As I re-watched several of John Cameron Mitchell's recent films–seeing Hedwig search for love(rs) and wholeness, seeing characters in Shortbus who cannot reconcile the differences between desires for individuality and (sexual) relationships–I began to feel as though I was offered a series of examples meant to clarify the notion of desire in Lacanian psychoanalytic theory.
Hedwig clarifies her desire for wholeness though adaptation, using Plato's Symposium to explain the origin of love as a parable for primal lack, fueling her desire for communion through love (and with Others). Hedwig’s story follows her endless search for a lost compliment, an unfulfillable desire fueled by object choices who can never offer what she lacks. This is why Lacan asserts “there is no sexual relation”, Joan Copjec explains, “sex, in opposing itself to sense, is also, by definition, opposed to relation, to communication" (Read My Desire, 207). There is no sexual relation because sexualization, like language, leaves subjects split, severed, divided. Hedwig’s demand for wholeness stains the main characters in Shortbus, primarily through their (narrative) drive toward sexual and communal fulfillment, but this film offers us at least one opportunity to rethink desire.
While Severin stares at an abstract painting, she recounts her “best orgasm” as a moment when she felt completely alone and is interrupted by semen shooting across the canvas. Ejaculate shifts her attention–she pauses–and she intently, even quizzically, watches it blend into the chaotic colors. Her pause is important because she drew our attention to this focus before recounting her post-best-orgasm disappointment (realizing she was not alone). Love necessitates death through our desire to possess a lover, as George Bataille explains (Introduction, Eroticism). Love becomes opposed to death by rupturing/undoing our individuality under the facade of unification (like wholeness to Hedwig’s desire).
As semen and abstract paint blend into a new work of art, this painting allows us to recontextualize desire from its point-of-view. The painting shows us how to find pleasure in the debasement of desire. Rather than reflecting Severin’s sign of disappointment, the painting takes pleasure in self-debasement by allowing us to see how sign and sensation might mingle erotically (like parodic poetry for Bataille). Like Bataille, this painting refuses to allow the presence or absence of the thing to be the Ideal form for desire. Both illuminate the erotic potential for desire to emerge through contradictory co-minglings, where (self-)debasements stage the possibility for new, undoubtedly dirty, be-comings.