Living the dream: a letter from Paris

The true nature of perversion is a turning away both from the real and from the imagination of what might transform it. A meditation on Euro-Disney and bad sex.

Phil Cohen
15 July 2013

French protestors in Paris against gay marriage. Demotix/Mastrangelo Reino. All rights reserved.

Forty five years after the May ‘evenements’ in Paris I took my grandchildren to Euro-Disney for their half term holiday break. To bracket the most determined assault on the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ with the most extravagant expression of its triumph might seem wilfully perverse - at best a rueful acknowledgement that capitalism has succeeded beyond our wildest nightmares in appropriating and merchandising the spirit of carnival, rendering it into an entirely kitsch idiom; at worst  an exercise in political masochism, rubbing  one’s nose in the fact that the revolutionary left has failed to produce a culture of popular pleasure other than rioting. But in the event a more complicated set of considerations imposed themselves.

When we got to Paris, we were confronted by a rather unusual  form of spectacle -  this time of popular protest. We got caught up in the ‘Manif for Tous’ organised by a coalition of religious and right wing groups to  oppose  gay marriage, held on France’s Father’s Day. The streets around were thronged with protesters, over 250 thousand of them, mostly young and all wearing pink, and chanting slogans about  ‘protecting family values’ and ‘ every child’s right to a mother and father’. The organisers claim to speak for France’s silent moral majority  and are careful to distance themselves from overtly homophobic or fascist groups like the Front Nationale. In effusive moments their leaders claim to be representing  'humanity', 'human kind', 'human identity' and 'anthropological order'.  

What was scary was not just the size of the crowd or the histrionic rhetoric  of  the speakers as they denounced a conspiracy to undermine the moral fibre of the nation, but the extent to which idioms of protest, traditionally associated with the left, had been successfully  appropriated. This was compounded  by the failure of the left to  see anything more in this movement  than rampant  homophobia and ‘ressentiment’ amongst the petty bourgeoisie.  A more sophisticated view sees  the hysteria around gay marriage as a symbolic displacement of public concern away from a divisive  economic crisis  which the political class is unable to resolve, to a social issue  which unites people across  class, race, and gender. Gay people are thus made to represent everything that is destabilising about contemporary capitalist society. One of the key slogans of the marchers,  'On veut du boulot, pas du marriage homo', (we want jobs, not gay marriage) explicitly  acknowledged  this possibility and  cleverly turned it  around to their own advantage. 

Yet this standpoint fails to take seriously what is at stake.  As a matter of civil rights, the demand for  gay marriage is undeniable in its legitimacy. Marriage is a legal/contractual relationship and to refuse  this right is to condemn gay people to second class citizenship. But much of the support for gay marriage in fact comes from those  who want to strengthen the institution of marriage, even – and perhaps especially – if it takes non-traditional forms. This is also often motivated by a view of gay culture as inherently promiscuous and anomic, so that anything which stabilises gay relationships around the monogamous couple is seen  to be A Good Thing. This view is also shared by some gay activists; it is part of a movement to normalise homosexuality while resting on a concept of  homosexuality as deviant and fundamentally perverse.

It is easy to condemn these attitudes as ‘heterosexist’  or driven by negative stereotypes of gays, or even to see them as motivated by repressed homosexual drives, attacking others for acting out one’s own forbidden desires. But the situation is actually more complicated. Freud talks about the ‘polymorphously perverse’ infant, seeing ‘normal’ sexual development as a long forced march  toward  genital heterosexuality which involves renunciation, or sublimation,  of gratifications  linked to other erogenous zones (mainly oral and anal). Yet he also acknowledges that these ‘perverse’ forms of pleasure also play a part in ‘normal’ love making, and other psychoanalysts  have argued that bi-sexuality is the most adaptive  form of human sexuality.

The implication might be that desire for one’s own sex  comes more ‘naturally’  than desire for the opposite sex, which has to pass through the  defiles of oedipal conflict, whereas pre-oedipal  and narcissistic identifications are easier to sustain. This has today become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, given that such identifications have become embedded in contemporary  consumer culture and its forms of commodity fetishism. Just look at any advertising hoarding.      

So the issue of perversion – the turning away of a drive towards a substitute object of gratification- is not to be disposed of simply by denouncing the term as prejudicial. It is certainly not a question of sexual orientation – it is as perverse for a gay person to take a wife in order to pass for ‘straight’, as it is for a heterosexual couple who really have little or no desire for one another to maintain the fiction of a happy marriage. Yet the fact remains that the gay community has  elaborated distinctive subcultures around particular sexual practices viz sado-masochism, fetishism, transvestism, in a way which actively celebrates their  perverse  quality.

Indeed it is this transgressive aspect of gay sexuality, its inversion and blurring of gender roles, their  calculated travesty in camp, which has given it its wider cultural and social resonance, especially   through the arts. This is what makes it so threatening to those who are clinging to the ontological securities of strongly delineated gender ( and generational) identities associated with patriarchal society. At the same time gay people are trapped in a double bind:  if they ‘come out’ they are secretly envied for the sexual freedom they seem to espouse, whilst if they remain ‘in the closet’  they are  vilified for their secret breaking of sexual taboos ‘behind our backs’.

It is significant in this regard that the ‘corrupting’ influence of gay subculture on the wider society should be seen as concentrated on its generational dimension – that is on the fetishism of youth  and the sexualising of the adult/child  relation; for this has happened  at a time when so called adult consumer culture has become increasingly infantilised, while children, qua consumers, are treated a little adults.

One reason why there is so little generational conflict today is that both adults and children share the same youth culture. But far from creating stronger emotional bonds, this has created a pervasive sense of anxiety about what is or should be the correct emotional distance between parents and children, with moral panics focused around the perverse impact of both the engulfing mother and the absent or seductive ‘imp of fun’ father.

Then there is the fact that despite (or because of ) the weakening of the sexual division of labour, the feminisation of work and ‘gender bending’, we are living in an increasingly homo-social culture.  The majority of people prefer the company of their own sex for almost every activity except sex and procreation, precisely because intimate relations between men and women have become so fraught and a true marriage of mind and body between them so difficult to sustain.

Moreover now that the perverse forms of marriage – arranged marriages, marriages of convenience dictated by dynastic or social ambition - are no longer the norm in western societies, marriage itself becomes invested with an almost impossible burden of romantic representation – that of the ‘ideal couple’  who perfectly complement one another and who sustain a close and mutually fulfilling emotional relationship as life time partners. It is significant that both gay rights activists and their opponents  appeal to  this same normative ideal of ‘true romance’ and that it continues to be a staple of popular genre fiction in the age of  disenchantment.

Finally the development of artificial insemination and other reproductive technologies means that the evolutionary link between heterosexuality and demographics has been broken. You no longer need to be in any kind of relationship to a member of the opposite sex in order to have children and bring up a family. This is the Great Fear of the campaigners against gay marriage. What incentive is there for people to renounce their own sex just for the sake of their Darwinian mission to ensure their genes are passed on and the human species survives, when they can have kids without having to engage in hetero-coupling. There is no longer any need to sacrifice desire to duty, one of the key tenets of traditional moral education.

Not that this uncoupling of biology from society has inaugurated an era of liberation from constraint, let alone promoted greater happiness. For even while it has expanded the range of adult choices, and  even conjured up the designer baby, it has not succeeded in eradicating children’s compulsive desire to know about  where they come from and to construct myths or phantasies of origin to give a local habitation and a name to this desire.  All that has happened is that the ‘family romance’- the tall stories children make up about imaginary /ideal parents who unlike their ‘real’ ones  enable them to do and be whatever they want- has found a new theatre of operation: the anonymous sperm donor or surrogate mother simply becomes the model of exotic parentage – perhaps, after all   he was a famous rock star, she a ballet dancer…..

It seems to me that the ‘manif pour tous’  was attempting in a confused and deeply reactionary way to address  this deeper set of questions  concerning the relation between biology and social destiny and the destabilising of both family and community values. A  vacuum has been  created by the absence of a progressive engagement with such issues at the level of popular culture and everyday life;  it has been filled by  institutionalised forms of ‘political correctness’, and  the ideological  hothouse of  identity politics. Against this background, the dream of a simpler world, a world  of make-believe freed from the ambiguities and confusions of contemporary sexual politics, indeed a world liberated from sexuality altogether in the name of more innocent pleasures becomes ever more attractive. So welcome to Disneyland, a moral universe  of spell binding adventure and romance, where heroes always triumph over villains, where evil is always punished, good deeds rewarded and no-one goes to bed hungry unless they have been really naughty.


Supporters of the gay marriage bill denounce homophobia from opponents. Demotix/Tom Craig. All rights reserved.

Bad sex and Disneyland

I was  brought up on Disney cartoons  by my aunt, who used to take me  as a special treat to a ‘newsreel theatre’ on Victoria station which specialised in  them. Whether it was Disney or the Warner Brother’s rival Looney Tunes, watching them confirmed  what I  already knew  from my dreams - that it was possible to fly, to triumph over impossible odds, and to be resurrected any number of time after you had been killed. My disillusionment with Christianity – after all Jesus only managed to be resurrected once, despite the promise of a second coming – dated from this time. So it came as something of a shock to learn, much later, that Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were secret agents of American Cultural Imperialism, Snow White was  a closet Lesbian and the seven dwarfs  were all gay.  I got over it but I  was still  somewhat dreading my encounter with  the ‘real thing’ in the shape of  the visit to Eurodisney with a couple of pre-teens who were definitely up for it. I went half hoping to have my residual puritanism subverted by massed ranks of drum majorettes shimmying down Main Street to the Sound of Music, not to mention the sheer delight on the faces  of my grandchildren as they relived. And who could resist taking ‘ a tranquil cruise through some of one’s  favourite fairytales’, as promised by the brochure?

In the event the rides were rather like bad sex. They involved a lot of waiting, were better in the anticipation than the actual experience, and left you feeling   drained afterwards. The fact is that enchantment, whatever uses to which it is put, whatever message it subliminally conveys, cannot be institutionalised. That is an illusion created by the Spectacle.  A theme park which sets out to materialise   adventure stories  by constructing artificial environments around their re-staging – a haunted house, a gothic castle, an underground cavern- simply cannot compete with  the power of cinematic mis en scene when it comes to  transporting people into  another world.  Walking through a mocked up  Casbah  supposedly in the footsteps of Indiana Jones, you cannot fail to notice that the stalls are selling hamburgers, ice cream and Mickey Mouse ears. Frank Gehry, the designer of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and many other post–modern follies, famously said that Disneyland had changed  architecture for ever and for the better. But the difference between his cuboid dream palaces and Disneyland is that  in the first case the real has become kitschified, while in the second  the kitsch is for real.  Or as Marce Auge put it, in Disneyland, the spectacle makes a spectacle of itself.

The Manif pour Tous and Euro-Disney may seem to belong to  totally discrete universes of discourse. Yet in their different ways they both speak to a diffuse, ideologically labile, desire to create a new, perverse, kind of anthropological order to which enchantment and magical thinking are central; here intractable problems which afflict the body politics of  contemporary capitalist societies - the long legacy of colonialism, the collapse of  patriarchal and communitarian values, the regressive  nature of consumerism - all  melt away into the thin air of rhetoric, revealing the true nature of perversion as a turning away both from the real and from the imagination of what might transform it.


Further reading:

Marc Auge  The Ethnologist in Disneyland  Picador  1986

Bruno Bettelheim  The Uses of Enchantment  Penguin 1994

Christine Burack  Sin,sex and democracy :anti gay campaigns and the Christian Right  2008

Guy Debord  Comments on  ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ Verso 1990 

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