On 20th February 2002, at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), in Paris, philosopher Jacques Derrida asked an audience of students the following question:
“The phallus, I mean, the phallos, is it proper to man?”
This question opened the eighth session of a series of lectures given by Derrida between 2001 and 2003 under the title of The Beast and the Sovereign, and posthumously published in two volumes by University of Chicago Press.
Taken as a whole, the lectures present a persistent working over of the apparent opposition between the animal or beast (la bête in French) and the sovereign (le souverain). The lectures range from Fontaine’s fables to the politics of nanotechnology, taking in Rousseau and Celan, rogue states and the French Revolution, as well as Aristotle, Heidegger, the connection between the zoo and the asylum, and the dissection of an elephant in the presence of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
Both the marionette and the beast have been opposed to man on the grounds that neither is able to respond, only to react.
Central concerns seem to be the distinction between man and beast (what is “proper to man”), and the conception and exercise of power – how power relates to reason, justice, force, and the law. Derrida argues, for example, that the beast and the sovereign are inextricably linked because neither is subject to the rule of law: the sovereign stands above the law; the animal exists outside it (although, as we have written elsewhere on The Learned Pig, not always).
The eighth session marks something of a shift in Derrida’s thinking – from power as a socio-political construct to the control we exert (or fail to exert) over our own bodies. After the initial question of the phallus, Derrida asks four more:
“And if said phallus were proper to the sovereign, would it still be proper to man? Would it be the proper in what sense? And of man in what sense, proper to man in what sense? And what if the phallus were bêtise itself?”
In earlier sessions, Derrida had painstakingly analysed the French words bête and bêtise, drawing out threads of meaning that extend beyond the idea of the beast as non-human animal. For Derrida, bêtise also connotes people or acts that are brutal, stupid, stubborn, unresponsive, or simply evil. One interesting suggestion is that perhaps the only characteristic that could be said to be “proper to man” is the ability to be inhuman. The beast cannot be beastly.
As is characteristic in these lectures, however, Derrida leaves many of his questions momentarily unanswered. Here, he abandons his musings on the phallus in order to move on to a discussion of power and justice in Fontaine’s The Wolf and the Lamb followed by a detailed analysis of the marionette in a 1960 speech given by German poet Paul Celan. In so doing, he draws out certain parallels between the marionette and the beast. Both have traditionally been opposed to man on the grounds that neither is able to respond, only to react. What is proper to man, it has been contended, is the ability not only to react but to respond – with an accompanying sense of responsibility that can be accountable before the law, reason, ethics etc. Derrida is not convinced. But before he gets there, however, he must set the question of the phallus aside.
As he says:
“Let’s leave these questions to prepare themselves in the wings or in their dressing rooms, they will come back on stage and into the glare of the limelight, and surprise us when the moment comes.”
Perhaps the moment has now arrived? It certainly surprised me when I heard about it.
This month, the performance of potency – or rather, that which is often understood as its opposite – is being explored in a new piece of experimental theatre by artist and theatre-maker Mark Storor. Taking place from 15th September to 4th October at the Sir Ludwig Guttman Health and Wellbeing Centre in London, is The Barometer of My Heart, a work that draws on contributions by an international range of collaborators and combines still and moving image, music and animation, sound and live performance. The entire project has been inspired by extended research into the subject of erectile dysfunction.
Storor has made his name tackling exactly these kinds of sensitive subjects through work that traverses live art, immersive theatre and installation: 2010’s For The Best was inspired by kidney dialysis patients, 2013’s The Paper Project involved collaborations with seven young artists from migrant communities; and A Tender Subject (which I reviewed in 2012) explored the experience of homosexuality in prisons.
Erectile dysfunction often precedes cardiovascular disease: one ‘malfunctioning’ organ the signifier of another.
For The Barometer of my Heart, Storor has worked closely with Dr Leighton Seal, consultant endocrinologist at St. George’s Hospital, Tooting, and patients at his erectile dysfunction clinic. The title comes, in part, from the theory that erectile dysfunction often precedes cardiovascular disease: one “malfunctioning” organ the signifier of another. Unfortunately, as Seal says, “because it is a social taboo and not taken seriously, men do not visit their doctor and suffer heart attacks, which could have been prevented.” Hence the idea of the canary in the mineshaft in the accompanying illustration by Babis Alexiadis. As part of the research process, Storor also ran a series of creative workshops with men in traditionally masculine settings: army veterans, a football club, a bank. The aim, according to the press release, is to “bring male experiences previously kept in the shadows into the light”.
In July, I met with Storor and Anna Ledgard who is producing the work in association with Artsadmin. As we talk, Storor mentions one of the patients involved in the project who has developed erectile dysfunction relatively recently. “He was potent in his first marriage,” Storor says, but stops himself: “or at least he didn’t have erectile dysfunction.”
It is this inadvertent slip which, to me, opens up the whole issue of the connection between sexual potency and power in a more general socio-political sense. Because fertility and sexual prowess are so bound up with definitions of male power and self-worth, it emphasises the impossibility of rigorously distinguishing the somatic from the psychological, the private from the public. It also makes me think of Derrida.
Storor tells me about the sessions he attended at the clinic. He speaks of a sense of empowerment not only for himself but for Seal and his patients too. Out of 69 patients, only five, he says, refused to have the artist present in the sessions. For such a private, personal subject, this seems extraordinary to me. But Storor disagrees: “with an artist there, it becomes a public performance of a private matter. People were actually relieved by my presence.”
Speaking to Storor, it is the stories of real people that clearly energise his mind and his emotions. He speaks of self-harm and suicide, soldiers gagged by the Ministry of Defence, externally powerful men who feel worthless inside. He tells me of one man who abused steroids and testosterone to such an extent that he became infertile and was eventually sectioned. “He castrated himself,” says Storor, “like a bullock.” Another man told Storor that his penis “used to be ferocious”; now it is “a sleeping dog”.
In both instances there is a loss of power. The idea of the penis as somehow “ferocious”, like an animal perhaps – with a mind, a force, a power of its own – reminds me of the prince who is urged by Macchiavelli to act like a lion. But what is this “ferocious” power? The power only to react to stimulus? As Derrida asks, is this so different from the action of the automaton or of the marionette? Hence the idea of the phallus as “bêtise itself” – an unresponsive stupidity that nonetheless underpins a certain conception of power. As a part of the body, the penis is seen here like an object, a prosthetic, a what rather than a who. That is why this “sleeping dog” is such an apt metaphor: in the traditional opposition between reaction and response, the phallus does not respond (it is not responsible); it merely reacts – like the mechanical animal of materialist science and philosophy. But the “dysfunctional” penis does not even react: it is the dog that sleeps.
But what of the event itself? The Barometer of My Heart is intended, in Storor’s words, to be “visceral”, “textural” and “carnivalesque”. It aims to be “rude” in the traditional sense of unformed or unfinished, rather than the modern one of vulgar or offensive. Although, arguably it could be that too: Storor plays with the provocative comedy inherent in most sexual subject matter (I’m told a nude rendition of the Okey Cokey features at one point).
This is close to the comedy that Derrida notes in the myth of Priapus, a Greek god afflicted by a permanent erection. For Derrida, the myth draws attention to “the essential, nonaccidental bêtise that characterizes the phallic as such (and so sovereignty as such…)”. He sees the phallus as “like a marionette whose reflex spring and uncontrollable automaticity never let up”. Priapus is in one sense the polar opposite of the men with whom Storor has been working. But in other ways they are not so different: in both instances, there is impotence: a loss of control and of self-worth. For these are all closely linked.
We’re trying to find a language for this subject, but actually the language is already there.
Throughout The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida’s analysis is marked by a sustained use of the language of masculine sexual power. He describes, for example, “…the majestic and sovereign erection as impulse towards the greatest, highest, and most rigid, the most inflexible state of a station or a stance, a stable state…” And then again: “What counts here for sovereignty, which is first of all a power, a potency, an ‘I can,’ is the maximum of potency, the greatest of potency, an absolute power…”
At times, however, it feels almost childish. Today’s’ politicians are “consecrated as such by the election of their erection to the status of marionette in the puppet show”. Derrida is clearly pleased with the pun and repeats it a few lines later.
But how else to talk of power? How else to talk of potency? Storor tells me that at the centre of The Barometer of My Heart is a question: what kind of world it is that we want to live in? “Is it possible,” he wonders, “to live in a less phallocentric society?”
Derrida’s point, ultimately, is that the attempt to distinguish fully and finally between reaction and response, human and animal, man and marionette is always extremely complicated, if not perhaps impossible. Storor’s work also attempts to navigate between or beyond these oppositions, to identify them as unstable, unworkable, in order to encounter an idea of empowerment that is not bound within a constrained vision of masculinity, and vice-versa – a conception of the male body and masculine identity that is not defined by its relationship to power.
Storor’s earlier slip acknowledges as much. Perhaps words like “potency” are part of the problem. “We’re trying to find a language for this subject,” Storor says. “But actually the language is already there.” Perhaps our first step should be, like Storor, to use our existing language with more sensitivity, with more attention to response and responsibility, to think about our words and our actions, to respond to each other and ourselves, our own bodies, as thinking, living humans – or perhaps as animals, or as marionettes…
As Derrida went on to say:
“That’s it too, the art of the marionette – or the marionette theatre.
As if a marionette, far from being content to react after the fashion of a beast, supposed, by our classical thinkers, able only to react rather than respond – as if a marionette, then, rather than being content to react and even to respond, still had the power to ask us questions, in the wings. As if it were still asking us:
The [feminine] beast and the [masculine] sovereign, so what? So who?”
The Barometer of My Heart is at the Sir Ludwig Guttmann Health & Wellbeing Centre, London from 14th September to 4th October 2015. Book tickets through Artsadmin.
Image credits (from top to bottom)
1. The Barometer of My Heart: Mark Storor, Out of the Shadows into the Light. Photo: Stephen King
2. Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign Vol. I (cover), University of Chicago Press
3. Babis Alexiadis, The Canary in the Mineshaft
4. The Barometer of My Heart: Mark Storor, Veterans in Practice. Photo: Stephen King