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The Vacuum Issue 8 spacer Issue 8
Sex And Death
by Robert Gillan
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The association of sex and death is probably as old as human consciousness itself. Like the two halves of the yin and yang, sex and death are inextricably intertwined in the human psyche. In the French language the two are combined in an illustrative nickname for the point of orgasm: 'la petite mort'. Sex and death are the subject of a primeval, quasi-sacred fascination. Why?
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Of the many thinkers of the last century who applied themselves to this question, none did so more tenaciously than the French writer Georges Bataille. In a career spanning some forty years, sex and death underpinned Bataille's life and work. From the first perverted novel, L'Histoire de l'¦il (The Story of the Eye), to the last theoretical work, L'Erotisme (Eroticism) they were concerns to which he constantly returned. In thinking about sex and danger, some sort of theoretical framework will help to establish, firstly, what would constitute a desirable or undesirable sexual experience and, secondly, the status of such experience in society. A brief overview of Bataille's concept of 'sovereign' experience will assist.
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Bataille's work was directed towards discussing and provoking experience that he termed 'sovereign'. Such experience, unconcerned with social utility, is characterized by immediacy, profligacy and the exaltation of the individual. The erotic experience of orgasm (which Bataille opposes to its procreative function) provides an example of sovereign experience: it is experienced only in the present moment and is not directed towards socially useful or productive ends.
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As well as writing novels and poetry intended to provoke sovereign experience, Bataille produced a large body of theoretical work discussing the aspects of human existence that define its terms. Human beings normally exist in a state that Bataille referred to as 'discontinuous'. This is the strict physical and psychic separation of one human being from another that is necessary for work and social progress. Discontinuous being represents physical security protected by the law, rationality and sanity: these form the basis of human society. However, Bataille suggested that discontinuous being was, at least partially, unsatisfactory as it requires the subordination of the individual to social ends and opposes sovereign experience. The individual feels, from time to time, compelled to transcend the confines of discontinuous being by entering a state beyond the physical and psychic confines by which he or she is defined. Bataille termed this state 'continuous' being; it is achieved in sovereign experience. Continuous being is associated with death, when the human body returns to the wash of undifferentiated matter of the non-living. If you have ever stood at the top of a tall building and felt a sudden, irrational urge to throw yourself off, then you have experienced a compulsion to continuous being. While death is the ultimate representation of continuous being, a similar (but reversible) experience can be achieved in sex, in which the confines of individuality are temporarily transcended in an intense communicative experience with another person. This is sovereign experience.
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Sovereign experience stands in necessary opposition to social progress: it is transgressive. Disabling the individual from the socially useful activity of work, such experience is incompatible with the profitable development of society. This opposition of the sensuous and the social was nothing new. For thousands of years the subjugation of the sensuous faculties has been regarded as a constitutive element of human reason and progress. This opposition, as Bataille himself recognized, is an immutable part of human existence. As a result, transgressive behaviour is regulated by the legislation and taboos that govern our attitude to sex and death. Bataille backed up this idea with statistics taken from the Kinsey Report, published in France in 1948, indicating that those least engaged in orthodox social progress (criminals and the unemployed) experienced a greater frequency of orgasm than those in higher social classes. In view of its opposition to social utility, Bataille associated sovereign experience with guilt. However, while making this association he maintained that sovereign experience was a desirable component of the individual's existence and insisted on its necessary opposition to social conformity. In foregoing such experience, albeit of a socially unacceptable nature, an important part of life is abandoned.
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Sex for Bataille is inextricably linked with death; it is a communicative experience in which the confines of individuality are momentarily transcended. It is associated with death and with danger because it stands in opposition to the terms of forebearance and utility that are normally required by society.
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Sexual freedom in the West is currently at an unprecedented level. This is something to be thankful for. Forty years ago it was still considered abnormal for a woman to choose not to marry and it was illegal for men to have gay sex. However, a corollary of increasing freedom for the individual is, as usual, an increasing freedom for private enterprise. Today, sex is packaged, marketed and traded as it has never been before. From the sexual imperative of the advertising industry to the Internet porn boom, sex is currently being commercialised with a ferocity hitherto unimaginable. Is it desirable for business and pleasure to be mixed in this way? What are the implications of harmonizing sex with the profitable conformity of consumerism? The risk is the injection of banality into a facet of life that should be mysterious and dangerous.
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If you open any magazine or walk down any high street you will be confronted with advertisements using sex to sell commercial products. These images inform the various sexual identifies by which we are all defined. Even if you pay no attention to them, people that you know and are influenced by probably do. This introduces a mercantile element of conformity into a part of life where it has no place. It makes no difference that this conformity is sold to the masses across the globe in the guise of defiance or rebellion. If international capitalism has a central message it is that everyone is under observation and that everyone is judged by their commercial activity. Any cultural product promoted by a multi-national is unlikely to be aimed at liberating anybody from this belief. The success of an advertisement is in maintaining a state of frustration that keeps people dependently docile while shuffling along the consumer conveyor-belt to environmental oblivion.
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A good example of this sort of product can be found in the phenomenally successful Sex and the City. As entertainment, I am all in favour; when I see it I find it perfectly watchable. But the idea that the program is in some way liberating or subversive; I'm sorry, no. Not unless you consider liberation to mean troubling yourself with concerns stretching no further than the rearrangement of a $40,000 collection of shoes. When the lights come on at the end of the show what you are presented is with is an increased desire for Cosmopolitan cocktails, Chanel earrings and KFC. This sort of commercialisation of sex does not encourage the exaltation of the individual so much as his or her subservience.
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The pornography industry is more subversive than the advertising industry, as, in its extremes, it is both socially unacceptable and, with the freedom afforded by the Internet, more or less unregulated. Today anyone able to afford a computer and a digital camera can participate. Does this make it dangerous? On the terms outlined in the first half of this piece, the answer is no. The essence of sovereign experience is communication - the commerging of the physical and psychic confines by which you are defined with those of another person. Modern pornography is a psychic pollutant that stains the mind in indelible ink, reducing people to a fetish or a stereotype. The pornographic experience is characterized by frustration and solitude. One thing you can safely say about Internet porn is that it does not bring people together. Checking my e-mail while preparing to write this piece I opened up a random sample from the vista of pornographic spam that permanently clogs my account. The link provided a Polaroid gallery of shots of a hairy East European sex-worker farmed out under the name of Natasha. The centrepiece of the display distilled all the drudgery, isolation and impotence that the explosion of the modern pornographic industry embodies. Legs arced behind her head, her face bore a combined look of boredom, confusion and hostility; her angry red genitalia stared out from my monitor like a lump of road-kill. My eyes bulged with tears as I stretched across the desk, clicked the power button and watched the screen crackle and fade to black.
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