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Queers, Zombies, and Institutions

A Review of Lorenzo Bernini's Queer Apocalypses: Elements of Antisocial Theory

Queer Apocalypses: Elements of Antisocial Theory is not a book meant to comfort, assuage, quell or coddle; it is designed to (re)ignite the anxieties of the squeamish, the cautious and the powerful. In his preface, Lorenzo Bernini declares his intentions “to confirm the prejudices of the detractors of gender studies and queer theories — professors, Catholics, feminists, gays — and show how justified their fears are.”[1] This declaration gives new significance to Lee Edelman’s provocations in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, where he exhorts queers to confirm the fears of the conservative right by explicitly declaring what these types “hear anyway in each and every expression or manifestation of queer sexuality: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis … fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small.”[2]

Edelman’s words, published in 2004, may seem an already antiquated sentiment: (many) queers can now marry and fight in American wars; the Pope has ordered Christians to atone for the marginalization of LGBT people; and queer theory is fully lodged in American academia, making its charge for revolution resound less urgently. It might seem as though the Law, the Pope and the Symbolic order have had a change of heart, now gladly accepting queers into the folds of the Church, the marital union, and the academy. But Bernini’s work reminds readers that such cultural and academic shifts have not followed the same trajectory in all locales, nor should we treat this trajectory as an unequivocal good. The American academy may have successfully exported the tenets of queer theory to much of the world, but the subsequent acceptance that has taken place in the States has not followed elsewhere.

Tracing the developments of the so-called “antisocial” theorists, Bernini provides an elegant summary and critique of the dominant voices in queer theory, crafting an accessible introduction to queer theory newcomers. For those already acquainted with the terms of the debate, it is Bernini’s position as an insider on the outside that illuminates the first half of Queer Apocalypses. He is a professor steeped in the literature of American queer theory who recognizes the colonial logic that pervades the discipline’s exportation; he has held positions in philosophy programs where the critique of sexual norms is considered “of little relevance’”[3]; even when teaching the “foundation of the classic philosophy of modernity” he is publicly accused of professing “militant faggotism.”[4] This particular positionality allows Bernini to highlight facets of the production of queer theory that may otherwise remain concealed.

Perhaps most revelatory, Bernini speaks of Duke University’s shuttering of Series Q[5]. The series is responsible for giving a home to some of the most renowned queer theorists of the past 30 years, including Edelman and Guy Hocquenghem. But in 2011, the editors, “noting that queer studies was flourishing in universities across the United States, determined that the goals of the book series had been reached.” Meanwhile, in the “marginal observatory that is the Italian university … queer is only now beginning to spread.”[6] The “end of queer theory” was declared before many non-Americans had even had a chance to contribute. The American academy and its publishing wing asserted its right to create, disseminate, and determine the shelf life of its concepts.[7] Bernini’s insider/outsider status orients the work, enabling him to observe and respond to over(t)ly American notions of queerness: “Italy does not need the United States to feel queer.”[8]

* * *

The first half of Queer Apocalypses focuses on elaborating and critiquing the ideas of Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman, the illustrious figureheads of queer negativity. Bernini provides faithful recapitulations of the main tenets of queer “anti-relationality” — a position characterized by an emphasis on sameness, the death drive and negation — and illuminates the limits that appear within this framework. In one critique, Bernini summarizes Bersani’s attempt to critique the notion of difference by locating “the specificity of gay sameness.”[9] Bersani argues that some form of gay specificity must be retained in order become “politically effective as gay,” and his research dives into this realm so deeply that “a provisional withdrawal from relationality itself” may be necessary.[10] Aversion to specificity, Bersani claims, stems from an attempt to dislodge gay sex from the abjection that permeates the reality of queerness — an abjection that is ever-present, both materially and psychologically. Bernini, taking issue with this claim, argues that what Bersani designates as “gay specificity” is ultimately nothing more than essentialism by a new name. Bersani’s specificity reduces all male homosexuality to a desire to be penetrated — a “feminine desire” — and subsequently withdraws legitimacy from identities “that recognize themselves, for historic and cultural reasons, within the term gay.”[11]

While Bernini’s assessment of the anti-relational positions of Bersani and Edelman are productive and compelling, the highlight of this section lies in Bernini’s promotion of the forerunners of “queer theory”: Michel Foucault, Guy Hocquenghem and Mario Mieli — the “prophets” of queer movements.[12] Foucault’s presence likely needs no elaboration, but the inclusion of Mieli and Hocquenghem is a welcome gesture, recognizing two oft-neglected precursors of today’s conception of “the queer.”

In Hocquenghem, Bernini finds a young, prescient foil to many of Bersani’s assertions. Against Bersani’s conception of masochism as an extension of the death drive, Hocquenghem argues that it is a constraining mechanism of internalized homophobia. In contrast to Bersani’s elevation of gay specificity, Hocquenghem argues against “a specific homosexual ontology” since desire refuses to be ontologized based upon identity.[13] Hocquenghem advocated a hedonism capable of de-individualizing the subject through sexuality, but this does not drown the subject in negation. It is a process of collective becoming that refuses the compulsion to nihilistic destruction, instead favoring a joyful and excessive dismantling of traditional norms: “Homosexual desire is neither on the side of death nor on the side of life; it is the killer of civilised egos.”[14] Hocquenghem provides a certain form of optimism that counters Bersani and Edelman’s insistence upon the centrality of the death drive, self-shattering, and antisociality.

Bernini places Mieli, who will likely be unfamiliar to most readers, alongside Hocquenghem as an equally young,[15] radical theorist composing “a political project geared toward erasing sexual identities and liberating an original schizophrenic desire.”[16] Through Bernini we learn of Mieli’s critiques of Wilhelm Reich, his affinity for Freudomarxism, and his belief that sexual revolution has the capacity to unleash the “original transsexuality” latent within the individual. Unfortunately, we are presented with little else aside from these fragmentary recapitulations of Mieli’s thought. As a figure included in Bernini’s list of queer “prophets,” readers would benefit from a fuller explication of Mieli’s thought and influence. A developed exposition on Mieli would bolster Bernini’s assertion that Italians do not need America to feel queer.

* * *

Following the rigorous analysis of trends in academic queer theory, Bernini presents his most original passages: close readings of Bruce LaBruce’s zombie films Otto, or Up with Dead People and L.A. Zombie. LaBruce has earned cult status among fans of boundary-defying film for his irreverent, satirical brand of porno-political art. Focusing on LaBruce, Bernini eschews the prototypical canon of pop figures deified by queer critics to examine the underlying components of the unrepresentable, the undisciplined, the undead.

Much has been written about the zombie’s relation to late capitalism, mindless consumption, and viral infection. Bernini spends sufficient time discussing these well-trod notions, but thankfully, broadens the traditional scope. In discussing L.A. Zombie, “a post-porno almost entirely devoid of dialogue,”[17] Bernini observes that the film’s protagonist — a zombie whose semen is capable of resuscitating the recently deceased — is more than the gory embodiment of fears surrounding the transmission of HIV that he may seem to be. In fact, Bernini claims that “gay-zombie sex” becomes the envelope for “all the contradictory elements of the sexual. While Bersani and Edelman … remind us that the sexual is the tomb of subjectivity and relationality, the anarchic imagination of L.A. Zombie … reminds us that this tomb is also a cradle from which the renewed subject can be reborn.”[18] The film does not conceal the fears of living in the AIDS era, but it does refuse the paralysis that perpetually threatens to erupt from these fears. The film depicts a vision of sex as potentiality which is not determined by the threat of contamination or “reactionary homophobia” while maintaining a relation to the abject status of gay sex under heteronormativity.

Bernini’s reading of Otto focuses on, and juxtaposes, the eponymous protagonist’s mental illnesses (depression and anorexia) with the numerous illnesses that can accompany HIV infection. Bernini writes that each are conditions that today’s respectable society chooses and wishes to ignore. Subsequently, the “instinctive solidarity” that HIV-negative men felt in the early years of the epidemic has waned to the point that “associations working to fight AIDS and create solidarity with HIV-positive people have trouble finding volunteers, and gay associations no longer consider prevention campaigns a priority.”[19] Bernini claims that today’s sexual freedom appears only when tethered to social respectability — a respectability that continues to rely on marginalizing and stigmatizing HIV positivity.

It is worth mentioning that Bernini’s analyses of LaBruce’s films were composed prior to the release of Truvada — the once-a-day pill that can reduce the risk of HIV transmission by up to 99%. It would be worthwhile to reassess these readings in light of the most recent developments. How do we read the queer zombie when the fear of viral transmission is mitigated by access to prescription drugs? How does the pharmaceuticalization of queer sex affect “gay respectability in Oedipal civilization”?

* * *

What actually makes Bernini’s work an affront to the “prejudices of the detractors of gender studies and queer theories”? It is, after all, a text participating in the institutional economy of academic publishing, questioning and reformulating concepts that will be comprehensible (primarily) only to those with academic training. Certainly, Bernini’s voice provides a much-needed perspective on the developments of queer studies, fracturing American sovereignty over the concept of “queer” The true power of Queer Apocalypses, however, lies in its emphasis on potentiality, becoming, and possibility. By rejecting the assumption that queer theory has achieved its aims and by refusing to fully embed queerness in negativity, Bernini shows that these inquiries remain significant and resist the slide into political apathy that can so easily accompany antisociality. The apocalypse in Queer Apocalypses does not define an end, unless it is the end of declaring “the end.”

Aaron Neber is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research.


[1] Bernini, Lorenzo. Queer Apocalypses: Elements of Antisocial Theory. Springer, 2016, xv.

[2] Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke UP, 29

[3] Bernini, x

[4] Ibid., xi-xii

[5] It should be noted, that Duke University Press has since begun a new series, Theory Q, which published its first book in 2013, and its second in 2016.

[6] ibid., 74-75

[7] For evidence, one need only skim one of the last titles published by Series Q — After Sex? Writing Since Queer Theory, featuring over 20 authors, all from American or Canadian institutions.

[8] ibid., xx

[9] ibid., 32.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid., 38.

[12] ibid., 181

[13] ibid., 57-58.

[14] Bersani qtd in Bernini, 65.

[15] Hocquenghem and Mieli were each 25 when they composed their most significant works, Homosexual Desire and Elements of a Gay Critique, respectively.

[16] ibid., 57.

[17] ibid., 105

[18] ibid., 110.

[19] Ibid., 114

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