers on the horizon that we stay patient even when we should not. On the one hand, Berlant is critical of this dynamic, of “the ‘technologies of patience’ that enable a concept of the later to suspend questions about the cruelty of the now” (2011, 28). On the other, she is careful not to pathologize cruel optimism because she recognizes that a degree of hopefulness about the future can be a precondition of surviving the harshness of the present. Precisely because optimistic attachments can feel life-sustaining even as they cause pain, because they provide the kinds of fantasies of flourishing that allow injured subjects to keep on living despite the obstacles they face, it would be misleading to interpret them as a mistake: “optimism is, instead, a scene of negotiated sustenance that makes life bearable as it presents itself ambivalently, unevenly, incoherently” (14). For those experiencing a drastic attrition of the quality of life, cruel optimism, as Berlant succinctly puts it, may be “better than none at all” (16).
One can see how marriage can come to function—for queers just as much as for straights—as an enabling crutch of this type. In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed in fact admits that the desire for marriage among queers may be a legitimate response to a history of suffering, including the suffering caused by intimate lives that have been systematically rendered invisible by a lack of collective recognition. Yet Ahmed, like most queer critics, also acknowledges the pitfalls of gay marriage, including the fact that it implies the willingness to become “the right kind of queer by deposing your hope for happiness in the right place,” in the place that heteronormative society has determined as “right”: the price of being acceptable is to “become acceptable to a world that has already decided what is acceptable” (2010, 106). In the context of such a bargain, Ahmed concludes, it might be better to opt out rather than to blend in.
Opting out—the ability to defeat cruel optimism, as it were—presupposes the capacity to resist what Ahmed calls the dominant “happiness scripts” (2010, 91) of our society, such as the marriage script. However, developing this capacity is not easy, for happiness is more or less an unquestioned value in our culture: something that everyone is supposed to want. In addition, our society’s happiness scripts direct us to a very particular vision of the good life, blocking other possible visions so that large swaths of life are deemed either undesirable or untenable before we even get a chance to imagine what it would be like to pursue them. And, sadly, we are often not even aware of what it is that we are giving up. Ahmed explains that it is not only social prohibitions (“don’t do that”) that lead us to sacrifice alternative life paths but, equally importantly, the affirmations we receive (“yes, that’s good”). As a matter of fact, the latter are more difficult to resist because it is harder to see them as instruments of social conditioning: while prohibitions overtly guide us to conformist ways of desiring, affirmations occlude the machinery of disciplining, making it harder for us to discern that we are getting an education in how to desire. As Ahmed observes, “We can hear the ‘no’ in part as it asks us to stop doing something. It might be harder to hear the ‘yes words’…because the words seem to ‘go along’ with or affirm what we are already doing” (48).
3
Our commitment to dominant happiness scripts can be so strong that when a given script does not deliver what it promises, when it makes us unhappy rather than happy, we do not think of questioning the script (say, the marriage script) itself but instead assume that somehow we have failed to live out the script correctly. When we have been invested in the notion that a certain kind of life is the happy life, it can be very difficult for us to admit that this life has not made us happy; it can be difficult to admit that our faith in a particular happiness script has led us astray. As Ahmed notes, “It is hard labor just to recognize sadness and disappointment, when you are living a life that is meant to be happy but just isn’t, which is meant to be full, but feels empty” (2010, 75). Importantly, Ahmed maintains that deviating from dominant happiness scripts does not necessarily mean that we discard the ideal of a meaningful life; it merely means that we conceptualize such a life differently: “If we do not assume that happiness is what we must defend, if we start questioning the happiness we are defending, then we can ask other questions about life, about what we want from life, or what we want life to become. Possibilities have to be recognized as possibilities to become possible” (218).
Against this backdrop, the defiant subject—the subject who opts out of the system—is one who is able and willing to turn away from the promise of happiness (as conceptualized by the normative order). Ahmed asserts that the emergence of such a subject entails becoming aware of “how one’s being has been stolen” (2010, 167). Ahmed presents four figures of rebellion—the feminist killjoy, the unhappy queer, the melancholy migrant, and the radical revolutionary—whose capacity to resist the happiness scripts of the social establishment depends on their ability to desire differently. For instance, in the context of the feminist killjoy, Ahmed revisits Betty Friedan’s unsatisfied suburban housewife as a figure whose politicization was directly linked to her recognition that the truth of her desire deviated from the happiness script that she was being asked to accept. We all know that this figure has been problematized—taken to task for the white middle-class privilege she represents—and Ahmed does not ignore these complexities. But ultimately she is interested in the fact that this woman, who had been taught to desire the comforts of heteropatriarchal domesticity, came to see that what was supposed to make her happy made her despondent.
For many women in the 1960s, the realization that they did not actually want what they had been told to want was the spark of feminist consciousness. From this viewpoint, Ahmed explains, “Feminist genealogies can be described as genealogies of women who not only do not place their hopes for happiness in the right things but who speak out about their unhappiness with the very obligation to be made happy by such things. The history of feminism is thus a history of making trouble” (2010, 59–60). The feminist killjoy, Ahmed posits, is a woman who kills the joy of others because she refuses to desire in the way that others would like her to desire. Feminists, Ahmed concludes, kill joy because they “disturb the very fantasy that happiness can be found in certain places”: “it is not just that feminists might not be happily affected by the objects that are supposed to cause happiness but that their failure to be happy is read as sabotaging the happiness of others” (66).
Along related lines, Ahmed argues that queers are a political irritant in mainstream society not because they themselves are unhappy but because their refusal to desire in the expected way makes others—more normative subjects—unhappy, often to the point that they seek to convince queers that, deep down, they cannot really be happy. “Even the happy queer might become unhappy at this point” (2010, 94), Ahmed states, for “the unhappy queer is here the queer who is judged to be unhappy” (93). Likewise, the melancholy migrant—the immigrant who is unable to discard his attachment to lost modalities of life—frustrates those who would (for example) like to align the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of the American dream, so that it is incomprehensible to them why anyone who has been lucky enough to get a foothold in this dream is not perfectly happy, why such a person might have desires other than those condoned by this dream.
Finally, the revolutionary is obviously a figure who refuses to bring her desire in line with the desire of the collective order. This is one way to understand what I will, in the next chapter, strive to express more fully from a specifically Lacanian perspective, namely, that social change demands subjects who are able to mobilize behind desires other than those dictated by the normative social order. In Ahmed’s words, “It is no accident that revolutionary consciousness means feeling at odds with the world, or feeling that the world is odd. You become estranged from the world as it has been given: the world of good habits and manners, which promises your comfort in return for obedience and good will. As a structure of feeling, alienation is an intense burning presence” (2010, 168).
4
In every society, the promise of happiness clings to particular goals—goals that are deemed necessary for the attainment of the good life—so that those who are perceived as falling short of such goals are also perceived as falling short of happiness. In our society, marriage, with its expectation of lifelong monogamy and reproductive aims, is foremost among such privileged goals. As Michael Cobb posits, our culture depicts singleness as a transitory state, “a conundrum to be solved by coupling off, and as soon as possible,” whereas marriage is seen to end “our tragic twists and turns, nullifying all the bad feelings of misunderstanding and misconnection that preceded it” (2012, 4, 13). As a result, “no one is really supposed to be single”: “there are no real single people out there—they’re all just waiting for the chance to find that special someone, sometime soon” (5). Essentially, as Cobb astutely remarks, “you’re not allowed to be without love”; love is “not merely an activity one adds to a list of things that have to get done in this life…but life itself” (18).
No wonder, then, that social critics have long interpreted marriage as a tool of social normalization, including the fashioning of diligent workers. Back in the early twentieth century, Antonio Gramsci observed that Henry Ford was among those who recognized the socioeconomic benefits of marriage. When Ford updated the technology of his car factories in the 1920s—shifting to an assembly line process that hugely increased the productivity of his workers (while arguably eroding the quality of the hours they spent at work)—he capitalized on the (presumed) link between marriage and industriousness by demanding proof of marital status as a precondition of higher wages. He even had a cadre of investigators who conducted spot-checks at the homes of his workers to verify that their domestic arrangements were what they had reported. This is because he thought that stable domestic arrangements would produce more stable, and therefore more efficient, workers. As Gramsci states:
The new industrialism wants monogamy: it wants the man as worker not to squander his nervous energies in the disorderly and stimulating pursuit of occasional sexual satisfaction. The employee who goes to work after a night of “excess” is no good for his work. The exaltation of passion cannot be reconciled with the timed movements of productive motions connected with the most perfected automatism.
(2012, 304–305)
The precision of industrial labor thus benefits from an ideology of family values; from the perspective of capitalism, it is better that you are married, no matter how miserably, than that you cruise sex clubs until 4 AM, ending up at the conveyor belt (or desk) at 8 AM hungover and bleary-eyed. Though it is not necessarily actually true that married people are more productive than unmarried ones—I can think of many reasons, including the responsibilities of child ...

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