Edited extracts from a talk given at Glasgow School of Art on 11 October 2013. The talk was originally called ‘Sex and Buildings’. The term ‘Difficult Men’ I borrowed from Brent Martin, whose book of the same title was published in June this year by Penguin.
‘(…) Sex and Buildings was an attempt to deal with a basic question – during a century when there was ever more talk about sex, when sex for people in the industrialised world had come to be considered a right, and had been more or less completely separated from reproduction – why was architecture so coy? Our sexual lives are, I wrote, framed by buildings, and rooms in buildings. If we seek sexual encounters outside of buildings (on, for example Hampstead Heath) it constitutes a social, and often a legal transgression. Sex and buildings are intimately connected, and in the category of buildings itself, the relationship is further limited to certain kinds of interiors, typically bedrooms, which are sealed and private. That may well be how we like it. But the long public conversation about sex in the twentieth century suggested we might be entering a more enlightened and liberal phase; that we could put away Victorian sexual morality. Why therefore were we all still living in boxes that either were Victorian (in my case) or were often pastiches of Victoriana (everyone else)? The book was a search for alternatives. There was a broad sweep through history, encountering a gang of sexual mavericks along the way. The conclusion was downbeat, though – the sexual promise of the twentieth century was an illusion, and architecture’s failure to represent that promise was reflection of reality. We aren’t all living in polyamorous communes shaped like crystals because our social reality has failed to keep pace with theory (…)
(…) Writing in the Times Higher, Annemarie Adams noted how unusual it was to have declaredly straight man write about sex; that most of the chatter about sex in the academic world in recent years had come from people anxious to define their own experience against heterosexuality. So if you have a an academic interest in sex, invariably you get to know a great deal about homosexuality, especially male homosexuality. If you have an interest in architecture and sexuality, queer theory is really the place to start. The literature on cruising, on queer spaces in cities, on campness is extraordinarily thick; it is arguably a queer sensibility that has made the American suburb such an object of psychological fascination. It is telling that the only major architectural exhibition to link sex and buildings did so from a decidedly queer perspective: ‘Out There’, an archly camp take on the Venice Architecture Biennale staged in 2006, curated by Aaron Betsky. Very good it was too – but also emblematic of the extent to which the discourse about sex had been captured by noisily queer voices.
‘It wasn’t always like this, or course. Go back to the 1970s and we would probably have been preoccupied with the future of the normative family, wondering how, under pressure from Marx and Freud and Masters and Johnson, it could possibly survive. We might have been flirting with polyamory or polygamy in some limited form ourselves. We would probably have known people who either did live in communal settings, or who were attracted by the idea. We might not have been too bothered by what women thought The sexual revolution had to come first. This was the subtext to Malcolm Bradbury’s brilliant, and much-misunderstood novel The History Man, the story of a rabidly libidinous sociologist in a fictional early-70s English university. It is a book about sex and politics, and both are powerfully conditioned by the spaces they occupy. An early scene in the book has Kirk arranging his rambling Victorian house for the party; every intervention, however slight, is meant to communicate: a door ajar here, a cushion there, a strategically engineered power cut in a corridor, all meant to engineer as much erotic action as possible. Kirk sets the architectural scene, and manages it periodically, a Lord of Misrule filling glasses with wine and making constant adjustments to ensure the maximum possible interaction (…)
Kirk is a monster, but his struggle is an age-old one between the libidinal and the social, sex and civilisation. And it hasn’t gone away, even if it has gone out of fashion in the university (replaced the rather dessicated politics of identity). It has re-emerged in the portrayals of ‘difficult men’ who have appeared in recent long-form American TV (Difficult Men is in fact the title of a recent book on the topic by the journalist Brent Martin). ‘Difficult Men’ are by definition straight men, caught in a web of social and family responsibilities. They take those responsibilities extremely seriously, and they carry them out with dedication, attention to detail and selflessness. But that creates huge tension. The narratives of each of these dramas revolves around the tension between the public role and the private desire, order and chaos, between civilisation and sex. Breaking Bad, the now concluded HBO series is a case in point: its central character, Walter White is a mild-mannered family man who turns to the manufacture of methamphetamine in order – superficially – to cover his medical bills. Literally and figuratively emasculated in season 1, by season 2 he has proved himself not only adept at the business of cooking meth, but also surprisingly good at the business of killing people who get in his way. His moral decent is also a libidinal awakening – and it is this, Walt’s emergence as a man that kept viewers rooting for him, even as the bodies pile up. (I was one of them. I loved Walt to the end) (…)
LET’S TALK ABOUT ME
‘The reviewers of Sex and Buildings were mostly intrigued by another difficult man, however, namely its author. The reason was the confessional tone of the early pages in which I located the architectural history in a context of my own experience. There were some eye-catching remarks about the trials of family life, and an account of Morningside as a Victorian sex prison. All this got press attention, as intended (…)
‘Why did I do it? First is simply that I was asked to – Reaktion thought the first draft was boring, and wanted it sexed up. Fine, I thought (…) The second reason was one of intellectual context, or rather, tradition. Art history has retained a pseudo-objectivity for rather longer than it might, perhaps because of its residual anxieties about art criticism – or heaven forbid, art appreciation. I don’t know the answer. Other modes of writing have been readier to embrace subjectivity. So when I thought of how I might model a more open subjectivity in the writing, I thought of writers I liked. Freud was one – an intellectual subject for me for a long time, but also a writer I’d read for pleasure. And it is striking how open Freud is about his own subjectivity, how often he foregrounds his own experience as a way of giving life to theory. In a passage from ‘The Uncanny’ (1909) that is familiar to innumerable students, Freud describes getting lost on vacation in a ‘small Italian town’, where by accident he winds up in a square occupied mainly by prostitutes; deeply embarrassed, he scuttles away, only to find himself drawn back by some mysterious force; and then again, despite his attempts to escape, producing a state close to panic. It is only on a further attempt that Freud manages to escape, promising himself no further adventures, Freud uses the episode to describe the production of the uncanny (‘a special class of fear’) through repetition. What I always noted was Freud’s willingness to use his own psychological discomfort to explicate a problem. There are countless other examples – and while there is no doubt some thing performative about them, it’s worth emphasising their self-deprecating quality.
‘That performed subjectivity is a critical part of mainstream psychological literatures. It’s vital to Oliver Sacks (in fact it starts to take over); it’s in the popular psychotherapeutic work by Esther Perel; it’s also there, strongly in Richard Sennett’s work, which although strictly sociological, draws heavily on the psychological tradition. If you know Sennett’s work, you also know a great deal about him, his tastes in drink and tobacco and music, his friends, his eclectic sexuality. It’s methodologically problematical – you never know where Sennett begins and ends the research starts, but he always makes you think (…)
‘Finally, by speaking about my own experience, I was trying to find a way of speaking to a larger cultural experience. I’m not very interesting by myself – no-one is. But I’m representative of a once dominant class, now long in decline. My family, as long as I can see back, has been a middle class dedicated to public service. We ran things: sometimes big things like oil refineries and stock exchanges, but mostly the social glue: schools, university departments, doctors’ surgeries, banks, learned societies, and churches – above all, churches We didn’t have money, exactly, but we did have a bit of influence. We did it all over the UK. We were, so to speak, the middle management of empire. We chaired the committees; we held it all together. Most importantly, as I’ve come to realise over the years, our power, such as it was, derived from a perceived level of moral authority, deriving directly from the church. A liberal church by any standards, it took a hard line when it came to work. It embodied the Protestant work ethic like nothing else. We, and the society we built, had the most to gain from the disciplining of the libido. Its sublimation into work was where we derived our authority. But conversely, we had most to lose when that libido ran wild.
‘So my ‘difficult men’ in the book are all like this, driven men, work-obsessed, trapped in webs of obligation and responsibility. Their obligations, and also their desires are represented by the buildings that surround them. Ignore them – or trap them too deeply – and they explode. Their capacity for destruction is breathtaking. Recent long-form TV drama has returned time and again to these ‘difficult men’, most spectacularly in Breaking Bad, which suggests the problem remains as unresolved now as it was in Freud’s time. We still haven’t worked out what to do with these men. We ought to…’