cortázar’s language of love: rearticulating sex as semantic & phonetic action

Here’s Beatriz Sarlo on Cortázar’s Hopsotch, in Franco Moretti’s massive and mandarin The Novel, Volume Two: Forms and Themes: “The romantic encounters . . . create a poetic environment that is achieved through a linguistic representation of the erotic. How does sexuality fit into phonetic and semantic material? Cortázar gives an experimental reply to this question. The erotic language of Hopscotch de- and re-articulates fragments of words, moving syllables and inventing new words with sounds that evoke sexual contact; the marks of sex on the body; and the humors, orifices, and material noises of the physical encounter . . .  This language of love strengthens the exceptional, extraordinary nature of true passion, something that the novel states repeatedly, attributing to eroticism a potential for knowledge. There is no doubt that Cortázar, a meticulous reader of Bataille, belongs to a tradition that groups sexual climax together with the religious and death . . .”



As soon as he began to amalate the noeme, the clemise began to smother her and they fell into hydromuries, into savage ambonies, into exasperating sustales. Each time that he tried to relamate the hairincops, he became entangled in a whining grimate and had to face up to envulsioning the novalisk, feeling how little by little the arnees would spejune, were becoming peltronated, redoblated, until they were stretched out like the ergomanine trimalciate which drops a few filures of cariaconce. And it was still only the beginning, because right away she tordled her hurgales, allowing him gently to bring up his orfelunes. No sooner had they cofeathered than something like a ulucord encrestored them, extrajuxted them, and paramoved them, suddenly it was the clinon, the sterfurous convulcant of matericks, the slobberdigging raimouth of the orgumion. (chap. 68)

—Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Pantheon Books, 1966)

“you masturbate, and you look at the teapots in shopwindows for when you’ll set up housekeeping”

the “Introduction” section from Georges Bataille’s The Blue of Noon:


In London, in a cellar, in a neighborhood dive — the most squalid of unlikely places — Dirty was drunk. Utterly so. I was next to her (my hand was still bandaged from being cut by a broken glass.) Dirty that day was wearing a sumptuous evening gown (I was unshaven and unkempt.) As she stretched her long legs, she went into a violent convulsion. The place was crowded with men, and their eyes were getting ominous; the eyes of these perplexed men recalled spent cigars. Dirty clasped her naked thighs with both hands. She moaned as she bit into a grubby curtain. She was as drunk as she was beautiful. Staring at a gaslamp, she rolled round, irate eyes.


"What’s going on?" she shouted.


In the same instant, like a cannon going off in a cloud of dust, she jumped. From eyes that bulged like a scarecrow’s came a stream of tears.


She shouted again: "Troppmann!"


As she looked at me her eyes opened wider. With long dirty hands she stroked my sick head. My forehead was damp from fever. She was crying, with wild entreaty, the way one vomits. She was sobbing so hard her hair was drenched with tears.


The scene that preceded this nauseous carnival — afterwards, rats must have come crawling over the floor round the two sprawled bodies — was in every way worthy of Dostoevsky.




Drunkenness had committed us to dereliction, in pursuit of some grim response to the grimmest of compulsions. Before being wholly affected by drink, we had managed to retreat to a room at the Savoy. Dirty had noticed that the elevator attendant was very ugly (in spite of his handsome uniform, you might have taken him for a gravedigger.)


She pointed this out to me with a distracted laugh. Her speech was already awry — she spoke like a drunk woman.


"You know — ", racked as she was by hiccups, she kept stopping short, "when I was a kid . . . I remember . . . I came here with my mother. Here. About ten years ago. So I must have been twelve . . . . My mother was a faded old lady, sort of like the Queen of England . . . So, as it happened, coming out of the elevator, the elevator man — we just saw him —"


"Who — him?"


"Yes. The same one as today. He didn’t stop it level — the elevator went up too far — she fell flat on her face. She came tumbling down — my mother —"


Dirty burst out laughing, like some lunatic. She couldn’t stop.


Struggling to find my words, I said to her, "Don’t laugh any more. You’ll never get through your story."


She stopped laughing and began shouting: "Oh, my, I’m getting silly — I’ll have to . . . No, no, I’ll finish my story. My mother. Not stirring, with her skirt over her head, that enormous skirt of hers. Like someone dead. Not another stir out of her. They picked her up and began putting her to bed. She started to puke — she was stewed to the eyebrows, except that one second earlier you couldn’t tell — that woman . . . She was like a mastiff. She was scary. "


I said to Dirty, abjectly: "I’d like to fall down in front of you, just the way she did. . ."


"Would you throw up?" Dirty asked me, without even a smile. She kissed me inside the mouth.






I went into the bathroom. I was very pale. For no reason at all I looked at myself in the mirror for a long time; I was horribly unkempt, almost coarse, with swollen features that were not even ugly, and the rank look of a man just out of bed.


Dirty was alone in the bedroom. It was a huge room lighted by a multitude of ceiling lamps. She wandered around, walking straight ahead, as though she would never stop. She seemed literally crazy.


Her shoulders were bare to the point of indecency. In that light I found the glitter of her blond hair unbearable. She gave me a feeling of purity nonetheless. Even in her debauchery, there was such candor in her that I sometimes wanted to grovel at her feet. I was afraid of her. I saw that she was worn out. She was on the point of falling down. She began gasping for breath, panting like an animal; she was suffocating. Her mean, hunted look was driving me insane. She stopped — I think her legs were squirming under her dress. There was no doubt she was about to start raving. She rang the bell for the maid.




After a few moments, a redhaired, fresh-complexioned, and rather pretty maid came in. She seemed to gag on the smell. It was a highly unusual smell for so opulent a place: that of a lowdown brothel. Dirty had given up trying to stand on her feet unless she had a wall to lean on. She seemed to be in horrible pain. I don’t know at what point in the day she had smothered herself in cheap perfumes, but in addition to the indescribable state she had gotten herself into, she gave off a sour smell of armpit and crotch which, mingling with the perfume, recalled the stench of an infirmary. She also reeked of whisky, and she was belching…


The English girl was aghast.


"You’re just the personI need," Dirty announced, "but first you have to get the elevator man. There’s something I want to tell him."


The maid vanished; Dirty, now staggering, went and sat on a chair. With great difficulty she managed to set down a bottle and a glass on the floor beside her. Her eyes were growing heavy.


Her eyes tried to find me. I was no longer there. She lost her head. In a desperate voice she called out, "Troppmann!"


There was no reply.


She got up and several times nearly fell. She made it to the bathroom door; she saw me slumped on a bench, haggard and white. In my drunkenness I had just reopened the cut in my right hand. The bleeding, which I was trying to stanch with a towel, was dribbling rapidly onto the floor. Dirty, in front of me, was staring at me with eyes like an animal’s. I wiped my face, thus smearing blood over my forehead and nose. The electric light was getting blindingly bright. It was unbearable, this light that wore out the eyes.


There was a knock at the door. The maid came in, followed by the elevator attendant.


Dirty slumped onto the chair. After what seemed to me like a very long time, her eyes lowered and unseeing, she asked the elevator attendant, "You were here in 1924?"


The attendant answered yes.


"I want to ask you — the tall old lady . . . The one who fell down getting out of the elevator and vomited on the floor . . . You remember?"


Dirty was articulating through dead lips, seeing nothing.


In fearful embarrassment the two servants cast sidelong glances, questioning and observing one another.


"I do remember," the attendant admitted. "It’s true."


(This man, who was in his forties, may have had the face of a thieving gravedigger, but it was of such an unctuosity that it seemed to have been pickled in oil.)


"A glass of whisky?" Dirty asked.


No one answered. The two characters stood there in deferential, painful expectancy.




Dirty asked to be given her purse. Her gestures were so sluggish it took a long minute for her hand to reach the bottom of the purse; as soon as she found the stack of banknotes, she tossed it on the floor, saying merely, "Go shares."


The gravedigger had found something to do. He picked up the precious stack and began

counting out the pounds aloud. There were twenty in all. He handed ten to the maid.


"We may leave?" he asked after a while. "Oh, no, not yet. Please, sit down."


She seemed to be suffocating; blood was rushing to her face. Showing great deference, the two servants had remained standing; but they too became red and anxious, partly because of the staggering size of the tip, partly because of the implausible, incomprehensible situation.


Dirty remained mutely perched on the chair. There was a long silence: you could have heard our hearts inside their bodies. I walked over to the door, pale and sick, my face smeared with blood; I was hiccupping and on the point of vomiting. In terror the servants saw that water was trickling across the chair and down the legs of their beautiful guest. While the urine was gathering into a puddle that spread over the carpet, a noise of slackening bowels made itself ponderously evident beneath the young woman’s dress — beet-red, her eyes twisted upwards, she was squirming on her chair like a pig under the knife.




The trembling, nauseated maid had to wash Dirty, who seemed calm and content once again. She let herself be wiped and soaped. The elevator man aired the room until the smell had completely disappeared. He then bandaged my cut to stop the bleeding. Things were all back in their proper place. The maid was putting away the last articles of clothing. Washed, perfumed, more beautiful than ever, Dirty was stretched out on the bed, still drinking. She made the attendant sit down. He sat next to her in an armchair. At this point, drunkenness gave her the forsaken candor of a child, of a little girl. Even when she remained silent, she seemed forsaken. Occasionally she would laugh to herself.


"Tell me," she at last said to the elevator attendant, "during all the years you’ve been at the Savoy, you must have had lots of repulsive experiences."


"Oh, not all that many, "he replied, although not before finishing his whisky, which seemed to give him a boost and restore his composure. "The guests here are

well-behaved, as a rule."


"Oh, well-behaved — that’s a whole way of life isn’t it? Just like my departed mother when she took a tumble in front of you and puked all over your sleeves…"


And Dirty burst into dissonant laughter, to which, in that emptiness, there was no response.


She went on: "And do you know why they’re all well-behaved? They’re scared, do you understand? Their teeth are chattering — that’s why they never dare let anything show. I can sense that because I’m scared myself — yes, my good man, I am. Can’t you tell? Even of you. Scared to death."


"Wouldn’t Madame like a glass of water?" the maid asked fearfully.


"Shit!" Dirty curtly answered, sticking out her tongue at her, "I happen to be sick, don’t forget that. I also happen to have a few brains in my head. "Then: "You don’t give a fuck, but things like that make me want to vomit, do you hear?"


With a mild gesture I managed to interrupt her. As I made her take another swallow of Scotch, I said to the attendant, "Admit that if it was up to you, you’d strangle her."


"You’re right,’ Dirty yelped, "look at those huge paws, those gorilla’s paws of his. They’re hairy as balls."


"But, Madame," the attendant protested "you know I’m here to oblige you."


"What an idea! No, you idiot, I don’t need your balls. I’m feeling sick to my stomach."


As she chortled, she belched.


The maid dashed out and came back with a basin. She seemed all servility, and utterly decent. I sat there pale and listless. I kept drinking more and more.


"And as for you — you, the nice girl, " Dirty began, this time addressing the maid, "you masturbate, and you look at the teapots in shopwindows for when you’ll set up housekeeping. If I had a fanny like yours I’d let everybody see it. Otherwise, one day you‘ll happen to find the hole while you’re scratching and die of shame."


Appalled I abruptly told the maid, "Sprinkle some water on her face — can’t you see she’s getting all hot?"




The maid immediately started bustling about. She put a wet towel on Dirty’s forehead. Dirty dragged herself over to the window. Beneath her she saw the Thames and, in the background, some of the most hideous buildings in London, now magnified in the darkness. She quickly vomited in the open air. In her relief she called for me, and, as I held her forehead I stared at that foul sewer of a landscape: the river and the warehouses. In the vicinity of the hotel the lights of luxury apartments loomed insolently.


Gazing out at London, I almost wept, I was so distraught with anxiety. As I breathed in the cool air, childhood memories — of little girls, for instance, with whom I used to play at telephone and diabolo — merged with the vision of the elevator attendant’s apelike paws.


What was happening, moreover, seemed to me trivial and somehow ludicrous. I myself was empty. I was scarcely even capable of inventing new horrors to fill the emptiness. I felt powerless and degraded. It was in this uncompliant and indifferent frame of mind that I followed Dirty outside. Dirty kept me going; nevertheless, I could not conceive of any human creature being more derelict and adrift.


This anxiety that never for a moment let the body slacken provided the only explanation for a wonderful ability: we managed, with no respect for conventional pigeonholes, to eliminate every possible urge, in the room at the Savoy as well as in the dive, wherever we had to.



french girls are dirty! french intellectuals more so!

“rape creates the best hookers… once opened by force, they sometimes retain a sort of skin-level burnished quality that men like”



A new movement of hardcore feminism has gripped French culture, uniting writers and filmmakers in a bid to subvert culture’s age-old treatment of women. Is this liberation, or just porn in another guise?

Elizabeth Day

The Observer, Sunday 18 January 2009

Most people expect Virginie Despentes to be angry. Perhaps they have seen the film she directed nine years ago, Baise-moi, a highly explicit rampage of sex and violence where a man gets beaten to death by two women simply for wanting to wear a condom.

Perhaps they have read the 1994 novel it was based on, also called Baise-moi, in which the two rage-fuelled anti-heroines shoot dead a three-year-old child in a sweet shop. Perhaps they know from interviews that Despentes was raped at 17 and that, for a brief time afterwards, she earned her living as a prostitute. “Rape creates the best hookers,” she writes in her new book, King Kong Theory. “Once opened by force, they sometimes retain a sort of skin-level burnished quality that men like.”

Whatever the reason, people expect the 39-year-old Despentes to be wild-eyed and furious. But the woman who buzzes me into her flat on the outskirts of Barcelona speaks in hesitations and half-smiles. She seems nervous, almost girlish, twirling strands of her shoulder-length dirty blond hair as she talks. She smokes a constant stream of Chesterfields, but not before asking if I mind. An excitable pitbull terrier called Pepa skitters around the parquet floor. I thought you were going to be terrifying, I say. “I know,” she replies. “I get that a lot. But I can be conflicted. Most of the time, I am quite calm and shy.” Is she less angry than she used to be? “No,” she says, with a short, dry chuckle. “Anger must be my essential component.”

Baise-moi (translation: Fuck Me) lit the touchpaper for a new movement of French extremism in cinema and literature. The movie, which starred two former porn actresses, proved so shocking that it became the first film in France to be banned for 28 years and was only released after an outcry from anti-censorship campaigners.

With its depictions of graphic sex and nihilistic violence, the film has become the visual mascot of a new wave of hardcore feminism in France that seeks to subvert traditionally male boundaries with a savage and frequently uncomfortable honesty. Just as French women have begun to emerge in the political arena – Ségolène Royal was the first female presidential candidate in 2007; almost half the members of Sarkozy’s cabinet are women – so they have also started to demolish cultural stereotypes.

In her 2002 memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, the author Catherine Millet details with unflinching precision her childhood experiences of masturbation and her adult predilection for group sex. Her new book, Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M, examines the debilitating nature of her own envy when she discovered her husband was also having affairs. It, too, describes her masturbation fantasies, but neither work was written to titillate amale audience. “For me, a pornographic book is functional, written to help you to get excited,” she explains. “If you want to speak about sex in a novel or any ‘ambitious’ writing, today, in the 21st century, you must be explicit. You cannot be metaphorical any longer.”

Similarly, Catherine Breillat’s 1999 film Romance blurs the line between porn and erotic provocation, taking sexual images out of their usual context and making them deliberately unappealing – a woman’s genitalia, for instance, is filmed as she gives birth. “People asked why I filmed the birth face-on,” said Breillat. “I say: ‘Because you’re asking me that question.'” Despentes puts it another way: “The point is not to be shocking but to change the shape of things.”

France has a long tradition of writers and artists who have propagated their own challenging visions of sexuality – from the Marquis de Sade’s sadomasochistic reveries to Georges Bataille’s explorations of the ambiguity of sex as a subversive force in Blue of Noon. More recently, Michel Houellebecq’s work has included unsparing descriptions of sexual conquest.

But it is only relatively recently that women have felt able to tackle these same themes in public. As late as 1954, Story of O, an erotic novel of dominance and submission written by Anne Desclos, was published under a pseudonym. In 1968, while students were shouting Marxist slogans from the barricades, French women were still not allowed to wear trousers to work, and wives required their husband’s permission to open a bank account.

The paradoxical relationship between misogyny and liberality in France meant that when Despentes broke through the gender divide, she did so in spectacular style. Baise-moi blazed the trail for other female artists who sought to shatter cultural and sexual taboos, including the director Claire Denis, whose 2001 film Trouble Every Day depicts a female cannibal sated only when she consumes the bodies of her ill-fated lovers. Less brutal, and yet equally revealing in its own muted fashion, Christine Jordis’s 2005 novel Rapture was a candid account of erotic love and sexual abandon. The intention of these women, it seems, is to reappropriate the traditionally male preserves of sex, pornography and aggression by bringing them firmly into the female sphere.

Despentes’s new book, King Kong Theory, gives them a manifesto. Part memoir, part political pamphlet, it is a furious condemnation of the “servility” of enforced femininity and was a bestseller in France – the title refers to her contention that she is “more King Kong than Kate Moss”. Superficial femininity, she argues, must be challenged so that women become free to act as they really are, rather than how their menfolk most want them to appear. It also deals with Despentes’s experience of rape. In 1986, when she and a female friend were hitch-hiking back from Paris to their home town of Nancy, the two girls were picked up by three men who attacked them. Despentes explains that while many rape victims respond by feeling misplaced guilt – as though they brought the attack on themselves by being too conspicuously female; as though their mere survival indicated they somehow “wanted it” – her conscious response was anger. She chose fury. That was how she coped.

It is no coincidence that Manu, one of the two female protagonists in Baise-moi, is brutally raped by three men before embarking on her indiscriminate killing spree. Her reaction is the traditionally male response of undiluted aggression. “Girls are never, never taught to be violent,” says Despentes. “We are accustomed to seeing women being killed [in films], being really afraid, covered in blood. I think it’s good to see the counterpoint.”

Femininity, she says, has had to become harmless in order to reassure a 21st-century masculinity that finds itself in crisis. So that “ugly women” or threatening women, women who are too aggressive or ambitious, violent women who kill on a whim, women who choose to sell sex for a living, are deliberately sidelined and ignored. According to Despentes, they are not part of the socially acceptable face of femaleness. “There should be dozens of movies showing lots of violent, angry, sexually active women getting really wild,” she says, taking a languid drag on her cigarette.

Not everyone agrees. When the film of Baise-moi was released, it was almost universally denounced as crude, profane and “tediously bleak”. One reviewer described it as “Thelma & Louise as scripted by Lorena Bobbitt”. In 2005 the critic James Quandt wrote an influential article for Artforum in which he coined the term “New French Extremity” and described the current vogue for French hardcore cinema as a determination “to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation and defilement”.

Although Breillat, Despentes, Denis, Millet and their peers might claim their work has a philosophical or artistic rationale, how far can one intellectualise exploitation? Is pornographic content any more acceptable for being played out in the guise of the political? Is indiscriminate violence on film or in books any more justified for supposedly being a comment on female empowerment? “These women are operating in a traditionally male milieu,” says Ginette Vincendeau, a professor of film studies at King’s College, London, “and the price they have to pay is to tone their feminism down, so they make films that explore sexuality and sexual difference but are not threatening to the male establishment. There is something in there for the men to enjoy too, if you like.”

The killing in Baise-moi is depicted as a cartoonish, randomised cruelty that makes minimal narrative sense. The sex scenes, too, often seem to sail rather too close to the pornographic objectification they are meant to be challenging. “The comparison is surprising to me,” says Despentes when I put this to her. “I didn’t meet many men who told me how excited they were by Baise-moi. Excitement is not the point of it.”

And yet, in King Kong Theory, she derides the trend for “hooker chic” – for adolescents to dress in provocatively adult clothes. Does she acknowledge that her own work, with its gun-toting females in G-strings and leopard print, has its part to play in glamorising precisely this sort of teenage behaviour? Her reply is unequivocal. “If young people were really influenced by movies, we would be in real trouble. You don’t go out of a movie and do what you’ve just seen.”

Despentes insists her work is a challenge to the unquestioned supremacy of the male viewpoint in both film and literature. As opposed to using female porn stars as wordless vehicles of male lust – their faces out of shot, their dialogue restricted to orgasmic grunts – both Despentes and Breillat deliberately put them at the centre of their work. They become active participants: in charge of the action, rather than subjected to it. In the literary sphere, Millet and Jordis choose to explore the female sexual experience rather than the male – inpart, their work is shocking because we are so unused to hearing a woman speak about sex like a man.

In this respect, the new French feminists have been influenced by the existentialist philosophies of Simone de Beauvoir. “Man today represents the positive and the neutral,” de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, “whereas woman is only the negative, the female.” The Belgian-born philosopher Luce Irigaray carries this one step further: “One must assume the feminine role deliberately, which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation, and thus to thwart it.”

Beyond the theorising, however, there lies the simpler goal of showing things as they really are. After centuries of concealment within the dark folds of patriarchy, these women seek to reclaim their space and illuminate their experience. Just as Despentes decries the social pressure for “ugly women” to prettify themselves in King Kong Theory, so Baise-moi deliberately set out to depict the sexual act in its myriad forms. It might disturb rather than arouse, and it might challenge rather than comfort, but at least it does not patronise us with the soft-focus romantic myth peddled by the mainstream. In Intimacy, the 2001 movie adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel, the French director Patrice Chéreau filmed several explicit sex scenes, including one that depicts the heroine, Claire, fellating her lover. Kerry Fox, the actress who played Claire, said she was drawn to the part precisely because “I felt the way that sex was represented [in traditional cinema] was very false. It is not an artist’s duty to shock. Shock might be a by-product but it is an artist’s duty to portray reality. It’s about encouraging people to understand others in a way they haven’t before.”

Back in Barcelona, the ashtray on Virginie Despentes’s living room table is half full of crumpled cigarette butts. As I leave, she is powdering her face with a small mirrored compact in preparation for the photograph. Despentes is, as she admits, a contradictory mass of different characteristics. She can be angry and yet she can be sweet; tough yet fragile; she can decry enforced femininity and yet she can care enough to put on make-up for a photograph. She is, like her characters, a woman of multiple facets. For all the controversy generated by the new wave of French feminism, maybe this is what lies at its heart: the permission for women to be themselves, however conflicted they might be and however uneasily it sits with conventional notions of what it is to be female. It is the permission, perhaps, for a woman to be more King Kong than Kate Moss.

King Kong Theory is published by Serpent’s Tail


Paris intellectuals make case for porn

Film festival’s X-rated action is ‘by and for women’

Lizzy Davies in Paris

The Observer, Sunday 12 October 2008

It could only happen in the country that gave us Emmanuelle, Monica Bellucci in an anal rape scene and twoyoung actresses romping through a hyper-violent bad-girl road movie with real-life sex and a title so rude it could not be advertised on buses.

A group of French intellectuals has now gone one step further in the quest to integrate hardcore erotica into mainstream cinema by holding Paris’s first alternative pornographic film festival: a no-holds-barred celebration of X-rated action that organisers say showcases a new wave of progressive porn that not only titillates but empowers.

Gone, for the most part, are mechanical character portrayals and cringe-worthy storylines; gone, too, are films made by – and solely for – men. On show at the Brady cinema for the past three days have been dozens of productions catering to both genders and every sexual preference. With names such as Deep, Strap-on Motel and Post-Apocalyptic Cowgirls they may sound like the same old material, but those in the know claim they are revolutionary.

‘There’s a new culture of pornography emerging,’ said Maxime Cervulle, the academic who is co-organising the festival in between lecturing at the University of Paris. ‘It’s not only about breaking away from the clichés of porn – of macho sexuality, bad plots and zero aesthetic appeal – but also changing the way people are portrayed in pornography: straight women, black women, lesbians, transsexuals and gay men.’

The most striking change ushered in by the new movement is its feminisation – almost half the films on show in Paris were made by and for women. Directors such as Catherine Corringer and Maria Beatty say they are responding to a rising interest among female audiences who are growing more aware of their own sexuality but are frustrated by the patriarchal world of erotica.

Marie-Hélène Bourcier, the other organiser of the festival, who is also a university lecturer, sees the festival as an important moment in the redressing of that gender imbalance. ‘I consider myself to be a feminist, but a pro-sex feminist,’ she said. ‘I don’t see any contradiction between certain kinds of pornography and feminism. For women it can be a sort of empowerment.’

With films such as Catherine Breillat’s Romance, an explicit study of female desire, Virginie Despentes’s notorious Baise-moi and Gaspar Noé’s disturbing Irréversible, critics claim mainstream French directors have been instrumental in pornography’s evolution, for better or worse.

The movies produced howls of outrage from many observers, both on account of their graphic content and questionable cinematic merit, but their influence has been undeniable. Even the more orthodox bastion of the small screen is getting in on the act, with television channel Canal+ teaming up with several French women actors and directors for a night of raunchy courts métrages later this month. It is all part of a desire, say the festival’s supporters, to nurture a pornography that reflects contemporary society more accurately.

‘I wanted to make films that would let women see themselves as they are,’ said Sophie Bramly, founder of website, which is co-ordinating the night. ‘Most women don’t recognise themselves in porn films – they’re too vulgar. And real feminine sexual pleasure is usually totally absent.’ While acknowledging the X-rated nature of the work, she refuses to describe them as ‘pornographic’. ‘These films are explicit. I don’t call them pornographic because pornography belongs to men,’ she said.

Bourcier, buoyant from the success of the festival, has no such linguistic qualms. For her the words do not matter as much as their socio-political purpose – to ‘reaffirm the populist character’ of the genre and to make it something people can identify with.

‘Pornography is a marginalised but populist genre and in this sense it is a reflection of social tensions,’ said Cervulle. ‘When minorities take part in this socially popular form of expression, they have the chance to break free of the dominant cultural force.’




french hegel: blanchot, baitalle and kojève

Near the beginning of Lars Iyer’s recent Blanchot’s Communism: Art, Philosophy and the Political, one comes across this nice piece of Kojèvean exegesis:


How, then, does it begin? How does the human being step into history? Everything begins, for Bataille, as for Kojève, with death. As Kojève explains, death permits the leap above ‘mere animal sentiment of self [Selbstgefühl]’ in order for the human being to attain properly human ‘self-consciousness [Selbstsbewu_tsein]’, which is to say, ‘conceptual and discursive consciousness in general’ – ‘the risk of life accepted without any necessity’, death as a sheer leap into the unknown. Everything begins with death. ‘The death of a human being is essentially different from the ‘end’ of an animal or plant’; the latter is merely imposed from without.5 The animal cannot assume its end, but merely unfolds innate possibilities, actualising only what it has been given by virtue of its biology. Nothing begins anew with the birth of the animal; it does not bring itself into the origin – it does not leap. The flies that circle blindly around my room this year are the same as the flies that circled last year, but the human being who struggles into birth inherits an understanding of the world, a culture, and is able to transform and to transmit this inheritance in turn. The birth of the human being is a leap. But it is so because to understand, for the human being, is also to die. For Kojève, it is death that lifts the human being from nature and grants it freedom. The human being, unlike the animal, is able to watch itself die; it is self-conscious.

How should one understand this? The human being irrupts into the field of Nature, which, for Kojève, is always merely ‘static given-Being [Sein]’, self-identical and mute.6 The human being undoes given-Being, by introducing ‘Other-Being [Anderssein]’, that is, ‘negation of itself as given and creation of itself as other than this given’.7 This is why Kojève differentiates his phenomenological anthropology, which ‘describes human existence as it “appears” [erscheint] or “manifests” itself to the very one who experiences it’,8 from a scientific one, like Gall’s phrenology. The animal merely lives, but the living human being acts. True, plants and animals develop, but that development is itself determined by what is given beforehand. As Bataille comments, the animal ‘is itself lost in nature (and in the totality of all that is)’.9 Freedom, by contrast, is the negation of human ‘nature’, which is to say, for Kojève, ‘of the “possibilities” which he has already realized’.10 Negation is an overcoming of what has already been received as a possibility and to that extent is always a leap, always the realisation of a hitherto unforeseen possibility. Action, negativity, is the overcoming of the given. It is by violently asserting autonomy with respect to nature, by making war against what is merely innate or inherited, that the dimension of history opens, understood as the ‘appearings’ of the human being and its world and hence the topic of phenomenology.

This capacity to negate, this freedom, governs the human being from the very beginning. To begin, with the human being inherits the body, a natural being. As Bataille comments, ‘Man is first of all an animal, that is to say the very thing he negates’; ‘to negate nature is to negate the animal which props up man’s negativity’.11 Thus the body is itself negated through action. But how does the human being survive the own destruction of the body? The human being is reborn from the ashes of its natural being because it is self-conscious, because it can watch itself die. The human being is a dialectical being, which means, for Kojève, that it preserves that which is originally given. Although negation is always a negation of a determined and specific identity, it simultaneously preserves this same identity. In its continuity and its progression, history always presumes the negation of the real and its preservation. As Kojève writes, ‘to describe Man as a dialectical entity is to describe him as a negating Action that negates the given within which is born, and as a Product created by that very negation, on the basis of the given which was negated’.12 Thus, the human being can preserve itself in the negation of its own natural being. The death of the body, is, in this sense, assumed by the human being such that it becomes the product of human action, of freedom. The fruits of activity, of dying, are preserved in and through the transmission of history.

Death, for Kojève, is the negation through which the human being ‘“goes beyond” or “transcends” the given-being which he himself is’.13 It is because it risks death that the human being is a dialectical being. For the animal, death is suffered as an end – it merely befalls the animal to the extent that Kojève claims ‘death does not actually exist for it’.14 The animal lives out its possibilities without negating them. As Bataille comments, ‘no doubt the individual fly dies, but today’s flies are the same as those of last year. Last year’s have died? … Perhaps, but nothing has disappeared. The flies remain, equal to themselves like the waves of the sea’.15 Kojève’s animal cannot watch itself die. It is not even finite, in the sense that it possesses a sense of its division from other animals. It belongs to what Bataille calls an ‘undifferentiated continuity’.16 Animal desire, Kojève grants, destroys what is given as nature – the animal ‘realises and reveals its superiority to plants by eating them’; and yet, by the same stroke, ‘by feeding on plants, the animal depends on them and hence does not manage fully to go beyond them’.17 Animal desire is filled by a ‘natural, biological content’.18 The animal falls back into the natural domain from which it appeared, briefly, to liberate itself. This is why the animal does not enter into becoming, time and history. No animal, even the strongest, can be more than a wave in the movement of the waters of this animality; all of them belong to the continuity as water does to water. The animal lives, but the human being acts, which is to say, dies. Death drives the human being out of the continuity of animal life. The human being, by contrast, does not enjoy a simple subsistence, but dies, and for this reason is always and already beyond the situation in which it finds itself. It runs up against the fact that it will die. Thus, Kojève writes, ‘man is mortal for himself ’; only the human being ‘can die in the proper sense of the word’.19 The human being can die, and death can become what he calls a ‘dialectical finiteness’ because the human being always dies prematurely, that is, because there are always more possibilities that it could negate.20 Whilst the offspring of the animal inherit nothing, repeating the same movement, the human being has the chance of giving birth to an inheritor, to the child who can take up the work of negation and prolong history.




5. Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, edited by Allan Bloom, translated by James H. Nichols (Cornell University Press, 1980), 242.

6. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 200.

7. Ibid., 200.

8. Ibid., 261.

9. Bataille, Theory of Religion, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 15.

10. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 250.

11. Bataille, Theory of Religion, 15.

12. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 234.

13. Ibid., 256.

14. Ibid., 255.

15. Bataille, Theory of Religion, 15.

16. Ibid., 29.

17. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 39.

18. Ibid., 39.

19. Ibid., 255.

20. Ibid.