Monday, 23 March 2009

and what i really want to know is this

I listened to Laurie Anderson's album, Bright Red, constantly while I was discovering Benjamin and Derrida in my MA year, and (perhaps consequently) it seems to me to be one of the savviest theoretical works on history in existence. It has a song 'Same Time Tomorrow' which contains the lines:

and what I really want to know is this:
Are things getting better, or are they getting worse?
Can we start all over again?
Stop. Pause. We're in record.

Which is such a deft and intelligent and dense and complex set of reflections on what it is to do history (we can't interpret historical data, particularly data from our own historical moment, without a narrative of progress or of decline; we can't start all over again, because the burden of history weighs on our brains like a nightmare from which we are trying to awake; and our experience in the present is conditioned or determined by technologically specific archival structures.) The fact that the previous stanza is all about letters and their burning (the conceptual/metaphorical centre of Derrida's The Post Card) just makes me love this song even harder.

The Benjamin connection is 4REAL, by the way - one of the ways we were taught Benjamin on my MA was through a documentary by/about Laurie Anderson, in which she clones herself and her clone (who looks nothing like her) only speaks in Walter Benjamin quotes. Also, her song 'The Dream Before' is a version of Benjamin's Angel of History, from his 1940 essay 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' (recently retranslated as 'On the Concept of History').

Anyway, I'm currently trying to write my paper for the Eros conference this weekend and wishing I knew whether I was getting cleverer or whether I was getting stupider (is the reason it's flowing relatively easily but I can tell where the conceptual holes are just because I am better at writing and more self-reflective than I used to be, or because I have become glib and superficial in a career-driven bid to publish/give more papers?) Which is what that title was originally about, but of course it will also serve to segue into my promised post on Benjamin and Edelman.

I've bitched talked a fair bit about what I think is wrong with Lee Edelman's book No Future in the chapter I wrote for Miriam Leonard's volume Derrida and Antiquity. I had really high hopes for the book, which is about the political motivation of appeals to 'the children' (won't somebody please think of the children?) and the way that such appeals implicate us in a particular way of thinking about the future as the reproduction of the present, which involves a particular kind of naturalization of heterosexuality and the nuclear family as well as a problematic conservatism, a closedness to the future as radically unknown and unknowable. Which is a great thing for a book to be about, yes? Yes! But the book itself has four main flaws, for me:

(1) It takes for granted that reproductive heterosex can be distinguished from queer, non-reproductive sex, and it doesn't seem to believe that the future can be thought of in any way other than the reproduction of the Same (this is the point I take aim at in the Derrida chapter).

(2) Its argument, riskily, is that queers should proceed by repeating and fulfilling the homophobic insistence that queerness is dangerous or deadly to children, and that queerness has no future. I don't think this risk pays off: Leo Bersani writes on the back cover of the book Edelman’s extraordinary text is so powerful that we could perhaps reproach him only for not spelling out the mode in which we might survive our necessary assent to his argument. Which means that his book requires that queers assent to our non-survival, our eradication: I can't think of anything more anti-queer than that (not just that queers should be eradicated, but that we should participate in our own eradication), and it never quite becomes clear to me what is pro-queer about the book's argument.

(3) Edelman repeatedly says 'queers' and 'we' when he means 'gay men' (We all know the pain of homophobes insisting that we are effeminate interior designers! No, not if 'we' are butch lesbians). Universalizing specifically male experience is irritating, lazy and sexist anyway, but when it's in a book about the production of children, it's even more so.

(4) It doesn't engage with the fact that some people are children - and that the use of children-as-metaphors is damaging and harmful to them, too.

So, anyway. I teach an MA unit called 'Reception: History, Time and the Archive' which is about the reception of (texts and artefacts from) the past, and the models of history and time that we use to think about the material or textual survival of the past into the present. It's a really fun unit, and this year I have a particularly excellent group of students, who pretty much on a weekly basis help me to push my ideas further (they're already in the acknowledgements page of Now and Rome for helping me, in our session on Jauss, to sharpen up the relationship between textual and political reception that the book is all about). And when we read 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' a couple of weeks ago, I realized for the first time that Benjamin's whole argument there can be seen as being about the revolutionary potential of the past as opposed to the future.

In Theses 2-6, Benjamin talks about the claim that the past has on us, and how the task of the materialist historian is to 'rescue' the past, which is in danger. For example, in thesis 6, he writes (emphasis original):

Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

And the angel, of course, in Thesis 9, 'would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed': 'his face is turned towards the past', but he is blown helplessly into the future by the storm of progress. But the clearest bit, I think, is in Thesis 12, which is otherwise quite opaque to me because I don't know the historical context well enough (emphasis mine):

Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the repository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction... has always been objectionable to Social Democrats... Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished more by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.

Benjamin's target throughout the 'Theses', as-I-argue-in-my-book, is a set of linked concepts: 'tradition', 'progress', 'the continuum of history', and (crucially) 'homogeneous, empty time'. He's arguing, I think, for a way of doing history that doesn't allow the ruling classes or the 'victors' to determine causality and continuity, or to determine what makes it into the historical record and what doesn't. That is, he is arguing against the enslavement of the future to the past via a dominant set of cultural and political norms, against becoming trapped on the trajectory of 'progress', as opposed to being able to take a 'tiger's leap into the past' in 'the open air of history' (which, he says, 'is how Marx understood the revolution').

So the important and revolutionary thing, for Benjamin as for Edelman, is the refusal of dominant forms of continuity and 'progress' into a future which is modelled on the past. Like Edelman, too, Benjamin argues against thinking the future through the figure of the child: he says that the image of 'liberated grandchildren' is what destroys and dissipates the energy (the hatred and spirit of sacrifice, isn't that a great phrase?) of the revolutionary class. But he doesn't therefore say, like Edelman, that there will be 'no future', or that we must 'pronounc[e] at last the words for which we're condemned should we speak them or not:... that the Child as futurity's emblem must die: that the future is mere repetition and just as lethal as the past' (No Future, p.31). Very tellingly, this is the only reference to the past that I remember in No Future (I don't have my copy of it to hand, I lent it to a friend), and I don't remember Edelman explaining why 'the past' should be lethal when it can, of course, be life-giving (for example, many queer people have found it urgent to research and tell queer histories in order to find alternative ways to be queer in the present).

Anyway, Benjamin's critique of futurity runs, perhaps, along similar lines to Edelman's, but he doesn't draw the same conclusions as Edelman. Instead Benjamin says that, in doing history in a new way, in thinking of ourselves as the redeemers or rescuers of the past rather than of 'future generations', we are inaugurating a whole new model of time, escaping the 'homogeneous, empty' time of progress and historical continuity. He ends, in Thesis 18B, by saying:

We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.

So doing history in the Benjaminian way - turning our faces towards the past; thinking of ourselves as the redeemers not of future generations of liberated grandchildren but of enslaved ancestors; refusing to investigate the future - opens up the future to the absolute unknowability and otherness of the Messianic moment. It turns the future into a future-to-come (in Derrida's pun on the French word 'avenir', which means both 'future' and, differently punctuated, 'to come'). Just as Edelman sets out to do, the 'Theses' demolish a future predicated on the Child as the emblem of 'heteroreproductive futurity', the endless repetition of the same, but Edelman leaves us in an unsurvivable moment which valorizes death (the subtitle of No Future is Queer Theory and the Death Drive), while Benjamin, fanning the spark of hope in the past and valorizing redemption and rescue, shifts us into an entirely different mode of futurity.

I know which revolution I'd rather dance at.


sorenson said...

(i love Laurie Anderson too)

Una McCormack said...

Great post. I have just finished Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which seemed to me to be about children and the end of all things.