Uncertain if this functions strictly as a “paper,” I describe the following as a series of observations on the conjunctive and disjunctive relation between self-styled “supermasochist,” Bob Flanagan in the posthumous documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Kirby Dick, 1997), and of “Monsieur M.” in Michel de M’Uzan’s 1972 essay, “A Case of Masochistic Perversion and an Outline of a Theory.”
There is no ambiguity during Sick that Bob Flanagan considers his masochistic practices to be entirely indicative of an immense strength on his part. Certainly, we see great parallels here with Monsieur M. of M’Uzan’s analysis, whose own allusions and accounts of “the terrible tortures he had endured” were ultimately descriptions of his own seeming “omnipotence [told with] an immense pride.” (461)
Assuredly, M’Uzan’s interpretation of M.’s masochism feels not too dissimilar from such a case as Venus in Furs, in which “the sadistic partner [is] a person destined to be held in contempt, someone who is devalued as he is reduced to the role of being a specific instrument.” (461) However, there is an ambivalent, albeit extant, relation here to Deleuze’s introduction to the same. For Deleuze, the masochist aims, in being beaten, to embody his father, thus presenting his domineering super-ego avatar to be beaten and accordingly castrated. According to M’Uzan, M.’s desire to be beaten appears to be a desire to be beaten by his father, although also makes clear to us that M did discover his father’s own masochistic desire, whilst also, it seems, denigrating his male sadists all the while. Thus, although we may well surmise the performative embodiment of the father in the masochistic role in the case of M. just as much as in Deleuze’s own speculation, it is difficult to suggest that the function of castrating disavowal of the father is as active in the fantasy. It is for similar reasons that M’Uzan proposes the category of masochistic perversion, contrasted to moral masochism and/or feminine masochism, due to a lack of concern regarding the super-ego in the case of M.’s desire. Nevertheless, M’Uzan and Deleuze would disagree on the form of concern the moral and/or feminine masochist show in their desire toward the super-ego, suggesting more an identification with the mother, rather than an invocation of her. (462) Accordingly, M’Uzan ultimately concludes that M.’s psychological domain of familial relation is an entirely other landscape:
He is like his wife, his wife is like him, she is his parent, he is like his parents, etc. These are not identifications in the active and differentiated sense in which we find them in neurotics, but are purely “duplications.” Under these conditions one must consider his personality as being essentially structured outside the Oedipal situation. (463)
Interestingly, when director Kirby Dick interviews Flanagan’s parents about his predilections, his father expresses a certain sympatico with his logic, if nothing else, whilst Flanagan’s mother repeats over and over that she asks herself “where was I?” Flanagan and his dominant long-time partner Sheree Rose express no doubt at all regarding the maternal associations with the dominatrix. Rose is entirely forthcoming in her assertion that to be a dominatrix is in many ways to be a strict mother, one whose consistent, if not constant, giving of punishment and care is reflective of the idealised oral mother. Flanagan’s statement that “I don’t get turned on by slamming my hand in a car door; I don’t get turned on by being treated badly… but I’d ask Sheree to be mean to me.” In this statement we conceive of a triangle, at its points: a hand slammed in a car door, “bad” treatment, and “mean” treatment. We may surmise from this triangle, that each point is roughly reflective of the three women of Masoch: the slamming of the car door is the untameably unpredictable hetaeric, with no regard for context; the potential for “bad” treatment is the castrating Oedipal, actively sadistic and dehumanising; “meanness,” by contrast, is indicative of a role that can be negotiated, even scripted: the oral ideal. The script becomes apparent, as we see a comedic video of Flanagan and Rose, the overhead narration being a letter written to a fictionalised Flanagan’s mother:
“Dear Mom…I fell in love. In some ways, she sort of reminds me of you. I don’t know if it was the clothes she wore, the sound in her voice, or the look in her eye, but I knew I was hooked for life.”
Of course, just as we understand the reaching toward the ideal oral mother as not simply being a stationary locus toward which the subject can journey and at which the subject can finally reside, but instead the median point in the perennial oscillation of the subject-as-pendulum, the harmony of Flanagan and Rose’s dynamic as a couple is likewise portrayed at points in flux. The masochist may indeed often operate as the one in control, but here we move from Venus in Furs’ representation of the sullen, aggrieved and resentful masochism of Severin, to seeing outtakes from Flanagan and Rose’s video art, in which he becomes the angry director. Contract signing away all agency of action, decision and sensation of Flanagan’s over to Rose or no, Flanagan expresses his discomfort and displeasure freely and forcefully, if hurt when unprepared, or beaten inaccurately. Flanagan asserts whilst interviewed for his MOMA installation Visiting Hours, “I’m more the mad scientist than the guinea pig.”
As the film chronologically progresses, and Flanagan’s struggles with cystic fibrosis become harder for him to endure, his receptiveness to Rose’s expressed desire to engage in BDSM severely wanes. Rose says to the camera, “I don’t think he’s even a masochist anymore; I think life has beaten him down too much.” Whilst there was no doubt that Flanagan’s masochistic practice was always connected to a sense of battle against his ultimately fatal disease, we now have it presented as him being in the middle between two “beatings.” A submission to one is a disavowal of the other and, accordingly, his ambivalence about his own longevity appears reflected by his portrayed ultimate ambivalence about his lifestyle.
Contrary to the more consistent consideration of heterosexual male masochism presented by Freud and Deleuze, in the case of Monsieur M., his wife was a fellow masochist, and they both relied on male lovers (the ones so contemptuously considered). Instrumentalising these seemingly nameless and faceless others, both masochists were able to dominate and be dominated by each other by proxy, whilst M. certainly also was able to construct and affirm a masochistic identity on the basis of the maleness of these proxies that allowed for nuanced if pragmatic negotiations of gender performance and expression (consider in particular the tattoos Je suis une putain, servez-vous de moi comme d’une femelle, vous jouirez bien and the more non-binary assertion Je ne suis ni homme ni femme, mais une salope, mais une putain, mais une chair à plaisir). Indeed, one possible reason for the contemptuous treatment of male lovers ostensibly afforded so much power as to be able to instruct M. to amputate body parts, is that – outside of the masochistic scene – M. expressed no particular homosexual desire. in fact, the ultimate waning of his masochistic inclinations appears directly connected to heterosexual loss and desire.
We know from M’Uzan’s account that, although it did start up again for some time later, M.’s relationship to masochistic perversion halted abruptly at the death of his wife, who succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis – reportedly, “she endured such extreme torture and was dominated by such intense perverse needs that she wasted all her strength, dying at the age of 23.” (457) The chronology of M.’s sadomasochistic rituals and encounters is ambiguous (as it is, to some extent, with Flanagan – to this we shall return), but we can determine that M. initially disengaged from the masochistic lifestyle for a period of at least two years, following his wife’s death, thus presumably restarting at about age 35, and having ten years of somewhat less successful encounters and relationships, before his interest officially started to diminish, seemingly concurrent to a stark increase in vanilla heterosexual dreams about a “voluptuous woman with whom sexual relationships approached normal love making.” (458) Thus, the cessations to M.’s masochistic inclinations appear instigated by the death of one masochistic woman, and the spectral appearance of another, hetaeric figure. That the first cessation appears marked by a period of sympathetic contraction of the same disease that claimed the life of his young wife should not, I suggest, be considered insignificant. As with Freud’s description of the question of life’s prolongation arisen within the conflict between Eros and the death-drive, the question of death in this case functions as a unifying principle between masochistic parties that appears at once to be in conflict with masochistic desire, but also its ultimate apotheosis of expression.
As with so many other analyses of masochism, the function of suspension, as much as the act, appears central to these examples of masochistic practice. Flanagan recounts to an audience about his early childhood indulgences:
Every Friday night… I’d wait ‘til everybody went to sleep, and I’d start to play… I’d pour white glue over my body… Trussed up by these plant hooks… All these ropes, suspending me off the floor.
As much as we may interpret the masochistic scene’s close association with binding and suspension as the particular attempt to freeze a particular moment – namely the moment the dominating female partner reaches the apex of cold, oral ideal – we cannot help but first and foremost associate Flanagan’s suspension of time as being directly linked to a desire to prolong a life marked for early death. Indeed, Flanagan credited his masochistic practice for having just such a result, living far beyond his original prognosis. Nevertheless, he also sardonically announces, “I was promised an early death, but here I am forty years later, still waiting.”
As with M’Uzan’s case of M., Dick’s documentary of Flanagan can only be considered approximately chronological, so it is hard to determine what was the “last” masochistic ritual of Flanagan’s before his demise. However, the final we see in Sick, before his deterioration of health is as such that Rose posits that he is “no longer a masochist,” is the infamous video of him, hammering a nail through his penis, into a block of wood. There are perhaps three elements worthy of note when regarding this video: first – just as with those early experimentations – Flanagan is performing independent of Rose or any other dominatrix. Second, nailing his penis to a block of wood likely represents for the majority of us the logical conclusion to the masochistic emphasis on being tightly bound and constricted. Third, the undoing of this act, with the resultant blood streaming from Flanagan’s penis, operates as the final ejaculation, the suspension now lifted.
Given that we see Flanagan describing the scene to an audience just before the video itself (unless, of course, it was a repeated act), we may assume later modes of play. Nevertheless, the narratological effect of this portrayed as the final masochistic act before Bob’s ultimate succumbing to his cystic fibrosis speaks, I believe, to the enmeshment of the illness with his play: not simply as something disavowed by Bob’s assertion of his own corporeal agency through his choice to go through such extreme feats, but perhaps as the ultimate super-ego who may be bested through the ritualistic process, but in the Deleuzian sense that depends upon its participation. The bloody release represents not simply a willingness to let go of the suspension and accept death, but indicates the end of a session in which the illness itself may be embodied as the anal-sadistic father to be defensively castrated by the oral mother. Perhaps the spectrality of this illness with which Flanagan parodically aligns himself for this act dictates the necessity for such genital mutilation, but we as an audience to the film do see it work. Following his death, Rose shows the camera the fatal phlegm that was in his lungs: now trapped in a plastic container. In choosing to let go, in choosing to die (rhetoric employed both by the nurses and Rose at Flanagan’s deathbed), that ultimate super-ego is made manifest that it may be castrated and, indeed, bound.
The dominant narrative within Venus in Furs – Severin’s autobiographical text-within-the-text – in its opening scene, presents Severin’s journey within a few pages from a devoted and seemingly public worship of the “cold, cruel” statue of Venus, to the far more clandestine fascination with a procured photograph of Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, to the immediately horrified response to seeing first the statue adorned with furs, and then Wanda, similarly attired. Certainly, the synthetic operation at play here is on one level an entirely uncomplicated function of the Hegelian dialectic that so influences Masoch’s personal philosophy. However, the intermingling of Severin’s horror and desire is what catalyses the parameters of this text’s analysis, from both a Freudian and Deleuzian perspective.
There is a stark immediacy in the fetishistic function within this scene, such that the instigating stimulus for the horrified reaction to the revelation of maternal castration is, in fact, the erotic object of the realisation’s disavowal, which is to say the furs. Accordingly, I am reminded in this encounter yet again of the “dangerous” supplementation of the Symbolic order, that which – through its imposition of language upon the Real which itself lacks nothing, establishes an absence that must now be healed. This horrific encounter soon follows Severin’s rumination, first on Samson and Delilah, and then on the Book of Judith. Interestingly enough, the two editions of Venus in Furs I possess have divertingly distinct translations regarding the beheading of Holofernes: one reads “The Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman,” whilst the other: “The almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.” Accordingly, the uncertainty between these two positions of smiting and deliverance feel entirely borne out in the ambivalence of the encounter, and indeed the novel’s resolution.
Nevertheless, we can interpret in both accounts, a degree to which the role of woman can supplant the classically considered punishing patriarch and, in so doing, can render even capital punishment a source of jouissance for the masochist. From such a perspective, Deleuze’s assertion that the masochistic route toward pleasure is to portray his patriarchal superego, so that it may be castrated by the figure of the oral mother, having both defeated and acquired attributes of the hetaeric and oedipal mothers (whom we might understand as the overtly deistic / Titian-painted Venus, and the marble statue Venus, respectively), is affirmed. Indeed, Severin, speaking to himself so harshly during his flight response indicates the splitting mechanism upon which so much of this process is dependent.
Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” which seems so overtly to influence Deleuze’s commentary, in all its cultural critique, makes central two plays of Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear. Assuredly, this scene in Venus in Furs is also highly indicative of a third: The Winter’s Tale. Freud tells us that, ultimately, the third mother is above all “the Mother Earth who receives [the subject] once more…the silent Goddess of Death will take him into her arms.” Yet again, smiting and deliverance are inextricably married. And yet, just as with The Winter’s Tale, here we see a statue come to life. Severin’s demanding fantasy necessitates that a figure of death become a figure of life. Within the vain folly of this prerequisite lies the source of the frustrated resentment that so permeates the relationship between Severin and Wanda.
The status – certainly the role – of language in Histoire d’O feels most of all defined by its sexual-anatomical reticence, above all in its at first disorienting substitution with ventre where most readers would expect to read con. Such a discursive technique has various affective and analytical consequences, some appearing at first to be mutually contradictory, others definitively intertwined:
The demonstrative capacity for acts of sexual subjugation and punishment, free from vulgarity aligns the text with – as Bataille expresses in Eroticism, and Deleuze echoes in Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty – the language of the torturer, “the language of authority.” Just as torturers are “people who in real life could only have been silent,” (MCC, 17) Réage’s text is effectively “silent” in its reference to conventionally sexualised organs.
To one degree, the notable absence of references to the vulva operates as a dual process of castration, which would thus affirm Deleuze’s assertion that “sadism stands for the active negation of the mother” (68). Indeed, even ignoring the body itself, the text’s introduction to O, simply through her clothing, already feels oddly defined by notable absence: “elle est vêtue comme elle l’est toujours… un blouse de soie, et pas du chapeau.”
However, to another degree, the almost mutual reservation in alluding to the sexe of any male character, rather than queue, pine or bite, may be interpreted as a functional, fetishistic, disavowal of sexual difference – not least of all maternal castration.
Disavowal as a system of repression which, in the Freudian sense, is not merely a quashing down of reality but a system of distorted or dishonest representation here might allow for – in the case of ventre – a diffusion of the gaze to this typically-understood-as-separate body part, which could thus be interpreted as a linguistic device in accordance with the overall theme of Deleuze’s interpretation of masochism as a desexualisation of sex, and an effective re-sexualisation of everything else.
Permeating Histoire d’O is an economy of supplementation, at the level of content and form: René demonstrates his capacity to supplement any number of slaves at Roissy for O, and is himself supplemented by various masters and mistresses. Indeed, even the events themselves are revealed at multiple junctures to be possessed of an ontological uncertainty: the introduction is immediately countered with an alternative version, whilst there are small indications that neither passage may be entirely correct. Indeed, by the end of the novel, several variations are presented that leave the reader uncertain as to whether O is even alive or not.
That such a literary device may appear absurd is not, to my mind, particularly far from Réage’s intent, if we consider absurdism through temporal non-coincidence the manifestation of the humour Deleuze locates at the centre of the masochistic contract, and its enactment’s relation to law: “To imagine that a contract or quasi contract is at the origin of society is to invoke conditions which are necessarily invalidated as soon as the law comes into being. For the law, once established, violates the contract in that it can apply to a third party, is valid for an indeterminate period and recognizes no inalienable rights.” (92) And, indeed, several pages before, Deleuze states: “A close examination of masochistic fantasies or rites reveals that while they bring into play the very strictest application of the law, the result in every case is the opposite of what might be expected (thus whipping, far from punishing or preventing an erection, provokes and ensures it). It is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity.” (88)
Accordingly, we ask: what is the law, here? My interpretation, both of Histoire d’O and, indeed, Venus in Furs, is that it is love. In both cases, the masochistic contract is presented as a condition of, or for, love. In both cases, the tensions are revealed between love and the contract at the introduction of additional parties, even when such additions are stipulated as permissible within the contract itself. René’s characterisation throughout Histoire d’O is remarkably inactive, indeed impotent – he appears to be more of a voyeur of O’s subjugations than an agent, and yet does engage in one repetitive behaviour akin to the continuous repetition required of the sadist to appropriate the Ego of his victims, and that is his repeated declarations of love. That they evoke such feelings of repugnance is, I believe no mistake on part of the author, but a revelation of the logic of masochistic contempt. Rather, just as the logic of linguistic supplementation is invoked through discovery of a lack that, non-existent within the Real, must be a product of the linguistic Symbolic imposition, revealing a recurrence of failure through différance, there exists just such a phenomenon within the romance novel whose structure is predicated on a romance whose meaningful signification is forever deferred through an inherent vice of volatile supplementation.
Notes Toward a Gorgon Politic: The Reptile, The Acéphale, and the Living Dead
Since the medieval era, political philosophy has often found itself centred around the figure of the body politic, a fact only reified through the categorisation and analysis of the biopolitical era. In conjunction with the body politic, the notion of monstrosity has been routinely invoked, at various times both as a point of castigation, and appeal.
The political monsters are often described and/or contextualised within three categories: reptilian multiplicity, a relation to acephality, and an existence of living-death. Engaging in what might be described as a cumulative analysis, collecting and collating these figures in various contexts of biopolitics, necropolitics, and the society of dividuating control, I create an assemblage of these three monsters into the figure of the Medusan subject, an enfolding of relations of power, to establish a being of absolute violence, with potentialities of deterritorializing retribution. Avoiding fixed impositions of morality, this creative philosophical experiment, understanding uncritically Medusa’s position as villain and victim, looks in dark and dangerous places for components of the Medusan assemblage, including the Nazi death camps, the guillotine of The Terror, and the insane mind of contemporary postmodernism’s fascist problem child, Nick Land.
Through this analysis, reminiscent of our politico-philosophical forebears’ discursive caesura between the ancient Greek terms for life – bios and zoe – this essay picks up upon the multivarient references regarding living-death to the concept of “witnessing” to indicate first the philosophical distinctions between two Greek terms relating to “witness” – martyrdom and autopsy, before proposing within a Medusan subjectivity, and the Gorgon politic as the subsequent assemblage of plural Medusan subjectivities, an enfolding of these witness positions of self/other distinction into a recursive position of automartyrdom.
Through these various investigations, I hope to uncover a ground of solidarity in anomie, demanding ideological repositioning to one of activated monstrosity that, in self-realisation, may provide an embodied reckoning of the power structures that have made and broken us for centuries.
monstrosity, necropolitics, violence, multiplicity, body politic
The twenty first century has become defined, at least in part, through mass protest and demonstration. In Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, whose title naturally inspires my own, Judith Butler indicates the 2010 demonstrations at Tahrir Square as the catalyst for a renewed academic interest in the phenomenon, seven years after the global protests against the Iraq War (to date, the largest in recorded history), If, as Butler states, “the gathering signifies in excess of what is said, and that mode of signification is a concerted bodily enactment, a plural form of performativity,” this model remains one of a multiplicity of bodies and messages that, individually, most likely are considered legible through traditional dispositifs of surveillance. However, Butler herself warns us off from understanding “signification” and “discursivity” as being entirely interchangeable. My interest here is in approaching figures and thoughts of monstrosity and horror, that which operates paradoxically as a signifier to the ultimately unsignifiable: an awestriking abundance of meaning that is definitively elusive of comprehension. The philosophical emblem of philosophical limitation.
Though there does – and indeed there always has – existed a variety of countersurveillance technologies and techniques to confuse and/or refuse the eye of the State, this is not my primary focus. Nor do I wish to echo the assertions of some of my more optimistic queer comrades who anticipate the “gender non-conforming body,” including my own, as being one of – if not the most – effectively defiant manifestations of such technology. In fact, although my ideal goal of a Gorgon politic, a proliferation of Medusan subjects, is certainly with revolutionary ends in mind, the relation of the Medusan subject’s components to surveillance is one of, at times, direct genealogy. These components – the Reptile, the Acéphale, the Living Dead – may all be considered Harawayan cyborgs, whose “main trouble,” Haraway tells us, “is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism…But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.” Hilary Malatino bites back, “origins are origins, nonetheless…the question for me has since become this: to what extent are contemporary cyborg subjectivities implicated in the coloniality of being?”
My answer? Completely. Whether as perpetrators, victims, witnesses, beneficiaries, escapees, we are all implicated. My spectral icons refer to all the above, and we can learn from the power relations all of them hold, and deployments they enact. These are not notes toward a political purity; these are notes toward a Gorgon politic. And here there be monsters.
This is an endeavour and a practice of cumulative, reflective teratology. Cumulative inasmuch as this essay shall not be comprised of individual and separate encounters with the titular spectres (and, indeed, are these three spectres? Four? One?); rather, my analyses and engagements will inform my analyses and engagements. Reflective, in that I see my writing, and myself as a writer, developing characteristics of my subject/s. My argumentation may appear serpentine, deconstructions and ruminations circumnavigating one another at certain times, and intertwining inexorably at others. I assuredly expect this essay to engage in processes of living-death; resurrecting old philosophies – old philosophers – to damage them, perhaps to kill them again, which is not the same as to discard them. I may introduce new theories, so overburdened with precarity, as to appear dead-on-arrival. And yet, the proximal relation to death we as subjects constantly hold within a necropolitical context is as such that we should not consider the dead not to bear relevance to political investigation. I might be accused, also, of reflecting the Acéphale in a Bataillesque regard, privileging speculation over practical rationality. I contend, it takes remarkably little speculation to consider the hurdles and corruptions so many practical, rational applications of emancipatory theory encounter to represent ultimately an inherent vice. As a postmodernist, it is not my aim to provide a universal account of the application and technologies of power. As an anarchist, I do not presume to instruct my readers in a singular process of state substitution. As a pessimist, I would feel a charlatan to insist upon hopeful avenues of liberating sublimation. Nevertheless, this ensuing rogue’s gallery indicates what I believe to be a non-exhaustive list of components of a political assemblage, a subjectivity with whom we may be able to relate, and whose potentialities we may conceive of as our own.
I am building a monster out of monsters out of monsters, whose appendages may not fit perfectly, but they are apt to rot away, and can be replaced. My hideous progeny is the other. It is me. It may also be you. If it is, I offer my sympathy and awe. 
One of the more contentious figures in modern political philosophy appears to be that of the Muselmann, described by Primo Levi as “those who saw the Gorgon, [who] have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute…the submerged, the complete witnesses.” One utterly dehumanised by the experience of the Lager, with no remaining dignity to be stripped, and no fear to feel in the face of torment or execution. A body of fatal transcendence, the Muselmann is described only in monstrous and horrific terms of absolute passivity: we may consider simultaneously the term Muselmann being at least partially ascribed to these victims of the technologies of Shoah due to, as Giorgio Agamben describes, “literal meaning of the Arabic word Muslim: the one who submits unconditionally to the will of God,” and the conceptual relation between living-dead existence and the Haitian zombi, a figure not merely of revenance, but one of potentially eternal subjugation to the necromancer. We shall return to the zombie in several pages.
Alexander Weheliye’s criticism of Agamben’s presentation of the Muselmann’s place at the point where biopolitics can – indeed does – transcend racial categorisation through a system of excess as “an absolute biopolitical substance” is most compelling in his counterpoint that the Muselmann is not in excess of race, but an excess of race. “How else to explain the very name Muselmann, a racial slur for Muslims?” One can and should have most sympathy for Weheliye’s position as a counterargument to the potentials of Agamben’s line of thought toward an absolute universalisation of Homo Sacer status, in which biopolitics as transcendent from the disciplinary dispositifs of race, class and gender render us all subject to a consanguineal state of exception. It is from such a socio-political perspective that is borne the most insidious of “anti-identity politics” rhetoric, in the idealistic name of unstriated associative organisation (“sublatory powers of a radical post-Holocaust ethics”). Nevertheless, meditating on the functional nature of excess, can we – no matter how cautiously – approach this contention from the angle of queer theories of performativity and even drag?
Butler describes her shift from the specificity of gender theory to a more generalised concern with the organisation of marginalised bodies as a bridging of the gap between the realms of performativity and precarity. Performativity for Butler indicates a “linguistic [utterance] that…makes something happen or brings some phenomenon into being.” This is what, usually, distinguishes the often-confusedly interchanged categories of performativity and performance. However, performative reproduction of hegemonic functions may not necessarily produce wholly predictable results. Indeed, even a microperceptual acknowledgement of these norms’ repetition may have a destabilizing effect, especially when the evidence of this repetition is made overt through inter-cultural tensions:
In the course of this reproduction, some weakness of the norm is revealed, or another set of cultural conventions intervenes to produce confusion or conflict within a field of norms, or, in the midst of our enactment, another desire starts to govern, and forms of resistance develop, something new occurs, not precisely what was planned. The apparent aim of a gender interpellation even at the earliest stages may well eventuate in a fully different aim being realized. That “turning” of the aim happens in the midst of enactment: we find ourselves doing something else, doing ourselves in a way that was not exactly what anyone had in mind for us.
In drag scenes, gender normativity can be effectively subverted not just through the excessive signification to degrees of the grotesque, as with artists like Divine or Bianca Del Rio, but also through ball culture’s insistence on “realness,” in which cisgender and transgender people alike compete in their attempt towards flawless replication of subject positions not just of gender, but also race and class, including and especially of those typically most antagonistic toward queer people of colour. The conscious replicability of conventional embodiments and modes of signification inherently deposes these norms from the throne of unquestionable hegemony. Thus, although performance and performativity should not be considered synonymous, there are designated spaces in which the former can act as the latter, albeit with disruptive consequence.
Here, the Muselmann becomes a troubling icon of replicative performativity: perhaps called “Muslim” for the aforementioned orientalist associations between the Islamic faith and a devotional subservience to a degree of ultimate self-sacrifice, other explanations include a description of corporeal presentation: “‘the typical attitude of certain deportees, that is, staying crouched on the ground, legs bent in Oriental fashion, faces rigid as masks.’ Another explanation is…‘the typical movements of Muselmänner, the swaying motions of the upper part of the body, with Islamic prayer rituals.’” Weheliye, by contrast indicates the collated accounts by Polish sociologists Ryn and Klodzinski of a more sartorial explanation: “Muselmänner wearing scarves around their heads or wrapping blankets around their bodies to keep warm.” Either way there are parallels between this example and that of drag performers, with the strong exception regarding questions of consciousness and agency: consciousness regarding the intentionality of the reported mimesis; agency, given that the identification of these non-Muslim individuals as Muselmänner is unilaterally exogenous. Nevertheless, viewing the Muselmann from this perspective, as an icon of death-drag, we can perceive a third option to Agamben’s “transcendent of biopolitical dispositifs such as race” and Weheliye’s “wholly defined by such dispositifs” inasmuch as it is, as Weheliye suggests, “racism [as] the political exploitation and (re)production of race,” but such (re)production cannot be simply described as “the establishment and maintenance of caesuras, not their abolition.”
Rather, we can turn to Achille Mbembe’s account of the caesuras of bordered environments – the frontier, the colony, the camp – rather than reifying binary oppositionality, instead catalysing a lethally equivocal organisation of subjectivity, in which even as basic relational categories such as “combatants and noncombatants, or…‘enemy’ and criminal’” are dissolved. Such an arrangement is, of course, a paradox of the highest order: racialisation leads to dehumanisation but, given that only human beings are considered to have races, does not the discursive and violent process of dehumanisation undo the racial categories that inspired such dehumanisation? It is the projection of such paradox that renders the conquered subject so monstrous to the oppressor: in excess and absence of signification, the subjugated wretch is simultaneously chimeric and spectral:
That colonies might be ruled over in absolute lawlessness stems from the racial denial of any common bond between the conqueror and the native. In the eyes of the conqueror, savage life is just another form of animal life, a horrifying experience, something alien beyond imagination or comprehension…they appear to be phantoms, unreal and ghostlike. The savages are, as it were, “natural” human beings who lack the specifically human character, the specifically human reality, “so that when European men massacred them, they somehow were not aware that they had committed murder.”
The ghostlike, gothic realm is familiar terrain to the conception of an orientalised languidity as the representation of melancholy / melancholia. Defined through tensions between Aristotelian notions of hypermanic inspiration, and Galenic diagnoses of near-catatonic depression, “melancholy names neither a substance nor a subject but an essentially incoherent problem space stretched between the two incongruous definitions of the same object.” As its Greek etymology suggests, melancholy is intrinsically connected to blackness – a blackness meticulously renegotiated through conventions of the Romantic and Gothic traditions that, through fetishization of stereotypical secondary characteristics of tuberculosis (then consumption) as a disease of, in Susan Sontag’s estimation, “low energy (and heightened sensitivity)” insisted upon new associations of the emotional state of melancholy to nigh-translucent degrees of epidermic pallor.
Nevertheless, the combination of constant allusions to sensitivity, and the proposed treatment being travel to distant and disparate climates allowed for the reassociation of melancholy-as-disease from fluids of humoral quality to those of the pulmonary to catalyse a racialization that, whilst undoubtedly white, made generous space for the cannibalization of, amongst others, Islamic cultures. Perhaps most iconic in this regard is Thomas Phillips’ 1813 portrait of a turbaned Lord Byron in Albanian Dress. Drew Daniel follows such pathological performativity to a logical conclusion: arenas of black metal performance and its stereotypical accoutrements, above all “corpsepaint” makeup. A culture of ambiguity, black metal’s unfortunate – though certainly not totalizing – intimacy with Aryan supremacist doctrine, up to and including subcultural/subgeneric formation around National Socialist sympathies, is simultaneously compromised by its preoccupation with morbidity, decay, pestilence and self-destruction. Accordingly, the excessive “Necro-minstrelsy” of corpsepaint’s concurrent signification of deathliness and whiteness operates at similar degrees of normative disruption as the aforementioned drag queens:
Even if corpsepaint is quite specifically about looking like a dead white person, its ultimate horizon gestures beyond racial legibility towards the species-being based project of turning the human face – any human face – into a skull. Accordingly, the models proposed by minstrelsy scholarship require a paradigmatic adjustment when performers are…instead ostensibly pretending to be dead versions of themselves. To corpsepaint the face is to render it at once whiter than white, exposing the insufficiency of biological whiteness, and to become…blacker than black and “darker than death” – that is, not dead, but somehow, more dead than the dead…In a dynamic of impurity familiar from the theorization of drag performance, this very falseness offers a violation of a boundary that reifies the very line that it also subverts through crossing.
Naturally, a rather less obscure representation of living death, as indicated earlier, is the figure of the zombie: a crucial icon of the teratology of colonization. The white Western solidification of the zombie in the cultural consciousness as referring specifically to a revenant and/or somnambulate creature of burden was catalysed by anthropologist William B. Seabrook’s travelogue The Magic Island. From an overtly Western, Christian perspective, the zombie can only be understood in seemingly apophatic terms: “while the zombie came from the grave, it was neither a ghost, nor yet a person who had been raised like Lazarus from the dead.” In many ways, the treatment a sorcerer has over the zombie appears indistinguishable from that of the slaveowner and human chattel, making them “a servant or slave…often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.” It is by no coincidence that Frantz Fanon’s invocation of a panoply of monsters and superstitions in folk tales of the colonized (including and especially the zombie) directly follows his commentary on fratricidal bloodshed in colonized communities. For Fanon, such superstition damnably functions both as a distraction from the necessary work of resisting and dismantling the colonial regime, and as a psychic dispositif of biopolitical constraint, in which “the problem now is not…colonialism, but to think twice before urinating, spitting, or going out in the dark.”
Nevertheless, whilst Fanon perceives the superstitious psyche of the colonized as a form of dividuation, a “disintegration, dissolution or splitting of the personality [that] plays a key regulating role in ensuring the stability of the colonized world,” it would surely be false to suggest such spectres did not penetrate colonizer mentalities, also. Although the most abundantly popular cultural depictions of zombiism are associated with pseudo-scientific explanations – typically the consequence of weaponized biochemical agents or nuclear fallout – its introduction to cinema was assuredly supernatural, as are a not insignificant number of its key texts. The filmic introduction, White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932), directly inspired by The Magic Island through its emphasis on one victim of zombification (rather than the swarming horde more familiar to the contemporary audience member) locates its horror first and foremost in the removal of subjectivity. As Kyle Bishop remarks, “unlike modern zombie movies like those created by George A. Romero, the fear in these early films comes from being turned into a zombie rather than being killed by one. The central horrific feature is therefore the loss of autonomy and control.” It is impossible to read White Zombie’s anxieties over the integrity of personal agency as outside ethnic concerns; “the stark reference to race in the film’s title…cannot be ignored. Like Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Halperin’s title indicates a contradiction and duplicity.” From such a perspective, white self-mastery appears tangential to, if not dependent on, white mastery of the racial other. And yet, Bishop notes, whilst this phenomenon would certainly be appreciated within the Hegelian master/slave relationship, Fanon rejects the latter as a useful model for the realities of what which it represents, proffering instead a circuit founded primarily upon the materiality of racialized labor:
“What [the master] wants from the slave is not recognition but work”…Even less recognition and interaction occur between a voodoo master and his zombie slaves…In the voodoo priest/zombie relationship, the interaction is fundamentally one sided: the zombie lacks the intellectual capacity to recognize the master at all, firmly closing Fanon’s circuit. Zombies thus represent an exaggerated model of colonial class/race segregation, for there is no possible dialectical model in such an exaggerated and literal master/slave relationship.
Although authoritarian figures – most often military or police – do certainly appear in many modern zombie texts, their position as master is destabilized by the evolution of zombie representation into largely chaotic avatars of an unchained id. Nevertheless, Romero’s Dead series is best known as one of the most consistent mainstream franchises to depict Black heroism. Night of the Living Dead (1968) protagonist Ben (Duane Jones), displays a natural affinity for survivalism as an African American man in the 1960s, above and beyond every white companion with whom he is burdened. In accordance with Fanon’s critique of the colonized subject’s internalized superstition suggesting that “zombies…are more terrifying than colonists,” the spell is brutally broken in the final scene, in which Ben is shot and killed by an all-white posse, all-too willing to mistake a Black man for a zombie, or to deny any distinction between the two categories.
The zombie film, much like the zombie itself, is an agent of mysterious progeny. Following Night of the Living Dead, there came a pseudo-rhizomatic tangle of sequels, not just Romero’s Dead series, but producer Russo’s Return of the Living Dead series. After Romero’s celebrated Dawn of the Dead (1978), re-edited for the Italian market as Zombi, Lucio Fulci directed Zombi 2, released in the USA (due to there having been no Zombi released in the USA) as Zombie, and in the UK as Zombie Flesh Eaters, with many other titles around the world, which itself sprang various conceptions of series in different countries, similarly informed by an exceptionally negotiable system of naming and allegiance. Here, the zombie, despite its subservient origins, displays a schizoid capacity for dynamic becomings, forming and breaking of connections and identity. Zombie Flesh Eaters folds along the dividing lines of categorization, returning the zombies to their status of supernatural entity, located in the Caribbean, raised by a voodoo curse, but no hypnotic master.
Nevertheless, there is a white scientist, observing, controlling, shooting and cataloguing infected bodies, revealing the continuing presence and imbrication of a biopolitical gaze and colonialist violence with the effect of transforming colonized bodies into machines of total destruction. Simone Brioni speaks to Zombie Flesh Eaters’ colonial preoccupation, through his assertion of the zombies’ racialized appearance, “their black flashes are clearly set against the white skins of the living human beings. The camera often indulges on disgusting physical attributes, such as real worms coming out of the black corpses. Blackness is clearly associated to violence, death and monstrosity, by recalling racist stereotypes concerning the African alterity.” However, the condition’s transfection crucially does not exclude white subjects and indeed, we see zombies emerging from the graves of conquistadores, themselves. It is worthy of consideration that, although Brioni notes black flashes in the features of the undead, the physiognomy of the zombies, despite their initial race, develop an almost uniformly ashen pallor. Whiter than white…blacker than black, and darker than death.
If we understand the zombie for the colonized subject, not merely as a superstitious obstruction to revolutionary desire but an internalization of a stereotype into a subject position, as Brioni interprets Fanon, we can consider the walking corpse’s abject necrosis metonymic of the transformative nature of colonial subjectification. In the realm of fiction, there are very few authors as preoccupied with the body in relation to power as Franz Kafka. In Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” an Officer presents to a Traveller an execution device that kills the condemned through a twelve-hour process of engravement of the violated law upon the body. In the brutal upholding of totalitarian control, the punishment is made to fit not the crime, but the law. In so doing, the execution strips the condemned man even of the agency implied in the subject position of criminal, or deviant, but rather with “learn” the law “on his body,” the revelation of which eventually induces an ecstatic state of enlightened jouissance. Even before he is aware of his pronounced fate, the Condemned man in question, bestial in countenance, mimics the gestures of the two men as they inspect the apparatus, indicating a seeming lacuna of independent thought or action.
The body, and indeed identity, of the condemned (such as the latter can be said to exist) function as raw materials for the law’s perpetuation through use of the machine. The law’s perpetuation is that which is necessary in the mind of the Officer to perpetuate the posthumous longevity of the recently deceased Commandant, of whom the machine was the brainchild. We may hear echoes of Foucault’s remark that, “by the time the right of life and death was framed by classical theoreticians, it was in a considerably diminished form…only in cases where the sovereign’s very existence was in jeopardy…if someone dared to rise up against him and transgress his laws, then he could exercise a direct power over the offender’s life.” The conflation here between the sovereign’s laws and the sovereign’s very existence addresses the paradoxical vulnerability in sovereignty: all infractions are potentially mortal threats. For such a reason may we consider the development of the counter-paradox of sovereignty through his capacity to invoke the state of exception, as investigated by Agamben: “’the law is outside itself,’ or “I, the sovereign, who am outside the law, declare that there is nothing outside the law.”
Indeed, Kafka’s text strongly implies that it is not simply the sovereign’s prerogative to exist outside the law, but the sovereign’s need. The Officer, despairing at the Traveller’s refusal to promulgate the execution device to the new Commandant, attempts to commit suicide via the machine he so loves, for breaking the commandment BE JUST!, through the machine’s very use. However, the device’s disrepair gruesomely frustrates the Officer’s desire for “exquisite torture,” “not writing, it was only jabbing.” To subject an agent of the law to the law is apparently an act of extreme violence which, inherently, evacuates the law, not just of all functionality, but of all meaning. “In the Penal Colony” may be unparalleled as an effective illustration of Fanon’s assertion that “colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence.” Seloua Luste Boulbina, discussing Kafka’s literary relation to the colony insists that superstition, speculation and spectrality are not, in fact, limited to the imaginary of the subjugated: “Perhaps more than anywhere else, the colony is a space for the most audacious and the least censured fantasies and dreams. Speech unravels there, just as social bonds come undone…For the colonizer, a colony is already, more than anything else, an imaginary world and a territory of the imaginary.” Indeed, it is revealed, at the end of “In the Penal Colony,” that the prior Commandant is expected, at some point, to rise from the grave.
Let us return to Primo Levi’s initial description of the Muselmänner: those who saw the Gorgon…the complete witnesses. Adriana Cavarero translates Jean-Pierre Vernant’s observation that, “when you gaze on the face of the Gorgon, it is she who makes of you the mirror in which, transforming you into stone, she regards her terrible face and recognizes herself in the double.” Here, there is undoubtedly a para-Nietzschean moral regarding fighting monsters and gazing into the abyss, relative to Butler’s hyperstitional assertion regarding replicative performativity, though the hollowing of subjectivity indicates that, in the instance of the reflected genocide-Gorgon, the monster and the void are as one. “Witnesses confirm [the] impossibility of gazing upon the Muselmann,” Agamben notes. Describing documentary footage shot immediately upon the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, he remarks that, after the camera pans across piles of broken corpses, it “lingers almost by accident on what seem to be living people, a group of prisoners crouched on the ground or wandering on foot like ghosts…the same cameraman who had until then patiently lingered over naked bodies…could not bear the sight of these half-living beings; he immediately began once again to show the cadavers.”
For the most part, Levi’s discussion of the “Special Squads” of Jewish prisoner-functionaries, most commonly known as kapos, is defined by extreme generosity of spirit, understanding them equally as victims, and their subject positioning as part of the Final Solution’s machinery of Semitic annihilation, and describes their self-consciously feeble attempts at self-justification as “a liberating outburst, rather than a Medusa-faced truth.” One of the prevailing insistences of the kapos was that they had to remain, to “bear witness.” Just as so many of the political theorists and philosophers already cited here have dedicated not-insignificant amounts of their careers on the analysing, if not imposing, rhetorical caesuras between the ancient Greek terms for “life,” bios and zoe, I wish similarly to meditate on two ancient Greek terms relating to “witness.” The first term describes one who bears witness to the Gorgon (thus we immediately associate with the Muselmann, not the kapo): the martyr. The second being the technical term for the process of bearing witness, from perhaps a more traditional exogenous perspective: literally translated as the “act of seeing with one’s own eyes,” the word is, of course, autopsy.
Martyr and autopsy hold such directly contrary positions as almost to be understood as conversant. The martyr describes one who is executed, in and for bearing witness to God and their faith and devotion to God and, religious readers may assume, in this death bear witness again and forever more. Crucially, it is the position of one who is dead, in specific relation to their bearing witness of this which is understood as the very purest manifestation of life. Autopsy is itself a revelation, but a revelation of death, to the living. It is a word that describes two events simultaneously: one is, naturally, the seeing, itself – the pathological investigation of causes of death – the other is the physical process of revelation, the application of scalpels and rib spreaders.
Mbembe develops his model of analysing the inherent necropoliticism of sovereign power out of tensions between traditional Hegelian dialectics and Bataille’s developments upon them. For Hegel, Human subjectivity is defined in its negative opposition, indeed confrontation, with death. This should not be understood as a thanatophobic position: rather, there is an almost contractual relation; finitude as a fundamental component of dialectical and, thus for Hegel, spiritual life. Bataille’s revolutionary Marxian dialectical development certainly prefigures Mbembe’s rhetoric, in discussing the dialectical philosophy of death in relation to social organisation:
The divergent possibilities of opposed human figures confront each other and assemble in it: the figure of the dying man and of the proud one, who turns from death, the figure of the master and that of the man pinned to his work, the figure of the revolutionary and that of the skeptic, whose egotistical interest limits desire. This philosophy of not only a philosophy of death. It is also one of class struggle and work.
For Bataille, death – correlated, as he conceives it, with sexuality and indeed sovereignty itself – is a violation of the subject-object distinction as affirmed by the Cartesian extrapolation of Hegelian dialectics. Rather, Mbembe notes, “politics can only be traced as a spiral transgression, as that difference that disorients the very idea of the limit. More specifically, politics is the difference put into play by the violation of a taboo.” Such an assertion of Bataille’s strikes one as a proto-Foucauldian disruption, if not inversion, of the classic rhetorical presentation of marginalized bodies that engage in “direct gestures, shameless discourse and open transgressions,” fighting against the sententious social and legal impositions of the “imperial prude.”
Within this discussion of transgressive sovereignty, I do not wish in this instance to indicate directly those icons of bacchanalian deviance of authority, from Nero to the protagonists of 120 Days of Sodom. Nevertheless, the extension of sovereign power across mortal terrain inevitably – if not inherently – operates through machinations of perversion. Perversions of geography, of culture, of identity, of allegiance and belligerence. As already noted, Mbembe remarks that whilst one would expect the imposition of the barrier or border – the signifier and primary dispositif of sovereign striation, be it agricultural enclosures on what had once been common land, or gates emblazoned Arbeit Macht Frei – would wholly bifurcate a population into diametric opposition, it routinely only creates more confusion amongst the separated peoples, often with extremely violent results. However, whilst the aforementioned case related more to technical allies being considered reasonable candidates for brutalisation, looting and rape – a de(con)struction of figures the perpetrating subject might have previously considered their ethno-cultural reflection, here we begin to understand the formation of a subjectivity in relation to a de(con)structed reflection. Contrasted to the classical Lacanian mirror stage, in which a largely disorganised body experienced an illusory sense of a consistent and discrete I as a consequence of an all-too-unified reflected image, the reflected image here is dismembered, as well as already reflecting another dismembered image:
The creature sees herself decapitated, and, more precisely, she sees the wound delivered by a mortal blow that leaves her still alive to watch it. In this sense, rather than representing the inhuman as the other – the stranger arriving from somewhere elsewhere – or the hellish grimace of death, or, as Freud would have it, the terror of castration, Medusa alludes to a human essence that, deformed in its very being, contemplates the unprecedented act of its own dehumanization.
Thus is established the Medusan subject: constructed out of a fractured mise-en-abyme that transfers, transfects, power in its reflection of violence against other, against self, against other, against self. “There is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was.” The Medusan subject, slain before the mirror, becomes the automartyr. Decapitation as caesura, the body becomes bordered environment. Though sovereign identity may also become affirmed through this process – Perseus, vanquisher of Medusa, does after all translate to he who cuts – it is along these lines of blade and blood that subjectivities fold in, and out. The gorgoneion, the head of Medusa, remains in living-death, so long as its petrifying power remains. It may be instrumentalized by the fascistic conquering heroes and deities of Perseus and Athena into agency, but agency is not power, nor power agency. As the mise-en-abyme affirms, the Medusan subject in its reflective automartyrdom is not a singular phenomenon. Rather, as her serpentine hair can attest, Medusa paradoxically exists in monocephaly, acephaly, and polycephaly, all at once.
The figurehead from Abraham Bosse’s famous frontispiece to Hobbes’ Leviathan “looks as if [it] is wearing some sort of armour… but on closer inspection, one notices that this “armour” is actually made up of innumerable little people…This again we know as a truism – the state requires the continual sacrifice (real or symbolic) of its members in order to maintain its coherence as a unity.” Eugene Thacker indicates that, for Hobbes, and earlier conceivers of the body politic, such as John of Salisbury an Plato, the body politic as a body, in its need for continual, sacrificial maintenance, is in a constant state of moribund precarity: “For them, the body of the body politic is always turning into a corpse. Hurry, hurry! Gather up the arms and feet, put the torso in its place, the intestines neatly coiled around the backbone. Governance for them is a dissection played in reverse.” But of course, this paranoiac reversal of subjection to autoptic revelation is not counter-balance through life-affirmation but sacrificial negation, acknowledging destroyed bodies as the primary fuel in the engine of Spirit’s drive toward Aufheben. For Hegel, “Spirit attains its truth only by finding itself in absolute dismemberment…Spirit is that power only in the degree to which it contemplates the Negative face to face [and] dwells with it.” Bataille summarizes: “in sacrifice [Man] destroyed the animal in himself, allowing himself and the animal to survive only as that noncorporeal truth which Hegel describes and which makes of man…a being unto death, or…‘death which lives a human life.’” The centrality of reason, synecdochised by the head of the body politic (wont to be crowned), not just to rule but Life itself, as it can function within the dialectical frame leads Thacker to assert that beheading is not simply an act of killing but a negation, a refusal, of this aforementioned process. “Such a life-negation reframes the concept of Life as that which cannot be thought, insofar as thought is always inscribed within both the living being and Life itself.”
It appears to be with this in mind that Bataille venerates the image of the Acéphale so highly as both the emblem of a journal, and society. Indeed, it is no surprise that it should be the name of an anti-fascist para-death cult, populated by Surrealists: “Too long,” they cry out, “has human life served as head and reason for the universe…Man escaped his head like a condemned man escaping from prison.” Referring to the famed Masson image itself, Bataille describes the Acéphale thus:
Beyond what I am, I encounter a being who makes me laugh because he has no head, and who fills me with anguish because he is formed of innocence and crime; he holds an iron weapon in his left hand, with flames like those of a Sacred Heart in his right. In a single outburst he unites Birth and Death. He is not a man. Neither is he a god. He is not me, but he is more me than I am: his stomach is the labyrinth in which he himself has become lost, and I along with him, and there I rediscover myself as him, in other words the monster.
Beyond the reification of living-death and excess that we have already addressed, here one may also tease out from the acephalic encounter prescient invocations of the body without organs, first named by Artaud, developed by Deleuze and Guattari, but also an extrapolation of Spinoza’s assertion that “we do not know what the body can do.” Deleuze remarks that, within the context of Spinoza’s thesis of parallelism, the vast, potentially infinite, yet typically unsung potentialities of the body do not, nevertheless, lean toward an advocation for privileging the body’s superiority over the mind. Rather, by accepting this breadth of corporeal possibility, from a parallel psycho-physiological perspective, we immediately must accept the capacity of the mind beyond that contained, if not restrained, by consciousness. “In short, the model of the body, according to Spinoza, does not imply any devaluation of thought in relation to extension, but, much more important, a devaluation of consciousness in relation to thought: a discovery of the unconscious, of an unconscious of thought just as profound as the unknown of the body” Pursuing Deleuzo-Spinozan ethics into the realm of monstrosity, Patricia MacCormack describes the monster as:
…alterity as both wonder and horror, as the limit of humanity and proof that the human always exceeds the parameters of what we think it is capable of. The monster crosses species and boundaries; it is hybrid, metamorphic, but it is not properly something that is so much as something that fails to be something else – the traditional dominant human subject.
The body is castigated and disciplined as an inherently monstrous entity, MacCormack continues, its perpetual status as medium destabilizing the subject’s attempts at discrete autonomy; thus, the iconic, discursive monster is that which the “signifying and cleansing rituals that repress the knowledge that we all are vulnerable and volatile bodies” fail to obscure. As much as the body politic is invoked to affirm the strength of the State, the sovereign will never position itself other than the head.
The demonstration and display of the severed head is a time-honoured tradition of sovereignty; not least of all when the head is itself that of a prior sovereign. A State that wishes to privilege ideological rationality finds little profit in displaying an individual traitorous subject’s body as a point of humiliation. Bodies already subject to such surveillance and disciplinary investigation as it is: “the prestige of the head is mirrored in contempt for the body without a head. The body without a head is a body without a name.” But the severed head can be repurposed as dispositif by the murderous State itself. It is not without irony that Regina Janes describes a widely distributed image of Louis XVI’s execution, with the bourreau presented “as a wild-haired Medusa [who] lunges at the crowd with the king’s head, horrified and horrifying.” Indeed, it is the irony of generative recursion of power as violence that has fuelled so much of what we have encountered and considered thus far. “The head tells all. It identifies itself, and it speaks, to the extent of its previous owner’s ability, a silent narrative of fallen greatness and mastery transferred.” Petrification upon petrification. Decapitation upon decapitation.
The head displayed on a pike operates in a somewhat panoptic function, surveilling the lower orders, performing demonstrative criminal deterrence. Whilst Foucault indicates that Bentham’s Panopticon “arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize [the surveilled] immediately,” the guillotine-head-pike assemblage functions at least in part as a temporal arrangement, with the necessary recognition being of the head itself. It is a temporal arrangement, inasmuch as it represents the transition between sovereigns and their respective epistemes of rule-by-law: the irony doubles as the head functions as point-de-capiton for the primitive pike and the mechanical modernity of the guillotine. During the “Terror” of the French Revolution, this assemblage of capital performativity of shifting epochal tectonics was absolutely an event of automartyrdom: “the pike that once upheld the old order now held the dead old order up to its still living face in the promenade, a simple, gruesome paradox.”
But of course, the advent of the guillotine was not restricted to the landed gentry; indeed, quite the opposite. The guillotine itself may be understood similarly to the Panopticon as a form of classical liberal architecture, an endeavour of relative humanitarianism, that does not question the need for punitive technology, but rather seeks to improve the mode of its application. It should be considered that such “improvements” will likely only be enacted, if the State feels assured that, within this humanitarian endeavour, the efficiency and capacity of its technologies’ remit of surveiller et punir is also enhanced. True to its (proto-neo)liberal form, the ameliorations of imprisonment and execution can be understood in economical terms. Above and beyond any charitable drive to provide tortured souls with the possibility of rehabilitation and conversion through a process that ultimately operates through inducement toward the criminal’s self-government and “assume[d] responsibility,” the Panopticon as “an important mechanism [that] automatizes and disindividualizes power” is a technology of surveillance optimization, whose automatization allows for severe reduction of overhead. The extreme emphasis on “dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference,” is a privileging of the relations of power, over its individual agents. Thus, in absolute reverence to the ideals of the free market, this dissymmetrical organisation of substitutive agents and subjects of power is transferable to a variety of other institutions, the prison operating ultimately as little more than proof-of-concept.
A “reversal of the principle of the dungeon,” the Panopticon, if it has any preceding modes of imprisonment, they are to be found in the luxuriant and respectful treatment of noble political hostages, rather than the oubliette into which common miscreants would be cast. Thus, the liberal amelioration process is the diffusive proliferation of aesthetics associated with the upper echelons amongst the lower orders to such a degree that there is an implied egalitarianism, composite with the continuation, indeed expansion of, control the former may possess and express over the latter. Here we can recognise the symbiosis of rule with the increased emphasis on hygiene and medical care that Foucault characterises as central to the birth of biopolitics. However, we should also consider the guillotine within these liberal rhetorical dimensions of democracy and economics:
The guillotine originated as a technical solution to a practical problem…created by the intersection of egalitarian and humanitarian ideals and promoted by a powerful desire for public order. In the new criminal code of 1791, the Constituent Assembly decreed that decollation would henceforward be the punishment in all capital crimes. The bourreau Henri Sanson protested that present technology, the sword, was inadequate to meet the projected demand…After meticulous experiments at home and extensive research abroad…Sanson and Dr. Louis produced [the guillotine]…The effect was not only to eliminate social difference in dying, but also to level upward. Decapitation had been reserved for aristocrats. Now all citizens would be treated to an equal and honourable death.
Thus, a “democratized” nobility also eases supply of necro-capital to answer the “projected demand,” with the result, as Mbembe notes, not simply of “‘civilizing’ the ways of killing” but “disposing of a large number of victims in a relatively short span of time.” Mbembe continues, the presentation of the Terror as a compulsory element of the Revolution’s duty to express the will of the people, “an absolute transparency…claimed to exist between the state and the people,” has the effect of “as a political category, ‘the people’ [being] gradually displaced from concrete reality to rhetorical figure.” The performative theory of assembly represents the blurring of these categories, in which the concrete reality of an assembled people is discursively employed to signify a supposed the people, whose own concrete reality can, if not must, either be assumed or denied. “‘The people,’” Butler reminds us, “are not a given population, but are rather constituted by the lines of demarcation that we implicitly or explicitly establish.”
As Janes remarked, the assemblage consecrated by the introduction of the guillotine was constructed also with the intention of public order: specifically, that of preventing the lynch-mob beheadings, such as the fate that befell Bertier de Sauvigny and his father-in-law Foulon, which, however ugly, must be understood at least as a more literal expression of the will of the perpetrators. Accordingly, the guillotine as a resistant technology of mediation of the people’s will can also be understood, relatively speaking, as a rescuing of the condemned nobility not from death, but certainly from the barbarism with which they were threatened: thus, rescuing from the people’s will. Again we see the body as bordered environment, line of demarcation established swiftly at the neck, and yet again, even the most fundamental of distinctions begin to appear remarkably arbitrary. Arbitrary as they may become, we can certainly agree that the State considers a vast multitude of heads not just an acceptable cost of an effective body politic, as Thacker rightly interprets Bosse’s Leviathan frontispiece; but, as Foucault remarks, components and appendages of that body: “It is a new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot necessarily be counted.” A severed head retains enough life, or at least power, to sustain the integrity of the body politic. Thus, from Hobbes to Foucault and beyond, we are reaffirmed in our earlier assertion that the constituted, illegitimate Medusan subject is as much an emblem of an ophidian polycephality as it is mortal monocephality, or the basely surrealistic Acéphale. And thus, we consider the multiplicitous reptile.
Where the living-dead Muselmann could not be looked upon for fear of immediate transference of power as violence in a system of radically volatile interpassivity, some reptiles’ conceptual horror is so great that they must not even be considered. Tracing at first the premises and tribulations of the LessWrong blog founded by techno-objectivist singularitarian and founder of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) Eliezer Yudkowsky, Elizabeth Sandifer remarks upon the greatest controversy within the LessWrong community:
The lethal meme, known as Roko’s Basilisk, used the peculiarities of Yudkowskian thought to posit a future AI that would condemn to eternal torture everyone from the present who had ever imagined it if they subsequently failed to do whatever they could to bring about its existence…The result was a frankly hilarious community meltdown in which people lost their shit as ideas they’d studiously internalized threatened to torture them for all eternity if they didn’t and all of their money over to MIRI, culminating in Yudkowsky himself stepping in to ban all further discussion of the dread beast. This went more or less exactly how anyone who has ever used the Internet would guess, which is to say that it quickly became the thing Yudkowsky and his followers were best known for…Suffice to say it was not the sort of incident from which one’s school of thought recovers its intellectual respectability.
Trolling-related embarrassment, and the rather spurious hypotheses of mathematics, probability and artificial intelligence that birthed the basilisk aside, the conundrum it poses within the rhetoric of witness is remarkable. The direct threat Roko’s basilisk poses to a future us (or rather, a future simulation of us, who is us) would at first glance indicate the basilisk as possessing great agency, traversing space, time, matter and form. Nevertheless, its status of nonexistence, for which we must be eternally punished for the sin of not exerting every possible effort to rectify, insists upon its status of passivity, defined ultimately by the actions – or inactions – of our own. In very few moves, Sandifer pursues the line of neoreaction (NRx) – the cybernetic philosophical manifestation of contemporary neo-fascism that, depending upon the individual philosopher, may pursue such rhetoric, either with utopian or annihilationist ends – to Nick Land’s introduction of the Dark Enlightenment.
More firmly positioned than anyone else in the latter, annihilationist camp, Nick Land’s slippage from drug-fuelled, irreverent, accelerationist, but still ultimately communist ideology and rhetoric to a political placement, espousing what he deems the many advantages of “hyper-racism” seems too elusive to pinpoint. As confirmed by his former colleague and protégé, and indeed by himself, Land went mad. Although “The Dark Enlightenment” was most assuredly the manifesto of the NRx ideology-as-movement, where and when Land’s own inclinations shifted (if they have, indeed shifted, and this is not an exercise in “Kaufmanesque philosophical performance art” of gargantuan proportions) remains something of a mystery – it is perhaps at least as difficult to say when he went mad, but we do seem to have an announcement of that too, manifesto-esque in its clarity on that, if nothing else is “A Dirty Joke”: “It had pledged itself unreservedly to evil and insanity. Its tool of choice, at that time the sacred substance amphetamine…After perhaps a year of fanatical abuse it was, by any reasonable standard, profoundly insane.”
However, here, Land himself becomes impossible to locate satisfactorily. A breakdown in the truest sense of the word, “I/me” quickly dissolves into “it,” “the thing,” possibly “they,” the qabbalistic “Vauung” and “the ruin.” Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. Land breaks down, and so does reality, but we should refrain from privileging phenomenology to such an extent that we might consider this tautology. “A Dirty Joke,” after all, is the final chapter to Fanged Noumena.
In the car it listened to the radio for the whole journey. Each song was different, the genres varied, the quality seemingly above average, the themes tending to the morbid.
“This is a cool radio station,” it said to its sister.
“The radio isn’t on,” its sister replied, concerned.
Vauung learnt that the ruin’s unconscious contained an entire pop industry.
The ruin learnt that it had arrived, somewhere on the motorway.
Arrivals and departures of ideology, subjectivity, consciousness, and sanity are announced, as though they were airplanes, and yet they all have attached to them an unshakable sensation of always-already and never-ever. The breakdown, c.f. the crack-up, is as natural a subjective response to the drug-assemblage as it is to the process of neoliberal dividuation: through both, “the imperceptible is perceived,” through both, the imperceptibility is the perceived imperceptibility. Through both, the damage to the subject is virtually incalculable. But damage is not death, and death is not the end. Not for monsters like us. Perhaps that sensation of an oddly consistent and unifying always and never can be explained by considering that the landing field for these arrivals and departures is our familiar bordered environment. Like the hydra, heads are severed, and more appear.
It is the natural custom of snakes to shed their skin, casting a trail of phantasmatic indexicality, an ectoplasmic economy that doubles as it divides, divides as it doubles. In so doing, the snake-body is recurrently affirmed and reified in a process of auto-mimesis that, in this proliferation of epidermic debris, indicates a presence of snake-body (first and foremost as an event) but diffuses its singularity, not least of all for the reason that the skin-shedding process as a consequence of growth is undeniably a return not of the same, but of difference. Indexical copies as the integuments may assuredly be, they are also distinct from both the shedding body and each other. Deleuze not only tells us that identity is produced by differential recurrence, but ultimately insists that “repetition is…the only identity.” To produce ourselves as Medusan subjects is to produce others. To be produced by others is to produce ourselves. Contrary to Alan Watts’ assertion that “what you are in your innermost being escapes your examination in rather the same way that you cannot look directly into your own eyes without using a mirror,” this serpentine process of double/divide creates space for demonic self-investigation: automartyrdom for the animal-sorcerer:
There is an entire politics of becomings-animal, as well as a politics of sorcery, which is elaborated in assemblages that are neither those of the family nor of religion nor of the State. Instead, they express minoritarian groups, or groups that are oppressed, prohibited, in revolt, or always on the fringe of recognized institutions, groups all the more secret for being extrinsic, in other words, anomic. If becoming-animal takes the form of a Temptation, and of monsters aroused in the imagination by the demon, it is because it is accompanied, at its origin as in its undertaking, by a rupture with the central institutions that have established themselves or seek to become established.
This is life/death on the edge of deterritorialization within the neoliberal condition, and deterritorialization as a line of flight. Our refusal – even of ourselves – is engagement, production. Animal-sorcerers, snakeskin machines, we are smooth and imbricated, made from, yet without, organs.
WHEN ALL THIS IS ENDED
AS CRUEL AS I AM
REMEMBER HOW I LOVED YOU
BUT THAT NOTHING, NOTHING CAN STAND
MY FRIENDS ALL WEAR YOUR COLORS
YOUR FLAG FLIES ABOVE EVERY DOOR
BUT BITCH, I SMELL YOU BLEEDING
AND I KNOW WHERE YOU SLEEP
DO YOU DOUBT ME TRAITOR?
THROW YOUR BODY IN THE FUCKING RIVER
I’M THE CUNTKILLER
AND I DON’T EAT
I DON’T SLEEP
I DON’T EAT
I DON’T SLEEP
The artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, although best known for one, painted at least four separate depictions of Truth and the well. Three show the personified Veritas at the bottom of the well, all of which contain a luminous if not incandescent mirror, either held aloft or, in the case of Mendacibus et histrionibus occisa in puteo jacet alma Veritas / The nurturer Truth lies in a well, having been killed by liars and actors, floating above her prostrate corpse. Whilst the well functions as a traditional oubliette, the glowing icon of reflection suggests themes of sight, and self-sight, phenomena of imprisonment we might more instinctively associate with the panoptic event.
Gérôme’s most famous painting of Veritas, La Vérité sortant du puits armée de son martinet pour châtier l’humanité / Truth coming from the well, armed with her whip to chastise mankind, is particularly striking when placed in the context of the series. First, Truth in this painting appears to be of the same appearance / model as the aforementioned corpse. Second, this is the only painting of the four not to depict the glowing hand-mirror. Instead, Truth’s instrument of chastisement is a martinet – a multi-stranded flogger, a French equivalent of the cat-o’nine-tails. Were one to fashion a fetish of a guillotined medusa, displayed on a pike, the result would be for all intents and purposes a martinet.
Subjective identity as hyperstitional performance within a matrix of discursive regimes is to be a face painted on a mirror. The Medusan subject is the reflective Mandylion, experiencing the horror of its position against another mirror. The mise-en-abyme at once reifies and distorts, an amplified, anomic self, discovered through its abundant spectrality. The folding of inside and outside confounds the polarity of power’s relational flow, creating a sensation of absolute violence. Self-revelation is, and can only be, a reckoning.
Artist, writer and musician Kristin Hayter aka Lingua Ignota provides harrowing accounts of abuse, the language of perpetrators, and threats and promises of retribution against them, with virtually no indication of slippage from one perspective to the other. Bearing witness to her own dismemberment, she returns, living death, multi-voiced, absolute violence: “I’M THE FUCKING DEATHDEALER, I’M THE BUTCHER OF THE WORLD / I’M THE FUCKING DEATHDEALER, THROATSLITTER OF THE WORLD.” Images and phrases de- and reterritorialize, finding new connections, and new meanings. A passive, anguished scream of anxiety, anorexia and victimhood, “I DON’T EAT, I DON’T SLEEP / I DON’T EAT, I DON’T SLEEP, I LET IT CONSUME ME,” multiples in various pitches, tones, volumes and fortitudes as it takes on the voice of attackers and oppressors, repeating and reappropriating their violent misogyny – “THROW YOUR BODY IN THE FUCKING RIVER / I’M THE CUNTKILLER” – that finds new context for the previous declaration (“AND I DON’T EAT, I DON’T SLEEP”). What was once the piteous cry of the victim is now the self-aggrandising threat of a terminator. Though greatly controversial amongst some liberationist and social justice circles, this approach is in accordance with Laboria Cuboniks’ Lucca Fraser’s emphatic contradiction of Audre Lorde’s insistence that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house: “Yes. Both literally and figuratively yes. That’s what tools are – they’ve got uses that go beyond their masters’ intentions. And they’ve got weaknesses that can be exploited to make them do things they weren’t intended to do.” The first tool available is our anomic bodies, our fractured selves.
The Medusan subject is an assemblage of violent appendages. We see ourselves in others, and death in ourselves. A Gorgon politic, an assemblage of Medusan subjects, can in its potentialities of absolute violence, find within the body politic its own reckoning. We are the tools. We are the house. We are the body. May it burn bright.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. New York City: Zone Books, 1999.
Bataille, Georges. “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice.” Translated by Jonathan Strauss. In Yale French Studies 78 On Bataille (1990): 9-28.
Bataille, Georges et al. The Sacred Conspiracy: The Internal Papers of the Secret Society of Acéphale and Lectures to the College of Sociology. Edited by Marina Galletti and Alastair Brotchie. Translated by Natasha Lehrer, John Harman and Meyer Barash. London: Atlas Press, 2017.
Bishop, Kyle. “The Sub-Subaltern Monster: Imperialist Hegemony and the Cinematic Voodoo Zombie.” The Journal of American Culture 31, no.2 (2008): 141-152.
Boulbina, Seloua Luste. Kafka’s Monkey and Other Phantoms of Africa. Translated by Laura E. Hengehold. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2019.
Brioni, Simone. “Zombies and the Post-Colonial Italian Unconscious: Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2,” in Cinergie: il Cinema e le Altre Arti no. 4 (November, 2013): 166-182.
Butler, Judith. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Cavarero, Adriana. Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. Translated by William McCuaig. New York City: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Daniel, Drew. “Corpsepaint as Necro-Minstrelsy, or Towards the Re-Occultation of Black Blood.” In Melancology: Black Metal Theory and Ecology. Edited by Scott Wilson. Winchester, UK and Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2014.
Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. New York City: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Translated by Robert Hurley. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. London and New York City: Continuum, 2004.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York City: Grove Press, 1963.
Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books, 2017.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York City: Vintage Books, 1995.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York City: Pantheon Books, 1978.
Foucault Michel. “Society Must Be Defended:” Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76. Translated by David Macey. New York City: Picador, 2003.
Haraway, Donna. Manifestly Haraway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Janes, Regina. “Beheadings.” In Representations 35, Special Issue: Monumental Histories (Summer, 1991): 21-51.
Kafka, Franz. Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York City: Random House, 1993.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits: A Selection. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1977.
Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Edited by Robin Mackay and Ray Brassier. Kings Lynn: Sequence/Urbanomic, 2012.
Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York City: Summit, 1988.
MacCormack, Patricia. “The Queer Ethics of Monstrosity.” In Speaking of Monsters: A Teratological Anthology. Edited by Caroline Joan S. Picart and John Edgar Browning. 255-266. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Malatino, Hilary. “Biohacking Gender: Cyborgs, Coloniality, and the Pharmacopornographic Era.” In Angelaki 22 no.2 (June, 2017): 179-190.
Masciandaro, Nicola and Eugene Thacker, eds. And They Were Two in One and One in Two. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Translated by Libby Meintjes. In Public Culture 15 no.1 (Winter, 2003): 11-44.
Sandifer, Elizabeth. Neoreaction a Basilisk: Essays On and Around the Alt-Right. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
Seabrook, William B. The Magic Island. New York City: The Literary Guild of America, 1929
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and its Metaphors. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1990.
 Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Manifestly Haraway, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016): 9-10.
 Hilary Malatino, “Biohacking Gender: Cyborgs, Coloniality, and the Pharmacopornographic Era,” Angelaki 22 no.2 (June, 2017): 185.
 A stance of precarious multiplicity allows for literary constructs such as analysis and manifesto to collapse in, both on themselves, and each other. Alliance, allegiance and identification need not be fixed positions and, in the manner of several of the philosophers and theorists upon whom I shall call in this essay, I recommend my reader approach my use of first-person single/multiple pronouns in a similarly nebulous fashion: “I” may indicate personal stance, or a temporary role for illustration. Allow yourself to be included in “we” and “our” if you feel moved to count yourself amongst the throng. Otherwise, feel welcome to consider your reading little more than an anthropological or teratological exercise.
 Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal, (New York City: Summit, 1988): 83-84.
 Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, (New York City: Zone Books, 1999): 45.
 Wade Davis, “The Frontiers of Death,” The Serpent and the Rainbow, (New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1985), EPUB.
 Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014): 55.
 Drew Daniel, “Corpsepaint as Necro-Minstrelsy, or Towards the Re-Occultation of Black Blood,” Melancology: Black Metal Theory and Ecology, ed. Scott Wilson, (Winchester, UK and Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2014): 27.
 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and its Metaphors, (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1990): 63.
 Georges Bataille, “The Sacred Conspiracy,” The Sacred Conspiracy: The Internal Papers of the Secret Society of Acéphale and Lectures to the College of Sociology, eds. Marina Galleti and Alastair Brotchie, trans. Natasha Lehrer, John Harman and Meyer Barash, (London: Atlas Press, 2017): 125.
“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.”[i]
A much-repeated parable in the theoretical fields of media and communications is Zhuangzi’s account of the Confucian disciple Zigong, encountering an old man tending his garden. The old man does so in a manner of, to Zigong’s eye, needlessly strenuous manual labour. Asking the old man why he insists on watering his fields with a pitcher, drawn from a well by hand, rather than by using a well sweep, which “raises the water as though it were pouring it out, so fast that it seems to boil right over,”[ii] he receives the scornful retort:
I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines [jixie] does all his work in the manner of a machine [jishin]. He who does his work in the manner of a machine lets his mind run like a machine [jixin], and he who carries his machine-like mind around loses his pure innocence. Without the pure innocence, the life of the spirit knows no rest…I would be ashamed to use it![iii]
It is my intention with this paper to investigate further questions relating to corporeal and philosophical engagement with writing technology: specifically, the relationship between a blind Friedrich Nietzsche and his “Hansen Writing Ball.” A relationship that encouraged Friedrich Kittler to dub Nietzsche “the first mechanized philosopher.”[iv] Accordingly, I shall address the effect this overtly prosthetic application of technology had on the form of Nietzsche’s writing: not to allow him to continue in his previous manner of long-form, but rather a telegraphic expression that reified the obstructive nature of his myopia. From this perspective, I shall follow two philosophical paths, both of which relate directly to Nietzsche’s influence: first, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the machine, as contrasted with the organism, and how their definitions of both differ from those of more traditional vitalists. Second, addressing the deep connection between Nietzsche’s post-Writing Ball aphoristic mode and the literary aesthetics and philosophy of the pessimist school, I propose we interpret pessimism, as the inheritor of the legacy of Nietzsche’s literary prosthesis, as the (overtly written) language of the always-already machinic subject. At this meeting of postmodernism and pessimism, in the wake of Nietzsche’s Writing Ball, we can acknowledge the body’s position between the machine-like-mind, the mind-like-machine, and the resultant language of Zhuangzi’s spirit that knows no rest.
(Written following Black Gloves and Razors’ screening at the Spectacle Theater, Brooklyn, NYC on 5th October 2019. There is another screening on the 31st October, 2019 – I urge all readers to see it if they can!)
A particularly striking phenomenon of the widespread and various techniques of found-footage avant-garde filmmaking is the extent to which the editor can establish themself as auteur. Privileging the act of compilation to the highest degree, they are now born a new creator: re-presentation of re-presentation transubstantiates the filmic into the pro-filmic. Of course, this generative mode of indexicality leaves us with a troubling remainder: whither, thus, is reality delegated? What is so particularly exemplary in Sam McKinlay’s Black Gloves and Razors is that this appears to be his only film of this nature, and yet his authorship is entirely transparent, largely due to its consistency with his harsh noise wall output as The Rita.
Throughout his oeuvre, McKinlay’s topic and approach has run down the paradoxical razor’s edge of obsession and abstraction: singularity of purpose, through its repetitious engagement with its object/s of compulsive interest, the subject reaches a libidinal permeability, distorted foldings of liminality, that constitute a qualitative multiplicity of what we had considered up ‘til now singular events: sex, murder, movement, speech. In Black Gloves and Razors, there is space both for Mulvey and McGowan’s largely contradictory notions of the cinematic gaze. There can be no doubt the re-presented gialli are wholly dependent on scenes of a violently misogynistic voyeurism, whilst McKinlay’s reductive (I use the word here uncritically) possessive spectatorship could not be more emblematic of fetishistic scopophilia. Nevertheless, there is no denying the sense of Black Gloves and Razors as a screen-site where the gaze is aligned with the filmic image, displaying its potential to alter radically the spectator: not least of all because we cannot quite say with whom we are aligned, whether by design, or through circumstance.
Though there is certainly space to comment on aesthetic distinctions and comparisons with Richard Kern’s Evil Cameraman, and Submit to Me series, or Peggy Ahwesh’s Color of Love, the temporal effect is more compelling in relation to the Austrian found-footage avant-garde movement of the same era as Black Gloves, as defined by such films as Martin Arnold’s Passage à l’Acte and Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space, both of whom reflect McKinlay’s obsession/abstraction approach, though in radically different ways. Arnold and Tscherkassky for the most part concentrate obsessively on abstracting one filmic scene. For Arnold this is a process of Steve Reich-esque percussive repetition, revealing parallelisms of onanistic spatial domination between two generations of male characters traversing an unmistakably 2-dimensional plane. For Tscherkassky, this is a kaleidoscopic, meta-cubist re-construction of a scene originally portraying a woman’s sexual violation at the spectral hands of the source material’s titular “Entity,” as now to implicate the very medium of cinema itself as the perpetrator, whose controlling gaze is fought for and, it seems, ultimately won by the protagonist.
By contrast, McKinlay creates a super-cut, 99% comprised of gratuitous murder scenes – those which in many fields of analysis would be considered little more than spectacular set-pieces, supposedly anathema to traditional modes of narrative – and, in this temporal mosaic, establishes a new mode of narratological immediacy. Movement-image is now time-image. The repetitious nature of many of the murders themselves operate similarly to Arnold’s playful manipulation of domestic gesticulation, inasmuch as we begin to trace consistent performative mechanics of a choreographical unconscious. Nevertheless, the abstractive multiplicity of Black Gloves’ mode of repetition refocuses our attention away from any individual performance, as with Passage, and instead into a more universal analysis of the dynamic brutality of power’s traversal across delineated points of relation in the mode of ultraviolence. Thus, contrary to the dissective stuttering of Arnold’s possessive spectatorship, or the deliriously layered patchworks of light and time produced in Tscherkassky’s studio, McKinlay’s consciously simple mode of performatively amateur contraction and compilation impresses upon the spectator the sensation-al violence of power’s destructive movement through a temporal condition of recurrence. This point may be further illustrated in my previous analysis of the accompanying (or, at least, following) album, The Rita’s Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence:
Bear Traces of Carnal Violence makes conservative, but still evident, use of recognisable voice samples, distinguishable from the noise wall. Which is to say, although the soundtrack to Black Gloves and Razors is present throughout the album, there are variations in distortion as such to reveal the nature of the sound’s originary source at sporadic moments, before crumbling back into a “purer” noise. The screams and crashes coming from the album title’s inspiration, I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale, and many other gialli besides, are of the very same instances of psycho-sexual murder to which the film title refers. Nevertheless, McKinlay’s decision in translation – however conscious it may or may not have been – to leave out the article “The,” as indicated by use of the Italian masculine plural i (i.e. The Bodies Bear Traces) abstracts the declarative statement to a degree of startling astuteness within the context of Foucault’s account of corporeal genealogy. All bodies bear traces of carnal violence:
Domination…establishes marks of its power and engraves memories on things and even within bodies. It makes itself accountable for debts and gives rise to the universe of rules, which is by no means designed to temper violence, but rather to satisfy it…The law is a calculated and relentless pleasure, delight in the promised blood, which permits the perpetual instigation of new dominations and the staging of meticulously repeated scenes of violence…Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination. (“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” p.85)
Unlike so many horror film samples in noise and extreme metal, which are typically used at the very beginning of a song, as indication of a breakdown, or sometimes at the very end, the muffled screams first appear noticeable halfway through the first track of two, “Vice Wears Black Hose,” before dissipating into the harsh noise wall once more. Indeed, thus, so too is the violence abstracted from any singular origin, as Elisabeth Freeman described sadomasochism’s “temporal noncoincidence between action and result.” And, just as the sounds of the act dissolve back into noise, the violence of the act dissolves back into power. (“Bodies Bear Traces: Noise, Power and Perpetual Disintegration,” p.45-6)
Without wishing to invoke a concept of such quotidian legibility as “story,” I must insist on the presence of a narrative movement – even if the condition of recurrence prohibits progression – in the form of the affective variation from one murder to the next: though largely decoupled from all prior-established contexts, one murder immediately elicits revulsion; another, laughter; another, tragedy. We may consider Deleuze’s description of repetition operating within an economy of “reflections, doubles, echoes and souls” (Difference and Repetition, p.3). Perhaps, Black Gloves and Razors provides us with the echoes, with the souls of the ultraviolent encounter, extant in its power despite the potential alienation of its extraction, though its “meaning” (by which I mean how it may be understood in the context of human reception) certainly does wither in relation to its “nth generation” status. Indeed, we the spectator are given no opportunity in watching Black Gloves and Razors to divorce the events on-screen from the mechanics of its production: a DVD-R rip of a VHS-to-VHS transfer of videotapes which, in almost all cases, were transferred, copied, bootlegged indeterminable times before. Here is that rendering of the filmic (that is to say, the original, finished and released copies of Death Carries a Cane, Seven Murders for Scotland Yard, Red Cats in a Glass Maze etc) into the pro-filmic (the exogenous “reality” to be captured onto film itself). Where does “real” reality go? It is difficult to say, but also largely irrelevant: Deleuze indicates that, in a world of repetition, what ultimately is repeated is repetition, itself. The rips and transfers become a method of genealogical praxis, although McKinlay, through Black Gloves and Razors, enacts this praxis in the guise of another masked killer: obsessional in his focus, he nonetheless abstracts bodies of text – and figures within – through his own editorial method of slicing and dicing. Corpses/corpuses are dismembered, scattered across the timeline, while their skin is marked, branded, bruised, bleeding, disintegrating.
Here, I am of course referencing Laura U. Mark’s concept of haptic visuality, which
…relates to the materiality of the medium at several levels, including the medium of recording, of editing, and of the projection or transmission medium…[Marks] used the term ‘ the skin of the film’ to emphasize that movies, especially those of which few copies exist, get changed in their material circulation – films gain scratches, analog videos demagnetize, digital media lose data. (The Skin and the Screen – A Dialogue, p.259)
The skin is no longer a barrier of impermeability; quite the opposite. It is the site of subject/objectivity convergence. The degradation of fidelity through repetition reduces the black-clad killers to, at times, barely anthropomorphic lacunae – more Morrison than Martino. At points (as it were), the knives and razors cease to “enter” the victims’ skin as much as appear to become one with it – no matter the Freudian reliance upon phallic weaponry, in this world of entropic deterritorialization, interpassivity is abound. We, too, are subject to imbrication at all points of brutal relation – as the camera rests on extreme facial close-up, I could not help but consider the gothic poetry of Jean Epstein’s ruminations on photogénie in magnification:
This magnification acts on one’s feelings more to transform than to confirm them, and personally, it makes me uneasy…Pain is within reach. If I stretch out my arm I touch you, and that is intimacy. I can count the eyelashes of this suffering. I would be able to taste the tears. Never before has a face turned to mine in that way. Ever closer it presses against me, and I follow it face to face. It’s not even true that there is air between us; I consume it. It is in me like a sacrament. Maximum visual acuity. (October 3, Spring 1977: p.13)
The aim and effect of the exercise of watching Black Gloves and Razors is not desensitization in the sense of the events becoming unnoticeable: certainly, in the screening I attended, there was as many gasps near the end as there were at the beginning. Rather, the acts of greatest brutalism strike me as the fleeting and horrific coenaesthetic revelations of sensuous power, as experienced on, in, and through bodies, every day. To watch Black Gloves and Razors, as it is to listen to Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence can and should never not be a transformative experience. But it is a transformation always-already here. And that is the horror.
(Given at the International Black Metal Theory Symposium, Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana 19/4/19. Contains modified excerpt from “Bathing in the Horror That the Blood of Time Carries.”)
Throughout his essay “The Corpse Bride: Thinking With Nigredo,” Reza Negarestani posits as the foundation for the Western philosophical tradition of reason, the titular Etruscan method of torturous execution:
A living man or woman was tied to a rotting corpse, face to face, mouth to mouth, limb to limb, with an obsessive exactitude in which each part of the body corresponded with its matching putrefying counterpart. Shackled to their rotting double, the man or woman was left to decay…Only once the superficial difference between the corpse and the living body started to rot away through the agency of worms, which bridged the two bodies, establishing a differential continuity between them, did the Etruscans stop feeding the living. Once both the living and the dead had turned black through putrefaction, the Etruscans deemed it appropriate to unshackle the bodies, by now combined together, albeit on an infinitesimal, vermicular level. (TCB, 131)
The “superficial blackening” of necrosis is what is known in alchemical – and also Jungian psychological – terms as nigredo. For the Etruscan executioners, it is the discursive medium through which the interior and exterior communicate: the surface indicating the foundation, now rendered undifferentiated through this process of mutual decomposition. “Explicit or ontologically registered decay was merely a superficial symptom of an already founded decay, decay as a pre-established universal chemistry,” (ibid), upon whose ultimate revelation depends the unshackling.
Though the original text is presumed lost, Negarestani, and Brunschwig before him, assert that Aristotle proposed the corpse bride as a fitting analogy for the soul’s relation to the self, with the soul acting as the living, and the body acting as the dead. The soul’s need for the body to perform actions in and on the world that would create or promulgate reason, and the body’s need for the soul to give reason to its actions reveal a symbiotic, cyclical implication that is at once equally perfectly reflected and very much troubled by the concept of putrefying, anti-differentiating nigredo. The “problematic collusion” of this “necrophilic intimacy” is – not only for Aristotle but the aphophatic theologians of the Middle Ages such as Plotinus – resolved, aptly enough, with further paradox: aphairesis, or subtraction.
The soul, debased by its necessary relation to the impure body to approach being qua being must remain in itself, whilst simultaneously remaining less. In so doing, the foundational, fundamental Ideal, the Divine, the One is revealed:
Both…formulations of aphairesis are grounded on one precondition, which can be summarised in terms of conservation after subtraction: despite being chained to the festering corpse or being subtracted, the soul is able to conserve some of itself and render the body intelligible. In the same vein, no matter what is taken away from the Divine, it will continue to remain as the One already there. (TCB, 138).
Negarestani, in noting the face-to-face bondage between the living/soul and the dead/body, acknowledges the Greco-Roman “mirror” motif, and the horror of identification under such circumstances, but surely we must also consider the arrangement a conscious inversion of the Greco-Roman motifs relating to bicephalous bodies fused back-to-back, such as the creatures of Aristophanes’ myth of creation, or the Roman god Janus. By rotating the two outward-looking faces that were viewing the past and future inward, the unilaterality of vitalism and linearity of time is undone: a feedback loop generates, in which distortion is the aphairetic mode of putrefaction, and volume is the usurping avatar for intelligibility.
But, what does this – other than having a similar emphasis on the macabre – have to do with black metal?
Many essays in Black Metal Theory have launched investigations into the “black” of black metal, beyond simply being a referent to Venom’s song and album of the same name, itself a pun on “black magic.” When discussing metal fusion genres, one typically either results in a mundane product of hyphenation (for example, death-doom) or in dialectically synthetical creation, such as the combination of doom and hardcore to create sludge. However, when black metal is one of the ingredients, we get instead “blackened death metal,” “blackened doom.” Not just a musical approach, not even just an aesthetic, black metal is a blackening metal: a process, an infection, a degradation. In this essay, I suggest the “black” of black metal is the “blackening” of nigredo, and quite specifically the nigredo attained in the context of the corpse bride. This blackening is the process by which the trueness of “True Norwegian Black Metal” or, more recently, “trve kvlt” status may be achieved: rather than this being necessarily a process of attaining a simple clarity, a disavowal of noise and chatter that would distract from a classical “true Norwegian” message, aphairetic distortion and para-intelligible volume to which we have already alluded is, in fact, the desired goal. Clearly, black metal’s understanding of and relationship with the notions of time and history is a strikingly nuanced and esoteric one.
Rarely does a genre or subgenre seem quite so reverent to its forebears, but black metal is so much so that the universally undisputed founders of the movement – Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone, Emperor, etc – are nevertheless known as the “second wave,” whilst older death, speed and thrash bands like Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost are afforded the “first wave” honorific. Indeed, one notable aspect of black metal’s relationship with its own past is the speed with which it establishes itself as having a “past” at all: less than one year after the release of Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig, featuring already deceased vocalist Dead on the front, brandishing a candelabrum in a chiaroscuro backdrop, Darkthrone released Transilvanian Hunger, with Fenriz replicating the image, screaming and in a considerably harsher contrast, as though in tribute. One may consider a parallel in these two respective images with Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X and Bacon’s Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Accordingly, there are two aspects to this replication worthy of comment: first, the idea that a timeframe of less than a year is anywhere near long enough to justify a tribute that wouldn’t be written off as shamelessly derivative (which Transilvanian Hunger’s cover never has been; in fact, it is one of the most iconic images of black metal to this day). We may contrast this with the 40+ years between Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality and Electric Wizard’s Legalise Drugs & Murder. The other is the aforementioned distortion of the temporal feedback: even the originators of black metal can be blackened.
In relation to itself, black metal’s corpse bride existence renders it an inverted palimpsest, whereupon the erasure – decay, distortion, blackening – of one text reveals another. There is, not for nothing, a reflection of various postmodern counter-historical techniques at play, here. To name three: Foucault’s genealogy, Deleuze’s difference and repetition, and Derrida’s hauntology. With regard the latter, we return to Mayhem and the figure of Dead, so emblematic of the trueness of True Norwegian Black Metal status’ dependence upon destructive – crucially, self-destructive – behaviour. Indeed, as Evan Calder Williams begins discussing Mayhem’s first demo, Pure Fucking Armageddon, in the first Black Metal Theory Symposium, Hideous Gnosis, he invokes the Shakespearean phrase that catalyses Spectres of Marx: “Of course, black metal never really begins. It’s always been out of time, eternally out of joint with a world it hates, even as it cannot leave that world behind.” (HG, 129). Similarly may we consider Dead as embodiment of this assertion. Never afforded an official studio release, Dead became the mascot of Mayhem, “the band so extreme the singer committed suicide,” long after his reign as the band’s singer, definitively ended by his suicide. His influence on the image of the band, however, may be understood to remain entirely consistent with that when he was alive, performing multiple rituals – use of corpse paint, burying and re-earthing of clothing, insufflation of carion – to render him a walking corpse, reflective of his name, that he has widely been speculated to have suffered from Cotard delusion. Accordingly, there is established within black metal a dynamic of verticality to its temporal state, a xenochronic positioning where nothing quite has an origin, and even the dead cannot quite leave the world behind. On this last point, Negarestani speaks of the oft-neglected aspect of the corpse bride’s mirroring status:
It is indeed ghastly for the living to see itself as dead; but it is true horror for the dead to be forced to look at the supposedly living, and to see itself as the living dead, the dead animated by the spurious living. Neither Aristotle nor Augustine tell us about this infliction upon the dead of the burden of the living, this molesting of the dead with the animism of the living. (TCB, 135-6)
Cotard delusion, the mental fixation on being already dead, or that one’s internal organs are dissolving, typically results in several other psychological anomalies: one, that the patient’s belief she will, in essence, “live” – or at least “continue” – forever; and also a common prevalence of facial misrecognition to a point of belief in all others as imposters, often resulting in dual diagnosis with Capgras’ syndrome. We must consider Negarestani’s speculations on the horror felt supposedly by the dead themselves, as they gaze into a face of the living, a reflective image they simultaneously do and do not recognise. The living dead aesthetic of black metal may also be understood as symbolic in itself of the xenochronic relation it holds to a predominantly fictional timeline in which Scandinavian folkloric mythology and theistic Satanism were supposedly unified as one consistent ideology. Of course more than simply a genre of music, the second-wave inner circle manifested this xenochronic relation through hyperstitional praxis (that is to say, materialisation of thought or belief). Specifically, this praxis was the burning of Norwegian stave churches as retaliation for their alleged usurping of the true Scandinavian ethno-spiritual way of life. Of hyperstition, Nick Land demarcates four characteristics:
They function as (1) an “element of effective culture that makes itself real,” (2) as a “fictional quality functional as a time-travelling device,” (3) as “coincidence intensifiers,” and (4) as a “call to the Old Ones”. The first three characteristics describe how hyperstions like the ‘ideology of progress’ or the religious conception of apocalypse enact their subversive influences in the cultural arena, becoming transmuted into perceived ‘truths,’ that influence the outcome of history. Finally, as Land indicates, a hyperstition signals the return of the irrational or the monstrous ‘other’ into the cultural arena. (Delphi Carstens – Hyperstition)
Certainly, by these characteristics may we understand black metal as an ultimate hyperstitional medium: content, form and exogenous context, materialising points in a semi-fictional temporality, whose recurrence is manifested through a process of continuous putrefaction. As one example, let us look at “Báthory Erzsébet” by Sunn O))). Guest singer Malefic (Scott Conner) of Xasthur and Twilight, an apparently severe claustrophobe, was locked inside a casket, loaded into a hearse, and from there recorded his vocals, beginning: “Here / decompose forever / aware and unholy / encased in marble and honey from the swarm / a thin coat of infernal whispering that bleaches from within / a darkness that defiles thought.” With regard to “Báthory Erzsébet”’s sound, Stephen Graham speaks of its disarmingly quantum state: “It’s chromatic and pitch-centred, riff-based and ambiguously discursive. The music’s complication of conventional codes of musical organisation means that it impacts in the register of confusing and unstable jouissance as opposed to that of clear discernment.” Malefic’s vocal performance also operates in kind. Employing a traditional black metal “wretched vocals” technique, Malefic would, by most accounts, sound “scary.” However, what renders the sound of “Báthory Erzsébet” so unique is the extent to which Malefic in reality sounds petrified in his delivery. Graham’s description of the ways in which the instrumentation “wobbles” and “flickers” are wholly matched by Malefic’s involuntary wavering, whilst the punctuation of gasps between roars speak entirely to the sense of flickering; the listener’s mental image of Malefic is disturbed by the flickering, irrepressible intrusions of Scott Conner’s chronic fear of enclosed spaces.
As with many extreme metal – and particularly black metal – song structures, there is no verse-chorus division in the lyrics and the unclarity of the vocals strips away any need for rhyme or avoidance of enjambment. Thus, Malefic’s delivery is an effectively unbroken account of the corporeal putrefaction and spiritual desolation of titular Hungarian countess and mass murderer Elizabeth Bathory. Within such lines as “Stolen by the wingless harpies whose memories lay waste the valley of diamonds … / a thick viscous cloud smothering hope … / the begotten mistress of eternal hunger … / worship in the torment of a million wasted lives / bathe in the horror that the blood of time carries,” in conjunction with the aforementioned opening, “Báthory Erzsébet” is a poignant reflection on Bathory’s legendary vampiric status as one who retained her beauty by bathing in the blood of young maidens, ultimately succumbing to a most brutal realisation of the way of all flesh. Thus, at the heart of this song is an unmistakable tension between preservation and entropy, made manifest as imagery of claustrophobia and isolation, as reflective of Bathory’s death in solitary confinement, represented here as immurement / premature burial. One may naturally assume that, of all lyrics a claustrophobe might wish to find oneself singing, from the confines of a casket, these are absolutely not they. Thus, just as the (in this instance, both bass) guitars of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley are drenched in feedback distortion, so too in another sense are Malefic’s vocals: every element of his performance having an amplifying and, indeed, distorting effect on every other.
Within the context of musical production and performance, “Báthory Erzsébet” perhaps stands alone as the most effective sadomasochistic genealogical exercise, whose hellish iconography of eternal entropy acts as acute representation of the perpetual disintegration to which the body is subjected by history, as described by Foucault. nietzsche considered the suffering experienced through dramatic performance as first and foremost an experience of “compassion,” that would imply sympathy. However, there most certainly is a physical, sensorial component to this performance which acts as the repetitious festivals of Deleuze’s description: “repeating an ‘unrepeatable,’ they do not add a second and a third time to the first, but carry the first time to the ‘nth’ power. With respect to this power, repetition interiorises and thereby reverses itself.” We the listener and Sunn O))) the performers – not least of all Malefic – are united and unified by the shared experience of the repetition of Bathory’s death, even or especially considering the fictional quality of this account of it which, for Land, is the xenochronic catalyst. Immobile, sharing his casket with the hyperstitional spectre of Elizabeth Bathory, Malefic creates and undergoes the black metal corpse bride first hand.
For all of black metal’s ostensible anxieties surrounding the question of authenticity, it is perhaps one of the most successful metal movements when it comes to evolution and hybridisation. The circumstances of black metal authorship and production bear such relevance as to create new subgenres, almost solely on the basis of lyrical content (i.e the somewhat tautological “depressive suicidal black metal”), or it can bear essentially zero sonic qualities with the canon characteristics, such as the prison-era Burzum releases or the work of acousmatic collective Tele.S.Therion, and still be included within the oeuvre. My use of the term xenochrony throughout the paper has been partially dependent on a definition of my own invention: that relating to an alien time, a historical-present that implies a forward-looking ideology, albeit rooted in a prohibitively self-destructive praxis. Meanwhile, the original use of the term relates specifically to the extraction or transposition of one or more musical parts and introducing them to another movement: studio-based dialectics. This can nevertheless be directly related to Tele.S.Therion’s production, based upon Pythagorean akousmatikoi, in which all musicians record their parts in isolation, only ever hearing the bass as a prompt. It is here where we may sense the connection to black metal, perhaps the only non-electronic genre to be so associated with entirely studio-based projects of one and two-man bands, including Burzum, Xasthur, Gnaw Their Tongues and Silencer: a collective of isolationists, extracting various ideologies, religious persuasions and musical practices and introducing them to a profound and unending process of negation. As Brian Massumi asserts, “a paradox is not contradiction; [it] abolishes contradiction.”
The journey to a position of truth is a journey dependent on a fiction, and must destroy the traveller, forever. The reverberating distortion of paradox vibrates in the tremolo picks of the Phrygian and Locrian modes, binding the future and past into a congealed, black, mass. Putrified, petrified, amorphous in rupture, black metal is rendered an intelligible body, but only in a language of an alien time.
“It’s much better to say that it’s not you that’s cracked – it’s the Grand Canyon”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
I imagine a huge city with houses of glass and steel, reaching the sky, reflecting the sky, itself and you. People cultivate their image, hurried and made up in the extreme, covered in gold, pearls and pure leather. In the streets, on every corner, the filth piles up and drugs accompany the slumber or rage of the outcasts.
– Julia Kristeva
Falling outta sleep I hit the floor
I pull on some rock tee and I’m out with the door
From Bowery to Broome to Greene I’m a walking lizard
Last night’s dream was a talking baby wizard
All coming from female imagination
Daydreaming days in a daydream nation
Smashed up against a car at 3am
The kids dressed up for basketball beat me in my head
There’s bum trash in my hall and my place is ripped
I totalled another amp, I’m calling in sick
It’s an anthem in a vacuum on a hyperstation
Daydreaming days in a daydream nation
– Sonic Youth
Thurston Moore’s lyrical nightmare of a bleary-eyed, psychogeographical stumble through the 1980s Lower East Side may be understood as the climatic realisation of (the) crack’s penetration on all levels: substance, space, subjectivity. The journey appears linear, as described in the album’s liner notes as the walk from his apartment to the recording studio, and yet reveals itself as circular, or perhaps he never left at all: “I’m out with the door / From Bowery to Broome to Greene…There’s bum trash in my hall and my place is ripped / I totalled another amp, I’m calling in sick.” The instability in the model of production is infectious and efflorescent, the phusis of addiction redistributing desires toward crack/s, from which bloom new models of value and new, permeable distinctions between life and death. Small Flowers Crack Concrete . Such re-circuitry reflects and remodels geographies, establishing concrete divisions – between, for example, public/private or upmarket/downmarket as liminal sites of trade/administration and thus safety/danger. Such re-circuitry is, by another name, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “folding:”
Folding is movement through a liminal condition whereby one thing “folds” into another. A spatial labyrinth is a multiplicity of spatial folds where the twists and turns of lanes and alleys disorients and produces a mix of desire/danger. The “folds” of the “labyrinth” are its “labia” where a dominant order folds into sites of slippage and danger; where one loses the controlling gaze over spatial order. Smooth spaces are derelict spaces; “cracks” in the instrumentalised habitat; holes in the socially structured habitus ; paradoxical places/spaces of desire and danger.
Substance-induced hallucinations of surrealism and violence pulsate through space and into subjectivity – “I’m a walking lizard / last night’s dream was a talking baby wizard” – and into the ambiguities of paranoia: “smashed up against a car at 3am / the k ids dressed up for basketball beat me in my head.” Is this an account of being in an automobile collision and mugged? Or is this account of being “smashed” – intoxicated – leaning against a car, imagining oneself being defeated in basketball? When you’ve cracked up, the difference is negligible, if not nil. Subjectivity and objectivity’s opposition is fractured – cracked – in folding, establishing new points of sensation-al connection as well as solipsistic impressions of isolation, despite a late-/capitalist mode of production’s efforts toward a predictable, governable system of perpetual motion. As Mark Fisher reflected, “there is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was.” The crack is always -already in the addict, the capital, the city, the subject, the object and, yes, the Grand Canyon.
(Given at the second Queer Modernism(s) conference: “Intersectional Identities,” University of Oxford, 12th April 2018)
The plural – Queer Modernism(s) – has forever struck me as indicative of the paradoxicality of today’s exercise. The generally considered postmodernist phenomenon of queer theory’s inquiry into the modernist realm, despite documentation of queer experience, however thickly veiled, stretching far into the shades of antiquity. Similarly may we consider the figure of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose idealised form of modernism appears so rooted in classical paganism, but whose image and reputation as a philosopher only truly flourished in its reification at the hands of poststructuralist philosophers, most crucially in this essay Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Clearly, then, a discussion of Nietzschean thought within the context of a queer modernist conference is dependent on various strands of nontraditional temporal inquiry, the most prevalent of which I shall call a Deleuzo-Nietzschean philosophy of time, originating in Nietzsche’s introduction to his concept of eternal recurrence in The Gay Science:
What if some day or night a demon were to…say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more”…Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine”… How well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
In Deleuze’s expansion of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, return of the same becomes – at first seemingly paradoxically – the return of difference. This self-similar recurrence is not the same as merely an endless loop as the demon proposes in The Gay Science; “it is not being that returns but rather the returning itself that constitutes being…It is not some one thing which returns but rather returning itself is the one thing which is affirmed of diversity or multiplicity.” Michael Hardt: “what Deleuze is working to develop…is an autonomous conception of difference and its constant proliferation in a creative process of becoming.” This is affirmed by Deleuze’s focus on what he (and he argues Nietzsche too) sees as the self-evidently non-identical nature of the return as being cosmologically inherent due to the absence of an already-attained position of equilibrium. For, if we accept eternal recurrence as cosmologically sound, we presuppose infinite pasts and therefore infinite variations already come to pass. Thus, were a terminal equilibrium state to be attained, it would have already have been reached: “the present moment, as the passing moment, proves that it is not attained and therefore that an equilibrium of forces is not possible.” This absence of equilibrium – and thus one would argue aufheben – is understood by postmodern disciples of Nietzsche as evidence of an ultimately anti-Hegelian position, to which we shall return.
Identity formation is undoubtedly, from a Deleuzeo-Nietzschean perspective, a repetitive process of development, from a state of difference. Indeed, Deleuze clearly asserts “repetition is…the only identity.” The process of absorbing myriad heterogenous values and drives on a psycho-physiological level is called by Nietzsche, “incorporation,” or “embodiment,” which on its basic process of enactment, repetition and performance, bears a strikingly prefigurative similarity to Judith Butler’s account of performativity in relation to gender. Accordingly, Butler understands Nietzschean perspective on identity as wholly compatible with queer theory:
The challenge for rethinking gender categories outside of the metaphysics of substance will have to consider the relevance of Nietzsche’s claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything…There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.
Deleuze asserts that “in every respect, repetition is a transgression.” As part of a Deleuzian lexicon, repetition relates specifically to a re-actualisation or re-enactment of a unique event, unlike the cyclical and substitutive nature of generality. Repetition, rather, deals in an economy of “reflections, doubles, echoes and souls.” Elaine Gan: “With every repetition, differentiation returns not as the same, but as an excess that can intensify, allowing possibilities for new encounters and coordinations. Every repetition, through excess, introduces a possibility for differences to cohere or take place, vary, and then cohere again.” In the vein of the aforementioned Gender Trouble, gender and sexuality may be understood as becomings of repetition, routinely subjected to laws of generality. In just such a way, heightened consciousness in repetition becomes the mode through which power relations inscribed on and in the body, may achieve effective resistance through self-creation.
Affirmation of the self as repetition in the face of institutions and dispositifs of generality is described by Nietzsche, too, not as an act of transcendence but one of immanence, in which an event of realisation/actualisation is dependent on the same for all things and time conventionally perceived as “outside” the self, too: “If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence…and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event – and in this single moment of affirmation, all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.” This assertion appears to be a development on the hypothesis of recurrence by Nietzsche himself, leaning toward an eternalist concept of time, in which eternity is invoked in such a sense that distinctions between past, present and future appear compromised, if not redundant. For, if all eternity were needed to produce one event, the future’s productive capability seems just as ontologically implicated in the present moment as the past. Queer eternalist praxis of temporal folding/distortion thus appears contingent on a destabilisation of conventional cause-effect linearity – such destabilisation is understood by Elizabeth Freeman as a founding principle of the sadomasochistic encounter, thereby revealing corporeal ontology as the locus of recurrent power relations:
Various techniques of visual distanciation, which in contemporary S/M culture might also include the blindfold, the strobe light, or hallucinogenic drugs, produce a temporal noncoincidence between action and result that, in turn, makes possible the awareness of the body of object…Thus in sadomasochism the historical asynchrony achieved by sexually allegorizing a lost form of imperial power…meets the temporal asynchrony achieved through prying apart impulse and action…Sadean sex, in its very insistence on reanimating historically specific social roles, in the historically specific elements of its theatrical language, and in using the body as an instrument to rearrange time, becomes a kind of écriture historique. S/M becomes a form of writing history with the body in which the linearity of history itself may be called into question, but, crucially, the past does not thereby cease to exist.
Sadomasochistic re-/enactments of (above all else) corporal punishment and confinement as utilised by dispositifs of the State in penal, educational, ecclesiastical, medical, confessional or inquisitorial scenarios reveal the opportunities for abstracted repetitive pleasure within a cyclical recurrence of kyriarchal generality: “S/M may bring out the historicity of bodily response…the uses of physical sensation to break apart the present into a fragment of times that may not be one’s ‘own,’ or to feel one’s present world as both conditioned and contingent.”
Foucault’s stance on the eternal freedom of man on the basis of power relations’ potential for reversal is all the more intensified with regard to the “always fluid” nature of power relations as expressed in the sadomasochistic roleplay scene. By contrast, Foucault acknowledges the relative severity with which “mobility in power relations is limited” in the sphere of social power, so that he would not suggest the scene “is a reproduction, inside the erotic relationship, of the structures of power. It is an acting-out of power structures by a strategic game that is able to give sexual pleasure or bodily pleasure.” That it is not a reproduction of power structures speaks to its non-generality; it is rather a repetition and an adaptation – both in the dramatic and biological senses of the term – re-enacting an encounter between the subject and the State within a recontextualised frame of contemporaneity and eroticism, which thus seemingly translates the power itself from one of suppression to one of creation.
For Nietzsche, one of the main media of autopoiesis and affirmation is, of course, dance. In Horst Hutter’s analysis, “dance and other ecstatic [Dionysian] practices” – the “confrontation of passional chaos” – paradoxically permit the subject to avoid catastrophic return of the Dionysian repressed. Dionysian praxis and aesthetic is, for Susan Jones, undeniably expressed in the modernist ballet era of the first few decades of the twentieth century:
In certain forms of dance in this period, the primitive element and the search for an “original unity” were compatible with Nietzsche’s outline of the [Dyonisian] aesthetic. Indeed, Loïe Fuller’s subsumption of the body, her disappearance within a whirling spiral of material, engenders in part a “dionysian” frenzy, and Mallarmé’s sense of her dance as illustrating both choreographic and poetic practices resonates with Nietzsche’s ideas of embodiment. The emphasis on the “primitive” is present in almost all forms of innovative choreography in the period: [e.g] the animal force of Nijinsky, [Fokine’s interest in the ritual, the expressionism of Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance]…arguably illustrates Nietzsche’s references to an “embodied” expression of the sublime [as invoked by his “Dyonisan forces”], a striving for the “noumenal” realm that Kant indicated was unreachable.
This sublime ritualistic subsummation of the incorporated subject marks a significant shift in the medium of corporeal expression of discourse, not least of all on account of its invocation of the noumenal – felt at the level of the body in the context of sadomasochism as jouissance or limit-experience. For Foucault, “the idea of a limit-experience that wrenches the subject from itself… was important to…[his] reading of Nietzsche…of seeing that the subject is no longer itself, or that it is brought to its annihilation or its destruction.” The question of limit-experience with regards Nietzsche influenced Foucault’s own genealogy and epistemology: a historical investigation of knowledge which, freed from phenomenological assumption, may be understood to frame power as holding sensational, yet still ultimately noumenal qualities.
In Jones’ musical analysis, “Nietzsche shifts music from the realm of the beautiful towards a modernist sublime…[showing] the tendency of contemporary music to move away from harmony through chromaticism (where notes in a melodic progression are raised or lowered by accidentals, without changing the key of the passage), towards dissonance…opening up the possibility of an aesthetics premised on jarring contrasts of style and content.” We may expand the process of chromatic harmony into a model representative of the reproductive futurism denounced by Lee Edelman. Aggressively linear in its temporality, political futurity establishes a conservative affirmation of structures maintained with the capital-C Child in mind, who “remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention.” Real-life progeny are the accidentals, whose dischord is repressed through generality’s chromo-chrono-normative drive toward harmonic resolution which, paradoxically (or at least, duplicitously) re-authenticates perpetual continuation through a system of equivalent exchange, despite apparent progression. One of the best socio-political examples of this is described by Gayle Rubin, as “in 1976, Los Angeles police used an obscure nineteenth-century anti-slavery statue to raid a ‘slave auction’ held in a gay bathhouse.” Here we see generality and repetition in conflict: the sadomasochistic-theatrical reproduction of the slave auction conjuring for disruption and parody sensuous echoes of the force of the old law effectively enough as to be considered a transgression and provocation of the new law to replicate old violence, via ostensibly new means and measures. An unintentionally astute performance of the genealogy of morals.
For the queer semi-Deleuzian post-anarchist, discourse on the nature of the Apollonian and the Dionysian “dualities” in “opposition” bears an unsavoury resemblance to an overly-arboreal dialectical prescriptivism. Nevertheless, that Nietzsche ultimately advocated for a “resolution” or “reconciliation” of these forces, rather than a “synthesis” is crucial to our understanding of Nietzsche’s affirmationist positioning, for there is, as Rogério de Almeida notes, “a certain hesitation or refusal on [his] part to characterise either one of these two drives in an exclusive way, or to oppose them too simply.” Thus, the re-emergence of the Apollonian in modern ballet, catalysed most of all by George Balanchine’s Apollon musagète (whose multiple developments and revisions between 1928 and 1979, including Balanchine’s migration to the USA illustrate for Jones “the way in which a dialogue between Dionysian and Apollonian aesthetics was produced during transatlantic exchanges of modernism”). Though it remains for Nietzsche “tragic art, [it is] the reconciliation of Apollo and Dionysus. Dionysus imparts the most profound meaning to appearance, and that appearance can nevertheless be denied with sensual pleasure. This is directed, like the tragic vision of the world, against the [nihilist] doctrine of resignation.”
Within this philosophy of recurrently combative and reconcilatory, self- and mutually devouring, (in a Foucauldian sense, sadomasochistic) states of fluctuating ontography, tectonics of sensuous Dionysian wisdom and the “beautiful illusion” of Apollonian visibility, that admits tragedy but refuses resignation, I want to reflect briefly on the drag balls of Paris is Burning. Competitive drag performance, with its emphasis on maquillage, accoutrement, poise, performance, and attitude – dependence on both the Apollonian plastic and Dionysian non-plastic arts – with the aim of establishing qualitative degrees of “realness.” A realness whose only established requirement is that same realness’ contention within cis-heterosexist hegemonic discourse, outside the venue of the ball. Accordingly, the performers are judged not by how they self-identify, but by their judged verisimilitude, which alerts we the spectators to the assemblage that constitutes the queer body, in and around which the components of identity, embodiment, expression and legibility are unstable, at times as we would desire; at times the opposite, with catastrophic implications. In particular male at-birth-assignation establishes the entrypoint to accolades of “realness” with regard femininity, undone in other contexts by the self-same body’s perceived ontology, but whose legibility as something other than traditionally-perceived-as-male invites both admiring and violent response, including and often from the same sources. For all the dispassionate control we try and exert over it, we still do not yet know fully what a body can do, or what it can invoke. Nietzsche: “The Apollonian illusion reveals itself as what it really is – the veiling during the performance of the tragedy of the real Dionysian effect; but the latter is so powerful that it ends by forcing the Apollonian drama itself into a sphere where it begins to speak with Dionysian wisdom and even denies itself and its Apollonian visibility.”
Accordingly, though queer subjectivity may still be ultimately subsumed within a sublime tragedy, it can discover affirmation in its negation, engaging with an aesthetics that need not look ever forward for progression, but instead invoke the asynchrony of time, as experienced through queer bodies. Where praxis is to be discovered, it shall be discovered within the paradox.