May/June Blog – Living the Dream : a Letter from Paris

Forty five years after the May ‘evenements’ in Paris I took my grandchildren to Euro-Disney for their half term holiday break. To bracket  the most determined assault on the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ with the most extravagant expression of its triumph might seem wilfully perverse, at best a rueful acknowledgement that capitalism has succeeded, beyond our wildest nightmares, in appropriating and merchandising the spirit of carnival, rendering it into an entirely kitsch idiom; at worst  an exercise in political masochism, rubbing  one’s nose in the fact that the revolutionary Left has failed to produce a culture of popular pleasure  other than rioting. But in the event a more complicated set of  considerations imposed themselves.

When we got to Paris, our first port of call was the Quai Branley, the  new home of the  ethnographic collection of the  Musee de’L’Homme,  which  also houses artefacts from the old Musee des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie. The building, designed by Jean Nouvel, must be the largest and most exotic   cabinet of curiosities  ever put together and it is the building, rather than the collections, which is the main attraction. The architecture combines state of the art construction technology  with   a breathtaking ecological  mise en scene –  the whole façade is clothed in lush vegetation  which looks as if it has been transported  root and  branch from the Amazonian rain forest. The hot house atmosphere is maintained inside, where  the exhibits, chosen for their visual appeal, are dramatically displayed   and lit, set within a  darkened interior, with ramps running the whole length of the building taking you on a  journey across three continents.

The Quai has quickly   established itself as a major  destination for both cultural tourists and Parisians and is a monument to the French flair with ‘grand projects’. But the overall effect on the visitor, while overwhelming, is for that very reason problematic. The   interpretation offered is thin, or if you prefer a trendy word, minimalist. There is little or no connecting narrative, or what used to be called ‘context’ before Derrida  made it a dirty word.    Instead the statues, masks, and other  ritual objects stand there mutely commanding our silent respect or awe  as if we should know what they are about without having to be told,  and daring us to  misunderstand them.   In this way we are recruited as participant observers of  a new kind of  ethnographic spectacle; for now  the Other is allowed to celebrate its alterity  on its own terms  for our edification or entertainment.  The post colonial moment has been  collapsed in on itself   to magically re-affirm the hegemonic dream of western  multiculturalism: to   provide the order which makes it  possible to celebrate variety  as a  re- enchantment of a  world which globalisation  has rendered monotonous. Despite this, there is a melancholic aspect to this treasure trove of objects collected by ethnologists over  the past century and a half.The statues, trapped  in their glass cages,  stare out at us into the darkness as if blinded by the spotlight  that has been shone on them by curatorial ‘science’ ; they look and are isolated,  specimens of cultures which in reality escape our carefully contrived ethnographic  gaze, and longing to return from their imposed exile to where  they truly belong. But once the law of return is applied to thisdiaspora,and there has already been a public furore around the demand to repatriate some of the Latin American exhibits, the whole  project of anthropology-as –spectacle   collapses.      

No sooner had we left the Quai than we were confronted by another form of spectacle –  this time of popular protest. We got caught up in the ‘Manif for Tous’ organised by a coalition of religious and right wing groups to  oppose  gay marriage and held on France’s Father’s Day.. The streets around  the were thronged with protesters, over 250 thousand of them, mostly young and all wearing pink, and chanting slogans about ‘protecting family values’ and ‘ every child’s right to a mother and father’.The organisers  claim to speak for France’s silent  moral majority  and are careful to distance themselves from overtly homophobic or fascist groups like the Front Nationale. In effusive moments their leaders claim to be representing ‘humanity’, ‘human kind’, ‘human identity’ and ‘anthropological order’.  

What was scary was not just the size of the crowd, or the histrionic  rhetoric  of  the speakers as they denounced a  conspiracy to  undermine the moral fibre of the nation, but the extent to which idioms of protest, traditionally associated with the Left, had been succesfully appropriated. This was compounded  by the failure of the Left to  see anything more in this movement  than rampant  homophobia and ‘ressentissement’ amongst  the petty bourgeoisie.   A  more sophisticated view   sees  the hysteria around gay marriage as a symbolic  displacement of public concern away from a divisive  economic crisis  which the political class is unable to resolve to a social issue  which unites  people across class, race, and gender. En route, gay people are made  to represent everything that is destabilising about contemporary capitalist society. One of the key slogans  of the marchers,   ‘On veut du boulot, pas du marriage homo’, (we want jobs, not gay marriage) explicitly  acknowledged  this possibility and  cleverly turned it  around to their own advantage. 

 Yet  even if it support a  space of critique, this standpoint fails to take seriously  what is at stake.  As  a matter of civil rights, the demand for  gay marriage is undeniable in its legitimacy. Marriage is a legal/contractual relationship  and to refuse this right is to condemn gay people to second class citizenship. Much of the support for gay marriage in fact comes  from those who want to strengthen the institution of marriage, even – and perhaps especially – if it takes non-traditional forms. This is also often motivated by a view of gay culture as inherently promiscuous and anomic, so that anything which stabilises gay relationships around  the monogamous couple is seen  to be A Good Thing. This view is also shared by some gay activists; it is part of a movement to normalise homosexuality while   resting on a concept of  homosexuality as deviant and fundamentally perverse.

It is easy to condemn these attitudes as ‘heterosexist’  or  driven by negative stereotypes  of gays, or even to see them as motivated by repressed homosexual drives, attacking others for acting out one’s own  forbidden desires. But the situation is actually more complicated than that. Freud talks about the ‘polymorphously perverse’ infant and sees ‘normal’ sexual development as a long forced march  toward  genital heterosexuality which involves renunciation, or sublimation,  of   gratifications  linked to other erogenous zones (mainly oral and anal). Yet he also acknowledges that these ‘perverse’ forms of pleasure also play a part in ‘normal’ love making, and other psychoanalysts  have argued that bi-sexuality is  the most adaptive  form of  human sexuality. The implication  seems to be that desire for one’s own sex  comes more ‘naturally’  than desire for the opposite sex, which has to pass through the  defiles of oedipal conflict, whereas pre-oedipal  and narcissistic identifications  are easier to sustain. This has  today become something of a self fulfilling prophecy, given that such identifications have become embedded in contemporary  consumer culture and its forms of commodity fetishism. Just  look at any advertising  hoarding.      

 So the issue of perversion – the turning away of a drive towards a substitute object of gratification- is not to be  disposed of by simply denouncing the term as prejudicial. It is certainly not  a question of sexual orientation – it is as perverse for a gay person to take a wife in order to pass for ‘straight’, as it is for a heterosexual couple who really have little or no desire for one another   to maintain the fiction  of a happy marriage (and of course even the term ‘straight  implies that gay people are ‘bent’ or crooked’). Yet the fact remains that the gay community has elaborated  distinctive subcultures around particular sexual practices viz sado-masochism, fetishism, transvestism, in a way which actively celebrates their  perverse quality. Indeed it is this transgressive aspect of gay sexuality, its inversion and blurring of gender roles, their calculated travesty in  camp, which has given it its wider cultural and social resonance, especially   through the arts. This is what  which makes it so threatening  to those who are clinging to the ontological securities of strongly delineated gender ( and generational) identities associated with patriarchal society. At the same time gay people are trapped in a double bind  : if they ‘come out’ they are secretly envied  for the sexual freedom they espouse,  whilst if they remain ‘in the closet’  they are vilified for their secret breaking of sexual taboos ‘behind our backs’.

It is significant in this regard that the ‘corrupting’ influence of gay subculture on the wider society should  be seen as concentrated on its generational dimension – that is on the fetishism of youth  and the sexualising of the adult /child  relation; for this has happened  at a time when so called adult consumer culture has become increasingly infantilised, while children, qua consumers, are treated a little adults. One reason why there is so little generational conflict today is that   both adults and children share the same youth culture. But far from creating stronger emotional bonds, this  has created a pervasive sense of anxiety  about what is or should be  the correct emotional distance between parents and children, with moral panics focussed around   the perverse impact of both the engulfing mother and the absent or seductive ‘imp of fun’ father.

Then  there is the fact that despite ( or because of ) the weakening of the sexual division of labour, the feminisation of work and ‘gender bending’ we are living in an increasingly homo-social culture.  The majority of people prefer the company of their own sex for almost  every activity except sex and procreation, precisely because intimate relations between men and women have become so fraught and a true marriage of mind and body between them so difficult to sustain. Moreover now that the perverse forms of marriage – arranged marriages, marriages of convenience dictated by dynastic or social ambition – are no longer the  norm in Western societies, marriage itself becomes invested with an almost impossible burden of romantic representation – that of  the ‘ideal couple’  who perfectly complement  one another and who sustain a close and mutually fulfilling emotional relationship as life time partners. It is significant that  both gay rights activists and  their opponents  appeal to this same normative ideal of ‘true romance’ and that it continues to be a staple of popular genre fiction in the age of disenchantment.

Finally the development of artificial insemination and other reproductive technologies means that the evolutionary link between heterosexuality and demographics has been broken. You no longer need to be in any kind of relationship to a member of the opposite sex  in order to have children and bring up a family. This is the Great  Fear of the campaigners against gay marriage. What incentive is there for people to renounce their own sex  just for the sake of their Darwinian mission to ensure their genes are passed on and the human species survives, when they can  have kids  without having to engage in hetero-coupling. There is  no longer any need to sacrifice  desire to duty, one of the key tenets of traditional moral education . Not that this uncoupling of biology  from  society has inaugurated an era of   liberation from constraint, let alone promoted greater happiness. For even while it has expanded the range of  adult choices, and  even conjured up the designer baby,  it has not succeeded in eradicating children’s compulsive desire to know about where they come from and to construct myths or phantasies of origin to give a local habitation and a name to this desire.  All that has happened  is that the ‘family romance’- the tall stories children make up about imaginary /ideal parents who unlike their ‘real’ ones  enable them to do and be whatever they want- has found a   new theatre of operation: the anonymous sperm donor or surrogate mother simply becomes the model of exotic parentage – perhaps, after all  he was a famous rock star, she  a ballet dancer…..

     It seems to me that the ‘manif pour tous’  was attempting in a confused and deeply reactionary way to address  this deeper set of questions  concerning the relation between biology and social destiny and the destabilising of both family and community values. A  vacuum has been  created by the absence of a progressive engagement with such issues at the level of popular culture and everyday life;  it has been filled by  institutionalised forms of ‘political correctness’, and  the ideological  hothouse of identity politics. Against this background,  the dream of a simpler world, a world  of make- believe freed from the ambiguities and confusions of contemporary sexual politics, indeed a world liberated from sexuality altogether in the name of more innocent pleasures becomes ever more attractive. So welcome  to Disneyland, a moral universe  of spell binding adventure and romance, where heroes always triumph over villains, where evil is always punished, good deeds rewarded and no-one goes to bed hungry unless they have been really naughty.

I was  brought up on Disney cartoons  by my aunt, who used to take me  as a special treat to a ‘newsreel theatre’ on Victoria station which specialised in  them. Whether it was  Disney or the Warner Brother’s rival Looney Tunes, watching them confirmed  what I already knew  from my dreams- that it was possible to fly, to triumph over impossible odds, and to be resurrected any number of time after you had been killed. My disillusionment with Christianity – after all  Jesus only managed to be resurrected once, despite the promise of a second coming – dated from this time. So it came as something of a shock to learn, much later, that Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were secret agents of American Cultural Imperialism, Snow White was  a closet Lesbian and the seven dwarfs  were all gay.  I got over it but I  was still  somewhat dreading my encounter with  the ‘real thing’ in the shape of  the visit to Eurodisney with a couple of pre-teens who were definitely up for it. I went half hoping to have my residual puritanism subverted by massed ranks of drum majorettes shimmying down Main Street to the Sound of Music, not to mention the sheer delight on the faces  of my grandchildren as they relived. And who could resist  taking ‘ a tranquil cruise through some of one’s  favourite fairytales’, as promised by the brochure?

In the event   the rides were rather like bad sex. They involved a lot of waiting, were better in the anticipation than the actual experience, and left you feeling  drained afterwards. The fact is that enchantment, whatever uses to which it is put, whatever message it subliminally conveys, cannot be institutionalised. That is an  illusion created by  the Spectacle.   A theme park which sets out to materialise  adventure stories  by constructing artificial environments around their re-staging – a haunted house, a gothic castle, an underground cavern- simply cannot compete with  the power of cinematic mis en scene when it comes to transporting people into  another world.  Walking through a mocked up  Casbah supposedly in the footsteps of Indiana Jones, you cannot fail to notice that the stalls are selling hamburgers, ice cream and Mickey Mouse ears. Frank Gehry, the designer of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and many other post –modern follies, famously said that Disneyland had changed  architecture for ever and for the better. But the difference between his cuboid  dream palaces and Disneyland is that   in the first case the real has become kitschified, while in the second  the kitsch is for real.  Or as Marce Auge put it, in Disneyland, the spectacle  makes a spectacle of itself.

Quai Branley, the Manif pour Tous and Euro-Disney may seem to belong to  totally discrete universes of discourse. Yet in their different ways they all speak to a diffuse, ideologically  labile, desire to  create a new, perverse,  kind of anthropological order to which enchantment and magical thinking are central; here intractable problems which afflict the body politics of contemporary capitalist societies -the long legacy of colonialism, the collapse of  patriarchal andcommunitarian values, the regressive  nature of consumerism- all   melt away into the thin air of rhetoric, revealing  the true  nature of perversion as a turning away both from the real  and from the imagination of what might transform it.

          Further reading:

Marc Auge The Ethnologist in Disneyland Picador  1986

Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment  Penguin 1994

Christine Burack Sin,sex and democracy :anti gay campaigns and the Christian Right  2008

Guy Debord  Comments on  ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ Verso 1990

Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart  How to read Donald Duck: Imperialist ideology in Disney Comics   1988

Guy Hocquenghem  Homosexual Desire  Duke UP 1993

Jane Goodall Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin  Routledge 2002

Susan Sontag  Notes on Camp   1964