From Restricted to General Onanism: Bataille and the Personal Massager


The (very) British catalogue Solutions World, whose target demographic is the 65-110 year-old middleclass dupe (i.e., the poor soul who still uses the phone-in mail-order system, and who doesn’t have family or friends who are online to warn them of the at-least-300% mark-up on all of their products), promote a vibrating dildo under the name of a ‘personal massager’, with a photo of a woman, in all seriousness, massaging her neck with it, and with this write-up:


After a hard day at work we could all benefit from a relaxing massage but few of us can afford the one-to-one attention of a professional masseur. Now you can ease away everyday tension and stress in the complete comfort and privacy of your own home with this personal massager, suitable for every part of the body, to bring you the satisfaction of a deep, sensual massage.


Something is fishy here, but how should we approach figuring out what it is? First, let this demonstrate the necessity of not always reading the world straightforwardly; imagine the scene of Marge returning home: ‘Oh, I’ve had such a hard day at work dear, pass us the personal massager…’ Is this what we’re meant to see? Perhaps not.


Georges Bataille argues in Eroticism that the move from ‘animal nature’ to the human realm came about ‘by working, by understanding […] mortality and by moving imperceptibly from unashamed sexuality to sexuality with shame, which gave birth to eroticism’ (London: Marion Boyars, 2006: p.31). Here we have an instance of extremely shamefaced sexuality, disguising its truth with such a double-bluff that it is the obviousness of this attempt to obscure the object’s sexual function that is its true obscenity, appearing more obscene than any description of the massager’s pleasure-giving properties would have, despite how it might have jarred with the catalogue’s other supposedly prim and proper products and its demographic’s sensibilities. So, through this sexuality – as much shamed as it is ashamed – we have not moved into eroticism; the massager has not been eroticised. Nor has it been sublimated in the Freudian sense: the ‘exchange [of an] originally sexual aim for another one, which is no longer sexual but which is psychically related to the first aim’ (Freud, SE IX, p.187) has not really taken place; there is something in the obviousness of its onanism – a ‘personal massager’ for those that cannot ‘afford one-to-one’ contact ‘after a hard day at work’, ‘relaxing’ you in ‘the privacy of your own home’, ‘bringing you to a deep and sensual satisfaction’ – that implies something more of an awkward short-circuit.


Perhaps then – and most likely unbeknownst to Solutions World and its intentions – the representation of this ‘personal massager’ is a radical indicator of something more fundamentally intrinsic to the real of sex; that is, the impossibility of its linguistic representation. Bataille says towards the end of his book, in an echo of Wittgenstein: ‘eroticism, perhaps the most intense of emotions, is as if it did not exist as far as our existence is present for us in the form of speech and language […] eroticism must remain something exterior[.] Erotic experience will commit us to silence’ (p.252). Whereas something like Bataille’s notorious novella Story of the Eye might, despite this, nevertheless attempt to voice something of sex’s existence, the whole rigmarole of this ‘personal massager’ seems rather to vocalise its necessitous silence.


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