During the three years he spent on the Iberian Peninsula in the mid-1960s, Bruce Berger encountered the following joke: âIf Franco is at the helm, the Guardia Civil is on the prow, the priests are on the poop and the ship sinks, who is saved? Spain.â (more…)
Itâs June 1998. Teresa has terminal lung cancerâsheâs got to figure out how to die. Edmund has HIV. Eighteen months ago, he looked like a cadaver. Rebounding with the help of anti-retrovirals, he must discover how to live again. Twenty-year-old Joel, Teresaâs son, has moved from the remote town of Kenora to big-city Torontoâhis fumbling journey toward adulthood punctuated by affairs with older men, ideally those with big strong hands to hold him. (more…)
Two of queer theoryâs leading contemporary scholars, Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, have collaborated on a slender, yet powerful, three-essay volume about sex and interrelational attachments.
Both scholars are coming off critical success in their previous works: Berlantâs Cruel Optimism, the 2012 winner of the Rene Wellek Award, is arguably the greatest theoretical text to be published in the last decade, while Edelmanâs No Future, controversial for what some call its nihilist, and narcissistic, argument, offers an unrepentant critique âreproductive futurismâ through the trope of the child.
Both these texts converge in this new endeavor, one in which the theoretical impetus is to advance the idea of negativity while denuding it of its anti-social tenor by thinking about the political significance, and the productivity, of negativity as an ethic. âThe historic practice of LGBTQ studies has been toward reclaiming and repairing lost histories and ongoing practices of delegitimation,â they explain in the introduction, âNegativity as a source for social theory tends to reject the impulse to repair social relations that appear to us irreparable, and in that light, our work might seem quietistic, apolitical, nihilist, defeatist, or even irresponsible.”
In the history of queer theory in academia, the idea of negativity as a political and social ethic is born more recently out of the anti-social thrustâqueer is that which resists political and social order and indulgently refuses all systemic complicityâand more broadly from the new historical strain of queer studies invested in recovering ânegative affects,â most notably âgay shame,â as integral to re-constructing LGBT and queer history narratives.
Their working definition of negativity, in simple terms, aims to demystify relations of their idealism, on a meta-scale, as well as all optimism: âNegativity points to many kinds of relation in what follows, from the unbearable, often unknowable, psychic conflicts that constitute the subject to the social forms of negation that also, but differently, produce subjectivity. Generally negativity signifies a resistance to or undoing of the stabilizing frameworks of coherence imposed on thought and lived experience.â
This is why they focus on sex, because sex, âas a locus for optimism, is a site at which the promise of overcoming division an antagonism is frequently played out. But,â they contend, âthe consequences of such efforts to resolve our social and psychic contradictions can include the establishment of sexual norms and the circumscription of sex for socially legitimated ends [....]â
âWould living with negativity entail the death of the optimism that animates desire an energizes politics?â This is Berlant and Edelmanâs optimal question, although one has to wonder about the impetus of denuding sex of its optimism. What if I wanted a sexual relationship, one not predicated on homogeneity or driven by the desire to reproduce the liberal family structure? What does an intimate relationship look like without optimism, which is by definition is born in the present but which extends into the future? Are relationships impossible? This last question, to me, seems distinct from any reparative concern of either Berlantâs or Edelmanâs, both of whom are critical of the socio-political desire to repair (a relation).
This is the problem with the queer discourse of negativity: it constantly defines itself in terms of the negative, in terms of what itâs not. Frankly, and to invoke the hot queer term of the moment, itâs quite a privileged position to delimit oneâs ethics in terms of the negativeâperhaps itâs a symptom of living within the confines of academia.
Yes, we all know that sex is powerful; weâve all âbecome undoneâ by it. Berlant and Edelmanâs point that sex is an unmooring of oneâs sovereignty is insightful. âWhen it takes the shape of intimate relationality, [sex] is both disturbing and anchoring, and therefore never stilled enough to be a concrete foundation for the house of life or the house of pain; expressing a desire for disturbance, sex cannot also defend entirely against it.â
At the same time, when Edelman claims that the sexual âencounter, viewed as traumatic or not, remains bound to the nonfutural insistence in sex of something nonproductive, nonteleological, and divorced from meaning making,â and that â[i]n this sense sex without optimism invokes the negativity of sex as a defining and even enabling condition,” one has to think deeply about what kind of sex these scholars are having. This statement, in fact, lies at odds with a lot of queer scholarship concerning affect theory; if all interaction is affective, then surely there is meaning to be had? Or, perhaps this is the lesbian in me: I canât imagine sex that is so lame that it is completely devoid of any affective force such that it has no affective resonance on my body or mind, and that, therefore, it has no âmeaning.â
Structurally, the form of their collaboration takes the form of the dialogue, which not only provides both scholar the space for thinking through the possibility of âsex without optimism,â but it is perhaps a nod to a different methodological and critical investment in the future of the humanities, one that actually seeks to foster a dialogue with a community of readers outside the pedantically prescribed academic normâyou know, the dozen or so individuals who can navigate an argument through overwrought academic jargon. In this regard, Berlantâs language is more digestible, if only because her discourse works primarily within the parameters of cultural studies, as opposed to Edelmanâs more cumbersome working from and within psychoanalysis.
While the central inquiry about the encounter between negativity and nonsovereignty is not radically new, Berlant and Edelmanâs three-act dialogue is wonderfully intriguing, especially in regard to how the dialogue itself bears witness to the intellectual process of âthinking throughâ in the dialogic form.
Sex, or The Unbearable
By Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822355946, 168 pp.
A fat dog overjoyed with the plastic steak in its mouth. How Neil Young sounds like an alley cat. People-watching on the subway. Overheard snippets of conversations. The PR job, full of positive words, thatâs starting to bring him down after fifteen years. The pills he must now take to maintain his body. An eight year relationship yet no shared apartment. These are some of single-sentence paragraphs of stray observations and journal notes that build up to a portrait of the uneasy stasis that is Clifford Chaseâs life in New York City during the early months of 2001. (more…)
Celebrated novelist Rabih Alameddineâs long-awaited new book An Unnecessary Woman, released last month by Grove Press, isÂ a stunning character portrait, an astute snapshot of contemporary Beirut, and a lyrical testament to the power ofÂ literature. The novel maps the peculiar inner-life of a reclusive Lebanon-based bibliophile, Aaliya Saleh, while also ârevealing Beirutâs beauties and horrors along the way. â (more…)
Today, two poems by Julian Delacruz. (more…)
“A parking ticket in the morning always feels portentous. Is this going to be a ‘bad day?’ or, since itâs Monday, a bad week? As if there were such a thing. I eat good food, I hang out with friends. But a parking ticket is the ďŹash of a hex.”
âThe Banal and the Profaneâ is a monthlyÂ Lambda LiteraryÂ column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life andÂ the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This monthâs âBanal and Profaneâ column comes to us from writer Conner Habib. (more…)
Acclaimed actor Ben Gazzara died two years ago this month. Magnus Books editor Don Weise recalls working with Gazzara on his memoirs and reflects onÂ the actor’s substantialÂ legacy.
âDarling, stop being a cocktease and send me your goddamn edits.â No, this wasnât Truman Capote phoning. It was movie tough-guy Ben Gazzara eager to get started on the rewrite of his memoirs, In the MomentÂ (Carroll & Graf). Of all the projects Iâve been involved with, this one was my happiest and most memorable. On first glance (even the second and third) I might have seemed an odd match for a macho, free-wheeling character like Ben. I was known for publishing LGBT titles, a lot of it fiction. Yet here was an actor writing about his storied fifty-plus-year career on stage and screen, best-known for playing he-man roles: an abusive husband, a heroin addict, strip club owner, a porn producer, assorted gangsters, Charles Bukowski, a sadistic closet case, and a homophobic father whose gay son is dying of AIDS. Not exactly guys from my neck of the woods, still I love each of these performances. One of Benâs gifts as an actor was being able to humanize difficult and sometimes violent men. Did that appeal to me as a gay man? I donât know, but I felt certain that any actor capable of delivering one mesmerizing performance after the next was capable of delivering a knock out memoir.
A church and a bar are two very different institutions, but Marie Cartier, in Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Acumen Publishing Limited), proposes that the bar, and specifically the gay bar, served both a communal and spiritual function for many queer women in the mid-twentieth century, pre-Stonewall. (more…)
In his well-reviewed debut Enter, Night, a chilling and atmospheric throwback to Stephen Kingâs Salem’s Lot fused with the gothic leanings of an early V.C. Andrews novel, author Michael Rowe added both depth and dimension to the otherwise overplayed vampire mythos, injecting it with some much needed viability. (more…)