Coming Together with Lauren Berlant: Good, Giving, and Game in Sex and Scholarship

During the roundtable discussion that drew together the Affect & Inquiry Symposium this past weekend at the University of Iowa, Jasbir Puar asked the conference delegation who gets to have futurity. And in offering a rejoinder to the question, she implored us to stop pretending that everyone can participate in the “good life” in identical or equal ways. I want to dwell on this question in my blog reflection, in the hopes of beginning a discussion about the ethics of sexual practices, scholarship practices, and sexual scholarship practices. During the symposium’s final keynote lecture, “Sex in the Event of Happiness,” Lauren Berlant reminded the culturally curious to practice a kind of reparative scholarship that does not look or feel repaired. The reflection that I offer joins this conversation about living in a time of transition (a time of crisis)—guided by an intense cultural erotophobia—and follows Berlant’s urging that we may meet this crisis not with a search for new end-games, but with fresh and capacious approaches to the conditions of erotophobia.



One of the ways in which we might begin thinking through that search is by orienting ourselves toward that thing we call “structure” differently.   For Berlant, naming structure as synonymous with “power” gets us nowhere. That is, to imbue structure with the loaded meanings smuggled in with the expression “power” frustrates our ability to think of structure as that which organizes transformation, and agency as that which offers a moment of movement or mobility. Theorizing (or, experimenting with) structure and agency in these terms, then, also requires a social theory that, as Berlant suggests, accounts for the inconvenience of other people, ambivalent relationalities, and the tangled-ness of lived realities within structure, within the possibilities of transformation.

The title of my blog reflection not only suggests my attachment to thinking through some of these questions among the connections between sex and scholarship, but it also inspires me to reflect on what scholarship feels like when it is not attached to the political, and by extension, the affective. One of the moments with which I continue to dwell as the symposium-high wears off (on), is this idea Berlant shared about flourishing. That is, a notion of flourishing (sexual or otherwise) that is not political is critically stunted because the apolitical marking evacuates the relational and public nature of those practices and processes of coming together. Apolitical flourishing also neglects the worlding capacity of intimacies.   To be sure, intimacy’s worlding capacity is not all unicorns and rainbows; it is, indeed, hard to share in sex and communication, and it is hard to show up to practices of sex and relationality when they are weighted with the burden of crystal-clear optimism. There is, as Berlant says, a failure that always floats around sex. And as graduate students that feel the weight of precarity, there is also always a failure that floats around our intellectual passions.

So what then of sex, scholarship, and sexual scholarship? During the Q&A, Berlant asked us to consider how it is that we come to learn not to be or become erotophobic when the worlds in which we live are so often contoured by the pressures of erotophobia.   If we take this question as a guiding one, remarks Berlant, then we ought to attend to those moments that have the potential to renovate, alter, and make more capacious the discomforting sensations of erotophobic terrains.   This question not only speaks to the venues in which we pursue our scholarly endeavors; indeed, sex and scholarship bear a remarkable resemblance in their dispositions for (mis)recognition, disruption, and the chance of coming together. Those resemblances remind me of a beautiful parallel drawn by Berlant this weekend wherein she put Dan Savage’s “Good, Giving, and Game” (3Gs) sexual ethics mantra in conversation with Stanley Cavell’s notion of becoming “in sync.”   This connection compelled me to think about what it means to be good to one’s object (of study), what it means to be giving during the act of critical inquiry, and what it means to be game—to be open to surprise and to think outside, beyond, and across the canons and fields that discipline our modes of scholarship.


In my own work in rhetorical studies, I have long been preoccupied with sex beyond the expectation that it just happens. What I mean by this is that I have long been preoccupied by the highly stylized and highly communicative dimensions of sex and the public articulation of pleasure. Both Savage and sex-positive feminisms are instructive for describing and elaborating those dimensions (after all, we would always benefit from initiating the encounter with the question, “what are you into?”).   Not only do sex-positive feminisms precede and extend Savage’s “3Gs” to encourage us to think about what constitutes an ethical engagement in the practice of sex, but they also give us a formation on which to think through what the political implications of scholarship might be if we engage criticism guided by the “3Gs.”

To be sure, not everyone has the same access to the good life—to unicorns and rainbows, to blissful flourishing. But to live with these disturbances, I want to suggest that a vision for ethical engagement, both with sex and scholarship, helps me grapple with some of those structural inequities. If structure is not the thing that always and necessarily incapacitates, but the thing that makes transformation possible, then this is a different starting place for both sex and scholarship. “Always-already” constructions begin to soften, and openings for political flourishing might emerge. Those openings can never totally repair that which did the breaking, but they do offer us an opportunity to hold on to those moments wherein individuals “make do”—live with norms, survive, and sometimes even thrive despite the duress of structures not in our favor. It is this critical orientation, one that approximates a practice of the 3Gs, which allows us to tune in to questions of access, (mis)recognition, and maybe even flourishing in our scholarship and our sex.

Sex has consequences, and so does scholarship. And while we might not always finish together, coming together sometimes feels right.



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