Sex, Involvement and the Spirit of Contraction (Part 1)

A Spirit of Contraction

In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, Alan Moore described the 1960s as ‘euphoric’ and ‘expansive’. If this was the case, then the two short films the interview set out to promote – Act of Faith and Jimmy’s End (films made with Mitch Jenkins and intended to make up a larger series) can be described as ‘disphoric’ and ‘contractive’. Indeed, early promotional releases of the films ended with the tag:

Jimmy’s End pulls back the purple drapes upon an intricate new planet of desire and mystery. We’ve all been there.

Or it’s where we’re going.” (Jimmy’s End)

Though the sequence concerns Jimmy’s death and entry into some kind of Limbo, it’s more interesting to suppose this ‘intricate new planet of desire’ refers to a sexual-aesthetics of disphoric contraction.

Sexual and social energy has expanded out in every direction and today the world is reaching its maximal point of inflation. With the great connectivity of the internet and the universality of the means of image production, everybody is involved with everybody else and as a consequence, there is an increasing pressure to ‘involve’ in a more individual sense: involution contra revolution; Implosion rather than explosion; ingression, not expression.

‘Revolve’, from the Latin ‘revolvere’, with ‘volvere’ meaning ‘to roll’ and ‘re-‘ meaning ‘again’ or ‘anew’. By contrast, ‘involve’ from ‘involvere’ means to ‘roll into’, ‘envelop’ or ‘surround’[1]. The ‘in-‘ of ‘involve’ therefore connotes ‘self-involvement’ – a rolling back into the self which is to some extent the consequence of the more expansive involvement that has been used to aggrandise the ideals of social media. The pleasure of a ‘shared’ link takes place in the seat from which it is shared. IPod, YouTube – containers of the enveloped self. It’s remarkable that Facebook survived the name it was given, so weirdly anachronistic and embedded in an order of spectator-spectacle aesthetic separation: the face and the book.

So we can remark on three types of ‘involvement’:

  1. An expansive, relational involvement where you might say a couple were ‘involved’ with each other. The couple here makes up the dense relational unit through which they separate themselves, via mutual interest, from the surrounding world. You might say this was an intimate involvement.
  2. An involvement in the sense of being enveloped or surrounded by a system of the signs and technologies of expansion – intense, resonant figures of hyper-sex, wild capital, the social and the dream; an environment of extreme over-stimulation, expression and interactivity. This is an existential involvement.
  3. Finally, a more contracted self-involvement which is in part a response to an excess of expression. A spiral into the self where the other is used to magnify the condition of the self and where the pressure is for that self to retreat further and further back into itself. Ballard created a science fiction of inner-space in deliberate opposition to ubiquitous outer-space. This was an involution of imagination. Individuals may wilfully withdraw into themselves to escape the extreme sociability of digital information-technology and thereby intensify their own aphasic opacity. This tendency may not even be wilful: Joy Division, early pioneers, resemble the collapsing star of unknown pleasures in that Curtis could neither escape interiority through scream nor dance, always drawn inwards to the dense opacity of his own private singularity.

The Negative Sex and Aesthetic Involution

Act of Faith, the prelude to Alan Moore’s Jimmy’s End film sequence tells the story of a girl – a controversial journalist, preparing for a night in. She contemptuously dismisses an answering-machine message from her father – a loving, yet confused relic of a past she scarcely recognises; she takes a call from her hyper-social friends only to turn down the opportunity of a night out, then proceeds to prepare, by dressing herself in a self-described ‘slutty’, hyper-erotic manner. She phones a man we do not know – an acquaintance? A virtual stranger? A boyfriend? But the idea is that she phones him, tells him that she is lonely, has dressed herself like a whore, but that she intends to take her own life. The call is a prelude to a fantasy where she is to asphyxiate herself and the man is to arrive in time to save her – a situation we’d guess to be a prelude to sex. The key features here from the perspective of sexual contraction are her dismissals of the past and familial love; her iconoclastic public image; the enthusiastic interaction yet ultimate dismissal of her social life, and her opting to instead retract into an experience of near-death in a private room with what may be a complete stranger. Her room, her theatrical (or real, yet social) loneliness, the sexually amplified dress mark her out as the distinct focus of a sexual density that death serves to magnify.

A Dangerous Method (screenplay Christopher Hampton) plots the passage of sex through what we still persist in paying lip-service to as prevailing ‘moral ideals’ and the emergence of a new world which would have to deal with the wholesale expansion of a morally alien sex. It perhaps even forecasts a world that could be defined by the morally-chairoscuroic principles of this sex. When Jung is asked by his wife if he wished he were a polygamist like his colleague Otto Gross, he replies that if he were, it would be ‘something quite different’ – that what he and she have ‘is sacred’[2]. When talking to his masochistic mistress, colleague, and ex-patient Sabina Spielrein about whether their affair should end, she asks him what sex with his wife is like. He tells her it is habitual and tender. Her reply is: “Then this is another thing. Another thing in another country. With me, I want you to be ferocious.” The point being that this new sex is something other than and alien to relational tenderness and intimate involvement. Death, negativity and violence, on the other hand, exist in this sex and, indeed, are the reasons for its foreignness.

The real-life Sabina Spielrein’s essay Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being puts forth arguments that are remarkably similar to those of Bataille[3] – that sexuality, if fully embraced, requires the destruction of the ego and the individuated self. That our resistance to sex originates in our knowledge of this danger to the ego; that the self, which wishes to be preserved, must be destroyed in the process of seeking climax.

Somewhat anachronistically, Spielrein writes: “Why does this most powerful drive, the reproductive instinct, harbour negative feelings in addition to the inherently anticipated positive feelings? These negative feelings, such as anxiety and disgust, must be overcome in order to use the drive appropriately” (Spielrein, pg. 1).[4] The remark is anachronistic because today there is no disgust, no anxiety, at least, not in the dream of sex as it is instanced throughout our society. There is only the positive feeling, an exchange with no negative counterpart, which means, ultimately, a deepening boredom. There is no actual sex as the psychoanalysts perceived it – just social sex, socialized sex: the crippling emptiness of a stakeless exchange from which all negativity has been removed and boxed in the related fields of criminality, pathology and abuse[5]. Sex-positivism is an illusion, yet it is constitutional of the world we live in. In this context, where sex is so interactive and simulative, there is an incentive for it to reconstitute itself in more negative ways; to implode and become anti-social. The pleasures of destroying the ego conflate with the pleasures of one’s expulsion from the social – an erotic aesthetics of impotence , implosion, violence and withdrawal.

[1] Interestingly (given involvement coincides with the age of the feminine) ‘vulva’ too comes from ‘volvere’, the literal meaning being ‘wrapper’ as well as ‘womb’.
[2] It is noteworthy that the term ‘sacred’ today is essentially a container for a merely semantic definition, not the designator of any recognisable embodied experience or phenomena.
[3] I don’t recall whether Bataille references Speilrein in Eroticism, but the similarities are enough to make you wonder if he had encountered her work.
[4] We recognize that it is unfashionable to speak in terms of psychoanalytical metaphors such as ‘drives’, ‘ego’ or ‘self’, the neuro-scientific project having scattered the self across various bodily and brain-based mechanisms. ‘Ego’ and ‘self’ however are useful tropes when discussing implosion in that the focal point of experience is in the maximised experience of the subjective self. We could talk about the many ways in which our new physical conditions are compounding this sense of a self in the subject, e.g., movement is social, yet at a screen, the body is stationary and the attention fixed. Composing and typing text is an internalising process, whereas speech is externalising and expressive. If the body and subjectivity are related, a case can be made for how the physical realities of the present are pin-pointing the self as a zone of maximised experience, this constriction similar to how the body is restrained and asphyxiated in Act of Faith.
[5] Even BDSM is not sex-negative, but rather just serves an endeavour to socialize and commodify negativity. That a book like 50 Shades of Grey was able to create so much controversy in the BDSM community due to its ‘abusive’ and ‘stalkerish’ qualities reveals just how alien to genuine sexual negativity the BDSM scene is: the gulf between a social lifestyle and a genuine human/moral problem/experience.
  1. great insight!

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