Bersani (2010): Is the Rectum a Grave?

Is the Rectum a Grave?: and Other EssaysIs the Rectum a Grave?: and Other Essays by Leo Bersani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bersani’s Is the Rectum a Grave? is largely a project to put Focault’s injunction to look for new ways of relating to each other, psychoanalytical thought, and aesthetics in conversation with each other. Because it is a collection of essays, lectures, and interviews, it gets a tad repetitive at times, but this repetition is also helpful in that it approaches the same questions from a variety of ways. Ultimately, Bersani’s writing addresses “our most urgent project now: redefining modes of relationally and community, the very notion of sociality” (172).

“Is the Rectum a Grave?” is foundation for queer theory, and is largely a response to representation of HIV/AIDS in popular discourses. Bersani argues that popular media doesn’t teach a lot about HIV/AIDS, but can teach us a lot about heterosexual anxieties about HIV/AIDS, homosexuals, and families. This media is geared toward heterosexuals, and helps to make “the family mean in a certain way” (9). Bersani also outlines how discourses about AIDS equate promiscuity with infection (18) and portrays gays as killers (17). He logically argues that the claims of MacKinnon and Dworkin are right in a way: pornography can be realism and denigrating toward women. The ultimate logic of their argument, however, is “the criminalization of sex itself until it has been reinvented” (20), and he actually sees MacKinnon and Dworkin as sharing assumptions with Foucault, Weeks, and others: that sex needs to be redefined. His problem with Dworkin and MacKinnon is their pastoralization of sex: they ignore “the inestimable value of sex as—at least in certain of its ineradicable aspects—anticommunal, antiegalitarian, antinurturing, antiloving” (22). Bersani argues for the value of powerlessness in sex: the “radical disintegration and humiliation of the self” (24). We need to reinvent the body, and Bersani argues that gay men (and everyone) should not be modeling sex off of patriarchal, heterosexual pastoral sex: the value of sexuality itself is to demean the seriousness of efforts to redeem it” (29). He concludes that “The self is a practical convenience; promoted to these status of an ethical ideal, it is a section for violence” (30).

Other ideas/quotes:

“An important function of art might be redefined as anticommunitarian, against (to the extent that this is possible) institutional assimilations of particular works” (34).

Value of homes: “Our implicit and involuntary message might be that we aren’t sure of how we want to be social, and that we therefore invite straights to redefine with us the notions of community and sociality” (38).

On shame: “we will never participate in the invention of what Foucault called ‘new relational models’ if we merely assert the dignity of a self we have been told to be ashamed of” (69).

Teaching: “it’s a sustained time and space where you do nothing but see who a group of people are going to connect” (200).

“Pedagogy and friendship are modes of extensibility less glamorous than public sex (a current queer favorite) but perhaps more worthy of exploration. . . . To redefine friendship would be a political move” (201).

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