Niall Ferguson, queer theory, etc.

Niall Ferguson, a conservative historian, was recently in the news because schadenfreude. This started a train of thought to far away places, and I’d like to take you on the journey.

In The Stanford Daily‘s coverage of said schadenfreude, they mention another time that Ferguson put his foot in mouth, back in 2013. Ferguson had claimed that the famous (liberal) economist John Maynard Keynes didn’t care enough about the future because he was gay and childless.

Point in fact, Keynes was bisexual, married a woman, and tried to have children, although they had a miscarriage. Also, it’s not clear that Keynes didn’t care about the future.

Niall’s remark was clearly in response to Keynes’ famous quote, “In the long run we are all dead.” I immediately saw the connection, as this is a household quote and in-joke between me and my fiance. We say stuff like, “That may help in the long run, but you know what they say about the long run.” But it’s not really an expression of disregard for the future. It would help to see the quote in its original context:

The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.

Keynes was responding to economists’ optimistic predictions about how the economy behaves when in equilibrium. Whether an equilibrium market works well or not is besides the point, because the market is not in equilibrium, and may not ever reach equilibrium within our lifetimes. It’s not that the future doesn’t matter, it’s that assurances about the future aren’t very comforting if the future only arrives after our lifetimes.

Ferguson’s remark got the facts wrong, both about Keynes’ personal life, and Keynes’ outlook on the future. But that’s not really what rubbed people wrong about the remark. To put it plainly, Ferguson seems to think queer people don’t care about the future. Because they don’t have children (except when they do).

Ah, but here’s the interesting part. The queer rejection of the future has been discussed extensively in academic queer theory. Bear with me, I’m not endorsing the idea, I’m just explaining it.

The theory is advocated by the foundational queer theorist Lee Edelman, in a book appropriately titled No Future. Edelman sets up his opponent as “reproductive futurism”, the idea that the most important thing is to build a future for our children. Queer people don’t reproduce (except when they do), and so society tends to view queerness as a narcissistic rejection of the future. But rather than arguing that queer people do not reject the future, Edelman instead argues that rejecting the future is the greatest part of queerness, and urges us all to do it more often.

It would be wise to remember that just because an idea is coming from a famous queer theorist instead of a conservative historian doesn’t mean it’s suddenly a good idea. For one thing, it only applies to certain queer people, and leaves out, for example, bisexual economists who try to have kids but are thwarted by miscarriages. It also seems to deny the possibility of having a connection to the future that simply isn’t biological. I heard about this book a couple months ago, when my coblogger Queenie discussed being assigned to read part of it for a class. She said,

I hated it so much that I decided that I was going to prove Lee Edelman wrong with every part of my existence.

I often find myself caught in the middle, somewhat defending the fields of gender studies/queer theory/critical theory, but also not being particularly knowledgeable about it, and not being a fan of the parts I do know. A Pharyngula commenter told me No Future sounded like crackpot gibberish because there aren’t any studies showing that queer people don’t care about the future–and I’m just thinking, I don’t like the theory either, but I’m pretty sure the theory is prescriptive not descriptive. I’m reminded of that time that that Peter Boghossian was attacking gender studies, and HJ was enthusiastically defending the field while I was harrumphing about how just because gender studies isn’t complete nonsense doesn’t mean it’s all that great.

Regardless of how wrong Edelman is, his ideas at least point to an interesting topic, what Queenie calls “queer futurity”. For those of us who won’t have children, how do we imagine the future, and how do we connect to it, if we connected to it at all? I think this is a highly personal question, although I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us felt that we were fighting for the well-being of people in the future, and we just didn’t particularly care if any of those people were our own children or not.

I probably won’t have children, or adopt children. I used to want these things but it wasn’t really an authentic desire; I wanted them because I thought I was supposed to. Being queer gave me cause to rethink my values and I realized I didn’t particularly care. Also, I think having a dog would be too much work, I can’t even imagine a child. Don’t tell my mother I said that, she would gripe about the dog part.

To be honest, it never really occurred to me that by not having children I would lose a connection to the future. I tend not to worry much about the future directly, and mostly I just think about ethics. Worrying about ethics is kind of like worrying about the future by proxy, and whether you have children or not has nothing to do with it.


  1. cartomancer says

    It strikes me as the viewpoint of someone with rather limited horizons to presume that having children is the only reason someone might have an interest in or connection with the future.

    For a start, we have our own futures to think about. I’m in my 30s now, and with a favourable wind I have another 50 or so years left to be concerned with. That’s the time between the Great Depression and the rise of Thatcher – in economic terms plenty of future to be concerned about. Were I, like most of my friends, having children at the moment, then those children would perhaps be in their 50s when I passed on, perhaps with children of their own already grown to adulthood. Those children’s future would hardly be in my hands to any great extent.

    But, more than that, childless people have many important social connections with other people, including other people much younger than ourselves. Since I teach for a living (when anyone will hire me, which is not often these days, but that’s a rant for another place), I find myself having a direct impact on the lives and futures of people half my age. I also have friends quite a lot younger than myself. To presume that a parent-child bond is the only bond that matters in society is itself a very loaded ideological presumption. A very right-wing, conservative notion I would say. The aforementioned Thatcher (whose name I shall refrain from mentioning again, lest she appear) famously said that there is no such thing as society, only families (just about, though not gay families, obviously, because they were “pretended familial relationships” according to the language of her nasty, nasty Section 28).

    It benefits a certain type of power structure to have personal bonds of intimacy and concern restricted only to immediate family, rather than binding wider society together. That sort of fragmented, isolated society works very well for capitalist interests that seek to deal with people as individually as possible and prevent interpersonal solidarity from working against their own acquisitive interests.

    I suppose this is one problem with queer theory in general – it defines itself too much as a rejection of existing power structures and cultural assumptions, rather than suggesting alternative, positive structures and customs that may be of greater utility. In so doing it very often grants the assumptions of existing power structures a kind of default legitimacy – you can’t have a heterodox, “queer” take on how you should interact with society if you don’t have an orthodox, normative take to reject or modify.

  2. Owlmirror says

    I see from Ferguson’s WikiP page that he is supposedly an historian — yet his claim is notable for being blind to much of European history, to say the least, where for centuries groups of childless men and women have striven to maintain and promote institutions into the futures. The priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church, and the various monastic orders associated with the church, can hardly be said to have been indifferent to the future.

    That’s setting aside the dedicated eunuchs of the entrenched bureaucracies of Byzantium and Imperial China, and the celibate monasteries of Buddhism throughout Asia. Perhaps his education did not extend that far. But basic history of Western Europe should be a doddle.

  3. chigau (違う) says

    Are there any females involved in this reproduction and non-reproduction thingy?
    Or is it just the boys?

  4. Dunc says

    It strikes me as the viewpoint of someone with rather limited horizons to presume that having children is the only reason someone might have an interest in or connection with the future.

    As a child-free environmentalist and gardener who’s made a number of personal sacrifices and done quite a lot of bloody hard physical labour largely for the sake of the future, that’s rather more charitable than I would be inclined to be…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *