Our experience of bodies resides along a spectrum of envy and repulsion. René Girard observed that tragedies and comedies alike are driven by mimetic desire, a contagious wanting that drives all social relations. Girard articulated that the repression of envy is the real repression of our time. Desire for a kind of knowing and mastery of the other is coupled with despair when the objects of our desire fall inevitably short. Our existence is a gradual coming to terms with being a have-not.
This difficulty of not getting what we want is something that preoccupies psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his book Missing Out, In Praise of the Unlived Life. Phillips argues that “psychoanalysis tells us we can understand satisfaction only by understanding frustration.” Similarly, the Tao Te Ching teaches us that in order to understand limitation, we must desire it. Getting rid of the self–the Buddhist idea of a “no self”–is key to dissolving desire and thus, shedding frustration. We become more empathetic when we lose a sense of boundaries between ourselves and others, so it makes sense that we seek out collective experiences.
We see boundaries collapsing around us all the time, particularly with respect to our relationship with nature. Timothy Morton argues that, in terms of ecology, we have much too much presence–our bodies experience “too much intimacy” in the sense that we know our excretions are not as far removed from us as we would like to think. As human beings are interconnected with nature, there is no “divine nature” as such–no outside between a body and other bodies, nor between self and nature. And in spite of this connectedness, it is met with a sense of vacuity with respect to deep space-time scales beyond our reach or comprehension. This abyss is something Morton calls “dark ecology.” He urges us to tap into the melancholia of our uncanny relations and entanglement with human and nonhuman entities–what he calls “the mesh” or “strange strangers.”
Is intimacy, then, a question of proximity? If distance creates desire, does it follow that closeness creates frustration?
“We share a void,” chants one of the ensemble members of conceptual artist Allana Clarke‘s participatory performance Notes On Belonging to Boundaries staged at Five Myles Gallery earlier this month. I was fortunate enough to partake in this one-night-only event with a nervous friend I had to coax along with me, assuring him it would be like Sleep No More–another theatrical experience he deliberately avoided because of his phobia of interactive theatre. With all of our phones and baggage off and set aside, Clarke immersed her audience in darkness, urging us to cluster closer to one another at the center of the gallery space where we were lulled into a sense of security and reassured by a voice that we will “survive” whatever is done to us.
Clarke carves out a space loaded with confrontation. Performers emerge almost apparition-like, spotlit amidst a silent audience and a mobilized cameraman who somehow makes himself non-intrusive. One of many good things about a standing theatrical experience is there are no shitty seats, plus the body feels more attentive and focused like in a yoga class. We were all in it together– exposed and vulnerable.
Of course, my nervous friend was the first to be approached by a cast member, as if she were immediately drawn to his anxious energy. The cameraman closed in on them gazing into each other in a powerfully charged moment. His shame was diffused, and though I can’t recall exactly what words were exchanged, he was prompted to answer her line of questioning with whatever came to his mind, overcoming his fear of not being able to retreat. Once she had disappeared back into the crowd, we were called upon to hold the chest of a stranger beside us and feel their pulsating, fragile heartbeat. Then we assembled into a circle and whispered a secret message into the ear beside us, which eventuated to another performer who, as if electrified entered the circle, her body convulsing, and began chanting:
“The histories being discussed, are histories that relate to me in no way.”
Her expression of history as redundant seemed to run counter to her energetic–at times, frantic–physicality that appeared to be reckoning with burdens of the past, a history of embodiment–of bounded experience.
Clarke spoke with me about the impetus for this project:
“This work was conceived as a way to dissect the complicated nuances of human existence, a way to contemplate the preexisting cultural specificities we are all born into based on a variety of conditions that are out of our control. How can we come to terms with not having control and the inclination to constantly compartmentalize information about objects and bodies we are increasingly bombarded with? It’s an extremely difficult predicament in which we become disassociated with our bodies and the bodies of others.”
This fear of losing boundedness is something author Claire Colebrook talks about in her essay “Sexual Indifference.” For Colebrook, sexual indifference is “a circulation, exchange and proliferation beyond bounded forms… Precisely that which has imprisoned human species within its logic of self-enclosing sameness.”
This idea of sexual indifference shares an affinity with what Leo Bersani calls a kind of “sexual dispersal,” in which the intensity of desire is dispersed over an expanding field, before it becomes too possessive and in want of mastery. In brief, he advocates promiscuity over monogamy, the latter of which will always fail to offer satisfaction. In their co-authored book “Intimacies,” Bersani and Adam Phillips both discuss the shattering of the ego by moving away from conventional Oedipal psychoanalysis, in favor of exploring forms of coexistence otherwise described as “impersonal intimacy” or “sexually neutralized encounters.”
In Clarke’s enclosed space, we have experimental relations of intimacy and sexual indifference, a kind of social promiscuity. Each shared gesture that we perform with a stranger beside us connotes a sense of boundlessness, of coming to terms with not having control, of having to adapt, of becoming-with, but of having no concept of the other as a person to unravel. They are simply a body to be close to and find ways of relating ourselves toward.
If the point of all this is, as Deleuze once said, to “restore belief in the world” by “believing in the body,” is it possible to negotiate the body contra desire? Perhaps it is through collaborative exchanges that we might de-dramatize the ego and reorient the self. This is not to deny that desire exists, but suggests a delicate dissipation of it by way of sharing it around. In the context of Clarke’s space, we spread ourselves out amidst an abundance of bodies, as might a mimetic virus.