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  • Psychoanalysis's Tragedy
  • Kent L. Brintnall (bio)

What is the place of the tragic in queer theory? Has queer theory ever given tragedy a place at the table, alongside performative resignifications, micro-resistances, and novel corporeal economies? And what would a politics that embraces the tragic fully and forthrightly look like?

While arguing that queer theory has never given Michel Foucault's History of Madness its proper place, and that this failure has prevented it from recognizing the arranged marriage between Freud and Foucault as both theoretically unsound and politically disastrous, Lynne Huffer frequently invokes the tragic dimensions of subjectivity, contending they are central to Madness as well as to the ethics of eros she develops in conversation with that massive—and, as she demonstrates, massively important—tome (Huffer 2010). But possibility rather than constraint characterizes Huffer's ethical project. In her 2013 collection of essays, Are the Lips a Grave? A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex, Huffer describes the "dual burden of ethics" as, first, acknowledging harms and, second, elaborating alternatives (21, 31). In fact, for Huffer, it is the longing to remediate harm—which implies the capacity to do so—that makes her project feminist. The project's burden, Huffer argues, is best borne by a method grounded in the archive. Through a practice of listening that includes both "faithful attention" and "curiosity as care," Huffer's Foucauldian-inspired ethics of eros bears witness to the destructive force of various regimes of normalizing power in both the presences and absences of the archive and, as importantly, traces the historical formation of these catastrophic forms, enabling the recognition that they are contingent, rather than necessary (Huffer 2010, 118–19, 248–49; see also Huffer 2016c, 105, 107, 110). By reminding us of the vagaries of the past, the archive instructs us that the present could have been different, alerting us to the fact that the future is a site of possibility that could bear the name of freedom. The "critical reflection" that defines an ethics of eros "will allow us to practice a different living through an art of ethical self-transformation" (Huffer 2010, 264). This "idea that the subject can … change is, of course, politically important" (263). The archive bears the dual burden of an ethics of eros by both "warn[ing] [End Page 156] us about the ongoing dangers of (big 'E') Enlightenment subjectification and, at the same time, impel[ling] us to change" (Huffer 2013b, 452). Even if we are unable to escape the grasp of our historical moment, by understanding that it is a historical moment—rather than some inevitable expression of a natural order—we gain the space to breathe.

But what if there are no alternatives to some of the harms that we suffer—or inflict? What if some injuries are simply the consequence of being the kind of being that we are? Huffer's challenge to an uncritical amalgamation of psychoanalytic modes of analysis with Foucauldian-inspired critique highlights the significance of grappling with these questions.1 For reasons I will detail, the differences between Freud and Foucault are best articulated not in the terms of interiority or mastery, but rather in terms of universality and contingency. By turning to the archive and insisting on the critical potential of retraversing history, Huffer's erotic ethics foregrounds possibility rather than struggling with limitation. While I find Huffer's account insufficiently tragic, by focusing attention on contingency and constraint, it can help us approach some oft-rehearsed disagreements in queer theory in different and more generative ways.

Recently, Huffer has clarified that the casualty of queer theory's Freudo-Foucauldian "bricolage … is history" (2016a, 13). Acknowledging that the queer negativity found in the work of Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman might do something similar to the desubjectivation she finds in Foucault, Huffer insists that at least one distinction between a psychoanalytically inspired shattering of the self and an archivally grounded undoing of the subject is that the latter takes seriously history and the social world (2016a, 12–14; 2013a, 46–47; 2011, 241–42). Psychoanalysis, with its universal, ahistorical narratives, can never, according to Huffer, help us understand why particular forms of...


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