24 Jun 2017

A Letter to Heide Hatry (Parts III-V)

Heide Hatry

III. The Truth of Masks

I don't want to appear dim, but I'm not sure I understand this opening sentence from your third text: "whatever sort of opposition one might want to level against the subject-object/presence-absence dichotomy ... it, too, will be inherently fissured by its origins".

In as much as I do understand it - you're saying that both terms in a binary originate, circulate and ultimately coincide within the same conceptual schema or identity - I agree. That's why I try not to engage in oppositional thinking and why I'm not interested in Hegelian dialectics, nor in simply inverting terms (even if this can be fun and may well be a necessary first step in a more profound deconstruction, as Derrida concedes). 

As for the question of the face, maybe you're right and I need to rethink it. Certainly there are faces I love to look at. What Barthes felt about the face of Greta Garbo, I feel about the face of Marlene Dietrich for example; it's a pure and perfect object that appears to be untouched by time or finger-tips, unmarked by traces of emotion. It's a face that belongs to art, not to nature and which has all the cold and expressionless beauty of a mask; a face that has not been painted so much as sculpted. An archetypal and totemic face. A fetish object.

"And behind a mask there is still an identity, an identity that has chosen a mask ..."

No, sorry, I don't agree with this. The truth of masks is far more radical and disconcerting than that; it's the truth that masks don't hide faces or disguise identities, they mask the fact there's nothing behind them. That's why the invisible man is a more interesting and, to those who fear the thought of non-being, a more terrifying figure than the phantom of the opera. When the latter removes his mask he merely reveals scars. But when the former strips away his bandages, Dasein is obliged to confront the ontological truth that it rests upon the void of non-being (sein Nicht-mehr-dasein, as Heidegger writes).

It's this that produces Angst - particularly in those egoists who "dare not die for fear they should be nothing at all" [D. H. Lawrence] and in those who hope to still find a smiling face beneath the bandages, behind the mask, or in the ashes.

IV. The Lugubrious Game

As for the base material from which you compose your "micro-mosaics", my friend, the poet and translator Simon Solomon, is planning to write of ghost, of flame, and of ashes in the manner of (and with reference to) Derrida and I don't wish to anticipate his remarks. However, you might like to read my Reflections from a Sickbed, in which I muse on the problem of corpse disposal and what to do with cremains.

I think, were I an artist, I might be tempted to mix ashes with excrement and smear the combination across a large white canvas to show how what we leave behind us when we die - when we become that shipwreck in the nauseous - is not a face, but a slimy and disgusting residue, as when a snail or slug passes by. Or, to put it more crudely, a shit stain. (Obviously, I'm thinking back to Bataille here and to Dalí's 'The Lugubrious Game'.)

You say that human remains can be "ennobled by art" and maybe they can. But, for me, it's not the job of art to elevate anything belonging to mankind; on the contrary it should bring us back down Pisgah with a bump and remind us of our mortality and material nature; to make us grunt like pigs before the canvas, rather than sigh like angels full of smug self-satisfaction. It's important to realise that when Nietzsche says art is the great anti-nihilistic force par excellence, he implies also that it's a form of counter-idealism; for nihilism is not simply the negation of all values, it's the positing of ultimately hollow ideals in the first place.  

V. Iconography is Never Innocent

I'm glad to hear you don't intend to "freeze the dead in a permanent subordination" to an image. Though it's difficult for me to imagine this won't be an unintended consequence of producing icons in ash that are so realistic in their facial representation and reconstruction. Do you remember how some tribal peoples used to worry that the camera stole their soul? Well I have similar concerns. Indeed, I even have some sympathy with the authors of Exodus warning against graven images and the making of idols etc.

I certainly agree with Baudrillard that, whatever else it may be, iconography is never innocent. In fact, it plays a complicit role in the perfect crime by which he refers to the extermination of singular being via technological and social processes bent on replacing real things and real people with a series of images and empty signs. When this happens, we pass beyond representation (or, in the case of the dead, commemoration) towards obscenity; a state wherein everything and everyone is "uselessly, needlessly visible, without desire and without effect".

I worry, Heide, that those who are indecently exposed in a game of posthumous exhibitionism (you describe it in terms of self-expression and self-revelation) are left without secrets, without shadows, without charm. They become, if you like, ghosts caught up in a commercial art machine ...

Finally, I smiled when you wrote "if, as you seem to contend, the 'goal' or 'desire' of life ... is to merge back into material indifference, we might as well be dead already" - for don't you see that, in a very real sense, we are dead already ... 
Yours with respect, admiration, and affection,

Stephen Alexander

To read parts I and II of this letter to Heide Hatry, please click here

To read Heide Hatry's extensive series of comments please see the posts to which they are attached: Heide Hatry: Icons in Ash and On Faciality and Becoming-Imperceptible with Reference to the Work of Heide Hatry.

A Letter to Heide Hatry (Parts I and II)

Heide Hatry

I. The Sickness Unto Death

Dear Heide,

Many thanks for your fascinating five-part response to the posts on Torpedo the Ark that referred to your recent body of work, Icons in Ash. I'm touched that you kindly took the time to write not only at length, but with such good grace and critical intelligence. I will attempt to reply in the same manner and to each part in turn. However, I should point out that I'm unconvinced about the possibility (or desirability) of serious discussion: either two people agree - in which case there's not much to say; or they disagree - in which case there's nothing to say. This renders the attempt to exchange ideas narcissistic and futile; a vacuous academic game to be avoided at all costs.

Having said that, there's no need for absolute silence; we can surely keep company and converse without attempting to discuss things and break words apart. It's just a question of bearing in mind this idea of incommensurability and accepting that even speaking subjects who seem to share a language never truly understand one another; that there's always a pathos of distance between things, between people. It's not surprising, therefore, that you fail to "recognise" yourself in my words: for I don't know you. Indeed, if I might be permitted to paraphrase Nietzsche once more, we knowers are unknown even to ourselves ...

You ask if I have "really looked" at your work. Sadly, as I don't live in New York, I've not been afforded the opportunity to do so. I've had to make do with printed reproductions and images online. Perhaps this explains why I haven't "felt" it (though I'm not quite sure I know what you mean by this). Ultimately, it's fair to say that I'm more interested in what you (and others) say about the portraits, rather than the portraits themselves. As I'm neither a practicing visual artist, nor a qualified art critic, you'll have to forgive my insensitivity.   

I'm pretty much in agreement with your remarks on Deleuze and Guattai; certainly theirs was a project critical and clinical in nature and they regarded themselves as cultural physicians. But it should be noted that they have a very unusual understanding of what constitutes health and it doesn't coinicide with the dreary and functional good health which we've been given and which we're endlessly told we have to look after.

In fact, it's an irresistable and delicate form of health that the conventionally robust who eat their five-a-day and visit the gym after work might find feeble and sickly. The key thing is, whilst strength preserves, it's only sickness that advances. That's why we need our decadents, our convalescents, and those artists and philosophers who have returned from the Underworld with bloodshot eyes and pierced eardrums. You mention Artaud and Rimbaud. I might mention others - such as D. H. Lawrence, for example. Theirs may not have been "salutary examples of the good life", but they were vital figures nevertheless. 

II. On Death and Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence       

I'm very sorry if my suggestion that, in calling up the spirits of deceased loved ones, you were seeking to have the last word upset you. It might well be that such a remark displays all of the faults you ascribe to it (banality, reductiveness, wrong-headedness, tone-deafness, remarkable ungenerosity, and wilful misunderstanding). Nevertheless, it surely has to be admitted that the dead, being dead, have no right of reply and cannot give consent.

In fact, one of the irritating things about the dead is that no matter how loud you cry and scream at them, or or how fully you explain yourself to them, they never listen and they never respond. Again, it's not so much rudeness or indifference on their part - it's just how they are (dead).

Obviously, we disagree on this ... It might please you to know, however, that I like the idea of the souls of the dead investing the lives of the living. And of the dead who do not die, but look on and silently help. It might be noted too that I've written sympathetically and approvingly of necrophilia and spectrophilia. But still - with the possible exception of those posthumous individuals who, as Nietzsche says, only enter into life once they've died - I can't quite accept that the dead have a great deal to offer (although, to be fair, neither do the noisy majority of the living). 

Moving on ... I opened my eyes wide in astonishment when you referred to (human) life as the "most glorious phenomenon" - but decided you were only teasing. I mean, Heide, c'mon - you can't be serious! At best life is epiphenomenal - a rare and unusual way of being dead, as Nietzsche describes it. To privilege life over death is just prejudice. I'm all for living life joyfully, but it's only ever a practice of joy before death and the real festivity begins when we make a return to material actuality.

To be clear: I'm not championing that negative representation of death conceived as a form of judgement which comes at the end of a life upon which, as you say, it "exerts an oppressive and defeatist effect". Rather, I'm speaking of death as a form of becoming (a line of flight and a dissolution). You mention at this point in your comments Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence and, clearly, it speaks of both types of death which Keith Ansell-Pearson characterises as heat death and fire death. Please note, however, that there's never any attempt at reconciliation in Nietzsche's work.

I wouldn't say Nietzsche's eternal recurrence is a "life-affirming" teaching (even you put this phrase in scare quotes); what it affirms, rather, is repetition and the difference engendered by it (the Same - das Gleiche - is not a fixed essence and does not refer to a content in and of itself). Nor is it a cheerful teaching - it's a form of tragic pessimism; there's no promise of salvation or any hope of transcending existence precisely as is. The happiness it promises is forever tied to pain and suffering (as well as moonlight, spiders and demons).      

To read parts III-V of this letter to Heide Hatry, please click here

To read Heide Hatry's extensive series of comments please see the posts to which they are attached: Heide Hatry: Icons in Ash and On Faciality and Becoming-Imperceptible with Reference to the Work of Heide Hatry

21 Jun 2017

Jüdische Insekten or Himmler's Lice

Antisemitic poster from 1942 used in German occupied Poland to warn against the 
supposed connection between Jews, lice and typhus; for the Nazis, Jews infected 
with the disease were metaphysically indistinguishable from its insect carriers.  

To paraphrase Shakespeare, if I may: Some are born insects, some wish to become-insect, and some have insecthood thrust upon 'em

Take the Jews, for example, in Hitler's Germany. When not being described as a cancer to be cut out of the body politic, or portrayed as a plague of sewer rats, they were obscenely characterised as parasitic lice or giant cockroaches in need of extermination. For racism loves to dehumanise and to operate in terms of pest control and personal hygiene.

In a speech to his fellow officers in April 1943, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler openly declared:

"Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness. In just the same way, antisemitism, for us, has not been a question of ideology, but a matter of cleanliness ..."

To be judenfrei was, in Himmler's mind, to be deloused - i.e. free of blood-sucking, disease-carrying insects that infest individuals and threaten to spread throughout the entire population; creatures that cause feelings of revulsion and which deserve to be eradicated. 

Of course, Jews are not actually insects; they're human beings. And there are moral and legal prohibitions on the premeditated killing of human beings; we even have a special term for it - murder. And it's difficult to persuade people to commit murder. Thus the Nazis had a problem ...

The solution, as the quotation from Himmler demonstrates, involves pushing a metaphor - the Jews are inhuman vermin; the Jews are disgusting insects - beyond its own limit, transforming it into a pseudo-scientific fact and a deadly piece of doxa. Genocide ends with a pile of corpses, but it always begins with an abuse of language that allows us to kill in good conscience. As Hugh Raffles writes:

"There is no doubt that this happened in the Holocaust. ... Explaining it is at the heart of understanding the fate of the Jews, who, after all, would be killed like insects - like lice, in fact. Literally like lice. Like Himmler's lice. With the same routinized indifference and, in vast numbers, with the same techologies."

Raffles also suggests - and one suspects this might very well be the case - that Himmler in his speech was "indulging in an intimate irony with his men"; making a little joke at the expense of those murdered in the gas chambers:

"As is well known, prisoners at Auschwitz were treated to an elaborate charade. Those selected for death were directed to 'delousing facilities' equipped with false-headed showers. They were moved through changing rooms, allocated soap and towels. They were told they would be rewarded for disinfection with hot soup. ... The prisoners massed uncertainly in the shower room. Overhead, unseen, the disinfectors waited in their gas masks for the warmth of the naked bodies to bring the ambient temperature to the optimal 78 degrees Fahrenheit. They then poured crystals from the cans of Zyklon B - a hydrogen cyanide insecticide developed for delousing buildings and clothes - through the ceiling hatches. Finally, the bodies, contorted by the pain caused by the warning agent ... were removed to the crematoria.
      In this grotesque pantomime, the victims ... move from objects of care to objects of annihilation. To diseased humans, delousing promises remediation, a return to community, a return to life; to lice, it offers only extermination. Too late, the prisoners discover they are merely lice."

One of the reasons that the language of National Socialism continues to fascinate (and to appal) is because of the way it conflates and confuses metaphor, euphemism and a brutal literalism into a witches' brew that is vague and void of meaning on the one hand, whilst paradoxically transparent and full of deadly intent on the other.    


There are, thankfully, far happier and more positive associations between Jews and insects. In fact, several species of the latter have been named after celebrated Jewish figures; there is, for example, the Karl Marx wasp and the Sigmund Freud beetle - not to mention the Harry Houdini moth, the Lou Reed spider, and the Carole King stonefly.   

See: Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia, (Vintage Books, 2010); particularly the chapter entitled 'Jews', pp. 141-61, from where all of the lines quoted - including those from Heinrich Himmler - were taken. 

Those interested in knowing more about the insects (and other organisms) named after famous Jewish figures, should click here.  

20 Jun 2017

Entomophilia 2: Crush Fetish

Crush20 by Unknown 1886 (2017)

Although some men (and, let's be honest, it is mostly men) enjoy watching women crush larger animals including live rodents, birds, fish, and even kittens beneath their feet (a practice that is illegal in many countries, including the UK and US), most devotees of crush porn are content with the so-called soft version that makes do with sexually sacrificing invertebrates; insects, arachnids, crustaceans, molluscs, etc. (a practice against which there are no laws and creatures about whom even many animal rights activists don't seem to care).

As Jeremy Biles notes in an essay on Georges Bataille and those he likes to term (after Jeff Vilencia) crush freaks, the latter are:

"sexually aroused by the sight of an insect exploded beneath the pressure of a human foot - usually, but not necessarily, a relatively large and beautiful female foot. Sometimes the insects meet their demise under the force exerted by a naked big toe. Other times, it is the impaling heel of a stiletto or the raised outsole of a platform shoe that accomplishes the extermination."

Crucially, as Biles goes on to say: "the crush freak typically fantasizes identification with the insect as he or she masturbates, and savors the sense of sudden, explosive mutilation attendant upon the sight of the pedal extrusions". This is why crush fetishism cuts across both podophilia and macrophilia, although Biles himself - rather unconvincingly - prefers to relate crush fetishism to technophilia, i.e. sexual arousal associated with machinery, rather than the feet of giant women.

I suppose the key is that lovers of crush porn feel shortchanged by the usual money shot of an ejaculating penis - they want to see (and need to imagine) a whole body exploding in every direction at once; the agony and the ecstasy of bursting bodies is the ultimate transgression of boundaries, making the values of society go splat via a perverse act of sexual violence. 

Diminutive former child star Mickey Rooney may have disapproved - although his concern was more for the children of America than the creatures being stepped on - but crush fetishism, like most other perverse forms of love - including philosophy - has something important to teach us; not least the absurdity of insisting upon an essential connection between Eros and morality.

See: Jeremy Biles, 'I, Insect, Or Bataille and the Crush Freaks', Janus Head, 7(1), pp. 115-31 (Trivium Publications, 2004). Click here to read online.

See also: Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia, (Vintage Books, 2010); particularly the chapter entitled 'Sex', pp. 267-90. 

In the above, Raffles points out that most crush fetishists don't give a damn about insects, even though they may intensely identify with them during a moment of "wildly disorienting arousal". And neither do they attempt some kind of becoming-insect in order to escape the limits of their humanity. They just want to get off by pretending to be in the position of a bug underfoot; i.e., they just want to feel themselves worthless, disgusting, and vulnerable. For crush fetishists, the insect is merely a means to an end.       

Those interested in reading part one of this post on insect fetish should click here.  

19 Jun 2017

Entomophilia 1: Insect Fetish

Ian Moore: Formicophilia (2014) 

Entomophilia is more than just a fondness for insects. It's a form of zoosexuality which might involve being crawled upon, nibbled, tickled, or stung by insects, spiders, or other small creatures such as slugs and snails.

Arguably, it also includes squashing these things underfoot, though some see this as an entirely separate form of sadomasochistic activity based upon animal cruelty rather than animal love; an illicit fetish, rather than a legitimate sexual orientation. I'll discuss the controversial topic of crush fetish in part two of this post.

Here, I want to speak about the innocent practice of applying insects to various parts of the body, including the genital and perianal areas; a practice sometimes known as formicophilia, though, as indicated, it often involves more than simply having ants in your pants (some, for example, are aroused by the gentle touch of a butterfly's wing beating against their nipples, or stimulated by having a cockroach scuttle up their inside leg - and mosquitoes are apparently very popular amongst insect-lovers with a thing for flies).     

Not that there is much more to say; academic research in this area has been extremely limited, so one mostly has to rely upon anaecdotal evidence and personal testimony provided by entomophiles in online chat forums. And, ultimately, there are not that many entomophiles in the world. In fact, as paraphilias go, this one is extremely niche.    

However, in her Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices (1992), the American author and sexologist Brenda Love does describe how one melissophile chanced upon the joy of bees, having discovered that stings to his penis not only greatly increased its size (girth, not length), but also extended the duration and intensity of his orgasm.

Realising that stings to his penis were relatively painless compared to other parts of his body and delighted with the results obtained, the man soon developed his own procedure which consisted of first catching two bees in a jar and vigorously shaking it to ensure the insects were dizzy and thus unable to fly away:

"They were then grabbed by both wings so that they were unable to twist around and sting. Each bee was placed each side of the glans and pushed to encourage it to sting. (Stings to the glans do not produce the desired swelling and the venom sac tends to penetrate the skin too deeply, causing difficulty in removing them)."

Sadly, having performed what was required of them, these cockstinging bees then die, which raises an interesting ethical question that comes into much sharper focus when we discuss the insecticidal aspect of crush porn, a fetishistic practice which certainly offers a new and kinky perspective upon the question of cruelty in relation to eroticism and animal welfare (as well as bringing to mind the line from King Lear involving flies, wanton boys, and killing for pleasure). 

See: Brenda Love, Encyclopedia of Unusual Sexual Practices, (Barricade Books, 1992). 

Readers interested in part two of this post on crush fetish should click here

18 Jun 2017

Becoming-Insect 2: The Case of Seth Brundle

Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle / Brundlefly
in The Fly (dir. David Cronenberg, 1986)

There is more than a grain of truth in the following statement by Richard Mabey:

"I think we may be lucky that insects are too small and remote ever to have entered our understanding in the way that birds and flowers have. If we saw their lives for what they really are I think it might be too much for us to bear."
- The Unofficial Countryside (1973)

And yet, sometimes, one can't help looking at the bees, bugs and beetles with a mixture of admiration and envy and thoughts of becoming-insect; i.e., of entering an alien life free from all compassion and compromise, but with its own inhuman beauty. Not that this ever ends well, as the cases of Gregor Samsa and Seth Brundle demonstrate ...

2: The Case of Seth Brundle

If frustrated salesman Gregor Samsa remains concerned about the welfare of others following his metamorphosis, the same cannot be said of eccentric scientist Seth Brundle who, following an experiment, slowly mutates into a human-insect hybrid - the so-called Brundlefly - a creature monstrous of face, monstrous of soul.

That is to say, a devil harbouring within himself all the vices and base appetites of one whose very ugliness is the expression of a development that has been thwarted by crossing (as Nietzsche says of Socrates).

In short, the Brundlefly is a creature of instinctual malice, cf. the Samsabeetle who was one of kindness and sensitivity despite his appearance. On the plus side, in the early stages of his transformation before he sheds his humanity and all the trappings of such (including teeth, hair and skin), Brundle does enjoy increased strength, stamina, and sexual potency.

Later, he's able to climb the walls and crawl across the ceiling - something that Gregor also enjoys doing. And if no longer able to eat solid food, Brundle gains the astonishing - if repulsive - ability to dissolve his meals by vomiting digestive enzymes onto them (an ability which, as we see later in the film, can also serve as a corrosive form of self-defence).         

Ultimately, if the case of Gregor Samsa makes us sympathetic and sorrowful at his demise, the case of Seth Brundle only makes us afraid. Very afraid.  But what is it exactly we fear? The answer, says Cronenberg, is the disease and old age that threaten all of us with a becoming-monstrous; the mortal corruption within rapidly deforming the flesh and destroying our reason. 

Just thinking about it is enough to make one weep ninety-six tears ...


To read part one of this post on becoming-insect, the case of Gregor Samsa, click here

To listen to a uniquely brilliant take on this question by The Cramps, click here.   

17 Jun 2017

Becoming-Insect 1: The Case of Gregor Samsa

There's more than a grain of truth in the following statement by Richard Mabey:

"I think we may be lucky that insects are too small and remote ever to have entered our understanding in the way that birds and flowers have. If we saw their lives for what they really are I think it might be too much for us to bear."

And yet, sometimes, one can't help looking at the bees, bugs and beetles with a mixture of admiration and envy and thoughts of becoming-insect; i.e., of entering an alien life free from all compassion and compromise, but with its own inhuman beauty. Not that this ever ends well, as the cases of Gregor Samsa and Seth Brundle demonstrate ...

1: The Case of Gregor Samsa

One might argue that Gregor Samsa doesn't in fact become-insect in the very special sense that Deleuze and Guattari mean by the term. For his is primarily a change at the molar level of form - a metamorphosis - whereas becoming-animal is a demonic event played out at the molecular level of forces that enables one to: "stake out the path of escape in all its positivity ... to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone ..."

However, as Deleuze and Guattari refer in their own work to this case as an example of becoming-animal - albeit one that fails due to Gregor's refusal to take his deterritorialization all the way - I'm not going to press the issue here. Let's just agree that Kafka's tale doesn't simply concern an imaginary identification with an insect taking place in Gregor's mind; it's neither a mad fantasy, nor a terrible dream.

His, rather, is an essential transformation of the kind that troubles Freudians and theologians alike and one misses the point of the story if one fails to appreciate this. The six-legged critter that Gregor becomes isn't archetypal nor mythological; nor is it in need of any dreary psychoanalytic interpretation (it doesn't merely signify oedipal anxiety, for example).

On the other hand, as Walter Benjamin points out, neither is it particularly rewarding to read the story too naturalistically and become obsessed with classifying what kind of animal Gregor becomes. English translations sometimes indicate a giant cockroach, but the German terms used by Kafka - ungeheuer Ungeziefer - are non-specific and suggestive of many types of unclean animal or vermin, not just those that belong to the class of creatures we usually think of as the worst sort of creepy-crawly.         

It's doubtless because he wanted to keep things vague that Kafka also prohibited illustrations for his book. In a letter to his publisher he insisted that images of Gregor post-transformation were not to be included, even if depicted from a distance or in shadow. But it's clear from his own descriptions that Gregor was some kind of large insect scuttling about and Kafka uses the terms Insekt and Wanze [bug] in his correspondence when discussing the story.  

Interestingly - and I think rather amusingly - despite Kafka's wish for indeterminacy and Benjamin's dismissal of readings that attempt to root themselves in taxonomy, Nabokov - who was not only a great novelist, but also a great entomologist - claimed he knew exactly what species of insect Gregor turned into; basically, a big beetle just over 3 feet long.

What's more, in his heavily annotated copy of Kafka's novella that he used for teaching purposes, Nabokov even provided an illustration: 

Whatever type of pest he became, sadly, Gregor the Mensch-Insekt, is allowed and encouraged to die a lonely, sordid death by his family, raising the question of where true horror and monstrosity begins.


Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan, (University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

Josh Jones, 'Franz Kafka Says the Insect in The Metamorphosis Should Never Be Drawn; Vladimir Nabokov Draws It Anyway', essay on openculture.com (Oct 21 2015): to read, click here.
Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, trans. Michael Hofmann, (Penguin Books, 2007)  
Richard Mabey, The Unofficial Countryside, (Collins, 1973). 

Readers interested in a related post to this one, which also refers to the case of Gregor Samsa, should click here

To read part two of this post on becoming-insect: the case of Seth Brundle, click here.  

13 Jun 2017

On Faciality and Becoming-Imperceptible with Reference to the Work of Heide Hatry

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy (2014)

I've been told that my post on Heide Hatry's Icons in Ash was unkind and unfair. And, further, that my refusal or inability to recognise their philosophical interest and aesthetic power either perverse or shameful:

"Do you not see how the very materials from which they are composed deconstruct the life and death binary? If only you'd drop your anti-humanistic posturing for a moment, you might learn to appreciate their uncanny, bitter-sweet beauty and significance."

Let me, then, offer a few further remarks on Hatry's ash portraits, attempting to make clear the basis for my criticisms and concerns ...

I: On Faciality

I have written elsewhere on this blog about my Deleuzean dislike of the face: click here and here, for example.

In sum: the face has long held a privileged and determining place within Western metaphysics that I think we need to challenge. For whilst we might fool ourselves that each face is individual and unique, it isn’t. Rather, it’s a type of social machine that overcodes not just the head, but the entire body, ensuring that any asignifying or non-subjective forces and flows arising from the libidinal chaos of the latter are neutralized in advance. The smile and all our other familiar facial expressions are thus merely types of conformity with the dominant reality.

And so, when Heide Hatry insists on the primacy of the face and reconstructs it in all its complexity and vulgarity from ash, I have a problem. Asked if it was necessary to create facial images rather than do something else with the cremains, she replies:

"It's absolutely necessary; and it's necessary that the portrait is as realistic as possible because ... the face is where we understand communication is happening ... for capturing all the subtleties that make us human."

Hatry thus openly subscribes to the ideal moral function of the face; as that which reveals the soul and allows us to comprehend the individual: "Other ways of reading a person are incidental or filtered through this", she says - not incorrectly, but in a manner that suggests she's entirely untroubled by this. 

II: Becoming-Imperceptible

For me - again as someone who writes in the shadow of Deleuze - it's crucial to (i) rethink the subject outside of the moral-rational framework provided by classical humanism and (ii) escape the face and find a way of becoming-imperceptible. Thus, rather than drawing faces in the dust and displaying a sentimental attachment to personal identity, artists should be helping us experiment with different modes of constituting the self and new ways of inhabiting the body.   

Further, they should be helping us form an understanding of death that is entirely inhuman and faceless and which opens up a radically impersonal way of being linked to cosmic forces: a return to material actuality, as Nietzsche says; i.e. merging with a universe that is supremely indifferent to life. To think death in terms of becoming-imperceptible is ultimately to privilege ashes over the epiphenomenal phoenix that arises from them (despite the beauty of its feathers).

It doesn't mean "returning indistinguishable ashes to the particular" and vainly attempting to keep alive what was "in danger of being lost or forgotten". The idea that art exists in order to secure "the sense of a person, of her or his individuality, to lovingly preserve that quality even in death, in memory, and with it the integrity of the human lineage through generations", is anathema to me.

I think, at heart, most of us - like Sade - desire to be completely forgotten when we die, leaving no visible traces behind of our existence. As Rosi Braidotti puts it, central to posthumanist ethics lies evanescence (not transcendence) and the following paradox: "that while at the conscious level all of us struggle for survival, at some deeper level of our unconscious structures, all we long for is to lie silently and let time wash over us in the perfect stillness of not-life".

To be everywhere and nowhere; everything and nothing; to vanish like Lucy or the Incredible Shrinking Man into the eternal flux of becoming  - that's better than ending up ashen-faced, is it not?       


Rosi Braidotti, 'The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible', in Deleuze and Philosophy, ed. Constantin Boundas, (Edinburgh University Press, 2006), pp. 133-59. To read this essay online click here.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, (The University of Minnesota Press, 1987); see chapters 7: 'Year Zero: Faciality' and 10: 1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible ...'

Mark Pachter, 'A Conversation with Heide Hatry', in Heide Hatry, Icons in Ash, ed. Gavin Keeney, (Station Hill in association with Ubu Gallery, New York, 2017), pp. 76-91. 

Re: Luc Bresson's film, Lucy (2014), of course it's shot through with crackpot science, Hollywood hokum and idealism of the worst kind - what Nietzsche would think of as Platonism for the people. But it at least hints at the form of becoming towards which all other becomings aim - the becoming-imperceptible. It's just unfortunate it ends with an idiotic text message - I am everywhere - which implies omnipresence in terms of personal consciousness, rather than impersonal materiality.    


11 Jun 2017

In Memory of Roger Moore and Adam West

Roger Moore as 007 and Adam West as Batman

In the same way that many of us subscribe to the view that Roger Moore is the best Bond, so too is it unarguably the case that Adam West is by far the greatest Batman - the camp coolness of his Caped Crusader in the sixties TV show, superior to the brooding menace of more recent cinematic versions: Dark Knight, my arse!  

So it was sad to learn that Adam West has died, aged 88, from leukaemia - just as it was sad to hear the news last month of Moore's passing, aged 89, also from cancer. Both actors were very much part of my childhood and are fully deserving of the place that each has secured within the cultural imagination, as well as the hearts of millions of fans around the world.  

Heide Hatry: Icons in Ash

Two portraits by Heide Hatry (2009): Paul Schmid and Stefan Huber from the Icons in Ash series
(Loose ash particles, pulverized birch coal and white marble dust on beeswax)

New York based artist Heide Hatry is, despite her thanatological obsessions, all too human at heart. It's not surprising, therefore, that she aims to transform objects into subjects and to provide the impersonal dead with new, posthumous identities that are literally fixed in ash.

Regarding death as a terrible abdication of self or a humiliating loss of face, Hatry has determined that the dead be memorialised by providing a smiling likeness one more time: a sort of selfie from beyond the grave that she describes in iconic and shamanic terms; potent images that allow communion with the ethereal presence of lost loved ones.

She summarizes her project of facial reconstruction in the following vitalist terms:

"I want to reintegrate life and death: to touch death, work with death, to be an artist of and for death, to let it speak in its mundanity, its grandeur, its familiarity and its mystery, its uniqueness and its universality, to redeem it from oblivion, to give it its own life again."

Clearly, she has absolutely no intention of letting the dead bury the dead or even letting the poor cunts rest in peace; rather, she's going to insist that they look her in the face and fulfil their personal obligations. And so she resurrected her father, to whom she felt connected at the very core, followed by close friend Stefan Huber, who, without any consideration of how it might make her feel, topped himself.

And, having raised them from the dead, she then proceeded to give 'em what for - crying and screaming at them, in a vain attempt to ensure they understood the unresolved pain, anger and grief that their mortal departures had caused her. 
Since then, having calmed down and apparently found some degree of solace, Hatry has produced several portraits out of cremains for others suffering in the same manner (and for the same reasons) she had suffered; people in need, not of closure, but of a chance to have the last word.

Ultimately, despite what the many admirers of her work believe, Hatry's portraits are not profound meditations upon death; they are, rather, one final opportunity for recrimination: How could you leave me, you bastard!

See: Heide Hatry, Icons in Ash, ed. Gavin Keeney, (Station Hill in association with Ubu Gallery, New York). Lines quoted and phrases echoed are from the artist's preface: 'Icons in Ash: From Art Object to Art Subject'. 

Readers interested in Heide Hatry's work should visit her website: heidehatry.com

See also the follow-up post to this one in which I outline my philosophical concerns with Hatry's ash portraits in greater detail: On Faciality and Becoming-Imperceptible ...