Mario Perniola’s The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic is one of those books that comes upon you unawares (rather than one’s coming upon it) , and that is so beautiful, so singular and unexpected, that it just blows you away. The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic is a philosophy book, and it is about a certain sort of extreme experience that, or so the author claims, philosophy and sexuality share. Perniola invents a new ontological category, that of the “thing that feels”: something that is utterly apart from the duality of subjectivity (which we usually equate with sentience) on the one hand, and of insentient objects on the other. The thing that feels “has” a certain sort of intense experience, but this experience is not a subjective one, not anything that is experienced by a subject. This has something to do with the impersonal affect described by Blanchot and by Deleuze, though neither of these authors is cited in Perniola’s text. The experience of the thing that feels is a sexual one: it is sexual contact, touching, caressing, licking, penetrating, and so on: but without orgasm, without a climax, without any release of tension, without any return at the end to a satiated self. The experience of the thing that feels is organs and orifices that are no longer felt as parts of larger wholes, bodily surfaces and depths in such intimate contact that one cannot be separated from the other, feelings cannot be attributed to one rather than the other, and yet this intimacy does not result in fusion either, because that would imply a larger unitary entity into which the two lovers, or more accurately the multiple parts and orifices and organs, would have merged. The experience of the thing that feels is a kind of utter abandonment: I desubjectify myself, detach myself from myself and turn myself into a mere thing, give myself (my body, my organs and orifices, my feelings) — give all this over to the other person to do with me what they will (and vice versa, though the two self-abandonments do not quite form a mutual and symmetrical pattern of reciprocity, because both these self-abandonments are limitless, formless, and cannot be measured).
Perniola does not only invoke the mysterious being of the thing that feels: he describes it, quite systematically, according to a series of cultural and philosophical coordinates. He compares it to, and carefully differentiates it from, sadism, masochism, fetishism, vampirism, and other “perversions” and “transgressions” that have been the obsessions of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century modernity. He shows the way that the sexual experience of the thing that feels resonates with various contemporary aesthetic states and expressions, with a quite amazing list that includes prog rock (!), cybersex, avant-garde fashion, deconstructive architecture, installation art, and the novels of Georges Perec.
And furthermore — since he claims that the experience of the thing that feels is a philosophical one as well as a sexual one — Perniola gives it a metaphysical genealogy as well, in a trajectory that runs through Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. Perniola seeks, like many thinkers before him, to get rid of the mind/body dualism that has so long structured Western thought and culture. But he finds the vitalism of Nietzsche and other anti-Cartesian body theorists as unacceptable as the spiritualism of Descartes and all his idealist descendents; for Perniola, these are just two sides of the same coin. Descartes, in the cogito, defines himself as “a thing that thinks”; he failed thereby to conceive the non-subjective thing that feels; so it was the “think” part, rather than the “thing” part that was Descartes’ big error. Reification and alienation are good things for Perniola; one can never be alienated and reified enough; it is only through them that one can become — or more accurately, that one can be, a thing that thinks. Perniola therefore scorns those thinkers (Nietzsche explicitly, Bergson implicitly) who claim to undo that reification, and return us to some lived experience of the body.
In contrast, Perniola finds clues to the thing that feels in Kant’s ethics above all, with its rejection of subjective good will as inherently “pathological,” and its deeply paradoxical equation of freedom with the state of the “thing in itself” (it is highly significant that Kant’s realm of noumena is a realm of Things). Perniola also finds clues to the thing that feels in certain moments that Hegel denounces as inauthentic, but describes with incomparable rigor; in certain moments that are intimated, but then foreclosed, in Heidegger; and in the late Wittgenstein’s enigmatic discussions of “seeing as” and of the puzzling grammar of expressions of pain.
What this summary of The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic leaves out is the extent to which the book’s power and beauty is largely an effect of style. Perniola’s writing (as far as I can tell from the translation, which occasionally trips itself up with expressions that seem to be literal translations from the Italian in ways that come out sounding unidiomatic in English) is lucid, and concise, finely chiseled yet without suggesting any hardness or harshness. Nothing is argued or deduced; but everything is set forth calmly, clearly, and in a carefully structured order. Rarely has a call for excess and extremity been set forth with such classical care and restraint. In this respect, Perniola joins a small circle of “postmodern” writers who are starting to interrogate limits, push thought to extremes, and approach affect outside of the cognitive straightjacket, without any recourse to the tired 20th-century category of “transgression.”