A Question from Bruno Latour
From the Series: Queer Futures
I would like to know how the “no future” in the title of your roundtable currently resonates with queer anthropology. You have mentioned something that is very interesting because “no future” is also an argument that is made by countries in regards to the reproduction of the human race—whether they are advocating or exaggerating its impact. Can you enlighten me a little bit? I came for the “no future” title of the panel.
[Editors’ note: this was the only response given to Latour's question during the 2014 conference session. The other responses were written for this series.]
The last thing I wanted—I didn’t want people to think, okay, here are these mid-career people up here, saying: “I’ve already written my queer book so, you know, I think we’re all quite done with queer anthropology. That’s the end of that!”
That’s not the point at all. By “no future,” we meant precisely a way of thinking about queer anthropology—and we’re of course, as Cymene says, drawing on Lee Edelman (2004)—thinking about queer anthropology’s strength and vitality in that it doesn’t need to reproduce itself in obvious forms. And for me, having graduate students and mentoring them doesn’t mean reproducing queer anthropology in the way that many of us did and do queer anthropology. It means being able to see queer anthropology existing in projects on renewable energy or animals or whatever the case is. So it’s also about challenging us to think about: Are we stripping “queer” of any analytic utility when we say that queer anthropology exists in a project on renewable energy or animals? Or, can it actually challenge us to say what is queer about it, what is queer about those projects. I think queerness is precisely about what it means to pursue an orientation to the world, philosophically and politically, that doesn’t need to reproduce itself in recognizable forms.
For me, reflecting on “no futures”—a plurality that signals the multitudes at stake in a conversation about futurity—is a meditation. It pushes me to think about the possibilities but, more importantly, the imagined impossibilities for human existence. Lee Edelman (2004) posed a provocative challenge to LGBT-identifying people’s rush to reproduce normative kinship structures through marriage and child rearing. At the same time, the argument lacked any textured understanding of what happens to those formations when they take root in specific cultural contexts and social situations. There is nothing clearly normative about, say, lesbian couples, with toddlers in tow, returning to rural towns to care for their aging parents. Edelman’s argument, embracing the mortality we all face by radically resisting the shackles of blood kin and anything but a queer celebration of antiestablishment, could not make room for either the deeply queer pleasures of cultural constraints (fitting in) nor could it avoid reductively assuming that there is some autonomous individual in the center of things choosing to reject all forms of support and obligation to others. Who does that? Who has the privilege of such imagined mobility? The rural queer and questioning youth I worked with did not. In the face of their social realities and conflicted desires for them, they lived a different queer future. Neither a lesser nor a more morally righteous version of the future than the one theorized by Edelman: just different.
So, now, as I think about the possibilities of a future of work that does not look like the idealized middle-class, forty-hour work week, with benefits and leisure time comfortably tucked into the background, I draw on the praxis of queer anthropology. I labor to imagine different futures that do not claim moral imperatives or the high ground about the value of a hard day or what skilled labor means. I am more invested in tracing the contours of the stories that we tell ourselves about who deserves vacation, salaried positions, and good-paying jobs. A “no futures” approach to rethinking what Kathi Weeks (2011) has called the problem with work seems a more generative entry point to rethinking the next stages of our bio-techno-human existence.
The concept of “no future” has, for me, at least a double life, birthed from two namesakes, one the title of the book by Lee Edelman (2004), who is a literary scholar, and the other from the deliberately inimical song by the Sex Pistols, British punk rock band extraordinaire. Here we have a punk/queer convergence that, from my point of view, is an auspicious encounter because both of these movements, identities, and modes of interpreting the world are interested in the contrapuntal.
But to return to the more substantive part of Bruno Latour’s question, which had to do with how queer theory might contend with human reproduction and discourses of “no future” in a more dramatic, planetary, and panhuman sense, is to address a different dimension and scale. The growth imperative of capitalist modernity, in the most general sense, has meant that a reproductive impulse inhabits each economic and social transaction that we participate in. One obviously important source of the problems we face with a changing climate (and changing cryo-, aqua-, litho- bio- and atmospheres) is the sheer quantity of human beings on Earth: our specieswide reproduction. But the issue is not just the density of our bodies, of course. It is their consumptive requirements and desires. These include food and water resources, energy, and objects: items of consumption, things of pleasure. In the global north we have been especially indulgent in fulfilling these desires (and needs) at a phenomenal rate that we all know (and have known for some time) is fundamentally unsustainable. This is why, from my point of view, we have come to the point of inventing a new geological term: the Anthropocene. However anthropocentric that word may be, it does call attention to our collective and historical impact on Earth’s conditions of existence.
One insight from queer theory that could inform these times is that queer life has always occupied a precarious position vis-à-vis human reproduction. It is not that regeneration among queer people has been impossible; after all, there are lots of queer subjects now and throughout history who have been making babies. But this reproductivity has not been normatively associated with modern movements of LGBTQ rights and identity until fairly recently. Thus scholars like Edelman can offer critiques of what he calls “reproductive futurity,” which resides in the hallowed status of the child. And we can speak of eroding foundational kinship narratives and generational futurologies that have historically ensured a heteronormative pact. (Such readings are equally attributable to feminist thinking and politics, particularly that of feminism’s second wave.) To move away from the biological clock is also to allow for different forms of chronicity. Theorists like Judith/Jack Halberstam (2005, 4) have designated this as a “queer time” that can foresee the collapse of heterosexuality and the lack of concern for longevity. The marriage of queer time and unreproduction (or contrareproductivity) is a useful heuristic to think through the Anthropocene. After all, queer theory has been actively probing the qualities of “the end,” thinking through terminalias and prying at certain kinds of finitudes to ask, at times, “What comes next?” but also, “How do we know when it is over?”
I can reflect on Bruno Latour’s question in three registers, all of which touch on points my colleagues are making as well.
First, the notion of “no future” is about reframing the issues of traveling theory. For some time now, scholars have raised the important point that the relevance of feminist work is not limited to women, or even gender. It can speak to questions of economics, science, religion, or any social domain. This is due to the conceptual tools and methodological approaches it offers, but it is also due to the intersectionality of cultural domains. An analogous claim can (and has) been made about work on race, disability, and so on. So one register in which I respond to Latour’s question is that we are thinking about the ways in which our own projects illustrate how queer scholarship can illuminate domains that, on the face of things, are not immediately “queer” in character. It is about shifting queer studies from a topical enframing (analogous to, say, Asian Studies) to an analytical enframing.
Second, the notion of “no future” (in my thinking, at least) links this issue of traveling theory to intellectual reproduction. I take very seriously the notion of intellectual community and see such communities as deeply activist projects. For queer anthropology, it is fascinating to think through—collaboratively—how our relatively young intellectual community has developed over the years and will develop into the future, in ways that may not hew to traditional notions of intergenerational scholarly transmission.
Finally, I link the notion of “no future” to the explorations in which I and many others have engaged with regard to queer temporality. In my own work, I have examined what I term “straight time” (Boellstorff 2007), which links heteronormativity, including heteronormative conceptions of reproduction, with deeply linear, apocalyptic temporalities that cannot conceive of copresence without incorporation. I have contrasted this with coincidental time—the intersection of cycles of time, like Friday the thirteenth, that, as Clifford Geertz (1973) once noted, tell you not what time it is but what kind of time it is (say, an unlucky day). How might the futures of queer anthropology look otherwise if framed in coincidental time? With what would they intersect, and with what consequences?
My two research projects in Nigeria offer contrasting perspectives on the notion of “no future” in queer anthropology. On one hand, the people I met in the course of my research on gender and sexual minorities in the Muslim, Hausa-speaking region of northern Nigeria (feminine men, men who have sex with men, and “independent women”) often seemed to have a rather weak investment in the future, whether conceived in secular or religious terms. As a result of poverty, marginalization, HIV/AIDS, and other afflictions, my friends and acquaintances in these communities could expect their worldly lives to be short and difficult. (Indeed, most of the people I wrote about in my book [Gaudio 2009] had died by the time it was published; many had not reached the age of forty.) Their belief in the afterworld (lahira) provided some consolation, but this was mitigated in many cases by a sense of themselves as sinners. Like many Nigerians, both Muslim and Christian, my Hausa friends and acquaintances seemed resigned to whatever their fate might be in this world or the next, and frequently voiced prayers affirming and asking for God’s mercy. This was not a queer refusal of futurity, but a believer’s acknowledgment of the limits of human agency.
On the other hand, Nigeria’s planned capital city of Abuja, where I have been doing research more recently, is a spectacular site and symbol of futuremindedness. In this setting, I have found (much like David Valentine) that most of my interlocutors are keenly invested in a worldly future and their own capacity for participating in it; this appears to be true regardless of sexual proclivity, identity, or desire.
Although the notion of “no queer future” seems inapplicable in both of my research settings, I find it useful as a provocation to think about the importance of temporality—ethnographically and spiritually—and its relationship to desire in many forms.
My response to the question of “no future” comes from my encounters, engagements, and conversations with colleagues under the aegis of queer-of-color critique, scholars like David Eng, Gayatri Gopinath, Roderick Ferguson, Chandan Reddy, and the late José Esteban Muñoz, among others. We appreciate the renegade antireproductive stance of the “no future” camp, which states that we should not subscribe to a future that is entrenched in heteropatriarchal dreams of marriage and procreation. However, there was a general sense among us that the issue of “no future” comes from a vantage point and a comfortable perch of privilege. As a scholar invested and immersed in the plight of queers of color, futurity is not just a possibility but a necessity. To paraphrase my queer-of-color critique colleagues, we cannot not think of a future—it is the very fuel of existence, the pivot that animates and propels energies, performances, feelings, and other bodily capacities. The promise and peril of queer, both as a stance and as a field of study, is precisely in its anticipatory and hopeful dimensions. Queer is constituted by a yearning and a longing for something better than what is here right now. It is, as Muñoz would say, a horizon that we are drawn to and which is not yet here.
Consider the group of undocumented immigrant queers of color in New York City whose lives I have been following for years. Dwelling in cramped domiciles and working in contingent jobs, there is very little to witness in their lives that suggests a kind of gay/lesbian triumphalism or the bright markers of the new normal. In fact, they live in precarious conditions but—a very important caveat—they live in moments that showcase fleeting gestures and images of fabulosity set amidst the squalor and mess of their lives. These moments, while fleeting, provide some way for them to think of another day, giving them a brief glimpse of a time and a place where there are sequined gowns, plush salons, and many sparkling things. While this might be called naïve hopefulness, thinking of a future that is an alternative to the present is a potent way to think beyond and against the status quo—to plant the seed for social transformation. In other words, there is a political potential to queer futurity. Or, to put it another way, we need to complicate and unravel the negativity inherent in the “no future” stance and to be open to the various alternative ways a future or futures can be imagined, particularly by those in the margins. Otherwise, we can all just pack our bags, go back home, put on some makeup, close the door, and hide under the bedcovers.
Bruno Latour (2010) has argued that “the time of time” is over, but what I find intriguing is that now more than ever, the future is of concern to people. What does it mean for us to propose no future, or a time after time, when the markers of a time of time and legacy (reproductive kinship, moving to other places in the cosmos, guarding digital presences, or even imagining downloading oneself into a computer for long-term survival) are occupying the attention of so many of our informants? I am worried about the claim that what is of concern now is the contemporary, because the contemporary is becoming past (and becoming marked as past) faster and faster and because our informants are deeply invested in the future. To claim a stake in the now is no less a commitment to time than one pegged to the future.
Boellstorff, Tom. 2007. “When Marriage Falls: Queer Coincidences in Straight Time.” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 13, nos. 2–3: 227–48.
Edelman, Lee, 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Gaudio, Rudolf Pell. 2009. Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali.” In The Interpretation of Cultures, 360–411. New York: Basic Books.
Halberstam, Judith. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press.
Latour, Bruno. 2010. “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto.’” New Literary History41, no. 3: 471–90.
Weeks, Kathi. 2011. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.