Hedwig leaves her stain on the Shortbus.

Curator's Note

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.



 Thanks for a very thought-provoking post Kris. I have a couple of questions about Severin who I think is one of the more conflicted characters in Shortbus. I agree with you that she is confonted, in the scene you describe with her "trust fund" boy, with the fact that her wish for what Mitchell describes in an interview as a kind of self-fertilizing orgasm, is unattainable. She cannot be alone (none of the characters in the movie can, really). But, since you see the scene from the point of view of the painting, I wonder if you could say more about the place of Severin at the end of the film. She does appear to be alone yet also co-mingled with the crowd of orgiastic bodies and musical instruments. As all the other characters engage in "dirty be-comings" Severin seems to be as much of an anamorphic blot on the screen as the ejaculate in the scene you talk about. But is she really alone? Is she what Lee Edelman would call a sinthomosexual?


Thanks, Kris, for a very interesting post! I too find Severin a fascinating character. I'd like to add an extra fold to Michael's question and ask if you think that Severin's sinthomosexuality (if indeed you agree with the Edelmanesque denomination) at all reflects back on Hedwig's final stance - a single auto-erotic (or post-erotic?) being, semi-naked, smeared in tomato boob juice and with a smudged silver cross on her forehead? Is Severin something beyond the sexualised - something "beautiful and new"?

And another question - do you think that her relationship to sexuality (and the abstract painting) can be explained through her relationship to reality, and the fact that she always wants to experience through polaroid pictures? It reminds me of Amelia Jones' very Lacanian claim that we need to see ourselves through our pictures.


Michael & Karin,

Thank you for the thought-provoking questions!  I do enjoy Edelman (especially the Deleuzian-ish-ness in No Future). I am going to think about the “anamorphic blot” comment in relation to what is being discussed on your page, but also might just find a way to connect it to my response about Hedwig that will likely have to come later…

I would not argue that Severin is a sinthomosexual because of how she renders her “best orgasm”:

  • She is staring at the painting, and states “It was like time had stopped and I was completely alone.”
  • Mild whippings and cross-cuttings ensue before “Trust fund” boy has an orgasm. (seemingly climactic as we cross-cut to other “orgasms” in other spaces) before returning to the painting.
  • The painting is framed in close-up to see the semen drip, but cuts to medium shot to reveal how it blends into the chaotic colors.  
  • Severin stares at the painting quizzically, even puzzled, and proceeds to reveal how her orgasm became disappointing: “Because time hadn’t stopped, and I wasn’t alone.”

While Severin could allow the gap between best (alone) and “sad” (not alone) orgasmic moments to productively co-mingle, it seems that the painting takes-on the embodiment of the scenes catachrestic force. Severin pauses within the phenomenological fold between having sense(d) and making sense, but it seems that the painting provides catachresis for Severin’s thoughts: “ambivalently subtending fusion and difference, ambivalent in structure and seemingly ambiguous in meaning,” which Vivian Sobchack explains further, “not only points to the ‘gap’ between figures of language and literal lived-body experience but also reversibly, chiasmatically, ‘bridges’ and ‘fills’ it” (Carnal Thoughts).

The painting may personify the sinthomosexual, as it seemingly offers paths to consider the endless futurities and possibilities that Severin’s recounting cannot. I do assume–anticipate–hope–the semen remains on the canvas…but I don’t “know” and imagine that this aids my ability to consider the painting’s framing in close proximity to Edelman’s sinthomosexual, as “the site where the fantasy of futurism confronts the insistence of jouissance that rends it precisely by rendering it in relation to that drive” (No Future). It rends Severin’s experience, but renders multiple ways of seeing it/her/us (to see semen, to not see semen, to know that we can see, to know we may not see, to sense what it looks like, tastes like or feels like…) which, quite possibly, m/aligns visual renderings between iconoclasm (a la Deleuze) and jouissance. The painting offers uncertain potentiality, takes on the force of the ellipsis without an end-point, and provides endless futurities that might also include “no future.”

Simultaneously, this seems to connect to Karin’s question about the polaroid photographs. Severin’s relationship to reality seems to be materially visual, or visually rendered through material representations. I will, however, distinguish between pictorial and imaged forms of visuality (again via Mitchell). She pictures herself and others, through the photographic medium. In the moment she snaps a photograph it becomes an “instantly” material representation and separates from the virtual possibilities of an un-rendered visually imag(in)ed perception of Sofia. She sees Sofia while snapping her photograph (and she may imag(in)e who she is, and why she should be “sorry” about taking the photograph), but this is not the same way in which Sofia sees herself when she sees the photograph because Sofia inevitably imag(in)es herself differently. I am not sure I have an answer about how she connects sexuality with this way of experiencing visuality (or reality, for that matter). It might suggest that she uses photographs as connections with the symbolic (as iconic/indexical traces of sexuality); it might suggest she uses photographs as material representations to get a sense of the “Real” (not sure I see that as a possibility); but because the painting does so much “work” (at least that is what I argue), I’m not sure she uses these images to engage with the virtual possibilities of images either. Any others want to weigh in on this subject?

More to come RE: Hedwig & the anamorphic (here or possibly on MOR & KSs post).

Just a quick question inspired by Karin's mentioning Amelia Jones in the context of the polaroids and your invoking Vivian Sobchack in your very considered response: I was reminded of Amelia Jones' little essay on Tarnation (which was, of course, produced by John Cameron Mitchell) and the various uses to which cinemato-photographic media are put in Caouette's film. So, I wondered if you could say anything about the similarities (or not) between Shortbus and Tarnation in terms of either their depictions of dysfunctional queer sexualities or their usage of technology?



I've re-watched the end of Hedwig and thought about your question about Severin.  Sadly, I think that Hedwig returns to where he began.  Not only did she have to undress and de-feminize to become "whole"–at least according to her formulation as the drawn halves return to the (w)hole imprinted on flesh–but we are left with a puzzling filming "error."  As Hedwig walks naked down the alley, we see how she has become a he very specifically: (accidentally?) framed between his legs is a brief shot of JCM's testicles.  While I know JCM considers himself male-sexed, this is an interesting revelation for Hedwig and forces us to question the one-inched dilemma we had been following.  Presumably, all that Hedwig had left was an "angry inch."  Either this means that Hedwig has returned to (what many trans-critiques suggest to be) a "normative" gendered form or, possibly, we could consider how his search for the lost compliment ends when he can truly become trans(itionally)-sexed in the broadest sense: perpetually transitional, able to be angry-inched in one moment and grow testicles in another.  But, if all she needed was a (visible) set of balls to make "her" whole (as a "him"), I'm slightly troubled.

In relation to Severin, I'm not certain what it would mean to suggest that she beyond sexuality, or beyond being sexualized. I'm not certain if she is "beautiful and new" at the end or if she has merely shifted her point-of-pleasure from solo-eroticism to voyeuristic, spectatorial fascination.  She does not seem inclined to participate in the physical interactions around her, but it makes me wonder if she has a) found a way to allow time to stop and pleasure herself in her best way (we wouldn't see this after all), or if b) she finds erotic pleasure in lieu of orgasms (after all, she was only questioned about what her "best orgasm" was, which ended up sounding rather disappointing). 

I think I'm going to comment on the orgasm, generally, on Cynthia's post.



I'm sorry to say that I have not seen Tarnation.  I forgot to watch it before our theme week, and so I'm currently unable to comment on your question.  I will make note of your interesting question as something to consider when watching it (hopefully soon).

I have to admit that I never noticed John Cameron Mitchell's testicles in the final scene of Hedwig until now! To me they almost produce some sort of shadowy Brechtian verfremdungseffekt – Cameron Mitchell’s body mutinously appearing behind the protagonist’s otherwise rather androgynous nakedness – possibly in order to make us take a step back and consider the intellectual conclusions to be drawn from the drama’s abstract symbolism.

I have a tendency of reading the film Hedwig in light of the stage version (which I saw first - and like much better!) and although I know that transgender critics like Jordy Jones consider Cameron Mitchell to remain a (more or less complete) gay man throughout the narrative, I don't really read Hedwig/Tommy as a man (or a woman) in the end, but rather as something else (something “beautiful and new” if you like) - something beyond wholeness. That's where Plato's Symposium reconciles the discussion on separated halves and partition/completion after all. I read the final Hedwig-Tommy hybrid as the creature produced through their procreative “creation” – producing “something that wasn’t there before”. The intertwining  narratives of Hedwig and Tommy are “mapped across [his/her] body” and his/her tattoo is less of a completion of the two halves than a cellular mutation (note the spinning and transforming membrane in the animation – it’s even got little cellular mitochondria!).

These new balls are a fascinating addition, however! Can they maybe be read as an emblem of the “beautiful and new” (phallic) vitality rising out of the collision? More on this idea on Cynthia’s wall.

As for Severin’s final sexuality, I agree with you Kris. She's one of the characters that maybe least obviously goes through a transformation in the film – yet her relationship to the others seems markedly changed in the final scene. She does appear to move into some sort of voyeuristic stance. As you point out, however, there is more than one type of perceptual engagement and it seems to me that she becomes more of an audience than a documenter of the situation here – passively rather than actively processing the images.


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