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‘Sex, or The Unbearable’ by Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman

‘Sex, or The Unbearable’ by Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman

Author: Marcie Bianco

March 11, 2014

Two of queer theory’s 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: Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, the 2012 winner of the Rene Wellek Award, is arguably the greatest theoretical text to be published in the last decade, while Edelman’s No Future, controversial for what some call its nihilist, and narcissistic, argument, offers an unrepentant critique “reproductive futurism” 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. “The historic practice of LGBTQ studies has been toward reclaiming and repairing lost histories and ongoing practices of delegitimation,” they explain in the introduction, “Negativity 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 thrust—queer is that which resists political and social order and indulgently refuses all systemic complicity—and more broadly from the new historical strain of queer studies invested in recovering “negative affects,” most notably “gay shame,” 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: “Negativity 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.”

This is why they focus on sex, because sex, “as a locus for optimism, is a site at which the promise of overcoming division an antagonism is frequently played out. But,” they contend, “the 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 [….]”

“Would living with negativity entail the death of the optimism that animates desire an energizes politics?” This is Berlant and Edelman’s 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 Berlant’s or Edelman’s, 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 it’s not. Frankly, and to invoke the hot queer term of the moment, it’s quite a privileged position to delimit one’s ethics in terms of the negative—perhaps it’s a symptom of living within the confines of academia.

Yes, we all know that sex is powerful; we’ve all “become undone” by it. Berlant and Edelman’s point that sex is an unmooring of one’s sovereignty is insightful. “When 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.”

At the same time, when Edelman claims that the sexual “encounter, viewed as traumatic or not, remains bound to the nonfutural insistence in sex of something nonproductive, nonteleological, and divorced from meaning making,” and that “[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 can’t 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 “meaning.”

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 “sex without optimism,” 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 norm—you know, the dozen or so individuals who can navigate an argument through overwrought academic jargon. In this regard, Berlant’s language is more digestible, if only because her discourse works primarily within the parameters of cultural studies, as opposed to Edelman’s more cumbersome working from and within psychoanalysis.

While the central inquiry about the encounter between negativity and nonsovereignty is not radically new, 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.


Sex, or The Unbearable
By Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822355946, 168 pp.
December 2013

Marcie Bianco photo

About: Marcie Bianco

Marcie Bianco, Lesbian-feminist, public Intellectual, PhD, is a columnist and contributing writer at AfterEllen, Lambda Literary, and PolicyMic, as well as an adjunct associate professor at John Jay College at Hunter College. She has also contributed to Curve Magazine, Feministing, The Feminist Wire, Huffington Post, and The L Stop, and makes frequent appearances on Huffington Post Live. Her current projects include a scholarly manuscript about the anti-humanist, materialist ethics of English Renaissance Drama; an essay regarding the “satirical aesthetics” of HBO’s GIRLS; and a memoir about lesbian academic affairs. Tumble4Her at, and follow her on The Twitter at @MarcieBianco.

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