Against Thing-King: A Review of Leo Bersani’s “Thoughts and Things”

Charlot N Maulibec

July 15, 2016

image and organism

Psychology has observed that certain images will return to haunt the the individual.  They come unbidden into dreams and thoughts; their force is enigmatic, which explains both their undigested nature, and their continuing indigestibility.  In this they are like static on the screen of life history, unintegrated and unsymbolized.  Certain intellectual images, like those from the life of the individual, can behave similarly.  They can be copied, but not read; awaiting their addressor, they remain in part illegible.  This is not only a liability. For, “only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command” (Reflections 66).  The bestiary of Freudian images has its share of members imprisoned in this time loop.  The ubiquity that signals irresolution is also a sign that a communicating vessel sends charges rather than interpretations back and forth between the past and present.  For insofar the image is not exhausted, it seeks the eye that can scan its features entirely.  So it is with the most opaque of Freudian images, which unfolds from the fourth chapter of Beyond the Pleasure Principle and slips into the rifts where psychoanalysis turns enigma. According to this image, the primal organism is submerged to its neck in the roaring noise of the outer world, huddling inward against the forces bombarding it.  “This morsel of living substance floats about in an outer world which is charged with the most potent energies, and it would be destroyed by the operation of the stimuli proceeding from this world if it were not furnished with a protection against stimulation (Reizschutz). It acquires this through its outermost layer—which gives the structure that belongs to living matter—becoming in a measure inorganic, and this now operates as a special integument or membrane that keeps off the stimuli, i. e. makes it impossible for the energies of the outer world to act with more than a fragment of their intensity on the layers immediately below which have preserved their vitality.” A pure representation, — to only connect — if attainable, would be completely illegible. Absent selection, all being would be noise. Deadening, selection, reduction; violence projected to engage violence encountered: such behavior stands for a relational comportment towards the real of not only the human psyche, but other organisms and things of the world.  The image’s power resides in its, in the fullest technical sense of the word, uncanny presentation of the traditional subject-object thought of relation; a retrenchment of the familiar that also suggests its own oddness and instability. It condenses the process by which a system stratifies and organizes itself against an environment, and yet remains in ineluctable and overwhelming contact. It is here, the place where Leo Bersani says psychoanalysis encounters ontology, that sets the scene of writing for Thoughts and Things.

questions old and new

Thoughts and Things continues Bersani’s life-long quest to exfoliate the consequences of psychoanalytic thinking on being and relation:  what is our mode of connectedness to the world — to other humans and to non-human things? What kind of relation is knowing?  How do sexuality and sociality inform cognition?  What is the very stuff of relation? These consequences are both critical and renewing; they open the defining question of this book: how ought the relation between thought and the world to be determined? In his earlier writings, Bersani has unearthed a psychoanalytic constellation of sexuality, masochistic violence, and instability.  The shattering, de-subjectifying force of Freudian sexuality unsettles the very concepts and categories crafted to capture and comprehend it.  Reflection on this force and its sheer decompositional power opens the path to “problematizing” relationality, and possibly of reformulating it beyond its habitual horizons.  If forms of sociality and cognition can be broken, they can be imaginatively rebuilt.  Art is the laboratory in which these experiments are performed. Thus, Bersani has philosophized through aesthetic analysis. For it is “the traumatic shocks of art, shocks that open other relational fields that, most consequentially, might reconfigure the social and the political” (92). But his orientation is not strictly practical: art and psychoanalysis both give views of the complex material texture of cognitive and social experience that are covered over and abstracted in the practice of life.  It could be objected that psychoanalytic thought nests firmly within the subject-object dualism organizing tradition.  This is correct, and it leads to the question of why Bersani persists in working over clay that is defective by his own standards.  Perhaps it is the way in which psychoanalysis opens unto a field of relation prior to the strict differentiation of cognition, experience and sociality. “Psychoanalysis, in Bersani’s view, provides the language and conceptual framework to describe how and why subjects go about appropriating and annihilating objects.”(Lerner) But it is also the dark lure of an auto-immunity lining the world-interior of psychoanalytic concepts: “Language comes too late; it depends on distinctions and intervals of which the fundamental subject of psychoanalysis, as well as the psychoanalytic subject, are ignorant. The heroically impossible project of psychoanalysis is to theorize an untheorizable psyche, and the exceptional nature of the Freudian (and, I would add, Lacanian) texts in the history of psychoanalysis is that they allow unreadable pressures to infiltrate the readable, thus creating a type of readability at odds with how we have been taught to read while also accounting for that which, in the psychic structure, is anterior to all readable accounting for.” (52)

the care of the frame

Pierre Hadot, who died in 2010, was ordained a priest of the catholic church in 1944; he left the church six years later, after the encyclical humani generis attacked the independent thought of clerics in an effort to reclaim them as instruments of an institutional knowledge.  One imagines that his taste for spiritual practice was nourished by the church.  But it was in turning away that he unearthed the therapeutic nature of the philosophy of antiquity: “from 1970 on, I have felt very strongly that it was Epicureanism and Stoicism which could nourish the spiritual life of men and women of our times, as well as my own”(PWL 280). Hadot’s work turns around a metaphilosophical thesis.  It argues that modernity is defined by the decisive rejection of philosophy as a way of life or exploration of being in the world for a reductive focus on knowledge as a means of grasping the world.  The ascendence of epistemology over philosophy as a way of life was prepared by centuries of erosion of the latter through Christian theology; it culminates in the dualistic philosophy of Descartes, who determined certainty and knowledge as the proper relation of res extensa and res cogitans.  Hadot’s ideas captured the enthusiasm of Michel Foucault, who disseminated them through his late and influential work on ethics and the practices of the self.  The meditations contained in Thoughts and Things are specified in Bersani’s oeuvre by the conjunction of the perspective of a psycho-aesthetics of shattering with the frame of a historical hypothesis.  The question, ‘how ought the relation of thought and world be determined?’, opens out of a dissatisfaction with the way in which this relation is currently structured.  The culprit is the modern elevation of epistemology, which determines knowledge as the prince of relation.  Psychoanalysis and art, in revealing epistemological relations as bound to psychic comportments of aggression, violence and narcissism, offer the unique perspective of Thoughts and Things within the historico-philosophical frame traceable to Foucault and Hadot.  These lead to a subtle but important shift of emphasis and a radicalization: “…Foucault failed to note that neither the Cartesian moment nor the souci de soi (“care of the self”) puts into question a more general assumption  common to both: that of a difference of being between the subject and the world. Knowledge as defining our primary relation to the world depends on an opposition made most starkly explicit by the Cartesian dualism of mind and nonmind, and this opposition accounts for what Richard Rorty criticized as the primacy of epistemology in modern philosophy. Ulysse Dutoit and I have been attempting to define a different relational mode, one of exchanges and correspondences between the subject and the world, exchanges that depend on the anti-Cartesian assumption of a commonality of being among the human subject and both the human and the nonhuman world  (62).  Thus, things and the exteriority of the world take on an importance absent in Hadot and Foucault.  It is this object-orientation that, as I will argue below, constellates Leo Bersani’s book with the contemporary scene of philosophy and aesthetics.  The frame and perspective are relatively static, which is why the essay form is so successful here.  For Thoughts and Things is the least unified of Bersani’s books.  As he explains in the preface, none of the essays were written with an eye to their mutual inclusion between two covers: “in agreeing to add a conventional preface to Thoughts and Things, I suppose I would say that all the essays in this book—most of which were not written as part of a single book project—treat the question of connectedness: of how the human subject connects or fails to connect to other human subjects and to the nonhuman world” (“Against Prefaces, ix). The essays range over familiar Bersanian topoi like readings of films and microscopic dissections that, in deconstructive fashion, treat philosophical and theoretical texts, particularly Freudian, as fields of forces that exceed their intentions, leaving residues for the careful investigator to interpret.  The chapters of Thoughts and Things are partial excursuses, all incomplete in themselves, but all contributing strokes toward the composition of an image in the frame.

exchanges and correspondences

The epistemological world-connection is built upon a presupposition of opposition: things are determined primarily as different, opening them to projections of danger and hostility and the simultaneous work of subduing and dominating by way of autonomous subjectivity.  In psychoanalytic thinking, the texture and dynamics of this hostility are granted a frightening degree of complexity. “An intersubjectivity grounded in the subject-object dualism is perhaps inevitably condemned (however its etiology may be understood) to a paranoid relationality. If otherness is reduced to difference, the hatred of the world that Freud speaks of— which we might rephrase as a paranoid suspicion of the world’s difference—is, as he suggests, the affective basis of a logically coherent strategy of defense. The desire to know the other is inseparable from the need to master the other.”(7)  Bersani’s exemplary analysis of Claire Denis’ film Beau travail shows how art opens an alternative field of relation that exceeds the antagonistic and sadistic relations between subject and world and between subject and others. Bersani is drawn to the film since its subject matter, the daily life of a unit of the French Foreign Legion, is a peculiar social formation. The central elements of the psychoanalytic account of how the human gives birth to the social are displaced: the subjects are not ordered around oedipally charged desires, paternal inheritance, or national character.  The Legionnaires are isolated and remote, and in many scenes completely detached from any sociality beyond their own circle. Noting the documentary character of the film, in which most scenes present the daily and banal activities of the Legionnaires, like ironing their uniforms, stretching, performing physical exercises, and collective movement Bersani observes that these movements have almost nothing to do with the Legionnaires as psychological individuals.  Rather, the activities establish formal correspondences between them in a choreographic manner. They present formal correspondences; the individualizations and differentiations of particular psychologies fade as material, formal choreography as the body moves with “the kind of movement from which desire [and its corollary, differentiated psychologies] is absent”(10). It is difficult to derive from his descriptions how exactly Bersani wants these formal correspondences to be taken theoretically.  The descriptive mode revives terms familiar from Bersani’s work in the 1970’s, like his October essay, co-authored with Ulysses Dutoit, on ancient Assyrian palace reliefs.  Later chapters hint at a more systematic theory through which the descriptions can be integrated reconstructed. The formal correspondences in the movements of the Legionnaires are determined in opposition to psychologized, individualized and subjectivized relations. According to theorists of the socius like Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, subjection and individualization are conceived as complementary consequences of the instantiation of the symbolic orders that glue together classificatory systems and the flux of the world. These systems,  embodied materially in social-communicative practices like language, law, exchange-relations, schemes of conceptuality, and forms of representation, are the resources of differentiation. “Psychologization,” the process of individualizing, is conceived as assujetissement, a way of being captured entirely within that social-symbolic texture and its determinate relational regimes.  In Bersani’s psychoanalytic inflection, these processes are anchored through psycho-sexual development, the mediating institution of the family and processes like naming. Individualization and psychologization are commensurate not only with the production of structured relational regimes and controlled discourse; they also channel desire in aggressively organized ways. Thus, when Bersani speaks of “psychological differentiation,” he is referring to participation in the differentiating rejection and aggressive relation to other humans and the things of the world as described above in the epistemological world-connection. Bersani’s psychoanalytic inflection takes him beyond attributing a totalizing power to the performative construction of the social-symbolic, and in fact he offers a critique of performativity in gender in chapter two.  Psychoanalysis emphasizes instabilities and limits in the process of assujetissement — in the form of sexuality, drives, and the body.  In many ways Bersani’s approach bears similarities to Lacanian theorizations of “the real.”  Rather than demand the legitimation of new performative constructions Bersani searches for paths to delegitimation, or ways in which it is possible to separate or slip out of symbolic determination and in the process to shed family, father and name.  For these are the things, according to psychoanalysis, that, facilitating our symbolic investiture, lead us to take ourselves as fundamentally different from the things of the world.  The formal correspondences of the Legionnaires are grounded in the “Freudian body,” aesthetic forms that bring forward the instability and re-formability, as the drive causes discursive practice to “trip.” As the symbolic forms are occluded, new organizations and forms of correspondence in the texture of the real can surface. It is like Moholy-Nagy’s program for turning “the gramophone from an instrument of reproduction into a reproductive one, generating acoustic phenomena without any previous acoustic existence by scratching the necessary marks on the record.”  In one stroke, the symbolic system of western tonality is deserted, and a new form of music surfaces — immersed in the noise of the real, working by way of the irrational logarithms of frequency, which index material vibrations, rather than the Pythagorean logoi of proportion.

walking away

This possibility of new forms provides the support to separate from the structures and given regimes of relation. From Denis’ crafting of an aesthetic relationality Bersani draws an enigmatic (and underdeveloped) conclusions: the possibility of walking away.  This thought recurs in a number of variations in the essays in Thoughts and Things.  Rather than the usual strategies for contestation and transgression, Bersani proposes a much more profound and disturbing thought of desertion:  “Leave the violence of a desire for the father and the son, a violence that transforms brotherhood into fratricide.” (14) Beau travail shows forms of sociality outside of habituated subjectivity: the negative moment of separation from the symbolic is not emphasized so much as a view of its effects is juxtaposed with a space outside.   This concept of walking away is taken to its logical extreme in the analysis of Todd Haynes’s Safe: Carol “is, constitutively, a refusal to belong, to be named” — as such (35).  The possibility of the entire social (middle class housewife) and symbolic identity being shed.  Whereas the relationality of Denis’ Legionnaires  could be interpreted in terms of positive formal choreography, the socially evacuated Carol is more ambiguous: does her “delegitimized existence” harbor an “unknown passion,” or is it the extreme of a death all the more horrid for being cradled within life? Bersani’s risk is to think these possibilities of walking away in their relentless extremity.

steps toward ontology

In the course of his analysis of Denis’ film, Bersani observes that “the account of the human given by psychoanalysis is closer to ontology than it is to psychology or morality”(9) Bersani has explored the “northwest passage” from psychology to ontology for decades. In Thoughts and Things the latter attains a degree of positive formulation absent in the earlier work.  The negative movement of separation from symbolic structures opens the human and the psyche as objects amongst objects, objects complexly stratified and pulled by many mediations, ontologically open rather than closed hostile to the mass of things of the world.  The third and fourth chapters of Thoughts and Things bring these speculations forward through a reading of the modes of split subjectivity in Descartes, Proust and Freud, and their relation to the epistemological world-connection.   Bersani observes a pattern of “divided syntax” in these thinkers. the subject must find a way to its own internal opacity, its own internal “object”; this preliminary bridge constructed through knowledge, provides the ur-form of relation, and legitimates the erection of similar bridges to the world.  In Freud, these mediations fall apart. The unconscious cannot be accessed through a kind of translational knowledge. It bleeds into consciousness and refuses to stay put. It is the experimental aspect of being that does not allow itself to be captured in identities that exclude other positions and extensions, like the Deleuzian virtuality at which Bersani’s speculations will arrive. The governing “syntax” of the divided subject of knowledge which Bersani has described breaks down in favor of an “undivided syntax” of multiple differentiations not walled off in the stabilized separate compartments presupposed by the oppositional-epistemological relation.  Bersani views the communicational channels and relays that undermine psychic categories, like those between primary and secondary process thinking, between sexuality and aggression, between language and drive, between sadism and masochism, as a salutary model of a confused and buzzing plane that contrasts with the rigid models dear to the modern epistemological subject.  Communication, or the communion of being, is not equivalent to knowledge. Connections are often, “epistemologically useless,”(81) as the formal correspondences in the physical exercises of Denis’ Legionnaires.  Such speculation situates Bersani in a strange philosophical space.  His ontological vision increasingly approaches Deleuze, his social analyses those of Foucault, and yet he attains these perspectives by way of a classical deconstructive approach to Freud’s writings: “We should not think of the Freudian text as being at odds with itself. Its exceptional nature is to enact a oneness of being—not a divided being—which may be the most profound discovery of psychoanalysis” (64). In this way, Bersani has arrived at an interpretation of psychoanalysis uncannily similar to that advocated by André Breton and the surrealists.  A plane of immanence, but not of homogeneity.  A reality, as Breton put it, of communicating vessels. For this unity is not harmonic: in discussing analogy and similarity Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion, Bersani notes that an “undivided syntax” is always “incongruous.”  These similitudes are “epistemologically useless” (81) relations, where alikeness is a comportment toward a complex and ever-changing community of being, a being-alongside. For “the communication of souls does not depend on the knowledge of souls.”(87)  The subject is not ‘divided’ so much as indefinitely available to multiple mediations and relations, which both abstract and actualize a non-identical, incongruous being. This can be seen in Bersani’s discussion of dreams, which are almost identical to some of Breton’s pronunciations.  The dream is not simply a means to secrets that would serve waking life; it is itself a mode of being in its own right, and one that also acts reciprocally upon waking to dislocate its smug certainty of necessity and actuality. Dreams unbind the illusionary stability of conscious experience, for they have an echoing presence in this “single syntax” of being.

the contemporary

Recently, Peter Osborne has made us aware of the compositional problem of the contemporary as distinct from the transitory problem of the modern.  Since there is no standpoint, for various reasons, from which the relational totality of the now could be constructed as a whole, the contemporary remains a projective fiction.  “It is a productive act of imagination to the extent to which it performatively projects a non-existent unity onto the disjunctive relations between coeval times.” It is undoubtedly true that Bersani is primarily a philosopher of the human.  However, Thoughts and Things takes, from the perspective of a contemporary composition of philosophical aesthetics, forays into things and objects in their own right.  This is the territory dear to speculative realism, which aims to shift philosophical frame of reference away from signification, psyche and society, and towards the materiality of objects, things and nature.  The maturity of Bersani’s approach to this problem derives from its appearance at the end of a working-through of problematics internal to the human sciences.  The re-description of relation he calls for is based on an ontology of unity which constructs a plane upon which human forms do not preside over the non-human, but relate on the terms of the latter.   Bersani’s writings on thoughts and things add an element to the contemporary composition, valuable for the infinite tension it generates with respect to this statement from Graham Harman: “If some random crank were to assert that everything in the world is made of either wood or metal, we would oppose him not by upholding a primal ‘wood-metal’ that prevents these two materials from ever existing in isolation, but simply by observing that wooden vs. metallic is not a fundamental rift. The same realization should occur with the dismal opposition and equally dismal reconciliation of human and world. “ (Prince of Networks 119).  Certainly Bersani would fall under the ban of “correlationism.”  And yet, when read as descriptions of the specific object of the psyche, do not his analyses not provide steps towards a more environmental psychology?  “The being of the human subject is continuously intersected by nontotalizable virtual connections, all of which inhabit the same inner space, all of which contribute to the evolving and paradoxical oneness of an at once multiple and empty subject.” (82)


From the perspective of the speculative realist, cosmology is a salutary pursuit.  It represents an engagement with the ‘ancestral’ — what exists irreducibly beyond human access or relation to it, due to scales of temporal priority that in their sheer size approach the absolute.  In an unexpected chapter on the physicist Lawrence Krauss, meditating on the ancestral composition of human being, of which cognition is a narrow and relatively recent stratum, Bersani reminds us that human-nonhuman distinctions are as destructive and narrow and mind-body distinctions, closing off an immense field of relations and becomings: “Our connective field extends far beyond and before the human. We can think like matter, or perhaps more accurately, matter thinks us. (82) We can also think of Bersani’s emphasis on the object-oriented quality of Todd Hayne’s camera in Safe, which sets humans as small, almost unnoticeably figures in large object-environment that almost always fill the frame.  Carol is a “speck,” and her “small voice” is no match for the sound of freeways, construction, cleaning processes, and the other disorganized noises of the industrial world.  Hayne’s camera bears witness to a humanity overwhelmed by what Timothy Morton has called the “hyperobjects” of the environment of late-capitalism.  Thus we are shown the weirdness and closeness of the non-human. Ontological openness is experimental.  It is not traditional liberation, but a new risk of relating. For the distances are uncomfortably close.

being, available

“– C’est là ce que nous avons eu de meilleur ! dit Frédéric. – Oui, peut-être bien ? C’est là ce que nous avons eu de meilleur ! dit Deslaurier.”  The final chapter of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is an unsettling paean to the echo of what might have been. Frederick and Deslaurier, aged and settled, reunite and reminisce at the fireside of Frederick’s modest estate.  Their hopes and experiences ranged wide. Deslaurier had once planned to write a great critical history of philosophy, and Frederick a medieval romance.  But these grand projects are passed over in a sentence.  The only scene bodied forth in the conversation concerns the visit they made, as schoolboys, to a brothel shrouded in mystery.  The apprehensiveness in the face of the unknown and the sheer availability of the women in the room causes them, in the face of laughter, to flee.  And this reminisced moment of confusion, availability, possibility, and flight is what, despite everything else, they remember as the best time they ever had.  The incident, for Frederick and Deslaurier, stands for the availability of the world, now channeled in its determinate paths.  This presents a profound image of the availability and virtuality that surrounds Bersani’s book like uneven candle light.  The ontological syntax of available being opposes the frame of the epistemological bridge between thought and world, the hostile and differential model of otherness explained by Hadot, Foucault and Bersani.  “We must be shocked into otherwise inconceivable states of availability” (93).   This availability should be juxtaposed to the crusted image of the primal organism in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It’s sexual overtones should resonate, as in Baudelaire’s paean to the soul-prostitution of the poet, giving itself over to the ever-renewed registration of the real. It is in this sense that Bersani is no longer a critic. For, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, criticism is a matter of distance and framing; a state of affairs refused by the risky fall into the texture of things outside of our social and symbolic forms of determinacy.  And so Thoughts and Things, in a canny performative involution, becomes a space for Bersani’s own incongruous encounter with his life’s work: he comments on the estrangement not only of re-encountering his first book, published in 1964, but even the present series of text, which arguably have remained with similar objects as fifty years ago. “At the distance of nearly half a century, I think I was able to present my much earlier critical self with a laudable mixture of generosity (toward the first of my many confrontations with Proust’s massive work) and reserve (toward arguments I would still make, but recategorized within, I would hope, an enriched critical apparatus). In the present instance, it strikes me that the blend of sameness and difference between the essays themselves and what I have just written, pleasurably if reluctantly, about them aligns me with those who have not yet read the essays. As my first reader, I have found a strangeness in my work not entirely unlike the disorienting but productive difference ideally encountered by someone reading a text for the first time.”(xiv) This late commentary is comparable to the reminiscences that close Flaubert’s novel: Bersani is engaged in a project of unbinding his own thought, writing and past.   For, “our unstoppable becoming is a permanent availability to being” (94).

Aesthetics Childhood Cruelty Dialectic of Conscious and Unconscious Dreams Love New Social Forms Ontology Philosophy Reading Writing