Dishabituation, Polyamory, and the Recontextualization of Intimate Experience

A paper originally written for Aesthetics of the Oppressed, Spring 2016 at SKSM


The more time I spend working with Theater of the Oppressed methods, the more often I wish I could yell “stop!” and interrupt the needlessly oppressive flow of almost all of the visual media I consume. Though there is much to focus on in this regard, I often find myself fixated on the particular way in which the plots of everything from television for tweens to award winning films hinge on a very specific set of assumptions about relationships. In order to create a conflict that needs to be resolved – the only way we seem to understand storytelling – writers lean heavily on jealousy and compulsory monogamy. Relationships in this context are if not straight, heteronormative, and – tellingly – in the end the intensity of the jealousy and subsequent drama is taken (implicitly or explicitly) as a stand in for the depth of the love within the relationship. These relationships rely on coercive interactions and often are intimate, detailed playings out of oppressive, repressive, and anti-liberatory systems and norms hidden under the guise of entertainment and “this is just what relationships are like.” Of course, something else is possible.

Popular media is not the only way that we are able to tell stories. Official practice of TO techniques is not the only space in which we can practice new possibilities. Art is relational, and relationships themselves are art. If one intentionally resists cultural scripts that push towards the heteronormative & compulsorily monogamous, relationships – love, sex, connection – open up as viable sites for re-imagining relating itself. Here, I would like to consider the possibility of polyamorous relationships between queer people as a particularized site of such exploration and reimagining. My point here is not to suggest that queer/queered polyamory is the ideal form of relationship for all people, but to point out the coercive forms of popular media, the particularity of hetero and mononormative narratives, and the multicontextual dishabituatory/demechanizing creative practice that I have found to be a necessary part of building relationships outside of the “norm.” Further, I would like to explore other forms of visual art as a way of deepening interaction with and recontextualizing intimate experience.  

In his work on Theater of the Oppressed, Agusto Boal discusses Aristotle’s coercive system of tragedy by which the form of a narration – and the system in which we are used to consuming a narrative – forces particular identifications and emotional responses on the part of the spectators to the effect of purging “antisocial elements.” Though perhaps not tragedies, the ever-present jealously-based relationship storylines in popular media serve a similar coercive function. We are presented with a happy (heterosexual/heteronormative, monogamous) couple, invited to identify with one of the individuals in the couple, shown a situation that draws their relationship into conflict based on unspoken rules about how relationships work – often one individual’s attraction to someone not their partner. When the situation resolves we are lead to believe either that the couple’s mutual love was enough to “overcome temptation” or that one member did not have sufficient love for the other and thus the relationship must end.

Even when we’re told that we’re being shown something different, ultimately our narratives never escape this understanding. We know the feeling of “temptation”, we identify with feeling betrayed or like we are betraying, and in the end we – intentionally or otherwise – agree that what it means to love someone is that you cannot love or be interested in any sort of intimacy with other people. Narratives like this live inside our brains and become postural to our being. We conduct years, decades, and even lifetimes of relationships based on a script that wasn’t even written for us, that wasn’t actually written for anyone. Our lifetime of exposure to very specific narratives around relationships keep us from ever having the opportunity or the necessary distance to ask what it is that we believe love to mean. We are coerced – both by these narratives and by a variety of other social pressures – into killing our own creative capacity in relationships.

Popular media representations of relationships portray themselves as neutral and are, due to cultural norms around orientation and relationships style, read as neutral. A story about a (white) man who cheats on the (white) woman he is married to is almost always presented as a story about the nature of relationships, as though there is no particular context to the experiences of (white) straight people. We are culturally primed to understand these relationships as standard and to absorb the story as if it were about everyone. This compounds these stories’ ability to act coercively. A story presented to you as about the nature of relationships is harder to ignore than one that admits that it is a particular story about particularly situated people. They are however particular, built on specific cultural understandings, norms, and sign/signified relationships. The replication of these stories on other bodies serves only to underscore the assumed universality. Heteronormative relationships between gay and lesbian individuals that repeat the problems we’re used to seeing played out between straight couples doubles down on coercive force, pushing both for the neutrality of straight experience and assimilationist rhetoric of “sameness” that drains queerness of its creative potential.

Both queerness and polyamory can be the beginnings of a dishabituitory practice around relationship norms. Though neither necessarily implies or requires creative reworking of the cultural habits of heterosexual monogamy, the step away from heterosexuality and/or monogamy opens up an opportunity for such creativity. In the essay “TO, the Body, and the Phenomenology of Trauma, Oppression and Liberation”, Jiwon Chung writes that Boal uses the term dynamization “to describe the process of dishabituation of reflexive, habitual forms of body holding, as well as the dishabituation of reflexive, habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, sensing and moving.”  This process, as described by Chung and Boal and as experienced in TO sessions everywhere, involves gentle trust-building, creative sensory engagement, and supportive community that work together to help pull an individual out of her isolation and trauma. In a very similar way queer/queered polyamory can work to demechanize the routine ways of being in relationship. Asking questions about how to be in a relationship that doesn’t look like what we’re used to being shown, finding answers for those questions, and putting possibilities into practice require trust-building and great gentleness between individuals, involve creativity and sensory engagement (sexual, sensual, and otherwise), and are aided by a context of supportive community that can help usher an individual out from isolation and trauma experienced in previous relationships.

One mode of dishabituation is simply in the approach to a relationship that isn’t based on externally imposed narratives. Simply being queer or polyamorous allows one this opportunity for a perspective shift because from the outset one must ask how a relationship works if it is between more than two people or people who are not “opposite” genders. Just asking how it works is in and of itself dishabituative since it asks the question rather than simply assuming the normal posture of relationships. Another mode of dishabituation that is particular to polyamorous relationships is the simultaneous experience of multiple relationships. Since each relationship has its own particularities – textures, patterns, energies – it becomes difficult to become too habituated to any particular way of relating. Intimate experiences from gentle, supportive touch to intense sexual experiences have the potential to be in contrast to other types of those things which are similarly satisfying, mutual, and precious.

In the interest of further exploring this dishabituative practice of queer/queered polyamory, I have turned to art to consider my own intimate experiences in a less-usual context. Working from Boal’s theoretical foundation and considering the problems of sign/signified that often obscure our ability to discuss experiences love and sex, I have chosen to make paintings in an abstract expressionist mode. They are based on experiences with four separate people with whom I am involved. Two are partners – people to whom I say “I love you” and with whom I have long standing relationships. The third is someone I have been dating for a few months, while the fourth is someone with whom I have a new and exclusively sexual relationship. I am not interested in identifying which is which. In making these paintings I meditated on the affective experience of sex with each of them and – avoiding any explicit symbolism – attempted to turn my subjective experience into dynamic visuals that could potentially transmit some of the unspeakable reality of these experiences to another. Here we find similarities, differences, and four separate experiences that live next to each other in my life and mind asking: what is valuable? What is satisfying? What is good? What is love?