John Cameron Mitchell's Relationscapes

Curator's Note

Shortbus portrays its characters and the space where they meet and connect in a way that can’t be easily categorised. The film diagrams a set of socio-sexual relations that are continually converging, diverging and intersecting. We argue that Shortbus invents with what Erin Manning calls “relationscapes”, a complex of embodied and embodying “biograms”, propulsively becoming bodies. The heterotopic hive – “the motherboard”– is characterised by the eponymous salon where people of all races, ages, genders and sexes come to talk, fuck, watch and convene to generate new “ecologies of experience”.

Just prior to our clip, pent up tensions of forced sexual “relational formations” impede upon the forming of new relational matrices, rendering a transmutation necessary. The skin on Sofia’s arms tears as she bursts through the woods in search of orgasmic fulfillment, Rob grimaces with pain as Severin vows to physically impress his body, and Jamie/James’s eyes fill with tears as he opens up to Caleb in preparation for anal sex, the final act of physical intimacy he has not yet dared to take with his partner. Whitehead would call these blockages to relational movement “stubborn facts”: we are never able to fully escape them, but they nevertheless create space for “concresence”, literally growing together. When the pathways to movement and emergent potentialities are clogged, we see the lights of New York City black out.

As the sweeping tensions dissolve the city does not cease to seethe, however, and we witness how the pulsating heart of the connective erotoscape draws the broken people into its ascendant rhythmic folds. One by one, they enter Shortbus and fall into the “pure plastic” erotic rhythm of the dancing room that enworlds them. The tissual breach creates a haptic “interval”; a chance to absorb the “elasticity of the almost”, the incipient “moment when anything can happen, when bodies are poised in a togetherness beginning to take shape”. To Justin Bond’s assurance that “we all get it in the end” Jamie/James returns to his partner, Caleb joins with their mutual lover Ceth, and Sofia finally manages to give herself enough room to reach out and enjoy an erotic encounter with a particularly harmonious and sexually synchronised couple. As Sofia’s eyelids dance with orgasmic intensity, the lights of New York City flicker on and the cityscape spins into motion. The body-room-city becomes a “machinic phylum” containing an infinite series of “potential velocities”. New York City “bends over” and gathers in “the new”, a preaccelerative opening toward different textures, shades, colors, “platforms of relation”.

Sofia’s orgasm is the interval out of which temporal and spatial movement emerges and generates “a becoming-spiral”, a relationscape of tangled, rotating and recombinative bodies that is an intensive extension of “movemented tendencies”. Bond’s lonely voice successively expands into a polyrhythmic and multi-modal orchestra. Shortbus’ brightening glow spreads exponentially as its tactile accumulations and affective tonalities alter and color the dynamics of the room and the “emergent environment”. As the elasticity of the not-yet is extended, the relationscape is intensively distended. New York City gracefully becomes-turbulence, the lights immanently move in a blinding syncopated dance, and as the characters revel in their sensing bodies-in-movement, the world appears the same but radically different, “still-moving”.



Michael & Karin,

Thank you for such a great post to start our theme week on JCM.  I am particularly fascinated with JCM's Shortbus as a way to understand the instability and flexibility of sexuality.  What fascinates me about your post is your formulation of the "relationscape" in conjunction with the biogram.  What interests me about the biogram, at least as I understand it in phenomenological readings like Brian Massumi's, is how it occupies "in-between," dimensionless planes (such as those between the eyes and the world).  But, I'm puzzled by its connections with the characters you mention.  Let me take a stab at a question:

I wonder how the characters in Shortbus enter this plane when they perpetually seek sexual and social relationships, which initially appear non-normative, but return to structures that are anything but the "same old" pairings.  It seems as though they remain confined by, or rather troublingly  return to,normal couplings where the potentialities of the biogram and unpredictable futures recede into the background.  Do you locate the provocative, non-normative, open futurities as emerging from the pulsating city? the vibrant, orgiastic body-filled scenes?  I am intrigued by how we reclaim the potentialities of these "main" characters, and look forward to your thoughts!

Hi Michael and Karin,

Thanks for a great opening post!  For me, this beautifully articulated what’s at stake in the film’s multiple fluid pairings, and has given me some new frameworks and vocabularies for thinking through what Mitchell might be up to. 

I’ve actually always envisioned that last scene in terms of Hardt and Negri’s Deleuze-inspried concept of the “multitude,” with its networked consciousness and unruly flesh.  I wonder if you see a similar fit.  Despite my own reservations about Hardt and Negri’s work, I think their discussion of post-9/11 states of exception/exceptionalism might resonate in provocative ways with some of the film’s more overt political references (the camera panning above Ground Zero in the film’s opening scene, the flashing torch of the Statue of Liberty in the closing scene, and, of course, that fantastic group performance of the Star-Spangled Banner). 

One last comment – from a disability studies standpoint, I was interested in your observation that the “erotoscape draws the broken people into its ascendant rhythmic folds.”  The way that the film treats the “brokenness” of its characters is one of the things I’ll be speaking to in my post on Wednesday, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts!  

 Great questions Kris and Cynthia, thank you both. I guess you are right, Kris, that I would locate the biogrammatic possibilities in the permutations of the landscape and the (t)angled bodies in the orgy scene rather more so than in the bodies of the “main” characters although Karin may have something quite different to say about this.  Having said that, I think it is interesting that the configuration of the bodies of James/Jamie/Ceth in our clip almost replicates an earlier scene in which the three are blowing each other and rotate (as Ben Woodard has pointed out to me there is an interesting narrativization of sex which runs throughout the film). But what is perhaps more intriguing is that Caleb is added to the tangle in this final scene and that doesn’t seem to me to be either normative or a pair of couplings but rather an assemblage of James/Jamie/Ceth/Caleb.  The model, Ceth, says at one point that it is all about “geometry” and “lines and angles” and this seems to me to be a good description of the way bodies get figured in the denouement of the film. Erin Manning might put it this way: “Sensing bodies in movement are open systems that reach-toward one another sensingly, becoming through these relational matrices. As these bodies individuate relationally, they evolve beyond their ontological status, becoming ontogenetic. Technogenesis is the dynamic becoming of the sensing body in movement” (66) and this reads like an equally good description of the sex bomb room with its buffet of “vibrant bodies” and also the closing orgy scene with its “gravity defying re-revectorization[s]” (70) of sensing bodies.  Further, this alerts us to how the orgy scene with its tactile reverberations technogenetically alters the room and the cityscape beyond it: “To sense—to experience the world amodally—is a key way to activate the body’s relation to the world and open the body to its technogenetic potential. This already occurs in the dancing body when the movement causes the room to space differently through an accumulation of tactile sensations coursing through the air” (72).  The Shortbus is not a bus stop but rather a non-transportational vector “intertwined with [the] transportability” (75) of sensing bodies.

But, let me say a bit more about why Manning’s biogram (here is one definition of it which makes clear how it is folded in and through both body and world and potentializes topological transformations: ““Through the biogram, we experience...tangles, not limbs. We feel the quality of elasticity before we experience form. The biogram is the becoming-body’s intensive edge that makes bodyness felt at the conjunction of image and movement”(124))  is locatable in the “emergent environment” and in the “machinic phylum”—we are borrowing Guattari’s phrase here—of the body-city-room.  Early on in Relationscapes she writes (and of course, as you saw, she is taking up the biogram from Massumi) that “The not-yet takes form through the intensities of preacceleration that compel recompositions at the level of both strata, the body and the room. What this means is that body and space are experienced as alive with potential movement” (15) So, the bodies of the characters- the shortbus salon-the city become this membraneous (I’m taking this word from Karin) machinic phylum where a series of potential velocities, and as you say, “new futurities” is possibilized.  Manning calls attention to a very interesting futurist called Umberto Boccioni for whom, she tells us, “space moves” (16). And this is how she talks about the way body and world become series and activate a thick affective politics:

“It is to make movement felt in the recreation of new body-world series [And we might note that Justin Bond tells Sofia that the Shortbus is a magical circuitboard, a motherboard filled with desire that travels all over the world that “connects you, me, everybody that connects everybody trying to find the right connection”]. This sculptural ambition is political. Through it, the political achieves a thickness, a volume. The immobile silhouette of the stable subject is usurped by a recomposing body that ‘seeks complete fusion of environment and object by means of the interpenetration of planes’”(16)

She goes on: “inframodal vitality propels the dancers [but we might replace dancers with characters] to become more than, to embody more than the strict envelopes of their individual bodies” (16).  Why Boccioini is interesting to me is that he suggests that  “what seems immobile [like a block of marble for example]may instead be engaged in a kind of absolute movement, a virtual becoming that has its own velocity” (128) like Cameron Mitchell’s skyscrapers, bridges, buildings.  Boccioni “calls this physical transcendentalism”. The living relationscape, I would argue, is created in a “becoming-sky”, as Manning says about Leni Riefenstahl’s biograms.  So, it doesn’t necessarily, for me, have to be located in the main characters per se because biograms do “not individualize” (141). It is the transmutation from the grey stone of the city’s skyscrapers to the colored lights and the way bodies spin which particularly interests me as the space where electrically unpredictable futures emerge.  Manning, I feel, gets at exactly what Mitchell is trying to do in this movie as she marks the shift from biopolitics to the biogram: “Biogrammatic politics are affective politics, operating at the cusp of divergent series, creating not a body as such but an affective tone of a becoming-body, a plastic rhythm, a transcendent materiality, a topological surface, a physically transcendent asignifying materiality” (141).

Cynthia: thanks for calling attention to the ways in which Mitchell is referencing the post 9/11 topo-political landscape. It reminded me of one particularly telling moment during our clip. After the lights black out we hear a radio broadcast during which the announcer (and this reminded me in turn of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, an altogether different celebration of multitudinous flesh) assures listeners that “there is no reason to believe this is a terrorist act”. And yes, I do see a connection between our propulsive bodies and Hardt and Negri’s multitude. I’m thinking particularly of the moment, which strangely hasn’t impacted much on either queer or crip thinking, where they describe the shift from queer bodies to queer flesh. Here is Manning talking about her bodies in Relationscapes: “I refer to bodies as pure plastic rhythm. I propose that we move toward a notion of a becoming-body that is a sensing body in movement, a body that resists predefinition in terms of [sexual/gendered]subjectivity or [sexual/gendered] identity, a body that is involved in a reciprocal reaching-toward that in-gathers the world even as it worlds”(6). And here is that key moment from Hardt and Negri in their Multitude: “Queer politics is an excellent example of such a performative collective project of rebellion and creation. It is not really an affirmation of homosexual identities but a subversion of the logics of identity in general. There are no queer bodies, only queer flesh that resides in the communication and colloboration of social conduct” (200).





Michael has verbalised many of my thoughts about the biograms in Shortbus. I think it is important to emphasise how the film moves from individual sexuality to a more general sexualisation. Up to the cathartic moment when all the lights go out the main characters tend to listlessly search for some kind of personal fulfilment - and they all do this alone. Sexuality becomes a lonely pursuit, a type of masturbatory self-authentication. One of the pivotal moments in the film is Sofia and Rob’s frustrated masturbation in separate rooms. The painful poverty and climactic failure of this experience echoes the intense pain of Jamie/James’ masturbation and attempted auto-fellatio at the opening of the film. Ejaculation becomes a release – but a release of tears rather than joy. The traces of semen that settle on his skin seem to reify the impenetrability of his body. He is so definitively an individual sexual entity, that not even his own bodily fluids may permeate his outer defences.

I think this is what truly changes after the lights go out. Sofia, Rob and Jamie/James literally tear themselves apart until they have nothing left to lose – there is no individual sexuality or completeness left to pursue. It is a Bacchic moment, if you like. As they sparagmatically tear their individual flesh to pieces Shortbus, the ‘motherboard’, “takes the pieces off the ground” (to quote Hedwig) and creates “something beautiful and new”. I know that Cameron Mitchell has been criticised for putting his characters back together in the same normative couplings that we were given to begin with, but I don’t really think that you can consider them to be the same couplings, because the characters are no longer the same characters. In the final scene, I’m not sure that they can even be considered characters in the traditional sense at all. They are little fleshy monads in an immanently orgiastic flesh complex. They have finally given up their fruitless strife for individual sexuality and allowed themselves to become sexual.

Erin Manning’s Relationscapes is wonderfully appropriate for this type of reading of the film, because it emphasises movement and the process of embodiment over individual bodies: “To move is to engage the potential inherent in the preacceleration that embodies you.” (13). It is – as Kris points out – an in-between-ness, but this in-between-ness is made spatial, given a form. Manning makes movement into flesh. Importantly, there are two kinds of flesh discussed here, however (as Deleuze claims that there always is) – a physical flesh and an abstract flesh. Physically, the space thus remains infinite and dimensionless – what Manning calls a “space that can move” (16). Manning’s and Cameron Mitchell’s space is an abstract shape or embodiment constructed through (abstract) lines of movement – it is not built through the individual (physical) character’s bodies-in-movement – and in the construction of this abstract organism, the individual characters become-communal.

As Michael points out, the mutational structure of the sexual connectivity in Shortbus, the relationscape, is directly mirrored in the cityscape, and I would argue that this is the true protagonist of the narrative: the abstract (and certainly not static!) stone, concrete and grit body constructed through the connective movement of the various characters’ bodies. As Erin Manning points out, mirroring or “repetition is another word for magic” (25) – the movement of the bodies becomes the movement of the city. Shortbus is the story of a becoming-relationscape that becomes a becoming-NYC.


Thank you Karin and Michael for a post that opened up Shortbus in other, interesting, and fabulous ways.

I have a question, which I hope you may be able to answer, and thus expand on your piece: May we think the 'biogram' and 'middle' together; to quote Kristopher Cannon, 'I understand it in phenomenological readings like Brian Massumi’s, is how it occupies "in-between," dimensionless planes ...'. First, I too see a deep relation with 'biogram' and 'in-between' -- or even Homi Bhabha's 'interstitial' -- in the sense of a 'hybridity' of fluid sexualities, or non-solidified ones, which are constantly being in-formed, re-formed, and de-formed; thus, no easily verifiable sexualities (as if that were ever possible).  Now, to 'middle,' which is not the middle, but rather drawing on John Ricco, 'The middle: the only place one can begin [and Shortbus, does start in the middle, medias in res] ... A here and now that in its singularity is not properly designated by the middle, but more so as a middle or simply middle, thereby marking the impropriety of every singularity, every here and now.  [A] Middle, then, that is in the midst of the middle, a now here that is at the same time nowhere but elsewhere.'  So,  my question/s is/are may the art-life-art (there is no laceration between them) of Shortbus open one -- if one is open to the open -- to middle (perhaps, to other-realtion-scapes, to other in-betweens)?  I mean, can Shortbus be used, deployed, performed, if you will, in a sense, as a (temporary and shifting) 'blueprint' for what Foucault has called an 'aesthetics of existence,' and the end (again) of the 'monarchy of "sex".'  Indeed, how to 'use' Shortbus -- and to what ends?  So, how to en-act it -- if only otherwise.

Also, within hegemonic visual culture in mind, do you both 'read' Sophia's (Sook-Yin Lee) role as subverting or reifying the normative sexual and subject position of the 'Asian woman' in the West (i.e., the US)?  Does her character open to 'middle'? Or, is it caught in an 'ancient' history of colonialism (of bodies) by the West?  It would be interesting to hear more on race (and class).

 Thanks for your comment Robert and your questions. I think that there are several ways in which the characters in Shortbus might be read in the light of Foucault's later work on askesis and turning the self into a work of art since the film is all about developing what Foucault calls "new relational modes" in his later essays and interviews (as an aside I would posit that it would be a productive exercise to think about the film alongside Foucault's seminars on parrhesia too). Karin and I have called these new relational ontologies relationscapes after Erin Manning since for her “We refit the body for new forms of life, cross-dressing its self-expressive potentials” (3). Of course, Leo Bersani, who we might also mobilize for reading Shortbus or the other films of Cameron Mitchell,  also takes up the idea of "new relational modes" from a few late Foucauldian texts. In "Friendship as a Way of Life" (which I guess Bersani probably has most in mind) Foucault talks about a "homosexual ascesis [the central concept of volume 3 of The History of Sexuality which is, of course, about "practices of the self"] that would make us work on ourselves and invent--I do not say discover--a manner of being that is still improbable". He also talks in that text about elaborating a "new mode of life", about "new alliances" and "unforeseen lines of force" and asks "how can a relational system be reached through sexual practices?" And in "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom" [which you will find in the Essential Works] he writes about "an exercise of the self on the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself, and to attain a certain mode of being". Again, in "Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity" [also in the Essential Works] Foucault encourages us to "create a new cultural life underneath the ground of our sexual choices". If this all makes Foucault sound very Deleuzian then we can now come back to your question about the middle and the relationscape. And I guess, reading Manning, that where relationscapes and biograms happen (or are created), where they are enacted, is in a kind of middle space, the plane of consistency: Manning writes that  “Rhythm is a force for mattering on the cusp between the actual and the virtual, felt both actually and virtually in the between of the series, causing a change of direction, a jump, a syncopation..rhythm is the n+1 of the body in movement, the more-than that creates—tangibly, affectively—a becoming-body” (132).


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