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Book Review: Bad Education: Why Queer Theory Teaches Us Nothing

Published onApr 05, 2023
Book Review: Bad Education: Why Queer Theory Teaches Us Nothing

Lee Edelman. Bad Education: Why Queer Theory Teaches Us Nothing. Durham: Duke University Press. 344 Pages.

By seeking to approximate a lacking no-thing to existence, psychoanalysis presents as a radical lesson plan for anti-philosophical pedagogy, but it is queer theoryfor writer, critic, and theorist Lee Edelmanwhich finally disforms this plan into a bad education, a seminar in the queer absent-presence of a Freudian-Lacanian death-drive woven impossibly, ironically, between threads of signification, imagination, and sense. Addressing speech’s limits through an uptake of Jacques Lacan’s challenge of ab-sens (ab-sense) and sens-absexe (ab-sex sense)what is “a priori absented from being” so as to establish “sex as the difference that governs the Symbolic”—Edelman offers, in and through his own acknowledged limitations, a glimpse at the queer nothingness barred so as to actualize the somethingness of a World (xiv).1 Queerness, Edelman insists, is but one name for the incestuous and unthinkable ab-sens that is, according to Lacan, always contorted, via its catachrestic (mis)naming, out of nothingness into the realm of sense. Through this contortion, ab-sens, akin to queerness in its “relatively loose association with any specific identity… its determining indetermination,” is positivized into sens-absexe, even while this positivization remains permanently tainted by a certain queer kernel demarcating the futility of ontological wholeness (xv-xvi, original emphasis). The task of a bad education is to perturb this queer obstinacy, whatever it is or is not, so as to disturb in turn the solidity of meaning, the stability of freedom, and the hallucination of survival.

If the order of sens-absexe persists only alongside the effacement of ab-sens, queer theory must emerge as the survey of a lacking nothing–of that first obsession of Lacan and of Freud before him. The queerness of Edelman’s text is, in effect, necessarily ironic: it “teaches us nothing” by confronting us with gaps and holes, especially those obscured within filmic and literary works as their hidden conditions of possibility (xvii). Edelman’s unique queer theoretical method thus involves the invocation of psychoanalysis alongside a cast of literary and philosophical characters from Shakespeare to Lauren Berlant, Paul de Man, and others, to extract from them fleeting glances at the underbelly of language.

In turning to Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004), Edelman distinguishes his queer pedagogy from any normative (and norming) aesthetic education, or education historically preserved in its reverence to the (re)production of capital’s most cherished figure: the child (52). For Edelman, Almodovar’s film—which depicts several traumatic encounters of two children (and eventual adults) with their predatory Christian school teacher over the course of 30 years—repeats a familiar veneration of the child as the sacred repository of futurity. At odds with this holy figure, and against his customary aesthetic schooling, Edelman appropriates a Pascalian aporia from Paul de Man and discovers a queer zero correlating “with geometry’s nondefinition of its own initial principles and the lack of any demonstrable ground to undergird its logic,” an ironic non-number foundational to mathematical reasoning (55). The mere persistence of the zero for Pascal, like queer ab-sens into the positivizing universe of sens-absexe for Edelman, cries out, despite its real unspeakability, for sublimation into the educative discernibility of a mathematically viable ‘one.’ Ironically, this demand for allegorical legibility is echoed (albeit so faintly as to be always out-of-range) by an obstinacy of the zero that is without meaning: “a radical threat to the one, to the Child, to the good, and so to the future” (56). This echo without form is a bad education which paradoxically interrupts Almodóvar’s stylish cinematic allegory as an inescapable irony, gap, or hole opening in each diegetic violation of youthful innocence, as well as in the frequent textual and promotional affiliations of the film’s child protagonists to the trauma of lack. Aesthetic education, in its effort to negate the drive through allegory, thus cannot not confront the void over which it is permanently suspended; bad education interrupts meaning as queer irony, as an ironic Zero before its catachresis into allegorical One. Out of their unavoidable entanglement then, the limits of one and zero, allegory and irony, being and nonbeing are laid bare; queerness is relegated as an unnamable nothing that cannot itself be seized but that nonetheless, “in moments of traumatic jouissance… seizes us as it seizes Ignacio [in Almodóvar’s film]: from behind,” unexpected and indeterminate (92).

For Edelman, the impossibility of addressing the zero on its own terms, and the relentless desire to turn this zero into a one through catachresis, alludes to the shortcomings of survival as a future-oriented practice of ethical life-making. He writes:

The various catachreses of queerness (a set that is always definitionally open) give queerness a local habitation and a name to defend against this nothingness, to refigure its zero as a one whose subsequent abjection from the collectivity procures the collective itself as a one—a one that survives through such abjection alone and becomes, in effect, their archive (127).

 Rereading Hamlet—Shakespeare’s tragic telling of a young prince’s quest to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle—Edelman recognizes the play as repeating the promise of futurity through Hamlet himself as the archival urn of his Father’s will. Unable to reject the father’s insistence on creation, the endless reproduction of futurity is always-already accepted against the threat of nothingness posed by queerness and/as incest (which Hamlet decries). Incest is the impossible, unthinkable no-thing appearing in the absence of survival; to teach of it, as in a bad education, is to teach of the end of sense or of the end of the world as such. In this vein, the appeal of what Edelman calls the pedag-archival order of sense—an ontological order propped up in the transmission of memory and the insistence upon a community-to-come—is suspended over an unknowable death drive. Constantly alluding to his prior text, No Future, Edelman herein extends his thoughts on reproductive futurity–his assertion as to the anti-futural role of the queer in Western thought and life–by further excavating a Lacanian retort to the metaphysics of worlding asserted within literature and film, and lauded by theorists of deconstruction, affect, and ideology.

In his third chapter, Edelman takes on Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) in order to reaffirm his distinction between aesthetic and bad education. In the film, the vacationing of a bourgeois family to their lakeside estate is deranged by the presence of two uninvited young guests. Reading Haneke in and outside of the textual limits of the film, Edelman mobilizes Funny Games and its outspoken creator so as to pose a significant clarification regarding the fraught irony involved in reproaching the cultural diminishment of visual violence while performing a certain antipathy for the viewer’s gaze. Haneke’s filmic assaults present back to us “the violence [done] to the conceptualization and mastery of reality and to the hope of breaking the bonds that enslave us to the nothing, the void, the pure division that the subject ‘is’” (161). Turning Haneke’s claims about his own film on their heads, Edelman clarifies bad education in the realm of a radical evil which, eschewing coherence, opposes the history of philosophy as a history of meaning-making. He clarifies: “Queerness, like the [radically evil] act, derealizes the constituted order of reality by reducing ‘what is’ to the status of mere imposition or groundless positing. Those read as catachreses of queerness serve to localize its negativity, giving visible form to the menacing force of its radical de-formation” (127).

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs acts as Edelman’s final point of departure, whereby he marks the limitations of political projects focused on collective realization and the actualization of a philosophically normative freedom. Edelman attests to the worldly impossibility of Real freedom which “the subject is incapable of ‘knowing’ since its realization takes place at the level of the drive and not of desire” (173). The catachrestic manipulation of freedom—freedom’s philosophical fantasy—depends on desire’s subordination to reason, pushing “the subject towards ‘the good’ [as reason’s] particular version of enjoyment” and obscuring the death-drive’s queer obstinacy, the hole in language (191, original emphasis). While freedom in the realm of sense always requires a fundamental aversion to jouissance (enjoyment), psychoanalysis approaches a freedom of the drive whereby “the subject is stripped of Imaginary coherence and any claim to aesthetic autonomy, dissolving into the atopia of what ab-sens designates as sex” (195-207). In essence, the freedom to which psychoanalysis attends is rather a terrifying and impossible non-freedom found within the hole of sense, devoid of the promises that the order of sense makes of futurity and being. This is freedom without catachresis or identity, survival or archival transmission, mastery or aesthetic education.

Edelman’s vision of queerness is a deeply unsettling one, and for good reason: as ab-sens, effaced so as to condition existence in the realm of sens-absexe, queerness “signals the death drive’s inseparability from the order of meaning” (128). Discerning the Q in LGBTQ+ as a catachresis of nothing–as something conjured so as to forge the anxiety of symbolic nothingness into the meaning of somethingness–queer theory as clarified in (its) Bad Education, against the grain of most contemporary queer theoretical discourse, embraces the figuration of queerness as a death drive which makes meaning-making possible (in its compulsion to repeat) at the very same moment that it threatens to obliterate all meaning (in its radical evil). This intervention is provocative in its paradoxes; it antagonizes the queer towards a jouissance policed by a desire for the comfort of language and away from the stasis of a queer theory/practice confined to the catachrestic reproduction of identity. Bad Education thus poses a stunning criticism of all that ‘is’ by commanding a radical (re)turn to a deeply radical Lacan. This queer Lacan, who recoils at the conjuring of identities as shrouds thrown hastily over gaps in being, is a bad teacher of ontology’s queer limits, its zeros and anacoluthons.

And yet, in spite of the novel criticism that this work poses of philosophy from queer psychoanalysis’ nowhere, a departing note can be made in attendance to the no-thing which unsettles Edelman’s writing even insofar as he attempts to assimilate it to queer ab-sens: Blackness. His frequent approximation of Blackness to queerness—laid bare most especially within the introduction and coda of his book—is qualified as a result of a supposedly shared erasure from the terrain of ontology.  But unlike the non-Black woman, the non-Black trans* person, or the non-Black queer, ‘the Black’ might be more closely (ir)realized as a (positivizing) catachresis of another (self-given, self-misrecognized) catachresis. Rather than an identity conjured from ab-sens, Blackness, following David Marriott, is more acutely what is not (n’est pas), failing to exceed “the realm of lalangue (the babbling, deciphering speech of jouissance)… [remaining] as little determined in its end as it is in its beginning.”2 If Edelman’s reading of queerness as a misname for ab-sens is to be entertained, it must be so only in the shadow of a Lacanian psychoanalytic discourse which, even in its radical opposition to philosophy, takes as its defining object the necessarily “white language of the unconscious,” and which uncritically repeats a “quasi-racial ontology of mastery” (Marriott, 221-234). We might say that each time Blackness is communicated in Edelmans’s text, it irrupts, eventlessly, as a non-figure whose (in)significance must be routinely nihilated on the knife’s edge that folds ab-sens into sens-absexe. The speech of Blackness is, contra the speech of Edelman’s inexorably-whitened queerness, distinctive in its proleptic deterioration, “where the real says itself,” if only as the “never-spoken”  (Marriott 244-245), the never-heard, the never-repeated.

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