In Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Celine vividly describes the body as a site of struggle against its own tendency toward disintegration. The doctor Baryton reflects, “You know, don’t you, what families are; it is impossible to make a family see that a man, whether he’s a relation of theirs or not, is nothing but an arrested putrescence.” (Celine, 425) In an earlier passage Baryton distractedly loses the thread of a priest’s words as he examines his pyorrhea-encrusted mouth cavity, thinking to himself:
All our unhappiness is due to having to remain Tom, Dick and Harry, cost what it may, throughout a whole series of years. The bodies we possess, a fancy dress of twitching, trivial molecules, revolt unceasingly against the frightful farce of managing to last. They want to be cut off, these molecules of ours, and lose themselves as quick as they can, in the universe at large: little beauties! They hate just being us, mere cuckolds of the Infinite! We’d burst to smithereens if we’d had the guts, from one day to the next we only just fail to. Our darling agony is there, in atoms, enclosed within our hides, along with our pride.(Celine, 334-5)
Given this entropic tendency, medical discourse has a need to create stable visual sources in order to study the flux of the body’s dying tissue, to annex it as a static image for a regime of knowledge reliant on visibility. One such archive is the set of anatomical photographs known as the Visible Human Project. This database is derived from the corpse donated to science by Joseph Paul Jernigan prior to his receiving lethal injections in 1993 by the state of Texas for a break-in robbery and murder. Immediately after his death, his corpse was deep frozen and shaved away in ultra thin cross sections and photographed at each step of the process.
Through its incremental destruction, Jernigan’s entire body was systematically transformed into an image. Its hidden strata became a series of surfaces. One of the groundbreaking features of the Visible Human Project was that a fresh, intact corpse was used, as opposed to a cadaver, which would tend to deteriorate and undergo chemical changes as a result of its storage in formaldehyde. This archive on the other hand is eternally fresh and bright, like living tissue, and also incidentally, like the victims in Sade’s writings: eternally available as a docile instrument subject to limitlessly renewed manipulation.
The desire to preserve the body – and most of all the sovereign’s – from the ravages of time was a prominent theme in ancient Egyptian art. This tradition represents bodies separated from the disorder of their surroundings in order to constitute a structured environment. Time and space were seen as corrupting influences. Relative distance from the eye of objects and the play of light against shadow were thought to confuse and obstruct clarity of vision. Regular, stylized forms avoid the unpredictable, contingent aspects of organic shapes and phenomenological space. The figure is treated in Egyptian art as a ‘being’ removed from and as opposed to the flux of ‘becoming’. (Bogue, 142-145)
This preservation of the pharaoh’s body in a virtual space parallels that of Jernigan’s body in the Visible Human Project. In the separations of time and place that divide these two examples, however, we can sense a regime change, a turn of events described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish and The Birth of the Clinic. The modern subject in the form of the patient, the prisoner, the “client” is scrutinized, preserved, and made virtual. In this case, a diffuse power is located behind the gaze, rather than displayed gloriously before it. For Foucault, modern science brought with it an intensified role of visual evidence in the production of knowledge. In order to create sciences of life, the body as object of knowledge passes through death. In halting its processes, clarity could emerge from the obscurities of the living body. (Jay, 392-395)
To serve the ideal of visible clarity and preservation of the body, both Egyptian art and the cross-sectional photographs of the medical specimen deploy a flat use of space. Though other views of Jernigan’s corpse can be reconstructed digitally (rotation in three-dimensional space of organs, or travel through blood vessels in a flight simulator mode, etc), the Visible Human data in its raw form has been photographed as a series of planes as if recorded using a flatbed scanner.
Art historian Alois Riegl has termed the particular way flattened space is deployed in Egyptian art “haptic space,” as opposed to “optic space,” the latter applying to the deeper volumes beginning with depictions in late Roman art with its receding voids and use of foreshortening. Haptic space engages what Riegl calls nahsichtig (“near-seeing”). Every part of the image has been brought up to the picture plane, as one would sense the surface of a tactile object with the hand. All points in the image occupy the same slim range of focus. Consciousness is not located opposite a vanishing point relative to the image, like an eye receiving light rays from points in an outer world, so much as spread out over its surface. It is as if various touched points were assembled to produce an image. There are no shadows to create depth or ambiguity about the boundaries of forms. Haptic space is acquisitive, it converts “there” into “here.” (Bogue, 136 -141)
Paralleling Foucault’s description, Jacques-Alain Miller described the Panopticon’s cells in the following terms: “The enclosed space lacks depth; it is spread out and open to a single solitary central eye. It is bathed in light. Nothing and no one can be hidden inside it – except the gaze itself, the invisible omni-voyeur. Surveillance confiscates the gaze for its own profit, appropriates it, and submits the inmate to it.” (Jay, 382) Bentham’s panopticon was thought of in its time as analogous to Rousseau’s ideal of absolute transparency of social relations, visible and legible in their parts. (Jay, 411)
Like that of the medical gaze, the ideal for this penal system is a kind of nakedness, a complete exposure. The prisoner is potentially available for viewing at all times and is aware of this fact, but cannot see into the narrow window of the watchtower or know the exact time of surveillance, which therefore becomes all the more anxiety producing. The gaze embodied by the small window and the exposed backlit cell become parts of an internalized regulatory machine for producing a disciplined subjectivity along with asymmetrical relations of power where the soul becomes the “prison of the body,” as Foucault put it.
The analysis of this scopic regime bears comparison with Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of “facialization.” They construct a notion of the face as a flat surface perforated with holes. This flattened, reduced reality, lacks the multidimensional complexity and polyvalence of the body’s heterogeneously interconnected workings. The “abstract machine” of faciality compresses heads
into images. (Bogue, 92) Facialization extends over the body and landscape beyond any resemblance to the human face itself and is coextensive with a system for codifying surfaces treated as homogenous. This provides an atmospheric coherence that reinforces a specific order of signs. Particular faces of different speakers and their changing expressions accompany speech and supplement another layer of meaning to spoken discourse, though not reducible to it. Facialized objects – ATM interfaces, clock faces, etc.- are caught up in these systematic realtions. The face- landscape provides a framework for acts that can be recognized as meaningful and coordinates arrangements of forces and bodies. (Bogue, 81-86)
Like the Panopticon’s central tower, the abstract machine underlying the face-landscape consists at its most basic level of a white wall with black holes. The white wall is the integrated system of meanings and significations that make surfaces legible through a “despotic” imposition of meaning, an overcoding. The black holes in the white wall are passional absorbing points of subjectification. They move across and interpret the white wall and become sites for the installation of the gaze in the landscape that halts and arrests the eye. (Bogue 86-99)
One possible way we might respond to this visual regime is through what Foucault calls heterotopias: incongruous arrangements of space that threaten imagined coherence. (Jay, 413) “Heterotopia” is also a medical term used to refer to “the displacement of an organ or other body part to an abnormal location”, or “the displacement of gray matter, usually into the deep cerebral white matter.” (The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary)
The subjective dynamic of the Panopticon can be compared to the carnival freak show, for instance. Here the gaze is again fascinated by an object set aside as distinct from the rest of the world. In this case, however the gaze experiences an anomalous perception that it has trouble integrating into its systematic coding of visions. It is experienced as obscene and disturbing, and any pretense to scientific objectivity or the reform and betterment of humanity are absent. There is an ambiguity and a certain lack of access and frustration inherent in this space, which is often darkened and obscure and leaves the viewer suspicious of trickery and illusion, as it appears early in the narrative of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.
We can consider Lynch’s film and H. P. Lovecraft’s story, “The Call of Cthulhu” as two narratives which feature irregular, heterotopic bodies and center around themes of imprisonment and escape. Lynch’s film describes the monstrous body in a process of becoming a domesticated human body, a subject. The figure gradually comes to be viewed as a subject with a name, John Merrick. In the pulp horror tale by Lovecraft on the other hand, the mollusk- headed Cthulhu remains frighteningly inhuman and radically Other, bearing a form of sentience inaccessible or even harmful to human subjectivity. It occupies some zone of indeterminacy between animal, human, and god.
Themes of containment, exile and imprisonment shape Lynch’s narrative throughout the film. There is a tendency to eject Merrick’s body from every place it occupies. Local police exile the carnival show he is featured in, forcing it to keep moving from city to city. Merrick’s presence even in the hospital is controversial, and certain factions seek to have him transferred elsewhere, recognizing the potential for a perverse enjoyment his presence elicits that is perhaps too direct an evocation of the carnivalesque that must be disavowed and veiled for everyday clinical practice to function smoothly.
The Elephant Man’s bodily form is treated as an obscenity, as an unassimilable excess beyond the state of 19th-century clinical medicine. In this sense, Treves, played by Anthony Hopkins, is the cutting edge of his own field, an experimental outlier. The scientist as acquisitive hunter presents itself as a dilemma that Treves struggles with. He engages in a power struggle with the carnival barker over custody of the monstrosity. Treve’s medical gaze sees aberrant bodies as opportunities to gain medical recognition. His professional interest brings him uncomfortably close
to the position of the carny, revealing a hidden stratum of jouissance. He reproaches himself in the same way as his double – that he profits off of the misery of another.
Like Oedipus at Colonus, deformed both by self-inflicted blindness and a swollen club foot, Merrick seems condemned to a life apart from the human community while still exuding a contradictory pressure of attraction. The body of Merrick seems to carry a magnetic pull so intense that he must travel cloaked lest his presence provoke mass violence. Even this seems ineffective in a scene where his hood is pulled off in a harrowing trip through the labyrinthine bowels of London’s subway system. Persecuted by a growing mob, his panicked and humiliating journey ends with Merrick cornered by the crowd in a bathroom stall. He is funneled by a kind of mass psychogeographic free-association to a place of excrement, a volatile zone composed of attraction and repulsion. At the moment of his safe return to custody at the hospital, he whispers finally “I’m free.” His permanent confinement to the tower there is comforting. Being subject to symbolic law, having a circumscribed place and name is freedom for Merrick while the world at large is its terrifying lack.
One recurring image of the alien in science fiction and horror is of a creature dragging its entrails along outside of its center, an inside-out body one cannot make head or tail of. It not only shambles awkwardly along, but is itself a “shambles” in the sense of the detritus of a butcher’s shop. Yet it is precisely in the opposite sense that Lacan locates the concept of “alienation” in his discussion of the mirror stage. This can be briefly summed up as follows:
Though still in a state of powerlessness and motor incoordination, the infant anticipates on an imaginary plane the apprehension and mastery of its bodily unity. This imaginary unification comes about by means of identification with the image of the counterpart as total Gestalt: it is exemplified concretely by the experience in which the child perceives its own reflection in a mirror. […] it is obvious that from this point of view the subject cannot be equated with the ego, since the latter is an imaginary agency in which the subject tends to become alienated. […] This approach might be compared with Freud’s own views on the transition from auto-erotism – which precedes the formation of an ego – to narcissism proper: What Lacan calls the phantasy of the ‘body-in-pieces’ (le corps morcele) would thus correspond to the former stage, while the mirror stage would correspond to the onset of primary narcissism. There is one important difference, however: Lacan sees the mirror phase as responsible, retroactively, for the emergence of the phantasy of the body-in-pieces. (Laplanche and Pontalis, 250-252)
Hence, the “alien” for Lacan refers to the “normal,” ideal image of the human body. It is through identification with this image that the subject’s identification with images – in this case it’s own image presented in the mirror as other- first takes place. Yet something about the corps morcele and the heterotopic body exert an uncanny fascination and fantasy power for the subject, despite its abjection from the ideal-ego.
Merrick’s body-image is stuck at the level of the corps morcele and lacks the capability for comparison to a specular double with which he could form a rivalrous aggressivity toward or be alienated in as a first step in a path of subjectification. His appearance is instead an abject formlessness. He can’t bear his own reflection any more than others can, because it suggests nothing that can visually anticipate a coordinated organic whole. The intervention in the symbolic register by Treves, the “good doctor,” creates a place for Merrick that offers a possibility of ending his torment. Treves concentrates on training Merrick in the capacity for legible speech to emerge from his ruined mouth. For pleasure, Merrick builds models of the ordered, angular, Gothic church he can see from
his window, which becomes an abstract supplement for his lack of a bodily ideal-ego. Like a neurotic symptom, the hospital for Merrick functions ambivalently as both an immobilizing fetter and as defensive against anxiety.
Merrick’s comfort is only ever half-realized. He can only sleep in a cramped upright position. His nightmares are plagued by a primal scene of his mother being trampled by stampeding elephants, a fantasy that he was either conceived this way or damaged in the womb. Merrick’s violent dreams find a symptomatic analog in the subway chase when he accidentally knocks over a young girl. She screams exactly like his mother during the elephant dream, head swinging from left to right, disturbed as much by his appearance as by the shock of the fall. Despite his monstrosity, Merrick strives toward a “normal” humanity. Through care and training, a human voice emerges from this formlessness for Treves and a few other sympathetic friends.
While this story follows a trajectory of assumption of humanizing subjectivity, there is no assimilation in “The Call of Cthulhu”. Like Merrick’s unveiled body, the mere sight of even a replica of the monster drives rational subjects to madness, unleashing dangerous forces. While Merrick ultimately desires death and sound sleep by the end of the film, Cthulhu begins the story dormant and dreaming. Its desire is to awaken and wreak havoc on the Earth. Unlike Merrick, whose “confinement” is recast as a welcome realization of the only home in the symbolic order he can find, Cthulhu restlessly dreams of the day when it will emerge into the surface world, unveiling itself.
Lovecraft’s narrator, reflecting the author’s own well-known anxieties regarding human ‘otherness’ and the mixing of races, describes the cultists who worship the monster as “half caste” or “mongrel.” They are portrayed as having no fixed, clearly defined place in a particular, distinct culture or symbolic framework, confounding supposedly fixed differences. Their bodies are depicted as vessels for heretical forces occupying heterotopic spaces. Cthulhu’s followers obsessively chant signifiers of a “meaningless” dead language, described as “howls and squawking ecstasies,” (Lovecraft, 193) yet producing an uncanny effect in the listener.
For Freud, “uncanny” phenomena were precisely ones in which we do in fact recognize ourselves. Instances of the uncanny for the subject point to “the working of forces he’s dimly aware of in a remote corner of his own being.” (Freud, 49) The prefix “un” in unheimlich is the work of negation, an index of repression at work. (Freud, 51) So, reading into Lovecraft’s own anxieties, one senses the contours of a fantasy – for the author both frightening and yet fascinating enough to sustain an entire lifelong body of fiction – a reactionary logic of slippery slope from the less radical alterity existing between human cultures toward a more threatening and extreme alterity of sublime inhuman chaos.
Linguistically anomalous, the name “Cthulhu” itself was conceived by Lovecraft “to represent a fumbling human attempt to catch the phonetics of an absolutely non-human word.” (Lovecraft, 177, note 11, italics his) The otherworldly being makes a “nasty slopping sound,” (Lovecraft, 213) not unlike Merrick’s slurping lisp, and both conjure up an image immediately resonant with Freud’s dream of “Irma’s Injection” in The Interpretation of Dreams, as well as Celine’s image of the mouth of the priest. The horrifying palpitating mass of the throat’s internal anatomy can produce speech, but this same speech can conversely slide into formless delirium and guttural noises.
The monstrous body functions as an object of desire in both narratives we’ve been examining. On the one hand, cultists in Lovecraft’s story attempt to free the monster from its underwater prison. They worship the tentacled being in hopes that someday “the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.” (Lovecraft, 198) What is unknown also becomes a fascinating lure to the scientific gaze. The irrational, the chaotic, the aberrant, become challenges to decipher. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” a mysterious statuette found by anthropologists from an unknown culture becomes the subject of intense scientific debate. What is this thing? Where did it come from? How can it be pinned to faciality’s white wall of signification? The detective work of the curious investigator follows the elusive monstrous lure across the globe. The paths of police detectives investigating cult murders intersect with those of researchers. The monstrous body functions as gristle, the connective tissue between different disciplines and social zones.
In Lovecraft’s work, artists and poets are particularly susceptible to the pull of the formless. The story begins with an anecdote of the narrator’s uncle meeting a young sculptor who has modeled a clay image of the squid-like god during his sleep, a sculpture uncannily close to the one found by anthropologists. The reference to surrealist automatic methods here is unmistakable.
In terms of aesthetics, the idea of the sublime plays a central role in “The Call of Cthulhu”. Lovecraft opens his tale with the following:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.(Lovecraft, 173-4)
Elsewhere, he writes:
All my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large…To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.(Josh and Schultz, 51)
Here the line between horror and awe is almost indistinguishable. In a similar conception of the sublime, Bataille elaborates in the short essay “The Formless,” the swirling galaxies of the cosmos are compared to a “gob of spittle” or “the kind of vermin that is accorded no rights and crushed underfoot”. (Bataille, Visions 31) Both Bataille and Lovecraft use boneless invertebrates and liquid putrescence as images of sublime, inhuman nature, “the Sacred” as Bataille would name it. In both of these authors the sense of compatibility with ‘normal’ neurotic subjectivity that still adheres to characters like Lynch’s Elephant Man is notably absent. The formless maintains its opposition both to imaginary identification and to humanistic ideas of individual subjectivity, ambivalently both lowly and sacred, vermin and god.
For Lacan, “the sublime quality of an object is […] not due to any intrinsic property of the object itself, but simply an effect of the object’s position in the symbolic structure of fantasy. To be more specific, sublimation relocates an object in the position of the Thing.” For Lacan, sublimation is linked to the death drive, because “the sublime object, being elevated to the dignity of the Thing, exerts a fascination which leads ultimately to death and destruction” (at least viewed in terms of a normalizing ego-ideal). (Evans, 199)
Related to Kant’s noumenon/Thing-in-itself, Lacan’s ‘la chose’ is outside of signification. It is impossible to sustain unmediated contact with the Thing. The subject always deals, even in the unconscious, with what Freud termed Sachvorstellungen (thing-presentations) and Wortsvorstellungen (word-presentations). The pleasure principle keeps the subject at a certain distance from the real, maintaining a comfortable gap which a direct plunge toward jouissance would disturb. (Evans, 205)
Lacan locates the real not simply as existing independently of the symbolic and imaginary as a lost origin, but as a retroactive effect created by the impasses of the symbolic itself. He made frequent references to the lack Bertrand Russel spoke about regarding any contextual meaning or truth being able to be expressed by pure mathematics and logic. Of Kant, Lacan says, “some faint sense may have emerged by tangential illumination from the aforementioned “critiques‟ of pure reason, and of judgement (as regards practical reason, I have said how playful it is by putting it on the side of Sade, (who is not any funnier, but logical), – therefore once their sense dawns, Kant’s maxims no longer have any meaning.” (Lacan, l’Étourdit, 11-12))
For Lacan, the impasses of the symbolic lead not onto a reassuring understanding, but to a sublime real disruptive of any metaphoric quilting points that would temporarily halt the churning of the impossible which never stops being written. He uses Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, the set- theoretical work of Cantor, and topologies like those of the Klein bottle and cross-cap that fly in the face of the Platonic appreciation of the “good forms” of the sphere with its clearly bounded inside vs. outside, and single, central focal point. He warns that even images that help us visualize these topological structures are in danger of becoming imaginary lures away from pure algebraic writing that suggests the dead languages of Lovecraft’s Old Ones opening onto inhuman vistas in n- dimensional planes. It is only through writing that Lovecraft can point to the “Color out of Space” that does not occupy any discernible point on the spectrum visible to human eyes and is impossible to depict.
With this in mind, the imaginary register is still inextricably knotted up with the real and symbolic around an impossible, absent object. Returning to Egyptian art and the Visible Human Project, we can say that they share a similar libidinal economy with regard to their Thing. Their practices attempt to preserve selected visible features of metamorphic processes of life and death in an acquisitive, haptic space, guarding them against decay and change. Even Cthulhu, despite its mollusk head and bloated body topped with useless batlike wings still has a vaguely anthropomorphic form. It is merely a representative of mysterious “Old Ones” who are neither living nor dead, and not in fact even composed of matter. Cthulhu is only a manifestation, an imprint of the passage of these forces through matter.
If the real is what disrupts speech and that pure writing opens onto, visual art can have a particular relation with this dimension in regard to the face-landscape. Discussed in relation to the painting of Francis Bacon, for Deleuze, artists can launch “probe heads” as creative personas or alter egos that plunge into slices of chaos as “what if ventures.” These are experimental assemblages that “pierce the walls of significance and gush forth from the holes of subjectivity.” Probe heads have a metamorphic (as opposed to metaphoric) potential to deterritorialize the face- landscape toward regions of the asignifying, the asubjective, the faceless. (Bogue, 108-9, 174)
At the same time as pursuing practical ends in a regime of scopic power, medical techniques inadvertently open up ludic, speculative spaces. Games such as the Surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse, or the Dada practice of collage often rely on anatomy as a source to create shattered mirrors for subjectivities to revel in their own fragmentation. Dada collage treats the pictorial space as speculative – an altered state. These images are the product of an engagement with an already coded landscape rather than a fantasized return to a state before language. The results exist as traces of an “extimate” encounter between different source material and existing, historical visual codes, reworking them rather than simply expressing an intimate “inner vision.” The normative, orthopedic gaze is itself dissected in the service of creating extravagant heterotopias with no servile utilitarian end or function.
The Dadaist scalpel becomes an experimental tactile appendage, like those covering the bodies of Octavia Butler’s Oankali, the alien species in her Xenogenesis series. In Butler’s work, these tendrils are used to perceive others and exchange biochemical information and genetic material between species. They can induce pleasurable sensory experiences and facilitate communication, but can also fatally sting if provoked. Unlike Merrick, these creatures’ efforts don’t take the end goal of any recognizably human language. They draw interlocutors into unexpected and initially anxiety- provoking regions of unknown, inhuman experience. Oankali have males and females, but also “ooloi,” a third sex that performs the operations of genetic engineering and selection for its cross- species mates. Ooloi don’t help to reproduce a static species, but are constantly performing a bricolage with genetic codes that incorporates any and all living creatures the Oankali encounter in their travels, and conspicuously lack any particular norm to guide the process.
Butler’s Oankali are carried along by metamorphic flows, becomings-other. Oankali mix with humans in order to pull the earth with them out of the sun’s orbit as a spacecraft toward new frontiers resisting the stasis toward passional gravitational centers that threaten to become the passional black holes of the face-landscape. They push mutation further and faster along, attracted by the mutagenic cancer cells found in abundance in humans and referred to as “talent” -utilizing them for shape-shifting properties to create new hybrid species while neutralizing their harmful effects. At first traumatically horrifying to most human sensibilities, they end up saving earthlings from a future in which they’ve destroyed their own habitat. They recast the kind of being that functioned as Lovecraft’s nightmare as humanity’s only hope for long-term survival/sublation. In Butler’s work, the terror of the sublime is traversed by humanity through human-Oankali offspring who become the protagonists of further books in the series.
The sense of the body in both medical illustrations and collage is one of pieces that are perforated along fissures into discreet yet integrated functions. This mechanical conception is given coherence in the popular imagination through such things as replacement hips, artificial hearts and so on, that reinforce the idea of the body as open to tinkering. Mike Kelley writes, “The whole low- art pictorial tradition of the monster can be viewed as expressing the pleasure of shuffling the components of a form. (Psychologically, however there is a great difference between shuffling squares on a paper, or flowers in a vase, and reordering the human figure… The ambiguous humanity of these distorted images creates a tension between attraction and repulsion.” (Kelley, 127)
Anatomical charts are part of a discourse meant to be applied to actual organs, bones, tissue etc. Surrealist collage shifts away from this, though still with one foot in the anatomist’s gaze. This is still articulation in the sense that one part is attached to another in the sense that “the hip-bone’s connected to the leg bone; the leg-bone’s connected to the -knee bone,” etc. To rearrange this ordering can hint at an aspect of contingency in even the normal arrangement of the body, not that just any arrangement would work, but that the current form has been arrived at by what evolutionists Varela and Maturana call “natural drift”, rather than some kind of rational engineering.
Modernist architect Adolph Loos characterized ornament as a crime, a waste of health and resources, a parasitic excess attached to an object’s functional dimension. (Loos, 32-3) This conceptual opposition between functional form and ornament breaks down when one considers the possibility of organic life as operating according to natural drift. For Varela and Maturana, while natural selection does prohibit non-viable organisms from surviving, it doesn’t determine what new traits will be generated through mutation. There is no inherent optimization of form in all cases in biology. Instead, organisms that are sub-optimal or even wildly inefficient can and do often survive simply because they are possible. (Bogue, 62-68) Only under higher levels of external stress, of evolutionary ‘bottlenecks’ rather than in all cases do less optimal structures get whittled away in the process of natural selection.
Life may not after all exist for the exclusive goals of survival and reproduction, but may be more akin to aesthetic play. If life is not necessarily functional but ornamental- a gratuitous pageantry of form for its own sake, then the desire to generate new forms in art can be viewed as arising from this same ferment. Viewed this way, art harnesses the same metamorphic forces that create different bodies out of a latent, immanent state of chaos. (Bogue, 69-72) One can reply to Loos that if ornament is crime, then Nature, if she existed, would in that case herself be the supreme criminal.
Both Dada/Surrealist collage and Butler’s Oankali take as a thematic subject the spilling over of possibility in excess of the situation of being limited to a single morphology. It is somehow not enough to live in this or that particular shape. Art runs ahead of its utilitarian recuperation, and in this respect, forms a continuum with nature. This is not to say that aesthetic response is somehow universal or that conventions are not learned. Conventions in various art forms, rather than limit practice, are so many fields for it to multiplying and cross-pollinate. They create new games to play, new rules to bend or break, new versions to act as provisional standards to deviate from. Convention begets play, and so on, in an accelerating feedback loop.
Olivier Messiaen attempted to translate patterns heard in birdsong into music for human ears. Critic Paul Griffith wrote of his compositions, “It seems more reasonable to speak of the collection not as a group of attempts at fidelity to nature but rather as a sequence of piano pieces whose realization nature helped to facilitate.” (Bogue, 31) In a similar way, Surrealist collage does not represent a plausible biological reality that would “work” in terms of survival so much as constituting an independent reality, an altered state. (Schumacher, Mystery of Painting, 32)
Mike Kelley has identified different kinds of monstrous bodies. On the one hand is Frankenstein’s monster, re-assembled from cut up parts of the body-as-machine but functioning mechanistically as a whole. In Re-animator (1985), on the other hand, the body is not total but corporate- a linked compilation of separate entities. Both Re-animator and Jon Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) feature pastiche creatures that when cut apart simply keep existing as part-beings. What could be more horrific to an essentialist such as Adolf Loos than this depiction of the world as “an accumulation of animated ornaments stripped from their primary forms?” (Kelley, 129) This situation is the epitome of grotesque for Bakhtin, who defines it as a body made up of parts. “It is not complete or separate; it is in process. Its surfaces are penetrable, its boundaries questionable. it does not stop at the surface, but merges interior and exterior,” (Bakhtin, 153) again echoing the topologies utilized by Lacan in writing the impossible-real.
While illustrations of anatomy don’t represent individual bodies, but strive toward a norm to which actual bodies can be compared in terms of health or deformity, monsters need not perform this function. They are all variations with no standard. They are nothing but anomalies, there is no degree zero, no unmarked term. There is no final form that these are evolving toward. (Bataille, Visions, 53-56) Artists run ahead of taxonomists into uncharted places, both destroying and extending what the abstract machine of faciality began by detaching the head from the rest of the body and making it a face. Probe heads detach pieces of the face-landscape from despotic overcoding and allow them to escape passional black holes and form new arrangements and recombine along new vectors. They accelerate the process by which “‘’anchors of familiarity,’ knots of potential meaning identified/recognized as ‘the same’, independently of their actual meaning” become detached from their surroundings. (Žižek 143-144)
Lacan calls this dimension of the signifying process (never entirely absent from speech) lalangue, consisting of signifiers of jouis-sense rather than discursive sense-making. “Children enjoy talking to themselves,” Žižek writes. “It is only through the enjoyment provided by the very act of speaking, through the speaker getting caught in the closed loop of pleasurable self-affection, that humans can detach themselves from their immersion in their environs and thus acquire a proper symbolic distance toward it.” (Žižek, 143-4) So this babble is both potentially a proto-language and/or the eruption within language of the real of enjoyment, the subversion of metaphoric meaning by the metamorphic stuff of which language is composed like a fertile compost heap crawling with larval subjectivities. As with Deleuze’s rethinking of a kind of philosophical formalism, the point is not the “what” of represented objects, but the “how” of style. (Bogue, 118)
Productions of the scopic drive detached from any utilitarian discourse can be viewed as desiring-machines, representing nothing, signifying nothing. They are produced in the same way that they function, in other words, in a kind of short circuit, their production is their function. At one end of this spectrum they are analogous to the machine in Beckett’s Molloy for sucking stones. In order to suck on a different stone of a limited set, but have an element of chance and surprise in the choice, Molloy invents a machinic arrangement using stones, pockets, hands and mouth, a machine of maximal efficiency with no external purpose other than its own circular repetition. At another pole we have Rube Goldberg’s machines, which have clear pragmatic purposes (swatting a fly, opening a door), but the means of achieving this end are ludicrously convoluted and improbable. These are among the possibilities in an a-cosmos governed by aesthetic drift. (Bogue, 70-1)
Uncanny alien imagery, despite a lack of clear functional purpose, can seem to cohere and suggest some inscrutable logic at work. For example, the quasi-diagrammatic paintings of Jonathan Lasker produce an effect of beauty as a kind of coherence that “seems accidental, contingent, and not subsumable under a concept of the understanding; but it nevertheless appears as if it could somehow be brought under such a concept, as if it conforms spontaneously to some law, even though we are unable to say what that law might be.” (Hobbs, et. al, 8) “Things that come together, work, hold, but there is no grand design, rather there is a gnawing, shifting precision of thought.” (Hobbs, 29) Lasker considers his work as an investigation of how a painting works and how we assemble sense “at a clinical distance.” (Hobbs, 18)
Perhaps this is a new and heretical way that we should read Kant’s claim that aesthetic response is disinterested. It is not simply that we can experience form as beautiful, (or as the implied converse: as grotesque, etc.) apart from any pathological interest for us as beings with appetites, but conversely that even in the experience of phenomena which has no use-value for us, there is still a stain of subjective enjoyment that persists regardless.
This ‘stain’ of enjoyment is related in Lacan’s late seminars to the sinthome, and persists after a symptom is no longer viewed as a message to the Other to be deciphered. The sinthome no longer solicits the Other in the form of the analyst as focus for the transference, but acts as pure jouissance addressed to no one. It’s the product of analysis that constitutes its ‘end.’ This conception of the cure is diametrically opposed to a client modeling/rebuilding their neurotic ego on the normative model of the analyst’s ‘healthy’ ego, and is the central, polemical thread throughout Lacan’s teaching aimed at the Ego Psychology of IPA. (Evans, 4-5, 52-53,188-189)
For Lacan, while desire is always the desire of/for the Other, the drive on the other hand is machinic, a-signifying, asocial. Any telos involved is a headless one. Following Roger Caillois, member of Acéphale, for Lacan the image of the mantis “designates for us a certain link between acephalia and the telos of the transmission of life, between acephalia and the handing of the torch from one individual to another in a signified eternity of the species – namely, that Gelüst [sexual desire or craving] does not involve the head.” (Lacan, Seminar VIII, 213). Elizabeth Roudinesco’s biography of Lacan notes that his “presence at the secret activities of Acéphale is attested by all the contemporary witnesses.” (Roudinesco, 136)
Unlike Bataille’s transgressive vision however, the sinthome does not take the form of either a mere acting-out as coded message to the Other, or in a more extreme form of transgression as a passage à l’acte that can only end ‘successfully’ as suicide, an exiting of the subject from the Other scene entirely. Instead of hungering for a final entropic merging with base matter, the sinthome is what allows one to live, through a re-knotting of the symbolic, imaginary and real registers through a process of topological cutting and stitching. Acting as a fourth ring in a more elaborate Borromean knot, the sinthome is a détournement of all the registers into more complex, proliferating structures of utterly unique (contagious…), non-orthopedic forms of jouissance, varieties of enjoying the generalized lack of the Other in the a-cosmos we inhabit. Rather than Oedipal rage against a God- shaped hole or warmed-over, puppet shows of superegoic family feuds, we have “the singular lalangue, the comedic disregard for proper names and paternal or imperial authority” of a Joycean knotwork. (Greenshields, 258)
Improbable a-cosmic heterotopias can emerge unexpectedly from the fields opened up by the body subject to disciplinary regimes of knowledge/power. On a screen, in an anamorphic mirror, in topological figures like the Klein bottle or cross-cap that have no coherent difference between outside and inside, a self-recursive play can collapse the distinct roles of the prisoner in the Panopticon cell and the guard in tower into new forms of display as ars erotica. Instead of being split by a disciplining superego and normalizing ideal-ego we have the possibility for a gaze in the process of becoming-other in the same breath that it fashions an uncanny faceless portrait as one of many possible versions. Anomalous imagery can be a trace of flows of metamorphic potential immanent to its coming-to-be. Artworks are monuments in the sense of being blocks of stored affects and sensations unhinged from the place in space and time from where they emerged. (Bogue, 168-9) As Deleuze puts it, in these works a diastolic fracturing is followed by a systolic contraction of these fragments into a contingent coherence. (Bogue, 119-121)
In images of this kind we can dress up, we can strip to our inverted and ‘extimate’ innards. This ludic activity can become a space of joyous absurdity, an open-ended tinkering with the machinery of cultural production, redirecting asignifying flows to press corrosively against signification, taking us on exploratory searches. Images can preserve sensations detached from any existing body as a referent, yet bearing traces of histories of where they temporarily stopped along a drift without definitive origin. They act as an index of processes of transformation of the scopic drive that have occurred vis-a-vis their biopolitical sources.
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