← Philament 3: Offbeat

Beating Off Teleology

A Defense of Non-Productive Thought

Gregory Therel Esplin

Rare indeed comes the opportunity to publish a scholarly piece with a title that includes explicit reference to the act of masturbation. One naturally fears that such an essay will encounter substantial resistance, fueled, not merely by conservative sensibilities regarding the bounds of good taste, but additionally by the concern that the seemingly phallocentric nature of the expression “beating off” might engender claims of male chauvinism. With that concern in mind, I wish to draw the reader’s attention to an alternative interpretation of my title, one that relies on another meaning of the phrase “beating off.” Here we refer to the sense of the words that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “To drive away from by blows, attacks, volleys” (38 a.). For the purposes of this paper, I combine these two meanings of “beating off”: my central claim is that the nonproductive misdirection of libidinal energies involved in masturbation models a philosophical orientation that repels any consideration of the “use” of philosophy. In other words, I suggest that the only “use” of philosophy is found in its utter uselessness. Resisting teleological conceptions of philosophy, I fully embrace the characterisation that many as of late have levelled against “theory,” according to which such discourse is dismissed as a sort of “mental masturbation.”

Importantly, I must stipulate that I am interested in establishing the value of useless philosophical inquiry, not the absence of usefulness as such. In so doing, I seek to demonstrate that in the end the supposed polar opposition of terms, usefulness and uselessness, are mutually implicated within each other on some conceptual level. Thus, I freely admit at the outset that what I explore in the formulation of that which follows is haunted by the possibility of paradox. It is only at such a juncture, however, that we can fully address the important question we faced today: Why should we occupy ourselves with philosophical inquiry?

It is with the awareness that there are many who would answer such a question with the rejoinder—“We Shouldn’t!”—that I proceed. To respond to this indictment we would do well to recall that such a sentiment is not merely a position held by those on the empirically-minded Right, who are interested in marshalling our universities toward the end of producing skilled intellectual workers, adept in technical abilities and “applied knowledge.” Equally, we are confronted with similarly vehement objections to theory, albeit on different grounds, from many left-oriented academics in the humanities who subscribe to the notion that such abstract inquiry ought to be reconfigured to enable more effective forms of political praxis. Against this background, I suggest that philosophical inquiry finds its political power in its resistance to becoming ideologically subsumed into larger ends. By insisting on its non-instrumental nature, such intellectual pursuits hover between—evocative of the second half of Nietzsche’s title Thus Spoke Zarathustra – being “all” about politics or not at all. In this admittedly obscure formulation, I argue that what I will call in this paper “masturbatory philosophy” exists on the margins of political thought. It is not concerned with politics proper, but with emergent forms of politics, challenging us to think beyond our current taxonomies of political subjectivity. Yet, this politics of emergence ought not be thought of as being capable of grounding an alternative praxis in the same sense that it would be wrongheaded to think of masturbation as sex proper. Instead, masturbation is an erotic of the in-between: it is not a sexual relationship with another, but it is a sexual phenomenon all the same. In an important respect, masturbation is entirely sex or not sex at all. The same relationship occurs between masturbatory philosophy and masturbatory politics. Beating (off) the binaries of theory and praxis, masturbatory philosophy struggles to articulate something new. At the same time, however, such an orientation towards thinking risks saying nothing at all.

Before proceeding to further flesh out the intricacies of my conception of the value of philosophy as a masturbatory enterprise, I must first of all lay bare the spectre of masturbation haunting its core, including, of course, the philosophical project that constitutes this paper. When we typically think about masturbation, often we suppose that it usually involves something of sexual fantasy. In such a scheme, the masturbator, denied access to his or her object of desire, self-stimulates for a pleasurable affect, while fantasising about actually having sexual contact with the absent locus of libidinal attachment. In that sense, then, masturbation is not an entirely solipsistic action, but one that relies on one’s desire for others. One’s sense of sexual excitement driving the act of masturbation in that case would depend on the existence of others who provide a basis for one’s fantasies. While we might raise objections to such a common sense characterisation of the psychological mechanics of masturbation, I am only interested at this point in establishing the fact that the named phenomenon is often thought of as an activity that draws upon one’s fantasies about other individuals. Along these lines, we are inclined to think of masturbation as an inferior substitute for authentic sexual relations. Here, we observe the paradoxical nature of the self and the Other within the context of masturbatory fantasy. On the one hand, masturbation would seem to be entirely a solitary activity, one in which no interaction occurs between one’s self and another person. At the same time, however, in the common sense understanding of masturbation at least, the act would seem to rely on the existence of other people, if only to serve as imaginative fodder for one’s sexual fantasies. Relating this back to the notion of philosophical inquiry as masturbatory, we might suggest that such thinking relies on the existence of a previous thinker’s work upon which one further responds through one’s own theorising. The framework for theoretical inquiry I am developing here admittedly consists of nothing wholly original. In my attempt to beat off teleological conceptions of theory, I am admittedly beating off to the ideas of previous thinkers. What I am interested in suggesting, however, is that all thinking consists of such self-stimulation. Here, I am thinking in particular of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of philosophy as “an encounter, a conjunction” between two previously unrelated ideas. [1] Philosophy, on Deleuze’s and Guattari’s account, consists of a response to the ideas that another thinker has already previously conceived. Thus, it would seem that we cannot entirely beat off the masturbatory nature of philosophical inquiry.

Such a conception of thought, of course, does not eliminate the possibility for new insights. Indeed, if we accept Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of philosophy as “an encounter,” the project of philosophical inquiry is always unfinished, necessarily incomplete, because there are always alternative “conjunctions” possible. However, engaging in such philosophical thinking eliminates the possibility of fixed theoretical paternity. In other words, all thought is of a bastard variety. As Deleuze and Guattari write, one cannot definitively state the influence of one thinker on another:

Thus, the question of knowing when and to what extent philosophers are “disciples” of another philosopher and, on the contrary, when they are carrying out a critique of another philosopher by changing the plane and drawing up another image involves all the more complex and relative assessments, because the concepts that come to occupy a plane can never be simply deduced. [2]

This conception of philosophical thought, however, cuts both ways: while it denies the possibility of rigid genealogical constructions of intellectual origins, it simultaneously insists that all inquiry invariably reference the thinking of others. Recalling the paradoxical notion that masturbation is a solitary activity that requires fantasies of others, our original thoughts are enabled only through our interactions with those not our own.

Masturbatory philosophy demands that, notwithstanding the seemingly endless assertions that emerge periodically to the effect that philosophy has reached its completion, there is always yet something more to say, that theory still has philosophical work left to do. While informed by Heidegger in some respects that I will explore later, this paper resists his notion of an impending end to philosophy. In this context, I take “end” to consist of two meanings: 1. a temporal conclusion of unfolding history and 2. a purpose that drives its progress. Masturbatory philosophy rejects both as elements of intellectual pursuit. Masturbation, similar to philosophy, has no end. Thomas Laqueur explains, in his magisterial work on the subject, that the potential for masturbatory pleasures to be endlessly repeated (in contrast to sexual relations, which require the presence of a partner), fueled much of the hysteria around Onanism. [3]

Masturbatory philosophy seeks movement, yet has no destination. Rejecting the notion that intellectual inquiry can at some point be fully completed, such a philosophy never tires of reconfiguring its method. Thus, this beating off approach to thought celebrates the thoroughly offbeat. Here we must cite once more the influence of Deleuze and Guattari’s “becoming-thought” on my conception of philosophy as a masturbatory project. Insisting on the non-teleological potential of philosophy, they write in A Thousand Plateaus:

But a line of becoming has neither beginning nor end, departure nor arrival, origin nor destination; to speak of the absence of an origin, to make the absence of an origin the origin, is a bad play on words. A line of becoming has only a middle. The middle is not an average; it is fast motion; it is the absolute speed of movement. A becoming is always in the middle; one can only get it by the middle. A becoming is neither one nor the two, nor the relation of the two; it is the in-between, the border or line of flight or descent running perpendicular to both. [4]

In this problematic the conflicting rivalry between movement and destination undermines the Western sensibility of progress. In denying an end point, Deleuze and Guattari liberate thought from being directed towards a goal, freeing philosophy to become, as they put it, “nomadic.” Perhaps it is, not so much a matter of nomadic politics being an alternative means of intervention, as it is an accurate realization of our position as fractured subjects, isolated individuals unable to collectively enact political change. In this respect, perhaps the hope that we can find liberation in being nomads shares something with the sensibility that preoccupied Benjamin in his study of urban culture: the very mechanisms of capitalism might contain their revolutionary potential. [5] Resisting the longing for a pre-capitalist world, we hope that we might find redemption in embracing our status as de-centered subjects. It is true, of course, that this politics of resistance seems strangely similar to the mechanisms of Capital. However, far from being a concession to the dominant powers, this is precisely its liberating appeal. [6]

The nomad’s refusal to mourn a lost pre-modern world of harmony is matched by his willful celebration of the fractured. Following Nietzsche, the nomad refuses any “peace of soul.” The nomad is at war with everything, including most essential, himself. The nomad does not seek asylum, only further struggle. [7] There is no homeland he seeks, no goal for which he strives. As Deleuze and Guattari explain,

If the nomad can be called the Deterritorialised par excellence, it is precisely because there is no reterrirtorialisation afterward as with the migrant, or uponsomething else as with the sedentary (the sedentary’s relation with the earth is mediatised by something else, a property regime, a State apparatus). With the nomad, on the contrary, it is deterritorialisation that constitutes the relation to the earth, to such a degree that the nomad reterritorialises on deterritorialisation itself. [8]

In this formulation, there is no end—in both senses of the word: there is no conclusion, no completion, to the nomad’s project. Additionally, the nomad has no goal, no purpose, to his wandering. He travels to accomplish nothing. The end to his search comes in the search itself.

At this point, we must address the important objection that such nomadic, non-essentialist politics is purely a negative project—it seeks only to deny current social configurations, offering no alternatives. In response, we might point to the redemptive possibilities enabled by such theorising in the negative, something along the lines of what Fredric Jameson has diagnosed as a “utopian” politics. The absence of positive claims, constitutes, on Jameson’s account, its importance:

Utopia is somehow negative; and that it is most authentic when we cannot imagine it. Its function lies not in helping us to imagine a better future but rather in demonstrating our utter incapacity to imagine such a future—our imprisonment in a non-utopian present without historicity or futurity—so as to reveal the ideological closure of the system in which we are somehow trapped and confined. [9]

The brilliance of Jameson’s dialectics is located in his awareness of the nonrepresentational nature of utopian thinking, turning its supposed weakness into its strength through refusing to engage in positive characterizations of new modes of sociality. [10]

Of course the teleological sensibility that Deleuze and Guattari rebel against informs not merely Leftist understanding of history, but the triumphant polemics of Fukuyama and others on the Right. What makes Fukuyama’s pronouncements so flawed is not in his perception of the current dominant status of Western Capitalist political configurations – here he might be somewhat correct—but in his assumption that this fact is not at all a matter of contingent forces. History, according to Fukuyama, could not have been different. In this understanding, everything happened for a reason, leading to the fulfilment of pre-established design—that is, to the realisation of the world as it is now.

We have truly become children of the structures of modern capitalism in our obsession with utility. While we might easily castigate American intellectual history, represented by that curious word, pragmatism, as the most grievous instance of dogmatic rationalism, I suggest that the underpinnings of this sensibility lie, not only in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, but equally in the teleological grounding of the Western philosophical tradition. Aristotelian physics conceives of a purpose behind the apparent chaos of the world: far from simply contingent configurations of matter, Aristotle asserts, objects in the world possess a fixed essence that, when realized, contribute to the functioning of the larger system.

On this foundation, Hegel formulates his understanding of world history, as the unfolding of Spirit towards its ultimate realisation. In this sense, Hegel might be considered the consummate Christian philosopher: in his understanding, history is moving toward eschatological fulfilment in the coming Presence of Christ and His attending salvation. Thus, the Hegelian teleological metaphysic has little tolerance for wasteful deviations from the supposed demands of pre-established purpose. The culmination of world history demands that each particular realise its own unique nature in order to facilitate the coming Presence of the Spirit. In this respect, we find the seemingly paradoxical calls of Hegelian-minded American intellectuals such as Emerson: they call us to immediate action, to realise our individuality, in order to fulfil unalterable destiny, although its unfolding is presumably already preordained. [11] A similar phenomenon is at work in Calvinistic Protestantism: we must struggle to do what is already determined by God. Instead of enabling a resigned attitude of surrender to the inevitable, predestination can strangely work to spur individuals to action. Combined with the notion of Christ’s imminent Return, we are moved toward a sensibility that demands immediate action. The Christian feels that he can delay no longer, that he must work now to fulfil what we have been fated to do.

Thus, we find a resistance toward willful errancy that subverts teleological ends. In the figure of masturbation, we find the ultimate waste. Indeed, the primary Judeo-Christian objection against this behavior is that it does not accomplish any goal. It is simply indulgence for its own sake. We are not surprised, therefore, to discover that much of the hysteria surrounding masturbation emerged in the nineteenth century—in an era when burgeoning capitalist sensibility was taking hold. To waste one’s seed was to senselessly lose vital energy that might be directed towards the accomplishment of productive ends.[12]

Before we fully explore its implications, however, we ought to first examine the original injunction against Onanism found in Genesis:

Judah found a wife for his eldest son Er; her name was Tamar. But Judah’s eldest son Er was wicked in the LORD’S sight, and the LORD took his life. Then Judah told Onan to sleep with his brother’s wife, to do his duty as the husband’s brother and raise up issue for his brother. But Onan knew that the issue would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his seed on the ground so as not to raise up issue for his brother. What he did wicked in the LORD’s sight, and the LORD took his life. [13]

In blunting the potential for the creation of life, Onan cheats God: he gets the enjoyment of intercourse without paying the penalty. This sensibility roots much of the Christian proscriptions against sexual activity that does not have the potential to create life. The pleasure of sex is only admissible because it is necessary to lead to the accomplishment of a goal, procreation. In a similar manner, the sins of homosexuality, bestiality, and masturbation are similar—they enable sexuality to be channeled through a means that has no potential for procreation. [14] In this context, we are reminded of God’s command to reproduce. Through his sexual sin, Onan meets his destruction. In an important respect, the utter finality of Onan’s death is established by his refusal to have children. Similarly, it is not surprising that Judah wants Onan to reproduce in his brother’s place, for it is only through his sons that Judah’s future is assured. At this juncture, the fascinating relationship between death and sex is at work.

Particularly informed by Augustine, Christian theology is grounded in the notion that death is God’s punishment for man’s sinful status. Death is only inescapable because of Adam’s disobedience. In The City of God, Augustine states:

And therefore it is agreed among all Christians who truthfully hold the catholic faith, that we are subject to the death of the body, not by the law of nature, by which God ordained no death for man, but by His righteous infliction on account of sin; for God, taking vengeance on sin, said to the man, in whom we all then were, ‘Dust thou art, unto dust shalt thou return. [15]

In this account, death is, not necessarily part of human existence as originally designed by God, but a result of man’s actions. In a perplexing move, God himself subverts his original design to punish man for his previous deviation. However, the death imposed on Adam and Eve simultaneously allows life through sexual reproduction that yields new generations as older ones die. Thus the one who seeks to subvert reproduction enables a second death, the death of his progeny, in addition to his own death inherent in his fallen state. Sex, insofar as it yields new life, is the only way to escape death. However, sex simultaneously allows one to experience, if only for a moment, death, in orgasm. Here, Jacques Lacan’s concept of jouissance might be invoked. Non-reproductive sex contains a doubly self-destructive movement: not simply the “little death” of orgasm, but its inimical relationship with new life. The foreclosure of sex as a means to larger ends that is inherent in such behavior frustrates Christian ontological systems rooted in teleology. Through the figure of masturbatory waste, we find a representation of an alternative understanding of philosophical inquiry that exists for merely its own sake.

Importantly, while contemporary anti-masturbation tracts have abandoned the outlandish claims that the practice causes all sorts of physical decay and mental disease, the focus of their arguments now rests upon the self-serving nature of self-abuse. Turning our attention back to the particularities of “beating off” in the American context, I draw the reader’s attention to a particularly well written anti-masturbation tract that found publication a few years ago in the conservative publication National Review. In a peculiar figuration of Ethnic Otherness in “Onanistan”, Roger Scruton writes:

It is easy to see why people are drawn to the culture of masturbation, and why traditional societies have striven to forbid it. For it is the enemy of social reproduction. People brought up in Onanistan avoid erotic attachments, and treat sex as a temporary transaction for the sake of pleasure. Love is no longer the meaning or the goal of their sexual emotion, and children, when they occur, are a byproduct of an exchange whose purpose lies in the moment alone. [16]

This interest in marshalling sexual desire for the reproduction of social values indicates the degree to which anti-masturbatory injunctions are framed by the fear that desire can be realized without a larger purpose being simultaneously fulfilled. Without contributing to the realization of larger societal goals, masturbation is entirely without value. According to such an economy, a pursuit that has no purpose should not be engaged in.

Opposing this view, I suggest that it is precisely in these rare moments when one escapes the logic of utility that one finds a life worth living. These values that enable a fulfilling life are worthwhile purely in themselves. Their value emerges from this very resistance toward measurement. In this sense, such a conception of value cannot be subjected to market exchange. We rightly say that those entities beyond exchange are “priceless.” This notion of value clearly reflects a Kantian ethical sensibility: values exist only in themselves, for their own sake, not merely as a means towards something else. In Kant’s Categorical Imperative, he suggests that human beings are the supreme value: they are ends, never means to be manipulated for the purposes of realizing a greater goal. [17] To suppose that we might somehow establish a purpose for treating human beings as ends-in-themselves, would be self-referentially inconsistent: their absolute value is established by definition. Applying a similar logic to masturbation, we suggest that its value lies in its uselessness, in its wasteful relationship toward procreation.

Kant, it must be remembered, would not find this argument convincing. Masturbation, on Kant’s account, violates the Categorical Imperative that stipulates that one should treat all human beings as ends, never as means. Legend has it that Kant wrapped himself in a sheet before retiring in order to thwart any possibility that he might “abuse” himself in sleep. However, to modify the formulation of Antonio Negri’s book Marx Beyond Marx, we must take Kant beyond Kant. We might remind Kant that the “purity” he so cherishes is often easily inscribed in calculated market exchange. Witness, for instance, the common notion in traditional societies that female virginity is essential in potential marriage partners.

However, to simply embrace an entirely liberationist approach that emphasizes the social benefits of masturbation would be misguided. For the purposes of this paper, positioning masturbation as a practice that might guide an alternative philosophical method, the practice is instructive by virtue of its resistance to being subsumed in teleological intellectual orientations. To utilize its errancy as a means to another end would frustrate its appeal as non-(re)productive expenditure. In this respect, American Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders’s controversial 1993 proposal, which lead to her subsequent dismissal by none other than Bill Clinton, represents an attempt to re-inscribe masturbation into an instrumentalist channeling of desire toward socially desirable ends. Responding to the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, Elders suggested that sexual education in public schools include introducing the possibility of masturbation as a means to limit exposure to the HIV virus. By encouraging youngsters to redirect their sexual energies into the ultimate sort of safe sex, Elders’s hope was that masturbation might be used as a tool to achieve the greater goal of reducing sexual activity that carried the potential for transmission of disease. This sensibility is not as progressive as it initially might appear. Indeed, Elders’s sensibility shares much the National Review piece cited earlier: both want to make sex useful for ends deemed beneficial to society.

The critique of instrumental reason that informs this paper’s conception of masturbatory philosophy finds substantial parallels with Heidegger’s discussion of technology. Published in the late 1940’s, Heidegger’s anti-utilitarian tract The Question Concerning Technologycontends that technology serves as a “revealing” that exposes the world as merely objects to be manipulated, to be used as means for whatever ends one wishes to accomplish.[18] Technological thinking “enframes” one’s perception, encouraging one to see everything as “standing-reserve” resources, which can be utilized with unadulterated instrumentally. [19] Importantly, Heidegger explains, technology’s greatest danger remains rooted, not in technological devices themselves, but in the strictures of “means-end” thinking. [20] To escape from these instrumentalist constraints, Heidegger proclaims the saving value of artistic creation, which provides an end that transcends utilitarian considerations. However, some might object, despite all of this obsession with non-productivity, isn’t there a certain usefulness haunting the supposed uselessness of such philosophical inquiry? To this we can only respond that in reorienting ourselves towards the Heideggerian question of Being, we are interested in an alternative conception of utility, one that finds itself hovering over the paradoxical abyss of profound purposefulness and profligate purposelessness.

Masturbatory philosophy seeks to articulate such intellectual complexities involved in such discourse that seeks to give form to the formless. While some might dismiss this sort of thinking as needlessly elliptical and fashionably obscure, we cannot escape the inherent ambiguities of such discourse. In this respect, we again find a non-reproductive sensibility at work: the substance of one’s philosophical inquiry resists being wholly understandable to others. Thus, philosophical concepts cannot be reproduced in subsequent thinking without a certain degree of distortion. Here, Derrida’s insights into Rousseau’s renunciation of masturbation as a destructive supplement are relevant: Rousseau goes wrong when he assumes that sexual relations proper possess a unity, a completeness, that masturbation does not. In Of Grammatology, Derrida explains,

Rousseau will never stop having recourse to, and accusing himself with of, this onanism that permits one to be himself affected by providing himself with presences, by summoning absent beauties. In his eyes it will remain the model of vice and perversion. Affecting oneself by another presence, onecorrupts oneself [makes oneself other] by oneself. Rousseau neither wishes to think nor can think that this alteration does not simply happen to the self, that it is the self’s very origin. He must consider it a contingent evil coming from without to affect the integrity of the subject. But he cannot give up what immediately restores of him the other desired presence; no more than one can give up language. [21]

Following Derrida, this paper’s call for a masturbatory philosophy rejects the notion that identities and concepts can be fully self-contained. Thus, masturbatory philosophy unabashedly finds stimulation in other texts, disciplines, and modes of thinking, with the understanding that such appropriations always leave a remainder, what Derrida has termed a “trace.” Highlighting the lacuna separating author and text, masturbatory philosophy does not seek to beat off (to drive back) differing readings, only to beat off to them (to masturbate while consuming). [22] As Derrida explains, completion is always temporally differed, thus, frustrating any attempt to fully account for the questions of philosophy at some imagined end point. Masturbatory philosophy, like sexual desire, is never fully satiated. Fulfillment is only momentary; the drive compels one to reinvest one’s libidinal energies for future satisfaction.

Masturbatory philosophy, like sexual desire, finds significance in the ongoing process of thought, not in its final, definitive resolution. Thus such thinking always struggles with the poles of destructive revolution of death on the one hand and reproductive possibilities of future thought enabled by philosophical inquiry, on the other. Leo Bersani formulates this aspect of masturbatory philosophy in a recent article that further develops the theme of non-essentialist queer identity first explored in his groundbreaking Homos. Bersani writes:

Because the representation of the birth of relations requires a figure of nonrelationality, the danger inherent in any such representation is the erasure of figurality itself. Nothing is more haunting in the work of artists otherwise so different from one another as Turner and Rothko than their reduction of the canvas to the wholly undifferentiated origins of the canvas’s work. In the nearly unpunctuated whites of Turner’s late paints, in the blankets of dark sameness on the panels of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, we come as close as we can to suffering the truly rare privilege of seeing nothing—as if the lines of movement in space that art represents could, as it were, be ontologically illuminated only as they almost disappear within a representation of their emergence from nothing. [23]

The nexus of sex and death again appear. Orgasm allows one to experience beyond the limits of our individuality—to experience death for an instant. It is against this, however, that new ways of life, new conceptions of Being, emerge.

This understanding entails a certain Nietzschean approach to philosophy: unlike the wholly distanced irony of many postmoderns, Nietzsche’s lightness of spirit achieves its power by virtue of the heaviness that clearly weighs upon him. It is not that Nietzsche dismisses the tragedy of human existence, but that he fully accepts this reality and manages to find joy in it. Such a Nietzschean sensibility finds eloquent expression in the work of Mark C. Taylor. In his book Erring: A Postmodern A/Theology, Taylor employs the concept of “play” to characterize his anti-teleological project:

Once put into play, it is virtually impossible to stop the play of “play.” Amid its multiple meanings, several distinctive characteristic of play can be identified. Play is first of all purposeless. The player not only needs no goals, rewards, or results but actually resists every form of repressive closure that threatens to stop the flow of the game. Play ends when it is taken seriously or is pursued for the sake of a definite purpose. In a certain sense, play, in contrast to work(s), has no reason. Consequently, from the prudential perspective of common sense, play (at least play that is not disguised work) is judged to be unreasonable. This unreasonableness, irrationality, or even absurdity lends play an air of meaninglessness. Insofar as meaning is tied to intention or purpose, play can never bear the weight of meaning. “To risk meaning nothing is to start to play,” and to insist on meaning something is to stop playing. [24]

Taylor’s formation of “play” echoes the masturbatory philosophy I have explored in this paper. In an uncanny twist on the figure of “nothing,” we might say that play enables a philosophy of the nothing that is thoroughly inimical to the nihilism of Schopenhauer that Nietzsche found so off-putting. By embracing the non-teleological nature of thought, by insisting that it results in no-thing, Nietzsche all at once makes philosophy worth something.

Importantly, masturbatory philosophy does not position itself as a rigid method of inquiry. Following Taylor, I suggest that the injunction to play is always open to further, self-referential playing. With this sensibility in mind, we cannot be too hardheaded about the value of non-productive thinking. We must be willing to play with the possibility that, maybe, there is a sort of purpose behind all our purposelessness after all. Thus, we are compelled to be willing to betray our purposelessness, following Whitman’s lines:

I am given up by traitors,
I talk wildly, I have lost my wits, I and nobody else am the
greatest traitor,
I went myself first to the headland, my own hands carried me
there. [25]

The political implications of this play can enable modes of political subjectivity to emerge in experimental reconfigurations of identity, purpose, and meaning. While a systematic political praxis cannot be derived from masturbatory philosophy, it would be wrongheaded to claim that such play is entirely apolitical. However, play, like sex, is a bit of death. Political subjectivity at play does not seek liberation but erasure and reconfiguration. On this note, paralleling the betrayal that Whitman emphasizes, we find betrayal as a central theme in the work of Jean Genet as well. In Our Lady of The Flowers, Genet delights, not simply in the betrayal of others, but equally in his own betrayal, in his renunciation of himself. Invoking the word play in the sense of theatrical production, Genet writes:

I saw clearly what that room and those men were, what role they wereplaying: it was a major role in the march of the world. This role was the origin of the world and at the origin of the world. It seemed to me suddenly, thanks to a kind of extraordinary lucidity, that I understood the system. The world dwindled, and its mystery too, as soon as I was cut off from it. It was a truly supernatural moment, similar in respect to this detachment from the human, to the one I experienced when Chief Warrant Officer Cesaire, at the Cherche-Midi Prison, had to write a report on my sexual practices. He said to me, “That word” (he didn’t dare utter the word “homosexual”), “is it written as two words?” And he pointed to it on the sheet with this forefinger extended… but not touching the word. [26]

Reaching beyond language, Genet finds redemption in the inexpressible, in a radically non-essentialist self, one that even questions the boundaries of identity itself. Is this a nihilistic solipsism or a redemptive pantheism? Perhaps, as is the case with the notion of philosophy as masturbation around which I’ve played in this essay, these opposites—which I’ve depicted as the useful and the useless—often curve back into each other, merging hope and despair. While masturbatory philosophy does offer this possibility of fusing binaries of self and other, theory and practice, good and evil, its very resistance to solidification also limits its implementation. Even so, pace our Marxist friends, you don’t always need another person to play. One can be plenty fun. With that thought, my essay is at end. To come to the point, in the end, the only ends that remain often blossom into new beginnings. Before that occurs, however, I must beat it…


[1] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia UP, 1994), 93.

[2] Deleuze and Guattari,What is Philosophy?, 57–58.

[3] See Thomas W. Laqueur, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (New York: Zone Books, 2003), 210. Positioning sanctions against masturbation within the historical context of the European Enlightenment, Laqueur explains that much of modernity’s burgeoning obsession with Onanism emerges out of concerns for its insatiable, “unnatural” nature. He writes, “Three things made solitary sex unnatural. First, it was motivated not by a real object of desire but by a phantasm; masturbation threatened to overwhelm the most protean and potentially creative of the mind’s faculties—the imagination—and drive it off a cliff. Second, while all other sex was social, masturbation was private, or when it was not done alone, it was social in all the wrongs ways: wicked servants taught it to children; wicked older boys taught it to innocent younger ones; girls and boys in schools taught it to each other away from adult supervision. Sex was naturally done with someone; solitary sex was not. And third, unlike other appetites, the urge to masturbate could be neither sated nor moderated. Done alone, driven only by the mind’s own creations, it was a primal, irremediable, and seductively, even addictively, easy transgression. Every man, woman, and child suddenly seemed to have access to the boundless excesses of gratification that had once been the privilege of Roman emperors.”

[4] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 293.

[5] Similarly, the notion from Debord and the Situationists of Derive attempted to push the consumer capitalist culture beyond itself, while at the same time utilizing its tools. The derive—the practice of wandering urban spaces without purpose, goal, or fixed destination—seems to exist in a liminal position of either a visionary insight into the possibility of commercializing public space, one of the hallmarks of the age of postmodern Capital, or a radical parody of the burgeoning visual consumerist sensibility. In this respect, we might consider Zizek’s critique of the politics of postmodern ironic detachment. According to Zizek, a more radical political strategy can be found in fully embracing the dominant ideology’s injunctions, thereby exposing the contradictions that enable its existence. In The Plague of the Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), Zizek writes, “an ideological edifice can be undermined by a too-literal identification, which is why its successful functioning requires a minimal distance from its explicit rules” (22). Perhaps this is what is going on with the perplexing posturing of many hip-hop artists: in celebrating their role as pimps and drug dealers, they are becoming more capitalist than the capitalists. I raise this example to illustrate the possibility that there are other ways to resist than merely outright denunciation. If the (anti)globalist movement is more effective in mobilizing people in the West against Capitalism than more orthodox purely economic and national protest, why should we necessarily mourn this reality?

[6] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s recent work Empire undertakes the task of articulating the potential for nomadic collective action. Rather than resisting the forces of globalization in favor of third world nationalism, Hardt and Negri propose that the unifying effects of capitalism be redirected towards alternative formations of world citizenship. Drawing on Deleuze’s figure of the nomad, Hardt and Negri argue that the traditional bounds of national identity fail to account for the reality of subjectivity in the age of global Capital.

[7] See Brian Massumi’s book Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 18-19: “The important thing, once again, is that these found concepts not simply be applied. This can be done by extracting them from their usual connection to other concepts in their home system and confronting them with the example or a detail from it. The activity of the example will transmit to the concept, more or less violently. The concept will start to deviate under the force. Let it. Then reconnect it to other concepts, drawn from other systems, until a whole new system of connections starts to form. Then, take another example. See what happens. Follow the new growth. You end up with many buds. Incipient systems. Leave them that way. You have made a systemlike [sic] composition prolonging the active power of the example. You have left your readers with a very special gift: a headache.”

[8] Deleuze and Guattari,What is Philosophy? , 381.

[9] Jameson, Fredric, “The Politics of Utopia,” New Left Review 25 (Jan/Feb 2004): 46.

[10] A similar criticism has often been leveled against the “fascist” politics of Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadic philosophy. Such an objection finds expression in Zizek’s latest polemic against Deleuze. “The Ongoing ‘Soft Revolution,'” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): pp. 292–323. On page 308, Zizek asks, “what happens when—if this really is the desire and will of these movements—we take it over? What would the multitude in power look like?” In response, on the Jamesonian account of utopian thought, we need only answer, “Not this!”

[11] William Spanos extensively demonstrates the extent to which Hegelian teleology informs American hegemony in his recent book America’s Shadow: An Anatomy of Empire (Minneapolis: University ofMinnesota Press, 2000). In particular, Spanos suggests that the violence of American expansionism is simultaneously driven by an appeal to a peaceful harmony that can be achieved through its implementation.

[12] Similarly, nineteenth century white colonists who encountered the practice of the potlatch among Pacific Northwest Native Americans were gravely offended by what they perceived as a perverse waste of resources. This sensibility ultimately led to laws that prohibited potlatch practices.

[13] Genesis 38: 7–10, The New English Bible, (44).

[14] In the debate that preceded the American Supreme Court’s repeal of sodomy laws in 2003, conservative Republicans warned that establishing the legal right to have homosexual intercourse would also throw into doubt the validity of laws against child rape and incest.

[15] Saint Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1995), 423.

[16] Roger Scruton, “Very Safe Sex,” National Review (July 28, 1997): 39–40.

[17] Kant develops the Categorical Imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in which he writes: “In the realm of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent, has dignity.” Quoted in Kant Selections, ed. Lewis White Beck (New York: MacMillan Pub. Co, 1988), 277.

[18] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 318.

[19] Ibid., 329.

[20] Ibid., 333.

[21] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 153.

[22] Here it might be instructive to recall Lacan’s understanding of the non-existence of sexual relationships, that is, with his understanding that the Other, the Woman, is always filtered through our perception, at some level – all sexuality is masturbatory. In this respect, masturbatory philosophy might be conceived as a call for non-naturalized politics that insists upon the subjective positionality of all ideological perspectives.

[23] Leo Bersani, “Sociality and Sexuality,” Critical Inquiry 20 (2000): 643.

[24] Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 158.

[25] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, ed. Michael Moon (New York: Norton, 2002), 50.

[26] Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 301.

Gregory Therel Esplin is a third-year masters student in American Studies  at Utah State University. His master’s thesis concerns Herman Melville’s Pierre and its possibilities for non-essentialist conceptions of identity. He is also collaborating on a project with Richard Steinberg that explores the intersection of philosophy and life.