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No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Series Q)

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Lee Edelman was born in 1953. [1] He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Northwestern University, and he received an MPhil and a PhD from Yale University. Edelman, Lee (1987). Transmemberment of Song: Hart Crane's Anatomies of Rhetoric and Desire. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 9780804714136. OCLC 16095217.

Edelman began his academic career as a scholar of twentieth-century American poetry. He has since become active in the development, dissemination, and rethinking of queer theory. His current work explores the intersections of sexuality, rhetorical theory, cultural politics, and film. He holds an appointment as the Fletcher Professor of English Literature and has served as the Chair of the English Department. [ citation needed] He gained international recognition for his books about queer theory, post-structuralism, psychoanalytic theory, and cultural studies. In this context, another quotation from Adorno’s Negative Dialectics might be useful: “If negative dialectics calls for the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true—if it is to be true today, in any case—it must also be a thinking against itself. If thought is not measured by the extremity that eludes the concept, it is from the outset in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the ss liked to drown out the screams of its victims” (365). Fantasy is “the central prop and underlying agency… [that] endows reality with fictional coherence and stability, which seems to guarantee that such reality, the social world in which we take our place, will still survive when we do not.” Identifying with future selves, and then organizing our lives around efforts to become those future selves, we come to take for granted that we are stable, self-directed beings who move through a more-or-less unchanging world towards a chosen destination. We can even imagine, with a sanguine perspective, the persistence of projects like ours in this world after our death, and thus reconcile ourselves to mortality by fantastically identifying with a future in which we no longer exist. One of the great virtues of Edelman's thesis is that it restores the distinction between queerness and homosexuality per se. Edelman goes some way to returning the uncanniness attached to queerness which has been dispelled by the very signifier 'gay' and the cosy, Kylie-loving, unthreatening cheeriness with which it has become associated." — K-Punk

The interruption of the patterns of imagined significance through which everyday life had been interpreted is a kind of death—and, for many thinkers, the beginning of serious thinking. In her “Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy” (1970) Hannah Arendt argues that nearly the entire philosophical tradition has been “in love with death” in this sense. Since Plato, she claims, philosophers have encouraged us to withdraw from the realm of ordinary preoccupations into a new kind of life that resembles death: a private, un-social way of living founded on an insight into the nullity of common human endeavor. From the perspective of the social world, in which personal projects are oriented towards achieving recognition and participating in a common future, philosophers are ambient corpses. Arendt defines herself in opposition to this tradition. She suggests that philosophy’s orientation to death makes it a danger to politics in general and to democracy in particular. Democracy, she claims, depends on a temporal pact (a social contract for time) by which the past can be remembered in the future, and through which the future remains open to novel, and therefore memorable, collective action.

The quality that best characterizes it is that of being the true Wunsch, which was at the origin of an aberrant or atypical behavior. North by Northwest will appear, then, to have taken its hero on a journey, to have moved him by teaching him how to b e moved, to have brought him, as Raymond Bellour suggests, “from an ignorance to a knowledge,” recalling in this the narrative logic of temporal succession whereby allegory sorts out and distributes sequentially, in an effort to make intelligible, the incompatible pressures that irony condenses in every instant. [140] The film’s last shot would seem to confirm such a triumph of allegorization by flattering the “knowingness” of an audience always happy to give a hand—as much to itself as to the film—when the phallic symbol it failed to see coming comes handed to it like a gift. If Edelman’s theory is to be believed, our political model is essentially conservative in that it affirms and sustains our current social design, justifying this with the icon of the hypothetical future Child. We can vaguely equate his proposal to dissolve politics with the atheistic imperative to renounce the concept of heaven: afterlife and unborn generations are used in the same way to suppress the exigency, the potential, and the singular reality of life on earth. Both atheism and Edelman’s definition of queerness argue the present life as the only meaningful reality, and propose that any construction of meaning or reality outside of it is intentionally displaced so as to control/limit individual and collective puissance, i.e., to negate revolution or fundamental change. Suzanne Barnard, “The Tongues of Angels: Feminine Structure and Other Jouissance,” in Reading Seminar XX: Lacan’s Major Work on Love, Knowledge, and Feminine Sexuality, ed. Suzanne Barnard and Bruce Fink (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 173. Although orgasm and illness are hardly identical, both Smith and Edelman thus see such ‘limit experiences’ as revealing a strange connection between moments in which we are most insistently our own bodies (in pleasure or displeasure) and a capacity for negative, abstract, critical thinking that frees us from social conventions. The alternative way of life that philosophy or queerness names is at once radically private and corporeal. It is located in the specificity of a body reduced to itself and unable to perform its social functions by a dearth or excess of vital energies, and, at the same time, soaringly universal, appealing to an abstract reason that calls every aspect of collective life into question.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 was published, in an earlier version, as “The Future is Kid Stuff: Queer Theory, Disidentification, and the Death Drive,” in Narrative (January 1998).

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