Monday, 7 April 2014

Bring me the head of Georges Bataille

Two friends ran into each other at the door of a psychiatrist’s office.
“Are you coming or going?” asked one.
The other replied, “If I knew, I wouldn't be here.”

Freud described a joke as an illusion accompanied by an omission.

Humour is an oblique attack. Its utility, an ability to defuse its own tension while apparently leaving the world intact. Freud’s interest in the joke lies in the parallel existence it takes to that of symptomatology. Like art, some might say (and it is still a popular pastime to treat canvases and texts as if sufficient forensic evidence to conclude an autopsy. Turner’s late advances, for example, “explained” by his posited cataracts).

“In this matter of the visible… everything is a trap.”

We are brought to the paradigm of the labyrinth. It is an image of a set of subterranean twists and turns, the architecture of invisibility guides the gaze; visibility. The precision of ambiguity (reminiscent of R.D. Laing, for in the labyrinth of reflexivity, significance, and subject-object relationships Ariadne’s thread can so easily become tangled. Desire forms knots.)

And let us not forget the belligerence of Humpty Dumpty. Arrogant egg poised upon a wall; what better position for to shout down, deny, and re-sign the whole world?

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be the master – that’s all.’”

As an egg wobbles on the wall, as a joke oscillates amongst the map of its own meaning, and as the labyrinth of symptomatology surges beneath our everyday gesture and speech; so an inventory acts upon the commonplace of any given language.

“[…] to name (represent) an object may not necessarily be to call it forth [as in the invocation arts of magic, eucharist, prayer], for there may be no (original) object.”

This is why archetypes are persistent problems and yet persist: a bundle of no-sense congealed on no-thing and yet evasive enough to become a perceived – but not apprehended – thing. An archetype is a shadow cast by the moon, necessarily meaningful, true even, for this dark penumbra is so unarguably present.

Do not say that an occluded eyeball started modern painting. Do not say there was ever a start. Just; there is no nature here and hardly any notion of nurture. All that is left is culture. We are called to the surface of things, the shifting of signs. This may seem pessimistic and yet, if only in the cause or irony, one must recall that this surface is a place arrived at through an enthusiasm for Progress, the modern project. And people will insist on a beginning: slice the past and put it under a microscope, shuffle the slides, pick one at random. It might be okay if we call it a game.

Choose, say, the late eighteenth century Enclosure Acts that created the English field system, removing the people for their common land and sending them into the freshly steaming jaws of industry. Or choose, as Angela Carter does, 4th July 1789; the storming of the Bastille. With alarming rapidity we hereafter have balloons, we have photographers going up in balloons, and steam trains thundering through a newly demarcated landscape.

Topography, photography, speed, flight, and the freshly congealed notion of “the masses” (who may be economic pawns or revolting, who may be anonymous, unformed, darkly threatening, or a body to be acted upon, enlightened, educated and sanitised, but who are essentially both a quality and quantity calculated by its movements). All qualities which are intimate to the modern.


Degas wrested the representation of the horse away from romanticism via the photographic still. Here lies one of the essential contradictions of contemporary representation and experience. Speed can only be apprehended in its freezing. Our cinematic notion of change is actually a succession of inert images, fixed on celluloid, and this paradoxical duration affects landscape also.

“In response to Henri Federic Amiel’s Romantic description of a landscape as a slate of the soul, Edgar Degas […] retorted, ‘No, it is a state of the eyes.’ (Why not even ‘artificial retinas’, as Nicephore Niepce, a pioneer of photography, put it?) Our enraged Cartesian adds: ‘In liberating itself from the tyranny of nature, art does not expand, it boils down to itself.’”


The world is getting faster, the world is getting smaller, the problem with progress, Well… what is the problem with progress? Exactly that it continually fails to make sense of the world and, in fact, seems only to make this desire for understanding more problematic, more dangerous, and any answers that might be hit upon can only have a very short shelf life before sliding into terminal decomposition. Even in the freeze frame, even in the voracious velocity of television (light itself, not wave or particle but screen, pure and simple), even in the sheer banality of it all, precisely what is lacking is stability.

In this line drawn from the Bastille, Modernism in the arts has written itself – allowed itself to be written – into a history that is linear, despite the scientific paradigm having very much noted the presence of indeterminacy in our universe. The linear has made sense of itself by turning innovation into novelty, imagination into progression, exploration into ‘the march of time’; all the various manifestations and manifestos of various endeavours, strung together and frog-marched into a bigger, brighter future which, with infuriating insistence, turns out always to be just another version of yesterday; our grubby, inept, exhilarating and mysterious present in which, when the smog lifts, there still dwell half creatures, shadows cast by the moon, things not seen.

Mystery is simultaneously the search for the crime, the reading of “the book of nature”, and an attempt to think – or re-present – the sacred. God persists in the most secular forms and the even in the religious form. In the games of chance, divinity sneaks through. In the slippage of sense, angels speak.

“Things themselves are not what science can reach, but only the relations between things. Outside of these relations there is no knowable reality.”

If the things themselves are holy, it is in the gaps between them, the form of their unstable, shifting relationships from which we uncover the sacred. The details grow to something greater. The mystery of representation is that it can never quite get at the thing itself. The mystery deepens insomuch that, nonetheless, in its own fragile manner representation is able to hold, or at least touch upon, the gaps between things.

An inventory is made. This is of course an act of violence. Not only is it an assault made upon the things themselves but, with little more than a batting of the eyelid, this collation of mystery represented suddenly assails life (the relationship between things), tying it to a material, holding it up in emblematic form, parading it around in a zoo of the presentation’s own making, caging it for a time (caging it as time) within the confines of the representative medium.

Yet mystery does not end here. There is a third party involved: Thought. If emotion is an adaptive response to free fall then thought becomes an apprehension of the adaption. Thought is a sensation. Apprehension is an emotion. Thought is neither a thing nor a relationship between things. Not representation per se; thought simultaneously begets and destroys representation as an experience of our thing-ness, attempting to arrest and thus fleetingly comprehend the relationship between. 

Thought can only be seen in the manner of its representation, in the technology of thought, although if it is to be seen thus it is still not seen as it is.

Is this represented mystery a manner by which we as species feel our way toward our collective thinking? Is it a formulation of code, used to index the relationship between things? Both collective issue of mystery and coded expression of limit and none of the above.

The mystery of representation resides in, or better, extends itself through a failure to limit itself. That limiting is the task of the observer alone. Thought is curtailed only by the thought that thought needs to be curbed.

In the beginning there was the word.

We see language as the creation at the root of creation and set limits to this thought:

“We wished to awaken the feeling of man’s sovereignty by showing his divine birth: this path is now forbidden since a monkey stands at the entrance.”

For a long time we have deemed the ape “clown”. A creature whose inchoate gesturing may be served up for our amusement. Why have we found laughter in the spectacle of apes and monkeys? Because they have always reminded ourselves of ourselves, they are allusion to and omission of our accepted kinship.

The power of a tale such as The Murders in The Rue Morgue lies in this ambivalent kinship. The monstrous desires of author and his complicit reader are transferred onto an orangutan. A.E. Poe’s narrative takes pains to rationally save the horror from residing within any human act. The lesser crime of greed is relegated to a commoner, the ape’s owner! Meanwhile the visceral thrill is lived in the excitements of similarity, and difference, between ape-human-murderer-reader. The monstrous is created by an accretion of human-like characteristics upon “other” creatures. This is the violence of representation.



Yes, word in beginning, but the comprehension of that word must be expanded to include gesture. A hand moving through the air to demarcate a topography of the similar and the distinct. An arrow aimed at the image of a bison traced on the wall of a cave. (Our imagining of an ancestor pointing sharpened stick at an image traced on a cave wall.)


Caves are the first labyrinths and labyrinths are the organs from out of which language issued. The cave/labyrinth is surface, yet it is folded surface; it is uniquely whole and yet self-similar in its detail; it is nature and yet there can be found nurture and culture also. If language is born out of representation, and representation born out of gesture, and gesture born of tracing a sign made in nature, the environment; then the mystery of representation may not reside in these workings but within the task assigned to representing. The task finds echo in the pathway taken through a cave. It could be described as the trail we follow so as to extract ourselves from the chaotic plethora of the abyss. Representation curbs both emotion and thought by taking a chance on sense.

Gambling is indeed one very specific track taken in order to calm the abyss. It is a confrontational mode but also a magician’s feint. Look here, this strategy says, not there. Corporate entertainment and franchise food outlets do the same.

The earliest path to step on the chaos was sacrificial and ritualising. This arcane image projects onto a victim and then immolates the projection. The victim as person is incidental to the process. One can see the projective apparatus still very much active in the fictive ape already mentioned. This brutal transference may actually be involved in our divine birth. Gradually, painfully gradually, the image of prey, the haphazard use of any available victim, gradually mutates to prayer. The relationship between things is established although we can no longer convincingly portray the sacrificial parts in the ritual as the things themselves.

The true emblem of this species is not the arrogance of walking with our soft bellies and genitalia exposed but rather in the amazement of carrying on this erect stature so huge a skull. More connections therein than all the stars in the sky.

When violence occurs one often hears of how the perpetrator ‘lost their head’. When laughter occurs one may have ‘laughed their head off’. When sexuality is involved someone may be ‘giving head’ yet they might also be risking going blind or, again, ‘losing their head’. In an ecstatic state one could ‘off your head’.

Such banal tropes.

“Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial.”

Things lie on the surface.

“There is no truth that, in passing through awareness, does not lie. But one runs after it all the same.”

Things lie on the surface.


The head, so put upon both from within and without, has been lopped off. The probing of information brings about massive haemorrhage. ‘Displaced persons’ become a reinvented form of the headless masses, staggering into the arms of global anxiety.

“Man has escaped from his head just as the condemned man has escaped from his prison, he has found beyond himself not God, who is prohibition against crime, but a being who is unaware of prohibition. Beyond what I am, I meet a being who makes me laugh because he is made of innocence and crime […]: his stomach is the labyrinth in which he has lost himself, loses me with him, and in which I discover myself as him, in other words as a monster.”

Coming or going? No, I am here.

How do we represent that? The dynamic play of contradictions; the distance between high and low, interior and exterior, abolished as laughter.

Why did the headless chicken cross the road?
It was a poultry Geist.








Original first published in Inventory: losing, finding, collecting. Vol.2 No.1 1997.

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