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Saketopoulou's “The Draw to Overwhelm: Consent, Risk and the Retranslation of Enigma” (2019)

Overwhelm is an extreme state that can bring about ego shattering, a radical unbinding of the ego that unravels previous translations that may be at an impasse, to make room for new ones. Overwhelm can be reached through varied pathways and requires considerable, effortful repetitions. Sexuality, I suggest, especially sexuality in its transgressive and perverse renditions, may be ideally equipped to incite overwhelm.

I use the term perverse not as a marker of pathological sexuality but in its original analytic meaning, to denote sexuality that is polymorphous, has exchangeable objects, is fragmenting, and is not organized reproductively or heterogenitally (Freud 1905; Van Haute and Westerink 2016).

There are marked differences between being susceptible to the other and capitulating to the other’s will. Lyotard (1988) has coined the term passibility (in French, passibilité) to express this crucial distinction.

Submission is heavy, it weighs one down, while surrender cannot be demanded or exacted by the other but occurs spontaneously.

Discourse on affirmative consent and informed consent presumes individuals with distinct centers of subjectivity who inform, negotiate, and reach agreements to minimize misunderstandings and manage expectations (Haag 1999; Hinshelwood 2004) but do not admit the complexities of unconscious factors. Further, this discourse does not sufficiently account for the various types of consent negotiation (Butler 2011; Fischel 2016, 2019; Fischel and O’Connell 2015).

We need a different concept for this type of consent, one that, unlike affirmative consent, is predicated not on setting and observing limits, but on initiating and responding to an invitation to transgress them. To mark how closely such consent approaches the limit, I call it_ limit consent_.

Limit consent has an interpersonal syntax that does not entail the assertion of one’s sovereign boundaries but, rather, centers on surrendering to an other. This surrender can enable a new experience. Such a move into unknown territory risks injury. But if injury occurs in limit consent, it is inadvertent

[T]he idea of the top being in control overlooks the top’s vulnerability: in consenting to act as the top, she has engaged the bottom’s invitation for her to move past her own limits. She also has to assume the risk and the responsibility of safeguarding the other, thereby accepting the possibility that she may fail.

[T]he popular opinion that since the bottom conceives of and directs the play she is ultimately the one in control (Deleuze 1989), is not correct either. Put otherwise, thinking of matters of control in limit consent as dichotomous (one has it or one doesn’t) obscures the kaleidoscope of receptivity/activity, as well as the vulnerability, trust, and asymmetrical responsibility that make limit consent possible in the first place.

In affirmative consent, safety’s promissory note is that the top will respect the bottom’s expressed limits. In limit consent, the relative safety of the relationship is what puts in place the “facilitative circumstances” that Ghent (1999, p. 111) described as enabling one to surrender to an other. That does not guarantee the safety of what happens next; the earlier experience of safety is merely what allows the two parties to take the risk.

Freud famously proposed in Three Essays (1905) that the sexual drive is by nature polymorphous and perverse, using the term perverse to “enlarge the sexual beyond the limits of the difference between the sexes and beyond sexual reproduction” (Laplanche 2000, p. 19) ... Perversity, thus, was not a deviation from “normality,” but sexuality’s very foundation.

Dimen (1999), Bersani (1986), and George Klein (1961) have noted that the theorizing of fore- and end-pleasures sets up a two-tier system of discrepant economic sexual genres. In the perverse regime, tension continually escalates, while the mature rendition runs on a discharge economy.

What, though, is the sexual drive for Laplanche? For him it is not innate but epigenetic. It seeks not a moderation of tension but its escalation, even to “the point of complete exhaustion” (2005, p. 13).

Ruth Stein (2008) argued against this genealogy of theorizing, noting how we “seem to ‘forget’ or repress how different we are when we are sexual and how great the discrepancy is between sexuality and daily life” (p. 44). To Laplanche, the polarity at work is not between Eros and Death but between “the sexual drives of death and the sexual drives of life” (2015, p. 170).

Laplanche (1999a) saw the distinction between the sexual drive and the sexual instinct as “perhaps the most important opposition in psychoanalytic theory” (p. 161). Because he thought that the process of translation can never be exhausted (the definitive meaning of the enigmatic can never be pinned down), the sexual drive is never sated, is always pressing for more.

[S]ince Laplanche is critical of such a defanging of sexuality, and because he insists that the sexual drive always includes both binding properties (the sexual drives of life) and unbinding properties (the sexual drives of death), it would be reasonable to assume that he would not see such a state as the province of trauma or self-destructiveness. To put it differently, the sexual drive’s frenzied economy may not always mark the workings of a destructive death drive, and neither would it have to issue from traumatic repetitions.

To think about what may take place as the sexual drive reaches into the “more and more” of experience we would need a new concept. This concept would appreciate that assuming that the buildup of excitations always issues from the compulsion to repeat is to treat aggression as always already desexualized, as if its pairing with the sexual is not natural but requires particular circumstances. We would need, that is, a concept that admits of a sexualized aggression that does not arise from the compulsion to repeat. This new concept would also recognize that since the demonic sexual coexists with the sexual life drives, it cannot de facto be assumed to be self-destructive. And it would also admit the real risks invited by the demonic aspects of sexuality and the unbinding of the sexual death drives while not forgetting that this is a normative condition that itself involves the life sexual drives as well. Let's call this psychic space _overwhelm_.

Overwhelm is not inherently self-destructive, but it does incubate precarity and risk. Even though overwhelm draws not only from the unbinding, eruptive elements of the sexual death drive, it does engage them, and we should therefore expect it to run the risk of crossing into unsafety, where things can go off the rails.

Overwhelm occurs when the sexual drive escalates with negligible interruption or modulation. Excitation stockpiles beyond the pleasure principle, into pleasure that is suffered (Saketopoulou 2014). If this escalating excitation becomes so excessive that it reaches past the brink, overwhelm can threaten the ego’s coherence ... The ensuing condition is outside psychic representation. In it, language breaks apart. Experience is no longer communicable.

In psychoanalytic discourse perversion is a weighty term with a long and injurious history which targeted homosexuality and unconventional sexualities (Dimen 2003, 2005). Yet I continue to use it because it captures an edge and a phenomenological dimension that more neutral descriptors like “nonnormative sexuality,” “atypical sexual practices,” “BDSM,” and “kink” do not. Further, I find phrases like “erotic games” and “sexual play” unhelpful because they leverage the relational arrangements within which transgressive sex occurs to make it palatable: in Kernberg’s work (1995), such sexual acts become acceptable if performed within matrimony’s perimeter; in Celenza’s work (2000) and that of others, they are granted legitimacy if/when enveloped within loving, mutual, and reciprocal relationships. Such theorizing privileges certain normative forms of erotic relationship (heterosexual; sanctioned by the state; long-term) in granting perverse sexuality the status of “benign sexual variation” (Rubin 1984, p. 148). But, more important for my argument, it also requires that affirmative consent drafts the parameters of perverse encounters when limit consent may be a more useful angle in considering perversion’s transgressive elements.

In my clinical work I have observed that long interpersonal processes are required for repeated encounters, which initially are negotiated through affirmative consent, to gather the trust and momentum required to permit the move into negotiating limit consent and to court overwhelm. Clinical accounts that focus on a singular scene make it easy to overlook the complex processes required to build the traction toward overwhelm.

We may recall here Stein’s urge: “patients who are able to harness the excessive in sexuality in liberating ways should be listened to us as analysts with as much receptivity as we can muster, knowing that however attentively we try to capture that excess, we cannot do so conclusively”

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