What is negative feminism and anti-social queer theory? My fragmentary answer: it is a queer critique that aims to decenter positivity, productivity, redemptive politics of affirmation, narratives of success, and politics that are founded on hope for an imagined future. It’s rude politics and has no interest in being polite. It embraces masochism, anti-production, self-destructiveness, abjection, forgetfulness, radical passivity, aggressive negation, unintelligibility, negativity, punk pugilism, and anti-social attitudes as a form of resistance to liberal feminist and gay politics of cohesion. It’s about not-becoming because the notion of becoming is perceived as following the capitalist logic of production and models of success that are often tied up with colonialism. It asks, why the fuck should queers be nice? And asserts that politeness is heteronormative and we should embrace our utter failure at functioning within a colonialist, heteronormative, capitalist, racist, sexist and transphobic framework. Jack “Judith” Halberstam is an academic who has probably articulated this theory most lately. I want to talk about his theories and raise some pressing questions and criticisms of his controversial ideas in the context of my limited conversations with him. This essay is largely based on Jack’s article, The Anti-Social Turn in Queer Studies (pdf).
Driving in a car with Jack, my roommate Matthew and his partner JD. We have excited conversation about everything from bats to drag. Jack is rushed to get to get to the airport but is incredibly calm, easy going, and undemanding even though there’s no time for the promised dinner with the college’s budget. JD is a Buddhist enthusiast, eager to discuss this inspiring interest of his. In the car he mentions how much happier his is since coming to Buddhism, how it has transformed his thinking and allowed him to think lovingly of strangers, even the little buggers with their giant carts of shit standing in front of you in line at the grocery store. Now Jack is some whose recent work revolves around the heteronormativity of politics of hope and the imperialism of happiness. Jack adds, “But why would I want to think lovingly of everyone? Maybe there are people out there that are truly undeserving of my love.” The comments JD made sparked a fascinating discussion emotional dynamicness and the value of positive feelings, giving me a glimpse of the place from which Jack’s theories of queer failure and negative feminism come from. We questioned why there is a tendency to privilege certain “positive” or “good” feelings and examined the impulse to flatten or repress the full spectrum of affective responses.
For me, the (anti)politics of negation discussed by Jack arise from a queer resistance to emotional flatness and the privileging of feeling good to feeling like shit. It’s about challenging the productive and rationalist logic of capitalism that makes you feel insane if you can’t function within its framework. It’s about thinking through how emotion informs how we approach politics and how privileging an approach that only values positive feelings erases and denies the position of people who refuse to or simple just can’t feel happy about participating in such a shitty context. People who are angry or depressed as fuck and seek self-annihilation because the world demands our unity.
So where does radical negation get us? Jack’s borrowed mantra, no future, rejects such temporal considerations. But most of us out there probably still care about the viability specific political strategies. While I was at Ida, I got into a discussion with two people who were critical of Jack’s negative feminism and anti-social queer theory. They raise some good criticisms that I am trying to think through here.
It was a few months ago when I brought Jack to New College to give a lecture. I was working as the Gender and Diversity Center Program Coordinator and got to spend some time with writers and intellectuals like bell hooks and Eileen Myles. At the time I was most familiar with Jack’s work on trans men, queer temporalities and subcultures, and female masculinity; but was wholly fascinated by his lecture on the queer art of failure. It seemed relevant given that lately, in the radical queer community, there seems to be a point of contention between those who adhere to a politics of community and affirmation and those who adhere to a politics of cynicism.
But of course it’s not that simple, and maybe it’s more accurate to say that some approach politics with an attitude of constructiveness and other approach it with an attitude of destructiveness. Jack is trying to explore the destructive side of things; particularly a disorganized and unintelligible form of self-destructiveness and masochism as a form of resistance. But unlike the nihilistic posturing of those that are too-queer-for-everything, Jack is not interested in an a purely aestheticized attitude, nor is he necessarily all critique. What we get is still a strategy, albeit an anti-rational and anti-organizational one. While Jack’s theories are somewhat nihilistic, it dissociates itself from nihilism’s historical complacency with sexism. He writes that he would rather “turn to a history of alternatives, contemporary moments of alternative political struggle and high and low cultural productions of a funky, nasty, over the top and thoroughly accessible queer negativity.”
So I wouldn’t say that Jack’s theories don’t advocate doing nothing, rather, doing something through a refusal to do anything, a radical form of passivity. Similar, Jack notes that, “Negativity might well constitute an anti-politics but it should not register as apolitical.” A passive consumer who watches TV all day and drives an SUV to work wouldn’t be the same as, say, the narrator of Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of my Mother, who refuses to be happy or do anything because she rejects the impetus to participate while she is forced to exist under colonialism. Jack writes that, “She opposes colonial rule precisely by refusing to accommodate herself to it or to be responsible for reproducing it in any way. Thus the autobiographical becomes an unwriting, an undoing, an unraveling of self.” While the narrator is resistant to the logic of production and participation, the strategy is—in a roundabout kind of way—a perverse form of productivity.
Criticism of the Negative Turn
One major critique is that it invalidates and delegitimizes the work of people who are committed to queer struggle that is not anti-social, negative, anti-communitarian, or anti-identitarian in character. Constructive, affirmative and restorative forms of political engagement are portrayed as decidedly unqueer. When Jack tosses memory out in favor of forgetfulness, Bea, a person I met at Ida who studies history, rightfully asks, what the fuck? People who adopt an attitude of queer cynicism often shit on and belittle the efforts of people carrying out any constructive project. But Jack is critical of this types of cynicism when he describes the “archive of feelings” (Ann Cvetkovich) that characterizes much (gay) anti-social theory. The affective response in the archive consists of “fatigue, ennui, boredom, indifference, ironic distancing, indirectness, arch dismissal, insincerity and camp,” but he notes the limitations of this repertoire and favors a more dynamic set of emotions including “rage, rudeness, anger, spite, impatience, intensity, mania, sincerity, earnestness, over-investment, incivility, brutal honesty and so on.”
While the problem with any constructive project is that it will always be problematic in one way or another, it is still valuable to carry out an imperfect project rather than to recoil with frustration over the impossibility of getting everything right. There is no way to be fully outside the context that we are at odds with, no way to overcome the limitations of language, no way to easily undo all our internalized responses. When I spent time with former BLA and Black Panther Party member Ahanti Alston, he emphasized a process-oriented, experimental form of action where you act without necessarily having all the details worked out. Because you can’t let yourself get trapped in inactivity and you will figure out more as you go. It’s a hell of a lot easier to perform these exercises in pure critique than it is to actually engage something in an active way. But like I said earlier, I don’t think Jack is all critique because he is offering an alternative strategy, whether we agree with its validity or not.
A lot of the criticism raised in this brief conversation made me question and think through why I was initially so receptive and open to Jack’s ideas. For one, I encountered the ideas in the context of meeting Jack—who is an extremely thoughtful, energetic, and engaging scholar, not to mention a sweet person overall. But more importantly, Jack’s idea’s spoke to me on this different level—they were so visceral, so much about affectivities and affectivities in relation to the formation of politics. I have always kind of separated the two—the political ‘self’ and the self-destructive, over-feeling and dysfunctional ‘self’—because I felt that the two could not be reconciled, because politics seemed to demand a certain level of functionality and affective distance. Jack spoke of self-destructive behavior as a valid emotional response to the world we are confronted with. And maybe through my feminism I have internalized the idea that masochism and depression are things to be overcome, things that mark you as weak. Masochism, cutting, self-annihilation and so forth seem incompatible with feminism because they might be viewed as forms of self-punishment that arise from internalized sexism, misogyny, and of hatred for one’s status as woman. But maybe the self-destructive impulse arises when we realize that we are at odds with the system that surrounds us, when we realize that participation would mean symbolic death and we are fashioning a new kind of refusal.
Marina Abramovic, Nude with a Skeleton
In a blog post titled The Artist Is Object – Marina Abramovic at MOMA, Jack uses the term “shadow feminism” to describe this feminist re-conception of masochism and the shattering of self through pain. He writes:
In this genre, we find no “feminist subject” but only un-subjects who cannot speak, who refuse to speak; subjects who unravel, who refuse to cohere; subjects who refuse “being” where being has already been defined in terms of a self-activating, self-knowing, liberal subject. We find a feminism that stages a refusal to become woman and that locates this refusal deep in the heart of masochistic pain/pleasure dynamics?
Yoko Ono, Cut Piece (1964)
In his discussion of feminist performance art, Jack also discusses the masochistic and passive performance pieces of Yoko Ono’ 9 min “Cut Piece.” Jack is interested in exploring the negativity territory often associated with femininity.
But this notion of feminine negativity is really nothing new, and I think Jack does not acknowledge the debt he owes to French feminism. Decades ago Xavier Gauthier wrote,
And then, blank pages, gaps, borders, spaces and silence, holes in discourse: these women emphasize the aspect of feminine writing which is the most difficult to verbalize because it becomes compromised, rationalized, masculinized as it explains itself….If the reader feels a bit disoriented in this new space, one which is obscure and silent, it proves, perhaps, that it is a woman’s space.
In my thesis on race, gender, and the practice of writing, I consider the appropriation of silences as a rhetorical strategies that disrupts the masculinist system of meaning. This perspective views silence itself as a rupture, as resistance to a system of signs that values presence and occupation over gaps and absences. The view of woman as non-subject can also be traced back to Jacques Lacan, who asserted that women occupy a state of non-being because they are merely a lack—a negative sign. The territory of femininity is marked by irrationality, madness, and silence because women are seen as fundamentally alienated by a phallocentric system of signification. But ultimately, I did not buy into this deterministic view and tended to side more with the approach of writers like Helene Cixous, who rejected death, the authority of the phallus, and the view of woman-as-castrated in favor of “limitless life.” And Audre Lorde, who—in an essay titled “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” wrote:
I was going to die, if not sooner than later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.
Ultimately, I find that a purely oppositional or negative politics has major limitations, no matter how radical. Negative feminism and queer theory challenges the idea that participation is the only option. But it doesn’t acknowledge that negative politics is still inscribed within the same framework. Negation isn’t a form of escape. It can make you even more limited by the structure that surrounds you because it promotes an approach that is defined exclusively by the structure, can only think in a way that is reactive. This can make you even more stuck than if you were drawing on your context as a point of departure for constructing alternatives.
The issue, for me, does not come down to hope vs. cynicism, but figuring out how we can resist the tendency to normalize from the position of a privileged affective response or attitude. This means challenging the hegemony of happiness, which invalidates people who are too crazy or angry or fucked up by the world to function or participate in a polite way. With that said, I am not wholeheartedly for feminist and queer negativity as a singular perspective. I am interested in the mingling of destruction and construction—concurrent undoing and doing—and building my politics on spontaneity, dynamicness and an understanding of subjectivity as extremely volatile in order to account for radical emotional instability. Because our affective responses are in flux, shifting our outlooks and we should be able to utilize a range of attitudes and approaches. I’m wondering if it’s okay if I’m sometimes full of a whole lot of negativity and hope, wondering why we think of things as mutually exclusive or why it sometimes seems so hard for us to think of things as multiple.