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Charles Fourier's Queer Theory

McKenzie Wark26 February 2015

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Constant's New Babylon is about the infrastructure of the future of our desires, but one has to look elsewhere for a vision of its everyday life. In this extract from The Spectacle of Disintegration, I take up Charles Fourier's New Amorous World, a book only known in France since 1967 and still scandalously untranslated. (Although Raoul Vanegeim edited and introduced a lovely little French edition). 

Charles Fourier's Queer Theory

If most civilized philosophies are just castles in the air, then why do they not at least have orgies going on inside them? There are not a few pedants who prostrate themselves before this or that philosopher’s airy erection, who admire its rigor, who have slaved so hard to peer into its many rooms that they cannot but defend its stature, even if it means they have to explain away said castle’s torture gardens.

Fourier too may be a castle in the air, but he takes pains to equip his with parade grounds and covered walkways. He even keeps the noisy spaces for kids away from the quiet ones for grown ups. Violence, for Fourier, is a failure of design, of both built space and social relations.

Rural life with his nieces in Talissieu at first seemed designed to please Fourier, but in the end proved to be somewhat trying. It is hard to know how much of a good time his nieces were really having with the dashing young officers who came so often to call. Fourier claimed to have stumbled upon a young officer with a hand up one young lady’s skirt while his other niece watched them.

Fourier felt they should be free to fuck whom so ever they wanted, but their hypocrisy galled him. When he confronted them they feigned to be offended by the mere suggestion of anything improper. He also suspected the young officers were not as gallant as they claimed and would abandon they young women when they proved inconvenient.

In any case, it all went badly in the end. These circumstances did inform the writing of what may well be Fourier’s impossible masterpiece, the New Amorous World. It would not see the light of day until 1967. It is still a little known queer theory classic.

What is distinctive about Fourier is that he imagines the social as entirely composed out of the passions. He refused the erotic Jacobinism of universal monogamy (still to be found in Badiou, for instance). His passionate social order is not one of a universal but singular love, but rather one of the diversity and difference of the passions.

At heart Fourier wants to be an erotic umpire of passionate games, not a political economist. His most beautiful writings, on the New Amorous World, are a unique kind of philosophy of the orgy, or systems theory porn. As a pornographer Fourier is interested in the tableaux, the staging, the ritual, rather than the actual fucking.

The world of Harmony satisfies a sexual minimum for all. Every monogyne – those governed by only one passion – can get his or her rocks off. Fourier is no egalitarian. He is barely interested in describing such paltry pleasures. It’s the baroque world of the omnigynes that attract him, with their polymorphous play on the whole twelve passions. Fourier considered himself an omnigyne, and hence his porn had to arouse all twelve of the passions, not just the passion for “touch-rut.”

Philosophy is too concerned with ambitious or major politics, and not enough with amorous or minor politics. If Marx plumbs the limits of political philosophy in political economy, Fourier finds it in an amorous economy, but one where amour is neither private nor at odds with the world.

Why is love the passion the philosophers want to admit the fewest possible bonds, when one is supposed to love one’s brother, be a citizen of the world, and so on? Sexual politics means something quite specific in Fourier’s world. There’s hardly any point in politics in its civilized senses. In a decentralized world of plenty, there’s nothing to fight over, no point to empire. Capital, labor and talent cooperate rather than struggle against each other. Politics is the domain of the cabalist passion, of intrigues and factions, rivalry and collaboration,  but the stakes are largely symbolic. Some are richer than others in Harmony, but here social stratification is not a mere mask for class. The real contest is for prestige and renown. Sexual politics is a game of sensual largess. Its currency is attraction, but the point of the game is not to hoard and covet, but to dispense and distribute the favors of the favored.

The quadrille is a dance that requires a refined coordination of the dancers. Fourier imagines an erotic quadrille of sixteen persons. For this quadrille “orgies are prepared by the minister and female pontiff who arrange delightful reunions and cumulative sympathies that heighten each other.” Pleasures accumulate and ramify in memory, ours and others. It is an economy of reputation, where liaisons are structured to produce harmonious results. The quadrille heightens all the particular passions through their combination, added to which is the pleasure of unityism, which heightens all the other passions as well.

Rather than random encounters, the new amorous world is one of “harmonic polygamy” Fourier: “The result is very brilliant orgies that furnish charming illusions and precious and durable souvenirs.” Participation is not a sacrifice, but a heightening of pleasure. As in the quadrille as a dance, each adjusts to each other, pleasures the other, only some will distinguish themselves more than others. “All men and women who have worn a cross in the court of love advance in steps proportionate to the number of foci they have formed.” Its perfection would be the omnigyne quadrille, composed of thirty-two persons whose distribution of passions is the same as the thirty-two planets.

Fourier is a little coy about revealing how the quadrille really works to readers shackled by civilized morality. Its clear that what he calls pederasty and lesbianism are included as expressions of the passions. But perhaps what’s more interesting is that he understands difference in desires not so much along the straight/curious/gay continuum, as within a more complicated space of possibilities. Its more about which, and how many, of the passions are dominant.

For instance, a pentagyne straight woman, who has five dominant passions, might require encounters with five monogyne men, each of which corresponds in his dominant passion to one of hers. Of course monogynes rank low in the scale of erotic reputation in the quadrilles. The omnigynes, fully alive to all twelve of the passions, are most likely the ones in demand, acquiring reputation, and eventually playing the roles of conductors of the dance. Fourier upends the moral judgments of civilization. In the erotic quadrille, the ‘sluts’ rule.

Civilization treats sexual space as a hierarchy of values, with straight monogamy at the top and random fucks at the bottom. The realm of  sanctioned sexual practice is a hot topic, but it is really just about where to draw the line. Serial monogamy might be okay for some, a period of random dating among the young before they settle down, perhaps. Maybe its okay for people to have sex outside marriage once the kids are out of the house. Maybe one incident of cheating can be forgiven, but not if it’s a habit. Maybe gay people can be allowed in the hierarchy of sanctioned sex if they form monogamous relationships like everyone else.

And so on. In civilization, the realm of the acceptable distinguishes itself from two things. At one end is the prude, who denies and represses sexuality. At the other end is the slut. If virginity is not as prized by the civilized as it once was, fucking around is still not acceptable, particularly for women. Its random, infectious, a threat to civilized order.

Fourier dispenses with this whole stigmatizing of the space of sexual possibilities. There are no straight-gay, prude-slut, or order-random axes to his sexual universe. There is only the twelve passions, and variability as to which and how many of the passions are active. Harmony is the game of combining the passions. Its true that his world is hierarchical, and it is tempting to say that the sluts are on top, but that isn’t quite it. Omnigynes are favored in Harmonian sexual politics, but all sexuality is played out in the form of elaborate games. What’s valued is the richness of passionate attraction, and the philanthropy with which talent is dispensed.

The most extraordinary sentences, a porn of the relation, not of the act, follows from this, viz: “The two foci first elect the four cardinal sub-foci of the quadrille; these are the four who are loved in title of favoritism and unityism. Then each one elects, from fourteen loved ones, seven that are pivotal in high scale and seven in low scale. Next are elected four ambiguous in low scale; the surplus from the twelve major and the twelve minor keys, of which seven are pivotal in each octave.”

This is what is truly remarkable about Fourier: the ability to imagine a relational pornography, where all social contacts are pleasurable and engage as many of the passions as possible. It is a heretical reversal of perspective of liberalism. Rather than sacrifice the body to labor in order to sustain a survival in which some modest pleasure might be endured at the margin, the whole social field can engage all of the passions all the time.

Something like it happens every other Saturday in a dungeon in Brooklyn. They are men, women, and some unclassifiable. They are black and white, and some none of the above. They are gay and straight, and some neither. They are young and old, beautiful and ugly. They are not the same but they all have passions, and they all gather and remove their clothes before venturing into a darkened labyrinth. Here a man whips another with a switch. There a woman fucks a man up the ass with a dildo. In the back room is a group scene, too dark to tell of genders or preferences. A cry of pleasure draws five men, cocks in hand, to watch from the shadows, some in the hope of joining in, others simply to watch and come in their own hands, making an offering, if only they knew, to Barbelo, reigning Goddess of one of Raoul Vaneigem’s favorite heresies.

It is hardly what Fourier had in mind. Its not far removed from the seraglios that he knew were the necessary other side to bourgeois morality. Fourier was most likely a solitary wanker. But he might have appreciated the emergence, in such spaces, of tacit rules that enable the meshing of the passions. Readings in decadent literature led him to suspect an erotic charge even – or especially – to the “the secret bambocciades of respectable women.”

Harmonian sex is highly regulated. The court of love meets every night. A high pontiff presides, and arrayed beneath her are various other ranks, who enforce the amorous code of conduct. Not infidelity but insincerity is the chief failing that concerns them. Membership is voluntary, so there is nobody to coerce, but recognition in this world is not easily achieved. The main currency of this hierarchy is sexual philanthrophy. Saintly rank is bestowed upon those who share their sexual favors with those most in need.

Besides the arranging of the sexual encounters within the court’s jurisdiction, the pontiff and her associates have to arrange for the entertainment of travelers. Fourier imagines a host of wanderers and knights-errant, searching the world for rare pleasures. Those with particularly rare fetishes may travel far to join gatherings of their kind. Fourier foresaw a federating globally of the partisans of each branch of passion, with sects devoted to each particular sexual mania. A global association of heel-scratching fetishists might travel the world in search of ardent supplicants willing to offer their heels. Roland Barthes: “For Fourier, and this is his victory, there is no normality.”

Everyone wears insignia to mark their whims, although these may of course change. The officers of the court of love, mostly older women, would conduct interviews to determine who wants what and who might best provide it. The court would jot it all down on a card index system. Strangely enough, indexing is one of the few things characteristic of the post-revolutionary era which Fourier regards favorably. His phalasteries are also all equipped with the telegraph, and form a distributed network, each in communication with each other. Between the card index database and the telegraph network, Fourier imagines Harmony within a dense space of communication.

The New Amorous World is a reversal of perspective of the hierarchies and cultic practices of the Catholic Church. In Fourier, its indulgences are likewise bestowed by an ecclesiastical order, only one devoted to satisfying pleasures rather than repressing them. The tithes required of members would be more of the order of hand jobs for the elderly than a grain requisition. The saints would be paragons of a new kind of virtue, bestowing mercy fucks on the sick and infirm. Excommunication remains the ultimate sanction. Membership in any court is voluntary on both sides.

Fourier thought that if everyone had their minimum sexual needs meet without unnecessary anxiety, it would prompt desires for new kinds of platonic love. Young people in Fourier’s world could choose to be bacchantes, or they could choose to be vestals. While the vestals withhold their bodies, it isn’t as a sacrifice. In any case, certain lapses are permitted and it is temporary anyway. One of Fourier’s more refined passions is the composite, which laminates sensual and social passions together. The vestal becomes an object of adoration and longing through the delay in choosing whom to fuck.

Fourier’s is an amorous order for women, the elderly and perverts -- all those scorned by civilization. It honors sexual philanthropy and amorous nobility. Its highest ranks in Harmony open only to those attracted to both sexes. In Harmony, love is an affair of state, and affairs of state would all be amorous affairs. War would be more like a game, a war of position in which rival courts would take prisoners for the prisoner’s gratification rather than their own.

Fourierist sex takes place in broad daylight, preferably in public, preferably in the context of a carefully directed orgy. What civilization treats as something furtive and nocturnal will be brought into the light. A celestial mirror in the sky will reveal any secret lovers hiding out in the woods. Stendhal’s On Love, written around the same time, circles relentlessly around the emotional stress of unrequited desire. Fourier’s solution is practical. A whole class of officers of the court of love will offer themselves to those not otherwise favored.

Fourier’s world may seem impossible, ridiculous. But is it more so than this world that actually claims to exist? Charles Beecher: "It is not given to all of us to imagine a world populated by anti-lions and anti-crocodiles. Nor is it given to all of us to see as clearly as Fourier saw into the contradictions, the wasted opportunities and the hidden possibilities of our own lives." At the very least one can read the symptomatology of civilization in Fourier in negative. Fourier: “civilized social order is an absurd mechanism, the parts of which are in conflict with the whole.”

This brings us to Vaneigem’s most famous line, about those who “without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.” Here Vaneigem brings Fourier to bear as a critique of the militant asceticism of the Leninist strains of the French postwar left. Lenin too had his utopia: vigorous, ascetic, and drawn from Nicolai Chernyensky’s What is to Be Done?

Fourier’s utopian thought had its absurdist side, most notoriously the archibras, the human tail with a hand an eye at its end. Genetic engineering has not exactly made that possible, and even our pornographers have neglected to explore its theoretical possibilities. On the other hand, Fourier has a strange predictive power. His analogical method enabled him to develop possible permutations on the given in language which bypassed the rhetorical centers of gravity of his time, and not a few of which illuminate, in their own strange light, the spectacle of disintegration.

The seas did not turn to lemonade, but as Fourier predicted, the planet is surely warming. Species dangerous to humans are quickly becoming extinct. For better or worse, more amenable ones have indeed been engineered. Elements of Fourier’s sexual universe came to pass, from the global conclaves of fetishists, and the hook-up culture of young vestals and bacchantes. This disintegrating civilization refuses to award a social and sexual minimum, and is if anything reversing the progress in that direction that the labor movement, feminism and the counter culture had in their contradictory ways advanced.


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