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Patina of Desire II


(The centripetal force of attraction and its role in collective identification




The public role of figureheads, their public consumption - indeed their mass consumption, which constitutes the public role of the figurehead - this very public coin of the realm is not to be excluded from the realm of human desire. For this is an unrequited love that gives birth to all the arts of human iconicity. A relation governed by a one-sided recognition such that the perceiving subject has no hope of a return of recognition  - not least as an equal (the returns as we shall see are to be found elsewhere). The best to be hoped for is an association forged through the medium of badges, icons, and other representations of the figurehead. Head or body, mimetic or metonymic, this relation offers a second-hand fame by association, an association by faith, an act or profession of ‘secular’ worship (the wearing of badges, the mantric repetition of the figurehead’s words, the recital of their achievements, a loyal defence of their name). Otherwise there is the notoriety to be gained by the destruction of the object of identification and worship - increasingly frequent in our century of recognition crime (including the ultimate in wounded attention-seeking, that love letter to the media, mass murder).


Like a jewel on show, the apex of the pyramid has always given out a greater lustre, held a greater attraction, than the practicalities of negotiating the grey passageways of political power. Actual power tends either to be seen as the source of enablement (favours, gifts, access to essential routes of exchange) or as a point of avoidance (risk, arbitrariness, exemption from justice). Yet desire too operates in this arena, is triggered by the sight of the apex of the pyramid (or any one of a number of pyramids in today’s more plural society). Desire too is the light that emanates from the apex as from a lighthouse, its beams piercing our privacy, illuminating our sex lives (real or imaginary… but mostly imaginary) giving desire a cloth, form, image, target and object; the very pattern and model for the ideal pair(ing). Both major modalities of desire are fed by this social sun; the desire-for and the desire-to-be-like someone, the desire of other’s bodies as sources of pleasure and the desire that makes up our networks of recognition and identification, the pleasure of being someone.


Indeed, the desire to be someone…


In this light (the light of sexual desire) the identification with the ideal may include the (imaginary) appropriation of the ideal’s sexual partner, their persona, their preference. We evince a desire for their objects of desire, and even the association of our partner with theirs.


Here we enter the realm of public (political) figures as attractors (more ‘strong’ than ‘strange’) triggering either emulation or desire: Blair (in the early stages of his government) or Clinton (see also the affairs of a Kennedy or a Mitterand). Even a Berlusconi. For we have entered the realm of the politician as celebrity. But with an aura of power that has always been noted for its aphrodisiac quality, a quality overcoming the drawbacks of mere physical appearance (who ever said sex was about bodies!). The charisma of power: the charisma of being at the centre.


Collective poles of attraction form collective laws of attraction.


Collective ideals are also sexual ideals. Guides. Primed with mimetic force. Another source of collective identification. Providing yet another source of social cohesion, of national unification; individuals and their opposite numbers know how to count sexually, know who or what to count on. And in large numbers, so collectively also: all families and ‘the First Family’. Any number of families can be the first family. The Family at the centre (at the apex) becomes the model for us all.


Some examples from history. Sheltering under the sign of hyperbole (sign of the statue, the towering effigy, the giant Buddha). A rhetorical trope or technique of presentation designed to match, or augment, the aura of social standing (the opposite trope, meiosis, would be true, therefore, in the case of denigration and the point of view of ressentiment). So we have the reference to ‘Stalin organs’ (giant artillery) or the (legendary) capacity of Melissa (wife of the Roman emperor Claudius) or of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.


Public prurience is the mark left behind by the public’s desire…


The public role and image of couples (more examples). Imperial households. Royal families. Sisi and the Archduke, the couple at the centre of 19th Vienna and the empire it governed. A couple whose coupling must be maintained least the larger whole itself decouple. The public façade is a sexual façade, a bastion built on sexual honour, the ideal image of couple, the royal family, exemplars, ideal for all. Cult figures generating cult status (as with all public exemplars, all public figures, even now, negative ones… like the notoriety of the Wests and the shrine-like attraction of their dwelling, which had to be demolished to deter site-seers, souvenir hunters and other lovers of sexual prurience). From the British Royal Family we have the example of Charles and Diana. Princess Diana. Most cogently in the double aspect of Diana’s public image, her public consumption, appearing both as public sexual property (evident from public humour), and as Saint and martyr (as evinced by the public response after her death).


Sainted sexuality… A combination not unusual in Hindu art (for example) where there is not such a rigorous separation of religion and sex (desire actually, or the representation of sex as in Kujaraho; actual sex in ritual is limited to past anecdotes such a those concerning ancient Egyptian pharonic masturbation rites and Celtic bestiality). But a combination unusual (in the sense of being conscious deployed, consciously prescribed, not in the sense of its presence, its existence, which continued and continues nevertheless) in the monotheistic Christian West. Such matters were generally subject to taboo, ignored or else simply pretended out of existence (read, out of representation and consciousness). Yet another double standard, aided by the structure of the ‘public secret’ or the capacity for self-division as in the case of homo duplex which can also be seen to operate here (as it does so often in matters of gender representation and sexual difference).


And if the centre, the apex is not only a site of secular power, but also a site or person of sacred power? Can the same be argued of religious poles of identification? This would be (for the West at least) an unusual union of religion and desire… (do all women desire the charismatic preacher; do all men desire the nun)? However in the world of rhetoric at least (and where is there a world without rhetoric); that is, in the world of euphemism, in borrowed terms, such a union is to be found: as in the Bible (Song of Songs); in the Koran (the promise of pleasure maidens in heaven); and in the history of Hymns. This conjunction (mainly as a result of the above) can also be found in the Western tradition of secular poetry, in the courtly love tradition. A conjunction previously manifested in (the transgressive use of sexuality in a classic ritual formula) in desire as illustrated in Saint’s Lives, most notably in the Acts of the Martyrs, in the description of the sexual dilemmas of wives and virgins alike, and the graphic depiction of the torture of female martyrs (on the walls of churches not least…). More public prurience put to ‘good’ use… the use of the ‘goodly’. A use which passed first into the late-medieval Romances, then reappeared in the genres we know or collectively label as the ‘Gothic’, and so to their modern heirs in the today’s media.


Now revealed in newspapers and celebrity programmes… the ‘front page spread’. The ‘rise’ of celebrity. Cults always carry a sexual element; those of celebrity most transparently so. Again the formula: recognition + desire, such that mass recognition leads to mass desire; recognition as desire to be (like), and, of course, desire ‘as such’, the desire to possess, or be possessed (either way to achieve sexual pleasure by means of the desired one). ‘You are my princess/prince, my king/queen’, ‘my Lord’, ‘My Lady’ (indeed, returning to religion, we have the phrase, ‘sex god’ and ‘sex goddess’), etc. Formulas in everyday use; with equivalents in the restricted circuits of religions and cults and subcultures, echoing the insistence of the social pyramids of the past. And today’s equivalents? Whose image is it that graces our advertising? Incitement on the hoardings. Commodity and celebrity in a union predestined by our propensity to project our sexual desires onto (to have the content of our sexual desires filled by) the persons of the powerful. Sex sells… but only through the medium of identification. (One source of relief: politicians are not used to sell products in this way. Question: who can and who cannot be used to sell commodities in this manner? Not the same set, for example - or not yet, as those whose names can be appended to charitable activities and the demands for charitable donations).


Meanwhile in the world of imaginary identifications (and all identifications are essentially imaginary)… In the world of everyday imaginary identifications… of everyday fantasy… We see the popularity of the ‘social other ‘: as evinced by talk-show and other programmes on television and featured in the popular press (the tabloids). This popularity is not so much the ‘lure of the other’ (this classification would include the ‘down-dressing’ and ‘roughing it’ types of identification and desire as well as the, more typical, desire of those associated with the apex). Rather it is the lure emitted by an ideal pole. This is the centre of the social web, the peak of the social mountain as the focus of desire - and not its flip-side or abjected underbelly. Not so much structured through difference (or a simple transgression of boundaries) which would be bipolar (up and down) as much as through identification; through the mimetic force of the powerful, as the effect of a unipolar world (as in the global world of politics, where similar lines of mimesis may be discerned). A social (or imaginary) world partaking of one single gradient, one single line of magnetic force, one force of attraction (perhaps shared between competing elites as reflected in various media cults of the ‘personality’, that is… cults of the image). Culled from the imagination of the collective, yet as intimate as the imagined caress, the private obsession, the love-talk in ones head - as intimate as the taste in ones mouth. Public flavour of the month.


The shared sacrament, desire in common, public sex (in private), communal sex; a wind that blows through all communicants, all members, participants of a society or community from whose centre the wind of desire obtains. A wind filling the sails of our desire, and so, unbidden, unnoticed, setting its, our, sexual heading.






Copyright 2006, Peter Nesteruk.