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  • Queer Optimism
  • Michael Snediker

“Queer Optimism” argues that queer theory’s attachment to a vocabulary of melancholy, self-shattering, shame, and the death drive precludes a potentially more rigorous and generative understanding of queery theory and of optimism. Through critiques of Butler, Bersani, Sedgwick and Edelman, “Queer Optimism” notes exemplary moments of “queer pessimism,” and insists upon a non-Leibnizian optimistic field temporally located beyond the futural, and solicitous of (rather than allergic to) meticulous, vigorous thought.


While optimism has made cameos in the pages of queer theory, “queer” is not itself readily imaginable as one of optimism’s epithets. More familiar, perhaps, is Lauren Berlant’s and Michael Warner’s invocation of “hegemonic optimism” in their 1998 essay, “Sex in Public” (549). Berlant raises the spectre of “dubious optimism” in her 2001 essay, “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics” (129). The epithets “dubious” and “hegemonic” construe optimism as a tease, a seduction that queer theory might expose—and subsequently if not simultaneously jettison altogether—as that which cozens liberals (queer and non-queer) into complacency, the extensiveness and lure of which would all the more require optimism’s debunking.

In the vernacular, optimism is often imagined epithetically as “premature”: as though if the optimist at hand knew all that she could eventually know, she would retract her optimism altogether. Prematurity would qualify optimism as a temporary state of insufficient information. The phrase “woefully optimistic,” on the other hand, implies that the knowledge that would warrant optimism’s retraction might never arrive. As an epithet, “woefully” (like “hegemonic,” “dubious,” or “premature”) subjects optimism to an outside judgment, the likes of which the optimist in question is presumed unable to make. It is difficult to imagine an optimist, as conventionally understood, denominating her own optimism as woeful or premature. Indeed, the moment at which a person is able to characterize her optimism as such might well mark the moment at which being optimistic cedes, as a position, if not to being pessimistic, then to something like being realistic. (I will return to the idea that being pessimistic potentially is potentially equivalent to being realistic.) The epithets delineated, that is, do not describe optimism so much as impose a diagnosis external to it that would make further characterizations of optimism (and more to the point, attachments to optimism) unnecessary.

For all the lexical and semantic differences between the above epithets (“hegemonic,” for instance, hardly seems synonymous with “premature”), the optimism to which these epithets attach is fundamentally the same. This optimism can describe the utopic energy that motivates counterpublics (along the lines drawn by Michael Warner); or more generally, the liberal nation-state; or cynically, the inane recalcitrances of the Bush administration; or literarily, the pluck of Pollyanna or Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick. I do not seek a new relation (oppositional, proponential) to this optimism. Rather, my essay calls for a revaluation of optimism itself. The particular élan that underwrites utopic optimisms can be traced to Leibniz, and I shall turn later in the essay to the ways Leibnizian optimism crucially differs from that of my own project. Succinctly: utopic optimism—and following, the optimism that crops up both in queer theory and critical theory more generally—is attached, temporally, to a future. Not unrelated to its futural (promissory, parousiac) stakes is its allergic relation to knowledge. For Leibniz, as we shall see, optimism’s attachment to faith would render knowledge superfluous. In current critical thought, optimism’s very sanguinity implies an epistemological deficit. This ostensibly definitional antagonistic relation to knowledge has had the perhaps unsurprising effect of taking optimism out of critical circulation. Queer optimism, oppositely, is not promissory. It doesn’t ask that some future time make good on its own hopes. Rather, queer optimism asks that optimism, embedded in its own immanent present, be interesting. Queer optimism’s interest—its capacity to be interesting, to hold our attention—depends on its emphatic responsiveness to and solicitation of rigorous thinking.

Queer optimism, immanently rather than futurally oriented, does not entail a predisposition in the way that conventional optimism entails predisposition. More simply, it presents a critical field and asks that this field be taken...

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