The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic

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.”

5 Responses to “The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic”

  1. “Therefore” is a strange word. But there is no escaping the use of it in Western Thought. Descartes’ cogito argument has been interpreted as a syllogism because of how he stated his argument, “I think, therefore I am.” But a proper exegesis of his writings shows that his use of “therefore” is not a deductive step from the first part to the last. It is a normative use of language to describe a sentimental process. The thinking “I” is after the fact of the feeling “I” – the sense that the “I” thinks. This does not solve the problem of dualism of course. But it does highlight a central nervous projection of our immediate experience of self onto the thinking/reflexive control (or sense of control, implying false control) of the thinking “I.”

    I apologize for being so brief. I wrote a paper on this topic for Professor Curley. I believe I have it in a box under my desk. Anyone who is skeptical about the exegesis aspect of Descartes’ thought implying a nonsyllogistic step from “I am” to “I think” is more than welcome to take a look at my paper for critique. I also apologize for my elliptical style.

  2. chuk says:

    i’d like to read that
    explodingstar, gmail

  3. chuk,

    I didn’t know whether you were referring to my essay on Descartes’ cogito argument or The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic when you said, “i’d like to read that.”

    The so-called cogito argument is stated in normative grammar. The “conclusions” Descartes makes at the end of section three in The Second Meditation doesn’t read like syllogism. Rather, it is expressed as a process of realizing cogito; not proving cogito.

    3. But how do I know that there is not something different altogether from the objects I have now enumerated, of which it is impossible to entertain the slightest doubt? Is there not a God, or some being, by whatever name I may designate him, who causes these thoughts to arise in my mind ? But why suppose such a being, for it may be I myself am capable of producing them? Am I, then, at least not something? But I before denied that I possessed senses or a body; I hesitate, however, for what follows from that? Am I so dependent on the body and the senses that without these I cannot exist? But I had the persuasion that there was absolutely nothing in the world, that there was no sky and no earth, neither minds nor bodies; was I not, therefore, at the same time, persuaded that I did not exist? Far from it; I assuredly existed, since I was persuaded. But there is I know not what being, who is possessed at once of the highest power and the deepest cunning, who is constantly employing all his ingenuity in deceiving me. Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition (pronunciatum ) I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.

  4. Ingrid says:

    is there any resembles between Perniolas and Platos mimesis? and i cant find out if Perniola is positiv to this mimesis theori at all. plato at least thougt there were a way to manage to see “beyond” the imitation and see the idea-world. can one say that Perniola thougth that the pop-art were helping people to see the tru form of a figure?

  5. In this brilliant little book, Perniola re-introduces daring, invention and beauty into a philosophical landscape dominated by routine deconstructions and conventional transgressions. So much of what passes for innovation these days follows in the track of long established post-structuralist thought, or like those bullying voices lauding revolutionary thought, passes into the 21st century while learning nothing from the 20th. This book is the real thing. And all in the space of fewer than 150 beautifully crafted pages (even after a translation that seems to have a few brutal moments). The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic switches back and forth between being a radical intervention in the whole span of modern western philosophy—on which it comments lucidly and deftly—and a diagnosis of the times, on which it has an original and compelling take. For the Deleuzian “body-without-organs,” Perniola substitutes the “thing that feels,” not the random play of endless surfaces but the un-hesitating offering of the gift of a rich porosity. The thing that feels offers the wealth of an ever-fresh inventiveness, one that provides an alternative to the insistence of both transcendental and vitalist impulses.
    Perniola is already well-known as perhaps Europe’s most important living philosopher of aesthetics and it is by way of the generalisation of the aesthetic that the argument of Sex Appeal progresses. By imagining feeling—and truth—as artifice and neither nature nor fact, Perniola overcomes the dichotomy between aesthetics as the planning of the well-made object and the subjective appreciation of the beautiful. As “things that feel,” our own elaboration of ourselves partakes of the same inventiveness as the art-object. In the gallery, we show ourselves to it, to its “suspended libido” (107), as much as vice versa. But what we have here is not the turning of subjectivity into art-matter in the willed re-invention of the subject as the site of political possibility that you get in posthumous Foucault. What the latter risks, of course, is the sliding back into the old dispensation we thought we’d left behind, just as the bullying Žižekian enthusiasm for revolution re-fantasizes something already failed.
    Sex Appeal isn’t about easy ways out or passing offers of a vacuous political identity which will never re-mobilise widespread opinion. It is, above all, a paean to inventiveness itself, re-imagining art, philosophical work and we ourselves as sites of invention. This is not the invention of post-modern “possibility” nor of Badiou’s ultra-one, but of a giving, an offering, a generosity reminiscent of what’s best in late Derrida. It’s full of inspirations both big and small, from its imagining of a sexuality uncontrolled by either desire or orgasm, to its brilliant local insights (the distinction between inclusive and exclusive meta-literature, for example). So much starts here. You’ve got to read it.

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