Reflections on the abject in the new world order.
as abject–so the sacred
The body is young, tattooed, pierced, cut, punctured, branded. It is brown and black and poor. It is also white and middle class, female and male. How do we read the outcast body?
The master narrative that encompasses us despises the flesh and blood body. More precisely, it despises the body when it can’t market the body. This is the same narrative that fashioned the phrases “Illegal alien,” “third world,” “dot com,” “Superbowl,” “carpet bombing,” “war against drugs,” and “Disneyworld.” Narrative, etymologically, is related to the Greek “gnosis,” that is, to say, “knowledge.” With respect to conveying knowledge, then, “narrative,” “discourse” and that irritatingly ubiquitous noun, “information,” are synonymous.
For most people, narrative primarily suggests “story” and the creative imagination. Official culture’s story, endlessly recirculated, recounts its own virtue and triumphs, such that a single word or phrase is enough to engender not just an image but a sequence of images which in effect “tells” the legislated story. Phrases such as: “cowboy,” “white hat,” “crusading DA,” “African-American head coach,” “family values,” “teenage supermodel,” and “honest cop” each unfurls its own sentimental story or narrative which unfailingly reflects back on official culture’s magnanimity.
Official culture employs its vast resources, principally through the electronic and print media, to subsume us with seemingly infinite versions of its all-consuming narrative, which flourishes beyond most Americans’ capacity to interrogate it. The “new world order” is so besieged with complex-seeming technology, soundbites, and “expert” opinions, that anxious, info-inundated, overworked Americans have scant leverage to sort out what’s happening to them, let alone act on it. It’s as if the master narrative has become transparent, ingested with our Lite beer, our Starbuck’s latte. Other, less pious versions of our country and planet - counter-narratives - are either not represented, marginalized, or deliberately misrepresented.
Only at the extremes is there freedom
Despite the seamless-seeming master narrative, parallel, abject, counter-narratives do in fact exist. They can be found - assuming you look for them, unplug your ears, relearn to smell - at the extreme margins of official culture. One such counter-narrative I cited at the top: the sudden, extraordinary abundance of tattooing and body mutilation among the young. This narrative has several determinants, but one crucial determinant would have to be the widescale sexual repression of our era, which has dammed (damned) the customary body outlets. We have a generation of young people who have lived their entire post-pubescent lives in the wake of AIDS; not the disease so much as the official ideology which [mis]represents and mediates the disease.
Unlike other countries, which reacted to AIDS by isolating the known transmission vectors and encouraging “safe” sex, the US officially condemned the entire sensual body. No instrumental distinction was made between anal and vaginal copulation, between oral and manual stimulation, between kissing the mouth and licking the genitals, between wearing a condom and not. The rallying cry was: Abstinence!
Referring to Van Gogh’s severing of his own ear to impress a “subaltern” woman, Georges Bataille argues that the famous auto-mutilation was not in the institutionalized spirit of sacrifice to deity, but to impose a delirium which makes tangible the participant’s separation from the neutralized mass. (“Sacrificial Mutilation and the Severed Ear of Vincent Van Gogh,” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, University of Minnesota Press, 1985, 61-69)
So too, in the midst of what we were given to believe was an AIDS pandemic, the body became a battleflied. Young people, forcibly alienated from their sexuality, began piercing, tattooing, cutting, and scarring their bodies, employing their bodies as a kind of canvas by inscribing on their flesh the deep conflicts of our period having to do with sexuality, gender, disease, and puritanical repression; as if to assert that despite the anti-sexual edicts they still controlled their lives and would do as they choose. And if they piecemeal destroyed their bodies, it was to appropriate the large-scale destruction wrought not just by AIDS but by the AIDS ideology in its attempt to nullify sexuality of any kind outside of marriage.
Nor were the body mutilators exclusively among the poor and outcast, bikers and “trailer-trash”; they were, and are, in good part white, middle-class, female and male. There has always been a distressed minority of young people, mostly female, who have cut their flesh, but when was there a time when young middle-class females were permanently tattooing, piercing, scarring their bodies?
Although body mutilation in a so-called first-world Judaic-Christian culture like the US is fundamentally subversive, it has in fairly short order been co-opted by the dominant culture and transformed into another media spectacle, yet another subset of the master narrative. That’s how late corporate capitalist culture works of course, absorbing even the most ungovernable impulses, disgorging them as spectacle for profit.
Related to inscribing the flesh, has been the recent emergence of previously outcast minorities like cross-dressers, transsexuals, and other unconventionally gendered people, recounting in various media, such as visual art and video, their ongoing abject narratives. Aspects of these narratives were initially found in specialist zines, but in the continuing hoopla over identity politics and the culture wars certain outcast minorities were grudgingly granted their fifteen minutes in the glaring light of spectacle.
However, after the election of Bush the Younger, and especially after September 11, the master narrative has been re-infected with all of the old morality and is not likely to indulge gender deviates. Attorney General John Ashcroft has even seen fit to “drape” two semi-naked statues in the Justice Department’s Great Hall. The female figure, which represents the Spirit of Justice and the male the Majesty of Justice, have been displayed since the 1930s. Neither figure is nude: the male wears a loincloth and the female a toga, but with one breast exposed. At the Attorney General’s instruction, they have been draped to the tune of nearly $9000. Now and henceforth, the Attorney General can enunciate his declarations of war and vigilance against terrorism without the bodily distraction of that uncovered female breast, inanimate though it is.
Another parallel, though mostly invisible, because thoroughly abject, narrative is graffiti. Throughout the US, Western Europe, and elsewhere, has sprung up a complexly coded series of narratives, created primarily by subjugated groups, and covertly inscribed. The language of the widespread graffiti is shorthand and is at least in part derived from TV soundbites and the abbreviated codings of computer technology. We can see those coded inscriptions on traffic signs, freeway overpasses, billboards, busses, walls, windows. Cadres of “inner city” taggers with their spray cans and magic markers inscribing their guerrilla narratives in the hours before dawn. Not just inscribing but contesting each other in code, even as, collectively, they contest the official master narrative. A recent California version of graffiti consisted of kids dropping vari-colored paint on the freeways which constrained the wheels of vehicles to distribute the paint in haphazard patterns, thereby fashioning “action paintings.”
After more than a decade of ubiquitious graffiti, the impulse seems to have stalled, one can’t say for how long. In the meantime, graffiti, like break dancing (also hatched in inner-city streets), has been at least partially co-opted, with graffiti “art” exhibited in museums and galleries and break-dancing in mainstream theater, movies, and on TV.
Seemingly related to graffiti are car bumper stickers and t-shirt soundbites. Though often anti-authoritarian in tone, the bumper-sticker and t-shirt slogan are promoted by official culture, which produces and profits from these easily monitored outlets for the otherwise muzzled working-class. Without bumper sticker narratives, t-shirt narratives, fastfood, spectator sports, televangelism, and the lottery, the working class might just recognize its chronically oppressed condition and strike and spit and refuse to shop.
As official culture promotes bumper stickers for the working class, it promotes the Internet with its commercial websites, bulletin boards, chat groups, and subscriber lists for the middle class. The idea is: displace your anger and passions onto the Net so that you won’t be inclined to actualize them in real time in a context that might conceivably effect change. Moreover every communication we make on the Net is subject to monitoring, and in the process these communications make money for computer, software, and online corporations, as well as profiting paid Net subscribers like newspapers, magazines, and TV networks.
There is, though, an underside to electronic media. One of the most provocative counter-narratives attempts to expropriate the expropriator by employing media against itself. These are our computer hackers, phone freaks, and electronic saboteurs of various inclinations. Mostly young, they are conveniently represented as anarchist delinquents, or, depending on their hacking targets, anarchist criminals. Other people consider them a postmodern example of the benign terrorist, who, like their Cain-cousin, the malign terrorist, can generate a major disruption in either the real or virtual culture.
Where electronic sabotage is going; to what extent it is or will become a cohesive “movement”; whether it can, or even wants, to resist corporate cooptation, nobody is in a position to say. Because the perpetrators tend to be white, middle class, and technologically deft, it represents a dissident, if not outcast, narrative. True, body mutilators are also often middle class and white, but by cutting and illustrating their flesh they have largely forfeited their status and aligned with the lumpen outcasts.
You hear them, if at all, in the dawn hours: the rickety scratching sound of a shopping cart being rolled across the pavement in front of your house or condo. They’re the homeless. How many are there nationwide? A study published about a decade ago in The American Journal of Public Health, out of Columbia University, estimates that approximately 13.5 million Americans have been homeless for at least a few days during their lives. And “an additional 12.5 million have stayed off the streets only by moving in with friends or family at some point, for periods of from a few days to a year.”
When one repeats these numbers, people seem astonished, having had no idea that there were so many untouchables among us. One of Rudolph Giuliani’s major campaign promises when running for mayor was to rid New York City of the homeless, who had been living in the streets, the subways, railroad stations, and in the sewage system underground (the primary entrance to the largest underground network was alongside the Waldorf Astoria, on Park Avenue). Giuliani didn’t deliver on other campaign promises, but he did manage to evict nearly all of the homeless. Nobody seems to know (or admit to knowing) quite how he accomplished this. One supposition is that he bussed them upstate. Upstate where? And wouldn’t that take lots of busses? Giuliani has since been knighted, though not for his role in ridding the city of the homeless.
And who are those 13.5 million vermin and 12.5 million almost-vermin, who, according to The American Journal of Public Health report, would have been homeless but for the intervention of family or close friends? Demographic studies indicate that the homeless are not primarily drunks, recidivist criminals, and schizophrenics, as the master narrative would have us believe. They are Vietnam-era veterans, having fought in a devastating decade-long war that everyone, including Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense and one of the chief architects of the war, now considers unwarranted and immoral. The homeless are working people, female and male, who were laid off their jobs without severance pay or benefits. The homeless are women and children, white, black, and brown, who simply can’t afford to rent a room.
It’s not that the homeless are difficult to see, but that respectable citizens avert their eyes. Semi-invisible as they’ve become, the homeless nonetheless constitute another radically maginalized narrative. You can read traces of this narrative in the local printouts and desktop newspapers which homeless coalitions publish. Primarily, theirs is a narrative that is enacted in the most fundamental way possible: on our mean streets.
Those banally familiar last two words invoke a related category: our ever-expanding prison population. Prison narrative, literally, has a long and distinguished history: Socrates, Thomas More, Cervantes, John Donne, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, Brendan Behan, The Marquis de Sade, Dostoyevski, Primo Levi, Antonio Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn, Jacques Prevert, Roque Dalton, Jimmy Santiago Baca… And African-American writing occupies its own impressive niche in the canon of prison “narrative.” The modern paradigm is Malcolm Little, who became Malcolm X in prison, who went into prison ignorant and intractable, and emerged educated and a potential leader not only of African-American people but of oppressed people everywhere. Among the most prominent recent African American prison writers are Chester Himes, Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, Etheridge Knight, Don Lee, Jerome Washington, and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In fact there is a much older tradition going back to the slavery period, which produced literally hundreds of ex-slaves’ accounts of their bondage and freedom: Frederick Douglass, Linda Brent, Nat Turner, William Wells Brown, William and Ellen Craft, Solomon Northrup, James Pennington, and many other less familiar names. The reason most of these names are unfamiliar is because institutionalized scholarship has systematically omitted them from period histories.
And what about African-American musicians, specifically bluesmen? By some counts, eighty percent of the blues musicians who lived in the Missisippi Delta served time, usually in Parchman State Prison, near Clarksdale. The names of some of the bluesmen who were imprisoned for anything from vagrancy to alleged murder: Bukka White, Leadbelly, Robert Pete Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Washboard Sam, Blind Boy Fuller, Texas Alexander, Big Joe Williams, the list goes on. Nor is this syndrome restricted to the South. Even as the African-Americans and Latinos assigned to the front line during war time are in inverse proportion to their overall numbers, the same applies to the percentage of Blacks and Latinos and American Indians in American prisons nationwide. We know that many non-white, working-class prisoners who fought in and survived US wars return to find themselves third-class citizens or worse, and so a disproportionate number of these vets with no future end up in prison, or homeless. Once in prison, many of them come to view themselves as political prisoners.
As of 1980, prisons constituted the fifth largest industry in California. And profits on sales of prison-made goods were 19% as against the average 4.5% for all other U.S. industries. The direction in the last twenty years has been to privatize prisons, as hospitals and other formerly state or federal service industries have been privatized. Privatization has also led to the accelerated construction of new prisons for profits, with an increasing emphasis on the punitive: long-term sentences with harsh, expropriated labor; tighter restrictions on parole; correspondingly less emphasis on education and rehabilitation; and a significant diminution in humanistic initiatives, such as permitting conjugal visits, or permitting women prisoners to remain with their infants and young children. Further statistics: Fewer than 10% of the people in U.S. jails and prisons are there because they had a trial and were convicted of a crime. Specifically, among American prisoners, 57.4% are legally innocent (they just cannot afford bail), and of the people convicted each year, between 84 and 90% have accepted bargained pleas (mostly because they cannot afford a trial.)
The dissident prison narrative is variously inscribed, moving outward from the flesh and blood body. It starts with a stylized look: pumped-up from weight-lifting and thousands of pushups and situps, and “illustrated” by self-administered tattoos which are coded according to ideology or gang affiliation. The hyper-muscular, tattooed inmate carries himself in a particular fashion depending on whether he is black, white, Latino, or Asian. The “narrative” is further elaborated by the physical segregation inside the institution: white racists, black nationalists, Latinos, identifiable homosexuals, each occupying its own turf, the incorrigibles in solitary. Each of these sectors has its own discourse, its vernacular. If the foregoing qualifies as narrative, it is virtually unread, unwitnessed. But so is Finnegan’s Wake.
The more familiar prison narrative, detailed in prison newspapers and the occasional anthology of prison writings, has to do with protesting the harsh conditions and unjust trial proceedings which have prevented Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Joseph Doherty, Hurricane Carter, and many others from regaining their freedom. But prison narrative, both written and enacted bleak day after day, is fundamentally about the unjust social system which conditions the outcast poor to insurrection in word and deed.
To say that the schizophrenic speaks is to use the word improperly. Attempting to break down the fence of cramping speech, he shatters meaning back to its categorical and lexical components, its underlying articulations–and plays with them.
Also institutionalized and if anything less heard and more abject than prison inmates are the so-called mentally ill; this, despite the efforts of a small number of psychiatrists and therapists led by R D Laing. Laing wrote and tested his radically humanistic theories about mental illness in the Sixties. When he died in 1989, at the age of 62, his crucial work had been subsumed by the onslaught of psychopharmacology.
In the earliest period of psychiatry, before the theories of Freud, it was assumed that mental illness was endogenous, chemical, and hereditary; that the circumambient culture had very little bearing on it. With the theorizing of Freud, Jung, Adler, Reik, Reich, Karen Horney, and other first and second generation psychoanalysts, the emphasis largely changed from nature to nurture. That is, the founders of psychoanalysis argued that the typical psychotic patient became ill in the process of living in what for him, or her, proved to be an unlivable micro-culture. But by and large the assumption remained that the macro-culture was as sound as it need be, and that it was the patient’s responsibility to make his or her peace with it.
Laing’s crucial reinscription of the psychoanalytic paradigm argued that the macro-culture itself must be closely considered and, where necessary, held accountable. As Laing put it: if the patient is out of formation, it should not be necessarily assumed that the formation is on course. Schizophrenia, Laing pointed out, etymologically means not only split brain but split heart. One might say then that many diagnosed schizophrenics are emotionally responsive to a cultural formation which itself is perilously off-course, but which the rest of us normal souls have not yet registered.
The standard response to Laing and his allies is that the aim of psychiatry, is, as best as possible, to refit the patient into society as structured; it is not the job of psychiatry to address society itself. But why not? Are social structures outside history? Are they not engendered and modified by humans?
Those who resisted the Stalinist mass killlings in the Thirties and Forties were often declared insane and exiled to remote so-called mental institutions. Those who resisted the Nazi genocide were institutionalized in the process of being gassed. Is it not possible that the current anger, diagnosed as psychotic, has some validity as it relates to a culture that is increasingly homogenized and inauthentic? Why, then, is the anger, even rage, of the psychotic always irrational, never ethical or righteous? Could it be that certain, even many, diagnosed psychotics are shamanically taking on the suffering we would otherwise assume had we the insight and courage to say No! to an increasingly depersonalized culture?
In our current repressive period, all mental aberrations are conveniently labeled organic and treated with chemicals, electroshock, psychosurgery.
The prospect that the mentally distressed person might be mounting a deep, even life-consuming protest against an insupportable culture is dismissed out-of-hand. From Freud until a generation or so ago, it was assumed that most diagnosed mental illness was caused by the circumambient culture, micro or macro. Now we’re to believe that most if not all of diagnosed mental illness is caused by a malfunction in the brain. Is that 180 degree turn solely due to the quantum leaps in medical technology? Or is it also, and perhaps primarily, a reactionary turn in the psychiatric discourse designed to insulate a cruel and depersonalized culture from criticism?
There are hundreds of anti-depressants and related drugs in circulation produced by mega-pharmaceutical companies, with the consultation of large advertising firms regarding the naming, promoting and marketing of the particular drug. HMOs fund the ever-increasing prescriptions of these drugs for reasons which are flawlessly profit-centered. They would naturally prefer to underwrite a patient’s ingestion of a Serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which they estimate at about 1300 dollars a year, to psychotherapy without drugs which they estimate at about 3000 dollars a year. Meanwhile, depressed people are treated for their symptoms, while the root causes - financial inequities, depersonalization, lack of leisure, inquisitional puritanism, industrial illnesses, and so on - are papered over, or ignored. The monopolistic pharmaceutical companies: Eli Lilly, Smith Kline Beecham, Bristol-Myers, Pfizer, and the rest share the monster profits with the HMOs.
Non-compliance, as it’s called, to prescribed medications or prescribed electro-shock is, to official psychiatry, indisputable proof that the patient is resisting improvement of his or her condition, no matter how harsh and indiscriminate the treatment is. “Indiscriminate,” because psychiatrists commonly prescribe treatment with only a partial knowledge of the patient, sometimes without even having met the patient. The fact is that patients may not wish to have their brains shot through with electric volts; not wish to have an insulin-induced coma; not wish to have psychosurgery, formerly called lobotomy; not wish to be zombied out on Thorazine. If the heart or blood pressure patient can express how she feels and be consulted regarding the type and dosage of her medication, why should this not apply to the emotionally distressed human?
British psychologist Carol Tavris encapsulates the official vs Laingian, or existential, argument this way: “Medical labels encourage us to look inward, to pathology in our genes, hormones and brains; social and political explanations encourage us to look outward, to the condition of our lives.”
Given the indisputable facts that the US has vastly widened the disparity between rich and poor, commited itself to the construction and privatization of prisons, dumped its mental patients into the streets, fatally marginalized the aged, corporatized whatever could be corporatized, one would expect that psychiatrists would at least consider certain deviations from the norm to represent a political response. No. The enforced consensus among practicing psychiatrists is organic, chemical. And the bible of the organic genesis of deviation is The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Its current edition is 900 pages long and contains 300 “disorders.”
According to Kutchins’ and Kirk’s Making Us Crazy: DSM: The Psychiatric Bible and the Creation of Mental Disorders (NY, 1997), the DSM’s catalog of mental “disorders” is in large part based on “cultural prejudices, special interest groups, and political pressures.” Rather than proven scientific data, whatever that might entail, inclusion of a so-called disorder depends on a vote of practicing psychiatrists, with their insights, biases and ties to major pharmaceutical corporations intact.
In the last decade or so, “Outsider Art” has become a hot commodoity, with lavish museum exhibits and the production of expensive coffee table picture books. Nonetheless, official psychiatry would argue that creativity and so-called madness have nothing in common, that where art and psychosis coexist it is coincidental.
As early as the first part of the twentieth century, a handful of European psychiatric institutions in Germany, Switzerland, and France encouraged certain mental patients to express themselves artistically, and their art was then collected and catalogued. The most notable early collection was gathered by the alienist Hans Prinzhorn from patients in the Psychiatric Clinic, in Heidelberg. Professional artists such as Klee, Kandinsky, Bellmer, Ernst, Karel Appel, Alfonso Ossorio, and Jean Dubuffet viewed these works and expressed their admiration. Dubuffet coined the designation Art Brut, which later also became known as Outsider Art.
In the 1960s and early `70s, Laing and other existential psychoanalysts, attempting purposefully to interract with mentally distressed people in humanist terms, encouraged patients to release their particular narratives of the world. These “brut” narratives were written, drawn, painted, sculpted, and many were published and exhibited.
Could those “psychotics” have produced the same intensely authentic art if they were adjudged sane? In the majority of instances they could not. Which is not to say that an emotional breakdown as such produces art, or is conducive to art-making. In certain, perhaps even many, instances creation of art and diagnosed psychosis are confluent. Each deviates from the so-called norm and moves in a similar direction. Sometimes they converge; other times they diverge. But the fact of the primary deviation is itself noteworthy, since the strongest art must always be, among other things, “the immoral subversion of the existing order.” (Bataille) Especially where the existing order has appropriated “morality” to service its master narrative.
What would official psychiatry say of the connection of the sacred and diagnosed psychosis? One thinks of North American Indian peyote ceremonies; the Sundance ceremony; the gift of tongues; spiritual reclusion and intense meditation; the cultivation of dream for its prophetic properties, while rejecting what passes for reality outside dream. Aren’t all of these spiritual practices in direct conflict with the material world? And don’t they - or many of them - with their visions and hallucinations, bear a likeness to what has been variously diagnosed as madness, dementia, schizophrenia, and bi-polar disorder?
Put another way, diagnosed madness may in many instances be understood as a self-annilhilating commentary (narrative) on an institutionally mad culture.
I referred to certain spiritual sectors’ cultivation of dream for its prophetic properties. The current official culture scarcely acknowledges dream. We wake up after seven or eight hours of sleep punctuated by graphic, concentrated, timeless, passion and perception, and we are encouraged to repress all of it. And proceed with our stressful, programmed, mostly passionless wake-a-day lives as if the dream-narrative never existed. (If you admit to dreaming vividly, official culture is likely to attempt to medicate you.) I call dreams “timeless” because dreamtime narrative is mostly vertical, a-chronological, as opposed to the manipulated, horizontal, time-induced stresses of our wake-a-day.
Jean Baudrillard wonders rhetorically: “Are there two lines to our lives, the one a non-biological, imemorial youth, which we experience in dreams, and the other an organic line of life and death, of duration and of remembrance, with which we identify our pale and mortal existence? Could there be two fundamental sequences and no relation to them? Or is the first simply the projection of the second, its hallucinatory discourse, as, deep, down psychaoanalysis argues.” Baudrillard endorses the first hypothesis: “We have two existences, each of which is wholly original and independent of the other.” (Cool Memories, Verso, 1990, 115). Does dream, then, represent perhaps our last frontier, a mode infiltrated by official culture but still maintaining a degree of autonomy which could be channeled into dissident, conceivably even revolutionary, agency via art? It is disputable whether dream is uncontaminated, but let’s assume that it mostly is. At some juncture, then, dream-as-narrative might re-seize its dissident potential, as happened, for example, with German Expressionism and Surrealism. But that juncture is not now. People (I’m talking principally of Americans) will have to live and breathe the new world order for some time longer before they come to realize (if they ever do) that the master narrative is strangling rather than succoring them. That they’re not grinning and waving but grimacing and drowning.