November 10, 2004

The obscenity of affection

One of the finest and most wrenchingly acute posts yet from Infinite Thought.

Which put me in mind of these sections from Zizek's 'Passion In The Era of Decaffeinated Belief'.

'Jacques Lacan's definition of love is "giving something one doesn't have" - what one often forgets is to add the other half which completes the sentence: "... to someone who doesn't want it." This is confirmed by our most elementary experience when somebody unexpectedly declared passionate love to us — is not the first reaction, preceding the possible positive reply, that something obscene, intrusive, is being forced upon us? This is why, ultimately, passion as such is "politically incorrect": although everything seems permitted, prohibitions are merely displaced.

.... There are two topics which determine today's liberal tolerant attitude towards Others: the respect of Otherness, openness towards it, AND the obsessive fear of harassment — in short, the Other is OK insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as the Other is not really Other... This is what is more and more emerging as the central "human right" in late-capitalist society: the right not to be harassed, i.e., to be kept at a safe distance from the others. A similar structure is clearly present in how we relate to capitalist profiteering: it is OK IF it is counteracted with charitable activities — first you amass billions, then you return (part of) them to the needy... And the same goes for war, for the emerging logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism: war is OK insofar as it really serves to bring about peace, democracy, or to create conditions for distributing humanitarian help. And does the same not hold more and more even for democracy and human rights: it is OK if human rights are "rethought" to include torture and a permanent emergency state, if democracy is cleansed of its populist "excesses"...

In our era of over-sensitivity for "harassment" by the Other, every ethical pressure is experienced as a false front of the violence of power.'

If Zizek were a little less suspicious of Spinoza, he would realise that the problem, the obscenity, is not passion - which is mandatory, ubiquitous - but that great unmentionable, affection.

Spinoza understood that passions, as the word suggests, were essentially passive. They involve the take over of someone's body by external forces; and what is most catastrophic about this is when the victim of the parasitic force identifies themselves with its invading presence. Here, as ever, Burroughs' analysis of the male sex drive converges with Spinoza: the mechanical-repetitive agitational impulse towards climax is, literally, 'biologic film', a fantasmatic image-stimulus series that plays itself out using the male sexual apparatus. What is missed by the advocates of such passion is that the degree of agitation corresponds precisely to the degree of passivity.

Surprisingly perhaps, it is always useful to read Burroughs next to Irigaray. Like Burroughs, Irigaray absolutely refuses the liberal lie that 'we are all people underneath' and that there are no differences between men and women. She is not a biological essentialist, however, and her texts are best read as erotic engineering: manuals for opening up the potentials of the body by disabling bio-defaults. Irigaray's claim that heterosexuality is basically homosexual - in that involves the exchange of women, images of women, women as signs, women-for-men, never women-for- themselves - allows us to see that Burroughs' Garden of Delights orgasm addicted merry-go-round of passion and tristesse is by no means limited to male homosexual sex. Just because female bodies are involved does not mean that women enter necessarily enter into the economy (or echonomy as Irigaray sometimes puts it). The woman lying under a man in a state of passion may or may not achieve jouissance; if she does, it is surely a happy accident.

Passion is precisely the (p)laying out of your own fantasmatic economy in front of the other. How is she supposed to respond? And when it is clear, even to the man, that the woman does not correspond to any off-the-peg fantasmatic category, she must be posed as illegible enigma, prompting the old question, posed by a whole parade of drunken men to Infinite Thought (do they learn this from a manual? Did I miss the male development classes where this was taught?): 'just what is it that you want...WHAT DO YOU WANT?!' Which is at least a testament to the alterity of the other's desire, to its irreducibility.

(As I said to Infinite the other day, I'm not a heterosexual because I like women...)

Unlike passion, which uses the other only as an audience-receptacle, affection is, scandalously and obscenely, an attempt to affect the other. In terms of the liberal humanist pietism Zizek rightly decries, this is what is absolutely verboten, shockingly intimate. 'You're violating my personal space...' This is why whores won't kiss or hold their clients: submission to specular-phallic passion is easy to detach youerself from, whereas affection 'blurs personal boundaries'. And, as both the Pop Group and Adolfe McGroot recognise, we are all prostitutes today: we are all required to guard and cherish (the psycho-juridical fiction of) our self, since it is our principle commodity. 'Sell yourself.'

Irigiray famously opposes the specular to the tactile. The tactile relation is the one that can never be reproduced in an imagistic specular economy. It is when the other touches back, about surfaces pressing against each other, about two bodies becoming a depersonalised auto-affecting machine.

Posted by mark at November 10, 2004 10:20 AM | TrackBack

The Zizek is pure gold! I'd forgotten how entertaining he can be, thanks for the pointer. (Not that I'm only reading it for entertainment's sake - but it's good to have a chuckle. Or perhaps this is the refutation that reveals my 'real' motives, and I _am_ only reading it for entertainment... Bloody Zizek, bloody psychoanalysis, always makes me suspicious of my own motives.) As ever, however, I can never tell if Zizek is endorsing any particular position...

My question. You say that you're not a heterosexual because you like women. Why then are you one (if this is what you are implying that you 'are'...)? I couldn't quite follow the implication in your ellipsis.

Posted by: &catherine at November 11, 2004 05:12 PM

... that is, if I may be so forward as to ask ;)

Posted by: Catherine at November 11, 2004 05:13 PM

yeah mark! why are you one? i ask myself that question sometimes. being gay would be much simpler. girls don't like me much but gay men keep hitting on me, i'd be a natural.

i'm very much in sympathy with the affection over passion bit.i tell you though, it is bad, sometimes you'll be there with a girl and she expects you to whip your cock out and you're just happy to be close, talking, sharing secrets and that, so she gets bored of you and thats the end of it. ha! yeah, i mean, i dunno really, all a bit difficult, but quite funny at the same time.

Posted by: luka at November 12, 2004 08:55 AM

mark i dunno, you're ALWAYS onto some immutable truth but in this case (sex) sometimes i think you're reacting to a skewered image of what relationships between men and women are actually like. maybe its the default "2.4 children" image of what is entailed in a relationship. so often i fail to recognise my own relationship to women in your depiction of them.

also, i dont see where having children and nurturing them comes into all this...

Posted by: woebot at November 12, 2004 12:39 PM

Just an anonymous ignoramus here, but here’s what reading your recent posts on sexuality got me thinking:

The power/abuse axis of sexuality (as opposed to the always-excessive axis of touch/spontaneity/etc.) isn't simply the end result of the male sex drive. What about the fact that among all mammals, not just humans, the female of the species tends to select what's perceived as the strongest of possible mates (the fastest, the tallest, the one with the brightest feathers), to the point that in many species there's only one male who gets to copulate with the females of the group, while the remaining males are at best a sort of standing reserve, at worst thrown out of the group entirely? A second possibility, which I'll just go ahead and posit as a theory: the fluid/nonhierarchical sexuality that you (or at least I) ‘d always hear about in feminist lit class, which’s supposed to be an alternative to masculinist/S&M sexuality, is what males have always had in the first place: strolling through Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, we meet men who spontaneously ejaculate at the sound of horses’ feet stamping, men whose entire sex life consists of drawing pictures of roses, etc. etc.: as you said in one of your posts, a (male) dog’ll shag anything. Point is, if (a) the male sex drive can make do with (i.e., idealize) anything, and (b) females are biologically predisposed to select the strongest mates, who invented Power? Is male Sex-as-Abuse, which everyone’s certainly encountered one way or another, just a hysterical attempt to find worth in the eyes of a regime of value alien to it? I know I’m coming sickeningly close to the notion that women caused their own suffering, but that’s not it: abuse/rape is specifically an excess of the violent energy women (most anyway, as opposed to the ones that identify with it), or rather, female power, tries to channel for purposes of pleasure/childbirth/etc. C.f. Ralph Ellison’s “domesticated rapist.” Also, I haven’t read much Foucault, but it seems that in trying to think of sex-as-power as an invention of the social, he’s ignoring what might well be a biological inevitability (if we destroyed the current power structure, it’d only pop up again), solvable, really, only through cloning or some other, even more violent, tweaking of the human species itself (right where capitalism wants us.)

My existential bitterness would greatly appreciate it if you could give your thoughts on this matter (who invented Power, and what do we do with it?)…

Posted by: polyp at November 12, 2004 03:23 PM

Thanks for lovely responses everyone... yet another difficult and risky post for me to write... but I'm glad ppl have been so thoughtful in their questions

Why am I one? Perhaps I am not one...

What is heterosexuality? According to Irigaray, in This Sex Which is Not One, it is male homosexuality, since women do not feature in the economy for-themselves but only as exchange objects between men. I think she is following on from Lacan's observation that 'there is no sexual relation' between men and women, because language/ the symbolic order/ fantasmatic economies intervene.

What are tactile relationships between men and women once the phallus, penetration and reproduction are taken out of the picture? Is this still heterosexuality? Is it still sexuality even? Isn't the involvement of the phallus the crucial determinate of 'sex'?

Polyp's points are well-taken. That is why Really Existing (heterosexual) Women, far from being intrinsically on the side of flight, are the crucial stabilisers of the male homosexual economy. In competing with other women, in shoring up the egos of dangerous male mammals ('he might be a death camp guard, but _I_ know what he's really like - he's soooo vulnerable'), they destroy female collectivity and therefore confirm the echonomy of the Same.

The significance of Irigaray's lesbian erotics, politically speaking, is not primarily its poeticization of forms of sensuality outside the phallic economy (massively important though this is) but in its evocation of a female collectivity, women-for-themselves, 'when our lips speak together'.

As for my own 'sexuality', if that is the issue, I like women. But as Nina says, I like them in the way that gay men like them (in that (1) I appreciate them aesthetically (LLADS of course are too coarse to do this) and (2) I identify with them - hence my predilection for all gay icons apart from Kylie), which is an odd position to be in, really, if you're not male homosexual.

Posted by: mark k-p at November 13, 2004 11:44 AM

Oh, I see - when I read your statement, "I'm not a heterosexual because I like women", I interpreted it as "there are reasons other than my liking of women for which I am heterosexual", rather than as "I am not a heterosexual, and this is because I like women". Makes much more sense as version number two ;)

(Nietzsche: "To be mistaken about the rhythm of a sentence is to be mistaken about the very meaning of that sentence." Damn straight.)

Posted by: Catherine at November 13, 2004 06:41 PM

"Damn straight". Is that a subversive joke?

Posted by: IonFion at November 14, 2004 11:52 AM

Dunno, but it's an excellent multi-levelled pun that we should ruthlessly exploit i reckon :-)

(and yes writing - and READING too - are all about rhythm aren't they?)

didn't realise that the original sentence was so ambiguous --- but ambiguity is good, I think.... lol

Posted by: mark k-p at November 14, 2004 12:26 PM

What's wrong with Kylie?

Posted by: paqamaq at January 10, 2005 08:49 AM