This is the edited transcript of an interview, conducted in 1995 by Katja Diefenbach with the literature theoretician Leo Bersani. It was published in the magazine SPEX in a shorter version, in German. Katja Diefenbach has given us her original hand-written transcript of the interview, and although her voice is still clearly discernible in the structure of the text, and in the titles she had given to the chapters, she had omitted her original questions.
TRAPS OF IDENTITY POLITICS
You are asking about the groups …
I began with a great suspicion of any attribution of identity to them. Mainly inspired by the work of Foucault, in that the attribution of ‘I’ is a disciplinarian tactic on the part of power and society. And I think it is very important for minorities to resist the attempt to identify them, identify them in ways that increase the possibilities of what Foucault called pan-optic vision—that is to being able to see them, and therefore being able to control them more perfectly. And what struck me very much was that in response to that, there was an effort, especially on the part of the lesbian and the gay community, to erase so much as any signs by which they might be identified and controlled, disciplined, and integrated into a normalizing social view, that in the process they have nearly succeeded in erasing any specificity. The difficulty with that is, that without some kind of specificity there is no point of resistance to the hegemonic culture. The crucial point is how to make a point of resistance without friction, and also a sort of elimination of a homosexual identity—which I understand the reasons for—but the elimination of this meant that there has been an assimilation of this minority to an oppressed minority community, and I think this is exemplary perhaps for other communities, too.
In the gay and lesbian community there have been very interesting struggles, but struggles that should not be the final goal of our politics: Struggles which essentially involve assimilation as goal, i.e, all the struggles to be accepted in the military, as well the struggle to be accepted by the church, the struggle to have the same kind of marriage rights as straight people. It seems as if we can imagine nothing else politically except becoming good husbands and wives, good priests and good soldiers. It seems to me that for a group that likes to think of itself as politically resistant to a society based on unjust hierarchical differences, this is a very disastrous move. And the only way to resist would be to begin thinking once again what a gay specificity is.
I think one has to operate on two levels. I see a sort of practical, pragmatic everyday political level which I have been attacked for, as if I were against getting rights for gays. I think there are very important things that apply to other minorities in their specific context, that for example, it is very important to get certain legal rights that we don’t have. It is very important to make sure that there is no discrimination in housing and in hiring. The fight is not over, it should be continued, but the question I’m asking is in other words: Once you have the rights, what have you become? You have become a member of society, that you do not necessarily approve of any more than you did before you had the rights. In other words, now you have the rights of the privileged, but the question is, is there a way to sort of get out and subvert, and perhaps be resistant to the more fundamental structures of that society which are not fundamentally your not being able to have marriage rights? Differences and inequalities and injustice are going much deeper than this
What I’m trying to suggest, and I think this is a mistake of gays and lesbians too, that they somehow think by using the word queer, queer has become a kind of way to politically ennoble the gay and lesbian movement. There are two things that I don’t like about it. It is too un-specified, it is too nonspecific. It has just become something like: everybody who is on the left side is queer. In a certain way it takes the sexual specificity out of queerness, and it also tends to obliterate that many gay men and lesbians are by no means politically radical. You have to do a critique of politics from the point of view of sexual desire, and this makes it very problematic for gay men for example, because it requires a great deal of self criticism to realize all the blocks and obstacles to gay men to participate in a serious political struggle against the hegemonic culture, and this includes a version of masculinity to which in fact gay men are very often erotically attracted. So there are lots of complications about the notion of gay, and the notion of queer, which I don’t think have been examined.
I don’t think that, psychologically and historically, homosexuality has been that transgressive of political structures as it could be, so I don’t think it can go without saying that we are in the vanguard of political resistance. However, I do feel that there is maybe a specificity within homosexual desire that is radically subversive of a certain system that we now all live under in the west, and my feeling is, that this has to do with the relation of sameness to difference, and this is an extremely complicated question.
I’ll give one example of a false complication of it. The French for example have very great difficulties understanding multiculturalism in the USA. One of the reasons they have difficulties understanding it is, that they are terrified that they are going to be invaded by some of the same kind of conflicts that exist in the US (and I think that applies to Germany, too, from what I know about it). As usual, the things that happen in the US are usually made fun of in Europe, which simply means that you anticipate the thing happening over there. The French have had a cartoon in a major newspaper in which two students—I don’t know if you heard of this one, it is very funny—two students come out of a lecture hall in an American university and one says to the other: Oh, are you reading Balzac in your French course, and he says: No, we can’t. He is no black lesbian.
This being on the front page of a French newspaper shows the extent to which the anxiety is strong about this. Now, in a sense, the question of sameness and difference is complicated, and the French response is interesting for the following reason: They tend to present themselves as a Universalist culture distinct from the diversified multicultural nature of the US. On the other hand, with their discovering of resistance from the minority groups that are numerically strong in France, what they have discovered is that the so called French Universalism is simply a very strongly and specifically defined version of culture, which is the French culture. There is no such thing as a value free Universalism. I am always very suspicious of Universalism as simply more self-secure particularism. To spread French culture is not to spread Universalism. I think what the French call Universalism is in fact not something in the service of universal sameness but is really a cult of hegemonic difference posing as universal sameness.
What I am interested in is, is there another kind of sameness that would not play into this kind of hierarchical differential structure? I’m wondering whether there are connections between ultimately political consequences, and relations of the body to the environment, which is why I raised this question in the book many times, of the de-sexualisation to which I object to in recent gay politics. It talks a lot about sexuality but what is really meant, in queer discussions about sexuality, is that we should take sexuality into account in political movements, and that has to be part of what we understand as the oppression of various groups that have been oppressed for sexual reasons. Which is true. And it is of course against such groups in Europe, in the history of Communism, that have been against and are still very suspicious of homosexuals, that people have fought. The black movement here has a great deal of misogyny and homophobia in it. To work against that is a laudable effort.
What I am interested in, is wondering whether sexuality in a much more bodily, visual, perceptual way, could be the point of departure for a new way of thinking about cultural relationality. In other words, sexuality is the most basic and fundamental relationality we have, it should also be the point of departure for a reflection on political relationality. Now what does this mean? First of all it is not a program for tomorrow’s politics. It can be talked about in a negative and in a positive way. Negatively in fact it is something that really should be thought about right away, and this has to do with the commitment of gay men to some of the goals that the gay and lesbian community have defined, that are perhaps in conflict with certain erotic interests. This conflict has to be negotiated, it cannot be erased. Desire is not politically neutral. This is number one. Secondly it goes without saying, that it is a little too easy to say that the gay and lesbian community is one community. It is not necessarily one community. And if you bring in the whole—one thing Judith Butler was talking about, and which I have spent most of my life writing about—which is fantasy of desire, there is an enormous schism separating gay men and the lesbian community. That has to be faced. All of these things are the way in which the modalities of desire complicate politics, and have to be thought about. That can be done, and should be done on a daily basis. Of course a lot of people are aware of that, although the general mood in the US now is—among the gay and lesbian and even feminist community—we are one big happy family, we are all on the good side, and the others all on the bad side. Too easy! Conflicts will come.
Following in a more positive way—and this is a way in which I think art has an important function—we should perhaps consider the possibilities of reversing the values that we attribute to difference and sameness. I think right now we are trained to valorize difference above sameness. This is part of the surface of the culture of tolerance, and tolerance of diversity, but in fact, I think it is a way of keeping the antagonisms of society intact. And I think it is really a power strategy. E.g. I think it is very significant that multi-culturalism in the US is less an object of resistance than affirmative action is. Affirmative action is more dangerous to power because it tends to eradicate difference. It was not very successful doing that, but to a certain extent the direction it moves in is bringing in identity differences. In affirmative action it tends to break down differential culture and minority and majority barriers. Multiculturalism is essentially letting each group assess its own differences, develop its own differences, nurture its own differences, teach its own differences. So it is very clever of authorities, and if I were on that side I would encourage multicultural departments in all universities, because in a way, this is a way to sequester them. The more you emphasize the value of your particular identity, the more distance will be between you and other groups, and I think the crucial move in capitalist society, is the sort that makes various groups feel that other minority groups are responsible for their oppression rather than the actual source of oppression, which is a complicated network of power. You know what happens in this country is, poor whites accuse poor blacks, and poor black people accuse poor whites, and the power structure has been enormously successful in encouraging identity thinking so that the white disadvantaged group is encouraged in the so called values of the western civilization, the black group is encouraged in their African roots. Gay groups spend all of their time going back in gay history, and they find this interesting. At the same time they don’t think there is anything such as a cultural homosexual identity, they are still looking for homosexuals in history. Each group gets fascinated by its own identity, which I think serves the hegemonic culture very well. If all groups realize that there is a sameness economically and politically among them, and the only difference is a hierarchical difference in a society which requires—and especially with the contemporary evolution of capitalism—a greater and greater unemployment in order to survive. The success of these international companies depends more and more on technologization which means more and more unemployment.
WHERE DO I END
How do you control a society in which more and more people are going to be unemployed? We valorize difference so much, but I think we have to be careful that we don’t speak the language of those who encourage the religion of difference in order to hide the truly oppressive hierarchical difference, one that pits different oppressed groups against each other, blacks, whites, gays and so-called fundamentalist Christians—I have a certain sympathy for the white Christian fundamentalist, many of them are lower class whites, who have been excluded, who feel excluded, who are encouraged to feel that they have no place in the culture, that they do not belong anywhere. To a certain extent that is true, but it is not the fault of gays and lesbians or blacks that they have been excluded, it’s the people they have been bullied into accepting as their leaders.
I think it essentially goes back to the way in which the human being is trained at a very early age to think of how far his or her body extends into the external world. Where do I end and where do you begin? Psychoanalysis has an important role here, but not so much in the sense like, what was your oedipal situation? I am less and less interested in psychoanalytical content, but I am very interested in what I think is the basis of psychoanalytical investigations, which is, where does the subject begin and where does the world begin? And how are we trained to think either that the boundary is permeable or impermeable in our family oriented society? Especially in a society that feels more and more threatened by groups they feel they’re going to be invaded by. The training is more and more to feel that the boundary has to be very carefully defined, that we have to keep the other out, which essentially is saying keep the difference out.
What if we were trained by artists, in the ways in which writers, painters and filmmakers have suggested the ontological inaccuracy of individuality? That in a way there is interconnectedness, correspondences that are not ideological correspondences, but correspondences of being, between the subject and the world. And if we begin to realize that it is impossible to think of the self as a contained, integrated ego—which is after all the goal, that everybody should have a integrated ego—I think everybody should have a dis-integrated ego. Art can somehow show the way how, in a sense, we bleed into the external in a very interesting way, that the boundaries between the subject and the world are very amorphous.
Homosexuality means desire for the same. It makes gay activists very angry when I say this because this is a definition of the straight culture. Two men together, two women together are often very different. Often more similarity exists between a gay man and a gay woman, than between a gay man and the gay man’s male lover. That’s true. But at the same time I think that even heterosexual society has phenomenologically reduced very much the question of sameness and difference; to a sexual sameness and difference that is reductive. I mean, obviously sameness and difference is broader. I think there is a certain basis of truth in that I do think that, homosexual desire is to a certain extent same sex desire. Even if you are saying all you’re talking about is that it is genital difference that is privileged, you can say it’s true that they’ve privileged that above other kinds of relations of the body. It is then a field in which you can talk about same sex and different sex desire.
What if we took that as a point of departure that were to be welcomed for re-training of how we extend into the world? Then homosexuality becomes an extraordinary field in which the world is loved for being an extension of the self, rather than feared for being different from the self. So I think I take homosexual desire as a kind of training in what I call self-dissolving, a self extension that is an extension into the world that dissolves the integrity of the ego, because I am already out there! And in fact, in same sex desire, I am loving me in the other in a certain sense. Why do we make narcissism a negative term? I think there is a generous community kind of narcissism in which, finally, of course the other man is not identical to me, but I think of the other man as me, and this would help me to dissolve my self-protected, self-wholing ego. If I think of the other man in that way, then difference perhaps can become the non-threatening supplement for sameness, rather than the first term, which is very dangerous because it is antagonistic to me and therefore it threatens my integrity.
I’m wondering if there is a kind of visibility that is not identifiable. That is the crucial question. That’s why I became less and less interested—as far as the political dimensions of what I am thinking about goes—in psychoanalysis, because for a long time I thought the inventions of these categories was of course not known, in the crudest form, in Psychoanalysis, but was done by psychoanalysts. The sophisticated critique in the gay, lesbian, feminist movements are not anti-psychoanalytical! Why? Because they have discovered in psychoanalytical thought, even in Freud, and especially in certain reading of Lacan, that psychoanalytical thought defines the subject in a way that is so full of indeterminate contradictorily paradoxical desire, so full of shifting subject positions, that it makes the subject very difficult to be identified. That has been my position for a long time, but I begin to become a little suspicious of that.
First of all I am very interested in the fact that psychoanalytical therapy in practice is a normalising theory. I mean the goal of psychoanalysis seems to be almost always—except the alternative psychoanalytical culture which started with the anti-psychiatry advancement in England and with Deleuze and
Guattari—a little ambigous. But for the most part psychoanalytical thought, because it is a psychology, means that it is still interested in explaining a logos of the psyche, no matter how complex, how indeterminable, how mobile, and is interested to finally conserve it.
What I am interested in precisely is, what if we make ourselves visible in ways that are as psychologically thin as possible? Again be careful. Visibility for getting certain legal rights? I don’t care if they see me, and what they say. That has to be fought, for a tomorrow.
But something that will take a little longer, because it really is revising the mode of relationally in culture, which is my principal interest. What I think is, it involves thinning the subject out psychologically, making yourself non-controllable by making yourself, at least as far as visibility goes, empty of content.
I am very much suspicious of all the advertising of specificity of cultural identity. These are our songs, our world of literature. I’m thrilled if I cross the other side, so let’s look at all this to get out from where they now are to control them better. Make yourself visible in the very act by which you are demonstrating a connectedness to that what’s beyond the boundary of the self. How can that be done?
Visual arts and film play an important role. Political film can train perception, not to see individuals any more, but to see correspondences.
Redefining community is not a negotiation of varied individualities, but rather a sort of psychologically emptied extension of various subject positions.
Leo Bersani, Homos, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1996