Mel Y Chen: Who and what are considered to possess “language,” and the qualities afforded to it within that location, are factors that influence how identification, kinship, codes of morality, and rights are articulated, and how affection and rights themselves are distributed; and hence how affection and rights themselves such as disability, radicalised kinship, industrial agriculture, pet ownership, and “nature” itself are arbitrated.
I have only ever loved a series of ghosts. Or perhaps spectres would be a more accurate term: my lovers have not been the residual souls of departed persons, but instead phantasmic and immaterial ideas that I have created from the scraps and edges of a real person, then projected back onto them. My romantic relationships have often required a constant distance between us, in order that I could uphold the myth of the person, and not have it dispelled by their messy and contingent reality.
Epistolary relationships and chivalrous romance would be my ideal.
I am not proud of this, despite it appearing in a larger font. But I read Barthes, and he agreed. He said: The Image – as the example for the obsessive – is the thing itself. The lover is thus an artist; and his world is in fact a world reversed, since in it each image is its own end (nothing beyond the image).
I read Anne Carson, and she said:
A space must be maintained or desire ends.
When an individual appreciates that he alone is responsible for the content and coherence of his person, an influx like eros becomes a concrete personal threat.
I read Flaubert, who wrote of Madame Bovary that as she wrote she saw in her mind’s eye another man, a phantom composed of her most passionate memories, her most enjoyable books, and her strongest desires; at last he became so real and so tangible that she was thrilled and amazed, yet he was so hidden under the abundance of his virtues that she was unable to imagine him clearly.
From Sappho till today, the structure of desire in Western literature is patterned on lack, and insufficiency. A perpetual reaching outwards to the one thing that will make you happy, the one person that will make you happy, the one object or goal. It is quite convenient for late capitalism that desire is structured as such. As Elizabeth Grosz says, Now this notion of desire as an absence, a lack, or hole, an abyss seeking to be engulfed, stuffed to satisfaction, is not only uniquely useful in capitalist models of acquisition, property, and ownership (seeing the object of desire on the model of the consumable commodity), it inherently sexualises desire, coding it in terms of the prevailing characteristics attributed to the masculine/feminine opposition—presence and absence. Desire, like female sexuality itself, is insatiable, boundless, relentless, a gaping hole, which cannot be filled or can be filled only temporarily; it suffers an inherent dependence on its object(s), a fundamental incompletion without them. I would suggest that this model of desire is in fact coded as a sexual polarisation. Where desire is attributed a negative status, it is hardly surprising that It becomes coded in similar terms to those attributed to femininity.
But I don’t need to despair. In fact, turning to Elizabeth Grosz is a good move, for in her essay ‘Refiguring Lesbian Desire’, Grosz specifically seeks to define a form of desire based not on absence, but on presence. One based on contact between surfaces, not penetration. One based not on lack, but abundance. She asks
Can we think desire beyond the logic of lack and acquisition, a logic that has rendered women the repositories, the passive receptacles of men’s needs, anxieties and desires? Can desire be refigured in terms of surfaces and surface effects?
She suggests turning to Spinoza. I’ve never read Spinoza, and you know what, I probably never will, because I eschew the idea of the need to read a canon of dead white male European philosophers in order to participate in discourse because discourse can only ever be the mapping of constellations rather than being an orbiting body in a solar system and therefore contingent, not centripetal or centrifugal, so I will take her word for it. But anyway Spinoza, turning to him, to consider how desire can self-reproduce, how presence does not kill desire but instead creates more desire:
In contrast with the model in which desire is doomed to consumption, incorporation, dissatisfaction, destruction of the object, there is a tradition, we can date from Spinoza, in which desire is primarily seen as production rather than lack. It cannot be identified with an object whose attainment provides satisfaction, but with processes that produce. For Spinoza, unlike Freud, reality does not prohibit desire but is produced by it. Desire is the force of positive production, the action that creates things, makes alliances, and forges interactions.
She also goes on to describe the need to dispel the myth that sexuality is a sacrosanct and discrete space of genitality, and see it instead as contiguous with all forms of contact: a model or framework in which sexual relations are continuous with and a part of other relations—the relations of the writer to the pen and paper, the body-builder to weights, the bureaucrat to files. The bedroom is no more the privileged site of sexuality than any other space; sexuality and desire are part of the intensity and passion of life itself. If this feels like it is ringing bells, it is perhaps because this sounds somewhat like Audre Lorde, whose landmark essay ‘Uses of the Erotic’ contains the wonderful line There is a difference between painting a fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving in the sunlight against the body of a woman I love.
This desire feels truly horizontal and not based on a power dynamic. There is no seducer/seduced, active/passive partitioning of roles. Another thing that is fundamental is that it is a form of desire not based on visual perception, but one based on touch. Because seeing implies a distancing, and a viewer and an object. But when you touch you are also being touched. Maria Puig de la Bellacasa writes that touch expresses a sense of material-embodied relationally that seemingly eschews abstractions and detachments that have been associated with most dominant epistemologies of knowledge-as-vision. Touch becomes a metaphor of transformative knowledge at the same time as it intensifies awareness of the imports of speculative thinking. In other words, the haptic disrupts the prominence of vision as a metaphor for distant knowing as well the defiance of critique […]
I would like to practice this form of desire, and I would like to embody an eroticism that embraces the fully present, fully messy subjectivity of the other person. But I am more often trapped in the desire to desire this way, trapped by structures of wanting that themselves feel in contradiction with my own politics.
So this project is a series of texts which relate to the ambivalence surrounding the subjectivity and agency of the loved object. Sometimes, the romance is ugly, and I mean politically ugly, and really only wants the loved object to remain an object, or even an image of the object. In almost all of the texts, the loved object is other-than-human, whether animal, plant or object. This is not because I am unquestioningly continuing the legacy of the Christian Great Chain of Being, through Darwinian evolution, to the idea that humans are the highest form of being, and therefore the power relationships between a human and a dog (as in the text Philadelphia) must always be exploitative. I’m also not advocating animal abuse. But I want to explore the possibility of horizontal relationships between humans and other-than-humans. What happens, for example, when not only do you not speak the same language, but there is the very real possibility that the object of your infatuation has no desire to speak to you. Or no discernible language, within the narrow and inevitably anthropocentric idea of what language could be. How do you communicate with a mountain, or a blue plastic arm, or a field of grass, or the water in a bay. And is communication important, if you are talking about forming erotic connections beyond a phallocentric, penetrative model of sexuality? Is touch and contact enough?
A lot of the time in literary history, other-than-humans have figured as metaphors for sex acts or relationships. Alice A. Kuzniar wrote a great essay ‘On Queer Canine Literature’ which specifically explores how human-dog intimacy has historically been used as a metaphor for lesbianism. The morality attached to bestiality is not unintentional: Aquinas, in his list of unnatural vices, placed sodomy as a worse sin than sex with animals. But I am also thinking about metaphor as a demand for subordination.
In writing of the separation between the object of reality, and the image of the object held in the mind, Blanchot writes that After the object comes the image. “After” means that the thing must move away in order to allow itself to be grasped again. But that distancing is not the simple change of place of a moving object, which nevertheless remains the same. Here, distancing is at the heart of the thing. The thing was there, we grasped it in the living motion of a comprehensive action – and once it has become image it instantly becomes ungraspable, noncontemporary, not the same thing distanced, but that thing as distancing… This comes, in a big, self-ingesting circle, back to my first point, about my desire to maintain distance between myself and the loved object. I am always playing the seducer, chasing the seduced, yet never wanting to catch up with them, because what I am chasing, and what I desire, is the image of them. Similarly, if I use a dog, or a pebble, or cheese, as a metaphor, I am restricting its agency to the aspects which serve as convenient linguistic devices. But is it ever possible to allow for the space of agency when you write about another being, or will they always be reduced to the caricature of a plot device. What is the relationship between seeing, the reduction of the perceived to an image, and the transcription of an image onto the page. Is it possible not to transcribe the image, but to transcribe the original object, to allow it space to change, to be living.
There are too many questions, and I don’t think I have answers, but if I did then I would probably not make work, so you know what I can live with that. But there are two lines of thought which spiral off from this. The first goes back to my initial research around this project, before I even knew that this would turn into a larger project and not just one text about falling in love with a bathroom mirror. This research was largely around theories of vision, the gaze, seeing and the haptic. Blanchot proposes that there is a form of vision which allows for meeting and closure. Seeing implies distance, the decision that causes separation, the power not to be in contact and to avoid the confusion of contact. Seeing means that this separation has nevertheless become an encounter. But what happens when what you see, even though from a distance, seems to touch you with a grasping contact, when the manner of seeing is a sort of touch, when seeing is contact at a distance? This is the haptic visuality of Laura U Marks, and it is also, more poetically, in line with ancient theories of vision as a tactile experience. I am particularly enamoured with Lucretius idea of intromission, in which films are perpetually exuded by all objects, and these films penetrate the eyeball. Or Hipparchus, who believed that rays extended from the eyes, like tiny hands, and caressed objects before retracting into the body again. Looking is another way of touching, stroking, caressing. It’s all very sexy.
The other thing is, at the very beginnings of 2017 it was widely reported that there had been the first recorded incidence of mutually consensual transspecies sexuality between a Japanese snow monkey and a pika deer. It is more noticeable perhaps because it has taken so long for this to be observed, and acknowledged as such. Science tends to overlook incidences where animal species exhibit eroticism outside of the parameters of reproduction and/or species propagation. Darwinian legacy and the Great Chain of Being have contributed to a widespread idea that almost all animals exhibit no agency from base instinctive drives, and there is lots of other stuff that comes in here about theories of consciousness and intentionality. But Myra J. Hird says two things really interesting:
Homosexual behaviour occurs in over 450 different species of animals, is found in every geographic region of the world, in every major animal group, in all age groups, and with equal frequency amongst females and males.
The reasons for Aquinas’ unnatural vices was overwhelmingly that any form of eroticism outside of reproduction (inside a marriage) was sinful. So of course, in beginning a paragraph with a statement about bestiality and then ending on a quote about incidences of queerness in other than human animals, I am not trying to flatten bestiality into homosexuality and perform a similar structural violence that the christian church has perpetuated since I don’t know forever. The point is that these forms of eroticism operate outside of instinctive drive, and this incidence of interspecies sex problematises this, because they are both clearly quite happy with this, and it is not a case of mistaken identity or dominance or violence. I am not saying, it is definitely possible to have consensual sex with a dog. I don’t know. The whole structure of pet ownership itself is based entirely on a power dynamic. That is not a damning critique of having a pet, but rather it is important to highlight that this relationship has a power structure, with the resultant possibility for exploitation, and as such an attached ethics. But I am thinking a lot about the possibility for true, genuine intimacy, with non human others, whether that’s rocks or dogs or plastic arms or bodies of water (and we are all just lumps of matter, in the end). So I am going to end somewhat nicely on the quote which influenced the title of this project, from Maria Puig de la Bellacasa again:
Interspecies love brings additional layers to a concept of more than human modes of care. Care is required in processes in which humans and nonhumans co-train each other to live, work, and play together to construct a relationship of “significant otherness.”