- Queer Theory's Bad Breakup:Psychoanalysis, Romantic Love, Negativity
"Love: not too sexy, politically conservative, repetitive, domestic, and even a bit dowdy"; that is Ashley T. Shelden, early in her book Unmaking Love: The Contemporary Novel and the Impossibility of Union (4). The judgment is not Shelden's, but a canny summing up of the ways queer theorists have traditionally treated the rhetoric of love, as opposed to the seemingly more intriguing matters of sex and death. Shelden's work thus begins by revisiting a cluster of debates from the late 1990s and 2000s that animated the then-nascent field of queer theory. As graduate students during those years, my student peers and I watched the polemic play out with awe and trepidation; from our notably cheap and distant seats, we understood the conversation to be particularly acrimonious, a bad breakup in a previously collegial field that could be roughly sorted into two ideological camps. In a narrative now so familiar that it remains an expected module in queer theory surveys, these conversations occurred under the absent star of Leo Bersani, who first theorized a somewhat counterintuitive shift in emphasis, away from redemption, unification, or reclamation, and toward a more negative, self-shattering, and antisocial understanding of queer relationality.1 A 2006 PMLA [End Page 296] forum, "The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory," provides a quick encapsulation of the resultant debates. In these pages, Lee Edelman and Jack Halberstam clarified their respective positions and made arguments for queer negativity, refusing to posit the homosexual as a good citizen or affirmative object of heteronormative rationality. Meanwhile, José Esteban Muñoz and Tim Dean argued for the political import of social life and queer community as part of a wider critical hermeneutics based in what Muñoz called the "politics of the here and now."2
As Shelden notes, those conversations fixated on the matter of sex and sexuality, not love. In many cases, romantic love became a bit of a straw man. For Bersani and others, queer negativity most often marks a threat to a heteronormative social order through its failure to reproduce this social world. In the background of these debates, romantic love often appears as a troublingly normative affect associated with cliché and heterosexuality. In this received narrative, love makes subjects whole, coherent, potentially respectable, normative, sexless, or suspiciously universal. Against this critical tradition, Shelden redeploys psychoanalytic discourses of queer negativity from Leo Bersani to Lee Edelman as a way to reinvent how we understand love in the twentieth century. This consideration begins with the language of queer theory but extends into representations of both hetero and homo romantic love. Shelden's work is thus an example of "subject-less critique," wherein the designator "queer" does not necessarily refer to homosexual identity, but to the wider forms of social violence that render some romantic attachments normative and others perverse.3
In turning to these earlier debates, Shelden also reanimates the deconstructive and psychoanalytic theories most closely associated with the antisocial thesis. These engagements tend to emerge in formalist close readings spread across the chapters, usefully covering a range of interlocutors too vast to be easily enumerated here. Most sustained, however, is Shelden's engagement with the [End Page 297] work of Barbara Johnson as a way to demonstrate the coexistence of seemingly antithetical human relations: love and hate, affection and aggression. In the introduction, Shelden focuses on Johnson's essay "Using People: Kant with Winnicott" to present the rhetorical figure "hendiadys," often glossed as a chicken and egg scenario, or the fluctuation between two options that cannot be thought of separately. To express this figuration within the wider matter of romantic attachment, Shelden turns to a canny "mathematical shorthand" (7). First there is the rhetoric of love that is unifying or redemptive, turning two persons into one: "1 + 1 = 1." Against this formula, Shelden argues that the contemporary novel theorizes love as the site of multiplicity, fracture, aggression, or violence.
On a second methodological level, Unmaking Love offers a comparative framework for...