- Queer Theory’s Bad Object
Queer theory has never regarded orgasm particularly highly. Despite some of the more notably orgasmic moments of early queer theoretical writing—one immediately thinks of Leo Bersani’s famous “image of a grown man, legs high in the air, unable to resist the suicidal ecstasy of being a woman”1—many if not most of the texts and philosophers most ideologically fundamental to the development of queer theory have expressed profound skepticism about the political utility of orgasm. Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, in particular, link “orgasm to the normalizing and striating strategies of modern power . . . characterizing it as an effect of the regulation and rigidification of sexuality,” thus “explicitly exclud[ing] orgasm from any repertoire of progressive practices” (6).
Out of the ashes of orgasm’s promise, then, emerges Annamarie Jagose’s 2012 monograph, Orgasmology. Jagose’s interest in orgasm is, in part, precisely the result of its status as an unexciting figure besmirching the landscape of queer theory; her professed task in Orgasmology, if not to recuperate orgasm as a progressive or nonnormative figure, is to “persist in thinking with and through orgasm even when it seems that orgasm was constituted by queer theory as its bad object” (9). If orgasm’s putative uselessness stems from its ambivalent relationship to [End Page 345] normativity, it is precisely in this affiliation between orgasm and the normal that Jagose locates orgasm’s purchase as a historical formation bearing the potential to help us theorize the modernity of sexuality. In Orgasmology, Jagose reads medical studies, popular advice literature, psychological and sexological experiments, films, and a host of other often disparate forms of cultural knowledge surrounding orgasm “in order to recognize the capacity of [orgasm’s] lateral energies to reorganize axiomatically or even complacently held knowledges about not only sex, sexual orientation, and sexual agency but also the social contract, democracy, ethics, capitalism, modernity, affect, and history” (xvi).
One of orgasm’s many vicissitudes is its promiscuous indexicality, and, in this monograph, Jagose is particularly interested in the way that the life of orgasm in the twentieth century has been characterized by relentless efforts to provide evidence of orgasm—visual evidence, as in the case of midcentury sexologists and experimental film-makers—and also to understand orgasm itself as evidence, of sex, of sexuality, of pleasure, or even of political liberation. Responding to what she terms the “anti-biologism of contemporary feminist theory” (22), Jagose brings together scholarship and questions hailing from queer theory and feminist science studies to explore orgasm within the special context of the “material facticity of the body” (21), understanding orgasm less as an index of a dynamic, progressive sexual experience and more as “a bodily event” (22). This focus on embodiment allows her to further tarry in the realm of sex itself, bringing the sex, as it were, back to sexuality studies specifically and to queer theory more generally. Jagose is especially interested in the impulse to read orgasm as or for, and her attention to this tendency produces a generative tension that Jagose seems to be more interested in registering or describing than necessarily interpreting. Jagose’s thinking in Orgasmology is characterized by a certain speculative or observational tenor that allows Jagose to theorize orgasm as “less an organizing than a disorganizing principle” (xvii); for Jagose, orgasm is also a figure through which we might track the way that sex, sexuality, and heteronormativity emerged as critical and organizational, if not also constitutive, sites of subjective experience in the modern period.
Chapter 1, “Simultaneous Orgasm and Sexual Normalcy,” puts early twentieth-century marital and sex-advice literature into conversation with theories of queer time to craft a narrative describing the emergence of modern heteroeroticism at the turn of the twentieth century. Historicizing this archive as evidence of a burgeoning cultural and medical sense of [End Page 346] sexual normalcy, this chapter “considers simultaneous orgasm as a trope of continuing importance for understanding how heterosexuality emerged—both as a sexual practice as...