Sexuality captured, sexuality on a line of flight: Tracey Emin's "Top Spot"

Doro Wiese
University of Amsterdam

0. Introduction

[1] Tracey Emin's Top Spot (Emin 2004a) is a feature film that defies clear-cut definitions of genre. Interview extracts and other footage in different film formats, edited in a careless style, seem to suggest that it is an unedited collection of images, a "random assemblage" that viewers receive in raw form. In this seemingly unedited format, the film pretends to document a previously filmed reality: an archive that establishes the coming-of-age story of six girls who live in Margate, England, where they roam the beach, the train station, the amusement park, the disco. Wavering between naivety and precociousness, the girls make their first sexual experiences, sometimes eager to explore their own sexuality, sometimes brutally coerced into sexual acts. In a society all too prepared to sexualize and exploit their bodies, the peer group becomes the only place where their own desires and fears may emerge.

[2] Top Spot thus records two crucial moments in the girls' coming-of-age: it shows how their sexuality is captured by society, and it registers their lines of flight from dominant expectations and gender roles, materializing Deleuze and Guattari's notion of the girl's stolen body and its counterparts, becoming-woman and becoming-girl. Considering that anyone acquainted with Tracey Emin's biography may understand Top Spot as a film displaying her own experiences, I will explore how Emin extends common notions of "biography as honest self-depiction"; by employing fictional devices, the telling of life-stories becomes a constructive move to reappropriate one's body and history. In the following, I will link this film interpretation to feminist interpretations of Deleuze and Guattari.

1. To think about yesterday

[3] In the opening shot of Top Spot, the camera tracks along a small and shady alleyway, while Brian Ferry's voice comes in. "I've been thinking now for a long time," he sings, while the camera crosses over a fence, establishing itself as a non-anthropomorphic gaze. "How to go my own separate way," Ferry continues, while another layer of sound is introduced, consisting of the screams of two boys shown jumping from an old bunker's flat roof into the sea. And then, while he sings – "It's a shame to think about yesterday, a shame" – a series of seemingly unrelated shots show scenes from a seaside resort. Images of people at the beach alternate with images of roller coasters, seagulls, bridges dating from Britain's colonial past, the horizon behind the rolling sea, pavilions, a pier: a display of locations captured at different times of day, and from different perspectives. This sequence fades out into a black screen, and then another sequence starts: a chandelier spins around many times while an off-screen voice self-assuredly claims:

"'Top Spot' was here. Here somewhere. Giant ballroom with chandeliers and red velvet curtains. We'd snog and kiss, be fingered, titted up. It was a place to experiment. You know what top spot is, don't you? Top spot is when a man has sex with a woman, or a girl, when the penis hits the neck of her womb. I mean, who would ever call a teenage disco 'Top Spot'? "(Emin 2004a).

During this speech, the camera moves along a corridor, into a room, and towards an open door. Upon approaching it the images gradually dissolve into the dazzling sunshine, thereby linking both sequences through a juxtaposition between interior and exterior, between a sequence ending in a black screen and one closing with a glistening, blinding light.

[4] Yet, what is being juxtaposed in these two introductory sequences? The first one establishes a connection between different outdoor locations linked by the soundtrack, thereby setting a space where something can take place. The chorus – "it's a shame to think about yesterday, a shame" – also suggests that this space might be somehow connected to a still undefined past. The second sequence, however, neither establishes nor explains a space. Rather, it comments upon a place that is not visible anymore, that purely belongs to the past. The narrative voice – heard for the first time here – has therefore no visual back-up for the story it tells, no evidence to relate to: telling and showing become disjunctive. As "Top Spot" is not only the name of a teenage disco but also the title of the film itself, the off-screen voice fans out a range of interconnected topics that might be thematically dealt with: life at a sea resort, sex in teenage discos, and a voice able to distance itself from prior happenings, so that it is able to say "I mean – who would ever name a teenage disco 'Top Spot?'" A voice thus able to look back upon a past to evaluate it, connecting it somehow with shame, and to disclose its narration to someone who listens, whose presence is presupposed, although the voice speaks alone: "And you know what 'Top Spot' is, don't you?" A voice that establishes at once the genre of the film as a public biographical picture of the voice that speaks – in this case the voice of British artist Tracey Emin, who became a household name through her famous tent Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, first exhibited at the Royal Academy's "Sensation" exhibition in 1995, and through the installation My Bed, shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999 (see Fanthome 2006, 31).

2. Becoming-woman, becoming-girl

[5] In the following, I want to scrutinize, through the philosophical concepts of becoming-woman and becoming-girl, Emin's political move, which consists in addressing herself to a general other, evaluating her past in a broadcasted film. Both concepts were introduced into theory by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, most elaborately in "A Thousand Plateaus" (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 232-310). The more general term, becoming, is meant to describe non-unifying and de-subjectivating processes, becomings rather than being. In order to grasp the much discussed, rather difficult, and highly provocative concept of becoming, it is indispensable to know how Deleuze and Guattari turn ontology upside down. To them, life is always expressive, but cannot be reduced to its organizing structures. There are "other contemporaneous possibilities" (273) to prevalent forms of capture like (hu)man, culture, language, history. The latter sustain unifying and hierarchizing tendencies, formulated and enforced by power relations which privilege white, bourgeois, heterosexual men (cf. Braidotti 1991, 1994, 2002, 2006; Bogue 2010; Colebrook 2008). Becoming upsets this "molar" form, and might be described as the composition of relations which undermine stable, unifying and hierarchizing formations. Although it lacks a form which can convey its meaning – "becoming lacks a subject distinct from itself" (238) – it can be traced as a play of singular, definable moments in time, intensities and affectivities, events and accidents (cf. Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 253). As such, becoming expresses the capability of life to escape signification, and to undo pre-established opinions, notions, perceptions. Becoming shows that the forces of life may create "other relations, other worlds" (Colebrook 2004, 13), thereby "transforming social and environmental relations in unpredictable ways" (Bogue 2010, 14).

[6] According to Deleuze and Guattari (1987), all becomings begin with and pass through becoming-woman. Claire Colebrook explains that this is the consequence of patriarchal societal structures in which "man is the subject: the point of view or ground from which all other beings or becomings are supposedly determined" (Colebrook 2002, 139). Women, who have been denied this determining and judging role in society, have privileged access to becoming. To become-woman, they have to shed their subject-assignment; they have to engage in a "world-making" – rather than repeating structures of domination – through the composition of relations. In Deleuze and Guattari's understanding, becoming is denied when a fundamental capture of the body occurs, a capture or "stealing" of the body through which "opposable organisms" (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 276) are created. For them, the first victim of this capture is the girl: "The body is stolen first from the girl: Stop behaving like that, you're not a little girl anymore, you're not a tomboy. The girl's becoming is stolen first, in order to impose a history, or a prehistory, upon her" (276). Yet before this capture, "the girl" is the example par excellence for modes of becoming, through "her speed, her freely machinic body, her intensities, her abstract line of flight, her molecular production, her indifference to memory, her non-figurative character" (277). Girls are therefore always already becoming-woman until they become woman – until they are subdued by a regime of gender through which they become other than man. Deleuze and Guattari even conclude that "the girl herself" is "becoming-woman or the molecular woman" (277).

[7] Although I am highly aware of the fact that the trope "becoming-woman" has been much contested by feminist thinkers (cf. Braidotti 1992, 1994; Colebrook 2000; 2008a; 2008b; Howie 2008; Lorraine 2008; Möhring, Sabisch and Wiese 2001; Olkowski 1999; Weinstein 2008), I still believe that it is useful for a reading of Emin's film. To quote the most prominent objections, I will mention feminist thinkers like Alice Jardine and Rosi Braidotti, who see the concept as an appropriation of femininity that does away with the specificity of women's experiences and struggles. Deleuze and Guattari's formulation, that becoming-imperceptible is the immanent end of becoming (279), has especially caused them to object to it. Jardine disapprovingly asks: "might that not mean that she [woman] must also be the first to disappear?" (Jardine 1985, 217), while Braidotti wonders: "[h]ow can Deleuze fail to see that this neutralization of sexual difference can only damage the process of reclaiming a political subjectivity for women?" (Braidotti 1994, 122). Without wanting to take away any of these objections and uneasiness, I want to argue here in the vein of Claire Colebrook's recent suggestions (2008a). By going beyond a mode of thinking that evaluates, she asks what kind of dissonance is created when becoming-woman raises its voice. She uses Braidotti's book title Patterns of Dissonance (1991) as an enabling metaphor for Deleuze and Guattari's proposition, seeing it as a call for a feminist collective-to-come. Furthermore, she links becoming-woman to Deleuze and Guattari's conceptual personae, which are weapons – rather than tools – in the production of new forms of expressions. Rather than seeing becoming-woman as being attached to an incorporation, it might be understood as a form and a style of production that allows to perceive differently, that allows to "chart, think and trace the dissonances" (Colebrook 2008a, 18).

[8] With this promising bastardization in mind, I want to argue that becoming-woman might be a catch-word for a feminist textual politics: a textual politics like Tracey Emin's, in which a singular narrative voice crosses the line between public and private to make a personal story available to others. As Bat-Ami Bar On has argued in her brilliant book The Subject of Violence, the move from "the private" to "the public" is transformative, because a story that is seen and heard by others creates a reality that stories kept in private do not have (Bar On 2002, 11-12). The public biography, or the public biopic in the case of film, allows others to relate to its storytelling. It thereby creates not a generality of the particular, but a universality of the singular (Deleuze 2004, 2), a distinction introduced in Deleuze's Difference and Repetition (2004), to understand difference as irreducible. As Braidotti (2002, passim) has argued, Western philosophy has always tied difference to something else, reducing difference in itself to a difference from. Here, I want to argue that Deleuze and Guattari's concept of "becoming-woman" breaks with this tendency in Western thought. In line with Colebrook (2008a), I see becoming-woman as a concept that liberates from personification. In Top Spot, this liberation is brought about by narrating singular experiences in such a way that their particularities may not be appropriated to become generalizable. The narrated experiences remain singular, while others may nevertheless relate to it, making it possible for a feminist choir to emerge, in which no voice is lost: on the contrary, harmoniously or not, it might gain in volume, so that it might even be able to – literally – outvote patriarchal voices. As such, it might bring the experiences of patriarchy's others to the fore – women, people of colour, disabled people, trans, intersex and queer people, poor people, people from the Global South.

3. Feminist connectivities, visualabilities, thinkabilities

[9] What kind of feminist connectivities, visualabilities, and thinkabilities are produced in Emin's Top Spot? After the first two introductory sequences, five short interviews are shown, taken from the same camera perspective and in the same setting. In these interviews, five different girls, seated at an unimposing school desk and focused in a medium close shot, acknowledge, through the persistent inquiry of the already familiar off-screen voice, an event in which a form of sexual violence breaks abruptly into their life. In the first interview, a girl called Kieri admits, after unremitting requests, that the love bite on her neck is the result of a "manipulative sex game with an older woman she and others met when they were playing truant from school" (Fanthome 2006, 34). The second girl, Katie, relates matter-of-factly how she has been raped when walking home. She had been in a particularly good mood, since her front teeth had just been restored. The third girl, Frances, says that she really likes 18th century novels because they "take her mind somewhere else" – a reading practice she is particularly fond of since she is afraid of the dark and of silence, since people – "you know, just people" – have come into her room at night time. The fourth girl, Lizzie, says that people have been calling her a slut, especially her best friend, since she walked off with the latter's boyfriend to have sex. Lizzie says that it doesn't bother her. The fifth girl, Helen, dreamingly talks about Dreamland, the funfair where she met Mark Featherspoon, the first boy she has ever made love to. Mark has told her that he will become a soldier in the French Foreign Legion and go to Egypt, a story Lizzie believes; she therefore also wants to learn French and go to Egypt.

[10] As Christine Fanthome has pointed out, some of these stories are "punctuated by awkward silences that give a sense of the individual coming to terms with what is a new experience" (Fanthome 2006, 35). Nevertheless, what especially draws my attention is the relation it stages between the eloquent, knowing off-screen voice, purportedly expressing the point of view of the adult Tracey Emin, and the teenagers' inability to find the right words, and to break their – often enough imposed – silences. Given that the stories told in the interview extracts belong to Emin's realm of personal experiences, which she has previously made public in interviews, artworks and autobiographical writings (cf. Emin 2004b; 2005;, it furthermore suggests that Emin views her own experiences as being possibly best portrayed in different incorporations. The diverse characters display different ways of coping emotionally with manipulation and violence – ranging from disguise and obliteration to rationalization, anger, fear, and denial. By staging a (biographical) narration through different voices, and by multiplying it in time, Emin allows for an encounter between present and past, stressing thereby how, in the course of time, her ability to account for herself has increased.

[11] This stressing of a period of time in which a considerable change occurred is, in my eyes, one of the instances where Emin's biopic can be constellated with the concept of becoming-woman. By showing how awareness is raised over time, it illustrates how a person becomes different to herself by and by: it stresses that time is a force that allows for difference and – above all – agency to emerge. And, by showing the film on public television and making DVD copies circulate, it resembles somehow a public speak out, as in feminist meetings when one's experience of violence is made public, so that experiences that are "otherwise taken as publicly unspeakable" are made accessible and relatable to. As Bar-On (2002, 11) has pointed out, public narrations also de-privatize and de-individualize violence. Using the biopic genre thus becomes a manoeuvre through which experiences of violence become, by way of example, visible and sayable as such; the narration creates a vision in which people with experiences of violence might be able to find themselves in a supportive and empowered – rather than victimized – way. In Top Spot, violence comes in many forms – from coercion, disrespectful behaviour and insincerity, to physical violence in the form of rape. By enacting these diverging forms of violence through different incorporations, Emin makes it easier for the viewer to detect their particularity, to see the girls' specific reactions, which can then be assessed in their tendencies – do they prolong the violence encountered? Or do they interrupt its force? By giving diverse examples, Emin reaches out to her audience, allowing them to connect to her – fictionalized, multiplied – stories, allowing them to understand that violence must not create isolation and silence, but can be disrupted. Dissonance is created, new patterns emerge through a multi-directional assemblage which is called into life by the film, uniting past and present, a changing and multiple self, and the diverging experiences of filmmaker(s) and audiences. This is also Emin's declared aim:

I've also made the film for the outsider, because I know when you're growing up, if you feel like you're on the outside of things, it's very difficult. So, I want this film to actually relate to those people and to let those people, young people, know they're not on their own. There's tonnes of us out there. I was, and I probably, even though I'm forty-one now, I'm still out there. I'm still an outsider in some ways. When you're growing up, things can look really desperate and totally bleak. And I'm here to tell you it doesn't have to be like that. You can turn things around. You can turn your experiences into something positive and that's what I also hope the film gives to people, a positive outlook in the end. (Emin, 2004b, quoted in Hemingway 2006, 438)

4. Becoming-girl

[12] It would be short-sighted to reduce the girls' coming-of-age story to the violence to which they are exposed. They connect themselves in multiple ways with each other and to their environment – an environment that exists beyond their point of view, too, as the numerous images of seagulls, sunsets, beaches, as well as the Brit-pop love songs that dominate the soundtrack, suggest. In this way, the film establishes the girls' reality as non-coinciding with the violence to which they are exposed; it shows their surroundings and their interactions as beautiful and intensive; it shows moments of playfulness, self-forgetting, sharing: their surroundings and interactions establish multiple and diverging possibilities of becoming-girl.

[13] In one scene, for example, the girls are shown playing a personalized version of the game "twister" at the beach. They fling a switchblade into the sand, call out the name of a team-mate who, in one step, has to get as close as possible to the switchblade-target. While the camera focuses mostly on the ground, showing how the switchblade bogs down in the sand, and how the girls twist their bodies in trying to reach the target, the soundtrack resounds specifically with their giggling and laughter. However, one does not see who is laughing, since there are no faces shown to which the laughter can be connected. The laughter created by the fun of the game becomes "impersonal": anyone who plays could be entertained. The laughter is severed from a personalizing faciality and, as such, invites the audience to relate to the images, by remembering similar situations, for example. Here, the sound facilitates a becoming-girl, understood as the production of an intensity that is not "subjective," while singular, and that creates an assemblage of forces that allows "anyone" to grasp the joy of life. At other moments, the film shows how the girls take photos of themselves at the train station's photo booth, how they fix their hair, and take the "right pose" at the "right time" –when the photos are being taken. These images illustrate the commonality of gestures in standard situations, thereby possibly also connecting with the experiences of viewers. When the girls hold the picture in their hands, and the camera seems to look over their shoulder at the photograph, it displays their painted fingernails, too. The nail polish is chipping; this detail might link the girls' efforts to beautify their bodies, to make themselves attractive, and then to forget the whole enterprise, to similar efforts undertaken by their feminine-identified viewers. As such, the film not only narrates stories, but also assembles images which, while unimportant for the narration, nevertheless serve as connecting points with the viewers. These images do not narrate personal stories, but tell of states of bodies that "anyone" might know; bodies in joy, anger, absent-mindedness, concentration. Bodies taken in by the beauty of the day.

5. To conclude, circulate micro-intensities

[14] Indeed, these micro-intensities –shown in subsequent scenes displaying games at the beach, tricky inventions to make the dullest of places exciting, girlish interactions when, for instance, they take photos together in a photo booth at the station– these micro-intensities make it clear that no violence can contain the body, that no technologies of the body are capable of being completely effective, and that even violence cannot nullify the body's potential: the body is and remains a kind of matter that we will never be able to completely grasp, wherefore it will always be able to reassemble itself in unexpected ways, undermining its capturing in hegemonial power-relations. In other words, the body will always be able to become: other and otherwise. This formula may also be used to understand the strange multiplication Emin undergoes in her film through the staging of five girls as her former self instead of one, showing quite literally that the self is never just one, but always multiple and able to connect differently. Nevertheless, the most effective becoming-woman might indeed come into practice not through the film's display of uncontainable femininity, but through its feminist practice of making a private story public, because this might be an example for a feminist politics as defined by Pelagia Goulimari:

Deleuze and Guattari's descriptions of "becoming woman" (...) serve, first, to recognize feminism's success in opening the way to the desire of becoming other, that is, other than one's self, other than a branch on the tree of Man, other than a subordinate referent of Majority Rule. Second, these descriptions serve to remind us of feminism's historic responsibility to keep this way open to its own and other minoritarian movements, to its own and subordinate points, so that "woman" sheds its quality of being a universal referent and becomes a multiplicity of collective reference-machines and machines of expression" (Goulimari 1999, 103).

I believe that it is especially the utter uncontainability of the girls' bodies, their ability to connect – to the most stupid pop songs, the beach, sunsets, clothes, yes, even nail polish – that opens the door for other minorities to say that power has also not wrought them down, that they are still able to keep their heads up and laugh in the face of those who contain them. Because, after all, as one of the protagonists tells us in a closing scene, normality has left us a long time ago. Maybe we should therefore just become: different.


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