Stories of O

A study of la petite mort focuses on cultural views not sociological explorations, finds Sally R. Munt

April 11, 2013

Annamarie Jagose is an Australian queer theorist who has written previously on lesbian aesthetics and representation. Here, she tackles orgasms. The book’s title suggests it will provide a “science”, or at least a “sociology”, of orgasm: this is, after all, an -ology. However, in common with Jagose’s previous works, this book is taken up instead with the representation, or figuration, of orgasm as a queer project. In keeping with current critical beliefs, the author concludes with asserting the orgasm’s fundamental unrepresentability - perhaps even its escapology - when it comes to grasping what it all means. Of course, many people, perhaps especially women, will relate to that.

After reading this book, I am no clearer on what constitutes an orgasm, for myself or anybody else, although I have learned useful information about faked orgasms - apparently 17 per cent of men faked an orgasm in the past 12 months, compared with 39 per cent of women. Similarly, I know more about how marriage manuals in the 1920s and 1930s used to labour on about simultaneous orgasms but dropped that idea as the reality principle interceded. I learned about straight women’s orgasm, as opposed to gay men’s orgasm (and rather strangely, given Jagose’s previous work, nothing on lesbian orgasms). I suffered through a sad analysis of British behaviourism’s inventive strategies in the 1960s to turn gay men straight via various gruesome forms of conditioning meted out when they were coming. I also observed how the visual representation of orgasm is focused on the face, a cliché of popular representation that seems to have started with Bernini’s 1652 statue of the mystic nun, Teresa of Ávila. Jacques Lacan claimed: “You only have to go and look at Bernini’s statue in Rome to understand immediately that she is coming.” Well, in my view she looks like she is dying, not coming, but perhaps that’s why orgasm is described by the French as la petite mort (notably, in the feminine).

Altogether, I did learn more about orgasms. As a piece of cultural criticism, it is scholarly and carefully wrought. Jagose’s book is mainly a study in representation, following her earlier projects. I would have liked this to have been clearer in the book’s title, because I kept reading hoping to find more sociological material on the orgasm, because I’m interested in what people do, or think they do, rather more than on the image, despite the inbuilt limitations of such research (unreliable narration and so on).

The text at times can be overly generalistic, leaving much of the scholarly evidence to the extensive footnotes. I’m sure Jagose has carefully underpinned her claims, but at times I would have liked more direct information on sources so I could follow a historic argument - and fewer convoluted sentences that run for half a page. Humanities scholars often eschew empirical evidence as intrinsically unstable and naive, as a (nose raised) “search for truth”. Sex, as Michel Foucault famously observed, has been constructed in the modern age as the vehicle par excellence for finding the truth about the self. But there were voices missing in this book - such as those who have been experimented upon, those for whom an orgasm is (perhaps like Teresa) what they pray for, those with extraordinary experiences of orgasm, and those for whom orgasm is just banal, one minute of their day.

The academic project of queerness has been relentlessly coupled to postmodern indecipherability, excess and non-signification, as a strategy of linguistic freedom. The strength of Jagose’s book lies not in the repetition of this romantic position but rather in its careful trace of the human orgasm in social, medical and representational history. “Seeing” orgasm’s trace in this way is quite handy.

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