In an age in which everything is – and perhaps rightly so – politicised, to think about “the politics of flesh” is surprisingly unusual. The political can be personalised, and the personal can be politicised, but is there a third path which causes them to become physical?

The way to create a new politics of flesh is to be unflinching. One of the people who perhaps typifies this the best is Jenny Saville, part of the “YBA” art movement of the early nineties (the artists later transcending the movement to endure as individuals). Saville is the architect of flesh, fascinated by the fat which marks out her best-known works. She describes all her works as self-portraits; she is taking the normal image of her (slender) self and capitalising on it with layers of fat, creating distortion and self-abuse through her work.

Another important theme in Savile’s work is that of gender, and what it really means. In 2004 she created “Passage” a work in which she says she was “searching between the genders…the idea of floating gender that is not fixed.” (The model for this painting was a genuine transgender individual with a natural penis and false silicone breasts. Savile explained this work further by saying that “Thirty or forty years ago this body couldn’t have existed and I was looking for a kind of contemporary architecture of the body. I wanted to paint a visual passage through gender – a sort of gender landscape. To scale from the penis, across a stomach to the breasts, and finally the head. I tried to make the lips and eyes be very seductive and use directional mark-making to move your eye around the flesh.” The body for Saville is always marked, but in a way which adds to the depth of her painting style. She says that she attempts to use tension to build a sensory quality around the body. She explains of this technique:
“The more I do it, the more the space between abstraction and figuration becomes interesting…In my earlier work my marks were less varied. I think of each mark or area as having the possibility of carrying a sensation.”

Any political sociologist turning the body into a political entity will tell you that it is always marked, but for Saville these marks have an artistry which means, in spite of the self-abuse of her self-portraits, this does not carry the full negativity that these sociologists claim.

Saville’s painting North Face/Front Face/South Face was used as the cover art for the 1994 Manic Street Preachers album “The Holy Bible.” In many ways there could not have been a more relevant or appropriate artist. “The Holy Bible” is in many ways a “fleshly” album. Most noticeable in relation to the work of Saville as “the architect of flesh” is perhaps the opening line of the song “Faster” (“I am an architect/ They call me a butcher”) in relation to self-mutilation – clearly there is more then one person legible for the aforementioned label. The album also combines political disillusion with personal despair in a style that causes the two to become interchangeable –and at times not even separate. Through lyricist Richey Edward’s unflinching use of language, the personal and the political gain this third angle of the physical. In the same way Saville is the “architect of flesh”, Edwards is the key communicator of a new kind of body politic – and no, that’s not body politic in the traditional sense of the people of the state as a body but a literal politics of the body.

Edwards own politics owe a lot to the Situationist International movement, which was a restricted group of international revolutionaries founded in 1957, and which had its peak in its influence on the unprecedented wildcat strikes of May 1968 in France.

With their ideas rooted in Marxism and the 20th century European artistic avant-gardes, they advocated experiences of life being alternative to those admitted by the capitalist order, for the fulfillment of human primitive desires and the pursuing of a superior passional quality. For this purpose they suggested and experimented with the construction of situations, namely the setting up of environments favorable for the fulfillment of such desires. Using methods drawn from the arts, they developed a series of experimental fields of study for the construction of such situations, like unitary urbanism and psychogeography.

They fought against the main obstacle on the fulfillment of such superior passional living, identified by them in advanced capitalism. Their theoretical work peaked on the highly influential book The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. Debord argued in 1967 that spectacular features like mass media and advertising have a central role in an advanced capitalist society, which is to show a fake reality in order to mask the real capitalist degradation of human life. To overthrow such a system, the Situationist International supported the May '68 revolts, and asked the workers to occupy the factories and to run them with direct democracy, through workers' councils composed by instantly revocable delegates.After publishing in the last issue of the magazine an analysis of the May 1968 revolts, and the strategies that will need to be adopted in future revolutions, the SI was dissolved in 1972, but its influence would continue long afterwards, as is evident in thought of the likes of Edwards, a known supporter.

But how does such radical thought become physical? The Holy Bible succeeds in creating this new, primitive kind of politics. Firstly, how does the political world reflect on the id and the ego? Extremities in political history have a strange effect on the individual – events such as the Holocaust and the Jacobite Terror are important parts of history, but the individual can feel that bearing any witness to them is strangely voyeuristic. In a way the id holds an internal holocaust – we prefer to pretend it is not there, but we have all been instinctively ruled by the id. The id is selfish; could it be fascist? Fascism shows a disregard for wider society but denies this; rather than this being the id, it can be seen the fascism is the political equivalent of the adult attitude towards the id. “Recreation for the masses” writes Edwards of the Holocaust on “The Intense Humming of Evil.” The primitve id does not concern this type of broadness, but it also has a pure selfishness which denies the popular Rosseauan theory that “man is born good but corrupted by society.”

The id as a political function raises the question of whether the id and the ego are a part of the body. In the nineteen eighties philosophical questions of the unity of the brain and mind became popular through the works of Popper and Schrodinger, but surprisingly little has been written on the idea of the id and ego as actual physical entitites. Socialism – should the individual be socialist – can act as part of the ego. It is as altrusitic as the id and capitalism are selfish. If we wish to return to the id, how can we do this? Secretly, we probably all yearn to, but the mind has developed to superego status and it seems impossible; this could be a potential source of despair to the individual bound in society. The more developed aspects of the self may spawn more devloped politics; but perhaps they have there own formof fascism in what they repress. To return to the id, perhaps we can only do it through ways of the flesh. For example, Edwards, himself a sufferer of anorexia nervosa, once made the claim “Vanity/anorexia/innocence,” (seeming to equate the innocence of youth with the control of the body)and describing it on “4st 7lb” as an “epilogue of youth.” Some left wing psychology places a great deal on liberating the id through deconstruction; but perhaps we should accept that deconstruction is destruction ,and are thus better off just accepting adulthood. Edwards described the song “Yes” as being a document of “The Prostitution of The Self”. The song also deals with the body in much the same way the aforementioned work of Jenny Saville does; with a cruel abuse and the idea that gender is not fixed (“He’s a boy/you wanted a girl chop off his cock/Tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want.”) Gender becomes a part not just of our own ego, but of societies collective ego – a fleshly, physical version of Jung’s Collective Unconscious.

The external, social roles of both sexual intercourse and gender make them the easiest aspect of the body to politicise. Sex is technically born of the id; it is one of the few primitive, instinctive actions which is primarily performed by adults. It is “nature’s lukewarm pleasure” (She is suffering), but even that can be bound by political bureaucracy – laws on prostitution, the age of consent. Even though many of these restrictions obviously have benefits (such as the age of consent), it seems inappropriate that whilst we deny the body any politics, we should use politics to restrict it. And can sex ever have any influence on politics? Not through the laws based on it, but more directly? According to the song, “Revol” (“Breshnev married into group sex”) all relationships in politics are failures. Edwards explains: “All adolescent leaders of men FAILED. All love FAILS. If men of the calibre of Lenin and Trotsky failed, then how can anyone expect anything to change. Won't get fooled again.”

But it is in the aforementioned bureaucracy that sex and politics get most entangled, particularly as politics is something which goes beyond government and reaches into society. This brings us full circle to id denial again. Edwards explains of the song “PCP”: “Links PC+PCP+New Moral Certainty. Language aimed at the working class. Condemns the very people it aims to save. Self-censorship wrong. 'Liviticus' used by homophobes to justify their hatred. To take one sentence from the bible to justify views very PC”. (Even though PCP also alludes to the Revolutionary Portuguese Communist.) Political correctness is fundamentally a good thing, but combined with a lack of considered liberal thought then we plunge into the realms of ignorance, which in turn breeds denial. As before with social gender, we come to deny other people the rights to the body. If flesh has politics, then it must have freedom – or a lack of freedom.

Whether we adopt a Situationist view of freedom, accept the fluid nature of gender or appreciate that maybe reclaiming the id is not as healthy as we are sometimes led to believe, we can move away from one of the great errors we have made with our bodies – denying it its politics.

“The body politic” has always simply meant the people of a state. Now, if we can do so without the running the ever present risk of further atomising society through thought, it is time to give it a whole new, personalised meaning, or else accept something entirely new into the political lexicon – that of The Politics of Flesh.

AJ Britton, 8th June 2010