- Posing Sex: Prospects for a Perceptual Ethics
Sexuality and sexual desire remain tantalizing conundrums for the universalizing intellect, desirous of comprehending the human condition even in its most unconditional manifestations. The representation of sexuality in the history of art is of course ubiquitous. But our equivocal familiarity with this subject matter, whether through attraction or repulsion, too often goes unacknowledged as an opportunity for reflecting upon the bounds of our subjectivity with unusually rigorous candor. This speculative failure is nowhere more conspicuous then in our attempts to make aesthetic judgments with respect to representations of sexuality while ignoring our intuitional complicity in the perceptual grounds adduced by such representations.
Our encounter with images or discursive accounts of sexual activity, especially when they incite a moralistic recoil from the sensorium they animate, stymie the very agency which is presupposed in our attentiveness to them. Roger Scruton has succinctly grasped the horns of the dilemma in his Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation:1
Sexual arousal is a response, but not a response to a stimulus that could be fully described merely as the cause of a sensation. It is a response, at least in part, to a thought, where the thought refers to ‘what is going on’ between myself and another. Of course, sexual pleasure is not merely pleasure at being touched; for that could occur when one friend touches another, or a child its parent….It is nevertheless…an intentional pleasure, and if there is difficulty in specifying its object this is largely because of the complexity of the thought upon which it is founded.”(20–21)
The complexity Scruton invites his reader to engage might be pointed up most sharply by a question: What does it mean to represent the sexual act? The answers are as multifariously confusing as sexual acts are deemed to be perverse by their vaunted polymorphism. Moreover, in answering the question, we encounter myriad contradictions. They play havoc with the commonplace that such a durable representational practice—what I will call the sex-image—is a compelling threshold of human self-recognition, at least in the codices of Western cultural identity. For depictions of coitus situate us conflictedly, but on epistemically familiar ground, between the demands of the mind and the body. They embody, so [End Page 158] to speak, the burden of reconciling mutually exclusive desires: the pursuit of knowledge and the satisfaction of physical appetites. Not surprisingly then, any inquiry into what it means to represent the sexual act founders upon what I intend to show are the falsely mutual exclusions with which binary thinking so unconscionably intimidates thought.
It is apparent on all of the salient topoi of contemporary debate about the sex image that a burdensome Cartesianism inhibits our thinking more productively about what it means to represent the sex act and how such representational practices inflect both sexual identity and cultural self-knowledge. We must think specifically of the rubrics of pornography and erotica insofar as they proffer the possibility of erotic art as a legitimate resource of human self-understanding. Or do these rubrics actually invite the perverse possibility that art may not be a meaningful venue of aesthetic experience in the first place? Each of these arenas of debate has historically been dominated by the presupposition that fevered sensation thwarts higher cognitive ends of human activity. For my purposes however, the significance of how sensation figures in thinking about sexuality is a corollary of our knowledge of aisthesis. I maintain that in aisthesis, sensation is a sine qua non of any consequential knowledge of existence in the realm of being human. And so the apparently narrow purview of the sex image will be seen to disguise an unexpectedly expansive horizon of inquiry about the sources and uses of aesthetic experience in general. My own sources for opening the question of what it means to represent the sex act—Greek Stoicism of the second century, the Ethics and the Treatise on the Improvement of Understanding of Baruch Spinoza, and the aesthetic intimations of Gilles Deleuze’s Spinozian inquiries into the Stoic roots of counter-metaphysical self-knowledge—establish a new frame of reference for the sex image...