Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Leo Bersani's "Homos"

In this 1995 book, Bersani begins with a stark statement: “No one wants to be called a homosexual.” He is not thinking, primarily, of closeted gay men or women, but the aversion to “homosexuality” on the part of self-identified homosexual activists and theorists.

According to Bersani, queer theorists like Monique Wittig, Judith Butler, and Michael Warner have taken “queer” to delineate political rather than erotic tendencies. In their writing, they have erased the specificity of gay identity in favor of transcendence over the homo-hetero binary, or of social constructivism or of historicizing the category; these theorists fear, rightly, to essentialize gay identity, a move that would fall in with heterosexist practice.

Though he is opposed, like the other theorists, to essentialist definitions, Bersani wants to reinstate the specificity of gay identity—same-sex desire—because one needs to oppose heterosexism on behalf of something, from the position of somewhere, however compromised something or somewhere is. His most potent argument against the erasure of gay identity is that such erasure is exactly what homophobia aims to accomplish. The first two chapters develop that argument in detail, with references to America in the early 1990s.

The next chapter argues that S/M merely replicates the power structures in the outside world, and does not question, let alone change, those structures, unlike what its advocates, including Michel Foucault, say. This chapter supports the overarching argument of the book, that many strands of current queer theory are not as gay-affirmative as they make themselves out to be.

The last chapter, titled “The Gay Outlaw,” expands on what Bersani sees as the need to destroy all relationism first, constructed as it is by oppression, before we can see the way forward to a new view of relations and community. To figure forth that idea, he analyzes Gide’s The Immoralist, Proust’s Sodam and Gomorrah, and Genet’s Funeral Rites.

The book is a stimulating read, written in readable prose, without too much theoretical jargon. I agree with the need to keep the specificity of gay identity while keeping out essentialist definitions. Though “queer” intends to be inclusive, to describe behavior instead of essence, I want to think of myself as “gay” because that denotes, particularly, my sexual attraction to men.

I am not so easy with the idea of destroying relationism in order to revolutionize oppressive structures. As Bersani admits, the idea is very far from being a political program. To my mind, the idea is also far too literary, supported as it is by literary analysis. Bersani describes Genet’s “revolutionary strength” thus:

Both his abhorrent glorification of Nazism and his in some ways equally abhorrent failure to take that glorification seriously express his fundamental project of declining to participate in any sociality at all [author’s italics].

One might ask why one should read an anti-social writer for clues to changing society. Bersani’s answer is that Genet compels us to re-think what we mean and what we want from community. Still, Bersani’s language of revolution runs counter to Karl Popper’s argument that, given our limited knowledge, social change must be wrought in incremental steps, through the deployment of social technology, instead of resorting to revolution and wiping the slate clean. The homosexual as outlaw is too tempting an idea not to resist.

No comments: