Just re-read Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” thanks to a friend of mine reminding me how phenomenal it is. I’ve been thinking a lot about erotic energy recently. A few weeks ago a different friend gave me Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” to read, and it was revelatory. As I was reading it, I felt as though it was revealing me to myself. I don’t know that anything has ever made me feel so intensely engaged in all my life.
It’s actually been a kind of terrifying thing, in a way. I read it, and read it again, and realized that this was in large part the framework for myself I’d been looking for. And to find it now, at the end of my time in grad school, when I’m about to not have time anymore to devote to figuring this stuff out really, has been spectacularly hard.
I only remember feeling this chaotic, this frenzied, once before in my life, and it was when I became a punk. Punk, in some way, touched a part of me that was waiting to be given permission to exist. A release, a feeling of some sort of framework to make sense of the chaos of my mind and soul. I have a punk rock soul. That was sixteen years ago, and I really never expected to encounter another thing that felt so important. Another framework for seeing myself in the world, or for clearly thinking about what it is I am already in the world.
I’ve written before about the cycle of academia, how this time of year is the world time of year for someone like me, who craves constant newness in terms of stimulation and yet hates change. Not only is the semester ending, and taking with it all the productive routines built around its structure, but (right on schedule) my grad student time is ending. I’ve been a grad student for a long time, and now I’m going to be in the world more fully than I have been in a sense since I was a punk rock street kid. Without the structure of school, I look ahead and see chaos.
That chaos is both exciting and terrifying. The potential is there, if I can focus it. Focus me. And this new cyborg-poet-punk (and definitively not cyberpunk, but perhaps more on that later) framework is what I hope will provide that focus.
So whirling through this is the erotic. While reading “A Cyborg Manifesto” I kept thinking about objectification. Haraway talks about two intellectual gestures that are both reductive: totalizing (looking for a single unified self/worldview) and reductive. Objectification in feminist theory gets a lot of attention, and I’m interested in it along these terms because it’s both totalizing and reductive. But reading this made me wonder if there was a way of objectifying that was reverent, that was additive rather than reductive. By reverent I do not mean worship-full, which is just another way of reducing and simplifying. But to treat a complex system (me) as an object in a way that adds value and complexity, rather than reduces value and complexity.
And I’m thinking about this in erotic terms, of course. Because objectifying women is almost always a question of who owns erotic power. And when women participate in their own objectification (see: Miley Cyrus, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Béyonce, etc.) people of are two minds about it, neither of which I find satisfying. On the one hand, it can be seen as an aggressively empowering act, to claim ones own body as a site of erotic desire not only for yourself but for others. To be unafraid of the potential (sometimes explosive) of erotic power. On the other, and these are some of the charges leveled at Miley, it can be seen as nothing more than submitting to and participating in a system of power that imposes its standards and expectations on women-as-objects. There is nothing truly revolutionary or empowering about merely operating within the system of power as simultaneously an agent and a subject. The goal is to subvert or at least divert the actual ideology.
Ok, but isn’t there something more to it? Both of those seem absurdly simplistic. We cannot take our ideology-glasses off (thanks, Zizek, for that awesome phrase) and so no matter what we’re doing we’re participating within the cultural constructs that inform everything from the smallest most private moment to the overarching structures of power and meaning and culture. So even the “revolutionary” acts of sexual empowerment (the pill, women’s lib, Roe v. Wade, Madonna—yes, I put Madonna there—the queer movement, etc.) change the way we participate but not the system within which we participate. Or if the change is happening it is happening by accretion rather than by dissolution.
In other words, rather than dismantling the systems of cultural power and significance we live within (and mostly can’t even see, though we can look at some parts, there are always more layers and more hidden structures), we can accrete new meanings onto them. Because we can’t refuse to participate (just like not voting doesn’t dismantle the democracy, or delegitimize it, because the structures are consumingly enduring) in a meaningful way, we can choose to participate in a meaningful way. And that meaning can slowly, over time, with use, accrete to create new structures of meaning. Like the way language evolves through use.
So can that be applied to the erotic? Haraway identifies sex (both pleasure and reproduction, separately) as an important site of self-coding for new imaginative possibilities. She says towards the end: “‘We’ did not choose to be cyborgs, but choice grounds a liberal politics and epistemology that imagines the reproduction of individuals before the wider replications of ‘texts’. … A cyborg body is not innocent … Intense pleasure in skill, machine skill, ceases to be sin, but an an aspect of embodiment. … Cyborgs might consider more seriously the partial, fluid, sometimes aspect of sex and sexual embodiment.”
As I see it, choice can become eclipsed as the ideological imaginative force by consent (and transgender politics and theory perhaps can expand that view further). So, I did not choose to be a biological woman, but I consent to it. I consent while resisting, redefining, splicing various ideas of what it is to be a woman together to create a woman that ever more closely resembles me, while understanding that a resemblance can never be more than approximation (and hence the partiality of connection even at its utmost). A simulacra of my identity, figured through the imagined perceptions of the world, the various lenses magnifying some parts. “Our bodies, ourselves; bodies are maps of power and identity.” (Haraway).
Which transitions to what Lorde says early on in her brief essay: “The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Eros, born of chaos, the primary connective and creative power. My body as a site of expansive and deep power. In the way that I understand Haraway to predicate cyborg identity on fluidity, permeability, expansiveness, boundaries as a porous site of contact rather than enclosure and exclusion, openness and adaptiveness that embraces multiplicity, and paradox, and pleasure, it seems to me that the erotic is an obvious site of that. Lorde: “Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy… my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible…”
The erotic as a core component of the cyborg; perhaps the component that allows the cyborg to expand and be hybrid. To establish tenuous and partial contacts with external beings: humans, animals, machines, all of this falls under the possibility of the erotic connection. Because the erotic cannot be reduced, as Lorde says, to the merely pornographic. Or rather it is almost always already reduced to the pornographic, and in order to use it as a driving force for expansion into the world (in a cyborg sense) it must not be reduced to that. Rather, it must be allowed its complexity and its desire, the urge for connection (that is always partial, and so never fully sated, which is what gives it its continuous drive I think). “To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a Kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. And use without consent of the used is abuse.”
So a looking away, a reduction either in a totalizing or simplifying way, these are use without consent. The cyborg erotic demands looking, and seeing with complexity rather than simplification. To “make connection with our similarities and our differences.” And in this way the kind of objectification I imagine, a cyborg erotic, is more like a lens, a focus, one that does not operate through metonymy to reduce a complex whole to its part, nor as a disfigurement to separate one part from the others for analysis or desire. One that does not discount the chaos, one that permeates the boundaries between
Aside: When looking for an image to accompany this post, I realized how often the concept of “cyborg sex” is used as a machining-the-erotic; but what about eroticizing-the-machine? Also, there’s a sort of disgust/horror element to most of these images that is troubling, because it seems to allude to a state of being less-than human rather than imaging other ways of being human and more.