Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Arrested Deployment of the Orgies of Childhood: Bersanian Relationalities, Part I

by EILEEN JOY

First, run, and don't walk to Jeffrey's notice of the 1.5 million dollars just awarded to Judith Butler by the Mellon Foundation in order to support her to fund a Critical Theory Institute on "Thinking Critically About War." This is such fantastic news for the humanities, and for the ongoing work of what I would call a public intellectual and politically interventionist humanities, that I am beside myself with joy over this news--maybe even more than beside myself. Vive la Butler.

I myself am the recipient of no large awards but am completely blissed out from having been one of the recipients of the gift of the seminar at University College Dublin, organized by The(e)ories: Critical Theory and Sexuality Studies, on "Reading Leo Bersani: A Retrospective" [12-14 June 2009], and I thought I would share with everyone here the response that I provided on Day 1 of the seminar to two of Bersani's writings that remain somewhat obscure, "Against Monogamy" and "Sociability and Cruising."

First, some quotations from both essays to give you a flavor of their 'arguments,' if we can even call them that [I myself remain increasingly disenchanted with the whole idea of argumentation--our writings should be more liquid, more hypo-theory than 'theory']:

‘Sociability and Cruising,’ Umbr(a): A Journal of the Unconscious (2002): 9-23.
MAIN, OR MOST PROVOCATIVE IDEAS, AS I SEE THEM: ‘Sociability is a form of relationality uncontaminated by desire’ (p. 9); ‘We live rhythmically only if we renounce possession’ (p. 10); ‘Most profoundly, the pleasure of sociability is the pleasure of existing, of concretely existing, at the abstract level of pure being’ (p. 11); in Freud, ‘queer desire [is] somehow exempt from the destructive sociality of straight desire’ (p. 13); ‘Few things are more difficult than to block our interest in others, to prevent our connection to them from degenerating into a ‘relationship’” (p. 18); ‘Otherness, unlocatable within differences that can be known and enumerated, is made concrete in the eroticized touching of a body without attributes. . . . In that moment we relate to that which transcends all relations’—pure relationality (p. 21); ‘Our task now might be to see how viable the relationality we have uncovered in activities apparently so removed from—even anatagonistic to—each other as sociability and cruising might be for other types of connectedness’ (p. 22).

‘Against Monogamy,’ The Oxford Literary Review 20.1/2 (1998): 3-21.
THE MAIN, OR MOST PROVOCATIVE IDEAS, AS I SEE THEM: ‘Psychoanalytically speaking, monogamy is cognitively inconceivable and morally indefensible’ (p. 3); ‘Might there, finally, be another way to think of the social, a view of relationality as grounded in the extensibility of the human subject, that is, grounded in sameness rather than in prejudicial hierarchies of difference? And might this refiguring of the relational help us to elaborate modes of being-in-the-world to which the concept of identity itself might be irrelevant?’ (p. 5); ‘Psychoanalysis—and especially Freud—provides the most significant account we have of how human beings initiate, sustain, repudiate and re-direct affective and social ties with one another’ (p. 6); ‘. . . the Freudian description of the Oedipus complex—the crucial moment of the passage from the family to the social—provides some reason to think of it as the structural occasion on which the child (male or female) renounces an exclusive desire for any particular person’ (p. 6); our essential condition is our ‘constitutional bisexuality,’ which nevertheless gets re-wired in straight ways (p. 7); ‘Monogamy disciplines the orgies of childhood’ [where Freud saw a threesome in mother-father-child, Bersain sees a 'tensome' of all sorts of sexual arrangements that naturally emerge out of the Oedipal configuration and could even be said to be 'nested' in them--'nested,' by the way, is my term, not Bersani's] (p. 10); ‘Monogamy is nourished by an impoverished narcissism; it is the arrested deployment of desire’s appetites and curiosities’ (p. 11); ‘The crucial thing is to get the child out of the family . . .’ so that ‘it will have the narcissistic pleasure of finding itself in the world’ (p. 14); psychoanalysis ‘de-phenomenonalizes the world, freezes it in a history of fantasmic representations . . .’ (p. 18); art, not psychoanalysis, alerts us to the presence of our solidarity with the world—with our positionings and configurations in space (p. 20).

MY RESPONSE: Recall the first line in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own particular way.” But contra Tolstoy, in both Bersani and Freud, all unhappy families are alike, and there are no happy families. The digression is worth pursuing further, along two branching paths of the same 'family tree,' as it were: why do Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary kill themselves? Why, moreover, are they so unhappy? Could it be, following Bersani, that in the disciplining of the ‘orgies of childhood,’ the ‘whirlwinds of desiring mobility’ that could have been Anna and Emma are betrayed in the denial, over time, of the polygamous conditions that gave rise to all of their desires (and destructive desires at that)? According to Tolstoy and Flaubert, it is literature—which is to say, art—that is the real villain, even the novel itself, especially the romantic novel. And Tolstoy and Flaubert had the notion, I suppose, of giving to their readers something from which their tragic heroines were supposedly bereft: social realism, albeit, and this point is really worth emphasizing, in the form of . . . yet another romantic novel. What this means is, there is never a way out for Anna and Emma, even in our possibly subversive readings of Tolstoy’s and Flaubert’s narratives: in short, they can never leave—neither their families, their bad marriages, their faithless lovers and friends, nor the novels themselves, which never allow them what Bersani would call their 'promiscuous humanity.' In this scenario, art kills not once, but twice. Or to put it another way, pace Sartre, there is ‘no exit’ here.

Is it possible that the Oedipal narrative—whether a ménage-a-trois or Bersani’s orgiastic ‘ten-some’—operates somewhat along the same lines? It is a story told twice, first by Sophocles and then by Freud, and no one gets out of it alive without, perhaps, ‘forgetting’ it, or as Bersani puts it in his essay ‘Against Monogamy’: ‘We move by forgetting—and no human faculty is more alien to psychoanalysis than that of forgetting’ (p. 21). And in order to forget, and thereby escape, the family (which is also to say, the family romance, which in some respects, is also the loam and root-bed of the novel, even of the anti-novel written by authors such as Kafka and Beckett), it will be necessary to embrace an impersonal narcissism by which the self, as a body without clothing or identity (or family), cruises other bodies (both human and nonhuman, real and virtual) as part of its search for non-possessive and ‘non-intimate connections to . . . multitudinous points of disseminated sociality’ (‘Against Monogamy,’ p. 5). A certain disseminated (and pleasurable) sociability, to which homosexuals may have privileged but certainly no exclusive access, will be key to preventing our connection to others from ‘degenerating into a “relationship”’ (‘Sociability and Cruising,’ p. 15).

Since, in Bersani’s terms, we are always already in the world, because ‘it is impossible to take on a form—a being—to which the world does not have a response, with which it is not already in correspondence’; therefore, the world becomes a ‘hospitable’ place, even a ‘home,’ in which we always find ourselves re-occurring—only ever partially, to be sure, but innumerably and differently, and with ‘non-attributable intensity’ (‘Sociability and Cruising,’ pp. 18, 22). It seems to me that we’re moving toward a sort of metaphysics here [or is it a phenomenology?], one that begins with sexual practices, such as cruising, and that opposes itself to material and psychic social formations—such as the family and the couple—but which nevertheless moves, especially through the realm of the aesthetic, into imaginary being, even mysticism [or as Bersani himself would and does put it, into the endless process of forming and de-forming that is accessible via art, which itself might be seen, not as a composing of forms, but as a de-composing of forms]: where we become, or emit, as Bersani and Dutoit write in Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity, ‘a light hidden behind psychic darkness’ (p. 70). Ever since I first read this, I have been both enchanted and confused [and a little excited]: what kind of light is this, how does it move in the world, and with who? Oh, there’s the rub, for I can’t let go of the who, or even the what, that is being light with me.

The following questions might then be raised here:
• Are all families unhappy (in their own particular way, or even in the same way), even continually sexually combative? Are there any happy families which offer models of Bersanian sociability? Can the family be queer in a way that opens onto new relational modes that are non-possessive and non-destructive, that might even help us to ‘become gay’?
• Is our expressiveness always crippling?
• Can we have a Bersanian sociability, a cruising of bodies on whom we make no claims, without forsaking relationships altogether (which is also to say, without forsaking love)? Is the aim, perhaps, to still have love, but to forsake the crippling and destructive desires to which we have historically cathected ourselves? [Or, as Bersani himself put it in another of his writings, and I am paraphrasing: nothing is more banal than the phrase 'I love you' and yet we have some hope for its meaningfulness.]
• Is it really possible to touch other bodies without attributes? (This works two ways: can I ever be a body without attributes? Can you, while I am touching you, be a body without attributes? What am I touching exactly? What are you touching? Better yet: what kind of touching is this, exactly, and how shall we describe it phenomenologically?)
• Can contact with another—especially bodily—really, or ever, be identity-free?
• How, more precisely, might we describe the ways in which Bersani is distinguishing between difference” and “Otherness”? What, in other words, is the difference between difference and Otherness? Also, why is (or, IS) Otherness being valorized here? How is it different than something like God or the perpetually withdrawn?
• Since Bersani brings up both “plateaux” (‘Against Monogamy’) and ‘non-attributable intensity’ ('Sociability and Cruising') can we propose a new mathematics whereby we subtract Freud from Bersani (or better yet, divide Bersani by Freud, just as Bersani divides Freud from Freud?) and add Deleuze? What would happen, for example, if we could cruise, not individuals, and certainly not selves possessing identities, but individuations, or haeccities? Can we cruise, even, ‘folds’?
• Why is living—concretely, mind you—at the abstract level of pure being so attractive? How can we be sure that this just doesn’t bring us back to what I see as a central problem in entire traditions of Western philosophy and religion: mainly, the need to escape the frame of the supposed mind/body split, or even, to split the body from the mind? Why is the losing of one’s socio-psychic contours—one’s habituations, even, and of course, one’s desires—so critical to what might be called a queer emancipation? Is leaving the mind to live more fully in one’s body any different than trying to leave the body behind in order to be only a soul? What, pray tell, is a soul and how is that Bersanian light something else? [Or not?]
COMING UP NEXT: Eros, Tractability, Phenomenology and Becoming-Liquid: Bersanian Relationalities, Part II

4 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for this post, and thanks very much for the excerpts from Bersani. With these, I wonder what he's doing in these articles that he's not already doing in his books? In other words, what's the--cough--relationship between these and his longer form explorations of these ideas?

Is the aim, perhaps, to still have love, but to forsake the crippling and destructive desires to which we have historically cathected ourselves? [Or, as Bersani himself put it in another of his writings, and I am paraphrasing: nothing is more banal than the phrase 'I love you' and yet we have some hope for its meaningfulness.]

Thanks so much for bring Deleuze into this mix, since my BIG question here is: who is this I who says I love you? I think 'I love you' is a promise rather than just a statement of emotional investment. Classically, it's a promise of one subject to another, wherein the loving subject promises to cherish (if not exclusively than at least especially) the other subject over time, perhaps over all the time that the loving subject has remaining to itself. But once we've disaggregated, un-monadized the subject into sociability, then what happens to the I--let alone the You--of I Love You? If the subject is only a certain coalescence, constantly shifting, I think that love has to be swapped out in favor of, oh, pseudopodial, strategic attachments.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks for posting about this, Eileen. And a big public thanks to Michael O'Rourke and Noreen Giffney for The(e)ories, which I personally regard as -- despite not getting $1.5 million grants -- one of the most important interventions into critical theory we've had, as well as a needed catalyst to its de-Americanization.

As Karl has pointed out, a useful thing you have done Eileen is to bring to D&G into the mix. It's interesting how so many of the phenomena Bersani discerns in his beloved Freud have parallels in Deleuze: so cruising as a kind of transversality, disaggregation of the self as psychoanalytic version of the molar/molecular, anti-monogamy as another way of saying anti-oedipus.

Looking forward to post #2.

kvond said...

EJ: " Could it be, following Bersani, that in the disciplining of the ‘orgies of childhood,’ the ‘whirlwinds of desiring mobility’ that could have been Anna and Emma are betrayed in the denial, over time, of the polygamous conditions that gave rise to all of their desires (and destructive desires at that)? According to Tolstoy and Flaubert, it is literature—which is to say, art—that is the real villain, even the novel itself, especially the romantic novel. And Tolstoy and Flaubert had the notion, I suppose, of giving to their readers something from which their tragic heroines were supposedly bereft: social realism, albeit, and this point is really worth emphasizing, in the form of . . . yet another romantic novel."

Kvond: I'm not quite sure that I follow. You seem to be making an equation which says that the novel performs some kind of discipinary action upon the "orgies of childhood" or what not. That the reader is somehow both betrayed and disciplined. How is it that (lets stick with Bovary) you see Flaubert disciplining the whirlwinds of desiring mobility? Or am I not understanding you?


As to the Oedipus Complex (story) and who gets out. It is actually inaccurate that no-one gets out, though there is certainly quite a bit of death to go around. If we eliminate Kreon who suffers the great rending of his world, it really is the forgotten Ismene (I believe the most misunderstood and neglected figure in the entire play) who gets out. And it is not through forgetting. Her person presents a very interesting, if painful, solution to the Antigone Complex (which itself is an answer to the Oedipus Complex).

kvond said...

EJ,

Thanks for your thoughts here. They propelled me to consider what an Antigone Complex would be, in a thread of posts. Given the appeal of the play and of Bulter's treatment, perhaps you (or others would be interested in the notion):

1. http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/06/19/what-is-the-antigone-complex-posthuman-tensored-agency/

2. http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/06/20/more-on-the-antigone-complex/

3. http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/06/21/the-transvestive-signifier-and-the-antigone-complex/

As someone with a vested interest in Antigone, I would wonder how you would conceive of an proposed Antigone Complex, and if indeed it would be a no-one-gets-out-alive kind of syndrome of subjectivity. Is there a way for you to read her project as freeing?