Sex, or the Unbearable

Book Pages: 168 Illustrations: 6 photographs Published: December 2013

Cultural Studies > Affect Theory, Gender and Sexuality > Queer Theory, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory

Sex, or the Unbearable is a dialogue between Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, two of our leading theorists of sexuality, politics, and culture. In juxtaposing sex and the unbearable they don't propose that sex is unbearable, only that it unleashes unbearable contradictions that we nonetheless struggle to bear. In Berlant and Edelman's exchange, those terms invoke disturbances produced in encounters with others, ourselves, and the world, disturbances that tap into threats induced by fears of loss or rupture as well as by our hopes for repair.

Through virtuoso interpretations of works of cinema, photography, critical theory, and literature, including Lydia Davis's story "Break It Down" (reprinted in full here), Berlant and Edelman explore what it means to live with negativity, with those divisions that may be irreparable. Together, they consider how such negativity affects politics, theory, and intimately felt encounters. But where their critical approaches differ, neither hesitates to voice disagreement. Their very discussion—punctuated with moments of frustration, misconstruction, anxiety, aggression, recognition, exhilaration, and inspiration—enacts both the difficulty and the potential of encounter, the subject of this unusual exchange between two eminent critics and close friends.


“What’s lovely about this exchange is that Berlant and Edelman’s mutually locked horns don’t make us feel as though a cleverer person has already figured things out and we’re simply not smart or qualified enough to piece together the unspoken counterarguments they would have to our doubts.” — Colin Low, Against the Hype

"Berlant and Edelman’s three-act dialogue is wonderfully intriguing, especially in regard to how the dialogue itself bears witness to the intellectual process of ‘thinking through’ in the dialogic form." — Marcie Bianco, Lambda Literary Review

"This collaboration between Berlant and Edelman has a feel for the ecology of thinking as it passes between two points. Like holding one’s breath under water or passing a balloon back and forth without its touching the floor, these conversations illuminate the sense of timing with which ideas respond to and are shaped by each other."  — Michael D. Snediker, Theory & Event

“Berlant and Edelman take debates around the antisocial thesis as a point of departure to theorize the importance of relationality, loss and repair, sovereignty, and negativity in the politics and ethics of queer theory. Despite the overlapping topics of interest that have marked their respective works, their varying theoretical approaches make for a smart, enlivening, and productive conversation in Sex, or the Unbearable.” — Fiona I. B. Ngô, American Studies

“Berlant and Edelman discourse eloquently on the fraught relations between people….” — Hannah Proctor, Studies in the Maternal

“While Berlant and Edelman do not address popular romances, their work can be informative to the work of romance scholars in tackling issues of the place of sex and the erotic, especially within some romance tropes, such as discovery of a new sexual orientation plots in queer romances, or submissive-for-you plots in many erotic romances of all orientations.”   — Amanda Jo Hobson, Journal of Popular Romance Studies

“Among the book’s major attractions is its inventive dialogic form, and Berlant and Edelman’s masterful close readings of diverse media. The authors alternate named passages, riffing on each others’ ideas and including their moments of complex ambiguous affect, including responses to the other of misappropriation, frustration, delight and surprise, so often elided in collaborative critical theory. This dialogic form and its auto-analysis is one of the great intellectual joys of the book, a fascinating and inventive device well-suited to a discussion of the complex investments subjects have in relationality, including sex, conversation, and pedagogy.” — Jessica Durham, Colloquy

“These two authors offer an intense and highly insightful account of interactions between two subjects that, I suggest, could be fruitfully applied to understanding encounters in organizations. They show some of the complexities of relationality: it is violent, pleasurable, productive, a scene of fantasy and misrecognition, all these and more.” — Nancy Harding, Gender, Work & Organization

“As an overall project, Sex, or the Unbearable pushes forward the debate on queer negativity and antisociality, whilst also contributing to contemporary queer, feminist and cultural theory’s wider critiques of academic knowledge production and the political utility of academic scholarship.” — Kathryn Medien and Jacob Breslow, Sexualities

" intriguing theoretical and performative presentation of how relationality characterized by negativity has important consequences for sexuality and all of human relationships. The dialogical format of this book accompanied by the penetrating analysis of negativity provide the reader with a well rounded understanding of negativity, how it can be found, how to look for it, and how it can be realized in one’s own relationships. Anyone looking for an authoritative account of sexuality and relationships understood within the paradigm of negativity and modern queer theory would do well to work through and absorb the exchange between Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman contained within this volume." — Christian Daru, Philosophical Practice

"Sex, or the Unbearable will supersede the unenlivening debate that has, in recent years, opposed optimists and pessimists in the queer academic community. This important and original book, a dialogue between Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, reformulates the terms of the debate as a serious and profound reflection on negativity. Berlant and Edelman's penetrating and courageous encounter significantly raises the level of debate in contemporary cultural studies." — Leo Bersani, Emeritus Professor of French, University of California, Berkeley

"In Sex, or the Unbearable, Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman give a gripping and compelling seminar on reading, on the everyday dramas of unbecoming, undoing, opening up, and breaking down, and on love and sex. Relationality, they argue and demonstrate, is always a risk because in all encounters and conversations, and certainly in this one, the subject is misrecognized, unheard, and never in control. The risk, they show here, is always worth taking." — Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure

"The good news is that theory is alive. In a dialogue characterized by precision and generosity, two key theorists of sex, affect, aesthetics, and politics imagine the possibilities for the critical transformation of the social world. The bad news is that, for these brilliant, searching antipastoralists, none of the old fixes—psychic reparation or political hope—will do. Which is to say: there is no bad news. Sex, or the Unbearable testifies to the political significance of negativity and to the ongoing force of epistemology in queer studies." — Heather Love, author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Cruel Optimism, The Female Complaint, and The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, all also published by Duke University Press.

Lee Edelman is Fletcher Professor of English Literature at Tufts University. He is the author of L'impossible Homosexuel; No Future, also published by Duke University Press; and Homographesis.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface vii

1. Sex without Optimism 1

2. What Survives 35

3. Living with Negativity 63

Afterwords 119

Appendix. "Break It Down" / Lydia Davis 127

Acknowledgments 135

References 137

Index 141
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Lauren Berlant is the recipient of the 2019 Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the American Literature Section of Modern Language Association.

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5594-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5580-9
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