Friday, June 8, 2012

in violence and in love one thing is another Part_2: not just bowls of disembodied penises

The other night I had everything I wanted in the world. I was on beautiful second story porch, overlooking a vintage, wooded neighborhood. I was with an inspiring and beautiful friend and lover. All of life felt infinite. But none of it was mine. My friend isn't mine. Her house isn't even hers. The cool spring breeze belongs to no one. The night will turn into day. We will age and drift apart. And so on. In other words the truth and beauty of that moment was fleeting. All of that feeling of divinity was impregnated with loss, change, and death.

There are far too many examples of how this fear of mutability has manifested itself in our intellectual culture: from the renunciation of the Stoics; to the story of original sin; to Schopenhauer's contempt of the very thing he felt animated the world – the will (woman?)... I take it as given that this fear of loss and impermanence is also the deep misogyny of our culture. Breivik's manifesto and the ideological war over reproductive and women's health in our day and country can be seen as this same anxiety (a need to organize and control the (re)productive capabilities of the culture, its continuity in time), renounced by the Stoics, manifested directly by Schopenhauer's Studies in Pessimism, and articulated poetically by Kipling's Vampire where the speaker's (and our!) hopes lay in a woman, “a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair.” In that image all of the lust and horror that Western culture feels in the face of mutability, temporality and death is planted firmly in the bodies of women.

In part 1 I posted an attempt at a definition of violence in the context of Elaine Scarry's analysis of the political and linguistic structure resulting from embodied pain.  Violence in that work is the enlarging of one world and the diminishing of another through the transformation of the objects of sentience – voice/ language, architecture, cultural institutions, etc. Key to this formulation is the idea of change and loss. And also that the world expanding power of violence is a fiction of power. I don't think she means that it is fake power, so much as a narrative of power that only exists within the results of violence. That violence however horrible, is a means of telling a story with an irrefutable reality. And this has everything to do with a rag and a bone and a hank of hair.

In Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Paglia argues that all of nature is terrifyingly endowed with loss, decay and rot; that nature is a horrible primordial soup “spurning and frothing, its mad spermatic bubbles endlessly spilling out …” in “ … waste, rot, and carnage . . .” And that all of Western culture is a result of the attempt to repress or forbid this “chthonian” nature. Thus Western culture is a result of the the Greco-Roman tension between the Dionysian (associated with this excess of life and death, to steal directly from Bataille whose echoes are felt very strongly in Paglia's argument) and the Apollonian (associated with reason).

Another way to state this tension is that civilization is a flight from nature. This formulation sounds pretty benign, trite even. But despite that, Paglia's work elicited very negative reactions from other feminists (mostly second wave?). What seems most contentious in her argument, then, is that this dirty terrifying nature is also woman. I'm not sure to what extent she might or might not think that this is “right.” She seems to be to just be saying that it is so. And I do agree with her on this point. I don't know that I would go so far as to say its biological determined or inevitable (I'm not sure she would either, despite what her critics might say); but that, as Paglia suggests, the chthonian “miasmic swamp” has been situated (by some agency – fear, disgust, power) in the “pond of the womb” is, I think, indisputable in the history of Western thought. Paglia goes on to say that disgust is a very understandable response to all of that rot.

But this alone would not account for the shape and scope of Western culture. The feminine is also the signifier of that thing which we desire. Paglia writes:

“... Genesis hedges and does not take its misogyny far enough. The Bible defensively swerves from God's true opponent, chthonian nature. The serpent is not outside Eve but in her. She is the garden and the serpent.”

And here we see what I think is most interesting in her argument (and where it most closely mirrors Bataille's eroticism). That thing which is repressed, transformed, or controlled by civilization (violence for Bataille, chthonian nature for Paglia) is not merely something we want to exclude, it is repressed in order to be exalted. In sharp contrast to Freud, Bataille says that the taboo is created to be transgressed. Thus, in saying that Eve is the garden and the serpent, Paglia is positing a doubling of the feminine, not merely a desire to repress it. Paglia's woman is the site of continuity with the divine (the garden), and a sight of power, violence, and desire (the serpent or phallus). She is forbidden, terrifying and longed for. She is the nostalgia for continuity and the desire for death that Bataille says informs all human sensuality.

By situating the serpent in the womb, Paglia also points us towards Irigaray's analysis of the feminine in This Sex which Is not One. In that text Irigaray develops an idea of the feminine from a Marxist point of view that alienates all value from woman and situates it in an external market. The feminine in this work becomes a signifier for power and desire to be exchanged among men.

What is most fascinating and frightening in Paglia is that this is both an incredibly misogynistic position and one that betrays a deep optimism about the feminine. I think the misogyny is quite apparent. So I won't really waste time in explicating it. With Paglia woman is clearly rot, death, temporality, disgust, horror, violence blah-blah-woof-woof. But woman is also the source and signifier of all power and desire, the pahallus; and, also the sight or promise of continuity. And in this there is something worth feeling optimistic about. This is an open conceptual space, outside of the symbolic order (to steal Lacan's formulation), which has not been, as of yet, adequately developed or understood. This articulation of the feminine was part of Irigaray's project in This Sex which is not One. And the chapter devoted to the development of a new feminine language really didn't fill that conceptual space so much as point to the difficulty in trying to articulate it without always already re-stating the violence done to the the feminine, and to women's bodies. [I write a bit more about that here.]

And this violence is horribly real in history as well as current practices in our culture and across cultures (rape as a political weapon (isn't it always political?), femicides on the U.S-Mexico border, and on and on). To take just one example from European history, the Malleus Maleficarum lays down the rules for looking for and finding witches. This document lays bares the deep fear and hatred of the feminine in Western thought. But, it, like Genesis, hedges in its misogyny and argues that women are only more easily influenced by the devil, not like Paglia who more or less suggests they are the devil. And this distinction is important. In the Malleus Maleficarum women are devilish only because they cannot control their sexual urges and so they are unable to resist his sexual magnetism and his ice cold sexual member. They are thus occupied or possessed by a demonic masculine sexual power, which significantly (and weirdly) grants them the ability to steal men's penises and keep them in bowls for their own perverse uses. In other words, the fecundity of women makes them susceptible to corruption by a power that is in every respects a mirror of patriarchy only with oppositional ends, seeking to overthrow all the good in the world. It is a power that only enables the (literal) emasculation of the powerful. It has no creative element. By arguing that that power is feminine, Paglia, rightly and radically I think, situates it as outside of what we might call patriarchy, but what could more accurately be called civilization.

The Malleus Maleficarum was used in the torture and execution of thousands of European women (and significantly thousands of men as well, presumably, in the logic of the Malleus Maleficarum, those who were more feminine and thus susceptible to the devil's influence). And while Elaine Scarry's analysis of torture looks exclusively at transcripts and descriptions of torture in the 20th Century, the structure of the torture of witches seems almost identical to that of victims of the Greek generals, of the Junta in Chile, or our (still current) American “enhanced interrogation techniques.” There was a room, weapons/ machines/ processes (thumb screws, the rack, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, genital mutilation, drowning), an interrogation, and a confession. I can't do justice to the important details of Scarry's analysis here. [There's a little more about it in part 1] But the significant point of her argument, here, is that torture is not merely the persecution of a hated other, or a process for arriving at “intelligence,” but rather torture is the means of transforming that other and his or her language into power. In this case what the torture of witches, and their confessions, make clear is that the annihilation of the self of the witch is a transfer of power into the bodies of men, into the power of the church and state. In other words the torture of witches is a performance for the creation of the power of the regime. And this betrays the very real fear of a very real power that exists in the bodies of women and the concept of the feminine.

This structure also appears in all human sexual relations: power is exchanged and enacted through tooth and nail, grunts and screams, the excretion of fluids, breath, etc. Sexual relations are always some kind or re-enactment and transformation/ annihilation of the self and of civilization. Sometimes this is performed intentionally as in sado-masochistic scenes. Other times it is a latent suggestion. Other times it is criminal. Either way, in this respect, human sexual relations are vague shadows of Scarry's structure of torture in that they are a performance for the creation of the fiction of power of one or all of the participants. In part this power is fluid and open and moves freely in the interplay of (consensual) bodies in sexual union. In part this power refers to an interlaced set of positions and identities that construe masculine power and pleasure. In all cases of human sexual enactment these structures are reenforced. But also they can be undone. In enacting masculine power in the erotic, we also posit a desire for its destruction (eroticism desires the annihilation of desire, the self, and objectified expressions of the self – civilizations).

In many respects, then, this mixing of life and death in the pond of the womb creates a possible site of resistance and power. The Garden of Eden in this construction does not exist except as a promise (of continuity). It is an empty space, encoded with absence and full of possibilities/ fecundity, that has yet to be written. And as it is also the snake, it is encoded with power, power not merely stolen by witches so that they can fuck themselves later, but  power that exists on its own as a yet inarticulate form.

And in our time, the resonance from this space is one we are still trying to exclude, control, rationalize and silence even as it invades and motivates all of our personal and cultural desires. And we do this with direct violence to be sure, but also more subtly by (mis)articulating it, ascribing a fixed reality to it, positing an essence which we can control. All the pink cliches of femininity are a denial and domination of this power. As are all the scientific postulations that account for a person from the point of view of the gene, or the hormone, or the cybernetic system. These acts of rationalization, are acts of total control. They are desperate attempts to fix the unfixable, to imagine the real.

If anything is clear, it is that civilization is not a flight from barbarity, but merely a reorganization of the barbarous for other ends. Our homes, paints, shoes, streets, planes, carts, wars, etc. move violence around the world just as they are transformed by it. Whatever this flight from chthonian nature, this civilization, might be, it isn't a fear of mutability or death itself. If that were the case, why would we so willingly live with such an abundance of violence, at home and abroad? I don't have an answer. But it is clear that the world we want is one in which life and death are irrevocably mixed together. 

This image from Breivik's Manifesto says it all. The womb is a bomb wielded by a terrifying other. The womb is an ejaculating phallus. 

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