The Value of the Future (II): Materialism and the Child in Queer Theory

Is queer theory undergoing a materialist turn? For a field born in many ways out of literary studies, textual deconstruction, and epistemological interrogation, questions of materialism, labor and capital accumulation have understandably had a difficult time getting sustained attention. So much of the exhausting and exhausted battle over the actionable qualities of the social, the so-called rift in the field between the “anti-social thesis” and the “queer futurity” camps, has carried on as if “queer” relationality was a magically subversive exception to management of life under capitalism. Worse, some of the fetishism in the field of hybridity, marginality and unintelligibility of sex and desire has more or less capitulated to the individualist, consumer-mode of late capitalism’s commodification of pleasure (I couldn’t recommend more Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie on this), willfully refusing the utterly facile reification of queerness by capital in recent years. (I won’t cite anyone as exemplary here because I’m not picking a fight, I’m proposing a broad reading of the field’s matrices.)

Queer theory could be said to be undergoing a materialist turn not just because its kin among the trending interdisciplines of late are increasingly themselves materialist–the becoming-Deleuzian and widespread interest in biopolitics characterizing critical theory, the inheritors of Marxist genealogies now looking at affective labor and immaterial work as key to contemporary political economy, or the literal new materialists, particular feminist new materialists–to cite a few examples. Recent publications at the heart of ongoing conversations in queer theory are themselves more than ever informed by a materialist approach as the field engages with the Great Recession: Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages (2007), Mel Chen’s Animacies (2012), and certainly the landmark GLQ special issue “Queer Studies and the Crises of Capitalism” (2012) all come to mind.

I joked on Twitter recently that perhaps we will therefore be spared in the next few years from introductions to new queer theory books that devote the requisite section to an intervention into the question of anti-/sociality through yet another reading of Lee Edelman’s No Future (2004). I have felt for some time that the opposability of negativity and futurity is already to begin by misunderstanding the terms in play and their stakes. The publication of Sex, or the Unbearable (2013) by Edelman and Lauren Berlant a few months ago should go some distance to evaluating the itinerary of this debate and how it makes sense to continue with it, if it indeed does at all. For my part, I am less concerned with the actual examination of the question of negativity or futurity (they are valuable questions) than with its stratification and sedimentation over the past decade into a de facto dialectic, a weak way of organizing a field in which the political actionability of the entire social field becomes pre-programmed by a certain mode of queer theory: either negativity = subversive and futurity = normative, or the exact inverse. It becomes difficult in this dialectic to think anything different.

And yet I offer you just one more reading of No Future, if you will indulge me, for I think a return to that book helps sketch out the stakes of approaching sociality as the center of queer theory versus materiality. My work on the gay and transgender child, moreover, cannot escape a detailed engagement with Edelman’s now referential project. In the forthcoming special issue of GLQ I am assembling with Kathryn Bond Stockton and Rebekah Sheldon we have arrived at the title “The Child Now.” It could just as easily be, though, The Child Now, for the now is the crux of our intervention in bringing together new work that aims not to inquire once again into the child as a figure, either a sentimental or lonely memory from childhood past, or else a redemptive or reprehensible cipher of a future-to-come, queer or otherwise. We turn to materiality and materialism in order to see the child’s body as a material resource, a threshold between nature and culture that subsists both as a standing reserve to the nation and yet threatens to grow through runaway vitalities that exceed even the densest biopolitical arrangements of control. As I diffract this matter through the lens of my dissertation, “Queer Theory is Kid Stuff,” the queer in queer child, I conclude, can no longer designate only the mournful childhood from which adult queer subjectivity maintains its fable of origin. Today the queer child is being activated as a unit in a living population, an increasingly protectable body (politic), and a cherished personality in homonationalist state formations in the United States, Canada and Europe.

A shift from thinking of the gay or transgender child as a figure to a material body and population does not, though, exactly amount to a critique of No Future‘s project. After all, Edelman is very clear that “the image of the Child” ought “not to be confused with the lived experiences of any historical children” (11) and, moreover, that “the cult of the Child permits no shrines to the queerness of boys and girls” (19). On this point I have to agree: the Symbolic function of the Child-with-a-capital-C holds hostage our capacity to think otherwise about living populations of children, queer or otherwise (and as Stockton has so eloquently argued about the twentieth century in The Queer Child [2009], there is a queerness to childhood itself as a distinct state of being).

In a presentation I am working on for a few conferences this semester, however, I note that the problem is not so much with Edelman’s analysis of the mantle of the Child for reproductive futurism: surely there is no shortage of that kind of work being done by the Child today, as the crises in financial capitalism reorganize childhood into a form of chronic and perpetual debt through education, flexible labor practices, and the generation of value through digital and new media.  As Sheldon points out in the most recent issue of ADA, “reproductive futurism has lost none of its efficacy under neoliberalism.” Yet, the figure of the Child that anchors Edelman’s treatment of reproductive futurism also seems to be fading from view under what she terms “somatic capitalism,” a regime under which reproductive futurism works in the shadow of the specter of a runaway vitality and unrestrained growth, so “that [reproductive futurism] harnesses the associations of the child with the future to reconsolidate liveliness back into human, at the same time that material practices in the life sciences make this sovereign fantasy harder and harder to maintain.”

In a similar vein, I note at the outset of this presentation in-progress that Edelman’s privileged punching-bag, the orphan Annie, feels a most estranged character for the Child or the child today, as a generation comes of age in the midst of a financial catastrophe similar in proportions to the Depression, but with a very different political economy. The generation coming of age today is the first since the post-war fantasy of white national domesticity to have a lower life expectancy that its parents, across demographics. This is a generation for whom public education is no longer a shelter from the labor marked in the delay of sentimental childhood, but rather where value creation has penetrated the most banal everyday activities of children, especially on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Then there are the dwindling job prospects for the heavily unemployed youth of North America and Europe, with even worse economic racism according to local topographies of political economy. Finally, this generation is so thoroughly in debt that it is difficult to imagine anything less than a massive, utterly endemic default as its future.

For this reason, “queerness” as Edelman sees the death drive offers rather little in political capital. And Annie’s infamous lines from “Tomorrow” seem far less relevant than, at the very least, the laboring critique of “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” Here is how Edelman puts it in No Future:

The Child, in the historical epoch of our current epistemological re­gime, is the figure for this compulsory investment in the misrecognition of figure. It takes its place on the social stage like every adorable Annie gathering her limitless funds of pluck to “stick out [her] chin! And grin! And say: ‘Tomorrow!! Tomorrow!! I love ya! Tomorrow! You’re always! A day! Away.'” And lo and behold, as viewed through the prism of the tears that it always calls forth, the figure of this Child seems to shimmer with the iridescent promise of Noah’s rainbow, serving like the rainbow as the pledge of a covenant that shields us against the persistent threat of apocalypse now-or later (18).

Even on Symbolic grounds, this analysis seems maladapted to contemporary modes of childhood. In any case, though, Annie is not just Symbolic, but material. As the vulnerable white child of Fordism, the plot of Annie is redemptive, the successful recuperation of the child into a sentimental shelter from work, even if her virtuosic labor of singing and dancing is permissible.

Of course, to hurl Jameson’s dictum “Always historicize!” at Edelman is disingenuous, for as I pointed out, Edelman is working purely within the Lacanian parameters of the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the force of the death drive, surging into and from within the Real. Nevertheless, the consensus that the child ought to be thought of as a Symbolic figure in the first place is a problematic effect of the centrality of  No Future to queer theory and so considering Annie, for instance, as a material body and a mode of child labor under a specific era of capitalism opens onto an understanding of how reproductive futurism does and does not hold in the contemporary moment.

In the twenty-first century, in other words, it might not be so profitable to “fuck Annie” (29), as Edelman flourishes in a rhetorical moment that ought not to be taken too seriously. More seriously, though, his conclusion that “the Child as futurity’s emblem must die; that the future is mere repetition and just as lethal as the past” (31), is simply not convincing from a the perspective of materialism. For, I would argue, that child is dying. A slow death, too, as Berlant might put it. And the longer that we maintain the child in queer theory as a figure, the longer we will abet an assemblage of material processes whose valuation of the future cuts us off from its immanent potential to assemble otherwise.

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