Intimate Citizenship and Competing Sexual Rights Claims and Justice in the 21st Century, Special Issue: Journal of the International Network for Sexual Ethics & Politics (INSEP), “Embodied Theory as Intimate Citizenship,” University of Ghent, Belgium
Sex-Positive Parenting in the 21st Century
It’s not just a woman’s pubic hair that is deemed offensive and pornographic, it’s my thirteen month-old baby’s tush and penis.
2011. Wild Cat Canyon, California. The sun is bright on a spring day among the red woods. A group of mothers and babies gather to picnic and play. My baby is naked. I want him to feel the warmth of the sun on his body as he discovers the ground beneath his feet. I wish I could join him and take off my clothes. “Utopia” interrupted, a park ranger instructs another mother to inform me that I need to cover my baby or I will be fined for indecent exposure.
2004. Boulder, Colorado. My father’s second wife (a politically active lesbian) brought charges against me with the Colorado Child Protection Services for including my brother, then eleven years old, in a photo shoot with our dad and his third wife. The photographs in question had been taken three years earlier in the living room of our home, in front of red and orange painted walls. Astonishingly, because I photographed him, I was interrogated for alleged “abuse.” My father’s second wife’s unfounded and horrifying claim was based on the fact that her son, my brother, was photographed in front of a red wall—that she claimed symbolized violence and sex. My brother, father, and his wife are not naked in the photographs, and no one is touching one another. (Such paranoias are at the heart of my argument). One’s predisposition to cultural phobia-triggers can twist reality into violent, reactionary, and dangerously accusatory behavior. The ACLU, Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), and People for the American Way defended my civil rights. Ironically, Boulder, Colorado, where my integrity was severely violated, has been deemed by the Dalai Lama as one of the most spiritual communities in the world.
1994. Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. My first major incident with censorship occurred at the Penn State University library, named after William Pattee, who ironically was known for his defense of freedom of speech. Censorship of my photographs was rooted in peoples’ fear of their own imaginations. Their justification for removing my photographs from their exhibition space was based on their perception that they own the public arena. Content in this privatized public sphere must be “inoffensive;” certainly not challenging because of its ambiguous nature. The fiction that neutrality exists, especially in an educational institution, feeds into a fear of ambiguity, difference, and the unfamiliar. My purpose as a young photographer (and now as a sex-positive mother) was to interrogate internalized assumptions about the body, and explore and insist upon those very aspects that are too often perceived as obscene, objectifying, pornographic. During the course of this particular exhibition five of my photographs were censored; the images were removed even though they had initially gone through an official review process.
Not satisfied with partial removal, the library staff vehemently challenged the entire exhibit calling the works “degrading to the human body,” “immoral,” and “inappropriate for a university library.” Given that the term explicit generally refers to what is perceived as “clearly defined” and “precise,” I find it ironic that the protest demanding the removal of my exhibit labeled my work as “sexually explicit”—they were threatened by the ambiguity of the images, yet they defined them as explicit. I wondered if those who found my photographs “offensive” or “obscene” felt threatened by what they actually saw, by what they imagined they were seeing, or by how and what I was actually photographing? One image included my mother’s chin, which several protesters insisted was a penis. That interpretation came as a surprise—in particular to my mother. The virtual- cyber realm appears to hold the same standards of entrenched fear of difference. For example, the vice president of Bluehost, my former website hosting company, shut down my website because he determined that it was “pornographic.”
Attempting to question socially constructed expectations of the human body, my images explore the complicated processes through which we interpret cultural signifiers. In my photographic process, mothering, and yoga teaching my intention is to make the world safe for true play, humor, irony, desire, and pleasure. This commitment to embodied democracy is how I manifest intimate citizenship. The issues involved when my photographs were first censored, surprisingly, are even more relevant today. In the 1990s, my photographs were censored on both US coasts and now, since social conservatism has even stronger roots globally, my photography sessions have become seriously restricted—frequently untenable in the public realm. I insist on photographing in public for the same reason that I made it a priority to exhibit my work in non-art, public settings—such as bus shelters, theatres, book stores, City Hall, Federal Buildings, hospitals. For me it is crucial to get the work out in the public arena to remind people there is no easy or neutral ground in our visually saturated culture. What I choose to photograph and how I exhibit the images is one strategy to encourage people to question their habitual comfort zone they may not even realize exists because it is so deeply ingrained.
What is outside the norm is pathologized as obscene. Pushed out of the domain of the visible, the conscious, the speakable, it is the unseen, off stage, off screen. Consistently, the public manifests itself as that which must be contained, easily assimilated, and reproduced to maintain a neutralized, “safe” status quo. In contrast, the private transgresses civilization’s prescribed, legislated boundaries. The private within the public arena (for example, nudity) is too often synonymous with deviant behavior. Reactionary assimilationist hegemony targets difference as dangerous and expurgates vulnerability, rendering it palatable for the public, thereby erasing the potential for empathy and human connection.
We are living in a phobic global culture-of-collusion rooted in an opaque authoritarianism in which anxiety quickly morphs into repression. Internalized norms (whether fear of germs, our own bodies, nature, the fear of potential “terrorists,” or anyone/anything outside our zone of familiarity and habit) operate as the scaffolding of an ironically open-ended and violently repressive period in contemporary history. Foucault declared that we are living in simultaneously the most sex-saturated and body-phobic period in history. In 1994 at The United Nations on World AIDS Day, Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders addressed the fact that at that time, half of all HIV infections occurred in people under the age of 25. One response she offered was to encourage masturbation as part of a safe-sex curriculum. Although Elders did not explicitly say so, autoeroticism is a productive sexual agency that potentially prevents medical and social diseases (STDs and body-phobia). One week later, President Clinton was pressured to fire Elders for promoting “values contrary to the administration.”
Across continents and centuries, the body has been perceived as an object separate from the mind. The unclothed body is marked as provocative—a euphemism for distasteful, if not obscene—when viewed in public arenas. Our imaginations have been sacrificed to this Puritanism. In past centuries the nude body in art was synonymous with spiritual perfection. Now, to paint or photograph nudity is considered subversive. We are taught that we need to protect our children and ourselves from uncontrollable wantonness of the human body and its potential infestation of desire. Equally, intimacy and passion are seen as dangerous to society’s stability.
The US is in a state of emergency. Democracy masquerades as morality, dictating our inherited culture of shame that manifests through institutionalized suppression and self-censorship. For example, breastfeeding is sexualized (shamed in public) and therefore too often hidden in our communities. Anecdotal evidence of censored breastfeeding mothers’ in public sites (including Facebook, airports, restaurants, stores) can attest to this privation, with far reaching implications for the wellbeing of both mother and child. Our culture of pacification (convenience-culture buttressed by petro-pharmaceutical corporations) metaphorically and literally uproots a most fundamental intimacy—that between mother and infant: “Pacifiers have been associated with a fourfold drop in breastfeeding.1” Standardized, conformist laws of conduct characterize US “democratic” society. These laws are used to define standards of a civilization—determining what can and cannot be allowed in the public realm: including the corporeality of our bodies, sex-positive parenting, politicized motherhood, children and youth as viable citizens, authentic/productive discussions about race and gender. Additionally, unclothed intimacy between parent and child in public or private feeds our hyper-sensationalized media-frenzy.
Like Hélène Cixous, I am compelled by “the need not to submit the subject of writing, of painting [in my case, of photography, mothering, and teaching yoga], to the laws of cultural cowardice and habit…not to make things pretty, not to make things clean”2—particularly in the context of historical relationships among property (entitlement), being proper (appropriate), and être propre (hygienic assimilationism). Creativity becomes a political imperative in which intellectual and aesthetic risk-taking gives voice to social justice.
I am proposing an embodied democracy in which social models become a practice based on recognition of the absolute necessity of difference: the potential of our bodies as contingent modes of relation. Converging with Samuel Weber, I embed my explorations of the uncanny within an empathic field: “What is at stake in the uncanny is nothing more nor less than the disposition to ‘put ourselves in the place of the other.’”3 Rooted in an investigation of how to privately and publicly—ob-scenely (off-stage) and explicitly—dissolve the calcifying tyranny of certainty (that which obliterates the possibility of the unknown), my research explores an ethics of difference and a politics of transformation. Our own off-stageness, our own ob-scenity, dictates how we participate in these administrations—colluding, resisting, and creating anew.
2011. Oakland, California. I have three minutes to support my colleague, defending body freedom to the Oakland Board of Supervisors. As an Iyengar yoga trainer I’m comfortable asking the Supervisors to close their eyes and think about a part of their own body that either gives them particular pleasure, or a part of their body that makes them feel particularly uncomfortable. I ask them to notice if it is perhaps the same part of their body, and recognize how they respond to this contradiction. Ironically, the day before this council meeting I was interrogated by police officers who came to my home because an anonymous caller registered a complaint. I had been filming a naked prenatal yoga instructional video on my roof. (The anonymous caller came from the neighboring Ask Jeeves (Ask.com) building that towers above our apartment). When I asked the policemen what constituted public indecency, they said it depends on whether or not someone feels offended. The law is based purely on subjective interpretation. If the non-commodified-body is seen in public, it is considered “useless,” therefore inappropriate, (i.e., offensive, pornographic). The commodified-body exposed in public is deemed inoffensive when mediated for commercial purposes. We must remember our civil rights—Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas reminds us: “The First Amendment was designed ‘to invite dispute,’ to induce ‘a condition of unrest,’ to ‘create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are,’ to stir ‘people to anger.’ US society claims to adhere to the Constitution. In contrast with this charade, civic responsibility is precisely what I teach Zazu.
How we raise our children is critical to our agenda for radical social justice for women. Like Chaia Heller, who has witnessed mothers’ struggle between being “for herself” or “for her child,” I reject the “hierarchical structure of our society which organizes parenting in such an oppressive way for women.”4 Particularly in our Anthropocene Era, patriarchy seems impossible to capsize because motherhood has been systematically excluded from philosophical inquiry. Any sustainable, collective justice must challenge how we think about motherhood. Within my practice of thinking relationally about sexuality and motherhood, I continually remind myself of Foucault’s following questions in his introduction to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: “How do we rid our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures of fascism? How do we ferret out the fascism that is ingrained in our behavior?”5 Internalized fascism (one of its many manifestations being the pathologizing of motherhood) is so integral to our cells and psyches we are often not cognizant of its constitutive and formative mechanisms.
Fatimah Mernissi depicts this blurring: “Anxiety eats at me whenever I cannot situate the geometric line organizing my powerlessness.”6 The individual is simultaneously valorized while being expunged of specificity. Virilio stresses, “…sanitary ideology tends insidiously to break society at the level of the bodily quality of individuals; it relieves them of their specificity.”7 Congruently, John Tuite of the Centre for Embodied Wisdom encourages us to conceive of touch as a form of nutrition: “…we have a state of widespread tactile famine, a malnourishment so entrenched we cannot even see that it exists…touching…becomes rationed out, reserved for appropriate moments with appropriate people.”8 In the context of propriety, property, ownership, entitlement, and purity, “choice” becomes an “appropriate” product of petro-culture marketplace. These constructs all point to the illusory integrity of the individual. Hannah Arendt’s interrogation of lawless law (nomos anomos) reminds us of the Bourdieu-effect: “The system reproduces its existence because it goes unrecognized.”9 The trifecta of government, industry, and organized medicine breeds our epidemic of individualism and its concomitant addiction to the proper and property. Market-saturated “choice rhetoric” obfuscates how motherhood is manufactured. What happens when “informed consent” becomes another manifestation of manufactured consent? Where is the information coming from? How is it presented?
As a single mother raising my uncircumcised,10 five year-old son, I have intimately experienced the intra-cultural impacts of the neoliberal denial of our corporeal, societal, and global interconnectedness. Instilling conformist laws-of-conduct that continually replenish the toxic soup in which we all live, institutionalized biophobia reifies heteronormative myopia: shame-based, accumulationist individualism. Margaret Thatcher’s infamous declaration, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families,” represents “lawless law” throughout US corporatocracy. Every day I make the conscious choice to deflect how this plutocrat-driven democracy may impact my son. This relentless critical vigilance is integral to my practice of motherhood, and is at the core of this project. Plummer’s concept of intimate citizenship commits to the collaborative practice of the contextualized “I”:
At a time when a collapse of values and ethics is often claimed…[intimate citizenship] suggests a new climate of emerging moralities and ethics…it examines rights, obligations, recognitions and respect around those most intimate spheres of life – who to live with, how to raise children, how to handle one’s body, how to relate as a gendered being, how to be an erotic person. It tries to sense that such arrangements are bound up with membership of different and complex groups and communities, bringing their own inevitable tensions and splits. It recognizes that the particular dwells within the shifting universal. And all this means, there is a ubiquitous conflict that has to be lived with: there are no easy resolutions in sight.11
This approach does not offer a “solution,” but rather an alternative. Plummer’s intimate citizenship offers an alternative to petroleum-parenting, what I identify as market-driven choices parents make that overwhelmingly contribute to both environmental destruction and body-phobic institutional practices.12 In a letter to Alexis Surron, Anton Chekov wrote: “….you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly…In “Anna Karenin” and “Evgeny Onyegin” not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy you completely because all the problems are correctly stated in them.”13 The question is how are we describing the structural, legal, and ethical problems with which we are confronted? Only then can we begin to decipher how to approach Arendt’s demand to account for “lawless law.”
“Normal” becomes violently distorted in the service of capitalist accretions. When we allow our bodily processes to be homogenized through the lens of pathology, we relinquish both our autonomy and our interdependency. Too often, that which is outside the zone of the familiar is deemed socially inappropriate, therefore abhorrent. Habitual binaries maintain totalizing fears of difference. We use the lowest-common-denominator of intellectual engagement as a justification for how we institute morality—standards of a civilization—determining what can and cannot be allowed in the public realm: “Touch cannot be talked about in polite society…According to the Campaign to End Loneliness [in the UK], lacking social connections has an effect on health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”14 My research seeks to disrupt our neurology-of-habit and divisive reductionist tactics in which ethnocentric ethos thrives. Merging the private with the public—the ob-scene (off-stage) with the explicit—we generate possible uncanny individual/collective ethical action. By exploring promiscuous crossings,15 le carrefour, among sex-positive parenting, female ejaculation, and self-representation in the arts, I attempt to practice the socio-erotic ethic of intimate citizenship.
2010. Berkeley, California. Prior to my lecture at the Cultural Studies Association Conference, one of the presenters spoke about the neoliberal capitalist tendencies of feminist-owned and operated sex toy/book/film stores. Once again, my personal experiences clearly demonstrated the theoretical investigation at stake. After working for four years on the Outreach Team at San Francisco’s Good Vibrations, the pioneering sex-positive feminist adult-toy store where I wrote curriculum and taught sex-education workshops to a variety of communities, I was fired because my language was (and this was the official reason on my termination papers) “too academic.” In other words, I wasn’t pushing the products. Instead, I focused on our individual and collective psycho-anatomies and their socio-political implications. Good Vibrations, on the other hand, focused primarily on packaging sexual-liberation as commodity—empowerment through consumption—an infrastructural mainstay that equally fuels the disembodied commercialization of childhood.
Embodying Intimate Citizenship
My research emerges from my daily life: writing, photographic work, commitment to collaboration, parenting as a psychobiological relationship, and teaching. During my recent book launch for Viscous Expectations: Justice, Vulnerability, The Ob-Scene (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), at University Press Books in Berkeley, one of my readers, Jill Nagle, editor of Whores and Other Feminists, introduced me by stating, “Your practice and your life correspond to your beliefs more closely than anyone I have ever known…the care and intention with which you make your life choices…these aren’t just ideals…you are a living example.” I wrote my doctoral dissertation that became the foundation for my book during the first two years after my son, Zazu, was born. I wrote almost 600 pages in three-to-fifteen minute increments, memorizing lists of scattered ideas while breastfeeding Zazu—simultaneously interconnecting and disentangling a barrage of philosophical ideas saturated in hormones. Only through cross-disciplinary activism can I thrive as an embodied artist, mother, and cultural worker. Lucy R. Lippard, feminist curator, activist, and author of 22 books on art and cultural criticism, wrote of my book:
Alhadeff’s work is a fascinating fusion of art and scholarship. Intricate theoretical text is paralleled by unexpected photographic imagery – sensuous, enigmatic, and layered. The book extends into new and fluid realms the still valid idea that ‘the personal is political.’ Intellectually rigorous and esthetically daring, the book is hard work, and worth it.16
Art critic and writer, Sarah K. Rich, described my images through a similar lens:
That such disruption and interrogation can be accomplished within the regime of an almost formalist beauty…is just one of many moments in which Alhadeff shows that she thinks through the senses as well as the mind. Hers is a sensuous, as well as ruthless, intelligence for which the brilliant image is the best way of making an argument.17
I include Rich’s and Lippard’s reflections as part of my personal statement because they illustrate how I live Ken Plummer’s concept of intimate citizenship. Like Audre Lorde’s erotic politics, intimate citizenship designates our radical interconnectedness and loosens the grip of alienation—the illusory belief, sustained through neoliberal internalized fascism, that we are all separate individuals. Both Plummer and Lorde’s work can refer to the de-colonizing, liberatory practice of cultivating sustainable relationships among socio-psychodynamic hegemonies. My work, an alchemy of intimacy, animates the fertility of uncanny congruencies—illuminating a recognition of difference, the familiar within the unfamiliar—a visceral, socio-political connection/interrelationship with a myriad of alterities as constitutive of a dynamic democracy. This essay examines the possibilities of such a democracy within the context of sex-positive parenting as a single mother and ejaculating as a social emancipatory practice. As sites of public/private negotiation, my photographs frame these socio-erotic commitments to social justice.
1994. Happy Valley. The first time I ejaculated I reveled in sharing the sensation. I felt free to inhabit my body’s pleasures and excesses—no judgment, no fear—until my partner expressed his surprise. I had absolutely no idea it was considered abnormal for women to ejaculate. Only then did my mind intervene. Tragically, it is a cultural assumption that it is men, not women, who are capable of ejaculation. Millions of women do indeed ejaculate. The physiological reality is that both men and women have active prostates; in women the prostate is identified as the para- or peri- urethral glands.18 My reference to this phenomenon is not an attempt to replicate or usurp male tendencies or to degrade women’s bodies as a systematic functionality, thereby reifying hierarchical power relationships in which sexuality is reduced to a generic hydraulic model.19 Rather, my intention is to examine the political potency of male and female ejaculation as deterritorialized sexualities, sites for infrastructural transformation as an intimate citizenship of embodied democracy.
Elizabeth Grosz critiques the current reclamation of female ejaculation by some feminists (such as Shannon Bell) as an example of women being absorbed into toxic mimicry—the homogenizing, “transcendental” patriarchy. Grosz invokes Irigaray “for whom female sexuality is itself non-self-identical, non-enumerable, not made of distinct and separate parts, not one (but indeterminately more than one).” If we do conceive of sexuality from within a dominant reference point, we maintain its invisibility—reifying male sexuality as the model of normalcy. Grosz underscores that “[i]nstead of assuming an inherent mystery, an indecipherable enigma, female sexuality must be assumed to be knowable, even if it must wait for other forms of knowledge, different modes of discloser, to provide a framework and the broad parameters of its understanding.”
Rather than refusing to call public attention to the reality of female ejaculation, I want to point out the dangers of seeking the knowable. I recognize that Grosz’s call does not reflect Foucault’s critique of scientia sexualis; she specifically seeks “other forms of knowledge.” However, by only focusing on woman’s corporeality, she may inadvertently be feeding into the historical elision of female sexual desires and pleasures—supporting the very psychological infrastructures she is determined to disentangle. I am proposing a shift from Grosz’s entreaty for a “knowable” female sexuality. This shift combines Joseph Bristow’s challenge to form a political project rooted in Deleuze’s rhizomatic and schizo-analytic lines with Grosz’s search for a reconceptualization of female sexuality:
Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the body as a discontinuous, non-totalized series of processes, organs, flows, energies, corporeal substances and incorporeal events, intensifies, and durations may be of great relevance to those feminists attempting to reconceive bodies, especially women’s bodies, outside of the binary polarizations imposed on the body by the mind/body, nature/culture, subject/object, and interior/exterior oppositions.20
Again, we deterritorialize multiple sexes.21
We cannot afford to reassert another hegemony to replace or mimic existing normative paternal tyrannies. Such toxic mimicry reinforces dichotomous habitual behavior, obliterating the potential for fertile vulnerability. In The Temptation to Exist, E.M. Cioran enlists Samuel Beckett: “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”22 Like Grosz, I propose we re-examine generic terms of sexuality: “the relation between terms is what establishes a possibility of identity for each.”23 By reconceiving male sexuality as unknowable—we call into question underpinnings of what it means to “understand” any sexuality at all—biologically male or female.
As stated above, I am not looking for a substitute for male sexuality or to “depict male sensibility in a female body”24—such as representations of hospitalized birth and rape in film and the stereotypical ways in which women are represented in mainstream porn. Rather, I am driven towards Avital Ronell’s “feminine intensity”—a sexual ethic reconfiguring how we experience sex and the erotic in the context of intimate citizenship—how we inhabit our bodies in our everyday-lives. Ronell questions ways in which women and men internalize phallocentric discourses and systems of representation:
Could there be a feminine intensity or force that would not be merely ‘subversive’? Because subversion is a problem—it implies a dependency on the program that is being critiqued-therefore it’s a parasite of that program. Is there a way to produce a force or an intensity that isn’t merely a reaction (and a very bad and allergic reaction) to what is?25
By exaggerating, reorienting, and cultivating vulnerability, conventionally designated “private” expressions seep into the public, exposing the potential for collaborative-intuitive hysteria. In this context, I re-appropriate this historically misogynist concept. Hysteria, like female ejaculation, ruptures clean-cut categories/expectations. As a woman who ejaculates without the need for specific physical stimulation,26 the socio-political implications of what my body represents are vast: a rhizomatic, molecular sexuality, without end-point, no arrival, no derivation. My body inhabits and produces haecceities and affects in a chiasmic dissolution of binary codes and social expectations: “infinite, open, and unlimited in every direction; [they have] no top nor bottom nor center; [they do] not assign fixed and mobile elements but rather distribute a continuous variation.”27 Whether I am examining female ejaculation through the uncanny Deleuzian masochist or Taoist field of immanence, 28 I am positioning myself within an intuitive re-configuring of socialized sexuality. This Deleuze-Guattarian process of becoming-different animates a biopolitical economy of subjectivity. The chiasma of female ejaculation unfolds, thus “in a becoming, one is deterritorialized.”29
In Deleuze and Guattari, a plateau is reached when circumstances combine to bring an activity to a pitch of intensity that is not automatically dissipated in a climax. The heightening of energies is sustained long enough to leave a kind of afterimage of its dynamism that can be reactivated or injected into other activities, creating a fabric of intensive states between which any number of connecting routes could exist.30
This Taoist rhizome offers an irreducible difference among becomings. Both mindfulness and unpredictability play in perpetual disequilibrium—undergoing radical transformation that sheds the object while embracing the process. I am proposing a peripatetic sexual agency that engages sexual relations as both mobile and strategic positions—disrupting unchallenged assumptions of stratified, medicalized, and demonized sexual practices and expressions. Whether I am exploring my own sexuality, parenting pedagogies, or my photographic possibilities, my process incarnates a libidinal-somatic intensity. Such protean sexualities perform an erotics of the uncanny. My project both theorizes and metabolizes a conceptual shift away from a prescriptive project toward these deterritorialized sexualities. My performative practices and discursive self-portrait photographs/video-pieces reconfigure patriarchal inscriptions on our bodies. Grosz comparably describes how Lingis revels in the continual non-arrival of orgasm as a manifestation of deterritorialization:
[Lingis] demonstrates that sexual passion is not reducible to the goal of sexual satiation, but lives and thrives on its own restless impetus. Orgasm need not be understood as the end of the sexual encounter, its final culmination and moment of conversion towards death and dissipation; instead it can be displaced to any and every region of the body, and in addition, seen as a mode of transubstantiation, a conversion from solid to liquid.31
Reinvention of the private ruptures borders of the public. Using its own publicly designated excesses, my work eroticizes and celebrates the private as excess: hysteria, mutation, the monstrous. Correspondingly, surrealist women artists/writers Joyce Mansour, Leonora Carrington, Eileen Agar, Toyen, Frida Kahlo, and Gisele Prassinos reorient the hybrid-monster-body: “all are depictions of a grotesque body which call into question canonic representations, particularly those of the female body…occupy either too much space or not enough, never just the right space. Their very disorganization defies the laws of anatomy and physics.”32
I am compelled to explore terrain where logic and fragment converge and transform one another’s meanings. Excessive unexpected juxtapositions cultivate this grotesque. These “disorganized” relationships are nourished by intuitive cohesive logic—the dreamworld of the discontinuous:
The grotesque body…can be effected by the exaggeration of its internal elements, the turning of the ‘inside out,’ the display of orifices and gaps upon the exterior of the body. But in addition to this interpenetration of the exterior and interior of the body, an exchange of sexuality and an exchange between animal and human [organic and inorganic] also can be used to effect the grotesque and its corresponding sense of interchange and disorder.33
Both disorder of the human body and health “disorders” slip into the realm of the “grotesque,” rupturing the order of official norms of representation. Congruently, I intend my images to remind the viewer of shifting positions that require continual negotiations among expectations, desires, fears. It is the possibility of the viewer’s visceral relationship to her interpretation of the images that titillates both imagination and lived relations. Suzanne Lacy cites Alan Kaprow:
I think this sense of what it means to be a social persona and the fact that every social person has a private person inside is vital to the sense of community and to any meaningful sense of ‘public’-of public service. The way to get to those issues sometimes is organizational and structural, but often it has to do with compassion, with play, with touching the inner self in every individual who recognizes that the next individual has a similar self. And it is that community, whether literal or metaphorical, that is in fact the real public that we as artists might address.34
My visual and theoretical work evokes a sense of disorder and difference as potential erotic agency. I focus on female ejaculation not as an improvement or progression over non-ejaculatory orgasms (which would imply an inherent lack), not as a mechanical goal-oriented how-to, but rather, I scrutinize corpo-social implications of an ejaculating woman. Public affirmations of uncanny eroticisms such as female ejaculation shifts the focus from Bataille’s warning of production as inherent repetitive destruction to Goethe and Nietzsche’s consciousness of instinct:
As with Goethe, ‘all is redeemed and affirmed in the whole.’ Here is the affirmation of life, the essence of Amor Fati: we must learn the joy of perishing for the life of the species, of being sacrificed, as we have no choice but to be, for the continuance of life that both is ours and is not ours: not our individual lives but the life of the whole of which we are a part. We must learn to face with joy, with the Yes of affirmation, our part in a world that ‘lives on itself: its excrements are its food, and we are among what is consumed.’35
When physical proliferation gives way to theoretical excess, and we delve into the embodied zone of ars erotica, ars theoretica, ars politica, we can learn how to imagine a more expansive possibility of politics as a collaborative public pedagogy.
Fluid Collisions: art, sex, parenting
The confluence of sex-positive parenting, female ejaculation, and my visual work offers a site of deterritorialization as a response to J. Krishnamurti’s warning, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” In his Melancholia and Moralism,36 Douglas Crimp theorizes what I identify as one version of Julia Kristeva’s carrefour—the fluid intersection between art and sex. Crimp discusses the significance of the site, which is often more important than the act committed there; Escoffier observes that the setting is as significant as the sex itself.37 Similarly, my photographs are “literary” texts in the sense of Weber’s definition of the literary in contrast to the theoretical: “A text can be considered literary to the extent that its propositional, semantic, thematic content is exceeded or undermined by its syntactic movement. What it says is never separable from the way it says it.”38
The primacy of context, the act of viewing that is always in flux and infinitely repetitive as the how rather than the content,39 parallels my photographs’ censorship history—a history of the extimate. Similarly, the way we choose to experience our bodies can provide a framework of inter-subjectivity that moves beyond the narrow limits of what we think we know—engaging contradiction and difference as inevitable and replete with collaborative potential. Erotic politics exert “libidinal zones [which] are continually in the process of being produced, renewed, transformed, through experimentation, practices, invocations, the accidents or contingencies of life itself, the coming together of surfaces, incisive practices, inscriptions.”40 Although my photographs are consciously constructed, the relationships are born out of an improvised collaboration, practicing this repetition of contiguities. My images offer a cathartic opening into the becoming-vulnerable—an intimate citizenship of extimité. Intensive differences drive this ever-expanding process.
Carnal activities proliferate the possibility of political agitation and social (ex)change. These libidinal intensities reorganize our social body’s scopic drive. They provoke subversion and transgression in the workplace—conditions of production that when examined can no longer slip through the cracks of normalcy. For example, expanding the concept of safe-sex (not just the legal right to carry and distribute condoms,41 but emotional safety in which body-phobia and shame are de-solved) decolonizes health and pleasure as civil rights integrated into active citizenship.
[V]oluptuous desire fragments and dissolves the unity and utility of the organic body and the stabilized body-image. …The voluptuous sense of disquiet engendered by and as lust disarrays and segments the resolve of a certain purposiveness, unhinging any determination of means and ends or goals. Carnal experience is uncertain non-teleological, undirected.42
A woman’s ejaculate is “useless”; it produces nothing. It is waste, mess. Its formlessness is “indecent.” Its excess overflows the containable, directable—potentially disabling phallocentric-consumer addictions (such as the $15 billion feminine-hygiene market). Female ejaculation’s radical metaphoricity generates politicized corporeal cognition. This somatic rhizome demonstrates non-reactive resistance to the status quo—manifested through embodied theory: “…this circumstance of resistance requires that the unspeakable be spoken and that the impossible be done.”43
Steeped in excess, female ejaculation as a form of social emancipation is integral to this waste/use-lessness examination that undermines self-censorship while supporting public body awareness and playfulness. The abject emerges because there is no specific goal, no endpoint, and no particular direction. The practice of the abject propagates protean sexualities (crucial within a revised sex-positive parenting framework). Non-productive, non-reproductive, uncategorizable, “[r]esisting redeployment in pragmatic projects, [they] function in [their] own way, seeking to endlessly extend [themselves], to fill [themselves] with intensity,”44 they exceed the self. In his discussion of Elizabeth Llyod’s, The Case for the Female Orgasm, Slavoj Žižek views this excess as spiritual because it has no biological function (like male nipples).45
Erotic conjunctions provide a framework for perceiving the world through possibility rather than habitual prescription. Congruently, Grosz distinguishes between an Oedipal conceptual system of the citizen-via-family economy and a libidinal economy of an erotics of the unknown: “Desire need not culminate in sexual intercourse, but may end in production. Not the production of a child or a relationship, but the production of sensations never felt, alignment never thought, energies never tapped, regions never known.”46 My images elicit and nourish excess—a sensuality of monstrosity that constitutes the unknown, the uncategorizable. No matter to what degree the unknown is manipulated and assimilated, it is perpetually unknowable. The object exceeds its own instrumentality—the ineffable, the incomplete, l’informe (formless). This uncanny destabilizes purity. Because the relationships among objects within my photographs play out a process of continual de-centering and excess, I hope this language of critical imagination becomes an erogenous life-affirming power, breaking up predetermined taxonomies of knowledge, suspending what we think we know. Chiasmic language of this uncanny cannot be classified.
In contrast with hyper-regulatory parenting, this “practice” embraces parenting as one of the most confounding mysteries that we may experience during our lifetimes—one that offers us a tremendous opportunity to activate and cultivate our intrinsic capacity for agency as citizen-subjects. Our culture breeds body-phobia in the context of “waste.” Paul Virilio’s concept of sanitary ideology presents the implicit fear and eradication of what we culturally deem as useless. Virilio explores our modern relationship with waste:
The devaluation of waste is contemporary with the industrial economy. Waste, which for previous economies, was a source of wealth and a basis for sedentariness due to its recycling potential, is now becoming, with this industrial mutation, unhealthy, dangerous and non-recyclable. It has to be evacuated, hidden or incinerated.47
Fear of “waste” parallels fear of the unknown; the unknown, like waste is excess. Insidiously, this sanctity of normalcy constitutes a hegemony of representation that colonizes our relationships with our bodies. It silently breeds distrust of our innate corporeal humanity. Institutionalized constructions of vulnerability bind the psychological to the physical: everyday of our lives we learn that to be accepted we must suspect and contain our bodily functions. Bataille denounces a childrearing that is hygiene-directed, one that denies children’s relationship to play, disorder, and bodily curiosities, awareness, discoveries. I contend these relationships are integral to a sex-positive culture. Bataille exhorted, we must
artificially deform [our children] in our image and, as our most precious possessions, instill in them the horror of that which is only natural. We tear them away from nature by washing them, then by dressing them. But we will not rest until they share the impulse that made us clean them and clothe them, until they share our horror of the life of the flesh, of life naked, undisguised.48
Congruently, Virilio exposes our entrenched body-horror (self as other) as socially constructed. Inextricably bound to the unknown, the other within, the ineffable lurks at the edge of our bodies’ borders. We judge this other within as excess and waste. Clothed babies’ bodies are particularly relevant in the discussion of body-shame—how we interface with our children’s excretory processes.49 How we relate to our babies’ bodies and their “waste” is critical to how I position sex-positivity as a collective socio-erotic ethic.
Simultaneously, our culture’s sanitary ideologies’ obsessive germ-frenzy that requires antibacterial hand-sanitizers distributed throughout public space creates an unprecedented toxic-overload, hazardously disrupting our bodies’ chemistry. Fear of bacteria is symptomatic of ethnocentrism—an illusion that the other is separate. Our culture of pacification breeds distrust of our innate corporeal humanity. The unknown is corralled within parental controls. Parents who refuse to succumb to phobia-saturation are punished: arrests and loss of custody are becoming more common. For example, “safety-first” dictates parents’ prohibition of unsupervised outdoor play for young children. For older kids these restrictions translate as parental security-measures to monitor electronic play—“protecting” them from potential internet-sex-predators, or from the child/teenager’s own curiosity and where that may lead her in virtual public space. Sex-positive parenting is conventionally defined by those committed to “hyper-parenting” or “kinderarchy” as how to protect our children from child-abuse. The majority of literature on adolescent sexual development focuses on risk-avoidance, not sexual pleasure. I argue such fear-based precautions are a caustic outgrowth of petroleum-parenting that reify our epidemic of individualism: “It is in the name of safeguarding modesty and against suspect promiscuity that the isolation and subsequent rupture of social communication has been instituted in the city. …[C]ollective living seems intolerable.”50 Convenience-consumer-culture again comes to parents’ rescue. When will “safety” imply physical and psychological wellbeing, not regulation? When will the extraordinary loss of intimacy been seen as a legitimate “safety” concern?
We cannot ignore the extraordinary irony of instituting security-measures for parents to “protect” our children given current pharmaceutical tyrannies51 that dictate how parents care for our children. For example, the philosophical and practical implications of mandating medical “choices” (such as compulsory combined multi-dosage vaccines) strip parents of our right and responsibility to care for our children. For example, in his speech on the corruption within the CDC’s vaccine division, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. identified the vaccination crusade as “the most misogynist movement that I have seen in my lifetime. It is a movement that is anti-mother and it is anti-woman.”52 Parens patriae is a little-known doctrine that, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the state has the right to assert authority over child welfare. Reinforcing institutionalized sexism, “[t]he [vaccination mandate] discussion actually lays wide open the very philosophical foundations of individual freedom on which our country is built.”53 How can we accept parents’ staggering misguided concerns about the “safety” of their children when they voluntarily inject them with a litany of known, researched toxins (ranging from ethylmercury to aluminum)? Three years prior to Governor Brown signing SB277 that mandated all vaccinations for all children attending public school in California, William Wagner, JD of ParentalRights.org, wrote:
To evaluate state action that has an impact on parental decisions the state replaces self-evident, unalienable standards with its own morally relative, utilitarian assessments. [P]arents are told that questions regarding vaccination laws are public policy matters for the government to decide. …When the government eliminates a self-evident moral element from the law, it removes any moral reference point with which to measure whether laws are right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust. …Replacing the sacred parental right to responsibly determine a child’s medical treatment with dictatorial government mandates inevitably erodes a country’s essential foundations. …The government is supposed to protect parents’ freedoms, not seize them.”54
Concurrently, agribusiness, the pharmaceutical industry, and the petroleum oligarchy are reconfiguring our children’s sexuality. “Precocious Puberty” is the new term for early onset puberty. Members of the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Society claim: “The onset of breast development between 7 and 8 years of age in white girls and between 6 and 8 years in African-American girls may be part of the normal broad variation in the timing of puberty and not, in most cases, a pathological state.”55 This “new normal” science-fiction nightmare includes the biological symptom “…failure to mature…becoming increasingly common in boys.”56 Simultaneous over-development in girls’ bodies and under-development in boys’ bodies (in addition to the onslaught of misdiagnosed psychological states such as ADHD, ADD, bipolar disorder)57 represents an alarming bioethical crisis. Additionally, male sperm counts have decreased worldwide over 50 percent since 1938; simultaneously, the billion-dollar infertility-industry is directed primarily at women—another blatant example of institutionalized sexism.
How can we dissolve normative hierarchies that inhibit the excesses of our bodies? As mother, teacher, writer, photographer, I assert body-literacy, a collective biophilia that fosters intimacy, difference, symbiotic relationships, and open-endedness. Ronell prods, “How are you going to make the world safe for true deviance, true play…?” (151). My response is: begin with our children!
1 (Sally Morell Fallon and Thomas S. Cowan, The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care. Washington DC: The New Trends Publishing Co., 2013: 129).
2 (“Coming to Writing” and Other Essays, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991: 18).
3 (Samuel Weber, The Legend of Freud. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000: 31).
4 (Heller, Chaia. “For Ourselves and For Each Other: The Necessity of an Ecological Feminism,” Institute for Social Ecology, unpublished, 1991: 6).
5 (Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. 1972. Anti-Oedipus, intro. Michel Foucault. Vol.1 Capialism and Schizophrenia. London and New York: Continuum Books, 2004: xv).
6 (Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basic Books, 1995: 3).
7 (Paul Virilio, “Sanitary Ideology”, crash: nostalgia for the absence of cyberspace, eds. Zummer, Thomas and Robert Reynolds. New York: Thread Waxing Space, 1994: 98-101, 99).
8 (John Tuite, “Touch as Nutrition,” Pathways to Family Wellness, 47, 2015: 44-47, 45).
9 (Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991: xi).
10 The decision not to circumcise is another explicit sex-positive parenting choice.
12 See my Confessions Of An Eco-Obsessed Mother (and Other Lies), pending publication 2016.
13 (October 27, 1888).
14 (Tuite, 46).
15 Jenn Joy’s phrase.
16 Lucy R. Lippard, comments on Viscous Expectations: Justice, Vulnerability, The Ob-scene, in (Viscous Expectations: Justice, Vulnerability, The Ob-scene New York/Dresden: Atropos Press, 2013; State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014: iv).
17 (Sarah K. Rich, Uncanny Congruencies Exhibition Catalogue, Palmer Museum of Art, State College, Pennsylvania, 2013: 16-19, 16).
18 In 1998, I conducted the neurological research for Deborah Sundahl’s (also known as Fanny Fatale) instructional and diaristic video, Tantric Journey to Female Orgasm: Unveiling the G-Spot & Female Ejaculation—a sequel to her collaboration with Carol Queen and Shannon Bell’s original female ejaculation video How to Female Ejaculate.
19 “The fantasy that binds sex to death so intimately is the fantasy of a hydraulic sexuality, a biologically regulated need or instinct, a compulsion, urge, or mode of physical release (the sneeze provides an analogue). …When eroticism is considered a program, a means to an end (‘foreplay’), a mode of conquest, a proof of virility or femininity, an inner drive that periodically erupts, or an impelling attraction to an object that exerts a ‘magnetic’ force (i.e. as actively compelling, as passively seduced), it is reduced to versions of this hydraulic model” (Grosz 1995: 204). Additionally, the following four references come from Grosz 19995: 204, 222, 223, 223).
20 (Grosz cited in Joseph Bristow, Sexuality: the New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge, 1997: 135).
21 I recognize the limitations of assuming a two gender social structure. Trans-gender identity is not specifically part of my discussion.
22 (Cioran, E. M. The Temptation to Exist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1956: 7).
23 (“Of Bugs and Women: Deleuze and Irigaray on the Becoming Woman.” In Engaging with Irigaray: feminist philosophy and modern European thought, eds. Carolyn Burke, Naomi Schor, Margaret Whitford, Columbia University Press, New York: 335-350, 343) my italics.
24 (Virginie Despuentes, King Kong Theory: A Manifesto for Women Who Can’t or Won’t Obey the Rules. Trans, Stephanie Benson, New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2010: 124). Virginie Despuentes is the writer/director of the film “Baise Moi,” which was banned in her home country of France.
25 (Angry Women, ed. Andrea Juno. San Francisco: Re/Search. 1991: 128).
26 The closest physiological term “representing” this experience is psychogenic—an emotionally induced physical disorder. It is not surprising that this ineffable experience is associated with a disorder. A third type of orgasm, a psychologically stimulated orgasm (here I am not distinguishing between my orgasms and their corresponding ejaculations), (according to Ann Koedt’s clitorial hierarchy) “is through mental (cortical) stimulation, where the imagination stimulates the brain, which in turn stimulates the genital corpuscles of the glans [of the clitoris] to set off an orgasm” (Mary Ellman. Thinking About Women. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.1968: 330).
27 (Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus: Vol. 2 of Capitalism and Schizophrenica. Trans, Brian Massumi. London and New York: Continuum, (1980) 2004: 476).
28 “It is not a question of experiencing desire as an internal lack, not of delaying pleasure in order to produce a kind of externalizable surplus value, but instead of constituting an intensive body without organs, Tao, a field of immanence in which desire lacks nothing and therefore cannot be linked to any external or transcendent criterion. …The field of immanence or plane of consistency must be constructed. This can take place in very different social formations through very different assemblages (perverse, artist, scientific, mystical, political) with different types of bodies without organs. It is constructed piece by piece, and the places, conditions, and techniques are irreducible to one another” (Ibid., 1980, 157). For further discussion on the rhizomatic nature of Taoist sexuality, see Mantak Chia and Douglas Abrams Arava’s The Multi-Orgasmic Man. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996.
29 (Deleuze and Guattari 1980, 291).
30 (Massumi’s translator’s Forward Ibid., xiv).
31 (Grosz 1995, 203).
32 (Mary Ann Caws. “Ladies Shot and Painted: Female Embodiment in Surrealist Art.” In The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrad, eds. New York: Harper Collins Icon Editions. 1990: 381-96, 92).
33 (Susan Stewart. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1984: 105).
34 (Suzanne Lacy. “Introduction: Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys.” In Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, ed. Suzanne Lacy. Seattle: Seattle Bay State Press. 1995: 19-47, 36).
35 (Friedrich Nietzsche. The Will to Power. ed, Walter Kaufmann, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, New York: Vintage Books, (1886), 1968. § 1066, 548).
36 See Douglas Crimp’s 2002 Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
37 Examples of the import of a public staging of porn material range from 70s male gay porn set at the NYC piers to Jean Genet’s prison scene.
38 (Weber 2000, 1).
39 See Nietzsche’s theorization of the a-substantive in Fred Ulfers 2008 Nietzsche in Contemporary Thought seminar, European Graduate School). Additionally, the non-local co-relations theory in quantum physics reflects this a-substantive field.
40 (Lingis 1983: 198 cited in Grosz 1995: 251).
41 The Sex Worker Empowerment Project fought against a particularly vile legalized discrimination against transgender people’s Constitutional rights in New York’s Lower East Side. The project established a bill to stop punishing those who possess condoms, many of whom were transgender and inaccurately targeted as sex-workers: “Sound public health policy would encourage condom use by eliminating the fear that carrying a condom will be used against you by police or in a court of law.” If they are found guilty of carrying condoms, they “are shut out of public housing, targeted for eviction, denied the opportunity to pursue certain jobs and professional licenses, and subject to deportation if they are without immigration status” (Urban Justice Center).
42 (Elizabeth Grosz, space, time, and perversion. New York: Routledge, 1995: 249).
43 (Critical Art Ensemble Flesh Machine: Cyborgs, Designer Babies, and New Eugenic
Consciousness, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1998: 8).
44 (Grosz, 1995: 200).
45 (Žižek lectures, NYU 2009).
46 (Grosz 1995: 250).
47 (Virilio 98).
48 (Georges Bataille. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Vol. II, III. trans. Robert Hurley, New York: zone Books, (1976) 1991: 63).
49 My son spent most of his first four years naked (euphemistically, “diaper-free” (www.diaperfreebaby.org). He was potty-trained by age one and a half using elimination communication, the practice of closely observing baby’s elimination patterns while both parent and baby use sign-language to communicate baby’s needs.
50 (Virilio 99).
51 “Psychiatric studies funded by the pharmaceutical industry are four times more likely to be published if they are positive, and only 18 percent of psychiatrists disclose their conflicts of interest when the publish data” (Kelly Brogan, MD. “ADHD: Time for A New Perspective,” Pathways to Family Wellness, 43, 2014: 54-57, 54).
52 (“Unchecked Power,” Pathways to Family Wellness, 47, 2015: 8-17, 14).
53 (Aviva-Jill Romm,Vaccinations: A Thoughtful Parents’ Guide. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2001: 4).
54 (“God, Government, and Parental Rights,” Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children, Center for Personal Rights, New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011: 55-57).
57 The number of children prescribed Attention Deficit Disorder medication has soared from 600,000 in 1990 to 3.5 million in 2015. And, “[f]rom 1994 to 2003…there was an 8,000 percent increase in children…being treated for bipolar disorder” (Brogan 54).