Žižek and the dawning light not quite dawning; or, a little self-knowledge is a dangerous – but unlikely – thing

Admit it. For the longest time you’ve suspected there’s a reason these two men have never been photographed together.

 

Ben Stiller, of all people, was the first to draw attention to the rhetorical strategy that the professional contrarian and incessant Lacanian shares with the Sphinx. But since it pissed Stiller off so much, we were so busy relishing his impotent fury that we failed to think through the implications – that beneath the Sphinx’s masks must lurk not the excellent Wes Studi but a certain Slovenian philosopher.

Over the last decade, fractures have appeared in Žižek’s work that suggest even he is beginning to suspect himself of being one of the Mystery Men. For example, 116 pages into Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador 2008) Žižek writes:

It is, however, all too easy to score points in this debate using witty reversals which can go on indefinitely.

However, the remainder of the book and many of his subsequent pronouncements  merely indicate the depths of his denial.

From Beyond (Stuart Gordon 1986), adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ (1934)

frombeyondposter4[The last of the pieces written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Written in 1920, ‘From Beyond’ is an early, minor Lovecraft story. Crawford Tillinghast’s new invention stimulates the ‘unrecognized sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges’, enabling him to perceive the ‘strange, inaccessible worlds … at our very elbows’ (90). The narrator, summoned by Tillinghast, finds his previously stout, clean-shaven friend a dishevelled, muttering, yellow-skinned shadow of his former self. After switching on the machine, Tillinghast warns the narrator not to move, because the rays that enable them to see beyond also make them visible to whatever exists there. As the narrator’s ‘augmented sight’ (95) develops, he perceives roiling clouds, a temple, the cosmos, ‘huge animate things brushing past … and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body’ (94–95), another realm ‘superimposed upon the terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre’ (95). The laboratory fills with ‘indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise’, with ‘inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony’ with the machine’s vibrations (95). The ecstatic Tillinghast has ‘seen beyond the bounds of infinity’, ‘drawn down daemons from the stars’, and ‘harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness’ (96). The things pursuing Tillinghast come for the narrator, who shoots the machine. He passes out and Tillinghast suffers a fatal apoplexy. The narrator can never forget the teeming, invisible world around him, or shake the feeling that something hunts him still.

Following the success of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), adapted from Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (1922), Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, its US distributor, offered Gordon a three-film deal. Gordon pitched an adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Dagon’ (1919) but Band preferred one of his alternative suggestions, ‘From Beyond’ (Gordon would eventually make Dagon in 2001). Since Lovecraft’s story is little more than a single scene – and one that would be prohibitively expensive to film – Gordon, screenwriter Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna adapted it as the opening sequence: Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) switches on the Resonator for the first time, and a piscine creature, swimming through the air, attaches to his face like some monstrous leech, tearing open his cheek; when his boss, Dr Pretorius (Ted Sorel) – named after Ernest Thesiger’s wonderfully queer mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935) – activates the Resonator, something tears his head off. We are not shown Pretorius’s demise. It is the last time the film will show such restraint.

Lovecraft’s unseen realm, populated by fragmentary teratalogical wonders, can be interpreted as figuring all that is excluded from what Jacques Lacan calls the symbolic order; and weird intrusions from there can be understood in terms of what Julia Kristeva describes as the abject – things that are neither subject nor object, neither living nor dead, and which are often associated with female bodies and queer sexualities. Although From Beyond now seems quite innocent, twenty-five years ago its escalating and increasingly elaborate special effects sequences looked like a handbook of post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory.

Tillinghast is committed to an asylum run by the draconian Dr Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), named after Lovecraft’s friend and protégé, Robert Bloch. The police hire ‘girl from-beyond2wonder’ psychiatrist, Dr Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), to determine whether Tillinghast can stand trial. Along with the cop Buford ‘Bubba’ Brownlee (Ken Foree), she takes him back to the house, where she discovers evidence of Pretorius’s BDSM predilections and reconstructs the experiment that, according to Tillinghast, released whatever killed his mentor. A toothed, tentacled creature attacks Bubba, and Pretorius returns, monstrously transformed, before Tillinghast can switch off the machine. McMichaels, sexually aroused by the Resonator’s stimulation of her pineal gland, is compelled to turn it back on. Pretorius returns in even more hideous form. The enormous slug-like creature that sucked his head from his shoulders fastens on to Tillinghast, tearing of his hair before the Resonator is again switched off. McMichaels, fascinated by the BDSM clothes and equipment in Pretorius’s room, dresses up in dominatrix gear and attempts to have sex with the unconscious Tillinghast and with Bubba. Her sexual energy reactivates the Resonator, unleashing locusts that strip Bubba’s flesh to the bone. Returned to the asylum, the mutating Tillinghast becomes hungry for human brains. He sucks out one of Bloch’s eyes and eats her brain through the socket. McMichaels and Tillinghast return to Pretorius’s house for another extravagant display of sexual apparatuses and gloopy special effects before the Resonator is destroyed.

From Beyond never quite achieves the gleeful excesses of Re-animator, although that did not prevent the MPAA refusing it an R certificate three times before finally approving a cut. Nor did it enjoy the same critical and financial success or cult afterlife. Its prosthetic and make-up effects were soon surpassed – not least by Screaming Mad George’s work on Yuzna’s Society (1989) three years later – and its use of lurid purples and greens whenever the Resonator is switched on now seems like some archaic VHS aesthetic.

Although the original story lacks the adjectival proliferation associated with Lovecraft’s relentlessly failing specificity of otherness, the film’s comic tone detracts from the special effects’ ability to convey the gross materiality that Lovecraft strove to catalogue. Gordon is not concerned to replicate the critical seriousness of Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), but his slapstick humour is not as well developed or focused as that of the young Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. From Beyond’s more salacious content lacks the shock-value of Re-animator’s notorious cunnilingus scene, while its elaboration of Lovecraft’s sexual undercurrents pales in comparison to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). But it is still worth watching, if only for Combs’ remarkable performance. He is adept at conveying with just his eyes the eagerness, hope, anxiety and inarticulate regret of a young man a long way out of his depth. The intensity he brings to the role contrasts with the blandness of everyone else in the cast. It is as if he really has seen beyond and knows more than he should.

References
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’, in H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. London: HarperCollins, 1994. 89-97.

 

Some Theses on Monsters; occasioned by reading, and in place of a review of, Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas, eds, African Monsters (Fox Spirits Books, 2015)

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[A version of this piece appeared on the Salvage website]

We live in a world being made monstrous.
By us. Inhuman and obscene (and anthropocene). Not merely unhomely but uninhabitable.

And it is a time of monsters.
Aliens and kaiju, zombies and mutants, giant robots and costumed freaks lay waste to our cities. Rumbling urban smackdowns between unknowable forces scorch the Earth for those with an eye to the main chance. Property developers. Gentrifiers. Buy-to-let landlords. Their snouts in the tattered remains of a public purse no longer really intended to serve the public. At the same time, politicians and journalists casually – and with the most deadly of intentions – label people on our borders and estates and social security as not really human at all.

Monsters mean.
They are good for thinking with – from Marx’s vampire capitalists and cyborg factories to the brain-eating undead ghouls that shamble relentlessly across all our post-millennial screens, large and small, dragging the mechanisms by which biopolitical states of exception operate out into plain sight.

Even though monsters might not exist they are the most material of metaphors, and more than mere metaphor.

They matter and make meaning.

Monsters refuse monstrosity.
In Tade Thompson’s ‘One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sunlight’, a deliberately self-interred then accidentally disinterred West African vampire tells his tale. He turned his back on the human world, but had to return to it to learn how to be in a world to which he could never belong. With chilling composure he observes armies clash and people kill for reasons he cannot fathom. He remembers a tale he was told in childhood in which – reworking Dracula’s voyage to Britain – one of the vampire kind, taken unknowingly, broke free in a slaveship and killed everyone onboard. Despite this, the monster, it is clear, was not the real monster. Like the protagonist, the monster refuses – rather than denies – monstrosity. The monster resists and refutes it. He buries himself. He walks away.

‘He had the combined face of a pig and a monkey, which comforted her.’ And so it should. All of us.
Even if we must rip this line from Dilman Dila’s ‘Monwor’ completely out of context.

You must look closely to spot the monster. Although it’s not hard.
The eponymous and implied monster of Tendai Huchu’s ‘The Chikwambo’ is a motley being, an exquisite corpse: it has ‘the face of a new born baby’, albeit with ‘the head dangl[ing] to the side as if stitched up to the neckless body’, and the ‘hands’ of a ‘monkey, the legs of a baboon and [a] torso made of a patchwork of cloth and dried animal skins, fur from rabbits and cows’. A Chikwambo is created by huroyi, or witchcraft, usually for a businessman looking to get rich. All he needs to do is feed it with a relative’s blood and ‘that blood metamorphose[s] into money’.

It’s a labour-power equation. The Chikwambo can eat or die; the businessman should fuck off and die.

Likewise, in Chikodili Emelumadu’s ‘Bush Baby’, there’s a wastrel gambler turned thief, the gwei-gwei pursuing and torturing him for stealing its mat, and the men who lied to the wastrel gambler thief, tricking him into stealing from the forest-spirit even though they know it will cost him – agonisingly – his life. Spot the monster.

Is there some calculus by which we can determine the moment at which the becoming-monstrous occurs? At which capital is embodied and the capitalist becomes capital?

When the monster is monstrated and the line is drawn, the monstrator is always on the wrong side of it.
See Apartheid (cf. James Bennett and Dave Johnston’s comic ‘A Divided Sun’).

Monsters are the world.
In Zambia’s Ndola sunken lakes the Ichitapa lurks. If your shadow falls on the water, the monster will cut it from your body, and you will fall into the water and be devoured. There were thing here before us, Jayne Bauling’s ‘Severed’ tells us, things we cannot account for. Things that will remain long after we – individually and as a species – are gone. They predate us, and they pre-date us, and they will be our post-.

There might be a time when the only ethical thing left for us is, as a character in Vianne Venter’s ‘Acid Test’ seems to think, a radical green accelerationism. Bring it all down, and let the world return.

(Delightfully, and perhaps instructively, Ndola is a twin town of Aldershot.)

Your description of the monster misdescribes the monster and destroys it.
In Joe Vaz’s ‘After the Rain’, strange and deadly things emerge from the abandoned mines swiss-cheesing the ground beneath Johannesburg. Even the bugs in the mountainous mine dumps fear these creatures. They prey on township folk, like some contorted repressed returning, a reminder of the suffering and immiseration and state violence under Apartheid and since.

Mistaken for ‘long skinny men with dog-heads’, the creatures turn out to be dogs, ‘standing on long hind legs, balancing [their] weight on the tips of [their] paws’, a correction that is also mistake. Whatever they are, they are that, not something or some other thing that they resemble. Not the isomorphic protagonist, who got out as a nine-year-old back in 1986 and only now, thirty years later, returns.

But this is what happens when the monster ventures from its lair into normalcy.

Its angularity, its awkward and improbable being, its ferocity and anguish, get domesticated. Like a dog.

‘History is what hurts’, Jameson tells us, failing to add: ‘That, and monsters’.
They hurt and they hurt. They are in pain, and they bring pain.

Like the witch in Sarah Lotz’s ‘That Woman’ and the women who support and protect her because justice is not going to come from patriarchy or the state. Like the daughter of the old witch in Joan De La Haye’s ‘Impundulu’, who unleashes her just rage and anguish – and the eponymous lightning bird – not only on the man who raped her and made her miscarry but on all those who would take his side. On what we, often glibly, call rape culture and patriarchy.

As if naming them contains them.

 The other has just as much right (and wrong) as the self.
Which doesn’t mean it’s easy or comfortable, as Su Opperman’s grotesque comic ‘The Death of One’ shows us.

Although maybe I’m reading it wrong. Maybe what I should be paying attention to is the page split into four panels, across the top two of which the man says ‘the death of one is…’ and across the bottom pair of which the sawtooth-beaked, bird-headed man-thing with too many eyes concludes ‘…is life to the other’. This is not some Lion King circle-of-life pablum, but a call for the dissolution of the monadic subject (and his comedy sidekick, the rational economic actor). An invocation of full communism.

‘If you see a monster at your doorstep’, Grandma says in Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘On the Road’, ‘the wise thing to do is shut the door’. Grandma is wrong.
The other is not really other, Lacan says, it just reflects and projects the ego. The Other is radical alterity. It cannot be identified with. It cannot be assimilated. It is unique and beyond representation and it is also the system of representation – the symbolic – that mediates the relationship between the radical, unassimilable alterity of subjects. The Other we first encounter is – quelle surprise! – the mother, defined of course by her phallic lack, which in turn figures the signifier that is always missing.

‘There is an abyss between this world and the next,’ the narrator of Toby Bennett’s ‘Sacrament of Tears’ writes, ‘I fear my nephew looked deep and could not make sense of what he saw’.

But perhaps the abyss is not a vagina, and the vagina is not an abyss.

Perhaps difference is not a lack at all.

Perhaps difference is an opening-out, a flowering into the realm of monsters. Which is where the monadic phallic white subject already, unbeknown to himself, lives. Along with us all.

Perhaps, like the queer, monster-embracing protagonist of Nerine Dorman’s ‘A Whisper in the Reeds’, we should not focus so much on the monster entering our world but instead on going away from here with the monster. On becoming monster.

Because difference is an opening-out onto that place beyond, which is called hope or utopia.

Not just full communism.

Full-on communism.