It seems my initial trepidation about publicly admitting that I was engaging with queer theory for the first time has borne out at least a little social awkwardness, especially as I tried to work through what I think Lee Edelman’s political psychoanalytic method misses in reaction to his treatment of A Christmas Carol in No Future. Edelman himself doesn’t seem to be the most representative of queer theory either; many writers who contributed to the field following No Future’s publication paid its intellectual force tribute while distancing themselves from his conclusions. Its influence was notable, because it couldn’t be ignored. But the reaction was to run away.
Reading this book from beginning to end, No Future made a brilliant diagnosis of the cause of such nearly-ubiquitous horrifying violence and hostility toward non-hetero sexualities, the queer.* So many moral compasses throughout human societies, though Edelman focusses specifically on the West, place an idealized and pure image of the child in a zone of inviolability. Any indication that one’s life can be complete without taking part in the procreative activity of humanity becomes at least suspect, and at worst a threat. Hence, the concept of the queer as an inherently destructive figure, a force that would undo society and morality because such a way of living is indifferent to reproduction. All this even though reproduction simply continues humanity toward a future that, despite its value, remains obscure and essentially distant.
* For anyone who might say that North America and other generally gay-friendly countries have made progress on this front and that such violence is over-estimated, you make too much of what is ultimately too little. Yes, our continent is focussed on concerns like gay marriage, and we no longer criminalize homosexuality, treat it as a disorder to be cured, or officially answer it with a state-administered death penalty. But Edelman opens his last chapter with an account of Matthew Shepard’s brutal 1998 murder. Most importantly, the public discourse around his death revolved around his mother having lost her son, not a young man having been murdered because of his identity. And I remember a lot of news media reports saying that Shepard had made a pass at the men who killed him, implying that his murder was his own fault. And although violence against queer people continues, few if any of these incidents appear on national news media anymore. So yes, enlightenment.
I am confronted with his argument, and I am impressed. It makes sense, and convinces me that it is at least part of the truth. The fear that those who hold traditional moralities have of deviations from family-centric heterosexuality is an existential terror of creatures who appear indifferent to whether their physical lineage continues. Such a moral perspective would feel horrifyingly threatened by the mere appearance of someone who doesn’t share the concern for humanity’s continuation, someone who is content with the present. In the Lacanian frameworks of his thinking, such a person is not even a person in his own right, but the embodiment of the death drive itself, the joy of self-destruction. This is the core of Edelman’s concept of reproductive futurist morality: the sacredness of procreative coupling and the children it creates determines the good.
|A staple of psychoanalytic political analysis, as I see in|
both Edelman and Slavoj Zizek, is interpreting cultural
products, like Hitchcock's The Birds, as expressions of
self-obscuring social pathologies.
But what unnerves me about Edelman’s thinking is that he doesn’t articulate an alternative to this good. He actually defines queer sexuality as an affront to this good, living articulations of the death drive. No Future carries through his initial statement that radical conservative opponents of queerness having a place in society are right about its nature: to be queer is to be a living social expression of the joy in self-annihilation. Edelman’s own illustrations of the meaning of queerness from the films of Hitchcock show this. Martin Landau’s Leonard from North by Northwest responds to Cary Grant’s pleas to help him save Eva Marie Saint for the sake of their forming a reproductive couple by forcing them to fall off Mount Rushmore. The cultural and social-psychoanalytic meaning of queerness is the embrace of death and the joy in it.
Even worse is his illustration of the meaning of queerness for children themselves: these cultural meanings, which are all but essential in their metaphorical structure, are Hitchcock’s Birds themselves as they mercilessly attack and terrorize small towns and schoolyards. There is no reason for this attack; it is an uncontrollable force of nature which destroys whatever sees good in the continuation of existence into the future.
I can argue, as I attempted in Sunday’s post, that psychoanalytic political theory, while useful for ideological understanding, is terrible at incorporating the complicating processes of actual historical development into its analyses. None of that complexifying critique will prevent this conclusion that sickens me. Understanding society and ideology with the tools of Lacanian psychoanalysis means accepting its central ordering concepts as dogma. Any opposition to Eros, the productive love that builds an amorphous futurity, is Thanatos, an incarnation of the death drive. Not wanting to develop significations that elide the emptiness of actual existence embraces the destruction of everything. On Edelman’s reading, queer sexualities actually are this destructive force.
And I simply won’t have it. No argument, no critical thoughts, no witty jokes, no conceptual engagement. I understand Edelman’s perspective; it’s very clear in the book. And I don’t want any.
I described at the end of yesterday’s post that psychoanalytic political theory could be useful in the analysis of ideologies. But it shouldn’t be anyone’s only tool. It ignores history as a social phenomenon, but also as individual material singularities — people. In concentrating so much on mapping worldly phenomena and cultural products to its framework of interpretive concepts, figurative meanings become more important than real life. Edelman himself admits that his interpretation is more about what phenomena represent than the phenomena themselves. You can find an amazing story, which is also meaningful, but you discover nothing of the world.