by Steven Shaviro

© 1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

Let's say you don't feel happy with your life. Let's say you don't feel comfortable in this body. Let's say you don't feel in control of your actions. Your nerve endings tingle with continuous, unwanted arousal. The merest glance, a figure passing in the street, and all of a sudden you become hard or wet. Every object in your visual field glimmers with a halo, an aura: the harbinger of an impending epileptic fit. Cells divide, faster and faster, a cancerous tumor eats away at your brain. You find yourself the prey of physical convulsions, epidemic infections, and monstrous growths; or of nervous tics, misdirected actions, and inappropriate reactions. Your body has a life and a will of its own: you can't stop yourself from killing again and again, from gulping down more and more sweets, from spewing forth a torrent of obscenities. Your body is a puppet, and some alien force is pulling the strings. Someone or something that likes to see you squirm. It happens every month: the swelling and heaviness, the continual irritation of PMS. Nor is it any different for men, except that they usually haven't worked out the calendar. War is menstruation envy. In any case, male or female, you have no choice in the matter. They "offer you a body forever. To shit forever" (Burroughs). It's an offer you can't refuse; you simply have to breathe, eat, piss, shit, bleed, fuck, forever.

It's become fashionable to think that new computer technologies, or new interactive paradigms of mind, can somehow offer us a way out of this dilemma. Don't believe it for a second. Virtual reality is no gateway to transcendence. Consider the plight of the cyberspace "cowboys" in William Gibson's Neuromancer. They disdain the body, contemptuously dismissing it as "meat"; but they gradually learn that computerization doesn't release them from the flesh and its imperious demands. Cyberspace is ostensibly designed as a convenient, disembodied, and harmlessly neutral image of the world's amassed "information." But in fact the Matrix is anything but neutral; it bites and it kills. It is permeated by all sorts of strange forces: self-organizing alien interests, concentrations of political and economic power, irreducibly subjective kinks and quirks, remnants of genetic manipulations gone awry. As you ride through those "bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void," you feel "an almost permanent adrenaline high," a corporeal kick as visceral and intense--and as compulsively addictive--as any sexual thrill or amphetamine rush. "Logic" and "information" stimulate specific physical circuits in the brain, just as drugs and panic attacks do. A wrong move, a neural overload, can be fatal. Even hallucinations need to be embodied. As all good AI researchers know, the software of the human mind has evolved and received its imprint from a particular configuration of neural hardware. You might have a brain based on silicon instead of carbon, but you can't do without some sort of physical organ. Your body accompanies you wherever you go: you can run, but you can't hide. Free your mind, and your ass will most certainly follow. In Gibson's corporate-controlled virtual space, as in the world of Cronenberg's Videodrome, "the visions become flesh, uncontrollable flesh." Images are incarnated as they are processed by the brain: fed back, via numerous reentrant loops, through the lateral geniculate nucleus, to the various subdivisions of the visual cortex. Synaptic connections grow as neurons are fired in self-reinforcing patterns. You tell yourself it's no big deal, that you can always stop if you want to, turn off the TV, jack out of the Matrix. Until one day you realize that you can't give it up after all, that you're trapped forever. You've become addicted to virtual reality, physiologically dependent upon those very images that seemed to promise you freedom from the flesh.

No, I'm not suggesting that you check into some 12-step program. Resist those insidious demands to testify and confess, proclaim your helplessness before the world, and parade your pain for others' delectation. It's more a question of neurophysiology than of psychology. In all forms of addiction, Gerald Fischbach tells us, "the nucleus accumbens, a small subdivision of the basal ganglia, appears to be particularly important." Short of surgical excision of this region, how could you ever escape being addicted to CAPITAL, or to LIFE? Remember Burroughs' formulations of the "algebra of need." Postmodern human beings need images, just as junkies need heroin, just as all mammals need oxygen to breathe. Tolerance increases as time goes by: you require ever more images, ever more stimuli, ever more intensive extractions of surplus value, merely for your body to survive in its excited or narcotized state. You must run faster and faster, like the Red Queen, just to stay in the same place. It's the law of the jungle, or more accurately of the free market: nobody can afford to relax, to slow down, to let go even for a second. One slight lapse, and you're out of the running forever, condemned to the endless, excruciating pains of withdrawal, bankruptcy, or extinction. DNA potentially replicates itself to infinity; but only if it has a suitable milieu to appropriate and exploit. Francesco Varela discusses the "structural coupling" and "codetermination" between organism and environment. No being is an island; every genome has what Richard Dawkins calls extended phenotypic effects. Sometimes these symbiotic exchanges are beneficial to all parties. But much more often, they lead to codependency, monopolization, or parasitic exploitation. We should never forget the harshness of natural selection: that one in a million, as Burroughs puts it, is very good biologic odds. Every strand of DNA potentially immortal; but as Burroughs warns us, the drive for immortality is the very paradigm of addiction: "He is addicted to an immortality predicated on the mortality of others... He needs your pain your fear your piss your human body that will die and keep him alive."

The heroes of DOOM PATROL meet just such an immortality addict: a strange being called Red Jack--he looks like the Jack of Hearts in a pack of playing cards--who claims to be both Jack the Ripper and God. (Grant Morrison appropriated him, I believe, from an episode of Star Trek). What link could there be between the creation of the universe and the serial killing of prostitutes? Both actions are exertions of power that turn out to involve a sullying Fall into materiality, or more precisely into the abject, addictive dependencies of the flesh. Red Jack spends most of his time querulously complaining about the injustices of his fate: "It's an old, old story. I created the universe, and they told me I had to be punished. Punished! And all because I had stained the beauty of perfect nothingness with gross matter." His murders follow a similar pattern: he wants to "cut up" women in order to "create a beautiful new form of life, something better than human"; but he ends up just making a terrible, gory mess. These accounts clearly identify Red Jack as what Gnostic theology would call an Archon: one of those lesser gods who rule over our prison universe of regimentation and suffering. Archons are like failed, untalented artists: their lust for power is never satiated, and their would-be acts of creativity are always botched. They are the ones who scared us all into time, into body, into shit. They made our flesh, and now they can't get along without it--and alas, neither can we. We are addicted to the nutriment and the pleasures they provide us, and they are addicted to the pungent flavors of our meat. Even the human nervous system, with its complex sensibility and its seemingly limitless capacity for self-deception, can't argue its way out of this vicious circle. You can go to as many recovery and support groups as you like, but all you'll be doing is exchanging one form of addiction for another.

The Marquis de Sade--whose materialist anti-theology often verges upon the Gnostic--argues that one's own pleasure is necessarily dependent upon the pain of others. All subjective experience is an epiphenomenal consequence of the motions and metamorphoses of matter; the intensity of my orgasm is directly proportional to the degree of agitation I can provoke and observe in the bodies of my victims. Pain is thus the original form of surplus value. Marx's theory of exploitation is yet another Gnostic account of our Fall into base matter--in this case, the commodity as fetish--and of the suffering that results therefrom. Nietzsche, still more clearly, sees pain as a primordial means of payment, as the oldest and most efficacious way of discharging one's debts. And so Red Jack literally feeds upon the surplus value of pain: he consumes the agony of millions of tortured butterflies, "pretty, fragile things with wings like church windows," pinned alive against the walls of his Baroque palace, shrieking in a music of perpetual torment. In Red Jack's nightmarish realm, "nothing actually dies. Here, there is only suffering. Pain sustains my existence." Flesh must be made to suffer, if it is to yield any sustenance, any substantial meaning. This is also the excuse for his career as Jack the Ripper. Beauty--in women or in butterflies--is a strange and delicate thing: subtle, transitory, and ultimately gratuitous. Its contingency is a threat to the solidity of male existence. That's why Plato banished poets from the city; that's why Heidegger joined the Nazi party. Red Jack similarly strives to wrest some sort of significance from a long history of errors, miscalculations, and random movements. There's no end to the suffering that we will impose--first on others, but finally on ourselves--in order to produce meaning and truth. "Man would rather will nothingness, than not will," as Nietzsche said. Red Jack expires when he can no longer sustain this project: when he realizes that his creations have been failures, that even pain is arbitrary and contingent, that "some stories have no meaning."

Despite the wishes of our rulers, our priests, and our philosophers, there's no ulterior source of value, nothing beyond this fragile lump of flesh. Energy is the only life, and is from the body: isn't that the scariest thing of all? The vulgar vitality of the flesh--and thence also its exquisite sensitivity, its capacity for limitless suffering--never seems to be depleted. No matter how many outrages Sade's libertines perpetrate upon the body of Justine, she always survives, virginal innocence intact, ready to be violated yet again. She is weak, infinitely weak; but her very vulnerability is what makes her inaccessible and indestructible within. Sade therefore argues that murder cannot be considered a crime, since strictly speaking it is impossible. For nothing is ever truly annihilated. Matter itself--today we should rather say mass-energy--is always precisely conserved; it can neither be created nor destroyed. With the full force of Enlightenment rationality, Sade argues for a thoroughgoing materialism. The true transmigration is one of bodies, not of souls. So all that you do when you kill somebody, Sade claims, is slightly to rearrange the atoms in certain minor molecular structures. And where's the iniquity in that?

Sade's greatness lies in his reiterated demonstrations that reason is the slave of the body and its passions. Philosophical argumentation, with the strictest logical rigor, can be derived from any premises whatsoever, and can be made to arrive at any arbitrarily desired conclusion. Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Sade invents a perfect alibi for murder--but at the price of banalizing the very act of murder, and rendering it utterly futile. For if everything is permitted, if there is no divine order to outrage and to violate, if killing is already Nature's customary way, then transgression is radically impossible. In proving so triumphantly that homicide is not a crime, Sade ruins his own pleasure in committing one. The real indignity of murder, from the libertine's point of view, lies in its ultimate impotence. For it always falls short of its goal: it never really attains its victim, it is never noxious and destructive enough. No amount of carnage is sufficient to compromise Justine's purity, or to remove her from the face of the earth. The more you make her suffer, the more powerfully you evince the dumb weight of her body's resistance. The mind can easily be colonized and controlled, but the flesh still endures. Sade's writing displays the sterile force of an addiction, with its obsessive repetitions and endless elaborations. For Sade can never exhaust the infinite perseverance of the flesh, never entirely subjugate it to the force of his will. A certain opaque carnality marks the absolute limit of his project of domination and transgression, which is to say of Enlightenment rationality itself.

That's why what's buried always returns: even if hideously decayed, and even if only in bits and pieces. The flesh is more than willing, though the spirit is all too weak. The "afterlife" is a wholly material phenomenon: it concerns the body, and not the soul. Today we fear the subsistence of the flesh, more than we do its annihilation. The great terror in George Romero's "living dead" trilogy is not being killed, but being unable to stay dead, being compelled to return as one of them. Postmodern space swarms with the Undead. Zombies throng our city danger zones, our suburban backyards, our shopping malls. Slashers in hockey masks, wielding chainsaws, rise up again and again. Organs and body parts pulse with an alien energy, and turn viciously against their owners: your own arm may try to strangle you, or knock you out with a sucker punch, as almost happens to Bruce Campbell in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II. Raimi's and Romero's heroes the classic problem in dealing with zombies: how do you kill something that's already dead? It's nearly impossible to be rid of them. You can show them out the front door, but they'll just come in again through the kitchen. You can cut them up into little bits, but they will reassemble in new configurations. Perhaps you can pulverize them in a food processor; but even this won't work, unless the parts are ground exceeding fine. The hero of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (Braindead) is painfully lacking in social skills; he can't find a polite way to get his dead mother and other zombie guests to leave the house. Instead, he's forced to keep them locked in the basement, sedated on a steady diet of horse tranquilizers. He scrupulously feeds them himself, even pouring hot gruel directly into the gullet of one zombie who died of a slash to the throat. But he can't watch over their behavior every moment, and soon enough he finds that Mom has been naughty, and has given birth to a snarling, flesh-eating baby half-brother....

We think that death is the end; but actually it's the failure to die--the vitality that subsists even in movements of decay and decomposition--that is fatal and irreversible. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out. Even a nuclear holocaust would not much alter the ecological balance of the planet: the world would still be dominated, as it is now, by insects and bacteria. The afterlife is not a fixed state, but a process of slow contagion, insidiously, inexorably spreading. In Brian Yuzna's Bride of Reanimator, reanimation fluid accidentally seeps into the water table, and ends up reviving corpses in a nearby cemetery. This is not immortality, but its sinister parody: a grotesque hyperbole of mortality and finitude. It's bad enough when living people get turned into zombies, but even worse when dead people do too. For these beings aren't granted anything like eternal life. Their deprivation is rather raised to a bizarre higher power: they lose not only the ability to live, but also the ability to die. Their fate, like that of Red Jack's victims, has been shorn of its supposed meaning; it no longer displays that sanctimonious aura of tragic inevitability. "The finite world suggests a contingency to the second power that does not found any freedom: It is capable of not not-being, it is capable of the irreparable... The Irreparable is that things are just as they are, in this or that mode, consigned without remedy to their way of being" (Giorgio Agamben).

That's why it's high time "to have done with the judgment of God." There is no higher necessity in the fact of these bodies having been slashed to ribbons, or of these walking dead having become what they now are. There is no inexorable movement of fate and retribution. There's only a brutal process of natural selection, without any preordained goal. Evolution can lead to adaptive improvements; but no teleology is involved, and no possibility of transcendence. These actions are irreparable; "an evolutionary step that involves mutation is irretrievable and irreversible" (Burroughs). You can deny the body only by means of the body; you can escape death only by invoking death. It's easy enough to kill somebody, but extraordinarily difficult to dispose of the remains. Capital punishment only ends up repeating and amplifying the crime it is supposed to punish. And suicide is still more pointless, because it's only a temporary solution to a permanent and ever-recurring problem. You can choose to initiate such mortal processes, but they will always spiral out of your control. Nobody, Burroughs says, can "hire DEATH as a company cop." Death is like debt, as when an S&L issues junk bonds. You live off a debt or a death that is always continually increasing, but that is also indefinitely deferred. But however long you avoid paying off your loans, the debt or death will never be definitively cancelled. Capitalizing on pain just lowers the threshold of your addiction, and increases the size of your long-term payments. Postponing the end also means prolonging the agony. The more you seek to deny or transcend mortality, the more you ironically intensify its thrills and terrors. The more you distance yourself from your flesh, the more that flesh is made vulnerable. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, you discover that you've contracted some vile infection, or become susceptible to the tremors of unwelcome arousal. No Buddhist detachment is possible: no stepping off the wheel of karma, no escape from the food chain. Anyplace, anytime, you are prone to be convulsed yet again in what Karen Finley calls "the constant state of desire... the fear of living, as opposed to the fear of dying."

Postmodern horror most commonly appears as a farcical theater of blood-- without the pomposity of tragedy, without the facile consolations of myth. Contemporary taste rightly prefers Titus Andronicus to King Lear. There's no culmination, no conclusion, no catharsis; but only slow adaptive changes in the nature of the media, and in the technology of special effects. Who wants to see a woman cut in two with an old-fashioned handsaw, asks the gleefully sarcastic magician in Herschell Gordon Lewis' The Wizard of Gore, when now we have at our disposal such tools as electric drills, pile drivers, and chainsaws? The Wizard's magic is just a matter of film editing: shots of women being mutilated by such tools are intercut with shots of them surviving unharmed. Members of the hypnotized audience are all too ready to offer themselves up to the Wizard's cynical experiments--though usually it's the boys who persuade or force their girlfriends to subject themselves to these tortures. The magic show over, the women return safely to their seats; but their dead and mangled bodies are discovered shortly thereafter. Lewis once remarked in an interview that he'd gladly have men as well as women sliced up in his films, if only he could find a large enough audience willing to pay for such a spectacle. But who's to argue with popular taste? Lewis has a sharp eye for what the market will bear, in terms of gruesomeness and gore: which explains the history of his career changes, from English professor to exploitation film maker to direct mail marketing consultant. As Lewis understands, there's always something jovial and festive--carnivalesque, Bakhtin would say--about watching horror films, just as there used to be about attending public executions and tortures. (Walter Kendrick's fine book, The Thrill of Fear, provides a history of these entertainments). Gore flicks, with their campy excesses and gratuitously elaborated special effects, are a mode of expenditure particularly suited to our postmodern world of visceral illusions and interactive electronic media. The Wizard of Gore merely pushes this logic to its radical extreme: the wizard goes on TV to present his theater of universal cruelty, in which each and every member of the home viewing audience is invited to participate, both as distracted spectator and as mutilated victim.

The Marquis de Sade campaigned passionately against the death penalty, being unable to countenance its cruelty. But things have changed in the last two hundred years. Today, we complain because the executions of killers like Gary Gilmore, Ted Bundy, and Wesley Dodd aren't shown live on TV. One Republican legislator in my state went so far as to demand that Dodd's hanging take place with his victims' relatives present, since it was "a family event, like a baptism or a marriage." These enthusiastic supporters of capital punishment are of course the same people who want to ban abortion, and who worry about excessive sex and violence in movies and pop music. They seek to keep the body's aberrations and addictions in control, under reserve, as the sole prerogative of the patriarchal nuclear family and of the repressive State. On the contrary, when zombies are on the loose, or when the Wizard of Gore broadcasts his bloody illusions on TV, at least we can be damn sure that the Republicans will also get theirs. Horror films overturn established values, for they celebrate whatever is arbitrary, irresponsible, irreparable, transitory, and contingent. They gleefully exploit--for public delectation and for private profit--the fragility and vulnerability, and yet the infinite, inhuman perdurability, of this meat, this body, this suffering flesh.

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