Nihil Futurum: Lee Eldeman, Nina Power, Sinthomosexuality & Cisheterorepronormative Futurism
If the past were to vanish tomorrow, if every human being on the planet were to forget every single event which took place before their birth, it would assuredly be a tragedy. If the future were to vanish, if all prospects of present-extension were to be terminated, it would be a tragedy still greater. To deny the latter is to affirm dissolution. Annihilation. This is best encapsulated by the pithy Darwinian injunction: “Adapt or die.” Or, to quote H.G. Wells, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” It is because of this axiom that we should begin our endeavors by affirming the speculative and prospective; embracing the future rather than running from it. Affirming the still-to-come and the ability of our ingenious wills to mold it like so much sopping clay. Embracing the future means embracing life and embracing life means embracing sex and all that it entails, pleasure, pain, emotional attachment, reciprocity of labor and, crucially, childbirth; the continuation of the line, the continuation of society, the continuation of civilization.
Yet, not everyone is quite so sanguine about the prospects of “the child” and thus, the future. The staunchest response to the affirmation of continuation stem, invariably, from academics mired in the peculiar iridescence of contemporary “queer theory.” The word queer, originally Scottish, is a storied linguistic signifier with a history dating back to 1508, meaning, “strange,” or, “eccentric.” Queer theory1, broadly and briskly, is a variation of critical theory2 which arose in the 1990s out of the intermingling of feminist activism and queer studies. The term was coined by the author and cultural theorist, Teresa de Lauretis3, who would go on to abandon the term and much of the movement only three years after its founding, citing market capture of queer theorists as the principal reason for her withdrawal. One of the defining characteristics of early queer theory thought which still carries over to it’s present iterations is the belief that gender is crucial to being, but ultimately separate from biological sex; that is to say, it is real and operational only at the level of linguistic inscription, rather than at the level of being-as-such. The problem with this approach to gender is that linguistic notions do not just spring forth from the void, but are, themselves, inexorably constrained by biology. Without a body to generate conceptual structures you simply do not have them. Such is axiomatic.
In the 2007 Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, art history researcher, Ger Zielinski writes of the movement, “-queer theory became an attempt to resituate and perhaps resolve the several conceptual and practical impasses in feminist thought on sex, gender, identity and correlated problems in lesbian and gay studies, which until then were understood within the frame of a biological definition of sex.”4
The endeavor of queer theory is to examine, dissect and deconstruct the social norms, customs and beliefs that maintain what it’s proponents see as privileged, and often oppressive, homo-normative and hetero-normative systems of power. This, however, only defines how queer theory came to be and, what it is, as opposed to, who can be in it; that is, who can be queer. The archaeologist and cultural writer, Thomas Dowson wrote, “Queer theory is very definitely not restricted to homosexual men and women, but to any one who feels their position (sexual, intellectual, or cultural) to be marginalized . . . Queering . . . empowers us to think what is often the unthinkable to produce unthoughtof pasts [presents and futures].”5
The process of “queering” does indeed empower, but it also undermines; indeed, that is almost invariably the explicitly stated goal: to undermine and deconstruct. Deconstruction implies a construction to be taken apart and that construct is usually the societal norms in which instances of queering are slated. However, some theorists go even further and look to deconstruct the meta-linguistic and symbolic underpinnings of humanity itself.
One of the most extreme proponents of this process is the writer, scholar and professor of English at Tufts University, Lee Edelman. The subject of queer theory and queering is judiciously tackled in Edelman’s, No Future: Queer Theory & The Death Drive (2004). In one of Edelman’s polemical, opening salvos he cleanly and concisely lays out his project,
“For politics, however radical 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 authenticate social order, which it then intends to transmit to the future in the form of its inner Child. That Child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention. Even proponents of abortion rights, while promoting the freedom of women to control their own bodies through reproductive choice, recurrently frame their political struggle, mirroring their anti-abortion foes, as a ‘fight for our children – for our daughters and our sons,’ and thus as a fight for the future. What, in that case, would it signify not to be ‘fighting for the children?’ How could one take the other ‘side,’ when taking any side at all necessarily constrains one to take the side of, by virtue of taking a side within, a political order that returns to the Child as the image of the future it intends? Impossibly, against all reason, my project stakes its claim to the very space that ‘politics’ makes unthinkable: the space outside the framework within which politics as we know it appears and so outside the conflict of visions that share as their presupposition that the body politic must survive. Indeed, at the heart of my polemical engagement with the cultural text of politics and the politics of cultural texts lies a simple provocation: that queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.”6
Here then we have a reformation of Dowson’s big-tent formulation of underdog queerness; a social project that, instead of embracing the fringes of the body politic, wishes instead to do away with politics-as-such. What gives Edelman’s argument it’s originality (and thus a certain degree of power) is both his understanding of the discontinuity of non-homo-normativity to societal continuation as well as his acknowledgment and fixation upon the centrality of the image of The Child to the totality of the civilizational project. The professor’s summation is correct as the cognitive idealization of The Child is the great filter through which all matters of civilizational import must pass before being enacted and instituted; elseways they’d face invariable dissolution. Novelty has a certain power all its own, it’s force of persuasion sui generis. However, novelty alone cannot constitute a sound political ontology. Edelman runs into trouble immediately when he, of his own accord, notes that his arguments are not rooted in reason (Edelman has noted objection to the western philosophical tradition’s valorization of reason as, in his estimation, it lends itself to systematized violence; such as state sanction warfare and oppression7). He states, quite frankly, that his project is “against all reason,” yet, even if it wasn’t, it would still be in opposition to the idea that the “body politic must survive.” Here then comes the problem; how can Edelman’s project ever come to fruition, baring any of it’s other attributions, if it chooses to utterly turn away, not just from reason, but from the future, that is, from reproduction? How can one win in the contest of societal transformation when one considers reproduction, childbirth and child-rearing a “ponzi scheme?” One cannot. Yet, Edelman goes even further; not only does he dispatch with The Child and The Future (hence the title of his book, No Future), and thus, society itself, he also dispenses with the idea of The Good, noting, “When I argue, then, that we might do well to attempt what is surely impossible – to withdraw our allegiance, however compulsory, from a reality based on the Ponzi scheme of reproductive futurism – I do not intend to propose some ‘good’ that will thereby be assured. To the contrary, I mean to insist that nothing, and certainly not what we call the ‘good,’ can ever have any assurance at all in the order of the Symbolic.”8 This then is a total throwing away of all philosophy for some variant of modified Jungian psychoanalysis (which are methodologically distinctive). The problem with this radical move is that humans clearly cannot operate solely via symbolic injunction alone; symbolism has always been with Man but it has tended to emerged from numinous realms (such as dreams or visions brought about by some extremity of sensation or drug-administration) and can be pragmatically deployed, that is, deployed in a way which actively guides human action, only after one has reasonably ascertained their meaning. If one gives oneself up solely to what we might call The Dream for the purposes of jouissance, then there is no other measure for action outside of enjoyment (particularly, sexual enjoyment or libidinal desire). This then, is a violation of the principals of the very school of thought which informs Edelman’s thought; Horkheimer, for instance notes that a social theory is only sound if it fulfills three criteria: explanatory power, practicability and normativity. That is, (1) the theory must adequately explain something such that the subject(s), (2) have some ability to change the problems which are unearthed via the explanation and, finally, (3) establish clear norms for both continued criticism and correction.9 Edelman fulfills the first criterion, but certainly not the latter two.
Henceforth we have only delved into the first portion of Edelman’s project, one marked wholly by negation and deconstruction. However, Edelman’s projection is not one solely of negation; indeed, the whole reason he wishes to dispense with western philosophy, The Child and The Future is to overturn those symbolic structures which act as a barrier to jouissance.10 Also worthy of mention is that whilst Edelman and his work has frequently been associated with the “anti-social turn”11 in contemporary queer theory, he, himself, never used the term12. Through various dialogues, (such as those with fellow critical theorist, Lauren Berlant13) Edelman seems to offer up implicit repudiations to the rabid anti-social modalities and attitudes which his work frequently espouses (i.e. “Fuck the social order and The Child in whose name we are collectively terrorized-”14). Edelman’s sociability and politesse, then, confuses the more excoriating passages from No Future. For how can one affirm the social yet deny any semblance of a self-perpetuating society? We could suppose that one could affirm immediate socialization but then one would also be affirming The Child, which Edelman resents; thus the whole of the theoretical framework begins to muddy itself in a mire of conceptual and performative contradictions.
Thus, the No Future project is inherently unworkable, Edelman himself notes that “Every attempt to totalize, to construct a universal or closed – idealized – political system will always exclude something and that exclusion will be then the locus of queerness which is why there could be no queer utopia. The queer utopia would, itself, be a space in which queerness was excluded.” Due this performative impotence, all Edelman’s foes have to do is wait him and his queer comrades-in-arms-out; given a sufficient period of time they will simply vanish from the face of the earth and, though their ideas will still persist in hard-copy tomes and flows of digital inscriptions, the animating force which would actually extract and enact the ideas there contained would have passed away unto the great mausoleum of the earth. Without a constructive project, deconstruction is merely impuissant agitation.
1See, Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities.
2Critical-theory is its most specific iteration refers to the emancipatory philosophy of social critique which arose out of the Frankfurt School philosophers, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno.
3Teresa de Lauretis was a distinguished Italian professor emeritus of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
4Ger Zielinski, “Queer Theory,” Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, Vol IIII, 2007.
5T. A. Dowson, Why Queer Archaeology? An Introduction, World Archaeology, 12 (2): 161-5. 2000.
6L. Edelman, No Future, p. 15-16
7L. Edelman: Queer Theory Teaches Us Nothing, Summer School for Sexualities, Culture and Politics; Tufts University lecture, IPAK Centar, 2015.
8L. Edelman, No Future, p. 17
9See, Horkheimer, Between Philosophy and Social Science, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.
10Jouissance is French word, frequently used by Jacques Lacan, meaning, enjoyment of life beyond the pleasure principal.
11A “turn” connotes a general shift in the direction of some aspect of a given philosophical movement. i.e. “the speculative turn” = a move towards spec. realism in a general capacity within those philosophical spheres from whence it sprang.
12See: Interview with Prof Lee Edelman on the State of Queer Theory Today; video interview, Belgrade, 2015.
13See: Sex, or the unbearable, by Lee Edelman and Lauren Berlant, Duke University Press, 2014.
14Edelman, No Future, p.
Ger Zielinski, “Queer Theory,” Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, Vol IIII, 2007.
T. A. Dowson, ‘Why Queer Archaeology? An Introduction,’ World Archaeology, 12 (2): 161-5. 2000.
Noreen Giffney, Denormatizing Queer Theory, SAGE Publications, 2004.
Nina Power, Motherhood in France, Towards a Queer Maternity?
Nina Power, Non-reproductive Futurism, Boarderlands e-journal,Nov. 9, 2009.
Richard McDonald, Back To No-Future: A Critical Analysis of ‘The Future Is Kid’s Stuff’ by Lee Edelmen & ‘Non-reproductive Futurism’ by Nina Power. 2015.
Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2004.
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2011.
L. Edelman, L. Berlant, Sex, or, The Unbearable, Duke University Press, 2014.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Critical Theory, Mar. 8, 2005.