The Antisocial Thesis: how Born of Man & Could it be Magic? shed light on this turn in queer theory & the necessary background to understand it.
In her account of her transgender brother’s pregnancy, journalist Jessi Hempel writes, “Now that gay marriage is legal, the social battleground has shifted to new frontiers.”1 Laura V. Heston draws attention to this idea as well, noting a common refrain from LGBT parents who wish to be seen as “no different” than heterosexual parents.2 Hempel and Heston’s perspectives are further supported by queer theorists like Michael Warner and Lisa Duggan, who have both regarded the emergent politics around queer family making in this same political light, albeit with a less positive connotation, viewing these new norms as assimilationist, heteronormative, and (in Duggan’s case) even homonormative.3 From the charged language that shifts between seeing LGBT family advocacy as a “social battleground” to seeing this very initiative as one that demobilizes queer politics, hefty theoretical debates quickly emerge.
Sifting through both sides of these debates, Joshua Gamson provides both a useful critique to the assimilation of the “nuclear family’s” norms while also celebrating the new stories of queer modes of family making. According to him, the problem with “[s]eeking to be assimilated to the-way-things-are does nothing to change the way things are, and the way things are is the very problem to begin with: powerful people define normalcy so that respect, status, fights, and resources flow to those who fit the definition and are denied to those who don’t.”4 This, in fact, is Michael Warner’s concern as expressed in the aptly titled The Trouble With Normal, in which he considers who misses out when assimilation to more traditionally accepted norms is placed at the top of the “gay agenda.”
In his collection and analysis of different queer family’s experiences (including his own), Gamson expresses a concern over the powers and privileges embedded in the narratives of gay men (like himself) who have sought surrogate mothers to aid in the birth of their children. He is self-reflective, studying not only his own choices, but those of his ex-girlfriend who carried his first child and the agency-hired surrogate who carried his second. Through anecdotes of how he met his partner at an Equinox gym on the Upper East Side and his parents’ reaction to their later decision to pursue surrogacy, set against the backdrop of Martha’s Vineyard, Gamson accounts for his gender, economic, educational and racial privileges, previewing the main concerns that arise in terms of the inequalities that emerge through these developing reproductive technologies. What he finds through this analysis is a complex network of powers and privileges that set one gay man’s desire for a biological family alongside one woman’s economic and another’s experiential gain.
Before extending concerns around queer family structures that assimilate to (and benefit from) more traditional norms, it’s useful to trace this theoretical framework back to its origin. Queer theorists from Tim Dean to Lee Edelman identify this turn away from norms and the privileges surrounding them as the antisocial turn (or the antisocial thesis) in queer theory. Leo Bersani is ubiquitously credited as the founding voice for this line of thinking. In laying the foundation for what is now referred to as antisocial theory, Bersani essentially asked, “Should the homosexual be a good citizen?”5 Explaining how this relates to “antisociality,” Dean clarifies that the antisocial thesis in queer theory is “not that lesbians and gay men are unsociable but that some aspect of homosexuality threatens the social and that it might be strategic politically to exploit that threat. Homosexuality can be viewed as threatening because, insofar as we fail to reproduce the family in a recognizable form, queers fail to reproduce the social.”6 As made clear here, the antisocial thesis should not actually be credited to queer theory but rather to “right-wing fantasies about how ‘the homosexual agenda’ undermines the social fabric” (826). In Tim Dean’s words, antisocial theory posits “that rather than critique such reactionary fantasies and distance ourselves from them, we might expediently embrace them, take them on,” in what Bersani viewed as a painful but politically necessary embrace (826).
To date, Lee Edelman is perhaps recognized as the leading antisocial queer theorist. In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, he identifies the figure of the child (or “the cult of the child”7 been replaced by one imagined for fetuses and children” (1).]) as the root of all political efforts (both conservative and liberal), and he positions queerness outside of these concerns, outside of the futurity that the child always symbolizes: “[Q]ueerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.”8 In other words, “[b]ecause heterosexual sex is sanctified for its reproductive function, queer sexuality is, therefore, sexuality without a stake in the future” (Heston 248). Taking a page from Bersani’s antisocial turn, Edelman accordingly urges queer theory to reject the child, to reject the family, and to reject futurity altogether. Finding ourselves locked outside of these institutions, he suggests we approach the keyhole not with petitions but with pitchforks. 9
Thus, in terms of the positive claims that antisocial theory posits, it views queer politics as that which dissociates itself from dominant narratives focused on heterosexuality, traditional marriage, and nuclear families. Antisocial theorists, like Edelman, explore how embracing positions of marginality might upend current power structures. In theory (and this is theory), this sounds great, but there are two glaring problems with it. The first is the utter impracticability of such a stance. While many queers might find themselves frustrated or even blocked by the rules of heteronormative society, it’s unlikely that they would be able to completely disentangle themselves from their society altogether. Build a subculture? Yes. Sway the course of mainstream society through their interventions? Definitely. Militaristically demand a separation from their kind? Not super plausible.
The second concern extends from the first, and that is that by cutting off everything that happens to be central to straight society, queers cut themselves off from having the options that many do desire. While queer theorists are quick to argue that LGBT folks only desire access to marital and family rights because of how they’ve been historically and institutionally imposed upon them while simultaneously being held out of reach, this hasn’t kept many of the most prominent antisocial queer theorists like Lee Edelman, Michael Warner, and Jack Halberstam from also desiring and pursuing these same structures—nor should it! The antisocial thesis, as we will later see, is thus hard to remove from the realm of theory; while it’s critique can certainly help us shed light on the powers and privileges of institutions like the family, it doesn’t operate very effectively as a prescriptive mode of life.
And what better way to sift through these concerns than in applying them to fiction.10 Whereas theorists can position themselves as either for the present or for the future, for the family or for queer folks, Born of Man and Could it be Magic? depict how these two narratives run side by side, giving rise not to a dichotomy, but a complex network of experiences.
In Born of Man, for example, the narrator celebrates Kev’s pregnancy and longs for a family of his own, giving voice to his jealousy of his bisexual friends, who can have children (38) while at the same time growing annoyed at how these same bisexuals’ kids get in the way of his parties. Elsewhere, he conflates his desire to parent younger generations with a desire to seduce them.
In Could it be Magic?, Andy, too, is annoyed by how his neighbors’ kids spoil his New Year’s Eve party, yet he takes pride in his own child, Jep, despite his more animalistic tendencies (being half-leopard, he has a uniquely beastly disposition, consuming raw meat—for example—from infancy on). Later in the novel, Andy’s perception of parenting is likened to that of any other as he frets on his son’s behalf; at the same time, he views his child as exceptional, all around less fragile than non-feline offspring. Reflecting on his own experience, he constantly second-guesses himself. Wondering whether or not he’s even holding his child correctly, he states, “It isn’t instinctive, at any rate. I imagine that it is for mothers” (248). And despite the fact that Andy does have a baby, he’s still regarded as non-productive and stagnant by those around him. His closest friend Penny regards all gay relationships as “juvenile”; to her, gay men “never had to grow up. They wouldn’t have a family life like others had. They could stay boys like that forever” (164). In an imagined conversation with his grandmother, Andy anticipates her disappointment in seeing him tote around his newborn, accusing Andy of throwing away the future that she and the rest of their family had worked so hard to provide him, even though, in having a child, he’s created an entirely new (kind of) future.
In all of these instances, queer families are depicted not so much as social (assimilationist) or antisocial, but something new that bounces back and forth between these two poles. In further exploring how these novels shed light on what goes on in these new and queer forms of reproduction, we might shed light on an antisocial critique as well as the ways in which this framework fails to encompass the experiences it aims to describe… to be discussed in the next post.
- Jessi Hempel, “My Brother’s Pregnancy and the Making of a New American Family.” TIME. September 12-19, 2016. (pp. 70-77). ↩
- Laura V. Heston. “Utopian Kinship?: The Possibilities of Queer Parenting.” A Critical Inquiry into Queer Utopias, edited by Angela Jones, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 245-268, p. 249. ↩
- Duggan defines “homonormative” as “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Lisa Duggan, 2003). ↩
- Joshua Gamson. Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship. NYU Press, 2017, p. 86. ↩
- [2. Angela Jones. “Introduction: Queer Utopias, Queer Futurity, and Potentiality in Quotidian Practice.” A Critical Inquiry into Queer Utopias, edited by Angela Jones, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 1-20, p. 4. ↩
- Caserio, Robert L., et al. “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory.” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 3, 2006, pp. 819–28. JSTOR, p. 826. ↩
- Lauren Berlant points to this political bent towards the cult of the child in her earlier The Queen of America Goes to Washington City. Here, she identifies this bent (which has, to some extent, always driven the U.S.’s political system) as especially emphasized in the Reagan era, during which “a nation made for adult citizens ha[d ↩
- Lee Edelman. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2004, p. 3. ↩
- These concerns around assimilation, heteronormativity, homonormativity, and reproductive futurism came to a head, perhaps most clearly, during a 2005 MLA panel on the antisocial turn, in which Lee Edelman and Jack Halberstam identified the benefits of embracing this turn (regarded as advocates of “social negativity”) while Tim Dean and Jose Muñoz portrayed the pitfalls of such a project (instead arguing for “queer utopianism”) (821). ↩
- Ramzi Fawaz offers an exceptional breakdown of how the antisocial turn and the debates it creates structure one of the central narratives in the X-Men comic series. The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics. NYU Press, 2016. ↩