- Uncertain Terms of Pleasure
Any classification you read provokes a desire in you to put yourself into it somewhere: where is your place? At first you think you have found it; but gradually, like a disintegrating statue or any eroding relief, its shape blurs and fades . . . .
To want sex with another man is not exactly a credential for political radicalism.
Toward the end of André Gide’s The Immoralist, Michel, the protagonist, asks his friends a startling question: “Who’s to say how many passions and how many warring thoughts can cohabit in a man?” (151). The question contains important insights: If “passions”—rarely singular and unitary—are distinguished from “thoughts,” which in turn are “warring,” how can such contradictory elements “cohabit” in one mind? [End Page 807] Gide’s protagonist seems to ask if thoughts and passion inhabit us or whether the reverse is true. And if these passions belie an individual’s unity, as Michel implies, who has the wisdom or authority to pronounce their meaning—that is, to tell us who we are or what we want?
In various ways, Michel’s question recurs throughout Leo Bersani’s succinct and brilliant new book. In his prologue, Bersani asks, “Why should sexual preference be the key to identity in the first place?” (4). This is not an easy question to ask or answer, but several early reviewers of Homos scoffed at Bersani’s question, incredulous that he even need ask it. Arguing that this question is in fact central to lesbian and gay politics, Bersani challenges some of the claims and pieties informing our current notions of sexual identity, fantasy, and community. This is no small undertaking. While urging lesbians and gay men to “look more closely at the dangers of our exhilaration in being a community” (53), Bersani interprets a number of paradoxes in lesbian and gay studies and queer theory, to which I shall soon turn. His refreshing candor and irreverence combine with radically new interpretations of texts by Proust, Gide, and Genet.
Bersani’s title takes us to the heart of a complex debate about the meaning, importance, and value we attach to sexual identity. The word “homos” reminds us of the derision and contempt with which our culture often reacts to homosexual desire. Bersani does not endorse such attitudes—he aims to transvalue the insult of “homos” by harnessing the word’s bitter energy—but he also reminds us that they cannot simply disappear. Indeed, Bersani brings to our attention the unpleasant truth that “Homophobic virulence in America has increased in direct proportion to the wider acceptance of homosexuals” (15). If this is so, he asks—and a vast array of evidence supports him—why are contemporary queer theorists rushing to dismiss the idea that lesbians and gay men share a radical desire? Considering the popular trend in queer theory to praise performativity and the joys of self-invention, Bersani’s reminder about social aversion is certainly chastening. Homos’s jacket blurb contends, “In their justifiable suspicion of labels, gay men and lesbians have nearly disappeared into their own sophisticated awareness of how they have been socially constructed. . . . While acknowledging the dangers of any kind of group identification (if you can be singled out, you can be disciplined), Bersani argues for a bolder presentation of what it means to be gay.” [End Page 808]
By stating some of the “dangers of . . . group identification”—including the difficulty for group members to formulate productive self-criticism—Bersani, despite his title’s contrary suggestion, complicates the idea of a simple “us” and “them” (9). The word “homos” implies provocatively that homophobia is inseparable from tensions inherent in homosexuality’s relation to culture. Bersani is not arguing that lesbians and gay men cause the violence and hatred they often experience. He is claiming instead that since heterosexuality and homosexuality manifest themselves in Western societies as mutually exclusive orientations, and since violence, ostracism, and discrimination sustain the difference...