Sex, Literature and Communication

By Olivier, Bert | Journal of Literary Studies, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Sex, Literature and Communication

Olivier, Bert, Journal of Literary Studies


This paper addresses the question of the literary representation of the relationship between sex and communication by focusing on a number of pertinent instances in literature (and in one case cinema) where clues are afforded concerning the generation of meaning in this area of human experience. Various philosophical-theoretical perspectives are employed to shed light on the specificity of communication in a sexual context, guided by the question whether communication is more basic than sex or vice versa. It is especially the work of Kristeva that enables one, finally, to grasp sex--as represented in literature or cinema--as being comprehensible in terms of the semiotic, as opposed to the symbolic, mode of signification.


Hierdie artikel ondersoek die literere voorstelling van die relasie tussen seks en kommunikasie deur op 'n aantal pertinente letterkundige gevalle (asook een in die rolprentkuns) te fokus wat leidrade verskaf oor die skepping van betekenis in hierdie veld van menslike ervaring. Verskeie filosofies-teoretiese perspektiewe word benut om lig te werp op die spesifieke aard van kommunikasie in 'n seksuele konteks, gedagtig aan die fundamentele vraag of kommunikasie meer basies is as seks of omgekeerd. Dit is veral die werk van Kristeva wat 'n mens uiteindelik in staat stel om seks--soos dit in literatuur en die rolprentkuns voorgestel word--aan die hand van die semiotiese, soos onderskeibaar van die simboliese, betekenisregister te begryp.


In Roald Dahl's short story, "The Last Act" (Dahl 1976: 81-111), (1) one witnesses a splendid instance, in literary terms, of how not to communicate in the context of a sexual relationship, or in this ease, a brief sexual encounter. Yet, for someone to miscommunicate in such a fashion that the attempt to make love--or perhaps rather, to have sex--fails so miserably, he or she either has to be pathetically inept at communicating in such a situation fraught with pitfalls of all kinds, or ... as it happens in this case (and as I will show), the person in question could be brilliant as a "communicator" (manipulator?); to such a degree, in fact, that the effect and the response on the part of the interlocutor are predictable. One could call it communicative manipulation--or what Habermas terms "strategic action", as opposed to "communicative action", where, in the case of the former, the "communication" is disingenuous, proceeding on the basis of a hidden agenda aimed at gaining power over the other, while the latter embodies a genuine attempt at "reaching" the other by putting all one's so-called "validity claims" on the table, as it were (Brand 1990:15-16). In the case of strategic action, of course, such validity claims are scrupulously kept out of sight, even if fake ones--pseudo-validity claims--may indeed be, and often are offered for the sake of attaining strategic goals.

It is not coincidental that my point of departure here is literature--a short story, as well as other literary texts and one cinematic instance. Part of my aim in this paper is to explore the extent to which a certain kind of literature--or the literary employment of a certain mode of signification, to be more exact--has the capacity to impart an awareness of mostly unacknowledged levels or registers of communication and miscommunication, here specifically concerning sex, by the way the latter is represented--so much so that interstitial communicational spaces which are usually ignored, suddenly swim into focus, revealing their colours for the first time, as it were. I believe that Julia Kristeva's work on the semiotic, as opposed to the symbolic niveau of signification provides the literary-theoretical means for appropriating (among other things) the communicational import of literarily represented sexual transactions between individuals which may assume the contours of either "strategic" or "communicative" action. While my focus here is literary (and cinematic) fiction, and Kristeva's distinction pertains primarily to different, but co-existing modes of literary language, the upshot of her work is that these modes of signification function at the level of the lifeworld--in ordinary, everyday communication--as well, because this is where they are rooted.

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