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Mikhail BakuninFor the past century, and in all likelihood for much longer, philosophical theories of radical utopian negativity have had consistent appeal. From the anarchist atheism of (pictured) Mikhail Bakunin's God and the State to the anti-patriarchialism of radical feminists such as Mary Daly or Shulamith Firestone, this mode of critique has remained popular with academics and political radicals throughout the 20th century and, now, into the 21st. The underlying mechanism remains fundamentally the same: the entirety of power relations are understood to be centralized in a single hegemonic structure—be it theism, patriarchy, or reproductive futurism—and upon that structure war is declared. This is the quintessence of all which is radical; as Lee Edelman points out in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, "the means by which specific constituencies attempt to produce a more desirable social order, remains, at its core, conservative insofar as it works to affirm a structure, to authentical social order" (2-3). Radicalism, then, is constituted by an attack on the idea of social structure itself.

It is true, on the other hand, that radically negative philosophies have tended to envision their "structureless" utopias as surprisingly orderly if not ordered. Consciously or unconsciously recognizing the incoherence of these utopian visions, most such theorists either de-emphasized them in favor of focusing on critical attacks against the hegemonic system, or abandonment of them all together in Frankfurt-style pessimism.

One of the newest versions of this familiar pattern is Edelman's particular brand of queer antifuturism. Edelman extends the above insight by noting that conservative politics—which is to say, any politics which seeks to affirm a social structure—inevitably "intends to transmit" that structure "to the future in the form of its inner Child" (3).

By pairing such a critical insight with an ethic of change, it would seem that the radical negativist takes on the eschatological requirement of envisioning a new order. Almost universally, however, the radical negativist manages, or at least to claims to manage (while discarding the similar claims made by all who have come before her), to exclude her own position from overall dialecticality. For Edelman it is Lacanian psychoanalysis which provides for him the possibility of an unmediated position of "truth" outside the structures of power. For Bakunin, natural law served a similar purpose; for feminism, it is the lived experience of real women.

Still, few such theorists are able to put forward a compelling positive ethic; at most such a theory can only be what Jana Sawicki, in discussing French theorist Michel Foucault in her book Disciplining Foucault, calls “anti-theory”: “not a theory, but an instrument for criticizing theories” (53). Unable to tell us how we should live our lives, they are only able to tell us, with a Frankfurt school pessimism, what is bad about the way we do. Such insights comprise the bedrock of what is often called, appropriately enough, "critical theory," and lend themselves to the practice of literary criticism—but in a manner which is easily caricatured: fundamentally, the conventional moral order of a fictional world is simply turned upside-down. Evil witches become messianic agents of resistance (as in this post on the queerness of Disney villains), while wise wizards are no longer friendly mentors but indoctrinators of the hegemonic social order.

This is critical theory at its purest, but also at its least interesting. Critical theory is most useful when it finds what are commonly called "slippages": moments when the hegemonic discourse under attack falters and, in that faltering, things can be seen as they (it is argued) truly are. We see that what at first seem to be inversions really aren't; that the text in spite of itself has provided us with, for example, a construction of villany fashioned out of precisely that thing which we fear the most: the truth.
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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