Apr 3, 2014

Patriarchy cannot be Breached: Normalising nudity in a pornified world

China Mievile's The City and The City is a novel whose plot happens in two cities that occupy the same physical space. Interleaved and interwoven - in some places completely separate, in others "cross hatched" so closely that adjacent inch-wide stripes of a street or a park bench belong in two different cultures, economies, nationalities and states - the two enemy city states of Beszel and Ul Quoma jostle for autonomous existence in a double-occupancy street-scape. These two conjoint twins, however, refuse to allow any recognition of their points of intersection. While passing buildings, cars and people from the other city on the street, citizens of both are strictly indoctrinated from birth to Unsee their counterparts, to refuse by force of intellectual will and disciplined inattention to enter into the Other's presence. To do so, even in a moment of fleeting recognition, let alone an open movement, would be to Breach - to commit the worst and most heavily punished crime in either city.

Towards the unravelling of the thick whodunit plot, we are introduced to the possibility of Breaching without moving from the spot. A certain path in a park that is shared by both cities (under different names and for different uses) co-exists equally in both. It is not cross-hatched, but fully shared; while in it, Breach is a matter of nothing but a shift in consciousness; one can illegally cross a heavily militarised border simply by moving one's awareness from Beszel to Ul Quoma or vice versa.

When I look at, and read about, the #normalisingnudity hashtag on Twitter (warning: some very, very nasty trolls have invaded the tag and are spamming it with extremely disturbing imagery. Use caution when investigating), I think of Breach, the possibility of moving between two world simply by willing the transition.

The idea of #normalisenudity is not much different from mid-20th century Naturism: to reassert the unclothed human body as a thing that transcends sexualisation, shame and desire, but is rather an everyday thing, a vessel, tool or object that everyone possesses and has equal rights to the enjoyment and use of. This is not in itself controversial, except inasmuch as religious doctrines that fear and hide the body under mantles of modesty and godliness would probably object to the view of naked human bodies in principle.

What's more controversial about the idea of #normalisenudity in the current climate is not the nudity it seeks to increase, but whose nudity it tries to reassert the normality of. Nudity as such is something we are, if anything, awash in: one cannot enter a newsagent or watch a movie without being flooded by more images of nudity than in a shower room with floor to ceiling mirrors. But the nude bodies we are almost battered with are very particular kinds of bodies: predominantly female, overwhelmingly young, almost universally hairless, thin, healthy and unblemished, as well as, of course, mostly white. To reclaim the right of other, not-patriarchy approved bodies of being seen int he public sphere would be nice work, if you could get it.

But you can't. It is not possible in our world to Breach into a reality in which a naked nipple means anything other than sexual object for (straight) male gratification. The semiotics of breasts, vulvas and penises in a culture quite as belligerently pornified as ours is too rigidly fixed to be tampered with; no amount of posting photos on Twitter can shift the meaning now. The Signified of the body, and especially the female body, is policed with at least as much vehemence in our world as the Unseeing of Beszel and Ul Quoma is policed in their own. It would take a thoroughgoing political, cultural and economic revolution to women's nakedness from male desire - trying to achieve that revolution by insisting that people See our bodies as we want them seen is a recipe for frustration.

We cannot expect the pedestrians of Porn Boulevard to see our Empowerment Street road markings. The worlds - that of patriarchy and that of feminism - are too rigidly separated, too violently border-patrolled, too deeply ingrained in people. Posting a naked selfie on the internet can have only one meaning in the semiotics of patriarchy, and that meaning is exhibitionism. I applaud the efforts of some women and men to get out from under that language, but they can't. And sadly, their attempts will bring the likes of hateful 4Chan trolls down on their heads.

Empowerment cannot lead to revolution; without revolution empowerment is illusory. True empowerment of the female authentic material reality is the end goal of, and not a tool towards, feminist liberation.