Behold This Non-Fungible Vagina (NFV), or The Multiple Event of Emergent Particularity in the Digital Age
To see this image, aptly named “Flower of Life,” is to see it multiple times at once.
At first, we think we know what’s happening as we feel that immediate tinge of familiarity. That’s a vagina! And then: It’s out of place! But there are many ways to be out of place, most of which are not out of place but are actually all too familiar. Which is to all to say, seeing a vagina where we don’t expect a vagina—whether we’re shocked, aroused, or bored—is nothing novel. On the contrary, it’s disappointingly banal.
But this—this vagina, this image, this “Flower of Life”—is up to something else that belies, that refuses, ready reduction to familiarity and the already known. The way it stands towards us, its comportment, is simultaneously confrontational and deadpan, in our face and utterly serene. It won’t let us place it on familiar territory. It’s not sexual or pornographic; it’s not medical; it’s not a rebellious flouting of convention; it’s not a poster for “pussy power.” No, this “Flower of Life” is up to something else.
Consider its posture. It’s so matter of fact, so seemingly straightforward, that it has the odd effect of brazenly showing us something we know—Look! A vagina!—while, in the very same gesture, defamiliarizing it: This is a vagina like I’ve never seen! Indeed, what is this vagina doing here? Even if we happen to see vaginas all the time, we still don’t see them quite like this—so frankly, in such startling focus, and so absolutely confident in its declaration of itself. If we listen closely, we can hear it uttering Abraham’s famous words upon being called forth by God: Here am I.
Just as we see it and think we know it, then, we see it again and don’t know it. We know it’s a vagina, of course. But to re-cognize is, by definition, to look backwards at what’s already happened. When we recognize, we place the new and particular—this, here, now—in buckets of the past and generality. The particularity of this thing and its set of relations are ignored as we grasp for something we imagine to be grander and more important: vaginas in general as divine or as the power of the women or as erotic fodder.
But in such knowing, in this seemingly harmless act of recognition, we miss the very thing we’re looking at. Which is why Nietzsche refers to such modes of knowing as nihilist as they prefer generalized abstraction to the embodied thisness of life and its sundry valences, complexities, and folds. When we see “Flower of Life “ and “know” it’s a vagina, we only know that because we’re not looking at it but are looking over its head or behind its back to see something we imagine to be more important.
This “Flower of Life” will have none of that. Its very mode of being won’t let us recognize it precisely because it is emergent, something new, something different that will not obediently go to its home. No, it insists on being seen in its particularity.
To see “Flower of Life,” then, we have to know in ways other than recognition. To see it is to encounter a different kind of knowing, one that neither recognizes nor reduces but engages here and now. To see it is to encounter something that isn’t a thing as much as it is an event, four dimensional rather than three—a becoming rather than a being, a verb rather than a noun.
What started as I know what that is! quickly becomes What’s happening here? To see “Flower of Life” is to move from declarative to query, from closed to open, from object-recognition to event-participation. Viewing this image, we’re thrust into a liminal space of knowing and not-knowing at the same time.
It’s a funny effect, creating a kind of perverse Chaplin-esque comedy: the thing that makes it socially “inappropriate”—a naked vagina in public—becomes the only thing to hang on to, the only thing that’s familiar. As we try to make sense of “Flower of Life,” the ground gives way and our sole sure footing is that very same vagina—whose folded, wet form denies a firm grasp (as it were….firm is for others’ body parts).
Freud (whom I offer here not as an expert on vaginas but as another force with which to interact) refers to this experience of knowing and not knowing at the same time as uncanny. The familiar and the alien commingle in ways that belie logic while reorienting the social and our relationship to it. The German word Freud uses is unheimlich or not of the home, which is apropos in this case. Indeed, this vagina has left the confines of domestic propriety, shedding the neat social protocols of how we house, frame, consider, encounter, and know vaginas —all while adamantly proclaiming itself a vagina.
As I’ve said, it’s not that unusual to see vaginas out and about. But they’re usually out with epistemological permission, if you will, from predominantly male institutions—porn, nude beaches, medical books.
Sometimes, we see vaginas in the world framed as rebellion or celebration. There was a picture that went viral of a woman spreading her naked legs for police during an altercation between protesters (I’m not a huge fan of that word for a variety of reasons) and Portland police (see #NakedAthena). People grabbed on to it as “Pussy Power” and its variants bounced around the web.
Meanwhile, search Amazon for books of vaginas and you’ll find plenty. It’s telling that, in the descriptions, vaginas are either sexualized — putting them back into terms we, as a culture, understand— or put on a pedestal—the stuff of goddesses, the essence of woman. Which is even more violent than pornography, in its way, as it transforms the radical particularity of a vagina into an ideal generality, something outside the messy play of embodied, everyday life. In either case, vaginas become either the object of sexual pleasure or the stuff of ideal, sacred knowledge—and the thisness of this vagina in all its pleated complexity is bypassed, reduced, contained, ignored, denied.
While seeing the vagina as a source of power is no doubt, well, empowering, its very familiarity tempers what makes “Flower of Life” so radical. That is, whereas #NakedAthena presents the vagina much as the phallus has been presented since the beginning of time—as weaponized tool— “Flower of Life” gives us the vagina operating in a fundamentally different epistemological and ontological register. “Flower of Life” is not just the vagina working against patriarchy or police power or white supremacy. Rather, it affirms as it scrambles our very basis of knowledge as it proffers a different mode of knowing, one that’s engaged with the emergent thisness of life (what the French philosophers, Deleuze and Guattari, call haecceity).
While no doubt borrowing from all these known registers—vagina as sexual, as essence, as rebellion, as celebration—”Flower of Life” behaves differently. Its very mode of presentation—its formality—refuses such domestication as its insists on itself, on its radical particularity, its thisness. Such is the radical demand of this image: to see this vagina—indeed, to see everything—anew in its strangeness, beauty, grotesquerie, oddity, in its radical particularity, to celebrate and go with its insistence on itself as it refuses to be subsumed by recognition, ever declaring itself to the world, to our eyes: Here am I. It asks that we not just recognize it as solely sexual or rebellious or divine but engage it as it emerges, here and now as it inaugurates an event of seeing.
Just look. We are peculiarly close to this vagina while still enjoying remarkable clarity and totality. This perspective exceeds the human eye. If our faces were there, this is not what we’d see. We’d focus on this part, not that; our eyes would roam, assembling pieces as in cinematic montage. We’d most likely be either lovers or doctors, tending to different aspects of this object. But “Flower of Life” does not give us human-all-too-human seeing: it gives us camera-seeing. On the website, it’s telling that we see the image below as well, a mode of seeing that is decidedly not human—or, at least, not solely human.
Cameras are beautifully stupid, seeing as no human sees. Cameras, after all, don’t know what something is. They just let the world happen as a play of light and form, free of history, language, prejudice, discourse. Of course, the way the camera is built, defined, and deployed is of the human. The act of photographing, then, is a commixture of human and inhuman. What this affords us is the ability to see with a beginner’s mind, to see anew, to see the strange, to let the world emerge rather than pre-determining it, rather than already knowing it: rather than recognizing it. As Marisa Papen, the artist, writes: “When we perceive, we conceive, we receive. The first time we encounter an object, idea or image, our intuitive self translates what we see. Our understanding is created innately through feeling — our reading is pure. Yet, far too often our perception comes loaded with stories, whether our own, or inherited by culture at large. When you view the ‘Flower Of Life,’ view it free from judgement, free from history, free from language.” The camera, in its beautiful stupidity, affords us precisely this freedom from judgement, history, and language.
“Flower of Life” is not as much a picture of a vagina, as if it were representing what we already know, as much as it is an event of what Deleuze and Guattari would call vagina-becoming. This is not an image of an object; it is image as event, as verb. When we see “Flower of Life,” we are not identifying either the vagina or the image as an object in space. Rather, in seeing it, we become participants in an event, co-creators of the world as it emerges before our eyes, an encounter of vagina, camera, and eyes from varying perspectives.
To know “Flower of Life,” then, —if know is still the right word—demands something other than recognition, other than classification. It demands what both Marisa Papen and the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, call intuition. Unlike recognition which looks backwards, intuition operates in the now, a cooperative event of seer and seen. Intuition feels its way through the totality of the event as a participant—rather than as a scientist dissecting the parts to put them all in their place.
Just as this image, “Flower of Life,” reorganizes our very way of knowing, this vagina (re)shapes space in a novel way. The penis occupies space without much inflection or surprise as it raises, then plants, its flag. No doubt, this is a reduction. Uncircumscribed penises, for instance, enjoy a relationship between inside and outside that circumscribed penises do not. And, for sure, penises vary widely, especially once we include testicles. But we’re talking about vaginas here and vaginas create, inflect, and occupy space in startlingly complex ways.
The French theorist, Luce Irigaray, argues that the vagina is always already multiple. In her incredible essay, “This Sex That is Not One,” she writes: “As for woman, she touches herself in and of herself without any need for mediation, and before there is any way to distinguish activity from passivity. Woman ‘touches herself’ all the time, and moreover no one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact. Thus, within herself, she is already two but not divisible into one(s)-that caress each other.” The world “Flower of Life” proffers is a world of multiplicity that is not divisible but, rather, is a self-caressing contiguous series of folds and pleats, both inside and out—so many, in fact, that the very distinction between inside and outside blurs: “Flower of Life” as an Escher painting.
“Flower of Life” delivers these folds with unsettling clarity. It’s as if we can see down to the very limits of the cellular structure, all the grooves of life, all the fluctuations, shadows, planes, all these pleats, all these modes of folds, all of origami in one take. To see this image is not as much to enter a space—to penetrate a sheath or excavate a secret—as it is to move along, to ride, the very contours of the universe itself, always already inflected, swerving, curving, bending, turning this way and that.
Every moment of the universe, every fold of a vagina, is particular. To see this emergent particularity of life without the reductive will of recognition demands work—it demands tactics and technologies, whether those are drugs, meditation, or a camera lens. “Flower of Life” demands our beautiful stupidity, our beginner’s mind, so we can see—see the world emerge and engage its difference rather than just “knowing” it by turning a blind eye.
This means that this emergent moment—this vagina here and now—is not interchangeable with other vaginas. Our dominant epistemology is premised on fungibility: for things to be true, to be known, we need to be able to exchange one thing for another in its class. An elephant is an elephant is an elephant. When a different kind of beast occurs every now and again, which may turn out not to be an elephant at all, the goal of science is to create a new category of thing in which all future examples are fungible. Science disdains thisness.
That is to say, our collective knowledge system is premised on a classification system in which the particulars of a category don’t matter. In fact, we only consider something knowledge when it creates a system of exchangeability between different things, same for same. When confronted with something absolutely different, we do everything we can to see if it fits into something we already have. If not, we create a new category. We refuse to let something of knowledge remain radically particular.
The rise of digital photography and communication reinforces this fungibility. Rather than Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” being unique, in the age of the digital it becomes infinitely replicable. As in science, in the age of the digital, radical particularity is subsumed by a technology of the same.
But a new technology rears its head: the blockchain and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Unlike, say, the US dollar or Bitcoin—which are designed to be fungible so that each dollar is equivalent to another dollar just as each Bitcoin is equivalent to every other Bitcoin—an NFT is one of a kind. An NFT, then, functions as a kind of signature, like Picasso’s, marking this thing as this thing.
Which is precisely what Maris Papen has done with “Flower of Life.” It is an NFT, one of a kind, deploying a technology of particularity to proffer the radical particularity of her vagina as no human can see it, inviting us in our very viewing to become other, perhaps to become Nietzsche’s ubermensch, overcoming the limits of our human-all-too-human selves and see the world ever anew, emerging in wondrous complexity as we take in the multiple sense of this flower of life.