[-empyre-] Queer and Then?

Michael O'Rourke tranquilised_icon at yahoo.com
Thu Jun 14 12:39:18 EST 2012

First off, I would
like to thank Zach Blas and Micha Cardenas for putting together this theme week
on queerness, computation and the nonhuman. Sorry that I am a little late to
the conversation but I have really appreciated catching up and reading the
posts by Zach, Jacob, Homay, Micha, Jack and Jordan (I hope I haven't missed anyone there). I’ll try to catch up and
share some thoughts, observations, comments as I read along with everyone. 

Firstly, I would like
to offer some reflections on Zach, Micha, Jacob and Pinar’s wonderful opening
statement (Zach is really great at statements and I’m really taken with the one
for his book/exhibition SPECULATIVE which he wrote with Christopher O’Leary)
which kicked off the week. As some of you will know, I have written here and
there about Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant’s 1993 essay “What Does Queer
Theory Teach us About X?” (my essay "X" which begins from there is available on my academia.edu page). It was written at a time when queer was, as they say, "hot", and the mood was still celebratory and anticipatory. This is a mood which
I still cling to and I often revisit that piece to see how fresh it still is
(in fact, I had a discussion with a former student of mine a couple of weeks
back who had just read the essay for the first time and he remarked that it
could have been written “now”). The temporalities we’re talking about here
rather depend where you are though, I think. In the US the death of queer
theory is routinely announced (every few years or so). But elsewhere, in Europe
and the Antipodes (and other places) there is a sense that queer (theory) is
very much alive and that there is a lot of vibrant and field-altering work
still being done.  I’ve written about
these weird temporalities in my “Afterlives of Queer Theory” article in
Continent (http://continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/article/viewArticle/32;
this article also closes with some thoughts about the promise of object
oriented ontology for queer theory ) so
I won’t repeat what I have to say about the state of the field and its
continued vitality (Eve Sedgwick said it best, however, when she wrote in
Tendencies that queerness is unextinguishable).  However, before I say a little about Warner’s
more recent article (from January 1st of this year) I would like to
reiterate a point about location and this sense that queer is over. It is
mostly US scholars who myopically talk about the “death” of queer theory without any sense
of the work which is going on elsewhere (in Ireland where the queer theory
scene has been crucially important globally for well over a decade now; in
Poland where there are yearly conferences and a journal; in Germany where the
only Institute for Queer Theory is based [in Berlin]; in the UK where Sussex’s
“Sexual Dissidence” program continues [as forgotten as a forerunner in queer
studies by the Americans as the Birmingham School has been by US versions of
Cultural Studies]; in Austria; in the Nordic countries; I could go on…) 

However, let me point
out what I think has been misunderstood about Warner’s “Queer and Then?” piece.
Warner is not, as some people have claimed, talking about the end or death of queer
theory as it has been heralded by the demise of Duke’s Series Q. I don’t get that at all from
him. Rather, I took away a sense of optimism and hopefulness for the future of
the field (a field which his work has been so important for and yet since the "Gay Shame" conference he has been demonized by so many who work in queer
studies. I wasn’t there so I have no comment to make about this).  Warner seems to be to be very much in that
radically anticipatory mood we associate with the time of Sedgwick’s Tendencies
(I think people missed the question mark in the subtitle to the article: “The
End of Queer Theory?). It is rather fitting, I suppose, that Series Q ends with
Eve’s The Weather in Proust which Jonathan Goldberg has done such a handsome
job on. (As an aside, when I think of the trio queerness, computation and the nonhuman I remember the essay on Turing in Eve's Novel Gazing collection). 
However, what struck me most
when reading “Queer and Then?” was Warner’s repetition (he uses the word three
times which is why, for me, it seems so significant) of the word “speculative”
to describe the impulses behind queer thinking. Early on he talks about the “speculative
energy” that the phrase queer theory “generated in the 1990s”; later on he
refers to utopianism and a “speculative and prophetic stance” (which accords well with my work in so many places on queerness and messianicity without messianism); finally,
describing Lauren Berlant’s writing, he says it is “live and speculative”. For
now, I’ll just leave those two words there together shining on the page. Warner’s
piece really speaks to this week’s theme of queerness and the nonhuman because
for him queer theory still bristles with possibility. What could be weirder
than saying queer theory is alive (and lets face it we do tend to
anthropomorphize it when we talk about its lives and deaths)? And what could be
bolder than saying queer theory is both living and speculative (I’m recalling
here the wonderful recent issue of Social Text’s Periscope which featured a
dossier called “Speculative Life": http://www.socialtextjournal.org/periscope/speculative-life/)?
will be writing a piece soon comparing the two texts from 1993 and 2012 and
asking what they tell us about queer theory now and then. As far as I can see—if
we ignore the blunder that was and is the anti-social thesis—the mood is still
very hopeful and our time is full of promise (with books like Jack's The Queer Art of Failure, Gayle Rubin's Deviations; Gayle Salamon's Assuming a Body; Wayne Kostenbaum's Humiliation; Lauren Berlant's Cruel Optimism, and many more. Make your own list). As Warner says, Queer theory has branched
out into so many different places and spread its tentacles everywhere
(somewhere I’ve described Speculative Realism as a bit like China Mieville’s
octopuses in this respect). Its speculative energies cannot, it seems, be
tamed. As the opening statement for the week put it, Warner “gestures toward
another future for queer theory”. I would only want to add that this gesture,
this feeling forward, is not toward another “future” but rather “futures”,
futures which are without number: Queer 2.0, 3.0. 4.0 and so on and on (as
queer theory is propelled indefinitely by its own internal speculative energies
into futures unknown).  As Zach and Micha
acknowledge these futures depend on a de-anthropocentrization and deprivileging
of the human which is why, in my opinion, the arrival of speculative realism
and its offshoot Object Oriented Ontology on the critical landscape, has been
so crucial for the renewed vitality of what they call “Queer 2.0” (because SR
and OOO share an investment in critiquing correlationism, anthropocentrism and
in looking at the enmeshments of humans, nonhumans, technology, objects).  I have not gotten very far with it yet but
Robyn Wiegman’s new book Object Lessons (which
isn’t about objects as such of course) has a lot to say to this conversation we've been having and, hopefully, will continue to have). 
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