Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The Ideological Mediation of (Feminine) Desire: Sex and the City of God

As I haven't had time to write much lately on account of moving house and other real world annoyances, here is a piece culled from some comments I contributed recently to a discussion on women, cinema, and mediation on Infinite Thought(henceforth known as IT). It started with this post concerning the absence of women talking in mainstream cinema - about anything other than men, babies, and marriage, that is. Does Sex and the City represent some kind of liberation or is it just the same old patriarchal crap, only repackaged for a modern liberal consumerist audience? One recurring theme in the discussion seems to be the search for 'the one' and the theological underpinnings of this notion...

1. 'The One' and for All

IT:...There is something strange about the weird absence of women talking from cinema. Aren't women supposed to always be talking? Of course, they're not meant to be talking about anything important, which is presumably why the camera only turns to them when men are mentioned.

Films that appear to be 'all about women', such as Sex and the City are paeans to a curious combination of ultra-mediation and a post-religious obsession with 'the one'. You go to the City in search of 'labels and love'; the one mediating the other – the nicest thing your boyfriend can do for you is have a giant wardrobe installed for all your 'labels'. Drinks with 'the girls' are dominated by discussions about whether he is 'the one' or not. What does this obsession with 'the one' mean? The bourgeoisie may have 'drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation', as Marx and Engels observed, but certain religious motifs are harder to shake than others. The 'one' as the transcendent culmination of an entire romantic destiny demonstrates a curious melange of the sentimental ('we were always meant to be together!') and the cynical (if there's a 'one' then the 'non-ones' don't count; the sex with them is of no importance, there is no need to behave even moderately pleasantly towards them).

There is no emancipation here, if all effort is ultimately retotalised onto the project of 'the one'; if all discussions with 'friends' are merely mediating stepping-stones in the eschatological fulfillment of romantic purpose. Contemporary cinema is profoundly conservative in this regard; and the fact that it both reflects and dictates modes of current behaviour is depressingly effective, and effectively depressing.

Deleuzer: The notion of 'the one' on a broader level in its basic religious coordinates (as you suggest) I think provides the link between the different levels on which ideology operates (economy, sex, familial relations) - this is what has always irritated me about the Matrix and its pretense to cult status in the geek/techno/alternative cultural milieu. Aside from Keanu Reeves being better suited to roles like Ted in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, I found the amount of fetishistic reification of his status as 'the one' (who decides these things?) debilitatingly mind-numblingly appalling. The messianic overtone by a kind of short circuit puts it in close proximity to the notion of 'the one' in Sex and the City. (It would be interesting to splice the two together in a montage of sorts, with perhaps some clips of Mel Gibson's crucifixion movie as a possible third...I can just imagine Sarah Jessica Parker in one of those slow-motion fight scenes a la Matrix, karate kicking for a handbag...)

Foucault was right, if we can read him to mean this: that the 'sexual revolution' never took place, or that it wasn't so much a revolution as a repackaging of the same old paradigm for a new era. Two or three thousand bloodyfucking years later, and the mainstream of our culture still revolves around some abstract mass-produced figure of the saviour or messiah, the only original contribution of our post-Fordist age being its reproducibility for personal consumption. (I cannot help but think of the assembly line bread-dough christs in The Holy Mountain, being devoured by a Christ lookalike...)

The absence of women talking (about anything other than men, babies, etc) in mainstream cinema is perhaps not so much an absence as a positive incarnation of what Foucault calls the 'incitement to discourse' - the camera being, for the moment, not an attempt (even a skewed one) at reproducing reality but rather creating it - a directly ideological tool that opens up the space and sets the coordinates within which reality is to take place.

I think the really pressing question is not so much 'does reality pass the test?' but rather 'how do we, or can we, collectively escape from the grip of the incitement to discourse embedded in the cultural output we are daily bombarded with?

2. The (Formula) One of Desire and the Purple Rose of Surplus Value

IT: Dave sent me some comments and a question with regard to the women/cinema debate:

I think it is wrong to assume that, whilst almost certainly an index of unfreedom, women "talking about men" is unambiguously flattering to men. Many men would likely tell you that they find women-talking-about-men-type conversations alienating, in much the same way, perhaps, as they feel alienated and frustrated by an hour or so of Sex and the City.

Perhaps this sense of alienation comes from the fact that "talking about men" points, in a paradoxical way, to the lack of "the one", its eternally elusive character, as if all this Sex and the City-type talk is 'motored' by an absence, by an impossibility of fulfilment. That's perhaps why, watching Sex and the City, it was difficult to imagine how it might be concluded without a catastrophic change in the construction of love relations, or else some 'betrayal' of the 'search', which at its heart is designed to be gratifyingly infinite. To talk about men in the context of "the one" is to talk about no man in particular, just a mirage concealing a no-man-land (sorry).

In short, my question would be: how much "talking about men" really is talking about men?'

It's true - perhaps the only thing worse than wondering about what women are talking about is seeing them actually do it, at least as far as SATC goes. If cinema tends to show women talking to each other only about men (or marriage, or babies) perhaps the most important aspect of this is brevity. An entire film given over to such things would be obscene according to the logic of mainstream cinema, which can barely tolerate a few minutes of such footage, even in its 'unambiguously flattering' mode. I think this is indicated by Dave's comment above that '[men] feel alienated and frustrated by an hour or so of Sex and the City'. A winsome few moments of love-lorn anguish shared between two friends is ok, lengthy discussions of fellatio are not.

Deleuzer: I think it would equally be wrong to assume - if that is being assumed - that because some men find an hour of SATC alienating, this points to some subversive or liberating aspect in SATC. Such an assumption is just one of the pitfalls of the negative in thought...("any enemy of ---...is a friend of mine", etc)

And it is certainly not my assumption that "women talking about men" is unambiguously flattering to men, of course - many conversations I have witnessed in reality, at least, are definitely not, but that's not the point, because the issue is simply the choice of subject matter; nor am I suggesting that talk about "the one" is about any particular man. The reason why the Matrix and the adjective 'messianic' (in the mystical/cabbalistic sense) came to mind is precisely because of the impersonal, fetishistic and continually displaced or postponed character of 'the one'. (I like the characterization 'no-man-land'; could this be what Dylan means when he writes/sings: "Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands/where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes..." ?)

Another film that comes to mind - which I think provides a very effective and sublimely comic and touching critique here - is Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. It makes the very same point (made by Dave) about the search being 'gratifyingly infinite' and 'the one' being a mirage concealing a 'no-man land'. The male lead in the film is split precisely between the fictional, 'perfect man', who literally steps out of the screen, and the real-world actor who plays him. At the end (spoiler alert!), she dumps the fictional guy (who is 'really' in love with her) and goes off with the real guy (who has only seduced her so that they could get the fictional character back into the screen), who subsequently dumps her... When dumping the fictional guy she even says something along the lines of "I'm a real person...I have to live in the real world." The fictional mirage, in other words, is the Lacanian objet petit a. He cannot be the 'messiah' because the messiah is forever-to-come.

But there's a great deal more one could mine out of this, I think very telling cinematic critique, one question for instance being, where does this absence/mirage come from, and whom does it really serve? What I think Woody suggests is that the patriarchal figure of the real-world male asshole nevertheless carries a trace of the idealistic mirage (played by the same actor) - 'the one' - as a kind of lure to trap the woman within the confines of the 'real world'...(Her real-world relationship to the asshole who dumps her is, in spite of everything, mediated by the idealistic mirage of his fictional screen persona who is 'really' in love with her and whom she dumps.)

Or more to the point, in anti-oedipal terms, the notion of 'the one' perhaps serves to trap desire in general (male and female) within the Freudian/capitalist logic of 'desire as lack' by situating us within the matrix of a search whose fulfillment is by definition continually postponed. (And The Purple Rose of Cairo being set in Depression-era US certainly hints at this dimension...)

IT: It's surprisingly difficult to break with the logic of the one, even if everything has been secularised to bits. It keeps coming back.

Deleuzer: It must be that dialectical bent. Bloody Hegel...

IT: I wonder if we could do for the one of love what Badiou does to the one of mathematics. Hmm....

Deleuzer: Brilliant idea! So we simply say: there is no one, only sets...I agree in principle, but how does one go about it, or what does this mean in practical terms? Hmm.... I suppose that perhaps the reason why Being from the Greeks onwards was singular is precisely as a consequence of having an ideal, the one (Being) against which everything else is an imperfect copy or simulacrum, marred by a lack - again that logic of the objet petit a.

The psychoanalytic answer is, of course, to formulate that remainder of the unconscious/real; but if the object petit a is as Zizek has it, a surplus meaning or a 'hole at the centre of the symbolic order', then 'plugging the hole' is no way out of the predicament. Going back to the analogy with Marx and surplus value on which Lacan draws, by formulating desire one still remains within the symbolic, within language: no revolutionary seizing control of the means of production there, for the process that generates the surplus in the psychoanalytic case transcends the symbolic order.

To break out of the dialectical/capitalist/theological cycle of production of the one/objet petit a, there must be a (revolutionary) disturbance to the ordinary process of production, a fundamental change in power relations. One must work not through language, but through the (desiring) body itself to grasp that there is no 'one'; or that, as Deleuze and Guattari claim, desire is a productive force; rather than searching for objects to fill a pre-existing lack, we encounter objects that as a result of specific couplings produce desire in us. As Leonard Cohen puts it, "I am not the one who loves...It's love that chooses me."

The object itself does not by definition fall short of some ideal ('the one' does not exist) or haunted by the spectre of a lack that by definition remains unfulfilled. The byproduct it generates, far from being a lack or an unfulfilled ideal is merely an excess of desire - an added value - that keeps the productive-desiring machinery in motion by maintaining a connection to the social body.

In Badiouian terms, if we imagine a set containing a single element(the real, physical object of desire), the surplus value or remainder (objet petit a) - the excess - is a term in the equation defining the set that leaves open the possibility of incorporating other objects and sets into that set. Which I think makes it even clearer why the transposition of this excess into 'the one' is a trompe l'oeil. It is precisely the opposite of 'the one' - it is what keeps the set open, connected to other sets, to the social body.

This is not quite the contradiction in terms that it may appear to be - the one/set, the unambiguous 'one' that contains the germ of a multiple. The point is simply that the excess of desire produced is necessary to keep the desiring machine moving; it is produced not because desire is never fulfilled, but precisely because it is fulfilled: object encountered, desire produced, fulfilled. Yet without the excess then produced, the machinery at this point would grind to a halt; it must always pump out that excess or surplus value (desire=object+x) in order to remain operational, to breathe. So although that excess is something more in relation to the given object (mistaken for 'the one'), it is neither a lack nor another object (a two), but simply a placeholder, an empty place in the set.

Blah blah blah. Well that's about the best I can do with two hours' sleep in oversimplifying D&G (Dolce & Gabbana or Deleuze & Guattari?) and Badiouizing the notion of desire as a productive force.

3. Objectively Fucked: Diamanda's Revenge and the Transmission of Ideology

IT: Mainstream cinema mediates the relationship between men through the odd woman, who rarely gets to mediate anything at all through anyone else. But in the 'real world' do women mediate their relationships through discussion of men? I think this is Dave's point when he asks 'how much "talking about men" really is talking about men?' One could ask a similar question about make-up and fashion. Prettifying for the boys or warning signs for the other ladies? Obviously the idea that straight women are constantly 'competing' for men is an awful one, but they are most definitely supposed to, according to the batshit crazy logic of scarcity that consumerism depends upon. He's the one! That handbag is the one! Hands off my bag/man!

Diamanda Galas has a fine solution to this problem, which acknowledges the issue of mediation but, ahem, subtly undermines it:

'I think women should have an "ideal": the only people you treat as equals are other women. And when you want subordinates, you can fuck a man in the ass! That basically is probably the future. Some men get angry because they think I view them just as sex objects. But I say, "You don't need to read to me - I can read. And conversation - I can get that from my friends. So you should feel lucky that you at least have this service you can offer me.' - from Angry Women, Re/Search #13, 1991.

Perhaps a little harsh, but it might definitely mean that straight women could talk to each other about things other than whether-they-should-ring-him-back-or-wait-for-him-to-call or-is-that-too-forward?'

Deleuzer: Is that a German word? Hm... Yet she is still the subject of mediation between two (or more) men. I mean, it is obvious that she is bitter because - like many women - she has been fucked over by men. So her answer is 'fuck a man in the ass'? Yet this means in effect that through her, the asshole(s) who fucked her over also fuck(s) over the (potentially) nice guy whom she 'fucks up the ass', turning him (potentially) into just another male asshole. (sic)

This is, needless to say, only another way of remaining within the service of dominant (male/chauvinist) ideology; or even more, ideologizing personal relations by turning what was initially subjective violence (getting fucked over by individual assholes) into systemic or objective violence (by/against all men...'if you want subordinates...fuck a man up the ass'). Through her, the dominant chauvinist ideology is communicated/propagated from one man to another. She becomes the incubating medium of ideological transmission, or even better, the ideological 'egg'.

This is why Nietzsche talks about breaking the cycle of revenge - it is precisely about the pitfalls of dialectical mediation. I am afraid that our dear Diamanda simply reverses the roles, replacing one form of domination with another, sublating one within the other in a dialectical reversal that hardly undermines the patriarchal order. Let's imagine that instead of her, we have a man writing the same..."If you want subordinates, fuck a woman up the ass..." etc. My question is, what's the difference? Because I see none. This is just how the initial propagator - the asshole who fucks over Diamanda in the first place - might have put it. So we come full circle.

In fact, by fully internalizing the logic of chauvinist domination, she is - perversely enough - perhaps the ultimate prototype of female subordination, insofar as this is precisely the kind of behaviour that male domination is meant to produce in the female as its dialectical counterpart under the conditions of late capitalism...

IT: I meant, she solves the problem of mediation between women by sidelining men to their sexual role. I don't agree with her, I just thought it was an interestingly aggressive point.

Deleuzer: I see...But you started out saying that mainstream cinema mediates the relationships between men through the 'odd woman'...Anyway, the point still holds - the price of this rediscovered immediacy in relationships between women is more alienation, more mediation (of another kind), deferral of the real struggle against the status quo...By sidelining men to their sexual role, she also sidelines the struggle itself, and any possibility of being truly subversive and effecting a change in sexual relations...This is simply an act of ineffectual subtraction.

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