Beastly bodily becomings

J.D. Taylor, “The end of the old flesh: beastly bodily becomings as contemporary parable”

Presented at ‘The End of…’ Conference, 22 Jan 2012, University of Kent. Final manuscript for Negative Capitalism has now been submitted to Zero.

In 1981 Gilles Deleuze read in Francis Bacon’s paintings a ‘zone of indiscernibility‘ between man and animal (Deleuze 2004: 21). Bacon’s figures spasm through their wounded architectures, screams erupting as destabilised bodies attempt to escape their figurations. This paper develops this zone of the indiscernible to explore how human flesh has become a medium for representations of the end. In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), a dark psychological conspiracy places the flesh under suspicion of suggestible media-corruption, as Max Renn transcends to abstracted data by orgiastically abandoning the old flesh.

I’m going to introduce the conflict and loss of self in technology, a conflict I want to locate as crucial to the latter half of twentieth century, which I visit in cinema, using David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, in Charles Burns’ 1995-2004 Black Hole graphic novel series alongside his 2010 X’ed Out, and in art, using Francis Bacon’s physically-destabilising portraits, such as the 1963 study of Henrietta Moraes. In each, the body is distrusted, alienated, and becomes a site and marker of corruption or excessive energy. Whilst being sexually charged accounts, they also detail an acute anxiety I want to visit surrounding the skin. In fearing the penetration of its closed and sanitised border, each work illustrates the anxiety when skin is transgressed and corrupted, as the grotesque and animalistic erupt onto the body, marking it as other. This fear of our own skins is a parable of modern alienation from sensual and physical pleasure, marking the increasing anxiety and speeds of contemporary labour and concentration compared to previous epochs. The panic attack, sexually-transmitted infection, social anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder all detail a peculiar contemporary fear of being overwhelmed by the outside.

Max Renn, head of the pornographic Canadian cable Channel 83, is asked “Your TV station offers everything from softcore pornography to hardcore violence”, to which e replies “it’s a matter of economies… I give my viewers a harmless outlet”. Renn is speaking on a TV chatshow with Rena King, the pop-psychiatrist Nicki Brand, played by Deborah Harry, and Professor Brian O’blivion, a Marshall McLuhan like media sage who only appears in public via recorded broadcast. As O’blivion, the film’s philosopher puts it, where “TV is the retina of the mind’s eye”, this is a moral dramatisation of the corrupting effects of culture literally played out on the flesh. The battle for north America will be fought in the video arena, says O’blivion, and so when Renn discovers Videodrome, what he thinks to be staged snuff TV, he excitedly works to get it broadcast on his channel. The plot then follows how Videodrome is in fact not staged but real – what entices Renn as snuff TV is in fact a sinister propaganda device that forces the growth of brain tumours (or new organ) through watching sadomasochistic porn. The flesh corrupted by the video. Videodrome is a paranoid film, where TV itself becomes the site of a conspiracy horror, as the Videodrome show is developed to wipe out north America’s low-lifes by the Spectacular Optical corporation, a state conspiracy to kill those who enjoy watching pornographic or violent TV, exactly the sort Channel 83 broadcasts, through mass brain tumours.

It’s the dangers pointed out by Baudrillard, Jameson and others: overstimulation, continuous connectivity, sexualisation via technology, America in mass hypnosis state, what Jameson called ‘hallucinatory splendors’ – the fragmentation, ephemerality and chaos of mid-1980s postmodernity. “Your reality is already half video, half hallucination”. The film is already dated by the fact that Max Renn is penetrated not with VHS but Betamax video cassettes, whilst Brian O’blivion’s daughter runs an outreach mission to the homeless that aims to protect them through mass exposure to television, the Cathode Ray Mission. But the dangers of rogue broadcasts as viral corruption are there: we might imagine an alternative where if neuronal receptors were open to wireless internet connection, a virus might hit our nervous system and corrupt our cognitive data. In this case, a specific sexual and technological anxiety is played out on the body. Television literally transforms the flesh, and the body horror is often the signal that the self is in danger. The videodrome penetrates literally – horror of male womb, absorbing the phallic gun, as Barry Convex, sinister force behind the Spectacular Optical Corporation’s Videodrome puts it to Renn, “I want you to open up to me”.

Videodrome is a classic of the body horror genre: flesh ruptures and distorts, opens up into wombs, or explodes in unrecognisable ways. Barbara Creed is clear about the significance of this, marking male anxiety of the female genitals as other. As Creeds puts it in “Horror and the Carnivalesque: the Body-Monstrous”, ‘The body – that which is prey to the exigencies of desire; the opponent of reason; host to invisible signs of decay; physical barometer of approaching death; seat of earthly pleasures; signifier of feminine evil; site of repression; writing surface; postmodern text’ – this body is erotically and culturally charged (Creed 1995: 127). It is the site and resistance point of technology against the human self, and in Videodrome the grotesque and carnivalesque come out in Max Renn’s continual boredom and push for increasingly extreme forms of sexuality.

A dramatisation of north America’s psychological vulnerability to propaganda through new technology, it charts “the video-word made flesh”. The skin is a border penetrated by technology, where the body/flesh is compromised by excessive sexual overstimulation, and reclaimed by Renn who is killed and saved by being penetrated with a video. The old flesh is corrupted by the Videodrome – the desire for new thrills sends Renn unwittingly to the Videodrome and kills Debbie Harry. The new flesh fights back, violently using the negative space created by video corruption to knowingly use sex and violence. “Death to Videodrome: Long live the new flesh”.

The Atari graphics and video stills date Videodrome. The sexual corruption might imply Aids but it’s not a clear link. But from Hieronymous Bosch to Goya, and from Boccaccio’s Decameron to the works of Jake and Dinos Chapman, the corrupt and uncontrollable body has been the cultural form on which and through which more sinister and fundamental anxieties are exposed. This continues most recently in Charlie Brooker’s recent 2011 3-part Black Mirror series have shown, particularly the third episode titled ‘The Entire History of You’, where anxieties of identity, flesh and the loss of self in technology dominate. What if we can access and re-access all memories? As Brooker explains, the black mirror is the handheld smartphone in our hand or screen in the corner of our room: “We routinely do things that just five years ago would scarcely have made sense to us. We tweet along to reality shows; we share videos of strangers dropping cats in bins; we dance in front of Xboxes that can see us, and judge us, and find us sorely lacking. It’s hard to think of a single human function that technology hasn’t somehow altered, apart perhaps from burping. … But where is it all leading? If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects?’ (Brooker 2011). Anxieties surround technology and loss of self still, the end played out when we can no longer keep track on what is ‘us’, what keeps our identities stable. Physical mutilation and self-mutilation become the abortive points of resistance, beginning and ending with the flesh.

Baudrillard, writing close to the time of Videodrome, problematises what end exactly it constitutes. Rather than technology being opposed to the body, perhaps jeopardising its stability, technology is instead an extension of the body. It is the fixed humanistic notion of self in jeopardy. As he writes in “Ballard’s Crash”, ‘It is the evolved functional capacity of a human organisism which allows it both to rival Nature and to triumphantly remold it in its own image. From Marx to McLuhan, one sees the same instrumentalist vision of machines and of language: relays, extensions, media-mediators of a Nature destined ideally to become the organic body. In this “rational” view, the body itself is only a medium’ (Baudrillard 1991). This plays out too in the Cyborg manifesto work of Donna Haraway, the cyberpunk writings of William Gibson, up to the crises of ‘life’ as the unthinkable more recently in Eugene Thacker’s After Life. Concerns with the end of human identity, and the exciting political potential of cybertechnologies, are now dated. As Brooker above demonstrates, we moved beyond these, accepted the social contract of the black mirror technologies. There’s no going back. Perhaps instead then in Videodrome, and later as discussed in Charles Burns’ Black Hole, it is the challenge to the body, and the body as a site of subversive danger, that limits some of this technological euphoria.

Details from Charles Burns, Black Hole, above x2.

Depictions of the end in earlier zombie films used the horrific body as a site to play out the end. Using Creed’s descriptions of zombies as the animate body without a self, perhaps best executed in Romero’s shopping mall scenes in his 1978 Dawn of the Dead, uncannily like real life, the end comes when ‘our humanity’ is lost. The novelty of Videodrome is the loss of self in the immediate body, through culture, a loss of self that is orgiastically embraced, through and beyond the body’s beastily becomings.

Michel Foucault in his 1976 Discipline and Punish remarks that ‘The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body’ (Foucault 1995: 30). The body became subject to a political technology of power through the instruction of the soul. Foucault analysed forms of punishment during the early modern period, a shift occurred between dramatic and public punishments of the physical body, to new ideas from Bentham’s panopticon and Beccaria onwards that the soul needed to be punished and rehabilitated through the prison. The soul could contain the body through the forced timetables of work and solitude. Videodrome and Renn might seem oversexed, permissive and hedonistic, but the body is still imprisoned by the self. It is the soul, the desires and identity of the viewer that come first, the body is passive receptacle of suffering. This demonstrates a distrust of the body too, an anxiety – what if flesh randomly erupts a new orifice?

It’s a new kind of hysteria. Body as point of crisis, as representing limit and end. Charles Burns’ 1995-2003 Black Hole uses the body to play out the end in another, even darker way. These noir comic-books follow the onset of ‘the bug’, a sexually-transmitted disease that freakishly infects and mutates the bodies of teenagers in a small American town during the mid-1970s. The books follow an adolescent love story between Chris Rhodes and Rob Facincani, witnessed by the infatuated Keith Pearson, who is the witness to the onset of the teenage plague. As the high school kids have sex, their skins corrupt into boils, animalesque features, different for each youth. Rob develops a tiny mouth with teeth, a vagina, on his neck, one that talks in his sleep and voices his repressed doubts. Chris catches the bug from Rob, and through a slit in her foot, her skin suit regularly comes off. Eliza grows a reptilian tail, while Keith through Eliza has tadpoles growing from his stomach. In every case the effect is disgusting, corrupting, irreversible and physically alienating. This is the organic body itself erupting into slits and wounds. Like the old dangers of masturbation, physical corruption is the mark of evil. Once they’ve got the bug, the teenagers retreat into a leper colony campsite in a local Ravenna Park where they live on twinkies, fried chicken and booze. The place is nicknamed ‘planet Xeno’, an alien place, by Keith and his friends who originally go there to drink and smoke dope, which introduces the bug to the reader. The bug is physically alienating, alienated flesh. Unlike Videodrome, there is no transcendence. One does not become the new flesh. One is trapped, in a black hole of sex and death, in what Burns calls ‘the bad place’, a nightmare world which appears both in Keith and Chris’s dreams, and which appears in his most recent 2010 X’ed Out in very similar detail: a black wasteland that one reaches in a dream, a point of nothingness, broken timber, sharp and bare fish-bone trees, sewage outlet, rubbish held together, bones, dead flesh.

Above 1: The bad place in Charles Burns, Black Hole (2005).
Above 2: The bad place in Charles Burns, X’ed Out (2010).

Lepers were thought to have committed some sin for their condition, but were privately tolerated provided they lived outside the community. Like the plague, the physical condition marks a point of crisis. Antonin Artaud described the onset of plague in Europe as a ‘psychic entity’, embodying a real crisis of culture which could only be resolved by death or cure (Artaud 1993),a crisis of culture physically played out in an embodied apocalypse. This is what Black Hole plays with. Teenagers are horny and awkward, sex so mysterious it is introduced into these teens’ lives alongside the disease, and perhaps could be read as a powerful metaphor for sexual awakening and the pained period between late adolescence and early adulthood. Bodily becomings lead to later, like the murders later in the book, sex opening the floodgates to murder and death, as in Videodrome too. The skin erupts in any case. The book is replete in images of sharp and broken trees, of a sexually-charged nature trying to force its way in. It’s a dark and sad book. We end with Chris and her infection, staring at the stars, “I’d stay out here forever if I could”, but she’s trapped in an era she can’t escape. The deaths, alienation, heartbreak, drug habits, bad jobs and inability to move on from relationships – perhaps corrupt flesh is a parable of angst in 1970s America? Yes, and as Chris’s comment shows, the end of an era played out: Chris doesn’t get David Bowie, free sex is over (STIs/Aids) – where can one move onto? Sex marks the end of youth.

In Videodrome it’s the susceptibility to sex that corrupts. In moments of erotic or physical excess, the skin comes apart and tears, like in Francis Bacon’s ‘zone of indiscernibility’ as Deleuze called it, between man and animal. In the intense rhythm and sensation of Bacon’s portrayals of liquified, sensuous and mordant flesh, the humanism of man is undone: ‘It is not that it lacks a spirit, but it is a spirit which is body, corporeal and vital breath, an animal spirit; it is the animal spirit of man” (Deleuze 2004: 15). Jaws and teeth are essential properties of this undoing which usually takes place in the head, the head-meat as Deleuze phrases it. The erotic is contained in this physical excess and violence, this animality and animated form of expression. But Bacon too contains the deeper problems of ‘the end’: as with Videodrome or the sex of Burns’ teenagers, what might come across as erotic expression and sensation actually marks a point of anxiety and crisis. A visit to Dublin’s Hugh Lane gallery to see Bacon’s studio reveals he often worked from photographs of subjects like George Dyer or Henrietta Moraes, intense experiences of flesh only created indirectly from their subjects, like the video-transmission of porn. The zone of the indiscernible only comes indirectly. Perhaps the loss of experience makes these works possible, or even feasible.

Above 1. Francis Bacon, Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963.
Above 2. Photograph of Pope Innocent X, found in Bacon’s studio.

The erotic is an interesting faultline of the space between man/self, animal/flesh and the end. It blurs stable notions of identity and takes the enraptured into the night, the negative, back to the reptilian ‘swamps’ as Walter Benjamin or Stewart Home would put it. The reptilian and bestial recur in Burns and throughout critical theory, as cold-blooded creatures, like zombies, indicate an abject and parasitical life, without humanity and without soul. The erotic possibilities of this self-abandonment excite horror, indicated in this statement from Georges Bataille, a heavy influence on Julia Kristeva and later writers of body horror:

The wriggling of serpents, in the depths of swamps and in dungeons their strange intertwinings, their combats with fangs, knots or venom will always be the exact image of human existence shot through from top to bottom by death and love.” (Bataille 1995).

 

Videodrome pitches video against the flesh in a struggle for control of the self, the mind of north America, making the body active or activated by this conflict. In Black Hole, flesh is passive, alien and alienated. In any case it is separate from the abstract self which narrates and determines events. Going back to Foucault, if the soul is the prison of the body, it is at once the rebellion of the flesh which marks the end of an era, erupting and embodying youth alienation. In Burns, the flesh is corrupted from the outside, the skin is the site of anxieties over bestiality and danger of sexuality, its enticements also. In Videodrome, it is the inside of the body that is corrupted and hollowed out , losing its organic essence, as in the horrific death of Convex. In either case, the erotic still requires a self which struggles to survive physical transgression.

So to measure the end, it is the loss of the erotic at play here. Pornography is the end of the erotic. It spells out a body without self or soul, one very much fixed in its anatomical limits and functions. Gonzo porn fucking, the conformity of models and scenarios. The distinctness and scents of sex are lost in the medium: users themselves are increasingly becoming the subject of DIY pornography, discernible in the increasing popularity of gonzo porn and free Porn 2.0 websites like YouPorn, xHamster, Pornhub and so on. The former expertise of the adult movie star, informed expert or hard-working singer-songwriter is abandoned for a free contest of amateurs. The increasing necessity of the close-up on the act of fucking is indicative, particularly in gonzo porn – the focus and process the viewer is being aroused by is no longer the expected money-shot but the piston-motions of fisting and penetration, inducing an especially gynaecological perspective to achieve sexual climax. The body is no longer a sublime object but abstracted flesh, consisting of a stable economy of drives that must be relieved. An efficient sexuality assessed by quantities, of orgasms, of sessions of intercourse. Saturation in affects and an increasing disinhibition between strangers, provided screens act as intermediaries, leads to smartphone apps like Grindr where free consensual sex (among gay men) can be procured during a lunch-break. Finally, the money shot now seems archaic, a quotation of more quaint 1980s tastes, a sign of “job done” for the phallocentric gaze. To achieve orgasm the pornographic lens now needs the ecstatic eye of the amateur actor or actress gazing back into the camera lens and signalling full pleasure in the act, marking the shift here to affective labour – how can the viewer be sure that this is an authentic orgasm, and not one faked? Vestiges of animality or sense are removed: the performers are shaven, fashionably underdressed, and are fucked with viagra callousness by old men. The viewer must see the genitals and fluids in anatomical detail to be assured of credibility. Getting one over is the aim in gonzo porn, where narrative arcs generally focus on duping young girls into sex acts they would not otherwise consent to. Whether it is actually an authentic or faked orgasm is irrelevant, so long as it appears so and consents with increasingly distorted expectations of what the sexual body can provide.

Against Laurie Penny’s recent Meat Market, it is naïve to pose sex or squatted social centres as offering some sacred pre-Fall refuge against capitalist negation: these speeds and methods already permeate imaginations and practices.The alienation of the sexual and romantic body into an abstracted economy of drives marks a contemporary sexual alienation of negative capitalism. The animalistic and often unwittingly-catholic descriptions of ‘the flesh’, its scents, howls and meat by young writers like Penny marks the futile attempt to solve this loss of an ideal of intimacy by retreating into some fictional pre-capitalist world. If a pre-Fall world exists, those of us whose minds and social expectations are topographies of capitalism cannot go back to a before we never knew, but a forward beyond, propelled by anger and deviant negativity. Perhaps the end mapped out in these accounts is of a particular moment between the mid-1960s to the early 1980s – certainly these accounts capture a specific era’s physical anxieties regarding the evil within, rather than just without. Such an end is now felt in the peculiarly contemporary melancholy of lost futures and future hauntings.
Pornography is more straightforward: instead of a lost or alienated ideal, sex is no longer socialised or sentimentalised to the extent it once was. Rather than speaking of this pornography as a loss or a problem, it presents new pleasures and possibilities debarred to previous generations, and is symptomatic of a new cultural shift requiring further analysis. This is the site of the new flesh, where the identity-loss of the non-place is matched by the possibilities of self-modified skin,
a detaching of identity from fixed and inescapable notions of self.The old existential definitions come undone, out of which new possibilities emerge. If revolt can be conceived in a democratic body hooked to the excitement of identity-loss, which it can, provided it engages young people on their terms – then flesh will become indiscernible, intelligent, and entirely responsible for activating a consensual desire. To fuck instead of being fucked, going beyond the passivity of porn workers and hunger-artists that financial capital has made of each of us. In the end of the old flesh, played out in the sensuous corruption of Bacon, Burns and Cronenberg, a new experience of the skin beyond the self viciously opens up.

References

  • Artaud, Antonin. “Theatre and the Plague”, in The Theatre and Its Double, trans. Victor Corti (London: Calder, 1993).

  • Bacon, Francis. Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963.

  • Bataille, Georges. “Reptiles”, in Encyclopedia Acephalica, trans. Iain White and Isabelle Waldberg (London: Atlas, 1995).

  • Jean Baudrillard, “Two Essays: Simulacra and Science Fiction and Ballard’s Crash”, trans. Arthur B. Evans, Science Fiction Studies 55, vol.18(3), November 1991.

  • Brooker, Charlie. “The dark side of our gadget addiction”, Guardian, 1st December 2011.

  • Burns, Charles. Black Hole (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005).

    X’ed Out (London: Jonathan Cape, 2010).

  • Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Carnivalesque: the Body-monstrous”, in Fields of Vision, eds. Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman (Berkeley and LA: University of California, 1995).

  • Cronenberg, David [dir]. Videodrome, 1983.

  • Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (London: Continuum, 2004).

  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage second edition, 1995).

  • Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (New York: Verso, 1992)

  • Penny, Laurie. Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism (Alresford: Zero, 2011).

  • Romero, George [dir]. Dawn of the Dead, 1978.

  • Thacker, Eugene. After Life (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2010).