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  • Subjunctivity
  • Michael D. Snediker (bio)
Review of: Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, intimacies. U of Chicago Press, 2008.

If these past decades of ruminating on J.L. Austin have rendered I do a paradigm of performative utterance, one of the actions with which this performative arguably coincides—beyond conjugal contract, beyond ostensible entrapment in a certain symbolic narrative—is the no less paradigmatic act of all acts, the sexual encounter. The more familiar opposite of this performative informs the no less powerful pseudo-tautology No means No. Against the rhetorical and non-rhetorical certainties of I do and No, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has more recently posited the periperformative—I want to have said it—whose frisson depends on a formulation’s propinquity to some more conventionally understood locutionary scenario (e.g. having actually said it). The auxiliary of “wanting…” implies that the periperformative describes a lexical correlative to desire, as the performative describes a lexical correlative to a fantasy of the instantaneousness between desire and that desire’s objects.

Bersani and Phillips’s recent book offers an important contribution (one might say non-contribution) to such performative scholarship, in its displacement of “that act” as we know it; in its trenchant argument that one of the most important things to do with words is not the instantiation of or flirtation with action, but rather the potentially indefinite deferral and reconceptualization of action, for the sake of holding a bit longer onto the uncertainties of words, the uncertainties of what is recognizable as action (in metonymic rather than metaphorical relation to language). intimacies presents theorizations of intimacy unhinged from desire as we know it, intimacies whose most (if not only) reliable component is a spatial closeness neither definitively predicated on nor leading to sexual inevitability.

This sexual moratorium is all the more remarkable given intimacies’s insistence on a psychoanalysis held apart from the erotic energies on which that discipline is usually imagined to rest (and act). Psychoanalysis constitutes both subject and object of these delicately transitive meditations. That is further surprising in that much of Bersani’s career has so vigorously pursued the question of how to do things with sex. Or rather (in the spirit of the aforementioned sense of non-contributiveness), how not to do things with sex. The violence of sex, as Bersani has announced, is peculiarly valuable in its capacity to disable the aggressions of egotism. (I shall return to the aporetic-seeming mobius of disabling capacity.) intimacies, on the other hand, articulates modes of interrelation that might (ethically, epistemologically, psychoanalytically) be possible only in the temporary disabling of the sex machine’s disabling—clearing a salubriously under-explored space between the stringencies of either having or not having an ego. This book, then, besides its more manifest contributions to queer-theoretical and psychoanalytic thinking, as importantly contributes to the more nascent field of disability theory. Or to be less hypostasizing, suggestively redescribes a psychoanalysis of disability. Or to return to the grammatical vocabulary of Austin, a psychoanalysis of subjunctivity. Subjunctivity, here, is grammatically equivalent to disability (that of which psychoanalysis might be constituted and that which it regards), but also (beyond auditory affinity) meant as evolving proxy for what otherwise, following Lacan or Foucault, has been taken as subjectivity, as subject.

Powerfully contrapuntal to Bersani’s earlier articulations of the knack for psychoanalytic subjects to administer and incur damage, intimacies considers the possibility of a no less psychoanalytically grounded vocabulary of safety. The terms on one level are not unfamiliar; if in works such as “Is the Rectum a Grave” or Homos aggression arises as the ineluctable raison d’être of personhood, the exploration in this work of impersonality necessarily illuminates in its veer from persons less the evacuation of impulse so much as an impulse differently attuned to innocuity. Impersonality (or in its adjectival form, the impersonal) does not oppose personality so much as rewrite personality, as though we might hold onto the former as temporary misnomer until either personality itself were more capaciously accessible or some term more precise than impersonality were available. Innocuousness (my term, not Bersani’s or Phillips’s) itself serves as temporary misnomer for what more exactingly might be...

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