Tender Rhythms. Re-Thinking Sexuality, Selfhood and Sociality Through the Hysteric’s Desire for Tenderness.


This interdisciplinary and multi-modal dissertation addresses the forgotten concept of tenderness in psychoanalytic, feminist and queer theory toward a post-phallic reframing and re-scripting of sexual desire as tender. I do this through the traditional mode of writing, in tandem with interactive Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) installation-art.

Chapter one starts with the hypothesis that hegemonic models of sexuality tend to base sexual desire on an orgasmic and genital-oriented economy of desire. My project unearths these deep-rooted ideologies in Freud’s early writing. Tender desire – like the desire to caress for the sake of caressing – can only be understood as maternal, infantile, hysteric or masochist. I conclude that Freud’s work is haunted by a ‘taboo on adult erotic tenderness’ and that adult sexual tenderness has remained an enigmatic concept. I propose that the subversive figure of the hysteric is able to subvert this taboo. From this I develop the method of hysteric tender reading, through which I both unearth the taboo on adult sexual tenderness, while simultaneously emancipating tenderness as a legitimate non-genital economy of desire. My method is a combination of 4 methods:  Laplanche’s historico-structural reading of Freud, which focusses on the breaks in his narrative. Van Haute and Geyskens’ non-Oedipal patho-analysis, in which hysteria becomes de-pathologized and understood as a rich cite to explore the vicissitudes of love-sex and desire. And the feminist and proto-queer lenses of Irigaray and Rubin, who unearth and critique the phallogocentrism at the heart of Western and specifically psychanalytic theories of adult sexuality.

In chapter two, I apply this method to contemporary psychoanalysts Kristeva, Stern and Benjamin and their work on the mother infant bond. In chapter three, I conduct a hysteric tender reading of the (proto-)queer theories of Rubin, Anzaldúa, Bersani and Berlant. In chapter four, I apply this method to the work of Deleuze and Guattari and the music videos of Björk. My conclusion presents a theory of adult sexual tenderness as a queer polymorphous, non-orgasm and non-genital-centered economy of desire, which requires a de-subjectification of sovereign subjecthood and results in an intersubjective rhythmic sociality which transcends binaries and subjects.

In a final ‘line of flight’ my conclusion takes the shape of an interactive sound and visual Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) installation which “materializes” the ephemeral tender relationship between individuals by translating it into sound and visuals.