This is the second part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here is part one.
69: Queer Faith, Queer Love [yes, it was Panel 69, I’m not making this up—jbl]
This was one of the many panels the membership of which was altered by severe weather. Kris Trujillo was stuck in the air, and Eric Selinger was attending by phone. About 20 people were in the audience.
Bentham approaches queer sexuality from a great many angles and in less-than-flowing prose: he says he wishes for a great literary author like Beckford (then in exile for sodomy) to help him convey his ideas. He finds himself mobilizing an excess of methodologies to defend sexual freedom. Bentham’s Not Paul but Jesus, as published, is 500 pages refuting Paul and dismissing such Pauline ideas as the antichrist, asceticism, and self-denial. But Bentham originally intended for it to include more Jesus, depicting Jesus as a champion and practitioner of queer sex. To Bentham, Christ is a prophet and apostle of noneconomic pleasure, Who’s entirely at odds with colonialism, patriarchy, and empire: He encouraged His followers not to surrender their capacity for pleasure to those institutions. The religion of Jesus has been perverted into a religion of self-denial used for dominance, which saddened Bentham much as the results of the U.S. and French revolutions had saddened him by ultimately creating new small dominant groups.
Bentham is trying to understand the reason for homophobic violence—vide Paul Kelleher’s Making Love on how love became more heteronormative in c18 literature—and points out, We don’t gang up to attack drunks: their pleasure costs money, which entitles them to enjoyment. Queer sexual pleasure somehow becomes associated with love, luxury, and an excess of pleasure; but if it were a luxury good and fit into the capitalist order, Bentham observes, no one would begrudge it. Unlike Old Testament prophets who tended to use miracles as witnesses to the Lord’s power, Jesus instructed His followers not to tell anyone that He had lessened their suffering: let’s not force pleasure to stand for something else—let it be an end in itself [Here Shanafelt delivered a great final line that I did not manage to take down: my notes just say “great final line”—jbl].
Queer theory shares the antipastoralizing attitude of Christianity. Sex to Freud and Lacan is not about a union with the other but is something more solipsistic: “There is no sexual relation.” What are its effects on the subject of pleasure? For Bersani and Laplanche, sex = masochism, the shattering of one’s ego and fantasy of unity via confrontation with a jouissance . . . it is a mode of askesis! Christians and psychoanalytic scholars reduce sex to pleasure and notice how much disciplining has been required to make a discourse in which it is instead all about reproduction. Consider Tertullian on ejaculation! Both the Christian and the queer theorist see pleasure as a threat to the self. Of course, they have different feelings about that self: Augustine likes it, seeing the self as manifesting reasoned sovereignty over the will. And we know Bersani’s so not into that.
A member of the audience asked Reverend Justin, Was early Christian sex-pessimism an aversion to the act of intercourse, to bodies, or to pleasure? Justin said, Pleasure is that which the ascetical life is supposed to extinguish. Augustine thinks that the chariot of the passions has run away from its driver. Pleasure coincides with concupiscence and therefore sin.
Another asked Dr. Shanafelt whether “this Bentham” was accessible to 19th-century readers. She said no, it’s from just-released notes and drafts. There were quite a few published Bentham works that suggest these points, but no it was not. And if you’re interested, the Bentham project is still seeking help in transcribing millions of words and deciphering his terrible handwriting. The newly-published stuff is very very messy, but some of it is so powerful that Shanafelt, reading it on a friend’s porch, fell out of a hammock. His concern with the rights of women and of sexual minorities is remarkable; his radical attention to people who are not himself is amazing.
A question was posed about affective experience beyond psychic organization. What about Tomkins and views that assert the primacy of affect? Affect as characterized by intensity, as opposed to pain/pleasure? I mean, it’s not as if we lack pleasure under late capitalism. Justin replied that he’d been thinking hard about Bersani’s attempt to synthesize the late Foucault and early Freud, and a move into the space of affect could be very productive. Eric suggested that the asexual hero of Blue Steel Chain may be going back to that line in Genesis that Augustine said was not about sex but about the societas of the married couple. Then he asked his copanelists, There’s been a lot more talk about sex and pleasure than about the “love” in the panel’s title: why is that? As the panel’s time slot came to an end and I departed, someone was asking about coming-out narratives and whether this is not a good discursive moment for love and whether there’s F/F Christian romance fiction . . .