As is my pattern, I buy books far more quickly than I can read them, and I’ve had my copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus for awhile, having only read bits and pieces over the years.
Prompted by a friend’s email mentioning a recent purchase of it, I opened its cover and delved. Foucault’s introduction grabbed at me immediately, most particularly this line:
“How does one introduce desire into thought, into discourse, into action? How can and must desire deploy its forces within the political domain and grow more intense in the process of overturning the established order?”
In most ways, I would say the primarily goal I’d like to attain in my writing is exploration of those lines, as I think the consequences of society’s struggle to integrate desire into its order are perhaps greater than anything else.
Picking up a line that intersects, I recently saw the movie Shame. I was quite surprised when I saw it, as it didn’t align with much of what I’d read and continue to read about it: “The film is not about sex–it’s about addiction, “Jezebel.com states. Other reviews are laced with a strange sort of feeling sorry, reporting that Michael Fassbender’s character, the protagonist Brandon, leads a very stressful life due to the necessary mediation of his sexual addiction. He can’t get through his work day without going to the bathroom to masturbate!
Yet, the film really had very little to do with addiction, and in fact, the title choice of Shame is an interesting one as Brandon’s character doesn’t display remorse, hardly questioning his dalliances at all. The narrative instead more parallels that of American Psycho (although American Psycho‘s project is more courageous and conscious than Shame proved): both showcase young, attractive, wealth-off, white male protagonists unwilling and as it were, unable to pro-create, to find meaning and value in a world that so easily presents itself to them.
Brandon’s world is filled with shiny, toned, nubile women to whom he has unlimited, and even for a good looking guy, unrealistically easy access. The only struggle he encounters in attaining sexual satisfaction occurs when he goes on a date with a shiny, toned, nubile recent divorcée from his office who makes her desire to “date” and “establish intimacy” very clear. Sexual consummation with her thus proves impossible. Intimacy and interaction with anyone–male or female–outside of sex isn’t presented as a possibility. Even the minimal relationship Brandon carries out with his only male “friend”, his boss, revolves around sex: they often head out to bars after work to pick up women, their conversation at the office limited to discussions of these past and future endeavors.
Here a question begs: is it Brandon that’s fucked up, or does he see nothing he wants to create?
This is precisely why Shame is not about addiction, but about the difficulty to locate one’s desire in a time and society where all modes of production–personal and via labor–have become deeply confused. Reaching back up to Anti-Oedipus, the film nicely poses the challenge Foucault raises of “introducing desire into action.” Unlike the works of Genet or Manuel Puig which are also sex-ridden, Shame lacks any real “desire.” The movie is completely sterile. With unlimited and easy access to everything with jobs that earn income but don’t display a clear point of value, without anything tangible to produce, how does one get though the day? By fixating on a woman’s legs on the subway and jacking off to this thought later in the office bathroom, by watching porn all afternoon at the office, returning home to watch more while eating left-over Chinese takeout. This seems the example of failed masculine desire, of failed production, out of that stemming a resistance to engage is normative sexual relationships, the kind that might bring about offspring.
The reason Brandon masturbates at work, then, is far less because he must, but more because he can. His hard drive is filled with porn not because he can’t help himself, but really because he has time to look at it. If Brandon were indeed a sex “addict”, addict being defined by behavior that prevents or impedes one’s ability to conduct a life, difficulty in remaining employed or maintaining an apartment would present itself.
Harkening back once more to American Psycho, Brandon lives his life with no hint of consequence regardless of the sexual activities we’re supposed to view as deeply deviant (although they frankly appear pretty innocuous) just as Patrick Bateman is a serial killer no one wants to notice. The high-end prostitutes Brandon hires up to his apartment would never flag a landlord or neighbor’s attention because there’s no difference between them and any other woman Brandon might meet in his neighborhood and bring home. Even Brandon’s confiscated hard drive, sick with a “virus” because of the excessive porn activity, his boss concludes is probably the intern’s fault, before Brandon can even issue a response. Either way, Brandon’s work “performance” or behavior is never called into question, partly because no one is clear what it is they’re performing, and partly because it poses no threat to any larger structures’ ability to function.
The crease of plot that delivers shame is in the character of Brandon’s sister, Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan), with whom he has a complicated relationship. There’s indication of trouble between she and Brandon, and most reviews of the film insinuate an incestuous past. It’s true the siblings’ mutual sexualities intersect at various points in the movie: the first time Sissy appears, Brandon walks in on her in his shower, she later walks in on him both jacking off and having Skype-sex, she and his boss sleep together in Brandon’s bed minutes within an hour or so of meeting. But the fact that nothing takes place aside from several arguments, her apparent depression and neediness makes it difficult to invest firmly in an illicit sexual past as being the cause of Brandon’s rampant libido/inability to have a “real” relationship. It in fact seems simplistic to equate those encounters–ones any male and female living together and not themselves engaged sexually might experience–as necessarily a sign of past incest or latent sexual tension. Rather, Sissy’s character is the female alternative to Brandon, the female embodiment of a refusal to embrace the modes of production as they exist, and the inability to put desire into action.
Sissy is the perfect caricature of the flighty, deeply depressed mad-girl: she has a wardrobe of vintage clothing and chases grandiose dreams of being a famous singer. Her refusal of “stability” manifests not only in the form of her sexual relationships, but in her total lack à la the feminine: lack of of career, lack of structure. She has no money or prospects, and gets involved in destructive relationships. Her wrists are lined with scars from cutting and suicide attempts, the latter of which she nearly succeeds at by the end of the film. Her body, like Brandon’s, is a location for failed production. But while Brandon experiences his as the location of only intense sexual energy that he must extend outward into someone else, Sissy feels her desire as trapped in her body and is unable to purge it except via its destruction.
Obviously, the difficulty of seeing Sissy for Brandon is that she in part reminds him of a painful past the viewers are never given information about, but I think more profoundly it is difficult to see how that pain manifests itself in her as a woman. For me, this the only place shame pokes through, the shame in the fact that Brandon is the one who succeeds and will always succeed more than his sister, and that it is his sister’s attempts at desire are rendered more shameful than his.