Friday, April 13, 2007

No Future: Terminus

(for earlier posts on Lee Edelman's book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, look here, here, here, here and here).

No Future concludes with its strongest chapter, on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, the inhuman, and the queer. Aside from the author's decision to employ as many avian puns and clichés as possible in order to stress the bird in the human (after a few pages, the yuks about birds of a feather and cocks of the walk peck the feathered nest of the prose into corn), the chapter's strength is its focus upon the insufficiency of the category "human" to contain the vastness it is asked to tame. "Rather than expanding the reach of the human, as in Butler's claim for Antigone" Edelman writes, "we might ... insist on enlarging the inhuman instead" (152).

The chapter yields a quote that for me brings back the reasons the first chapter seemed so inadequate to its own grave pronouncements, namely:
"the fascism of the baby's face" ... subjects us to its sovereign authority as the figure of politics itself (of politics, that is, in its radical form as reproductive futurism), whatever the face a particular politics gives that baby to wear -- Aryan or multicultural, that of the thirty-thousand year Reich or of an ever-expanding horizon of democratic inclusivity. Which is not to say that the difference of those political programs makes no difference, but rather that both, as political programs, are programmed to reify difference and thus to secure, in the form of the future, the order of the same. (151)
Ralph Nader made a related argument in 2000 about Republocrats: it doesn't matter which side you choose, it's all the same political system, whichever party you elect perpetuates the present state. I don't think I'm risking very much to say that in a democracy (even a democracy within a republic) it is riskier to believe that every choice is the same choice and opt out (even if it is the mild form of opting out that voting for Nader represented) than it is to trust in the possibility of an unpredetermined, non-replicative future. Is it controversial to say that George Bush as president has brought about a profoundly different world from the one that Al Gore would have fostered? Is it controversial to say that fascist regimes like Nazi Germany and democratic ones like contemporary Great Britain might use love of the child in propagandistic ways, but that they are not self-replicating regimes of the same order, and possibly not to be mashed into a single shared Symbolic?

And that's what I found most tiresome about this book: not the fact that the future gets suspended, but that the whole of the past and the present, everywhere and everytime, are rendered the same thing. A Hitchcock film from 1963 gives us a glimpse of the same Symbolic Order as homophobic remarks made a far Left mayor of Lourdes, France, in 2000 (a mayor who made the international news not so much for those remarks, but because he was ousted from his party for having made them, a fact Edelman does not mention). The Symbolic is monolithic and homogeneous and immune to history. Its existence is approached, like that of the Real and the Imaginary, with a religious awe. All three work as they do apparently for the reason that Jacques Lacan, their prophet, stated that they work thus -- a kind of Deism without an actual God.

And without compassion. Probably the worst chapter of the book is "Compassion's Compulsion." Edelman is not the first to demonstrate how mandating compassion is a kind of tyranny, how compassion can be thinly disguised aggression. See, e.g., Freud or Lacan. Or Carolyn Betensky, whose work on bourgeois compassion possesses a subtlety that this chapter does not. Once compassion is defined simply as "identification, love of one's neighbor as oneself," there isn't anywhere to go but to show how coercive compassion actually is. Then, like Martin Landau's character in North by Northwest, we become ethical in resisting compassion, in stepping on the foot of the person clinging to Mount Rushmore, in refusing to grasp the outstretched hand of the one about to tumble to a painful death. The future, writes Edelman, "can only belong to those who purport to feel for the other (with all the appropriate implications that such a "feeling for" suggests)" (75). And yet compassion does not mean only to feel for: like sympathy, compassion is literally feeling with, suffering alongside [for you Latinists: com- plus passio, with plus suffering]. Compassion, that is, need not be the realization of the violent desire to render my neighbor myself. It can be the acknowledgment that the suffering of my neighbor, the feeling of my neighbor, takes me apart, makes me feel in ways that are intersubjective. Compassion isn't necessarily identification, if that is the simple imposition of self upon other; it can be a kind of disaggregation. It does not compel us, I think, to refuse the hand that extends itself, whether that hand clings to a mountain or is extended by some waif so cute and fragile that our impulse is to smack him back to his hearth rather than carry him atop our shoulders.

I understand well the book's joy in raising its middle finger to the Annies and Tiny Tims and Whitney Houstons ("I believe the children are our future!") of the world. There is something deliciously wicked about the gesture. And fairly harmless, I fear, since these are figures so maudlin they don't amount to much more than kitsch ... unless kitsch itself is the lethal stuff of our quotidian reality. Perhaps wide eyed waifs really are Hitlers in miniature. Perhaps they really do tyrannize the queer, and are part of the same murderous Symbolic that did in Matthew Shepard ("And that cradle must endlessly rock, we've been told, even if the rhythm it rocks to beats out, with every blow of the beating delivered to Matthew Shepard's skull, a counterpoint to the melody's sacred hymn to the meaning of life" 116-17). But I find myself unconvinced that their power is so vast. It seems to me that the world is wider than that, more contradictory and fragmented.

In the end I also can't stop thinking about my children. Yes, in a way I mean Katherine and Alexander, Kid #2 and Kid #1 on this blog, little bearers of half my genetic futurity and constant reminders that no matter how much I wish to identify with them or replicate myself through them, they will perpetually engage in some version of raising their tiny middle fingers at me, rebuking whatever fantasy I might have had that the future could be more of the same. But I also mean the Green Children, those verdant intrusions from a neighboring world who taught twelfth century England that the ground it inhabited was an Elsewhere, that the history it pretended to culminate was an Elsewhen, that the present it hoped to extend infinitely into the future was in no way sure to arrive. With their call to a true compassion (a suffering-with rather than a transformative identification) these children, more than any death-drive allied sinthomosexual that Edelman imagines, are inhuman, are queer.


Anonymous said...

A v. nice commentary, Jeffrey. May I suggest sending it to Edelman? In the name of dialogue....

Edelman generates arguments according to his own blinkered definitions of key terms. His chapter on compassion is an example of the self-involuted crap I detest in theory. His argument misses the richness of compassion as an affective, cognitive, and behavioral phenomenon--mainly because it's clear he didn't do his reading in the subject area. Honestly, I have to wonder why one would write something that has no potential to enter into a dialogue with, say, scholars who are actually working to operationalize the concept of compassion (e.g., Gilbert; Neff) or of hope for that matter.

Anonymous said...

The Dalai Lama tells the story of a Tibetan monk who was captured by Chinese soldiers:

"He told me that while he was in a Chinese Communist gulag for almost eighteen years, he faced danger on a few occasions. I thought he was referring to a threat to his own life. But when I asked, 'What danger?' he answered, 'Losing compassion toward the Chinese.' He considered that to be the danger! Most of us would feel proud to tell others about how angry we got, as if we were some kind of hero."

(How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, p. 62)

Anonymous said...

I’ve been obsessed with the present participle “embodying” in the following sentence for a few weeks now: “Queerness, therefore, is never a matter of being or becoming but, rather, of embodying the remainder of the Real internal to the Symbolic order.” (Edelman, No Future, 26) The remainder is Lacanian jouissance, which Edelman describes as “a movement beyond the pleasure principle, beyond the distinctions of pleasure and pain, a violent passage beyond the bounds of identity, meaning, and law,” (26). The present participle “embodying” seems to emerge as a way to get at the phenomenological experience of jouissance: bodily materiality and bodily perception are linked in the present-tense. This seems to me to be an endlessly productive as a way of thinking about bodily materiality and the queerness of jouissance/desire.

But, as JJC points out, these present tenses are not always the same. As someone who claims to work on the history of “embodiment,” I’ve found the present participle here to get at a significant "queerness" perhaps latent in phenomenology, but I’m struggling with how to attend to the present tense in the past without losing such queerness. What happens when embodying solidifies into embodiment? How do these present-tense moments of phenomenological perception and material sensation saturate into bodily histories?

Though I understand the impulse to “care for” the green children, I’m wondering if there’s a way to attend to futurity through this paradox: perhaps the green children’s bodies represent a way to think about that present tense of “embodying” in the past. For example, the ways in which JJC talks about the green children maps onto an interesting argument about queer phenomenology and bodily materiality in Gayle Salamon’s “Boys of the Lex: Transgenderism and Rhetorics of Materiality,” (GLQ, 12.4, 2006). Salamon argues that queer phenomenology is useful precisely because it defines the material body, in the present, as produced by both the limits of the past and by an anticipation of the unexpected potential of the future:

“The phenomenological project is not an attempt to do away with the real world, but rather to question our suppositions about that world so that we might see it more clearly and utterly. [the body that phenomenology offers holds…] one’s body and one’s self open to the possibility of what one cannot know or anticipate in advance. It is to be situated at materiality’s threshold of possibility rather than caught within a materiality that is at its core constricted, constrictive, and determining,” (Salamon, 594).

This definition of the phenomenological material body, a body “open to what one cannot know in advance,” perhaps represents the present tense of “embodying” without denying the possibilities of the future and perhaps the experiences of the past. Could this be a way of thinking about the bodily materiality of those green children and the elsewheres and elsewhens they represent?

p.s. I realize that I’m chickening out by using the green children as a safe stand in for thinking about the materiality of children’s bodies. My own discomfort with even discussing children’s bodies in the present tense somehow gets us back to edelman’s argument about the power of that symbolic order.

Eileen Joy said...

I think the chapter I also liked the least was "Compassion's Compulsion," although I keep finding myself torn between taking everything Edelman says in the book as an elaborate metaphor for ways of [rightfully] refusing *imposed* and *imposing* and heteronormative, hetero-reproductive future[s] and taking everything he says more literally [or, let's say more "politically," with an emphasis on the idea that Edelman's argument should be *thought* in relation to specific *actions* one might take in one's life]. So it's hard for me, ultimately, to separate his brilliant yet cruel riffing on the character of Leonard [in Hitchcock's "North By Northwest"] not only refusing to help someone dangling on a cliff-side but actively pushing that person off [actively *undoing* their tentative and struggling grip on a future they can never really possess, as it were, through a violent and willfully inhuman gesture] as an elaborate metaphor for "shoving off" having to "feel" for others who we may not want to "feel for" [and also for helping others to embrace negation] from that same critical riff as ultimately being about . . . um, it's okay, even ethically brave, to shove people off cliffs.

This becomes my problem with the whole book in the end: is it all just an elaborate thought-experiment that might be helpful in formulating a queer identity that can't ultimately be co-opted by anyone's politics or by the Symbolic order more generally [?], and if so, how might that then translate into actual actions that I, as a queer person, might [under]take in this world? In this sense, Edelman's book also demonstrates what I think is increasingly a problem for scholarship in the more "radical" critical theories produced within the context of literature departments: is this social theory I'm reading? Film and/or literary criticism? Political philosophy? A primer for post-politics politics? A critical screed? And here I have to agree with Michael U. and say that, while I don't think we should restrict what anyone can write about, there should be some kind of intellectual obligation to serve as well as possible the terms and concepts one wants to invoke and apply. [I think JJC hits on this point quite well when he remarks on the obvious: the Democrats and Republicans, in point of fact, are not the same. The Nazis and Brits are not the same. The past and the future are not the same thing. And so on and so forth.]

HD: your comments on embodying/embodiment are really provocative. I'm working on something right now that deals with "volatile" embodiment and queer phenomenology in relation to medieval "wonders of the east" texts, and if you're willing to share anything you're working on, or have published, email me privately:, as I would love to know more about your work.

Anonymous said...

I'll say a few things about compassion, a subject, along with hope and mindfulness, that I've been rather interested in for the last couple of years--along three lines, ethical, research-related, and psychotherapeutic.

Jeffrey is very good to remind us that compassion means "to suffer with." A mindful approach to suffering is compassionate insofar as it rests upon a deep awareness of suffering (one's own and the other's), acknowledges it as universal, brings it into the present moment through that awareness, and finally accepts it.

So, compassion need not involve affection or affiliation, but rather care and empathic understanding/attunement. Compassion does not depend upon wanting or imagining a relationship (say, to one's neighbor), but like sympathy is moved by the suffering (or ignorance) of another. One can feel compassion for those one might never meet. Without empathy, compassion would lack the understanding of the other. Without sympathy, empathy can be cold, indifferent or even exploitative.

Wang (2005) has investigated what it is about humans that allows them to experience the connectedness to others without the help of the physiology of love and affiliation, even in the face of others harming us (see, e.g., story of Tibetan monk above).

Her answer has to do with attachment, something I've written about it here before. It is attachment that becomes the base for something like the practice of tonglen. Verala & Depraz (2003) have described the Buddhist practice of tonglen as a kind of mind training that when practiced leads to a progressive softening or weakening of the automatic position of 'me first,' characteristic of our cognitive ego or self. (See Leary on this....) It involves breathing in the pain, darkness, sorrow and heaviness of the chosen scene, and breathing out from one's core openness, warmth and release back into the person or situation. It is based on the existing intersubjective nature of one's experience and the exchange is possible only because humans are always already immersed in a network of relations. It is thus not the "I put myself in my neighbor's shoes" or "I love my neighbor as myself" kind of logic.

I had the honor of studying for a semester with Kristin Neff, whose work on compassion is, within psychology, a gold-standard for conceptualizing and operationalizing the concept. There is much research on compassion taking place--I refer you to Snyder & Lopez's (2007) new book on positive psychology. Eric Cassell's chapter in the Handbook of Positive Psychology is a good starting place.

Anonymous said...

Edelman's book also demonstrates what I think is increasingly a problem for scholarship in the more "radical" critical theories produced within the context of literature departments: is this social theory I'm reading? Film and/or literary criticism? Political philosophy? A primer for post-politics politics? A critical screed? And here I have to agree with Michael U. and say that, while I don't think we should restrict what anyone can write about, there should be some kind of intellectual obligation to serve as well as possible the terms and concepts one wants to invoke and apply.

I'm with you, but you may be asking the wrong "what" questions. What it is is pretty clear to me--the book is solipsistic drivel, regardless of genre. Nearly every argument is based on prejudgment. Edelman makes no genuine attempt to engage with a field of discourse, say that of psychology, neurobiology, where in fact the concept of compassion has been discussed, refined, and made relevant to other disciplines such as religion, ethics, and psychotherapy. So the question for me is a "why" question: why does he feel above what Eileen calls the "intellectual obligation" to be responsible to what I'll call, common sensically, the history of ideas? Is it because his ideas are in fact empty ones? Is it because he is lazy, and knows he can get away with sloppy scholarship (I mean, who is going to really vet his work--the press? unlikely. his peer reviewers? even more unlikely.)? Is it arrogance? Lack of confidence?

My feeling is that if Edelman really thought his work was significant--as a politics, as an ethics, as philosophy, as lit crit, as whatever--he would put it to some kind of test. He might, at a minimum, read Paul Gilbert, probably the person in the world who is doing the most to understand compassion, (not to mention, Thich Nhat Hahn and the Dalai Lama), or, if he were really truly daring (ooh), he might invite to Tufts Paul Gilbert, along with Neff, Wang, Cassell, and others and have a symposium on compassion (and its alleged "compulsion").

I'm not just saying be interdisciplinary (yawn)--for that would approach telling someone how to conduct their scholarship--I'm saying something more fundamental, and, unfortunately it would seem, more radical: be responsible. Practice a scholarship that does more than navel-gaze.

Michael O'Rourke said...

A companion essay to "Compassion's Compulsion" and "No Future" is (unsurprisingly) Zizek's "Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence" which critiques Butler on the human and engages (as Edelman does) the questions of the neighbor, ethics, the inhuman and the sinthome. You can find the chapter in Zizek, Reinhard and Santner's The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (but trust me you would be much better served reading Reinhard and Santner's contributions though) which has been mentioned by both myself and EJ here before.

The article begins with a critique of Butler which carries on (explicitly and implicitly) throughout the chapter and should be seen as a supplement to the dialogue(s) between Zizek and Butler in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. Zizek's main problem with Butler seems to be Edelman's problem with her--she is too liberal, too Levinasian, too much given over to the other, the vulnerable, the neighbor, too full of love, responsibility, respect, compassion for the other. This "suspect" (if you are Zizek or Edelman) Levinasianism can be found in the "Responsibility" chapter (the Foucauldian one) of Giving an Account of Oneself and most recently before that in Undoing Gender and Precarious Life (and also since in Butler's continuing work on Benjamin, Jewishness and ethical violence) so at least Zizek is engaging recent Butler if only to dismiss her attempts to plasticize the human. Butler is lumped in with all the other respect-for-otherness-Levinasian-democracy-to-come suspects here too: "Butler's elementary move is the standard Derridean turn from condition of impossibility to condition of possibility: the fact that a human subject is constrained in its autonomy, thrown into a pregiven complex situation which remains impenetrable to him and for which he is not fully accountable, is simultaneously the condition of possibility of moral activity, what makes moral activity meaningful, since we can be responsible for others only insofar as they (and we) are constrained and thrown into an impenetrable situation". Butler here gets filtered through Zizek's usual Lacano-Hegelian alembic and in the next section "Smashing the Neighbor's Face" (the title says it all) Levinas gets a similar thrashing --all without recognizing the links that could productively be made between Butler and Levinas & Lacan, Hegel, Badiou rather than setting them up in opposition. The Zizekian-Edelmanian position is to say yes to Hegel and Lacan, no to Butler and Levinas without recalling that Butler is an Hegelian through and through (why does nobody read Subjects of Desire anymore?). Simon Critchley is good on Badiou in this respect too showing that for all that Badiou dismisses Levinasian ethics as a "dogs dinner" Badiou and Lacan are actually pretty Levinasian in their structuring of ethical experience.

Here's the bit on the sinthome which ought to be read alongside No Future and which begs to be interrogated by EJ, JJC and KS:

"This link between castration and sinthome means that the 'undead' partial object is the inscription on the body of what Eric Santner calls 'signifying stress': the wound, the disfiguration/distortion, inflicted upon the body when the body is colonized by the symbolic order. This is why animals are not 'creatures' in this precise sense, they are not stuck onto a sinthome. However, one should avoid here the temptation to translate this feature into the terms of the traditional philosophical anthropology, according to which, animals are immersed in their environs, their behavior regulated by innate instincts, while humans are 'homeless' animals deprived of immediate instinctual support, which is why they need a master to impose on them their 'second nature', symbolic norms and regulations. The key difference is that the 'cringe' of the sinthome is not a cultural device destined to impose a new balance onto the uprooted human being which threatens to explode into untamed excess itself: a human being (to come) loses its animal instinctual coordinates by way of getting transfixed/stuck onto an "inhuman" sinthome. What this means is that the differentia specifica which defines a human being is, therefore, not the difference between human and animal (or any other real or imaginary species, such as gods), but an inherent difference, the difference between human and the inhuman excess that is inherent to being-human".

The importance of Zizek's chapter for queer studies is that it then goes on to talk about shame (*the* hot button topic is QT right now) and then love (which ought to become one but won't if the Edelmanian grip continues to hold). Zizek's conclusion in an article which dazzlingly shimmies through Butler, Levinas, Kierkegaard, Levinas, Agamben, Deleuze, Kafka (and others) as well as the usual mix of Lacan-Hegel-Marx-pop culture-dirty jokes ultimately boils down to this:

"The true ethical step is the one beyond the face of the other, the one of suspending the hold of the face, the one of choosing against the face...justice is emphatically *not* justice for-with regard to-the neighbor".

Remember here Edelman's step in his reading of North by Northwest which immediately precedes his critique of Butler on Antigone and his embrace of the inhuman over against (as a slap in or smashing of) the face of the human:

"Against the promise of such an activism {for a better tomorrow], he [the simthomosexual] performs, instead, an act: the act of repudiating the social, of stepping or trying to step, with Leonard, beyond compulsory compassion, beyond the future and the snare of images keeping us always in its thrall".

If we get stuck on the sinthome and No Future continues to hold Queer Studies in its thrall there is *no* possibility for justice or ethics other than the version given to us in Zizek and Edelman to which I say No thanks!!

Michael O'Rourke said...

Speaking of the inhuman, where on earth is Lyotard in this book?

Anonymous said...

Or, for that matter, where is Ogden, Goldberg, or Lachmann?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

Just briefly, I do want to emphasize that I know there are ways in which I've flattened Edelman's argument, and may even have implied that he is talking about specific children rather than a structural thing called the Child. I don't think that what he wrote was pointless or solipsistic. No Future really challenged me to think, and I don't regret the time I spent with the book, even though I disagree so much with its methodology, frame, and conclusion.

HD: I wnat to think more about the present participle, temporality, and embodiment. It's an intriguing observation, and complicated enough that I don't have a swift reply.

Eileen: the book would be easier to take if things like the stepping on the hands were a metaphor, but the death drive is resistant to Symbolic twaddle like metaphors, so I think we are compelled to take the Act for what it is. In a way I applaud Edelman for not trying to water it down or make it more palatable; he has really tapped into what is brutal in Lacan.

Thank you, Michael, for the bibliography on compassion. And thank you, Other Michael, for more theory context.

Michael O'Rourke said...

Can I be the big Other?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Only if you are willing to withhold the jouissance.

Michael O'Rourke said...

" One joys in the other for the self" as Jean-Luc Nancy says in "Shattered Love". Because translating jouir as "to enjoy" loses the sexual connotations of the verb and translating it as "to come" loses the relation to "joy" Nancy creates a new verb : "to joy". I like this, I joy in it. Not sure I can withhold my jouissance in this case Jouissance Jouissance Cohen!!

Eileen Joy said...

Michael O.--thanks for the precis on the Zizek chapter in "The Neighbor," especially as I had not gotten through that one, yet. Just based on your reading/summary, I'm dismayed. But like JJC, I'm glad to be reading Edelman and the like-Edelman [those who, let's say, embrace the anti-sociality thesis in queer studies], if only because: a) it's provocative and provides somewhat of a "check" for those of us trying to formulate a more loving or "for-the-Other" queer studies, and b) in point of fact, can we really always be for all Others, regardless of what they might want/need from us? Further, I think it's helpful to at least ponder the possibility of the ways in which the future can be tyrannical, especially in its more fictive/symbolic aspects. But this idea--as Edelman puts it: shoving people off cliffs, and as Zizek puts it: smashing faces or "ethical violence"--is just too much for me. Only a type of hatred which is really self-hatred deep down could necessitate such actions. What about a more passive "I don't care about the future" stance: what would that look like? In any case, much to think about here. Would a more loving queer studies love Edelman and Zizek to death? [haha]

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'll add one more comment and then I think at last I have said enough.

Michael U. and I had an interesting (but brief an interrupted) phone conversation last night on Edeleman's motivation in penning No Future. There are all kinds of reasons one might guess, but in my mind as a reader I'm required to approach the thing with all the seriousness that must have gone into its composition. In other words, I do believe Edelman when he writes that it is a polemic that embraces the queer as death drive/Real/jouissance; thus he must mean to utterly reject the suffocating Symbolic (hence "No Future," given that the Symbolic he describes can do nothing more than replicate itself infinitely via hoped-for futurity). Very serious stuff indeed.

I surmise that a leap of faith is the only thing that would allow assent to the argument he sketches (in that the world as he envisions it is contrary to my own experience of the world) ... but I also acknowledge my own limitations. I'm not as good at my Lacan as he is; I don't have the same trust that Lacan's vision of how the universe is structured is actually true. But I do want to make clear that someone with that faith could be utterly convinced by the argument in a way that I was not.