Monthly Archives: March 2022

Threshold Times: From the “No Longer” to the “Not Yet”

Nessa Cronin

“It’s a curse to live in interesting times,” so goes the ancient Chinese proverb that Hannah Arendt was known to cite in the last years of her life.[1] In her essay “No Longer and Not Yet,” Arendt observes that sometimes dramatic moments occurring in human history are experienced more as a real rupture heralding a new era, rather than the gradual unfolding of the old. The decline of the old and the birth of the new, she writes, “is not necessarily an affair of continuity” as “between the generations, between those who for some reason or other still belong to the old and those who either feel the catastrophe in their very bones or have already grown up with it, the chain is broken and an ‘empty space,’ a kind of historical no man’s land, comes to the surface which can be described only in terms of ‘no longer and not yet.’”[2]

For many of us living through these pandemic times we seem to be living in such an “empty space” in a collective caesura of an indistinct “now” caught between pre- and post-COVID-19 worlds, stuck in an “historical no man’s land” that has somehow continued in calendar time but has not yet quite fully moved on to the future, whatever that may be. Since the arrival of COVID-19 there has been a feeling that life before the pandemic seemed to belong to another time and epoch. W. J. T. Mitchell has noted how “the year 2019 now seems to belong to another century”.[3] The past is indeed another country. While the present may seem to be of a different time and order, one gets the distinct feeling that we have not yet fully come to terms with the suspended space of our “now”.

After the first wave of the pandemic in Europe Turkish novelist Elif Shafak wrote of “the world to come,” and argued that “This is a threshold. The old world is simply no more. . . . The old world is gone, and yet we do not know what kind of a new world we want to build. It is a state of in-between-dom, full of anxiety and uncertainty, and fertile ground for demagogues and their false promises of redemption.”[4]  Stuck between calendar time in “real life” and an atemporal experience of the “virtual,” the frozen zoom screen seems to be the best visual representation and haptic experience of the pandemic “now”, signifying a moment in which time is seen to jump, skip, crack and freeze, through different spaces and time zones and sometimes, confusingly, happening all at once as seen in the work of digital artist and philosopher EL Putnam.[5] Screens now act as third parties in relationships, and often as a third party mediating between our “real” and “virtual” selves. As Jedediah Britton-Purdy has noted, we are now an “infrastructure species,” a category he uses to describe our physical and technological relationship to the world we have created.[6]

Android Dream, EL Putnam, 2021. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist.

The compression chambers of climate change and COVID-19 makes this contemporary period an “event” in itself. What has become increasingly visible throughout the pandemic is how language and rhetoric associated with the 2008 global financial crisis has re-appeared as an individualizing resilience narrative. Neoliberal narratives of “personal responsibility” foreground the primacy of the individual rather than the responsibility of the state in protecting the public and environmental health of its citizens. Such narratives also demonstrate an apparently wilful lack of understanding of epidemic or other crisis events and can even go further by viewing such events as opportunities in the Malthussian sense (“no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands”[7]), echoing the narratives of disaster capitalism as previously observed by Naomi Klein post-2008.[8]

More troublingly, however, is that the mantra of “personal responsibility” singularly assumes a level playing pitch for all members of society, with the concept concealing a dangerous assumption that everyone has the same level of social supports and economic security to help cushion them in a time of crisis. Not everyone can exercise personal responsibility by not exposing themselves to the virus when commuting to work on public transport, shielding a close relative, teaching or caring for unvaccinated children, or working in a meat-packing plant. Indeed, the mandates to work from home blithely assumed that everyone has an adequate home-space to work/learn from. Such narratives assume that “home” is a safe space and sanctuary from the viral dangers in the public sphere, instead of being a private space of harm for many in what has been regarded as a shadow pandemic of domestic violence.[9]

The assumptions behind the the phrase “personal responsibility” are therefore highly gendered, class-based, and politically structurally-biased; they make already inequitable social systems even more dangerous for many. These are just some examples of a highly problematic resilience narrative that has gained traction without sustained critique, and will undoubtedly re-emerge in future times. The failure to protect yourself and your loved ones, so the narrative goes, implies a moral failing on your part to “assess the risk” and act with “personal responsibility” to swerve and dodge that COVID-19 or climate wave coming your way.

We have much to learn from the necropolitics of the present in terms of how such resilience narratives will shape future crisis scenarios, therefore such narratives should be carefully tracked and forensically examined for what they ideologically assume and, conversely, what they dangerously conceal. Caught between the vice grips of the biopolitical crisis of the virus and the existential crises of climate change, we are living in a threshold decade, a pivotal time when decisions made now will set in train biopolitical tipping points that will determine the future of life to come, for better or for worse.


Nessa Cronin is a lecturer in Irish Studies, Centre for Irish Studies, and associate director of the Moore Institute at NUI Galway, Ireland.


[1] Quoted in Jerome Kohn, “Introduction” to Hannah Arendt, Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism (New York, 1994), p. ix.

[2] Hannah Arendt, “No Longer and Not Yet,” p. 158.

[3] W. J. T. Mitchell, “Present Tense 2020: On the Iconology of the Epoch,” Moore Institute Webinar, 9 June 2021, National University of Ireland, Galway https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WFCen3FmbE, later published as, “Present Tense 2020: On the Iconology of the Epoch,” Critical Inquiry 47 (Winter 2021), pp. 370-406. I am very grateful to Professor Mitchell for discussions on this theme when I presented at this webinar as a panelist respondent to his paper, much of which gave rise to the considerations expressed here.

[4] Elif Shafak, “The World to Come,” New Statesman, 20 August 2020. https://www.newstatesman.com/uncategorized/2020/08/world-come-old-world-gone Also see, Elif Shafak, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division (2020).

[5] See http://www.elputnam.com/

[6] Jedediah Britton-Purdy, This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for the New Commonwealth (Princeton, New Jersey, 2019).

[7] Prime Minister of Britain Boris Johnson was allegedly to have said this rather than impose further restrictions or lockdowns in Britain at the height of the wave. See, Jessica Elgot and Robert Booth, “Pressure mounts on Johnson on alleged ‘let the bodies pile high’ remarks,” The Guardian, 26 Apr. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/apr/26/pressure-mounts-on-boris-johnson-over-alleged-let-the-bodies-pile-high-remarks

[8] Initial media reporting of the COVID-19 crisis in Britain made reference to the tenor of conversations in government circles in relation to the impact of the virus on the elderly population in particular and a policy of herd immunity: “The report claimed that at one private event at the end of February, Cummings outlined then government’s strategy at the time in a way that was summarised by some present as “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/mar/22/no-10-denies-claim-dominic-cummings-argued-to-let-old-people-die And that the excess deaths of 125,000 people in the UK by March 2021 means that the Treasury will save more than £1.5 billion in state pension payments in 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/12/covid-crisis-social-care-elderly-people On Naomi Klein see, The Shock Doctrine (2008)

[9] I’m making the distinction here between home environments and living quarters to highlight the particular challenges that men, women and children who live in asylum and detention centers encountered during successive periods of lockdown in Ireland (known as Direct Provision Centers) and Europe more widely.

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Out There

Mikko Tuhkanen

One of the first things I recall Leo telling me, as I was querying him about his intellectual influences, was the lesson he said he had learned from a Harvard professor as an undergrad: how remarkable it was that the seventeenth-century French theater gave us such smoldering tragedies as Racine’s Andromaque, where the crimes of past generations weigh heavily on the living, but also the tragicomedy of Corneille’s Le Cid and the giddy merriment of his Le Menteur. This was a forked opening to literary modernity: the combination of trauma intensities with the frivolous dismissal of all such anguished seriousness. It struck me some time later that this doubleness marks everything Leo ever produced. Early on, he found it in Proust. The Proustian subject desires unfathomable difference: his gaze is riveted to the beloved’s enigma, which it is his task to crack, a revelation that, he thinks, will enable his self-relation. But then, still in Proust, we have the buttercups: the field of yellow that, even though the flowers look like egg yolks, cannot be “known” through the consumption that is the fate of Marcel’s beloveds; rather, they can be merely contemplated with a dazed aesthetic pleasure. We cannot but be enthralled by the world’s fateful messages; but having been thus fascinated, different interests can distract us from our interrogative projects, our will to know.

The Freudian text carries the same doubleness. Leo agreed with Foucault that psychoanalysis was one of the discourses that have trained us into Proustian subjects: we seek hidden knowledge about our selves in the world; we are ready to pull this world apart to get our hands on the treasure. Yet Freud’s rhetorical performance also suggested that our aggression is stymied by other—dissipative, masochistic—pleasures. Freud theorized our loving hatred of the world, but he also exemplified the movements where the inquisitorial self is dismissed in favor of shared frivolities.

***

Leo sought in such frivolities the possibility of—in the phrase he borrowed from Foucault—“new relational modes.” Like many a true thinker, he only ever thought about one thing. He knew that time is short. I admired his ability to cut through the bullshit, to pay no deference to whatever were the moment’s pieties: he refused to regurgitate what an instant earlier may have been a delightful provocation but had already ossified into yet another phantasm in our dogmatic slumber.

***

At a dinner, Leo told me of his earliest memory: his family fleeing the Bronx in the night because the father, a restaurateur, had run afoul of the local mafia. Is this why he often repeats in his writing that, rather than submitting to (what Adam Phillips might call) protection rackets—by, say, “subversively reiterating” their demands—we “simply leave” the family or “simply desert” the fortress or “simply disappear” from the scene of our subjection?

***

From the social-media tributes to Leo I happily gleaned that the days when he was interpellated as the daddy of “the antisocial thesis in queer theory” are behind us. In the “debate club paradigm” of queer theorizing, his arguments in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” and Homos were frequently contrasted with those of various “queer utopianisms.” As is inevitably the case in such models, the juxtaposition is neither incorrect nor adequate. Leo’s thought was always, from its beginnings sixty years ago, invested in the two seemingly incompatible orientations he found in Proust and Freud: our “intractable” antagonism to the world and the ways in which we are greeted by the world’s forms upon our arrival. Riffing on Baudelaire’s horizontalized Swedenborgianism, he suggests that we are, before we are, already out there; the world waits for our arrival with its network of correspondences.

***

Just as Thoughts and Things had been published, I attended a reading group at the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division, the one remaining gay bookstore in New York City. There were perhaps six of us, and I was preparing to enlighten the crowd (I mean, I was obviously the most widely read) concerning the Cartesian complexities of the book’s title. Before I could do so, a dashing young man said that he found it interesting how, at some point of their career, a writer can begin to title his books however, calling them, you know, like, “thoughts and things.” It struck me immediately: Leo would have loved this.

***

For many of us, Leo Bersani was a foundational figure not in terms of foci of interests but in terms of how thinking can move. He showed us what is available to thought.

***

I wish Leo had had time to write about Ingmar Bergman. Or Woody Allen’s and Pedro Almodóvar’s later work, the saturated melodrama of Café Society and the boisterous silliness of I’m So Excited. He really should have written about late ABBA, the darkness of The Visitors and “The Day Before You Came.” It wasn’t to be. Long-awaited darkness fell.

***

The last time I saw Leo, he couldn’t take his eyes off the sky. “What an astonishing day,” he kept saying, riveted to the cloudless Arizona expanses, as we—he and Sam and I—were having a wet lunch outside. I think he was, as he would have put it in his analysis of Bruno Dumont’s film Humanité, staring: immobilized by a fascination with the irredeemable world. This was a fascination that did not seek to dismantle the object so as to plunder its secrets. It was an availability to a fathomable otherness, what on the last page of Thoughts and Things he calls “nonfamilial familiarity.” He was always throwing his arms around the world.


Mikko Tuhkanen is professor of English at Texas A&M University.

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Learning from Leo

Tim Dean

“Nothing is more ominous than the unanimous reverence with which Volumes 2 and 3 have been received in France, or the hagiographical industry already at work on—really against—Foucault’s life and writing.”  This sentence, written by Bersani following Foucault’s death as he reflected on the final installments of The History of Sexuality, came to mind when I heard that Leo himself had died.  The temptation of hagiography is never more beguiling than in the wake of a great thinker’s death.  What struck me when I first read that sentence over thirty years ago was the notion of a “hagiographical industry” gearing up to preserve—but only by reducing, embalming, and fossilizing—a profoundly recalcitrant body of thought.  The noble beneficence of the industry cloaks its destructiveness.  Bersani named, as if in anticipation, the risk of the present moment in which we seek to memorialize him and his work, spurred on by that relentless pressure to idealize the newly dead.

If one of the things I most admire about his writing stems from its resistance to all our idealizing impulses—impulses he analyzed under the rubric of “the culture of redemption”—then I also appreciated his characteristic irreverence in conversation.  Once, when running late for dinner with Leo in San Francisco, I made the mistake of trying to outpace California Highway Patrol on Route 101.  Relishing my tale of an encounter with the officer who caught me, Leo began to improvise a set of facetious remarks he’d deliver at my funeral, “because your speeding will surely send you to an early grave.”  For him, now as much as then, it was never the time for sentimentality, no matter how serious the subject.

His irreverence toward the orthodoxies of queer theory meant that he could be a part of that field of inquiry only by being permanently outside it.  In 1998, after reading one of my manuscripts, Leo remarked, “You’ve become very queer, haven’t you?”  It was not meant as a compliment.  We spoke on the phone while he was writing Homos, but I had no opportunity to read that book until it reached print.  With the subsequent book, Caravaggio’s Secrets, Leo began sending me the manuscripts of everything he wrote.  I was never his student, never his lover, and never his colleague; our friendship evolved independently of those relational structures, simply through the repeated exchange of writing and conversation.  Though he was older than my father, we somehow spoke as equals about sex, about psychoanalysis, about aesthetic subjectivity.  That ongoing exchange—some of which appeared in print but most of which occurred in restaurants or cafes and on park benches—has been my primary intellectual relationship of the past quarter century.  Does it go without saying that the conversation hasn’t ceased with his death, that the back-and-forth continues inside me?

Two days after Leo died, I received author copies of Hatred of Sex, the book I wrote with Oliver Davis.  As its title suggests, Hatred of Sex may be read as an elaboration, in different contexts and idioms, of the sentence that opens “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” Bersani’s famous essay from 1987 (“There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.”).  It would be an understatement to say that my joy in the book’s publication is tinged with sadness that Leo will never be able to read it.  Yet the book remains part of my ongoing dialogue with him, even as it is also the result of dialogues with Oliver Davis, another intellectual whose home discipline is in French.  Hatred of Sex endeavors, in part, to historicize “Is the Rectum a Grave?” in the context of 1980s debates about sexuality—to put Bersani’s essay in its place, as it were—at the same time as it tries to reanimate his best insights for our contemporary political moment.  Beyond anything it says about his work, our book is inspired by Leo.  And there is comfort to be taken in the circumstance that I now have Oliver to assume Leo’s role of expressing exasperated amusement at my execrable French.  He lives on through his published work but also through the echoes of his voice in other conversations.  I continue to hear Leo, as well as to read him.

Now I think back to an afternoon in October 2016, when we sat in his Philadelphia living room discussing drafts of two chapters from what would become his final book, Receptive Bodies.  Later, in notebook pages containing my scribbled thoughts about “Staring” (that last book’s stunning final chapter), I found I’d written, in large capital letters, LEARN FROM LEO—a reminder to the part of myself which had yet to fully grasp that learning from Leo was what I’ve been doing all along (never his student, I am always his student).  From my notes I gather that what I was instructing myself to learn was the distinctive way in which he put an essay together, his mode of composition.  Yes, he wrote everything by hand in notebooks; and, yes, his prose style was always a singular pleasure to encounter.  But in that last chapter of what turned out to be his final book, he reflected explicitly on a style of thinking that he calls “essayistic” and “inconclusive.”  It is not only a style of writing and argumentation but embodies an ethical relation to the world, one less concerned with mastery.  Because the “essayistic” refuses the systematization that modern philosophy demands, it goes some way toward defeating the monumentalization of thought that hagiography produces once it sets to work on a major thinker.  For me Bersani’s thinking remains valuable precisely insofar as it resists memorialization.  So, what I want to say is: I love him, I miss him, I can’t believe he’s gone; but please let us not have, now or ever, Saint Leo. 


Tim Dean is the James M. Benson Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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Leo Bersani

Joan Copjec

In May 2010 my visit to the University of Chicago overlapped by chance with that of Leo Bersani. Told I was on campus, he emailed to ask if I’d like to have dinner with him. Profoundly flattered, I accepted almost immediately, for I had first to set aside a flutter of trepidation. Leo and I came to know each other professionally in the 1980s when I was an editor of October and he was one of the journal’s favorite and loyal contributors. Beyond this, however, I shared with him a commitment to psychoanalytic thinking. The trepidation that held me back was rooted in the enormous admiration I had for his work, which manifested itself most dramatically in a specific encounter with it.

I do not recall what month it was in 1987 when I walked into the tiny October “headquarters,” slightly late, expecting just another day at the office. The issue we were putting together was number 43, which was devoted to the AIDS crisis, a topic outside my intellectual expertise, or so I thought. It was Douglas Crimp who proposed the issue, and so it was he who was primarily responsible for it; all I had to do was assist him with the editing and layout. When I walked in, Douglas was absorbed in reading the most recently received contribution, Leo’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?” “That’s the title?,” I asked as I went into the enjoining cubicle to read the text myself. I do not feel adequate to describe my response to Leo’s essay. I had always in my own way fought back hard against those who dismissed Freud and psychoanalysis as irrelevant—or worse: pernicious—as if it were some ornate, antiquated machine with an excessive number of bells and whistles that served no purpose, or—worse—a Trojan horse sent in to undermine the polity. The unforgettable opening line of Leo’s essay, “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it,” seemed to me to put paid to all the vague grumblings against psychoanalysis, which in this essay shows up—in the flesh, as it were—to grapple with the real world.[1]

Part of the fascination of the essay’s declarative opening is the way it accommodates the seemingly delicate “do not like.” The quotations that mark the essay’s threshold betray a much stronger reaction: a violent disgust or revulsion, which sex is capable of eliciting and must be swallowed, overcome, or made use of by those who engage in sex. The intent of Leo, however, is to leave no one off the hook. His choice of the word like, cannot be read as it were merely borrowed from the vocabulary of prudes or those who wish to hide their lasciviousness behind a prudish or proper facade. The reference to a milder form of reserve toward sex serves instead a blanketing function. It spreads itself over everyone. There is no one who likes sex, but this not due to a mere or occasional squeamishness. The AIDS crisis forces us finally to confront the fact that sex is something no one likes. Or: it is not something anyone can cozy up to.

The argument only appears to depart from Freud when it insists that the problem of sex is not merely that the discomfort we all—in large or small part—feel toward it leads to a subjective or cultural repression of it. At play here is what Freud called secondary repression, which reacts to what it wishes not to confront by pushing it out of consciousness, that is, by negating it psychically. Leo’s point is much more profound: the difficulty of sex stems from primary repression, that is from the fact that human existence is not propped up by any foundation or ground. The crucial negativity associated with sex is not the one that fends it off by pushing it away but the negativity of this primordially withdrawn ground. For, sex can be defined as the affirmation of this latter negativity. Sexual pleasure is directed not at persons or objects but at this breach in existence. This sounds, I know, like an abstract argument – and all the more so because it is impossible, and not my point, to flesh it out here. My point is that “Is the Rectum a Grave?” is unprecedented in the way it makes the case for this seemingly abstract argument by identifying the ways it was manifesting itself during the crisis AIDS. It is one thing to point out what many could already see, the way official policies and proper people fended off scenes of sexual debauchery conjured in their febrile imaginations, another to see what others could not. Namely, that a whole “culture of redemption” was more than happy to celebrate sex as long as sex—the negativity it affirms—is removed from it. If a multiplicity of sexes had begun to emerge it was to fend off the damage sex visits on identity.

“Is the Rectum a Grave?” forced me to reread all of Leo’s work. I had learned a great deal from it in my first reading, but this time I knew how to look for the “clinical” element in it, the way it approaches and responds to the world in which we live. In his work Leo accords sex an ontological dignity, not in some idealizing sense, of course, but insofar as he conceives it as an act of dispossession from which something unprecedented can be brought forth.

My Chicago dinner with Leo lasted hours. As our conversation ranged over various outrageous topics, I lost my trepidation but not my awe. Many more dinners followed, as well as a trip to the ballet, and a conference at which I obliged Leo to come up with a theory of fatigue (which he did). Like many others, I would have preferred that these delightful encounters continue indefinitely.


Joan Copjec is professor of modern culture and media at Brown University.


[1] Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”: and Other Essays (Chicago, 2010).

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Speechless: On Leo Bersani

Lee Edelman

Leo Bersani’s thought was ill-served by its association with mine and its specious categorization as antisocial or antirelational.[1] Excepting our late friend, Lauren Berlant, no contemporary critic more brilliantly engaged relational possibilities or more thoroughly invested in the utopianism of the inaccurate replication that Leo registered in homoness. What Leo resisted was neither relation nor sociality per se but the differences policed by categories, knowledges, and communitarian norms.

Characterizing the aim of his writing as “a type of reflexiveness—a type of blocked thought, of speculative repetition—to which the notions of areas and boundaries are profoundly alien,”[2] Leo discerned a similar resistance at work in the aesthetic, which, as he wrote in The Freudian Body, “moves away from, or ‘back from’ the very capacity to institute the categorical as a relevant mode of differentiating and structuring our experience of reality” (F, p. 5). He returned to this figure of moving back in his essay “The Will to Know,” where the “aesthetic adventure” entails “moving backward” to the moment when the work of art exists as no more than a possibility, as “the Mallarmean page blanche that precedes and, more profoundly, defies all realized art.”[3] In this blankness he found a space of “experimental initiation” where forms of being would emerge as expressions of being’s multiplicity, giving shape to the unintelligibility of being’s infinite future potential (“W,” p 166).

If I linger on this backward movement in looking back on my bond with Leo, it’s to think its temporality with regard to his “emphasis on the future” and his investment, with Adam Phillips, in what they called an “impersonal intimacy” demanding, as Phillips put it, “the most inconceivable thing: to believe in the future without needing to personalize it.”[4] While this attachment to futurity might seem to put Leo at odds with the author of No Future, it actually sustains what Leo would call an “incongruous connectedness,” one where affirming and rejecting the future would differ less than one thinks.[5]

For Leo, moving backward meant eluding difference by retrieving the before of thought. He imagined this “before” as “impersonal intimacy,” like the mother-infant relation that Phillips adduces, citing Christopher Bollas, as a “‘being-with, as a form of dialogue’ that enables ‘the baby’s adequate processing of his existence prior to his ability to process it through thought.’”[6] Because language articulates thought through difference, this scene of utopic adequation stresses the infant’s exclusion from speech; but since the stake in the scene is relation, the infant must nonetheless enter what Bollas can only figure as “a form of dialogue.”

Does that phrase do more than pastoralize the incommensurability of two experiences? The mother, as subject of language, invariably personalizes the infant that, as yet, is not a subject, while the infant impersonalizes the mother it can’t, as yet, approach through thought. The aesthetic, for Leo, moves back toward the potential, always as yet unspoken, of that primal impersonalization, which can only touch infinity insofar as it’s infans.

For Leo, encountering this pure potential requires “a lessening of psychic subject-hood” and a “willingness not to be.[7] Unlike the infant, the subject “mov[es] backward” by submitting “to the dissolution of the self [,] . . . to the loss of the very grounds of self-knowledge” (“W,” p 161). Leo may argue that this “retreat from the seriousness of stable identities or settled being” (FB, p. 9), “far from negativizing or simply erasing the finished being it leaves, actually expands it by potentializing it,” he acknowledges, nonetheless, its implication in the negativity of dissolution (“W,” p 165).

The hope of returning to the blank page of sameness after language has codified difference—so that difference, as Leo wrote in Homos, would be a “nonthreatening supplement to sameness”—thus depends on a break from the world as we know it and from ourselves as subjects of knowledge.[8] Moving backward toward an “unripe, virtual being” replete with futural possibility requires the undoing of organization, the unbinding of our cathexes, with the following consequences: “What all the different stimuli mentioned by Freud have in common is their ability to set affect free from psychic organization; unbound affect produces the excitement of jouissance” (“W,” pp 167, 159). This unbinding, as Leo reminded us, is also called the death drive.

While continuing to affirm the death drive as the key contribution of psychoanalysis, Leo hoped to “play to the side” of itin an effort to think “how . . . the problem of evil [might] be defined—and, to a certain extent, perhaps even resolved” by turning away from “the destructive drive” (FB,  pp. 127, 128). Understood, however, as dissolving the differences required for categorical thought, as returning psychic energy to the mobility of the primary process, the death drive enacts the movement back to the blankness of pure potential that marks the impersonalization intended by Leo’s “emphasis on the future.”

With this the incongruous likeness of our projects comes into focus beyond their classification as antisocial theory. Leo’s “emphasis on the future,” like my rejection of futurity, opposes the fatality inherent in maintaining the identity-securing boundaries that let the world be “known” through difference. At the end of “Being and Notness,” an account of Pierre Bergounioux’s La Casse, Leo proposes the unlikeliest of social possibilities: that the narrator’s father takes on a role “analogous to maternity” and thus “help[s] to forestall the projection of dangerous difference into the world beyond the family, and the consequent temptation to return to the ambiguous protection of the family as retreat.”[9] This vision of unthreatened being before the introduction of “dangerous difference” leads Leo to conclude as follows: “If against all probabilities this did come to pass, much time will have gone by and, I suppose, like Bergounioux’s narrator—except that in disappearing he will have escaped from a world in which matter resists being different from itself, and I will have missed a utopic reality—I will no longer be here.”[10]

Were we equal to the aesthetic adventure of his texts, were we capable of “moving backward” to a future where we ceased to resist our self-difference, then the utopic reality to which Leo refers—inconceivable except at a cost whose statement must move us to mourn our loss of the Leo capable of writing, as if impersonally, “I will no longer be here”—that utopic reality would require this equally inconceivable predicate to regain the “promiscuous mobility” of being that, for Leo, is the infans: our not being here too (F, p. 54).


Lee Edelman is Fletcher Professor of English Literature at Tufts University.


[1] As I’ve argued elsewhere, these terms misname my own work’s engagement with a fundamental antagonism that might lead it to be seen, more precisely, as non-reparative or non-redemptive. But that’s a topic for another occasion; see Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Durham, N.C., 2014), pp. xii–xiii.

[2] Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York, 1986), p. 5; hereafter abbreviated  F.

[3] Bersani, “The Will to Know,” in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” and Other Essays (Chicago, 2010), p. 164; hereafter abbreviated “W.”

[4] Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago, 2008), pp. 122, 27, 117.

[5] Bersani, “Illegitimacy,” in Thoughts and Things (Chicago, 2015), p. 29.

[6] Leo Bersani and Phillips, Intimacies, p.123; my emphasis.

[7] Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity (London, 2004), pp. 6, 165; hereafter abbreviated FB.

[8] Bersani. Homos (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), p. 7.

[9] Leo Bersani, “Being and Notness,” in Thoughts and Things, p. 114.

[10] Ibid.

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Leo Bersani

Jacqueline Rose

I have been reading, rereading, and teaching the writings of Leo Bersani for a very long time but never with the intensity with which I have returned to his work over this last while. It has been my silent tribute and a way of insisting I have a connection—as much to the words on the page as to who he was—that will never die.

In fact the separation of the two—his words and his person—was always well-nigh impossible. First, because I can think of no one else who was so loyal to his theoretical and political principles in his lived life. I am not referring here to time spent at the gay baths, seized on by one commentator over this past month as the sign of “aesthetic frivolity,” relegating him to the world of light entertainment (he was never more deadly serious). Nor am I alluding to the way his loving relationships, full of care and kindness, managed to escape the most proprietorial of bourgeois, family norms. Rather what I am describing is the way his writing endlessly circles around the same limit—or off-limit—zone of human subjectivity where the ego shatters, to use one of his favorite words, and the coherence of selfhood is utterly undone. The more I have read, the more it has struck me that tracking this moment was, for Leo, a theoretical task which implicated him at the deepest level of his being. I would say that this task was at the core of his life, provided we add that death was no less in the frame. Living your life at its most sexually intense and psychically risky, I now hear him saying, is a way—the only way—to be able, or allow yourself, to die (to die one’s own death, which is the aim of all life according to Freud.) He was a visionary. To relinquish narcissism, to challenge the pseudo fortifications of a violent social order, means going beyond the edges of the knowable world.

Over the past couple of weeks, one moment from his writing has struck me with almost overwhelming force in this regard. It comes in the middle of his book on Caravaggio. Discussing St John the Baptist with a Ram (1602), Leo points to the provocative erotics of St. John’s look and his body, only to insist—through his unique form of meticulous attention—that the painting invites and forestalls that very seduction by means of the “multiple fanlike” structures of the image which implicate each limb and gesture in shapes and a space beyond itself, “opening out centrifugally, countering the centripetal pull of the youth’s gaze.”[1] Ventriloquising the boy, he writes: “Join me, although where I am is somewhere between two realms of being, between my physical, individuated existence and my being as a disseminated connectedness throughout the universe.” We are talking about a “metaphysical fantasy” that leads this figure into a world beyond the world (C, p. 82). And then, in an unexpected gesture only Leo could have got away with, he grounds that otherworldly nature in the painterly detail and precision of the boy’s face or, rather, in one particular detail, the “anomalous creases under his eyes”—anomalous because he is a still a boy and he is perfect—which he reads as the sign of the time it has taken him to reach these other forms of metaphysical belonging. It is 1998, and this is one of his coauthored books, but, whether this is my metaphysical fantasy or not, I believe these to be Leo’s words. As I was reading them, a scene resurfaced in my mind. It is sometime in the 1990s and Leo and I are sitting in a café in Paris talking about eyes and aging (eyes being the giveaway), whereupon he pointed at the intense creases under his own eyes, creases that no one could miss, which indeed spoke of his age but which also accentuated his not inconsiderable beauty.

So, I find myself asking, might not this be one of the rare moments in his writing where, with all due equivocation, he is talking about himself? Is he not laying out the price, and value, of the struggle to go beyond oneself into more expansive and generous forms of affinity? Already in 1998, I see him as anticipating, if not embracing, his death. These are the last lines of the chapter: “The creases under the eyes of Caravaggio’s youth are the anticipatory effect of the time it would take him to join his metaphysical being, a journey to which he must sacrifice his youth, and perhaps even his very life” (C, p. 83). I think Leo knew exactly what, in his writing and his life, he was asking of himself. Just as he knew that the casual encounter in the bath house, far from being glib or merely pleasurable, was freighted with death (the very point of his most infamous essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?”).[2] To put it another way, he was always on the journey that would end but that would also begin—while refusing any glimmer of denial or false comfort—with his own death. Or perhaps, this idea just helps me to think that he had always been preparing for the day he would head off into the far distance, leaving the rest of us grief-stricken on the shore.


Jacqueline Rose is professor of humanities at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.


[1] Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Caravaggio’s Secrets (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), p. 81; hereafter abbreviated C.

[2] See Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”: and Other Essays (Chicago, 2010).

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Leo Bersani (1931-2022)

On hearing of the death of Leo Bersani (1931-2022) we asked the University of Chicago Press to provide free access to the essays that he published in Critical Inquiry, which began with “‘The Culture of Redemption’: Marcel Proust and Melanie Klein” (1986). We are also hosting a small number of tributes to him.

We hope that these memorial tributes, along with ready access to Leo Bersani’s Critical Inquiry essays, will prompt our readers to revisit his work and renew their sense of his contributions to their understanding of the critical project.

TRIBUTES:

Jacqueline Rose’s “Leo Bersani”

Lee Edelman’s “Speechless: On Leo Bersani”

Joan Copjec’s “Leo Bersani”

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