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  • Bodily Mut(il)ation: Enscribing Lesbian Desire1
  • Penelope J. Engelbrecht

What do lesbians really want? Animated by an axiomatic awareness that the personal is political, lesbian thinkers in the 80’s and 90’s have extrapolated an astonishing variety of ideologies, theories, and praxes, individually manifesting implicit and explicit longings for everything from better sex toys and babies and domestic partnership benefits to better medical research on women’s health and out tv sit-com characters and radical post-feminist phenomenology. Desire per se has been a hot topic.

Striving to clarify what’s crucial to my lesbian reality, to articulate my desire in and of lesbian theory, I myself have defined lesbian Desire, but I am not yet, and may never be, entirely satisfied by (any) theory of Desire.2 For me, this inconclusion, which is not unlike philosopher Jacques Derrida’s conception of différance, partially characterizes lesbian Desire.3 To describe just one way that lesbian Desire operates in literary texts entails teasing (a) theory directly from the texts themselves, and I do seek to connect—at least in theory—the often divergent realities of (lesbian) words and deeds, coincidentally suggesting some ways we lesbians enact our Desire(s) in the world. The textuality of the lesbian body, the diverse texts of fictional and/or corporeal lesbian bodies, even the writing of lesbian erotica are all at issue here.

In common parlance, “desire” refers to a physiological condition, an affective state, a bodily urge; however, our desires are not simply sensual. I have already argued that I perceive lesbian Desire as an inter/active mode which mediates two synonymous but operatively distinct, performative terms of relation, the lesbian Subject and the lesbian Other/Self. As two lesbians enact these roles, the to and fro of their mutual/ized lesbian Desire(s) emerges as fundamentally mutable, its very essence active mutation, change, motile transformation on the textual (and material) plane(s).4 This Brossardian—not quite Lacanian—Desire paradoxically does (not) anticipate failure in its perpetual inconclusiveness, even as it animates jouissance.5 In other words, my lesbian Desire does not anticipate exhaustion.

Moving to theorize the ENscription of Desire—that is, the simultaneously textual and material, literary and physical writing of Desire—a classical semiotic problem arises.6 How can any presumably precise word or fixed sign (re)present this active Desire, which by my own definition denotes that which eludes concreteness or permanence? French feminist thinker Hélène Cixous might describe my pursuit of those signs by which lesbians have enscribed (a) textual, sexual Desire as a sextual activity, yet this verbal portmanteau reiterates the entangled semiotic collusion that I am interrogating here. In its susceptibility to analysis, to deconstruction, no text may be trusted as a repository of stable truth (see note 3). Indeed, one may slip, à la Freud, and pronounce an accidental truth: our words do not always say what we mean, nor mean what we intend to say. Consequently, an exacting consideration of signs (i.e., words) must take into account différance, must note the semiotic differences, the distinctions, the deferred meanings, and the reinforced lack of conventional, conclusive understanding. Where lies the lesbian corpus, the textual body of this différance? Touching upon this “sext” may partially sate my lesbian Desire to know an/other in words, may site a transmaterial zone open to my interpretation.

In the erotic texts examined here, the literary and the material planes are closely allied, even co-identified—as when erotica courts and attains a gratified reader response. Or, as Alice Parker has written of Nicole Brossard’s works, “Not the least of the pleasures in store for those who are willing to take the ‘trouble’ to decipher [the] texts is an erotics of reading and of writing. The desiring text becomes a desire for the text” (308). Since all textuality comprises the situation and interpretation of signs,7 we may approach the specific matter of lesbian sexual Desire by asking what writing of lesbians-Desiring exhibits the most blatant reliance on (a) semiotic context. Where does one observe lesbian Desire literally enscribed in/by material, corporeal signs? In erotic texts of the...

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