Archive for the ‘leo bersani’ Category

who are you? a homosexual

October 6, 2007

reading an essay by scott tucker i stumbled upon a citation of hannah arendt:

“In this connection I cannot gloss over the fact that for many years I considered the only adequate reply to the question, Who are you? to be: a Jew. That answer alone took into account the reality of persecution… Unfortunately, the basically simple principle in question here is one that is particularly hard to understand in times of defamation and persecution: the principle that one can resist only in terms of the identity under attack. Those who reject such identifications on the part of a hostile world may feel wonderfully superior to the world; but their superiority is then truly no longer of this world; it is the superiority of a more or less well-equipped cloud-cuckoo-land…


…in the case of a friendship between a German and a Jew under the conditions of the Third Reich it would scarcely have been a sign of humanness for the friends to have said: Are we not both human beings? It would have been a mere evasion of reality and of the world common to both at the time; they would not have been resisting the world as it was. A law that prohibited the intercourse of Jews and Germans could be evaded but could not be defied by people who denied the reality of the distinction. In keeping with a humanness that had not lost the solid ground of reality, a humanness in the midst of the reality of persecution, they would have had to say to each other: a German and a Jew, and friends. (Arendt Hannah: On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing, Men in Dark Times, 1968, New York, pp. 17-18 / pp. 23, cited in: Tucker, pp. 29)”

far from trying to construct a sameness between jews and homosexuals, i would like to propose that we as homosexuals can learn from other minorities. that is where this hannah arendt citation comes in.

in my opinion homosexuals have to lead a certain double life: politically and towards the predominantly straight society we can not gloss over the fact that we are, as soon as we come (or are forced) out of the closet: homosexuals.

how much we like that label or not is not the question. if we deny that this label exists, we leave a dominant social reality as hannah arendt points out. and then we can not deal with this reality. the only way out is to become un- or anti-social. if that is possible depends on ones independance (socially, psychologically) and wealth. so this path seems not to be open to many. so we might be forced by society into it, but we have to deal with it, otherwise

“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. (Bersani: Homos, pp. 76)”

this is exactly the point where we have to be aware of our homo-ness. and this is where i am so frustrated to have to witness again and again actions of parts of a gay community trying to make us more acceptable to a straight society. strategically (meaning politically) i think we have no other choice as standing for all homosexuals – as much as we might dislike certain formulations of being gay. so i get rather irritated to witness yet another discussion of people trying to tone down the appearance of participants of a gay parade, “because they are over-represented in the media and because they do not show the majority, the real gay, the real lesbian”.

besides the fact that historically the flamboyant ones, the drag queens were at the beginning of a modern western gay identity, we have to be aware of our homo-ness. we are seen as the same – so we have to defend and stand up for every member of the community. or we eliminate the unpleasant ones. repeating the homophobic gesture within our community. so i agree with leo bersani (and judith butler) that with a queer identity we can not make politics. and we have to ask ourselves if by applying the queer label to ourselves if we do not try to evade politics – if we we might just do it to “feel wonderfully superior to the world. (Arendt)”

i have been talking about a double life: the “other half ” would be that we have to be aware that we have the opportunity to construct at least our community differently. of course gender- and queer-theory should inform also our political selfes, be it only the fact that we are a lot more careful concerning identities (also of the ones of other members of society). and it should inform our social lifes, the way we think and live our lifes and deal with other people (regardless of sexual orientation). but we should also be aware of the homo-ness within our community, as bersani makes the point: to often i just see the same mechanism of exclusive group identities employed also in the gay world. so while i make the point for the necessety of a somewhat clear identity in political circumstances, i would also like to make the point that in other circumstences we should not try to construct identities based on exclusion, identities that would like to appear as “natural” or “god-given” – and suddenly it seems to me that the idea of bersani’s homo-ness and its idea of difference as an additional, not separating attribute to ones identity, and the ideas of gender- and queer-theory of identity as something constructed, and eventually something that might can be manipulated could actually walk hand in hand towards the construction of a homosexual community which is…better?

i guess i am just rather tired of hearing stories like the following (although i have to admit that i laughed out loud). it is again from the same text by scott tucker and already old news – but has some connections to the actual and makes for an interesting example:

“According to a story in the Nov. 10, 1989 issue of Philadelphia Gay News, “Gays Help Cops in Tearoom Bust,” “Campus gays and lesbians at Arizona State University (ASU) have been cooperating with police in a crackdown on anonymous men’s room sex… before undercover officers were assigned to the duty, ASU Lesbian and Gay Academic Union adviser Donna Taylor worked with police by giving them “sensitivity training” and background information about what types of men the officers were likely to encounter.” According to Taylor, “It has absolutely nothing to do with sex. These men have no idea what being in the closet is. They’re married, they have the 2.5 kids. This is something they do for kicks, the same as going to a prostitute.” Alas, even after being trained in sensitivity by Taylor, ASU campus Police Chief Doug Bartosh did not quite agree with the expert’s asexual interpretation:”They probably get off on having sex with a stranger with the prospect of getting caught the real thrill rather then the homosexual activity itself.”

“Taylor said ASU’s Lesbian and Gay Academic Union decided to help police in their crackdown to demonstrate that the gay community isn’t responsible for such activity and is just as opposed to it as straights are.” But in this case, “the gay community” – or rather the Vice Squad’s Gay Auxiliary – is very much responsible for collaborating in actions which are certain to destroy some men, and slam the closet door more firmly on many more. “Taylor”, we are informed, “said that she believes the men arrested in such cases are “psychotic” rather than gay men – even closeted gay men – and that what they need most is counseling.” How convenient for those in the helping professions: the state helps those who help themselves, so they counsel the cops in the entrapment of those persons they define as potential clients in need of still more counsel. Can we assume this particular expert, Donna Taylor, has done exit polls of the tearooms to determine which men are “married with 2.5 kids,” or psychological surveys to determine which are psychotic?

But the expertise here is spurious and opportunist. Gay people themselves made a cold and cowardly calculation to cut an embarassing element adrift; to define these men as something, anything other than gay. How dare Taylor suggest that married men have no idea what the closet is? – as though marriage itself is not the most common closet for both gay men and lesbians, the most public face of much private grief. (Tucker, pp.18-19)”

Tucker Scott: Gender, Fucking and Utopia: An Essay in Response to John Stoltenberg’s Refusing to Be a Man, in: Social Text, No. 27. (1990), pp. 3-34

social text journal


October 4, 2007

“When a man and a woman pick each other up, there is nothing they have to recognize except the signs of a mutual desire; their heterosexuality is, in a predominantly heterosexual society, assumed; it doesn’t make them part of a particular community. When a man recognizes another man’s desire, he is also learning something about the other’s identity, not exactly what kind of person he is, but what kind of group he belongs to. In short, he both knows him and doesn’t know him – … (Bersani, pp. 147)”

i did leave out one idea of leo bersani in my homos-post. this because it is a strikingly simple and elegant thought that i want to point out and explain separatly. by following the thought of how homosexuals could actually constitute a community, a community which is not only based of having to group together because of external pressure or stronger: attacks, he does come up with a beautiful definition of the role of difference in the homosexual minority.

in a heterosexual society all heterosexuals are as heterosexuals the same. heterosexuality is a “naturally given”. identity must then come into being through difference. since heterosexuality does not work as a means of differentiation and as a marker of identity, other attributes have to constitute the self.

in a heterosexual society all homosexuals are as homosexuals the same. part of a minority that gets defined as…homosexuals. that is the base of our (ascribed) identity. and not “naturally given”. so any additional differentiation is like an extra, a bonus. so in the homosexual community, differences can be seen as an additional layer, and not as essential divides that separate our identities radically from each other. then still underlying in our identity is a same-ness (being homosexual). that is what leo bersani calls homo-ness.

additionally this is also grounded in our desire for the same: men searching men, women searching women. so contrary to the heterosexual desire, which looks for the “other”, which is based on difference, homosexual desire desires actually the same – difference here only comes into play as an additional flavour.

“…here (in a homosexual community) individual selves are points along a transversal network of being in which otherness is tolerated as the nonthreatening margin of, or supplement to, a seductive sameness. (Bersani, pp. 150)”


October 3, 2007


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.