Erotic Subtraction and Death

1.

In her two-poem collection, Apostasy, Katy Mongeau narrates the desire to both kill and be killed within a world fruiting death in every leaf.  The poetic subject is fractured because overwhelmed and broken by a lust that refracts it into nonhuman things:

Me: convulsing, lust-fucking the mud,

Sun, and consuming myself, dead rotten.

Flower bud.

Tell them I’m lost, the end, an artifact. Tell them

Hello

From down here, puddled-cradled

And pushed against the whole of my master:

The ground and all that goes with it.

Drunk, then swallowed, then drunk.

A wraith and other misplaced objects I choke on.

(Mongeau 2020, 36)

A sublime viciousness bites back like a snake as she celebrates her lover burning alive in a field where the flowers are ‘reeking of the come that makes them’. The line between masochism and sadism therefore becoming irrelevant when every skin is ripe with the desire to be meat and lovers wake exhausted from dreams of self-immolation:

We were tying each other to the horse

night after night

in hopes it might catch fire in our sleep,

and we’d wake

having already been dragged through the city,

burned,

for everyone to see.

What else have I lit on fire

more vain

than myself?

(Mongeau 2020, 22-23)

The erotic desire for death or self-shattering can be readily identified in eroticized imagery of death, violence and tissue damage and metaphorical figures of consumption and sacrifice. In the opening of the second poem of Apostasy, ‘Hostia’ the narrator describes herself as ‘tendered like lamb like veal like whatever else is also good to eat.’ associating the sensuality of her flesh and the tacit desire for recognition through its consumption (Mongeau 2020, 69).

At a more abstract level, Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye figures self-shattering through the destruction of the form-bestowing ‘Apollonian eye’ or head by arbitrary Dionysian forces: the deliquescent head of the female motorcyclist Bataille’s lovers negligently run over early in the novel; the eye of the matador Granero, spurting from his head ‘with the same force as innards from a belly’; the eye of the priest Don Aminado placed in Simone’s vagina to become a micturating non-eye (Byrne 2013, 99-101).

Despite this explicit imagery, death lust remains logically problematic, however – and this brings us to the intersection between eroticism and the epistemology and erotics of the posthuman that I wish to explore. If we assume that erotic desire aims at a subjectively experienceable condition, the desire to end subjectivity appears to vitiate this aim. A necro fetishist may imagine being a corpse, but a feeling corpse is no corpse. Whatever this ‘death’ is, it is not death. It is subtracted from commentary. This erotic aim cannot be identified within a discourse on erotic pleasure. The narrator’s desire for self-shattering is consequently a self-shattering desire that can only be experienced as pathology, as alien to the self. Hence the rhetorical question that ends the second quotation: what, indeed, could be vainer, less real, than a self which wills its disappearance?

Note: this problem concerns reality of the object or content of desire rather than that of the desire itself, which may be psychologically real. Autoassassinophiliacs attest the desire to die and act on this desire, in some cases, dying for it (Downing 2004).

This subtraction of death from death-lust is naturally consonant with a Lacanian account where a divided subjectivity is produced by its failure to knit around consistent objects.

To illustrate: a principled killer can respect the autoassassinophile as an end in herself by agreeing to kill her. Yet both killer and autoassassinophile violate autonomy too, since they extinguish the possibility of its cultivation in very the name of autonomy (14). The principle of autonomy thus both enjoins and prohibits erotic self-destruction. According to Alenka Zupančič, it is around such ethical ‘minuses’ or voids that the ‘surplus enjoyment’ of sexual transgression circulates – here, an obscene enjoyment and radical freedom appears in the space opened up by ambivalence of the ‘moral law’ (Zupančič 2000, 94).[i]

In what follows I will not question the psychological relationship between the void and this surplus affect or enjoyment. What will be at issue is the philosophical currency of this ‘minus’ and thus our conception of the operation of desire in posthumanism more generally.

2.

In contemporary epistemology, subtraction is a procedure whereby a cognitively inaccessible reality is thought via its conditions of inaccessibility – as with our demonstration, earlier, that the occurrence of ‘death’ in ‘death-lust’ does not pick out its literal referent.

I have argued that posthumanism in its ‘speculative’ forms is subtractive because it must bracket its own claims to reflective self-knowledge along with any ethical privileging of the human. The phenomenology of the posthuman ‘subjectivity’, in my terms, is ‘dark’ (Roden 2013).

Dark phenomenology generates the constitutive ethical blindness of speculative posthumanism: since its subject is subtracted from posthumanist theory, we can only evaluate ‘the posthuman’ pre-emptively in encountering or producing a posthuman nature. We cannot, for example, articulate a posthumanist ethics of care if we cannot first say which beings merit or prompt care (MacCormack 2020.) The posthuman ‘encounter’ thus lacks a conceptual determinacy that could distinguish the good posthuman difference from the presumed ‘evil’ of techno-capitalist rupture, say (Roden 2020.)

A subtractive posthumanism is thus actuated by a perversely empty eros or xenophilia (Roden 2019). A posthuman ‘nature’ is not thinkable philosophically but must be produced non-philosophically through the ‘biomorphic’ derangements and deformations characteristic of technical modernity itself (Roden 2020). It is only under technical modernity, after all, that the posthuman arises as an issue for embodied life. 

The issue that concerns me here is the philosophical plus of both minuses and what they have to tell us about the xenophilia that actuates even the attempt to grasp the posthuman. For in subtractive posthumanism not only is the object of desire (posthuman nature) negated; so is its role in constituting the division of the subject. What is subtracted is not enjoyment (as stated, I accept the psychological connection between transgression and pleasure) but its imaginary plus – the ‘meta-level’ whereby the divided subject of enjoyment is generated by understanding itself as a subject divided.[ii]

There are, to be sure, generative processes presupposed by posthumanism –ramifying socio-technical changes which re-form bodies, societies, and ecologies, but these are inherently asubjective and counter-final.

Thus, both the empty ‘death’ of death-lust and posthumanist xenophilia furnish surplus enjoyment without surplus meaning. Both are non-dialectical, though undoubtedly transformative, and affective.

3.

It is tempting to revert to Bataille’s metaphysics of transgression here by explaining posthuman xenophilia and death-lust alike in terms of an atelic and undirected ‘base’ matter which can never be spiritualized and that overturns the integrity of all bodies. This is the posthuman predicament of a life entangled and adapting, for better or worse, to divergent, counter-final process of technical and ecological change (Noys 1998; Colebrook 2012, 37; Roden 2014, Ch7).

Transgressive pleasure is an affect consequent on the violation of norms or their collapse – for example, norms stipulating the integrity of the masculine body (Waldby 1995, 272). The invulnerability of a certain ideal male body incites transgression because of the excessive pleasure involved in breaching its imagined boundaries. Anecdotally, I recall getting a lot of erotic pleasure from seeing Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976) precisely because of the way the film represented male bodies as sensually porous, as inviting penetration much as Mongeau’s hyper-feminized flesh invites its consumption. This evocation of erotic extremity was both surprising to me (as, at the time, a young, nominally heterosexual male) but intense and affirming.

As Romana Byrne points out in Aesthetic Sexuality: A literary History of Sadomasochism transgression does not arise from a metaphysical dualism since prohibitive discontinuity and transgressive continuity are both generated within in the material realm (Byrne 2013, 99). However, this implies that transgression is primarily an aesthetic phenomenon. Moreover, since a subtractive posthumanism eschews reflective or transcendental accounts of subjectivity, we have no access to a comprehensive aesthetics of transgression. Any identification of the posthuman or erotic void, here, with transgression or pleasure is thus adventitious, even if our aims remain primarily aesthetic.

Since we are bound to a certain non-philosophical procedure here by our relinquishment of a priori constructions of the subject, it is more helpful to multiply our original examples and consider a posthuman eroticism where death and the posthuman nature overlap as congruent voids to which the biomorphic body is exposed by the operations of modernity. As I’ve argued elsewhere, J G Ballard’s seminal novel Crash is structured around such a void – that of the impossible auto-collision foreclosed by the inevitable failure of its shamanic hero, Vaughan, to collide with Elisabeth Taylor at the opening of the novel. This idealized crash gives meaning to all the ‘little crashes’ and collisions between ruptured flesh and fractured industrial objects littering the novel’s urban landscapes. It is, again, easy to see a kind of transcendental necessity here – a cyborgian subjectivity woven of exigencies of mechanized death rather than sex, and that is pretty much how I initially read Ballard’s text (see Roden 2002).

However, in the light of subtractive posthumanism we can read this not as an example of how subjects are ‘constituted by lack’ but of how the processes of modernity and posthumanism alike can be framed through an aesthetic and erotic void opened up by the conjugation of eroticized bodies and death. Moreover, while both Ballard’s novel and David Cronenberg 1996 film adaptation have been viewed as transgressive in popular media, its circulation of bodies and artifacts operate according to codes internal to the worlds they depict. There are surely aesthetic pleasures to be found in these works, in their irony, extreme rhetorical sophistication, estrangement and, in Cronenberg’s film, the posing of its cool and elegantly affectless protagonists among the grey vistas of Toronto’s 401-404 Interchange, but there is no formal transgression within the narrative: transgression itself has been transgressed.

Xenophilia, I suggest, is an aesthetic representation of a process of ramifying change that has little of the spirit about it. For this reason, the most appropriate artistic evocation of the posthuman condition is the most affectless, the most removed from any any recognizable bodily passion, the most committed to the extirpation of authorized gender or ordinary human affiliation. No wonder, then, that death – death subtracted, death under erasure – is a favoured terminus of posthuman eroticism.

Ballard’s most extreme works – the internally consistent tableau of Crash or the Atrocity Exhibition would qualify here. Likewise, we might look to the ‘concept horror’ of Gary J Shipley as an invocation of unnameable processes of derangement that sunder not only bodies but the very logical grammar of thought. While there is a lot of mutating, altered flesh in works like The Unyielding or Warewolff! and a lot of morbid pleasure to be found in Shipley’s linguistic brio, such passions as can be discerned are those of mutagenic, hyperplastic matter. The Unyielding, for example, memorializes the mutation of an entire family into a pornographically arresting variant of death – or rather unlife – following the obdurate refusal of a notionally ‘dead’ mother to yield to decay (Shipley 2017a, 2017b).

To conclude: both the literature of extreme eroticism and the posthuman intersect around a void that is neither death (in its empirical sense) nor an expression of divided subjectivity, but an erased death in aesthetic complicity with a nonhuman Outside; with processes which have little reference to, or interest in, the ‘spirit’ of transcendental humanism. These figures of death are productively entangled in the inhuman in ways that evoke and disclose our own intimate and fatal entanglement with that Outside.

References:

Barthes, Roland. 1987. ‘The Metaphor of the Eye’. Story of the Eye, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 119-127.

Ballard, J. G. 1993. The Atrocity Exhibition (annotated), London: Flamingo, 1993.

Ballard, J. G. 1995. Crash, London: Vintage.

Bataille, Georges. 1987. Story of the Eye, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Brassier, R., 2007. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Byrne, R., 2013. Aesthetic Sexuality: A Literary History of Sadomasochism. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Colebrook, C. 2012. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth.” Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41 (1): 30–39

Downing, L., 2004. On the limits of sexual ethics: The phenomenology of autassassinophilia. Sexuality and Culture, 8(1), pp.3-17.

Goggin, W.E., 2018. Hegel and Bataille on Sacrifice. Hegel Bulletin, 39(2), pp.236-259.

MacCormack, P., 2020. ‘Embracing Death, Opening the World’. Australian Feminist Studies, pp.1-15.

Mongeau, Katy. 2020. Apostasy. Brooklyn: Black Sun Lit.

Noys, B., 1998. Georges Bataille’s base materialism. Journal for Cultural Research, 2(4), pp.499-517.

Radnik, B., 2017. The absolute plasticity of Hegel’s absolutes. Crisis and critique, 4(1), pp.352-375.

Roden, David. 2002. Cyborgian subjects and the auto-destruction of metaphor. In Crash cultures: modernity, mediation and the material, edited by Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant., Bristol: Intellect Books, pp. 91-102.

Roden, David (2013) ‘Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

Roden, David. 2017. ‘On Reason and Spectral Machines’: Robert Brandom and Bounded Posthumanism, in Rosi Braidotti Rick Dolphijn (eds) Philosophy After Nature. London – New York: Rowman & Littlefield International: pp. 99-119.

Roden, David. 2019. ‘Subtractive-Catastrophic Xenophilia,’ Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, Vol. 16, No. 1-2 (Summer – Winter 2019): 40-46.

Roden, d. 2020b. ‘Posthuman: Critical, Speculative, Biomorphic, in Mads Rosendhal Thomsen and Joseph Wamburg (eds) The Bloomsbury Handbook of Posthumanism, Bloomsbury Academic: London, pp. 81-94.

Vartabedian, B., 2018. Multiplicity and Ontology in Deleuze and Badiou. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Shipley, Gary J. 2017a.  Warewolff! London: Hexus Press.

Shipley, Gary J. 2017b. The Unyielding. Portland: Eraserhead Press.

Tofts, Darren. 2008. ‘Interiors’, in Armand, L., Lewty, J. and Mitchell, A. eds. Pornotopias: Image, Apocalypse, Desire. Univerzita Karlova v Praze, Filozofická Fakulta.

Waldby, C., 1995. Boundary erotics and refigurations of the heterosexual male body. Sexy bodies: The strange carnalities of feminism, pp.266-77

Zupančič, A., 2000. Ethics of the real: Kant, Lacan. Verso.


[i] This nicely supports Alenka Zupančič’s contention that Kantian morality is, at its core, decoupled from the good (Zupančič 2000, 94).

[ii] One way to understand this non-dialectical ‘minus’ is via the theme of plasticity in contemporary Hegelianism and Posthumanism. One the one hand we can understand the disputed meta-level as an open engagement with reality that reproduces itself in a ‘continuous dynamic movement’ (Radnik 2017, 374).

However, this structure only inheres in self-consciousness or spirit if it is recursively self-sustaining. That is, if enhancing subjectivity gives more of the same. Even a ‘hyperplastic’ agent with no limit to its self-transformative powers would belong to this field of absolute subjectivity or ‘Spirit’. But this is precisely what a subtractive posthumanism questions! To cut a long story short, I have argued that none of the features of subjectivity or mind are attributable to a hyperplastic entity. This limit agent is one we could no longer interpret as agent. Just like the eroticism of corpse-being, subjectivity-as-plasticity it does not cohere on its own terms. 

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