Rachel Ossip

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In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment
on Vertical Perspective

Imagine you are falling. But there is no ground.
Many contemporary philosophers have pointed out that the present moment is distinguished by a prevailing condition of groundlessness.1 We cannot assume any stable ground on which to base metaphysical claims or foundational political myths. At best, we are faced with temporary, contingent, and partial attempts at grounding. But if there is no stable ground available for our social lives and philosophical aspirations, the consequence must be a permanent, or at least intermittent state of free fall for subjects and objects alike. But why don’t we notice?
Paradoxically, while you are falling, you will probably feel as if you are floating—or not even moving at all. Falling is relational—if there is nothing to fall toward, you may not even be aware that you’re falling. If there is no ground, gravity might be low and you’ll feel weightless. Objects will stay suspended if you let go of them. Whole societies around you may be falling just as you are. And it may actually feel like perfect stasis—as if history and time have ended and you can’t even remember that time ever moved forward.
As you are falling, your sense of orientation may start to play additional tricks on you. The horizon quivers in a maze of collapsing lines and you may lose any sense of above and below, of before and after, of yourself and your boundaries. Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft. While falling, people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people. Traditional modes of seeing and feeling are shattered. Any sense of balance is disrupted. Perspectives are twisted and multiplied. New types of visuality arise.
This disorientation is partly due to the loss of a stable horizon. And with the loss of horizon also comes the departure of a stable paradigm of orientation, which has situated concepts of subject and object, of time and space, throughout modernity. In falling, the lines of the horizon shatter, twirl around, and superimpose.
A Brief History of the Horizon
Our sense of spatial and temporal orientation has changed dramatically in recent years, prompted by new technologies of surveillance, tracking, and targeting. One of the symptoms of this transformation is the growing importance of aerial views: overviews, Google Map views, satellite views. We are growing increasingly accustomed to what used to be called a God’s-eye view. On the other hand, we also notice the decreasing importance of a paradigm of visuality that long dominated our vision: linear perspective. Its stable and single point of view is being supplemented (and often replaced) by multiple perspectives, overlapping windows, distorted flight lines, and divergent vanishing points. How could these changes be related to the phenomena of groundlessness and permanent fall?
First, let’s take a step back and consider the crucial role of the horizon in all of this. Our traditional sense of orientation—and, with it, modern concepts of time and space—are based on a stable line: the horizon line. Its stability hinges on the stability of an observer, who is thought to be located on a ground of sorts, a shoreline, a boat—a ground that can be imagined as stable, even if in fact it is not.
The horizon line was an extremely important element in navigation. It defined the limits of communication and understanding. Beyond the horizon, there was only muteness and silence. Within it, things could be made visible. But it could also be used for determining one’s own location and relation to one’s surroundings, destinations, or ambitions.
Early navigation consisted of gestures and bodily poses relating to the horizon. “In early days, [Arab navigators] used one or two fingers width, a thumb and little finger on an outstretched arm, or an arrow held at arm’s length to sight the horizon at the lower end and Polaris at the upper.”2 The angle between the horizon and the Pole star gave information about the altitude of one’s position. This measurement method was known as sighting the object, shooting the object, or taking a sight. In this way, one’s own location could be at least roughly determined.
Instruments like the astrolabe, quadrant, and sextant refined this way of gaining orientation by using the horizon and the stars. One of the main obstacles with this technology was the fact that the ground on which sailors stood was never stable in the first place. The stable horizon mostly remained a projection, until artificial horizons were eventually invented in order to create the illusion of stability.
The sextant, a nautical instrument which determined the angle between a celestial object and the horizon.
The use of the horizon to calculate position gave seafarers a sense of orientation, thus also enabling colonialism and the spread of a capitalist global market, but also became an important tool for the construction of the optical paradigms that came to define modernity, the most important paradigm being that of so-called linear perspective.
As early as 1028, Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (965–1040), also known as Alhazen, wrote a book of visual theory, Kitab al-Manazir. After 1200, it became available in Europe and spawned numerous experiments in visual production between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, which culminated in the development of linear perspective.
In Duccio’s Last Supper (1308–1311), several vanishing points are still evident. The perspectives in this space do not coalesce into a horizon line, nor do they all intersect in one single vanishing point. But in Miracle of the Desecrated Host (Scene I) (1465–69), painted by Paolo Uccello, who was one of the most ardent experimenters in the development of linear perspective, the perspective is aligned to culminate in one single vanishing point, located on a virtual horizon defined by the eye line.
Linear perspective is based on several decisive negations. First, the curvature of the earth is typically disregarded. The horizon is conceived as an abstract flat line upon which the points on any horizontal plane converge. Additionally, as Erwin Panofsky argued, the construction of linear perspective declares the view of a one-eyed and immobile spectator as a norm—and this view is itself assumed to be natural, scientific, and objective. Thus, linear perspective is based on an abstraction, and does not correspond to any subjective perception.3 Instead, it computes a mathematical, flattened, infinite, continuous, and homogenous space, and declares it to be reality. Linear perspective creates the illusion of a quasi-natural view to the “outside,” as if the image plane was a window opening onto the “real” world. This is also the literal meaning of the Latin perspectiva: to see through.
This space defined by linear perspective is calculable, navigable, and predictable. It allows the calculation of future risk, which can be anticipated, and therefore, managed. As a consequence, linear perspective not only transforms space, but also introduces the notion of a linear time, which allows mathematical prediction and, with it, linear progress. This is the second, temporal meaning of perspective: a view onto a calculable future. As Walter Benjamin argued, time can become just as homogenous and empty as space.4 And for all these calculations to operate, we must necessarily assume an observer standing on a stable ground looking out towards a vanishing point on a flat, and actually quite artificial, horizon.
But linear perspective also performs an ambivalent operation concerning the viewer. As the whole paradigm converges in one of the viewer’s eyes, the viewer becomes central to the worldview established by it. The viewer is mirrored in the vanishing point, and thus constructed by it. The vanishing point gives the observer a body and a position. But on the other hand, the spectator’s importance is also undermined by the assumption that vision follows scientific laws. While empowering the subject by placing it at the center of vision, linear perspective also undermines the viewer’s individuality by subjecting it to supposedly objective laws of representation.
Needless to say, this reinvention of the subject, time, and space was an additional toolkit for enabling Western dominance, and the dominance of its concepts—as well as for redefining standards of representation, time, and space. All of these components are evident in Uccello’s six-panel painting, Miracle of the Desecrated Host (1465-69). In the first panel, a woman sells a Host to a Jewish merchant, who in the second panel tries to “desecrate” it. For this, the Jewish merchant ends up at the stakes. Along with his wife and two small children, he is tied to a pillar on which parallels converge as if it were a target mark. The date of these panels shortly prefigures the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492, also the year of Christopher Columbus’s expedition to the West Indies.5 In these paintings, linear perspective becomes a matrix for racial and religious propaganda, and related atrocities. This so-called scientific worldview helped set standards for marking people as other, thus legitimizing their conquest or the domination over them.
On the other hand, linear perspective also carries the seeds of its own downfall. Its scientific allure and objectivist attitude established a universal claim for representation, a link to veracity that undermined particularistic worldviews, even if halfheartedly and belatedly. It thus became a hostage to the truth it had so confidently proclaimed. And a deep suspicion was planted alongside its claims for veracity from its inception.
The Downfall of Linear Perspective
But the situation now is somewhat different. We seem to be in a state of transition toward one or several other visual paradigms. Linear perspective has been supplemented by other types of vision to the point where we may have to conclude that its status as the dominant visual paradigm is changing.
This transition was already apparent in the nineteenth century in the field of painting. One work in particular expresses the circumstances of this transformation: The Slave Ship (1840), by J. M. W. Turner. The scene in the painting represents a real incident: when the captain of a slave ship discovered that his insurance only covered slaves lost at sea, and not those dying or ill on board, he ordered all dying and sick slaves to be thrown overboard. Turner’s painting captures the moment where the slaves are beginning to go under.
In this painting, the horizon line, if distinguishable at all, is tilted, curved, and troubled. The observer has lost his stable position. There are no parallels that could converge at a single vanishing point. The sun, which is at the center of the composition, is multiplied in reflections. The observer is upset, displaced, beside himself at the sight of the slaves, who are not only sinking but have also had their bodies reduced to fragments—their limbs devoured by sharks, mere shapes below the water surface. At the sight of the effects of colonialism and slavery, linear perspective—the central viewpoint, the position of mastery, control, and subjecthood—is abandoned and starts tumbling and tilting, taking with it the idea of space and time as systematic constructions. The idea of a calculable and predictable future shows a murderous side through an insurance that prevents economic loss by inspiring cold-blooded murder. Space dissolves into mayhem on the unstable and treacherous surface of an unpredictable sea.
Turner experimented with moving perspectives early on. Legend has it that he had himself tied to the mast of a ship crossing from Dover to Calais, explicitly to watch the horizon change. In 1843 or 1844, he stuck his head out of the window of a moving train for exactly 9 minutes, the result of which was a painting called Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway (1844). In it, linear perspective dissolves into the background. There is no resolution, no vanishing point, and no clear view to any past or future. Again, more interesting is the perspective of the spectator himself, who seems to be dangling in the air on the outer side of the rails of a railroad bridge. There is no clear ground under his assumed position. He might be suspended in the mist, floating over an absent ground.
In both of Turner’s paintings, the horizon is blurred, tilted, and yet not necessarily denied. The paintings do not negate its existence altogether, but render it inaccessible to the viewer’s perception. The question of horizon starts to float, so to speak. Perspectives assume mobile points of view and communication is disabled even within one common horizon. One could say that the downward motion of the sinking slaves affects the point of view of the painter, who tears it away from a position of certitude, and subjects it to gravity and motion and the pull of a bottomless sea.
With the twentieth century, the further dismantling of linear perspective in a variety of areas began to take hold. Cinema supplements photography with the articulation of different temporal perspectives. Montage becomes a perfect device for destabilizing the observer’s perspective and breaking down linear time. Painting abandons representation to a large extent and demolishes linear perspective in cubism, collage, and different types of abstraction. Time and space are reimagined through quantum physics and the theory of relativity, while perception is reorganized by warfare, advertisement, and the conveyor belt. With the invention of aviation, opportunities for falling, nose-diving, and crashing increase. With it—and especially with the conquest of outer space—comes the development of new perspectives and techniques of orientation, found especially in an increasing number of aerial views of all kinds. While all these developments can be described as typical characteristics of modernity, the past few years has seen visual culture saturated by military and entertainment images’ views from above.
Netscape’s Jim Clark stands atop 192ft mast of his “superyacht,” Hyperion, during a 1998 Fortune shoot. Louie Psihoyos/Science Faction Images.
Aircraft expand the horizon of communication and act as aerial cameras providing backgrounds for aerial map views. Drones survey, track, and kill. But the entertainment industry is busy as well. Especially in 3D cinema, the new characteristics of aerial views are fully exploited by staging vertiginous flights into abysses. One could almost say that 3D and the construction of imaginary vertical worlds (prefigured in the logic of computer games) are essential to each other. 3D also intensifies hierarchies of material required to access this new visuality. As Thomas Elsaesser has argued, a hardware environment integrating military, surveillance, and entertainment applications, produces new markets for hardware and software.6
In a fascinating text, Eyal Weizman analyzes verticality in political architecture, describing the spatial turn of sovereignty and surveillance in terms of a vertical 3D sovereignty.7 He argues that geopolitical power was once distributed on a planar map-like surface on which boundaries were drawn and defended. But at present, the distribution of power—he cites the Israeli occupation in Palestine as his example, but there could be many others—has increasingly come to occupy a vertical dimension. Vertical sovereignty splits space into stacked horizontal layers, separating not only airspace from ground, but also splitting ground from underground, and airspace into various layers. Different strata of community are divided from each other on a y-axis, multiplying sites of conflict and violence. As Achille Mbembe contends,
Occupation of the skies therefore acquires a critical importance, since most of the policing is done from the air. Various other technologies are mobilized to this effect: sensors aboard unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), aerial reconnaissance jets, early warning Hawkeye planes, assault helicopters, an Earth-observation satellite, techniques of “hologrammatization.”8
After just two years in orbit, the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite has gathered enough data to model Earth’s gravity with unrivalled precision.
Free Fall
But how to link this obsessive policing, division, and representation of ground to the philosophical assumption that in contemporary societies there is no ground to speak of? How do these aerial representations—in which grounding effectively constitutes a privileged subject—link to the hypothesis that we currently inhabit a condition of free fall?
The answer is simple: many of the aerial views, 3D nose-dives, Google Maps, and surveillance panoramas do not actually portray a stable ground. Instead, they create a supposition that it exists in the first place. Retroactively, this virtual ground creates a perspective of overview and surveillance for a distanced, superior spectator safely floating up in the air. Just as linear perspective established an imaginary stable observer and horizon, so does the perspective from above establish an imaginary floating observer and an imaginary stable ground.
This establishes a new visual normality—a new subjectivity safely folded into surveillance technology and screen-based distraction.9 One might conclude that this is in fact a radicalization—though not an overcoming—of the paradigm of linear perspective. In it, the former distinction between object and subject is exacerbated and turned into the one-way gaze of superiors onto inferiors, a looking down from high to low. Additionally, the displacement of perspective creates a disembodied and remote-controlled gaze, outsourced to machines and other objects.10 Gazes already became decisively mobile and mechanized with the invention of photography, but new technologies have enabled the detached observant gaze to become ever more inclusive and all-knowing to the point of becoming massively intrusive—as militaristic as it is pornographic, as intense as extensive, both micro- and macroscopic.11
Space debris or junk (such as rocket stages, defunct satellites, and explosion and collision fragments) orbiting the earth. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The Politics of Verticality
The view from above is a perfect metonymy for a more general verticalization of class relations in the context of an intensified class war from above—seen through the lenses and on the screens of military, entertainment, and information industries.12 It is a proxy perspective that projects delusions of stability, safety, and extreme mastery onto a backdrop of expanded 3D sovereignty. But if the new views from above recreate societies as free-falling urban abysses and splintered terrains of occupation, surveilled aerially and policed biopolitically, they may also—as linear perspective did—carry the seeds of their own demise within them.
As linear perspective began to tumble down with the sinking bodies of slaves thrown into the ocean, for many people today the simulated grounds of aerial imagery provide an illusionary tool of orientation in a condition in which the horizons have, in fact, been shattered. Time is out of joint and we no longer know whether we are objects or subjects as we spiral down in an imperceptible free fall.13
But if we accept the multiplication and de-linearization of horizons and perspectives, the new tools of vision may also serve to express, and even alter, the contemporary conditions of disruption and disorientation. Recent 3D animation technologies incorporate multiple perspectives, which are deliberately manipulated to create multifocal and nonlinear imagery.14 Cinematic space is twisted in any way imaginable, organized around heterogeneous, curved, and collaged perspectives. The tyranny of the photographic lens, cursed by the promise of its indexical relation to reality, has given way to hyperreal representations—not of space as it is, but of space as we can make it—for better or worse. There is no need for expensive renderings; a simple green screen collage yields impossible cubist perspectives and implausible concatenations of times and spaces alike.
Finally, cinema has caught up with the representational freedoms of painting and structural and experimental film. As it merges with graphic design practices, drawing, and collage, cinema has gained independence from the prescribed focal dimensions that have normalized and limited the realm of its vision. While it could be argued that montage was the first step towards a liberation from cinematic linear perspective—and was for this reason ambivalent for most of its existence—only now can new and different sorts of spatial vision be created. Similar things can be said about multiscreen projections, which create a dynamic viewing space, dispersing perspective and possible points of view. The viewer is no longer unified by such a gaze, but is rather dissociated and overwhelmed, drafted into the production of content. None of these projection spaces suppose a single unified horizon. Rather, many call for a multiple spectator, who must be created and recreated by ever-new articulations of the crowd.
In many of these new visualities, what seemed like a helpless tumble into an abyss actually turns out to be a new representational freedom. And perhaps this helps us get over the last assumption implicit in this thought experiment: the idea that we need a ground in the first place. In his discussion of the vertiginous, Theodor W. Adorno scoffs at philosophy’s obsession with earth and origin, with a philosophy of belonging that obviously comes packaged within the most violent fear of the groundless and bottomless. For him, the vertiginous is not about the panicked loss of a ground imagined to be a safe haven of being:
A cognition that is to bear fruit will throw itself to the objects à fond perdu [without hope]. The vertigo which this causes is an index veri; the shock of inclusiveness, the negative as which it cannot help appearing in the frame-covered, never-changing realm, is true for untruth only.
A fall toward objects without reservation, embracing a world of forces and matter, which lacks any original stability and sparks the sudden shock of the open: a freedom that is terrifying, utterly deterritorializing, and always already unknown. Falling means ruin and demise as well as love and abandon, passion and surrender, decline and catastrophe. Falling is corruption as well as liberation, a condition that turns people into things and vice versa.17 It takes place in an opening we could endure or enjoy, embrace or suffer, or simply accept as reality.
Finally, the perspective of free fall teaches us to consider a social and political dreamscape of radicalized class war from above, one that throws jaw-dropping social inequalities into sharp focus. But falling does not only mean falling apart, it can also mean a new certainty falling into place. Grappling with crumbling futures that propel us backwards onto an agonizing present, we may realize that the place we are falling toward is no longer grounded, nor is it stable. It promises no community, but a shifting formation.
Another (completely different and rather rambling) version of this text was published in the reader for the second FORMER WEST Research Congress in Istanbul, which took place in November 2010: On Horizons: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Hlavajova, Simon Sheikh, and Jill Winder (Rotterdam: Post-Editions; Utrecht: BAK basis voor actuele kunst, 2011).
© 2011 e-flux and the author

Theory of Ash

Behold the THEORY OF ASH! shouts the woman in the public square whose face is a carnival mask. Some spectacle is surely about to take place. What will you do when your mother is dead? What will you do when your mother is dead and you come face to face with the woman whose face is a carnival mask? The Man of Good Questions asked. What could I say to The Man of Good Questions? I lay down with the Injured Thing in the grass. And that’s when the crowd gathered. They gathered in refutation of all refutations. They gathered in the absence of anything else. What is the meaning of the THEORY OF ASH? The Man of Good Questions is asking now. (Ascending the stage is the woman whose face is a carnival mask.) I don’t know, I tell him. I cannot even begin to describe the beauty of what is about to happen.

Other People’s Eroticism

During the controversy provoked by pornographic productions, someone quoted this sentence:
“Pornography is other people’s eroticism.”
A formula which had the merit of using two stupid words intelligently, if not three. It was an argument for tolerance: but also a criticism of those discriminations we make to separate ourselves from what we then boast we “tolerate.”
For perhaps other people’s eroticism is not so different from our own in terms of what it has to show; perhaps we are contemptuous of “pornography” simply because it pictures us without our masks—sad bodies, seedy rooms, squalid compromises, graceless gestures, pathetic fantasies. We don’t like it when our copulations present as poor a front in films as they do in our existence: erotic works must wholly conform to our illusions, and must not be, in substance or in price, as petty as ourselves.
Then what distinguishes eroticism from pornography is not a difference between our own beautiful sexuality and the disgusting one of others: in reality, in terms of establishment standards, all real sexuality remains guilty, ugly, bestial, miscarried. We are never rich enough, handsome enough, young enough, mature enough, virtuous enough, endowed enough, normal enough, man enough, woman enough, to have a sexuality that is permissible, respectable, or simply possible. These are the exigencies shaped by our laws, our moral codes, our ideals, our masterpieces, our very rules for desire. It is not surprising that they apply to entertainment as well. But “pornography” commits the crime of insufficiently idealizing what it shows—and yet in its abundance of nudes and exploits, it is a garden of delights alongside our real life. Even this free and this fulfilled, sexuality, in order to be absolved, would still need to be transfigured, eternalized, raised to mythic heights, daubed with analyses, smeared with Humanism, larded with “disalienation,” laced with garlands covering just the right spots: an atonement afforded by—each in its own way—Love, Art, Science, and Subversion.
The necessity of this redemption has been understood for a long time by the American manufacturers of porno books and magazines. They have been publishing texts which though obscene are covered with a psychiatric gloss treating them as “documents.” They have been amassing indecent photographs, but with the alibi of physical culture or nudism, chaste children of Health. The market is flooded with naked men photographed from every angle, but only to furnish artists a means to perfect their touch without expensive models. And thick brochures of photos with commentary have given amateur sexologists vivid dossiers on sodomy, fellatio, masturbation, large penises, infant eroticism, or group sex. The prosperity of these publications demonstrates that the U.S. censors, touched by the nobility of intentions, were not eager to learn whether the budding draughtsmen were actually using the nudes, whether the collections of children’s gang-bangs were only serving to inform educators and mothers, or whether the close-ups of pricks thrust into every hole of Human Nature were examined only by Scholars.
Let us regard these simplistic liberties as the product of a democracy naive enough, notably, to have expelled a President on the pretext that he was dishonest—for it seems that power, as wicked as sex, needs only, like it, to be angelic in order to be tolerable. A reassuring certainty.
Our country is not the victim of such an unsophisticated logic: in France, when we defend
freedom, it is mostly against those who want to use it. So we realized, among a thousand other
things, that, before liberating sexuality, we had to educate it so that nobody would have any left:
or that, if we authorized pornography, it would obviously have to give up defying morality.
Yet when we suppressed censorship, we discovered with indignation that censorable works took advantage of that suppression to appear. This is certainly proof that we were not ripe for freedom of expression.
Normally, the French spontaneously boycott the pseudo-products a greedy capitalism claims to
make them consume: in particular, they are deserting the movie houses showing the commercial
garbage called “films for the general public”—cretinizing accounts which are an insult to the masses, and thus to human dignity, as has been repeated energetically for years by Messrs. Marchais and Séguy and Cardinal Marty.* But this time profit-hungry and underhanded members of the industry succeeded in hoodwinking the People by offering as a shining lure a bait of all-too-real obscenities. Immediately, millions of fathers, mothers, and workers, grandma by the hand, babe in arms, rushed to movies of fornication-without-love: and, hypnotized, thunderstruck by so many horrors, no one dared to react. I have not even heard a baby cry in the theatre, which shows how precociously these images paralyze response.
The State and the various elites protested from their positions, and freedom was reorganized. A
separate category of film would be defined, heavily taxed and narrowly distributed: the kind that
depicted “other people’s eroticism” (those others suitably baptized X): pornography. Our own
eroticism, of course, would continue to enjoy all necessary freedom of expression.
I have said how the two genres were distinguished: since majority eroticism has beauty for its principal trait, any ugliness, vulgarity, stupidity, gratuitous obscenity, in the representation of sexuality, is our signal that it is not ours, but that of the X’s.
A measure totally commendable. Shortly before this, as a matter of fact, François Mitterand had suggested in the Nouvel Observateur that pornography be restricted to reserved circles: for it was really too ugly, and manufactured, from all evidence, by pornographers. Moreover, these literal pictures of organs, he remarked, remained infinitely less moving than a certain touching of hands in Straight Is the Gate. Mitterand did not specify whether the little pee-pees of If It Die overwhelmed him as much as Alissa’s hands—both, however, duly fingered, and sung with all proper style, by a Nobel Prize Winner. In any case, this socialist position coincides with what our government, so liberal in the circumstances because it coincides with the choices of the Left, will have decided.
So now, for the first time in our society, we are asserting that mediocrity is intolerable, and that our citizens must be institutionally protected from it. It is unthinkable that members of the film industry should go so far as to exploit human lust: and business would be betraying itself if it suddenly ceased to strive for our moral and artistic uplift.
Henceforth we may read on the pediment of Eros’ temple: no one enters here save the inspired. Our nation, which seemed so to hate, persecute, and condemn sex, turns out on the contrary to admire it, to deify it to such an extent that it no longer wants the disreputables to touch it. This bon-bon, this salt of the earth will be, as is only fair, reserved for great men. If they are good enough to accept it, of course. And if your talents are very modest, your I.Q. very low, your passion for money unbounded, your vulgarity incommensurable, produce family films, romanticize conjugal love, comment on politics, be a critic of Arts and Letters, enter the Academy, glorify war, sports, work, virtue, crooks, racism, the State: but cunts, pricks, and ass-holes are strictly taboo to you—as to all the opportunists, morons, impostors, pigs, and nonentities who have invaded other domains. Eros is going to feel a bit lonesome.
To me this demand for quality, for disinterestedness, for artistic mastery, seems completely justified (I need only think of the marvels it would produce in politics, journalism, or education). I have noticed pornos shown that smelled of amateurism, the rush job, the production without billions or government subsidies: and I felt, of course, very different from the X’s with whom I had mingled for a moment, and whom this nullity did not embarrass. What is left, then, in these films which have nothing to recommend them?
What is left is precisely a certain something that good films never show. And since the universe is bursting with glorious film makers, many of whom denounce the scandalous mediocrity of pornos, I wonder why they, who film so well, leave to bunglers the erotic subjects—which they seem to admire, however, since they won’t allow them to be treated shabbily—instead of putting themselves to work. Is it because of the humility habitual to geniuses confronted with themes too large? Or because the realization of their creativity and the representation of sexual acts are incompatible? In this case, we must admire the abnegation of the unfortunate directors who, in order to film what others hide, do not hesitate to compromise their chances of acquiring talent.
In fact, the existence of specifically “pornographic” works calls to mind Jean Genet’s remark when he was asked why his theatre was obscene: because, he said, the other theatre is not. We are in a paradoxical situation in which it seems conceivable, evident, even desirable, to create a work (and every work speaks only of humanity and human life) where sexuality is reduced to nothing—nothing but a zone of silence toward which every narrative moves, however, and upon which it breaks off. Our culture is the historiographer, or rather the mythologist, of a man desexed. Put his sex back on: it will not be said that you are filling a lack, it will be said that your work has an excess—and it is this excess, this “obscenity,” which will define it. Thus sex, with its billions of manifestations, sensations, and nuances, whose subtleties and lessons are certainly worth those of sentimental psychology, is not a spontaneous, necessary, diversely present (if only in a “low” way) component of our representation of man: it is only an indelicate speciality, characteristic of certain authors, certain artists, certain scholars, who create for themselves alone something which, outside themselves, has no right of asylum. Each creator must decide if he is going to create “with” or “without”: it is the least of his liberties, and if we all know what cultural destiny awaits those who create “with,” there is no doubt that this encourages future geniuses not to cut that.
To tolerate sexuality, as we claim to do, to explore and understand it, as we say we need to do, would be, however, to allow it to appear everywhere, to be expressed and experienced everywhere, in short, to let it blossom in the bright daylight of social life. And not to wedge it in between chic books, the shops of Pigalle, royal marriages, and latrine doors.
It is not the appearance of “erotic” works or “pornographic” products that demonstrates freedom here, it is rather the disappearance of special places and rites where sexuality, pleasure, and the body have been closeted. It is not for porno magazines to show nudes, orgies, lesbians, child-fucking, but France-Dimanche, l’Espress, Paris-Match, Tintin, Spirou and other humanist publications. It is not for the makers of X-rated films to show sexual lives, but for the film makers who draw crowds, and for television. It is not for “special” authors to decipher our bodies, it is for the whole of literature. Or else we might as well say that sexuality is intolerable, and must remain the prisoner of a few maniacs who are bound and determined to show how it exists, and fill as best they can this void in our culture and in our moral codes.
Clearly, in a society where sexuality would not “have a place” but would resume its own, the substance of the erotic would be very different from what originates in our ghettos—where one resignedly shuffles through the hotpotch of illusions, cliches, sublimities, and obsessions that define our sexual obscurantism. I see only obscene photography which, when it avoids the affectations and the conventionalities of the Beautiful, is already liberated, doubtless because of its inferiority, from the stereotypes which, from Eroticism’s height to porno’s depths, manufacture a phony representation of the sexuality we “wish” we had.
But what do the X’s want? Some of them participated, without reacting, in a cruel experiment of “mise-en-abyme” (the Quaker Oats Box syndrome), which would have delighted every well-born member of the avant-garde, and which illustrates a paradox of pornography.
It was a showing of a very good hetero porno (market conditions rarely permit mixing tastes in the same product). Title: The Talking Sex (the heroine is afflicted with a miraculous ability borrowed from Diderot: like a character in Bijoux indiscrets, she speaks from her cunt). This film contained the following scene. In a movie theatre, ordinary viewers are watching a porno. Suddenly, a female spectator, spurred to action by the film, grabs her neighbors’ pricks. The next moment, the whole audience, bare-assed and cocks in the air, is joyously fucking. On the screen, of course. In the other movie theatre, the real one, nobody was doing anything. We were watching the pornophiles of the filmed movie theatre. The ones who could actually do it.**
This imaginary scene is thus supposed to represent the pornophiles’ fantasy: and, in short, it puts their backs to the wall. But the wall is too high. In a real movie theatre (apart from the fact that the porno movie theatres lack more female spectators than the leftist faction of women’s liberation), this transition to action would be a criminal offense, an event that would summon the police cars and occupy the front page of the newspapers.
Impossible legally, this orgy is just as impossible aesthetically and physiologically. As ordinary as the false spectators of The Talking Sex appear, they were chosen to present, once they were drawn from their seats, pleasing bodies with quick reflexes and immediate satisfactions. Characteristics having no relation to the appearance and the sexual behavior of the average Frenchman, pornophile or not. We see that the obstacle to the orgy is not simply in the legal violation it would constitute (a violation that homosexuals risk committing accustomed as they are to heterosexual cops). The obstacle is rather in these accommodating passions and attractive bodies at the disposal of the film actors, and not of the audience. Indispensable advantages in a porno, since they are already the rule in all films and novels. Inconceivable, the aversion aroused by actors with small penises, actresses with fatty deposits, flabby breasts, callused feet, by the third-rate copulations, thighs dribbling semen, exhibited by certain films: “defects” which are, however, the common lot of humanity. Of course, it can be judged normal (and nothing is more revoltingly so) that a film should be pleasant to look at, that it should thus avoid showing us to ourselves, and that it should select enchanting human samples exceptional enough so that the humanity which does not resemble them is willing to recognize itself in them. Unfortunately, this cult of the exception
reinforces our certainty that we are sexually unfit: and, instead of making us love beauty more, makes us more detestable in our own eyes. Here we are, poor, stupid men and women, dreaming that doubtless one (lay, the Handsome One, the Beautiful One, will redeem our ugliness—as God saves, under their vermin, their spittle, and their snot, the pure in heart. We are not worthy. They, yes. So, let us titillate ourselves with the idea that tomorrow, they will descend to our very own studio-kitchenette-john.
Pornography thus reminds us that to obtain beautiful objects of desire, either we must resemble them, or else (and this is the execrable philosophy of Sade, who, in the exploration of desire, would stage only the ecstasies of economic power over another’s body)—we must be rich. The rich don’t watch pornos (except among themselves, at their own homes, and in addition). A nice whore, a gigolo without major defects in fabrication, goes for 200 to 300 Francs and up. By telephone in Paris, you can get young boys and girls recruited by middle-men, and the fix costs exactly one month of S.M.I.C.*** Then, are the pornophiles exclusively the riff-raff who, in contrast to the elite who draft our laws, can only afford an X-cinema seat? Are the child molesters who are taken to court only guilty of being insolvent? In the porno-shops, the sales clerks complain of innumerable customers who come in to “handle” the merchandise and never buy anything. And one does, in fact, come across a proletariat of sad voyeurs. But let us rejoice
that these lovely magazines are finally removed—sealed under cellophane so that they don’t get
fingered by these detectives who come in to fill their eyes without spending a sou, like Rimbaud’s Effarés sniffing at the night bakery’s air-vents. The girls, the boys, and the neighborhood transvestites can be had for the price of two of these ruinous reviews. So everything is laid up, meat and paper both. Business is certainly hard.
We can rest easy: every penniless pornophile, every john with a flat wallet is a potential husband, and a future papa, since marriage is the only cheap and decent solution to the problems of the cock. Which proves that the sex industry, in its way, offers an incentive to Real Love.
The exercise of desire has an extremely narrow economic and aesthetic code: this code excludes the majority of men and women. We have in addition a pleasure code, which assigns a specific behavior and necessary aptitudes to both sexes; and this code, too, excludes many people. The two codes are reproduced by porno and, in an aggravated form, by the Erotic. The lover of pornography, like the lover of eroticism, or of romantic novels, is convinced that sexuality must have a “good form”: he judges himself unfit to experience such a form and looks for fiction and entertainment that depict the ideal in whose name he is frustrated. It is a circular movement of self-education in not making love.
Here we see the difference between the actor-pornophiles of The Talking Sex and the pornophile-viewers: the film does not show what they would do if they were free, it shows why, even free, they would not dare do anything.
However, this self-repressive movement depends on each person’s adherence to the values that condemn his right to pleasure. And this adherence is the effect of the difficulty in making love we have met with ever since childhood. Nobody would believe that a botched anatomy, an unattractive face, or mediocre or reluctant genitals constituted a handicap, unless people more beautiful, more endowed had not made us feel it from the first day we experienced desire. And this reflex of exclusion would be extremely rare if all of us had not been taught a rule of “sexual sharing” in whose name we must reserve ourselves, handsome or ugly, for an advantageous bargain, a distinguished partner who persuades us finally to compromise our bodies. The strictness of the moral code, the minute number of situations in which physical contact, sexual enjoyment, even the simple liberty of speaking to someone, are permitted, force the unhappy and guiltridden internalization of these values. In other words, the less freedom we have to make love, the more we cling to codes that keep us from making it. Those whom this logic escapes are termed debauched: there is no middle ground between submission to principles and trespass against them.
Or rather, the middle ground is the business solution: when one pays for porno, or for a whore, one is not so much buying sex as the right to enjoy it apart from the establishment, but without the threat of the law.
Pornography is thus an element of the system. Yet it would be ridiculous to hold it responsible for a situation which precedes it and accompanies it, does not need it to sustain itself, and can, in the long run, suffer from its presence.
It is this context which must be understood. Actually, the countries which preceded us in lifting restrictions on pornography are very different from France. Not because France is Latin: we are even more gloomy, tense, paralyzed than the somnolent Scandinavian populations and, sociologically, we are not really Latins. Nor is our Catholicism significant. Any libertine who has visited the most Catholic countries on earth—Portugal, Spain, Italy—has discovered the sexual paganism of the proletariat youth of these Mediterranean Christendoms. Catholicism and its indictments reign very far over the heads and the groins of the “proletariat.” The prohibitions, of course, are known: but however much they make things clandestine, they can do nothing against their impregnable prosperity. Moral rigidity in France is actually a sign of the “empetitbourgeoisement” of the masses and a testimony to the absolute power of the industrial disciplinary regime over our behavior.
In the North, in any case, the appearance of pornography was not an isolated phenomenon, but a consequence of reforms which, in laws, moral codes, and institutions, questioned all sexual morality. A questioning followed by impressive results: actual legislation in Denmark and Sweden, concrete allowances in the Netherlands and in some American states, constitute precedents unique in the history of civilizations. And what is important is not so much the happiness that these freedoms might bring today to those who have initiated them, as it is the society in which from now on men will be born for whom this new morality will not be a conquest but an immediate, normal, and, in fact, invisible datum of existence.
In France pornography has been permitted without reforming the morality it transcends, a morality we are instead striving to save more energetically than ever, a morality which, alongside the opinions of an elite that is liberal-minded but incapable of affecting laws and moral codes, continues implacably to govern the private life of the masses. It is this stagnation that gives its power (and its strange status of a national question) to the production of pornography in France. For such production offers a representation, at once mythical and saturated with the concrete, of the freedoms we do not have.
From now on, what matters is to know these freedoms not as voyeurs. Such an experience would
doubtless teach us that the free exercise of sexuality leads to a universe where the bourgeois beauties of the Erotic and the stereotyped joys of porno are simplistic and outmoded. It is up to us to emancipate ourselves from the clichés, the illusions that our sexual conditioning and our frustrations have produced. The expression of sexuality need not be either beautiful or ugly, cultivated or crude, brilliant or idiotic: but it must become the free discourse of desire authentically expressed and no longer the staging of an eroticism we dream up for ourselves when we are deprived of the right to experience any at all.


** Homosexuals are less timid (but this is a result of their uncivilized condition). During the showings of Histoire d ‘hommes, there were cruising crowds watching from their places in the toilet conspicuously located right at the side of the screen. It is true that the gays haven’t waited until now to take over certain popular movie houses, and (when the back row, the toilet, and the balcony weren’t inundated with juvenile delinquents or plainclothes cops) to do there what no film yet dared show.

Where, Broken (the darkness

Cows on the spine of the hill like the spine of a book are some letters Letters with legs; like an E and an L or an R that is squared like the box of the body of cows Like the spine of a book, the legs and the bodies of cows spell out the name and maybe the head spells also the name of the book on whose spine is embossed the name made of grass: The light of the many days and the darkness the roots of the grass pull up out of the hill and the light pushes down with the feet of the cows and the darkness inside of the skulls of the cows, all these the name has eaten The lines of the spines of the cows grazing the sky, the meeting of spine and sky also marking the arcing edges of dark or light letters on dark or light pages where, broken, the name grazes the thing it will know or mean or become These are the choices. However, there are other books.