“If, as [Nicola] Masciandaro claims, ‘cinema’s witness’ is ‘somewhere between the pure loss of head (negatively being no one) and the playful transcendence of the capital (positively being neither oneself nor someone else),’ then this witness’s penumbral status becomes not only ontologically problematic, but morally problematic into the bargain.”
The Voyeurism of Heads
In Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, Ash is forced to decapitate his possessed girlfriend, Linda, with a spade. But even when headless the body continues to assault him, the detached head looking on and laughing at the absurd spectacle. To the severed head, the body’s continued service is a joke. It’s the darkest of screeching laughs, a laugh black with the futility of struggle, of desires, of escaping possession. Even when separated each remains in thrall to the other, the future at an end yet persisting, “unity-in-separation and separation-in-unity,”1 the unbroken circuit of watched and watching continuing in spite of a material breach. If, as Eugene Thacker suggests, the head that treats its body as waste does so at the price of itself becoming body, and that these hideous and formless anatomies are at their core little more than jokes, then in cases where the body’s continued service and utility is very much in evidence, we are forced to recognise a distinctly pessimistic strain of amusement, whereby reasons and desires are prolonged in spite of the patent absurdity of their vehicles’ predicaments, the proposed transcendence of the head made laughable by its reliance on the body, as evidenced in the tale of Saint Denis, who after being beheaded is said to have picked up his own head and carried it for six miles, preaching a sermon the whole way: even the joke of the head’s elevated status depends on the body to disseminate the punchline.
According to Nicola Masciandaro, “Cinematic experience is decapitation in a basic phenomenal sense of being a kind of headless seeing, a technologization of the decollative logic of re-presentation itself: seeing as head what is not present to one’s head.”2 If with this in mind we consider HR Giger’s gruesomely humorous “Self-portrait” (1962), in which we have a reversal of the usual head-watches-body relation (a relation found in numerous horror scenarios, from the king’s decapitation in Polanski’s Macbeth, in which the severed sovereign head witnesses his mocking body politic, to Father Karras’ Gemini-possessed mouth bragging how he has the heads he removes look down on their newly acephalic bodies in The Exorcist III), where the headless body makes a study of the helpless head, a camera acting as placeholder for its uncoupled eyes, then what we have is a perfect illustration of self-conscious cinematic headlessness: not merely the headless seeing as head that which is not available to one’s head, but a displacement of one’s head viewed as head and from head behind which there is nothing, thus a portraiture of human experience as displacement and void, a headless viewing as head and of head.
A variation of this extreme breed of remote self-viewing is played out during Keith Jennings’ decapitation by glass in The Omen, in which his severed head and his headless body are viewed simultaneously in and through the lens (the errant window) of his own termination. As Masciandaro explains it, “[t]he glass sheet that severs the head doubles as mirror in which the victim glimpses his own severed head. The shattering of the window corresponds to decapitation as an irreparable breaking of that through which world is seen — a breaking that the living head of the witness cannot bear seeing, or can see only in blinding itself towards it.”3 Here, unlike the configuration depicted in the Giger drawing, it is the discrowned body to which the cinematic perspective provides access, and the remote (and suspended) head that is offered up to itself in a perverse instance of reflection. This state of momentary self-voyeurism allows the camera to conjointly see itself and the contrivance it perpetrates, to see the subverted collusion of perspectival location and head rendered as it is: less a loop, more a Möbius strip. And through decapitation the non-orientable becomes orientable, the process by which the inside becomes outside no longer one of perpetual movement but rupture. In an instant the world rushes inside the head and destroys the alterity that had formerly reigned there.
Blanchot states that “[t]o experience everydayness is to be tested by the radical nihilism that is as if its essence, and by which, in the void that animates it, it does not cease to hold the principle of its own critique.”4 There is the need, then, to compare two varieties of headlessness: that subsumed and blind 5 and that subsumed and sighted. And it is in the latter that perversion becomes a means of divorcing the head from the reproductive machine of the body, a way of viewing the invisible sewn up inside the structures of the seen, the self out there reflected back at you in a sickening yet exquisite objectivity:
I remember that one day, when we were in a car tooling along at top speed, we crashed into a cyclist, an apparently very young and very pretty girl. Her head was almost totally ripped off by the wheels. For a long time, we were parked a few yards beyond without getting out, fully absorbed in the sight of the corpse. The horror and despair at so much bloody flesh, nauseating in part, and in part very beautiful, was fairly equivalent to our usual impression upon seeing one another.6
Of course, vision is already a process of cutting and splicing, of hacking the world into the stuff of sight, the POV a weapon formed from the hacked materials of the physical world: the outside made inside which is also an attempt to make the inside outside, to somehow conquer the Möbius strip — and to conquer by piercing. This visual blade-work perhaps comes through most strongly in the world of cinema via the film Peeping Tom: a haunting analysis of the inherent voyeurism of cinematic process that draws on both psychological naturalism and non-naturalistic embellishments of style to forge a highly-distinctive uber-saturated Technicolor tinged with an almost tangible otherworldliness; its colour is so lurid and intense that it establishes a reality all of its own, a concentrated reality, a reality soaked in its medium of disclosure, soaked in its own status as representation, in the scopophilic obsessions of its central character, Mark Lewis, focus puller, pornographer and maverick scientist, his experiments a variation not only on those of his father, himself a scientist, but also of Baron Frankenstein, whose obsessive sickness he appears to share, a sickness born not from a wish to do evil — evil for its own sake — but from the dual motivations of professional pride and psychological trauma. Mark’s brand of seeing involves killing women with a spike concealed in his camera tripod, recording their horror-struck faces as they watch their facial features distort with terror in a mirror strategically fixed to the side of the camera. These repeated attempts to draw fear out into the world, to manifest the inside outside, to have the face wear the panic of the void behind it, all end in failure — as they must — so that, ultimately, the only thing to be exposed by his ritual puncturing and distorting is the emptiness of looking, the vacant perspective vacating its objects.
When asked to comment on what Peeping Tom meant to Michael Powell, Leo Marks (writer of the original story and screenplay) claimed it “was the ultimate exercise in his craft — of photographing the impossible. For him, to be asked to photograph the impossible as part of a story was the climax of a career.” For while Peeping Tom is unquestionably a film about looking, it is first and foremost a film about the inherent limitations of looking, that the things most worth looking at and for are those things that are not available to sight, things that can never be captured without first becoming something else. It is about looking as a form of distortion, art as distortion, distortion as a way of seeing and of violating what is seen. We find this theme represented on every level, even through to small characterological details, such as when Mark mirrors the movements of other characters — a condition known as Echopraxia, a symptom of schizophrenia, a condition itself grounded in abnormal perceptions of reality. The camera and the eye, like Mark, mimic what they see in order to see. This impossibility of satisfying a desired access to the outside world, this correlationism (also the underlying theme of later films, such as Blow Up and The Conversation), as Kant showed when distinguishing inner sense from apperception, follows us back inside our heads, having the outside mirror the inside, and having both exist only negatively, as the transcendental nothings behind awareness, the inescapable decollation that occurs whenever looking sees itself.
If, as Masciandaro claims, “cinema’s witness” is “somewhere between the pure loss of head (negatively being no one) and the playful transcendence of the capital (positively being neither oneself nor someone else),”7 then this witness’s penumbral status becomes not only ontologically problematic, but morally problematic into the bargain. In 1993, BBFC director James Ferman re-edited the home invasion scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, bringing forward the moment when the viewer can escape his own implication, and so safely observe Henry and Otis watching themselves rape and murder, as opposed to the previous (notional) occupation of the seat alongside them. It seems that this kind of viewer implication is still very much cause for concern when it comes to modern censorship. (One of the most explicit examples of this technique in recent years can be found in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, in which one of the boyish killers stops, rewinds and records over a previous scene, a scene that had pandered blatantly to the viewer’s violent and empathetic desires.) That heads once detached from the body should thereby succumb to immorality, be suddenly powerless to control certain desires of the flesh and their attendant moral improprieties, is an anomaly of sorts: we’d tend to expect better of heads, and especially of heads without the undercarriage of bodies to drag them down. But there is a sense in which these iniquitous heads still conform to the logic of decapitation as we have so far laid it down, for what is cephalic purity if not seeing minus its constraints, the image without the head, allure without thought; and so when, in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, the formerly decorous Dr Hill lifts up his own severed head to go down on the girl of his dreams, his head is pure lusting, all his earlier reservations and moral constraints made absent. Like Mike the miracle chicken, Hill’s lascivious head outstays its welcome, defying in the same way as the headless chicken “the usual flickering nature of acephalism […] render[ing] the weird and uncanny stable, where it should not be”8 — the head itself becoming headless once cut from the body, and once headless itself becoming body.
In a particularly telling scene from the slasher-franchise-vehicle Friday the 13th, Mrs Vorhees (a mother consumed by the death of her son, Jason, and bent on exacting revenge on those she considers culpable) is decapitated by the film’s heroine, Alice, who having discovered Mrs Vorhees to be the perpetrator of a string of murders, removes her head with a single swipe of a machete. Once the head is gone, her hands arrive on the scene feeling for it, clasping and unclasping at the newly vacated space, performing some ponderous hand-mime of disbelief. In the absence of the head, the hands serve as replacement, gesticulating the body’s loss, but without their source of pain the hands are directionless. Although they occupy the foreground and receive their quota of close-ups, their floundering lack of reason means this attention is indefatigably riddled with a macabre bathos. Heads may often stand in for missing bodies — becoming placeholders for the rest, like the painted papier-mâché heads that served as temporary substitutes for absconding prisoners in Escape from Alcatraz — but not bodies for heads, as a body’s independent existence is not something established in the normal course of events, for “the body which is not out there among things, but in my own province, on this side of all things seen”9 and headless is a nothing masquerading as a something, an aberration of sight. In History of Madness, Foucault recounts a peculiar incident recorded by Trallion, who
wrote of how a physician cured a melancholic who imagined that he no longer had a head, but a sort of void in its place. The doctor entered into the delirium with the patient, and agreed to the patient’s demand that he stop up the hole by placing a large lead ball on his head. Soon the discomfort that quickly resulted from the painful weight was enough to convince the patient that he did indeed have a head.10
As with Mrs Vorhees, if the head is not a source of pain it is nothing at all, a void — an emptied space that the headless body cannot fill. The head though is always hanging by a thread: for while being the universal symbol of identity, of self, and (in the human case) of moral sensibility and rational control, it is nevertheless precariously positioned, a dangling occupation and a dizziness. But, as Cioran points out, “[h]appily, the void is there to stand in for the self when it vanishes, it stands in for everything, it answers our expectations, it assures us of our non-reality. The void is the abyss without vertigo.”11 Not the panic of hands, then, feeling for their head, but instead, maybe, a disbelieving peace at having been freed.
Despite the distinct impotence of headless bodies, individual body parts, once detached, can in fact establish themselves quite convincingly as themselves headed, as independents. In a story by Clive Barker, “The Body Politic,” (as discussed by Thacker) we are confronted with the adaptive fluctuations inherent in our concept of the human body and so too of the body politic itself, “its uncanny ability to dismember itself, break apart, and become so many scattered limbs and organs.”12 Barker’s tale tells of a pair of militant hands that long to be free of the jurisdiction of the head, and so stage a bloody coup whereby they decapitate the head before fleeing the body altogether. This is a case of hands becoming head: removing the established head and then removing themselves and going it alone — hands battling their head for supremacy — something we see played out in Evil Dead II, where Ash is forced to fight his own hand to the death.
Thacker discusses various versions of the body politic (that large person made up of little ones, that Hobbesian “artificial man”) and concludes that beheading is not merely “the removal of the head’s function in relation to the body […] the negation of thought, reason, and consciousness itself, [but also] the negation of a king, ruler or sovereign, the removal of the center from any structure or organization.”13 A removal that’s mirrored in philosophy and the sciences, whereby the head’s centralised power is dispersed, and we learn that it “is tools all the way down,”14 or as Keller puts it, “the acephalous body is a prima material, all heads and no heads”15
From the spiderlike scurrying of the human-hand-made-head we arrive at a point where once beheaded “the human body [itself] becomes a spider”16 : the seat of anthropomorphism removed to reveal something intrinsically misplaced, something depleted and fundamentally unhuman, an arachnid, a crawling formlessness dispossessed of its identity and thereby becoming somehow more than that identity had formerly allowed. But in place of the isolated spider, we might instead expect something like a spiderless web, with nothing at its centre to supplement the web’s accumulative prowess, nothing to add purpose to mere function. The spider comes with its web (just as man comes with his clothes and his technology, and moles with their burrows, etc.), the unit providing an expansive stimulus/response circuit. The removal of the head, then, is the removal of a lie, the stripping away of an outmoded mythology that had allowed the head to reign unquestioned as the body’s overseer and would-be subjugator. In the final stage of Norris’s transformation in John Carpenter’s The Thing, when his detached head sprouts six spider legs, thereby assuming some deformed arachnidan shape, we move beyond the spiderlike hand as head, and the decapitated body’s cored and unhuman survival, to a condition of pure illogic, in which the head’s former claim to transcendence is suddenly contradicted from within: an antinomy of form, an all too human unhumaness, a debasement of the divine in man made possible through the very source of that proposed divinity.
Behind the social head the human is headless: an impredicative zero (the Cartesian ego as processed by Kant) hiding inside an amalgam of societal roles. A condition and conditioning mirrored by Doug Quaid’s quest for true identity in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, and most overtly in one telling scene in which he conceals his squirreling unowned identity (his headless head and bodiless body) inside a full-body prosthesis in order to escape discovery: the made up nothing inside the something that has mistakenly been taken and takes itself as real. Although our making horror of such a revelation (our framing of the inescapable illusion in the defensive tools of fear and madness) is quite possibly a mistake. For, as Masciandaro explains, “[t]hat life or being-in-universe is a cinematic illusion is not at all horrible. Quite the opposite. What is horrible is that the cosmic illusion goes unrecognised as such, that it is mistaken in specific, arbitrary, and selfish ways for being real and thus becomes an object of diurnal unending general horror (worry).”17 Thacker says of the alien life force in The Thing that it is really a “no-thing,” a self-mockery of form, a non-thing presented to us only as an undoing of bodies (as Quaid’s voiding self-doubt, on verge of discovery, undoes the body of his female prosthesis). This nothing inside the something makes easy comparisons with the self inside the human body — the black hole around which the body skirts and into which it is sometimes sucked. Unmasking of this kind, wherein physical unmaking becomes a means of identification, and when such unmasking is suffered in ignorance of the illusion at work, reflects a common behavioural trait among serial killers: dissecting small animals to “see how they work,” posing, eviscerating and dismembering human flesh as a means of formulating the person-type that does such things, making of the felt nothing of the self a seat of operations that makes work of the perceived shared emptiness of other bodies — an endless repetition of that “one window […] wide open and frameless, with nobody looking out of it.”18
If, as Evan Calder Williams proposes, the problem faced by Frankenstein’s aggregate human monster is one of economics: “how to make wholes from parts, not how to create from scratch, seed, or homunculus” inevitably falling prey to the miseconomy or waste of recapitation with “one head too few, one body too many”19 , then the solution to this creative subtraction is a cessation of cutting, an end to rampant consumption and fleeting possession — a turn instead to shedding and acknowledged absence. For as Williams points out, “once you cut, all wholes are tattooed with dotted lines,” the pieces made without need for further incisions, revealing the inherent morphology of anatomy, where form “mocks itself”20 — the formlessness inherent in all form: the move beyond surgery, beyond cutting, into scar-less CGI, biochemistry and pixels, into philosophical thought experiments in which conclusions can be reached by play-acting alone. But that play-acting can itself become infected with this scourge of economics fallen prey to desperation. As in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, in which Caden, the film’s central character, constructs a sprawling and labyrinthine series of repetitions centred around his own life and fuelled by a misguided notion of possibly accessing the core of an identity that he cannot accept as
Caden recreates his life and then recreates the recreated life and so on until he justifies his own impotence. This potentially infinite regression of perspectives on a single life — and the perspectives on those perspectives, &tc. — is a manifestation of empty frustration, a violation of the control Caden originally seeks, a destruction dressed up as creation. […] Caden is the incarnation of a stammer, a state of indecision; he embodies his own uncertainty, second-guessing himself into a tic.21).]
As Williams puts it, “If you can’t make sense, you can at least make more.”22 And this, which could in fact be the serial killer’s self-prescribed dictum of sense-making through repetition, is the same for all those who look outside for objects of self representation, objects to represent what is inside and objectless. Like the Baron, Caden wishes to “unhouse the intellect”23 by finding new and repeatable receptacles for it: “Obsessed, bewildered / By the shipwreck/ Of the singular / We have chosen the meaning / Of being numerous.”24
Heads and Boxes
In the closing scene of Barton Fink, the titular character, a playwright/scriptwriter, sits down on the sand and looks out to sea, the beach a replica of the one stuck to his squalid hotel room wall in the form of a poster. A woman, also indistinguishable from the woman in his idealised poster, approaches him, and we get the following exchange:
What’s in the box?
I don’t know.
Isn’t it yours?
I don’t know.
Fink suspects that the box conceals a head, and yet doesn’t know whether or not the head is his. He was given the box earlier in the film by Charlie Meadows (insurance salesman)/Karl Mundt (serial killer and madman), and while his indecision can be read as an acknowledgement of Charlie’s/Karl’s having visited Fink’s family in Manhattan, less specifically he faces the following, rather more interesting, quandary: his not knowing whether the box is his because he doesn’t know whether what’s in it is his, and his not knowing whether what’s in it is his because he doesn’t know if the box is his. After all the angst-ridden bravado of his so-called “life of the mind,” all he’s left with is the container it comes in. Having just been informed by the head of Capitol Pictures (who he is under contract to) that nothing he writes will ever be produced, his scripts like the insides of the box will also remain unseen, both seemingly his and yet not. And if, as Masciandaro points out, the script is indeed the unseen, and that the “relation between the two (beheading and script) is immediately obvious as a pure intersection of what is removed: the identity of head and script as something whose removal is at the centre of the cinematic event,”25 then the unseen head lost in the mask of a box can be seen as the hidden contrivance of cinema and of life itself. As Samuel Beckett’s double-boxed Malone puts it:
You may say it is all in my head, and indeed sometimes it seems to me I am in a head and that these eight, no, six planes that enclose me are of solid bone. But thence to conclude the head is mine, no, never.26
The box like the head always remains unowned, for the concept of the head as a box within a box (be it Fink’s cardboard version or Malone’s room) generalises occupation into a nothing: the contained itself contained, so that to equate this with ownership would be to equate ownership with confinement, and confinement with singularity where, in truth, to box is to at once conceal and typify, to make a sample of something, a specimen or example; and examples — or “wheels of judgement” for those requiring assistance, those lacking the wit to get there by themselves — are things that
can also reverse, become unbalanced, turn natural movement into parergonal movement, deflect the energy of the ergon, introduce chance and the abyss into the necessity of Mutterwitz: not a contrary order, but an aleatory separation which can with a single blow cause us to lose our heads, a Russian roulette if we introduce pleasure without enjoyment, the death instinct, and the work of mourning into the experience of the beautiful.27
The need for the box takes us away from what is inside it, leaving us with nothing but a frame that illustrates the unseen. And so Fink himself is boxed, his beach idyll soured by an indistinct sensation of loss, a loss occasioned by news of the curtailment of any future cinematic exposure, his scripts made ghosts as of men that have not yet been born, abyssal contrivances of an inside they will not escape. But this loss is also recompense, for the scripts — no longer destined to be given faces and thereby defaced, removed and made ghosts of by cinema (in the mouths of actors) — are in virtue of this ban returned to him to exist as themselves, albeit in the guise of an empty container obscured by further containment.
The psychological insecurities found in conspiracy horror-thriller Paranoia: 1.0 serve to further illustrate the inherent dangers involved with the prima facie emptiness of boxes. For here the parcels, delivered on a regular basis to the inhabitants of a rundown apartment block, though seemingly empty, are in actuality teeming with Nanomites, which once having infiltrated the brain of the recipient, go on to cause addictions to certain grocery items. The point to note here is that a box, like a head, is no longer empty if it contains desires — even if those desires cannot be located/rationalised. Life itself is presented as an addiction, and like all addictions, although the addictive substance becomes progressively less desirable (pleasurable), it nevertheless becomes increasingly desired. Seeking escape from his newfound cravings, Simon J., a reclusive computer programmer, falls under the influence of vagrant and former scientist Howard, who happens to be living in the basement. Howard offers him a way out: “And when you wake up everything is going to be different. […] Time that we woke up. Time we fought back. It’s just the beginning.” From the scenes that follow we are led to believe that it is Simon J., though missing the top of his head and a good deal of its contents, who wakes up in Alex, an animatronic yet supposedly sentient head designed and built by another mysterious neighbour. We are taken from the excavated head of Simon J. to the awakening hysteria of an artificial head, the rubberised mouth locked in a scream, the entire non-organic head in spasm on its metal neck, then on to Simon J.’s smiling face, now emptied of consciousness, of desire. Hallucinating and fearing for his sanity from early on in the film, Simon J. acts out the following Foucaultian dictum: “The head that will become a skull is already empty. Madness is the deja-la of death.”28
When Simon J. wakes up, he either wakes to the nightmare of desiring heads lacking all facility to fulfil those desires, wakes to the deadening misery of those desires — and of conscious life itself, for all the time you can work on sating your desires they become who you are — no longer able to sleep inside the processes of that erasure, or else his waking up is the coming to of the void, the unnatural extension of man’s pauses for breath:
In so much fever, only our pauses make any sense, the moments in which we halt to catch our breath: the experience of the void — which is tantamount to the sum of these pauses, these intervals — implies the temporary suppression of desire, for it is desire that plunges us into non-knowing, misleads us, and goads us to project being into everything round about. The void enables us to lay waste the idea of being without itself falling into the rubble — it thus survives an onslaught which would spell the destruction of any other idea. Actually, it is not an idea at all but the agent which helps us abolish ideas. Every idea represents one more chain: the mind, if it means to achieve withdrawal, must disencumber itself of them, and of beliefs as well. In this we shall succeed only by lifting ourselves above the operations of thought, for so long as thought functions and rages, it camouflages the depths of the void, which come into view directly the fever of mind, of desire, abates.29
Having already been reduced to desire, Simon J.’s waking is one of two possible hells: either the void that wakes, or the desire that wakes to the void, the former a plummet without end into but never through the raw and empty sickness of awareness, the latter a circle so fevered it could instil envy for Tantalus.
The head as secreting place for the as yet undisclosed is demonstrated to full effect in Ridley Scott’s Alien, with the decapitation of Ash. Revealed as an android, Ash’s head is reanimated in order that it might reveal vital secrets about the crew’s (doomed) mission, a task that it dutifully performs. The head is a perfect reservoir for secrets, that is, until severed or opened when they are liable to tumble out. And what is the head’s own secret? What is that hidden truth kept in there, kept from its most prestigious resident: the person? The answer that keeps returning, in tiny breaths of recognition, is that this secret, obliquely present only in flashes, is none other than a person’s own non-existence. The secret a non-secret(ed) nothing, its disclosure a revelation of nothingness, a thoroughgoing series of materialist lumps all empty of us; the same disclosed nondisclosure described here by Zizek:
The illusion is irresistible. Behind every face there is a self. We see the signal of consciousness in a gleaming eye and imagine some ethereal space beneath the vault of the skull, lit by shifting patterns of feeling and thought, charged with intention. An essence. But what do we find in that space behind the face, when we look? The brute fact is there is nothing but material substance: flesh and blood and bone and brain. . . You look down into an open head, watching the brain pulsate, watching the surgeon tug and probe, and you understand with absolute conviction that there is nothing more to it. There’s no one there.30
As persons we arrive at the phenomenon of beheading already beheaded, missing from the heads we contemplate the loss of, where heads are just receptacles of yet more body-stuffs, and opened heads just plinths for the ornamental spectre of the person, the brain a crystal ball all cloud and no image.
This hard-line physicalist science presents us with what amounts to the opposite of a type of religious horror that Thacker calls “theopathy”: “the manifestation of that which exceeds the human, within the human.”31 For not only do we not find what exceeds the human, but we scarcely find the human there either. Humanity is a desperate reaching away from the body, extending the neck to hideous dimensions, a neck multiplying its possibility of being cut, and its persons all mouth and ears to hear itself: the third of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
The implications of this reaching away from the body is pursued in some detail in Daniel Dennett’s short and fantastical essay “Where Am I?,”32 in which the brain and the head are made to go their separate ways, thereby providing a set of circumstances in which the relation between indexical thoughts and their referents can be accurately identified. The scenario is this: Dennett has been asked by NASA to retrieve a warhead situated a mile beneath Oklahoma soil, the problem being, that the warhead emits a peculiar radioactivity that is detrimental only to brain tissue. Dennett accepts the challenge, and for safety they remove his brain whilst arranging to keep it fully functioning. They place a micro radio-transceiver on each of the nerve endings in the brain and transceivers to each of the nerve endings in his, now empty, skull. He is asked to think of it “as a mere stretching of the nerves.” On waking from this procedure he is taken to see his brain, now residing in a jar, covered in electrodes and immersed in bubbling fluid. Being a confirmed physicalist, Dennett is surprised to find his informed expectations — e.g., that his utterance of “Here I am” would still find reference with the brain — thwarted. Through no effort of will or intellect is Dennett able to convincingly latch “I” or “here” to his brain or its location. He is forced into the uncomfortably vague and distinctly tenuous conclusion that he resides not with his brain but with his point of view. The beheading enacted here is almost indistinguishable to that perpetrated by cinema, where our “I’s” and “here’s” are on loan to the camera and its framed amalgam of events.
A similar reaching away from the body can be found in Honoré de Balzac’s The Elixir of Life, which tells of the immortality of the head at the expense of the body, when the head of Don Juan receives all that is left of an immortalising balm, his body going without: “They saw another thing, an unearthly spectacle—Don Juan’s face grown young and beautiful as Antinous, with its dark hair and brilliant eyes and red lips, a head that made horrible efforts, but could not move the dead, wasted body. […] Even as he spoke the living head tore itself away from the lifeless body.”33 Another instance of this mutation of reaching is evidenced in the folklore of the vampiric Penanggalan: a detached and murderous female head capable of flight that, with its stomach and entrails in tow, obsessively preys on new mothers and their infants. Tellingly, according to one adaptation of the tale, this abomination is the result of her having been disturbed while meditating: a fitting curse for a head devoted to transcending the body, and that its stomach should remain attached a mocking reminder of the absurdity of such unearthly states. But, crucially, what all these cases demonstrate is that life extended unnaturally through time is a severed head — a monstrous remainder of a variant cryonics, a collaborative suspension of human material and human ideal.
If heads are the raw materials of people that don’t exist, then brains are the pomace meat of their evacuation — their evaporated figment. The head, then, is a place of contrived light, a non-psychological material light, a false light, the brain a porridge wasteland, an electrically-charged slop, and their names adoptive, quaint monikers of bogus reference. Like Patrick Bateman’s otherwise nameless hooker, Christie, the game is up well before the game is up:
My apartment reeks of rotten fruit, though actually the smell is caused by what I scooped out of Christie’s head and poured into a Marco glass bowl that sits on a counter near the entranceway. The head itself lies covered with brain pulp, hollow and eyeless, in the corner of the living room beneath the piano and I plan to use it as a jack-o’-lantern on Halloween.34
Our delving into the depressing uniformity of man’s secrets eventually brings us back to the notion of the subsumed and sighted, according to which empty heads are seen as the mere afterthoughts of the bodies assimilated by them. This way of seeing is shackled to madness, and desires for correction nothing more than desires for a certain kind of deep blindness, a sealing up of cranial windows, a bespoke barricade of unseeing, the world made over with no more heads waking in the centre of the sun. As Guattari illustrates in the following clinical observation, the secrets we imagine held fast inside our heads are visible in their very non-mysteriousness to those able to see without being in thrall to that seeing, a seeing both headless and, once again, essentially voyeuristic:
In the practice of institutional psychotherapy, it is well known that the most zoned-out schizophrenic can suddenly dredge up the most incredible stories about your private life, things you would never have believed anyone knew, and then will proceed to articulate, in the crudest manner possible, truths you thought were secret. It’s no mystery. The schizophrenic has instant access to such insight, because he is directly flayed, so to speak, on the hooks that constitute the group in its subjective unity. He finds himself in a “clairvoyant” situation with respect to those individuals who, crystallized in their logic, in their syntax, in their own interests, are absolutely blind.35
At the beginning of Oldřich Lipský’s Happy End, a film quite literally shot in reverse, the main character, a butcher named Bedřich Frydrych, is decapitated, and it is that moment of cutting that marks his birth. Frydrych is born as a decapitated head, or as he describes it: “My birth for example. No mother, no father. … You were kicking and screaming, but I didn’t have any legs. I’ve got only head.” His head rolls back up from the basket onto the guillotine and fixes to the neck and he takes his first breath, and so as if to echo Beckett’s speaker in A Piece of Monologue, “Birth was the death of him.” The film reminds us that the origins of persons reside not with the fetus, but with the head: persons born to heads and not to squalling babies, his inevitable descent into fetus bringing us the death of the person, thus becoming an act of disappearance (the same evacuation of personhood seen in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). At one point in the film, Frydrych assembles his “adulterous” wife (a precise inversion of her dismemberment and murder) in an act of bizarre Frankensteinian atonement, and claims to have “felt like God” in the process, atoning life’s intrinsic pain. In fact, all the milestones of Frydrych’s life are played out in reverse and yet similarly mirror a more standardized order (birth/death, prison/school, murder/parenting, death and the erosion of person/ shrinking, disappearing, sucked back into the womb and then nothingness), his retreat expunging suffering as it goes, thus indicating some sympathy with Adorno’s claim that “if thought is not decapitated it will flow into transcendence, down to the idea of a world that would not only abolish extant suffering but revoke the suffering that is irrevocably past”.36
Another example of a contrived gestation of the head can be found in John Erick Dowdle’s The Poughkeepsie Tapes, in which the killer decapitates a woman’s husband, before sedating her and performing a C-section, so that he can insert the husband’s head into the walls of her womb. After he’s sewn the head inside, he revives the wife so that she can bear witness to her cephalic pregnancy. The proposed birth of a severed head serves as a demotion (a demolition even) of humanity: the head (seat of reason, morality, self and the dream of transcendence) placed in the realm of non-persons, of fundamentally embodied heads, of Godless biology, is a corruption of all the head might do if unshackled from that body, and just as with heads in stomachs so too with heads in wombs: “The body attempting to expel the divine, and the body attempting to express the divine.”37 If Michelstaedter is right and “[t]he meaning of things, the taste of the world, is only for continuation’s sake. Being born is nothing but wanting to go on: men live in order to live, in order not to die.”38 then all cephalic pregnancies serve as insults to mankind’s pretensions of transcendence — the head that would float returned to a flesh box and piped in to nothing more numinous than the crude realities of corporeal sustenance.
Yet another kind of decapitated birth can be found in Dario Argento’s Trauma, in which Adriana Petrescu, mother to a son decapitated at birth, (the result of medical incompetence caused in part by a power cut brought on by a thunderstorm) seeks revenge by decapitating the hospital staff with a garrotting device (somewhat jovially named a “noose-o-matic”). But this homicidal birth is not the only trauma heaped upon her that day, for she is forced by the attending doctor and nurse to undergo ECT in an attempt to eradicate all memory of what has happened. This fails to have the desired effect, and the mother’s life, eaten up with grief and revengefulness, becomes a platform for the continual replication of her son’s bungled birth, her life a thing devoted to birthing new heads. Here we find Williams’s observations regarding the intrinsic miseconomy of decapitation once again at the fore, as the restorative equations repeatedly fail to eradicate a troubling residue, until finally the mother’s own head falls victim to her murder tool: The first instance of this failure is enacted when the lack of electricity (the ostensible cause of her son’s death) is countered with a concentrated charge of electricity (ECT) in an attempt to right this former deficit, to erase it; and secondly with the mother seeking compensation for her son’s missing head with the heads of those she deems responsible.
In the opening story of The Thousand and One Nights, we are told of a king who becomes wed to a virgin every night only to decapitate her the next morning, and of the narrative prowess of one such virgin, Shahrazad, whose tales (each night left incomplete) manage to divert the king’s attention long enough for her to give birth to their son. This frame story exemplifies what various narrative theories of the self insist is the truth about who we are, selves being just conglomerates of all the many stories we tell about ourselves. Stories on this account are just a way for us to keep our heads.
The congruity of birth and head, though often an uneasy combination, is illustrative of many of our conflictions when it comes to exploring the discordant relations that exist between heads and the bodies to which they are attached. But what they all amount to, in essence, is one overarching set of circumstances where both are found encumbered by the promise of newness and of possibilities that, barring an episiotomy — a cutting into (a reshaping of) the world in order to make the head (and its attendant headless stories) a better fit — are rarely if ever delivered or even deliverable.
Floating Heads: Ethics and the Erasure of Bodies
If we compare two cinematic instances of floating heads, one from La Jette and the other from The Color of Pomegranates, the head’s two principle means of blacking out the body, and so removing itself from somatic contamination, become that much clearer. In the La Jette case, a tranquil lake scene slowly gives way to the remembered woman — her face, her head, first floating on the lake then floating in shadow, her upper body blacked out with a sweater. In The Color of Pomegranates, a poet’s head appears part of the monastery wall behind him, his head at once floating and not floating, appearing almost built into the fabric of the wall’s distressed plaster, his upper body once again cancelled out in black. In both instances the eyes look straight back at you, asking something of your own looking, but each looks out from a different place: the woman from the world of thought, the man from the world of objects. Each one floats in its own longing, the woman for materiality, the man for immateriality and the space of thought.
Masciandaro writes that the “severed head is not a true head, but a material remnant and image of one, revealing that the head itself was never severed and/or that it only ever was an image or idea of itself. As this logic corresponds to the traditional formulation of good and evil (evil as privation of good that never substantially touches it), so beheading spectacularly proposes, in the mirror between head and its severing, a third thing beyond-within these terms.”39 Jean Fautrier’s sculpture “Head of a Hostage” is just such a “material remnant,” a “third thing,” a thing synthesised by good and evil, the possibility of the former and the actuality of the latter. The surface of the lead looks decayed, mutilated — tortured even. It’s a head eaten away at by its own suffering, the human face visible only in profile, human only when not looking back at you; the opposite of what you’d expect. (Think of the precaution of distancing yourself from your victim and so from your actions, their head facing away, head in a bag, faceless, anonymous, less than human). Essentially, Fautrier’s almost anti-sculpted sculpture is a probe-head, a move beyond face: “A probe-head is then that which explores the terrain beyond the face, the terrain from which the face is nothing more than an extraction or crystallisation. Probe-heads are in this sense a move into chaos.”40 And so when constructing probe-heads we “build probe-heads against faciality. In this practice both figuration and abstraction will be used (we will release the abstract from within the figurative). We offer access to the imperceptible from which the perceptible emerges and merges. We offer access to the unthought within thought, the nonsense within sense. And on the other side of the white wall? New territories, new polyvocalities.”41
Thacker tells us that “beheading is always abstract”42 and, in a telling extension of this thought, the same can be said of morality. The head is unsullied by the life of the body, the digestion, the shitting, the pissing, the farting, just as morality remains unsullied by the embarrassing flab of its often fumbled application, so that although beheading is abstract, the body beheaded is alien to abstraction: a mangled network of drives and labels, broken apart and dismembered by the gnashing teeth of its absentee, the dead ear of its distant rhetoric. Without a head the human is no longer a moral player; headless it becomes a mere sack of self-regulating organs.43 Its DNA and otherwise human form become an irrelevance. Invoking the credo of vegetarians, who refrain from eating anything with a face,44 the headless human becomes a consumable product, an ethical nothing:
Nowadays, in Phoenix, Arizona (the predestined site for Resurrection), only the heads are frozen, because it’s from the cells of the brain—regarded as the nucleus of individual being—that researchers hope to reconstitute the deceased in their bodily wholeness. (One can’t help but wonder why they don’t, in that case, simply preserve a single cell or a DNA molecule.)
To complement these heads without bodies: On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, headless frogs and mice are being cloned in private laboratories, in preparation for the cloning of headless human bodies that will serve as reservoirs for organ donation. Why bodies without heads? As the head is considered the site of consciousness, it is thought that bodies with heads would pose ethical and psychological problems. Better simply to manufacture acephalic creatures whose organs could be freely harvested, because such creatures would not compete with—or invoke too closely—the original human beings.45
It would be difficult to imagine these witless human cattle causing an affront to our moral sensibilities,46 affronts explored recently in films like Never Let Me Go and The Island, in which humans bred so that their organs may be harvested remain indistinguishable from those organs’ recipients. Better to make benign monsters out of the beings we intend to cannibalize. Stephen King writes: “We love and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings … and let me further suggest that it is not the physical or mental aberration in itself which horrifies us, but rather the lack of order which these situations seem to imply.”47 On this account, the monstrousness of the harvest-ready-human strains our need for order in all the right ways: consecrating the human head and its attendant persons as the bedrock of humanity, of human worth, while at the same time offending us with its embodiment of (otherwise) directionless existence. In his book, The Philosophy of Horror, Noël Carroll argues, in a similar vein to King, that impurity is the defining mark of monsters,48 and there can be few things more worthy of the label than a human bred (benignly) for slaughter. The headless human is the human made spongy, undifferentiated mass of organs and flesh, occupying a realm akin to what Nick Land refers to as “Sponge Space”:
the positive impossibility of resolvable boundaries, and thus of discrete entities, decidable actions, unproblematic vectors, logical identities, and adequate representations. […] Distances are proliferated amongst the oceanic detritus of a receding shore-line, with the prospect of an ideal univocity diffused irreparably into the recurrent detail of base matter. […] Sponge-space […] does not tend to simplicity, ideality, or purity in either direction, which never becomes cephalic, capped, teleological; a headless axis of recession.49
But when the burden of the head becomes too great, might we not be tempted to join them in their sponge wasteland? If we ever come to accept the hopelessness of human existence, finding life bearable only outside of thought, we might at the same time find that headlessness becomes us: after all, eventually,50 in order to survive, Baron Frankenstein must himself become the monster. And if we must fly from the structures we’ve made, maybe that flight will have to be blind, and maybe Adorno’s reworking of Hegel details the way:
Had Hegel’s philosophy of history embraced this age, Hitler’s robot-bombs would have found their place beside the early death of Alexander and similar images, as one of the selected empirical facts by which the state of the world-spirit manifests itself directly in symbols. Like Fascism itself, the robots career without a subject. Like it they combine utmost technical perfection with total blindness. And like it they arouse mortal terror and are wholly futile. “I have seen the world spirit,” not on horseback, but on wings and without a head, and that refutes, at the same stroke, Hegel’s philosophy of history.51
Left to itself the body will fly untouched by horror and futility, and when the engine runs its course nobody will witness the fall or notice the rapid reconfiguration of human materials. Such mutations would be “in the world like water in water”52 and so in the world unhumanly.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s exhibition “Floating Columns/In the Bardo,” as well as exploring ideas in queer theory (especially the issue of fat as an issue within that field), also mines other areas particularly pertinent to the crossovers that exist between masks and the beheaded, her headless figures striking viewers as “cautionary, coming for us like nightmarish, wrathful zombies or parachuting down into the scene of discursive combat.”53 But beyond this even, there is the notion of the masked-body, the body masked and hidden by clothing, clothing made and worn by the artist, the artist’s own mask becoming the skin of her artworks. And so we cannot help but see the artist represented here as somehow headless, with the fattening body of work multiplying at the expense of the head, bodies fat yet floating, cerebral yet headless, paradoxical and suspended forms at home in sponge-space.
Eating Heads: Masks
Eating pushes the head down into the body. The body consumes the eating head, making a mask of its chewing. But the head can also be a consumer of masks, both consumed and consumer, as suggested in the following line from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain: “we have created a line of masks that have the texture, warmth and smell of living human beings. A customer can have any face she wants. Every face is unique and lasts a lifetime. She can wear her artificial face to the grave.” For what’s offered here would make the head a willing slideshow of all the different ways in which it offers itself up to be eaten. But this instance of head-becoming-mask needs to be distinguished from the more ubiquitous mask-becoming-head, or as Thacker puts it, “a head-mask, in which all heads are masks (even death masks).”54 For what it is about The Holy Mountain example that allows us to see masks as utterly consuming the heads they adorn is the uniqueness of the proposed faces, where the head readily assimilates the mask, as opposed to the mask assimilating the head. One way to get a better grasp of the difference between these two collisions of masks and heads is via a comparison between two formats of the moving image — with mask-becoming-head as cinema, and head-becoming-mask as TV — a relation detailed by Baudrillard:
By contrast with the cinema, which is still blessed (but less and less so because more and more contaminated by TV) with an intense imaginary — because the cinema is an image. That is to say not only a screen and a visual form, but a myth, something that still retains something of the double, of the phantasm, of the mirror, of the dream, etc. Nothing of any of this in the “TV” image, which suggests nothing, which mesmerizes, which itself is nothing but a screen, not even that: a miniaturized terminal that, in fact, is immediately located in your head — you are the screen, and the TV watches you — it transistorizes all the neurons and passes through like a magnetic tape — a tape, not an image.55
The Chapman Brothers’ sculpture “DNA Zygotic” (to pick one from the many multiheaded forms in “Tragic Anatomies”) serves to inform us that what makes a head a mask (an instance of mask-becoming-head) is intimately connected to repetition, and its importance when determining the direction of that consumption. Uniqueness means the head eats the mask, but with replication the mask makes a meal of the head, chomping through the pretence of its individuality until the head forgets itself, becomes unable to see itself outside of its masked reflection, and becomes troublesome (see Georges Méliès’ Un homme de têtes). As Deleuze puts it:
The mask, the costume, the covered is everywhere the truth of the uncovered. The mask is the true subject of repetition. Because repetition differs in kind from representation, the repeated cannot be represented: rather, it must always be signified, masked by what signifies it, itself masking what it signifies.
I do not repeat because I repress. I repress because I repeat, I forget because I repeat. I repress, because I can live certain things or certain experiences only in the mode of repetition. I am determined to repress whatever would prevent me from living them thus: in particular, the representation which mediates the lived by relating it to the form of a similar or identical object.56
These repetitive structures form devices in which to disappear, ways in which the mask beheads. Repetition poisons identity, forcing it to search for health not internally, but outside in other versions of itself. And this condition’s propensity to tip over into violence is well-documented:
The multiplication for the serial killer says little about an attention to other than an audience on the inside of the assailant’s head. The reproduction of the act is rarely about the generation of something innovative, it is not about excitement and newness; the reproduction here is replicative, mechanical, unrequited, it is a sterile copying procedure. Many convicted serial murderers speak of a continuously cyclical pattern that never seems to complete, an endless attempt to achieve an endlessly elusive goal.57
As far as the serial killer is attempting to remedy a sickness, repetition becomes their panacea of choice, for “[i]f repetition makes us ill, it also heals us; if it enchains and destroys us, it also frees us, testifying in both cases to its “demonic” power. All cure is a voyage to the bottom of repetition.”58
The head as mask takes a peculiar turn in the film Haute Tension, in which a man’s severed head, thrown from a van at the beginning of the film by a female serial killer, Marie, quite clearly represents her own mask of morality/sanity being disposed of, and so it follows that a head does not even need to be your own in order for you to utilise it as a mask, and to discard it as such. That it is the zombie’s head that we must destroy in order to vanquish its robotic appetites should then come as no surprise. For zombies (like the persons they replace) are already headless — and the destruction of the brain and zombie decapitations are procedures of literalising the already present head-death, heads back from the dead with one purpose: to eat. The head of the zombie wants to consume living versions (masks) of itself, the head a machine for eating, a slave to the process of consumption. According to Thacker there are two kinds of beheaded heads: the Expository head (the head that proclaims, that has a message, but not its own message — like a ventriloquist dummy) and the Hermetic/hidden head — the head hidden/consumed/distorted by the mask. The zombie comes under the latter, its lost head hidden by the mask of desire (masking what is nothing but blind, headless drive), the mask of a second life. This form of headless return is something of a trope in the horror genre. Zizek gives the following example:
The terminator is the embodiment of the drive, devoid of desire. In two other films, we encounter two versions of the same motive, one comical, the other pathetic-tragic. In George Romero’s omnibus Creepshow (screenplay by Stephen King), a family is gathered around the dinner table to celebrate the anniversary of their father’s death. Years earlier, his sister had killed him at his birthday party by hitting him on the head in response to his endlessly repeated demand, “Daddy wants his cake!” Suddenly, a strange noise is heard from the family cemetery behind the house; the dead father climbs from his grave, kills his murderous sister, cuts off the head of his wife, puts it on the tray, smears it with cream, decorates it with candles and mumbles contentedly: “Daddy got his cake!”—a demand that has persisted beyond the grave until satisfied.59
Kukuljevic’s commentary on business man Gerald Miller, whose automobile-assisted suicide was the conclusion of a sequence of events all designed to take revenge on his wife, brings up a parallel case in which “empirical death is a means to a second life, living on in the wager on the other’s misery.”60 Like a mantid he becomes more virile after he’s been decapitated. Kukuljevic goes on to discuss WG Sebald’s meticulous Halifax carpenter — a bereaved man who constructed and eventually succumbed to his own self-operated guillotine — who, it is claimed, is “a subject that does not want to live after death or before death, but in death,”61 a subject who “desires to occupy the void, the gap between life and death.” Once again the void dons the mask of humanity:
The corpse is a reflection becoming master of the life it reflects — absorbing it, identifying substantively with it by moving it from its use value and from its truth value to something incredible — something neutral which there is no getting used to. And if the cadaver is so similar, it is because it is, at a certain moment, similarity par excellence: altogether similarity, and also nothing more. It is the likeness, like to an absolute degree, overwhelming and marvellous. But what is it like? Nothing.62
All heads but one in the The Human Centipede‘s centipede are reduced to eating shit. Only one head eats from outside the collective body, its surplus becoming automatic food for those farther down the line, those with no other means of accessing food. And here we see, the mask of desire having been stripped off (made redundant) by the intimacy of the body’s many segments, how consuming is not essentially about choice, but about servitude — a brand of headlessness so often replaced by the mask of desire that we mistake it for freedom, the head “a fiction whose nature is visible only in its denaturing, a thing becoming itself only in negation.”63 After all, as Freud pointed out in his Interpretation of Dreams, “a headless man cannot run.” When the head no longer provides privileged access to an outside to which it is not integrally linked, it finds itself unable to achieve distraction from the processes that are there waiting to draw it back down into the body — to eat it.
In one overtly climactic dream sequence from David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Henry Spencer has his head displaced by his own mutant offspring, which then retracts to assume the original head’s position (indirectly ejaculated by his own ejaculate). Henry’s head, now lying in a pool of blood that has issued from the insides of a rock, falls through the floor and out of the sky, landing upside down. When it topples over a few seconds later, the cap of the skull remains stuck to the floor, peeling away to reveal Henry’s brain. A boy runs off with the head and takes it to nefarious pencil manufacturers, who then excavate some brain matter to tip (the “heads” of) their pencils. According to Alexander Galloway, “beheading is the advent of modernity,” and we see this here: a collapsing of function, an eradication of purpose, a flatness, a removal of the old that itself becomes a source for further erasures.64 The past rubbed out in an instant, edited out by the new.
The art of cinema is an exteriorisation of the head in order to implement a spread of destructive interiorisations throughout its viewing heads — like Mantegazza’s degenerate Chinese and their geese brides,65 cinema’s completion coincides with the decapitation of its captive audience. Bataille tells us that “[p]hilosophy’s last word is the domain of those who, wisely, lose their heads. [and that t]his vertiginous fall is not death, but satisfaction.”66 and as with philosophy so too with cinema, for these descents are not death proper, but those small deaths that spit their milky reduction into eyes still wholly entranced by the quest that is keeping the world together. For as Laruelle reminds us, “fractality is not only in the World, it is just as much in your head and your eye.”67 The world does not stop at the eye or the head on its way in, or the self at those points on the way out. In the final scene of Araki’s Kaboom, we witness the Messiah pressing a red button and blowing up the world, a world fashioned from a dream: the solipsist blowing up his own head, thus reinforcing the idea that “One can only be head if the face of the universe becomes one’s own. This is the capital task of cinema.”68 And a universe anthropomorphically shrunk so as to fit inside a skull is wont to explode when that containing humanisation is removed. What though is it that pulls this human pin? It is simply the sameness of world and man all the way down, and the exposure of the lie of uniqueness perpetrated by the frame (the microcosmic contrivance of a story) that had them looking different for a time. Cinema, again like Bataille, has appropriated “the wall of reality, [and on it] projected images of explosion and laceration.”69 But it is when the story of the wall falters and the projection turns to see itself that the real explosion occurs, and when the affected telepathy and telekinesis of cinema turns in on itself to explode its own mythology that completion is achieved. Like David Cronenberg’s titular Scanners, who when they are themselves subjected to scanning pay forfeit with their heads: ConSec’s chief Scanner falling prey to the aggressive scanning techniques of Darryl Revok. This ability to get inside the heads of others is a feat that both cinema and Scanners can perform. But once in there both find themselves in a state of volatility, vulnerable to the combustive influence of self-awareness from without — the paradox of headless occupation turned violent in an incendiary contradiction of unselved reflexivity, the unpersoned world crammed precariously inside the crumbling human story.
If cinema itself becomes combustible in the heads it infiltrates, by means of its completing the circular fuse of its own self-consciousness, then the cinematic montage, a sliced and explicitly condensed containment of life’s sprawl, when taken in isolation becomes the reverse explosion of this human life. As Pasolini explains:
It is thanks to death that our lives become expressive. Montage thus accomplishes for the material of film (constituted of fragments, the longest or the shortest, of as many long takes as there are subjectivities) what death accomplishes for life.70
And montage is akin to death because it is a satisfaction that cannot be felt, a wrapping up of what is no longer there, not the plummet but the false ascendance, not film turning in on and undermining itself but film looking out and constructing the heads it will reside in — film validating itself and securing a suitable residence.
* * *
This article was originally posted in Script Jr. NL, “Literature’s Last Frontier.” Reprinted with kind permission of the author and the site.
- Nicola Masciandaro, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 66. [↩]
- Ibid., 60. [↩]
- Ibid., 78. [↩]
- Maurice Blanchot, “Everyday Speech,” in Yale French Studies, No. 73, Everyday Life, (1987), 19. [↩]
- When “real headlessness is a losing of one’s head without severing, a cutting off of head in the spontaneous wakeful forgetfulness of ever having one” (Douglas Harding quoted by Masciandaro 68). [↩]
- Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (City Lights Books, 1987), 4. [↩]
- Nicola Masciandaro, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 76. [↩]
- Dominic Pettman, And They Were Two in One and One in Two, (2012), 8. [↩]
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty quoted in Nicola Masciandaro, And They Were Two in One and One in Two, (2012), 80. [↩]
- Michel Foucault, History of Madness, Trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa (Routledge, 2006), 333. [↩]
- E.M. Cioran and Frederick Brown, “Encounter with the Void,” The Hudson Review, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring, 1970), 41-2. [↩]
- Eugene Thacker, And They Were Two in One and One in Two, (2012) 11. [↩]
- Ibid., 15. [↩]
- Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence (Oxford University Press, 2003), 192. [↩]
- Ed Keller, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 95. [↩]
- Eugene Thacker, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 14. [↩]
- Nicola Masciandaro, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 72. [↩]
- Douglas Harding in Nicola Masciandaro, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 68. [↩]
- Evan Calder Williams, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 48-9. [↩]
- Eugene Thacker, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 18. [↩]
- Gary J. Shipley, “The Strangeness of Realism vs. the Realism of the Strange (SCRIPTjr.nl, 14 March 2013. http://scriptjr.nl/dev/articles/themes-in-synecdoche-new-york [24 March 2013 [↩]
- Evan Calder Williams, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 50. [↩]
- Ibid., 52. [↩]
- George Oppen, Of Being Numerous (New Directions, 1968), 13. [↩]
- Nicola Masciandaro, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 73. [↩]
- Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies, in The Beckett Trilogy (Calder Publications, 1994), 222. [↩]
- Jacques Derrida, “The Parergon,” October, Vol. 9 (Summer, 1979), 38. [↩]
- Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation (Routledge, 2001), 16. [↩]
- E. M. Cioran and Frederick Brown, “Encounter with the Void,” The Hudson Review,Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring, 1970), 38. [↩]
- Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View (MIT Press, 2006), 163. [↩]
- Eugene Thacker, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 23. [↩]
- From Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology by Daniel Dennett, Bradford Books 1978. [↩]
- Honoré de Balzac, The Elixir of Life (Kessinger Publishing, 2004), 23. [↩]
- Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (Picador, 1991), 300-301. [↩]
- Felix Guattari, in Gille Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974(Semiotext(e), 2004), 241. [↩]
- Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (Routledge, 1990), 403. [↩]
- Eugene Thacker, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 22. [↩]
- Carlo Michelstaedter, Persuasion and Rhetoric (Yale University Press, 2004), 38-9. [↩]
- Nicola Masciandaro, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 79. [↩]
- Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought beyond Representation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 60-1. [↩]
- Ibid., 156. [↩]
- Eugene Thacker, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 25. [↩]
- Whereas the head, without its body in attendance becomes automatic placeholder for the person, even for the person as a sexual entity: from Baudelaire’s necrophilic martyr, to Krafft-Ebbing’s clinical reports: “He unearthed the cadaver and profaned it in his usual manner. This happened from now on very frequently. The head of one woman which he took home with him, he covered with kisses and called it his bride.” (Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, 104) “He never dreamed about the whole form of a woman, only of heads with braids of hair” (Ibid., 244). [↩]
- “That which is situated highest in space is also in its quality the highest part of man, that which is closest to him, that which one can no longer separate from him—and this is his head. If I see a man’s head, it is the man himself who I see; but if I only see his torso, I see no more than his torso.” Ludwig Feuerbach, Kleine philosophische Schriften (Leipzig 1950), 191. [↩]
- Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion (Columbia University Press, 2000), 3-4. [↩]
- “In their meditative exercises, the Tibetans manage to transform life in such a way that they perceive their ego’s existence to be situated not in their heads but in a hand, torso, or any other part of their body. If it were possible to live not a hand or a foot anymore, but to live the useless hair, nothing, it seems, would hold this life back to the level of the ground, it would only be a flow of lights lost in a black space, it would only be the irreversible self-loss of a river.” The Place of Violence — Bataille 89. Such relocations of identity would, it seems, be even less plausible on a third-person basis. [↩]
- Stephen King, quoted in Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (Routledge, 1990) 199. [↩]
- Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (Routledge, 1990) 39. [↩]
- Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation (Routledge, 1992), 118. [↩]
- As seen in the 1958 film Revenge of Frankenstein. [↩]
- Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. EFN Jephcott, (Verso, 2005), 55. [↩]
- Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion (Zone Books, 1989 ), 19. [↩]
- Jason Edwards, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Routledge, 2009), 100. [↩]
- Eugene Thacker, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 24. [↩]
- Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Glaser (University of Michigan Press, 1994), 36. [↩]
- Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (Columbia University Press, 1994), 18. [↩]
- Chris Jenks, Transgression (Routledge, 2003), 181. [↩]
- Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (Columbia University Press, 1994), 19. [↩]
- Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture(MIT Press, 1992), 16. [↩]
- Alexi Kukuljevic, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 29. [↩]
- Ibid., 29. [↩]
- Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 258. [↩]
- Nicola Masciandaro, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 77. [↩]
- Alexander Galloway, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 43. [↩]
- See Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, 125. [↩]
- Georges Bataille, The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, trans. Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 218. [↩]
- Francois Laruelle, The Concept of Non-Photography (Urbanomic Press, 2010), 131. [↩]
- Nicola Masciandaro, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 81. [↩]
- Georges Bataille, “Friendship” in parallax, 2001, vol. 7, no. 1, 9. [↩]
- Pasolini quoted in Ed Keller, And They Were Two in One and One in Two (2012), 92. [↩]