Disjoint Headspaces

Andrea Dworkin was, in today’s parlance, a Big Mood. I don’t say this to be dismissive, but to indicate something about the way Dworkin’s writing works: it creates a headspace, demands that you enter that headspace, then refuses to let you leave. Even when your head is somewhere else entirely, that space is always tucked away in some fold of the space you’re in. You can return to it in an instant, or be yanked back into it by a twitch on the wire. She prevails by placing everything besides her militant certainty in doubt.

Charlotte Shane is an exceptionally good writer to interrogate this effect, because she has both allowed herself to be fully subjected to it (which is the only way to read Dworkin, really) and established for herself a headspace which is strongly disjoint from Dworkin’s. I often find, reading Shane, that at a certain level I simply don’t understand where she is coming from: her headspace is deeply inaccessible to me. It seems strange — it should perhaps seem very strange — that I don’t have the same trouble with Dworkin. In terms of my conscious position on things, I’m closer nowadays to Shane’s explicit sexual politics than to Dworkin’s; but in terms of where my head’s still at, I can fully understand why someone would look at the entirety of our public sexual culture and just say a big, non-negotiable “no”.

No to what? I can put on my Dworkin hat and answer readily: no to accommodation, within fantasy, with power relationships that would be intolerable outside of it. No, therefore, to the entire apparatus of public symbolisation which makes such fantasy memetically available and mimetically appealing. But I don’t think that’s really it — I think it’s a cover story, a way of making an aesthetic discontent look like a principled refusal. And my aesthetic discontent really stems from a structure of feeling which is rooted somewhere quite remote from the usual moral centre of sexual politics.

For many people, a vital component of sexual enjoyment is the circuit that forms between the other person’s fantasies and projections, and one’s own ability to act up to them, to be for the other the occasion of their desire. For some people it seems that this is pretty much the whole deal, which given the fabled mechanical ineptitude of some other people is perhaps just as well. This seems to be true, for example, of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, who admits somewhere in the programme’s first series to finding sex itself much less interesting than being interested in sex — which is to say, interested in being sexually interesting to others, in finding others sexually interesting, and in bringing those two possibly conflicting sets of interests together. One partner in the second series, evidently very mechanically capable, succeeds in giving her “nine orgasms I didn’t want”. (How very Lacanian…)

We aren’t told how many orgasms she has with the priest who is the true object of her desire in the second series, but it also doesn’t matter: she gets what she presumably does want. But what is that? In an interesting touch, Fleabag reaches over during her sex scene with the priest and lowers the camera — her every other encounter has been gazed upon directly, by the same camera she smirks, glowers and winks at throughout the show (the priest is unusual in being the only character who notices that she “goes somewhere else” during these asides). There is a conventional romantic-fiction moral implied here, which is that true intimacy requires the suspension of self-surveillance: you are only “really” with the other person when you are no longer watching yourself to see how you look with them, no longer in a kind of bargaining relationship with your own imago. But I think this is just the kind of fantasy an inveterate, virtuosic self-watcher would have about the nature of true intimacy: finally, some love-object will arrive who will be so dramatically attention-absorbing that you will surrender your bad, guilty habit of enjoying yourself, and enjoy nothing but them!

Be that as it may. It happens that I do most of my modelling of how other people might see me, and what they might want from me, using the parts of my brain which specialise in linguistic reasoning, and there’s sometimes a detectable lag in processing while I figure out what’s what. A consequence of this is that the circuit of fantasy/projection and performance is fairly stuttery for me: I don’t sync up well with others’ expectations. The whole thing, to paraphrase Riddley Walker, feels just that little bit stupid. So I have a strong aversion to being placed in situations where I’m expected to be demonstrative, to supply the juice for somebody else so that they, in turn, can put on their own little performance reflecting whatever my fantasies and projections are supposed to be back at me. I felt an enormous relief when I read, in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s The Epistemology of the Closet, that what some people wanted out of sex was a sort of cognitive hiatus. “That’s me!”, I thought. Something you do where you’re not maintaining a neurotypical mask, where the linguistic reasoning bit of your brain gets to shut down for a bit rather than having to keep the simulation constantly running.

And that, I think, is why I actually find the entire arena of public signification of sexual fantasy tiresome and obnoxious and wish it would all simply go away. It has nothing immediately to do with the violent, oppressive, atavistic, dehumanising content of much of that signification. That can meaningfully be objected to, of course, but it’s also in the nature of fantasy to pull into the frame extreme and intolerable scenarios and sensations: the question of how that material is to be handled is complex, admits of various intricately braided moral and aesthetic strategies, and cannot be satisfactorily resolved simply by organising a purge. There is a Dworkin who knows this, who calls for “sexual intelligence”, meaning a move beyond the usual grim repertoire of stereotypes towards ways of envisaging vulnerability and aggression that draw on the full range of human imagination and experience; then there is a Dworkin who has been immersed in murderous puerility to the point of total burnout, who simply cannot stand any of it any longer. But behind both, I think, is a Dworkin who is not quite prepared to examine her own aesthetic disposition, the structure of feeling she has towards and around the signification of sexual fantasy qua fantasy.

Whenever Dworkin writes about fantasy, she keeps changing the subject — to the real brutality meted out to women in the course of making pornographic images, or the real brutality meted out to women by people (men, or lesbians who have read too much Foucault) trying to recreate what is depicted in them. This move is morally compelling when one is talking about filmed pornography made under exploitative and violent conditions, but constitutes a kind of evasive manoeuvre when one is talking about material that, however ideologically vicious its content, was produced under relatively benign conditions and has no demonstrable causal connection to violent acts. Because when Dworkin does talk about fantasy, it’s never as something intellectually worthy, something that might legitimately be in play in our moral negotiations with each other and the world. Where fantasy isn’t simply an alibi or apologia for real brutality, it shows up in Dworkin’s writing as a failure mode of “sexual intelligence”, a lapse in seriousness, a mark of frivolous disengagement.

When I read Charlotte Shane saying, as an example of the purchasers of her cam-work not being uniformly terrible, that “one regular client, after I asked, spent hundreds of dollars worth of time speculating about why he always asked me to enact a scene of anal rape”, I found it hard to understand what about the hours of speculation was supposed to mitigate the ugliness and presumption of the request. The hundreds of dollars, yes, but to interpret this also as an example of “heterosocial tenderness”, you need to be remarkably generous-minded towards men with serious money to spend on procuring enactments of anal rape, and further time and money to expend on expatiating about their motivations for doing so. In Shane’s headspace, I guess (and it’s really just a guess) these things are part of the negotium of sex-as-work, which is itself a sub-region of the wider negotium of the public signification of sex: perhaps, to be the kind of writer she has wanted to be, she has had to enter into negotiation with the ugly parts of people, the parts that can only really be imaged or talked about through the medium of fantasy. The non-negotiability of Dworkin’s stance freezes the world into a static image, a tableau of hell, which only a kind of magical voluntarism can get moving again. She became, as Shane observes, her own basilisk — “her thinking became recursive and compulsive, caught on the snag of itself” — and lost the writer that she, too, had wanted at any cost to be.