It's official. I have a date. My house goes up for auction on the courthouse steps June 26th. It's a little bit unsettling. A little bit. On the other hand, I don't really care. All the money I had in the world was in that house. I guess I should be more upset that it's gone. It is gone. But in some respects it was never real money to begin with. It was money from the sale of my house in Oakland, which appreciated 70K in a couple of years. Easy fake come, easy fake go.
At one time the idea of my own home appealed to me. I wanted a place to fix up, to make a home with my then lover, to plant a garden, to relax in after work and listen to opera. I fantasized about a piece of land in the country, with a home built by my own hands, half fortress, half earth-ship. It was a strange dream of domesticity and stability. But a dream that betrays some very real and compelling truths.
The room, shelter, is the most basic objectification of our consciousness. It's the first expression of our desire for material and symbolic security. It is that thing which keeps the threat of death (from exposure, from predators, etc.) at bay. Before anything else, like any animal, we sought shelter. And symbolically it still seems to work this way. Our houses, lawns, gated communities, streets, freeways, and etc. all betray this longing to be free from harm. Our very humanity depends on this sense of material security. It extends our inner world just a little bit farther. And its privacy and protection is part of the very process that makes us human. Shelter allows for us to respect and transgress the taboo against the naked body, against its functions and its violence. Without our homes, we become monstrous.
I admire Diogenes. And for a time I tried to emulate this original anti-authoritarian punk. He, rightly I think, drew attention to the arbitrary and irrational nature of all social convention. He shat in public, walked around naked, masturbated at will. He was the first to erase the distinction between life and thought. He was the first performance artist. He was a smart GG Allen who slept in a tub and looked at authority with complete disregard. He made a virtue of poverty and perversity. And yet, something in his life and work gives me pause. All of this social convention might be entirely arbitrary and ridiculous, but we exist only in relation to each other – in Nietzsche's herd, Freud's civilization, Bataille's world of work, etc. And while total disregard for the other might be appealing in some way, it also strikes me as disingenuous. You get to be outrageous only in a context. You must challenge something. And while we know very little (nothing) about Diogenes directly, the positive (non-reactive) aspects of his philosophy don't really ring true...
I was walking down a San Francisco street many years ago and passed a homeless man masturbating under his blankets. That blanket was the only room he could afford. When I was in Port-Au-Prince kids shat wherever they might be. Women collected water from urban streams running with human waste and blood. And we all would likely identify all of this as monstrous, uncivilized, inhuman. And most of us would feel some sense of guilt or sadness at witnessing the dehumanizing effects of poverty. That it is an arbitrary construction doesn't matter. We want to belong. Or we want to choose not to belong.
Once I lived on the streets, shat under bridges, bathed in lakes. I don't know that I elected it. I was running from my home. And this is really what I am driving at. I am interested in what happens when all of the non-barbarous, objectified products of consciousness are transformed into the very barbarity they are designed to parry, and what happens to consciousness and bodies in this transformation.
This began to appear in my work directly is 2006 with this piece pictured below, in which I copied an advertising image from Jane magazine and made the painting out of torn pieces of copies of Mexican crime magazines. More on 'Jane' on Swing here.
It was followed by works like these that looked at the transformation of suffering abroad in Iraq, Mexico, and Afghanistan as the creation of an American dream of endless prosperity.
I think that these paintings point to an important and inevitable transformation. One that effects everyone on some level, but is most visible in the intentional transformations carried out by unstable and insecure regimes on the bodies of its citizens (mostly) and (less often) its enemies through torture. I am reading Elaine Scarry's 1987 book The Body in Pain: The making and unmaking of the world. In it, Scarry cogently and exhaustively examines the making and unmaking of the world and civilization through the infliction and experience of pain. Her analysis of torture is multiple and heavy (and heartbreaking). It looks at the ways that all of the objects and texts of civilization are used as an annihilation of the individual, not for the stated purpose of extracting “intelligence,” but as a performance for the creation of the power of the regime. This suggests that acts of injury and torture are motivated, either consciously or unconsciously, by the need to give material reality to the fictitious and insecure power of the regime through the incontestable material reality of suffering and the subsequent annihilation of the self inflicted upon the prisoner and enemy. In reading this analysis, I kept seeing echoes of other circumstances, much less intentional, but whose structure seems to reflect the structure of torture she is elucidating. I am definitely not drawing equivalencies between torture and anything else. They are not the same. But in an oblique way you can replace one actor with another and arrive at a circumstance in which the structure holds true, despite the obvious differences.
In child abuse, domestic violence, some forms of sexual violence, kidnapping, and even some forms of consensual sexual relations the transformation she is describing in torture reappears. And also, power in these cases can be read more explicitly as pleasure, not only as agency or domination. I don't want, right now, to go into the specifics of how this is true or to what extent. That's part of a longer project I am beginning about the spectacular violence of the drug war in Mexico, and it deserves to be carried out in some detail. But I do want to describe a little of Scarry's analysis and how this applies to violence in general and not just torture. And she invites us to do this, while she cautions us about it.
At the beginning of the the chapter on the structure of war Scarry writes, “Torture is such an extreme event that it seems inappropriate to generalize from it to anything else or from anything else to it. It's immorality is so absolute [..] that there is a reluctance to place it in conversation by the side of other subjects.” She goes on to say that this reluctance “increases our vulnerability to power” because we end up preventing the “incommensurality of pain” from entering into “worldly discourse.”
Power she adds is easily mixed with any subject and thus unfolds endlessly. This is in opposition to pain which is either inarticulate, or the moment it is articulated it silences everything else. Nothing seems adequate to the task of understanding or elaborating it. The reasons for this forms the basis for her description of the structure of torture.
Very generally speaking, torture in Scarry's analysis looks something like the following. It begins with the infliction of pain and the interrogation. One happens only with the other. And through this the voice or world of the torturer is expanded through the annihilation of the world of the victim. This not only means that the pain of torture renders everything else (psychology, thought, history, whatever) insignificant for the victim, but also that all of the objects of the world are transformed into weapons to use against the victim. And while this is literally true in the torture room (the prisoner slammed into doors or walls, drowned in a bath tub, made to contemplate the weapons of torture, etc.) it is also symbolically true of all of the objects of civilization (by extension the world is transformed in the same way that ordinarily legitimate cultural forms and objects are changed into weapons like with “the trial” that landed the prisoner in pain, or the doctor who aids the torturer, or the stool used in a beating). Significantly, the room itself, the prisoners own body, and the prisoners voice are used against him. The room becomes a site for this annihilating pain and represents his entire world. The body is kept in “stress positions” (to use our Bush Era obfuscating terminology). And the prisoner's own voice becomes a weapon through the force of confession.
I've just summarized in a paragraph what Scarry expands in thousands of words. So this really isn't even close to the whole story. It's barely a sketch. But what this summary allows us to see that other forms of violence follow a very similar structure. The transformation of those objects that normally expand an individuals world – a room, a conversation, a companion, a refrigerator, water, electricity, etc. – into their opposites, weapons, is apparent in all forms of violence. In deed, my sense is that this mutability could be a useful definition of violence. In a cycle of domestic violence, for instance, the predictable structure transforms companionship, love, caresses, homes, etc. into moments of brutality followed by tearful apologies and reconciliation. Each time the abused partner says “but I love him,” I hear an echo of the confession in torture, her own words become a weapon against herself and a signifier of his fiction of power/ pleasure. This reappears in the love of a child for an abusive parent. And so on.
In a benign formulation, this might be beautiful. The transformation of something (limited, small) into something else (vast, gigantic) is at the heart of poetry and eros. A glance is turned into stars, a penetrating touch into divinity. And on and on.
Violence then appears as a corollary of creativity – one infinitely restrictive in terms of the scope of the world of its victim and expansive for the perpetrator of violence, and the other mutually expansive. And power appears as wholly neutral, at work in both cases equally. And both closely resemble metaphor.
I am reminded of Nietzsche and Bataille here. And of all of life and death...
But this is really just a post about my house. Over the landscape of Sarah's body in this painting, is a burning house.
It might read as a church, or public building. But it might also be my house. In the last years that I lived there, my partner of many years developed breast cancer. In this house we confronted the possibility of her death and disfigurement. I witnessed the incommunicability of her physical pain even as I drained the fluids strapped to her half razed chest. And much later, as I worked on this painting of her,
I wanted to convey a sense of that care, of the tenderness that I felt for her even as I was disappearing from her life and she from mine, hence the disembodied arm and hand. What strikes me now when I look at this painting is that it might very well be her own arm floating in space, but it might also be my arm bending backwards as I walk away from her, and leave her to her incommensurable pain, which she doesn't express. In violence and in love, one thing is another.
As I lose my house, I feel vulnerable, unsheltered.
This reminds me of running away from an intolerable home as a kid. I wasn't afraid then. The world was less scary than the walls of my room.
Eventually I discovered the obvious brutality of all of civilization. And so, not so long ago, I yearned to make a home with immutable walls, a place of shelter and rest and retreat from the capacity for injury.
I felt a brief wave of panic, like the old days when ghosts haunted me. And then the panic just left.
These walls are haunted too.
What can anyone do with all of this mutability and violence that surrounds us always.