You are on page 1of 8

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 mo­‑
ment when words like democratization accom-
pany 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 con-
sider 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 impor-
tance 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 “after-
ing” 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 overdeter-
mined, 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
470  Lee Edelman

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 valo-
rized (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 after-
event 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 fetish-
istic 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 genera-
tivity. “After” thus stands in relation to “sex” as “heteronormative” stands
to “queer,” or as “history” stands to “repetition,” or the “social” to the “anti-
social.” 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 tem-
porality, 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 nor-
malizing 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 responsi-
bility. Whatever the body or bodies that find themselves chosen to flesh it
Ever After  471

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 spe-
cific construction of the “general will.” Theodor Adorno, who makes a simi-
lar 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 era-
sure 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 pre-
cisely 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 poli-
tics as such. This is the fate of those whom No Future describes as sinthomo-
sexuals, 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
472  Lee Edelman

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 sin-
gularity, the sinthome, of course, could be viewed as a wholly internalized
psychic structure, as the trace of a particularity unavailable to political gen-
eralization. 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 sinthomo-
sexuality 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 dis-
tinctive 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
Ever After  473

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 com-
pact 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 futur-
ism 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 repeti-
tion 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 impos-
sible 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 sinthomo‑
sexual, or, as some might prefer, the queer, a term that evokes an exti-
mate 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 nec-
essary precondition of its own elaboration.
In opposition to this voided specificity of the sinthomosexual’s jouis-
sance, 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 avail-
able 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
474  Lee Edelman

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 iron-
clad 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 depen-
dent 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 free-
dom, 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 hon-
ors 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 con-
servative 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 deter-
mining 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
Ever After  475

always and everywhere affirms the self-evidence of the human, the Child,
whose vulnerability conjures images of its suffering, reproaches the puta-
tive privilege for which sinthomosexuals stand accused. Though leveled by
the Right and the Left alike, the accusation remains the same: the sinthomo­
sexual (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 col-
lective life, the privilege, that is, of sexual license, political disengagement,
and thus, most important, the privilege of remaining indifferent to the vul-
nerabilities of others, who might include heterosexual children and Chris-
tian 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 domi-
nant 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 knot-
ting 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 structur-
ing 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 aggres-
sion 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 “after-
ing”: 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
476  Lee Edelman

resembles a parental structure in which the past is like an ancestor beget-
ting, 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 self-
constitution 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.”

Notes
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.
2 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1994),
320.
3 Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke Univer-
sity Press, 2004).
4 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.
5 Slavoj Žižek, “Odradek as a Political Category,” lacanian ink 24/25 (2005): 152.
6 See, for example, Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter
Hallward (New York: Verso, 2001), 68–69.
7 Laclau, “Structure, History, and the Political,” 208.
8 Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 381.
9 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.