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Between 1961 and 2009, J. G. Ballard published nearly twenty novels as well as numerous short stories. Many of them are populated with strange creatures that in different ways strain conceptions of the borders of the human and the animal. Reading through Ballard's oeuvre may leave you with an unsettling feeling of confusion or with an inspiring sense of dislocation. These works continuously challenge habitual conceptions of reality and try out different modes of approaching and understanding it as they play with the formalist borders of the mimetic, the representational, and the allegorical. Frequently, this experimentation, situated as it is in post-apocalyptic sceneries and bleak technological futures, has positioned him as a dystopian writer and as a narrator of “exhausted futures.” While many of the futures Ballard constructs are indeed rather bleak – his worlds are flooded, crystallized, dried out, covered in concrete, or populated by characters paralyzed by lives of leisure – I would like to reopen the question of what exactly is exhausted in the worlds he depicts. I wish to draw attention to two interrelated things in particular that seem exhausted in Ballard's writing – the human, and the modes of representation that it has constructed to retain its ontological and epistemic priority as such. The human no longer quite recognizes itself as such in his books. While this repeatedly makes for unsettling character portrayals, it also opens for an interrogation of the means by which literary tropes have policed the borders of the human and the nonhuman.
Ballard is well known for his explorations of human boundaries – the boundaries of sexuality, the boundaries of the psyche, the boundaries of technology. In what follows, I will argue that he not only explores such boundaries but that he also challenges the conceptualizations and epistemological systems of such boundaries in the first place. Such challenges have been and continue to be made in various ways in both animality studies and posthumanist research as we can see, for example in Michael Lundblad's questioning of the way the representation of interspecies animal sexuality tends to be read as a substitution or displacement of forbidden human sexualities relationships or in Cary Wolfe's and many others’ interrogation of the humanist frameworks that have constructed the exceptionalism of the human subject.
When this book was still in its infancy, an American friend and Deleuze scholar insisted that being a Swedish woman writing about sex without addressing the associations between Swedish women and sex would simply be inappropriate. In the light of what this book has ended up as – a kind of defence of the cultural, conceptual and political importance of sexual pleasure – I find this comment rather intriguing. Just as I had no idea that the associations of Sweden with sex were so powerful until I started travelling beyond the Swedish borders, it had not crossed my mind that my interest in delving into the political, cultural and social implications of sexual pleasure might also emerge from a more specific national historical context than that of my own contemporary, academic framework. It seems apt, as an epilogue, to reflect on the book as a whole in relation to this particular context of its writing. I am not Monika or Lena, from Ingmar Bergman's and Vilgot Sjöman's famous films, and I am not really curious yellow or blue either, as Sjöman's film titles go. But how can I tell if my interest in what sex is and what it can do – an interest that certainly is not that uncommon in itself – is somehow shaped by a Swedish historical configuration of sexuality as a relatively naturalised aspect of life?
We are informed that if repression has indeed been the fundamental link between power, knowledge, and sexuality since the classical age, it stands to reason that we will not be able to free ourselves from it except at a considerable cost: nothing less than a transgression of laws, a lifting of prohibitions, an irruption of speech, a reinstating of pleasure within reality.
(Foucault 1990a: 5)
Deleuze's understanding of pleasure as a mode of capture and his claiming of desire as a mode of production build on a rather disparate tradition of theories of sexuality. Therefore, it is necessary to approach his oeuvre with an eye to his ideas about pleasure and desire by identifying key moments of influence. Our point of arrival is an explication of how the relationship between desire and pleasure in Deleuze is illuminated, enhanced or problematised by the rich tradition of writing on which it is built. Deleuze's philosophy of desire in general demands attention to how both cultural artefacts and philosophical theories produce problematic relations between desire and pleasure. His two most central interlocutors are Foucault and psychoanalysis. These two are central enough, not just to Deleuze's philosophy but to conceptions of sexuality more generally, to warrant some space of their own at the beginning of this study, and while this chapter will be devoted to the study of the former, the latter will be analysed in the following chapter.
Rhythms, regularized patterns of vibration or resonance, are what move from the refrain to the body. What else is both labile enough and appealing enough to slip from its material to its most immaterial effects, from the energy of the universe to the muscular oscillations that constitute pleasure and pain in living things?
(Grosz 2008: 55)
After outlining some of the central theoretical explanations and impasses that have shaped Deleuze's understanding of desire, pleasure and the orgasm, and before moving on to how specific pleasurable configurations of bodies in literature and culture challenge this understanding, this chapter offers a preliminary exploration of what a Deleuzian theory of the body and pleasure might look like. It also tests such a theory against contemporary conceptualisations of pleasurable bodies more generally. The body as other, as that which bleeds, and leaks, and comes back to haunt us in its glorious but fallible construction, has been of interest to theoretical discourse and cultural expression for centuries. If Descartes broke from earlier Greek philosophies in which the body was not conceived as separate from the mind, Descartes's own mind-body dualism has, in turn, been shattered by modern theories of embodiment. Contemporary research, both in fields such as technology and medicine and in philosophy and culture, increasingly renders any conception of the body as a permanent and separate entity impossible to uphold.
But how very strange this domain seems, simply because of its multiplicity – a multiplicity so complex that we can scarcely speak of one chain or even of one code of desire.
(Deleuze and Guattari 1983: 38)
That Deleuze and Guattari disapprove of Freud's conception of desire has been well noted. Their vehement rejection of the regulation of desire through Oedipal structures and the triangle of daddy-mummy-me in many ways serves as the very starting point of their Capitalism and Schizophrenia project. On the topic of the orgasm, Freud's theories, which we will have occasion to return to repeatedly through this book, not least in Chapter 3, are largely preoccupied with keeping sexual pleasure under control and within the limits of ‘normal’ sexual exchange. Thus, for example, he argues that once girls hit puberty, clitoral orgasm should be discouraged in favour of the vaginal alternative since the recurrence of the former could result in frigidity. Since Deleuze and Guattari's rejection of Freudian theories are so unequivocal, and because so many studies have further clarified this relation, the present chapter will focus on the psychoanalytic theories that remain an important influence on Deleuze. In a note for the Italian edition of The Logic of Sense, Deleuze writes that what happened to him since he wrote this book is that he met Guattari.
Positioned as secondary to male ejaculation, discouraged if clitoral, and seen as ‘signifying nothing’, the female orgasm has had a very different status in history than its male counterpart. On the one hand, a deeper understanding of the female orgasm has been overshadowed by its being subsumed as a subcategory of male sexuality, and on the other, the differences between how male and female sexual pleasure have been perceived and theorised are enormous. In both cases, it seems indefensible to disregard the deeply gendered politics of the orgasm, whether your aim is to defend its philosophical and political potential or reject it. Yet, neither Foucault nor Deleuze seem to take these differences seriously enough. Foucault's The History of Sexuality, Lesley Dean-Jones argues, is a history of male sexuality (Dean-Jones 1992: 77). Not least in the way in which he understands the historical use of pleasure and the orgasm as defined through a model of the ‘viral “ejaculatory schema”’ and the female act as a duplicate to this schema, Foucault fails to recognise the different politics as well as expressions of orgasm and ejaculation (Dean-Jones 1992: 54). At the same time, Deleuze and Guattari's demotion of pleasure and genitality, while intended to expand sexuality beyond the two sexes, makes them blind to the fact that their understanding of desire and sexuality fails to take into account the actual politics of sexual difference.
This is why the forms of human sexuality are so much about plugging up every orifice, by giving every partial object (desiring-machine) something to do, by turning all the desiring-machines into an orchestra that constantly play nothing but the sad and mournful riff of Oedipal sexuality.
(Lambert 2011: 143)
Where the previous chapters of this book have mapped the implications of Deleuze's rejection of pleasure as a productive force, and the possibilities that emerge if we recuperate pleasure as part of his philosophy along a number of tracks, one central question remains. Throughout the present book I have worked through different ways in which traces of the Oedipal and distinctly male linger in Deleuze's understanding of the orgasm and suggested ways in which a rethinking of sexual pleasure along more Deleuzian terms can assist in strengthening a Deleuzian conception of bodies, desires and pleasure. But if the Oedipal thus remains as a problem in his understanding of pleasure and desire, then what are the implications and possibilities of this when it comes to his and Guattari's understanding of capitalism? The link between capitalism and the Oedipal is at its most obvious, of course, in Anti-Oedipus, but the way in which Deleuze and Guattari let their understanding of desire take off and differentiate itself from a post-Freudian model continues to inform their philosophy at large.
Intervening into fields including posthumanist, disability, animal and feminist studies, and current critiques of capitalism and consumerism, Frida Beckman explores the possibility of recovering a theory of sexuality from Deleuze's work. She thereby makes a definitive contribution to cultural, conceptual and political debates about sexuality.
there is a circulation of impersonal affect, an alternate current that disrupts signifying projects as well as subjective feelings, and constitutes a nonhuman sexuality.
(Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 257)
As we have seen in previous chapters, part of Deleuze's quarrel with sexual pleasure and the orgasm is the way in which he perceives them to tie subject and organism into one constitutive entity. Pleasure and orgasm are linked to a sexuality associated with stratified systems of interpretation and organisation, such as psychoanalysis and State power, that in different ways delimit and determine the boundaries of the body and what it can do. In this way, pleasure and the orgasm also come to stand in the way of desire as a force of connectivity and creation. As such, sexuality understood in relation to psychoanalysis and State power remains but a human construct caught up in negativity. Desire, contrastively, opens towards the imperceptible, the machinic and the nonhuman. This chapter understands the animal in part as the threshold between sexuality and desire, between the human and the nonhuman. If sexuality is rejected because its actualisations seem intrinsically bound up with humanist discourse, then equally, at least in some respects, the animal can be seen as being employed in the service of familial and State politics. Where concrete sexuality tends to be replaced by abstract desire in Deleuze's philosophy, actual animals are replaced by becoming-animal.
If the sexual body is indeed historical – if there is, in short, no orgasm without ideology – perhaps ongoing inquiry into the politics of pleasure will serve to deepen the pleasures, as well as to widen the possibilities, of politics.
(Halperin 1992: 261)
The notion of a plateau, or plateaus, is a suggestive one that stirs the imagination, or may even be felt in the body. The idea of a peak, or a number of peaks, around which intensities are built makes it almost too easy to allow oneself to make associations with some kind of graph of sexual excitation. Yet, the notion of a ‘plateau’, as Brian Massumi notes in his introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, must not be confused with direct sexual pleasure and release. Gregory Bateson's détournement of the word, in a study on Balinese culture, is based exactly on the fact that he finds, in this culture, a libidinal economy that is decidedly different from ‘the West's orgasmic orientation’ (Massumi 2004: xiv). The very point about a plateau, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari use Bateson's term, is that it maintains a quivering pitch of intensity that is not automatically finalised through a climax. A central characteristic of the plateau is that it does not release tension so much as it carries it forward. Rather than an orgasmic release, there is a perpetuation of energy through a ‘fabric of intensive states between which any number of connecting troutes could exist’ (Massumi 2004: xiv).
There is a tendency today to neglect the issue of sexual pleasure or even to surrender it in favour of a politics of asceticism. Sexual pleasure, it is argued, keeps us caught up in unproductive codes of sexuality in terms of liberation and repression, fuels the nihilism of enjoyment of capitalism and prevents us from recognising other more enabling modes of engagement between self and other. While this ‘anti-sex’ position, or impasse, opens new and possibly rewarding venues of exploration, it is the contention of this book that giving up sexual pleasure is, and perhaps always will be, premature. It is like giving up the fight. Like letting the big boy take your toys and letting him keep them because you know he will always try to steal them again or, to pursue a more mature metaphor, to surrender the flows of desire because they are repeatedly channelled in the service of social and political control.
This book, therefore, is about the importance of sexual pleasure. It works to underline and explore, not so much the relevance of pleasure on an individual and personal level, but rather the political, cultural and conceptual significance of such pleasure. In the past decades, sexuality has been an important political question relating to issues such as the rights to and for various sexual identities and practices, sexual equality, sexual violence and abuse, reproductive rights and sexual health.
What health would be sufficient to liberate life wherever it is imprisoned by and within man, by and within organisms and genera?
(Deleuze 1997: 3)
Deleuze's philosophy is intently preoccupied with the production that emerges through the collapse of the traditionally functional. The straight routes of the sea merchant, the unified subject and the organisation of the body called the organism all, in different ways, symbolise the stratification of desire and thereby the delimitation of becoming. Deleuze regards functionality through the lens of the social and political theft of the force of the body – the enforced organisation of matter according to transcendent principles of utility. The striated, as he notes with Guattari, produces distinct order and form and thereby fixes the variable into points between which the trajectory is set. The smooth, on the other hand, is about a connective desire that couples forces and enables unnatural participations. Unlike the fixed organisation of the striated, the smooth is about the explosion and reinvention of forms by the force of becoming inherent in all matter. The smooth is ‘continuous variation, continuous development of form’ (Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 528). Thus literature, for example, should not be about imposing a predetermined form on matter, but should move ‘in the direction of the ill-formed or the incomplete’ (Deleuze 1997: 1).
If sex has become ‘the explanation for everything’, as Michel Foucault asserts in the first volume of his seminal work on sexuality (Foucault 1990: 78), then why are we not more interested in what Gilles Deleuze has to say on the topic? If our bodies, minds, individuality and history are understood through a ‘Logic of Sex’, as Foucault maintains, then why have so few commentators been tempted to examine Deleuze's philosophy of desire with reference to that logic? I would like to suggest four main reasons for this relative silence on the subject. To begin with, Deleuze's friend and contemporary Foucault was and continues to be the philosopher of sexuality par excellence. His multivolume project on sexuality, the first volume of which was first published while Deleuze and Félix Guattari were developing their second book on Capitalism and Schizophrenia, is not only groundbreaking in its interlinking of sexuality and social and political institutions, it also remains one of the most comprehensive works on the topic to date. That Deleuze's work, which is not explicitly about sexuality in the same way, has ended up in the shadow of Foucault is perhaps not so surprising. In what was originally a letter of support addressed to Foucault after the publication of the latter's first volume on sexuality in 1976, Deleuze emphasises Foucault's major thesis that molar organisations reduce sexuality to sex and thereby destroy the productive, connective potential of sexuality (Deleuze 2007a: 126).