Blame the troubadours; it was their idea.
The history lesson that tells us love-based marriages were a romantic (and luxurious) invention of medieval times is oft-cited as proof that love has never been constant, not even in its uses. Marriage once was a cool arrangement of wealth and power. (The advent of gay marriage means, for better or worse, we’ve become a part of that unromantic history, too.)
Romantic love, while always present in some half-assed way or other, previously shuffled through the attic of human experience, and did not assume the dominant role it now enjoys.
What Terre Thaemlitz, creator of Lovebomb, attempts in his monumental video and DJ performance piece (which ran at the Scotiabank Dance Centre Sep 25), is to drive that nihilistic vision of love to its logical conclusion.
Love, posits Thaemlitz, is not a cure for unjust power relationships and cruelty-it is an extension of it.
“Within the presumptions of a love relationship,” says Thaemlitz, “there are ways that violence can be enacted.” Domestic abuse, without the bind of “love,” would self-destruct.
On the micro level, Thaemlitz points toward the ways an idea of love holds us hostage to abusive lovers. On the macro level, he points to holy crusades that-by uniting soldiers in a common love of God-enable unthinkable cruelties. Collectivism, nationalism, any bond or society at all, creates an internal love by demonizing everything else.
In short, if we seek to mend global rifts, love is not the answer.
Thaemlitz is transgendered and his lived experience as a gender outlaw may help to explain his insights. Where others see connections, he sees disruption; where others see irrefutable truths, Thaemlitz (with an unquenchable thirst for debate) begs to differ.
We react to the notion of love in “knee-jerk ways,” said Thaemlitz during a Q & A following his performance.
Our idea of love as a universal balm is simply bogus, he argues. Each culture, rather, has its own, socially constructed model of love.
“Love is a system of cultural signifiers,” says Thaemlitz, who now lives in Japan. Each culture, then, builds its own set of signifiers, and its own love.
Those differences, combined with our refusal to accept difference, our attempt to bulldoze it flat with presumed postures of universality, cause “love” to ignite larger, geo-political conflicts.
“Patriotism,” said Oscar Wilde, “is a virtue of the vicious.” Wilde understood that the pack mentality binding patriots to each other does so at the exclusion of all else. America can only love itself, for example, by hating others. It’s Tough Love.
The pill Thaemlitz wants us to swallow is too bitter for most. Even at a panel discussion that assembled some of the city’s most well-known queer minds (Michael V Smith, Alvin Tolentino, Deborah O and Kathleen Oliver) many were irked.
Smith (aka Miss Cookie LaWhore) argued that, surely, some basic level of agreement, where all humanity can connect, can love each other, must exist. “We can all go and point at a tree,” he noted. We all, essentially, live by some contract of understanding, wherein we manage to live together.
Thaemlitz isn’t so sure. For him, meaning is found in the space where we don’t connect. Miscommunication generates the shared error we term “communication,” and fear-not love-is humanity’s prime motivator.
“I am a nihilist,” admitted the artist to his Saturday evening audience. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t experience pleasure.” There is, in fact, a dark humour laced beneath the imagery of Lovebomb. Very dark. Very far beneath.
In one chapter of the video, Astro Boy falls over repeatedly on screen and stretches his arm forward with pleading eyes. The image plays on a loop, dulling our sympathy for him; meanwhile, the voice of a young girl murmurs, “I understand” in Japanese, over and over.
As the sound file expands to include more voices, we realize what it is she understands. She is learning about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Astro Boy’s collapse, a cartoon image we have by now become numb to (so insistent is the repetition) suddenly stands in for millions of lives lost in the Second World War.
This is Thaemlitz’s awful joke: we, like the Japanese schoolgirl, can never really understand. We are numb to the realities of other people. We are numb, even, to our lovers, our most intimate friends.
In other scenes from Lovebomb, Coca Cola’s “Enjoy Coke” logo is altered to read “Enjoy AZT” and a voiceover tells the story of a gang of young men who sexually assault a boy, verbally abuse him and cum on his body like dogs marking territory.
These are Thaemlitz’s love bombs-drops of ejaculate raining down, fierce as weaponry.
It’s a cruel world that Thaemlitz inhabits, but he prefers it to the alternative: a plastic universe of forced grins and pretend kinship.
When questioned about his depressing tone, Thaemlitz drops the shop talk (which he is inordinately good at) and shrugs: “There’s nothing more phony than those people who walk around happy all the time.”
So much for love.