Part II – Cruising as Aesthetic Intuition of the Common
As I briefly noted in Part I of this essay, in the chapter of his book, Unlimited Intimacy: Notes on the Subculture of Barebacking, dedicated to theorizing cruising as a way of life, Tim Dean distinguishes an ethics of pleasure and self-endangerment or risk, from an ethics of loving’s one neighbor and self-sacrifice. As I also discussed, Kent Brintnall has recently taken issue with this distinction and instead has argued for the ethical imperative and value of self-sacrifice—including through an analogy that he draws between self-sacrifice and the sex practice commonly referred to as barebacking. (Jump to Part I here.)
Regarding Dean’s distinction of an ethics of pleasure and an ethics of self-sacrifice, Brintnall claims that, “the only meaning that can be assigned to Dean’s distinction…is that it is unethical to pursue risks so great that they will likely overcome and eradicate the self.” I beg to differ, and instead argue that in addition to the self-valorization via self-sacrifice that I outlined in the first part of my essay, another problem with an ethics of self-sacrifice is that it relies upon the figure of the Other in order to stake its ethical claim. Returning to the point that I made at the outset of Part I, I want to argue that an ethics of pleasure is not structured in such dichotomous relations, in which the Other is saved by the sacrificed’s self-sacrificial act (thus wholly inscribed within a Christian theological/eschatological and restricted economy), but that such an ethics lies in the shared exposure to the outside, not beyond. It is just such an ethics of pleasure that risks (sacrifices) the very bond or relation of self and other.
While the Christian ethic of self-sacrifice requires the self to see itself in the other, the Christian ethic of loving one’s neighbor requires, in turn, that the self love the other as though oneself. In both cases, the self is heroicized via a logic and economy of identification that returns any action back to the self, now as transcendent figure/subject, and thus effectively negates any significant form of ethical rapport. Contrary to Brintnall, I want to argue that “the distinguishing feature of an ethic of pleasure” is not “its concern for the self and the self’s survival,” nor even for the other and the other’s survival, but its passionate abandonment to the shared risk of exposure that exceeds any sense of self and other, all the while never attaining any form of fusion, union, or absolute embrace, in the intimacy of the impersonal and the anonymous.
In self-sacrifice as well as in love of your neighbor as oneself, an aesthetics of existence and hence an ethics of pleasure is replaced by moralizing judgments of behavior, in which the self is either sacrificed in the name of the other, or the other is loved as though oneself. The hotness of cruising and anonymous sex on the other hand, is never a matter of finding oneself in another, or of giving oneself over for the sake of the other. In a bathhouse, you don’t have sex with someone either because you give yourself over to whomever desires you (as though doing charity work), or because you want to treat the other the way in which you wish to be treated—both scenarios operating within an economy of general equivalence. Rather, you hook-up with others through a sense of incommensurability and an equality of in-equivalence that is shared between you.
In other words, the art of the consummate cruise, and the sexual/erotic/social pleasure and commerce of anonymity—of which cruising and anonymous sex are exemplary instantiations—lies in the aesthetic affinity or resonance of bodies that is without measure, be it general, ideal, universal, or normative. There’s no denying that there is always the possibility that “one knows what one wants when ambling though a bathhouse; [and] one can also feel quite possessive once one has found it” as Brintnall describes. However I would contend that neither of these social-sexual anticipatory and appropriative dispositions describes the art of the consummate cruise. What makes the latter more ethically and, I would argue, more erotically charged, and perhaps even exemplary, is that it does not operate with a standard of judgment or law of desire.
At the same time, cruising, like any ethical praxis, decision, or other intra-action (a word we derive from Karen Barad, and one not to be confused with “interaction”), “always entails,” as Barad writes, “particular exclusions, and exclusions foreclose any possibility of determinism, providing the condition of an open future” (Barad, 826). Which is also to say that because exclusions are not negations (or renunciations), the “conditions” of their decision are also indeterminate, the cuts made while cruising need not negate futurity, in order for promiscuity to exercise its sense of erotic freedom. Due to the indeterminate character of the ethical art of the consummate cruise, we are in what Foucault refers to as “open historicity” (Foucault, 260).
As William Haver has taught us, in cruising, the ethical is—as it is in any exercise of the ethical—never not a cruel question. A cruel question because it is a question of decision—of that cut—that is neither exclusively mine nor yours, but that resides in the very space of separation that we sustain and thus impossibly share in the accidental encounter that affirms the very surprise of existence. As Haver writes: “Unless there is that which opens upon the essential instability, insecurity, and danger of a futurity that can never be the telos of a project, unless one encounters the outlaw as that risk, surprise, or indeed ruin that is the existential, then one can only confirm the Law in its presumptive connaturality” (Haver, The Body of This Death, 155).
To deny the non-teleological futurity and sociality of the outlaw is not only to deny the risks of that sociality’s historicity but also its aesthetic a priori intuition (I will return to this).
Queer sexual drive and erotic attraction in its aimless wandering, inadvertent detours and unexpected encounters, is dedicated to the accidental, transitional, minor and that which goes and comes in passing. Which is to say that such attraction is dedicated to no one other, but instead to all those anonymous others. Yet such itinerant movement is neither properly described as centripetal nor centrifugal, both of which retain the priority of a center (i.e. a self) towards or away from which energy is directed, concentrated, or expended. Instead, we might think this shared pleasure or co-aesthesis in terms of resonance. Not to be misconstrued as inter-subjective recognition, resonance rather comes from that punctual attention to the sovereign excess and entropy of sociality that finds an example in cruising. A movement or gesture to- or toward, yet without destination or telos, resonance follows the logic of the lure—and not the law.
In this way, we can think the political and power yet without being harnessed to, or captivated by regimes of normativity. This is never an easy task since, as Tim Dean states, “It is easier to contest the arbitrary limits of historically variable socio-sexual norms than to wrestle with the internal limits that constitute one’s own most intimate existence” (Dean, “Erotics of Transgression,” 72). Or perhaps even more so, it is difficult to move from a sense of self to a sense of the common, as recently theorized by Bill Haver.
In his essay of that name, Haver puts forth five points: 1) that the common is always the sense of the common; and the common is always the sensuousness of the common; 2) that the sense of the common is itself sensuous; 3) that the common is a transcendental object in the Kantian sense of an a priori intuition which is the condition of possibility for all rational knowledge; 4) that this aesthetic sense of the common is an impossible transcendental object precisely because the intuition of the common is not the sheer receptivity of an essentially passive subject. It is an active intuition of the common, one that happens through a mutual appropriation or co-appropriation—what I have been describing in terms of a co-aesthetic resonance. Finally, fifth point: this mutual appropriation as the active intuition of the common, is passionate and aesthetic, as well as wholly opportunistic, the latter in the sense of being without any general plan or logical or moral principle of action. What I think we have here is a philosophical articulation of cruising as an active intuition of the common: the sensuous sensing of the common as that which is always a shared sense (co-aesthesis). Which is also to say that the anonymous and impersonal ethos that is cruising, substitutes eros for logos (laws, reason, the subject) and nomos (rules, identity, property, governance).
As Haver goes on to conclude: “There could be no question of the common apart from the aesthetic determinations of partisans in their trajectories toward the singularity of their disappearance, which is to say in the impossibility of a sense of the common” (Haver, “Sense of the Common,” 451). Accordingly, if there were no question of the common—including in the impossibility of a sense of the common—there would also be no question (meaning no possibility) of the erotic, of pleasure, of cruising, or of futurity; but also of multiplicity, ambiguity, singularity, the indeterminate, the empirical, the ethical or the pornographic.
The art of the consummate cruise is precisely that which is without completion or final satisfaction or achievement. Therein lies the faultless form of its purely unfinishable desire and pleasure. “Consummatum est” (it is done), are believed to be the last words that Christ uttered while on the cross. However unlike the passion of the Christ, this non-sacrificial, erotic and unnamed passion is consummate to the extent that it remains unconsummated (undone). The art of the consummate cruise is that which is without end or that which exceeds any sense of an ending, but instead remains, in its anonymity, promiscuity, and the itinerancy of its departure and abandonment, always on the verge or edge of coming.
Cruising and barebacking warrant our simultaneous attention because they are both forms of praxis that are consecrated to experience as exposure. Meaning: the non-relational relation to singularity and its haecceity (the thisness of this body), and to the impossible sense of the common (i.e. to the incommensurable as the only measure of being-together). This doubly impossible relation to singularity and to the common is the ethics and aesthetics of what I have called the unbecoming community.
Featured Image Source: http://outwritenewsmag.org/2014/11/four-ucla-bathrooms-that-are-actually-gay-cruising-spots/
Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2003.
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. “The Erotics of Transgression,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gay and Lesbian Writing. Cambridge UP. Cambridge, 2010.
Dean, Tim. Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 2009.
Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Picador. New York, 2009.
Haver, William. “A Sense of the Common,” The South Atlantic Quarterly, 111: 3, Summer 2012, “Future Foucault: Afterlives of Bodies and Pleasures,” special issue edited by Jacques Khalip.
Haver, William. The Body of This Death: Historicity and Sociality in the Time of AIDS. Stanford UP. Stanford, 1997.
Ricco, John Paul. The Decision Between Us: art and ethics in the time of scenes. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 2014.