Abstraction: Desire and Disgust

Jacques Lacan once famously said ‘the Woman does not exist.” Like so many French theorists, it’s a confrontational statement designed to draw a response. It’s important to really read it with care and to know, above all, who is speaking it. Lacan was male. But it’s a fun place to start an argument – there are just so many ways to read it.

The most common way to read the statement involves Lacan’s concept of Other – that the understanding of person is based on a definition of what they have or lack. Men have phalluses, women do not. So their essence is described by a difference from the ‘norm,’ which is male and has a phallus. Yeah, semantic and not all that interesting to me.

Another is that this can be read as a statement that challenges the idea of there being a ‘category’ of things called Woman, or that there is some universal truth that can be said about Woman that could describe her.  There is something, I think, a bit of Kantian wishful thinking going on here in this one.

What I’d like to propose is another reading. First, I’d argue that ‘the Woman’ does exist. That this Woman is referred to everyday, by both men and women, as some ideal against which we try to measure what we desire or, if we are women, what we are. She exists in the abstract, is eroticized in the abstract and, one of the disappointments and fears of many men is when, in their interactions with a specific woman, a persona emerges and they are no longer ‘sticky.’ What I mean by this is that, deciphered, this data-rich person is giving off too much nuance, too much specific information and there is little room left on which to adhere the self- or media-generated desires of the other. They are ‘too full’ of themselves to be what you fantasized they’d be to you. The abstract Woman suddenly becomes a hyperspecific individual and disgust ensues.

It is easy to eroticize an abstraction. Like a sponge, soaks up a projection of desire or a projection of disgust and runs with it. She, the Woman, can be as bad or as good as you want her to be. She can be your virgin queen, your femme fatale, your slut, your whore, your old hag, your medusa, your virago. I would say that it is just as possible to do this with men and, in fact, this is done to with men constantly in romance novels. And so, by that definition, if ‘the Woman doesn’t exist,’ then neither does ‘the Man.’

It could be said that, today, specificity ruins the jouissance of this kind of erotic dynamic. And good pornography is all about abstraction. It’s only really effective if you can project yourself into it, step into the skin of one of the actors, and picture yourself in that place, in that moment, doing those things. Porn requires ‘characters’ who are constantly under erasure. But I would propose that it is part of the rather pathetic need to paint oneself as ‘good’ that we seek those unspecific interchanges. It’s far, far nastier to objectify someone, to drape your projected desires all over them, while fully acknowledging how dehumanizing it is to do that to a person.

I just don’t buy the idea of fully ‘subjected’ sexual experiences. Well, I buy them, but I find them terminally unerotic. Comforting and cosy, perhaps. But, to me, deeply unerotic. Because there are two edges to the blade of objectification. There are moments in sex, no matter how authentic and engaged and specific the experience, where one becomes a kind of hyper-object of desire to the other.  There is a place where even abstractions are too concrete. Where you lose your persona and become deindividualized, if only momentarily. These are what Bataille would call experiences of transcendence. It is also a point of erasure, but not so as to be someone else, but to be no one.

This is where my consideration is probably going to get offensive to some of you. Undoubtedly, there is rich kink to be had in modes of objectified desire; either being that object, or desiring it. But, as I said above, it cannot be transgressive unless somewhere, in your brain, you feel that this erasure of the real persona is wrong. There is nothing ‘naughty’ about being a ‘slut’ unless some part of you truly believes that being a ‘slut’ is wrong. There’s nothing transgressive about being sadistic unless some portion of your conscience really, honestly believes that hurting someone for the purpose of sexual enjoyment is wrong. As Foucault so admirably explored in his essay ‘A Preface to Transgression,’ you must truly feel that the limits matter in order to experience ecstasy in the going past them.

There was a time when we had lots of rules to break. When masturbation was dirty and unmarried sex was a sin. When taking a whip to someone was an obscene act. When fucking someone’s ass was an abomination. None of those things are socially transgressive any more. They’re all over the net and, if they’re all over the net, there is (regardless of the rampant hypocrisy) a high social acceptance for them. Even if we ‘say’ it’s ‘naughty’ stuff to make us feel like what we’re doing is somehow edgy, we’re fooling ourselves. It’s only edgy if there is an edge and you acknowledge the edge as a legitimate that shouldn’t be crossed.

This is why I say that my erotic fiction is not ‘sex positive.’ This is why I often write characters who have tremendously ambivalent feelings about what they desire and what they do. What they want is not ‘safe, sane and consensual’ in the landscape of their own morality. It would be easier to write erotic fiction set in time periods when there was a whole lot more ‘forbidden fruit,’ and I think that is why erotica set in earlier historical periods is so popular. There is a part of our culture that, I believe, feels a great nostalgia, for a time when forbidden fruit was hanging much lower and was easier to reach.

I don’t want what I write about to be labeled ‘sex positive.’ I don’t want you to think what my characters do is ‘okay’ and perfectly natural. There is a big difference between what is erotic and what is sexually satisfying. Dogs fuck. It’s natural and sexually satisfying to them. But eroticism has nothing to do with it. I aim to leave my readers a little disgusted, or at least hope they will notice that the characters are disgusted with themselves. There is no truly honest reaction to having transgressed except self-disgust.  If that isn’t present, then no real transgression has taken place, because your morality has not been challenged.

I find the desire on the part of erotica readers, writers and critics, to put themselves in positions of liberal moral rectitude to be a very sad state of affairs.

And exceedingly unerotic.

  1 comment for “Abstraction: Desire and Disgust

  1. TFP
    January 14, 2014 at 7:25 pm


    The essay strikes interesting thoughts. As usual, being the devoted undereducated reader, I spend much time looking up various words and thinking how you apply them.

    The essay seems to be an extensive reply to some criticism of your work. For myself there are few writers that keep me interested in reading, I will plow through a boring dull book to say “Yes, I read it.” or to simply finish it as a goal. Many times I will simply stop, not being able to go on. When there are words that cause me to hunger for more, stimulate thinking, and desire. This is the works I desire, words that qwench my thirst, even if the subject matter lacks “liberal moral rectitude.”

    The ending point concerning “Liberal moral rectitude” I believe (generally) that people have two different moral rectitudes, the public and the personal. Hypocrisy abounds in everyone, yes on occasion we will see an individual will take a stand but in reality these are rare. Its so very easy to judge, be self righteous, and to see things as how they are “supposed to be” but within oursselves lies the dark side of curiousity, a hunger, an itch. For some it can be ignored but others it must be scratched, some give it a little scratch, for others we gouge at it.

    How things are supposed to be seems ingrained, I often hear the words “I wish my family was normal.” There is no such thing. Woman doesnt exist? “Normal does not exist.”

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