Fall 2017

Cruising’s Spectral Intimacies (Four Scenes)

In these four vignettes, cruising and space-time are connected by spectrality. In both the form and content of this essay I hope to model an ethics of haunted cruising in which the ghost (the undead revenant as well as the ghosts of colonialism) is the figure of the uncanny space and the untimely rhythms of cruising. We do not cruise in spaces with total agency and self-possession, for we are cruised by spaces themselves, which have their own disturbing magnetisms and seductions.


Figures of Cruising in Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn shows us that history never says what it wants of us; its ghosts are never so explicit. An ethics of haunted cruising demands attunement to the minute gestures, sometimes imperceptible, of the history of a space and its inhabitants. The slowness of Tsai’s camerawork opens this possibility in the visual field, allowing our gaze to cruise the screen and its details to cruise our attention in turn.


Cruising is an eroticized sensing of space. The layout of the long shot gives us access to the goings-on of the cruising ground. Extending down a diagonal line of depth, the viewer has visual access to three zones in the ecosystem of cruising: the bathroom stalls, behind which cruising is “consummated” (and we are startled when a hand reaches out to close a stall door a long minute after the other cruiser has already left, making time feel discontinuous); the sink and the exit door, which constitute the border demarcating cruising’s territory; and the urinals, the prime site of cruising’s manoeuvres. Individual desire circulates in this space, notably so in the second man (whom we shall call, as shorthand, the “protagonist”); but as viewers we are treated to a geometric matrix of desire’s drift, interpersonal but also—insofar as it makes a network with wood, fluorescence, ceramic, the sound of water—non-human. Cinema dissects for us the hyperawareness of spacing that is central to cruising: the intention-laden space between three bodies compressed at the urinals asymmetrical against three consecutively empty urinals; the personal space intruded upon when the man reaches over the vulnerable pissing man to grab his cigarettes from the countertop. The fluid schematics of desire are traced onto, and etched into, those more static objects of the space, offering us an impressionistic cartography of cruising.

Cruising is durational. The temporality of cruising is waiting. When cruising in the public sphere people find an activity that covers for their cruising: an implausibly long piss, or a two-minute handwashing session. Tsai’s meditative shots translate cruising into cinematic form: we sweep the scene and install ourselves among these patient surveyors. In Tsai’s mise en scène, the cigarette becomes the object that expresses each cruiser’s idiorrhythmy: the pace and beat of their unique experience of time, of breath. Waiting is cruising’s mode of chronomorphosis: bending time out of shape and away from cause-and-effect progressions. This temporality is distinct from the cruising that occurs in spaces specifically designed for anonymous sex, such as the bathhouse or the strip club, where the music sets a regular rhythm and dictates the speed of the space, dragging the cruiser’s tempo in its tow.


Cruising is the negotiation of the awkwardness of asymmetrical contact. In the bathroom scene, not once is a glance exchanged; one party looks upon another body while that body pretends to be preoccupied. When the protagonist finally approaches the consummation of cruising with the Japanese man under the guise of needing a light for his cigarette, eye contact is made but desires pass each other entirely by. Cruising is the negotiation of this awkward imbalance, and what distinguishes master from amateur is how gracefully they handle desire’s duds and flops.

Cruising is a matter of death. Tsai wants us to take the ghost literally. Amidst all the surface movements of ordinary life, the film throws us a dramatic twist when the handsome Japanese man tells our protagonist “你知道这戏有鬼” (You know… there are ghosts here?), a question inflected as though it is a matter-of-fact statement. This revelation opens a rift in the film's reality. As the film never tells us who the ghosts are, nor what any of the characters are cruising for, it leaves the entire epistemological surface of the film suspended in ambiguity. By unseating our epistemological certainty (for surely in our spectatorship it’s not odd to assume characters are alive) this utterance doubly recasts how we watch the film. First, it makes all characters flicker in the ambiguous half-light of are they ghosts or are they not. If the ghost is understood as a forceful post-mortem attachment to space (we imagine that these ghosts are cinephiles melancholically attached to the dilapidated theatre), then the ghost figures history’s haunting, its self-remaking as a palimpsest of traces of the past and present: nothing is fully lost, nothing is fully there. Second, it reinstates the death that was always fundamental to the act of cruising: death concealed in the legacy of disease vectors, but also our mutual exposure to the possibility of each other’s violence. In his own cheeky, understated way, Tsai asks us to take the ghost seriously as what is neither irretrievably lost nor properly accounted for in the official records of history.


Barthes in Morocco: Cruising Coloniality

Roland Barthes, the twentieth-century French semiologist, lush stylist, and consummate aesthete, offers us a verbose counterpoint to Tsai’s reticent images: here I stage their incongruous encounter. I had read Barthes with the utmost devotion for half a decade, and when I came upon his cruising diaries, I swallowed them up wholesale, orientalism and all, too deeply identified with his gaze to pay enough attention to how he turned bodies of colour into ghosts, unreflexively phasing them out of history. As a colonial artifact, Barthes’s diaries are a matrix of attractions (desire’s spectral identifications) and repulsions (colonialism’s willful blindnesses).

1969, Morocco. In the pages of the posthumous diary-essay collection, Incidents (1987), Barthes cruises for the love of hustlers; money enters the scene of cruising. Where sex happens it’s mediated by Barthes’s particular intellection, beholden to the erotics of meaning as any lover of signs must be: “I enjoy Amidou’s vocabulary: dream and burst for get an erection and have an orgasm. Burst is vegetal, scattering, disseminating, not moralistic, narcissistic, closed off.”Roland Barthes, Incidents, trans. Richard Howard (Oakland: University of California Press, 1992), 29.

Barthes brings out cruising’s erotics of the nuance even as he spectralizes the ghostly figures of the boys who are spoken for. He draws a private delight out of the Moroccan boys’ awkward French-as-a-second-language semantics; he translates their speech into his own systems of desire. As a reader, I am aroused by the clipped textual condensations of sex—“Mustafa is in love with his cap. He won’t take it off to make love”Ibid., 19.—and charmed by Barthes’s writing, which makes these incidents (incidents: a euphemism for paying for sex) into spectral traces, faint afterthoughts of cum on soil.

Raised in stark relief throughout are the power relations that mark the difference between the white man of means who cruises, and the Moroccan boys being cruised. The boys’ agency and desire become an effaced spectral trace, unreadable beyond how they are codified by the context of culture and religion—a culture that is trespassed by Barthes’s sex tourism. As a trained semiologist, Barthes is unmatched at understanding the furtive codes that appear in cruising (a furtiveness lost in the heterosexual context, which never needs to develop an underground shadow-language); he lets the world cruise him with generosity and openness to its miniature surprises. But much as he takes delight in little missed translations of signification, and in the gestures of the boys who transport him away from oppressive environments of Paris, he fails to consider the knotty colonial power that allows him those pleasures in the first place; he consigns those boys to spectral representations, outlined by colonial force.

Ten years later, it is cruising that will make Barthes give up on desire, never having learned the lesson about trying to pay for what he wants (love) by buying the wrong thing (sex). In this scene, Oliver is the indifferent “last” hustler in Barthes’s cruising diaries: “Then I sent him away, saying I had work to do, knowing it was over, and that more than Olivier was over: the love of one boy.”Ibid., 59. Hyperaware of his aging body, hustling fails to satisfy Barthes’s despair over his encroaching and absolute unloveability. (Perhaps despite myself, I empathize with his misery.) It is Barthes himself who has become a ghost to the hustlers, recognizable (as a man of means; as the master of a financial transaction) but no longer seen by the light of love (love being that which exits the considerations of any economy). Unlike the hapless protagonist in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, cruising for Barthes is wrapped up in the power of money that makes it easy for him to consummate a cruise, but it cannot fulfil the desire for the amorous commitment that is not achievable through economic exchange. We are left to answer the question in our own ethical practices: how can we pursue Barthes’s erotic attention to spatial and cultural details without losing sight of the systems that define and delimit our erotic investments?


Learning from Bathhouses

I cruise in a Taiwanese bathhouse, startled by the flatness of my desire while surrounded by the sight of all these bodies that looked like mine. It was here in this mirror maze that the whiteness of my desire was laid bare, rooted in reams of history: my accelerated assimilation at age four into the Western world, and a whole diet of culture that fronted the sexiness, and sexual power, of white bodies. Here was an internalized racism whose expression was not self-hatred but self-indifference: desire could find no purchase in bodies “like mine,” and even this invocation of likeness indicated a foreclosure performed on the grounds of race: do not look too much like me to fuck.

To be haunted by your own body, the body you’ve carved away from yourself through a powerful turn of abstraction, blanching, bleaching, repressing what you know too well is already open for all to see.

The bathhouses in Toronto I always visit with a close friend. The thrill of transgression lies in the attempt to bring intimacy into a place whose express purpose is primarily grinding sex out, this shared intent nearly machinic. A different sense of homelessness pervades here (in the city I call home where people ask me “where I’m from”); I feel unmoored from the tendernesses that sustain my living. I make a provisional list of semiotic codes operative at the bathhouse. States of being: at rest and open to sex (reclining, but wide awake); at rest and closed to sex (sleeping); restless (cruising for a thing desired or for desire itself); touching oneself; fucking or about to fuck; cleaning oneself. Above all, a profound boredom, the hypnotic circulation of passing and repeating bodies that grazes the sublime. 


Taking The River Back to Dragon Inn

In Tsai’s 1997 film The River, father and son both visit the bathhouse seeking reprieve from the banality of their family life. One night, their desires overlap—in the same room, with each other:


This is as close as Tsai comes to spectacle, and this vision of cruising—filmed such as the bodies are flecks of illumination in an otherwise abstract pitch-darkness—is the antithesis to the expansive spaces of Goodbye, Dragon Inn. In this scene, in this momentary burst of corporeal comfort, both father and son seem possessed by each other, fucking with total abandon, yet held apart by a blacked-out distance of a non-recognition soon to be disintegrated. Instead of the geographically mapped diagram of cruising’s zones: a formless void renders the father and son in a sealed and unanchored space. In place of the cover of anonymity that allows cruisers to go unidentified, unnamed: an intense recognition that re-establishes kinship at its most fundamental level, that is, the familial in its uncanny form as incest. Sometimes what haunts you in your spaces of pleasure is too alive, too close to you. Not only does cruising slip away from attempts at defining its essence, it is also capable of inverting into the very scenarios and subject positions it tries to escape.


The violence at the end of this River scene—the father towering over his collapsed son, his seething anger, the impossibility of avowing what has just taken place—reminds us that, of course, power differentials both subtle and explicit exist even in lieu of the casual colonialism that characterizes Barthes’s diaries. Cruising is no such utopic vacuum of relationality outside power. As the movie theatre in Goodbye, Dragon Inn closes for good, the operator of the theatre attempts one last time to catch the attention of the projectionist by gifting him with a half bun, peach shaped, almost explicitly the symbol of romantic love à la Aristophanes. We watch her watch him leave with the bun, and then leave alone in the rain, to the sounds of Yao Lee’s 留恋 (Nostalgia): it’s half bitter, it’s half sweet, year after year. The spectral cruising that explodes the heart of the film boils over into the world outside the theatre and then into our everyday sociality. Cruising is the haunted figure of the missed connection, the tempo that stumbles out of sync, the ordinary unevenness of desire. We learn from Barthes that to expect romantic affirmation and amorous unity in cruising is to make space for your own disappointment. We learn from Tsai that, despite—or rather because of—its disappointments, failures, and foibles, cruising names the practice of attuning oneself to the strange desire-lines that cross the scene of a space and its time.