Disjecta Membra: Reattaching Capital's Phantom Limb(s)

Virgina Konchan 

"The Hunt" by Virginia Konchan

"I am standing dressed in the skin of a sheep or a cow in the occidental forest. My name shall be she to them... in grotesque, monstrous, most ancient mixture." —Lisa Robertson


Camille Paglia recently pronounced Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith as having more "inherent artistic value" than any other artwork of our generation, representing the apogee of the postmodern sublime, and Darth Vader, a figurehead for now-obsolete law of the father and overturning of an imperialist world empire.[1] Whether or not one agrees with Paglia's aesthetics, the very task of modernity, according to many modernist scholars, can be seen as killing the father: the author-producer whose function is to freeze cultural discourse in a homoerotic dialectic between two paternally conceived egos. In Donald Bartheleme's The Dead Father, the father's corpse is hauled with a cable by his children across lands toward his burial spot: the castration of the symbolic father (law, logos, symbolic order) subtends postmodern fiction as well, (e.g. John Barthes' The Floating Opera), forwarding paternalist narratives as a picaresque, dark comedy, in genres driven by the oedipal unconscious: dystopic science fiction, psychological and magical realism, and surrealism, from Poe to Robert Musil.


What might be the female companion text to Bartheleme's The Dead Father: Alice Notely's Alma: a Dead Woman? Maggie Nelson's Jane, a Murder? Shakespeare's Goneril and Regan, Thackeray's Becky Sharp, and mythological figures (Medusa, Circe, Kali, Delilah, and Salome) are all masters of what Toril Moi call the "duplicitous arts" (appropriation of masculine phallic power). "The duplicitous woman is the one whose consciousness is opaque to man, whose mind will not let itself be penetrated by the phallic probings of masculine thought," says Moi, citing Lilith and the Queen in Snow-White (a myth Barthelme deconstructs in his eponymous satiric novel) as paradigmatic instances of the monstrous female in the masculine imaginary. [2]

As Michael Davidson says, "...if genre implies a way of organizing knowledge, then to 'think genericity' is to think thinking." [3] The study of genre began with Plato and Aristotle (dramatic dialogue, pure narrative and epic): lyric poetry, the fourth genre of Greek literature, excluded by Plato as a rhapsodic (non-mimetic) mode. Genre theory has since been revised by Mikhail Bakhtin, Heather Dubrow, and Northrop Fry, and Derrida's "The Law of Genre" articulates the idea that individual texts participate in rather than "belong" to certain genres. "There, that is the whole of it, it is only what 'I," . . kneeling at the edge of literature, can see. In sum, the law." [4] The gendering of elegiac texts, however calls the "law" of genre's perspectival bias as a classifying system—and potential means of structural critique—into question. H.D.'s hermetic (historically and mythologically inflected) verse resulted in the canonical marginalization of her palimsestic texts, while for Walter Benjamin (The Arcades Project) and T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land) pastiche was a "high" art: was H.D. "minor" because of her interest in crypopoetics, in the legacy of Yeats, while the other modernists were attempting to rival scientific rationalism with "accurate" or "objective" (depersonalized) statements or neo-epic tomes (Paterson, The Cantos)?

Along with genre, another absolutist literary function killed (i.e. relativized), along with the totalitarian ego-scriptor, is trope (invented to challenge, rather than fix, conceptual categories, Donna Haraway reminds us: "Tropes are what makes us want to look and need to listen for surprises that get us out of inherited boxes"), and allegorical, Manichean "themes." The prevailing theme of late Victorianism, the Enlightenment (French and British) and early modernism was the designed or inadvertent production, in gothic horror, of the chthonic monster: a figure for the uncultured "savage," the prosthetic body of alienated labor, or of a cyborg-to-come.

Whether seen as a pre-industrial missing link between nature and culture, a symbol of an industrially produced post-enlightenment "self," or the ontologically void "not-I" of discourse (the feminine), the monster, like the contemporary psychopath, is a figure of pure contingency, whose subjectivity and sensory existence are manufactured or produced, sui generis, from without (possessing no intrinsic motor or drive). Slavoj Žižek: "It is by no accident that "monsters" appear at every break which announces a new epoch of capital: their rise (Frankenstein, Kaspar Hauser); transformation into imperialism (the elephant man, the phantom of the opera); and today's emergence in "postindustrial" society (the revival of the motif of the 'living dead')." [5]

For Žižek, the subject only exists insofar as the "Thing" (Kant's das ding, Freud's impossible object, Lacan's petit objet a) is primordially repressed. The thing, like the lack (of a phallus) attributed to women, introduces a subject organized, according to men, around a void: a conceptual aporia akin to the cogito, or enlightenment ideology. [6] The modernist repudiation of depth psychology (Freud and Jung's archaeologies of the unconscious and its archetypes) has today proliferated, archaeologies of the social sciences, history, hermeneutics, and depth fields of perception in the visual arts yielding to theories of "flat ontology" and "surface reading." Our historical antagonism toward The Thing marks our historic refusal to consider binary subject relations as intersubjective (not bound to a hierarchy of dominated and dominator), the compulsion to "abjure and disown" exerting irresistible attraction, as well as mortal danger, as a source of power. [7]

Society's rituals of purgation and sacrifice, as with the incest taboo, are also repressed. For Julia Kristeva, the sacrificial figure on which the social order is founded is not the father, but the mother, whose murder preconditions subject formation: the social functions of abjection include the rites of murder, guilt, and expiation. Considering the historical representation of the feminine not as an essence but nameless site, the maternal can be seen as the means by which a subject acquires semiotic language before entering the nominalist patriarchal order: entry, then, is contingent upon removing or "killing" the site or spatial obstacle of the internalized mother, and signification, once arrived, as contingent on the "death" (phallic reappropriation) of the father's apotropaic naming power. "If the murder of the father is that historical event constituting the social code as such, that is, symbolic exchange and the exchange of women, its equivalent on the level of the subjective history of each individual is the advent of language." [8]

The poem "Planetarium" by Adrienne Rich reveals the feminine to be linked, for men, to fear of the transformed "other" from site (empty void) to presence, possessed of the power to name herself and others hastening a reversal of structural hierarchies of power:

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them


I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.

If there is no outside to language (il n'y a pas de hors-text), our co-conscription in the sociolect, static metaphors and received language of our gender, race, ethnicity, or class, as well as, in a foundational sense, the pre-lingual chora (we do not possess, but are possessed by language, as by Foucaultian power), is, in a sense, inexorable. Yet, figurative language is singularly capable of freeing us from the horror vacui of literality ("things as they are"), and creating, through textual practice of writing and reading, not just our immaterial "self" but, along with labor and social recognition, the sensory body. A sufficient account, in theory or poetics, remains to be written connecting the crisis of the lyric form to the crisis of production (the Fordist assembly line and ready-made mass production of art objects attenuating the capital/labor inequality through the increasing domination of capital via machines, as labor was expelled from the production process and upsetting the ratio of labor to productivity (the sine qua non of economic progress). The fiat currency, and aesthetics, of zombie capitalism introduce a ghosted subject, or monster, to the world, alienated by factory labor and industrialism, in the 20th century, then by the absence of productive labor due to structural unemployment in the 21st, through which to become actually, not just propositionally, real.

Are the necromantic figures of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, ETA Hoffman's Olympia, or Victor Hugo's the Hunchback of Notre Dame really, then, given the linguistic and economic formation, and deformation, of the subject, so grotesque? The human body is literally alienated, possessed, and auctioned off, in the history of the slave and sex trades or the sale of human organs: a historical fact, when enslaved, or through bonded labor, when the subject has only soft capital to exchange or sell in the marketplace. "The dead are economical," said Yeats, comparing the emergence of the ghostly revenant in parts, or as voice severed from body, to the fragmentary deconstruction of the text, a body that, "lacking a head or a foot," was becoming a common sight in post-Industrial London. The liberal subject-turned-desiring-machine outlines a body whose organs (literally and figuratively, as commercial or aesthetic products) are sold on the black market to pay off literal or ontological debts in an age of creditism.

If the animating senses are constructed through the process of poeisis and labor (Capital and Art's never-ending duel), in a consumerist epoch of flarf poetry and Uncreative Writing (what Kevin Young calls "fake narratives"), are all our limbs in fact phantom limbs, and all our interlocutors, "talking heads?" The most monstrous myth, after all, is the headless creature: Sylvia Plath's "living doll" or George Bataille's Acéphale. Perhaps most alarming is the collapse of metaphor: Plath was referencing a human being wholly usurped by production, in the same way that Hannibal Lecter's cannibalism literalizes a competition-based (neoliberal) rather than exchange-based (classical liberalism) society. The walking dead of the zombie apocalypse gesture toward unspoken continuities between word and body, desire and prohibition, social and anti-social urges, and "natural" versus artificial (IVF, cloning, the human genome project) origins: the anti-foundations of citizens "governed" by technocracy and the ever-receding horizon of 'becoming-subject."

How do talking heads, or severed limbs communicate, romance each other, or make love? The theatricalization of the monster allows us to enjoy, embrace, or disavow the mobilization of the abject body unmoored from ethics, contained safely in the realm of the aesthetic, upon which we can subject our gaze, and our auto-erotic or necromantic sexual fantasies. [9] The aesthetic is yet another bifurcation within capitalism, with all the features of class distinction and promise of freedom and autonomy, in which materialist subjects refuse to surrender auto-enjoyment for what Žižek calls the "virtual" impossibility of erotic, non-pornographic subject-object relations. The denial of sexual difference (in-equivalence and alterity) reifies man's self-positioning as signified, whose self-presence occludes the possibility of the signifying "other" (women) possessing an ontology in herself, not just in relation to man. "What if sexual difference is not simply a biological fact, but the Real of an antagonism that defines humanity, so that once sexual difference is abolished, a human being effectively becomes indistinguishable from a machine?" asks Žižek. "All the celebrating of the new 'enhanced' possibilities of sexual life that Virtual Reality offers cannot conceal the fact that, once cloning supplements sexual difference, the game is over."

Without sexual differentiation, heterosexual relationships are shaped around an indistinguishable "sameness," requiring the presence of a projected third other (the eye of the camera, or computer screen) for validation. In cyberspace the body returns with a vengeance ("cyberspace IS hardcore pornography") and "enlightenment," the relief we feel when we freely float in cyberspace is the experience of "possessing another—aetheric, virtual, weightless—body," a body which does not confine us to inert materiality." [10] The Gordian knot of triangulation (mimetic desire) allegorized in the postmodern heterosexual encounter brings the doubled subjectivities of the self and other to the fore of not just sexual, but social discourse. Cyberspace, for Žižek, thus designates a twice-alienated "negation of negation," in which we progress towards the final disembodiment of our sexual and bodily experience.

The fear of Fremdkörper, the alien body, and the panoptic third eye of the camera, is also a fear of what Michel Foucault called "the proliferation of meaning": a world in which we confront the surfeit or full presence of all we have mourned. Any fetish-object, including language, bears this dangerous underside when transmogrified from use or exchange value to surplus value (capital's morphing representation through these stages as the work of modernity and postmodernity). This immanent transfiguration is the core instability of the capitalist system, and the only hope for overturning a dictatorship of deregulated "freedom"—for the 1%. Surplus value escapes the negative dialectic of alienation through Capital in both "being social" and "individual": while exposing the inaccessibility of a final 'value,' or even definition, it simultaneously poses the possibility of an independent (i.e. unquantifiable) variable outside capitalist subsumption. [11]

Adrienne Rich conceived of a women's poetry as performed from a position outside oneself ((je suis une autre, yet at a remove: "positionality" as the power play of postmodernity). From this distance, a woman writer can choose whether to deploy metaphor or elide naming (Susan Howe's ab-original antinominalism). Rich's choice is clear: "If the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is re-naming." [12]

If the true "monster" among us is the capital's accumulative and insatiable profit-motive, the work of re-naming, and re-reading, based on one's particularized desires, from an imagined position outside of one's acculturated or biological "self" grounds the beginning of a saner world ethos based on exchange, reciprocity, art, aesthetics, pleasure, philos, and love: a world indeed monstrously "other" to the system in place. Semiotic flows (of capital, language, and power), and the phantasmal "big Other," may be bureaucratic prisons, contingent social praxes, or simply inexistent: all revolutions, therefore, begin with the refusal to be controlled by institutional voids "representing" capital's aporias. These empty signifiers are rootless and without place, not having been accorded an identity—as marked by a proper, or invented (first as a neologism, against the grain of received language, or as glossolaliac sound, before finding musical form)—name.





[1] Camille Paglia, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (New York: Pantheon, 2012).

[2] Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 58

[3] Michael Davidson, Ghostlier Demarcations (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997), p. 67

[4] Jacques Derrida and Avital Ronell, "The Law of Genre," Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1, On Narrative (Autumn, 1980), pp. 55-81.

[5] Ibid.,139.

[6] Žižek, p. 136.

[7] Ibid, p. 119.

[8] Julia Kristeva, "From Filth to Defilement," Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press), pg. 252.

[9] Ibid., p. 120

[10] Slavoj Žižek, "No Sex Please! We Are Post-Humans," (Lacan.com, 2001), http://www.lacan.com/nosex.htm

[11] Levinas, Emmanuel. Being Singular Plural, Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Robert Richardson and Anne O'Byrne (Berkeley: Stanford University Press), p.74.

[12] Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as (Re)-Vision," College English, Vol. 34, No. 1, "Women, Writing and Teaching" (Oct., 1972), p. 23.