Against a Dream Deferred

Don’t do it for the children    

I don’t want you to think I don’t like children. I do. I number among the insufferable of our species who ask to hold strangers’ babies in public. At 25, I’ve not been an adult all that long myself. But here’s the thing: I’m not fighting for the children. I’ll go further — I’m on the side of those not fighting for the children.

It’s not a palatable political position to occupy. Indeed, according to queer theorist Lee Edelman, it’s an impossible political position. Impossible, he suggests, because the entire political order is underpinned by concerns for The Child and its future.

In his 2004 book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Edelman asserts that there is a “consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.” Put simply, reproductive futurism is the belief in, and desire for, a future, which has as its emblem The Child, “the fantasmic beneficiary of every political intervention.” And like Edelman, I argue for the “side outside of the consensus” — a queer opposition to a politics defined by concern for imaginary children and their imagined futures.

Much ink has already been spilled over No Future’s challenging polemic and it is beyond the remit of these paragraphs to fully expound on Edelman’s Lacan-inspired argument. Nor will I address whether Edelman is correct in suggesting that the entire logical space of “politics” is exhausted by reproductive futurism. (Some writers, like philosopher Nina Power, have suggested that it’s not — I think she’s wrong, but that’s for a different time). Here I hope only to expand on Edelman’s modest point that reproductive futurism underpins politics from both the right and the left and carries with it an inherent conservatism and heteronormativity.

And this being so, I suggest alongside Edelman: fuck the future.

Ample examples in contemporary U.S. politics show reproductive futurism at work, where The Child and its projected future set the fulcrum. The Right combines “pro-life” anti-abortion campaigns with child-centric stances against same-sex unions or marriages which warn that the of gay parents is at risk; the future is at risk. (Edelman quotes Pope John Paul II, who said of same-sex unions, “such a caricature [of the ‘authentic’ family] has no future and cannot give future to any society.”)

The left, too, leans on this fulcrum. Defenders of abortion rights don’t dare challenge the unmitigated good of a future life, and choose instead to argue from “choice”; environmentalists campaign for the children’s future; and, in recent months, protesters scattered across occupy camps held cardboard signs emblazoned with future-looking slogans — it is for the kids’ future, for a world with jobs and homes and health care, that many are now fighting.

But what exactly is this Child, how does it differ from any actually living children, and what’s the problem with fighting for it? The Child, as opposed to any actual children in the world, is the deferred structural space through which we uphold and legitimate social values; the social order is held stable in the name of the Child. As Edelman puts it, “The image of the Child, not to be confused with the lived experiences of any actual historical children, serves to regulate political discourse — to prescribe what will count as political discourse”:

The Child … 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.

The harm done by reproductive futurism, then, is that the lives and freedoms of adults and, indeed, actual children, are curtailed in deference to the Child. The social order is preserved to create a world for the Child, who is only permitted to grow up insofar as it will itself have Children of its own. We see this clearly in a gay rights discourse in which a liberal defense of same-sex partnership is premised on the upholding of the nuclear family and the ability to raise certain types of children (i.e., the upholding of heteronormativity).

Zach Wahls, a young man from Iowa, achieved online stardom last year when a speech he gave in defense of gay marriage in a public forum went viral — cheered from liberal facebook pages to blogs to twitter feeds. Zach, a student at the university of Iowa, is well-built, well-spoken, and wears a suit in the viral video clip. Zach has two moms — a lesbian couple — but (and here’s when we’re supposed to sigh with relief) he’s normal and his family is conservative; they eat dinner, go to church and have fights, Zach reassures us.

Similarly, in the Emmy Award-winning domestic sitcom Modern Family, the status quo dominates. Premised on the idea that family life is so different and varied these days, the show centers on an extended family in which one unit includes a gay male couple and their adopted vietnamese toddler. They live in a large California house with a lush lawn. They earn money, spend, and uphold the nuclear family. Herein lies the heteronormativity inherent to reproductive futurism, upheld across the political spectrum — politics leaves room for difference, so long as the difference also promises to preserve a world for the universalized subject of the innocent Child.

It gives the lie to campaigns like the “It gets better Project,” created by Dan savage to inspire hope in LGBTQ youth facing harassment. The project’s videos are emotive and moving, but something crucial is missing. Often, it doesn’t get better. Or it gets better if you can assimilate — want a family, support the troops, support monogamy, be a good citizen. Get in line or ghettoize; hope but don’t disrupt. Love and sex are permitted only insofar as they reproduce the Child — the right type of vessel to itself reproduce the social order. To embrace queerness, then, is to embrace the disruption; to experiment with relationality and sexuality that needn’t posit a future.

It’s worth noting that many actual policies that seem to defy reproductive futurism, such as policies that limit the ability for many children to get health care, in fact fall within the logic of reproductive futurism. It is entirely compatible with this political framework that many living children experience suffering in deference to the future well-being of the figural Child — an infinitely deferred placeholder. Indeed, Nazi germany killed millions of children in the name of the fatherland’s future and the promulgation of the Arian Child. Reproductive futurism is thus also about who does or does not get to count as a child worth fighting for.

Queerness, by contrast, rejects any such guiding principle. Queerness does not want to preserve anything and is genuinely anti-futural. As Edelman writes, “The future is mere repetition and just as lethal as the past … And so what is queerest about us, queerest within us, and queerest despite us is this willingness to insist intransitively — to insist that the future stop here.”

It could read like a cold, hopeless nihilism (hope, as it is, necessarily located in the future). But this is so only within a framework that upholds the unquestioned value of a projected future, that treats “hope” as an unmitigated good (the kind of good that can be used as a slogan to win votes in an election). So let’s do away with hope. The challenge is rather to embrace an unmarked aperture — a “who knows?” The challenge is to experiment together to find new ways of interacting, meeting, thinking of space, caring, and fucking; new ways of living. It’s part and parcel of queering — of challenging our entire current way of thinking about the world — that I can’t offer a practical antidote to reproductive futurism. As oscar wilde put it, “A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish.” If we reject the current schemes and existing conditions, we must forgo too the desire for a practical solutions.

It is like when you tell a defender of capitalism (even its unwitting guardians) that you’re an anticapitalist, and they ask, “well, what do you propose instead?” And the only response is “not this.” Not because you just haven’t figured out a good answer yet, but precisely because any future-looking formulation, any formulation or sentence at all, would have to employ concepts currently available to us — concepts that make up the “now” that we know to be so problematic. If you’re seeking the end of our very epistemology, you can’t very well explain, from within that epistemology, “what you propose instead.” You can’t look to imaginary children, you can’t sing about “tomorrow,” and you can’t devise a program to follow — a queer ethics is more nuanced and constantly challenging than that. The future stops here. So what shall we do now?