Academic Exuberance: the ‘Art of Masturbation’ lecture

There has been some interest in the media about a lecture taking place here at the University of Sheffield. The lecture is part of a second year undergraduate English Literature module. The module is “Criticism and Literary Theory”, and includes a week dubbed by my brilliant colleague Fabienne Collignon as “Pleasure, Self-Scrutiny, and Auto-Eroticism”, and which concludes with a lecture I’ll be giving called “The Art of Masturbation”. The module is compulsory for all our second year single-honours English Literature students, as well as other students taking the module, and of course attendance at lectures and seminars is part of their participation and indeed of their education, though it will be made clear to our students that if, for any reasons of conscience, they wish not to attend they may come and speak to me be permitted to be absent. The title of the lecture refers to one tradition of art in particular, that of lyric poetry, and was chosen for its etymological ambiguity, referring as it does to works of art as well as to practical skills. The lecture will be based on research I conducted when writing an article, “The ‘Onanism of Poetry’: Walt Whitman, Rob Halpern and the Poetics of Masturbation”, published here in the journal Angelaki. An early version was delivered as a public lecture, viewable here:

Over the next couple of years, Fabienne and I will also be editing a collection of essays on the cultural history of masturbation.

It’s perhaps worth clarifying a few things. Firstly, it’s a lecture and a seminar rather than an entire module on the topic, as has been suggested by some versions of the story. Secondly, our wonderful students responded to the initial questions from a student newspaper in good faith (more on which below). Thirdly, there won’t be any particularly lewd images shown (though to pre-empt one of the assumptions made of this lecture, it would be a mistake to presume masturbation has to be associated with pornographic material). Finally it’s a concluding rather than a summative lecture. The module is no doubt fairly typical of many courses introducing students to some of the most important theoretical insights that have changed our world across philosophy, political science, psychology and aesthetics: Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, theories of gender and sexuality, theories of the animal and of post-humanism, and so on. It struck me as a helpful lecture with which to conclude because at the end of a long and frankly quite daunting module, it is a lecture that draws together a number insights from a number of those fields, in particular feminism, queer theory, deconstruction or post-structuralism, and psychoanalysis.

It is surprising that masturbation has received so little attention within academia. Masturbation is perhaps the most common of sexual practices, most likely the first sexual practice in which people engage, and, to some extent at least, no longer a practice considered shameful or one which is otherwise culturally prohibited (speaking from within the predominant Euro-American cultural landscape – cultures of course vary hugely). The media reaction suggests that there remains something captivating about the subject that cannot yet be considered dispassionately, and that’s not an uninteresting phenomena with which to engage either.

My research owes its origins to a number of traditions, but depends for its legitimacy on the French philosopher Michel Foucault and his masterpiece, The History of Sexuality. Foucault’s research has been taken up recently by a thorough genealogy of masturbation (at least in a Western context), by Thomas Laqueur. His brilliant Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation defines the field of inquiry. Not the least interesting aspect of his book is the connection it draws between the history of masturbation and that of homosexuality. The latter term should be handled carefully: as Foucault described, it’s a term dependent on a medical and legal history, and therefore one which presumes the illness or illegality of that which it describes, even if it has become at least ostensibly more neutral in recent years. Both masturbation and homosexuality are prohibited or at least advised against in a Western, Christian tradition since they both fail to aid procreation, the permitted aspiration of sexual desire. Counter-intuitively it seems likely that the late 19th Century furor about homosexuality, rather than defining the terms against which masturbation would be judged, was actually preceded by the cultural repression of masturbation. That is, the scare stories that attracted a vast amount of attention during the Enlightenment centred on masturbation, and that hysteria was a precursor of the attack on homosexuality. The great American poet Walt Whitman was writing at a time in America where there was just such an attack on onanism (following the translation of Tissot’s Onania: A Discourse on Onanism, and my article therefore asks whether Whitman is better understood as “onanist” than “homosexual”?

The wholesome relief, repose, content,

And this bunch pluck’d at random from myself,

It has done its work – I toss it carelessly to fall where it may.

I’m certainly not the first to make such a connection with Whitman (see the reading list below), but I have tried to develop the connection more fully than perhaps it has been in the past, and futhermore read Whitman’s influence on a fascinating contemporary American poet, Rob Halpern, a selection of whose work you can read in a book called Placeholder (Enitharmon).

In general I was intrigued by the famous dismissal of John Keats by Lord Byron. Byron says Keats’s is poetry is the ‘Onanism of Poetry’, the ‘poesy of this miserable Self-polluter of the human mind’. Why such vociferous condemnation? Did Byron never give in to the temptations of self-pleasure? Did he feel Keats’s poetry only spoke to Keats? I therefore reflect in my research on whether there is some sympathy between lyric poetry and onanism, both of which I argue are a form of failed address.

The theoretical aspect of the research depends upon the great French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and in particular a section of his key work Of Grammatology called “That Dangerous Supplement”. Derrida’s work of deconstruction concerns itself with the binaries by which we understand the world, and problematizes the ways in which those binaries are legitimated and justified by a long philosophical tradition. He seeks ways to damage the security with which we understand such binaries, and the way in which we, as a culture, privilege one aspect over the other, and how philosophy has been complicit in this socially harmful structure: male above female; white above black; culture above nature; man above animal; presence above absence. In Of Grammatology Derrida argues that one such binary which we should be troubled by is the privileging of sex over masturbation. Rather than masturbation being imitative of sex, and being an embarrassing, shameful act (as he describes from the confessional writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), should we contemplate masturbation as theoretically prior to sex?

The question of emancipation from shame remained crucial to second generation women’s feminism: if liberation was the aspiration, masturbation was a kind of necessary practice, the self-love with all of its connotations of valuing and respecting and appreciating oneself, from which others too could be valued, respected, loved. Exemplary in this is Betty Dodson’s Liberating Masturbation: A Meditation on Self-Love (1974), a book that tries to throw off the guilt attached to female sexual desire.

In writing the lecture there is a joke, too, though in a long academic tradition, not a very funny one (and Freud of course teaches us that we might need to pay attention to our jokes), which is to subvert the accusation made against “Theory” – Jacques Derrida, Maurice Blanchot, Emmanuel Levinas – that it is a kind of intellectual onanism. The press interest accords fairly well with this accusation (though happily there’s much less outrage or faux-outrage than might have been expected). It’s perfectly sensible to refute the joke against Theory as intellectual onanism by establishing some of the cultural shifts that have been supported by that work, in concert with campaigns and other emancipatory activities outside of academia: gay liberation after Foucault, rethinking gender after Judith Butler, investigating the abjection of the post-colonial subject after Gayatri Spivak. The slower, less anxious response is to open up the question of onanism as a kind of metaphor of Theory, since all theory includes a stage of reflection dissociated from the pressure of efficacy, of immediate action, of “changing the world”. Our culture is very keen to move intention into action (since in our current culture we imagine we should get what we want) not only without reflection but without deep thought. Masturbation is about wanting and not getting. If Theory is onanistic – self-reflective, isolated, private, a free space – then that might not be so much a problem as its most helpful quality. As Slavoj Žižek advises, “Don’t Act. Just Think!” 

Finally, we can relate the “art of masturbation” back to many of the other aspects of the module being taught by my estimable colleagues at Sheffield. We might interpret Byron’s attack on Keats as part of a class distinction (snobbery), as does Marjorie Levinson. We might stop assuming that masturbation is one of the attributes that sets humans apart from animals, something we could learn from reading Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance, which accounts for acts of genital stimulation, auto-fellating, spontaneous ejaculations and stimulation of the genitals using inanimate objects. Sheffield is happily one of the leaders in the area of animal studies – and, as one colleague put it to me in an email – “the animal kingdom makes ‘us humans’ look positively repressed”. Again, of course, Freud would agree.)

And finally if you are a male and wanting to make your self-satisfaction more socially advantageous, then you might take some interest in the research of a colleague, Professor Allan Pacey, who as well as being the Head of Andrology for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals also directs the sperm banking service.

P.S. I referred above to our terrific students, and wanted to post this, the response of Jake Rainbow to the press company that sold on the story. Jake also made an above average joke about masturbation, which is fine, but since that has been reprinted across the world I’ll only provide the explanation they didn’t print:

“Literary Theory is a body of different philosophical, political and psychological ideas that are used to help reveal what literature can mean. Some theories used on the course are Marxism, Feminism, and Postcolonialism. We use these theories to analyse what writers write or choose not to write and what that reveals of the meaning of the text. For example, Marxist literary theory can help reveal meaning in the work of Charles Dickens through how he represented the socio-economic inequalities of the Victorian era. To me, sexuality can often be a taboo subject which, when discussed, can make people feel uncomfortable. It is often trivialised, demonised or brushed under the carpet. Why do we feel so uncomfortable about something that is so very human? I’m looking forward to reading about sexuality and its representation in literature.”

Further reading:

Harold Aspiz, “Walt Whitman: The Spermatic Imagination.” American Literature 56.3 (1984): 379-95.

Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. London: Profile, 1999.

Ben Barker-Benfield, “The Spermatic Economy: A Nineteenth Century View of Sexuality.” The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective. Ed. Michael Gordon. New York: St. Martin’s, 1973. 336-72.

Solitary Pleasures: The Historical, Literary, and Artistic Discourses of Autoeroticism, ed. by Bennett, Paula, and Vernon A. Rosario II. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Betty Dodson, Liberating Masturbation: A Meditation on Self-Love (1974)

Rob Halpern, Placeholder. London: Enitharmon, 2014.

Sam Ladkin, “The ‘Onanism of Poetry’: Walt Whitman, Rob Halpern and the Deconstruction of Masturbation.” Angelaki 20.4 (2015).

Thomas Laqueur, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. New York: Zone, 2004.

Marjorie Levinson, Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of A Style. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Michael Moon, Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Solitary Pleasures: The Historical, Literary, and Artistic Discourses of Autoeroticism. Ed. Paula Bennett and Vernon A. Rosario II. New York: Routledge. 1995. 133-53.

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