The Negative Exchange

And my heart took fright – to envy some poor man
Who ran in frenzy to the sheer abyss
Who, drunk with the pulsing of his blood, preferred
Grief to death and hell to nothingness.

(Baudelaire, Translation taken from Benjamin, Illuminations,pg. 176.)


In an earlier piece we identified two types of impulse exchange – The Positive Exchange and the Negative Exchange. We suggested that Negative Exchange was based on one’s potential to lose, or be destroyed/consumed by another; that there was a subjective and unconscious vitality attributable to loss that was separate from belief, attitude and pragmatic considerations.

To give credence to this notion of exchange, Bataille goes as far as to suggest that the very essence of all exchange consists in loss rather than in acquisition, that:

“Classical economics imagined that primitive exchange occurred in the form of barter; it had no reason to assume, in fact, that a means of acquisition such as exchange might have at its origin not the need to acquire that it satisfies today, but the contrary need, the need to destroy and lose.” (Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-39:“The Notion of Expenditure”, pg. 121).

He remarks upon the miserable nature of general utility’s principle of pleasure, based as it is on conservation and mean security, comparing its relationship with the individual to that of a father with his son: ”The father’s partially malevolent solicitude is manifested in the things he provides for his son: lodgings, clothes, food, and where absolutely necessary, a little harmless recreation. But the son does not really have the right to speak about what really gives him a fever; he is obliged to give people the impression that for him no horror can enter into consideration.” (Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-39:“The Notion of Expenditure, pg. 117”). Acquisition is therefore associated with a sort of meanness of spirit and seen as a miserable conception of pleasure. It is expenditure that for Bataille constitutes the meaning of exchange; destruction and loss at the heart of subjective vitality – here at least, we can trace the obscure foundations of the Negative Exchange.

Mutual Negative Exchange

The concept of Negative Exchange has certain advantages over consent, which, although pretending itself to be purely positive, reduces relationships to a binary, Yes/No, True/False complex – as if the “No” had nothing to do with love or passion. By the same token, Negative Exchange has advantages over communication too, which is a self-neutralizing passing back and forth of relational information in a lifeless simulation of mutual understanding. All data exchange that intends to resolve conflict belies another world of barely conscious, barely rational impulses that shift beneath like tectonic plates – frenetic, but relinquished for the sake of peace. Both concepts – communication and consent – have a good deal to do with the sterilisation of relational possibility, imparted as they are by the spectacular, informational, discursive world of texts, screens and regulative institutions.

Rape and the perceptions of rapists perhaps have a good deal more to do with this form of exchange than they do underlying social attitudes. In a clinical study Rapists Talking about Rape, one inmate speaks about how the judge could see that his case was a special case as it was a domestic case – the rape of a former girlfriend:

“The judge was a very clever man, he knew what had happened. He weighed it all up. He said, ‘I take it into account that that woman is not at all afraid of you’. He read between the lines” (Teague, Rapists Talking About Rape,p. 33-34)

The rapist’s point was that his ex had been party to the rape in some way, that her new partner was essentially a contrivance intended to force him to reaffirm his possession of her. In short, that the rape completed a particular relational cycle – that her committal of a dissociative violence against him begs a re-associatively violent return. The clinician, of course, takes no account of this interpretation of the event, choosing instead to make this symptomatic of the delusional character of the rapist. No analysis of the relationship is made, nor any analysis of the meaning of sex, force, possession and loss to his former partner. The potential for an underlying narrative pattern, that one act makes sense of a counter act, that the fulfilment of this pattern may energize the relationship, is completely ignored for the sake of affirming the over-riding assumption: that rape is always rape and that the rapist’s voice is always a delusional voice with no basis in justifiable relational exchange.

Irrespective of this man’s interpretive acuity, the above serves as a good example of Negative Exchange and the possibility of its mutual character – it cannot be conceived in all instances as criminal or necessarily abusive, but may serve relational ends. What follows are a few scraps, notes and observations concerning negative exchange.

  1. Lydia Lunch – Evidence for the potential of Negative Mutuality

    “I possess a criminal predilection, devoid of all guilt which insists I admit to not only my own crimes of passion, but also my complicity in aggravating others to commit crimes both for and against me.” (You’re Not Safe in your Own Home)

  2. Rape Fantasy – A Negative Pleasure

    In cyber-rape/BDSM communities, it is sometimes joked: “How can it be rape if they enjoy it?” The principle of Negative Exchange provides some sort of answer – that it is the loss itself that is sought; the greater the potential for loss, the more profound the submission and the more earth-shattering the experience. ‘Pleasure’, in Negative Exchange, may take on a strange meaning as it is the extent of the loss that produces the vigour of the experience, not anything as clearly positive or sought after as pleasure in the conventional sense. In this world of negative pleasure, it makes perfect, coherent sense (at least theoretically) to never reach climax and to bind yourself in bad feelings to the person you are with.

  3. On Narrative

    As described, Negative Exchange contains a prominent narrative component which is what produces the character of losing or of giving or of exchanging. Essentially, exchange, like narrative, is sequential. A fight may begin: “What are you lookin’ at?” This is the introduction to an exchange to which a recipient is forced to respond. To a large extent, the energy of the exchange is dependent on the appropriateness and coherence of the narrative pattern – it can depend on the form through which the other participates and thus such exchanges may contain strong mutual, artistic and simulative elements. It is here one may find an ethical project and acceptable character in a state of apparent conflict

  4. Negative Exchange as a Model

    To spell out a notion of Negative Exchange in this way (a notion that perhaps began its articulation in Fedem’s Mortido and disease), removes such exchanges from the sphere of unconscious impulse and brings it out into the open in full consciousness:

    “My goal has always been to if not step off the wheel, away from the scaffold, and out from under the guillotine of genetically pre-programmed trauma bonds, to at least recognize that I am not the only one living under a life sentence of willing victim-hood and abuse. With compassion and understanding, I seek to illustrate this eternal dilemma and give voice to those who like myself are forever sick with desire.” (You’re Not Safe in your Own Home)

    It is not for nothing that this interior has begun to express itself as a model and defend itself through choice or theory or lifestyle. With the advent of crime, rights, equality and the sterilisation of human possibility through rationality, screens and the discourses of social problems, the model is having to clarify itself as more than a disease, but as a valid, identifiable and liveable aspect of human life. Through negative passion’s exile from the world via its being ‘demystified’, exposed, published, problematized, exorcised of shame and scandal, it has been forced to speak and take responsibility for itself. The victim can no longer just be a victim, but must become a responsible victim in as much as the abuser must become a responsible abuser. In the above, Lunch’s extract still contains a hint of confession – something breaking out beyond stigma and social invalidity. The future, however, will see a model without such a confessional element, seeking not to ‘give voice to’ others, but standing instead only as ‘the voice of’ the thing itself.

  5. Negative Exchange as Icon

    Lunch’s art, and in particular the You’re Not Safe in Your Own Home installation, also reveals another important quality – it extends rape, domestic violence, the limits of Negative Exchange, as an icon. In this, we mean ‘icon’ as McLuhan meant it – a compressed image composed of hugely complicated and varied patterns of social behaviour. Through the demystification of violent exchange and abusive relations that took place through the late 50s through to the early 70s – exposing rape myths, domestic violence etc. – at the same time, an iconic idea of relational violence was produced. Lunch’s work (and perhaps sexuality) may be said to dissect and reveal these icons – the bed, the soiled underwear, the broken glass underfoot, the maniac lover pleading on the phone – there is an extension of pornographic anxiety, violence, love and hate into this compacted, interactive gallery space that intermingles with social discourse, feminist theory and the traumatic separation of men, women and the individual more generally. What is produced is an intensely involved and extremely compacted moment of excess and social discourse which contains everything at once, displays and submerges the spectator in the raw nerves of an event, and is a scene fit for electric sexuality. The great problem with the development of modern pornography is not that it is ‘becoming more extreme’ – as the moral panic would claim – but rather that it needs to become more ‘involved’, more iconic, more complex in its emotional, moral, nervous and irrational facets. In an artistic setting, Lunch achieves exactly this sort of pornography and this sort of socio-scientific critique.

Exchange exists at the heart of human interaction and an important part of that exchange is loss. One person may give generously to another and in return receive gratitude and pleasure (the gratitude and pleasure are themselves an emotional expenditure which quantify the depth of the return). Such actions constitute a Positive Exchange. Less obvious however is the Negative Exchange which has more to do with losing for the sake of losing; a pleasure measured by the extent to which you lose or create loss. Given the relationship of modern society to abuse and violence, Negative Exchange is having to identify itself more responsibly. If this kind of negative interaction is really necessary to human life and if it is really a constituent of pleasure’s fever, some ethical zone should perhaps be established outside the area of conflict where accord and mutual responsibility for the conflict may take place.

    • Mr. Divine
    • May 9th, 2011

    What gets me about your writing is that it takes me ages to work out what you’re on about. And even then I’m not too sure if I’ve got it.

    • Mr. Divine
    • May 9th, 2011

    The message of the rape TV advert was that just because a woman dresses up in a certain way it doesn’t mean she wants to be raped. I think you’ve wrong to say/imply all humans have subconscious desires to be raped and/or to rape. I have two great sisters and three lovely daughters and a dynamite wife. I have lots of female travelling companions some I have slept with in the same room without having sex for a week or so. So I have a deep respect for females. My mum is really nice as well. My sexual encounters with females have never been forced. I think any advert that discourages rape is a good thing.

    The man hasn’t lost anything. The women is not asking to be raped, she wants love. The man wants love. Who doesn’t want love? What is wrong with wanting love. Maybe she will have sex with the ‘right’ one soon after meeting him. There is no loss. There is no negative exchange! The opportunity remains for the man to woo the woman with his looks and his chatter.

    The words ‘she’s asking for it’ are used to say ‘she’s not asking for rape’ by wearing this dress. She’s wearing it because she wants to look great. And why shouldn’t she look great. Treat her like a lady, Don’t rough ride her and give her respect. You still have the opportunity to be with this beautiful woman but treat her with respect. Maybe you’ve lost the opportunity to rape her but do you really want to harm someone like this? You’ve gained a moral line.

    It is a positive exchange for both of them!

  1. Interesting ideas. I do find it quite challenging reading, and I am not sure if ‘negative exchange’ covers such a range of things/concepts.

    I liked the bit about rape ‘play’ in S and M.

  2. The point I was making in the Not Ever article was that the ad didn’t tackle the problem as it misses the problem. There is a sexualised woman and a man looking at her. The man says ‘Whoa… She’s askin’ for it!’ The man does not say this because he really thinks that; what the man does is extends sex in the remark. He is essentially having sex in making that remark.

    More interestingly, the girl when flirting says: ‘You’re terrible’ to another man. The effect of saying ‘You’re terrible’ is to play with the man’s desire to become more terrible. ‘Terrible’ here sexualises him and her both inside a relational potency.

    I think my notion of Negative Exchange makes for a better explanation of that part of sexuality. Positive Exchange is certainly there, I agree, but look at the Lydia Lunch stuff. You can’t explain that out of Positive Exchange.

    I think there is room for mutuality here – room for a relationship that works.

    My point in the Not Ever article isn’t that ‘women are asking to be raped’, but I think rape’s inherent danger is built into potent sexual exchange. The way we order sexual freedom today, scatter the image of sex, it doesn’t take account of this part of human nature. We amplify the sexual message here in the West and do so by completely ignoring this negative dimension of sex. The only way that the West can justify this amplification (and therefore sale) of sex is by denying that there is any necessary negativity. As such, we create a new image of sex which though suitable for the Ann Summers store-front, isn’t real. In such a context, Negativity has to learn to speak and I suspect in various areas it’s starting to.

  3. @GRG

    What concepts do you not think it covers?

    I maybe need to tame the way i write…

    • Mr. Divine
    • May 9th, 2011

    What is the negative dimension of sex? That it can forced onto another?

    • Mr. Divine
    • May 9th, 2011

    I don’t think the man is having sex when he makes that remark. In some ways he’s expressing his admiration and his desire. He’s not necessarily wanting to have sex with the woman without her consent when he says,’she’s asking for it’: it being non-consensual sex. He’s thinking that because she dresses up like that she’s interested in having sex. Her dress could be seen as a form of advertising as men are attracted by short skirts with sexy legs.

    The short skirt could be a signal for some men to say she wants sex without any of the niceties. But one hundred years ago women who showed their knees were probably seen in a similar light.

    No need to change your writing style, QGR is in a big hurry.

  4. “No need to change your writing style, QGR is in a big hurry.”

    Appreciated that. This is probably credit to you as an invested reader.

  5. The negative dimension of sex I’d say is in where sex tends towards death and force and violence can be included in that. Bataille says ‘The urge towards love pushed to its limits is the urge towards death’ and if you accept sex may contain a will to death, then you have some foundation for its negative dimension.

    ‘Exchange’ is pretty much giving something in return for something else. I think exchange can be conscious or unconscious. It contains an element of ‘losing’ or ‘expenditure’ in that you give something. Bataille refers to the value of jewels over imitations as being in part accordant to the financial sacrifice you make to obtain the jewels. This sacrifice is built into their value. He also looks at man’s sacrificing the son of God and the hold that has on human imagination – to murder the son of God is dizzying in its magnitude – an absolute act of destruction and an absolute fall into sin. Moreover, Christ returns to his murderers by forgiving them.

    There is positive exchange then – say with gifts and gratitued – but there is negative exchange too, which tends towards violence and death and loss.

  6. “He’s not necessarily wanting to have sex with the woman without her consent when he says,’she’s asking for it’: it being non-consensual sex. He’s thinking that because she dresses up like that she’s interested in having sex.”

    I don’t think the meaning of ‘She’s askin’ for it’ is that he wants to have sex with her against her will. Thats the belief of the advert and the advert is absurd. My contention here is precisely that this remark doesn’t express any attitude at all – it expresses an impulse. It doesn’t express anything that can easily be formulated in language. It is simply an extension of violent sexual feeling into the mouth and then out as sound; a minature orgasm without having to do anything.

    This impulse though contains rape and death and violence – such is the nature of sexual impulse. If you inspire sex, then you at the same time relate yourself to death. The meaning of the burka (or the woman not being allowed to show her knees) is surely that there ia still a recognition that sex contains evil. The West though sells sex and it can’t sell sex while death is still a part of sex. Moreover, it also relates sexual expression with freedom. In that, you have all manner of dehumanizing discourses being perpetuated regarding the meaning of sex and somewhere in this, death and negativity need to survive.

    The sexualised dress is not there to just ‘look nice’. It’s there to ‘look hot’. The thing about heat though is that it burns. Looking ‘hot’ however is not wholly accurate – what it means to say is, they want to set fire to the man. The male on fire is a potential danger. The impulse exhange here is that the woman is hot and the male catches fire. ‘She’s askin’ for it’ is the onset of consumation.

  7. Maybe there are other types of ‘negative exchange’ that operate on an overt and conscious level, in which one party agrees to undergo something they do not want to endure on the basis that the other party will make a similar sacrifice. It may not be based upon each party having a desire that the other ‘suffers’ because it will give the party ‘desiring’ the suffering some reward – such as pleasure, but because there is a sense of ‘fellowship’ in mutual non-rewarding suffering. This might be justified on the grounds of serving a myth of some kind, such as martyrdom, or even, playing for keeps, a suicide pact. There is a kind of ‘blood brother’ element in this. Often we identify a mutual fear and then disarm it by ritualising it, or turning it into a fantasy game, in which we ‘play’ at acting through the forbidden fear, with or without rules, but often with a tacit element of trust that it will still be an exchange, and will not lead to the destruction of one of the parties. In BDSM Asphyxia play there is a real danger, sometimes the actual occurrence, of one party dying as a result of the game. That is a loss for both parties, I believe, since it is no part of the exchange. Playing on the edge is not necessarily enlightening.

  1. August 8th, 2016

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