- “Homo-Ness” and the Fear of Femininity
Homos is a disturbing book, in the most literal sense of the word, for Leo Bersani’s goal throughout much of his text is precisely to disturb some of the widely accepted precepts of queer theory and gender performativity. As if the title alone were not enough to signal the text’s contestatory tone, the first sentence of the prologue boldly declares that “no one wants to be called a homosexual” . While many scholars might disagree with such an overwhelming generalization (myself included), it nonetheless reminds us that homosexuality continues to occupy an ambiguous position within contemporary society, an ambiguity perhaps most powerfully punctuated by the recent failure of gays and lesbians to secure legal access to the institution of marriage. In the first three chapters, Bersani interrogates topics such as gay identity, AIDS, queer theory, and sadomasochism. In the final chapter, “The Gay Outlaw,” he addresses the literary representation of homosexuality through radical rereadings of Gide, Proust, and Genet. Although no one single thesis coherently unites these chapters, a healthy spirit of suspicion begs the thorny question of what it means to be gay, and in so doing, explores the tenability of identity politics. Rejecting a politics of opposition that would bind our theorizations to the very heteronormative paradigms that they are attempting to resist, Bersani argues instead for ways to “explore the links between a specific sexuality, psychic mobility, and a potentially radical politics” .
Identity, for Bersani (and other critics following Foucault), is an operation of power, a “disciplinary project” that is a tool at the service of identification and containment . 1 Seen as essentialist, universalizing, or ontological, identity has received a bad rap. Indeed, the notion of a sexual identity as a fixed category invariably fails in its performative capacity to capture the myriad array of sexual acts that a given individual may feel compelled to perform. The failure of identity, however, should not lead to its elimination from our theoretical frameworks, Bersani proposes. He claims instead that the critique of identity in feminist and queer theory is ultimately destructive rather than liberating. At the [End Page 57] source of this dismissal of identity is the fear that visibility will result in “discipline and punishment,” but Bersani argues quite convincingly that this retreat from the domain of the visible colludes with the homophobic goal of eliminating homosexuality. On the other hand, Bersani acknowledges that identity and visibility are not wholly benevolent either: “[o]nce we agreed to be seen, we agreed to be policed” . Visibility allows for domination and even annihilation, a possibility that Bersani considers in his discussion of AIDS, in which visibility can be seen as providing straight America with a front-row seat at the spectacle of gay death . Nevertheless, that is a risk that must be taken. While not proposing a return to regulatory identity categories, Bersani wants to return to a gay specificity to prevent gays and lesbians from “performing” themselves out of existence. Responding to David Halperin and Judith Butler, for example, he argues that the rejection of essentializing identities as a mode of resisting homophobia erases the very agent of that resistance . Fearful that the attacks on the notion of identity in the academy have simply collaborated in the marginalization of homosexuality, Homos attempts to offer “homo-ness” as an “anti-identitarian identity” , one that risks the pitfalls of essentialism and simultaneously transcends the limits of sexual orientation.
Nowhere is his desire to rethink identity more clear than in his trenchant critique of the dismantling of gender by critics such as Butler, Monique Wittig, and Michael Warner. Suspicious of their deconstructive strategies, he argues that the undoing of the categories of gender inevitably leads to the elimination of homosexuality. The critique of gender in discussions of sexuality endangers any specificity that same-sex sexuality might have. For example, he writes, “‘men’ and ‘women’ in Wittig’s radical argument are political creations designed to give a biological mandate to social arrangements in which one group of human beings oppresses another” . Within the social domain of...