One of the more idiotic American culinary trends to have penetrated Paris over the last few years is “street food”, which has recently begun appearing, in English, on the menu of a number of French restaurants. Is street food still street food if it is served in a restaurant? When a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound? The language here is so toxic that even to walk into such a restaurant is to transgress Lacan's ethics of speaking well. That is, of course, the point; what is really on the menu is not an artisanal vegan hamburger as such but a particularly American mode of relationship with the objet petit (a). The glistening discourse in which such food comes embedded – a language from which any hint of symbolic castration has been exorcised by the brightest and most corrupt minds in American marketing – is the true product, one that promises a social bond finally liberated of conflict, struggle, and desire.
...No matter how delicious the street cheeseburgers at the California Cantine on the rue Turbigo may be, I refuse to participate in this farce on ethical grounds. Likewise, under ordinary circumstances, I would never set foot in a Naturalia health food store. For an American, France is a museum of the recent commercial past. Consumer trends that died decades ago in the United States can still be found agonizing in France. Naturalia is such a place. Unlike Whole Foods, it is still haunted by a 1970's granola ethic and aesthetic that disappeared in the 1990's in the United States. The lobotomized, self-congratulatory Beautiful Soul smile that the castaways of this expired discourse flash each other across aisles piled high with overpriced alfalfa and propolis extract is enough to make a psychoanalyst want to plant a pipe bomb in the Goji berries (49.99 euros a kilo). The fantasy that food can be ethical in our place offers us an excellent excuse to avoid an authentic ethical engagement, which is to say an engagement with desire, which is to say an engagement with language... not local tomatoes. Pasolini remarked that consumerism was worse than old-fashioned Fascism because, unlike the latter, it transformed Italians from the inside out. In the same vein, the new organic, gluten-free hysterical orthorexia nervosa that is ravaging the United States today (and will be ravaging France in a few years) is arguably worse than the corn syrup holocaust that has contributed to the American population's transformation into a race of baglike bouncing baby adults. I say “contributed” and not “caused” because the properly Symbolic dimension of a regressive orality imposed on the American public by an increasingly sexless Other certainly has its share of the blame in the inability of ever more Americans to inhabit a body marked by sexual difference and genital maturity. But that is not what I want to talk about today.
I recently discovered that every evening at seven o'clock, the Naturalia down the street throws out all the expired ethical food. I will eat Naturalia food; I just won't pay for it. So, last night, I set out with my backpack to pick up free groceries for the week. I arrived in front of the store to see six other people with empty bags eyeing each other as they waited for the night shift idealist to wheel out the goodies.
As soon as the green plastic dumpster rolled out, it was pushed over, spilling the contents on the sidewalk. A tall, rangy DIY punk with patches sewn on his black hoodie was the first to hit paydirt: a bag of ethical cabbage. Overcome with envy, the gay, psychotic Gypsy with frosted tips who lives with his lover on the sidewalk outside Naturalia picked up a broomstick and dealt the DIY punk a blow on the head in an attempt to stun him and expropriate his organic trash. The punk tried to shrug him off but the Gypsy was on him like a wolverine. Meanwhile, a pair of sneaky old ladies were filling their bags with treats. Thirty seconds later, it was over. The Gypsy had nothing, the punk had nothing but his cabbage, and the two old ladies were on their way home to feast.
An hour later, as I worked through a pile of McDonald's hamburgers, I reflected on what I had just seen. We tend too quickly to blame the Real for the violence and destruction that pull us eternally towards the ground. It's ideology. No wonder “hard reality” is so often invoked to vouchsafe ensconced forms of capitalistic domination. On the contrary, it is precisely the incidence of language on our bodies that gives rise to the dimension of infinite symbolic want that Freud called the death drive. What brought the Gypsy and the punk to blows was not the Real of biological hunger as it might seem. No, it was the dimension of drive inherent to language that led these two men to prefer pointless narcissistic combat to a desiring engagement with the Real of the situation. And is this not a manifestation, on the level of street food, so to speak, of the same creeping deregulation in the Other that led to the crisis of 2008 in the first place?
Few phenomena could indicate the disturbances in the field of sexuation in the 21st Century more concisely than so-called ‘sexercise’.
Now endorsed by everyone from celebrities such as...
... Kylie Minogue to the British National Health Service, sexercise involves turning the bedroom into a gym, and the gym into a training ground for the bedroom. It pushes sex toward self-improvement, with the aim of attaining ‘peak performance’: we must all aspire to be elite erotic athletes, constantly striving to exceed our previous personal bests. What was once prohibited and repressed (and as a result, rather more enticing) in the 19th Century, has become relentlessly fun, healthy and productive in the 21st. More directly than other related neologisms (‘boxercise’, ‘salsacise’, ‘jazzercise’), sexercise spells out late capital’s aim - already hinted at by Lacan in Télévision - of getting rid of sex by rendering it omnipresent. All that is sordid melts into air, suffocating desire.
Advocates of sexercise point out that a good ‘session’ stretches and tones diverse muscle groups, pushes the cardio-vascular system, and burns off as many calories as would half an hour on a rowing machine. Endorphins released during orgasm are also said to stimulate the immune system, add a sheen to your hair, and even get rid of wrinkles. Positions which retain their animalised names (‘doggy style’, ‘horseback’) are inserted into workout routines that mimic yogic and even tantric disciplines, minus the spiritual dimension. Fuck yourself fit then - but whatever you do, don’t indulge a post-coital cigarette!
Far from compensating for the sexual non-relation by means of a fantasy that can frame an imaginary coupling in the illusory but consoling terms of love, sexercise brings the body into line with the quite distinct real of science: the sexercised body is a plastic and flexible body. It improves at the level of the biological real by responding to efficient conditioning, channelling enjoyment into whatever makes it leaner, fitter, faster. Note, though, that all these alleged gains in health and wellbeing belong to what Lacan, in Seminar XX, called the ‘One-all-alone’. The sexthlete is isolated, even during intercourse, within a biopolitical body that is being enjoyed by another Other than the lover, who suffers a reciprocal solitude. The lover, indeed, is reduced to an exercise partner, someone who will spot your benchpresses if you spot theirs. Sexual difference does not really arise in this contract of co-conditioning: ‘men’ and ‘women’ aim for more or less the same androgynous body of lean and limber athleticism. The women get ‘ripped’ and toned, while the men depilate and fuss about their weight. Both admire their bodies in mirrors, but the resulting imago is not confirmed by a symbolic Other strongly structured around sexuation. One could even say sexercise is a-sexual: the elimination of any etropic gap between input and output cancels the lack that animates desire.
Inevitably, the market offers a range of lathouses to facilitate this jouissance of orgasmic efficiency. DVD’s from personal trainers and manuals from Ann Summers provide handy hints on setting up tailored sexercise regimes that will ensure each session will bring a new gymnastic challenge. For the more mechanically minded, it is now possible to buy rowing machines and exercise balls with dildos attached in the relevant places (what better embodiment of the fate of the symbolic phallus in the 21st Century than the dildo?). Such hard(on)ware can also be supplemented with digital software. Apple, for example, has brought out a sexercise app that guides its customers through a cycle of positions that ‘burn the most calories’ and ‘improve core strength’. With a smartphone then, you can have smartsex. The personal pronoun that inscribes a place from which to speak for the parlêtre becomes the branded ‘i’ plugged into the iPhone. Enjoying bodies are mediated by algorithms and numbers more than by signifiers.
The most extreme manifestation of this tendency, perhaps, is the Quantified Self Movement, which embraces the constant technological measurement of all kinds of bodily inputs (food, air quality, sleep patterns) in order to then link them to performance outputs (cognitive processing, physical stamina, corporate productivity). Sometimes known as ‘lifeloggers’ or ‘bodyhackers’, enthusiasts employ ‘wearable computing’ that converts every aspect of their daily lives into a data-stream that can then be fed back in to their activities, supposedly to maximize health, happiness and wellbeing. To take some examples at random: FitBit Tracker quantifies steps taken, stairs climbed, calories burned, and quality of sleep; MyFitnessPal monitors diet and weight; the Lume Personal Tracker maps mood states and happiness levels; and WorkMeter measures employee productivity. Not surprisingly, the movement welcomes the inclusion of sex into this statisticalized form of the care of the self, placing sex on the same level as eating, sleeping and walking. The ‘FuckFit’ app is surely on its way.
In the third session of Seminar XX, Lacan said “we speak in analytic discourse about what the verb ‘to fuck’ (foutre) enunciates perfectly well. We speak therein of fucking, and we say that it’s not working out.” By contrast, sexercise tries to make fucking into a workout where any pain is instantly converted into gain.
But who will the sexthlete speak to when the workout doesn’t work out?
1 Lacan, Jacques, ‘Télévision’, in Autres écrits, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2001, pp.509-545. 2 Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: On Femine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Kowledge, 1972-1973 (Encore), trans. Bruce Fink, London: W. W. Norton, 1999. 3 Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: On Femine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Kowledge, 1972-1973 (Encore), trans. Bruce Fink, London: W. W. Norton, 1999, p.32.
That in the future of secular capitalist enlightened democracies power would be exercised primarily not by state coercion, confinement, censorship, and propaganda but by over-exposure to information, opinions, trivial culture, endless choices, and the ubiquitous infliction of enjoyment (or, to put it in Neil Postman’s way, that our present vindicates not George Orwell’s but Aldous Huxley’s vision)—all this is well known*. What is likely less known is the religious character of this form of power.
... While revisiting his own dystopia in 1958, Huxley encapsulated the premise of this form of power by juxtaposing it to the earlier, primarily ideological, state: “the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false”—reflecting the historically corresponding (monotheist) association of religion with judgments of "true and false" (there is only one true god, and so forth). But the “vast mass communications industry” of “our Western capitalist democracies” is “concerned… neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal”; this world is ruled not through a thirst for truth but through an “almost infinite appetite for distractions.” “Distraction” means the loss of self and of the sense of time. Like ecstatic religious rituals in archaic societies, distraction is the closest contemporary experience that can come to a state of immanence, a boundless flow of non-differentiation between subject and object or being and language, in a nirvana-like timeless eternity—where everything is, in George Bataille’s words, “like water in water.” This absolute immanence, this purely hypothetical, yet (logically) necessarily presupposed overlap of absolute being and representation, of immortal, irrepressible, indestructible life and the locus of the Other (signifier), is the referent of Lacan’s jouissance of the real (as opposed to, in Jacques-Alain Miller’s words, the “jouissance of the imaginary”). Fullfledged secularization entails the shift from the (monotheist) jouissance of the imaginary back to the (archaic) jouissance of the real. Bataille saw the essence of religion in the longing for “the return to immanence.” Via Lacan we rectify: the dream that defines the essence of religion is access to jouissance, whether, depending on historical conditions, imaginary jouissance (Truth) or jouissance of the real (immanence). Since time immemorial, humans have been yearning, with an infinite appetite, for jouissance, which is why religion accompanies humanity since its dawn and can never relinquish a farthing its hold on humans, not even in the so-called secular capitalist enlightened democracies.
* More specifically, I am referring to Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four (1949), Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985).