The history of desire is inseparable from the history of its repression. Maybe one day a historian will try to write a history of "cinemas of desire" (the way one tells an audience who express their sentiments too excitedly to "stop their cinema"). But, at the very least, he would have to begin this history with classical antiquity! It could start with the opening of the first big theater of international renown, a theater for captive cinephiles: Plato's cave. It would have to describe the 2000 years or so of the Catholic church's monopoly of production and distribution, as well as the abortive attempts of dissident societies of production, such as the Cathar cinema of the 12th century, or the Jansenist cinema of the 17th, up to the triumph of the baroque monopoly. There would be color film in it: with 10th century stained-glass windows would be the silent cinema of the "bepowdered" and the Pierrots. A special place should be reserved for the big schools that transformed the economy of desire on a long-term basis, like that of courtly love, with its four hundred troubadours who managed to "launch" a new form of love and a new kind of woman. It would have to appreciate the devastating effects of the great consortia of romanticism and their promotion of an infantilization of love, while awaiting the saturation of the market by psychoanalytical racketeering with its standard shorts for miniaturized screens: the little cinema of transference, Oedipus, and castration.
Power can only be maintained insofar as it relies on the semiologies of signification: "No one can ignore the law." This implies that no one can ignore the meaning of words. Linguists like Oswald Ducrot insist on the fact that language is not simply an instrument of communication, but also an instrument of power. 1 The law, as the culmination of sexual, ethnic, and class struggles, etc., crystallizes in language. The "reality" imposed by the powers-that-be is conveyed by a dominant semiology. Therefore, one should not go from a principled opposition between pleasure and reality, between a principle of desire and a principle of reality, but rather, from a principle of dominant reality and a principle of licit pleasure. Desire is forced to maintain itself, as well as can be expected, in this space between reality and pleasure, this frontier that power jealously controls with the help of innumerable frontier guards: in the family, at school, in the barracks, at the workshop, in psychiatric hospitals and, of course, at the movies.
Thus, desire is so ruthlessly hunted down that it usually ends up renouncing its objects and investing itself and its guardians on these boundaries. The capitalist eros will turn into a passion for the boundary, it becomes the cop. While bumping on the all-too-explicit signs of the libido, it will take its pleasure from their hateful contemplation. "Look at this filth." It will become the gaze, the forbidden spectacle, the transgression, "without really getting into it." All the morals of asceticism and sublimation consist, in fact, of capturing the libido in order to identify and contain it within this system of limits. I don't mean, here, to oppose centralism with spontaneism, or the disciplines necessary for organizing the collectivity with the turbulence of the "natural" impulses; nor is it a matter of reducing this question to a simple case of morality or ideological strategy of dominant powers in order to better control the exploited ... The dualities morality/instinct, culture/nature, order! disorder, master/slave, centrality/democracy, etc., appear to us to be insufficient as a way of accounting for this eroticization of the limits, at least in its contemporary evolution.
The development of productive forces in industrialized societies (it is true both for capitalism and bureaucratic socialism) involves an increasing liberation of the energy of desire. The capitalist system does not function simply by putting a flux of slaves to work. It depends on modelling individuals according to its preferences and, for this purpose, to propose and impose models of desire: it puts models of childhood, fatherhood, motherhood, and love in circulation. It launches these models the same way the automobile industry launches a new line of cars. The important thing is that these models always remain compatible with the axiomatic of capital: the object of love should always be an exclusive object participating in the system of private ownership. The fundamental equation is: enjoyment possession. Individuals are modelled to adapt, like a cog, to the capitalist machine. At the heart of their desire and in the exercise of their pleasure, they have to find private ownership. They have to invest it with ideality: "production for production's sake." They can only desire the objects that the market production proposes to them; they must not only submit to the hierarchy, but even more, love it as such. To conjure up the dangers of class struggle, capitalism has tried hard to introduce a bourgeois owner into the heart of each worker. It is the prerequisite of his integration. Traditional models that attached the worker to his job, to his quarter, to his moral values, indeed to his religion (even if it be socialism) have all collapsed. The paternalistic model of the boss is no longer compatible with production, no more than that of the paterfamilias with the education of children. One now needs a deterritorialized worker, someone who does not freeze into professional experience, but who follows the progress of technology, indeed, who develops a certain creativity, a certain participation. Moreover, one needs a consumer who adapts to the evolution of the market.
For this reason, the problem raised is the transformation of traditional relations of production and other relations-familial, conjugal, educational, etc ... But if one relaxes the brakes too abruptly, then it is the machines of desire that risk flying off the handle, and breaking not only through the outdated frontiers but even the new ones the system wants to establish. The relations of production, formation, and reproduction oscillate between immobilist temptations and archaic fixations. The capitalist "solution" consists in pushing models that are at once adapted to its imperatives of standardization-i.e., that dismantle traditional territorialitiesand that reconstitute an artificial security; in other words, that modernize the archaisms and inject artificial ones. In conditions such as these, from the angle of production, the worker will be deterritorialized; from the angle of relations of production, formation, and reproduction, he will be reterritorialized.
Cinema, television, and the press have become fundamental instruments of forming and imposing a dominant reality and dominant significations. Beyond being means of communication, of transmitting information, they are instruments of power. They not only handle messages, but, above all, libidinal energy. The themes of cinema-its models, its genres, its professional castes, its mandarins, its stars-are, whether they want to be or not, at the service of power. And not only insofar as they depend directly on the financial power machine, but first and foremost, because they participate in the elaboration and transmission of subjective models. Presently, the media, for the most part, functions in the service of repression. But they could become instruments of liberation of great importance. Commercial cinema, for example, entertains a latent racism in its Westerns; it can prevent the production of films about events like those of May '68 in France; but the Super-8 and the videotape recorder could be turned into means of writing that are much more direct and much more effective than discourses, pamphlets, and brochures. As such they could contribute greatly to foiling the tyranny of the savoir-ecrire that weighs not only on the bourgeois hierarchy but which operates also among the ranks of what is traditionally called the worker movement.
Beyond the signifier, beyond the illusion of a permanent reality. It's not a speculative option, but an affirmation: all reality is dated, historically, and socially situated. The order of the real has nothing to do with destiny; one can change it. Let us consider three modern currents of thought, vehicles of three systems of signification: totalitarian systems, psychoanalysis, and structuralism. In each case, there is a certain keystone on which the organization of the dominant reality converges. A signifier dominates every statement of a totalitarian power, a leader, a church, or God. By right, all desire must converge upon it. No one can remain with impunity across "the line" or outside the church. But this type of libidinal economy centered on a transcendent object no longer corresponds exactly to the necessities of modern production, and it tends to be replaced by a more flexible system in developed capitalist countries. In order to form a worker, one must start in the cradle, discipline his Oedipal development within the family, follow him to school, to sports, to the cinema, and all the way to the juke-box.
Psychoanalysis, while borrowing its own model from this traditional type of libidinal economy, has refined and "molecularized" it. It has put to task new types of less obvious objects-objects that anyone can buy, so to speak. These objects are supposed to overcode all the enonces of desire: the phallus and the partial objects-breast, shit, etc ... From then on, the despotism of the signifier no longer tends to concentrate on a leader or a God and to express itself on the massive scale of an empire or a church, but on that of the family itself reduced to a state of triangularity. The struggle between the sexes, generations, and social classes has been reduced to the scale of the family and the self. The machine of familial power, rectified by psychoanalysis, functions by means of two primary parts: the symbolic phallus and castration, instruments of the alienation of woman and child. One recalls the tyrannical interrogation of Little Hans by his father under the supervision of Professor Freud. But before that, the mother's resistance must be subdued, compelling her to submit to psychoanalytical dogma. In fact, it never crosses her mind to object to her son's coming to join her in bed whenever he wants. The mother becoming the agent of phallic power, the attack on childhood is concentrated on the question of masturbation. One does not accuse him directly of masturbating; one imposes upon him the good, "castrating" explanation with regard to this question. One forces him to incorporate a particular system of signification: "What you desire-we know this better than you-is to sleep with your mother and to kill your father."
The importance of submitting the child to the Oedipian code-and this at an early age-does not result from a structural or signifying effect, separate from history or society. It depends on capitalism's inability to fi-nd other ways of providing the family with an artificial consistency. In archaic societies, the child was relatively free in his movements until his initiation. But in a capitalist society, initiation begins with the pacifier: the motherchild relationship tends to be more and more strictly controlled by psychologists, psychoanalysts, educators, etc. In its older formulation, power was maintained as a paradigmatic series-fatherboss-king, etc., culnlinating in a discernible, incarnate, and institutionalized God. In its present formulation, incarnation is deterritorialized and decentered. It is everywhere and nowhere, and it depends on family models to arrange a refuge for it. But in their turn, the diverse psychoanalytic models of Oedipal triangulation appear too territorialized with regard to parental images and partial objects. Much more abstract, much more mathematical models of the unconscious have to be proposed.
Structuralism in psychoanalysis-as in other domains-can be thought of as an attempt to substitute a nameless God for the God of the church and the family. It proposes a transcendent model of subjectivity and desire that would be independent of history and real social struggle. From that moment, the conflict of ideas tends to be displaced anew. It leaves the psychoanalytical terrain of the family and the self for that of the semiotic and its applications in mass media. I cannot undertake here a critical analysis of structuralism; I only want to point out that, to my mind, such a critique should start by questioning the syncretic conception of the diverse modes of encoding. It seems to me indispensable, first of all, to avoid absorbing "natural" encodings, such as the genetic code, into human semiologies. One entertains the illusion that the "natural" order as well as that of the social arrangements (like structures of kinship) would be structured "like languages." Thus, one confuses the modes of encoding that I call asemiotic-like music, painting, mathematics, etc.-with those of speech and writing. Second, it seems necessary to distinguish between the presignifYing semiologies-for example, of archaic societies, the insane, and childrenand fully signifYing semiologies of modern societies that are all overcoded in the writing of social and economic laws. In primitive societies, one expresses oneself as much by speech as by gestures, dances, rituals, or signs marked on the body. In industrialized societies, this richness of expression is attenuated; all enonces have to be translatable to the language that encodes dominant meanings.
It is also important to expose and insist on the independence of an asignifYing semiotics. It is this, in fact, that will allow us to understand what permits cinema to escape the semiologies of meaning and to participate in the collective arrangements of desire.
If structuralism refuses to consider this independence, there can be no question of leaving the domain of signification-i.e., the signifier-signified duality. It tries, moreover, to systematically inject meaning into all signifying regimes that tend to escape it. (It will invent "relational significations" for science or, for the cinema, the unities of "iconomatic" significations, etc.) In putting the signifier and the signifying chains in the forefront, it substantiates the idea of keeping the contents at a secondary level. But, in fact, it secretly transfers the normalizing power of language onto the signifier. Hence, in masking the possible creativity of asignifying semiotic machines, structuralism plays into an order tied down to dominant significations.
When it is exploited by capitalist and bureaucratic socialist powers to mold the collective imaginary, cinema topples over to the side of meaning. Yet, its own effectiveness continues to depend on its presignifying symbolic components as well as its asignifying ones: linkages, internal movements of visual images, colors, sounds, rhythms, gestures, speech, etc. But unlike the speech and writing that, for hundreds, indeed, thousands of years, has remained pretty much the same as a means of expression, cinema has, in a few decades, never ceased to enrich its technique. In this way, to catch up with these effects, the powers-that-be have tried to increase the control they exercise upon it. The more it enlarges its scale of aesthetic intensities, the more the systems of control and censure have tried to subjugate it to signifying semiologies.
As an asignifying semiotic, how does cinema go beyond the structure of signifying semiologies? Christian Metz explains it better than I can; he shows that cinema is not a specialized language and that its matter of content3 is undefined: "the breadth of its semantic fabric is a consequence of two distinct causes whose effects are cumulative. On the one hand, cinema encompasses a code-language, in the talkies-whose presence itself would be enough to authorize semantic information of the most varied type. Second, other elements of the filmic text, for example, images, are themselves languages whose matter of content has no precise boundaries." Its matter of content extends so much more effectively beyond traditional encodings, since the semiotic alloy that composes its matter of expression is itself open to multiple systems of external intensities.
Its matters of expression are not fixed. They go in different directions. Christian Metz enumerates some of them, emphasizing that each has an intrinsic system of pertinent features:
1) the phonic fabric of expression, that refers to spoken language (signifying semiology);
2) the sonorous but nonphonic fabric that refers to instrumental music (asignifying semiotic);
3) the visual and colored fabric that refers to painting (mixed, symbolic, and asignifying semiotic);
4) the noncolored, visual fabric that refers to black and white photography (mixed, symbolic, and asignifying semiotic);
5) the gestures and movements of the human body, etc. (symbolic semiologies).
Umberto Eco had already pointed out that cinema does not bend to a system of double articulation, and that this had even led him to try to find a third articulation. But, doubtless, it is preferable to follow Metz who believes that cinema escapes all systems of double articulation, and, in my opinion, all elementary systems of significative encoding. The meanings in cinema are not directly encoded in a machine of intersecting syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes-they always come to it, secondarily, from external constraints that model it. If silent film, for example, had succeeded in expressing the intensities of desire in relation to the social field in a way that was much more immediate and authentic than that of the talkies, it was not because it was less expressive, but because the signifying script had not yet taken possession of the image and because, in these conditions, capitalism had not yet seized all the advantages it could take from it. The successive inventions of the talkies, of color, of television, etc., insofar as they enriched the possibilities of expressing desire, have led capitalism to take possession of cinema, and to use it as a privileged instrument of social control.
It is interesting, in this respect, to consider the extent to which television has not only not absorbed cinema, but has even subjected itself to the formula of commercial film, whose power, for this very reason, has never been so strong. In these conditions, the stakes of liberalizing pornographic film seem secondary to me. One remains here at the level of a sort of "negotiation" with the contents that do not really threaten the established powers. On the contrary, these powers find it expedient to release the ballast on a terrain that does not threaten the foundations of established order. It would be completely different if the masses were at liberty to make the kind of film they wanted, whether pornographic or not. The miniaturization of material could become a determining factor in such an evolution.5 The creation of private television channels by cable should be a decisive test; in fact, nothing guarantees us that what will develop, from the standpoint of the economy of desire, will not be even more reactionary than what is broadcast by national television. Whatever it is, it seems to me that all that tends toward limiting micropolitical struggles of desire to an eros cut off from all context is a trap. And this doesn't just hold true for the cinema.
The capitalist eros, we said, is always invested on the limit between a licit pleasure and a codified interdiction. It proliferates alongside the law; it makes itself the accomplice of what is forbidden; it channels the libido to the forbidden object that it only touches on superficially. This economy of transgression polarizes the desiring-production in a game of mirrors that cut it from all access to the real and catches it in phantasmic representations. In this way, desiring-production never ceases to be separated from social production. Fantasized desire and the capitalist real which convert desire to "useful" work involve, apparently, two different types of arrangements. In fact, they involve two politics of desire that are absolutely complementary: a politics of reenclosure on the person, the self, the appropriation of the other, hierarchy, exploitation, etc., and a politics of passive acceptance of the world such as it is.
Against the notions of eros and eroticism, I would like to oppose those of desire and desiring-energy. Desire is not, like eros, tied down with the body, the person, and the law; it is no more dependent on the shameful body-with its hidden organs and its incestuous taboothan to a fascination with and to myths about the nude body, the all powerful phallus, and sublimation. Desire is constituted before the crystallization of the body and the organs, before the division of the sexes, before the separation between the familiarized self and the social field. It is enough to observe children, the insane, and the primitive without prejudice in order to understand that desire can make love with humans as well as with flowers, machines, or celebrations. It does not respect the ritual games of the war between the sexes: it is not sexual, it is transsexual. The struggle for the phallus, the threat of an imaginary castration, no more than the opposition between genitality and pregenitality, normality and perversion, fundamentally concern it. Nothing essential leads to the subjugation of the child, the woman, or the homosexual. In a word, it is not centered on dominant significations and values: it participates in open, asignifying semiotics, available for better or worse. Nothing depends here on destiny, but on collective arrangements in action.
In conclusion, I must say of the cinema that it can be both the machine of eros, i.e., the interiorization of repression, and the machine of liberated desire. An action in favor of the liberty of expression should therefore not be centered a priori on erotic cinema, but on what I will call a cinema of desire. The real trap is the separation between erotic themes and social themes; all themes are at once social and transsexual. There is no political cinema on the one hand and an erotic cinema on the other. Cinema is political whatever its subject; each time it represents a man, a woman, a child, or an animal, it takes sides in the micro class struggle that concerns the reproduction of models of desire. The real repression of cinema is not centered on erotic images; it aims above all at imposing a respect for dominant representations and models used by the power to control and channel the desire of the masses. In every production, in every sequence, in every frame, a choice is made between a conservative economy of desire and a revolutionary breakthrough. The more a film is conceived and produced according to the relations of production, or modelled on capitalist enterprise, the more chance there is of participating in the libidinal economy of the system. Yet no theory can furnish the keys to a correct orientation in this domain. One can make a film having life in a convent as its theme that puts the revolutionary libido in motion; one can make a film in defense of revolution that is fascist from the point of view of the economy of desire. In the last resort, what will be determinant in the political and aesthetic plane is not the words and the contents of ideas, but essentially asignifying messages that escape dominant semiologies.
Félix Guattari - Chaosophy, Cinema of Desire
Published by Semiotext(e) 2007 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 427, Los Angeles, CA 90057
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