- Orgasmology by Annamarie Jagose
In her introduction to Orgasmology, Annamarie Jagose notes that there has been little theorization of the orgasm within queer theory. This is a lack that she interprets to be rooted in dismissal. She attributes the origin of the field’s incredulity toward, and distancing from the orgasm to a debate among Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari around contradicting definitions of desire and pleasure. This conflict subsequently shaped scholarly appraisal of the orgasm as normative. It was perceived as concluding and segmenting what was believed to be an ongoing communal process of discursive sexual expression into individualistic, routinized, transactional, and (re)productive acts in the service of capitalist ideology.
However, to her mind, the orgasm is “an irregular and unpredictable formation” that would benefit from critical recuperation to better understand and problematize its place in queer theory as a bad object (9). In particular, Jagose believes something to be distinct about the orgasm in relation to the modern, as technological innovations and cultural practices converged and overlapped throughout the twentieth century to shape and redefine the orgasm within the medical community, popular culture, and everyday life. Yet the orgasm remains delegitimized as a subject of study because of continued misperceptions circulating within medicine, politics, the academy, and the popular press, as such institutions have effectively “solved” (and, in doing so, dehistoricized) the orgasm. It is further undertheorized due to the nagging resistance within queer theory to grapple with—much less acknowledge—biological matters in discussions of embodiment and social practice. Applying her titular neologism throughout in a nod to the queer practice of wordplay and in defiance of the ways in which her own research was undermined by the Australian mainstream press for securing “unnecessary” funding during the development of the project, Jagose takes up the orgasm as a slippery queer historical subject in need of contextualization and analysis. [End Page 172]
She applies this thesis to five separate case studies. First, she analyzes the myth of the simultaneous orgasm in early twentieth century marital guides in relation to interventions placed on heterosexual partnerships and female pleasure in a historical period when institutions like marriage and family were perceived to be under threat of industrialization and social progress. Jagose then explores the contingent coalitions between straight women and gay men. To do so, she offers a formal textual analysis of John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus that challenges previous critical and scholarly appraisals of a “climactic” scene involving a straight female protagonist’s first “real” orgasm shot in extreme close up. Though originally perceived as contradicting the film’s thematic and formal investment in sex as a communal practice instead of an individual act, Jagose posits that we instead interpret her search for sexual gratification in the context of what she refers to as “the double bind of modern sex,” which “indentures us simultaneously to two contradictory regimes” of personal and impersonal recognition, both as sexual actors and as scholars invested in articulating and challenging the cultural meanings of sexuality (104). She attempts to put the protagonist’s expression of sexual gratification in a nonhierarchical conversation with the film’s larger queer ensemble—especially alongside the main character’s gay male friends—and their particular practices rather than isolating it, as she believes its critics do out of misrecognition for its radical potential. In particular, she uses Shortbus to suggest productive kinships between straight women and gay men, which allows her to argue for an interpretive viewing strategy that thinks “across their more commonly segregated erotic histories” in order to suggest “new dimensions to the still emergent conditions of erotic possibility they differently figure” (104–105). Shifting away from contemporary narrative fiction, Jagose then analyzes archival literature from mid-century orgasmic reconditioning programs. She daringly reconsiders these programs, whose doctors she acknowledges used cruel procedures in order to train homosexuality out of their subjects. Through she does not abide the impetus of conversion, she advocates for the distinctly queer possibility of these programs’ separation of sex from sexuality in their methods...