VOYEURISM – A PARADOXICAL CITE/SITE/SIGHT
In making art, I am interested in a private universe made public in the most persuasive, painterly manner. As I experience space both from within and without, I simultaneously become Voyeur and auto Voyeur. The viewing transaction at play between artwork and viewer co-opts the audience into a Voyeuristic cycle.
The nature of existence for this self-proclaimed Artist-Voyeur is eroticised. Eroticism not simply sexual activity, nor the biology of reproduction, it’s rather seen as a psychological quest – a self-conscious activity or a consciously intellectualised feeling.
It seems simplistic to categorise the Voyeur as a sexual pervert who derives sexual gratification from surreptitiously watching sexual acts or objects: a peeping Tom: ‘one who takes morbid interest in sordid sights.’ Such a stylised, archaic caricature implies one who is interested in seeing rather than doing, which denies the cachet, finesse and nuance of the Voyeur. I champion a more speculative network of non-doctrinaire, non-linear and more precarious propositions. Surely an infinitude of ideas, even the most contradictory, can co exist as signs within the Baudrillardian notion of the idealistic logic of consumption?
Voyeurism can be addressed through the trinomial approach of:
CITE – as in the order of words
SITE – as in place or location
SIGHT – as in vision, perception or appearance
In citing, language is the common denominator which we share to approximate reality by means of words. Through language we create the possibility of transforming reality into another world. Language becomes a sign system that refers to things, but the words do not contain anything of the things themselves. It follows therefore that the ‘thing itself’ – idea, concept or emotion - can never be convincing in language. Paradoxically, the text itself can be seductively ‘inciting’ as is the language of the Voyeur, both in the sense of the mechanics of words and as a means of encountering the world.
‘Perhaps every discourse is secretly tempted by this failure (of finding meaning beyond appearance) and by having its objectives put into question, changing its truth effects into surface effects, which act like a mirror absorbing and engulfing meaning. This is what happens initially when a discourse seduces itself: the original way in which it absorbs meaning and empties itself of meaning in order to fascinate others: the primitive seduction of language.’ [Baudrillard,J. ‘On Seduction’ in Jean Baudrillard – selected Writings. Mark Poster (ed.)p 150]
This scorn for depth and desire to circulate on the surface refers to an aspect of the Voyeur. It assumes the posture of the aesthete – one who is alternatively never satisfied and yet always finding a way of being satisfied with virtually everything. This aesthete believes that depth obfuscates – no human essence stirs at the bottom of things, and freedom lies in staying on the surface.
The voluptuous utopia of literature suggests an unconscious field of desire and pleasure: ‘un empourprement de plaisir’ (Barthes), which magnetises the interest of the Voyeur. Perpetual re- investment of desire is a necessity of being, and the cerebral lechery and erotic tension of life lived vicariously through text is equally forceful. Nietzsche said the ‘ultimately one loves one’s desires and not that which is being desired’ [Nietzsche,F. ‘Maxims and Interludes’ in Beyond Good and Evil. (Penguin Books) p 109]
Georges Bataille’s view that eroticised yearning is only possible in a sexually repressed context, necessitates a look at other cultures (the ‘other’ not seen as a Bourgeois exoticising device).
Ours is a productivist, post-industrialist scenario where puritan ethics, as the dominant morality, colours our perceptions. In contrast, there are many alternative forms of eroticised behaviour, sociological and ethical mores which are the established norm.
Foucault’s idea that ‘sexuality as a historically singular form of experience’ is an interesting perspective when we consider the Voyeur’s play between nakedness and concealment, and how each creates a desire for the other.
Certain societies ritually celebrate regenerative cycles in a way which satisfies libidinous forces with no sense of taboo. Traditionally, Indian culture is centred on a polarised site, which encompasses Heaven and Earth, Male and Female. The metaphysical understanding is that there is a direct relationship between our sexual energy and the spiritual energy of the world. ‘For the Hindu, worship at the Source of Creation is a sure way of enlightenment’. [Webb,P. ‘Eroticism in Oriental Art and Religion’, The Erotic Arts. (Secher & Warburg. London). 75]
Tantra, or the cult of ecstasy, also focuses on the vision of cosmic sexuality, as does Tao, or the order of the world, which brings together the Yin and the Yang in perfect harmony. Sexual energy thus comfortably manifests itself in continually mutating forms of social interchange. Western, post-Pagan culture however, frequently forces eroticised instincts to be sublimated or denied.
Historically it seems that sexuality managed to link the exterior part of Nature to the most interior and ulterior part of the mind and distance of the Spirit. The site of Voyeuristic essence has a desire for such wholeness or completeness.
Jean Paul Sartre suggests that consciousness ‘assimilated’ things to itself: their whole structure is ‘dissolved’ into items of consciousness – whether these be visualised as ideas or manifestations of a will to power or ‘elan vital’. For Sartre, as with the Voyeur, the transcendental world never comes, and the Voyeur is left yearning for a completion which can never be gratified.
There is also a yearning for a status of original innocence, and it seems that looking is always a predicate to knowing. Knowledge is not a function of dominion, rather a reception/gathering of emanations. Nietzsche re-contextualised the oriental perspective: ‘The body purifies itself through knowledge, experimenting with knowledge elevates itself; to the discerning man all the instincts are holy: the soul of the elevated man grows joyful’ [Nietsche,F. ‘Of the Bestowing Virtue’. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. (Penguin Books). p 1-2] For the Voyeur, the desire to know, the drive of the libidinal intellect is subtly intertwined in its roots with the desire to be, the drive of the whole person. As with Baudelaire and Nietzsche, there is belief in the concomitant and interactive planes of existence – a proposition that Heaven and Hell are always and immediately and simultaneously with us.
The Voyeur is complicit with whatever moral stand is being made. There is no judgemental positioning adopted. Similarly, Sadean libertinism accepts a union of sacred and profane, and suggests the only limit to both our pleasure and terrors in nature is the body. Roland Barthes sees Sadean eroticism as ‘truly a formal language, in which there are only classes of actions, and not groups of individuals, which greatly simplifies the grammar, and second, because it prevents us from dividing Sadean society according to sexual roles’. [Culler,J. ‘Critic’. Barthes. (ed Frank Kermode). 49]
Foucault’s perspective of Sade is also interesting in the way that he historically facilitates the transition from ‘the symbolic of blood’ or sanguinity (as a procedure of power) to an ‘analytics of sexuality’ (as a reinforcing of stamina into contemporary society).
The notion of ‘original innocence’ suggests the curiosity of one newly born. The location is a site which is endlessly intriguing – ‘car l’interet c’est l’intrigue’ [Lyotard, J.F. ‘Que peindre ?’ Adami, Arakawa, Buren. (Editions de la difference. Paris). p 20]. There exists a dialectic between childhood exploration and adult intention – a conversation of consciousness and unconsciousness. The search for knowledge is part of growth.
Heschel speaks of the ‘wonder or radical amazement’ [Heschel, A.J. ‘G-d in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism’. (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). New York. p 43-85] as he is awed in response to reality. The implication is that there is a grandeur and mystery to being, which is beyond the acquisition of knowledge and which does not cease when knowledge is acquired. The Voyeur becomes melancholic with the realisation that the desire for knowledge seems a futile endeavour which cannot be fulfilled.
In the Voyeuristic site, one can experience a dislocated change in scale – an Alice in Wonderland-ish sense of reorientation where the observed becomes altered or miniaturised as we become giants or vice versa. Dreams allow shifts in scale and pace which can become paranoiac nightmares. For the Voyeur these are reflected as an echo of a sense of loss at our own scale. Unlike the smooth narrative of modern theatre, transformation here allows for the real-life texture of our concerns to open layers of self. This experience can serve as a replacement for primal ritualistic forms of performance which contemporary society has discarded.
In the ‘Manifeste du Surrealisme’ of 1924, Andre Breton asks: ‘....and why should I not concede to the dream what I sometimes refuse to reality – that weight of self-assurance which by its own terms is not exposed to my denial?’ In unmasking the ‘I’ through knowledge in an imaginative, suspended space, a surrealist capsule is created for the Artist-Voyeur.
In this dream-like state of the dark surrealist stage, sound as matter has a weighty orality. It is a tangible, palpable, breathless moment suspended in time, where the Voyeur pays: ‘.....attention to the activity of sounds’. [Cage,J. Silence ‘Experimental Music’. (Marion Boyars. London) 10]. Voyeuristically, involvement in any routine, ritual or event, amplifies banal reality and prolongs the experience. Protagonists/actors can be liberated to a sense of self-revelation in a curiosity about knowing, almost knowing and already knowing. In straddling notions of temporality, the moment has heroic proportions as it nostalgically encompasses memory and the past, and illuminates the present.
Unlike the observer, who views formally, the Voyeur views psychologically in search of ‘insight’. Effectively, the Voyeur approaches the reality of being through a filter of ‘blindness’, the ‘unsightedness’ of seeing. Inherently, this idea demands an abstraction of elements – not denying their existence, rather adding volume to particular aspects. These dimensions relate and reconstruct in an abstract void (the site of the Voyeur) where a hyperspace is articulated by the gravitational pull of focused interest. It is a voluminous, yet claustrophobic vacuum unfilled by visible contents which yearns to be filled.
The Voyeur aspires to make the invisible visible – to embrace it. In claiming to be its creator, the Voyeur sets up a series of idolatrous relationships. Endorsing the view that flesh is incorruptible, the Voyeur further violates the boundaries between man and G-d. Also idolatrous is the Greco-Roman idea that great beauty assumes aspects of divinity. When such sublime surface beauty is seen in the context of sexuality, the Voyeur is seduced and complicit with the notion of idol/god. These are mimetic acts, giving a particular form to the world. In naming, the Voyeur saves or redeems the object of the gaze from the continuum of time, elevating it to another arena and creating perfection in natural disorder. Becoming aware that it is the object of another’s gaze, the attended develops a heightened sense of self.
There is a need for the Voyeur to ‘see’ things from the inside and the outside simultaneously – to be director and directed. Because of these shifting positions, classic notions of victimisations do not hold – the Voyeur effectively becomes the slave to the object of delight. The ‘I’ becomes the ‘it’ transforming fluidly into an actively passive agent. Consistent with Sadean philosophy, the ‘I’ as active protagonist, becomes the receiver of the action at the same time.
Such role reversals subvert and invert traditional linkages between notions of power and victimisation. Nietzsche suggests that we are led by two primitive drives: the desire for power and the emotion of fear. In describing fear as the absence of power, he was left with one motivating principle for all human action: ‘the will to power’.
In French, ‘voyeur’ is a masculine noun which raises interesting gender issues. Neo Freudian theories of ‘penis envy’ perceived here by a female Author/Voyeur, can be interpreted as ‘power envy’. If a sense of no power is at the core of Freudian femininity, then this Woman/Voyeur/Artist democratises and renders neutral the core Freudian notion of ‘powerlessness’.
Foucault correctly states that ‘sexuality is far more of a positive product of power, than power was ever repression of sexuality. I believe that it is precisely these positive mechanisms that need to be investigated, and here one must free oneself of the juridical schematism of all previous characterisations of the nature of power’. [Foucault, M. ‘Truth and Method’. The Foucault Reader. (Paul Rabinow ed.) p 62]
The need for self-empowerment can be assuaged by the restorative potential of fetishising – the most archaic form of identification. Although the displacement of parts of the body could be considered as symbolic loss of power, the fetishiser enthrones the object of fascination with the tenacity of the libido. In literature the fetishist is a lover of fragments, quotations and turns of phrase. Barthes speaks of his desire to ‘take responsibility for a certain hedonism, the return of discredited philosophy, repressed for centuries’. In ‘Le grain de la voix’ he suggests a textual pleasure which must be taken and incorporated bodily – a wonderfully subversive idea contrary to Cartesian methodology.
For the Voyeur, narcissism shares certain aspects of fetishism – both illuminate the structure of the ego. Psychologically, narcissism possibly suggests a childhood fear of being alone. Cathartically, self-obsession and auto-yoyeurism, insure and underscore the certainty of constant and intimate companionship.
An extension of the narcissistic drive can be made manifest in exhibitionism. The purveyed enjoying the pleasure of the other’s gaze is obviously the reverse side of the yoyeuristic coin. For Barthes, the body expresses our deepest and truest nature, beyond superficial differences of cultural conditions. Through ideas relating to the fetish, narcissism and exhibitionism, the Voyeur seeks hedonistic fulfilment.
The Voyeur has access to any scenario through focus and attention. The implication is that we are living in a ‘glass house’ – accessible to any gaze. A moral imperative for the viewed thus demands and ensures a discretion of existence. Aware of the Voyeur’s interest, one’s sense of self is heightened, and one aspires to be at one’s ‘most’. This idea is ‘also an intoxication, a moral exhibitionism that we badly need’. [Benjamin, W. ‘Surrealism’. One way Street and other Writings’ (Thetford Press Ltd)].
Perhaps a more comfortable and safe way of negotiating the process of self-examination has been suggested here by a system of language. Language is possibly a series of strategic positioning which obfuscate the lived moment, and the eternal voyaging in search of meaning is an approximation of convoluted lived moments. These veils and mimetic layers of cite form a ‘skin’, contact with which the Voyeur derives great pleasure.
The Voyeur acknowledges that there are two manifestations of reality – the mortal and the sublime, and the positive and the negative forces are always and simultaneously with us. The Voyeur makes a case for the libidinous energy of eroticism as a vehicle for encountering the world in which we live whether through cite, site or sight.
Ultimately, in the desire for completeness, and in the search for an idealised unity of forces, the Voyeur realises the futility of the endeavour, yet is magnetised to continue on the treadmill of yearning.
© Francine Scialom Greenblatt