So, there’s this medical condition; it’s called the Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder (PGAD) – otherwise known as the “Spontaneous Orgasm,” syndrome. Yes. This medical peculiarity/miracle affecting that minority of unlucky women – or deeply privileged, depending on whether or not you’re the glass half-full kind of kid – literally causes the body, with no direct sexual (or even mental) stimulation, to experience the inexpressible and all-engulfing, mind-shattering plateau of experiential bliss that is THE ORGASM. (I learnt about this condition first on Grey’s Anatomy, though this is legitimately a thing.) So you could be purchasing a chilli-prawn linguine ready-meal in Waitrose, discussing tense political issues in a “high-stakes” seminar, lying in bed with your parents watching childhood films, sitting through a mind-numbingly boring date with someone heinously unattractive, and then, WOAH, you begin to ache with pleasure, and, temporarily, even if unwillingly, your body and mind can’t make sense of their surroundings, and they attempt to transcend their immediate context, however inappropriate this may be.
I can see how this is totally inconvenient, and so I’m not completely envious. Though the idea of the orgasm being able to override any contextual and normative situation – whether it be shopping, driving, cleaning, working etc. – helps imagine the body as unconsciously willing itself, so desperately, so intensely, to escape the shackles of everydayness. It seems fitting that in quasi-alternative French classic Amélie, its adorable protagonist sits on rooftops picturing the plentitude of potential orgasms simultaneously occurring in Paris as a way in which to cure her boredom.
Now, during an orgasm, according to Richardson’s description, “we feel ourselves momentarily plunging into a beyond.” I woefully confess that I’ve only ever had one killer, full-bodily orgasm in my life (literally, my little toe was RAVING) – and it was totally unexpected, and self-induced I might add – so I’m no expert. But when I try to put it into words, attempting to share my victory of solitude with friends over breakfast, I can’t get past “Bwaaaaababahscaaaagdgdgaaah.” Not a totally articulate description, I get that. Conceptually, though, the phenomenological rarity of an orgasm goes beyond everyday socio-linguistic structures—it’s genuinely an experience outside the realm of language. Thus it’s no surprise that Parisian thinkers have often linked the inexpressible yet somewhat universal experience of orgasmic intensity with the even more unknowable and linguistically intangible (non)-entity of death.
Cultural philosopher and personal hero Georges Bataille, among others, was fixated on the French idea of orgasm as la petite mort (the little death.) It’s as if we escape the lonely prison-houses of our body, the sensory regularities of the daily grind, transcending our ‘self,’ our ideas, our morals, our past, diving temporarily into the unknown, the ‘outside’ – even if this might all be happening while someone’s inside you. Your life crumbles underneath you. History is jolted. Every deadline, to-do list, relationship—it all evaporates for that moment. It’s as if you’re dying.
In this light, take another look at Bernini’s ultra-famous Ecstasy of St. Teresa [1647-1652] (the image actually adorning Bataille’s seminal text,
Eroticism: Death and Sensuality.) In the Saint’s ultimate union with god, the moment of her dying – hilariously denoted by the angel’s arrow inconspicuously aiming at her vagina – she’s pictured to be in the euphoria of orgasm. And she outdoes all the valiant attempts I’ve seen in ANY porno. Her leg droops helplessly, her mouth quivers painfully, her arm contorts in exquisite anguish as her body rises groin first into the rather talented hands of God… this religious scene actually got me hard on my viewing it in the Cornaro chapel in Rome.
Now, that an orgasm sits outside of the normative (both semiotically and phenomenologically,) for me means that we can comprehend it as an almost political force, and for the ensuing discussion, as an experiential entity battling the repressive and reifying forces of capitalist conformity.
As Michel Foucault made us uncomfortably aware in his series of expositive texts exploring the genealogy of repressive societal normatives, capitalism controls even the way we understand our own body, it being ascribed by a set of societal ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s, ‘yes’s and ‘no’s, ‘good’s and ‘bad’s. Most terrifyingly, we have come to conceive of our body in the same light as a commodity, with its own sets of ‘use-values’ and ‘exchange-values.’ Through the manipulative proliferation of capitalist ideals, the body becomes conceived of as a pseudo-profitable entity based on its productive capabilities. In more simple terms, the so-called ‘energy’ of the body aspires towards the accumulation of profit and products. This is bad.
Bataille is again excellent on this—in his The Accursed Share, he describes a capitalist society as one aiming to channel all human ‘energy’ into the collection of goods and cash; what he then cunningly shows us, is that all systems, by default, no matter how closed, structured and controlled they try to be, are riddled with an implicit ‘excess’ energy that has to find a place to release itself somewhere. I think the orgasm is the perfect manifestation of this, don’t you? All the ‘productive’ force of the body intentionally going to waste, used only for the pleasure of the self, and nothing else. It’s the ultimate labour of love really. Just desire for desire’s sake – no profit, no material gain – allowing us to clutch whatever autonomy we can in a society where our subjectivity is being progressively split faster than you can say banana split. It’s also FREE leisure requiring nothing but the self (if you get good at it that is.) The capitalist heralding of leisure parks and the like aint’ got shit on a banging orgasm.
The prescribed set of societal rules on our body helps to explain the guilt and shame some people tend to feel once that moment of bliss subsides (that icky reality when you’ve completed your session with the porn video still going strong on the laptop screen next to you—bleak.) Why? Following the sensation of transcending the normative structure – moving into the beyond – your ‘self’ is suctioned rapidly back into the confines of the body politic, and you become immediately and uncomfortably aware of your context, your societal codes, and the everyday structures you must comply with. Hence we begin to feel as if we’ve wasted our time, and improperly used-up our ‘energy.’ Or, even that we’re being watched and judged (surveillance culture people!)? It can be upsetting.
Anyway, just to point out, I’m really not new in thinking that the orgasm is the perfect fuck you to capitalist consumerism. As early as 1959, when Paris was becoming progressively commercialised – shop mannequins everywhere – the Surrealists set up an exhibition devoted to EROS and open to the public as a means of tackling consumerist ideologies. How? The whole exhibition was designed to look and feel like a female uterus. It was full of smells, complex textures, red hues and flesh-toned décor. The walls rhythmically pumped up and down, with recorded sounds of women in moments of orgasm blasted throughout. The whole mad experience concluded with typical bourgeois museum goers being enticed to feast collectively – as if in an epiphany of orgiastic euphoria – off the naked body of a female model, for that moment allowing desire to manifest itself socially with no real gain besides that of human pleasure. Right off the money there. Rad.
Before I conclude, I’d like to declare that I’m not as blithely optimistic as I seem, and that I am aware that orgasms can be different experiences for different people and different sexes. Some people can’t get them during sex, some only through masturbating, while some people are yet to find one. However, it’s something worth working hard for—purely because that hard-work goes towards nothing but innate human experience, useless pleasure, allowing us to escape an oppressive or mundane structure, even if only for a moment. And try not to let the guilt get to you. Cos’ when you’ve had the perfect, self-devouring orgasm, that is the true essence of existence – the ‘real’ – glimmering to you, in that ever-elusive form of inexpressible pleasure and a glimpse of death.