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more from the
May/June 2015 issue:


Kahlil Joseph's Double Act
– Lilly Lampe


A Pilot for a Show
About Nowhere

– Martine Syms


Animalaise
– Travis Diehl


Revisiting Cyberfeminism
– Cornelia Sollfrank


The Sniffers
– Maija Timonen


Review:
Abra: BLQ Velvet

– by Sam Thorne


Web Exclusive:
Movement as Social Consciousness
Interview: Lauri Stallings

– Maggie Davis





May/June 2015
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THE SNIFFERS


Text / Maija Timonen

The following is a chapter extracted from The Measure of Reality (London: Book Works, 2015), a work of analytic fiction that unfolds very 21st-century creative and heterosexual crises.



Maija Timonen, Land of the Blind, 2015, video still (work in progress) [courtesy of the artist]

There it was:
"predominance of sex detached from emotions implies much greater difficulty in the interpretation of each sexual protagonist's actual feelings and intentions." i

The first thing going through her head was "You don't say?," but of course it wasn't said, it was written, and it seemed that, surprisingly enough, much could be gotten away with in written form. The weak links in arguments, the points from a to c that did not quite mount up to a b, sentences that carried the text forward, but which their writer secretly hoped would slip past without too much scrutiny—well, they quite often did.

Not here though. There was definitely something missing. There was an unqualified assumption that sex detached from emotions was indeed somehow predominant. In what way? Where? For whom?

Maybe in "popular representations"?

That didn't seem right either. Surely the most oppressive ideology floating around was romance. The harmonious coexistence of independent but publicly associated conceptions of sex and love. Like a sort of a glorious show-marriage, the cold power couple in the business of sexuality, romance had nothing to do with the actually occurring causal relation and inseparable unity of sex and love, but it purported to uphold a connection between the two.

She also thought: "Am I a sexual protagonist? The heroine of my own erotic novel?"


She imagined herself as the emotionally indecipherable consumer of sport-like sex, but it seemed somehow thin and improbable, out of kilter with the psychosomatic complexities of the oppressive forces acutely bearing down on her sense of sexual expression.

Sure, sex detached from emotions sounded bad, but what was really amiss with this idea, to her, was that she hadn't considered it even to be possible. People who bragged about the depths of their alienation (and these people did exist), insisting that they were able to section off their sexual activities from their everyday operations, struck her as misguided fools who'd bought into the lie that they could be the masterful auteurs of their own sex lives. Sex is social, and even if to them this separation would have appeared real, it always arose and existed in relation to someone else, through activity done with someone else, a someone else whose feelings and emotional responses they had no control over. Where people claimed to be able to separate sex and feelings (or sex and life), it did not strike her as an actual separation, but rather a repression of a connection. What made the situation worse was that the complex webs of relations and feelings they were repressing did not simply pertain to their own psychosexual makeup. They were forcibly trying to repress those of other people.

And what is repressed has a tendency to return.

"Predominance of sex detached from emotions implies much greater difficulty in the interpretation of each sexual protagonist's actual feelings and intentions."

There might not always be feelings of affection that went with sex, but there were always feelings—be they confusion, disgust, annoyance, doubt, disappointment, boredom, pity. It was exactly the individual's tendency to form cathexes of whatever nature to the act and idea of sex that made it such a prominent site of exploitation.

In distinction to this, the hypothetical sex-without-emotions exists for nothing but itself: like a hermetic commodity deprived of the dynamic and social nature of capitalism it is not really consumable, not really even desirable, it is only a distant reminder of the imperative to desire desire. It is sex as a marker of an abandoned duty to feel in the correct way, a duty that we can't possibly live up to, not in the sense "sex" (the idea invested with agency) seems to oblige. The feelings and intentions hidden behind our sexual behaviours aren't exactly hidden, they are just pretty irrelevant to the feelings we are supposed to have.

Maybe this was what the "sex detached from emotions" was referring to, the predominance of sex the affective dimension of which was ignored and suppressed in favour of a formal, contractual even, association with a purely ideal version of feelings.

"Predominance of sex detached from emotions implies much greater difficulty in the interpretation of each sexual protagonist's actual feelings and intentions."

It was all so complicated and confusing. She knew something was not right with the statement, but the more she tried to unpack it, the more concepts clung to each other, lay heavy on top of each other, slid into one another forming a congealed orgiastic mass, obstinate in the face of her powers of reasoning that were trying to wedge its constituents apart. All that she managed to do was find herself with the occasional sweaty cold lump of thought left in her reluctant hand, emitting a dubious odor of post-rationality. Thought that seemed vacant and self-satisfied having reached its goal, no longer concerned with much of anything beyond its state of (merely adequate) completion.

(maybe what was meant was not sex detached from emotions, but a conflict between sexual desires and romantic aspirations?)

But she thought further, thinking that despite all evidence pointing toward the interlinkedness of all things, toward the undeniable physicality of all thought and all emotion, the inseparability of sex and emotion, there was also something undeniable about the contested statement too. Things that sound like truisms do so because most of the time they are true in one way or another. "Predominance of sex detached from emotions" was perhaps true because despite initial appearances, underneath it all the statement was not about consumerism, about consuming "sex" the commodity in an alienated fashion, but about its exact opposite. It belied not only the impossibility of consumption, the scarcity of goods to consume, but also the absence of the libidinal dimension of consumption, the absence of desire. The instrumentalization of desire had somehow, without anyone noticing, turned into its slow fading away.

And this was a current sort of problem, with many proposed solutions.

Six out of ten users of Internet dating services such as Guardian Soulmates complain about the absence of "spark" in their dates.

"We hear this more and more all the time. It is hard to conjure feeling for someone you really don't know that much about. You can control the process by making sure the date meets a certain set of criteria before you meet them, but this can only go so far. The 'chemistry,' if you will, is missing. This is what we are trying to address, we are trying to put the excitement back into dating."
ii

Jane, 28, puts it more bluntly:

"It's such a time-waster. You meet someone online, they tick the right boxes, you exchange messages for a couple of weeks before meeting. But then when you do, they smell awful. You really know from the first moment. Unless of course they are wearing a strong aftershave, which can lead to wasting even more time."


The article described a new dating innovation, requiring that participants brought with them a T-shirt they had worn for some time, which was then placed on a table with others. Prospective dates could then smell said shirts. If anyone liked the smell of a particular T-shirt, they had the option of meeting the person it belonged to (she could imagine the mawkish and largely gestural camaraderie forming between the people attending these events, the shared giggles over the silliness of sniffing T-shirts acting as a bonding agent that occasionally produced a lucky extra- pheromonal match).

The picture illustrating the article was of a woman with blond hair pressing her face against a piece of fabric (presumably one of the T-shirts). The image was ambiguous. Rather than smelling it, it looked more as if she was crying, burying her face into it to cover her tears. It looked as if she was in the grips of the initial shock of losing a loved one and wanted to be submerged in the last item still bearing the proof of their physical existence, as if this could defer the tragedy that had already taken place. It seemed that in one knee-jerk swing from the pure numbers of Internet dating, the boxes ticked for compatibility and preferred qualities, to the pure biology of pheromones, the T-shirt sniffers had captured something about how lost we all were.

It nevertheless struck her that there was no allowance made for how our desires come into being socially, in the course of our psychic development from infancy to adulthood (we want what we see others wanting, we want others to approve of us, therefore we instinctively align our desires with theirs—or so the theory went in any case). iii By skipping over this complex social composition of desire, the sniffers had simultaneously done away with what was truly individual about us and our sexual longings (through which the indignant remnants of our sense of self were most furiously asserted), as well as drawing a veil over the ways in which this individuality was a plant, the source of a profound sense of alienation. iv

It was only occasionally and for fleeting moments that this paradox was graspable by reason, but the tornness at its center made itself known whenever any desire was felt. Having a crush on someone for her always entailed a sense of expansion. She thought whether or not something could or would happen between her and the object of her desire, this feeling, of really being the person she was, but more—of being more herself—by virtue of her desire, could not be taken away from her. Yet, as painful as it was, she could also see that whoever she fixed her sights on, they were always also found attractive by scores of other people, too. That what she was feeling, the thing that seemed so irrefutably hers, to the extent of being her, was also on some level what she was "supposed" to feel or be. That the very sense of being somebody was hinged on not really being anybody in particular after all.

And now, she thought, with their crude understanding of sexual attraction, which focused on the biological at the price of the social, the sniffers were trying to kill off even our perceived right to take pleasure in our pain—or pain in our pleasure.

"But aren't feelings a little more complex than just biology?"

"No! In any case, you can't sustain a relationship with someone who smells awful, you just can't!"


This seemed to her to be more a process of exclusion rather than one of selection. Weed out the ones you know you truly would not be able to stand, and then just hope that one of the others will take you; ensuring that being "physically intimate" with them won't make you want to hurl. In the beginning, in any case.

The T-shirt sniffers' misunderstanding about the site and composition of desire, however implicated in the workings of capitalism this desire was, was still a privileged position, but one foreboding the expansion of not only affective poverty, but of material poverty that slowly ate away at the remnants of our compromised longings. The scarcity that had been defining people's lives elsewhere was inextricably tied to sexuality, and as wealth drifted out of the reach of those who previously had felt a claim to it, so too did the preconditions for their desiring of desire.

She thought back to a someone she used to know, an American who had lived for years without access to health services. Anxiety about the possibility of getting ill, and no doubt the actuality of getting ill without the option of going to see a doctor, instead having to opt for the hope of getting better without the comfort of knowing what it was, really, that was ailing him, had forged a very particular relationship between the American and his body. A steely, detached, but protective relationship. His body was his suspicious temple, hard yet vulnerable, fortified against obvious damage, but still an open stage for emotional dramas to play out upon. Dramas he attempted to subject to the rule of his idiosyncratic moral laws. Laws that seemed weak and haphazard, suffering from the lack of external support and guidance.

All this gave him the air of physical and emotional meanness that was brought into special relief when sex entered the equation. There, he emitted a chill of pornified clinicality—a reluctant compliance to the imperative to be "sexy," to engage in sexual acts profusely and without repression, as if they were a sporting feat, a mental and physical challenge. And, of course, they were. For him perhaps more than most people. His fear of infection merged with his fear of investing his feelings in the wrong object. The challenge was to endure this risk, to swim the channel of sexual union covered in a thick protective layer of grease. There could be no giving or receiving, as the latter meant he might get "something"—some unnameable disease—and the former meant he might be relinquishing something invaluable, as if affection were a finite possession one could not get back once one had parted with it. Fear of bacteria became in him inseparable from the fear of being wrong about his choice of partner.

This made her think of "friendly bacteria." What were people really trying to evoke when they said this? To her it sounded like just another way of drawing lines where none existed. Our bodies were filled with bacteria, and nominating them as friendly or not seemed to be about inclusion and exclusion, us and them. Friend or enemy. Is it okay to touch your bacteria? It's friendly, right? Her ideology alarms went off once more, and her brain whirred on, jumping from one association to another. Bacteria was all over our skins, all over our world, it was the unseen world, a collective biological unconscious—was "chemistry" supposed to work with or against this unconscious? She wished she were better informed.

It had not occurred to her then, when she knew the American, that this lack of generosity could spread, eventually becoming the psychosomatic manifestation of a state of economic deprivation on her home turf too. She had shaken her head at it, felt sorry for him and "people like him," but had ultimately been unaffected by it, cocooned in some sensory smugness brought on by economic privilege. Now the plague was hard to deny. The poverty that had always been there was creeping up and pushing the former middle classes into a defensive position. There was a need to hold onto your own, to ration feeling, to invest it somewhere safe (under your mattress, perhaps). And of course it was not simply about emotional entrenchment (as if such a thing could be separated from any other kind), but—like with the American sport-of-sex-boy—about protecting yourself against poverty and physical illness, against the virulent nature of desperation.

"Predominance of sex detached from emotions implies much greater difficulty in the interpretation of each sexual protagonist's actual feelings and intentions."

Asked whether she had ever had a sexual encounter that she thought fit the description "detached from emotions," either on her part or the part of the person she had the encounter with, the girl interviewed in the paper answered in the affirmative. When pushed for more elaboration on how this had felt, and whether the detachment had made it difficult to decipher the stakes, this is what she had to say:

"I guess I did find him completely obtuse. I felt obtuse myself. Some people claim they can partition sex and life—sex and feelings—and perhaps they can, but it occurs to me that this is made possible by separating not 'sex' but the person they have sex with from the rest of their lives. The other person becomes the guardian of the label 'sex,' and as far as their sexual partner is concerned, synonymous with this label. Their humanity, if not erased, is dramatically reduced."

"Do you think that pheromonal matchmaking has addressed this issue of unknown motives for you?"

"Erm .... No I don't think so. I am not sure any one thing could. I have been in situations, both pheromonally and non-pheromonally initiated, where I really thought we had something. I mean that I thought the feelings were mutual, or at least complementary, and was sure that the situation was going somewhere only for it to end in an unexplained cutting off of communications. You don't ever know what anyone is thinking. So I guess it's not that it's more difficult to see motivations with detached sex, it may be equally difficult or perhaps even a little less misleading than sex accompanied by assurances of commitment. These days, who wants to take risks? Emotional resources are becoming increasingly valuable, and maybe you don't want to squander them on something like sex."
v

This chimed with something rather alarming she had once heard said about the relation of poverty and sexuality (the context in which it was said had probably been integral to its intended meaning, but she could not recall it): the poor don't desire sex, they desire prosperity, and in times of desperation sex becomes a means for the acquisition of prosperity—not something to be enjoyed. To this it could now be added that, at times of increasing insecurity, the solace and support found in affective bonds becomes a crucial means of survival. You could not be profligate with your emotional energies anymore. The whims and fancies of sexual attraction were surely too unpredictable to gamble on when the whole infrastructure of your life was at stake. Sex and love divorced and sex lost out in the settlement. And we all moved back in to live with our parents. vi




NOTES
i. Eva Illouz, Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), 46.

ii. Missing "chemistry," as raised by the sniffing event's organizer, did not really even begin to cover what was wrong with Internet dating. Part of the problem was that Internet dating services performed a curious sort of literalization of the metrics that already played some part in informing people's romantic choices. Of the preferred age, interests, tastes, income bracket, it created a new form of sociality that seemed to be like a parody of the one existing in real life. The flexibility that still existed in real-life social interactions, which, despite the generally normative and limited nature of people's social spheres, allowed for ambiguities and permitted sexual attraction to arise as a singularity—despite, not because of, these norms—was entirely cut out at the first point of contact online. It was supposedly recovered again if an actual encounter ensued, but the barrier had already been erected, it had already drawn lines around people, and worked to define their choices—established the parameters of their sociosexual mobility. To give an example of this, if you were a woman of about 38, who was single and led a fairly sociable life, mixing with people of different ages with similar interests, you might have come to think it a reasonable expectation that you might also date people from a rather broad age range, from their late 20s to their mid-40s, or more to the point, you might not have seen age in itself as such a defining feature of your existence. On an online dating site however, where people assessed each other cautiously, based on broad impressions, expectations and probabilities, age would become something way more definite than it was elsewhere. So if you were a 38-year-old woman, you could be sure that no man under 45 would contact you, even if you were open to being contacted by them. If the risk of being rejected by someone you didn't really want in the first place loomed large over every effort at finding a romantic connection, this risk became less a risk, more a probability in the economies of online dating.

iii. What was missing in the sniffers' take could be summarized by the well-known Lacanian dictum, "Desire is the desire of the Other." For Lacan "desire" is a person's desire to be recognized, and part of this is desiring what one believes the Other to desire. This could be understood in many ways, from the kinds of immediate social ties that inform what we find attractive, to being conditioned into broader societal norms of attractiveness. T-shirt sniffing failed to account for any of its innumerable stratifications. It remained firmly on the stale forecourts of feeling where no desire could be stirred, no interest piqued.

iv. The way she saw herself as torn between a sense that her romantic feelings were the most private part of her, the one thing that gave her some integrity as a subject, and an awareness of how thoroughly informed by nauseating popular narratives of what constituted romantic love these feelings were, could, she hoped, be somehow alleviated if placed in a historical context. Eva Illouz sees this paradox as a feature of modernity. She explains this in sociological terms and as part of the changed geography of romantic choice. She argues that in modernity, a "great transformation" (after Karl Polanyi) occurs where romantic choice is dis-embedded from moral codes, and romantic feeling becomes individualized, that with the dawn of the modern self we come to perceive love as integral to our being, rather than something that responds and consciously molds itself to external conditions: hierarchies and rules of conduct. Through this shift we have become more vulnerable to the vagaries of the romantic marketplace. A shift from the moral dictates of an immediate community to mass-media norms of attractiveness constitutes a simultaneous move inward and further out of our reach. Sexual feeling becomes part of an essentialized self while the "social context" conditioning desire now refers to an even more impersonal realm. In the transition away from romantic choices being dominated by the interests of the immediate community, the criteria for these choices has become simultaneously more individualised, subjective, "irrational" if you will, at the same time as it is everywhere conditioned by cultural norms of attractiveness as well as social status—economic motivations become mixed in with vague measurements of "sexiness." She writes: "because there are no more formal mechanisms by which people pair up, individuals internalize the economic dispositions that also help them make choices which must be at once economic and emotional, rational and irrational." (Why Love Hurts, 53)

Illouz's use of the word "internalization" is (maybe) interesting if looked at more closely, and could possibly help unpack this conflict between rational and irrational romantic choice. Freud saw internalization of (paternal) authority as a necessary stage of development of the individual into a relatively autonomous being. Absorbing the structures of domination into your psyche—the ego representing reason that must act to curb the instinctual drives of the id—is a simultaneous submission and point of resistance to authority. Critical theorists such as Theodor Adorno concurred with this logic, but saw reason and nature (instincts) as existing in an unresolved impasse—civilization ever underpinned by instinctual drives, thus "reason" is never reason in a true sense, but rationalization, instrumental reason—which led to the triumph of authority (for a full account see: Jessica Benjamin, "The End of Internalisation: Adorno's Social Psychology," Telos, 1977, no. 32, 42-64).

In fact Illouz's statement could be described as being about the loss of internalization in the Freudian sense—it is not "internalization" per se, but could represent a scenario in which the controlling function of the ego has been removed from the equation in the absence of identifiable authority to internalize ("the death of the father"), and in which the dominant forces of capitalism have direct access to our instincts. This theory pertains to the change in family structures and the rise of post-WWII consumer culture, and is also discussed by Jessica Benjamin in the above-mentioned text. The neoliberal appropriation of the freedom-seeking rhetoric of 1960s countercultures could be said to manifest in our sex/love lives too, as an increasingly painful contradiction between the rhetorical imperative to enjoy our individuality and our mythologically individual sexual makeup—this individuality being a rhetorical imperative. The more we are told that our desires are our own—to do what we want with—the more they are accessed directly and manipulated by the interests of capital. Or are they? She thought further. To her mind this process of manipulation was so transparent that it surely failed to convince anyone these days; it was more like empty posturing in front of a disinterested, undesiring audience, who despite being disinterested, still mysteriously did what they were told.

Now that she reflected on various complex claims made about the relation of love and sex (which aligned with a kind of argument about the relation of mind and body, even the relation of the ideal and the material), she began to realize that her insistence on the interconnectedness of the two, on the hard-to-pin-down dynamism of their connection, was a losing battle. It was away from the banal certainties of each category and in this dynamic relation that desire was allowed to exist, but desire now raised its tormented head with decreasing frequency, and she thought this was significant. Most weeks it was nowhere to be felt and all proclamations by others to the contrary, which she saw posted on "confessional" Twitter feeds, filled her with a sense of smug cunning: she saw through their performativities, their efforts to hold onto a receding realm of the senses .... Maybe, she thought, this was the role of an unreasonable and inflated ego, the ego still there but in its death throes, about to pop. Maybe, the rationale of this (maniacal) ego was to convince us of our ability to desire rather than to curb and ration desire. The role of the ego, now, was maybe to convince you that you weren't, yet, quite, dead inside.

Then there was of course the slightly different second coming of the ego, or of some approximation of the rationality it represented: the rise of ideologies of the family.

v. In his essay "Is it Love?" (www.e-flux.com/journal/is-it-love) Brian Kuan Wood offers a view on a contemporary crisis situation. He questions the role of love (in general, not merely romantic love) in a world where the private and public spheres have become confused and entwined, and where the decline of public infrastructures casts love and emotional commitment as surrogates for them. A retreat into family and support found in affective bonds threatens to establish a kind of tyranny of the subjective in a world without subjects, but perhaps not without some excess or potential.

In the changed Western economic landscape since the 1970s, the rise of individualism, combined with increasingly precarious conditions of the "flexible" labor market, effected an ever greater demand for self-management. "Being your own boss" seems, at least in part, to follow the logic of a nostalgia for that lost rational ego, for the lost "father." The self-subjection inherent to "being your own boss" resembles the internalization of authority as sketched out by Freud, but with the distinction that the external authority it is supposed to negotiate with is rather different. It expects the subjects to enslave themselves on behalf of an external power that does not appear in a clear and tangible form (and if they do, their form of appearance is not that of reason but of force): economic imperative (in its neoliberal guise) presents itself as an increasingly absolute yet entirely abstract ruler. What the subjects experience of it within the self-management model, then, is perhaps a kind of instinctual barbarity that they are expected to leash upon themselves.

vi. The reversion back to familial structures of support in the face of declining support from societal bodies and the false autonomy of self-management (a kind of imitation of internalization) seems somehow joined in its regressive nostalgia for the symbolic function of the family. In an article titled "Mothers," Jacqueline Rose touches on one of the reasons this familial pull is so problematic. She remarks on how, while promoting family values and a kind of neoliberal cult of motherhood, the conservative government in the UK is also making it increasingly hard to be a mother through its austerity policies: "One of the most striking characteristics of discourse on mothering is that the idealisation doesn't let up as reality makes the ideal harder for mothers to meet. If anything, it seems to intensify." (London Review of Books, 2014, vol. 36, no. 12, 17-22)



Maija Timonen is an artist and writer based in London and Helsinki. She is currently acting Professor of Artistic Research at Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts Helsinki.


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