- Stupid Pleasures
We all know that happiness is a form of stupidity. Once The Declaration of Independence promises the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, it's difficult not to think of happiness as a form of indoctrination. Shiny happy people are, first and foremost, unthinking rubes who watch reality TV, shop at outlets, vacation at Disneyworld (or, worse, Las Vegas), and generally enjoy vapid forms of cultural entertainment. Happily engaging in these activities simply proves the lack of capacity for critical reflection. Perhaps this is why academics who have dedicated their lives to criticism have such a difficult time presenting themselves as generally optimistic. Consider how often academics in the humanities convey genuinely good news as a complaint. News about receiving tenure (which rewards scholarly accomplishment with a job for life) is followed by something like, "Now I'm stuck here forever." News about receiving a major fellowship (finally the time to do the work one really wants to do) is followed by, "Now I'm obliged to finish this book." It's as if we have to cast good news within a broader, pessimistic view of the world lest we appear to be happy and, therefore, stupid. Once optimism is unmasked as naïveté, it seems to produce a backlash in which, among the smart set at least, in order to prove oneself as sophisticated and subversive, one has to be generally unhappy and perhaps a little depressed.
It's this dynamic that Michael Snediker seeks to displace for queer studies. How, Snediker asks, can queer theory conceive of optimism as a useful and interesting site for critical investigation? How can one develop a queer understanding of optimism that doesn't simply reinforce its opposite, pessimism? One way into these questions might be to explore the centrality of camp in queer culture, but Snediker doesn't go that route. More ambitiously, his study uses optimism as a conceptual wedge to overturn queer theory as we currently know it. Snediker begins Queer Optimism with the astute observation that optimism is a centrally unthought term among the writing of the most well-known queer theorists of the past twenty or so years. Since its invention in the late 1980s and early 1990s, queer theory (and here, Snediker means theoretical work by Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, Eve Sedgwick, and Lee Edelman) has inadvertently produced a situation in which queer sexuality is equated with melancholia, self-shattering, shame, or the death drive-all negative, destructive, and, for Snediker, essential pessimistic concepts that foreclose analytic engagement with positive affect. Engaging with optimism reverses that situation by putting the question of queer identity back on the table. The generative movement in early queer studies was the critique of identity as the site of psychological and political normalization. Important as that critique was in the early 1990s for reimagining political agency, it also tended to idealize the destabilization of identity and the affirmation of incoherency in oneself. As Snediker puts it,
Dissatisfaction with a given regime of coherence [e.g. heteronormativity] might sponsor a critical commitment to dismantling coherence tout court. Such a dissatisfaction, however, might likewise productively sponsor a reconfiguration of coherence-the cultivation of a vocabulary of coherence that more precisely does justice to the ways in which coherence isn't expansively, unilaterally destructive, reductive, or ideological.(25-6)
Snediker uses queer optimism in order to mobilize the second possibility against the first. At his most ambitious, Snediker asks how a critical investigation of optimism might lead to a new understanding of some fundamental categories: queer desire, queer ontology, and queer representation.
So what exactly is queer optimism? This isn't an easy question to answer, and not just because queering concepts tends to make them difficult to pin down. In his discussions of what queer optimism might be, Snediker is much clearer about what it's not rather than about what it is. Snediker is very careful not to equate queer optimism with the kind of hopefulness that Lee Edelman aggressively dismantles in No Future: Queer Theory...