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Sexuality in a Non-Libidinal Economy


The historical socialist societies were usually severely criticized for their restrictions on sexual freedom. At the same time, the undergrounds of these same socialist societies were researched for manifestations of the sexuality that was supposedly suppressed because of ideological control. Researchers tried to discover the concealed practices of sexual liberation and subversive behavior, which would enable them to confirm that the expression of sexuality automatically subverts the authoritarian apparatus.

Usually, sexuality stands for freedom and emancipation. However, this stereotype ignores numerous contradictions in the concept of sexuality—sexuality might not necessarily be emancipatory. Foucault attributed the notion of sexuality to the emergence of bourgeois society. He located the origin of sexuality in the discourses that regulated health, clinical deviation, and medical care in post-disciplinary societies.

In the section called “Scientia Sexualis” in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault examines a very important stage in the history of Western European culture and science: when sexuality replaced the culture of Amor and Eros. Sexuality didn’t so much bring with it bodily freedom from restrictions; rather, it introduced a language of scientific, juridical, medical, and psychical description—a language where perversion, punishment, analysis, knowledge, and pleasure are intertwined. The same language that maps and controls sexuality generates its seductive and subversive power. Thus, the superseding of Eros by individual sexuality goes hand in hand with the birth of bourgeois society; the aristocratic poetics of amorous sentiment were replaced by analytical stratification and the control of health, pleasure, and disease.

If we now turn to Deleuze’s treatment of the unconscious, we see that according to him, the unconscious is devoid of any psychoanalytical background and is dissipated on the surfaces of the social. The productive force of the unconscious is divorced from personal pleasure, but still resides in the realm of desire and its libidinality. The dimension of the libidinality of desire is ambivalent. It is far from being exclusively emancipatory. Desire stands for emancipation, but it is also permeated by the libidinal economy. What does this mean? Jean-François Lyotard’s research on libidinal economy can be of help here. Lyotard exposes the libidinal complements to monetary exchange and the economy. The capitalist economy is a total externality, but our critique of it doesn’t situate us beyond its externality, because our impulses and desires are unconsciously inscribed in the production of this alienated externality. We might think that we can resist the logic of capitalist production, but our libidinal pulsions happen to be in tune with this economy: we are unconsciously invested in it, and this is manifest in various forms of our behavior, labor, leisure, communication, exchange, and production. The macabre dimension of this argument is that according to Lyotard, the critique of capitalism itself is not at all free from the pulsions and desires that produce the capitalist condition. The libidinality scattered over the social body of capitalism permeates anything produced under its regime—including anticapitalist critique.

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