- Losing MelancholiaBetween Object, Fidelity, and Theory
An awkward moment arose during a lecture by a prominent scholar of queer studies addressed to a university audience. His signature book, an encomium of "failure" in the experiential, theoretical, and political registers, was clearly intended less as an academic disquisition on a discrete topic, the trope of failure, than a discursive mobilization toward "queer" possibilities, which arrive precisely as instances of failure.1 This protestant position, coupled with the author's transgender biography, was made to authenticate the event and charge it with affect, producing a boisterous scene rare in academic settings. Still heady from the jubilant address, both the speaker and the audience seemed caught unprepared when the first comment in the Q&A questioned the claim on failure advanced by a "successful" professional before anxious youths aspiring to "make it" in the world. Of interest here is neither the questioner's wish to equate theoretical imagination and perceptual reality, validating the former by the latter, nor the speaker's answer, which, within the confines of the occasion, could only parry this brute distinction. The deeper truth of the anecdote lies in the blind spot of the exchange, namely theory as that which is fissured from within by the very contradiction that gave rise to the discomfiture of the scene. In short, the event was not one of revealing or traversing the gap between theory and reality but of suturing once again the lack in theory as such.2 I would like to extend two aspects of this critical encounter by way of introduction to the discussion to follow.
First, the urge to attack theory for lagging behind or running ahead of reality is familiar. If variously polarized or nuanced, it insists on a clear hierarchy between what can be thought, spoken, or written and [End Page 1] what can only be lived or between what is abstract and what is material. The first target of deconstruction, the shibboleth of poststructuralist theory, had to be this binary. For deconstruction understood not only the melancholic origin of theory as such—what Lacan would call the "precipitation" of the first distinction, that is, theory versus reality—but also the historical situation in which it was to take form as a melancholic undertaking—Derrida's "mourning" that "provides the first chance and the terrible condition of all reading" (Derrida, 220). In short, theory began as a self-reflexivity that inscribed the melancholic structure as already redoubled. In hindsight, however, theory's self-reflexive and as such emancipatory beginning was short-lived.
The recoil, if only unconscious, came in two related registers. The first was its quick nativization, the effort to adapt it to the U.S. context, in which continental philosophy enjoyed only a marginal presence while identity politics grew increasingly ripe for intellectual renovation. This observation is neither to reify the divide between a French original and the American variety nor to dismiss the latter as a vitiation of the former. What should interest us is rather the system of critical thinking that was inaugurated in order to "facilitate" the new thought that was Theory. In this ticklish work of transmission, Judith Butler's contribution cannot be overemphasized. More than any introductory texts on theories and theoreticians, it is Butler's practice in application that turned forbidding ideas into promising methods that have since permeated humanistic rhetoric in the American academy. The second register of this recoil was embedded in arguably one of the most mature manifestations of American theory: the critical investment in "materiality of affect," which Karyn Ball astutely identifies in "affect recovery projects" of the 1990s, inclusive of trauma studies and Walter Benjamin criticism; their fundamental impulse, we might add, continues today as "New Vitalism," among others. If the "longing for the material may derive, in part, from current theories of discourse, signification, and knowledge that have enunciated the contingencies of object constitution itself," we ought to ask: Does this longing heighten or dispel the emancipatory pressure inherent to theory (49)?
Ball's characterization of these mobilizations toward and on behalf of affect as "melancholic" is of particular interest, directly relevant to the second aspect...