Sexual Subjects

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • The Sexual Fix by Stephen Heath
    Macmillan, 191 pp, £12.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 333 32750 0
  • Questions of Cinema by Stephen Heath
    Macmillan, 257 pp, £12.50, August 1981, ISBN 0 333 26122 4
  • ‘Sight and Sound’: A 50th-Anniversary Selection edited by David Wilson
    Faber, 327 pp, £12.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 571 11943 3

In Diderot’s ‘Les Bijoux Indiscrets’, a man acquires a ring which has the power to make sexual organs speak. Michel Foucault says that he wants to make that ring speak for itself. (He sketched part of his project in this paper last summer: Vol. 3, No 9.) Sexuality ‘traces that line of foam which shows just how far speech may advance on the sands of silence’. To speak of it, to ourselves, to each other, to those who hire out their ears, is, we think (or Foucault thinks we think), to reach the root of our subjectivity. That is his interest in it. Speaking of sexuality is the present limit of that ‘immense labour to which the West has submitted generations in order to produce ... men’s subjection: their constitution as “subjects” in both senses of the word’. It is the present limit of confession in a confessional civilisation. And in its pretended disillusion, it is the present limit of illusion. For ‘the subject’ is a construction, something that is produced in ‘discourse’, something which itself presents a question; something which cannot thus be taken, as it has so long been taken, in much Christian theology and in the secular philosophy which followed, as the touchstone of any answer to some other question.

Subjectivity is produced and becomes subjection. To leave it at that, though, simply to suppose that we are oppressed and repressed, would, in Foucault’s view, be mistaken. It would be to suppose, as Marxists and all other Western thinkers, except Nietzsche, have supposed, that power can only constrain. ‘We must cease once and for all,’ Foucault insists, ‘to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it “excludes”, it “represses”, it “censors”, it “abstracts”, it “masks”, it “conceals”. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.’ The mistake that everyone except Nietzsche has made is to have supposed that there is a putatively free and all-knowing subject waiting to be released by revolution. This subject is itself produced. We are for ever condemned to our discourses. And so, says Foucault, with the ‘sexual revolution’ itself.

Stephen Heath never mentions Foucault. Yet his point in exposing the ‘Sexual Fix’ is almost exactly the same. It is to show that when we believe ourselves at last to be able to express our real selves in sex, when we claim our Right to Sex Happiness, go to bed with Treat yourself to sex, consult The Good Sex Guide, face The Obstacles to Sex Happiness, anticipate The Joy of Sex and More Joy of Sex, take comfort from the fact that God says yes to sexuality, and so abandon ourselves to Total Loving and shuddering self-realisation in the ‘Big O’, we are in fact being taken for a ride, and riding each other, in talk. To start with, somewhere in the 18th century, this talk was straightforwardly scientific. The sexual was defined and cognitively confined into a specialism in orthodox medicine. To his contemporaries, a man honoured for his services to midwifery in 1703 was ‘the first cunt knight that e’er was seen’. Then it was extended. It was redefined – but no less confined – into a specialism in the new psychology. Now it has been extended still further. Kinsey and Masters and Johnson and a host of more or less meretricious popularisers have quite literally brought it home. Sexuality has passed from the bench to the couch to our very own bedsides. But the domestication of this series of pseudo-sciences is not the liberation of knowledge and the liberation in knowledge that it purports to be. All this talk, says Heath, is a ‘precise constituted materiality’ – yet another way, if by far the most insidious because so far the most invisible way, in which we are oppressed.

The oppression is oppression by language. But for Heath, it is oppression in the old sense, the sense that Foucault wants to get away from: that of a simple assault on a possible freedom. Foucault, it is true, is himself a little unsteady on this matter: he wants to show that we are for ever condemned to discourse, yet suggests that ‘against the machinery of sexuality, the strong point of the counter-attack should be the body and its pleasures’, as though these were in some way beyond any discourse, perspicuous and privileged. Heath is simply vulgar. ‘The end of oppression is a recasting of social relations that leaves men and women free, outside of any commodification of the sexual, removed from any of the violence and alienation of circulation and exchange as agents of sex and orgasm, away from any definition as a sexual identity, the identity of a sex, being fixed in this or that image, this or that norm, to this thing “sexuality”.’ The oppression may be oppression by language, but Heath knows, as his own makes plain, that behind the language is the bourgeoisie. ‘Fetishism of commodities, fetishism of sexes; economic relations, sexual relations; work, sex – sex, two sexes, one thing, identify with that, be the man or woman, take your place, fit.’ The task, it seems, is to unfit, to in some way hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner and make love in between, without being hunter, fisher, herder, critic or lover. As ever, we are not told how.

Nevertheless, simple, even simple-minded, and derivative though it is, Heath’s little book does develop in one direction that does not so far seem to have interested Foucault or anyone else who has written in a similar vein on our ideas of the sexual. We do not just go to bed, Heath explains, with meretricious manuals: we read novels too. And there is a connection between the genres, not just a superficial connection, in novels where we are told how to do it in stories of other people doing it, but a connection in the idea of ‘the novelistic’ itself. The novelistic is the imaginative construction and narrative ordering of individual ‘subjects’ in their social relations. It starts with capitalism and its questions are the questions of capitalism. It starts with social separation and struggle, although it may not, of course, call them that; it consists in an attempt to show that a coherent and plausible subjectivity can be wrested from them through time; and it therefore tends to finish with a multiple reconciliation of all the opposing forces. The protagonists come to know themselves, as subjects, and come to terms with that knowledge, often in marriage. It was natural that as the 19th century moved into the 20th, they should come to know and come to terms with a self-conscious sexuality too. Even Henry James, revising The American, first published in 1877, for a new edition in 1907, was moved to be more explicit about the meaning and motion in Newman’s discovery of his attraction to Madame de Cintré.

Heath clearly does not like what he sees in capitalism, in the bourgeoisie and its production of subjectivity in sexuality, or in most novels. Nor does he like most films. For they instantiate the novelistic. Narrative cinema, which is bad, ‘lays out – lays down as law – a film memory from the novelistic as the re-imaging of the individual as subject, the very representation of identity as the coherence of a past safely negotiated and reappropriated – the past “in” the film (once again the thematic routines: memory itself; childhood, Citizen Kane; nostalgia, Meet me in St Louis; and, infallibly, the Oedipus – a film about possession by the devil? The Exorcist cannot but fold in the question as to the possessed girl’s missing father) and “of” the film (the sequential and consequential join of the images from beginning to end, the holding of a spectator as the unifying position – the subject – of their relation in time).’ ‘Structuralist-materialist film’, on the other hand, which is good, even if not much of it may yet exist, ‘is posed entirely in terms of the instance of passage, its area of work the presentation of the process of film (so that “passage” becomes a misleading term: there is no simple movement “through” the film); which is to say that it minimalises construction-reconstruction, by the eviction of narrative, and preconstruction, by the reduction as far as possible of given signifieds.’ The injunction in Questions of Cinema, evident in its style, the style of the magazine Screen in which several of its chapters first appeared, is simple: break it up. Film now, like the novel and poetry too, should refer only to itself and should do so by abandoning all the forms it has hitherto used to make false talk.

The Sexual Fix is largely, if thinly, analytic; Questions of Cinema is largely, if thinly, programmatic. The one gives us no idea about how to get out from under the subjection of false subjectivity; the other gives us no idea about how to see the great variety of undeconstructed films. Most conspicuously, perhaps, in their pretentious repetition of the tired 20th-century half-truth that the limits of our language are the limits of our world, neither faces the fact that language, discourse, conversation, do actually refer. Nor does Foucault. But Foucault is brilliant, ironic, a jester – as he has himself admitted when the more poker-faced have tried to make him face himself: at his best, just a dazzling writer who, despite his theory, sees and feels the tension between language and experience. Heath is simply shrill and uninfected, puritanical too, and the theoretical weakness which he shares with Foucault, the inability convincingly to explain how, if everything is talk, talk can nevertheless be known to have material causes, seen to have felt consequences, and criticised, is merely dreary.

Nevertheless, it is not self-evidently silly, in the case of films, at least to start with the idea of language. The language of films may not just be verbal language, it may not easily be captured in the terms devised for verbal language, and it is certainly not all there is, for films refer too: but it may make at least metaphorical sense to start with the idea that there is some sort of cinematographic talk to be talked about. Unfortunately, no one seems to have got very far with the idea. Heath, for example, in one of his three at all extended disussions of a particular sequence, from Hitchcock’s Suspicion, does rather less well than the theoretically innocent Hitchcock did himself in Sight and Sound in 1937, writing about ‘My Own Methods’ in Blackmail and Sabotage. Indeed, reading through the other essays from fifty years of the magazine in David Wilson’s well edited and compellingly illustrated collection suggests that critics in general, with one or two spectacular exceptions, like Eisenstein on Chaplin and Agee on Sunset Boulevard, are rather less aware of what is going on than the auteurs. But the confusion is confounded by the fact that several auteurs of the theory of the auteur have themselves abandoned it. (Nearly ten years ago, I went to see Truffaut’s Day for Night in the other Cambridge and to hear him talk about it. A serious person asked him whether he was not, in a film about people making a film in the early 1970s, constructing cinema at the specific historical conjuncture at which the problematic of the character-subject was coming to be re-theorised as the material structuration it really is. After a hasty exchange with a sorely-tried translator, Truffaut was clear. ‘Non.’ But then: ‘If you say so.’)

If authors no longer author, although I do not quite believe that they do not, and nor, I suspect, do they, we do not know what else to say, or how. John Grierson’s cheery utilitarianism, let alone his muscular contempt for most features (‘Now that the fashion in storylines goes for the various deviations in domestic and personal derangement, it may be best to leave women to deal with it’); Cesare Zavatini’s commitment (‘I believe that the world goes on getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality’); Penelope Houston’s humanism (‘The recurring question: the difficulty of loving and the problem of communication’); even Richard Roud’s principled indecision (‘One does not believe that there is any such thing as a definable, “essential” cinema, that rather it is in perpetual state of becoming’): each explains something, however feeble each may be, each helps one see something more clearly, but none is at all worked out and none, of course, even pretends to be exhaustive. Other critics – Stanley Cavell, for example – have begun to disentangle the confusion by distinguishing genres and that must be a start, as it has been for verbal art. But for the present, the sight and sound of the movies, like the pages of Sight and Sound itself, defy a frame. We have a language for the language of old narratives on Italian chapel walls and altarpieces. We have a language for the language of the newer ones in novels. We do not yet have a language for their combination in films.