There is love in its endless applications: love without limits, the love of humanity, of the world, of music, of the sea and the mountains, of poetry. There is the love of philosophy, which is called love of wisdom, which, in turn, seems to consist only in loving what one cannot judge, know, or reject: the totally other as other, the wholly outside as outside, death, and love itself, this fierce impulse to die in the arms of the other or to make the other die in our arms.
There is this limitless, inexorable, unbearable, crazy, impossible love, and there is the love we make and for which “to make love” is really the only expression we have (otherwise we could say “to sleep with someone,” which lacks elegance and masks all the vulgar, coarse, obscene, dirty, shameful, unspeakable words, or words that are reserved to be articulated, cried out, or murmured only in the act of love itself ). The latter love is typically called eros while in the former case, the vocabulary oscillates between philia, agape¯ , and caritas.
These two loves have in common an élan, a surge, a rush without reserve and without horizon: the goal is not defined, the outcome is not described; it is a matter of us being carried there, knowing that it is not a question of arriving. Perhaps we might claim to trace the contours of a possible finality: if the totally other is my neighbor, his proximity seems to legitimize and even appeal to my predilection, the choice that I make with regard to him, and the immense value that I attribute to him; or else, my impassioned desire is supposed to reach a level of satisfaction where it is appeased. But we know perfectly well that proximity is never given without immediately being withdrawn in an infinite strangeness. We also know that there is no “satisfaction”—no satis, no “enough” for that which desires less to satiate itself than to desire anew constantly.
In these two disparate manifestations, love offers the same demand for the infinite: it never ends because it is fueled by never ending, by not limiting itself to what I can be, possess, and do. To make love is to undo my being, my possession, and my work; it is to make an absolute nonwork. Where it seems most complete, that is, in the harmonious oppositions and movements of the one to the other in Eastern thought, it is no less infinite—unless “love” is understood to be a disorder, an agitation, which, for all that, is no less infinite.
Reproduction figures at the horizon of each of these kinds of love, whether it takes the form of the group’s preservation through a communitarian peace, or the form of the species’ (and/or the group’s) preservation through the generation of new individuals. In either case, though, the task is exceeded: both the new individual and the group constitute a renewal of desire on their own behalf rather than a mere product of that desire.
Sex perhaps suggests a sum, if not the sum, of this renewal of desire, which is in fact the very definition of desire. As we are learning, the diversification of genomic characteristics is not necessarily the surest benefit of sexuality even if it is a compelling force. Through mutations, asexual reproduction is no less exempt from diversification, possessing moreover the advantage of speed. In addition, it is possible that sexuality contributes largely to the restoration of genes affected by various accidents, hence to preservation more than diversification. For these and other reasons, biology struggles to give a “sufficient reason” for sex. Perhaps it is necessary to consider that sex matters
just as much in terms of relation (rapport): diversifying or not, sexual relation (le rapport sexuel) introduces a supplementary dimension—diversifying in its own way—within the species, or even, in some cases, at the limits with other species. Yet how might this relation as such offer a sufficient reason (ratio sufficiens)?
The asexual individual that reproduces itself through self-division does not enter into a relation. Relation, in its active dimension, is already present as part of nourishment and extends to cannibalism, which, for certain biologists, could be the origin of sexuality,
the absorption of one cell by another leading to the discovery of new resources; we already know how many links can be made between nourishment, orality, excretion, and sex. Relation is also present in the sharing of warmth or cooperation in construction, in
hunting, in surveillance, but in such cases it always involves species-specific behaviors. With sex comes a relation that is also specific to the species, but it includes fairly general characteristics of seductive behaviors, linked to particular and differentiated morphologies and to the expression of elation through colors, volumes, smells, and cries. It would be necessary to engage with a Naturphilosophie of vegetal and animal sexuality, which would show how, around sexuality, an intensification, amplification, and diversification of traits and behaviors are produced, which cannot be simply assimilated to arousal with the goal of reproduction. There is a supplementary dimension that cannot be reduced to a finality (think of the rooster’s comb or the profusion of eggs among certain fish), an incandescence that other phenomena of color, odor, and sound do not attain. It is even tempting to think that these phenomena (the hues of rocks, skies, and leaves, or the variety of skin, forms, etc.) offer a polymorphic, general, and purposeless excess, and that sex would somehow take over its very singular spectacle (turmoil, noise, effervescence) in even more exalted ways linked to the arousal of life that desires itself as a relation between living beings, their generations and their genres.
Sexual arousal, with an animal force all its own and its singular influence over the human animal, represents an ontological turbulence of relation: it takes us just as far as language does, that is to say, to a place that excludes satisfaction, where we cannot do enough, yet where something is always to be done, something that never comes about nor results, and is therefore never “done” but constantly seeks to be done.
What is made, then, when we make love? (Related question: in how many languages does one say, more or less literally, make love?) We make nothing in the sense of production (if a child results, whether or not he or she is considered a production, that child is not love as such, which can very well be completely absent). We make in the sense of performing an act, but the designated act is not an act; it is a sentiment, a disposition, the arousal of relation that reaches beyond itself toward something that seems destined either to renew it indefinitely or to surpass it in an embrace where it concludes without us knowing how to interpret that sense of concluding. At the very least, this At least one thing is sure: love cannot merely be said; even its saying must be a doing. expression indicates an effectiveness of love that no declaration, no demonstration, no testimony can claim to convey. This is why, in a sense, it is not impossible to make love outside the limited sense of a sexual relation: the exchange of looks, of such and such contact, of words too that can venture into the terrain of this “making.” For at least one thing is sure: love cannot merely be said; even its saying must be a doing. “I love you” is a performative: it does what it says. The embrace only adds an excess saying, performing its own limit.
If it can only be made, performed—which, of course, has nothing to do with what is called “sexual performance” (nothing except perhaps precisely the fact that this representation of performance, of perfection in making [love], and of the capacity to enjoy (jouir) and to give enjoyment (faire jouir), must be related to this preeminence of making [love])—if, therefore, it can only be made and if perhaps even love with all its values (spiritual, familial, amicable, selfless, etc.) can only be an act and a “work” in the sense that Christianity has given to this term, it is perhaps now necessary for us to try to think and say something about the actuality of this act.1
This actuality has been most often and for the longest time—and in most cultures—bound to extreme modesty, to restraint in terms of what could never be shown or what could only be shown between the lovers doing it. As Emmanuel Levinas writes in an
isolated note: “Obscene: love that others make.”2 This also means that what we make is not obscene. However, in making it, we do not speak about it—or else what we say participates in the obscene, is an exclamation of the obscene.
Why would it be necessary to speak about it?Because, quite simply, Freud’s theoretical exposé of sex did not happen by chance, since several routes toward it had already been paved by various anthropological methods of the nineteenth century. It was no accident because it is not surprising to invest in new ways in what had been carefully and constantly submitted to moral and religious control, that is to say, what could only remain veiled, so as to better ensure its sublimation into divine love.
The veiling of sex is merely a new mode in the Christian context to continue the ancient sacred regard given to sex. There are probably very few cultures in which sex is not or has not been the object of particular dictates, such as the veneration of genital organs, systems of kinship and legitimacy of unions, taboos or terms of impurity, condemnations of certain forms of sexuality, sacred forms of prostitution or else sexual
practices linked to spiritual exercises, just to give some examples from a list that could
be expanded and explained.
If it is true that Christianity, among all cultures, has probably represented the form most inclined toward sexual abstinence and suspicion, this is clearly not unrelated to how Christianity has defined the motif of love. Christian love does not distinguish itself
solely, as it is said often and rightly so, from eros in terms of the desire for appropriation. Besides, across a large swath of Catholic theology and spirituality, agape¯ —defined as affection, spiritual love, and cherishing (which becomes caritas) of the other—has come to parallel eros in several respects. Charity and lust are certainly opposed, but the one cannot be entirely unrelated to the other, for it is indeed necessary in some way to love what one desires and to desire what one loves. In fact, charity and lust are defined in terms of each other as much as they seemingly reject each other.
Around 2000, François Martin created
this work of art on a wall in Jean-Luc
Nancy’s home, on top of the damage
caused by a water leak. Nancy took a
photograph of the wall before it was
plastered over and gave the ephemeral work the title Pompéi—villa du mystère en trop.
If the only love that is worthy (or even, exists) is that of God in the subjective genitive sense (love that comes from God, and even the love that makes the being of God), then this love borne in the whole of creation, love itself as creator, simultaneously relegates all non-divine love into insignificance and calls every creature to enter into this love, to become love. Two underlying tendencies—which both bring together and splinter—have therefore governed and divided Christianity: an infinite diffusion of eros and an absorption of every desire and pleasure into an originary cherishing.
The two tendencies together are to be understood under the sign of the infinite (we could even add, with a nod to Levinas, of the infinite and/or totality). If love, however we view it, is the search for a good, with Christianity it became the search for an infinite good—which also implies that this infinite good infinitely precedes the quest for it, exceeding and requiring (exige) it in the exorbitant (or strictly etymological) sense of the verb exigo (to accomplish, to bring to an end, without reserve).
On the side of the infinite, exigency exceeds absolutely all possibility of realization, or is realized only as the divine act from which it proceeds. God creates through love, and this love desires to return to itself infinitely. Love becomes the name of an infinite return—to the origin, to the self, to the absolute other. On the side of totality, it is necessary to understand that the whole is no longer an order (a cosmos with its arche¯ and its logos) but an envious, ordering choice (giving new meaning to en arche¯ e¯ n o logos). It orders us to prefer it, just as it has preferred us (to nothing). There is an absolute debt.
There is debt: the duty to return love that has been received. At the same time, this love received constitutes an unlimited credit: love stakes its claim everywhere, in everyone. There is something resembling totalitarianism in this, a totalitarian economy of love, and behind this economy of love, and certainly not without significance, we see looming an economy of profit.
It is here that sex is closest, even most intimate. It is in energy that the two aspects of this new organization of things (of affects, relations, the world) mobilize together or in turns. Be it in its excess or its claims, Christian love mobilizes sexual energy (much like the élan of Platonic eros toward the Ideas). Of his love of God, Augustine wrote, “when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self.”3 Or, perhaps we should say, on the contrary, that sexual energy mobilized Christianity when that energy lost its purpose, having somehow in late Hellenism and in Rome lost the impetuous, overflowing, in short, the physically mystical élan that we see in the lover in Plato’s Phaedrus. (Conversely, with regard to everything in Christianity that stems from Judaism, it is remarkable that what we might call the Jewish blessing of sex persists in Christianity, not without very significant modifications. The God of Israel does not wait for his love to be returned.)
It is on this basis that we can understand how sex manifests itself in the modern world with vigor, a virulence and even violence that has never been seen before. It is burdened with all the energy that divine anger can no longer manage, and that the machines of production cannot contain.
The very singular appearance of the Marquis de Sade in European culture must arguably be understood in this light: he appears at a time when sexual energy was left to its own devices, with no other aim. “There is no God, Nature is sufficient unto itself,” says Justine.4 This sufficiency affirms and essentially denounces itself right away because what it undertakes arises from an endless dissatisfaction, which is itself double. On the
one hand, enjoyment (jouir) can only be projected into an endless multiplication, and on the other, it can only have its ends in itself, which means above all that it must have an end, inevitably, in both senses of the word. Enjoyment does not cease to end (jouir n’en
finit pas de se finir). It is thus enraged and can only be conceived as a general destruction, the logic of which tends toward self-destruction.
Sade was not alone. Shortly thereafter, Charles Fourier offered an altogether different image, but it was no less fraught with jouissance delivered over to its endlessness, that is to say, to the bad infinite, to that which is subordinated to the aim of an accomplishment, a totality the phantasm of which is tirelessly renewed and exhausted. It is in this manner that we have come to understand jouissance in a sense other than satisfaction (assouvissement) that simultaneously attracts, limits, and disappoints. The question we face today is whether we can actually enjoy, or know how and want to enjoy, only on the basis of this phantasmatic and exhausting (in truth, already largely exhausted) horizon.
In the passage from the Confessions cited above, Augustine continues: in the love of God, his soul “tastes food that is never consumed by the eating . . . [and] clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfillment of desire.”5 In the mid-nineteenth century, Walt Whitman writes of “the irritable tide that will not be at rest, / The like of the same I feel, the like of the same in others.”6 Whitman, like so many others after him, shows us definitively that divine embraces are not exclusive and can occur in the absence of God.
That is what I am trying to get at. Today, we can speak and think of sex—which is still one of the ways of doing it—without being confined to a choice between Sade and Fourier, between destruction and consumption, between two modes of excess—and without having to resort to the phantasmatic embrace of an Other who would enjoy in our place. We can and we must be able to consider sex in terms of existential value—of a disposition inherent to the very exercise of existing.
In the manner of Immanuel Kant affirming that common reason does not need to be educated in moral law, which it already contains, we can affirm that no one needs to be educated in the truth of sex. This truth precedes us. It is not even the truth of sexuality—with all the many modulations and complications of this function—which it also precedes. Sex is not a function, and it is neither the division of the sexes nor of genders
in whatever way these terms are understood. Sex is an abyss and a form of violence: through the latter, we submit to and fall into the former, where we understand nothing.
The abyss is indicated by Kant:
What is the reason for the fact that all organic beings that we know reproduce their species only through the union of two sexes (which we then call male and female)? We cannot very well assume that the Creator, simply for the sake of curiosity and to establish an arrangement on our planet that pleased him, was so to speak just playing. Rather, it seems that it must be impossible for organic creatures to come into being from the matter of our world through reproduction in any other way than through the two sexes established for this purpose.—In what darkness does human reason lose itself when it tries to fathom the origin here, or even merely undertakes to make a guess at it!7
More than the “origin,” Abstamm designates the originary strain (souche originaire)—a strain whose secret consists in a division, in a dehiscence that cannot be reduced to necessity, and which could be taken for a fantasy if we were allowed to imagine a whimsical creator. Kant’s confusion cannot be attributed to his rudimentary biology: I have already indicated that the resources proper to chromosome division are not sufficient to establish the complete superiority of sexual reproduction. Rather, we must set aside notions of superiority—besides, even if we want to retain this logic, there are very rudimentary sexed beings (for example, yeast, which is single celled).
The violence has been portrayed by Montaigne:
We eat and drink as the beasts do, but those activities do not hamper the workings of our souls. So in them we keep our superiority over the beasts. But [sex] makes every other thought crawl defeated under the yoke; by its imperious authority it makes a brute of all the theology of Plato and a beast of all his philosophy. Everywhere else you can preserve some decency; all other activities accept the rules of propriety: this other one can only be thought of as flawed or ridiculous.8
Earlier in the same essay, Montaigne wrote that sex leads us to think that “man is the plaything of the gods,”9 that is to say, what Kant refuses to think, and as a result, perhaps thinks all the more. In fact, sex makes us laugh: every culture seems to know sexual jokes. It makes us laugh, or else it embarrasses us, even if it is not repulsive. There is a violence and/or an incongruity of sex in the face of which we turn away through
laughter or modesty.
However, laughter is not always a defense. It can also indicate the absence of a conclusion, the resolution of an expectation into nothing (as we see in the work of Kant, Charles Baudelaire, and Hermann Broch). Sex leads to nothing except its own pleasure—though this pleasure is not without a certain pain, as Montaigne also observes. This pleasure has long been interpreted as nature’s means of inciting us to reproduce. However, people have always known how to have sex without risking pregnancy. And even when pregnancy is not intentionally prevented, sex can often arise from an attraction that has nothing to do with any intent to make a baby. We have only to think of Homer’s two epics and their depiction of the extramarital loves of Achilles and Ulysses. Making love does something other than make a baby, even when it does that.
It would be tempting to say that the child is a production (poiesis) and love a practice (praxis). Such a distinction would be too simple, for the child is less a product than another existence, and sexual behavior is not at all limited to acts that we label as “sexual.” It is indeed difficult to decide where sex begins and ends across all our relations, activities, and attitudes. It runs through all aspects of life. What Freud has brought to light, calling it the “erotic drive” (Trieb), is not the unexpected and more or less mechanical stature of a lower register of our human animality: it is the simultaneously new and very old figure of what has always exposed living beings to a surplus of life, and speaking beings an exclamation always at the edge of meaning.
Suffice it to say here that sex opens up the existent to an abyss and a violence that certainly do not deplete the deviating and exposed traits of existence. Rather, they offer at least this characteristic: they—the combination of the abyss and violence—bring us
to the border of a “making” that essentially touches at the same time the dual beyond of the animal and the divine, two names that articulate nothing but existence as its own dehiscence, a sexistence.
This essay was first given as a talk, “Sexistenz,” at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg (HFBK) in May 2015. This translation has benefited much from the help of Diane Brown and Vanessa Doriott Anderson, and I thank them immensely for that.—Trans.
1 I have translated jouir as “enjoy” and/or “enjoyment.” In doing so, the sense of sexual pleasure is no doubt lost or veiled. However, I am but keeping to the more conventional way of translating jouir in psychoanalytic contexts, bearing in mind that psychoanalysis makes a distinction between jouir and plaisir (pleasure).—Trans.
2 Levinas, Eros, littérature et philosophie, 106.
3 Augustine, Confessions, 211 (10.6.8).
4 Sade, Justine, 44.
5 Augustine, Confessions, 212 (10.6.8).
6 Whitman, “Spontaneous Me,” from Leaves of Grass, 104, lines 29–30.
7 Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 70–71, note k.
8 Montaigne, “On Some Lines of Virgil,” in The Complete Essays, 992.
– Augustine. Confessions. Translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin. London: Penguin, 1961.
– Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Translated by Robert B. Louden. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2006.
– Levinas, Emmanuel. Eros, littérature et philosophie: Essais romanesques et politiques, notes philosophiques sur le thème d’éros. Edited by Jean-Luc Nancy and Danielle Cohen-Levinas. Paris: Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, IMEC Éditeur, 2013.
– Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Translated by M. A. Screech. London: Penguin, 1991.
– Sade, Marquis de. Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue. Translated by John Phillips. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
– Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973