Relinquish Mission Control: Queer Eco-Pessimism, Communist Magic, and Non-Nihilistic Non-Reproduction
 


As readers may recall, in Alfonso Cuarón heavily-theorised film adaptation of the PD James novel Children of Men (2006), probably the prime example of the Anthropocene-associated genre Rebekah Sheldon calls ‘sterility apocalypse’ (p.153), the UK government in the year 2027 is “hunting Fugees [refugees] like cockroaches” and mass-distributing suicide kits. Eighteen years have elapsed since the last baby on Earth was born, and that particular human (a global celebrity) has just been murdered. British nationals, free from the cages in which migrants are kept, lay wreaths for ‘Baby Diego’, sobbing and keening for the lost future, yet, as the protagonist Theo remarks meta-textually, “it was too late before the infertility thing happened, for fuck’s sake.” A couple of minutes later, the film again questions whether irrevocable, pre-given lostness really is the ultimate horror when, in the aftermath of a bomb attack, freedom-fighters slam a hood over Theo’s head: “You know that ringing in your ears, that eeeeeeeeeee? That’s the sound of the ear cells dying, like, their swan song. Once it’s gone you’ll never hear that frequency again! Enjoy it while it lasts!” 

This injunction to try to live with dying is delivered as torture, but since it comes from Julian (the love of Theo’s life) we might also see it as comradely wisdom. Within the regime famously termed ‘reproductive futurism’ by Lee Edelman (No Future, 2004) – i.e., the cis-hetero ideological repetition-compulsion that Children of Men dystopically exaggerates – nothing could be more horrible than simply enjoying something while it lasts. The absence of children is unbearable in 2027 in part because society requires the proleptic cipher of the child in order to bear the uncertain present; it prefers the “melancholic anticipation of future loss” (Sheldon p.4) to the messy response-ability of situated living-while-dying. Compare this with the opening of the trailblazing tome of non-reproductive bio-techno-politics, Testo Junkie, in which Paul Preciado detects the thrum of a queer more-than-human child, an indeterminate ripple, in the eeeeeeeeee of the electric clippers he uses to ritually shave his genitals. Imbibing gel-testosterone, witch-like, he describes “a sharp, high-pitched sound, the voice of a cyberchild trying to get out of the motor, spitting in the face of the past” (Preciado 2015, p.17). Preciado’s lover, in contrast to the narrator, is of the reproductive-futurist sort; she “walks around with a minuscule corpse attached to her shoulders” and declares she’ll kill herself to join this “barely-born little one”—but only later, when she’s forty. Preciado for his part is ready to suicide in the now, awash with empathy for her loss, imagining dying as an “opening” of his mouth, his veins, his oesophagus, and finally, his cells (p.261). Testo Junkie isn’t afraid of the art of enjoying life’s swan songs; but nor does it extrapolate from this, in an overreaction to the neuroses bundled in the idea of the Child, that there somehow isn’t anything else. 

So too The Child to Come: Life After the Human Catastrophe. We are living through “a shift in focus from the child in need of salvation to the child who saves”, Sheldon writes (p.6), marshalling a multimedia plethora of unblemished, planet-encompassing infant faces as illustrations of this thesis about “where power operates today” (p.21). But, in keeping with José Esteban Muñoz’s queer critique of queer antifuturisms (Muñoz 2009), it’s worth clarifying upfront Sheldon’s awareness of the danger of repro-criticality sliding into an ‘edgy’ anti-child position. Sheldon centrally engages scholars from the Reproductive Justice tradition, such a Dorothy Roberts, and substantially elaborates on Alys Weinbaum’s concept of the race/reproduction bind, leaving no doubt that the question ‘which child?’ is constitutive. Contrary to the tacitly ‘race-blind’ matrophobic or antiparental impulses present in some queer theory, Sheldon knows that “it is not sufficient to renounce or to denounce the child” (p.2). And, as she drives home through her relentless race-sensitive reading of settler-colonialist eco-apocalypse sci-fi and infertility dystopia, it’s not so much despite this as because of it that we need to understand capitalism’s nihilistic optimism, its impulse toward environmental securitization and techno-managerialism, as firmly inscribed on both sides of the prevalent (white) child-shaped coin. For, notwithstanding its proclamations to the contrary, it is capitalist politics – not its critics – that are anti-child. Actually-existing kids are our most crucial comrades in dismantling the systems of control and blackmail that weaponize Childhood.

Roughly fifty years before the COP15 (climate) conference opened to a screening of the Raise Your Voice Campaign’s video blackmail ‘Please Help the Earth’ (2009), the canonical TV advert for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign, ‘Daisy Girl’ (1964), deployed much the same disciplinary sentimentality. It features a child cheerfully dismembering a flower, petal by petal, while counting (ostensibly) up to ten. Her voice segues into an adult voiceover counting down to zero, at which point a nuclear bomb detonates as though inside the child’s eye. “These are the stakes … we must love each other, or we must die,” Johnson’s voice explains mystifyingly in conclusion. In Sheldon’s Introduction, this ad is convincingly compared and contrasted to the floating, planetary ‘Star Child’ of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The juxtaposition serves to show how, on the one hand, through representations of life-in-particular (little Daisy merged with the bomb), and on the other, life-itself (the glowing infant superimposed upon Earth), the child thus “does double duty”; she embodies species survival and begs for protection against contemporary harms, but she also destabilises the human fantasy of reproduction (the desire for “physiological self- similarity” in perpetuity) through her animalistic connection to “the interlocking biological and physical systems whose livelinesses compose us as much as we compose with them” (p.177). Children in this latter sense (creatures imbued with more-than-human resonances) are strangers utterly unlike us: weird, obscene, demanding and faintly threatening. That’s why they had to be scientifically and culturally invented.

Sheldon’s work of critical posthumanism reads the double mechanism of the Child in everything from environmentalist info-mercials to art-works by Kara Walker. It almost eludes summary, so masterful is its layered argumentation, so dense its prose. For my purposes its main thrust is this: “The issue is not that there is no future but rather that there is no sure way of orienting toward that future, either to save it or to survive it” (pp.179-180). The challenge, then, for those of us (like Sheldon, Preciado and Muñoz) who lust for a world of communism, is “to get so close to the face of the child that we can see through it to the sand beneath” (p.21); to “stay with the trouble” (Haraway 2016) of that radical uncertainty of orientation vis-à-vis the future. In pursuit of this, Sheldon manages to restore freshness to certain debates some scholars (in STS, the environmental humanities or elsewhere) had all but abandoned in fatigue. For instance: “the Anthropocene tells us what has been true [humans manage nature] at the very moment that it ceases to be true” (p.179). Far from simply being a source of dread, Sheldon suggests, the insight that nature is out of human control might actually be one of our only true sources of hope. Non-repetitive futurities for humans can in fact be “imagined outside of reproduction and indeed outside of human agency” (p.58). 

As she goes, Sheldon drops gems into topics of less totalizing scope too: “Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about reproductive technologies” (p.123) (no one had quite spelled this out before). In fact, despite reproductive somatechnics being my current field, and despite my familiarity with much of the literature under discussion, Sheldon’s antiwork arguments around reproductive labour and nature in Chapter 4 (‘Birth’) felt wholly revelatory. One highlight of the reading experience for me was that chapter’s uncovering of “the wolfish premise that all survival comes coupled to harm” (p.121) in select oeuvres of Margaret Atwood and Donna Haraway. But these sturdy refusals of false ‘realism’ and sacrificial pragmatism consistently undergird Sheldon’s monograph. Her comradely (and even Harawavian) criticisms of recent moments of flirtation with such tendencies in Haraway’s evolving project echo, educate and unquestionably surpass the ones I have offered on ‘population’ (Lewis 2017). 

Altogether, The Child to Come’s elaboration of the temporal logic of somatic capitalism should leave no doubt about the capacity of cultural criticism to earn ‘heavyweight’ standing even in the eyes of those for whom marxological competence, narrowly defined, is the only criterion of consequence. I hope therefore that Sheldon’s next work, provisionally titled Magic as Method, shall earn a wider audience than seems so far to have accrued to The Child to Come. Sheldon frames her characteristically non-conformist inquiry into occultist praxis in terms of “the productivity of magic … on the unfolding of the future” (Sheldon 2017). Rather than understanding the future as “as container for the present’s consequences”, she announces, “I offer a conception of the future as an active plenum rippling with the forces of distortion, iteration, resonance, and distribution”. It will be interesting to see the extent to which Sheldon makes explicit the exciting continuities between this endeavour and its predecessor. While The Child to Come doesn’t yet understand itself as espousing a ‘queer eco-pessimism’ or ‘queer eco-paganism’ – the terms its author has also subsequently used to revise its arguments (Sheldon 2016) – such a sensibility is very much in evidence throughout each chapter’s defence of anti-anti-utopian relinquishment of human regulatory control and, I’d add, borrowing a phrase from Nina Power, its experimental embrace of something like “non-nihilistic non-reproduction” (Power 2014). 

If we take seriously Haraway’s dictum that “every technology is a reproductive technology” (epigraph, p.115), it seems to me we must consider how even procreation, paradoxically, has a part to play in the magical productivity of non-reproduction. The labour of gestation, somewhat like all labour and especially like the labour of the Earth – seen through the lens of a queer eco-pessimism interested in instances “when Life says no” (Sheldon 2016) – is labour that Sheldon helps us understand can be refused and withdrawn even though it is not fully human (i.e., intentional). As a thinker of gestational work, I am struck by the brilliance of this and of Sheldon’s almost throwaway observation that, in surrogacy, “the fantasy of heteroreproduction—that 1 + 1 will always = 1—dramatically transforms” (p.122). How can we magnify the “forces of distortion” rippling through the production of humans, I wonder? The witchy ‘Make kin, and babies maybe!’ might be the Sheldonian re-phrasing of Haraway’s latest slogan (“make kin, not babies”) in the pursuit of multispecies reproductive justice (Haraway 2017).

Countdowns are perhaps one of the most absurdly futile features of human climate change politics (‘time is ticking’!). And it’s not just environmentalism, of course: a grotesque policy proposal for revamping US public education for children of colour through ‘entrepreneurship’ was recently entitled ‘Ten9Eight’, based on the statistic that a child drops out of school (what could be worse, right?) every nine seconds (Gill Peterson 2015). A race to salvation: tick, tick, boom! In the face of such temporal fascism, it has been well-noted that queer flourishing and growing happens ‘sideways’ (Bond Stockton 2009). But perhaps we can also think a counter-insurgency face-on, with the help of magic. It occurs to me that, before the voice of mission control takes over (“Ten, nine, eight…”), ‘Daisy Girl’ isn’t counting straight. What Daisy actually says is “one, two, three, four, five, seven, six, six, eight, nine”. One assumes linear causality between countdown and detonation. Reading against the grain of the propaganda however – and recalling the role of petal-plucking in the arcane of folk ritual – it could be that Daisy is a witch whose meandering counting-up is a spell. It is this animal and her plant, I say, rather than warring nation-states, that produce the explosion. What would it take for such a (collective) child to come? Perhaps instead, we must ask: why does culture presume an absence of negativity in kids? Do we refuse to imagine that kids will destroy the world as we know it? How about relinquishing the illusion of mission control? 


References

Bond Stockton, Kathryn (2009) The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham, Duke University Press.

Children of Men (2007) dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Universal City, CA: Universal.

Edelman, Lee (2004) No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Durham: Duke University Press.

Gill-Peterson, Julian (2015) ‘The Value of the Future: The Child as Human Capital and the Neoliberal Labor of Race’. WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly, 43(1): 181-196.

Haraway, Donna (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Lewis, Sophie (2017) ‘Cthulhu Plays No Role For Me’, Viewpoint, May 8th. http://viewpointmag.com/2017/05/08/cthulhu-plays-no-role-for-me/

Muñoz, José Esteban (2009) Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York: New York University Press.

Please Help the World (2009) dir. Mikkel Blaabjerg Poulsen, December 7, https:// youtube.com/watch?v=NVGGgncVq-4.

Power, Nina (2014). ‘Brief Notes towards a Non-Nihilistic Theory of Non-Reproduction.’ Studies in the Maternal. 6(1), pp.1–3.

Preciado, Paul (2015) Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. New York: Feminist Press.

Sheldon, Rebekah (2016) ‘When Life Says No: Sterility Apocalypses and Queer Ecopessimism’. Center for 21st Century Studies, April 12th. https://youtube.com/watch?v=0LRpF_0npoU

Sheldon, Rebekah (2017) ‘Magic as Method’, conference keynote, Tuning Speculation III, May 1st. http:// theocculture.net/rebekah-sheldon-magic-as-method-ritual-sound-queer-sex-tspec3/