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Sex, or the Unbearable
     

Sex, or the Unbearable

by Lauren Berlant
 

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Sex, or the Unbearable is a dialogue between Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, two of our leading theorists of sexuality, politics, and culture. In juxtaposing sex and the unbearable they don't propose that sex is unbearable, only that it unleashes unbearable contradictions that we nonetheless struggle to bear. In Berlant and Edelman's

Overview

Sex, or the Unbearable is a dialogue between Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, two of our leading theorists of sexuality, politics, and culture. In juxtaposing sex and the unbearable they don't propose that sex is unbearable, only that it unleashes unbearable contradictions that we nonetheless struggle to bear. In Berlant and Edelman's exchange, those terms invoke disturbances produced in encounters with others, ourselves, and the world, disturbances that tap into threats induced by fears of loss or rupture as well as by our hopes for repair.

Through virtuoso interpretations of works of cinema, photography, critical theory, and literature, including Lydia Davis's story "Break It Down" (reprinted in full here), Berlant and Edelman explore what it means to live with negativity, with those divisions that may be irreparable. Together, they consider how such negativity affects politics, theory, and intimately felt encounters. But where their critical approaches differ, neither hesitates to voice disagreement. Their very discussion—punctuated with moments of frustration, misconstruction, anxiety, aggression, recognition, exhilaration, and inspiration—enacts both the difficulty and the potential of encounter, the subject of this unusual exchange between two eminent critics and close friends.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
02/10/2014
In this slim yet extraordinarily dense volume, Berlant (Cruel Optimism) and Edelman (L'impossible Homosexuel) present a series of dialogues regarding the dichotomy and contradictions of sex as a pleasurable act that is simultaneously fraught with many unbearable aspects and consequences. As they discuss how these factors relate on social, cultural and emotional levels, among others, they likewise touch upon relationality, sovereignty, negativity, and optimism. The authors, both professors of English, offer up their findings in turgid academic language that is so roundabout and obscure that it is often hard to engage. In the preface, the authors are at their most readable when they state that "We approach sex here as a site, therefore, at which relationality is invested with hopes, expectations, and anxieties that are often experienced as unbearable. Sex, though subject to the pressures of legal sanction, social judgment, unconscious drives, and contradictory desires, holds out the prospect of discovering new ways of being and of being in the world. But it also raises the possibility of confronting our limit in ourselves or in another, of being inundated psychically or emotionally." Casual readers be forewarned: this is the sort of book only academics could love. (Jan.)
Against the Hype - Colin Low

“What’s lovely about this exchange is that Berlant and Edelman’s mutually locked horns don’t make us feel as though a cleverer person has already figured things out and we’re simply not smart or qualified enough to piece together the unspoken counterarguments they would have to our doubts.”
Lambda Literary Review - Marcie Bianco

"Berlant and Edelman’s three-act dialogue is wonderfully intriguing, especially in regard to how the dialogue itself bears witness to the intellectual process of ‘thinking through’ in the dialogic form."
From the Publisher

"Sex, or the Unbearable will supersede the unenlivening debate that has, in recent years, opposed optimists and pessimists in the queer academic community. This important and original book, a dialogue between Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, reformulates the terms of the debate as a serious and profound reflection on negativity. Berlant and Edelman's penetrating and courageous encounter significantly raises the level of debate in contemporary cultural studies."—Leo Bersani, Emeritus Professor of French, University of California, Berkeley

"In Sex, or the Unbearable, Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman give a gripping and compelling seminar on reading, on the everyday dramas of unbecoming, undoing, opening up, and breaking down, and on love and sex. Relationality, they argue and demonstrate, is always a risk because in all encounters and conversations, and certainly in this one, the subject is misrecognized, unheard, and never in control. The risk, they show here, is always worth taking."—Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure

"The good news is that theory is alive. In a dialogue characterized by precision and generosity, two key theorists of sex, affect, aesthetics, and politics imagine the possibilities for the critical transformation of the social world. The bad news is that, for these brilliant, searching antipastoralists, none of the old fixes—psychic reparation or political hope—will do. Which is to say: there is no bad news. Sex, or the Unbearable testifies to the political significance of negativity and to the ongoing force of epistemology in queer studies."—Heather Love, author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

Leo Bersani

"Sex, or the Unbearable will supersede the unenlivening debate that has, in recent years, opposed optimists and pessimists in the queer academic community. This important and original book, a dialogue between Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, reformulates the terms of the debate as a serious and profound reflection on negativity. Berlant and Edelman's penetrating and courageous encounter significantly raises the level of debate in contemporary cultural studies."
The Queer Art of Failure - Jack Halberstam

"In Sex, or the Unbearable, Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman give a gripping and compelling seminar on reading, on the everyday dramas of unbecoming, undoing, opening up, and breaking down, and on love and sex. Relationality, they argue and demonstrate, is always a risk because in all encounters and conversations, and certainly in this one, the subject is misrecognized, unheard, and never in control. The risk, they show here, is always worth taking."
Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History - Heather Love

"The good news is that theory is alive. In a dialogue characterized by precision and generosity, two key theorists of sex, affect, aesthetics, and politics imagine the possibilities for the critical transformation of the social world. The bad news is that, for these brilliant, searching antipastoralists, none of the old fixes—psychic reparation or political hope—will do. Which is to say: there is no bad news. Sex, or the Unbearable testifies to the political significance of negativity and to the ongoing force of epistemology in queer studies."
Theory & Event - Michael D. Snediker

"This collaboration between Berlant and Edelman has a feel for the ecology of thinking as it passes between two points. Like holding one’s breath under water or passing a balloon back and forth without its touching the floor, these conversations illuminate the sense of timing with which ideas respond to and are shaped by each other." 
American Studies - Fiona I. B. Ngô

“Berlant and Edelman take debates around the antisocial thesis as a point of departure to theorize the importance of relationality, loss and repair, sovereignty, and negativity in the politics and ethics of queer theory. Despite the overlapping topics of interest that have marked their respective works, their varying theoretical approaches make for a smart, enlivening, and productive conversation in Sex, or the Unbearable.”
Journal of Popular Romance Studies - Amanda Jo Hobson

“While Berlant and Edelman do not address popular romances, their work can be informative to the work of romance scholars in tackling issues of the place of sex and the erotic, especially within some romance tropes, such as discovery of a new sexual orientation plots in queer romances, or submissive-for-you plots in many erotic romances of all orientations.” 
 
Colloquy - Jessica Durham

“Among the book’s major attractions is its inventive dialogic form, and Berlant and Edelman’s masterful close readings of diverse media. The authors alternate named passages, riffing on each others’ ideas and including their moments of complex ambiguous affect, including responses to the other of misappropriation, frustration, delight and surprise, so often elided in collaborative critical theory. This dialogic form and its auto-analysis is one of the great intellectual joys of the book, a fascinating and inventive device well-suited to a discussion of the complex investments subjects have in relationality, including sex, conversation, and pedagogy.”
American Studies - Fiona I. B. Ng��
“Berlant and Edelman take debates around the antisocial thesis as a point of departure to theorize the importance of relationality, loss and repair, sovereignty, and negativity in the politics and ethics of queer theory. Despite the overlapping topics of interest that have marked their respective works, their varying theoretical approaches make for a smart, enlivening, and productive conversation in Sex, or the Unbearable.”
Gender, Work, and Organization - Nancy Harding

“[T]hese two authors offer an intense and highly insightful account of interactions between two subjects that, I suggest, could be fruitfully applied to understanding encounters in organizations. They show some of the complexities of relationality: it is violent, pleasurable, productive, a scene of fantasy and misrecognition, all these and more.”
Sexualities - Kathryn Medien and Jacob Breslow

“As an overall project, Sex, or the Unbearable pushes forward the debate on queer negativity and antisociality, whilst also contributing to contemporary queer, feminist and cultural theory’s wider critiques of academic knowledge production and the political utility of academic scholarship.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780822377061
Publisher:
Duke University Press
Publication date:
11/18/2013
Series:
Theory Q
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
168
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

SEX, OR THE UNBEARABLE


By Lauren Berlant, Lee Edelman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5580-9



CHAPTER 1

SEX WITHOUT OPTIMISM


LAUREN BERLANT: Because many of us—I'm not presuming universality here—want so much from sex, from the study of sex, and from activism that foregrounds countering erotophobia, and because so many of us want relief from rage and pessimism about sex too, a phrase like "sex without optimism" might raise hackles. It might sound like a program that advocates coolness, being above the fray, a dare to not care, an affective or emotional imperative, or disrespect for optimism. I can assure you that we are not advocating for any of this.

LEE EDELMAN: Like the book for which it stands as the gateway, this chapter finds its origin more in questions than in answers—questions that Lauren and I have been trying to think about together. In large part those questions center on the very concept of togetherness. They impel us to interrogate the practices, effects, and ideologies of relation both in terms of the others with whom we find ourselves variously together (socially, erotically, politically, spatially, categorically, economically, ecologically) and in terms of the self that may (or may not) claim a unity or togetherness of its own. We approach the issue of relationality through the rubric of "sex without optimism" because sex, for us, whatever else it may signify or be made to figure, denotes an encounter with otherness that attains the stability of knowable relation only by way of an optimism that erases its negativity.

Jacques Lacan's well-known assertion that "there is no sexual relation" resists the imperative to resolve the structural antagonism of the Symbolic (given a contingent expression in heteronormativity's sexual binarism) through the fantasy, and so the optimism, of a successfully realized relation (Lacan 1991/2007, 116). Lacan, that is, attends to what is negative and unknowable in sex insofar as sexual difference eludes every effort to comprehend it. Such a reference to Lacan, more pertinent perhaps to my approach than to Lauren's, might help nonetheless to crystallize what seems inseparable from sex for both of us: the encounter with what exceeds and undoes the subject's fantasmatic sovereignty. Against the specific optimism such a fantasy bespeaks, sex affords a privileged site for encountering negativity—a negativity that registers at once the insistence of enjoyment, of the drive, and of various disturbances that inhere in relation itself.

LB: Negativity, the "without" in our title, magnetizes many different things, and one of our aims throughout this volume is to elaborate on the richness and incoherence of the concept (if you add up all of the things each of us means). But briefly, by negativity I am pointing at once to the self- cleaving work of the drives, being socially oppressed, and being nonsovereign, affectively undone by being in relation. It's worth saying, therefore, that nonsovereignty and negativity are not precise synonyms (like most synonyms or proposals of likeness, they also imply a world of differences): the latter derives from a philosophical and psychoanalytic engagement, while the former derives from traditions in political theory that traverse social and affective relationality. The main political question is how we understand and mobilize the relations among these concepts, phenomena, and structures.

But it's hard to stay focused on the variety when the affective impact of attention to the subject's negativity so often reads as nihilistic or just anti- x when we mean something more overdetermined and dynamic. For example, I don't think that "sex ... attains the stability of knowable relation only by way of an optimism that erases its negativity": what it means to know, what it means to want what's not knowable in advance or controllable, what it means to sense something without knowing it, does not add up to amnesia, foreclosure, disavowal, or erasure—but neither does erasure itself, as Lee's writing in this chapter will soon attest. Can understanding more about the many ways that sexuality manifests itself as non-sovereignty, radical incoherence, and a scene both for optimism and subordination transform what sexuality stands for and does?

So we came up with the phrase "sex without optimism" and then had to figure out what we meant.


LE: One way to tell our story is by starting with the problem of story as such and considering how telling it is that we tell our stories here so differently. However attenuated, qualified, ironized, interrupted, or deconstructed it may be, a story implies a direction; it signals, as story, a movement that leads toward some payoff or profit, some comprehension or closure, however open- ended. This leading toward necessarily entails a correlative "leading from," the "leading from" or "out of" at the root of "education." Even in those moments when we imagine ourselves immersed in its permanent middle, the story, so conceived at least, moves through time toward its putative end, where it seems to define the field within which it produces its sense of sense. Absent that framework of expectation, it isn't a story at all, just metonymic associations attached to a given nucleus.

But even such an elaboration would return us to the conventions of story: the refusal of story will always enact the story of its refusal. This orientation toward a future, toward something always yet to come, conceived as bestowing a value on life by way of the future anterior, by way of the life one will have lived, conceived, moreover, as justifying this refusal to live it while one could: this is what I call optimism, a condition so wide in its reach that it shapes our experience into narratives touched with the gloss we might think of as finish, in more than one sense of that term. To the extent that such optimism aspires to the finish of this universal gloss, we might view it as truly Panglossian and acknowledge the extent to which it compels a regulatory discipline that, with apologies to Michel Foucault, we could designate as Panoptimism.

Our conversation begins as an attempt to think about how to be pro-sex without succumbing to Panoptimism, or even to the sort of sexual optimism implicit in sexual liberation—and to do so by thinking about alternatives to narrative knowledge and knowledge as narrative: to do so, that is, by once again, as Gayle Rubin recommended, rethinking sex and posing it over and against education as a "leading out" of ignorance, inability, and bewilderment and into the condition of mastery, understanding, and realized sovereignty. As sex, in this context, compels the provisionality of relation, so the dialogue toward which we are moving neither affirms our shared identity nor reifies our differences. It puts those differences into play instead, bringing them into focus at one moment and revising the optic the next so that openings onto areas of agreement also make visible new zones of dissent. That play bespeaks the enjoyment we take, the goad or provocation we find, in one another's work, and it aims to allow for the sorts of surprises, interruptions, and recalibrations that come, or don't, with thinking in the absence of predetermined outcomes.

Nothing was certain as we began this project; nothing was fixed in advance. We still don't even know for sure that we mean the same things by "sex." For me, it has something to do with experiencing corporeally, and in the orbit of the libidinal, the shock of discontinuity and the encounter with nonknowledge. But versions of such an encounter will inform the movement of these dialogues too, which may induce, libidinally or not, some shocks of discontinuity as well. Together, in the cross-cut meditations, observations, and questions that determine their shape, these dialogues will reverse education's leading out and return to the place of sex in thought, or rather, in thought's multiplication: in its doubling, that is, by the two of us and by the doubling back implicit in the process of re-thinking. As one might expect from a critical mode that dabbles in doubling back, we abandon all hope at the outset of moving toward any definable end. But we're also mindful that such a claim may itself be a form of Panoptimism.

LB: We came to the question of sex without optimism focusing on the ways that sex undoes the subject, but we use idioms that aren't identical, as I suggested: Lee emphasizing the structuring force of jouissance and me emphasizing the activity of affect phenomenologically and in historical context—and that matters, as we will see. But we both engage critically the ways that heteronormativity attempts to snuff out libidinal unruliness by projecting evidence of it onto what Rubin calls "sexual outlaws" and other populations deemed excessively appetitive, casting them as exemplary moral and political threats that must be framed, shamed, monitored, and vanquished if the conventional good life, with its "productive" appetites, is going to endure (Rubin 2011, 131). The question we debate remains what else to do with the knowledge of the overwhelming force of sex and drive.

Thus we have both rejected projects of queer optimism that try to repair the subject's negativity into a grounding experiential positivity. Where Lee is concerned, this set of aversions and commitments has been called "the antisocial turn" in queer theory and has turned into a controversy about what embracing negativity must mean, can mean, should mean for people's imaginaries of power and about how to live. Indeed the critique of optimism as foreclosure he recounts has seemed (mistakenly) to some like a critique of imagining life as worth attaching to at all.

But in my advocacy for thinking about the subject as that which is structurally nonsovereign in a way that's intensified by sex, intimacy building, and structural inequality, I have not been accused of being antisocial, just socially awkward, a whole different problem, resulting in a theoretical idiom more slapstick than stentorian, more concerned with the force and impact of what Lee calls "just metonymic associations." This means that, while he focuses on "story" as always enacting negativity's drama of expectation and refusal, I am more concerned with that muddled middle where survival and threats to it engender social forms that transform the habitation of negativity's multiplicity, without necessarily achieving "story" in his terms (Berlant 2007). For, you know, I am a utopian, and Lee is not. I do not see optimism primarily as a glossing over, as "fantasy" in the negative sense of resistance to the Real. I am interested in optimism as a mode of attachment to life. I am committed to the political project of imagining how to detach from lives that don't work and from worlds that negate the subjects that produce them; and I aim, along with many antinormative activists, to expand the field of affective potentialities, latent and explicit fantasies, and infrastructures for how to live beyond survival, toward flourishing not later but in the ongoing now. Lee has said to me, as we've built this conversation, that he finds this orientation too close to the kind of be-gooderness that we are also contesting (Berlant 2011).

I would also not describe the negativity of sex and sexuality as Lee just did, as "the shock of discontinuity and the encounter with nonknowledge." That is because I think that subjects are not usually shocked to discover their incoherence or the incoherence of the world; they often find it comic, feel a little ashamed of it, or are interested in it, excited by it, and exhausted by it too, by the constant pressure to adjust that is at the heart of being nonsovereign, subjected to the inconstancy and contingency that they discover in and around themselves. At the same time, people protect their sexual incoherence, and it's worth noticing how they defend the ways that they are unreliable to their self- idealization and their internal noise, including their tangled conceptions of who should have sexual freedom and what kind. Shock, comparatively, is rare.

Finally, in my view, the affective experience of sexual or any nonknowledge is not usually a blockage or limit but is actually the experience of the multiplication of knowledges that have an awkward relation to each other, crowd each other out, and create intensities that require management. This is one place where the desire to cement sex to optimism arises, as any conventionality in the penumbra of sex provides relief from the ordinary muddles that arise in the intimate zones of encounter with other persons and the world. But even the enjoyment of an optimistic reprieve from being overwhelmed within sexualization is not the same thing as the desire for it to be repaired, to go away as a problem, or to achieve a flat consistency. Relief, play, interruption, glitchiness: these can provide a space of interest within which other rhythms and therefore forms of encounter with and within sexuality can be forged.

In short, our commonalities are in our fundamental belief that normativity is an attempt to drown out the subject's constitution by and attachment to varieties of being undone and our strong interest in a pedagogy that does not purchase space for negativity by advocating for a simplifying optimism. I tend to expand from the multiplicities and disjunctures of the affective register within which subjectification is experienced (whether or not recognized as an experience), while Lee focuses even more abstractly on the frameworks of meaning making that require such domination. I tend to dedramatize the experience of being a sexual subject in the ordinary, while Lee sees the subject's reeling experience of his subjective negativity as a drama that becomes dramatized. So we thought that perhaps we should look at different registers of aesthetic mediation that might get both at what we don't share and what we do—a view of the subject's undoing and the wrongheadedness of any reparative politics that turns being undone into a symptom of an illness or a measure of injustice.


* * *

Initially we thought the phrase "sex without optimism" was very funny. At the same time it pointed toward a difficult project of displacing sex and sexuality from their seesaw status as either causes of or repairs for the precarity of life. But did we really want sex without optimism? Why didn't we just want sex without stupid or destructive optimism? Our divergence in even understanding these questions was most starkly manifested aesthetically. I wanted each of us to curate a montage of sex without optimism. We made a list of films that we thought would provide some examples.


LE: And then things started to get complicated. The more examples we proposed of what we could think of as sex without optimism, whether or not we qualified that optimism as stupid or destructive or cruel, the more it became clear that we didn't necessarily mean the same things by "sex" and that we were finding it hard to locate representations of sex that weren't optimistic. Something, perhaps the aesthetic framing of our various representations, or perhaps the persistence of narrative in the project of reading as such, recurrently seemed to neutralize resistance to Panoptimism's imperative.

Given her investment in thinking about options for sustaining lives that confront the obstacles of an unpropitious present, Lauren's examples tended toward instances in which surviving the dominations of power shaped a narrative about enduring or negotiating the experience of delegitimated being. Given my own suspicion of rhetorics that privilege viability or survival, a suspicion that marks less a difference from Lauren than a difference in inflection, I tended toward instances that depicted a structure I associated with sex without optimism (Edelman 2011). For both of us, whatever our definitions of "sex," this meant turning to the distinctive undoing within it—an undoing that we don't see identically but one that we recognize as undoing our own as well as the other's understanding of it. That undoing is not, I must hasten to add, simply or "ultimately" productive. It doesn't move us toward final synthesis or overcome our differences. And it doesn't give us comfort, as if it were an absolute good in itself. It prompts us instead to interrogate the relation of sex to our notions of the good and to consider the "re" in rethinking as repetition and undoing at once and so as bound to the problematic of the drive as we encounter it in sex. I take Lauren's point to heart, after all, when she says that subjects are not generally shocked by the experience of their own incoherence and that what matters most may not, in fact, be blockages or encounters with nonknowledge but the multiplication and overlap of incompatible knowledges. But the persistence of that incompatibility, the constant obtrusion of what our will to relational management ignores, denies, or misrecognizes, makes undoing as such the condition of living in a world that is not our own.
(Continues...)


Excerpted from SEX, OR THE UNBEARABLE by Lauren Berlant, Lee Edelman. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Cruel Optimism, The Female Complaint, and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, all also published by Duke University Press.

Lee Edelman is Fletcher Professor of English Literature at Tufts University. He is the author of L'impossible Homosexuel; No Future, also published by Duke University Press; and Homographesis.

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