England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Ingloriously foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire. (William Burroughs)
AMC’s 2018 series The Terror begins in 1845; the middle of the decade in which Great Britain (rEmeMbeER whEN iT wAs GrEaT?!) establishes itself as global hegemon, world policeman, and seaman maximus. You’ll be as unsurprised as I was to learn that it’s the very same decade the nation “officially” adopted a policy of global free trade – when we really started going after the money. In fact, that’s precisely the purpose of the ill-fated expedition on which the series – 10 episodes, 8.5 hours long, and yet still incredulously referred to by our transatlantic cousins, the newly-woke-global-hegemon, as a “mini-series” – centres: a quest to discover the Northwest Passage, an ambition drenched in all the paper-thin finery of Rule Britannia Enlightenment knowledge-hunting that is, in reality, nothing more than a mad dash for the new trade superhighway to China. An obvious but important signpost: capitalism and imperialism are, and always have been, two sides of the same bloodstained coin.
The expedition begins all pomp and glory: officers draped in finery consuming three course meals with wine and whisky, the lower ranks munching their way through lead-poisoned cans of veal cutlets and tomato sauce – the result of a slapdash, chumocracy-style contract that breeds shoddy craftsmanship and proves fatal for “the masses”– nothing changes. But soon things go all tits up: HMS Terror and HMS Erebus may be the most technologically advanced warships of their day – newly updated with a steam-powered single-screw propeller capable of catapulting them along at up to 4.5km/h (!!) – but sadly for all the healthy white seamen, there’s a hard winter coming, and pack ice doesn’t give a shit how neatly your beard is trimmed or how cutting-edge your sloop is; despite good advice from Captain Crosier (skipper of the Erebus but second in command to Sir John Franklin, leader of the eponymous Terror and the expedition writ large) the ships push on, and soon become lodged in the ice, never to be freed.
After some half-arsed efforts to dig their way out, the difficulty of the situation becomes clear, and search parties are sent out from the boats to search for leads. During the outing, one of the parties manages to “accidentally” kill a native Inuit man. After failing to properly bury him (they force the poor sod down a fishing hole in the ice), soon ensues a plot device that comes to dominate many of the following episodes: a monstrous Inuit spirit called the Tuunbaq is unleashed upon the entire crew (more fool them; I’ve warned against the dangers of botched-burials in previous posts on frogmanfilth.org). The Tuunbaq – which can only be described as a polar bear with Klippel-Feil syndrome and pumped full of steroids, rendered in slightly budget CGI – pursues the men relentlessly, tearing them to shreds as it goes. To be frank, as satisfying as it is to see the prim and proper sailorboys torn to ribbons by their orientalised hosts, it’s ultimately a cheap thrill. What’s much more interesting is not what happens when the British empire comes up against Inuit mythology (which, it’s worth adding, the author of the original novel and co-writer of the series, Dan Simmons, rewrites and brutalises in order to create the silly creature – an unintended but telling act of aesthetic colonialism in of itself), but when the British Empire comes up against nothing at all.
All societies are built on Symbolic Orders; all Symbolic Orders are built on language. In so-called Great Empires, this is only compounded. Their expansion, exploitation, and hegemony rely upon rigid hierarchies, the ruthless control of desiring flows, and the foreclosing on socio-political alternatives. You need only look to the ridiculous names and ranks that are thrown around in the navy, or in any Repressive State Apparatus of your choosing – submission to the other, interpellation through language, and subjectification through naming are necessary and essential in the formation of, and entry to, society. Similarly, they don’t call it a grandnarrative for nothing: the meta-justifications for empire are the end-result (or end-purpose) of the name game; create enough words and soon you’ll have a sentence, then a paragraph, then a book, and then enough made-up phrases that you can funnel the desire of every man, woman, and child towards one hideous end – the ruthless expansion of your “collective” world view over all others. Under capitalist realism, remember that this is the profit-motive’s most powerful weapon.
One of The Terror’s greatest strengths is its cinematography; the Arctic feels as expansive, barren, and punishing as I can only imagine it really is. As such, the two little boats filled to the brim with God-Save-the-Queen hoo-rah find themselves in an exceptionally chilly version of the desert of the Real. The Real – all which lies beyond the bounds of the Symbolic, that which the Symbolic is designed to endlessly colonise, control, and supress – is a void, it is an absence, and that is precisely what these ships find themselves subsumed by. Where their route was once a part of a much larger narrative, given meaning through word only, once progress halts they realise that they lie beyond the Empire’s bounds, its words, and subsequently all the hope and meaning it provides; where their geographical coordinates are lost, their phantasmatic coordinates soon follow. In this sense, rather than imagining Tuunbaq as a quasi-spiritual whitewashed polar bear of subaltern vengeance, it makes a great deal more sense to understand it as an embodiment of the raging, screaming, deathdrive of the Real, bursting through their ruptured Symbolic order; the Id let loose as the ego – both individual, but also collective, national, imperial – loses its hold. This is perhaps why, in a particularly (small ‘s’) symbolic moment, the mutinous Sergeant Hickey cuts out his tongue, and as such any ability to consensually partake in the imperial-Symbolic, and feeds it (as well as himself) to the ever-raging Tuunbaq.
Which brings me to my next point via Lacan via Bhaktin via Moudileno: Another of The Terror’s greatest assets is its unflinching approach to the body; this is not gore for the sake of gore, “horror” for the sake of horror, but the grotesque body firing on all cylinders. From amputations to cannibalism, sodomising trysts to scalping and demi-decapitation, The Terror is littered with bodily functions and bodies at point of rupture. Bhaktin defines the grotesque body as a “body in the act of becoming, it is never finished, never completed”, focusing on “those parts of the grotesque body in which it outgrows its own self, transgressing its own body”. Therefore, though we can just take the blood and guts at face value, as the (small r) real representation of this Lord of the Flies on ice, we can happily take it one step further: bodies at the point of breakage, of transgressing their perceived limits, are reflective of hierarchies, discourses, and grandnarratives doing exactly the same thing. The language of the Symbolic defines the parameters of the singular body just as much as it does the collective will; when the bounds of those bodies are ruptured and collapsed it is because the relationship between those bodies and the hegemonic discourses that once defined them has been disturbed. The Terror reflects collapse of the Imperial narrative at a wonderfully visceral level.
And all of this leads us neatly to the series’ conclusion. The Tuunbaq is defeated by an aptly but unsubtly named Surgeon Goodsir who – knowing his own murder is imminent – douses himself in vinegary poison and slashes his wrists in another beautifully corporeal moment of Christ-like martyrdom; Hickey’s crew eat Goodsir, Tuunbaq eats Hickey’s crew, and you can guess the rest. This – along with the lead poisoning, starvation, and over three years of Arctic exposure in impossibly thin and well-kept coats – leaves all the men but Captain Crozier dead. Alive and well but for a missing hand (lost to the Tuunbaq) the Captain is rescued by an Inuit woman called Silna and taken to her tribe. After a few months of much needed R&R here, the British search party (finally) comes knocking, looking for the lost ships and their crew. “What do you want me to do?” asks the leader of the Inuit tribe; the scene cuts to the leader pointing at a photograph of Crozier brought by the search party and telling them that he is “dead and gone”. Unbeknownst to the Brits, Crozier stands outside that very tent, wrapped in his own set of tailor-made Inuit furs. The point here is this: Crozier’s body may – more or less – be in one piece, but he has chosen to sacrifice every dripping of the Imperial-Symbolic he possibly could. Not just his clothes and his rank, but (most importantly) his language too, having become fluent in the Inuit dialect; though the body lives on, the man that was Captain Crozier, the man that the British Empire had subjectivised as “Captain Crozier”, is both dead and gone.
The final shot is fitting: ex-Crozier walks away from the tent, and the scene cuts to him crouched by a hole in the ice, presumably hunting for seal, surrounded by an endless expanse of ice that bleeds seamlessly in the always-white Arctic sky and ghostly summer sun; subsumed not just by the desert of the Real, but its unbearable silence too. Imperialism – just like capitalism – relies on endless expansion, on endless ground to colonise and commodify. For this very reason, Empire’s greatest enemy is not the revenge-set subaltern it oppresses, but its own self-defeating logic: nothing can expand forever, one day there will be nothing left to colonise, and one day the hegemon will have to confront all that lies beyond its bounds – the empty, silent, raging void – and what then?
Lanthimos’ 2017 film The Killing of a Sacred Deer focuses on the Murphy family, whose ruling patriarch Stephen, a successful surgeon, has constructed a Symbolic discourse designed to limit flows of desire and thus maintain his Oedipal matrix. Where the Father in Dogtooth uses a phobic-phallic logic, Stephen uses the language of transaction and exchange to ensure that the status of his wealthy mid-western family is upheld. As in Alps, the Murphy’s Oedipal matrix encounters and is threatened by a spectral figure. However, where Monte Rosa’s power to haunt was limited by her own Oedipal desires that were reinforced at the institutional level, Martin – who disrupts Stephen’s transactional linguistic economy through his spectral demand –
represents a much more threatening and powerful kind of ghost. Understanding Martin’s effectiveness requires a reframing of the spectral figure. Like a Lacanian ghost, Martin comes to settle a Symbolic debt incurred in his Father’s death. However, Deleuze and Guattari’s internal reversal of psychoanalysis undertaken in Anti-Oedipus alters our understanding of the spectre and explains how Martin can settle the debt whilst simultaneously causing irreversible disruption to the Oedipal flows of desire that maintain Stephen’s authority. By undertaking a process of ‘becoming-ghost’, Martin embodies the injustices done to him by institutionalised capitalism with an unrelenting and undesiring ‘drive’ that Monte Rosa was lacking. This allows him, first, to break apart Stephen’s linguistic economy of transaction through a lexicon of unwavering imperatives that reject desirous exchange. Second, to act as a Deleuzoguattarian desiring-machine that seeks to forge new desirous connections wherever possible and, in doing so, direct them away from the ruling patriarch, shattering his Oedipal triangle.
From the film’s outset Lanthimos demonstrates Stephen’s total control over his family and the American medical establishment. The opening frame makes evident his godlike power: a brightly lit close-up of a beating heart undergoing surgery. The heart is exposed, vulnerable, and at this moment entirely at Stephen’s mercy; he is ‘modern divinity, holding mortality in his hands’. In a scene shortly afterwards, Stephen attends a medical dinner with his wife. Lanthimos emphasises the luxury: expensive black-tie, more expensive black dresses, and golden chandeliers abound. Stephen stands behind a lectern and delivers an after-dinner speech centring on ‘scientific breakthroughs’, ‘new treatments’, laced with polite jokes. The hall is silent as his audience, including his adoring wife, look on in admiration. Stephen is not just a patriarch at home, but a man who commands a great influence in his professional life too; he is a man with everything to lose. The control Stephen commands over the operating table and the medical profession is mirrored in his private life. The night before the ball, Stephen chats to his wife Anna as they prepare for bed. The small talk ends and the atmosphere changes; Anna looks at Stephen and whispers ‘general anaesthetic?’ He nods, she strips to her underwear, and lays diagonally across the bed before letting her body go limp as if totally anaesthetised. Her body is Stephen’s to do with as he pleases: he rearranges her, carefully posing her limbs to his liking, before roughly pulling off her underwear. In the final wide shot of the room Anna’s naked body lies totally still and totally exposed, arranged to Stephen’s taste as if she were a mannequin; his power is ubiquitous.
Stephen maintains and enforces this power linguistically. Developing an argument posed by Liz Baessler who suggests that ‘the conversations that define [the Murphys] are transactional in nature’, I argue Stephen oversees a Symbolic linguistic-economy of transaction and exchange that is designed to generate reciprocated, balanced flows of Oedipal desire. One evening the family sit around their dining table in a luxurious room befitting a family of their status. Kim, the daughter, has just asked her Father about going to a friend’s party. Bob, the son with luscious shoulder-length hair, asks ‘if Kim goes to the party, can I go with her?’ Stephen defers a firm answer, and instead instigates a transaction: ‘Bob, you promised me you’d get a haircut, and you still haven’t done it’; Bob looks at his plate dejected and the system of exchange is revealed: the children’s access to pleasure relies upon the transactional fulfilment of whatever Symbolic criteria he ordains. The darker resonances of this tactic emerge later in the film when both children are suffering from the debilitating disease with which Martin plagues the family. In vain, the children attempt to bargain their way out of this suffering using the same transactional language their Father thrust upon them when they were healthy. Kim promises to ‘never forget her chores’. Bob, his legs failing him and death imminent, drags himself along the hardwood floors to the family kitchen. Here, he finds a pair of scissors and begins cutting off his hair. He presents himself to his Father: ‘Dad, look, I cut my hair, just like you wanted me to’, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you and get a haircut right away’ he adds, before turning and dragging himself away, ‘I’m going to water the plants now’. Before he leaves, Bob plays his ace card: ‘I’ve decided I want to become a cardiologist, not an ophthalmologist’ – his Mother’s profession – ‘I think I prefer what you do’. Stephen’s control of Oedipal desire through transactional language is so ingrained that the children believe it can save them from mortal threat. However, this tactic only works when Stephen can meet his perceived godliness and reward a fulfilled transaction with Symbolic recognition. In this instance, where he is totally powerless, the failed transaction leads to an excess of desire that the children cannot meaningfully direct towards their Father; Martin later capitalises on these excesses.
In order to understand Martin’s spectral effectiveness, what separates him and Monte Rosa require clarification. Monte Rosa was a failed ghost because of her underlying Oedipal desire; she wanted to return to an Oedipal matrix rather than disrupt it. Contrastingly, Martin exhibits spectral drive throughout the film. Zizek explains this dichotomy: ‘Drive’, in contrast to desire, ‘persists in a certain demand, it is “mechanical” insistence that cannot be caught up in dialectical [or transactional] trickery: I demand something and I persist in it to the end’. Effective spectres ‘address to us some unconditional demand’ and ‘incarnate pure drive without desire’. Martin engages in the ‘settling of accounts’ for his Father’s death, ‘persisting beyond physical exasperation’, ‘insisting on suffering’, ‘with no trace of compromise or hesitation’. This is reflected in a lexicon laden with imperatives and short definitive statements which, through its non-conditional and demanding nature, disrupts the carefully balanced and triangulated desires that Stephen’s transactional linguistic-economy maintains. It is almost halfway through the film before Martin reveals the rules and stakes of the game at play. After insisting on Stephen’s presence at the hospital cafeteria – ‘don’t stand me up like last time’ – Martin explains that they have reached:
‘…that critical moment we both knew would come someday. That time is now. Just as you killed a member of my family, now you gotta kill a member of your family to balance things out, understand? […] They will all get sick and die. Bob will die. Kim will die. Your wife will die. One: paralysis of the limbs. Two: refusal of food to the point of starvation. Three: bleeding from the eyes. Four: death. Don’t worry you won’t get sick. You’ve just gotta stay calm, that’s all.’
Though the demand may be transactional in nature the language of the demand is not. Martin speaks in short, sharp, imperatives, dictating when these ‘critical’ moments occur and what Stephen has ‘gotta’ do. He tells Stephen precisely what ‘is’ happening, what ‘will’ happen, and sets out an unnegotiable ‘critical’ demand. The terrifying list of symptoms only emphasise Martin’s authority and the demand’s inevitably. When Martin asks the patriarch if he ‘understands?’, it becomes clear that he is re-writing the laws by which the Murphys live and die, a power previously held exclusively by Stephen.
Martin’s drive short-circuits Stephen’s linguistic economy. As Bob’s condition worsens, Stephen attempts another transaction. Assuming that Bob’s symptoms are ‘psychosomatic’, Stephen shares a secret in the hope that Bob will confess to insincerity: ‘I’ll tell you a secret, one I’ve never told anyone before, and you tell me one’, ‘whoever tells the best secret wins’. Stephen confesses to masturbating his sleeping alcoholic father to climax and comparing the father’s semen with his own. Bob, stunned but genuinely suffering under Martin’s spectral curse, has nothing to offer in return; the patriarch humiliates himself and reveals his own Oedipal desires for negligible gain. Moreover, Stephen’s family begin to use his linguistic tactics against him; transaction being the only discourse Stephen has previously ordained meaningful, they deem it their only hope of bargaining themselves out of Martin’s demand. Anna visits Stephen’s anaesthesiologist whom she agrees to masturbate in return for information regarding the operation that killed Martin’s Father. Within this transaction another emerges: the anaesthesiologist tells Anna that ‘a surgeon can kill a patient, but an anaesthesiologist never can’, only minutes after Stephen has told her that ‘an anaesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can’. The integrity of Stephen’s marriage is forfeit for the sake of a transaction, but the self-cancelling transactional language Stephen deploys in the workplace means this forfeit is worthless. Anna later calls at Martin’s home in an attempt to save herself and her children: ‘if [Stephen] caused this tragic thing to happen, I don’t understand why I should have to pay the price, why my children should have to pay the price’. By attaching a ‘price’ to every interaction with his family and only granting Symbolic recognition through the fulfilment of a transaction, Stephen unwittingly teaches his family the linguistic logic with which they abandon him.
This leads to the Symbolic collapse of Stephen’s world. Stephen goes to Martin’s house to demand an ultimatum. He screams and shouts at the doors and windows, but no reply comes. Roles are reversed; he who once ruled the familial Inside has been cast Outside by a child. After confessing the botched surgery to Anna, Stephen climbs into the shower to bawl, naked and alone; language fails him and the silent Real bursts in, the omnipotent Father is reduced to a childlike state of vulnerability. When Stephen finally accepts Martin’s mortal demand, he blindfolds his family in the living room before spinning around and taking pot-shots with a rifle until he hits someone; transactional balance has been reduced to helpless randomness. Camerawork mirrors Stephen’s fall from power. The camera in Dogtooth reflected the gaze of the patriarch, trapping his children and severing them into partial objects; here it is as if ‘the characters are being watched by omnipresent gods’, ‘an otherworldly presence’. The camera wanders high and low around characters, ‘stalking them through hospitals and luxury homes alike’ the camera becomes ‘revolutionary’ by being ‘torn from the Subject and freely thrown round’ because it allows viewers to ‘see ourselves “from Outside”’. Locations bolster this effect: Lanthimos asked that the hospital ‘looked state-of-the-art and new, that it wasn’t a Gothic-type old hospital’ because ‘it needed to feel like all the scientific resources were there’. As Stephen walks around his cutting-edge hospital repeatedly being told his children are ‘all fine’ according to scans, the eerie camera makes it increasingly evident that Stephen’s Symbolic kingdom has been invaded and usurped by an Outside presence.
Zizek provides a link between the Lacanian model of the spectre and the work of Deleuze and Guattari; this helps to overtly politicize Martin’s ghostly demand and makes possible a reading of The Killing of a Sacred Deer that goes beyond the settling of Symbolic debt to also consider the ways in which Martin redirects and disrupts Oedipal flows of desire. Zizek suggests that ‘the starting point of a Lacanian reading of Deleuze should be a brutal direct substitution: whenever Deleuze and Guattari talk about “desiring machines” one should substitute this term with drive’, with Lacan himself emphasising the ‘“machinic” character of drive’ in Seminar XI. Deleuze and Guattari define a desiring-machine as an entity which ‘is at work everywhere’, that ‘breathes, ‘eats’, ‘shits’, ‘fucks’, and most importantly is able to both ‘produce a flow’ of desire but also ‘interrupt’ one; ‘all the time, flows and interruptions’. Therefore, if one can simultaneously understand Martin as a Lacanian ghost riddled with drive and as a Deleuzoguattarian desiring machine, then I argue that Martin’s greatest act of revenge on Stephen is not the central eye-for-an-eye demand, but the way in which Martin subversively interrupts and redirects the closed Oedipal flows upon which Stephen relies for power and status.
This allows for a revolutionary reframing of Martin that recognises his demand as an act of ‘becoming-ghost’, a term recently coined by Richard Gilman-Opalsky that functions as a spectral update to Guattari’s anti-oedipal concept of becoming-woman. Rather than just a callous tit-for-tat attack on Stephen’s private life, Martin’s demand can be understood as a self-conscious and politically-motivated attack on the neoliberal system that the Murphy family represents and upholds. Gilman-Opalsky argues that capitalism, ‘a social system full of exploitation and human suffering’, ‘should be haunted by the miseries it proliferates and sanctions’. What is therefore required, he suggests, ‘is to become the ghost ourselves, to become the ones who haunt’. In particular, this is the task of those that have suffered the most under capitalism’s mechanisms: ‘the ghosts of those who have died from maltreatment, abandonment, egregious disregard’, and in doing so come to self-consciously represent ‘part of a reckoning with a history of institutional – and institutionalised – violence’. Martin and his mother have suffered in just this way, having seen Stephen, first, get away with the clinically negligent murder of his Father without punishment and, second, be rewarded for this negligence with increased wealth, security, and comfort. In this sense, Martin becomes a revolutionary figure because the capitalist world ‘cannot rid itself of its ghosts without becoming something else’; by inviting the ghost into his Oedipal castle, Stephen exposes his family’s carefully balanced and strictly maintained desirous flows to an anti-capitalist and pre-Oedipal Outside Real in the form of a spectral desiring machine that seeks to disrupt and redirect those flows by insistently establishing ‘new connections’ which transmute the family unit in the process.
In light of this it is Martin’s direct and self-conscious meddling with desire, rather than his insistence upon mortal revenge, that requires long-overdue analysis. In Janardhan’s review, she notes that Martin represents ‘an outsider who will infiltrate the apparent solidity of the family unit, working his way into their affections one by one’; the first characters who have the ‘affections’ meddled with in this way are the film’s mothers, both Anna and Martin’s Mother. In an early scene where Stephen is invited to Martin’s house for dinner with him and his Mother, Martin attempts to engineer a disruptive affair between the adult pair. When the two adults are left alone, Martin’s Mother compliments Stephen’s ‘white’, ‘soft’, ‘clean’ doctor’s hands before beginning to kiss them and suck his thumbs. When Stephen gets uncomfortable and pulls away, the Mother placates him by saying ‘it’s okay, he [Martin] wants this as much as I do’. Not only have Martin’s desires, taken primacy over Stephen’s, Martin has begun to test the strength and integrity of Stephen’s Oedipal triangle. This becomes even more explicit towards the end of the film. Stephen has secretly abducted Martin and trapped him in the Murphy basement, hoping to somehow intimidate or torture him into forfeiting his plan. When Anna secretly goes to Martin and kneels before the boy, kissing his feet one by one and showing him the deference of a deity, it becomes clear that all the desire Anna had once directed towards Stephen for security, safety, and stability has now been divested in Martin. As such, the Oedipal triangle is ruptured and desire begins to spill across the border from Inside to Outside.
However, by far the best case-study of Martin’s desirously-deterritorializing effect can be seen in his relationship with Kim. Almost as soon as she meets Martin, Kim begins redirecting once-Oedipal desire outwards, beyond the bounds of the family and towards the ghost. As Kim, Bob, and Martin all sit upstairs, Kim demands Martin show them his underarm hair, comparing it directly to her Father’s before adding ‘you have a great body’. Moreover, in a scene where her and Martin sit alone, Kim stands up, drops her dress for Martin, and then silently assumes the ‘general anaesthetic’ position that her mother had earlier performed for her Father. This uncanny repetition of bodily postures demonstrates that Kim’s desire for, and deference to, her father has been interrupted and rerouted by Martin who responds imperceptibly to Kim’s advances; she desires him completely, but the spectral drive desires nothing. This shift becomes increasingly evident as the children become ill. Both siblings lie in hospital, bed-ridden and unable to walk. Kim receives a phone call from Martin; he is stood in the car park and asks to see her. After days of scientific testing at the hands of her Father and his colleagues – all of which reveal nothing – Kim miraculously stands, walks to the window and stands there until Martin is content before immediately collapsing back into her bed. This moment in particular emphasises Martin’s spectral qualities. Initially, the viewer sees Martin’s figure at a distance in the car park, but does not hear his voice and is left to decipher his commands from Kim’s responses. Seconds after Kim has returned to bed, Anna goes to the window to see him: Martin has disappeared entirely. Not only is Martin able to continue redirecting Kim’s Oedipal desire towards himself, but he is able to do so using exclusively linguistic tactics in a mode totally indecipherable to either of the parents; Martin possesses a kind of power that operates Outside of the perceptual borders of the typical neoliberal family and its ruling parties.
In the final quarter of the film Kim’s obsession takes on a new intensity. As Bob’s condition worsens, Kim sits smoking out of an open window in just the manner Martin previously showed her. She then repeats a phrase of his in uncanny fashion: ‘[Stephen] won’t kill [Martin]’, ‘I just know’, ‘otherwise, it would be like killing four people with a single shot’. Having repeated the phrase and taken on his definitive lexicon of imperatives, Kim announces that she is going to live with Martin. The family home, the physical manifestation of the closed Oedipal triangle and its desirous borders, has been ruptured; Kim’s desire has been directed so far from Stephen that she refuses to live under his roof. The film’s final scene compounds this new set of anti-oedipal relations. Having fulfilled Martin’s demand, slaughtering Bob in the living-room, one wonders whether this scene is altogether necessary – in a typical horror film, the reel would doubtless end after the climactic shoot-out. However, once Martin’s revenge is reframed not as a mortal act but as a desirous one, the scene takes on new resonance. The remaining family members sit and eat in a diner. Martin arrives and silently acknowledges their sacrifice before sitting at the bar behind them. Anna and Stephen are rigid, pale, and mute – words are useless to Stephen now – unable to eat in light of what has passed. Kim, conversely, piles ketchup onto her fries in precisely the same way that Martin does, and explicitly acknowledges with Kim, earlier in the film. She looks directly at him and eats hungrily. As the parents stand to leave Kim follows, but turns back, holding eye contact with Martin as they walk out the door.
No words pass between them because the Real is unbearably silent; Martin, a spectral figure from the Outside, has ruptured the Inside of Stephen’s triangle of Oedipal desire beyond repair: a son has been killed, the affections of a daughter and two Mothers have been directed away from the ruling patriarch, the integrity of Stephen and Anna’s marriage has been sacrificed, and the parents have been transformed into mute shells of their former selves. As Gilman-Opalsky foretold, they are no longer a family, they have ‘become something else’.
‘Settling of Accounts’
These three films make Yorgos Lanthimos an anti-capitalistic and revolutionary director. The language of these films, in combination with their formal elements, demonstrates how the family functions as a supporting unit of the hegemonic neoliberal project before providing several possible aesthetic and linguistic possibilities for disrupting and dismantling this hegemony. Dogtooth depicts the patriarch’s phobic-phallic process of constructing Symbolic and imaginative borders between Inside and Outside that ensure the subservience of his children to his individual autocratic regime and to the broader neoliberal ideology that symbiotically support one another. Alps poses a possible path of resistance, with Monte Rosa exemplifying the power of a spectral figure to induce the linguistic uncanny that exposes the artificiality of the Symbolic structures that uphold Oedipal matrices, challenging the naturalised supremacy of the family even if her own underlying desires are complicit in the very structures she seeks to destabilise.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer, however, marks the total fulfilment of the project Lanthimos and Monte Rosa began in Alps. Martin’s abilities are twofold. First, he disrupts the Oedipal Symbolic, founded upon a language of transaction that reflects its purpose to regulate and contain desire, with an undesiring and authentically spectral drive which allows him to pursue settlement of the Symbolic debt to its conclusion. Second, and of greater importance, is that Martin enacts a process of becoming-ghost. By acknowledging and then embodying the injustices done to this family by institutionalised capitalist violence and using this knowledge to act as a spectral desiring-machine that directs desire away from the ruling patriarch and destroys the closed Oedipal triangle in the process, Martin demonstrates how the ghost can use language to become a self-consciously revolutionary figure. Whereas the ghost of traditional psychoanalysis only returns to settle the Symbolic debt out of a subconscious and undesiring drive, a Deleuzoguattarian ghost recognises the power of productive, Real desire, and directs this power to radically anti-oedipal ends.
However, these are not the only revolutionary aspects to Lanthimos’ oeuvre; this piece has forfeited exploration of many others due to the thematic and dimensional limitations of this piece. Working chronologically, I will now gesture towards possible avenues for further criticism I provisionally identified during research for this project. Kinetta, Lanthimos’ directorial debut, depicts a group of strangers that recreate homicides on film during the off-season at a Greek resort; his developing interest in uncanny repetitions and quasi-spectrality appears here in nascent form. His first English language release, 2015’s The Lobster, provides a searing critique of romantic relationships and the hollow Symbolic posturing they rely upon. Its greater emphasis on the romantic couple rather than the family saw it excluded from this piece, but my reference to Sarah Cooper’s article on the film demonstrates that much good critical work has already been done and could be usefully revisited in light of the framework I have deployed here. 2018’s The Favourite is ripe for anti-oedipal analysis, focusing as it does on queer relationships that circumvent and disrupt normative desirous relations with implications that effect the entire British state. Its protagonist, Abigail, functions similarly to Martin as a queer desiring-machine, forging subversive desirous connections. Adequately explaining the potential of this subversive ability here would have required invoking the complex critical framework of queer studies, for which the word-limit of this piece did not allow.
Looking to future projects, Lanthimos’ upcoming adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation could also provide new critical possibilities. Focusing on a wealthy young woman living in New York who opts for a life of quasi-spectrality and isolation after losing her parents, the contents of the novel fit neatly within the paradigms I have discussed. However, upon which aspects of the plot Lanthimos choses to focus, and the ways in which he presents those chosen elements, remains to be seen. Regardless, I hope this short concluding section makes clear that there is much work yet to be done on Lanthimos’ films, particularly work that makes language a centrepiece of its designs.
 Michael Sragow, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’, last accessed 22 August 2020, <filmcomment.com>.
 Liz Baessler, ‘Why Does Everyone Speak So Strangely in The Killing of a Sacred Deer?’, last accessed 21 August 2020, <filmschoolrejects.com>.
 [Unsigned Article] ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Ending Explained’, last accessed 22 August 2020, <thisisbarry.com>; David Sims, ‘Yorgos Lanthimos on his New Film The Killing of a Sacred Deer’, last accessed 21 August 2020, <theatlantic.com>.
Celik, Ipek A., ‘Family as Internal Border in Dogtooth’, Frontiers of Screen History: Imagining European Borders in Cinema 1945-2010, ed. Raita Merivirta, Kimmo Ahonen, Heta Mulari, and Rami Mahka, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 217-233
Colquhoun, Matt, Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy, and the Fisher-Function, (London: Repeater Books, 2020)
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Dogtooth depicts how patriarchs in neoliberal oedipal matrices deploy language according to a phobic-phallic logic, wherein all that exists Outside of the domestic sphere is transformed into an object of anxiety, an unimaginable Real that threatens subjects’ Symbolic existence; by simultaneously controlling the internal borders of the family through language, and defining anything beyond those borders as an object of existential terror, patriarchs foreclose the possibility of alternative kinship and political structures. Psychoanalysis identifies the ghost as one figure capable of disrupting and challenging these Symbolic boundaries. Lanthimos’ 2011 film Alps follows a paramedic, a gymnast, her coach and a nurse called Monte Rosa in their clandestine second job; they work as a collective that, for a price, will act in the place of deceased loved one to aid the mourning process. Though not ghosts in the supernatural sense, they act in spectral fashion, providing a form and voice through which the dead return. As such, they are able to induce a linguistic uncanny that exposes the artificiality, and therefore undermines the naturalised supremacy, of oedipal relations. However, due to the patriarchal and hierarchical structure of the Alps collective, as well as Monte Rosa’s own desires to return to her recently broken family, her ability to meaningfully and permanently challenge oedipal relations remains limited.
Before commencing close analysis, it is worth repeating the origins and proposed abilities of the spectre in Lacanian psychoanalysis; when I later explore Monte Rosa’s limitations in contrast with the more effective Martin in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, this will ensure distinctions are clear and precise. Colin Davis summarises how ghosts function in popular culture: the appearance of ‘ghost like creatures’ is always a ‘sign of a disturbance in the Symbolic, moral, or epistemological order’. Lacan identifies Antigone as the ur-ghost who disobeys her father, Creon, by performing funeral rites for the disgraced Polynices. The furious Creon banishes her to a nearby cave with just enough food to sustain her. Antigone hangs herself. By being exiled in this way, Antigone’s Symbolic death precedes her biological death and as such she briefly inhabits ‘the domain between two deaths’. The funeral ‘exemplifies Symbolisation at its purest’; through it ‘the dead are inscribed in the text of Symbolic tradition’, ‘in spite of their death, they will “continue to live” in the memory of the community’. By insisting on Polynices’ funeral rites despite it bringing about her own Symbolic death, Antigone and all subsequent ghosts must be understood as ‘collectors of some unpaid Symbolic debt’. As such, the spectre should be understood as having a unique power to simultaneously exist within and beyond the Symbolic borders and imaginative limits set by Oedipal patriarchs; in being able to move between the Inside and Outside, the spectre disrupts the Symbolic borders set by familial and political Fathers, exposing them as artificial rather than natural. Though I ultimately suggest that Monte Rosa is a failed ghost according to the above definition, she does have limited success in challenging Oedipal boundaries because she retains the spectral ability to ‘disrupt the secure self-presence of Subjects, concepts, theories and institutions’ even if she returns to the Oedipal frameworks that her ghostly attributes allow her to briefly challenge.
Whenever one talks about a ghostly entity capable of destabilising Symbolic borders, one is also talking about the boundaries of political possibility within that Symbolic structure – in this instance, neoliberal and Oedipal capitalism – and how these boundaries can be tested, ruptured, and potentially collapsed by the haunting presence of a radically Other politics. As Matt Colquhoun summarises, ‘this Other is the spectre that Marx and Engels first conjured out of European history’; for Herbert Marcuse it was ‘the spectre of a world that could be free’, of a world beyond neoliberalism’s oedipal, linguistic, and imaginative borders. Perhaps the foremost way in which Monte Rosa performs this spectral function is by invoking the uncanny. John Friedland defines the uncanny as a ‘distinctly not stabilising, but destabilising ghostly apparition of the past’ that directs a Subject back to its ‘horrible void or lack’ by exposing them to the artificiality and fragility of the Symbolic that comprises their world. Lanthimos, through primarily linguistic but also formal techniques, invokes the uncanny throughout Alps and as such provides an initial spectral challenge to the phobic-phallic Symbolic of the family and capitalism.
Monte Rosa is not a ghost in the supernatural sense; she is a young woman, working two jobs, living with her Father. However, she is undeniably spectral. As Landon Palmer suggests, this is because Alps is the ‘portrait of a woman who lives entirely without identity’; forfeiting any Symbolic identity of her own, Monte Rosa ‘offers her body as a receptacle for various spectral Subjects to inhabit’. As a kind of Antigone, ‘stripped of any sense of identity’, moving between but having no fixed place in the social or familial realm, ‘Monte Rosa is perennially condemned to inhabit the threshold between life and death’. The more she commits to the deceased personas she is ordered to re-enact, the more intensely she beckons her social death; unable to find wholeness in either realm, she condemns herself to an endless ‘meandering “between two deaths”’. Moreover, by indefinitely deferring the Symbolic death of her clients’ relatives, she disrupts Symbolic tradition; by repeating the words and gestures of people that should have passed into the Symbolic traditions of the dead, she provokes Fisher’s metaphysical question: ‘Why is there something here when there should be nothing?’
The members of Alps are intensely concerned with correctly memorising and delivering their ‘lines’ to clients because they constitute the foremost means of recreating dead loved-ones; this constant repetition is also the foremost way in which Monte Rosa invokes the uncanny. Sarah Cooper notes in her article ‘Narcissus and The Lobster’ how the process of copying and repetition ‘brings out proximity to the original event or exposes the constructed status of relationships’ but every time ‘the copy always lacks something and gives itself away’. Monte Rosa’s work with a man who owns a lighting shop provides a case study of this effect; she engages in a ‘rather twisted version of “orgasm faking”’ that is the result of a long game of linguistic “foreplay” between herself and the client. Monte Rosa goes to dinner with the man, who informs her that there are ‘three main categories of light fittings’ with ‘various sub-categories’, before listing them for her and demanding she ‘repeat them back to [him]’. Monte Rosa tries and fails, but performs a disruptive spectral function in doing so. First, she proves that romantic relationships – the corner stone of the Oedipal triangle – are artificial, relying on Symbolically predetermined fantasmatic criteria set by the Father. Second, she exposes the uncanny gap between herself and the real wife who would have been able to list them flawlessly but has found her voice replaced with another despite the supposedly unique bond of husband and wife; romantic and familial relationships are revealed to be a projection of the Father’s own Symbolic standards, echoed back to him by a partner who fits within these fantasmatic coordinates. True love is exposed as a fake, and the Symbolic that underpins it is shaken.
This effect is repeated more intensely in a later scene when the same “couple” are in the aforementioned lighting shop. First, they rehearse an argument that took place between the man and his wife which almost results in a breakup. After delivering the lines with robotic flatness they repeat the entire ordeal, this time with louder voices and the appropriate props; Monte Rosa is asked to smash a lamp at the argument’s peak. Once again, by repeating the event once in rehearsal, then doubling this repetition in the fuller performance, the Subject is once again shown to be replicable and replaceable so long as the Father’s Symbolic framework remains intact. The pair reconcile before going into the basement to consummate this peace. The man asks Monte Rosa to say ‘it feels like paradise’ as he performs cunnilingus. As Monte Rosa reaches climax – either real or a performed repetition, the audience does not know – she utters ‘it feels like heaven’; the man looks up, the illusion shattered, the fantasmatic frame collapses and the uncanny gap is revealed, the Outside Real bursts in.
The pervasive use of cliché throughout Alps also serves to expose the impersonal, Symbolically determined nature of oedipal relations. This is clearest in the depiction of the tennis-playing daughter who Monte Rosa “replaces”. The film’s second scene depicts Mont Blanc, a paramedic by day, transporting a girl to hospital in the back of an ambulance. Already grooming her for Alps’ services, he begins asking her questions: ‘If I asked you to pick an actor, who would it be? Who’s your favourite? Look, I’ll list some names’, ‘Brad Pitt?’, ‘No?’, ‘Johnny Depp? What? Not Johnny Depp?’ As the girl lies in a coma, Monte Rosa ‘attempts to recreate a parental counselling session’ by giving the unconscious girl advice about the cliched feminine topics of ‘pregnancy and hair care’. When the girl passes, Monte Rosa counsels the family by saying that their daughter ‘lost the greatest match of her life’, ‘her opponent proved too strong for her’, and pitches them Alps’ services by saying that ‘the end can be a new and better beginning’. These hackneyed turns of phrase demonstrate that language is not a vessel for expression of unique family intimacies, but repetitions of preordained Symbolic discourses and desires. Lanthimos reveals that the cumulative effect of such clichés is to ‘imprison characters in predetermined modes of behaviour that reinforce existing social hierarchies’, those of the heteronormative family and the neoliberal capitalism it maintains. Just as in Dogtooth, the absence of proper names for Alps’ characters similarly ‘reinforces the de-individuation of characters’ and reduces ‘the deceased to a set of personality traits, habits, and phrases’ that are easily recreated by Alps because the desires embodied in those phrases were always-already Symbolically determined. By invoking a linguistic uncanny, Lanthimos implies that Subjects enact desires that are not their own; they have been created elsewhere, by someone else, and are eternally repeated via a Symbolic order that benefits from the repetition of desires generated through their repeated utterance. However, Lanthimos simultaneously uses this uncanny language to gesture back towards the Outside Real, thus destabilising and undermining the supposedly total authority of Symbolic borders.
Several formal techniques reinforce Monte Rosa’s ghostliness and the Symbolically predetermined nature of Oedipal relations. Lanthimos’ framing, lighting, sound, and colouring all emphasise Monte Rosa’s ‘instability, fluctuation, and ephemerality’. Her ontological flux is reflected through tone; her already ghostly pallid complexion seems to dissipate as her figure dissolves into the pale blues of the Greek sea or the pastel shades of the interiors. Moreover, the film is littered with wide shots in shallow focus that transform Monte Rosa’s body into a spectral ‘breathing shadow, an abstract body’. Decapitating shots that sever character’s bodies are less prevalent than in Dogtooth but just as disconcerting; they reflect the lack of wholeness or individual subjectivity afforded to Monte Rosa by the Oedipal Symbolic. Alex Lykidis suggests that the abundance of shots depicting characters looking at something off-screen but not at each other, standing with their backs facing the camera, or off-centre frames that isolate characters to their margins are all ‘used to emphasise that the social relationships between characters are noticeably absent in these films’. I would nuance Lykidis’ comment by suggesting that the relationships are present but not “real” in the way the characters may have once thought. Following this line of thought, the same techniques could be read thus: the shallow focus and frames that keep one member of the exchange off-screen or hidden from view create the impression that characters’ words are ‘floating in air’, untethered to a specific speaker, thus representing a general discourse above and between all people – the Symbolic – rather than unique utterances that emanate from an individual.
Although Monte Rosa is able to induce a linguistic uncanny that reveals Oedipal relations to be Symbolically determined, her ability to make lasting and meaningful change to Oedipal flows of desire is severely limited by her own underlying desire to inhabit an Oedipal matrix; Poly Lkyourgou rightly claims that Alps’ protagonist ‘runs in vain and with sorrow back to the past, the home, the womb’. Psaras also identifies this trait in Monte Rosa: using Zizek’s words, he argues that Monte Rosa becomes ‘an incarnation of pure drive’ as she pursues ‘her desperate efforts’ and ‘demand to take up the place of the deceased tennis player as well as that of her own Mother’. However, where Psaras uses this notion of drive to exemplify why Monte Rosa is a successful haunt, I argue the opposite by drawing a crucial distinction between her and Martin in the following section on The Killing of a Sacred Deer. According to Lacan, desire is always the desire of the Other, and if it is the desire of the Other it is always the desire of the predetermined Symbolic; drive exists as an answer to the fundamental impasse of a Symbolic that cannot provide a justification for its existence or be directly addressed since one only has language – the language of the Symbolic – with which to address it. Thus, Monte Rosa’s desire to be part of a family is representative of the Symbolically predetermined Oedipal triangle; a ghost exhibiting pure drive would work against this matrix, looking to bring the Symbolic tradition to account, not strive to return to it.
Monte Rosa’s Oedipal desires are most apparent in her personal life when, as Nick Pinkerton observes, she returns home ‘to care – like a doting wife – for her elderly widower Father’. An hour into the film, after this relationship and her Father’s flowering relationship with a woman from a local dancing club have been established, Monte Rosa attempts to mimic the role of his new lover by asking him to dance with her in their living room; she begins to play substitute privately as well as professionally. When this is declined, her desires intensify: wearing only her underwear and the upper-portion of her nursing scrubs, she prepares a drink for her Father and sits opposite him. She asks him a series of questions: ‘Who was Mum’s favourite actor?’, ‘Robert Redford’, he says, ‘Me too’, she replies. ‘Her favourite singer?’, ‘Harry Belafonte’, ‘and yours?’ she follows up, ‘Elvis Presley’ he says. As she replies ‘Mine too’, she reaches forwards and begins sliding a hand up the inside of her Father’s thigh before attempting to touch his penis. She is swiftly reprimanded, but by verbally duplicating both of her parent’s interests, before making sexual advances on her Father, the repetitive technique that initially inspired an unsettling uncanny is repurposed to Oedipal ends.
In her professional life, and the collapse thereof, similarly Oedipal desires are displayed; ‘desperate to experience the affection missing in her own life, she descends into murky terrain, testing the boundaries of her professional duties in an attempt to shape herself a life where she’s loved and valued’. From the moment Monte Rosa has to inform the parents of that tennis-playing girl that she has passed, she responds with a level of emotional intensity and intimacy that seems excessive to the requirements of the professional ‘pitch’ that she is secretly and simultaneously making; she desires inclusion in their Oedipal suffering. Moreover, Monte Rosa brings the tennis-playing girl’s (ex)boyfriend – whom she initially meets under “parental” supervision as part of her work substituting for the girl – back to her private home and seduces him; she is insistent on inserting herself into the family’s desiring flows. Finally, having just had her aforementioned advances rejected by her Father, she breaks into the home of the tennis-playing girl, climbs into her bed and, upon being discovered by her parents, begins manically reciting her lines: ‘Nice shoes! Thanks’, ‘Yesterday, I saw an old movie about a soldier!’ Even as the Father drags her down the stairs and forcibly removes her from the house she continues to repeat these lines. The repetitive technique that first worked to expose an overdetermined Symbolic now functions, or so Monte Rosa hopes, as a route back into the structures she was working against. A ghost that desires is no ghost at all, and a ghost that desires to return to the womb cannot be the ghost to meaningfully challenge the resurging hegemony of the neoliberal family.
In Monte Rosa’s defence, the patriarchal, hierarchical, and ‘quasi-familial’ structure of the Alps collective forecloses any possibility of instantiating Oedipally-threatening drives because she is always-already caught up in Symbolically predetermined Oedipal networks with phobic-phallic Fathers. When Alps is formed, each member takes the name of a mountain from the eponymous range; Mont Blanc takes his moniker because it is ‘the name of the highest mountain’. He kindly allows his colleagues to choose from ‘any of the smaller mountains’. It is telling that the only other male member of the group – the gymnastics Coach – is second to pick and chooses ‘Matterhorn’; patriarchal hierarchy is inscribed at the level of interpellation into the group. The punishments dealt by these Father-figures is also representative of an oppressively Oedipal regime. Monte Rosa experiences harsh reprimand from Mont Blanc after he discovers that she has slept with the aforementioned boyfriend. He asks her to kneel on the gymnasium floor and stands next to her with a gymnastics club in hand: ‘if it turns red’ he says, ‘you are too unreliable and incompetent to stay with us’, if it stays white, she can stay. ‘Let’s see’ he says, before viciously beating her with the club until it is soaked with her blood. Any notion of freedom or democratic choice, particularly on behalf of the female members, is revealed to be a fake; the Father retains total control of the discourse.
The brief but powerful scenes depicting the Coach and young Gymnast make for an apt case study of this point. The film is framed at both ends by scenes of them alone. In the opening scene, the Gymnast dances to classical music. She finishes, sits, and strops: ‘What’s wrong?’ asks the coach, ‘I don’t like it […] why can’t we use a pop song?’, ‘You’re not ready for pop’, he replies. The gymnast gently insists, the Coach responds: ‘Raise your voice at me again, and I’ll take a club and crack your head open, then I’ll break your arms and legs, and then you really won’t be able to perform pop’. The threat of violence from a Father-figure again forestalls any possibility of meaningful change or resistance. Similarly, after the Gymnast insists once too often – or so the viewer is left to assume – she is discovered hanging by the neck from a gymnastics ring; Monte Rosa rescues her just in time. In the final scene, the Gymnast is seen finally dancing to pop, leading her to proclaim that he is ‘the best coach in the world’. However, as Lykidis recognises, this represents a ‘false note of euphoria’; her moves, choreographed by the Coach, remain exactly the same no matter what she dances to. Her cliched hyperbole heard in combination with the gratingly cartoonish pop tune once again gesture towards a patriarchally predetermined Symbolic against which any observable change is superficial and meaningless.
As such, despite Monte Rosa’s ability to linguistically induce the uncanny and expose Oedipal relations as Symbolically predetermined and artificial in the process, meaningful resistance to Oedipal flows of desire is severely limited by the always-already Oedipal structures in which Monte Rosa is forced to live and, as a result of these structures, her underlying desire to return to an Oedipal matrix. If this kind of ghost is unable to break apart Oedipal flows and the powers that come with them, what kind of ghost can?
 Colin Davis, Haunted Subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Return of the Dead, (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 2.
Dogtooth is laden with bright, wide-angle shots of the family estate – a large villa, complete with sprawling gardens and private swimming pool – an image ‘as cosy and inviting as in the most mainstream visual representations of the “ideal home”’. In reality, as Anjana Janardhan astutely suggests, the family’s patriarch uses the space to ‘create an alternative reality governed by its own internal logic’. By emphasising how the Father strictly regulates his family’s borders through control of language and media, Lanthimos depicts, in Ipek A. Celik’s words, ‘how external borders of a nation/civilisation are reproduced internally’ at the familial level. In the context of a rising tide of conservative and increasingly xenophobic neoliberal governments worldwide, and their pathological obsession with protecting everything within their borders, the family becomes critical in fractally maintaining national policy; the family functions as ‘an internal border in the core of society, to be protected from external intervention’. The result, however, is an Oedipal matrix that ‘closes in on itself’, and Lanthimos reflects this at the linguistic, visual, and auditory level.
As detailed previously I turn to Lacan, and Ben Tryer’s reading of the Lacanian phobia, to situate this claim within my psycho-linguistic framework. Zizek pithily reminds us of ‘Lacan’s thesis’: ‘“the unconscious is Outside”’.Dogtooth demonstrates the total extent to which ‘man’s desire is structured by the “decentred” Big Other, the Symbolic Order’ and that what Subjects desire is ‘predetermined by the Big Other, the Symbolic space in which [they] dwell’. It is also worth noting, prior to my analysis of the escape attempt at Dogtooth’s ending, that ‘even when desires are transgressive […] this very transgression is conditioned by what it transgresses’. Lanthimos extends this logic of familial borders as defined by the Symbolic to a perverse extreme. As Tryer suggests in his article ‘The Tongue is Not My Own’, Dogtooth is built upon a ‘phobic logic’, wherein the Father uses his powers of phallic signification to create a strictly controlled Symbolic Order of the Inside, which designates anything beyond the confines of the house, anything Outside, as posing an existential, Real threat to the lives of the family; the Outside is filled with ‘dangers that lurk’, but ‘if you stay inside, you are protected’.
A Lacanian phobia functions to counteract the anxiety felt when a Father does not clearly enough define a set of Symbolic structures by which a child can coordinate their desire; by focusing this anxiety on a specific object or space, that anxiety can be transformed into an intense fear of the chosen object and thus provide a determining ideal that compensates for their otherwise lacking Symbolic. Lacan describes this link between Fatherhood and phobia: ‘in order for there to be three terms in the [Oedipal] triangle, there must be a closed space, and organisation of the Symbolic world that is called the Father’, ‘phobia is of that order’. Lanthimos extends this phobic logic to its conclusion, by ‘presenting phobia as equivalent to paternal metaphor, phobic signification as phallic signification’, he exposes the neoliberal family as an always-already phobic structure.
This is depicted most obviously through the Father’s close control of language. The film opens with a shot of a tape recorder playing a woman’s voice reading out today’s ‘new words’: ‘sea’, ‘motorway’, ‘excursion’, and ‘carbine’. The definitions given are incorrect, but resignification alone does not make a phobia. What makes these resignifications phobic is how the chosen definitions are ‘regulated by a sharp distinction between inside and out’; any word that describes something from the Real Outside is redefined and transformed into something Inside that poses no threat to the Father’s authority. Of all the words offered in this scene, ‘sea’ is the most obviously Outside, beyond the domestic border. The definition given is that ‘a sea is a leather armchair with wooden arms’, specifically ‘like the one we have in our living room’, before offering the helpful example: ‘don’t stand on your feet, sit on the sea to have a quiet chat with me’. Not only is the ‘sea’ misdefined to a point of uselessness, it is resignified to compound the Father’s phobic Symbolic that privileges domestic spaces and interactions. Similarly, ‘motorway’ and ‘excursion’, two words that could aid escape from the house, are neutered of these threatening meanings and resignified as a kind of ethereal ‘wind’ and a material used to ‘construct floors’ respectively. With this tactic the Father can eradicate the Outside, and the alternative possibilities therein, from the minds of his children.
Another example of this phobic-phallic signification takes place in the family living room. The Father chooses a record to play and sits beside the record player to ‘translate’ the English lyrics for his children. The viewer instantly recognises the song as ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ sung by Frank Sinatra. However, the Father understands that to the children Sinatra’s plea to ‘let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars’ represents a meaningless void ripe for resignification. He offers a running translation: ‘Dad loves us, Mum loves us, do we love them? Yes, we do. I love my brothers and sisters because they love me as well’, ‘my parents are proud of me because I’m doing just fine, but I will always try harder’, ‘my house, you are beautiful and I love you and I will never leave you’. He tells them it is their Grandfather singing for them. Outside media that contains Outside language – language that could, and will, come to pose a threat to his phobic order – is resignified into the context of Oedipal domestic relations, purifying the words of any subversive potential; the border remains secure.
The Father’s godlike power over language extends further: to the names, or lack thereof, of his children. The proper name’s purpose is to call a Subject into being by bestowing an identifying signifier upon them; ‘the proper name bestows a Symbolic mandate upon the Subject, situating [them] in the structure of the chain of signifiers’. In both the dialogue and the credits, the characters are referred to only as ‘Dad’, ‘Mum’, ‘Son’, ‘Brother’, ‘Daughter’ and ‘Sister’. By reducing the family members to ‘terms in an Oedipal equation’ the Father denies them full subjectivisation within the Symbolic, any kind of meaningful life beyond their roles in subordination to him, and any possibility of creating an alternative kinship or political arrangement. These tactics have a number of psychic effects on the children. Though the ‘emotionless style of acting’, ‘lack of psychological development’, and their appearance like ‘marionettes or robots’ has offended some critics who claim that this style ‘fosters an intellectual distancing that weakens […] the film’s impact’, I argue that this style accurately represents the lack of subjectivisation and selfhood resulting from the Father’s reduction of them to Oedipal roles. For example, when Christina – the young woman paid to sexually service ‘the eldest’ – asks him what he dreams about, he is only able to refer to a mundane domestic incident wherein his Mother falls into the family pool; their external flatness helps to better reflect the psychological limitations and borders enforced through the Father’s phobic-phallic linguistic tactics and refusal to properly interpellate them.
If one considers Lanthimos’ cinematographic choices, this linguistic argument can be extended. Psaras notes that Dogtooth ‘persistently decapitates its characters’; throughout the film characters are cut off by the frame at the neck, leaving only their body in view. Zizek claims in Organs Without Bodies that ‘subjectivisation refers to the “whole person” as the correlate of the body’, and that ‘the ultimate perverse vision would have been that the entire human body, inclusive of the head, is nothing but a combination of partial organs’, before going on to suggest that ‘the effect of closeup shots and of strangely twisted and contorted bodies [….] is to deprive these bodies of their unity’. In the many shots where Lanthimos decapitates characters or features closeups of body parts, he demonstrates how the Father’s phobic regime deprives the children of subjectivisation to such an extent that they become nothing more than a collection of partial organs that belong to, and function under the command of, the Father.
These shots have special potency during the film’s unglamorous and unstimulating sex scenes. Lanthimos’ sex scenes are stripped of music, harshly and unflatteringly lit, and ‘fetishize shots of specific body parts’; this fetishization of the partial reflects a body and a mind that are themselves partial, denied wholeness, and not their own. The incestuous scene between two siblings ‘lacks any transgressive charge’ because their bodies are partial organs belonging to the Father and have never been territorialized with sexual association; if the sex is the Father’s bidding, then it is not a transgressive act. In contrast, Lanthimos’ cinematography appropriately privileges the Father with a wholeness his children are denied. During a family dinner, the family’s seating positions are established from the point of view of the Father who sits at the head of the table: his back fills frame, sharply in focus, whilst the remainder of the family are out of focus, blurred into obscurity and partiality.
Moreover, Dogtooth contains almost no tracking shots; any sense of movement comes from jump cuts between static shots. A sense of entrapment emerges that reflects the psycho-linguistic and psychical imprisonment of the children. While characters ‘break the edges of the frame, they never exit the frame’, they ‘enter the off-screen space only by using a door place in the background’, thus ‘the filmic frame that “captures” them is never broken’. The camera ‘becomes a border in itself’; Lanthimos’ shots not only trap his characters, but they erase the possibility of off-screen or Outside space, of any way of living other than the Father’s phobic-phallic regime.
Lanthimos’ sound design contributes to this effect. Dogtooth is a quiet film, with little sound beyond the sparse dialogue. However, there are sounds throughout the film that, though technically non-diegetic, can in every instance be linked back to a diegetic source: the parents’ voices, especially the Father’s, are carried over from one scene to another, continuing to exert control when they are no longer present in the shot; the piano keys played over the film’s title sequence can also be heard played by the son one evening as the family sit together; the music that plays as the children take part in one of their parents’ exploitative games – this one entailing their random distribution across the grounds whilst blindfolded before racing back to their Mother – is the same music that the parents listen to on headphones, in perfect synchronisation, during sexual intercourse. Lanthimos’ sound design, therefore, allows for no reference, no signifier, Outside the film itself, Outside the strictly bordered Inside that Lanthimos and the Father choose to present. Celik describes the effect of this decision: ‘film itself takes the role of the cassette player […] becoming part of the homemade media that further encloses the narrative, accelerates the entrapment’; the film sounds just as phobic as the Father at its centre.
Few things pose a meaningful threat to the Father’s phobic regime, but media from the Outside, if able to find its way Inside without his knowledge, poses an existential challenge; foreign signifiers that gesture towards the feared Outside risk exposing the children to a world beyond his control, beyond the fantasmatic limits he sets on their imaginations, beyond the Oedipal matrix. To the Father, Christina represents the serpent in his carefully constructed Eden, ‘the bringer of knowledge and therefore of evil’. In return for a sexual favour she secretly trades a collection of videotapes with one of the Daughters. Though Christina and the Daughter are swiftly punished by the Father, the damage is already done. Previously unheard-of signifiers flood her subjectivity; after secretly viewing Jaws and Rocky, the Daughter begins to re-enact boxing matches, shark attacks, and recites dialogue from both. Most significantly, she picks a name for herself, settling for ‘Bruce’. In doing so she subjectivises herself, finally claiming space in a Symbolic Order beyond her Father’s phobic logic, gaining a new level of agency in the process. This agency manifests itself in an urge to resist the Father’s regime, and a language with which she can do so. After the incestuous scene the Daughter recites the following to her brother: ‘If you do it again, I’ll gut you, you bitch. I swear on my daughter’s life that you and your gang will soon flee the neighbourhood’. Though almost comically out of place, these words represent a linguistic weapon with which the Daughter can arm herself and express her anger, disgust, and will to violence; a linguistic invasion from the Outside grants her a linguistic means of testing the Father’s carefully constructed Inside.
Bruce’s newfound linguistic agency facilitates and inspires material resistance. The Father’s phobic-phallic order is constructed around one clause in the Symbolic contract that promises eventual escape, but this clause is founded on an impossibility: they are only ‘ready’ to leave the house when their dogtooth falls out; this impossibility keeps his phobic order at a comfortable distance from the Outside Real. The newly subjectivised Bruce, however, adopts what Zizek has called a position of ‘over-orthodoxy’ in response to this condition; Bruce’s agency allows her to take her Father’s word more seriously than he is willing to take itself, she adopts the impossible position. She does so by walking to the family bathroom, taking a small dumbbell with her. She stares into the mirror, wraps her hand around the dumbbell and with incredible force smashes the dumbbell into her mouth, aimed directly at the dogtooth. Bruce is no longer willing to wait for the impossible; for a fleeting moment, reclaimed signifiers and Symbolic space allow her to take control of her fate and strike against the family.
In this moment Bruce transforms herself from a partial object – an isolated cog in the Father’s fractal body-politic – into a far more dangerous and subversive autonomous partial object. Working in complete opposition to the Father’s phobic regime, she briefly embodies a drive that ‘ignores the dialectic of the subject’s desire’ as it has been prescribed up to that point, her self-harm reflecting ‘a violent reformation of the very substance of the Subject’s being’; the only way Bruce can break out of the fantasmatic limits set by the Father is to first break them out of herself or, as Zizek wittily summarises, ‘in order to attack the enemy, you first have to beat the shit out of yourself’. What is also striking about this scene, considering that it is inspired by an invasion of Outside language, is its eerie silence. This is because Bruce’s actions touch the unbearable silence of the hitherto impossible Real; by completing an act that ‘within a given Symbolic universe appears to be impossible’, she ruptures the linguistic fabric upon which his regime is founded, and all that was banished to the pre-Oedipal, Real Outside, bursts into the Inside. With each strike against herself, Bruce begins to ‘change the [fantasmatic] coordinates of her situation’ by cutting herself loose ‘from the precious object through whose possession [the Father] kept [her] in check’. Every blow to her face is a blow to the phobic order; by smashing her tooth Bruce sets herself Outside of the Father’s laws and takes the first steps to collapsing his xenophobic Oedipal regime.
My reading of what follows, however, is far less optimistic than her brief moment of revolution might suggest. Having fulfilled the impossible demand, Bruce leaves the house and hides in the boot of her Father’s car. In the ensuing panic, the family set about looking for her. Not considering that she may be hiding within the grounds, the Father drives to work the next morning oblivious to her presence in the vehicle. The final shot of the film shows the back of the car, parked outside the factory where the Father works, with no sound, no movement, and only the implication that Bruce remains within before cutting to black. In response to more optimistic critics that describe her escape as the beginning-of-the-end of the Father’s phobic-phallic regime, I turn to an apt quotation from Wittgenstein: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. Metzidakis helps further specify when he says that Bruce’s embrace of foreign signifiers from the videotape, though subversive, demonstrate that she has ‘merely substituted one artificial reality, i.e. one language […] for another’. Even if one counters this with the technically correct claim that all linguistic realities are artificial to some extent and that, at least, this new one is not openly phobic, patriarchal, and violent, the two blockbusters are unlikely to provide her with a full enough linguistic alternative to her Father’s regime to allow for any kind of meaningful freedom in the long-feared Outside.
I argue the final shot proves that, though Bruce may have crossed the first, and perhaps the most daunting, border set by her Father, she is ill-equipped to begin building a liveable alternative on the Outside. At this point I refer my reader back to Zizek’s earlier comment about transgressive desires being conditioned by the Big Other: her Father only ever described the first step of this escape, she is incapable of imagining what comes next. Either, I suggest, she is bleeding-out from her injuries in the car, possibly dead or dying. Or, her rebellion has reached its linguistic limit; her new signifiers, though subversive and agency-instilling, offer no guidance in the Outside beyond the home. As such, the locked metal box of the Father’s boot represents nothing more than another of his Symbolic borders, another Inside. Moreover, moments after her escape, the Father decides to retrieve Rex, a dog he has been having trained into a violent and vicious guard dog at a local facility. Rex’s name hardly requires detailed analysis; his return is representative of a doubling-down of patriarchal power. Bruce’s escape has not provided a substantial enough threat to induce the regime’s collapse, but it has shaken the Father enough that he insists on compounding his phobic-phallic order. This may seem pessimistic, but the Father’s phobic logic is so thoroughly described at the linguistic, visual, and auditory level that I cannot believe Lanthimos deems the ending to be a total revolution.
In Dogtooth, Lanthimos depicts the most extreme version of the xenophobic conservative family and its power to dictate the fantasmatic limits of Subjects by using language to transform anything Outside of the neoliberal-Oedipal matrix into a phobic object to be feared, and as such limit the possibility to imagine and create alternative ways of living and an alternative politics. All of this, however, begs a logical next question: What tools are available to Lanthimos’ characters, and to us, for meaningfully challenging these regimes and the Oedipal structures that underpin them?
 Anjana Janardhan, ‘Why Rules Are There to Be Broken in the World of Yorgos Lanthimos’, last accessed 20 August 2020, <bfi.org.uk>.
 Ipek A. Celik, ‘Family as Internal Border in Dogtooth’, Frontiers of Screen History: Imagining European Borders in Cinema 1945-2010, ed. Raita Merivirta, Kimmo Ahonen, Heta Mulari, and Rami Mahka, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp. 219-20.
 Dan Georgakas, ‘Dogtooth’, Cinéaste, 35.3, (Summer 2010), p.49; Marilia Kaisar, ‘Weird Greek Wave Cinema: A New Aesthetic Era of Greek Cinema’, last accessed 20 August 2020, <medium.com>; Georgakas, ‘Dogtooth’, p. 49.
Civilisation has to protect itself against the spectre of a world which could be free.
Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation
‘A Good Little Dad, a Good Little Mum, a Good Little Son’
Yorgos Lanthimos came to prominence when his 2009 film Dogtooth won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. The proximity of this to the 2008 Financial Crisis has led to the emergence of a small but rapidly-growing field of Lanthimos Studies that defines him as leader of the ‘Greek Weird Wave’. Guardian journalist Steve Rose coined the term, asking whether it is ‘just coincidence that the world’s most messed-up country is making the world’s most messed-up cinema?’, and Mario Psaras authored the first book-length study on the subject: The Queer Greek Weird Wave: Ethics, Politics, and the Crisis of Meaning. Psaras suggests the events of 2008 ‘led to the sudden exposure of all the deficiencies of the Greek economy’ and ‘the scandalously corrupt Greek economic-political structure’, resulting in an ‘extremely painful ideological breakdown’. In response to this ‘crisis of meaning’, the weird-wave ‘emerges as the unexpected medium through which the aesthetic provides a paradoxical cognitive and affective access to this unprecedented encounter’. Though I do not ultimately subscribe to this notion and as such will pursue my argument through a different methodological framework, Psaras and his allies identify characteristics in Greek culture that strongly inform the focus of this essay; Psaras suggests that ‘the nation’s most characteristic narrative has been the one framed around the problematic triptych “Fatherland, Religion, Family”’. The ways in which Lanthimos presents the family, its powers of behavioural and imaginative modification as a stabilising structure of neoliberal capitalism, the possible aesthetic strategies identifiable within his work for dismantling such power, and the ways in which all of these are manifested through language, will become my subject.
Before affirming theoretical links between the family, neoliberal capital, and language, I want to justify my decision to explore Lanthimos’ three most family-centric films – Dogtooth, Alps, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer – through an alternative methodological framework. Lanthimos himself, alongside other directors who have been identified as part of the weird-wave – including Athena Rachel Tsangari, Panos H. Koutras, and Dennis Iliadis – deny the existence of any such wave: Lanthimos, in conversation with various critics, has said that ‘the filmmakers themselves cannot identify it’, that ‘there is no foundation for it’, ‘no common philosophy’, and that the only thing connecting these directors is that they ‘were able to access a lot of art cinema, more than previous generations’. Lanthimos has also said that the filmmakers in question ‘just make the films we want to make and try to progress’; it is worth noting that ‘Greek audiences have not turned out to see these films’, and that Lanthimos’ desire to “progress” has taken him away from Greece, now working mostly in America whilst living in London. In light of this, I will not be analysing Lanthimos’ work through Psaras’ lens. I argue that the family in Lanthimos’ work can be understood as a representation of what Slavoj Zizek has called the ‘systemic, anonymous’ violence of global neoliberal capitalism.
However, I will not be disregarding all of the work done in support of the weird-wave; much of the close-analysis produced by these critics will become immensely useful. As a lone but poignant example, Stanos Metzidakis was the first critic to confirm my suspicion that Lanthimos’ use of language was meaningful and that a literary approach to these films could be beneficial; he suggests that much of Lanthimos’ brilliance lies ‘precisely in the imaginative, unstable gaps between […] objects, beings, words, and expressions’, and that a ‘linguistic-literary approach functions as a very useful supplement to more formalistic cinematic readings’. I remain indebted to the work undertaken by all these critics and will reference them throughout, but special credit must go to Metzidakis for suggesting a linguistic approach to Lanthimos’ work that I believe is significantly lacking in the critical body surrounding his work.
Now to the methodologies I deploy as an alternative to the weird-wave. The family has long been recognised as a supporting unit of capitalism. Louis Althusser identified it as an ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ (ISA), a ‘distinct and specialised institution’ that enforces the ideology of the ruling class via private institutions. Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women continues this line of thought, and its publication during the genesis of the Regan- and Thatcherite policies that formed the neoliberal model of capitalism that has become hegemonic suggests a continued relevance. Vogel recognises that the family should be situated ‘in the context of capitalist social reproduction’, that the family acts as a ‘kin-based site for the reproduction of labour-power’. In their introduction, Susan Ferguson and David McNally add that in order to secure ‘current and future supplies of labour-power, capitalism requires institutional mechanisms through which it can exercise control over biological reproduction, family-forms, child-rearing, and maintenance of a gender order’. Alain Badiou’s 2005 book The Century extends these ideas into the 21st century: it is ‘very striking to see that, as the [twentieth] century draws to a close, the family has once more become a consensual and practically unassailable value’. Today, he argues, life ‘amounts to being a good little dad, a good little mum, a good little son’.
This is evident in contemporary politics: the family has, as Mark Fisher notes, ‘assumed a totally dominant ideological position’ and become ‘part of a massive restoration of power and authority’, a tool used by conservative governments to attain, retain, and utilise power to stabilise and extend neoliberal values. The most striking example of this at time of writing are the recent presidential elections in Poland. Andrezj Duda, the re-elected leader of the Law and Justice Party, began his first term espousing anti-Islamic rhetoric, strong Catholic values and vehement support for big-business, and was able to win this year’s election by adding support for “traditional” families and opposing LGBTQIA+ rights. Since the election, he has referred to such rights as an ‘ideology’ more destructive than communism, and a third of Polish districts have declared themselves ‘LGBT-free zones’. This is a global trend wherein so-called “traditional family values” are advocated by leaders to build popular support for policy platforms that are both socially and fiscally conservative and has also been deployed to varying degrees in the UK, US, Hungary, Brazil, India, Japan, and Australia. Vogel suggests these ‘capitalist dynamics establish definite limits on the possible range of institutions and practices of social reproduction’; it is the limits set by the family, and how these limits are linguistically defined and challenged, that I hope to explore in Lanthimos’ work.
Lacanian psychoanalysis’ central concerns sit within the paradigmatic triangle of family, political power, and language; it thus provides a methodological starting point. Developing Freud, Lacan describes how language is deployed within the Oedipal matrix to subjectivise and interpellate subjects within the capitalist Family ISA. Lacan defines a Symbolic Order that comprises the social fabric of our world through language, that exists logically and chronologically before every Subject in a symbolic chain that ‘has been unfolding since the beginning of time’. When a child is born, it must ‘choose to submit to the Other, to accept a language that is not “one’s own”’ to become subjectivised. This becomes problematic when one considers the power of the Father to produce ‘phallic signification’ or meaningful discourse. The Name of the Father ‘is the essential mediating element of the Symbolic world and its structuration’, and is ‘essential to all articulation of human language’; the Father ‘has the function of signifying the whole signifying system, of authorising its existence’. Through this power, the Father establishes fantasmatic coordinates for the child in accordance with which they come to understand the world; this grants the Father an unparalleled agency in establishing the imaginative limits of the world. The Lacanian father originates with, but is not limited, to the literal Father; the power of phallic signification also lies with “Fathers” of political systems. The fantasmatic limits enforced by the Political Father determine the diversity of political imagination, and therefore possibility of meaningful political change, in the minds of his “children”.
This essay begins with a Lacanian analysis of language in Lanthimos’ breakthrough feature Dogtooth. Dogtooth depicts the life of a middle-class Greek family living on a small and secluded estate. The wife and children’s access to the outside world is strictly controlled; only the Father is permitted to leave the bounds of the walls, and he rules with unwavering, unchallenged, authoritarian might. This control includes their access to language; any word that describes something from ‘the Outside’ is resignified to something ‘Inside’, something which exists within the domestic bounds of the Father’s rule. The Father exploits his power of phallic signification to construct a linguistically closed-system. As a result, his children are never fully subjectivised, existing as partial objects in his regime. The limits of the garden wall become the limits of the children’s imaginations and thus the limits of political possibility. Following Ben Tryer, I argue this represents a Lacanian phobia; by applying a new signifier to signifieds the Father is able to define the Outside as a phobic element. However, any Outside element that finds its way into the house without his knowledge, such as movies or music, poses an existential threat to this carefully constructed order. Moreover, the children’s total belief in the Name of the Father almost backfires when, in a moment of Lacanian over-orthodoxy, the children take the Father’s word more literally than he does. This leads to an unprecedented, but ultimately failed, escape attempt. Not only does Dogtooth present ‘in an extreme form the ordinary gestures and habits, the storytelling and tricks of discipline, of so-called normal family life’, it also reminds one of social conservatism’s favourite slogan: ‘if you stay inside, you are protected’. In Fisher’s words, ‘Lanthimos is demonstrating what the ideal conditions for such conservatism would actually need to be’, ‘the outside must be totally pathologized: the children have to become literally xenophobic, terrified of everything that lies beyond the limits of their “protected” enclave’.
How can these regimes of linguistic and imaginative control be meaningfully challenged? For Lacan, the ghost’s place ‘between two deaths’ grants it a unique power to destabilise the Symbolic that strictly regulates what is alive and meaningful and what is not. The ghost threatens to expose subjects to the pre-Oedipal Real, all that exists Outside of the Symbolic’s domain. Before going further, I want to invoke a theoretical concept which links the Outside of the Oedipal-Symbolic to the possibility of political change, adding a revolutionary dimension to the spectre that helps situate later analysis as part of a wider struggle against capitalist constraint.
Hauntology – a neologism coined by Jacques Derrida in his 1994 book Spectres of Marx, and developed by Mark Fisher in Ghosts of My Life, is that concept. Like the Lacanian ghost, the hauntological ghost is the result of a ‘failed mourning’ that threatens the status quo through its presence; the ghost ‘has no being in itself, but marks a relation to what is no longer or not yet’. Importantly, Derrida’s ghost is also Marx and Engel’s spectre of communism: ‘a virtuality whose threatened coming was already playing a part in undermining the present state of things’. Therefore, the ghost not only threatens to invoke a Lacanian pre-Oedipal Real, but this Real which exists beyond the bounds of the Oedipal-Symbolic can simultaneously be understood as a Real of alternative political possibility beyond the Symbolic bounds of capitalism; the haunting presence of such possibility threatens to destabilise the institutional structures upon which capitalist ideology stands. As Fisher states in Capitalist Realism, ‘one strategy against Capitalist Realism could involve invoking the Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us’, because these Reals represent ‘the outside of that which is; of capitalism; of reality as we really know it’. I ask my reader to understand that when I am talking about the Real Outside of the Oedipal matrix, I am simultaneously talking about a realm of alternative political possibility and the ways in which ghostly intrusions into the family also represent the intrusive threat of political change. My analysis of Alps and The Killing of a Sacred Deer tests the extent to which spectral figures therein function as agents of destabilising political possibility. Specifically, my close analysis of Alps – wherein the film’s protagonist Monte Rosa is hired by grieving families to act in place of their recently deceased relatives and aid the mourning process – will probe the limits of how useful a Lacanian understanding of the spectre and its power to induce the uncanny can be in challenging the capitalist Oedipal matrix.
The Symbolic that constitutes the Inside of the family and of capitalism functions as a means of avoiding the Real Outside by continually reproducing desire; ‘desire is always a desire for itself to be continued’. However, if language is the primary route away from the Real, then it must also represent a possible route back to it; language is ‘the only instrument we have which can keep us in touch with the “uncanny”, what Freud called “das Unheimliche”’, because it ‘directs us to that horrible void’. Fisher summarises the uncanny’s most prevalent characteristic: ‘repetition and doubling, themselves an uncanny pair which double and repeat each other, seem to be at the heart of every “uncanny” phenomena’. Therefore where Psaras’ analysis considers the haunting doubling of bodies in Alps, my analysis will primarily focus on the uncanny linguistic repetitions that pervade the film. Whether these repetitions emanate from Monte Rosa acting in the space of a dead relative or from the overwrought clichés that dominate much of the remaining dialogue, the film has an uncanny effect by suggesting that the desires represented through the Symbolic are not the desires of the person that speaks them; their desires are not their own, they originate elsewhere and are destined to endlessly repeat. The stabilising but insidious power of language is exposed. Though Monte Rosa’s spectral qualities do successfully invoke the uncanny, she is ultimately a failed ghost. This is because her desire to repeat is not driven by a desire to destabilise Oedipal matrices. Rather, her desire is opposite: to return to an Oedipal matrix. It becomes clear that due to her Mother’s death and her Father’s romantic involvement with a new woman, Monte Rosa feels exiled from her own family and her spectral repetitions, though uncanny, do not represent an authentic and sustained threat to the family or capital, but rather a protracted and thoroughly Oedipal route back to the womb.
Contrastingly, in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos presents an effective and fatal ghost. At time of writing, very little serious criticism has been written on this film. However, this provides a rare opportunity to extend and modify my spectral reading of Alps into hitherto unexplored terrain. To understand why Martin, the film’s antagonist, is such a powerful entity requires a theoretical development of the Lacanian spectre. The limitations embodied by Monte Rosa are, to some extent, also the limits of traditional psychoanalysis: desire, always-already caught up in the Symbolic and therefore always-already caught up in the family, can only be directed within, or in relation to, Oedipal structures. Though, as I will later describe, the Lacanian notion of ‘drive’ goes someway to explaining this limitation, a Deleuzoguattarian reframing of the spectre based on the pair’s 1972 volume Anti-Oedipus accommodates far more subversive potentials for the spectral figure to meaningfully break the flows of desire and language that are otherwise constrained to the confines of the Oedipal matrix and, in the process, pose a meaningful threat to the capitalistic ideology they underpin.
Anti-Oedipus posed a revolutionary intervention into psychoanalysis, and identified the family as one of those ‘totalities which produce a blinkered consciousness’ and ‘sustain these totalities in our subdued unconscious’. It suggests that psychoanalysis’ obsession with and desire to “cure” the family make it complicit in capitalistic ideology: ‘Freud’, Deleuze and Guattari declare, ‘is the Luther and the Adam Smith of psychiatry’. Just as Marx brought political economy to a point of ‘autocritique’, they see their own ‘material psychiatry’ as bringing ‘Oedipus to the point of its own autocritique’. However, Anti-Oedipus should be understood as an ‘internal reversal’, rather than an outright rejection, of psychoanalysis; major concepts like repression and the unconscious remain, but they are transformed to ‘give support to their revolutionary paradigm’, ‘to overturn the ideological apparatus of capitalism and liberate desire’. As such, at no point do I ever discard Lacan; I simply invoke Deleuze and Guattari to expand and complicate the ways in which spectral hauntings can be usefully understood.
How exactly do Deleuze and Guattari suggest desire should be liberated, and how does this impact my reading of The Killing of a Sacred Deer? Deleuze and Guattari’s most important polemical target is the way in which traditional psychoanalysis defines desire in terms of lack, of what is ‘missing’; in contrast, they argue that ‘desire is productive, it can be productive only in the real world and can produce only reality’. This endows ‘every unfolding of desire’, whether it occurs in ‘a family or a school in the neighbourhood’, with a revolutionary potential in the way it ‘tests the established order and sends shockwaves through the social field’; ‘desire is revolutionary because it is always seeking more connections’. I argue that Martin represents a ghostly desiring-machine; by enacting a process of ‘becoming-ghost’ – a term recently coined by Richard Gilman-Opalsky that plays on Guattari’s anti-Oedipal concept of ‘becoming-woman’ – Martin is able to become a tool of familial deterritorialisation. He infiltrates the Murphy family – a typical upper-middle class Midwestern household whose idyllic existence is built upon linguistic structures of transaction, exchange, and cliché – and whose patriarch, Stephen, a surgeon, oversaw the death of Martin’s own father on the operating table. Martin’s linguistic tactics that shatter Steven’s linguistic economy through his use of a concise, determined syntax that demands rather than exchanges or transacts achieves two things. First, he gets mortal revenge for his Father’s death by facilitating the murder of Stephen’s son and thus settles the Symbolic debt that gives rise to his ghostliness. Second and more importantly, by tricking Stephen’s daughter, Kim, into falling in love with him, Martin undermines Stephen’s godlike power of phallic signification and creates new desirous connections that break the flows holding the Murphy’s Oedipal matrix together. He then disappears leaving the Murphy family, as well as the language and desires that held it together, fractured beyond repair.
 Marios Psaras, The Queer Greek Weird Wave: Ethics, Politics, and the Crisis of Meaning, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 4.
 Peter Strickland, ‘Yorgos Lanthimos’, BOMB, 135, (Spring 2016), p. 159; Steve Rose, ‘Attenberg, Dogtooth, and the weird wave of Greek cinema’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <theguardian.com>; Jonathan Romney, ‘Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Lobster, on his wild, star-studded life of Queen Anne’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <theguardian.com>.
 Strickland, ‘Lanthimos’, p. 159; Jimmy DeMetro, qtd. in: Eric Kohn, ‘The Favourite Director Yorgos Lanthimos Reveals the Method to His Madness’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <indiewire.com>.
 Slavoj Zizek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, (New York: Picador, 2008), p. 13.
 Stamos Metzidakis, ‘No Bones to Pick with Lanthimos’s Film Dogtooth’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 32.2, (October 2014), p. 367-8.
 Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <marxists.org>.
 Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), p. 176.
 Mark Fisher, ‘Dogtooth: The Family Syndrome’, Film Quarterly, 64.4, (Summer 2011), p. 25.
 [Unsigned Article] ‘Polish election: Andrzej Duda says LGBT “ideology” worse than communism’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <bbc.co.uk>; Ana Oppenheim, ‘Why is Poland So Conservative?’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <novaramedia.com>.
 Jacques Lacan, Seminaire IV, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, (Paris: Seuil, 1994), p. 364; Jacques Lacan, Le Seminaire livre V: Les formations de l’inconscient, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1998), p. 240.
 Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, (London: Zero Books, 2014), p. 49; Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 82.
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, (London: Zero Books, 2009), p. 18; Matt Colquhoun, Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy, and the Fisher-Function, (London: Repeater Books, 2020), p. 65.
 Slavoj Zizek qtd. in: Sophie Fiennes, dir., The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, (UK: P Guide Productions/Zeitgeist Films, 2012), [on DVD: Channel 4, 2012].
Slavoj Zizek qtd. in: Hedwig Schwall, ‘Lacan, Or an Introduction to The Realms of Unknowing’, Literature and Theology, 11.2, (1997), p. 142; Jacques Lacan qtd. in: Stanizai, Ehsan Azari, ‘The Uncanny: Between Freud and Lacan’, last accessed 19 August 2020, <nida.edu.au>.
 Mark Fisher, The Weird and The Eerie, (London: Repeater Books, 2016), p. 9.
In ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s penultimate thesis reads thus: ‘The Geological Hypothesis Regarding the Anthropocene Requires Us to Put Global Histories of Capital in Conversation with the Species History of Humans’. He argues ‘the crisis of climate change’ demands we ‘mix together the immiscible chronologies of capital and species history’, acknowledging that ‘this combination, however, stretches, in quite fundamental ways, the very idea of historical understanding’. He calls for a ‘a conversation between disciplines and between recorded and deep histories of human beings’. I take no issue with these claims; the part of this thesis on which I would like to focus is this: he goes on to suggest that though ‘it seems true that the crisis of climate change has been necessitated by the high-energy-consuming models of society that capitalist industrialisation has created and promoted’, the contemporary crisis has actually ‘brought into view certain other conditions for the existence of life in the human form that have no intrinsic connection to the logics of capitalist, nationalist, or socialist identities’. Therefore, ‘it is not a crisis for the inorganic planet in any meaningful sense’.
I take issue with two aspects of this argument. First, as outlined in my position paper, I disagree with the implied separation of an “organic” and “inorganic” world. Second, I challenge the notion that there are, what Chakrabarty later calls, ‘parameters of human existence’ that are ‘independent of capitalism or socialism’. Rather, I argue that new form(s) of capitalism have emerged, crystallised, and become dominant in the decade since Chakrabarty’s article, meaning the binaries and parameters Chakrabarty establishes are, if not totally collapsed, then significantly more blurred; as Chakrabarty himself suggests, ‘capitalist societies themselves have not remained the same since the beginning of capitalism’. In the first quarter of this essay I review and expand upon the ideas outlined in my position paper, complicating Chakrabarty’s argument, before going on to develop my own concept for understanding and combating the climate crisis; I provisionally call this idea ‘haunted ecologies’.
In her 2019 book Capital is Dead, Is This Something Worse?, Mckenzie Wark delineates several concepts from which I base my reply to Chakrabarty; Wark believes that capitalism has mutated to the extent that the world ‘capitalism’ may no longer be useful. The constant modification of the word ‘capitalism’ provides a succinct starting point for her argument: ‘post-Fordist’ and ‘neoliberal capitalism’ are examples of lexical modifiers to ‘capitalism’ that carry modifiers themselves; ‘capitalism’ is no longer ‘good poetry’. Wark draws on Benjamin Bratton’s model of The Stack to describe how her ‘vectoralist class’ – ‘the dominant ruling class of our time’, those that ‘own and control information’ – exploits the ‘hacker class’ – those that ‘produce new information’ but that ‘do not own what they produce’ – to create a ‘sophisticated logistics that tracks and manages flows of energy, labour, resources, and finished products through them’. At the bottom of the stack lies the crucial layer for this essay: ‘the earth layer’. The earth layer is ‘that from which the resources and energy to make and run this whole vast edifice to the digitized commodity are extracted’; ‘the foundational layer within The Stack is the Earth itself’, ‘all movement through the lower machine layers draws on the chemistry and physics of the Earth layer – its energy, minerals, scale and curvature, heat and cold, and so on’. Wark uses this to argue that ‘everything is transformed into information and resources’; ‘not just everyone but everything is tracked and monitored and turned into information’, ‘everything – animal, mineral, vegetable’.
Bratton quotes E. A. Grosz to explain how the earth came to be conceived and exploited in this way; Grosz argues that ‘the earth can be infinitely […] framed’, that ‘framing is the means by which objects are delimited, qualities unleashed’. Bratton cites the moment ‘William Anders took the famous “Earthrise” photograph’ as the moment the Earth became framed as an Earth-layer; the notion of an ‘absolute scale for Earthly culture and ecology and a single planetary “inside”’ was created. ‘That same apparent self-evident image of totality [now] serves as a graphical user interface’ for corporations like Google, and as such has been used to redefine ‘the surface of the earth’ as a ‘governable epidermis’, ‘recomposing’, reframing, ‘that skin as a bio-informational matrix enrolled into other hard and soft systems’. As a result, ‘the world itself is seen as being information, such that to organise all the information is to organise all the world’. Consequently, I argue that an “organic” world no longer exists; it has been transmuted into inorganic information. The Earth now constitutes a layer in the global stack, from which vectoralists are able to extract resources before directing them along logistical chains of their design to profitable ends; this is the ‘overdeveloped world’.
This leads to my second disagreement with Chakrabarty: if the so-called organic world has been transformed into inorganic information, can it still be argued that viable ‘parameters’ that are ‘independent of capitalism’ exist? Wark’s model proposes a kind of capitalism that has no “outside”; the notion of an ‘organic’ realm separate from the hegemonic ideology in any meaningful way has become impossible or, at least, unimaginable; as Mark Fisher claims in Capitalist Realism: ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. In much the same way that Jakob von Uekull describes the environmental ‘bubble’ that ‘encloses each and every one of us on all sides’, and ‘represents […] all the features accessible to subjects’, I argue that the ideological bubble of this new type of capital cannot be burst by interaction or intersection with parameters that purport to exist outside its ever reterritorializing reach; the bubble can only be burst from the inside.
This raises the complex question of exactly how this bubble should be burst; I believe the essential ‘conversation between disciplines’ that Chakrabarty calls for will not take place between ‘recorded and deep histories of human beings’, but between this new type of late-capital and fiction, wherein literary texts are used as tools of egress with which the ‘futures’ that ‘we cannot visualise’ enter the collective imagination. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to developing this idea, engaging with the question of what genres, forms, and critical approaches must be deployed to rescue the once-organic Earth.
A natural starting point for exploring literatures endowed with this world-building and world-changing quality might be to look for those with an overtly utopian impulse; as Frederic Jameson describes, in a world where ‘the historic alternatives to capitalism have been proven unviable and impossible’, where ‘no other socioeconomic system appears conceivable, let alone practically available’, Utopians ‘offer to conceive of such alternative systems’. Science-fiction (SF) literature has been examined at length by critics who proclaim whether or not it falls within this category. Jameson ultimately suggests that it might not, citing SF’s ‘reality principle’ as the primary reason for this: ‘the SF framework electrocutes the Utopian dreamer just as surely as the poisonous cobwebs of [the Strugatsky Brothers’/Tarkovsky’s] Zone fatally infect humans who come into contact with them’, this is the ‘inevitable reconfirmation of SF’s reality principle’. I disagree with Jameson, aligning more closely with Darko Suvin’s principle of ‘cognitive estrangement’, wherein SF is characterized ‘in terms of an essentially epistemological function’, with certain SF texts comprising a ‘category specifically devoted to the imagination of alternative social and economic forms’. Via readings of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, I suggest, following Suvin, that SF’s reality principle, rather than inhibiting the imaginative creation of alternative socio-political realities, is actually the mechanism that allows for such an act; the reality principle allows ‘the desire called utopia’ to surface in what initially appear to be dystopic SF texts. These texts harness the power of the uncanny to locate the impossible within the everyday, and thus imagine alternative worlds which can be located within, and created from, the world we inhabit now; ‘in the case of the Utopian texts, the most reliable political test lies not in any judgment on the individual work in question so much as in its capacity to generate new ones’.
Doctor Moreau not only satisfies Suvin’s claim that ‘an island in the far-off ocean is the paradigm of the aesthetically most satisfying goal of the SF voyage’, but importantly aligns with his belief that ‘monsters, or simply differing strangers – are a mirror to man just as the differing country is a mirror for his world’. He goes on to suggest that ‘the mirror is not only a reflecting one, it is also a transforming one’, ‘the mirror is a crucible’. I argue that Wells’ ‘aesthetic form of hesitations, imitations, and glimpse of an ambiguously disquieting strangeness’ is deployed specifically to induce an uncanny effect. This effect is palpable when Wells’ protagonist first comes into contact with Moreau’s beasts: Prendick becomes ‘so nervous’ that he ‘controlled an impulse to headlong flight with the utmost difficulty’. However, what frightens him is not any explicit physical threat, but his inability to identify the uncanny sight as human or non-human: ‘What on earth was he – man or animal? […] I was anxious not to show the fear that seemed chilling my backbone’. This is obversely echoed in the Beast people’s attempts to identify with Prendick:
‘Was he not made?’ said the Ape Man. ‘He said- he said he was made.’
The Satyr Man looked curiously at me. ‘The Third with the whip, he that walks into the sea, has a thin white face.’
‘He has a long thin whip,’ said Montgomery.
‘Yesterday he bled and wept,’ said the Satyr. ‘You never bleed nor weep. The Master does not bleed nor weep.’
‘He says nothing,’ said the Satyr. ‘Men have voices.’
‘Yesterday he asked me of things to eat,’ said the Ape Man. ‘He did not know.’
In their failed attempts to identify Prendick with either themselves or the Master – ‘You never bleed or weep’, ‘The Master does not bleed nor weep’ – it becomes evident that Prendick’s symptoms of ‘nausea and uncanniness […] draw him into a relation with the beast people’, ‘the beast people are uncanny because they remind Prendick of himself’. Thus, Suvin is right to characterise Moreau ‘not only a latter day Dr. Frankenstein, but also a demonically inverted God of Genesis’, where ‘his surgically humanized Beast Folk are a counterpart of ourselves’.
Suvin’s later comment adds a dimension to this uncanny effect that will become conceptually central to my remaining analysis: ‘Doctor Moreau turns the imperial order of Kipling’s Jungle Book into a degenerative slaughterhouse’. By comparing these tales, Suvin acknowledges that inside every uncanny dystopic SF exists the echoes of failed or possible utopias. SF, Suvin continues, engenders ‘the verbal mode appropriate to an “as if” stance in the subjunctive’, and ‘starts by saying “what if?”’; What if there was no imperial order in the Jungle Book? What if a scientific establishment that supported vivisection was taken to its unscrutinised conclusion? These are the questions upon which Wells’ worlds are born and built. In light of this, Wellsian SF can be understood as an ‘exploratory organ based on the “lateral possibilities” of history making’; ‘just as utopia, SF is a “serious game”’ that ‘plays with realities’, that ‘teaches us to understand’ and ‘modify our empirical reality’. As such, Wellsian SF places emphasis on the fact that ‘people’s destiny is not […] outside of them, but is incarnated in manmade, changeable institutions’; by asking ‘what if?’ on the reader’s behalf, Wells helps to acknowledge that hegemonic ideologies and systems are ‘manmade’ and ‘changeable’, which is the first step towards bursting the bubble.
In his book Semi-Detached, John Plotz also highlights Wells’ uncanny effect, noting how his technique hinges upon a set of tropes that revolve around ‘partially present characters or related kinds of odd doubling’. He is similarly aware of the work’s world-building capability, complementing Wells’ ability to ‘conjure up worlds of n-plus-one (or n-minus one) dimensions’ that, via protagonists who have ‘departed from his ordinary world without quite managing to leave it behind’, are ‘transmitted’ to the reader’. However, bringing Plotz into this piece alongside Suvin for the sake of agreement would serve no useful critical purpose; I introduce Plotz because his analysis brings with it an important piece of vocabulary around which my analysis of Neuromancer will be centred, and will differ it from the above analysis of Wells. Plotz suggests that ‘Wells wants his readers to be haunted by the possibility that’ the worlds he creates ‘are right here with us’, ‘unfolding behind every door’. It is this ‘haunting’ aspect, and specifically the temporal dimension of a haunt, that I hope to explore. However, before a full exegesis on this point, it is important to acknowledge the criticism that Neuromancer has most often provoked and, therefore, the kinds I write against; in doing so, I hope to propose a strategy for pushing at the overdeveloped world’s ideological bubble, and elicit an uncanny encounter with the once-organic earth.
Gibson’s novel is often interpreted as the fictionalised urtext of accelerationism as first described in Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, wherein the pair argued that ‘capitalism was unique for unleashing the forces of deterritorialization and decoding that other social forms tried to constrain and code’, but that ‘this release was always provisional on a reterritorialization that dragged desire back into the family and the Oedipal matrix, recoding what it had decoded.’ As such, they believed the only way out of capitalism was ‘not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process”, as Nietzsche puts it’. I broadly align with this theory, and believe Neuromancer can be interpreted as sincerely embodying this anti-capitalistic idea. However, many critics have not been so kind. Jameson argues that ‘there are no great utopian texts after the widespread introduction of computers’, ‘instead we have the freemarket deliria of cyberpunk, which assumes that capitalism is itself a kind of utopia of difference and variety.’ Similarly, Benjamin Noys agrees that ‘the difficulty at [Neuromancer’s] heart, is that cyberpunk phuturism gives over to capital a monopoly on our imagination of the future’. Veronica Hollinger rallies in support, honing her critical energies on the novel’s ending – ‘the unprecedented coming-to-consciousness of the cyberspatial “deus ex machina”, the Wintermute AI’ – and the way in which the novel, after ‘introducing the possibility of profound change into its fictional world’, supposedly ‘breaks off’ as if unable to envisage what comes next’, as evidence of a ‘complex’ but ultimately ‘apocalyptic’ attitude in Gibson’.
I believe that what imbues accelerationist works like Neuromancer with a redemptive, utopian, and world-changing quality, is their temporality. Despite taking issue with Neuromancer, Noys’ suggestion that ‘Gibson’s novel tracks a capitalist utopia in dystopian formations’ speaks to Suvin’s argument that inside every dystopia is the kernel of possible utopias. However, by accelerating the hegemonic ideology forwards in time, Nueormancer adds the further possibility of uncanny confrontation with alternative words and systems that could have been, or yet could be. The concept of the haunt is not originally Plotzs’; Jacques Derrida coined the term ‘hauntology’ in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Much like his earlier concept of différance, hauntology refers ‘to the way in which nothing enjoys a purely positive existence. Everything that exists is possible only on the basis of a whole series of absences, which precede and surround it’. As such, ‘it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept’ because the haunt, the spectre, ‘has no being in itself but marks a relation to what is no longer or not yet’, and simultaneously ‘constitutes a refusal to give up on the desire for the future.’ If haunting ‘is about refusing to give up the ghost or […] the refusal of the ghost to give up on us’, then I argue that reading Neuromancer as a text haunted by echoes of alternative worlds that are ‘no longer’ or ‘not yet’, these worlds can be located within the apparently hypercapitalistic world that the novel presents; ‘the spectre will not allow us to settle for the mediocre satisfactions one can glean in a world governed by capitalist realism’.
One such alternative past or future that haunts Neuromancer is that in which the once-organic world has not been transformed beyond recognition into inorganic logistical chains, and these worlds come to haunt the novel via the same uncanny effect that Well’s deployed decades earlier. From its opening sentence, Neuromancer depicts an ecology invaded by technology: ‘the sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel’. Technology, the inorganic, has become the referent for the once-organic world, not the other way around. Any mention of the once-organic world is placed in relief by its now technological origins: ‘They had breakfast on the roof of the hotel’ studded with an ‘unnatural number of trees’, ‘the trees were small, gnarled, impossibly old, the result of genetic engineering and chemical manipulation’, and ‘between the trees […] bright umbrellas shaded the hotel’s guests from the unfaltering radiance of the LadoAcheson sun.’ The so-called natural world has been totally erased. However, I believe the presence, or lack thereof, of the organic in Neuromancer is also a haunted one; Gibson himself described a Wellsian strangeness when writing the novel, saying to Larry McCaffery that ‘you know you’re in a very strange place, but you’re also aware this weirdness is just your world’.
This sense of the uncanny is reflected throughout the novel, including haunted interactions with the natural world. The ubiquity of the inorganic stains any notion of the natural to the point that the failure to keep pace with technological developments seems unnatural: ‘The bartender’s smile widened’, ‘his ugliness was the stuff of legend’, ‘in an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it’. Yet, simultaneously, the preservation of ‘stuff of legend’ inspires a disturbing feeling of the uncanny, as can be seen in Finn and Case’s discovery of a horse:
‘Hey, Christ,’ the Finn said, taking Case’s arm, ‘looka that.’ He pointed. ‘It’s a horse, man. You ever see a horse?’ Case glanced at the embalmed animal and shook his head. […]
‘Saw one in Maryland once,’ the Finn said, ‘and that was a good three years after the pandemic. There’s Arabs still trying to code ‘em up from the DNA, but they always croak.’
Jade Hagan notes that the awe and disgust with which they gawk at the animal reveals an uncanny alienation from but, simultaneously, familiarity with the natural world, ‘as if this symbol of nature represented a return of the repressed’. It is a haunted experience because, though ‘they appear intrigued by’ what they finally deem an ‘obsolescent form’, they ultimately know that ‘they share origins with this animal’. Thus, in Neuromancer ‘nature is irreducibly alien – but it is also right here’; the organic is nowhere, but simultaneously everywhere.
Moreover, and most importantly, these uncanny collisions with the natural world point towards the spectre of times and worlds that were, could have been, or are not yet. In that short passage alone Gibson’s contemporary reader is simultaneously pointed to their own world, in which the horse has not yet become entirely obsolescent, the world of the novel in which it evidently has, but, most importantly, the several worlds and timelines that could have occurred in between, and could yet occur. I return to Suvin’s formulation; these encounters force readers to ask ‘what if?’: What is ‘the pandemic’? What if it had not occurred? Would this save the horse from obsolescence? What if the ‘Arabs’ could ‘code ‘em up from the DNA’ and the organic was reintroduced to Neuromancer’s world? Contrastingly, what if it disappeared entirely? What if this could be avoided? What if it was the fault of capitalism, pushed to its absolute pervasive limit, that was responsible for these erasures?
The so-called organic Earth, its organic creatures and landscapes, and the climate crisis itself may be given minimal explicit emphasis in their own right, appearing most often in relief to technology and logistical chains. However, by building a futuristic but haunted world in which late-capital is pushed to its overdeveloped limit, and every direct interaction with the organic functions as a catalyst for the uncanny, Gibson, just as Wells before him and as theorised by Suvin, invites his reader to do two things. First, to seriously contemplate the infinite number of alternative worlds that could have been or could yet be in the space between the reader’s world and the novel’s world. Second, Gibson forces his reader to recognise that both these worlds are built of human creation, ‘incarnated in manmade, changeable institutions’, and, therefore, to ask that crucial question: what if we were to reconfigure these institutions so that the organic world could be rescued from the edge of extinction? What if, in the process, a system other than capitalism was born? Thus, Gibson’s ecologies are haunted ecologies.
Although Frieda Beckman’s 2013 article ‘Chronopolitics’ rightly identifies that J. G. Ballard repeatedly ‘releases time from the idea of a universally recognizable entity’, instead letting it reflect ‘a set of spaces […] which are ultimately dependent on politics’, and describes ‘the difficulties […] of locating agency in sptaio-temporal coordinates’ of contemporary capitalist structures, Friedman ultimately identifies ‘ambivalence’ in Ballard’s work, and suggests that the difficulties of locating political agency are weighed equally against the possibility of revolutionary action; in this essay, I hope to argue otherwise. By analysing two of Ballard’s shorter works – ‘The Enormous Space’ and Running Wild, which depict one man’s decision to never leave his suburban house again, and the collective decision by a group of upper middle-class children to murder their parents and escape their gated community, respectively – in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting lockdown, I hope to reframe Friedman’s conclusions.
Via Sadie Plant’s 1992 book The Most Radical Gesture, wherein she contrasts Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreality with the more radical and optimistic possibilities delineated by Situationists International, I reject Baudrillard’s nihilistic conclusions regarding the possibility of action under late-capital. Instead, with support from Mark Fisher, Henry Lefebvre, and Paul Virilio, I argue that the system-shock of the COVID-19 lockdown has induced a societal “slowdown” that allows fissures in the logic of late-capitalist control mechanisms – particularly the ways in which time and space are structured – to become apparent; this is exemplified in ‘The Enormous Space’. Running Wild depicts a potential outcome of such discoveries made, in this story, during the children’s lifelong endurance of lockdown: having suffered ‘the complete subsumption of human agency into the political and economic systems that organize the Western world today’ via the unrelenting upper-middle-class routine they must uphold, the children’s revolt represents a conscious effort to exploit these fissures in capital-time; by subversively utilizing the monotonous repetition of the morning routine, the children are able to plan and synchronize their attacks before accelerating their way out of repression. I believe Ballard’s work offers an alternative reading of the COVID-19 lockdown to that pushed in mainstream media; being forced to stay at home creates a situation wherein the usual late-capitalist control mechanisms related to space and time are disrupted and exposed, inviting subjects to study their flaws, before potentially reigniting human agency with a revolutionary potential that could, and arguably should, lead to changes in the ways people live and work.
First, the pervasive systems of control must be defined, as must their effect on human agency. Ballard’s mid-to-later work, a periodization under which ‘The Enormous Space’ and Running Wild fall, ‘marks a shift from the collapse of social systems explored in Ballard’s earlier texts to a depiction of the implications of the success of social systems’, as Andrzej Gasiorek describes. The type of system in question is the ‘control society’, which Giles Deleuze suggests has replaced what Foucault described as a ‘disciplinary society’. In a control society ‘subjects are not moulded by means of institutions’, but rather ‘constantly modulated and manipulated by means of a complete infiltration of control on all levels of being’; as a result, ‘minds, emotions, and memories’ are unknowingly ‘integrated and manipulated by commercial and political interests’. ‘The Enormous Space’ and Running Wild stage the ways that human agency, or lack thereof, is built into the spatio-temporal dimensions of the control society. After Gerald Ballantyne, the protagonist of ‘The Enormous Space’, begins his self-imposed quarantine, he is shocked by ‘the lack of any response’ that ‘reflects the tranquil air of this London suburb’; it is a space characterised by enforced passivity. The leafy avenue remains ‘unruffled as ever’, and the mail sits ‘unopened on the mail stand’, whilst an ‘Air India 747 ambles across the sky, searching none too strenuously for London airport’. Ballard’s emphasis on negative constructions – ‘unopened’, ‘unruffled’, ‘none too strenuously’ – all emphasise the sedating effects of Croydon’s psychogeography. The ‘perfect universe’ of Pangbourne Village represents a similarly ‘civilized and eventless world’ that ‘denied any self-expression’ to the children, who existed ‘in a state closely kin to sensory deprivation’.
As such, I argue that Ballard’s work reflects a Marxist conviction that the experience of time is closely bound up with the organisation of labour; change in the organisation of the means of production entails change in how temporality is conceptualised. As work changes from the ‘streamlining effectiveness of linear time and uniform space of the factory’ to a more ‘distributed, spatial, immaterial and affective labour’, a new proletariat emerges; not the so-called working classes of the industrial era but, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, one that includes anyone ‘whose labour is exploited by capital, the entire cooperating multitude’. Therefore, in the Ballardian world, where all human needs ‘have been anticipated and the entire social mechanism has been calibrated to minimise friction and disturbance’, where ‘the suburbanisation of the soul’ has ‘overrun our planet like the plague’ and ‘humanity has become superfluous’, the question of whether resistance to a system in which labour and power are so widely distributed is possible in any form is powerfully evoked. Beckman rightly argues that the ‘effectual temporalities and the efficient architecture need to be sabotaged’ if human agency is to be recovered. However, the question that Beckman leaves unanswered is how, what Gregory Stephenson calls, ‘a sustained act of subversion’ against fundamental late-capitalist assumptions about bodies, time and space, should be undertaken.
Baudrillard provides a potential answer to this question. Both ‘The Enormous Space’ and Running Wild show an overlap with the Baudrillardian notion of a ‘hyperreality’, wherein ‘the whole system becomes weightless’, the world is ‘no longer anything but a giant simulacrum’, and images ‘bear no relation to any reality whatsoever’. Throughout ‘The Enormous Space’, Ballard deploys a hyperreal lexicon in his comparisons of everyday life to a set of dramatic and artificial gestures: ‘the convincing pose of a law-abiding suburbanite’, ‘those facades of conventional behaviour’, and that ‘over-worked hologram called reality’ wherein Ballantyne’s ex-wife Margaret is ‘one of a huge cast of repertory platers in that everlasting provincial melodrama called ordinary life’ that his own ‘team of scene-shifters’ have pulled back to create a new stage set’. In Running Wild, the narrator suggests that ‘the planned documentary [at Pangbourne] was the last straw’, because the children would have to continue ‘acting out their “happiness” under the eyes of their doting parents’.
However, as Sadie Plant identifies, this theory represents nothing more than a postmodern ‘manual for survival’ without any hope of political change. Much like Conrad Russell, who argues that any attempts at political ‘subversion have been outflanked’ by an ‘abstract postmodern temporality’, Baudrillard finds it futile to search for a reality underlying the pervasive simulacra. Plant acknowledges that some attempt is made through Baudrillard’s theory of symbolic exchange, but this quickly collapses into nihilism; his hyperreal world has consumed any possibility of subversion and represents ‘a complete rejection of any possibility of criticism’. Beckman asks whether ‘we can acknowledge the development and intensification’ of society into ‘hyperreality while still retaining some belief in the possibility for change’? I argue, like Plant, that there is: the ideas of the Situationist International. However, if their philosophy is to be taken up in full, I believe we must reframe the two central decisions at the heart of Ballard’s tales; they must no longer be understood as acts of madness ‘in a totally sane society’, where ‘madness is the only freedom’, but rather as conscious, politically motivated acts.
Situationist International’s suggestion that all aspects of contemporary life had been permeated by feelings of alienation, commodification, and a separation of subjects from their own experiences and desires – the concept of a ‘spectacle’, that ‘the only possible relation to the social world is that of […] the contemplative and passive spectator’ – prefigures postmodern ideas of a hyperreality. Plant suggests that the Situationists offer more radical suggestions of how to actively resist the oppression of the spectacle, pervasive alienation, and commodification. Beckman concurs, summarising as follows: ultimately, ‘the relation between capitalism [and] the domination of a political conception of time’, the ‘possibility for action in an all-encompassing system’, and, most importantly, ‘the system of belief required to transcend the spatio-temporal grid of everyday life’ are all usefully theorised by the Situationists. Specifically, I turn to the notion of the ‘situation’ itself. A situation is the deliberate, conscious, construction of an event that ‘intends to clarify desires that are otherwise repressed by functionalism and commerce’; the situation accommodates, what Ken Knabb describes as ‘a temporary field of activity favourable to those desires’ born out of ‘the décor and of themselves’.
Therefore, I argue that Ballantyne’s decision in ‘The Enormous Space’ should not be read as a “mad” decision or an impulsive post-traumatic act, but rather as the conscious, political creation of a situation. Ballantyne’s own emphasis on the ‘huge sense of freedom’ he achieves was, in his own words, ‘contingent on my acting upon that decision of a moment’; a momentary decision, but a conscious one. Similarly, the way he ‘tapped out [his] declaration of independence on the polished Formica’ alerts the reader to the brazenly political dimension to his decision. Constant Nieuwenhuys and Guy Debord argue that ‘the creation of a situation means the creation of a transitory microworld and – for a single moment in the life of a few – a play of events’; this ‘play of events’ interrupts the pervasive power of the spectacle by ‘discharging […] the unfamiliar and unpredictable into the daily and the mundane’. Ballard, and subsequently Ballantyne’s, emphasis on the workday morning, and how his situation is built out of and around the working day – beginning ‘soon after eight o’clock, as I stood by the front door, ready to drive to the office’ – and the decision to weaponize that same ‘front door’, represent the birth of a situation from within the mundane. As Ballantyne describes, his decision is so mundane that it remains ‘invisible to those it most offends’, despite the fact that it ‘runs counter to every social value’ the suburb embodies’.
Mark Fisher provides a framework for interpreting the ‘quest to the outer edges of the human’ that he identifies in Ballard’s writing, and that ‘follows a well-defined sequence, whose stages can be readily enumerated’. The first stage is ‘a letting go of the old identity’. As Fisher highlights, this is ‘given up easily’, and is embodied in the moment when Ballantyne ‘burns all his correspondence, his photographs, then his birth certificate and – in the most sacrilegious act of all […] his money’. However, the second stage of Fisher’s model is more important for my argument since it manifests itself temporally; this is ‘the loosening of the hold of civilisation’. Delineating this stage requires the invocation of another critic; in their description of the spectacle, the Situationists drew on many pre-existing Marxian theories of time and space, including those of Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre suggests that time and space alike are constructed in conjunction with political and economic demands; he identifies two temporal structures that define modern life. First, he defines the time born of natural bodies, seasons, birth, death, activity, rest, eating and sleeping: ‘cyclical temporality’. Second, is ‘linear temporality’; this is the time of modern urban life, of spatial and temporal uniformity, of civilisation, born out of the “rational” time of production. Linear temporality dissects cyclical time through its imposition of the repetitive motions of work and consumption.
‘The Enormous Space’ demonstrates the clashing of these two temporalities. When the telephone rings for the final time, Ballantyne suggests that he ‘can guess who is calling’, before listing: ‘Brenda, my secretary; the head of marketing, Dr Barnes; the personnel manager, Mr Austen (I have already been on sick-leave for three weeks); the dental receptionist (a tender root canal reminds me that I had an appointment yesterday); my wife’s solicitor, insisting that the first of the separation payments is due in six months’ time’. The rigid timeframes of work – measured ‘sick leave’, ‘separation payments’, the working days and working weeks of ‘secretaries’, ‘doctors’, and ‘solicitors’ – run contrary to the cyclical way of life to which Ballantyne forcibly returns. Furthermore, Ballantyne’s reportages to the diary that comprise the story also represent a break from rational time, and suggest a slowdown found outside the normal constraints of work. His first report is at ‘3p.m.’, with a two-hour gap before he reports again at ‘5p.m.’ Suddenly, the reader finds themselves at the end of ‘the first week’, then ‘a month has passed’, then ‘two months’, then ‘three months’; his cyclical lifestyle represents an ongoing, increasingly intense departure from linear time and a resulting slowdown in his perception of time. Ballantyne’s life, ‘emptied of the linear time of factory production’, facilitates the emergence of ‘a third temporality’. Fisher’s framework predicts the emergence of this third space, arguing that Ballard’s characters undertake ‘the exploration of the transcendental beyond’ that exists in ‘an intensive zone beyond – outside – standard perceptual thresholds’. This can be seen in Ballantyne’s claim that he is ‘confident that by then [he] will long since have moved into a different realm’, and that his situation marks ‘the junction between our small illusory world and another, larger, more real one’.
However, Fisher does little to describe the nature of this third space or the political possibilities that reside in it; the remainder of this essay is dedicated to finishing that task. Paul Virilio, ‘whose central concern is modernity as exemplified by speed, vectorization and mobility’, is conceptually useful here. Virilio argues, in language reminiscent of the Situationists, that modern technology ‘transforms the lived presence into a lived telepresence, where we are passive spectators, deprived of any sense of time – everything comes to us in “real time”’. Yet, at the same time, Virilio insists that human existence is defined by a need for speed and motion: ‘able to reach the farthest extremities, [the modern subject is] not happy except in the narrow cell of his vehicle, strapped into this seat’, indeed ‘to stop, to park, are unpleasant operations’. As a result, ‘trapped in motionless motion’, humans ‘experience “polar inertia”’; ‘our subjectivity, while defined by movement, is erased by absolute speed’. However, ‘Virilio remains attached to the promise […] that something more cohesive and supportive can be created’. Most prominently, the promise of escape lies in ‘the technology of absolute speed […] interrupting itself’; crises such as the 1987 stock market crash – in the wake of which both these stories were written – and arguably the COVID-19 crisis ‘may actually remind us of our substance as accidental beings, bringing us back to our conscious selves’.
This is precisely what Ballantyne’s deviation from linear time represents; in experiencing a detachment from linear time and the resultant clash with his slowed-down cyclical temporality, Ballantyne not only becomes increasingly aware of the gaps, fissures, and inconsistencies in late-capital’s spatio-temporal control mechanisms, but even begins imagining alternative futures. Virilio notes how ‘the wearer of dark glasses believes like Alfred Jarry, that light is active and shadow is passiv,’ [emphasis Virilio’s]. Ballantyne’s newly found obsession with this ‘far richer realm’ and its components, namely ‘light, time, and space’, marks a newly raised consciousness in relation to the house that contains him; he moves from passive to spectator to actively thinking agent. His insistence on ‘thinking only of the essentials: the physics of the gyroscope, the flux of photons’ and ‘the architecture of very large structures’ not only marks his new-found internal agency – his ‘senses tuned to all wavelengths of the [previously] invisible’ – but also evokes the artistic technique ‘of blow-up that closely recalls Oldenburg’, and results in a world ‘no longer recognisable in its own image’.
In these newly recognized ‘immense rooms’, Ballantyne locates a ‘richness of interior space’, a ‘flooding’, ‘expanding’ of spatio-temporal ‘dimensions’ and, alongside it, alternative ways of imagining the world around him. The once mundane domestic spaces, now with their ‘endlessly carpeted floors’, come to represent radically unfamiliar, open, and deterritorializable spaces, filled with ‘endless’ possibilities. Ballantyne describes how the ‘unexpected gaps and intervals’ in the spatio-temporal fabric of the world he once inhabited have now revealed entirely new ‘worlds’ and ‘universes’, comparing himself to ‘Columbus’ and an ‘astronaut’ respectively. More importantly, however, is that ‘time and space have now rushed in to fill the vacuum’ left by the inconsistencies in linear time, and this third space represents a new and ‘unshakable logic at work’; where Ballantyne was once so pacified by the spectacle of suburban life that he was deprived all agency, his self-quarantine repurposes the mundane spaces that surround him, and results in the total disruption, collapse, and replacement of the spatial and temporal means of late-capitalist, linear control.
The situation for the children of Pangbourne Village is different to that of Ballantyne in many ways; their isolation is forced not voluntary, takes place over a much longer period of time, and is designed to expose them to the effects of linear time, rather than provide a domestic escape from it. However, there are crucial similarities: in both cases, by withdrawing entirely to the architectural spaces that act as the mechanisms for the control society’s rigid and repetitive structuring of time and space, by inhabiting and experiencing solely those spaces, the children, like Ballantyne, experience a perceptual slowdown. As Ballard’s narrator reflects, ‘at Pangbourne Village […] time could run backward or forward’, ‘the residents had eliminated both past and future’; the children’s experience of agency-revoking linear time clashes with the ‘more brutal and real’ temporality ‘of the senses’, the cyclical time that their young minds and bodies yearn for as they progress through adolescence. As in ‘The Enormous Space’, this clashing of temporalities births a third space, and, with it, alternative visions of the world: two of the girls in the village, Gail and Annabel Reade, are described as having ‘kept elaborate secret journals’ which were ‘discovered in the panels behind their dressing-table mirrors’, which ‘throw no direct light’ on the murders, but ‘describe a richly imagined alternative to life in the estate’. Their journals ‘convey the impression of Pride and Prejudice with its missing pornographic passages restored’. By discovering ‘missing’ passages in a work of literature, and filling those spaces with their own desired versions of events, the girls show this world-building process in action.
More importantly, however, is that the children use their experience not just to envisage different ways of living, but to enact their revolutionary desires by crafting an escape plan in and around the gaps they discover in the monotonous Saturday morning routine of the Village; they hijack linear time, repurpose it to their own ends, and reclaim ‘some degree of agency and possibility for change’. On the morning of the attack, the children’s wake-up times, the first at ‘5.56 a.m.’, are chosen to get ahead of their parents; by identifying the fissures in the routine of linear time they are able to have their ‘preparations complete’ before ‘the first parents begin to rise between 7.00 and 7.15’. The attack similarly relies on the repetitiveness and reliability of the ‘guards’ changeover’; as well as depending on the regular hours of shift-work, the nature of the weekend shift means the guards are ‘often’ and predictably, ‘15 minutes late’. The plan also relies on their parents thinking only of the linear time of work; it relies on their total consumption by and obsession with the late-capital means of spatio-temporal control: Roger Garfield, a merchant banker, wanders mindlessly to his car, ignoring any signs or clues of the devastation unfolding around him, with his resulting corpse looking as if it ‘still assumed that he would be driven to his office in the City of London’. The attack likewise depends upon those adults that don’t work, and thus on the hetero-normative frameworks that linear time imposes on the domestic sphere as well as the working world; as Mrs Miller’s husband prepares for work, she ventures down to their home gym and, in her passivity under the spectacle, ‘fails to notice the one extra cable’ attached to her exercise bike that swiftly electrocutes her to death. Finally, it is worth noting that the attack is bookended by linear time: the children must complete their mission and escape before a regular delivery of wine is scheduled; when the delivery eventually arrives, the employee ‘discover[ed] the first of the bodies as [he] delivered a case of white burgundy to the Garfield house’. From its conception to its conclusion, the attack relies entirely on the repetitive, predictable, and tightly controlled mechanism of linear time, finding the fissures in its underlying logic, and exploiting them to revolutionary ends.
This essay does not mean to suggest that what remains of the COVID lockdown represents an opportunity to murder one’s parents. However, it does mean to suggest that, in agreement with Russel, ‘we need urgently to find a way of shattering fractured and depthless calculated time, this dead telepresent of living absence’; the COVID lockdown provides, for all people, but particularly those in the labour force, a rare crisis and, as such, a rare opportunity to disrupt the mechanisms of linear time, to meditate upon its structures, its flaws, its exploitative dimensions, and to seriously take up the task of formulating new ways of temporally and spatially organising the ways in which we live and work.
Ballard, J. G., ‘The Enomrous Space’, The Complete Short Stories, (London: Flamingo, 2002), 948-956
In his article ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Dipesh Chakrabarty states his third thesis as follows: ‘The Geological Hypothesis Regarding the Anthropocene Requires Us to Put Global Histories of Capital in Conversation with the Species History of Humans’. He follows this by arguing that though ‘it seems true that the crisis of climate change has been necessitated by the high-energy-consuming models of society that capitalist industrialisation has created and promoted’, the contemporary crisis has actually ‘brought into view certain other conditions for the existence of life in the human form that have no intrinsic connection to the logics of capitalist, nationalist, or socialist identities’. As a result, ‘it is not a crisis for the inorganic planet in any meaningful sense’.
I take issue with two aspects of this argument. First, I dispute the implied separation of the ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’ world. Second – and for reasons that will become clearer after fuller exegesis of the first – I take issue with the idea that there can be, what Chakrabarty calls later, ‘parameters of human existence’ that are ‘independent of capitalism or socialism’. In both cases, my repudiation is based on the idea that new form(s) of capitalism have crystallised in the decade since the ‘Theses’ were initially published; as Chakrabarty himself states, ‘Capitalist societies themselves have not remained the same since the beginning of capitalism’, and I argue that in the past decade capitalism has evolved to such an extent that the binaries and parameters Chakrabarty establishes are, if not totally collapsed, then significantly more blurred.
I draw many of the foundational ideas for this reply to Chakrabarty from Mckenzie Wark’s book Capital Is Dead, Is This Something Worse?; Wark argues that capitalism has evolved to such an extent that the word itself may no longer be useful or useable. She cites the constant modification of the word ‘capitalism’ as the first and most obvious piece of evidence for this phenomenon: ‘post-Fordist’ or the more contemporaneously deployed ‘neoliberal capitalism’ are examples of modifiers to the word ‘capitalism’ that themselves also carry modifiers. The word capitalism is no longer ‘good poetry’, claims Wark. She goes on to observe a contemporary world in which ‘everything is transformed into information and resources’, where ‘everything becomes resources in motion, tracked and tagged with information, threaded into logistics’. She adds that ‘not just everyone but everything is tracked and monitored and turned into information’, ‘everything: animal, mineral, vegetable’.
Wark coins two terms which prove important in explaining why her work serves to complicate Chakrabarty’s point of view: the ‘hacker’ and ‘vectoralist’ classes. The vectoralist class is ‘the dominant ruling class of our time’, those people that ‘own and control information’. Contrastingly, the hacker class is the exploited worker that is forced to produce, gather, and organise the information that the vectoralist class then seizes and directs. Wark then draws on Benjamin Bratton’s theoretical model of The Stack to describe how the vectoralist class creates ‘a sophisticated logistics that tracks and manages flows of energy, labour, resources and finished products through them’. At the very bottom of the stack, and most importantly for the thrust of this piece, is ‘the earth layer’: ‘that from which the resources and energy to make and run this whole vast edifice to the digitized commodity are extracted’. Consequently, I argue that there remains no such thing as an “organic” world; the world has been transformed into inorganic information. The earth now exists exclusively as one more ‘layer’ in the global stack, from which the vectoralist class is able to extract raw materials before digitizing and directing them along logistical chains of their design; this is the ‘overdeveloped world’.
Much like Wark, I believe that ‘capitalism’ is no longer a precise enough term to describe the world’s current socio-economic situation. However, I also believe that the current hegemonic ideology constitutes a clear evolution from more traditional ideas of capitalism, and that traces of these contemporary characteristics have been present in literary texts for some time; H. G. Wells’ ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’ is an example of this. The novel demonstrates how the earth layer (the island) exists only as a site which the vectoralist class (Dr. Moreau and Montgomery) can take control of and subsequently exploit for whatever resources they deem necessary (in this case: isolation from the rest of the world, space for their experimental subjects to roam). They then map the information that they alone own and control (scientific discourse), onto the bodies of lower beings (the animals, the hacker class) whose lives consist solely of acting as a conduit for that information, and a site through which more information can be generated. Thus, the idea itself is not new, but what is new is the globalised reach of this system, powered by increasingly complex technologies, and an awareness of the fact that this system affects all life on earth; it is no longer man enacting informational power over animals in isolation. Now, it is vectoralists enacting it over hackers, animals, plant life, and the planet itself, by transforming them all into inorganic information and logistical chains.
This leads me to my second point of contestation with Chakrabarty: if the entire world, the so-called organic earth itself, its rocks and minerals, vegetables, and animals have all been transformed into information to be deployed in a logistical chain, is it still technically possible for there to be any viable ‘parameters’ that exist ‘independent of capitalism’? According to Wark’s model, this kind of capitalism can have no “outside”; this new type of capitalism is so overdeveloped that the idea of an ‘organic’ realm, a realm entirely separate from hegemonic capitalistic ideology in any meaningful or measurable way becomes impossible or, at the very least, unimaginable. I do not argue that ‘the talk of species or mankind simply serves to hide the reality of capitalist production and its logistics’ that are, quite rightly, ‘machinic in a Deleuzian sense’. Rather, I argue that the Deleuzian machine of Wark’s brand of capitalism and the vectors therein so powerfully transform the planet and all its so-called organic creations that trying to think “outside” of that wholly inorganic system is an ill-fated struggle. As the title of the opening chapter of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism – attributed variously to both Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek – suggests, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’. In the same way that Jakob von Uexküll describes the subjective environmental ‘bubble’ that all creatures exist within, ‘that encloses each and every one of us on all sides’, I believe that the ideological bubble of capitalism, into which we are all interpellated from birth, cannot be burst by interaction with parameters that supposedly exist outside of it; the bubble must be burst from the inside.
At this point my argument takes a more speculative turn, a turn that I confess is not yet fully formed. However, for the reasons explored above, I argue that the key ‘conversation between disciplines’ that Chakrabarty calls for will not be between ‘recorded and deep histories of human beings’, but between this new kind of capitalism and fiction, wherein literary texts are used as tools with which those ‘futures’ that ‘we cannot visualise’ otherwise could enter the popular imagination. Though a text like Moreau undoubtedly shows the beginnings of this idea, I would argue it is taken up with greater precision in late twentieth century sci-fi texts such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer or J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Though ecologies, the so-called organic earth, and the climate crisis itself are rarely given explicit emphasis in these texts, this is one of their most poignant effects; by building worlds in which information, technology, and logistics are fetishized and accelerated to pervasiveness, not only is the so-called organic world accurately if wrongfully erased from the horizon of human thought, but the logics that underpin contemporary capitalism are stretched to such an extent that their flaws and gaps become only too apparent.
Exposing these fissures in capitalism’s logics provides an inlet through which alternatives may re-enter the collective imagination and, in time, burst capital’s ideological bubble. As Fisher neatly summarises: ‘from a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again’.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Critical Inquiry, 35.2, (Winter 2009), 197-222
Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism, (London: Zero Books, 2009)
Uexküll, Jakob von, A Foray into The Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)
Wark, McKenzie, Capital Is Dead, Is This Something Worse?, (London: Verso, 2019)
‘Capital is Dead, McKenzie Wark in Conversation with Verso Books’, last accessed 27 February 2020, <youtube.com>
Wells, H. G., ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, The Island of Doctor Moreau and Other Stories, (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2017)
Although Chris Christodoulou’s article ‘Darkcore: Dub’s Dark Legacy in Drum ‘n’ Bass Culture’ correctly identifies a pervasive presence of posthuman iconography in early drum and bass / jungle music, I believe his final conclusions are conspicuously lacking in a meaningful analysis of race in relation to the posthuman and, as a result, miss an important argument about the relation of labour to categories of the human. This essay aims first to highlight these omissions on Christodoulou’s part and then, via the work of Katherine Hayles, Sylvia Wynter and Alexander G. Weheliye, provide an alternative, Black Humanist reading of a selection of drum and bass / jungle tracks that makes race a central feature of my analysis.
Before I begin my critique of Christodoulou I will first define some key characteristics of drum and bass / jungle music, and define some of the terms that surround the genre. As Christodoulou succinctly describes, drum and bass / jungle is a genre ‘based on a combination of powerful bass sounds and breakbeats that are either synthesised or digitally sampled from existing musical recordings, before being accelerated and looped, whereby the tempos of drum ‘n’ bass bass-lines are typically half those of its break beats’. Typically a drum and bass / jungle track will run between 150 and 170BPM, with its basslines running at 75-85BPM. Furthermore, I will no longer be using the term ‘drum and bass / jungle’ to describe the genre, and will be referring to it only as ‘jungle’. Though some have argued that the term ‘jungle’ is too racially-loaded, I believe that ‘jungle’, rather than ‘drum and bass’, is the correct term for two closely interlinked reasons. First, ‘jungle’ is specific to a subgenre of what later became ‘drum and bass’; jungle far more accurately describes the particular style of drum and bass centred music that I have described thus far, whereas ‘drum and bass’ serves more usefully as an umbrella term for multiple styles of music that proliferate towards the end of the 1990s and into the 2000s. Second, the term ‘jungle’ provides useful temporal boundaries; the style of music which I will be discussing was pioneered in the early 1990s, peaking in popularity between 1993 and 1995, before succumbing to the stylistic explosion described above. As a result, all the tracks I analyse are from the first half of the 1990s, when ‘drum and bass’ was exclusively ‘jungle’.
Before criticising Christodoulou’s conclusions, I want to take a moment to survey what he gets right in his article. First, he highlights how jungle ‘points to a recontextualization of the racial category of blackness’ – I will go on to argue this. He also suggests that jungle, as one of several ‘“dark” discourses within the dub diaspora’ can be understood as a critical response to the ‘destructive conditions created by the political economy of the contemporary city’ where changing understandings of and relations between ‘class, race, and technology determine access to wealth and social prosperity’, wherein several of these groups become united in a ‘subaltern class position and urbanised alienation’. Using the socio-economic contexts of jungle in combination with the works of Sylvia Wynter, I will argue an almost identical position.
Where I differ from Christodoulou is in the conclusions he draws in his article. Rather than taking these economised and racialised beginnings to similar conclusions, his final point of argument relates to gender. He claims that ‘cybernetics and new technologies render the working class male impotent of his “natural” physical power and hence his once privileged social position’. Drawing on Yvonne Tasker, who claims that in the move from an industrialised society of production to a postindustrial society of consumption, technological development leads to the ‘denaturalising of the supposed naturalness of male identity’, leading Christodoulou to conclude that the prevalence of posthuman iconography in jungle is an ‘inscription of a crisis of masculinity in a late-capitalist context’.
I believe that this conclusion can be understood as a consequence of Christodoulou subscribing to the kind of posthumanist thinking that was established by Katherine Hayles in her 1999 book How We Became Posthuman, wherein her analysis, though brilliant, is somewhat blind to its own prejudices. Hayles argues that in the posthuman there are ‘no essential differences between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals’, and that ‘henceforth, humans were to be seen primarily as information-processing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines’. This I would not dispute. However, it becomes clear that gender is not only central, but overly-central to her argument. From the second page of her prologue Hayles begins to ask questions such as ‘Why does gender appear in this primal scene of humans meeting their evolutionary successors, intelligent machines? What do gendered bodies have to do with the erasure of embodiment and the subsequent merging of machine and human intelligence in the figure of the cyborg?’ Though these are vital questions, her intense focus on gender leads her, and subsequently Christodoulou, to omit race as a central feature of their analyses.
Alexander G. Weheliye spots this flaw in Hayles’ work and attempts to rectify it with his race-centric version of posthumanism: Black Humanism. Weheliye’s article ‘“Feenin”: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music’ states that ‘Hayles’ own formulations are on the way to becoming hegemonic’, and calls out the ‘literal and virtual whiteness of cybertheory’. Weheliye points out that ‘while gender and sexuality have been crucial to theories of both cyberspace and the posthuman, the absence of race is usually perfunctorily remarked and of little consequence to these analyses’, claiming that ‘Hayles is no exception in this regard’, and this ‘erasure of race severely limits how we conceive of the complex interplay between “humans” and informational technologies’. Although Wehelyie credits Hayles with acknowledging ‘Macpherson’s take on Hobbes and Locke’ and the resulting belief that ‘this “human” is very much a product of the market and in no way anterior to its forces’, Hayles still ‘needs the hegemonic Western conception of humanity as a heuristic category against which to position her theory of posthumanism, in the process recapitulating the ways in which the Western liberal theory of the “human”’. Wehelyie claims that Hayles’ ‘singular focus on this particular historical composite unnecessarily weighs down her project’, as it leads to create a version of the posthuman that is ‘little more than the white liberal subject in techno-informational disguise’, reinscribing ‘white masculinity as the (human) point of origin from which to progress to a posthuman state’.
In contrast, Weheliye asserts that ‘New World black subjects cannot inhabit this version of selfhood in quite the same manner as the “white boys” of Hayles’s canon’ because of the effects of ‘slavery, colonialism, racism, and segregation, since these forces render the very idea that one could be “free from the will of others” null and void’; ‘The literal dehumanization of black people through chattel slavery […] afforded black subjects no easy passage to the sign of the human’. In contrast, he suggests that ‘black humanist discourses emphasize the historicity and mutability of the “human” itself, gesturing toward different, catachrestic, conceptualizations of this category’ by ‘incorporating other informational media, such as sound technologies’ into his analysis because these ‘counteract the marginalization of race rather than rehashing the whiteness, masculinity, and disembodiment’ of Hayles-style posthumanism. Weheliye finally asserts that even though ‘numerous cultural discourses have done their best to authenticate and naturalize the soul of black popular music’, the music itself contains practices that ‘frequently defy these authenticating mechanisms by embracing new technologies, hybridities, and self-consciousness’. I argue that this kind of methodological approach can be applied just as fruitfully to jungle, and specifically to the posthuman iconography in and stylings of jungle, as it can to R&B.
One important qualification needs to be made before my Weheliye-style analysis can be carried out. Jungle, even less so than R&B, is not ‘black’ in its so-called “biological” sense. As Mark Fisher points out, jungle was ‘remarkable for being a sound make in equal parts by black and white producers’. Therefore, how can I argue that jungle is fit for a Black Humanist analysis? A clue lies in Fisher’s later comment that ‘in many ways [jungle] developed out of the disintegration of the rave dream’. This disintegration of the optimistic, ecstasy-fuelled, smiley-face-saturated rave scene mutated into its darker, faster counterpart at the precise moment that the UK was experiencing its deepest economic recession since the Second World War. The resulting unemployment meant that the British working class were suffering, and jungle became a force that could unite ‘Afro-Caribbean, ethnic Irish, and working-class white youth’ who were coming to share ‘similar experiences of social exclusion, unemployment, and poor educational opportunities in rapidly de-industrialising regions of cities’; a process that Imruh Bakari argues begun with Reggae, Dub, and Ska, but culminates in Jungle. Dick Hebdige also points to this sense of solidarity between black/white peoples on the basis of a shared working class experience, and leads Benjamin Noyes to conclude that jungle is a music that ‘floats in a space made common by an experience of class’, specifically that of an ‘under-class’ that ‘cuts across both space and colour’.
It is for this reason that I turn to Sylvia Wynter; Wynter provides an economised understanding of race that explains why a Black Humanist reading of a racially-mixed genre is appropriate and useful. Wynter’s essay ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument’, describes the overrepresentation of the white, bourgeois ‘Man’ as the universal human, and how ‘black subjects served as limit cases by which “man” could define himself as the universal “human”’. Central to the latter half of Wynter’s argument is the notion that as the 19th and 20th century develops, the relation of Man and non-Man to the capitalist and late-capitalist mode of production become crucial to definitions of the human, that central to her struggle will be the ‘usually excluded and invisibilized situation of the category identified by Zygmunt Bauman as the “New Poor”’, a category that forms ‘part of the ever-expanding global, transracial category of the homeless/the jobless, the semi-jobless, the criminalized drug-offending prison population’. What makes this key to my argument is that it means on ‘one level Man2 is now defined as a jobholding Breadwinner’.
Therefore, I argue that one can understand jungle as ripe for a black humanist analysis, because, despite its mixed colour profile, jungle is born out of a set of economic circumstances, and consequently produced by a group of people who become excluded from the overrepresented Man2 because they are no longer able or allowed to work, to become ‘breadwinners’. As a result, they become non-human. Thus, the presence of posthuman iconography and stylings in jungle is not a gendered result of a crisis of masculinity brought about by deindustrialisation, but rather a racialised response from those cast out of the category of Man, where they come to embrace and emphasise their non-human, virtual status.
A close analysis of Rufige Kru’s / Metal Heads’ (two of Goldie’s many aliases) 1992 track ‘Terminator’ serves as the perfect starting point for a reassessment of jungle through a Black Humanist lens. Mary Ann Doane argues that the recurrence of posthuman imagery in popular texts – as ‘Terminator’ exhibits, in its title, sleeve, and musical textures – are due to ‘the AI-endowed robot, the cyborg and the android, act[ing] as signifiers for the fear that humanity is in danger of becoming entirely absorbed into a future in which technology has become the paradigm by which progress is measured.’ Christodoulou summaries that this obsession with the cyborg is born of a ‘sense of paranoia about the postindustrial displacement of human labour by cybernetics and information technologies, and the political and corporate power structures that seem to legitimate their destructive social effects’. Though, as I have described above, I do not dispute that this kind of displacement is at the heart of jungle’s posthuman iconography, I argue that, rather than applying this understanding to a gendered conclusion, it can be used to understand racial dynamics by citing Weheliye’s arguments regarding virtuality: ‘no recorded performances, not even live recordings, are “real”—or even representations thereof’, rather ‘they are virtual productions created through interactions of musicians and listeners with recording and reproduction technologies’, and that ‘by embracing new technologies such as remixing, scratching, and sampling, black popular music producers […] persistently emphasize the virtuality of any form of recorded music’ and consequently ‘make their own virtuality central to the musical texts’.
The breakbeat is a core component of jungle tracks; ‘Terminator’ is no exception. I argue that the breakbeat is one way in which jungle producers ‘provide several avenues to configuring human beings so that they can be seamlessly articulated with (intelligent) machines’. The breakbeat arrives in jungle via hip-hop, with the most famous ‘break’, the so-called Amen-loop, becoming ubiquitous with the genre. What changes in the breakbeat from hip-hop to jungle is its speed; technological developments in digital music production in the late 1980s birthed a function known as ‘timestretching’, wherein samples could be dramatically sped up or down without their pitch being altered. Fisher notes that timestretching ‘transformed sampled breakbeats into rhythms that no human could play’, not only by dint of their new-found speed, but also because of the fact that DAWs (digital audio workstations) allowed breaks to be ‘fine-tuned and micro-engineered, with individual drum hits manipulated on the sampler’. Therefore, the breakbeat is representative of a human drum sound being subjected to machinic processing, a human performance technologically sampled and transmuted to ‘produce sounds that [have] no pre-existing correlates’. The breakbeat, by taking a human performance and transforming it into something overtly non-human, emphasises the virtuality of the sound and therefore the virtuality of the blackness behind it. Other aspects of ‘Terminator’ serve these same ends. Over the rolling breakbeats can be heard snippets of[the movie] Terminator’s Sarah Connor saying ‘you’re talking about things I haven’t done yet’, as if commenting on the virtuality of timestretching itself. Similarly, Rufige Kru / Metal Heads’ logo that features on the album artwork is that of a roboticised, cyborg skull wearing headphones. Fisher describes how ‘the Terminator can never remove its human mask’, but jungle ‘not only ripped off the mask, it actively identified with the inorganic circuitry underneath’ – junglists do not fear being replaced by the cyborg, by the robot, in postindustrial society, rather they identify with the virtuality of the cyborg and the virtuality of the sound due to their own virtuality as a racialised construct.
Dillinja’s 1995 track ‘The Angels Fell’ provides a bridge between my previous point and my next. It draws on posthuman cultural texts in its composition, most notably by sampling the Bladerunner soundtrack, and was one of the first releases on the aforementioned Metalheadz label, but it also points to the close relation of jungle to its Black Music predecessors. ‘Dillinja’ is a modernised, urbanised form of the name ‘Dillinger’, the stage name of Lester Bullock, one of reggae’s earliest and most prominent deejay toasters, a role that later became more commonly known, via hip-hop, as an MC. Jungle has other close ties to reggae and Caribbean music, with the term ‘drum and bass’ originating in the Jamaican dub scene, where it was used to describe the ‘instrumental, rhythm section of reggae that developed from studio recordings of reggae songs in the early 1970s, to be used for dubbing new melody and vocal lines’, as noted by Michael Veal.
Weheliye’s ‘vocoder’ effect describes the use of sonic technology to amplify ‘the human provenances of the voice, highlighting its virtual embodiment, because it conjures a previous, and allegedly more innocent, period in popular music, bolstering the “soulfulness” of the human voice’. Consequently, ‘the “human” and “machinic” become mere electric effects that conjoin the human voice and (intelligent) machines’. Though jungle has very little lyrical material, I argue that a similar effect can be seen in the way jungle takes from reggae music, textures, composition, and components, to highlight a nostalgia for a more technologically innocent time, before showing this more “human” time giving way to the machinic. Babylon Timewarp’s seminal 1992 release ‘Durban Poison’ features slow, skanking guitars at its start alongside a heavy dub bassline – both central components to the deep reggae/dub sound of the 1970s – which are then, to use Fisher’s phrase, ‘abducted into double time’ by breakbeats. Just before the breaks come rattling in, a sample of a Rastafarian saying ‘twenty-four-seven, seen?’ bridges the moment in which reggae is subsumed by the jungle sound; in Weheliye’s words, the track uses new digital technologies to ‘create a dialogue […] in which the “human” succeeds the “machinic”’, and in doing so unearths the “humanity” of machinic affections’.
Splash’s track ‘Babylon’, released in 1995, contains a similar atmosphere of dread that it draws from a reggae-style bassline, and centres around a sample from the 1978 Jamaican film Rockers. The voice whispers over the breaks that ‘I and I know that all the yout’ shall witness the day that Babylon shall fall’. Both the verbal content of the sample, and the machinically-subsumed reggae bass lines that succeed it, offer a site of resistance to racialised genres of the human and the overrepresentation of Man. ‘Babylon’ in Rastafari culture refers to those people and institutions working against the righteous rule of Jah and Rastafarians, and is therefore commonly directed against sources of oppression towards Rastafari peoples, such as the police. When this is read in combination with Hebdige’s suggestion that bass provides ‘the basic background throb of reggae’s heartbeat’, and Iain Chambers’ assertion that ‘bass history is a hurting black story’, one can agree with Christodoulou that ‘this heartbeat has evolved into an oppositional signifier’. Not only does jungle’s continuous textural and textual reference to its stylistic point of origin highlight its black humanism by showing humanity becoming interlinked with the machine, it also points to the continued oppression of racialised groups by Man2.
The ‘cell phone effect’ is another Black Humanist trope that Wehelyie highlights, wherein the performers’ recorded voices are marked as ‘technologically embodied’; instead of ‘downplaying the technological mediation of the recording, the cell phone effect does away with any notion of the selfsame presence of the voice’ , via what Simon Reynolds describes as a ‘strong sense of “anti-naturalism”’. In a footnote, Weheliye goes on to describe how Reynolds’ article ‘Feminine Pressure: 2-Step Garage’ claims that UK Garage ‘pushes the uttered sensibilities of U.S. R&B to its provisional conclusion by dissecting sampled and/or sung vocal parts, radically recombining them in relation to the rhythm as opposed to the melody’. I argue that jungle’s own version of the cell phone effect can be found in the way that vocal samples are edited, chopped up, and come to blur with the technology embodying them. DJ Hype’s 1994 release ‘Roll the Beats’ features samples from MC GQ, who would become one of jungle’s most accomplished MCs. As well as repeatedly featuring the now iconic phrase ‘absolutely T for tremendous’, the track also takes GQ’s phrase ‘roll the beats’, in which GQ notoriously rolls his R’s, and extends his rolls even further by timestretching the voice; GQ’s voice becomes technologically embodied through the effect, and the sampled voice then becomes even more closely interlinked with the machine through the use of digital effects. Similarly, Marvellous Cain’s 1994 track ‘Hitman’ is based around ‘bellicose breaks and an ultra-belligerent Cutty Ranks sample’. ‘Limb by limb wiafa cut them down’ cries “the hitman”. As well as this sample describing the literal cutting-up of the body, its meaning is mirrored by the harsh, abrasive stitching of samples to audibly cut-up Ranks’ voice. These tracks serve as evidence of the way in which the cell phone effect resists principles of the “real,” choosing instead to stage voice-distortion devices as both technological and “expressive extensions of the performing body”’, and ‘fails to define technological mediation and “realism” as warring opponents’, instead construing ‘these factors as thoroughly interfaced’.
The final characteristic of Black Humanist R&B that Weheliye points to is ‘the R&B desiring machine’. Citing a concept invented by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, Weheliye claims that Zapp’s ‘Computer Love’ ‘suggests desire for the machine itself by deferring a conclusive or coherent identification of [desire’s] target’. By ‘creating a three-way conversation, albeit an unequal one, between the male, female, and machinic utterances on the vocal track of the song’, the track shows that it is ‘the subject that is missing in desire, or that desire lacks a fixed subject’. DJ Gunshot’s 1994 release ‘Wheel It Up’ exemplifies this effect. By creating a three-way conversation between a TopCat sample, a Mary J Blige sample, and the producer/machine that chops them up, sticks them back together, and lays them alongside the breaks and bass, the track ‘dodges the naturalism associated with the human voice in so many other popular music genres’ and consequently ‘imagines interpersonal relations and informational technologies as mutually constitutive rather than antithetical foils’. This is epitomised at the end of the first third of the track when, after ninety seconds of thin breaks and a bass line which momentarily appears only to disappear again, Mary J Blige, following TopCat, cries out to ‘Love me now or I’ll Go Crazy’ and, as if giving in to her demand, the bass drops, an amen-break comes crashing in, and the third element of this ‘conversation’ is finally heard; it appears as if Blige’s desire was not directed at a lover, or at TopCat, or even at Gunshot, but at the sonic technology itself. Thus, this machinic-desire, what Weheliye terms ‘feenin’ in R&B music, ‘dissolvesthe parameters of the coherent subject in such radical ways that human—all too human— desire can be represented only in the guise of the machinic, and the human is thus inextricably intertwined with various informational technologies’.
Weheliye states in the final lines of his article that a Black Humanist approach to culture could allow critics to ‘begin to ameliorate the provinciality of “humanity” in its various Western guises’, rather than ‘simply rehashing the same old stories ad infinitum’; this essay has argued that jungle, and its obsession with posthumanism, can – when the erasures of traditional posthumanist theory are observed and avoided – constitute a genre of music that provides a gateway to a more complex understanding of the many genres of the human.
Dillinja, The Angels Fell, (Metalheadz, 1995)
DJ Gunshot, ‘Wheel It Up’, Jungle Hits Vol. 2, (Street Tuff Records, 1994)
Jean-Francois Lyotard states in his seminal book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge that, ‘simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as an incredulity towards metanarratives’. He specifies that ‘whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation’, all have ‘lost their credibility’, and consequently ‘the social subject itself seems to dissolve’. This essay will argue that, echoing Lyotard’s assertions, Dambudzo Marechera’s short stories in The House of Hunger show the breakdown of societal narratives as inscribed on and through the human body. Though the novella ‘The House of Hunger’ will be referenced in passing, I generally exclude it from my analyses due to the large amount of critical work already undertaken on it, and instead focus on the shorter stories towards the second half of the volume, which have received considerably less attention. After a justification of why Marechera’s work are a relevant site for this analysis, I begin reading individual stories closely with a Bakhtian mode of criticism, before moving “outwards” to examine how the body and subjectivity collapse between different stories.
A number of postcolonial critics suggest that in newly independent African countries, the imperial grandnarrative was quickly replaced by another. As Elleke Boehmer describes, this period was ‘distinguished by literal belief structures’, which included a ‘strong, teleological faith in the actual existence of the nation as “people”, and the sense that history essentially unfolded as a process of the nation’s coming-into-being’. Christopher Wayne and Bridget Grogan point to Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Ayi Kwei’s ‘accessible, social realist mode’, as evidence of this new grandnarrative of ‘anti-colonial, nationalist themes that had become the predominant concern of early post-colonial African fiction’. They add that the problem inherent in replacing the imperial grandnarrative with an anti-colonial, nationalistic one, is that newly independent nations become locked into ‘a system of binarisms’ that, like colonialism, ‘employ oppositions “in the cultural construction of reality”’.
This can be seen on the socio-political and theoretical level. Boehmer points to the postcolony embedding itself in ‘negritude-style illusions even while simultaneously compromising its principles of socialist redistribution by retaining colonial and capitalist hierarchies constructed on similar lines to those in, for instance, apartheid South Africa’. On the theoretical level, Wayne and Grogan highlight how ‘much postcolonial theory is premised upon colonialism’s construction of the “other”’. Pointing first to Edward Said’s claims in Orientalism that Western discourse attempts to ‘control, manipulate, even to incorporate’ the Oriental ‘other’, as well as Abdul Jan-Mohammed’s Manichean Aesthetics where he states that ‘dominant model of power-and-interest-relations in all colonial societies is the Manichean opposition between the putative superiority of the European and the supposed inferiority of the native’. The problem therein, as Ashcroft et al. rightly identify, is that the ‘danger for anti-colonial resistance comes when the binary opposition is simply reversed, so that “black”, for instance, or “the colonized”, become the dominant terms. This simply locks the project of resistance into the semiotic opposition set up by the imperial discourse’.
Flora Veit-Wild and Anthony Chennels observe that, because of such binaries, Marechera has ‘been regarded as the “man who betrayed Africa”’, that ‘broke ranks with the sort of nationalism which gave a peculiar authority to pre-colonial African culture’, his ‘art refused to be rooted in an Africa which the political and cultural officialdom of the 1960s and 1970s imagined’. Rather, Marechera attempts to ‘place Africa in a broader context than that provided by either indigenous cultures or by a simple opposition of European imperialism and African resistance’, his work can be understood as an attempt to disassemble the ‘African image’ that he saw being ‘invoked to authorize and thus disguise the tyrannies of many of the regimes which came to power in the 1960s and 1970s’. These critics argue that Marechera can be considered part of postcolonial literature’s fundamental achievement: showing that ‘that as long as the colonial encounter is imagined in binarisms of coloniser and colonised, oppression and resistance, foreign and native, neither has an identity outside a paradigm of mutual dependence’.
Going further than Veit-Wild and Chennells, I suggest that rather than just acknowledging this binary, Marechera collapses it. As Boehmer describes, ‘in the decades since independence’, African writers ‘have come round to concentrating on the imaginative as opposed to the actual status of the nation’, ‘the constructedness of the nation is now engaged’ as a central topic. Veit-Wild adds that, in the postcolonial and Lyotardian postmodern view, ‘reality becomes complex and hybrid’, ‘in place of a homogeneous view of the world and clear-cut modes of interpretation, a fragmented, fundamentally sceptical perspective dominates’. I argue, in line with Achille Mbembe’s comment from his seminal study On the Postcolony that postcolonial identities are ‘multiplied and transformed’ ‘in distinctive ways’, that Marechera presents the nation and the national grandnarrative as a fragile, fragmenting construct, whose collapse is mirrored in a collapse of the body and subjectivity.
The Grotesque Body
The breakdown of grandnarratives is reflected in Marechera’s presentation of grotesque bodily sites, wherein bodily limits are transgressed and collapsed. Mikhail Bakhtin describes the grotesque body as ‘a body in the act of becoming, it is never finished, never completed’, focusing on ‘those parts of the grotesque body in which it outgrows its own self, transgressing its own body’. He cites the phallus as the primary site of transgression, but suggests it is closely followed by ‘the bowels, the genital organs [more broadly]’, ‘the mouth’, and ‘the anus’. I argue that, through an extended emphasis on bodily functions, excretions, and sex acts, Marechera’s presentation of the grotesque body can be considered part of a wider emphasis on ‘scandalous and eccentric behaviour that he uses to subvert and desacralize hegemonic discourses and established hierarchies.’
The most confronting example of grotesque ‘genital organs’ occurs in the first part of ‘The Writer’s Grain’. After the nameless narrator storms out of a party to find his adulterous wife, picking up a canine companion en route, he ‘bursts into the room, expecting to see my wife in that devil’s embrace’, and finds them ‘naked and sweaty and puffing away at it like mad’. Though explicit, this passage is not grotesque; the fight that ensues, however, definitely is. ‘My wife was scratching and clawing at anything and for an agonising ten minutes she found my balls and squeezed and tugged and squeezed until I thought I was going to die’. Luckily, his mongrel steps in: ‘The dog saw my predicament clearly and came to my rescue. Dogs know the importance of balls; at least, that one did. He bit her in the rump. He bit her breasts. He bit her throat’, and finally ‘dived in between her legs and took a sharp bite’. Nearly all the body parts listed one of Bakhtin’s sites of bodily transgression: the ‘balls’, the ‘rump’, the ‘breasts’, the ‘throat’, that which lies ‘between her legs’. Moreover, as well as being sites of transgression, here they are torn apart and broken up, further breaking down the body’s boundaries in both quasi-castrations.
Marechera’s obsession with ‘the anus’ and its functions work to similar effect. Literal ‘shits’ and ‘turds’ appear across his work, but the most pointed example appears in ‘The Christmas Reunion’. The narrator tells his sister that ‘They look at you like you want me to look at that goat. They look at you like you were a potential meal, and they digest your innards and fart you out and call it progress’. The direct comparison of an anal function to an abstract socio-political paradigm, that of ‘progress’, demonstrates that Marechera acknowledges a direct link between the body and the grandnarrative via the grotesque. Furthermore, the verbal expletive ‘shit’ appears even more frequently than literal-shit: ‘shit in its good earthy sense’, the ‘uneducated shits who counted their pennies and paid the rent’, the ‘little shit’ cat in ‘The Writer’s Grain’ who meets an untimely demise under an Encyclopaedia Britannica, are a few of the many available examples. Though expletives are pervasive in Marechera’s work, I do not consider it a coincidence that the word appearing most often is that which is the most grotesque, bodily, and body-transgressing.
Lydie Moudileno extends Bakhtin’s grotesque to the ‘dismembered body’, suggesting that in seeing the body’s limits exploded, a ‘new novelistic paradigm’ of the grotesque emerges. Marechera’s work is far from lacking in dismembered bodies, as the ‘Salad Room’ in the second part of ‘The Writer’s Grain’ demonstrates. The boy and his guide, the anthropomorphised Warthog in a yellow apron, take the ‘steep little stairs’ that ‘creak impishly beneath their feet’, before ‘Mr Warthog opened a small red door and they walked in’, the ‘boy looked, and his breath suddenly came out in little gasps of pain’: ‘the salad was human! No, the human was the salad. No, the salad plants looked just like humans. “It’s the only salad that grows here”, Mr Warthog explained as he nibbled a piece that looked like a human ear’. The ‘Salad Room’ is filled to the brim with dismembered human body parts, bodies that have had their supposed limits exploded beyond all recognition and reconnection. Going even further than the mauling mongrel, the dismembered body parts are eaten by Mr. Warthog; they enter through his mouth but, one can safely assume, they also travel through his entire body, transgressing bodily limit upon entry, during travel, and through their inevitable exit, wherein they become unrecognisable. The body loses all semblance of the “human”, and associated narratives, which held it together. As Veit-Wild summarises, Marechera’s ‘various appearances of the deformed or grotesque body, and the body’s impurity become, in his work, symptoms of the mental sickness of society, of a disturbance in the relationship between people’. I argue that the disturbed relationship is not just between people, but between people and their world, a world which, as their bodies enact, exists in a time of narrative collapse, losing any sense of singularity and cohesiveness, as the grandnarrative that once held it together falls apart.
The Carnivalesque Body
Thus far, I have focussed on Marechera’s presentation of the body in isolation, focusing on specific body parts and their significance. However, using another of Bakhtin’s theories – the carnivalesque – I will now focus on the narrative elements with which grotesque bodies are compared and contrasted. In turn, I will suggest a further link between bodily and grandnarrative breakdown. Veit-Wild describes how ‘elements of hybridity and carnival are major characteristics of postcolonial literature’, with ‘the subversive quality of syncretic, carnivalesque art’ helping to ‘decentre dominant discourses’. She rightly claims that carnivalesque works ‘undermine and challenge discourses of African identity which have not only become outdated and obsolete, but extremely dangerous’, because ‘they are used by black elites to justify their autocratic rule’. In Bakhtin’s own words, ‘the laws, prohibitions, and limits that determine the habitual order of life are not in force for the duration of the carnival’, and that ‘this applies above all to the hierarchical order’, because ‘carnival unites, mixes, and marries the sacred with the profane, the high with the low, the great with the small, the wise with the foolish’. Specifically, it is the carnivalesque’s syncretic emphasis on ‘bodily baser instincts, eccentric, abnormal and indecent behaviour, the violation of good manners and social rules’ which I will use to further my reading of the grotesque.
Fittingly, an example of syncretism occurs just ‘next to the Salad Room’ that I previously described. In this second room, ‘two naked figures, male and female, stood facing each other’ before Mr Warthog ‘pressed an intriguing combination of buttons’: ‘The male figure was having a swift erection and moving with an oblique heat towards the female figure, who was gently parting her thighs and slowly raising her arse to receive the man’, ‘he was between her legs and they were both trembling violently’, until ‘electric sparks spun out from their furious activity.’ As the boy ‘yawns’, the two figures ‘writhe and moan and howl such a hoarse icy blast of air that for a moment the boy paused in mid-yawn and cocked his ears’, before proclaiming that ‘“My dog used to make that sound when there was a full moon”’.
Though the figures here are undoubtedly grotesque, what makes them carnivalesque is the syncretism that the wider scene entails; a number of societal expectations, norms, and conventions are broken. First, there is a breakdown of the public and private through the voyeurism of the boy and the warthog. Moreover, the age and species of the two voyeurs constitute further boundary collapses: that which is usually “adult” is gazed upon by a child, and that which is strictly human – the conscious sexual act, the concept of “making-love” – gazed upon by an animal. Similarly, an act usually deemed “natural” is shown to be both machinic in the spinning ‘sparks’, and also animalistic in the boy’s ‘half-forgotten’ comparison to his family pet. His forgetfulness also points to another collapse: the peak of arousal, intensity, and excitement becomes dull, boring, and yawn-inducing. Through an inversion of these wider societal paradigms, the body is again used as a site on which to enact a more abstract kind of collapse.
Veit-Wild highlights another element of the carnivalesque which she calls ‘metaphorical border-crossings’. She claims that on the stylistic level, Marechera’s ‘rejection of realism’ reflects ‘his hybrid consciousness and his cross-cultural imagination’. Marechera uses this cross-cultural imagination to create ‘hybrid realities’, in Homi Bhabha’s words, ‘by yoking together unlikely traditions of thought’. Veit-Wild cites Marechera’s poem ‘Oracle of the Povo’ as an example of this technique, because ‘the high-class figure of the oracle (from Greek mythology) is juxtaposed with the low-class povo, a Portuguese expression used in Southern Africa for the poor, the people, the masses. The sacred oracle is thus debased’.
Another segment from the second part of ‘The Writer’s Grain’ exemplifies this by its contrast of a high-class cultural artefact, not with a low-class figure, but with the bodily grotesque. Towards the end of the story, Mr Warthog brings the boy a gift: ‘“Lysistrata – a Greek play. It’ll amuse you. If not, I’ve also brought the Satyricon and that one you wanted, the Golden Ass by that fellow Apuleius”’. However, the boy ‘says nothing, and Mr Warthog sneezed and blew his nose loudly’, ‘in the silence that followed the boy’s breathing scraped and rasped against the walls’, Mr Warthog ‘smiled uncertainly’ before asking the boy if he would ‘like some more salad instead?’ Here the appearance of the ‘high-class’ Greek works is carnivalesque: the plays, a “high-art” form of entertainment, exist in direct contrast to the warthog’s own debased and grotesque forms of bodily entertainments. The warthog offers the boy more ‘salad’ instead, referring back to the first room they visited. Moreover, this passage takes place directly after the aforementioned scene with the naked figures, so direct contrast is further invited. Most pointedly, however, the offering of the plays occurs just before the very last passage of the story, wherein the two characters watch a film together that depicts Nazis ‘frying eggs and eating them while with their bayonets they prodded an endless line of naked children into a huge sulphuric acid tank’. Thus, the plays are directly contrasted with another form of entertainment, the film, which is arguably the warthog’s most debased exhibit yet. Furthermore, the film also depicts the children being ‘prodded’ into a tank of ‘sulphuric acid’; whereas the ancient plays are considered by many to delineate or consolidate what it means to be a human subject, in the film we see the human subject literally dissolve under the evils of modernity.
By first enacting a collapse on, through, and between the grotesque body and its surroundings, but then subjecting that body to the juxtapositions and contrasts of the carnival, Marechera shows how ‘elements of carnival and hybridity’ can ‘unmask and unsettle dominant discourses’, specifically those ‘in colonial and post-colonial regimes’, and consequently points towards a larger kind of collapse at the level of societal narrative.
The Doubled Body
So far, I have examined the bodily breakdown in isolation, and then contrasted it to other narrative elements within each story. Now, by looking within but also between stories, I hope to show that a doubling of characters and their bodies, ‘a splitting of the self, a fragmentation’, creates a ‘double consciousness and double-voicedness […] in a condition of alienation’; to reflect the fragmentation of grandnarratives, Marechera fragments subjectivity itself. In doing so, as Trudy Rudge and Dave Holmes describe, Marechera challenges established ‘systems of order, meaning, truth […] and laws that [attempt to] produce a controlled and manageable subject’. Wayne and Grogan take this suggestion even further, claiming that by raising questions of the body such as ‘Do I own it at all?’ and ‘by destabilising the boundaries between “self” and “other”’, Marechera ‘tears the body apart’, ‘simultaneously rendering identity abject and thus inassimilable’. Marechera’s perception of himself seems to support this view, having described himself at one time as ‘the doppelganger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met’, and described his craft in the following terms: it is a short walk to the grave, only a drop of blood away; only a strong feeling away, […] there you meet all the versions of yourself that did not come out of the womb with you. It is of them I write. Doubled bodies and fragmented subjectivities are pervasive.
His short stories, however, take this idea much further. The most obvious and sustained instance of bodily doubling occurs in the first part of ‘The Writer’s Grain’. An unnamed narrator suddenly finds one of his doodles transform into dark spots that shoot ‘out with the very matter of his brains’, and finds his own face looking ‘coldly’ back at him. Upon touching the figure, it pulled ‘the skin of my face out’, ‘it revealed me to myself’. From this point onwards the dots begin to form a life of their own, arguably becoming more real than the narrator himself; ‘those fine black grain, they were my life’. From here the narrator goes to a party, gets drunk, and encounters the double again. He leaves with the intention of warning his estranged wife of the double. On the way, he meets his canine partner, and the aforementioned fight ensues. As Brendon Nicholls describes, this narrative, via an ‘externalisation of the narrator’s life and thoughts into the space of writing’ results in an ‘evacuation of selfhood’ through bodily doubling.
The effects of this doubling – the resulting fragmentation of the self and the subject – can be further emphasised by comparing these doublings to other stories in the volume; doubles become redoubled across the collection. For example, the first part of ‘The Writer’s Grain’ is partially doubled in ‘Thought Tracks in the Snow’; the narrator’s wife reveals an affair she has been having with a Nigerian student he has been teaching, and subsequently the student in question comes to blows with the narrator. The narrator, however, is unable to retaliate as he becomes lost in a flashback where police dogs attack protesting university students. This flashback precisely replays a moment in ‘The House of Hunger’, in which that narrator’s memory of being attacked by a dog recurs as he is beaten up at a right-wing student protest. Furthermore, the Alsatians in question are, debatably, bodily doubles of the shaggy dog in ‘The Writer’s Grain’, which is itself a ‘“shaggy dog story” related just before closing time in a bar’. Moreover, the wife in ‘Thought Tracks in the Snow’ is pregnant by the student, and the narrator suggests she get an abortion through his friend, Michael, a local doctor. In ‘The Writer’s Grain’, the narrator’s daughter, Clara, who happens to be almost identical to her adulterous mother, has an abortion through one of the narrator’s close friends. Thus, there is subtle but undeniable doubling of characters, and their bodies, between stories across the collection; they’re the same characters but, in Nicholl’s words, ‘filmed from the reverse angle’.
In these stories the subject, through bodily doubling, becomes ‘an object that endlessly morphs through a sequence of versions, or is constellated via partial correspondences that do not settle. Instead they shuttle, shimmer, or relay during the transactions of character and the designs of story’. Just like the postmodern view of the nation and its grandnarratives, this version of the subject, of the self, is ‘opportunistic, performative and, above all, ambivalent’. Thus, I argue that Marechera, through this bodily doubling, exceeds Homi Bhahba’s theory of the hybrid. Though Bhabha brilliantly suggests that ‘it is difficult to agree entirely with Fanon that the psychic choice is to “turn white or disappear” […] there is the more ambivalent, third choice: camouflage, mimicry, black skins / white masks’, Marechera’s work suggests a fourth option: a subject committed to ‘insistent, enigmatic and spectacular acts of self-rarefaction’, that can ‘resist being read form any locus of authority as a result’. As Veit-Wild succinctly summarises: ‘the divided self-mirrors the insanity, the fundamental disturbances of the society around him’; as societal grandnarratives, and subsequently their loci of authority begin to dissolve and decentre, so too do the bodies and subjects of Marechera’s stories.
Marechera, Dambudzo, The House of Hunger, (London: Heinemann, 1978)
Ashcroft, Bill, et al., Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies, (London: Routledge, 1998)
Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1984)
Literatur und Karneval. Zur Romantheorie und Lachkultur, (Berlin: Fischer Taschenbuch, 1990)
Bhabha, Homi, ‘The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha’, Identity: Community, Culture: Difference, ed. J. Rutherford, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), pp. 205-215
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