An Empirical Queer Theory, HD, 20 mins, 2019
Introduction text by Sebastian Schneider
If you seek professional council from a psychotherapist, you will almost certainly choose either behavioral therapy or psychoanalytic treatment. Even though the two methods are based on different concepts, it is inherent to both that the therapist has a neutral, observant role. This is supposed to maintain objectivity, one of the basic prerequisites in Western empirical observation. This is also perpetuated in the spatial setting of the therapy room itself: No matter whether one is being treated in a sitting or lying position, there is always a spatial distance between the patient and the therapist.
The opposite is true for Christina Myers Hepburn, a Los Angeles-based practitioner of touch therapy, or – as it is more commonly called – professional cuddling. In contrast to the methods mentioned above, she specifically relies on physical contact to treat the corporeal well-being of her clients. Myers Hepburn is in the limelight of Padraig Robinson’s film An Empirical Queer Theory (2019). It creates a filmic space that enables us to listen to Myers Hepburn’s reflections. Shot in one take from a static camera at an oblique angle, the film is also a study of light, monologue, improvisation, and framing. It opens with Myers Hepburn sitting on a lounger while Taco Bodengo, her dog, has made himself comfortable on her lap. Outside the window, leisurely traffic moves through a rainy, residential area. As if it were a podcast, Myers Hepburn holds a recording device in her hand as she speaks about her practice. In the progression of the piece, the sun coming in and out of the clouds subtly changes the light in the room, while the oblique camera angle is interrupted by extreme close ups.
Myers Hepburn starts by saying that we only use a fraction of our senses, and that our culture relies heavily on the senses of sight, hearing, and taste – whereas minor importance is being ascribed to that of touch or smell. According to Myers Hepburn, we suffer from an underdevelopment of that sense, not even knowing that we are missing out on new understandings; namely of pleasure — which she believes humans are here to experience. Instead, touch has culturally been banished to the realm of monogamous romantic relationships, or to something equally exclusive, as if it has become a bonus for those who comply with the normative rules of society. We accept that some people have to live without it, although we know that touch and physical tenderness are basic human needs. Myers Hepburn’s work is dedicated to breaking down self-regulations that prevent her clients from the joy of touching their bodies or those of others. Contrary to empirical research’s bias against affect, her theory is very much influenced by affective sensations.
»According to Myers Hepburn, we suffer from an underdevelopment of that sense, not even knowing that we are missing out on new understandings; namely of pleasure — which she believes humans are here to experience.«
When Myers Heburn vividly describes the intimacy of her sessions, Robinson edits close-up shots to create interplays of proximity and distance. We see detailed sequences of Taco Bodengo’s fur as Myers Hepburn is petting him. Another recurring motif is blossoms of flowers, namely a poinsettia and an orchid, which can be found in the spatial arrangement of the room. Text and image are closely intertwined here, as while Myers Hepburn speaks about her experience during touch therapy we see her fingers running gently over an orchid, somewhat Georgia O’Keeffe-like. One can’t help not feel intrigued by the beauty and suspense created through the synthesis of image and text in this film, yet there is still something ambivalent about the beauty and tenderness of its sequences. Think of the close-up of the pink cushion that lies on the floor. When the camera pans over the surface of its pillowcase one can almost feel its soft and yet abrasive velvet texture – even though we are inviolably separated from it by the screen we are viewing it through. These scenes literally move so close that the material’s haptic qualities become all too perceptible. Furthermore, the cushion’s color and shape evokes something carnal. When Myers Hepburn strokes and touches it, associations of our own shame and defense mechanisms raise and we start thinking about the comfort zones we have learned to protect so well. Myers Hepburn’s empirical theory bluntly shows that we could live together differently – if we would only start doing so.