American Circuits, American Secrets
Canadian Association for American Studies
The University of Alberta @ The Banff Centre
Banff, Alberta, Canada

18–21 September 2014

The Circuits of Secret Desire: Masturbation and the Defence of Scholarly Cynicism

According to Michel Foucault, “Masturbation is the universal secret shared by everyone but disclosed to no one.” This paper discusses masturbation in the context of Foucault’s late work on ethics as “the care of the self”—a self-relation that critically resists the institution of abstract rationalism, an ethic of autonomy, and their apotheosis in neoliberal forms of governance. The paper falls into three parts. In the first, I sketch the history of masturbation as a religious, social, political, medical, and economic problem. I’m interested here how masturbation arose as a threat to governing logics and ideologies, and thus as a threat to normative subject formation. In the second part, I venture an apology for the metaphorics of masturbation. Turning to the ancient Greek “care of the self,” I theorize the self’s relation to itself in terms of masturbation and a phenomenology of touch. I argue that the central trope for the masturbator is catachresis. In this context, the masturbator might serve as a critical figure, one whose activities cannot easily be commodified or co-opted by regimes of accountability, efficiency, and utility. In the third and concluding part, I reflect on the circuits and politics of the production of knowledge in the social sciences and humanities. I argue that the scholarly work that we do—often dismissively characterized as “mental masturbation”—might be productively re-figured as an ethic of self-care modeled on Cynic philosophy. A defence of theoretical scholarship, this paper is also a scathing critique of “austerity” and the wholesale neoliberalization of the university.

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