Mad Man Redux

Samuel Delany pointed out to me that, in my previous posting on his novel The Mad Man, I made a crucial parapraxis, or misreading: I quoted him as writing, in his opening “Disclaimer” to the novel, that the book was a “pornutopic fantasy”; when in actuality he wrote that it was a “pornotopic fantasy.”

The change in one letter is crucial. The Mad Man is not a “porn-utopia,” but a “porno-topia” (“topos” = “place”). As Delany wrote to me: “rather than [Thomas] More’s fibrillation between ‘ouk-topia’ (no place) and ‘eu-topia’ (the good place), I’m evoking ‘pornos-topia’ (the place of the prostitute — prostitute in the sense of one who indulges in ‘sexual exchange’ or ‘exchanging things for pleasure,’ money, other sex, communication, information, sexuality seen as part of the extant social exchange system, rather than as a sublime/transcendent occurrence outside the social exchange system).”

It’s all the more startling (and embarrassing) for me to realize that I translated “pornotopia” into “pornutopia”, in that my own reading of the novel is precisely that it does not present sex — even extravagant and copious (in quantity) sex — as being transgressive, sublime, or transcendent, but rather seeks to bring it back to the everyday. This means that The Mad Man should be understood, not as a utopia (a no-place or good-place), but rather as what Foucault called a “heterotopia” (an “other-place”). Foucault writes that heterotopias, “as opposed to utopias,” are “real places, actual places… in which the real emplacements, all the other real emplacements that can be found within the culture are, at the same time, represented, contested, and reversed, sorts of places that are outside all places, although they are actually localizable.” (This from a 1967 text of Foucault’s called “Different Spaces”).

(Recall, too, that Delany’s much earlier novel Trouble on Triton (1976) was subtitled “an ambiguous heterotopia”; the book can be read as, among other things, a response to Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974), which bore the subtitle: “an ambiguous utopia.”)

As a pornotopia or heterotopia, The Mad Man is explicitly concerned with sexuality in relation to “the social exchange system.” And indeed, this is something I didn’t say enough about in my previous posting. Indeed, I wrote there that “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.” But this difference in logics is of course crucial. The two murders in the novel are precisely the result of a clash. between market exchange and another form of (noncapitalist) sexual exchange. The homeless “Mad Man Mike” institutes a strange rule of sexual exchange and sexual ownership, in which the cost of sexual desire/activity/transference is fixed at precisely a penny; and this comes into tragic conflict with the stringencies and desperations of the “market” for hustling at The Pit, the hustler bar in which the novel’s two murders take place.

I think that The Mad Man stands alongside Marcel Mauss’ The Gift and Pierre Klossowski’s La monnaie vivante (Living Money, unfortunately still not published in English translation) as one of the great texts about alternatives to capitalist/market version of (commodity) exchange.

(Note 1: I realize that I am leaving a lot out here, giving way too summary an account. One also has to look at, for instance, Braudel’s claims about the medieval “market” being something very different from the “anti-markets” of large-scale capitalist commodity exchange; not to mention other anthropological accounts, like Alan Page Fiske’s typology of forms of social exchange).

(Note 2: it was rather amusing to see how, in their “Freakonomics” column in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven V. Levitt went through all sorts of bizarre contortions in order to explain our habits of holiday season gift-giving in terms of standard — bourgeois, capitalist — economic rationality).

5 thoughts on “Mad Man Redux”

  1. I happened to read your post on Delany’s novel an thought I’d contribute on the notion of pornotopia which I believe is a term coined by Steven Marcus in his 1964 book The Other Victorians. He said:

    The isolated castle on an inaccessible mountain top, the secluded country estate set in the middle of a large park and surrounded by insurmountable walls, the mysterious town house in London or Paris, the carefully furnished and elaborately equipped set of apartments to be found in any city at all, the deserted cove at the seaside, or the solitary cottage atop the cliffs,
    the inside of a brothel rented for a day, a week, or a month, or the inside of hotel room rented for the night—these are all the same place and are identically located. (Marcus, 1966: 271.) quoted by Irvin C Schick, Arvin C Schick in the The Erotic Margin, 1999.

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