Most of you who visit this blog know that I use it as a sort of mental sorting space, a way to digest a lot of the theory I’m reading, processing and incorporating into my thesis – both the critical and the creative portions – on postmodern (or post-postmodern) eroticism.
Hopefully, if you’ve been reading along, you already know that what I’m referring to as eroticism is something quite specific. I’m not addressing just all kinds of ‘sexy’ writing, but work that theorizes on, or fiction that addresses a kind of peak erotic experience described by Georges Bataille in his work ‘Erotism: Death and Sensuality’. For Bataille, eroticism is almost indistinguishable from an ecstatic religious experience – with four very important aspects: transgression, transcendence, the temporary destruction of the individual as a socially intelligible subject, and the instability or failure of language to communicate or make sense of it in the moment.
The most important of all of these is transgression: it’s really the key to all eroticism as Bataille and many theorists that came after him define it.
Unsurprisingly, this tends to upset a lot of people who feel that sexuality is still very much repressed and controlled within our contemporary society. They imagine an ideal utopian mode of erotic being in which pleasure and the enjoyment of erotic sensuality is seen as a positive force within our culture, very much in line with the ideology of sexual liberationists.
But the Lacanian theory of enjoyment, of jouissance – which I argue is exactly what Bataille is describing as eroticism – is structured on a model of desire and drive that is very complex. Jouissance can only be yearned for in its absence, in its prohibition. For theorists like Todd McGowan, “enjoyment is something that does not exist prior to its renunciation” (16). This seems counter-intuitive. Wait up, you say, I can enjoy a sunset, a wank, a glass of wine without someone telling me I’m not allowed to have it! Absolutely, but that’s not the sort of ‘enjoy’ that we’re discussing. We’re not discussing a simple sensory pleasure. We’re talking about a yearning for a form of enjoyment that seems to promise a meaning, a satisfaction beyond the object or act itself. We’re discussing a transcendence, a sublime experience.
Later Lacanian-inspired thinkers like Zizek and McGowan, and also people like Jean Baudrillard, feel that with the evolution of the consumer society, something has changed very radically. We’ve moved from a society of prohibition to a society of enjoyment. As McGowan explains:
“Whereas formerly society has required subjects to renounce their private enjoyment in the name of social duty, today the only duty seems to consist in enjoying oneself as much as possible. The fundamental social duty in contemporary American society lies in committing oneself to enjoyment. Advertisements, friends, movies, parents, television shows, internet sites, and even authority figures all call on us to maximize our enjoyment. This marks a dramatic change in the way the social order is constituted: rather than being tied together through a shared sacrifice, subjects exist side by side in their isolated enclaves of enjoyment” (2)
Slavoj Zizek frames it another way: “Public order is no longer maintained by hierarchy, repression and strict regulation, and therefore is no longer subverted by liberating acts of transgression” (“You May!”). His argument is that, within a social paradigm that commands you to enjoy, that tells you that greed is good and no boundaries should exist to seeking your own private enjoyment, there is no mechanism by which you can rebel against the power-structure that makes the rules (or lack of them).
It’s really hard to get your head around the trap of this, so let me offer you a little narrative to explain why a consumeristic society of enjoyment is a tremendously frightening trap:
Salesperson: Hey, buy this Hugo Boss suit. It will let people know exactly what kind of a man you are.
Buyer: It’s really expensive.
Salesperson: We have easy credit. You can apply for it, and then buy the suit.
Buyer: But… I really don’t need a suit to express my masculinity.
Salesperson: I can see that you’re a real radical. Excellent. Why don’t you buy this “Fuck Hugo Boss” t-shirt to let the world know that you think men who buy Hugo Boss suits to attempt to express their masculinity are insecure losers.
When it comes to erotic aspects of life, it gets even more insidious. The labels that once served to remind you of the consequences of pursuing forbidden enjoyment are now used to sell enjoyment that isn’t forbidden at all: your purchase “Natasha’s Naughty Confessions” on Amazon infers that someone – either you or Natasha is probably going to incur punishment. But the reality is that there’s nothing ‘naughty’ about it. None of you are going to be punished for enjoying it. Same with XXX, or sinful, or forbidden or explicit. They’re all marketing tags that infer a barrier, a prohibition that simply isn’t there. They appeal to our nostalgia for an earlier society in which slinking into a porn flick was a socially risky thing to do, when doing something ‘sinful’ really DID make you worry that you might be locked out of a blissful afterlife for indulging in it.
I know this is going to piss off some sex-bloggers and online erotica writers I am very fond of. They’re not literally trying to ‘sell’ anything with their ‘sinful confessions’ and their ‘naughty stories’. These are ‘bell words’ to attract people to their content. What I would ask them to consider is just to acknowledge that they are, unwittingly, indulging in false advertising. They’d be outraged if anyone tried to actually punish them punitively for their ‘naughtiness’ or if someone threatened them with hellfire and damnation for their ‘sinfulness’. I want them to acknowledge the dichotomy: unless there really ARE negative consequences to their supposedly transgressional acts of expression, they aren’t transgressive. You can’t actually transgress anything if you have no value for the line you’re stepping over.
Wait up! You say again. What about all those new regulations that British Board of Film Censors just brought in: no spanking, no face-sitting, no golden showers, no fisting. Isn’t that prohibition? (UK Porn Legislation) Well, yes it is. And this serves to remind us that cultural and sociopolitical theorists tend to state their ideas in absolutes, but reality always looks a little choppier. But I would argue that a) no one has prohibited you from actually DOING this in your bedroom and b) they have made themselves ridiculous in the eyes of mainstream society for attempting to ban in remediation what many people do in their bedrooms and c) there’s a frightening application of power at play here: we have a society full of government-supported sex-educators telling us that its healthy to express our sexuality any way we want to in the bedroom (as long as its consensual) and a government-supported media regulator who claims it’s obscene to show those very things we are being told are so essential to our self-realization as healthy sexual beings.
This application of power is so frightening because it doesn’t even bother to try to make any sense. It appears whim-driven and unintelligible. Lacan calls it the enigmatic desire of the Other. And it is, in Lacanian terms, the most traumatic form of power abuse there is. When a power structure imposes rules that seem relatively logical to us, we tend to find a way to cope with those. But when the rules seem utterly senseless, it is a subtle form of psychological terror because there is no way to even begin to imagine what insane rule they’ll try and impose next (Ruti 44)
So, as I approach the end of my graduate work, I’m confronted with theorists who are basically claiming that the form of eroticism I wish to represent in my fiction simply can’t exist in a society of enjoyment. And their arguments for why it can’t aren’t easily dismissed.
And yet, I feel they are wrong. Not completely, but they ignore the fact that there are prohibitions and sins in our culture of enjoyment. We are prohibited from NOT enjoying, we are prohibited from feeling ashamed or guilty when we enjoy, it is a sin to be fat and not be constantly promising you’ll lose weight, it’s a sin to indulge in activities that aren’t healthy – like smoking, and, as we’ve just seen in the last election in the UK and in the punitive and repressive policing tactics that led to the tragedy in Ferguson – it’s a sin to be poor. It’s a terrible sin not to have the means by which to participate in all this guilt-free enjoyment, and a sin to made a decision not to do it.
Admittedly, none of these forms of transgression will do what Zizek dreams of, which is to change the current neo-liberal social order. But I am not in the business of revolution. I am in the business of telling stories of eroticism. And I think there is plenty of scope here for both external transgressions of willfully rejecting the values of a consumerist society and internal transgressions – because we DO have the power to draw our own lines, set our own limits, and then step over them.
Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death & Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986.
McGowan, Todd. The End of Dissatisfaction? Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment. Ed. H Sussman. SUNY Press, 2004.
Ruti, Mari. The Singularity of Being. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.
Žižek, Slavoj. “You May!” London Review of Books (Online) 21.6 (1999): 3–6.