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The Performative Body: From Primal Fantasies to Perversion

by Carol J. Moore. March 2001. Windsor, Ontario.

Part I: Involutio: Latin, meaning involution, the action of involving or the fact of being involved; an entanglement; intricacy….

The more exaggeratedly narcissistic and particularized this body is-that is, the more it surfaces and even exaggerates its nonuniversality in relation to its audience-the more strongly it has the potential to challenge the assumption of normativity….the narcissistic, particularized body both unveils the artist (as body/self necessarily implicated in the work of art as a situated, social act), turning her inside out, and strategically insists upon the contingency of this body/self on that of the viewer or interpreter of the work. As the artist is marked as contingent, so is the interpreter, who can no longer (without certain contradictions being put into play) claim disinterestedness in relation to this work of art.
Amelia Jones, Body Art: Performing the Subject, p. 9

I want to begin by saying something about the impossibility of claiming “disinterestedness in relation to this work of art”, this series of films, together entitled Enlightened Nonsense: Ten Short Performance Films About Repetition and Repetition, which are screening here this evening. I want to try to understand, to account for in some way, why – by what means – they speak to us as viewers, as interpreters, marking our bodies as contingent, so that we can no longer (without certain contradictions being put into play) claim a comfortable disinterestedness. But I also don’t want to say too much, to give away the game right at the start, and spoil this deliberate seduction by foreclosing on it too soon.

Part II: Invocatio: Latin, meaning invocation, to invoke. The act or an instance of invoking an authority; an appeal to a supernatural being or beings, e.g., the Muses, for psychological or spiritual inspiration; in Christianity, the words “In the name of the Father,” etc. used at the beginning of a religious service, as the preface to a sermon.

In “Totem and Taboo” (1913) Freud is at pains to point out that while certain cultural practices such as art and religion may share “striking and far-reaching points of agreement” (p. 130) with certain forms of psychopathology, they are in fact quite different in their origins and purposes. The neuroses, as Freud points out, are “asocial structures,…essentially the private affair of each individual”, whereas cultural practices, such as art, are “effected in society by collective effort…based upon social instincts” (pp.130-131). Although both the neuroses and cultural production share their origins in the sexual instincts, and this is no doubt why they share so many “striking and far-reaching points of agreement,” their difference-and this is a critical difference-lies in the way the ego comes into play in the production of culture. For example, it is through the workings of the ego that the artist places herself in an identificatory relation to the history and culture of artistic production. For our purposes, here, this evening, Freud’s distinction between individual neuroses and cultural production is an important one, because of the way in which it both implicates the artist in her films (we will be looking at how the work of an individual artist represents certain psychical events) and allows us to separate the two. In other words, while the discussion of the films will seek to articulate the presence, in the work, of primal fantasies of seduction, castration, and the primal scene, it will also lay the groundwork which will enable us, I hope, to say something about the work of the artist as a cultural or social, rather than individual, production, and perhaps as well to say something about how it is and why it is we, as viewers, respond.

At this point, I want to say something about performance, performativity, and the critical gesture of performance art. The films you’ve seen are films inasmuch as that is the medium, but really they are performances, in the sense of “performance art”-they are, as works of art, inseparable from the artist’s actions, as a performance. As such, there are certain things we can say about how they function. Amelia Jones, in Body Art: Performing the Subject, makes a distinction between performance art and what she calls “body art,” along lines that could be useful for our purposes: the term “body art” foregrounds the body and the embodiment of subjectivity with a specificity that can be lost in the broader term “performance art;” secondly, “body art” allows for works of art that did not perhaps originally take place in front of a live audience, but have been documented through photography, film, video, etc.; and lastly, as Jones has stated, body art, “in its opening up of the interpretive relation and its active solicitation of spectatorial desire…provides the possibility for radical engagements that can transform the way we think about meaning and subjectivity (both the artist’s and our own)” (p. 14). However, the term “body art” suffers from a kind of colloquialism in its current association with the practice of adorning the body with tattoos and piercings, which while interesting and provocative, don’t engage or implicate the viewer to the same degree in the radical, interpretive, intersubjective relation that the notion of the “performative” which is embedded in performance art does. For this reason, I would prefer to refer to the films in question here not as “body art” or “performance art,” but “performative art.” My reasons for asserting this are as follows: the body, which Jones wants to make sure is foregrounded in the works she discusses, will not allow itself to be missed in the films we have seen this evening; in fact, the presence of the body is rendered so insistent by what it does and has done to it, that in the face of this I feel the need to foreground the “performative,” just in case we need reminding.

How, then, do we understand this notion of the performative? “Performance as bounded ‘act,’” writes Judith Butler in Bodies That Matter,

is distinguished from performativity insofar as the latter consists of a reiteration of norms which precede, constrain, and exceed the performer’s ‘will’ or ‘choice’; further, what is ‘performed’ works to conceal, if not to disavow, what remains opaque, unconscious, unperformable. The reduction of performativity to performance would be a mistake (p. 234).

In other words, what Butler draws our attention to in distinguishing the performative from performance is that what is at stake in the performative belongs to the register of the “beyond” of the performer’s conscious will or choice, “beyond” here used in the same sense Freud uses it in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”. What is beyond the pleasure principle is not the reality principle, but the death drive, the “beyond” referring not only to a sense of “after” — what is produced — or is in excess, but “before”, what conditions and constrains, our desire. The performative is the beyond of performance.

Butler, of course, writes about the performativity at stake and at work in the construction of sex

and gender, and this is certainly apropos of our discussion of the primal fantasies of seduction,

castration and the primal scene. The performativity of sex and gender, for Butler, IS the

continual reiteration-the saying again, or doing repeatedly-of regulatory norms, during which

process, sex and gender are both produced and destabilized. To quote Butler at length:

As a sedimented effect of a reiterative or ritual practice, sex acquires its naturalized effect, and, yet, it is also by virtue of this reiteration that gaps and fissures are opened up as the constitutive instabilities in such constructions, as that which escapes or exceeds the norm, as that which cannot be wholly defined or fixed by the repetitive labour of that norm. This instability is the deconstituting possibility in the very process of repetition, the power that undoes the very effects by which ‘sex’ is stabilized, the possibility to put the consolidation of the norms of ‘sex’ into a potentially productive crisis (p. 10).

The notion of performativity, then, seeks to acknowledge that through reiteration, through the very process of repetition, we apprehend the power of discourses to produce effects, “…a set of actions mobilized by the law, the citational accumulation and dissimulation of the law that produces material effects, the lived necessity of those effects as well as the lived contestation of that necessity” (p.12).

What produces this doubled effect, what allows for the dissimulating element of reiteration to be always present, is that regulatory norms also produce their “remainders”, their “outsides” , what psychoanalysis has called “the unconscious,” or Butler calls “a domain of unlivibility and unintelligibility that bounds the domain of intelligible effects” (p. 22). But furthermore, and most importantly, the “remainders” or “outsides” or “domains of unlivibility” call our attention to the inefficacy of norms and thus the potential for their resignification, subversion, a call to “work…the weakness in the norm…[by] inhabiting the practices of its rearticulation” (p. 237). This would be the work of performative art.

Part III: In vitro: Latin meaning performed, obtained, or occurring in a test tube, culture dish, or elsewhere outside a living organism.

The “outside” of the living organism, the “culture dish” of the artist and the interpreter, is this room, this space, in which, like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, we will attempt to patch together something which is greater than the sum of its parts, made up of components whose remainders also produce something over which we do not have conscious control. What we draw from, and what we construct, exceed the limits of our abilities to perform them. While our fantasies – as artist, psychoanalyst, and audience – constitute our desire, provide the coordinates with which to map our desire, literally teaching us how to desire (Zizek, p. 191), our desire always exceeds our ability to articulate it, there is always a surplus, a leftover, which takes us someplace else.

Part IV: In vivo, Latin, meaning taking place in a living organism.

The primal fantasies of seduction, castration, and the primal scene direct our attention to the question of origins: the origin of sexuality, the difference between the sexes, and of the individual herself. “Like myths,” write Laplanche and Pontalis in their now classic paper, “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality,” primal fantasies

claim to provide a representation of, and a solution to, the major enigmas which confront the child. Whatever appears to the subject as something needing an explanation or theory, is dramatized as a moment of emergence, the beginning of a history….We are offered in the field of fantasy, the origin of the subject himself….If we ask what these fantasies mean to us, we…then see that they are not only symbolic, but represent the insertion, mediated by an imagined scenario, of the most radically formative symbolism, into corporeal reality (pp. 11-12).

In other words, primal fantasies function to both situate the subject in a field of pre-existing meaning, and as a means through which to comprehend the insertion of fantasy into the lived body. Structures exist in the dimension of fantasy which cannot be reduced simply to the individual subject’s experience. Sexuality, as psychoanalysis understands it, is a drive which conditions and determines psychical reality; there are important differences between this conception of sexuality, and one which sees it either as an instinct or a product of the subject’s environment. Primal fantasies, then, function as the organizers of that sexuality.

We must also keep in mind that while these fantasies provide the coordinates for, or a mapping of, the construction of desire, what is staged in fantasy is not the subject’s own desire, but the Other’s desire. Thus, as Zizek reminds us (pp. 194-5)

Fantasy, fantasmatic formation, is an answer to the enigma of Che vuoi?: ‘You are saying this, but what is it that you effectively want by saying it?’ This renders the subject’s primordial, constitutive position. The original questioning of desire is not directly ‘What do I want?,’ but ‘What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I for others?’ ….While being aware of this…the child cannot fathom what kind of object it is for the others, what the exact nature of the games they are playing is. Fantasy provides an answer to this enigma; at its most fundamental level, fantasy tells me what I am for my others.

In other words, fantasy is always a description, for the subject, of the Other’s desire.

In the first constellation of films I want to turn to – H2Oh-Oh,Road Trip, Milk and Cream, and Fall – the body is compelled to come into contact with another surface–drawn to a ground or a substance which is powerfully suggestive of the body of the other–by a force, which is the gravity of seduction. The significant element of repetition suggests not only the struggle to master seduction’s effects, but the very inevitability of its occurrence; the exquisitely uncomfortable, even battering effect of the moment of impact, which we cannot help but feel also as we watch the scenes repeat themselves, is testimony to the traumatic nature of the seduction. Each of these film segments stages the artist (and the viewer, as I will argue later on) as both acting subject and receptive object, returning us to the originary moment of imagined primal seduction, when such a distinction was first introduced and grounded, literally grounding the organization of the body at the hands of the other. In returning us to this scene, we are repeatedly faced with the insecurity, the instability, of either identification-acting subject, receptive object. The body falls repeatedly, almost hypnotically, to the ground, compelled toward contact by gravity, need, and desire; water falls away from the face only to be flung repeatedly back, leaving her/us gasping for breath; milk and cream become piss and shit, the tongue licks the dry dirt, each scene, repeated, overwhelms the fragile bodily limit between inside and outside. Materially as well as metaphorically, the surface of the body is an envelope, a limit, one which functions as a permeable membrane between inside and outside, but it is also the site of their joining (see Jones, p. 207), and their “joying” – the site of jouissance. These films work so powerfully to represent the enigmatic and traumatic nature of seduction when what must be an often-pondered question — what is the artist doing to her body and why would she want to do that? – necessarily becomes: What compels the body to fall, gasp, choke, taste, make or suffer contact? What does the ground, water, milk, cream, dirt want from me? Where we make contact with the Other, where what comes from the Other repeatedly constitutes, penetrates, and re-constitutes the skin envelope, where this joining in pain and pleasure takes place is where and how my desire comes into being.

There are several things at stake in this fantasy of seduction as the origin of sexuality which need to be accounted for, in particular, the notion of trauma. That trauma is embedded in sexuality, in a-dare I say it: “normative” sense–may seem hard to accept. In order to understand this, we will have to venture into a contentious area of psychoanalysis, namely Freud’s seduction theory. Many of you are no doubt familiar with the problem: Freud’s earliest thoughts on the etiology of hysteria contained the conviction that hysteria had at its root an actual scene of sexual seduction, whose traumatic effects were to be seen in the florid somatic symptoms of the hysteric; Freud was forced to “abandon” his theory of actual seduction when he began to realize the ubiquitousness of unconscious fantasies of seduction. For Freudophiles, the “abandonment” of the seduction theory is a cause for celebration in that it establishes the primacy of psychic reality over material reality for psychoanalysis; for Freudbashers, this becomes a moment of pure vilification of Freud, who is accused of doing great harm in not believing his women patients. But Freud, in fact, did not abandon the seduction theory; he enlarged and refined it. In laying this out I take my lead from Jean Laplanche, who in Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, is at great pains to explain that the value of Freud’s understanding of how sexuality is implanted in the child extends far beyond the reality of instances of sexual seduction.

Freud, of course, was accused in his day and since, of reducing everything to sexuality. In fact, what he really did was to demonstrate that sexuality is at work in everything. And he privileged the sexual drive for very specific reasons. “Why sexuality?” asks Laplanche.

Freud’s answer is that sexuality alone is available for that action in two phases which is also an action “after the event.” It is there and there alone that we find that complex and endlessly repeated interplay-midst a temporal succession of missed occasions-of “too early” and “too late” (p.43).

What does this mean? In this passage we find Laplanche alluding to one of the two reasons why the implantation of sexuality into the child is traumatic: it’s two phase nature of being both too early and too late. The too early refers to the child’s biological immaturity; sexuality comes to the child, from the other, but the child’s body is not ready to act on it until puberty. The too late, then, refers to the fact that by the time puberty arrives and the body is sexually matured, it has been already saturated with sexuality, imported, as it were, from the world of adults (pp.43-44). This too early-too late conundrum is vital to understanding the nature of trauma: an event becomes traumatic, not because it is necessarily so in and of itself, but because of it’s associative link to an earlier event which was enigmatic because the child had yet to be furnished with the affective and ideational correlatives which would allow her to assimilate this earlier event. The too early implantation of sexuality becomes for Freud the template for trauma precisely because it alone of the drives bears this too early-too late legacy of the physical immaturity of the child.

And how, precisely, does sexuality come to be implanted in the child? The answer to this question provides the second key to understanding the traumatic nature of sexuality. To quote at length from Laplanche:

Beyond any seduction scenes by the father, and beyond any openly genital seductions, [Freud] refers to seduction through maternal care as his primary model….It is thus through excitation by means of maternal care that we can imagine the original form taken by seduction. But here, we should go a step further and not restrict ourselves to the pure materiality of stimulating actions, if indeed such “materiality” can ever be conceived of in isolation. We should, in fact, consider that beyond the contingency and transiency of any specific experience, it is the intrusion into the universe of the child of certain meanings of the adult world which is conveyed by the most ordinary and innocent of acts. Such, we maintain, is the most profound sense of the theory of seduction….(p. 44)

Thus sexuality always comes to the child from the Other, and is traumatic because of the disjuncture between it’s “too early”-ness and “too late”-ness which is the legacy of physical immaturity; because it impacts on the child from “without” ; and because it comes to the child in an enigmatic form, prior to the child’s ability to decode its meaning, leaving the child unable to answer the question, “what does the object want from me?” Fantasy, then, becomes the means through which this enigmatic question is confronted.

It is significant that Fall is the only one of the films without a soundtrack, and that H2Oh-Oh, Milk and Cream, and Road Trip make use of sound tracks that are limited to random and accidental pops and hisses. The silence, as well as the randomness of the pops and hisses, I would argue, invoke a kind of hypnotic reverie in which the assaults to the body are both accentuated in their physicality, and “mentated”-moved from without to within, recalling Laplanche’s statement that “everything comes from without in Freudian theory…but at the same time every effect-in its efficacy-comes from within, from an isolated and encysted interior” (pp. 42-43). These four films also suggest in a sense a sightless reverie, for the artist’s eyes never engage the camera/viewer. Thus, we could venture to say, it is as if in Fall, H2Oh-Oh, Milk and Cream, and Road Trip there is no other to the other, no third term, whose function it would be to move us from the near-solipsistic imaginary universe of primal seduction, into the symbolic. I would also suggest that the traumatic effects of seduction enacted here, as the body of the artist painfully encounters the body of the other, will only be fully realized in later events, in what is further suggested by the play of castration that takes place in Scratch, Patch, Tape andAlways a Bridesmaid Never a Bride of Frankenstein, and in the violence of the primal scene staged in both Moohead andSleep Study. To the workings of this temporal disjunction, Freud gave the name “Nachtraglichkeit,” which has been translated variously as “afterwardsness” or “deferred action,” and which Lacan brought into prominence as the “Apres-coup”. As Laplanche and Pontalis remark in The Language of Psychoanalysis, “It is not lived experience in general that undergoes a deferred revision but, specifically, whatever it has been impossible in the first instance to incorporate fully into a meaningful context. The traumatic event is the epitome of such unassimilated experience” (p. 112, emphasis added).

Let us turn now to the second constellation of films — Scratch,Patch, Tape, and Always a Bridesmaid Never a Bride of Frankenstein — and see what happens when we think about them in relation to the primal fantasy of castration, that fantasy which purports to convey something of the origins of the child’s efforts to comprehend the mystery of sexual difference. These segments, I will argue, not only stage the scene of castration, but through a certain erotised playfulness especially evident inScratch and Patch suggest not only a fantasied solution to castration-the fetish-but also a reading of fetishism that is in keeping with what psychoanalytic-feminist theorist Parveen Adams has proposed as the subversive power of the fetish, under certain circumstances, to displace the phallus.

The fantasy of castration arises, as I’m sure you all know, in response to the child’s confrontation with the reality of sexual difference. The fantasy contains several important elements, not the least of which is the idea that everyone originally had a penis, but for some unknown reason some people have lost theirs. This realization in turn produces fantasied explanations and solutions, for example, perhaps some people have had their penis cut off as punishment, or, the penis hasn’t been really cut off, it’s alive and well and living somewhere else. The fantasy of castration is also the condition for the raising up, in a symbolic sense, of the biological penis to become the phallus, that signifier for Lacan of the function of the Law. We are all familiar with the ways in which psychoanalysis has formulated the normative function of the primal fantasy of castration as the castration complex, that psychical process by which little girls and little boys come differently through the oedipal struggle. I’m not going to go into that here, because what I’m interested in instead is how these films suggest an attempt at an alternative solution to the troubling effects of the castration fantasy. I take my understanding of castration from Lacan, who speaks much more often about castration than the castration complex per se. While following Freud in seeing castration as first and foremost a fantasy of the mutilation of the penis, Lacan sees this fantasy as acquiring its symbolic power from its earlier roots in a series of infantile fantasies of bodily dismemberment which are formed in the infant’s psychical struggle to construct an image of a whole body out of the bits and pieces of a fragmented one. For Lacan, it is only much later that fantasies of dismemberment come together around the specific fantasy of castration, a castration fantasy that now bears not on the penis as a biological organ, but on the imaginary phallus (Evans, pp. 21-22).

The alternative solution to accepting castration, of course, is to be found in the fetish, that which both stands for the missing penis and suggests the ability of the phallus to circulate independently from the biological reality of “I have a vagina, not a penis.” The fetish is also significant for its ability to signal the presence and workings of the defence mechanism of disavowal. Laplanche and Pontalis tell us that Freud used the term disavowal in a very specific sense, to describe a mode of defence “which consists in the subject’s refusing to recognise the reality of a traumatic perception-most especially the perception of the absence of the woman’s penis” (p. 118). The fetish, that object put in the place of the missing penis, functions as a memorial to castration, and as such operates by allowing the subject to hold two incompatible positions at once: to simultaneously disavow and acknowledge castration. The fetish functions as a substitute, but in the very act of substitution acknowledges the absence of what it stands in for.

That the theme of castration figures prominently in Scratch,Patch, Tape and Always a Bridesmaid Never a Bride of Frankenstein, is, I think, obvious. What is less obvious is the way in which a certain “playing” with castration, and the “play” of the fetish function to suggest the availability of a complex alternative solution. Leaving aside for the moment any questions about the presence or workings of a perverse strategy, let’s think first about what we can actually see in these film segments. In Scratch, the artist positions herself and the camera to focus our attention on her sex, or should I say more accurately, on the ambiguousness of her sex, for there are none of the familiar reference points for determining the sex of the body on screen. The performance at the centre of Scratch is the display and dismantling of the fetish, which is signified by the bundle of burrs, revealed to be entangled in the artist’s pubic hair, which are then picked out and brushed away, signalling both the detachability and displacement of the phallic signifier, a move also repeatedly suggested in Patch, as the patch of baseball “skin” relocates to different sites around the artist’s face, and in the production of a multitude of “incisions” and “stitches” suggested by the marks made on the surface of the body in Always a Bridesmaid Never a Bride of Frankenstein. The playfulness which I alluded to a minute ago is evidenced most clearly in the gestures which embellish the shots of the artist doing her pants up again-the little jig of to-fro movement of the hips–and the masculine gestures of straightening the fly of the pants, and placing the hands on the hips when finished, as well as in the final grimacing smile at the end of Patch. The staging of a series of scenes involving the fetish is, when taken as a whole, suggestive of a series of provocative questions and statements suffused with attitude: “What do you think? Have I got it? Is it there? Yes? No? It’s not what you think! Or is it? So what to you think? Have I still got it? Maybe…. Maybe it doesn’t really matter.” With the final gesture – the tug on the fly, the smile — the viewer is left with the undecidability of the question; in the end, the play of undecidability is secured by the belief that the play can continue, the smugness of the final gesture suggesting she’s still in the game.

If the fetish stages the play of castration, it does so precisely because of its ability to signal the vacillation between an archaic fantasy of wholeness and the anxiety associated with lack (Homi Bhabha, p. 74, The Location of Culture). This anxiety surfaces powerfully in Scratch (and is called up in us) by the presence of nearly subliminal images of knives, scissors, and a hammer, and by the visible and audible smashing of cups, plates, and glasses. But nowhere is this anxiety more strongly and frighteningly signalled than in Tape. The pain of repeatedly ripping packing tape off skin and hair is only surpassed in its suggestion of pure agony in the brief but palpable panic that surfaces when, while unwinding the tape, it breaks, and the artist struggles fiercely to gain a hold on some edge that would allow her to rip it from her face and breath again. Repetition as a project of the drive to mastery is nowhere more evident in these films than in Tape, where the artist cleverly and deliberately stages and re-stages the act of doing and undoing by intercutting the footage of winding and unwinding the tape with footage of the same but printed in reverse, creating the sense that some irresistible force is at work here as the tape appears to almost fly on and off her face.

My emphasis here on the function of the fetish raises the issue of perversion, of which I will have something more to say toward the end. However, for now, I’d like to briefly sketch out how this play of the fetish could bring us to see the possibility, in perversion, that desire can be, as Parveen Adams suggests, “freed into a mobility of representations.” Adams, in an article entitled “Of Female Bondage,” attempts to question the traditionally assumed relation between the fetish and the phallus. Let us recall that the fetish, in order to function, depends upon the operation of disavowal; however, as we have seen, the fetish functions as a substitute, but in the very act of substitution acknowledges the absence of what it stands in for. It would appear then that the fetishist remains stuck in the end, within the very economy he wishes to refuse. In order to force an opening in this economy, Adams turns to the analysis of fetishism laid out by Bersani and Dutoit, who, in their book The Forms of Violence, claim that the success of the fetish depends upon its being seen as different from the missing penis. What saves the fetishist from being stuck in the economy of mere substitution is that for the fetishist the penis is not missing-it’s somewhere, or something, else; it is, as Freud has put it, “no longer the same as it was before” (“Fetishism”, p. 353). “This penis, no longer the same,” writes Adams, “is the fetish, that which the fetishist now desires. Since the mother has not got the penis which signifies the phallus she has nothing that links her with the fantasy phallus. Since the mediating substitute is missing, desire is ‘cut off’ from the phallus; henceforth, anything can come to be the object of desire” (p. 258).

In a move to free the phallus, Adams asserts that the fetishist has accepted castration because he or she recognizes the gap between desire and its first object. However, whereas for the neurotic, the penis continues to represent the phallus, for Adams the operation of the fetish suggests that “the irreducible difference between the fetish and the first object demonstrates that desire itself might be cut off from its object and may therefore travel to other objects” (p. 258). “The entry into desire is necessarily through castration,” writes Adams, “and it is in the perversions that we see the possibility that the form desire takes will be freed from the penile representation of the phallus and freed into a mobility of representations” (p. 258).

Now, like Adams, I may be playing fast and loose here myself, but I would like to submit that in the image of the bundle of burrs as it is set to work in Scratch we have the suggestion of a signifier of desire that seeks to detach itself from the reference point of the penile representation of the phallus, something which refuses to operate within the field of sexuality to force a choice between “masculine or feminine.” Although phallic in its initial appearance, the bundle of burrs is dismantled and in the end is discarded, leaving in its place, through the gestures of the artist, the undecidability of sexual difference, and the suggestion that the phallus is somewhere else. It is to and through this undecidability that the text in the film finally speaks: “My path is deliberately difficult; my reasons endlessly repetitious; but it is through this that I know myself.” What is difficult, endlessly repeated, and through which we know ourselves, is not the fixity of a singular, stable, unified subject position, but the constant undertow of the unlivable “outside” that “bounds the domain of intelligible effects” (Butler, p. 22) resists foreclosure and undermines repression. The undecidability, or to use Butler’s term “instability” at work inScratch is what makes it performative, is the “deconstructing possibility in the very process of repetition, the power that undoes the very effects by which ‘sex’ is stabilized, the possibility to put the consolidation of the norms of ‘sex’ into a potentially productive crisis” (p. 10). In the closing chapter ofBodies That Matter, Butler asks the question I am posing also by way of Scratch:

Is there perhaps a specific gender pain that provokes such fantasies of a sexual practice that would transcend gender difference altogether, in which the marks of masculinity and femininity would no longer be legible? Would this not be a sexual practice paradigmatically fetishistic, trying not to know what it knows, but knowing it all the same? (p. 238).

In representing castration through the bodily play of undecidability – by dismantling and fetishizing the phallus, putting it into play by suggesting its ability to be sutured onto the body anywhere, by refusing to submit to anxiety and even taunting death – these film segments present us with a fantasy of castration while at the same time resisting submission to that fantasy through a re-deployment of repetition that produces some unsettling effects. I will have something more to say about these effects at the end.

The third and final primal fantasy under consideration — the fantasy of the primal scene — brings us to the remaining two film segments, Moohead, and Sleep Study. These two films stand in sharp contrast to the others for one very particular reason: although they each make use of elements found in other film segments (for example, Moohead restages the force of impact found in Fall and H2Oh-Oh, while Sleep Study‘s nearly silent sound track recalls Fall as well), they break with the other films by introducing a material triangulation between artist, viewer, and an other situated off screen: in Moohead, it is the person throwing the ball; in Sleep Study, we have the person behind the camera in the found home movie footage, as well as the invisible technicians and doctors who read and interpret the signals transmitted by the wires attached to the subject’s body. This triangulation, this introduction of the third person, produces a shift from the “two” of Fall, H2Oh-Oh, Milk and Cream and Road Trip, to the “three” of the fantasy of the primal scene, as well as a shift in the position of the artist, from standing in the place of the child, to adult actor in the primal scene as proffered to the child-witness in Moohead, or adult survivor of the humiliation and narcissistic wounding experienced by the child when confronted by the primal scene, as suggested in Sleep Study. Moohead and Sleep Study also recall our discussion of seduction, in that following Laplanche once more, we will configure the primal scene as a seduction, and importantly, as traumatic. Lastly, these two film segments will return us to the question of how the viewer is called forward, implicated in and through the act of viewing.

You will recall that earlier in the paper I stipulated that primal fantasies are primal in that they direct our attention to the question of origins: the origin of sexuality in the primal fantasy of seduction; the origin of sexual difference in the fantasy of castration; and the origin of the individual in the fantasy of the primal scene. “The origin of the individual” is sometimes commonly misunderstood to be suggesting something about where babies come from. Therefore, what I will not be suggesting is that the primal scene, as it is cast in Mooheadand Sleep Study has anything to do with human procreation. What I am suggesting, as I think will become clearer below, is that through the actions of the two figures in Moohead (I will discuss Sleep Study separately)- the artist, and the person off screen throwing the ball – we have a representation of two observed bodies interacting to produce a series of messages, which are from the position of the witness, enigmatic and seductive, and thus function to draw attention to the fantasmatic origin of the subject as subject to sexuality, subject to seduction, now recast as a play between three figures. This calling forth of the subject into sexuality is further signified in Moohead by the ball striking the head of the artist. Why the head and not some other part of the body? Although there are no doubt many possible readings of this choice of body part, I would suggest that it functions powerfully to remind us of the joining of inside and outside that takes place as the impact of the other is made upon the body from the outside, then assimilated through a process of mentation, installing it, as it were, on the inside. The head, of course, is that mysterious place that suggests the impossibility of separating body from mind.

We all know what is referred to by the term “primal scene”: “the scene of sexual intercourse between the parents which the child observes, or infers on the basis of certain indications, and fantasies. It is generally interpreted by the child as an act of violence on the part of the father.” (Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, p. 335) Much psychoanalytic ink has been spilled on trying to decide whether the primal scene as a fantasy requires the actual witnessing of parental sexual intercourse. Laplanche enters the debate on the same ground as he did with the issue of the seduction theory, and ties the two together by noting that all of the “other scenarios invoked as primal have seduction as their nucleus, to the extent that they too convey messages from the other, always at first in the direction from adult to child” (Essays on Otherness, p. 170); thus for the child, the primal scene is a seduction. And, as we know from the discussion above, seduction is always traumatic because the child is unable to decode and assimilate the enigmatic signifiers emanating from the other. Freud, argues Laplanche, focussed on two elements of the primal scene – perceptual reality and the child’s fantasy – but neglected the element of the “adult proffering the scene to be seen, to be heard….” (Essays on Otherness p. 170) What Laplanche sutures into the primal scene is the enigmatic desire of the other, which comes to the child in the form of messages from the adult. “The messages of the primal scene,” writes Laplanche, “are frequently ones of violence, savagery….. A message of exclusion is virtually inherent in the situation itself: I am showing you-or letting you see-something which, by definition, you cannot understand, and in which you cannot take part” (Essays on Otherness, p. 171) This notion of “I am showing you” coming from the parent toward the child places an emphasis on the imposing nature of the enigmas, as well as on the importance of acknowledging that the enigmatic and traumatizing messages come as an address of the other, in other words, highlighting the significance for the child of where the message is coming from. Laplanche summarizes his understanding of the primal scene as follows:

Whenever primal scenes are observed or discussed, two worlds without communication divide, so to speak: on the one side, parental behaviour, the experiences and content of which are by definition beyond the subject’s grasp; and on the other, the side of the child, a traumatic spectacle, more often glimpsed or guessed than seen…which the child must then fill out, interpret, symbolize. My point is that between these two worlds something is missing: the supposition…that showing sexual intercourse is never simply an objective fact, and that even the letting-see on the part of the parents is always in a sense a making-see, an exhibition….The primal scene only has its impact because it bears a message, a giving-to-see or a giving-to-hear on the part of the parents. There is not only the reality of the other “in itself”, forever unattainable (the parents and their enjoyment) together with the other “for me”, existing only in my imagination; there is also-primordially-the other who addresses me, the other who “wants” something of me….(Essays on Otherness, p. 78).

Turning now to Sleep Study, I would like to argue that this film segment, in fact, functions to knit together the three primal fantasies here under consideration. It accomplishes this by bringing together several disparate elements under the rubric of the suggestion of a dream or repressed memory submitted for analysis. The three primal fantasies, seduction, castration, and the primal scene, are all represented in the archival home movie footage, interwoven in the little story that unfolds before our eyes. The fantasy of seduction is represented by the little girl (the artist as a young child) playing to the camera presumably held by a proud parent, dancing, performing, and oh so adorable. This is a mutual seduction, as all good seductions are meant to be. This cannot last, and it doesn’t. Wounded and crying (from a fall? Has she skinned her knee?) her pleasure and sense of bodily integrity is spoiled. The camera keeps running as she looks over her shoulder, and figures out she’s on her own with this thing called castration. And lastly, staged as it is clearly in suburbia, the entire setting of the home movie footage calls upon us to interpret the family romance and primal scene. Mommy and daddy have a relationship that excludes me, evidenced by the appearance of a little sister. If we were to string it all together, it might sound something like this:

What do you want from me? How can I seduce you? Wanna see me dance? Wanna see how cute I am?

What do you want from me? I’m humiliated, wounded, and I have to take care of this myself. How do I do that without you?

What do you want from me? To take my place, as daughter and sister. How can I be satisfied with so little? How can I be satisfied with being so little?

In Sleep Study we also have footage of the artist wired up to a monitor, with electrodes dangling from her head. She’s having a sleep study done; to sleep, perchance to dream. When taken as a whole, the suggestion here is that the home movie footage represents a dream, or perhaps a repressed memory, which the good doctor will interpret from the blips and lines produced on his machine. Then, perhaps, the patient will no longer be doomed to repeat what she cannot remember.

I’d like to end this discussion of these film by gatheringMoohead and Sleep Study together to suggest, as you might already have guessed by now, that they not only represents a staging of the primal scene, they function, for us as viewers, as witnesses, as a primal scene. It is just such a spectacle, a making-see, an exhibition, as Laplanche is describing above, and you’ve been peeking through the keyhole. But there’s more: by the time we’ve cycled through the loop of films a few times, it is Moohead that solidly inserts the viewer into the primal scene through “the look”. In the final few seconds of that film segment, all of a sudden, the artist looks directly into the lense of the camera while waiting for the ball to hit her. In doing so, it is as if she is looking directly at us, and through this, we are suddenly made conscious – self-conscious – of our own looking at her. In that moment, it is no longer possible to maintain our (more or less) comfortable position “outside” the film; we are knee-deep in it for sure, if not in over our heads, our involvement all the more secured by the realization that the ball is now being thrown from the position of the camera – our position. It is as if we are now throwing that ball. The viewer’s position in the triangle shifts, from the place of the child watching and hearing, to being implicated in the act of violence.

As if this weren’t enough to convince us of our implication, the final shot of the little girl does: we follow her eyes as they dart quickly back and forth between the camera (us) and the wiggly-wobbly substance on her spoon, once again drawing our attention to our own act of looking, which at that moment we cannot help but become conscious of as both pleasurable and anxiety producing. The sexually precocious look returned in the final shot is what Krips would describe as “a knot or singularity in the visual field around which looks anxiously circulate with a mixture of horror, fascination, and pleasure” (Krips, p. 175). What is returned to us in the final moments of the film is the “too soon”-ness of our own seduction and the “too late”-ness of comprehension. This temporal gap, it should be noted, is present in the soundtrack, the jarring memory traces of which are not erased by the final conflation of sound and impact when the ball is thrown for the last time.

Part V: In situ: Latin, meaning original or proper place.

I want to end by saying a few things about perversion. Perversion is one of those troubling psychoanalytic concepts that has been the subject of a great deal of misunderstanding, on the part of the public, as well as psychoanalysts in general. These closing thoughts are here borrowed from a much larger project in which I am trying to work out whether or not the notion of the perverse can be separated from its historical association with the pathological. Time will not permit me to provide more than a sketch of what I have in mind. I hope you won’t be too disappointed or confused by what I have to say, because I will not be talking about the perverse as we usually think of it, as bizarre or kinky sexual acts. Instead, I want to say something about what constitutes the perverse position, and see if we can find evidence of it at work in what we have been talking about and doing here this evening.

For the sake of brevity, I want to concentrate on two aspects of what defines the perverse position, firstly, that the perverse subject makes him or herself the instrument of the Other’s jouissance, and secondly, that while neurosis is characterized by the subject posing a question (“what does the other want of me?” ), perversion is characterized by the lack of a question, a certainty. The perverse subject knows “that his acts serve the jouissance of the Other” (Evans, p. 140). I would like to propose that implicit in what I have called performative art is the certainty, the absence of question, that characterizes the perverse position. If what is at work in the performative is a reiteration of norms which produces, in Butler’s words, a “domain of unlivibility and unintelligibility” that signals the potential for the resignification and subversion of those norms, then this practice is, as Butler would have it, “paradigmatically fetishistic.” In fact, I would argue, the performative takes perversion one step further than the fetishist. The fetishist relies on disavowal, the “yes…but” that allows for holding two contradictory positions at once: “yes, I know she doesn’t have a penis, but I believe she does all the same.” The fetishist uses the second half of the sentence to cover over the first. The performative, I suggest, relies on the certainty of the “yes…and”. Far from a need to cover something up, in the performative, everything gets displayed. It’s the certainty of the “yes…and” that gives away the perverse structure at work in the performative.

That the performative also requires an audience further suggests how we might understand the perverse structure at work here. I need to make you exist, as an audience, in order to be the instrument of your jouissance. And this is where the perverse certainty of the performative is at its most visible, for it insists on displaying what you think you don’t want to see. Like the perverse subject, the performative body never stops fighting against the acceptance of castration, for to do so would be to relinquish certainty to lack, and to cease functioning as the instrument of the Other’s jouissance, to stop being the phallus for the Other. Thus the performative functions to subvert norms by ceaselessly calling into play the transgressive effects of jouissance.

It is this jouissance which makes Enlightened Nonsenseultimately so disturbing. In order to understand better what I mean by this, let us end with a consideration of one attempt to define the undefinable term “jouissance” . Dylan Evans has written:

It is only in 1960 that Lacan develops his classic opposition between jouissance and pleasure….The pleasure principle functions as a limit to enjoyment; it is a law which commands the subject to ‘enjoy as little as possible’. At the same time, the subject constantly attempts to transgress the prohibitions imposed on his enjoyment, to go ‘beyond the pleasure principle’. However, the result of transgressing the pleasure principle is not more pleasure, but pain, since there is only a certain amount of pleasure that the subject can bear. Beyond this limit, pleasure becomes pain, and this ‘painful pleasure’ is what Lacan calls jouissance….(pp.91-92)

In its exceeding of the limits of enjoyment, the performative body in Enlightened Nonsense insists on revealing a domain of unlivibility and unintelligibility that exists in each of us. This is why we only think we are seeing something we don’t want to see. In doing this, for us, the films make themselves the instrument of our jouissance and are certain of their ability to do so.

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