by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

Somebody wrote a letter to Ann Landers once, asking about oral sex. "Does it mean they just talk about it?," the pseudonymous "Housewife from Maine" wanted to know, or was something more involved? Ann Landers replied that oral sex was a perfectly healthy and normal human activity, not a perversion, and that there was indeed more to it than just talk. She urged "Housewife from Maine" to "use your imagination" to figure it all out, given that the details could not be printed in a "family newspaper." As a last resort, Ann recommended consulting her entry on the topic--complete with up-to-date, expert medical advice--in The Ann Landers Encyclopedia.

This story, I think, would have delighted Foucault, for it envelops all his theses on sex and power. "Housewife from Maine" was righter than she knew: sexuality is indeed "oral" in our culture, in the precise sense that it is continually being channelled into discourse. Sexual practices are judged and characterized in relation to certain behavioral norms, submitted to the authority of medical experts, and read as signs or symptoms of basic personality structures. They are given their proper places in Ann Landers' Encyclopedia, with its strange mixture of inspirational anecdotes, medical advice, and lessons in etiquette. "Oral sex" is not named in any cruder or more direct language, out of a grotesque deference to the sensibilities of the nuclear family; yet the way in which it is 'repressed' actually works to titillate the reader. Sex is not a bodily activity in our society, a matter of pleasures and pains, so much as it is the locus of a certain "truth," grist for the mill of a massive apparatus of knowledge. We have had the meaning, but missed the experience. What would happen, after all, if "Housewife from Maine" took Ann's advice and used her imagination? Foucault's whole endeavor is to make us aware how limited our imaginations really are, especially when it comes to sexuality. As Deleuze says, paraphrasing Spinoza, we still do not know what our bodies can do. Even our wildest s&m fantasies are all too often trite and formulaic. This is why Foucault ultimately concludes that "sex is boring." His History of Sexuality is an account, not of sexual practices themselves, but "of the manner in which pleasure, desires, and sexual behaviors have been problematized, reflected upon and thought about" at different times and across different cultures. It's an amazing story of contingencies and mutations, of violence and cunning, of continual innovations in methods of control, of exquisite refinements in the arts of cruelty. No structure of power relations remains stable for very long; no position can be taken for granted, and no outcome is preordained. It's a long way from Athens to Berkeley; the "care of the self" in ancient Greece is almost "diametrically opposed" to "the Californian cult of the self." Obsessive self-examination, focusing on sexual behavior, is of course central to both; but in the service of altogether different motives and values. The one preaches moderation and self-fashioning, the other authenticity and self-discovery. It's hard to decide which is worse. Yet for all these historical differences in paradigms of self and sexuality, the real problem is that things never change enough. Problematizations differ, but concrete behaviors do not. What finally most depresses Foucault is the monotonous sameness of sexual practices and behaviors, from one time and culture to another. Always the same positions, the same rhythms, the same rituals, the same binary divisions of gender. Foucault discovers, beneath our apparent sexual variety, an appalling paucity of imagination and invention. Hence his famous call, at the end of The Order of Things, for the disappearance and "absolute dispersion of Man." And hence the epigraph from Rene Char, which graces the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality: "human history is a long sequence of synonyms for the same word. It is our duty to contradict this."

Far from simply exalting cultural difference, we might do better to ask why human cultures aren't more diverse than in fact they are. From a biological standpoint, our sex lives are exceedingly dreary. Other organisms are far more inventive. Consider, for instance, the bedbug (Cimex lectularius). The males of this species fuck by stabbing and puncturing their conspecifics' abdomens. Every copulation is a wound. The victims of these aggressions, males and females alike, are permanently scarred; and they carry their rapists' sperm in their circulatory systems for the rest of their lives. As Howard Ensign Evans puts it: "the image of a covey of bedbugs disporting themselves in this manner while waiting for a blood meal--copulating with either sex and at the same time nourishing one another with their semen--makes Sodom seem as pure as the Vatican." Even Sade never imagined such a scenario. No Californian cult of the self here! We humans should be thankful that bedbugs regard us not as sex partners, but only as food. --But if all this penetration seems too obnoxiously macho, then consider instead the whiptail lizard (Cnemidophorus uniparens) of the American Southwest. This species is parthenogenetic: it consists entirely of females, who reproduce without any need for sperm. But that doesn't stop them from engaging in "pseudocopulation": they mount and thrust at one another, variously adopting what in other species would be considered 'masculine' and 'feminine' roles. Though no genetic material is actually exchanged, this gender role-playing has real physiological and reproductive effects: animals who have pseudocopulated are far more fertile than those who have not. "Simulated" sexual acts produce measurable hormonal changes. Drag performance is essential to these lizards' life cycle.

Such delightful or gruesome anecdotes fill the pages of natural history. Where did we ever get the strange idea that nature--as opposed to culture--is ahistorical and timeless? We are far too impressed by our own cleverness and self-consciousness. But "human sex," Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan remind us, "is just one example among thirty million or more kinds of sex." We need to stop telling ourselves the same old anthropocentric bedtime stories. "Man is a recent invention," as Foucault insists; the history of sexuality long predates our all-too-human concerns. Margulis and Sagan trace its prehuman genealogy. Sexuality first appeared in the world as a form of primordial cannibalism. In the anaerobic earth of three and a half billion years ago, terrorist bacteria preyed relentlessly on one another. Every random encounter was fraught with violence and danger. Cells continually penetrated and devoured other cells. "Everywhere poisonous mixtures seethed in the depths of bodies; abominable necromancies, incests, and feedings were elaborated" (Deleuze). But at some point, a certain aggressor cell had an attack of indigestion. Its victim's DNA resisted digestive breakdown. Instead, it continued to manufacture proteins in its new environment of alien cytoplasm. No cellular reproduction had occurred, yet a new, monstrous hybrid was born: the first sexual being, the first infection. The universal feeding frenzy was transformed into a delirious erotic intermingling: "cannibalism became fertilization, and meiosis was forced to evolve" (Margulis and Sagan). And that's why plants and animals have gonads today. It's also why our cells are stuffed with organelles: mitochondria that let us breathe oxygen, chloroplasts that plants use to photosynthesize. These are all contingent effects of unplanned, miscegenetic encounters: the evolutionary fallout of prokaryotic sex.

Microscopic sexuality is indeed no fantasy. Margulis and Sagan gleefully detail the "fluid promiscuity" of bacteria, the conjoining and communication of their bodies, a perpetual orgy that puts all eukaryotic sexuality to shame. "Bacterial cells donate and receive genes in the form of viruses and plasmids all the time": there's no clear distinction between copulation and infection. Bacteria also have no fixed gender; they engage in a continual "travesty of transvestism," repeatedly trading "fertility factors" back and forth. Bacterial DNA is easily exchanged, transmuted, and recombined, because it floats freely through the cell, rather than being locked up inside a nucleus. Bacteria are as it were 'naturally' decentered; only they experience this decenteredness as something other than the loss or lack of a center. The earth's most primordial inhabitants, they are nonetheless free from any concern about origins, any metaphysical nostalgia or Heideggerian yearning. Our human ontological insecurity is largely a result of our projecting upon the cosmos certain heterosexual male anxieties over procreation and paternity. How stereotypically mammalian! In bacteria, to the contrary, sexuality and reproduction are entirely distinct. They reproduce asexually, by simple fission; they have sex non-reproductively, in a furor of genetic exchange. It took a long and painful evolutionary history, stretching over billions of years, to finally link sex and reproduction together. What a strange conceit, to imagine that this linkage is somehow pre-given or 'natural,' inscribed in the very order of things!

So no, I won't play culture to your nature; it's time to have done with the whole idea of their distinction. Deleuze and Guattari show us the schizo on his walk, at a point "before the man-nature dichotomy, before all the coordinates based on this fundamental dichotomy have been laid down... There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together... To be a chlorophyll- or a photosynthesis-machine, or at least slip your body into such machines as one part among the others." Margulis and Sagan similarly imagine a "benevolent venereal disease," symbiotic algae that would "invade the testes" of male humans "and from there enter sperm cells as they are made." The result of such males' mating would be a new species, Homo photosyntheticus, "green" humans with the plant-like ability to manufacture their own food out of air and sunlight. As evolution proceeded, such humans would "tend to lose their mouths," which would no longer be needed for feeding. Instead, they would become ever more "translucent, slothish, and sedentary": sort of 'ecologically correct' junkies. Indeed, algae specialist Ryan Drum proposes just such a symbiotic merger as a better alternative to America's war on drugs. Future green addicts, strung out on sunlight, could both nourish themselves and produce their own pharmaceuticals; thus "they would no longer be a burden to society." It sounds like a scenario straight out of Burroughs; but Margulis and Sagan insist that it's technologically feasible.

"Deployments of power," Foucault says, "are directly connected to the body--to bodies, functions, physiological processes, sensations, and pleasures." It's a reductive mistake to separate culture from the body, to "take account of bodies only through the manner in which they have been perceived and given meaning and value." Psychoanalytic theorists have gotten it exactly backwards. They imagine a body that simply lies there, outside of history, mute and changeless, until it is "inscribed" by the mark of the Symbolic order. Until, that is, it's been inseminated by the Phallus. They claim it's our entry into language and culture that unbinds sexuality from reproduction, that unlinks desire from simple need. Embarrassed by their Founder's notorious dictum that "anatomy is destiny," they choose instead to ignore the body altogether, claiming that the Phallus has nothing to do with the penis. But has anyone ever really been able to maintain such a separation? If anything, culture makes for a far harsher "destiny" than does anatomy. Socially enforced norms of human behavior tend to be more rigid and intolerant of change than 'natural' constraints ever were. Nowhere in the biological world are sexual acts bound so closely to reproduction as they are in human "symbolic exchange." The Symbolic order of culture and language is precisely what reduces desire to need, sex to exchange-value, bodily pleasure to the demand for truth, expenditure to production. "I fear we are not getting rid of God," as Nietzsche said, "because we still believe in grammar." It's our discourse, for instance, that divides us into merely two sexes; from an anatomical viewpoint, such a dichotomy is ridiculous. Anne Fausto-Sterling counts at least five anatomical genders: herms, merms, and ferms, as well as females and males. But she adds that this is still a reductive classification; our bodies embrace "a vast, infinitely malleable continuum that defies the constraints of even five categories." Nonstandard or intermediate genders are far more common than you might think: indeed, Fausto-Sterling says, they "may constitute as many as 4 percent of all births." But most often the othergendered are immediately "entered into a program of hormonal and surgical management so that they can slip quietly into society as 'normal' heterosexual males or females." Such is the actual effect of the supposed autonomy of language and culture. If your flesh doesn't obey Lacan's Law of binary difference, then your compliance will be enforced with drugs and the surgeon's scalpel.

But disciplining the flesh in this kind of way is a repetitious and never-ending task. In the pages of DOOM PATROL we meet the Sex Men, hardboiled, macho cops with orgone-blue skin whose thankless toil involves reining in all forms of bodily excess, and reabsorbing the unproductive residues of sexual energy. Grant Morrison wittily reduces the old melodrama of sexual liberation versus societal repression to the banal form of a police procedural. These guys just wearily shrug their shoulders at the most outrageous spectacles of eroticism unhinged; they've already seen it all. No need to worry; it's "just another day for the Sex Men." Such workmanlike tedium only points up Foucault's observation that power is never in place once and for all. Its "gray, anonymous" procedures have to be instituted afresh every morning. Power builds repetitiously, from the bottom up; its very inertia implies the inevitability of resistance. Overt discourses of liberation are less of a threat to power than is the simple dumb tenacity of the flesh.

There's no way around it, after all. Bodies stubbornly resist psychological or linguistic categorization. Organs sprout and grow, adapt themselves to new functions, even uproot themselves and migrate to new locations. Orifices open and close. Our bodies still retain the marks of the old bacterial freedoms, even when our institutions work busily to suppress them. On the surfaces of the skin, and in the depths of the viscera, we may discover the excesses of an inhuman sexuality. Foucault thus proposes the sexuo-linguistic theory of Jean-Pierre Brisset as an antidote to the anthropocentric structuralisms of Saussure, Lacan, and Chomsky. Brisset maintains that human beings are immediately descended from frogs. He supports his claim with exhaustive linguistic analyses. Our speech, he shows, is a hypostasis of frogs' croaking in the mudflats; our writing conserves the traces of their obscure hatreds, jealousies, and battles. Brisset, much like McLuhan, affirms the tactility of language, its oral and aural density, its rich, viscous materiality. He "puts words back in the mouth and around the sexual organs." Language arises out of orgasmic screams and bodily spasms. There's no clear dividing line between body and thought, or nature and culture, just as there is none between the water and the land. Language and sexuality are not the clean, abstract structures the so-called "human sciences" have long imagined them to be. Rather, they are forces in continual agitation in the depths of our bodies.

Our bodies join and separate: this is the mark of the social, whether in frogs or human beings or prokaryotes. To speak of human culture is much the same thing as to speak of a "culture" of bacteria. Only those dazzled by Gutenberg's movable type, or by the concurrent figure of "Man," could ever have imagined otherwise. But now "Man" is on the verge of disappearing: he is gradually being erased, as Foucault puts it, "like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea." Today, we no longer believe in the uniqueness of human language; we are no longer willing to obey the modernist injunction "to know sex, to reveal its law and its power, to discover it, to liberate it, to articulate it in discourse, to formulate it in truth." The new electronic and informational technologies have permeated and 'denatured' our world; this transformation invites us to imagine "a different economy of bodies and pleasures," one no longer subjected to what Foucault mockingly calls "the austere monarchy of sex." In postmodern culture, as Deleuze says explicating Foucault, "the forces in man enter into relation with forces from the outside, those of silicon replacing carbon, of genetic components replacing the organism, of agrammaticalities replacing the signifier." Such outside forces are now the only "nature" we know; they define our very being. Human culture is in large part a machine--a technology, a software--for experimentally simulating the effects of biological evolution. Alas, in most cases we don't do all that good a job of it. Even our cutting-edge engineering projects--like gene splicing and nanotechnology--thus far have only feebly echoed everyday bacterial practices. But we make up somewhat in rapidity of change for what we lose in power and efficiency. We've done in a mere few hundred thousand years what took microorganisms billions. And we have at least equaled bacteria when it comes to such things as waging war, or extending ourselves across the face of the planet. We are continually elaborating newer, more intricate forms of communication. Our touch is, by turns, invigorating and mortal. We exchange memes in the night, with our bodies' erotic contact, just as bacteria exchange genes.

"All media work us over completely," McLuhan warns, "leaving no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered." At the utmost extremities of human thought, Sade, Bataille, and Klossowski envision a thick and endless carnality, a universal prostitution and interpenetration of bodies. They imagine an exchange not bound by any equivalent. They imagine a loss so great that no recompense can match it. They imagine a perpetual crossing of limits, transgression without resolution. They imagine a communication forever consuming its contents, until it is all medium and no message. They call it bliss; they also call it infection. We don't look back; we wallow in our own shit and piss. But aren't these precisely the conditions of bacterial sex? It isn't a question of going back, which in any case would be impossible. But of reaffirming the traces, within our own bodies, of all these "oral" forces: engorgement, cannibalism, aggressive absorption, monstrous incorporation. Even today, sex circulates through our mouths, is savored on our tongues, and works its way deep into our rectums. If modern biopower operates by channelling sex into discourse, then one way our bodies resist is by resolving language back into raw flesh. Such is the implication of Laurie Weeks' short story, Swallow: "I often said things I neither intended nor felt, as if words congregated in my mouth, foreign particles, to swarm forth and engulf me in a sticky murk... I had begun to get words mixed up with food; if it came inside my mouth, a thing seemed to have the ability to change me in unpredictable ways..."

Hands are for grasping, or tearing, or caressing; but mouths, lips, and tongues bespeak a still greater intimacy. You don't hold an object in your mouth--a cock, a clit, a gobbet of meat, whatever--the same way that you would hold it in your fingers. Something else happens when you lick, bite, suck, or swallow, something that changes you in unpredictable ways. I'm flooded with cum and saliva, until I almost gag; I savor the taste on my palate as long as I possibly can. Or I feel the raspy tongue of the cat sliding across my skin. Watts Martin's furry porno story, "Satisfaction," tells of a male human being who fucks a female tiger morph. For all his macho pride in his own sexual prowess, nothing he does is able to satisfy her lust. Finally she pins him down and devours him piece by piece: "Her eyes were no longer even those of a dominatrix looking at her partner; they belonged to a carnivore playing with her trapped prey... She brought his hand to her mouth and ran her tongue across it, then bit through at the knuckles, spitting the fingers onto the floor... She tilted her head down and started nibbling off flesh, this time in small bites instead of one large one... The pain crossed some point where it seemed he no longer felt it, or perhaps forgot what it was like not to be feeling it at all... She seemed to be climaxing almost continuously, moaning and purring as she ripped through his legs, swallowing them in ragged chunks and lapping up the blood."

Predation on one side; ecstatic dismemberment on the other. Sex is not the deep secret, the hidden truth of our being. It isn't communion; it doesn't bring us together. It detaches us from others, and even from ourselves. Uproot it, then, from its place in The Ann Landers Encyclopedia. Foucault urges us to reject the ingrained Cartesian notion that there is "something other" in sex, "something else and something more," than bodies, organs, and their sensations and pleasures. Fucking is the last thing that will ever tell you who you are. It's not a return to roots, but an ongoing performance: an endless improvisation of things "neither intended nor felt." Foucault calls it a way to "get free of oneself" (se déprendre de soi-même). In the postmodern world, sex is no longer a fatality. It's an intense circulation of alien pains and pleasures, of unknown powers and vulnerabilities, of surprising engulfments and disgorgements. "Sex organs can sprout anywhere," Bucky Harris writes, "and one stroke of the tongue can be as electrifying as a fist up the ass." Furries and scalies come in all shapes and sizes; things can get pretty frantic at FurryMUCK. But furry sex is just one way to go; there are others. If you aren't into all that hair, you might find shaving the pubes a turn-on. Or you can become a vampire, if you prefer blood to cum. If you don't like leather, then try rubber: a different substance, a different feel, a different set of sensations. All these are not fantasies, but actual work on the body. When you open your mouth--or your ass, or your cunt--there's no way of knowing what "foreign particles" will enter. And when you entrust your body to someone else's mouth, ass, or cunt, all you know is that, whatever else happens, you won't emerge unscathed. Sex isn't fusion but confusion, as Sonic Youth once put it. You are never more alone, more separate, than when you shudder in orgasm. But afterwards, back in touch with the world, you find that your body has somehow been strangely altered: "My gums bled into his palms, which he cupped," recounts a narrator in Laurie Weeks' Swallow. "I wanted to pour the blood back into his body, which was mine... I wanted to spit my teeth into his palm, a gift... I took an odd satisfaction in this state of affairs. I felt that now my disease spoke for me, that it reflected the seriousness, the depth, that my flesh and childish prattle used to hide. I listened to records, read poetry... I smoked Marlboros and vaguely felt my lungs soften, bits of them begin to drift toward my feet."

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