Critique In Hysterical Times

This is a slightly edited version of an essay that was published in The Black Book of FYTA, ed. Athanasios Anagnostopoulos & FYTA (Athens: Nefeli, 2017), 34-40, a collection marking the fifth anniversary of the conceptual audiotextual performance duo FYTA. It was written in February 2017 and revised in April. Think of it as bits of the year gone by. Thanks to FYTA for the invitation to write this, and to Jordan Osserman for useful chats.

In their performance/situation entitled ‘nEUROlogy’, presented at Geneva’s Bâtiment d’Art Contemporain in October 2015, FYTA attempted a far-right medico-theological resuscitation of the European project. The performance was staged in a confined room that FYTA describe as ‘something between the basement of a cult and Clockwork Orange’s reform clinic’—perhaps as apt a description as any of the contemporary European Union as seen from the perspective of its more disgruntled members. In Part I of this triptych, entitled ‘Eden’, FYTA assume the role of the high priests of the European right. Dressed in the red robes of cardinals, they stand before the altar of ‘Europe’, performing the rituals and incantations on which its very sustenance seems to depend. The soundscape of the performance in this segment is revealing in the way FYTA give voice to the utterly banal sentiments of xenophobic nationalists (‘Our environment is our home, our blood is what connects us to the soil, earth is our blood; when we defend our land we defend our blood’) against a disorienting musical backdrop of what sounds like Mongolian throat singing—as if to draw attention to the naturalisation of the arbitrary that is constitutive of all nationalisms. In Part II (‘The Garden’), Europe lies prostrate on a stretcher, covered by her flag. She might be dead, although the beep of machinery suggests life support. Here FYTA appear in the garb of medics who, even as they mill around the patient to no great effect, intone ‘we must remain free’. On the wall hangs a sign that reads ‘Rester Frei!’, the unfamiliar linguistic mashup seeming to gesture at the discontents of Franco-German alliance (or maybe this is just how the Swiss speak). Who killed Europe? On this question the cardinals are unambiguous: barbarians, cultural relativism, immigrants (‘how many people can you fit in the smallest of all continents!’), Islam. On the ground lies a pile of blood spattered posters—mass-produced, as if for a large protest—that read ‘Je suis Voltaire’. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the Anthem of Europe, ushers in Part III (‘Hell’). One thinks of the orchestra of the Titanic playing music to calm the passengers as the ship sinks.

The reference to Voltaire is an acerbic allusion both to the #JesuisCharlie solidarity protests that followed the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris in January 2015, and to the quote—misattributed to Voltaire—that circulated ad nauseam on social media at the time: ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’ While purporting to represent a position of solidarity-without-agreement with the murdered cartoonists whose work frequently featured racist caricatures of Muslim immigrants in France, many people apparently had no trouble yoking the Voltaire aphorism to a wholesale identification with the cartoonists via the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’. Two positions crystallised in the fierce debate on the purpose of satire that erupted in the wake of these gestures and counter-gestures. Supporters of Charlie Hebdo defended it against accusations of racism and Islamophobia on the ground that its ‘equal opportunity’ brand of satire was directed at every conceivable target. Critics countered that satire was most subversive, and justifiable, when it was deployed to ‘punch up’ against those in power. As Scott Long put it, ‘Saying the President of the Republic is a randy satyr is not the same as accusing nameless Muslim immigrants of bestiality. What merely annoys the one may deepen the other’s systemic oppression.’

In fact, the history of satire as a genre of social criticism reveals uglier manifestations in its frequent use as an instrument of ridicule of the subaltern and the marginal, in which guise it has been laced with prejudice and hatred. Few exponents of satire better illustrate this than its patron saint Voltaire himself. Lionised for his diatribes against the power of the Catholic Church, he was not averse to directing his antipathy towards religion at the most defenceless minority of his time, seeing the Jews as ‘an ignorant and barbarous people, who have united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched’—while adding, helpfully, ‘still, we ought not to burn them’. In taking aim at Voltaire and his acolytes, FYTA riff on Juvenal’s proverbial challenge ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodies?’ to ask ‘who will satirise the satirists?’

Indeed the satire commences before viewers can even see the show. Entry to the venue is contingent upon audience members filling in a ‘natural selection questionnaire’ that compels them to take reactionary positions. Some of the questions suggest how little space ‘Europe’ affords racial and religious minorities (‘1. Which of the following is your name? Christian, Alex, Michael, Maria, Other; 2. What is your ethnicity? Swiss white, EU white, Schengen white, non-EU white, OTHER’). Some of the questions demand the ranking of hatred/suffering that preoccupies both rightwing reaction and leftist ‘oppression olympics’ discourse (‘3. Which type of discrimination is the worst? 4. Which of the following Euro countries have more intense racism issues? 5. Which of the following terrorist attacks threatens democracy the most? 9. You would be more devastated if your child was dating a: disabled person, Muslim, transgender, drug addict, child’). Still others suggest the sheer hollowness of national pride (‘8. Which of the following languages is better?’). Some exemplify the banality of evil (‘7. Which of the following [far-right] European political parties has the most aesthetically pleasing logo?’). In its resemblance to a ballot paper, the questionnaire compels a recognition of how liberal democracy typically presents the voter with a choice between unpalatable options.

***

If in nEUROlogy, the mode of engagement is one of immersion to the point of overidentification with the far-right, in their subversive reworking of the IMF’s It Gets Better video, FYTA employ humour, ridicule and a kind of pseudo-psychoanalysis in a viciously snarky free associative deconstruction of this artefact of queer liberalism. Produced as part of the viral video campaign launched by gay columnist Dan Savage to dissuade queer youth from committing suicide, the IMF video features LGBT staff speaking about their struggles with growing up queer and being out in their personal and professional lives. Overlaying the IMF video with subtitled commentary, FYTA mock the coming out narratives of its overwhelmingly white, male, conventionally groomed professional subjects, drawing attention to their stereotypical elements (‘born this way’) and deriding their excessive sentimentalisation in the video through its use of gently lit backgrounds and anodyne elevator music. In doing so, they take aim at what, since Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, we have come to think of as the central trope in western gay culture and at the facile assurance of mainstream activists that coming out makes ‘it’ better.

By parenthetically titling their video ‘Pinkwashing version’, FYTA draw attention to the way in which the IMF video implicitly yokes the institution’s neoliberal austerity project with an anti-homophobic civilizing mission. FYTA undermine the narratives of personal trauma offered by each of the IMF staffers by juxtaposing their performances of suffering with reminders of the structural oppression wrought by the institution they work for. None of this comes as news to the viewer with even the most cursory knowledge of the IMF. Yet the juxtaposition works to evacuate any sympathy that we might feel for the individuals featured in the video and incites us to marvel instead at their inability to enlarge their stand against their personal oppression into a stand against oppression per se—not least the oppressions in which they are professionally implicated. This dynamic comes to a head when one staffer, visibly upset by the act of narrating his coming out story, is labelled ‘extremely emotional economist’ in the subtitles—a description that is savagely funny in its willingness to laugh at someone who is crying while reminding us of his profession’s refusal to make sense of affect outside the narrow realm of putatively rational interest. Most obviously FYTA attack the vision of freedom on offer in this video, calling it out for its homonormativity and homonationalism while parsing its claims to equality before the law as ‘equal access to shitloads of money’.

One of the more entertainingly discomfiting aspects of the FYTA video is that it invites viewers to ridicule individuals while nonetheless offering an institutional critique. In this it breaks a cardinal rule of the social sciences, which are obsessive in delineating the precise relationship between structure and agency. In their conflation of structure and agency and their disinterest in weighing up questions of causality, complicity and responsibility, FYTA engage in a mode of critique that would fail a first year undergraduate examination. Yet their defiantly unreasonable and deliberate eschewal of nuance suggests a considerably greater investment in what might be called a phenomenology of outrage. Some would call this scapegoating. But even ‘structural’ change needs to cut off the head of the king in the full realisation that this will never be enough.

***

Rumour has it that FYTA are much enamoured of the strategy of overidentification developed within Lacanian psychoanalysis and deployed most prominently by the Slovenian art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK). As Stevphen Shukaitis explains, overidentification involves ‘adopting a set of ideas, images or politics and attacking them, not by a direct, open or straightforward critique, but rather through a rabid and obscenely exaggerated adoption of them’. This is clearly evident in nEUROlogy, where FYTA not only play the high priests of the European far-right but also compel their audience to internalise and express their views through the medium of their non-voluntary questionnaire. Overidentification proceeds less through a straightforward transgression of the law than by teasing out the obscene subtext that underpins the operation of the law. Cultivating and intensifying disgust, horror and repulsion, overidentification opens up the possibility of breaking the audience’s identification with the law. As Slavoj Žižek explains, overidentification intervenes in a social context marked by irony, detachment and cynical distance that constitutes the supreme form of conformism and operates to stabilise the system. By taking the norms of the system more seriously than the system itself does, overidentification lays bare the hollowness of hegemonic discourses of legitimation and claims to obedience.

But is there anything left (in both senses of that word) for overidentification to do in the era of the alt-right, which needs little assistance from its antagonists to reveal its obscene core? The distinctions between surface and depth, text and subtext, that overidentification relies on to stage its interventions mean less in a historical moment in which the right, aided by the anonymity of social media, expresses a vicious and unmediated racism, misogyny and queerphobia and a passionate all-consuming hatred of weakness that scarcely needs the amping up that overidentification provides in order to illuminate what is at stake. Deploying the very tools—human rights—that we have tended to think of as counterhegemonic instruments and animated by a zealous ‘free speech fundamentalism’ of which Voltaire might have been proud, the alt-right speaks increasingly clearly, unencumbered by what it derides as the political correctness foisted on it by the social justice movements of another era. The very notion of a ‘dog whistle politics’ in which political messaging is coded so that it means one thing to the general population and something more specific and sinister to particular subgroups appears increasingly quaint in a moment in which even the pretence of such coding has been dropped: broadcast on multiple frequencies, the whistles are now audible to everyone. If the evils of neoliberal capitalism tended to be masked by the pieties of liberal democracy, necessitating their exposure and demystification often through the use of analogy with the extreme cases of slavery, fascism and apartheid, such explanatory manoeuvres seem redundant in a moment in which it would appear that we are rapidly approaching the extreme case. Witness the enthusiasm with which the American Nazi Party, the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups hailed (heil!) President Trump’s most senior appointments [edit: and the alacrity with which Trump reciprocated their affections in the wake of events at Charlottesville later in the year]. Trump himself appears all surface and no depth. One might legitimately ask whether the obscene exaggeration that overidentification attempts is conceivable or even necessary in respect of the twitter feed of @realDonaldTrump.

The aesthetics of overidentification also appear increasingly indistinguishable from those favoured by an evolving alt-right. In his reading of NSK, Shukaitis suggests that it favoured a sort of totalitarian kitsch, fusing elements from varying and incongruent political philosophies, the resulting juxtaposition transforming the meanings of the recombined elements in a process that he describes evocatively as ‘semiotic sabotage’. But the sabotage cuts both ways. Thus Milo Yiannopoulos, once poster boy of the alt-right, brought drag, faggotry, deviant sexuality and high-femme camp to a movement founded on a hatred of racial, religious and sexual difference whose followers nonetheless embrace performative modes intended to shock and offend and therefore adored him despite (or perhaps because of) his evident deviance from the forms of masculinity favoured by/for the rank and file. In doing so, Milo unmoors these aesthetic tropes from the politics of a queer left, perhaps unmooring aesthetics from ideology altogether.

Where to go from here? It can be tempting, in the face of the ‘post-fact world’ replete with ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, to insist on a return to the sobriety of reason and to something called truth. ‘Fact checking’ was perhaps the most overused phrase in the chatter that followed every debate in the last US presidential campaign. Yet ‘masturbating in the factory of facts’, as Adrienne Rich put it, hardly seems adequate to the challenge facing the left in the current moment. Writing in the midst of the frenzy and chaos occasioned by the raft of bigoted, draconian and breathtakingly incoherent executive orders that Trump signed in the days after his inauguration, even the incredibly staid New Yorker could recognise that ‘the hysterical hyperventilators have come to seem more prescient in their fear of incipient autocratic fanaticism than the reassuring pooh-poohers’. Might hysteria then be the most apposite reaction to the times?

In some ways, the reaction to Trump has manifest itself quite literally along the lines of the early Freudian understanding of hysteria as the enactment in bodily symptoms of repressed memory, catalysed by a subsequent event. Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘Women told me they had flashbacks to hideous episodes in their past after the second presidential debate on 9 October [2016], or couldn’t sleep, or had nightmares.’ In this vein, the Women’s March of 21 January 2017, the most visible symbol of which were pink pussy hats worn by protesters carrying signs declaring ‘Pussy grabs back’, might be read as an organized political expression of hysteria that additionally sought to reclaim the very somatic location that has been at the centre of diagnoses of hysteria for thousands of years. This of course brought its own problems. Trans activist Maria Solis protested that the ubiquity of vaginal and uterine imagery in the marches projected an image of genital-based womanhood that was exclusionary of transwomen.

Closer attention to the history of hysteria as a diagnosis reveals both less gendered and less misogynistic interpretations of the condition that offer intriguing affective possibilities for a politics of opposition. As Anouchka Grose explains, since at least the 1880s when Jean-Martin Charcot transformed understandings of hysteria from a condition caused by the vagaries of the womb (‘hystera’) to one whose roots lay in traumatic events in a person’s life, the very term has become etymologically inappropriate. More profoundly, in the Lacanian clinic, a diagnosis of hysteria is not an affront:

In the 1970s Lacan (1969-70) began to talk about ‘hystericising’ the analysand, meaning opening them up to questions and incongruities. As opposed to persuading troublesome people to be more sensible, we’re invited to consider the alternative, of allowing semi-sensible people to become more unhinged… Far from portraying hysterics as people who foolishly manufacture symptoms in a doomed attempt to buck the system, they are here seen as people who refuse easy answers, resisting commonplace idiocies put forward in the form of accepted laws and norms. They use their dissatisfactions and discomforts as a means to interrogate the Other, to make it say something back, to attempt to unsettle it. In this sense the hysteric can be seen as a seeker after truth. It may seem a counter-intuitive leap from the idea of the Victorian malingerer, but the two could be said to be in direct relation. By virtue of their very unhappiness, hysterics have always found ways to attack the status quo.

This offers one vantage point from which to appreciate a feminist reclaiming of the notion of hysteria. In a recent interview, two members of the feminist journal collective Hysteria—founded as a zine by students at SOAS University of London—explained the choice of their name as drawing on the old trope that ‘the only sane reaction to the world we live in is insanity.’ Approaching the problem of cynicism from a different angle, collective member Ama Josephine Budge remarks that ‘being in touch with my hysteria is giving up the ability to look away.’

By the mid-twentieth century, the word ‘hysterical’ had also come to mean ‘very funny’. It is striking how significant mainstream television comedy has become as a site of opposition to the Trump regime. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer’s inaugural press briefing the day after the Trump inauguration—effectively a dick measuring exercise in comparing Trump’s inaugural audience numbers with its antecedents—was a parody of itself; but Melissa McCarthy’s side-splitting impersonation on Saturday Night Live responded in a register that is quite simply unavailable in the normal cut and thrust of political opposition. Braying and shrieking in her caricature of Spicer as if willing the creation of facts through sheer high decibel pig-headedness, McCarthy’s funniest gag might have come when she held up appropriately illustrative stuffed toys to accompany her belligerent declaration that ‘Our President will not be deterred in his fight against radical moose-lambs!’ This too is overidentification, but in a form that elicits laughter rather than horror, disgust or antipathy, with two notable consequences. First, it humiliated the White House in a way that ‘serious’ political opposition does not: Trump was reportedly upset that Spicer had been savaged by a woman, which in Trumpworld can only be read as a sign of unforgiveable weakness. Second, laughter had the effect of countervailing, even if only temporarily, the undertow of fear that had characterised many of the political protests around the time, perhaps especially those that erupted at airports in response to the ‘Muslim ban’. In laying bare the pettiness and incompetence of the administration, it raised the hopeful spectre of its implosion. As Lauren Berlant has written, surviving the cruel optimism of the present entails forms of agency oriented towards respite as much as repair. Comedy, it turns out, might help with both.

Writing in a different moment of left stagnation, Wendy Brown reminds us of Walter Benjamin’s antipathy towards left melancholy—an affect that describes ‘the revolutionary hack who is attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal—even to the failure of that ideal—than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present.’ So greatly does the attachment to the object of loss (class struggle? upper case Revolution?) exceed the desire to recover from it, that the left melancholic is forever morose, conservative, nostalgic. Perhaps Benjamin would have had more time for left hysterics who ‘specialise at using dissatisfaction to keep desire spinning, acting against atrophy and ossification’, even laughing—hysterically—while they’re at it. Of course comedy and humour are themselves ideologically promiscuous. As Daniel Penny writes, Milo and his fans often purport to be in it ‘for “the lulz”’, using jokes as a way of consolidating political antagonisms, but also to blur the line between earnestness and irony in a way that allows them a permanent escape hatch (‘just kidding’) that simultaneously portrays their critics as humourless, oversensitive snowflakes. Indeed this flirtation with irony might offer a point of contrast with the modes of overidentification and hysteria, both of which eschew ironic distance.

The broader question these observations raise concerns the relationship between aesthetics and ideology in critical praxis. Audre Lorde’s influential proclamation that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ was premised on a distinction between the tools of the master and those of the slave. But what happens when the distinction is no longer apparent, perhaps because the master has stolen what were once the slave’s tools. What if the masters fantasise that they have switched positions with the slaves, like participants in a BDSM game, and feel entitled to use their tools, seizing both the material and the moral high ground? And what happens if these moves are so pervasive that the tools by themselves no longer signify positions of dominance and subordination? FYTA’s choice of targets reflects an anti-nationalist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist politics. But their techniques—the avowedly ‘dyslexic messthetics’, the abrupt moves between sombre and comedic registers and between overidentification and critical distance—are symptomatic of a moment in which the tools of the master cannot easily be distinguished from those of the slave.

April 2017

 

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