“desire is a defense, a defense against going beyond a limit in jouissance” Jacques Lacan, Ecrits
For Lacan, desire and fantasy are the life- and self-preserving strategies we use to keep us from slipping into a mindless and self-destructive pursuit of jouissance. Desires and the fantasies we construct around them are firmly rooted in language. No matter how wild, how obscene the scenario we construct, it is always possible for us to communicate it – at least partially. It’s not as if our erotic fantasies arrive fully formed in our minds from the start. Our sex drive may be biological, but our erotic fantasies are not epigenetic; they’re culturally determined, disseminated through symbolization – images and text. Indeed we must do so if we are to have any hope of finding a willing partner to play along with it.
Medieval monks didn’t fantasize about nuns in seamed stockings and high-heels. First there had to be stockings and high heels, someone to warn you against looking at them lustfully, and someone to tell you how desirable they are anyway.
It seems counter-intuitive to conceive of desire and fantasy as a defense against anything. All societies have sexual taboos and, ostensibly, any sexual desire might be conceived as anti-social. But according to Lacan, the very fact that they can be spoken of, written about, remediated in photographs or on video, means that they are a safer outlet for the drive that powers them than the alternative: jouissance.
What makes them safer is the very imperfection of language. No matter how precisely we use words, no matter how carefully we photograph or video something, we can never convey the entirety of the thing, the experiential totality of it. So, it is this fault at the core of language – the slippage between signifier and signified – that keeps us safe from staring into the blinding sun of the drive.
Although, according to Mari Ruti, both desire and jouissance are ‘agitated by the drive’, jouissance is closer to the mute, scorching, ego-destroying real of it. And it is this that Bataille is discussing when he speaks of eroticism. Not the langauge-rich diorama of our sexual fantasies, but something far more sublime and terrifying.
Theorists are not great storytellers. They seldom show us the human continuum of the erotic. As humans, our erotic interests range from mild interest to self-destructive obsession. Many of the 20th Century’s canonical erotic writers, such as D.H. Lawrence, Marguerite Duras, Anais Nin, Angela Carter courted censorship and prosecution to bring us stories of erotic experiences that spanned the whole continuum. More recently, the commercialization and formularization of erotic writing and sex-positive activist movements have resulted in e-bookshelves full of ‘erotica’ that does not convincingly look into the dark heart of jouissance.