The Viscous Interview
As Pornhub registers record-breaking numbers of visits and sightings of couples having sex in public have reportedly become common, our minds inevitably turned to lube and its sliding-slippery lockdown potential.
In a moment equally charged with hormones and horror, it seems a good time to consider the idea of the viscous as it captures the material and immaterial, the disgusting and the divine. I spoke to RCA PhD candidate Freddie Mason about his upcoming book The Viscous: Slime, Stickiness, Fondling, Mixtures. Pre-order here.
Where does the word ‘viscous’ come from?
The ‘viscous’, that word we use to describe a certain quality of resistance and of flow, a quality of stickiness, and of slipperiness, originates in a Latin word for mistletoe: ‘viscum’. The mistletoe plant produces fantastically sticky excretions, which were (and still are) extracted and smeared on the branches of trees as a kind of bird trap: birdlime. The birds landing on the branches would get stuck there, before someone comes along and yanks them off, the birds breaking at the knees. It is why, I think, we are meant to kiss underneath mistletoe at Christmas time: to inspire a particularly glutinous adhesion in the lips, the soul, the heart...
I won’t go into too much detail about the etymology. But ‘viscum’ navigates about, sometimes meaning the guts, the genitalia, a particular kind of sausage, sometimes just the foreskin, sometimes all at the same time. The viscous, for me, is about the creep of meaning and of material. Touch a clammy palm and you’re immediately sent out on an adventure of dogs noses, the interior walls of caves, glue, vaginas, mayonnaise... what have you...
To be involved in a viscous encounter is to be “more involved in the world than we would like” you write. Can you explain why this is a central idea in your book?
The standard theory of disgust goes like this: we have our bodies here, and the world over there. This distinction is really important to us in our day-to-day lives. It means things like control, self-determination, freedom, intelligence. A corruption in this distinction usually results in a crisis of some kind. Depression can, for instance, feel like everything is collapsing into one thing without features or articulated parts – a great pulsating mass of doom.
This is, pretty much, the old school theory, written about with astonishing misogyny by Sartre in the concluding pages of Being and Nothingness, a seriously unfashionable book these days.
But the idea has seen some really exciting contemporary refashionings lately by ecological theorists like Timothy Morton, who uses this idea of the viscous as a way of imagining global warming. One of the conceptual challenges of the Anthropocene is to see the world extending into us in a way that is simultaneously certain yet obscure, disorientating yet definite. I am in no doubt that we have entered a viscous moment in human history. And the most viscous thing about it is that we’ve always been there.
Slime and viscosity have inherently sexual connotations in our imaginations. You give the example of Augustine imagining his sin in terms of the sticky wetness of his semen. What did you learn about the relationship between intimacy and sex in relation to the viscous?
Augustine is really interesting because he doesn’t only have the body/spirit divide that is normally thought to dominate theological questions. He has an idea about another material, the mysterious material that glues the spirit in the body, the sticky bastard that won’t let your spirit rise out of the mortal coil and meet its maker. The viscous is this point of connection for him, this glue.
More generally, I want to exhibit viscosity as the possibility of connection. It is the material of intimacy. The stuff that allows bodies to meet, without, importantly becoming the same thing. And this is what has become important for me about intimacy, just as someone living in the world. Intimacy is about cultivating separation as much as it is about nurturing togetherness. The viscous is so often imagined as blobby masses of undifferentiated matter. But it is also about the very fine films of separation that allow for generative closeness. Love, basically. Those microscopic seams of bodily fluid or lube on which our intimacy and love can rub and float.
Talk to us about lube in the context of your research.
Lube is a big area for me in the research. I’m really interested in object identification, that being: objects that are elected as representatives of particular world views and subcultures. The viscous, as lube and other things, has been elected by those who identify as sexual deviants for a long time now. Jean Genet is a famous example, whose Thief’s Journal and others have some of the best writing on Vaseline you’ll ever read – an emissary he sends out ahead of him to resist the scorn of the establishment.
As a thing, lube slows time down as a kind of protective layer. It also speeds time up, lets things move quicker. It slips people out of non-normative sexual identities while slipping people back into ones that they feel they’ve lost, with, for instance, vaginal dryness. Its substance intermingles control with a loss of control. As KY Jelly advertises on its website, its lubricants are for “everyday comfort seekers and pleasure explorers” alike. In the branding of lube, the controlled and the adventurous are as tightly entangled as ideas of the highly technological and the natural. Its technology is one that promises to take us to whole new continents of pleasure or let us, if we want, simply feel like ourselves again.
The presence of synthetic substitutes for absent bodily fluids is a widening in the scope of the ways it is possible to realise desire. It is an encouraging thought that in the 1960s, while tribologists at the University of Cambridge were working out how to make mechanical components glide more profitably over one another, William Burroughs and others were lubricating their bodies to subvert biopolitical control. It is also an important fact for the history of these substances that as the viscous became increasingly technologised, it became a central practical and symbolic substance for gay counterculture. Where for the engineers, the flourishing of slippery substances was a diminishing of wasted energy, it was for queer communities, the becoming of a major object identification. But it is also more than a symbol, more than a means. Its material corresponds to non-conformist desire.
Slime is often a motif in pop culture, particularly to define the unknown (aliens, The Blob). Do we find slime cropping up with more prominence and frequency in times of change and crisis?
That’s a super complex question, and to be honest, even though I’ve spent five years researching slime and viscosity, I’m not sure if I’ve got an answer I feel is convincing. What I do know is that slime is certainly attached to cultural anxieties throughout, at least, the 20th Century, nuclear war, communism, trash culture. There’s of course also morbid sexual desire, fetish, lascivious men, witchcraft and monsters, all of which have or can have slimy elements or obsessions.
I would also say that slime is, in itself, a kind of crisis – the collapse of things out of a discernable structure, an unpredictable and volatile material energy that threatens to overcome you. It is what happens to the world when you stop having ideas. But it is also that which stays on after everything has gone to shit. Its residue is a moment of dizziness where the rules of the game might be rewritten. This is why, I think, it has been used in pop culture as the embodiment of everything going wrong. But, as I try to show in my book, slime is also a substance of promise – the proof of the impossibility of nothing, if you like.
Viscosity is attractive to us and feels contemporary in its existing in a state of constant change, in its unknowability and refusal to take a definable form. It’s an idea that we’re interested in with Liquid (hence the name) and it seems central to our way of conceiving of identity today. Is our understanding of viscosity and slime relevant now more than ever?
It’s funny you say that. One of the main things I try to do in the book is to define the viscous as separate from the liquid. And I actually take aim at obsessions with liquidity in progressive politics and culture. While I often agree with politics, I disagree with ideas of freedom as fluid. I think it’s a mistake. Or at least confusing. The viscous is just as much about resistance as it is about flow.
What better tool to help imagine liberation than a mobility formed of a thousand clustered resistances? Rather than fluidity, surely we should be thinking about kinds of being that stretch and then shimmer, flop off, then bounce out the window. A dynamic that troubles in equal measure the pressure to contain and control as the pressure of “boundlessness, of ‘irrealization’, and reduction to principle – the principle of flowing, of distance, of vague endless enticement”.
Slime has a long philosophical tradition but you get excited by and are generally interested in the everyday moments when we come face to face with slime. You have a passage where you look into your fridge and rejoice in the idea that the dairy products in there are made up of the same ‘mythologies of emulsions’ as the cosmos (The Milky Way, Heracles and Athena’s breast milk). A long question for a short answer – how does slime make you happy in your day to day lol?
People are often surprised to hear that I don’t have a slime fetish. I really don’t. ASMR doesn’t even really do it for me either. I love textures. I love their secrecy. I love how they creep into our thinking, language and feeling without us knowing. Textures are truly excessive.
Images: Ania Mokrzycka, touching lamella, 2015; @kwai_sliime; Michael Pacher, The Devil Presenting St. Augustine with the Book of Vices, c. 1455-1498; still from Jean Genet, Un chant d'amour, 1950; still from Beware! The Blob, 1972; photo by Roisin Agnew; Lily Raymond, Objects from The Thief’s Journal.