The Pull of Bodies & the Sexual Economy Today

Image from Way in Way...The moment on Street
The social is overrun not just with bodies but with a transmission between, amongst, and with bodies. It is a dangerous mistake to believe we're all just discrete objects, bounds by skin and hair, moving through space indifferently. That would be to miss where so much of life actually happens — in the palpable but invisible space between us.

We exude, all of us, to greater or lesser extents. What it is to exist in the social is to transmit affect, sensation, desire, anxiety — much of which happens unbeknownst to you. You think you're all cool. But cool is still a sensation and you participate within a swirl of economies — social, political, semiotic, sexual — that you don't determine but by which you are nevertheless bound. To be is to broadcast to and with bodies and with intentions that exceed you, always and necessarily. This is not just the ideological hailing of Althusser in which you are always prefigured along gender, class, and racial lines. This is the mood you transmit continually as a living being.

Think about it like this. You walk down the street and you're just mulling over some nonsense from work. Your face is moving ever so slightly; your body is more or less hunched, tense, relaxed. Someone is passing on the street in a totally different state of mind. She's introverted, too, but thinking about something that happened last night, playing it over and over in her mind, and as she does her heart beats faster, she sweats and shakes a little. So there are the two of you, passing within inches of each other, two vastly different worlds, perhaps. And yet this proximity can't help but inflect both bodies, just as two comets zipping through space inflect each others trajectory. It's inevitable, even if slight.

So much is always happening between people in the public sphere. We're constantly reading each other, sizing each other up, inflecting each others trajectories in subtle and complex ways. One of the streams in this social in-between — a stream that is itself multiple — is sex and desire. I have to say, I kind of love this space. I love leaning into the invisible social stew to sense that burbling sexuality, to pique my own desires, to offer my own desires, to see what's there, if anything is cooking.

This is, of course, a highly charged space which is at once political and politicized. Men often move too aggressively in this space, adding a sense of menace, to women in particular. Men often leer — not just with their eyes but with their desire.

But this is also the space in which we find each other. This is the space in which the extraordinary event of attraction takes place. It is that invisible yet thoroughly real magnetic pull between bodies. This is how we decide to talk to this person and not that. This is how and where and why we make certain eye contact on our trains and streets: we're pushing and pulling each other like magnets. It's beautiful and confusing and complex, these swirls of desire, attraction, repulsion, indifference, intrigue. 

Online dating — and I suppose social media in general — has radically shifted the terms of this invisible sexual economy, these exchanges of desire. People feel each other out in pixels, in images and words, in the rhythm of emails and texts. Which is to say, there is an invisible sexual swirl in the virtual.

But, frankly, it's a little to anesthetized for me, a little too safe. Which I understand may empower those who are threatened in the public sexual sphere. But, for me, there is no delicious, teeming pool of affect to lean into. It's been replaced by looking at images and reading profiles (well, looking at images). You can try to imagine being with this or that person based on those pictures and, sure, there is some transmission of affect. But it's slight, at best, and always asynchronous: it's not happening live, right now, right here. I look at a picture of someone who could be anywhere, doing anything. There's not much for me to lean into or parry. Instead, I have to think of some witty missive to write.

But I'm writing all the time. I don't want to write when it comes to my sexual and romantic desires. I want to swim in the streams and eddies of living, pulsing desire, where the heat of flesh and the friction of affect is all around.

The virtual has, in some sense, amplified the sexuality of the social. We share naked pictures, readily. We're exposed to so many different kinds of porn that our collective sexual vocabulary has grown exponentially. We certainly live with, and as, more sexualized images.

But the flip side of this is that the living, breathing sexual economy is being neutered. No need to lean in to the social stew when I can look down on my phone and swipe left or right. What used to be a negotiation of a surging right here, right now, has become a solo reflection — do I swipe left or right?

I'm not saying Tinder and its like are necessarily bad. Obviously, in many ways, they're incredible. But not for me. I enjoy, and find myself missing, that incredible living experience of walking down the street and feeling invisibly for those flares of attraction. I love that sensation of having my body invisibly pulled towards another. It's exhilarating and, alas, all too rare — and even more so these pixel drenched daze.


αληθεια said...

You write: "We certainly live with, and as, more sexualized images. But the flip side of this is that the living, breathing sexual economy is being neutered."

This reminds me of something Baudrillard very beautifully said in his book Seduction that "sex lies everywhere except in sexuality." I understand it as: because sex and sexual images are so in our face all the time, especially on social media, we become clueless and at times even paranoid not knowing what to do when we enter spaces fraught with affective, sensual, foreplay between us and another attractive body close to us. Maybe it's the proximity between bodies that allows territories of indirect communication to develop, where bodies can freely speak with their silent play of leering glances. Such territory of seduction I see as always resting in the middle, calmly circulating between the visible and the invisible, direct and indirect, concealed and unconcealed, breaking away with rigid linearity of information based direct communication.

Your post is brilliant, as always. I'm not sure if you've read Transmission of Affect by Teresa Brennan, and Cultural Politics of Emotion by Sara Ahmed, but these two books talk in detail about a lot of the things that you've mentioned in your post.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Wow, this is beautiful: "Maybe it's the proximity between bodies that allows territories of indirect communication to develop, where bodies can freely speak with their silent play of leering glances." I think that's right. And I think it's not just that it allows it; it's a necessary effect — like gravity and magnetism, bodies are forces that attract and repel each other in complex ways. It's just what they do — all bodies but especially human bodies. There is always a communication that's either direct or indirect, depending on how you look at it, but a communication that exceeds, and may contradict, words and explicit declarations. Desire is sneaky like that — and complex.

I have to admit I stole the figure of the transmission of affect from Teresa Brennan. I don't know the Ahmed but I like the title. Thanks, as always!!!

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