In the spring 2008 issue of Bidoun, I published “Objectum-love at First Sight,” a fictionalized account of objectophilia’s symptoms and sufferers.
Dr. H is a sexologist specializing in fetishism and neo-sexuality. In recent years, he has done extensive studies of objectum-sexuality, or objectophilia, in which someone’s attraction to certain objects completely displaces the desire for romantic relations with other people.
Here, Dr. H considers the origins and significance of this phenomenon, reflecting on interviews with objectophiliacs, self-identifying and otherwise, across the world.
The increasingly common occurrence of objectophilia is most often attributed to the decline in human intimacy: people isolate themselves from others, favoring communion with their desired objects. Objectophilia is not to be confused with mere fetishism, in which the subject’s relation to a class of objects—wigs or diapers, stockings or shoes—becomes eroticized. In any case, such behavior has become socially acceptable, as the injection of libidinal value into the world of objects is increasingly seen as an essential characteristic of our age.
The original love-object is, of course, the mother. Upon separation from the mother, one begins to seek out the ideal other to incorporate into one’s self—this is the immature object-love of the narcissistic self. As children develop, they learn to accept their failings and imperfections as well as those of others. They learn to perceive themselves as human and direct their love toward other imperfect humans, identifying with them. In love, the self is ceded; another self overwhelms it.
When this process of psychological maturation fails to occur or is not completed, when the conditions for identification are not met, when the adolescent stage is prolonged in perpetuity, a person may direct his or her love toward those things that have no failings or imperfections: ideal objects. The subject here is not concerned with reciprocity, so the object need not exhibit consciousness. Traditionally, Thomas Mann wrote, “He who loves the more is the inferior and must suffer.” In objectum-love, this is not so; the subject stipulates the terms of interaction and controls the environment, extinguishing the possibility for such suffering. The object will never want to “just be friends.” Conversely, the subject is rarely ambivalent as to the object of his or her desire; most objectophiliacs describe their objects as spouses, and infidelity seems to be rare.
But what to make of objectum-love beyond this narrow observation? Is it the result of proliferating asexual tendencies? The hyper-liberalization of social mores? Or is it simply the logic, made suddenly visible, of a consumer culture so advanced that objects are no longer fetishized for their supernatural powers, but loved for their mundane qualities?
It remains uncertain. More research needs to be done, more patients analyzed. One thing is clear: We are witnessing a breakdown of the apartheid between people and things, which has consequences for both sides. I am reminded of the broomsticks in Fantasia, which quit the dust-covered floors, refusing to submit any longer to the oppressive regime of utility. Then as now, the objects have become the protagonists of our story; or, we now tell their story. Perhaps it is not the human who is in crisis, but the object. As Rainer Maria Rilke noted, “Relations of men and things have created confusion in the latter.”
The Rocket Man: M, Libya, 2003
Colonel Muammar al-Qadddafi announced his design for the Jamahiriya Rocket in 1999, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his rise to power. (Jamahiriya, Qaddafi’s own coinage, evokes “the nation or state of the masses.”) A few years later I found myself in Tripoli visiting an acquaintance who works at Al-Fateh University. It was not a work trip, but after my friend, a folklorist, told me the story of M, I became determined to investigate. Luckily, she knew where to find him, having employed his services as an auto mechanic in the past, and offered to come along and serve as translator.
M worked in a body shop in the suburbs east of the city and had fallen in love with the Jamahiriya Rocket. He was tentative when I first approached, but when I explained to him that I simply wanted to know more about his beloved and knew many others who loved similar objects, he became cross. “There is no object like this one,” he exclaimed. Then he took a deep breath, apologized, and invited us to sit with him for tea in the garage. “I heard on the radio it would be the safest car on earth,” he recounted, “that the leader himself had said we must have the air bags, the built-in electronic defense system, the collapsible bumper. Most of the cars here are junk,” he complained, surveying the rusted skeletons strewn about the shop’s yard. “The cars I normally work on, they are scraps of metal hung like a gypsy tent over an engine that burns you alive if your brakes fail, and they usually do.”
During the years after sanctions were imposed, Qaddafi said he had been “thinking of ways to preserve human life all over the world.” The “State of the Masses” car reflected his desire to make rockets for the safety and well-being of ordinary Libyans, while other countries continued making rockets to kill. But for whatever reason, the cars never went into full production. M had obtained his, a prototype, out of luck and conniving. “There is a government official who comes to me to fix his car,” he recalled. “One day he is waiting here with the car. It is the most beautiful and powerful thing I have ever seen—a thing that challenges you, a thing that makes you powerless.” According to the official, the Rocket looked like “a James Bond car.” M disagreed. “I told him the leader would not design a car to look like a British killer of our Soviet allies. To me the car looks a little like Nancy Ajram—but she is Lebanese, and this car is more Libyan, with that metallic green color, the front and back looking like a very nice Saturn V or a space shuttle.”
The official needed a full inspection of the vehicle, and M obliged. Once he had inspected it, though, he vowed never to part with it. “I just felt the contours, put my hand on the steering wheel, examined the chassis, looked under the hood—I knew I was in love. I know what a beautiful car looks like, and how it performs. But this wasn’t just beauty, it was perfection.”
When the official returned for the Rocket, M stalled. “I told him there was something wrong with the transmission and also the tinted windows, something like that, and that I had to wait for the parts,” M recalls. “We cursed the engineers together.” He came back again, and M said he was still waiting. “Then there was a miracle,” M says. The man disappeared. Another customer told M that the official had been taken away for saying bad things about the leader’s car. M expressed regret at the man’s misfortune, but then smiled and said that he and the Jamahiriya Rocket have been together ever since, and he is happier than he’s ever been. Once a year, on their anniversary, he takes the Rocket out for a ride along the Mediterranean coast. But mostly he keeps her under wraps in his garage, obsessively fine-tuning her components, safe from prying, covetous eyes.
Sexual Concrete: A, Israel and the Occupied Territories, 2007
Animism is the fundamental condition of objectum-sexuality. As A put it, when I met her near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, “I look at things as living beings, like you or me. And how are they different? I can communicate with them like with people. For me, this is normal. My partner is a wall.”
The border wall, or separation barrier, or racial segregation wall, or security fence—by whatever name, it has symbolized occupation and oppression and the flouting of international law to many people since its construction began in 2002. But not to A. “I am not interested in politics,” she asserts. “The wall is my spouse—it is as simple as that.” These days she mostly keeps an eye on her beloved with the aid of Google Maps, but she still visits once a week, leaving flowers and dates at the wall’s base, even reciting poetry to it. The soldiers stationed there look down on her and make disparaging remarks, but she seems not to mind. When I ask her why they find her love strange, however, she shudders indignantly. “Who says that man is the Crown of Creation?” she spits. “We share this planet with all sorts of other things. We all have the same worth, no matter what we are—beast, human, plant, or poured concrete.”
She is not quite sure why she loves the wall; in fact, she finds the question preposterous. “What attracts me physically is that the wall is rectangular, has parallel lines,” she explains. “But other walls have those, too. Why do I love this wall in particular? I cannot put it into words; there are no words. Why do you love your wife? Your child? What reason can you have? One can only tell stories.”
I mention to her that there exists in the literature a story of a man in Silesia who became enamored of the gallows near his home, not because of its grim purpose, but because of its singular geometric form. She nods. “He was not interested in executions, and I am not interested in divisions. The purpose of the object for both of us is beside the point. It is the essence we are after.”
The Bibliophile: K, London, 2005
A friend of mine, an English gentleman with excellent connections among dealers in antiquarian maps, prints, and books, sent word that a rare tome bound in human skin had recently been sold to a previously unknown collector. He had seen her after the auction caressing the book’s mottled cover and inhaling its perfume, and thought of me. He had done a little digging and was able to provide me with her name and address. The next time I came to London, I wrote ahead to K, circumspectly inquiring whether I might talk to her about the book.
As it happened, she was eager to be interviewed. She had always been a bibliophile, she said. Her father had been a minister and a student of theology, and in the family home books were given pride of place. But she had only become a bona fide objectophiliac recently—at the auction house where my friend had noticed her.
“It was the smell,” she said. Before the bidding began she examined the items for sale, and was stopped short by “the scent of that volume, the bouquet of ancient pages pressed together by human leather.” Telling me this, she looked slightly flush. She explained that new books have the smell of pulverized organic matter, paste, and infant ink, while old books, so long as they are carefully preserved, develop their own distinctive odors. “Being in that auction house, I felt like I was in a master vintner’s cellar or the library of a medieval monastery. I bid in a sort of blind frenzy, and nearly fainted from pleasure when I won it.” The final price was in the five figures.
The book is an early seventeenth-century edition of A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet a Jesuit and His Confederates. It chronicles the trial of Father Henry Garnet, who was tried and hanged for his alleged role in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a Catholic conspiracy to kill the Protestant King James I by exploding the British Parliament building. It is bound with Garnet’s skin and is one of the finest remaining examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy. The creased skin on the book’s cover bears an uncanny resemblance to Garnet’s bearded face, frozen in an expression of open-mouthed grief.
I wondered whether Garnet’s story was part of the attraction, or whether his having been a Catholic priest posed any difficulties for a daughter of the Church of England. She laughed away the thought. “The man, Garnet, is simply the occasion for the book. It’s the object that I love.” She whispers that each night she takes it to bed, holds it in her arms, and inhales the antique aroma of its pages, strokes the astonishingly sensitive surface of its cover, donning a plastic glove “so that the oil from my hands does not taint his skin.”
The Pipeline Lover: X, Lagos, 2006
For this one, I have few words. During an NGO-funded trip to study the sexual relations of slum dwellers, I drove through a village on the outskirts of Lagos that is bisected by an oil pipeline. As we rode past, a man wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey large enough to shelter a small family threw himself in front of our car, then scampered to my window, asking for a donation to “protect the pipeline.” This was not the first time I had been asked for a “donation” during my visit, but it was the first time the solicitor appeared to be asking without a trace of contempt. He seemed desperate but not dangerous, so, through my translator, I asked him to explain himself.
This was perhaps the most extraordinary accident in a lifetime of sexological encounters. The man was a poet—he had studied at Ibadan, but was down on his luck—and he was in love. “She stretches from Warri to Kaduna to Lagos, voiding herself upon reaching the tankers of the Seven Sisters,” he told me. “In Nigeria, Olorun owns the sky, the government owns the land, and the Seven Sisters own whatever lies beneath it.” But the pipeline, this stretch in particular, belonged to him.
I asked how long he had been protecting the pipeline, and from whom, or what. “I have loved her since I first laid eyes on her,” he responded matter-of-factly, “she the pneumatic tube in infancy, skin like virgin silver.” But she was vulnerable, he went on, “beholden to her course, sapping the oil fields in the interior and gurgling their black nectar all the way to the Niger Delta.”
“But you cannot protect her all by yourself,” I said.
“You see that she has not perished,” he replied with bluster. “Though she is now rusted, burned. Everywhere Nigerians are drilling into her, siphoning her oil, collecting it in pails, buckets, Dixie cups even. Oftentimes the pipeline erupts, and the fires have charred her skin and killed many waiting patiently to fill their empty buckets.”
I remind him that Soyinka explained these incidents as “reflections of the general social malaise.”
Smiling at me, he held out his hand. “And that, my friend, is what I am protecting her from.” I asked him for his name, an address, some way of contacting him again, but he demurred, still flashing his toothy grin. “This is where you will find me, never far from my love.”
A few months later the BBC reported that fuel from a vandalized pipeline had ignited in Lagos, killing two hundred slum-dwellers. I wondered about the poet, and whether he had been spared. I pictured him draped in his oil-stained Cowboys jersey, scrambling toward the pool of glossy sediment, dashing to defend his pipeline from the predations of the crowd.