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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  1. Pingback: Leo Bersani (1931-2022) | In the Moment

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