It was the Dutch psychologist Lotte van der Berg who first coined the term ‘coital signifier’ to mark that moment in a conversation when the emphasis dramatically alters. Professor van der Berg, actually a friend of mine, was trained as a moral philosopher but moved into its sister disciplines after she was asked to do some research into so-called ‘internet chat’, those sad discussions in cyberspace which almost guarantee that the participants will never meet. In an area where words have to tell all, therefore, and the conversationalists only ever appear as vignette portrait photographs or the more sinister anonymous grey heads, all meaning has to be sought in tone, temper, usage, style, and solecism – in a word, language.
I like to think that I knew Lotte when she was unen-cumbered by knowledge.
I like to think that I knew Lotte when she was unencumbered by knowledge. I don’t mean that in a chauvinistic way; you know, that she was much better as a woman without a head stuffed with intellectual nonsense. But I’m being honest – her imperative to me – when I say that I remember her best in the apple-green cotton dress she wore on the afternoon we first made love. ‘Made love’ has since become an expression for which she probably has a word that delves deeper than ‘euphemism’. It was an al fresco event, the access to the source of her vitality and longing being unimpeded by anything so conventional as underwear. I seem to recall the dress floating away from her in the long grass, where we afterwards lay saturated among insects and possibly the odd snake. (The serpent would have been too obvious an image for Lotte.) That said, many of her chat transcripts involved the identification and dwelling upon what the communicators were wearing in the way of briefs and brassieres. Removal of these items in a ritualistic procedure was part of the attraction of talking about what one couldn’t see. (Lotte is also the author of a book on under-garment slang, and discovered ‘banana hammock’ for thong in some Antipodean outpost.)
In a paper of 2001 titled Sub-Coital Linguistics: Points of No Return – she has always tried to court peer academic interest as well as popularity – there appears the conversation that now has classic status and in which her very first coital signifier, the word ‘arse’, appears. It’s worth recalling the conversation in part, with the turn of events at the end. She calls the discoursers AM (male) and BF (female) and she reports the text verbatim, Though the exchange does not correlate perfectly with a characteristic she has come across often – namely, an increasingly cavalier attitude to punctuation running parallel with the shedding of inhibition – it bears some resemblance:
AM: Up till now my photography has been pretty amateur. I belong to the local camera club. I use to like developing film and making prints but that’s all gone by the bored now digitals come in.
BF: What sort of things do you take photographs of mainly?
AM: All sorts. Landscapes and pets. My mate Douwe asked me to take his wedding pictures but I was too scared.
BF: Of what?
AM: Dunno. Doing a bad job, suppose.
BF: Brides are nice subjects, specially blushing ones (!!!)
AM: Yea. Some of those brides dresses are pretty clinging.
BF: Don’t leave much to the imagienation
AM: Certainly dont.
BF: Its funny isnt it.
BF: We don’t know what each other looks like
AM: No we dont do we.
BF: I could attach a picture of me
AM: Why don’t you?
BF: Ive done some modeling
AM: Send something then
(A picture is posted of an over-plump woman with long black hair and seated with her back to the camera but twisted around slightly so that the subject is looking to the right in the manner of The Bather of Valpinçon by Ingres, or a comical pastiche of same. The subject is wearing what might be called a formal dress, the back of which is very low cut.)
AM: Nice. Were you off out somewhere?
BF: Would you like to see another?
AM: Why not. Certainly.
(The second picture is taken from the front and the subject is wearing a broad smile. She is buxom and, with the straps of the dress fallen from her shoulders, she is squeezing her breasts together by folding her arms. It could be what is called a fun picture, almost passable in a family frame.)
AM: Very nice indeed.
…on all fours in high heels with her dress pulled up and her underwear showing.
(Without further comment from BF, a third picture appears. It shows the subject on all fours in high heels with her dress pulled up and her underwear showing. Subject is looking back toward the camera. She is not smiling this time but has a serious expression, as if in the throes of some personal ecstasy she is wishing to communicate and share; or, alternatively, some undefined torture being undergone and from which she is seeking escape by inching backwards; in fact, she has almost reversed into the camera lens.)
AM: Bloody hell. Even nicer.
BF: Do you like the way my arse and twat are trying to pop out of my tight knickers?
AM: Were all these taken at the same time then?
For Professor van der Berg, the final two lines of dialogue here illustrate more than the Coital Signifier ‘arse’. The appearance of ‘twat’ so close to ‘arse’ she has termed Strombolian Utterance, after the term for relatively mild eruptions of indices 2 to 3 associated with the eponymous Italian volcano. The interrogative at the end is Tacit Semasiological Ingress – the suggestion that, after the double signifiers ‘arse’ and ‘twat’ (and the Compounding Enhancement of ‘tight knickers’) the exchange can go one of two ways, depending on the reaction. AM’s response the professor calls Short-lived Conventional Ambivalence, a result of the combination of mild shock and bright prospect; in the terms of a virtual conversation, one where nothing that is written can have an effect apprehended in reality, the signifier’s receiver, here AM, is likely to be led willingly further along the path opened up by the signifier’s creator, BF. Professor van der Berg has encountered many variations of what follows this climactic ‘arse-twat’ moment. The interchange cited here continues thus:
AM: Are there any more?
BF: Lots. What would you like?
AM: How d’you mean
BF: I’ve done filthy. Is that inappopriate
AM: No. I dont mind filth.
(The fourth picture might be described as the point at which the ecstasy-torture conundrum is resolved in favour of full-on, unequivocal self-indulgence which requires only the involvement of another party to be full realised. It shows…well, little if any of that euphoric/anguished countenance, straining above the déshabillé and not so much more, but the whole, of what nether female geography is on offer. In the common Dutch parlance, it represents an invitation to be eaten alive: om levend te worden gegeten.)
Having led the field in this kind of analysis, Lotte – the professor – chronicled hundreds of internet ‘chats’, having applied for them discreetly on line. The willingness to supply examples she put down to exhibitionism, though those involved never revealed their identities. It was possible that some, if not many, had been made up, but the similarities had an almost empirical validity and led her to make a classification. Subsequent examples have fallen into one or other of those. She has since done much related work, especially on the erotica-pornography interface, concluding that the pejorative use of the word ‘pornography’ subsumes much that is nothing of the sort. The use of these terms to herd behaviour into the corral of degeneracy – another word barely recognised – is, she says, a form of tyranny.
Lotte and I are much older but we engage in what she calls ‘superannuated jibber-jabber’. What else can we do when she’s in Utrecht and I’m in Frome? She retains a knack of loading so many expressions with sexual onomatopoeia that our reciprocity on the superhighway, illuminated by Skype, is highly charged before we begin. Nor do we have to lead up to any of her signifiers or chance our arms on the change of tack she described sixteen years ago; nor, indeed, do we take the plunge from hope and expectation into the abyss of unconditional gratification. Naturally, on Skype we are naked. And our conversations go something like this:
Me: Lotte, my love.
Lotte: My darling, my sweet.
Me: Where are we going today?
Lotte: I don’t know; nor do I care. Fly me.
Lotte: Why not?
Me: Due south, to an erogenous zone?
Lotte: Yes. Relative humidity is 60 per cent and rising.
Me: The forecast?
Lotte: Heavy showers, minor floods.
Me: Cometh the plateau, the endorphins, the resolution.
Note the amusement, the presupposition of coitus, the grammatical exactitude, and the intellectual élan, for all of which Professor (Emeritus) van der Berg has a name.