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Review: Sex, or the Unbearable (Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman)

January 01, 2014 By: Colin Low Category: Book Reviews

The dialogue between critical theorists Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman in Sex, or the Unbearable is crucial for anyone who, like me, just doesn’t get Lee Edelman. Edelman has gained notoriety in critical circles for his radically antisocial position in his 2006 book No Future, but it’s not that I don’t get his relentlessly hammered point about the exclusionariness inherent in any account of social order, even an avowedly critical or inclusionary one. Rather, I don’t get why he wants to keep making it. The most eye-opening thing about this book is that Berlant, his compatriot in negativity, doesn’t get it either. For her, articulating the negativity/nonsovereignty inherent in any relational encounter is helpful for herself and others in shifting the atmospheres around which such encounters take place, allowing for movement beyond a pointless (because inevitably failed) struggle with negativity. When Edelman insists that even a hope such as this is rife with negativity, Berlant asks him what he sees as the implications of his work. To her, his work makes him just as complicit in the kinds of pedagogical optimism to which she is self-professedly committed. Why else would he bother articulating it?

Among other things, this book’s portrayal of Berlant and Edelman’s live, embroiled disagreement has helped me to escape being rendered mute by my fear of mischaracterizing Edelman’s argument, which has proven so endlessly mischaracterizable by so many smarter people than me, if his multiple MLA rebuttals of them are any indication.* But those mutual rebuttals have unfolded in the slow time of monographic work and conference Q&As. By contrast, the structure of the dialogue between Berlant and Edelman, which opens with their joint avowal of the negativity/nonsovereignty inherent in all encounters, at least makes their ensuing disagreements feel like a proper engagement with each other rather than a consistently one-sided conversation with an oppositional strawman. Not that there aren’t strawmen in this book, since one of its pleasures is watching Edelman continually recast Berlant as a reparative/naïve theorist, and Berlant in turn calling him out for mischaracterizing her claims. However, having Berlant as an interlocutor forces Edelman to come the closest he has yet to stating his optimisms outright. He confesses that flourishing for him involves engaging in a realistic, continual struggle with negativity, and that part of this engagement involves taking up the position of devil’s advocate against another’s position even if, for instance (and this is mostly implied), he is a lot more aligned with Berlant’s belief in helping others into a realist relation to negativity than he admits.

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. But as Berlant and Edelman admit in the preface, their focus on continually clarifying their positions in the face of each other’s skepticisms and misrecognitions keeps the book on the lean, succinct track of explaining negativity’s relation to optimism, reparativity and living from two different perspectives, all in a highly abstract and general register. This means that the book can only remain a prelude to all the different directions in which its theory of negativity can be put to productive thought, including about sex itself. For example, the book never directly tackles the sex pastoralists that might be their obvious interlocutors, e.g. those sex-positive liberals who worship at the church of consent, a term denoting a sovereignty that cannot hold within the risky, negativity-ridden space of the intimate encounter. But perhaps to call such interlocutors “obvious” is unwise, if we are to absorb Berlant and Edelman’s point, which is that we should ever leave ourselves open to the surprise of how others (and even our selves) might be affected by what we have to present and take that in turn into new, surprising and often unbearable directions.

* For samplers of Edelman’s MLA parries against utopian theorists, see summaries of the panels “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory” and “Theories of Close Reading in Socially Motivated Criticism”.

Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago, and the author of Cruel Optimism, The Female Complaint, and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City. Lee Edelman is Fletcher Professor of English Literature at Tufts University, and the author of No Future and Homographesis.