UPDATING (THE) USES OF THE EROTIC
from Georges Bataille and Jean Genet to Audre Lorde and bell hooks
The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of its depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.
Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.
The aim of each thing we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible. Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision—a longed-for bed, which I enter gracefully and from which I rise up empowered.
—from Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic”1
If I had my way, I would begin every conversation with Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic,” in its entirety. Try it. Read it aloud. Replace “men” with “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Invite everyone to read alongside you. Alongside us. Like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, and bell hooks, I want to stand on Lorde’s foundation to think about the embodiment of the erotic and intersectional feminism. I am an ally seeking allies.
Just as everyone can occupy/embody/perform the “male gaze” by reading Laura Mulvey through the lens of Judith Butler, Lorde’s “female erotic” is a subject position performed and inhabited by all. As we inflect our reading of Lorde with Butler, we must also think about bell hooks’s work in intersectional feminism. hooks invites us to demarcate existing power structures, asking each of us to take stock of our role in collusion and subjugation, and maps the coordinates of a space that embraces all bodies within a goal of liberation and transformation.
I need Lorde and hooks. In the past, as a masculine of center, white lesbian, I have tried to embody Bataille and Genet’s notions of the erotic. It was a direct route to the same colonizing, polemical system. There is no up-side to re-performing masculine tropes. Doing so is an equation for exploiting unearned privilege. What saves me is my embodiment and my making practice. My body says Lorde; my pre-reflective self says Lorde. Genet’s erotic is a part of a dialectic of subverting and colluding with power, whereas Lorde’s erotic does not sympathize with dominant power structures. Instead, it presents the erotic as existing, regardless of one’s relationship to normative and subjugating systems of power, and extending far beyond sexuality. One’s own perception of personal power—even feelings of subjugation—can be troubled and undone in Lorde’s erotic. But undoing the structures of normative power is not the goal of Lorde’s erotic. Instead, Lorde’s erotic deals with an internal, inviolable sense of power. We find it within ourselves and make space for it.
Places I have found Lorde’s erotic.
2. Making art before I talk about it
5. Teaching or co-learning
What does embracing Lorde’s erotic allow us to release?
In essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation. … Not only do we find in the uneasy transitions of organisms engaged in reproduction the same basic violence, which in physical eroticism leaves us gasping, but we also catch the inner meaning of that violence. What does [it] signify … ? —a violation bordering on death, bordering on murder?
—from Georges Bataille’s “Death and Sensuality”2
Slut shaming and orgasm shaming. Give us a fucking break, brother.
I will not be afraid of individual transformation. Sometime in 2013, I started making marks with a 7H pencil, an instrument that makes light strokes even if you bear down, on a painting. Then, suddenly, I became aware of the extreme gentleness of touch I’m capable of in touching any object or the minds and bodies of others. This became a site of Lorde’s erotic that transformed me; my awareness—especially in performing affirmative and optimistic gestures—created a space for new paintings. I reintegrated fragments earmarked for the trash and found they contained my pre-reflective intentionality.
So I saved and collected them as artworks, yes, but also as metaphors for self-care. I explore this gentleness of touch because within it I can recuperate the energy lost during the violent and aggressive aspects of my own making process, on which I’ve relied over all these years. Now I think about it as a spectrum on which infinite nuance is possible.
Have you ever just wanted to love something enough to change it, for the better, because you were so tired of suffering and couldn’t stand it any longer?
Have you ever hoped it would be possible to make an object that carried this intention into the world? Despite cynicism and doubt?
That is what I want my work to be for me. Born of Lorde’s erotic power, it can represent the most tenderness I can gather in one place. I want my work to end suffering. I want these objects to be a comfort. I want them to inspire belief and faith. Together and separately they are a gift for you.
- Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. California: The Crossing Press, 2007. Print.
- Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. Translated by Mary Dalwood. California: City LightsBooks, 1986.
LISI RASKIN is a visual artist and writer living in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. She is an Associate Professor of Painting at Tyler School of Art.