Notes Toward a Gorgon Politic: The Reptile, The Acéphale, and the Living Dead

Notes Toward a Gorgon Politic: The Reptile, The Acéphale, and the Living Dead

 

 

Abstract

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.

Keywords

monstrosity, necropolitics, violence, multiplicity, body politic

Introduction

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,[1] 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,”[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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?[5]

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. [6]

Bodies

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.”[7] 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,”[8] 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.[9] 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?”[10]  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”).[11] 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.”[12] 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.[13]

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.’”[14] 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.”[15] 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,”[16] but such (re)production cannot be simply described as “the establishment and maintenance of caesuras, not their abolition.”[17]

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.[18] 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.”[19]

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.”[20] 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)”[21] 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[22] 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.[23]

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.”[24] 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.”[25] 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.[26] 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.”[27]

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,”[28]  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[29] 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.”[30] 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.”[31] 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.[32]

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,”[33] 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.

night-of-the-living-dead_03

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,[34] 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.”[35] 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.[36]

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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,[37] 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.[38]  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,”[39] the revelation of which eventually induces an ecstatic state of enlightened jouissance.[40] 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.[41] 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.”[42] 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.”[43]

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.[44] However, the device’s disrepair gruesomely frustrates the Officer’s desire for “exquisite torture,” “not writing, it was only jabbing.”[45] 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.”[46] 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.”[47] 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.[48]

Let us return to Primo Levi’s initial description of the Muselmänner: those who saw the Gorgon…the complete witnesses.[49] 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.”[50] 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.[51] 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.”[52]

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.”[53] 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.[54] 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.[55]

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.”[56] 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.”[57]

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.[58] 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,[59] 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.[60]

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.”[61] 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.”[62] 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.”[63] 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.”[64] 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.’”[65] 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.”[66]

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.”[67] 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.[68]

large.Acephale_FP.jpg.9052211563ee07f3648774550c0a7433

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[69] 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.[70]

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.[71] 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.”[72] 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.”[73] 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.”[74] 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,”[75] 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.”[76]

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.[77] 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.[78]

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.[79] 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.[80]

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.”[81] 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.”[82] 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.”[83]

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.[84] 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;[85] 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.”[86] 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.[87]

fdfe4dc2a2845aa3f87ca52b3e97b895_L

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.[88] 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”[89] 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.”[90]

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.[91] 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.[92]

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.[93] 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.”[94] 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,”[95] 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.[96]

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.

 

 

Coda

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[97]

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.

Screenshot (434)

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.

Jean_Léon_Gerome_1896_La_Vérité_sortant_du_puits

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.”[98] 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.”[99] 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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Footnotes

[1] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2015): 1.

[2] Butler, Theory of Assembly, 8.

[3] Ibid.

[4] 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.

[5] Hilary Malatino, “Biohacking Gender: Cyborgs, Coloniality, and the Pharmacopornographic Era,” Angelaki 22 no.2 (June, 2017): 185.

[6] 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.

[7] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal, (New York City: Summit, 1988): 83-84.

[8] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, (New York City: Zone Books, 1999): 45.

[9] Wade Davis, “The Frontiers of Death,” The Serpent and the Rainbow, (New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1985), EPUB.

[10] Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014): 55.

[11] Weheliye, Habeas Viscus, 56.

[12] Butler, Theory of Assembly, 28.

[13] Butler, Theory of Assembly, 31.

[14] Agamben, Remnants, 45.

[15] Weheliye, Habeas Viscus, 54.

[16] Weheliye, Habeas Viscus, 55.

[17] Weheliye, Habeas Viscus, 56.

[18] Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15 no.1 (Winter, 2003): 24.

[19] Ibid.

[20] 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.

[21] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and its Metaphors, (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1990): 63.

[22] Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 74.

[23] Daniel, “Corpsepaint as Necro-Minstrelsy,” 43-44.

[24] William B. Seabrook, The Magic Island, (New York City: The Literary Guild of America, 1929): 93.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox, (New York City: Grove Press, 1963): 17-18.

[27] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 19.

[28] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 20.

[29] Kyle Bishop, “The Sub-Subaltern Monster: Imperialist Hegemony and the Cinematic Voodoo Zombie,” The Journal of American Culture 31, no.2 (2008): 144.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Bishop, “The Sub-Subaltern Monster,” 149.

[32] Bishop, “The Sub-Subaltern Monster,” 145-146.

[33] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 19.

[34] As one who first saw the film in Britain, I shall henceforth be using this title.

[35] Simone Brioni, “Zombies and the Post-Colonial Italian Unconscious: Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2,” Cinergie: il Cinema e le Altre Arti no. 4 (November, 2013): 169.

[36] Daniel, “Corpsepaint as Necro-Minstrelsy,” 44.

[37] Brioni, “Zombies,” 167.

[38] Franz Kafka, Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, (New York City: Random House, 1993): 96.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” 104.

[41] Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” 96.

[42] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, (New York City: Random House, 1978): 135.

[43] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998): 15.

[44] Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” 119.

[45] Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” 125.

[46] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 23.

[47] Seloua Luste Boulbina, Kafka’s Monkey and Other Phantoms of Africa, (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2019): 5.

[48] Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” 127.

[49] Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 83-84.

[50] Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, trans. William McCuaig, (New York City: Columbia University Press, 2011): 15.

[51] Agamben, Remnants, 50.

[52] Agamben, Remnants, 51.

[53] Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 53.

[54] Georges Bataille, “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice,” 12.

[55] Bataille, “Hegel,” 17.

[56] Mbeme, “Necropolitics,” 16.

[57] Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol.1, 3.

[58] Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 24.

[59] Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan, (London: Tavistock, 1977): 2.

[60] Cavarero, Horrorism, 16.

[61] Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, (London: Repeater, 2017): 11-12.

[62] Eugene Thacker, “Thing and No-Thing,” And They Were Two in One and One in Two, 12.

[63] Thacker, “Thing and No-Thing,” 15.

[64] Bataille, “Hegel,” 18.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Thacker, “Thing and No-Thing,” 16.

[67] 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.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley, (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988): 18-19.

[70] Patricia McCormack, “The Queer Ethics of Monstrosity,” 257.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Regina Janes, “Beheadings,” Representations 35 Special Issue: Monumental Histories (Summer, 1991): 30.

[73] Janes, “Beheadings,” 28.

[74] Janes, “Beheadings,” 29.

[75] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York City: Vintage Books, 1995): 200.

[76] Janes, “Beheadings,” 32.

[77] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 202.

[78] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 200-202.

[79] Michel Foucault, “Lecture Eleven: 17 March 1976,” “Society Must Be Defended:” Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, trans. David Macey, (New York City: Picador, 2003): 244.

[80] Janes, “Beheadings,” 32-33.

[81] Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 19.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Butler, Theory of Assembly, 3.

[84] Janes, “Beheadings,” 25.

[85] Thacker, “Thing and No-Thing,” 12.

[86] Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, 245.

[87] Elizabeth Sandifer, Neoreaction a Basilisk: Essays On and Around the Alt-Right, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018): 38-40, EPUB.

[88] Sandifer, Neoreaction a Basilisk, 75.

[89] Sandifer, Neoreaction a Basilisk, 71.

[90] Nick Land, “A Dirty Joke,” Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, eds. Robin Mackay and Ray Brassier, (Kings Lynn: Sequence/Urbanomic, 2012): 629.

[91] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, (London and New York City: Continuum, 2004): 3.

[92] Land, “A Dirty Joke,” 630.

[93] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 311.

[94] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1994): 51.

[95] Alan Watts, “Myth of Myself,” Alan Watts, last accessed 10th December 2019, https://www.alanwatts.org/1-1-7-myth-of-myself-pt-1/

[96] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 272-273.

[97] Lingua Ignota, “DO YOU DOUBT ME TRAITOR,” Caligula, Profound Lore, 2019.

[98] Lingua Ignota, “FUCKING DEATHDEALER,” Caligula, Profound Lore, 2019.

[99] Helen Hester, Xenofeminism, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018): 97-98.

“I Have Found Another Form of Prayer”: Tensions and Resolutions Between Univocity and Apophasis in “First Reformed”

 

(Given at 42nd Annual Implicit Religion conference “Religion and the Encounter” at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK 19/05/19)

 

The purpose of this paper is not necessarily to ascribe any individual theological position to any of First Reformed’s protagonists, nor indeed to speculate on Paul Schrader’s own convictions in writing and making the film. Perhaps the subtitle would be better phrased, “tensions and resolutions between univocity and apophasis in watching First Reformed.” Either way, however, I wish to present a list of reflections upon two philosophies, associated with religion, that routinely have struck me each time I watch what I consider to be one of the greatest films of 2018 and, indeed, recent years.

First Reformed follows Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), pastor of the woefully unattended First Reformed church in the fictional Upstate New York town of Snowbridge, once a crucial stop on the underground railroad, now a decorative subsidiary of the exceedingly affluent Abundant Life megachurch, pejoratively dubbed “the souvenir shop.” Toller is approached by the heavily pregnant congregate Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asking him to counsel her husband, eco-activist Michael (Philip Ettinger), whose despondency over Planet Earth’s damoclean status has him compelling Mary to have an abortion. Although Toller comes the next day to comfort Michael, they engage in something more akin to a Socratic dialogue, in which Toller feels spiritually invigorated for the first time in recent memory, alluding to the adage that wisdom – if not life itself – is defined by the ability to hold the oppositional concepts of hope and despair in one’s mind and heart simultaneously, insisting that “a life without despair is a life without hope.” He reveals that his placement as the pastor of First Reformed was something of an act of charity bestowed upon him by Abundant Life, after encouraging his son to enlist in the Iraq War resulted in the rapid end of his son’s life, his marriage, and his role as a military chaplain. Accordingly, it seems his entire spiritual life is defined by despair, which he himself must interpret as holding hope implicitly, even if never explicitly. Later, after Michael presumably realises Mary and Toller have discovered he is in possession of a suicide vest, he arranges another meeting with Toller, at which point he is discovered, dead. Toller, realising Abundant Life has a close relationship with one of the biggest local polluters against whom Michael fought, inherits Michael’s impassioned cause, and his suicide vest.

Toller’s primary spiritual inspiration, as evidenced in conversation and visible books by his bedside, is the image of modern mystic Thomas Merton, one who observed that, for many, “Christian social action is not Christian in itself, but only because it is a kind of escalator to unworldliness and devotion. This is because we apparently cannot conceive material and worldly things seriously as having any capacity to be ‘spiritual.’ But Christian social action, on the contrary, conceives man’s work itself as a spiritual reality.” Stephen P. Millies continues this thought: “By blurring the distinction between the worldly and unworldly, and in joining action essentially to contemplation, Merton urges us to recognise the possibility of sanctity within the temporal and profane.” (Contemplative Citizenship). Here is established a conference of the spiritual to the material in such a way that we begin to see met the founding premise of the univocity of being, starting with St John Duns Scotus’ initial suggestion that the transcendentality of God is not as such that the respective finite / infinite distinction between humankind and God is enough to discount a shared concept of being between the two. For Spinoza, this concept of univocity speaks to a substantial oneness, which may be termed “nature,” or indeed “God,” whilst for Deleuze, the univocal being is the process of being, defined as Difference.

Aside from Merton’s A Life in Letters, also on Toller’s bedside is, unremarkably, a copy of The Bible, a copy of Heretics by G.K Chesterton, which one may interpret as a reasonable companion to Merton, encouraging direct action, but also the anonymously written The Cloud of Unknowing: one of the most iconic examples of apophatic mystical theology in the Christian tradition.

It is not through any New Atheistic cynicism that – during his debate with Toller – Michael, described by Mary as being effectively irreligious, asks Ernst “will God forgive us?” Rather, his position appears directed by Spinozist ethics and, accordingly, his experience of the death of the planet is his experience of the death of God, at such an intensity that the Earth’s vulnerability and rapid decline implies a longer and, for a priest, more troubling question: “will God be able to forgive us?” As Zachary Holbrook notes:

Though Michael clearly respects Toller’s history and integrity, he gives no indication of sharing the pastor’s faith. But his fervor for his cause is virtually religious, and the implicit materialist theology of the environmental movement is the greatest non-point source of his spiritual pollution. The detailed predictions of coming doom resemble nothing so much as a fundamentalist tribulation timeline. With no vision of a life after death, this worldview denying even a symbolic “eternal life” of offspring to inherit one’s legacy, how can we hope beyond the urgency of the moment? (Toxic Environments..)

I must, however, suggest that Michael’s position on “life after death” is more complex than having, as Holbrook describes “no vision” of one. Although his argument is drowned out by Toller’s overhead narration, we can interpret Michael as truthful when he replies affirmatively that he does believe in “a next life;” he nevertheless understands it not in terms of Heaven, but in terms of a transformed Earth. The looming imposition of environmental crisis establishes a potential new timeline, creating a new concept of afterlife: a state of radically altered relation between modes and substance. An existence, definitively divorced from potentially all prerequisites for that existence.

For Toller, the act of writing – not simply the words themselves, but the inflections, penmanship and deletions, are the first “form of prayer” indicated in First Reformed. His plan to destroy the diary after a year solidifies the immanent, material manifestation of communion and, in so doing, confers to it a physical vulnerability. A to-be-destroyed-ness. This process of making one’s mark upon a text, before finally burning it, is – as well as Toller’s first “form of prayer” – a clear parable for humankind’s relationship with the planet Earth itself. Indeed, we can see this reflected – for better or worse – most directly in Aronofsky’s mother! in which Bardem’s deistic patriarch is an author, whose creation always ultimately meets a conflagratory demise. Here, the silent image of God rests within the implied avatar, the constructed recipient “Dear Diary,” absent and yet made present through the act of writing: a book is made into a diary, and the diary acts as reader, confessor, God defined by its lack of response. A little later, Toller remarks how “the desire to pray is a type of prayer.” Whilst, certainly, the act of trying to pray is routinely described thus, particularly in twelve-step programs (membership of which Toller would certainly be a candidate), which find themselves with the task of encouraging spiritual awakening in the previously atheistic and hopeless, Toller’s desire to pray can be understood primarily in psychoanalytical terms, in which desire is defined as lack. Accordingly, the state of spiritual muteness, even absence, is one shared both by Toller and his conception of God.

Toller’s appeal to Michael for the birth of his unborn child is to describe it as “something alive in Mary; as alive as a tree, surely.” We may understand the image of the child, the tree, the planet, the diary, the First Reformed church, God itself as sharing the position of that which should, in common discourse, vastly outlive the protagonists, if not exist forever, and yet are being immediately imperiled. There is theological precedent for a certain univocity of entropy, of course: Philipp Mainländer’s Philosophy of Redemption. Mainländer’s premise is that humanity, if not all existence, is or shall be defined through a “Will-to-die,” transferred to us by a suicidal God, whose self-annihilation may be interpreted as the Big Bang itself, as Thomas Ligotti’s remarks:

In Mainländer’s philosophy, “God knew that he could change from a state of super-reality into non-being only through the development of a real world of multiformity.” Employing this strategy, He excluded Himself from being. “God is dead,” wrote Mainländer, “and His death was the life of the world.” Once the great individuation had been initiated, the momentum of its creator’s self-annihilation would continue until everything became exhausted by its own existence, which for human beings meant that the faster they learned that happiness was not as good as they thought it would be, the happier they would be to die out. (Conspiracy Against the Human Race, p.36)

Here, all the world is defined through the action of a deistic substance; however, rather than a classically Spinozist substance defined through a vitalistic ontology, the Gertrude Stein-esque mise-en-abyme of I Am That I Am, we approach instead I Am Not That I Am Not, or perhaps I Am Undone That I Am Undone. The process toward nonexistence is the shared differential status of substance: a univocity of nothing. Nothing as a verb.

I Am Not That I Am Not is a reasonable approximate description of God’s existence within the apophatic mystical tradition that perceives Its transcendence as one that can only be philosophically approached through a process of negation, discounting It so much from conventional mortal perception, that It may only be described in terms of darkness, emptiness and nothingness. Whilst there are many celebrated texts in this tradition, I shall focus here on St John of the Cross’ The Dark Night series, in which he asks and answers the to-be-expected question: “why, if it is a divine light…does one call it a ‘dark night’?” The response to which is twofold: “First, because of the height of divine wisdom, which exceeds the capacity of the soul. Second, because of the soul’s baseness and impurity; and on this account the wisdom is painful, afflictive, and also dark for the soul.” (In the Dust of This Planet, 136). Accordingly, there are two types of darkness experienced simultaneously: the first is one on account of the light, the understanding of God to be too great for human conception, leaving only negative space. The second is the darkness of human existence, rendered all the baser in comparison, via its proximity to God’s light, even if that light is rendered dark in its unintelligibility.

Returning to Michael’s question: “will God forgive us?” As Toller himself does, multiple times during the film, repeating the question in person to his superiors, and writing it on the billboard outside the church, presumably indicating the theme of what may be his final sermon. His answer to Michael initially is a predictable “who can know the mind of God?” However, we should consider that Toller, in being so shocked by Michael’s suicide, cannot be said to know the mind of Man, either. This is not to denigrate Toller’s perception; rather it is to note that humankind may share with God certain degrees of imperceptibility. Here is where we may perceive the first focal point at which questions of univocity and apophasis meet: within the frame of postmodern philosophical thought, in which the concept of human nature is distinctly compromised, the darkness on of God’s divine intangibility may also in fact bleed through into the darkness of Man’s baseness. Accordingly, this encounter with death – perhaps crucially, reminiscent of Mainländer’s hypothesis – is the first significantly spiritual moment of First Reformed. Encountering Michael’s body is to encounter physical manifestation of the univocal unknowability of God/Man – an encounter that induces Toller later to remark to Mary his belief that Michael “was standing on holy ground when he died.” Moses and the burning bush are connected. The suicide vest becomes the religious fetish, not as such that it may manifest conviction / belief as it does for the traditionally conceived suicide bomber, but rather as the manifestation of nothing as an un/doing – the obliteration of the container of the base darkness, and its elevation to a higher darkness. Annihilation becomes the religious act, the spiritual encounter. As Toller straps on the vest, he remarks “I have found another form of prayer.”