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Billy Stevenson recently sent me his review of Edelman's book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. He's agreed to me posting it here. I found it interesting, particularly given my own recent forays into the realms of "untidy" children. So here it is:


NO FUTURE: QUEER THEORY AND THE DEATH DRIVE

I have given this book five stars on the basis of Lee Edelman's
textual analysis, which is truly brilliant. Nevertheless, I have
reservations about his thesis: that the most politically subversive
quality of queer people is their failure to breed. As a theoretical
political point, this seems to make beautiful sense: failure to
reproduce existing physical order equals failure to reproduce existing
political order. However, the disparity between the theoretical and
the actual (or, alternatively, between the political and the personal)
which underlies a great deal of theory seems particularly noticeable
here – all the more so since queer theory is a discipline which lays
particular stress on breaking down these dichotomies.

Many queer people want to breed – and this isn't simply because of their
indoctrination into an existing political order. In fact, I would say
that queer men have a particular proclivity to parenthood, just
because they often (though by no means always) possess certain
effeminate traits which enable those maternal qualities which, in the
heterosexual world are often (tthough by no means always) stronger, or
at least more primal, than paternal ones. This explains why an
inordinate number of queer men end up in positions such as teaching,
nursing etc. However, leaving aside the personal/political problem,
and addressing Edelman's text on a purely political level (or,
alternatively, his central connection between queer people and
anti-reproductivity as a purely figurative image), problems remain.
There is a fine line between renouncing children and destroying
children – and Edelman chooses texts which blur this line, most
notably Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Read in the wrong way – or even
read in a manner slightly different from that which Edelman has
intended (in a word, read with the same provisional disregard for
established authorial intention that he shows for the texts he
critiques) – Edelman figuratively equates queerness with the
destruction of children. This is extremely unfortunate, given the
popular equation of queerness and paedophilia.

It seems to me that Edelman's use of his queerness to articulate a space
diametrically opposed to the current political status quo is mirrored, fictionally,
in the novels of Dennis Cooper – and I wouldn't want Cooper's novels
invested with the same political momentum – or at least the same
queer-oriented political momentum – as Edelman's theory. The
comparison is doubly instructive because I feel that, in both cases,
political subversiveness (ironically) doesn't spring from any
convincingly articulated political statement, but from an inordinate
prioritisation of the aesthetic above the political (which I take as a
cipher for the ethical, the philosophical etc). I am aware that
Cooper's dead teenages are often connected, figuratively, to the
marketed, mannequinised postmodern bodies we are all trying to escape.
However, I feel that trying to find a "moral" per se in Cooper is just
as erroneous as trying to find a "moral" in de Sade – and perhaps just
as erroneous as trying to find any practical (or convincing) "moral"
in Edelman.

Like Cooper, Edelman transforms the most morally
transgressive image available – a dead, tortured child – into an
aesthetic consideration and, in doing so, promotes literature as a
value-free space in exactly the same way as Cooper. The political
ramifications of this are obvious: Proust, for example, could only
discuss homosexuality openly at all (and therefore bring it into the
public domain in the manner in which he did) because the decadents had
established literature as a radically value-free space (and the legacy
is apparent in the opening chapter of "Sodom and Gomorrah", in which
Proust asks us to place our ethical revulsion at bay by considering
homosexuals as aesthetic spectacles). However, the theoretical
ramifications are less clear. What seems to be happening here – and in
other areas of contemporary criticism – is a conflation of theory and
the texts it supposedly critiques. Ironically, or perhaps
intentionally, the very schools which recommend this conflation are
increasingly producing literary, or artistic artefacts, rather than
works of criticism (cf. my discussion of Jane Campion's The Piano as
a recommendation that French feminism be understood primarily as an
aesthetic, dream-like experience, rather than a practical position).

If any 'master theory' underlines this aestheticisation of theory,
then it seems to be Kant's Critique of Judgment, which similarly (and
similarly indirectly) underlay the decadence that informed Proust. For
all its critique of "disinterestedness", contemporary critical theory
asks us to suspend our attitude to literature – and to itself – as
never before. Is this neo-Kantianism a good thing – and would Kant
himself have approved of it? I am inclined to answer yes to the first
question, and no to the second. That Edelman would answer no to the
second seems subconsciously inscribed in the title of his book, which
connotes the very death of queer theory that such a conflation with
the texts it critiques would produce. But your reaction depends upon
the moment at which you first encounter that dead child.

Comments

Hi Billy (if you're `there'). Thanks for contributing your review, which is a real thought provoker. While it's a pleasure to retrace the weave, I admit I can't quite grasp your `authorial intention'. I can't quite induce from the text the secret source of an utterance :-)

Quite thought provoking is your seemingly tactical omission to mention that Edelman's theoretical idiom is explicitly Freudian-Lacanian. In chapter 1 of _No Future_ he explains clearly and at length how he intends to employ existing psychoanalytic concepts (drive, letter, the Symbolic etc).

So... Doesn't the supposed stumbling block of the aesthetic versus the political/actual (i.e., of five-star, truly brilliant textual analysis versus the no-star modelling of a practical position) just disappear if you're willing to acknowledge that what's at stake is access to the phantasmatic as such, which traverses the difference between the text's or aesthetic object's putative inside and outside.

Similarly, maybe difficulties arise from the need to defend against irony the identity implied in the appellation `queer people'. The dichotomy between queer people and their others is by implication vulnerable to queer theory if the latter is, as you say, `a discipline which lays particular stress on breaking down... dichotomies'. Again, that breaking-down or subversion would be effected via critical resourcing of the psychical matrix (beyond the threshold, as it were, of the Kantian subject).

Acknowledgement of Edelman's psychoanalytic orientation might also take care of some of that risk of being `read in the wrong way' that you see as arising from his enthusiastic deconstruction of The Child. The `scandal' of Freudian of interpretation has been popularly acknowledged for a long time and more or less accommodated into the civilised scheme of things by way of a sense of irony that functions effectively as `disinterestedness' or `suspense of attitude'. So, for example, Serge Leclaire, without getting arrested for it, can write:

`From where the analyst is sitting, what is at stake is the truth. There is no way out: reckoning with the absolute power of the infans, he must never stop perpetrating the murder of the child, even as he recognizes that he cannot carry it out. Psychoanalytic practice is based upon bringing to the fore the constant work of a power of death - the death of the wonderful (or terrifying) child who, from generation to generation, bears witness to parents' dreams and desires. There can be no life without killing that strange, original image in which everyone's birth is inscribed. It is an impossible but necessary murder, for there can be no life, no life of desire and creation, if we ever stop killing off the always returning `wonderful child'.
The wonderful child is first of all the nostalgic gaze of the mother who made him into an object of extreme magnificence akin to the Child Jesus majesty, a light and jewel radiating forth absolute power. But he is already the forsaken one as well, lost in total dereliction, facing terror and death alone.'
(A Child Is Being Killed: On Primary Narcissism and the Death Drive, 2-3)

Well that's it. Note that I'm quite unsure about the legitimacy of my response to your review, since I don't have a firm enough grounding in philosophy to appreciate the implications and ramifications of the `neo-Kantianism' you evoke.

Cheerio and best etc.

Anyone here? Maybe it's just me and the machine. Just the machine. C'est la vie.

I've just ordered the book and have yet to read it, but the equation in the review of effeminate traits as typically queer and effeminacy with maternal instincts sent a double Judith Butler shiver down my spine. From implied gender essentialism to social determinism, I found it unsettling.

As for Cooper's novels, I think they present an almost religious obsession with the body. They seem to conclude that the true end of Cartesian attitudes towards it is a fascination that transcends mechanicism and morphs into rapture. I get visions of something nearing metaphysical when I read his stuff. Makes perfect sense, especially in these days, when the entire secular modern project is now pointing towards some form of techno-religious new world order. I think that reducing his novels to a search for the aesthetic sublime - and Burke is perhaps better suited to Cooper than Kant here - is to unacknowledge the possibility of something metaphysical - and political - in them. I don't think Cooper is presenting literature as a morally free space: he's placing morality - and sexuality - in realms where we usually refuse to acknowledge it. In that sense, he is being braver than most writers I know.

I think that the schizophrenic Kantian division between aesthetics and ethics went out of fashion eons ago any self-respecting queer would refuse to establish any clearcut borderline between them, especially in matters of gender.

I think it's also interesting to see the figure of the dead child as an excess of reality disrupting our economy of desire. One must always think "whose children?" and not just take the child as some emtpy abstraction, like freedom. (Freedom for whom? To do what?) I suspect that's what Edelman is fighting against: in that sense, one can compare it to Foucault's anti-humanism.

But I'm still waiting for my copy. I just couldn't help write down what came to my mind as I read your paragraphs.

I too have not yet read all of Edelman's book, but I am interested that he does not (as far as I can see) mention Jacqueline Rose, whose 'The Case of Peter Pan, or, the Impossibility of Children's Literature' (1984) is the book that first (and, in my view, still best) elaborated the Freudian/ Lacanian/ Derridean critique of the child as an essential category of identity, including its involvement in the production of futures. Edelman does mention Lauren Berlant, but only briefly, and, again, a lot of her work is strongly linked in terms of these issues around childhood. (I have written about childhood and queerness with Stephen Thomson in an article on 'What is Queer Theory Doing with the Child?', Parallax, 8(1), 2002, 35-46. Also not referenced by Edelman).

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