Critical notes on Bersani’s The Freudian Body

Sexuality as radical alterity: Leo Bersani’s The Freudian Body



According to Leo Bersani, Freud’s real discovery about sexuality is that it is totally disruptive: it disrupts both the subject and any attempt to account for it (sexuality) theoretically. This discovery is evinced not so much by any positive doctrine that Freud succeeds in formulating, as through the recurrent textual collapse that occurs when he tries to develop a theory of sexuality. Even though he does not actually use terms like ‘alterity’ or ‘the other, Bersani in effect reads sexuality as a form of radical alterity. (This becomes especially clear when we compare his position with Levinas’s pronouncements concerning the Other). Bersani is interesting when deconstructing the founding oppositions of Freud’s sexual theory; however, his positive thesis about sexuality is ultimately unconvincing. It rests on a too schematic dichotomisation of reality into that which is utterly familiar, “same”, capable of being theorised and assimilated by the subject, etc., on the one hand, and that which is utterly strange, “other”, resistant to theorisation and assimilation by the subject, on the other. Few social and psychological phenomena, if any, can be subsumed under either pole of this dichotomy. Bersani’s approach, though highly interesting, does not fulfil its seeming promise of allowing us to understand the unusual epistemological status of psychoanalysis.

Sexuality as radical alterity: Leo Bersani’s The Freudian body1

In Leo Bersani’s (1986) The Freudian body sexuality is systematically, if only implicitly, read as a form of radical alterity. Drawing on and extending the French “anti-humanist” critique of the subject, Bersani offers a reading of various of Freud’s writings on sexuality and the drives, especially the Three Essays. He reads these works as composed of two conflicting strands: on the one hand, the discovery of the utterly mobile nature of sexuality and its disruptive effect on the structured subject, and on the other, attempts to repress the implications of this discovery. According to Bersani, this repression betrays itself in various moves that try to domesticate and normalise sexual pleasure by minimising its disruptive mobility. Through them sexuality is subjected to the fixed, teleological structures of a developmental process traversing the phases of infantile sexuality and reaching adult genital heterosexuality via the resolution of the Oedipus complex.2 Such moves “serve as a kind of resistance to, or denial of, the … failure to define sexuality; they provide human sexuality with a coherent historical narrative” which suggests, misleadingly, that sexuality is ultimately intelligible (4). It accordingly comes as no surprise that Bersani situates Freud’s most valuable contribution to thinking sexuality in the former strand—those moments in which sexuality manifests itself in the form of a radical alterity.

At stake here are some Foucauldean questions: “What kind of a discipline is psychoanalysis? Is it a discipline?” (5). He seems convinced that inasmuch as psychoanalysis is taken to be a successful, stable theory—as when it is ‘domesticated’ into a general psychology (cf. 93)—it becomes another in a long line of forms of disciplinary coercion; in fact the apotheosis of the type of power-knowledge that according to Foucault typifies the sciences of man in the Post-Classical era (30).

Inasmuch as the truth of psychoanalysis lies elsewhere than in the presentation of theoretical truths—for instance, in its demonstration (paradoxically, through its own theoretical failures) that desire resists every theorisation—it cannot be used as an instrument of disciplinary power (102-103) and in fact becomes a prime instrument for the subversion of such power. (Bersani seems to have something like this in mind when he speaks of the “politically radical currents” (2) in Freud’s thought). We shall not here investigate these larger claims.

Bersani’s use—generally positive—of the term “sexuality” raises the question of how his position relates to Foucault’s. Given his distrust of disciplinary power-knowledge as well as the other signs of his obvious allegiance to a Foucauldean view of the human sciences3, it is rather surprising that Bersani does not, like Arnold Davidson (1987a; 1987b), distrust what goes by the name of sexuality. What Bersani does, is to split the notion of sexuality into two—a “bad” and a “good” sexuality. The “bad” notion of sexuality is that of the “normalised” Freud, as exemplified by ego psychology and Freud’s teleological picture of the stages of “normal” sexual development. The “good” version of sexuality is the one that is not stated by Freud, but nevertheless makes itself known through the failure of his attempts to tell a coherent narrative (bad) about sexuality. So that what Foucault says of sexuality as a specific historical construct—the product of a very specific system of power-knowledge, which links “sexuality” to other constructs, such as “normality” (vs. for instance “virtue”, or “skill”) and “perversion” (vs. for instance “sin”)—in Bersani apparently only applies to the “bad” notion of sexuality. In contrast to this, “good” sexuality firstly possesses an ahistoric essence (“Sexuality is the atemporal substratum of sex” (40)), and secondly escapes our every attempt to theorise it. Alterity then is simultaneously that which the “bad” notion of sexuality denies, and that which the “good” notion of sexuality—if understood correctly—safeguards. Except for the passage in which he seems to assent to the Foucauldean analysis of sexuality and its relation to power-knowledge (29f), Bersani uses the term “sexuality” not in its Foucauldean, suspicious sense, but in its “good”, kerygmatic sense.

Why read Bersani’s book as being about alterity?

Bersani does not use the words “alterity” or “radical alterity”, but I hope that my account of his argument and conclusions will show that they are eminently applicable to his book.

Radical alterity plays at two different, but related, levels:

a) Sexuality is radically other to the subject’s identity. The essence of sexual experience is that it disrupts the subject and every form of psychic structure; in this sense it is essentially traumatic. “We desire what nearly shatters us” (39).4

If psychoanalysis were to have an innovative role in a Foucaldian genealogy of the human subject in Western societies, it would not be because it explains our nature in terms of our sexuality …, but rather because it defines the sexual itself as that which profoundly disorients any effort whatsoever to constitute a human subject (101).

b) Sexuality is radically other to the order of knowledge. “Freud’s unique redefinition of psychology consisted of the delineation of a nonhermeneutic ‘field,’ a ‘field’ which he called sexuality” (101). Attempts to narrativise, conceptualise or theorise sexuality will invariably be unsuccessful; such accounts will always repress the essential mobility and disruptiveness of sexual desire, and will simultaneously never be stable, consistent or coherent—partly because of the return of this repressed.

In both these features Bersanian sexuality shows striking parallels with the essential features ascribed to the Other by Levinas (whose work obviously has an utterly different pathos from Bersani’s): “If one could possess, grasp, and know the other, it would not be the other. Possessing, knowing, and grasping are synonyms of power” (Levinas 1987: 90).


a) The experience of the Other qua Other necessarily disrupts the Self—its peace and self-identity.Two quotes will illustrate this; the first from Levinas’s section on “Eros” in Time and the Other:

Love is not a possibility, is not due to our initiative, is without reason; it invades and wounds us, and nevertheless the I survives in it (my italics) (Levinas 1987: 88-89).

the second from the section “Phenomenology of eros” in Totality and Infinity:

An amorphous non-I sweeps away the I into an absolute future where it escapes itself and loses its position as a subject (Levinas 1969: 259).

On a subsequent page Levinas (1969: 264) will claim that “Eros is a ravishing beyond every project”, and speak of the “violence” of the erotic “revelation”.

b) All our attempts to grasp the Other theoretically are vain. Theory is essentially a totalising movement that reduces any Other to a part of the totality. “Knowledge … is suppression of alterity and … in the ‘absolute knowledge’ of Hegel celebrates ‘the identity of the identical and the non-identical’” (Levinas 1985: 66). The very categories which are supposed to represent (the otherness of) the Other, in fact obliterate it. Theory commits an (epistemological as well as ethical) injustice when it thinks that it can grasp the Other.

c) More generally, the Other can never be rendered present, or adequately represented. (Bersani speaks of “the collapse of representation itself” (113) in Freud’s texts on sexuality). The Other is an absent Other—“the relationship with the Other is the absence of the other” (Levinas 1987: 90)—which only manifests itself in the enigmatic traces, themselves suspended enigmatically between absence and presence, that it leaves behind.

For Bersani Freud’s texts on sexuality reveal psychoanalytic truth not by their success according to the criteria for a good theory, but performatively, by the “textual distress” that accompanies Freud’s every attempt to theorise sexuality—and he believes that “psychoanalytic truth can be analyzed—and verified—only as a textual distress” (90). He distinguishes between an “enigmatic display of being” and a “communication of knowledge” (26)—a distinction distantly echoing Wittgenstein’s contrast between ‘zeigen’ (showing) and ‘sagen’ (saying)5—and (apparently) relates the textual distress in Freud to the former. To paraphrase Bersani: psychoanalysis is essentially about an alterity that cannot show itself in a more direct, more systematic and explicit form than as textual distress. To Bersani the psychoanalytic truth that displays itself in this distress has the virtue of not claiming authority for itself, in the way theory typically does.

To make sense of such textual distress, Bersani typically proceeds to deconstruct the conceptual oppositions on which Freud’s texts are based—pleasure/unpleasure; sexuality/aggression; love/hate; instinct/civilisation, and so on. The two poles of each opposition are shown to be implicated in each other in a way that fatally undermines the work it is supposed to do. Sexuality therefore also represents alterity in the Derridean sense: that which cannot be thought in terms of one or the other pole of our received conceptual oppositions.

But, as indicated previously, for Bersanipsychoanalytic success lies in exactly this theoretical failure. “The psychoanalytical authenticity of Freud’s work depends on a process of theoretical collapse” (3). Freud’s inability to establish an “uninterrupted and comparatively secure philosophical or anthropological system of knowledge” is designated as a “beneficent theoretical collapse” (24—my italics), a failure Bersani wants to “celebrate” rather than deplore. “The sign of the Freudian text’s adherence to the subject of sexuality is the collapse of its own attempts to narrate and thereby to structure the sexual” (102). The Freudian notion of sexuality subverts every attempt at the construction of a stable theoretical edifice, every “confident and systematic interpretation of desire” (102)—and Freud’s own attempts before any other. At other moments such effects are traced back not to the nature of sexuality, but to the status of psychoanalysis itself: “Psychoanalysis is an unprecedented attempt to give a theoretical account of precisely those forces which obstruct, undermine, play havoc with theoretical accounts themselves” (4). The deconstruction of the fundamental oppositions in Freud’s texts is of a piece with the movement of psychoanalysis itself: “a rigorously psychoanalytic logic … breaks down the boundaries separating concepts” (21).

Textual evidence in Freud for Bersani’s reading of sexuality as a masochistic shattering

In the final sentence of the Three Essays, Freud tells us that our lack of knowledge regarding “the biological processes constituting the essence of sexuality” prevents us from formulating an adequate theory of sexuality (1905­: 243). According to Bersani this disclaimer is not borne out by the rest of Freud’s text. “In fact, a kind of conclusion is reached; it is even rather insistently made” (37). Bersani, drawing on Laplanche (1976: 87-88, 91, 97), is convinced that Freud does in fact implicitly acknowledge an essence to (infantile)6 sexuality:

Freud appears to be moving toward the position that the pleasurable unpleasurable tension of sexual excitement occurs when the body’s “normal” range of sensation is exceeded, and when the organization of the self is momentarily disturbed by sensations or affective processes somehow “beyond” those compatible with psychic organization. … Sexuality would be that which is intolerable to the structured self. [Accordingly it] could be thought of as a tautology for masochism (Bersani: 38-39).

According to Bersani, this conclusion is repeatedly adumbrated in Freud’s texts, only to be repressed: the essence, the central phenomenon, is constantly treated as if it were marginal.7 This repression in Freud may have been motivated both by his theoretical ambitions (such a shattering sexuality would be deeply resistant to any attempts to narrate or theorise it) and by a wish to keep sexuality uncontaminated by aggression.

But to what textual evidence does Bersani appeal when he reads this masochistic shattering as the Freudian essence of sexuality?

While Freud’s metapsychological assumptions impel him to see sexual tension as pleasurable, he admits (Freud 1905­: 209) that it is “also undoubtedly felt as pleasurable.” Bersani thus concludes that sexuality of itself seems to involve masochism. “Fifteen years before Beyond the Pleasure Principle … the mysterious repetition (and even intensification) of something unpleasurable [which that work will take as a sure sign of mental processes not governed by the pleasure principle—author] is explicitly seen as inherent in sexuality” (Bersani: 34-35).

b) Regarding infantile sexuality, Freud writes in the Three Essays that:

It may well be that nothing of considerable importance can occur in the organism without contributing some component to the excitation of the sexual instinct (Freud 1905: 205; Bersani 1986: 37-38).

It … appears that sexual excitation arises as a by-product … of a large number of processes that occur in the organism, as soon as they reach a certain degree of intensity, and most especially of any relatively powerful emotion, even though it is of a distressing nature (Freud 1905: 233; Bersani 1986: 38).8

If powerful unpleasurable experiences are sexually exciting, they must be (at least partially) pleasurable. As such sexual pleasure will eo ipso be masochistic pleasure.9 According to Bersani the phenomena of masochism and of sexual excitement clearly put the pleasure/unpleasure dualism on which the whole of Freud’s metapsychology has depended, under strain.

c) If sexuality is essentially masochistic, where does sadism come in? Our textual examples from Freud have thus far all come from the Three Essays. To answer this question, Bersani refers to “Instincts and their vicissitudes” (Freud 1915). He probably has the following passage in mind, in which Freud surmises that sadism does not originally intend the infliction of pain:

A sadistic child takes no account of whether or not he inflicts pains, nor does he intend to do so. But when once the transformation into masochism has taken place, the pains are very well fitted to provide a passive masochistic aim; for we have every reason to believe that sensations of pain, like other unpleasurable sensations, trench upon sexual excitation and produce a pleasurable condition, for the sake of which the subject will even willingly experience the unpleasure of pain. When once feeling pains has become a masochistic aim, the sadistic aim of causing pains can arise also, retrogressively; for while these pains are being inflicted on other people, they are enjoyed masochistically by the subject through his identification of himself with the suffering object (Freud 1915: 128-129).

After citing an analogous passage from Sade, Bersani concludes (42):

Sexual excitement … is the representation of an alienated commotion. We can see how sadism might be a logical consequence of this view of sexuality. If erotic stimulation depends on the perceived or fantasized commotion of others, it becomes reasonable to put others into a state of maximal commotion.

d) In Civilization and its discontents (1930) Freud says that milder pleasures—for instance those afforded by scientific and artistic work—do not “convulse our physical being” [erschüttern nicht unsere Leiblichkeit] (80; GW 438) in the way that sexuality does. “What did convulse our being, Freud suggests …, was the experience, or rather the smell of sex before we adopted an erect posture. But our sexuality fell when we stood up” (Bersani: 17). Sexuality—unrepressed sexuality, that is—is again presented as being erschütternd.

e) Bersani notes the frequency and insistency of Freud’s attempts to separate a nonerotic destructiveness from sexuality, and remains unconvinced:

From Beyond the Pleasure Principle to his very last works, Freud will never stop insisting (even as he himself accumulates evidence to the contrary) on the existence of a nonerotic destructiveness (37).

Freud seems to want to avoid the disturbing implications of a fusion of sexuality and aggression at the ontological level, and is therefore at pains to reinstate—by fiat, if need be (63)—some sort of dualism of instincts in which the shattering forces of hate and aggression will be ontologically distinct from the uniting forces of sexuality and love.

Bersani cites (19) the passage where Freud says that even where the death instinct does not take the form of sadism, that is

emerges without any sexual purpose, in the blindest fury of destructiveness, … the satisfaction of the instinct is accompanied by an extraordinarily high degree of narcissistic enjoyment, owing to its presenting the ego with a fulfilment of the latter’s wishes for omnipotence (1930: 121).

But a narcissistic enjoyment is, in Freud’s own terms, an erotic enjoyment.

Bersani (20) draws attention to the—apparently—astonishing statement Freud had already made a few pages earlier in the same work:

Aggressiveness … forms the basis of every relation of affection and love among people (with the single exception, perhaps, of the mother’s relation to her male child) (Freud 1930: 113).

According to Bersani (20) this “may be another way of saying that destructiveness is constitutive of sexuality.” Unfortunately for Bersani’s argument, a closer perusal of the passage in question does not bear out this reading. To begin with, the SE’s “basis” is a mistranslation of the German Bodensatz (Freud 1905: GW 14: 473), which means “sediment”, “deposit”, or “dregs”. Wherever there is love, Freud says, aggression will precipitate out of it. Moreover, even the English version makes it clear that Freud is here not claiming that affection and love spring out of aggressiveness, but rather the opposite: where there is affection or love, there will be relations of rivalry—issues of erotic prerogative are “bound to become the source of the strongest dislike [Missgunst—resentment, enviousness] and the most violent hostility” (Freud 1905: 114; GW 473).

In Beyond the pleasure principle (and later), Freud tries to dissociate destructiveness from sexuality by linking destructiveness to the death instinct, which does not obey the pleasure principle. According to Bersani, all the apparent exceptions to the pleasure principle that Freud enumerates in Beyond the pleasure principle should rather be seen as revisions of the very notion of “pleasure”.10

Instead of moving “beyond the pleasure principle,” we are being given a redefinition or an extension of that principle. … We might even say that for the first time in Freud’s writing the word “pleasure” is beginning to shed its ordinariness and to function as a psychoanalytic concept. … It is as if that scandalously vague word could not stop referring to that which is alien to it—in fact, to the very concept of destructiveness which will presumably ruin its sovereignty. Thus the text is labored from the very start … by an association of pleasure with the ego’s harming, possibly even destroying, itself (Bersani 1986: 59).

In other words: Freud suspects, but is loath to acknowledge, that aggressiveness is pleasure’s internal other, an other of which it could never rid itself. Freud’s description of infantile sexual life “should make us see the problematic nature of any distinction at all between pleasure and unpleasure—at least, between sexual pleasure and sexual unpleasure” (60). The wish to repeat, which is presented as an exception to the pleasure principle, could actually be seen as characteristic of all instinctive (i.e. drive-like) behaviour, which is otherwise said to be governed by the pleasure principle. This “guarantees the harmony between such repetition and pleasure” (61).

Freud violently manipulates the notion of repetition in order to propose in the death instinct a nonsexual masochism, a masochism from which exciting pain has been wholly evacuated. Thus, in startlingly circuitous fashion, the endeavor to keep the level of mental tension as low as possible—an endeavor in which we are invited early in chapter 1 to see the very operation of the pleasure principle—is now being presented, in its “expanded” instinctual form, as the goal of our search for something “beyond” the pleasure principle (62).

f) Bersani shows how close love and hate are to each other in Freud’s “Instincts and their vicissitudes”—both seem to wish to abolish an external world, alterity or exteriority.

At the very beginning, it seems, the external world, objects, and what is hated are identical (Freud 1915: 136).

Hate, as a relation to objects, is older than love. It derives from the narcissistic ego’s primordial repudiation of the external world with its outpouring of stimuli (Freud 1915: 139).

In our terms: the other, alterity, is originally an object of hate. Bersani points out that, by Freud’s own account, the unpleasure felt by the ego at this “outpouring of stimuli” must also spill over into sexuality.

The destruction of the object appears to be inherent in sexual excitement itself, at least in the pregenital stages of infantile sexuality. Love in the oral phase, for example, [with its] fantasies of “incorporating or devouring”—“is consistent with abolishing the object’s separate existence.” And at the stage of sadistic anal organization, “the striving for the object appears in the form of an urge for mastery,” and while “injury or annihilation of the object,” Freud claims, “is a matter of indifference” here, “love in this form and at this preliminary stage is hardly to be distinguished from hate in its attitude toward the object” (Bersani: 87-88; quoting from Freud 1915: 138-139).

Bersani concludes (88):

Can the opposition between the ego instincts and the sexual instincts survive this definition of sexuality? What we might call the ontology of hate (or aggression) coincides with an ontology of sexuality. … [E]verything in the forbiddingly complex picture outlined by Freud in “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes” turns out to be simultaneously sexual and aggressive: oral and anal sexuality on the one hand and, on the other, the ego’s hatred of an excessively stimulating world.

But now comes a surprising twist. Bersani tells us that his deconstructive exercise does not actually intend “a rearrangement of definitions”; inasmuch as such rearrangements have been suggested

they have been intended less as referentially exact or verifiable statements than as indications of the way in which Freudian speculation moves toward a disruption of its own categories (89).

A disruption leading, as we have seen, to what Bersani regards as a “beneficent” theoretical collapse. Freud’s truth, to Bersani, lies elsewhere than in the construction of a general psychology (or any other form of classical, stable theory, for that matter).

Bersani himself therefore cuts the ground from under the feet of his would-be critics by denying post factum that his laborious deconstruction of the sexuality/aggressiveness dualism is meant to establish a positive thesis of its own.11 Despite certain weaknesses in his individual arguments, I do think that he has successfully established the instability of the sexuality/aggressiveness, love/hate, Eros/Thanatos dualism(s) in Freud’s texts.

Violence and what to do about it

Bersani presents us with a picture that is disturbing in much the same way in which psychoanalysis is usually found disturbing. Our most positive impulses towards others and our most negative ones are extremely close to each other, with an ambivalent amalgam being the norm. Far from shrinking from this amalgam, we should welcome it, as it is already considerably better than unalloyed aggression. In this picture, no comforting final victory or hegemony of love over hate is to be expected.

In a sense Bersani’s picture is even more disturbing than Freud’s, however. At a certain ontological level Freud’s later model of destructive drives leading to destructiveness, and erotic drives leading to union and integrity has something reassuring. This allows us to localise destructiveness in an Other, albeit only at a metaphysical level. Of course, Freud immediately recognises contaminations, mutual influences, etc., between these terms, but a view in which these impulses are ontologically distinct is still reassuring in comparison with Bersani’s view, in which lethal and (comparatively) innocuous behaviours become modulations of one and the same basic impulse. The former, at least, holds out some sort of promise of potential purity and potential innocence, however hard such a potential may be to realise. Bersani does not trace phenomenal differences to a source in ontological dualisms. Rather, differences are conceived as différance, Derrida’s notion that foregrounds the sameness of what is different. To repeat is already to modify; the “same” thing (in Bersani’s case: an aggressive/sexual drive) can become something totally different just by being iterated. What Freud represents as irreducible dualisms can therefore be seen as iterative modifications of the same. There must then be points at which it is hard or impossible to distinguish between the terms of what elsewhere may seem to be a clear dualism, for instance, love and hate.

Barbarism can at any moment emerge from even the most innocuous erotic impulses. How, then, is it to be avoided? Echoing Derrida, Bersani claims that “[o]ur choice is not one between violence and non-violence” (70), but between more destructive and more innocuous forms of violence. The violence to which the sexual is apparently prone must be countered not by something external and opposed to it, so that the sexual is renounced in favour of the non-sexual, but by a particular type of repetition or development of sexuality itself—formalising, aestheticising, ironising repetitions. These constitute a form of sublimation, a “taming of our sexuality” (115), which is not desexualising, as the desire to replicate is already part of the sexual. (Bersani finds the model of this in art: violence is tamed by its aestheticised representations or replications. He thus seems to seek the solution to an ethical problem in the domain of the aesthetic.) Murderous violence comes from immobilising desire, instead of allowing it to replicate itself in a mobile way. “Freud’s work textually recapitulates the processes of repression, symptomatic violence, and ascetic sublimation which, I believe, also unleash sexuality in human history as murderous aggression” (115).

Discussion and critical evaluation of Bersani’s position

a) Bersani’s remarks on the “shattering” nature of sexuality remain lapidary, as do those he quotes from Freud. As such, he offers us insufficient grounds for assenting to, or dissenting from, this view of sexuality.

b) The nature of (sado)masochism. The terms “masochism”, “sadism” and “sadomasochism” play a central role in Bersani’s reading of Freud. In Krafft-Ebing these terms had centred on the phenomenon of a humiliation which is sexually exciting. In Freud, inflicting and undergoing pain are added to this. In Bersani’s argument, however, we only hear of pain which is sexually exciting; humiliation does not really enter into the picture. It seems, therefore, as if he is not really sticking to Freud’s notion of (sado)masochism, as would be needed if his critique of Freud was really an internal one. The two notions are very different in their implications; I find the idea of a sexual relationship in which pain plays an essential role less troubling than that of one in which humiliation does. Humiliating somebody seems decisively at odds with respecting the same person, whereas inflicting physical pain for sexual purposes need perhaps not be. Sexuality is taken to be intrinsically masochistic because it is linked to a “shattering”. However: “shattering” is just one translation of Erschütterung—others sound less conducive to a masochistic interpretation.12 Even if we accept “shattering” as translation, it is not clear that it falls in the same class as pain or humiliation. It is therefore not clear that a pleasure in pain is the same as a pleasure in ‘shattering’. Moreover, if being shattered leads to sexual desire, one cannot conclude from this that sexual desire is the desire to be shattered.

c) Bersani’s attribution of an essence to sexuality. Freud had said that all intense experiences tend to trigger sexual excitement. Bersani elevates this to a statement of the essence of sexuality. If he had no other sources for this claim, his argument would clearly have been fallacious: Freud had not said that all sexual excitement stems from intense experiences, but that all intense experiences tend to spill over into sexual excitement. (Nor is it clear how central the role is that Freud ascribes to sexual excitement in sexuality as a whole). There is in any case at least one passage in the Three Essays where Freud makes a claim that is diametrically opposed to Bersani’s general thesis. Regarding “fright and mechanical agitation” Freud takes the liberty of assuming that:

these influences, which, when they are of small intensity, become sources of sexual excitation, lead to a profound disorder [Zerrüttung—destruction, breakdown, shattering] in the sexual mechanism or chemistry if they operate with exaggerated force (Freud 1905: 202; GW 103).13

In other words: if they become shatteringly intense, they cease being sexually exciting.

Bersani in fact also adduces other arguments, but do these warrant his claims? One variety, modality or articulation of sexuality is elevated to the essence of sexuality. Even if he afterwards recants, claiming that he just wanted to demonstrate the extent to which Freud’s definitions could be jumbled, the whole strategy of his text has in effect served firstly, to give sexuality an essence or centre (Bersani’s reading of Freud, even if done under erasure, tends to reinstate essentialism) and, secondly, to naturalise a norm. If one wishes the sexual kingdom (and Bersani’s laudatory invocation of Reich in his final footnote suggests that he thinks one should), it is to be sought in a sexual shattering. Bersani’s theoretical account thus seems to be shaped by—if it is not an apologia for—a preference for such an explosive14 sexuality, which I associate with a jaded sensibility, needing objectively ever greater quantitative stimuli to be aroused or satisfied. Let me against this state my own ideal—that of a soft, “gradual”, receptive sexuality, such as found for instance in Taoism, in which the cultivation of awareness leads to an intensification of experience, even when the “objectively” ascertainable sources of stimuli remain unchanged. In marked contrast to such an ideal, Bersani adopts (or flirts with) the Sadean one where “the sexualising job” can only be done by ever increasing excitations that, through quantitative excess, already shade off into pain—or are intrinsically violent, from scratch. This is the ‘hard’ sexuality for which the paradigms are the rigid phallus, bent on rape—that is, aggressively penetrating into what is other (rather than on receiving and perceiving it), and the leather scene—solipsistic15 bodies cut off from all but the harshest stimuli by leather casings, instead of the contact of unprotected skin with unprotected skin.16 Bersani’s points of reference also evoke the Hollywood sex and violence genre in which sex gets sexier as violence becomes more violent.

Of course, if sex(uality) had a timeless essence, all these possibilities would already be present in it. (As would Taoist sex, Romantic love, Levinas’s “effeminated”, non-heroic, non-virile eros (Levinas 1969: 270—cf. also 254-266),etc.). When sex(uality) takes these forms, Freud teaches us not to be surprised.

But from Wittgenstein, Foucault, history (Zeldin 1996), anthropology and (a certain) Freud we can learn to respect the polymorphousness of sex(uality), so that we lose the temptation to define any of its multifarious manifestations as it essence.

d) Let us therefore not pretend that aggressiveness is alien to sexuality. Neither in the case of sexuality nor in that of aggression do we have a phenomenon with an essence and clearly defined boundaries. Using Bersani’s rather wilful mode of argumentation, one could call any two phenomena which overlap while having neither essences nor clear boundaries, identical.

However, I do not wish to exaggerate my differences with Bersani. Cruelty does indeed play a central role in that network of heterogeneous but interconnected phenomena Freud investigates as “sexuality”.17 It is dangerous to repress this factor in any model of sexuality—even if only in a model of “normal” sexuality or “ideal” sexuality. We may do well to heed Bersani’s suggestion that an aestheticising, ironising or playful re-enactment of aggressive impulses is a far more effective way to avoid their potentially barbarous forms than disavowing them in every form. (Stylised aggression is inseparable from the general phenomenon of play—if, ignoring the later Wittgenstein, we had sought an essence to play, “stylised combat” would have been a prime contender).

e) What is ineffable in sexuality—and why is it ineffable? Is it the individual’s sexuality that is unsayable? (In this case it would be in line with the old idea that individuum ineffibile est). Or is it sexuality in general—the essence of sexuality—that according to Bersani leads to a “stammering” on the part of the (would-be) knowing subject? If so, where exactly does it become unsayable?

Is “can only be said with the use of metaphors, concepts or oppositions that inevitably break down if you push them far enough?” the same as “unsayable”? Bersani’s position brings to mind the Tractatus: “Everything that can be said can be said clearly” (Wittgenstein 1985: 4.116). He seems to be presupposing an either/or—something is either knowable without the use of metaphors or imperfect conceptual distinctions, or it is not knowable at all.

Moreover, if the essence of sexuality is intelligible, then it loses all its alterity. A comparison: one can’t very well say: “I can never understand any particular woman, but I understand woman (in her essence).” If sexuality is unintelligible, then the essence of sexuality will be unintelligible.18 Conversely, if the essence of sexuality is intelligible, then why should an empirical theory of sexuality not be possible, i.e. why should the concrete phenomena of sexuality then not also be intelligible?

Obviously, many empirical claims can meaningfully be made in this field. Where would Bersani place such empirical knowledge regarding sexuality? Is it really impossible? What does it necessarily miss? Bersani would presumably reply: “its utter mobility”, but it is not clear why this should be true. Is there some a priori boundary to the nature of the insight it can offer as it progresses?

What sort of epistemology and philosophy of science is being presupposed here? Does Bersani’s own discourse not involve countless truth claims, and if so, why should they be permissible, given his strictures regarding the truth claims of theory? Is it the nature of the Other or the nature of theory that prevents a successful theory of sexuality? Is the unconscious in general not as protean and ineffable as sexuality is, according to Bersani? And does not the ubiquity of the unconscious mean that its alterity rubs off on mental life in general, and every object of the “humanities”—be it the “work of art”, “history”, or “culture”? Are Freud’s writings on other topics than sexuality (generally or always) less inclined to theoretical collapse than those on sexuality? If not, then the theoretical collapse in the sexual writings is perhaps not linked to the nature of sexuality as such. (It could be linked to the nature of the unconscious, or of the psyche, or of a certain exploratory—‘genetic’—style of writing also found elsewhere—Nietzsche, for instance. Or it could simply be a sign of failure, tout court).

Bersani does not choose clearly between two positions: that all attempts at a scientific or systematic knowledge regarding sexuality must be defective in their own terms, and that everything produced by such attempts will necessarily be just one more building block in a coercive system of power-knowledge. He cannot convincingly claim both things at the same time.

f) Will Freudian processesnecessarily lead to Freudian structures? Bersani gives us a radically constructivist (or “culturalist”) account of sexuality and the subject, in which any structure at all is seen to derive from (typically: coercive) social forces. True to the pathos—or even ethics?—of his French antecedents (Foucault, Lacan, Guattari, etc.), he neither expects the sort of iterative processes on which psychoanalysis focuses (such as identification, repetition, introjection, projection) to lead to stable mental structures, nor would he applaud it, were this to happen. To him mobility seems to be the highest good, while fixity counts as original sin.19 If Bersani is so strongly in favour of a maximum mobility of sexual desire (the polymorphous perversity of infantile sexuality which is not yet subjected to the primacy of heterosexual genitality), it will come as no surprise that what Freud reads as the teleological tendency of sexuality to settle into certain typical structures, Bersani reads as Freud’s endorsement of a structure that is not intrinsic to sexuality, but coercively imposed by society (inter alia via those speaking in the name of a normalised psychoanalysis) onto what otherwise in itself would have remained the endlessly mobile phenomenon of sexuality. We could argue that in Bersani, “ought” similarly presents itself as “is”—his endorsement of a particular form of sexuality is by and large presented as a value-free analysis.

Nevertheless, Bersani’s processual, anti-structural valorisation of Freud poses an important question: why should the multiple, open-ended processes (mechanisms) that Freud adduces to account for the genealogy of mental structures, lead to structures as predictable, stable and univocal as those Freud (or better: ego psychology) typically describes or presupposes?20 Bersani for instance quite plausibly doubts that the multifarious functions ascribed to the ego could converge on anything like the univocal, stable, reality-directed ego of ego-psychology. He poses similar questions regarding the contradictory sadistic, masochistic and loving identifications, introjections and projections whereby the superego is supposed to become differentiated from the ego (95). Because the superego is shaped by the repetition of categorically “opposite” phenomena, it cannot have a categorically clear position relative to the rest of the psyche.

Freud’s model is deterministic. Determinism was in the past generally taken to imply predictability. However, since the advent of chaos theory it has become a commonplace that this is not the case.

i) Even if the processes typical of human development occur in a deterministic fashion, these processes could lead to very idiosyncratic structures. (The model of a default structure—“normality”—plus deviations from this structure would then not need to impose itself).

ii) It may be impossible to say in general terms which values for which variables will lead to which results. (E.g. how one should educate children to obtain certain desired results). Tiny contingent factors, tiny quantitative differences, can lead to totally different results. (This is especially marked if we consider the infinitely many factors that enter into any life history, and the difference made when somebody is subjected to exactly “the same” contingencies, but in a different sequence (compare Freud 1905­: 241)).

iii) Last, but not least, crucial determining factors will inevitably be ignored by any theory.

We now come to our two main objections to Bersani.

g) Can alterity be located in any specific phenomenon, be it sexuality or something else? Bersani can be placed in a long line of thinkers who have assigned (radical) alterity to a specific entity or ontological domain. God has historically doubtless been the most important vessel for alterity as that which cannot be represented (Judaism, Islam) or cannot be described in terms of any positive predicates (negative theology); the Other or wholly Other (Levinas, Karl Barth). In Levinas the other person has a status of Other that is closely related to that of God. In Kant the Ding an sich and the sublime are radically other. In many readings of psychoanalysis the unconscious is said, not without reason, to have the status of other. As noted before, Bersani does not use terms like alterity, other and otherness, in effect, however, he adds sexuality to this list. As sexuality in Freud’s account is permeated by the unconscious, and vice versa, Bersani’s move is of course not without precedent in Freud himself. However, Bersani seems to be replacing the alterity of the unconscious by the alterity of sexuality; moreover, sexuality to him becomes far less amenable to thematisation than the unconscious in Freud. If even Freud can be criticised for often describing the unconscious as if alterity is limited to it, or absolutely concentrated in it, Bersani in fact localises alterity in an even more specific and limited domain: sexuality. Alterity is attributed to sexuality so emphatically that it hardly seems to feature in the non-sexual. A second main objection to Bersani is that

h) Alterity is conceived of as something that totally resists any discursive understanding. The interpretative character of our whole understanding of the specifically human seems to be denied—the non-sexual seems to be the site of a solid, non-interpretative knowledge (we seem to always have far more than traces to go by), while the sexual does not even allow interpretation (we apparently do not even have traces to go by). Polarising thought tends to close us off to alterity, and Bersani introduces an extreme polarisation both between the sexual and the non-sexual, and between what is other and what is ordinary. If alterity were the localisable phenomenon he makes it out to be, it would cease being alterity. (Part of the agenda from which he localises alterity in sex, seems to be the dream—by now fairly shop-soiled—that sex could become the fulcrum for a conceptual and social revolution).

Though Bersani thus explores important themes and advances some very interesting theses, his conclusions do not bear critical scrutiny well. Bersani reads Freud’s most important contribution regarding sexuality as being the discovery that sexuality represents a form of alterity that is radically impervious to knowledge and theorisation. This is supposed to be revealed not by the content of Freud’s theory itself, but by the “textual distress” that arises when Freud tries to say anything categorical about sexuality. Though Bersani gives an interesting deconstructive reading of such textual distress in Freud, his general conclusions do not convince. Bersani’s book gains extra interest because it implicitly tries to read sexuality as a form of radical alterity, as becomes clear when we compare what he says about sexuality with what the important French philosopher Levinas says about “the Other”. We conclude that sexuality is not a form of radical alterity (and that perhaps nothing counts as radical alterity). The notion of radical alterity thus does not fulfil its apparent promise of providing a key to understanding the unusual epistemological status of psychoanalysis.


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1 Unless otherwise indicated, numbers in brackets in this article refer to pages in Bersani’s book (Bersani 1986).

2 Cf. 112 and 100-101:

The post-Oedipal superego is the climax of a fantasy which fixes the passionate, and passionately shifting, object-relations of our childhood in the linear narrative of the Oedipus story. [T]he Oedipus complex represses the unintelligibility of Oedipal relations.

3 Bersani dedicates his book to Foucault.

4 Compare also expressions like “shattering erotic fantasy” (110) and “devastating pleasures” (6).

5 “What can be shown cannot be said” (Wittgenstein 1922: 4.1212—compare also 3.262 and 6.522).

6 In Bersani’s reading, what essentially distinguishes human sexuality from animal sex is to be found not at the genital, reproductive level, but in infantile sexuality. This is the sexuality psychoanalysis is specifically concerned with, which in the adult is more or less equivalent to: repressed sexuality, unconscious sexuality—the same sexual impulses that are at work in the neuroses and perversions.

7 “Could it be that this exceptional or marginal manifestation of sexuality [viz.: sadomasochism] constitutes its elusive “essence”—or, more exactly, that it is the condition of sexuality’s emergence?” (37). For most of the book, Bersani will tend to follow the essentialist option, rather than the “more exact” one that sadomasochism is a condition for the emergence of sexuality.

8 Reviewing Freud’s examples in this section, Bersani points out how aspecific the sources of sexual excitement have become: “Almost anything will do the sexualizing job … intellectual strain, verbal disputes, wrestling with playmates, and railway travel” (38).

9 Bersani ascribes an evolutionary rationale to sexuality as masochism:

Human sexuality is constituted as a kind of psychic shattering, as a threat to the stability and integrity of the self—a threat which perhaps only the masochistic nature of sexual pleasure allows us to survive (60).

An ego-psychologist could paraphrase Bersani’s rationale as follows: individual development is only possible if the organism can survive—and even seek out—a confrontation with stimuli that are incompatible with its current organisation; if the painful process in which earlier forms of organisation are shattered to make way for later ones also offers compensations in the form of pleasure (39).

10 Bersani’s reading of Beyond the pleasure principle obviously relies heavily on Derrida’s (1987: 256-409) reading of the same text.

11 This agrees with that popularisation of deconstruction into a two-step “method”, where in the first step a conceptual hierarchy is overturned, so that the subordinate term is argued to be the dominant term, while the second step tries to do without hierarchical thinking altogether.

12Erschüttern can be translated as, inter alia, to shake (severely), unsettle, upset, shatter, and Erschütterung as agitation (SE), tremor, vibration, disruption, blow, emotional shock (Collins 1991). Bersani builds his case on “shatter[ing]” as translation, thereby undergirding his thesis that any desire for Erschütterung is essentially masochistic. In French ‘post-structuralist’ thought it is fashionable to use anti-organic metaphors as part of the polemic against functionalist views of the subject as “organism”. Fragile non-organic objects tend to ‘shatter’ on impact. A shattered mechanism typically completely stops functioning. Neither human minds nor human bodies typically ‘shatter’ under trauma, as long as death does not set in, their functioning is rather impaired and modified. Moreover, even lethal traumas usually do not shatter the mind or body. ‘Shattering’ is therefore not at all felicitous as a metaphor for the phenomena Bersani discusses.

13 We are reminded of those perfumes that are made of bases which in undiluted form have a revolting smell.

14 Bersani tends to use the term “convulsive”, beloved of Breton and the surrealists.

15 I use the term “solipsistic” advisedly; Bersani makes the essential sexual experience irremediably private; he speaks of

that unrepresentable psychic shattering which, even when it is provoked by intersubjective “shocks,” nonetheless plunges the human subject into the irremediable privacy of a masochistic jouissance (114).

16 Leather and other forms of armour, including less visible ones, can perhaps just as plausibly be traced back to finding that one’s inner Reizschütz does not reduce stimuli sufficiently. In that case, their painfulness robs them of the specificity they would otherwise have had. (I have in mind the—to me surprising—gentleness of (at least) some of the aficionados of the leather scene). Alternately, we could, à la Bersani, see in the leather scene an aestheticising repetition whereby violent sexuality is to some extent tamed. Bersani’s ideas here abut on a vast debate concerning the effects of representations of violence (e.g. on TV, in the cinema, in pornography) on the occurrence of physical violence. These are vexed issues, to which no cut and dried answers are imminent from either philosophy or empirical research.

17 “The history of human civilization shows beyond any doubt that there is an intimate connection between cruelty and the sexual instinct” (Freud 1905­: 159).

18 Of course, his own “deconstruction” of Freud, in which definitions are rearranged and repressed essences conjured out of Freud’s texts, ostensibly just as a means of showing the problematic nature of definitions, is already a way of saying something. To describe an essence and then to deny that one is making truth claims for this description, is still something very different from remaining silent (about that which is unsayable). A Heideggerian or Derridean “speaking under erasure” is still a long way removed from an approach to alterity à la Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

19 Bersani at one point speaks of “the curse of ‘having a character’” (100).

20 An example would be the phases of organisation of the libido.