Sex as conversation
Conversation as sex
Let’s begin by returning to the Zupančič passage I introduced earlier.
The opening paragraph of Zupančič’s What Is Sex? stages quite deftly a rather astonishing reversal. For the moment, we’ll assume that her equation of sexual pleasure with the satisfaction of conversation is relatively agreeable and expected (we’ll even come to see that John Milton reached more or less the same conclusion). What’s shocking is not the assertion that conversation is sexual, but the claim that conversation’s sexuality contains the key to the more general problem of sexuality. How could it be the case that conversation is more essential to understanding sexuality than, well, sex? One easy answer, provided by Zupančič, is that sexuality only describes everything that goes beyond actual fucking, which is merely animal. But I think we can follow an even deeper implication of her provocation.
Zupančič parenthetically lists three forms of sublimation in addition to conversation (writing, painting, praying) without remarking on the deep differences between all of these forms. While all of these forms of sublimation involve relating to an imagined other, only talking is confronted with the exigency created by the other’s immediate response. While I want to reach for a simple claim that the physically relational aspect of conversation is uniquely suited to make it a meaningful analog of sex, I bump right into the fact that, for many psychoanalytic thinkers, sex is precisely the area where relationality is least present. Think of Lacan’s famous dictum “there is no sexual relation,” Bersani’s claims about the essential narcissism of (homo)sexuality, or Adam Phillips’ claim in Monogamy that masturbation is taboo because it reveals “the truth about sex: that sex is something we do on our own.”
Would it follow, then, that we are always talking to ourselves when we think we are talking with one another? Indeed, a great deal of Lacanian thinking about the impossibility of sexual relation, of feminine jouissance, etc. does seem to merely reduce to philosophical skepticism or solipsism if you strip away the sexy words and focus on the structure of the argument. In this sense, when Lacan talks about sex, he is often actually just talking about problems of reality or signification (a fact that his advocates are quick to mention when trying to dispel the doubt that accompanies any attempt to read him literally). Sure, sex is not sex, but if it is to be seen as discourse, then we must understand what is properly sexual about discourse as it actually exists, not merely garb the old philosophical problems in more alluring veils. This is what Zupančič sets out to do in proposing that the pleasure of talking contains the key to understanding sexuality, although having now read the rest of the book, I can’t say that her focus remains trained on that aim.
What’s erotic, mysterious, and agonizing about both sex and conversation is that they don’t quite take place within the psychic interior nor in exterior reality; their only existence is what we now awkwardly call ‘intersubjective,’ or what we might conceive as a medium of experience in which we all participate and occasionally touch. That touch is the exciting feeling which accompanies a conversation that has a momentum or mind of its own, a physical encounter that seems to involve acts of mind-reading which in fact result from acute sensory entanglement. It doesn’t quite feel right to think of this pleasure as ‘shared,’ but it doesn’t seem right to call it ‘private’ either. It might not even be correct to call it pleasure, and indeed its darker aspects are captured acutely by Avgi Saketopolou’s term ‘overwhelm’ (which I will consider in my next post).
If we think there’s something true in this account, we may have to meaningfully adjust most of our thinking about both sex and conversation, which are usually conceived as an exchange of private thoughts, feelings, and sensations between two separate interior beings. In A Border Comedy, Lyn Hejinian suggests that this adjustment might already lie waiting for us in our grammar:
At dawn we fuck
I think of you but cannot think you
We fuck but not you and I
True enemies of generality
We’ve never fucked
But once, in itself, with things we don’t know
Here, Hejinian fucks with the second-wave ethos expressed in Catharine MacKinnon’s famous formula: “Man fucks woman; subject verb object.” Instead of calcifying the grammar of sex into a fixed hierarchy, Hejinian takes up a classic strategy of ordinary language philosophy: wondering, open-endedly, why a certain sentence sounds strange while an equivalent one does not. In other words, why can I say “we fuck” but not “you and I fuck,” even though “you and I” might go to the market just as naturally as “we” would do so? One answer is that fucking, unlike thinking, does not take up its objects as fixed entities apprehended by a separate subject. Instead, indeed, we are not ourselves when we fuck, we are not “you and I.” If we have ever fucked, it has only occurred mysteriously, in itself (whatself?), “with things we don’t know.”
Is this not-knowing different from the skepticism I diagnosed earlier? Perhaps. If it is, I would imagine that the major difference is rooted in whether one starts with the “we” or the “you and I.” I also think this difference results in very different approaches to humor, essential both to psychoanalysis and Hejinian’s poetics (and probably to both sex and conversation as well). Psychoanalysis always begins from the “you and I,” and its sense of humor tends to take the form of “I know something you don’t know” (or vice versa), a joke that plays with the gap between subjects. In Hejinian’s “we” (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit), there is a sense of humor more attuned to situations of mutual bemusement.
I mention humor because it is one of the primary means by which erotic investments are imbued into conversation. Of course, when one postulates a similarity between sex and conversation, the most natural example that comes to mind is flirtation, which often takes the form of a system of interrelated jokes, where words are like caresses and laughter is like the prelude or correlate to orgasm. One perfect joke, from Ernst Lubitsch’s perfect 1932 film Trouble in Paradise, captures what I want to say better than I can say it. At the end of the film, Miriam Hopkins says to Herbert Marshall: “I have a confession to make to you: you like me.” The confusion of the I and the you, wherein only I can confess your feelings to you, reveals the absurdity of any account of love-making as an exchange of private feelings. Instead, the erotic appeal of flirtation is that it lets us (and perhaps forces us) cease being individuals and instead begin to speak for one another, however incorrectly or inappropriately. Indeed, I would hazard that this is when talking (as a means of self-expression) crosses over into conversation (as an erotic experience): when I no longer know what I am saying, because it seems you are putting my words in my mouth, and so there cannot be any you nor I.
While such an idea might strike some as romantic, it also can easily smack of possessiveness, boundary violation, and entitlement. In Milton’s divorce tracts, he argues that “a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of marriage.” Milton figures a wife’s (his wife’s) inability to engage in satisfying conversation as akin to sexual abandonment, and thus as legitimate grounds for divorce, in effect making a demand that pleasant conversation be considered a wifely duty. He bemoans the fact that a man cannot fully discern a woman’s viability for either sex or conversation when courting her: “the bashful muteness of a virgin may ofttimes hide all the unliveliness and natural sloth which is really unfit for conversation.” Lacing conversation with sexuality is all fun and games until we are talking to someone who is rather unpleasant, who seems to demand a kind of verbal intercourse that we find offensive.
Consider the gap between Zupančič’s neutral statement of a proposition (there is something sexual about the pleasure of conversation) and Lacan’s insinuation, declared mid-conversation and to a particular addressee, that the conversation currently taking place is serving as a substitute for fucking. The latter formulation is more aggressive, and as such it brings home the more difficult implications of the thesis statement with which we might more calmly agree. Indeed, right after the line Zupančič quotes, Lacan says that the very talking he is currently doing in the seminar, in introducing the idea of conversation as a sublimation of sex, “raises the question of whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment.” Those of us who believe in sexual openness might comfortably discuss any number of sexual topics in a conversation and still feel somewhat put off by someone who declared that the very conversation itself was a sexual act. And yet, it seems we can only truly understand the implications of the neutral thesis statement by considering how it feels to conduct conversations while assuming its truth. In my next and final post, I will attempt to consider the ethics, etiquette, and emotional contours of various styles of talking and fucking.