eaders of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer play voyeur to his tour of other women, in a series of bitter transgressions of early 20th century Parisians. His textual lovers’ caricatured psychologies are an almost comical pleasure to map out, save for Tania, whose name, if a T were an S, is anagram to Anaïs. Her existence disrupts Miller’s first-person prose because her identity is not reducible to the labyrinthine confines of man’s conception of woman. She is somehow more than pleasure.
While these known points of literary and feminist canons may go without saying (q.v., Kate Zambreno’s Heroines), the subtle entailment of psychological complexity for textual sexual praxis is curious. The tendency is to recast sexual narrative as something requiring a perpetual transgression not against the world or the social mores of the nuclear family, but against oneself, against one’s very identity — one must be dragged down out of oneself and one’s culture by a lover’s sheer spontaneity — not just in sex, but in text.
But something happens to the notion of authorship when texts about sex take themselves philosophically. The “I” of narration conflates with another “me” — set perpetually ahead of each word, toward self-reification in the activity of writing that text. After enough attempts to write with an authority grounded in an imaginary conception of naturalized aestheticism, narration fragments from one to many voices of conflicting order and intentions, and the most malleable among them are extracted, attenuated; stripped down for narrative efficiency and optimized for orgasmic yield. It is thus in this “operative mode,” technology, and is paradoxically used to set the stage for its own demise. Deleuze and Guattari’s promiscuous rhizome mocks the pretense of the culturally-bound, Oedipal psyche circumscribed by Lacan’s psychoanalysis, whose notion of the unconscious in turn humiliates the common and narcissistic pretense of “free” will.
Hence the reader is either dragged through the door for discipline, or simply unimpressed by who ends up sprawled pathetically on the page.
A text cannot signify without lapses between occurrent terms; this-is-text, in a semiotic equation. Like Derrida’s nonconcept of différance, textual sex plays at tracing modes of pleasure as one narrates subjectivity in a dual-affective way; of moving and being moved by the disparate flaws one’s psychical structure retains as it repeats the interpretive act with differing meaning, form and sentiment.
To live by the libertine’s maxim, all things are good when taken to excess, one must include pleasure itself. And, the sense of pleasure as enjoyment enjoins one to transgress other things and people. But like the libertine, in doing so one passes over a subtle truth: It’s only after permitting oneself not to enjoy — so not all the things suffered happen against one’s will — that an excess beyond libertinage is revealed.
Only in practicing the inevitable will one see what desire can do.
This is not about the Marquis de Sade. One can easily take pleasure in the libertine’s ideal of love, and carry out violence against those whom one does not wish to reflect in, and let them be transformed into increasingly ornate metaphysical negations representing the form an affair must take to maintain its initially benign (s)ex-position.
Between the erotic and pornographic is a differential connection between pleasure and that excess. The following is a tour of textual sex, with all disrespect to order, historical and otherwise: a dominant sadist instructs a submissive masochist; friends exchange the recognitions of authority and responsibility for a mutual sense of power and legitimacy (i.e. master-slave dialectic); lovers train to mine reality for unconscious archetypes (like money), the better to transfer mythologized mania of the collective into unconscious hoi polloi (that’s cultural capital); self-referential transgressions subsume subjective experience into a body without organs (i.e. gradient of variable function, a body free of the social, despite its ubiquity, e.g., the late satyr Prince), and stretches and rips one’s mind(s) across striated memories fragmenting into hypersensitive signs whose dilations sporadically lock expressions into rigid meanings; or it can be a literal dialectic: transmuting the most obscure memories into successive recollections of increasingly immanent Gods or Goddesses whose instantiations are contingent upon strategically omitted modes of embodiment and possession. That’s Platonic love. Having thus exhausted the metaphysical, nothing is left to tell.
Unless, that is, the form the consummation takes is not the reason a relationship becomes text. If all text about sex interprets motion, a center of mass transposed into the currents of popular narrative to ensure the writer’s membership within primordial viewpoints, to inscribe one’s libido into social objects before they become commodities, then discourse about the potentiality of us, fucking or not, is the practice of textual sex.
St. Augustine wanted to confess his youth’s carnal sins aloud in nine books. Apparently his desires were actually misrecognitions of divine universals, i.e., God’s shadows, and their consummation required death. Why then did he see the need to add three more books of commentary?
Instead of reducing the indeterminacy of sexual relations to inadequacies of subjective form, one might instead permit one’s full bore human being be dragged out, to subsist in imperfection. It’s easy to ask what desire is about, but knowing why means staying for a while. William Gass did, and can say that “[f]or the voyeur, fiction is what’s called going all the way.”
There’s really nothing like young love. The friction between tabula rasa et tabula rasa heats innocence into hubris, pumping its viscous unitary plot into the lives of all others in proxy. Every observer of the young love thus becomes an unwitting reflection of its potentiality, to preserve the couple’s sense of abstract purity. But what unites it with all other sexual narrative is a belief, its conceit of exception. Young love’s fictional basis becomes commodity as soon as it is believed to be unique; as soon as it gains confidence.
And even this is but one philosophy we might invite into the bedroom, to possess the fictive “us” when it is found to be lacking. “Swinging” is too culturally loaded a term, but the logic of sharing is the same as rewriting a sexual experience as post hoc about someone else, or as someone else, to relax the world-eschewing function of fictive synthesis into the passive currents of popular sexual narrative, for fear of losing faith in it, in us; in confidence. Know that when I tell you in positive terms things like “world-eschewing fictive synthesis,” this is attractive because we have exchanged an idea about sex for the experience of excluding all others; perhaps to simulate a unified self to give up to something bigger. This implosion is a loss because it sets us up to be framed within a market which, academic or not, denies what we know to be lacking.
And what is lacking is a sense of completeness, of univocal finality, i.e., at once seeing and being somehow more. Thus, intimate connection is not only about eschewing dominance, but the inchoate sense of rhetorical persuasion — we give our confidence, in varying degrees, to the echo believed to be behind another’s words, to the motus of not being there, so we may have (we hope) a nouveau-viewpoint from which to revise our sexual existence. And this can only happen in absence, in passivity, in lacking-a-self, in loss. This is where the concept of a totally welcome guest comes.
Basically, I want to play the trumpet in a Spanish mood until you undress and ask me “Why” to scary pathological depths, no longer a guest but a captive outmatched in horror by my broken rendition of your future-perfect self; an unselfconscious you you will have been for about six hours (fully Yes), sans your day-you, to be forgotten, or at most harvested for a thousand tomorrows. But all this is probably cherry to your New York chocolate, so then the question begged is one leap of social-overwriting confident faith to a place like Harlem, for said desired justice.
This could really hurt.
Suddenly there you are, at the mercy of an Other’s pleasure, as substitute for a fictive totality, watching it indulge in obscene fantasies. You feel hijacked, forced to watch this nightmarish trance, deprived of your right to rewrite the experience in a narrative more to your liking, to maintain your cultural identity, instead of being tricked into reifying theirs.
E.g., I’m going to talk about how rhetorical and performative and class-motivated it is to talk about sex through a confection of anecdotes, psychoanalyses and anti-philosophical deconstructions, and how that is in some way dishonest or inauthentic. Yet this will bid the reader to raise the question — why then is the sunovobitch wasting so much of my time with another goddamned confidence trip?
Because the reason it sucks to be the substrate for an Other’s fictive satiation is the same reason it feels good to be moved to apply an idea to sex. The impetus to write it down, to move the I beyond the first-person; that the truth must be composed to be lived suggests a deeper or more cohesive pleasure than sex in revising the experience to textual heights.
In speaking (or writing) positively about sex, I’m giving it a history; in telling you what pleasure means without telling you why it feels good to do so, I’m being rhetorical, i.e., I’m selling you an idea about bliss and infinite transgression in a conveniently obscured or omitted intertextual medium, motherfucker.
They seek the inside, from the outside, inside of me. Is there really a difference between intimate connection and total war?
Sex is narration. A good fuck is nonlinear, and probably nascent of anachronic existence, but there is nothing one can say about “sex” without describing a narrative. Imagery, fantasy, the question of origin in one another’s gaze, the repetition of consent through every fantastical act — all of these are world narrative lines sutured to a personal element always already lacking being. The existential ex nihilo part of self-relating is often the most difficult, but that’s what dragging a partner through the hysterical gamut of negation above is supposed to cop. However, to philosophize about intimate relations as such is to do something much more than fiction: it is to revise social acts into a spectacle of relating.
And before relating became an anesthetic spectacle, it was an avant garde aesthetic. Relational (or participatory) art has enjoyed a predominant status in high culture since the 1980s, (in part) as a remedy to what was perceived as the arbitrary rule of abstract and depoliticized works produced by and for an increasingly exclusive and upper-class milieu, the entrance into which was contingent upon an artist’s origins, to how many unit places left of decimal one’s bank account(s) extend(s), and loyalty to the privileged enjoyment of its third or fourth generation of ivy league curricula.
It’s not surprising then that the sexual content of this preceding artistic milieu had an almost cathectic obsession with the floating, psycho-social revisionist romance about city lovers known as abstract symbolism, surreptitiously endorsing the symbolic register of high-class life, while omitting the economic and political distance its characters enjoyed from the real, “bodies on the ground” city they purportedly fuck in. Think Paolo Sorrentino films as foreground to #BlackLivesMatter. Better still,
I remember locking arms with you, wondering if you’d done this before, if you were put up to nurture desire in me by the party, to generate a more attractive me to defer to activating new protesters, but then I forgot as your hand encircled mine, electric through gloves, and I felt like one of many mirrors turning slowly, tilting my head to catch your truest gaze while disguising my own. That movement, holding unsated longing out, unashamed for a moment, thinking incessantly, “if only, if only … “
In Fidelity to the Future, Thomas Gokey said “[t]here is a fundamental incompatibility between direct democracy and art making.” By inviting non-artists to participate in a work of art, the relational artist reactivates the political dimension of art making, and for a while, a momentary egalitarian process takes place.
But, his reasoning continues, while this removes the danger of art becoming an end and not a means, the relational artist running the participatory production intent on building new forms of relating “ends up violating these human relationships as soon as they’re cashed in as art.” Kate Zambreno’s observation that writing is a form of return here takes on new meaning: even anti-capitalist art making brings the artist a cultural return.
So the relational artist cashing in on the work, through the ideological apparati of grants, fellowships, libidinal intensification or simply hooking up gets to possess the linguistic authority over who within the production is an artist, and who is not. And this authority comes from precisely the same paradox that turns one away from psychoanalytic, or abstract, elitist artistic milieus: a debt to the textual sex market. Let me explain by first-person allegory.
The worst sex I’ve ever had happened in the morning. I’d made quite an impression on a pallid, rather confident woman of twenty-four years. Her Russian intellect easily follows the tacit cynicism burrowed into sardonically comprehensive explanations for why I felt obliged to essay a night of networking at one of my (penname’s) Publication’s release parties. The more her friends interrogated the increasingly abstract positions within these social constructions my elusive words took me to, the stronger the desire to run far away shined through hers and mine reciprocated glances.
By night’s end we played sullen footsie under a table in the beer garden until a self-designated wingman with the obscene candor of a time-sharing father, palm down flat on imaginary ledger, bid us a Freudian farewell;
“I’ll leave you to it.”
A moment of acutely-observed silence passed, the beer garden vacating like putrid bowels, and I felt forced to play the part of an old rusty sexist fan, until the woman repeated, from greater depths;
“I’ll leave you to it.”
After absconding from said literary networking debut, and holding electric gloves on the Q, she led me to Prospect Park. Spoken words weren’t the only ones performative. Dark was the night, scrolled under my vision, and with a quiescent nod she pulls me down to the grass with maroon thread vest knotted in-hand.
We were nothing but repeating codas. As I come up for air, silhouettes rise in sequences tandem to the same gaze-eschewing self-consciousness. Somehow all silhouettes knew this park was no longer a private assignation, and had become a fucking arcade. Yet it is easier for them than us to resume the sexual narrative of Getting Her Off To The Bushes like the career-minded biologist Edward Albee once wrote as a haplessly mistrustful associate professor of history’s object of contempt.
As we climb her stairs together, tumbling from side to side, this sentiment gradually takes, filtered through laughter, wincing at fragments of imaginary people, she suggests we copulate as consensual copies of the park ground’s bodies we’d witnessed in shameless synchrony by exhibiting breasts and fellatio and cunnilingus to the circle of faces peeking occasional glances out courtyard windows, to ogle our two slim rolling tattooed bodies through her six-foot window.
But we agreed, after stopping one another from unreciprocated sequences of sexual acts, to defer sex till morning, in hopes of regaining some sense of organic and cohesive autonomy. It had been one thing to take a position of nihilistic superiority over the desperate solipsism observed in the copulating hoi polloi of the fields below. This was in form no different than coping with the awkward posturing of a literary debutante at a release party. It was quite another to share this recognition with an equal, and then hypocritically proceed to sacrifice the certainty in doubting that solidarity just to seem passionate, simply out of a need to gaze at oneself as confident. To fuck would have been to replace one another with our own confidence games, and not as desirers.
When we came to in the morning, we were conscious of one another’s hangover more than our own. She picks up on the desire for a mutually indifferent gaze on the world, and in retrospect was quicker on the uptake RE how a simple kiss can set the desiring machine in motion, her the desired, substrate; loved “I,” and I the desirer, fragmented; “me-terial.”
From this recognition she grants my wish for better empathy; and the same psychological relation of abstract equivalence some people call communism from the previous night obtains. But there was a problem. Our states were: the both of us, hungover and miserable. The choice became to cling to this virtue of connection as if it were sufficient, and ride out that gaze for the day, so we could withdraw pleasure for ourselves, à la the desiring machine, or something else. Intuiting the latter before I could speak, she breaks the gaze, rolls over, and kisses my neck in slow, thoughtful pulls, and transmutes me into a fucking engine, her desired anesthetic.
The best sex I’ve ever had actually wasn’t. In a bad way after losing a better vocation at The Strand for arriving six minutes late on my third day, I’d endeavored to force the ennui out of my system by attending (the) Periodical’s Spring release party, on a warm March night.
I enter for free because I subscribed to them. Feeling ashamed of the confidence charity I had resumed working with, wherein one performs morality plays on the street to trick skeptical New Yorkers into giving you their address and credit card number to sponsor a third-world child whose miserable life is a small integral price the world at large has them pay for the western debt economy, I place myself in the paradoxical double bind of meeting other writers whilst surreptitiously avoiding the necessary small talk of name, vocation, age and politics. At best, my words venture “I’m writing about trauma in the future anterior.”
“How much this will have hurt.”
The worst happens later, when some editors discover I was in fact from Iowa, and compel me to have a sit down with an Iowan intern of theirs, working the ticket booth. We have in common only the difference of attending rival hometown high schools, graduation year, and the recognition that hers was (still) winning. Wasn’t it Derrida who said the worst was when two categorically different things are treated as one? This popular conception of Iowans as this homogeneous, corn-bred corn-fed corn-headed flatland pissant farmers is onerous. We’re as diverse as Europe, in psychological persuasion, for the record.
But instead of brooding over coincidental origins, I circle the dance floor, thinking about Adorno and self-abnegation, looking for someone free of the spectacle of publication and cultural capital. The scary thing was I actually saw it/her, as her eyes were already lifting out of her third suspect glance at me, myself the other to her gaze.
Locked to her will, she pulls my viewpoint taut around her tattooed neck, and when her shoulder relaxes, the gaze spills down, split into fingers by geometric figures whose ratcheted angles conjoin my tenuous, viscous awareness round her curving, continuous lack(s). This is about desire. Her back transfers this motion down her hip, which pivots, signifies, chewing through my rapt intentions, until her voluptuous thighs carry me down to the ground, where her feet could then climb atop my felled mind. Reacquainted with her gaze, a visceral sense of mutual recognition grew, and she knows I know what she wants, and lips “more” … much later, outside, the good rub gives way to the facts of knowing no one, being bankrupt, and being admitted to the party insofar as I subscribed in more ways than I’d known, and conceded that eavesdropping on the lives of others would have to do; that silent psychic research must needs be it.
But upon turning round for shade or shelter, there stands the same Kali-Vixen from the dance floor, rapt with my dissent.
“There’s no point in it, in even speaking with you, because I’ve come far too late.” She enjoys my dies irae unsurprised; expecting.
“There is not really anything new or excessive here. The posturing to maintain insulation for fragile egos; the fragile egos relying on this universal belief of self-exception from aesthetic hierarchies; these hierarchies having an exclusively ironic relation to the self-critical, artistically liberating sentiments the zine’s editors note it publishes. It’s just a ruse; another fucking long-con holding fast to ivy league privilege.”
“…you’re not wrong.”
“and the only genuine subject here is sex, and the only one taking it seriously, personally, is you, but that’s only because you write about it.”
“How do you know I write about sex?”
“Because I have no more Returns.”
“I’m Not The One.”
“We should go soon.”
That almost puts me under her feet. Almost.
But then the police come and say We Can Finish Our Beers But We Have To Go but then two people (knick) the butts of their bottles down into broken concrete buttes we all all but forget we straddle to stand on so the (ole) fuzz butt into the crowd of juxtaposed butts and my big rubbery one pushes against Kali’s (sear) more than any (o)ther male’s (prick) strategically navigates (it) to press into the Periodical’s collectively reified, blinding, spectacled, butt.
She grasps me by interlaced electric fingers and pulls me out. In a bar she was favored in, between greetings from artists, corporate workhorses and aspiring sycophants, she systematically extracts dis- from my heart’s content, only to ask about her own:
“I finished my first book at 24; some might say that’s too young to publish.”
“DFW published his even younger.”
“A lot of over-entitled idiots do, too.”
“Mistaking being published for being-a-writer for having something more to say than having said something the best of us have already been.”
“But they get better reception, more often than not.”
“What does that mean?”
“The insecure and jealous give us names like ‘eternal peacock,’ because they don’t understand how nothing is a thing.”
“You look like you want to hit me, B.”
I shove her shoulder back to a brick wall so hard her exhalation comes with a little cry. She clocks my jaw. It feels really great.
“You actually hit me!” I shout, rubbing cheekbone. She nods in mutual gratification, rubbing the back of her neck.
“So how can you know who has a damn thing to claim besides their stake in market decadence?”
“I don’t know. Ask them how much libido they’ve invested outside production.” Kali looks left, (re-)accessing memory with due coyness.
“…I have had a lot of sex.”
“Yet you’re out here again, but now with me.”
“I’m not going to have sex with you. I’m never going to see you again. Understand things are different in New York. You don’t have to hold to someone who may yet be significant to you. You needn’t hold, or hold to anyone, who isn’t.”
The sounds of sexuality do not denote exhortations of satisfaction or psychical satiation, but (whether old confidence lost or new one attained) an intertextual trace of a semiotic index turned inside-out. Hence: true desire dwells in the polysemy of bad grammar. The unspoken is the lack of lack; the inevitability of what exists.
Her lips continue to move but she falls silent. I speak and lift my hands to eclipse the Manhattan and Queens-bound subway stairs, repeating “you’ll go this way and I’ll go the other, and never the ’twain shall we cross either’s Other,” until she finally points to her hailed green cab stopped before us, negating the abstract event, and she pushes my hands away to force her warm perfect real lips into mine, and her tongue transmits a lifetime of words, and one minute later she’s gone forever.
I stand silent, holding what I think the night in my hands and eyes will have been until the N train gallops into the station below, and a very real part of me was still there until very recently, shuffling around in trapezoidal circuit, because the thing about sex and attraction and Eros is that unlike texts about sex, it doesn’t require one return to the premise of symbolic agency. If the good vibes from better sex are bested by writing it down, then perhaps sex is always already synopsis to something else, as if nothing is more. In this attenuated sense, I can only explain by asking the reader to get lost reading me philosophize about what “I” can both speak and be.
Several thousand years ago Parmenides wrote a poem called Nature. In it, he recounts his journey through the heavens à la maiden-escorted chariot. En route, he learns that we can’t speak about things that don’t exist, because what doesn’t exist doesn’t exist. If a thing changes, then to some extent that thing isn’t the same thing it was before, which implies that it once wasn’t. But if the present is the only time we know exists without doubt, then a thing that doesn’t exist could not have once been, any more than a thing which now exists could have once not been. Therefore, it’s argued, we cannot discuss change or becoming because we cannot discuss the past or the future because “…never shall this prevail, that things that are not are.”
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