What is interesting about people in good society … is the mask that each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask.
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’
This man speaking, this man who has the conference floor, I want to suck his nipples. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that he’s been speaking for an hour now about pleasure and resistance and consumption and everyday life without giving himself away in any way. I imagine walking down the aisle, through the auditorium, to rip his sweaty shirt open. Maybe it’s the heat. It’s summer in Sydney, all sultry air and diamond light. He is talking about Madonna, now. I want to suck her nipples too.
This is the trouble with academics — they talk so casually about other people’s pleasures, draw diagrams of the various subject positions, as if their own preferences and positions didn’t figure in the analysis at all. Cultural critics are voyeurs of other people’s pleasures. To them, the pleasures of the text are something other people feel. We all like to watch. We watch TV and it doesn’t please us. So we imagine how it pleases others, and that pleases us. A curious perversion, a sort of voyeurism of the second degree.
A little later I’m talking about all this over gin and tonics up at Gilligan’s. Edmund chuckles over all this delicious nonsense, and questions me about my family background. Ever the Freudian, he simply has to tease:
Edmund: Now tell me, Vivian, what childhood experiences prompted your particular bent?
Vivian: Television, my dear boy, television. The same glass teat that weaned you.
The thing that has made me what I am was not the theatre of Oedipal drama but the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Endless hours, sprawled luxuriously on the carpet in front of the box. The flicker of its luminous blue-grey rays on my body in a darkened room, the comely murmur of its voice, the soft swell of its music, the teasing play of its pictures, scintillating on my skin. This was my Sir Stephen, training my desires, disciplining my body, beating its brusque and beautiful tattoo through the pores. Television impressed upon me the various and variable geometries of desire when I was at a very impressionable age. Now and forever, between me and the bodies of others lies the inky-blue balm of its images. I am countless heroes with firm hands, magnanimous hearts; countless damsels waiting to be conquered and possessed. I am endless longing glances in shot-reverse-shot. I am infinite instant love in the commercial spot.
Edmund knows all this well. He likes to think he was my first lover. The one who knows me best. The one who knew me in my virginal state. Besides, what in this line could surprise a man who has videotapes of every episode of Eight is Enough?
It’s true that l owe it all to my first lover, the one who seduced me with a knowing glance. The one who turned me aside from the antique law of patriarchal desire. The one who turned me on to the artfully modern game of beautiful ruses. My first lover was television. My darling television, with your wicked eye that hides more than it shows in its glimmerings. With your nightly ritual of transubstantiation, turning a base lusting into a promiscuous glint of images. An alchemy abstracted from my body, set loose in diagrams of ambivalent, versatile love. Television penetrated my body and sexualized my surfaces long before Edmund got his hands on me.
Television is supposed to put us in our place, show us what we can and cannot have. It doesn’t always work that way, though. Just as we can twist the social law of desire to suit our tastes, so too we can twist its representation. All that is required is a slight recoding of its diagrams of desire. Here they are; explicitly:
Figure 1. I look at her: I want to have her.
Figure 2. I look at her: I want to be her.
Figure 3. He looks at me: I want him to have me.
Figure 4. He looks at me: I want to be him, projecting his desire.
These are the most basic diagrams of desire, but they are as old as the silver screen. The close-up of the star in old black-and-white movies still stirs in me silvered memories of my first great loves: to be the adorable Audrey Hepburn, to be loved by Cary Grant. Later I came to realize there were more complicated vectors of seduction playing across the screen of my body. For example:
Figure 5. He looks at her; she looks at me. I want to be her, to feel his desire.
Figure 6. He looks at her; she looks at me. I want to be him, to feel she is mine, all mine.
I can recall these triangulations at work in the youthful crush I had on The Avengers. Dashing John Steed, elegant and always proper in his English suits and bowler; luscious Emma Peel in her zip-up boots and jumpsuits — a thoroughly modern couple. In the opening credit sequence, he holds up a bottle of champagne and she shoots the top off with a bull’s-eye hit. The wine spins, and he pours them each a glass. The music swoons, they draw close. I look at Emma. I want to have her. I look again and I want to be her. I feel Steed’s eye:; upon me. He wants me, I feel his desire. It makes me desirous too. I want Emma, I look at her longingly. Steed looks at Emma. That he wants her too makes me want her more.
Glance upon glance, the luscious tendrils of electrolust brush their gentle fingers against each other and against my gaze. Here there is nothing certain about desire. Here fascination peels away from the supposed laws of nature. Here, in uncertainty, it is free. At this point, a commercial break.
These interruptions were a bore until I discovered that the same logic worked in the ads as well. The transubstantiation of sex into advertising images passes by way of the magic product, a brand of lip-grease or grog, that appears to make it all work. A fetishist’s delight. But I had to be disciplined. I had to ignore these entreaties to cash in my cravings for mere things. The banal attempt to pass off some useless object as the secret of seduction is the laughable side of advertising. The joyful side is the play of figments, freed from nature and the law. This is advertising’s queer promise of possibility. All that is solid melts into images. The black box of desire, the little object of want that makes these visions play upon me is not some product, but the love spot of television, with its endless transactions of flesh for flesh, touch for touch.
These tantalizing diagrams of love lack not only tangible form, but symmetry. To want or to be wanted, to be the subject or the object of desire, are not the same. One is coded in this particular transactional logic as masculine, the other feminine. I learnt this from a university lecturer who made quite an impression on me. I forget her name, but she looked strikingly like Mary Tyler Moore. She used to quote from that wonderful book Ways of Seeing by John Berger: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in her self is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
Berger’s book was a puzzle to me back then. It made me feel like a bit of an oddity. It gave me the curious notion that when John Steed looked at me, and I felt myself being watched, there was a woman inside me being watched and a man inside the woman inside the man watching us being watched. Presumably when I got the hots for Emma, they all changed places. The noughts became crosses and the crosses noughts, like Celebrity Squares.
It took me years to figure out that it was John Berger and Mary Tyler Moore who had the wrong end of the stick. It isn’t quite right to say that in this society ‘men act and women appear’. The asymmetry that Berger discovers in the diagrams of the gaze are there, but they do not map neatly onto our bodies. Berger was being a fetishist, focusing only on the butch side of men looking and the femme side of women desiring to be looked at. Like that man at the conference, Berger didn’t quite connect with the perversities of our image culture. Somebody should have sucked on his nipples, long and hard and maybe both at once.
I talked about this over drinks at the Soho bar with my friend Sabina. She was buying, so we drank Coronas — that Mexican beer with the ads where the woman wears that little black dress and looks almost as fabulous in it as Sabina. After a few rounds I started telling Sabina about the thing I used to have for John and Emma. After a few more rounds she started telling me about her brand new girlfriend, Delphine. She leaned across the table, whispering conspiratorially.
Sabina: In bed with Delphine, I imagine I’m Cary Grant.
Vivian: Oh yeah, and who do you imagine Delphine is, Katherine Hepburn?
At this Sabina starts to giggle.
Sabina: Like in Philadelphia Story? I love that movie!
Vivian: Yes. When you’re making love to her and imagine you’re Cary Grant, maybe it’s because she’s imagining she’s Katherine Hepburn.
Sabina stops giggling and begins to give this serious attention.
Vivian: Or maybe Delphine imagines you two are both Cary Grant. Now that would be interesting! Can I come over and be Jimmy Stewart?
She gives me a sharp smack.
Sabina: Get your own scene together!
Vivian: Actually, for years I’ve wanted to be Charlotte Rampling.
Sabina: I presume you’re looking for someone who imagines they’re Dirk Bogarde?
Vivian: No, I’m looking for someone who imagines they’re Charlotte Rampling too.
Vivian: Yes, but imagines I’m Dirk Bogarde.
Sabina: … Call me some time.
Consider the possibilities … All that is involved here is a little playfulness with the diagrams of desire. Let yourself be seduced by them, not by half of them, but all of them. ‘Why not take all of me?’ ‘This is what Berger didn’t quite figure out about the diagrams the media has drawn all over our bodies since we were born. It doesn’t make nice het citizens out of all of us. Sometimes we learn to float in a free space between identities, to be spies in the house of love.
The spy plays with these decoys of devotion, not the drives of desire. For the spy in the house of love, seduction is not a game of desires, rooting out the drives hidden in bodies’ depths. The spy gambols with the passions of the body’s surface. Television completes the transubstantiation of the body into a tissue of seducible surfaces, once just a dream of the decadent poets. The logic of the signs of sex separates out from the crude facts of biology. The diagrams of love reconfigure the erogenous zones of the body, subordinating the body to the image. This is why it is pointless to look for the hidden logic of bodily drives and desires on television. It all works the other way around. Television showers us in endless honey-shots of mutable images, its transsexual lexicon, its blueprints of yearning.
These maps of lust and longing nevertheless have a logic to them. They are not polymorphously perverse, they are inflexibly binary, rigidly heterosexual. Yet television cannot control the way we can make those heterosigns of sex play on the surfaces of our bodies, and herein lies its glorious perversity. Berger’s diagrams of desire pill down television’s images like butterflies under glass, whereas the actual dynamic process of television, of popular culture in general, is endlessly seductive, endlessly subversive.
I thought about all of these things at the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, Sydney’s great contribution to the global polysexual culture. Thousands of people watched the floats go up Oxford Street with their gaudy colours, fabulously peopled by queers and queens, leathermen and dykes, femmes and fairies. There is a float for every kind of scene — except mine. Absent from this grand procession are the undecidable cases, the ones who do not let their identity fix on one image long enough to get hooked on it, even for an evening. I imagine a float for us, peopled not with bodies but with images, a great polysexual cut-up of every image of desire, blasting from a dozen TV screens.
I mention this to my lover. We are standing in that great crowd, where, for the moment at least, the queers reign over the street and the straight couples hold hands, unconsciously on the defensive against their own impulses. We decide to skip the big party at the Showground. Picking our way through the litter of empty bottles, we wander home to a showground of our own.
Here, on a sultry summer night, our bed canopied by the mosquito net, we draw the television close. Its beams reach through the gauze to scintillate on our skin. Its serene blue rays, cool and remote, reflect like tiny eyelets on the beaded sweat that clings to the pores of our screens. We become a moist commingling in the dark with beaming, cyclic stories. We become what we behold.
So here we are, brought together, not by the mythic cupidity of omnipresent angels eager to make breeders of us all, but by the real omnipresence of television, the angel of telesthesia. Cary Grant meets Audrey (not Katherine) Hepburn in this particular rerun of Charade (modified for TV). I wonder if Sabina would be jealous? Not that this is a problem, really. Telesthesia belongs to us all — it is modem capitalism’s one concession to democratic culture. There is a little bit of bandwidth for everybody. It belongs especially to the ‘ambiguous not-quiteness’ of people like us, who know how to mess with its codes, get it all hot and sticky. Television is the skin of the new world.
Sometimes I think falling in love can be a matter of finding that special someone who loved the same television you did.
As Debbie Harry says in Videodrome: Let’s perform.
(Number 1 from the ‘Flight Recorder series: a black box of unknown pleasures’)
McKenzie Wark is an Australian-born writer and scholar. Wark is known for her writings on media theory, critical theory, new media, and the Situationist International.