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Libidinal Ecology: Sex and the Anthropocene (II)

(Part two of a two-part introduction to an ongoing research collaboration between myself and Dominic Pettman. Part one can be found here)

The May 2015 issue of National Geographic features an article entitled, “Quest for a Superbee.” This piece is illustrated by a series of extreme photographic close-ups of bees with pieces of technology attached to their bodies. One caption reads: “A syringe places a minute droplet of phenotrin on a honeybee — sedated in a paper cup — to test the effects of the potent insecticide. . . .” Another photo shows a queen with a bright yellow number 87 on her back, with the caption, “Scientists are now developing hygienic honeybees that also have traits valued by beekeepers: docility, hardiness, and prolific honey production.” But the one that really struck me is a photograph of what is called “instrumental insemination.” The queen is sedated and held upside down in a small tube, while her stinger is held back by forceps and semen is injected from a syringe directly into her oviduct.

My first question, then: Could libidinal ecology be considered a feminist project, or: how to describe and circumscribe the feminism animating libidinal-ecological analysis? What would it look like for feminism to think of desire as an organic resource (which is not the same thing as calling it “natural”) that capitalism is sucking dry?

One obvious tradition and set of resources for us is the literature of ecofeminism. Ecofeminism acts as a corrective to feminism by reminding us that there is no way to think about women without importing specific imaginaries of nature, and it acts as a corrective to ecology by showing that there is a politics to the human domination of the non-human world. It tends to concern itself either with the legacy of women’s inclusion in the sphere of nature, and how instrumental this has been in the oppression of women (see the work of Val Plumwood), or the impacts of environmental destruction and land management on women in particular, in areas at high risk for disaster, like third world slums, in the politics of water, in food production and consumption (see the work of Vandana Shiva). These are related, of course — gender in environmental imagination and discourse, “the natural” in the production of gender, and environmental justice issues concerning women in particular — and so intertwined and mutually co-determining that ecofeminism has joined the ranks of feminism as a discourse that can no longer be easily isolated and defined.

Often overlooked is ecofeminism’s subtle departure from the earlier, feminist foregrounding of sex as the most important area of investigation. The cultural connections between woman and nature on which ecofeminism focuses figure nature as mother. For the classic feminist statements, however, the focus is on woman qua woman, not qua mother. This turn away from the mother takes at least two different but related forms. For American radical feminist thought, at least since Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970), but certainly by the time of Catharine MacKinnon’s Feminism Unmodified (1987) and Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988), analyses of power have been looking closely at sex before they look at mothering and domestic labor. Firestone argues that Marx’s mistake was thinking that labor created classes, when in fact gender creates the first class division. MacKinnon and Pateman both criticize Marx and Engels for locating the oppression of women in the gendered division of labor and motherhood. Before there are fathers, Pateman argues, there are husbands, or men, and before there is the family, there is sex. In the sexual dyad a sort of “original” power differential gets established, then gets naturalized and backgrounded, as MacKinnon shows, in all of the institutions that make up what is called “civilization.” For French feminism, in closer conversation with psychoanalysis than with Marxism, the mother is just another way of stabilizing the feminine, which is incoherent and unstable by definition. The phallic mother is not feminine, because her baby is a substitute for the penis. Irigaray argues the female imaginary becomes intelligible only when woman is replaced by the mother, which results in the disappearance of woman. Femininity’s specificity — as well as its incoherence — arises from the lack of suitable substitute for the male organ, as thus for the coherence of masculine pleasure and language. As Irigaray writes in This Sex Which Is Not One (1985), woman’s organ, her imaginary, and her language are fractured and unstabilizable by definition, and the liberation of woman’s desire, were such a thing to happen, would be a flourishing of women’s “auto-eroticism” and “homo-sexuality.” The mother is once again out of the picture.

As ecofeminism brings much of the feminist focus back to questions of reproduction, then, we might wonder what happens to woman qua woman and not mother. Libidinal ecology allows for a shift in focus back to questions of femininity and desire in non-human or greater-than-but-inclusive-of-human frames. In an ecological framework, libido is no longer directly tied to subjectivity, but it is certainly, and perhaps more urgently than ever, bound up with gender.

Dominic Pettmans initial articulation of the position that “human libido has been tapped out by the rapacious hunger of capitalism” never thematizes gender. And on one hand, there are good reasons not to. Bernard Stiegler’s argument — strewn across all his many books — takes place on the level of the social, pointing to a crisis of the social. Allan Stoekl’s recent book, Bataille’s Peak, makes the next move, taking the planet as a precondition to labor and therefore to historicity and civilization. This was, for Stoekl, Bataille’s unique insight: that what economy must learn to think is energy, “the play of living matter in general,” on the scale of the planet and, indeed, the universe. In our ongoing project, Pettman and I follow Stoekl’s lead, reading Stiegler’s analysis of libidinal exhaustion in ecological terms, so that what the scarcity of libido puts into crisis is not just “man” and “civilization,” but something like “life.” At this high a level of abstraction, it doesn’t seem appropriate to speak of human gender.

On the other hand, when we scour culture, looking for symptoms of the attrition of libido, gender immediately comes to the foreground, often in surprising ways. That our society is hypersexualized (and therefore de-eroticized) is clear not only in the obvious places, like pornography, but in the ways that libido is directed towards consumption. The term “selling sex” is misleading. First of all, unless we’re talking about actual, literal sex work, “selling sex” usually refers to the abstract sexualizing of imaginaries of luxury, wellness, being human, what Pettman calls “sexual satisfaction, erotic intrigues, sensual epiphany.” But this forgets that when capitalism sells sex, it does so by selling women.

Consider this video of adult film star Eufrat Mai, visiting the Spanish factory which makes industrialized versions of her own genitalia as a masturbatory aid for men (aka “the Fleshlight”). Feminist and Marxist tools are pretty obviously appropriate for reading this scene, but what happens to those when we add a new set of tools, a framework that takes the planet itself, and specifically the fragile planet in danger, as a precondition? A libidinal-ecological frame might thematize the materials of the thing itself (mineral oils mixed with polymers and colorants) and questions of recyclability, for instance, as well as problems of attrition and sustainability in other areas, like social bonds (the inevitable turn to cell phone photos and presumably their attendant social networking), the nuclear family (Mai’s hopes to give her future children what her parents gave her) and of course, most importantly, “natural” sex itself (from Aretha crooning in the background to Mai’s linking of the Fleshlight to the naturalness of sex).

Returning to the question of selling women, we might also ask what happens when women are the ones buying the sex that is being sold. Radical feminism thinks about capitalism in terms of women as laborers. French feminism thinks about women as objects of capitalist consumption. What’s missing is a close look at desire in terms of women as consumers. A second question: Does the hypersexualization/de-eroticization of women as consumers take a different form than that of men, and if so, (how) does that matter to ecological thinking? Remember the Herbal Essences shampoo ad where women were having orgasms in the shower? And who can forget the Victoria’s Secret ad campaign, which surely functions differently socially in the age of the Internet than it did when there was a catalog that the man in the house could guiltily enjoy for all the “wrong” reasons. Who looks at those ads now; at whom do the gorgeous, scantily clad, long haired, bedroom-eyed “Angels” peer at from the glossy photos? At Sephora, an unprecedented number of makeup items now have risqué names. As we speak, Urban Decay has a mascara called “Perversion,” and a lipstick color called “Lost Cherry,” Marc Jacobs has a blush called “Promiscuous,” Too Faced has three mascaras: Better Than Sex, Lashgasm, and Size Queen, and famously, Nars continues to sell its massively bestselling color “Orgasm” in every formulation, from blush to lipcolor in various formulations (and now also “G-Spot”). Accompanying each of these products is an image of a beautiful woman’s face, glossy lips ajar, heavily lashed eyes closed in ecstasy or open, promising delight (but again, to whom?). Libidinal ecology reads cultural symptoms like these — from the more fringe, like the Fleshlight factory video, to large-scale, like Nars’ “Orgasm” makeup — in terms of broader narratives of scarcity.

Even literal narratives of the loss of libido, as thematized in medical discourse, are gendered. Women’s “enhancement” drugs are advertised as “libido enhancers.” The loss of desire is a female problem; men lose erections or ability to “perform,” while women lose desire (in contrast, men’s drugs as a group are called “male enhancers.”) We can speculate about why this difference exists, but what is more interesting is the unique anxiety that the idea of women’s loss of desire inspires. It’s especially strange given that, in contrast to men, women’s entire contribution to the reproductive act can take place without orgasm, and even without desire. Libido enhancers are marketed at women past childbearing age, anyway, and these are not drugs typically associated with fertility treatments. Clearly, it’s not the future of the human race that’s at stake, so why would a shortage of libido in women provoke such anxiety? Is it possible that the anxiety around feminine desire betrays an even greater level of scarcity in this area, or a more nuanced imaginary of scarcity? Even as we can imagine a world in which babies are made entirely in the absence of women’s desire, perhaps without too much terror, the mood changes when we project the same thought experiment onto the nonhuman world. Following Lyotard’s version of libido, as “not something the subject possesses, but a force that provisionally assembles the subject-effect through its dynamic vacillations,” (Pettman’s gloss on Lyotard’s notoriously difficult book Libidinal Economy), we imagine a non-human world assembled by the dynamic vacillations of energy, light, life, indeed everything that goes under the mysterious name of “force.” There, the idea of a femininity no longer animated by this force, one that no longer desires and is exhaustively manipulable by market forces, is much more terrifying.

Libidinal ecology identifies Bataille’s The Accursed Share as a founding text, but it must also map roads by which to depart from Bataille’s notion of general economy. Plumwood’s insight in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, that there is a politics to human domination of non-human nature, is directly at odds with claims like “anguish is meaningless for life as a whole” and the binary opposition Bataille creates between justice (a guarantee against risk) and freedom (a willingness to assume risk), with an obvious preference for the latter. While he identifies the problems of the world in its present state as resulting from “the unevenness of the (quantitative or qualitative) pressure exerted by human life,” his paradigm of limitless energy limits him to thinking only quantitatively, even distributively. Bataille fails to address qualitative differences in environmental pressure, leaving questions of justice and anguish to the category of “public affairs,” to be managed only from restricted economic points of view. This reduces all environmental justice problems to environmental problems. But a posthuman take on justice argues for the opposite: all environmental problems become problems of environmental justice (as the queen honeybee suddenly appears as female in a system of techno-capitalist patriarchal domination). The challenge, then, is for general economy/libidinal ecology (if they are the same thing) to begin to think justice, quality, and difference in ways Bataille could not. We need a framework from which to witness anguish, gender, and justice in conditions of attrition in realms that are always more-than-human. Is the unrecyclable mountain of copies of 50 Shades of Grey, the ecological disaster produced by the collective libido of bored housewives, the same sort of thing as the possible disaster caused by the carbon footprint left behind by European men on Asian sex tours (and Asian men on European sex tours)? What are the relevant differences, and relevant from the perspective of which living beings, both human and not? Can libidinal ecology make a convincing case that a theory of libido is important, perhaps even essential, to political analysis of domination in the relationship of humans to everything else, including each other?

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