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Laura Chernaik (Nottingham)
The Importance of Precision: Samuel Delany's
The Importance of Precision: Samuel
Delany's Pornographic Writing
Isiaah Berlin distinguished between two senses of 'liberty': negative liberty, that is, absence of constraint, and positive liberty, that is, freedom to act (Berlin 1968). The Rights first enumerated under the American Constitution addressed both positive and negative liberties but with a clear emphasis on the importance of absence of constraint. The constitution begins with a list of ways in which citizens are to be free from Federal, and later, according to the doctrine of incorporation, State governmental action; guidance as to when the State has a right to intervene, and provides the Ninth Amendment which specifically states that the list is not exhaustive, and that other Rights can be added later. The Ninth Amendment makes interpretation and debate crucial to the American constitutional system, and to American political culture, which, as the Reconstruction and women's suffrage Amendments show, can and does change over time. Many of the later Amendments place a very great focus on positive liberties: of the Reconstruction Amendments the Thirteenth abolishes Slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees Due Process and Equal Protection under the law, the Fifteenth Amendment forbade discrimination in voting on the basis of race, and the later Nineteenth Amendment with respect to sex. The Constitution is interpreted, in practice, by the courts; if a conflict arises, it is referred up to the Supreme Court, which publishes its ruling, and, if the Justices are not unanimous, completes this with majority and minority opinions, signed by each Justice. As classically liberal, the emphasis, in the First Amendment is on negative liberties, absence of constraint on religious belief, speech, association, etcetera. However, there is a positive liberty side to the First Amendment, since belief, speech, association, etc, are all acts.
Negative liberty, as construed by the American Constitution, is very strong: content is irrelevant, so that, for example, even racist ideology is considered protected speech, covered by the First Amendment. There are only a very few allowable exceptions, or cases that constitute unprotected speech: Fighting Words, and obscenity. I will deal with Fighting Words first. The Fighting Words exception is based on the understanding that words can sometimes count as conduct: the classic example would be calling 'Fire' in a crowded theatre, or for Fighting Words (State v. Chaplinsky 1941), saying something that would cause a reasonable person to hit you.
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Crying 'Fire' in a crowded theatre and Fighting Words are perlocutionary speech acts, that is, speech which leads to consequences. It is the consequential harm that makes the speech unprotected. Thus R.A.V. v. St Paul, (1992) struck down a Minnesota ordinance that banned a burning cross or Nazi swastika, arguing (I paraphrase Justice Scalia), that a burning cross is the expression of a "viewpoint," (Quoted in Butler 1997: 53) and thus protected speech, while to be Fighting Words, or unprotected, a consequence, that is a riot, would have to follow. Riots do not necessarily follow, when racists or anti-Semites place burning crosses or swastikas, and so the Minnesota ordinance is unconstitutional.
The American First Amendment right of free speech does not, however, according to Roth v. United States (1957), protect obscene speech. (Here, as elsewhere, speech, in the First Amendment, includes visual material). According to Justice Brennan's dissenting opinion in Paris Adult Theatre 1.v. Slaton (1973), Roth distinguishes between a subclass of sexual speech which is about "one of the vital problems of human interest and human concern" (in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 157), and another class of sexual speech which is obscene and, because obscene, is unprotected. Roth, according to Brennan, stipulates that "obscenity, although expression, falls outside the area of speech or press constitutionally protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments" (in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 157). Roth argues that obscenity is unprotected because it is "utterly without redeeming social importance" (Roth 483, quoted by Brennan in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 159). This is a highly rhetorical characterisation. Roth's rhetoric was somewhat toned down by Miller v. California (1973), which argued that obscenity could be defined by applying a three step test: does it excite "prurient interest", does it offend against "community standards of decency", and is it without "serious literary or artistic value" (Brennan, in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 158). Brennan argues that these three terms are by definition necessarily ambiguous, "the meaning of these concepts necessarily varies with the experience, outlook, and even idiosyncrasies of the person defining them" (in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 158). He proves that Miller v.California's ambiguities are the result of an irremediable ambiguity in Roth that should lead us to reject both Roth and Miller. Brennan shows that the distinction between protected sexual speech and unprotected obscene speech is ambiguous and historically variable. It leads to a proliferation of laws and lawsuits, because it rests on "unprovable, though strongly held, assumptions about human behavior, morality, sex, and religion" (Brennan in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 161). Unprovable, strongly held assumptions are not enough to abrogate the First Amendment. Brennan therefore concludes that "Even a legitimate, sharply focused state concern for the morality of the community cannot, in other words, justify an assault on the protections of the First Amendment (Brennan in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 161).
Brennan's argument, however, was the minority opinion. The majority opinion, which, like Roth, provides precedents for future law, argues that the three step test in Miller v. California (1973) defines obscenity in a sufficiently clear way, and that it is thus possible to go on to establish the circumstances in which there are legitimate state interests in regulating obscene material. Paris Adult Theatre 1 v Slaton (1973) spells out these legitimate state interests: "the interest of the public in the quality of life and the total community environment, the tone of commerce in the great city centers, and, possibly, the public safety itself" (quoted in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 153). The majority opinion then goes on to argue that "good books, plays, and art lift the spirit, improve the mind, enrich the human personality, and develop character, and commerce in obscene books, or public exhibitions focused on obscene conduct, have a tendency to exert a corrupting and debasing impact." They therefore conclude that "the States have a legitimate interest in regulating commerce in obscene material and in regulating exhibition of obscene material in places of public accommodation" (quoted in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 154).
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Brennan's minority opinion is clearly liberal; he stresses the negative liberties outlined in the Constitution. He also exercises a healthy scepticism about communitarianism: he argues that a communitarian notion like "community standards" will vary in meaning, from person to person. The majority opinion is, in contrast, rather communitarian: they stress not just community values but community "tone"; and, like the civic republicans, they focus on character. They also seem most distressed by the commercialisation of sex, wishing it, instead, to be private, and uncirculated.
The key difference between Brennan's and the majority opinion is the weight given to unprovable and strongly held opinions about "human behaviour, morality, sex, and religion" (Brennan). Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) make both the strength and the variability of these opinions more clear. Brennan's move in Paris Adult Theatre 1v. Slaton is an historicizing one: he argues that opinions on gender, sexuality, and religion, are variable, and so should not be drawn on by the Court; it should use more abstract concepts. It is also, therefore, an abstracting argument. The Justices in Griswold v. Connecticut mix abstract arguments about the derivation of the right to privacy with specific arguments about a particular right to "marital privacy" on which they base couples' rights to use contraceptives, and doctors' rights to prescribe contraceptives. The dissenting option in Bowers v. Hardwick by Justice Blackmun with Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens concurring, focuses even more clearly on abstraction. He argues that personally and historically variable opinions about gender and sexuality must be bracketed, so that the Court's decisions are made on the basis of abstract, general arguments about the right to privacy. He strongly implies that the other Justices, the ones whose views prevailed, failed to be properly disinterested: they confused their own personal feelings (prejudiced private interests) with the State's interest.
The right to privacy is not a separate right, enumerated in one of the Amendments. It is touched on in the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and Fourteenth. The Judges began, in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), by showing how these Amendments, taken together, give us, in general, a right to privacy. The Judges used the Ninth Amendment to link together references to privacy in the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth. Significantly, NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449, 462 1, drew on the First Amendment, and established a "freedom to associate and privacy in one's associations". The Fourth Amendment specifies "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects". The Third focuses on the home as private, someplace where soldiers can't be quartered. The Fifth Amendment, about Self-Incrimination, focuses on privacy in one's conscience. Taken together, all these "create a zone of privacy" (Gruen and Panichas 1997: 241), a basic, general, abstract sense of privacy. After establishing this, the Judges moved on to a second task. They felt that they, in addition, had to show that use (and doctors' prescription) of contraceptives was a specific right that fit into the general constitutional right of privacy. The Justices called the new specific right they were enumerating "marital privacy", an "intimate association", "for as noble a purpose as any involved in our prior decisions." (Gruen and Panichas 1997, p. 241).
Justice Blackmun, with Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens, in a dissenting opinion to Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), drew on Griswold v. Connecticut, and argued that gay or lesbian sex between consenting adults, like marital sex, falls under "constitutionally protected interests in privacy and intimate association" (Blackmun in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 9), and the Georgia statute under which Hardwick was arrested thus falls foul of the Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Moreover, the Fourth Amendment applies: Hardwick was arrested in his own home, for behaviour in the home. Blackmun gives a powerful critique of the prevailing opinion of the Court. Blackmun argues that Bowers v. Harwick was about the "right to be left alone" (Blackmun in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 8), the most abstract formulation of negative liberty. He goes on to argue that "decisions concerning sexual relations are intensely private which justifies protecting them from government interference" (Blackmun in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 13). He concludes, critiquing the arguments of the other Justices: "The mere knowledge that other individuals do not adhere to one's value system cannot be a legally cognizable interest let alone an interest that can justify invading the houses, hearts, and minds of citizens who choose to live their lives differently" (Blackmun in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 14).
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Blackmun's argument lost. The majority of the Justices claimed, in the opinion that prevailed, that the case was about a new "fundamental right to homosexual sodomy", a right that they were unwilling to grant. Justice White argued that "proscriptions against that conduct have ancient roots" (White in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 6); Justice Burger gives a list of laws he claims prohibit homosexual sodomy (some of which did not prohibit oral sex, the particular act for which Hardwick was arrested; others of which prohibit sodomy or buggery between persons of the opposite sex, as well as the same sex). White and Burger are not only disagreeing with Blackmun's claim that gay and lesbian privacy falls under the right to privacy and intimate association established by Griswold v. State of Connecticut. White and Burger are failing even to address Blackmun's argument. They argue, instead, that the State has an interest in regulating intimate associations, protecting heterosexual but not homosexual intimacy. White and Burger, as Blackmun suggests, are confusing two quite separate things: White and Burger's own personal reaction to difference, and the States' interest. The State, according to Blackmun, does not have an interest in regulating intimate associations, or intensely private decisions concerning sexual relations. The particular way of regulating these associations, treating homosexual relations differently from heterosexual relations, is, one might conclude, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment.
The arguments so far have turned upon negative liberty, privacy, perlocutionary consequentialist arguments about harm, and communitarian fixing of values. However, it is also sometimes argued that speech is unprotected by the First Amendment when the speech act concerned is illocutionary, that is, when the harmful act is not a consequence, but an action carried out at the time by the speech. The feminist lawyer Catherine MacKinnon, whose argument that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination has been adopted into legislation, argues that we should not make a distinction between protected sexual speech and unprotected obscene speech (cf. MacKinnon 1979, 1989, 1993). Instead, she says, we should distinguish, for both legal and moral purposes, between pornography and erotica. Erotica is sexual material that eroticizes gender equality. Pornography is sexual material that eroticizes gender subordination. MacKinnon takes a pragmatic approach and focuses on what pornography does. She argues, in an eccentric version of a strong pragmatist argument, that meaning is determined pragmatically by action. "Pornography is a practice of sexual politics, an institution of gender inequality" (MacKinnon in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 187); that is, rather than focusing on a broad range of relations between meaning, practices, and institutions, she says that meaning is always determined by practices and institutions. A sexual image that shows subordination can therefore never be trivial, deconstructive, or critical, it can only be illocutionary: by representing subordination it makes, it 'does' subordination.
MacKinnon is quite clear that she is arguing against liberalism because she feels it has not served women well. However, it is not surprising that her antipornography arguments lead her into a coalition (for practical ends, despite disagreements on matters of principle) with conservatives, for both rely heavily on communitarian concepts of value, and use these to specify positive, rather than negative, liberties. For MacKinnon, women's positive liberties can only be secured by sexual harassment legislation that defines sexual harassment as sex discrimination, and antipornography legislation that would rescind the First Amendment protections that liberals argue pertain.
MacKinnon has been critiqued by the feminist legal scholar, Drucilla Cornell, who argues that pornography "appeals to powerful unconscious fantasies" and therefore "cannot simply be disregarded as speech" (Cornell 1995: 138). She rejects MacKinnon's total ban on pornography, and argues, instead, that pornography shows us that we need to make sure that the Constitution guarantees the positive liberties that will protect "equal minimum conditions of individuation" (Cornell 1995: 140). She argues that MacKinnon's argument about the so-called illocutionary harm that pornograpy does grants too much power to pornography. It simply isn't that effacious.
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The harm that pornography does do, Cornell argues, is local: pornography harms us if we can't choose whether to avoid or consume it. A local remedy is thus appropriate: zoning (Cornell 1995: 150). However, Cornell argues, pornography, though zoned, ought to be protected by the First Amendment, "the protection of an imaginary domain [where powerful unconscious fantasies are experienced] for everyone can be read as a crucial value implicated by the First Amendment (Cornell 1995: 154).
The current legal arguments about pornography have mostly focused on visual pornography, and pornographic movie theatres, but are clearly intended to apply also to pornographic bookstores; they have been so used. Much of the contemporary critical literature about pornography also focuses mostly on visual pornography, but books, for example the novels I discuss below, have been banned (and reinstated) in recent years. Samuel Delany's pornographic writings, in Miller v. California (1973)'s terms, are 'prurient', 'offending', and yet 'of literary value'. If our laws permit some censorship of sexual material, writings like Delany's would often be the subject of lawsuits, and would sometimes be banned, sometimes published. Delany's pornographic fiction might, therefore, be a good test case to use, to consider whether Justice Brennan is right, and the First Amendment should apply absolutely, with no sexual censorship. Brennan, in his argument in Paris Adult Theatre 1 v. Slaton, alludes to the foolishness of wasting the Court's time debating ambiguous distinctions based on historically specific, and morally loaded terms. That is also the issue on which Blackmun's disagreement with White and Burger turns in Bowers v. Hardwick. Should the court distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual intimate relations, or should the right to privacy apply to all intimate relations between consenting adults? White and Burger would protect heterosexual relations from state interference but allow States to "invade the houses, hearts, and minds" (Blackmun in Gruen and Panichas 1997: 14) of gays and lesbians. MacKinnon's argument turns on a value judgement, as well. MacKinnon would censor any sexual representation that did not meet her ideal of equality. Here the opposition is not between opposite and same-sex sexuality but between equality as sameness, and difference, with difference seen as subordination, rather than as a range of relations. MacKinnon, that is, construes gender as difference but equality as sameness. Although equality and inequality are abstract, general terms, suitable for the Court to use, sameness and difference are surprisingly difficult to use: loaded terms that engage individuals' contingent values and prejudices.
I will therefore go on to examine, in detail, Samuel Delany's pornographic fiction. Samuel Delany 's writings are mostly 'paraliterature': science: science fiction and fantasy (SF), pornography, like Equinox (1994), Hogg (1995), and The Mad Man (1995a), , critical writings, and autobiography. Even Atlantis (1995b), his recent literary novel, has strong elements of biography and autobiography, distinguished by the sort of epistemological and imaginative puzzle in which Delany is typically interested: what voice can you use, when writing about a parent's life before you were born? Must you transcribe your family's stories and anecdotes or can you, the novelist, re-create what they have forgotten, and what to them was unrepresentable?
Writing, narrative form, and questions of representation are central issues for Delany: perhaps: perhaps his most significant SF work, the Nevrÿon series (1978&endash;87), focuses on the effect of literacy on both consciousness and society (as well as on other kinds of technological, social and political change, from three-legged pots to the rise of capitalism); by doing so it narrativizes and thus teaches both deconstruction and poststructuralist theory 2. The Neverÿon series is also about the end of slavery as an economic and political system, and the persistence of slavery's images, shifted into, and circulating as, the signifiers of desire.
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Literacy and liberation have been linked together in American and especially African American culture since the publication of the Slave Narratives3; in "Atlantis: 1924," the 'modernist' novella which makes up the first work in Atlantis, a passion for education, and for language itself, becomes the defining factor not just for the individual African American family Delany is writing about, but for the particular place and time, New York in 1924. The time is evoked by economical gestures: the: the youth of a character who habitually avoids split infinitives is as startling, and as much a temporal marker, as is the unfamiliarity of black bean soup to this New York family. The hero, Sam, (who is based on Delany's father) has a kind of 'missed encounter' on the Brooklyn Bridge with someone who may be the writer Hart Crane; each misunderstands the other's meaning, and Sam quickly forgets both the encounter and the spectacular view. The Crane-like stranger's musings on aesthetics, and the his view of New York as Atlantis, are the center, though, of Delany's story, and his representation of New York; the question of forgetting becoming the vehicle for an exploration of changing historical and aesthetic form.
If writing, (or -graphy, from Greek graphein, to write), is a topic in Delany's SF and his mainstream fiction, as these two examples show, it is also, more straightforwardly, a topic for his other work. The very names suggest it: pornography, autobiography, critical writing The question of pornography, for Delany, becomes a question of writing: how to write explicitly, clearly, precisely about sex. And also, again fairly typically for this author, Delany's style raises questions of genre.
All three of Delany's pornographic novels, Equinox, Hogg, and The Mad Man, are written to arouse the reader, and well-written. My argument is that the pornographic aspects, and the literary aspects, are one and the same. Delany's pornographic writing shows us that the artistic merit that, under Roth and under Paris Adult Theatre 1 v. Slaton, allows (or did allow, after more than twenty years, in the case of Hogg) such novels to be published,is not, finally, separable from the pornographic merit of the texts. If the reader did not react physically to the reading, the text would not work. If the reader were wholly ignorant of pornography as a genre, the text would make only limited sense. Pornography is a formalistic and repetitive genre, and the transgression that is part of it, while exceeding both social and literary conventions, does so in a way that only serves to emphasize the boundaries it crosses, and the forms it highlights. Offensiveness thus easily becomes a kind of titillation, and social convention and social critique can blur and become imprecise. For a writer as interested in literary form as Delany, the question then becomes: how to be truly offensive without shock degenerating into titillation, and truly erotic without the reader's sexual response becoming jaded. For a lawyer, drawing on Brennan's minority opinion in Paris Adult Theatre 1 v. Slaton, or for a scholar, like me, interested in the constitutional arguments, it becomes possible to argue that the 'literary merit' that Roth and Paris Adult Theatre 1 v. Slaton must judge, in order to decide if works such as Delany's are protected by the First Amendment, does not respect the boundary between literature and obscenity that Roth relies upon. The interpretation of Delany's texts, and, in particular, artistic and legal judgement of those texts, shows that the opposition between protected and unprotected sexual speech is unstable. The opposition is destroyed in any serious application of it. In a sense, the Heideggerian trembling is so strong that the concepts shake themselves apart. In the strongest sense, this is a deconstructive double-affirmation, a move that constructs a new concept by means of the use of oppositions and multiple reversals.
My article focuses mostly on Hogg and The Mad Man, the two of his pornographic novels I personally found distressing, and thought-provoking, as well as sexual. Equinox, in contrast, I think is a gem of its kind; a charming, baroquely written book which is only offensive enough to keep it from becoming boring. As such, there is less that one can say, apart from recommending it to a reader.
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Delany is one of my favorite writers, and yet it took me weeks to read Hogg. I read quickly; the problem was, I found it too upsetting to continue reading for more than a half-hour at a time, or to return to the book until the effect of the last reading had dissipated. The strength of the book's emotional, physical, and psychological impact is due, to a large extent, to the quality of its writing. It evokes, in the reader, an extraordinary range of emotional and physical responses: from sexual arousal, to laughter, to nausea; from empathy, to sorrow, to fear. Hogg is a story about sadomasochistic (s-m) and submissive-dominant (s-d) sex, sexual exploitation, racial fantasies, assault, rape, and serial murder. It is also a strongly erotic pornographic novel. The novel is written in the voice of an eleven year old unnamed white boy; like many child protagonists in American fiction, he plays chess; unlike others, he is gay and homeless. The novel begins with a scene in which the boy describes the young entrepreneur, Pedro, setting up a brothel in the basement of the apartment block in which the boy shelters; Pedro staffs it with his sister, Maria, and the eleven year old boy. He persuades each to work for him in the same words, making the same argument, "We could do a lot of business off that dumb pussy/cocksucker, huh?" (Delany Hogg: 10)4. Delany's point, here, is that the same sentences, the identical situation, can be interpreted differently: the boy gets sexual pleasure from being dominated, but this is not necessarily the case with Maria. The boy is not sure, from Maria's response, what she is feeling, "First I thought she wanted to cover herself, but she kept her fist there as if it felt good. Or maybe it didn't" (Hogg: 9).
Delany has argued that there are very few examples of classic American prose. Classic prose is demotic, based on the vernacular rather than on 'heightened language'; it is precise and clear rather than ambiguous or suggestive. Classic prose, Delany (1995c) argues in the kind of favorable comparison with canonical American literature that paraliterary writers enjoy making, is more common in paraliterature than in canonical American literature, both in terms of consistency across a writer's oeuvre, and consistency within a genre. So, for example, Raymond Chandler's style is consistently demotic, while Mark Twain's was so only in Huckleberry Finn; Sara Paretsky writes 'hard-boiled detective fiction', while classic style in literary writing seems more a matter of individual authors, or individual texts, than broad schools.
Contrasts between demotic styles and heightened, elaborately allusive language are central to paraliterary writings. Thus Delany's Equinox, first published (as Tides of Lust ) in 1973, and thus contemporary with Hogg, mixes a kind of late romantic, decadent language with the more demotic styles emphasized in Hogg:
In keeping with Delany's playfulness in Equinox, even the demotic styles are fictitious; he invents a polyglot vernacular for the style used by the Captain in his narrative:
In Delany's work as a whole it is more accurate to say that there is an 'interplay' or 'tension' between heightened and ordinary styles, than an opposition between them. Thus, in The Mad Man, as in Equinox, the heightened style is presented emerging from and returning to ordinary speech, rather than as opposed to it. The last sentence of the later, The Mad Man is also aestheticized, but the aestheticization is part of the idiom and consciousness of a character one might otherwise expect to use the vernacular:
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It is possible to argue that Hogg's style marks a move away from decadence, and The Mad Man and Atlantis indicate a move away from the poststructuralist, deconstructive Neverÿon series. However, I think it's more useful to look at the commonalities in Delany's work: an interest in language, style, genre, and formal questions, approached differently in different texts.
Hogg, as I remarked at the beginning, is extremely well-written and very distressing. It is narrated from the point-of-view of an eleven year old homeless boy who is befriended by a "rape artist" or rapist-for-hire, Hogg. The eleven year old's voice is used in describing the rapes (though, crucially, not the murders), as well as in describing the consensual sadomasochistic and submissive-dominant sex. Delany's question, as a writer, is how can one represent rape? Is it on a continuum with sadomasochistic and submissive-dominants-m and s-d sex? If so, that would seem to suggest that s-m and s-d are, like rape, and for the same reasons, morally wrong for the same reasons as rapewrong, though perhaps to a lesser degree.. Or are s-m and s-d different, psychologically and morally, from rape? How, if they are different, are weIs it possible for a writer to represent the difference? Is it possible for a writer to narrativize the question: to write in such a way that the readers will ask themselves &endash; without knowing their answer in advance &endash; whether s-m and s-d are like, or different from, rape? As readers, the question becomes, how do we interpret the narrative voice used in Hogg? How are we to judge the boy? How are we to evaluate the other characters? ? How &endash; if at all &endash; are we to suspend judgement? Can we suspend judgement in such a way as to await a new judgement, a Heideggerian trembling, as the tension mounts between concepts (cf. Rose 1992), or deconstructive affirmation, as reversals and displacements produce new concepts (cf. Spivak 1987)?
The nameless boy describes tastes, smells, sights, sounds, proprioception, spatial relations, movement and stasis vividly, accurately, and frequently. References to emotional states are more infrequent, but, when they occur, they are also sensuous descriptions, descriptions of action and physical perception, rather than the labels for internalizations, 'I almost cried' rather than 'I felt sad'. Do we thus interpret the boy as affect-less, perhaps damaged by child-abuse, or deadened by his participation in the scenes of the novel? Or do we note the similarity to Chandler's technique (Philip Marlowe, for example, describes his expression, glimpsed in a mirror, and it is from the description of the expression on the mirrored image that we learn he is angryy), making a judgement about style and literary genealogy, rather than character? Does the pared-down language describe someone without the full range of human emotion, or is the bare language a literary choice, the device Delany has found that enables him to represent what had seemed unrepresentable?
Delany wrote two articles about Hogg in the 1970s, at a time when there seemed little likelihood that the novel would be published, ""The Scorpion Garden" (1989)", written in his own voice, as an author's preface, and "'The Scorpion Garden' Revisited" (1989a), written in the voice of a fictional character, K. Leslie Steiner. ""The Scorpion Garden" is Garden" is strongly influenced by the radical feminism so influential at the time. "The Scorpion Garden" argues that the pornographic novel's characteristic authorial stance is a reaction to the authorial stance and novelistic form of the typical modern novel.
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The modern novel, according to this view, has a 'moral stance', and it depends on an opposition between individual and society which is mapped onto an oppositional view of gender. Women, according to this authorial moral stance, are seen as part of society; men are seen as free, with existential dilemmas that raise moral questions, as well as questions about agency. The author, with his critical (because free, because male) perspective has a duty:
However, Delany argues, this 'moral stance' is based on, and promulgates, a lie. Women are not society.
The pornographic novel (and Delany takes de Sade as the prime example of the pornographic novel) is, therefore, didactic, sometimes making explicit the common moral stance taken by most novels, and sometimes arguing against this stance. Thus, Delany suggests , (arguing against those radical feminists who would defend censorship, as well as arguing against any literary critics who might privilege literature over paraliterature), the pornographic novel is an excellent way to both describe and analyze the moral, sexual and political underpinnings of fiction.
Delany sets up a contrast, in the lemonade-stand brothel scene with which the novel opens, between the boy, who prostitutes himself for a pleasure he finds in self-degradation, and Maria, whose ambiguous reactions introduce the border between pleasure and pain that is the concern of the novel. Maria's puzzling acquiescence is not explained, although it is further developed in an act of incestuous sex she does not clearly either reject or welcome. The boy describes her hands: were they pushing her father away or holding on to him? The contrast here is between the articulation of meaning &endash; finding a voice, making a narrative &endash; and a meaning which can not be articulated. The literary intertextuality is with another controversial scene in an African American novelist's work: the Trueblood episode in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (cf. for example Gates 1984). Like Ellison's incestuous storyteller, Trueblood, the white boy in Delany's novel is a storyteller and an agent; Maria, in contrast to both Trueblood and the boy, merely gestures ambiguously. The abused Honey Pie's one word is "Nothin'", while, like Trueblood, ; Hogg &endash;as his own storyteller, not just the object of the boy's story &endash;, is able to fashion erotic tales from his memories of childhood incest. Although Hogg and the boy's whiteness marks a difference from Trueblood, Hogg, the boy, and Trueblood are each ambiguously abused and abuser, and find more agency in the act of telling, than in the acts they all narrate. Like Trueblood, both the unnamed white boy and Hogg tell tales where they describe themselves acting with curious passivity; Hogg and the boy achieve more agency in the act of telling, and in the creation of meaning, than they did in the reported violent acts.
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This is a story; a pornographic novel. It is writing, not abuse, not murder. The rapes Delany describes are distinguished from the consensual sadomasochistic and submissive-dominant sex by formal means, by the ways that both we, the readers, and they, the characters, construct meaning. In the rapes, the women and boys fight back; in the sex, the men sometimes playfully struggle. The difference is in the meaning given to the actions. Delany's claim, here, is about intentionality. It is not, we might note, an argument for moral relativism. Thus, at the end of "The Scorpion Garden", Delany describes the justifications of a man who purported to distinguish between murder and accidental killing during rape as "psychotic ramblings" (Delany 1989: 13).
As the shocking term "rape artist" suggests, the men, in a horrible new twist to self-fashioning, and to existential commitment, give meaning to their acts, while raping and beating women and children (a girl and a boy). This meaning-creation is premised on treating the women and children as the 'raw material' for their work. And it is work: they are paid for it 5. The women fight back, but their actions are not interpreted as meaningful by the men. In a clear but unemphatic contrast, the boy's perspective, describing the rape scenes and his own participation, is most definitely one that enables him to interpret the women's actions as meaningful. The women are represented, and reacted to, They areinterpreted as 'fighting back' by the boy &endash; which marks the crucial difference between the boy's perspective and the men's perspective. He licks a girl "so it would hurt less"; he observes the women's actions accurately; he, in an action that joins together empathy and abuse, licks a girl to lessen the pain of the rape. (Delany Hogg: 57).
The boy takes part in the rapes as well as the consensual sex; but he does not participate in or directly observe the serial killings. Instead, the boy overhears the radio news-broadcasts of te murders. The radio broadcasts are presented in direct discourse, rather than mediated through the narrator's voice. Thus, consensual sadomasochistic and submissive-dominant sex, rape, and killing are not presented as if on the same continuum. S-m and s-d are represented as distinguishable from rape by intentionality and meaning. Killing is represented as obscene: literally, off-stage, presented in indirect discourse, rather than directly. Again, this is a formal matter: Both distinctions are questions of literary form, issues that have to do with representations, rather than directly with actions in the real world.
The literal, etymologically correct meaning of 'obscenity' can also be useful when considering one of the most upsetting aspects of Hogg: not the violence, but the use of racial epithets. The emphasis, here, in the use of racial epithets, is on the unconscious power of fantasy, rather than on the use of intentionality as a moral criterion. The radical feminism of "The Scorpion Garden" is really rather misleading. The sexual and political unconscious Hogg explores is not just a question of gender. Two of the main characters have names which are racial epithets; the boy (that is, the main narrative voice), and most of the other characters, habitually employ the kinds of terms which I, at least, was taught as a child never to use.
What was most frightening for me, reading Hogg, was the way that these epithets were built up into the broader stereotypes to which they refer (e.g. "Barefoot 'niggers' from Crawhole!" Hogg: 129ff) and the stereotypes then used in the description and evocation of sexual arousal and orgasm. This, I think, is even more disturbing than the way that the sexually arousing scenes are juxtaposed so closely with the rape scenes, or the way that passages in the rape scenes can seem sexual, at the same time as the rape scenes as a whole are frighteningly, sickeningly violent. The characters in these scenes, whether socially marginal or socially authoritative, whether complacent or oppositional, are, as in Delany's writing in general, seen as part of society. Nobody, neither the characters, or the narrator, thinks that he or she is apart from society. The dominant-submissive sexual practices in which the men consensually engage are described in terms of their connections with the structures of domination in society. When they are eroticized, they are eroticized in terms of &endash; not despite &endash; these systems of domination. Hogg says to the boy:
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Hogg talks a lot about eating shit, but there is only one coprophagic scene between Hogg and the boy from which the sentences above are taken. In that scene, Hogg describes how he (and he argues, the boy) likes it, "Real low. Or real close." He means 'emotionally close': Hogg is fond of the boy, and the boy of Hogg. Hogg saved the shit for the boy: the culmination of his perverse stories and the most intimate of his acts. Perverse, that is, in the literal, Freudian sense: the 'positive perversions'; perverts retain, as part of their adult sexuality, the oral and anal "component instincts and erotogenic zones" which neurotics repress 6.
Delany writes, in precise detail, about the pleasures of each partner in each act: in fact, he evokes these perverse pleasures by describing clearly what each partner does in order to be aroused to orgasm. 'Positive perversion' versions of the 'cum shot' of heterosexual mainstream pornography become not an end but a means. In in Hogg and even more in The Mad Man, the salty warmth of smegma, cum, and piss is described far more fully than are the localized genital sensations of orgasm. The 'component instincts' are engaged as Delany writes about all of the tastes, smells, and sensations, his characters experience, as he brings in all of the relevant parts of the body are there: hands, bellies and legs, for example, as well as genitals. The novel is carefully written to arouse: the physical and spatial descriptions are precise, the descriptions of the perversions, and of the polymorphous erotogenic sites are vivid. These scenes are easily visualized, tasted, smelled, kinesthetically and proprioceptively sensed.
This may be perverse but it is not pre-oedipal. It is also, as I argue above, not relativist. Hogg's conclusion focuses on the necessity of boundaries; the characters are reminded that they are adults. Denny, the serial killer, is reminded of the importance of genitalization (the infantile rage and killing doesn't don't give him sexual pleasure, so he should stopcease); the boy accedes to loss, Lack 7, desire, and displacement (life with the garbagemen) rather than infantile satiation and fear of abandonment or death with Hogg. His sex with the garbagemen is just as perverse, but he dreams of Hogg while having sex with the garbagemenm; the objects of desire are a displacement, a response to Lack, not an attempt to return to a state before Lack.
The boy, and Hogg, are fully realized characters, but Denny, in Hogg, is an unconvincing character: his reasons for killing (a rather schematic infantalization) are even more insubstantial than his reasons for stopping killing (an equally sketchy maturity). This character, Denny, is a version of a standard pornographic trope, the multiply orgasmic male, which Delany returns to and reworks in his latest pornographic novel, The Mad Man The multiply orgasmic compulsive masturbator Joey of The Mad Man (and the eponymous Mad Man, often compared in the novel to Joey) are, however, more fully developed characters, and also more plausible. Joey, unlike Denny, is not a killer. He is a vulnerable homeless man. Just as Joey is a more realistic version of Denny, with a more likely lifestory, and more self-awareness (he himself tells the other characters that he was hospitalized and then became homeless, because what else, he asks, could happen to a compulsive masturbator, as the 'multiply orgasmic' pornographic trope becomes in a more realistic text?), the other literary and pornographic tropes expand, seeming to take on a life and mini-narratives of their own, and make The Mad Man both excessive and postmodern.
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The Mad Man is a very long novel, divided into five parts, and an introductory "proem" (prose poem as prefatory matter). Structure is provided by a number of parallels, and by the way that each section has a separate temporal span and distinct themes. All the themes and subplots are resolved at the end, as appropriate to a mystery, which, in a way, the novel is. The hero is a gay African American graduate student, John Marr, writing his dissertation on a murdered gay Korean American philosopher, Timothy Hasler.
The first part, "The Systems of the World" is an academic novel; it gives a better sense of a graduate student's daily life than most such novels, while reshaping the accurate, clever social parody of a Nabokov or Lodge to a gay perspective.
The second part, "The Sleepwalkers" is a tour de force, a 110 page letter in which the narrator, John Marr, creates an extraordinarily moving portrait of the "world" (as he says, an American expression for the cities and such parts of the suburbs as are interested in city center life) of many gay men before AIDS; the increasing fear of AIDS, and the ways of coming to terms with, or of losing, that fear. Delany focuses on life in a few gay bars and movie theaters; as the more community-based reviewers commented, description of Golden Shower Night at the Mineshaft is remarkable; a triumph of the human spirit and indoor plumbing.
In the third part, "Masters of the Day" John Marr's dissertation finally begins to cohere, but he succumbs to graduate-student-itis, and his life begins to imitate the topic of his thesis. Parallel with his increasing knowledge of Hasler's pleasure in smelly feet and excreta, Marr begins a series of sexual encounters with homeless men, starting with Joey.Marr, and his dissertation adviser, first see this as a journey of self-degradation. However, the submissive-dominant aspect to the sex is not just seen symbolically, as part of interracial desire in a racist society, or part of the attraction of a beggar's metaphoric 'dirtiness'. Marr glories in the feel of dirt, the taste of piss, the texture of shit. I have already mentioned Freud's theory of 'the positive perversions' and the 'component instincts' &endash; Delany's characters discuss two other possible explanations for the desire to consume smegma, cum, piss and even shit. It is an intimate gift, a defense against the fear of death.
In parts 4 and 5, the narrator falls in love with his perfect object of desire: Leaky (as in 'Golden Shower') Sowps, the hillbilly who tells erotic tales of the childhood in which he was brought up to do 'by nature' what other tops have to learn. Like in Hogg, the sex is described vividly and accurately. It is also sometimes very funny, in a writerly, language-loving way: so, for example, John Marr's moral condemnation of Leaky Sowps' tale of his childhood is diverted into an argument over who, of his auditors, first responded sexually to the story. Marr assumes these stories fictitious, until the visit, at the end of the novel, to Leaky's family.
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The emphasis on storytelling and on the possible relations of stories to fact is significant. It is possible to argue that Delany &endash; and anyone else who writes with pleasure and nostalgia of the pre-AIDS gay male world &endash; is irresponsible in describing so vividly and affectionately what some might call the 'promiscuity' and 'excessive sexual experimentation' of that time. However, The Mad Man can also be seen as part of a wider project: the use of gay writing and performance as a vehicle for the eroticization of safe sex practices. There is anecdotal evidence, but although there are few scientific studies, that water sports and the other play with and consumption of excreta Delany describes, are, like oral sex, relatively safe sex. Delany prints a copy of the Lancet article on oral sex as an appendix to the novel and calls, in the introduction, (the "Disclaimer") for further, more detailed studies. He argues, in the "Disclaimer," that The Mad Man is a work of fiction: not a description of actual places and actual relations between real people but a "pornotopic fantasy". Topos is the Greek word for place, used in, for example, the Bakhtinian term, "chronotope": the characteristic time and place in which particular types of fictional event occur. For example, "the street," according to Bakhtin, is the chronotope which enables fiction about the encounters between people of different classes. As a pornotopic fantasy, The Mad Man describes the fictional (and fictionalizes the historical) institutions and places in which different kinds of encounter, and different relations between persons, took place. Delany, focuses on the ways in which these encounters can create a kind of pornotopia, that is, a sexual community, and perhaps, in this way, an ideal community. It Delany describes the community by describing the sex. Thus, sexual writing &endash; as process, as well as as commodity that one might buy and read &endash; creates community, as well as cathecting and recathecting sexual desire.
In parts 4 and 5, the separate themes of the novel come together in two scenes in which John Marr's life parallels Timothy Hasler's: a dominant-submissive orgy which leaves John's apartment as filthy as Hasler's was after his death, and Joey's murder at the same hustler's bar in which Hasler was killed. (Delany is critical of professionalized commercial sex, though not, in other novels, of more opportunistic prostitution). John Marr is unable to realize, until Joey's death, that Hasler, like Joey, was killed by the collision of the same "Systems of the World" which Marr had thought, naively, his dissertation could analyze. In one of the many narrative and metafictive parallels that structure the long novel, the fictitious Hasler's contribution to philosophy is the recognition that systemicity depends on messiness. The correspondence of John Marr and Timothy Hasler's stories is, in each story, a result of the inability of systems theory to bridge the incommensurability of world views. Thus the narrative, Marr's orgy and Joey's death, are a result of the plot, that is, of Marr's attempt to figure out Hasler's death. Marr's orgy, Joey's death, and Hasler's death are all 'messy', and all due to the very incommensurability that Hasler's theory systemizes but fails to bridge.
In many ways, Hogg is a better book than The Mad Man The narrative voice of Hogg is a beautiful creation. It's a pity Girodias didn't publish it Hogg (he expressed interest in it); that would have made a good anecdote, since the book's literary quality makes it eminently defensible under conventional obscenity law. The MacKinnon/Dworkin Minneapolis Ordinance (overturned in American Booksellers Association, Inc vs Hudnut 1985, though MacKinnon and Dworkin's legislation influenced the new Canadian Constitution) would ban Hogg; a good argument for retaining the traditional law, with all its flaws. The Mad Man's parallelism, the disparate themes all tied up at the end; in some ways, these make the novel less satisfying than Hogg What is most enjoyable and thought-provoking is The Mad Man's messiness: both the pleasure of a very, very long book and of imagining yourself getting very, very dirty. As well as appealing to childhood greed and the pleasures of infancy, it also has intellectual pleasures; and, as a pornographic novel, it is didactic.
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The Mad Man has a moral message; the pornotopic fantasy both eroticizes what are most likely safe sex practices and builds a sense of citizenship, of membership in a community. Drusilla Cornell's (1995) critique and reformulation of MacKinnon's argument, though explicitly restricted to heterosexual pornography, and to visual texts, makes similar points, insisting on the importance of citizenship and of non-reductive, complex character portrayal. However, Cornell argues that some legal restrictions on pornography are justifiable. Her argument, in the end, distinguishes between good and bad pornography on ethical and political grounds. However, if all pornography is didactic, the proliferation of pornography, and about cases about pornography as Justice Brennan argues, has to do with our disagreements about these ethical and political grounds. As Justice Blackmur argues, we must not confuse any personal reaction to the knowledge that others are different with a disinterested claim about the State's interest. The First Amendment guarantee of Free Speech guarantees all speech, not just speech one likes or agrees with. The Mad Man's message is that pornographic writing works because it appeals to the unconscious. The shame or disgust some readers might feel at The Mad Man's precise, sensuous descriptions of cocksucking, piss drinking, shit eating, or peeing on someone like a dog is are as much a sign of the working of the unconscious as is a less repressed, perverse sexual response.
Reading works like Equinox, Hogg, and The Mad Man, shows us how incoherent is the attempt to restrict the first amendment arguments, under the American constitution, to the more 'artistic' pornography. Free-speech, as Brennan argues, should justify all publication, not just some. In addition, which Brennan did not consider, the most complex 'artistic' examples can only be fully appreciated and interpreted by reference to other, more conventional pornographic works. The most conventional are also, in many ways, weaker and less shocking, as well as less positively moving, than the most unconventional. Partial censorship seems to lead to a contradictory situtation, where pornography that meshes with social convention and the structures of domination in society is banned but the ban often minimally enforced, and sexually explicit material that seems socially or even literarily unconventional is banned, debated, and then often praised.
The proliferation of disagreements about ethical and political values makes controversial work even more significant, and even more able to illuminate social contradictions and moral dilemmas. A true dilemma must be represented and analyzed, not ignored. Censorship of pornography &endash; any pornography, of literary merit or not, controversial or bland &endash; is wrong. Any attempt to limit the First Amendment, to make it apply to some but not all sexual speech, leads to a proliferation of litigation. The judgement of each case depends on social and literary value judgements. These necessarily change over time, and so the trail of precedent meanders, following historical contingencies. Perhaps, in a more liberal moment, an argument like Brennan's might prevail, and the incoherent opposition between protected and unprotected sexual speech might be abandoned. However, this is unlikely. More communitarian Constitutions, such as the new Canadian Constitution, (where MacKinnon's influence was substantial), make it easier to ban works such as Delany's. The Mad Man and Hogg were, indeed, seized by Canadian Customs, and the court's time was taken up in deciding whether, in the end to let the books into the country. The Mad Man is available in Britain, Canada, and the United States in bookstores, but Hogg is not available in general bookstores, only directly from the publisher, and it is delivered in a sealed envelope, marked "not for sale to minors."
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American Booksellers Association, Inc v. Hudnut (1985), U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, 771 F.2d. 323
Berlin, Isiaah (1968): Four Essays On Liberty. Oxford.
Bowers v. Hardwick (1986): 478 U.S. 186.
Butler, Judith (1997): Excitable Acts New York.
Carby, Hazel (1996): "Ideologies of Black Folk: The Historical Novel of Slavery", in: Carby Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America, New York.
Cornell, Drusilla (1995): The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography and Sexual Harassment New York.
Davis, Charles and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ed. (1995): The Slave's Narrative. Oxford
Delany, Samuel R. (1978), Tales of Neveryon, New York.
Delany, Samuel R. (1983), Neveryona, New York.
Delany, Samuel R. (1985), Flight from Neveryon, New York.
Delany, Samuel R. (1987), The Bridge of Lost Desire (Return to Neveryon), New York.
Delany, Samuel R. (1989): "The Scorpion Garden", in: Samuel Delany, The Straits of Messina, Seattle, 1&endash;16.
Delany, Samuel R. (1989a): " 'The Scorpion Garden' Revisited" by Leslie Steiner, in: Samuel Delany, The Straits of Messina, Seattle, 17&endash;32.
Delany, Samuel R. (1994), Equinox, New York.
Delany, Samuel R. (1994, first printing 1995, date not changed), Hogg, Boulder and Normal.
Delany, Samuel R. (1995a), The Mad Man, New York.
Delany, Samuel R. (1995b), Atlantis, 1995.
Delany, Samuel R. (1995c): "Interview for Para-Doxa", SRD's manuscript.
Freud, Sigmund (1905 1953), Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Harmonsworth
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., Ed (1984): Black Literature and Literary Theory, New York.
Griswold v. Connecticut (1965): 381 U.S. 479.
Gruen, Lori and George Panichas (1997): Sex, Morality and the Law. New York.
MacKinnon, Catherine (1979): Sexual Harassment of Working Women New Haven.
MacKinnon, Catherine (1989): Toward a Feminist Theory of the State Cambridge Mass.
MacKinnon, Catherine (1993): Only Words Cambridge Mass.
Miller v. California (1973): 413 U.S. 15.
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Paris Adult Theatre 1.v. Slaton (1973): 413 U.S. 49.
R.A.V. v. St Paul (1992): 112 S. Ct. at 2550, 120 L. Ed 2d at 326.
Rose, Gillian (1992): The Broken Middle, Oxford.
Roth v. United States (1957): 354 U.S. 476.
Spivak, Gayatri (1987): In Other Worlds, London and New York.
State v. Chaplinsky (N.H. 1941): 18 A.2d 754, 762.
1 No date given in Griswold's text.
2 For a full discussion of Delany's SF and my approach to SF criticism, see Chapter 2, "To leave a world at dawn", writing, reading, and traveling: Samuel Delany's displacements, of my forthcoming Social and Virtual Space: transnationalism and the new social movements
4 As it it important for my argument that the reader be clear which of Delany's pornographic novels is which, and which was published when, references in the text will be given by title rather than by date. Hogg was banned until 1994; Equinox was sucessfully published in 1973, but under the title Tides of Lust. Quotations from Equinox are from the current newly dated edition.
5 This trope may well be a reference to the debates, at the time and after, between socialist feminists and radical feminists concerning the articulation of gender and class. Would, as the radical feminists suggest, gender subsume class, and 'patriarchy' be the master narrative, or could class, as some marxists suggested, subsume gender, or could, as socialist feminists were beginning to argue, class and gender be theorized as separate, interacting, discourses and practices?
6 See Freud (1905, 1953), where he argues that there are a great number of ways in which people's sexuality differs. He classifies these differences according to whether the sexual object or the sexual aim differs. Perversions can be differences of sexual object (same sex, rather than opposite sex0, or differences of sexual aim (an act other than penile-vaginal sex). Freud uses the term perversion non-judgementally: he notes that these are differences, but does not express a moral (eg a homophobic) opinion. Some of the perversions, especially those Delany writes about, draw on the component instincts, that is the non-genitalised desires, which a neurotic would suppress or subsume within genital desire. Delany's characters tend to eroticize the erotic zones that the component instincts pertain to: they put a lot of substances and body parts in their mouths. Freud comments that perversions, if obsessive, can be psychotic, but perverts in general are not crazy, in fact,many seem remarkably free of neurosis, and are generally happy. Neurotics repress what perverts act out, so many neurotics are quite crazy, and unhappy, even if their neuroses are just neurotic, not psychotic.
7 Lack is a Lacanian term. An infant has no boundaries between self and other, that is, it can't tell where it ends and its mother begins. When self-awareness begins, the infant becomes aware not just of its self, but of its lack of the other. That is Lack. Lack thus refers back to the imagined unity with the mother. For Lacan, nothing really makes much sense before language, so the next and most crucial step in Lack is to do with learning to speak and going through the Oedipus complex; these two processes are bound together inextricably, for Lacan. Lack is thus sexualized, and bound up with conceptualization and symbolization. We fall in love (time and again: never just once, for Lacan) and we become reasonable, not insatiable, as we accede to Lack.