This is my second pass at trying to write about eros, the transgression of boundaries and public space. Let’s hope this one sticks.
I’ve been quite enjoying the book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel R. Delany which was recommended to me by Peter Birkemoe of The Beguiling. In its first part, Delany describes, in vivid detail, the (mostly gay) porn theatres, peep shows and street corners full of hustlers in NYC’s Times Square before the area transformed into a family friendly tourist destination. Far from a stereotyped portrait of seedy dens of vice and crime, he details how the theatres were sites that supported rich and complex social networks that transgressed class boundaries in the name of the pursuit of pleasure. He also critiques the erasure of the erotic institutions that gave rise to these networks, asking us to reconsider the way we might think about such sites.
It has been my experience that spaces for marginalized interests and practices based on mutual pleasure have the best potential to draw together people of different backgrounds and classes. It need not be sexual. Anything from an unpopular genre of music to a bizarre new age belief system will suffice. Of course, interclass spaces are often sexual.
So long as we continue to conceive of certain sexual acts as normal and bourgeois and other sexual acts as abnormal and perverse, those who choose to engage in the latter acts will need to travel to marginal spaces to satisfy their perversions regardless of whether they’re paying for it or not. And because sexual abnormalities cross class lines, such spaces easily facilitate interclass interactions.
I want you to consider how many of your non-transactional social interactions with others are not founded upon on mutual pleasure, but rather, class status. The opening questions that most adults exchange in becoming acquainted – “what do you do?” or “where are you from?” or “where do you live” – all elicit responses that reveal your social standing. The logic by which most adults choose to structure their interactions begin with class and wealth rather than pleasure, or at least, before pleasure. Let’s contrast this with Delany’s description of the relationships he made in the gay porn theatres of Times Square:
“… these were not love relationships… not business relationships. They were encounters whose most important aspect was that mutual pleasure was exchanged… Most were affable but brief because, beyond pleasure, these were people you had little in common with. Yet what greater field and force than pleasure can human beings share? More than half were single encounters. But some lasted over weeks; others for months; still others went on a couple of years. And enough endured a decade or more… You learned something about these people (though not necessarily their name, or where they lived, or what their job or income was); and they learned something about you.”
Questions about income brackets and class status are irrelevant in spaces like sex clubs. Knowing someone’s legal name or occupation has no bearing on whether they’re safe to fuck or if you can get them off. And because such spaces are so marginalized, a certain level of anonymity is expected, making questions that could reveal one’s class intrusive and potentially inappropriate. No, the name of the game is pleasure. REAL FUCKING PLEASURE.
“… given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will…”
I’m fairly confident that by “pleasant” Delany is writing about a kind of pleasure that enriches and nourishes. Not the kind of pleasure you see in people who have no appreciation for opera but who nevertheless dress up to go to the opera to say at their next dinner party that they are the kind of people who enjoy going to the opera. Not the kind of pleasure you see in a woman who has a $10,000 purse hanging off her arm to signal that she is not the crass kind of social climber who needs to announce her status to the hoi polloi with logos – but still wants other ultrarich people to know about it. Not the kind of pleasure you see in a man “sinking” a bottle of champagne (when one orders two bottles, one for drinking and another for pouring down the drain) and posting it on Instagram.
Pleasure in the field of consumerism is an empty, performative kind of pleasure in which genuine pleasure is hijacked to enforce class boundaries, even if there is no audience to observe the enforcing. It is the empty, performative kind of pleasure that trains you to “enjoy” the act of impulsively or compulsively purchasing things that do not give you any real pleasure or that may actually cause you displeasure (e.g., regret over purchasing something you actually dislike). Marx wrote that capitalist production alienates you from your labour and degrades it into work; I would argue that capitalist consumerism alienates you from your pleasure and degrades it into vanity (vain <- vanus, Latin meaning emptiness).
Well, no one in a sex club gives a fuck about your bourgie tastes or your designer clothes (I mean, if you’re wearing anything, you’re probably hoping it’s going to come off at some point). If images of vanitas and memento mori were painted to communicate the idea that death is the great leveler, sex is a more immediate and quotidian reminder of this. Rich or poor, we all want to get off and we all do it in more or less the same ways.
Remove non-transactional interclass interactions and all you have left is vanity. Is there anything more tedious than going to a sex party that’s full of rich people having their every selfish whim catered to? There is nothing that strikes me as so pathetic as a crowd of high class privileged people getting together to flirt with “transgression” and to play tourists of the perverse for an evening. Especially when these are the same kinds of people who will actively exercise their influence and power to scrub their residential neighbourhood of “transgressive” types. Whose only desired interclass interaction would be from a transactional, charitable or voyeuristic distance.
“… in the name of ‘safety,’ society dismantles the various institutions that promote interclass communication, attempts to critique the way such institutions functioned in the past to promote their happier sides are often seen as, at best, nostalgia for an outmoded past and, at worst, a pernicious glorification of everything dangerous…”
While the concept of safety is invoked to rationalize this dismantling, I would add that driving motive behind the rhetoric is the colonization of pleasure by vanity. Unlike vanity, mutual pleasure doesn’t have to cost a goddam thing and no one has the power to fully prevent anyone from accessing to it. The reason why I like to keep my mind in the gutter is because there is nothing more subversive than the practice of giving and receiving pleasure – of giving and receiving receiving power – in ways that are not structured by the logic of capitalist/class structures. The second you write someone off because you think they’re beneath you or write yourself off for not being rich enough, or worse, nurse your envy or lust for a higher class strata when your basic securities – health, food, housing – are already being met, you’re denying yourself potential pleasure and replacing it with class violence. You’ve succumbed to the logic of vanity.
Take responsibility for resisting vanity. Seek out physical spaces that subvert its logic. Live your pleasure to its utmost for it is rightfully yours to give and receive.