Definition and History

Difficulties arise almost immediately when one seeks a concise definition of eroticism. The OED offers two: “erotic spirit or character; also, the use of erotic or sexually arousing imagery in literature or art,” and a medical/psychological definition: “a condition or state of sexual excitement or desire; a tendency to become sexually aroused, usu. by some specified stimulus” (“eroticism” OED). The Merriam Webster offers three entries: “1. An erotic theme or quality; 2. A state of sexual arousal; 3. Insistent sexual impulse or desire” (“eroticism” Merriam).  Etymologically, a noun formed by the adjective ‘erotic’ taken from the French ‘érotique’: “Relatif à l’amour ; qui traite de l’amour : Poésies érotiques; qui évoque l’amour sensuel, les plaisirs sexuels et incite au désir sexuel ; voluptueux, licencieux : Rêve érotique.” (“erotique” Larrouse). (My translation: Relating to love; dealing with love: erotic poetries; evoking sensual love, sexual pleasures and inciting sexual desire; voluptuousness, licentiousness: An erotic dream.) However, what I intend to examine in this project is the darker and more ambiguous eroticism as described by Georges Bataille in his 1957 book L’erotisme.

The Social Construction of Eroticism

Ancient Greece possessed a number of words describing different types of love, based primarily on the relationship between the loving parties. The four main types include agápe, éros, philía, and storgē (“ἔρως”).  Although the definition of éros is that of sexual love, Plato’s Symposium managed to de-sex it by proclaiming that sexual desire was best put to loftier uses:

“…being not like a servant in love with the beauty of one youth or man or institution, himself a slave mean and narrow-minded, but drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom” (Plato).

From the very beginning of the European philosophical discourse on sex, we are urged to redirect our sexual desires to less physical, loftier and more intellectual or spiritual ends. This process of sublimating, reconceptualising and metaphorising the human sex drive is central to the notion of eroticism. Inherent in its definition is a resistance to our biological reality. In An Erotic Beyond, Octavio Paz describes it as “a form of the social domination of instinct” (Paz 11).

It appears that the human sexual urge has always troubled us: it doesn’t resemble the sexual drives of other animals in that it’s not limited to seasonality or reproductive possibility. There are many biological, anthropological and behavioral theories as to why we evolved to have the urge to have sex even when reproduction cannot be effected (Shackelford & Hansen 104). Of more salience, however, is that we don’t conceive of our sexual drive as animal, unless we are referring to it negatively. We have, from prehistoric times, sought to impose control on this drive through limits and taboos (against masturbation, incest, rape, homosexuality, transvestitism, bestiality, paedophilia) and ritual structures (coming of age, courtship, marriage, religious celibacy, etc.) and the proscriptive and performative modelling of gender roles. These controls have acted upon the way our sexuality is played out, not only socially and publicly, but also privately and in relation to the self (Davies 1032).

In his essay “A History of Erotic Philosophy”, Alan Soble offers a packed, concise summary of how the canon of western philosophy has dealt with the human sexual urge. With very few exceptions—notably, Marcuse—the overwhelming majority of historical philosophers and theorists, no matter how radical their ideological differences, are almost unanimous on the issue of our sexual drive: it needs to be controlled, civilized and sublimated (116). What is consistently lacking is any robust and consistent rationale as to why it requires such regulation. Certainly many philosophers, Aristotle, the Scholastics and Kant among them, warn of the dehumanizing aspects of using humans as sexual objects, but it must be said that this objectification has always occurred regardless, and not primarily as a consequence of allowing our sexual urges free rein, but of economic predation. We’ve been using each other as beasts of burden since civilization began. Furthermore, it IS doubtful whether the controls we have imposed to avoid this sexual objectification have succeeded in achieving their goals. There are compelling arguments from Marx (Lee 35) to Beauvoir (Kruks 55) and Foucault (History of Sexuality 7) to suggest that the controls set in place have simply institutionalized this objectification rather than prevented it. Moreover, within the field of psychoanalysis, it is questionable as to whether humans possess the capacity to desire without objectifying what is desired (Bersani 644).

Although the existence of sexual taboos has been theorized to serve to “establish and defend strong ethnic, religious, or institutional boundaries” (Davies 1060), the further perils of unfettered human sexuality to systems of labour control and productivity have been extensively examined by Burrell in Sex and Organizational Analysis. In this survey of the historic control of sexuality, Burrell concludes that, although the motivations for this control have varied throughout history, “under capitalism, desexualization is encouraged because both time and the human body become commodified and therefore exploitable. Sexuality and labour power are not compatible. Indeed, they may well be antithetical. Sexual relations are wasteful, in terms of commodity production” (Burrell 113). Foucault is in agreement: “if sex is so rigorously repressed, this is because it is incompatible with a general and intensive work imperative” (History of Sexuality 6).

What would society look like today had we not believed our sexual drive to be a threat to social stability? Had we not inherited and internalized the by-products of those fears? Had it not been for the ways in which we have complicated the issue of our sexual drive, we would surely not have what we have come to call eroticism.

Bauman and Paz are in agreement: eroticism is a collective social response to the excessive nature of the human sex drive. It “protects society from onslaughts of sexuality but it also negates the reproductive function” says Paz (Double Flame 20). “All ‘history of sex’,” says Bauman, “is therefore the history of the cultural manipulation of sex. It began with the birth of eroticism—through the cultural trick of separating sexual experience (in the sense of Erlebnis, not Erfahrung), and especially the pleasure associated with that experience”(Bauman 19). Over time, it has accreted layers of meaning and complicated sex so completely that its function as a way to perpetuate the species is almost lost beneath the mountain of cultural clutter. Žižek, addressing Hegel’s exploration of human sexuality, goes even further, claiming that:

What Hegel misses is how, once we are within the human condition, sexuality is not only transformed/civilized, but, much more radically, changed in its very substance: it is no longer the instinctual drive to reproduce, but a drive that gets thwarted as to its natural goal (reproduction) and thereby explodes into an infinite, properly meta-physical, passion. The becoming-cultural of sexuality is thus not the becoming-cultural of nature, but the attempt to domesticate a properly un-natural excess of the meta-physical sexual passion. THIS is the properly dialectical reversal of substance: the moment when the immediate substantial (“natural”) starting point is not only acted-upon, trans-formed, mediated/cultivated, but changed in its very substance (Žižek “Ideology III”).

Žižek’s claim of total substantive change might be somewhat exaggerated, and perhaps bears the traces of human-centric and Western conceit. Many humans still have sex for the specific purpose of procreating, to which any couple undergoing infertility treatment will attest. Nonetheless, what is undeniably true is that the whys and hows of sex have become a matter of conscious choice, not simply instinct. As a species, we are capable of—and often do—override our biological drive. We have come to invest a great deal of thought and energy into setting our sexuality apart from that of most other animals and seeking rewards beyond the procreative.

We have mythologized our nature. As with our mortality, dreams, happiness, love and pain, erotic desire continues to resist explanation, not because we can’t explain their biological mechanisms, but because language resists our attempts to confront our emotional responses to those experiences (Bebergal).

In the West, for almost two thousand years, Christianity—through the language of theology—offered us a vocabulary with which to discuss the less concrete aspects of our nature. Offering us images of reward and punishment, heaven and hell, revelations and ecstasies, sacred sacrifice and base profanities through which to understand our humanity and most especially our sexual desires. The Enlightenment’s valorisation of intellectual reason over mysticism forced a return to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, warning us that “[t]he pleasures are a hindrance to thought, and the more so the more one delights in them, e.g. in sexual pleasure; for no one could think of anything while absorbed in this” (Book 7 11). Man, we were cautioned, is incapable of rational thought under the influence of the erotic urge. Empiricism supplied us with the languages of biology, chemistry, medicine and the technologies by which to frame our relationship with sex. It also evolved the tools by which we could do it, through the discourse of science (Foucault History of Sexuality 64).

Although it was Nietzsche who is generally credited with proclaiming the death of God (108) and man’s obligation to draft his own laws (188), it may be argued, that the Marquis De Sade killed God first in giving us a vision of what our sexual urges, unmitigated by taboo, or law, or religion, might look like:

…let them boldly fling aside and spurn the shameful irons wherewith others presume to keep them subjugated; they will rapidly conquer custom and opinion; man become wiser, because he will be freer, will sense the injustice that would exist in scorning whoever acts thus, and will sense too that the act of yielding to Nature’s promptings, beheld as a crime by a captive people, can be so no longer amongst a free people (Sade 45).

Sade may have believed he was offering us a glimpse of how ‘captive’ individuals, free of the constraints of the Church and the law, might act upon ‘Nature’s promptings’ but he did not succeed. Having inherited and internalized all the controls imposed on sexuality in his day, Sade’s gratuitous fantasies of their decimation serves to underscore the authority he accords them.  The regimen of his transgressive fantasies bear the same mark of rigid authoritarianism as the mores he seeks to reject. His imaginary eroticism with no limits uses, as Deleuze observes, the same language of institutional power (Deleuze Masochism 76-77). Sadeian eroticism will always be distorted by the power-knowledge that has helped to construct and shape it, according to Foucault (History of Sexuality 23). It is a sexual ‘freedom’ deformed by the specific configurations of its historic restrictions.

Nonetheless, what cannot be denied about Sade is his temerity to ask the question: what does sex look like past the constraints of religious prohibition and the rules of social order? That Sadean eroticism looks less like something pleasurable and more like a nightmare might be attributed to his seething, underlying rage at the rather despicable hypocrisy of world he lived in, for it is, Michelson insists, “the gearwheel of social action in Sade’s vision” (Michelson 131). The novelist Angela Carter defends the excess, the violence, and the cruelty in Sade’s work because it makes explicit the hidden consequences the social and historical hypocrisies that constituted the world Sade was living in. She reminds us that “our flesh arrives to us out of history” and that sexual relationships are “the most self-conscious of all human relationships, a direct confrontation of two beings whose actions in bed are wholly determined by their acts when they are out of it”(Carter 9).

It appears, on closer inspection, that the writer’s individual rebellions against the mainstream values of his or her society are often reflected in works of eroticism. It might seem redundant to say that we take our social grievances to bed with us since all narratives are culturally contextual, but it seems to me that their anger, disappointments and feelings of alienation are particularly present, often boldly embodied, in their sexually explicit texts. And that this is just as true in the contemporary writings of Kathy Acker, Jonathan Kemp, Chuck Palahniuk, Brett Easton Ellis and Michel Houellebecq as it was in Sade’s works (Abecasis 814).

Bataille’s Eroticism

This critical examination of eroticism in the context of contemporary culture limits itself to four particular aspects of eroticism identified and described in detail by Georges Bataille in his seminal work on the subject: Erotism: Death and Sensuality (1957): transgression, transcendence, the dissolution of the self, and the failure of language.

This phenomenon of eroticism emerges, according to Bataille’s theory of general economy, from the organised social rituals formulated to account for and expend the surplus sexual energies humans have, lacking the kind of biologically regulating mechanisms present in animals (Sorensen 176; Taussig 359). But on a more metaphysical level, Bataille also theorised eroticism as a paradoxical yearning for and terror of the final unmaking of the individual that awaits us in death (Messier 128) or, as Downing & Grillett put it, “in Bataille’s system, eroticism is a traumatic, unnerving experience via which notions of the fixed self, the fiction of the personality, are (temporarily) destroyed” (98).

Although Zygmunt Bauman encapsulates eroticism as the ‘cultural processing’ of sex (Bauman 24), Bataille argues that, like religion, to attempt to examine eroticism objectively is to make of it a monstrosity (Bataille 37). To understand it fully, he says, it must be examined subjectively, like a religious faith, because it is a wholly “inner experience” (31). It is through this association with religion that Bataille deconstructs the experience of eroticism.

Vartan Messier notes that “Bataille articulates thought-provoking concepts by investigating the affinity between language and experience, jouissance (or bliss) and savoir (or knowledge), and unleashing the dialectical possibilities of the erotic power of violence and the violent power of the erotic”(125). However, as Daniel Fuchs points out, “[t]ranscendence for Bataille is a negative transcendence, involving eroticism in a context of dirt, excrement, violence, delirium, and crime” (198), and in his fixation on violence and death, his “erotic doctrine assumes a contempt for the lives we live” (200). Fuchs holds Bataille to account for his untimely publication of his vision of eroticism—just before the outbreak of WWII (194), but this simply underscores the imperative that social context brings to our interpretation of the four core aspects of eroticism identified by Bataille.

According to Downing & Grillett, “the trademark Bataillean reversal of values whereby something laden with negative connotations becomes a rallying cry for a new way of looking at things”(92) is a potent tool for challenging normative structures of sociality. Lee Edelman follows a similar reversal of values in No Future by urging “queers to affirm their affiliation to “the place of the social order’s death drive”, a place “outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism” (91). However, Downing & Grillett note that both Bataille and Edelman frame their resistances through conservative social structures: Bataille through prevailing Christian dogma and Edelman through “Lacanian dogma” (101). Moreover their lack of acknowledgment of feminist resistance “effectively makes female transgression, female eroticism, a female experience of the abyss the most negated of all possibilities” (102).

Fuch’s critique of Bataillean eroticism is well-founded, but his dismissal forecloses the fertile potential offered by that excrement and delirium—that contempt for the lives we live. From a psychoanalytical viewpoint, this push towards jouissance and the Lacanian Real, so present in Bataille’s definition of eroticism, is a site that offers possibilities for the interruption of current, commoditized concepts of eroticism.  Meanwhile, Downing & Grillett’s insistence that Bataille’s masculinist definition of eroticism precludes any formulation of a female eroticism demands an impossible historical prescience. Many a male-centric structure has been later employed to good use in a more egalitarian reformulation of resistance.

Taboo and Transgression

…the essence of eroticism is to be found in the inextricable confusion of sexual pleasure and taboo (Bataille 108).

Bataille puts enormous emphasis on the part taboo and its transgression play in eroticism. Established as a way in which to constrain violence, animalistic urges, and the spectre of death, taboos delineate the lines between our natural state and a social order (36). However, there is no profane without the sacred and no life without finality. “Unless the taboo is observed with fear it lacks the counterpoise of desire which gives it its deepest significance” (37). Moreover, the ultimate taboos, violence and death are ever-present in the experience of eroticism.

But what of our contemporary society, in which few religious or social taboos remain? Bataille foresaw this as the end of eroticism: “In an entirely profane world nothing would be left but the animal mechanism” (128). In Foucault’s response to Bataille’s ideas on eroticism, the essay “A Preface to Transgression” (1963), Foucault examines this paradox in depth. He reiterates the importance of the line delineating the transgression: “transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows” (34) but he also examines the possibility of transgression specifically in a modern society with little regard for the sacred: “In that zone which our culture affords for our gestures and speech, transgression prescribes not only the sole manner of discovering the sacred in its unmediated substance, but also a way of recomposing its empty form, its absence, through which it becomes all the more scintillating” (30). However, Brian McNair notes for every form of transgression that has been lost along the way in the development of our cultures, “[e]ach generation discovers and transcends its own taboos, as well as inventing some new ones” (McNair 42).

Dylan Evans notes that Lacan’s latter definition of jouissance bears a striking resemblance to Bataille’s notion of transgressive eroticism: “Not only is the deadly character of jouissance strongly reminiscent of Bataille’s view of the erotic as a realm of violence which borders on death itself, but Bataille also characterises erotic joy (joie) as necessarily excessive in character, and compares it to an incommunicable mystical experience (as does Lacan)” (4-5).


Pleasure would be a poor enough thing without this aberrant transcendency, not confined to sexual ecstasy and experienced in the same way by mystics of various religions, the Christian religion foremost (Bataille 268).

Although transgression does involve relocation, a stepping beyond the rules of social order and Bataille associates it with erotic and religious ecstasy, it doesn’t follow that all transgressions are transcendent in the mystical or religious sense. This passage into an unspecified beyond is, says Bataille, a consequence and a prize of transgression because it achieves a form of metaphysical knowing, a union that the ordered, taboo-restricted world denies us access to: “those unbearable instants where we seem to be dying because the being within us is only there through excess, when the fullness of horror and joy coincide” (268).

But how is this transcendence possible if all our traditional veils have been pulled aside?  For Lacan, this state where “the fullness of horror and joy coincide” is jouissance—most specifically feminine jouissance (Fink Knowledge 42).

The Inner Experience and the Dissolution of the Self

In human consciousness eroticism is that within man which calls his being into question (Bataille 29).

Bataille refers repeatedly to a destabilization of the sense of self that occurs in the experience of eroticism and that this loss of self is a deliberate (31) and self-inflicted tearing (39). Describing this concept of the self as a discontinuous being, apart from others and the world and only merged in moments of trauma or ecstasy, in the face of death or the erotic experience (96-99), it is possible to see a considerable correspondence between these ideas and two Lacanian concepts: that of the subject’s passage through the Mirror Stage into the Symbolic order (Lacan Ecrits 75), and the traumatic experience of jouissance and its relation to the Real (Eyers 75). From the perspective of a writer of the erotic, it is compelling to consider how the very contemporary practice of actively constructing the erotic self (Attwood 178) plays out in connection with this loss of self in the erotic moment.

Where Language Fails

…the man who speaks is always the civilised man (Bataille 186).

A curious hallmark of Bataille’s erotic, ecstatic state is how language, especially descriptive language, becomes useless in that place. It “becomes meaningless at the decisive instant when the stirrings of transgression itself take over” (275). This limit of language described by Bataille was especially of interest to Foucault: “since it traces that line of foam showing just how far speech may advance upon the sands of silence” (Foucault Preface 30).  For Foucault, “the death of God shifts the location of infinity from an experience of exteriority […] to one of interiority,” according to Shannon Winnubst (460). But in this turn from God to language, “the discourse of sexuality takes on the play of infinity that the discourse of religion once carried” (461).  However, for Barthes and Lacan this experience of bliss or jouissance resists language almost completely and “cannot be spoken except between the lines” (Barthes Pleasure of the Text 21).

Transgression, ecstasy, the dissolution of the self and the instability of language are the four aspects of eroticism that form the framework of the rest of the chapters in my critical thesis. Bataille offers a rich, fertile understanding of eroticism from a creative perspective but, as Fuchs points out, it is not an unproblematic one. However, for the purposes of establishing a foundation from which to push against contemporary consumerist exhortations to ‘enjoy’ (Žižek Parallax 304), Bataille’s eroticism provides a robust and challenging substructure upon which to build complex, contextual and nuanced erotic narratives.

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