1. In doubt.
Where is the sex? Out there in the world, hidden in orifices and crevices, on and under the skin of living bodies? Or in here, inside language, in the realm of phantoms and phantasms, born from words generations of preachers, lovers, scientists, scriptwriters and concerned parents have used and abused? Well surely, there is a difference, no? Between the act and the concept? Between getting physical and talking about it? Between practices and discourses? Between the kernel of singular experience and the big machinery of control, reward and repression edging its designs into the bedrock of collective biopolitics? Surely there is a difference. But how to tell it? No matter how carefully you choose your words, treasure your memories or triangulate the bigger forces at play, chances are high you will soon enough reach the point where things you say get a strange ring to them: Are you trying to sound ‘experienced’? Are you being too intimate, or staying too guarded? Do you crave recognition by claiming matters of carnal importance as your subject? Are you rejoicing in the paranoid glory of theorists who believe they found direct access to the secret of how bodies are governed today by looking at one spot in the matrix of things, the one marked sex… as if it was a red button one only had to press hard enough for the box of being to flip open. Who do you trust on the subject? Yourself? The expert? Why would you? False friends may be hard to distinguish from true accomplices. Interest and suspicion are aroused to equal extremes when the talk comes to sex. If anything, that’s a fact. Repression prevails, so openness is welcome. Yet betrayals abound. They do so particularly within the zones of the patriarchal imaginary that tradition advertises as transgressive. What is the Romanticist (Surrealist/Modernist) advocation of breaking the law, if not an incentive to eroticize the (idea of there being a) law? What if there never was one in the first place? Then whoever was out to fuck the law, at the end of the day, would only ever have been having intercourse with their own moral apparatus.
If that mixed marriage of interest and suspicion should then give us a first answer to the question ‘where is the sex?’, it could be something like this: the sex is a place where words and distinctions start to behave strangely. In all this mess and confusion, it would indeed seem to be of existential interest to grasp the difference between coercion and liberation, lies and openings, phantasmagorias and realities. Yet, no matter how carefully the line is drawn, suspicion will blur it. Pretending to act and speak as if you knew what was what, for all you know, you might be fooling yourself and others. What witnesses are there to appeal to whose accounts couldn’t easily be shown to be compromised by vested interests. Philosphers? Please. Scientists? As if they hadn’t been backing up any lie ever told about sex with fabricated evidence, for centuries. Eye-witnesses? Perhaps. For surely someone must have seen something! The most subliminally life-changing powers, after all, are at play when pleasures are given and taken, when bodies and selves lose and find themselves in the eyes and under the hands of others, whose presence may be actual or virtual, in the moments when the sense of sexual selfhood forms and transforms itself. You know they are there. You sense their gaze on yourself. That sensation is vivid, undeniably so. It can take hold of your entire being, that sense of being seen as sexual: of receiving a response that affirms the reality of your desire, be it a brief flicker of recognition in someone’s eyes, a momentary alertness in their body language which indicates you have appeared on their radar, as a potential partner or competitor, a force to be reckoned with; as actively alive among the living. Alive and ready to be called by a name. Agents go by names; how else would they know they were being called upon, when the time is nigh for them to act and show what is in their powers? A-, bi-, hetero-, trans-, homo-, each prefix a brief, designating the set of performances to be licensed and expected, from and by me, myself, you and whoever countersigns the intangible contracts specifying the terms of sexual agency. Yet, even when the assignment would appear to have been clear, and supported by whatever cultural convention validates the contract, who is to say that the moment of recognition, on which it all hinges, was not an instant of delusion? The instant they are to be produced for verification, such intangible contracts melt into air. Biographies don’t, though. And there are stories to be told of events which may seal the character of your orientation in terms of experiences too strong to be revocable.
2. In testimony.
Something peculiar seems to link the sex to stories. Agents of all persuasions tend to become storytellers when they seek to verify the terms of their agency nachträglich, i.e. retrospectively and -actively, as Freud, a knowing teller of sex stories himself, observed. Yet, in order for a story to be recognized as plausible, its listener must suspend disbelief. And disbelief has a tendency to linger, no matter how vivid the content of a story may be rendered; in fact, disbelief may actually more likely be aroused by graphic detail than by casual accounts. It’s the existential irony of stories told of sex that increased vividness renders them less likely to serve the purpose of verification. The more colourful they get, the more likely listeners may suspect them to be delusional. A sense of the unverifiable clings to the vivid (and one increases in proportion with the other). Unverifiability is contagious. It is passed on from one witness to the next and renders the testimonies of speakers and listeners alike questionable. A notorious example of a sense of the dubious becoming infectious can be found in Freud’s own study Dora – a case of hysteria, which could easily be his most horrific piece of writing1. Freud tells the story of how he conducted a series of therapy sessions with a young woman, called by the pseudonym ‘Dora’, who suffered from nervous tics and aphonia. His account is compromised from the start by the fact that his patient broke off the treatment and walked out on him, leaving him with the haunting question: “What did I do wrong?” Hence, the account Freud gives of the ill-fated therapy is ripe with his aggressive eagerness to reclaim the veracity of his insights and validity of the methods he used to obtain them. Yet the harder he tries, the more contrived his observations appear. Unwittingly, his insistence only heightens the readers’ awareness of all that remains unverifiable – and therefore potentially implausible – about his story.
To begin with, the evidentiary status of the material on which Dora’s analysis hinges is unclear. There are dreams she recounts. Yet, while being vividly sensorial, they may as well be products of her imagination. So the assumption of their relevance for an understanding of her predicaments is solely based on Freud’s conjectures. Then there is the story she tells. Its plot is an intricate web of sexual entanglement, jealousy and abuse. Her beloved father, it appears, has an affair with a married woman and turns a blind eye to both the latter’s husband pursuing Dora, as if she were the trade-off, and the lover herself being intimate with Dora, as if her body could stand in for her father’s. All parties, except Dora, however, avidly deny anything ever happened. The express purpose of her father making her see Freud, in fact, is that she be cured, not only of her tics, but also of her ‘sick’ ideas about what is going on around her. So what is at stake in Dora’s story and Freud's interpretation of it, is the very question: Where is the sex? Was it ever there? Where is the reality of sex to be found in testimony? In hers? In his?
Inseperable from the question of the reality of sex, the question, not just of sexual activity, but of agency in general, returns. On what terms should the different parties be recognized as playing an active part in creating the affair at hand? The crux is that, in this scenario of hushed-up betrayal and manipulation, for any player to be openly recognized, that is, exposed as an agent, means a violation of the bourgeois social contract of discretion. Admittedly, Freud acts quite courageously in this regard. He refuses to take on the role assigned to him by his client and helps to cover the whole affair up by treating it as a child’s phantasm. As interpreter, he won’t be a co-conspirator: he acts as an agent with his own agenda, and frames all other parties as such potential agents too. So he does side with Dora, in that he accepts her testimony of acts, agents and agendas, and rejects her father’s denial of there being any activity in the first place. His readiness to fully recognize Dora as an agent in her own right, and listen to what she had to say, could have been just what it took to change the situation. It would appear that the recognition of her agency did indeed help her to step out of the roles of trade-off, stand-in and sick child given to her by the other players in the game: firstly, by walking out on her therapist; secondly, as Dora later told Freud, by confronting both the father’s lover and her husband, forcing them to admit to what they had been doing, which they did. So she found relief from the unnerving feeling – which the others had purposefully instilled in her – that she was imagining things.
Given that this was how the story ended, with Dora finding satisfaction in disrupting the imbroglio that held her captive, it is striking to see how Freud himself now cannot let go. Instead of calling the case closed, he writes a study in which he painstakingly goes through the material time and again, as if the curse laid on Dora by the “lovers” around her had been transferred onto him: the demon of doubt, as to whether or not there was ever any sex, had passed on from her to him. In reading the study you can sense it swaps hosts. Whatever insecurity lived in the disjointed body language of Dora’s tics now enters Freud’s words as he compulsively overperforms the act of interpretation. In the moment of transfer from her to him, the sex is as absent from and present in her presentation of herself as it is in his reading of it. The sex flickers. There. Not there. Vivid. Unverifiable. This, however, is now precisely what prompts the violence of interpretation which marks Freud’s text so strongly. Unwilling to accept the flickering as a truth condition in its own right, Freud must turn the flicker into a flame. So he obsessively and oppressively sexualises every little thing Dora says or does, in order to actualise the latent and anchor it in manifest motivations. Not only does Freud gamble away the reader’s trust in this moment, in his assessment of Dora’s condition he performs violence on her psyche. During the therapy sessions, he re-enacts the abuse Dora suffered at the hands of the adults using her as a pawn in their game of sexual possession. He makes her a pawn, a token of proof, for his claim to have access to the true reality of sexual selfhood. He mentally abuses her, by penetrating all verbal or behavioural defences she puts up. What Freud’s study therefore first of all gives evidence of is the monstrosity of a violently possessive man in search of proof for (what might as well be) his delusions.
Moreover, whatever may have been helpful about Freud giving Dora a sense of her own capacity to act is ruined by the way in which he proceeds to exploit the notion of her sexual agency. He treats her desires as the key to unlock the hidden reality of the sex at the heart of the whole messy affair. In disclosing what her actual desires supposedly were (desire for the father, the lover, the husband and even him), he seeks to present a stable point of reference, so as to verify that he is addressing something real, something persistent, not just flickering or imagined. Her desires become the touchstone for determining where the sex was and that it was there. Yet, the more insistently Freud seeks to persuade Dora that she is the key to the affair, the more he effectively also makes her feel like its cause and culprit. Guilt is the price she must pay for providing him with the putative foundations of his insights. With the reward and burden distributed thus – truth for him, guilt for her – the therapy sessions become a veritable reenactment of an inquisition trial. As Catherine Clément points out2, we here witness a return to a primary scene in the history of modern knowledge production in which boundless violence was unleashed in pursuit of the selfsame enquiry: Where is the sex? The inquisition faced the very same imponderabilities of the vivid yet unverifiable presence of secret sexual capacities: As Silvia Federici makes clear3, those persecuted as witches most often were women knowledgeable in the arts of midwifery, birth control or abortion, or old women of whom one could speculate whether they still had it (with the devil), or, for that matter, as Liv Helene Willumsen maintains, any random woman in the village about whom one could entertain vivid speculations as to what she could possibly be capable of4.
With no means to positively prove that the witchery was real, the trial authorities literally had the bodies of the tried ripped apart, in search of evidence, with the result that the reality of the vivid cruelties performed in the trial verified assumptions that could not otherwise be proven: if she does not cry under torture, she is a witch, so you can spill her blood. If she floats in water, she is a witch, so you can drown her; if she drowns right away, she was probably no witch, but then she can go to heaven anyway, and so on. It is as if the full knowledge of how ridiculously circular such methods for penetrating the enigma of the vivid yet unverifiable are made these authorities apply them with ever and ever more surreal cruelty. What Freud did to Dora with words, witch hunters did with screws, spikes, pinchers, wrenches, knives, weights, ropes, fire and water and most elaborate contraptions, to all body parts and orifices of those they tested. What we inherit, then, from the inquisition scenario, and its 19th century reprise, is a configuration of speaking positions established in relation to the enigma of the vivid yet unverifiable: the deadly marriage of entitled speech to coerced speech. Ironically, even if Foucault made mechanisms of discursive coercion the stuff people study in undergraduate classes, and countless discussions have been held on the ethics of how journalists or documentary filmmakers may extract confessions from interviewees, the crux of how to address the vivid yet unverifiable has remained largely unchallenged. Regardless of whether it is ‘sex’, ‘art’, ‘the social’, ‘the past’ or any other thing that presents itself in the key of the vivid yet unverifiable, we still speak as if, when we speak, we should at least be able to claim that we are talking about something real, that is, about some thing, the factual existence of which we can ascertain without trouble.
On a daily basis, one can therefore experience the inquisition of Dora reenacted, not just in situations where sexual confessions are expected, but, mutatis mutandis, very much also in the field of art and culture. The existence of artefacts considered artworks by some people, for instance, is no more proof of the existence of that elusive thing called ‘art’ than a fetish is proof of spirits inhabiting the material world. The haunting question “where is the art?” hence becomes the focal point of ever so many public and private trials that has those entitled to determine the nature of the phenomenon (critics, teachers, dealers, curators) elicit or force out answers from those who are identified as the key agents, the makers, the artist. Why did you do it? How did you do it? When did you do it last? What will you do next? Instead of acknowledging that thinking and speaking about art is as contentious an enterprise as making it, thinkers and speakers tend to offload the burden of proof onto the makers, and blame them, should they disappoint expectations and fail to produce sufficient testimony to ascertain the reality of (their) art. Under duress, the tried may end up confessing to whatever motive, intention or action the authorities recognize as referencing the real. If, in the witch trials, that meant admitting you “kissed the goat under its tail”, in today’s art examinations you must state you “performed artistic research”. Artists tried for the uncertainties of their trade find protection from the inquisition by claiming they only conducted enquiries themselves. This is just one possible example to show how the same protocol rehearsed in the solicitation or coercion of sexual testimony is equally applied in other fields of modern culture, when- and wherever the ‘real’ nature of this culture is to be determined. As on the scene of sexual enquiry, also in the scenario of cultural analysis, the one singled out as the prime witness to the real – and isolated in the position of the phenomenon – is solicited and coerced to respond to the inquisition in the language of the inquisitors, so as to authenticate its terminology.
3. In the air.
Must it continue like this? Not if we found ways of sharing the burden of proof. In one sense, Freud can indeed be read as an inquisitor, giving a graphic example of how bad things can get when self-entitled interrogators coerce evidence. In another sense, however, he may also have been amongst the first and few to acknowledge what comes to pass when we enter the zone of the vivid yet unverifiable. In the afterword to the case of Dora, he in fact begins to sketch out thoughts on the transference occurring between patient and analyst, the ramifications of which, if fully realized, are fundamental5. Freud observes that a therapeutic process can fully unfold only when, in speaking, the patient transfers whatever haunts them onto the analyst who, in listening, invites this transfer, and, when it happens, will make the speaker aware of the fact that this is what’s happening. An exchange conducted in this manner would indeed break with the foul legacy of inquisition, in that it effectively resembles a form of witchcraft itself: an exorcism in which the exorcist (relinquishing the role of the authority entitled to coerce proof) offers his or her soul as the bait to the demons, to entice them into changing host bodies, and traps them, in the split-second the demons hover between bodies – unhosted, disembodied, outside – so words can arrest them, by calling them by their name.
There is, however, a catch to how Freud portrays the way transference works. In this early account at least, he understands it as a unilateral dynamic. The patient is the agent, the analyst merely the recipient of transference. All ambiguity as to the origin of what comes to pass is thereby categorically ruled out. It must come from the patient, and from the patient alone. So the intersubjective dynamics at work in the situation of therapy work one way, and one way only. Freud thereby denies that the demons summoned in the intense therapeutic conversations may not necessarily be the patient’s, they may just as well be the analyst’s6. Or, given that both may be members of the same social class, the forces being channelled may actually haunt everyone in their surroundings (as engaged analysts such as R.D. Laing later so clearly pointed out). Reading Dora’s story, it appears that, if anything, this would most likely have been the case. Where was the sex? What if it had been everywhere? What if the whole bourgeois environment around her had been saturated with sexual promises and betrayals, charged with an atmosphere of sexual excitations, jealousies, rancour and regret? So, when sex becomes a vivid yet unverifiable presence, it may be because an elementary mode of its existence is the atmospherical. Under particular conditions, sex is in the air, regardless if this leads to acts or not. Yet, what also tends to be in the air with the sex, vividly yet unverifiably so, is all that which is equally at stake in this environment: the power, money and knowledge to be gained; the retributions and cruelties to be suffered. So if the cloud bursts, on whom is the rain going to come down? Who is to be taken to the stake for whatever everyone has on their minds? Dora. The witches. Who’s next? Who gets to decide?
Is it even a matter of decision? Much rather, it seems to be about the capacity to channel and direct – or deflect and disperse – whatever charge may be in the air. What for? One aim is to create an air of authority around oneself. It’s what the inquisition did, and Freud, to some extent, tried too. They conjured up a portent atmosphere by appealing to people’s imagination to speculate about sex, power and knowledge. Then they electrified these clouds of speculative thought by polarising its terms of sin and salvation (aka illness and therapy). So the judges and analysts emerge as the weather gods from the storm they cooked up themselves, equipped with the right to designate those on whom lightning shall hit. Control over the conjuration and polarization of atmospheres can thus give those who wield it an aura of legitimacy when they solicit or coerce what they want from others. When authority becomes atmospherical and auratic, in other words, vivid yet unverifiable, it is hard to challenge because it surrounds someone like a shield and permeates space in such a pervasive manner that it can’t be pinned down and confronted in any one aspect. Atmospherical authority is limitless and this is why it triumphs in random displays of its potential to solicit, coerce, judge, reward, punish etc. Any woman in the village could be accused of being a witch simply on the grounds of there being speculations about it. Dora gets designated as the key agent in a web of sexual intrigue because she may initially have been the one with the least amount of conscious agency in it. It doesn’t make any sense; and this is precisely the point. For, were it to make sense, it could be confronted. In its absurdity it can’t.
Yet, since auratic authority relies on atmospherical forces that remain as fickle as the weather, its claim to power needs to be reasserted, performatively, time and again. Its foundations are as instable as they are intangible. Atmospheric authority must feed people’s imagination with news on the storm it cooks up. It needs evidence of danger. It needs a spectacle and so it seeks out potent opponents. Many of those accused of witchcraft were midwives and healers, so they knew about the weather and the way people lived and died in the village. In putting them on trial, power could measure itself against an indigenous, socially embedded, and hence truly measureless knowledge of sex, health and death. Along these lines, Foucault argues in Discipline and Punish7, feudal power put itself to the test by turning public executions into a theatrical spectacle in which the culprit was presented as a intimate offender of, and hence direct contender to, the divine authority embodied by the powers that be. By crushing the contender in a display of measureless force, authority would be reinstated. Yet, by recognizing the other as its direct contender, it would also put itself at risk. Because the pendulum of public opinion could swing in an instant. If the way the culprit performed on the scaffold let him or her emerge as the truly auratic figure from this stand-off, he or she could repolarize the atmosphere, and de-auraticise, delegitimize and disempower the putative authorities. C.T. Dreyer imagines such a reversal of power in his silent movieThe Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Burning at the stake, Joan (Renee Falconetti) so moves the people, in her infinite despair, that an insurgency erupts that, equally, knows no measure.
Foucault himself maintains that, with the birth of a modern system of disciplinary governance – and the installation of a tight institutional grid of schools, hospitals, prisons, factories and military compounds – power ceased to rely on fickle atmospherical forces for summoning its authority. No doubt this grid of structural power is still in place; and so are the protocols of internalised self-control and self-surveillance that may have come to complement those structures in postwar consumer societies. Still, the wave of deregulation and de-institutionalization that has swept across societies, in terms of neoliberal ‘reforms’, may arguably have left us in a culture resembling that of the middle ages in more than one aspect. Power is more atmospherical than ever. Money is subject to speculation. Data come in clouds, and sex is always somehow in the air. In Italy, sexy TV brought media-man Silvio Berlusconi to power, as he channeled the people’s joy of cheating (on taxes and wives) into the aura of a mesmerizing “Why not?”. But what made public opinion turn was not fraud. He fell from grace not as a tax-, but a sex-offender. Meanwhile, the case of Pussy Riot became a witch trial of the first order as the Neo-Tzarist ruler of Russia bolstered his auratic authority by repolarizing the forces of sex and religion in his favour. Today’s aura wars are fought in the media – but not only. The sexing up of one’s performance may be required at any point; in today’s competitive work culture, the inquisition enters unexpectedly. Any casual conversation, held in a professional context, may suddenly turn into a performance evaluation, an interview for the next freelance gig or ride on the job carousel. The ability to bust a cloud on cue, and render one’s intangible potentials tangible in such situations is a matter of controlling atmospheres. Sex, power, money, knowledge, art and culture are accumulated in one and the same cloud of performance potentiality hovering over us, and the ability to pierce it readily enough often decides career success.
It’s not as if today there were fewer norms and standards. On the contrary, when the inquisition can waltz in anywhere, anytime, the protocols of how to sell oneself as desirable multiply. This heightens not only the pressure to perform but equally the fear of getting it wrong, of failing. When such demands become atmospherical, they may shift slightly or change entirely depending on how the ‘weather’ in a given situation pans out. Then who is to say that you even understood what’s expected of you when you launched into your performance (be it sexual, social, professional, artistic etc.)? This anxiety, of failing to comprehend what and how you need to perform in front of the (visible or invisible) jury in any given situation or environment comes to form a strong motor of paranoia and panicky overacting: “Everyone who's anyone around here, it seems, is in the know about how to kiss the goat under the tail. How come I’m the only one who isn’t?” The cruel incomprehensibility of multiple norms for performing can thus push the pressure through the roof. The more atmospherical the demands, the more wilful the juries’ verdicts appear, the more volatile the forces unleashed by the fear of being tried become; so the urge to perform turns desperate. If the inquisition could potentially ask for whatever, whatever is precisely what you prepare yourself to perform: “What do I need to do to pass the test and get in the game? Write a 300 page PhD? Blow someone? Take someone down? Get up earlier? Go home later? Whatever. I’ll do it. If it turns out that that was what was wanted, it’s not like I wasn’t ready to do it all”.
Atmospherical social pressure creates hysterical performances. On the one hand, this means that the ways in which we may seek to fulfil erratic expectations might get brutally desperate, mentally and physically so. On the other hand, the very volatility of such a regime of high’n’hysterical performance implies that no one apparatus can fully contain what is in the air, neither in terms of coherent ideological interpretations nor by means of direct social control. For better and worse, high’n’hysterical performance cultures are ruled by moods. And moods are prone to swings, which can result in cultural throwbacks of the unimaginably worst kind. Yet, given how fickle the foundations of atmospheric power are, there must be ways to win the aura wars. Atmospheres can be altered, auratic rulers be tumbled, and with some good tricks to bust clouds it should be possible to make it rain men and women in yet unknown shapes and guises. A key question is how to pick your battles. If there is no one apparatus to contain the power of atmosphere, neither is there one privileged site in which storms are best drummed up. With news from the scaffolds getting ever more gruesome, it would seem that the media become the arena in which erratic aura wars are to be fought out. At the same time, it’s getting more unclear by the day what ‘media’ even means, when everybody messes around with digital technologies and any body can turn into a medium for diverse atmospheric forces when performing in different social settings. Contesting the protocols for the charismatic embodiment of power, sex, money, art, knowledge etc., onstage may be crucial. But the zillion mood wars to be fought on close range backstage – in the many hardly visible locales where atmospheres are created, sustained or altered – might in the long run be even more decisive. In any case, or any place, the question of how the burden of proof is transferred onto us or others to coerce or elicit a performance of the real (sex, power, art etc.) is key. As may be the question of how to counteract coercive dynamics by conducting exorcisms in the form of mutual transference therapy, or, for that matter, any type of cloudbusting in which what bugs and excites us may be called by its names, with neither judges nor juries present.
- 1. Sigmund Freud, A Case of Hysteria (Dora). Oxford: University Press, 2013.
- 2. Catherine Clément, “Sorceress and Hysteric”. In: Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clement (eds.), The Newly Born Woman. Minneapolis and London: Universtiy of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 3 – 39.
- 3. See: Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004.
- 4. In her presentation at the conference Fire from the North (organized by Amelia Beavis-Harrison at the Kunsthøgskolen in Oslo on the 24th October 2014), Norwegian scholar Liv Helene Willumsen insisted that mere circumstance of a woman randomly becoming subject to speculation and gossip sufficed to justify her being tried for witchcraft during the height of witchhunts in northern Norway and Scotland in the 17th century.
- 5. See: Freud, op. cit., p. 99 f.
- 6. Freud concedes that there may be cases when the feelings transferred upon the analyst by the patient trigger feelings in the former. If the analyst should act upon these feelings and respond emotionally to the patient, this is understood as a moment of counter-transference. Not only does Freud condemn such emotional responses as unprofessional, he maintains that it is only ever a reaction to an original transaction, and not a primary contribution to the exchange that would co-determine what – and how – psychic realities are summoned to present themselves.
- 7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1995, p. 3 – 72.