Kissing the Other

The materiality of making out.

Kissing is like dancing, or speaking in tongues — each person has their own style, their own preferences.

Are you a good kisser? With so many kinks and styles, who’s to judge? Some like it controlled and dry, whereas others like it sloppy and wet. Biologists and psychologists can argue that kissing is a kind of ancient smelling ritual, an easy way to get close and sample a partner’s suitability. On another level, it’s a subconscious chemical and bacterial interview, and maybe on another, it’s a way to get beyond our own minds, a way to take the other person into our bodies. However, if you really like the person, then the actual, conscious, phenomenological experience of kissing may be different.

What else is going on when we kiss? Words end. Eyes closed means haptic experience is magnified. One disappears into the kissing. Tongues touching and lips grinding is isomorphic to frottage and tribadism because the tongue is a penis and the lips are a vagina. (This idea of body symmetry is pretty old. Saliva was used euphemistically for semen in Egypt, both are secretions from the ends of the spine, and ancient Chinese texts reveal an entire science of face-genital mirroring). This isomorphism fuels vagina dentata imagery. Kissing is therefore like gay and straight sex all at once, and because it is happening in the mouth, it is also a conversation.

Mouths are on everybody — “a mouth is a mouth” — so kissing can be a powerful way to move beyond cultural sex and gender distinctions. It is a way into bisexuality, pansexuality, pomosexuality — a sexuality beyond words and concepts. It also may be more intimate than genital penetration, which is why so many sex workers refuse to kiss their clients. It is also definitely not as intimate as genital penetration.

But sometimes we let our guard down — we let it down! — for a lover, for a friend, or for a complete stranger. We open the pearl gates of our bodies and we kiss the other.

Focusing attention into the mouth changes our state of consciousness, our state of embodiment. Historians of the body point out how the mouth is a crucial place in our ‘personal geographies’, and to fully understand its significance we must study its evil twin, the anus. Humans are essentially glorified worms, with mouth and anus representing the endpoints of the tube that runs the body. And these endpoints quickly get polarized, even though they are both essential. Mouth is associated with the sky, air, food, speech, life, society, and the sacred, whereas the anus is associated with the earth, carnality, sexuality, death, the private, and the profane. It is not loved, not kissed (regularly), and not exposed. Anus is shunned, and pushed out of sight, out of mind. It is where the sun don’t shine. The mouth is, subsequently, where the sun does shine, where mind is focused, and a kiss is spotlighted by two ocular suns.

Satan came out of heaven. Sometimes the mouth can be a source of disgust like the anus. In most contexts, saliva is disgusting, maybe even more than feces because, in our minds, nothing is supposed to come out of the mouth. Saliva is “matter out of place,” which makes it dirty. This is completely forgotten during a kiss.

In any case, the entire sensorium experiences the kiss across many layers of time, place, and history. It also appears to be making a comeback as a subject in contemporary art.

Kissing Contemporary Art

Photographer Jedediah Johnson has a series called “Makeout” where he puts on lipstick and kisses people. “Seconds later I take a photograph of them creating a portrait of the moment that has just passed.”

Johnson explains that kissing quickly becomes a creative, reactive, emotional flow state, and why exactly it’s such a quick way into the body:

“That common experience of kissing and its nearly unbreakable connection to an emotional response is probably why several artists are using kissing in their work … When people are kissed or they see other people kissing there is a moment when their frontal lobes shut down, the limbic system kicks in, and they just feel their emotions. They get embarrassed. They get aroused. Sometimes they even get angry. The important thing is that they feel. That’s art.”

What other artists work with kissing imagery or with the kiss itself?

Painter and Professor of Art