Queerness as Horizon
Utopian Hermeneutics in the Face of Gay Pragmatism
I BEGIN THIS chapter on futurity and a desire that is utopian by turning to a text from the past—more specifically, to those words that emanate from the spatiotemporal coordinate Bloch referred to as the no-longer-conscious, a term that attempts to enact a more precise understanding of the work that the past does, what can be understood as the performative force of the past. A 1971 issue of the gay liberation journal Gay Flames included a manifesto by a group calling itself Third World Gay Revolution. The text, titled “What We Want, What We Believe,” offered a detailed list of demands that included the abolition of capital punishment, the abolishment of institutional religion, and the end of the bourgeois family. The entire list of sixteen demands culminated with a request that was especially radical and poignant when compared to the anemic political agenda that dominates contemporary LGBT politics in North America today.
16.) We want a new society—a revolutionary socialist society. We want liberation of humanity, free food, free shelter, free clothing, free transportation, free health care, free utilities, free education, free art for all. We want a society where the needs of the people come first.
We believe that all people should share the labor and products of society, according to each one’s needs and abilities, regardless of race, sex, age or sexual preferences. We believe the land, technology and the means of production belong to the people, and must be shared by the people collectively for the liberation of all.1
When we consider the extremely pragmatic agenda that organizes LGBT activism in North America today, the demand “we want a new society”
may seem naive by the present’s standards. Many people would dismiss these demands as impractical or merely utopian. Yet I contend that there is great value in pulling these words from the no-longer-conscious to arm a critique of the present. The use of “we” in this manifesto can be mistakenly read as the “we” implicit in the identity politics that emerged after the Third World Gay Revolution group. Such a reading would miss the point. This “we” does not speak to a merely identitarian logic but instead to a logic of futurity. The “we” speaks to a “we” that is “not yet conscious,” the future society that is being invoked and addressed at the same moment. The “we” is not content to describe who the collective is but more nearly describes what the collective and the larger social order could be, what it should be. The particularities that are listed—“race, sex, age or sexual preferences”—are not things in and of themselves that format this “we”; indeed the statement’s “we” is “regardless” of these markers, which is not to say that it is beyond such distinctions or due to these differences but, instead, that it is beside
them. This is to say that the field of utopian possibility is one in which multiple forms of belonging in difference adhere to a belonging in collectivity.
Such multiple forms of belonging-in-difference and expansive critiques of social asymmetries are absent in the dominant LGBT leadership community and in many aspects of queer critique. One manifesto from today’s movement that seems especially representative of the anemic, shortsighted, and retrograde politics of the present is “All Together Now (A Blueprint for the Movement),”2
a text written by pro-gay-marriage lawyer Evan Wolfson that appeared on his website, freedomtomarry.org
. Wolfson’s single-minded text identifies the social recognition and financial advantages offered by traditional marriage pacts as the key to what he calls “freedom.” Freedom for Wolfson is mere inclusion in a corrupt and bankrupt social order. Wolfson cannot critique the larger ideological regime that represents marriage as something desirable, natural, and good. His assimilationist gay politics posits an “all” that is in fact a few: queers with enough access to capital to imagine a life integrated within North American capitalist culture. It goes almost without saying that the “all” invoked by the gay lawyer and his followers are normative citizen-subjects with a host of rights only afforded to some (and not all) queer people. Arguments against gay marriage have been articulated with great acumen by Lisa Duggan and Richard Kim.3
But it is Wolfson’s invocation of the term freedom
that is most unsettling.
Wolfson and his website’s rhetoric degrade the concept of freedom. Homonormative cultural and political lobbyists such as Wolfson have
degraded the political and conceptual force of concepts such as freedom in the same way that the current political regime of the United States has degraded the term liberation
in the case of recent Middle Eastern foreign policy. I invoke Wolfson here not so much as this chapter’s problem or foil but merely as a recent symptom of the erosion of the gay and lesbian political imagination. Wolfson represents many homonormative interests leading the contemporary LGBT movement toward the goal of “naturalizing” the flawed and toxic ideological formation known as marriage. The aping of traditional straight relationality, especially marriage, for gays and lesbians announces itself as a pragmatic strategy when it is in fact a deeply ideological project that is hardly practical. In this way gay marriage’s detractors are absolutely right: gay marriage is not natural—but then again, neither is marriage for any individual.
A similar but more nuanced form of what I am referring to as gay pragmatic thought can be seen in Biddy Martin’s work, especially her psychoanalytically inspired diagnosis that queer critique suffers from an androcentric bias in which queerness presents itself as the “extraordinary” while at the same time fleeing the charge of being “ordinary.” Being ordinary and being married are both antiutopian wishes, desires that automatically rein themselves in, never daring to see or imagine the not-yet-conscious. This line of thought that I am identifying as pragmatic is taken from its vernacular register. I am not referring to the actual philosophical tradition of American pragmatism of Charles Peirce, William James, or John Dewey. But the current gay political strategy I am describing does share an interest in empiricism with that school. Gay pragmatic organizing is in direct opposition to the idealist thought that I associate as endemic to a forward-dawning queerness that calls on a no-longer-conscious in the service of imagining a futurity.
The not-quite-conscious is the realm of potentiality that must be called on, and insisted on, if we are ever to look beyond the pragmatic sphere of the here and now, the hollow nature of the present. Thus, I wish to argue that queerness is not quite here; it is, in the language of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a potentiality.4
Alain Badiou refers to that which follows the event as the thing-that-is-not-yet-imagined,5
and in my estimation queerness too should be understood to have a similar valence. But my turn to this notion of the not-quite-conscious is again indebted to Bloch and his massive three-volume text The Principle of Hope
That treatise, both a continuation and an amplification of German idealist practices of thought, is a critical discourse—which is to say that it does not
avert or turn away from the present. Rather, it critiques an autonaturalizing temporality that we might call straight time
. Straight time tells us that there is no future but the here and now of our everyday life.7
The only futurity promised is that of reproductive majoritarian heterosexuality, the spectacle of the state refurbishing its ranks through overt and subsidized acts of reproduction. In No Future
, Lee Edelman advises queers that the future is “kid stuff.”8
Although I believe that there is a lot to like about Edelman’s polemic—mostly its disdain for the culture of the child—I ultimately want to speak for a notion of queer futurity by turning to Bloch’s critical notion of utopia.
It is equally polemical to argue that we are not quite queer yet, that queerness, what we will really know as queerness, does not yet exist. I suggest that holding queerness in a sort of ontologically humble state, under a conceptual grid in which we do not claim to always already know queerness in the world, potentially staves off the ossifying effects of neoliberal ideology and the degradation of politics brought about by representations of queerness in contemporary popular culture.
A posterior glance at different moments, objects, and spaces might offer us an anticipatory illumination of queerness. We cannot trust in the manifestations of what some people would call queerness in the present, especially as embodied in the pragmatic debates that dominate contemporary gay and lesbian politics. (Here, again, I most pointedly mean U.S. queers clamoring for their right to participate in the suspect institution of marriage and, maybe worse, to serve in the military.) None of this is to say that there are not avatars of a queer futurity, both in the past and the present, especially in sites of cultural production. What I am suggesting is that we gain a greater conceptual and theoretical leverage if we see queerness as something that is not yet here. In this sense it is useful to consider Edmund Husserl, phenomenology’s founder, and his invitation to look to horizons of being.9
Indeed to access queer visuality we may need to squint, to strain our vision and force it to see otherwise, beyond the limited vista of the here and now.
To critique an overarching “here and now” is not to turn one’s face away from the everyday. Roland Barthes wrote that the mark of the utopian is the quotidian.10
Such an argument would stress that the utopian is an impulse that we see in everyday life. This impulse is to be glimpsed as something that is extra to the everyday transaction of heteronormative capitalism. This quotidian example of the utopian can be glimpsed in utopian bonds, affiliations, designs, and gestures that exist within the present
moment. Turning to the New York School of poetry, a moment that is one of the cultural touchstones for my research, we can consider a poem by James Schuyler that speaks of a hope and desire that is clearly utopian. The poem, like most of Schuyler’s body of work, is clearly rooted in an observation of the affective realm of the present. Yet there is an excess that the poet also conveys, a type of affective excess that presents the enabling force of a forward-dawning futurity that is queerness. In the poem “A photograph,” published in 1974 in the collection Hymn to Life
, a picture that resides on the speaker’s desk sparks a recollection of domestic bliss.
Shows you in a London
room; books, a painting,
your smile, a silky
tie, a suit. And more.
It looks so like you
and I see it every day
(here, on my desk)
which I don’t you. Last
Friday was grand.
We went out, we came
back, we went wild. You
slept. Me too. The pup
woke you and you dressed
and walked him. When
you left, I was sleeping.
When I woke there was
just time to make the
train to a country dinner
and talk about ecstasy.
Which I think comes in
two sorts: that which you
Know “Now I am ecstatic”
Like my strange scream
last Friday night. And
another kind, that you
know only in retrospect:
“Why, that joy I felt
and didn’t think about
my lap, or when I looked
down and saw his slanty
eyes shut, that too was
ecstasy. Nor is there
necessarily a downer from
it” Do I believe in
the perfectibility of
man? Strangely enough,
(I’ve known unhappiness enough) I
do. I mean it.
I really do believe
future generations can
live without the intervals of anxious
fear we know between our
bouts and strolls of
ecstasy. The struck ball
finds the pocket. You
smile some years back
in London, I have
known ecstasy and calm:
haven’t you too? Let’s
try to understand, my
handsome friend who
The speaker remembers the grandness of an unspectacular Friday in which he and his addressee slept in and then scrambled to catch a train to a dinner out in the country. He attempts to explain the ecstasy he felt that night, indicating that one moment of ecstasy, a moment he identifies as being marked both by self-consciousness and obliviousness, possesses a potentially transformative charge. He then considers another moment of ecstasy in retrospect, a looking back at a no-longer-conscious that provides an affective enclave in the present that staves off the sense of “bad feelings” that mark the affective disjuncture of being queer in straight time.
The moment in the poem of deeper introspection—beginning “Do I believe in / the perfectibility of /man?”—is an example of a utopian desire
inspired by queer relationality. Moments of queer relational bliss, what the poet names as ecstasies, are viewed as having the ability to rewrite a larger map of everyday life. When “future generations” are invoked, the poet is signaling a queerness to come, a way of being in the world that is glimpsed through reveries in a quotidian life that challenges the dominance of an affective world, a present, full of anxiousness and fear. These future generations are, like the “we” invoked in the manifesto by the Third World Gay Revolution group, not an identitarian formulation but, instead, the invocation of a future collectivity, a queerness that registers as the illumination of a horizon of existence.
The poem speaks of multiple temporalities and the affective mode known as ecstasy, which resonates alongside the work of Martin Heidegger. In Being and Time
Heidegger reflects on the activity of timeliness and its relation to ekstatisch
(ecstasy), signaling for Heidegger the ecstatic unity of temporality—Past, Present, and Future.12
The ecstasy the speaker feels and remembers in “A photograph” is not consigned to one moment. It steps out from the past and remarks on the unity of an expansive version of temporality; hence, future generations are invoked. To know ecstasy in the way in which the poem’s speaker does is to have a sense of timeliness’s motion, to understand ...