Democracy’s Future: Philosophy and Queerness as Ways of Death

11 October 2020

The Covid-19 epidemic has me feeling stuck. I’m held in place by confinement, border closures and quarantines, and held in time by the deferral, or cancellation, of the future—a year’s worth of conferences have been struck from the calendar. With no certainty that either the freedom of movement or the orienting structures of the pre-Covid past will return, tomorrow is a blank. The precarity of the present annihilates my ability to make projects for the future.  The emptiness of the future calls into question the projects of my past and present. So much of their apparent meaningfulness depended on an unspoken sense of moving forward in an expansive temporal horizon. A sense that I was building the record of a self who could expect recognition from others. 


The interruption of the patterns of imagined significance through which everyday life had been interpreted is a kind of death—and, for many thinkers, the beginning of serious thinking. In her “Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy” (1970) Hannah Arendt argues that nearly the entire philosophical tradition has been “in love with death” in this sense. Since Plato, she claims, philosophers have encouraged us to withdraw from the realm of ordinary preoccupations into a new kind of life that resembles death: a private, un-social way of living founded on an insight into the nullity of common human endeavor. From the perspective of the social world, in which personal projects are oriented towards achieving recognition and participating in a common future, philosophers are ambient corpses. Arendt defines herself in opposition to this tradition. She suggests that philosophy’s orientation to death makes it a danger to politics in general and to democracy in particular. Democracy, she claims, depends on a temporal pact (a social contract for time) by which the past can be remembered in the future, and through which the future remains open to novel, and therefore memorable, collective action. 


If Arendt is right, then being depressed about Covid is both an invitation to the philosophical life as traditionally understood and a threat to our democracy. This suggestion can be enriched from two streams of thought that are rarely put into dialogue: contemporary queer and affect theory, on the one hand, and Adam Smith’s moral philosophy, on the other. Both approaches make the case for what we might call after Arendt, philosophy as a way of death. The philosophical ‘death-style’, in each account, is explicitly apolitical or anti-political; it is founded on a rejection of the future-oriented fantasies of the multitude. I will conclude by returning to Arendt’s idea of a democratic future founded on “promise” and her own promise that a democratic theory of judgment can overcome the division between philosophy and politics.


Democracy’s Future Requires Fantasy: Lauren Berlant


It may not be self-evident that my empty calendar is a worrisome sign for the future of democracy. But personal experience, I am not alone in insisting, is the stuff of political theory. Our shared life in the political sphere is made of—and makes—the feelings, thoughts and projects that connect us to each other and constitute what Lauren Berlant calls an “affect world.” In her book Cruel Optimism (2011), Berlant tracks how individuals face the breakdown of “conventional good-life fantasies,” such as “upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and lively, durable intimacy.” These were at once motivations and objectives for individual action, principles for self-interpretation, social norms about what a life ought to be and what a person ought to want. They were imagined objects of collective emotional investment. The civic friendship on which the polis depends, in other words, is not only a matter of sharing a common cultural minimum or a commitment to explicit rules of good citizenship, but also about our desiring together.


In Berlant’s analysis, the 2008 economic crisis revealed that “traditional infrastructures for reproducing life” no longer hold. Without stable work patterns, the material basis of many people’s lives has become unpredictable, making it more and more difficult for them to sustain viable fantasies about a normative “good life.” The American dream of home ownership, financial security and starting a family is becoming ever more difficult to realize. Individuals experience this lack of opportunities for “reproducing” as an “impasse.” Berlant’s term for “a time of dithering from which someone or some situation cannot move forward.”


But Cruel Optimism ends on an unexpectedly up-beat note. Drawing on thinkers like David Graeber and Jacques Rancière, Berlant argues that the “experience of democracy” is that of “being in the middle of the bedlam of world-making… a dense sensual activity of performative belonging.” But she notes that this “hope” for getting out of “the impasse of the present” depends on our generating new fantasies about the future to replace the “good-life fantasies” that are breaking down. We need “optimistic projections of a world that is worth our attachment to it.” 


Democracy, Berlant insists, “requires fantasy.” That is to say, it requires not only that there be some ideals and goals to which we might adhere, but also that we, in our own intimacies, sustain imaginative projections about a future at once personal and public. But just when we most need fantasies to enable our “work of undoing a world while making one,” we may be unable to generate them. Berlant warns that people in an impasse are often torn between, on the one hand, their continuing investment in desires and practices that belong to the vanishing past, and, on the other, a depressive incapacity “to have any hope about anything.” Between the lure of familiar (but now misguided) fantasies and the lucidity that renounces fantasy as such, there may be no space for the emergence of the new fantasies that democracy, if it is to have a future, cannot do without. 


Before following Berlant to ask how—or whether—democracy can overcome the present crisis by generating new fantasies of the future, it seems critical to look fantasy over with a more skeptical eye. Berlant suggests that our trouble with fantasy comes from there being, sometimes, a mismatch between the particular fantasies that give coherence, meaning and direction to our lives, and the real conditions necessary for our flourishing. However, it might be the case that fantasy as such is “cruel,” and that the real “good life” is one lived in detachment from, or opposition to, the circuits of fantasy that constitute democracy.


Philosophers and Queers against Fantasies of Futurity: Adam Smith and Lee Edelman


A radical argument against fantasy, the future, and (democratic) politics emerges from what may seem to be an unlikely pairing of texts: Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). In spite of their otherwise unrelated aims and horizons, both provide accounts of human nature in which a faculty of imagination plays an important (but problematic) role in the constitution of subjectivities and societies. Both suggest that human nature includes possibilities for an alternative and superior way of living that is, however, only actualized by a minority, whose members are called “philosophers” or “queers.” 


Smith and Edelman agree with Berlant that psychic life and social order depend on fantasy. For Smith, fantasy is rooted in a force he names “sympathy.” This force is not in fact one by which we ‘feel with’ other people—rather it is a means by which we imagine what we would feel if we were in the situations that we believe other people to be in. Sympathy, however, does not link us to other individuals on a flat plane of equality—it stratifies us in a social hierarchy. Smith argues that we have greater positive identification with the wealthy and powerful. We imagine how happy we would be in their situations and, feeling that vicarious happiness, cannot help but think that they somehow deserve their good fortune. This sympathy with elites leads us to accept inegalitarian political, economic and social structures, even when these are clearly against our own interests. 


Rather than seeking to overturn the hierarchies that dominate us, we aspire to become wealthy and powerful ourselves, again to our detriment. In a passage near the center of Moral Sentiments, Smith offers the example of a “poor man’s son whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition.” This man pursues economic advancement because, misled by sympathy, he “admires the condition of the rich.” He becomes “enchanted with the distant idea” of achieving the same condition for himself, and “labours night and day” to become rich. Whether or not he succeeds is irrelevant to his flourishing, since for Smith wealth does not in fact bring happiness. The pursuit of wealth, however, necessarily brings unhappiness. Ambitious strivers sacrifice leisure, health, friendship, and peace of mind.


The example of the poor man’s son demonstrates that sympathy not only operates in the present subjunctive (allowing us to consider what we would feel and do if we were in some imagined situation) but also orients us to the future. Indeed, it is responsible for the possibility of what Berlant calls “fantasies.” We identify, Smith argues, with projections of our future selves, experience emotions as we imagine those selves, and then pursue life-projects to achieve what we have already virtually experienced. 


People are made unhappy by the illusions of sympathy that lead them to defer to elites and to try to enrich themselves—but, Smith claims, these illusions are the only possible basis for society. They keep the interconnected mechanisms of social subordination and economic progress in order. Considering the ways in which sympathy draws individuals into fantasies that undermine the conditions of their flourishing, he concludes, “it is well that nature imposes on us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.” Our economic life, in short, depends on most people being deluded into thinking that wealth will make them happy; it requires the delusion that they can become wealthy through hard work. Implicit in the very possibility of giving such an account, however, is the notion that some people—not least Smith himself—must have escaped, by some means, “this deception.” Another kind of life must be possible.


Edelman likewise argues that what we experience as “social reality” is dependent on fantasies by which our personal desires contribute to the reproduction of social structures. He posits that individuals are compelled to imagine themselves as potentially happy in some future situation—that is, in some situation they do not in fact occupy. Our life projects are always “operating in the name and in the direction of a constantly anticipated future reality.” That is to say, in Smith’s terms, that we are constantly sympathizing with visions of ourselves. This is not simply an idle exercise of day-dreaming. It is the psychological operation by which we constitute ourselves as subjects who seem to persist over time and as participants in a society that we assume will endure after us.


Fantasy is “the central prop and underlying agency… [that] endows reality with fictional coherence and stability, which seems to guarantee that such reality, the social world in which we take our place, will still survive when we do not.” Identifying with future selves, and then organizing our lives around efforts to become those future selves, we come to take for granted that we are stable, self-directed beings who move through a more-or-less unchanging world towards a chosen destination. We can even imagine, with a sanguine perspective, the persistence of projects like ours in this world after our death, and thus reconcile ourselves to mortality by fantastically identifying with a future in which we no longer exist.


There is a price to pay for this illusion of personal coherence and participation in a stable world. As in Moral Sentiments, the fantasies by which we identify with others, including the other that is our imagined self, maintain the social order while making us miserable. Our fantasies are in a critical sense not our own but rather “social visions” that enroll us in collective projects having little to do with our own flourishing.


Edelman calls “politics” the “social enactment of the subject’s… identifying with something outside itself in order to enter the presence, deferred perpetually, of itself. Politics, that is, names the struggle to effect a fantasmatic order of reality in which the subject’s alienation would vanish.” Society requires “politics” as Edelman describes it. We cannot live together if individuals are not invested in shared projects for the future, which bind them together in the present around common norms and coherent identities. Likewise, for Smith, we cannot do without the pattern of social deference and economic activity that sympathy weaves. Our social order continues to exist because other people pursue self-defeating fantasies of happiness. 


Edelman and Smith argue that our faculty of identifying with imagined selves in illusory states of affairs, however necessary it might be for collective life, makes us personally miserable. However, they offer good news for some, claiming  that a minority of people can pry themselves loose from fantasy. For Smith, this is what “reason and philosophy” allow “philosophers” to do, as I have shown elsewhere. For Edelman, we can abandon our “faith in the consistent reality of the social—and by extension of the social subject” by turning to “queerness.” 


To say that Smith’s “philosophy” is equivalent to Edelman’s “queerness” may seem bizarre. “Philosophy” often refers to a rational mode of intellectual activity, while “queerness” might signal something marginal and abject, a deviant mode of embodiment and desiring. But Smith invites us to think of philosophy otherwise. In the paragraph between his example of the “poor man’s son,” and the paragraph celebrating the “deception” of the “invisible hand,” Smith observes that the “splenetic philosophy” that reveals the vanity of social and economic ambitions, based on the illusions of sympathy, is potentially available to all human beings. But most will experience it only “in time of sickness or low spirits,” banishing its insights as soon as they are well again. Smith finds that when we are depressed or sick, “our imagination… in pain and sorrow seems to be confined in our own persons.” With our sympathy stuck, as it were, to our own bodies and to the present, we are unable to project fantasies about what we might experience in other situations, and we no longer identify with the rich and powerful. Their lives appear, as they truly are, “contemptible.” But most people escape this rational “abstract and philosophical light” as soon as they can. 


Here the philosophical outlook is “abstract” and rational, associated with the activity of the mind that liberates the individual from emotional and social delusions. But it is also bodily, associated with the withdrawal of desire away from the outer world and towards the limits of “our own persons.” Philosophy is, simultaneously, an intellectual process of self-liberation from social norms and an erotic process of recentering pleasure in the self. It’s sounding queerer already!


Like Smith’s philosophy, Edelman’s queerness begins with a bodily-cum-psychic experience of failure and rupture. Using Lacan, Edelman distinguishes between desire, which is attached to the temporality and sociality of fantasy, and the drive, the bio-psychological urges for pleasure that are experienced by subjects as both “alien and internal,” disrupting our coherent image of ourselves. The drive gives us jouissance, which refers both to orgasm and to that “inarticulable surplus that dismantles the subject from within.” While desire allows the self to cohere around the imagined scenario of a future happiness, the drive annihilates these fantasies, returning us to a disorienting encounter with “the real.”


The drive is connected to death, and indeed is a “death drive,” in a number of senses. First, the orgasm, as a suspension of subjectivity, represents a sort of death. Second, the pursuit of pleasure that is intolerable to the ego represents another sort of death, humiliating and abjectifying the subject. It endangers the subject’s attachment to a coherent, desirable self-image. Finally, the drive for Edelman appears as the physical/psychological site from which it is possible to awaken the fatal power of critique, to invest one’s energies in the “negativity opposed to every form of social viability.”


Although orgasm and illness are hardly identical, both Smith and Edelman thus see such ‘limit experiences’ as revealing a strange connection between moments in which we are most insistently our own bodies (in pleasure or displeasure) and a capacity for negative, abstract, critical thinking that frees us from social conventions. The alternative way of life that philosophy or queerness names is at once radically private and corporeal. It is located in the specificity of a body reduced to itself and unable to perform its social functions by a dearth or excess of vital energies, and, at the same time, soaringly universal, appealing to an abstract reason that calls every aspect of collective life into question.


For Smith and Edelman, philosophy and queerness are essential capacities of human beings as such, but they are only capable of being realized by a minority. In Smith’s account, philosophers possess “great and awful” (that is, unsocial) virtues that alienate them from non-philosophers. Thus, “a philosopher is company to a philosopher only.” In Edelman’s account, the human capacity for queerness is imagined in any particular society as the distinct attribute of some oppressed group. This group might happen to be sexual minorities but could in fact be anything. Edelman insists that the political and social assimilation of sexual minorities is a victory for individuals historically identified as “queer” in the modern West, but it does not represent the abolition of “queerness,” since the burden of representing this capacity will be assigned to some other minority.


In a testy footnote, Edelman attempts to refute, but ultimately confirms, charges against him by more politically-committed (i.e., left-wing) queer theorists like José Esteban Muñoz, who argue that Edelman’s ideas amount to an “apolitical” quietism. He performs contempt for his critics’ references to “the bourgeois privilege (variously described, in identitarian terms, as ‘white,’ ‘middle-class,’ ‘academic,’ or most tellingly, ‘gay male’) by which some will allege that my argument is determined.” But indeed, Edelman’s critique of politics and personal identity as self-destructive-but-socially-necessary fantasies clearly has as its consequence that we (that is, some happy few) ought, to the extent possible, escape into an alternative kind of life. 


Queerness, in Edelman’s account, is not only apolitical but anti-political. It shares the ethical and epistemic qualities usually associated with philosophy as a way of life (although not perhaps as a profession in the contemporary academy). Being queer for Edelman means assuming a radical ignorance: “the queerness of which I speak would deliberately sever us from ourselves, from the assurance, that is, of knowing ourselves and hence knowing our ‘good.’ Such queerness proposes, in place of the good, something I want to call ‘better’, though it promises, in more than one sense of the phrase, absolutely nothing.” Beginning with disentanglement from “social visions” of fantastic good lives, queerness means experiencing an uncertainty about what a better good might be, and eschewing politics insofar as politics always means giving up this uncertainty in order to participate in some collective fantasy about a future in which we will be happy.


There is much that could be said about how Edelman’s queerness can be seen as an entrée into the philosophical life—how, for example, someone like Socrates or Diogenes could be understood by these lights as a queer subject (in a sense beyond flirting with boys at parties or pleasuring himself in public). Likewise, there is much more that could be said about the connections between queerness and philosophy as marginal, anti-normative ways of life that begin with rejections of social norms supported by fantasy, imagination, sympathy etc., with the rediscovery of the body, and with a will to death. Yet to conclude, I would like to return to Arendt’s suggestion that philosophy, in its rejection of the common world of futurity and shared imagination, is a kind of death that threatens the survival of democracy.


Towards a Civic Friendship of Generalized Seduction


Both Smith and Edelman accept that the way of life they seek to promote (philosophy or queerness) can only ever be lived out by a minority (who are, implicitly, ethically superior). The majority of people, each seem to assume, will go along unthinkingly attached to the fantasies that lead them to reproduce social structures that make them miserable. The majority, it seems, is unable to recognize the value of a lifestyle that renounces or at least reigns in the imagination. From the perspective of the philosopher or queer, the work of reproducing the present into the future is always being done by someone else. People have children, enforce social norms, identify with future selves and collective values—all quite automatically—driven by the force of fantasy. That a handful of enlightened individuals choose to opt out of this process in no way threatens its functioning, although queers and philosophers, of course, sometimes do find themselves persecuted. Nevertheless, they neither can, nor would, choose to extend to everyone else the liberation from socially-necessary fictions that is their personal distinction. 


But what happens when there’s no future for anyone? Whatever one might say about Smith and Edelman’s perspectives in ordinary circumstances, they hardly seem adequate in our present crisis. Everyone is in the sick, depressed, disoriented and disillusioned position that Smith sees as the point of origin for “splenetic philosophy.” At the risk of speaking for the reader, haven’t we all been depressed this year? Don’t at least some of our old projects seem suddenly pointless? The pandemic, economic collapse, and political turmoil of today strip away our hopes for tomorrow. Forced to reflect on the meagerness of “our own persons,” aren’t we all now philosophers and queers? And isn’t it terrible?


Many of our fantasies are indeed “cruel,” self-defeating and miserable-making in the ways that Smith and Edelman describe. And, as Berlant suggests, many of our old ideas about the “good life” will have to go if we are to survive the present and make a decent future. But if Smith and Edelman are right that imaginative identification with subjunctive situations structures the political and social order, then the apparent erosion of our capacity for fantasy—our inability to project ourselves into a desirable future—in the midst of the current crisis, lived as what Berlant calls an unthinkable “impasse,” threatens us not with a private (and ultimately productive) bafflement from which authentic thinking might begin, but a common descent into chaos. In other words, the self-consciously minoritarian status of Smith’s philosophers or Edelman’s queers becomes untenable as everyone else is thrown into that same position. 


Unfortunately for us, fantasy does not seem to be something that can be generated at will. It requires, as Smith and Berlant insist with different emphases, a certain material basis of physical, psychological and social well-being. In her critique of philosophy as a way of death, however, Arendt argues that the performative power of language can reconnect us in a common imagined future—and, she insists, overcome the traditional separation of philosophy and democracy. This linguistic performance is analyzed in her The Human Condition (1958) as the act of promising, and in her “Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy” (1970) as a kind of seduction in which “one can only ‘woo’ and ‘court.’” In other words, to overcome both the absence of futurity and fantasy in our present impasse, and to survive the sterile conflict between philosophy and the political life of democracy, we must think through the particular set of performances by which people promise and seduce each other. We should consider democracy as a kind of love affair, a marriage of present and future.



Photo Credit: Hani Amir, 3 o’clock, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


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