Re-Reading Leo Bersani (From Nairobi)

I first read Homos in 2000, when I lived in Seattle. A friend was taking a class in queer theory and because I was starved for intellectual stimulation—trash romance wasn’t doing it for me and I had plowed through my stacks of Marguerite Duras and Jean Rhys—I begged for a copy of the class syllabus and consumed what I could afford to buy. Homos felt fresh in Seattle. Away from the pressures of undergrad—that anxiety-producing space, especially for a queer in a very Catholic school that insisted it had “no gay people”—and away from Pittsburgh, a space that I came to love but at that point was too closely associated with undergrad to be entirely comfortable, I was re-discovering gayness, or what Bersani terms “gay specificity.”

Although I had taken advantage of Pittsburgh’s public sexspots—the loop, the arena, shops on liberty avenue—Pittsburgh still felt too normative, not gay enough. When I moved to Seattle, I was right at the edge of the gay district and I started to understand the allure of gay enclaves. (Calling them “ghettoes” simply sounds wrong.) Safety in numbers. Easy sex (I never had to walk more than a few blocks for the next hookup). An atmosphere that could be stifling and exclusionary, but also had a lot of space for play and discovery. It was my first encounter with a male sex worker (who didn’t charge—I’d like to say I was “that good,” but the story is more complex); where I met my beloved, much-missed friend Bill, who taught me how to think about fantasy and kink by example, who demonstrated tenderness and humility, who gave me the courage to continue writing when he read my (pretty bad) early drafts; where I learned about the economies of the bathhouse in far richer ways than I could have envisioned. In Seattle, gay specificity as homo-ness made sense.

Homo-ness, in Bersani, “is an anti-identitarian identity.”

In very white gay Seattle—I think there was one other black person I saw in clubs and bathhouses, or maybe two. I remember one’s tight clothing, I remember the other’s impressive genitals—“homo-ness” made sense as a kind of pleasurable deracination. “Gayness” was shared risk and pleasure in public spaces—public parks, public bathrooms, various sex clubs. For the most part, the claims we made on each other, or, more precisely, the claims I made, had little to do with affirming something disciplinary or even conscious. Poppers were useful, as an aid to breaking down my frigidities—encounters where I labored to produce orgasms became easier. I marveled at how easy it was to “lose control” and to experience pleasure as a loss of control. Bersani’s under-theorized “self-shattering” translated, for me, into public sex on poppers.

That “translation” was important, because Homos’s primary challenge was how to imagine and materialize “gay specificity” in non-identitarian ways, how to “practice” homo-ness. And because I’ve never had the luxury, or desire, to distance theory from practice, Bersani’s book became a how-to guide, at least for a short while, a place where practice gave rise to and elaborated on something called (often wrongly) theory.
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Much of what I’ve written on queer issues draws from Bersani, even as it’s rooted in Foucault and Freud. A few samples:

The attempted stability of identity is inherently a disciplinary project.

Merely looking for a gay identity predetermined the field in which it would be found, since the leisured activity of looking characterized the identity it sought to uncover.

And yet, if . . . suspicions of identity are necessary, they are not necessarily liberating.

You would never know, from [queer scholarship in the early 90s] that gay men, for all their diversity, share a strong sexual interest in other human beings anatomically identifiable as male.

deconstructing an identity will not erase the habit of desire.

Perhaps inherent in gay desire is a revolutionary inaptitude for heteroized sociality. . . . the most politically disruptive aspect of the homo-ness I will be exploring in gay desire is a redefinition of sociality so radical it may appear to require a provisional withdrawal from relationality itself. [how did we forget that “provisional”?]

I want to encourage thinking about gay specificity, I do not want to contribute to gay groupiness.

to let gays be open about their gayness, to give them equal rights, to allow them to say who they are and what they want, is to risk being recruited.

[In U.S. society] a limited sexual imagination can pass as a certificate of high morals.

Who are you when you masturbate?

I have always been fascinated—at times terrified—by the ruthlessly exclusionary nature of sexual desire.

Should a homosexual be a good citizen?

What kind of social cohesion and political expression might develop from the knowing ignorance that brings two strangers’ bodies together?

Reading over these, I discover I am mostly unoriginal. Or, rather, I discover how deeply Bersani subtends (bottoms?) my thinking.
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From Nairobi, I think about the practice of “homo-ness.” Less in terms of the anti-relationality Bersani privileges, which, in Homos, is marked by the trajectory of the argument from the social to the aesthetic, a journey that I’m not sure it recovers from. Reading Bersani this time around, I find the argument callused. Charming and sensuous, with the feel of a man who works with his hands. And has done so for some time. This, I realize, is a strange way to characterize an argument by a scholar who confesses that he is a relatively prosperous white gay man.

Perhaps I betray my own tastes.

Even though a few Kenyan bloggers write about sex, albeit quite coyly, and various personal ads are explicit about sex, by and large mainstream gay discourse is remarkably prudish. Those funded by donors speak (necessarily) about rights and dignity and equality. A lot is said about promoting gay rights as an HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment strategy.

Between the abstraction of rights and the materiality of HIV/AIDS lives the unsaid, or the too-little-said, of gay sex. Reading through much of what has been written and published by Kenyan gay men, I find myself nodding along when Bersani claims, “You would never know [from these works] that gay men, for all their diversity, share a strong sexual interest in other human beings anatomically identifiable as male.” I am fascinated by Kenyan gay reticence, by the sense that gays will become acceptable the more they de-sexualize themselves, to use Bersani’s phrasing.

Yet, I must confess that my Kenyan Gay is about as good as my Kenyan Sheng, which is to say, not at all. And the fluencies I spent years cultivating in the States do not translate into this time-space, or translate awkwardly. (Having just crawled into my house from a night out in a gay-friendly club, I am compelled to re-think many of my statements. But that might be the slight hangover talking.) I am torn because I want Kenyan gay discourse to be more explicit about desire, bodies, pleasures. I worry that the necessary focus on rights and health de-sexualizes us. Even as I understand that official discourses always fail to capture bodily pleasures and experiences and their attempts to capture those experiences are disciplinary.(I understand the irony of a post asking for “more sex” that is itself asexual.)

While I am interested in seeing more explicitly sexual(ized) cultural production from Kenyan gays, I am also interested in seeing more thinking that takes sex seriously. I am especially interested in cultural production that highlights and troubles desire and pleasure.
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But this is not what I set out to write.

I wanted to see what Bersani “felt” like from Nairobi. What was the force of his arguments? What felt most urgent? From Seattle, his arguments about “self-shattering” and his reading of S/M’s potential, and more specifically, the potential of masochism to help us re-think self-possession and the armor of identity felt especially crucial. Even as, then and now, I still wonder about queer calluses—those scaly, keloid-like structures that mark queer psyches. Then, as now, I was interested in what he first broached in “Is the Rectum a Grave?”: “the value of powerlessness.” The phrase haunts me and I am not sure what to do with it. I’m intrigued by Darieck Scott’s attempt to engage it.

The urgency of Homos from Nairobi must be its challenge that gay strategies for “recognition” (a word Bersani does not like, and that I take from Fanon’s engagement with Hegel) should not lose sight of sex-body-pleasure specificity. That we weigh carefully what we lose in choosing to desexualize ourselves to gain “recognition.”

Note:
I am incredibly uncomfortable with the word “gay” and never use it to describe myself. This is also a function of location. Gay became an “impossible” word many years ago. Writing from Nairobi, I *must* use it. I’m still trying to figure out that “must.”

7 thoughts on “Re-Reading Leo Bersani (From Nairobi)

  1. Way too long ago I took a human sexuality class during which the text and even the prof spoke of (some) gays who do not have anal sex. I was very young then: I didn’t realize the implication of this statement.

    Fast forward to a coupla years later and I’m speaking to a friend who is somewhat homophobic and very unthoughtfully I throw in: there are some gays who do not even have anal sex.

    And I watch his face relax.

    Then it hits me what I’ve done: made him accept gays so long as they don’t have anal sex.

    Shame on me.

    Random and vague: in a way I hear you about how certain languages and ways of thinking we acquire “abroad”—I put this in quotes because somewhere back either on a post or a comment from 2007 you wrote very eloquently about the problem of defining diaspora—do not translate well to Kenya. And Kenya in some ways remains untranslatable (as it should be) to America. I am speaking very generally here. Only what I mean to say is that now I appreciate what you wrote me (offline) about reading “local” (I don’t know why the quotation here) writers, commentators, thinkers, chroniclers, etc.

    I appreciate it because, try as I might, why I’m learning here in the USA—mostly out of class, for in class I am an infantilist—is not very conducive to imagining the worlds, realities, possibilities and more of the situations in Kenya.

    I’m speaking painfully generally. I hope you understand some of this.

  2. Typo: I appreciate it because, try as I might, WHAT I am learning here in the USA—mostly out of class, for in class I am an infantilist—is not very conducive to imagining the worlds, realities, possibilities and more of the situations in Kenya.

  3. Allow me to say more. I just thought of something else after commenting.

    I’m not knowledgeable enough at this, but there is a certain casual argument for acceptance that I have heard from African gays—if the YouTube video of Ifeanyi Orazulike can be taken to be speaking for all African gays. Geez!—that goes a little like this: “what we do in our bedrooms is none of your business. If you see me walking down the street you might not even know I am gay. Therefore, why discriminate me because of what I do in private” (read: in my bedroom). Being gay (including having sex as a gay person) becomes very private, cordoned off in the bedroom.

    I think this is part of how gays become desexualized: acceptance so long as gay sex (in my comment above I very erroneously equate anal sex with gay sex) remains this no-go zone mentally for the homophobic.

    Maybe the bedroom shouldn’t be turned into one big closet where “gay sex” is stashed away. It appears the compromise is to accept gays so long as what happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom—and even some African gays make this argument.

    Ok, let me stop here. I am tired and hungry and sleep deprived and probably making no sense. I will read your post again later.

  4. On re-reading this, I’m struck by the absence of a few people: Essex Hemphill, Melvin Dixon, James Earl Hardy, the black people. I came to Bersani after reading them. While Bersani provided one kind of language, it felt like an elaboration of Hemphill’s gay explorations. Black gay cultural production was (is) foundational to the kind of thinking and living I was able to undertake. Joseph Beam’s In the Life, Beam and Hemphill’s Brother to Brother, Hardy’s B-Boy Blues series, all of these claimed a space for black gay desire that has remained vital for me. I think when I mourn this absence in Kenya–an absence that is slowly being populated–I am asking about the labor of cultural production as a way of being and fostering being.

    Also, sotto voce, Tim Dean (as always):

    Promiscuity . . . concerns more than new sex partners: it also concerns new ideas and new ways of doing things. Not so much a compulsive repetition of the same, promiscuity would be a name for discovery of the new, a synonym for creativity. Sexual adventurousness gives birth to other forms of adventurousness–political, cultural, intellectual. (Unlimited Intimacy).

    I am intrigued by this proposition and also interested in thinking about sexual boredom: boring sex is a problem, but I don’t know many people who are willing to admit that their sex is boring, not bad, which is a different thing, but boring. But that’s a whole other line of thinking.

  5. Oh, yes, and more directly a response. Even though Kilonzo has said that what happens in the bedroom is “private,” suggesting that the state has no business in bedrooms, the massive blackmail scams in Kenya (gay men blackmailed in bedrooms and hotel rooms and so on) and the history of legislation against people in bedrooms (see Lawrence v. Texas) tells a different story. Kenya does not have a very good reputation for respecting private spaces–see the many demolitions that happened. And Kenyans–including those at Mtwapa who burst into an apartment to “halt” a “gay wedding”–do not necessarily believe in the right to privacy. Believing desexualization is the answer to homophobia is both idealistic (people believe what they will, regardless of evidence) and dangerous, to the extent that it gives up much-needed, essential sensory anchors.

  6. Strange and even frightening how stopping a gay wedding somewhere at the Coast becomes a point of allegiance for Kenyan muslims and christians. It coalesces them. And you are right: both the state and Kenyans themselves flip the bird on the privacy of gays and others—the poor, for instance.

    It might interest (and frighten you!) that I am slowly reading your blog (and sometimes, sadly, forgetting some poignant points, yet sometimes remembering!) from the beginning—some kind of Hegelian joke here about beginning from the beginning is necessary, but I botch jokes. Always.

    Anyway, I have reached February 2008 and it is interesting to be reading about PEV especially now that we have another war going on. And I must admit that my reading here is a way to not think about my writer’s block. I can’t write anything right now.

    And thanks for charting out how you got to Bersani. I will look up some of those books/readings (give me five years: I am way behind on reading schedule).

    Note to self: stop leaving lengthy, unthought comments on Keguro’s blog. And get some sleep. Geez!

    Onward!

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