QUEER THEORY, both in the classroom and the public sphere, can seem a bit confusing. Is it about sex or not? some students wonder. The terminology itself requires some history, as with any reclaimed language. When did queers become homosexuals and become queers again? In a gift to instructors of queer theory everywhere, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts gets at the need for queerness to be insistently in-between. That tension is an old one: when reflecting on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s incomparable career, Nelson notes how she asked whether queerness was a “form of resistance […] that has nothing to do with sexuality” or whether the “definitional center” of queerness is its history as “an identity, a speech act, [and] a behavior.” Following Sedgwick, Nelson refuses the dichotomy: Sedgwick, she writes, “wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” This movement between definition and resistance is what makes teaching queer theory and Maggie Nelson both exhilarating and terrifying — students often want the sort of stable definition that queerness explodes. This brings unusual pleasures: we model, in class, the kind of critical thinking that appears to have largely disappeared from the public discourse about the value of higher education, which many believe should be more functional and skills-based, by prompting students to critique their own assumptions. If there’s one thing I want my students to learn, it’s that they can read themselves, and that the true pleasure and meaning in intellectual endeavors of any kind comes from being wrong many times in order to get at something right.
Mari Ruti’s The Ethics of Opting Out: Queer Theory’s Defiant Subjects places readers curious about queer theory in the center of the scholarly back and forth that tries to get queer theory, and queer politics, right. And this is where the book gets fun — especially if informative takes on internecine academic battles are your idea of a good time. In Opting Out, Ruti asks readers to opt in to a comprehensive discussion of the ethical limits of some of the most provocative claims made in queer theory — whether Lee Edelman’s celebration of the death drive, José Muñoz’s utopian queerness, or Heather Love’s backward feelings. In these, Ruti finds productive critiques that do significant cultural work to resist liberal inclusion as the end goal of LGBT politics. What we’ve got here is a deep dive into the heart of some of queer theory’s most animating contentions. It can be intense and overwhelming. Yet, as Ruti reminds us, sometimes, even when we disagree, we can try to have our arguments both ways, to see a utility in disagreement. We’d do well to remember, Ruti claims, that those disagreements provide a kind of pleasure and a kind of hope that, especially in the present moment, are more vital than ever.
The Ethics of Opting Out begins by observing a rift separating critics in the field over the past decade or so. On the one hand, there are critics of the anti-relational school, most often represented by Lee Edelman. From the anti-relational perspective, for one to know another person’s feelings involves a social fantasy, a communal idea of democracy. As Edelman explores in his famous No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, one such fantasy is “reproductive futurism,” best understood as our fanatical obsession with the child as the organizing principle of social and political life. In the anti-relational account, a refusal of this communal fantasy constitutes the ultimate radical gesture. On the other hand, the relational school, including Muñoz, Jack Halberstam, David L. Eng, and others, posits that queerness is all about constituting communities through the refusal of the social order. Understanding the traumas and pleasures of others, in their view, could help build a new social world removed from the violence of the present. While oversimplification is always a hazard in summarizing theoretical perspectives, perhaps the cleanest way to express is that the anti-relational school emphasizes the self as the way to live an ethical life, while relational school positions the feelings of others at the center of queer theory’s politics.
Ruti addresses this split in the field by attempting to recover the positive ethics in queer theory’s debates, following several gestures. In the first, she provides an overview of queer theory’s rejection of normativity — which she suggests is at the heart of the ethical conundrum over “opting out” of a society violent to non-normativity. Second, she takes a deep dive into the psychoanalytic approach of Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and philosopher, tracing his impact on major contemporary philosophers from Judith Butler to Slavoj Žižek. Third, Ruti contends with opposing strains of queer theory that either critique or propose utopian thinking as a central goal for queer politics. Finally, Ruti synthesizes her ethics of queer politics out of the seemingly disparate strands of queer theory that work with and beyond negativity — either as the (usually white and male) queer death drive, the backward-gazing queer desire for ages of lesser public scrutiny, or the utopian prospect of a queer world unimaginable by contemporary progressive and assimilative LGBT politics. From Ruti’s point of view, part of the schism comes from what she believes is a narrow reading of Lacanian psychoanalysis. The project of the book is in part to recover ways in which the relational and anti-relation camps can be thought of in tandem. The general thrust of Ruti’s reasoning here is that Lacan is a surprisingly divisive figure in queer theory since his psychoanalytic model tends to emphasize the individual and leave the broader consequences of unequal social realities to the side. Yet, Ruti believes the subject’s capacity to desire something unattainable in Lacan’s approach can help, whether focusing on the individual or the collective, to better understand one of queer theory’s unifying trends: a bent toward defiance of social, sexual, and civic systems that have historically policed and excluded queer figures from the civic body.
The case for a unifying ethics in queer theory emerges from this tension between the conditions of politics in the here and now, and the worlds we might imagine. And in a sense, it should seem obvious that the imperative to imagine such a world is not negated by our failure to realize it, or is any less necessary when incomplete. In Ruti’s framework, the recuperative ethics of psychoanalysis is that it conjures kinds of desire that are not shaped by the dominant social modes that oppress, limit, or constrain the desires that our socially regulated world indexes to shame. “[N]ot ceding on our desire asks us to try to understand how our desire touches, and sometimes even wounds, those we desire,” Ruti explains. “[N]ot ceding on our desire entails becoming accountable for what we do in the name of this desire.”
Pleasure in part also comes from resistance — and this is where queer theory perhaps most effectively synthesizes the competing tension between the personal, subject-centered characteristics of desire and its more empathetic qualities. One of the more productive strains of queer utopian thinking gestures toward the kind of utopian pleasure that Ruti finds in José Muñoz’s vision of queerness, one that resonates with Lacan’s notion of desire: a queerness “propelled by lack, never fully satisfied, but potentially endlessly inventive in its quest for satisfaction.” “We are not yet queer,” Muñoz writes: “We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” That lack’s resistant qualities drives us forward, centers our desire, and creates space for social change. Or, as Ruti more playfully puts it, acting on what we lack encourages “a studied Fuck You!” to the symptoms by which society encodes our self-hatred, our self-regulation, and our shame; that “Fuck You!” provides an “antidote to alienation and thus an opening to intervention.” Rejecting the symbolic order that restricts us is not just, as Lee Edelman would have it, to reject the world outright and to embrace the pleasures of the absolute drive for non-meaning that he draws from Freud’s death drive. Instead, it is to create a space for the possibility of a better world, a better way of desiring, and a better way of desiring the desire of others. “[B]etween the present moment and the moment of death,” Ruti writes, “we are capable of meeting the world in ways that are worthy of our passion.”
And it is at this juncture that Ruti tries to break down the relational and anti-relational divide by claiming that, though desire is not always oriented toward an individual end, the act of desiring can’t abandon its location in the individual. Paying attention to those two aspects illuminates the relationship of our desire to those who also give us pleasure. Or, as Maggie Nelson put it in The Argonauts: “[S]o far as I can tell, most worthwhile pleasures on this earth slip between gratifying another and gratifying oneself. Some would call that an ethics.” It’s worth remembering, in other words, that there is something not just to hold on to, but something to reach for. Keeping the reminder that there is more to desire than the self reminds us of the collective benefit at the center of that desire — and to reach toward that world beyond the marginal pleasure and maximal pain that sometimes seems to describe the present.
Queer theory, like any intellectual enterprise, has its blind spots. It’s why Lee Edelman’s celebration of the death drive for queer subjects, as enticing as it might seem, runs into trouble for centering on white gay men, for whom there is less at stake in claiming negativity than queer people of color and queer women. Perhaps because of Ruti’s largely Lacanian frame, her analysis has some limits. To be sure, Ruti substantially engages with Sara Ahmed, Jasbir Puar, David L. Eng, and others who have been critical of the subject-centered whiteness of some strands of queer theory that embrace Lacan in particular. And yet, her book does not really focus on the shape of the structural oppressions that are at the core of what has come to be called queer of color critique; her point is to note the contributions of queer approaches to oppression along the lines of race, sex, gender, and class, not to unpack specific observations about overlap or intersection between marginal identities and experiences. Sometimes, that feels like a disappointment. Nonetheless, a reader will learn how the relational critiques they offer can be reconciled with a Lacanian motivation to identify what is lacking and think beyond it. In that sense, I think Ruti recovers some insights from white scholars aware of their critical and empathic limitations: she observes from critics like Tim Dean and Leo Bersani that there are modes of ethical thinking that do not require total identification with different points of view in order to function. It’s possible, as Dean suggests in his study of the ethics of barebacking subculture, to call for “an impersonal ethics in which one cares about others even when one cannot see anything of oneself in them.” That impersonal ethics — one in which the limits of the imagination prompt one to learn by extending sympathy before fear — is a call for learning from and listening to one’s critics; it’s a call for an imagination beyond the frameworks that elicit sympathy in the here and now.
Disagreements aside, many queer critics share a common struggle against tendencies in LGBT politics that threaten the erasure of queerness itself and the enfolding of LGBT lives into recognizable civil structures like marriage, military service, and mass consumerism. The desire for inclusion within these institutions forms part of what cultural critic Lauren Berlant calls a “cruel optimism” in which we suppress feelings of neglect, wounding, and hardship in the hopes that we, too, can live the good life that has been so far been denied. Queer theory asks, as Ruti puts it, why not “blow this system into smithereens and replace it with something completely different?” Where mainstream LGBT politics advocate for “equal rights within the system,” queer theorists see rights-based equations as “the rotten foundation of a thoroughly rotten system.” The “punk allure” of the wish for radical change is, at its heart, what constitutes queer theory’s ethical claims — the gesture toward a world outside of present-day limitations — but the theoretical movements by which we get there can seem contentious, fraught, and, if nothing else, narrow and confusing to many. Though academic infighting, from the quasi-initiate’s perspective, is fun to watch from a removed standpoint, it can leave uninitiated readers feeling more adrift. When queer ethics depends on polarizing perspectives about good queer politics amid the dangers of our current neoliberal moment, the stakes of getting it wrong are high. Indeed, in a moment when the US presidential administration seems hell-bent on revoking as many of the protections LGBTQ subjects and citizens have recently won — from trans service in the military, to LGBTQ workplace protections, to basic protections for public services — Ruti’s call for a united front seems more relevant than ever.
In the face of all this, it is too easy to overload ourselves and our students with negative affects, both in the texts we teach and in the news we read. In class, I often note how depressing a lot of our reading can be, how bound up in the melancholy, abject, or marginal. Most of the time my students do not identify as queer or, if they do, have not yet thought about their queerness as intersectional with the experiences of other, differently marginalized groups. Though Ruti’s book is complex in its content and theory, for me at least, it helps navigate these tensions in teaching theory. Her final call for an impersonal ethics in which you can see beyond the self is precisely what I want my students to take away from class. The balance here is not just to say that the world in which we live is hopelessly violent, unethical, and cruel. Rights-based models, she writes, “cannot solve structural problems such as sexism, racism, homophobia, or poverty” on their own. Yet, that doesn’t mean they, or we, should throw them out even while critiquing their operation. The inability to live up to an ideal, Ruti suggests, does not mean “the ideals themselves are intrinsically corrupt.” That balance is what I want my students to inhabit — to have encountered something beyond their experience and to broaden their ethics as a result, but also to reflect on how their own individual desires shape their ethics. The hope is to take the faulty systems we have for managing inequality and make them more effective, to make a claim for a future in which the negative affects of the present could transform into something we have not yet imagined.
“There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation,” James Baldwin argues in Nobody Knows My Name. “The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.” That ethical imperative remains, especially for queer activists and scholars in the present. It’s a tension and a need that queer theory especially forces us to think about — in the failures of our theory to live up to its ideals as much as the failure of our civil society to enact the equal rights whose rhetoric saturates our public sphere but in practice seems ever more precarious or restricted to so many people. As Ruti’s closing words remind us, the project goes on: “For now, it’s just a start. But it’s something.”
Will Clark is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at UCLA. He is completing a dissertation that examines the literary representation of citizenship and sexuality from the Civil War to the Great Depression. His interests include queer theory, the US novel, and US legal and political history.