- I Wanted Black Skates:Gender, Cash, Pleasure, and the Politics of Criticism
One of my favorite models for critical writing is the 1994 book Her Tongue on My Theory: Images, Essays, Fantasies by members of the dyke art collective Kiss and Tell. In the book, they set out to address a situation they encountered as writers that many people also encounter as readers: the frequently vexed relation between pleasure and analytic writing, even when pleasure is an ingredient of the subject under consideration. As they explain in their introduction, their art revels in taking sexual analysis and sexual pleasure and "mix[ing] them up." Yet even so, they discovered, lust increasingly disappeared from their discussions as they worked on the book, which began as a series of critical essays about sex, representation, and politics. "The essay format," they write, "didn't seem to leave much room for indulging in unredeemed pleasure." In response, they wrote sex stories that run across the bottom of the essay pages. The book also features images that "do not illustrate the stories or the essays, but run parallel to them, questioning the same issues of erotic representation, narrative, literal meaning, and censorship."1
I love this book partly just for naming what the authors term "unredeemed pleasure" as a valued component of critical work and the lives of people who pursue it. For reasons too numerous and too contingent on context to elaborate here, embracing pleasures—especially but not only bodily pleasures—that do not readily appear to advance a higher purpose is often considered suspect, both outside and within academic circles. It comes across as shallow, lazy, duped, dangerous, and/or merely insufficient in theorizations ranging from Dear Abby, which counseled recently that "when something feels good, it is easy to become addicted . . . and then you'll be in for a world of pain," to academic classics like Roland Barthes's Pleasure of the Text, in which satisfaction makes pleasure, which, for him, "comes from culture and does not break with it," a rather superficial penultimate of the loss-imposing bliss.2 [End Page 555]
In fact, pleasure garners few gold stars in any aspect of academic culture, even among people who do find in writing essays the unredeemed pleasures that escaped Kiss and Tell. Pleasure is rarely the highlight of the standard Monday morning recap: "How was your weekend?" "Ugh, I had to grade 50 papers." " I graded 75 and wrote a conference talk." Or consider the common use of "work" in expressions like "what is your work about?" to mean activities pursued on top of the teaching and "service" that, increasingly and for more and more people as employment conditions deteriorate, may easily by themselves overspill humane definitions of full time. This long-standing habit may be attributed to diverse, knotting sources. These include the very real publish-or-perish requirements for certain academic jobs that make scholarship the bottom-line requirement for job retention, the desire to ennoble thinking as productive and serious labor, and a valuation of sacrifice for knowledge. This valuation, as Rebecca Herzig demonstrates, may mesh pleasures taken in pain (the pleasure content of which I in no way aim to discredit) with claims on an advanced capacity to yield the self that, implicitly or otherwise, depend on and propel exclusionary raced and gendered credentials; only certain people are suited to noble sacrifice.3
Besides naming the turn from pleasure as a problem, Her Tongue on My Theory presents an illuminating solution. A wonderful effect of their placement of the porn stories—and I use porn deliberately to keep its help-the-reader-get-off element visibly in play—is that, partly because a chance to follow the lust competes with a chance to follow the theory on virtually every page, the book implicitly invites readers both to take and to analyze our own pleasures. Can I read the porn first? Do I want to save it for later? Is it a bribe or a gift? Does a masturbation break enhance, arrest, reroute, or otherwise color analytic activity taken up or reprised afterward? What does it mean to get off on a story about having sex...