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  • Reading, Sex, and the Unbearable:A Response to Tim Dean
  • Lauren Berlant (bio) and Lee Edelman (bio)

Tim Dean begins his review of our book with two identitarian claims. His essay’s title, “No Sex Please, We’re American,” attributes a disavowal of sex to Americans while its initial sentence ascribes a dislike of sex to “most queer theorists.” Later he brings the two together by associating “Queer Studies in the US” with a “sex-squeamishness” that he traces, in part, to the formulation of queer theory in “identitarian terms.” In this he is not completely wrong, despite his identitarian way of getting at the problem. In Sex, or the Unbearable we make this very point:

much contemporary critical thought (and much contemporary activist practice) seems, in our view, all too willing to put the subject of sex behind it. … Sex, in this context, can carry the odor of anachronism, narcissism, or something irreducibly and disconcertingly personal, and any impulse to linger on its place in the social, cultural, and political fields can suggest a stubbornly narrow gaze or a refusal to move on.


Dean’s response to this situation, though, differs markedly from ours. His first sentence echoes a famous one by Leo Bersani, who begins “Is the Rectum a Grave?” with the words: “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it” (3). But from Bersani’s “most people” to Dean’s “most queer theorists,” the force of this “secret” has shrunken considerably. The claim that animated Bersani’s text viewed the widespread “dislike” of sex, by which he meant a visceral aversion to it, as an identity-based defense against [End Page 625] what he characterized as “self-dismissal” or the “self-shattering” of jouissance. It could seem that Dean has that in mind too when he writes a sentence like the following: “One need not be a strict Freudian to grasp how sex is not primarily an expression of identity but its undoing.” One might think, in other words, that he means what we do when we associate sex with the tension involved in “the subject’s constitution by and attachment to varieties of being undone” (Berlant and Edelman 6).

But Dean is unflinchingly committed, in fact, to defending an identity: the identity of what (he thinks) sex “is.” Unlike Bersani, who insists on the folly of maintaining that “the sexual is a stable, easily observable, or easily definable function” (28), Dean seems certain about it: sex is “embodiment” or what he calls “bodily desire,” without considering for a moment that desire may not spring from the body alone. In this context, our antiidentitarian critic attacks our focus on the various sorts of disturbance sex can occasion: “Berlant and Edelman do not differentiate straight sex from queer sex; apparently the distinction remains irrelevant.” So, just to be clear about what Dean’s saying: we’re fetishistically identitarian but not identitarian enough.

Hence, Dean dismisses our discussion of the displacements inextricable from sex, displacements that inflect relations to the body through the pressures of desires, drives, and norms as “abstractions” that bespeak a “hatred” of sex and therefore attempt to “bury” it. He orchestrates a parade of nouns describing topics engaged in our book—“affectivity,” “antagonism,” “attachment,” “futurity,” “negativity,” “optimism,” “relationality,” “reparativity,” “sociality,” and “sovereignty”—and asserts that this definitively demonstrates our phobic evasion of sex.

Abstractions, however, need not merely bury the things from which they are abstracted; they can serve as indispensable tools with which to contextualize and interpret them instead. Doesn’t Dean resort to abstractions—including the ones he denounces in us? In his own work sex is both bodily experience and a prompt for a field of ethical and political associations. He makes that clear in this very review; although he puts scare quotes, for instance, around negativity when glossing “what Berlant and Edelman are referring to when they speak of ‘negativity,’” well before that, in his brief against Benjamin Kahan, he condemns him precisely for presenting an account of “sexuality without negativity—a Pollyanna sexuality that has evacuated everything that makes sex disturbing, exciting, and intellectually worthwhile.” Someone seems to be borrowing from the very book...


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pp. 625-629
Launched on MUSE
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