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  • Clear and Sonorous:A Reply to Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman
  • Tim Dean (bio)

There are times when, if one has any sense of irony at all, the conviction of living in a David Lodge novel becomes virtually inescapable. The propensity for some academics to unwittingly satirize themselves allows the rest of us to sit back and enjoy the show. Although I did not know that Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman would be offered a right of reply, my essay seems to have accomplished the improbable feat of healing the rift between these querulous two. They can now speak with a unified, indignant voice until, toward the end of their response, dissension emerges around the status of Berlant’s prose. Edelman gallantly leaps to defend it, while she is “more conciliatory, agreeing that the sentence [cited] looked awful.” Now comes the Lodge-worthy moment. “But then she returned … to read it in context, and there found the sentence clear and even sonorous.” You cannot make this stuff up.

It is a relief to learn that Berlant still loves the sound of her own voice. Her followers are given to understand that she has survived this “attack” on her prose. The word “attack” appears no fewer than five times in their response, a repetition that helps to explain why Berlant and Edelman sound so defensive. What I wrote cannot qualify as a critique of their book or a form of critical engagement, but only as an “attack”: the term serves to ward off critique by discrediting it as essentially irrational. Viewing oneself as under attack turns out to be more reassuring to the critical ego than taking seriously substantial disagreement with one’s work. Likewise their repeated claim that my critique “dismisses” their book. To dismiss Sex, or the Unbearable would entail not writing about it at all. Responding to the book diplomatically, with a few words of polite flattery, would also be tantamount to dismissal, in my view. [End Page 630]

But clearly we differ on what counts as critical engagement. Writing in a maximally obscure idiom discourages engagement by ensuring that readers have the hardest time possible in following what one is actually saying. I interpret Berlant and Edelman’s prose as armor against engagement, nor am I alone in this impression. Regrettably some critics seem to imagine that their celebrity status effectively immunizes them against critique. They proceed as if their every pronouncement, no matter how poorly formulated or halfbaked, should be published instantaneously and received with universal adulation. Academic celebrity breeds a diminished capacity for self-criticism and a marked intolerance for criticism hailing from elsewhere. You either have to applaud these critics’ every word or you’re attacking them. The middle ground of reasoned disagreement vanishes once the critical ego swells to a certain size. Part of what makes Sex such a rebarbative reading experience is that it illustrates this point all too well.

Because Berlant and Edelman take themselves so seriously, they fail to take language or concepts seriously enough. Their response suggests that we now can add identitarian to the list of terms they apparently feel entitled to make mean whatever they want them to mean. Attributing a national specificity to the aversion I discuss in the essay is not, as they allege, an “identitarian claim.” Their absurdity along these lines has provided occasion for merriment in my household.


“Are you in the mood for French or Japanese tonight?”


“You are so identitarian.”

Of course, national identifications can become identitarian, especially when folks get defensive about their imaginary affiliations. But to suggest that any reference to national difference counts as identitarianism simply misuses the term. Conceptual terms degenerate into jargon in just this way.

Things get sloppier still when Berlant and Edelman proclaim, “Dean is unflinchingly committed, in fact, to defending an identity: the identity of what (he thinks) sex ‘is.’” They appear to be confusing identity with ontology and thereby muddying the waters.1 What they seem to be trying to say, in their convoluted fashion, is that I think sex is just one thing—as if, in the deconstructive idiom favored by Edelman, sex were identical to itself. I don...


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pp. 630-633
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