Exposed Intimacy, Extorted Intimacy
Gérard Wajcman

Stanya Kahn

Author’s Bio

translated by Asunción Alvarez

It wasn’t me who came up with this title—The Frontiers of Intimacy—it was Murielle Gagnebin. As sometimes happens between close friends, she saw more quickly and better than me what might matter to me—and what, I believe, matters. Intimacy, of course, hasn’t come out of the blue, given that a book I wrote on windows precisely tended to define the conditions of possibility for this subjective node that is known as intimacy. Indeed, I suppose that it wasn’t a given, but rather that intimacy had a singular structure, and a history, thus that intimacy hadn’t always existed—nor need it exist forever. I finally circumscribed it as a place, whose essence is both architectural and scopic: the space where the subject can hold himself and experience himself outside the Other’s gaze. A space in internal exclusion, an island, what is known as “at home,” where the subject escapes the very supposition of being gazed at. It’s the possibility of hiddenness. Things can be arranged so that there is no longer a place where a subject can thus escape this supposition. This is an idea of Hell. Although its essence is architectural, this place is not necessarily incarnated in architecture. And one can feel at home in several ways, in a crowd (why not?), in a hotel, in nature. The fact that it is obvious that the subject can feel at home with the Other requires a slightly more sophisticated notion of intimacy.

Regarding the historical birth of intimacy, my hypothesis concerns the fact that it took place in an unexpected domain—not in the domain of law, where the idea of “privacy” was partly created, or in philosophy, but in art. I have already mentioned architecture; and yet it wasn’t there that intimacy was conceived and thought of. It was in painting. This took place in the Renaissance. Briefly put: intimacy was established when modern painting, defined by Alberti as “an open window,” was established. Extending this idea as far as possible, I think that the modern painting at the same time established the Cartesian idea that man had henceforth the right to gaze on the world, together with God, and defined intimacy as the place in the world where man can stand separately from the world, from which he can secretly contemplate it through the window, and where, out of every sight, he can look at himself. If this is what I am describing, both the source of man’s power appropriating the world through the gaze, and the cradle for the internal territory where interiority unfolds, it will be agreed that I was somewhat right to regard the establishment of the Albertian painting as an upheaval that founded a new era. This era is still our own. But for how long? Sticking to intimacy, we must bring up its tragic, crucial key. This is what is currently at stake.

For the possibility of hiddenness should not be merely conceived of as a gain or a conquest, in terms of more or less: it is an absolute condition of the subject. I would say that there is no subject if he cannot be unseen. Let us understand here the modern subject, who thinks and thus is—which amounts to saying that the subject that is looked at does not think. Thus, in modern times, intimacy, the secret territory of shadow and opacity, is the very place of the subject.

Talking about intimacy in terms of a territory necessarily poses a question about frontiers. This question is being currently posed. But if it is important to reflect on it, it is not to refine a topology of intimacy (along the line established by Lacan, who invented an antonym for intimacy that doesn’t exist: extimacy), it is due to the urgency of a threat. Weighing upon intimacy, it currently weighs upon every subject.

There is a politics of intimacy. Intimacy may be under threat. It must be defended.

Invoking a right to hiddenness leads to giving intimacy a definition that goes beyond the architectural and scopic definition, as well as beyond psychology and anthropology: intimacy takes on a political dimension, based on force. For the definition I am giving, a place free of all gaze, implies a power relationship, or more exactly a separation from power. In fact, the point is to keep a territory outside the always totalitarian power of the Other. This constitutes the real condition of intimacy, which can be related to the right to secrecy. Intimacy is silhouetted against the background of a Benthamian Other, under an importune, intrusive or invasive gaze—which wants to see all and know all, all the time. Thus the point is to establish what might place a limit on this limitless desire. The law can be invoked. But the law preserves privacy; or rather, privacy is the part that can be protected by the law. Intimacy exceeds this, as it cannot arise from the law, it only arises from the real possibility that a subject has of hiding and remaining silent. His guarantee is material, that is to say that the right to secrecy is only supported by the subject himself, only by his force, and not by the Other, by the law. It is an act by the subject that keeps the subject free. This political dimension is consubstantial to the notion of intimacy, which names only what is most interior (the Latin intimus is the superlative of interior), but which comprises the idea of secrecy in its very definition.

Thus we can see that intimacy, secrecy and freedom are tied together. Again, we must understand that we are talking about real freedom, about material freedom. For, as Jean-Claude Milner claims, the real question about freedom is saying how it can be possible for the weakest to be effectively free with respect to the strongest. Although legal and institutional guarantees are precious, they remain rather illusory. That is to say, like intimacy, the doctrine of freedom is not based on the law, but on force. Actually, says Milner, we are all convinced of one thing: leaving aside fairy tales in which the weak become strong (that is to say the revolutionary dream), there is only one guarantee for real freedom: the right to secrecy, the only material limit to the power of the Other—be it the state, institutions or society.

On this basis, I will make six remarks to define the current state of intimacy.

The first one concerns what I would call the interest of psychoanalysis. It can be pointed out that in the Romantic age the notion of intimacy acquired a coloring that clearly influenced Freud’s invention. By delimiting what is strictly personal and kept hidden, it isolates sexuality as what is most personal and hidden. Sexuality is designated as the opaque core of intimacy. Intimacy has always had this coloring to a greater or lesser degree. But this interest is even more radical in that intimacy only delimits the location of what is most subjective about the subject: it is, as I said, the very condition of the subject. There could be no subject without secrecy, that is to say, no entirely transparent subject. Any dream of transparency entails, with the dissolution of all opacity, that of the subject itself. Of course democracy is moved by an ideal of transparency, but in principle it concerns power, not subjects. Not only does it place the subject’s opacity in opposition to the transparency of the Other, of the state, but it is also supposed to defend this opacity against all intrusions, which also amounts to defending their freedom. This is where the problem lies nowadays. In practice, our democracy seems to be moved by a completely opposite desire: firstly, the Other tends to become ever more opaque, and secondly, subjects are made increasingly transparent. In fact, we know less and less about the power machine, and yet, by extracting all kind of information, power knows more and more about each of us.

Psychoanalysis must take a position on this basis. Which gives rise to an apparently strange situation: psychoanalysis, which seeks to elucidate, stands on the side of obscurity, the dark side of subjects’ weakness in the face of power. Psychoanalysis, which tends to make people speak, is on the side of secrecy. This can be easily deduced from what was previously said, namely that any threat to the right of secrecy does not only threaten intimacy and freedom, but it also threatens the very existence of the subject. With no right to secrecy, with nothing hidden, there is no thinking subject, and thus no existing subject. Thus we can understand that we are not dealing only with the interest of psychoanalysis, but that the defense of intimacy and secrecy is properly a cause of psychoanalysis.

This is the political dimension of psychoanalysis. It does not cover a new form of “application,” its involvement in the political field armed with its concepts, but the laying bare of an internal political dimension proper to psychoanalysis, simply because the possibility of intimacy is ultimately the very possibility of psychoanalysis.

Be it video surveillance, medical histories or procedures aimed at evaluating children’s future dangerousness, any measure which endangers intimacy and the right to secrecy constitutes a threat to psychoanalysis—which is also directly threatened. Hence the need for political vigilance, and even, nowadays, a state of alert.


My second remark concerns the nature of the threats to the borders of intimacy. The right to hiddenness is a barrier: it constitutes the frontier of intimacy. If there is reason to talk of borders in the plural it is not because this border is various or variable, because there are so many or so few of them, degrees of secrecy or intimacy: the rights to secrecy and intimacy are absolutes—either they exist or they don’t. Moreover, like any border, it delimits two spaces: intimacy, the space of the subject, and the field of the Other. Thus the border may be seen from two sides. This yields three possible states of the border. It may remain watertight and preserve intimacy against all intrusions. This is what defines a certain state of real democracy. There may be a crossing, but this crossing may be conceived in both senses. There may be an invasion of intimacy, or there may be a waiver of intimacy. The former is the fact of the Other, the latter the fact of the subject.

Let us consider first the act of power. That is the fact that the Other pokes his nose into our intimacy. It is a strong tendency. This is massively shown by the fact that we are living in a time of video surveillance. Police, urban, or military surveillance, it is currently more than generalized: it is planetary, as now eyes orbit day and night around the Earth—this can be easily seen by clicking on Google Earth. We have entered a paranoid time. But the serious question posed by the presence of cameras on every street corner is that it is not only technical progress that enables power to extend and invade public space, it is the fact that, with this technical progress, a change has imperceptibly taken place. In the past, surveillance techniques were developed to disclose criminals’ secrets. Yet current techniques are now used to serve utterly opposite purposes: they are there to watch the innocent and control their secrets. The control society which Deleuze spoke about is a society where the innocent are controlled. This gives rise to the diffuse feeling of criminalization of society in which we are all regarded as potentially guilty or as the guilty whose guilt is overlooked.

In this sense of a generalized, rampant criminalization of society, we can highlight certain current procedures in the service of so-called crime prevention policies. Prevention has become a master word in our times. To such an extent that Foucault’s “Surveillance and punishment” has been replaced by “Surveillance and prevention.” Suddenly, the novelty comes from the fact that current procedures for crime prevention tend, seeking maximum effectiveness, to go as far back as possible. That is to say, they do not seek to influence so-called environmental factors in the emergence of crime, but rather are aimed at the very being of subjects. That is to say, beyond social, school or educational measures, preventive measures are now based on medicine and are designed by mental health experts. So they appear with the face of science and the guarantee of national science institutions. Which is supposed to make them spotless, given that science, as is well known, can only seek our good.

More specifically, I can mention the Inserm report on crime prevention, “Behavioral disorders in children and teenagers,” a “collective expertise” which was made official in 2005. Crime, a sociological-legal-police notion, is approached as a “behavioral disorder,” a psychiatric notion taken from the American DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) classification. Its “predictive” indexes are arranged into four categories: aggressive behaviors against people or animals, destruction of material goods with no physical aggression, fraud or theft, serious violations of the established rules. I will cut straight to the chase. The report warns us about the astounding precociousness of signs of this disorder: “Aggressiveness, rebelliousness and weak emotional control in childhood have been described as predictive of behavioral disorders in adolescence.” It is specified that these behaviors must be distinguished from what are called “normal behaviors.” I would like to stop here for a moment, as this involves a certain way of conceiving the individual, namely that a subject’s behavior is directly connected to group normality. Thus we see that the field of psychology is invaded by a thought that reasons not in terms of persons but of a “population.” This is a threat that was detected by Foucault, when he described statistics as the new Leviathan (DSM, the global psychiatric reference, is itself a statistical treatise on disorders). These expert psychiatrists and psychologists are not reasoning about individuated, singular persons, in terms of cases, but in terms of types, in terms of statistical beings where the subject as an absolute singularity is reabsorbed, abolished–in Lacanian terms, I would say forecluded. Now we know that these experts deal with abnormality by retaining the age criterion. It is claimed that such manifestations as physical aggressions, lies or theft, which are relatively frequent in small children, only become “abnormal” if they are very frequent and persist beyond the age of 4. As a consequence, the group experts proposed a systematic medical tracking of each child after the age of 36 months, given that “at this age, a difficult character, hyperactivity and the first symptoms of behavioral disorders can first be detected.” Which leads them to recommend that all health professionals learn how to recognize the criteria that define behavioral disorders—that is, professionals in child services, medical, psychological and educational centers, and medical personnel in the National Health Service. Of course, these Inserm experts have identified risk factors in the prenatal and perinatal stages, such as, for instance, a very young mother, consumption of psychoactive substances during pregnancy, a low weight at birth or birthing problems… As a consequence, the experts recommend that families that display these risk factors during medical surveillance of pregnancy be monitored. To make a long story short, this report illustrates and justifies in the clearest possible way Foucault’s insight on biopower, namely the fact that life and bodies have become objects for power. The report can be found on the Inserm website.

The children evaluation and classification system recommended by the Inserm experts bears witness to the fact that we have entered a time of a Master’s gaze that is limitless, an intrusive gaze, supported by science and technique. The subject that used to be gazed at by God in his soul is now scrutinized in his body by experts, even to the most secret folds of his mind—even in his mother’s womb, even before that. Intimacy, which used to be defined as an open window for the subject and a closed window for the Other, is incessantly plumbed and forced.

A huge setup now sieges the borders of intimacy.


The point of view must now be displaced, reversed. For there is another way of crossing the border of intimacy: in the other sense. This concerns those who, with no constraints, open up their intimacy, confess or expose it. In fact, this is the most immediate sense of the “shameful images” which are not stolen images, but rather images that are deliberately exhibited. It should be understood that the subject does not give up the right to secrecy, but rather it is a free action, the exercise of that right. The right to remain silent, which is ritually invoked in American police films whenever someone is arrested, does not force us to shut up—then we would fall into totalitarianism according to Lacan: what is not forbidden is compulsory. We can note in passing that this right to silence incarnates the spirit of America, a nation founded by the persecuted, which, as Jacques-Alain Miller points out, has given itself an unheard-of constitution, based on the principle not of prohibition but of permission. This does not keep censorship from existing, but it should be pointed out that it doesn’t arise from the Constitution.

In any case, art and literature are the places where this freedom to display intimacy can be exercised. This can take all kinds of forms: pornography, exhibition, confidence, confession, account, memoir: be it The Sexual Life of Catherine M., Larry Clark’s films, Araki’s or Nan Goldin’s pictures. Of course, we might say that intimacy was exposed before these, but it should be pointed out that in the 18th century, for instance, when Rousseau published his Confessions, this was not strictly speaking an intimate work, because what is now called an intimate diary is a diary that remains secret, unpublished.

Our time is characterized by the fact that, beyond being said within the secrecy of the analyst’s office, intimacy is nowadays published, displayed on screens and exhibited on museum walls. I would like to add: shamelessly. We have entered a time of unveiling, which is also a shame free time. This does not signal a total absence of modesty, which would lead to limitless provocation, but the mere fact of a lowering or dissolution of the feeling of shame. Let us admit that we would have reason to rejoice in such a shedding. In certain ways, this is what distinguishes this exhibition from the category of “shameful images”—namely, that nowadays they are exhibited with no shame. Shameful images no longer bring shame. These are hard times for pornographers. That is to say, the crossing of which I speak in the arts can no longer be conceived now in terms of subversion, scandal, provocation, profanation, or outrage. The fall of prohibitions does lead to sacrilege or blasphemy, but to the short term. Scandal passes so lightly nowadays that it seeks the least publicity. For this reason, works of art meant to be provocative must overdo it, enter an exhausting process of inflation, and finally seem rather ridiculous, sometimes verging on the grotesque or the pitiful. Luckily, there remain a few unnerved censors who can add sulfur fumes to some works, which, without these appeals to the forbidden, would be nothing to get worked up about. It must be said: nowadays, we have seen everything. How can one be scandalous then? The inquisitorial ardor of a certain moral minority is only the sign of the collapse of prohibitions, and the desire to restore values is the best sign that times have changed, that shameful images no longer bring shame, that their destabilizing power is extremely faded. This should make us think.

We might talk about more about the idea of the novel nature of shameless shameful images, bringing up historical precedents. For example, after reading Daniel Arrase, Titian’s Venus of Urbinomight be regarded as the paradigm of “shameful images.” This lying, naked woman who touches herself while smiling at us is a shameful image that is shameless in some respects. Except that—and this is the point—this intimate image was intended only for the intimacy of a single gaze: that of Guidobaldo della Rovere, who commissioned Titian to paint this pinup girl for his exclusive use. This poses a real problem, not concerning the exhibition of this painting nowadays, but its meaning in a public art space. Intimate things used to be found in intimacy back then. Now they go to the museum, this great place of the democracy of gaze, which is based on the principle that every visible work should be seen by all—which determines a slight structural dislike on the part of museums for guys like Guidobaldo della Rovere and private collectors.

So this is the situation nowadays. We have established two facts. Firstly, in our times, which advance under the banner of human rights, the material right to secrecy is materially threatened from all sides. So we would be somewhat right to argue that the first human right is the right to secrecy. The second fact is that of the generalized exhibition of intimacy. The very theme of “shameful images” seems to be located on this side, which essentially orients the debate towards the various modalities under which these images are received—the moral panic which Ruwen Ogien talks about, for example.

As for me, I suggest that the question should be considered by opposing it to the other side, that of the general threat against intimacy. I believe that this might be useful to discuss the statute of “shameful images.” Namely, there are two sides: exposed intimacy and extorted intimacy. The question which I am stirring, and which stirs me, concerns the eventual relationship between both sides.


My hypothesis is that the current exhibition of intimate images is not only the result of modern exercise of a freedom, but paradoxically constitutes a response to a threat against intimacy. Of course, we might argue that the veil is a response to the hypermodern threat of a limitless gaze upon intimacy. Thus we see an unveiling movement in art, which would after all fit perfectly the modern master’s desire to see all. But artistic images truly stop it short. It must be explained how and why.

This means that, in order to understand what “shameful images” are today, we must not consider prohibition, but on the contrary the all-seeing machine, the machine that extorts intimacy which is nowadays in the hands of the hypermodern master. “Shameful images” are current in the sense that threats against intimacy are current. Although one function of art is showing what cannot be seen, we cannot limit ourselves to thinking that what cannot be seen is what is forbidden, that the “bad sort” would be a response to the “good sort” of a moral majority that aimed to hide what should not be seen. Not because intimacy is less related to prohibition than to confession, as Foucault believed, but rather because it is purely and simply threatened with its dissolution.

Let us simply pose the question: what can be the sense and the value of exhibiting pornographic images in a world where we are all seen everywhere and under all aspects, plumbed to the depths of our bodies and souls?

As I said, our time is haunted by a new figure, a ghost or a phantasm: that of the transparent subject. It is the correlative of what I called the master’s limitless gaze. The invention of radiography, in the late 19th century, gave rise to a scientific dream of transparency of the body—which went so far as to inspire the belief that, thanks to Röntgen, even the most secret thoughts would no longer be secret to doctors. It is clear that the deployment of technique currently seems aimed at extending the power of the machine until a shadowless man is created, a totally transparent subject in body and in soul. Between the boom in medical imagery, constant innovation in police and spying surveillance techniques, the triumph of legal medicine and anatomical pathology, or the strange displacement of psychiatric expertise toward what is known as “psychological autopsy,” it seems that power is currently focused on gaze, and that the exercise of power consists mainly in multiplying its powers of surveillance over subjects and bodily inquiries. One is tempted to think that what used to be a divine attribute, God’s all-seeing, his power of seeing all while unseen, has now become an attribute of secular power armed by science and technique. For this reason it is important to look at what looks at us—what turns us, unseen, into subjects under control—and to unveil to all gazes.

There is no need to force things to superpose this phantasm of science to a police idea—photography has clearly played a historic role. I would like to bring up a fact about television as a sign that this covering process is currently being performed: I would like to talk about recent TV police series in which the main characters—the cop, the detective or investigator—has been progressively replaced by experts and forensic doctors. The police, whose goal is to serve the living, mostly develops its research techniques on corpses, objects and substances. When doctors believe that they are developing “psychological autopsy” as expert knowledge, we may well worry that this means that the subject as such is now thought of as a corpse, each of its nooks and crannies can be penetrated to find out the truth. Upheld by the scientific phantasm of transparency, this right to the gaze that power has, opposed to the subject’s right to secrecy, is a major, urgent, political problem.

The same goes for reflections about art nowadays. Not that the question is specifically posed for art but rather that, following my idea of art, I believe that it is now a place where the question of the phantasm of sciences is posited and exposed, in the sense that it is unveiled, it is shown as such. Art is a place where the phantasm of science and of the modern master can be thought out in more depth perhaps, as well as answer the threat which such a phantasm brings. I will give an example. When Wim Delvoye takes radiographic images of fucking or of sexual acts, or when Bernard Venet exposes his self-portrait to a scanner, these artists are just aesthetically appropriating scientific techniques, sometimes stealthily, as art has done for a long time—it seems to me that it was Meret Oppenheim who first took X-ray portraits in 1964, a self-portrait more exactly. By exposing the scientific hyper-intimacy of the body, these artists’ images really constitute a critical response to science’s phantasm of a transparent subject—that is to say, a wholly knowable subject. These scientific images warn us about science’s desires and its pretension of an entirely calculable subject, evaluable as is now said, that is to say, an entirely predictable subject. In truth, what these images of transparency show, what the artists show by showing scientific images of transparency, is, together with the phantasm of science, that there is nonetheless an irreducible opacity. There is a limit to science. I will say what it is later on.

To return again to the notion of critical or resistance art, I cannot but mention a piece by Bruce Nauman. I should say that I absolutely regard Bruce Nauman as a sort of universal thinker. In my view, he is a sort of Swiss knife for our times. He is the great revelator of the new discontent in civilization. I have even made up a law that I call the Law of TIAABNWTSTS—There Is Always A Bruce Nauman Work To Suit The Situation.

This time, I would like to talk about the sound piece which was exhibited in Paris and more recently in London, at the Tate Modern. You freely enter a little, dark, empty, quilted room, and when you move near the walls, you can vaguely hear something. Then, when you move near the partitions, you clearly hear a voice muttering: Get out of my mind, get out of this room. It’s Bruce Nauman’s own voice. Thus you go to the museum, you merely enter a space to see, as usual, and once inside you find first that there is nothing to see, then that you are inside the mind of Bruce Nauman, and that you’d better get out quick. A work of art that kicks you out—something quite unheard of in a museum piece. If I wanted to give an Art Award against “psychological autopsy” to the work that has best denounced experts’ desire to enter our minds, the public health work announcing that evaluators are already in our heads, the work which has most stalwartly defended intimacy, I would without a doubt choose this piece by Bruce Nauman.


I would now like to start to close while answering certain questions still in the air. Thus I must face a paradox that will not have gone unnoticed by attentive minds.

For I speak here on my own behalf but also, whether I like it or not, on behalf of psychoanalysis, and thus I am supposed to represent a discourse of which it has been said that it also tends toward the extortion of intimacy. This is what Foucault said. Saying everything would be directly related to confession—the Church and communism practiced it; by suspecting that psychoanalysis is on the side of the inquisitorial gaze, I can give ill-thinking minds another suspicious sign—the fact that Freud invented the material device of psychoanalysis, the relationship between the chair and the couch, by invoking that power it gave him of “seeing unseen,” thus rather innocently referring, I think, to a divine attribute. In such a way that by taking his place in his chair, the psychoanalyst would be sitting on the throne of an all-seeing god.

The entire problem is thus circumscribed to two questions which entail two barriers. The first one is ethical: if the analyst has the capacity to see, the fact that he does not make use of it gives it all its value. This is based on an ethical choice made by the analyst: in his role as a listener, the analyst is non-seeing (which is perhaps what gives him the power, like Tiresias, of being far seeing). The second barrier is a real one: does the power of seeing all mean that everything can be seen? In truth, the problem lies there, because this brings up the question of a limit to the gaze, based not on prohibition, on choice, or on any contingency, but rather on an impossibility, on the real.

All this only makes sense if we place psychoanalysis in perspective, in the world. Jacques-Alain Miller did so brilliantly in a recent radio broadcast. It must be said indeed that the first effect that psychoanalysis had on our world was that if modified common sense by crying out loud it is good to say it all. In any case, that’s how society interpreted it. Nowadays, we can assume that the idea of the benefits of saying everything has entered the common sense. Before, in the past, there used to be things that could not be said. What was sacred could be offended by something that was said. This gave speech all its value. The agency of censorship has played a significant role throughout the ages, and Freud did not fail to recognize this significance, by giving censorship a place in his theory. Writers were aware of the problem, back when saying something meant something. Censorship was the writer’s partner. Léo Strauss highlighted the role of persecution in the art of writing, which forced writers to practice a writing of dissimulation, an art of writing “between the lines,” in such a way that all writings were encoded messages. Even Rousseau, in his Confessions, which I mentioned before, and who claimed that there were no limits to his frankness, confessed that he practiced a certain art of writing so as not to disclose what he really thought to wicked readers. Nowadays, of course, saying everything has triumphed. We live in the age of the Internet, which apparently moves towards saying everything.

This is the point—that is to say, we must conclude that we are no longer living in Freud’s time. Freud belonged to the Victorian age, when the focus was one repression of speech, through censorship or repression. That is to say, in a way he took these notions from his times. Suddenly, in this world of censorship and repression, psychoanalysis clearly launched the liberation of speech. As Jacques-Alain Miller points out, Dada and Surrealism follow this line.

This liberation of speech led to a deep change in the 20th century, correlative to a weakening of the sacred. Psychoanalysis, he says, must declare its guilt in this regard: it dissolved the sacred. Suddenly, in its first century, psychoanalysis was the contemporary of an art that was caught in a Bataillean dialectic between the sacred, the forbidden, and transgression. By acting against censorship and repression, psychoanalysis aligned itself with the provocative exhibition of shameful images.

Only that the contemporary triumph of Freud and the Internet, the triumph of saying everything, has created an apparently more melancholy landscape for 21st-century psychoanalysis: what can we expect now that saying everything has triumphed? Obviously, there are still moral panics and censors, there are still freedom battles to fight. But concluding here would be a flat ending—a false one, actually. The new result of the social saying everything is that it dissolves the field of language. That is to say that Freud’s triumph is also a defeat.

But another question is posed against the background of this flat ending. Namely: can you really say everything? Saying everything is supposed to solve everything. But even though you can wish to say everything, you cannot say everything, luckily for psychoanalysis—there is something that won’t work, that will never work, and that I can prophesize will never work at all. Something to do with sexuality. Something in human sexuality never works. Thus we must work with what won’t work. This is the perspective for psychoanalysis in hypermodern times. What doesn’t work is very exactly what Lacan calls “the impossible sexual relationship,” which obviously doesn’t mean — as should be known since the time when Lacan brought it up in the 70s—that people don’t have sexual relationships, but rather that in the human species there is no regulated knowledge about relationships between the sexes. Pink flamingos know it very well, guinea pigs know it very well, but man doesn’t, nor does woman. That’s why mankind has invented all kinds of knowledge, such as marriage or Kama Sutra, to mitigate the lack of this knowledge.

That is to say, apparently there is something beyond prohibition. Prohibition is a barrier that calls for transgression. Art has been a place for freedom against prohibition. Nowadays, it is found that prohibition is not the ultimate barrier, that it actually is a way of humanizing through the law, through the symbolic, through language, the real of an impossibility—thus following Cocteau’s logic in The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party: “Given that these mysteries surpass us, let us pretend that we set them up…” Prohibition takes over from impossibility.


Which brings me to my last remark. I would like to say that contemporary art is lodged there, on the side of this real, that shameful images are inscribed precisely where there is something that won’t work in sexuality, something that cannot be said or seen in its entirety. Art opens up a space no longer for sexuality, but for discontent in sexuality, discontent in enjoyment.

This is also an opening for an art for the post-Freudian age. We now have the idea that it is good to confess all our enjoyments, but there is something in the face of which words fail, whatever you do. When you read Catherine Millet’s novel, that’s what she is talking about, a certain silence of enjoyment. Nan Goldin is a great artist of discontent in enjoyment, the disorder of love. She is also an artist of contemporary psychoanalysis, of the ultimate truth of psychoanalysis which is that of impossibility. Her images of beaten up transvestites at four in the morning, with their running mascara and beautiful clothes in disarray, are images of the unveiling of the truth about sex—and about the phallus: everything’s in disarray and droopy, not sexy. It’s the time of the exhausted phallus. It’s an art of punk sex, that is to say, a no futureof sex. Images have lost all their flashiness. These are deliberately unsexy images. Not ugly or provocative or disgusting or anything like that: simply true. Thus they can be moving, beautiful, fascinating, disturbing, anything at all, because there is no reason for truth to be always ugly and unpleasant. Because what these images show is that there is something behind the flashiness, behind the images and everything, that is to say the great, hopeless disorder of love. As for Larry Clark, who films American teenagers, he shows a liberated sexuality, belonging to the time of the triumph of psychoanalysis, a sexuality which has said everything about itself, that is to say, an exhausted sexuality. These children are, in a way, the children of Freud and Coca-Cola.

This is how I would describe things: images show discontent in enjoyment, what doesn’t work in sexuality. Here I find the Lacanian-Wittgensteinian machine that drives me as regards the question of images, following the proposition in the Tractatus that states that there is such a thing as the inexpressible, that there are some things that cannot be said, and that what cannot be said can be shown. I simply deduce that shameful images should not be now placed in the register of subversion and liberation: they are not aimed at prohibition, but rather face impossibility, the non-existent sexual relationship.

Which finally leads me to show two radiographic images by Wim Delvoye. These X-ray images, which should be classified as X-rated images, have an extreme force of truth. But not, as one might believe, in what is seen. Showing a fuck or a blowjob, they can be seen, of course, like any image. But on the one hand these images show what cannot be seen by the naked eye, namely the inside of the active body. On the other hand, they show something that cannot be seen: how it works. Finally, the show that we don’t see. And it’s normal that we don’t see it. We can photograph the intimate functioning of the sexual organs, mobilize science and the latest techniques—but that will not yield the secret of sex, how human desire works, and the astounding machinery of the sexes, whose plans nobody owns. Unlike the shitting machine which, as if by chance, Wim Delvoye himself has managed to build, with utter success. In such a way that the Cloaca-Turbo (which also gives a view of a mechanism inside the body) and X-ray images of a sexual act would be the inverted sides of each other: the image of a machine that works on one side, the image of a machine that doesn’t work on the other. More exactly, I would say that these X-ray images, which resemble Leonardo’s famous anatomical drawing of a couple in coition, show above all that there is something that cannot be seen: how love works, which would be the secret of sexuality. This is their critical dimension: they are aimed also at doctors and at everyone to say: the search for the transparency of the body is a phantasm, as there is something that will never be seen, never be known, and thus never be mastered: the sexual relationship. You can X-ray the body, perform autopsies on the body, make it as transparent as you like, but you will never see the secret of the sexual relationship. This is what, after all, finally resists the master’s desire for “things to work.” Expert knowledge breaking its teeth against the sexual relationship might be the title of Wim Delvoye’s series of images.

It is also quite amusing to point out that the first X-ray image made by Röntgen, the inventor of radiography in 1895—the same year when psychoanalysis and the cinema were invented—was the image of his wife’s hand, and what is first seen in it is the black shadow of her marriage band. What the first image of the inside of a woman’s body first shows is the presence of a man, more exactly, a husband—for whom she should have no secrets. No doubt this explains that image. Indeed, one wonders what Röntgen had in mind when he decided to take a radiograph of his wife’s body as the first image. We might say that Wim Delvoye shows what Röntgen had in mind. No dreaming.

The above originally appeared in French [Intime exposé, intime extorqué] in The Symptom 8, 2007.


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