The author, inspired by ever more common movie scenes featuring a woman urinating, develops a number of considerations connecting a particular type of so-called post-modern aesthetics of transparency (“showing all”) with the scientific ideal of objectivity. What he calls “porno-objective distancing” is asserting itself in various art forms and has contributed to modifying the corporeal image of woman, tearing it away from the centuries-old tradition of the sublime womanly body.
I have been particularly struck in recent years by the many movies with scenes which show women taking a pee. In European films with artistic or existential ambitions, a scene featuring a woman urinating has practically become a prerequisite, a bit like the Indians attacking a stagecoach in classic Westerns or the preparation and throwing of petrol bombs in late 60s protest films. Every aesthetic era has its clichés, fads and quirks, but I can’t help wondering why, in these times dominated by worldwide conflict between Judeo-Christian powers and radical Islam, and by American unilateralism, so many film directors, male and female, attach so much importance to these toilet scenes.
These scenes are pretty standardized: the lady, usually before another person with whom she has a more or less intimate relationship, squats onto the toilet seat, we hear her urinate, she tears off one or two sheets of toilet paper, cleans her vulva and finally flushes the toilet. All this happens in real time and usually without any credible connection to the plot of the film.
Scenes of men peeing in movies has been acceptable for some time, and comes across as less erotic and less obscene than female urination. The peak was reached with The Little Devil (1988), wherein Roberto Benigni is a lively little demon with an angelic candor who has slipped in among human beings. In a scene reminiscent of Rabelais, the devil Benigni mimics men peeing, but his pee jets out as if from a hosepipe, flooding everything around him. A man urinating in the movies connotes male pride, impudence and arrogance, a statement to the world of his aggressive or sarcastic superiority. My impression, on the other hand, is that female urination in movies connotes an (unavowable) inferiority of women: “We are creatures forced to pee this way!” is what these not too positive heroines of post-feminist cinema seem to be saying. Perhaps the passage to the cinematic pleasure of womanly pissing should be taken as a sign of the times we live in, as part of our Zeitgeist. But, indeed, what times do we live in?
Is early 21st-century Western aesthetics turning towards realism, or even hyperrealism? These scenes of evacuation could in fact be appreciated as props to give some flavor of the real, a little like 17th century Flemish and Dutch genre painting, which paid so much attention to humble details, to shameless “creaturality”, to domestic atmospheres that smell of soup boiling in the kitchen, grease and human breath. But realism is a vague term and one that may refer to entirely different representational projects.
So-called post-modern aesthetics, which has prevailed in the West over the last twenty years or so, is based on a drastic principle: to show everything that had previously been veiled. Everything must be transparent, the inner and the intimate must be externalized, the private world must be turned inside out like a glove for the world to see. It is along these lines that Paris’ famous Centre Pompidou, designed by Piano and Rogers, represented a crucial turning point. The building famously exhibits all those pipes, cables and wires that architecture had for centuries hidden behind the walls, but that here animate a multicolored decorative festival. The Beaubourg Centre is like a human body which is no longer enveloped in the veil of decency that is the skin, but rather looks like something eviscerated for an anatomy lesson. This exhibitionism of internal conduits has also influenced home interiors. The kitchen, far from being hidden to profane eyes, tends more and more to spread its legs wide open to the living rooms or lounges of which it is now an integral part. The secularized chef allows himself to be seen by peeping guests. And if decency weren’t there to erect a strong stockade, the longing to make even one’s toilet transparent would have already gained ground.
Up until now, the number of previously hidden things which post-modern aesthetics has brought into the open, en plein air, were quite limited:
(a) sex acts and organs,
(b) excremental acts or organs,
(c) our most intimate thoughts, those we would probably never reveal to anyone.
Cinema, like other art forms, tries to use its lynx-like gaze to throw light on these pudenda.
The representation of coitus in cinema has evolved in three phases. Sexual intercourse initially had its signifier in the kiss: a close-up of a couple kissing fondly was followed by a fade out—a representation of sexual intercourse through its antefact. Later cinema represented the same thing through its postfact, showing a couple lying spent in bed. But today coitus, including homosexual coitus, is represented on the spot: the actors simulate it—or is it for real? The doubt is always there. But unless it is a pornographic film, it will never show an erect penis or a “gaping” vagina. It’s worth noting, however, that the film representation of coitus can never go on too long, it is always a hurried orgasm—I wonder if, in a spirit of emulation, today’s adolescents aren’t pushed towards ejaculatio praecox.
But why is it so important today to show these ever so private acts? Obviously because people like to see them. Hence the metaphysically terrible fatal question: are we interested in seeing them because they are usually concealed, or are they concealed because we’re interested in seeing them? Indeed, everything that is veiled excites our desire to see it. For example, the representation of defecation still remains quite forbidden (aesthetically, not politically). There’s no shame, however, in showing male or female urination, ejaculations or menstrual blood. Because, in seeing all these forms of excrementation, we the viewers enjoy our fullest visual power. After all, the arts, and cinema in particular, seduce us by giving an illusion of power: they show us places or historical periods we have never seen and never will, catastrophes we will (probably) never witness, and corporeal acts that no one, except our partner, would allow us to watch. Cinema today acclaims the Will for Power of even the last small-town humble spectator. After all, as we’ve already pointed out, the woman who urinates in a film does so in front of someone else—we gatecrash the scene of two people’s intimacy without being seen, we’re like voyeurs in top gear, very powerful voyeurs indeed.
For this reason the porn movie—which over the last 30 years has become a stable consumer product in the private life of many a family—far from occupying a marginal position in modern aesthetics, like a kind of household appliance, is in some ways the quintessence of this aesthetics. There are of course various types of porn, from low porn to one appealing to a more sophisticated consumer. But I don’t think porn is like the flux of a river overflowing in the valley after the damns of censorship have been raised: the prosperity of “blue movies” is rather a mark of the moral triumph of the Enlightenment. Porn gives shape to the need to bring out everything that’s secret, ineffable, invisible, mysterious—everything, in other words, that’s sacred, in order for it to be seen from the clear, neutral, articulated, public and rational scientific point of view. This, in the case of sex, is the anatomical point of view.
Our post-modern realism is not—as realism used to be—sociological: it is anatomical. It is not the realism of historical materialism or of positivist sociology, nor the realism of Emile Zola or De Sica’s “neorealist” movies, but rather that of modern science scrutinizing the intimacy of matter and life. In the same way that science concentrates more and more on the elementary and the infinitesimal—sub-atomic particles, quarks, cells, chromosomes, genes, cytoplasms, synapses, nanoseconds, and so on—our aesthetics too concentrates on the elementary. It is a realism of the body and the flesh, not of the social context. It is gynecological or andrological realism: analytic, not synthetic.
Thus many praise the brazenness of contemporary aesthetics in the name of an enlightened mission of transparency and authenticity. For centuries hypocritical euphemism, the obscurantist veil, has ruled over the crude truth of things: today, at last, the palpable body is bared in the flash of reason that shrinks away from any shadow. (Yet the Enlightenment, precisely insofar as it throws light upon dark and secret aspects, fails to realize that it blindly throws so many other things into the shade.)
This passion for the anatomical doesn’t stop short at the cinema for the masses, it also fascinates art movie directors and cinephiles. A prime example is Catherine Breillat’s Anatomie de l’enfer (2004). In a darkly romantic Portugal, a woman makes an offer to a gay man (played by porno star Rocco Siffredi) to spend four nights “discovering” the female body: he accepts and for each of these nights observes and manipulates our naked heroine. Dialogues and screenplay are absolutely unrealistic, almost metaphysical. The two leading actors talk the way poets or philosophers write. But the images are anatomical, almost like a gynecology text book. Just as a corpse would be dissected and observed under formalin in a morgue, our hero scrutinizes and palpates the feminine parts, apparently for his first time. The vulva, menstrual blood, tampons, pubic hair, the anus, sperm leaking from the vagina, he touches everything with horrified curiosity. In the end, this gay man falls in love with his female “sample”: but one wonders whether he doesn’t actually fall in love with this autopsy-like hubris.
In the novel Les particules élémentaires (1998), Michel Houellebecq tells the story of two misfit half-brothers. The first, Michel, a scientist tipped for the Nobel Prize whose life is almost devoid of a sexual or emotional life, is practically autistic: for him everything, even subjectivity, must be looked at objectively through scientific theories and protocols. Conversely the other, Bruno, is obsessed by women; he is a wino endlessly in search of sexual adventures that always more or less leave him with a broken neck. In the end he even ends up in a psychiatric clinic. Bruno recounts to his brother in a detached, almost neutral, tone his erotic undertakings and disasters with prostitutes, swingers, bedeviled nymphomaniacs, in clubs for group sex games, in New Age sex tourist camps and so on. Houellebecq seems to have split between the two brothers, who are only apparently opposites, the binding unity of being-in-the-world that I would call porno-objective distancing. The combinational variations in the cold use of other people’s or one’s own mucosae seem to paint a fresco of the distressing anxiety of living in an age dominated by techno-sciences.
If contemporary aesthetics expresses the ideal of followers of scientism that dominates us, why do we find this indulgence in female urination only now? It seems to me that these representations of women peeing reveal all their impotence. In other words, the power that’s promised to spectators today, both female and male, is to finally reveal female impotence. My impression is that in representing the low functions of the female body film-makers wish to disillusion it.
From the days of medieval courtly love, of the troubadours and poets like Dante up to the present day, the female body has for centuries been transfigured, spiritualized and sublimed by the male Eros in literature and the plastic arts. In woman, sensible gracefulness achieved intelligible exhilaration: loveable femininity exceptionally combined the opposites of Christian metaphysics. Today, the project of making the two sexes uniform is seemingly having the paradoxical side-effect of making us linger in amazement over the radical difference of the female gender. Yet this finicky anatomical insistence on feminine difference leads not to its exaltation—it has been exalted for too many centuries—but to revealing its fragility, its blemishes. Victor Hugo wrote that a naked woman is an armed woman—today, with anatomical realism, a naked woman becomes an irretrievably disarmed woman. Women’s bodies today have become undeified, bourgeois, allowing them to express through the cinema something that up to now—because protected by Christian morals regarding the erotic—they had never been able to confide: a certain feeling of shame or even repulsion towards the impotent side of her body, which as we know so well, gives her so much power over men of power. Recent films show a certain growing compassion, or even disgust, towards the female “intimate”—what until recently would have been a heresy to express. Having denounced for so long the prejudices that regarded them as socially and intellectually inferior, it is as though women today want more than ever to confide a feeling of inferiority about their bodies, a consideration that up until recently would have been unacceptable.