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A Luminous Index: Erotic Phenomenology of a Stain photo

A stain; an unintended mark that, once made, resists removal. Inadvertent remnant and by-product, it is something made while we were looking elsewhere; evidence that our attention faltered, or that some vessel failed to function.

Signifying a loss of control, distinct for discolouration and measured by how permanently a fabric or surface has been altered, no one, it seems, sets out to make a stain.

This accounts, in part, for its expressive power.

* * *​

In “Index of the Absent Wound (Monograph of a Stain”), art historian Georges Didi-Huberman writes “the more fully drama is freighted with consequence, the greater, and more beautiful, will be the splotch, the disfiguration, the stain.”[1]

What does it mean, then, this stain inside our bed?

I am looking hard at this stain, at its flared periphery and blushing centre.

I am asking it to tell me things I know it knows; how long it retained its moisture given the weave and density of the sheet, the colours it lost in turning dry.

I want it to tell me things about its provenance and plumage, and about the conjoining of pain and pleasure.

I am asking it to say something about pleasure necessitating pain, and about how one comes to be tethered to the other by a short red rope. 

I am asking it what consequences we incurred.

* * *​

Before the Shroud of Turin was remarkable for carrying the image of Christ’s face, it was remarkable simply for its prior proximity to his body. It was only when the lawyer and photographer Secondo Pia “immersed in the chemical bath his last attempt to produce a clear photograph of the holy shroud <and>  a face looked out…from the bottom of the tray…that the pattern of stains on the shroud of Turin took on a recognizable form…The holy shroud became the negative imprint of the body of Christ, its luminous index.[2]

In this way, in 1894, during the night of the 28th to the 29th of May, the Shroud of Turin came to possess its synecdochical properties. Now grafted with new meaning and indexicising the entirety of the Crucifixion, Christ himself became a man whose blood stained this piece of cloth (though it’s been debated whether or not the stain is indeed made of blood and not some other fluid, like semen). Thus displaced, Christ is now a man who made a stain, and we no longer need him for the “freighted consequence” of the Crucifixion: all this is loaded into the stain, and the shroud now carries the emotional weight.

This shroud, this burial cloth that was wrapped around a corpse marked with some 370 flagellation-induced wounds. At one time sodden with droplet and rivulet and that, when processed by a digital filter, is made pulsate and effervesce. Is made fresh with tears and a tired man’s sweat. Inside of these bloodstains is all the poignant, admonishing rapture the Crucifixion might hope to inspire and it brings us closer, in its sensory fleshiness, than all of scripture’s careful lines.

When depicting the Crucifixion in the 1960s, Francis Bacon followed the model presented by the shroud, in that he chose to forego the literal content of the event itself. Instead, Bacon viewed the Crucifixion as a “magnificent armature” and “a predetermined format” from which to suspend “all types of feeling and sensation”.[3]

Unfettered, saturate, skin-bound and sinister.

Having excised narrative and accentuated emotional intensity, Bacon employed the side-stepping that Didi-Huberman describes as implicit to a stain’s ontology; immediate and unfiltered, a stain is so direct an imprint as to be the event itself, the gesture itself.

Did Bacon view the Crucifixion, then, as a kind of stain?

Or might we view his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion as a series of stains?

They certainly have about them a smeared, residual quality; the figures produce and moisten, stepping out of puddles of their own devising. Their seeming wetly corroded is related also, of course, to the brutality that Bacon is known for; his figures are shaped by a violence either recurring within themselves or a transgression that has occurred “off-scene”. Some event has left them relentlessly afflicted with ongoing wounds so that they stagger, convulse and lope.

Concerning this series’ specific ferocity, we might look to the link Bacon observed between slaughterhouses and the Crucifixion, namely that in each a living body is pushed up against its ultimate fate. In each instance, before the living body is anything else, it is meat, “potential <carcass>”, and the long dehydrated fluid on the Shroud of Turin, the gelatinous matter toughening atop surfaces in an abattoir, both speak to an imminent perishing.

But these are all cruel stains; a man strung up and animals routinely sliced into and dismembered.

They are stains of torture and avulsion in which a fatal discomfort has been realised, and bring me no closer to what this stain inside our bed might harbour.

* * *​

Slippery and incautious, allegedly ephemeral and always accidental, a stain marks the body that makes it with a very particular symbolism that sees it interpreted in very particular ways.

Didi-Huberman writes ‘if an index could be translated into sentence form, that sentence would be in the imperative or exclamatory mood, as in “Look over there!” or “Watchout!”,’ and I think this might be true of past stains I’ve made alone: on church pew and plastic classroom chair, on bicycle seat, on faded jeans, a close friend’s borrowed underwear, a stranger’s towel. I remember believing I’d stained the very sea by wading inside it. These stains did, I think, feel imperative and exclamatory, occurring while I was out in the world and heralding some embarrassment following an involuntary, interior spasm, capturing what  Elizabeth Grosz describes as the female body’s return to an uncontrollable, leaking status she had been led to believe ended with her infancy.

But this stain in our bed is one we made together. What it denotes is not a loss of power, but something closer to what the words for “stain” denote in Indo-European languages, namely “the body in the world.”[4]

This stain, albeit private and domestic, signals that we have been in the world together, and every time I pass through the bedroom I feel its heat and wonder what it will say, when it calls out. 

* * *​

Didi-Huberman states that a stain collapses the relationship between signifier and signified, and Barbara Baert, also writing from an art historical perspective, details a stain’s particular relationship to a “primal source”. More and more, I wonder what this particular relationship—this collapse—offers the oppressed self. As Baert outlines, a stain “makes no claim to be anything other than contour, form, matter and dimension. It exists in and of itself.” An autonomous medium of visibility, its directness counters the compromise a sensation makes it its transition toward legibility.  

The peril inherent to expression is, of course, that wherever legibility occurs it is likely that something else — something muscular and slippery — has been sacrificed. It is also likely that the sacrifice was made by a self well accustomed to being forgotten by rational speech and obliterated by the colonised forces of syntax and grammar.

And so, I’ve come to think that what the stain offers is a mode of transcription; a way for othered bodies to express their otherness and their experience of being othered without running such a risk. It offers, as Baert would have it, “a way of clinging to the present”, a way for certain bodies “to leave their mark, to make it harder for them to be denied.”[5]  

Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Silueta Series), multiple works in which Mendieta used fire, animal blood and tempera to mark the earth with the outline of a woman, can be parsed in these terms of transcription and otherness. They are themselves the process of burning, scorching and wettening. They are also the act of a woman lying down, asserted here as a charged gesture with the power demarcate and emblazon[6].  Observing the Siluetas, we can glimpse what Bhanu Kapil calls a “sedimentary tectonics”, “The phenomenology of the female (mud) body that dissolves when it rains.” Of her book Ban en Banlieue, Kapil writes “I wanted to write a book that was like lying down” and “To write a sentence with content more viable than what contains it. So that the page is shiny, wet and hard. So that the sentences are indent not records…”[7] As such, Ban, is a dark-skinned girl who lies down on the ground during a race riot in London. She resists the discourse of the riot as well as the narrative form of the novel, and becomes “a stain that kept blooming on the asphalt”. beneath the tumult of rioting bodies. As such, she demonstrates the “power of excretion” and the energy of “the ‘shifted body’”, “the body moves elsewhere, to a place where it can flourish undisturbed”.[8]

These are stains that tell us what happens when women lie down.

What comes to pass when female flesh is supine.

* * *​​

If someone came in now and saw this stain inside our bed, would they think of the love I’ve made and that has been made to me, or would they think a wound has been dealt the sheet? Its centre is, after all, a deep and sopping red. 

Looking at this stain, I think “upon merely seeing the color red, the metabolic rate of a human being supposedly increases by 13.4%.”[9] I think “The Pacific at night is red and gives off a soot of desire”[10], and that “She bites, cleaving away a red wing.”[11] I think of The Zorastrian belief that “any man who lay with a menstruating woman would beget a demon, and would be punished in hell by having dirt poured into his mouth.”[12]

What have I done to you by taking you into myself?  Into this segment of dark, astrological matter? What have I done in immersing you in my “uncontainable flow”,[13] in that “pulsing that communicates nothing less than the suckings and ejaculations of the heart”[14]?

And what does dirt taste like, besides, shot through with copper and carmine?

* * *​​

It might not matter so much how we interpret stains if it weren’t for how we interpret the bodies that make them, and how we treat those bodies based on those interpretations.[15]

The staining body is often female, infant and animal.

It is always a potential contaminant.

When it comes to this fear of contamination, another collapse occurs; one of status. 

Even the Shroud of Turin, while it evidences a divine transfiguration, bespeaks “God’s humiliation in a human body.”[16]

When making stains, all flesh is corrupted and unseemly.

In The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, we read “During the menstrual cycle of apes… The male may mount the female, but he does not try to penetrate”, and that “The Romans attributed the deformity of the god Vulcan”, who was born with one leg shorter than the other, “to menstrual intercourse between Juno and Jupiter.”[17] No matter whether the menstrual blood is animal or divine, it signifies transgression. Not even the gods emerge unscathed for fetishizing defilement; the male body who dips himself in feminine dirt cannot go unpunished.

* * *​​

While her work often features blood and blood-based mixtures, Mendieta also described a more pervasive fluid, a ‘cosmic sap’ connecting all of life on the planet and beyond.[18] Such a fluid might alter our concept of the stain as something that only occurs inadvertently, as something void of intention and often stemming from somatic transgression.

In short, if biological fluids connoted such a sap, would the staining body be one that insists on making more space for itself rather struggling, unsuccessfully, to manage its margins? Would the staining body become a wilful body, rich in agency?

So that this stain, to be later half-heartedly scoured and placed aside, is both a woman lying down and being unable, for a time, to right herself, and also the arc she made while thinking Take any other part of me, I will give up any other part. Not this part, which is the pulse-tremble in your neck, come close to me. Not this part which is you standing by the bed, still softening and dipped in wax, in ink, in the melt of a crimson glacier, a fox’s pelt turned to reddy water. 

But why cosset a ruptured cherry? Why cluck to a blistered heart?

Because “An ethics of… the sexual body, the animal body, the erotic body, must not repeat the gesture of keeping anxiously at bay the phenomena – uncertainty, vulnerability, porousness – that are used against us.”[19]

Because it hurt when I took you inside me, and alongside the hurt there was bliss and rapture.

Because when desire is lost, the body is lost.

This stain is cochineal and puce; tipped vessel and upturned cup. 

Its moisture variant, a drought-stricken streambed replenishing at the first patter of rain,  its edges frayed and shifting, scorch-mark and burn.

It says, If one of us had been born another kind of animal I’d never have taken you in my mouth.

It says, A woman lay down and made deluge.

It says, Take any other part of me, take any other part.


[1]Didi-Huberman, Georges, and Thomas Repensek. "The index of the absent wound (monograph on a stain)." October 29 (1984): 63-81. 


[3] https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/293

[4] Baert, Barbara. "Stains. Trace—Cloth—Symptom." TEXTILE15.3 (2017): 270-291.

[5] Baert

[6] A line of material inquiry that might be discussed in terms of Johanna Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory, which asks how disabled and immobile bodies can partake in political protest.

[7] Kapil, Bhanu, Ban en Banlieue, Nightboat Books, New York, 2016, 91

[8] Baert

[9] Theroux, Alexander, The Primary Colours, Henry Holt & Co, 1996

[10] Carson, Anne. Autobiography of red. Vintage, 2013, 130

[11] Diaz, Natalie. When my brother was an Aztec. Copper Canyon Press, 2012, 74

[12] The Curse, 25

[13] Grosz, Elizabeth A. Volatile bodies: Toward a corporeal feminism. Indiana University Press, 1994, 206

[14] Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009, 72

[15] Even “spoor”, the scent or trace left behind by an animal, its track or trail, is defined as being left by a wild animal “pursued as game”.

[16] Baert

[17] Delaney, Janice, Mary Jane Lupton, and Emily Toth. The curse: A cultural history of menstruation. University of Illinois Press, 1988, 21

[18] This connective matter foregoes the biological essentialism often deemed an exclusionary trap of early feminism; namely, (so great was the need to establish female experience, the female body was mapped in the centric, exclusionary way the male body has been mapped). Laura E. Perez discussed this ‘cosmic sap’ in her lecture Ana Mendieta: Decolonialized Feminist and Artist, which is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVk4UBA6HGQ.

[19]Jagoe, Rebecca, Kivland, Sharon, On Violence, MA Bibilothèque, 2018, 114


image: Sue Rainsford