June 10th, 2005


Museums are better than clubs

This week Hisae and I have a friend from Japan, Yukiko Sawabe, staying with us. I'm working with Yukiko on incidental music for an art project she's doing on the Grimm fairy tale Allerleirauh, part of the "Catskin Cinderella" series of folktales based on "desublimation": the overcoming of the incest taboo, and the expression of sexual love between fathers and daughters. "Allerleirauh" is the story of a princess who marries her own father; by disguising herself as a "hairy animal" she both attempts to escape his advances, and turns herself into another girl in order to accept them.

We've been showing Yukiko around Berlin—it's her first time in Germany, her first trip to Europe, in fact—and it's become a running joke that we're "repressing Germany". We eat in Japanese restaurants, shop in Thai supermarkets, and visit Oriental Museums. When Yukiko goes back to Tokyo and people ask her what Germany was like, she'll have to tell them "Well, the food in Germany is Asian food, the museums show Asian art, and the supermarket has sukiyaki sauce and frozen Thai fish."

Sure, we're sublimating Germany. The thing about sublimation, though, is that the things banished from consciousness tend to end up somewhere else, unexpectedly. Yukiko will have lots of opportunities to investigate the soul of Germany when she gets back to Tokyo, thanks to Deutschland in Japan, a big German culture festival that's going on all year. It's quite emptied this country of its cultural actors... I mean, if DJ Hell is over in Japan, what the hell's left, right?

This curious phenomenon—the fact that there almost seems to be more Japan in Germany than there is in Japan, and more Germany in Japan than there is in Germany—is an aspect of globalisation, but it's interesting to think of it as a form of sublimation. Sublimation is the psychoanalytical term for a redirection of pleasurable energies, but it also contains the idea of the sublime, and what are cultural goods but incarnations of the sublime? So when cultural goods are redirected to another part of the world, they're "sublimated"; they're pleasures barred and banned from local consciousness, popping up unexpectedly thousands of miles away in a surprising new context.

If Yukiko's friends ask her about the famous Berlin nightlife, she won't have much to say: we're not very fond, to be honest, of lingering in smoky bars where people drink and gabble and listen (or rather, don't listen) to music picked by some hapless DJ, even DJ Hell. In fact, for me Berlin nightlife is exactly a sort of "DJ Hell", where people stand around smoking as if their lives depended on it (rather than their deaths), not-listening to really bad house music. This is what passes for pleasure, but it's always seemed a peculiarly joyless activity to me. As Y, H and I walked around the vast, empty and gorgeous ethnological museums out at Dahlem yesterday I was in ecstasy at the Apollonian grandeur of it all, the sensual coldness of the endless succession of rooms, vitrines, dead cultures on parade. "Museums are so much more fun than clubs!" I thought. I remembered how, when I first moved to London, I spent most of my spare time at the British Museum, even doing my music press interviews there.

"An intellectual is someone who's found something to think about more interesting than sex", said one wag. That's true, but you can also make the case that museums are sexier than clubs, just as the Grimms' Allerleirauh story is, in its disturbing way, sexier than a lingerie poster or a pouty pop video. Museums might be a frosty sublimation of sex, but they're full of it, from the naked statues to the tribal photographs of bare-breasted women, voodoo totems, Indian erotic miniatures... What's more, museums challenge our own sublimation: their deadness awakens us to our own. They force us to confront other cultures and the very different ways they codified sex. Like a tale by the Brothers Grimm, the results are often shocking. Sublimation is a lot to do with mental habit: we're so used to the ways that sex is likely to be thrown at us in our own culture that we're ready with blocking tactics should the need arise to resist or sublimate it. For instance, if we're passing a sexy lingerie ad in the subway we don't particularly want to embarrass ourselves by falling to our knees in front of it and masturbating furiously. We need to go to work, so we sublimate. Not right now, Dionysus, maybe see you tonight at the club! But what if Dionysus doesn't go to clubs? What if he lives in a museum?

Herbert Marcuse had a nice idea he called repressive desublimation. His theory (in Eros and Civilization) was that to sublimate was to concentrate on the elevated, the lofty, the sublime, "to transform sexual or other biological impulses to more refined forms such as the pursuit of learning or artistic creation. To desublimate, then, would be to return energy lodged in refined forms to the level of its more immediate, sensuous (i.e., of the senses) impulse.  In other writings Marcuse argued that the increasing acceptance of open sexuality in modern culture was not truly liberating but only a way of offering people (in fact or in their fantasy) a very immediate pleasure that would divert them from challenging the more widespread and enduring denial of pleasure in repressive routines of everyday life (alienating work, subordination to exploitative authority, etc.)."

A walk around a good museum shows you, well, not so much "human universals" as the shockingly diverse and perverse ways different cultures (or even our own at different times) have partitioned work from play, business from pleasure, and totem from taboo. When you see photos of barebreasted tribeswomen, for instance, you have to ask "Is the fact that we now regard barebreastedness as obscene and ban it in public a sign that we love or hate femininity? Would a West in which women walked around barebreasted be a better or a worse West? By hiding breasts, do we sexualize or desexualize them? By showing them, would we sexualize or desexualize women? Is our breastfear womanlove? Would naked breasts in public wreak havoc with sublimation, throwing the working day into chaos? Why are women's nipples considered sexy, and men's nipples not? (Unless you're Hisae, who has a fetish about them)?" And so on.

Museum questions like these are a lot more interesting than pub conversation, and museums, where barebreasted women dance in ethnographic films and Indian carvings copulate, really are sexier than clubs. I guess the corollary of Marcuse's "repressive desublimation" would be something like "liberating sublimation" — a pretty good description of a trip to a museum. And you never know, Dionysus himself may well be waiting around the next corner, a stone wink frozen on his face.