Archive for November, 2006

The Mad Man

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

 Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man is a stupendous text, a pornographic fantasy and a philosophical meditation at once. I reread it because I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what I had said about it in my previous post on porn.

Delany calls the book (in his opening “Disclaimer”) a “pornutopic fantasy: a set of people, incidents, places, and relations among them that never happened and could not happen for any number of surely self-evident reasons”; he adds that the book is “specifically… about various sexual acts whose status as vectors of HIV contagion we have no hard-edged knowledge of…” Anid indeed, there is no anal sex in the course of this narrative of sexual relations between men; but the book contains copious, epic descriptions of cocksucking, piss-drinking (and occasional shit-eating) together with oceanic spurts of semen (as well as piss)erupting from truly gigantic cocks. Various sorts of fetishism are also on display, especially involving racial stereotyping, and the narrator’s idealization of homeless men. (Delany also remarks in his “Disclaimer” that a novel that truly focused on the homeless “would have to be substantially darker than this one”).

But I also said that The Mad Man is a philosophical meditation. Quite literally: the narrator, John Marr, a gay black man in his 20s, coping with the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s, is a graduate student in philosophy, investigating the life and works of a (fictional) great philosopher, Timothy Hasler, a Korean-American thinker who was murdered, at age 29, in a gay hustler’s bar, almost a generation before (in 1973, post-Stonewall, but pre-AIDS).

Marr reconstructs Hasler’s life even as he comes to terms with his work, which involves the relation between “formal” and “informal” systems: the way that the logic of description abstracts from, and thereby simplifies, an initially chaotic and complex intermingling of multiple particulars. Hasler reverses the traditional assumptions of classical empiricism and 20th-century positivist and analytic thought. For those traditions, i.e. for thinkers from Locke to the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, the world is analyzable into a set of discrete, atomic, entities (“ideas” or “facts”), and complexity results from the ways that, on a higher level, these entities interact, interfere with one another, form into intertwined combinations: “the first three quarters of our [20th] century has been dominated by the unquestioned conviction… that reality was built up of atomic perceptions, that language was built up from the meanings and grammatical potentials associated with individual words. Only when things got too complicated — in the interaction of system on top of system, system against system — did the appearance of systematicity break down.”

But Hasler argues pretty much the opposite: he argues that “large-scale, messy, informal systems are necessary in order to develop, on top of them, precise, hard-edged, tractable systems… the human mind, and possibly nature herself, master generalized, messy pointing, inexact indication, and flailing well before they learn to individuate and count.” And more, “the messy is what provides the energy which holds any system within it coherent and stable.” In this way, Hasler is closer to the later Wittgenstein, and to Whitehead, than he is to the mainstream of Anglo-American logical and linguistic analysis. (I mention these thinkers, rather than Derrida and Deleuze, because it’s important that Delany represents Hasler as coming out of — and deviating from, or radicalizing — the analytic tradition, rather than participating in “continental” thought).

The question, of course, is what to make of a book in which passages like the one I have just quoted alternate with lengthy descriptions of golden showers night at the Mineshaft, or orgies in the narrator’s apartment that end with cum, piss, and shit smeared over everything, and suffusing the space with their pungent odor. Is the book based upon the notorious Cartesian split between mind and body, as between philosophical asceticism and the corporeal pursuit of pleasure? To the contrary, it is evident that the “informal system” of sexual energy that the book depicts is necessary to the emergence of any “formal system,” any logic and order, of the sort that the novel’s philosophical passages explore. Delany has long written about the ways that “paraliterary” genres can accommodate possibilities foreclosed in more mainstream and “proper” forms of literature. Delany accomplishes this with pornography in The Mad Man, just as he did with science fiction and fantasy in many of his earlier writings. (Hasler himself alternated his philosophical publications with a series of science fiction stories, which are described as pulpy space operas — pre-1960s SF New Wave in content — that nonetheless embody his philosophical themes).

In the course of the novel, as Marr traces Hasler’s life, he also finds himself in effect replicating or repeating it — despite the vast difference between Hasler’s experience as a gay man in the post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS era, and the more circumscribed conditions that Marr faces living in the midst of the epidemic. Hasler and Marr share, among other things, an attraction to homeless men; they each fall in love with one such man; and Marr finally finds himself unwittingly recreating the situation that led to Hasler’s murder; only this time, a homeless man is killed, as Marr fails to substitute himself (as Hasler, it turns out, did, in a true act of love) for the intended victim. Marr’s growing identification with Hasler makes possible the traditional pornographic pattern of a series of sexual scenes or episodes, almost detachable from the surrounding narrative, and yet increasing in intensity as one moves through that narrative, with a culminating orgy that  provides a sort of emotional climax to the narrative as a whole. I don’t know how many readers will really get off on the pornographic scenarios that make so large a part of the novel (I have to admit that it didn’t do much for me in that regard); but it’s crucial to note that Delany does not endeavor to “redeem” or “transcend” pornography, to turn it into something “higher.” He insists on the aim of physically arousing the reader: which of course is what makes pornography a “low” and scandalous genre; in polite society, rhetorical effects are supposed to work only on the mind, not on the body. Thus again, the philosophical themes of the novel are energized and given form by the pornographic depictions, rather than standing in opposition to them.

What’s truly radical about Delany’s pornography — as I have noted several times before (e.g. here, here, here, and here) — is that its intensities are never presented as transgressive; the entire tradition of pornographic transgression, which stretches from Sade to Bataille and beyond, and which is often echoed in the naively liberationist rhetoric of much commercial porn — holds no interest for Delany, and in fact is something that his books explicitly critique. Even the great piss- and shit-stained orgy that is the culminating sexual scene of the book (that is followed by the murder that Marr unwittingly sets the stage for, and that replicates an orgy in Hasler’s apartment, 18 years earlier, that had taken place just before Hasler’s own murder) is depicted (I’m not sure that I can say this the right way) in naturalistic terms rather than lurid ones. By which I do not mean that its intent is not to arouse — since clearly it is — but that it presents such arousal in a continuum with all the other aspects of life (the narrator’s, the writer’s, and the reader’s) rather than as some sort of rupture with them. There’s a bit of comedy, even, as Marr has to explain away the remnants of the scene to his straight-laced, hetero academic advisor (who unexpectedly pops by for a visit the next day); but the whole point is that this embarrassment is a function of the advisor’s narrowminded-bigotry-clothed-in-liberal-goodwill, rather than any intrinsic aspect of the scene itself.

To say that Delany’s view and account of sex, and his “pornutopic fantasy,” have nothing to do with transgression is to say that they cannot be comprehended in the terms of any dialectic of contradiction, or even of any post-Kantian questioning of limits. Sexual exchanges — and there is a lot here, which I lack the space and energy to get into, about the logic of sexual exchange, and how it relates to, and potentially differs from, the ubiquity of market exchange — in fact this difference is the key to Hasler’s murder, and to that of Marr’s homeless friend — are for Delany a form of civility and collectivity, as well as a series of pleasures, or improvements of sensual enjoyment. This doesn’t mean that such sexual exchanges are tame or limited. The point is, rather, that there is no limit — no boundary to be transgressed, or that would mark a zero point, a void or lack, an encounter with death. The Mad Man is a novel quite cognizant of, and continually haunted by, death: in the form of Hasler’s death which is the starting-point of the narrative, and the homeless man’s death which is its conclusion, and more generally in the ever-present reality of AIDS in the world of its narrator. But this death is in no way intrinsic to or carried by the sexual acts that the narrative describes; rather, death always comes from outside (to use or abuse a phrase from Deleuze). Death arrives in The Mad Man, and the book thereby takes on a fully tragic dimension. But although death is inevitable, for we are all mortal, and it is more of a danger for gay man than for many other groups of people (because of the sort of society we live in), nonetheless death is also inessential. It is not a constituent and motor of sexual desire. One cannot imagine a greater contrast to the transgressive — Kantian or Hegelian — logics of Sade, Bataille, and so many others.

In this way, Delany’s pornography leads us to think — forces us to think — in ways that are so far from our cultural norms as to be virtually unimaginable. We don’t have the language — outside of the language provided in Delany’s own writing — to conceptualize what he is proposing to us. (It is something that the late-period Foucault pointed towards, with his ideas about “bodies and pleasures” replacing the transgressive logic of sexuality;  but I think Delany points us much further in this direction than Foucault did). Delany breaks with the utopian, 60s idea of sex as redemptive; but he also breaks, I think, even with the anti-redemptive arguments offered by such queer theorists as Leo Bersani and (more recently) Lee Edelman. Another way to put this is to say that Delany’s pornographic vision — the way bodies and pleasures are intensified to a point of impersonality and anonymity — cannot be described in terms of the Freudian/Lacanian “death drive.” It’s hard for me to express this as clearly or theoretically as I would like; but it has something to do with the way in which “extreme” sexual acts are described both — and simultaneously — as attaining a point where the ego, or the limits between one self and another, are dissolved, so that the experience of sheer intensity is all that remains, and as being experiences of intimacy, ease, togetherness, and (dare I say it?) even a certain homely coziness. This sense suffuses even, and especially, the one passage in the novel where the narrator cites both Sade and Marx (!) in order to explain “all the combinations and permutations of everyone hooking up with everyone else” in the culminating orgy scene. In the logistics of the orgy, we get the intertwining of Hasler’s informal and formal systems, as we get both a push to the point of physical exhaustion, and a sense of free and easy comraderie, one in which the odors of sweat, piss, and cum feel “familiar and comfortable,” and the exchange of bodily fluids are the nicest and sweetest thing one human being can do with another. Sexuality for Delany is a kind of communism, where anonymous relations with multiple others coexist with the exclusivity and special passion of (romantic?) love for one particular other person. As the narrator himself announces quite explicitly, The Mad Man is finally a love story. The pornutopian dimension of the novel has to do with the fact that it is, in the special sense I have been describing, a “communist” love story.

That The Mad Man is inadmissible in just about any discursive or social context one could imagine today is not a fact about the book, but a fact about the our society and its grim deficiencies.

David Halperin

Sunday, November 26th, 2006

The DeRoy Lecture Series 2006-2007

David M. Halperin

“What Do Gay Men Want?  Sex, Risk, and the Subjective Life of Homosexuality.”
David M. Halperin is the W. H. Auden Collegiate Professor of the History and Theory of Sexuality at the University of Michigan, where he teaches English, Women’s Studies, Comparative Literature, and Classical Studies.  He is the author or editor of eight books, including THE LESBIAN AND GAY STUDIES READER, SAINT FOUCAULT, HOW TO DO THE HISTORY OF HOMOSEXUALITY, and GAY SHAME (forthcoming).  With Carolyn Dinshaw he founded and edited GLQ:  A JOURNAL OF LESBIAN AND GAY STUDIES.

Friday, December 1, 3pm
English Department Seminar Room
Room 10302
Wayne State University
5057 Woodward
Detroit, MI 48202

Why Porn Now?

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

The German art magazine Texte Zur Kunst is planning a forthcoming issue “which deals with the production, reception and theoretization of pornography.” They are including a survey in which they ask a large number of people for brief statements about the status of pornography today, asking (among other things) Do you agree with the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and political conditions?” Here’s my response:

Why Porn Now? In fact, I don’t believe that Now is the time. Of course, there’s more stuff available these days than ever before: extreme porn, gonzo porn, DIY porn, and what have you. Explicit images are everywhere. No fetish, no kink, is so obscure that you can’t find a group devoted to it on the Net, complete with ready-to-download videos. But I find it hard to regard all this as a triumph of anything besides niche marketing. Today, in the era of globalization, electronic media, and post-Fordist flexible accumulation, everything is a commodity. We have reached the point at which even the most impalpable and evanescent, or intimate and private, aspects of our lives — not just physical objects, but services and favors, affects and moods, styles and atmospheres, yearnings and fantasies, experiences and lifestyles — have all been quantified, digitized, and put up for sale. It’s true, of course, that there are many social forces opposed to the proliferation of pornography, and more generally of sexual fantasies and possibilities. In the United States, voters routinely approve anti-homosexual ordinances, and politicians and preachers score points by demanding action to stem the flood of “obscenity.” But really, isn’t this hysterical moralism just the flip side of marketing? The main effect of these crusades is to give pornography, and more generally all forms of nonprocreative sex, the shiny allure of transgression and taboo. And that, in turn, only serves to stimulate the consumer demand for porn-as-commodity, and sex-as-commodity…

In fact, there is nothing more banal than the spectacle of a right-wing politician who turns out to have a passion for teenage boys, or the minister of a fundamentalist megachurch who is discovered to be hiring rent boys on the side. (I cite only the two most recent of the incessant pseudo-scandals that make headlines in the American media). It’s no longer possible to understand these pathetic closet cases in terms of Freudian repression, or the Lacanian Symbolic, or any of the old categories of depth psychology. Rather, their logic is a commodity logic: fetishism in the Marxist sense, instead of the Freudian one. All our affects and passions are perfectly interchangeable, subject to the law of universal equivalence. That is to say, all of them are commodities, detached from the subjective circumstances of their affective production, and offered up for sale in the marketplace. Today our fantasies and desires — indeed, “our bodies, ourselves” — seem to be outside us, apart from us, beyond our power. And this is a very different situation from that of their being repressed, and buried deep within us. Commodities have a magical attraction — we find them irresistable and addictive — because they concretize and embody the “definite social relations” (as Marx puts it) that we cannot discover among ourselves. In the fetishism of commodities, Marx says, these social relations take on “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” The secret sex life of the right-wing politician or preacher is thus a sort of desperate leap, an attempt to seek out those social relations that are only available in the marketplace, only expressible as “revealed preferences” in the endless negotiations of supply and demand. In short, such a secret life is nothing more (or less) than a way of getting relief by going shopping — which is something that we all do. This realization dampens down whatever Schadenfreude such incidents might otherwise afford me.

Therefore, I don’t accept “the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and poltical conditions.” To the contrary: there is nothing exceptional, central, or privileged about pornography and the “pornographic” today. Pornography simply conforms to the same protocols and political conditions, the same commodity logic, as do all other forms of production, circulation, and consumption. Porn today isn’t the least bit different from cars, or mobile phones, or running shoes. It embodies a logic of indifferent equivalence, even as it holds out the thrilling promise of transgression and transcendence — a promise that, of course, it never actually fulfills.

Is it possible to imagine a pornography freed from this logic? Perhaps some recent writings by Samuel R. Delany provide an alternative. In novels like The Mad Man and Phallos, Delany envisions a sexuality pushed to the point of extremity and exhaustion. There are orgies of fucking and sucking, elaborate games of dominance and submission, and episodes of violence and destruction, together with enormous quantities of piss and shit and sweat and cum. Yet there’s no sense of transgression in these texts. Instead, the meticulously naturalistic thick description places these episodes firmly in the realm of the everyday. Delany presents “extreme” sex as a form of civility and community, an adornment of life, a necessary part of the art of living well. Delany’s is the only writing I know that answers Michel Foucault’s call for an ethics/aesthetics of the body and its pleasures, freed from the dreary dialectics of sexuality and transgression. As such, it provides an alternative as well to the relentless commodification that permeates every corner of our postmodern existence.

Julian Dibbell

Monday, November 6th, 2006

The DeRoy Lecture Series 2006-2007

Julian Dibbell

“PLAY MONEY: Gold Farms, Polar Bear Rugs, and the Theory and Practice of Contemporary Ludocapitalism”

Julian Dibbell has, in the course of over a decade of writing and publishing, established himself as one of digital culture’s most thoughtful and accessible observers. He is the author of two books on virtual worlds, My Tiny Life (Henry Holt, 1999) and Play Money (Basic, 2006), and has written essays and articles on hackers, computer viruses, online communities, encryption technologies, music pirates, and the heady cultural, political, and philosophical questions that tie these and other digital-age phenomena together. Currently a contributing editor for Wired magazine, he lives in South Bend, Indiana.

Friday, November 10, 3pm
English Department Seminar Room (5057 Woodward, room 10302)
Detroit, Michigan

The Road

Friday, November 3rd, 2006

I read Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road just as soon as it came out, which is now more than a month ago. But I’ve hesitated to write about it, because I felt that I didn’t have anything to say. It seems to me that the book actively repels commentary; it is so utterly self-contained, so hermetically sealed unto itself, that anything anybody does say about it is at once both superfluous and wrong.

I mean this both with regard to the novel’s content, and with regard to its form, or its prose. It’s a harsh and powerful book, depicting a post-apocalyptic landscape so severe, so totally ravaged, and so enclosed, that it offers no escape. It’s a world in which there are no resources left. The utter lucidity and precision with which McCarthy describes the characters’ careful scavenging of whatever pitiful remnants of food, clothing, shelter, tools, etc., that they can find leads to a sort of exhaustion. I love sentences like this one, referring to the main character, the father, who, together with his son is endlessly on the road: “Mostly, he worried about their shoes.” This, finite and limited material, material always in short supply, in deficit with regard to human needs, is all there is. Once it is gone, there will not be any more, since civilization of any sort, or economic production of any kind, has long ceased to function. The rest is just lifeless ruin, or else cruelty and cannibalistic horror.

The prose is polished to a point of minimalist perfection; blinding in its clarity and yet (or, I should say, and therefore) almost devoid of metaphorical or metaphysical resonance. There’s no splendor here; echoes are muffled, even as the sky is a perpetual gray. The few hints of metaphysics that manage to penetrate the murk entirely confirm my old friend Leo Daugherty’s assertion (in an article available here) that McCarthy’s vision is basically a gnostic one. The semi-miraculous ending to the book is itself only intelligible in such terms; salvation is not of this world, but is radically other, and is a matter of “carrying the fire” (the phrase that comes up again and again in The Road) in a world that is utterly hostile to it, and that continually threatens to blow it out.

I suppose that this extreme closure, this more-than-granite hardness and power, is one definition of the sublime. But for me, it is something that ultimately limits the novel. I read the book with avidity and intense attention; but once I finished, it almost entirely slipped from my mind. I do not brood over it, the way I have brooded for years over Blood Meridian. That was a book of almost infinite resonance and depth, one that will not leave me alone and that I am impelled to reread every couple of years. Blood Meridian is filled with horror, and that horror reveals something powerful and true about America, and the way that its claims to both exceptionalism and universality are drenched and rooted in blood. Blood Meridian offers no release from negativity, no sense of an ending no matter how total the destruction. In contrast, I do not think that I will every read The Road again. It doesn’t have the same affective power, the same ability to insinuate itself into my dreams. Instead, it feels like a dead end; even the horror is finally dampened down into entropy.