- “We’re Only Making Plans for Nigel”In Response to Didier Eribon
I would like to begin with the keyword that haunts Professor Didier Eribon’s lyrical and tenacious piece: survival. Colloquially, to survive is to live on—when others do not. Often, this connotes living on unchanged, as in the survival of vestigial organs in the body. It can suggest triumphing over, as in surviving cancer. Survival can also imply a reduction of life to its barest elements, as in, “She survived the car accident, but she remains in a coma.”
But the etymology of the word survive ghosts it with other possible meanings. Of course, it comes from the Latin vivere, “to live.” But the prefix super-, from which “sur” is derived, means “above, on the top (of), beyond, besides, in addition.” Thus there are echoes of something else, something above life, atop it, beyond it, besides it, in addition to it.
This suggests that surviving, making it through something like the first wave of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, puts something else atop or beside our own lives. Once we live and someone else does not, as Professor Eribon makes clear, something is making a claim upon us. We are changed. What emerges is neither the same person “before,” nor a wholly new person “after,” but a person haunted by the dead. Derrida calls it “being-with-specters,”1 and I think Professor Eribon lives with the dead in this way. [End Page 323]
Professor Eribon recognizes that this is the condition of subjectivity itself: that we are all, as Judith Butler has so eloquently put it, “the archeological remainders of unresolved grief.”2 Yet as he reminds us, some of us are also the archeological remainder of people and possibilities that, rather than being lost to us by the vicissitudes of subject formation, actually died in large numbers over a short time period, because of the government’s neglect, the inaction of medical institutions and pharmaceutical companies, U.S. culture’s fear and loathing of sex in general and gay sex in particular. This, I think, is what Professor Eribon is referring to when he describes a “political anthropology of subject formation”: if we are, as he says, constituted by that which the deceased have deposited in us, these deposits are always historically specific. And they are futurally inclined: they are deposits like pledges, entrustments of other subjectivities on whom we must make good. We emerge with the injunction that our lives are not, after all, our own, but not with instructions for what to do about that.
I think that Professor Eribon recognizes that when Lee Edelman insists we abjure the political, he risks negating the past as well as the future. This is partly because, in Edelman’s own account of the AIDS crisis, its ruination of bodies and its multiple ways of abjecting people with HIV get displaced into a more abstract Real.3 To put it simply—perhaps too simply—a historically specific scene of death becomes a universalized death drive, common to all of us, even if it is figured by the queer. Yet however much Professor Eribon may want to distance himself from Edelman (or vice versa), the two are alike in one way: Edelman’s concept of the future-spurning sinthomosexual comes from Lacan’s inquiry into the symptoms that “persist”—that is, survive—even after the psychoanalyst helps their bearer dispatch with the fantasies that supposedly gave rise to them. So even as Edelman’s sinthomosexual may repulse the future, he is burdened with a history. His negating gesture, which does away with the fantasy that love and marriage will free us all, does not escape a past of some sort. For what is the death drive but the organism’s “memory”—perhaps retrospectively constructed— of the inorganic bliss that preceded its fall into living? As the death drive heeds the siren call of nonbeing, it is life in addition to itself, besides itself, beyond itself. [End Page 324]
Weirdly, Edelman refuses the affirmative, porously futural stance, the being on the side of YES that Derrida saw as the necessary correlate of life...