Édouard Levé – A Night at the Strip Club

•October 26, 2012 • 2 Comments

Given recent interest in the work of French writer, photographer and artist Édouard Levé and the acclaim which followed the publication of his Suicide (Dalkey 2011) last year, I thought I’d share this. It’s my translation of short piece by Levé called “Un Soir au Strip-Tease,” which was originally published in Mouvement: l’indisciplinaire des arts vivants from early 2007.

 A Night at the Strip Club

Y., a dancer who acted in my piece Pornographie suggested that I come to see her some evening at her day-job, the S. She worked as a stripper there. Being interested in the swinging scene a few years ago and having visited Les Chandelles, l’Overside and the Pluriel Club for research, I decided to accept her invitation, hoping that this spectacle would turn up a readymade I could one day recycle in my art.

The S. can be found in the 17ème arrondissement, not far from Porte Maillot. The entrance looks like that of a New York nightclub from the 50s, but erected upon the dull [terne] Avenue des Ternes. Two colossal guardians are planted outside the door like the obligatory accoutrements of somewhere that wants to appear exclusive: considering the ease with which the gentlemen in front of me enter, I gather that their purpose is purely decorative, like the red cord which hangs between two gilded metal posts. We leave our clothing in the great foyer, presided over by men the size of wrestlers. Taking the stairs down, we spill out onto a bar. This is what the S’s website says: “Upon purple walls and absinthe-coloured stairs which lead down to the main room, a patchwork of fans offer a foretaste of the venue’s subtle tones. A few steps beyond, the cabaret exhales the aroma of the boudoir, reminiscent of Shanghai in the 20s. Bathed in distressed reds and gold, the sofas all bear different motifs and details, harmonizing perfectly with the fabrics, curtains, and the orgue à parfums, an illuminated array of bottles containing every sort of feminine accessory.” It takes some imagining. 260 seats are available for patrons. There are no female patrons here. The only women are waitresses and dancers. The latter are distributed between two or three podiums spread out across a huge room, where low ceilings try in vain to create some intimacy. The dancers follow, one after another, onto the podiums, from the center of which protrudes a metal pole which they hold, around which they wind and from which they dangle themselves. This accessory is necessary for the choreography but above all serves to flatter the ego of the spectators who take it for their penis: the size, hardness, and brilliance calls to mind their wildest dreams.

I write “dancers” rather than “strippers,” because it seems to me that a stripper disrobes slowly, and the act’s appeal lies in the suspense of a gradual unveiling. Here, however, the dancers appear in g-string and bra, and it takes at most a few seconds until they remove the top part. For the bottom, one must go into a room at the back, where one gets full nudity either in public or in a private lounge. In the largest room, a “modesty” seems to persist.

I seat myself in front of a podium, and behold an enormous woman. It’s perhaps an effect of the low angle: the podium rises far above seated spectators. She gives herself over to a fixed routine. She turns around the bar, hangs there by her arms or her legs, rubs herself against the immense cock, sways obscenely, dances a little looking a spectator in the eye and leaves. The operation lasts five minutes. A moment’s beat and another one takes up the baton, offering pretty much the same choreography. The aim of this show is to whet the appetites of spectators and entice them to get themselves a personal “striptease.” For a few ten euro notes, the client can ask the stripper to give him a dance up close. She then contorts herself a few centimetres away from him, caresses his face with long hair that she flicks at him while she bends in his direction, before straightening up all of a sudden. The tresses follow. Her breasts bounce and shake at eye level. Some dancers have the chests of professional wet nurses. Their breasts enclose the client’s face. I admire the precision of the ordeal, as never does a nipple make contact with the face. Yet it is a few millimetres away. The dancer doesn’t touch the client, who is not allowed to touch her. Everything happens in this suspense and this distance, especially as the scene is played out in public in front of friends or colleagues from the office. One doesn’t come here alone. This is the paradox of the S.: we have come here together to enjoy a show we would rather be conducted in private.

For a heftier sum, one may also ask a dancer for a performance in a private room. Private? I suppose. The room is illuminated by weak light. Some one-person tables have been set up; a half-dozen dancer/client couples are busying themselves at the same time. The dancer does pretty much the same work as in the main room, but out of the salacious eye of the public. Main purpose of the procedure: the client can triumphantly return to the table as if he had conquered the dancer and, for his colleagues’ benefit , make up what could have happened in the mysterious room.

Like VIP rooms that have now become widespread at professional events and selected attractions, the interest lies not in that to which we have access, but on the contrary, that which we are denied. It’s better to fantasise about these rooms than get into them: they are “de-phantasmagoric” sites.

As for dance: would the S benefit from the guidance of some choreographers? You can believe it, judging by the mediocrity on offer. But is inventiveness compatible with arousal? I asked myself this question during my research into pornography. I had the greatest difficulty finding inventive examples. Pornography is pavlovian: desire is roused by a coarse rod. We need to see sex, not art. Ideas and their expression are dislodged; our attention is turned away, toward the physical shape. Yet what is interesting about pornography is its substance – depth, even. Striptease adheres to the same specific codes as pornography.

But it’s more puritan. It is only the first step towards mental adultery. Does one cheat on one’s wife while masturbating in front of an image? You would have to ask a priest. Anyway, at the S. you’re definitely not cheating on anyone. Nothing is consummated, no substance discharged. There are witnesses, colleagues or friends. We touch only with our eyes. Honour is intact. One may return home and relay an account of the evening to one’s wife. Though the S. advertises a Stag Party special on its website, looking around at the assembled clientele, I see the harts of no future husbands. Instead, the crowd comprises forty year old men, in well-made suits, buying themselves a break having signed some contract or other.

Has dance something to learn from striptease? Parody, perhaps. As for what it might appropriate [détournement], however, there isn’t any more to be learned here than in the observation of contemporary gestures: assembly line, telecommuting, or fast food jobs… Striptease is a contemporary phenomenon among others.

I stayed an hour at the S. Y. is the only dancer that bothered me: flat chested, slim, economical not lavish gestures, she hadn’t the same body as her sisters. As she danced above one of the dozen Japanese men seated around an oval table, her distant, almost cold, demeanour frightened me. I forgot to ask what her stage name was. I looked on the website. Amidst the Venuses, Wildwests, Scorpios, Chanels and Bambis, I couldn’t find her.


Back in 5

•August 24, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Schoolboy Errors is on vacation but I’m still blogging over at the new One+One: Filmmakers Journal site. Recent popular posts over there have included One+One editors’ response to Sight and Sound’s top 50 films, an ode to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, and my piece on Ai Weiwei and political dissent. It also features a new column called Eyeblaze. You can also download previous issues of the journal from the last few years for free! Check it out and I’ll see you back here soon.

212 words about Sunn o)))

•June 26, 2012 • 1 Comment

9pm, Sunday 10 June 2012, Brighton UK.

An hour’s anticipation and then, incessant thrum breaks in waves upon bodies too vulnerable not to receive every frequency and modulation. All around, smoke-cataracted sight fosters horripilation, a kind of corporeal tightening and unfolding, buoyed by tidal swells of sound. Faces flushed in distorted sonic undulations until a gradual aural loosening delivers them onto a plane called loud: no more beer stink and cloying aroma of warming, closely packed hair and flesh, but a seeming-infinite auricular space over and under, its edges burred only occasionally by faintly discernible chatter. Otic orientation suggests sheer cavernous walls hewn from vibration; distributed rhythmic textures offer exquisite marbled cornicing, arabesques which bear down from all sides. Sudden whining drone and subsequent alteration in the auditory atmosphere of this palatial shadow-place intimates movement but what towards? Low rolling chants, and voices raised in invocation indicate an inner sanctum. Organic vocals electrocuted and flayed upon a mesh of artificial timbre coil around we, the inhabitants of loud; penetrating whispers knit, incantatory, through consciousnesses already divorced from that and this. A screech high above implies a tear in the sonic fabric, radiating ripples of fear and hinting at the approach of some as-yet-unperceived, immense aural menace.

At which point: you’re lost.

Repost: My doctoral research in plain English

•June 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

For many reasons, usually I try to separate the stuff that goes up on this blog from the work I undertake as part of my doctoral research. However, I recently contributed to the University of Sussex Research Hive‘s “Research in plain English” initiative, where I wrote a brief blog post about my PhD thesis, and thought I might repost it here. Sorry to disappoint those who came here looking for stuff on The Big Lebowski, Claire Danes’ cry face or tattoo ideas (and you are legion!)…

Passionate destruction, passionate creation: art and anarchy in the work of Dennis Cooper

[“The passion for destruction is a creative passion too.” Mikhail Bakunin, On Anarchism]

What is anarchist art? Can an artwork express the convictions of an anarchist artist? Is there a literary form which might be most appropriate to an anarchist writer’s experience of contemporary American society? My PhD thesis tries to answer these questions by considering the role of anarchism in the work of experimental American author Dennis Cooper, locating the evolution of his artistic sensibility within the context of American literary history and anarchist politics in the US.

Cooper is a brilliant and controversial poet, playwright, novelist and blogger whose work is most often associated with 90s “Queercore,” a current of transgressive literature which sought to interrogate conventional taxonomies of sexual identity (gay and straight). Critical assessments of his work, therefore, have largely attempted to determine the primarily sexual politics of his work, e.g. how his writing challenges us to think differently about the way sexual identity is constructed and urges us to consider the implicit connections between sexuality and power. My research builds upon these studies by demonstrating that Cooper’s iconoclastic encounter with the subject of sex is symptomatic of his ongoing adherence to an anarchist critique of contemporary society. His novels, poetry and collaborative theatre, I contend, offer various artistic responses to the multifarious forms of control and domination (sexual, political, technological…) which characterise life in the modern world.

The ideas and arguments my doctoral research engages with are particularly timely, given the recent resurgence of interest in anarchist ideas in the United States, the emergence of quasi-anarchist collectives like “Occupy” across American towns and cities in 2011, and widespread disillusionment with an American political establishment which failed to protect its citizens from the sub-prime mortgage and credit crisis.

Pre-publication notice: One+One Issue 8

•June 12, 2012 • 3 Comments

“I am watching TV5’s coverage of the British Diamond Jubilee – TV screen hatched with red, white and blue diagonals, verticals and horizontals – in the Swiss quadrant of a French airport. Outside the white cross of Switzerland is lazily overlaid now, now… now by the parallel bands of the tricolore. Into this very European lattice, seeps the garbled French of German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld clad in his usual black, I presume (though I can’t see through the televisual grid), swathing an approaching woman in flattery more virginal white than her raiment. Upon a boat she appears, solitary and luminous, set apart from the weave of sodden subjects by the stilly greeny plane of the river Thames over which she glides. The Royal Jubilee bells sound incessantly, signalling her resplendence, as a cash register behind my head rings up fifty-seven francs and fifty-seven cents…”

(from Issue 8’s editorial)

The One+One: Filmmakers Journal editorial team are putting the final touches to our summer issue, which should be coming out very soon. Obliquely confronting the recent royal celebrations, it includes a number of personal reflections on Derek Jarman’s 1978 Jubilee – a madcap film of monarchical time-travel and punk dysphoria produced to coincide with the Silver Jubilee in ’77. It also features an examination of Patrick Keillier‘s work by Paul Barr, who reads Keillier’s explorations of London space-time through Deleuze and Bergson, a new film column by editor James Marcus Tucker, and a report on our “Revolutions in Progress” event in December, which brought together filmmakers, activists and theorists to discuss revolutions in film, on film and by film.

The release of issue 8 will coincide with the relaunch of One+One’s new website which, in addition to a revamped layout (not just go-faster stripes down the side!), will feature an archive of past issues and regularly updated blog, as well as media and discussion areas. We’re really excited about it! More info soon.


Mystical and Macabre in the Midnight Archive

•June 5, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Run in conjunction with Brooklyn’s Observatory (whose seminars on H.P. Lovecraft initially attracted my interest), the Midnight Archive includes a bunch of really interesting short videos on weird, sometimes sepulchral, subjects like the occult history of New York (with Mitch Horowitz), Eastern European bone ossuaries and charnel houses (with Paul Koudouaris), the fantastic automata museum and Ronni Thomas’ collection of macabre stereoscopic slides. They’re all great, fun introductions to the kind of stuff going on at the Observatory and well worth checking out. My favourite is the film below called “A. Head B. Body,” a short documentary on neurosurgeon Dr R.J. White’s head transplants which he performed on apes in the 1970s. Highlights of the film include a sequence in which White talks about the extraction and mechanical maintenance outside the skull of an ape’s brain, the head transplant itself and footage of the Soviet’s two-headed dog.  It is a fascinating subject and a film which, needless to say, arouses a chimera of ideas and responses, some more problematic than others. As someone who cares passionately about the proper treatment of animals, for example, I abhor the nonchalance with which Dr White talks about his subjects and the generalized indifference towards the animals’ suffering in these kind of experiments. However, this is deftly exposed and undermined by the filmmaker, Jim Fields, with some well-placed horror-film synth. The second season of the Midnight Archive is out soon, so keep an eye on their site for more quality videos and, if you’re in Brooklyn, maybe drop by the Observatory and see what they’re up to…


Negative Reviews: Ben Noys’ Persistence of the Negative

•May 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

My review of Ben Noys’ excellent The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory (2010) has (finally) been published in the latest issue of the journal Textual Practice. I imagine some readers of this blog will be aware of Ben’s fascinating, meticulous work in and around the continental tradition of philosophy, and are likely to have previously come across this work, his study of Georges Bataille and his blog, No Useless Leniency. If you don’t know him, however, and you have an interest in recent European philosophy, its fortitude and follies, I strongly urge you to check out this book (which, parenthetically, has recently drawn Slavoj Žižek’s endorsement in his Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism). Persistence is now available in paperback.

In the review itself, in addition to an all-too-brief appraisal of the negative’s function in Ben’s absorbing critique (of Derrida, Deleuze, Negri, Latour and Badiou), I’ve also tried to communicate a modicum of what I perceive to be Ben’s attentiveness to the style of the negative and the ways that his text is consequently fissured with negative moments that are “fragmentary, mobile and mutating.” I also intimate that Ben Noys is continental theory’s Burt Lancaster. Maybe.