by Steven Shaviro

©1995-1997 Steven Shaviro

"Oh, I'm so horny. I'm so horny all the time. You know what my Daddy said? Daddy said I was a little slut and when I grew up, I'd do it for money. And you know what? He was right. Except I don't even want money. I just want to do it." This voice belongs to Scarlet Harlot, the most flamboyant among the 64 personalities of DOOM PATROL's Crazy Jane. She has only one thing in mind, and she certainly dresses the part: blonde wig, red brassiere, red miniskirt, long red gloves, stockings and garter belt, red high-heeled shoes. The cliché of raw sex, the 'essence' of femininity in drag display. Scarlet Harlot just wants to get laid, only nobody is man enough (or woman enough) to satisfy her. Her excess of orgone energy floods Happy Harbor, Rhode Island, provoking frenzied mass hallucinations and orgies in the streets, inspiring surgical operations to create new organs of pleasure, and otherwise inciting the "total eroticization of everything." But too much is never enough. Scarlet Harlot still can't get no satisfaction. She jerks off compulsively, reaching into the etheric plane and producing "ectoplasmic mannequins for her own shameless gratification." And she consumes these sex toys, one after another. Disarticulated dummy parts lie strewn across her bedroom. So many warn out phallic appendages, heaps of grotesque prosthetic arms, legs, heads. Did you know that materialized ectoplasm looks a lot like cheap plastic?

Our postmodern myths are all modular, standardized, prosthetic constructions: Barbie and Ken dolls, or department store dummies with interchangeable parts. "Blue eyes, blonde hair, tight body, long legs, she's glamorous, she's welcomed by boys, I wanna be Twist Barbie" (Shonen Knife). This suburban white American Barbie is the model of what every girl wishes to be (even if, like the members of Shonen Knife, she is neither white nor American). Todd Haynes, in his banned film Superstar, presents Karen Carpenter as literally a Barbie doll. For isn't such an image the real basis, or inner secret, of Karen's saintliness and suffering? No human female could physically endure actual embodiment in Barbie's ultra-slim proportions. Her bones would be too thin and brittle, the force of gravity too strong. Not to mention the unbearable agony of elongating, emaciating, and eviscerating your flesh. Strange jouissance, restricting yourself to a diet of salads and ice tea, emptying out your intestinal tract with Ex-Lax and Ipecac. The anorexic Passion of Karen Carpenter lies in the ecstasy and terror of this evacuation, the unendurable stresses of her new incarnation in vinyl and plastic. Corporeality is vomited out, or transposed into song. Flesh and voice alike are stretched to the limit, stereotypically processed and purified, captured and commodified at the most excruciating vanishing point. Parents and brother, record producers and music critics, President Nixon and the medical establishment and suburban real estate developers and multinational corporations: they all conspired to teach Karen Carpenter how to be a woman, to imprison her, skin, bones, organs, and breath, in an idealized, prosthetic self.

Scarlet Harlot and Karen Carpenter: sex and anti-sex, whore and virgin, the two poles of the feminine mystique. Femininity is a stereotype, not an archetype. Madonna and Cindy Sherman understand this; Camille Paglia doesn't have a clue. It's just like using makeup: you've got to "put on a happy face," or at the very least 'put on your face' each morning in front of the mirror. "Faces are not basically individual... You don't so much have a face, as slide into one... It is faces that choose their subjects," and not the reverse (Deleuze and Guattari). Along similar lines, Allucquere Roseanne Stone tells us that in virtual reality research "there is talk of renting prepackaged body forms complete with voice and touch... multiple personality as commodity fetish!" In cyberspace, nobody can hear you scream. But the bathroom mirror is already a kind of cyberspace, already a virtual reality. As you stare at that image in the mirror, you discover that the face staring back at you was already there long before you, just waiting for you to assume it. Good little girls must be seen and not heard; they have to look just so. Bad girls are just asking for it, you can tell by the way they dress. In either case, the image precedes the object, the reflection always has to come first. That's why you must spend hours in front of the mirror, agonizing over the right outfit for tonight's date. Crazy Jane is a slut because that's what Daddy told her to be. Karen Carpenter is a goody-two-shoes because that's the image her managers established for her, and her fans came to expect. When I change clothes or put on makeup or rub gel into my hair, I'm only trying to compose my face, the better to conform to my reflection. Deleuze and Guattari write of the inhuman horror of the standard white Euro-American face, Jesus face or Barbie face: "a lunar landscape, with its pores, planes, matts, bright colors, whiteness, and holes." The stereotype existed before me, I was born to embody it.

People in primitive societies flay the skin of their enemies, thereby depriving them of their souls. But we in postmodern America prefer to discipline the body by adding ever more epidermal layers, multiplying faces, images, and souls. In the power relations that define our society, "the soul is the prison of the body," and not the reverse (Foucault). And thus we imprison our own bodies, as well as those of others. It's all done with mirrors. Even the psychopathic killer Buffalo Bill, in The Silence of the Lambs, only strips the flesh off his victims in order thence to sew a second skin for himself. It's just like when you go under the knife for a breast implant or a nose job. From applied cosmetology to tattooing to plastic and prosthetic surgery, our postmodern culture has developed a whole art of distending and adorning the skin. The face is less a mask or a disguise, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, than it is the mark of an evacuation of the depths, a libidinous transformation of the entire body into surface, and nothing but surface. Ex-Lax and Ipecac of the soul. Philip Pullman, in his fine novel Galatea, imagines a future in which, thanks to the visionary interventions of multinational capital, "nothing was immutable, everything was subject to change, including the most private and secret regions of the soul... The outward appearance of people could change, and so could their natures. Businessmen could become musicians, musicians become businessmen, thus illustrating the multiplicity of phenomena and the unity of matter." In postmodern epidermal space, "nothing is hidden," as Wittgenstein rightly insists: "since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain." Love means never having to say you're sorry.

One summer I bleached my hair and colored it purple. I sat in that chair in the beauty salon for four hours. The plaster applied to the surface of my scalp adhered to my skin, burned painfully into my flesh, clung to me so tightly that I couldn't get it off. Afterwards, I was strangely captivated by the new self that stared at me from out of the mirror. Who was I, what had I become? Never underestimate the adhesive power of appearances. Such cosmetic and prosthetic transformations are all perfectly real. Adorning the skin, acquiring a face, is an actual process of physical transformation. Karen Carpenter lived and died for this. It is also what seals the fate of Mr. Nobody, the Dadaist politician and psychedelic prankster of DOOM PATROL. Mr. Nobody is "the abstract man, the virtual man, the notional man," literally a man without a face. He is drawn as a sort of sketchy, two-dimensional Synthetic Cubist assemblage, all sharp disjunctive rectangles with lots of interstitial space. Freed from the burden of identity, as a result of being subjected to bizarre sensory-deprivation experiments, Mr. Nobody is able to be nowhere and everywhere at once. He transforms Paris into a virtual-reality art playground, and provokes an epidemic of LSD hallucinations across the USA. He even runs for President, outdoing Ross Perot as a lightning rod for voter discontent. Mr. Nobody's surreal, modernist abstraction opens a space of limitless metamorphosis.

But such things mustn't be allowed to happen here; this is America, after all. Even a superhero must be confined to a 'secret identity.' And so Mr. Nobody meets his antitype: John "Yankee Doodle" Dandy, an old comic book character who is faceless because he has too many identities, instead of too few. Dandy has been driven insane by his ability to simulate any and every personality. Metamorphically fluid, he is scarcely more reliable or more patriotic than Mr. Nobody; if the Pentagon is able to appropriate Dandy as a secret weapon, it's only because "you point him in the right direction and hope to God that when the shit stops flying, the enemy is in worse shape than you are." Dandy's own visage is blank and robotic, with ever-changing Scrabble tiles for eyes. But a ring of stereotypical faces floats in the air above him, like balls for him to juggle, or like a sinister wreath or halo: "the faces howl, like dogs, harried by thoughts... faces buzzing like bees, hungry and thirsty." Indeed, nothing is more horrible than the cruel rapacity of a human face. And so John Dandy destroys Mr. Nobody by literally thrusting one of these faces upon him, imprisoning him in a visage of banality and boredom. "I am somebody" is the great, deluded American rallying cry. Mr. Nobody is turned into somebody--and thus brought back to order and reason--when he is given a determinate face, trapped in a fixed expression that clings to him like a leech. "It's such a gamble when you get a face" (Richard Hell). Whoever can be recognized can be made accountable, held responsible, regimented, punished, and finally killed. They give you a face so they can take an ID photo. Identity is a straightjacket that you can't ever remove.

But even if you can't escape, you can always hope to change one look for another. It isn't a question of truth, but one of simulation. The point is not to 'save the appearances,' but to heighten and improve them. The very same mechanisms that were invented to make me responsible, to chain me to myself, also open the doors to frivolity, irresponsibility, and a sort of divine innocence. Nietzsche vastly prefers aestheticians to moralists and metaphysicians, because the former are blithely unconcerned with 'high seriousness,' with otherworldly heights and depths, or with inner essences. Artists and cosmeticians are the last people who would ever bother to hearken patiently to the voice of Being. Rather they give us back the world again, as appearance and nothing but appearance: "for 'appearance' here signifies reality once more," Nietzsche says, "only selected, strengthened, corrected." The truest facial expression is the most insincere, stereotypical and superficial. And that's why appearances are never deceiving. "Everything is what it seems," says the epigraph to Galatea. Clothes make the man, or the woman, as all drag queens and fashion models know. You create yourself anew each morning, every time you get dressed, every time your body adopts particular postures and gestures, every time your face fixes itself in certain expressions. With the right clothes and makeup and hairdo, you can choose any identity, embody any fantasy, transform yourself into anything you want to be. Each year Madonna comes forth with a new likeness, a new wardrobe, a whole new borrowed personality. That's the American way. The glamorous images of your desire are always already there, available for instant purchase: they are recycled from some old film, and draped on a mannequin in a window at Bloomingdale's or Nordstrom's. You can become whatever you pay for--and easy credit terms can always be arranged. So let us not be bothered that our faces are never our own, that our actions and reactions are pre-programmed, or that our most private feelings and most intimate moments involve repertoires of behavior that we've picked up by imitating others. Just ride the waves of fashion. As the neuroscientists Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall have recently shown, even our inner experience of pain is "largely the result of learned behavior." We capitalize on stereotypes. No gain, no pain. But that doesn't make the headache I am feeling now any less intense, or any less real; I've learned my childhood lessons far too well.

Art and capitalism alike are tirelessly engaged in the great project of selecting and refining appearances, stimulating monstrous and artificial desires, improving the tone of the skin. Galatea is filled with delirious visions of new capital investment: strange mechanical devices, enormous and splendidly glittering cities, vast factories hidden in Third World jungles whose assembly lines mass-produce beautiful, gracious robots. Martin Browning, the narrator of Galatea, transforms himself from an impoverished musician into a millionaire entrepreneur, after undergoing a long apprenticeship in appearances. He is seduced and initiated into the art of living vicariously, by procuration or by pretense. Money changes everything. And "change happens when one state imitates another one, because it desires it." You can always find a face that suits your needs of the moment. If you don't know anything about art, for instance, you (or your corporation) can hire somebody who does. Love follows the same pattern. Martin's true beloved, the eponymous heroine of Galatea, is described as an angel, an idealized, otherworldly being, a male fantasy of absolute, pristine beauty--which means, as Martin finally discovers, that "she" is a hermaphroditic automaton manufactured in the factories of the Perfect City. But it's of no consequence to Martin's desire whether Galatea is made of flesh and blood, or of wires and microchips; nor whether Galatea has "a boy's sex, or a girl's, or some inconceivable both, or [whether she is] blank and smooth like a statue" (indeed, though Galatea is referred to throughout with feminine pronouns, her anatomical gender remains a mystery for most of the novel; Martin only fucks her in the ass, and from behind, so that he never gets a chance to see or touch her pubic regions). For desire is a matter, not of "lack," but of prosthesis, of pure pretense. Its objects are neither missing nor lost, but exquisitely artificial; that is, as Deleuze and Guattari say, they simply need to be produced. The real is entirely prefabricated, and whatever has been fabricated is thereby perfectly real: "nothing is natural any more, and nothing is artificial," says Martin towards the end of Galatea. " It's a false dichotomy, and we should forget about it. We all show false faces to the world, and a good thing too, for a hundred reasons."

So long live the false face--or lots of them, the more the merrier. If we can't escape recognition altogether--witness the fate of Mr. Nobody--we may as well enhance our visibility, court recognition with a vengeance. Incarnate ourselves as talking heads. All we need is media access, and a sufficient line of credit. When I was in high school, I told my guidance counselor that my career goal was to become a celebrity game show panelist. Or at least a contestant on The Gong Show. Better to be gonged by Jaye P. Morgan, than not to appear on TV at all. To be truly faceless--without a reflection, like a vampire--is to be deprived of being, to be cut adrift without the requisite purchasing power, an orphan of the night, a lost soul. No face without a Visa card, no Visa card without a face. Martin Browning encounters such lost souls: the Unreal People, light as feathers, insubstantial as ghosts. You can't look at the Unreal People directly, but only from the corner of your eye. As they have little power to affect you, you can't keep them steadily in mind and you tend even to forget that they are there. People become Unreal when their lines of credit are exhausted, and when their savings have dwindled as a result of inflation. They get ever thinner and more transparent, as they become progressively unable to acquire new identities, unable to shop, purchase, and consume. They've gone through the cycle, and reached the last extremity, of what my old elementary school textbook defined as the "four freedoms" of capitalism: "freedom to try, freedom to buy, freedom to sell, freedom to fail."

The Unreals cling to this fourth and final "freedom," having exhausted the previous three. Their residual subsistence therefore cannot be regarded as a condition of deprivation or lack. Think of it rather as an effect--an entirely positive expression--of the harsh pressures of the marketplace, or the rigors of natural selection. Inflation is a constant environmental hazard, the sinister flip side of capital accumulation. But inflation is only possible in the first place because the will to simulate and to expend is universal. Marx with his theories of commodity fetishism never went far enough. Galatea has a much more radical vision: it proposes that money is the vitalistic principle animating matter, the élan vital of all living and desirous beings. Money is inherently voluptuous and promiscuous; it tends to multiply at a geometric rate if unchecked by Malthusian constraints. The contagious "germ" of inflation, once it is introduced into an economy, rages to epidemic proportions. Cutthroat competition in capitalism or in nature, the notorious 'survival of the fittest,' is only the counter-effect of an outrageous original exuberance; for "the general aspect of life is not hunger and distress, but rather wealth, luxury, even absurd prodigality" (Nietzsche, commenting on Darwin). Galatea similarly teaches a delirious lesson of infinite simulation, infinite libido, and infinite credit: "Electricity! Money! Love! Happiness! Matter loving itself, making love to itself, that's what it all is... Electricity, and finance, and sexuality, and happiness, and evolution, they all come about because of the amorous inclinations of matter."

Let us then pursue these amorous inclinations on our own accounts. Pretend beyond all measure, and send the orgone levels soaring. Follow the lead of Crazy Jane as Scarlet Harlot: reinvent sexual promiscuity and rapaciousness with the aid of prosthetic stimulants. Let simulated masculinity and femininity run amok. As Kathy Acker says in a recent interview, apropos of vibrators and dildoes: "packing is gonna make a major revolution! And the only thing guys have to learn is that there's nothing wrong with dicks and cocks, but don't think you've got the only cocks in the world." Severo Sarduy correspondingly writes that the aim of the drag queen is "to be more and more of a woman, until the line is crossed and woman is surpassed; transvestites, like insects, are hypertelic: they pass beyond their goals." Such extravagance and gratuitous display is the most urgent tendency of late capitalist culture, even as it is of arms races and sexual selection in biological evolution. Stereotype is transformed into singularity, and habit is heightened into intensity, not when these oppressive steady states are furiously negated, but rather when they are embraced with a cool, measured enthusiasm, carefully refined and stylized, pushed just a little too far. Such is the credo, if not quite of Mr. Nobody, then of another of Grant Morrison's creations, Sebastian O. Sebastian lives in an alternate Victorian world--a 'steampunk' world--one which has computers and video. He's the virtual-reality equivalent of Oscar Wilde: an aesthete and dandy who's all too pleased to live in a universe of artifice and simulation. "It is our duty to be as artificial as possible," he proclaims. "One must commit acts of the highest treason only when dressed in the most resplendent finery."

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