August 27, 2021
Erotic Goo and Absent Messages
By EMMALEA RUSSO
I’m in a blue-lit room sitting near a beautiful stranger. We’ve communicated digitally, though his dream presence has a different resonance and texture. I notice new things about Dream Stranger in this dreamscape. For instance: he has a revolutionary message embroidered on his jeans. I’ve seen the message in a documentary, perhaps. Tagged in spray paint on a cement wall. I wonder what this fragment of text quietly displayed on his pant leg says about him, what I might surmise from the threaded message. The soft and pointed materials involved in the manual labor of its stitching. Sudden urge to photograph it, translate it to digital. But this is a dream and I have no camera.
We exit the blue-lit room and enter an abandoned stripmall. Skateboarders skate along the empty floor, back and forth as Dream Stranger and me stand in awe. Suddenly, a ringing flip phone in my trembling hand, brand new and very old. The ringing phone means I have to go, pulled away from Dream Stranger. Walking away from him and the mall, his mysterious textured pants and familiar look, our eyes lock, analog and digital and beyond, musical swoosh of wheels on old mall tiles.
Ahead of me: the star-like work of inscribing his message into our own uncertain future and the decay of light. But I already forgot the message. I carry the absence of the message into my day and for hours it hangs like a cloud between me and everything I see. What’s between me and the world is composed of loose threads and turquoise and pink toys, plush and smooshed like Mike Kelley’s old stuffed animals sewn together and hanging from a ceiling. Where is Dream Stranger? What was the embroidered message?
Everywhere: stuffed animals and thread and a foggy absence I carry carefully, trying not to walk through it, disperse it. The cloud’s a cloud. Then: night, the kind that arrives as a dazzling chandelier fuzzing-out the center of the field I’ve arrived in. A shadow of sewn-up cloud moving over Dream Stranger and me, Mike Kelley’s Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites. In the waking world, digitized, deodorized, I am met with a series of yes or no questions and a few boxes to check. I blink into the screen, then into the analog beyond, a mass of matted toys flattened and smoothed into pixels as my limbs leave the screen like candelabra arms in Jean Cocteau’s foggy Beauty and the Beast. Trapped, enchanted, both/and.
Click every image in which a skateboard appears. Click every image in which a thread appears. A thread appears. I attempt to type out the dream message, repeat its absence many times, cloud-like chunk of what I’ve forgotten and skulk around obliquely, no trail. I cannot name it. Outside at twilight, the absence of the threaded message takes on new resonance, sharp like the silver point in Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Thinking of You), where an unfastened safety pin presses into a fingertip. The red headline reads:
THINKING OF YOU.
Thinking of you, I repeat many times into the cloud I move around. YOU are not there. The absence of YOU is like a pin pressing into the finger. A safety pin is meant to clasp, hold things together. The finger is not yet punctured by the pin, though there’s the YOU’s distance and almost-wound at the flesh’s threshold. If YOU arrive, will the pin go into the skin? A painful relief-release? If YOU arrive, will the pin re-enter its clasp, secured?
Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Thinking of You). 1999
Transparency is trending. As Byung-Chul Han notes in Transparency Society, transparency is meant to denote trust, but trust has been degraded in our society. Han associates a society of transparency with one of distrust, control, and hypervisibility where we suffer from overexposure and a lack of necessary opacity and those modes that thrive in cloudier zones: poetry, eros, sensuality, what’s hard to name, grasp, consume, digest.
In the book’s preface, Han writes: “Transparent communication is communication that has a smoothing and leveling effect. It leads to uniformity. It eliminates Otherness.” Constant exhibition and masses of information eliminate erotic assymetries, thresholds, edges, ambiguous goo and blurry edges of poetry, those undigestable pieces, toys hanging from the ceiling, stitched together, a needle about to press into a fingertip, writing with one’s bodily fluids. The dream returns, a virtuality I walk around and around, a cloud that secretly shapes my moves, weaving veils and glimmers which illuminate the past in uncanny fractures of light, threading slowly some possible futures.
Under consumer capitalism, information (clickable) is meant to be immediately assimilable. In our digital experiences, largely regulated by Big Tech, what happens to the Other? To the absent message? The dream—Thinking of You—stranger? Mystical experience, which Georges Bataille (following mystics like Angela of Foligno) sometimes relates to erotic experience, is cloudy and requires slanted points of entry, a negative theology, fuzzy and at times formless, risky.
“Formless” is a prose poem-like definition of a slippery term, part of a text that Georges Bataille wrote for the surrealist journal Documents in 1929. Philosophy, writes Bataille, seeks to “give a frock coat to what is.” A shape, form, name. However, to say the universe is formless “amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.” Bataille is suspicious of mathematical frock coats and modernism’s affinity for categorizations and mastery. Instead of bringing what’s apparently low or formless into dominant economies to be circulated and subsumed, Bataille brings art to base materialism in a reversal echoing Nietzsche, who often associated art with animality and the body.
“Formless: A User’s Guide,” a 1996 exhibition in Paris curated by Rosalind Krauss, employed Bataille’s ideas about formlessness and included the work of Mike Kelley, Mel Bochner, and Cindy Sherman, among others. Moments of continuity or formlessness, slippages or materials that overflow utility or may defy categorization and deal with what’s uncanny, abject, ‘low,’ bodily, erotic.
Mel Bochner. Transparent and Opaque. 1968, printed 1998.
One of the pieces included in the show was Mel Bochner’s Transparent Opaque, a series of photographs arranged in a grid, each one displaying ambiguous goo or slime in a variety of colors. Vaseline spread across glass or plastic and lit by pink, purple, turquoise light and opaque substances resembling shaving cream, sensuous and hard to identify. In On Nietzsche, the third book in his Atheological Summa, a trilogy of mystical writings composed during the second world war, Bataille writes:
Sensuality is nothing without an equivocal shift—in which suddenly there is this glimpse of a demented ‘goo’ that, although normally escaping us, suddenly seems attainable. The ‘goo’ still gets away. But in the brief glimpse our hearts beat with deranged hopes. It’s such hopes as these that, jumbled all together and pushing forward, finally allow the surging forth of... Often, a deranged beyond lacerates us while we’re apparently bent on lasciviousness.
Erotic goo, unattainable but profoundly affecting, makes the heart beat with “deranged hope.” And in this brief and uncapturable glimpse, an encounter with an Other—Dream Stranger, digital, divine, or otherwise—formlessness ensues. One can’t capture the seepage, a deranged hope clouds the scene. His thought trails off after something—a space for something, surges forth, then picks up again.
In contrast to the “transparent communication,” uniform and flat, that Byung-Chul Han says we’re plagued by these days under digitized neoliberal capitalism, Bataille continues the above thought with an attempt to define an entirely different kind of communication, intimate and excessive, open but not exactly transparent: “The communication of two individuals occurs when they lose themselves in sweet, shared slime...” Selves get lost in a slime reminiscent of Mel Bochner’s gridded textures of colorful vaselines and creams. In an erotic and intimate communication, we can never really attain or grasp the Other, piece of art, text, atmosphere, on and on. We try, we slip.
On Nietzsche feels undigested and also resists digestion. A different, slower, and more divergent reading practice is required. Bataille writes from personal experience, at times diaristic and fragmentary. When I first opened the book, I expected to read about Nietzsche. Instead, On Nietzsche acts as a tilted guidebook filled with oblique and overgrown paths into Nietzsche via Bataille’s encounters with Christian and non-western mystical writings and Nietzsche’s work. Still, it slowly shows ways one might approach, read, assimilate, and leave undigested parts of any text.
In a way, On Nietzsche shows the dangers of thinking you’ve digested or fully assimilated...anything. Bataille attempted to save Nietzsche’s writing from posthumous fascist appropriations, showing how his work is resistant to easy subsumption into any political agenda or book. To leave certain parts undigested (opaque), to leave room for multiplicity and flux and bodily chaos of thought itself, is a kind of ethics. I’m thinking here about Simone Weil’s warnings against eating or consuming the object of one’s desire and Ingeborg Bachmann’s insistence that fascism begins in the relationships between people. About Bataille’s mystical wartime trilogy, Amy Hollywood writes: “These books contain ample quotations from Nietzsche’s texts and from those of the mystics—undigested hunks and fragments of these illusive writings...”
The slippery texture of digital communications seems, at least on the surface, to be of a different variety than Bataille’s shared slime, unnameable goo, Bochner’s pearly pictures, or my forgotten dream message. I scroll on my device quickly, trance-like. Ads pop up and I accidentally click, then leave, enter another grid. Mostly, things I can name. An advertisement for a new kind of candy bar. Digital and analog desires overlap and appear quickly, suggestions for things I might want. We can click on the name of a friend, lover, stranger, and the name, a link, leads to a window, another series of images. Looking, devouring. Digital and analog communications overcode and underwrite each other. Opaque clouds of not-knowing mix with digital storage.
Kelly, Milke. Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites. 1991-1999.
In Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, which employs poetic and associative logic against totalities and colonialism, a crucial part of Glissant’s concept of relation involves opacity.
If we examine the process of ‘understanding’ people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgements. I have to reduce.
Relation is mobile, pushing against fixity. Glissant reminds us that we can relate to a person without understanding or grasping them. He continues: “Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity that is not enclosure within an impenetrable autarchy but subsistence within an irreducible singularity. Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics.” Against a closed loop of understanding, Glissant clamors for an opening that spills over as he illustrates these seepages in the text itself, linking-up poetry and relation through their weird weaves, loose threads and generative convergences which work to trouble reduction of place, person, idea.
Intimate communication or relation opens space for the other, erotic goo, intriguing though not exactly digestible. Always already overflowing itself in incalculable flows, hard to scroll over or forget and equally hard to store. Messages or Dream Strangers that resist legibility, opaque-shimmering thicknesses that stick to memory and arrive over and over in flashes. Clicks that may turn into punctures, thinking of you, a you that’s both here and not, an I that is also another, loosening the bones to gooey formlessness as it backlights another zone, perhaps pink and turquoise vaseline on glass, a grid of photographs, a deodorized mass.
Bataille, Georges. On Nietzsche, tr. Bruce Boone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 1998, p.97-98.
Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess, tr. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p. 31.
Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation, tr. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997, p. 189-190.
Han, Byung-Chul. Transparency Society, tr. Erik Butler. Stanford, CA: Stanford Briefs, 2015, p. vii.
Hollywood, Amy. Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 101.
Nietzsche, Frederich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p 27.
Emmalea Russo is a writer and artist living at the Jersey shore. Her books are G (Futurepoem, 2018) and Wave Archive (Book*hug, 2019). Recent writing has appeared in Artforum, American Chordata, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She's pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and edits Asphalte Magazine.
For more of Emmalea’s work, go to https://emmalearusso.com/ and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo
For more of Emmalea’s work, go to https://emmalearusso.com/ and/or follow her on instagram at @emmalea.russo