London’s Burning, part 1.1: Lee Edelman Fought the Law, and the Law Won—Edelman’s response to Halberstam

In a previous post I examined Halberstam’s use of the Sex Pistols to critique Edelman’s anti-relational negativity, and to argue for a “political” (or relational) negativity. Looking beyond Halberstam’s own somewhat narrow punk archive, I turned to The Clash and Joy Division to broaden the parameters of punk aesthetics and politics. The Clash’s negativity is more “political” or “relational,” and Joy Division’s aesthetic is a less messy, more controlled punk.

But now I want to think about Edelman’s own response to Halberstam. Edelman’s objection to Halberstam boils down to an observation that is all-too-familiar within punk subcultures: Halberstam has turned punk itself into orthodoxy. After the initial period of punk experimentation in 1976-77, some punks created and policed dogmatic aesthetic and ideological positions: some argue that The Clash’s post-London Calling work is not “truly” punk because it incorporates influences from dub, hip hop, and even disco; some argue that The Clash ceased to be “punk” when they signed a contract with Columbia Records…and so on. The Straight Edge movement is another example of punk-as-dogma. Anyone who has been involved in various dimensions of punk culture is familiar with the various ways that “punk” aesthetics and ideology can and have become quite reified. Although punk was initially driven by a revolutionary, progressive impulse, some punk communities can actually be extremely conservative. It is precisely this “policing of style” on which Edelman calls Halberstam out:

we might ask what policing style has to do with the ‘politics of negativity.’ Or rather, and here’s the important point: isn’t such a policing of style, even when aimed at destroying too-comfortable, normative social practices, the sort of reactive transgression, permit me to call it anarcho-oedipality, that pays those reassuring norms the flattering tribute of imitation? Doesn’t it suppose, after all, its own reassuringly regulated order in which one can always know in advance what a given style means or allows? Doesn’t it rely on a faith in the fixed self-identity of things, on their legible coherence, unmarked by the rupturing excess of what we might see as the queer remainder? (Edelman 2006. 822).*

Dogmatic/conservative punks presume to “know in advance what a given style means or allows”: only 3 chords, working-class politics, braces and boots, etc.

If we limit our reading of punk to the Sex Pistols, then we theorists engage in precisely this punk dogmatism. Punk is an expansive, multifaceted musical movement; it has significant and formative ties to hip hop, experimental music, and dance music. British rave culture has its roots in punk—i.e., in Factory Records, in Throbbing-Gristle-come-Psychic-TV. Because both punk and hip hop emerged out of Jamacian musical styles and practices, we can’t responsibly theorize punk without also thinking about its debt to Afrodiasporic musical traditions, and its co-evolution with hip hop. So, I really worry about the focus on the Sex Pistols to the exclusion of other punk bands and movements, and I particularly worry about the way these debates elide the actual music and focus exclusively on the lyrical/textual and visual dimensions of punk. Edelman frames crux of his objection to Halberstam’s concept of “political negativity” in terms of the lyrics of “God Save the Queen”:

Affirming, however, as a positive good, ‘punk pugilism’ and its gestural repertoire, Halberstam strikes the pose of negativity while evacuating its force. I focus on her explicit embrace of punk to distinguish the point I make in No Future from the ‘antisocial’ politics she locates in the Sex Pistols’ anthem ‘God Save the Queen.’ Though originally called ‘No Future,’ ‘God Save the Queen’ does not, in fact, dissent from reproductive futurism. It conventionally calls for England to awake from the ‘dream’ that allows for ‘no future’ while implying that the disenfranchised, those ‘flowers in the dustbin’ for whom the song speaks, hold the seeds of potential renewal. We’re the future,’ it tells us, against its refrain, ‘No future for you.’ Ironically, given Halberstam’s dismissal of style, its punk negativity thus succeeds on the level of style alone. Taken as political statement, it’s little more than Oedipal kitsch. For violence, shock, assassination, and rage aren’t negative or radical in themselves; most often they perform the fundamentalist faith that always inspirits the Futurch: the affirmative attachment to ‘sense, mastery, and meaning,’ in Halberstam’s words (Edelman 2006, 822).

Interestingly, Edelman seems to oppose “style” to “textual content”: Halberstam’s argument “succeeds on the level of style alone,” yet fails when “taken as political statement.” I worry that Edelman’s quasi-ironic adoption of Halberstam’s supposed “dismissal of style” is in fact his own attempt—conscious or not—to dismiss music. As I have been and will continue to argue both in this blog and in other venues, Edelman’s work often indirectly speaks about music without ever explicitly and directly addressing it as such. For example, there is the passage about the drone sounds in Hitchcock’s The Birds, and there’s the analysis of the Johnny Rotten’s lyrics here. “God Save the Queen” is not meant to be taken primarily as a political statement: it’s a piece of music, and a large part of its invective is directed against mainstream musical tastes. Certainly its lyrical conent and performative context (e.g., on a boat in the Thames on HRH’s Silver Jubilee) are meant to be shocking; however, we must not forget that punk is first of all a musical movement, meant to critique 70s glam, prog, and club music.

I think it would help us all a lot if we actually looked at, you know, the music as music (and not text or visual performance). It might help us clear up some of the conflicts, ambiguities, and questions both in these specific analyses, and in the discourse of queer futurity/anti-futurlity more generally. That’s why I’m doing this series of posts—to develop a more nuanced understanding of theory by examining music as a philosophical text.

*Edelman, Lee. “Antagonism, Negativity, and the Subject of Queer Theory” in Forum: Conference Debates: The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory, in PMLA 121.3, 2006: 821-23.