Receptive Bodies

Receptive Bodies

by Leo Bersani

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Leo Bersani, known for his provocative interrogations of psychoanalysis, sexuality, and the human body, centers his latest book on a surprisingly simple image: a newborn baby simultaneously crying out and drawing its first breath. These twin ideas—absorption and expulsion, the intake of physical and emotional nourishment and the exhalation of breath—form the backbone of Receptive Bodies, a thoughtful new essay collection. These titular bodies range from fetuses in utero to fully eroticized adults, all the way to celestial giants floating in space. Bersani illustrates his exploration of the body’s capacities to receive and resist what is ostensibly alien using a typically eclectic set of sources, from literary icons like Marquis de Sade to cinematic provocateurs such as Bruno Dumont and Lars von Trier. This sharp and wide-ranging book will excite scholars of Freud, Foucault, and film studies, or anyone who has ever stopped to ponder the give and take of human corporeality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226579931
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/16/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Leo Bersani is professor emeritus of French at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of numerous books, most recently Thoughts and Things

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Merde alors

Et le scélérat, en enconnant Adélaïde, se figurait comme le duc qu'il foutait sa fille assassinée: incroyable égarement de l'esprit du libertin, qui ne peut rien entendre, rien voir, qu'il ne veuille à l'instant l'imiter!

"Marquis de Sade, Les 120 journées de Sodome"

The vagina is a logical defect in nature. "By and large," the Duke warns his female slaves just before the orgies of sex, violence, and storytelling get under way in The 120 Days of Sodom, "offer your fronts very little to our sight; remember that this loathsome part, which only the alienation of her wits could have permitted Nature to create, is always the one we find most repugnant." Sadean misogyny is based on the libertine's view of the female genitalia as a scandalous offense to reason. Nature orders us to live only for the pleasure of our senses at the same time that she continues to produce millions of creatures sexually equipped to repel us.

This repulsion need not be explained in the most familiar Freudian terms. It is unnecessary to think of the libertine's distaste for the vagina as a disguised fantasy of female castration. Instead, it is a logical consequence of some rigorous speculation about sexual intensities. The most intense Sadean — and sadistic — sexuality depends on symmetry, and with women, Sade's men enjoy the diminished pleasures of asymmetrical sex. In arguing that it is always better to have sex with boys than with girls, the Bishop in The 120 Days explains, "Consider the problem from the point of view of evil, evil almost always being pleasure's true and major charm; considered thus, the crime must appear greater when perpetrated upon a being of your identical sort than when inflicted upon one which is not, and this once established, the delight automatically doubles" (458). The appeal of pleasure is inseparable from the appeal of evil, and a crime against another version of ourselves — against someone "absolument de [notre] espèce" — doubles our pleasure. The female victims easily outnumber the male victims in Sade, but it might be argued that the torture and murder of women is merely a preliminary to the more enjoyable torture and murder of other men. The most spectacular sadism is specular sadism.

In what sense does a symmetrical partnership provide the highest sexual pleasures? Sexual excitement is a shared commotion. Sade suggests that we do not have sex with others because they excite us; excitement is the consequence of sex rather than its motive. And this is because it is essentially a replay in the libertine of the agitation he produces in the other's body. In the funny physiological terms in which Sade sums up the Duke's ideas in The 120 Days, "He noticed that a violent commotion inflicted upon any kind of an adversary is answered by a vibrant thrill in our own nervous system; the effect of this vibration, arousing the animal spirits which flow within these nerves' concavities, obliges them to exert pressure on the erector nerves and to produce in accordance with this perturbation [ébranlement] what is termed a lubricious sensation" (200). The missing link here would seem to be the means of transport from the other's "commotion" to the libertine's "vibration." But the latter can only be the agitated perception of the former. The "vibration" that produces recognizable signs of sexual excitement is the spectacle of the other person's commotion. Sexual excitement must be represented before it can be felt; or, more exactly, it is the representation of an alienated commotion.

Sadism is the necessary consequence of this view of sexuality. If erotic stimulation depends on the perceived or fantasized commotion of others, it becomes reasonable to put others into a state of maximal commotion. The libertine's erection-provoking vibrations increase in direct proportion to the visible intensification of his victim's suffering. These remarks will remind many readers of Freud's genealogy of sadomasochism in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," as well as of Jean Laplanche's reading of that passage in Vie et mort en psychanalyse. A rereading of Sade in the light of these texts suggests, first of all, that the pain inflicted by the sadist on others may, as Freud writes, "be enjoyed masochistically by the [sadistic] subject through his identification of himself with the suffering object" and, second, that mimetic sexuality is essentially sadomasochistic sexuality.

These two points are intimately related. The libertine's pleasure depends on the transmission of his victim's "commotion" to his own "nerves." In one sense, crime is life-preserving in Sade; it creates spectacles of movement without which individuals might remain dangerously inert. "Crime is a natural mode," Durcet proclaims, "a manner whereby Nature stirs man" (427). Sexuality is a psychic mobility that depends on scenes of mobility in others; the libertine's movements are a kind of imitation of their movement. In a profoundly ironic way, Sade's sadism is consistent with the theories of benevolent sympathy that he scornfully rejects. For what he rejects is not the mechanism of sympathetic projection assumed by theories of benevolence, but the pious view that we are stirred by virtuous identifications with others. Virtue is irrelevant to the agitation induced by the suffering of others. It is the identification itself — that is, a fantasmatic introjection of the other — which appears to be intrinsically sexual. Such introjections make us "vibrate"; they destroy psychic inertia and shatter psychic equilibrium. Interestingly enough, both Sade and Laplanche use the word ébranlement to describe this psychic shattering, which produces what Sade calls "une sensation lubrique" and which, for Laplanche, characterizes our inescapably fantasmatic sexuality.

Laplanche emphasizes that sexual pleasure in the Freudian scheme "resides in the suffering position." The activity of fantasy which constitutes sexuality in human beings is inherently an experience of "psychic pain" — or, in other terms, a psychically disruptive or destabilizing experience. From this perspective, sexuality would not be an exchange of intensities between individuals, but a condition of broken negotiations with the world. The introjection of the other (the transmission of his "violent commotion" to the libertine's own nerves) is a movement away from difference and toward replication. The ontological justification for the Sadean preference for boys over girls is that boys present the libertine with an anticipatory image of this reduction of the world to a replica of the self. Masochism is the exciting pain of such psychic dédoublements. And since sexual excitement (according to Sade, Freud, and Laplanche) depends on the fantasmatic circuit by which the subject appropriates the other's "violent commotion," sexuality — at least in the mode in which it is constituted — might almost be thought of as a tautology for masochism.

We can now see that Sade's famous "order of nature" is really a movement toward universal destruction. The destruction is, however, both a function and a consequence of mimetic orders. The libertine's most intense jouissance comes from a murderous relation with "a being of [his] identical sort"; it is a phenomenon of suicidal symmetry. Nature, in order to move men, incites them to crime. In the Sadean scheme, psychic mobility depends on scenes of destruction which, once internalized, produce the "vibrations" necessary for sexual excitement. The system that must always be followed, as the Bishop puts it in The 120 Days, is that "the more pleasure you seek in the depths of crime, the more frightful the crime must be" (364). Nature's strategies for stimulating human desires lead, ideally, to Curval's annoyance with the modest range of crimes available to us and to his thirst for cosmic havoc: "How many times, by God, have I not longed to be able to assail the sun, snatch it out of the universe, make a general darkness, or use that star to burn the world?" (364). The teleology of nature's order in Sade is the destruction of nature itself.

In the Sadean cult of mimetic violence, the appropriation of the other's "commotion" makes the other ultimately unnecessary. In Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, the transposition of The 120 Days of Sodom to a fascist enclave in Northern Italy toward the end of World War II appropriately suggests that modern fascism is the (belated) form of political organization most congenial to Sade's theory of sexuality. The political setting in Salò is not exactly a "comment" on Sade but gives to the Sadean epic an important dose of verisimilitude lacking in the fairy-tale kidnappings and the Black Forest slave palace of The 120 Days. The Sadean argument that Salò implicitly makes is that if sexuality is intrinsically masochistic, it requires a fascist state. That is, to the extent that sexual excitement depends on the "sympathetic" appropriation of the "violent commotions" experienced by others, the only truly erotic society is the Sadean and fascistic society of masters and slaves.

Pasolini argues far more effectively for the connections between sex and power than does Cavani in her much-acclaimed and consistently mediocre Night Porter. The latter film, in which Dirk Bogarde treats us to the same portentous twitching with which he made low comedy of Death in Venice, carries what Cavani clearly takes to be an illuminating and shocking message about the sexual appeal of politically enforced violence. (The message is not only banal; any shock it might have is also conveniently dissipated in the sentimental conversions toward the end of the film.) Pasolini's — and Sade's — statement is more radical. Neither The 120 Days nor Salò is at all about the complicity between torturers and victims. In both works, there are slaves who more or less ally themselves with the masters — Julie in Sade, and the boy who becomes the Duke's favorite in Salò — but in none of these cases is it a question of the irresistible appeal of being tortured. This appeal doesn't even have to be denied; it would simply be a superficial point, and in works so profoundly investigative about sadomasochistic sexuality and politics as The 120 Days and Salò, it can be ignored. The larger point in Sade, as we have suggested, has to do with the use of violence in order, quite literally, to make the victim give birth to sexuality in the torturer.

In a sense, there is no relation at all between the Sadean libertines and their victims. It is precisely the illusion — deeply characteristic of our culture — that every contact produces what we repulsively call a relationship which makes the sentimental denouement of Night Porter inevitable. In Sade and in Pasolini, a potential masochistic complicity on the part of the victims would be superfluous to a view of masochism as already in the sadistic operation. There is a perfect identity between the masochistic and the sadistic impulses: the slaves are killed so that the masters may, as it were, appropriate their suffering as their own sexuality. Pasolini has the Duke in Salò say that ideally one should be both the executioner and the victim; sex is limited by the need for a partner. Fascism is the political system best suited to Sadean sex because it allows for the elimination of partners; the agony of the victims is refined into their executioners' sexual vibrations.

Perhaps the only way to escape from such conclusions would be to present a convincing theory of nonmimetic sexuality. By that we mean a theory which could account for sexual excitement in terms no longer dependent on the fantasyrepresentations of the excitement of others. In a sense, such a task is enormously difficult, for it involves proposing an alternative not merely to Sade, but also to Freud — and ultimately to the massive training that we receive in the art of mimetic stimulation, a training which surely provides the cultural "ground" for psychoanalytic theories of fantasy as a sexualizing replication of the world.

Pasolini's treatment of Sade depends, it seems to us, on his having recognized such cultural continuities. Thus the fascistic setting is by no means intended to help us judge the Sadean imagination as aberrant or alien to us. Such judgments could only make us feel comfortable: both Sade and the fascists are monsters and can therefore be historically sequestered. But Pasolini brings Sade close to us by placing him in a historically familiar context, and this is one of the ways in which Salò diminishes the grotesqueness of the literary text. Pasolini's mistrust of the alienating aspects of The 120 Days even leads him to a certain embellishment of Sade's work. No one in Salò has the physical grotesqueness of Sade's characters; it is, for example, symptomatic of Pasolini's emphases that the four impressively disgusting servants of The 120 Days have simply disappeared, and none of the jazzy female narrators even vaguely resembles La Desgranges, "cette généreuse athlète de Cythère," as Sade calls her, who had lost one nipple, three fingers, six teeth, and an eye in her many "combats." Even more crucially, the four friends are all rather ordinary-looking. The cross-eyed President is hardly a match for Sade's Curval, who is described as having, in the way of physical charms, "drooping buttocks that rather resembled a pair of dirty rags flapping upon his upper thighs; the skin of those buttocks was, thanks to whipstrokes, so deadened and toughened that you could seize up a handful and knead it without his feeling a thing" (205). The acceptable appearances of Pasolini's characters make it impossible for us to ignore their considerable intelligence and their considerable elegance — both of which, while they also characterize Sade's friends, are somewhat obscured (and may therefore even be dismissed) by all the reminders in the book of their sensationally repellent bodies. By making his libertines presentable, Pasolini corrects Sade's own willingness to allow us not to recognize them.

In Salò, these recognitions are mainly the result of various aesthetic seductions. Both Pasolini's film and Sade's text are very self-consciously "works of art." At least half of each work is devoted to stories within the main story. And, particularly in Sade, the account of the libertines' activities is organized according to the principles that govern the reminiscences of the four female narrators. As a result of this dependency of the Sadean narrative on other narratives within it, Sade's work is exceptionally instructive about the affinities between violence and the ways in which we organize experience in order to make sense of it. The carefully constructed stories of Mme Duclos and her colleagues have an aphrodisiac effect on the libertines. But storytelling is valued because it is already a certain type of erotic activity. Like much erotic literature, The 120 Days moves from comparatively mild sexual anecdotes to orgies of erotic violence. But Sade points out that this is not the order in which his characters have the experiences being related. We are told that on a particular day, for instance, Sade's heroes were engaged in activities that would be narrated only as part of the record of a later day. In other words, the progress from one day to the next in Sade's book is not determined by "real" chronology (by the lived experience of the characters designated as real people by this fiction); rather, the work is organized in order to produce a certain type of narrative progression which is itself erotically stimulating. The purpose of the book is, we might say, to create its own narrative.

While Sade's narrative doesn't reproduce the "actual" simultaneity of fellatio, flagellation, and coprophagia, it does reproduce the pacing that is more deeply characteristic of Sadean sex than the sexual content of any one day's adventures. That pacing could be characterized as a calculated movement toward explosive climaxes. This movement is made possible by the isolation and imprisonment of the object of desire: the Sadean master removes his victims from the world, or a particular desire "removes" a part of a body from the rest of the body. The master's authority and self-possession in Sade depend on the limited relations available both to his own desiring fantasies and to the "detached" object of desire as a result of such removals. In other terms, the calculation, preparation, and control of climaxes result from the establishment of foregrounds (objects of desire) and backgrounds (insignificant, undesired reality). This is also a narrative strategy: the climactic significances of narrative are made possible by a rigidly hierarchical organization of people and events into major and minor roles. In narrative, coherent orders are the privilege of a world in which relations have been limited to precisely those forms from which a central coherence can be made to appear "naturally" to emerge.


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Table of Contents


1: Merde Alors
2: Why Sex?
3: Sensual Sucking and Sociality
4: Force in Progress
5: Receptivity and Being‐In
6: Staring


What People are Saying About This

Texas A&M University Mikko Tuhkanen

Receptive Bodies is a remarkable addition to Bersani’s extensive oeuvre, one that will be particularly important for recalibrating his reception in queer theory. Contemporary philosophy has in the last decade slowly caught up with the idiosyncratic approach that has characterized his thought since the 1970s. Still, these astonishing readings of literature, cinema, and philosophy demonstrate once again that there is nothing quite like Bersani’s work in the field.”

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Tim Dean

Receptive Bodies builds on previous books by Bersani with undiminished sophistication and cogency. Drawing on a lifetime of reading, thinking, and writing, he enriches our understanding of his earlier work. It is remarkable, though irrefutable, that Bersani still has new things to say here. His readers across many disciplinary fields will be thrilled by this book.”

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