. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

Ich bin, aber ich habe mich nicht

Of course that could be the ghost title of anything anyone writes.

All summer I’ve been failing to finish a post about David Halperin’s What Do Gay Men Want? and Adam Phillips and Leo Bersani’s Intimacies:  I’m finding it hard. There’s a lot to say. This is part one. My focus is on their attempts to imagine sexuality as something other than a reenactment of shame or the death drive; their desires to remind sexuality theorists that realism about sexuality requires more than tracking tragicomic scenes of loss, belatedness, risk, shame, grief, and paranoiac misrecognition.

Bersani writes from psychoanalysis and Halperin writes here against it: but they advance a similar claim, that sexualized attachment is possible precisely because lovers are incoherent. Objects of desire/attachment can only partially be adequate to our needs for them to be perfectly in synch with us, given our out-of-synchness with ourselves, their enigmaticness to themselves, etc. But this does not doom desire or attachment. The very structures mourned as shame/loss are also scenes of vitalized self-extension and animated optimism. The impossibility of sexual self-governance produces affectional, political, and cognitive creativity. Lean on me; feel the stress and release in our mutual propping; now what? These are sweet theories that try to put lipstick on the pig of ambivalence.

Their question is whether we can rehardwire our relation to partiality, to process, and to the brittle contingencies of being with desire; whether we can cultivate a sexual way or attachment style that isn’t organized by the macho-paranoid-aggressive mode that tries to control being sexual, e.g. out of control. Which is to say that Bersani and Halperin are producing accounts of mediation and ideology without really providing an account of how mediation and ideology work:  nonetheless, in engendering a new sexual realism both provide prospects for rehabituating the sensorium.  They offer a different aim for personality, a personality organized by, reliable to, and identified with the delicacy of the process of staying proximate to and working with the objects of desire with which we make the theatre of our self-extension in the world.  Affect, gesture, and episode rule over emotion, melodrama, and narrative.

To summarize, briefly: Bersani works toward a transvaluation of narcissism

Normatively, your desire wants to blot out the alterity of the love object (he associates this bad narcissism with the destructive imperial projection of the Bush administration, in a very unconvincing chapter of the book). At the same time, though, desire’s paranoid projection, which frames the disappointing love object as the source of one’s own internal incoherence and destabilizing need, is accompanied by something else, the subject’s attachment to the lover’s difference and distance.  For Bersani, the subject desires to see something of himself not only in likeness but in alterity.  The lover can love your slight difference from him, and also your similarity to him, at the same time as he wants to minimize bad surprises by controlling you.

Halperin:  the project here is to rethink abjection. Here, a priori, sexuality is abject, but to Halperin abjection is not merely the dramatic loss of subjectivity, shame and self-disgust, or the production of ecstasy, and there’s nothing transgressive about it either. He does point out that one of the paradoxes of abjection is that it releases you from being obligated to those in the normative social world who would abject you (due to your singularity or your kind).  In abjection you can become free from the structure of reseduction (no, really, come back, I am good, I am loveable) that can also unfortunately shape the abject sexual subject’s personality. 

But there is a difference between abjection as sexuality-in-general and as a feature of a particular social identity.  As sexuality as such, abjection points to a collection of things we can organize under the rubric of self-abandon or self-interruption (as in the self-medicating behaviors).  Sex is one of those things that we seek to become mildly disorganized by (it organizes and disorganizes us), and sex constitutes an ordinary life suspension of selves that spread out in a way that’s agentive without being entirely intentional.  Non-sovereign subjectivity like this is what my next book, Cruel Optimism, tracks.

Halperin is using some of that material in his book:  but for him, thinking about gay men, abjection is also about a kind of social relation; a tactical response to gay men’s embodiment of social abomination; a name for a subjectivity organized more manifestly by risk than is the case for other normative ones whose risks have tended to be romanticized and heroized.

Abjection is a name for a kind of self-abandonment and abandon that is not pathological, but perverse, because it is what the desire for sex has to be seeking out; and sex is always unsafe, that’s what makes it exciting. When in a romance someone has sex and then says to the lover, “You make me feel safe,” we understand that she means, sex is unsafe, and puts me uncomfortably close to the abject. “You make me feel safe” means that I can relax and have fun where I am also not safe, where I am too close to the ridiculous and the disgusting. But some situations are riskier than others, as the meanings of unsafe sex change according to who’s having the sex.

How do you depathologize sex and sexuality during a moral panic? How can we produce imaginative norms around ways of being that suspend thoughtfulness and intentionality in their very constitution as activities? How do we think the relation of what’s non-sovereign in our ordinary activity to what’s irresponsible?  Both Bersani and Halperin use barebacking as the figure and ground of thinking sexuality at the center of social relations.  The extremity of that risk meets a desire to see that risk as akin to all sex/risk: this conjuncture or unclarity produces some creative thinking in both books about pleasures and sociality. I’ll read their barebacking chapters together in the next installment of this analysis. 

For what it’s worth–to me Halperin’s book is more challenging and resonant than Bersani’s, although I continue to think that Bersani’s conceptualization of extensivity (or the lover’s partial narcissism) since at least Caravaggio’s Secret is completely beautiful and describes something real about the light touch of so much transformative attachment. But in many places Intimacies is more assertive and willful than thoughtful, wanting to promote the superiority of one sexual subjectivity over others; whereas Halperin actually manages to create an opening without making a program for a new improved anything.

I also want to bring together their optimistic insistence about sexuality, their genuine non-erotophobia, with a trend in a younger generation’s queer theory–books by Heather Love, Dana Luciano, Jonathan Flatley–to refocus on loss, grief, belatedness, and melancholia.  These thinkers are situated in the negative affective relations that Bersani and Halperin want to leave behind; but Feeling Backward, Arranging Grief, and Affective Mapping are pursuing the ordinariness of affective negativity, the saturation of life with it, and so leave behind the melodramatics often implied by these terms. I am curious about the generational overlaps (dedramatizing sexuality) and divergences (emotions vs. sex; belatedness and loss as grounds of queer convergence versus what’s uncongealed and open in affectional and sexual process).  Something strange is going on in queer affect theory, and it’s absorbing in the best way.

2 Comments so far
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What you say about a possible theoretical shift toward a refreshing dedramatization of sexuality, embodied in a a new generation of queer thinking, reminds me of other posts where you have pointed to the creative possibilities for new kinds of episodic intimacy.
In an earlier post called, “Faceless Book,” you asked:
“How can the “episodic now” become an event? Little mediated worlds produced by kinetic reciprocity enable accretion to become event without the drama of a disturbance. The disturbance is the exception. And that’s what makes stranger intimacy a relief from the other kind, which tips you over.”
I am wondering if what we are imagining, or trying to imagine, is a version of sexualitty that resembles the “stranger intimacy” we relish elsewhere? Are these new technologies for connecting to each other without overwhelming each other, and the affective habits they encourage, creating new possibilities for imagining other kinds of intimate sex? I don’t know that it makes much sense to suggest that non-dramatic sex is new, and yet, is there something new in a version of non-dramatic sex that is nevertheless intimate and reciprocal, binding and enlivening?
I think that part of what I love so much about the “Faceless Book” post is the way that it shuffles the presumptive hierarchy of intimacy, reformulates a relational ladder into a kind of park (for lack of a better imagistic juxtaposition of ascension/descension vs. horizontal coexistence)thereby liberating intimacy from producing, as evidence, a kind of falling apart. I am wondering how these new technological habits of relating to each other might help change the way we think about things heretofore sacrosanct (like sex)in their claim to being the thing that changes/awakens/horrifies us into subjectivity?

Comment by ashtor

“lovers are incoherent […] more assertive and willful than thoughtful […] and absorbing in the best way.”

Comment by bonnie kyburz

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