The Philosophical Pursuit of Pleasure

My title, “The Philosophical Pursuit of Pleasure” indicates an underlying strangeness about this piece for at least a couple of reasons. First, for a lecture series on Spirituality and Sexuality, the title already indicates that I am fudging with interpretations of the relationships between philosophy and spirituality on one hand, and pleasure and sexuality on the other.
One way to connect philosophy and spirituality is to follow Foucault when he says, “We will call ‘philosophy’ the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth” and “we could call “spirituality” the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth” (Hermeneutics of the Subject 15). Viewing spirituality as a set of practices and exercises entails that “for the subject to have access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself” (HS 15). The process of becoming other than what one already is, of straying afield of oneself in a peculiar type of movement, of a subject working on herself to transform herself, precisely describes the labor of an ascesis. So while philosophy might be understood as merely the form of thought that asks questions of a subject’s access to truth, Foucault elsewhere notes that the activity of reading and writing the philosophical text, which is “the living substance of philosophy,” is also that by which “one undergoes changes” (The Use of Pleasures 9). That is, of course, if “we assume that philosophy is still what it was in times past, i.e., an “ascesis”… an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought” (The Use of Pleasures 9).
As for the other relationship upon which the title draws–between pleasure and sexuality–this might seem less strange of a connection. Pleasure and sex are often thought together, and although, of course, pleasure need not derive solely from sex, the type of pleasure that I am analyzing in this paper is sexual pleasure. Let it be quickly noted, though, that “sex” and “pleasure” are complexly related. For instance, not all of what might count as “sex” leads to pleasure–there are situations where sexual acts cause great pain, and not a kind of “pleasurable pain,” but pain pain, bad pain, the kind that people don’t want. Furthermore, even if pleasure is derived from sex, this does not mean that one’s pleasures are automatically unproblematic. Some people view particular pleasures, such as homosexual pleasures, as taboo at best, immoral at worst. And other pleasures are part and parcel to forms of oppression. I’m not only referring to how some people get off by seeing really atrocious things in porn that reflect, reiterate, and concretize sexism, racism, and violence (among other things), but also to other ways in which domination and inequality are eroticized to the point where even those who are dominated claim to actually like it, want it, and enjoy it. Pleasure is a strange thing, then, and despite how badly we might want to think of pleasure as a “good,” pleasure already appears to be deeply enmeshed in ethical and political grounds which require that it be constantly put it into critical question.
This unsteady ground of sexual pleasure sets the foundation for what follows, but first, there is another reason why I think that my title is strange. The way that I am putting philosophy and pleasure together implies more than simply engaging with philosophical texts about pleasure (though there will be lots of that). “The Philosophical Pursuit of Pleasure” gestures toward the possibility that pleasure itself might be an outcome of philosophical practice. In other words, I don’t just want to philosophize about pleasure’s pros and cons and the political implications of what we like. I also want to discuss how pleasures, including sexual pleasures, can come out of doing philosophy. The hope, of course, is that these will be ethically, politically, and even sensually “good” pleasures.
* * *
At present, the idea that sexual pleasure could be problematic is probably more evident in arguments over gay and lesbian rights than anywhere else. As Chris Cuomo argues, claiming the right to be queer, and thereby affirming one’s queer sexual acts (which can also be done by many straight people, mind you), is an important part of the political agenda for LGBT rights.  More specifically, on issues like legal protection against homophobic discrimination and violence and the right to marry, attempts to undermine moral judgments that homosexual sexual pleasures are problematically wrong, unhealthy, or sinful are implicitly or explicitly at work. The goal, then, is to upset moral frameworks that tend to unjustly trump universal rights to sexual freedom, and an appropriate political slogan would be something like, “It’s okay to be gay and to do gay things, so give me my rights!” Whereas this affirmation of homosexual pleasures as “okay” might be a step towards dismantling the normative structures of heterosexuality today (a question that I will get back to in a while), the predominant battle cry about sexual pleasures a couple of decades ago rang out in a different tune.
In the eighties and nineties some of the hottest debates about the problematic nature of sexual pleasure were emerging out of radical feminist circles. Contrary to Cuomo’s political suggestion of asserting that it’s okay to be who you are, the one who enjoys her sexual pleasures, there was an explosion of theorists who challenged the idea that our sexualities should be embraced for what they are.  That is because, at the very core of our bodies and our beings, even in our seemingly basic pleasures, inequality, injustice, and oppression construct our realities and our experiences.
Adrienne Rich’s classic essay on compulsory heterosexuality and the erasure of lesbian existence argued that heterosexuality is not a natural orientation for women but rather the consequence of a “cluster of forces” that keep women in social, political, psychological, and economic, positions under the power of men. Thus, heterosexuality is compelled by patriarchy, and its comprehensive reinforcement occurs through practices, such as the romanticization of heterosexual marriage and limiting women’s reproductive rights. These often serve to benefit men at the grave detriment of women. At about the same time, Andrea Dworkin relentlessly pointed out that the central theme of pornography is male power. The access, abuse, and violence that men hold over women and of their bodies is constructed, materialized, and reinforced through pornographic images.
Catherine Mackinnon picks up this argument to claim that both sexuality and gender are constructed only in reference to male power over women. Dominance, force, and violation are what make up masculine sexuality. They are, indeed, what make one a man at all. And women are thereby defined in terms of what men want from women, namely, to be the dominated, powerless, objects of sex for men. Regarding women’s sexuality, then, it is assumed that “women really want what men want from women [which] makes male force against women in sex invisible. It makes rape sex” (“Sexuality” 213). Rich, Dworkin, and Mackinnon drive home the fact that our experience of sexuality is not natural.  Women’s sexuality is not their own–it wreaks of male dominance. Indeed, it has been constructed by it. And this is because, as Mackinnon states, all of what sexuality means culturally is only understood in terms of “what gives a man an erection. Whatever it takes to make a penis shudder and stiffen with the experience of its potency” (210). That is, domination.  Hierarchy.  Inequality. With a stroke of insight, Mackinnon notes, “[P]erhaps gender must be maintained as a social hierarchy so that men will be able to get erections; or, part of the male interest in keeping women down lies in the fact that it gets men up. Maybe feminists are considered castrating because equality is not sexy” (214, my emphasis).
If, as Mackinnon argues, this gendered sexual system of hierarchy and inequality is the only model of sexuality that we’ve got then sexuality does seem…yeah, a little problematic. It’s force, not love and affection, that frames sex. Furthermore, this means that heterosexual women are not the sole recipients of this model of sexuality.  The same model of inequality is expressed even in homosexual relationship and inverted sadomasochistic scenes where women dominate men. Oppressive structures in sexuality are ubiquitous.
Hierarchy and inequality are so ubiquitous throughout our experiences of sex that it has even become pleasurable for those who are subjected to it. According to Mackinnon, these structures make women live with objectification and domination like fish live in water–“With no alternatives, the strategy to acquire self-respect and pride is: I chose it” (215). But while Mackinnon suggests that women “choose” and accept their subjugated status and domination “only to make it through another day,” thus only as victims, not everyone experiences their sexuality as a victim.
Celia Kitzinger responds to Mackinnon’s argument by noting that “many women insist that they have voluntarily chosen to engage in sexual intercourse, and that they enjoy it, and have orgasms through it…When radical feminists argue that heterosexuality is an exercise of male power, that it is degrading and humiliating for women, many women feel that their own personal experience is being negated” (“Problematizing Pleasure: Radical Deconstruction of Sexuality and Pleasure” 200). Ultimately, Kitzinger agrees with the feminist arguments that sexuality is constructed and that it is constructed of and by male power, but she explains that these arguments must be sophisticated enough to account for the real, genuine pleasure that many women feel when they have sex with men. For such women, who robustly choose to engage in the kind of sex in question, it doesn’t necessarily feel like rape. Lots of sex is actually great, and wanted, and enjoyed. It’s pleasurable.
At this point, it’s easy to see how women’s pleasurable sexual experiences could support the rhetoric of the women’s sexual liberation movement from a couple of decades ago, which suggested that an empowered woman should not feel ashamed of, but rather embrace, her sexuality. She can want it, go out and get it, and enjoy it! It would be inaccurate, though, to think that this was a thing of the past. This position seems to be increasingly popular among young, twenty-something-year-old, self-proclaimed lady “bachelorettes” who are just “living free and single.” Thus, it’s not just that women reluctantly “choose” to have sex because they have no other option. Nor is it that women despise all the sex that they have with men because it centers on men’s desires for domination. Many women actively, and quite happily, pursue and enjoy having sex, even if it reflects a model of sexuality built on force and inequality.
But simply recognizing that some, or perhaps even many or most, women enjoy their subjugated sexual roles and find pleasure in powerlessness does not automatically mean that it is “okay,” especially when that pleasure is contingent on oppression. A key task of the radical feminists was to question the very idea that “anything which gives pleasure is justifiable” (202). Without denying that many women do in fact enjoy hetero-sex, Kitzinger problematizes this pleasure by noting that women find it enjoyable and pleasurable precisely because domination and subordination have been eroticized. Power differences are sexy because they have been made to be sexy. Or, to echo Mackinnon, inequality is sexy—equality is not.
The political and moral implications cannot be under-emphasized. What these feminist analyses of problematic pleasure reveal is that something so apparently individual and personal and presumably “natural” as one’s sexual pleasure is actually produced and developed within social, public, and cultural influences. Even our deepest pleasures are not untouched by politics and structures of inequality. These forces reside within our bodies throughout our muscles and bones. In terms of ethics, it seems important to argue that not all pleasure is good.  Participating in and supporting some sexual pleasures might even be ethically bad. In other words, just because it feels good and you want it does not mean that it should be the case or that we should not put effort into changing the circumstances the produce those pleasures.
* * *
Not all pleasures are good?! Where else have we heard something like this before? Oh right, in plenty of anti-gay rhetoric. Or, as Marcus Bachmann said, “just because someone feels it or thinks it, doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to go down that road.” That’s why he dedicates so much of his time to facilitate “therapy” for gay-leaning kids. And this reminds us of Cuomo’s previously mentioned arguments about the claim, “It’s okay to be gay!” and how this claim entails doing queer things. For LGBT rights, some pleasures have to be defended as okay so that the people who do them can be legally protected.
At this juncture, I want to recognize that the strategy of “problematizing pleasure” can be twisted in such a way that it seems to be applicable to homophobic positions like that of Bachmann. This means that the arguments for challenging patriarchy and heterosexism can appear to be contradictory at the level of if, how, and which pleasures are problematic. However, there is a serious difference between a feminist attempt to problematize the pleasures that stem from the eroticization of power differences between men and women (which reiterate and reinforce male dominance) and Bachmann-esque attempts to problematize homosexual pleasures. Where the former seeks to critically address pleasure to resist gendered oppression, the latter actually participates in the oppression of sexual minorities. Suggesting that homosexual pleasure is a “problem” simply because it is homosexual only works to reinforce the heteronormative status quo—it doesn’t do the ethical and political work of realizing equality. (Again, according to the feminist arguments above, it still could be problematized if the sort of homosexual pleasure in question comes from eroticized power differences.)
With that potential confusion thwarted, there is an important and interesting insight to be gleaned from viewing homosexual pleasure and pleasure from eroticized power differences alongside one another—both reveal that pleasure is subject to politics. I already described how politics are involved in women’s heterosexual pleasures because they are based on inequality with specific reference only to male pleasures, i.e., male dominance. The politics involved in homosexual pleasure can be found, even very minimally, in the fact that insofar as homosexual pleasure is homosexual pleasure at all it has to first be named and produced within a cultural system that gives it meaning as such. In other words, to meaningfully talk about homosexual pleasure requires that there be a discourse that structures what it means to be homosexual in the first place. Why are we not just talking about pleasure without specification based on lines of social identities like sexual orientation, or gender for that matter? What makes something a specifically homosexual pleasure? To answer these questions is to invoke the influence of a dominant discourse about sexuality, one that already has established meanings, moralities, taboos, prohibitions, and political effects. Not to mention a hierarchy of inequality between heterosexuality and non-hetero-anything-else. Given our current time and place in history, then, sexual pleasure comes with political ramifications and is already imbued with political significance. However, none of this is necessarily set, as if things are the way they are because they always have been and always will be. It is rather the case that they have been contingently set through the historical development of the discourse on sex.
Which means that it could have been otherwise. And it could still become otherwise. How?
Ironically, in The History of Sexuality Volume I, Foucault famously suggests that the rallying points for resistance against dominant discourses on sexuality could actually be bodies and pleasures. If it’s the case that our experiences of pleasure are not necessarily natural and innate but rather produced in part as effects of political discourses, whether that be of heteronormativity or male dominance (or both and more), then it’s possible that they can be “constructed” or “produced” in new ways. People change and grow, and as they do, they may come to enjoy or like new things. Pleasures can be cultivated and developed. Consider learning to play the guitar or training to become a runner. Both tasks require practice and discipline, and both change our bodies’ muscular structures and how the activities feel to us while we move from the pain and frustration of a novice to the skill, satisfaction, and grace of a musician or an athlete.
This leads to the thought that perhaps a similarly disciplined approach to other kinds of practices can be useful for creating new kinds of pleasures.  In addition to creating new pleasures, these practices might also be pleasurable in themselves.
In an attempt to elucidate what Foucault meant by “bodies and pleasures” as points for resistance to oppression, Ladelle McWhorter suggests that we use pleasure as a mode of discipline to re-create ourselves as new subjects, newly transformed, and perhaps even so new that our subjectivity and experiences exceed the limits that have been set before us by normalizing discourses of domination. She writes
Counterattack against sexual normalization in general and sexual identities in particular…depends on affirming the free, open playfulness of human possibility even within regimes of sexuality without getting stuck in or succumbing to any one sexual discourse formation. We need to find ways to continue to grow in capability, even in sexual capability, ways to be strengthened and enabled, that don’t make us more docile, more disabled at the same time. Growth, development, change must be fostered, but it must not lead to a narrowing of behavioral possibilities (Bodies and Pleasures 181).
McWhorter gives gardening and dancing as two examples of pleasurable practices that she has undertaken that have opened her up to new ways of understanding and being in her body. They also opened her up to new pleasures. Through the experiences afforded to her by taking up the disciplined practice of learning to dance, her relationship to her body changed. She felt it move through space in different ways, and saw that her body was capable of movements and feelings that she had not yet experienced. And it was enjoyable.
Where McWhorter turns to gardening and line dancing to cultivate new pleasures through disciplined practices, Foucault more provocatively suggests that we experiment with good drugs and sadomasochistic sex. Of course, intensifying our bodily experiences through the use of pleasure would ultimately seek “to open new possibilities for new pleasures and for new ways of being” (BP 185).  The arguments from the above feminists suggest that they would be skeptical about the promise of sadomasochism since it frequently involves power play, but Foucault’s reasoning is still in line with their main concerns.  Rather than focusing on the eroticizing of power differences, he explains that people who practice S/M are not being aggressive but that “they are inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of their body—through the eroticization of the body” (BP 186). Rather than merely eroticizing power inequalities, the body is eroticized in new ways to produce new types of pleasures.
According to both Foucault and McWhorter, these are examples of promising bodily practices that we can undertake in order to disrupt the dominant, and dominating, structures that have constructed our experiences of pleasure. Drugs, S/M, line dancing, and gardening can be pleasurable practices on their own, and when they are approached in a particularly disciplined way, they can create new capacities in us for the new types of pleasures that they afford. But this paper is about the philosophical pursuit of pleasure. Where does philosophy fit in all of this?
* * *
In addition to drugs and sadomasochism, Foucault suggests that the practice of philosophy—philosophical reflection, the exercises of reading and writing—holds promise for political resistance regarding how we experience ourselves and the world around us. As an ascesis, philosophy does not seek to definitively answer questions but rather to continually open onto new questions, and in so doing, open up new possibilities for thinking and being. Philosophy, then, is a great example of a practice that can be undertaken for change and transformation precisely because there is no end goal in sight but to be a continuously open-ended process. As McWhorter explains, “I disciplined myself to the dance, and I became something I never imagined I could become…And in the process I discovered and cultivated immense capacities for pleasures I’d never dreamed of before. The same is true in becoming a philosopher and has been true for me in the practice of writing this book. This discipline of thinking…has changed me in ways I didn’t foresee when I started” (187).
But when compared to other practices like drugs, sex, gardening, and line dancing, there seem to be pretty important differences between these and philosophical practice. First, the sort of practices in question should not just open up new capacities for pleasure, such as how one can eventually learn to deeply enjoy dancing, but the process of undergoing that disciplined practice is itself often pleasurable. Like, for Foucault, the drugs and the sex are already pleasurable before (or because) they open up to other and new pleasurable experiences. Does the same apply to philosophy?
Not all people find philosophy to be a source of pleasure. Some find it boring, some find it frustrating, some find it futile. But there are some, even if they are few in number, who do find pleasure in philosophical practice.  We can acknowledge that it might take a certain kind of person to be drawn to philosophy and find the reading and the writing and the thinking intensely pleasurable. Nevertheless, not everyone likes gardening or line dancing either, so the idea isn’t that the practice at hand has to be pleasurable to everyone.  Thus, probably depending on things like one’s own predispositions, who one reads, how one reads, how one writes and thinks, and how one engages with a question, philosophical practice can be enjoyable. It can be fun. It can be pleasurable.  But can philosophy really create capacities for new types of sexual pleasure?
Well, maybe. Thinking philosophically about our standard ideas of sex and the historical contexts for these notions is a good place to start. Critically evaluating notions such as that sexual intercourse is one thing and not another, that it is “natural” for some people to do certain acts, that some sexual pleasures are “bad,” or that reproduction is the primary purpose for sex, can help open up our minds and bodies to new ideas and experiences that might otherwise be deemed too weird, inappropriate, taboo, futile, or even literally unimaginable. Simply asking, “Why and how has sex contingently become what it is for us today? And who does this serve?” are gateway questions that could lead to the creation of a new model of sexuality that seriously challenges the political limitations that have been imposed on sexual pleasures. It’s likely that such a model could involve different feelings, different kinds of bodies, different roles played by different individuals, different actions, different goals, and different motives.
Luce Irigaray’s early work provides an example of how sexual pleasure might not only be re-figured through philosophical reflection but also through different modes of writing. Her writing, especially her essay “When Our Lips Speak Together,” is sophisticated, playful, and multi-dimensional in terms of what it states and what it enacts, but for now, it’s enough to simply note how Irigaray’s philosophical points manifest through poetic, erotic language.  Challenging masculine, phallocentric metaphysics and economies, while emphasizing reciprocity and inseparability among women, Irigaray writes, “What need have I for husband or wife, for family, persona, role, function? Let’s leave all those to men’s reproductive laws. I love you, your body, here and now. I/you touch you/me that’s quite enough for us to feel alive” (This Sex Which Is Not One 209).  Because we—you/I—are indistinguishable, Irigaray asks, “how could one dominate the other?” And since Irigaray views women as the sex which is not one, but always more than one, she notes, “You touch me all over at the same time. In all senses. Why only one song, one speech, one text at a time? To seduce, to satisfy, to fill one of my “holes”? With you, I don’t have any” (209).
Perhaps most importantly, though, is that when we push the questions of whether and how philosophical reflection might produce new sexual pleasures, we push toward the fruitful possibility of shifting what we first mean by “sex” so that “sexual pleasure” can refer to something that is not yet considered sexual. This is much like Foucault’s example of sadomasochism’s eroticization of different parts of the body. As McWhorter explains, Foucault understood that the process of erocitzing the body, and not merely the power relations between players, “eventually turns sexuality against itself, because it draws on sexual contexts, energy, and imagery to create forms of behavior that are not recognizably sexual at all” (186). This means that critical philosophical reflection can help us unhinge pleasure from what we have come to know as “sex” so that pleasure can stand more firmly on its own. As Foucault describes, “I think it’s…a creative enterprise, which has as one of its features what I call the desexualization of pleasure” (BP 186).
And maybe separating pleasure from what we know of as sex so far is a really good thing. If the feminist arguments from people like Mackinnon are correct and the only model of sex that we have experienced so far is one grounded in domination and inequality, then maybe challenging this paradigm of what “counts” as sex is the most important first step for us to take. If our experiences of sexuality can only be understood in gendered terms where male dominance is masculine sexuality, and if the cultural meaning of sexuality is currently set up according to discriminating lines of normalization between heterosexuals and homosexuals, then maybe we should aim for cultivating new pleasures that are not “sexual” in the way that we currently think of them. If what we are aiming for is equality, or if what we hope for are interpersonal (and perhaps political) relations that are based on love and affection, there’s a really good chance that “sex” as we know it can’t get us there. But perhaps pleasure can, especially if we discipline ourselves to imagine, create, experiment, play, and also to philosophically think, write, and teach in ways that cultivate new pleasures.
This leaves me with one last thing to note.
If all of this talk about philosophy being able to produce new pleasures seems a little far out, this might have something to do with another seeming difference between philosophical practice and other types of suggested practices. One striking difference, at first glance, between philosophy and gardening, dancing, drugs, or S/M, is that the latter are all obviously bodily practices whereas philosophy has been typically understood as a mental, rational, thoughtful, intellectual enterprise that engages the mind and not the body. Even if one were tempted to agree with this split between mind and body and suggest that philosophy engages one and not the other, I want to suggest that philosophy itself can also be reconceived, and re-experienced, in ways so that it does directly involve and engage the body.
Due to the limit in time and space at present to make a sustained argument for philosophy as a bodily practice, my sincere gesture to this possibility will have to suffice for now (and this notion is part of a larger project). I think it is important to emphasize a theme that has been running throughout this paper, which is that philosophy could be approached through the reading of a text, or the writing of a text, or even the presentation of an idea in a way that reveals how undertaking philosophical practice is not just something that changes our minds, but changes who we are, including our embodied experience as subjects. Doing philosophy with this kind of attention to its potential as a bodily practice might make it more similar to the other mentioned bodily practices. It could make the doing of philosophy more pleasurable on its own. It might also more readily reveal how philosophy can produce new pleasures, such as the pleasure of ambiguity, of uncertainty, of not knowing the goal, or of knowing if there even is one…and not needing to get there. Not only do such pleasures resonate with the view of philosophy as an ascesis, one which continually opens onto new questions rather than cementing definitive answers, but I imagine that an openness to things like non-teleological uncertainty would also greatly influence and enhance our experiences of things like sexuality and pleasure.

One thought on “The Philosophical Pursuit of Pleasure

  1. From my extensive research "in the field" I've found many men more than happy to let me take the more active, masculine role when it comes to sex. I almost have to tell them to do their "man part" because they are so "laid-back". Let's face it, in traditional, hetero-sex, the woman does less work.I've noticed that men born in the 70s and early 80s are all about making Feminism work for them, not only in relinquishing their rapist role, but also in taking advantage of being stay-at-home-dads. Nobody has enjoyed the pleasures of post-Women's- Rights-sex more than me. However, I often lament Feminism for giving me "the second shift" and also for feminizing young men.In "Fight Club" the protagonist declares that they are a generation of men raised by women. The men in Palahniuk's story react with violence, which is why so many young men love that book/movie/philosophy that celebrates their ancient urge.For the rest of mankind that isn't an prone to want to turn back to violence, there are a few scholars developing post-Feminism roles for men. Young men with access to college might be exposed to that philosophy, but I would consider that this already occurs among men with good access to resources and education.It's the Middle class and Lower men that cause problems when it comes to allowing their woman equality, because doing so forfeits their only opportunity to feel like a king in a world that steps on them.I guess sex really is about domination. Behavior found in the animal kingdom seems to support this, as well. If it comes down to being dominated or dominating, I choose Door 2 ;D But no man has ever asked me to marry him, either ;P Holly

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