- The Ethics of Opting Out by Mari Ruti
An admirable generosity of spirit animates The Ethics of Opting Out, Mari Ruti's intervention into the fractious debates that have raged for the last twenty-five years over psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's relevance to queer theory. Like much recent work, The Ethics of Opting Out draws most heavily from texts written during the middle and later stages of Lacan's career. Stressing the poststructuralist rather than the structuralist Lacan, Ruti outlines his ethical thinking's implications for queer critiques of neoliberalism by emphasizing that Lacan can help queers disentangle our desires from those produced through capitalist commodification. Moreover, she usefully distinguishes between psychical distress resulting from oppression and subjective shattering brought about by embracing the death drive.
The latter mode of subjective destitution has compelled much psychoanalytic queer theory since Lee Edelman's polemical No Future (Duke UP, 2004), which Ruti engages at length. She argues that the ethical act is not permanently self-destructive but rather transformative, that "Lacanian negativity opens to processes of becoming as much as—and perhaps even more than—processes of self-annihilation" (124–25). Centering Lacan's query, "'Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you?,'" Ruti stresses his thinking's ethical dimension and distinguishes herself from other Lacanians by clarifying through the example of Antigone—who defies Creon in her brother's name—that acting in accordance with one's own desire over and against that of the big Other is not inherently anti-relational (Lacan qtd. in Ruti, 45). Moreover, she explains that Lacan's ethics of desire neither absolves us of responsibility "for what we do in the name of this desire," especially insofar as it affects others, nor precludes our cutting off injurious "others" whose "traumatizing relationality" is "suffocating" (81–82). This interpretation of Lacan successfully moves past the impasses that stalled Judith Butler's and Slavoj Žižek's dialogues in the 1990's.
This challenge to Butler's claim that we are unavoidably implicated in our own subjection informs Ruti's critical assessment of Edelman's, Jack Halberstam's, and Jasbir Puar's emphasis on opting out of desires imposed by societal institutions. Ruti's stress on relational aspects of Lacan also allows her to engage work on queer affect by Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, David Eng, Heather Love, and José Esteban Muñoz. Offering a rigorous discussion of their theories' psychical implications, Ruti considers the difference between thinkers who stress "the foundational negativity of human life" and those who explore forms of "context-specific negativity" such as "marginalization, dispossession, exclusion, and abjection" (169–70). Critiquing the unexamined privilege at work in some queer theorists' [End Page 399] embrace of the death drive and others' "hyperbolic rhetoric of bad feelings," Ruti distinguishes between Cvetkovich's and Halberstam's counterproductive rhetorics and the more "constructive" work of Berlant, "Muñoz, Eng, and Love" (9; 194).
The Ethics of Opting Out is especially commendable for its accessible presentation of Lacan, whose arcane vocabulary has caused misunderstandings between specialist and non-specialist queer audiences. Explicitly addressing readers most familiar with Lacan's early and frequently anthologized structuralist texts, Ruti avoids the kind of extensive exegesis that animates books such as Tim Dean's Beyond Sexuality (Chicago, 2000) and provides general background on his later considerations of the drive and jouissance that surface within queer Lacanian work. She also mixes rigorous Lacanian theorizing with concerns that speak to a broad readership, such as taking ownership of one's actions and mitigating the harm of "toxic" relationships (83).
Refreshingly, Ruti presents Lacan's thinking in a way that takes readers beyond the antinomies of psychoanalysis and historicism, Lacan and Foucault, that have prompted polemics over psychoanalysis's usefulness for queer theory. She says "no" to this false impasse and instead identifies points of convergence between Lacan's thinking and that of Foucauldian queer feminist Lynne Huffer. Although Ruti downplays technical differences between Foucault's account of "eros" and Lacan's theory of "desire," she rightfully notes "convergences between Foucault...