Homos by Leo Bersani
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I largely picked up Leo Bersani’s Homos because it is well known in queer theory for the formulation of the anti-social thesis, which posits that there is something inherently anti-social about homo-ness. Some extensive notes:
Bersani’s prologue begins by discussing a danger he sees in much queer theory: the critique of the supposed naturalness of straight, gay, and lesbian identities is much needed, but “they are not necessarily liberating” (4) because they often erase sex (“desexualizing discourses”) and because “the dominant heterosexual society doesn’t need our belief in its own naturalness in order to continue exercising and enjoying the privileges of dominance” (5). Bersani’s approach, then, is in part a continued critique of the naturalness of sexuality, but also an attempt to find something liberating about non-heterosexuality, as well as continuing to privilege the sexuality of homosexuality.
He posits his anti-social thesis of queer theory: “Perhaps inherent in gay desire is a revolutionary inaptitude for heteroized sociality. THis of course means sociality as we know it, and the most politically disruptive aspect of the homo-ness I will be exploring in gay desire is a redefinition of sociality so radical that it may appear to require a provisional withdrawal from relationality itself” (7).
Chapter 1 explores homophobia, noting that “homophobic America itself appears to have an insatiable appetite for our presence” (11). While acceptance of queers has grown, so has anti-queer activism and homophobia. Bersani believes that part of acceptance is also related to the expectation that queers will all die of AIDS (this was published in 1995): “In fact, no one can stop looking. But we might wonder if AIDS, in addition to transforming gay men into infinitely fascinating taboos, has also made it less dangerous to look. For, our projects and our energies notwithstanding, others may think of themselves as watching us disappear” (21). Homophobia is also a unique type of hatred: racism depends upon the existence of non-whites, but homophobia does not depend on the existence of homosexuals. It is, instead, “entirely a response to an internal possibility” of being homosexual oneself (27). Of course, homosexuality cannot be eradicated, and thus, homophobia, “itself the sign of the ineradicability of homosexuality, [. . .:] must remain” (29).
Chapter 2 involves detailed engagements with Wittig, Butler, Halperin, and Warner, whom Bersani charges, among other things, for desexualizing discourse about queers. Bersani then argues that “unless we define how the sexual specificity of being queer (a specificity perhaps common to the myriad ways of being queer and the myriad conditions in which one is queer) gives queers a special aptitude for making that challenge [to institutions:], we are likely to come up with a remarkably familiar, and merely liberal, version of it [that challenge:]” (72-73). Bersani pushes these theorists for not being radical enough. For Bersani, “There is a more radical possibility: homo-ness itself necessitates a massive redefining of relationality. More fundamental than a resistance to the normalizing methodologies is a potentially revolutionary inaptitude—perhaps inherent in gay desire—for sociality as it is known” (76).
Chapter 3 is a strong critique of discourses about sadomasochism, many of which argue that there is something liberating about S/M because of the ways in which partners switch roles and play with power. But Bersani is more skeptical: “Sometimes it seems that if anything in society is being challenged, it is not the networks of power and authority, but the exclusion of gays from those networks” (85). Bersani argues that S/M doesn’t challenge privilege—it leaves privilege in tact and extends privilege (temporarily), making S/M “profoundly conservative in that its imagination of pleasure is almost entirely defined by the dominant culture to which it thinks of itself as giving ‘a stinging slap in the face’” (87). Sure, S/M plays with power, but it doesn’t critique privilege and authority.
Chapter 4 is where Bersani really outlines his anti-social theory, asking “Should a homosexual be a good citizen?” (113). Through his readings of Gide, Proust, and Genet, Bersani shows how homo-ness can constitute “a political threat [. . .:] because of the energies it releases, energies made available for the unprecedented projects of human organization” (123). Homo-ness, which involves a “self-shattering” (101), and thus a loss of the self and thus a loss of citizenship (125). Bersani proposes that Gide helps to reimagine relationality in ways that do not involve property, but in order to do this, we need to “imagine a new erotics” (128). Proust, according to Bersani, “point[s:] us in the direction of a community in which relations would no longer be held hostage to demands of intimate knowledge of the other” (151). Even more so, Genet helps us to disentangle erotics from intimacy (165). Ultimately, Bersani’s reading becomes an exhort for revolt that rejects relationally: “without such a rejection, social revolt is doomed to repeat the oppressive conditions the provoked the revolt” (172) because “Revolt allows for new agents to fill the slots of master and slave, but it does not necessarily involve a new imagining of how to structure human relations. Structures of oppression outlive agents of oppression” (174). As Bersani understands oppression, “In a society where oppression is structural, constitutive of sociality itself, only what society throws off—its mistakes or its pariahs—can serve the future” (180).