by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

What was it you whispered to me, that last night we were together? "The communication joining lovers depends on the nakedness of their laceration. Their love signifies that neither can see the being of the other but only a wound and a need to be ruined. No greater desire exists than a wounded person's need for another wound." Your voice was tender, but matter-of-fact, without a trace of urgency. I didn't understand that this was your way of saying good-bye. Only later did I realize that you had been quoting Bataille. And so we bled into each other, slowly, in the dark. At daybreak you left. I never saw you again. I needed your wound, but since that night you've withheld it from me. Instead, you've hurt me far more with your absence. Now my lust, my longing, can never be assuaged. "I wish I could eat your cancer," as Kurt Cobain sang.

Why is it, Deleuze asks, that every love, every experience, every event, scars and shatters us? "Why is every event a kind of plague, war, wound, or death?" We are never equal to the event, Deleuze says, but always too early or too late, too frenzied or too passive, too forward or too withdrawn. Either it is "my life which seems too weak for me, and slips away"; or else "it is I who am too weak for life, it is life which overwhelms me, scattering its singularities all about, in no relation to me." Either way, my love for you is a lost opportunity, a missed encounter. The events that move me, that affect me, that relate me to you, are precisely the ones that I am unable to grasp. It isn't me and it isn't you, Bataille says, but something else that passes between us: "what goes from one person to another when we laugh or make love." Something lost in the instant, over as soon as it happens. Something inhuman, at the limits of communication. "Life doesn't exist inside language: too bad for me" (this is Kathy Acker, in My Mother: Demonology, appropriating, translating, and rewriting--channelling, in short--the voice of Colette Peignot, better known as Laure, Bataille's lover). I can't hold on to your life, or your love; I can only retain the trace of its passage, in the form of a scar. That's why every communication involves laceration. You got through to me only when you left a mark on my skin: a bruise, a puncture, a gash, an amputation, a burn. I was never able to possess the softness of your touch, the roughness with which you fucked me, the mocking irony of your voice. They were all too much for me, and vanished into the night. Only the memories remain, grotesque memorials etched ruinously into my flesh. Every line, every scar, concretizes your absence. For we suffer from reminiscences, and every reminiscence is a wound: whether slashed across the epidermis, or hacked out by the fraying of neural pathways in the brain.

It's difficult to realize just how sensitive skin really is. Even the slightest breath sets it all aquiver. Even the oldest slash or bite never entirely disappears. The skin, like any membrane, serves two complementary functions. Functions that are both so vitally necessary that "no life without a membrane of some kind is known" (Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan). On one hand, the skin marks a boundary, separates the inside from the outside. It guarantees the distinction between me and the world. It protects me from the insatiability of your desire; it preserves my guts from spilling out, and oozing in a sticky, shapeless mass all over the floor. But on the other hand, the skin (like any membrane) is not an absolute barrier; its pores, orifices and chemical gradients facilitate all sorts of passages and transfers. All along this surface, inside and outside come into intimate contact. Nutrients are absorbed, poisons excreted, signals exchanged. This is how I remember you, flesh sliding over flesh. My skin is the limit that confines me to myself; but it's also the means by which I reach out to you. It's like the prison walls Blanchot writes about, that both isolate the inmates one from another, and allow them to communicate by tapping and banging. What would happen if these walls were to come tumbling down? Could either of us endure a nakedness so extreme? How could we talk, how could we see, how could we touch one another? The exquisite pain of nerve endings in immediate contact... "Making love is such an entire negation of isolated existence," Bataille enthuses, "that we find it natural, even wonderful in a sense, that an insect dies in the consummation it sought out." But I didn't die when you came to me and when you fucked me; alas, I didn't even die when you left me. "I wanted us to be so naked with each other," Acker/Laure writes to Bataille, "that the violence of my passion was amputating me for you." But "as soon as you saw that I got pleasure from yielding to you, you turned away from me... You stated that you were denying me because you needed to be private. But what's real to you isn't real to me. I'm not you. Precisely: my truth is that for me your presence in my life is absence."

Which is why there is always a wound, whether of penetration or abandonment. We know that there can be no final nakedness. No last ecstatic unveiling of desire. Flay my skin, and all you'll do is uncover another layer. Fuck me hard, again and again, but it's never hard enough. "Love makes this demand," Bataille himself warned me: "either its object escapes you or you escape it. If love didn't run away from you, you'd run away from love." That's how I measured your distance from me, even before you left me. Your sweat, your saliva, your odors, your secretions: they penetrated every last one of my orifices and pores. But that's precisely how I knew that it was you. You seeped into my body like a beautiful toxin. Your alien stench remained, never losing itself in mine. The more our flesh intermingled, the more aware I became of your difference, your indifference, your utter separation. I spent hours tracing your piercings and tattoos, unreadable signs, like the armor and display of an alien species. But isn't this torment really what I sought from you? It was your strangeness, your haughty coldness--your irony, in short--that so captivated me. Who knows what cruelties and deceptions you nurtured just for me, even from the very first time we met? Who knows with what subtle poisons you nourished my blood? "As soon as I see that I need you," Acker/Laure tells Bataille, "I imagine your absence. Again and again I'm picturing you rejecting me. This is the moment I love." I felt you most powerfully at the moment of your departure. The proof that you were real (and not just my fantasy) is that, when the time came, you simply weren't there for me. I secretly always knew that you would escape me in the end, and so I tried to make your betrayal mine.

And that, I think, was my deepest reason for going under the needle. "Getting pierced and tattooed tends to develop a person's awareness of memory," says the great tattoo artist Vyvyn Lazonga; tattoos "can function as physical reminders of something very meaningful that happened in the past, and stand alone as a powerful statement of who the person is or is becoming." These inscriptions in our living flesh are markers of intensity, memorials to impermanence and change. I resolved to monumentalize what I couldn't forget in any case. I cherished these wounds, for they were all that you left me. Rather than mourning your absence, I emblazoned it in all its glory. Each stab of the needle renewed the tang of another memory, polished another facet of my joy and humiliation. "There was pain; the pain was sharp and particular; the pain was so particular that he was able to isolate it... Dreams are made actual through pain" (Acker). A figure slowly emerged, my totem animal, a spider in black and red. Carapace, poison sac, eight articulated legs, crawling flush with my shoulder. Pain, rather than death, is the mother of beauty. I didn't abjure my suffering; I transformed it into adornment. I made myself into a work of art, as Wilde and Foucault recommend. Look at me now. These tracings aren't on my skin, they are my skin. Postmodern art of surfaces, pulsations of the membrane. "A strafing of the surface," Deleuze calls it, "in order to transmute the stabbing of bodies." It's impossible to distinguish now between literal and metaphorical levels of meaning, between sensuous images and intellectual symbols, or between physical and metaphysical wounds. They all flow together in the folds and ripples of my flesh. "My wound existed before me, I was born to embody it" (Joe Bousquet).

And there lies the whole problem of communication, does it not? What goes in, what comes out, what gets transmitted across the membrane? I thought I was self-sufficient, but desire made me porous. Every symbolic articulation, every inscription of meaning, leaves a scar on my flesh. Every particle of sense is a kind of contamination, an antigen coursing through my bloodstream. That's why dialogue is impossible. For me, it's only my wounds and piercings that can talk. Now that you've left me, you tell me that of course we'll always be friends; but I'm not sure I want that sort of friendship. Hello, how are you, I'm fine, have a nice day: is this what it all comes down to? Interchangeable selves in a perfectly uniform world, so that one fuck, one lover, is just as good as another? That's your ideal of transparent communication: everything already agreed to in advance, so there's no danger of misunderstanding or conflict. I would have nothing to tell you in such a world, and you would mean nothing special to me. How convenient for you! It's precisely for this that Acker/Laure reproaches Bataille: "You believe that everything that's outside you ('reality') is a reflection of your perceptions, thoughts, ideas, etc. In other words, that you can see, feel, hear, understand the world. Other people." You think that all our problems could easily be resolved, if only we would sit around and talk them through calmly. Well, maybe friends converse that way, but surely lovers do not. And you claim to have a self that's coherent with the rest of the world. But not me; I certainly don't. "I don't believe that," Acker/Laure goes on, "I believe that I'm so apart from the world, from other people, that I have to explain everything to every single person to such an extent in order to communicate at all that, for me, communication's almost impossible." The moment you wanted and wounded me, you wrenched me apart from the world--and what's more, even worse, from myself. That very instant, I ceased to be a coherent, communicating self. My being was splayed, instead, upon the cross of your disregard. "I'm not an enclosed or self-sufficient being" (Acker/Laure) any longer. There's no common measure between the "I" and the "you."

And that's why pleasure alone just isn't enough. "We're alive only at the top of the crest," says Bataille, "a flag flying high as the ship goes down. With the slightest relaxation, the banality of pleasure or boredom would supervene." Most Americans hate pleasure, especially someone else's: hence the moralizing campaigns today against smoking and drugs and promiscuity and obscenity. But Bataille's objection is altogether different. He's concerned rather with the feebleness, the mundanity of our pleasures. A pleasure that truly affirmed itself would turn into something else. "Any sensation," no matter how pleasurable, as Pat Califia says, "that continues without a pause will eventually be perceived as painful, especially if it increases in intensity." And "many of us," she adds, "do court pain and welcome it. There's the burn that runners pant for, the ache an athlete in training prizes. Pain is also a signal that an emotional impasse (an old conflict, buried grief) is being released. Pain can be a signal that sensation is returning to a part of the body or psyche that has gone numb." I can't separate the past from the present, I can't help myself; I scratch at these scars until they bleed afresh. Isn't that the difference between "me" and "you"? For you, pleasure is a kind of stasis that pacifies the self: "a way of interrupting desire, of instantly discharging it, and unburdening oneself of it" (Deleuze and Guattari). You're like Freud, who sees pleasure as a rehearsal for easeful death, the reduction of stress and excitation to zero. But what good is that to me, who no longer have a self? It's only pain that proves that I still exist. I can't discharge my desire, I can't lull it to sleep. I need you so much, you can never give me enough, you can never make me come. "In want," Acker/Laure cries, "everything is always being risked; being is being overturned and ends up on the other side."

So: imagine a skin, a membrane, that's been inverted, twisted inside out. The immense universe of otherness is now compressed within its fragile walls. While the entrails extend beyond it, stretching outward to infinity. That's what my life has been like, since I encountered you. The otherness within me is more than I can bear. My being is dispersed, beyond what I can reach. I've gone so far already; how much further can I go? "Me, I'm insufficient, all I am is fantasies that tear 'me' apart... My life's disintegrating under me, whatever is 'I' are the remnants" (Acker/Laure). You slay me when you touch me, and even more when you ignore me; I get so hot and excited that I can't imagine any respite. Each encounter with you is a kind of death; but I'll never have done with dying. That first night, you tied me up, and left me alone in the dark. I don't know how long I was suspended there, waiting for your return. It was "a time without negation, without decision... without end, without beginning... without a future" (Blanchot). I hung like a fly in a spider's web, a naked singularity. That's when I altogether lost control, when your existence reached out and usurped the place of mine. All my inhibitions crumbled; there was room only for your absence. I realized that "the opposite of love is indifference, not hate" (Kathe Koja), and that the only true opposite of fantasy is pain. You were real, just like an itch that one is unable to scratch. If you didn't come back to release me, well, that was only to be expected: for there are never enough sadists for the masochists we mostly are. But I comforted myself by recalling Laurie Weeks' Theory of Total Humiliation: "we don't erect monolithic reified barriers against the humiliation; rather we welcome it, embrace it; then everyone wants to fuck us, for mysterious reasons."

It was only then that I understood Bataille's terrible irony. I realized that his well-advertised anguish was something of a ruse, and that beneath it lay an incredible distance and coldness. "The time has come to be hard. I have no option but to turn into stone... Is the pursuit of pleasure something cowardly? Yes, it seeks satisfaction. Desire, on the other hand, is avid not to be satisfied." It's not a matter, then, of frustration or of "lack," but of dissatisfaction deliberately sought out. I don't simply find myself in this state of agony; I've got to actively provoke it. I drink, not to be drunk, but to induce the next day's hangover. When you fuck me, I try not to come, but to hold off as long as possible. There's always something slightly phony about Bataille's porno fiction, when he revels in impiety and blasphemy, or when he tells us that nudity is obscene. Sure, let the priest drink his own piss from the communion cup. Sure, let Pierre be scandalized by his mother's bisexual debauchery. Sure, let Madame Edwarda run naked through the streets of Paris, like a savage beast. But what makes these stories so sexy and disturbing isn't that, or isn't that alone. It's more the sense we get that all these transgressions have somehow been staged; that the guilt and dread have been assumed by Bataille, for the sake of emotional effect. It's roleplaying, or performance, very much in the spirit of s&m. Isn't this what makes Bataille seem so, well, postmodern? Only by means of such corny fictions can we put ourselves at risk. Only through such exquisite irony can we shatter our everyday bourgeois selves, and accede to the heights of intense, impersonal passion. It's a bit like children playing with matches, after watching Beavis and Butt-head. For Bataille, there's not much difference between the heedlessness of a child, and the cynical apathy of the Marquis de Sade's heroes. Neither the child nor the jaded libertine believes that e has a self. Neither reposes for long in the stasis of satisfaction. Neither accepts responsibility for eir actions. It's all a matter of ignoring limits, and pushing things just a little bit too far... Bataille records that a certain Wartberg, with whom Laure lived in Berlin, "had her wear dog collars, put her on a leash, made her walk four-legged, and beat her with a stick." Bow-wow. Isn't that much like the story of how you treated me? But whatever you made me do, oh yes I wanted it. And however much you neglected and abandoned me, oh yes, I reveled in it. You drove me to the brink of ruin, indeed you did; but don't presume to think that that makes you the winner. My loss of control, my hysteria, was more than a match for your niggardly airs of detachment.

"How long does it take a man," William Burroughs asks, "to learn that he does not, cannot want what he 'wants'?" I only learn it, he suggests, when I have "reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words." Bataille, too, insists that "the world of words is laughable. Threats, violence, and the blandishments of power are part of silence. Deep complicity can't be expressed in words... I'm only silence, and the universe is silence." Communication is unthinkable, literally unspeakable; only our wounds wordlessly touch one another. My mouth won't speak; like my other orifices, it's just a gaping sore. "I'm so horny when I awake," Acker/Laure writes to Bataille, "I place my fingers in your mouth so you can bite them, only the mouth I'm placing them in is my own." In this silence, this separation, my identity disappeared; only this body remained, this pierced and wounded skin. I don't know what I want any more, perhaps it isn't even you. I could have told you what Marguerite Duras told Bataille one day: "you lived this love in the only manner possible for you, by losing it before it arrived." But I didn't say it; for what use are words and more words? After you left me, I didn't know where to turn. Intense, impersonal moods swept over me, coming and going in waves; I thought I was going to break, and I half hoped that I would. I wanted to kill those parts of me that loved and hated you; I wanted to escape them, I wanted to kill myself. But I found that I couldn't: the endlessness of my longing always returned. "I tried everything," Acker/Laure says, "to lose myself, to get rid of memory, to resemble whom I don't resemble, to end... I tried to give my life away and life came back, gushed into its sources, the stream, the storm, into the full of noon, triumphant, and it stayed there hidden, like a lightning stain."

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