This essay is a form of fantastic architecture: it offers a few passages opening onto the site of a cultural fantasy. If, as Laplanche and Pontalis suggest, the structure of fantasy originates at the moment of loss, then it must gesture toward a mythic origin. But fantasy is not the same as nostalgia. If visiting the scene of fantasy is always in some sense a "return," it does not condemn us to a fatal self-identity. The repetition of fantasy is a repetition toward a futurity, a repetition with many possible variations; the subject may be positioned anywhere in the scene, or several places at once--as an actor or as a phantasmatic prop.
SCENE: This particular fantasy is a hinge between science and magic, ethnographer and shaman, colonizer and colonized. It concerns a struggle to redefine community and a contest between different forms of imaginary community in an attempt to allay the crisis of virility in modernity. It is shot through with the panic.
From 1937 to 1939, the College of Sociology--the founding members of which included Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, and Michel Leiris--dedicated itself to the practice of sacred sociology: "not only the study of religious institutions but of the entire communifying movement of society." And not only the *study* of the communifying movement of society, but implicitly its performance through the College itself. The community of the College was charged with the urgent task of preserving and regenerating the communal--and hence the sacred--element of modernity threatened with extinction by the dissection of society into the autonomous, "dissociated" spheres of science, politics and art. When the contractual logic which governs liberal democratic societies dissociates men, the sacred survives as an incommensurable remainder. Furthermore, as Bataille argues in one of the founding manifestoes of the College, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the reduction of nearly every man to the partial social function of the specialist has produced a society of eunuchs. He can't contain his hysteria as he describes the scene (reminiscent for me of John Carpenter's 1982 remake of _The Thing_): "This [devirilization] is ill of the first order, yet not felt by the one stricken: Only the one who must contemplate the threat of future mutilation sees it as harm." The sorcerer's apprentice becomes for the College a figure of the scientist emulating the shaman, the sacred man, the man who possesses virile integrity.
Bataille wanted to claim these powers, to become--like the figure of the masculine lover--the agent of a magic that could dissolve the "I" of the magician. This was not the magic of a mad scientist locked away in the haunted castle of the fortified ego. Above all, it was communal magic; as Bataille noted, "the isolated individual never has the power to create a world." As a community, a brotherhood and a secret society, the College was to purge the feminine and serve as the seminal model for social revirilization.
The complex problematic at the site of the College of Sociology entails a series of dialectical pairs: sacred and profane, magic and science, primitive and the civilized, virility and femininity... In order to glimpse the strange propensity of these terms to collapse in upon each other, I should introduce the term "enchantment" here, although it is the Frankfurt School (and not the College) who give this term its specificity. The College's notion of "the sacred" evokes community, virility and presence; "enchantment" evokes the feminine, illusory magic of the commodity as fetish. In _Dialectic of Enlightenment_, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argue that enchantment--which, like the Sirens' song, invokes the prehistorical, prepatriarchal world of myth--is inimical to the Enlightenment project; yet, the Enlightenment project reproduces enchantment in its own technological forms. Thus, although "the program of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world; the dissolution of myths and the substitution of knowledge for fantasy," it culminates in the re-enchantment of the world through the commodity form, by means of which men are reduced to things and the products of labor appear to be animated with an autonmous power.
The difference between sacred power and enchantment mainly resides in the question of mastery: do men control the technological spirits of modernity or are they controlled by them? As I said before, the College was founded on the premise that the sacred was endangered in modernity. When Michel Leiris addresses the College on the subject of "The Sacred In Everyday Life," he seems to contradict this premise. In fact, however, he invokes an insight that originates with Baudelaire and runs throughout surrealism and the works of Benjamin and Bataille: there is something magical about everyday objects in modernity, but it takes a shaman to control that magic, to harness its power within the closed circle of (masculine) community. The question of whether modernity is sacred or profane, enchanted or disenchanted, revolves around the sympathetic magic of the shaman and the desire to become the shaman which animates what James Clifford calls "ethnographic surrealism." To understand the stakes of this desire, we must speak directly to the painful crisis of the masculine subject in the West.
THE METROPOLITAN INDIAN: BAUDELAIRE
Charles Baudelaire was fascinated by the images of Native Americans he encountered in the works of painter and ethnographer George Catlin. In his most famous essay, "The Painter of Modern Life," he refers to the image of the tribal warrior, whose self-adornment marked him as a member of the universal but endangered species of the dandy:
"Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in the decadent ages; and the sort of dandy discovered by the traveller in Northern America in no sense invalidates this idea; for there is no valid reason why we should not believe that the tribes we call savage are not the remnants of great civilizations of the past. Dandyism is a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy. But alas! the rising tide of democracy, which spreads everywhere and reduces everything to the same level, is daily carrying away these last champions of human pride, and submerging, in the waters of oblivion, the last traces of these remarkable myrmidons."
Genocide permeates the image so that, to Baudelaire, it appears as a heroic--because futile--protest against democratization. The beauty of the dandy is the cold light of a fatal star. Suicide is his _coup de grace_, the confirmation of his achievement of a state of pure appearance, the ultimate expression of his contempt for "the real"; the extinction of the warrior represents an analogous sacrifice. At the same time, however, Baudelaire demarcates the limits of this identification by imputing a lack of intentionality to the warrior: "The savage and the infant show their distaste for the real by their naive delight in bright feathers of different colours, in shimmering fabrics, in the superlative majesty of artificial shapes, thus unconsciously proving the immateriality of their souls". The warrior is "a sort of dandy," but his childlike love of dress lacks the deadly self-consciousness that distinguishes his metropolitan counterpart. He is less than virile, since, in the words of Michel Butor, "for Baudelaire virility always means will":
"Woman makes of herself a work of art, but spontaneously, without having desired to do so; the dandy consciously makes himself into a work of art, but no more than externally; only the poet succeeds in making his very life into a work of art. Hence, the more intentional virility is, the more conquered or, more exactly, reconquered, the more magnificent it will be. It must have been put to the test, and must be put to the test constantly, must emerge from a femininity that threatens to engulf it."
So, the poet becomes "savage," child, woman, dandy--and surpasses them all. Through his embodiment of the other, he transforms himself, only to reassert his virility through his mastery of artifice. And if he often felt powerless in life (as the biographical evidence indicates), he could at least entertain the idea of mastering death.
Baudelaire's mimetic identification with the tribal warrior through the figure of the dandy was one of many such identifications he made in his life. Butor delineates three main stages of identification: with the female prostitute in the person of his lover, Jeanne Duval; with the proto-revolutionary crowd; and finally with his New World _doppelganger_, Edgar Allen Poe. In each case, the object serves as a cipher through which a miraculous virility proves itself time after time. Virility is that which arises out of and transcends the _mundis muleribus_, a world phantasmagorically populated with feminine commodities. The poet incorporates feminine objects, feminizing himself in the process, yet he also masters the object through poesis.
In the space where the body yields to the other/object in order to know the other/object, the ethnographer and the shaman "mirror" eacher other in a sensuous, complex way. Considering the significance of this kind of bodily othering in modernity, Michael Taussig writes,
"...this strange mixture of activity and passivity involved in yielding-knowing, this bodily mirroring of otherness and even ideas, is in the center of much of Horkheimer and Adorno's elusive discussion of mimesis, and precisely within the activist possibilities within such yielding lie serious issues of mimesis and science, mimesis as an alternative science. We can appreciate this when we realize that for Adorno and Horkheimer the imitative practices of the early shamans were crucial--and crucially ambiguous. For the early magician signifies, as they would have it, not merely a 'yielding attitude to things,' but the threshold of history where mimesis as a practice of living with nature blurs with the transformation of mimesis into an instrument for dominating nature, the 'organization of mimesis' necessary to that long march culminating in Enlightenment civilization."
The shaman inhabits the boundary between enchantment and the sacred, where the enchanted forest is controlled through sympathetic magic. Through the work of nineteenth century etnographer James George Frazer, Taussig defines the two fundamental "laws" of sympathetic magic. According to the first law, the Law of Similarity, a copy or a representation of an object acquires properties of an original and is sometimes considered even more powerful than the original. Taussig cites in particular the use of mimesis to capture and control harmful spirits. The second law, the Law of Contact or Contagion, ordains that things that come into contact infect each other, exchanging powers and properties, and may continue to exert influence on each other even at a distance. On the basis of these two laws, Taussig elaborates an epistemology of sensuous mimesis, arguing that modernity is the site of a technological reawakening of mimetic powers.
Baudelaire, whose work would greatly influence the French avant-garde, was perhaps the first to practice the sympathetic magic of the modern city and to translate this sensuous mimesis into something like a performative aesthetic. The poet enacts the laws of sympathy and contact, allowing himself to become infected by objects in order to incorporate them and "capture" them in sensuous, allegorical imagery. For instance, through the poetic mimesis of "Correspondences" (the fourth poem of _Les Fleurs du Mal_) the city becomes a "forest of symbols" in which the traveller experiences a dizzying synaesthesia--"the sounds, the scents, the colors correspond"--and "perfumes...sing the raptures of the senses and the mind."
Taussig's theory of sensuous mimesis departs radically from theories of literary mimesis as the representation or reflection of reality. Such privilege the objectifying powers of visuality, reiterating the boundaries which assure the smooth functioning of the symbolic: imagination/reality; subject/object; nature/culture... The dominant metaphor for mimesis in this tradition is the mirror, where reality seems to be faithfully reduplicated, albeit in reverse, and where, according to Lacan, the child first comprehends itself as a whole entity separate from the body of the (m)Other. By contrast, sensuous mimesis is a revenge upon the real. It confounds the boundaries of the subject. In J.G. Ballard's _The Atrocity Exhibition_ (first published in 1972 as _Love and Napalm: Export USA_), the mirror of representation is refigured in terms of the nauseating synaesthesia of sensuous mimesis:
"THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION. Entering the exhibition, Travis sees the atrocities of Vietnam and the Congo mimeticized in the 'alternate' death of Elizabeth Taylor; he tends the dying film star, eroticizing her punctured bronchus in the over-ventilated verandas of the London Hilton; he dreams of Max Ernst, superior of the birds; 'Europe after the Rain'; the human race--Caliban asleep across a mirror smeared with vomit."
In the drunken dreams of Caliban, the witch's son enslaved by Prospero's sorcery, colonial atrocities correspond to the death of the starlet. Is this "alternate" or mimetic death devised as a purgative? And if trachiotomy --> gill slits --> "overventilated verandas," is the wound eroticized by Travis his threshold to an interior or an exterior? A remote evolutionary past or a future beyond reason? The bodies encrypted within the rock formations of Ernst's "Europe after the Rain" are also encrypted in Ballard's images of the technological and infrastructural forms of late modernity. Freeways become arterial systems. An act of sodomy becomes a celebration of "the most beautiful contours of a rear-fender assembly." The "ground zero" city constructed out of cement blocks on Eniwetok, the island on which the first nuclear warheads were tested, substitutes for a neurological function ("Terminal Beach"). Elements of the body appear as Ur-forms manifested in technology and infrastructure; conversely, human bodies appear as if they had originated in these inorganic forms. This is the culmination point of the Enlightenment project: the annexation of man complete, man is phantasmatically annexed by the technological "second nature" he has created.
In _Crash_, the novel in which Ballard prophecies the "coming autogeddon" or the "nightmare marriage of sex and technology," the "mirror smeared with vomit" becomes a mirror of vomit. The narrator, James Ballard, recounts a minor car crash which caused his wife to vomit on the seat:
"This pool of vomit with its clots of blood like liquid rubies, as viscous and discreet as everything produced by Catherine, still contains for me the essence of the erotic delirium of the car-crash, more exciting than her own rectal and vaginal mucus, as refined as the excrement of a fairy queen, or the miniscule globes of liquid that formed beside the bubbles of her contact lenses. In this magic pool, lifting from her throat like a rare discharge of fluid from the mouth of a remote and mysterious shrine, I saw my own reflection, a mirror of blood, semen and vomit, distilled from a mouth whose contours only a few minutes before had drawn steadily against my penis."
Jointly, Catherine's cyborgian body and the car itself become the technological apparatus, producing the "magic pool" in which Ballard sees his own reflection. But here the distinction beween the real object and its reflection breaks down. This mirror does not reproduce the image of a complete subject or, as Julia Kristeva says, "a clean and proper body." It is instead the effect of an abject doubling; it is almost as if this vomit *looks back*. And let's not forget the ritual investment of semen that has helped to produce this enchanting pool which seems to possess autonomous power and which is as auspicious as "a rare discharge of fluid from the mouth of a remote and mysterious shrine." Fetishism, by means of which objects or parts of the body stand in for something else, is a basic element of the dynamic law of correspondences which becomes the hallmark of the secular sacred in the modernist avantgarde. Elsewhere in _Crash_, Ballard meets up with the "hoodlum scientist" Vaughan, who mentors him in the sympathetic magic of the highway. In effect, Ballard becomes the sorcerer's apprentice.
FIRST AND SECOND CONTACT
"They are excellent mimics: as often as we coughed or yawned or made any odd motion, they immediately imitated us. Some of the officers began to squint and make monkey faces; but one of the young Fuegians (whose face was painted black with a white band over his eyes) succeeded in making far more hideous grimaces... All savages appear to possess, to an uncommon degree, the power of mimicry. I was told, almost in the same words, of the same ludicrous habit among the Caffres: the Australians, likewise, have long been notorious for being able to imitate and describe the gait of any man, so that he may be recognized."
"The equations between the styling of a motor-car and the organic elements of his body Vaughan mimed continually in his own behavior. Following an Italian concept car with truncated rear fenders Vaughan's gestures toward the airport whore sitting between us became stylized and exaggerated, mystifying this bored woman with his surging talk and shoulder movements."
JUNK: BAUDELAIRE / BALLARD
Baudelaire's inspiration: the poet immerses himself in the electric crowd. As the ideal prostitute, he makes himself completely available and responsive to the other's desire. He is a prostitute. He is God, the greatest prostitute, a totally penetrable and so penetrating entity. A painful jouissance wracks the diffuse and boundless body as it absorbs the vast sensory data of the city. Later, he must fight the crowd within him back in order to marshal the lines onto paper. Like Freud's paranoiac, Judge Schreber, whose body suffused with the voluptuousness of defecation rivalled God in an economy of electrical nerves, the poet must evacuate. It's enough to make him convulse. But what if some failure in the dynamic system of correspondences--overload or lockdown--prevented him from releasing the agititated objects within him?
Like Poe, Baudelaire was an addict, and he was particularly good at jonesing his high off of the crowd. Writing about Baudelaire's narcosis, Walter Benjamin speaks of "the charm displayed by addicts under the influence of drugs. Commodities derive the same effect from the crowd that surges around them and intoxicates them." Are the addicts charming or charmed? Do the enchanting commodities in their displays intoxicate the crowd, or is it, as Benjamin clearly suggests, the crowd which intoxicates the commodities? By communing with the crowd in a state of "holy prostitution," Baudelaire becomes intoxicated and intoxicating. He is charged with the potential (i.e. revolutionary) energy of the crowd. But the crowd is also a limbo. The exhilaration of the crowd is always haunted by a deadly and specifically urban form of boredom which Baudelaire called "spleen." He incorporated objects in order to transform them mimetically, but at times they apparently threatened to transform him into a human junkpile instead. Signs of this phenomenon can be found in "Spleen (II)," the seventy-eighth poem of _Les Fleurs du Mal_:
Souvenirs? More than if I had lived a thousand years!
No chest of drawers crammed with documents,
love-letters, wedding invitations, wills,
a lock of someone's hair rolled up in a deed,
hides so many secrets as my brain.
This branching catacombs, this pyramid
contains more corpses than a potter's field:
I am a graveyard that the moon abhors,
where long worms like regrets come out to feed
most ravenously on my dearest dead.
I am an old boudoir where a rack of gowns,
perfumed by withered roses, rots to dust;
where only faint pastels and pale Bouchers
inhale the scent of long-unstoppered flasks.
Nothing is slower than the limping days
when under the heavy weather of the years
Boredom, the fruit of glum indifference,
gains the dimension of eternity...
Hereafter, mortal clay, you are no more
than a rock encircled by a nameless dread,
an ancient sphinx omitted from the map,
forgotten by the world, and whose fierce moods
sing only to the rays of setting suns.
(Trans. Richard Howard)
There is more than a hint here of the image of the dandy and the _beau sauvage americain_ in "The Painter of Modern Life": "Dandyism is a setting sun." A thick layer of dust covers the subject just as effectively as the "waters of oblivion." The riotous synaesthesia of the enchanted forest has become so anaemic that only faded paintings can detect the scent which once sung "the raptures of the senses and the mind." Fashion is the means by which dandies, women and savages--and also Baudelaire himself--transform base nature into glorious artifice; but here the subject has become a prop for texts, corpses and outdated gowns. (You could say that the gowns wear him!)
There are also hints of this painful reification in _Crash_. Vaughan and Ballard drop acid and perform a ritualistic act of sodomy in Vaughan's Lincoln Continental--"as if only this act could solve the codes of a deviant technology." Afterwards, Ballard comes down with sudden, depressive violence: "Abruptly, the light faded." The vehicles on the freeway above, which previously appeared as "an armada of angelic creatures," now move "like motorized wrecks," and their passengers are "mannequins dressed in meaningless clothing." At this moment of the text, the title of the novel takes on new meanings. For this is a narcotic "crash" of the kind that seems to be inseparable from addicted subjectivity--or what Avital Ronell calls "Being-on-Drugs." Subjectivity crashes into objectivity. ("Junky": the perfect word to descibe an addict's perception of her own body. Are you junky? Imagine sewing your own fingers together.)
At the same time, this is a crash in the system of correspondences and the end of representation. Sign crashes into referent.
It is also the crash of the world economic system in 1973--the first worldwide recession after World War II: "The nodes of glass on the ground glinted like discredited coinage."
The crash is an inevitable side effect of the drug; it may even, in some cases be the apocalyptic goal. In the words of Dr. Nathan, the scientific voice of _The Atrocity Exhibition_, the subject Travis seeks out correspondences--for example, "the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor"--in order to find the hidden symmetry of the world/body "not only about the vertical axis but also the horizontal." In short, Nathan speculates, Travis may be attempting to return to "'the lost symmetry of the blastosphere'--the primitive precursor of the embryo that is the last structure to preserve perfect symmetry in all planes." It is in fact Vaughan in _Crash_ who achieves this "return" when he kills himself in his attempt to perform a fatal head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor's limo. The wrecked car in which Vaughan died was "unrecognizable, as if impacted from all directions, internally and externally."
Addressing the members of the College of Sociology on "The Sacred In Everyday Life" (1938), Michel Leiris described how as children he and his brother aspired to be like the celebrity jockey in his "many-colored" silk tunic:
"In certain respects, [the jockey] reminds one of the shaman, who, originally, is very often someone who is deprived, but who takes an astonishing revenge on destiny, as a result of his being absolutely the only one who is hand in glove with the spirits."
Here Leiris invokes a pain that I imagine he shared with Bataille and other members of the College. Baudelaire shares this abject pain, this desire for "an astonishing revenge on destiny" which pierces through his "Benediction": "Yet under an Angel's unseen tutelage/the outcast child intoxcated by the sun..." (Trans. Howard). Like Baudelaire, Leiris places his emphasis on the feminizing fetishization of the body (his own body) through adornment: "Better than father's top hat, his small-barreled revolver, and his money box, these thin silk tunics would be the sign of our power..."
Modern shamanism is the lumpenprole revenge on destiny. In it lies the abject wish for wholeness, virility, power--healing power, and also the power to harness the technological spirits of modernity...or at least protect oneself from them. Could this explain why Ballard doubles himself mimetically within the text of _Crash_? Could it be that _Crash_ is not so much a novel as a protective charm?
1. Bataille in Hollier, Denis, _The College of Sociology: 1937-1939_, Trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988), 74.
2. Ibid., 13.
3. Ibid., 20.
4. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, _Dialectic of Enlightenment_, Trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1987), 6.
5. James Clifford, _The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art_ (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988).
6. Charles Baudelaire, _Selected Writings On Art and Literature_, Trans. P.E. Charvet (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 421-22.
7. Ibid., 426.
8. Michel Butor, _Histoire Extraordinaire: Essay on a Dream of Baudelaire's_, Trans. Richard Howard (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), 55.
9. Michael Taussig, _Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses_ (New York & London: Routledge, 1993), 46-7.
10. J.G. Ballard, _The Atrocity Exhibition_ (San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1990), 15-16.
12. J.G. Ballard, _Crash_ (New York: Random House, 1973).
13. Ibid., 6.
14. Ibid., 16-17.
15. Julia Kristeva, _Powers of Horror_, Trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia UP, 1982).
16. Charles Darwin qtd. in Taussig, _Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses_, 74-5.
17. Ballard, _Crash_, 170.
18. Walter Benjamin, _Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the era of High Capitalism_, Trans. Harry Zohn (London: NLB, 1973), 56.
19. Charles Baudelaire, _Les Fleurs du Mal_, Trans. Richard Howard (Boston: David R. Godine, 1982).
20. Ballard, _Crash_, 194.
21. Ibid., 199.
22. Ibid., 205.
23. Avital Ronell, _Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania_ (Lincoln & London: U of Nebraska P, 1992).
24. Ballard, _Crash_, 206.
25. Ballard, _The Atrocity Exhibition_, 13.
26. Ibid., 14.
27. Ballard, _Crash_, 222.
28. Leiris in Hollier, _The College of Sociology: 1937-1939_, 28.
29. Ibid., 28.