The Future As a Means of Oppression, Research Time, 07/04/2014

The central notion of the Utopias project is exploring the injustice of prioritizing a political ideal over the lives of actual people. This is why so much of my research for it revolves around the nature of ideology: ideological thinking is itself the willingness to sacrifice those around you in the present to realize a future perfection. This was the justification of Stalinist purges: that millions needed to be sacrificed to preserve the integrity of social progress. 

This kind of justification of large-scale destruction for the sake of a larger ideal was also a key factor in Invisible Man. The narrator spends a healthy chunk of Ellison’s book involved with a communist (clearly they are, though the word itself is never said) organization that constantly promotes the brotherhood and equality of all people. But they neglect the black communities of Harlem, ignoring their concerns, and let an extremist black nationalist group spark a destructive, violent riot in the community for their own hazy purposes of motivating wider popular opposition to the capitalist regime.

Opposing such thinking is important to create a genuinely peaceful social order. But I’m not comfortable with all such oppositions. It might sound as if I’m doing some tourism of marginalized peoples, but the other day, I started reading Lee Edelman’s No Future, which is the first queer theory I’ve ever encountered as a researcher. Why I haven't encountered queer theory has a similar type of reason that I described the other day regarding Ralph Ellison, and a few months ago regarding Margaret Urban Walker; critical voices stereotypically associated with identity politics are marginalized out of philosophy departments. Even though I never limited the range of my reading to the specific course material of my programs, I did limit myself to the tradition. It’s quite a mistake, as by the time I felt like I should have done so, it was too late. I felt like coming to feminist or queer theory so late in my philosophical education stripped any legitimacy I could have had to speak about it, or even ask about it.

Regular readers might be growing tired of my continued expressions of my debt to Phil Sandifer and the TARDIS Eruditorum, but I’m going to thank him again for exposing me to Edelman and his concept of reproductive futurism. Edelman uses it to diagnose a prevalent notion in popular culture, that the well-being of children is an unequivocal good. From a perspective that makes heavy use of Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts for political purposes, he identifies how the uncritical acceptance that ensuring the continuation of the human race (through heterosexual reproduction) is a good can oppress people. Just think about all the socially conservative, oppressive measures that essentially marginalize and criminalize non-heterosexuals/ity in the name of ‘protecting the children.’ 

Phil Sandifer interprets Torchwood: Children of Earth in
terms of a critique of reproductive futurism, the most
profoundly aggressive statement of his ethical philosophy
that Russell T. Davies ever put on screen.
Take one of Edelman’s examples through popular culture: Philadelphia. At the time, this was interpreted as director Jonathan Demme’s response and attrition for the homophobic elements of Silence of the Lambs. Even though the film contains a positive and nuanced depiction of a gay man (Tom Hanks, whose public image Edelman sarcastically describes as saintly), and its narrative is how Denzel Washington’s character overcomes his homophobia, there is an oppressive undercurrent. Hanks is depicted as contracting HIV in a gay porn cinema, a seedy, immoral environment. The beatified conditions of his passing find him surrounded not only by his gay lover, but his straight and normal extended family, including children and pregnant women. The memorial montage that plays at the end of the film focusses on Hanks’ character as a child, contrasting his pure innocent state with his sinful adulthood that led to his death. Even in this redemptive arc, a gay man is only morally worthy as a child or an innocent. The morality of homosexuality as a lifestyle remains repugnant because it has no future, leading only to death.

If you have more time after reading my own brief, initial, and still inconclusive take on the concept of reproductive futurism (I’ve only finished about one-third of No Future), you should read Phil’s long, involved, detailed, provocative, and fascinating analysis of Torchwood: Children of Earth (in five parts) for a far better account of this concept and all the disturbing implications of it and its opposition. 

Oh yes, because I find Edelman’s opposition to reproductive futurism equally disturbing. No matter how sympathetic I am with the idea that idealizations of amorphous futurity can be a condition to oppress people, I’m hesitant to accept Edelman’s own ideas uncritically. He valorizes investment in the present moment in response to this oppressive idea of reproductive futurism, turning away from an investment in a future that you will never see to live in the now. I'm very much in favour of this notion, as it essentially is my position in the Utopias project. Phil’s essay communicates the social problems of Edelman’s perspective, but I want to concentrate on one particular conceptual alliance he makes.

Edelman considers, in terms of what queerness (non-heterosexuality in general) figures and signifies the end of the future: a society without reproduction, and so will have no future. The liberal consensus, which Edelman identifies, as an example, with the movement to legalize gay marriage, is actually a denial of the true nature of queerness. The marriage movement is an attempt to neuter the social challenge of queerness by assimilating it into the basic social norms of heterosexual life. In the words of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which Edelman also quotes in his first chapter, "What you get married for if you don't want children?" 

So he actually declares that radical social conservatives who consider the very existence of queerness to be an existential threat and a fundamental affront to their God are actually correct: because queerness signifies a society without necessary investment in the future, it actually is a threat to existing social orders that privilege reproduction and the maintenance of the future. 

This makes me uncomfortable. It’s a confrontational stance that is healthy and refreshing in its radicality, but dangerous in that it gives a remarkable amount of ground to devoted Christians who would prefer a society where homosexuality is punishable by death. Essentially, Edelman says the radical Christians are right in that queerness challenges the fundamental moral aspect of organizing society. It potentially opens up a fascinating new vision of progress, progress without a future. But Edelman also defines this vision in entirely negative terms, describing queerness and the queer as precisely the assault that the most violent Christians say it is. 

My interpretation is tentative, of course, because I haven’t finished the book. And I do want to clarify that this makes for my first steps into queer theory, so I’m thinking entirely in terms of questions that I want to ponder rather than tight declarations that I want to make. But I’m hesitant about the practical political effects of any philosophy of liberation and freedom that gives so much ground in its very premises to the thankfully deceased Fred Phelps.

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