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A few thoughts on public kissing and private discourses

Johny ML, Independent Art Critic and Curator

One of the purest expressions of human intimacy, kiss defies definitions. One can write, sculpt or paint a kiss, the way Keats, Rodin and Klimt had done respectively. Innumerable poets and writers have written about it. Films have captured kisses starting from little pecking to violently passionate lip locks. Seeing a couple kissing does not bring revulsion but it parts our lips in pure joy, a little bit of shyness and some sort of intrigue. A kiss between two human beings, irrespective of their gender, age and relationship evokes an inexplicable emotion in us; some kind of helplessness. The kiss of human beings is marked both in public and private domains because that brings two people together to an intimate state and often it shows a temporary surrender, nonviolence and love. It is temporary because the next moment the kissers could be two different people, cherishing different ideas and even nourishing thoughts of mutual decimation. When animals kiss the same things happen. But we do not notice because they are not ‘marked’ the way human kisses are. In pornography you do not find kiss because there it is not the intimacy of human beings represented in the acts nor it shows the tenderness of love and surrender; but the acts of willingness to force and violence. In the disembodied or rather dismembered and fragmented posturing of pleasures as shown and seen in pornography, kiss does not feature as an ingredient of enhanced passion because the very intimacy that a kiss demands for itself to happen between two people is ruptured beyond repair. A kiss is a welcome note with a farewell message hidden beneath.

(Kiss- Rodin)
A week ago, in Kozhikode, a northern district in Kerala, a South Indian state that claims complete literacy for over quarter of a century by now, a young couple was caught on camera while they were kissing. As a pure infringement of privacy of the couple involved in the incident (which in fact is not an incident or event) the candid clipping was telecast on a private channel with a commentary hinting at the ‘moral’ decay of the Kerala society and accusing the establishments that encourage such ‘incidents’. As a response to the news, right wing activists went ahead to destroy the property of the restaurant where the ‘notorious’ kiss was reported to have happened. The liberal thinkers and activists in Kerala who were also agitated equally on the moral policing of a section of political faggots, went ahead to protest by giving an open challenge to them through organising a spectacle of public kissing at the famous Marine Drive in Kochi on 3rd November 2014. Though the call for protest came through social networking sites, thanks to the controversial factor of the topic, it soon became national news, even helping a few international eyes turn towards it. The protest took place at the stipulated venue and time though the state machinery was already there to prevent serial kissing by dispersing the kissers and anti-kissers by brutal force.

(Sailor Kissing the Nurse)

Kiss has never been a national debate before on this scale. For the curious onlookers and chronic voyeurs in social networking sites, for the liberal intellectuals and concerned politicians, for poets and photographers, for news channels and print mediums, the protest and the counter protest gave ample amount of materials to ideate both in public and private zones of a cultural and moral discourse. The sad thing is that it never became a political discourse as even the most concerned politicians decided to discuss it in its sociological and cultural dimensions. A politico-legal discourse could have put the issue to complete rest had the government taken a strong stance on it through legal modes, saying that acts of intimacy that do not amount to the embarrassment of people in the public domain should be treated as expressions of human bonding therefore inoffensive. But the governments that rely on the existence of their power purely on vote bank refuse to make such moves mainly because the overtly sentimental and purist notions of culture and public morality prevalent amongst the voters make the elected and electable representatives of people cringe and play unto the gallery. Ironically, a society that is divided along three lines (as usual), as in ‘yes to kiss’, ‘no to kiss’ and ‘no comments’ is the same society that has the same opinion on the ban of liquor and closure of pubs and bars in Kerala.

‘If music is the food of love, play on,’ said the poet. We should make an amendment to it; if kiss is the fire of love, kiss on. Practically, kiss cannot be prolonged for the reasons of choking and the slow staling of oral fluids. Kiss cannot be prolonged unless it is shown in an edited sequence from various angles montage/d by many other scenes that accentuate the intimacy. When kissing is seen, it is not ‘done’ by the seer. As the character Bridget Jones wonders in her diary, why people close their eyes, especially the woman, when she is kissed. Jones also does not understand why women pout their lips and hold a peculiar expression on their faces when they apply mascara on their eye lids. Similarly, if someone sees the kiss, s/he is an active agent in the act if not a voyeur. An act of kissing lets people forget themselves. There is complete surrendering and also taking complete charge. Whether it be surrendering or taking charge upon someone’s existence for a few moments, both the parties cease to exist in those moments of mutual give and take. At the horizon, sky and sea do not fight; they just play. At the shore waves and sand do not fight, they kiss.

(Kiss protesters in Kochi)

Unfortunately, protesting against a kiss and using kiss as a tool to protest, go equally wrong. The protestors of kiss are goaded by their sentimental understanding of social morals defined and elaborated upon by popular imaginations of a nation’s history and contemporaenity, both of which are the constructs of dominant imaginary that refuses change to take place in a society where such imaginaries have found safer havens. The kiss protestors, by default, fall to the forces of the same imaginary as they replicate the same act as a tool of protest. While ignoring the kiss event is not a feasible idea to bring around social changes or at least making some dents in the steely social body/imaginaries, replicating the same could be detrimental in the long run and also run the risk of turning a serious discourse into a self mockery as it happened in the case of the notion of ‘installation art’ in Kochi Muziris Biennale first edition in 2012. People started talking about ‘installation’ not as a discourse but as a linguistic aberration giving it a comic edge. Kiss, seen in the same way, could also become a thing of mockery therefore a way to delegate the same ideology of the right wing forces, through over use and under ‘valued’ use. Kiss protest is good as far as the word ‘kiss’ loses its taboo-status and becomes a word less loaded with its traditional cultural baggage. This has happened to the words like ‘sex’, ‘vagina’, ‘cunt’, ‘fuck’ and so on, mostly to positive effects, at least seen from within the feminist discourse. The word ‘kiss’ could also become a part of the daily parlance and once the magic of a word is lost and gets lighter by use, the cultural values attached to it could fall off, easing the society that uses the word much lighter in word and deed. The same thing has happened to the words ‘queer’ and ‘Dalit’ in the socio-cultural and political discourses.

Protestors of kiss place themselves as proud anachronisms within a society which has gone much ahead in time vis-a-vis habit, consumerism and liberal political thinking. They happily belong to those zones where things are shielded awkwardly yet celebrated through displaced gestures, suggestions and verbal innuendoes. Popular films of yester years (when state was the only negotiator of morality through stringent censor laws within a much hailed democracy) have helped in forming this kind of a mindset, a true reflection of a forced psychological condition in which the pleasure is not sought in the actual but in the displaced, giving away a fleeting effect of enjoyment but never becoming a part of the enjoyed or the enjoyment itself. When the enjoyer is removed from the things that have to be enjoyed, it induces a sort of pain which could turn into anger at any given time. Nostalgia could be equally soothing and it could also leave someone seething with anger. If you look at our popular imagination of myths or social tales in novels, films and serials, nostalgia makes someone come back to the roots and the moment s/he recognizes the fact that s/he cannot be completely a part of it because of its intangibility, anger sets in and it forces the person into the avenge mode. The intangibility of nostalgia is displaced and seen as tangible objects, like property, deed, gift, rituals and so on. Protestors of kiss are the victims of such displaced anger that comes out through nostalgia that renders them helpless and it turns into anger and they hit the path of revenge. As I mentioned before, the tangibility of property, as it is intricately connected with the body and sexuality of women, manifests as the morality of the society/women as seen/voyeur-ed/gazed at by the nostalgia monger.

(Banksy’s graffiti on Policemen kissing)

The kiss protestors, however come from a different route, but unfortunately reach the same point of conclusion; woman’s body and sexuality, therefore the morality of the society as something to be contested, hid, displayed, celebrated, gazed at and then relegated to ignominy. The identity of the kiss protestors as well as the protestors of kiss is obscure (seen in a large context, as in ‘who are those people who vandalized the restaurant? Or who are those people who came to Marine Drive to kiss?) and if at all they have their larger identities through affiliation and contract, they are pitted against each other, ironically working towards the same point of nullification. The stalemate, to kiss or not to kiss, though eminently childish and laughable up to certain extent, inadvertently works for the benefit of the state that instead of entering into a discourse with the parties, tries to neutralize the friction through brutal force. A call for kiss protest, interestingly had brought oft-said, clichéd and predictable reactions from the larger society of Kerala. In fact, not coming from the right wingers, and obviously coming from the ‘no comment’ parties, who are terribly tortured by their own denial of things, these comments ranged from, ‘will you allow your mother and sister to kiss in public?’ and ‘if a couple is caught on sexual act, could the protest be massive public fornication?’ Anyone uses the ‘vulgus logicus’ (I don’t know whether this term exists but it is good to use some Latin for fun) – popular logic- these could be the common questions. However, if you read these statements with logic of informed reasoning, you might know that these questions come from a sort of gender phobia. Woman’s body, as far as these nay sayers are concerned, still needs an external agency. Mother and sister are connected to their domestic roles as mother and sister (in that case daughter, wife and all those female qualifications within the domestic realm). They cannot have their independent agency of asserting their identity in the public domain.

(Girl kissing boyfriend in a Police van in Kochi- manorama photo)

It is interesting to see why these nay sayers did not raise the questions like ‘Will you allow it with your office boss?’ ‘Will you allow your headmistress to do this thing?” These questions are never asked because the larger society refuses to see woman in charge. The hypocrisy of the society once again comes to the fore when you see the post-protest pictures posted on social networking sites where girls are seen pecking on friend’s cheeks, or a couple locked in a serious kiss of protest inside a police vehicle. The pubic gaze, as seen in the gazes of the people who are within the picture frame as well as outside of it, is always on the woman who kisses the man, not the other way round. Her value has been judged then and there by the onlookers and the judgment cannot be replete with the words like ‘bold and daring’ but words like ‘a girl who could do ‘things’ in public and easy going’. The gazers want to protect their mothers/sisters/daughters/wives from this ‘public shame of kissing’ by denying the fact that the girl who is in the picture seen kissing her boyfriend or friend could be someone’s daughter/wife/mother/sister. The isolation of a woman who dares/kisses and seeing her as a moral threat to the society is the process from which all issues originate. Seeing woman as an exclusive individual, unconnected or disconnected to her social/domestic roles seems to the pivotal reason behind all these conflicts. Kiss, therefore is an expression of this exclusivity of women; and a society that fears that exclusivity would obviously detest kissing whether it is public or private.

[This piece had originally appeared in By All Means Necessary, a blog run by Johny ML, on the 4th of November, 2014.]

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