Sunday, May 26, 2024



“In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lacks the destructive moment, which certifies dialectical thinking, as well as  the experience of the dialectic thinker. It means to increase the treasures that weigh on the back of mankind. But it doesn’t give humanity the power to shake this off, in order to take them in its hands. This is true as well of the socialist educational work at the turn of the century, which took cultural history as its guiding star.”

This passage from Benjamin’s essay on Eduard Fuchs came to my mind as I was reading Mel Gordon’s Horizontal Collaboration, his book about the erotic culture of Paris, which is meant, I think, to be paired with his earlier (cult) book about the erotic culture of Weimar Germany.

Like Fuchs, Gordon is a collector. Nothing brings together cultural history, fetishism and a certain sense of hidden forces like abundantly illustrated books concerning the vintage wanks of yesteryear. But Gordon utterly lacks a dialectical mindset. For him, pleasure is a unified property – not something divided between consumer and worker. Thus, he plunges into the “happy” world of Parisian brothels and comes up with the anecdotes, which take the place of any ethnology.

This is the blind spot of the fetishism that motivates pilling up the “treasures”, whether of cheesecake photos or art objects of a higher order – objects that are so often rooted, in the avant garde visual and literary culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in the same atmosphere of brothels and dance clubs whose photos, placards and anecdotes spill out over Gordon’s pages – but never gets around to the moral intellectual shudder that will free us from these things, so that we can recognize them.

The erotic life, here, is utterly commercial. From the brothel fuck to the photographer to the spectator – for there was as much a market for spectacle as there was for tactile sex – “life” is restricted to what is outside of “normal life”.

In the end, in the late 1960s, the identification of the erotic with a certain marginal spectacle dissolved before the feminist critique, which correctly identified pleasure as a heterogenous and often exploitative property of “liberation.” The revolutionary moment, in the “sexual revolution”, was all too non-dialectical. It was a revolution in the chains of a very bourgeois positivism.

And don’t we all, generation after generation, bear the marks of that lie? We still have not found the open sesame that will give us, at the heart of normativity itself, our happiness back. Instead, we make our separate treaties. It is this, I think, that has disempowered the avant garde in my lifetime.

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