On Erotically Marked Objects from the Perspective of Object Studies

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Grażyna Gajewska

On Erotically Marked Objects

from the Perspective of Object Studies

D O I: I0. i83i8/ t d .20i5. e n . i. i4

Eroticism: Between Nature and Culture

In h is 19 9 3 e s s a y “ T h e D o u b le F la m e : Love and E ro ticism ”1 , the M exican p o et and e ssayist O ctavio Paz con siders the intricate relationship b etw een sex, ero ti­

cism and love. Though connected, the three cannot be re- garded as synonym ous. Paz illustrates this phenom enon o f sim ultaneous connectedness and difference using the m etaphor o f fire and the flam e: natu re k in d les the fire o f sex, over w h ich quivers the subtle, blue flam e o f love.

N either red nor blue flam e s can e x ist w ith o u t fire, and yet they are distinct from the fire above w hich they hover.

The M exican intellectual stresses that sex is the least hu- m an elem ent o f the triad, and the reason is that it applies to m any other species b esides homo sapiens, and its goal is reproduction. W hile sex belongs to the sphere o f nature, the flam es o f eroticism cannot be placed unam biguously in the sam e sphere, as th ey b elon g rath er to the field o f culture. Eroticism is not som e “unnatural” act, but it rath­

er transcends the act, engaging unused deposits o f sexual energy and desire. On the one hand, therefore, eroticism is closely linked to nature (we w ould not be erotic beings

1 O c ta vio Paz, The D ouble Flam e: Love a nd E roticism , tra n sla te d by H elen Lan e (H arcourt B ra ce & C o m p a n y : 19 96).

Grażyna Gajewska - p ro fe sso r o f the UAM, director o f th e D ep artm en t o f C on tem po rary C ulture and M ultim edia in th e In stitu te o f E urop ean C ulture o f th e UAM. Author o f tw o m o n ograp hs and editor o f a fe w o th e r books, as well a s o f a fe w dozen o f articles in th e field o f literary and cultural stu d ies. C on tact:

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i f w e w ere n o t sexu al an im als first), and on the other, b y separatin g desire from the reproductive function, it shifts the surplus o f energy and the creativ- ity that arises from it into the field o f culture.

Z yg m u n t B au m an , fo llo w in g Paz's th oughts, w rite s: “ T h at su rp lu s is a standing in vitation to cultural inventiveness. The u ses to w h ich that repro- ductively redundant and w asted excess m ay be put are a cultural creation”2.

A t the sam e tim e, B au m an em p h asizes the im p o s s ib ility o f “lib e ra tin g ” that (cultural) eroticism from its (natural) sexuality: “ (...) the reproductive fu nction o f sex is sim u ltan eo u sly the in d isp en sab le con dition and a thorn in the flesh o f eroticism ; th ere is an un breakable link, b u t also a con stan t te n sio n b etw e e n the tw o - th at te n sio n b ein g as in curable as the lin k is u n b reak ab le”3. W hile B au m an n o tes the am bigu ous relation sh ip b etw een sex and e roticism and the im p o ssib ility o f the la tte rs sep aratio n from the sphere o f nature, George Bataille m akes a clear distinction betw een sexu al­

ity and eroticism , and stresses th at the m ove from the fo rm er to the latter is, in essence, a tran sg re ssio n from an im al to h um an . In Erotism: Death and Sensuality (first published in E nglish tran slation in 19 6 2 )4, he w rites: “E ro ti­

cism is the sexual activity o f m an to the extent that it differs from the sexual activity o f anim als. H um an sexual activity is not necessarily erotic but erotic it is w h en ever it is not ru d im en tary and pu rely an im al”5. E ro ticism is thus presented as a specifically hum an category, and is by the sam e token inscribed into the W estern notion o f the opposition b etw een nature and nurture and the em phasis on the exclusive attributes that separate hum ans from the world o f anim als6.

2 Z y g m u n t B au m an , "On P o stm o d e rn U se s o f S e x ” in Love a nd Eroticism , e d . M ike F e a th e rs to n e (London: S a g e , 19 99 ), 20.

3 B au m an , "On P o stm o d e rn U se s o f S e x ”, 20.

4 G e o rg e B ataille, Erotism : D eath and Sensuality, tra n s. M ary D alw ood (San Fran cisco : City L igh ts B o o k s, 1986).

5 Ibid., 29.

6 T h e h ierarch ical relation sh ip b e tw e e n h u m an s and a n im a ls, or, m o re broadly, b e t w e e n h u ­ m a n s and a n im a te n atu re, h as its ro o ts in th e A risto te lia n and Ju d e o -C h ristia n tra d itio n s. In his tre a tis e On the Soul, A risto tle p re s e n te d a trip a rtite and h ierarch ical d ivision o f b e in g s. Ac- c ord in g to th is c o n c e p t, th e lo w e s t ru n g is o c c u p ie d by p lan ts, a b o v e th e m a re a n im a ls, and a t th e to p are h u m an s. T h e criterion fo r s e p a ra tin g p la n ts fro m an im a ls and p eo p le w a s both th e sou l (accord in g to A risto tle , p la n ts h ave v e g e t a t iv e s o u ls, i.e. th e kind foun d in all living b ein g s) and th e b e lie f th a t an im a ls are im m obile and in sen sitiv e . A n im als, in th e p h ilo so p h er's v ie w , w e re by c o n tra s t e n d o w e d w ith bo th a v e g e t a t iv e sou l and s e n s e s (th ough s o m e have all th e s e n s e s , w h ile o th e rs on ly h ave s o m e o r ju s t on e , t h a t o f tou ch). S o m e a n im a ls a lso have an im a g in a tio n , b u t lack rational p e rc e p tio n . R easo n , in A risto tle 's v ie w , is a sp e c ial s u b s ta n c e



From a contem porary - particularly posthum anist - perspective, the op- po sitio n b etw een hum an s and anim als, or rather h um ans and n on -h u m an anim als, is becom ing increasingly fluid, and even the sexual and erotic sphere is no longer an area characterized b y a clear d istinction b etw een needs and behavior7. This does not, however, m ean that w e have only two paths to choose from in our th in kin g ab out eroticism : one w ith a clearly anthropocentric, h u m an ist and cu lturalist tin t th at locates e roticism on the side o f culture, in op position to nature, or the other: a p osth u m an ist path th at extracts the interdependence betw een nature and culture and draws attention to the flu- id ity betw een the anim al and the hum an. In the n on -anth ropocen tric view, posthum anism is m erely one o f several possible options. A t least tw o other n o n -an th ro p o lo gically tin ted strains o f thought are currently b ein g devel- oped in parallel to posthum anism : tran shu m anism and m aterial anthropol- ogy, am ong w hich the latter appears to be particularly in spiring w ith regard to extracting specific and hitherto unexam ined aspects o f eroticism . The rela- tivity o f people and objects and the sym biotic relationships b etw een hum ans and both the anim ate and inanim ate w orlds em phasized by anthropological theorists enables one to exam ine eroticism as a sphere that exists and changes as a result o f the influence o f things, or rather as a result o f hum ans entering into relationships w ith things/objects. M ore precisely, the erotic attractive- ness o f hum ans is largely shaped b y things: shoes, clothing, accessories and jewelry. Furtherm ore, som e objects such as shoes (particularly heels), lingerie and garters even appear to have erotic characteristics. In this article I propose that w e exam ine these objects as active participan ts o f erotic gam es, rather th an p assive things th at are som ew here b eyond people and the sexu al and erotic sphere. In m y non-anthropocen tric v ie w o f eroticism , I em phasize the relativity, sym biosis and participation o f things in shaping the erotic sphere

t h a t is d iffe re n t fro m th e v e g e t a t iv e and se n s itiv e sou l. Its fo rm a tio n in h u m an s c o n s titu te s a s e p a ra te p ro b le m , bu t th e d istin c tio n b e tw e e n so u ls s p e c ific to va rio u s life fo rm s w as d e c isiv e in A risto tle 's h ierarch ical division o f b e in g s. S e e A risto tle , On the Soul, tra n s. Hugh L aw son -T an cred (London: Pen guin B o o k s, 19 86). In th e Old T e s ta m e n t s to ry o f th e cre atio n o f th e w orld and h um ank in d , on th e o th e r han d, w e read th a t God said: "L et us m a k e m ankind in ou r im a g e , in ou r lik e n ess, so th a t th e y m ay rule o v er th e fish in th e s e a and th e birds in th e sky, ov er th e liv e sto ck and all th e w ild a n im a ls, and o v er all th e c re a tu re s th a t m o ve a lo n g th e g round". H u m an s are n ot on ly s e p a ra te d fro m th e re s t o f n atu re, a s th e on ly b e in g s c re ate d in th e im ag e o f G o d, b u t h a ve a lso b e e n g iven th e righ t to rule o v er a n im a ls. This fin d s its c o n firm a tio n in a la ter p art o f th e B oo k o f G e n e s is : "Rule ov er th e fish in th e s e a and th e birds in th e s k y and o v e r e v e ry living c re a tu re th a t m o v e s on th e ground". N o n -h u m a n b e in g s w e re g iven to h u m an s s o t h a t th e y m ig h t ful fi II th e will o f G o d. G e n e s is 1:2 6 , 1:2 7 , The H oly Bible, New Interna tiona lV ersio n (Grand R apids: Z o n d e rva n Pu blish in g H ou se, 1984).

7 In tim acy (including sexu al in tim acy) a c ro s s s p e c ie s b o u n d a rie s is d isc u s s e d in M onika Bakke, B io-transfiguracje. Sztuka i este ty ka p o sth u m a n izm u (Poznań: W y d aw n ic tw o UAM), 1 1 9 - 1 2 5 .


o f h u m an life, and thus attribute a certain agen cy (but n o t in tention ality) to objects.

Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Humanism

There are three varieties o f contem porary n on -anth ropocen tric hum an ism being developed. M y aim is not to present each o f th ese strains, but to point out the differences betw een th em and to offer a m ore detailed presentation o f m aterial anthropology that w ill serve as the theoretical foundation o f m y discussion o f eroticism . The first variety, know n as posthum anism , questions the clear distinction betw een hum ans and anim als (hence the use of the term s

“hum ans” and “non-hum an anim als” b y posthum anist thinkers) and unm asks the arbitrary assum ptions behind the hierarchical structure o f anim ated b e ­ in gs: p lan ts - an im als - h um an s. T h is con vention seek s to overcom e h u ­ m ans' condescending stance tow ards other life form s and their exploitative b eh avior to w ard s nature in favor o f bu ild in g sym b iotic in terdepen den cies betw een variou s beings.

In the second variety, k n ow n as tran shu m anism , the em phasis is placed on tightening the relationship b etw een people and high technology. This ap- proach is linked to developm ents in the fields o f m edicine and technological science. The goal o f tran sh u m an ism can be described as autoevolution: the desire to liberate hum an s from ran dom b iological evolution and to replace it w ith con trolled d evelopm ent. If w e fu n ction in sym b io tic relation sh ip s w ith other life form s and inanim ate m atter; if w e do not think o f hum ans as a com plete w hole, then, at least from the tran shu m anist perspective, there is no reaso n for us to b elieve that the developm ent o f hum an kin d is over. The stances and postulates o f the transhum anists are not synonym ous w ith those espoused b y posthum anists. T ran shum anism does not preclude an anthro- pocentric outlook; indeed, the poin t is to use technolo gy for the purpose of im proving hum ans' quality o f life and to im prove hum ans th em selves. In this sense, tran sh u m an ists pursue a m od el o f h um an self-p erfectio n that, from the posth u m an ist standpoint, is a conservative one, as th ey do n o t venture beyond the concept o f hum ans as the standard b y w h ich all things are m eas- ured. T ran shu m anists, m ean w h ile, reject e sse n tialist visio n s o f the hum an subject, question the com pleteness o f hum ans, proclaim the advent o f a new b ein g th at operates in tigh t sym b iosis w ith m achines and electronics, and, consequently, th eir pro jects open up th at w h ich is h u m an to th at w h ich is non-hum an.

In the case o f the third variety, described as m aterial anthropology or the study o f objects, attention is focused on m aterial culture, or “m aterialized ” culture. H ow ever, th is approach can not be treated as a m ere exten sio n or



duplication o f the study o f m aterial culture in itiated several decades ago by h istorian s asso ciated w ith the A n n ales School (e.g. Fernand Braudel)8. The study o f objects differs from m odernist studies on m aterial culture in its ap- proach to the subject o f study, its m ethodology and particularly the academ ic question s it p o se s - question s th at are situ ated in d ifferen t con texts than those posed several decades ago9. O n the one hand, this new approach to m a ­ terial culture is the product o f contem porary thinkers' critical analysis o f the m odernist approach to the topic, and on the other, their distancing them selves from the ontology and epistem ology that developed as part o f the so-called linguistic turn. This distance, perhaps even intellectual boredom , finds its ex- pression in the 2003 article b y the archaeologist Bj0rnar Olsen, Material Culture after Text: Re-Membering Things1°. O lsen argues that objects ought to be returned their reality and m ateriality, and stresses that the linguistic and literary per- spectives are rather u seless w ith regards to this issue. He attem pts to bring the objectiveness o f objects back into the fold o f arch aeological studies, yet his observations on the ontological and epistem ological shift in the approach to things are them selves part o f a broader spectrum o f posthum anist reevalu- ations. For exam ple, O lsen em ph asizes th at “th at thin gs, all th ose p h ysical entities w e refer to as m aterial culture, are beings in the w orld alongside other beings, such as hum ans, plants and an im als’”” . He m akes no attem pt to blur the differences b etw een these beings, but he does observe that this difference is one “that should not be conceptualized according to the ruling ontological regim e of dualities and negativities; it is a non -opposition al or relative differ­

ence facilitating collaboration, delegation and exchange”12. In this perspective, it is not the sym bo lic value (m eaning) o f objects in culture th at is stressed, nor their u sefu ln ess or con su m ption by people th at is em phasized, but the interdependency, relativity and delegation betw een people and things. This perspective encourages us to treat things as relevant co-participants o f social life - an approach that contrasts w ith the unam biguous concept of hum ans as the only or m ost im portant agent o f transform ation in the world.

8 Fernand B raud el. Capitalism and M aterial Life: 1400-1800, tra n s. M iriam K ochan (London: Wei- de n fe ld and N ico lso n , 19 73).

9 S e e Ewa D o m ań sk a, H istorie niekonw encjonalne. Refleksja o p rze szło ści w now ej hum anistyce, (Poznań: W y d aw n ic tw o Pozn ań skie, 2006).

10 B j0rnar O lsen , "M aterial C ultu re a fte r T ext: R e m e m b erin g T h in g s”, N orw egian A rch eo lo g ical R eview 36 , no. 2 (2003): 8 7 - 10 4 .

11 Ibid., 88.

12 Ibid., 88.


The B ritish an th ro p o lo gist A lfred G ell stre sse s the so cia l fu n ction s o f things in his 19 9 8 book A rt and Agency: A n Anthropological Theory. Rather than follow the b eaten path o f presenting w orks o f art in the context o f sociocul- tural shifts caused by hum ans, G ell treats art objects as subjects participating actively in those shifts. A t the sam e tim e, the author o f A rt and Agency dis- tances h im se lf from the sem iotic research perspective that exam ines works o f art as a system o f signs that “reflects” social reality:

In place of symbolic communication, I place all the emphasis on a g e n c y , i n t e n t i o n , c a u s a t i o n , r e s u l t , a n d t r a n s f o r m a t i o n . I view art as a system of action, intended to change the world rather than encode sym bolic propositions about it. The ‘action'-centered approach to art is inherently more anthropological than the alternative sem iotic approach because it is preoccupied w ith the practical m ediatory role o f art objects in the social process, rather than with the interpretation of objects ‘as if' they w ere texts13.

This research perspective enables G ell to see objects as agents or co-agents o f events. W hile he does not endow things w ith intention, he does claim that that intentional beings perform their actions through th ese things.

A nother thinker w ho em phasizes the agency o f things is the Dutch anthro­

pologist Peter Pels. According to him , objects come alive in a social space and that is where, in a sense, they begin to “act” or “reflect” the m eanings ascribed to them b y people. Pels em phasizes the feedback loop betw een people and ob­

jects as w ell as their m utual influence on each other, m eaning that “things talk back” to usi4. According to him, “not only are hum ans as material as the material that m old them , but hum ans them selves are m olded, through their sensuous- ness, by the ‘dead' m atter w ith w hich they are surrounded”i5. In this perspective, it becom es crucial to em phasize the m aterial (carnal) foundations o f hum an existence, a consequence o f w hich is the perception o f the hum an subject as always em bodied and also connected to other organic and non-organic kinds o f matter. One can hardly overestim ate the scale o f this m utual influence, as it plays a key role in socialization. We inhabit a com plex w eb o f relationships with hum an and non -hum an others, anchored as w e are in m aterial surroundings

13 A lfred G ell, A rt and Agency: An A nth ro po lo g ica l Th eory (O xford: O xford U n ive rsity Press, 19 9 8), 6.

14 P e te r P els, "The Sp irit o f M atte r: On F e tish , Rarity, F act, and F a n c y " in B o rd erF etish ism s:M a te ­ rial O bjects in Unstable Spaces, e d . Patricia S p y e r (N e w York: R o u tle d g e , 19 98 ), 9 1 - 1 2 1 . 15 P els, "The Sp irit o f M atte r: On F e tish , Rarity, F a c t, and Fancy", 10 1.



that w e create, transform and dissem inate as w e occupy them . Yet the point is not to treat m atter (including m aterial hum an bodies) as y e t another topic to be addressed in our exam ination o f contem porary m anifestations o f com- m ercialism and consum erism , but to dem onstrate that people are not isolated from the m aterial and objectified world. It is not only hum ans, but also non- humans, including objects, that participate in the “w eaving” o f the complex web o f social relations. In this perspective, the “discourse o f things” is set in hum an discourse™ and is governed by certain pragm atics involving identity building, social relations, the discourse o f m ourning, justice, fashion, etc. To this list o f defined types o f pragm atics one m ay also add eroticism ; indeed, hum an erotic attractiveness is largely shaped and m anifested through lingerie, clothing, ac- cessories and jewelry. W hen discussing such relationships betw een people and things, one should also keep in m ind the objects that are not outside o f us in the physical sense, but have come to share the space o f our biological bodies;

they have literally becom e em bodied. A ready exam ple is that o f silicone breast implants that are used not only to replace a mastectom y patient's m issing m am - m ary gland or to correct a birth defect, but also to increase the size o f existing breasts, w hich is often perceived as im proving the visual attractiveness o f the fem ale body. Another example o f the erotic relativity betw een people and things is the fascination and adm iration evoked b y artificial anthropom orphic bodies, i.e. m annequins such as those displayed in departm ent stores and shopping centers. Contrary to the popular claim that m annequins fascinate us because they resem ble people and that, in their n on -living m ateriality, they represent living bodies, I claim that the point is not that they represent living bodies, but

16 I re fe r h ere to Ew a D o m ań sk a, w h o d e s c r ib e s th is v ie w o f th e s tu d y o f th in g s a s red u n d an t, as it is still e n tre n c h e d in th e h u m an p e rs p e c tiv e : "P arad oxically, su b je c tifie d o b je c t s sh a re th e fa te o f o th e rs w h o c a n n o t sp e a k fo r t h e m s e lv e s (the d e a d , w o m e n , ch ildren , m in o ritie s, th e d e fe a te d , etc.). Inevitably, it is p eo p le w h o sp e a k in th eir n am e, and th a t m e a n s t h a t th e d is ­ c o u rs e o f th in g s will a lw a y s be e n tre n c h e d in us, in h u m an d isc o u rs e , in ou r n e e d s and e x p e c - ta tio n s , and will a lw a y s be s u b je c t to c e rta in p ra g m a tic s, w h e t h e r th e y in volve th e a cq u isition o f k n o w led g e, id en tity building, social re la tio n s, or th e d isc o u rse o f m o urn in g, ju s tic e , m e m - ory, h eritag e , fa sh io n , e t c ”. Ewa D o m ań sk a, "H um an istk a n ie -a n tro p o c e n try c z n a a stu d ia nad rz e cz a m i”, Kultura W spółczesna, no. 3 (2008): 1 3 - 1 4 . D om ań sk a s p e a k s in fa vo u r o f lo c a tin g th e s tu d ie s d e v o te d to o b je c t s in th e p e rs p e c tiv e o f th e h u m an ities w h ic h re n o u n c e th e idea o f m an a s th e m e a su re o f all th in g s. In th is p e rs p e c tiv e th e s tu d ie s d e v o te d to th in g s w ou ld be s u p p o se d to re fe r to "th e p u rsu it o f a re sista n t o b je c t w h ic h o p p o s e s h um an c o g n itio n and th e a t te m p t s to a p p ro p ria te th is o b je c t by la n g u a g e ”. Ibid., 10 . D esp ite th e in te re stin g su p p o si- tion w h ic h o p e n a broad field to a d e c o n s tru c tio n and refo rm u latio n o f trite w a y s o f thinking a b o u t th in g s, I c o n sid e r th a t th is p ro p o sitio n is n ot so u sefu l fo r th e a n a lysis o f th e p h en o m - e n a th a t I c o n d u c t. A m o re a d e q u a te m e th o d o lo g ic a l p ro p o sitio n w h ic h fu n c tio n s w ith in th e fra m e w o rk o f th e s tu d ie s d e v o te d to o b je c t s is th e o n e th a t D om ań sk a re fe rs a s a c o n s e r v a ­ tive p ro p o sitio n . In th is re a c tio n a ry ve rsio n (let us re p e a t th is point) th e d isc o u rs e o f o b je c ts is in stalled into th e h um an d isc o u rse and it is d ire c te d by a c e rta in kind o f p ra g m atic s.


that they present a fantasy, one that often has an erotic tinge. In fact, the point o f reference is not a body m ade o f real flesh and blood, often im perfect, crip- pled and aging, but the fan tasy o f the perfect lover com ing to life™. From the psychoanalytical perspective, a m annequin - particularly a quasi-fem ale m an- nequin - is the apparition o f “the w om an w ho could fill out the lack in m an, the ideal partner w ith w hom sexual fulfilm ent w ould finally be possible, in short, The W oman w ho (...) does not exist”™.

Psychoanalytic theory can be useful not just in the search for erotic tension betw een people and the artificial bodies o f storefront m annequins, but also in analyzing the erotic fonctions o f clothing, footw ear and lingerie. The central, organizing concept o f th is discourse w ill be the fetish, b oth in the Freudian (sexual fetish) and M arxian (com m odity fetishism ) senses. In the opinion of Peter Pels, the aforem entioned theoretician o f m aterial anthropology, both o f these paths in W estern European thought reinstated the concept o f the fetish (fetisso) - w hich had previously existed outside Europe - as a w ay o f experienc- ing an object that changes h ow it functions in society19. In other w ords, some objects escape the boundaries o f standard use defined b y everyday practice, and function in a m agical, religious order that is not quite subject to utilitarian or com m ercial regim es o f evaluation (pricing). That is not to say that these things are granted intentionality or that they act “o f their ow n accord” (though in the m agical order, action is ascribed to them and they are equally often perceived as living things), but rather that due to the w ay they function in a given community, they elude attempts at rationalization, and particularly quantification, including com m ercial quantification. This concept o f the fetish is m ost fTequently used in the analysis o f devotional objects such as those associated w ith practices like the m anufacture and ven eration o f the im ages o f saints20, though it can also be applied in the analysis o f erotically m arked objects. The effect o f this erotic “untranscended m ateriality” becom es somewhat more apparent w hen we observe that clothing, shoes, lingerie and accessories serve not only the strictly pragm atic purpose of protecting their w earers from the elements, but also allow

17 T h e e ro tic m arkin g o f m a n n e q u in s is d isc u s s e d in G rażyn a G a je w sk a , "U w ie d z e n i przez m anek in y, czyli o e ro ty c e sz tu c z n y c h c ia ł (na p rzyk ład zie o p o w ia d a n ia „P ła sz c z Jó z e fa Oleni- n a" E ugen e'a M elch iora d e V ogue)", Przestrzenie Teorii, no. 2 (2011): 6 9 -8 0 .

18 Slavo j Zizek, Looking Awry: A n Introd uction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular C ulture (C a m ­ b ridge: MIT P re ss, 19 9 2), 80.

19 Pels a n a ly z e s th is p h e n o m e n o n by ju x ta p o s in g th e a ttitu d e s to w a rd s m ag ical th in g s and "un- con tro lled m a te ria lity " o b se rv e d a m o n g W e st A frican c o m m u n itie s and E u ro p ea n s d u ring th e rise o f c o lo n ia lism . P els, "The Sp irit o f M atte r", 9 3 - 9 4 .

20 S e e T o m asz Rakow ski, "P rzem ian y, p rz esu n ięc ia , p rz e d m io ty p rz e jśc io w e . A n tro p o lo g ia rz e c ­ zy", Kultura W spółczesna, no. 3 (2008).



people to em phasize their social status and to shape their aesthetic and erotic im age. Fashion and con sum erism are allies o f this creation, and place these objects in system s o f supply and dem and w oven from notions o f lu xury and attractiveness, as evidenced b y storefront displays o f such item s as lingerie and stockings in shopping m alis and even directly facing the street (il. 1).

Il. 1. A d v e r t i s e m e n t f o r a b o u t iq u e a t K e m p in s k i H o t e l B r is t o l, d o w n t o w n B e r lin , 2 012 . P h o t o b y J. K a lin o w s k i

Yet these system s often break, and con sequen tly reject th in gs th at are per- ceived b y so cie ty as b ein g too bold, obscen e, vu lgar or a th reat to m orality


or even to “good ta ste ” ; such objects are then relegated to a separate space, u su ally that o f the sex shop. W hen exam ined from the anthropological p e r­

spective, erotic fetishes can be described as things that system s (e.g. fashion, consum erism ) cannot entirely fill w ith m eanings, but w h ich w ill ultim ately be harn essed b y those system s and qualified as funny, frivolous, stim ulating or arousing.

The tw o final qualifiers indicate the agency o f these things: they elicit, or at le a st are in ten d ed to elicit, a certain respon se in people w h en placed in a certain context, and w ill be included in the erotic sphere as participants of the gam e.

Strutting Like a Peacock: on the Allure o f Animal Bodies

The plot o f A natole F ran ces 1908 novel Penguin Island begins on a polar island w here St. M ael arrives and, taking the penguins inhabiting the islan d for lit- tle people, decides to m ake m odel C hristians out o f them . Book II b egins w ith the parable The First Clothes, w h ich tells o f an experim en t th at w as intended to reveal how p enguins w ould react to other m em bers o f their species w hen the latter w ere dressed in clothing. A fem ale penguin o f average b eau ty w as selected as the first b ein g w h o se n ak ed n ess w a s to be covered up. She had

“narrow shoulders, as slack chest, a stout and ye llo w figure, and short legs”21.

M agis, the m onk w ho initiated the experim ent, ordered the anim al to put on laced sandals, convinced that th ey w ould “give an elegant length to her legs and the w eigh t th ey bear w ill seem m agn ified”22. A h at w as th en put on the fem ale penguin, her arm s and neck w ere encircled w ith jewelry, her abdom en w as bound in a linen band, and her body w as draped in a flow ing tunic. Thus equipped, the penguin w as allow ed to w alk away, and she provoked great in- terest w herever she went, particularly am ong the m ale part o f the population:

A male penguin, who m et her b y chance, stopped in surprise, and retrac- in g his steps began to follow her. A s she w ent along the shore, others coming back from fishing, went up to her, and after looking at her, walked behind her. Those who were lying on the sand got up and joined the rest23.

S a tisfie d w ith the re su lts o f h is exp erim en t, th e m o n k M a g is e xp lain s to St. M ael that the clothing had increased her erotic attractiveness, w hich she

21 A n a to le France, Penguin Island, tra n s. A.W. E van s (N e w York: B lue Ribbon B o o k s, 19 0 9 ), 45.

22 Ibid., 46.

23 Ibid., 47.



com bines w ith m ysteriousn ess and fan tasy: “it w a s n e cessary that, ceasing to see it distinctly w ith their eyes, th ey should be led to represent it to them - selves in their m in ds”24.

This scene is one in a series o f parables b ased on the O ld Testam ent that discuss the creation of hum ans, their separation from anim als, and the form a- tion of social order and moral norm s. Though this parable is clearly satirical in tone, it unm asks and m ocks the w ays in w hich social order is built and m oral norm s are shaped (and also lam poon s political life in France at the turn o f the 20th century, in the latter h a lf o f the book), it n evertheless preserves the Ju d e o -C h ristia n concept o f h u m an s w h o - as op p osed to an im als - cover their nakedness. I do not intend to analyze the issue o f conscious nudity and the sham e that, according to the Old Testam ent, A dam and Eve subsequently felt having eaten the apple from the tree in the G arden o f Eden25. Rather, I am interested in the fact that the biblical characters put on clothes only after they had realized their heretofore taboo sexuality. In F ran ces satirical w ork, the dressing o f the character in clothing, shoes and a hat also produces the effect o f “covering” that part, but at the sam e tim e it triggers the onlookers' fan ta- sies, aro u sin g their in terest in the covered n ak ed n ess and in creasin g their erotic tension . In essence, Penguin Island expresses the id ea that the passage from anim ality to hum an ity is a passage from sexuality to eroticism (the one so stro n gly em phasized one hun dred y e a rs later b y Paz, B ataille and B a u ­ m an), and that passage is tightly linked to the passage from the naked body to the clothed body. It is the clothing th at m akes the pro tagon ist attractive and alluring.

The m eaning o f the scene described above is aptly conveyed b y the G e r­

m an sayin g “the clothes m ake the m an ” (Kleider machen Leute), w h ich is an anthropocentric notion that em phasizes the distinctiveness and uniqueness o f hum ans v is -a -v is other species26. The posthum anist perspective, however, w ould eschew the stark dualism o f naked anim al vs. clothed hum an in favor o f an approach that exam ines different w ays o f em phasizing one's attributes.

W hile an im als and in sects are equipped w ith vario u s sign s o f expression , e.g. the b righ tly-co lo red face o f the m andrill, the pin k sexu al organs o f the baboon, the spotted fur o f the leopard and the turquoise-blue feathers o f the peacock, the hum an body is devoid o f such distinct qualities. Charles Darwin,

24 F ran ce, Penguin Island, 48.

25 A s G iorgio A g a m b e n o b s e rv e s , "N u dity, in ou r c u ltu re, is in se p a ra b le fro m a th eo lo g ic a l s ig n a ­ tu re ”. T h e o lo g ia n s e m p h a siz e th e c o n n e c tio n b e t w e e n sin and c o ve rin g th e bo dy, a s it w a s sin th a t c a u s e d th em to fe el a sh a m e d o f th e ir n udity. S e e G io rgio A g a m b e n , N udities, tra n s. David Kishik and S t e fa n P ed atella (Stan fo rd : S ta n fo rd U n ive rsity P re ss, 2 0 10), 5 7 - 6 0 .

26 Sim ilar n otio n s e m p h a siz e th e lan g u ag e, c o n sc io u sn e ss, intelligen ce and c re ativ ity o f hum ans.


and later W olfgang W elsch, em phasized the role that the colored bodies and plum age o f anim als, particularly m ales, play in their efforts to w in the favor o f fem ales. In order for m atin g to occur, m ales m ust not only vie w ith other m ales, but also dem onstrate their attractiveness to fem ales and, by displaying their colorful plum age, skin or fur, attem pt to convince the fem ales to breed w ith them27. According to D arw in, curiosity and aesthetics play an im portant role in the selection o f sexual partners. In his 18 7 1 w ork The Descent o f Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, the scien tist offered an in teresting com parison: “It w ould even appear that m ere novelty, or slight changes for the sake o f change, have so m etim es acted on fem ale b irds as a charm , like changes o f fashion w ith u s”28. In this view, there is a certain p arallelism (but not identicalness) b etw een an im al and hum an aesthetics, and also b etw een the developm ent o f the aesthetic sense in hum an and non -hum an anim als, and their sex drive.

R ather than b ein g in herently hum an aesthetic phenom ena, style and fa sh ­ io n are sim p ly d ifferent w ays o f em phasizin g one's ph ysical attractiveness, w ays that have developed over the course o f h um an an im al evolution. If, in the process o f evolution, hum ans have lost the physical attributes once used to attract partners, perhaps th ey have com pensated for this loss w ith cloth- ing, m akeup and jew elry. For now, th is question rem ains unansw ered. We do n o t k n o w the sources o f the h um an aesthetic sense (it is doubtful w hether it can even be said to have a source, particularly from the evolutionary point o f view ) and m o st e xistin g exp lan ation s rep resen t a cu lturalist or anthro- p ocen tric vie w p o in t, or, conversely, erase the differen ces b etw e e n h um an and n o n -h u m an m an ifestation s o f aesthetics. W elsch adm ittedly w arn s us in Animal Aesthetics about “the m ethodological error o f b asin g the question as to w hether there is an aesthetics o f anim als on the b asis o f highly-developed hum an aesthetics as binding criteria”29, but he fails to explain the differences b etw een the con struction o f an aesthetic sense in h um an and n on -h u m an anim als. W elsch does em phasize the evolutionary continuity o f aesthetics, but

27 In th e w orld o f a n im a ls m a le s p red o m in a n tly "d re ss up", luring and d e lig h tin g th e f e m a le s w ho lack su c h re fin e m e n ts a s rich co lo rs or p lu m a g e a s th e m a le re p r e s e n ta tiv e s o f th eir sp e c ie s . H ow ever, o n e should n ot t h a t in th e w orld o f h um an an im a ls th e re w e re p erio d s w h e n th e ex te rn a l m a n ife s ta tio n s o f "d re ssin g u p" w e re e q u a lly p ecu liar to w o m e n and m en . M oreo- ver, th e la tte r e v e n led th e w a y in th is r e s p e c t. An e x a m p le o f th is is th e fa sh io n o f th e upper c la s s e s in 17 th and 18 t h - c e n t u r y F ran ce, w h e n m e n e m p h a siz e d th eir s ta t u s and a t tr a c t iv e ­ n e ss by w e a rin g colo rfu l fro c k -c o a ts, s h ir ts w ith frilling, shin y s h o e s w ith c la s p s, w ig s bound w ith knots.

28 C h a rle s D arw in, q u o ted in W o lfgan g W elsch , "Animal A e sth e tic s ", C o n tem p o ra ry A e sth e tics no. 2 (2004), a c c e s s e d J u ly 29, 2 0 15 , h ttp ://h d l.h an d le.n et/2 0 2 7 /sp o .7 52 38 6 2 .0 0 0 2 .0 15.

29 W elsch , "Anim al A e sth e tics",



he focuses p rim arily on anim als and stops short o f extracting the sim ilarities and differences b etw een the aesthetic sen se developed through the course o f evolu tion and the sen se developed as a result o f cultural change. O n the sexual-erotic plane, W elsch reduces the aesthetic sense to a sender-receiver relation sh ip th at is stron gly se x -b ase d : m ales p resen t a range o f v isu a l at- tribu tes such as the color o f th eir fur or plum age, w h ile fem ales (note that in the an im al w orld, fem ales are n o t as gen erou sly endow ed in this regard) select their m ates based on aesthetic criteria and/or the fitness of the potential partners, in order to guarantee the b est p ossible genes for their offspring.

T h is m atter is m ore com plicated in the h u m an w orld , w h ere b iological factors overlap w ith cultural issues, leading to m yriad configurations betw een nature and culture, or rather w ithin natureculture (one word, em phasizing the am bivalence and sim ultaneous in separability o f these categories). Suffice it to m ention that the physical attractiveness o f a potential partner can be tied to the sexu al and erotic satisfaction experienced in an act th at only ends in pleasure, rather than in a sexual act that only serves to produce offspring and, from the evolu tion ary p erspective, to ensure the su rvival o f the species. In postm odern tim es, where sexual intercourse has been separated from procre- ation, courting the opposite sex need not be m otivated by procreative goals.

It should also be noted that, in d ifferent period s and cultures, courting the opposite sex w as and is not exclusively the dom ain o f m en, and both w om en and m en are k n ow n to adorn their b odies and p ay attention to external at- tributes o f attractiveness. W hile I w arn again st the error o f tran sferrin g the anim al (nature) onto the hum an (natureculture), I w ant m erely to point out th at the con cern w ith aesthetic attributes for the purpose o f attracting the opposite sex is as characteristic o f hum ans as it is o f non-hum an anim als, but the creation o f fashion, styles o f dress, and the use o f them as external signs o f erotic and sexual attractiveness seem s to be lim ited to hum ans (or has thus far only been observed in hum ans).

For these reasons, it is w orth con sidering clothing and apparel as things created b y people not m erely for the purpose o f protecting them selves against the cold and rain, but also to accentuate their erotic attractiveness. The atti- tude held by W esterners w ith regard to nakedness and clothing appears to run the gam ut from acceptance to the lack o f acceptance o f the anim al condition o f hum ans, and is encum bered b y theological, Judeo-C h ristian (i.e., cultural) roots, w hich I w ill attem pt to dem onstrate in the next part o f th is article.

Seducing with Things

I w ould venture the claim that hum an nakedness is a-erotic. This claim can be defended by analyzing the perform ance piece staged b y V anessa Beecroft at


the Berlin Neue Nationalgalerie on A pril 8, 2005. One hundred naked w om en o f variou s ages and races stood m otionless, their faces expression less, pro- voking consternation in the view ers, w ho w ere w aitin g in vain for som ething to occur. The w om en seem ed com pletely a-erotic in their nakedness and in- difference, as if the intim ate ten sion had disappeared along w ith their cloth­

in g and underw ear, leavin g behind “nothing but nakedn ess”, a quality o f both hum an and non-hum an anim als. The sole hum an touch w as the shoes: trans- lucent, h ig h -h eeled pum ps covering the feet, and in som e cases the calves, o f the w om en, m aking the characters in the perform ance piece appear both clothed and unclothed; naked like anim als, but clothed like h um an s; indif- ferent in their posture and facial expression, and ye t displaying their bodies (long legs) b y w earing the right style o f footwear. The w om en participating in an earlier Beecroft perform ance at London's G agosian G allery (M ay 9, 2000) w ere also naked and sim ultaneously dressed in shoes and draped w ith gauze veils, as i f h u m an nakedn ess could only m an ifest its e lf through thin gs, i.e., pieces o f clothing.

In his exam in ation o f the problem o f W estern attitudes tow ard s nudity, G iorgio A gam b en find s these artistic events to be exam p les o f th eological thought, se ein g the sp arin g and discrete u se o f cloth ing as the p u rsu it o f a trace o f the divine clothing o f grace th at clothed p eople in Paradise (they w ere nude, b u t n o t denuded, as th eir carn ality w a s covered b y clothing o f g race )30. T he im p o ssib ility o f retu rn in g to th at state, cau sed b y the sin o f A d am and Eve, and the con sequ en t donning o f loincloths o f fig leaves and, later, clothing, led to the developm ent o f a close association betw een nudity and clothing in our culture. The problem o f sin and the consciousness o f h u ­ m an sexuality and concupiscence also im plies, in the theological sense, that clothing m ust be w orn b y hum ans (and only be hum ans, not other beings) as a kind o f m ark. From this perspective, clothing is closely associated not only w ith nakedness, but also w ith concupiscence.

The inseparable association betw een clothing and hum an concupiscence is m anifested in m any erotic or even soft-core pornographic im ages in w hich m en and w o m en rarely appear com pletely naked. Though the w o m en fea- tured in photo shoots (e.g. for the “Playboy” m agazine) pose w ith ou t cloth­

ing, they do w ear shoes, garter belts, or at least jewelry, w h ile m en appear in their un derw ear or w ear w atches on their w rists, as if “naked carnality” w ere less attractive, less desirable than carnality equipped w ith additional acces- sories. In this sense, it is precisely the objects - garter belts, garters, corsets, heels, etc. - that m ake the body desirable (and, from the religious perspective,

30 A g a m b e n , N udities, 57.




sinful). M an y sex sh ops offer th eir cu stom ers d resses, lingerie and fish net stockings that serve not to cover the body, but to em phasize its qualities (il. 2).

II. 2. D is p la y c a s e w it h f i s h n e t lin g e r ie a n d d r e s s e s a t a s e x s h o p , d o w n t o w n B e r lin , 2 012 . P h o t o b y J. K a lin o w s k i.

T hese objects are design ed to evoke a certain resp o n se w h e n w o rn on the hum an (usually fem ale) body: to arouse the senses, stim ulate erotic fantasies and to increase a person's sex drive. These objects are thus ascribed a certain agency that occurs in close correlation w ith the h um an subject. Though the


objects do n o t in itiate an yth in g th em selves, as th e y are n o t endow ed w ith intentionality, in certain contexts, w hen they interact w ith a hum an w ho uses them and w ho looks at them , they can (and are designed to) provoke a certain reaction: stim ulation, arousal. M eanw h ile, exclusive sh opping centers and lingerie m anu factu rers often reference notions o f lu xu ry coupled w ith no- tions o f b eau ty and eroticism : lingerie is advertised by m odels w h ose beauty em phasizes the attractiveness o f the product, w hich in turn em phasizes the b eau ty o f the m odels (il. 3).

II. 3. A d v e r t i s e m e n t f o r lin g e r ie a t a b o u t iq u e in a s h o p p in g c e n t e r , B e r lin , 2 0 1 2 . P h o t o b y J. K a lin o w s k i



F ash ion , co n su m erism an d ero ticism rein force each other in ad vertisin g lin gerie-objects, w h ich b ecom e desirable in tw o w ays: as lu xu ry goods and as objects that accentuate the attractiveness o f the hum an body.


The issue o f hum an sexuality and eroticism is not a new topic in the h um an­

ities. E arlier studies focused p rim arily on the differen ces b etw een sex and eroticism , classifyin g the fo rm er as a qu ality o f an im als (including h um an anim als), w hile the latter as uniquely hum an. This point o f view is entrenched in the anthropocentric perspective, as it em phasizes the u n iqu en ess o f h u ­ m an eroticism w hen contrasted w ith the un iversal sexu ality and sex drive of other species. I do not claim that these prem ises are false, but I w ould avoid draw ing a clear line betw een that w h ich is h um an and that w h ich is anim al in the sexual and erotic sphere. R esearch conducted by D arw in and, in turn, posthum anists, suggest that the efforts m ade by n on -h u m an anim als to at- tract partners are both com plex and sophisticated, and that a broad repertoire o f strategies (such as colorful plum age or fur, songs and m atin g dances) are deployed in order to arouse the partner. From the posthum anist perspective, it is m ore justifiable to speak o f hum an and n o n -h u m an anim als as having various (though not identical) form s o f em phasizing their ow n attributes than to stress the dichotom y b etw een the an im al (i.e., prim itive) sexual in stinct and the sophisticated hum an erotic sense. I believe that the repertoire o f h u ­ m an strategies used to charm and attract the interest o f a partner includes the u se o f things/objects/accessories, and it is here that I perceive the difference b etw een the h um an ero tic-se xu al sphere and th at o f n o n -h u m an anim als.

The prelim in ary study o f the issue, the results o f w h ich I have presented in this article, involves such objects as clothing, lingerie and shoes, but does not exhaust the repertoire o f erotically m arked things and accessories.

The erotic and pornographic m arket offers w h ips, handcuffs, m asks and other objects used by people to enhance and add variety to their sexual experi- ences. O bjects such as these that b ear the stigm a o f ob scen ity also w arrant further investigation in the future. W hen w e w rite about things, w e should not forget about those th at n o w share the b iological space o f the body, particu- larly im plan ts and p rostheses. From the perspective o f posth u m an ism and the anthropology o f objects, this them e can also open up n e w perspectives on the relationship b etw een people and things in the sexu al-erotic sphere.

Translation: Arthur Barys




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