No Future 2: Entrancing Images Whose Truths Can Find No Fact to Prove Them, Research Time, 13/04/2014

Continued from last post. Lee Edelman’s book No Future has a fascinating reading of the wider cultural meaning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that ubiquitous storyline that is more frequently attended every holiday season by more people than go to Church. The story has become such a stereotype that everyone has done some version of it — every mediocre sitcom’s Christmas episode, Bill Murray, the Muppets, Doctor Who.* Edelman considers it, and the sentimentality that it wields for its power, to be an assault on queer sexualities and people, denouncing them as inherently evil and cruel creatures who must be converted to family values.

* The only reason I can think Doctor Who’s version of A Christmas Carol would be exempt from Edelman’s critique of the storyline is that it isn’t a child who saves that story’s Scrooge from his ethical wasteland. Instead, it’s his love for a terminally ill woman, a love that itself has no future, but lives only in its fleeting, indelible experiences. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

As much as I love The Muppets, and the particular beauty
of their production of A Christmas Carol, Robin has always
been so cloyingly sentimental that it drives me mad.
The lynchpin of Edelman’s argument of what A Christmas Carol means in contemporary culture lies in the character of Tiny Tim. Now, what the story means today is distinct from what Dickens himself may have intended in its authorship, but something very important is lost from our understanding when we forget this historical continuity between the conditions and motives of authorship and a work’s contemporary significance. As for Tiny Tim, Dickens renders him with such over-the-top sentimentality that he is less a character in his own right than an injunction and plea for pity in literary form. He’s an entirely abstract plea for love, not for any particular child, but to all suffering children. The literary form makes Tiny Tim more remarkable an image, the kind of singularity in each of its forms (even the mawkish Robin Frog) whose evocation of sympathy is so much more powerful than the mere, “Think of the poor, suffering children!” But for Edelman, Tiny Tim is no more than the pure voice of the morality of reproductive futurism, the valorization of the child’s purity as unquestionably the primary social good.

Scrooge, in contrast, is a voice of pure death. Dickens even describes him freezing cold, making him resemble a walking corpse. Because Edelman is so Lacanian that it hurts sometimes, he understands Scrooge as a masochistic version of the Freudian death drive. So far, so Disney. But in the previous chapter, Edelman has walked us through Jacques Lacan’s argument that the death drive actually expresses a kind of joy. The technical term in Lacanian language is jouissance: the soul’s fiery exhilaration as you burn yourself away to ashes. Edelman has already identified this joyfulness with the life of the queer, because children and reproduction are not involved in this kind of love,** only enjoyment in the present. It only helps that it’s so easy to read Scrooge’s personal and professional partnership with Marley as a closeted gay relationship.

** This statement only applies to Edelman’s ideal concept of the queer, as many actual people of many sexualities are still interested in raising children in their households, and should receive all the social benefits and support for parenthood that straight people do. But Edelman introduces No Future as focussing only on what queerness and cultural products involving it figure, not what actual queer people think and believe.

So when Scrooge is finally overcome by the sentimental pleas for pity that echo from Tiny Tim, Edelman reads it as the norms of aggressive straight morality, reproductive futurism, overwriting his queer nature. In Dickens’ original words, Scrooge becomes a celibate second father to Tiny Tim. So this universally beloved story constitutes an act of violence and hostility to queer sexualities and people.

Removing A Christmas Carol from its original historical
and political context overwrites the lives of everyone who
suffered under the hideous conditions of 19th century
factory labour.
This is one analysis of the modern cultural meaning of A Christmas Carol. But the continuing phenomenon of A Christmas Carol in all its aspects is more complex than just its cultural meaning. Remember the conditions of its generation: It is essentially a political pamphlet in the form of a novella, one of the most successful such pamphlets. Charles Dickens wrote with an entirely different political consciousness than we have today. His primary political motivation was labour reform, particularly ending the prevalent practice in Britain of child factory labour. Tiny Tim, Scrooge, and A Christmas Carol constituted a touchstone in the political movement of emancipating children from tortuous factory labour. It required an immense philosophical transformation throughout European society to make people believe sincerely and wholeheartedly that children did not belong in factories. Insofar as he was a tireless political advocate for a marginalized people, the children of the poor, Dickens was an intellectual social liberator, a similar function Edelman can serve for the queer community. It’s just that Dickens chose sentimentality, not Lacanian psychoanalytic political theory, as his weapon. As such, he was much more effective.

Edelman, to me at least, seems more Lacanian than Jacques Lacan himself. So he thinks in a way that I suspect, porting frameworks of understanding from psychoanalysis to the entirety of society. But even if psychoanalysis is a useful such framework for individual people, societies operate according to entirely different mechanisms, and are constituted quite differently. Ecological and economic processes come to the forefront in the constitution of a society. So, to me, a solid framework to understand the cultural imaginary, where our cultural products develop personal meanings, requires a merger of frameworks for thinking appropriate to the individual and those for the social and ecological. The result would likely radically transform both. Lacanian social theory moves too simply in transferring its philosophical frameworks.

And I think the biggest mistake of Lacanian thinking is that the metaphorical aspect of thought, what a social phenomenon figures, becomes more important than its actual history. Just as psychoanalysis diagnoses people through metaphorical figuration, rational engagement with our most a-rational thoughts, psychoanalytic political theory diagnoses societies by analyzing cultural products as the expressions of unspoken social drives. 

It suffers from the same incompleteness as psychoanalysis: the analysis misses critical aspects of the world by ignoring the historical development of societies and the actual lives of people, each of whom are more singular than its metaphors. So the products of psychoanalytic political theory become generalities of which every real-world example is an exception. A diagnostic image that makes perfect sense, but has no practical instantiation.

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