Anna Camaiti Hostert
In a recent interview, the English director Peter Greenaway declares that cinema is at its most successful when it acknowledges its own artificiality. "It seems to me...that cinema is least successful when it pretends to be about the real, when it pretends to offer a slice of life, when it pretends to offer a frame around a window on the world. When it totally tries to persuade you that it is not cinema.... Why not admit that falsification? ...In my movies there is always, I think, a great sense of the presence of a conscious organizing principle. Steadily applied and very visible structures which, if they do not dominate, then work very closely with a narrative. However, every film also suggests that the organizing principle involved is only a device, a construct."
It is essential for this artist to show the artificial component of cinema. His "cinema of ideas," as he defines his work, includes the idea of cinema itself which becomes self reference, artifice, a rhetoric of representation. Greenaway uses "the realities of the medium," writes Alan Woods, "to ridicule and denounce all 'realisms' which depend upon a pretense that media can be transparent." The artificiality of cinema frees this medium from the slavery of mimetic association with other forms of art, particularly with literature. The relationship between text and image is a disquieting and constant problem for the director. Cinema is not yet able to find a synthesis between the two things and it is still struggling to come out with its own narrative. Greenaway tries to deny the text even though his desire of telling stories visually, of using a form of narrative is a constant leit motiv of his movies. But for the director, cinema must be a self sufficient and autonomous art. The viewer must be self conscious of viewing. He must not be allowed to fall into the trap of any form of identification with the character or the action on the screen. Nature is not part of the picture unless "art first holds a mirror up to art." In his movies bodies as well as words are fleshy, physical, but they are also emblems, ciphers. At the same time they are objects and images, ideas, and things to be seen.
This pervasive "thingishness" is exactly what interests Mario Perniola in the preface to Enigmas: The Egyptian Moment in Society and Art (Verso 1995), where he also announces his next book, Il sex appeal dell'inorganico (The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic). "We are witnessing a strange inversion," Perniola writes. "Humans are becoming more similar to things and equally, the inorganic world, thanks to electronic technology, seems to be taking over the human role in the perception of events... In the future, as in the past, what excites and troubles us is the experience of reification, of becoming a thing, of a condition that lacks both spirituality and life, ignorant of the vehemence of the former and the organic basis of the latter." It is not surprising that both Perniola and Greenaway are fascinated by Baroque art, for both of these intellectuals are fascinated with languages and images, and with works of art that take on the character of a thing. Using Perniola's expression we could say that both chose to work in an enigmatic way where the past and the future both collapse "into an ambiguous, supremely problematic present" and where verbal language and its flesh and blood, the words, become things. The fascination of Greenaway with the Japanese language where text and image are synonymous (in his last movie, The Pillow Book) and Perniola's interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs in Enigmas express the enigmatic "thingishness" of any work of art as well of the essence of reality.
The main thesis of Il sex appeal dell'inorganico is that the dimension of things and that of human feelings must melt into one, allowing two opposite fields of human activity (such as philosophy and sexuality) to join together. We have to become things who feel in order to understand culturally and artistically the enigmatic present which stands in front of us. This is the challenge of contemporary society. This is the enigma that constitutes the foundation of this little but intense and quite original book by Mario Perniola.
The book opens by explaining to us how radical and extreme is the experience of passing from the human to the neutral way of feeling that is needed in order to become a thing who feels. "The alliance between senses and things," writes Perniola, "allows us the access to a neutral sexuality that implies a suspension of feeling: this is not the annulment of sensibility that involves a lack of any kind of tensions, but it marks the entrance into a displaced, decentralized experience that is freed from the goal to reach an end. To perceive ourselves as things who feel means freeing ourselves from an instrumental conception of sexual arousal based on the achievement of an orgasm." The growing sexual excitement of intercourse is, as Perniola describes it, similar to the action of slowly climbing a mountain in order to fall very fast into a crevice after having reached the highest peak of pleasure. To use an extreme metaphor, which is nonetheless appropriate to the matter about which we are talking, sex is like rushing to live in order to die. Reaching the condition of a thing instead is to enter into the serene and neutral state of an endless and aimless dimension.
The passage from the realm of passions and participation to that of the abstract, neutral detachment that belongs to things frees sexuality from nature and consigns it to artifice. It opens a world in which differences between sexes, looks, canons of beauty, ages, and race loses importance. It is the entrance into the universe of the inorganic which derives its sex appeal from the extraordinary experience of combining two opposite dimensions: the human sensibility and that of being things. The passion of sexuality is combined with the detachment of philosophy so that it is impossible to distinguish one from another. "From the union between the speculative extremism of philosophy and the invincible power of sexuality arises something extraordinary in which our age acknowledges itself: following Walter Benjamin, we could call this phenomenon the sex appeal of the inorganic." The idea of a thing who feels trespasses the borders of a defined world and introduces us to the experience of transit where there are no fixed points and where physical limits are to be overcome. The encounter of philosophy and sexuality determines a human feeling freed from the slavery of the male vertical orgasm. The artifice that allows the sharpening of a horizontal sensibilit, apparently seems more similar to the female orgasm. But the extinguishing of vitality, pleasure, and happiness required by this thingish metamorphosis, and the reduction of human feeling to a "needle" or a "sword" always available and able to register the smallest impulse or contact eliminates from the picture of sexuality any experience of orgasm and pleasure.
The body that experiences neutral sexuality is not a machine though. It becomes more like a dress, a fleshy thing. All the intense nuances of this new state are perceived by the numerous conjunctions and sutures on the exterior of the body. They are extremely receptive surfaces sensitized to the maximum level. Giving ourselves as things who feel means that the fabrics we have become is so interwoven with that of our partner that the sense of taking and giving loses its meaning. A kind of strange, new dress appears and it does not belong to anyone. The body is taken away from any life-death threat that the flowing of time imposes on it and it acquires the serenity and simplicity of the inorganic world which still feels and is taken by an "endless wondering."
The philosopher's task therefore is to proclaim the greatness and the dignity of this lifeless, orgasmless sexuality that is not the triumph of a blindfolded technology. On the one hand philosophy gains a power that it never had before because in the past it was associated rather with the inhibition of sexuality and desire. On the other hand an orgasmless sexuality allows the body to become not an object of the partner's pleasure, but rather a subject of the impersonal, insatiable, and speculative excitement of philosophy. Bringing everything to the surface, becoming a fleshy dress is not a passive action that is imposed on us. It is instead a desire of living within an intellectual nomadic horizon which is subjectless. It is a point of excess at which philosophy and sexuality agree to meet because they can nurture each other. Philosophy needs a real (from the Latin word res, thing) dimension and sexuality needs to pursue the "the extreme consequences" that belong to philosophical thought. Also, until now they both resisted the inorganic world because philosophy and sexuality were represented, respectively, as the essence of subjectivity and the height of living passions. But this new dimension is very subversive for both of them. "In the experience of becoming a dress it is possible to find the speculative suspension of libido and the sex appeal of philosophy." The keen subjectivity disappears and a new entity comes to life.
The virtual sexuality of Perniola's philosophical cyborg is based on the possibility of feeling the body as a thing always available in its artificiality whose access is guarantied by philosophy. This discipline creates, in fact, the conditions of the constant excitement present in a performance. But how can philosophy be so powerful and effective an aphrodisiac? It is exactly through the excitement connected to the experience of giving ourselves limitlessly that it offers the conditions of becoming a thing who feels. Except for the tactile capability of feeling not of acting all senses are deprived of any stimulation and of any possibility of functioning. It is a sensorial and simulated deprivation that creates a surplus of excitement, due to the enhancement of one of the senses and the compression of the others. The goal of the performance of a thing who feels therefore is overcoming the "incarnated spirit, that is the living body." The performance has to do with the disadvantage of simulating a physical or intellectual deficiency. It has to do with some kind of perversion because it obtains satisfaction from inadequate stimulation (the stimulation that comes from numbers, concepts, sounds or words that are considered basically useful or artistically enjoyable, but boring). "Certainly it is strange that philosophy and arts are no longer organic parts of contemporary society . They are no longer a necessary element of self-representation of society to the point that they are a handicap or a disadvantage. But this is exactly the reason why we should get rid of the spiritualistic metaphors that made us consider society as a living organism. Our society became inorganic to the point that it is more comprehensible through the perverse effects of performances than through the actions of programming and planning subjects. The sexualization of philosophy and of arts is probably a perverse effect, an unexpected and undesirable consequence provoked by the political irrelevancy of those activities"
In sexualizing philosophy and desexualizing pleasure Perniola transforms the sex-appeal of the inorganic into something that overcomes mere factuality. Pleasure is the exact opposite of the thing who feels and, consequently, also of the sex appeal of the inorganic. It is not pain that comes into the picture but rather a performance. "This way," writes Perniola, "not only sounds, objects and words, but also actions free themselves from the relationship with the spirit and life and they become things who feel and who are felt." If it is true that pain is not relevant it is also true, as Perniola once told me, that his theory is the product of a painful awareness. The performance of a thing who feels overcomes the limits of the flesh. Desire cannot be understood as becoming-other than the self because that implies at the end some return to the self. Only in abandoning flesh and in becoming an undifferentiated matter with that of our partner are we, then, things who feel. We lose track of what is my arm and your arm, your lips and my lips. This new state sets in motion a wild proliferation of erotic zones and modes of intensity across the surfaces of the flesh and at the same time brings about a tendency to a form of communion. In doing that, we trespass on the borders of what we call the living body. Desire belongs to the past. The flesh of our body in fact deteriorates while a neutral sexuality guaranties duration. Such a physical entity is not desirable and does not desire. "It is always excited and it is nurtured continuously by the thought of giving itself as a thing who feels."
This sexual state places philosophy in the field of the inorganic because we arrive not through a step forward from normality but through a step backwards from it. Either to have a handicap, i.e. to be disadvantaged as well as to practice philosophy or both of them, then becomes the only condition for entering in this realm. Being aroused by feelings that are considered inadequate or perverted like the ones provoked by numbers, spaces or objects makes us become things. There is a very funny essay written by Kathy Acker, "Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body," in which the writer, talking about her daily practice of body building that forces her to express herself through visual and linguistically simplified terms reduced to repetitive numbers of exercises, says that it is precisely in such defective communication that the beauty and the sex-appeal of this athletic discipline reside.
Through the denial of gestures or actions that may imprison the soul and the body within a fixed and heavy identity, we are able to set in motion the fluid identity of the thing who feels. The body becomes a dress, an inorganic fabric, a place where sexuality reigns over time because it is always available. A tactile feeling prevails. The skin is like a fabric that wraps tightly around the pulp of the body and with its orifices and its pockets it circumscribes the bodily borders, making us keenly aware of the relations between the internal and external perceptions, between us and others.
Skin nowadays appears more and more exposed, not simply naked, but inscribed with signs: tattooed, pierced, painted, carved, and wired with the goal of making durable something that is only temporary: the body. Skin therefore becomes an object of communicative fleeting signals that do not themselves aspire to become eternal because they will perish with the flesh, but rather to show the extreme precariousness and, at the same time, the constructedness of the body.
According to Perniola, we must abandon the plenitude and the harmony of the self-reflexive and self-sufficient idealistic and romantic movement of thought, according to which individuals are fixed and satisfied entities who are pleased within their limits and their belongings and who are not subjected to any possible transformation. To them Perniola opposes the emptiness that animates the thing who feels. The sex appeal of the inorganic is the product of a porous way of thinking which does not anchor itself within methodological and safe limits. It becomes something more complex than the organic body of knowledge that traditionally belonged to only one discipline. The borders among disciplines do not exist any longer: architecture, literature, music, social theory, history of ideas, sexology and philosophy meet each other and interact entering each other's realm.
The experience of the thing who feels brings about the idea of transit, the trespassing of one thing into another, of one field of knowledge into another without ever defining the borders between internal and external limits. The task of philosophy is to expand and disseminate a form of experience where the differences between bodies and disciplines do not exist anymore and where the outward appearance becomes "surface, skin, fabric."
Far from a naturalistic vision of the body is also Donna Haraway's cyborg, a cybernetic organism partly organic and partly machine which overcomes the dichotomy between nature and culture implicit in the dualism sex/gender, rendering gender a process of social and biomedical technologies and transforming the body into the "most engaging being," into something to be constructed. The cyborg is a creature of reality as well as of fiction. This machine-human metaphor called cyborg represents an irreversible crisis of the matrices which shape identities. It moves toward a body's post-human representation and a form of hybridization with the machine. The body passes from being considered an "object of biological discourse" to that of "agent" without a fixed identity. Its organic dimension is transformed into a material and semiotic "actor," an active object of knowledge whose borders, freed by the organic constrictions, are assembled and disassembled continuously, materializing themselves in communicative relationships that are drawn and redrawn incessantly by the social practice.
For Perniola Haraway's vision is too close to a "human normality" which is only modified by the performances of a machinery artifice. He wants instead a transformation of the nature of feeling in the direction of what he calls "simulated sensorial deprivation." He desexualizes pleasure, eliminates the orgasm, overcomes carnality and makes us become ultimately, through the help of philosophy, something different from a human being: a thing. The beauty of making the performance an element able to manipulate reality and our human inheritance brings about the astonishing conclusion that the body, as for Haraway, is an entity which can be constructed and construed. Unfortunately this position is counterbalanced by the fact that when we enter the realm of the inorganic we do that at the expenses of the body. In fact it becomes an empty container able to repeat infinitely its performances and to overcome its human limits erasing every difference between reality and its imitation. But it completely loses its physical attributes to the advantage of an immortality which is transferred to a discipline always intrigued by the cursed desire for a transcendent power: philosophy.
The idea of overcoming the physical body and the sexualization of philosophy as a "perverse" manifestation of a handicap (due to its inability to supply us with tools of social representation), fascinate me and scare me at the same time. If I personally like very much the cold provocation of Donna Haraway and Mario Perniola - the cyborg and the thing who feels - I fear them. It is not the fear of overcoming the borders of the biological and defined world that scares me. In fact I find these issues and their related goals essential to the new world and millennium in which we are entering. But I feel that the warmth set free by the processes of transformation in these new creatures is not flowing into their veins or through their pipes. They are cold and lifeless. I do not know if it is because I am a woman or simply my way of feeling, but I think that, in a process of entering the world of the inorganic, a warm and liquid fluidity is essential to this passage, a condition still related to human being or what remains of it. I call this process passing and I think that it is important when we enter in the realm of artifice and machinery to concentrate our attention on warm states of fluidity, because they allow us to cross the margins of the known world, to focus more on the transitional degree of mutation than in the final result. The weakening of barriers of languages, of fields of knowledge and of communication creates mutations which upset any stable assets and involves desiring energies wrapped up with liquid warmth more than with cold, lifeless and neutral fabrics.
Even though Perniola is more fond of Stoicism than of Epicureanism because it incarnates better the spirit of a thing who feels, I want to conclude with a disquieting question, which really bothers me and which comes from an Epicurean poet. In De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things), whose title already carries a reference to things, the most philosophical of the Latin poets, Lucretius, makes a comparison between things and humans and raises the question, afterwards forgotten by philosophers and remembered for us today by Perniola, of the relationship between the inorganic unfeeling world and the world inhabited by human beings.
Linquitur ut totis/ animantibus adsimulentur,
Vital(i) ut possint/ consentir(e) undique sensu:
Sic ibidem/ quae sentimus/ sentire necessest...
Scire licet gigni/ poss(e) ex non sensibu' sensus.
Lucretius writes: "The primordial elements are the same for all animated beings in order to make them participatory in a diffuse sensitivity shot through with vital feelings. But at the same time it is also necessary that the things we feel and perceive have their own capacity for feelings. It is possible therefore that this capacity for feelings is generated by unfeeling elements." And this brings me to my final question: Is our next step going to be the possibility that feeling beings will be generated by unfeeling things? And how will we deal with that?