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The Straight Line: Sexuality, Futurity, and the Politics of Austerity

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 39, Issue 4, December 2013
pp. 21-24 | 10.1353/esc.2013.0046

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After all is said and done, the prospects and promises of heterosexual culture still represent the optimism for optimism, a hope to which people apparently have already pledged consent.

Berlant and Warner

How are the politics of austerity related to particular structures of feeling that are future-oriented and which assume certain measures of progress can function as markers of success and happiness under neoliberalism? How are these measures related to temporal modes of belonging that are generational and heteronormative? And how might these modes of belonging demonstrate the cruel optimism, as Lauren Berlant puts it, with which we attach ourselves to promises of future happiness via institutions and practices that diminish us? Berlant claims, “a relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). It might “involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being” (1). Our relationships to these objects might not even feel like optimism, but according to Berlant all attachments are optimistic in that they move us out of ourselves, offering “a cluster of promises” about what we imagine is possible in the world (23). Our relationships to these objects become cruel when the object/scene that ignites the sense of possibility is the very thing that makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which we are striving (2). For instance, we might hold on to a fantasy of the good life, or the life of upward mobility, job security, and political and social equality, despite overwhelming evidence that liberal-capitalist societies can no longer be counted on to provide opportunities for individuals to make their lives “add up to something” (Berlant 2). We might do this even if it threatens our well being, because to do so gives us a sense of what it means to look forward to living in the world.

The politics of austerity operate through a similar affective structure. Like cruel optimism, austerity is future-oriented and relies on an attachment to a scene impossible to attain. Austerity also relies on a similar temporal structure. In focusing on saving the good life, if not for oneself at least for one’s children, austerity requires a psychic investment in a particular narrative of progress. I want to suggest that this narrative follows a sequence of events—birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage, reproduction, death—that is heteronormative. As Sara Ahmed explains, “for a life to count as a good life, it must return the debt of life by taking on the direction promised as a social good, which means imagining one’s futurity in terms of reaching certain points along a life course” (554). Such points accumulate, “creating the impression of a straight line. To follow such a line might be a way to become straight, by not deviating at any point” (554). To stay on this straight line is also to inhabit a kind of straight time, what Judith Halberstam describes as reproductive, biological, and generational. As Halberstam outlines, in straight time “values, wealth, goods, and morals” are imagined to be “passed through family ties from one generation to the next,” so that the family is tied both “to the historical past of the nation” and “to the future of both familial and national stability” (5). Queer time, on the other hand, is non-normative, what Halberstam describes as those forms of belonging that emerge once “one leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety, and inheritance” (6)—the very keywords of austerity.

I therefore want to suggest that the politics of austerity rely on a temporality that is generational and straight in the way that Ahmed and Halberstam outline and cruel in the manner that Berlant describes. Thinking of austerity in this way might allow us to acknowledge that the rhetoric of austerity forecloses certain desires, orientations, and ways of being. As Ahmed argues, understanding the relationship “between inheritance (the lines that are given as our point of arrival into familial and social space) and...

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