Two parts of my PhD published as journal articles

Academic publishing is slow, but I might as well flag, here, the fact that two parts of my PhD were published in the last six months:

Sophie Lewis, “International Solidarity in reproductive justice: surrogacy and gender-inclusive polymaternalism,”¬†Gender, Place & Culture (2018).¬†https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1425286.

Sophie Lewis, “Defending Intimacy against What? Limits of Antisurrogacy Feminisms,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 43, no. 1 (Autumn 2017): 97 125.¬†https://doi.org/10.1086/692518

They’re both archived here at¬†Humanities Commons, which I urge you to join (perhaps deleting your Academia dot edu account).

There are twitter threads summarising their contents here and here.

Nymphomaniac: also: gender at the expense of race

I have a piece out in¬†Mute¬†magazine called ‚Äúsex against gender‚ÄĚ (it was going to be ‚Äú‚Äėwhoring‚Äô against society‚ÄĚ, but there were concerns about my being read as implying that all sex is prostitution, scare-quotes or no scare-quotes). Anyway, it‚Äôs a review essay on Lars von Trier‚Äôs¬†Nymphomaniac I¬†and¬†II¬†and could also have been called ‚ÄúOne woman v. Therapy‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúanti-Scheherezade‚ÄĚ. ‚ÄčThat’s because, at ‚Äčseveral point‚Äčs‚Äč in it I tr‚Äčy‚Äč to tie in the gender, capitalist familiality and sex thematic ‚Äčin‚Äč th‚Äče‚Äč film‚Äčs‚Äč, the latest in the ‚ÄėDepression trilogy‚Äô, with the present resurgence in anti-psychiatry discussion groups in the UK‚Äč.‚Äč (‚ÄčS‚Äčee The Institute for Precarious Consciousness article posted by Plan C ‚Äď ‚ÄėTheses on Anxiety‚Äô ‚Äď and the great response piece at¬†sometimes explode¬†as well as¬†related reading groups and events (Leeds,¬†London 1¬†and¬†2,¬†Manchester 1¬†and¬†2‚Äč.‚Äč) Otherwise I just focused on the compelling way in which¬†Nymphomaniac¬†demonstrates the necessity of insurrection against gender.‚Äč I’d be thrilled to know what y’all think.‚Äč But one thing I ended up leaving¬†out¬†of my piece was the question of¬†Nymphomaniac‚Äôs glib and explicit white supremacism. So I‚Äôm putting ‚Äčbrief notes on all ‚Äčthat‚Äč stuff‚Äč here, on my blog.¬†Content warning for provocative racist terminology and, well, florid racism.‚Äč nymphNN What’s the race case? Anyone who’s seen the films will know, as one scene in Volume II is pretty unforgettable and unforgiveable. ‚ÄčIn that second part of¬†Nymphomaniac¬†we at one point find von Trier hammily using Charlotte Gainsbourg as a ventriloquist’s dummy for his views on¬†‚Äčthe‚Äč democratic courageousness of‚Äč us‚Äčing the word ‚ÄėNegro‚Äô‚Äč i.e. (I kid you not) “calling a spade a spade”‚Äč.‚Äč The word, ‚Äčbeing, you know, a censored term for the truth‚Äč,‚Äč is supposed to be a parallel of ‚Äčthe film’s‚Äč eponymous, also ‚Äč”not-politically-correct designation for the pathology of female sex addiction, which ‚ÄčGainsbourg heroically‚Äč reclaims‚Äč in a therapy circle‚Äč.‚Äč “Er, we like to say¬†sex addict…”‚Äč says the group leader. No, Gainsbourg asserts, tearing up her therapy confessional: “I am a nymphomaniac!”‚Äč‚Äč Needless to say, ‘nymphomaniac’ and ‘Negro’ are far from analogous signifiers. Any fool should understand why that is, so it feels a little bit like feeding the trolls to go in to it.

Maybe one ‚Äčshould simply call von Trier‚Äôs bluff‚Äč: if it‚Äôs‚Äč really‚Äč ‘like for like‚Äč’‚Äč, ‚Äčthen we can surely‚Äč expect an upcoming trilogy devoted to cosmo‚Äč‚Äčlogies of raced subjectivity‚Äč: a film on afropessimism and/or the experience of Black woman-ness. ‚ÄčI’m not holding my breath, however. It‚Äôs obviously a‚Äčppalling‚Äč that saying ‚ÄėNegro‚Äô ‚Äčhas been defended ‚Äčin a mainstream film by a sympathetic‚Äč celebrity‚Äč subject, ‚Äčwhile exactly that kind of parochial, ‘free-speech’-ist, right-populist Ukipian toxicity is materially on the ascendant. ‚ÄčIt is perhaps too mild to say that von Trier is out of touch for making his feminist heroine a mouth-piece for yet another Cannes style ‚Äčjoke, intended to bait ‚Äčliberal‚Äčs, perhaps, but doing so at the ‚Äčexpense of people currently being targeted by neo-fascist policies across Europe. ‚ÄčBecause obviously it ‚Äčisn‚Äôt just content, it‚Äôs form. ‚ÄčAll of this is a response to the Cannes 2011 Q&A¬†incident that got von Trier banned‚Äč.

But the film doesn’t just¬†say¬†‘Negro’, and declare that “a point of honour” (actual quote): it of course inevitably¬†enacts¬†‘Negro’, too. We’re faced with frames in a motel room, full of huge black cock, as though the human beings in question are in the film in order to enable Gainsbourg’s comments about speech democracy, rather than the other way around. ¬†That the brief scene is an exoticizing, gratuitously provocative figuration of two African men¬†as¬†‚ÄėNegroes‚Äô‚Äč is ‚Äčunmistakeabl‚Äče‚Äč‚Äč. It‚Äôs a scene that proclaim‚Äčs‚Äč to the viewer in that all-too-familiar libertarian way ‚ÄėNo,¬†you‚Äôre¬†the racist!‚Äč’‚Äč even as it casts porn actors Kookie and Papou under the name ‚ÄėN‚Äô ‚Äč(most characters in¬†Nymphomaniac¬†get initials, i.e. P, L, B, but ‘N’ was obviously saved for these two)¬†‚Äčand defies us to stare at their penises.

Why ‚Äčwe‚Äčren‚Äôt porn actors ‚Äčchosen‚Äč to represent any of the dozens of ‚Äč‚Äčwhite¬†men we see Gainsbourg fuck? Still, there‚Äôs ambivalence about Papou and Kookie‚Äôs cameo. If one anticipates excitement on the black men‚Äôs part about the white protagonist‚Äôs request for sex (made via an interpreter despatched to the street corner), one couldn‚Äôt be more wrong. She describes them as angry and ‚Äúquarrelling‚ÄĚ, but their tutting, head-shaking, gesticulating pantomime seems like more of an excuse to luxuriate, naked, in their mutual admiration of each other. Their behaviour to the white woman standing between them, whose face they never look at, whose gaze they never seek, whose vague and patient curiosity does not concern them, whose clothes they haphazardly remove, ‚Äčis ‚Äčso impersonal ‚Äčthat it shocks white audiences. It seems intended to convey the animal or sub-social‚Äč, but it retains an authentic and autonomous ‘excess’‚Äč. Their extensive, uncaptioned conversation with each other could be, to those who don‚Äôt speak it (of which I am one) in any of the ‚ÄúAfrican languages‚ÄĚ or none. ‚ÄčGainsbourg walks out of the motel room, not so much because they can’t seem to get their double-penetration act together without offending each other, but because her sexuality is not roused by unapologetic blackness, or by not being the focus of any attention. ‚Äč‚Äč

A‚Äč key aspect of ‚Äčthe ‚ÄčNymphomaniac¬≠‚Äč production team’s‚Äč self-advertisement its prurient publics‚Äč (i.e. the way it produced those publics for itself)‚Äč was ‚Äčto explain that they maintained a neat segregation‚Äč both on- and off-set‚Äč between porn actors and ‚Äėactors‚Äô.‚Äč ‚ÄčThis was a news-worthy separation ‚Äčof labour forces, it was said, because state-of-the-art digital technologies w‚Äčere‚Äč going to mediate‚Äč it‚Äč. While the idea was, consciously or unconsciously, trailed, of Shia Labeouf‚Äôs actual cock sliding into actual celebrity pussy (but whose?)¬†in cinemas across the globe, the ‚Äčproduction company ‚ÄčZentropa‚Äč’s‚Äč ‚ÄėMaking Of‚Äô clips are, by contrast, remarkably reserved. Stars describe the porn set vs. movie set divide as two irreconcilable worlds. Stacy Martin says she always left the room when the porn actors came in to work (‚ÄúI don‚Äôt watch porn, so ‚Ķ‚ÄĚ) and Charlotte Gainsbourg speaks of her anxiety about what would be construed as¬†her¬†body. ‚ÄčZentropa‚Äôs little-known porn production side-line was not publicly talked about.‚Ä謆

So, Zentropa doesn’t just make edgy high-profile mainstream-‘art’ cinema, it makes actual porn and employs porn stars on the regular.¬†‚Äč‚ÄčThat‚Äôs the context in which I wanted to know: what language are the only one-name entries on¬†Nymphomaniac‚Äôs IMDB,¬†Papou and Kookie, speaking? What are they actually saying‚Äč?‚Äč Is there a twist there, and were captions ever made? To inquire on the internet about this, though, is to gather that nobody knows or care‚Äčs‚Äč. Communication being ‚Äúimpossible‚ÄĚ was the kick Gainsbourg‚Äôs character‚Äč (thought she possibly)‚Äč wanted, so it is OK that it necessarily becomes ours, too. In the end, the brothers‚Äô abortive ‚Äúsandwiching‚ÄĚ of ‚Äúone or the other of my holes‚ÄĚ, while not successful in ending her phase of frigidity, serves usefully to expand white horizons, revealing ‚Äúa world far from mine I had to explore‚Ķ and there, or perhaps on the other side, get my life back.‚ÄĚ After the narrative shows how she ‚Äčslipped away, practically unnoticed, ‚Äčfrom‚Äč this quasi-explicit neo-colonial hook-up, leaving them to‚ÄĒshe speculates‚Äč as our rapporteur‚Äč‚ÄĒberate each other for not having been sensitive enough towards one another‚Äôs cocks,‚Äč which were‚Äč tangible ‚Äúthrough the tissue‚ÄĚ,‚Äč Gainsbourg states ‚Äčlaconically ‚Äčthat ‚Äúwomen who claim that Negroes don‚Äôt turn them on are lying‚ÄĚ. Lying because in society, she says, ‚Äúwe elevate those who say right but mean wrong, and mock those who say wrong but mean right‚ÄĚ. ‚ÄčIt’s a statement ¬†that pretends to represent, but which actually¬†distinguishes¬†her from, all ¬†(other) women. For while declaring how all women like black cock, she’s never looked less turned on in her life. Scratch a plain-talking maverick democrat and you find crypto-fascist contempt for people, paired with a bored and cynical certainty that they know the simple secrets of what people are like.‚Äč “Joe” (the heroine) is confused, apolitical, and occasionally reactionary, but her powerful dialectical life-struggle in and against gender makes her somehow sympathetic.

Maybe a better film-maker could have shown how misogyny and white supremacy are inter-imbricated, thus, her attitude to ‘N’ could have been integrated into her internalised gynophobia. Instead, racism does not appear as a visible force or a theme in¬†Nymphomaniac, which seems to honestly think it is itself ‘not racist’. It¬†degrades the film when she defies the scholarly father-figure jocularly chastising her for saying ‘Negor’. A‚Äčnd it is von Trier hiding behind this ‚Äúshe‚ÄĚ.‚Äč ‚ÄčI feel like saying to Lars: ‚Äčdude, you would fear worse than ‚Äėmockery‚Äô for trying to pass off your thoughtless opinions as courage ‚Äčwhen‚Äč making light of structures of real and continuing oppression. ‚ÄčAnyway,‚Äč it’s significant‚Äč too, ‚Äčthat after the motel, ‚Äčher next port of call ‚Äčin ‚Äč‚Äčher quest into ‚Äčth‚Äče unconquered territory of the‚Äč ‚Äúother side‚ÄĚ is transcendental pain,¬†sans¬†safe-word‚Äč.‚Äč ‚ÄčLeaving behind Papou and Kookie *(‘N’) she seeks out the services of communicative, implacable white dom Jamie Bell‚Äč (‘K’)‚Äč. In the aforementioned back-stage interviews, it¬†is¬†possible to breach the topic of¬†this¬†exotic weirdness and¬†this¬†submission, including the vexed question of its consensuality; but nowhere is it thought that (inter)viewers would want to pinpoint the ‚Äčrace-“play” of the motel room DP scene. All are fascinated with other ethical dimensions of¬†Nymphomaniac: yes, she uses men, yes, she gets what she needs from them, but‚Äč, hey, that doesn‚Äôt mean she doesn‚Äôt have feelings for them, ‚Äčyou know, this film makes you feel really broad-minded and, like, tolerant, ‚Äčand so on. Race, meanwhile, is the¬†only¬†dimension ‚Äčof the only men of colour she uses‚Äč that is made visible. ‚Äč

It occurred to me at this point that a piece could be written that points how¬†Nymphomaniac¬†stages “gender against‚Äč race” or gender at the expense of race.

The ‚Äėcall a spade a spade‚Äô project isn‚Äôt even courageous enough to properly¬†√©pater les bourgeois.¬†In the series of promotional photographs of the¬†Nymphomaniac‚Äôs¬†cast, which captured different portions of one larger, staged, humorously risqu√© tableau of them ‚Äėall‚Äô embroiled in divers sexual kinks and perversions, the inclusion of two well-hung Black men would have neatly referenced an infamous genre in porn. They should totally have been there. The promo tableau features, for instance, two nipple-like cherry ice-cream swirls gripped by Nicholas Bro, who looks voyeuristically into the open trench-coat of Connie Nielsen. A nearby Willem Dafoe enjoys a spillage near his fly being dabbed at by Sophie Kennedy Clark, while Stellan Skarsgard‚Äôs groin is crushed by Mia Goth‚Äôs boot and Jamie Bell holds some paper towels in the background inches away from von Trier himself, who is gagged (a Cannes reference, again), holding a camera-phone. In the foreground we have daddy, i.e. Christian Slater, on bended knee, ostensibly preparing to bathe the flaunted genitals of Gainsbourg, the adult incarnation of his daughter, who as everybody knows tunelessly sang ‚ÄúUn zeste (inceste) de citron‚ÄĚ with her bare-chested real father, Serge, in 1985. As long as it‚Äôs white people, then, incest is fine on a movie promo poster. But Papou and Kookie are not in the promo. ‚Äč

Generally, I think that¬†the¬†‚Äč‚Äčaware-of-my-racism-and-comfortable-with-it school of film-making (‚Äčanother gross recent example I noted was Martin McDonagh‚Äôs Seven Psychopaths) is neither, in any substantive sense, aware of its racism, nor comfortable with the inkling of its racism it does possess. More than that, it is more hypocritical than the establishmentarian hypocrisy it purports to assail; it ends up flattering and accommodating it. For all that von Trier enjoys thinking of himself as a free spirit, a trickster who can reference Albert Speer as an artistic inspiration in a press‚Äč-‚Äč room full of puffed-up liberals, ‚Äčbut ‚Äčhe makes sure the ‚ÄėNegroes‚Äô are cleared off the screen pretty quick‚Äč and never appear in any promotional campaigns‚Äč. ‚ÄčHaving flashed their big dicks at us, he can then get‚Äč Joe‚Äč involved in the much less challenging (for von Trier) world of intimate domination ‚Äčwhere she‚Äč gets tied down and whipped by a hard-faced white man until her flesh is in tatters, an image that ironically recalls Patsey in¬†Twelve Years a Slave. ‚Äč‚ÄčSomeone should really pass von Trier¬†this list.‚Äč Image