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A project over ten years in the making, Orgasmology is Annamarie Jagose’s attempt to give “the orgasm” an extended temporality—at least in queer theory. Jagose, who is one third of the phenomenal Aussie queer-philosophical triumvirate that also includes Rosi Braidotti and Elizabeth Grosz, is most well known for her Queer Theory: An Introduction and Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence, as well as for her recent seven years at the editorial helm of GLQ (Gay and Lesbian Quarterly). Her latest project is a continuation of her study of how to separate sex from sexuality; her focus on the orgasm is born from her observation that this idealized thing—this teleological conclusion to the narrative of a sexual encounter—has been accorded little critical thought in queer studies.
It’s a bit mind-boggling to think that the orgasm has never occupied the very center of queer thinking—it’s so slippery, so evasive, you’d think scholars would be chomping at the bit to make it their career’s piece de resistance—post tenure, of course. But as a philosophical “concept” a la Deleuze, the orgasm is really the perfect “thing”: it lacks materiality; it is observable only as an effect (fantastically explicated by Jagose in chapter 4); and it lacks a temporal permanence or duration beyond the moment. Or, to quote Jagose quoting Kinsey, “Few persons realize how they behave at and immediately after orgasm, and they are quite incapable of describing their experiences in any informative way.”
Orgasm’s lack of materiality or temporality, its lack of “thingness,” is a double-edged sword. For all of its philosophical potential there’s also the methodological difficultly of a sustained, coherent project—i.e., of finding things to say about the orgasm for nearly 300 pages. Jagose delimits her study to the “long 20th century,” which she outlines in chapter 1 (watch her lecture from this chapter here). As she explains with the helpful-and-hilarious use of marriage manuals from the early 20th century, the orgasm gained cultural currency at this time, whereby it was established as the romantic and sexual ideal of the heteronormative marriage narrative. The difficulty of producing a coherent project is most apparent in chapters 2 and 3, when Jagose focuses on studies of heternormative sexualities which feature orgasm, and particularly simultaneous orgasm, as the desired or teleological end of a sexual encounter. Her argument, utilizing sexology and behavioral studies of the late 19th and 20th centuries, in these chapters is that modernity has created an idea of sex, and of orgasm, to fit the idealized notion of heterosexual marriage.
The most “substantive” chapters on the orgasm occur later in the book. Chapter 4, “Face Off,” presents a study of the difference in registering orgasm between the sexes; for men, orgasm is apparent in its effect (ejaculation), while for women there is nothing comparable, rendering it impossible to locate both the moment and the matter of the female orgasm. Using the logic that the “thingness” of an orgasm is, to some extent, tantamount to its visibility—and through a reading of Hedy Lamarr’s performance in Ekstase and Andy Warhol’s Blowjob, juxtaposed with the work of Masters & Johnson—Jagose explains how the invisibility of the female orgasm has been portrayed in cinema:
While the face has long been the privileged locus for orgasm’s visual representation in photographic and moving-image archives, this has often been considered the effect of practical consideration about what can be made visible…. According to this logic, the facialization of orgasm works via a substitutive or compensatory logic that counterweights the face to the genitals.
The logic that “counterweights the face to the genitals,” not only has been reinforced throughout the history of cinema but it also reveals the extent to which Freudian psychoanalysis (the “medusa,” anyone?) still resonates in culture, and specifically of artistic creations about sex and sexuality.
The indecipherability of the female orgasm proves a viable entry into Jagose’s fifth and final chapter on the fake orgasm, smartly entitled “Counterfeit Pleasures.” Through a Foucaultian-inspired genealogy of the fake orgasm, which is also, Jagose notes, a 20th century invention, and given further conceptual shape through the savvy appropriation of the work of Leo Bersani, Lauren Berlant, and Heather Love, Jagose contemplates the politics of the orgasm when it, in fact, lacks political efficacy: “to rethink the political less in terms of efficacious actions or exercises of intentionalist agency than as a mode of experiencing without necessarily changing the world, as an affective engagement indiscernible within models that take real-world traction as politics’ true measure.” In other words, the “fake orgasm” is a bodily form of Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” whereby the “very vitalizing or animating potency of an object/scene of desire contributes to the attrition of the very thriving that is supposed to be made possible in the work of the attachment in the first place.”
But while thinking too hard about achieving orgasm in the bedroom (…or kitchen…or office…or elsewhere) may foreclose its possibility, Jagose shows the opposite effect occurs in critical inquiry.
By Annamarie Jagose
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822353911, 280 pp.