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Tag: Sigmund Freud

Twinsome Devils and the Narcissus Complex

Mark Simpson paints a portrait of a clonosexual world of Dorians

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2008, collected in Metrosexy)

Most ads these days aren’t worth a first glance. But earlier this year D&G Time launched a heavily-rotated global campaign directed by Hype Williams that was definitely worth a second. If you looked hard enough, you could see right into the mirrored heart of the 21st Century – a ‘new’ century that is now nearly a decade old. Not since the Levis ‘male striptease’ ads of the 1980s has there been a commercial that summed up – and summoned up – an era.

First time, you see an attractive young man and woman in tasty D&G evening wear checking their D&G watches anxiously, hurrying across different sides of the sexy night-time Metropolis to hook up with one another, to the urgent, techno sounds of Stylophonics’ ‘R U Experienced? (‘Dance music for people who want to listen to tomorrow’s music today!’), finally they arrive breathless at their meeting place. But rather than rushing into each other’s arms, they ignore one another and instead clinch and kiss a same-sex partner that turns up at the last minute.

So those naughty people at D&G flirt with shocking, or at least surprising homosexuality again, coolly wrong-footing our heterosexist assumptions – or ramming gayness down our throats. Either way, this seems to be the ad that most people saw. In other words, most people watched it only once.

Watching it again, paying attention this time, you realise that the ‘same-sexuality’ of D&G Time goes much deeper – and is much more shocking. So much so you can understand why people wanted to see just reassuring homosexuality – even homophobes. Second time, you notice that the same-sex couples are in fact… the same. Twins. Clones. Mirror images. These latter-day Echo and Narcissus are, like many if not most of us these days, on a hot date with themselves. Or at least, a hot, idealised D&G version of themselves. No wonder they’re in such a hurry.

What’s more, D&G Time – and this is looking more and more like the D&G Century – has the effrontery not only to ram down your throat what consumer and celebrity culture today is all about, but of course for reasons of decency usually goes out of its way to deny and disguise, it also does it in such a way that feels and looks entirely natural, entirely appropriate. The lack of shame about rotating around yourself is perhaps the most eye-catching thing of all. Only the Italians could get away with it.

What, then, is D&G Time? What is the era, the epoch it heralds and meters and so accurately, so tastefully accessorizes? Well, a cloned, digital world in which the driving force, the coiled spring at the heart of the jewelled mechanism, is not heterosexual reproduction, or even homosexual coupling, but rather, narcissistic perfection. Narcissistic perfection achieved through fashion, consumption, cosmetics, technology, surgery and really good lighting. A utopian-dystopian, twinsome future in which men and women date themselves instead of each other that has already arrived. Dance music for people who want to listen to tomorrow’s music today.

It’s a measure of how far and how quickly we’ve come that only a few years ago this ad would have been regarded as ‘sick’ by almost everyone, not just a few homophobe holdouts.  But the brazen auto-strumpetry of D&G Time broadcasts that narcissism is no longer a pathological condition – it’s the contemporary condition. That’s to say, it’s no more pathological today than desire itself — since narcissism and desire are much the same thing, particularly since we’re now surrounded by such shiny, pretty accessories as D&G jewellery.

The triumph of metrosexuality has seen to that. Contrary to what you may have heard, metrosexuality is not about ‘feminized’ males – or even about straight men ‘acting gay’. To talk in such terms is merely to reveal yourself as a hopeless nostalgic. As the ‘father’ of metrosexuality, I can tell you that metrosexuality isn’t about men becoming women, or becoming gay – it’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. In much the same way that women have been for some time.

In the early Noughties I defined the metrosexual as someone who ‘might be officially gay, straight, or even bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial as he has taken himself as his own love-object and pleasure as his sexual preference.’ The metrosexual announced the beginning of the end of ‘sexuality’, the 19th Century pseudo-science that claimed that your personality and psychology and taste in home furnishings was dictated by whether or not your bed-partner’s genitalia were the same shape as yours.

As we approach the Teenies (what else should we call what comes after the Noughties?) this process, with a flush of hormones, has been speeded up. D&G Time is neither homo, hetero, bi – or even metro. It’s simply same-sexuality. Clonosexual. In D&G Time, all genitalia are the same shape: fashion-shaped. In place of the Oedipal military-industrial complex of the 20th Century we have… the all-consuming Narcissus Complex of the 21st.

We live, you can hardly failed to have noticed, in an age of Dorians, male and female, admiring themselves in webcams, phone cams, digicams, online profiles and the two-way mirrors of the global Big Brother House. There may or may not be a portrait in the attic, but if there is you can be sure that it’s been Photoshopped. Back in the 20th Century – which seems much, much longer than just a decade ago – I thought that the definition of a transsexual was someone who behaved as if they were being photographed 24 hours a day. Now, of course, this is how everyone under the age of 25 behaves. Because they are.

As the young Quentin Crisp, a reality TV winner long before there was such a thing as reality TV, or even TV, responded prophetically to his starchy father’s angry accusation: Do you intend to spend the rest of your life admiring yourself in the mirror??

‘If I possibly can.’

Whatever you or I may think of narcissism – and Gore Vidal famously described a narcissist as ‘someone better looking than you’ – it’s far, far too late for an opinion. After a century of very bad press indeed, narcissism now holds the (nicely turned) whip-handle over the culture. Even politics, always the last to know, has noticed: in the UK the ‘Nasty’ Tory Party is now led by a nice, dashing, moisturised young man who wants very much to be liked, while the American Democratic Party earlier this year chose a gym-going, preening youthful male over a tougher, older, more experienced female candidate in large part because he was much prettier than her and reflected back, in his charmingly, deliberately vague way, a more flattering image of themselves.

Now that we’re pretty much over the 20th Century we can see that at the end of the 19th Century Dorian’s Dad, Oscar Wilde, the ‘first celebrity’, wasn’t punished for his homosexuality so much as his narcissism. Wilde the aesthete may have been gaoled for sex with males, shortly after the word ‘homosexual’ was coined, becoming its most famous exemplar, but it was the ‘gross indecency’ of his vanity that had sentenced him in the minds of many Victorians, long before his trial.

‘Have you ever adored a young man madly?’ he was asked in the witness box. Wilde parried, quite truthfully: ‘I have never given adoration to anyone but myself.’ You could have heard a cologne-soaked silk handkerchief drop. A line that would have worked perfectly in a comedy of manners in a West End theatre fell ominously flat in the courtroom. No wonder he was given four years hard labour – a fitting punishment for idle self-contemplation in Victorian England. An England that persisted, of course, for much of the 20th Century.

For that other Nineteenth Century celebrity, Sigmund Freud, narcissism was a necessary and healthy part of childhood, but one that must be abandoned to reach full adulthood (remember that?). This explained, he wrote, the fascination that ‘children, humorists, criminals, and anyone who holds on to his/her self-contentment and inaccessibility’ represent for us (Wilde was of course all three). He could also have added ‘women’ to that list, since women were expected to hold onto their narcissism – and use it to attract men. Heterosexuality was based on this Victorian division of sexual labour – as this division broke down in the latter part of the 20th Century heterosexuality was, as we now know, eventually itself phased out. (The very innovations which have helped free women from domestic drudgery, such as the pill, washing machines, microwaves, Hoovers, and feminism – in that order – have also freed men from… women.)

For Freud the universal Oedipus Complex was the principle way in which boys became men. Today by contrast the universal Narcissus Complex is the way in which boys become… prettier boys. Vanity, thy name is Man. Both Narcissus – who was, it needs to be said, a chap – and Oedipus were warned by Tiresias the blind transsexual seer (and like Quentin, a reality TV contestant avant le lettre) that they would live a long life so long as they didn’t know themselves. As poor old Oedipus found out when he consulted him, Tiresias’ prophecies although always accurate weren’t exactly helpful. Narcissus doesn’t know at first that the handsome image he glimpses in the pool and falls in love with is himself (in other words Narcissus isn’t very narcissistic). It’s only when he twigs and ‘knows himself’ that he dies of despair, knowing that he can never possess himself.

The original Narcissus myth has been misrepresented for much of the last hundred years as a cautionary tale about the pathology of male beauty. In fact, it was a warning to beautiful youths to be more generous with their looks – to both sexes. Sodom & Gomorrah in reverse.

Narcissus is not doomed by his own beauty but by his thoughtless spurning of various suitors, male and female. His selfishness. One cruelly rejected youth prays to Nemesis that Narcissus should know what it is to love without hope. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, assents and arranges for Narcissus to be punished for being so hoity-toity by ensnaring him with his own looks.

It’s a lesson that seems to have been instinctively learned by today’s tarty youths. Success and fame is now something for the heroically narcissistic and exhibitionistic, those who makes themselves constantly available for our love, on TV, at the cinema, on billboards and in glossy magazines. Or emerging glistening and glamorous from the roof of a red double-decker bus at the Beijing Olympics to the strains of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, showing a wildly cheering world their latest cosmetic surgery.

Today, narcissism is not abandoned, of course, but cultivated. It’s an industry. The industry. No wonder Oscar Wilde has been so rehabilitated to the point where he and Freddie Mercury are to all intents and purposes the same person. Today, children, humorists, criminals and footballers are not merely envied, they are emulated. We are encouraged – nay, compelled – to mistake them/recognise them for our own idealised reflection. (This is no doubt the point at which I should quote smoke-and-mirror-phase Jacques Lacan, but as far as I can tell, Lacan’s only real achievement was to turn lucid Freudianism into self-regarding Gallic metaphysics.)

The calculated childishness and fickleness of consumerism makes narcissism not only possible but necessary – since it is the very basis of our global economy. This is why 21st Century narcissism is not a form of contentment but rather of endless desiring. The Narcissus Complex is the romance of the endless perfectibility of ourselves proffered by the smoked High Street changing-room mirrors of a mediated world – the irresistible lure of a hyperreal, twinsome version of ourselves. What the entire history of human culture turns out to have been working towards.

Before his own doom, Wilde wrote a prose poem called ‘The Disciple’ which played with the story in a typically Wildean inverted fashion. Some Oreads grieving for Narcissus come across the pool and ask it to tell them about Narcissus’ famed beauty. The pool replies that it has no idea how beautiful Narcissus was. The Oreads are baffled: ‘Who should know better than you?’

‘But I loved Narcissus because,’ replied the pool, ‘as he lay on my banks and looked own on me, in the mirror of his eyes I saw my own beauty mirrored.’

As Wilde wrote in the Preface to his masterpiece, the Narcissus novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which has proved as eerily timeless as Dorian’s looks: ‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.’

D&G, however, have mirrored both.

The Pleasure Principle: BMW’s Art Cars

By Mark Simpson (Arena Hommes Plus, Spring 2008)

German is a punishing tongue. It is, as anyone who has tried to learn it can tell you, very precise, very strict. Very unforgiving. So imagine what it’s like actually being German.

It’s a fact hardly acknowledged that if the Germans have been so hard on Others in the past it may be because they are so hard on themselves. It’s no coincidence that the father of psychoanalysis was Sigmund Freud, the German-speaking Austrian Jew who struggled to treat the neurotic effects produced by a punishing super-ego shouting ‘Nein!’ to id-level drives wanting to borrow dad’s car for a Friday night joy-ride.

German strictness and deferred gratification has, in addition to psychoanalysis and a little mid-twentieth century unpleasantness, given the world precision engineering – reliable, premium cars that really shift. And no one is more associated with this Germanic gift than BMW.

In the UK the Bayerische Motoren Werke’s marketing slogan is the rather Freudian ‘Sheer Driving Pleasure’. In Germany it becomes the heavily Freudian ‘Freude am Fahren’ (Driving Pleasure). BMW cars promise driving pleasure via German precision and strictness: their deferred gratification becomes our fuel-injected hit. Not for nothing are BMWs popularly associated with marketing men and drug dealers.

BMW are based in Munich, capital of Bavaria (just across the border from Freud’s Austria), a place so German that even its beer has been strictly regulated: in the 16th Century The Bavarian Purity Law decreed that only barley, hops and water could go into beer. Likewise BMW’s famous Munich architecture is impressively pure, austere but intoxicating. Their HQ, the glorious ‘Four Cylinder’ building, opened in 1972 next to the Olympic Park, named after their most famous and distinctive car, was designed, along with the ‘silver bowl’ BMW museum, by Austrian architect Karl Schwanzer.

The latest addition, the BMW Welt, designed by Schwanzer’s pupil Wolf D. Prix (and no, I’m not making these names up), and opened last October, also sits at the feet of Dr Schwanzer’s work – literally and aesthetically. With it’s low, flowing, silver and matt profile and shiny double cone ‘grille’ at the front it resembles the architecture of a modern BMW. Inside it showcases all the latest models. The New York Times described its cathedral-like apparently ‘floating’ roof as ‘the closest architecture has come to alchemy’.

The real alchemy of the building however is the transformation of a mass-produced car into something personal something emotional – the philosopher’s stone of 21st Century consumerism. The Welt is primarily a place for the customer to be seen collecting his immaculate new car, with all his specially-selected modifications, presented like a pristine work of art or airbrushed supermodel revolving slowly beneath a spotlight on one of the 20 turntables on the first ‘Premiere’ floor – a floor that, like the roof, seems to hover, religiously, in mid air. Less of a new car pick-up than a celebrity wedding, complete with photographer snapping you and your glossy, expensive betrothed clinching while the public gaze enviously down from the gallery.

In the noisy but very orderly BMW Plant next door, which you can tour before meeting your lifestyle-mate, ‘marriage’ happens to be the technical term used to describe the lowering of the car body onto the chassis and engine (by headless robots). But it is the pleasure-factory of the BMW Welt, with 170 new cars delivered daily, that performs the much more important ceremony of marrying the owner with his vehicle – a marriage of individualism with mass production: auto-eroticism.

Fired up by witnessing the inspiring, fuel-injected nuptials on the first floor of the Welt you can rush downstairs to the Designkonfigurator, a hi-tech matchmaker, where you can select your ideal BMW partner: the model, package, trim, interior and colour – and then zoom around it in 3D on a giant screen to make sure it is really something you want to share/express your life with. Or something that will get you hard.

Alas, the Designkonfigurator is ultimately limited – repressed even – in the degree of personalisation it can offer. For a glimpse of something really expressive, you have to take a look at BMW’s famous Art Cars, a number of which are housed in the BMW Museum. Design engineers work as part a team (designing for a mass, if moneyed market). Artists on the other hand are more… sociopathic.

It seems apt that BMW’s famous Art Cars were the idea not of a German but of a Frenchman, the racing driver and art auctioneer Herve Poulain who wanted to combine his two passions in one object – driven, of course, by him. In 1975 he persuaded BMW to commission the American sculptor Alexander Calder to paint his BMW 3.0 CSL 6cylinder4valvestwinoverheadcamshafts480bhp (stats are more arousing when rendered in German) who styled it in bold primary colours and white stripes that worked against traditional streamlining asserting a perverse individuality – Go Slower stripes.

They didn’t slow down Poulain, however, an who drove Calder’s artwork in the 1975 Le Mans 24 hour race and was in number 5 position when mechanical failure forced his departure. Engineering not art failed him.

The following year Frank Stella, another American, was commissioned to art up another Le Mans car, the BMW 3.0 CSL 6cylinderinlineturbocharged4valvestwinoverheadcamshafts750bhp (above), which in its precise geometric designs seemed to turn the car’s engineering inside-out: ‘my design is like a blueprint transferred to the bodywork’, he said about his handiwork which, like other things found on graph-paper, managed to be both interesting and slightly boring at the same time.

Probably the greatest Art Car was designed the following year in 1975 by Roy Lichtenstein, the Daddy of Pop Art, who, with ‘speedlines’ and oversized dots, transformed a Le Mans 320i 4cylinderinline4valvestwinoverheadcamshafts300bhp BMW into a 3D comic strip (above). Or rather, revealed it as a comic strip. Lichtenstein’s Art Car is both the boyish, joyous idea of a car, and also the story of a car, reflecting the sky, sunshine and scenery as it whizzes freely through our imagination. One of the most beautiful, most pleasurable cars – perhaps the most car car – ever. It really should be an option at the Designkonfigurator.

By contrast, Warhol’s 1979 racing M1 6cylindertwinoverheadcamshafts470bhp BMW (above) looks slightly earthbound. Like a car vandalised by a man’s angry wife with some Dulux emulsion that he was supposed to decorate the bathroom with weeks ago. But it is a Warhol and so is probably now worth more than BMW.

Spanish sculptor and architect Cesar Manrique took a 730i 6cylinderinlineoverheadcamshaft188bhp BMW in 1990 and turned it into a moving sculpture of colours (above). “I tried to unite the notion of speed and aerodynamics with the concept of aesthetic appeal in one and the same object,” he said. He succeeded. Half car, half training shoe – but in a very good way. I’d wear it.

It wasn’t until 1991, sixteen years after Calder, that the first German-authored BMW Art Car appeared – the Z1 6cylinderinlineoverheadcamshaft170bhp by A.R. Penck (above). Perhaps it isn’t without significance that, with its black inked abstract symbols tattooed on blood red this first German-authored Art Car looks less pleasurable than scary-psychotic – the Cape Fear Art Car.

Perhaps as an antidote, in 1995 British West Coast émigré David Hockney produced a Surfer Art Car with his breezy X-ray of a brooding BMW 850CSiVtwelvecylinder380bhp (above). Hockney’s open-air beach-buggy treatment, complete with dachshund, was almost an act of subversion against the austere, extremely serious Bavarian engineering. His only comment was equally Hockneyian: ‘It was lots of fun’.

But pleasure, as Sigmund showed, produces its own anxieties. In 1999 the American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer emblazoned the white body of a BMW Le Mans Roadster twelve-cylinderVinduction580bhp with the words ‘PROTECT ME FROM… WHAT I WANT’ – in chrome, reflecting the sky, and light-absorbing paint, which, like our desire and our conscience, glows in the dark.

By 2007 consumerism in general and cars in particular were, according to the headlines, threatening us with destruction. The Danish artist Olafur Eliasson famous for his ‘weather’ installations, was commissioned by BMW to turn their revolutionary hydrogen-powered racing car the H2R into an Art Car. Hydrogen is clean-burning and produces mostly heat and water – and, to guarantee their future, BMW plan to use it in their production cars instead of petro-fuels.

Eliasson removed the body and replaced with steel mesh and reflective steel panels, then sprayed it with 530 gallons of water (H2O, geddit?), frozen over the course of several days, to produce several layers of ice. Lit from within, it looks like a Futurist igloo. Though of course the futurists would have made it look like it could actually move. Meant as a commentary on man-made global climate change, this most recent Art Car is provocative – but looks least like a car: it appears to have been completely entombed by the icy disapproval of environmentalists.

But then, environmentalism, long politically powerful in Germany, is perhaps the new punishing German super-ego shouting ‘Nein!’.

One that we’re all beginning to hear.

© Mark Simpson 2008

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