“It Sounds Like the Title of a David Lynch Film” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

A passage from Roberto Bolaño’s opus 2666

The card for the Santa Teresa cybercafe was a deep red, so red that it was hard to read what was printed on it. On the back, in a lighter red, was a map that showed exactly where the cafe was located. He asked the receptionist to translate the name of the place. The clerk laughed and said it was called Fire, Walk With Me.

“It sounds like the title of a David Lynch film,” said Fate.

The clerk shrugged and said that all of Mexico was a collage of diverse and wide-ranging homages.

“Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven’t happened yet,” he said.

After he told Fate how to get to the cybercafe, they talked for a while about Lynch’s films. The clerk had seen all of them. Fate had seen only three or four. According to the clerk, Lynch’s greatest achievement was the TV series Twin Peaks. Fate liked The Elephant Man best, maybe because he’d often felt like the elephant man himself, wanting to be like other people but at the same time knowing he was different. When the clerk asked him whether he’d heard that Michael Jackson had bought or tried to buy the skeleton of the elephant man, Fate shrugged and said that Michael Jackson was sick. I don’t think so, said the clerk, watching something presumably important that was happening on TV just then.

“In my opinion,” he said with his eyes fixed on the TV Fate couldn’t see, “Michael knows things the rest of us don’t.”

“We all know things we think nobody else knows,” said Fate.

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Michael Jackson’s Death Mask (Sorta, But Not Really)

Regular readers of Biblioklept may know that for the past year or so I’ve posted a death mask every Sunday. Sometimes these “death masks” are actually life masks or even busts made years after burial. Obviously, these bizarre statues—which belonged to Jackson himself—are not death masks in any literal sense, but I think that they capture some of the strange horror of MJ. As I argued in an essay written shortly after his death, Jackson’s physical body was a concentrated site and signal of the American Dream as process, as change, as commodity capital written on the physical self. The death masks above (as I choose to call them) embody the bizarre fascination that will always mark any serious consideration of Jackson’s career as a public figure. As he showed us repeatedly in his music videos and short films — not to mention in his multiple radical plastic surgeries — Jackson posited his physical body as a site of mutation, transformation, and disruptive change; these changes ran the gamut of physical possibility, from the organic werebeast/zombie dancing king at the center of “Thriller” to the mechanized cyborg we see above. In any case, forgive this post’s (probably) lurid title—it is simply offered in the spirit of consistency, affording me an opportunity to share some strange pics of a tragic, horrific figure this Halloween.

Humiliation — Wayne Koestenbaum

Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation explores the ways that having a body (among other bodies, among a social body) might leave us humiliated or otherwise abject. To perform this exploration, Koestenbaum surveys a discursive range of subjects, including the humiliation of public figures, the sordid “private” lives of celebrities, the work of philosophers and cultural theorists, and the art, music, films, and writing of various artists and performers. The book’s central subject though is Koestenbaum himself, who shares his own humiliations in a way that surpasses ironic self-deprecation. The results are surprisingly moving, intelligent, and very funny. I’ll let Koestenbaum explain his project—

Not merely because I am tired, but because this subject, humiliation, is monstrous, and because it erodes the voice that tries to lay siege to its complexities, I will resign myself, in the fugues that follow, to set forth an open-ended series of paradoxes and juxtapositions. (I call these excursions “fugues” not only because I want the rhetorical license offered by invoking counterpoint but because a “fugue state” is a mentally unbalanced condition of dissociated wandering away from one’s own identity.) Some of my fugal juxtapositions are literal and logical, while others are figurative, meant merely to suggest the presence of undercurrents, sympathies, resonances shared between essentially unlike experiences. If there is any reward to be found in this exercise of juxtaposing contraries to detect the occasional gleam of likeness, that dividend lies in the apprehension of a singular prey: the detection of a whimpering beast inside each of us, a beast whose cries are micropitches, too faint for regular notation.

Koestenbaum composes these fugues, these thematized chapters of his book, in small blocks of text, numbered entries that range from single sentences to several pages. These are aphorisms, anecdotes, japes, jokes, riffs, prose poems, howls. The style recalls Nietzsche’s aphoristic work or Barthes’s short essays in Mythologies, although these comparisons seem inappropriately pretentious. In any case, Koestenbaum sets these short pieces against each other to achieve the fugue state he describes above, a willful wandering from topic to topic—all within the kingdom of humiliation.

So what is humiliation? Or, rather, how does Koestenbaum define humiliation? While the entire book addresses the subject, our author gives us a fairly succinct definition upfront—

Humiliation involves a triangle: (1) the victim, (2) the abuser, and (3) the witness. The humiliated person may also behold her own degradation, or may imagine someone else, in the future, watching it or hearing about it. The scene’s horror—its energy, its electricity—involves the presence of three. An infernal waltz.

Koestenbaum takes turns playing all three roles, both through personal, historical, and cultural memory, as well as through a profound imaginative capacity. It is worth remarking upon, or at least listing, some of his examples here: Joan of Arc, King Lear, Liza Minelli, Bill Clinton, Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet, Jean-Michael Basquiat, Larry Craig, American Idol, The Swan, Anita Bryant, Harriet Jacobs, Richard M. Nixon, various creeps trolling Craigslist for weird sex, the Marquis de Sade, Abu Ghraib, lynching postcards, Michael Jackson—and always Koestenbaum himself (as well as his family, his friends, his colleagues, his students . . . ).  Koestenbaum shuffles through his subjects, looking at the various ways that they might fall into his triangle of humiliation, and even when he tries on the hat of the abuser, he modulates this position by keeping his subject’s agency within his critical purview. Indeed, one of the great warnings that Koestenbaum has to offer concerns what he labels “the Jim Crow gaze” — the propensity and capacity that each person holds within himself at all times to look at another human without recognition that that person is a human being, an agent of his or her own desires, emotions, and intellect. Koestenbaum readily admits his own failings, times he has turned the Jim Crow gaze on others, a look that goes past “othering” to actually desubjectify the gaze’s object. Koestenbaum’s project pays great dividends here; by moving discursively from a range of subjects (including himself), he reveals the limitations of first-person consciousness when coming into contact with the social, the cultural, the political, the historical. Put another way, Humiliation is one of the few works of cultural studies I’ve ever read to actively show why cultural studies matters. Here’s Koestenbaum again—

The humiliation of a derided performer on American Idol is immeasurably different from the humiliation of a Palestinian under Israeli occupation. One plight is chosen, the other is not. But isn’t there present, in both situations, an underlying coldheartedness, a rock-bottom refusal to believe the worthiness of the person whose reputation (or house, or land, or ego, or self-esteem) is stolen, trashed, occupied, razed? Isn’t there present, in both situations, an underlying will to deracinate and desubjectify this other person? And, most insidiously—isn’t there an insistence on considering this process of desubjectification (with my laughter I take away your humanity) an entertaining process, even a cathartic exercise, therapeutic and energizing, like calisthenics?

This willingness to connect American Idol to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dramatically highlights the underlying psychological conditions lurking under the phenomenological apparatuses we see (or choose not to see) on a daily basis. And just as ridicule or schadenfreude may be posited as cathartic for the victimizer, Koestenbaum also finds that “the aftermath of humiliation can be paradoxically relaxing. Tranquilizing to have undergone humiliation and then emerge on the other side.” Perhaps it is toward some sense of release or tranquility then that Koestenbaum shares so much of his own humiliation with us—snubbings, embarrassments, accusations, disavowals, and, of course, his penis (he even apologizes for the “phallic” nature of the book).

Koestenbaum is willing to consider other penises too. Humiliation is very much a study of bodies in general: what it means to have a body, what it means for others to look at your body, how what your body looks like (its shape, its color, its gender, its parts, its excess, its lack) matters to others. Working from Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject (see: Powers of Horror), Koestenbaum writes—

Humiliation involves physical process: fluids , solids, organs, cavities, orifices, outpouring, ingestions, excrescences, spillages. Humiliation demands a soiling. Even if the ordeal is merely mental, the body itself gets dragged into the mess.

Our most abject moments then are when we realize that our body is not the impermeable fortress of self that we might imagine, but rather a dripping mess with ill-defined borders. We are constantly leaking. Private shame always lurks, is always susceptible to public scrutiny. Koestenbaum again—

An object that should be private and unseen is suddenly visible . . . My unseen experience has been forcibly ejected—thrust outside. The judge hears my secrets. My inner rottenness lies exposed. My skin has been turned inside out. This fold (the self become a seam) is the structure of revulsion.

Yet going through these trials is part of forming an individual, subjective identity. “Humiliation, an educating experience,  breeds identity,” writes Koestenbaum. Of course, this idea goes back to our oldest stories, yet it often remains unremarked (curiously, Koestenbaum does not write about Adam and Eve in Eden, that primal scene of triangular humiliation). And while Koestenbaum posits the educational (and even possibly therapeutic) dimensions of humiliation, he’s very clear about the deep pain repetitive, institutionalized humiliation can cause—

 I presume that as moral individuals we should work toward minimizing humiliation, toward not inflicting it. We should practice an ethics of abstention. Vow: I abstain from deliberately humiliating others. When I find myself involved in this abhorrent practice, I will immediately desist and try to reverse the process and remedy the crime. And yet is a world without humiliation possible.? It’s disenchanting to write about a horrible situation. About this subject, I can’t rhapsodize.

I’m happy to rhapsodize about Humiliation more, but I fear that this review teeters on becoming overlong any word now. I’ve yet to remark on Humiliation’s humor, which is abundant, weird, occasionally dark, but always warm and deeply human. In the interest of time, perhaps you’ll trust the director John Waters, who provides the following blurb for the book: “This literary ‘topping from the bottom’ is the funniest, smartest, most heartbreaking yet powerful book I’ve read in a long time.” I agree completely with Waters, and  looking over my review, I fear that I may have portrayed a very accessible, humorous, and loving book in terms that are too academic. Humiliation may be a work of philosophical inquiry, but it also functions as a sort of cultural memoir, and if it’s a narrative of pain and abjection, it also repeatedly offers solutions to this pain when it can, and consolation and sympathy when it cannot. Very highly recommended.

Humiliation, part of the BIG IDEAS // small books series, is new this month from Picador.

“It Sounds Like the Title of a David Lynch Film” — A Passage from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

A passage from Roberto Bolaño’s opus 2666

The card for the Santa Teresa cybercafe was a deep red, so red that it was hard to read what was printed on it. On the back, in a lighter red, was a map that showed exactly where the cafe was located. He asked the receptionist to translate the name of the place. The clerk laughed and said it was called Fire, Walk With Me.

“It sounds like the title of a David Lynch film,” said Fate.

The clerk shrugged and said that all of Mexico was a collage of diverse and wide-ranging homages.

“Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven’t happened yet,” he said.

After he told Fate how to get to the cybercafe, they talked for a while about Lynch’s films. The clerk had seen all of them. Fate had seen only three or four. According to the clerk, Lynch’s greatest achievement was the TV series Twin Peaks. Fate liked The Elephant Man best, maybe because he’d often felt like the elephant man himself, wanting to be like other people but at the same time knowing he was different. When the clerk asked him whether he’d heard that Michael Jackson had bought or tried to buy the skeleton of the elephant man, Fate shrugged and said that Michael Jackson was sick. I don’t think so, said the clerk, watching something presumably important that was happening on TV just then.

“In my opinion,” he said with his eyes fixed on the TV Fate couldn’t see, “Michael knows things the rest of us don’t.”

“We all know things we think nobody else knows,” said Fate.

Violent J Holds Forth: Highlights from AV Club’s ICP Interview

If you don’t have time to read Nathan Rabin’s epic interview with Violent J of Insane Clown Posse, we offer some highlights–

On the inspiration and rationale behind their revisionist Western, Big Money Rustlas: “You know, just for the fuck of it all.”

On keeping one’s cards close to one’s breast: “I don’t want to give our secrets away, but they might be obvious”

On opinions: “In our opinion, it’s not cool to actually see us doing the murders, as cool as it is to imagine it when you’re hearing the song. That’s our opinion.”

On making quality comedies: “I think the crew that was working the movie, they didn’t respect us. They didn’t respect our humor. I think a lot of them felt like it was a bum job. The attitude on the set every day was shitty. We got into arguments and battles with the crew. We’d be the only ones laughing. To do a comedy, it seems like you would need the whole crew laughing and having fun, to keep that morale up on the set, but the only ones that were having fun were us. The rest of the crew just seemed like, ‘Ah, this shit’s not funny. We’re only doing this because we have to.’ “

On making career decisions: “We knew it was gonna be basically garbage, but we thought about it and decided to do it.”

On capitalism: “If people knew how little money we actually make, I think it makes us more impressive.”

On logical fallacies in Martin Bashir’s Nightline profile of ICP: “They talked about crime happening and about how some Juggalos have committed these crimes. We made the point that millions of people bought our albums, and out of millions of people, there is going to be some bad apples. I’m sure Barbra Streisand fans have committed crimes as well….”

On what killed Michael Jackson: “It was Martin Bashir’s documentary that eventually killed Michael Jackson.”

On having quotes taken out of context: ” . . .  they took my response to one question and edited it so I looked like I was responding to another question. And what’s scary to me is that this is Nightline. This is a respected piece of American journalism, and they were full of shit.”

On pulling shenanigans: “It’s scary to me to see somebody that’s that trusted pulling shenanigans like that. It’s just fucking crazy to me.”

On being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly: “Looking at that also makes me sick, because I know we could have schooled his ass a lot better than we did. We were kind of weak with it on his show.”

On your loss: “But anybody that can stand there, looking at a rainforest or something and not think that’s a miracle—I mean, that’s their loss. Anybody that can sit there and look at shooting stars or a fucking full moon when it’s red and hanging over the city and not sit there and think, “That looks awesome, and that’s a miracle that we get to see that and have that on this earth and all this shit,” you know, that’s their loss.”

On what it takes to find out if Slick Rick might or might not be interested in performing at The Gathering of the Juggalos: “Just finding out if Slick Rick is interested can be a monthlong process. It’s very fucking drawn out.”

On why ICP declined to play Ozzfest: “It was probably something along the lines of you can’t throw Faygo or something.”

On The Wrestler: “Like, nothing they showed in that movie we didn’t already know. I’m that tuned in to the wrestling world.”

On forgetting that he’s being interviewed: “Do you have an ink pen with you? Or something to mark this down?”

On the internet and clothing: “You can’t download a T-shirt.”

On Nickelodeon and Beyoncé: “I don’t even mind Nickelodeon, or Kids’ Choice Awards, or any of that. I’m not against all that. I’m not against Beyoncé. I love Beyoncé. I’m not against pop music.”

On what people have to realize about “Miracles”: “See, what people have to realize about the “Miracles” video is that that went out into the world, but that wasn’t for the world. That was for Juggalos.”

Thank you for the pure motherfucking magic.

The Spectacle of Michael Jackson’s Body

For the next few weeks, thousands, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions will remember, laud, argue over, and grieve Michael Jackson. His death, like his life, was utterly mediated–broadcast live on national television, Twittered, Facebooked. We were able to follow the accretion of details and speculations (facts?) in real time, as the status of Jackson’s body was updated (he was dead, he was rushed to the hospital, he was in a coma, no, he was dead). His death even precipitated a rush of other celebrity death notices, hoaxes that mutated across the internet. That Jackson’s death should precipitate so much confusion and rumor is commensurate with his strange life.

Jackson was probably the first person in the world to live a truly mediated life. From the age of eleven, Jackson’s image, voice, and dancing body became the communal property of the modern (industrialist, capitalist) world. Written roughly the same time as young MJ’s rise to national prominence, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle opens with the following salvo: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” What was Michael Jackson’s life but a series of transmogrified spectacular representations? Not only did we hear the development of modern music through his records, or watch fashions change through his bizarre styles, but, most significantly, we saw in Jackson a mapping of spectacle culture on to the very body itself. Like his character who mutates in the iconic “Thriller” video, or the faces at the end of his “Black or White” video, Michael Jackson’s body slowly morphed before our collective eyes, mediated in print and video, discussed and mocked and puzzled over. A full accounting of Jackson’s eccentricities is neither necessary or possible here, but it’s worth pointing out that the man’s level of estrangement was of such an acute degree that, beyond attempting to remap the world (turn it into a Neverland) and reconfigure the flow of time (an attempt to reach an imaginary past), he remapped his whole body.

While he wasn’t the first celebrity whose body became a site of/for spectacle culture (Marilyn Monroe springs immediately to mind), Jackson’s corpus is undoubtedly the signal symbol of the mediated American Dream, the most hyperbolic example how the human body might mediate consumerist desires. As Debord also pointed out in Society, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” The death of Michael Jackson is precisely not the death of Michael Jackson’s body, which will continue to live on, like one of the “Thriller” zombies, a spectacle absorbed and batted about by the spectacle culture. It will continue to exist as a rarefied nostalgic currency, for if we grieve the death of Michael Jackson, what precisely are we grieving if not a spectacular reflection of our own (mediated) development? Michael Jackson’s body (of work) will always be resuscitated as a nostalgic marker for at least three generations of Americans (and the rest of the world, really). I do not believe that most of us mourn the death of Michael Jackson; instead, we continue to participate in his spectacle (or, rather, the spectacle of him) as a means of prolonging our own vitality and placating our own sense of self. It is not the loss of Jackson that we might acutely feel but instead a demarcation upon our own mortal bodies, for if a changeling like Jackson cannot escape bodily death, what hope do we have? At the same time, paradoxically, participating in the spectacle of the death of Michael Jackson’s body partially alleviates (even as it subtly calls attention to) these anxieties. By affording Jackson (the illusion) of a certain immortality, we retain our own developmental, life-long investments in his spectacle, and, in turn, hope to secure our own bodies against the ravages of age, disease, decay, accident, gravity.

But what are the long-term costs of maintaining such grand illusions? As our society becomes increasingly mediated, are we arcing toward a more democratic and enriching series of personal connections, or are we fragmenting and disassociating into solipsism and self-reflexivity? Or, to return to Jackson, does his music represent personal connection and the transmission and articulation of genuine sentiment, or is it simply the glamorous reduction of crass popular culture? Is it possible to feel genuine empathy toward Jackson? Or has the spectacle of Michael Jackson’s body infiltrated our culture to the point at which any real, unmediated human response to his passing become an impossibility, an articulated fiction masking narcissistic nostalgia? Although these are not intended as rhetorical questions, I don’t suppose there are simple answers for them either. Ultimately, I think as long as our spectacle society exists, Michael Jackson’s body will continue to exist. And probably, as our culture ages–and this is scary–it will become a relic or monument to a simpler time.