Finding Ways In

WorstedBaize1If you’re subscribed to this blog (I know a couple of you are) you may have wondered what I’m doing here with my posts. Here, at the very beginning of my journey, my readings and creative responses are the way I document my attempts to find ways into my topic.

If I were doing a straight-up research degree, this would be slightly easier. I could find a question no one had asked before, choose a framework, a methodology by which to grapple with the problem at hand, and go for it. I spend a lot of time envying people in the sciences who formulate a question and then design an experimental paradigm by which to investigate the phenomena – measure something, describe effects, search out evidence for causality, etc. I’m not saying this is easy. But it is a time-worn path of discovery which carries with it a lot of academic respect.

If I were doing a straight-up research degree, broadly, my question would be: how are we writing and reading about eroticism in the first part of the 21st century. I would, of course, take a look at the past. I’d explore how we read and wrote about it before, and how this has changed over time. I’d read the works of other scholars who tried to ask the same question, for their time. And people have done this, and so I am not the first to tread this path, just the person doing it for my time. And, of course, what is going on in society, and what has passed before, always feeds into what the questioners find. The politics, the social mores of the era, the forces of economics and class and religious influences will all play a part in informing their discourse, as it does mine.

But I am not doing a straight-up research degree, it is a degree involving research by practice. And so my job is to use my creative writing to drive a wedge in, pare off the skin of and autopsy the products of contemporary writers who have recently produced this type of work. In essence, I think, instead of reading against the grain, I must write against the grain of the work before me. I am going to use creative writing as the tool with which to examine the phenomena of erotic writing in contemporary literary fiction.

Of course, there are some examples of erotic writing in contemporary literary fiction whose grain I cannot write against, for a couple of surprising reasons. There are gay and lesbian erotic passages in lit fic which have very little grain for me to write against, since I am not primarily a homosexual writer myself, and because the examples I have found are stunningly and surprisingly grainless. They don’t stutter or hesitate, they don’t attempt to hide the eroticism of what they are writing, they don’t feel the need to metaphorize the alienation, the dislocation of the human condition through sex. Perhaps because, as ridiculous as it may seem to some of us, same-sex eroticism is still considered transgressive and new, those writers have loved the sex they wrote about, where heterosexual writers have felt the need to use it only as a metaphor and usually one for unpleasant things. Much of the gay and lesbian erotic passages I have found are rich and honest. As a primarily heterosexual reader, they invite me into another way of being with someone, ways that reject binary interpretations, that demand finer grains of discernment, where it is the complexity of individual identity that infuses the tension, and not simply a matter of possessing different genitalia.

Similarly, there are writers that might be identified as post-colonial who also seem to revel in the writing of the erotic as a part of the human experience. Perhaps because the cultures they came from were, for so long, robbed of the capacity to describe their eroticism in their own terms, because definitions of what was erotic were pressed upon them by their colonizers. Perhaps because they were used and fetishized by those powers, they were sexually objectified by those powers, they now feel free to explore and express an eroticism of their own. And on the whole, they do so gloriously, and sublimely, and they invite us into an eroticism wearing new skin and other languages.

But in a way, we have all been colonized. There have always been powers acting upon us, telling us what is permissible, what is normal, what is forbidden, what is perverse. For centuries, women have had their definitions of the erotic imposed upon them by men. For centuries, the rich have dictated the ways in which it is appropriate for the poor to be sexual. And for the most part, even the privileged members of the hegemony of white, male christianity has not escaped the imposition of definitions. They have been just as trapped as anyone else. And perhaps more so, because the rigidity of what eroticism is was self-authored. Identifying one’s oppressor is the first step to relieving them of their power, but what if you’re holding the whip hand yourself?

If I were writing a thesis, I could choose one type of critical theory and read the examples I have through that lens. I could choose Marxism, or Feminism, or Post-colonialism, or Queer theory and rake those combs backwards over the fur of the text and see what jumps out. Heck, I could simply spot the Freudian slip and Oedipal complications – and believe me, they are spilling out all over the place. But when you write creatively, you are expected to produce something more multi-dimensional than that. At least, that’s what I expect of myself. There is the possibility to use all those frameworks in the literary fiction I’m reading, and I feel my creative response should be equally nuanced, equally multilayered.

Today I am unsettled and dissatisfied with myself. Today I am asking myself the ‘so what?’ question. Does anyone really care how contemporary literary fiction is addressing eroticism? Or rather, not addressing it? Does it matter if they don’t or why they don’t?

There is a journal issue waiting for me at the library. Lacanian Ink Issue 24/25. I’m scared to look because I know that one of the things in it is an essay proclaiming that eroticism is dead. That with the end of limits, eroticism dies.  I’m scared to read it because if I agree with it, then I will be forced to acknowledge that all I am doing is recycling the texts of an age before the death of the erotic. All I’ll be writing is some dreadful bit of nostalgia.  And then where will I be?

In the meantime, I’m reading Of Grammatology by Derrida again. And listening to a set of wonderful John Caputo lectures on the text. They are a little frustrating in places, because no one bothers to turn off the mic during the lecture breaks, but they are a wonderful way in to Derrida if you find him disconcerting. Even if you enjoy him, Caputo’s reading is a fertile and joyous one.

The lectures are a bit jumbled up. But just download the links that start with the title Caputo – Derrida, or On Derrida.



4 Thoughts on “Finding Ways In

  1. Some scattered and probably rather random comments on an interesting post.

    Firstly, ‘we have all been colonized’. That’s a theme well-known from Foucault to the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies in the 70s/80s – the best-known piece would be ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ by Paul Gilroy et al, – and I’m sure there are plenty of other sources such as Said’s book on Orientalism and others you no doubt know. Some of my own erotic work – notably ‘Hanging Aound’, ‘The Museum of Deviant Desires’ and the collection I’m working on now – explicitly engages with this idea. You might also find interesting material around areas such as Robert Crumb’s comics, the Situationists, the Oz trial, the different pieces in Oh Calcutta (and Samuel Beckett’s ‘Breath’ which was a kind of ironic comment on it), the liminal role of big music festivals, the rise of burlesque. And so on. Okay so we’re talking about comics, plays and films, performances, but I’d try for a broad and inclusive view here. I can’t pretend to be expert in this area and I’m not sure how I’d apply it to literature specifically, because a lot of the discussion is on economics, cultural meanings, official discourses and government policies, globalisation, the sociology of consumption. and areas such as the fashion industry. But I’m sure you’ll find a way.

    The point about privilege and self-imposed boundaries is interesting, maybe even more so than others you make, but I’m not sure how I’d approach that.

    As to the Lacanian Ink thing on how eroticism is dead – that sounds like overkill. Haven’t read it, but it’s more likely that what we think of as ‘erotic’ is morphing into forms, especially given the amount of it that’s published or self-published now – some of it, yes, just pushing on with well-worn tropes (like 50 Shades), some seeking to explore boundaries of taste, and some trying to develop questions of what is now seen as ‘erotic’.

  2. Raziel Moore on January 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm said:

    You’ve chosen a challenging path, that much is for sure. I have a visceral negative reaction to any “X is dead”. It’s emotional rather than logical, so perhaps that journal article would easily fillet the opinion, however, I don’t think anything as fundamental to human nature as eroticism can truly die.

    This is a bit of a digression but, there’s an SF novel I read a few years ago, “The Light of Other Days” (Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter), which, while the story had its own issues, involved as a central concept the death of privacy. Imagine a world where you could put your point of view not just anywhere, but anywhen. Nothing witnessable anywhere, ever, can be made secret. And yet in this society, forms of privacy adapt and evolve – and attitudes *towards* privacy become fundamentally different.

    Translating that to the evolution of the erotic, the loss of sexual transgression will force the evolution of what we consider erotica. It will, I’ll wager, also force the evolution of what we consider transgression. I’m pretty sure that’s a known fundamental factor shaping erotic literature over time. I don’t see how it will stop, but then, I’m standing well back from the precipice of knowledge you’ve thrown yourself over.

    A last comment, the ‘So What?’ stage is *hard*. I don’t know if you can find the answer externally, but two of the fundamental answers (and I’d argue most important) are actually pretty narcissistic. First is because it’s something you want to know or accomplish for itself. The mountain you want to climb because it’s there (even if it’s only you who created it) as a challenge to intellect and/or emotion. Second is more pragmatic, but still personal, in that it can *enable* you do do something you want to do. Maybe it’s the credential needed to talk to relate to or publish in a peer group as an equal, or any number of other things. The edification of *others* can be, in the end, a distant third when you’re in this particular crunch.

    Rambling aside, reading how you’re finding your way in is, I’ll say, a bit inspiring.

  3. I’m afraid that literary theory goes right over my head; so any suggestion is likely to seem very naïf. Is it worth trying to write the same story in different genres?

  4. Catherine Leary on January 9, 2013 at 5:41 pm said:

    The end of limits? What does that even mean?

    I find the idea that eroticism is dead, because there are no longer any so-called “limits,” to be kind of laughable, really. Here, in the good old US of A, there are plenty of limits placed on what is and is not acceptable when it comes to the performance of sex. I’d say we’re the most backward country in the developed world when it comes to sex. So if you’ve got an entire culture, a very influential culture at that, clinging to its juvenile attitude toward sex, doesn’t that produce a bunch of limits to transgress (in the heterosexual sphere, at least)? Doesn’t that bring the erotic back?

    I don’t know. It’s entirely possible that I’m reading this post only at its surface.

    American prudery is interesting. We’ve got capitalistic imagery that’s been soaked in sex, supersaturated, while in practice, at home and in mainstream art, there’s so much distance between the flesh, this whole sterile wasteland, and images of the flesh. The images mean more than the reality. I’ve followed your writings here about the mediated experience of sex with great interest, because it seems to me that so much of “American Sex” (now there’s an interesting antho title, or magazine title, or something), or the experience of it, is so dependent on media-produced images. That we don’t know how to experience fucking without porn and romance novels telling us how we’re supposed to experience it.

    I don’t know how interested you are in fan fiction as a part of your studies, but really interesting things are happening (and have been happening) in fandom erotica for years.

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