No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive

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No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive is a major text of Lee Edelman, (Duke University Press, 2004).

While Edelman has an interest in psychoanalytic theory, for the purposes of this article, only the queer theory aspects are explored.

Reproductive Futurism

Edelman invokes the notion of "reproductive futurism" to refer to the idea that all 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 a 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.

This "fascism of the baby's face" subjects us to its sovereign authority as the figure of politics itself, whatever the face a particular politics gives that baby to wear (e.g. Aryan or multicultural). This is not to say that the difference of those political programs makes no difference, but rather that, as political programs, they aim to reify difference and thus to secure, in the form of the future, the order of the same. The Child marks the fetishistic fixation of heteronormativity; an erotically-charged investment in the rigid sameness of identity that is central to the compulsory narrative of reproductive futurism.

Historically constructed to serve as the repository of variously sentimentalized cultural identifications, the Child has come to embody the telos of the social order and has come to be seen as the one for whom that order is held in perpetual trust. In its coercive universalization, the image of the Child (not to be confused with the lived experiences of any historical children) serves to regulate political discourse, to prescribe what will count as political discourse, by compelling such discourse to accede in advance to the reality of a collective future whose figurative status we are never permitted to acknowledge or address.

The Task of the Queer

What 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 a side within a political order that returns to the child as the image of the future it intends? Against the pervasive invocation of the Child (as the emblem of futurity's unquestioned value) is a queer oppositionality that would oppose itself to the structural determinants of politics as such. Queerness is a refusal of every substantialization of identity. 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.

Liberal discourse typically strives to disassociate the queer from its figurative place as the social order's death drive (as those who do not reproduce and transmit futurity). Reproductive futurism's trump card is always the question 'If not this, what?' – always the demand to translate the insistence of negativity into some determinate stance or 'position' whose determination would thus negate it. We should withdraw our allegiance from a reality based on reproductive futurism – not in order to suggest that some 'good' will result, but to the contrary.

Rather than rejecting the ascription of negativity to the queer, we might do better to consider accepting and even embracing it. Not in the hope of thereby forging some more perfect social order (which hope would only reproduce the constraining mandate of futurism) but rather to abjuring fidelity to a futurism that's always purchased at our expense. Queerness attains its ethical value precisely insofar as it accedes to the negative position, and accepts its figural status as resistance to the viability of the social, while insisting on the inextricability of such resistance from every social structure. The queer comes to figure the bar to every realization of futurity, the resistance – internal to the social – to every social structure or form.

Edelman recognizes that his project is in some respects paradoxical and even impossible. But it is precisely this impossibility that constitutes the challenge to the social order. The embrace of queer negativity can have no 'justification', if justification requires it to reinforce some positive social value; its value resides instead in its challenge to value as defined by the social, and thus in radical challenge to the very value of the social itself.

The future, as Orphan Annie's hymn to the hope of "Tomorrow" understands, is always a day away. "Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we're collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kind on the Net..."

Edelman proposes no position from which queer sexuality might truly 'become itself', as if it could somehow achieve an essential queerness – instead, he suggests, the real strategic value of queerness lies in its resistance to a symbolic reality that only ever invests us as subjects insofar as we invest ourself in it, clinging to its governing fictions as reality itself.