The erotic is not univocal. Sure, as a category it delineates a certain kind of experience — the erotic speaks to us via our sexuality, through different modes of physical arousal which, of course, is never just physical as we will never have been just a body. (Of course, being just a body is itself a trajectory, a resonance, within the erotic: to be free of the ego and its narratives of selfhood — I am such and such a person, dammit! — and be driven by sexual thirst alone. Ahem.) Eroticism is not only what happens in there or when you're feeling that — and even what happens in there and the feeling of that are wildly varied, even within an individual.
The erotic is a mode of relation that pervades our behaviors, attitudes, assumptions to greater and lesser degrees all the time. For instance, my feelings for Deleuze are erotic. They are not solely erotic. And I don't usually masturbate to Deleuze — although I have been known to discuss Deleuze as foreplay (yes, I am single for obvious reasons). And then there's how I wrote my dissertation, especially my chapters on Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze. But I'm not ready to share that with the world quite yet. In any case, I most certainly feel an attraction to Deleuze's ideas and books and writing that is palpable, physical, that gets me all excited and tingly, my cheeks flushed, my heart aflutter. I definitely rub myself against A Thousand Plateaus — and don't get me started on The Fold. (Not surprisingly, my erotic relationship with Deleuze is different than with Deleuze and Guattari.)
Consider your life for a moment: Why these friends? This set of beliefs? These films, books, magazines, artists, tchotchkes, hobbies? We are seduced by them. In as much as we are drawn to other bodies — people but also art, films, ideas, food, places, plants, animals — we are run through with the way of the erotic.
The erotic, then, is not the sexual. I may watch a pornographic movie but not feel drawn to it at all. In fact, this is usually the case. It's clear that the image is sexual. Just look at it! And it might have millions of views on PornHub with an equal number of thumbs up. But, for me, it's not erotic — and not just for me: for every PornHub video, there are inevitably thumbs down and exponentially more for whom it never showed up on their radar. It may even be an image of something I find intensely erotic in the abstract. And yet there's something about that image that doesn't draw me. I gloss over it as I gloss over most things in this life — as so much noise in my periphery.
The video, however, remains sexual. "Sexual" is a designation of fact — even if one contests the factuality of this or that image being sexual. "Sexual" is a matter of fact, a declarative claim about the thing. The erotic, however, is a state of a body — of my body. The erotic is a relation — a very particular kind of relation. The sexual may or not be erotic to me or you just as the image of the erotic may not be sexual.
For instance, I may see an image that is not sexual per se — let's say a photograph of someone I don't even know, perhaps a friend of a friend, just sitting on a bench with just such a light, just such a smile, just such a posture — and feel undeniably, unabashedly drawn to it. I may swoon; become a bit flushed; see it in my head for hours, days, weeks. I may become beside myself, as they say (what an expression!).
Note that I say "it" as I don't know if I'm drawn to the person or not. What's pulling me is the image much as a magnet pulls; the person and the image are different materials so of course they have different pulls. Which should not be surprising as the stuff of an image and the stuff of a person are different stuffs even if they share certain traits — which tells us something about images as well as eroticism. The erotic is a form of magnetism, a pull between bodies at a molecular level, and hence is a material relation, even if the bodies are invisible (such as an idea, memory, or feeling).
Take writing which, for me at least, is intensely erotic yet is not sexual per se. To write is to go with other bodies, with ideas and words and structures; it's to manipulate them, play with them, have them wash over me as I return the favor and, together, we go through a series of postures and positions at once physical, conceptual, and affective. In many ways, writing is the assumption of positions between and among bodies of various sorts — words, ideas, affects, grammars, people.
Writing is always an orgy. It's why I'm so obsessed with prepositions. For anyone who regularly reads my writing, they'll notice that I often say things such as, "a posture is a way of standing in, towards, and with the world." For what are prepositions other than who goes where in the orgy of argument?
To inscribe, even with pixels, is to caress and be caressed by others — including you, dear reader. Yes: reading is most certainly of the erotic as words, images, figures, ideas penetrate us in a rhythm that moves us, gets us worked up, excited, energized. I haven't listened to a book on tape yet but I can only imagine the erotic potential — to have a world whispered in your ear!
What is persuasive writing other than seduction? It need not be the only mode or even dominant mode. I mean, just pick up Kant: he may be flirting but it's not going so well (which, as Nietzsche maintains, tells us lots about the culture that is in fact seduced by that mode of going). Yet he's building an entire world in and with you — and that can't help but partake of the erotic just as it can't help but partake of culinary appetite. We consume and are consumed; such is communication; such is perception; such is participation in the social; such is life. And while not all modes of consumption are erotic, the erotic is never far off as we're always necessarily taking it all in with our eyes, skin, nose, ears, minds, selves. We live in the push and pull of the world.
And that is where we find the erotic: in the in-between. The erotic relation necessarily ruptures your boundaries, your containment. It is a mode of becoming undone and done in the same gesture.
Mind you, I'm not saying that all beckoning of the world is erotic. We have other drives and draws. We run from fear. We scream in anger. We twitch in annoyance. In all of these cases, the world has moved us a certain way, drawn us in, stirred us.
Such experiences — fear, anger, annoyance, the erotic — may seem pretty common but the fact is most of the world passes us by with no push or pull at all. Most things just don't affect us, speak to us, whisper our names. Most of the time, most of the world passes us by with nary a thought. To be angry about something means that thing, of all the things, got up in your business, as the kids say.
When something irritates us, angers us, frustrates us, annoys us, it's entered a rarified space, distinguishing itself from the wash of sensations that defines our experience nearly all of the time. Something about that thing draws me in even if only to anger or annoy me. How odd is that? I mean, it makes sense that something draws me in with an erotic seduction. But how is it that something pops from the fray, lures me into its orbit, expends my energy only to anger me? What is it about that relationship between me and it? Why do some things affect us so thoroughly, for good and bad, while others drift by as if they'd never existed?
Nietzsche argues that these relationships are constitutive of who we fundamentally are. We are, in some very real sense, the things that affect us. We are defined by the things to which we are receptive — and by our reactions to those things, the terms of that affective exchange. We know people who are drawn, say, to the misery of the world — they call to discuss it, linger on it, seek it out. Such is how they're constituted, the workings of the mechanisms that are their way of going in the world. We are the selection, speed, and rhythm of being affected.
What is is that defines the push and pull of the erotic, that distinguishes it from, say, anger and annoyance? (Before some of you leap out of your seats, I am not saying that anger and the erotic are mutually exclusive; we all know they are often intimately intertwined.) What is this tug that we call the erotic? What does one magnet say to another to entice, or repulse, so decidedly?
The tug of the erotic is a matter of harmonic resonance: that image — it's all images, if we believe Bergson, and I do — vibrates at the frequency of me. As such, the erotic is an event, not a quality per se. The erotic happens. It is always an event of exchange or, rather, of harmonic resonance as the way of disparate bodies become a common chorus. That curve of back, that turn of thought, that flitter of hair, language, gesture: they pull me out of myself to forge a collective resonance.
The erotic, then, is never univocal. By definition, it is a nuptial, a meeting, a convergence of modes. And is radically material, even if invisible (such things as style and affect are invisible but embodied components of an erotic draw). There is no erotic distinct from particular bodies interacting. The erotic event — which is redundant as it's always an event — is particular, a localized happening between and of these bodies here. There is no erotic generality — no idea, no concept, no universal trait we can all erotic. The erotic necessarily happens between particular bodies in time, in place, of circumstance.
The erotic is an operation of the universe. Just as we can see that bodies of a certain speed and weight circle other bodies with some regularity — we call these orbits which are part of solar and galactic systems of attraction — all bodies are drawn to other bodies with greater or lesser intensity. On a planetary level, we have all sorts of names for these forces such as, well, gravity. But there are multitudes of such forces that put bodies in relation to other bodies — and forces that draw bodies together with such vim. The erotic is one such force, a sub-set of magnetism.
As Bataille argues, the erotic is hence always an undoing of stipulated border of bodies and identities. This erotic event is not in a body; you can't touch it, hold it, even know it. It is an experience that happens despite you. It is of your body — a matter of possession by forces that exceed you. Just as magnet has no say in it being pushed or pulled, so it is with all bodies: we are drawn and repulsed despite our identities, self, narratives, despite propriety — and even despite desire.
There is, as Bataille likes to say, a violence within the erotic. You're leading your little life with spouse and kid and job and such and then, bang, you stumble into the erotic. It is a force, an event, that doesn't care for your situation. It happens and tears apart anything and everything you might imagine as your self, your life, your values, your truths, your ethics. This doesn't mean you have to act on it. You are still ethically and legally liable for our actions. But the erotic doesn't care about any of that. It's happening regardless of your will, your desire, your life.
And it's putting you into a pre-ego flow. The erotic affirms your existence by dissipating your identity. This is why people work so hard to parry eroticism, to duck its pull: the erotic is an undoing of your social, existential scaffolds.
But that is precisely the power, and luxury, of the erotic. You are liberated from decision making — of deciding whether to swipe left or right, to propose or not. And liberated from the tyranny of the self. The erotic is a force — not from on high so you can parry it but it is of you and your way of going in the world. The erotic is your participation in the world in a way that belies your best intentions, your social standing, and your very self. It happens as a the very conditions of your being alive, being this body, being here and now — as a Dionysian body. To find oneself within the pull of the erotic is to participate in the mechanics of the universe itself.
No doubt, the how and why of your experience of the erotic is complex. We can turn to psychoanalysis, the Situationists, to Deleuze and Guattari in order to better grasp the systems that manufacture desire. But this doesn't matter to the erotic; it's indifferent to your ideology, your false consciousness, your indoctrination. The erotic speaks to your participation in the cosmic body in a way that is indifferent to your explanations. Which is not to say you shouldn't question or explore these explanations. It's to say the erotic happens despite all that.
The erotic is the very act of the universe arranging which bodies go with which. It's beautiful, if unsettling, to experience the universe organizing itself, caressing itself. O, to experience that pull, that draw of the world! To know — to feel — you are part of cosmic becoming! When you feel that tug of the erotic, when you experience that resonance that makes and unmakes you in the same gesture, that is the universe touching itself.