- Lessons from Object Lessons
“Gender” instead of women, “sexuality” instead of only gender, “whiteness” instead of universality, the “transnational” instead of America, “intersectionality” instead of singular identities, “heteronormativity” instead of homosexuality. I cannot imagine not having experienced such critical conceptual breakthroughs during the past twenty-odd years. And yet, in Object Lessons (2012), Robyn Wiegman indexes how deeply normative are the desires that animate these moves. From our identity concepts, we want all the things we have also deconstructed: supercession, intentionality, coherence, completion, a radical avant-garde, untroubled collectivity. And, as Wiegman makes abundantly clear, we want these things for anti-identitarianism also.
Having charted the objects and wishes of Wiegman’s masterful book, the task is not to sit back smugly and declare everything to be properly deconstructed and thereby politically unimpeachable (or impossible), nor is it to leap out into the streets or behind the lecterns with better terminology. Instead, the book’s point is precisely that “what to do” may be the wrong question. Object Lessons challenges its readers to unpeel critique from the assumption that it is coterminous with immediate political efficacy, with the accomplishment of social justice. It has this suspicion of the properly political in common with Lee Edelman’s No Future (2004) but only this: Object Lessons believes in a complex form of futurity.
In other words, the problem that Wiegman’s book makes clearest, and that it reframes, is temporal. The fantasies of transcendence, willed directionality, legibility, formal innovation, and togetherness that traverse our identity knowledges are bound by one overarching fantasy, that of fulfillment—the fulfillment of politics in a concept and of the concept as, itself, a political achievement. But any fantasy of fulfillment, as Martin Hägglund reminds us in his lucid Dying for Time (2012), is a fundamentally temporal one, less about the spatial ideal of full presence that we are used to thinking through deconstruction than a longing [End Page 170] for immortality. And while we may think we desire immortality, our actions often speak of a more fundamental desire: namely, our wish to simply survive in earthly time and on earthly terms. This insight is crucial, and crucial to what I think of as the constructive, as opposed to only the critical, horizon of Object Lessons. In other words, reading Hägglund has made the stakes of Wiegman’s project emerge more fully to me, even as I think Wiegman also offers a way to think about Hägglund’s project in terms of American Left politics: if we understand fulfillment as temporal, we can think about time, and perhaps identity knowledge, otherwise.
Fulfillment suggests immediacy not only as absolute presence, but also as absolute alacrity. Its opposites are, on the one hand, a spatial lack and, on the other, a temporal deferral, but its alternative, survival, is more promising. In diagnosing our dreams of fulfillment, Wiegman offers up a powerful figure for all identity knowledges with her phrase “the desire for gender.”1 Object Lessons, of course, takes up not only the desire for gender, but also the desire for queerness, the desire for anti-imperialism or transnationalism, the desire for post-supremacist whiteness, the desire for intersectionality, the desire for anti-normativity. Read through a Lacanian framework, this phrase “the desire for X” (Wiegman 2012, 91) would signal the lack of being at the heart of gender and any other identity or political stance. But read through Wiegman, the desire for gender, or the desire for so many forms of justice that gender stands in for, is something different. Her project is less to deconstruct gender than to reconstruct political desire.
Wiegman has another felicitous turn of phrase that I think indexes what a desire for X, a desire without lack (and without the concomitant fantasy of fulfillment) and without the equally historically empty notion of endless deferral, might look like: she refers to “telling time.” In part, this move entails understanding how we retroactively construct things as both prior and failed in order to empower the new; this is, of course, how feminism came to be cast as a big drag in relation to queer. But telling time also refers...