“I touch your mouth. I touch the edge of your mouth with my finger, I am drawing it as if it were something my hand was sketching, as if for the first time your mouth opened a little, and all I have to do is close my eyes to erase it and start all over again, every time I can make the mouth I want appear, the mouth which my hand chooses and sketches on your face, and which by some chance that I do not seek to understand coincides exactly with your mouth which smiles beneath the one my hand is sketching on you.
You look at me, from close up you look at me, closer and closer and then we play cyclops, we look closer and closer at one another and our eyes get larger, they come closer, they merge into one and the two cyclopes look at each other, blending as they breathe, our mouths touch and struggle in gentle warmth, biting each other with theirlips, barely holding their tongues on their teeth, playing in corners where a heavy air comes and goes with an old perfume and a silence.
Then my hands go to sink into your hair, to cherish slowly the depth of your hair while we kiss as if our mouths were filled with flowers or with fish, with lively movements and dark fragrances. And if we bite each other the pain is sweet, and if we smother each other in a brief and terrible sucking in together of our breaths, that momentary death is beautiful. And there is but one saliva and one flavour of ripe fruit, and I feel you tremble against me like a moon on the water.”
(Julio Cortàzar, Hopscotch).
I read this narrative as a moment in time, enshrining what might be called being ‘in the grip of desire’.
It is a quality of time that can’t bear its accomplishment, a time holding – or we might say hosting – a longing to be-longer. Or rather, to stand, still.
I propose to think about desire as an affect-in-time that never comes to fulfilment, and therefore is always already fulfilled, as an endless preparation for something that does not come, or that came, already. An endless non-accomplishment.
Indeed, the very etymology of the word longing suggests the archiving of the duration of an affect, the affect for a particular time that is projected toward futurity, while being nourished by a perception rooted in an occurrence, in a circumstance in time.
Like a hand tracing the borders of a mouth, or finding their traces again and again, right before they could possibly disappear, right after tracing them, again.
In her beautiful book entitled On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection Susan Stewart posits longing as a desire for memorability, a yearning for what she calls ‘narrative’, defined first of all as a ‘structure of desire’, something that both invents and distantiates its object.
“The location of desire, or more particularly, the direction of force in the desiring narrative, is always a future-past, a deferment of experience in the direction of origin and thus eschaton, the point where narrative begins/ends, both engendering and transcending the relation between materiality and meaning.”1
But how could the location of an affect possibly be a future-past? What kind of memorability does longing long for? It’s the memorability of time itself, the desire to have this time return, as if for the first time, as if it had no origin, no development, no succession. The time of desire, in a way, coincides with its very location. It is the place where affect is deposited. But this place seems to coincide with time. To desire, more than anything else, means to be in time. Or for that matter, out of time. The location of desire, in fact, is neither accountable as time or space, but as a tension between them. This is the meaning, in my understanding, of the expression ‘being in the grip’.
The ‘grip’ makes literal the metaphor of a body’s touch: it is the grasp, the squeeze or the pang felt on one’s body. It is a feeling that may endure, but which cannot bear its fulfilment. Because its fulfilment could be fatal. Sticking to the literality of the figure, two hands tightening around a neck for too long will eventually cause suffering and death. Death would occur, so to speak, as the grip grows in intensity, as if it were to develop through a succession of states, leading to what might be called, eventually, ‘an act’. However, the grip as such can neither be, nor be generated; nor can it lead to an act.
At the same time, the grip is not a ‘location’ (it is not just the point where the body is touched), nor is it an instant (the moment when the grip is felt).
The grip is where the longing inhabits time.
I consider the grip as the figure of an affect escaping any relation of causality either with what has happened or what will happen afterwards. It is a figure of suspension, in which desire is condensed between the two poles of its semantic attraction: the emotion, and the attachment.
This very figure in fact seems to hold still the centrifugal force resting at the core of the word emotion, etymologically derived from the Latin emovere, composed from the verb movere and the particle e, pointing ‘away’, designating a trajectory of perennial escape. Likewise, the grip retains an attachment which seems to abandon the notion of ‘arrest’, as well as the idea of propriety, that marked the origin of its semantic domain.
As Sara Ahmed has suggested, reflecting on the sort of connection opened up by the relation between these two terms:
“What moves us, what makes us feel, is also that which holds us in place, or gives us a dwelling place. Hence movement does not cut the body off from the ‘where’ of its inhabitance, but connects bodies to other bodies: attachment takes place through movement, through being moved by the proximity of others.”2
The only possibility for desire to endure, it seems, would be to allow the grip to stand still, to be in tension before fulfilment, forgetful of a future, memorable of its own being. Forgetful of the possibility of accomplishment, of ‘production’, or ‘re-production’. Deferring – as Susan Stewart suggests – both experience and eschaton, and therefore escaping the ‘progressive work’ of meaning. Tearing off telos from the horizon of desire.
I think about the labour of desire as the mode of engagement with this time, the longing to inhabit the grip. Desire archives this time for future recovery, or for future discovery. The location of desire is both future and past precisely because there is a tension between them – between the time that was before, and the future longing for it – the memory of desire itself.
Accordingly, longing can be considered the foundation of any narrative which is not only ‘a structure of desire’ – to borrow Stewart’s words – but a mode of desire. As it were, the mode of production of desire. However, if the possibility for desire to endure is precisely that it avoid its accomplishment, the narrative of longing does not work to produce the ‘meaning’ of desire, but its endurance, its deferment.
I call the labour of desire – the narrative mode of (a)production allowed in the time/space of the grip – foreplay.
By ‘foreplay’, I mean an a-teleological mode of engagement which eternally anticipates and postpones production (either sexual, semantic or economic), and in so doing stands as an endless prologue, always ‘preceding’ an activity which never gets to take place. Foreplay – in sexual terminology the labour of desire, not necessarily leading to an accomplishment – is both the projection towards a future play, and the longing for the play that was before, the previous time in which desire ‘took place’. It is a deferment of accomplishment for desire itself.
Foreplay is therefore not a potential orgasm, as it denies orgasm’s own status as an act generated by desire. It denies a chronological course in the desiring force, it questions the possibility of positing desire as a vector towards its actualization. It is rather sheer potentiality of desire, the potentiality of a desire that is capable of retaining its memory, allowing the grip to stand still. Anticipating its actuality, foreplay makes it possible for the body to welcome the grip in lightness.
The labour of desire that we called foreplay is also a peculiar form of resistance. Its peculiarity lies in the fact that whereas the literality of the word ‘resistance’ would convey a friction, here we are imagining the endurance of a tension that is always deferring this very idea. The resistance of desire is rather the prerogative of permanence, so that both (e)motion and attachment might dwell together in time. So that if “we smother each other in a brief and terrible sucking in together of our breaths, that momentary death is beautiful.” And the lips, still unsucked in the deadly sucking of the smothering, will keep reappearing, ever again, no longer distinguishable as the presage or the memory of that very pleasure.
1Susan Stewart, On Longing. Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham, Duke University Press, 1993, p.X.
2Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2004, p.11.
Giulia Palladini is a post-doctoral researcher and curator in Performance Studies, currently based in Germany (University of Erfurt). After her PhD (University of Pisa, 2009), she co-directed the Performance Studies international research cluster Affective Archives (Vercelli, November 2010), the lecture series Living Rooms (L’Aquila, October 2011) and she is now completing her first monograph on the 1960s New York underground scene (forthcoming for University of Michigan Press). She is one of the editors of the journal Art’O_cultura e politica delle arti sceniche and has published in several international journals of performance studies and contemporary art. Her current research interests concern performance labor and free time, the archive, and the circulation of affects by means of artistic practice.ladini is a post-doctoral researcher interests concern performance labor and free time, the archive, and the circulation of affects by means of artistic practice.