Critical explorations of issues in contemporary poetics: essays, proposals, statements, arguments, wild cards.
This paper was originally written for Profane/Arcane, a magical panel I was part of with Leon Baham, Lucy Corin, and Naima Lowe, organized and moderated by bird whisperer Anna Joy Springer for the &NOW Festival 2013.
by Miranda Mellis
We all know very well how curses work, from fairy tales and from movies, and, for some of us, from growing up in households where the spewing of cusses was part of everyday life. Some of us may even have been involved, as youngsters, in the ritual construction of curses, as a way to rid ourselves of certain evils, by means of conjuring homeopathic doses of evil, flipping the script, knowing even then, as Judith Butler writes in Excitable Speech (in which she finds speech too “slippery” for state speech regulation to be highly effective), that “words might, through time, become disjoined from their power to injure and recontextualized in more affirmative modes” and that we have the power to “reconfigure the chain of resignification whose origin and end remain unfixed and unfixable.”
Understanding the difference between self-immolation and magical reversal, we called ourselves by the names we were called, turning the enemies’ weaponized interpellation into a psychic place to live, spikes out, a place that allows for, as James Baldwin put it, “the disquieting complexity of ourselves…this web of ambiguity, paradox.” We might have cast poetic spells, decapitated or needled our dolls, made up languages in which we cursed freely in the hearing of our uncomprehending victims, or we might have written (and still be writing) elaborate, fantastical, and highly cathartic stories in which we unburdened ourselves of our rages, however austerely.
In his essay “The Aural Ellipses and the Nature of Listening,” Nick Piombino uses Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object to think about adult uses of poetic indeterminacy. He cites Winnicott:
It is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience….
Piombino observes that this “intermediate area or…third area…is an area that is neither strictly subjective or objective,” echoing Winnicott’s proposition that the “third area” is the area in which we produce cultural works “whose prototype is the transitional object.” The strain of relating inner and outer reality requires the use of transitional objects that can mediate those realities, including negating and damning them.
* * *
The defixiones is a curse tablet on which someone spells their prayers of harm inscribing the species of revenge they wish the gods to inflict on their enemy. It is found throughout the Graeco-Roman world. In the Diamanda Galas song “Orders from the Dead” (which, BTW, you can have set as your ringtone), on her album Defixiones she sings:
I have orders from the dead
That warn me: “Do not forget me: My blood will fill the air you breathe
Forever. My Deathbird is not dead
He carries all my teeth:
My smile of unforgetfulness
My laugh! I am the man unburied
Who cannot sleep
In forty pieces!
I am the girl
I am the open mouth
That drags your flesh
And will never rest
My death is written
In a rock that can
Not be Broken!”
And these are the Orders From the Dead.
Galas describes the defixiones as a fix or a mark and, also, as a kind of work:
It’s like a needle that goes into a doll. It’s marking a territory as your own, and it says that, with the marking of that territory, you have certain power. Whether this is the power to, say, put a curse on a competitor, or an enemy, or to say, “if you desecrate this grave, your daughter’s daughter’s daughter will perish slowly from a horrible disease.” That’s the nature of this. The nature of this type of curse. And it’s usually in practice…by people who have very little power, legal power, so they had to draw on their own resources as much as possible…maybe, that would be all they had, were those curses. That would be the only thing they had to protect them, and that may have been quite a delusional kind of power, but nonetheless, it was the only power that was had by these people. So that’s pretty much what the work is, is that you cannot desecrate this memory. You cannot pretend this grave did not exist by digging it up. It exists, and when you dig it up, the power of our anger will outlast you….
Here Galas muses that the curse may be a kind of delusional form of power, which begs the question to what extent certain cultural forms and transformations—taking place in that third area that is neither strictly subjective nor objective—begin as delusions? Cursing, as a proleptic form of cultural activity, is, paradoxically, as much an expression of political desire (wish fulfillment!) as it is of anger. Winnicott writes, “The place where cultural experience is located is the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the [transitional] object).” Meaning, as we are never done with cultural experience we are never done with transitional objects. The potential space between the individual and the environment must remain open.
* * *
Sylvia Federici argues in Caliban and the Witch that in the 16th century
Though the witch-hunt targeted a broad variety of female practices, it was above all in this capacity—as sorcerers, healers, performers of incantations and divinations—that women were persecuted. For their claim to magical power undermined the power of the authorities and the state, giving confidence to the poor in their ability to manipulate the natural and social environment and possibly subvert the constituted order.
In other words, stoking struggle by means of self-determined cultural activity. Or, as Alice Notley put it in Alma, or The Dead Women, “magic IS a culture.”
Maybe anger, too. In Glass, Irony and God, Anne Carson muses that “[a]nger could be a kind of vocation for some women.” She observes that,
In general the women of classical literature are a species given to disorderly and uncontrolled outflow of sound, to shrieking, wailing, sobbing, shrill lament, loud laughter, screams of pain or of pleasure and eruptions of raw emotion in general.
She cites Euripedes: “For it is woman’s inborn pleasure always to have her current emotions coming up to her mouth and out through her tongue.” She goes on,
Every sound we make is a bit of autobiography. It has a totally private interior yet its trajectory is public. A piece of inside projected to the outside. The censorship of such projections is a task of patriarchal culture that (as we have seen) divides humanity into two species: those who can censor themselves and those who cannot….
As an example of the imagery of the censor, Carson notes that Sophokles’ dictum silence is the kosmos of women “has its medical analog in women’s amulets from antiquity which picture a uterus equipped with a lock at the mouth.” This grotesque metaphor brings to mind the curse tablet, the defixiones. The image of the lock on the mouth of the uterus, at once containing and privatizing sexuality and speech, has all the hallmarks of a hex, the kind of curse which transforms people into statues, silent property, the five-thousand-year old hex of patriarchy.
* * *
In her inimitable polemic, A Room of One’s Own, speaking in part, of course, from her habitus and in part from the bitter experience of being silenced, condescended to, and discounted on account of her gender, Virginia Woolf declares, “[i]t is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance. If you curse you are lost.” Is she acknowledging the way in which emotions can ruin your life? Or is this an instruction, at once Modernist, Machiavellian, and patriarchal, on how the price of admission to rank is anger, and therefore, in some way, the price to “pass” is one’s very sense of reality? But it is more than class training for Woolf; it is also an aesthetic proscription that pops up in literary and artistic aesthetics—from the Enlightenment through Modernism to the present—against the forms of confessionalism and expressionism that, on the one hand, for Woolf, preclude “incandescent” writing (about which more in a moment) and on the other, from the perspective of political-economy, undermines the depoliticized aesthetic commodity by blurring the line between political conditions and aesthetic production, between historical trauma and poetics.
In her tract, Woolf rages sharply and sarcastically against the legal and cultural conditions that obstructed women like her in their writing and research but warns against expressing ressentiment. She laments the immanent interruptibility of the second-class citizen. How can I think, solve problems, invent, create, make worlds for myself and others when I keep being interrupted, interpellated as beyond the pale, disenfranchised?
Of course, the mind is chaotic, and naturally interrupts itself, as Emily Dickinson knows–
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind–
As if my Brain had split–
I tried to match it–Seam by Seam–
But could not make them fit
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before–
But Sequence raveled out of Sound
Like Balls–upon a Floor
Dickinson’s insight into internal “cleaving” can be included in her poem, however. What if she had been relentlessly externally interrupted? A Room of One’s Own begins with a description of what happens to the thought processes of those bodies subject to constant interruption and derailment—stops & frisks—by the law. The narrator had been sitting outside, thinking, and
Thought, to call it by a prouder name than it deserved had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it, until – you know the little tug – the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass, how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. I will not trouble you with the thought now, though if you look carefully you may find it for yourselves in the course of what I am going to say. But however small it was, it had, nevertheless, the mysterious property of its kind – put back into the mind, it became at once very exciting, and important; and as it darted and sank, and flashed hither and thither, set up such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still. It was thus that I found myself walking with extreme rapidity across a grass plot. Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt were aimed at me.
The train of thought is lost. The little fish, the metaphor of a thought, had appeared, small but full of potential and movement, and then it disappeared. And this repeats. When her thought, small as it is, moves her to move, so that she gets up to pursue it, she is interrupted time and again by the representatives of the law, and she loses her little fish. Thinking and walking go together in this text. In this case, however, the narrative pivots not when her thought pivots, but rather where spatial prohibitions—juridical borders—call them formal constraints—force her elsewhere, towards the form of her own anger, or indeed, anger as form.
Whatever that little fish was going to be, it is now diverted to the only possible remaining topic: what is the nature of the recursive, thought-destroying obstacle in my path? What is it that prohibits the very conditions of possibility for fishing—that is, thinking—at all?
* * *
In Elizabeth Costello, J.M. Coetzee’s novel about an author who is also an animal rights activist, his avatar, Elizabeth Costello, reflects on an experiment done upon an ape called Sultan. The nature of this experiment is such that, Costello observes, he is always forced to “think the less interesting thought.” His ingenuity is thwarted by the experiment itself, which appears set up to prove his limits, not his possibilities.
Our Woolf, a different sort of animal, thinks of herself and people in her position as being forced to think the less interesting thought. As a result of this, in her estimation incandescent writing will be precluded. Because for Woolf, incandescent writing must not feature the author’s bitterness: if you stop to curse you are lost.
Woolf unravels her tract, then, beginning with a fishing metaphor and going on to explore those economic and juridical prohibitions that interfere with the possibility of what she considers to be incandescent writing, which she defines as free of confession; autobiography; anger; free, somehow—but how?—of curses. Steeped as she was in the European tradition of aesthetic classification, incessantly producing discontinuities where there are continua, making hierarchies out of forms of cultural labor and production, Woolf goes on to describe novel writing as a lesser art than poetry, and says that disenfranchised women writers antecedent to her had been writers of narrative, latterly novelists, rather than poets, because of poverty, and lack of privacy, and had therefore produced lesser works. In this way she implies, very problematically, that incandescent work can only be the result of circumstances of privilege and/or the repression of class rage.
And yet, even as she warns against cursing, and claims that incandescence and bitterness are incompatible, the whole text is incandescently bitter. It is clear to her that persons who are subject to incessant interruptions cannot be expected to become, as she puts it non-ironically, Shakespeare and imagines the bad destiny of his hypothetical sister, Judith whose fate is predetermined by her gender. She writes sarcastically of a “certain old gentleman,” a bishop, who declared that it was
impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.
By interruptions she means not just the beadle running up and telling you where to walk and breaking your train of thought, but all interruptions—inner ruptures—created by gendered rites of institution. Combining historical materialist acumen and sociological rigor in her exposé of the farce of power she quips that
it is far more important at the moment to know how much money women had and how many rooms than to theorize about their capacities…all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private school stage of human existence where there are “sides” and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot.
We laugh with recognition in part because we are all too susceptible to the seductions of receiving from the “hands of the headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot” even as we recognize the politically fraught arbitrariness of such forms of gate-keeping and social consecration, and their role in introducing artificial discontinuities to maintain hierarchies.
* * *
Pierre Bourdieu points out that it is the nature of the rite of institution to place dams where there are flows, to, for example, separate the manifold genders into two distinct ones, or to privatize, to enclose commons, and in general to introduce discontinuities where there are continua: continua of rivers, continua of thought, continua of gender, continua of aesthetic production on a massive collective scale; continua of ways of imagining the world other than as a series of unnecessary impediments designed to make us think “the less interesting thought.” What sorts of concepts might allow for a remediation of continuities?
In a recent book, Globalectics, the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o relates the anti-colonial call for the abolition of English Departments to the “decolonization of the cognitive process” and proposes an ethical, postcolonial mode of reading he calls “globalectic” in which, “like a globe, on the surface every point is equally a center, though each is also equidistant from the internal center.” He calls fiction a “theory of felt experience” and says it is “the original poor theory” that accords “dignity to the poor as they fight poverty, including…poverty of theory.” Woolf makes a related point, albeit from an upper class, white British modernist’s perspective, when she speculates in A Room of One’s Own as to why her literary antecedents primarily wrote novels, concluding that it was the only possible genre for would-be writers who lacked time, privacy, or leisure, and were, moreover, domestically enmeshed in a constant stream of relating, conditions lent to character study. But while Woolf considered the novel a lesser art than poetry, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o finds that “[w]hat Aristotle said of poetry, that it was finer and more philosophical than history…is probably truer of the novel…it was to the novel that I turned for a way of ordering my history.”
A Room of One’s Own and Globalectics, published eighty-three years apart, both delineate a zone of possibility—a room; a globe—in which knowledge acquisition can take place, and by which knowledge acquisition can be re-conceptualized, respectively. Both essays politicize conceptions of space at all scales, limning the inextricabilities of law, landscape, and literature; aesthetics and liberation processes; gender and genre; race and class; curriculum and colonialism; and epistemology and form.
Just as artistic processes and liberation processes are linked, so curses and politics are linked, where to curse is to insist, with Yeats, There is another world, but it is in this one. The placing of a curse as a form of magical thinking, as a contrary form, or as the recognition of an intolerable thread or condition that cannot be directly acted upon, is a way to put agency, protestations one cannot yet safely author oneself elsewhere, to let the object work, interpassively, on one’s behalf.
* * *
Interpassivity, as theorized by Robert Pfaller, refers to the act of delegating one’s sensations elsewhere, for example, canned laughter, paid keening, or the way in which, when using reproductive technology like a printer or a Xerox machine, we subconsciously feel that whatever is being copied is being processed, incorporated, even read by the machine in question, perhaps even obviating the need to read it yourself. The machine is some kind of prosthetic that reads on your behalf, though neither of you will remember what was “read.” Interpassivity is subtle. We know that machines or objects do not read in our sense yet somehow there is a feeling that something like reading is taking place. (Our machines even report that they are “reading” a document in preparation for printing, etc.)
Might the Carolee Schneemann performance Interior Scroll be described as an interpassively achieved defixiones? As part of this piece, first performed in 1975, Schneemann unrolled a scroll from her vagina, confronting, as she read, a filmmaker who had complained of Schneemann’s film Kitch’s Last Meal that it contained “personal clutter…hand-touch sensibility…diaristic indulgence.”
Here Schneemann’s project of subjectivity begins inside “a room of one’s own” of the body, amplifying the experience of becoming—as she performs and cross-references—“the word made flesh,” ingesting the word, internalizing it, and then reproducing it, or, we might say, reprinting it interpassively through her reproductive system, or reproductive technology-organ. If we apply the notion of interpassivity to Interior Scroll imagining that Schneemann’s reproductive organ has, in reproducing/representing/reprinting the scroll, also in some way read it, or been imprinted by it, then it is reading of critics who object to its very presence in and as art. Schneemann becomes—in the act of reading what her interiority, or the interiority of her body read first—the agent of that organ, arguing against, by reproducing thusly, and satirizing (even as she rebirths) the critique, such that, to return to the Butler citation we began with, “words might, through time, become disjoined from their power to injure and recontextualized in more affirmative modes.”
On another level, Schneemann, by incorporating her text thusly, at once treats her bacteria, her microbiome, as medium and as reading agent. In A World of Becoming, philosopher William Connolly writes of a molecular biologist, Bonnie Bassler, who finds that bacteria
exhibit a degree of collective agency…when a certain threshold of bacteria accumulation is reached, say, in the human organism, “bioluminescence” occurs, the bacteria begin to communicate through chemical signals, and new collective actions are undertaken. She [Bassler] calls this “Quorum sensing” and thinks of it as preliminary modes of sensing, behavior, and communication from which complex modes of human communication have emerged.
Connolly goes on to say that it is
doubtful that our own agency would have developed without such precursors. In appreciating it [bacteria] as a proto-agent and…precursor to human agency, we may become more sensitive than otherwise to non-human forces, to the multiple layers of performance implicated in human agency and to the sources of drag or inhibition that attach themselves to the latter.
For Schneemann to read aloud the arguments of her critics in such a manner by first exposing the critique to her bacteria’s perusal, is to argue her side of the case by incorporating, rather than rebutting, her critic, as well as to gesture towards non-human agency in acts of reading and retort. In turning her body inside out, publishing her visceral interiority, she instantiated a particularly feminist rhetoric, mapping her fluids—corrective annotations—onto her enemy’s text, fixing her mark.
Baldwin, James. “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “Rites of Institution.” Language and Symbolic Power. Trans. John B. Thompson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Carson, Anne. Glass, Irony and God. New York: New Directions, 1995.
Coetzee, J.M. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Viking, 2003.
Connolly, William. A World of Becoming. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia, 2004.
Galas, Diamanda. “15 Questions: Interview With Diamanda Galas.” Interview by Holly Day. Tokafi. Tokafi, 2012. Web.
Notley, Alice. Alma, or The Dead Woman. New York: Granary Books, 2006.
Piombino, Nick. “The Aural Ellipses and the Nature of Listening.” Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Shiner, Larry. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Winnicott, D.W. Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock Publications, 1971.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.