Intimacies BY Leo Bersani, Adam Phillips. University Of Chicago Press. Hardcover, 144 pages. $20.

The cover of Intimacies

Post-Freudian thought, especially in the United States, can be divided between those writers (often clinicians) who turn the master’s work toward a theory of accommodation of the world and those (often in the humanities) who turn his work toward a critique of the world. American psychoanalysis attempted to translate Freud’s tragic pessimism into clinical optimism so that patients would sign up not only for increased self-awareness but also for a less conflicted (and less painful) relationship with society. Analytic theory, especially as it has joined with continental philosophy and poststructuralism, has always contained a critical vein that underscores the contradictions between our desires and the social order. From this point of view, psychoanalytically informed self-consciousness could undermine the social norms thought to be most repressive by revealing how they serve some desires and not others, as well as by showing how these same norms produce suffering under the guise of protecting us from it. Leo Bersani belongs very much to this second perspective on psychoanalytic theorizing, while Adam Phillips has written provocatively from both sides of this divide.

Bersani, professor of French emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, has for decades explored dimensions of Freudian thinking that broaden our understanding of desire as excitation and of pleasure rather than satisfaction. He has been a critic of accommodation and of satisfaction that reinforces the violence-producing status quo. Satisfaction leads to a sense of closure, or even redemption, and for Bersani, these are deceptions that distance us from our capacity for intensity. Phillips, a psychoanalyst and the editor of the new Penguin edition of Freud in English, rightly notes “Bersani’s abiding preoccupation with the self-shattering of the ego,” because it is this shattering that is the sign of an encounter with intensity. For Bersani, pleasure is not an enhancement of the ego as it masters the world. Pleasure is a shattering of the ego as it encounters the world. What does this splintering have to do with intimacy? The “greatness of psychoanalysis” is “its attempt to account for our inability to love ourselves and others,” and for Bersani, this greatness should provoke us to explore new modalities of affection and relation that would not repeat old repressions and poisonous violence. These would be new intimacies that embrace shock and fragmentation, that seek out self-shattering rather than repair and redemption. Bersani and Phillips call these “impersonal intimacies.”

In his very brief preface, Phillips notes that he and Bersani are “working out of a new story about intimacy.” The old tale related that as we grew to know ourselves better, we also grew capable of a deeper closeness with others. From the traditional psychoanalytic perspective, we had to overcome narcissism and to recognize the otherness of others in order to approach intimacy with them. Phillips and Bersani reject this narrative because they think it leads to rage against otherness; that the achievement of intimacy on this older model is never safe from violence. “Difference,” Phillips writes, “is the one thing we cannot bear.” If we could imagine shattering selves connecting with one another, both agree, perhaps we could form new, nonnormative stories that would escape the dialectics of violence and difference.

Sandrine Bonnaire as Anna in Intimate Strangers, directed by Patrice Leconte, 2004.
Sandrine Bonnaire as Anna in Intimate Strangers, directed by Patrice Leconte, 2004.

In an old-fashioned rhetorical defence, Phillips notes that this book “is neither diligent, thorough, researched, nor finished.” The manuscript was “not planned,” and the authors “wrote only about the things that interested us,” which I suppose is meant to account for the way Bersani skips from Henry James in chapter 1, to bareback pornography in chapter 2, to evil and love in chapter 3. Phillips picks up the baton in chapter 4, riffing on some of the themes already introduced but focusing really on love and narcissism. Bersani returns to write the conclusion, but he only manages to squeeze out just a few pages to reiterate his hope that tuning into another person’s “potential self” would avoid the ego-driven “violent games of selfhood.” Although billed as a “dialogue,” Intimacies seems more like pasted-together reflections on theoretically juiced-up antinormative relations. Although the book sings the praises of the impersonal and of escaping the ego, it is hard to imagine the University of Chicago Press publishing these little essays, really “attachments” to the more substantial work of the authors (and perhaps their e-mail correspondence), without the famous names “Leo Bersani” and “Adam Phillips” on them.

Bersani begins by quoting Phillips’s pithy if deceptive sentence “Psychoanalysis is about what two people say to each other if they agree not to have sex.” The former French professor is interested in what happens when you suspend sex, and this interest brings him to compare Patrice Leconte’s film Intimate Strangers to James’s “The Beast in the Jungle.” What happens when you “endure the sexual . . . to emerge on the other side of the sexual”? The film and the novel suggest that the other side of the sexual is the virtual, a place of possibility rather than appropriation: “And this talk may be the only imaginable form of a nondestructive jouissance, the jouissance of giving and receiving, through embodied language, the subjecthood of the others.” This would be the “ascetic pleasures of an all-inclusive impersonal love”—an “impersonal intimacy.”

It isn’t easy to find asceticism in the examples of impersonal intimacy to which Bersani turns in his chapter titled “Shame on You.” Beginning with some seemingly random critical comments on the recent interest of queer theorists in shame, Bersani turns to the “defining practice of a new if limited gay male sexual culture: barebacking. Following the work of English professor Tim Dean, he is interested in how the pursuit of unprotected anal sex in highly ritualized situations can be understood as an “implicit critique” of “gender-based and fundamentally hierarchical relationality.” At sex parties, a man can be anointed the King of Loads, because he has received the ejaculations of dozens of men in one night. This king is also called a bug chaser for his apparent quest for aids, and his insemi­nators (some contribute into a cup to be poured into the anus of the bottom) are known as gift givers. Dean and Bersani see this as “unlimited intimacy,” and it is the impersonal aspect that gets the latter’s attention. He sees barebacking (especially as portrayed in the 2004 film Plantin’ Seed, although Bersani takes no interest in the presence of a camera or in the film itself as an intervention) as analogous to a spiritual annihilation of individuality. Aware of the deadly idiocy of these practices, he is nonetheless drawn to their radical embrace of shattering pleasure.

Phillips, like Bersani and Dean, wants to see bareback sex parties as “deeply interested in meaning,” because these activities may point toward new forms of intimacy that undermine mainstream norms. He is careful, however, to note: “No one should in any way promote nonconsensual barebacking.” What is this appeal to the old liberal notion of consent doing in a paean to the shattering of the self and to the cultivation of impersonality? Do Bersani and Phillips, to quote from another part of their book, have “the courage of our own narcissism”? They do not. They want their barebacking and their safety, too. “Power has played no tricks on the barebacker,” Bersani notes, giving his unknowing spiritual adventurers (who wear smiles “idiotic, saintly, and heavily drugged”) a theoretical and political free ride. It may be the only one they get.

Our authors want to make hay of the inarticulate sounds of the sex party, because this allows them to challenge notions of love that have been dominant in the West for a very long time. They acknowledge Freud’s insistence that love is bound up with destructiveness, but they invest in a theory of “impersonal narcissism” in the hope of escaping this core psychoanalytic message. Bersani, for example, extols Freud’s and Lacan’s debunking of the notion of love as an openness to otherness, but he struggles to find some other openness. The King of Loads arouses his ambivalent admiration because the bottom doesn’t fit into the standard account, and Bersani then turns to Socrates on love to adumbrate what he calls an “impersonal narcissism.” “Narcissistic love in both the lover and the beloved . . . is exactly identical to a perfect knowledge of otherness.” How could we possibly know that? Phillips notes approvingly that his friend wants love without the tendency to violence. Sure. But Freud should have taught them that there was no escape from this dialectic constitutive of human desire.

Phillips evidently admires Bersani’s project, and his chapter of Intimacies discusses the exploration within object-relations theory of how growing up (giving up narcissism) is connected to destructiveness. Both writers know that the Freudian tale of individual development insists that desire is linked to a sense of the past, to a sense of loss. They want desire without loss, which they hope will mean without violence. They dream that if we grow up differently, new, impersonal yet intense relations will be without violence. But they never consider that losing the self, joining in shattering, can also be connected to an orgy of destructiveness. Have they forgotten fascism, genocidal mobs, or group torture? Why do they think that their tribe of narcissists will be kind and gentle yet intense? That’s the grown-up question that their limited foray into narcissism in Intimacies never dares address.

Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University.