What is “negative” about political negativity?: On Halberstam, Joy Division, and Grace Jones (London’s Burning #3)

So, I’m working on several projects related to the use of music in contemporary queer theory. You all know I’ve been thinking about the role of punk in the futurity/relationality debates, and I’ve written before on the Halberstam/Edelman exhange on the Sex Pistols. Here, however, I want to focus specifically on Halberstam’s concept of “political negativity.” In this post, I’ll show why it’s necessary to move beyond the Sex Pistols; Joy Division and Grace Jones’ versions of “She’s Lost Control” are better resources for theorizing Halberstamian negativity.

Looking at both Halberstam’s 2008 “The Anti-Social Turn In Queer Studies,” and her 2005 book In A Queer Time and Place, I will first distinguish Halberstam’s “political negativity” from other types of negativity, and then flesh out her descriptions of negativity as failure or (un)becoming. In a later post, I’ll discuss Halberstam’s notion of feminist unbecoming in relation to Beauvoir’s existentialist ontology, and her existentialist feminist politics. Ultimately, I want to show that Beauvoir’s existentialism gives us a pretty fully-realized account of how and why negativity-as-unbecoming is justified as a specifically feminist response to patriarchy. I’ll talk about that last point in yet another post.

This post is part of what I presented on at philoSOPHIA last weekend at Vanderbilt, and is part of my manuscript-in-progress, currently titled Sound & Sensibility: Feminism Beyond the Visual.

Because this is such a long entry, I’ve split it in half. I’ll post the first part below (on Halberstam), and the second part later this week (on Curtis and Jones).

a. Halberstam’s concept of negativity

Political negativity is both multifaceted and yet distinct from other forms of negativity and/or negation. Because this is a discussion of negativity, after all, I’ll start with what political negativity is not. Political negativity is not a show of force: it is not anarchic destruction, it is not macho posturing, and it is not a power grab. Though Halberstam turns to The Sex Pistols to differentiate her notion of negativity from Edelman’s, I think this band is actually a very poor resource from which to theorize, at least for my purposes here. The Sex Pistols offer a sort of quasi-carefully calculated anarchic destruction. This becomes clear when we shift attention from “God Save the Queen” to their other hit single, “Anarchy in the UK.” Sneering “I wanna destroy passerby,” Johnny Rotten doesn’t target his anger at specific institutions or people—just some random, anonymous person. This lack of telos or purpose is also evident later on, when he sings: “I don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it.” Rotten is mean just to be mean, or maybe to “get off” on his meanness—he is, after all, “rotten.” Lacking a specified target, Rotten’s urge to destroy is really not about anyone or anything other than himself. (In The Filth and the Fury, Lydon said he chose the lyric “I am an Anarchist” b/c he needed something to rhyme with the song’s first line, “I am an Antichrist.” So, again, the “anarchy” is really all about Rotten’s own carefully-calculated self-presentation.) Rotten’s negativity is just macho posturing. Because the meanness and destructiveness of “I wanna destroy passerby” is intended as a performance of a rebellious, oppositional masculinity, its meanness and destructiveness are not critical or deconstructive—their very purpose is to demonstrate shore up a coherent, stable masculine identity.

Political negativity, on the other hand, is motivated by and targeted at a specific aim; this aim is decidedly not the investment of stable, coherent masculinity. Halberstam locates political negativity in “undisciplined” performances where

the promise of self-shattering, loss of mastery and meaning, unregulated speech and desire are unloosed. Dyke anger, anti-colonial despair, racial rage, counter-hegemonic violences, punk pugilism, these are the bleak and angry territories of the anti-social turn; these are the jagged zones within which not only self-shattering (the opposite of narcissism in a way) but other-shattering occurs” (Halberstam 2008, 152).

From Halberstam’s catalogue of negative geographies, we can infer that political negativity is oriented by misogyny, heteronormativity, colonialism, racism, and political and cultural hegemonies. It aims to resist, and, indeed, shatter them. It accomplishes this by shattering, gnawing away at, or chewing and spitting out both individual and group identities. Its relational economy does not shore-up masculine identity, or any identity; rather, its relationships make manifest the limits of any supposedly coherent “self” or group identity. Sex Pistols’ first-generation London punk colleagues X-Ray Spex offer more apt articulations of political negativity. With statements such as “I am a poseur and I don’t care,” or “I’m a cliché/I’m a cliché/I’m a cliché/I’m a cliché,” or “I know that I’m artificial,” lead singer Poly Styrene draws attention to both her own and her society’s failures—most notably, the failures of liberal individualism (she’s a cliché, not a unique, authentic “self”) and the neoliberal state. This failure is another key feature of political negativity.

Failure and passivity distinguish Halberstam’s concept of political negativity from Hegelian negativity. I will talk about partiality in this paragraph, and failure in the following one. But first, Hegel: in Hegel, determinate negation, if allowed to function properly, always produces synthesis and sublation. Hegelian negativity ought to create unities out of contradictions; it privileges wholeness and progress. Political negativity is more like the “spurious negativity” of unsublated/unsublatable antitheses (e.g., the unsublated contrariness Hegel attributes to Asian culture and geography).[i] The “negativity” of political negativity is suspicion of or resistance to claims to unity, wholeness, resolution, and European notions of development, progress, and synthesis. It is precisely this suspicion of wholeness and resolution that motivates one of Halberstam’s main critiques of Edelman. She argues that his text performs, just as his theory in the end demands, the very closure it claims to subvert.[ii] In place of development, progress, and resolution, political negativity centers the rather non-ideal “ideal” of partiality. Halberstam describes this partiality in a number of ways, but her examples are all different forms or modes of refusing and/or failing to be. Political negativity can manifest as “self-shattering, loss of mastery and meaning, [and/or] unregulated speech and desire” (Halberstam 2008, 153); these are forms of partial or incomplete coherence (of the “I,” of the logos) and conformity (to grammar, to authority). Halberstam identifies this illegibility and unruliness as a key feature of transgender embodiment: “transgender bodies seem to be both illogical and illegible to any number of ‘experts’ who may try to read them…forcing the transgender subject to make sense.” (Halberstam 2005, 54). While the Sex Pistols’ negativity asserts macho dominance and shores up masculine identity, political negativity undermines both authority and identity. If there is mastery and meaning, it is only partial and incomplete. Moreover, negativity as macho posturing trades in intimidation and one-upsmanship; it is a zero-sum game of mutually assured destruction. Emphasizing partiality and incompleteness, political negativity participates in an entirely different economy, one without final tallies and zero sums. This economy is better exemplified by Joy Division’s lyric “There’s confusion in her eyes/That says it all/She’s lost control/She’s clinging to the nearest passerby/She’s lost control.” Not only is this lyric about undoing, losing control, it hails passerby with embodied relationality, not with Rotten’s aggression. “Loosing control,” the liberal subject takes itself as the object of its aggression, rather than externalizing it on some random passerby.. “Losing control” involves the undoing of the liberal “self”; “anarchy” shores it up. Anarchy takes others as means to end of realizing the liberal self in its impenetrable coherence; “losing control” blurs subject/object distinctions.

[i] Insofar as Marx more or less appropriates Hegel’s dialectic, Halberstam’s critique of “Marxist geographers” in In a Queer Time and Place is the closest she comes to directly distinguishing her concept of negativity from Hegel’s. In contrast to the “Marxist geographers for whom the past represents the logic for the present, and the future represents the fruition of this logic” (Halberstam 2005, 11), Halberstam offers a theory of temporality that critiques the very notions of progress, development, and closure/resolution/sublation that Marxist/Hegelian theory assumes.

[ii] “Twisting and turning back on itself, reveling in the power of inversion, Edleman’s syntax itself closes down the anarchy of signification” (Halberstam 2008, 142)