on Intimacies, by Leo Bersani & Adam Phillips (University of Chicago Press)

In Intimacies, Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips argue for our complicity against what perhaps most of us think of as gratifying forms of affection. What Bersani in particular finds in certain artworks, such as Patrick LeConte's film Intimate Strangers (2004) and Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” is the potential for new “registers of intimacy: from our heterosexual culture’s reserving the highest relational value for the couple to a communal model of impersonal intimacy.” Bersani perceives linked injustices in the “prideful exclusiveness of the family” as an arrogant power center, and the damaging effects of dominant, heterosexual forms of affection.

Before considering why Bersani finds such a serious threat to world peace in how my wife and I regard each other, let’s look back briefly at some of his earlier polemics. (Intimacies purports to be a “dialogue” between Bersani, an emeritus professor of French at Berkeley, and the British psychoanalyst and literary critic Adam Phillips. But this is largely Bersani’s work. He provides three chapters and the conclusion, and Phillips’ single chapter is mainly reiterative.)

“The catastrophes of history matter much less if they are somehow compensated for in art,” wrote Leo Bersani in The Culture of Redemption, (1990) “and art itself gets reduced to a kind of superior patching function, is enslaved to those very materials to which it presumably imparts value.” Ah, the inadequacies of art – and even more culpable, the artist who fails to mark an explicit affiliation against the terrible powers. Such art, Bersani claimed, draws its authority from the existing power structure; an artwork presuming to redeem thus usurps power within its identity. There is a problem, he said, with “redemptive” literature which “asks us to consider art as a correction of life,” and to which we mistakenly believe we open ourselves, drawing close to and getting intimate with the other embedded in the book. (Does art aim for a “correction of life”? Most artists would deny it. Isn’t it the politically motivated work that demands change? Isn’t this why Milosz warned us in The Captive Mind against artists too thoroughly wedded to theory and “corrective” demagoguery?) Bersani nodded approvingly at examples of literature “without redemptive authority” including works by Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Bataille, Flaubert and Pynchon. (But these must be super-redemptive works, since they redeem us from merely redemptive literature.) In Bersani’s world of insidious power and corrupt cultural authority, too much Proust makes you complacent at best, and potentially a war criminal. What we need, he said, is a “a self-jouissance that dissolves the person and thereby, at least temporarily, erases the sacrosanct value of selfhood, a value that may account for human beings’ extraordinary willingness to kill in order to protect the seriousness of their statements. The self is a practical convenience; promoted to the status of an ethical ideal, it is a sanction for violence.”

bersani.jpgThis same prescriptive jouissance turns up in Intimacies. Jouir is the French word for “to come, to have an orgasm.” Bersani employs jouissance to mean sexualized aggression. He says, “Nothing is more absurd, Freud asserts in Civilization and Its Discontents, than what is perhaps the most cherished biblical commandment: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’.” Our original impulse is to exploit. Evil is “an intractable murderousness constitutive of the human itself.” More: “The theory of love adumbrated in Freud and Lacan is demystifying in that it subverts the premise about being on which love is founded, the assumption that in love the human subject is exceptionally open to otherness.” Bersani dismisses this capability as non-existent. Furthermore, he believes that because our culture valorizes the impossible act of embracing the other, we only become frustrated, filled with rage, and violent. Therefore, the more we love our neighbor, the more we want to kill him and make off with his daughters and riding mower. He writes, “If we seriously take love to be a narcissistic extravagance, then we will acknowledge that, first of all, simply willing ourselves to cherish the differences of others will, in all likelihood, leave our murderous antagonism toward difference intact, and, secondly, that the myth of love can become its truth only if we reinvent the relational possibilities of narcissism itself.” Phillips restates with clarity, "Encouraged to love the very difference that we are driven to abolish is the double bind of our modern sentimental education."

bersani2.jpgBersani then introduces “what Foucault celebrated, and others have recognized, as an anomaly in Greek love: erotic reciprocity. The beloved becomes a lover as a result of being loved … I call this love impersonal narcissism because the self the subject sees reflected in the other is not the unique personality central to modern notions of individualism.” The subject sees more of himself in the other, and through a “perfect knowledge of otherness,” allows the other to be perfectly himself. In contrast, conventional loving is focused on maintaining borders and defending the boundaries of one’s ego. These lovers “are inclined to define themselves, indeed to construct the unity of their being, in terms of an aggressively defensive posture toward the differences outside their identitarian frontiers.” For Bersani, it’s then a simple leap from maintaining the ego’s territory to enforcing Homeland Security and invading oil-rich countries. His argument is larded with topical complaints about the “imperialist project,” “people voting against their own best interests,” and “a collectivized impulse to self-destruct.” On these pages, and there are too many of them, Bersani writes out of irritation and his points are banal.

Searching for examples of impersonal narcissism and jouissance in action, in “Shame On You” Bersani takes us through the sexual rituals of barebacking, the “defining practice of a new if limited gay male sexual culture.” Here, “bug-chasers” pursue HIV infection by coupling with multiple “gift-givers,” usually at parties. Bersani finds “an ethic of sacrificial love startlingly similar to the officially condemned form of Catholic mysticism articulated toward the end of the seventeenth century.” How does this behavior differ from a suicidal willingness to strap on an explosive vest? What do we make of Bersani’s disclaimers and hesitations, such as, “A sign of my own troubled response to the practice is that I also find bug-chasing and gift-giving sexually repellent and staggeringly irresponsible behavior.” But at least barebacking makes great theory (Phillips calls it "an emblem of impersonal intimacy") – and it’s anti-imperialistic, too! “Of course, even the irresponsibility can appear to be a minor sin in the larger social context of the murderous irresponsibility of the domestic and foreign policies of our current government,” he says, a chilling rationalization. Phillips says that Bersani seeks forms of love that aren’t forms of revenge – but revenge seems to be on Bersani’s mind.

When Bersani leaps from the individual to the social, he raises a question about the difficulty of identifying the psychological motivator in group behavior: "Where, exactly, is the collective or governmental psyche that corresponds to the individual psyche?" He prefers Foucault's answer, which makes the colony member a passive victim of larger forces, quoting, " 'There is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives' but the latter are not the result of the choices or decisions of individual subjects." Evil non-personal primal forces or evil men: Bersani covers all usual suspects in his inquisition, apparently not truly interested in discovering "where, exactly" -- the who or the what -- darkness is promoted. It isn't government but this government, these men, who pose the problem. What of corporate organizations, where men threaten men (even now, for the most part) within an individual company, agenda versus agenda, getting one another fired, making violent gestures at each another's means of livelihood? Bersani says that "the pleasurable power of satisfied aggression is itself a threat to the agent of aggression," but perhaps, on the contrary, smouldering aggression in the business world solves a great need by providing a non-lethal means of attack, the intimacy of convenient enemies, the tweaking of noses. Of course, I'm not as schooled as Bersani in determining which types of aggression may be entrusted to liberate us from the ego, and which result in receiving two-months' severance pay.

The striking use of queer theory will provoke a response from most readers, but the main ideas in Intimacies have long been familiar. Otto Rank spelled out the need for “a psychology of difference” in the 1930s. In “Psychology and Social Change,” he wrote, “Modern psychology, as the last scientific rationalization of the spiritual need for likeness, is only forcing the frustrated expression of natural difference in the direction of hostility and hatred … as the believing victim of the democratic ideal of equality, the self-sufficient type of our times is forced to fight his battle of difference within himself. Hence all the reactions of fear and guilt following unavoidable differentiation are condemned as selfish if they cannot be excused as ‘neurotic’ … He feels compelled to change others according to himself. Such craving for likeness in the face of all the multiform differences – individual, social and racial – originates in man’s need to counteract the negative aspect of individualization, in the last analysis, death …”

Adam Phillips’ chapter, “On a More Impersonal Note,” adds a thoughtful tone and asks the key question, “why is self-love equated with hatred of reality?” He reels us back to remember that Bersani’s work lies in the mainstream of much clinical practice in which “psychoanalysis is committed to the unsettling of the individual’s hard-won (i.e., defensive) self-knowledge … What Bersani wants to keep open is the question of what we might love others for, what in others we might love that would curb the violence in our human-all-too-human personal relations.” The open question is provocative enough. But Bersani’s political yammering – and his own redemptive biases – tend to close off thought. In an earlier essay, "Poetry and Psychoanalysis," Phillips writes, "In psychoanalysis there is always the risk that the wish for meaning will be usurped by the will to meaning." Fixed more on critiquing the conventions of society than on finding an accommodation with what is eternally human, Bersani sounds like someone who would will new meanings if he could. In the same essay, Phillips said, "The art of poetry is the art of being happily unacceptable in public." That is, not just some poetry that would be politically acceptable to a Bersani, but all artful verse. The impersonal narcissism Bersani yearns for may be much more widely available in the arts than he thinks.

[Published May 15, 2008, 144 pp., $20,00 hardcover]

Great review!

This review was very smart, and dead-on. THANK YOU!