We might need to talk about bodies, and body parts, in much more direct, precise, perhaps even crude ways.[i]
Against Sanonormativity, and/or See Jane Run
Stanley Cavell asks that we “learn to maintain our disgust more easily than we learn to maintain what disgusts us”.[ii] In this essay, I launch a full-frontal (or rather dorsal) attack on the general squeamishness, as well as a desire for hygienicization within contemporary queer and feminist thinking (what we might call a sanonormativity and hyiegenonormativity, respectively). Contemporary queer and feminist thinking has little to say about (sexual) disgust, the erotics of bodily fluids, or the ontologically leaky body.[iii] In addition, one could mine philosophical texts, literature, and film for a whole range of fluids, such as blood, sweat, pus, mucous, semen, milk, tears, vomit, diarrhea, saliva, bile, spinal fluid and urine, among other suppurations, which unsuture the neatly “stoppered up” body, and, therefore, the metaphorical “bodies of knowledge” that instantiate queer and feminist theories. My overall argument,[iv] which is pitched against the domestication of queer thought, is that critical consideration of the above listed bodily fluids might potentialize new ways of thinking about corporeality, ontology, aesthetics and politics… and that, as Derrida would argue, the worst is yet to-come. And that is a good thing.
In the magazine N+1, the critic Justin E. H. Smith wrote of Charlotte Roche’s 2008 novel Wetlands:[v]
If Roche has hit on something true and heretofore unsaid, it is the insight that to write about bodily fluids is not to describe something exceptional in the course of human life. It is, rather, to describe something that is always there and always felt to be there, through all those other things people do and experience at that level that used to be the subject of novels (falling in love, challenging others to duels, talking about the buying and selling of land, etc.).”[vi]
As we ponder the legacies of feminism and queer theory, and also their ongoing possibilities for generating fluid futures (that one might want to hold on to…), I want to ask what kind of reading practice Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands invites from us. As such, I’d like to explore how Wetlands makes space for one, possible mode of reading: galloping, a kind of close reading that mimes the propulsive and undoubtedly queasy movement of a body that is thinking and moving and unsettled. This jolting movement is operative within the narrative of Wetlands: it “turns out your butthole is always in motion” muses Helen Memel, the protagonist of this novel, whose re-mappings of bio-cartography and the (dis)gustatory effectively set the stage for a revisiting of the politics and ontology of the body.
Galloping as reading means a fluid kind of thinking and writing, a scatogrammatology.
Helen’s Freudian Body
One theoretical backdrop to my reading of Wetlands is Eve K. Sedgwick’s writing on anal eroticism, which in large measure put an end to the critical silence about female anal eroticism in academic discourse. Despite the fact that Sedgwick’s most famous essays on anality focus on men (or consider texts by men, Henry James most memorably), in her essay “A Poem is Being Written” she confronts her own anal auto-eroticism opening up an avenue for thinking and talking about female anal jouissance.[vii] Yet, despite this attention to female anal autoerotic pleasures, its focus is almost always on the ass as indicatively male. As such Sedgwick is contributing to the, as she phrases it, “prior and entire exclusion of women from the general population of desirers, desirees, anus-possessors and even readers.”[viii]
In a posthumously published essay, “Anality: News from the Front,” Sedgwick reconsiders how recent writing on male anality and barebacking sex covers over female anality and the pleasures and dangers it brings. It seems, then, that the female anus can only be discussed on the back of the male one (I am trying to be generous here; Sedgwick admits that she doesn’t mind, and in fact some of her favorite related scenes don’t include women…).
Another text, which forms an important backdrop for my reading of Wetlands, is Judith Butler’s “The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary.” Therein, the phallus, specifically the Lacanian phallus-as-transcendental signifier, can index any part of the body.[ix] The body is thus recast as a series of erogenous nodes and zones, in order to rethink what is sexual and what is erotic. Helen’s body in Wetlands, which leaks and spurts from every possible pore and orifice, does precisely that.
In this regard, it also constructive to consider the psychoanalytical theory of Sigmund Freud, whose Three Essays on Sexuality (c. 1905) paved the way for Jacques Lacan’s theorization of “the Real,” and its concomitant destabilization eroto- /socio-sexual categories.[x] What is clear from Freud’s Essays is that normative heterosexuality in effect derails normal sexuality’s constitutive perversion, whereby a desired shift toward reproductive heterosexuality is only bought about by the overcoming, sublimating or ejecting of polymorphous perversity. In Wetlands, Helen retains this polymorphousness, and perversion is made primary.
Galloping along too quickly we can say, then, that Lacan’s category of “the Real,” a designation of that which is stubbornly in-assimilable, un-incorporateable, in-appropriable or un-symbolizable, reveals how the unsettling, center-most aspect of sex is its inherent perversion. Which is to say that normative heterosexuality is already fissured, cut, incised from within, and that its desired objects do not cling to either a person or a thing: that which is desired is itself appropriative and duplicitous.
Promiscuously adheres to heterogeneous possibilities for desire; this does not always, as Sedgwick would be quick to point out, cleave with gender (or according to genitalia). Among her axioms in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), we have:
Some people, homo-, hetero-, and bisexual, experience their sexuality as deeply embedded in a matrix of gender meanings and gender differentials. Others of each sexuality do not.[xi]
And, for the Wetlands character Helen, the object of her desire can just as easily be a showerhead or eyelash curling tongs as it might be another person. Freud’s Three Essays address this excess (which Lacan will later call the objet a in terms of polymorphous perversity) a capaciousness which emphasizes anyone’s capacity to confer auto-erotic pleasure, on any number of bodily openings, as well as corporeal apertures, surfaces, scenes and/or activities. Lacan addresses this topic as follows:
[T]he very delimitation of the “erogenous zone” that the drive isolates from the metabolism of the function […] is the result of a cut expressed in the anatomical mark of a margin or border—lips, “the enclosure of the teeth,” the rim of the anus, the tip of the penis, the vagina, the slit formed by the eyelids, even the horn-shaped aperture of the ear […] Observe that this mark of the cut is no less obviously present in the object described by analytic theory: the mamilla, the feces, the phallus (imaginary object), the urinary flow (an unthinkable list, if one adds, as I do, the phoneme, the gaze, the voice—the nothing).[xii]
Referring to the passage above, we might say that Lacan is describing Helen’s body as multiple erogenous fields. Wetlands begins, of course, with a cut, the shaving accident, which slices through Helen’s hemorrhoid. The cut is redoubled by that of a doctor, who fillets open her anus when removing the infected anal tissue. But the cuts in and on Helen’s body go far beyond this originary set, to include her eyelids and lashes, her ears, her fingertips, her vagina, her anus, her tear ducts, her nasal cavity—her every pore, really. Helen also endows erotic plenitude on that which is expelled or excorporated from the body: her piss, tears, feces, menstrual blood, shit, boogers, blackheads and so on.
What Helen makes explicit is how erogenous zones come into being when sexuality is severed from its organic referents, and how “the cut” can engender moments of autoeroticism (actually there isn’t very much sex in the novel of Wetlands; the vast proportion of sexual scenes are autoerotic ones that usually they involve bodily borders and apertures that one wouldn’t usually consider erogenous). For Freud and Lacan (and clearly for Helen) these “marks of the cut,” (bodily openings where inside and outside meet) occur all across the body. Sexual desire originates in auto-eroticism then, but more crucially, it is often not attached to (or is detachable from) the genital organs. But Helen’s eyes, ears, nose remain no less erogenous for not being erogenous, because what Wetlands author Roche shows us is that non-genital parts of the body can behave exactly like genital organs.
Uncoupling genitalia and the erogenous (as well as genitalia and organic purpose) can reveal metonymical slippages between gender and sexuality. Lacan follows Freud in deprivileging genitalia and suggests that the mouth is a model for all other erogenous zones.[xiii] Lacan suggests that, at least from a psychoanalytic point of view, the body is essentially covered in mouths. We can extrapolate from this that any bodily opening where inside meets outside can become an extension of any other bodily opening, endlessly.
In understanding kissing as perverse, it is Freud who suggests that the anal zone is comparable to the mouth since the tongue leads to the gullet down to the alimentary canal and ultimately to the organ of expulsion. We are, for Freud, when we kiss, eating the other’s shit, their waste.
Helen’s anal body displays a number of assholes, in that every opening figures an anal “cut,” at its surface. In his Three Essays, Freud outlines how shit as objet a unhooks the phallus-as-transcendental signifier:
[T]he contents of the bowels, which act as a stimulating mass upon a sexually sensitive portion of mucous membrane, behave like forerunners of another organ, which is destined to come into action after the phase of childhood […] the retention of the fecal mass is thus carried out intentionally by the child to begin with, in order to serve, as it were, as a masturbatory stimulus upon the anal zone.[xiv]
The phallus in this Freudo-Lacanian scenography gets displaced and comes to figure for and as shit. In Wetlands, Helen devotes a great deal of time and effort to holding her crap in or retaining blood or cum. This is hardly surprising given the anatomical proximity of the genital regions. In these terms, one might think of Helen’s daydream about the guy who has an impressive “log of crap” dangling from his ass (but when he turns around it is his cock from the front; or maybe it is both). But, most queasy making I think, is that Freud and Lacan perform what Tim Dean terms a reverse money shot.[xv] It is not the phallus as a figure for the penis, after all, but rather within Helen the phallus is reconfigured as shit et al. Helen’s neologism “anal piss” captures this reversal quite beautifully.
Queer Theory’s ( ) hole complex
Reza Negarestani’s theory-fiction Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008) decenters the Heideggerian topology of the earth by developing what the author calls the ( ) hole complex. The ( ) hole complex is a way to grasp the Earth as a “destituted whole” and a “holey-mess”. The ( ) hole complex is “the zone through which the Outside gradually but persistently emerges, creeps in (or out?) from the Inside”.[xvi] When the solidity of the Earth is inverted by the insurgency of lubrication (here, petrochemical), the holes that emerge are political: “for every inconsistency on the surface, there is a subterranean consistency,”[xvii] a confusion of solid and void.
What I want to call Queer Theory’s ( ) hole complex would be an un-grounding, de-solidifying, de-privileging and destabilization of the intact, body. To reveal the ( ) hole complex of the body is to expose the ontology of a body which is porous, soggy, fluid, and frequently craps out. Negarestani writes: “things leak out according to a logic that does not belong to us.”[xviii] That leaking is the same as the Heideggerian logic of durchfall, which in Being and Time (1927) is defined as falling or diarrhea. Negarestani’s ( ) hole complex depends on what he calls “nested interiorities,” the ways in which the outside gradually but persistently emerges from the inside or creeps in from the inside. I think we can find an example of this queered ( ) hole complex in Dean’s formulation of what he calls the “reverse money shot.”
Aversions towards disgust and anxiety regarding the scatontological is ubiquitous in philosophical discourse. For example, a profound scatontological anxiety which, haunts Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, a trope also paralleled in the philosopher’s refusal to accord Dasein a gender, sexuality, or body. Heidegger is unable to stomach bodily functions, especially the production of the anus, and its abjectified marks.
Heidegger’s reluctance to give Dasein a materiality has repercussions for a queer thinking about the body and its excorporations. In “The Philosophy of Excrement,” (Vice, 2011) essayist-editor Michelle Ong gets real about the ass and theory’s abject coils:
I took a shit in the woods for the first time last weekend while tripping on four hits of acid. As the steaming pile of excrement eased out of my yawning butt cheeks, thoughts of God, mankind, and the universe crackled through the synapses of my electrified neurons. It struck me that while everyone is guilty of contemplating their navels, especially on psychedelics, the field of Shit Studies needs some good probing. Phenomenologically speaking, is there an ontological différance between excreta and feces? What are the linguistic ramifications of the protean spellings of the word “diarrhea”? The more I dwelled on the scatological subject—which was now quickly coiling into an Other with the vraisemblance of Being—the more I became aware of the need to cast off antediluvian prejudice and fully embrace the powers of ordure.[xix]
References to Heidegger and Derrida will not be lost on the reader. As Richard Kearney points out in Anatheism (2010) however, “the fact remains that Heideggerian Dasein has no real sense of a living body: Heidegger’s decarnalized Dasein does not eat, sleep or have sex. It too remains, despite all the talk of ‘being-in-the-world’, captive of the transcendental lure.”[xx] Heidegger’s Dasein doesn’t even take a shit in the woods, and Kearney asserts that what is needed to counter Heidegger’s constipated ontology is a “fully fledged phenomenology of flesh,” the body as “flesh itself in all its ontological depth” a return to the body “in its unfathomable thisness.”In other words, what is needed is a re-corporealizing or re-enfleshing of ontology, a reverse money shot in which the body is fecalized.
Helen’s Lacanian body
As Lee Edelman has recently argued in “White Skin, Dark Meat: Identity’s Pressure Point,” the Oedipal ruse depends on us not acknowledging the substitutability or reversibility of genital zones that mentioned above:
[F]or the anal zone, unique among areas eroticized in the various stages that chart libidinal “development,” does not just pass from early pre-eminence to later subordination, it also undergoes a demonization within a heterosexually-inflected Symbolic that subjects the history of its libidinal cathexis to a revisionary repression. It not only loses legitimacy, that is, as a site for the production of desire, it also comes to define the space of what is viscerally undesirable, the space that produces our primary cultural referent for disgust.[xxi]
Anatomical confusion between front and back carries with it the stain or taint of what Jonathan Dollimore calls “sexual disgust.”[xxii] To recoil in the face of sexual disgust and anatomic indeterminacy leads to an insistent Oedipalization which place a cordon sanitaire around messes emergent from distinguishing the anal from the genital. Again, I quote Edelman at length:
as a result, the insistently Oedipal—or better, the insistently Oedipalizing—focus on castration as the law that secures the truth of a “clear-cut” genital difference reiterates and displaces the determining, because culturally performative, insistence on another distinction represented as being—which is also to say, represented so as to be—clear-cut: that posited between anal and genital to elaborate our governing cultural fantasy of a urethra-genital processable, through the unfailingly redemptive agency of hetero-genital desire, to wash away, as if with a stream of antiseptic astringency, the primal taint of dirt and disgust with which, and as which, the law’s prohibition first darkens our youthful doorway—or at any rate, with which it manages to darken the doorway in the back.[xxiii]
Might we read the filleting of Helen’s anus by the doctor as precisely the Symbolic law, carving the female body into shape using an Oedipal cleaver?
That which ought to be phobically repudiated stubbornly returns as an anamorphic blot or shitty stain on the landscape of the “foundational” law, but the same Law is everywhere insistent on the effacement of the disgusting and its contaminations. As Dean says “excrement remains an extraordinarily difficult topic for sustained discourse […] even Freud, whose broad-mindedness still retains the capacity to astonish, deems perversion most unequivocally pathological when it involves sexual contact with shit.”[xxiv] Pop-philosopher Slavoj Žižek elaborates on this anxiety towards our excrement in his book The Puppet and The Dwarf (2003), as well as in On Belief (2001), where he writes:
The immediate appearance of the inner is formless shit. The small child who gives his shit as a present is in a way giving the immediate equivalent of his inner self. The often-overlooked point is that this piece of myself offered to the Other radically oscillates between the sublime and—not the Ridiculous, but, precisely—the excremental[…] We are ashamed of shit because, in it, we expose/externalize our innermost intimacy.”[xxv]
Shit is the paradigmatic Lacanian object a. Lacan writes,
It is important to grasp how the organism is taken up in the dialectic of the subject. The organ of what is incorporeal in the sexuated being is that part of the organism the subject places when his separation occurs […] in this way, the object he naturally loses, excrement, and the props he finds in the Other’s desire—the Other’s gaze or voice—come to this place.”[xxvi]
Here Lacan’s model for subjective loss is feces, an un-gendered, abject object. In Beyond Sexuality (2000), Tim Dean muses:
[W]hether or not we’re all missing the phallus, certainly we’ve all lost objects from the anus. And, while we may not be certain that nobody has the phallus, we can be sure everybody has an anus. Castration isn’t Lacan’s only rubric for loss […] To transpose Freudian into Lacanian terms, we can say that by using feces as both a sexual stimulus and a means of communication the child’s relation to shit involves l’objet petit a and le grand Autre—that is, anality entails both ‘big’ and ‘little’ others, the different modes of alterity that constitute the subject and his or her desire. [The phallus] is less a figure for the penis than more fundamentally a figure for the turd.[xxvii]
Helen’s messy body in Wetlands swerves away from the insistently Oedipalizing prohibitions of the Symbolic, and toward the Lacanian domain of “the Real.” Her destabilizations of the body as a whole exposes the leaky ontology of a body which is categorically porous, permeable, and fluid. In Beyond Sexuality, Dean tries to anatomize our innermost intimacies with shit and claims there that, in its most fundamental formulations, psychoanalysis is a queer theory image for the erogenous zones that could be reformulated to suggest that the body exhibits “a number of assholes at its surface.”
In Unlimited Intimacy (2009), Dean reveals the logic of a body that craps out without scatontological anxieties about abjection or besmirchment. For context: in recent hardcore straight and gay porn the fascination with the hypervisibility of male ejaculate has been replaced by the hyper-visibility of that part of the body over which we have no ocular control and which evades sexual and gendered differentiation: the anus.[xxviii] As Dean explains:
[O]ne visual fetish of recent straight hard core consists in filming what are known as “dilations:” after a prolonged bout of butt fucking, the woman’s rectal sphincter does not immediately contract when the male performers penis is withdrawn, and the camera zooms in for a close up of her gaping anus, in a style very similar to the close-ups of freshly fucked or fisted asses in bareback porn.[xxix]
This forensic analysis tries to get as far inside “hard core’s latest attempt at representing what remains unrepresentable in sexual difference (what Lacanians call the Real of sexual difference)” as might be possible.[xxx] The recent straight (hetero-) pornographic phenomenon of “cum snorting” is interesting insofar as cum is snorted up into the un-gendered, undifferentiated nasal cavity (which is always open) from the undifferentiated, un-gendered anuses of male or female (sometimes both) porn stars.
The phenomenon which I called earlier queer theory’s hole ( ) complex, and its hypervisualization of the (mostly female porn star’s) dilating sphincter has, naturally enough, led to fascination with what the camera/penis cannot normally see: the internal cum shot. The internal cum shot is something which, we might argue, is slightly less anxiety-inducing for the male, although the “compromise shot” Dean talks about would suggest it is no less so. Negarestani might call it a “nested cum shot” where the outside creeps in (or out) to the inside.[xxxi] What Roche gives us, more so than the cream pie (the internal cumshot—and I’m imagining cum here as metonymical, figuring anything which is emitted from the body’s orifices; in the novel it is “ass piss”, blood, menses, water) is what Dean formulates as the “reverse money shot.” He explains:
[A]lthough representations of ass fucking have become virtually de rigeur in heterosexual as well as gay hard core and although dilations of the anal sphincter appear across the board, viewers are accustomed to seeing their butt sex headed, as it were, in only one direction.”[xxxii]
In any acts which cluster around the anus/rectum/sphincter, then, we witness a certain hygienicization:
[A]s dirty and nasty as it gets in one sense, pornographic images of anal sex are expected to remain meticulously clean in another sense. The market for scat is small indeed. Seeing any bodily product coming out of an anus tends to provoke a visceral reaction of disgust in most adults, irrespective of sexual orientation.[xxxiii]
All male and female porn stars receive an enema before shooting an anal scene because the spectacle of the body leaking out, of the messy anus, leads to a high “ick factor” which many responses to Wetlands attest to. As Dean admits:
[T]he spectacle of the reverse money shot takes some getting used to: various sensations have to be overcome before one can find such an image unequivocally erotic [this was certainly my own experience of watching cum snorting for the first time]. Fluids that trace the pathway of shit as they leave the body almost inevitably recall our earliest taboos about what’s sexually enjoyable.[xxxiv]
While in many of the scenes in bareback pornography of “reverse money shots,” cum pushed out of the anus is d designed to be witnessed by other participants in the scene and by the putative audience for the film, an interview entitled “Max Holden and his Dildos,” which Dean discusses in Unlimited Intimacy, dramatizes an auto-erotic spectacle with striking similarities to Helen autoerotic pleasures with her “brown water” in Wetlands. Often, Holden holds semen inside him from the night before. He shares, “[i]f I go out and get fucked I have cum, loads, inside me, I save it inside me, and then the next day I squat it out into a bowl, and then I’m playing with my toys and I eat it.”[xxxv] Just like Helen consuming the flesh removed from her anus after her operation, Holden with his toys enjoys in the fluid productions of his rectum and “challenges another level of disgust.”[xxxvi]
Wetlands challenges the long philosophical tradition of “sexual disgust” and prudishness. Heidegger, as we saw already, can countenance no production of abjectified marks or inscriptions. And if Helen is all about the aesthetics of the cunt and its flows, it is Immanuel Kant who is keen to wash away the disgusting, in his transcendental aesthetics. For Kant, in the Third Critique (1790), ekel (disgust, loathing) is that which is in-assimilable to the field of aesthetics and the beautiful. The disgusting is what makes Kant gag and it functions as the limit case for him, as that which is un-integratable. Or, in the context of Helen’s anuses-as-mouths (or vice versa: mouths-as-anuses), the disgusting is what Kant cannot digest, cannot hold down. In “Economimesis,” Derrida anatomizes this antipathy toward disgust in the Kantian system, and writes that ekel functions as the “border which traces its limit and the frame of its parergon, in other words, that which is excluded from it and what, proceeding from this exclusion, gives it form, limit and contour.”[xxxvii] Disgust’s productive repudiation from the field of good taste, as with the law of the Symbolic in psychoanalytic discourse, gives shape and coherence to the field of the aesthetic itself. As Derrida shows, it is vomit which is particularly un-representable and indigestible for Kant and therefore must “cause itself to be vomited.”[xxxviii]
This Derridean “reverse money shot” allows vomit to stand in metonymically for all that is excluded, rejected, emitted, expelled from the clean and properly fortified body. Disgust is that which becomes too proximate and therefore, as Derrida says, “can only be vomited.”[xxxix] This is disgust’s perversion, because as, Derrida cautions, it “makes one desire to vomit.”[xl] Vomit for Derrida becomes something desired, though perversely so, given the ban on enjoyment of the disgusting, even if one might not think of puke as unequivocally erotic.
One cannot fail to recall Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s encounter with erotic vomiting in their essay “Sex in Public” (1998).[xli] In their essay, the two describe a scene of erotic vomiting in a club, which showcased a Wednesday night sex performance called “Pork.” On this particular evening, “word was circulating that the performance was to be erotic vomiting. This sounded like an appetite spoiler, and the thought of leaving early occurred to us but was overcome by a simple curiosity: what would the foreplay be like? Let’s stay until it gets messy. Then we can leave.”[xlii] Even in a club where “spanking, flagellation, shaving, branding, laceration, bondage, humiliation, wrestling”[xliii] are de rigeur, erotic vomiting pushes at the limits of good taste. But, as Derrida argues in “Economimesis,” it is this very aversion, this too-proximateness of the disgusting, which fuels our desire and our curiosity, and causes us to flout the ban on erotic enjoyment of the disgusting so much so that we stay with the mess. As Berlant and Warner write, “we realize we cannot leave, cannot even look away. No one can. The crowd is transfixed by the scene of intimacy and display, control and abandon, ferocity and abjection. People are moaning softly with admiration, then whistling, stomping, screaming encouragement.”[xliv]
There is a tendency to stick with disgust, which localizes in and around the mouth, although the objet a can figure the gaze (the eye is also, we might note, a sphincter), as well as the voice. Derrida, in his critique of Kant, also stays with the mouth. But, for Kant, there is something even worse than vomit, even worse than the very worst: smell. And even in Wetlands it is smell which is viscerally undesirable. Helen, who seems to be uptight about nothing at all, is totally grossed out by and gags on the smell of that which she otherwise joys in. And smell leaves such a bad taste in her mouth that she mentions it no less than four times.
In a reading of David Lynch’s film Wild at Heart (1990), Eugenie Brinkema notes that Laura Dern’s vomit (not visualized) permeates the film , but as smell it seems to overflow the film’s sensorial framework, since it is not fully locatable within the film’s audio-visual economy.[xlv] In Wetlands, un-sensible smell is equally un-locatable, and allows for displacement from the visual to the olfactory, creating “something more disgusting than the disgusting, than what disgusts taste. The chemistry of smell exceeds the tautology taste/disgust.”[xlvi] Brinkema argues that disgust’s sensual workings invite “a worse that is always yet to come.”[xlvii] This Derridean formulation of the disgust à-venir (to-come) holds out an un-suspected ethical promise that verges on the messianic.
Brinkema argues for vomit-as-form, she also claims that rot is not something in itself disgusting, either (the suppurating corpse comes to mind). She does this in an essay which reads for rot in Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (via the virtually unknown Hungarian phenomenologist Aurel Kolnai, who wrote a 1929 treatise Der Ekel, which sounds like it could have been written yesterday).[xlviii] Brinkema writes:
[R]ot is neither immediate nor visceral nor obvious, and decay is certainly not a metaphor for moral declivity or ideological distaste: instead, putrescence is a structure-in-process, a textually constituting gesture that must be read for.”[xlix]
In effect, what Brinkema is saying is that texts—cinematic, literary, architectural, and so on—can always be read as structurally in the process of decaying. Rot is not a fixed, concrete or knowable thing. Rot, like disgust, is always forming and giving form (in Derridean terms is always the worse to-come). We could rewrite Berlant and Warner’s “exuding some rut” as exuding some rot. Not coincidentally, in Steve Finbow’s cultural history of necrophilia Grave Desire (2014), necrophilia is placed at the very outermost limits of sexual taste because ingrained cultural laws regarding moral, sexual and physical disgust must be “overcome” in order to fuck a corpse leaking urine, feces, blood, vomit and in various stages of rotting and putrefaction.[l]
It is because vomit forces pleasure that it is disgusting, but this very revulsion is what causes it to be desired. Perversely, the disgusting—shit, vomit, menses, urine, and other excorporated mess—inevitably leads to excessive jouissance. Few can escape negative valuation of the disgusting, as that to which aesthetics cannot ever speak. That does not mean it is impossible affirmatively revalue that which aesthetics cannot digest, that we might take pleasure in the disgusting.
Enjoy your Tampon!
The “reverse money shot” has operated in this essay to figure those moments where that which is tethered together refuses to cohere neatly. There is an often-quoted illustrative anecdote, famously referenced by Lacan, wherein where a train is stopped on the platform and two children see two bathrooms marked, respectively, “Ladies” and “Gentlemen.” Imagine if in those two stalls we have Helen Memel and her friend Irene, both on their periods, passing their used tampons under the door and inserting the other’s tampon into their vagina. In this scene I would like to locate a moment of reflection as we contemplate feminism and queer theory’s fluid, wet futures. I want to argue, as I have been throughout, that queer and feminist thinking must—following Roche—exceed and overspill its own cleanness, anti-septism and propriety. Like Helen, who inspects her friend’s tampon closely before inserting it, queer and feminist theory needs to get over its profound and deep-seated squeamishness and hygienicizations, needs to get past its sanonormativities and tarry, without delay, with the “disgust to-come.”
[i] Samuel A. Chambers and Terrell Carver, Judith Butler and Political Theory: Troubling Politics (London, Routledge: 2008), 69.
[ii] Stanley Cavell, “On Makavejev on Bergman”  in William Rothman (ed.) Cavell on Film (Albany: SUNY Press, 2005). He goes on to say that “this will require a transformation of the five senses, a new perspective, a new aesthetics.” Tina Kendall provides a valuable and comprehensive survey of writing about the disgusting from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. See also: “Introduction: Tarrying with Disgust”, Film-Philosophy (2011), http://www.film-philosophy.com/index.php/f-p/article/view/923/801/
[iii] Margrit Shildrick’s Leaky Bodies and Boundaries and her work in general have been hugely influential for me since I first encountered it fifteen years ago. See Leaky Bodies and Boundaries: Feminism, Postmodernism and (Bio)Ethics (London: Routledge, 1997).
[iv] This extract is part of a larger project on erotics, aesthetics and bodily fluids. It could be called in Aristotelian fashion Peri Erotics (“About Erotics” or “On Erotics”).
[v] Charlotte Roche, Wetlands, trans. Tim Mohr (London: Fourth Estate, 2009). The title is perhaps best rendered in English as “moist regions”. The film is directed by David Wnendt (2013): http://wetlandsmovie.com/
[vi] Justin E.H. Smith, “Sea Slugs,” N +1 (March 2008), https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/book-review/sea-slugs/
[vii] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).
[viii] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Anality: News from the Front” in Jonathan Goldberg (ed), The Weather in Proust (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 172.
[ix] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (London: Routledge, 1993).
[x] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 25-26.
[xi] Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 25-26.
[xii] Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 315.
[xiii] Tim Dean, Beyond Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
[xiv] Cited in Dean, Beyond Sexuality, 82.
[xv] Cf. Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
[xvi] Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (Melbourne: Re: Press, 2008), 44. See also: Zach Blas, “Queerness, Openness” in Cyclonopedia Symposium, Leper Creativity (New York: punctum books, 2012), 101-114.
[xvii] Negarestani, Cyclonopedia, 53.
[xviii] Cyclonopedia, 49.
[xix] Michelle Ong, “Philosophy as Excrement,” Vice Magazine (April 20, 2011), http://www.vice.com/read/the-philosophy-of-excrement/
[xx] Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God after God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 88.
[xxi] Lee Edelman, “White Skin, Dark Meat: Identity’s Pressure Point,” identities: journal for politics, gender and culture 8.1 (2011): 99-113.
[xxii] Jonathan Dollimore, “Sexual Disgust,” Oxford Literary Review 20.1 (1998): 47-78.
[xxiii] Edelman, “White Skin, Dark Meat,” 101.
[xxiv] Dean, Beyond Sexuality, 83.
[xxv] Slavoj Žižek, On Belief (London: Routledge, 2001), 58-59.
[xxvi] Dean, Beyond Sexuality, 81.
[xxvii] Dean, Beyond Sexuality, 81-2.
[xxviii] On ocularity, the scopic and anality see D.A. Miller’s classic essay, “Anal Rope” in Diana Fuss (ed) Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (London: Routledge, 1991), 119-141; Lee Edelman, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994), Edelman, “Rear Window’s Glasshole” in Ellis Hanson (ed.), Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film (Durham, Duke University Press, 1999), 72-96; Ellis Hanson, “Cinema a tergo: Shooting in Elephant” in Mikko Tuhkanen (ed.), Leo Bersani: Queer Theory and Beyond (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), 83-104.
[xxix] Dean, Unlimited Intimacy, 110-111.
[xxx] Dean, Unlimited Intimacy, 111.
[xxxi] Dean describes the “compromise shot” as one in which the male performer pulls out and begins cumming outside “so that the camera can record his climax”. He then reinserts his cock to finish cumming inside. Unlimited Intimacy, 131.
[xxxii] Dean, Unlimited Intimacy, 136.
[xxxiii] Dean, Unlimited Intimacy, 136.
[xxxiv] Dean, Unlimited Intimacy, 136.
[xxxv] Dean, Unlimited Intimacy, 137.
[xxxvi] Dean, Unlimited Intimacy, 137.
[xxxvii] Jacques Derrida, “Economimesis,” diacritics 11 (1975): 3-25 (21).
[xxxviii] Derrida, “Economimesis,” 21.
[xxxix] Derrida, “Economimesis,” 23.
[xl] Derrida, “Economimesis,” 23.
[xli] Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24.2 (Winter 1998): 547-566.
[xlii] Berlant and Warner, “Sex in Public,” 564.
[xliii] Berlant and Warner, “Sex in Public,” 564.
[xliv] Berlant and Warner, “Sex in Public,” 565.
[xlv] Eugenie Brinkema, “Laura Dern’s Vomit, or, Kant and Derrida in Oz,” Film-Philosophy 15.2 (2011), http://www.film-philosophy.com/index.php/f-p/article/view/276/
[xlvi] Derrida, “Economimesis,” 25.
[xlvii] Brinkema, “Laura Dern’s Vomit,” 62.
[xlviii] Eugenie Brinkema, “Rot’s Progress: Gastronomy According to Peter Greenaway,” differences 21 (2010): 73-96.
[xlix] See also Rosemary Deller, “The Body that ‘Melted into the Carpet’: Mortal Stains and Domestic Dissolution in Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life” (forthcoming).
[l] Steve Finbow, Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Winchester; Zer0 Books, 2014), 154-155.
This is a shortened and much revised version of a presentation entitled “Bleurgh! On the Erotics of Disgust” given at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London on 19 November 2014. The author would like to thank Fabio Gygi and Caroline Osella for the invitation. Another version of this essay, with illustrations, was also published 9 / 2014 issue of the journal InterAlia. Click here to access that journal issue.
ABRIDGED BY SAMUEL RAY JACOBSON