Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Heather Love reviews Bad Education

Lee Edelman. Bad Education: Why Queer Theory Teaches Us Nothing. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2023. 368 pp.

Review by Heather Love

17 November 2023

At the beginning of Bad Education: Why Queer Theory Teaches Us Nothing, Lee Edelman cites Jacques Lacan, who refers to education as “‘l’apprentissage humain,’” or the process of learning how to be human (p. 1). Bad Education rejects this version of education, arguing that humanity and the good it promises require the suppression of the fundamental split underlying being. In place of humanist teaching, Edelman pursues a queer pedagogy that would instead expose this structuring lack. Bad education, according to Edelman, teaches nothing by refusing to pass on positive knowledge but also by pointing to the void that structures subjectivity, representation, and reality itself.

Guided by the spirit of Socratic irony, Edelman expresses radical skepticism about projects of amelioration, whether pedagogical or political. Instead, he indicates the power of psychic drives to undo the social world as it is. As in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), queerness is central to his argument because it refers to the fact that some figures—call them queer—are made to symbolize this lack. In No Future, it was the sinthomosexual—associated if not identified with homosexuality—that served as scapegoat for the threat to the future and the Child.[1] In Bad Education, Edelman further dissociates queerness and gayness, suggesting that queerness is a quality that can attach to any subject made to represent the eruption of the drive beyond the realm of desire and even beyond the human.

Bad Education expands on Edelman’s widely influential claims in No Future, clarifying his framework and answering his critics. Critiques of Edelman’s work have called out its formalism, arguing that he ignored many aspects of social reality, in particular class and racial difference. José Esteban Muñoz and others argued that, in equating the Child with the future, Edelman ignored the foreclosure of the future for many black and brown children. Here, Edelman doubles down on abstraction while engaging deeply with the work of recent Afro-pessimist critics. Refusing the charge that by pitching his argument at the level of structure rather than social reality he has disregarded race, Edelman instead argues that Blackness, like queerness, should be apprehended primarily as structure.

For Edelman the structure in structural racism does not refer to human systems or institutions but to what must be excluded from the human realm of the symbolic in order for it to function. This has little to do with the exclusion of individuals from the social realm, for Edelman understands social identities as “catachreses of nonbeing” (p. xv). Distinguishing between structure and lived experience, Edelman writes that the terms “queerness, Blackness, woman, and trans* . . . never wholly escape their connections to the substantive identities that appear to flesh them out: the queer, the Black, the woman, the trans person, the genderqueer individual. But they exceed these literalizations to name, or misname, that which ‘is’ not” (p. xv).

Edelman argues that his version of queer theory and Afro-pessimism can be linked through their antagonism to the category of the human. It is a question, however, to what extent Afro-pessimist thinkers will recognize the intellectual kinship. On the one hand, there is the fact that, in Frank Wilderson’s words, it is “‘impossible to divide slavery from Blackness’”—that is to say that the historical conditions that determine the antagonism between Blackness and humanity may not be fungible (p. 17). On the other hand, there is the fact that queerness, though semantically open, still comes first in Edelman’s account of ontological exclusion. Queer is the primary name given to the disruptive power of the Real. Edelman addresses this problem directly, citing both the primacy of the sexual in Lacan’s account of psychic life as well as the semiotic openness of the term queer, which is meant to signify multiple forms of exclusion. Edelman makes what is perhaps the most rigorous case to date for that possibility, and yet like all such arguments it is haunted by the charge that its universalism is not one.


[1] See Lee Edelman, “Sinthomosexuality,” No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, N.C., 2004), p. 33–66.