This article was written on 03 Jan 2014, and is filled under Sexualities.

Statement of Intent: Pluralizing Sexuality

Hirschfeld in Mein Gedächtnis beobachtet mich

Costumes and poses. A constellation of touches develops between hands, shoulders, and laps. Silhouetted, a latecomer to the party masks one of his fellow guests.

The image is a still from Eva Meyer and Eran Schaerf’s film Mein Gedächtnis beobachtet mich, or My Memory Observes Me. It shows the silhouette of Magnus Hirschfeld (played by Henry Sussman) holding a mask over the eyes of the historical Magnus Hirschfeld, captured here in a photograph of a social gathering at his Institute for Sexual Research (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft).

Beginning to think about sexualities, we are interested in the diverse relational modes suggested in this scene.

We note, in the first place, the epistemological relations at work here. Hirschfeld and his colleagues at the Institute insisted on developing a science of sexuality by carefully observing and documenting sex. Here, Hirschfeld’s double appears to observe the observers. Masking the pioneering sexologist, the silhouette allegorizes and complicates this game of knowledge. The title “researcher” can itself act as a kind of mask, a persona. One can seek cover behind the mask of the researcher, but the mask also draws attention. A discovery, perhaps especially about sex, can be exciting, titillating, sexy – like a mask. Like a mask, knowledge, perhaps especially about sex, can also get in the way. As relations of knower and known switch and multiply, we, the viewers, take it all in.

We also note the presence of an aesthetic relationality, in Leo Bersani’s sense of a communication among forms. These relations are not quite expressions of personality.  Here, personality is erased, rather than manifested, through bodily extension: the silhouette lacks clear features, masks the face of the historical Hirschfeld, and completely obscures the image of another guest. The scene’s aesthetic relationality is impersonal, as body parts woven together escape the organization of meaning based on the organism and form new, more sociable units. The hand on the shoulder of the historical Hirschfeld extends, through his arm reaching, to the person in front of him, while the black and white arm to the left of the silhouette has sprouted a hand at each end. The cluster of heads around the Hirschfeld silhouette and the line of masked heads in the bottom right corner stretch out like new limbs. Objects in the vicinity seem to join in the fun: the wall also wears a mask and even the bottle strikes a pose. If sex often involves a decomposition of human individuality opening onto the non-human, we might even say we are witnessing a kind of sex scene.

We also note a transpersonal relationality in this scene. Hirschfeld’s subjectivity is at least doubled, traveling between his image and his silhouette. The relation between image and silhouette is not an inside manifesting outside so much as a change in form: a transformation and not an expression. This transit across identities befits its subject(s): after experimenting with the terms sexuelle Zwischenstufen (sexual intermediaries) and Geschlechtsübergänge (sexual transitions), Hirschfeld also coined the terms transvestism (Transvestitismus) and transsexualism (Transsexualismus). The first thoroughly documented male-to-female sex reassignment surgery was performed in the Institute, initiating a series of such surgeries there, and Hirschfeld negotiated with the Berlin police and judiciary to loosen regulations for “transvestites.” If sex acts can be transporting – can bring subjects beside themselves – the classification of sex has its own dynamic.

Finally, we note the relationality across time moving in this image. Meyer and Schaerf explore how layers of history, reception, and memory multiply the identity of a person. The film’s title, for example, casts the memory of Hirschfeld as at least doubled. We can read the genitive as subjective and as objective. “My Memory” might refer to Hirschfeld’s memory of his own life and work or to our memory of him. In either case, we read the silhouette as a figure for the memory of Magnus Hirschfeld, observing the scene across a temporal lag. With Hirschfeld, this lag involves violence and destruction. In 1933, the National Socialists destroyed his institute as he was away on a lecture tour. When he came back, much of his own memory – his research archive – was gone. But address lists seized from the archive might have aided the Nazis in their persecution of homosexuals. What kind of shadow does a memory cast? Does the shadow on the image appear from out of a previous or a subsequent time? Is it a flashback or a flashforward? Unconcerned with these disturbing complexities, the figures in the photograph embrace this traveler from another time. The one to his left gives him a full body hug, while being quite nonchalant with his own cigarette.

We (Katrin and Nathan) do not live in 1920s Berlin. But we also cannot deny our complex entanglements with these and other past sexualities. More than ever, we are moved by Jose Esteban Muñoz’s call to “strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there,” his longing for “a backward glance that enacts a future vision.” In the United States at the beginning of 2014, the politics of sexuality seem shifty, uncertain, and precarious, as post-Stonewall insurgency gives way to post-Windsor entrenchment, as queer theory advances into its second decade, and as a new series of restrictions on reproductive freedom have rendered feminism freshly audible in mainstream discourse. Our sense is that the politics of sexuality seem equally shifty, uncertain, and precarious in many other parts of the planet. Amid the sexual transformations and transitions of the present moment, what marks have been left behind, and what histories can be traced in them? Among the signs of what has come before, what will linger, what will become transformed, what will soon be tossed aside?

More familiar stories about sexuality are certainly also captured in the film still. Hirschfeld’s work was central to the creation of “homosexuality” as an identity category, and his Jewish background a crucial part of his persecution under National Socialism. One could certainly also talk about love at the Institute. But we value that the photograph shows such love less in the expression of faces than in the constellation of touches. Sparked by the sorts of relations traced above, we hope this blog can be a space to think sexualities beyond familiar identity categories and beyond the expression of interiority. We hope to contribute to expanding the range and registers of relations covered by the label “sexuality.”

We seek analyses, to be published here, that allow for ambiguity and the overlap of contradictory pulls. We seek contributions that deemphasize rote notions of identity in favor of considerations of sexual feelings, practices, and sensibilities. We seek experiments in imagining, thinking, and realizing pleasure and displeasure, desire and revulsion, ecstasy and abjection. These experiences of sexuality cannot be located inside one person nor reduced to one preference. As we read it, the plural of our heading – Sexualities – thus refers to the multiple ways each of us live, experience, ignore, or avoid but, in any case, are traversed by erotic forces. We welcome and encourage contributions to this blog that explore the multiplicity of sexualities and the ways sexualities intersect with other forces.

With history, for example: we want to know how legacies of political violence become sedimented in sexual choices and practices across generations (a question very different from the issue of sexual violence used for political aims).

With economy: although we are wary of promises of ever-stronger, freer, more unusual sex lives (which often feel more like requirements), we also wonder how sexuality might create a time and a space where play can do more than provide momentary relief from the demands of capital.

With colonialism, post-colonialism, and neo-colonialism: we hope to report on new forms of life emerging as intimacies, desires, identities, and bodies travel between disparate geographic locations along circuits shaped by histories of exploitation.

With gender: we want to explore the rich resources for thinking sexual practice and experience provided by the various “waves” of our feminist past, and by the continued reverberation of those waves (and new, still nascent feminisms) within our present.

With intellectual curiosity: we wonder, at the end of the day, about what the status of all this wondering about sex might be, and how we might now be guided by and beyond the analyses of Michel Foucault, Jean Laplanche, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as we explore knowledge of (and as) sexual knowledge.

– Katrin Pahl and Nathan Gies

(Image of Magnus Hirschfeld in Mein Gedächtnis beobachtet mich used with permission of the filmmakers.)

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