Summary by Evan Malater:
Congratulations to Jill Gentile and the Ferenczi Center for their rousing event with Mari Ruti on Queer Theory and Penis Envy! By all indications it was a success. Not only was the hall completely packed but the level of engagement by the audience was impressive. Ruti’s audience seemed composed of many psychoanalysts but also those well versed in critical theory, affect theory and queer theory, not to mention Lacanian and relational theory.
Ruti began with a talk called “The Disenchanted: Queer Negativity and Flourishing.” Here she took aim at what she sees as the tiresome trend in queer theory to valorize abjection, failure and the pulverization of the subject. Ruti is herself a longtime reader of Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze and all the usual suspects but nevertheless her beef is with the absolutely predictable use of supposedly radical theory by privileged subjects who nevertheless seem content to repeat calls for failure and abjection as if they are productive or even interesting when in fact by now she can almost sense to the letter the point at which a writer will make a variation of this theme, usually in the context of attacking the naive sovereign subject of precritical thought or some such maneuver which by now amounts to a tic.
In order to make her point, Ruti used several important queer theory thinkers like Lee Edelman and Jack Halberstam. Edelman’s No Future was the founding moment of this school of abjection. In his book, Edelman posited that the move towards homonormativity was wrong. From his book, “…I wrote that the signifier “gay” understood as a figure for the textuality, the rhetoricity of the sexual…designates the gap or incoherence that every discourse of ‘sexuality’ or ‘sexual identity’ would master.”
Further Edelman went on to connect the queer and the death drive in a move that was apparently fiercely rejected at the time. Ruti later stated that she has defended Edelman in other contexts. Her problem is often not with the original thinker but with the tiresome watering down of the original thinker by imitators. Edelman is well grounded in Lacan but followers tend to positivize his call to embrace the work of the negative and reduce his thought to a demand to not marry, not have kids or to somehow abject their own subjectivity. This is why Ruti criticizes a work like Halberstam’s in which there seems to be an embrace of failure, cutting, unemployment which is again all well and good for a well known elite radical but not so good for an actually unemployed person who cuts herself.
Against this trend, Ruti returns to Marcuse, consults with Lauren Berlant and Affect Theory and poses the question of what could be the affirmative notion of ‘queer flourishing.’ She admits that this is an open question but one that she will have to answer – by May when her work will be completed. Her tendency for now seems to be to highlight the everyday and the quotidian, that which helps you get through the day as opposed to the more heroic focus on the Event in a thinker like Badiou – who she also engages in her other work. The essential work of Fred Moten (see The Uncommons and the new Black and Blur) ended as a model of an affirmation that does not constitute itself on abjection or cliched versions of the destruction of the subject.
Following her talk, Adrienne Harris gave an important bridge between Ruti and psychoanalysis. Her most powerful intervention was to remind us of the unconscious. Various calls for and against failure, abjection, flourishing etc. would initially seem to rely on the classical model of the fully conscious subject who chooses and is not instead chosen by their unconscious complexes. Harris began by way of Wendy Brown. She spoke of the harsh reality that people who are dispossessed rarely turn to the left but often go to the right – contra the Marcuse hopes for radical change. From here she spoke of Althusser and interpellation, the moment when ideology claims you as a subject via a call that you respond to, the policeman’s “hey you” to which you respond, thereby establishing yourself as a subject of the law. Her point here was to highlight the extent to which that interpellation is organized around guilt and shame. There followed reflections that engaged Erving Goffman, Laplanche and Fanon and a harrowing analysis of the death by dragging racial killing in Texas in which the racist killers taunted the police who arrested them “Suck my dick” thereby demonstrating the enormous sexual jouissance that forms the basis for murderous racism from the right.
Next we broke into ‘breakout groups’ throughout the building. Jamieson Webster and myself co-led one and had a very fine conversation that built on Harris’ discussion of shame to ask how indeed psychoanalysis can participate in such shaming. One participant noted how relieved she was to hear Ruti precisely because she locates and opposes an insidious strain of anti-normativizing normativity that makes one ask “am I queer enough?”
All reconvened in the main hall and the breakout group leaders then came to the front of the room to represent the discussions of their groups. I brought in the need to consider the performative irony of queer theory while to some extent staging my own wish to not throw abjection or failure under the bus. “Stand up for abjection!” I said, ironically. Jamieson Webster highlighted the tight dialectic between the abject subject and the neoliberal subject, and Mari’s attempt to look at everyday pleasures that feel ‘enough’ and may be equivalent to Freud’s “common human unhappiness.” Jamieson posed the following question in an attempt to distill this dialectic: “What is the revolutionary potential of quotidien expressions of pleasure that are attempting to get out from under a shame created by a discourse that locates itself too much on the side of the Other?” This question coalesced around a discussion of Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts, in which Nelson tackles a feeling of shame about not being ‘queer’ enough and lands on the ‘normative’ experience of pregnancy, attempting to queer pregnancy and hold onto these contradictory desires. In another break-out group co-led by Orna Shachar, comparisons between abjection and failure were drawn out, in light of considerations of shame and the possibility of an ‘otto-theory,’ as a variant of the recently fashionable genre ‘auto-theory.’ Provoked by this designation, deeming it to be somewhat of a telling misnomer, Jill Gentile asks: “Who is the subject of auto-theory?”
In honor to the demand of neo-liberal productivity, we were granted a lunch hour that was no more than twenty minutes. All that was lacking was to somehow instill in each the notion that if they even considered taking this twenty minutes they would likely fall into poverty and spend the rest of their lives telling their Moodtracker how sad and lonely they were.
Next we returned to a wonderful exchange with David Lichtenstein, Steve Kucheck and Mari around another piece of writing on penis envy. Ruti’s wish to reassert penis envy as the reality of envy in a cultural field that favors the penis later brought mentions of Karen Horney. But Lichtenstein attempted to work out what in Lacan is more than this via the notion of the phallus in the mother’s body, a notion that is related to the similar lodging of the penis in the mother’s body in Klein.
Finally there was a final series of questions and answers. My own intervention here was to suggest a return to consideration of the seemingly old fashioned notion of ‘the cure.’ This point was taken up by various others and surprisingly embraced by most of our panel – though Ruti affirmed that to her the notion of cure still seems quaint and less than apt.
I had some time to meet Mari Ruti afterwards. One thing that is so striking about her is that she has a way of claiming her space and holding her ground in a fierce way, not ceding her positions or apologizing in the face of challenges. This performative aspect seems to arise from her own engagement as an analysand (relational then Lacanian analysis) in conjunction with her intensely productive work of writing.
Lauren Seigel’s Commentary:
Some thoughts and highlights. I loved how Adrienne Harris made the brilliantly apparent point that abjection and failure theorists position failure as a state that we can move towards, when actually failure comes to us, and furthermore, globally, we are there! Hello abjectionists, welcome to failure, you can put the razor blade down and get a job, your work here is done. The point places us in a post-postness that for me ties into the ideas touched on later about multiplicity. If we are living in a failed place, we must rely on other self states to continue to go to work, to theorize, and to show up for Lacanian Acts in the room and at dinner with new friends. We have failed, we are ashamed, we accept lack but we also go shopping at Macy’s.
I also loved Vanessa Place’s interpretation that the penis cures the penis. I still have to hash this out. Are the penis’s holding one another up? I might disagree and pose that desire holds the penis up?
I also was interested by Adrienne’s comment that there is a tendency for one who has failed to turn to the right. I have been working on a paper (or a set of scribbled down notes) on the relationship between Autistic boys and the Alt Right. Most of the Alt Right are made up of Autistic boys on the internet. The whole movement began this way. I wonder how abjection and failure relates to the autistic condition. Is the Alt Right working from a point of moving towards failure or from a point of neo-liberalism having already failed. Anyway, that’s my weird tangent. Any thoughts on autism and the Alt Right?
It seemed to me that the Lacanian and Relational discussion ended in my favorite way these discussions end. That the relational moment of one vulnerable being meeting another can be the Lacanian Act in which a cure can be found. Does that mean the cure of analysis are two penises meeting?
Victoria Malkin’s Commentary:
My non libidinized post is more veered to the question of flourishing and politics, along with the critique of liberal versus neoliberal, and what I tend to feel more and more is the meaninglessness of the term ‘neoliberal’ in debates. Culminating fittingly yesterday in an exchange where
Cornell West called Ta-hanesis Coates a neoliberal (the new insult du jour in academia it seems), because Coates had been exploring Obama and race in ways the West does not approve of. If you listened to West over the years going after his brother Obama you will not be surprised. “Sad!” as our big dick Trump might say.
I find myself mostly suspicious of revolutionary strivings, although I recognize the longings in me – but I did wonder about the juxtaposition of the liberal and neoliberal that Mari Ruti outlined, where liberal was seen as the demand for inclusion, and therefore as a complicit collusion with the system and where, I think, Mari positioned flourishing outside of this but within the possiblity of the everyday (and perhaps therefore with the poet and the lyrical to some extent) – but within the context of a social democratic system where care, equality, and trust are present or some such thing, as well as a social contract where citizens are valued for being citizens and not consumers or slaves to production lines.
But I wondered about the easy erasure of the so called liberal “revolutionaries”, those who advocate for change by entering the system, demanding rights and integration etc etc. To me, isn’t that the radical act? It has been the demand for equality that has caused a destructive backlash. The desire for marriage, the destablization of the everyday (queers can marry, have children, teach your children, and demand a space to bring your child up gay so to speak thinking of Sedgwick). In this case, this demand itself is revolutionary as the backlash shows. So I find myself unenthralled by the potential revolution of the marginal (abject?) position, a sort of romance of marginality – the abject. Is the abject not the addict, the hysteric and the suicidal who will reproduce their own marginal position and reproduce the power structure as it is? I am more conservative then many here probably, but in general it seems to me that revolution also contains its own destruction, surely we see that in history (and now everyone says but these were not real revolutions). But from left or right they don’t give me much inspiration. And the revolutionaries of today – the religious right or the disenfranchised are not exactly a hopeful bunch.
I also might say that this reminds me of the 2016 political debate where the argument contains an unarticulated question – does change happen through policy or revolution? Well looking at what the GOP is up to, policy is as revolutionary as revolution, and in disguise. And now one might say that policy is within the system and only reproduces the system of power in place but surely that does not have to be. And the danger of resistance is that it just reproduces the system too – in our group I brought up an old ethnography from the Birmingham school of culture studies (where Paul Gilroy and those people were) called Learning the Labor, about who working class kids, all resisting teachers’ discrimination and the structures that controlled them so to speak, and also in the end reaffirming their exclusion and class position – the sort of argment that Bourdieu makes about how we reproduce ourselves through culture, space and everyday practice.
Lisa Stevenson who writes about suicide among the Innuit, or Angela Garcia who writes about addiction and melancholia, both show how affect and symptom, socially produced, leads to destruction of community, and both these writers advocate a politics of care. Perhaps that is where flourishing happens. But also it makes me think how the politics that we might call the most social democratic – and of care – the Scandinavian model – high tax, redistribution and social programs etc., is threatened most recently exactly by the idea that the Other is now present within (the refugees etc) and the politics of care seem to breakdown or be threatened. As such the presence of the Other and its demand within the demos seems much more radical. This brings us back also to the fact that flourishing cannot happen outside of this demand for full participation, participation in the everyday pleasures even.
I think I just wanted to oppose the easy juxtaposition of liberal versus something more radical. And while neoliberal denotes a certain economic shift along with the sense of self governing subjects as opposed to a social contract, liberal always contained the goal of a social contract than allows for flourishing, but how to allow for this when the right has weaponized difference, echoing the deserving and undeserving poor argument but in a much more vitriolic and destructive way. To argue the demand for inclusion means we are being neoliberal subjects, self governing etc. etc., negates psychoanalysis which shows us we are always more then just a neoliberal subject, we are not just the product of discourse or economy.
Finally I wondered, along with Jill Gentile, to what extent autotheory seems to sometimes endanger a dream by its atomization of theory to the subject and thus its easy erasure as a symptom almost (i.e. it’s just her problem, not ours). I don’t know. I love Maggie Nelson, and I love autotheory, but in the same way I love being an analyst while i know it is now enough to change the world around me. Also last night I saw Theatre du Soleil’s production of Helene Cixous’ play “A room in India” at the Park Avenue Armory – perhaps an example of collective work that allows new to emerge out of the old and known vernaculars … in fact its adherence to a collective where difference was juxtaposed seems to allow for amazing meaning to build outside of any individual story.