[30 March 2007]
The picture above may seem familiar, since I posted it yesterday. Today I want to talk a bit about it – about what is most perceptible to the naked eye, and about what is not. In particular, about the things that flow from one to another—from the “is” to the “isn’t clear” (but is there nonetheless). How physical evidence out in the social stream provides information that announces thoughts and tendencies and behaviors of people and how this information tells us, by extension, about the society that people live in. And how such information may also communicate whether or not such a society is writ small, or large: on a micro or a macro scale.
But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. Why don’t we start at the top, which is to say, with the breasts. Because that is, after all, where this disquisition begins.
This statue – set in stone – was crafted by Gustav Vigeland. It sits at the base of his monolith, constructed of writhing human figures, massed atop, astride, akimbo and otherwise in articulation with one another. This figure, a female form, squats at rest, below the great social drama rising overhead; eyes closed, body inert (it’s a statue stupid!), turned away from a male figure. One presumes the guy is her lover, though there is little evidence that this is so. Perhaps it is her nakedness that suggests as much – possibly because it is only with lovers that we bare our bodies. It might also be posture: the woman has allowed her head to fall back and rest on the shoulder of the man behind. Connected, trusting, content.
Aside from position, what one notices almost immediately is the discoloration in the stone. And, particularly, that the discoloration is localized: the darkened patches are confined to the woman’s nipples and breasts. These demarcated zones stand in stark contrast to the uniform grey that comprises the rest of her physique. Her thighs, arms, shoulders, face—no other spot on her body is darkened in the way that her mammories are. And why the dark hue? Not an attempt by the local moral police to cover her up. No. More precisely, the taint is due to the oils transferred from human hands pressed often and with pinpoint precision against stone. In a word: the tint inheres in the fact that other’s hands have worked assiduously to cup, enfold, fondle, handle, experience and explore the statue’s chest.
This set me to thinking—as breasts sometimes do. But thinking less about anatomy and more about human behavior. Why is it, I wondered, that folks who visit this shrine would touch this particular body part? Compulsion perhaps. Curiosity, maybe. A simple joke or will to be “bad”? Is that why there are marks only on this part and (if one reads the evidence of absence) no other? What is it about a breast that makes one want to reach out and touch? Why not the mouth? or the fingers? Or the knee? Is it a “I couldn’t help myself” kind of impulse? Is it a chemical thing—an “it was there and I was inexplicably drawn to it” deal? An organic physics—lodged in infant memory—akin to the law of gravity?
Or does the answer lie in the realm of social contract? A “I would never do this if she was real, but since she’s not . . . why not?” Is there something about the model’s inanimate state that suspends the rules of human conduct, that absolves us of adherence to our collective compact? Why the disappearance of restraint? Simply because she is helpless? Because “she” can’t complain? Were a real human to be seated before us, naked, on a pedestal, would we reach out and grab her flesh? Squeeze and stroke and render as our own, between insistent fingertips? Do we take her nakedness as a signal of openess, a green-lighted sign to proceed without caution, to act as one wishes, free of social sanction?
Such questions led me to wonder: “what kind of person grabs a breast in public?” Whether a representation or not, it is still a breast. And, given the circumstances—the immobile stone seated pliantly before us, a simple chiseling which possesses no nerve-endings, no processing brain, no emotions, morality, or sense of shame— the human act perpetrated against it—this physical touching—may strike some as innocent; as inoffensive. Fully excusable, free of opprobrium. Yet, consider this. As the breast is a simulation, so too, is anyone’s act of grabbing it. Their clutch is an enactment of violation, a miming of physical taking, a rehearsal of aggression. It symbolizes transgression of demarcated personal space, a breach of consensual social rules. This public groping is behavior that underscores the tenuous nature of social control. Denuded is our contrived decorum; exposed is how evanescent public restraint can be.
One might argue that the blackened breast serves as a green light of sorts: a signal to subsequent travelers that prior others who have trod on these steps have transgressed; that identical behavior will be condoned. Possibly so. But that is the Nuhrenberg defense; the Nazi excuse. I was just following orders. Or maybe it is the Nanking Effect. I just acted as everyone else around me did. So, we ended up raping 20,000 women and killing 300,000 people. What else could I do but follow suit?
Well, maybe that is a little over the top. But, as social psychologists tell us, there are all sorts of factors that lead humans to commit egregious acts: “variables, constructs and processes at a more macro level, sociological and political, that must be included when we move from individual to collective violence.”
To be sure, none of what I have just said could hold up in court. It is not empirical—I didn’t camp out by the monolith and make a detailed record of fondlers, typing them by age, gender, nationality, degree of embarrassment or public awareness. Still, given my rough scan of faces, clothing, skin pigmentation and the like milling about the statuary, it is most probable that these were not all Norwegian hands engaged in groping behavior. And if this is so, then we are not talking about any one society of transgressors; rather, we are talking aboutALL
society as perpetrating a public bad. The human world writ large, our all-inclusive public, living amidst and reproducing a comprehensive collective consciousness. We behold a milieu where reaching out to clutch a boob is not considered a big deal. A mental state where one can declare: “hey, look at her tits. The marks don’t lie. Everyone else grabbed her, too . . . so, why not I?”