This is a book that begs to be judged by its cover and title. It is a moving cover to the say the least. In fact I could not point my finger on it and then thought I don’t want to put my finger on it. What is happening there? What lines are being crossed? What invitation is being made? Sex, or the Unbearable. The authors quickly assert this is not a choice of either/or but neither is it a collapsing of the two. Both of the choices would impede the movement I already experienced on the cover. Rather “we offer an analysis of relations that both overwhelm and anchor us” (vii). The cover introduces us to an affective paradox. Something that moves and stirs but remains at a level that we cannot assimilate by our reason or categories. Critical to this paradox, this interplay of negativity and stability is the assertion that sex relates to our claim to (or fantasy of) sovereignty as well as the thwarting or escape from that sovereignty. Sex addresses questions of sovereignty (and with that notions of the political are drawn in) but does so by way of an alternative, what they call simply nonsovereignty. Nonsovereignty is not just a negative view but names an energetic possibility and in an evocative phrase the authors suggest that “to encounter ourselves as nonsovereign . . . is to encounter relationality as such” (viii). The book is an attempt to explore and practice nonsovereignty.
The authors begin by speaking of sex without optimism. What they mean by this that sex tends to be overdetermined by the sorts of wishes and fears we bring to it that make it the site of fantasies or attachments. These fantasies or attachments have real relations in the world but these, usually optimistic (even in their condemnation of sex), approaches somehow maintain a disconnect or incoherence to the realities of sex which often leads to harm or restriction. Perhaps more simply put, sex demands nonsovereignty of humans and humans demand sovereignty over sex. Why is it we rage over the depravity of sex in our culture? Why is it we herald it as the height of human experience? We want to either whip into submission or whip it into ecstasy and as the authors point out sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.
Sex, or the unbearable is a work of theory. Its examples tend towards art, film, and literature. This will certainly limit its audience. That said, I could not help thinking as I read through it that this is the sort book that the church needs. This approach can help pull the church from the movements of evasion or demands that it tends to place on sex. The church does not know much about nonsovereignty. The church will tend to either claim the truth or claim to be on the side of truth. If this is true and if Berlant and Edelman are right in their approach to sex then it must be said that the church does not know much about sex beyond the fantasies and attachments it brings with it. Further to this, while many of us who consider ourselves ‘progressive’ can make light of the church’s reactionary posture to sexual diversity and the need to fracture and split over it shouldn’t we begin to name these splits and divisions as manifestations of the unbearable? And so perhaps we could say that our fantasy of and attachment to something like purity (a sovereign notion if there ever was one) has rendered us unable to relate; has made relating outside the bounds of sovereignty unbearable.
Following this line suggests that the broader question of church unity is not about ‘living with diversity’ but it is having our diversity relate in ways that are indeed unbearable, but in being unbearable they will break down and offer the potential for movement and change. This is clear in patterns of the Mennonite church. There has been a fragile unity over women in leadership (we were able to tolerate each other’s differences on this one) but with the possibility of same-sex unions and the ordination of non-straight people the situation became unbearable. Nothing in the situation has qualitatively changed. And that is the problem. There was no unity prior to this split, there was no practice of tarrying with the unbearable. There was only the minimal spatial toleration of at least two sovereign positions.
To be clear this is different than forcing a vulnerable individual and group to face its persecutors. In the phrase “to encounter ourselves as nonsovereign . . . is to encounter relationality as such” means precisely that the abuse of sovereignty cannot be allowed and to the extent that one individual or party is a real threat of wielding that power then we cannot and should not subject the vulnerable party to such contexts. However, as many of us come to realize we are exist in commitments and contexts that call for seemingly unbearable relationships and with it the desire for some change, something other than what currently is.
To quote Lee Edelmen at length responding to Lauren Berlant as they engage Lydia Davis’s ‘Break it Down’.
The prospect of movement, in politics or in theory, derives from such unbearable encounters that break down the structuring fantasy of the subject. What follows from this is not living on but the prospect instead of living – where living means, for me as for you, living with negativity, experiencing a movement within contradiction, an identification with the force that would break down the barriers to the lack that breaks us down, or what Davis calls, in lines that you quote, ‘part of you you have no control over.’ To break it down, where the subject is concerned, doesn’t free it from determination by structure, repair its coherence, or liberate it from fantasy. ‘Break it Down’ remains an imperative: an imperative we can neither refuse to obey nor once and for all fulfill. But that imperative alone makes it possible, at the cost of encountering pain’s metal bar, to have moments when living is neither survival nor merely postponement of death. … For neither of us does teleology offer political or theoretical promise. Instead, for both of us, it closes things down; it silences and immures.
It is a very real (or perhaps doubtful) question as to whether the church or the spaces infected by its theology can perform these ways of relating. Perhaps we can only ever point to the particular situations in which such a relation was performed but by definition this model will escape the normative ethics of the church. And so there remains the question of whether those already marginalized should attempt to stage and perform such relationships in the church. I will not venture to answer for anyone else. But for those who feel such a call or for those who find themselves in those strange and entangled relations where sovereignty seems like the only way to resolve conflict or tension then perhaps this imperative to ‘break it down’ can provide a way that is neither through nor away from what is unbearable but will open up to something other then what it currently is.