Thursday, November 5, 2009

On the shoulders of giants

I always figured that the old scholastic notion of "standing on the shoulders of giants" was a way to describe accumulated learning and express an indebtedness towards tradition. On closer inspection, though, there is no lack of written sources that belie this metaphorist interpretation. Isidore of Sevilla - to name only one - informs us that "just as, in individual nations, there are instances of monstrous people, so in the whole of humankind there are certain monstrous races, like the Giants, the Cynocephali, the Cyclopes, and others." In his Etymologies, in which he attempts to collect all the knowledge of his age, we find peoples in the most varied sizes with organs redistributed in the most striking fashions. Faces on the stomach, a one legged people habitating distant parts of the world, asians without noses - the variations of medieval man shames the monotony of the contemporary human body. And to still think in metaphors? What a cretinizing way of turning flesh into mere words.

East Berlin worked as an important corrective to such lifeless abstractions. During our trip, M and me went to visit the Marx-Engels Platz and were confronted by the gargantuan stature of earlier generations of men. Standing on M's shoulders, I still would not be able to reach the head of Engels. One of the virtues of socialist realist art is how it expresses material truths through scientific-aesthetic techniques. Instead of "translating" Marx and Engels into men of a present-day size, it lets us experience the wonder of human variation. The finger nail of a 19th century man is the size of my palm! His feet like my thighs and his torso the thickness of a recycling igloo. Instead of trying to comfort us by making dwarves of giants, the sculptor forces us to take stock of both a historical distance and the slumbering possibilities within our present, cookie cut limbs.

Confronted by these statues of the labor movement's great thinkers - as well as by the nameless workers of a similar height that surround the Platz - one understands the urgency which must have inspired works such as "The Housing Question" and the investigation of the living conditions of English workers in that island's great industrial cities. I cannot begin to fathom how those early-industrial giants managed to fit into apartments smaller than those we live in today. After a 12+ hour working day, they had to crawl their way through narrow corridors only to be forced into fetal position, packed like herrings in what passed for a home. The ever new editions of Swift's Gulliver's Travels (a perspective that is often lost sight of today) - what a clever intervention into the great 19th century struggles over social space. The books - no larger than today - must have been the perfect size for a worker to build his own coat library.

But however remarkable the size difference is, what really got our attention was the variations in the actual composition of the human body that the statues hinted at. Specifically: the genitalia of giants.

Concerning the crotches of giants

Socialist Germany apparently tried to make a clean break with bourgeois sexual morals, at least when it came to the variations of genitalia over time. I was aware of how the introduction of a "two-sex" system replaced an aristotelian performative-misogynist theory of sex with a biological-misogynist one in the early-modern period. But just as the political ideology of the day tends to reduce (political) history into a teleological story about the progressive realization of representative democracy, I have taken for granted that today's sexual organization has been present - at least biologically - throughout human history with only slight variations. Changes, even revolutions, in sexual practices, family structures and theories of reproduction and pleasure - sure! But the biological "substrate", the actual genitala, has always seemed to be an invariant which the purely social variations connects and disconnects to in different ways.

The findings of historical materialism tell us otherwise. Because the German artists where not held back by prejudice or political agendas, they could represent the genitalia of our predecessors without resorting to mystifications. The representations, limited to Marx and Engels, are however very limited. I only wish that they had been accompanied by Luxemburg or some other woman - if that is not an altogether too inexact expression - so as to give some kind of hint as to the extent of the variety of genitalia (and other organs) in those early days of the labor movement. With this limited selection in mind, this is what I managed to observe and deduce about the genitalia of giants:

Marx' genitalia corresponds closely to what is referred to as a "penis" today, at least as far as I can tell. The artists, though working with scientifically developed techniques, were not primarily interested in early capitalist anatomy but in creating a homage to two very important theoreticians of the labor movement. Thus, they are both clothed. I do however get the feeling that the sculptor is making a point of the mentioned correspondence by giving the author of Capital a slight erection that shows through his cast iron pants. Apart from his extraordinary size and immense muscles, he is eerily similar to you or me. (A small note: Marx is depicted as sitting, which hints at the possibility that the "boils" that he presumably got as a result from long hours at the British Museum might be a code of sorts.)

At first glance, Engels seems to completely lack sexual organs. But as you move closer, you see fine silver threads extending from his absent crotch towards other parts of the statue as well as to its immediate surroundings. The "web" hosts a number of small black and brown organs that only connect to the main body by those thin milk-like threads. The organs have eight jointed appendices. As far as I can tell, their function is to allow the organs to move along the libidinal strings when the slightest vibration signals the presence of a potential "sexual goal" (to borrow a term from Freud). One of the organs seem to limit its movement to a triangle formed by Engel's ear, collar and shoulder. The threads in the triangle are particularly plentiful, and the density allows one to spot certain patterns in the seemingly anarchic way in which the lines of communication are drawn. Recording and shivering at the slightest tremble in the strings (they are made from some kind of extremely elastic bodily fluid), the organ moves back and forth in the triangle but always to return to a site at the statue's ear lobe. From this base of operation it whispers into the seemingly attentive hollow just above it.

It would be easy to see a certain tragic dimension in this neverending murmur into the ear of a mere representation of man, and the connected rythm of frantic activity and motionless wait of these caressing-communicating organs awake a suspicion: they may not be part of the statue at all. What if this residue of sexual organizations wiped out by the enforced primacy of reproduction ("normality" in the technical sense defined by Dr Freud) somehow managed to survive, attempting to form symbiotic bonds with new bodies? Trees, signposts, window panes, dreaming animals and humans? It must have encountered several difficulties: the unresponsive window pane which refused to stir even when told about the most delicious connections made, the animal suddenly awake - unaware of the perverse possibilities offered - might shrug, move a bit too violently and undo an entire night's labor of love.

But to find tragedy would likely be no more than a relapse into anthropocentrism. It would be presumptous to assign consciousness to such organs, at least any remotely similar to our own. Rather than a project leaving a trail of heart breaking disappointments, it might be better defined as a constant attempts to attach and calibrate itself to more than a century's worth of potential hosts. Then, finally hitting on the very forms and proportions of the host it has attempted to replace, it finds a certain functional "contentment" in the replica of a man. In a reversal of the way that the dreamer's hand searches for and finds its crotch, the organs searches for and find their resting place.

Freud may have kept clear of biology when formulating the object of his science for obvious both practical and theoretical reasons. The "limit"-concept of "drive" is a practical demarcation necessitated both by differences in method and the actual structural conditions of the psychic apparatus (which appears to be dissimilar to those of biological science). This construct of strings and miniscule organs seems to allow for sexual activity in the forms of caressing, strangling, exploring, corresponding. Such functions are not unknown to psychoanalysis: on the contrary, they are perverse elements present in all kinds of sexual organizations and the building blocks of the pregenital configurations. What is striking though, is that the variation of sexual organizations that today are confined to the psyche are here given an immediate, physical form. Engels' libidinal web is highly original in both its relative autonomy towards any given body (both in its ability to make and maintain connections and structures whose connections with a body can be disconnected and reconnected according to chance and optimizations of functionality - and in its ability to if necessary change host) and in the functional, more or less immediate correspondence between biological and sexual organization. While the tongue or the dick or the cunt today varies its significance according to the demands of the psyche (within the material boundaries given by its physical shapes and capabilities), the libidinal web might be proof of a period in human history when this variation rather than shifting significances and practices was actively remolding and reforming organs according to the demands of desire.

This obviously has a great significance for the historical validity of both anatomical studies and the present configuration of the psychic apparatus. A more modest area of research might be to analyze in what ways these arcane strings and organs of Engels' are connected with his great communicative efforts in the service of the labor movement. Is there a connection between his immense web of correspondents and confidants and his immense web of delicate, ever growing milky lines? Or between this elastic secrete and his preoccupation with proteins in his Naturdialektik and Anti-Dühring?

PS. It might be noteworthy that the sculptor's arrangement with a sitting Marx and a standing Engels is reminiscent (or possibly the other way around) of Max Ernst's Capricorn (also present in Berlin at the time); compare ME & M&E.

PS 2. We might owe much more than is readily apparant to our gigantic forefathers. Take wages for example: Marx himself tells us that the wages of the working class tend towards a level where it can simply pay for that which is necessary to reproduce its labor power. But he also tells us that that which is considered "necessary" is to some extent decided by the culture and traditions (and demands of capital) in any given society. This "inertia" coupled with the likely very rapid shrinking of man during the few generations leading up to the 20th century might very well have produced a favorable situation for a number of generations. The level of wages was decided with the physical needs of immense bodies in mind. So, as the bodies shrank, an ever greater part of the wage could be used for other purposes. Imagine the riches available to a working class the size of rats!

Appendix 1: City planning as class struggle in the sphere of anatomical science.

Living on Rosa Luxemburg Strasse, we visited her Platz in the belief that we would find a place of a similarly thought provoking nature. What we found was at first glance very disappointing - the most boring kind of conformism. The genitalia is as present in the activities of the city planners of Berlin as in the preoccupation of artists: it might have permeated the whole intellectual life of those days and produced unforseen effects in the most diverse fields of work. But the contradictory ways in which we find it at Rosa Luxemburg Platz might force us to reevaluate the perhaps all too one-sided, positive way in which we appraised the tendency's presence in regards to Marx-Engels Platz. For where the artists seem to have made a clean break with narrowminded prejudice, the city planners seems to be trapped in it. This should be obvious from a schematic overview of the place: a triangle, and under it two orifices. And as an unwelcome bonus: in the triangle (representing pubic hair) an advertisement for a "Hooters" restaurant near the Zoo. Thus, the present rulers of Berlin try to humiliate the dead, as if to say: "Go ahead workers, suck on the teets of the dead sow of insurrection." Depressing, really, until M points out that their order might very well be built on quicksand - or paving-stones.

For in contrast to the surrounding streets, the triangle is made of cobble stones of a size suitable for throwing. Having thus exorcised the feelings of defeat, we realize that just as the triangle differs from what you might find on a police woman so too does the orifices. Not only eggs, urine and shit, but a whole system of tunnels spanning a city of millions. One might be tempted to make use of one of the pet problems of Trotskyism: how do we define the "socialist countries": As "degenerate workers' states"? As "state capitalism"? And what forms do class struggle assume in such social formations? A triangle and two subway entrances may give us an idea of how one aspect of this struggle took shape in the fields of urbanism and anatomical science. Within the confines of the given order, the primacy of reproduction and sexual conformism is mutated; someone (perhaps a sleeper agent from Sex Pol? Hard to imagine that Reich's comrades would all just disappear or abandon their common project) makes pubic hair take part in the preparations for a renewed insurrection, and develops the two-way street logic of orifices into a ever-growing series of possible destinations. And, ironically enough, enlists the unaware city planners of today in forever expanding and modifying these series.

Appendix 2: Die Toten Mahnen Uns: Michael Jackson, the Paris Commune and the Beach Volley Ball of Reaction.

(to be added)

/Erik Bohman

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