Negativity and Failure in Thinking about (Queer) Utopias and Dystopias

Dystopias, or negative utopias are the product of utopianism, and in contemporary societies, they are even more widespread than utopias. In his 2016 study Dystopia: A Natural History, Gregory Claeys proposes that utopia and dystopia are twins, the progeny of the same parents, sharing more than it is often supposed (7). As Claeys points out in the same study, the word dystopia is derived from two Greek words, dus and topos, meaning a diseased, bad, faulty, or unfavourable place (4). Therefore, there’s a lot to be said about the value of “negativity”, or the role of “failure” when thinking about utopianism. As these two concepts are theoretically prominent when thinking about queerness in general and queer utopias, perhaps mapping out some of the connections between them, will open some new pathways in thinking about utopias and dystopias, hope and negativity.

Historically, queer sex/sexuality and non-normative genders were more likely to be associated with a failed/arrested development, stasis, and a denial of futurity for anyone belonging to these groups. As Heather Love writes, “same-sex desire is marked by a long history of association with failure, impossibility and loss” (Feeling Backward 21). Similarly, when it comes to temporality, homosexuality’s existence revolves around a paradox: often perceived as a “modern invention” and yet at the same time marking “uncivilized”, “pre-modern” cultures (racialized, colonized by modern, Western Europe). Homosexuality seems entrapped between the past from which it can never be liberated and the promise for the future that never arrives. Therefore, in the last few decades, failure has become an important staple of interest in queer studies. Arguing for the notion of failure as an intrinsic feature of queerness, this scholarship proposes that “failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing are in fact more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure 2). Together with Muñoz’s project on concrete utopianism and educated hope addressed in last week’s reflection, Jack Halberstam’s work on the significance of failure in queer thought, stands out as – in the words of Nishant Shahani – a theoretical mobilization of traditions of critical utopianism.

Muñoz’s thoughts on the role of the negative in re-thinking utopia are perhaps even more clearly expressed in a later collaborative piece with Lisa Duggan on the role of hope and hopelessness in late capitalism (see “Hope and Hopelessness: A Dialogue”). “[H]ope in the present is a projection forward of a wish for repair of the past. Since the past cannot be repaired, hope is a wish for that which never was and cannot be”, they argue (Muñoz and Duggan 275). However, there is an aspect that gives hope a certain edge or imbues hope with the potentiality for a critical utopia. Breaking out of the conundrum of regulated normative compulsory communality and temporality (organized and lived through via institutions such as work, marriage, domesticity), especially in neoliberal environments in late capitalism, requires a streak of what Duggan names “negative energetic force” (280). This force, according to her, as a part of educated hope, can participate in the establishing of concrete utopia, laying the basis for a “sideways step” into political engagement. For Duggan and Muñoz then, hope and hopelessness exist in a dialectical and not oppositional relation, and the movements produced between the two are the basis for developing and maintaining utopias. Similarly, political utopias and dystopias do not stand at the opposite sides of the spectrum, rather, they can be seen as intrinsically connected. When portraying dictatorships or totalitarian states, dystopias represent the lack of civil liberties and democratic patterns, confirming the importance of democratic values, and perhaps, in their most productive form, emphasize the need for utopian investments based on educated hope.

Iva Dimovska

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