The Law and Outlaws In Bersani’s Homos

From “Sex Parts” series (1978), Andy Warhol

“If a community were ever to exist in which it would no longer seem natural to define all relations as property relations (not only my money or my land, but also my country, my wife, my lover), we would first have to imagine a new erotics. Without that, all revolutionary activity will return, as we have seen it return over and over again, to relations of ownership and domination.” (128)

Leo Bersani’s Homos—a slim, funny, surprisingly lucid book—is centrally concerned with the cyclical nature of domination, asking what, if anything, can break its hold. In it the author sets out to overcome the impasse that he identifies with queer theory’s parodic repetition and re-solidification of social norms. Attuned to the workings of heterosexist social dynamics, Bersani charges, queer theorists like Judith Butler resigned themselves to mere satirization. But however much this approach tries to “invent new relational modes,” queer theory implicitly relies upon the very terms that it seeks to undermine. Thus drag, which Butler suggests can alert us to the ways in which gender/sex is continually performed (and, on occasion, interrupted) according to given social scripts, must fall back on monolithic, heteronormative pictures of masculinity and femininity to do its work. The black, gay ball culture immortalized by Paris Is Burning merely glorifies racial capitalism’s imperatives to consume and conform to straight, white standards of fashion and beauty. And even seemingly subversive practices like sadomasochism, famously celebrated by Foucault as a radical “desexualization of pleasure,” offer little hope for transcending hetero-patriarchal values: “At least in gay male S/M, conventional masculinity is worshipped” (85), and in any case the CEO’s weekend routine of playing the sub hardly saps his larger social role of its oppressive string.

All this leads Bersani to his hypothesis: To escape merely reproducing the violent norms and roles of society at large, it is indeed necessary “to devise new ways of coming together” (149), but, crucially, for him this means developing subjectivities that don’t depend upon society for their contents—ones that go beyond relationality itself. To get there, though, we will first have to undo some of the damage done by queer theory. For instance, we will have to get over its subtly homophobic, sexphobic erasure of homosexuality in favor of an ill-defined, ever-elusive “queerness.” For, informed by a distinctively psychoanalytic framework (another move sure to irk those sympathetic to the anti-Freudian turn inaugurated by Foucault), Bersani wagers that gays (gay men, it seems) are particularly well situated to realize these anti-relational possibilities. Bersani is interested in a model of desire, also explored in his essay “Sociality and Sexuality,” in which it is not our fundamental difference or lack that propels our desire for the other, but a kind of narcissistic investment in sameness, an anti-relational desiring that homos are particularly well equipped to recognize and realize in practice. According to his readings of Plato and Freud there, it’s only that which we already have or could have in some measure that we desire. Desire, then, is always already desire for the same, for an increase in our nature and powers, a situation that he terms “homo-ness.” Reimagining desire in terms of sameness, as indifference to difference, is, in his mind, a necessary step to overcoming deeply entrenched distinctions and forms of domination that threaten to reappear after each new revolutionary upheaval.

Unsurprisingly given this, difference tends to disappear in the gay accounts of desire that interest Bersani. The vision that he gravitates toward, as in his discussion of André Gide’s Orientalist classic The Immoralist, appears to almost elevate gay cruising culture to the level of an ontology, a field of being in which the line between self and other is blurred in the communion of bodies—a picture that’s in line with his theoretical flirtations with both anonymous barebacking and Christian mysticism elsewhere. Beautiful Arab boys, the author notes, need not even register as separate beings for Gide (a topic that deserves a book-length discussion in itself); their youthful health and attractiveness are, in the end, mere catalysts of a desire in the work’s protagonist, Michel, “to touch inaccurate replications of himself, extensions of himself”: “Pederasty in The Immoralist, like nude sunbathing, is the narcissistic expansion of a desiring skin” (124-5). The result is a sort of “self-less” sexuality in which the line between desirer and desired is blurred and individuality disappears, and along with it Eurocentric ideas of relationality and possessiveness (for no self means also no property for the self to possess).

Michel’s pederasty is the mode for intimacies devoid of intimacy. It proposes that we move irresponsibly among other bodies, somewhat indifferent to them, demanding nothing more than that they be as available to contact as we are, and that, no longer owned by others, they also renounce self-ownership and agree to that loss of boundaries which will allow them to be, with us, shifting points of rest in a universal and mobile communication of being. (128)

Bersani makes clear that the insight afforded by this gay mode of existence—and even more so by the figure of the gay outlaw embodied by Jean Genet, which I will get to momentarily—is not restricted only to gay people. Rather, it functions like all myths: Its particularity, including its cultural situation and context, opens to universal truths (in this case, truths concerning desire and the possibility of practicing previously unexplored types of intimacy). And yet, as I’ve just alluded to, it is not Gide but Genet who emerges as the highest exemplar of this anti-relationality in Bersani’s telling.

In a lengthy, fascinating discussion of Genet’s Funeral Rites, Bersani gestures to the possibility of “a form of revolt that has no relation whatsoever to the laws, categories, and values it would contest and, ideally, destroy” (152). Yet, on the surface, Genet might seem an odd choice of someone whose example to hold up. His Funeral Rites opts to mourn his fallen lover, Jean, by celebrating his imagined affair with the Nazi collaborator, named Riton by Genet, who later murders him. But Bersani finds the story illustrative precisely insofar as it suggests a novel kind of eroticism, one in which social values are flaunted and intimacy re-imagined beyond confining models of self and other locked in a reciprocal and loving embrace. Instead, Genet’s treatment of Jean and Riton has the former imagining himself scurrying into his lover’s anus while rimming him “like the rat in the famous torture” (quoted on 157), only to be digested from within. Both eaters (of waste) and eaten (as potential waste), lovers are dehumanized, confused, and reconfigured in various ways.

And, of course, what could be more essentially homo—and more anonymous and anti-relational—than anal sex? Coitus a tergo may not be exclusive to gay men, notes Bersani, but fucking from behind, with lovers facing away from each other, best conforms to “the way in which the anus (as distinct from the vagina) presents itself for penetration” (164). Here pleasure is not dependent upon intersubjectivity, a relationship of selves across difference, or even the tacit acknowledgement of another self at all. Instead Genet describes the Nazi Erik fucking the traitorous Riton after the latter’s murder of Jean on a rooftop not as “loving one in the other…. [but as the pair] escaping from themselves over the world, in full view of the world, in a gesture of victory” (quoted on 165). Bersani is fascinated here as elsewhere with the writer’s inversion of typical heterosexual images of intimacy: Private romance is replaced by a public quickie, with no meeting of eyes or minds, while the rhythmic unity of their bodies ends up painting the couple almost as though they were mere expressions of the selfsame energetic impulse (“relay points in a burst of erotic energy toward the world” [170]). The only product of their unlikely fecundity is the blackness of night, an as-yet formless future.

The act completed, Riton is imagined to then kill Erik before opening fire madly; the traitor is shot dead shortly thereafter by a French Resistance fighter.  For Bersani, such indiscriminate killing within ideological ranks highlights an aimless, anti-social destruction that cannot merely be equated with the intensely focused annihilation-machine named by historical Nazism. The story instead “transforms Nazism into a mythic metaphor for a revolutionary destructiveness that would surely dissolve the rigid sociality of Nazism itself” (171). What matters in this account are pleasures and intimacies that break with relationality as such: Riton just as well could have killed himself as Erik, or a member of the Resistance. Theirs is an intimacy freed from social scripts—indeed from the social element of intimacy itself. As Bersani puts it, “Genet’s excitement is murderous, but murder itself serves as an ideal of perfect unity between the lovers” (158). Although Funeral Rites gives no indication of what a world freed from the tedium of human recognition and social mores would look like beyond its portrait of the self-dissolution and (metaphorical?) violence necessary to get there, it’s easy to feel that this is a gamble probably not worth taking. Bersani’s rejoinder is simply that, so far as he can see, without abolishing social subjectivity, there’s no hope for a future that doesn’t include more of the same, that is, more difference and more hierarchy. (No wonder, given these options, his most famous epigone, Lee Edelman, opted for “No Future” at all.)

Moreover, it’s difficult not to be confounded by the paradoxical aims and methods of Homos. Bersani would save society from its endless cycles of violence by recommending transcending society altogether with all the profound indifference to others, and the potential for narcissistic violence, that this would supposedly entail. The end result is a picture more exciting and compelling perhaps than even the dreamlike conclusion to Monique Wittig’s feminist masterpiece Les Guérillères criticized by Bersani (naturally), but certainly no less utopian. Even if we are speaking only of freeing subjectivity from the social, it’s not clear that we can get very far. After all, the psychoanalytic consensus, certainly among Lacanians anyway, appears to be that the advent of language spells the end of the primordial unity of self and (m)other. Only death properly restores it, and perhaps that’s the point: Bersani is glorifying the death drive, in search of an irrecoverable field of self-identical being.

In any case, we have other reasons for doubting the viability of his anti-relational turn when even Genet, with his antinomian embrace of evil, does not seem to have really overcome sociality, instead simply falling into the trap that Nietzsche warned against of celebrating whatever values are opposed by society. Bersani, for his part, insists otherwise. It is Genet’s ecstatic indifference to the Law that makes him a suitable model. This merely begs the obvious question of whether we are to believe Genet’s pleasures had no relation to his knowledge of having so thoroughly flaunted his society’s sacred standards as well as the more mundane semantic point that there can be no “outlaw” without a law to transgress.

In short, Bersani’s outlaw existence would seem to be every bit as dependent upon the norms that he hopes to contest as that of the queer theorists he rejects. At least they recognized that, social power relations being inescapable, the goal was to invent new, more humane ways of directing and deploying these, not simply more romanticization of revolutionary violence. It’s worth adding, too, that despite promising to answer the question “How is sameness different?” (41), Bersani’s allusions to homo-ness as an “indeterminate identity” (59) don’t seem to improve very much on Halperin’s definition of queerness as an “identity without an essence,” for in the end both end up mixing particularity and universality in their own ways. Both draw from similar cultural repertoires and memories, which is to say, arguably outdated depictions of gay life, to make their cases. Indeed, thinking on all this, I’m reminded of a scene from Louis Malle’s wonderful film Murmur of the Heart in which the lead character, Laurent, and his friend are shown after serving as altar boys at Mass. The friend, shoving his face with consecrated hosts and communion wine, turns to offer some to Laurent, who declines, saying that sacrilege has no interest for him: “It means that one still believes.” So it is with Bersani’s invitation to an outlaw existence. Naughtiness and narcissism have their charm, but ultimately his vision is more seductive than convincing.