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General News / August 28, 2017

Caitriona Devery: “Reproduction itself becomes more important than what is reproduced”

General News / August 28, 2017

Caitriona Devery: “Reproduction itself becomes more important than what is reproduced”

Subset Dublin were recently inspired by a piece in District Magazine Issue 002


Caitriona Devery wrote a piece about reproductive futurism for Issue 002, and it became one of the most talked-about features in the magazine. The accompanying illustration was done by Dublin artist Cesca Saunders. Even in the throes of fever, Cesca was able to produce something that subtly enhanced Caitriona’s written piece.

Art collective Subset Dublin were compelled to commemorate the piece, painting something on the roof of Tara Building that was inspired by both the words and the illustration from the piece. Check it out and read ‘Reproductive Futurism’ below.

subset dublin tara building

A few years ago an academic writer named Lee Edelman published a book called No Future — Queer theory and the Death Drive. In it, Edelman railed against “Reproductive Futurism”, the idea that in popular cultural imagination we place the figure of the child at the centre of our politics and aspirations for the future. The child represents an endless deferral of our political responsibilities. Reproduction itself becomes more important than what is reproduced. Around issues like the environment we are constantly asked to act for the sake of the children to come. The symbolic child is seen as the natural beneficiary of our actions; it’s how we imagine the future in terms of linear time. Nobody is criticising actual children or reproduction but Edelman’s point was that exclusive imagination of the future for the sake of the innocent kids — “think of the children” — can serve to reproduce society in the same way over and over. The demand to act for these future youngsters leads to paralysis.

It’s not about now, rather it’s about something removed from us, embodied in the idea of the child. Edelman argues that this reproductive futurism creates a logic that controls how we imagine change and ownership over our own future. We don’t want to think about changes we must make right now; we trust in the hope that the magic of the future and future children will relieve us of our responsibilities. Implicit in such cries to “think of the children” are conservative ideas about family, parenthood and how societies and communities should be organised. Edelman was interested in how queer culture and politics is — and should be — placed in opposition to the heteronormative worldview.

Queerness for him is something that can disrupt the existing social and political order. His is an academic book rooted in psychoanalytic concepts. Yet in spite of its impenetrability, the central premise — how we configure the idea of the future child — bears the weight of extrapolation beyond queer politics. Edelman wants the social order to move beyond stasis, beyond consensus — into disruption, action and change. What we consider possible in the world is mediated and constructed through our culture. ‘No Future’ looked at popular culture in particular and uses examples from Dickens and Hitchcock that juxtapose the innocence of the child against the horror of the outsider. More critical and recent riffs on our reproductive futurism obsession would be Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Children of Men’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. While Edelman was looking through a queer lens the importance we give this abstract future child is relevant to everyone. And not just in an imaginary or artistic sense. We don’t have to look far in this country for examples of how the future (unborn) child is elevated above the mother who is currently alive — even when her life may be put at risk in order to bring it into the world.

“A rigid emphasis on the sacredness of an abstract life that doesn’t yet exist, placed above the messy reality of imperfect living ones is the real tragedy at the heart of our future dreams.”

Pro-life groups appear to believe that the life of an unblemished innocent in the ever-to-come future is worth more than the life of its mother in the present. In the US the irony is further highlighted when the life and the health of the future abstract unborn child is privileged far above the life and health of impoverished citizens — not to mention those unlucky enough to be illegal, or to have committed crimes. The distraction of abstract children as an idea, particularly those yet to be born, is a conservative device that romanticises the idea of innocence and puts the pressure on tomorrow. Not today. 52 The utopia of the future will never come. If thought of in this way, it is eternally deferred.

A rigid emphasis on the sacredness of an abstract life that doesn’t yet exist, placed above the messy reality of imperfect living ones is the real tragedy at the heart of our future dreams. Treating the past with nostalgia and imbuing the future in a dreamlike Neverland is the foundation of political paralysis. The proposition to give up the future in order to save it may be a very radical vision for society. But if our obsession is leading to inaction and suffering, is it time to ditch the figurative baby along with the ideological bathwater?