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The Religio-Sexual Imagination

I’ve recently finished Tim Dean’s “Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking” and overall it is a fascinating book that I think I will be contemplating for the next couple of weeks. Dean’s main objective in this book is to analyze the gay subculture of “barebacking” - HIV+ men having protection-less sex with each other, often with the intention of being infected - and out of this developing an ethics of contact. This ethics of contact would encourage an openness to the other and recognize the pleasure that comes from the risk of the unknown, a vital pleasure for any functioning democracy.

One fascinating aspect of “barebacking” Dean notes is the way its participants consciously, and unconsciously, desire the overcoming of boundaries, the destruction of neat categories that safer sex and risk reduction are meant to create. These participants appear to desire a shattering of themselves at the moment of their overcoming limits. This is very similar to, and Dean makes this explicit, Leo Bersani’s notion that sexuality is already a primary masochism, that the pleasure of sexuality is the way it shatters the ego. This masochistic pleasure, developed in infants to protect them from being over stimulated, is the actual pleasure of sexuality which itself does not require actual genital pleasure and is even connected with death.

Looking at this definition I cannot help but be struck by the similarities between the sexual imagination and the religious imagination as theorized by some people. I’ve encountered in the work of scholars like Jonathan Smith and Robert Orsi a characterization of the religious imagination as that which destroys boundaries, collapses categories, and in general defies limitation; all aspects that make the definition of religion so notoriously difficult. It would appear that the religious imagination has an interest in shattering conceptions of reality, of overcoming the limits of what is perceived. If the sexual imagination derives its pleasure from its ego-shattering then the religious imagination would appear to be the pleasure of shattering the world, though I am not sure yet whether this outer reality would be identified with the Other or the superego.

Still even this categorization is probably too neat and I would think there is a significant interaction between the sexual and the religious. Bersani already makes this connection in his short book with Adam Phillips “Intimacies”, where he shows the similarities between “barebacking” and certain forms of Catholic asceticism. Indeed, the pleasures derived form religious and sexual practices often seem very similar. Both desire a certain overcoming of boundaries and a connection with something transcendent to the self, again disturbing a simple dichotomy of self/world and sexuality/religion. I wonder if there is a particular drive then deeper than both, or perhaps following Bersani these are both variations of a libidinal death drive, a reaction towards the finitude of life.

It would be very interesting to me to explore this idea of a religio-sexual imagination more. I’ve already thought of possible connections that could be made between Bataille and his work on surplus and sacrifice, Satanic practices and contemporary black metal theory, and “barebacking” as Foucauldian Askesis. One potential outcome of such a study would be to find ways that the religious imagination can keep itself open to otherness without becoming dogma. Orsi in “Snakes Alive” notes how in the history of religious studies “bad” religion is often seen as those practices that explicitly use their imagination, while “good” religion in the Academy became a form of liberal universal Protestantism. The problem with this though is its dogmatism, its refusal to acknowledge, study, and learn from other ways of religious being. Obviously there are many other religious practices that also become dogmatic, some not as nice as the liberal Protestant ethos. Still, seems worth investigating if the value of religion is in its imaginative potential for ways of living, ways that we don’t want to dismiss so easily.

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