Part I – Ethics of Pleasure
In conceiving of the ethics and erotics of queer pornographic life, we need to rid ourselves of the notions and structures of self-other, subject-object, self-alterity. For the spacing, exposition and sense of existence is non-dichotomous because all that exists does so, not over and against something else that lies outside or beyond existence, but rather always and only on this side, within the finitude of existence and the world—which is also to say, at existence’s and the world’s infinite opening.
Such a conception of ethics and erotics also marks a strict opposition to a number of psychoanalytic conceptions of the relation between self and world, in which a securitizing of the self is the primary developmental goal. That is, the process by which the self seeks to defend itself against its own phantasmatic images and projections of the world as the source of that same self’s ruination. As Leo Bersani has argued, this appropriative self-mastery and inevitably aggressive self-aggrandizement effectively forfeits any possible ethics. Indeed, Bersani has long been committed to thoroughly re-thinking the centricity of the self, by introducing such concepts as: self-shattering, impersonal narcissism, and the inaccurate replication of the self.
In his recent essay, “Erotic Ruination: Embracing the ‘Savage Spirituality’ of Barebacking,” Kent Brintnall offers an extended critique of Bersani’s, as well as Tim Dean’s work on the sexual practice and subcultures of barebacking. Arguing for the political, ethical and spiritual value of self-sacrifice that he perceives in barebacking, Brintnall criticizes Dean and Bersani for what he sees as their different yet equal retention—indeed protection and securitization—of the categories of subject and of the self in their discussions of the practice of barebacking. As Brintnall writes: “despite his celebration of bug chasers’ openness to alterity and their critique of the ideology of safety, Dean has built a wall along the self’s border, without explicitly acknowledging he has done so, to keep certain risks from migrating too far into the self’s territory” (Brintnall, 62). Indeed Brintnall’s indictment is so extensive that at another point he goes so far as to claim that “contrary to Dean’s and Bersani’s insistence, this is not, in the final analysis, a new vision of relationality but only a slightly modified one, fully consistent with the racist, sexist, classist, and nationalist anxieties about dangerous others that comprise our contemporary cultural order” (Brintnall, 52).
These words are damning, but beyond their hyperbole they are also entirely inaccurate. Within the context and limits of this short article, I cannot pursue a detailed analysis of Dean’s and Bersani’s respective works, nor can I delineate the differences between their respective arguments on barebacking, sexual risk and cruising. However it should be apparent to anyone who has read either of these theorists, that their work is not dedicated to preserving the sanctity of the self, nor committed to grounding the ethical and political in a logic of sacrifice, and of self-sacrifice in particular. For instance, in his discussion of “cruising as a way of life,” Dean writes that, “Openness to contact with the other gives rise to an ethics not of self-sacrifice but of pleasure” (Dean, Unlimited Intimacy, 205).
After reading Brintnall’s essay, I still cannot see how self-sacrifice is not in fact a sanctifying and heroicizing embrace of the self, and of the self’s valorization—its self-valorization—via its own self-sacrifice. Brintnall’s insistence on an ethics of willful sacrifice is profoundly Hegelian, and as such, ironically preserves or conserves the subject that he believes is being divested via the subject’s own sacrificial self-divestment. For as Partrick French makes clear in his reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, “The subject is both a subject of sacrifice in the sense that it is the subject’s sacrifice that is at stake here, and it is a question of seeing the subject as sacrifice, to the extent that the subject is produced by and through sacrifice…Sacrifice attains its full resolution in the auto-suppression of the subject…the subject of and as sacrifice” (French, 72, emphasis in original).
In my mind, construing self-sacrifice as an ultimate ethical virtue is similar to what Foucault referred to as “unlimited asceticism leading to suicide” (Foucault, 195). Following Foucault, self-sacrifice would be “a kind of vertigo or enchantment” attracted by an absolutism of negation. “A freeing oneself from matter” as Foucault put it, including freeing oneself from oneself, but within Brintnall’s ethical schema, only as a means to free—and thus save—the other from oneself.
It is not that Brintnall is unaware of Bersani’s own engagement with Foucault’s late work on ascesis, but rather it is that he lambasts both Bersani and Dean for ultimately privileging the preservation and safety of self by drawing distinctions between psychical and conceptual danger and risk on the one hand, and physical danger and risk on the other. In other words, Bersani and Dean are theorizing without actually advocating for barebacking.
Yet as Foucault made clear, ascesis, as the exercise of the self on the self, is not about the self’s sanctification nor its negation—let alone its sanctification through its self-negation. The challenges imposed on the self by the self in ascesis may even lead to self-endangerment. Still I believe that there is a profound difference between self-endangerment (which retains the force of risk), and self-sacrifice (which transforms that force into a definitive annihilated form).
Like the work of Dean and Bersani, my work in queer theory over the past twenty years has been committed to an ethos of pleasure and aesthetics of existence, including in the forms and practices of impersonal intimacy such as cruising and anonymous and promiscuous sex. Yet I have done so in ways—and here somewhat distinct from Dean and Bersani—that affects a shift from the language of self/alterity to one of singularity. Methodologically speaking, I would argue that such differences indicate different philosophical genealogies in queer theory, one line traceable back to Freud, while another to Heidegger—what we might distinguish as psycho- or existential analytics. In raising this issue of genealogy, we might also ask who in queer theory reads Heidegger as well as the French post-Heideggereans (Blanchot, Bataille, Derrida, Nancy)? In other words: for whom in queer theory is the starting point of analysis an ontological and not a sociological question? There are those in contemporary philosophy and critical theory, such as Jean-Luc Nancy and William Haver who in their various ways have articulated the a priori inextricability of the finitude of singularity as always multiple and shared, rather than structuring their thinking of sociality in terms of the identity of subjectivity as that which demands to be recognized by others (e.g. Judith Butler).
In Part II of this essay, following further discussion of the ethics of pleasure as opposed to the problematic of self-sacrifice, I turn to Haver’s recent work on the sense of the common and extrapolate from it a philosophy of cruising as aesthetic intuition of the common.
Jump to Part II here: http://openhumanitiespress.org/feedback/sexualities/the-consummate-cruise-2/
Featured Image Source: http://outwritenewsmag.org/2014/11/four-ucla-bathrooms-that-are-actually-gay-cruising-spots/
Bersani, Leo. Is the Rectum a Grave? University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 2009.
Brintnall, Kent. “Erotic Ruination: Embracing the ‘Savage Spirituality’ of Barebacking,” in Negative Ecstasies: George Bataille and the Study of Religion. Edited by Jeremy Biles and Kent Brintnall, Fordham UP. New York, 2015.
Dean, Tim. Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 2009.
French, Patrick. After Bataille: Sacrifice, Exposure, Community. Legenda. 2007.
Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Picador. New York, 2009.