Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Making Way for Winged Eros

There’s a sleevenote I’ve always loved in its combination of the politically and amorously earnest, on an entirely forgotten post-Dexys record from the mid-90s. It asks: ‘would you agree never to fall in love again if it meant the miners winning in 1985 or a Labour victory with a socialist manifesto behind it?’ And would you? Would I? More interestingly, why is this the choice?

In the year or so before his suicide, Vladimir Mayakovsky, revolutionary poet and zealous Constructivist, wrote two plays for the theatre of Vsevelod Meyerhold, both of which would be condemned by the press and regarded with suspicion by the censor. The first of these was The Bedbug, performed in 1929, with sets and costumes by Rodchenko and music by Shostakovich, seemingly the Soviet avant-garde in full force. However the play is full of doubt, rancour and bitter satire, caught between a shabby present and an antiseptic future. Prisypkin is a typical product of the compromised semi-capitalism of the NEP, an ex-worker done rather well who ‘fought the revolution for the good life’ – and a heartbreaker, jilting women here and there and having a grandiose wedding to a well-fed bourgeoise (‘both her breasts weigh eighty pounds each’). He is interrupted in his carousing, frozen and awakened in 1979, after the triumph of the world revolution.

What happens next will be familiar to fans of Woody Allen’s very similar Sleeper, with its orgasmatrons and icy rationalism. Prisypkin is reunited with one of the women who he spurned, and who attempted suicide in response, now an ageing scientist: she is baffled that she was ever interested in his melodrama and sentimentality. Yet these very qualities spread through the new society like the diseases carried by the bedbug that accompanies him in defrosting. ‘The professors say it’s an acute attack of the ancient disease they called ‘love’. This was a state in which a person’s sexual energy, instead of being rationally distributed over the whole of his life, was compressed into a single week and concentrated into one hectic process. This made him commit the most absurd and irresponsible acts.’ He becomes a museum piece, carefully fumigated so that his absurdities don’t spread. Passers-by declare ‘I’d better not look. I can feel those ‘love’ microbes infecting the air!’ Prisypkin demands an art with a ‘melting feeling’, which can’t be found in the new world. Mayakovsky essentially traps himself: he can’t bear the ‘petrified crap of the present’ and the sentiment and possessiveness of its sexuality, yet the future dreamt of by the Constructivists, biomechanicists and rationalists purges love in favour of a strictly utilitarian sexuality which is barely an improvement.

Mayakovsky had tried to unite Constructivism and an illusionless Romanticism for much of the 1920s, and in The Bedbug you can hear him giving up in frustration, as in his last poem ‘At the Top of My Voice!’ (1930)

‘I’m fed
to the teeth
with agitprop,
I’d like
to scribble for you
they’re charming,
and pay quite a lot.
But I
mastered myself
and crushed under foot
the throat
of my very own songs.’

The Bedbug, in its atypical ambiguity, is in part something of an argument with Sergei Tretyakov – Mayakovsky’s co-editor at Novyi LEF, with whom he had split in 1928. Tretyakov had, also for Meyerhold, attempted his own forensic analysis of love in a Communist society in the play I Want a Child (1926): in which ‘love is placed on a operating table.’ A female Party member chooses an appropriately handsome and powerful worker to father a child, on the condition that he renege all rights over either her or the child. Although according to Christina Kaier, in her analysis of the play, the conclusions reached are ambiguous, in his introduction to a mooted screenplay of 1928 Tretyakov sounds much like those who would scrupulously avoid ‘love microbes’, intending that in the future it ‘will be possible to return to conception the purity, all the clarity and social responsibility, that it lost choking in orgasms and gonococci.’ What we have here is a kind of Platonic fucking, in which, at the risk of the anticommunist crassness of quoting Orwell in reference to the USSR, a couple may ‘do our duty to the Party.’

However it doesn’t necessarily have to be like this. An oft-trotted out Zizekian anecdote concerns some young dissident Lacanian Yugoslav types asking a Party apparatchik if he makes love to his wife like a Communist. His affirmative reply is, apparently, ridiculous: but we should ask why this should be, and why the idea of Communist sex is so risible. At the heart of the project of demystification that accompanies, of necessity, the Modernist project, is a demystification of Love. However, this demystification is too frequently an abandonment or a fear of love altogether, an avoidance of it – the sense that it is somehow uncomfortable. The voice in the other speaker in the Gang of Four’s ‘Anthrax’, nervously setting out its stall, is one of the best instances of this: ‘these groups think they appeal to everyone by singing about love because apparently everyone has or can love or so they would have you believe anyway but these groups go along with the belief that love is deep in everyone’s personality and I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded in mystery’. The defensive peevishness of this almost occludes its very sound political point: as the voice in the other speaker describes its emasculation, love becomes a source of weakness, against true revolutionary uprightness: think also of Public Enemy’s declaration ‘your general subject LOVE is MINIMAL - it’s sex for profit’.

Is there a way out of this? A demystification in which one can be in love, or a love without illusions? One Lacanian suggestion here that seems strikingly reactionary is a sort of revival of Courtly Love: a sort of endless seduction with no assumption of consummation, a sort of sex-economic counterpart to the pomo horror of teleology, to which the Reichian fetish for the cataclysmic orgasm actually seems rather preferable. The other contemporary options all seem equally grim: the aggressive alliance of the curtain-twitchingly perverse and the censoriously traditionalist that seems to characterise sexual politics in Britain that one wag dubbed ‘Pruritant’; a simple carrying on as before, where the old marriage contract is secularised into the mortgage; and so forth. An issue underlying the semi-utopia of something like Ballard’s Vermilion Sands is a sort of degeneration of the sexual-utopian imaginary from its Fourierian roots: here it is no easier to imagine the end of jealousy or marriage than it is for us to imagine the end of capitalism.

Some revolutionaries have disdained this as a question altogether: Rosa Luxemburg once rather cutely compared discussions of sexuality to the pseudo-revolutionary posing of Reformists: one should do it rather than talk about it. Sharp as this is, there is the other tradition of love mobilised for the revolution: the early Wilhelm Reich, Mayakovsky’s About This, and the writings of Alexandra Kollontai, who in the early years of the Soviet Union declared that the petrified byt that Mayakovsky lamented should ‘Make way for Winged Eros’: that with both sexes given space, equality, education, outlets for their abilities irrespective of class, a love that was unambiguously physical but totally divorced from any notion of property – emotional or legal – could be the component of a non-capitalist libidinal economy.


Blogger Dominic said...

It's conventionally asserted that sexual jealousy necessarily imperils the utopia of non-propertarian eros; and this I think represents an imaginative incapacity that is, as you suggest, very like our inability to imagine the end of capitalism.

Houellebecq of course imagines total sexual freedom as entirely coterminous with capitalism itself, an "extension of the domain of the struggle" which provides still further opportunities for the weak and disadvantaged to be ground underfoot (the Sadeian universe of capitalist porn).

The problem in both cases has to do with what is expected of "human nature"; but it's a suspiciously heteronormative and performance-obsessed human nature that's being invoked here...

4:43 pm  
Anonymous dejan said...

owen, the resurrection of courtly love is not lacanian; where did you get that? lacan tells the fable of the hand that wanted to reach for the beautiful flower, but was interrupted by a hand coming from the side - the message is the precise opposite of any romanticism. true love implies realism: loving someone with their faults. it's a zizekian misreading, understandable though as it comes from the austrian alps, where burgeois aristocrats court upscale ladies against an impeccably hans christian andersen background.

on the other hand, the problem with that fetishised orgasm, as lenin asks milena in WR: ne lici li vam ta njegova ideja na ideju ...permanentne revolucije...kao skloni Boze, permanentni orgazam? (does this idea not look to you like the idea of a permanent revolution, like God forbid permanent orgasm?)

2:46 am  
Anonymous CR said...


Terrific post. I'm going to think about a longer response. I think Dominic's headed up the right track when he brings Houellebecq in at this point...

5:10 am  
Anonymous CR said...

is the third picture (Socialism must not exclude) from WR?

5:11 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Pic is from WR, yes.

Dejan, you may well be right abt the courtly love question: it's actually more via mark k-p via zizek via lacan, so may be decidedly bastardised in the process.

Permanent revolution/permanent orgasm question v interesting, suggesting that Reich is the psychoanalytic Trotsky (nb this analogy doesn't quite hold as L.T never moved to the USA and went interestingly mad)

5:21 pm  
Anonymous dejan said...

it's actually more via mark k-p via zizek via lacan...

it's usually across the ''via zizek'' route that psychoanalysis is bastardized; comrade fisher is still infected by zizekitis, but that will change overtime. lacan did see sex as more psychological than physical, which is in line with his theory of the decentered subjet - i see myself in your desire and you see yourself in mine - so it's like 2 mirrors fucking; but that does not at all equal ''courty love'', as the viennese burgeoisie saw it, nor does it cancel out the fucking. after all, how could a man who organized his teaching around a hard cock be dismissive of fucking?

Permanent revolution/permanent orgasm question v interesting, suggesting that Reich is the psychoanalytic Trotsky

the question is related to the difference between the psychoanalytic definition of desire as organized around negativity, a lack, which also implies an interruption, and the more marxist/humanist idea of a positive core that you also encounter in deleuze, which also implies endless orgasm, that is to say, immediate access to pleasure. Put in political terms, is Communism possible in THIS life, or does it lead to decapitation/castration? This I think is what WR problematizes, for Yugoslavia in Makavejev's time faced precisely that question.

I find it sort of symptomatic that the Reichian-inspired therapies never survived the clinical test, or they have been entirely commodified by capitalism, while psychoanalysis, though reviled and repressed, continues to exist in the pretentious French and Brazilian catacombs, as well as providing a definitive NON to capitalism.

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