Gil Lawson

Regarding Screwing


ISSUE 34 | BAIT AND SWITCH | NOV 2013

What Are Not

What does being offered offer us? Pardon—what do the things that we want want us for? What will you do with me? I know why I want, as you do why you do. (Do want. Absolutely.) It’s what Gass correctly calls “our need for some security in this damn disagreeable/dull dark difficult/disorderly life” when speaking of Molloy’s perfectly human want. It’s for that want that he shifts his stones from pocket to pocket. We live with each of our limbs as an instance of the poem in praxis. Any attempt to arrest the machine for long enough to look it in the eyes like rocking a boat from atop the gunwale, or wielding a sword that consists only of the blade. Our wanting provides us with a grip, a pommel, and a guard, as does what we (a little smugly) call our interests, preferences, or desires, so as to indicate different things we think about ourselves. As Nicholson Baker notes, “There is no good word for stomach; just as there is no good word for girlfriend. Stomach is to girlfriend as belly is to lover, and as abdomen is to consort, and as middle is to petite amie.” It is possible to revolve around the matter of which tone suits our self-conception endlessly. It is even possible to change our mind; we can do whatever as much as we like.

Baker is also the man who devoted an entire book to the relentless, cheerful cataloguing of his own wants, a leaf rubbing lifted from the contours of a life spent in and among objects. He grasps his sword by removing it from time, and winds up suspended on an escalator for upwards of a hundred pages:

At the time I was riding the escalator to the mezzanine every day I didn’t own a car, but later, when I did, I realized that escatalorial happiness is not too far removed from the standard pleasure that the highway commuter feels driving his warm, quiet box between pulsing intermittencies of white road paint at a steady speed.

Is it possible to avoid being baited, seduced, tempted by the rhythm of the road, the rhythm of these sorts of sentences? They are bald, portly, and erotic. Is it enough to say, though, that such-and-such a thing gives us happiness of the same frequency as such-and-such other thing? What of a point significantly later in the same book, where Baker blitzes:

Hobbes, too, we learn in a Penguin selection of John Aubrey’s Lives, page 228, liked during college (“rook racked” Oxford) to get up early in the morning and trap jackdaws with sticky string, using cheese as bait, hauling them in, fluttering and wrapped in the feather-destroying snare, apparently for fun. Jesus H. Christ! As our knowledge of these philosophers is brought within this domestic and anecdotal embrace, we can’t help having your estimation of them somewhat diminished by these cruel, small pursuits. And Wittgenstein as well, I read in some biography, loved to watch cowboy movies: he would go every afternoon to watch gunfights and arrows through the chest for hours at a time. Can you take seriously a person’s theory of language when you know that he was delighted by the woodenness and tedium of cowboy movies? Once in a while, fine—but every day?

It’s another angle on that afterworld of the anecdotal that the author David Markson wanders in his books, where the sheer preponderance of restless, palely fascinating little facts about Descartes, Deleuze, Defoe, reveal—not produce—the inherent paraeschatological loneliness of attempting to transmute our wants into a program of self-identity inference. What you let eat you is not trying to lead you to how to be, except insofar as you continue being something being eaten. No tool can sustain prolonged use without beginning to cause damage; any inward-turning to ‘get to the bottom of things’ quickly devolves into scrawling Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin on the cell walls, practicing a variety of different hues and handwritings.

So, the hell with it. But before we fall fully into the wonderful subject of being pulled, in which we will evaluate the structure of desire as though we don’t exist, we have to dredge up one more passage of Gass’s:

“Fuck you,” I mutter to the backside of a traffic cop. Fuck-yous are in fact the principal term of macho exchange. Since I do not want to fuck the cop I must want someone else to, and since that ubiquitous “you” is almost certainly another male (as it is in this instance), I can only desire your sodomization. [...] These aggressive wishes, expressed so fervently and often and in practiced ignorance of their meaning, reveal the depth of the desire for buggery among our bravos and our braves. [...] So “fuckyous” are welded and spelled rather than stitched or freely created. They say “fuck you,” but they mean, “may you suffer a sex change.” They imply defiance, and reveal a desire for power. Furthermore, in the Freudian sense, they disguise certain sodomous inclinations. Fucked-up situations fuck us up.

And yet even getting fucked up can be genuine, tender, and mutually gratifying. After all, the problem of getting fucked, getting laid, making love, having sex is not whatsoever like the belly, abdomen issue: They’re all fine. Any lines in the sand about that kind of terminology speak to either (A) private no-fly zones or (B) the kind of belief in ‘sexual openness’ which belies a secret hysterical terror regarding the reality of being with someone else. Whatever you call it, getting fucked is still fucking, and being in a fucked-up situation is a remarkably intimate thing. It’s one of very few such intimate things that can happen outside of conversation; one of very few in which an autochthonous relationship can arise in the space between two people.

What Would Be

There are three primary types in the category of disastrous movement provoked by personal desire. In the space between the triangle is something that is difficult to explain, but that Sky Ferreira and Charli XCX understand. Young women, good voices, their music videos. I love them.

The three types are temptation, seduction, and the bait&switch. For the sake of explication, let’s assume that there is something ten steps away that you want, which has a value of ten to you. You would be willing to take one step for something with a value of one; you would be willing to take two steps for something with a value of two.

In temptation, you traverse the ten steps. The thing is eleven steps away and is worth eleven. You traverse the eleven steps. The thing is twelve steps away and is worth twelve. You traverse the twelve steps. The thing is thirteen steps away and is worth thirteen. You traverse the thirteen steps. You love the thing. Look at how far you have gone—would you have gone this far if you did not love it? “No,” you answer. Although, Bill Callahan sings, “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone/You can always turn around.” It’s possible to come back from temptation. It just requires a violent break in your system of valuation, and an understanding of how sunk cost should or should not inform one’s decisions about when to opt out.

In seduction, you traverse the ten steps. It was easier than you expected, but you attribute this to your own ability. The thing turns out to have a value of a thousand. You are consumed by your wanting and having and wanting. You LOVE the thing. There is nothing left of you. It is not possible to come back from successful seduction. It is possible to interrupt a seduction before it is successful, if you see that things are progressing a little too easily or a little too familiarly. It’s necessary to stop before you realize something could be that good.

In bait&switch, you traverse the ten steps. The thing which has a value of ten turns out to be different. It now has a value of either a negative number (if it is revealed to be harmful to you, or if it is revealed to be harmful to the thing you wanted) or zero (if it is revealed to not exist or to not be obtainable). In addition, a different thing is obtained, activated, etc., by virtue of your having traversed the ten steps. Whatever force was responsible for the existence of the initial value-ten thing is responsible for the installation of the new thing. The new thing’s value is any number. You are left entirely yourself, which is heartbreaking. You are nostalgic for a time that did not exist (viz. when you were on your way to obtaining something that you wanted).

Is it possible to understand this triumvirate united into a single organism? “Yes,” but we have to lapse into something resembling Don Quixote’s sleep when he was down in the Cave of Montesinos, where time telescoped, nothing happened, but the things that did not happen were borne back up with Don Quixote and dangled over the remainder of the novel, as Gass’s epithets are hanging over us now. The end of Mouchette, when the footage skips or reverses as though trying to bring the poor girl back. The second half of Roth’s Ghost Writer, the narrator displeased with the perfectly-depicted reality of his writer-idol’s actual life, a sensationalist fantasy about Anne Frank surviving the war. In The Passion Artist, our man is trying to sleep in a stable, but is constantly interrupted by women grinding their bodies against his. Il Deserto Rosso: Monica Vitti describing the seashore to her son, the scene rendered in day-glo ekstasis. Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: The quiet, unappreciated moment when Hayy finds fog in the freshly-dead deer’s heart. The Verificationist: Dearly demanding to make love to that girl on a gravesite somewhere far away from the pancake house. Hausu: The watermelon man’s asking after Mr. Togo’s favorite fruit, the answer, the results. The Melancholy of Resistance: Mrs. Eszter’s will to rule, given the circumstances. Speaking of which, James Ensor’s The Skeleton Painter: The skull’s obsessive gaze, directed toward the busy disorganized body. Speaking of which, Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow, the animals, in particular, the dog or dog-like animals—but what are the symbols in the side of that? And above it, the one with the curlicue tail, its head half-hidden behind a tree? Speaking of which, Solaris: Hari’s death and subsequent resuscitation, in the hallway outside every room.

What I’m getting at here is a distance between two things that cannot be reconciled, because the only light in which that distance actually exists is small and trivial. The distance between Hayy and the heart; the distance between Kris Kelvin and Hari’s forehead; the distance between one book and another; the distance between the chair and the computer. Emulatio between two submolecules, the lacuna between them so insignificant that even convenientia seems like an unnecessary stylization of a basic truth. There’s nothing to traverse. You can reach out and touch it, if you’d like to smudge the screen.

What Is Somewhere

Baudrillard writes, “Hearing has more to do with the sexual, and deafness with sexual impotence, whereas sight and the gaze have to do with seduction.” He’s right on the second point, wrong on the first. Sight is, indeed, pre-sexual: It provokes want, exacerbates desire, emphasizes distance, need, not-having. It only emphasizes distance from—if one attempts to use vision to emphasize closeness, the image disintegrates into an impression of color. This is why, during sex itself, the eye’s function changes to communicate (presence, ability, incomprehension, intent) rather than to receive. Hearing, on the other hand, is post-sexual. Although direction and volume are variable, it’s incapable of communicating sound at a significant distance as anything other than binary noise. A familiar voice, modulated by spatial remove, is more likely to produce curiosity or concern (“Who is that?” “Why are they yelling?”) than either the alien longing of the pre-sexual or the bodily blur of the sexual. Besides, the act of hearing during sex is relegated to being either secondarily sexual or anti-sexual, subsumed by or at odds with the main action of the event itself.

But what’s interesting about Lorde popping an anhedonized Larry Clark aesthetic on my computer screen is that it co-opts the mechanics of sexual possession without using sexual attraction as its grist. I don’t think we, as a tribe, have a precise term for what the resulting feeling is, although the intention behind ‘friend crush’ is somewhere near the right plane. However, ‘friend crush’ is misguidedly utilitarian. It markets itself as a folk term with its casual noun-noun construction, and attempts to abdicate the speaker of any sexual desire through presenting itself as a ‘crush.’ (‘Crush’ is, itself, another spectacularly-informed term of sexual neurosis, which derives its currency from the persistent untruth that ‘pure love’, love-as-goal, is only sexual as an afterthought, as though bodies panting among bodies were only ever born from fine conversation. ‘Crush’ indicates either sexual terror—in its implicit inability to admit that one’s sexual attraction possesses enough être-en-soi to register to even the bearer of the attraction as an attraction—or a bourgeois narrativization of the codified steps to ‘true love,’ as though we could all achieve the blessed penitence of the anonymous alcoholics.) What it really is is a theatre of the bait&switch: The pursuer claims to have been baited by his good intentions, only to find them miraculously exchanged for his own surprising sexual desire. “Look,” he shrugs, hanging out of his fly. “I’m just trying to play it as it lays. I’m the same as you.”

‘Our’ music videos are not the seductive bricolage of Madonna’s Like A Virgin, in which various timelines are kaleidoscopically recombined to pit conflicting textures against each other—the demure virgin, the irreverent (but nevertheless monogamous) party girl, the jaded cosmopole, the lion. The “cavalcade of pre-sexual/pre-possessed personalities” trope pretty much ran the pop-ingénue image machine for decades, complete with firm asymptotes at the shoulders, the waist, etc., against which the blouse-rending singer continually frustrates herself. Nor are they the mono-chronologied Single Ladies, in which an expressly pre-sexual narrative, the sole narrative, is conveyed over a brilliantly athletic dance that derives its sexual tone from its unremitting strength rather than the incapacity it implies in the dancers. (See such pop-ingénue dance tropes as: the rhythmic swoon, the overstimulated spasm, the rapturous-gaze floor crawl.) Madonna touches her clothes like they’re constraints, flimsy but still too much for her alone; Beyonce touches her clothes like they’re her body. Madonna thanks the viewer for bringing her to life; Beyonce threatens the lover with the eventuality of her own death.

With the newest wave of pop stars, particularly Sky Ferreira and Charli XCX, we’re seeing what appears to be a renaissance of the demi-collage form perfected by Madonna. Structurally, all the right pieces are there—similar take lengths, wardrobe changes, air-humping in the global non-spaces of warehouses and dingy backrooms. However, there is a key difference. Like A Virgin is wholly faceted, a pseudo-schizotypal field of storylines in which no single ‘instance’ of Madonna exerts demonstrable hegemony over her other, implicitly lesser instantiations. The question of which is the ‘true’ Madonna isn’t unanswerable so much as it is unaskable—as she repeatedly reminds us, she is the veneer with which she presents us. What is desirable is what she is creating to be desired; our wanting that we feel in response to her manufactured identity is the presupposition upon which that identity was built. Thus, the ‘bait’ avoids being seen as such through its aggressive self-marketing as ‘bait’; an expressly artificial mode of relation becomes a frank display of self-possession and self-ownership, thereby drawing itself into the territory of ‘temptation’ through Madonna’s displayed mastery of her own capacity for self-modulation. As Keston Sutherland writes:

      You soften inside when
it is all ok, mimicry of the subaltern
      love droid voice initiates
longing beyond its own fallacy this time.

That time. This time, “the subaltern/love droid voice” initiates longing in the space its fallacy leaves behind.

Sky Ferreira’s You’re Not The One is, I think, the best example of this. At first blush, it’s easy to mistake it for the familiar, aforementioned structure populated by actor-/era-specific content, a transposition of (what is quickly becoming concretized as) Sky’s modern aesthetic onto the ordained topology of the pop music landscape. However, there’s something more going on here. In the ‘verse’ narrative, a sunglassed Sky is writhing against a wall, while an equally-sunglassed man watches from the audience. (Or so we assume; the two are not shown in the same cut.) In all the scenes belonging to this liminal space of shuttering, single-colored light and the cement wall, her gaze is directed into a non-space to the right of the camera, toward the implicit audience of the single man. A fuckyou pallor has settled over her face. What might be a momentary glance in my direction captures only a single pinprick of light somewhere off behind me in the null space of Sky’s oversized sunglasses—it is a distinctly non-performative moment amidst performance so familiar it is easy to forget that it is a performance. She is singing to the man in the audience, and she is telling us that he is not the one.

The other narrative, the ‘chorus’ narrative, depicts a less-dressed Sky in the purgatorial Buddha-Field of an 80’s laser void. Here, her gaze is locked onto the camera, she is not wearing sunglasses, and she is telling us about the circumstances. Twenty years ago, she might have been begging us for help; now, she is filling in the story. It’s almost Noh, except the maeshite and nochishite have their curtain calls all mixed up. She wears her sunglasses with him but bucks her naked eyes backward while alone in the room with us, and we get her post-sexual confession right up until she wakes up in the woods, her action completed, all sound gone. She doesn’t notice that we are still with her. She doesn’t even remember us. That final shot we see of her, receding on the opposite slope, is the first tender, pre-sexual moment in the entire video. It is the first moment of sincere temptation, in that it makes us think we could go find her now.

Much can (and should) be made of the fact that Sky’s assumption of a pre-sexual role occurs through the rejection of the viewer’s involvement (the fade into nibbana-fog, the slow head turn away immediately preceding the cut). Also, that this assumption to subjecthood takes place without her being cleared of her spectacular ‘damaged’ relationship by the viewer’s love/body, etc. For now, though, our focus is on Sky’s earnest occupation of the laser-realm, where her dancing continues even as we slide behind a pillar, where she tells us what she has already learned about what she needs. Our focus is on Lorde, in Royals, where scenes that are personal to her (despite being set in the international suburb of HD beige and white), from which she is wholly absent, are broken by shots of her in her bedroom, in which she enjoys her own music and only occasionally sings along with herself, an ageless adolescent crooning through the fuel-fantasy of undepicted youths. Our focus is on Charli XCX, reassuring us in the backroom of Superlove that we’ll come/with her/when she goes to shoulder-pop alongside high-fashion Harajuku machines.

Granted, Charli XCX makes use of the pre-sexual quality of sight in a way that the other two do not. She also knows how to pit sound’s post-sexual quality against itself, as she sings, “My body is so close to you, I’m waiting.” We’re waiting, too—at our desks. We’re performing our desire in the only way we possibly can: Temporally, aspatially. In this situation, our movement toward the want-object is performed by means of a paradoxical stasis, through watching the entire video, opting to move forward through time parallel to the depicted images. Any movement in space—within either the literal space of the room, e.g. away from the computer, or the figurative space of the internet, e.g. away from the website—would indicate an absence of desire.

Desire is not absent, although the libidinal, impotent desire we associate with hoi polloi before the beautiful might be. We sit, and watch. The possessive lust-space between the three forms of desire are hollowed out and replaced by something else for which we do not have a word: a bittersweet, proud envy, as toward a once-lover who we recognize as succeeding behind a screen made of old, worn-out expectations. Our familiar systems of the destructive approach wilt, and lose pertinence. We are sliding forward one, ten, one thousand, and the want-object is coming forward with us. So what are we chasing?

Perhaps the failure is just in our not having a clean way of talking about the messy desire that comes even after all parties have figured out that it isn’t going to work, the unhappy reenactment of patterns (intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, breakdown, double chorus, outro) characteristic of both parties involved. Or perhaps the failure is ours, in how we wind up in those fucked-up situations over and over again, the scene uncannily familiar but no less captivating for it. “Fuck you,” I murmur to the backside of my receding darling. I’m sure she doesn’t hear me.