The Messy Humanity of Leo Bersani (April 16, 1931–February 20, 2022)

The Messy Humanity of Leo Bersani (April 16, 1931–February 20, 2022)

The Messy Humanity of Leo Bersani (April 16, 1931–February 20, 2022)

Two friends and colleagues on the late scholar, whose analyses of gay identity during the height of the AIDS crisis still loom large over sexuality studies.


We were separately asked to write about Leo Bersani—the inimitable French literature scholar and astute, influential critic of queer identity, who died on February 20, 2022—but could not do so because it was all too close. But in talking together we found a way to enable each other, and the result is this fragment of a conversation between two people who loved and learned from Leo.

—Anne Anlin Cheng and Zahid R. Chaudhary

Anne Anlin Cheng: Ralph Waldo Emerson said that grief is shallow. I never understood what that meant except perhaps that death has no revelatory depth; it is such a flat refusal.

Leo Bersani was my dissertation adviser at the University of California, Berkeley, before he was my friend, which meant that for a long time I could only see him through the scrim of my needs. His interested disinterest was the yardstick by which I judged myself. Back then I was terribly afraid of him. I used to get stomach aches every time before seeing him about a piece of writing that I had submitted. I would sit, tense in those late afternoons when the sun always hit a gleam off the right-hand corner of his desk, waiting for the verdict. This terror had no truth in reality—he had never been anything but kind in the 28 years that I’ve known him—but his intellect was so fierce and pure that had he ever dismissed something that I wrote, it would simply and irrevocably be because it was bad thinking. It took years before I could feel at ease with him.

I spoke to him on the phone a few days before he died. I spoke as the young me back then and the old me now. I couldn’t tell if he could hear me.

Zahid R. Chaudhary: I know the feeling you describe. I met Leo when he was a distinguished visitor at Princeton, and I was lucky to get to know him over many conversations about film, the cuteness of men, and the strangeness of relationships. One evening in New York I took my place across the table from Leo, and once the waiter left with our order, Leo began, “I read your book [Afterimage of Empire] today.” My terror surprised me, and yet there it was. Though Leo’s voice suggested generosity I still feared the gavel. He appreciated my critique of sympathy in the book. We agreed that sympathy can be a form of narcissism and wondered together how to guard against its overreach.

AAC: Leo wasn’t interested in the question of race the way I was/am, but he understood in profound ways the socio-psycho dynamics of power. (And what is race but that?) It was through his work on Beckett that I started to see how intersubjectivity and the social exert their fullest and most enduring force through the private and the intrasubjective. It was his work on Mark Rothko and Alain Resnais that helped me understand that the work of resistance may resist its own capture, that there may be silent, alternative modes of survival and being for those caught in the catastrophes of history.

Much of how I think about the psychical and material afterlives of American racism is indebted to Leo’s ways of thinking: how the social speaks in the voice of the personal; how the fantasy of the subject is exerted by authority as well as by those marginalized; how our eagerness for redemption and cure blinds us to the ongoing life of injury.

ZRC: I suspect it was his undeluded way of taking stock of the unruly impulses in all victims and perpetrators that did not endear him to scholars eager to redeem historical wrongs (often in their own writings, if not in the world). Leo taught me the difficult balancing act between espousing clear-sighted ethical commitments in one’s work while also plumbing the messy ways that sociality entails ethical risk. The fantasy of the subject that you allude to is so vital for projects of decolonization and nation-building, but it is also a trap. To refuse to see the world in a paranoid-schizoid fashion—divided between the good and the bad—does not relieve one of the ethical imperative to be able to differentiate between them.

That imperative applies even in the throes of passion. In Homos (1996), he writes, “Since deconstructing an imposed identity will not erase the habit of desire, it might be more profitable to test the resistance of the identity from within the desire.” This entails risk, of course, since the enjoyment of one’s own symptom (or identity) is an ever-present possibility. Moments like these in Leo’s work have always intrigued me: is he being a realist, a pessimist, or an unreconstructed romantic? I love that this question cannot be settled. It is similar with the theme of sociality that recurs over and again in his work: the unbelonging that the anti-social thesis calls out for opens up novel forms of relation but also requires unlearning sociality, including how it may have taught us to love. In the later book, Thoughts and Things (2015), the fact that our bodies are made up of the same matter as the stars expands the possibilities of relation, yet death is never far from such an apprehension.

AAC: Yes, the messy sociality that entails ethical risk! Thats so Leo. He helped me distinguish politics from the political. The former has no room for the messy and the unwieldy; the latter is all about tackling those overlapping, interstitial entanglements. Back then at Berkeley in the political moralism of the mid-’90s, it wasn’t so popular to talk about how the subaltern might be complicit with the power structure that oppresses her. I remember, as a graduate student, giving a public talk about the critical role of fantasy in Maxine Hong Kingston. Someone in the audience afterward claimed in no uncertain terms that “We minorities cannot afford to have fantasies.” I, of course, understood where that reprimand was coming from, with so many stereotypical fantasies generated around Asian Americans, especially Asian American women. But I also felt a rush of loss: What does it mean to say that racial minorities do not or cannot have fantasies? Questions like this do not make for easy politics, but surely it is deadly not to ask them.

To this day, in spite of all the sophisticated critiques around identity politics and perhaps increasingly so in our divisive world, we still seem to require that our racial representatives remain iconic, virtuous, uncomplicated. People want to canonize the Josephine Baker who helped the French Resistance but not the half-naked Baker in the danse sauvage. They want to celebrate Lorraine Hansberry as a radical thinker and a symbol for queer feminism; they don’t want to hear that she was a socialist who liked preppy white girls. A wise friend said to me the other day that America is not ready for Black humanity. She’s right. America is not ready (or willing) to grant genuine, messy humanity to its racial others. This is why Leo’s insistence on looking at “the habit of desire” is not an abstract academic exercise but a critical, political practice.

ZRC: The moralism that consigns some people to sanctified—and untouchable—status has only intensified. Postcolonial critique has trouble accounting for the rise of ethno-nationalism in postcolonial countries because of it, and Afro-pessimists have turned moralism into an ontology. “We minorities cannot afford to have fantasies”—plus ça change. These are all forms of idealization, of course, and Leo would have us recognize idealization as a variety of repression, even injury. The concept of the “model minority” is a perfect example of this, but it has its correlates in the dignified and idealized racial subjects of left academic thought. It is enough to make one argue for the right to an unconscious—not as a demand for politics but for the political. Yet of course the unconscious cannot redeem anyone and that is among its values. Leo never gave up on the critique of redemption—rather, an ethics of non-redemption, as you suggest—just as he never gave up on the value of thinking and writing and communicating. His last book, Receptive Bodies, came out in 2018. For all of his skepticism about sociality, it remained his central commitment over the course of his work. At Princeton he offered an undergraduate course on the topic of love, and the students complained the readings were too depressing and the characters in the fiction he assigned not loving enough. We used to laugh about that.

I, too, talked to Leo a few days before he died. I knew he was in no state to respond or have a conversation. I told him I loved him and that I missed him. I also do not know if he heard me.

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