In contemporary western societies, we are all trained to see beauty in what (heterosexual) men are taught to be attracted to. We judge the desirability of individual people in relation to a standard which is produced and informed by racial and gendered hierarchies that dictate to us what we should be attracted to.
When we find beauty or desire in something or someone who doesn’t conform to those mainstream cultural standards, or exceeds, or resists them in one way or another, our understanding and expression of appreciation for that beauty and our desire for it remains affected. We understand our perception of beauty and our desire for certain forms and not others as natural and we can’t seem to think about what we see in a different way, even when we know it’s culturally and historically created.
In English, at least, we also don’t have a vocabulary that allows us to express alternative forms of desire. When we say that a woman is beautiful, we are automatically referring to that historically produced and dictated standard by which beauty is judged, and our language doesn’t provide us with sufficient alternatives.
This line of thought prompted me to begin a research project about the relationship between desire and sight, and I began to think about the ways in which female authors, and particularly those who have expressed queer, or what would otherwise be considered non-normative sexuality and desire, write about experiences of pleasure and sensation.
At the same time, I was re-reading Claire Colebrook’s 2014 book The Death of the Posthuman to prepare for a lecture I was writing. In the introduction to this book, Colebrook writes that a popularised condemnation of the contemporary, image-based culture and its reliance on the apparent simplicity of spectacle is built on flawed logic:
“…for it is the same eye that reads and theorizes—that looks with wonder at the heavens—that is also seduced, spellbound, distracted and captivated by inanity.” (Colebrook, 2014: 13)
By applying this argument to the relationship between desire and sight, it is clear that it not the visual field itself that narrows the possibilities of desire, but rather, the way we understand and frame our experience of it.
There also exists the possibility of infecting the visual field with suggestions and descriptions of sensation that decentre our culturally dominant visual logic of desirability.
So I’ve started this project by cataloguing how these queer female writers have described a material sensation, with a focus on the attention to details that aren’t necessarily visible, but that contain pleasure or desire, and I’ve noticed that these descriptions have a tendency to stay with me long after I’ve forgotten most of the other details about the book or essay.
Here are some examples from the collection so far:
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf details the formal and experiential process of dining at a men-only college at an Oxbridge university, in order to draw a stark comparison between this, and that of the women’s college. Her argument is that this divergence of experience produces different capacities and possibilities for the students at each institution, which demonstrates institutional disadvantage.
Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” has multiple layers that I have marked for future engagement. However, there is a particular passage within it that has remained with me where she describes the detail of a particular process in the following way:
“During World War II, we bought sealed plastic pockets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.” (Lorde, 1984/2007: 57)
This description is both mundane and erotic in its minutiae, providing us with vivid insight into this sensate process that provokes an experience of desire that can’t be accounted for by existing and available cultural frameworks.
In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s inclusion of minor, material gestures produce fixation in a way that the explicit narrative of the impact of mental illness does not. For example, Esther (the main character) wears lipstick and no other make-up, and the description of the way clothes hang on her androgynous frame is excessively detailed. Like Woolf, Plath also describes the specifics of food, and again in a manner that suggests erotic consumption. The avocado pears stuffed with crab included in the buffet during Esther’s internship (which she wisely avoids eating) have remained in my mind longer than her hospitalisation.
Finally, and more recently, it struck me reading Andrea Gibson’s “Wasabi” that their mode of expressing desire and attraction is utterly visceral while avoiding any reference to the visual field:
“And if there’s one thing in this world I’ve ever known for sure it’s that this girl is gonna crush me like a small bug.
Leave me so frickin’ broken there’ll be body bags beneath my eyes from nights I cried so hard
the stars died, but I’m like, go ahead.
I’m all yours.
I would kiss you in the middle of the ocean during a lightning storm ‘cause I’d rather be left for dead than left to wonder what thunder sounds like.” (Gibson, 2006)