This is the editorial note to TNI Vol. 33: Dicks. View the full table of contents here.
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What even is a dick, anyway? A dick can be made of the material of a penis or a clitoris but not all penises and clitorises are dicks; a dick can be something you are, something you have, and/or something you receive. A dick can be bought or granted, earned or inherited. Some dicks are built out of silicone, others with layers of steel. Sometimes, a dick is made out of a person. For example, some dicks are the dead President of the United States, while some are just the dead national poet of Luxembourg. Some are detectives, and some are detectives’ batons, and some are a sporting goods chain and a member of the Fortune 500. Some people who possess dicks wear theirs all the time and some just when they feel like it. Some wear themselves out following a dick around (theirs or someone else’s). Dicks are famous objects of longing, and being a famous object of longing can turn you into a dick.
In its guise as an organ of arousal, the dick has reigned at the head of a long campaign of slander against all other forms of pleasure. In patriarchal fantasy, the cis-masculine dick is supposed to be the unparalleled worldly avatar of arousal, with its evidentiary erections and productive orgasms. But unlike other forms of desire, which spring up everywhere all the time, even under duress, this dick apparently needs vast swathes of cultural production, violent appropriation, and an entire social mechanism of binary gender to stay hard. It is a fantasy pressed into service as a pretext. If psychoanalysis pretended to ask “What do women want?” it’s perhaps because colonial-capitalist culture is so focused on instructing men in what their dicks want and then giving it to them.
In 20th century western Europe, Freud and his colleagues forged a startling account of childhood as a tragic quest to discover who in the family does and doesn’t have a dick. In other patriarchal cultures, the dick is an equally magical object, not only affording its bearer social power but also able to transform other bodies, as in cases where sexual violence is aimed at feminizing men and rendering women “damaged goods.”
In this, our most special issue ever to concern a spectacularly unspecial thing, we look at the dick in a few of its current forms. Alexander Benaim tells how a building becomes a dick, pumped up by speculative finance capital, and also how it behaves like one, ignoring the neighborhood’s consent (or lack thereof). Collecting letters between world leaders and an enterprising artist, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi chronicles a ban on neckties in post-revolutionary Iran, followed by the artist’s transformation of the deposed Shah’s tie two times: once, as a slavishly Western impression of a phallus; last, as a noose, as if to say that the master’s tools do sometimes do the work.
“Is the penis simply the vagina with more chutzpah?” wrote Vishnu Strangeways in his first-year anatomy notes, revisited here in his essay on genital reassignment. For Strangeways, medicine is a frequent collaborator in binary gender, yet the surgeries and accompanying therapies open up a sackful of sovereign, individual, and surprisingly variegated demands. To answer his question: is the foreskin simply a less hot version of the labia? Not to the Catholic Church and not to its nuns, whose ecstatic habit of dropping Jesus’s prepuce like it’s acid is lovingly restored from the relics by Stassa Edwards. Only in certain turn-of-the-century “gentlemen’s” rags, as Colin Dickey flips to find out, does a slipping past the censors of pro-circumcision ads for anatomically masturbatory kicks begin to rival the nuns for a fun way to jailbreak one’s celibacy.
The word dick can stand in for both the actually existing penis and the never-possessed phallus. Patriarchy weaponizes dicks but can’t turn them all into its instruments; feminist and anticolonial practice rehabilitate dicks but can’t save every one. Perhaps the solution is simply to outdo them. Four decades ago this month, Lynda Benglis got naked with an XXL dildo in the advertorial “centerfold” of Artforum, prompting a shitstorm of insular outrage. The sculptor’s double-headed act of vulgarity should have long lost its promise to shock; instead, as Ana Cecilia Alvarez shows in her fleshed-out recounting and contextualization of Benglis’ work, the pure rapacious joy of her image makes it as impressive a rarity in today’s feminist-conceptual landscape as it was back in ’74.
Were the image submitted not to a group show, however, but to Madeline Holden’s beloved, self-explanatory Tumblr—Critique My Dick Pic: 100% Anon, No Size Shaming—Ms. Benglis would get the best of all grades from our Internet’s kindest critic of sensual currency. “I wanted to put dick pic recipients in the driver’s seat, to demand that our desires are given weight and thought,” writes Holden in a discussion of what she’s learned from dick pics so far. “I want to depart from the idea that penises are little more than punchlines by framing men and other people with dicks as sexy, as objects of desire: looked-at and not just lookers.”
Of course, no critique of a dick is as devastatingly accurate as a blow job. Keeping the linguistic history of cocksucking firmly in cheek, Janani Balasubramanian considers how best to take a dick in the mouth when mouth and dick alike are ideas just waiting to be queered, and when the act itself has become rather more a performance. “Any part of the body can be, become, or unbecome a dick,” they write, then add in some new flesh, too, unspooling examples of dicks from “the New York skyline” to “racialized ideas of phallus size” to “hands, feet, faces, strap-ons, fingers, ears,” and if the hairs on your forearm are standing up, those are erections too. Once you look a little off-center, you find that your body is scattered with sites of arousal. “We can toss sex outside of language,” they nearly plead, “and still communicate with our tongues.” It is tricky to imagine a sex that is not its own language, but maybe that’s what Balasubramanian intends: For some of us to lift the diagrammed sentences of narrative fucking, lose the big meaningful words, and mutter asoft like a nun until peace comes.
Is it a symptom of living in patriarchy that the dick can morph, while other parts stay more or less themselves? Whatever the reason, in these essays the apparently tangible dick turns out to be made primarily not of flesh, nor plastic, but of the relations between us.