Is the Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays

Robert Kulpa re-evaluates an interdisciplinary thinker who probes the limits of anthropocentrism

June 3, 2010

If the things Leo Bersani says are perceived as "provoking" ("There is a big secret about sex: most people don't like it"; "Psychoanalytically speaking, monogamy is cognitively inconceivable and morally indefensible"), it is only by those who are easily shocked and lacking in open-mindedness. Still, engaging with his writing is not the easiest of academic exercises.

He is widely seen as a psychoanalytically engaged writer, a fact that may push away those not keen on psychoanalysis. But this assessment does not do Bersani justice. It simplifies and flattens his rich and interdisciplinary interests and approach. His latest book, named for an influential 1987 essay, is a good example of this diversity. This collection of pieces may well be the best starting point to get acquainted with Bersani's thought, and offers an essential guide to his writing.

The set of keywords and phrases that one could assemble in relation to the book would include: "relationality"; "failure"; "spatial orientations"; "homosexuality"; "psyche"; "sociability"; "undoing"; "Foucault"; "Freud"; "aesthetics"; "friendship"; "pedagogy" - and this is not exhaustive.

Of those, I find "relationality" the most interesting. What Bersani does is offer a way of rethinking relationality away from anthropocentric categories (person in relation to person) towards spatial categories (person in relation to the non-human), where attention is given to objects, shapes, colours and composition as an important schema of human relations.

It is important because our contemporary world is strongly anthropocentric, and there remains a great need (that not only environmentalists would acknowledge) to rethink the position of humans in relation to the "outside" (be it society, nature, Earth, the Universe, humans or any other animal).

The way Bersani conceives these relations is interesting. He begins with psychoanalysis only to take it to its limits, to show that it is impossible to talk about relationality (and sociability) when equipped only with a psychoanalytically informed toolkit.

This is where another project of Bersani's comes to mind - his attempt to reconcile the work of Michel Foucault and Sigmund Freud. In itself this is an act of great bravery, if we take into account Foucault's negative attitude to psychoanalysis and the criticism that such a task may provoke. Yet it is a telling reflection of Bersani's interest in "failure" - and his lack of fear of being accused of it.

"Failure" as a trope in Bersani's writings is often understood as a constant attempt at a process of "undoing" society. That is perhaps also where the figure of the "homosexual" (broader in its notion than a simple denotation of "homosexual person") appears.

"Homosexual" is an example of a "failure" of (and in) society, and of what Bersani sees as perhaps the most urgent challenge for contemporary societies: "redefining modes of relationality and community, the very notion of sociality". This argument is also what has made him an influential figure in queer studies, where his writings (including the titular "Is the rectum a grave?") have become key texts.

I should acknowledge that I came to this collection with an ambivalent and "distanced" attitude to Bersani. But to my surprise, revisiting his work via this collection has significantly changed my opinion about him. And this, I think, is the best recommendation I can offer.

Is the Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays

By Leo Bersani

University of Chicago Press

224pp, £51.50 and £17.50

ISBN 9780226043524 and 43548

Published 4 December 2009

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