The Daddy Dialectic

By Jordy RosenbergMarch 11, 2018

The Daddy Dialectic
THE STENCH OF THIS SCENE is age-old,” wrote the German philosopher Ernst Bloch in 1935. For Bloch, the appearance of fascism in Europe was not the irruption of an unprecedented evil, but the expression of a deep-rooted structure in contemporary form; it unearths “a piece of fossilized moon,” shining down “a path which one strangely recalls.” Against the characterization of fascism as a unique horror, Bloch saw its orgies of cruelty as an uncanny return. “Old grotesque faces eerily arise […] the Nazi dances all night.”

“Both hell and heaven,” Bloch moaned, “have been surrendered without a fight.”


Why would Bloch — why should we? — care about the unsurrender of hell? An unstated presumption saturating much public discourse is that we are meant to cling to “reasonableness” at moments of manifest insanity. This, I believe, is a flawed approach. If I had a dime for every “Coffee Party: Incite Civility and Reason” bumper sticker I’ve sighted in the college town where I teach, and never at any of the anti-deportation rallies — well, suffice it to say that the resistance to fascism goes nowhere if its main arena is the echo chamber of the Whole Foods parking lot, where a tidy “progressive” domesticity is carried out without active care for those being torn apart. Like Bloch said, this stench is entrenched. How entrenched? In 1950, Aimé Césaire, speaking of the appearance of fascism within Europe, pointed out that its appearance had been shocking only to the Europeans, who tolerated the murderous violence of colonialist procedure “before it was inflicted on them.” So the resistance to fascism goes nowhere — has never gone anywhere, will never go anywhere — when it hews to so-called Enlightenment (i.e., colonialist) principles and “virtues.” And it definitely does not go anywhere when sotto-voced from the ass-end of a Prius. Look, no one ever coffee tawked a fascist out of his fascism. 

We care about the unsurrender of hell, then, because fascism doesn’t operate through reason. Rather, it unleashes horrible fascinations, ensnaring the subject in what Bloch called a “warlike erotic[s].” To this we summon the counterforce of our own desire: not sexuality strictly speaking, so much as the embrace of our unsealable porousness to each other. Desire marks what the art historian Jaleh Mansoor describes as “the limit at which self-enclosure dissolves.” It’s not that desire in and of itself is leftist — such claims are insupportable. And let me not be misunderstood to believe that open legs and open borders have anything in common. But any politics that denies our constitutive porosity does not operate on an emancipatory terrain. Rather, it parodies the emancipation it forecloses in spasms of violent, unleashed inhibition.

Another way to put this is that clinging to “civility and reason” just because fascism takes the form of an ongoing carnival of cruelty really misunderstands the history of Enlightenment-derived “reason,” and misunderstands, too, its putatively constitutive opposition to cruelty. Indeed, if the Nazi dances all night, then our resistance requires something other than logic; something other, too, than cultured tsking or frantic bursts of wheel-spinning panic. We need desire — that messy, sometimes un-gentle, self-shattering descent into the underside of reason.

Not for nothing did Freud call it the death drive.

Now this is a topic about which I have some experience. Experience, that is to say, not only with desire, but also with those people for whom our fidelity to desire places us in special proximity to hell. And by “those people,” I am talking about my late mother, the elegant and brutal Barbara Lynn Horowitz Rosenberg.


Barbara Lynn, erstwhile princess of Ocean Avenue. Legend had it that in her youth, Barbara burned through every boy from Parkside Avenue in the South to Bedford Avenue in the North, broke engagements, broke hearts, even turned down Ronnie Mayer, who stood to inherit three butcher shops, and did: one in Rego Park, one in Borough Park, and one in Bensonhurst.

But Barbara wasn’t going to marry a Brooklyn boy. She was aiming for Manhattan, and god help her she’d escape her past and every tendril that still clung to her. On weekends we’d find my Papa Horowitz wandering up and down Shore Road in Bay Ridge, visiting stores requesting change for a nickel. He’s senile, Barbara would mutter as her father’s pockets bulged with dirty pennies.

But my grandfather would always be in Brooklyn, and she’d made it out. Since we had first learned to speak, my sister and I had been weekly convened in “the den” — a tiny, cordoned-off heel of our living room, bounded by a warped wooden screen — for pronunciation drills led by Barbara.

In her efforts to stave-off our inheritance of her Brooklyn accent, we rehearsed tyou-nah (tuna), Tyouse-deey (Tuesday), and — oh how this would vex me later in life — n-you-d (nude).

And Barbara prevailed. My sister and I emerged from her Brooklyn womb unmarked. Or, on the topic of the inheritance of my mother’s accent, I used to think: I can do it in a heartbeat, but it never does me.

Now I’m not so sure.


But this essay is not exactly about family history. It’s not exactly about Frankfurt School Marxism either, and it’s not exactly about fascism. Rather, it’s about how for some of us, these concerns can’t be kept apart.

Because, really, we’ve been in this stench so long. I’ve been thinking for a while about this line from Stuart Hall’s reluctant memoir, Familiar Stranger, released this past summer: “I have never thought that the detail of my life, of the kind which fills memoirs, was of much intrinsic interest or significance. I have however […] ‘lived in interesting times.’” At issue here is not the specificity of a life, but the intersection of ourselves with broader historical forces, or what Fredric Jameson, in an entirely different context described as “galactic visuality”: that moment when our perspective swivels and we realize that it is the “stars that look down on us.” Certainly I’m no Stuart Hall. But I take from Hall this simple point: writing the self is, at its root, a question of marking with language the places where history touches us. And Reader, it touches us everywhere.


As for our interesting times? Well, the moon ascendant over the United States illuminates a path that’s been here all along, one littered with bacchanals of white supremacy, the dispossession of the poor, mockery of and brutality toward those with disabilities, and hatred of queers, women, and trans people. If the winds of fascism are howling louder at present, or seem to be, it is because the demonic tantrums that have long defined the core techniques of American power are being summoned, unmasked and en masse, into the daylight. So we unsurrender hell. Fight demons with demons. A thing Étienne-Gaspard Robert, inventor of the technology of phantasmagoria, knew something about.

Describing the genesis of his 19th-century proto-cinematic technology of the magic lantern (the projection of demons, ghosts, and skeletons onto smoke or curtains), Robert said: “The devil refusing to communicate to me the science of wonders, I set myself to making devils.”

Prelude to the horror film, phantasmagoria was also, famously, for the theorist Walter Benjamin, a characterization of commodity-capitalism: the strange animateness of the object-world, its capacity to hold us, spellbound and deadened, fixed in the medusa-gaze of things. Could Benjamin have predicted that, nearly 70 years after his death, consumption would be raised to the level of what he himself might have called a “hellish intensification”: consumption as a sadistic perversion of disaster relief (the selling off of storm-wrecked landscapes to rapacious start-ups), consumption (a.k.a. “choice”) as a veil for the annihilation of health care, and consumption as a mode of perception itself — a parade of exchangeable images unscrolling relentlessly by phone, tablet, and laptop?

But long before we were flâneurs of our own bedrooms, strolling the arcades of commodity culture on little screens, some us of were learning IRL the phantasmagoric force of commodities. The 18-year-old me — home for the weekend from college to attend my cousin Josh’s bar mitzvah in Bay Ridge on November 12, 1989, three days after the fall of the Berlin Wall — was one such person. As Marx might have said: tragedy, meet farce.


“The Eastern European animal hide markets are in the toilet,” my mother announced, nudging my father in the ribs as he drove down the FDR Drive, “Let’s make a stop at Orchard Street. It’s the perfect time to buy sheepskin.” She glanced at me in the back seat. “Not for you,” she added, referencing with one arched eyebrow the numerous times she’d discovered me compulsively returning to the mirror hanging inside my father’s closet, evaluating myself in his ties and jackets.

This was not the first of my mother’s “not for you” proclamations regarding things that were “for men” — playing the guitar, bifold wallets, 501 “dungarees,” loving women — and it would certainly not be the last. The last, in fact, may have been the decree she issued while watching me eat a sliced tomato shortly after she learned via Good Morning America that lycopene was a potent anti-prostate cancer phytochemical. Why are you eating that, she scowled, tomatoes are for men.


Yes, this was a woman who loved and lived by the bounds of gender difference. Wall shmall. In Barbara’s version of history, the demise of the communist project had nothing on the oncoming disaster of my lesbianism. Robert may have pioneered the science of devils, but as far as Barbara was concerned, I had perfected it. The devil I had crafted, of course, was myself.

And now there was this bar mitzvah to contend with. Thus the devil found herself in some compromise outfit of washable silk blouse and what I desperately fooled myself into believing were “butch” pantaloons, in the back seat of an Oldsmobile Cutlass.

What the fuck is my mother’s problem, I implored silently, cracking open my copy of Marx’s Capital for the first time.

Readers have come to Capital for answers to many questions. But I had come to it for the answer to this one.

My mother and I were in a classic Cold War détente. Having not yet had the direct confrontation of my coming out, Barbara seemed to believe she could stave it off with the nuclear threat of her raised eyebrow alone. I believed that Capital held the answers to the origins of this expressive eyebrow — and, indeed, of all her yenta high dudgeon and alienation from me — an alienation, I conjectured at that moment in my life, that had more to do with class than sexuality. I was the spat-out spawn of her clawing herself upward, after all, and the whole thing had backfired because the elitist shmuck she so hoped I would become was entitled enough to believe I could do whatever the fuck I wanted with my life.

I liked to consider the mind-fuck from her perspective. Barbara had made it out of the boroughs by marrying a medical student who then veered off course by taking a job in public health with the city of New York — the promise of an MD’s salary dissipating like fog off a lake. Barbara herself had become a receptionist to an eminent Park Avenue plastic surgeon. And though nothing was terrible, and truly she was beloved at her job — and quite expert in the art of taking cash from mob bosses for their mistresses’ enhancement — Manhattan had not turned out the way she’d dreamed it would be. I imagined that I presented the horrifying manifestation to her of how tenuous and contingent our hold on Manhattan was. We were not born to this, my embarrassing complexly gendered personhood seemed to broadcast.

And so the dirty penny Barbara thought she’d left behind had followed her to the city; in fact, the dirty penny had come from her own womb. If I understood Marx, I thought, I could understand my mother.

In reality, though, I had come to Marx for a different question — one I didn’t know yet. The question I didn’t realize I was asking was about desire. My irresistible desire to emulate my father, yes. [1] And also how we come to breathe the phantasmagoria-air of the capitalist lifeworld: what the extent of its reach within us is, and how we learn longing from the most punishing of teachers.


“I don’t need sheepskin,” my father protested. “It’s heavy.”

Acch,” my mother waved her hand in the air. My father’s experience of his own body was not admissible evidence in my mother’s style court. “All the stars are wearing sheepskin,” she said, closing the case.

My mother cited daytime gossip programs as if she’d just come from doing research at the Library of Congress: You may not have heard, she’d issue conspiratorially at breakfast over a bowl of cottage cheese and prunes. But 80 percent of people polled concede that they cannot discern rhinestones from diamonds at a distance of 15 feet.

The sheepskin thing was a fashion emergency. I could see that my mother had resolved long ago that my father’s entrance to Temple B’nai Or would take place in nothing less than the grandeur of a new sheepskin coat.

On Orchard, no one had sheepskin, but everyone had a story.

Not until June do we get our big run on sheepskin!

Or, “What good is sheepskin if your socks have lost elastic?

Or, “You want sheepskin?” the guy at Manny’s said brightly, luring us back into the bowels of the store, “I got better than sheepskin —” He paused for emphasis. “— Cor-du-roy.”

Defeated, my parents settled on a mid-thigh-length tan corduroy overcoat with leather elbow patches, an item I instantly loved. This thing screamed urban-cowboy-cum-editorial-assistant-at-Doubleday; this thing screamed downwardly mobile Jewish lumberjack — “So sue me! What? I cut down a tree.” I beelined for the boys section until I arrived at the junior version of a coat much like my father’s own.

As I slipped my arm into the satin-lined heavy corduroy sleeve, my mother’s head swiveled, her eyes hooded, like a hawk closing its opaque lid while preparing for a lethal dive.

I hastily stuffed the item back into the rack as she tunneled her way toward me through a sea of schmattes. I knew what was coming.

“That jacket,” she blared, “is for men.”

In a way I felt badly for her. My mother seemed to think that if I could just be kept away from menswear, everything would be okay. Not days before, in fact, she had flicked her eyes over her copy of Redbook to announce: “No matter how big your belt buckle is you’ll never be a man.”

Oh mom, if only it were that easy. I’ll take the biggest fucking belt buckle you have and call it a day.

“Ultimately,” she said, changing tack, “you could use a new pair of dungarees. One of those semi-flared styles they’re wearing. I saw it in Vogue.”

“You want dungarees, we got dungarees,” said Mr. Manny, pulling out some dusty 1981-styled Sassoons with zippers at the ankles. “The latest.”

“We’ll pass,” said my mother, holding up her hand. She loved a bargain but god forbid someone should try to offload eight-year-old denim on her.

“What is this, the Iron Curtain?” She gave him the arched eyebrow and whisked us out the door, issuing her coup de grâce. “Gey guseunh a heit,” she called back, which technically means Go in good health but because it’s Yiddish, actually means Fuck you.


“Sort of a Lauren Hutton thing,” my mother said, continuing the conversation about the jeans as we made our way back down Orchard, and turned on Houston to the car.

“Or Susan Sarandon,” my father offered.

She glared at him, shaking her head — this, by the way, was the man who had committed the unforgivable crime of gifting me his giant brass belt buckle to begin with, and thus he too had become a person of suspicion. “From Rocky Horrah?” she accused. “Isn’t that a transvestite movie? Like that Christine Jorgensen?” Her voice dropped several octaves in order to steep this name with its full horrific potential. She sounded like she was being strangled from the inside out by her own throat.

I decided not to try to explain the difference between Christine Jorgensen and Dr. Frank-N-Furter to my mother as I stepped out of the way of a turning car. Meanwhile, I saw what she was going for with the “Lauren Hutton” jeans idea. It was, to her mind, an androgynous concession. An attempt to make lemonade out of lemons — a desperate last gasp to sculpt the oncoming tidal wave of deep lez into someone she could still drag to Bloomingdale’s to collect her “free gift with purchase” at the Clinique counter. Someone that some man somewhere someday maybe would touch, if he had low self-esteem, or was a bottom, or a little bit gay.


Not so much later, when I did come out to her, and for many years after, my mother would try to reason with me.

No one likes sex with men!” she’d shout. “Marry one and divorce him for the alimony.”

There was a certain logic to this proposition — actually, an ingenious logic in which the wifely commodity returns herself to get the cash back — but the problem was that her daughter, a phantasmagoria in human form, was a commodity with its own recalcitrant will and desires, and would not go to market. A devil that would not move off the shelf.


As (some) queers well know, the refusal to move off the shelf pans out well in the end for our homophobic parents. It is a fact so obvious and ironic it hardly needs noting, but when it comes time to call on a caretaker, we shelved commodities suddenly make a reappearance, entering into our parents’ speed dial. What had once seemed a stubborn refusal to fall in line is now an asset; our siblings are occupied with their own children, and we queers appear to be just hanging out here on our shelves, waiting to serve. It now appears that outmoded Sassoons aren’t so bad. What was once a devalued piece of crap from the perspective of the marriage market looks like quite a sparkly little item on the parent-eldercare exchange.

So it was that, later in her life, just after my father’s death, when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my mother came to call on me. We made an odd couple — my glamorous, wilting yenta mother and her butch/trans helpmeet. We barely knew each other after two decades of estrangement, but with my father gone, I was the last masculine nuclear family member left. A poor substitute, no doubt, but she’d take it. And so there I would be, reading by her bedside at the hospital, or conducting the queer drama of my life by phone while she drifted in and out of consciousness. With little else to preoccupy her, my mother now found the details of my formerly appalling queerness cozy and interesting. Who’s cheating on who, she’d gossip, awakening, blinking from her chemo-chair into the tail end of some conversation or other I’d be having. Don’t mix business with pleasure, she would warn, not realizing that queer academia is exactly that: a marriage of business and pleasure, bonded in tempestuity.

A fact which my mother might have known if she had known me for the two decades prior to her death. She did not, but she was trying to catch up quickly — a process, I’m sure, as alienating for her as it was for me. But she was ill and suddenly I was the most masculine shoulder she could find. After all the years of trying to stave off my encounter with Daddy-clothes, she now seemed to feel that, well, if the shoe fit, I should wear it.

As long — that is to say — as the shoe was worn inside the apartment. To the outside world she would need to develop a series of disclaimers to explain what in god’s name I was doing in her company. Barbara had a stock opening line for the nurses and doctors who would stop in while I was sitting with her during her several rounds of chemo. I was no longer recognizable as a woman, but I was in that transitional place where I was kind of illegible (to cis-people) in general, and so although I am sure on some level my mother wanted to clarify to the personnel of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, “This is my incredibly disappointing daughter,” that was actually becoming less objectively accurate, and so, helpless in the face of the non-language available to her to describe what I was, whenever anyone came in she’d just throw her hands in the air and shout, “This is Jordana. She’s a Marxist!”

My mother intended Marxist to signify that obviously I was a queer scourge, but also I was an intellectual, and thus sort of a legitimate member of society. The whole thing was actually uncanny, because Marxist was in a way how I thought of my sexuality as well, or at least I had tried to use Marx to woo many women over the years.

But how did my mother know my sexuality was Marxist? Well of course Barbara — “Babs,” to her friends, Babs who had ruled Ocean Avenue in her capri pants and Keds, Babs, the gum-cracking wiseass pretty girl who somehow, much to her chagrin, had given birth to me — had been there from the moment I began to let Marx teach me something about desire. That moment in which, as we rumbled along the Belt Parkway closing in on Temple B’nai Or, I read that famous opening line for the first time, out loud in honor of what was once East Berlin: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities.’”

So,” shrugged Barbara Rosenberg in the front seat, “what else is new.”

Of course. “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’” could have been my mother’s motto. If this line had been embroidered on a gold brocade throw pillow my mother would have showcased it on our 40-year-old slip-covered couch next to the one that said My Other Apartment is in Paris. Indeed, the immense collection of commodities with which she had stuffed our small, rent-controlled abode — perfume bottles with a single spritz of Diorella swirling in the bottom, empty tins of Danish butter cookies, too-enormous drapery, kept closed day and night, so the people in the apartments across the street wouldn’t “come over and rape you” — suggested that this lady did not need Marx to educate her on anything to do with commodities or the desperately confected appearance of wealth. Of all the things she was, my mother was, as she herself said, not an idiot.

But throw-pillow mottos aside, as with many of Marx’s sentences, this one is actually meant to be read aslant. The point is, the commodity is a fetish; it is the seductive appearance of wealth and value, but it is not itself wealth. When Marx says that the wealth of societies appears as an “immense collection of commodities,” what he means is that capitalism is one big phantasmagoria. An apparition show.

Wealth, unlike commodities, is the ability of capital to produce more of itself. It is, as Marx said, “capital in motion” — capital circuiting through the cycles of production, circulation, and exchange. A commodity is thus just capital in a temporary — to put it in my mother’s language — outfit, the “commodity-form.” And it needs to be exchanged for money; or, to continue in our yenta lexicon, it needs to change out of this outfit and liquefy itself in cash. Which is why when you ask for sheepskin, if they don’t have sheepskin, you’re offered another outfit — socks with good elastic, or corduroy.

So wealth — although it appears to be embodied in commodities — isn’t. Though I doubt we even need Marx to clarify this for us, since anyone who has faced down Manny on Orchard Street knows that emptying your wallet for a sheepskin (or corduroy) coat doesn’t increase your wealth. In fact it’s just the opposite. And anyway, I don’t think wealth was actually what my mother was in search of. If she had been, she wouldn’t have “needed” my father to enter the bar mitzvah in a sheepskin coat. She would have saved, invested. As the one-time executor of her “estate,” I can tell you she did not. Rather, what she was looking for in commodities — and this was a lifelong process that extended to her deathbed perusals of the Chico’s catalog — was something else: enjoyment.


Who could fault her. Isn’t everyone’s desire both impossible and necessary? Lacan, of course, famously noted that we learn language, loss, and desire all at the same time. In order to enter language, you must be severed from the immediacies of bodily satisfaction. Once you’re old enough to say, I want my mother’s breast, I’m sorry to report, but you’re too old to drink from it.

Now here is where it gets murky, strange, in the world of psychoanalytic desire, because no sooner do we notice the absence of something we want in our mouths (our mother), but we begin to wonder why — and to suspect that the reason why might be the father who is standing in our way. What is different between us, and the father? The answer changes depending on how you imagine yourself situated in relationship to that sign. But either way, there’s a weird payoff. You might not be able to have the mother, but you get to have language instead, and thus the constitutively hamstrung enjoyment of desire. In the savage cut where I want my mother’s breast becomes the condition of never having it again, suddenly opens before you a labyrinth of longing whose paths and hedgerows are paved with language. I.e., the imagination is born. And I hardly need to tell you that this particular merging of the disappointments of life with the fullness of language is characteristic of our world.

P.S., all desire is hamstrung, except for that of the capital-F Father, the patriarch, he who enjoys outside of the Law of Castration, because he makes the Law. Lacan’s father figure is drawn from the “obscene father” of Freud’s Totem and Taboo — he who enjoins you to enjoy, but only to reveal your impotence in the face of his own inimitable, unleashed enjoyments. Of course, for both Freud and Lacan, the capital-F Father is just a figment — a symbolic placeholder for some unattainable fantasy of satisfaction. So, really, technically, no one “just enjoys” — not cis-men, not cis-women, not queer people, not trans people, not anyone.

Or at least this is what my analyst always points out when I complain about the woes of non-cis-male masculinity. The condition of the subject in general is castrated, he’ll say, waggling his $400 Italian walking shoe over his knee. But, still I feel that there is a difference between how much cis-men can’t just enjoy and how much, for example, butch lesbians can’t just enjoy. Or so I did claim when I was a butch lesbian (the topic of testosterone and enjoyment being reserved for another essay). The point I’m making has to do with the fact that sometimes some people a little bit more can’t just enjoy than others. And so all the male Lacanians whining on about how hard it is to “just enjoy” — well, try being a butch lesbian for 10 minutes and then get back to me. Or, Olympic-level challenge: try being a butch lesbian — one whose ego-ideal is not masculinity in general, but daddy in specific (viz., the eternal return to the father’s closet, not just the clothes, but the scent; that specific exhalation of fatherliness as the object of identificatory desire: pipe tobacco and peppermint lifesavers, a trench coat blooming the musk of old rain…) — for 10 minutes and then get back to me.


Because, look, any animal can be a father. Consider the obituary of a hawk in the local paper of the university town where I teach. This hawk was famous on campus because he had nested in the Library Tower for 10 years with his “partner,” and the university live-streamed surveillance footage every year of the chicks being reared, parents bringing in chipmunks and blue jays to eat, swooping in like ragged, tweedy Nosferatus, perching hugely on the edges, their beaks stuffed with blue feathers and bloody dangling feet, their eyes blazing.

So, this hawk was essentially a celebrity on campus. And, one day, he hit a power line near the dean’s offices, and fell and died. You just knew they were going to make a big deal about it.

Now, I like birds of prey, and all birds really, quite a bit. Still, it galled me when I read his obituary:

Hawk, Father to 34, Dead After Striking Power Line

So here’s this hawk being celebrated as an eminent father in the local paper. And here we are — all of us, not just me, but this whole loose subgenre of butch/trans masculinity that desires not even necessarily to be a man first and foremost, but to inhabit something, more specifically, that daddy encodes.

It’s not easy to take this on. As I already pointed out, lived subjectivity and the ego-ideal of the Father are a constellation of non-intersecting points in space. Or, like Lacan said, although not in these precise words: this isn’t easy for anyone.


It’s not easy, but it’s also dialectically intimate. If you grapple with your Father-figure desires through a queer lens, then you know that the private alchemies that exist to make our pleasures possible are not to be divulged in mixed company. I will say, though, that there exists a species of intimate adult relation in which the exchange of one particular word — addressed to you as an adult from another adult and with no child present — produces a kind of ease and excitement at once. So what, you might say. But understand that there are those of us who have had to choose between ease and excitement — who have lived the very crisis of their incompatibility. You can have your home or you can have your desire; this is a certain bildung of queerness. We do not wrestle down these contradictions alone, because there are certain exchanges, certain words, certain shared languages that hold this promise: we can be whatever we say we are.

He is one of these words. They is another. Daddy, I wish to argue, is one too. The one that, for some of us, holds open the specific promise that we can take shelter in each other and experience impossible pleasures too.

This pleasure is not separable from the wounds of the family. In fact, the trauma of the family is in so many ways the condition for this adult pleasure, which is not an escape so much as a dialectical overcoming. As Benjamin put it,

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation […] Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language.

There is a version of queer intimacy that constellates past and present in a dialectical lurch. Or, as the great author Samuel Delany puts it (via Nabokov): literature is a “sensuous thought” particular to a historical moment. Literature, much like fantasy, mediates between the unrepresentable Real of history and the subject’s embodied life; and so fantasy is the tether that makes an embodied life possible. As the theorist Gayle Salamon posits in her magnificent Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality: “The activity of the nerves, the sensory impulse of the body is necessary but not sufficient for the production of the body schema, which relies for its coherence on a vast storehouse of past impressions, sensations, fantasies and memories.” There’s an interpenetrative relationship between our bodies and the social world such that literature or fantasy or a word might activate certain kinds of perception and certain forms of embodiment that don’t exist or awaken outside of it.

I hear an echo of this in China Miéville’s recent novel Last Days of New Paris, where characters grow organs that “flex in the presence of the marvelous.” The body is not ontologically absolute, but rather awakened by a provocation or a situation. I don’t know what you mean by transgender, but this is part of what I mean by it: the senses — our bodies, our fantasies, and our fictions — do not stand outside of history. As Delany has explained, science fiction “cast[s] a language shadow over coherent areas of imaginative space that would otherwise be largely inaccessible.” Isn’t Delany’s language shadow what Benjamin means by a dialectical image? This shadow doesn’t illuminate so much as it — through language — enhances, deepens, makes perceptible.

I’m still talking about transgender when I say that, in provoking a collision of past, present, and the eternal non-time of fantasy, certain words cast a language shadow. This shadow is cast over the body itself, awakening organs that flex only in the presence of certain fantasies, certain shared lexica. This shadow and what it awakens function in complex collective counterpoint to (and through) the Law of the Father and all its symbolic violence, and so it (and all its refutation of self-enclosure as “reason”) is as much a part of our resistance to the oppressive forces of the present as anything else.

Because without this language shadow? Without our sensuous forms of thought? It would be brutal. The putrid heart of capitalism is there in the room with you every night in the form of the demand to enjoy. Indeed, in the 21st century, it’s not about being an upstanding community member. Now, all that matters is whether or not you, as a person, have reached your full potential by enjoying your life enough, at whatever cost to yourself and others.

And if you can’t consume enough, enjoy yourself enough, experience your desire enough, what a failure you are. But it’s a special species of challenging if your ego-ideal is the master-enjoyer, and meanwhile here’s this hawk. Honored as a father in the local paper. His hallowed feathered fucking fatherliness.

And the thing about Marx is that he kind of knows this. He knows that when we are talking about desire, we are talking about desire’s context and conditions. Desire is not an ahistorical urge, and it in itself
won’t — can’t — save us. Marx knows this because he knows something about intransigence. He knows, for example, that the intransigence of the fetish is real. Capital begins with the fetish, it goes on to say a lot of other things, and at the end of 900-odd pages, the fetish is untrammeled by analysis. What was true at the beginning is true at the end. There is no way to take apart the fetish with logic. Not even for Marx. “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing,” Marx says at the outset of the book, “and easily understood.” But, he continues, “its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Its analysis shows us that the fetish is impenetrable to analysis. (This, incidentally, is also why in our current moment, we cannot simply explain electoral politics with a flat economic rationality that in fact does not align with Marx.) The commodity is and has a supernatural force. This supernatural force has real material effects in the social world, and there’s no rational way around it.

In case you doubted the supernatural force of the commodity, at the very end of Capital, Marx returns to it by way of a speculation about the origins of capitalist production as a whole. “The economic structure of capitalist society,” he announces, “has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former.” Suddenly we are back in the moment of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Eight-hundred-odd pages brings you back to the beginning of the entire system and a set of questions about how capitalism arose in the first place. It’s almost nonsensical. Rather than point forward to some post-capitalist utopia, Marx takes us back to that “prehistoric stage of capital,” when “commodity-owners” (one possessing the means of production, the other possessing nothing to sell but his [sic] own labor) face each other in the marketplace, and the fetishism of the commodity takes hold.

Readers encountering this quirk of Capital for the first time may feel despair or at least bewilderment. After our long slog, we’re returned to the beginning in a sickening loop. Worse: The pre-beginning. But I tell you what, anyone who has ever been traumatized by the obituary for a fatherly hawk in the local paper knows what’s up. Knows that thinking about something, stewing about something, won’t change anything. The fetish represents the absolute limit point of thought, and of analysis. It’s what Marx begins with and at the end nothing has gotten any better. And this is the point, really perhaps the most profound point of all of Capital. We go back to the beginning at the end to make two things clear: nothing has changed and once something did change.

Nothing has changed over the course of reading the book. The fetish is there, and the power of the mind to transcend it is, as my mother would have said, bupkus. But: The fetish was not always there. And this is why Marx gets to the pre-history of capitalism only at the end. Because history does not matter as the fiction of a forward-moving telos. History matters only as a backward-facing reflection so that you can see one simple thing. Things were once different. Not better, but different. And so they might be again, and this time we have to have the wild belief that they could be better-different, not just differently-awful-different. There is simply no getting rid of the phantasmagoric power of the commodity — not in the world and not in thought — unless the conditions that make it so are changed, and collectively. And we know this because the entire text of Capital is arranged around the point at which thought falters: desire, the fetish. There is a promise lying in the shoals of despair — a thought that gets swallowed in the phantasmagoria of the world as it is. A thought that is not yet thinkable.


Reader, I suppose this “devil” thing cuts both ways. And it wouldn’t be fair for me to close this essay without a short detour down this two-way street.

For this, we have to visit December of 2012, when I was scheduled to have top surgery with the infamous Dr. Brownstein in San Francisco, a pioneer of the transmale sculpted chest sought after by so many of us including, very much so, myself. There was a six-month-long waiting list. When I had originally made the appointment I had sort of assumed my mother would be dead by then. But Babs was shockingly tenacious. By December 5 she was alive, though barely. I was commuting back and forth to my job at UMass and staying with her part time in New York. She had a wonderful home health aide, Ruth, with her when I was away.

When it became clear that my mother wasn’t going to die on December 5, as I had “planned,” I told her I was going to stay with my sister in San Francisco for “some medical procedure.” I didn’t tell her what it was, I just made it clear that I wouldn’t be around for a while. I suppose I let her believe the worst. My mother was out of it, and it wasn’t hard to slip this lie past her, plus she’d never much cared or wanted to know what I did with my life so we had kind of a Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy about literally everything that didn’t have to do with work or my dogs. But I will also say that it wasn’t hard for me to do this lying, which is another issue altogether and goes back to this devilishness that cuts both ways. In that period I was spending a lot of time running away from my responsibilities in Massachusetts and my mother in New York by hiding in the middle. In New Haven, I could simply pretend I was someone else (someone with endless resources? Someone with a job at Yale? Someone who had been invited to give a talk at Yale?) at the ridiculously overpriced Study Hotel. I would land at The Study, charge a room to my deeply-in-the-red credit card, order extravagant room service, and get my version of wasted on one Rye Manhattan plus a Benadryl. How many times I did this during the two years of my mother’s dying I actually don’t even know, though I guess American Express does.

I was at the Study Hotel, in fact, on the morning of December 4, 2012, recovering from my one Manhattan plus Benadryl, and getting ready to drive to JFK to fly out to San Francisco. My surgery was the next day.

My mother called, as she did every morning. Though on this morning she sounded suddenly, much, much more dying-i-er than she ever had.

“I’m on the floor,” she said, her voice very trembly. “I can’t get up.” “I called Amanda —” my sister, who is an emergency room doctor “— and I asked her if this was the ‘rapid decline’ she was talking about.”

My sister had told my mother at one point, trying to map out the progress of her disease, that she would deteriorate slowly over a period of time and then she would enter a “rapid decline.”

Referring back to this exchange, my mother sounded terrified and weak. She kept saying, “I can’t get up from the floor.” She didn’t say whether my sister had affirmed that this was the “rapid decline,” but even to someone who is not a “real doctor,” that much seemed obvious.

“Where are you?” she asked.

In a split-second that felt like many minutes I ran through my options — skip my flight, go to my mother, and get her off the floor? Maybe I could reschedule my flight for later that day? But surely I couldn’t just go to the apartment, lift my mother up, and then go to San Francisco? I’d be stuck there I’d miss my flight and my surgery and it’d be another six months to reschedule.

Or I could just leave.

In a hot flash of sweat and guilt, I knew I would choose the latter. Even though my mother was on the floor. Even though I was supposed to be in San Francisco for 10 days recovering afterward, as was recommended, and she’d probably die or certainly at least be existentially miserable and lonely while I was away. I knew I would leave.

This could go one of two ways, I reasoned to myself: I could go to San Francisco, have the surgery, and when I recovered enough to return, my mother would be dead. Or I could go to San Francisco, have the surgery, and when I recovered enough to return, my mother would be alive. In both scenarios I’d be done with my breasts.

I had to choose between getting my mother off the floor or getting my breasts off my chest. [2]

I chose my life; I chose having a body.

“I’m in San Francisco,” I lied. “What time is Ruth getting there?”

“Not for another hour.”

What would happen to my mother for an hour on the floor? What did happen? I never learned the answer to this. My mother descended into incoherence very shortly afterward and we did not have any kind of real conversation ever again.


I flew to San Francisco and had the surgery. I was instructed by the nurses “Not to Make Any Important Decisions for 48 Hours After Coming Out From Anesthesia.”

Apparently people make crazy decisions after anesthesia.

A truth confirmed by the fact that, despite these warnings, not six hours after coming out of surgery, I was on the phone with American Airlines, changing my ticket home. I needed to get back to my mother. This woman who I had not known for 20 years — my entire adult life. Somehow in the fog of anesthesia, I needed to be with her.

I flew home four days later, my chest aching, stitches ripping every time I picked up my backpack. Most of this is a blur — I sort of remember trundling through the snow at JFK to my car; I don’t remember driving to my mother’s apartment. I do remember that when I got there she had descended into incoherence and I began to administer morphine. She took another three weeks or so to actually die, but she was largely gone by then.

I sat with her for those weeks. I kept watch over her dying. I didn’t leave again. Everyone who loved me said my mother didn’t deserve any kindness I showed her. But no one knew about the conversation from the floor. No one knew that the contradictory truth is that on December 4 I chose my own life over hers, and on December 5, in an anesthesia fog, I was drawn back to my mother in some inexorable way that I suppose only Melanie Klein could explain.


My mother said a lot of terrible things to me over the years. “I can’t think with that bulldagger in the room” was one of them. “I didn’t give birth to an ugly daughter” was another. “You’re the biggest disappointment of my life” ought to have been the worst.

But the worst thing she ever said to me — the thing that haunts me to this day — was sometime in the week of December 20, 2012, maybe three or four days before her death. She was in and out of consciousness. Mostly out. But in a moment of clarity, she awakened one evening as I was leaving her room to go back to the childhood bedroom I had shared with my sister, and sleep for the night.

When I saw that she was awake, I turned from the threshold and went to her bedside. “I’m going to sleep now, Mom. Are you going to be okay?”

“Yes,” she nodded. “I’ll be okay.” Then, looking up at me, she said — and I cannot remember any other time she said such a thing to me or showed me this kind of concern in my adult life: “Are you?”

God knows what she saw when she looked at me that night. We know what she saw — or said she saw — for the decades prior. But this was different. In some morphine-plus-dying spell, some kindness broke through — perhaps some mother-version of my own desperate need to get back to her on December 5 — and she saw me as someone she was worried about. Someone she had once loved.

At the time, I thought, fuck yeah I’m gonna be alright! You’ll be dead and I’ll be free.

But she knew something I didn’t, yet. She knew that hers would be different from my father’s death, for me. He, I could easily introject. I already had. When he died, I just became him, and so he was always with me. But my mother? She was gone. Just gone. And I couldn’t hate her anymore. The popular, pretty, bitchy, funny Babs — this woman whose life I had apparently essentially ruined, had looked up at me from the depths of her own mortality and worried about me. She let me know she kind of loved me. And then she was gone.

That, reader, was the worst thing she ever said to me. The thing that woke me up at night. How did she know how hard this would be? I’d think, shaking. Why did she come back to me after so many decades, only for me to lose her? Forgive my layperson redaction of this, but I believe that Melanie Klein said something about the productiveness of grief. Mourning, she argued, throws us back upon the infantile “depressive state,” in which we hunt our own selves mercilessly down for the reasons why we’ve lost (injured/killed) the loved one. [3] We hunt ourselves down, that is, until somehow, on the other side of this — or, through this — we find what Klein described as the “good breast” (or, that internalized object that signifies love, acceptance, and a degree of psychic comfort) within ourselves. This, too, is an experience of radically open, and yet ideally, stabilizing porousness. At my mother’s deathbed, I believe she knew what I did not: that that process takes some time.


But now it’s 2018 and, really, are any of us okay? Of course Babs could not have known when she asked this question, that we’d be facing down the forces that are now ascendant. She could not have known that as we try to daily fortify ourselves to struggle against the powers arrayed against us, we’d have to assess our collective and individual resources; that we’d be asking ourselves: for those of us who have been forged in the fires of cruelty, what do we have left for each other? “Togetherness,” as the theorist Claudia Jones once wrote, is not “an abstraction; its inner laws and contradictions must be studied.” So then what, as a recent editorial in the journal Salvage Quarterly put it, are the “infrastructures against social misery” that must be built within and between us? Infrastructures against what China Miéville has recently referred to as “social sadism.”

These infrastructures aren’t always “nice.” We’re in the shit, after all, and no one gets out clean. But we don’t have to be clean to hate capitalism, to hate fascism. In fact, to return to a point with which I opened: the reasoned, virtuous position is not one from which to confront these terrors. So let us be the devalued commodities on shelves, then. The outdated dungarees, the devils. We want justice, not assimilation; we want to win, and we don’t compromise with fascists, war hawks, and imperialists. This is why I am more interested in limning the contours of our lived resistance than I am in diagnosing their apparati of cruelties.

And anyway, others have done so far better than I have. For our purposes, I want to call up what the theorist Alberto Toscano has parsed in terms of the distinction between the kind of fascism to which Bloch was responding and the tendencies of the present. For Toscano, Bloch was describing a midcentury counterrevolutionary fascism that absorbed and mimicked what Georges Bataille described as the “libidinal surplus” of revolutionary communism. The threat of socialist revolution, in other words, was met by its clownish — but no less violent for that — inversion in the unleashed all-night dancing of the Nazis. Our present moment, however, for Toscano, “contain[s] little if any relationship to such a libidinal surplus, except in the degraded vestigial form of what we could call, by analogy with the psychoanalytic notion of the ‘obscene father,’ the obscene leader.’

Actually, I would point out that no such “analogy” is even needed. Because I’m still stuck on this moment from Trump’s tax reform speech in North Dakota in November, in which he announced his daughter Ivanka’s presence on the tour and called her onto the stage, not in her role as advisor to the president, but rather, specifically, thusly: “Come on up honey. She’s so good. She wanted to make the trip. She said, ‘Dad, can I come with you. Actually she said ‘Daddy, can I go with you?’ I like that.”


This was just one horrific declamation in a year of horrific declamations from the office of the president, but it is one that condenses the nightmare of the bourgeois family and that of the racial state at once. Yes, this was truly an obscene moment of political theater — one that, I would argue, functions as a seemingly ad hoc, uninhibited parody of the American presidential family romance more broadly. [4] Indeed, all the recent white presidential families have functioned as explicit dynasties: the Bushes were the old-boy version, the Clintons the liberal “feminist” war-hawk version. Both the Bush and the Clinton dynasties drew from the playbook of American racial paternalism (a position that can be taken up regardless of given sex; we have only to think of Hillary Clinton’s famous “bring them to heel” comment). Trump plays this same old standard, albeit in a different key: that of the obscene leader, one who is specifically ludic in his obscenity — what Toscano identifies as the uninhibited Father figure’s “ham actor” quality.

Trump’s ludic theatrics of the Father figure play out a drama of masculinist ownership that corresponds to what the theorist and critical legal studies scholar Brenna Bhandar (via Frank Cunningham) describes as “possessive nationalism” — a “corollary of possessive individualism” in which the “psycho-affective dimensions of the possessive individual, including the desire to possess exclusively and to control one’s possessions absolutely […] are here transmuted to the stage of the nation-state.” In a moment at which cultural politics has risen to its own obscene heights — not just a veil for the outright murderous intent of so many present policies, but truly a direct dog whistle to the fascists — it ought to come as no surprise that the specific surplus available for resignification is the excessive affect gluing itself to the figure of the family (as a figure for the nation more broadly).

Another way of putting this is that, unlike Bloch’s midcentury Europe, we don’t have the surplus libidinal energies of mass communist movement for fascists to usurp, parody, or mimic. Rather, today’s neofascism has a strange, parasitic relation to the affective surplus and the energies of the family. Actually, to be much more specific, it has a strange, parasitic relationship to the energies of the family’s decomposition. For, as the political theorist Nancy Fraser explains in Tithi Bhattacharya’s marvelous new collection on Social Reproduction Theory, the nuclear family has experienced a dramatic disintegration under the pressures of austerity, and as a result of the Reaganite privatization schemes of the 1980s and onward. The “state and corporate disinvestment from social welfare,” she argues, “externaliz[es] care work onto families […] while diminishing their capacity to perform it.” The family, simply speaking, splinters under the weight of what it has to make up for in the retraction of state resources under austerity.

Contemporary neofascism harvests this splintering — this familial decomposition, which, like a collapsing star, emits a chaos of energy as it is vacuumed into oblivion. Note that, here, neofascism isn’t about claiming the moral high ground for itself. Rather, it exults in performing its perversity. I’m not defending the nuclear family from these scavengers. I’m saying that the energies of the family’s decomposition ought to be ours to harvest, to resignify — to kink.

Edifices are shattering, and who knows what new subjectivities and social formations will come of it. This is actually a dialectical statement. John D’Emilio made a not-entirely-unrelated argument about the formation of gay identity in the early part of the 20th century. Changes in the division of labor and the decimation of family farming by the onset of capitalist agriculture, he argued, displaced huge numbers of wageless workers into the cities where, “freed” of family bonds, they found themselves articulating new social subjectivities. [5] The neoliberal and neofascist assault on social welfare programs is a devastation of a newly sadistic order. What will become of us? I don’t know, but I’m saying that fascism tries to usurp everything, including or especially unruliness, and I’m sorry, but no: the supernova of the family’s destruction ought to be ours to redefine.

This — the family, and all its contortions — is a certain kind of hell, no doubt — and, to recall the issue with which I began — a ground that we must not surrender. We queers know the contours of this particular hell so well; we know how to inhale its phantasmagoria air, and — if we are committed to a radical politics that does not seek assimilation so much as transformation — we know how to exhale elements of a different composition.

Like I said, we don’t have to be clean, virtuous, or unmarked by the miseries of capitalist subjectification to engage in this radical unsettling. In fact, it’s better if we aren’t. We’ve been intimate with this hell, and unsurrendering it means not letting go of the terrain of the Law of the Father, but rather mustering our experience with and capacities for its resignification. This is a disposition best encapsulated by Suzanne Césaire’s anti-fascist call for the transformation not only of the sphere of civic life, but also our sensibilities, toward “a permanent readiness for the Marvelous.”

Césaire’s framing of the potentials and necessity of surrealist work is drawn from a life lived in relation to Marxist work and study, but it also marks out something beyond the limits of Marxist analysis. For Marxism can analyze the structure of the commodity-form, but it cannot analyze into existence new desires, new sensibilities. To generate new sensibilities we need other avenues beyond what Marx charted — avenues described with greater precision by Césaire, whose commingling of desire (a “readiness for the Marvelous”) and an “army of negation” calls to my mind José Esteban Muñoz’s still-unsurpassed Cruising Utopia, in which he advocates a return to Bloch as an embrace of “the transformative force of eros and its implicit relationship to political desire.”

Muñoz’s exploration of eros as the hinge between individual and collective desires might be our most exquisite guide to what it would mean to unsurrender an anti-fascist hell, if we can imagine such a thing. This is an eros that does not acquiesce the unconscious and all its monsters, but summons them instead to another dream — one which, as in Miéville’s New Paris, “invades from below.” If this recalls the oft-repeated Marxist injunction toward writing history “from below,” it both is and isn’t. For dreams are neither simply a thesis nor, themselves, the extent of the field of struggle. Rather, dreams and all their ilk (fantasy, literature, language) are a zone of unsurrender. Struggle’s companion and consolation. And consolations — as Muñoz tracked, as Césaire exhorted — don’t have to be gentle. It’s sort of what I mean by the daddy dialectic. I think we are in a struggle not only or even primarily over some moral higher ground, but, it seems, also for the energies of unruliness — the energies, to return to the issue with which we began, of fetishism. Do we have to be reasonable to be righteous? Just as there are many fronts of cruelty, so there are many zones of unsurrender, and there will be many more in the days to come. Those of us who have lived the hell of the American family romance know something about unsurrender, and it is this we have to give to the present as well as the future — the outopos, that roving elsewhen that flickers up still, the verso side of the fossilized moon.


Jordy Rosenberg is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the author of the novel, Confessions of the Fox (forthcoming from Random House’s One World imprint in June 2018), as well as the scholarly monograph, Critical Enthusiasm: Capital Accumulation and the Transformation of Religious Passion (Oxford University Press, 2011). 



[1] And here I’d direct readers to Andrea Long Chu’s powerful recent extrapolation of transness and/as desire.

[2] Here’s the place where my brilliant editor suggested a connection between my earlier point about the denial of the breast and the entry into language/desire. Though as for this connection: I was stumbling cluelessly around it.

[3] I have to acknowledge my Italian-shoed therapist for these insights. He knows who he is, and to him I say: thank you.

[4] Speaking of porousness, the concretization of this point was reached only through conversation with my collaborator, Britt Rusert, who I must credit here.

[5] We are meant to hear an echo, in D’Emilio, of Marx’s argument about the decomposition of the feudal order and the transition to capitalism, in which “[t]he dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former.”

LARB Contributor

Jordy Rosenberg is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the author of the novel, Confessions of the Fox (forthcoming from Random House’s One World imprint in June 2018), as well as the scholarly monograph, Critical Enthusiasm: Capital Accumulation and the Transformation of Religious Passion (Oxford University Press, 2011). His fiction, prose, and scholarship has appeared in The Boston Review’s “Global Dystopias” special issue (edited by Junot Diaz), Avidly, The Common, Salvage Quarterly, Fence, Theory & Event, Radical History Review, and PMLA, among other places.


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