aaah, i so do like this title. that already would be enough to present this book here. makes for very good reading in any public transport. but there is more to this book than just a good title. a lot more. published in 1995 it is also the reaction to aids and the academic and political talk of being queer (as opposed to gay). concerned with the literal and the ideological disappearance of gays leo bersani takes on the task of asking what it could actually mean to be a homosexual, to be different, to be visible but not imprisoned. so what could it mean to be a homosexual? what could it mean to lead a homosexual life?

re-reading it again i was impressed how it did not age. and again i was reminded why i do like the texts bersani writes. first he does something rather unusual for academic texts – he leaves contradicitions in the open. by not glossing over contradictions and oppositions he opens a wide space for the reader to think. his opinions are clearly stated, but he does not force one to think as he does. second he does not forget the sex. it’s just that by reading quite a bit of gay, queer, and gender theory i am sometimes amazed how sexless all these texts are. but mister bersani actually dares to use the word cock – well, he dares also a lot more. and finally i get a feeling of passion reading his texts. and theory without passion is – well, boring.

homos consists of four chapters (+prologue, notes, and index).

the first chapter, the gay presence, explains the unique status of homosexuals as minority by analyzing the relationship of society to “the homosexual”. different from other minorities gays are seen as a threat to society not because of the attributes given to the homosexual (like with other minorities, for example foreigners, which, regardless of their nationalty, usually get described by xenophobes as lazy, loud, dirty, and so on.), but lies in being homosexual itself. this is based on the fear that anybody straight could turn suddenly gay (there are no hints, no visible signs, no clear explanation, no warning why someboday is actually becoming a homosexual). and it lies in the uncovering of the homo-social structure of society. homo-social actually as an opposite to homosexual – a society based on a structure of bonding between men, very visible for example in the army. but these kind of structures can not allow to make the undercurrent eroticism explicit. and obviously armies seem to have more problems with visible gays in the army then with women. which brings me to the conclusion that how much we try to be “good gays”, showing society that we are not effeminate, promiscuos, silly, immature, we will still be a threat. so for the ones hating us there is the need to eliminate us – ironically a task that can never be finished. eliminating meaning sometimes physical death, but also the making invisible of homosexuals (don’t ask, don’t tell) or de-gaying them, convert them to straights, healing them (yeah, the “reformed homosexual”).

in the gay absence, the second chapter, leo bersani discusses the different argumentations in gender theory , feminism, and queer theory. in his re-reading of judith butler, monique wittig and michael warner, which are concerned with shattering identity, gender stereotypes, straight thinking, he points out that cutting edge queer theory actually does the thing homophobes want: making the homosexual invisible. as much as these discussions are important and valid dissections of society and its structures, they are also politically difficult, maybe even dangerous (a problem judith butler was always very aware of, she explicitly said so in a lecture i attended. by the way, she is a very charming woman. and if you are interested to read a recent interview with her, go here.) so leo bersani asks what other strategies in politics and in life one could use, of how much leeway ascribed identities might give us.

“I’m not proposing a return to immobilizing definitions of identity. To say that there is a gay specificity doesn’t commit us to the notion of homosexual essence. Indeed, we may discover that this particularity, in its indeterminateness and mobility, is not at all compatible with essentializing definitions. In evading questions of specifity, even of identity and etiology, we are setting ourselves up for that inevitable judgement day when we will be found guilty of our gayness and will begin again, uselessly, to apologize for it. but if the kind of investigation I have in mind brings us up against some politically unpleasant facts, we may discover, within the very ambiguities of being gay, a path of resistance far more threatening to dominant social orders than vestimentary blurrings of sexual difference and possibly subversive separations of sex from gender. There are some glorious precedents for thinking of homosexuality as truly disruptive – as a force not limited to the modest goals of tolerance for diverse lifestyles, but in fact mandating the politically unacceptable and politically indispensable choice of an outlaw existence. (Bersani, pp. 76)”

in the sweetly titled next chapter, the gay daddy, bersani analyzis how we do in society, or how we could, one to one, as gays relate to each other. this he does by a critical reading of foucault‘s ideas regarding sm-sex and merging it with a great analysis of freud’s the wolfman. before you start moaning: aargh foucault, again (yeah, you’re somehow right), and on top of it that old fart freud! let me say something regarding freud. first, he is fun to read. even (and maybe especially) when you think that psychoanalysis is the enemy it is still a good and important read (i especially recommend his short texts and his late texts on society). the trick is to read freud as literature. as leo bersani does. then something strange with a lot of freud’s texts happens – there is a condradiction between what he is saying (hm, sometimes he contradicts himself even on that level) and how the text is built. this opens interesting spaces to think about what the sense of the text might be – the sense is therefore much more open then a lot of people might (like to) think. well, all i ask for is that you do not slag him off before reading him. and be happy bersani does not use any lacan – there i would moan: overused and overrated (he actually mentions him once, rather unfavourably). and without getting into the specific reading bersani gives us in this chapter i can tell you that it ends with two gays with happy smiles – in my perverse fantasy it’s actually sigmund holding hands with michel and strolling off to the next bistro for a nourishing breakfast…

in the concluding chapter, intriguingly titled the gay outlaw, mister bersani takes three examples from french literature (after all he is professor eremitus for french literature) to sketch possibilities what that “choice of an outlaw existence” could actually mean. don’t worry – you do not have to have read the literature he uses, neither is it a dry discussion, quite to the contrary, i actually had to giggle quite a lot.

first he uses andré gide to show one way of establishing different social relationships – it can be described as radical, superficial narcissism. it has to do with “expanding your skin”, to just feel and de-limit yourself. it all sounds actually quite close to descriptions of the effects of mdma (or maybe certain kinds of meditation? yep, that’s the moment you should write a comment, m!).

in a second step there is a hilarious part about proust‘s view on homosexuality. it’s a wild merry-go-round of essential identities and very entertaining, although at times i did get a little bit dizzy.

this leads leo bersani to the final step of a discussion of jean genet‘s anti-moral attitude. he proposes a different reading, a reading that goes further then just stating the oppositional (to society) morals of genet and actually showing a way of taking this (especially shown in genet’s play the maids) so far as to eliminate the oppressing reference to dominant morals (ideology). this creates actions, texts, art, “things” which can not be read by society. things that are outside society. it ends with genet’s statement that “only error teaches truth”, or in bersani’s words:

“In a society where oppression is structural, constitutive of sociality itself, only what that society throws off – it’s mistakes or its pariahs – can serve the future. (Bersani, pp. 180)”

so i think we hear again echoes of foucault’s “different life” as well as barthes’ “everyday utopia” and his idea of trying not to make sense. of trying to build a new sociality. for the price of being an outlaw in the actual society – a buttfucker, an ass-licker, a homosexual, a fag…

so, although this has become a rather long post it can in no way show you the richness of leo bersani’s book. but i hope it gives you an idea of the main strains of his argumentation and serves as an incentive to read him and think about it.

here the details:

bersani, leo: homos. harvard university press, cambridge (massachusetts) / london (england), 1995

leo bersani’s site at the university of berkeley.

2 Responses to “homos”

  1. Robert Ballantyne Says:

    Great blog entry. I couldn’t agree more. Everything I’ve read by Bersani is a pleasure to read and re-read.

  2. sunbathinglizard Says:

    thank you. for tips for further reading i would be greatful. and well, i am still working on trying to understand “is the rectum a grave”…

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