Erotic particularity, metacognition, survival

Of Samuel Delany

Samuel Delaney interviewed at ReaderCon 2011 (watch video here).

Trigger warning: this essay includes snippets of cultural theory, so if you’ve had traumatic experiences with it, please be careful.

When I began thinking about how best to honor Samuel Delany today, I felt some sense of obligation to explain what for me has been the transformative effect of reading Delany’s work, especially from the standpoint of queer studies. 

No doubt this “Mandate To Explain” was installed in my brain during my training as a literary critic. This time, it made me think of Freud’s famous essay “The Moses of Michaelangelo.” Freud acknowledges upfront that “works of art exercise a powerful effect on me” and that

this has occasioned me, when I have been contemplating such things, to spend a long time before them trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e. to explain to myself what their effect is due to. Whenever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.[1]

On the one hand, this statement might make you feel sorry for Freud: was he really such a control freak that he could get no inexplicable pleasures? On the other hand, you might feel inclined to disbelieve him: if he is first moved by something and proceeds to get pleasure only if he can figure out why, are we supposed to believe that being moved by it was not pleasurable in the first place? Here we come up against the reductiveness of the Freudian arc of arousal and release, which tends to disavow all the pleasure except what’s found at the very end. 

But finally — and this is what brings us to Delany — we can at least affirm with Freud that the pleasure of what moves us specifically — of what I think must be called erotic particularity — can be resonantly linked with the pleasure of metacognition

As even Freud may not have disavowed, some kernel of the erotic particularities that drive us must remain opaque, and this opacity might on the one hand be characterized as the grain of sand around which the pearls of our selves and lives and metacognitions are secreted, or on the other as that which in practice we do well to treat simply as fact. As some of us are also driven to know — and as poets know and those versed in dynamical theory know: constitutive constraints are pure positivities for the systems driven by them. Here we find a way of articulating constraint as a core principle of evolution and of the even more general emergence of complex order,[2] or as one of Delany’s characters puts it: “there are some directions in which you cannot go. Choose one in which you can move as far as you want.”[3] This intimate relationship between constraint and freedom — more intimate and more convulsive than dialectics can account for — is part of the architecture of the world Delany theorizes and builds in his work. Philosophically, you might say, it is related to what Alfred North Whitehead called the propositional nature of reality.[4]

It is also true that, early on, Delany was writing with surprising openness and even matter-of-factness about minority sexualities and practices when repression and supression of such discourse were even more the order of the day. But as we know from Michel Foucault, the account of sexuality being repressed tends to be invoked for what he calls “the speaker’s benefit”[5] — to make the speaker seem transgressive and even heroic, while unwittingly serving the larger mandate to bolster a regulating discourse of sexuality tied to recognition and identity. Delany’s great achievement is precisely to have refused this gambit. To put it in extreme shorthand, between the erotic particularities and the metacognition in Delany’s writings, there is little interest in the way of an oedipal self to straighten and deparadoxify. We are creatures of our erotic particularities, of the systems of power and discourse we negotiate, and of their intricacies and interweavings.  That is what Gorgik knew.

I do not think of Delany’s writing in this way as in any sense heroic. It goes much deeper than that. It’s about survival. As Gorgik also knew. Especially for those of us without proper oedipal selves, finding Delany’s writings is more about survival and less about finding recognition or intelligibility, especially when the writer is himself, as Delany put it, “that most ambiguous of citizens.”[6]

Eve Sedgwick wrote of this unintelligibility as leaving, in the stigma-impregnated space of refused recognition, sometimes also a stimulating aether of the unnamed, the lived experiment.”[7] Or as Eve’s student José Muñoz put it,

Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present.  Queerness is the thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing. Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic. The aesthetic, especially the queer aesthetic, frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity.[8]

By the way, I don’t mean to imply that Eve was the one who taught this to Jose: they found each other. What I am talking about is finding and inventing ways of being in the world and ways of writing and thinking through which it is possible to find and to invent and reinvent each other. As I said before, this is what brings us to Delany. This finding and invention and reinvention of each other is exactly what I am calling survival. Did I say survival? I could have called it pleasure. Survival. Pleasure. Survival. Pleasure.

In 2006, I wrote about Delany’s 1967 story “Star Pit”: partly about its relationship to his memoir, but mainly as a prescient enaction of complex systems theory and as a corrective to a kind of liberal ecologism: it’s hard to believe that story was written almost fifty years ago. I also came to believe that, in the story, Delany had invented what came to be called the EcoSphere, a completely sealed-off and self-sustaining aquarium or terrarium. In any case, I took my role as critic as extending what I understood to be the work of the writer — adding another layer or two of metacognition to what was already an intricately layered discursive entity — and I announced upfront my quixotic desire to install Delany’s story “at the intersection of cultural studies and theoretical biology” so that “future generations of biologists and cultural theorists will — together — read Delany and me in their autopoeisis classes.”[9]

As you may know, I have so far failed so thoroughly in this mission that most people don’t even believe that there is an intersection between cultural studies and theoretical biology. Here’s where I go into my Mad Scientist persona:

Fools!  Someday they’ll understand!

And although EcoSpheres continue to be sold on the Internet, my claim that Delany invented them has still not led to any royalties for him. Sorry, Chip.

To put it another way, this is an instance of what Judith Halberstam would come to call the queer art of failure.[10] I want to end with the final two paragraphs of my essay on Delany’s story, which develop a version of what this ongoing failure means.

To honor in practice the recognition that powers and knowledges come with more or less radical limitations, and vice versa, would yield revolutionary consequences. The ongoing work of queer writing is to make the varieties of “ambiguous citizenship” into gifts as well as burdens to those who bear them and to enact the desire for a world in which this might be the case.

Like the mini-ecosystems that model it, Delany’s story is a device that manufactures intuition about self-organizing systems: it posits a sequence of models (a set that includes itself), each of which fail in the direction of the next. In so doing it enacts and transmits, nurtures, and directs a desire. What does it want? Like all models, it wants to be real, to become alive, or to the extent that it is alive already, to go on living. The text wants to stay alive, wants its adopted children to stay alive, but because they cannot stay alive in any world, it wants a world in which they could stay alive, a world that could stay alive, a queer world, whose ecology is not blithe wholism or eternal warfare but sustainable contradictions, whose intelligence and perseverance and perversity are what sustain us.[11]



1. Sigmund Freud, “The Moses of Michaelangelo,” in Character and Culture, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier Books [Macmillan], 1963), 80–106; 80–81.

2. See Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: Norton, 2012), especially 182–205, and also see Ira Livingston, Poetics as a Theory of Everything, especially chapter 2, “What Are Poetics?” (forthcoming).

3. Sandy, quoted by Vyme, in Samuel Delany’s story “The Star Pit,” in Driftglass (New York: Signet [New American Library], 1971), 13–71, 70.

4. For example, see Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 3.

5. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintabe Books [Random House], 1978), 6.

6. Samuel Delany, The Motion of Light in Water (New York: Masquerade Books, 1993), 364.

7. Eve Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 63.

8. José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and Now of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.

9. Ira Livingston, Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 161.

10. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

11. Livingston, Between Science and Literature, 173.