A Discussion of Leo Bersani's "Intimacies" and his Views on Queer Intellectuals

Essay, 2015

10 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Analyse and discuss Bersani’s view, expressed in Intimacies, that ‘[q]ueer intellectuals are curiously reticent about the sexuality they claim to celebrate’.

Leo Bersani, a renowned professor in the French Department at the University of California Berkley, is widely seen as a psychoanalytically engaged writer. In collaboration with his friend Adam Phillips, he wrote a dialogue and interview between the two of them called Intimacies in 2008 . Jale Panter noted in a review that their book is a shocking and mind-shattering book about barebacking, impersonal narcissism and shame. Tracy D. Morgan on the other side wrote in her review:

Troubling certain psychoanalytic models that survey the analysand's past, gathering information about the vicissitudes of childhood, dreams, and other communications, he wonders if intimacy lies elsewhere. Reflecting on Foucault's understanding of the relationship between knowledge and power, he suggests that intimacy is in trouble unless it is reformulated as a mode of being with, rather than a mode of knowing about. He wonders what might create a new mode of relationality altogether, and as he ponders this, he takes many fascinating detours that further illuminate his thinking. Since the confrontation with difference is what most often prompts violence, and since some schools of psychoanalytic thought place a premium on the ability to recognize the other, he suggests we embrace of a bit more narcissism of an "impersonal" variety.[1]

These two reviews show in what extend Bersanis’ book is as complex and interesting as one could expect. In the following paragraphs I will try to briefly explain what queer theory is about in order to make an analyse of Bersanis’ point of view about queer intellectuals.

To put it in a nutshell, queer theory tries to correct some of the gay-and-lesbian-studies-traditions, even though it is important to note that they are totally different and that this theory is not just ‘another name for lesbian and gay studies’. ‘Queer theory has something to say to lesbian and gay studies’, but also includes ‘other areas of sociology and cultural theory.’[2] Basically, it is defined by a collection ‘of methods of questioning desire and its relationship to identity.’[3] Most people see ‘the beginning of queer theory as an academic science in the early 1990’s’, but it all began much earlier. In her book ‘Perversions’, Mandy Merck claims that it all ‘begun in London in the late 1970’s, an era of queer studies avant la lettre’. At the very beginning, ‘the term ‘queer’ was, at best, a slang for homosexual, and at worst, a pejorative term of homophobic abuse. In the last few years, it has developed to be a more common used term, which stands ‘for a coalition of culturally marginal sexual self-identifications’.[4] Its most popular characteristic and widely promoted charm is its definitional indeterminacy. Queer theory concentrates ‘on mismatches between sex, gender and desire.’ Even though it has originally only been associated with gay and lesbian studies, it also includes cross-dressing, transgender, gender-corrective surgery and many more. ‘Whether as transvestite performance or academic deconstruction, queer locates and exploits the incoherencies in those terms which stabilise heterosexuality.’[5] More easily spoken: Queer theory is a series of ideas based on the thought that identities are not predetermined and do not control who we are. ‘It suggests that it is meaningless to talk in general about ‘women’ or any other group, as identities consist of so many elements that to assume that people can be seen collectively o the basis of one shared characteristic is wrong.’[6] Thus it is highly anti-normative and wants to be more inclusive, representing the big difference to gay and lesbian studies, which do not include transgender for instance.

Now the question that is raised is the following: who exactly are these queer theorists that we are talking about? I could just enumerate a whole list of names, but I prefer only naming a few, but in my opinion the most important ones. Partly, queer theory is based on the book Gender Trouble (1990) by Judith Butler, but Michael Warner, Lauren Berlant, Andrew Parker and of course Michel Foucault also made important contributions to queer theory. In their texts, we can see the following attributes of queer theory:

1. ‘ A conceptualization of sexuality which sees sexual power embodied in different levels of social life, expressed discursively and enforced through boundaries and binary divides;
2. The problematization of sexual and gender categories, and of identities in general. Identities are always on uncertain ground, entailing displacements of identification and knowing;
3. A rejection of civil rights strategies in favour of a politics of carnival, transgression, and parody which leads to deconstruction, decentering, revisionist readings, and an antiassimilationist politics;
4. A willingness to interrogate areas which normally would not be seen as the terrain of sexuality, and to conduct queer “readings” of ostensibly heterosexual or nonsexualized texts. ‘[7]

To sum it up with Foucaults’ words: ‘sexuality is not only an essentially personal attribute but an available cultural category and a discursive production rather than a natural condition.’[8]


[1] Morgan, Tracy D. (2012) : Review of Intimacies by Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips. (http://newbooksinpsychoanalysis.com/2012/03/19/leo-bersani-and-adam-phillips-intimacies-university-of-chicago-press-2008/) 14.11.15, 12 :12.

[2] Gauntlett, David: What is Queer Theory? (http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-que1.htm) 09.11.15, 15:30.

[3] Watson, Katherine (2005) : Queer Theory. In : Group analysis. Vol 38(1): 67–81.

[4] Jagose, Annamarie (1996) : Queer Theory, an introduction, p. 1.

[5] Jagose, p. 3.

[6] Gauntlett, David: What is Queer Theory? (http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-que1.htm) on the 09.11.15,15:30.

[7] Stein, Arlene and Plummer, Ken (1994) : ‘I can’t even think straight’. ‘Queer’ theory and the Missing Sexual Revolution in Sociology. In : Sociological Theory, Vol. 12, Nr. 2, p. 182.

[8] Jagose, p. 79.

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A Discussion of Leo Bersani's "Intimacies" and his Views on Queer Intellectuals
University College London
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discussion, bersani, intimacies, views, queer, intellectuals, sexuality
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Jil Hoeser (Author), 2015, A Discussion of Leo Bersani's "Intimacies" and his Views on Queer Intellectuals, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/313725


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