The Swervers vs. the F*ck-Annies

Recently the Center for 21st Century Studies in Milwaukee staged a conference with the enticing title “The Big No.” I wasn't at the conference, but know a few people who were, and I watched a couple of the talks online. Among other things, the conference was notable for bringing both Frank Wilderson and François Laruelle together in the same place for the first time. In my view, afro-pessimism and non-standard philosophy share an affinity both methodologically and thematically. And I know that grad students at UC-Irvine in particular, where Wilderson and Jared Sexton both teach, have been working on fleshing out some of these connections, as have scholars elsewhere like Daniel Colucciello Barber and Anthony Paul Smith.

Originally the conference announcement took me by surprise, given how the Center for 21st Century Studies had positioned itself, at least under Richard Grusin's directorship, as a leading site of Swerver theory. Grusin's 2012 conference “The Nonhuman Turn,” followed by an influential edited collection of the same name, helped solidify and consolidate this particular kind of contemporary humanities discourse.

Reticular empiricism is certainly seductive. The Swervers have attracted many contemporary thinkers to their side. In fact it's very difficult to find a theorist or philosopher today who does not at some level think in terms of action and expression, becoming and process, difference and multiplicity, gaps and slippages, chaos and contingency -- these are some of the many virtues of our age. Such virtues constitute the contemporary ontology, along with the dominant sense of what it means to be a person.

Still, the negativity of “The Big No” is crucial. Here I'm thinking of people like Benjamin Noys or Andrew Culp, those thinkers who are keen to reclaim the negative for contemporary theory and philosophy (not to mention Eugene Thacker's cosmic pessimism). My recent graduate seminar was in some ways an experiment in how “nonhuman” can and should be understood through the various discourses that have long wrestled with the status of the human, specifically feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory. Thus we spent a lot of time exploring various alternatives to the Swerver model. In addition to the things we discussed in seminar, including flesh (Alexander Weheliye via Hortense Spillers) and the undercommons (Harney & Moten), I would add here the indifference to difference (Madhavi Menon), black opacity (Glissant), queer opacity (Nicholas de Villiers), and the generic (Laruelle, but also Badiou). Some of these approaches overlap in certain ways with the Swervers, at least in how I've characterized them. Yet these approaches all offer ways to think apart from what has been proposed in reticular empiricism and aleatory materialism. Ultimately I see two key alternatives to the general swervitude. The first is the afro-pessimism of Wilderson and Sexton. The second is found in Lee Edelman and the queer critique of futurity. I'll focus on the latter in this post.

Let's begin with one of the single best sentences in theory thus far this millennium. When confronted with pervasive anti-queer ideology from the Catholic church, the media, and culture at large, Edelman writes that:

"Queers must respond to the violent force of such constant provocations not only by insisting on our equal right to the social order's prerogatives, not only by avowing our capacity to promote that order's coherence and integrity, but also by saying explicitly what [Bernard] Law and the Pope and the whole of the Symbolic order for which they stand hear any­ way in each and every expression or manifestation of queer sexuality: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we're collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop." (No Future, 29)

Why pick on the waif from Les Mis? Why pick on Annie? Of course Edelman is referring to Little Orphan Annie, she of musical fame; he previews her importance with an earlier reference in the book to “adorable Annie gathering her limitless funds of pluck” (18). What to make of these limitless funds of pluck? That's classic Swerver stuff, of course. This pluck fund, bottomless, is a perfect example of nature's largess discussed previously. It indicates pure generation and pure positivity. Housed in the body of an innocent child, the pluck endowment arrives pre-encased in a kind of political prophylactic, seemingly impervious to cynicism and critique. Still, why pick on the poor little waif or the chubby child? Pluckage indicates a kind of primordial vector aligning society and subjectivity along certain lines, lines that are, in Edelman's view, directly violent toward queer bodies. For Edelman the child is quite literally an anti-queer weapon. Materialized in the body of the child, this juggernaut of pluck enforces very specific subject positions within “the Symbolic order.”

Let's not forget that “no future” was a punk anthem before it was a queer one. Indeed the mutual traces of both punk and queerness are intermixed throughout Edelman's text, resulting in a potent cocktail of deviation and refusal. (Robin James has an excellent paper that follows up some of the musical references.) The sounds of rebellion and refusal resonate throughout Edelman's work. And while we might debate the details of this project, I want to emphasize here how different this is from the previously examined reticular empiricists. So just as the swervers have a name, let's assign a proper name to this alternative school: the Fuck-Annies.

What are the essential qualities of the Fuck-Annies? And how can we differentiate them from the Swervers? It might be useful to return to the old dialectic surrounding agency: what are the structural limits imposed on free action? Here the Fuck-Annies play the role of the rebel, the blithe revolutionary, all those who are willing to sacrifice the system (or whom the system has already sacrificed) in favor of the singular transformative event. They might be plucky in a different way, like the voluntarist hero able to overcome seemingly insurmountable opposition. And on this point, it's important to acknowledge the criticism, from the likes of Zizek and others, that such rebellious actions are always already recuperated within a symbolic economy that allows, nay expects, its agents to deviate from the norm.

In other words the Fuck-Annies are important because they force us to return to the question of structure. And I find it more and more evident that we are living today through a type of structuralist revival. (Not unwelcome, such a shift will at the very least help to counter the dominance of empiricism in contemporary social and cultural theory.) The question of chaos and accident is a good lens through which to map this particular transformation. Indeed, the mode of chance, accident, and chaos at the heart of Swerver causality is mostly absent in the Fuck-Annies. The world didn't become anti-queer by spontaneous accident. And no capricious swerve will make it more just. Edelman's world is not chaotic, but rather deliberate and highly structured. There are reasons, and there are responses. There is a symbolic order. And such order is responsible for specific kinds of subjectivities and specific kinds of social arrangements. (Try convincing a Swerver that there exists anything like a symbolic order; they will laugh at you.) And this symbolic order, this structure, is a necessary and real part of the ontological condition. Or as Edelman flatly admitted in his recently published dialogue with Lauren Berlant: “I do believe that what I call structures are 'necessarily so'” (94). Despite the seeming volatility and transience at the heart of the psycho-analytic narrative, Edelman's story is one of “coherence and integrity,” not chance or accident. (Wilderson argues something very similar: the black provides coherence.)

Necessarily so. But, still, fuck 'em. And if this is a form of structuralism, it's ultimately different from the form of structuralism developed in the mid-twentieth century. The anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss or the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure focused on universal, total, or abstract structures, be they the unconscious, kinship, patriarchy, or mechanisms of subject formation. Economies of exchange are thus crucial for structuralist analysis. Exchange, reciprocity, and circulation define the structure, both in its shape and in its various processes. What makes the neo-structuralism of Edelman or Wilderson different is that theirs is a form of purely negative structuralism -- some might wish to call it non-standard structuralism -- not defined through a logic of exchange or recognition. In fact I think Wilderson is more clear on this point than Edelman, who often seems to a revert to a more familiar poststructuralist cycle of alterity and recognition. Nevertheless today's neo-structuralism has a different take on the circuit of symbolic relations. No future / no child / no reciprocity / no recognition / no subject / no world / no permission. And yet still we rise.

Cynics will complain that this simply reinstates the “inexplicable” swerve, only now locating it in the body of the hero. Badiou's curt rejoinder at the end of Logics of Worlds might suffice: heroism? Sure, why not? (We might also acknowledge the now tired posthuman rebuttal: “yes, but heroes aren't exclusively human.” Sure, why not.) Yet more important than the question of heroes or agents is how to describe the specific mode of response. For this is a mode ultimately not reducible to resistance, reform, encounter, recognition, reciprocity, even a term like revolution begins to lose its meaning. Instead we have to think in terms of abolition or annihilation.

The best gloss on Edelman is probably the one provided by Jack Halberstam beginning around page 107 of The Queer Art of Failure. In fact Halberstam and Edelman are united on the question of negativity -- and here they participate with people like the aforementioned Noys and Culp in a movement to reclaim the negative. After chiding Edelman for small hands -- specifically for his “excessively small archive” (109) -- Halberstam proceeds to out-Edelman Edelman on the Fuck-Annie question, summoning his readers:

“to embrace a truly political negativity, one that promises, this time, to fail, to make a mess, to fuck shit up, to be loud, unruly, impolite, to breed resentment, to bash back, to speak up and out, to disrupt, assassinate, shock, and annihilate” (Failure, 110).

But it is true? Failure is not the same as fucking shit up, and Halberstam hews most closely to the former in tone and method. Which is a good thing. Fucking shit up is easy, we know that. But failure is a form of art. Or, as the late Foucault revealed (and Danny Kaye was kind enough to remind us), the key to subjective insufficiency is that it is “self-made,” in essence a kind of self-made failure.

Now where could I learn any comical turn
That was not in a book on the shelf
No teacher to take me and mold me and make me
A merryman fool or an elf
But I’m proud to recall that in no time at all
With no other recourses but my own resources
With firm application and determination
I made a fool of myself!

But at the same time, Halberstam reveals the basic conditions of generic communism. Here I see a fundamental agreement between “failure” in Halberstam and the notion of “insufficiency” adapted from Laruelle. And while Halberstam seems to cringe at the “law of genre” -- an allusion to Derrida's formative essay of that name -- the key to queer failure is found in genre itself, not so much the fixity of gender, with its attendant managerial framework, but the insufficiency of the generic (which is really what “failure” looks like when it becomes a theory of the subject).

Edelman's response to Halberstam is itself quite stunning, calling out what he sees as a pernicious “anarcho-oedipality” in Halberstam's work. Still, while Edelman might be “right,” Halberstam is right. And I'll admit I'm a 'Stamian in the end.

The Swervers vs. the Fuck-Annies

The Swervers:
Embrace contingency
Ethical Turn
The rebellion of Nature
“The Big Other gave me permission” (ontological permission)
Emergent vitality
The Fuck-Annies:
Withhold the law
Political Return
The rebellion of Humankind
“I never asked Nietzsche for permission” (permission death)
Human strike