The Kiss on the Brink

November 20, 2014

by Nandini Chandra

Ye nautanki band karo (stop this burlesque drama)!
—-Comment on fb Kiss of Love page.

The kiss of love is indeed drama. To give it any other reading would be to miss the point. It is a drama with the partial lineaments of the Brechtian stage. This means that even though the immediate kneejerk response is that of fascination, it thwarts all identification with the actors. It promises eros, but manages to either domesticate the promise of sensuality or turn it into something non-erotic and painful. I am obviously speaking as a spectator, not from any privileged access to the individual experiences of the actors, which may have been full of joy and frisson. KOL has the virtue of what Walter Benjamin called “a moral exhibitionism, that we badly need.” He was of course writing about the surrealists, avant-garde poets whose raison d’être like many of their modernist peers was to produce a salutary shock effect:

To live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue par excellence. It is also an intoxication, a moral exhibitionism, that we badly need. Discretion concerning one’s own existence, once an aristocratic virtue, has become more and more an affair of the petit-bourgeois parvenus.

Life in a glass house has since then come full circle, and acquired a different kind of virtue thanks to global social media, even to the point of banality. The compulsion for self-dramatization and libidinal free play on fb or twitter leaves a gaping hole in what is possible in the real world. KOL is then not some belated eruption of a European modernist moment in the periphery, but an attempt to realize postmodern social media. For one, the absent sexual revolution is always already there in the desultory cityscape or highways, not simply in the enclaves designed to be England or America. These erotogenic public places have existed in popular culture, and they have been inhabited in however unsatisfied and unsatisfactory ways, by working class couples since the beginning of modernity. This waiting for the day when public displays of affection will become acceptable in our part of the world is therefore a new anxiety, and is part of the same complex of desires that wants cities to be cleaned up and look nice.

The moment of liberalization gives some surplus to this always already there sexuality, reconstituting it by pushing the old sexual drives over the brink. This produces an unprecedented dynamic in which we are confronted like never before with the coming together of sexual pleasure and sexual violence. The KOL symbolizes an attempt to split off the two factions into neat oppositions, those for love, and those against love. This way of posing the problem is not their invention for sure. And even the self-appointed moral police, authors of this problem are not convinced of this opposition. We are not against love, but a certain western denomination of it, they clarify meekly.

It turns out that under the bharatiya definition of love, sex is rape. Again and again, in the comments on the fb page of KOL, this link is made unabashedly. This particular equation is not new, but it is able to “come out” and find a legitimate home only in a neoliberal conjuncture, thus making the attempt to separate the two moments of sex and sexual violence seem naïve. In crude terms, when the moral police riots against public displays of love, they are really expressing a form of sexuality as they understand it. Their violence is inseparable from their sexuality and their sexuality is inseparable from their violence. Thus even as the face-off staged by KOL fails to really teach a lesson, it nevertheless succeeds in making visible some of the internal contradictions of our social repression. From the misgivings and fears of the actors, to the fascination and discomfort of the wider social media audience, the drama is marked by alienation as its limiting horizon.

Here are a few cameos gleaned from eavesdropping on various fb posts and looking at the images of the Jhandewalan show in front of the RSS headquarters. A couple of participants had their faces covered. One girl was kissing through a scarf tied over her mouth. Another participant reported that she was afraid that the picture of her kiss with a girlfriend splashed in The Telegraph might catch her middle class parents unawares, and so she called her father to inform him that the kiss was not really full mouth on mouth, that they were just acting. The father of course surprised her by replying: “how does it matter if you did?” The anxiety of germs was apparent in another fb status, which wondered about the day when the spontaneity of such a protest would extend to total strangers, defying the prohibition of caste/class pollution and hygiene standards. More conservative liberal voices expressed their dismay at turning something sacred into a profane act. In short those who did not identify as moral police expressed their sense of unease and internal struggle with the invariable fetishization of something spontaneous.

But beyond the kneejerk sympathizers and squeamish liberals, lies the vast theatre of the moral police. It is here that the real Brechtian alienation effect intensifies, albeit without any seeming promise of truth. Going through the comments on the fb page of KOL is like swimming in a sea of depravity. It is like gaining access to the private diary of a psychopath except that here it speaks in the collective voice of an idealized and repressed national manhood that straddles the precariat-bourgeois man-woman divide. This unity of class and gender forces expresses itself in virulent negativity, as anti-woman, anti-Muslim, anti-communist and anti-gay. But despite the multiple identitarian thrusts of their abuses in truth there is a single logic: the fear and fantasy of incest.

Motherfucker and sisterfucker or their Indian equivalents may be the stuff of a generalized and light-hearted masculine culture almost the world over, yet when these abuses are broken out of their compound formations, and used in simple declarative sentences—“get your mothers and sisters along, fuck your mothers and sisters, we will fuck your mothers for you”— we begin to see that the habitual cuss words take on a life of their own. These ordinary girls and boys who look like their sisters, mothers and brothers provoke an unbearable contradiction. The immediate response is to say that they are calling out to be raped, and close upon the heels of this conclusion, is the distancing device of “we will rape them”. Often the two are blurred.

The incest fantasy and the rape fantasy turn on each other: women with long hair and big hips (bade baal aur bada gand), redolent of the familiar mother figure, are confirmed as sluts. These physical features are said to be proof that they have a lot of sex. Again, the heavier and dark skinned women are told that “inki to main free mein bhi na loon” (I won’t fuck them even for free). The abuses stumble and stagger through minute differentiations. Even as the women are identified as randis (sluts), they are said to be worse than veshyas (prostitutes) who will not kiss their clients even if paid.

The complex of feelings wavers between concern, condescension and threat of rape, a desperate process of trying to coming to terms with incestuous love, that ultimate prohibition: “They (the female kissers) are the ones raising the morale of the rapists and then they will go on protest marches against rapes”; “we will march with candles when these women get raped”; “the candle march party will be ready when these randis (sluts) get AIDS”.

Both are distinctively postmodern, i.e. neoliberal: the opponents’ avowal of conflicted, endlessly differentiated subject positions (as rapists, voyeurs, protectors of mothers and sisters, modern citizens and patriots) as well as the new sexual awakening under the sign of multiple and transgressive sexualities. On one level, these are just two symptoms fighting each other. But even as these two distinct forms share the same soil, to make an exact equivalence between them would be bad faith. Even though KOL is hopelessly symbolic, its impulse to embody the Sangh’s paranoia has had the beneficial effect of opening up a wound and to this degree should be celebrated.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly, the KOL people went out there and risked turning their pleasure into unpleasure. From subjects defying the barbaric logic of the Sangh, they turned into objects of a frenzied media spectacle. Through a mass voyeurizing of the kiss, they forced a very unhappy collective subjectivity out into the open. True, this does not help us move beyond a world of commodities. But political solidarities cannot be forged a priori either. Different kinds of objects floating in the capitalist ether have to work out the limits of their alienating moves, before they can find the glue. That is the overarching condition of both being in and being against capital: one cannot simply opt out of the spectacle. To that extent, one cannot possibly condemn the KOL for not being able to realize the Brechtian goal of alienating alienation. Their failure is our collective failure. Only by facing this failure, living with it, and negating it can we look toward some true reinvention.

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