by Leo Bersani.
Harvard, 208 pp., £15.95, April 1995, 0 674 40619 2
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In the spring of 1919 military staff at the United States Naval Training Station in Newport, Rhode Island, launched an investigation into the scope of ‘immoral conditions’ in the local community. They recruited from among the young enlisted men stationed at the base a number of sailors who volunteered to serve as decoys and to seek out and identify men they suspected of being sexual perverts. The volunteers agreed to have sex with these men, to infiltrate their social networks, and by that means to find out as much as possible about the extent and organisation of male homosexual activity in Newport. The decoys soon discovered that the Army and Navy YMCA was the most popular hangout for ‘fairies’, by which they referred to men who violated masculine norms of both gender and sexuality – in the first case by displaying ‘effeminate’ mannerisms or adopting feminine nicknames, cosmetics and dress, and in the second by manifesting a preference for a ‘passive’, or receptive, role in sexual relations with other men. The decoys also identified as ‘fairies’ a number of local clergy who ran Sailors’ Homes and otherwise ministered to the Fleet. After repeated social and sexual contact with these ‘fairies’, the decoys turned their evidence over to the authorities, and as a result of their testimony more than twenty sailors were arrested in April 1919, along with another 16 civilians in July. In 1920, the Navy opened a second inquiry into the methods employed in the first investigation. And in 1921 a United States Senate Committee issued a report of its own.

The massive documentary record left by those various proceedings reveals a vanished moral universe that will seem remote and alien to anyone who has been following the recent debates in Britain and the US over the presence of ‘gays in the military’. As recently as 1919 at least some military personnel – both officers and enlisted men – evidently considered homosexual behaviour, including oral and anal sex, compatible with military service: indeed considered it compatible with normal masculinity and normal male sexuality, so long as a man continued to exhibit a normatively masculine gender style and played an ‘active’, or insertive, role in homosexual intercourse. It does not appear ever to have occurred to the military higher-ups in Newport that what they were asking the decoys to do was deviant, perverted or sexually repugnant – in short, something that any normal man could not naturally be brought to do – and the decoys, for their part, did not regard themselves as differing in their sexual make-up from normal men. It was only in 1920, when the Bishop of Rhode Island and the Newport Ministerial Union entered the fray, coming to the defence of the beleaguered clergy, that the terms of the discourse shifted. Now the Navy itself was charged with using immoral methods, with instructing young enlisted men ‘in details of a nameless vice’ and despatching them into the community to entrap innocent citizens, while the decoys suddenly found themselves subjected to humiliating cross-examination, forced to describe in minute detail the nature and extent of their sexual motives for volunteering to undertake their dubious assignment and the degree of their sexual pleasure in carrying it out – a cross-examination plainly designed to impugn their own claims to a normative sexual identity.

More was at stake in this dispute than a mere difference of opinion about sexual morals or the relative uprightness of the two institutions’ personnel. The military men and the bishops held radically divergent and even incommensurate notions about what constituted the normal and the deviant in matters of sex and gender, and this difference in outlook reflected profound divisions between them in social class as well as in – for lack of a better word – sexuality itself. The mostly working-class sailors and their junior officers had yet to feel the effects of a historical process of ‘heterosexualisation’ that had already overtaken the mostly middle-class churchmen: in the working-class culture of the Navy what distinguished a normal male from a deviant was not the sex of his sexual partners per se but the extent to which he displayed a masculine style of self-assertiveness, both on the street and in the sheets (or public parks); judged according to those high standards of masculine comportment, the local ministers – with their deferential middle-class manners, their ethic of humility and submissiveness and their sometimes extravagant expressions of affection and concern for the sailors – fell considerably short of the minimal requirements of normal manhood. By contrast, the ecclesiastical authorities considered any genital contact between two persons of the same sex to be a sign of pathological tendencies in both partners, no matter who did what to whom; they disputed the sailors’ claims to be able to identify ‘fairies’ on the basis of personal mannerisms alone, and they denied that what the sailors called effeminacy was in and of itself a symptom of sexual deviance. The society to which most readers of this publication belong is, for better or worse, a direct descendant of the social and sexual culture of the Newport ministers.

As the Newport anecdote illustrates, the question who counts as gay for the purposes of political representation or scholarly study is not a trivial, uninteresting or purely academic one. When, for instance, we set out to write ‘gay history’, whom, exactly, do we think we are writing the history of? Would it be people who had sex with other people of the same sex as themselves (in which case it would include both the fairies and the decoys), or people who cross-dressed (the fairies and their ilk), or people with a deviant gender identity (both the fairies and the ministers, depending on whose criteria you use), or people whose closest personal relations, loyalties and emotional lives were bound up with people of the same sex (the fairies, the ministers, the decoys, the military officers themselves, and indeed the US Senators who investigated the whole affair), or people who desired intimate contact with a person of the same sex (in which case it’s not immediately evident which of the aforementioned groups would necessarily qualify)? The question, in other words, is: what exactly defines gay identity? What do you have to do to be gay? Or, as the British gay mag Attitude put it recently: ‘When is a gay man not a gay man?’

I encountered these questions of definition on the first day of the first class in lesbian and gay studies that I ever taught. In the course of a discussion one of my lesbian students declared, in what was obviously intended to be a rebuke to the implicit assumptions on which the class seemed to be proceeding: ‘I am not interested in the history of women who fucked other women. I’m interested in the history of women who loved other women.’ To which another lesbian student mildly rejoined: ‘Actually, I couldn’t care less about the history of women who loved other women, but what I’d very much like to find out more about is the history of women who fucked other women.’ It is easy to sympathise with both points of view, and to conclude that lesbian and gay studies need to make room for the study of ‘lesbians’ defined in either of those two ways. Which is exactly what they have done. Nonetheless, such institutional accommodation does not resolve, but only defers, the problem of definition.

Definitional problems have in fact bedevilled gay politics for as long as there has been gay politics. The first homosexual activist, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who began his efforts around 1862, divided human males at first into ‘Dionings’ and ‘Urnings’, the latter defined in a famous phrase as men with a woman’s soul confined by a man’s body. But Ulrichs later became dissatisfied with his initial attempts at taxonomy and went on to ramify his sexual types further, subdividing his Urnings into Mannlings, Weiblings and various others, adding a sub-class of Dionings called Uraniasters, and supplementing the general distinction between Urnings and Dionings with a third category, the Urano-Dionings. Then came Edward Carpenter’s sexual intermediates and third-sexers, Magnus Hirschfeld’s sexuelle Zwischenstufen, Proust’s invertis, Gide’s pederasts and Genet’s queens. The recent public debate over gays in the military highlighted the continuing slippage between different concepts of homosexuality, now defined alternately according to status, conduct, orientation, identity or promiscuous combinations thereof.

Kinsey attempted to lay down the taxonomic law in Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948), the first ‘Kinsey Report’. ‘The homosexuality of certain relationships between individuals of the same sex,’ he wrote, ‘may be denied by some persons ... Some males who are being regularly fellated by other males without, however, ever performing fellation themselves, may insist that they are exclusively heterosexual and that they have never been involved in a truly homosexual relation’ (let that be a warning to those who conduct sex research by means of general surveys or questionnaires). Dismissing all such claims as mere ‘propaganda’, Kinsey stalwartly maintained that ‘few if any cases’ of sexual relations between males can be considered ‘anything but homosexual’, adding that ‘all physical contacts with other males’ which result in orgasm are ‘by any strict definition ... homosexual’. By attempting to solve the conceptual and definitional conundrum in that way, however, Kinsey merely buried it, since his new methodology effectively screened out the criteria which for his subjects had defined the difference between normal and abnormal sex, and which had accordingly shaped their attitudes and their behaviour, their identities, their pleasures – and, indeed, their very sexualities. His hard and fast division between homosexuality and heterosexuality made it more difficult to understand the sexual careers of those who had lived before those categories rose to their present position of dominance or those whose sexual experiences would seem to fall outside them – including the 37 per cent of Kinsey’s white male respondents who admitted to having had ‘some homosexual experiences to the point of orgasm’ in the course of their otherwise heterosexual lives.

All these definitional difficulties spring from a basic conceptual impasse. Only a fraction of human sexual behaviour may be explicable in terms of ‘sexuality’, or sexual orientation, but ‘sexuality’ happens to be the central term we currently employ to explicate sexual behaviour. We cannot dispense with notions of sexual orientation, but neither can we make those notions do all the explanatory work we need them to do. Hence we suffer from an irresolvable and protracted definitional crisis in the field of sexuality, a crisis which students of lesbian and gay studies, or ‘queer theory’, have sought to explore. This problematising approach to questions of sexual definition is what Leo Bersani vehemently rejects in his elegant and infuriating new book. Bersani accuses practitioners of lesbian and gay studies (myself not excepted) of ‘de-gaying’ gayness. He seems to intend at least two different, and not entirely consistent, things by the accusation: 1. queer theorists have taken the sex out of (homo)sexuality, by claiming gayness either as a personal identity or as a mode of political resistance to normalisation, rather than as a sexual practice; 2. queer theorists have refused to claim homosexuality as either a personal or a political identity, treating it in Post-Modern fashion as an unstable sign – and the result, Bersani alleges, is that we have erased ourselves from the gay history we write and the gay politics we wage.

‘Even in coming out we have managed to hide ourselves,’ Bersani declares. Renouncing our (homo) sexual distinctness in favour of the generic category of ‘victim’, gay men have tried to melt into the ranks of the politically oppressed or the socially marginal; we have lost ourselves in a crowd of women, blacks, Jews and Latinos. Alternatively, we have placed ourselves at the centre of Western civilisation, thereby surrendering our uniquely subversive or transgressive birthright. Bersani urges us instead to depoliticise homosexuality (at least provisionally), to return it to its specificity as a sexual practice, to treat it not as either central or marginal but rather as a crime against civilisation, an attack on the foundations of social life as we know it, a challenge to the very possibility of human ‘relationality’ or community. Only if it is understood in such an uncompromising fashion can homosexuality once again become politically productive.

This argument, startling as it is, will be familiar to readers of Leo Bersani’s earlier work. A professor of French and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, Bersani burst on the scene of gay studies somewhat unexpectedly in 1987 with a ferociously eloquent essay on Aids and homophobia entitled ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’; Homos represents the long-awaited elaboration of that earlier essay. ‘There is a big secret about sex,’ Bersani had begun in 1987: ‘most people don’t like it.’ Our aversion to sex, he argues, springs from resistance to the disintegrative bliss, or jouissance, of sexual ecstasy, to the loss of control and sense of powerlessness which intense bodily pleasure produces. It is this ‘very potential for death’ – the death of ‘the self’, which is not necessarily the same thing as ‘biological death’, Bersani stresses – for which sex should be celebrated, both ethically and politically, because ‘the self which the sexual shatters provides the basis on which sexuality is associated with power.’ Sex becomes dangerous, harmful or politically oppressive only insofar as it degenerates into a relationship between persons. ‘As soon as persons are posited, the war begins.’ In this context, ‘the inestimable value of sex’, according to Bersani’s deliberately scandalous inversion of radical feminist critiques, lies in the extent to which sex is irredeemably ‘anti-communal, anti-egalitarian, anti-nurturing, anti-loving’, and so is inimical both to human relationships of every sort and to political efforts to redeem sexuality as positive, healthy, self-affirming and therefore ultimately likeable. The genius of gay male sex, Bersani concludes, lies not only in impersonal, relationless promiscuity but more particularly in the political promise of receptive, or ‘passive’, anal intercourse, a necessarily demeaning and humiliating practice under current cultural conditions but one which, for that very reason, has the potential to mortify the phallicised ego, ‘the masculine ideal of proud subjectivity’, which is so catastrophically important both to women and to men, whether gay or straight. In sum: yes, Virginia, the rectum is a grave. Political progress for gay men depends on our willingness to embrace anal ‘jouissance as a mode of ascesis’ – which is to say, our willingness to have the sexism and homophobia fucked out of us.

In Homos Bersani widens his vision to include other gay male sexual practices, such as cruising, rimming and sadomasochism, all of which he celebrates for their anti-communitarian implications – for their resistance to being incorporated into a progressivist social programme, into a politics of ethical liberalism. The core of the book consists of a series of stunning readings of Freud and Foucault, Gide and Genet, designed to adumbrate Bersani’s notion of ‘homo-ness’, the valorisation of sameness in gay male desire, whose ‘most politically disruptive aspect ... is a redefinition of sociality so radical that it may appear to require a provisional withdrawal from relationality itself.’ Bersani opposes that notion of ‘homo-ness’ to the more palatable rallying-cries of pluralism and diversity typically sounded by gay reformists out of a mingled conviction and sense of political expediency. By contrast, ‘homosexual desire is desire for the same from the perspective of a self already identified as different from itself’ (according to Bersani’s breathtakingly economical psychoanalytic reformulation); far from promoting an ethic of diversity, it gives rise to an anti-social love of the same which treats difference not as ‘a trauma to be overcome’ – for example, by a brand of moral earnestness familiar from the cultural politics of the Left – but instead as ‘a non-threatening supplement to sameness’. Gay desire points the way to the possibility of defetishising difference without denying it. It thereby offers a superior ethical alternative to the repressive hypocrisies of multiculturalism.

There is a great deal to admire in these pages, quite apart from the sheer force and lucidity of the writing. Bersani’s approach is immensely refreshing, both in its refusal of conventional pieties about sex and in its intellectual and political daring. His staging of a debate between Freud and Foucault over the origin of homophobia – is it psychological or political? – produces one of the sharpest and most useful descriptions I’ve ever seen of the respective positions of each thinker on matters of sex and power. (Freud wins easily, but not before Bersani has ascribed to Foucault the fantasy of a politics without fantasy, which may itself be the most inexhaustibly productive fantasy for an oppositional politics of sexuality.) Bersani’s concluding meditation on Genet’s Funeral Rites is a tour de force of eloquence and audacity, especially in its inspired defence of the unnerving proposition that ‘betrayal is an ethical necessity.’

There is also a lot with which to disagree. Bersani reasons that sadomasochistic eroticism, even if consensual, and featuring sexual roles which are potentially reversible, nonetheless depends for its pleasure on a ‘polarised structure of master and slave, of dominance and submission’, which, he argues, ‘is the same in Nazism and in S/M’. All sadists are closet masochists, according to Bersani; that holds true in the political no less than in the sexual arena. It is the prospect of possible annihilation, ‘the promise of suicidal jouissance’ (successfully repressed, of course), that paradoxically drives and sustains, ‘on the scene of history’, the self-aggrandising ambitions of such monsters of aggression as Hitler – just as it motivates, in the bedroom, the sexual brutality of countless minor bullies. Hence, S/M ‘in its “open embrace” of the structures of dominance and submission and its undisguised appetite for the ecstasy they promise ... is fully complicit with a culture of death’ – a culture which Bersani, citing Freud, sees writ large in ‘the apparent self-destructiveness of civilisation’. In this indisseverable link between power and renunciation, self-assertion and self-abnegation, Bersani discovers a certain political utility, which is entirely to the credit of S/M, but the real trick – the life-saving challenge addressed to us by psychoanalysis – is ‘to imagine a non-suicidal disappearance of the subject’. That is what Bersani claims to offer in his readings of Gide and Proust, and also what he seems to achieve in an ingenious analysis of Freud’s Wolf Man: anal sex becomes refigured here as ‘a gentler exchange’ in which ‘a man being fucked’ offers ‘the sight of his own penis as a gift or even a replacement for what is temporarily being “lost” inside him – an offering not made in order to calm his partner’s fears of castration but rather as the gratuitous and therefore even lovelier protectiveness that all human beings need when they take the risk of merging with another, of risking their own boundaries for the sake of self-dissolving extensions’.

Bersani is evidently no longer in the mood to celebrate death, not even the non-biological death of the self. Hence, no one is better equipped to refute the psychoanalytic dogmatism of this kinder, gentler Bersani than the author of ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’ For what are anal pleasure and S/M, according to Bersani’s own earlier analysis of them, if not techniques for engineering precisely such a non-suicidal disappearance of the subject? Isn’t Bersani the one who taught us that the ecstatic death of the self in sex is not the same thing as literal suicide? That sex cannot be wholly assimilated to politics? It is therefore a great disappointment to discover him collapsing, in classic New Left fashion, the distinction between sexual and political powerplays, representing sadomasochism as erotic Fascism. He forgets the reason the Marquis de Sade hated capital punishment with a fury which no mere pacifist or vegetarian could ever hope to match. Sade abhorred the violence inflicted by state agencies precisely because it is so cold, procedural, dispassionate – in a word, unerotic.

Bersani’s polemical rigour seems to increase, gravitationally, in inverse proportion to the distance between himself and the objects of his critique. That is never more apparent than in his extended and hastily conceived attack on gay studies and gay activism in the book’s early chapters. Inasmuch as contemporary work in the field of lesbian and gay studies is not routinely reported on by the popular press, except via hostile witnesses like Camille Paglia, Bersani’s polemic is likely to gain a wider audience, and to exert a greater influence, than it deserves. Hence the following remonstration.

Bersani begins magnificently. ‘No one wants to be called a homosexual.’ From there, however, he goes on in tried and true fashion to accuse his ideological adversaries, in this case certain ‘self-identified homosexual activists and theorists’, of sexual aversion – not, this time, an aversion to sex, but (what amounts to much the same thing) an ‘aversion to “homosexuality” ’ as a self-description and as the designation of a real species of sexual being. Bersani proclaims himself a fundamentalist, in effect, when it comes to sexuality. He refuses to deviate from the literal truth of sexual object-choice, and he urges those of us who have fallen into the apostasy of queer theory to return to ‘the reality we might assume to be indissolubly connected’ to our current terminology of sexual orientation: namely, the existence of ‘men whose primary erotic pleasure is taken from the bodies of other men, and ... women whose primary erotic pleasure is taken from the bodies of other women’. Like Kinsey before him, Bersani attempts with this one stroke to cut the Gordian Knot of sexual definition, but the problem won’t go away so easily.

Whereas Bersani’s 1987 essay struck out wildly but often effectively, his latest polemic is unconsidered and careless. It is not only unjust but insulting to accuse of aversion to ‘homosexuality’ the queer activists who stage a same-sex kiss-in at their local shopping-mall or who interrupt a Catholic mass conducted by a homophobic cardinal in order to protest against his refusal to allow the distribution of condoms and safer-sex information in schools: who, after all, is deceived by the non-homosexually-specific term ‘queer’ into believing such activists to be straight? And who is more likely to escape the professionally disabling stigma of homosexuality: the academic architects of lesbian and gay studies, who nonetheless call attention in their work to the historical construction, discursive operations and logical incoherence of sexual identity-categories, or a politically non-aligned exponent of French avant-garde thought who surrounds the calculated outrageousness of his refined scholarly exegeses with an incomparably glamorous aura of transgressive chic?

Bersani’s alarm at queer theory’s ‘de-gaying’ of homosexuality is hardly unique to him. Such anxieties have been central to critical reflection within the field of queer theory itself, and have been rehearsed at length – as well as answered in detail – by the very theorists whom Bersani criticises. Thus, Judith Butler, one of his prime targets, wondered as early as 1989 whether it isn’t ‘politically ... crucial to insist on lesbian and gay identities precisely because they are threatened with erasure and obliteration from homophobic quarters?’ Isn’t my theory, she went on to ask, ‘complicitous with those political forces that would obliterate the possibility of gay and lesbian identity?’ To those and other such questions of her own devising, Butler replied with another: ‘ought such threats of obliteration to dictate the terms of political resistance to them? ... The decision to counter that violence must be careful not to re-install another in its place ... Is it not a sign of despair over public politics when identity becomes its own policy, bringing with it those who would “police” it from various sides?’ Butler emphasises that her questions do not imply ‘a call to return to silence or invisibility, but, rather, to make use of a category that can be called into question’.

The strongest opposition to a constraining, pious and false ideal of gay ‘community’ has in fact tended to come from the very practitioners of lesbian and gay studies whom Bersani, bizarrely, chastises for allegedly betraying his ideal of an anti-social homo-ness. ‘We are not family,’ Lee Edelman insisted (with apologies to Sister Sledge) in a keynote address to the Sixth North American lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Studies Conference in November 1994: ‘We are not ... and should not be under any coercive mandate of affection predicated on the notion of a commonality extending across the chasms of our real and important social differences.’ Edelman went on to argue that queer theory is utopian in its very negativity: the anarchic, excessive, anti-communitarian force of our queer desires defeats any attempt to consolidate them into the foundation of an obligatory, all-embracing, institutionalised form of personal association. In short, Edelman’s message was identical to the line from Gide that Bersani uses as his epigraph: Familles, je vous haïs!

By comparison with so austere and categorical a repudiation of ‘community’ as Edelman’s, Bersani appears positively clannish. He is pleased to find in Proust, for example, ‘the outlines of a community grounded in a desire indifferent to the established sanctity of personhood ... a community in which relations would no longer be held hostage to demands for intimate knowledge of the other’. He also insists that homo-ness itself ‘should create a kind of community, one that can never be settled, whose membership is always shifting ... a community in which many straights should be able to find a place. Identity and sexual politics are not issues defined by particular sexual preferences.’ Bersani himself evidently cannot resist degaying his own theory. If the community he envisages sounds more queer than gay, let alone homo, there is good reason; as Bersani says, ‘the most varied, even antagonistic, identities meet transversely.’

Bersani’s text is full of such canonically ‘queer’ moments. He even says he wants to promote ‘an anti-communal mode of connectedness’ which can bring out ‘the homo’ in all of us. It looks like the gap between homo-ness and queer theory is much narrower than Bersani is willing to acknowledge. His definition of “ ‘the homo” in all of us’ invites the very accusations he levels against the term ‘queer’ – that it delineates a political rather than an erotic tendency, that it erases homosexual specificity, that it puts all sexual outlaws in the same queer bag. What is infuriating about Bersani’s book is its passion for disidentification, its author’s almost desperate attempt to distinguish himself from a crowd of thinkers who hold ideological positions identical to his own. In that regard, at least, Homos is an absolutely extraordinary achievement: it lobbies for an unaccommodatingly radical politics of sexuality which queer theorists largely share – by means of arguments which most would almost totally reject.

It is in the realm of politics, not literary criticism or cultural theory, that I disagree with Bersani most consistently. The core of our disagreement has to do with what the goal of political struggle ought to be. For Bersani it is victory; for most of the gay men I know, it is survival and resistance. Bersani regards these two ambitions as pathetic at best; at worst, they are equivalent to selling out. ‘Don’t you guys want to win?’ people ask queer radicals. But whatever might count as ‘winning’ seems increasingly unimaginable as the goal of contemporary political struggle. The end of homophobia? The disappearance of any socially marked distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality? The dismantling of heterosexual privilege? The elimination of gender hierarchies? At the very least, no one alive today can expect to witness such a victory (although many people are working hard for it, and some societies have made more progress in that direction than others). Most queer politics proceeds on the assumption that we are already caught in a dense network of power relations which we must negotiate and renegotiate from within as best we can. As Foucault wrote in 1975, the overthrow of the micro-powers which regulate our existence does not obey the law of all or nothing. Hence the emphasis among lesbians and gay men on cultural politics and on personal ‘practices of freedom’ as well as strategic interventions in local contexts where a transformation of power relations seems possible.

Bersani is underwhelmed by all this fashionable radicalism. He favours a more cataclysmic vision of political change. He argues, correctly, that ‘resignification cannot destroy’, and complains that when queer theorists speak of ‘subversion’, they mean something much weaker than ‘overthrowing a system’. He holds out instead for a politics that can qualify as ‘truly subversive’ and finds it in gay desire – with its supposedly inherent ‘revolutionary inaptitude for heteroised sociality’ and its potential to teach us ‘how erotic desire for the same might revolutionise our understanding of how the human subject is, or might be, socially implicated’. Nothing less thrilling than revolution will satisfy Bersani. He reacts indignantly to the tendency of queer activists ‘to resign ourselves to the micropolitics of local struggles for participatory democracy and social justice, thus revealing political ambitions about as stirring as those reflected on the bumper stickers that enjoin us to “think globally” and “act locally” ’. Bersani implies that such politics are for losers – and the surest way not to get laid. (That may not be a universal truth – some of us find gay activists particularly sexy – but it can be massively confirmed by anyone who has ever worn an Act Up T-shirt into a gay bar: even university monograms are turn-ons, by comparison.)

Bersani proposes instead a politics so transcendentally radical as to be incapable of realisation, and therefore impracticable as politics. His own programme for political action is, to put it charitably, under-described: it contains very little besides examples of sexual practice, on the one hand, and examples of literary practice, on the other. And what is more likely than those to do what Bersani faults queer activism for doing – namely, leaving ‘oppressive societal structures intact’? Queer politics, however, is predicated on the assumption that systems of power are not likely to be overthrown or destroyed in toto, let alone by sexual or literary practices in and of themselves. The political deduction queer activists make from the inescapability of power relations is the urgent need to engage precisely in the unsexy kind of political strategising (thinking globally and acting locally) that fails to ‘stir’ Bersani. One benefit of renouncing the prospect of some endlessly deferred revolution is that we can rid ourselves in the meantime of a politics that consists of theorising utopian possibilities while delegitimating the various practices of resistance that cultural radicals are pioneering right now. Bersani’s book seems indeed to have no other political design.

The queer practices of resistance which Bersani derides may in fact be more subversive than he recognises. A typical effect of his reductive approach is consistently to misconstrue and underestimate the political effect such practices actually produce. Speaking of the ‘families’ constituted by the drag queens in Jennie Livingston’s film, Paris Is Bunting, Bersani says dismissively: ‘they remain tributes to the heterosexual ideal of the family itself.’ That much is undeniable, but it’s not the whole story. So what if re-signification does pay tribute to heterosexual power? What else does it do? To what extent does it alter or enlarge the definition of family, or make it differently available? How do ‘family’ and gender change as a result?

Bersani displays little sense of the practical dimensions of current political struggles. ‘Monogamy continues to have its appeal,’ he says opprobriously: ‘the demand for legalised gay marriages testifies to that.’ In this unthinking assimilation of marriage to monogamy Bersani shows himself a less astute political thinker than even the conservative gay ideologue Andrew Sullivan – something which ought to have given him serious pause. It doesn’t occur to Bersani that the reason many lesbians and gay men may want to get married is not in order to flaunt their monogamy, but, just the reverse, in order not to do so. It is the legal impossibility of marriage that imposes on all lesbian and gay couples who wish simply to represent themselves as couples the unending social duty to give their erotic relations a shape and a form that approximate to heterosexual union, whereof no amount of apeing will procure them the status and benefits that routinely accrue to married people. Far from testifying to the appeal of monogamy, the demand for gay marriage may express the wish of at least some lesbian and gay couples to combine a loving relationship with the sort of impersonal, relationless promiscuity that Bersani elsewhere endorses – to have, in other words, exactly the same sexual latitude that heterosexual married couples already enjoy – without forfeiting the legal privileges of marriage.

Bersani’s understanding of what constitutes gay politics is consistently impoverished. ‘We want something which is unique among oppressed groups,’ he writes, ‘the right to have the sex we want without being punished for it.’ But the history of miscegenation laws makes this wish less gay-specific than Bersani claims, and in any case does not begin to describe what it is that gay men want. What I want at the moment, for example, includes at least four other things besides sex with impunity. I want to be rid of the encumbrance of immigration statutes that do not recognise my relationship with my boyfriend and therefore make it harder for me to spend time with him; I want to be able to pursue my scholarly career without having to choose between bracketing my gayness and impugning the value of my scholarship; I want the work of my colleagues in lesbian and gay studies to be accurately reported in the media at least as often as it is caricatured and vilified; and I want HIV/Aids to be treated as a public health emergency, not as a serendipitous form of social hygiene or the moral ratification of a reactionary cultural agenda. In those four departments of gay political aspiration, as I see them, neither Genet nor Bersani offers me anything of much use.

Perhaps these aspirations are banal; I’m sure they aren’t very stirring. But this apparent banality is precisely what gives a radical edge to sexual politics. It is because sexual meaning saturates the entire social fabric that it affords so many – admittedly banal – opportunities for political intervention, so many possible sites of entry into the political. That is nothing to be underrated. In Woody Allen’s 1979 film, Manhattan, a woman at a cocktail party is overheard to remark: ‘I finally did have an orgasm, but then my doctor told me it wasn’t the right kind.’ I think of that doctor whenever I read Bersani: he always seems to be telling me that in politics, as in sex, I’ve never experienced the real thing. (No doubt I just haven’t met the right guy.) After all, I’ve gotten fucked, and I’ve enjoyed it, but I haven’t been shattered. I’ve engaged in cultural politics, and I’ve encountered some resistance, so I must have been a trifle subversive, but I haven’t destroyed anything. Would I even want a revolution if I could have one?

But wait, perhaps I have been shattered, in ways that Bersani underestimates, and that I myself am slow to recognise. Certainly from my former perspective as a terrified gay teenager, or even as a closeted scholar of Hellenistic Greek poetics, the subsequent transformation of my life by gay politics, and of my work by gay studies, would have seemed inconceivable: not even a revolution, according to such notions of revolution as were current at the time, could effect such a change. Perhaps I have managed to shatter my former self – a portion of it, at least. The practice of transgression may well be more subtle, and more elusive, than we realise. And queer politics may yet prove to be more far-reaching and more efficacious than sceptics, either in it or out of it, are ready to admit.

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Vol. 18 No. 12 · 20 June 1996

David Halperin (LRB, 23 May) complains that something in the book he is reviewing is ‘unjust and insulting’. Yet he does not hesitate to repeat one of the ‘big lies’ of our time: that the cardinal in New York is ‘homophobic’. How does Halperin reconcile that comment with the cardinal’s establishment and maintenance, from the beginning, of the largest Aids ward in the United States? That establishment and maintenance go against the strong feelings of many of his cash-paying flock. They, not unjustly, point out the comparable needs of poor children and the aged and afflicted. To those he will reply, as inoffensively as he can, that by the rules of the organisation, he is the man in charge and he will decide. Although the cardinal does not refer to it, I suppose that he has probably a far larger experience of the gay community than most of his critics. He was, after all, a confession hearing chaplain in the Navy for many years.

Gabriel Austin
New York

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