(Sub-)Human Materialisations of Art-Making and Making-Love
It was one of my first intimate encounters. Maybe it was about four years or so since the border in the middle of Cyprus had been opened. Now, it was possible to cross the Green Line1 to experience the 'other side.' As the isolation of North Cyprus ended, I was to be touched, and within that touch, I was to be called into being for the globalising 'real world' by someone from the 'south,' who was already global. I was a pro-peace gay youngster who was hungry to get it on with the enemy to initiate the unlearning of local hostilities. After chatting for a couple of days on a gay dating website, we arranged to meet at his flat in south Nicosia. He was mature, maybe ten years or more, older than me. Sharing my untrained, lustful kisses with an urge to be merged with what back then seemed an incredibly perfect body, I started to feel pulled. As I was orbiting that real world, I might well have approached a landing. But wait! He was pulling me towards the window. A syntax of words spilled into my ears from far away. Weakly I heard by the vacuum of the space he had created around me and I said: "What?" He repeated: "Fuck me on the window while I look at the gigantic flag painted on the 'five-fingers!'"2 In the blink of an eye, I was shaken up with a sudden, respective emergence and disappearance of the Earth with its actual 9.807 Newtons of gravity. My spacewalk has been terminated. So there I landed and formed. I opened my eyes. I was neither on the Earth nor in the world, I had expected to discover.
Ever since I have re-experienced this story in further variations: The more I have tried, the more I have learned about different interpretations that emerged from what the 'intimate others' expected from my body. Yet I have never given up on the love(s) that I am still naively awaiting. But even more thrilling was the moment I discovered the kinship between those interpretations and expectations about my body that is making-love; with those about my art-making body. As norms, conventions, and institutional powers are already acting before any action we can undertake, before we ever become subjects in this world who mistakenly think of themselves as the agents of their own actions; as they are waiting on the lurk for us already pre-shaping the mould that will form the elastic beings that we are to fix our gender, race, and status - they also channel what we can do with our hands that is more than just living: directing what kind of art-makers we can ever be. Similar to the diversity of the human genitalia with its unlimited capabilities, all kinds of human hands with their artifices are also taxonomically and discursively limited prior to their first actions. So how can we draw on the elasticity of our bodies/minds to manipulate those mouldings and reform ourselves for anew?
I understand an artistic personality as a form of self-portraiture, already a practice of art-making in the performative sense. And I see great potential in reading this act through the lenses of the queer-feminist approach to linguistics: This is 'artistic performativity' in place of gender performativity. Although Judith Butler has raised concerns about simplistic analogies and attempts to apply the theory of performativity to other issues like race, she argues that we need to keep the question of "what happens to the theory" at the centre when addressing further problems in mind (Butler 1999, 16-17). Since practicing art involves grappling with the issues of both race and sex at once, focusing on the subject formation can be a way to engage with many innovative questions for the field. Especially for someone for whom materialising artistic and sexual/intimate practices is rarely free of the racialising charge. Is there a kinship between the two practices? What happens to the performativity of gender when considered alongside the performativity of artisanship?
At the end of the 1980s, the new gender theory put forward by poststructuralist Judith Butler took linguistics as its departure point. Her notion of gender performativity draws upon Austinian speech act theory but takes it further. Austin's theory categories verbal utterances as constative and performative. The most inspirational aspect of Austin's work for Butler was the notion of the illocutionary speech act - a subdivision of performative utterances - classified as being either happy or unhappy, successful or unsuccessful according to the results provoked by an act. Further, she used Louis Pierre Althusser's concept of interpellation - the moment when an individual gets to be called or hailed into being - and related it to subject formation through the ideologies of the state apparatuses that dominate and control. Althusser's theories also influenced Michael Foucault, whose work in turn inspired Butler. Finally, she takes the notion of iterability, or citationality from Derrida (Butler 1993, 1999). Derrida's citationality is like a signature; a metaphor that conceives the body as a social text consisting of acts like thinking, modes of expression, and ways of being, rendering it first identifiable, then repeatable, and finally copiable (Derrida 1972).
Thus, performativity has a triple meaning in the Butlerian sense. The first is purely linguistic, referencing how verbs perform or bring forth something through their verbalisation.3 Second is the theatricality of the act. Let us consider a statement of "promise" to do something. The way the speaker expresses the intention is a dramatic or ritualistic part of their speech. However, if that promise is not upheld, the performative speech act becomes false, unhappy, or unsuccessful.
Another example is a marriage ceremony. The totality of such an event that bring together guests, costumes, music, feasting, and dancing culminates with the utterance of a question by an authority figure that calls upon two yet to be bonded persons each to say "I do," whereafter the figure pronounces them legally wedded (Butler 1993, 170). Ritualistic moments create authority, and authorities invoke ritual, often with reference to higher authorities - as the highest is the God. Butler points out when a doctor holds a newborn baby and pronounces "it is a boy" or "it is a girl," that is not a descriptive claim, but a normative one, authorised by institutional power (Butler 1993, 17). The rest of the magic or curse then lands from the realm of illocutionary speech act to the freshly defined discursive gender performative. Because, the authoritative ritual that has initiated the gendering is not sufficient enough to be successful, according to the expectations of the power that cast the spell upon the baby. This leads us to the third meaning of the performatives. These supposedly constative statements must be repeatedly enacted. In other words, linguistically (religious, cultural, institutional, etc.) established citations or signifiers have to be re-signified and reiterated to be naturalized so that Butler can rethink performatives as citational in the Derridean sense (Butler 1993, 225): "Gender is a stylized iterative act of doing through time" (Butler 1990, 520). Every one of us is doing a gender, rather than being one! Gender is not a constative but a performative act of doing. Once we plunge into the linguistic or discursive realm, which is lying in wait for us prior to our birth, there is no way out. So much that there is no access to biological information (physical, genetic, neurological, etc.), which eventually results in the dissolution of the sex from being an organic signification. Consequently, such logic saves us all from the deterministic and essentialist conclusions of the heteronormative gender binary. The very binary that was initially established by the Abrahamic myth of Adam and Eve, expected to be naturalized over time.
I understand, for Butler, there is no physical body that exists prior to the social meanings that are imposed upon it. Social and normative meanings are sedimented beliefs that bring us into being. Thus, she rejects the idea of a naturalised body. However, as much as I agree with most of her argument, it is still far from clear what we should make of the claim that "sex was always already gender" (Butler 1999, 11). Alison Stone takes up and points out that just because the social construction of gender implicates (biological) sex at the same time, does not make sex identical to gender. According to her, it would be more precise if Butler were to say that social affirmations and claims about sex designate gender norms (Stone 2007, 70).
In the opening of this text, I expressed, rather poetically, why the ways that sexual acts construct subjectivities have interested me. To draw the parallels between the sexual and artistic actions, I will argue that: At first, the non-heteronormative sexuality that my body materialises always reduces me to who I am for the masculinist hetero-patriarchy. Second, since art-making is also a reiterative act of doing, the relationship between the bodily image of an artist in its given context and the artistic images s/he/they produce(s) is not much different from the relationship between what a body represents and the sexuality it performs. Reflecting on these thoughts, I modified the opening of the introduction to Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter. In doing so, I assigned art-making and art(ifice) - whichrelate to the assumed normative functions of the hands, as part of the body - to the same ontological category as the gender and sex binary - related to the assumed normative function of another part of the body, the genitalia of all kinds - in the following thought experiment:
So how would the artistic difference of human artifice materialise? When did the artist jump into the historical scene as a subject? And when did he start generating norms that designate how the artisan human hands should function? Since when has this been naturalised? Where is the dramatic moment of "divine performative" hailing him into being? Are the secrets of how this magnificent figure came about to be found in Adam's rib or Eve's apple?
I want to answer this by focusing on the phrase "regulatory ideal." I understand this Foucauldian term as a system that sustains the invented concept of "Human" with capital "H". Who is this Human as the ideal or as the norm? If I were to describe this, I would start with the history of the Abrahamic cultures and their constant battles for dominance until eighteenth-century Europe singled itself out by building the most innovative weapon ever: Changing the Christian doctrine applying to all to only those who can think (cogito). In other words, this is the famous body and mind binary of Cartesian Dualism, which helped bring the Christian subject to his global triumph by shape-shifting him into a seemingly secular, rational, positivist subject of Enlightenment authorise to subcategorise many Others, starting with women who he claimed did not appear or function in the same ways that he did. Crafting the Human bit by bit since the Renaissance, this new kind of 'Man' absolved himself from the primary sin(s) of Christianity by simply splitting this new subject of himself from the rest of the world in order to justify the ongoing imperialism and exploitation of Others and take it to the extreme. This historical operation was only made possible by forging a special kind of scissors with two essential blades to further modify the already troubling cosmology of the Abrahamic religions. More specifically the cosmology of European Christianity with its Great Chain of Being:5 On one side of the pivot, there is the sub-human, a bridge to the non-human or Devil; on the other, the divine artist, a prosthetic extension, the hand of the God. Both blades worked restlessly to repeatedly establish White Man as the single - yet universal - protagonist of this new world.
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana.
Aiming to tear down the many derivatives of this body-mind dualism in the genealogy of globally exported European thinking, critical theorists try to understand and dismantle the historically embedded racialisation and sexualisation. The processes made the Human project continue to impact upon all of us, collectively and personally. Numerous artists and academics work towards identifying these problems and developing ways to resist them, using the methodologies derived from queer theory and postcolonial and diaspora studies. As these critical theories are developed further and gain institutional recognition and power, the time has come to identify and question another assumed binary in the universalised world of art.
Of course, the link between the divine artist and sub-human servant has shifted shape over time. At least in the art world, we no longer experience the eighteenth-century European scissors with two oppositional blades cleanly cutting and dividing our creative world. It is perhaps now more of a complex, self-sufficient, and dynamic sewing machine of political correctness that tries to sew the cut pieces back together by means of representationalism: with a red thread. Therefore, it is now self-evident to infer that non-sexualized and non-racialized bodies can mobilise themselves today independently of their bodily materiality. On the contrary, although racialized and sexualized bodies are no longer simply servants in the classical sense - they can even become artists today - they will always remain very much limited, encapsulated within the means of the body, lacking that transcendental organic territory, the mind. This means that there are two distinct kinds of art-making are available to two apparently similar-looking yet ontologically different kinds of artists. There is an "Artist" with capital "A" who is sailing towards the horizons of the pure mind, unknown, undiscovered, and future. And then an artist who is a sub-category to the former: a craftsperson, who digs into the depths of the body, its pain, and memory, seeking to restore its own humanness. Both of these figures are highly institutionalised: how is it possible to move away from these contemporary binary tendencies of art-making, when it is still important, at least for me is vital to keep my state of being as an image-maker, to dismantle the history of this split?
Yet, the question is difficult to disentangle, let alone to answer. For example, there is an intermingling problem between these homophonic figures (Artist/artist and Human/human). I have difficulty putting the processes of sexualization on one side of the binary really. It is more complex than that. It is fluctuating there and here. There is a theory of binary but there are also lives and practices of living. In the Western hemisphere, every subject formation is granted a moment of being in the position of the Vitruvian Man: the Vitruvian woman, the Vitruvian gay, the Vitruvian lesbian, and then the Vitruvian trans, and then the Vitruvian intersexes, and then the Vitruvian non-binaries. These moments sometimes function representationally so successfully that it seems like all the letters and symbols of LGBTQI+ seem to be slowly but surely finding ways to become Humans. The satisfaction that comes with the whiteness or white-likeness leans to one side of this binary opposition, complicating the identification of the problem and impeding starting with an undoing process.
As Joseph A. Massad explains in his book Desiring Arabs (2007), the postcolonial so-called recuperative sensitivities produce subjects on their terms. There are LGBTQI+ people outside of Western territories to be saved, but only if can be identified within the known definitions of sexual and intimate practices that dictate how to be any of the LGBTQI+ categories. Nevertheless, before these supposedly universal models of new sexual subject formations came to exist in the first place, the Foucaultian "objects of the discourse on sexuality" had to have been predetermined and regulated by the ideals of eighteenth-century Europe. That time when the hegemony of masculinity started pathologising "masturbating children," "hysterical women," and "perverse adults," coincided with the epoch of imperialism. When those eighteenth-century European ideals had first pathologized, then formed the new sexual subjects and made them start to be emancipated to merge with the Vitruvian Man at the end of the twentieth century, one figure was left behind: The colonised savage, the primitive full of libidinal energies. Europe's new sexual subjects who are seemingly liberated from stigma, becoming Humans, while the "savages" or the sub-humans have remained non-humans, lacking "the mind" to be liberated in the first place.
Not so long ago, in North America, beliefs around black women illustrated what I am trying to say about the 'libidinal energies of sub-human servants.' They were thought to be hyper-sexual, always ready and available - another way of arguing that sexually violating a black woman is inherently impossible. Meanwhile, white women were considered pure and sexually virtuous (Harris 1993). If we can understand that sexual objectification is not serving a common condition of all womanhood, since the experience of being a woman varies considerably depending on race and class, it follows that the meaning of being any of LGBTQI+ in a given society is shaped by the same categorical problems.
Although I am well aware that the sub-human Men, Women, and all LGBTQI+ might potentially become Human in the same way the white man did and the Other white counterparts doing, an essential difference today remains. The phantom of the libidinal energy imagined emanating from the irrational kind of sexuality that the savages supposedly have access to continues to haunt the non-white persons and is still hunted after by their white counterparts. Such a difference is also expressed by Foucault as the scientia sexualis versus ars erotica that he puts forward his book History of Sexuality. Though Foucault has expressed his doubts regarding his conceptualisation of the differences between Western and Eastern discourses of desire, he never entirely refuted the distinction (Foucault 1990). It was this distinction that led Massad to critically observe how Western powers find their entrance, motivation, and desire to create such sexualised subjects in the so-called third world and exert their power by claiming to defend them in the name of Human Rights; sustaining the discourse of the decadent and the developed. My argument is that a parallel relationality exists in today's contemporary art world, distinguishing the Artist from the artist.
To connect the problem of race to artistic and sexual practices, something has to be said that has never yet been mentioned in the critical theories concerning the history of art. During the imperial epoch in which Foucault methodologically went back and forth to build his theories, when all the continental binaries peaked to exert the most powerful institutionalisations and universalisation through colonialism, another split reached its cleanest cut. The distinction between the applied arts and the fine arts can be also formulated as ars collective instinctus versus scientia artium (the art of collective instinct versus the science of the arts). This is the parallel that I feel compelled to discuss in relation to being a savage, gay (in my case), and an artist today.6
Once one has been called into being by the touch of the Other, once one has become a subject in terms of the other's gaze, there is no way back. We cannot exclaim "Oh! I am an artist, therefore I attained my Humanness already!" as I observe from other fellow BIPOC artists of mine are doing. No, you will never be a Human as long as we keep sustaining the ideals as there were and are. The subjectivities of any LGBTQI+ and being an artist are akin in their restrictive formations. The experience of being a subject and object of love and being an image-making body have always shared parallels for me, always occupied the common ground, and produced kinship in the ways they restricted my sense of self. The restrictions and exclusions I experienced from the institutions of both the arts and of white gay cis male sexuality provoked me to ask a question. What does it mean to replace the Butlerian question about the sex and gender binary to interrogate the relationship between art(ifice) and art-making? What does it mean to conceptualise art in the same way that we conceptualise the biological and material expression of the human species? What does it mean to say it is all discursive, but even more radically, what if the biological or the bodily interior is also an initiator of the discourse or the bodily exterior? Does this not hold the potential to unleash change upon the culture and language? What if the discursive is something that is not unidirectional from Mind/Culture to Body/Nature? What if the mind and the body can be in a constant intra-relational conversation (when given the circumstances for it)? What happens to the hand, genital, and body in such relationality?
What is the normative act of the human hands to function in (non)-Human's Natureculture? What does it mean when the grabbing, collecting, fighting, touching hands start to craft the material of their environment with the quality of being open to Others' susceptibility and being susceptible at the same time? Can this reciprocal quality make hands to be understood as an elastic organ? What if such elasticity is the discourse of Natureculture and the possibility of something new? What can equating art-making with gender (not as it is conceived through the limiting binary categories of being woman or man, female or male, but as the potential for every individual to emerge as a unique form of sex/gender influenced not only by linguistics but also by complex uncodifiable entangled biological mechanisms) tell us about the Butlerian claim of gender performativity, whereby the mind occupies and besieges the body? Is gender performativity a signifier of Human culture?
1 Officially known as the United Nations Buffer Zone, patrolled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. It was established in 1964 and extended in 1974 after the ceasefire, following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and the de facto partition of the island into the area controlled by the Republic of Cyprus and the largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the North.
2 A North Cypriot flag, approximately 450 meters wide, was painted on the side of Five Fingers Mountain (Mount Pentadaktylos in Greek and Beşparmaklar in Turkish) facing south, in the direction of the Republic of Cyprus that is largely controlled by Greek Cypriots.
3 an example would be a sentence beginning with "I agree on..."
4 This is actually a Latin noun "facere" added up to the word "art," meaning "to make."
5 God at the top, above all: followed by angles, humans, animals, plants and finally, at the bottom with minerals and stones leading to Lucifer the "son of the dawn." (Baofu 2012, p.211-212)
6 There is another binary that could be addressed analogously to the male-female binary. One could oppose the Artist, like Man, with a supposedly passive counterpart: the audience of an artwork. However the audience has never been conceived as a pathologized or irrationalised being, because the artworks talk to the white man! Therefore, I leave the Artist and audience binary out of this discussion.
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--- 1999, Gender Trouble, London: Routledge, 2nd edition.
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