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American Imago 59.1 (2002) 73-89
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Story of the Eye:
Fantasy of the Orgy and Its Limit
Sociologist Jean Baudrillard, in a characteristically provocative moment, has imagined the contemporary world as a "utopia realized," the problematic condition of living and desiring in the wake of total liberation, in a time "after the orgy":
The orgy in question is the moment when modernity exploded on us, the moment of liberation in every sphere. Political liberation, sexual liberation, liberation of the forces of production, liberation of the forces of destruction, women's liberation, children's liberation, liberation of unconscious drives, liberation of art. . . . This was a total orgy--an orgy of the real, the rational, the sexual, of criticism as of anti-criticism, of development as a crisis of development. . . . Now everything has been liberated, the chips are down, and we find ourselves faced collectively with the big question: WHAT DO WE DO NOW THAT THE ORGY IS OVER? Now all we can do is simulate the orgy, simulate liberation. (1993, 3)
While one need not accept Baudrillard's commentary as an objective description of the present, and surely there are those who would take issue with its presumptuousness, one should consider the merit of an approach that holds liberation to its promise and follows it through to its fatal conclusion. Taken as a kind of reverse eschatology in which at the end of [End Page 73] history there is neither judgment nor anyone who might possess sufficient purity to take up the role of judge, Baudrillard's after-the-fact prophecy traces the trajectory of desire to its most awful fulfillment. In the fantasy of a utopia without boundaries, without prohibition, without authority, and without difference, the End inevitably takes the form of a malaise resulting in the question: "What do we do now?"
In what follows, I want to raise this question as the place where the metonymy of desire finds, through the negative action of critical thought, a point of departure in a chain of signifiers. At issue here is how to prolong desire when it is precisely the question of an afterwards that is missing from the orgy; when, indeed, duration is exactly the quality that is forsaken in the realization of unbounded satisfaction. Baudrillard's response to this question seems incomplete. If satisfaction ultimately implies an eradication of limits, a lack that is suddenly removed, this does not, according to him, mean that the ongoing orgy has reached its conclusion in the realization of utopia. The exchange of signs across the boundaries that once demarcated sites of sexual, territorial, and economic difference continues in this utopian space, but now, Baudrillard argues, only as simulation. Is this the bitter realization of his critique of postmodernity--that revolutions are no longer real? What remains unclear is whether Baudrillard's turn to simulation constitutes an impasse to desire or a way out of the paradoxical relation between pursuit and end. In the final instant, the introduction of simulation into the field of desire invokes uncertainty. Taken as a poor substitute for what one cannot have, simulation is melancholically pursued out of necessity, as the sole possibility for commemorating what desire once was when its aims were still deemed to be real. The question underlying Baudrillard's formulation is whether what desire aims for was ever really accessible in the way he proposes.
Orgy, Baudrillard suggests, is a paradoxical pursuit from the perspective of the desiring subject. While its participants seek to realize a subjectivity beyond prohibition, their action is intelligible only from the point of view of this necessary limit. As the place of this limit, Lacanian psychoanalysis has proposed [End Page 74] jouissance, a degree of excitation that becomes unbearable as the pleasurable pursuit of satisfaction threatens the subject's dissolution. It is jouissance that provides the first indication of what is at stake in the orgy insofar as it is grounded on a fantasy of liberation. Dylan Evans's (1996) dictionary of Lacanian terminology puts it succinctly: jouissance marks a prohibition of enjoyment that...