London’s Burning, #1: Lee Edelman Fought the Law, and the Law Won

This is the first in my “London’s Burning” sub-series of posts on punk music and queer futurity/anti-futurity debates.* Here, I want to cover Judith Halberstam’s particularly illuminating critique of Edelman. Halberstam argues that Edelman calls on a supposedly critical “negativity” in a way that ultimately undercuts its critical force. Put somewhat more glibly, Halberstam calls out Edelman for being a poseur or (to quote Television Personalities) a “Part Time Punk.” Noting that the title for Edelman’s book comes from a line in the chorus of The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” (which is—appropriately for a book on queer theory—on an album titled Nevermind the Bullocks), Halberstam argues that the content of Edelman’s claims evoke punk negativity, but the form/style of his writing reinstalls traditional notions of “good writing.” Halberstam explains:

While Edelman frames his polemic against futurity with epigraphs by Jacques Lacan and Virginia Woolf, he omits the more obvious reference that his title conjures up and that echoes through recent queer anti-social aesthetic production, namely ‘God Save the Queen’ as sung by The Sex Pistols. While The Sex Pistols use the refrain ‘no future’ to reject a formulaic union of nation, monarchy, and fantasy, Edleman tends to cast material political concerns as crude and pedestrian, as already a part of the conjuring of futurity that his project must foreclose. Indeed, Edelman turns to the unnervingly tidy and precise theoretical contractions of futurity in Lacan because, like Lacan and Woolf, and unlike the punks, he strives to exert a kind of obsessive control over the reception of his own discourse. Twisting and turning back on itself, reveling in the power of inversion, Edleman’s syntax itself closes down the anarchy of signification (142).

Edelman’s style refuses punk’s DIY ethos and aesthetic of failure. His negativity is highly virtuosic and very, very tidy—perhaps in this sense a little more Joy Division than Sex Pistols. The comparison to Joy Division—a band named after a group of SS officers who raped Jewish women—is even more apt when we consider Halberstam’s claim that Edelman’s “apolitical anti-social agenda…cuts both ways and while it mitigates against liberal fantasies of progressive enlightenment and community cohesion, it also coincides uncomfortably with a fascist sensibility” (143). So, perhaps Halberstam isn’t entirely correct in her diagnosis of Edelman as anti-punk. This “facist sensibility” was a prominent feature of certain punk bands and subcultures (especially in Britain)…Joy Division’s dark minimalism certainly qualifies as a “facist aesthetic,” and, on the more working-class skinhead side of this “fascist sensibility,” there’s a reason why the Dead Kennedys wrote a song titled “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” Thus, while Edelman may not ultimately follow the ethos or aesthetic of the punks he (perhaps unintentionally?) references, this does not mean that he falls totally outside of punk. In later posts, I will argue that there are good reasons for situating him with post-punk rather than “punk” proper; I’m sure some of you might even argue that Joy Division is in fact post-punk.
But, back to Halberstam and the Sex Pistols. Halberstam uses “God Save the Queen” to rework Edelman’s notion of negativity into a more “properly” punk one. First, the Sex Pistols’ track, and then, an extended quote from Halberstam:

So what does or who would constitute the politics of ‘no future’ and by implication the politics of negativity? The Sex Pistols, we may recall, made the phrase ‘no future’ into a rallying call for Britain’s dispossessed. In their debut song, written as an anti-celebratory gesture for the Queen’s silver jubilee, The Sex Pistols turned the National Anthem into a snarling rejection of the tradition of the monarchy, the national investment in its continuation and the stakes that the whole event betrayed in futurity itself, where futurity signifies the nation, the divisions of class and race upon which the notion of national belonging depends and the activity of celebrating the ideological system which gives meaning to the nation and takes meaning away from the poor, the unemployed, the promiscuous, the non-citizen, the racialized immigrant, the queer: ‘God Save the Queen/She ain’t no human being/There is no future/In England’s dreaming…Oh God save history/God save yoru mad parade/Oh Lord God have mercy/All crimes are paid. When there’s no future/How can there be sin/We’re the flowers in the dustbin/We’re the poison in your human machine/We’re the future in your future…God save the queen/We mean it man/And there is no future/In England’s dreaming…No future no future/No future for you/No future no future/No future for me.’ No future for Edelman means routing our desires around the eternal sunshine of the spotless child and finding the shady side of political imaginaries in the proudly sterile and antireproductive logics of queer relation. It also seems to mean something (too much) about Lacan’s symbolic and not enough about the powerful negativity of punk politics. When The Sex Pistols spit in the face of English provincialism and called themselves ‘the flowers in the dustbin,’ when they associated themselves with the trash and debris of polite society, they launched their poison into the human. Negativity might well constitute an anti-politics but it should not register as apolitical (147-8).

According to Halberstam, what punk has and Edelman lacks is a notion of “political negativity”—or, what I’m calling “anti-utopian relationality.” Political negativity values traditional punk’s DIY ethos and aesthetic of failure—or, as Halberstam puts it, the “promise of self-shattering, loss of mastery and meaning, [and] unregulated speech and desire” (152). I have spoken of this aesthetic of failure in previous posts (on Munoz and !!!, but also my post on James Chance and white awkwardness), and I think it is something common to BOTH punk and post-punk music. I will argue in a later post that political negativity is perhaps most prominent in post-punk and No Wave. These are both genres that exhibit the combination Halberstam describes as “funky, nasty, over the top and thoroughly accessible” (154). Political negativity can also be found in “classic” punk. In what follows, I compare the Sex Pistols’ aforementioned “God Save the Queen” to The Clash’s “All the Young Punks,” and demonstrate that the latter track imagines exactly the sort of anti-utopian relationality Halberstam argues for.

According to Halberstam, “a truly political negativity,” is not only “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, and, to quote Jamaica Kincaid, to make everyone a little less happy” (154), it is also a relational, collective endeavor. This relationality is absent in the Sex Pistols’ track, but quite central to The Clash’s. “All the Young Punks” is the last track on The Clash’s second album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope.” The song’s lyrics craft the myth of the band’s origins, and situate its beginnings in terms of punk ideological commitments to, among other things, a DIY ethos and to the formerly working-class youth now structurally unemployed in Britain’s de/post-industrialized economy. Here’s the song:

The track’s anti-utopianism or anti-futurity is most evident in its chorus: “Face front, you got the future shining like a piece of gold/but I swear as we get closer, it looks more like a lump of coal.” In this respect, then, The Clash share the Sex Pistols’ sentiment that there is no future for England’s working class. However, where the Sex Pistols prescribe anarchy and “destroy[ing] passerby,” The Clash advocate a different sort of punk negativity, one grounded more in irony than in aggression. The chorus concludes with the lines: “All the young punks, laugh at life it ain’t much to cry for/All the young punks/living now cause there ain’t much to cry for/All you young punks/laugh at life cause it ain’t much to cry for/All you young cunts/live it now cause there ain’t much to die for”. “Laughing” and “living” are not necessarily positive, feel-good emotions. For example, Strummer “laughs” at the fact that he was fired from and thus no longer has to “waste his youth” in a boring factory job. Most importantly, though, this song is about being in a punk band. The song begins with a version of how the band’s guitarist and bassist met and recruited its singer:

Hanging about down on Market Street/Spent a lot of time on my feet
When I saw some passing Yobbers/Waiting just to speak
Well I knew how to sing, you know, and they knew how to pose
One of them had a Less Paul all attack machine

Importantly, being in this band, being a punk, is seen as the antidote to “working for the clampdown”—i.e., living a life where: “You gotta drag yourself to work/work yourself to sleep/You’re dead from the neck up.” For The Clash, punk negativity is a fundamentally relational project. It engages other people.

I’ll have much more to say about The Clash in subsequent posts. I may not convince you that they’re the only band that matters, but, I do think they offer a meaningful and insightful intervention into these debates on queer futurity/anti-futurity, and help flesh out Halberstam’s very productive and important notion of “political negativity.”

* “London’s Burning” is the title of a song on The Clash’s eponymous first album. It is also a reference to the iconic film about vogueing, “Paris is Burning.” The title is meant to play on the punk resonances of the former reference and the queer resonances of the latter reference.

All citations from: Halberstam, Judith. “The Anti-Social Turn in Queer Studies” in Graduate Journal of Social Science, 2—8, Vol. 5 Issue 2, 140-156.