by Ellis Hanson
This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.
Has there ever been an erotics of art? Susan Sontag, in full manifesto mode, ended her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation” with the challenge, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (1966:10). The power of her provocation is undiminished for me by the fact that she never in that essay or anywhere else in her work explains what exactly an erotics of art might entail or demonstrates how she herself would perform it. She valorizes a certain mode of aesthetic formalism, and yet it is not just the aesthetic she seeks ultimately to grasp in this phrase, but the erotic, some specifically sensual experience of art, some intimate relation between the erotic and the aesthetic, for which even her own vocabulary fails her. Where would we look for an erotics of art, or for that matter an erotics of anything, including an erotics of sexuality, of the emotions, or of the body? By “erotics,” I mean a sexual formalism distinct from the history of sexuality or the politics of sexuality, however difficult or specious or abstract we may find the effort to disentangle an erotics from these various lively traditions of inquiry into sexual discourse. Since Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud are paramount on Sontag’s list of hermeneuts performing interpretive violence on art, I suspect she would not have found them the ideal practitioners of any erotics she might propose, but the academic critique of sexuality at least since the Frankfurt School has usually served up a potent methodological cocktail whose basic ingredients have been Marxian and Freudian in varying degrees of conceptual purity — and here I include the feminist, queer, deconstructive, and of course psychoanalytic approaches that are most likely now to take seriously any call for an “erotics of art.” Even Roland Barthes, whose work Sontag appears to be channeling in this remark and whose work best exemplifies for me the erotics she seeks to name, turned to Freud and Marx by way of the Frankfurt School and Lacan to lend theoretical rigor to his understanding of the psyche and politics.
Aristotle never wrote a treatise called Ars Erotica. We have Ars Poetica and Ars Rhetorica. We have treatises entitled Physics, Metaphysics, Economics, and a few different versions of Ethics, but no Erotics of any kind, apart from The Generation of Animals, which is not quite what I have in mind here. Academia still follows suit. One may still publish a treatise called simply Aesthetics or Politics — there have been several in the past century, in fact — but the title Erotics gives pause to the philosophical mind, which prefers to name it only in passing toward something else, something presumably more important, something quite possibly its opposite, such as historiographics, politics, ethics, aesthetics, hygienics, or therapeutics. Plato’s Symposium is the philosophical text that most resonates as a classical touchstone for the erotic throughout modern thought, but it is less an erotics or an ars erotica than a metaphysics of eros. Freud would appear to be the true progenitor of any rigorous “erotics of art” in the 20th century, or for that matter the 21st, since psychoanalysis remains the single most elaborate, coherent, and influential theory of the erotic despite a vigorous tradition of debunking Freud. Psychoanalysis has also offered the most compelling and productive account of the agency of the image and the signifier in erotic desire, a point that has made it especially appealing for criticism in the arts. There is certainly no shortage of psychoanalytic criticism of literature in general and Victorian literature in particular. It is difficult, however, to claim psychoanalysis as an ars erotica or an erotics of art after Michel Foucault’s insightful distinction (1976: 58) between ars erotica and scientia sexualis and his relegation of psychoanalysis to an exemplary and politically dubious instance of the latter, a deployment of “sexuality” as a modern discursive practice of social surveillance and management. The project of radical or queer psychoanalysis has often been an effort to loosen Freudian theory from its medicalizing imperatives and its moralizing overtones in order to redeploy it for projects of social justice and sexual liberation, but this is precisely the challenge of Foucault’s distinction: hermeneutics as social engineering by other means. Arguably, much of Foucault’s own work could easily be categorized as a scientia sexualis busily turning sex into a discourse of knowledge with a political and epistemological agenda, albeit one fascinated with “reverse” discourse and a meta-analysis of its own operations that was deeply suspicious of the modern pathologization of sex. Much of what we call queer theory has taken Foucault’s introductory volume of The History of Sexuality as a foundational text and taught itself to historicize — always historicize! — sexuality as a more or less institutionalized set of social practices; in doing so, it may also have reproduced Foucault’s paradox of being itself a scientia sexualis continually calling for the sort of ars erotica that it finds itself fundamentally, institutionally, intellectually incapable of becoming.
Whither erotics in the wake of queer theory? Since I am one of those critics who experienced the term “queer theory” in 1990 as the perfect storm for my adventurous little craft, a sexual reconfiguration of all the poststructural and historicist trends that most stimulated my thinking, I am not sure whether in 2016 my previous work should be deemed part of the solution or part of the problem when I try to consider a history, or a present, or a future for an erotics of art. Queer theory became my methodology of choice even before there was a word for it, before the word queer was even used in the criticism it now claims as foundational, and I rather unadvisedly hazarded a definition of it in print after its death had already been announced prematurely several times (Hanson 2005). I also became a Victorianist in part because it was clear that queer studies and Victorian studies were profoundly energizing each other after Foucault’s satirical description of himself and his readers as “We ‘Other Victorians'” (1976:1-13). Queer theory might find itself calling again for that ever elusive erotics of art, though the terms of our failure to find it have certainly changed.
“Always historicize,” yes, but as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (2003:125) once suggested, the authoritarian ring of this imperative makes it seem rather paranoid, even if it were possible to obey. I would test this phrase against the imperative to “always eroticize,” but it may be even more difficult to imagine failing to do that one than to imagine doing it well. One distinctive initiative in queer theory in the 21st century has been to call this historicizing imperative into question, despite the powerful queer investment in Marx and Foucault. The impetus comes in part from queer psychoanalysis, which has a sometimes ambivalent or resistant relationship to queer social constructionism and identity politics, and here I mean the work of critics such as Lee Edelman, Carla Freccero, Leo Bersani, and Tim Dean, among others: the historicizing imperative is itself an erotic function, a paradox or conundrum, deeply invested in fantasy and an unconscious drive to represent or even narrate a fundamentally inaccessible Real or historical origin. Lee Edelman and Madhavi Menon are especially articulate in drawing out the deconstructive dimension of queer theory along similar lines to expose the essential fantasy of any historicist project as a relentless, seemingly urgent figural deferral, an archival mise en abîme: if the text can be understood only in reference to a historical context, how can we in turn understand that historical context if not in reference to still more historical context ad infinitum. The result would appear now to be, in the rather dismissive words of the “Manifesto of the V21 Collective” (2015), a “fetishization of the archival” — a phrase that makes archival work sound sexier than it usually is.
Fetishization? If only! The term suffers, needlessly perhaps, from its Marxian and Freudian deployments, such that in academic discourse it has served mostly as a derogatory epithet among intellectuals eager to question or disavow some of their dearest pleasures as the symptoms of either a cultural or personal malady of desire. In the Marxian sense, we might derogate archival fetishism as having only a dubious exchange value (in a decidedly rarified academic economy!) bereft of any use value, or in more Nietzschean terms as a decadent historicism that has lost sight of any utility in imagining a future. Or in the Freudian sense of the fetish as a perverse delusion of erotic plenitude projected onto an object that could not possibly embody it, a definition that makes the archival fetishist a compulsive figure given to “an endless accumulation of mere information” for its own sake or an “antiquarianism” whose irrational pleasure in collecting may well strike us as “bland” in that it seems pathologically private and incommunicable to others (V21 Collective 2015). One might ask, however, if there is an economy without fetishism, or even an erotics without fetishism, since by any definition the fetish sounds like a mere tautology for desire. The subjectivity that can survive without fetishism of this sort would seem impossibly inert. Could we theorize a less phobic erotics of the archival?
Much recent queer theory on temporality has sought to mine this erotic dimension of the historical and explore its more subjective roots in fantasy as a resistance to more conventional understandings of historiography as the linear representation of origins and causal relations — a resistance to the straight, very straight strawman of a historiography that philosophers long ago debunked. In this way, queer temporality speaks of specifically queer historical connections, queer developmental trajectories, queer rhythms and returns, all of which take their conceptual coherence and sense of political urgency from a mostly stereotyped understanding of an antinormative homosexuality. It is certainly historiography as a “useable past” — useable to expand a livable queer present and a more or less utopian queer future — but we might also consider it a mode of fantasy, of eroticism, even of pleasure for its own sake, a fetishization of the archival as a delirium of exploration and self-reinvention. I find it so whether it is deployed for the fantasy of a definitive “history of sexuality” or for a more playful “presentist” fantasy of creative anachronism that would help us resist the ruling ideologies of the present moment and expand our consciousness.
Perhaps it might be helpful, one might even say urgently useful, to set aside, even if only temporarily, the Marxian and Freudian definitions of fetishism to anatomize its pleasures in less paranoid, more reparative terms as a source of sustenance rather than merely exploitation, pathology, or tedium. We might even set aside, if only temporarily, the term queer, since it certainly has its limitations. Queer takes anti-homophobic critique as its epistemological center of gravity and must necessarily be preoccupied with gender in either an illicit object choice or an illicit aim. It is also fundamentally a theory of antinormativity, what we might call a fetishization of resistance for its own sake, which — taken to its logical extreme, as Lee Edelman (2004) has most rigorously attempted — may seem a nihilistic and robotic procedure for the deconstruction of any possible position, since any position could recontextualize itself as the norm to be challenged. As Edelman has argued, a queer identity or a queer political position is a contradiction in terms, and so it follows that his argument gives us a queer theory with “no future,” a queer theory in the service of the death drive. Queer theory is less an erotics than a deconstructive analytics of gender, one whose only reliable pleasure is this fetishization of resistance.
What if all those years we spoke about queer theory, we had spoken with the same urgency about kink? Not to replace queer theory — I feel I have much more to accomplish with that term! — but to reawaken its erotic and formalist potential. Although there is much that is queer about kink, and occasionally something kinky about queerness, an emphasis on kink (as opposed to the more medicalized “masochism”) would certainly have shifted the problematic of queer theory and rendered the discourse of fetishism much more inviting. I have increasingly warmed to the word kink not the least because it appears in no scholarly book titles that I know of and can only be spoken in academia with defensive irony, preferably with what is referred to in the V21 manifesto as an “amused chuckle,” though a naughty titter would be my preference. In other words, it has now more or less the same status in this regard that queer had before 1990. You don’t want kink on your cv yet, you don’t expect to teach a course on kink yet, you don’t yet expect to interview at MLA for a roster of kinky positions. In or about 1990, or maybe it was 1995, queer paradoxically became normal, but kink did not. Instead, we had a flood of typically moralizing or pastoralizing academic books about “masochism” or “fetishism” as a cultural phenomenon to be either pathologized or historicized or radicalized, but rarely proposed as an occasion for an erotics of art. There is, however, on the margins of academia but more often quite distant from it, a lively ars erotica unperturbed by the term kink, though still gravitating around an attempt to depathologize terms like sadomasochism, masochism, s/m, S & M, BDSM, and fetishism and disalign them from their history as scapegoats in 19th and 20th century pathology or political theory. Kink lets one stop thinking about Marx and Freud for a while. It also shifts the emphasis in one’s reading of Foucault, who did indeed claim, “On the face of it, our civilization possesses no ars erotica” (1976:58) but nevertheless, in his interviews late in life, appeared to have found precisely that in the “S & M” subculture of New York and San Francisco: those practitioners of kink who he claimed are clearly not in the throes of the death drive, but who are rather “inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of their body — through the eroticization of the body” (1997:165). They answer to his earlier definition of an ars erotica in that “pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself; it is experienced as pleasure, evaluated in terms of its intensity, its specific quality, its duration, its reverberations in the body and the soul” (1976:57). Like queer, there is an element of strangeness in kink, yes, and resistance to the status quo, but it is more engaging I think as a theory of the intensification and pluralization of pleasures for their own sake, even pleasure to the point of suffering and suffering to the point of pleasure. Kink also has a more pronounced investment in the elaboration, celebration, and anatomization of fantasy, such that it offers us less a theory of resistance to the norm than a theory of ecstatic dialectical tensions between a norm and its reversals: its queerness is always a paradoxical celebration of the straightness, the norm, the vanilla, against which its taste for fantasy and the exotic can perform itself. It does not just resist, it cultivates, it multiplies, it juxtaposes incommensurate worlds for no deeper purpose than the pleasure in their tensions. Though it aestheticizes gender and aestheticizes sexuality as an erotic game, it is not preoccupied with either: unlike queerness, kink is embraced by hetero and homo both and can depart from the erotics of gender politics altogether to explore the sensual appeal of the nonsexual or even the nonhuman — of objects, of animals, of abstractions, of unsexed activities and unsexed anatomies, of textures and contexts, of contracts and entanglements, of surfaces and scenes. We might also speak of a kink temporality, of kinks in the timeline, which might richly serve the purposes of those theorists of queer temporality who valorize what appears, after all, to be a queer kink in the straight timeline of historicism. The first kink we find in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to that curl or loop in the the rope, thread, hair, or wire, that causes a hitch in business as usual, and if we think of that rope as an all too linear timeline with a very rigid sense of its own purpose and utility, we see how troublesome and fun a kink can be. It would also serve to figure that strange looping backward, that getting caught or suspended or tied up in knots, that doubling back of what we call fantasy through what we call reality, that so delights a queer theory that seeks to deconstruct any neat opposition between subjective and objective time. The same dictionary also notes there is a kinkiness specific to hair, which we might take as a sidelong hint that there are broader applications of the term kink to our usual erotic geographies and temporalities of ethnicity and race, especially perhaps to a more reparative reconsideration of what critics have come to call “racial fetishism,” though rarely with any great enthusiasm for its practice. Can that book even be written today?
Finally, I would argue that kink, unlike queer, offers us a deeper investment in formalism, in art for art’s sake, in sex for art’s sake, or for the sake of the pleasure we take in its intensities. This phrasing sounds virtually Paterian in its aestheticism, and certainly Walter Pater is for me one of the great unsung theorists of Victorian kink. I have been writing a book called Exquisite Pain on the status of suffering in aesthetics, and as one might have guessed, certain Victorian or otherwise 19th-century aesthetes surrender themselves effortlessly to a theory of kink: yes, I have been writing about Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Charles Baudelaire, J.-K. Huysmans, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Rachilde, and Renée Vivien, but I have also found the term kink equally revealing for less obvious candidates such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Honoré de Balzac, Henry James, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and any great writer with the name Brontë, Rossetti, or Browning. Where the psychoanalytic criticism of these writers ends, an erotics of their kink might begin. I sense a movement toward this kind of erotics of art in the largely 21st-century project of “queer formalism,” the value of which has been, for me, its intensive focus on the erotics of style. The best examples I could cite of this method would include Yopie Prins on Swinburne and Michael Field, and by Kevin Ohi on Pater, Wilde, and James. The fact that this criticism should gravitate around Victorian aestheticism comes as no surprise. Kink would also be an occasion to rethink the specifically formal aesthetic dimension even of great psychoanalytic theorists of masochism such as Theodor Reik (1949), whose vocabulary is so aesthetic, so flexible, so un-Oedipal at times, that even the supremely anti-oedipal theorist Gilles Deleuze (1971) could repurpose Reik’s work for a critique of Freud. A theorization of kink might take Deleuze even farther from psychoanalysis, farther from his close readings of Sade and Sacher-Masoch (as if those writers were adequately paradigmatic), farther from the practices of the particular sexual subculture that intrigued Foucault. For kink to work as a critical term, it needs to travel where queer generally does not. It needs to get out more and start enjoying itself.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1971. Masochism, translated by Jean McNeil. New York: George Brazilier.
Edelman, Lee. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1976. The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.
Foucault, Michel. 1997. “Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity,” interview by B. Gallagher and A. Wilson, June 1982. In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Vol. 1 of The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984, edited by Paul Rabinow, 163-173. New York: The New Press.
Hanson, Ellis. 2005. “Queer Theory.” In The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Imre Szeman. 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Reik, Theodor. 1949. Masochism in Modern Man, translated by Margaret H. Beigel and Gertrud M. Kurth. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is about You.” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 123-51. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Sontag, Susan. 1966. “Against Interpretation.” In Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, 1-10. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
V21 Collective. 2015. “Manifesto of the V21 Collective.” V21: Victorian Studies in the 21st Century. http://v21collective.org/manifesto-of-the-v21-collective-ten- theses/
Ellis Hanson is Professor of English at Cornell University. He is the author of Decadence and Catholocism (Duke UP, 1997) and currently working on two manuscripts, Knowing Children: Cinema and the Sexual Child and Exquisite Pain: Aestheticism and Suffering.