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No future Queer Theory and the Death Drive
By Lee Edelman
Duke University Press
Chapter One 1. THE FUTURE IS KID STUFF
In the spring of 1997, before the right-wing assault on his presidency succeeded in drawing real blood at last, Bill Clinton was the subject of a minor but nonetheless telling political controversy. His appearance beside his wife and daughter in a series of public service announcements sponsored by the Ad Council, a nonprofit organization, "raise[d] questions," according to the New York Times, "about where politics stops and where public service begins." Such questions, for those who raised them at least, reflected a concern that his widespread depiction in a series of print ads and video spots in support of a group that identified itself as the Coalition for America's Children might bolster the President's popularity with voters by showing his commitment to a set of values widely thought of as extrapolitical: values that center on the family, to be sure, but that focus on the protection of children. By showing the President, in the words of the Times, as "a concerned, hard-working parent"-as one committed to the well-being of those least able to care for themselves, and specifically as "the defender of children, on issues like education and drugs"-these public service announcements seemed likely to heighten his moral stature and, with it, his standing with the American electorate, orso feared Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant. "This is the father picture," he complained in the pages of the Times, "this is the daddy bear, this is the head of the political household. There's nothing that helps him more."
But what helped him most in these public appeals on behalf of America's children was the social consensus that such an appeal is impossible to refuse. Indeed, though these public service announcements concluded with the sort of rhetorical flourish associated with hard-fought political campaigns ("We're fighting for the children. Whose side are you on?"), that rhetoric was intended to avow that this issue, like an ideological Mobius strip, only permitted one side. Such "self-evident" one-sidedness- the affirmation of a value so unquestioned, because so obviously unquestionable, as that of the Child whose innocence solicits our defense-is precisely, of course, what distinguishes public service announcements from the partisan discourse of political argumentation. But it is also, I suggest, what makes such announcements so oppressively political- political not in the partisan terms implied by the media consultant, but political in a far more insidious way: political insofar as the fantasy subtending the image of the Child invariably shapes the logic within which the political itself must be thought. That logic compels us, to the extent that we would register as politically responsible, to submit to the framing of political debate-and, indeed, of the political field-as defined by the terms of what this book describes as reproductive futurism: terms that impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance to this organizing principle of communal relations.
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. The ups and downs of political fortune may measure the social order's pulse, but queerness, by contrast, figures, outside and beyond its political symptoms, the place of the social order's death drive: a place, to be sure, of abjection expressed in the stigma, sometimes fatal, that follows from reading that figure literally, and hence a place from which liberal politics strives-and strives quite reasonably, given its unlimited faith in reason-to disassociate the queer. More radically, though, as I argue here, queerness attains its ethical value precisely insofar as it accedes to that place, accepting its figural status as resistance to the viability of the social while insisting on the inextricability of such resistance from every social structure.
To make such a claim I examine in this book the pervasive invocation of the Child as the emblem of futurity's unquestioned value and propose against it the impossible project of a queer oppositionality that would oppose itself to the structural determinants of politics as such, which is also to say, that would oppose itself to the logic of opposition. This paradoxical formulation suggests a refusal-the appropriately perverse refusal that characterizes queer theory-of every substantialization of identity, which is always oppositionally defined, and, by extension, of history as linear narrative (the poor man's teleology) in which meaning succeeds in revealing itself-as itself-through time. Far from partaking of this narrative movement toward a viable political future, far from perpetuating the fantasy of meaning's eventual realization, the queer comes to figure the bar to every realization of futurity, the resistance, internal to the social, to every social structure or form.
Rather than rejecting, with liberal discourse, this ascription of negativity to the queer, we might, as I argue, do better to consider accepting and even embracing it. Not in the hope of forging there by some more perfect social order-such a hope, after all, would only reproduce the constraining mandate of futurism, just as any such order would equally occasion the negativity of the queer-but rather to refuse the insistence of hope itself as affirmation, which is always affirmation of an order whose refusal will register as unthinkable, irresponsible, inhumane. And the trump card of affirmation? Always the question: If not this, what? Always the demand to translate the insistence, the pulsive force, of negativity into some determinate stance or "position" whose determination would thus negate it: always the imperative to immure it in some stable and positive form. 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. Abjuring fidelity to a futurism that's always purchased at our expense, though bound, as Symbolic subjects consigned to figure the Symbolic's undoing, to the necessary contradiction of trying to turn its intelligibility against itself, we might rather, figuratively, cast our vote for "none of the above," for the primacy of a constant no in response to the law of the Symbolic, which would echo that law's foundational act, its self constituting negation. The structuring optimism of politics to which the order of meaning commits us, installing as it does the perpetual hope of reaching meaning through signification, is always, I would argue, a negation of this primal, constitutive, and negative act. And the various positivities produced in its wake by the logic of political hope depend on the mathematical illusion that negated negations might somehow escape, and not redouble, such negativity. My polemic thus stakes its fortunes on a truly hopeless wager: that taking the Symbolic's negativity to the very letter of the law, that attending to the persistence of something internal to reason that reason refuses, that turning the force of queerness against all subjects, however queer, can afford an access to the jouissance that at once defines and negates us. Or better: can expose the constancy, the inescapability, of such access to jouissance in the social order itself, even if that order can access its constant access to jouissance only in the process of abjecting that constancy of access onto the queer.
In contrast to what Theodor Adorno describes as the "grimness with which a man clings to himself, as to the immediately sure and substantial," the queerness of which I speak would deliberately sever us from ourselves, from the assurance, that is, of knowing ourselves and hence of 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. I connect this something better with Lacan's characterization of what he calls "truth," where truth does not assure happiness, or even, as Lacan makes clear, the good. Instead, it names only the insistent particularity of the subject, impossible fully to articulate and "tend[ing] toward the real." Lacan, therefore, can write of this truth:
The quality that best characterizes it is that of being the true Wunsch, which was at the origin of an aberrant or atypical behavior. We encounter this Wunsch with its particular, irreducible character as a modification that presupposes no other form of normalization than that of an experience of pleasure or of pain, but of a final experience from whence it springs and is subsequently preserved in the depths of the subject in an irreducible form. The Wunsch does not have the character of a universal law but, on the contrary, of the most particular of laws-even if it is universal that this particularity is to be found in every human being.
Truth, like queerness, irreducibly linked to the "aberrant or atypical," to what chafes against "normalization," finds its value not in a good susceptible to generalization, but only in the stubborn particularity that voids every notion of a general good. The embrace of queer negativity, then, can have no justification if justification requires it to reinforce some positive social value; its value, instead, resides in its challenge to value as defined by the social, and thus in its radical challenge to the very value of the social itself.
For by figuring a refusal of the coercive belief in the paramount value of futurity, while refusing as well any backdoor hope for dialectical access to meaning, the queer dispossesses the social order of the ground on which it rests: a faith in the consistent reality of the social-and by extension, of the social subject; a faith that politics, whether of the left or of the right, implicitly affirms. Divesting such politics of its thematic trappings, bracketing the particularity of its various proposals for social organization, the queer insists that politics is always a politics of the signifier, or even of what Lacan will often refer to as "the letter." It serves to shore up a reality always unmoored by signification and lacking any guarantee. To say as much is not, of course, to deny the experiential violence that frequently troubles social reality or the apparent consistency with which it bears-and thereby bears down on-us all. It is, rather, to suggest that queerness exposes the obliquity of our relation to what we experience in and as social reality, alerting us to the fantasies structurally necessary in order to sustain it and engaging those fantasies through the figural logics, the linguistic structures, that shape them. If it aims effectively to intervene in the reproduction of such a reality-an intervention that may well take the form of figuring that reality's abortion- then queer theory must always insist on its connection to the vicissitudes of the sign, to the tension between the signifier's collapse into the letter's cadaverous materiality and its participation in a system of reference wherein it generates meaning itself. As a particular story, in other words, of why storytelling fails, one that takes both the value and the burden of that failure upon itself, queer theory, as I construe it, marks the "other" side of politics: the "side" where narrative realization and derealization overlap, where the energies of vitalization ceaselessly turn against themselves; the "side" outside all political sides, committed as they are, on every side, to futurism's unquestioned good. The rest of this book attempts to explain the implications of this assertion, but first, let me sketch some connections between politics and the politics of the sign by establishing the psychoanalytic context within which my argument takes shape.
Like the network of signifying relations that forms the Lacanian Symbolic- the register of the speaking subject and the order of the law- politics may function as the framework within which we experience social reality, but only insofar as it compels us to experience that reality in the form of a fantasy: the fantasy, precisely, of form as such, of an order, an organization, that assures the stability of our identities as subjects and the coherence of the Imaginary totalizations through which those identities appear to us in recognizable form. Though the material conditions of human experience may indeed be at stake in the various conflicts by means of which differing political perspectives vie for the power to name, and by naming to shape, our collective reality, the ceaseless conflict of their social visions conceals their common will to install, and to install as reality itself, one libidinally subtended fantasy or another intended to screen out the emptiness that the signifier embeds at the core of the Symbolic. Politics, to put this another way, names the space in which Imaginary relations, relations that hark back to a misrecognition of the self as enjoying some originary access to presence (a presence retroactively posited and therefore lost, one might say, from the start), compete for Symbolic fulfillment, for actualization in the realm of the language to which subjectification subjects us all. Only the mediation of the signifier allows us to articulate those Imaginary relations, though always at the price of introducing the distance that precludes their realization: the distance inherent in the chain of ceaseless deferrals and substitutions to which language as a system of differences necessarily gives birth. The signifier, as alienating and meaningless token of our Symbolic constitution as subjects (as token, that is, of our subjectification through subjection to the prospect of meaning); the signifier, by means of which we always inhabit the order of the Other, the order of a social and linguistic reality articulated from somewhere else; the signifier, which calls us into meaning by seeming to call us to ourselves: this signifier only bestows a sort of promissory identity, one with which we can never succeed in fully coinciding because we, as subjects of the signifier, can only be signifiers ourselves, can only ever aspire to catch up to whatever it is we might signify by closing the gap that divides us and, paradoxically, makes us subjects through that act of division alone. This structural inability of the subject to merge with the self for which it sees itself as a signifier in the eyes of the Other necessitates various strategies designed to suture the subject in the space of meaning where Symbolic and Imaginary overlap. Politics names the social enactment of the subject's attempt to establish the conditions for this impossible consolidation by 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 into the seamlessness of identity at the endpoint of the endless chain of signifiers lived as history.
Excerpted from No future by Lee Edelman Excerpted by permission.
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