Beating Around the Bush: Annamarie Jagose’s “Orgasmology”

June 26, 2013   •   By Sand Avidar-Walzer

IN 1976, AT THE HEIGHT of his cultural influence in France, the philosopher Michel Foucault published one of the most famous books ever written on the history of sexuality, titled, aptly enough, The History of Sexuality, Vol. I. (The book was to be the first of a projected six-part series.) In Annamarie Jagose’s Orgasmology, in which Foucault plays a small but starring role, she quotes David Halperin’s remarks in his literally hagiographic Saint Foucault (1995) as typical of the rapturous reception the book received in queer circles: it was “the text that, everyone now says, you can’t even begin to practice queer politics without reading.”

The History of Sexuality was, at least in part, an attempt to explore the relationship between sexuality as a kind of behavior and sexuality as an object of clinical diagnosis. The book picks up in the same vaguely “Victorian” late-19th-century epos where The History of Madness, Foucault’s dissertation and first critical success, left off: with the birth of a socio-clinical regime of observation and analysis whose work is to distinguish the normal from the pathological. The History of Sexuality was not so much a sequel to The History of Madness as a companion volume, asking different kinds of questions. Between the two books, the entire framework of Foucault’s inquiry has shifted. The former closes with a negative claim: psychoanalysis does not truly “liberate” madness. The latter opens with what we might call a positive problem: psychoanalysis doesn’t liberate, but it does something, apparently. What, then, does psychoanalysis do? Foucault’s answer: it evaluates. It determines which sexual behaviors are normal enough to justify freedom, and which are pathological enough to demand carceral oppression. But it does not evaluate all by itself; it does so as part of an incredible machinery of regulation, a regulation which is not the same as the corporeal oppression of incarceration, from which psychoanalysis had helped psychiatry “liberate” the mad.

To make this point Foucault introduces, in The History of Sexuality, a new category: normativity. “Normativity,” a concept which both Jagose and the academic discourse known as “queer theory” draw on extensively, is a new way of controlling, of evaluating, of judging; a mechanism of repression that is not simply psychoanalytic, but which, together with psychoanalysis and a plethora of other discourses, forms a generalized but closely policed middle ground between the ideal, healthy citizen in society and physical incarceration of those deemed to have no place in society at all. Normativity, in this conceptual framework, is not a thing, but a way of adjudicating between an impossible ideal and its literal failure.

The History of Madness ends at the close of the 19th century, with the rise of contemporary institutional psychiatry. In Foucault’s narrative, psychiatric internment is always the dark shadow of psychoanalysis: if your cockamamie talking doesn’t do the trick, give ’em back to us and we’ll sedate ’em. For Foucault, Freud is complicit in the literal, corporeal oppression of the “ill”; psychoanalysis, a cog in the machinery of normativity, is a gatekeeper, drawing the line between illness and madness, and, implicitly, between freedom and incarceration. The History of Madness explores the ways in and through which those excluded from society were excluded and the ways in which their bodies were restrained; The History of Sexuality explores the ways in which a social order that has reintroduced the sick and the perverse into its own milieu undertakes to police these newly liberated subjects to make sure they don’t slip up. An all-or-nothing regime of binary exclusion — you are mad or you aren’t mad — is replaced with a rhizomatic network of regimentation — what kind of problem do you have? “Normativity,” as Foucault originally constructed the concept, is less a fascist dictator and more a parole officer-slash-social worker: We know you want to, it says, and it’s okay to have those thoughts. Just make sure you don’t act on them.

The best parts of Jagose’s Orgasmology explore the same terrain as Foucault’s later work. Like Foucault, Jagose explores the concepts, texts, and data generated by the “scientific” attempt to map notions of normativity onto actual bodies. But where Foucault studies the general structural conditions which make this project possible, Jagose narrows in on a single phenomenon: the orgasm. Jagose’s archive is the material generated in elaborating the relationship between the event of orgasm and an ideal state of mental and physical normativity. “Take Marie Bonaparte, for example,” Jagose writes:

who was analyzed by Sigmund Freud in the 1920s and later made influential contributions to psychoanalytic theorizations of the acquisition of femininity. Bonaparte’s lifelong pursuit — both theoretical and applied — of vaginal orgasm included repeated and unsuccessful surgical modification of her own genitals and continues to elicit “amused and dismissive responses from many historians and scholars of psychoanalysis.” Wilhelm Reich […] [did] little better [given his] insistence on the supremacy of the libido above all other psychoanalytic concepts, his belief that full genital orgasm was the only guarantee of psychic health.

In the book’s fascinating third chapter, Jagose describes the place of orgasm in the “sad and cruel flourishings of mid 20th- century behaviorist programs intended to reorient errant male erotic interests towards objects and practices deemed normal.” This was the period in the 1960s especially during which psychiatry and behavioral psychology colluded to quantify the orgasm as the marker for heterosexual normativity. Jagose aims “to trace across a set of case studies the uses to which orgasm is put in clinical practice designed to increase the incidence of erotic behavior deemed normal.” This approach allows her to deal not only with psychoanalysis, but also with other 20th-century sciences such as clinical behaviorism. Clinical behaviorism, as Jagose describes it, “understood itself … as an applied science that drew on behaviorist learning principles in order to design treatment protocols intended to modify undesirable behavior.” The tricky part, for Jagose, is the concept of “applied science.” The very nature of the scientific paradigm in place in these trials demands a single set of operant principles which can be used to modify any kind of “undesirable behavior,” and, indeed, the clinical practices aimed to “cure” homosexual behavior — a methodology known as aversion therapy — were borrowed more or less intact from the treatment of alcoholism. “Experimental techniques specifically developed in relation to one behavioral demographic were applied, often by the same clinicians, to treatments designed to address very different behaviors,” Jagose writes. Without detracting from the ethical horror of the treatment, Jagose dryly captures the Groucho-Marxian dialectic of theory and practice which bolstered this behavioral science: “James copies the treatment format faithfully, introducing only a couple of slight variations.”

The diversity of the archival material covered in Orgasmology is the book’s greatest strength. Jagose’s method is an intricate meshwork of discourses, unified by her focus on the same elusive object. This is the method of inquiry that Orgasmology shares with The History of Sexuality. The complex question Jagose asks throughout the book — the genealogical question — is: how do we describe the mechanisms by which the clinical gaze distinguishes the normal from the pathological? In building her genealogy, Jagose is consistently attentive to the ways in which bodies and our knowledge of them are located not within the logic of normalcy and perversion, but at the very discursive junction where the work of defining normativity takes place. By attending to the ways in which various cultural discourses understand the relation between normativity and the orgasm (examples range from fist-fucking, queer theory’s perpetual problem child, to Masters & Johnson), Jagose shows how a single object of inquiry is attributed different values in different contexts. Even more importantly, she shows us that the mechanisms and methodologies by which we think we “objectively” understand the value of a phenomenon like the orgasm are themselves caught up in the networks of value that allow us to identify it in the first place.

To illustrate this point, Jagose provides the wonderful example of simultaneous orgasm. Widely espoused as the normative marital condition par excellence in the first half of the 20th century, Jagose describes how, as the concept of “marital health” was replaced by “sexual health” in professional medical discourse, simultaneous orgasm goes from being considered an ideal to being considered idealistic. The approximately comparative approach shows convincingly that the methodology of those evaluations has impacted the interpretation, citation, and cultural dissemination of the results themselves. Orgasmology is “a loosely chronological series of case studies,” each looking at a particular kind of “data.” Following Foucault, Jagose explores the supposedly “objective” study of a phenomenon like the orgasm as part of a larger process of social and corporeal regimentation. She observes that the same nominally stable phenomenon acquires greatly differing implications and meanings in relation to different cogs of the same regimenting machine. How, Jagose asks, is the orgasm evaluated by psychoanalysis? By behavioral psychology? By the 20th-century marriage manual? By Shortbus, a 21st-century film about a particular cluster of urban sexualities? (The film’s unusual combinations of sexual identities, Jagose suggests, make modern sex visible “as less a bind than a bond, less an impasse than a way of cohabiting.”) And how is the orgasm evaluated by queer theory?

This last question is the thorniest of the many that Jagose pursues in Orgasmology. Her book begins and ends with references to queer theorists like Bersani, Berlant, and Butler along with Foucault, Michael Warner and, well, the rest of the usual suspects. The book’s cover blurbs (from David Halperin and Heather Love), not to mention the black band on the back announcing "Queer Theory/Feminist Theory/Sex," all suggest a self-conscious positioning within the field of queer theory, and Jagose clearly sees her study as in some way aligned with queer theory’s objectives. “To ask what queer theory teaches us about orgasm,” she writes, is “to offer up, by way of a provocation, the idea that queer theory and orgasm might be co-relevant, might usefully extend each other’s expected reach.”

Jagose defines queer theory as “those posthumanist and anti-identitarian critical approaches that are energized by thinking against the practices, temporalities, and modes of being through which sexuality has been normatively thought.” But this posthumanist and anti-identitarian critical approach, she goes on to note, has “had next to nothing to say of orgasm.” “I say next to nothing rather than plain nothing,” she adds, “since, reading between the lines, it is possible to detect a whiff of the queer theoretical dismissal of orgasm, so subtextual and sotto voce I hesitate to call it a strand, in which orgasm gets aligned with the normal, against which the queer defines itself.”

The difference between queer theory’s inquiry and Jagose’s is a subtle but crucial one. The history of queer theory has recently been traced by Janet Halleys’ Split Decisions: How And Why to Take a Break From Feminism (2008) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s posthumous The Weather In Proust (2011), and Jagose’s hesitation to embrace queer theory whole-heartedly lies, like that of Halley and Sedgwick, in its emphasis on the function of “liberation” in the movement between carceral oppression and clinical normativity. Foucault’s History of Sexuality begins, in effect, by saying that talking about sexuality does not fully liberate sexuality, just as moving the mad out of the madhouse doesn’t free them of pathology. The best works of queer theory — like Sedgwick’s own Epistemology of the Closet (1990) — demonstrate the explanatory value in pursuing the implications of this analogy: that is, in exploring the ways that sexuality is not-yet liberated. But most queer theory, Jagose suggests, doesn’t content itself with looking for the places where sexuality is not-yet liberated. It goes further, and makes the assumption that, once queer genealogy has discovered repression, then completing the task of liberation must be its next step: “Too often, the assumed obviousness or self-evidence of the transformative political potential of subcultural sexual practices relies on the persistent belief that dissident sex pits itself against power in the name of liberation.”

This is the concern voiced by Leo Bersani as early as his 1987 essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” and echoed in Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” her introduction to the 1995 edited volume Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Literature (more recently anthologized in Tendencies, and tellingly cited in Jagose’s own introduction). Jagose’s reluctance to fully “be” a queer theorist or “do” queer theory is entirely understandable, given the nature of the questions she poses — queer theory is one way of looking at the problem of sexuality, and not the only or necessarily the best way. And she elaborates her resistance to queer theory in the same effective and carefully scholarly tone with which she elaborates the difficulties she identifies, for example, in the cognitive sciences.

But the casual reader — if we can still imagine such a thing for a critical monograph published by an academic publishing house notorious for the kind of high-theoretical queer imperative Jagose is resisting — wonders why Jagose spends so much time wrestling with queer theory when it is, so clearly, not the best or only way to understand the evaluation of the orgasm in the 20th century. Having identified the cognitive dissonance between the object of Orgasmology and the genealogical project of queer theory, why then does queer theory continue to be the privileged perspective for exploring the relation between queer theory, feminist theory, and sex, especially when it come to the orgasm, a phenomenon that can be read queerly but is not, inherently, “queer”?

The difficulty in Orgasmology’s treatment of queer theory is not its ambivalence; ambivalence can be a useful addition to any critical arsenal. Rather, the difficulty is conceptual, even dialectical: where her discussions of film, clinical behaviorism, and marriage manuals explain how their discourses work in their description of the orgasm, Jagose’s engagement with queer theory emphasizes instead the ways in which queer theory doesn’t work to describe the orgasm. Jagose echoes Sedgwick and Bersani in resisting an algorithm of direct proportion which makes liberation as an act of exposure coexenstive with unknowing as a condition of repression, and her criticisms of queer theory are careful and valid. But in the wake of similar criticism from so many of queer theory’s leading voices, her reliance on it serves largely to reinforce the same spiral of negation, the same relentless focus on what isn’t there and on what fails to happen. To put it more simply, it’s not at all clear that queer theory is the best lens through which to evaluate queer theory’s failures, or, for that matter, that queer theory’s failures deserve pride of place in a book about 20th-century orgasms.

This is not to deny the queerness of the project itself. “Willful cognitive dissonance” is Jagose’s description of her book’s relation to its eye-catching cover, but could equally describe the very queerness of the theoretical tool that Orgasmology offers the reader: its own relentless curiosity, its willingness and even insistence on sliding in unexpected directions and showing us unexpected relations. Before we can find a new way of coming together, we sometimes have to beat around the bush for a while. That’s the best of the many lessons Orgasmology has to offer.

Jagose offers a fascinating tour of the orgasm in the 20th-century, and queer theory isn’t the only kid on the tourbus by any means. Halperin’s back cover blurb for Orgasmology is as enthusiastic as his hagiographic reception of Foucault: “Just when they told you queer theory was dead, along comes a book that shows, yet again, what all the excitement was — and is about […] You finish this book feeling ten times smarter than when you started it.” That last part is true, and Jagose’s book is well worth the time. But one can’t help but wonder whether the queerest thing Orgasmology could do would be not to say anything for, or to, “queer theory” at all.  


Sand Avidar-Walzer lives in New York, where he is completing a dissertation on sexuality and ethics.