Lee Edelman Ever After: History, Negativity, and the Social

At a moment when violence as a first resort

accentuates the fault lines of empire; at a moment when words like democratization accompany a brutal power grab that winks at torture, insists on secrecy, and trivializes civil liberties; at a moment when the poor and the powerless find their voices ventriloquized by the institutions that enforce their subordination; at that moment, which is also every moment, we’re invited to consider queer theory’s moment and to ask whether recent work in that field can be thought of as “after sex.” In so framing the question addressed by this special issue of SAQ, I have no intention of trivializing, discrediting, or dismissing it. I mean, instead, to underscore its genuine importance and to indicate what its stake is. I also want to fix a point of reference for my claim that the governing logic of the social insists on this “aftering” of “sex,” insists on the movement away from its all-consuming and unmasterable intensities and toward engagement with a world whose hold on us depends on such an “aftering.” Sex, as the limitless array of privatized libidinal experiences and affects, at once underspecified and overdetermined, must submit to the law of culture, to the discipline of sociality, for which it can then come
South Atlantic Quarterly 106:3, Summer 2007 doi 10.1215/00382876-2007-005 © 2007 Duke University Press

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to figure self-indulgent resistance to communal imperatives—a resistance that, in our heteronormative social dispensation, allows for the wholesale embodiment of the antisocial by nonreproductive sexualities. By contrast, heterosexuality succeeds, from within that dispensation, in dissociating itself from the anarchy and ahistoricism of sex by virtue of its socially valorized (re)production of the “after.” This compulsion to produce the “after” of sex through the naturalization of history expresses itself in two very different, though not unrelated, ways: first, in the privileging of reproduction as the after-event of sex—an afterevent whose potential, implicit in the ideal, if not always in the reality, of heterogenital coupling, imbues straight sex with its meaning as the agent of historical continuity; second, in the conflation of meaning itself with those forms of historical knowing whose authority depends on the fetishistic prestige of origin, genealogy, telos. In each case the entry into history coincides with the entry into social narratives that work to domesticate the incoherence, at once affective and conceptual, that’s designated by “sex.” That incoherence, in turn, construed as external not only to the social order but also to the historical self-consciousness through which the social order is born, gets mapped onto sexualities that prove resistant to sublimation, resistant to the reproduction of meaning as social and historical generativity. “After” thus stands in relation to “sex” as “heteronormative” stands to “queer,” or as “history” stands to “repetition,” or the “social” to the “antisocial.” It affirms the identity of value with history, sociality, collective life, over and against the abyss of sex as the site of drives not predetermined by any fixed goal or end, as the site, therefore, where the subject of social regulation might come undone and with it the seeming consistency of the social order itself. Thus to situate queer theory “after sex” is more than a contradiction in terms. It attests to a latent fantasy of gaining political legitimation at the cost of predicating politics on heteronormative temporality, even though such a politics pits sociality against the queerness ascribed to its antisocial other who won’t transcend or repudiate “sex” for the good of the greater community. But the antisocial is never, of course, distinct from the social itself. The ideological delimitation of an antisocial agency, one that refuses the normalizing protocols that legislate social viability, conditions the social order that variously reifies and disavows it, condemning that localized agency as the cause of the suffering for which the social order disclaims its responsibility. Whatever the body or bodies that find themselves chosen to flesh it

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out, this antisocial force absorbs the repudiated negativity without which community is never imagined, let alone brought into being. This focus on the negativity of the social, on its inherent antisociality, does not deny that such commonalities as community may posit can result, according to Jacques Lacan, in “a certain law of equality . . . formulated in the notion of the general will.” But while the imposition of such a law may establish, for Lacan, “the common denominator of the respect for certain rights,” it also, as he goes on to add, can “take the form of excluding from its boundaries, and therefore from its protection, everything that is not integrated into its various registers.”1 For the general will to be general, that is, it must negate a certain specificity, which reflects, of course, first and foremost, the specific construction of the “general will.” Theodor Adorno, who makes a similar point, proposes that “society stays alive, not despite its antagonism, but by means of it”—an insight that subsequently leads him to conclude that “under the all-subjugating identity principle, whatever does not enter into identity, whatever eludes rational planning in the realm of means, turns into frightening retribution for the calamity which identity brought on the nonidentical.”2 The governing logic I defined in No Future as reproductive futurism is one of the forms this calamity takes3—a calamity that effects the violent erasure of the cost at which a social order, constitutively self-sentimentalizing, perpetuates, in the name of the future and its privileged embodiment, the Child, the absolutism of identity, the fixity of what is. It does so precisely by proscribing whatever insists on the nonidentical, whatever brings out, through a critical practice that accedes to negativity, alternatives to the terms permitting our conceptualization of the social only by means of compulsory submission to the temporality of community—alternatives that threaten the coherence, and so the identity, of the social itself and with it the utopian fantasy of a collectivity, a general will, whose norms need not themselves conduce to the enforcement of normativity. For futurism’s dispensation, like the laissez-faire faith of neoliberalism, authorizes every discursive stance to compete in the register of the political except that stance construed, by those on the Right and Left alike, as extra-, post-, or a-political insofar as it directs its negativity at the framing of politics as such. This is the fate of those whom No Future describes as sinthomosexuals, those who reject the Child as the materialized emblem of the social relation and with it the concomitant mapping of the political in the space of reproductive futurism. Bringing together the Lacanian sinthome, which

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defines the specific formation of the subject’s access to jouissance, and a homosexuality distinctively abjected as a figure of the antibiotic, a figure opposed, in dominant fantasy, to life and futurity both, the sinthomosexual conjures a politicality unrecognizable as such by virtue of its resistance to futurism’s constraining definition of the political field. In this way it only ever appears, to return to Adorno’s phrase, as the “frightening retribution for the calamity which identity brought on the nonidentical,” a retribution that finds expression as a sudden eruption of the Real, of the unaccounted for jouissance that shapes the political situation in which it’s permitted to have no place. As the element procuring the specificity of the subject in its radical singularity, the sinthome, of course, could be viewed as a wholly internalized psychic structure, as the trace of a particularity unavailable to political generalization. But sinthomosexuality makes visible the occluded presence of the sinthome at the core of the very politics intended to exclude it. Ernesto Laclau asserts that “for a certain demand, subject position, identity, and so on, to become political means that it is something other than itself, living its own particularity as a moment or link in a chain of equivalences that transcends and, in this way, universalizes it.”4 In such a context sinthomosexuality would speak to the repudiated specificity of what doesn’t and can’t transcend itself. So repudiated, however, it enables the specification, over and against it, of what only thereby is able to appear as political universality. Yet in just this way the sinthome, insistently nothing but itself, inviting no system of interpretation and affording no symbolic exchange, gets taken up nonetheless as “something other than itself ” insofar as it figures, to quote Žižek’s gloss on Lacan’s “il y a de l’Un,” “the One which persists as the obstacle destabilizing every unity.”5 By allowing itself to stand, that is, for the determining specificity of the subject, a specificity bespeaking the distinctive knotting of its access to jouissance, sinthomosexuality disrupts the identity of the political in Laclau’s formulation. It manages to live “its own particularity as a moment or link in a chain of equivalences that transcends and, in this way, universalizes it” only by refusing such self-transcending moments of equivalence and becoming, through that refusal, the figure, paradoxically universalized, for the internal dissension of universality, for the specificity of “the One which persists as the obstacle destabilizing every unity,” including therefore the unity of what it means “to become political.” As the general figure of what’s not comprehended in the formation of the

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general will, and so of what never attains to the status of political legibility, sinthomosexuality offers no promise of social recognition, the holy grail of the countless projects across the political spectrum that wrap themselves in the ever-elastic flag of democratization. Without for a moment denying the importance that distinguishes many of those projects, I want to insist on the need for an ongoing counterproject as well: a project that’s willing to forgo the privilege of social recognition and so is willing to break the compact binding the image of the human to a social order speciously conflated with kinship and collectivity, the compact adduced to foreclose dissent from reproductive futurism by assuming the ontologized identity of futurism and sociality itself. Even as I call for it, though, I call such a project impossible because it aims, with an insistence I link to the pure repetition of the death drive, to expose within the social something inherently unrecognizable, something radically nonidentical, that functions to negate whatever is, whatever is allowed to be by the various regimes of normativity to which, however inconsistently, we all, as subjects, subscribe. The impossible goal of this project, then, would be to evince what Alain Badiou would call the “void of the situation,” the foundational negativity that keeps the symbolic from achieving self-identity to the extent that the nonidentical persists within as internal antagonism.6 Such a manifestation could never, of course, be anything but impossible, since the void can never appear as itself, in the form of a pure negativity. Instead, there’s the sinthomosexual, or, as some might prefer, the queer, a term that evokes an extimate relation to the structure of normative values while affirming, through its historic association with specifically sexual irregularities, an indicative link to the unassimilable excess of jouissance. But that excess, reflecting the always excessive specificity of the sinthome, turns the sinthomosexual into a surrogate for the perpetual failure of universalism, which can never account for that element, that specificity, that sinthome, voided as the necessary precondition of its own elaboration. In opposition to this voided specificity of the sinthomosexual’s jouissance, the nullified presence of which rules out any totalized social reality, futurism adduces the image of the Child as a necessary figural supplement to sociality as it is. By doing so it perpetuates the hope of a fully unified community, a fully realized social order, that’s imagined as always available in the fullness of the future to come. In keeping with the prospect of realizing this phantom community through reproduction, the figure of the Child, whatever political program it may serve, whatever particularity

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of race or sex or ethnicity it may bear, performs a universalization at the expense of particularity—at the expense, above all, of the particularity of access to the jouissance that makes all subjects, even those committed to disciplinary norms, sinthomosexuals despite themselves. Female, Asian, Hispanic, Black, disabled, impoverished, or protoqueer, the image of the Child polices the horizon of social potentiality by maintaining the ironclad equivalence of sociality, futurity, and reproduction. By proffering an ideologically invested face of unconstrained possibility that’s bound to a regressive imaginary fantasy of the recognizably human, the figure of the Child thus anticipates what Laclau describes in a different context: “an emancipation which is total and attains a universality that is not dependent on particularities.” Laclau goes on to warn, however, that to achieve such “universality representing a totally reconciled human essence, . . . [in] a fully reconciled society, . . . would be equivalent to the death of freedom, for all possibility of dissent would have been eliminated from it.”7 This, however, is reproductive futurism’s goal, one it pursues by assigning those who challenge its supremacy to a space outside the social, outside the political as such, thus silencing any resistance in advance by dismissing it as nihilistic. Against so frivolous and feckless a charge, recall the words of Adorno: “The true nihilists are the ones who oppose nihilism with their more and more faded positivities, the ones who are thus conspiring with all extant malice, and eventually with the destructive principle itself. Thought honors itself by defending what is damned as nihilism.”8 Avoid conflating this destructive principle with the death drive too quickly, however. For it names instead what opposes itself to the death drive’s ceaseless negations: the conservative force that defends the entrenched positivity of the “extant,” whose malice is merely the will to identity so calamitous to the nonidentical. Only in a second moment, when preserving the extant social reality compels it to negate the negativity of the nonidentical’s retribution, does the death drive proper assume its part in the work of this “destructive principle.” At what, after all, is the destructiveness of that principle principally aimed if not at the labor of critical thought performed by the death drive’s negativity? In place of such thought the “destructive principle” invests what “is” with positivity, reviling the so-called nihilism that addresses instead the determining void of what is thereby forbidden to be. As the social order’s domesticated and domesticating face, pursuing that order’s totalization—temporally and spatially both—by defining what

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always and everywhere affirms the self-evidence of the human, the Child, whose vulnerability conjures images of its suffering, reproaches the putative privilege for which sinthomosexuals stand accused. Though leveled by the Right and the Left alike, the accusation remains the same: the sinthomosexual (whom those on the Right might identify as anyone queer and those on the Left might construe more particularly as a white, middle-class, gay man) has the privilege of refusing the responsibilities that come with collective life, the privilege, that is, of sexual license, political disengagement, and thus, most important, the privilege of remaining indifferent to the vulnerabilities of others, who might include heterosexual children and Christian believers for the Right or persons of color and unemployed members of the working class for the Left. The sinthomosexual, on either hand, gets denounced for affirming a jouissance indulgently fixed on the self, while those who merit recognition as good, as communally minded, as properly social, address the suffering of the other for which the Child is our dominant trope. It remains the case that libidinal investment in the suffering of the other, regardless of whether its dividends come through preventing or producing that suffering, is also an investment tied to a specific knotting of jouissance. But the Child, as the image of a suffering that can never be simply a fact of the real without also becoming a figure for a cultural erotics of social reality, lets the good in their goodness deny their structuring determination by a jouissance that’s never permitted to be presented as such in their framing of what “is”—that’s never permitted to reveal, in other words, their own sinthomosexuality, though it clearly fuels the aggression with which they vituperate sinthomosexuals. That’s what sociality means, and that’s what Adorno meant as well when he insisted that “society stays alive, not despite its antagonism, but because of it.” As antagonism, as negativity, as the substance of the Real, sinthomosexuality returns us to the endlessly ramifying calamity that has always already been brought on the nonidentical by identity—a calamity no Child can ever redeem, no future can reconcile. How could they when futurism and the Child alike are outposts of identity itself, repeating the very calamity they purport to overcome? We might call that calamity “aftering”: the temporal distribution of relations and identities that correlates the movement from before to after with a passage from an ignorance to a knowledge and so with the ideological conflation of historical development and genetic narrative, what Paul de Man calls “the pre-assumed concept of history as a generative process[,] . . . of history as a temporal hierarchy that

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resembles a parental structure in which the past is like an ancestor begetting, in a moment of unmediated presence, a future capable of repeating in its turn the same generative process.”9 The logic of this endless aftering, of course, bespeaks the persistence of something intrinsically incapable of being “aftered,” something that both resists and occasions reproductive futurism: the compulsory repetition of an “ever.” That “ever” denotes the antagonism to which Adorno directs our gaze— the antagonism at the core of the social that reflects the calamity of its selfconstitution through the positing of an identity that occasions the storm of history. Like Benjamin’s Angel of History, though, the sinthomosexual looks back, not ahead, transfixed by that constant calamity, always focused on something within it that remains unrecognized and unrecognizable: the void, the sinthome, the particularity of the stubbornly nonidentical, whose ironic retribution in the death drive’s negativity forever renews the will to find ourselves after negativity, after antagonism, after sex. As queer theory, like Adorno, reminds us, though, not aftering, but ever aftering, keeps society alive, which is why there isn’t, and there cannot be, queer theory “after sex.”
1 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, book 7, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959– 1960, ed. Jacques Alain-Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), 195. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1994), 320. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004). Ernesto Laclau, “Structure, History, and the Political,” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (New York: Verso, 2000), 209. Slavoj Žižek, “Odradek as a Political Category,” lacanian ink 24/25 (2005): 152. See, for example, Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (New York: Verso, 2001), 68–69. Laclau, “Structure, History, and the Political,” 208. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 381. Paul de Man, “Literary History and Literary Modernity,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 164.

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