- Orgasmology by Annamarie Jagose
Those familiar with Annamarie Jagose’s work from Queer Theory: An Introduction (1996) and Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence (2002), will find in Orgasmology much that is familiar. This book continues to build Jagose’s reputation for providing insightful mappings of the fields of sexuality studies and queer theory, while also creatively opening up new entry points into theorizing sex—this time taking orgasm as her object of inquiry. While I am tempted to describe this book as a kind of cultural history of orgasm in the twentieth century, this would be incorrect and would box this book up in a way that its object fundamentally resists. As Jagose herself notes in the introduction, orgasm is an “unruly scholarly object” that seems to escape any particular scholarly field that might discipline it (xii). It is precisely orgasm’s ability to straddle the cultural, the biological, and the textual that makes it an attractive object for Jagose and a thrilling read for us. Moreover, it is this unruliness that Jagose finds the most productive, as it is this quality that enables orgasm to be a site for “thinking queerly,” where this is defined as “thinking about sex unindentured to sexuality and about sexuality beyond disciplinary pragmatics” (xvii). Orgasmology has Jagose considering discourses of “simultaneous orgasm” throughout the twentieth century to explore heteronormativity’s “timing”; using orgasm to figure the “double bind of modern sex” as both impersonalizing and personalizing; questioning the [End Page 326] centrality of the orgasm to behavioral corrective experiments in the 1950s and 1960s; investigating cinematic and sexological attempts to visualize the orgasm; and finally, offering up a queer take on “fake orgasm.”
One of Orgasmology’s most profound interventions is its insistence on thinking sex through objects and case studies that have traditionally been deemed too “normative” to signify queerly. A central claim of the book is that orgasm has tended to be aligned with the normative, and thus soundly dismissed within queer theory as an improper object. Taking two members of “queer theory’s tag-wrestling team” (2) to task, Jagose contends that both Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze pit themselves against orgasm—so that in both thinkers’ work, orgasm becomes that which figures the normal. For Foucault, Jagose argues that orgasm is aligned with normalizing, disciplinary power, so that resistance to this power necessitates nonorgasmic pleasures, while in Deleuze, Jagose points out that orgasm holds a privileged place as antithetical to the concept of the plateau, which is conceptualized as resistant to hierarchy, sequence, and climax. Throwing Jean Baudrillard’s refusal of orgasm into the mix, Jagose ferments her argument that not only queer theoretical roots but leftist theory more generally has been overtly hostile toward orgasm. Jagose suggests that we are so used to thinking about orgasm as bound to disciplinary norms that to be against or suspicious of orgasm is seen as being equivalent to adopting a leftist, queer, feminist, and progressive stance. While pointing to the ways that orgasm has been dismissed as “too normative” in queer theory, Jagose insists on sticking with orgasm, as a challenge to the norms of queer theory (which would have us know in advance where queerness might be found) and because orgasm becomes in Orgasmology a “productive fault line for queer understandings of the body and sexual desire” (39). In other words, orgasm might lead us to surprisingly queer places.
An interest in sticking with the normative guides Jagose’s first chapter, in which she considers how simultaneous orgasm works in the service of the normalization of heterosexuality at moments when marriage seems to be in crisis. Tracing through its prominence throughout the twentieth century, Jagose argues that simultaneous orgasm is a rich case study for considering the “labor of heteronormalization as a cultural process, rather than as a justification of the status quo” (44). For example, Jagose explores how simultaneous orgasm becomes a solution to the apocalyptic decline of marriage, arising in part from the destruction of its timing as bound up...