"Do You Ever Get Tired of Being a Professional Faggot?":
English Canadian films of the last decade or so have demonstrated a propensity for narratives that elucidate the darker sides of the national body, the margins of our nation. Necrophiliacs, pedophiles, and homosexuals populate these films, their images being used to tell stories that are strikingly different from most of those told by big-budget Hollywood films. Lee Parpart describes this trend in English Canadian cinema as “perversion chic.” She argues that since about 1992, many English Canadian films have been produced that incorporate “an overt concern with desire, sexuality, and the inscription of the body” and which “investigate the strange carnalities of desire and take part in an inflationary trend that seems to be constantly upping the ante of allowable (perhaps even mandatory) eroticism in English-Canadian cinema” (259). From the sadomasochistic pleasures of sex/death in David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Denys Arcand’s Love and Human Remains (1993), the implied incestuous desire of Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), and the traumatic homosexuality of films such as Thom Fitzgerald’s The Hanging Garden (1997), Patricia Rozema’s When Night is Falling (1995) and John Greyson’s Lilies (1996), to the spiritually-inflected necrophilia of Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed (1996), perverse desire would seem to have some deep resonance with the creative minds in this country. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to examine the ramifications of perversion on the construction of a unique (or perhaps, not so unique) English Canadian subjectivity. It will be shown that perversion, through the construction of the scandalous, in-between body, functions to produce and reflect the inherent in-betweenness of the national subject, a fact that serves to disrupt hegemonic systems of knowing and to speak to the queerness of the nation in Canada. This new queer configuration of English Canadian cinema is one which transcends both the conventional views of national cinema in this country as being oppositionally constructed as an international art cinema, and of national subjectivity as being founded on lack and a psychological castration -- in short, it counters the model of the Canadian subject as being, to borrow a turn of phrase from Brad Fraser, a “professional faggot.”
Perversion chic emerges out of a moment in which the fragmented nature of the Canadian national body, and the resulting questions as to the potential unity of this nation and the place of difference within it, are prominent in the national popular discourse. The use of perversion in cinema both allegorizes and displaces difference within hegemony, thus working paradoxically to uphold and undermine the discursive foundations of the nation. Although difference is already acknowledged within the national narrative (what is sameness without difference, after all?), the binary constructions that underpin the resultant, inherently normative definitions of the nation (male/female, insider/outsider, heterosexual/homosexual) are representationally inadequate. By making difference visible, by re-centering it within the context of a representative system which otherwise and arbitrarily insists upon its invisibility and un-mentionability, the perversion chic films fundamentally subvert any concept of a nation grounded in discourses of homogeneity. By merely reversing the centre/periphery binary of self-definition, however, by simply re-positioning the marginal terms “black,” “woman,” and “gay” so that they now stand in the spotlight, we fail to recognize the epistemological frame which has set up this system of inequality to begin with. Joan W. Scott argues that we hence “take as self-evident the identities of those whose experience is being documented [or, in this case, represented] and thus naturalize their difference” (777). Perversion transcends this limited function through its sheer excessiveness, its radical, scandalous, nature.
Kaja Silverman explains that perversion turns aside from both biology and the social order, and it does so through the improper deployment or negation of the binarisms upon which each regime depends -- binarisms that reinforce each other in the case of gender, if not that of class. The “truth” or “right” which is thus subverted is the principle of hierarchy. (185)
While perversion is figured most often (at least in English Canadian cinema) as deriving from the sexual, Silverman argues that its significance exceeds these somewhat arbitrary boundaries and instead suggests “that it turns aside not only from hierarchy and genital sexuality, but from the paternal signifier, the ultimate ’truth’ or ’right’“ (187). By stripping sexuality of its protective normativity and functionality within the nation, perversion “puts the body and the world of objects to uses that have nothing whatever to do with any kind of ’immanent’ design or purpose” (Silverman 187). The perverse body thus may be aligned with the national body in order to derive a new, queer model of national belonging and membership. In this presentation, I am aligning (somewhat uneasily) the notions of queerness and perversion, at least inasmuch as they both exist in English Canadian cinema. Perversion allows the inherently queer nature of the nation to be elaborated, and in so doing, begins the task of reconceptualizing the fantasy constructs that suture the subject into place within a hegemony of national belonging.
Perversion chic accomplishes its transformative potential through the deconstructive act, by first breaking down the system which holds one term over another within the national symbolic (the idea that there can ever be a “fixed immutable” identity), and then collapsing the wall that separates them into a space of indeterminacy, a space in between differences which can only be termed queer. Eve Sedgwick suggests that queer can refer to “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (8). Queer discourse becomes relevant to the national discourse once we consider its wider application in the examination and rearticulation of the categories of race, class, and post-colonial identifications. The perversion chic films tackle such a queer project through the constitution and representation of, borrowing a term from John Hartley, “scandalous categories,” or, more specifically, scandalous bodies. This cinematic corporeality is inherently in-between and ultimately ambiguous, and thus resonates with a potency lost on other categories of knowing. Hartley explains that “[a]mbiguous categories are by definition more meaningful than the two (or more) categories they transgress, since they partake of the attributes of both” (133). In other words, their position in between centre and margin works to signal the weaknesses of hegemony by illustrating that the boundaries between subjective positions are porous and, to use another Hartley term, “dirty.”
Perversion is not a scandalous category, but rather, is that which characterizes such an identification. Perversion, as a temporal process, aligns itself with the scandalous category inasmuch as both fail to adhere to a single pole of identification, and rather seek to straddle, spill over, and ultimately shatter the artificial relations of the binary structure. Perversion is not simply a product of the periphery because it transgresses so easily the boundaries between itself and the terms which serve to define it. It is dirty inasmuch as it implicates itself as a category which is in between. The perverse, or perhaps, perversive bodies displayed in the perversion chic films are made important not through their value as now-named marginal categories, but in their ability to move between dominant and marginal poles. Difference is not simply repositioned in these films; it is deployed, released into a normative frame in order to perform transformative possibilities. In the end, the perverse, queer, and scandalous corporealities that are displayed on the screen call into question the legitimacy of and ultimately shatter binary structures of identification. The sheer excess produced by perversion, that cannot be contained in these conventional structures, however, speaks more broadly to the inadequacy of the nation, and to the need for a redefinition of what it means to be an English Canadian.
The approach used in order to address this particular problem of English Canadian subjectivity is by no means monolithic among the perversion chic films. Greyson’s Lilies, for example, does this by working to problematize conventional notions of history through the physical mapping of temporal relations. By articulating the temporal in the corporeal, it is demonstrated that national subjectivity cannot be understood outside of the complex interplay between the two. A unique tension is constructed in the narrative through the use of drag. The cast is composed entirely of men and thus all the roles, including those of women, are portrayed by men. On the one hand, It might be claimed, then, that in this excess Lilies fulfills some of the subversive functions that Judith Butler attributes to drag. While Lilies’ use of drag certainly functions subversively in terms of its references to a hegemony of gender, sexuality, and race, this particular perversion also, on the other hand, effectively serves as a critique of the “always already expropriated and elsewhere” nature of the past, one which may be used to expose the transitory nature of the current model of the Canadian nation. Lilies illustrates the literal re-enactment of memory using a theatrical metaphor to highlight its performative value; the bodies of the actors stand as the mediating field on which it is articulated. Importantly here, history is memory in drag, a performance that seeks to undermine the pretenses that history has as being something which is concretely knowable, and which may consequently serve as the stable foundation for a model of national identity. Butler refutes the notion that identities may be knowable in an unchanging, permanent sense, and rather argues that they are formed discursively through the interaction of the social with the bodily. In Lilies, the past masquerades on the bodies on the actors, forming a corporeal landscape on which notions of historical truth are drawn only to be refuted as the intangible constructions that they are, imitations of an ideal notion of truth for which there is no original. Thus, Lilies demonstrates the impossibility of homogeneity when applied to the nation, both in terms of individual subjects and in consideration of the historical national body. In the end, the national body becomes a scandalous category, a temporality and a vessel that seeks to contain the excessive meaning released by the impossibility of the nation. In this way, history is demonstrated to be radically indirect in its relation to trauma, to be, in essence, a drag persona taken up to camouflage the inconsistencies and contradictions of memory.
This performative play of temporality within a landscape constructed of bodies is most evident in the characterization of Lydie-Anne which functions to unmask notions of truth in terms of the past and identity by working on multiple levels to repeatedly reference the fact, as she succinctly puts it in her final scene in the film, that “all men are liars, and that I too was lying.” Lydie-Anne is manifested within the film as the ultimate signifier of difference, her body housing both Otherness and a scandalous temporality, both of which are then incorporated seamlessly into a narrative that seeks to expose the “truth” of a past situation. Standing in sharp contradiction to three significant identificatory positions which must be accessed in order to claim insider status within the nation (masculinity, heterosexuality, whiteness), Lydie-Anne nonetheless masquerades as the centre. As the representative of upper class Parisien society, and contrasted to the provinciality of the denizens of Roberval, she clearly stands as difference, but one which works to alienate the multiple representatives of a common and thus peripheral existence. She is also used as a foil to the artificial centrality of the Comptesse de Tilly, one which functions to effectively paint the latter as delusional and merely a colonial mimic attempting to approximate the French oppressor. As a black, gay male prison inmate, however, Lydie-Anne cannot in fact lay claim to the dominant themes of national belonging. She is thus shown to embody the contradiction of national subjectivity in English Canada: she is both colonizer and colonized, centre and periphery. In short, her camp-inflected performance of the dominant model of national belonging must, on one level, be understood as one which situates multiple difference and the paradox of identity within a single, perverse body.
This radical in-betweenness is amplified by Lydie-Anne’s temporal displacement, one which is common among all the characters. The narrative in Lilies winds its way to a trauma that has already occurred, signaling an explicit return rather than the representation of the initial incident. This is significant inasmuch as it suggests the intangibility of the trauma as it exists within the historical narrative. Significantly, Greyson refuses to grant us the satisfaction of knowing, and instead positions the historical trauma in all its uncertainty through the play of memory. In essence, he is illustrating an indirect relation between trauma and the act of memory involved in its implication in history. This is further referenced, outside of the chronology of the film, through the deployment of drag. History becomes a masquerade of the past in the present, of memory acting out the illusionary stability attributed to historical narrative of trauma. Lilies works to counter the supposedly clear relationality between trauma and its association in history through the complete transgression of temporal boundaries. Throughout the film, the past impinges on the present and the present forces itself on the past. Memory is portrayed, on the one hand, as a stage play, one in which we are distinctly aware that this is a prison and that the actors are, in fact, playing roles, and on the other hand, as flashbacks to the past in which the same actors are transformed through changes in makeup and dress into the beings that they are imitating, and the stage shifts into landscapes that recall Roberval of thirty years ago. More importantly, the bodies which move so easily between time periods are demonstrated to be scandalous in their transgression of normative, temporal boundaries. Their presence suggests the lie of historical relations and thus fundamentally disrupts the binary structure that is positioned between memory and history.
This scandalous temporality is also employed in Egoyan’s Exotica. Christina, a young woman Francis pays in order to play out fantasies wherein he “protects” her from the predators who murdered his own young daughter, Lisa (her body was discovered in a uniform similar to that which Christina dons for her nightly performances), occupies multiple temporal positions simultaneously: she is a stripper in the present-tense, Eric’s former lover with whom he discovered Lisa, and the representative of Francis’s dead daughter. This latter is important inasmuch as it positions her body as the return of the trauma which drives the historical narrative of the film. It is through her corporeality that the characters in Exotica experience the trauma of Lisa’s death for the first time, but its distance from the initial explosion of this reality situates her as an echo of the event, an imitation which is compulsively returned to in order to reconcile the horror of knowing with the calm of forgetting. Thus, she is pulled back and forth in the narrative between the positions of sexual object and corpse (both of whom wear the same uniform). In this way, Christina’s body is variously an impression of the trauma which constrains the symbolic structure of the narrative, a simultaneously direct and indirect link to the past, and a scandalous category that straddles multiple temporal identifications. This excessive meaning produces her as the embodiment of scandal, a subject that is capable of occupying multiple positionalities at once, adhering to none exclusively. As such, she demonstrates the always already impossible nature of hegemonic relations of history and identification, and reflects the fluid temporality which pervades many of Egoyan’s films. Her body works both to queer the hegemonic constructs of history to which the characters adhere in order to define their sense of belonging to a coherent whole and to reveal the innate contradictions of this system. Ultimately, then, Christina embodies the latent queerness of the subject-nation by way of its perverse application in the hierarchy of knowing and not knowing, seeing and not seeing.
A very different perspective on the scandalous body is seen in Cronenberg’s Crash, one that speaks not to history but to the psychic construction of the self. The power of scandalous categories lies in their not being completely positioned outside of normative systems of meaning, thus drawing the horror of the abject into the comfort of the mainstream. In this way, the construction of a new category of meaning is able to effect a profound destabilization of existing hegemonic structures of identification. In this film, sex and death are aligned in an explosive fashion, working at cross-purposes to re-figure the nation. This alteration is written directly on the bodies of the actors. The blatant masochism of the characters in this film works to displace the regime of corporeality imposed in the mirror phase of Lacan’s model of psychic development, allowing the unbound energy of the real to intrude physically into the symbolic order. The violence of their various performances, all elaborate manifestations of a suicidal desire, clearly reflects the paradoxical nature of the aggressive impulse inherent in the death drive, one where a blow to an externalized object is in fact a blow to one’s own ego. In Crash, the mutilation and destruction of the body speaks to the ultimate disintegration of the imago: the characters subject their morphology to the same punishment that they are inflicting on their apparently coherent psyches.
Manuel Camblor explains that “Cronenberg has dealt in bizarre variations upon the theme of modern man grappling with the horror of extreme alienation; twisted mutations of the human psyche and, ultimately, of the human body, are the inevitable outcome...” (4, emphasis added). The abjection of the body must be viewed as a reflection and result of the psychic turmoil that results from the alienation of the subject from the self. The resulting masochism that drives the subject to struggle to reassert the primacy of the ego in the face of the real (that which struggles towards symbolization yet exceeds and constrains it) manifests itself physically in Crash through broken bones, scars, and wounds. The body is violated and fragmented, so that it comes to resemble the very image of that which can never safely (or sanely) avowed. What Camblor describes is the construction of a scandalous category, a new erotic positionality that transcends normative sexual and technological meanings in its attempt to contain the excessive meaning generated by both. Like the necrophilia seen in a film such as Kissed, the sex/death desires of the protagonists in Crash exemplify a narcissistic attachment to the reflective image of oneself as the embodiment of the real. The self-destructive impulse of the death instinct bleeds into libidinal desire as a means of getting at the more primal desire which signals the complete annihilation of the ego. The body that is structured by the imago is re-inscribed with the horror of the abject, forcing a re-conceptualization of the self through the mutilation of corporeality. The abjected body becomes an object and thus breaks down the hegemonic binary system of understanding the process of identification by moving an idealization of the real into the position normatively occupied by the imaginary ideal of the imago. Alienation, not sexuality, is the focus of Crash. However, national subjects are represented in all their pathetic glory as torn and bloody emblems of the abject that grapple towards the disintegration of the ego even as they are shown to recoil from the potentiality of the real.
If the body is inscribed with the characteristics of the real in Crash, its abjection signifies its position as a scandalous category, a nexus of difference through which the imaginary ego and the unbounded energy of the real are filtered in an attempt to redefine each. Perverse sexual desire is focused outside of the realm of the sexual through its association with the death drive. The body becomes imbued with excessive meaning, meaning which has been forcibly deflected through the intrusion of the real into the symbolic at the point of vehicular impact. The body, however, also becomes a point of suture, a canvas on which images of coherence are painted in order to disavow the radical indeterminacy of subjectivity. Corporeality becomes objectified, the physical form a slate upon which the rhetorics of necrophilic desire and technological nihilism are written and re-written in an attempt to make sense of the divided subjectivity of the subject-nation. The body of the accident victim comes to stand allegorically for the national body. English Canada is thus represented as the abject, a marginal position, however, that redefines the truism of Canadian lack so often appealed to in discourse of nationalism.
Clearly, the scandalous body in the perversion chic films serves as an effective means in order to construct a counter-hegemonic model of the nation in English Canada. The question that has been neglected up to this point, however, is what might such an alternative model of the nation look like? In line with the queer nature of the preceding analysis, I would posit the archetype of queer nationalism here. Queer nationalism attempts to both displace the hegemonic structures of a white, masculine, and heterosexual nation and to replace them with structures which rearticulate the very foundations and primal meanings that they represent. David Savran notes that “Queer Nation represented an attempt to queer America, to produce a counter-hegemonic patriotism that militates for a redefinition of the nation and simultaneously for the recognition of the always already queer status of American culture (from Whitman to Madonna)” (281). The mobilization of a queer narrative in the (re)definition of the Canadian nation finds obvious parallels here. In essence, the project of rearticulating the nation within the Canadian context refers to the necessity of queering Canadian nationalism. Savran explains that “the name Queer Nation is oxymoronic, asserting both difference and sameness. Insofar as ’queer’ designates a perverse or marginal positionality and ’nation’ an affirmation of commonality and centrality, Queer Nation necessarily combined ’contradictory impulses’“ (282). In short, nationalism is itself queer inasmuch as it works to reconcile that which can never be reconciled: the heterogeneous national body.
Thus, the queer nation is a scandalous category inasmuch as it encompasses an excess of meaning in its attempt to embrace the transubstantial difference which exists within the national body. However, the nation is queer before it has been queered. In short, the hegemonic nation is inherently perverse because, as Bhabha argues, its existence fundamentally contradicts that which it relies upon for definition. Hegemony is dirty; while the hegemonic system of understanding dictates certain dominant ideals as to the content of national structures, these are always already distanced from the heterogeneous reality of the “many” which it seeks to constrain as “one.” In this way, the normative apparatus which grounds the subject-nation is constantly pushed outside of the limits that it sets for itself; it simultaneously suggests homogeneity and transcends the binaries by which the former is named.
Savran, noting that “[e]very nation is potentially a queer nation,” states that queer nationalism must “ensure that ’queer’ denotes more than just a particularized, if universalized, form of sexual dissidence. It must also look to the construction of racialized, gendered, class-based, and (post)colonial positionalities” (288). Perhaps, then, queer nationalism is already embodied in the form of the multivalent nation of Canada. Certainly it is a model which accommodates the inconsistencies of this nation, and facilitates the project of the rearticulation of the national symbolic in order to construct a more inclusive, postmodern nationalism, one in which difference functions within the universalizing discourse of nationalism. Queer nationalism centres on a “war of representation,” one in which the dominant discourses of the nation must be resignified in order to become more inclusive of their disavowed queer content. The very structures that are made to accommodate excessive difference, however, are ruptured under the strain of this task, facilitating a new, perverse model of community membership. In English Canada, then, the search for inclusive identity fields must also be articulated in this fashion: opening up the national narrative so that it might more effectively account for its own excess, its own queer existence. This is accomplished, to some degree, by the perversion chic films through their representation of the queer, scandalous body, suggesting their potential for social and political change, and their role in the proliferation of a queerly Canadian national narrative.
Camblor, Manuel. “Death Drive’s Joy Ride: David Cronenberg’s Crash,” Other Voices 1.3 January (1999) http://dept.english.upenn.edu/~ov/1.3/mcamblor/crash.html.
Hartley, John. “Encouraging Signs: Television and the Power of Dirt, Speech, and Scandalous Categories,” in Interpreting Television: Current Research Perspectives, eds. Willard D. Rowland, Jr. and Bruce Watkins. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1984: 119-141.
Parpart, Lee. “Cowards, Bullies, and Cadavers: Feminist Re-Mappings of the Passive Male Body in English-Canadian and Quebecois Cinema,” in Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women’s Cinema, eds. Kay Armatage, et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999: 253-273.
Savran, David. “Queer Nationalism,” in Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998: 280-283.
Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991): 773-799.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Queer and Now,” in Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993: 1-20.
Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992.