Excerpts of Jean-Luc Nancy—Corpus II: Writings on Sexuality

There is no outside, and this is how it is outside, how it puts me outside myself: this is the experience of pleasure.

There is perhaps no better definition of jouissance and relation than the intimacy of infinity and the infinity of intimacy.

Intimacy is the superlative of interiority (interior intimo meo: perhaps the whole history of sex in the West has to do with this Augustinian god who is so intimate with [oneself]).

Excerpts of Jean-Luc Nancy—Corpus II: Writings on Sexuality


Paz de la Calzada 

from the series Kolam, iron oxide and chalk on paper




The “There Is” of Sexual Relation

. . . we must avoid saying “the” sexual relation. We have to stop using a noun and instead turn to what verbs try to say: to bed, to do, to fuck, but also to take, to penetrate, to jerk off, to touch. They are aIl verbs that [in French] can be conjugated in the reflexive—to fuck oneself, give oneself, touch oneself—though without losing the necessary ambiguity of this reflexivity, which always moves back and forth between auto- and alloeroticism. For it is precisely here again, here above aIl, or for example, that it becomes a matter of distinguishing oneself, distinguishing a self, distinguishing it from the other, distinguishing it by the other, distinguishing it by distinguishing the other, distinguishing oneself with the other, that is, with and from the other. Everything that remains indistinct is accounted for by this with, this co- of the community or of copulation. Copulation is the with (co-) of a link, a liaison (apula, from apio), in the same way that coitus is the with of a going (ire), of a coming and going, the movement of which, the approach and retreat, the touch and withdrawal constitutes (or founds, structures, signifies, symbolizes, or activates, whichever you like) in a very precise way the co- itself, which is nothing in itself, nothing but relation, nothing but the shattering of the identical and the one-in-itself. In fact, this is just what sex does; it shatters the one-in-itself.

. . .

Intimacy is the superlative of interiority (interior intimo meo: perhaps the whole history of sex in the West has to do with this Augustinian god who is so intimate with the subject). What interiority is shared and shared out sexually? Precisely not the interiority of any given identity, nor of any relation to self, that is, of any relation in itself. What is shared and shared out and what is spaced out is precisely what does not exist for itself, for there is nothing—no generality or indifference or asexuality—that could ever underlie sex.

. . .

Jouissance is not the jouissance of sex, as though it were some sort of good that could be possessed, and it is not jouissance by sex, as though it gave access to the possession of some good. In this context, using the language of subject and object is particularly dangerous, because it implies, at least in philosophical discourse, the constitution and representation of the object by and for the subject. But sex neither constitutes nor represents any such thing; it differs and defers itself, so it is neither its subject nor its object. Jouissance is the tact or the being of sex insofar as it differs and defers itself: The representation of a fusion, whether original or terminal, represents the extinction of jouissance. The whole history of eroticism testifies to this, from Plato to Henry Miller, not forgetting the troubadours along the way. The same history would also testify—if we wanted to pause here—that pleasure does not exist without touching on suffering, and the joy of anguish: this touch does not itself exist, as it should, without spacing and differentiation.

(In a more general way, it should be added that desire, properly speaking, has no object. What desire desires is not objected by it, is not placed before it as though opposite it, but rather is part of its desiring movement. The thing of desire can no more be ob-jectified than it can be sub-jectified. It is not “-jectable” or “throw-able” at aIl. It is neither the lost object nor the subject of a quest but the throw itself or the throwing, the sending, the address, the inter-jection.)

. . .

Pleasure happens in desire and as desire, thus conforming to the double sense of the German Lust, to which Freud refers (and which is also to be found in the Greek eros and the Sanskrit /çama). When desire is satisfied, it is both its own extinction and its own excess: in discharging itself it also provides the incommensurable measure of an entropy that never takes place (except perhaps provisionally, and thanks to the impossibility of subsisting in a tension without end). Jouissance is precisely the simultaneity of release and the excess of tension. We could describe this as “impossible” if we wished, not in the sense in which we would have to acknowledge a fantasy of fusion as an impasse, but rather in the sense that the impasse in question is precisely what opens the way—to what? To the infinity of desire-pleasure, which is the infinity of sex deferring and differing itself. (And, if we need to be reminded again, desire-pleasure must also be noted as a certain dis-pleasure: beyond contentment.)

It is essential to determine with enough precision what we are talking about when we talk about “desire.” We could stay within the scheme of privation where desire is a lack of being, and there is a whole tradition that puts it this way. In the Freudian lexicon we are then closer to Wunsch (that is, wish) than Gier, Begierde, or Gelüste, which is empty ardor, appetite in its primary sense of tension and impulse. Moving from one register to another, we pass from a motion that is drawn out by absence and lack to an emotion that is excited by a presence that asks to assert itself again.

. . .

this duality of desire has been part of our eroticism since Plato. There it takes the form of the couple who are the parents of Eros: Penia, who is poverty or lack, and Poros, who is passage, with all his resourcefulness and his life impulse (the opposite of aporia or impasse). We must think of Eros as the intimate connection between the two, and this requires, first of all, making sure that desire is not determined unilaterally by its Latin etymon (desidero, “to no longer see the stars, to find oneself in a state of lack, to be out of order”). Qualified in this way, desire is nothing but disaster, and a thinking that tries to make sense of it opens onto an ontology of loss—a dis-astrology or, if you prefer to stick with Greek, a catastrology. But if desire is double, lack is also the opening of its impulse and the thrust of its unreleaseable tension—a con-sideration. If there is a lack, it is the lack of nothing, that is, of no object because aIl is subject to it. The desiring subject can only relate to a subject that is itself a desiring subject.

. . .

The subject of desire is insatiable, not because it never reaches the point of being sated but because it does not respond to a logic, an economy, or an energetics of satiation. It feeds on itself but this is not a matter of repletion or a return to self. It is, rather, a matter of an intimation, a pressing demand to always go deeper, to the innermost depths. What feeds on itself is also what opens relation.

. . .

The beauty of the body I desire is also what pleases that body itself. In this way, the relation between the sexes breaks down like a three-part polyphony, which each time concerns a pleasure or desire that tends toward itself even though its self-sameness consists in its alterty. For that very reason—because its identity consists in its difference—this relation can properly only be infinite, which means both interminable and entirely present each time it is in play.

. . .

Sex essentially exceeds itself, which is why it is essentially exciting. For to relate oneself, in the sense that l’ve said, is to excite oneself: to carry oneself outside, to spurt or spout out. Indeed, desire is not extinguished once it is satiated; by reaching the point of discharge it exceeds itself again.

. . .

The act consummates itself in not ending; it makes neither one nor two, it has no result, it never stops beginning, and it never stops finishing. In one sense it is confined to the simple sentiment—or simple shock—of existing itself: existing that, to be precise, is neither separate nor fused, for those are two ways of missing the true sense of the term existing. 

The excitement that comes with the pleasure of tension is not “preliminary,” as Freud put it. Or maybe it is preliminary in the sense that it precedes the threshold—the limen—at which it properly touches the intimacy of its own being excited. This is the logic of erogenous zones, the logic obeyed by the pleasure of tension as the tension of pleasure.

. . .

It is not a matter of denying either tension as such or the fact that tension cannot reach beyond the opposition between tension and détente to an intensity that eternalizes itself in presence to self. Of course we never reach this, but that is not the point. The point is precisely in the reaching inso- far as it reaches nothing but itself. It is a reaching that is not a matter of gaining access so much as being a surprise [une survenue) une surprise] and therefore remaining essentially hidden from itself. One does not reach jouissance, for jouissance is a reaching. 

There is perhaps no better definition of jouissance and relation than the intimacy of infinity and the infinity of intimacy. 

What is surprising, then, in intimate relations is not that two intimacies are put into relation as if they were two given things, one on either side …. On the contrary, what is surprising is relation itself as intimacy. But we must be sure to understand the proper nature of intimacy, which is that of the superlative, intimus, the most intus, the inner-most. It is the inner such that there is no deeper or higher inner. But the depth in question has no ground: if there were a ground, somewhere it could be grounded or founded (in whatever sense), and it (or he or she) could not even enter into relation. This is because a ground assures and fixes a being on its proper substance. The intimate is always deeper than the deepest ground. . . . But the intimate is also the place of a sharing, both of oneself and of the other.

. . .

If there is something impossible about jouissance, it is that there is intimacy, that is, there is a what (or a who) that recoils endlessly from every possible summons. The impossibility of jouissance means that it comes about only by not being deposed in a certain state (as in legal language, where one “enjoys a good”) and that its result is its act itself. But it does happen, in this way. This is aIl it does. In this sense, jouissance knows nothing of the distinction between potential and actual. Ir is actual as potential, and this potentiality (which should not be confused with what is known as “sexual potency”) is the very possibility of the impossible—passive potential as much as active potential. Jouissance enjoys itself, and this can happen only in the distinction, division, and relation of more than one who experiences jouissance. To say that jouissance enjoys itself is to say that it can be only as the other to itself, as what it is, not as “possible” in the sense of something that can happen or not happen, but “possible” in the sense that it contains-and liberates-the power of the impossible.

. . .

Once the intimate is put into play, it does not initially concern what we ordinarily call “sex.” (That could be on the order of what we calI “emotion” or “thought,” but also “gesture,” “expression,” or “presence”). Quite the opposite. The sexual, before or beyond sex, turns out to be what opens an order distinct from both the order of things and the order of signification. It is an order of sense—and the senses of sense—where signs are in play but do not make signification; they make pleasure-desire instead. These insignificant signs are gestures, touches, appeals. (At the risk of vulgarity, we should think of the sense of the English sex appeal …) What is in play is an appeal or call, and we will leave undetermined whether it is a question or order, assignation or request. This appeal can take place between two looks, two intonations, two gestures, with nothing following from it at aIl. It can even play out from a look (or a hearing, a touch, etc.) directed at something outside the human (animal, material, object) that comes to be sexualized, if not sexed. But in this way it is perhaps also appeal in itself, the sending of a statement without anything being stated. This could be the literal sense of the word adoration. (Adoration can remain mute and secret, unknown even to the one adored and in any case far removed from any passage à l’acte. The gospels know something about this, convicting of sin anyone who has even “desired a woman in his heart.” But rather than embarking on a commentary on Christian guilt, we should think first of the infinitization of desire that is opened up here and the fact that it is perhaps not so far removed from the one opened—in a different way—in Plato’s eroticism.)

Whatever form it takes, the opposition between love and desire runs the risk of preserving the Augustinian antagonism between cupiditas and caritas which has structured a whole field of Christian doctrine. This opposition between nature (the principle of insatiable appetite) and grace (the principle of inexhaustible oblation) proceeds from the infinitization of man and world. By this means it separates itself from the Platonic distinction between love of body and love of soul, since the latter leaves open the way from one register to another as a passage from one order of forms (which are by definition not infinite) to another. The movement of this passage is already infinite, but its stages remain defined. Christian infinity is split into the bad infinity of the missing object and the good infinity of the subject of surrection. In any case, it is definitively a matter of this and this alone: no creature is its own essence—but it has its being in a creator who, in the final analysis, has no substance other than relation itself What flows from this makes caritas and cupiditas indissociable in the Greek-Christian scheme of things-right at the heart of their intimate dispute. (Perhaps intimacy is created by this very dispute.)

Since then they say that love—Christian or not, philosophical or not, erotic or not—cannot be distinguished without remainder from desire. And, in fact, it is not certain that, under these conditions, they can be opposed at aIl, even if they also cannot simply be confounded. Love and desire govern and exclude one another, each one representing both the finition and the infinition of the other, each one capable of falling outside the other, while neither can subsist in its essence closed off from the other. There must be love in each gesture of desire and vice versa. But in each case this can tend toward the fading away of one or other of them. Love and desire would thus be the two poles of relation, of its taking place without place, since they themselves stand in a relation without relation. Love gives what is not (according to Lacan), and desire grasps what exceeds it. Somewhere between them is a zone for sharing, whether it is a matter of commerce or collision.

. . .

Therefore, when we do something more than exchange a few signs of appeal, when we make love in the proper sense (but what exactly could be the propriety, if not the properness and cleanliness, of such an expression?) it is not that we change the nature of the appeal in some way. (This leads me ta add in passing that the idea of “sublimation,” as we already know, is decidedly fragile: maybe nothing is ever “sublimated,” but everything is susceptible to being sublime …). But when we make love, we pose or expose relation as such. We pose its “unrelatable” character explicitly. The paradox here is that by making love we expose infinition as such. (We could also say that we pass from the sexuating sexual ta the sexed sexual.) What must be produced, at least up to a certain point, is a determination (a “finition”) of sexed positions, identities, jouissances. The actors also become those who expose their own infinition. But this is how they experience jouissance: on the threshold of finitude.

Certainly, then, there is no relation in the sense that there is no account to be given and no accountability of excess, not because excess involves a gushing that would go on and on interminably (which would eventuaIly come ta the same thing as an oceanic, fusional entropy), but because excess is simply, strictly, and exactly [a matter of] reaching oneself as difference and reaching difference as such, that is, reaching what cannot be examined or instantiated as such, unless its “as such” is exposed as what is never such (which is what would be required by the idea of an evaluation, measure, or accomplishment of relation). There is in fact no relation as relation. lndeed, fucking does not take place as such, but always otherwise (what pretends ta be fucking as such is pornography: it is the only figure of the impossible as impasse). Fucking takes place as reaching or gaining access to its own impossibility, or as its own impossibility as access ta whatever element of self-relation is incommensurable with every relation. But we fuck, and by fucking-whatever fucking is—I say again with Celan, our senses are burned. Jouissance is not something we can achieve. It is what achieves itself and consumes itself in that self-achieving, burning its own sense, that is, illuminating it even as it burns it up.

The Body of Pleasure

What is a body of pleasure? It is a body detached from the schemas of perception and operation. It is no longer available to sight, or to sensation in general, in any of the usual ways of its functional, active, relational life. It is not turned toward the world, not even toward the other with whom—since we’re talking about sexual pleasure—it is engaged in an exchange. There is no longer an “other” in the ordinary sense of the word, just as there is no self-sameness or fusion. The two (maybe more) are caught up in a mingling that is not just a mingling of these different bodies but at the same time the blurring of aIl the distinctions, roles, or operations connected to the functions, actions and representations of daily life.

. . .

It is a body mingled with itself and organized by this mingling. It is mingled with itself and with another (or others), with self as other. It becomes a stranger to itself in order to relate to itself as another or even itself as the other who encroaches upon it and besieges it, in order to enjoy it and also rejoice in itself

. . .

what affirms itself is the body as a capacity for transforming itself, reforming itself, or, perhaps, informing or even exforming itself, passing from conformation, even conformity regulated by a collection of social, cultural, and technological practices, to a form that is itself always in the process of formation.

This body invents itself, recomposes and replays itself. It re-forms itself and almost ex-forms itself, indeed de-forms itself in such a way that it is now nothing more than this exposition of self; body as skin touched and touching, that is to say, as the modulation of an approach that always begins again From the proper limit of body. It reaches its limit, it passes its limit, it makes itself limitless.

The body of pleasure tends toward limitlessness, as if it were no longer body at all but pure sou!. In the same way, the opposite movement, pain, tends to reduce the suffering body to a suffering soul that concentrates itself in the burning and its rejection of it or, more precisely, in this burning such that it rejects itself. Pleasure and pain are like two modes of being burned: a burning that feeds on itself and one that resists and repulses itself.

These are two modes of excitation: excitation is the movement of appeal by and response to an exterior agent. Excitability is an elementary property of living beings. The living are above aIl excited, called upon to respond to an outside. As a result, the living being is always already responding to this call, always already excited, affècted by an outside. In- deed, it is being affected by an outside that brings anything to life, whether we are talking about a plant or a human animal.

. . .

We must bring to bear, without hesitation, the determination of pleasure as a demand: call, incitation, excitation to go beyond utility and satisfaction in order to go toward the dismantling of self: abandon, to pass to the limit-a passage that does not clear a way but that brushes past, touching as it goes and in touching lets itself be touched by the outside (nothing-god).

. . .

There is no outside, and this is how it is outside, how it puts me out- side myself: this is the experience of pleasure.

. . .

pleasure consists in tasting the always uncertain, unstable, and trembling measure of proximity, the approach of a certain distinction and renewal, repetition and revival of distance.

. . ,.

To touch: that is, to set in play both attraction and repulsion, integrity and breaking apart, distinction and translation. To set in play together as such, that is, the light touch of unity and its abandonment, its disunion.

The touched and touching body—touched because it touches, touching because it is touched, always having elsewhere the sufficient reason of its bodily being—this body organizes itself around that is, around this contact of bodies that has no end other than itself: around this contact that is also the contact of the same body with itself. For it is precisely in this way that it no longer is or has a “self” but is exposed in its entirety. It exposes itself first by posing itself outside the order of needs, functions, services, or offices. Its office becomes the service of pleasure, which means the service of the movement by which a body recalls itself: gathers itself: and revives itself for itself, to set itself in resonance with the outside of bodies.

This body emerges from its form. Its heart no longer beats to the rhythm of a blood pump but instead to the rhythm of wild panic; its lungs no longer respire but pant, even suffocate in the attempt to draw a breath that would be the suspension of breath itself and the cutting off of air. Its limbs and organs are no longer limbs and organs but are deformed and reform in zones, parcels, or disoriented continents whose entire geography expands or contracts according to the excitations that at every point raise the possibility of a complete recomposition. A body that would arise completely from a breast, a palm, a belly.

Among these various zones, the ones that distinguish and assert themselves are those that are the sites of an effusion, a spurt, a flowing of humor, liquor, that is, a solution/dissolution of form in which an incessantly new possibility of form is sketched.

Everything is there, in the sketch of an indeterminate recomposition out of which another body would spring, another sharing of bodies, another mingling and unmingling of skins, a liquidation of organic and social contours and constructions.

In sex, bodies testify to a vocation for infinitizing oneself beyond all secondary determinations of a given order. . . . Starting from nothing, that is, opening wide what is already itself only opening: mouth, eye, ear, nostril, sex, anus, skin, skin indefinitely reclaimed and aIl its pores reopened. Spacings, generosities, captures and abandonments, comings and goings, swings: always the syncopated cadence of an gait that carries toward the confines of what is delimited, by a body first of aIl.

The body of pleasure (and its reverse, the body of pain) illimits the body. It is its transcendence.

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