I apologise for the relative silence of late – normal service will be resumed as soon as is possible but for now, I’ve unearthed an essay from several years ago – not a favourite by any means, but it may stimulate some discussion. Keep safe.
Throughout a night without images but buffeted by black sounds; amidst a throng of forsaken bodies, beset with no longing but to last against all odds and for nothing; on a page where I plotted out the convolutions of those who, in transference, presented me with the gift of their void – I have spelled out abjection. Passing through the memories of a thousand years, a fiction without scientific objective but attentive to religious imagination, it is within literature that I finally saw it carrying, with its horror, its full power into effect…on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object etc.) do not exist or only barely so – double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.
― Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror
Julia Kristeva holds the position throughout Powers of Horror that the abject’s horrific status is not so simply indicative of material deemed threatening for any aetiological reason; indeed, neither excrement nor food may be treated, in her esteem, as abject for its poisonous potential but rather the existential threat it may pose via its relation to difference and borders. She thus describes culinary traditions in India and Polynesia in which cooked food “must be surrounded with a series of taboos” due to its newly-established simultaneity within the realms of the natural and the cultural, coming “close to excremental abjection, which is the most striking example of the interference of the organic within the social.” Beyond what enters our body and onto what leaves, however, Kristeva remarks:
Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death. Menstrual blood, on the contrary, stands for the danger issuing from within the identity (social or sexual)’ it threatens the relationship between the sexes within a social aggregate and, through internalization, the identity of each sex in the face of sexual difference.
Thus, abjection relates specifically to the wilfully, psychically repressed permeability of the gestalt of human subjectivity. It is the challenge to the integrity of the Symbolic walls that separate life from death, culture from nature, male from female, human from animal, even wet from dry. It is my intention in this essay to investigate vampire fiction and lore, with particular emphasis on the Czechoslovak coming-of-age fantasy-horror Valerie a týden divů / Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jireš, 1970) in relation to Kristeva’s discourse of abjection, using the vampire story as a site of indeterminacy, femininity, and bodily fluids.
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.
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 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.
The first release from the new gothic folk project of Kalee Beals, of dungeon synth act Mors Certa, Burial Grounds feels at times like an experiment with song structures, inasmuch as the presentation of relatively conventional song structures strikes the listener as something of an experiment. Compared to “No Shore” from witch house progenitor oOoOO’s Untitled demo CDr – an acoustic (ish) song from an electronic musician who claims to have initially played, and hated playing, guitar music, there is no quality of the begrudging distortion of the medium, here. Rather, Beals’ commitment to modes of ambiance translates harmoniously into swells and sighs that produce a sense of resonance far beyond what anyone might expect of a lo-fi debut such as this. “Lampshade” was the track that got me to purchase Burial Grounds before the song had even finished, and it certainly remains my favourite. Nevertheless, this whole album is well worth exploring fully.
What is this that stands before me? Figure in black which points at me Turn around quick, and start to run Find out I’m the chosen one Oh no!
While Sunn O)))’s “Báthory Erzsébet” may stand alone with regard to the utilization of a lead singer’s genuine terror, the eponymous first song from the eponymous first album by the unquestionable Black Sabbath was the logical conclusion to Robert Johnson in establishing a musical legacy of concurrent familiarity and alienation in the face of evil. Although arguments over who constitutes “the first heavy metal band” rage on, even ignoring the unforgivably boring candidates like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and instead acknowledging the proto-Oh Sees stoner psyche of Blue Cheer, the proto-industrial barbarism of Cro-Magnon, or the para-ecclesiastical gothicism of the band who just straight-up called themselves H.P Lovecraft, Black Sabbath are most certainly what Foucault might consider the instigators of heavy metal’s discursivity.
What sets Black Sabbath so apart is the manner in which they managed both to establish a genre, and play with it, all at once. They draw the defining line in the sand that demarcates “heavy metal,” and yet decide not to step fully over it – combining old psychedelic rock practices with an unabashedly ominous aesthetic, they defy conventional temporality by introducing the house style both for the original genre of heavy metal, and for its descendant subgenre doom, concurrently.
And this brings us back to that opening track. Though the inside of the gatefold is indeed an upside-down cross, Ozzy is predominantly seen wearing his the right way up: the fear, the horror, the dark premonitions are all in many ways the church’s own. Nevertheless, the figure of Satan throughout Black Sabbath’s work is compellingly inconsistent, at times acting as dark tempter of souls, pitiless judge of hawkish capitalists, and looming harbinger of unknown yet surely awful fates. Indeed, Satan’s multivalence is as such that all things in the world may be definable in relation to Satan, including and especially God, who exists less as a presence, but as a name, cried in vain at the sight of the demonic, and seemingly very real, figure in black.
An alternative to the pantheistic understanding of God as residing within all things, the chilly – if suspiciously sweet-smelling – world of Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath is one of pandemonium. Though we may rebel, our battle cry is one of terror, horror, and dread.
Big black shape with eyes of fire Telling people their desire Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling Watches those flames get higher and higher Oh no, no, please God help me!
(This was a commissioned review from January 2019 I ultimately didn’t submit as I considered my first published work shouldn’t be me denigrating other academics. Nevertheless, I think this blog is a safe enough platform)
Karl and Beverley Spracklen’s The Evolution of Goth Culture is an ambitious project in tracing a paradoxical subcultural phenomenon, simultaneously defined by its aesthetic morbidity and startlingly consistent longevity, from its origins in the late 1970s to the present day. Acknowledging the undoubted breadth of their endeavour, the Spracklens are generous enough to the reader to approach the matter from an angle of profoundly welcoming legibility, and with a well-clarified a priori frame of analysis in their third opening chapter, “Constructing a New Theory of Alternativity.” Modelled upon a constructed hypothetical discursive relation between Adorno, Habermas, Butler and Lefebvre, the Spracklens approach the question of an often self-identified “alternative” subculture on a pre-agreed set of principles that may best be précised to three realisations:
The culture industry is an apparatus of the state, and accordingly any aesthetic of rebellion or life à rebours can (if not will) ultimately be co-opted into state-approved hegemonic reproduction.
Nevertheless there remains, even within the space of capital, a capacity for discursive practice that maintains the continuation of “the life-world of the public sphere,” contrary to capital’s order of enclosure.
Accordingly, we should distinguish the “instrumental” from the “communicative.” Whilst the former may well become repackaged and commoditized, the latter will maintain both an ontological and relational alternativity that may achieve a consistent effect of resistance, despite potential fluxes of signification.
Thus, it is with this predominantly neo-Marxian understanding that the Spracklens approach the evolution of Goth. It should perhaps come as little surprise, then, to see their account of gothic rock’s origin as the resultant synthesis of a dialectical materialist journey between questions of aestheticism and political sincerity and, with the Northern setting of so many first-generation bands e.g Salford’s Joy Division and the plethora of West Yorkshire bands including Skeletal Family, The Sisters of Mercy and The ((Southern) Death) Cult, between the eerie pastoral and heartlessness of industrialisation that characterizes so much of the background to the gothic tradition. However, as much as one may situate the gothic rock movement within Leeds, the Spracklens’ willingness to overlook the many aspects of the scene’s provenance located in the Midlands, the South and, indeed, parts of the world other than England does not only their investigation a great disservice, but the scene itself.
The Spracklens’ narrative voice shifting as regularly as it does from the academic to the journalistic to the anecdotal serves the approachability of the text well, but the lucidity and consistency of vision poorly in several regards, even with the aforementioned established framework. In “The Origin of the Goths,” the authors accept at a remarkable degree of face value Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy’s disavowal of a goth label – “If taking on this Nosferatu role on the stage were not real to us…how could it have been to the audience?” – commenting “they never wrote anything as cartoonishly grotesque as ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ again,” an assertion with which anyone familiar with “Stigmata Martyr” would contend hotly. And yet, The Sisters of Mercy’s frontman Andrew Eldritch’s similar protestations are duly noted, then discarded as “disingenuous,” while later still the Spracklens reach the conclusion that, since the mainstream believes Marilyn Manson to be goth, both Marilyn Manson and goths accept this to be so, despite both knowing it not to be true. Within all this, what is perhaps most notable of all in its absence from the discussion is the fact that such a large number of black-clad, pale-faced, kohl-smeared Fields of the Nephilim fans deny the label “goth” for themselves, goth denialism is in fact one of the most prevalent stereotypes and in-jokes of the scene.
Nevertheless, the Spracklens’ choice of The Sisters of Mercy as their only main case study for goth music – even if they are the band most defined by this aforementioned ”goth denialism” – is a sadly unoriginal and unhelpful one which betrays a regrettably myopic conception of Goth’s locus within the sub/cultural realm. The study’s conclusion, that The Sisters “were the most important band in the genesis and evolution of Goth, [perfecting] the sound and the look” suggests that the goth sound is best characterized by a repetitive verse-chorus-verse rock and roll structure employing a drum machine, bass-baritone male vocals and a black leather jacket dress style largely indistinguishable from that of Motörhead or the Ramones. The pattern that emerges is one that ultimately suggests the Spracklens’ knowledge of goth music being restricted almost entirely to the Leeds scene of the 1980s, and a general unwillingness to research further before writing The Evolution of Goth Culture. Absent is any meditation on the goth/shoegaze crossover known as ethereal wave that defined labels both sides of the Atlantic including 4AD and Projekt. Club genre EBM (“Electronic Body Music,” erroneously called “Electronic Beat Music” in Evolution) is given passing reference, with no artists mentioned, but instead mainstream metal bands such as Cradle of Filth are alleged to fill goth dancefloors, despite my never having experienced this in well over a decade of goth club attendance.
My criticism here is not to partake in a music trivia competition with the authors. Rather, it is to indicate the lines of inquiry not followed that would better address the breadth of investigation implied by the title. By representing Goth as a phenomenon that revolves almost solely around the most belt-and-braces examples of the ‘80s, who mostly dissolved into hard rock by the end of the decade, the Spracklens suggest that what and who constitutes “Goth” is today at the whim of the mainstream populace. Such a statement would bolster the authors’ rallying cry for Goth to return to its radical leftist roots, but the reality is both simpler and more complex than this. With regard to the former, the reality is that Goth never has been as rooted in radical politics of any wing as the authors suggest throughout Evolution.Indeed, the only evidence they seem to provide is that it came from post-punk, which is often typified by leftist principles and band names (Gang of Four, The Durutti Column). Regarding the latter, it is Goth’s paradoxical emphasis on the external, as well as questions of inner anguish that has allowed it to penetrate wider culture through aesthetic diffusion, from the long list of post-punk revival bands with Ian Curtis and Siouxsie impressionists on vocals (Editors, Savages), to techno producers sampling Birthday Party guitar licks (Regis, Surgeon), to the influence of goth fashion on designers including Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford.
Certainly, one of Evolution‘s best avenues of investigation is that of the goth chat forums, providing a detailed analysis of the rise and fall of goth.net and others. However, goth online presence is not simply discourse between consumers, but has been the space in which new creative forms have emerged: consider the “witch house” movement of c.2010, which not only combined goth, industrial, shoegaze and techno with hip-hop and trap, but also through so many artists’ use of special characters (e.g †‡† pronounced “Ritualz”), maintained, through practical un-searchability, a communicative alternativity between intimidatingly young bedroom producers across the globe. In these areas has the self-consciously parodic aspect to Goth developed away from the Sisters-style mean-spirited barbs at fans and former colleagues, and toward playful reappropriation of small-town moral panics against goths and metalheads in the 80s and 90s. Subsequent internet-based alternative genres, including “#seapunk” and vaporwave, have continued this parodic line into a more overt analysis of 80s conspicuous consumption, whilst also influencing popular culture at the level of Rihanna, and the widespread social media memeification of the idealised “goth gf” by those in no way connected with the scene as it exists today.
Goth Culture has evolved considerably further, and in many more directions than it seems the Spracklens have themselves realised, and may be argued to have finally developed the radical leftism they erroneously apply to its origin. Whilst The Evolution of Goth Culture is an astute collection of case studies, the extent to which its scope is limited to what I imagine are the authors’ personal interests (I notice they are Leeds based), at the expense of a detailed survey of the developments of Goth culture mean I cannot agree the book lives up to its title.