Stefa Govaart

Sex Negativity

_Sex Negativity is an ASCA Research Group (University of Amsterdam) organized by Marija Cetinić, Tessel Veneboer and Stefa Govaart_


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Sex is not a “natural” landscape of stability upon which the “unnatural” vicissitudes of culture play out, as Judith Butler and other feminist scholars have shown. Sex is not “a passive surface, outside the social and yet its necessary counterpart” (Bodies That Matter, 5). Rather, sex is a regime of identity troubled by a vexed history of contestations over what a body is or should be; how it is to behave, gesticulate, speak, walk, cry and scream. Genes, hormones, the (non)emergence of organs, technological histories, proprioception, acts, and socio-cultural habits arbitrarily yet tenaciously congeal into a phenomenological reality that, once it appears, cannot fully efface the untidy state of things that undergirds it.

In the wake of the “sex wars” of second-wave feminism, the struggle for gay rights and the AIDS crisis, the emergent field of queer theory heralded sex as its preferred analytical category (Sedgwick 1985, Moon 2011). Countering feminist theory’s liking for “gender”, queer scholarship gauged “sex” better equipped for challenging the normative routes of identificatory practices, and desire at large (Butler & Martin 1994). Gayle Rubin’s instructive “Thinking Sex” (1984) termed the most pressing ideological formation permeating identification and desire “sex negativity”. Demonstrating––across disciplinary bounds––that the excess of signification sex induces is all too frequently canalized into “the notion that sex per se is harmful” (144), Rubin’s was a call for “theoretical as well as sexual pluralism” (171).

But the history of sex does not merely conjure the normative pressures of State apparatuses. In opposition to Rubin's usage, sex negativity as we use it, precisely points to a negativity that radically troubles the coherence of any such pressures. For us, sex negativity has critical-material valence.

Sex is thus more than a body’s binary or nonbinary embodiment, and surely more than a series of acts. In psychoanalytic thinking, talk of the emergence of the subject is inundated with talk of sex. Positing the concept of the unconscious, psychoanalysis thinks about sex as something other than the merely biological or cultural. Maybe, then, what sex is could be described as an intellectual mode of discernement marked by an (il)logic that resides in “this symbolic hole”, keeping it open, rendering it “operative in all its unsettling force”, against “non-thinking” (Žižek, Sex or The Failed Absolute, 13-14).

The status of sex in recent queer, feminist, and anti-capitalist theory has been unevenly assumed under sign of the body. This research group invites scholars to consider sex in its singular form of fundamental contradiction in which we (want to) “take our place” or occupy a position––through dialogue, reading groups, and (in)formal gatherings. It is not concepts that are problematic, but rather the effacement of the inherent contradiction of which they are a part, insists philosopher Alenka Zupančič (What is Sex?).

"There is no sexual relation," Lacan declares, suggesting that sex is exemplary in the way it induces an encounter with an irresolvable structural antagonism that cannot be effaced. That this contradiction cannot be resolved means that sex is of ontological relevance, and further, that sex bears an unbearable relation to negativity. As Mladen Dolar insists, "speaking obliquely is the proper way to speak about sex" ("Running Wild," 90-91). Heeding the circumlocutionary mode that speaking of sex demands, we will think sex ​​in its ontological relevance (Lacan, Zupančič 2017, Long Chu 2019); its relation to negativity or nonsovereignty (Bersani 2018, Berlant & Edelman 2014); the relatedness of transness and Blackness (Bey 2017); its figuration in cultural objects (Elagoz 2021).

Mediated by poetry, performance, philosophy, film, and critical theory, the goals of the research group include: reading and thinking together (attending especially to theories of negativity in contemporary critical theory; performance theory; Marxist-feminist social reproduction theory; psychoanalysis; philosophies of time; Black studies and afropessimist thought; queer theory; trans theory); gathering a critical and aesthetic archive of work on sex and negtivity; developing interdisciplinary research projects; artistic research collaborations; workshopping research papers of members; organizing guest lectures, readings, and performances through the We Have Never Had Sex seminar; collective writing and publishing in (non)academic platforms and journals; acquiring research funding and developing new research projects; establishing an international network of researchers; collaborating with poets, writers, artists, and performers.