This essay considers Leo Bersani’s concept of “incongruity” as a key term in his thinking of ethical relation and, specifically, as a description of the desynchronized movement and impersonal configuration of bodies, psyches, thoughts, and things, in which the formal mobilization of aesthetic perceptions of sameness replaces the immobilizing forces of desirous knowing and difference. Highlighted is the way in which sameness is not based on a single predicate of commonality, but instead obtains in similar forms of movement that inaugurate correspondences with others and the world. This sheds light on Bersani’s familiar notions of inaccurate replication and homo-narcissism within his broader exploration of potential intimacies pleasurably discovered via a sense of universal sameness as opposed to the often murderous fixation on identity and difference.
Incongruity institutes virtualities that have no intrinsic reason to be actualized. This retreat from the actual creates a freedom that might be defined as a kind of being to which no predicate can be attached.—Thoughts and Things 66
The notion of a divided self needs to be eclipsed for there to be any chance of an ethical rapport with others (human and nonhuman) and with the world. This is one of the fundamental propositions at the heart of Leo Bersani’s work, a starting point for his radical dismantling of Western philosophy’s thinking on the individual subject from Plato to Descartes, Freud to Levinas and Lacan (and many others between and beyond). Bersani contests this tradition’s presupposition of the divided self not by resorting to a notion of wholeness or unity, but in terms of incongruous oneness, which is, at the same time, not actualized completion, but unfinished virtuality.
For Bersani, human being is incongruous being, a being without predicates (opposite the standard shorthand philosophical formula for ontological congruity “S is P”—subject = predicate).1 Neither split and incoherent (Hegel), nor autonomous and complete, the Bersanian subject is that form of being for which even “incongruous” is not a predicate, given that the term is meant to name a relational movement that is open to virtualities and to similitudes outside of and beyond the self. Likeness or sameness is here not based on a single predicate but instead obtains in similar forms of movement that inaugurate impersonal correspondences with others and the world. It is due to the lack of congruence (e.g., identification or theme) to itself and others—what Bersani refers to as “ontological loss”—that the self has a greater potential to be like and relate to other things (Thoughts 66). This is at once the self’s source of freedom and its sense of oneness with the world. It is precisely because being is without proper fit with the world that a subject comes to enjoy the pleasure of finding itself not only in the world but mobilized and inaccurately replicated through it.
This is also one of the reasons why psychoanalysis is a source of fascination for Bersani. As he writes in the introduction to the 2002 edition of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, “Psychoanalysis gives a persuasive account not of human adjustment but of that which makes us unfit for civilized life” (xxi).2 He goes on, “We can, at best (as long as we remain within psychoanalysis), adapt to that which makes us incapable of adaptation. To go any further (again, within psychoanalysis) would be to cure ourselves of being human” (xxii). As we know, while being one of the most astute readers of Freud, Bersani was never interested in remaining within psychoanalysis. Yet at the same time, he was not so naïve as to believe that we might “cure ourselves of being human,” especially outside of psychoanalysis. Instead, I believe Bersani’s philosophy of being is an attempt at neither a cure nor an adaptation, but rather is an affirmation of incongruity, through which a virtual oneness with the world can be speculatively imagined. It is as a speculative philosopher of a mode or condition of freedom—one that no longer carries any definitive historical predicate, as in Hegel’s philosophy of history, or personal/identity assignment, as in post-Freudian sociology—that Bersani thinks and speaks of “the incongruities of unfinished, virtual being” (69), first by asking, “I can dream, can’t I?”
Bersani pursues this speculative imagining in “I Can Dream, Can’t I?”3 This essay—along with the others in Thoughts and Things and in his last book Receptive Bodies—is part of Bersani’s larger project of thinking about the “fit” between the individual and the social, pursuing what Foucault intriguingly referred to as “new relational modes” (qtd. in Receptive 34). In the essay, Bersani notes that incongruity will be central to his argument, and this is the case not only regarding the argument’s content but also for the method of its exposition (Thoughts 59). But even here, questions of content and method extend beyond that of Bersani’s argument, as he proceeds to track the incongruous in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and Jean-Luc Godard’s film Passion, finding in them inaccurate correspondences of his own thinking. Thus, a correspondence of forms is initiated by Bersani, in which the methods of Freud’s psychoanalytic argument and Godard’s cinematic composition, along with his own method of argument, all prove to be driven forward or propelled by inaccurate analogy. As Bersani writes, “[T]he analogy seems to have a force of its own, redirecting the argument rather than merely illustrating it. It moves the argument forward by inaccurately replicating it” (Thoughts 73). While Bersani is here specifically referring to Freud’s famous analogy, in the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents, between the unconscious as a site where nothing is lost and the “Eternal City” of Rome with its many archaeological layers, his description equally applies to his own essay and to Godard’s film—and to the way that, in his essay, Godard, Freud, Proust, and Foucault are juxtaposed.
For Bersani, incongruity is the logic, syntax, and rhythm of the movement of the undivided self and the potentiality of a oneness of being.4 By this we are to understand that thoughts and things can be (or are) arranged or configured neither dialectically nor intersectionally, but only incongruously.5 Indeed, in reading Bersani, we confront the question of what an incongruous configuration would be, and whether such a thing would be a betrayal of the particular incongruent coming-together that Bersani seeks to trace. If there is such a thing as an incongruous configuration—for Bersani or more generally—it might simply go by the name of “the world.” Whatever the case, we are assuredly dealing here with a notion of configuration that is antonymous to completion, including in terms of any single figure or image around which ethical relationality might be structured or configured. The ethical-aesthetic, which Bersani took to be “a single category,” is the configuration of affinities, their incongruous likeness:6 our incongruity and our likeness (to slightly rewrite a line from a Thom Gunn poem).7
The incongruous self is that which is out of place, inappropriate, mismatched, at odds with, and not in harmony with its surroundings or the things to which it is in proximity. Anomalous, perverse, outlawed, unbecoming, the incongruous is thus not divided, separate, or apart from, but is precisely that which is in rapport with, yet in a nonsynchronous manner. For Bersani, aligning with Giorgio Agamben’s philosophy of potentiality and impotentiality, yet now with a greater emphasis on relationality, the incongruous self exhibits a passionate potential to be with, divorced from the strictures and structures of actuality. As he writes, “[T]he incongruous connection is a way of ungluing each term from its actuality” (Thoughts 66). Incongruous being is that form of freedom that comes from being free of predication, identification, reification, or any other definitive form or conclusive state of completion.
The syntax of incongruity might be imagined as the means for the undivided self to express its dissatisfaction or discontent with the world— at least, with the world as ontologically divided and incessantly in pursuit of bridging these partitions via logics of appropriation and mastery. Of course, it is just such “discontent” (Unbehagen: “unease, malaise, discomfort”) that Freud sought to address in 1930, and this is partly the reason for Bersani’s nearly career-spanning rereading of Civilization and Its Discontents, an engagement that dates at least as far back as 1976 with the publication of A Future for Astyanax. But unlike Freud, and also distinct from contemporaries such as Rei Terada in her book Looking Away: Phenomenality and Dissatisfaction, Kant to Adorno,8 Bersani finds an alternative (at least partly) not in the rescinding of visuality, but in the rescinding of affect that can be found in certain kinds of images or pictures that diagram—impersonally—an ontological sameness.
Yet this virtual oneness with the world is, at the same time, not to be confused with the “oceanic feeling” of which Freud speaks in the opening chapter of his book. There, Freud recounts an epistolary exchange with his friend Romain Rolland over the question of “the real source of religiosity” (3). While Rolland agreed with Freud’s view of religion, he countered that religiosity was not an illusion as much as it was rooted in a particular feeling: “a sense of ‘eternity,’ a feeling of something limitless, unbounded—as it were ‘oceanic’ ” (3). The direction in which Freud takes this notion has left an important and indelible mark (to say the least) on psychoanalytic discourse and its lessons regarding human sex and sexuality as the source of our unhappiness. As Bersani aptly characterizes it, “[A]ggression is the oceanic element that will flood the text of Civilization and Its Discontents” (xiv), and this is because, as he goes on to say, “destructiveness is constitutive of sexuality,” thereby leading to “a triple tautology: sexuality = aggression = civilization” (xvi).
The renunciation of aggressivity, which is a hallmark of Bersani’s ethics, was present throughout his work to the precise extent that he recognized that “our blind destructive fury is an intractable psychic function, and positioning in the world, rather than a deviation from some (imaginary) psychic normality” (xxii). It is here, at the end of his introduction to Civilization and Its Discontents, that Bersani closes with the statement (quoted above) about adapting to our inadaptability (hence remaining within psychoanalysis) and the inability to transcend that inadaptability without ceasing to be human. I am arguing that living incongruously is Bersani’s way of moving out of the psychoanalytic project of adaptation, all the while not positing an ultimate transcendence of the human condition in all its intractability. Within the intractable, Bersani sought to think, as he also called for, the exploration of nonaggressive, nonappropriating, and nonsadistic forms of movement.
Bersani’s renunciation of aggressivity can be further understood as pertaining to a more general interest, on his part, in the renunciation of affect and emotion, whether in theoretical discourse (psychoanalytic or otherwise) or in everyday life. With this accords a move back, away from the oceanic feeling and its positing of a universally shared affective condition, described by Bersani as “an ecstatic breaking down of the boundaries between the ego and the world” toward a more pictorial or better aesthetic diagramming of our nonerotic relations with the world (xv). Bersani’s endorsement of incongruous images (and images of incongruity) is, therefore, not only in tension with Freud’s suspicion of illusory images, or at least Freud’s repeatedly wagered caveat that a particular and most appropriate image of thought was available to him that could serve as an accurate illustration of his thinking it is also a distancing from the idea of emotion, affect, or feeling as the principle means by which to experience the virtual oneness of being.
But then again, it is incorrect to speak of Bersani renouncing anything, or perhaps more accurately, he renounces all the while being fully aware of Freud’s observation about the aggressivity of renunciation. Freud stated that while “it is at first the conscience [ . . . ] that causes us to renounce the drives, this causal relation is later reversed. Every renunciation of the drives now becomes a dynamic source of conscience; every fresh renunciation reinforces its severity and intolerance” (qtd. in Bersani, Introduction xxii). Famously, this is the new idea that Freud declares is worthy of psychoanalysis, the idea that Bersani neatly summarizes: “renunciation itself produces conscience” (xvii).
Incongruous being is, unlike oceanic feeling, the nonaffective ethical-aesthetic rapport with and sense of oneness with the world. For Bersani, incongruity is what is meant by the aesthetic, as it provides the syntax for thinking undivided being, a form of thinking that is neither that of philosophical abstraction, nor metaphysical speculation, nor epistemological discursive language, but rather that of empirical sense and perception. This is because sense operates via the incongruous: things in the world and our sense of them are not divided from the world but are immanent to it, yet in ways that are not congruous (mastered and known) but incongruous (received and sensed).
Incongruous (in other words, speculative) thinking is a new form of picture-thinking, now entirely distinct from the logic of predication, but at the same time reminiscent, in its commitment to the virtual and potential, of dream-images (the fantasmatic). In Bersani’s thinking against “immobilizing knowledge,” (Thoughts 69) the dream is an example of the psychic mobility of similitudes of being that as nonactualities of being—never realized, never finished—ward off psychic completeness. In these respects, we might say that the dream is an inaccurate replication of the forces of mobilization and resistance of empirical forms and bodies, the somatic attunement to others and the world—handling, choreography, rhythmic resonance, affinity—that defines incongruous being in all its unfinished potential. This was Leo’s dream.
It should be clear by now that Bersani’s “I can [ . . . ] can’t I” is not equivalent to the self-possessed, productive capacity of the subject and its drive for (self-)actualization. In fact, the pairing of these two phrases, with the affirmative “I can” followed by the interrogative “can’t I,” signals that every potentiality is accompanied by an impotentiality. Bersani thus asks a question that, in its entirety, conveys the idea that the virtualities (dreams) instituted by incongruity “have no intrinsic reason to be actualized.” It is the voice of virtual being that says, “I am free not to conclude.”
Other than a feeling, an image, or even a drive, incongruity is a “force in progress” (see Receptive ch. 4). In his reading of Hegel, Bersani will refer to this as “becoming.” Yet against Hegel’s concept of “becoming” as the vanishing (dialectical synthesis) of Being and Nothing, in which the “fire” of Becoming in its all-consuming sublation is identical with Being that has become (qtd. in Thoughts 75), Bersani argues that due to the “inherent unfinishedness” of virtual being, becoming does not become being, but rather “can’t stop becoming” (Thoughts 76).
For Bersani, this incessant becoming is, as he puts it, not directed toward epistemological gain or ontological wholeness, but rather effects an ontological loss or lessness. It is a “lessness consequent upon a loss of coherent [congruent] being,” moved by “the passion of unfinishing” (“Will” 166). It is in this way that he arrives at the insight (this time coauthored with Ulysse Dutoit) that “to circulate within sameness we must first all welcome [ . . . ] lessness” (“Pregnant” 157).
Like Bersani, I also wish to think in terms of an “availability of being,” but whereas he sees this as “permanent” via “our unstoppable becoming” (Thoughts 76), I find this openness and radically shared existence in our multiple exposures to the Outside via our unstoppable unbecoming (Ricco). Like becoming, unbecoming is an existential force in progress, and while it might not have the power to stop everything, it is the infinite force of finitude (in-finitude) and hence of existence. The infinitude of our singular existences as the infinite-in-act—which is not an abstract concept or metaphysical notion, but the very rhythm and pulse and vibration of our unbecoming existence—is nothing but the infinite abandonment of being and becoming to the existential force of finitude. It is this force that is shared in and as the separated spacing between our incongruous selves and that renders any form of being-together unbecoming.
But of course, Bersani was in no way ignorant of this force of finitude, including death—that unsurpassable and most immobilizing of life’s incongruities. Indeed, on the very last page of his essay “Being and Notness,” which closes Thoughts and Things, Bersani hints that it may be only in death that we achieve the ultimate form of incongruous being. The chapter is devoted to a reading of Pierre Bergounioux’s story La Casse, on the last page of which Bersani perceives the kind of intimacy with the world that we have been discussing here, and about which he concludes (in a notably elliptical and personal fashion), “If against all probabilities this did come to pass [this virtual oneness], much time will have gone by and, I suppose, like Bergounioux’s narrator—except that in disappearing he will have escaped from a world in which matter resists being different from itself, and I will have missed a utopic reality—I will no longer be here” (Thoughts 114). Up until that time, and still against all probabilities—but not all virtualities—Bersani tells us that “we can, and should, will ourselves to be less than what we are” (Thoughts 69), by pursuing the aesthetic passion of desynchronized elements and the ontological passion of derealized being (“Will” 167) that together constitute “the activity of a psychic utopia” (Thoughts 69). There, at the juncture of the incongruous and the unfinished, lies “a solidarity of being that would otherwise be nothing more than a metaphysical speculation” (“Pregnant” 157), which is not to say a dream—whether we realize it or not.
As Mikko Tuhkanen explains and then argues, “Predicative propositions assume a passive subject, a material, inert self that is given form—stamped, as it were—by the predicates that it receives. For us to be truly thinking, we must renounce this being that passively receives a world of contingent events” (12).
Bersani’s introduction to the 2002 Penguin edition of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents was also published in a 2002 issue of Raritan and then republished in Is the Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays (2010) as the chapter “Can Sex Make Us Happy?”
The essay “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” is, to borrow a word from Bersani, a re-perusal of his earlier essay “The Will to Know,” which dates from around 2010 and was published as the last chapter of the collection of essays Is the Rectum a Grave? This collection appeared three years prior to the 2013 publication of “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” in Critical Inquiry, which was then republished as a chapter in Thoughts and Things (2015).
Bersani makes it clear that his notion of the undivided self is distinct from and not to be confused with the notion of a unified self: “I want to argue that the idea of a divided self prevents us from recognizing the syntax of an undivided self, a syntax that is, however, different from the logical order that characterizes a now largely discredited notion of a unified self” (Bersani, Thoughts 63).
Indeed, as he asks, “what is the activity of virtuality,” and “what is potentiality’s syntax?” (Bersani, “Will” 165), while earlier in his work he states that “[d]ualism provides an illusory protection against the dangers of sameness” (Baudelaire 95).
See “The Choreographed Cure,” the talk that Bersani gave at the Provoking Attention symposium in 2017 at Brown University.
“Our idiosyncrasy, our likeness” is from Thom Gunn’s 1957 poem “Elvis Presley.”
Terada indicates the identity between Freud’s concept of discontent and her definition of dissatisfaction in the following fashion: “The dissatisfaction one finds around phenomenophilia is attenuated, diffuse, and reflexive. One can suffer, or just be uncomfortable, without minding it (one can even enjoy it): dissatisfaction is minding. Dissatisfaction is discomfort [ . . . ] accompanied by the comment that it ought not to be. I can find no reason to distinguish it from the ‘Unbehagen’ of Civilization and Its Discontents, translated as ‘discontent’ or ‘malaise’ ” (Terada 23–24).