You are on page 1of 197

Against and Beyond

Against and Beyond:

Subversion and Transgression in Mass Media,
Popular Culture and Performance

Edited by

Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus

Against and Beyond:

Subversion and Transgression in Mass Media, Popular Culture and Performance,
Edited by Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus
This book first published 2012
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
12 Back Chapman Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2XX, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright 2012 by Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus and contributors

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
ISBN (10): 1-4438-3773-3, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-3773-6


Acknowledgments ..................................................................................... vii

Introduction ................................................................................................. 1
Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus
Chapter One
Punks Not DeadPost-Punk and Gothic in Music and Fiction
Transgressing Capitalism in Kathy Acker and Marilyn Mansons Punk
and Goth Aesthetics..................................................................................... 6
Emilia Borowska
Noise as Cultural Subversion: The Return of Post-Punk........................... 20
Michael Goddard
Chapter Two
Transgressing Identity/Transgressive Identity
Two Men, Two Women and Alex
Come Together: 1968, Performance, and the Utopian Spirit of Merging . 36
Martin Hall
Touching the Other(,) Woman: Transgressive Transactionality
in Ingmar Bergmans Persona................................................................... 54
Magorzata Myk
XXY: The Cinematic Poetics of Transgressive Visual against Sexual
and Gender Binarism................................................................................. 66
Katarzyna Poloczek
Chapter Three
Transgressing FormBeyond Literature, Theatre and Television
Electronic Literature: Content to Con-Form.............................................. 84
Tim Bridgman


Table of Contents

Theatre and Emigration: Catherine Grosvenors and Lorne Campbells

Cherry Blossom ......................................................................................... 92
Pawe Schreiber
Theatre, Television, Shakespeare? On (Counter-)representation
of Stage Performances of Shakespeares Plays on Television:
The Case of Warlikowskis Burza [The Tempest]................................... 102
Jacek Fabiszak
Chapter Four
The Mechanism of HorrorMystery of the Body
Horror Films as Modern Rituals of Defilement....................................... 116
Nina Czarnecka-Paka
Breaking Bad on TV: Transgression and the Return of the Body ........... 126
Dagmara Zajc
Chapter Five
Gender TroubleBlending Gender Codes in Film Adaptations
Transgression in Sally Potters Film Adaptation of Virginia Woolfs
Orlando ................................................................................................... 140
Barbara Chya
Cinematic Carmillas: Projecting Subversion........................................... 150
Agnieszka owczanin
Chapter Six
Subversion and Nation StateArtists Against the State
What a Kerfuffle: Skolimowskis Hamle and Totalitarian Regime.... 166
Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus
The World Is Curing Up Like an Autumn Leaf: Transgressive
Aesthetics of Social and Cultural Decline ............................................... 175
Justyna Stpie
Contributors............................................................................................. 183
Index........................................................................................................ 186


We wish to thank all the authors in this collection for their exciting
contributions as well as kind cooperation and patience.
We also wholeheartedly thank Filip for another excellent cover, and
Timfor his always welcomed precious critical insights.
Special thanks go to Amanda Millar, at Cambridge Scholars Publishing,
for her invaluable assistance in the final edit.


Subversion and transgression, although widely used, are quite elusive

terms and constantly need redefining, especially when discussed in the
context of dynamic cultural changes. Still, there exist several points in
common for possible various approaches to both subversion and
transgression treated as cultural phenomena as well as methods for
creating and understanding cultural output.
Subversion is most often associated with the realm of politics.
Although synonymous with such pejorative terms as sabotage, conspiracy,
or revolution, in contemporary cultural discourse subversion has begun to
be seen as an inevitable, and much welcomed, means of contesting the
existing status quo and eroding predominant cultural forces. As such,
subversive elements are observed in all areas of cultural activity and
engage in discourses spanning from class, race, religion, to gender,
sexuality and identity.
Transgression operates primarily in the context of the mainstream, or
the norm, and its boundaries. Foucault claims that it is an action which
involves the limit (33) and has its entire space in the line it crosses
(34). Its main operating principle is that it crosses and recrosses a line
which closes up behind it in a wave of extremely short duration, and thus
it is made to return once more right to the horizon of the uncrossable
(34). Transgression, therefore, is an essential concept in discussing areas
such as subculture, gender, identity, taboo, form, or aesthetics.
This collection of essays seeks to address the purpose of subversive
and transgressive works across various media: theatre, film, television,
music, and electronic literature. Discussed against the background of
major political and cultural movements, such as 60s counter-culture, punk
and post-punk, Thatcherism, totalitarian regime in Communist Poland,
third-wave feminism, and alternative and activist new media, it is not
limited to one specific cultural region but takes a global perspective,


encompassing the works of Swedish, Slovenian, Argentinian, and Polish

artists alongside American and British ones.
Chapter 1 uses the well established aesthetics of punk, post-punk and
gothic to discuss the problems of cultural subversion and transgression.
Emilia Borowska presents two controversial artistsKathy Acker and
Marilyn Manson. Through Deleuze and Guattaris Capitalism and
Schizophrenia Borowska argues that their strategies can be seen as
resisting the hegemony of the capitalist culture industry. Michael Goddard
analyses the phenomenon of post-punk music and through the presentation
of several key bands, The Fall, The Mekons, The Gordons and Laibach,
shows how they engage in subversive cultural practices.
Chapter 2 analyses transgressive identity and transgressing identity.
Applying Lacanian psychoanalysis to his discussion of Performance, Martin
Hall reads the problem of the two protagonists merging in the film as well as
interprets the work in terms of its historical context, characterised by
Utopian discourses of classlessness and freedom. Magorzata Myk, on the
other hand, applies Foucault's idea of transgression as a a complex
interplay of forces of a transactional [] nature as a starting point for her
discussion of mental as well as physical transactionality between the two
female protagonists in an equally enigmatic and elusive film, Bergmans
Persona. Finally, XXY, an Argentinian film from 2007, serves as a
springboard for reading a rigid female/male framework as too limiting.
Looking at the main character, Alex, born as sexually ambiguous,
Katarzyna Poloczek shows the complexities and scope of human
sexualities and gender identifications.
Chapter 3 discusses the ways in which traditionally understood forms
of literature, theatre, and television (theatre) can be contested, challenged
and expanded. Tim Bridgmans paper examines transgression from the
perspective of online activism and asks if digital literatures role in
oppositional and activist new media must now go beyond challenging
form alone if it is to make a productive transgressive statement in todays
free market society. Pawe Schreiber analyses Cherry Blossom, a joint
project of Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz
(2008). While content-wise the play presents a potentially subversive
subject in a non-controversial way, the form of the performance
transgresses the traditional concept of theatre in several ways. Finally,
using the examples of Shakespeare adaptations, Jacek Fabiszak looks at a
specific form of performancetelevision theatreand touches upon the
problem of its genre, balancing between stage and small screen,
integrating both theatrical and televisual aesthetics, and producing a novel
quality of poetics.

Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus

Chapter 4 analyses the subversive and transgressive potential of horror

as a genre that specialises in shock tactics and thematic provocations. In
her discussion of Teeth, a Hollywood B movie, Nina Czarnecka-Paka
employs Julia Kristevas theory of abjection to analyse the motif of vagina
dentata, while Dagmara Zajc shows a deconstructive approach to the
genre itself analysing a popular TV series Breaking Bad. Employing the
theory of haptic gaze she aims to prove that the series stylistics is more
transgressive than that commonly associated with gore cinema.
Chapter 5 touches upon the issue of gender and its representation in
film adaptations. Barbara Chya analyses Sally Potters film version of
Virginia Woolfs Orlando, a seminal work in the discourse on gender, to
show how the film adds to the discussion on the arbitrariness of gender,
transgression of gender roles in Western culture and the construction of
gender and social identity. Agnieszka owczanin discusses three different
cinematic appropriations of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanus Carmilla and
examines how different cultural contexts and varied cinematic aesthetics,
French New Wave, Swinging London, and Camp, comment on gender
related anxieties, sexual dichotomies and social normativity.
Chapter 6 focuses on two artists whose works share a common goal of
expressing their opposition and criticism of the state, one communist, the
other capitalist. Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus interpret Jerzy
Skolimowskis debut student film made under the auspices of d
National Film School whose subtext of Hamlet becomes a pretext to
ponder over the status quo after the October Revolution. Derek Jarmans
avant-garde Last of England, although set in a different place, time and a
political system, is equally critical of Thatcherite politics, as analysed by
Justyna Stpie.
The selected material ranges from popular culture to avant-garde
works, deals with form as well as content, and touches upon an interesting
variety of contexts: gender studies, psychoanalysis, film, television, eliterature and politics. Using recent methodologies and perspectives, such
as Freudian and Lacanian concept of Self and Other, Kristevas theory of
abjection, Foucaults social and socio-political approaches, culture critique
of Adorno and Horkheimer and Deleuze and Guattari or Butlers gender
politics, the collection offers an important contribution to the discourse on
understanding the mechanisms and functions of subversion and
transgression in contemporary media and popular culture.


Works cited
Foucault, Michel. 1977. A Preface to Transgression. In Language,
Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Trans. Donald F.
Bouchard & Sherry Simon. New York: Cornell UP. 29-52.



Transgression is central to both Kathy Acker and Marilyn Mansons

work, operating in their trademark obscenity, shock tactics and excess, and
in the borderline figures they have created. Both artists collapse binary
oppositions and celebrate abject terrains, transgressing gender and bodily
boundaries. Aesthetically, those artists have aligned themselves with the
two inherently subversive cultures of Punks (Acker) and Goths (Manson).
Acker became an iconic punk novelist, whose political writing expanded
the limits of female self-expression and created new forms of resistance to
the hegemony of capital. Following the Punk subculture she had embraced
since its emergence in New York in the late seventies, and her seminal
literary influence William Burroughs, whose cut-up method she emulated,
Acker constructed a distinctive form of social critique. It included
plagiarism and juxtaposition, the collapsing of low and high art, the fusion
of text and image, the fragmented, non-linear odysseys of her female
pirates and wild boys. Later in her career, she collaborated with the firstwave British punk rock group The Mekons. By using punk strategies in
her fiction, and embracing piercings, tattoos, leather jackets, shaven hair
and motorbikes, Acker adopted a specifically Punk style, which was
seized upon by her publishers to increase sales. The best of punk writers,
she has an unmistakable voice thats brash, feisty, sexy and smartso
runs the review on the back cover of the Grove Press edition of her Don
Quixote, a labelling and publicity Acker treated with suspicion. Packaged
in glossy, aggressive covers, embossed in neon, with photographs of
Acker with piercings and tattoos, her published books have become
volatile territories where the punk anti-capitalist revolt and the marketplace
The uneasy rapprochement of subcultural content and mass culture is
also embedded in Marilyn Mansons appropriation of Goth aesthetics. The

Emilia Borowska

attitudes of Acker and Manson towards publicity, money and fame differ
significantly, the former highly critical and the latter complacently cynical.
While Acker throughout her writing career consistently made herself
unattractive to the mainstream, Marilyn Mansons capitalising on
transgression appears to be a fully conscious plan which he is pursuing
with the skill of a businessman, involving personal branding. The charge
of turning the Goth aesthetic into a sellable product is one of the main
reasons why the status of an authentic Goth is denied to him by purists, as
one of their fundamental prerequisites is isolating oneself from the pop
and mainstream.1
The Punk subculture, which emerged in the United Kingdom and
United States in the mid-seventies, evolved into a number of different
forms, including its Gothic offspring during the early eighties.2 Literature
on Punk and Goth aesthetics and ideology is too substantial to consider at
length. Rather, I want to trace and theorize the wanderings of a vulnerable
subcultural desire in the work of Acker and Manson, and consider selffashioning in late capitalism. The aim is to demonstrate that while in their
negotiation with the capitalist apparatus the transgressive potential of the
subcultural is possible, it is not naively or immediately available. In an
attempt to find a way out of the oppositional movements apparent
impotency in mass culture, I will explore two models: Adorno and
Horkheimers radical critique of the culture industry and Deleuze and
Guattaris schizoanalysis. I suggest that while Adorno and Horkheimers
closed model which they developed in response to historical fascism
dramatises desires annihilation by capital, Deleuze and Guattari in their
abandonment of dialectical thinking and emphasis on the social, open new
avenues for the subcultural ethos as a viable instrument of social

Joshua Gunn notes that although Marilyn Manson is repeatedly referred to by the
media as a Goth-Rocker, he is not accepted as a Goth by the Goth subculture
members because of his appropriation of Goths products and turning them into a
commercial success. As Gunn and Hebdige assert, Goth subculture participants
fear assimilation by the mainstream which, they believe, inevitably [leads] to the
diffusion of the subcultures subversive power and coherence (Hebdige qtd. in
Gunn). Gunn argues, however, that mainstreaming can be vital for subcultures
survival (410-411).
While currently the term subculture has become widely used to describe a wide
variety of alternative exclusive cultures, it was originally a concept developed by
the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham in the seventies,
devised to highlight class-based, loosely organized resistance to the dominant

Transgressing Capitalism in Kathy Acker and Marilyn Manson

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were productive participants of

the Institute for Social Research, later to be known as the Frankfurt
School, founded in Germany, during the 1920s. In the thirties they
emigrated to the United States fleeing fascism, where they continued the
project of the Institute. Although their sustained criticism of the culture
industries is a direct response to 1930s Germany, their claims remain
valid. Their explicit antipathy towards mass culture was a result of them
witnessing Hitlers use of media organisations as propaganda tools, and
their subsequent dramatic encounter with American popular culture. They
valorised high modernist art, which they considered to be truly authentic,
unique, emancipatory, and unscarred by the capital tool of social
transformation. Mass cultural art forms, they argued, deflated revolutionary
energy and, by offering a realm for escape from the cares of everyday life,
manipulated the audience into the uncritical acceptance of the status quo.
According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the culture industry is not a flight
from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance
(144). Furthermore, they were disillusioned with Marxs promises of the
total revolution of the proletariat. In their view, Marx, with the insistence
on crudely materialistic economic determinism, had neglected the
relationship of culture and social change. Having adopted Antonio
Gramscis theorisation on hegemony, Adorno and Horkheimer believed
that in order to fully understand the mechanics of social change, the
studies of culture should be integrated into the studies of economy and
Their dramatization of the culture industry appeared in Dialectic of
Enlightenment, first published in 1947. It contained the essay The Culture
Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, whose ideas Adorno
revisited in Culture Industry Reconsidered. The use of culture
industry instead of mass culture was intentional, they explain, as it
showed that the consumed culture does not emanate from the masses but
rather is administered from above: [w]e replaced that expression [of mass
culture] with culture industry in order to exclude from the outset the
interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it is a matter of something
like a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves, the
contemporary form of art (Adorno 98). For Adorno and Horkheimer,
under capitalism all production is for the market; all products of the
culture industry are exactly the same in the sense that they all reflect the
values of the established system, hence their uniqueness is illusory.
Adorno would suggest that Gothic and Punk aspects of Acker and
Mansons works would be immediately absorbed as mere additions to the
market, predicted and pre-planned by the culture administration that

Emilia Borowska

wishes to cater for every consumers needs. Although Marilyn Mansons

rock performances appear challenging, they are in fact an effective
realization of the capitalist formula. Thus, purchasing his music is seen by
Adorno as mere acts of consumption rather than participating in a
rebellious activity.
Adornos main concern is that the overwhelming impact of the culture
industry on society leaves little opportunity for resistance, promoting
passivity, conformity, and even more consumption: [t]he power of the
culture industrys ideology is such that conformity has replaced
consciousness (104). In his view, critical thinking has been replaced by
the feeling of complacency facilitated by the entertainment offered by the
culture industry. He does not claim that the consumers are deprived of any
ability to reflect on manipulation, yet they feel compelled to buy and use
its products even though they see through them (Adorno and Horkheimer
167). The success of the entertainment industrys integration within the
society and the homogenisation of culture under capitalism, Adorno
implies, are dangerously linked to the political triumph of historical
The fascistic interpretation of contemporary culture as a closed system
that represses desire leaves no potential for producing revolutionary
action. While most forms of popular culture fit into Adornos categories,
Adornos model of the culture industry, as Douglas Kellner has
observed, does not allow for the heterogeneity of popular culture and
contradictory effects, instead straightjacketing media culture in the form of
reification and commodification as signs of the total triumph of capital and
the total reification of experience (102). In their diagnosis of culture in
crisis, Adorno and Horkheimer do not include oppositional subcultures,
claiming that all culture mediated forms of resistance belong to the
capitalist script. Consequently, their monolithic model disqualifies Punks
and Goths from emancipatory aesthetics. I suggest that a multidimensional
approach to the intertwining of culture, society and the economy can be
found in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattaris theory of desire contained in
their collaborative volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Although those
philosophers acknowledge and theorise capital as hegemony, they claim
that revolutionary desire is available on the other end of the continuum,
access to which is possible by using what they call minoritarian
strategies of becoming, in other words, creative flights of resistance. The
Deleuze-Guattarian open model does not offer an immediate access to
transgression but suggests potential openings that lines of flight could
depart from.


Transgressing Capitalism in Kathy Acker and Marilyn Manson

Deleuze and Guattari describe capitalism as an inherently ambiguous

and problematic system with the aspects of decoding and axiomatisation.
They claim that all existence is based on the structuring of the flows
whose main operations include coding, decoding and recoding. The way
capitalism differs from preceding systems is in its radical decoding and
axiomatising properties of previously coded social formations. In the precapitalist states, the social flows were coded, thereby guaranteeing fixed
ways of existence subjected to an external authority. Capitalism decodes
these flows through the process of deterritorialization. In essence,
deterritorialization is a movement which produces change, by which
one leaves the territory. It is the operation of the line of flight (Deleuze
and Guattari 1988, 508). The decoding of flows creates the utopia of
immanence because it involves a radical deterritorialization of the fixed
code or a territory and thus creates conditions for new relations or a
complete collapse of societal organization which they call the body
without organs. Under the transformative vector of capitalism, the flows
are no longer subjected to an external authority, which is the case in what
they label the barbarian/despotic systems; in other words, capitalism
appears to have no limit and expands through maximum exchange.
Deleuze and Guattari refer to capitalism as the ultimate, cynical stage
because although it works on the immanent plane where all is allowable
and permissible, the flows are caught in the double-bind of the axiom: life
is nothing more than a flow and exchange of capital. All values, relations
and productions are measured and ordered by the capacity to generate and
accelerate the flow. For this system to function, its vector of decoding is
necessarily coupled with the vector of reterritorialization, or recoding,
whereby intensive processes are captured by the axiomising machine and
solidified into exchangeable commodities. The deterritorialization through
capital is therefore relativeit moves towards fixity. Is there a meaning, a
morality, an existence, that can transgress capitalism? Deleuze and
Guattaris answer to the impasse of the relative and move onto the
absolute is schizophrenia, which, they argue, is the ultimate, absolute
transgression of capitalist society:
Capitalism is the limit of all societies, insofar as it brings about the
decoding of the flows that the other social formations coded and
overcoded. But it is the relative limit of every society; it effects relative
breaks, because it substitutes for the codes an extremely rigorous axiomatic
that maintains the energy of the flows in a bound state on the body of
capital [...]. Schizophrenia, on the contrary, is indeed the absolute limit that
causes the flows to travel in a free state on a desocialized body without
organs. (1990, 245-46)

Emilia Borowska


Punks and Goths aim at mobilizing schizophrenic subjectivities, but

not in the sense of a pathological illness. Theirs is an anti-capitalist
project, a revolutionary becoming that actualizes modes of existence other
than those overdetermined by the normative code or the capital. In their
becoming-molecular, Punks and Goths are living the fantasy of
approaching the absolute limit: the full body without organs, which
Deleuze and Guattari define in the following way, We shall speak of an
absolute limit every time the schizo-flows pass through the wall, scramble
the codes, and deterritorialize the socius: the body without organs is the
deterritorialized socius, the wilderness where the decoded flows run free,
the end of the world, the apocalypse (1990, 176). At the heart of the
subcultures of Punks and Goths is a releasing of revolutionary desire by
transgressing the limits of capitalism. Although in different ways, Punks
and Goths have positioned themselves against or outside the mainstream,
challenging the regimes of normalcy by experimenting with alternative
modes of existence and defying authority: disrupting the orderly sequences
of behaviour, subverting the norm by cultivating new, often deviant
eroticisms and reversing that which is traditionally considered acceptable,
beautiful, artistic or profitable. Thus, Punks harassed the public with their
deliberate obscenity, deviance, parody, blasphemy, violent masculinity,
crudeness, or even filthiness. The Sex Pistols single release of Anarchy
in the UK put across Punks radical position, summed up by the bands
manager Malcolm McLaren: Anarchy in the UK is a statement of selfrule, of ultimate independence, of do-it-yourself (qtd. in Marcus 9). The
Goth community is an offspring of the Punk subcultures bifurcation in the
late 1970s and early 1980s, forming a more refined, romantic and
sophisticated version based on notions of death and decay which contrast
with Punks cultivation of a Do-it-Yourself ethos and Dada-inspired play
with found objects. As Carol Siegel writes:
Goth might be best understood as a reaction against Punks antiromanticism, its anti-intellectualism, and, interestingly, its contempt for
masochism [...]. In reaching back to the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries Gothic, with its highly intellectual, grotesquely beautiful
celebration of unreason and the unnatural, contemporary Goths depart from
the deliberate crudeness of Punk. (52-53)

Ackers explicit affinities with punk are discussed in McCafferys

1989 article, The artists from Hell: Kathy Acker and Punk Aesthetics.
McCaffery focuses upon her fictional strategies, [which] like those
underlying punk, are designed to liberate herself and her audience from a


Transgressing Capitalism in Kathy Acker and Marilyn Manson

number of linguistic, psychic, sexual and social networks (12). He points

to Ackers use of the Punk strategy of noise as rebellion against
commercialised music, which in a literary context is expressed in
plagiarism, a cut-up and cut-n-paste method, and sexually loaded language.
Acker explains her artistic technique by arguing that: Well measured
language, novels which structurally depend on the Aristotelian continuities,
on any formal continuities, cannot describe, much less criticise, [American]
culture (1997, 2). There is a discernible correspondence between Kathy
Ackers disordered, graphic narratives and the interplay of content and
design of Punk Fanzines. Punk Fanzines, the blending of fan and
magazine, were informal, underground, non-commercial publications that
communicated the Punk word within their community. Duncome describes
fanzines as little publications filled with rankings of high weirdness and
exploding with chaotic design [...] falling somewhere between a personal
letter and a magazine (1, 11).
Confessional style, sexual, aggressive language, swear words,
misspellings, handwriting, typing in caps, abbreviations, plagiarism,
blending of image and text, and, importantly, alternative, anti-commercial
publishing, are attributes that establish a strong affinity between Ackers
work and Punk Fanzines. These publications make little if any sense to the
devoted readers of traditional fiction or mainstream magazines. On the
contrary, to Acker and Punks it is the ordinary or verbal language
(Acker 1997, 143) that freezes the meaning in compliance with fascistic
and phallogocentric canon failing to accommodate the voice of the other.
In Blood and Guts in High School (1978), Hester begs Dimwit to provide
her with an alternative means of communication that would be unrestricted
by the male-dominated regime of signs: TEACH ME A NEW
TO ME (96). In capitalism, the language of the body, of the repressed,
marginal content is often discarded as a rebels nonsense and ought to
remain silent. Acker illustrates explicitly the problem The Capitalists
have with the abject language: Those rebels are never clear. What they
say doesnt make sense (1984, 136). Against the orderliness of language,
Acker points to the bodys unpredictability, contradiction, simultaneous
sameness (1997, 148-149), which translates to the labyrinthine linguistic
structures in her novels. In Ackers view, those in power position
themselves as the owners of language, while tampering with their
property discloses its fragility since it relies on a highly artificial structure
that locates the man at the top and represses revolutionary desire. To
tamper with the language of capitalism, in the Ackerian amalgamation of
Punk, is to deterritorialize it, push it to its limits and subvert it; to steal its

Emilia Borowska


regime of signification and turn it against itself; to explode the linguistic

sign into thousands of molecules of meaning.
Both in Acker and in Punks ethos, there is a deliberate tension
between the original image or text and the manner it is re-contextualised to
open the signifier into completely new, usually subversive readings. Just
as Jamie Reid manipulates the respected image of the Queen in the Sex
Pistols singles cover, Acker takes a safety pin to fragments of grand
narratives such as Don Quixote, Great Expectations, Treasure Island,
mixing them with bodily fluids in uncompromising positions, aiming to
break their literary over-coding so as to advance the becoming-minor of
language, a process by which the molar aggregate is removed from the
familiar territory. Deleuze and Guattari call it the deterritorialization of
language that transforms itself into new becomings. In their book on
Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari describe a literary deterritorialization that
mutates content, forcing enunciations and expressions to disarticulate
(1986, 86). Guattari maintains that:
In Kafkas writing, this kind of deterritorialization of language is obvious.
That is, his work is located on an edge, a border, at the limit of a huge
aggregate in order to deterritorialize, a way of fighting [...] [that]
transforms itself into becoming. (1985)

The Punks and Acker share their project with Kafka. They are all,
however, vulnerable to the threat of reterritorialization. The liberated
flows can easily become a commodity if they fall victim to the capitalist
axiomatic force that fixates and homogenises desire. For the band Crass,
this threat has already taken its toll on the subversive potential of Punk and
has turned it into pure monetary value. Punk is dead:
Yes thats right, punk is dead
Its just another cheap product for the consumers head
Bubblegum rock on plastic transistors
Schoolboy sedition backed by big time promoters
CBS promote the Clash
Aint for revolution, its just for cash
(Crass 275)

Ackers fiction has also been at a constant risk of commercial consumption,

a concern she expresses in all her novels. Furthermore, her own Punk
image, defined by piercings, tattoos, thick lipstick and shaven hair, renders
Acker an attractive target for commodification. It is often the case that
rather than her fiction, which is intellectually challenging and thus not
easily assimilable by the mainstream, her artistic persona is emphasized


Transgressing Capitalism in Kathy Acker and Marilyn Manson

for publicity purposes.3 Hence the publishers have insisted on placing

images of Acker on the covers of her books. In addition, the media have
selected and exaggerated controversial aspects of her biography, such as
her working as a stripper and a pornographic actress, while her fiction is
usually merely defined as a non-linear narrative of explicit sexuality and
violence. Acker resisted being turned into a counter-cultural star in
interviews and conferences, yet it is her fiction that more thoroughly
criticises the commodification of culture. Her final answer to consumerism
may be embodied in her creation of pirates in her later novels, such as
Empire of the Senseless and Pussy, King of the Pirates. Ackerian pirates,
who live in a realm of fantasy, can be seen as contemporary
deterritorializations of the concept of traditional Punk; they create the
whole new world. Female piracy is as utopian as I can get at the
moment, she concludes (Garrett 17-18). This is an exercise in Deleuzian
absolute deterritorialization, which, however, remains within a utopian
realm. Ackers practices of theft as a type of becoming open a discussion
on the controversial and yet untested consequences and potentials of
uncontrollable present-day piracy on the Internet.
While Acker remained highly resistant to the commodification of her
artistic work and image, Marilyn Manson demonstrates a distinctively
cynical attitude towards it. His work has been assimilated to a
considerably greater extent than that of Acker. Firstly, he is well aware
that a show with lurid melodramatics is more likely to attract the
attention of the masses than poetry (Baddeley 12). Furthermore, as
Baddeley has observed, Manson regards publicity and interviews not as a
distraction from his work, but as a vital part of it (12). Next, Manson has
appropriated a number of underground aesthetics, of which Goth is a
prime example. He skilfully takes advantage of capitalisms reliance on
the counter-culture to create new markets, turning the youthful rebellion
into a business opportunity, a mechanism Naomi Klein in No Logo refers
to as cool-hunting and Thomas Frank further discusses in his insightful
The Conquest of Cool.4 Is cynism an example of the final triumph of
capitalism? Is there more to Manson that money-making?

Joe Moran writes that Ackers celebrity status is the product of a difficult
mediation between bohemian and mass culture (133). He reads Acker as a literary
celebrity alongside such American literature giants as Philip Roth, Don Delillo and
John Updikeeven though none of Ackers books has become a bestseller and her
fiction is very difficult to incorporate into the mainstream. Moran stresses the
media image in accentuating the attractiveness of Ackers unconventional image.
In the context of commerce, Mansons artistry is perceived as a mere fabrication
of a skilful businessman that capitalises on an imitation and appropriation of

Emilia Borowska


I suggest that Marilyn Manson employs subcultural aesthetics as a

radical tool of destabilisation and critique of the culture industry. His
cynical playfulness with the media is perfectly exemplified by his
composite name of the screen legend Marilyn Monroe and the murderer
Charles Manson. Mansons task as an artist and a businessman is to turn
the capitalist machine against itself: to reach maximum publicity in order
to attack the system from within, and criticize the ideological
underpinnings of American society. The most obvious of Mansons
appropriations of the Goth aesthetic is his carefully crafted image, and
particularly his face. Following Goth-stylings, he perpetuates a sickly,
fallen body ideal, which disturbs the mainstream preoccupation with
fitness and health. His face is an explicit example of a Deleuzian
deterritorialization of the face of power, which Deleuze defines as not
even a face of the white man, it is the White Man himself, with his broad
cheeks and the black holes of his eyes. The face of Christ. The face is the
typical European. [...] Jesus Christ Superstar: he invented the facialisation
of the entire body and transmitted it everywhere (1988, 176). The effect
of his Goth-like make-up, which includes a hyperbolic use of feminine
aesthetic, confronted with a pale, deadly face, and an uncomfortable
asymmetry of his vampire eyes, is to dismantle traditional boundaries
between male/female, human/animal, dead/alive, and suggest the
undermining of the dominant Western signification, embodied in the face
of Christ. His deterritorializations of face are further expressed in his
watercolour project, which bears an uncanny affinity with a painter
cherished both by the Goths and Deleuze, Francis Bacon. Bacons
paintings are known for his experimentation with the face-landscape and
the process of becoming-animal. For Deleuze, Bacon is a painter of heads,
rather than faces, as he endeavours to dismantle the structured spatial
organization of the faces in order to make the heads emerge (2005, 15).
Likewise, in Mansons visual projects the boundary between human and
animal body is blurred: the face loses its coherence and the acts of
butchery disintegrate the human form. His body-related imagery displays a
vast number of influences, including the father of Goths, David Bowie,
whose presence is most discernible in Mansons Mechanical Animals. His
androgynous, alien, technological, prosthetic, hybrid body further
destabilizes the fragile boundaries of the human body. Moreover, Gothothers. Connected marketing situates Manson, who, according to them, by
manipulation of the media has gained international popularity, not as an Alpha but
a Beea laud, buzzing transmitter of ideas and products of others, of the true
Alphas, such as Trent Reznor and David Bowie (Salzman, Matathian and OReilly


Transgressing Capitalism in Kathy Acker and Marilyn Manson

inspired cross dressing, technological prosthetics and nomadism are all

accelerations of lines of flight from the capitalist machine.
Manson also shares with Punks and Goths his flirtation with fascist
iconography, firstly strongly accentuated by the gothic band Joy Division.5
By adopting an explicit fascist symbolisation in his live performances and
videos, Manson insists that fascism, rather than a momentary reversion to
barbarism in the past, is a present threat to society in such areas as the
media, liberal politics, the family, educational institutions and language.
As Felix Guattari writes, fascism already has happened, and is still
happening. It filtrates through even our more intricate defences, and
continues to change and develop (1984, 229). Throughout his career,
Manson has drawn multiple connections between political authoritarianism
and American-style consumerism. The fetishisation of fascism is yet
another tool for parody, criticism, and cynical manipulation of the
audience who do not recognize these subversive strategies. He notes that
when you focus it, it has a lot of power. A lot of people have learnt to do
that over the years for evil purposes, whether it be Julius Caesar, Stalin or
Hitler. Others, whether it be me, Madonna or Elvis Presley have used it for
positive things (qtd. in Baddeley 134). Manson believes that well-known
celebrities such as Madonna, Elvis Presley and himself, have an
authoritative power, whose charm is comparable to Hitlers seduction of
the German masses in the thirties. While the dictators used their power for
manipulation and domination of the people, he is capable of using his
popularity as a subversive weapon against the Western hegemony.
Performing in Nazi attire, Manson is sending out a blatantly ironic
message, which could be I want to dominate you, urging his audience to
reflect on and negotiate their complacent attitude to contemporary culture.
Mansons critical stance towards the media culture is summed up in a
David Bowie inspired video clip of his single I Dont Like the Drugs (But
the Drugs Like Me), from his album Mechanical Animals (1998). Here,
Manson appears in a white androgynous outfit with fair hair, possibly
alluding to Marilyn Monroe, attached to a cross composed of television
screens. The video is a montage of scenes that depict media and

For discussion of Joy Divisions use of fascist iconography see Michael Bibbys
Atrocity Exhibitions: Joy Division, Factory Records, and Goth in Goth. Undead
Subculture (2007). Bibby argues that while punks uses of Nazi fetishes may have
been primarily used for iconoclastic shock value, such icons for Joy Division and
the Factory style took on a stronger sense of nihilismthey signified that all life is
atrocity, the concentration camp is the paradigm of existence, and history compels
us to failure, demise, and apocalypse (250). Manson seems to be continuing Joy
Divisions gothicization and allegorization of fascism as always present.

Emilia Borowska


Christianity as sources of repression, control, and imprisonment. The

snippets include him being chased by a group of headless policemen, or a
scene of a family with unnaturally large eyes that suggest drug intoxication.
They are watching a Jerry Springer-like reality show in which one of the
female guests is pregnant with a television. This image implies a
reproduction of mass cultural products that is deeply entangled with the
social and private sphere, which echoes Adorno and Horkheimers
apprehension that the culture industry pervades and commodifies even the
most human experiences. I Dont Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like
Me) narrates an addictive relationship with the media that seems
impossible to terminate. As there is no alternative to the televised
existence, the video ends in suicide. In this nightmarish vision, the
individuals fall prey to the homogenised, banalised and stupefying culture
of contemporary capitalism.
There is scepticism both in Kathy Acker and Marilyn Manson about
the promise of destabilizing and transforming what Debord called the
Society of the Spectacle. They are both aware that attempts to destruct
and resist the capitalist machine are a part of its script. As Acker writes in
Empire of the Senseless: Any revolution, right-wing left-wing nihilist, it
doesnt matter a damn, is good for business. Because the success of every
business depends on the creation of new markets (182).
However, following Deleuze and Guattari I would suggest that the
politically subversive artistic practices enable access to revolutionary
desire trapped in organized unities such as the family, the state and the
culture industry. In contrast to the arborescent, tree-like systems which
determine the location of individuals hierarchically, they propose a
rhizome, a non-centric system that proliferates by schizophrenic
processes of immediate and multiple connections. In Deleuze and
Guattaris view, art and science hold a revolutionary potential which can
blow up the blockages of desire by dismantling and deterritorializing the
codes which have captured it (1990, 379). Once released, a fragile desire is
capable of establishing new formations, new ways of thinking and
pathways which threaten capitalism. Postmodernism is one of these
moments. The collapse of the distinction between high and low culture,
fragmentation, multiple selves and Deleuzian thousands of tiny sexes
instead of a fixed gendered identity, the subcultural energy and plagiarism,
are all postmodern strategies that push the system of power to the limit:
In such a society as ours the only possible chance for change, for mobility,
for political, economic, and moral flow lies in the tactics of guerrilla
warfare, in the use of fictions, of language.


Transgressing Capitalism in Kathy Acker and Marilyn Manson

Postmodernism, then, for the moment, is a useful perspective and
tactic. If we dont live for and in the, this, moment, we do not live. (Acker
1997, 5)

The desiring potential of the audience is vulnerable yet possible, even

though the acts of purchasing Ackers texts or Mansons music may
appear to effectively undermine their attempts to disrupt capitalist
mechanisms. While Manson is by no means resisting the commodification
of his work, his modalities of transgression and critique of Western society
are undeniable. Likewise, Ackers writing continues to shock and inspire.
The two theoretical models that emerged in different historical contexts,
rather than contradict, complement each other. They both help track the
desiring potential of subcultural aesthetics in Acker and Mansons work.
Adorno and Horkheimers scathing attack on the culture industries teaches
a salutary lesson that what appears oppositional or emancipatory may in
fact be a part of the deceptive strategy of the media. Their uncompromising
radicalism provides a counterforce to nave affirmation of an active
audience and idealist aesthetics. While the Frankfurt School confronted
Hitlers propaganda and its catastrophic consequences, several decades
later, Deleuze and Guattaris Capitalism and Schizophrenia, and
particularly the volume Anti-Oedipus, was written in response to
extraordinary events in Paris in 1968. Such eruption of revolutionary
desire, although later tamed by the authorities, inspires enthusiasm and
belief in the transformative power of the social and validates the need for
seeking instruments of change in such oppositional forms as Acker and
Mansons work.

Works cited
Acker, Kathy. 1984. Blood and Guts in High School Plus Two. London:
. 1988. Empire of the Senseless. New York: Grove Press.
. 1997. Bodies of Work. London and New York: Serpents Tail.
Adorno, Theodor. W., and Max Horkheimer. 1997. Dialectic of
Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. London: Verso.
Adorno, Theodor. W. 2001. Culture Industry Reconsidered. In The
Culture Industry, ed. J. M. Bernstein. London and New York:
Bibby, Michael. 2007. Atrocity Exhibitions: Joy Division, Factory
Records, and Goth. In Goth. Undead Subculture, eds. Lauren M. E.
Goodlad and Michael Bibby. Duke University Press, 233-256.
Baddeley, Gavin. 2000. Dissecting Marilyn Manson. London: Plexus.

Emilia Borowska


Crass. 2004. love songs. West Yorkshire: Pomona Books.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1986. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana
Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
. 2005. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Trans. Daniel W. Smith.
London: Continuum.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1988. Capitalism and Schizophrenia,
vol.2, A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
. 1990. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, vol.1, Anti-Oedipus. Trans.
Hurley, R., Seem, M., & Lane, H. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.
Duncombe, Stephen. 1997. Notes From Underground: Zines and the
Politics of Alternative Culture. London: Verso.
Garrett, Shawn-Marie. 1983. Interview. Treasure out of Treasure. In
Theatre 26.1-2: 170-173.
Guattari, Felix. 1984. The Micro-Politics of Fascism. In Molecular
Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics. Trans. Rosemary Sheed,
Harmondsworth, Middlesex and New York: Penguin.
. Interview, 1985, reprint.
Gunn, Joshua. 1999. Marilyn Manson is not Goth: Memorial Struggle
and the Rhetoric of Subcultural Identity. In Journal of Communication
Inquiry, 23:4: 408-431.
Kellner, Douglas. 2002. Theodor W. Adorno and the Dialectics of Mass
Culture. In Adorno: A Critical Reader, eds. Nigel Gibson and Andrew
Rubin. London: Blackwell, 86-109.
Marcus, Greil. 1989. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth
Century. London: Secker & Warburg.
McCaffery, Larry. 1989. The Artists of Hell: Kathy Acker and Punk
Aesthetics. In Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction,
eds. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. University Presses of
California, Columbia and Princeton, 215-230.
Moran, Joe. 2000. Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America. London
and Sterling. Virginia: Pluto Press.
Salzman, Marian, Ira Matathia and Ann OReilly. 2003. Buzz: Harness the
Principles of Influence and Create Demand. New Jersey: John Wiley
& Sons.
Siegel, Carol. 2005. Goths Dark Empire. Bloomington and Indianapolis:
Indiana University Press.



Over the last few years there has been a dramatic return of post-punk
music, whether in terms of reissued recordings, live performances or, in
some cases, films of post-punk groups including Joy Division, The Fall,
Magazine, PIL (Public Image Limited.), and numerous others. The reemergence of this difficult music is the result of several factors ranging
from the decreased revenue for artists from recordings in the MP3 file
sharing era, resulting in greater economic incentives to go on tour, to the
rejection, at least on the part of older audiences, of both the bland pop fare
offered in the present and the sanitised versions of rock and pop nostalgia,
from which post-punk had, until recently, been almost entirely excluded.
Similarly, there has been an interesting shift in both music criticism and
cultural studies to a consideration of post-punk. If the 1977 punk
explosion is considered as an event then post-punk would refer to those
practices and cultures which sought to respond affirmatively to this event,
without merely imitating the music, gestures, clothing and style of punk
itself. Instead, post-punk groups took the initial subversive and
transgressive effect of the punk event and extended it into new forms of
experimental musical and cultural practice. This paper will firstly attempt
to define the field of subversive experimental practices that constituted
post-punk. Then, focusing on a range of post-punk groups including The
Fall, The Mekons, The Gordons and Laibach, it will attempt to bring out
some of the key questions raised by post-punk considered as a diverse
range of subversive cultural practices, whose coherence lies, in Simon
Reynolds words, in the desire to rip it up and start again, as he entitled
his recent book on post-punk (2005). For Reynolds, the inventiveness and
richness of the post-punk music of 1978 to 1984 by far outstripped the
short lived punk explosion that preceded it, and was one of the richest
musical eras in the history of modern popular music:

Michael Goddard


Young people have a biological right to be excited about the times theyre
living through. If you are very lucky, that hormonal urgency is matched by
the insurgency of the era, and your built-in adolescent need for amazement
and belief coincides with a period of objective abundance. The prime years
of post-punk were like that: A fortune. (x, emphasis in original)

Furthermore, at the heart of this innovative and diverse forms of musical

invention, Reynolds detects a cultural project in the affirmation of the
world changing power of popular, or in some cases not so popular, music.
Before abruptly leaping into the field of post-punk music itself it is
necessary to address the question of why this music and above all why
now. Is this just another instance of the reigning pop cultural nostalgia that
is seeing every group of the 70s and 80s of whatever style come out of
retirement and perform Karaoke style, unproductively rehashing their
greatest moments as a kind of inferior cover band of themselves? What is
one to make of groups ranging from Echo and the Bunnymen to Sonic
Youth and the Pixies, performing their own classic albums after 20 years,
treating their own work more as a type of classical music repertoire than as
a living evolving creative process? Leaving aside this phenomenon,
although repetition is indeed key to the whole pop field, is this return
merely a retrieval of forgotten greatest hits, a more edgy High Fidelity
(2000) wanting to revive obscure musical gems from the period, as Simon
Reynolds puts it, between the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks and
Nirvanas Nevermind, whose history definitely should not be written, in
Reynolds opinion, from the point of view of the victors in terms of
popularity (REM, Simple Minds, Nirvana)?
Post-punk is a field that has been relatively neglected both in
contemporary music journalism with its fixation on the popular and
academic studies of popular culture with their orientation towards
subcultures and ephemeral moments of transgression. A key example of
the latter is Dick Hebdiges highly influential book focused largely on
punk entitled Subculture: The Meaning of Style, which virtually launched
the entire field of subcultural studies. Whatever the richness of this field, it
tended to subordinate music to at best an element of a socio-politically
determined subculture and at worst to an ephemeral fashion statement; this
was inadequate and distorting even in relation to punk and far more so in
relation to the more complex and diverse musics of post-punk, which
therefore tended to be ignored in subcultural studies. Against this neglect,
post-punk can be understood, as Simon Reynolds suggests, as a range of
heterogeneous responses to the following question: Underneath the
fractious diaspora of the post-punk years there still remained [...] a revived


Noise as Cultural Subversion: The Return of Post-Punk

belief in the power of the music, [...] which in turn made the question
Where to now, worth fighting over (11).
This question was one that was being openly posed in the 1970s and
80s not only in post-punk and other domains of cultural and intellectual
production but also in social movements, such as the German and Italian
Autonomy movements and squatting practices throughout Europe, to give
just two examples.1 I would argue that the field of post-punk
experimentation is symptomatic of the same seismic cultural shift that
gave rise to a whole range of experimentation in thought, affect and
cultural practices that took place in this period of economic, political and
cultural transition, a period in which a certain modern disciplinary regime
of stratification in all the above dimensions was breaking down,
accompanied by multiple expressions of creativity and resistance,
including free radio stations, autonomist and squatting movements and the
emergence of politically engaged cultural critique, including that of British
cultural studies, for example. In this light the range of practices that
constitute post-punk can be seen as heterogeneous responses to Reynolds
question of where to now? which in political, cultural and economic
terms in the 70s and 80s was one that was being openly posed in all
domains of cultural and intellectual production, as well as in social
Post-punk is as problematic a field to define as the postmodern not
least because of the tricky temporality of the prefix post which both fields
share. While Simon Reynolds Rip it Up limits itself to the fairly restricted
dates of 1978-1984, it soon becomes clear that many of the first post-punk
groups were in fact playing music (if only in their living room) well before
the punk explosion of 1977. Then again, there are a whole range of
arguments about the spatio-temporal coordinates of punk itself: was it a
phenomenon of London or New York in 1976-1977, does it date back to
the Stooges, the MC5 and the Velvet Underground or even 60s garage
music in general? In this regard there are key distinctions, as Stewart
Home has suggested, between Punk with a capital P and punk music as a
tendency that has accompanied rock music since its inception or at least
since the 60s, as exemplified by the Pebbles and Nuggets collections of
punk music from the 60s.2 Rather than engage with those interminable
debates, this paper will see Punk as a punctual event whose key proper
name is indeed the Sex Pistols. This is not to claim any originality or
advance in musical development on their part, relative to the rival claims

On the history of the Italian Autonomia movement see Wright (131-151, 197223).
On the distinction between Punk with a capital P and punk, see Home.

Michael Goddard


of their New York contemporaries, for example, but to underline the fact
that for a whole range of factors the Sex Pistols did indeed constitute an
event through which a fundamentally new space of creativity, experimentation
and cultural production opened up. As with 68, there is little point in being
nostalgic for this event or trying to replicate it by imitating its perceived
style as this is a type of unproductive repetition that only erases the event
by breaking it down into a series of stylistic elements, clothing, attitudes,
or chords as has been done exhaustively in cultural studies. More
interesting is the question of how to be worthy of this event and this is
precisely what post-punk music was responding to. To take some
Manchester examples, while The Fall were definitely energised and
encouraged to perform publicly after seeing the Sex Pistols, this was not at
all in order to be like them but rather a sense that if they could do what
they were doing in public, then The Falls own experimentation with
combining poetic expression with primitive music would at least not be
that bad. In contrast, Warsaw were generally acknowledged to be a
particularly uninspiring punk band and it was only when they stopped
trying to make punk music that they were able, as Joy Division, to invent
an entirely new style that had a massive influence on the future
development of music (see Reynolds 103-123).
Nevertheless, it would be entirely false to construct an opposition
between punk repetition and post-punk originality as if the two were
mutually exclusive. The question posed in post-punk experimentation is
not how to avoid repetition but how to repeat creatively, how to compose
repetitions that make differences rather than feed into the economy of
mass cultural standardisation. As The Fall put it on the B-Side to their first
single, Repetition, which can be understood as a statement of intent for
the whole post-punk field: Repetition in our music/And were never
going to lose it (The Fall, 1978). This is less an acknowledgement of the
banal repetitiveness of pop music as the statement of the explicit aim of
perverting this power of mass reproduction in order to produce something
new. As Reynolds puts it, one of the key reasons post-punk music inspired
a new level of writing about music was that it was a type of meta-music
aware of its own modes of production, inherited genres and relations to
consumption, without ever being cynically post-modern or indifferent; an
interview with a post-punk band was more likely to involve discussions
about art, politics or cinema than the mere laundry list of musical
influences and reference points it has largely become today (10). Bands
like PIL were explicitly based on a critique of the mechanisms of
marketing popular music which in turn determine and limit what gets
produced, whereas other groups considered their work to be a tactical,


Noise as Cultural Subversion: The Return of Post-Punk

almost military intervention into the field of the popular. This was
certainly the case of industrial groups such as Throbbing Gristle or
Laibach, who did not see themselves primarily as musicians but as the
operators of subversive machineries, using the popular as a way of
inserting anomalous materials into the heart of contemporary culture far
more effectively than if these procedures were carried out in the domain of
contemporary art which both groups had prior relations with.
Furthermore, post-punk groups had a tendency to emphasise territory
and to populate their music with local accents and references, not in order
to assert regional identities but rather to subject them to a form of
stammering in which they are at once recognisable but transformed, as is
evident, for example, in relation to the north of England in both The
Mekons and The Fall. Whereas the formers use of local accents
emphasised their provinciality and distance from the cosmopolitan centres
of punk and their ideologies, Mark E. Smith of The Fall developed a
unique tuneless vocal snarl as the ideal vehicle for his lyrical cut-up
imagery of the industrial North. Finally, post-punk music itself directly
rejected the opposition between high or modernist culture and the popular
by importing techniques of experimentation from the former into the
conventions of the latter as a way of exploding the artificial boundaries
between the two spheres. This had the effect of a double critique or double
capture of the conformity of popular culture in the first place and, at the
same time, of the ineffectiveness of contemporary art that only circulates
in a narrow, bourgeois milieu. Instead, drawing on multiple modernist
sources not only or even especially in music but also in writing, painting
and film, of which perhaps the key was the various modern forms of
collage or the cut-up, post-punk music was able to constitute itself not as
strictly popular culture or art but rather as a form of unpopular culture
not meaning a complete rejection of the popular whose avenues of
distribution it was appropriating for its own ends but rather the attempt to
create something genuinely new within the economy of the popular
through the creative repetition of styles and procedures taken from both
popular and modernist sources.
Next, northern post-punk groups in whose music the spectre of
political radicalism is clearly apparent, namely The Mekons from Leeds,
and The Fall from Manchester, should be discussed. Whereas The Fall
seemed distinct from Mancunian punk and post-punk groups such as Joy
Division because of their apparent political radicalism and embrace of a
modernist cut-up aesthetics, The Mekons distinguished themselves from
contemporary politicised groups in Leeds like the Gang of Four due to
their insistence on amateurism, experimentation and ultimately the

Michael Goddard


rejection of punk aesthetics in favour of a reinvented English folk. This

section will argue that neither band simply communicates radical
traditions, as was the case of their more conventional punk contemporaries
like The Clash, but rather that both are haunted by political radicalism,
which has a spectral presence within their music.
The still continuing trajectory of the Leeds post-punk band, The
Mekons is a complex one. Emerging out of the same punk meets art
school scene as their contemporaries, The Gang of Four, The Mekons
began more as a sprawling collective than a definable group, and initially
refused any of the usual forms of media profiling such as photos or even
identifying the names of members. Their first single, Never been in a
Riot, which was apparently intended as a kind of joking exercise of
taking punk amateurism (which was usually more a stance than a reality)
to an extreme, already marked them as different from their punk
contemporaries even if the song is fully located within a punk idiom.
Astute critics were able to pick up, beyond the chaotic lo-fi rumble, a
subjective critique of punk anthems like The Clashs White Riot; in the
place of the latters street-fighting-mans heroics was an admission of
vulnerability and of the possibility of being scared. However, it would be a
mistake to understand the groups rejection of the radical political
posturing of punk groups, and even of their friends, The Gang of Fours,
more nuanced, Situationist version of this posture, as a rejection of radical
politics as such. The Mekons were just as involved as the latter in
activism, such as the CND and support of the miners strike, but when it
came to their music they insisted, more radically than The Gang of Four,
on subjectivity and everyday life as something irreducible to any clear-cut
political line. Their first album, The Quality of Mercy is not Strnen,3
therefore, contained descriptions of life in northern England, couples
cheating on their partners and broken love affairs, with only a few tracks
having anything resembling an obvious political message. The second
album, Devils, Rats and Piggies, completely rejected anything like a punk
style and combined deconstructive musical experimentation with a range
of subjective tales, often infused with palpable sense of loss and
melancholy. However, rather than a turning away from politics, this album
is haunted by the memory of the political as inscribed in subjective
experience. Snow, for example, revisits the territory of Never been in a
Riot referring to withdrawal from political action in the light of an
increasingly violent social reality and failed revolutions, while The

A reference to the experiment of whether 10,000 monkeys given enough time

would be able to recreate the works of Shakespeare.


Noise as Cultural Subversion: The Return of Post-Punk

Trimdon Grange explosion was the cover of an old folk song recounting
a mining disaster. This latter example is significant not only because of the
combination of a political content, but for being haunted by an earlier
musical form that in turn recounted an experience of a haunting loss. In a
sense, this song prefigured the changing direction of The Mekons when
they reinvented themselves not as a punk band but as a form of Northern
Folk, albeit with constantly shifting relations to rock n roll, American
country and other styles.
It was after The Mekons folk re-invention that the spectre of militancy
becomes truly apparent in their music. In the track Darkness and Doubt
from The Mekons 1985 album Fear and Whiskey there is a direct
evocation of radical political action: In the clear red dawn/we moved like
a tide/but I went down in a baton charge. However, as the song
progresses it becomes clear that this militancy is clearly located in a past
that has been lost, through experiences of defeat and betrayal: They said
come back at 10 and sing the red flag/but the hall was cold and bare.
What is more, the style of the music no longer has the slightest trace of
punk or even post-punk experimentation but is rather classical, Hank
Williams style, country, in which it is a wailing violin rather than guitars
that are dominant, a shift in style given ironic confirmation in the final
lyrics over the horizon/I saw John Wayne ride. Rather than a sign of the
group compromising with traditional musical forms, the song is an
indication of a kind of contamination of past musical styles and the
exploitation of their affective powers by combining them with seemingly
incongruous lyrics, such as the above lament about the destruction and
loss of militant political community. As such, the song is doubly spectral
in that it is haunted by both the experience of political defeat and by
archaic musical forms, a combination that would increasingly characterise
The Mekons music. Similar examples could be multiplied; the much later
Ghosts of American Astronauts, for example, imagines American
astronauts haunting the hills above Bradford to set the scene for a spectral
treatment of 60s Vietnam war politics with lines such as Nixon sips a Dry
Martini or its a nice break from Vietnam (The Mekons 1988), while
Brutal combines a militant, post-colonial analysis of the colonial origins
and state-sponsored continuation of the drug trade with the subjective
experience of addiction: send in the army to deal some smack (The
Mekons 1991). But perhaps the fullest treatment of this haunting by
spectres of past militancy is the track Thee Olde Road to Jerusalem. In
this song, a deliberate reference to the Blake poem, there is an evocation
of the entire messianic history of the English left from the levellers to the
modern union movement and the labour party: All that March through

Michael Goddard


history must still mean something to you (The Mekons 2002). The
attitude in which this history is presented is neither pious nor ironic but
spectral and critical.
On the other side of the Pennines, The Fall were a very different band
and one with an even more complex relation to militant politics. While the
assumption of The Falls radical political stance found confirmation in
early tracks such as Hey Fascist, fifteen years later the track Hey
Student indicated not only a different target but gave the impression that
the earlier track may have been more a gesture of irritation than the
expression of any leftist political position. Nevertheless, in the early days
of the band at least one of their members was involved with the Young
Communist League and Una Baines remembers she and Mark attending
loads of political meetings (qtd. in Reynolds 108), but as observers
rather than participants. In a similar vein, the cover for the Early Years:
77-79 (The Fall 1981a) features on the reverse side the phrase the modern
day proletariat refuses to knuckle under, and in this period they supported
political causes like Rock Against Racism before becoming disillusioned
about the latters subordination and conscription of music purely to
advance their political agenda. Mark E. Smiths later vitriolic attacks on
middle class leftists talking of Chile while driving through Haslingdon
(The Fall 1980) on the track English Scheme, not to mention his
apparent support of Thatcher and the Falklands War, have also led to the
singer being labelled by some as a working class conservative, despite
plenty of indications to the contrary.4
As with The Mekons, it is a mistake to just extract from The Falls
lyrics a political content, since militant politics play an equally if not more
spectral role in The Fall than they do in The Mekons. However, whereas
The Mekons, after an initial phase of post-punk experimentation, preferred
to inject radical contents into archaic, residual forms, the music of The
Fall was driven by a relentless will to musical invention, even if this
invention paradoxically also involved the recycling of earlier forms taken
both from popular culture and from the legacy of modernism. However
much Mark E. Smith might have lambasted the left in interviews, the
music of The Fall is full of references to various forms of radical politics,
albeit in an often ambivalent and spectral form. One political issue that is
especially present is drug politics from the early Rowche Rumble that
attacks the hypocrisy of state and corporate sanctioned valium addiction

Smiths ambivalent relations with Thatcherism are evident in Ford (139) and
elsewhere. It is difficult to discern to what extent Smiths apparent conservatism is
sincere or a provocation of the left liberal opinion reigning in the English music
press such as NME.


Noise as Cultural Subversion: The Return of Post-Punk

while other drug users are persecuted, to the affirmation of amphetamine

use in Totally Wired.
However, for the purposes of this paper, two key tracks that deal with
the spectres of militancyThe North Will Rise Again and Prole Art
Threatare particularly interesting here. The NWRA is a perfect
example of the haunting of the present by an alternative reality; apparently
the lyrics of the song were based on Smiths response to playing in several
northern towns and imagining a sci-fi alternate universe in which a
northern revolution was taking place, an intuition that seemed to be
confirmed by the later outbreak of riots throughout England in response to
police brutality while The Fall was on tour in the USA. While Smith did
express some enthusiasm about these riots, the song itself was highly
ambivalent and anything but a pro-northern rebel song with the words the
North will rise again immediately followed by but it will turn out
wrong (The Fall 1980). The NWRA is more a sprawling narrative told by
Joe Totales, who is in fact trying to stop the uprising. As Smith put it: the
message in it is that if the North did rise again, they would fuck it up [...]
Its just like a sort of document of a revolution that could happenlike
someone writing a book about what would have happened if the Nazis had
invaded Britain (qtd. in Ford 87-88). But this disclaimer, apart from
emphasising the way the song refers to a spectral alternative to the present,
perhaps goes too far, with Smith again painting himself as a cryptoconservative. In fact, the song is a kind of cut-up of different perspectives
on the uprising: of those involved in it, those opposing it, and those
corrupting it for their own ends. At the same time, it evokes the history of
northern resistance to English rule with several references to Scottish
nationalism: The streets of Soho did reverberate/With drunken Highland
men/Revenge for Culloden dead (The Fall 1980). The cut-up montage of
different perspectives on this imagined revolt that turned out wrong can at
least be read as a way of imagining what it would take for the uprising of
the North to turn out right, or at least differently.
This cut-up logic also characterises the song Prole Art Threat, whose
narrative is even more difficult to piece together. In brief, it is an attack on
one of The Falls favourite targetsthe left liberal pressboth for its
complicity with its supposed enemies and its inability to deal with any
genuinely radical proletarian art threat. However, it is barely possible to
extract this from the song which is composed out of cut-up fragments of a
narrative, a good deal of which remains absent. The radicalism of this
song is less in the lyrical content, which is more suggestive than
descriptive, than in its montage of aggressive music and lyrics. Beginning
with the shout of pink press riots (The Fall 1981b) the song then

Michael Goddard


continues through an incomprehensible dialogue between at least three

characters; in fact, this is one of the few cases in which the lyrics were
reproduced on the album cover, thereby giving the voices names such as
man with chip or gent in safe-house, which is the only possible way
they can be made sense of, even though there is an incomplete
correspondence between the written lyrics and what is actually sung on the
track. Instead, the listener is left with a sarcastic evocation of the pink
press, safe-houses, riots and secret clans that is like a fractured psychosis
of left political paranoia. However, even if it was intended humorously,
the song nevertheless succeeds in invoking the idea of a genuinely
subversive prole art threat beyond the boundaries of left liberal taste,
and thereby evokes the historical avant-gardes for whom art was an
immediate and dangerous expression of proletarian subversion.
This development of post-punk spectral militancy was by no means
limited to the north of England and can be seen in groups as
geographically diverse as Californias Minutemen and Slovenias Laibach.
An excellent example of these militant post-punk aesthetics, resembling a
combination of The Falls will to experimentation with The Mekons
heart-felt militancy, can also be heard in the music of The Ex from
Amsterdam. However, militancy is not the only spectre at play in postpunk, as visible, for example, in the New Zealand group, The Gordons,
whose futurist aesthetics could be described more as cyberpunk than punk.
Sometime around 1980 the noise punk band The Gordons was formed in
Christchurch, New Zealand. At the time they were not entirely alone in
local post-punk experimentation as there were a host of bands inspired by
a strange crossing between Joy Division and The Fall (both of whom were
inordinately popular in New Zealand), in some cases supplemented by the
Velvet Underground and in others by Industrial Music like Throbbing
Gristle. Nevertheless, the dominant form of alternative music at that time,
especially in the South Island, was a kind of DIY punk pop, some of
whose exponents were the distant fore-runners of lo-fi and alt-country
with minimal relation to any militant punk spirit. After all, New Zealand
was hardly at the cutting edge of industrial, let alone post-industrial,
technological development; nevertheless, The Gordons quickly distinguished
themselves by adopting from the beginning an explicitly future-oriented
industrial aesthetic that seemed to emerge fully formed on their first three
track record, now known as the Future Shock EP (The Gordons 1981).
This orientation is clearly announced on the title track: over a tight but
discordant attack of bass and guitar a voice starts screaming repetitively
the title of Tofflers famous study of the psychological impact of rapid
technological change on human beings (Toffler 1970).


Noise as Cultural Subversion: The Return of Post-Punk

Several key features of The Gordons are immediately apparent: a

tendency towards musical repetition and variation accompanied by equally
repetitive lyrics, a tight musical structure composed of aggressive and
distorted sonic components, and a heaviness that never sounds like heavy
rock but rather seems directly expressive of the sonic overload of
technological urban environments (features of which would show up in
many of the lyrics). The band seemed to intuit from the beginning that by
pushing rock including its punk variation to the level of abstraction, it was
possible to generate a sonic equivalent of the future itself. This explains
why the band felt no necessity to subscribe to the punk insistence on
speed; many tracks of The Gordons are rather ponderously slow in order
to generate a structure around which multiple layers of noise could be
articulated and multiple variations could be developed. The track
Machine Song from the first EP, for example, begins with an almost
formalist two line bass riff on the top of which an irregular guitar line
pursues a range of variations to a simple drum beat before giving way to
waves of distorted noise. The lyrics of the song are also about a type of
machinism that is directly attacked: You walk around like machines/You
go to work in your dreams/ Your mothers telephonics made you mad/Oh
what to do is in your head (The Gordons 1981). These lyrics seem quite
ambiguous in at once denouncing a type of schizo inducing submission to
work and technology, a human programming, while suggesting a possible
escape if only an imaginary one; in a sense, it is through the type of
composed or organised noise that The Gordons perform that an escape
from technological submission is suggested at least implicitly.
The double present/future temporality evident in The Gordons could
also be described as a spectral relation, a sense of being haunted by the
future that is also found in the best cyberpunk writing. To be haunted by
the future does not mean becoming imaginary or fictional and therefore
apolitical, but rather discerning the emergent tendencies of the future
within the present as futurologists from Toffler to McLuhan and
Baudrillard have also done from different perspectives. Hence, the music
of The Gordons is populated less by Sci Fi technologies, such as space
travel, and more by visions of industrial machinery and accidents, factory
labour, or visions of nuclear apocalypse that permeate the entire rare The
Gordons Volume II (1984). This futurology in the case of The Gordons
did not take place from any academic position but rather as a wholly
autonomous marginal enterprise, in an equally marginal planetary context,
from the edge of the world as they would later sing as Bailter Space; it
can therefore be seen more as a mutant production of cyborg subjectivity

Michael Goddard


and affect, a form of resistance to the apocalyptic Gone Machine (The

Gordons 1984) of late 20th century nuclear politics and technology.
Meanwhile, in Slovenia at around the same time, the group Laibach
emerged as a multimedia entity with the ambitious aim of exploring the
links between art and ideology through the medium of being an Industrial
rock group. However, in the place of Western Industrial Musics
fetishisation of the aesthetics of the industrial revolution and mechanical
technologies, Laibach were reprocessing the real history of revolutions,
totalitarianisms and warfare that had taken place in their region in the 20th
century, often deliberately resurrecting archaic elements, such as
bombastic modernist classical music and Slovenian folklore. To give a
clear example of Laibachs aesthetic strategies, one can take the practice
of new originals adapted from Pop Art. In particular, the first and most
notorious example of this practice is the alternative version of Life is
Life to be found on the Laibach album Opus Dei (1986).5 The idea of the
new original is to treat existing popular music as a readymade cultural
artifact that is amenable to reprocessing and recombination with other
elements thereby bringing out its latent ideological content. Life is life
was an apparently innocuous Eurorock anthem by the Austrian group
Opus, who, in order to facilitate international record sales, wrote the song
in English. Laibach underscore this linguistic hegemony by translating the
song back to German. More than this, by combining the song with other
sonic elements, they clearly bring out the latent Fascistic elements of the
original recording, which were already implicit in the songs call for unity:
Its the feeling of the people/Its the feeling of the land (Laibach 1986).
Laibachs one piece of lyrical subversion is to convert the final optimistic
chorus of Every-one gave everything and everybody sings, to the more
ominous every-one gave everything and perished with the rest (Laibach
1986), a clear reference to the suicidal politics of total warfare operative in
the Nazi regime. But it would be a mistake to read Laibachs strategy
purely in terms of lyrical recontextualisation: Laibach transform the whole
tone of the song from a light and frivolous pop song to something dark and
portentous. The end result is not an ironic ideological exercise but a
maximising of the aesthetic and political force of the song, giving rise to a
copy that is far more powerful than the original.
Laibachs focus on temporality was especially expressed in their strong
interest in popular musical forms, particularly disco. In contrast to other
industrial groups who conceived of the industrial in a narrow literal sense

Laibachs practice of New Originals and its reworking of strategies of

conceptual and Pop Art are explored in more detail in Monroe.


Noise as Cultural Subversion: The Return of Post-Punk

in terms of industrial noise, Laibach saw disco as the industrial music par
excellence in that its repetitive rhythms were a training and mechanisation
of bodies perhaps even more potent than the regime of industrial labour.
For Laibach, disco expressed the essence of mass cultural music as eternal
repetition of the same and their strategy was simply to add another layer of
repetition. However, this affirmation of repetition resulted in a form of
simulation in which the hierarchy of the original over the copy is
abandoned. This is clearly a process fully engaged with temporality. Not
only do Laibach incorporate in the same recording untimely elements and
styles, but they also incorporate the power of popular music to generate
rhythms and thereby temporalise bodies into a hyper-temporalisation that
makes this process of control explicit: Disco Rhythm, as a regular
repetition, is the purest, the most radical form of the militantly organized
rhythmicity of technicist production, and as such the most appropriate
means of media manipulation (Laibach qtd. in Monroe 215). Rather than
resulting in a Fascistic control, however, this process is strangely
liberating for the audience, since it mystifies and demystifies at the same
time the very pleasures it is meanwhile generating.
This temporal dimension of Laibach was made explicit on one of their
most recent releases, WAT or We Are Time. This is Laibachs most
reflexive release, referring not only as usual to both recent history and the
history of musical styles but also to Laibachs own history through both
the sampling of their own early recordings and the lyrical content. On the
remixed version of the track We Are Time as it appears on the Anthems
compilation, which begins with a sampling of Laibachs own recordings,
they go furthest into their own myth to the point that they annex time itself
to themselves. The lyrics state that they are no ordinary group or
humble pop musicians (Laibach 2004) but rather time itself, an
association supported sonically by the constant presence of a ticking
clockor possibly a time bombthroughout the track. Later in the song,
Laibachs critique of the easy consumption of pop music and their
untimely divergence from it is made absolutely explicit: But when our
beat stops and the lights go out/And when we leave this place/You will be
left here all alone with a static scream locked on your face/We are time
(Laibach 2004).
The Gordons and Laibach clearly exceed both the temporal and
geographical mapping of post-punk in Reynolds book and show that postpunk is not defined by a set of dates or Anglo-American coordinates but
an aesthetic and political response to the event of punk. Furthermore, even
if this response now seems barely possible in a Western context, where
both punk and post-punk have been so recycled as to be merely part of an

Michael Goddard


apolitical style repertoire for groups like Interpol or The Editors, or worse
as commercially motivated parodic self-simulation as in the reformed Sex
Pistols, the example of Laibach gives some indication that the
constructivism of post-punk may still be possible in post-socialist contexts
as borne out, for example, by the Polish group Cool Kids of Death with
their anthem Generation Nothing expressing directly the historical
experience of the disadvantaged incorporation of Polish youth into New
Europe. As a final example of this continued possibility of post-socialist
post-punk, there is the video for Anglia from Laibachs recent album
Volk, which is composed entirely of national anthems, and which reprises
in a post-punk fashion, the Sex Pistols detournement of God save the
Queen but from a post-socialist position. After we see via a distorted lens
a decrepit older woman preparing bacon and eggs to reasonably faithful
rendition of the original anthem, Laibachs industrial techno rock breaks
out as the singer intones, So you still believe you are ruling the world
(Laibach 2006). This track and video is therefore a potent reminder of
post-punks militancy and ability, or at least intentions, to use music and
their accompanying media to destabilise aesthetic expectations and
critique existing power relations. Whether post-punk in the UK is still
capable of this is less certain but certainly its return gives the impression
that there is a strong desire for popular cultural forms capable of doing so.

Works cited
Ford, Simon. 2003. Hip Priest. London: Quartet.
Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London:
Home, Stewart. 1996. Cranked up Really High. London: Codex.
Monroe, Alexei. 2006. Interrogation Machine: Laibach and NSK. Short
Circuits Series. Boston, Mass: MIT.
Reynolds, Simon. 2006. Rip it up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984.
London: Penguin.
Toffler, Alvin. 1970. Future Shock. New York: Random House.
Wright, Steve. 2002. Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle
in Italian Autonomist Marxism. London: Pluto.

The Fall. Bingo Masters Break Out/Repetition. 1978.
. Grotesque. 1980.
. Early Years: 1977-1979. 1981a.


Noise as Cultural Subversion: The Return of Post-Punk

. Slates. 1981.
The Gordons. Future Shock EP. 1981.
. The Gordons Vol. 2. 1984.
Laibach. Opus Dei. 1986.
. Anthems. 2004.
. Volk. 2006.
The Mekons. Fear and Whiskey. 1985.
. Ghosts of American Astronauts/Robin Hood. 1988.
. The Curse of the Mekons. 1991.
. Oooh! Out of our Heads. 2002.



1968 British Cinema, along with a number of other national cinemas,

saw a selection of radical texts that attempted to interrogate dominant
modes of representation, ideology and social relations within the feature
film. From Tony Richardsons The Charge of the Light Brigade, which
analysed the failings of the officer class in the Crimean war through a
modern prism, to Lindsay Andersons if...., with its critique of the
stratification of society and the illusion of classlessness in Harold
Wilsons Britain, the cinema in Britain seemed to be responding to the
perceived militancy of the day. These films can be argued to be broadly
Utopian in their aims and can be read as indicative of the counter-cultural
tenor of that year. Perhaps the most interesting example of a film that
played with the cultural zeitgeist is Performance (Donald Cammell &
Nicolas Roeg, 19701). This paper will utilise a selection of psychoanalytic
concepts that may usefully explicate Utopian tropes within this text. Then,
more broadly, as a form of appendix or epilogue, psychoanalysis and its
relationship to history will be explicated, with specific emphasis on the
utility of this discussion for looking at texts from the late 1960s. Finally,
the films position within the British counter-culture will briefly be
illuminated. Initially, a brief synopsis of the film will be given, followed
by a discussion of its themes and the usefulness of a psychoanalytic
Performance takes place in South and West London in 1968 and
concerns the exploits of a South London gangster, Chas Devlin (James
Fox), who has to hide out in West London after killing a business

The film was shot in 1968, but was not released by Warner Bros until 1970 in the
US and 1971 in Britain. For a full discussion of the protracted struggle over the
films release, please see Colin MacCabes (1998) BFI monograph.

Martin Hall


associate. He takes refuge in the house of Turner (Mick Jagger), a faded

rock star; whilst there, he is given hallucinogenic mushrooms. After this,
his gangster bosses find him and he is asked to leave to accompany Harry
Flowers (Johnny Shannon), his main boss; presumably he is going to be
executed. Before agreeing to this, Chas shoots Turner in the head.
However, when Chas is driven away with Flowers at the end of the film, it
is Turners face that is seen through the car window.
Throughout, the film indulges in a play of mirrors, relating this to the
theme of the gestalt of the two main characters that appear to merge at the
end: therefore, a Lacanian approach seems to be usefully paradigmatic.
Mirrors are a fundamental part of the mise-en-scne and are used to set up
discourses around identity within the text. Misrecognition is an important
narrative trope and, of course, a major part of Jacques Lacans discourse
upon the fictive nature of the subject. The usefulness of this approach is
further highlighted by the original poster for the film which contains two
images of Turner, one as himself and one where he is dressed as Chas,
under the banner, Vice. And Versa. Allied to this, the text plays with
temporality; this can also be related to subject positioning and to the death
drive. The text is at once fragmented, fluid and lacking in narrative
closure; again, all of this suggests the usefulness of Lacan for this
interpretation. Lacans use of language, as well as the polysemic
interpretation of terms found in his work, suggests a lack of Oedipal
resolution at the centre of his writings. This complements his belief that
language can never fully articulate the meanings found in psychoanalysis.
Lacan does not provide his reader with a definite outcome that can be
comprehended, packaged and utilised. Similarly, Performance does not
foreground the Oedipal resolution common to narrative cinema and is not
a text that particularly displays Oedipal conflicts, though there are
occasional exceptions to this; much narrative cinema is based upon a
structure of equilibrium, the destabilising of that equilibrium, followed by
struggle and the resolution of equilibrium. Performance is flexible,
abstruse, open to many interpretations.
As suggested, Performance sets up and plays with discourses on the
concept of merging, principally through the two main characters, Turner
and Chas: a Lacanian reading would suggest that each fluctuates to and
from a position as the others Ideal ego, or reflection in the mirror,
depending on the stage each is at in the narrative. An analysis of the idea
of the image as a kind of gestalt of the childs emerging sense of self is
therefore a useful way into the text. Turner, in particular, is a man whose
ego needs external objects, who needs an other. Performance deals with
many other forms of merging: there is the business merger, the blurring


Come Together: 1968, Performance, and the Utopian Spirit of Merging

of gender, the class merger. At a meta-narrative level controlling these

tropes of gestalt is the blurring of Chas and Turner. The violence at the
end of the film, which will be suggested to have a transcendent, transgressive
quality, is precipitated by Turners fundamental misrecognition of who
Chas is. Therefore, misrecognition is central to the essential ambiguity of
the text and the basis for part of this initial discussion, being also pertinent
to the characters positions within the Imaginary and the Symbolic. To
begin the discussion, here is an indicative section from the Mirror Stage:
This form would have to be called the Ideal-I, [] in the sense that it will
also be the source of secondary identifications, under which term I would
place the functions of libidinal normalizations. But the important point is
that this form situates the agency of the ego, before its social
determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain
irreducible for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the
coming-into-being (le devenir) of the subject asymptotically, whatever the
success of the dialectical syntheses by which he must resolve as I his
discordance with his own reality. (Lacan 2002a, 2-3)

Lacans account of the fundamental misrecognition situated in the

constitution of the ego finds filmic representation in Turner, who has not
accomplished this dialectical synthesis. He is not fully formed as
subject, which places him in the Imaginary (his years as a successful rock
star2 and communicator are behind him). He hopes that Chas can propel
him into the world of language, in this case communication through music,
which we can interpret as the Symbolic, through his role as Ideal I. As
the Imaginary is the order of identifications, Turners existence within it is
particularly pertinent to the attachment he effects with Chas. Turner
attempts to become like Chas in order to assuage the otherness felt in that
original moment of misrecognition in the mirror. Of course, adult
narcissistic relationships are an extension of this initial imaginary
relationship: as the Imaginary functions as the site of the birth of the
illusory fixed subject, then both Turners and Chass subject positions, as
well as the identifications they attempt to effect, can be seen to exist
within this register when they meet each other.
Turner lives in a large house with two housemates, never entering
outside, never communicating with anyone from outside his indefinable,

Turner feels that he is no longer successful because he has lost his daemon,
which drove him. The film plays around with Jungian ideasarchetypes, the
animathroughout. However, this paper is not concerned with this approach. For
a full discussion see C. G. Jung (1993). I prefer to see this daemon as a form of
Thanatos, or death drive.

Martin Hall


womb-like bubble. This imaginary plenitude is disrupted by the entry of

Chas into the house. For Turner, it is Chass mastery of the language of
violence, which for Turner is bound up with artistic creation, which allows
him this privileged position as Ideal ego. This language of violence works
both within the Imaginary as a creative and instinctual form, and within
the Symbolic, as an authoritative voice. Of course, the childs entry into
the Symbolic is always fictive, due to the fact that it is predicated upon the
misrecognition present in the mirror; therefore, Turner looking for this
move into the Symbolic through the vehicle that is Chas is always
doomed. Samuel Weber describes this type of identification as [one] with
an image whose otherness is precisely overlooked in the observation of
similarity (13). This imaginary feeling of wholeness, this self-deception,
is the precipitator that drives the narrative of the film. Also, Lacans
discussion in The Function and Field of Speech and Language in
Psychoanalysis of the function of the image as something that depicts not
through reproduction, but through a process of dismantling, is precisely
what Turner attempts to do to Chas, through the use of psychedelic
Also, as suggested above, Turner can be seen to function as Chass
Ideal-I as well, through the sexual ease he exhibits with his housemates,
Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michle Breton). This is
complemented by the ease with which he displays his somewhat
reconstructed masculinity, which is made explicit during the film when
Pherber describes Turner to Chas as a real man, a male-female man.
This is attractive, and threatening, to Chas, who harbours homosexual,
sado-masochistic desires and has had a homosexual relationship in the past
with Joey Maddocks (Anthony Valentine), the man he recently killed. This
secondary identification with Turner briefly allows Chass masculinity to
alter, to become less defensive (in many ways, a successful dialectical
synthesis), before his violent, fractured ego re-asserts itself. This is a
form of identification that can be described as narcissistic and can also be
seen to parallel the spectators gaze upon the figure of Turner, in the
context of the spectators identification with Mick Jagger as star.
Moreover, as Lacan states: [i]f the object perceived from without has its
own identity, the latter places the man who sees it in a state of tension,
because he perceives himself as desire, and as unsatisfied desire (1988,
166). This comment, from a seminar where Lacan revisited his theory of
the Mirror Stage, seems to encapsulate Chass dilemma. Chass narcissism
places him as desire, despite his interest in Turner, creating a constant
struggle both inwardly and towards Turner. In the same seminar, Lacan
suggests that the double relationship with himself that is created for man


Come Together: 1968, Performance, and the Utopian Spirit of Merging

in the mirror gives rise to a state where all the objects of his world are
always structured around the wandering shadow of his own ego (166).
What we have here then, relevant to both Chas and Turner, is the lack felt
in the mirror, that which is other, given structure within the external world,
obviously leading to more lack. This can be seen to function as an
example of what Ellie Ragland refers to as a barrier against limitless
jouissance (105).
The figures of Turner and Chas, in terms of identification, can also be
viewed through the prism of Freuds postulates on narcissism and objectchoice. Both characters have difficulty forming social relations with
others, and are incapable of meaningful object-choice and object-relations.
Throughout Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud creates a distinction
between primary and secondary narcissism, suggesting, according to Ellie
Ragland, that primary narcissism is a state of indifference between the
ego and the id, characteristic of newborns, psychotics and those depressed
or in mourning (23). This indifferent state is identifiable in Chas, who has
difficulty distinguishing between imaginary relationships and those
existing within the world of language. Turner also has similar difficulties:
his existence in the Imaginary bubble of the house as well as his current
lack of success as a musician have placed him in an indefinable place
outside of the world of language.
Some scenes from the film will be analysed now in more detail, with
attention paid to the various motifs outlined in the preceding paragraphs.
The first indicative scene is the primary meeting of Turner and Chas, after
Pherber has let Chas into the house and said that he can stay. Turner is
called upstairs to meet Chas, and enters an ornate and cluttered room that
has been described as decorated in the Gibbsan Moroccan manner
(MacCabe 9). The room is also littered with musical equipment, lost
objects and remnants of Turners previous life. They first see each other
through their reflections in a mirror on the ceiling, immediately setting up
their relationship in the narrative, as well as the relationship suggested
through this analysis. At this point, Turner does not want Chas to have the
room. There is then a conversation between the two, with them standing
on opposite sides of a screen: whilst not literally a mirror, the screen has a
signifying agency in the characters relationship. Chas, when told that he
wouldnt fit in replies, whilst looking upwards, Im an artist, Mr.
Turner, like yourself. Turner begins to take an interest in him when Chas
names him as his like: Turner, as has been stated, wishes to gain access to
the relevant parts of the world of (artistic) language. Chas seems to see
Turner in a contrasting size (un relief de stature) [] in contrast with the
turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him (Lacan

Martin Hall


2002a, 3). Chas is in a state of flux at this juncture within the narrative: he
is on the run from his gangster bosses and is ill at ease in his new
surroundings. Later, whilst on the phone to his friend Tony Farrell (Ken
Colley), he is asked where he is: he replies that he is on the left.
Literally, this means West London, but the phrase has other connotations:
the political left, a place of strangeness,3 a space where lack is made real
through loneliness and the fear of being left. At this point, Chas, in a very
literal way, needs the approval of this other artist. He has run from a
situation of extreme peril and sees, or as it will turn out, misrecognises
Turner and the house as a person and a space where he can hide out, where
his identity can be reconstructed. He sees the house as a possible haven, a
place where all the eruptions of his unruly unconscious can be put to rest.
What follows on from Chass plea is the following interchange:
Turner: I wonder, if you were me, what would you do?
Chas: It depends who you are, which I dont know.
Turner: Who I am? Do you know who you are?
Chas: Eh? Yes.
Turner: Well that simplifies matters. You can stay.

This exchange is crucial to the narrative and to the whole discourse of

misrecognition that runs throughout the film. Turner allows Chas to stay
because of the certainty he displays about his constituted ego and access to
the world of language: he functions at this point as the name of the father
[in which] [] we must recognize the support of the Symbolic function
which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure
of the law (Lacan 2002b, 74). Of course, the Symbolic Order, within
which we can see the name of the Father as a type of master signifier,
serves to cancel out the Real. Turner may well have access to the Real
through psychedelic drug usage and through his living in a space that is
not particularly definable through language. Turners attempt to embrace
the Symbolic, which he sees as being represented by Chas, is his attempt
to embrace what he sees as life through his turning away from the Real,
with its associations of negative jouissance and death. Turners lack of
access to the world of language (the violent language of creativity already

The Latin word sinister, sinistre in Old French or sinistra in Italian, means left.
This predates its contemporary meaning. It meant left-hand in middle English
and is associated with the left hand path in magic, the black path. Of course,
until the first twenty years or so of the last century, the Catholic Church (and other
denominations) forced left-handed children to use their right, because of these


Come Together: 1968, Performance, and the Utopian Spirit of Merging

alluded to, as well as the language of the figure of the law) makes
Chass (illusory) mastery of it attractive, with its dual associations for
Turner of jouissance and knowledge. As if to prove to himself that he
knows who he is, the next thing the spectator sees Chas do after he leaves
the room is wash off the hair dye that he had put on as a disguise before
entering the house.
The next emblematic section of the film is the trip scene, in many
ways the defining point of the narrative. To gloss over the early part of this
slightly, there is a discussion about Chass image, his act. We see
Turners face superimposed, via a dissolve, over Chass and hear the line
time for a change. After this there is a relay of looks between Chas and
Turner, defensive on the formers part, eroticised and inquisitive on the
latters. Chas tells Turner and Pherber that he needs his photo taken (for
his passport, which they eventually realise) and they begin to play with his
image, initially dressing him as a 1930s gangster. There is then a shot of
Chas, as a 30s gangster, reflected in the mirror, literally split in two. His
image reflects Turners idea of the type of masculinity that he thinks Chas
embodies, which we can think of as a maturation of [] power [] as
Gestalt [] in an exteriority in which this form is certainly more
constituent than constituted (Lacan 2002a, 3). Turner thinks that he can
access this through merging symbiotically with Chas. However, this type
of desire, as Lacan suggests, is a mirage. Due to Chass dissatisfaction
with this image of himself, Turner begins to wonder if he does know who
he is, if he does have access to what Turner is looking for.
The mushrooms are beginning to have an effect upon Chas at this
point, unlocking his unconscious and letting out his repressed sexuality
and desire for a more feminine aspect to his masculinity. We see him in
Middle Eastern clothes, almost in drag, looking at himself with
satisfaction in the mirror. There are more images of mirrors in the next few
minutes of the narrative, acting as both conduits and barriers between
Chas and Turner. These create a succession of subjects and Others. Lacan
suggests that [t]here is the real person who is before you and who takes
up space []. And then there is the Other whom we were talking about,
who is the subject also, but not the reflection of what you see in front of
you, and not simply what takes place insofar as you see yourself seeing
yourself (1993, 55-56). At this point Chas sees himself as Other (the 30s
gangster, as well as the hippy in Arabic dress), as imagined by Turner, as
himself as he existed before his entry into the house, as himself as ideal
ego through the prism of his identification with Turner, and in Turner as
ego ideal imagined in exteriority. Allied to this, he sees Turner as ideal

Martin Hall


ego and as ego ideal. Turner also sees Chas in a similar variety of
subject/object positions in this scene.
Chas is made aware of what he has taken and initially reacts badly.
Pherber calms him down by telling him that he is beautiful; they have just
dismantled him a little to see how he functions. We then see, in a
hallucinatory fashion, Turner, dressed as a 50s rocker, in leather, moving
and talking like Chas, deliver probably the films most famous line: the
only performance that makes it, that really makes it all the way, is the one
that achieves madness. Am I right? This is an explicit example of the
merging of the two egos previously referred to. In the context of the
narrative, the spectator must assume that this is diegetic and seen by Chas:
in fact, quite possibly his mirage. Chas and Pherber are now in a bedroom
and he is still wearing a very long wig. The following conversation takes
Chas: Whats he want?
Pherber: Maybe a little mirror. A little dark mirror.
Chas: Imirror he shant, the thieving little slag!
Pherber, who has repeated twice the line a little dark mirror whilst
Chas is talking: He wont take it away, you fool! He just wants to look
at it. Hes stuck! Stuck!

Before going on to discuss this interchange, the next speech from

Pherber will also be outlined. She tells Chas the story of how Turner lost
his daemon, mentioning that it happened whilst Turner was looking in
the mirror (the spectator sees a shot of Turner looking in the mirror),
ending by saying that he is still trying to decide if he wants it back.
Therefore, Turner can be specifically seen as someone who is fearfully
looking for something in a mirror, searching for a lost identification with
himself as Other. Chas says that he needs to tell Pherber something; she
suggests that he goes and tells Turner, adding that Turners been waiting a
long time for him.
The quoted interchange above between Pherber and Chas illustrates
quite directly Chass function as Ideal-I for Turner and Chass fear
about losing his (illusory) power as subject. Chass fear here can be seen
as an example of what Lacan refers to as a fear of the fading of the
subject (1982, 94). Lacan situates this in the splitting of the subject that
he terms aphanisis4 and it is part of a movement that he describes as

This term literally means, from the Greek, the disappearance of sexual desire.
However, as the quote suggests, Lacan uses it to refer to the fading of the neurotic
subject. Bruce Fink suggests that, in aphanisis [o]bject a comes to the fore and is


Come Together: 1968, Performance, and the Utopian Spirit of Merging

lethal (Lacan qtd. in Mitchell 16). The lethal aspects of Chass feelings
towards Turners power over him as subject will be felt at the end of the
film. Chas as dark mirror also illustrates Turners misrecognition of
Chas and his access to this language of violence, which exists both in the
Imaginary and the Symbolic, as has been stated. The gap between Turners
need for this access and his demanding it is where his desire is situated,
which can be construed through a further section from Lacan: the
obsessional subject drags into the cage of his narcissism the objects in
which his question reverberates back and forth (2002b, 98). The question
for Turner of course is whether or not he again wants access to this
language of violence, the object of which can be seen as the little dark
mirror, the subject Turner himself, with both functioning as locus for this
Chas then enters again the room in which he first encountered Turner
but everything has changed. The camera zooms into Chass ear canal,
making it clear that what we are about to see is from his point of view, part
of his hallucinatory experience. An iris-out takes us to Harry Flowers
office, where he is sitting in his chair, saying come in. The rest of the
gang are there, as is Chas. This is an echo of a scene in the first half of the
film. Flowers changes into Turner, who is repeating me, me, situating
Turner now both as Symbolic Father (Flowers has obviously functioned as
this in terms of being his boss. This has been seen in the various Oedipal
conflicts between the two) and placing him in Chass unconscious as the
object of his anger. The song Memo from Turner (which refers to Chas
as a faggy little leather boy, amongst other things) that follows takes
place within the future anterior register.
The tense, tone and address of Memo from Turner all work within
the register. Samuel Weber, discussing Lacans use of this tense to
describe the historicity of the subject, makes the point that the future
anterior breaks down the fixed subject positions associated with the
absolute knowledge that the present perfect tense allows for (7-9). Chas
has existed within this temporal discourse: despite his repressed sexuality,
his clothes, his use of violence, his physical presence, have all allowed
him to view himself as fixed subject in the present perfect. All of this is
what has made him attractive to Turner. The scene under discussion
removes Chas from this arena of temporal certainty, ironically through the
vehicle of Turners words. The tense calls into question subjective
identity (Weber 9) and is the first fissure in Chass personality. A
cast in the leading role in fantasy, the subject being eclipsed or overshadowed
thereby (73). This is a useful description of the beginning of the processes that
will lead to the end of the film.

Martin Hall


dialectic of uncertainty is created for Chas which later will break down the
relationships already formed between Turner and himself. The song tells
him what he shall have been for in the process of what he is becoming
(2002b, 94), to paraphrase Lacan. It forces him to re-write his possible
pasts to create the future(s) that he can become. One of the last lines sung
is remember who you say you are: Turner (both as Flowers and as
Chass conditional past creating his possible futures) smashes the mirror.
The affect of this is not felt until later in the film: it is repressed, to return
later. Chass sexuality is released and he goes to Lucy5 and the two of
them make love.
The affect of repression and its return is felt at this point in the text.
Freud states:
[p]sychoanalytical observation of the transference neuroses, moreover,
leads us to conclude that repression is not a defensive mechanism which is
present from the very beginning, and that it cannot arise until a sharp
cleavage has occurred between conscious and unconscious mental
activitythat the essence of repression lies simply in turning something
away, and keeping it a distance, from the conscious. (1985a, 146-147)

The song functions within the narrative as this sharp cleavage. Again,
this rupture is related to Chass move into an anterior state of time, with its
attendant associations of anticipated belatedness (Weber 9, his
emphasis). He knows that he is waiting for the return of his violence. It
marks the point where Chas represses this fissure created by Turners
breaking of the mirror. We shall return to the question of the future
anterior when discussing the death drive.
Chas, still dressed in a Middle-Eastern fashion and wearing the wig,
then goes to get Lucy some soap and is confronted by Flowers men in the
hallway. Effectively, Chas has allowed this to happen by forgetting to ring
Tony to organise his false passport for his escape to the United States.
This lapse can be seen as emblematic of Chass death drive. When he gets
up to the bedroom he finds Turner and Pherber in bed. His repressed
violence is returning, part of a revengeful aggressiveness [] in part
determined by the amount of punitive aggression he expects from the
father (Freud 1991, 322). The repressed memory of Turners mocking of
him during the scene previously analysed is returning, creating fear and a
desire for revenge. As Flowers transformed into Turner in the
aforementioned scene, and Flowers men are waiting to take him away,

Lucy turns into Turner at various points during the love scene.


Come Together: 1968, Performance, and the Utopian Spirit of Merging

this is also a fear of a real expected punishment from Flowers. The last
exchanges between Turner and Chas then follow:
Chas: Got to be off now.
Turner: I might come with you, then.
Chas, laughing: You dont know where Im going, pal.
Turner, childishly: I do.

An air of palpable tension then enters the room, accentuated by the music,
a rhythmic, accelerating pulse. Turner begins to pull the covers up to his
Turner: I dunno.
Chas: Yeah, you do.

Chas pulls out his gun, slides the chamber back twice at great speed and
shoots. Through a complex sequence of shots the bullet is seen entering
the ear canal of what we assume is Turners head, followed by a shot of
Jorge Luis Borges6 face, then a cracked mirror. The processes of
identification in the symbolic matrix (Lacan 2002a, 2) are, on one level,
broken, at an end. Turners misrecognition of Chas has become all too
clear to him. Chass ego has reasserted itself and he has reacted in the way
expected of him. Turners attempts to dismantle Chas have created this
rupture within him, which has taken form as bodily aggression.
Despite the perceived destruction of their roles as interchangeable
Ideal-Is the film ends with the ultimate gestalt: as Chas is driven away in
the car, it is Turners face that the spectator sees from the window. This
can be seen as an example of a perfect dialectical synthesis, that is
entirely discordant with reality (Lacan 2002a, 3). The two have become
one. Prior to this we have seen what appears to be Turners dead body
slumped in a cupboard, with no explanation of how it got there. Another
section from Lacan can hopefully illuminate the ending of the film. The
image of Turner in the car can be seen as an example of the virtual
complex (the movements assumed in the image, and the conclusion of the
discourses of the image already discussed), with the dead body as the
reduplicated reality (the reflected environment), (Lacan 2002a, 2), existing
outside the image. Allied to this, Lacans postulate that the obsessional
neurotic and his spectator are united by the mediation of death (2002b,

Jorge Luis Borges, particularly his story El Sur, or The South (1962) is an
inter-textual reference throughout the film. At one point we see Turner reading
from it.

Martin Hall


98) provides another psychoanalytic interpretation of the films climax.

Death has worked as a mediator to bring two subject positions together.
It seems clear that the various gestalts present in the text have been
leading Chas and Turner towards death. Turner, prior to meeting Chas, is a
man whose life seems to have been predicated upon a desire to avoid pain
and pursue pleasure; Chas, on the other hand, has had a more ambivalent
relationship with the pleasure and reality principles. His propensity
towards doing the opposite of what Harry Flowers wants (such as his
involvement in bringing in Joey Maddocks, followed by his murder), his
violence towards others and towards himself, all situate him as a person
who is located between pleasure and un-pleasure, the site of Das Ding, or
the Thing. This space of negative jouissance as a site of internal
destructiveness can be seen to be occupied by Chas for the majority of the
text. Lacans positioning of the death drive as akin to alienation behind the
Symbolic Order relates to Turners positioning of Chas as Ideal ego. There
is a sense in which Turner places Chas as the Thing, as the dream that can
stand in for what is lost; in this case, this is Turners ability to
communicate through his chosen signifying agency, music. Ellie Ragland
suggests that human beings pursue objects that sustain fantasies, even
though attaining an object of fantasy can never completely close the void
(87). There is a void created by language at the centre of the death drive
which Turner hopes can be filled through Chas, positioning Chas also as
objet a.
Ellie Ragland also suggests that [s]ince neither positive nor negative
jouissance is a temporal constant or a state of being, individuals vacillate
between an absolute sense of being somebodybeing there (Da-Sein)
or being nobody, being gone (Fort-Sein) (98). There are elements of
both narcissism and aggressivity in this and, of course, it relates back to
Fort! Da! and the childs entry into the world of language and the
Symbolic Order. This vacillation relates to both Chas and Turner and is
shown in a variety of ways in the text, most specifically at the end. The
gestalt at the end of the film is the most fully realised element of this
being there or being gone. Who is there? Who is not? Both characters
have vacillated between the two positions to such an extent that they have
merged on a plane of both being and non-being. There is a sense here that
the ending functions as an example of the Real, in the sense of it as a space
that exists outside of the subject. This is not to suggest that the ending
cannot be defined through language, merely that it can be said to exist as
an ineffable space.
To turn to temporality, relating it now to the death drive, Jacques
Derrida suggests that we can see the death drive as archive fever (12),


Come Together: 1968, Performance, and the Utopian Spirit of Merging

relating it to the future anterior. What remains then, at the end of

Performance? The creature that is seen being driven away in Flowers car
can be thought of as a type of archival trope, inducing in the spectator
forgetfulness (12). What has the spectator seen at the end? The
spectatorial process functions at this point (after seeing the film, when
beginning a process of archivization) as a form of Nachtrglichkeit, or
deferred action: the spectator has to attempt to reconstruct the ending of
the film in the light of the traces left by the rest of the text. Also, it is
difficult to come to a conclusion about whether or not the figure in the car
has corporeal signification within the story. Turner/Chas possibly exists at
this point as a signifying unit only in the sense of a belated conditionality.
So, at the end we are left with Chas and Turner, or, more appropriately,
Chas/Turner. We have a fluid, signified/not-signified male/male-female
who may or may not be being taken away for execution. This
emancipating gestalt has taken place within the Imaginary, as a mirror
identification based upon both characters desire for an ideal ego, within
the Symbolic, through the merging effected by the gun as symbol and by
language, within the Real, through the death drive, anterior time and its
connection to the archive and melancholic incorporation. More negatively,
if the image of Turner in the car at the end is nothing more than a trace,
and the identifications are broken, then we still have Chas, changed and
improved and made ready for his journey. This is what finally provides the
spectator with a Utopian narrative in 1968: a representation of a perfect
deliverance from the pain of individuation.
The following observations attempt to situate the use of psychoanalysis
with the historical context of the film. Psychoanalysis and history have, of
course, had a somewhat uneasy relationship. Briefly, psychoanalysis has
been seen as ahistorical, due to the lack of empiricism in Freuds work,
ontologically speaking. The text is also discussed below in terms of its
specific, though often inter-textual, connection to the discourses around
freedom present in the 1960s. Of course the 60s is often seen as a decade
where Utopian narratives were indulged and also, to an extent, played out
in the social arena. Full employment, the 1944 Education Act and easily
available birth control all led to a belief in freedom from the social and
economic restrictions imposed upon previous generations. The rise of the
teenager, rock n roll and a new openness in cinematic representation all
helped to create a generation that seemed to see new possibilities in a
classless, anti-consumerist discourse leading to further social change: this
seems to reach its zenith in the various protests in 1968, particularly those
in Paris. In fact, Bernardo Bertoluccis The Dreamers (2003), a relatively
recent film about May 68, appears to explicitly reference Performance at

Martin Hall


various points, particularly in terms of the idea of a personal, spiritual

Michel Foucault, to name a detractor, seems to see psychoanalysis as a
quasi-religious form of confession for the modern age. He sees it as
essentially conformist, referring to its normalizing functions (5),
specifically in terms of it being a safe medical practice that seeks to
problematise transgressive behaviour. In some ways Foucault, despite his
relatively rare usage in Film Studies, would have been a useful way to
situate the text in 1968. After his turning away from structuralism and
psychoanalysis to a determinising history based upon war and battle
(Foucault qtd. in Copjec 4), he declares a solidarity with the students
involved in the events of 1968 who also turned away from structuralism
towards streetwise structures (Copjec 4).
However, Lacan can be argued to be part of this synchronic moment,
as much as Foucault is. Psychoanalysis becomes centred upon Lacan after
1968; his radical deconstruction of the subject and his creation of one that
is fundamentally de-centred and fragmented seemed appropriate for the
time. Of course, this element of Lacanian thought was taken up in France
and England and became part of Film Theory as it was explicated in the
Also, as Antony Easthope points out, Lacan is closer to a historical
analysis than Freud, for example, due to the formers insistence on the
supremacy of culture over nature (351-352). Lacan argues that the modern
ego is competitive and aggressive against the Other and that this is, as
Easthope puts it correlative to the energies bound to hold the I together
(352). Lacan situates the ego in a paranoid, modern context. Chass
violence towards Turner (as Ideal I, as Other), and towards the other
characters in the text, takes place in a specific, modern, class-based way
and may therefore usefully be linked to the discourses around
classlessness that were au courant towards the end of the decade. The
language of violent performance found in the text occurs within a specific
cultural milieu, that of the London underworld. There is an element of this
that is based upon a hatred for, as well as a desire to overturn, dominant
(English) modes of labour and exchange value. Many of the gangsters are
of Irish ancestryChas Devlin, Moody (John Bindon), Joey Maddocks,
Tony Farrell; others are JewishDennis (Antony Morton), Rosebloom
(Stanley Meadows). Intertextually, there are London Irish actors playing
gangstersJohnny Shannon, John Bindon, as well as a Jewish Dialogue
Coach/Technical AdvisorDavid Litvinoff, an associate of the Krays.
The end of the text may provide other avenues for a discussion of the
film and its relationship to 1968. The film does have an ambivalent


Come Together: 1968, Performance, and the Utopian Spirit of Merging

relationship with the political upheavals of that year: the working classes
are, as Colin MacCabe suggests, presented as irredeemably stuck; caught
in a vicious circle where homosexuality and chauvinism follow each other
in frozen narcissisms (81). Chas needs the help of the middle classes and
the Other (in the shape of the foreign) to change. However, the text does
provide a real space for hope in the England of 1968, through the notion of
merging across class, gender and (implicitly) race.
The end, as the ineffable space discussed earlier, due to its
connection to the death drive and the Real, also connects the text both to
Utopian aspects of the avant-garde and to the de-centred, proto-post
structuralist project of Situationism and the riots and protests in Paris, as
well as the similar disturbances taking place in the United States,
Grosvenor Square in London, and in other parts of the world in 1968. As
well as this, the fragmented form of the text, allied to the content, fits
perfectly with Jean-Louis Comollis and Jean Narbonis (1968)
contemporary descriptions of the functions of a radical cinema.
Furthermore, the film can be connected to Situationism through it
suggesting itself as a site for the irruption of play, festivity, spontaneity,
and the imagination into the political realm (Plant 70), as the events in
Paris have been described. The film is not about a macro-politic; rather, it
presents itself as a locus for change based in the coming together of
individuals who see the possibility of change in the transcendent
possibilities of freedom (31) present in the text, which Herbert Marcuse
situates in the politics of the era.
The film contains also the Utopian dream of the merging of two social
and sexual worlds, with its breaching of the rigid class divide between
aristocrat decadent and proletarian criminal [] under the sign of gay sex
(McCabe 9). Jon Savage has also identified a Utopian aspect to the end of
the film, referring to it as satisfying and curiously hopeful (qtd. in
McCabe 10). Allied to this, the film is inter-textually connected to the
discourses on freedom of the time through its connection to the Rolling
Stones. Jagger, and the Rolling Stones in general, were at the height of
their position as icons of the radical youth of the 1960s. The film was
made at the same time that the Stones were recording tracks such as
Street Fighting Man and Sympathy for the Devil. The first of these
tracks in particular has come to be forever connected with the events of
May 1968. The second links them to Jean-Luc Godards One Plus One
(aka Sympathy for the Devil) (1968), which interspersed scenes of the
Stones recording with found footage of various riots.
It is also possible to look at Performance as inter-textual collage of the
counter-culture. As well as the Stones generally, there is the figure of

Martin Hall


Brian Jones. Anita Pallenberg, as well as being an actor, model and icon of
the period herself, was Keith Richards girlfriend and previously, Brian
Joness. Jones is felt as a presence throughout the film. Turners house in
Powys Square is based upon Joness and Pallenbergs, one of the major
loci of the 1960s demi-monde, described by Marianne Faithfull, somewhat
mawkishly, as [a] veritable witches coven of decadent illuminati, rock
princelings and hip aristos (3). Allied to this, much of Turner comes from
Jagger doing Jones and Jones and Pallenberg were known to indulge in
sex games where Jones would wear drag; specifically, he would dress up
as the French singer Franoise Hardy, whilst Pallenberg would dress up as
Jones. Jones, like Turner, coped badly with the trappings of fame and
retreated to a private psychic space, before dying in 1969. Then, there is
William Burroughs, Borges, Hassan-I-Sabbah, Mikhail Bulgakov,
Christopher Gibbs, Michael Cooper, Georges Bataille, Antonin Artaud,
Jean Genet, Kenneth Anger, David Litvinoff, Cecil Beaton, Jack Nitzsche,
Randy Newman, The Last Poets and Buffy Saint-Marie, who are all either
referenced in the film, or are part of its production or an influence or trace
felt within it.
Finally, these remarks hopefully give the reader an impression of an
open fluid text that has myriad avenues of analysis open to it. The film is
at once Utopian and transgressive; whilst it is not one that is automatically
connected to political discourses of the time there are ways to read the film
as very much a product of the revolutionary spirit of the 60s. To further
this reading, the ending has been interpreted as replete with the Utopian
possibilities of the era. There are elements of the death drive that are
Utopian and which relate to inchoate longings which may be found in
many narratives: Performance is an example of this.

Works cited
Boothby, Richard. 1991. Death and Desire: Psychoanalytic Theory in
Lacans Return to Freud. London & New York: Routledge.
Borges, Jorge Luis. 1962. Fictions. Trans. Donald A. Yates et al. London:
Weidenfield and Nicolson.
Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen, eds. 1999. Film Theory and Criticism:
Introductory Readings, 5th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Comolli, Jean-Luc and Jean Narboni. 1968. Cinema/Ideology/Criticism.
In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, eds. Braudy, L
and Cohen, M. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 752-759.
Copjec, Joan. 1994. Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists.
Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: The MIT Press.


Come Together: 1968, Performance, and the Utopian Spirit of Merging

Derrida, Jacques. 1996. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans.

Eric Prenowitz. London & Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Easthope, Antony. 1995. History and Psychoanalysis. In Textual
Practice, vol. 9, no. 2. 349-363.
Faithfull, Marianne. 1994. Year One. London: Penguin.
Fink, Bruce. 1995. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and
Jouissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1998. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, The Will to
Knowledge. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin.
Freud, S. 1985a. Mourning and Melancholia. In On Metapsychology.
Trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin. 245-268.
. 1985b. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In On Metapsychology.
Trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin. 269-338.
. 1991. Civilization and its Discontents. In Civilisation, Society and
Religion. Trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin. 243-340.
Jung, Carl Gustav. 1993. Aspects of the Masculine. Trans. R.F.C. Hull.
London: Routledge.
Lacan, Jacques. 1982. Guiding Remarks for a Congress on Feminine
Sexuality. In Jacques Lacan and the cole freudienne, eds. Juliet
Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. London: MacMillan. 86-98.
. 1988. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II The Ego in Freuds
Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Trans.
Sylvana Tomaselli. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
. 1992. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The Seminar of
Jacques Lacan Book VII. Trans. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge.
. 2002a. The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as
Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience. In crits: a selection, ed.
Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge. 1-8.
. 2002b. The Function and Field of Speech and Language in
Psychoanalysis. In crits: a selection, ed. Alan Sheridan. London:
Routledge. 33-125.
MacCabe, Colin. 1998. Performance. London: BFI.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1969. An Essay on Liberation. Harmondsworth,
Middlesex: the Penguin Press.
Mitchell, Juliet. 1982. IntroductionI. In Jacques Lacan and the cole
freudienne, eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. London:
MacMillan. 1-26.
Mitchell, Juliet, and Jacqueline Rose, eds. 1982. Jacques Lacan and the
cole freudienne. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. London: MacMillan.
Plant, Sadie. 1992. The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International
in a Postmodern Age. London: Routledge.

Martin Hall


Ragland, Ellie. 1995. Essays on the Pleasures of Death: From Freud to

Lacan. New York & London: Routledge.
Sheridan, Alan, ed. 2002. crits: a selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan.
London: Routledge.
Weber, Samuel. 1991. Return to Freud: Jacques Lacans Dislocation of
Psychoanalysis. Trans. Michael Levine. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.



My narrative with its mythological overtonesOne day, once

upon a timemight thus revolve around an event, as it
should, but an event both virtual and current, more or less than
real. Around something but also somebody, a person or mask, a
role, persona, a woman no doubt, and both the thing and she
would answer to the name Psyche. [] Psyche lies at rest,
asleep or dead, as if dead, before Eros, who contemplates
her. Apparently without touching her. (Derrida 11-13)
In that place, there is no discovery to scrutinize. That which
lets itself go in the most intimate touch remains invisible.
Touch perceives itself but transcends the gaze. And the issue of
nakedness. Touch never shows itself, not even if its precision
could thus be made manifest. Reaching the other, or not. But it
remains palpable flesh on this side of and beyond the visible.
(Irigaray 192)

In his famous 1963 Preface to Transgression, Foucault conceptualizes

transgression, via Maurice Blanchot, as an action which involves the
limit that incessantly crosses and recrosses a line which closes up behind
it in a wave of extremely short duration, and thus it is made to return once
more right to the horizon of the uncrossable (34). As such, therefore,
transgression is not just an act directed against or towards a beyond of the
limit, but rather a back and forth movement of traversing the limit,
which always entails interdependence of transgression and limit. There is
at work a constant negotiation between forms of resistance and power; a
dynamics according to which they always partake of each other. For
Foucault, the movement of transgression takes place in an uncertain
context, in certainties that are immediately upset so that thought is

Magorzata Myk


ineffectual as soon as it attempts to seize them, until, finally, transgression

becomes an expression of the nonpositive affirmation of difference; a
form of contestation that does not repose on a generalized negation,
but proceed[s] until one reaches the empty core where being achieves its
limit and where the limit defines being (34; 36). In my reading of
Foucault, transgression entails a complex interplay of forces of a
transactional, that is reciprocal and reversible, nature. As Foucault further
says, A limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and,
reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit
composed of illusions and shadows (34), which may perhaps serve as a
good departure point for approaching Persona, one of the most enigmatic
and transgressive films in the history of worlds cinematography, which I
see as deeply preoccupied with the dynamics between both the act of
transgression and the limit itself.
The available criticism of Bergmans film has been trying to solve
Personas enigma through a variety of approaches that have explored its
preoccupation with the limits of identity and art more or less successfully.
Among the interpretations that served as important contexts for the
forthcoming analysis are: Susan Sontags 1967 essay on the film (coming
from her collection of essays titled Styles of Radical Will), Marilyn Johns
Blackwells 1997 study Gender and Representation in the Films of Ingmar
Bergman, as well as Don Fredericksens well known 2005 book on
Persona. Starting from the most recent of these texts, Fredericksens
Jungian study makes a convincing case for classifying the film as an
example of what the author aptly terms the liminal cinema, which focuses
on the space of transition between consciousness and unconsciousness and
is characterized by ambiguity and indeterminacy. The notion of liminality
indeed emerges as a key concept in Persona, not only because it relates
directly to the notion of transgression in obvious ways, but because, as it
seems to me, it also touches upon the dynamics of transgression and limit
understood in the Foucauldian sense of a continuing negotiation and
interdependence between the seemingly irreconcilable polarities of mask
and person, mind and body, as well as speech and silence. In this context,
among the early critical responses to the film, Sontags essay still appears
to be a relevant context, since the critics position is defined by the
emphasis on problematization of the readily available interpretations and
identified meanings of Persona that are bound to remain elusive and
incomplete. Fraught with dilemmas that perversely resist interpretation
and remain intractable, the film challenges the viewers to its own doubly
enigmatic status; the enigma of the two womens uncanny transactionality
is further complicated by the enigma of Persona as a mediation on the


Transgressive Transactionality in Ingmar Bergmans Persona

film which is about them (Sontag 136). For Sontag as well, even though
the word liminal does not appear in her essay, Bergman is interested
primarily in the liminal indeterminacy of the depths in which
consciousness drowns, which is shown through the prism of the womens
transactions1, the theme of doubling of identities, and the unrelieved
dualism of the chiasmic relationship between mask and person, to
recapitulate the most important points that Sontag makes (141).
Since in this essay I am interested in both the psychical and the
corporeal aspect of transactionality that occurs between the two women in
the film, I also find Blackwells study quite revealing as regards how
Bergman is preoccupied with the questions of seeing, gender and the body.
Blackwell notes that Bergmans feminist critics, while being generally
appreciative of the directors particular interest in the position of women
in cultural contexts in his films after 1960 (I am thinking here specifically
about Persona, The Silence, and Cries and Whispers) (1), have also
frequently emphasized and critiqued the ways in which Bergmans films
portray objectification of women and betray a thoroughly offensive
determinist misogyny (3). As Blackwell further observes, [f]or
Bergman, women are autonomous subjects and yet they are also construed
by the culture in which they live and by the act of representation (4). In
one of the chapters devoted to the film, Persona is analyzed from the
vantage point of feminist film theory with the focus on two lines of critical
investigation: deconstruction of the Self versus Other dualism and
instances of the false mergence occurring both within the film between the
female characters as well as between spectator and the films spectacle
itself. In her analysis, Blackwell draws from Sontags seminal
interpretation and argues that in Bergmans project interchangeability is
always equated with invalidity, because the transactions between the
characters are constantly subverted and deconstructed. According to
Blackwell, Persona shows that only false selves can merge; mergence
conflates false selves, not real subjecthoods (153). Because of that, her
way of approaching how Persona dwells on the unclear contours of the

Sontag uses the word transaction in her essay, but not quite in the sense in
which I will be using it in my analysis. I am borrowing the concept of
transaction from Shannon Sullivans 2001 study Living Across and Through
Skins: Transactional Bodies, Pragmatism, and Feminism, where she deploys the
term, via American philosopher John Dewey, to account for the dynamic, coconstitutive relationship of organisms and their environments [] [and to reflect] a
rejection of sharp dualisms between subject and object, and self and world, as well
as a rejection of the atomistic, compartmentalized conceptions of the subject and
self that often accompany such dualisms (1).

Magorzata Myk


self is hampered by the fact that she always construes the meaning of
transactions as negative and false, even though she is committed to
showing that Bergmans film deconstructs the Self versus Other binary.
Importantly, for instance, she analyzes the scenes in which Alma and
Elizabet touch, or the ones in which their images overlap, but she sees
these moments as instances of conflation of false selves that become
distortion and deformity (152). Along similar lines, while her
interpretation privileges and chiefly relies on the psychological mergence
of identities, what she actually focuses on are the many instances of not
only psychical but also physical intimacy, reciprocity of gestures, and
bodily interactions between the characters. While I can certainly see the
problems and limitations of Bergmans portrayals of women that
Blackwell points to, my focus in this paper is different. Given Bergmans
increased interest in human relationships, and the complexity of exchanges
between women in particular, in his films after 1960, I will contend that
Persona most fully brings these questions into focus by amplifying,
problematizing, and artistically exploring the issue of the two womens
intricate transactionality on many interrelated planes. I will try to show
that while Bergman certainly portrayed the transgressive chiasmic
relationship of Self and Other as highly ambivalent and conflicted, his
portrayal does not necessarily have to lead to the negative conclusions of
the intransgressible dualistic nature of the womens encounters that remain
further overshadowed by their vampirical intertwining, like Sontag argued,
or the false mergence as an underlying trait of the characters and
spectators transactions, which is the key tenet of Blackwells study of
Bergmans interest in the irreducible transgressive transactionality
between Self and Other will hopefully become evident if we follow from
Foucaults conceptualization of transgression as an acknowledgement of
the existence of difference, here understood as the action of insistent
testing and contesting of forces that carry one towards the limit, as well as
testing and contesting of the limit itself, to Merleau-Pontys transgressive
notion of flesh presented in his unfinished work The Visible and the
Invisible in the Intertwining-the Chiasm chapter. According to MerleauPontys phenomenological account, the flesh of the world is non-dualistic,
that is encompassing both the psychical and corporeal lived experience,
and anonymous, that is prediscursive and prereflective realm that the
philosopher refers to as the wild being, and further explains it as the
tissue that lines the bodies, sustains them, nourishes them, and which for
its part is not a thing, but a possibility, a latency, and a flesh of things
where we interlive and transact with one another (132-133). In


Transgressive Transactionality in Ingmar Bergmans Persona

Merleau-Pontys philosophical reflection on perception and embodiment,

our mutual transactions are always characterized by reversibility that
underlies the interworld of bodies. The insistent emphasis on interliving
defines Merleau-Pontys work from Phenomenology of Perception to his
unfinished The Visible and the Invisible where the philosopher develops
an account of the complex nature of every encounter between Self and
Other, and the perpetually deferring and differentiating nature of that
We have here a dual being, where the other is for me no longer a mere bit
of behaviour in my transcendental field, nor I in his; we are collaborators
for each other in consummate reciprocity. Our perspectives merge into
each other, and we coexist through a common world. [] I enter into a
pact with the other person, having resolved to live in an interworld in
which I accord as much place to others as to myself. But this interworld is
still a project of mine, and it would be hypocritical to pretend that I seek
the welfare of another as if it were mine, since this very attachment to
anothers interest still has its source in me. (1962, 357)

My analysis of Bergmans 1966 Persona is therefore an attempt to show

how the transactionality of the dual being (of Self and Other) is always
inherently transgressive if we agree upon bringing together the Foucauldian
understanding of transgression as a becoming of difference involving the
insistent traversal of the limits between the interrelated spheres of the
social and the personal, as well as the psychical and the corporeal. In
Bergmans film, actress Elizabet Voglers act of transgression, which
initially aims at both testing and silent contestation of the limits imposed
on female identity prescribed by societal norms, results in an uncanny
instance of chiasmic relationship between Elizabet and her nurse Alma,
where transactionality between Self and Other is shown as transgressive
and realized through interrelated spheres of mind and body.
The filmic narrative proper of Persona begins in the morbidly clinical
and sterile setting of a hospital where a young nurse Alma is asked to look
after a famous actress Elizabet Vogler, who suddenly fell silent during one
of the performances of Electra. Elizabet is not considered mentally ill and
the doctor immediately excludes a typical case of female hysteria as a
possible cause of her silence. Rather, as the doctors powerful speech soon
reveals, Elizabets withdrawal into silence is an intentional attempt to step
outside the confining social roles. Her strategic silence communicates a
willful act of transgression against and beyond her life of appearances:
The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming but being. And at the same time
the abyss between what you are for others and what you are for yourself

Magorzata Myk


[] the continual burning need to be unmasked. Every tone of voice a lie,

an act of treason []. The role of a friend, the roles of mother and
mistress, which is worst? [] Kill yourself? Notoo nasty, not to be
done. But you could be immobile. You can keep quiet. Then at least youre
not lying. You can cut yourself off, close yourself in. Then you dont have
to play a part, put on a face, make false gestures. Or so you think. But
reality plays tricks on you. Your hiding place isnt sufficiently water-tight.
Life starts seeping in everywhere [] Elizabet, I [] admire you for it, I
think you should keep playing this part until youve lost interest in it.
(Bergman 1972, 41-42)

In her essay The Aesthetics of Silence, Sontag suggests that Elizabets

withdrawal from language in Persona is a means of power [] a
virtually inviolable position of strength from which she manipulates and
confounds her nurse-companion, who is charged with the burden of
talking (17). Indeed, after the first meeting with the inscrutable Elizabet,
the inexperienced Alma initially panics and tries to withdraw from her task
noticing Elizabets great mental strength, as if anticipating that Vogler is
going to be an uncanny influence on her own life. Nevertheless, in the next
scene we see her during her first sleepless night at the hospital mentally
preparing for her assignment while Vogler is shown sound asleep in her
room. Unable to sleep and getting unbearably restless, Alma delivers a
self-conscious monologue in which she tries to convince herself that the
safety of her job as well as her future married life will bring her selfrealization, but her speech reveals her deep anxiety at the thought of the
falsely secure socially prescribed female role of wife and mother. As
Christopher Orr points out in his analysis of the film, both women want
an authentic social life [that has] been frustrated by the social orders they
inhabit (105). While the assumption that Alma and Elizabet seek
authenticity and truth, made by most critics of Persona, is certainly
correct, I would again take issue with Blackwells attempt to take it as far
as to claim that the two women in Persona strive for a dispassionate
unmediated subjectivity beyond the body (146, my emphasis). It is my
contention that the body and the mind emerge as equally constitutive of
subjectivity in Bergmans film. Just to give a few examples, Almas
intense monologue describing an impromptu orgy on the beach reveals her
repressed sexual desires exacerbated by the trauma of abortion of the child
conceived during the sexual adventure that Alma recounts to Elizabet.
Equally important in the evolution of the womens powerful encounter are
the moments when they touch, and the question of touching is probably
the single crucial aspect that remains largely unexplored in the available
interpretations of Bergmans film. Indeed, there are different kinds of


Transgressive Transactionality in Ingmar Bergmans Persona

touch in Persona, moments of physical contact ranging from tender,

loving, and caring ones, through lenient and forgiving to dismissive,
impatient, angry, or violent. Alma and Elizabets mutual caresses, never
unambiguously pointing to the erotic dimension of their relationship, serve
in lieu of verbal communication only partially disabled by Elizabets selfimposed silence, and, importantly, evince both the garrulous Alma and the
silent Elizabets desire to communicate non-verbally through the body.
What the importance of touch consequently points to is that the women
want to recover the authenticity of embodied existence and thus embodied
communication as they slowly come to a realization that unmediated
corporeality is one of the things lacking in their lives. This and other
Bergmans films abound in references to the body, the female body in
particular, that emerges a contentious site of social inscriptions and
meanings, which is dramatized in the films central conflict of the face and
the mask (i.e.: persona). Therefore, it is both the drama of psyche and
soma that serves as the backdrop of Alma and Elizabets chiasmic
encounter, enacted through the roles of the patient and the nurse that they
self-consciously play and that are ironically reversed, for Bergman
perversely inverts the psychoanalytical model in the film.
In his autobiography, Bergman emphasized the chiasmic nature of the
two womens relationship saying that [t]he patient and the person caring
for her grow close together, like nerves and flesh, and further observed
that Elizabets refusal to speak is caused by the fact that she doesnt want
to lie (Bergman 1994, 54). When Elizabet and Alma go together to the
doctors summer house, their heightened self-awareness connected with
withdrawal and isolation, as well as their closeness to each other, deeply
affect their relationship and the nature of their transactions, which is
masterfully shown by Bergman in a truly magnificent series of shots in
which we see their bodies crossing over each other, and which further
underscore not only the psychical but also the corporeal aspect of the
reversible reciprocal folding of their bodies into one entity evocative of
Merleau-Pontys dual being of Self and Other. For Merleau-Ponty, the
chiasm is an intertwining of psychical and embodied existence, carnality
in its entire biological vulnerability, and finally the tactile as indispensable
to the synesthetic mergence of faculties. The reversibility famously
exemplified by Merleau-Ponty through the act of touching hands, where
each hand is simultaneously touching and touched, becomes central to the
chiasm. Similarly, when Alma and Elizabet compare hands on the beach,
their palms appear to merge in the sudden flashing movement of their
fingers, and Alma portentously jokes that comparing hands brings bad
luck. Indeed, this subtle moment of female bonding is later violently re-

Magorzata Myk


enacted twice in the double monologue scene when Alma torments

Elizabet by forcing upon the actress an account of Elizabets traumatic
experience of motherhood. The double monologue becomes the
culminating point of exchange of the womens identities and bodies. Their
psycho-physical connection achieves a disturbing intensity and Alma
finally identifies as Elizabet. In contrast to the films increasingly violent
transactions between the two women, their reversible psychical and
corporeal intertwining is subtly and beautifully portrayed in a series of
recurring images of Alma and Elizabet lightly touching each other, their
silhouettes crossing over each other, and subsequently disappearing into
the darkness of the fading image. In one of such image-scenes, we see
both women supposedly looking into the mirror, with Elizabet standing
behind Alma and taking the nurses hair away from her forehead to show
how similar they in fact are. Immediately afterwards, their bodies fold into
each other in a cross-like manner, Elizabets face is for a moment covered
with her long hair, then her body slowly falls behind Almas, and the
actresss lips gently rest on the back of Almas neck. There are several
other dreamlike scenes in which Alma approaches Elizabet with the desire
to be embraced and comforted in her restlessness and anxiety. Another
salient scene is the one in which Elizabet is sleeping and Almas body is
bent over her reclining silhouette. In this scene, Alma gently strokes and
caresses Elizabets skin, smells her, and comments on the physical
qualities of her sleeping defenseless body. All the examples that show
female bonding in its entire tenderness and subtle intimacy, however, are
entwined with a set of very different violent transactions, the intensity of
which escalates in the second half of Persona.
Writing about the duel of identities in Persona, Sontag observes that
violence is one of the residual experiences of consciousness subjected to
an ordeal and further notes that the film is chiefly about the violence of
the spirit (136, 141). The scenes in which Alma and Elizabets
transactions become particularly violent, on some level certainly make
Persona a film about a destructive negative doubling of identities, as
Blackwell argues. If we adopt a different perspective, however, the violent
aspect of their transactionality emerges as part and parcel of the
paradigmatic struggle to reach the other. Almas violent gestures signify
her efforts to get through to Elizabet, and, more importantly, her desire to
challenge Voglers silence that clearly puts the actress in the position of
power in their relationship. A pertinent example of this is the scene in
which Alma finally succeeds in making Elizabet speak by threatening to
scald her with boiling water. Elizabet immediately reciprocates by hitting
Alma, who later in the film also hits Elizabet during a different scene. At


Transgressive Transactionality in Ingmar Bergmans Persona

the same time, however, this and other violent scenes in Persona show
that violence in the film is not, as Sontag suggests, only of the spiritual
kind. Towards the end of Persona, during a truly vampirical scene,
Elizabet drinks Almas blood drawn from a self-inflicted wound in the
final desperate effort to replenish herself through the nurses freshly
acquired strength, and perhaps also to recover the energy that Alma has
been drawing from her, which becomes a negative culmination of the
exchange between the two women. The duel of identities is also
explicitly the duel of bodies and the violence is both of the spiritual and
corporeal order, because both of these interconnected orders equally
strongly constitute and communicate Alma and Elizabets similarities and
differences, which once more brings us to the question of difference as
central to their chiasmic relationship. Whereas many critics focus on
physical similarities between both women, observing, like Blackwell, that
it is difficult to tell where one body ends and the other begins (152), it is
hard not to notice that Alma and Elizabet are in fact completely different
bodiesthey look different and they carry themselves in completely
different ways. As Steve Vineberg aptly observes in his essay Persona
and the Seduction of Performance, For all that has been written about
their similarity, Andersson and Ullmann are not truly look-alikes, and
Bergman continually underscores the physical differences between them
(124). Showing the women as both strikingly similar and strikingly
different, Bergman emphasizes the fact that we are all both similar and
different; we share the common interworld that is nevertheless a
separate project of each of us. In Merleau-Pontys philosophy, these
concerns are related to the interworld of selves that try to reach one
another and at the same time strive to preserve their autonomy; the
constant negotiation and transactionality that does not always have to be
successful or complete. The chiasmic transaction between the womens
intertwined conflicted subjectivities is always shot through with the
awareness of difference (just as it is shot through with the awareness of the
limit of being); even only a partial preservation of their anonymity
warrants their autonomy that the escalating intensity of their transactions
threatens, which explains their most violent exchanges as expressions of
contradictory desires to transgress ones own psychical and corporeal
boundaries, reach the other, master the other, become the other, yet remain
autonomous and different. Borrowing Blackwells term (via Irigaray),
both women may be seen as the subversive and transgressive body-whichis-not-one constantly traversing its external and internal boundaries;
morphing from ones body to the body of the other. Their caresses which,
like Sontag wrote, are beyond sexuality, beyond eroticism even, bring to

Magorzata Myk


mind Irigarayan fecund caress as the transgressive in-between of every

transaction whose interplay belongs to the order of the body-which-is-notone (Sontag 131). When the performance of Persona is over, a possibility
is opened to see a woman behind the mask, revealing, to quote Derrida, a
face, a beyond of the face, and showing her no longer only as a psychical
untouchable being, but a psychical and embodied one, touching within
herself, touching the other (92).
Finally, if we return to Elizabets decision to fall silent as the films
underlying act of transgression at this juncture, we will have to admit that,
as Merleau-Ponty observes in Phenomenology of Perception: The refusal
to communicate [] is still a form of communication (361). What
Elizabets withdrawal into silence communicates might perhaps be traced
to Irigarays call from her Ethics of Sexual Difference to attempt to go
back to a moment of prediscursive experience, recommence everything, all
the categories by which we understand things, the world, subject-object
divisions (151). In the letter the actress writes to the doctor, Vogler says:
This is how I should always like to live. [] I am beginning to get back
elementary but forgotten sensations []. Floating as it were in a mild
semi-slumber. Im aware of a new health, a sort of barbaric cheerfulness.
Surrounded by the sea, I am cradled like a foetus in the womb. No, no
longing, not even for my little boy. (Bergman 1972, 63)

Apart from the pre-oedipal metaphorics that Voglers letter clearly evokes,
and the images of fluidity emblematic of the feminine, Elizabets letter
strikingly makes no mention of the psychical consequences of her
withdrawal, and instead abounds in references to the bodily existence,
sensory perception, health, and almost primal vital power. Quite
predictably, however, the actresss withdrawal from the linguistic and
social reality is only momentary and quickly turns out to be illusory,
impossible, and ultimately even self-destructive. What she actually
accomplishes by abandoning the sociolinguistic sphere is only a shortlived recuperative illusion of residing outside of the confines of the society
and the roles she plays there. Towards the end of the film we see Elizabet
in her acting pose back on a movie set. Her strategic performance of silent
withdrawal is over, but by showing her on stage again, Bergman reminds
us that performativity and transactionality define our everyday lived
existence and can never be fully sidestepped. We may try to transgress the
limits imposed on us by the world we live in, but, more often than not, our
transgressions turn out to be momentarily comforting illusions as we are
simultaneously carried towards the limit of being. It is only from within
what is given to us as the flesh of the world that we are bound to


Transgressive Transactionality in Ingmar Bergmans Persona

transgress and transact, which always entails negotiating difference as we

move back and forth traversing the porous boundary between the public
and the private, testing and contesting the limits between ourselves and
others, and finally, in the words of Irigaray from her famous performative
polemic with Emmanuel Levinas, reaching the other or not (192).

Works cited
Bergman, Ingmar, dir. 1966. Persona. Gutek Film, 2006.
. 1972. Persona and Shame: The Screenplays. Trans. Keith Bradfield.
London: Calder & Boyars.
. 1994. Images: My Life in Film. Trans. Marianne Ruth. New York:
Arcade Publishing.
Blackwell, Marilyn Johns. 1997. Gender and Representation in the Films
of Ingmar Bergman. Columbia: Camden House.
Derrida, Jacques. 2005. On TouchingJean-Luc Nancy. California:
Stanford University Press.
Fredericksen. Don. 2005. Bergmans Persona (Classics of Cinema).
Pozna: Adam Mickiewicz University Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1977. A Preface to Transgression. In Language,
Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Trans. Donald F.
Bouchard & Sherry Simon. New York: Cornell UP. 29-52.
Irigaray, Luce. 1993. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Ithaca, New York:
Cornell University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans.
Colin Smith. London & New York: Routledge/The Humanities Press.
. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Evanston:
Northwestern University Press.
Michaels, Lloyd. 2000. Bergman and the Necessary Illusion: An
Introduction to Persona. In Ingmar Bergmans Persona, ed. Lloyd
Michaels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1-23.
Orr, Christopher. 2000. Scenes from the Class Struggle in Sweden:
Persona as Brechtian Melodrama. In Ingmar Bergmans Persona, ed.
Lloyd Michaels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 86-109.
Sontag, Susan. 1966. Bergmans Persona. In Styles of Radical Will.
New York: Picador.
Sullivan, Shannon. 2001. Living Across and Through Skins: Transactional
Bodies, Pragmatism, and Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis:
Indiana UP.

Magorzata Myk


Vineberg, Steve. 2000. Persona and the Seduction of Performance. In

Ingmar Bergmans Persona, ed. Lloyd Michaels. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. 110-129.


In his book (2009), Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of
Two Sexes the researcher, immunologist and pathologist, Dr Gerald
Callaghan puts forward the view that sexual and gender binarism is neither
an ever-lasting nor universally held belief, but is strictly socially bound
and contextual (xi). Very much in the same vein, in Sexing the Body:
Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (2000), drawing upon
Kessler, Anne Fausto-Sterling admits that decoding whether to call a
child a boy or a girl, then, employs social definitions of the essential
components of gender. Such definitions [] are primarily cultural, not
biological (58). Callaghan comments upon a variety of possibilities:
In truth, humans come in an amazing number of forms, because human
development, including sexual development, is not either/or proposition.
Instead, between either and or there is an entire spectrum of
possibilities. Some people come into this world with a vagina and testes.
Others begin their lives as girls but at puberty become boys. Though weve
been told that Y chromosomes make boys, there are women in this world
with Y chromosomes. Beyond that, there are people who have only a
single unpaired X chromosome (people we call women who arent exactly
like other women). There are also people who are XXY, XXXY, or
XXXXY whom we call men but arent exactly like other men. There are
babies born with XYY, XXX, or any of a dozen or more other known
variations involving X or Y chromosomes. We humans are a diverse lot.

The following paper is going to touch upon only several of these

alternatives, bearing in mind the fact that many other options are
conceivable. Very much in the same vein, the film XXY directed by Lucia

Katarzyna Poloczek


Puenzo seems to suggest a wider span of ones potential sexual

identifications or gender positions,1 rather than being confined to a rigid
dual male/female framework. Likewise, in Intersex and Identity: The
Contested Self (2008), Sharon Preves argues that:
distinctions between female and male bodies are actually on more of a
continuum rather than a dichotomy. The criteria for what counts as female
or male, or sexually ambiguous for that matter, are human standards. That
is, bodies that are considered normal or abnormal are not inherently in that
way. They are, rather, classified as aberrant or customary by social
agreement. (2-3)

Following this line of thinking, Anne Fausto-Sterling subscribes to the

aforementioned view when elaborating this thought in detail below:
While male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological
continuum, there are many other bodies [] that mix together anatomical
components conventionally attributed to both males and female...If nature
offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of
masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits []. Indeed, we have
begun to insist on the male-female dichotomy [] making the two-sex
system more deeply a part of how we imagine human life and giving it an
appearance of both being inborn and natural []. In the past, however,
intersexuals, (or hermaphrodites, as they were called until recently) were
culturally acknowledged. (31)

In line with the above quoted argument, the main character of Lucia
Puenzos film, Alex (played by a female actress, Ines Efron), born with an
extra X chromosome, which produced an XXY chromosome variation,
does not fit within the binary gender scheme. The XXY syndrome,
discovered by Dr Klinefelter, who, in 19422, first described its symptoms
and enumerated its most crucial visible features: men have less, or no,
facial or bodily hair, their testicles are usually smaller, they tend to have

In the book (2003) The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of GenderBending and Transsexualism, Bailey claims that one under-appreciated
complication is that gender identity is probably not a binary, black-and-white
characteristic. Scientists continue to measure gender identity as male or female,
despite the fact that there are undoubtedly gradations in inner experience [...] (50).
According to the website of The American National Institute of Child Health and
Human Development, men with XXY syndrome usually tend to display language
disability and language acquisition problems, their verbal skills are lower, the
ability to read and write is impaired as well but this impediment can be eliminated
through regular practice.


XXY: The Cinematic Poetics of Transgressive Visual

larger breasts (gynaecomastia) and they produce less, or no, sperm at all.1
Furthermore, Callaghan informs that men diagnosed with this syndrome
usually have 47 chromosomes, but the label itself should not be limited to
the XXY variation only, as currently it has come to embody 48
chromosomes XXYY as well (63), or as Sharon Preves notices, even 49
chromosomes in an XXXXY variation (30). Surprisingly enough,
Klinefelter Syndrome is not as rare as one might assume: it affects 1 in
500 to 1 in 1000 men (Callaghan 63) and, in total, it amounts to 3000
XXY children being born annually in the US, and approximately 60 000
all over the world (Callaghan 63); according to Anne Fausto-Sterling (53)
around 0.0922 in a 100 newly born children are diagnosed with Klinefelter
Syndrome. Sharon Preves, using a broader term she employs in her book
(2008), indicates that sexually ambiguous children constitute up to 4%
of all newborns (2). Fausto-Sterling gives a more exact number of around
1.7 %.
In the XXY film, when Alex is born, his/her parents despite the doctors
suggestions do not agree on sex (re)assignment surgery (removing the
male sexual organs), which was at that time a strategy commonly
advocated by professionals. It was naively believed to leave no
psychological damage on a childs psyche and only result in a few bodily
scars. Beliefs of that kind can be traced back to the (in)famous Dr John
Money (and his colleagues organised around Johns Hopkins Hospital in
Baltimore), whose influential theory became responsible for performing
thousands of both unnecessary and invasive operations. Despite its past
prevalence, Callaghan is more than sceptical about Moneys approach
(118). What Callaghan questions most is the view the childs sex is
determined solely by social conditioning, and not biological or genetic
factors. Not only contemporary, acknowledged specialists, such as the
aforementioned Callaghan, Preves or Fausto-Sterling, are deeply critical
about Moneys ideas. Fausto-Sterling indicates that Moneys theory
aroused controversy even as early as the 1950s. It was around this time
that Dr Diamond, and later in the 1970s Dr Zuger, questioned Money on
the grounds of him suggesting that humans were sexually neutral at birth
(Fausto-Sterling 67-69), which, as both specialists argued, was undermined
both by past and current clinical research. What is more, Callaghan
reminds one that Moneys procedure used to be referred to as an optimal
gender policy (30), explaining it as follows: it was up to the pediatricians,
endocrinologists, plastic surgeons, and parentsnot chromosomes, gonads,

The website of The American National Institute of Child Health and Human

Katarzyna Poloczek


or the vagaries of biologyto determine the sex of the child. Furthermore,

this protocol suggested surgery as early as possible to quickly unify
physical appearance and the gender expectations of all involved [] to
create a physical reality for the child that this is consistent with the chosen
gender (Callaghan 30). Moreover, Callaghan outlines that for intersexuals
this course of action was recommended until the early 1990s (118).
Accordingly, in XXY, Alexs mother, Suli complains about the
necessity of defining in the hospital the childs gender the moment s/he is
born. She recalls that when Alex was born, the first thing that everybody
inquired was whether she gave birth to a boy or a girl. Even after many
years, the viewer can still discern the despair in the mothers face caused
by her inability to respond to that seemingly trivial question in a
straightforward way. As if addressing this issue, Callaghan seems to
provide an informative insight into the social pressure the parents of an
intersex child have to endure: They must select, from very few options,
the least-bad alternative with the hope that, even in their ignorance, even
with the paucity of language available to speak about these children, even
under the weight of history and fear, they may create a better future for
their new child (7).
Drawing upon the medical procedures, Fausto-Sterling reveals that
doctors under all circumstances abide by sex binary to discourage any
feeling of sexual ambiguity [] that the child is part male and part
female (Peris qtd. in Fausto-Sterling 64). Moreover, Fausto-Sterling
explicates that doctors immediate response to suggest usually a surgical
solution to what is labelled as an urgent problem (45) may also have a
non-medical ground: the child must leave the hospital as a sex, and the
parents must feel certain of the decision (45). What is more, parental
emotional strain is intensified by the aura of misfortune and a grievous
blow that accompanies the birth of an intersex child in the hospital
(Fausto-Sterling 47). As Fausto-Sterling notices, a newborn is perceived as
deformed, and its birth turns into a tragic event which immediately
conjures up visions of a hopeless psychological misfit deemed to live
always as a sexual freak in loneliness and frustration (Dewhurst and
Gordon qtd. in Fausto-Sterling 47).
Hence, following that line of thinking, as a mother who worries about
her childs future, Suli wants to secure Alex a life free of embarrassment
and human ridicule. That is why when Alex becomes an adolescent, she
seriously begins to consider her childs sex surgical (re)assignment into a
female as a solution to Alexs sexual ambiguity. Not telling either her
husband Kraken or Alex about her plans, Suli invites to their home in a
small seaside Uruguayan village, her childhood friend Erika, together with


XXY: The Cinematic Poetics of Transgressive Visual

her son Alvaro and her husband Ramiro, one of the best Argentinean
cosmetic surgeons.
Unlike Suli, Kraken, Alexs father, affords the audience quite different,
much more positive and accepting, memories of Alexs birth. Kraken
admits that for him the infant was perfect, there was nothing to be
changed; he adds that it was his idea to refuse the surgical operation of
their newborn child, regardless of the doctors recommendations. As a
marine biologist, Kraken understands that sexual or gender dualism is
nothing more than a cultural myth, and that in nature there live many
organisms who defy the artificially imposed binary sexual divisions, or
change their sex depending upon altering circumstances.
In other words, the divergence in Alexs parents attitude remains on a
more or less similar level throughout the rest of the film till a resolution in
the climactic scene. In her earlier cited book Intersex and Identity: The
Contested Self, Sharon Preves enumerates several most common
assumptions regarding intersex children, two of which, strikingly, seem to
match those adopted by Alexs parents. Hence, looked at from that angle,
Suli seems to be on the side of those who perceive intersexuality as an
anomaly, or even pathology, that will hamper the fulfilling development of
any child (12). That is why she succumbs to the medicalisation (or
normalisation, as it was bitterly referred to by Scherer) of Alexs
condition as the last resort to repair what is malfunctioning. Kraken, on
the other hand, would subscribe to the view that researchers evince today,
according to which the motive for medical sexual assignment is to reduce
social discomfort and not physical danger (Preves 58) and that is why
intersexuality ought to be conceived of as an entirely social phenomenon
and should thus never be treated by any medical, let alone surgical means
(Preves 12).
Elsewhere, Preves maintains, very much in the same vein, that most
sexually ambiguous children do not require medical intervention for their
physiological health (11). The intervention is carried out so that the child
be medically assigned a definite sex, often undergoing repeated genital
surgeries and ongoing hormone treatment, to correct their variation from
the norm (Preves 11). Hence, as she clarifies in detail the meaning of the
term medicalisation, it becomes more and more dubious whether Alex
really needs to be involved in a painful process by which nonmedical
problems become defined and treated as medical problems, usually in
terms of illnesses and disorders (44). Furthermore, Callaghan elucidates
some of other non-medical factors that arise during a medicalisation
practice: physicians preference, custom, or even bias. [] reproductive

Katarzyna Poloczek


potential over the ease of intercourse or sexual pleasure (Drs Jorge

Daabul and Joel Frader qtd. in Callaghan 118).
In conclusion, Preves advocates that intersex ought not to be
medicalized because it is not in itself pathological. Rather, the pathology
lies in the social system and its strict adherence to gender binarism (89).
Gender binarism is doubly pathological: first as the underlying effect of
intersex medicalisation, but primarily as the true cause of it. Preves notices
that providing socially motivated excuses for such procedures in fact
serves only to enhance binary divisions and maintain the uninterrupted
continuity of the dual scheme (11-12). For Preves, it is precisely
merciless adherence to sex and gender binarism that is responsible for
presenting intersexed bodies as pathological or abnormal (12). She
advocates that:
It is my argument that medical treatments to create genitally unambiguous
children are not performed entirely or even predominantly for the sake of
preventing stigmatization and trauma to the child. Rather, these elaborate,
expensive, and risky procedures are to maintain social order for the
institutions and adults that surround that child. Newborns are completely
oblivious to the rigid social conventions to which their families and
caregivers adhere. Threats to duality of sex and gender undermine
inflexibly gendered occupational, education, and family structures, as well
as heterosexuality itself. (12)

Likewise, Callaghan directly expresses his open contempt for that

procedure, advocating a deeply ironic procedure:
a gender assignment for all. What it really means is everyone has to be
either a boy or a girl []. And those involved must choose between these
two options just as soon the team and the parents can agree on whats best
for this child, the consensus being that no one in our society can wander
around productively and sanely without an attached indication of sex.

Like Preves and Callaghan, Fausto-Sterling strongly opposes the idea of

surgical interventions for intersex children (85-105). She points out that
such operations are not only redundant but also extremely damaging to
both the childs body (pain, many scars, several failed and/or repeated
procedures, negative side effects, etc.) and their psyche (increasing the
feeling of ones abnormality and powerlessness). That is why she makes
an uncompromising claim that should be listened to: Stop infant genital
surgery. We protest the practices of genital mutilation in other cultures,
but tolerate them at home (79).


XXY: The Cinematic Poetics of Transgressive Visual

In XXY, there is also another character diagnosed with Klinefelter

Syndrome, who, however, unlike Alex, has been made to undergo five
operations before he turned even one year old. From an adults perspective,
Scherer conceives of his sex (re)assignment surgery as nothing else than
a forced castration that has made the infant child detest its own body and
think of it as hideous and repulsive. This perception of an intersexed body
seems to reflect the general bias according to which such a body is
conceived of as diseased, unruly, and in the need of medical attention or
cures (Preves 22). Being uncomfortable with the female gender selected
for him by his parents, he decides at the age of 17 to undergo voluntarily
another sex change to be consistent with his male identity. In the film,
Scherer is portrayed as a reserved and calm middle-aged man, working at
the gas station, leading an ordinary life, together with his wife and an
adopted child. Preves, nonetheless, would doubt any supposedly beneficial
influence of the surgical intervention, because, as she argues, although an
intersexuals visible differences may have been erased, the emotional and
physical consequences of the process may be long lasting (79).
Bearing that in mind, in nearly the final scene of the film, Kraken
informs Alex that he will let him/her decide about the choice of gender
identity. But Alex replies, doubting this: what if there is nothing to
choose from? Alexs question is there really any choice (in selecting
ones sexual or gender identity) structures the whole narrative, regardless
of the fact of being openly articulated relatively late in the film. The
scenes in which the camera follows Alvaro into Alexs room avail the
audience a few more intimate glimpses into his/her childhood. The camera
zooms on the photographs of a few year old long-haired beauty, and, then,
on the background, presenting a close up of Alexs dolls with the attached
male sexual organs; the drawings with a similar sexually ambiguous
character are be found in Alexs diary as well. Until 15, the age in which
the audience becomes acquainted with the main character, Alex has
received regularly female hormones and has been raised as a girl. When
the film begins, we see adolescent Alex refusing to continue the hormonal
treatment, and rebelliously discarding the pills, first put on her/his half
naked body, all over the room. This act of resistance becomes a statement
of not so much a teenage rebellion against parental decisions but, above
all, a triumphant expression of a newly discovered need for personal
autonomy, as argued by Preves in her study of intersexuals2:

Preves recalls the personal narratives of intersexed children who referred to this
especially excessive medical control and manipulation of their bodies as sexual
abuse (72).

Katarzyna Poloczek


All children lack autonomy simply because they are children and are often
unable to make decisions and implement them independently. An
intersexual childs lack of autonomy is more evident than that of most
childrens, however, and this can impact the development and maintenance
of a coherent self-concept. Intersex children not only experience a
discerning mark or stigma associated with their bodies, but also feel that
they lack control over their bodies due to involuntary exposure to ongoing
examinations and other medical procedures. (72)

In the film, the turning point in the story is the arrival to the small
Uruguayan village of the Argentinean-based family with their teenage son
Alvaro. Nonetheless, even the climactic scene, (when Alex experiences
her/his sexual initiation with Alvaro), instead of providing a solution raises
even more questions. Having abandoned taking female hormonal pills,
Alex feels confused about whom s/he is and what s/he really wants and
believes that her/his first sexual experiences might help to find the answer
to these troubling issues. As a consequence, s/he makes a plain-spoken
sexual proposal to Alvaro in nearly the first conversation they have, but
Alvaro seems frightened and shocked with Alexs directness rather than
sexually stimulated by this perspective. Alexs impulsive and
straightforward behaviour constitutes a vivid contrast with that of Alvaro,
who is self-conscious, inhibited and dominated by his macho father.
Though sexually complicated as might seem3, Alex follows her/his instinct
and acts in accordance with it. As an spontaneous and self-assured person,
Alex can boldly argue her/his point and when disrespected, even resort to
physical violence to defend her/his dignity. That is why despite the initial
lack of erotic interest on Alvaros side, Alex seems determined to act upon
the impulse and finally s/he succeeds in getting Alvaro to have sex with
her/him. However, even at the moment of their lovemaking, Alvaro
displays hardly any initiative but only passively yields to Alexs will.
Surprisingly enough, that initiatory experience brings a revealing insight

On the other hand, it seems plausible to assume that what might have caused
Alexs problems was not a rare genetic variation itself but the unnecessary female
hormonal treatment and social conditioning that Alex underwent before
adolescence. Bailey argues that the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder (GID)
does not apply to people whose condition is caused by a diagnosed medical
disorder (mostly a genetic one) that affects the process of ones sexual
development (22). What is more, Butler reminds us of the increasingly vocal
protests of intersex and GLBT activists against using the GID label at all (76).
GID, according to them, instead of helping, only maintains an intersex and GLBT
stigmatization and results in their being considered by the rest of the society as
ill, abnormal, out of order, abnormal (Butler 76).


XXY: The Cinematic Poetics of Transgressive Visual

into both characters lives. During their sexual act, Alex performs anal sex
on Alvaro, who not only allows himself to be penetrated but, as he later
admits, draws physical pleasure from it. Being a submissive recipient in
the sexual act, Alvaro discovers Alexs secret but, above all, the truth
about his own suppressed sexual needs and desires.
After becoming acquainted with the aforementioned account, one may
still wonder why Alex has been persistent to experience sexual initiation
with almost a perfect stranger, at nearly any cost, and regardless of any
social or personal consequences. Nonetheless, this drive to know oneself
through sex seems to be quite typical for any sexually ambiguous people.
One of the intersexed people interviewed by Preves admits: I was trying
to find out who I was as a sexual being. I think I was trying to prove that I
was female through sex (84). Furthermore, Preves explains the above
mentioned experiments with ones sexuality (exhibitionism, excessive
sexual behaviour typical only for the identified with gender, having
many sexual partners, etc.) as follows: having received repeated
messages about ones inadequacy as a female or a male, receiving external
validation becomes extremely important (85).
There is one more element that seems to provide an insight into that
kind of behaviour, as Preves points out rightly: sexually ambiguous
children are either on purpose misinformed about their condition or simply
manipulated into whatever suits either caretakers or doctors. After the
series of interviews, Preves comes to the conclusion, that lacking
information about their bodies and medical histories was far more difficult
than actually learning the truth (74). For sexually ambiguous people,
sexual activity, then, becomes not only a formative and informative act but
a way of breaking the taboos of silence through interacting with others.
What is more, shocking as it might seem, the policy of secrecy was
also part of the aftermath of Moneys misconceptions, supported by the
families all too willingly:
If and when intersexuals do learn about their physical difference, they are
frequently told that they should not tell others. Withholding information
from intersexuals and encouraging them to keep secret what little
information they might have is isolating and may actually impede the
development of meaningful social relations. (Preves 77)

In one of the early scenes of the film, Alex asks Kraken: if I am so

special, why I cannot talk about it. The conversation takes place before
Alex gets violently sexually assaulted but after his/her best friend, Vando,
lets others in on his/her secret, and, thus, indirectly contributes to the
tragic events that follow it. The attempted gang rape is inspired by a cruel

Katarzyna Poloczek


and mindless curiosity on the parts of the local male teenagers to see
Alexs double biological sexual organs. Hence, in the above mentioned
case, secrecy is both the cause and the effect of the disastrous events.
Keeping secret has made Alex vulnerable and susceptible to the aggressive
attacks of others. To issue a formal complaint at the police, Alex would
have to reveal the hidden truth about his/her sexual identity to the whole
community of the village. After the assault, Suli does not even agree on
Alex being taken to the hospital and examined in fear of her childs sexual
ambiguity being disclosed. However, the price for keeping secrets means
being relegated beyond the laws that might protect you and it has also a
more personal dimension. Establishing a sense of self for sexually
ambiguous people, Preves argues (60-76), has to begin with ending a
lifetime of silence, secrecy, and isolation (118). Moreover, Preves claims
that in order to develop connections with others, one must be freed from
obsessive secrecy and shame (107). Then, ones difference has to be
articulated to others and embraced in the process of self-disclosure
(Preves 118). She conceives of this part as an essential and indispensable
stage of any identity formation process (118), followed by the affirmation
of the previously questioned distinctness (121). Preves reminds us that
stigmatization leads to feelings of alienation, powerlessness,
meaninglessness, social isolation, and self-estrangement (123). That is
why being integrated within a community and being socially accepted
successfully completes this process.
In XXY, the process of integration may not go smoothly, not only
because of the social prejudice of a small village community, but also
because of the conflict between Alexs family and the local fishermen.
Before attacking Alex, the fishermens sons discard the broken sea turtles
shells in front of Krakens house. Thus, the additional reason for a brutal
sexual assault upon Alex might arise from getting even with Kraken, who,
in his defiant fight to protect the nearly extinct sea creatures, has got into
serious conflict with the local community who do not understand or
identify with his mission. For fishermen, the sea turtles are not an
endangered species but a source of extra financial income.
As a matter of fact, the location of the film in the sea village is no
accident. In terms of the camera work, XXY looks as if it has been taking
place under water: the colours are mostly blue and aquamarine, grey and
sand-like beige. There are few scenes in which other brighter colours
appear, e.g. red as the blood of turtles. Both in the houses dcor, the
pieces of furniture and the outdoor shooting, the colour of the sea and the
sky prevails. Suggesting that the film might be located under-water makes
more sense when one recalls the recurrent comparison between the sea


XXY: The Cinematic Poetics of Transgressive Visual

creatures and Alexs condition. The film starts with an image of ripping
open the belly of a dead female turtle, exposing it wide to the audiences
visual inspection. Dissecting is being done by Kraken, who, though being
unable to save the turtle from the fishermen, wants to find out the cause of
its death. We also see other sea turtles mutilated by fishnets, whom
Kraken managed to rescue but which, because of their injuries, will have
to live in captivity. Before the assault, we observe Alex floating peacefully
on the surface of water, looking serene and blissful. In the scene when
Alexs own bodily integrity gets violated, the gang of fishermens sons
attempt to open her/him up like a turtle and rape to see how Alexs
double sexual organs work. During the attempted rape, Alex tries to fight
them back but they outnumber her/him, and we see Alex lying helplessly
on her/his back, in a turtle-like manner, defenceless, overcome by her/his
abusers. In this scene, Alex does not scream but howls like a frightened
animal. Her/his entire outfit is reminiscent of the turtle shell; s/he is
wearing a brown hooded sweat jacket, and when seeing the danger, Alex
puts her/his hood on, as if trying to hide inside it. Furthermore, Alex is
wearing as a necklace a metal tag with a specific turtles identification
number and its migration routes.4 What is more, Esteban, Vandos father
and a local fisherman, refers to Alex as a representative of an endangered
species. Even Alexs father seems to subscribe to the sea imagery
connotation. With his beard and grim looks, keen on protecting all sea
creatures from evil humans, Kraken seems reminiscent of Poseidon, the
Greek god of sea and earthquakes.
Considering the above, Callaghan also uses a parallel between the sea
and the human world in terms of potential varieties of sexual patterns:
To most of us a girl becoming a boy is astounding. Not so with fish.
Among vertebrates, fish dominate. With some thirty thousand species
[] no other vertebrate species compares to fish for variety and sheer
numbers []. And when it comes to sex, fish have evolved some of the
most varied and interesting approaches among all the animals.
More than (perhaps a lot more than) one hundred species and twenty
families of fish are hermaphroditic []. Hermaphroditic fish come in two
common forms[] simultaneous hermaphrodites have reproductive
organs of both sexes at the same time. Sequential hermaphrodites have the
ovaries for parts of their lives and testes during other parts of their lives5.

In the market scene s/he grants a similar one to Alvaro.

Callaghan distinguishes even more sex patterns examining hamlet fish, salmon
(both sequential hermaphrodites), bass, wrasses, parrotfish, gobies, clownfish
(successive hermaphrodites) or three sexed midshipman fish (110-114).

Katarzyna Poloczek


As a conclusion of his sea creatures analyses, Callaghan refers to the

geneticists J.B.S. Haldanes observation about the universe being not
only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose (114,
emphasis mine). Hence, what seems striking about XXY is that the
coherence and cohesion of the narrative, as well as its understanding,
depends nearly entirely upon rejecting, or at least challenging, ones
binary mental clichs, not only on principle but out of their sheer
uselessness. Trying as one might, one cannot label almost any of the main
characters according to the dual scheme. What is more, no sensible
interpretation might result from this argument; neither would it resolve
any of the conflicts or problems within the narrative. Let us take, for
example6, Alvaro. The audience might assume, with some degree of
reasonable likelihood, that during the sexual act scene Alvaro has been
confronted with his deeply denied homosexual drives. However, even in
the light of this scene, Alvaro might be perceived as heterosexual who
finds sexual submissiveness satisfying. A more likely interpretation is that
Alvaros gender identity is male with some conventional feminine traits
(as, for instance, Bailey might argue), and by opting for being penetrated,
he might be acting out his desire for a stereotypical female
sexual/gender role, which would classify him as either transgender or
autogynephyliac7. Alex, on other hand, has been born as a boy, but raised
as a girl, and apart from gender conditioning, has been exposed to 15 years
of female hormonal treatment. Is the long-term process of both social and
medical intervention completely reversible, then? What is more, Alex also
seems uncertain about his/her sexual orientation.8 Would falling in love
with Alvaro be indicative here? Fausto-Sterling reminds that the
emerging definitions of homo- and hetero-sexuality were built upon the
two-sex model of masculinity and femininity (14)9. Nowadays, the binary

At this point, a further distinction might be needed, as suggested by Bailey,

between the categories of stereotypical gender behavioural roles, sexual orientation
and gender identity (45).
See Baileys chapter on Men Trapped in Mens Bodies and his elaboration on
autogynephylia (157-176).
According to the website of The National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development, most XXY males without testosterone injections reveal much less
interest in sex than their peers but their genetic variation does not determine their
sexual orientation either way.
Thus, the scholars of earlier times who challenged this sexual binarism (such as
Herdt) began with a distinction between various types of homosexuality: agestructured, gendered reversed and role-specialised (Fausto-Sterling 18); cf. also
Kline with his differentiation between sexual attraction, sexual behavior, sexual


XXY: The Cinematic Poetics of Transgressive Visual

homo-hetero boundary does not make sense because of its current

irrelevance to all the possible alternatives that might be exercised. To
prove her point, Fausto-Sterling provides an interesting example of a nonsurgically, but hormonally, changed MTF transsexual, still living with a
previously married wife, in a relationship that she defines as homosexual,
whereas her partner thinks of it somewhere between lesbian and
heterosexual because she conceives of herself as straight (108). Maybe if
a relationship works well for all parties involved, (which these days is a
scientific anomaly in itself), there is no point in ruining it because of
cognitive, linguistic or descriptive deficiencies.
In conclusion, even on the basis of these few considerations, it
becomes evident that sexual or gender binarism fails to work when
confronted with a wider vision of a scale rather than a set of simple
opposites. Fausto-Sterling with her ground-breaking paper (1993) The
Five Sexes. Why Male and Female are Not Enough has opened a
discussion against sexual binarism that has inspired, among others, Preves,
as she admits herself, to write her book Intersex and Identity: The
Contested Self (2008).10 What is more, in the past, even intersexuals were
simply dually divided into true and pseudo hermaphrodites, whereas
nowadays, drawing upon a basic typology of intersexuality11, one may
enlist numerous different alternatives. In other words, as argued in the
aforementioned specialist literature, I subscribe to the view that a
continuum, or a progression scheme, ought to replace both gender and
sexual dichotomy to render best the complexity and variety of all these
options we are already familiar with and those yet to be identified and
For the last few decades, there have been numerous, more or less
successful, attempts to pin down and describe the gender scale by, for
instance, examining stereotypical gender role/behavioural expectations
fantasies, emotional preference, social preference, self-identification, hetero/homo
lifestyle (qtd. in Fausto-Sterling 10).
What is more, other scholars (Fausto-Sterling refers here to Melisa Scott (4))
have proposed further divisions into nine types of sexual preference and several
The most frequent intersexual kinds, as enumerated by Fausto-Sterling, are:
congenital hyperplasia (CAH), androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), gonadal
dysgenesis, hypospadias, unusual chromosome compositions such as XXY
(Klinefelter Syndrome) or XO (Turner Syndrome) []. So-called true
hermaphrodites have a combination of ovaries and testes. Sometimes in individual
has a male side and a female side. In other cases, the ovary and testis grow together
in the same organ, forming what biologist call an ovo-testis (51).

Katarzyna Poloczek


that people hold. Studies on gendering movement have been carried out by
scientists since late 1990s (originated at Harvard in 1999 by Ambady)
(Bailey 73). One such experiment, described by Bailey, started with the
video recordings of the bodily movements carried out by the target group
(Bailey 74-75). According to Bailey, all the visible signs of the targets
gender identities were erased from these recordings to leave on the screen
only moving contours. On the basis of these studies, researchers selected
the sorts of bodily expressions repeatedly perceived by the experimental
subjects as typically masculine or feminine. Following this way of
thinking, one may argue here that in the film XXY it is the characters
movement that could to be a meaningful, though not conclusive, source of
information about their identification with stereotypical gender
behavioural traits. Alexs movement betrays mostly features defined by
the above experiment as masculine, such as long strides, free knee action,
minimum hip movements, straddling a line, arm movements from
shoulder, arms hang loosely from shoulders, feet apart, hands in pockets,
sitting with legs not crossed, buttocks away from chair back (Bailey 75),
whereas Alvaros movement can be rendered by the features related to as
feminine: short strides, controlled knee action, stepping on a line, arm
movements from elbow, upper arms fairly closely to body, hands on hips,
buttocks close to chair back, knee on knee. (Bailey 75). Those features,
however, might not be indicative of ones specific gender identity as the
scale is wide enough12. Rather than scientific truth, such experiments
prove only the social clichs and cultural stereotypes that people tend to
associate with particular gender identifications13. Once again, binarism
appears insufficient to render the truth and the richness of human
experience as such.
The only duality that has been meaningfully retained in the film, and
whose function seems to be justified, refers to its double mirrored
structure. The film depicts two different models of families: one family,
wealthy and rather patriarchally organised, is established in Argentina.
The latter, after their child was born, left Argentina to settle down in a
small village in Uruguay, to live undisturbed and away from other
peoples curiosity. The occupations of the fathers may seem similar: both
represent a medical profession and both perform bodily cuts: Kraken,

Using the categories suggested by Bailey, Alex could be perceived as a tomboy

or even to some extent butch femme, whereas Alvaro might be identified as either
feminine straight man or a feminine male homosexual, referred to in the slang as a
flamer or femme (77-84).
Baileys original intention in conducting this experiment was to prove that ones
sexual orientation could be outwardly manifested in bodily movement.


XXY: The Cinematic Poetics of Transgressive Visual

nonetheless, puts his heart into rescuing endangered sea species, whereas
Ramiro claims to do plastic surgery only for financial reasons. Both
families have one child and none of their children subscribes to a
stereotypical gender pattern. The families reveal contradictory approaches
towards their childrens problem: their attitudes vary from acceptance and
an attempt to do what is best for a child (Alexs family), to a judgmental
or contemptuous criticism on the part of Alvaros father. The model of
Krakens family relations could be called a democratic partnership, where
all its members have equal rights and duties. In such a family, parents, no
matter what might be happening, are always on their childrens side,
trusting, and not questioning their choices without apparent reason. Even
when Alex breaks her/his best friends nose, Kraken is certain it must have
been done for the right reason. He is ready to fight with the whole world in
defense of his child. Unlike Alex, Alvaro lacks the support of the family
and cannot freely experiment with his sexual identity in fear of being
rejected. No matter how much Alvaro would like to live up to Ramiros
expectations, his father constantly lets him know that his offspring
signifies for him only disappointment and failure. In the only candid
conversation that they seem to have had, Ramiro admits to his son that he
likes him only so-so, and in a degrading way expresses his disgust at the
thought that Alvaro might be, as he calls it, a fag. The highly acclaimed
plastic surgeon perceives his son as not talented enough to follow in his
professional footsteps, and not macho enough as a man, with his
vegetarian eating habits and dislike of alcohol. He tries to force his son to
drink alcohol, even when Alvaro refuses to do so. There is one scene in
the film, however, that shows Ramiro in a different light. Lying in bed
next to his wife and watching her put a facial night cream on her face,
Ramiro carefully removes the creamy remains from her skin and rubs
them into his. Is that the desire for perfection or maybe an ironic defiance
of gender stereotypes? The film ends with another mirror scene in which
Alvaros family is seen off to the ferry by Alex and her/his parents. Before
Alvaro leaves, Alex declares openly that s/he fell in love with him, despite
the initial objections and a strong resolution not to get emotionally
involved. Alvaro seems touched by that confession and he replies to Alex
in the same way. Alex, nonetheless, does not let her/himself be deceived
by that declaration, as is proved by the last question asked by Alex: what
do you regret more: not being able to see me again or not having seen it?
Shocked by such directness again, this time, Alvaro does not protest when
Alex, in tears, exposes herself/himself to him and he simply accepts this
farewell gift.

Katarzyna Poloczek


Alexs final act is more than a subversive exhibitionist provocation. It

signifies Alex, at last, embracing the denied it-ness of all parts that make
up ones self and body; all vital components of ones identity. In other
words, this defiant self-disclosure constitutes an expression of Alexs
mature decision to come out and tell the truth about oneself, regardless of
peoples reactions; it seems to be the only feasible way to live a life (that
may not be an easy one), but still ones own. In her book Undoing Gender
(2004), Butler seems to comment on a similar issue as follows:
When we ask what makes a life livable, we are asking about certain
normative conditions that must be fulfilled for life to become life. And so
there are at least two senses of life, the one that refers to the minimum
biological form of living, and another that intervenes at the start, which
establishes minimum conditions for a livable life with regard to human life
[] to live is to live a life politically, in relation to power, in relation to
others, in the act of assuming responsibility for a collective future []. It
is not a predictable process; it must be undergone, like a passion must be
undergone [] in recognizing the sign of life in what we undergo without
certainty about what will come. (39)

Works cited
Bailey, Michael, J. 2003. The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of
Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. Washington D.C: Joseph Henry
Bock, Robert. 1993. Understanding Klinefelter Syndrom. January
18, 2010.
Butler, Judith. 2004. Undoing Gender. New York and London: Routledge.
Callaghan, Gerald N. 2009. Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the
Myth of Two Sexes. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing The Body: Gender Politics and the
Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.
Preves, Sharon, E. 2008. Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self. New
Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press. January 18, 2010.



In 2007 the Electronic Literature Organisation released a text online

whose influence has gone on to shape the face of literatures relationship
with new media worldwide. Entitled Electronic Literature: What is it?
the essay was the concluding work in a series of three, the previous two
being released in 2004 and 2005 as part of the Electronic Literature
Organisations Preservation, Archiving and Dissemination initiative
(PAD). While the previous two PAD papers focused on the technical
aspects of writing in new media experienced while curating the Electronic
Literature Collection Volume One, Electronic Literature: What is it?
attempted something far more ambitious.
Originally released online at the Electronic Literature Organisations
website in version 1.0, then re-published in print in 2008 by cutting edge
new media publishers University Notre Dame as the introductory chapter
of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, Electronic
Literature: What is it? offered the first systematic attempt to survey and
summarize the fast-changing field of electronic literature (Hayles) where
the term electronic literature was adopted to represent all accepted
literature written in new media. The 2008 print release included no
modifications, corrections or updates to the original as, in fact, there has
never been version 1.1 or 2.0 in any form. Yet, remarkably the essay both
online and in print remains as influential today as when it first appeared
and has gone on to gain such wide acceptance that for many writing
literature in new media environments has become synonymous with
Hayles definition of electronic literature.
This essay wishes to closely examine the landmark text Electronic
Literature: What is it? from the perspective of transgression theory to
argue that Hayles vision of literature and new media, whilst claiming to
be transgressive, has missed the most important function now required of
transgression in present day society. With the passing of time, we should
no longer be turning to Hayles essay for guidance, but should rather

Tim Bridgman


consider one of its other companion essays commissioned as part of the

PAD initiative entitled Acid-Free Bits which, perhaps accidentally,
advocates literary transgression on a far more significant level than its
more high profile companion which now influences new media writers,
school curricula and university syllabi worldwide.
In Hayles Electronic Literature: What is it? the pre-requisite of
transgressive qualities when writing in new media is clearly asserted when
it is explained how electronic literature tests the boundaries of the literary
and challenges us to re-think our assumptions of what literature can do and
be. This does appear to be in alignment with much traditional transgression
theory that agrees that Transgression generally refers to discursive
actions which cross boundaries or violate limits (Foust 3) and disrupts
and threatens the taken-for-granted world (Jenks 9).
For Hayles, transgression in electronic literature and in many of the
works promoted in the Electronic Literature Collection Volume One
represents a growing body of work that interrogates networked and
programmable media as the material basis for artistic innovation and
creation (Hayles). Here emphasis lies on the materiality of digital texts,
which may contain no recognisable words, to stimulate the offering of new
definitions of literature applicable for the digital era. As Rettberg
summarises in his 2010 published essay Editorial Process and the Idea of
Genre in Electronic Literature in the Electronic Literature Collection,
Volume 1, when considering selection work has focused on the
materiality of electronic literature and on understanding the procedurality
of works of electronic literature as textmachines (91) and it is through
this that the Electronic Literature Organisation hopes to reveal
[literatures] social order to be a fluid and fragile system of power (Foust
4) and achieve transgression.
Electronic Literature: What is it? therefore assumes as its transgressive
stance a position of material resistance to conventional literature where
new media and literature together may go as far as to suck the substance
out of a work of lettered art, reduce it to surface spectacle (Coover qtd. in
Simanowski 160) in the name of transgression. In such a literary world the
alphabet no longer serves its original purpose, but is refashioned for other
digital objectives where literary content is disregarded in favour of literary
form. The result is a post-alphabetic text-landscape, a fascinating,
somehow hypnotic experience, which makes absolutely no claim to
semantic meaning (Simanowski 162) requiring both new tools for literary
analysis and a new generation of readers able to comprehend it.
In this world, content is no longer the means for achieving transgression.
Instead, Hayles electronic literature sees transgression as remedying the


Electronic Literature: Content to Con-Form

material limitations of literature previously neglected by all literature

except artists books. From this point of view, literature is now firmly in
alignment with transgression in conceptual art which Hayles openly
advocates as she embraces conceptual art pushing the boundary of what
literature can be and leads to a definition of transgression in electronic
literature as conceptual writing modelled on avant-garde traditions.
However, literature and new media together embracing the ideas of
avant-garde art as the main means of achieving transgression also raises
questions, as avant-garde art theory now dates back over 70 years possibly
suggesting that avant-garde principles may have already transgressed all
they are capable of transgressing. This is the belief of some oppositional
and activist organisations who are now tending to favour ideas related to
transgression offered as an alternative by socially engaged art. That art,
above and beyond materiality, now needs to address itself within the social
structures that have determined its production if it wishes to continue to
achieve significant forms of transgression.
As Wallace expands in her article on transgression in modern theatre,
writers must now ask themselves not only where their work stands in
relation to others, but also to what ends am I working? Is my writing
merely an exercise in accumulating and/or defending private property, as it
were, or a collective endeavour (even when pursued in solitude) that draws
upon and adds to a community of writers and practitioners? This
ultimately involves calling for writers to see their work in relation to the
social systems that determined their production and go on to ask if their
work consists of a relationship of confirmation or challenge? (Wallace
98). This is where the transgression of socially engaged art goes beyond
the material resistance of the avant-garde art as it requires the artist to
include in their work transgression of the conditions in which they are
produced (Abbot 3).
Here a paradox is revealed in the literary material resistance promoted
by Hayles as such movements are often themselves vested in becoming
the new status quo (Foust 4) and often do so by using the same tools to
establish themselves as the dominant powers that they may one day
replace. For this reason it can be argued that the acceptance of Electronic
Literature: What is it? by established authorities may also reveal its
endorsement of the establishment. According to Day, What is most
interesting about contemporary radical activism is that some groups are
[...] operating non-hegemonically rather than counterhegemonically. They
seek radical change, but not through taking or influencing state power, and
in so doing they challenge the logic of hegemony at its very core (qtd. in
Foust 2).

Tim Bridgman


Many works mentioned by Hayles as model pieces of electronic

literature in Electronic Literature: What is it? implicitly or explicitly
reference avant-garde traditions including Dada, Surrealism and
Postmodernism; yet, it is now widely accepted that the general condition
under which most art of the avant-garde has been produced is global
capitalism (Abbot 4) making these model pieces futile to the cause of
socially engaged art. One must also concede that despite the prominent
influence of the avant-garde art in the development of todays new media,
Today, the centralized, industrial-style pipeline model of mass media
content distribution and consumption seems to have survived intact in the
new media environment (Lievrouw). Therefore, presently, despite the
claims of transgression, such literature written in new media is not
contributing towards a new society, but reinforcing the old.
How can this be possible when electronic literature and its material
resistance is in alignment with so much transgression theory? The answer
to this may be implied in Jay David Bolters Writing Space: Computers,
Hypertext and the Remediation of Print, which for all its support for both
Hayles and the Electronic Literature Organisation must also concede that
our culture chose to turn the Web into a carnival of commercial and selfpromotional Websites (20).
This comparison of some works of electronic literature to the frivolous
festivities of carnival may appear a harsh analogy, but, as Foust observes,
it has always been the case that Historically, carnivalesque rituals disrupt
modernist distinctions (10), just as has always been the goal of the avantgarde. Foust then uses Bakhtins works on transgression and carnival to
show how much hegemony ultimately dictates our understanding of
carnival as resistance as it upholds the dominant regime that carnival
temporarily violates (13), then goes on to point out the increasing
contemporary awareness that carnival transgression can be easily
accommodated, co-opted, or even promoted by the existing order,
particularly in todays post-industrial society (16). From this perspective
Hayles concept of electronic literature and carnival begins to coalesce.
The same issue of temporary transgression is also identified by
Bataille in his accounts on organised transgression and taboo. Here,
Bataille constructs an argument based upon Roger Caillois Theory of
Celebrations in which Caillois provides the example of an incidence of an
occurrence on the Sandwich Islands, where upon learning of the death of a
King a state similar to carnival, only more extreme, ensues in which they
set buildings on fire, they loot and they murder, while women are expected
to prostitute themselves publically [...] (qtd. in Bataille 66). Bataille
explains how even in such extreme circumstances the transgression has


Electronic Literature: Content to Con-Form

nothing to do with the primal liberty of animal life but instead just opens
the door into what lies beyond the limits usually observed, but it maintains
these limits just the same as after the extremities end a new king is
established and normality returns. Here the transgression is a complement
to the everyday world, revealing its limits but never destroying it (Bataille
67), as could be the case with the end of paper publishing, the carnival of
electronic literature, and resumption of order as corporations flood back
into digital publishing.
If Adornos age old argument concerning the importance of
separateness of art from economics still applies, then literature and new
medias social worth can only arise from its distance from the milieu that
makes up capitalist society (Abbot 19) and it is this incompatibility that
should be aspired for. For this reason it is now worth shifting emphasis
from Hayles Electronic Literature: What is it? to its companion piece
authored as the first essay in the PAD initiative a full two and a half years
earlier entitled Acid-Free Bits. Written by Nick Montfort and Noah
Wardrip-Fruin Acid-Free Bits was originally conceived exclusively
from the perspective of increasing the longevity of works of literature in
new media, and with no apparent consideration to social activism or
transgression theory. But within it something far more transgressive is also
The essay essentially has two main theses: the first that Those who
use open systems and adhere to open standards when creating electronic
literature have a much better chance that the format of their literary works
will be supported, or decipherable, in the future, and the second that the
program code of this literature should always remain human-readable to
ensure that the literary content will be recoverable whatever the
predicament (Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin).
The first thesis is concerned with the issue that writers must have full
access to all aspects related to the medium that they chose to write in or
otherwise they could lose the ability to run their own work in the future. It
is for this reason that Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin emphasise the
importance of writing only using open systems as while A closed system
may provide important capabilities that are otherwise not available, and
some closed systems may be very well suited for the type of literary
creation in which authors are interested, this can cause considerable
problems later on if electronic literature is not the main purpose of a
system and the system is modified to suit other needs and becomes
unsuitable for past ones (Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin). Using open
systems guarantees that the writer will always have full access to all areas
of their program code, as the system is beyond proprietary control, so they

Tim Bridgman


can always modify this code whenever needed to ensure their work will
continue to run.
This recommendation, however, also pushes writers in new media
away from the capitalist conformism consented to by writing on corporate
developed software. It directly encourages transgression away from this
world into another where new media software tools for writing literature
have been purposely developed to be of the greatest possible use to the
public (GNU General Public License) rather than an exercise in
accumulating personal wealth. It achieves transgression through writing in
new media developed outside of any sort of traditional market economy
and reveals how dependency on corporate software can lead to limitations
being imposed on the writer by the developer and that the constraints of a
given type of software or programming language then ultimately function
as literary constraints (Rettberg 89).
The second thesis contained within Acid-Free Bits confronts the
possibility of the unlikely occurrence, long into the future, of a new media
system now used for writing literature falling into such disrepair that the
only thing that remains accessible is the bare source code. Here the point
is that in such an event, if the source code contains the actual same words
that are generated in the final program, then at least these can be salvaged
and the piece of literature can be reconstructed again on an alternative
system. Again, all this depends on whether the source code is fully
accessible, which is only possible if written on an open system.
This recommendation also relates to a key issue identified by
Lievrouw, who explains that while mass media were well-suited to the
tasks of presenting consistent, repetitive messages to large, heterogeneous
audiences, shaping broad-based popular opinion, fostering mass
consumption, and mobilizing political movements, challenging oppositional
and activist forms of new media now often tend to be perishable,
ephemeral responses to rapidly-changing cultural contexts and meanings
capable of organising and disorganising continuously as through doing so
they become capable of taking risks, even if this means they might selfdestruct in the process (Meikle qtd. in Lievrouw). Therefore, for new
media literature to be written with the ability to collapse and reassemble
may in fact be a vital asset for transgression and one that should be
retained within its make-up.
Hayles openly realises the dangers of literary works in new media
being deeply entwined with the powerful commercial interests of
software companies, computer manufacturers, and other purveyors of
apparatus associated with networked and programmable media but has
not offered either of the above solutions as a remedy, leaving writers


Electronic Literature: Content to Con-Form

striving for transgression through material resistance only and many

ultimately forced back into the world of big business, corporate power and
capitalist conformism.
As Wallace passionately argues, if writing should step over the line,
redraw the line, erase the line, even multiply the lines so that we sit up,
step forward, strike out (98) and the most powerful assumption or
governing principle underlying the traditional media environment has been
the notion of property (Lievrouw), then transgressive writers in new
media need to be taking risks to push their writing into directions that
fundamentally violate this notion of propriety and not just be fixed on
material resistance of form.
When considered from this perspective, it then becomes possible for
even the simplest electronic text conceived in the simplest programming
language to possess transgressive capabilities if written to run on a system
that undermines the conventions of capitalism and which is able to
collapse and reassemble to avoid persecution. Montfort and WardripFruins Acid-Free Bits, a forgotten companion piece to Hayles
Electronic Literature: What is it?, through focusing on longevity
understands this, if only from the perspective of preservation, as by
recommending writers use open systems running program code that is
human readable, they are planning for survival in a future society very
different from the one we now live in.
The alternative would be to promote a world in which corporations
own the means of writing literature in new media and where transgressive
writing beyond form is no longer a consideration.

Works cited
Abbot, Andy. 2007. Transgression, Cooperation and Criticality in Socially
Engaged Art Practice. March 24, 2010.
Bataille, Georges. 1962. Death and Sensuality: a Study of Eroticism and
the Taboo. New York: Walker and Company.
Bolter, David J. 2000. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the
Remediation of Print. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc..
Foust, Christina R. 2010. Transgression as a Mode of Resistance:
Rethinking Social Movement in an Era of Corporate Globalization.
Plymouth: Lexington Books.
GNU General Public License. Version 3, 29 June 2007. March 24, 2010.
Hayles, N. Katherine. 2007. Electronic Literature: What is it?

Tim Bridgman

91 March 24, 2010.

Jenks, Chris. 2003. Transgression. London: Routledge.
Lievrouw, Leah A. 2006. Oppositional and activist new media:
Remediation, reconfiguration, participation. In Proceedings of the
Participatory Design Conference '06, ed. I. Wagner and J. Blomberg.
Seattle: Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. March 24,
Montfort, Nick and Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. 2004. Acid-Free Bits:
Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature. March 24, 2010.
Rettberg, Scott. 2010. Editorial Process and the Idea of Genre in
Electronic Literature in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume
1. In Archiving Electronic Literature and Poetry: Problems,
Tendencies, Perspectives, ed. Florian Hartling and Beat Sute. SPEIL,
rettberg_elc_genre_spiel.pdf. March 24, 2010.
Simanowski, Roberto. 2010. Digital Anthropophagy: Refashioning
Words as Image, Sound and Action. In Leonardo 43 (2): 159-163.
owski.html. March 24, 2010.
Wallace, Naomi. 2008. On Writing as Transgression: Teachers of Young
Playwrights Need to Turn Them Into Dangerous Citizens. In
American Theatre: 98-102.
March 24, 2010.



Cherry Blossom is a joint project of Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and

Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz created in 2008. A performance dealing with
the issue of the recent Polish immigration into the UK, it was presented by
a mixed cast consisting of two Scottish actors (John Kazek and Sandy
Grierson) and two Polish actresses (Marta cisowicz and Magorzata
Trofimiuk). The plot revolved around two passages abroad made by Polish
citizens. The first one is authentic; it is the journey of Robert Dziekaski
to Canada, ending with his death at Vancouver Airport at the hands of the
security personnel trying to restrain him with a taser. The second one is
fictitious; the story of Grayna Antkiewicz, a Bydgoszcz housewife forced
to look for employment in Great Britain and ultimately staying abroad,
was created by the authors of the play on the basis of numerous
conversations and research on the Polish immigrants in the British Isles.
It is the latter story that occupies the bulk of Cherry Blossom. It starts
with Grayna being forced to go to Britain instead of her husband, who
can find neither his passport nor his ID card, and so cannot use the coach
ticket for which the family has already paid. When she reaches Scotland,
the Polish woman is only able to get a job in a meat factory, but, as she
prefers her family not to know about it, she tells them instead that she
works at a box factory. In the meantime, her husband and children live a
relatively prosperous life in Poland thanks to the money she sends home.
Their main financial dilemmas concern the cable TV and broadband
options available to them. While the original plan was that they would join
Grayna in Britain, their life becomes comfortable to the extent that the
father tries to delay leaving Poland indefinitely. As the prosperity of the
Antkiewicz family in Poland grows, Grayna has to face difficult living
conditions in Scotland, the state of her flat deteriorating, fungus growing
on the carpet, and the landlord ignoring the requests of his Polish tenants

Pawe Schreiber


to deal with the problems. At Christmas, Grayna returns to her family

(several days later than she originally planned, so that she could earn the
money needed to cover their expenses), and finds that it is in a terrible
state. Her husband completely ignores the household duties, and, even
more importantly, helplessly watches as Jasiek, the younger of their two
children, becomes more and more alienated as he escapes the real world
by constantly playing video games on his PS2 console. Horrified by what
she sees at home, Grayna decides to return to Britain and have Jasiek
move in with her. When she is back in Scotland, her relationship with
John, a Scottish acquaintance, develops into a full-scale love affair. John
helps her to deal with the landlord, who is in fact obliged to comply with
his tenants demands. Finally, Grayna starts her own enterprise, helping
Polish people in dealing with the formalities connected with life in Britain.
In the last scene of the play, Jasiek is preparing to board a plane bound for
Scotland. He hesitatesin a very interesting scene his voice is split into
several different ones arguing whether he should make the journey or not.
Ultimately, he crosses the gate at the airport and is welcomed by his
mother in Britain.
In the performance, the subsequent fragments of Graynas story are
interrupted with scenes in which an actor reads parts of the transcript of
the events leading to the death of Robert Dziekaski. Both Grayna and
Jasiek are able to cross the airport gate and emerge on the other side.
Dziekaski is left alone in an alien country when he did not manage to
enter the arrivals lounge in time to meet his mother because his luggage
was delayed. Like the fictitious protagonists of the play, he stops at the
airport door, and, unlike them, decides to go back. However, it proves to
be impossiblewhen he tries to do so, he is tasered by the airport security.
He dies on the threshold which his counterparts in the play were able to
cross. It could be said that Cherry Blossom is first and foremost about
transgression: crossing the boundary between the familiar life at home and
the unfamiliar world of emigration. The play juxtaposes a success and a
failure: the story of Grayna and Jasiek, who are able to cross the PolishScottish border, and the story of Dziekaski, a grim reminder that not
everybody is able to move into the new world.
The reviews of the performance almost unanimously agree that the
playtext itself is not very interesting. The Guardians Mark Fisher claims
that separated from Cherry Blossoms evocation of linguistic confusion
[created by the performance, not the playtext], the central story would be
as banal as a soap opera. In The Herald, Neil Cooper describes the core
plot as a pretty simple story of one womans accidental emancipation.
The Polish reviewers were also quite critical in their comments on the plot


Catherine Grosvenors and Lorne Campbells Cherry Blossom

of Cherry Blossom. Michalina ubecka describes the plays characters as

stereotypic, and Borough of Islington from Nowa Sia Krytyczna taking
the same premise, states that The story of the Antkiewicz family from
Bydgoszcz is diminished to the level of cheap banality. In short, even
though the play deals with transgression, it is written in a way that
emphasises the least controversial forms and ways of thinking.
As a text, Cherry Blossom is related to the documentary convention.
This conclusion may seem obvious considering the fact that the play
describes socially relevant contemporary events (a basic feature of the
documentary form according, for example, to Attilio Favorini). However,
the relationship between Cherry Blossom and the documentary goes much
furtherthe play positively emphasises its connection to the factual
material. The inclusion of Dziekaskis story is the most basic example
even though the characters of the play do not exist, their lives are shown as
parallel to those of the real immigrants. An appendix to the printed edition
of the play, presenting a diverse assortment of comments made by people
interviewed by the authors (101-103), further reinforces the connection
between the Antkiewicz family and the Polish immigration in the UK by
showing the real sources of the fictitious vision. The desire to move the
world of the play closer to documented reality goes so far that the authors
include not only the date, but also the respective exchange rate for the
British pound and Polish zoty at the beginning of each scene.
Derek Paget points out that one of the basic problems of documentary
plays is the gap between the facts they are based on and their own
fictitious nature (4). This gap can be as much a problem as an
opportunityon the one hand, it undermines the truthfulness of what the
play conveys, but on the other, it can serve to explore the nature of fiction
and its peculiar connections to the world outside it. Paget views the
tension between fact and fiction as always potentially subversive (4).
Such subversion, when it does occur in the theatre, results from a
consciously engineered clash between fiction and the established fact.
In the playtext of Cherry Blossom there are no instances in which the
gap between the fact and dramatic fiction is emphasised. The documentary
evidence introduced by the authors is not meant either to subvert the play,
or to be subverted by it. The principal role of the documentary is to serve
as a footnote of sorts, validating the fictitious. It becomes what Paget calls
a verifying discourse (4), adopted from outside drama and lending it
some of its prestige. Thus, the uses of the fact and the fiction converge.
Both serve to reinforce the authority of the play and the belief of the
audience or readers that what they are dealing with is trustworthy.

Pawe Schreiber


Within the documentary film, Paget distinguishes two traditions, which

can also be seen in drama. One, connected with liberalism, presents its
function as merely recording the events happening in the world. It
believes that facts and information are in themselves liberating (Paget
39), and they can be presented in an unmediated way, allowing the
audience to judge them. The other tradition, growing from more politically
radical currents, concentrates on reporting, understood as relating events
with the awareness that unmediated representation is impossible, and
therefore any documentary work has to represent a certain point of view
(Paget 39). As the reporting tradition is conscious of the political
involvement of any representation, it frequently thematises the techniques
of showing issues and events, exploiting the gap between fact and fiction
For Paget, the recording tradition is a powerful tool used by hegemonies
in order to control the populace. Using the illusion of unmediated fact,
they are able to impose on the audiences their own viewpoint as
unquestionably objective (Paget 39). It might be said that the whole
process also has a soothing quality to itthe purpose of the documentary
is to take up a potentially painful subject and represent it in an
uncontroversial way, so that its socially disruptive potential could be
neutralised by the apparently unbiased, balanced viewpoint from which it
is presented (39-40). The reporting tradition, on the other hand, does not
try to reduce the controversy. Struggle is its natural element, and just like
its self-consciousness is built on the basis of contrast between fact and
fiction, so its treatment of the subject matter does not try to resolve
conflicts, but rather elucidate them by emphasising their seriousness. The
prominence of conflict in such drama makes it dangerous for the
hegemony because it encourages change rather than the preservation of the
status quo. Attilio Favorini goes even further than Paget suggesting that
the dialectical approach showing problems rather than solving them is a
defining feature of documentary drama as such (as opposed to historical
drama).1 In the tradition of documentary drama, growing out of the work
of revolutionists such as Piscator, Meyerhold or Brecht, any play that
soothingly dismisses the idea of conflict and rebellion can be viewed as a
traitor to the cause.

Following Jacques Elluls theory of propaganda, Favorini creates an equivalent of

Pagets distinction, dividing the use of propaganda in drama into integration
propaganda (reshaping behaviour for stable social setting) and dialectical
propaganda (demistyfiyng a complex situation) (Favorini xx). The former is
compatible with Pagets recording model, while the latter is similar to the reporting


Catherine Grosvenors and Lorne Campbells Cherry Blossom

As a text, Cherry Blossom appears to be guilty of such treason, as it

appears to have much more to do with the recording tradition than the
reporting one. The most elementary level on which it is visible is that of
the appendixes, showing the story of Robert Dziekaski and the choice of
comments made by immigrants without any indication of the authors
opinionapparently in the belief that information [is] [...] liberating
(Paget 39). Most importantly, however, the play also manifests the results
of adopting the recording approach as described by Pagetit takes a
controversial subject, and presents it in such a way as to tone down its
subversive potential, offering instead an uplifting story conserving the
social order.
The story of Graynas mistreatment by the British and the dissolution
of her family is resolved so efficiently that even the appeal of the
unsettling image of Robert Dziekaskis death becomes much weaker than
the all-encompassing reconciliation at the end of the play. The problem of
the abuse of the Polish by the British is solved by means of introducing
John, who finally becomes Graynas lover. Graynas conflict with the
locals is shown principally through her argument with her landlord (not
taking proper care about the accommodation he rents to a group of Poles),
which begins not long after her arrival, and is ultimately solved with
Johns help near the end of the play (the landlord is forced to renovate the
flat). It is this success that paves the way for Jasieks arrival in Scotland
and, through it, the overcoming of the family problem. Throughout the
text, the gradual decline of Jasiek, who loses contact with reality and
escapes into the world of video games, is the strongest indication of the
collapse of Graynas family. It is therefore the more important that in the
end it is Jasiek who finally comes to live with Grayna in Britaina
gesture which neutralizes both the anxiety connected with the destruction
of the family, and the possible sinister undertones of the fact that at some
point he has to cross the airport gate, just like Robert Dziekaski before
The cathartic liberation provided by Cherry Blossom is thus a
liberation from dangers connected with transgressions of several kinds:
going beyond the stereotype in representing immigrants or trying to
subvert the documentary convention or move outside. Ultimately, when
the plays characters are spared the terrible fate met by Dziekaski, the
reader also sees emigration and immigration as familiarised phenomena,
posing no serious danger that could not be neutralized by strong will and
hard work. This is exactly the kind of liberation provided by Pagets
recording convention, which removes the danger of subversion and the
necessity to think at the same time.

Pawe Schreiber


Seen from the perspective of the tradition of documentary drama as

described by, among others, Paget or Favorini, Cherry Blossom is a failure
precisely because of its attitude towards transgression and subversion. As
it does not try to undermine any existing social or cultural notions, it
should theoretically produce futile theatre, incapable of causing social
change. However, the theatrical shape given to the text by Traverse
Theatre and Teatr Polski shows that an apparently uninspiring text can
become a very powerful and interesting tool in the debate on immigration,
a result by and large noticed by the British reviewers of the performance,
but neglected by the Polish ones. Most importantly, the stage success of
Cherry Blossom owes most of it to the notion of transgression. It is,
however, not a transgression in the space of ideology, as expected by
Paget, but one strictly and irremovably connected with the idea of the
theatre itself.
The stage design of the performance, created by Mark Grimmer and
Leo Warner, is based on a set of huge white rectangular panels. They can
be raised or lowered, and, depending on their position, they serve either as
the floor on which the actors step, or walls which determine all onstage
movement. However, their principal function is that of screens onto which
images, both static and moving, are projected throughout the performance.
The images are very rarely naturalisticthe multimedia stage design
suggests, rather than directly presents, the spaces indicated in the plot.
Graynas flat in Bydgoszcz appears as a floor plan projected on the stage
and the slaughterhouse she works in is shown through meat cut charts
drawn in red lines. In the scenes of Graynas telephone conversations
with her family, the floor shows a map of Europe with a thin line
connecting Britain, where Mrs Antkiewicz holds the imaginary receiver,
and Poland, where her husband and children listen to her.
When the performance starts, the older of the two Polish actresses
(Magorzata Trofimiuk) plays Grayna, and the younger (Marta
cisowicz) becomes her daughter. Similarly, the older Scottish actor
(John Kazek) takes the role of Graynas husband, and the younger (Sandy
Grierson)that of Jasiek. However, as the scenes change, so do the roles
taken by the actors. By the end of the performance, all of them have
played each of the main characters at least once. The stage design helps to
keep track of the constant role shifts by projecting squares with the
characters names at the beginning of each scene. It is only after each of
the actors has entered his or her respective square that the scene may start.
Unlike the published text of Cherry Blossom, the performance is
bilingual. In the opening scenes, the language spoken depends on the
nationality of the actor. During the family quarrel before Graynas


Catherine Grosvenors and Lorne Campbells Cherry Blossom

departure, she and her daughter speak Polish, while her husband and
Jasiek use English. As the play progresses, however, the language used no
longer depends on the actor. Apart from the general tendency that Polish is
reserved to the Polish characters, each of the performers has to use both
languages present in Cherry Blossom. In order to make the play easier to
understand for the audiences, subtitles appear as part of the stage design.
They were the same in the performances in Edinburgh, Bydgoszcz and
Warsaw, translating parts of the spoken Polish text into English and vice
The result of all these design choices is a feeling of confusion. The
characters move in shifting, ephemeral spaces, structured by the moving
panels and projected onto the stage; the actors change their roles in each
scene; perhaps most importantly, the audience members who do not
understand both English and Polish may have some difficulty in following
the plot. What the Traverse Theatre/Teatr Polski performance of Cherry
Blossom requires, above all other things, seems to be the ability to adapt to
a constantly changing situation. This may be viewed as a disadvantage
writing about the decision to rotate the cast in the roles, The Times Robert
Dawson Scott says that its effect is so distancing, not to say downright
confusing, that it drains much of the available dramatic force. However,
as Mark Fisher puts it in his review for The Guardian, The disorientation
we feel watching Catherine Grosvenors Cherry Blossom is the
disorientation of her characters. The performance forces its audiences to
share the experience of Grayna, who, placed in an unfamiliar environment,
has to overcome her own confusion, start to comprehend the processes
taking place around her, and finally become part of the world she has
entered. Like her, they viewers have to face a foreign language which they
only partly understand and cope with the strange mechanisms of the
onstage world which have to be grasped on the fly as the performance
The draining of the available dramatic force by means of distancing
echoes Brechts practice of estrangement. The role shifts make it more
difficult for the audiences to empathise with the characters, and so reduce
the emotional impact of the piece. However, the connection between the
theatrical estrangement and the confusion felt by the immigrant in an alien
country moves Campbells and Grosvenors idea away from Brechtian
theatreforcing the audiences into the situation of an immigrant, they in
fact create a complex exercise in empathy, relying not on emotional
appeal, but on a shared experience.
The focus of the experience is transgression, but not only that
connected with Graynas crossing the border. Watching Cherry Blossom,

Pawe Schreiber


the spectators witness not just representations of transgression, but also

real examples of it in the actors constant changes of the roles they play
and the languages they speak. While acting always is a form of going
beyond ones own identity, in Campbells performance this aspect is even
more emphasised. The role shifts have a stronger impact because of the
way they are highlighted in the stage designthe movement from one
assumed identity to another becomes a constantly repeated onstage ritual.
The use of two languages is even more spectacular, with emotional,
seamless dialogues taking place, one actor speaking in Polish and the other
one in English. Sometimes using the foreign language is connected with a
visible effort due to the performers difficulties with pronunciation. The
boundary of ones own language becomes another line that has to be
crossed. Both the role shifts and language changes are in turn part of a
more general transgressionthat of the individual performers cultural
identities. Acting in Cherry Blossom, the actors are very often given tasks
which run contrary to their own cultural background. In the fourth scene,
Marta cisowicz plays a job centre worker interrogating Grayna
(Magorzata Trofimiuk), speaking English with an accent that is a mixture
of Polish and Scottish influence. The impact of the scene is very much
strengthened by the fact that it is a confrontation of the two Polish
actresses of the production, this time standing on the opposite sides of the
cultural divide.
While the actors cross the boundaries of their personal and cultural
identities, the spectators do the same. The creators of Cherry Blossom
consciously play with their empathy. While initially it is much more
natural for a Polish spectator to identify with characters who are either
Polish or speak Polish, the role changes make it impossible to remain
consistent in it, thus removing the grounds for any possible division into
us and them (a side effect of which is the reduction of the dramatic
potential mentioned by Robert Dawson Scott in The Times). The viewers
are put in a situation in which they view the events from both the British
and the Polish perspective. Even though the audiences in Scotland and in
Poland came from very different cultural and national backgrounds, their
experience of the play was meant to be very similar.
The kinds of transgression described above are nothing new in the
theatre. During every performance actors transcend their own identities in
dealing with their roles, and the spectators go beyond their own here-andnow, projecting their empathy onto the characters and becoming involved
in the onstage space. The stage becomes an alien territory that has to be
entered and explored for the director and performers as well as the
audiencethe former have to enter the empty space at the beginning of


Catherine Grosvenors and Lorne Campbells Cherry Blossom

the rehearsals, and try to understand it in terms of the performance they are
preparing; the latter enter the space later on and make sense of the way in
which it has been appropriated by the theatre crew. In Cherry Blossom
these ordinary theatre transgressions become more prominent because of
the subject matter, itself dealing with crossing boundaries, and the
directors decision to highlight them in the performance, making it more
self-conscious. In this simple way, by making the notions of theatre and
emigration converge, the creators of Cherry Blossom have built a unity of
experience between the characters of the play, the actors and the audiences.
Pagets criticism of the recording trend in documentary drama is still
applicable to Cherry Blossom. Just like the text builds up a controversy
and then subdues it, its stage presentation invites all the participants to
transgression, but ultimately does not change themthe whole process is
more of a controlled experiment which has no immediate spectacular
results, as the identity shifts operate within the conventions of the theatre.
The transgression is only make-believe, and the steps beyond made during
the performance are withdrawn at the end.
However, it is precisely because Cherry Blossom relies on the makebelieve, and becomes a safe experiment in which any serious change can
be immediately cancelled that it succeeds so well in bringing the cultures
of the Polish immigrants and their British hosts together. Presenting a
strong, one-sided argument in a political or ideological debate proves to be
a less inspiring theatrical tool than freely exploring the others stance
through imagining oneself in their position. The freedom results from the
fact that in Cherry Blossom the theatre is more of a playground than a
tribune, and no change occurring in it is to be taken too seriously in terms
of the real world outside the stage. This detachment does not mean that the
joint Scottish-Polish project is not serious theatrethe role-playing
experience of the actors and the audiences may have very interesting
consequences for the participants attitudes towards emigration and
In the traditional view of documentary theatre and film, as expressed
by Paget and Favorini, the stage is discussed in terms of opinions. The
point of a performance is to present a viewpoint that would clash with
those of the audience and ultimately modify them, making them transgress
their previous selves and forms of thinking. This notion of serious theatre
which effects powerful changes in the mass audience has by and large
become a fetish in criticism, one that is very commonly accepted, and very
rarely realised in practice. In Cherry Blossom, the performance is first and
foremost an experience, with opinion or mental change as a possible, but
not necessary, byproduct. The core of this experience is not the plot itself,

Pawe Schreiber


which only provides the subject of the exercise, but the make-believe kind
of transgression characteristic of all theatre. It is in many ways much
weaker than the real transgression demanded by the more radical theorists
of documentary theatre, but at the same time much more liberating. The
viewers watching the story of the Polish emigrants can step back from the
boundaries their imaginations have crossed during the performanceif the
theatre stage is to function as an undiscovered country, it is useful only
inasmuch as it allows the traveler to return and tell the tale.

Works cited
Borough of Islington. Wyobrania znokautowana przez edukacj. In Sia Krytyczna, October 29, 2008. February 19, 2010.
Cooper, Neil. Cherry Blossom, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. In The
Herald, September 29, 2008. February 19, 2010.
Favorini, Attilio. 1995. Introduction. In Voicing: Ten Plays from the
Documentary Theater, ed. Attilio Favorini. Hopewell: Ecco Press. ixxxix.
. ed. 1995. Voicing: Ten Plays from the Documentary Theater.
Hopewell: Ecco Press.
Fisher, Mark. Cherry Blossom. In The Guardian, September 30, 2008. February 19,
Grosvenor, Catherine. 2008. Cherry Blossom. London: Nick Hern Books.
ubecka, Michalina. Emigranci bez polotu. In Gazeta WyborczaBydgoszcz, October 21, 2008.
61030.html. February 19, 2010.
Paget, Derek. 1990. True Stories? Documentary Drama on Radio, Screen
and Stage. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Scott, Robert Dawson. Cherry Blossom Traverse in Edinburgh. In The
Times, September 30, 2008.
arts_and_entertainment/stage/theatre/article4849197.ece. February 19,



Television theatre, (Shakespeares) theatre on television, and filmall

these media must be considered when an attempt is made to theorise
televisual coverage of stage productions. Since recent years (from the mid1990s onwards) have witnessed a clear-cut departure from the studio as
the main site of television theatre productions in Poland in favour of
location (both indoor and outdoor) as well as a return to filming stage
performances1, it appears thatwith the development of television
technologythe latter phenomenon calls for a reassessment. The argument
is that directors, instead of merely recording a performance, produce a
novel quality in an aesthetic sense, with or without the live audience. Jerzy
Limon (2008, 26) when considering broadcasting stage performances
observes that the telegenic quality of such productions needs to be
acknowledged. Limon also draws our attention to yet another aspect that
should not be overlooked: whether or not a production was aired live.
Taking into account all these intricacies, one could be tempted to propose
a tentative continuum of approaches to televised stage productions: from
Eimuntas Nekroiuss Hamletas (2005), in which the centrally positioned
camera simply records a performance, to Krzysztof Warlikowskis
Poskromienie zonicy [The Taming of the Shrew] shown live on Polish

Return because this was the most popular mode of showing plays on television
in its beginnings and evenfor financial reasons, perhapslater on, in the 1980s,
as Michlle Willems comments on French television.

Jacek Fabiszak


television in December 2005 and experimenting with metatelevisuality.

Warlikowskis Burza [The Tempest] is another production in which the
director proposes yet one more televisual perspective on stage theatre.
This paper will be devoted to a theoretical reflection on the interface
between the stage and the small screen and Shakespeares place in it,
which will be illustrated using examples from Warlikowskis The
Tempest. Emphasis will be put on the ways in which a theatrical
performance, with an audience watching, is transformed into a television
play, an independent albeit parasitical form of art, yet one which is so well
established that the production is not treated as filmed theatre, as it
integrates theatrical aesthetics with what one may call telegenic poetics.
What kind of theatre then emerges from a production which is
performed on the stage of a traditional theatre or in a special location (as
was the case with Jarzynas 2007: Macbeth), albeit one treated as another
theatrical (not televisual) space? It would be nave to assume that presentday television, with its highly advanced technological possibilities, has
become just a tool for recording what is otherwise a theatrical
performance. Obviously, the evolution of television and its fiction genres
over the decades guarantees the development of what can be called
television art, which is quite independent of cinematic film, on the one
hand, and theatre, on the other. One of the most prominent genres of
televisual fiction, which has received critical acclaim as well as proved
extremely popular among TV viewers has, in recent years, been the series
(but not the soap opera, although it is still very much popular). US-based
television companies have decided to produce series whose target is a
more demanding viewer; as a result, such well-known productions as The
Sopranos, Rome, Six Feet Under, House M.D., or The Tudors have been
shown on television. These series are justifiably perceived today as
representing the art of television fiction. Naturally, they are, in aesthetic
terms, more akin to film than theatre, or any other form of art, but they
depend on what is part and parcel of television: the segment (cf. Ellis).
Television theatre is not like television film, although it also acquires
filmic features in specific productions.2 The genre draws on the nature of
television realism whereby, ideally, what is shown on screen is a genuine
representation of a section of reality, which is further shown in the present
time, one which is the same as the time of the viewer. In other words, an
ideal television broadcast is a live one. These assumptions are often
violated: even in documentaries, let alone television fiction, the flow of the

Limon discusses this issue thoroughly in his studies devoted to television theatre;
particularly relevant here is the employment of the camera and treatment of time


Theatre, Television, Shakespeare?

broadcast is carefully edited and the shots are framed in such a way as to
render the desired effect on screen. Moreover, numerous cameras provide
the spectator with a multiple point of view. The result is that the narration
acquires features of a work of fiction.3 Also, the live quality of television
is very often only apparent, butas Limon reminds ustaken for granted,
which the inscription live accompanying some of the broadcasts clearly
indicates. In other words, television is characterised by a reportage
Of course, it would be tempting to simply apply this model to filmed
stage theatre productions, but it seems this would be an oversimplification.
As noted above, present-day Polish television in a sense revives a subgenre, or form, of television theatre, which was popular at the beginning of
television. Let us note that this coincides with a significant qualitative
change in producing television theatre: no longer do we deal with studiobased productions as they are replaced with ones shot on location. Bearing
in mind the technological and aesthetic development of television, it is
impossible to view filmed theatre in the same manner it was considered a
few decades ago; rather, it can be and should be treated as aesthetically
belonging to the group of productions filmed on location, except that in
this particular case the location happens to be a theatre stage, possibly with
an audience. Even when a production is shot without the presence of a live
audience, with an empty auditorium (which, for economical reasons is no
longer practised) the structure of a traditional theatre, with its division into
the stage and auditorium imposes a specific perspective on the viewer. The
effect is that, although a production need not be aired live, the viewer gets
what we might tentatively call theatre-within-television (theatre). In other
words, the production is necessarily highly metalinguistic, being at the
same time metatheatrical (about stage theatre) and metatelevisual (about
the ways in which it is transmitted on television). The latter element may
be additionally signalled by 1. the presence of the camera (which is
actually shown in the production; the director does not try to hide it, as
opposed to the cinema, as it constitutes part and parcel of the space that is
actually shownlocation); and 2. the acknowledgement of the cameras
presence by the actors, whofor exampleaddress it directly.
I would like to argue that Warlikowski (and the television directors,
such as Kasia Adamik in the case of The Tempest) in the television
versions of his stage plays explores these possibilities of the interplay
between theatre and television. The highly metatheatrical The Taming of

This is true about the coverage of sports events, too. Cf. Margaret Morses article
on sport on television (1983).

Jacek Fabiszak


the Shrew becomes, naturally, highly metatelevisual when aired on the

small screen. Cameras seem to fill in the space of the production, which
characteristicallyis comprised of the stage, auditorium and even foyer,
that is the whole of the theatre. In the production of The Tempest the
situation is different, but not that differentWarlikowski has his actors
appropriate two distinct spaces in the theatre: the stage proper as well as
an area in front of the stage, which is located on the level of the
auditorium and surrounded by spectators on three sides. This space is
gradually revealed in the televisual/DVD version; significantly enough,
the cameras that are actually included in the frame, and often silhouetted
against the background of the stage proper, occupy the level of the
auditorium. Likewise, in The Taming of the Shrew the viewer is shown
cameras and cameramen positioned in the auditorium, in the aisles
between rows of seats.
One may note, however, that in the case of television theatre, a hybrid
genre going beyond what is theatrical and filmic/telegenic, productions
shot on location do not display this particular metatelevisual feature and
cameras are not explicitly shown. At the same time, however, actors are
free to turn to the camera lens and address it directly, recognising its
presence on the set. A possible explanation is that an indoor or outdoor
location differs from theatre-as-location: the inside of a house or flat
and/or the exterior location of a field, forest or mountains, are highly
realistic and the camera simply does not belong there. In the theatre (and
television) the tricks of the trade are more visible: even in the most
naturalist performances the illusion of reality is impossible to maintain:
the spectator can see that the stage, although transformed into a bourgeois
living-room, remains a stage, surrounded by wings. Consequently, in a
television production of a stage performance the director(s) are bound to
show televisions tricks of the trade, as it were, orat leastare allowed
to, by means of convention. In other words, televised stage performances
become a subcategory of television theatre in location, the natural space
being the television studio.
Krzysztof Warlikowskis The Tempest was first shown on Polish
channel TVP Kultura and then published on DVD as Polski Szekspir
Wspczesny [Polish Contemporary Shakespeare].4 The video/DVD format
is closely linked with television aesthetics as Michle Willems observed in
her essay of 2000 Video and its paradoxes. The French scholar finds

It is worth noting that filmed theatre is more popular on this particular channel
than on Channel One, which regularly, on Mondays, has been presenting television
theatre productions for over 50 years.


Theatre, Television, Shakespeare?

videotapes [or DVDs, for that matter] [] hybrid products, since they
result from transfers from film to television or from crossovers between
stage and film. Rothwell and Melzers [] filmography and videography
introduces differentiating labels to classify this large variety of
Shakespearean products: Polanskis film is listed as motion picture/
adaptation, Golds TV film as video/teleplay and Trevor Nunns Macbeth
as video/interpretation. This is a first step towards distinguishing between
Shakespeare-on-film, Shakespeare-on-television and Shakespeare-on-thestage []. (36)

Willems does not recognise in her classification television theatre and its
specific language as well as its complexity (although she is well aware of
the differences between the filmic, televisual and stage codes; 37). What is
significant here is Willemss description of the functions of the audience
of film, on the one hand, and television/filmed theatre/DVD on the other.
Thus, in film, the viewers are more often treated as a privileged peeping
Tom than as a partner in the task of exploring a difficult text, if only
because the actors never speak straight to the camera (Willems 38). On
the other hand, in the case of television/DVD [t]he audience are enrolled
as partners and accomplices in the cameras exploration of the text
(Willems 40). Naturally, this would account for one of the major
differences between film and television: the actors attitude to direct
address on screen: avoided on the big screen and employed on the small
Michle Willems makes us aware of the complex situation of filmed
theatre when claiming that With videos trying to encapsulate stage
productions, we reach the height of paradox, since a live performance,
which is something essentially ephemeral and fluid, is suddenly frozen,
immobilised, preserved for endless repetition, although the singularity of a
theatrical experience can never be recaptured (43). On television, such a
production both is ephemeral and has the potential of being recorded and
becoming immobilised, as Willems phrases it. The latter, however, is
inscribed in the poetics of television theatre rather than being a mere
vehicle for other media (Willems 36). At least in the case of Polish
directors, television theatre is something they recognise as the obvious
frame in which to put a televised stage play. The television rendering of
Warlikowskis The Tempest appears to embrace such a frame: the opening
of the production does not at all indicate that the performance is located in
a theatre. The camera shows Prospero, Miranda and Ariel sitting at a table
by candlelight, focusing of course on their faces. The rest of the space is
dark, amorphous, whichaccording to Limon (2004, 88)is typical of
television theatre, where the space is shaped by the camera and is

Jacek Fabiszak


psychologically infinite, becoming primarily a place of dialogue. It is

significant to note that the shots do not reveal to the viewer any other
elements of the space. The dark background plays yet another role in the
TV production: with Prospero wearing a black sweater and with the
confined lighting, the shots present to the viewer the maguss face,
which with the rather economical stage business in the whole of the
performance results in stressing the verbal plane on the one hand, and
on the othermaking the actors act with their faces, which, again, is
typical of the television theatre aesthetics. It seems that Warlikowskis
production to a high degree lends itself to televising: the static acting is
also a consequence of a more general tendency to give the performance a
pictorial quality. One of the reviewers reminds us of a comment he heard
from a journalist when a scene from the theatrical performance was
presented to the press before the opening night; it was the scene showing
the court party aboard a plane which was considered more suitable for
radio theatre than the stage or television (Mizera).5 The theatrical
director blocks the actors in such a way as to limit the acting space to
basically two dimensionsthe scenes lack depth, just like the television
picture, or any picture. Additionally to the opening scenecharacters
seated at a table, another example is the presentation of the court party:
seated in a row aboard a plane; the camera frames them in a line.
Likewise, Stephano, Trinculo (or, to be more precise, Trincula) and
Caliban (the gender of the character in the production is debatable) are
lined up seated behind a bar. Furthermore, at least in the television
production the authors employ chiaroscuro, which endows the teleplay
with another aspect of the painterly, two-dimensional attribute. Piotr
Gruszczyski, while referring to the theatrical production, spoke of the
characters as being immobilised on chairs.
In the opening scenes, the picture is rather indistinct; Prospero and
Miranda are lit only by candles, also in the televised version. The low-key
lighting, which results in the stress on the chiaroscuro, brings about the
effect of blurring boundaries and the dream-like, indeed oneiric
atmosphere.6 This effect is also marked on the television screen as the
candlelight makes it look grainy; in other words, it is not the technological
deficiency of the camera and the TV set, but the lighting conditions which
contribute to the grainy quality of the picture. Of course, the fact that the
set is lit only with candles may be linked with the teleplays being a filmed

Cf. also Mikowskis review of the performance in which he compared the acting
to a radio broadcast.
Concordant, after all, with the larger-than-life world of Shakespeares
tragicomedies, including The Tempest, and Prosperos use of magic.


Theatre, Television, Shakespeare?

version of a theatrical performance, one played close to the audience, in

which candle lighting was sufficient enough for the spectators to see at
least the silhouettes of Prosperos and Mirandas busts and heads7 and
focus more significantly on the words they utter. At the same time,
however, the TV viewer is confronted with a variety of alternating shots
which portray the two characters in one frame, from different perspectives,
otherwise unavailable to the theatrical spectator. The ease with which the
cameras present the characters, unknown in the 1950s or 1960s, notorious
for rather poor-quality TV image, makes the viewer ponder on the purpose
of why the picture is so indistinct; one of the answers to this query might
be linked with the prevalent manner of shooting, whichon the one
handdraws on the historical traditions of filming stage theatre, with the
camera positioned centrally in the auditorium, andon the otherwith
the idea of the actors playing with their faces and voice. Thus,
Warlikowskis performance is very much television oriented, which has
been noted by other critics, too. The lighting does not depend on candles
only; the figures are additionally lit with spotlight; however, this only
further underscores the grainy quality of the image.
Warlikowski distances himself from the traditionally understood
concepts of what is beautiful and ugly. In his production, virtually every
character (and the set) is ugly in the context of present-day Hollywood
cinema: this can be exemplified by the character of Ariel, played in the
production by the actress Magdalena Cielecka, dressed in a tracksuit,
which, together with her short haircut, makes her look androgynous.
Cielecka is considered to be the epitome of womankind; consequently, her
androgyny is a challenge to the accepted norms within popular culture.
This runs apparently counter to the inherent televisual realism: Cieleckas
androgyny can be accepted on the stage; it becomes less problematic when
the actress, in view of the later Ariel-my-chick comment by Prospero,
dresses up as an attractive woman wearing a miniskirt and a curly blond
wig. At the same time, the viewer finds it an exaggeration when it comes
to the actresss regular looks. Cielecka is well known for her roles of both
romantic lovers and femme fatales in her well established film career in
Poland. The way Warlikowski frames her is certainly between the two
extremes: that of an androgynous boy and that of a vulgar female
The director does not cease at that: Caliban is played by another
androgynous-looking actress, Renate Jett, speaking with a heavy German
accent. One should again address here the issue of ugliness: Caliban is

Most typical television shots.

Jacek Fabiszak


framed in the play as a deformed and savage slave. In the context of the
Polish production, the fact that a figure of an alien is contentiously female
and German-speaking makes this figure doubly repulsive/ugly in a
patriarchal society. Let us note that Caliban/Jett in the production is also
strangely tattooed, which deepens her alienation. At the same time,
Prospero, Miranda and the androgynous Ariel are deprived of heroic
values and are presented, both on stage and on screen, as rather ugly: the
balding Prospero wearing a worn-out sweater, Miranda looking like an old
spinster and Ariel wearing a tracksuit. Interestingly enough, Ariel/Cielecka,
as mentioned above, when turned into a nymph puts on a short, shiny dress
and a blond, curly wig, which makes him (her) look like a cheap
prostitute. Here the camera is most realistic in that, in a truly televisual
fashion, it attempts to report on the characters looks as they are, without
presenting them in a heroic or any apparently artificial manner. Kasia
Adamik makes sure that the viewer gets bare bones, as it were; montage
is seemingly economical (which, naturally, conforms to the aesthetics of
the television theatre), yet the shots are in general quite varied, thanks to
which the production is both a comment on the tradition of televising
theatre in general and in Poland in particular, as well as the tradition of
putting the Bard on Polish television. In this way, Adamik and
Warlikowski produce a metatelegenic and metatheatrical performance,
very much in line with the nature of television theatre in Poland. At the
same time, one should remember the fact that the production was
originally designed for the stage. One should bear in mind that
Warlikowski had directed for both the stage and the studio before.
Another aspect to be considered is the growing televisuality or
filmicity of stage productions in general: theatre comes close to these
media, possibly, to attract audiences, an example of which is Grzegorz
Jarzynas 2007: Macbeth (2005). In this production Jarzyna situates a
number of stages in a multi-level structure (raised in an old decrepit
factory, which was pulled down shortly after the summer of 2005, when
the play was staged); the action moves from one stage to anotherthe
movements are marked by a stage being blacked out and the next one
brightly lit, which functions like film editing. Thus, it is absolutely
legitimate to look at a televised theatrical performance as a type of
televisual production.
As already pointed at above, Warlikowski/Kasia Adamik only
gradually show to the viewer more of the space: first one learns of the
complexity of the acting areathe stage proper as well as the space in
front of it, on the level of the auditorium. Then one discovers that the
production is a recording of a performance with a live audience, situated


Theatre, Television, Shakespeare?

very close to the acting area. The viewer is informed of the presence of the
spectators by the camera showing their silhouettes in rather stagy distant
shots. Furthermore, the theatrical location is underscored by lightingthis
time not candles but typically theatrical spotlights (in Warlikowskis
performance colouring with light becomes highly significant). In this way,
the production acquires a metatheatrical quality. The metatelevisual
element becomes manifest when the silhouettes of the cameras and
cameramen are revealed, which is yet another discovery made by the
viewer. This aspect of the teleplay is further highlighted by characters,
notably Prospero, addressing the camera directly in his last speech
(Epilogue), or winking at the viewer. Significantly enough, Kasia
Adamik signals these elements by employing long shots, ones that
emphasise the stagy nature of the production, such as shots from a camera
located in the very centre of the auditorium. This was the case in the early
days of television, and this is actually what Adamik explores in her
production, alluding to the manner in which filmed theatre was shown on
television in the 1950s and 1960s and, at the same time, resorting to the
reportage quality of television theatre.
The Epilogue provides a kind of a summary of the most characteristic
elements of this production, an interplay between a theatrical performance
and television theatre. The directors gradually move away from
theatricality to televisuality. The former is signalled in the last moments of
the final scene of the tragicomedy in which the viewer sees a long shot of
a fairly large fragment of the acting area with a table in it. Prospero and
the Three Men of Sin and Gonzalo are seated around the table in tuxedoes;
the camera also shows the offstage audience, mainly silhouetted against a
dark background, surrounding the stage/set. Interestingly enough, the
exchange between the characters is presented in a typically telegenic
manner: reaction shots are used, close-up shots focus on the characters
faces from a variety of angles and perspectives. In other words, these
images are not available to the spectator in the auditorium but only to the
viewer in front of the TV screen/computer, thus affecting the viewers
reception. At the same time, in concordance with the theatrical production,
the action is rather static, butinterestingly enoughnot the camera
work. The editing is quite dynamic though the viewer may not fully realise
it as he/she is lulled by deliberate and slow enunciation: the characters
give the impression of talking with difficulty; words are uttered with
visible effort by most of them, the most prominent examples being
Prospero and Caliban. Such an effect on the viewer is a result of the
directors combining the theatrical and televisual rather than the filmic,
although the fast editing seems to point to the latter. In this case, however,

Jacek Fabiszak


it is a fast but not very varied montage of close-ups, which gives

prominence to the words.
Eventually it is only Prospero and his deceitful brother Antonio, now
with a bleeding mouth, who remain on the set. They do not talk much but
exchange telling glances. This alone is the domain of television as their
facial expressions are not so clearly available to the spectators. What is
worth of note is that the camera fishes out from the dark background some
of the faces of the spectators, who thus become part of the television
production. At the same time, the viewer may realise that at least those
spectators whose faces are caught in the frame have a similar experience to
the viewer: the theatrical audience are positioned close to the actors, they
perceive them, too, in a kind of close-up. Yet, the camera privileges the
viewer over the spectator by providing the former with the most central
view of Prospero, whichas signalled aboveis a traditional way of
filming a theatrical performance. The directors enrich this by first having
Prospero acknowledge the presence of the spectators when he addresses
them to his right and left by turning his head, and then showing him in a
greater close-up by means of a subtle cut. The moves of the magicians
head are additionally highlighted by an electronic trail, a kind of telegenic
ghost image, which naturally is available only to the viewer. With
Prosperos focusing his gaze on the camera when delivering the Epilogue
and addressing specifically the audience in front the TV set, not the
spectator in the auditorium, the viewer is invited to treat the production as
a television play, whichby means of camera work and editingis not a
mere recording of a theatrical performance but becomes a form of
television art.
Warlikowskis performance lends itself particularly well to television.
It seems that playing close to the audience, in close-up as it were, is what
television is about. Interestingly enough, a similar view was expressed by
critics when Trevor Nunn decided to televise his Macbeth with Ian
McKellen and Judy Dench (1979): the production was hailed as a play in
close-up (i.e. both a theatrical performance and its later telegenic
rendering; cf. Mullin); as suggested above, Warlikowskis audience, at
least those spectators who are seated close to the acting area, also enjoy a
close-up perspective. Consequently, Warlikowskis production is
comparable to Jarzynas one: whereas the latter attempted to channel
theatre through film, the former framed the performance within television
codes. Naturally, it is not easy to determine whether Warlikowskis miseen-scne was affected by television or not, yet there are elements in the
production which can be considered highly telegenic. They include the
positioning of characters as talking heads, even showing them seated at


Theatre, Television, Shakespeare?

a table, and the rather flat, two dimensional blocking of actors, as

signalled above. The stress on the combination of a static image with a
surplus of words is quite typical of both theatre and television theatre, as it
makes the latter different from film.
Warlikowski and Adamiks joint production belongs to a series
referred to as Polish Contemporary Shakespeare. The two directors use
Shakespeares play, one that is a comment on the nature of the theatre, to
reflect on both present-day theatre and its presence on television in the
highly specific genretelevision theatre. Warlikowski relies on the
painterly, two-dimensional spacing of his characters, whereas Adamik
explores the possibilities offered by television art. Warlikowski appears to
facilitate Adamiks task as the two dimensional blocking lends itself to
representation on the flat television screen. Furthermore, the darkening of
the stage and the lighting of the actors faces not only function as a means
to draw the spectators attention to the verbal plane, buton the small
screenreflect the defining features, as it were, of television theatre, too:
the amorphous nature of the space framed by the camera, and the actors
playing in close-up. The verbal plane in the performance is emphasised in
yet another way: Shakespeares lines are uttered in a slow, effortful
manner. This double focuson the face of the speaker and his/her
wordsis also characteristic of television theatre, which allows for a
prominent share of words when compared with the image and has actors
play mainly with their faces. In other words, Warlikowskis The Tempest
is a theatrical performance which is both structured to be shown on
television and carefully televised for the viewer drawing on the poetics of
television theatre.

Works cited
Ellis, John. 1992 [1982]. Visible Fictions. Cinema: Television: Video.
LondonNew York: Routledge.
Fabiszak, Jacek. 2008. Shakespeare on Polish television in the 2000s:
forms, functions and challenges. In The Baltic Philological Forum.
Zeszyty Naukowe Instytutu Neofilologii i Komunikacji Spoecznej, ed.
Wojciech Klepuszewski. No. 1. Koszalin: Wydawnictwo Uczelniane
Politechniki Koszaliskiej. 35-46.
Gruszczyski, Piotr. 2003. Zmierzch bogw [Twilight of the gods]. In
Tygodnik Powszechny 3, 19 January.
Limon, Jerzy. 2004. Trzy teatry [Three theatres]. Gdask: sowo / obraz

Jacek Fabiszak


. 2008. Obroty przestrzeni [Revolutions of space]. Gdask: sowo /

obraz terytoria.
Mikowski, Tomasz. 2003. Dla ciebie nowe [It is new for you]. In
Trybuna 14, 17 January.
Mizera, Micha. 2003. Trwa nawa emocji [In a spate of emotions]. In
Puls Biznesu 17, 24 January.
Morse, Margaret. 1983. Sport on television: Replay and display. In
Regarding Television. Critical ApproachesAn Anthology, ed. E. Ann
Kaplan. Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America,
Inc./American Film Institute. 44-66.
Mullin, Michael. 1998. Stage and Screen: The Trevor Nunn Macbeth. In
Shakespeare on Television. An Anthology of Essays and Reviews, eds.
James C. Bulman and H.R. Coursen. Hanover-London: University
Press of New England. 107-115.
Willems, Michle. 2000. Video and its paradoxes. In The Cambridge
Companion to Shakespeare on Film, ed. Russell Jackson. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. 35-46.




[] it is the nature of fictional horror to transgress and violate

all boundaries. (Isabel Christina Pinedo 5)

One might wonder what makes wide audiences willingly go and

confront the monstrosities abounding in contemporary horror films.
Taking into consideration that horror films are supposed to speak to
peoples deepest fears, it is argued that they can reveal a great deal about
the subconscious anxieties not only of those who create them but, most
importantly, of those who watch them. Drawing on Julia Kristevas theory
of abjection and its later applications to film studies, this paper will
examine how horror films become modern equivalents of rituals of
defilement, aimed at establishing the boundary between the abject and the
symbolic by first demonstrating the power of the Other and then
containing it. It will also discuss whether such rituals are always
successful in redrawing the borderline firmly, and if not, in what other
ways they can affect contemporary audiences. Of the various possible
forms of abjection, this paper is particularly interested in the idea of the
abject mother and the abject female body. Many horror films play on the
subconscious fear of and fascination with the abject (m)other that poses
threat to the symbolic order as it might absorb what it once gave life to.
Probably the most extreme expression of the potential voracity of the
female body is the vagina dentata, widely distributed in myths and
legends all over the world and by some theorists considered central to the
iconography of the horror genre. The paper will analyze one of the few
instances when the myth is directly represented in filmMitchell
Lichtensteins feature debut entitled Teeth (2007)with the intention of
showing that even such seemingly misogynist subject matter can have a
subversive, feminist potential.
Psychopaths, murderers, ghosts, zombies, monsters, and disgusting
creatures who are stalking, torturing and mutilating their victims by

Nina Czarnecka-Paka


engaging in either slashing, stabbing, tearing apart or other more creative

forms of dismemberment, are the most likely characters of horror films.
Often becoming mutated or terribly transformed themselves, they leave
behind them piles of severed bodies and torrents of blood, thus partaking
in a two-fold manner in what Philip Brophy calls the act of showing the
spectacle of the ruined body (qtd. in Pinedo 18). Many years after such
classics as David Cronenbergs Shivers (1975) or Rabid (1977) were
released, the so-called body or venereal horror genre continues to terrify
audiences with its graphic depictions of deformed, mutated or diseased
bodies. In her book Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of
Horror Film Viewing, Isabel Cristina Pinedo writes:
The universe of the contemporary horror film is an uncertain one in which
good and evil, normality and abnormality, reality and illusion become
virtually indistinguishable. This, together with the presentation of violence
as a constituent feature of everyday life, the inefficacy of human action,
and the refusal of narrative closure produces an unstable, paranoid universe
in which familiar categories collapse. The iconography of the body figures
as the site of this collapse. (9)

This description may bring to mind Julia Kristevas theory of

abjection. With its interest in what is normally rejected and excluded from
the social order, Kristevas theory seems especially suitable for the
discussion of the horror genre, in which the rejected and excluded
becomes the subject matter. Kristeva uses a number of graphic examples
to illustrate her argument that anything which is seen as a possible threat
to the stability of the social order is automatically positioned as taboo and
cast out as impureas the abject. In her book entitled Julia Kristeva,
devoted to a careful analysis of Kristevas very rich theoretical work,
Nolle McAfee defines the abject in the following way:
The abject is what one spits out, rejects, almost violently excludes from
oneself: sour milk, excrement, even a mothers engulfing embrace. What is
abjected is radically excluded but never banished altogether. It hovers at
the periphery of ones existence, constantly challenging ones own tenuous
borders of selfhood. [] It remains as both an unconscious and a
conscious threat to ones own clean and proper self. The abject is what
does not respect boundaries. (46)

A very interesting application of Kristevas theory to film studies, and

particularly to the horror genre, is Barbara Creeds The Monstrous
Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. As the title suggests, Creed is
especially interested in those aspects of Kristevas theory which can shed


Horror Films as Modern Rituals of Defilement

some light on how the woman is constructed in patriarchal discourse as the

monstrous abject other. She takes up Kristevas argument that female
reproductive functions (menstruation, pregnancy, giving birth) and the
mothers role in the toilet training cause the female body not to be
perceived in the symbolic order as clean and proper but more likely as
abject. Kristeva distinguishes between the world of the mother (a
universe without shame) where excrements do not cause embarrassment,
and the world of the father (a universe of shame), which classifies filth
as taboo and forces the child to repress the abject world of the mother
(Creed 12-14). As McAfee sums up: the first thing to be abjected is the
mothers body, the childs own origin. [] In order to become a subject,
the child must renounce its identification with its mother; it must draw a
line between itself and her (48).
Although Kristeva never mentions castration among the examples of
abjection she provides, her description of the mother as potentially
threatening by means of annihilation through incorporation certainly
brings to mind stories of the devouring mother and the devouring female
genitalia, which are ubiquitous figures in myths and legends all over the
world. They are also a recurrent motif, in a more or less direct form, in
contemporary horror films. Alongside a careful analysis of Alien (H.R.
Gigers designs of the titular devouring creature are frequently mentioned
as a somewhat bizarre version of the vagina dentata), Barbara Creed
provides a variety of other examples of the voracious monstrous-feminine.
She writes: We can see her as the gaping, cannibalistic birds mouth in
The Giant Claw; the terrifying spider of The Incredible Shrinking Man; the
toothed vagina/womb of Jaws; and the fleshy, pulsating, womb of The
Thing and Poltergeist (27). Images of slightly parted, bloodied lips
revealing deadly teetha graphic depiction of the toothed vaginaare a
central motif in vampire films. In Blade Trinity (2004) one of the female
vampires is even reported to have her vampiric teeth in her vagina. Creed
tries to account for the phantasy of a woman as castrator from a feminist,
psychoanalytic perspective. According to Creed, the role of the monstrous
mother is crucial to the formation of castration complex and, consequently,
to the childs manner of entrance into the symbolic. One of Creeds most
important assumptions with regard to the questions of sexual difference is
that man fears woman not because she is castrated, as Freud maintained,
but because she might castrate. Creed draws such a conclusion on the basis
of careful rereading of Freuds writings, particularly the Little Hans case
history. In her view, they constitute a proof that, despite clinical evidence,
Freud dismissed the possibility that it is the mother and not the father
whom the child fears as a potential castrator and that this, and not the

Nina Czarnecka-Paka


fathers intervention, is the reason behind the childs gradual (not abrupt)
separation from the mother (87-166). By questioning the father as the
agent of castration, Creed also questions the validity of Freuds theory of
the Oedipus complex and his arguments about the nature of male fears of
woman. To support her claim that man fears female castrating genitals,
Creed refers to the representation of the monstrous-feminine in myths and
legends across a variety of cultures (e.g. the Medusas head) in which the
threatening aspect of the female genital is symbolized by the vagina
dentata or toothed vagina (105). Creed writes:
The myth about woman as castrator clearly points to male fears and
phantasies about the female genitals as a trap, a black hole which threatens
to swallow them up and cut them into pieces. The vagina dentata is the
mouth of hella terrifying symbol of woman as the devils gateway.

According to Creed, such fears and phantasies are conducive to perceiving

woman as a duplicitous creature who promises paradise in order to
ensnare her victims (106) and, consequently, to the ambivalent feelings
cherished towards her in the patriarchal culture.
An interesting insight into the possible sources as well as consequences
of this irrational fear can also be found in Elizabeth Groszs essay
Animal Sex: Libido as Desire and Death. She writes:
The fantasy of the vagina dentata, of the non-human status of woman as
android, vampire or animal, the identification of female sexuality as
voracious, insatiable, enigmatic, invisible and unknowable, cold,
calculating, instrumental, castrator/decapitator of the male, dissimulatress
or fake, predatory, engulfing mother, preying on male weakness are all
consequences of the ways in which male orgasm has functioned as the
measure and representative of all sexualities and modes of erotic
encounter. (293)

Indeed, stories of the post-coital loss of strength abound in myths and

legends, a possible example being the biblical story of Samson and
Delilah. The fact that during sexual intercourse the penis actually
disappears in the woman as well as the apparent association of female
genitals with mouthboth have lipsmay produce an irrational conviction
that behind the lips are teeth and in and out may turn into in and off,
as one of the reviewers of the film Teeth cleverly observed.
Barbara Creed considers the vagina dentata as central to the
iconography of the horror genre with its frequent use of images of
dismemberment performed by sharp tools or sharp teeth. The sharp tools


Horror Films as Modern Rituals of Defilement

threaten to castrate, the sharp teeth threaten to devour. Creed observes that
male castration anxiety has given rise to two of the most powerful
representations of the monstrous-feminine in the horror film: woman as
castrator and woman as castrated (122). Representing woman as castrated
usually means literal castration when her body is mutilated so as to
represent a bleeding wound. This has been the tragic fate of numerous
unfortunate females populating the slasher film ever since Halloweens
release in 1978, fate shared also by heroines of earlier classics such as
Peeping Tom or Psycho, both from 1960. As for the female castrator, a
crucial point about her nature is Creeds insistence that she should not be
confused with the Freudian phallic woman. Whereas the latter, most
notably personified by the femme fatale figure of film noir, is constructed
in relation to the phallus in that through the workings of fetishism she is
supposed to represent a comforting phantasy of sexual sameness, the
former, the deadly femme castratrice constructed in relation to the vagina
dentata, represents a terrifying phantasy of sexual difference (158).
Assuming that the terrifying abject is forever present at the peripheries
of human consciousness, what can be done to ward off the threat it poses?
According to Kristeva, in order to do that, various cultures establish
various rituals, which she calls rituals of defilement. Kristeva believes that
the process of abjection is not a passing stage in human life but the abject
threatens the stability of the social order all the time; therefore, cultures
have set up various rituals, for example religious rituals, to ward off this
threat. However, in recent years a certain change has taken place. McAfee
writes: As societies develop and religions wane, art takes over the
function of purification, often by conjuring up the abject it seeks to dispel
(49). Barbara Creed, among others, believes the horror genre to be a form
of art that makes the purification of the abject its central ideological
project. All of the monsters, male or female, appearing in contemporary
horrors in one way or another violate the taboos and cross the borders of
the symbolic. Similarly to the mother, who is constructed by the symbolic
as abject, monsters evoke in the subject very ambivalent feelingsa
mixture of simultaneous attraction/curiosity and repellence. According to
Creed, ultimately, the border between the two orders must be reinforced
through the rituals of defilement. She writes:
The horror film attempts to bring about a confrontation with the abject (the
corpse, bodily wastes, the monstrous-feminine) in order finally to eject the
abject and redraw the boundaries between the human and non-human. As a
form of modern defilement rite, the horror film attempts to separate out the
symbolic order from all that threatens its stability, particularly the mother
and all that her universe signifies. (14)

Nina Czarnecka-Paka


Of course, this is true of horrors that have narrative closure. But what of
the multiple post-modern horror films in which the outcome of the
struggle between the forces of the Other and the symbolic order is
An interesting alternative to Creeds claim that as a ritual of defilement
the horror film eventually ejects the abject is offered by Isabel Christina
Pinedo. She analyzes horror films where at the end either the monster
triumphs (her example is They Came From Within (1976), where the
infected inhabitants drive off to spread the disease freely), or the result is
uncertain (a possible example being Dressed to Kill (1980), where the
final scene leaves the viewer wondering whether the nightmarish dream of
the killer escaping from a mental institution and cutting the protagonists
throat is a real possibility). Although Pinedo also sees the horror genre as a
form of cathartic experience helping to deal with the abject, her discussion
of the open ending shows that the boundary between the abject and the
social order, at least at the level of narration, is very much blurred and,
contrary to what Creed proposed, need not necessarily be redrawn. To say
that in the horror film the boundary is always first disrupted and then
restored exactly as it was would be to deprive the genre of any subversive
and progressive potential whatsoever. When discussing the political
valence of the post-modern horror film, Pinedo asks a significant question:
Does it subvert or reinforce the hegemonic order? (106). Her answer is
that it does both. She observes:
Much as the horror film is an exercise in terror, it is simultaneously an
exercise in mastery, in which controlled loss substitutes for loss of control.
It allows us to give free rein to culturally repressed feelings such as terror
and rage. It constructs situations where these taboo feelings are sanctioned.
[] A film promises a contained experience. What makes it tolerable for
the monster to persist in the open ending is the containment of the menace
within the temporal and spatial frame of the film. (41)

In the horror film, the fear of the abject Other is thus expressed within
socially tolerable means. The genre violates the taboos, transgresses the
borders, and evokes fear by confronting the viewer with the abject; but, as
all this takes place within the film narrative, it seems safe. After all, even
when the abject Other is not brought under control by the end of the film,
the viewer can still turn off the TV and sigh with relief. However, it does
not change the fact that by blurring boundaries and mixing social
categories, such as the notion of femininity as passive and masculinity as
active, it can open up a space for subversive readings, for example for
feminist discourse (Pinedo 83-84). In a very insightful essay entitled The


Horror Films as Modern Rituals of Defilement

Rhetorical Function of the Abject Body: Transgressive Corporeality in

Trainspotting, Christine L. Harold writes: Instead of merely something
to abolish, boundaries can serve as something to be pushed, and redefined,
in order to reshape public space and redirect political momentum (881).
Therefore, it is possible to see the horror genre as neither reinforcing nor
destroying the boundary between the abject and the symbolic but rather
destabilizing or reconfiguring it. The reconfiguration of boundaries
through a process of transgression is, according to Foucault, characteristic
of resistant texts (qtd. in Harold 876).
Lichtensteins film Teeth seems a perfect example of the subversive
potential of popular entertainment. Not only its form (it defies easy
categorization into one particular genre) but also its content (it takes up
and plays with a highly transgressive concept, the vagina dentata myth)
challenges quite a number of assumptions and expectations. In one of the
interviews Lichtenstein says:
Ive known about the vagina dentata myth for a long time. Though there
are many versions of the myth, the story is nearly always the same: the
hero must conquer the woman/creature with the teeth. I thought it would be
fun and informative to turn the myth around so that it is the toothed woman
who is the heroine.

Indeed, the film features the story of a high school student Dawn (Jess
Weixler) who, being determined to stay a virgin until marriage,
understands very little of her repressed, yet awakening sexuality. When
one day her friend from a Christian abstinence group forces himself on
her, she discovers that her body has developed a certain adaptation. To
his as well as her horror, her vagina bites his penis off. By the end of the
film, two other naughty penises as well as a few fingers share the same
fate, and the last scene seems to suggest that, if necessary, more will
In her essay Film Bodies: Gender, Genre And Excess, Linda Williams
states that horror is the genre that seems to endlessly repeat the trauma of
castration as if to explain by repetitious mastery the originary problem of
sexual difference (278). However, as she and other critics stress,
traditionally, in the horror genre, it has been a woman/victim who has
suffered symbolic castration at the hands of a man/monster. Discussing the
issues of gender in the slasher film, Carol J. Clover observes that the
castration anxiety seems easier to explore via gender displacement, that is
via depictions of hurt female bodies (241). She goes on to notice that
hardly ever do we come across the expression of abject terror on the part
of a male (241), and even if we do, it is seldom literal castration. Teeth is

Nina Czarnecka-Paka


precisely one of the few exceptions. In Lichtensteins universe the abject

terror is no longer gendered exclusively feminine. Not only the female but
also the male body becomes the embodiment of fear and pain. The
traditional gender boundaries are destabilized.
Teeth offers a new perspective with respect to the victim/oppressor
relationship. It does not simply reverse the usual pattern by casting the
men as victims of an aggressive monstrous female, pretty often a female
psychotic (e.g. De Palmas Sisters or Cunninghams Friday the 13th), as
proposed by Creed. Nor does it present its heroine as the Final Girl who,
in Clovers account, is either strong enough to survive until she is rescued
(e.g. Laurie in Halloween or Sally in Texas Chain Saw I) or is phallicised
at the end of the film in order to castrate the oppressor (244). Clover refers
here to a number of films which, according to her, feature masculinized
heroines who in fact are transformed males using phallic tools to
eventually unman the oppressor (e.g. Valerie in Slumber Party Massacre,
Marti in Hell Night, Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street II or Stretch in
Texas Chain Saw II) (241). Dawn from Teeth is neither the victim nor the
monster. She is far too strong for the former, and far too innocent for the
latter. She does not need to be rescued by a man, although at some point it
might seem that the hero to conquer the monstrous vagina dentata is her
seemingly nice classmate Ryan with whom she manages to have
satisfactory sex; but that is only until she discovers, mid-coitus, that he
and his friends had a bet on it. This time when her angry vagina bites,
Dawn does not panic; she rolls her eyes and leaves Ryan to call his mom
for help. An important difference between her and Clovers Final Girl is
that when she does castrate, it is not with the use of phallic tools such as
knives, saws and the like, which makes it impossible to call her
masculinized, phallicized or a transformed male (239). As for the male
characters, their situation is equally ambiguous. They end up as bleeding
and screaming passive victims but only after they have been
aggressive/active perpetrators. A pretty obvious candidate for the real
monster may be the vagina dentatathe terrifying, mythical abject Other.
Only here, it is presented as not only terrifying but also protective as it
comes to Dawns rescue when she is being abused. Again the boundary
between the good and evil, the social order and the abject is somehow
reconfigured. Neither is the monster unambiguously evil nor the social
order unambiguously good, Pinedo writes of the post-modern horror
films in which the monster triumphs (31). Therefore, if we were to think of
Teeth in terms of a ritual helping to deal with the abject other (in this case
the abject female body), this ritual would consist not so much in excluding
or rejecting itconquering the vagina dentata and removing the teeth by


Horror Films as Modern Rituals of Defilement

force as it was in traditional mythical stories which Dawn finds on the

Internetbut rather in coming to terms with it, as Dawn eventually does,
or even pleasing it, as Ryan did during their first time together. Although
there is no one hero, male or female, who defeats the monster by the end
of the film, it is not a typical post-modern open ending in which the
monster triumphs. For the monster is not beyond control. The vagina
dentata is not depicted as an evil other which randomly attacks poor male
victims. It is more of a self-defense mechanism which can but does not
have to be used. After Dawn takes bloody revenge on her stepbrother
Brad, who let her mother die instead of calling an ambulance, she leaves
town and gets a lift from an old man. When she wants to get out at the
next stop he locks the doors and licks his lips in a disgusting manner
suggesting he will not let her go unless she gives him a sexual favor. After
a moment of hesitation, Dawn turns towards him with a seductive
knowing smile. At this point, the viewer knows the vagina dentatathe
alleged monstrous otherwill attack again, and most probably thinks:
Go, get him! The viewer ends up sympathizing with the monster.
The success of the horror genre lies in its capacity to transgress,
Pinedo observes (109). As viewers gradually get used to conventional
narrative elements, creators of contemporary horror films are forced to
forever introduce new shifts and break new taboos in order to keep their
transgressive quality. Christine L. Harold concludes: Clearly what is
considered abject changes over time. As one type of abject body is
allowed to openly inhabit public space, another pushes at the borders,
forcing yet another temporary fissure (884). Although taking up such
controversial subject matter as the vagina dentata myth puts artists at risk
of being accused of reinforcing the abject status of femininity, it also
provides opportunity to reimagine certain misogynist cultural concepts.
Using them in a playful way, as Lichtenstein does in Teeth, may deprive
such concepts of some of their original anxiety. After all, the suppression
is precisely the source of the power taboos wield over peoples minds.
Horror films can be seen as a form of ritual through which the boundary
between the social order and the abject is not reinstated but forever
negotiated and reconfigured. They provide space where the viewer can
confront and try to come to terms with the abject as denying the abject
inevitably fails (Harold 884).

Nina Czarnecka-Paka


Works cited
Clover, Carol J. 1999. Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.
In Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, ed. Sue Thornham. New York:
New York University Press. 234-250.
Creed, Barbara. 2005. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism,
Psychoanalysis. London; New York: Routledge.
Grosz, Elizabeth. 1995. Animal Sex: Libido as Desire and Death. In
Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism. New York:
Routledge. 278-299.
Harold, Christine L. The Rhetorical Function of the Abject Body:
Transgressive Corporeality in Trainspotting. In JAC: A Journal of
Composition Theory, v20 n4 pp. 865-87 Fall 2000.
pdf. September, 19 2009.
Lichtenstein, Michael. 2007. Vagina Dentata. Feministing 2007.
August, 13 2009.
McAfee, Nolle. 2003. Julia Kristeva. New York: Routledge.
Williams, Linda. 1999. Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess. In
Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, ed. Sue Thornham. New York: New
York University Press. 267-281.



In his introduction to The Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature and

Film, Jack Morgan describes how the word life can be understood. He
notes that usually it can be taken to signify two different things: the
complex memory image that constitutes ones story folded into the
collective history; secondly, the autonomic biological dynamic that is
ongoingthe vital process in which ones body, brain included, is an
entirely dependent participantLife, with a capital L (Morgan 1). The
first, the psychological, refers to who one is in the ego sense; the second,
the physiological, goes to what one is as an organism.
Morgan emphasizes the fact that the second meaning is indeed
secondary in human reckoning. He describes it as a reality we realize will
best ego-life one day but which for now, we think, can be bracketed.
Meanwhile, mentality seems to be an independent part of ourselves as
human beings; to quote Morgan once again, it seems as if
our physical organism were, except in the case of eating and sex perhaps, a
vestigial evolutionary nuisance. Thought tends to regard itself as
essentially above the biological; the brain appears to it as a package of
electrified tissue to which, it must begrudgingly acknowledge, thinking is
somehow embarrassingly indebted. (1)

Still, one cannot deny the biological aspect of our being human. As
Henri Bergson notes, it was physical life that had created thought, in
definite circumstances, to act on definite things (20). Ours is a
psychology correlative to and defined by our biological character, but the
human psyche does not seem to be comfortably at home in this landscape.
In spite of the fact that the existential discomfort and the conflict between
the mind and the body are as old as humanity itself, in contemporary
culture a relatively new phenomenon may be observed. Not only does the

Dagmara Zajc


human mind tend to regard itself as above the biological; the body, with
all the horrors of its ungraspable bio-logic of hormone chemistry and
nerve synapses (Morgan 1), has gradually become absent from public
This absence is not a simple matter of non-presence; it is a problem
more complex and multifarious. First of all, the knowledge of the human
body is more advanced at the moment than it ever was. Needless to say,
the knowledge is available to anyone at any time: by itself
offers approximately 200,000 books on anatomy and physiology-related
topics. The fact that people like to talk about the body is also undeniable.
It is reflected by the enormous popularity of magazines and television
programs dedicated to health, dieting, and keeping fit, but also to the
topics of plastic surgery and genetic engineering. The viewers statistics
for TV stations such as Discovery Health or programs like the U.S. cable
talk show Wellness Hour show the audiences demand for information to
be almost insatiable. As everyone is becoming experts on vitamins, junk
food and eco-childrearing, taboos are being torn down also in the sphere of
human sexuality. Slogans such as be aware of your body, or know your
needs no longer have a revolutionary ring to them.
It would seem that representing the body in film and television has also
been freed from all checks and restraints. With the Hays Code long gone,
the body has been stripped of all its secrets. Not long ago, in both cinema
and television, a couple could only kiss in bed if their feet were still
touching the floor. Nowadays, daring sex scenes are not limited to
pornography as lovemaking on screen has become almost a standard in
most Hollywood productions.
The current interest in the body is also reflected by the enormous
popularity of a relatively new movie subgenre(s): exploitation films,
splatter films and gore cinema. Although specialists in the field describe
them as separate genres, the terms are often used interchangeably. One can
distinguish several fundamental motifs expressed in gore and similar
conventions. First of all, the emphasis on the destruction of the body
supposedly draws the audiences attention to human sexuality and physical
aspects of our existence. At the level of representation, numerous moral
and aesthetic taboos are transgressed.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, gore enjoys cult-like
following. One may find it curious that its audience often generates from
academics, who are able to decode the meaning of the text by applying
psychoanalysis and other methodologies. A typical viewer, when asked
what gore is, would probably answer that it is a particularly abhorrent and
drastic modification of horror. This statement is accurate, because it refers


Breaking Bad on TV: Transgression and the Return of the Body

to an important gore motif. Corruption of the body, in a more or less

drastic form, is present in all gore films. Not only are the movies popular
with broad audiences: the number of scholarly publications points to the
increasing interest of academic circles in this relatively new cinematic
Taking all of this into consideration, one might conclude that the body
has been by all means present in public discourse. We explore various
subjects connected to our biological functioning as an organism while
watching educational programsthen we switch to another channel and
watch yet another slasher film. Judging by the ever-increasing amount of
research, especially in the field of medicine, we also want to learn more.
Nevertheless, it does not really confirm the presence of the body in public
discourse; such confirmation would only be made possible by overlooking
a certain paradox.
On the one hand, people nowadays like to think of themselves as better
educated and more aware of their biological bodies. On the other hand, the
desire for knowledge goes only up to a certain point. TV programs that
discuss pros and cons of getting a nose job are quite popular. Still, most
people are simply revolted at the detailed description of the procedure in
one of the chapters of Thomas Pynchons V.
The causes and treatments for many illnesses are generally known, and
TV shows such as ER or House M.D. are very popular. Nevertheless, in
real life, the isolation of the ill in hospitals is almost complete. Of course,
there are serious reasons for that in terms of quarantine policy and the
patients own good. Still, for the family waiting outside the operating
theatre, there is no need to know all the grisly details.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was still common for
women to give birth at home. Nowadays, a woman who decides for home
birth is often regarded as an eccentric. Moreover, she is sometimes
accused of being irresponsible by putting her life and that of the childs at
unnecessary risk.
Another example of the removal and evasion policies is connected to
the act of dying. Half a century ago, an average of 65 % of people died at
home. Over the last few decades, the number has decreased dramatically.
The dying have been removed from familys sight into the sterile,
impenetrable fortresses of hospitals. If their condition allows it, they are
put in a hospice or in a nursing home.
As a result, the two most important acts of human lifebirth and
deathtake place behind the doors closed and barred. What was once
accompanied by family and friends, is nowadays removed away from both
the public and the private into the sphere of the anonymous. Many people,

Dagmara Zajc


especially among the city dwellers, are shocked and appalled when told
about a particular tradition, still observed in some Polish villages. When a
person passes away, his or her body stays in the house for three days
before the funeral, instead of being sent off to the morgue. The custom is
often perceived as a sanitary hazard at the worst, and as an aesthetic
violation at the best.
What was once considered obvious and natural is now thought of as
unpleasant and undesirable. The keywords are nature and aesthetics: we
have not fully come to terms with our organic life. The supposed
affirmation of the biological body has its limits: the physical is accepted
only if it remains aesthetically pleasing. One of the results is the use of
circumferential language by the media whenever a less savory aspect of
our functioning as biological beings needs to be addressed. Another
consequence is a form of censorship manifested through TV regulations.
The film My Bloody Valentine is allowed to be broadcast in prime time,
even though you cannot show a dead body on the eight oclock news.
This ambivalent attitude towards the physiological might be illustrated
by a curious, paradoxical phenomenon. Many teenagers enjoy hacking
their enemies to pieces in computer games. Nevertheless, more and more
of them cannot stand the sight of blood in real life. All in all, the horror
and abjection connected with the biological is acceptable in public
discourse as long as it is kept at a safe distance. Computer games and gore
cinema may be considered safe as they both represent bodily horror as
dramatized, theatricalized, and staged. The aesthetisation of the biological
body thus prevents it from becoming a tangible threat.
There are film critics who claim that subversive strategies are
nowadays employed mostly in the new genres, such as splatter films. They
argue that gore deals with a complex form of negation of culture. The very
reference to sexuality, used as a central element of representation,
becomes a violation of the taboo. Even though gore aesthetics has been
traditionally associated with cinematic transgression, there are other forms
that may be described as transgressive and at the same time more
realisticor perhaps realistic in a different way. Death, dismemberment,
and other kinds of bodily mutilation represented by gore productions are
in fact suggestive of a highly escapist viewer attitude.
Although the films are said to present realistic images of pain and
destruction, the very accumulation of such images has quite the opposite
effect on the audience. The abundance of special effects and graphic
details contributes to create an anti-realistic, phantasmagoric spectacle. It
creates in the audience a sense of detachment, allowing them to distance
themselves from the carnage. In other words, the viewers might very well


Breaking Bad on TV: Transgression and the Return of the Body

lose their sense of realismand of interestafter the seventeenth head

rolls and yet another hand gets chopped off.
As a consequence, authentic transgression in cinema is no longer
possible through upping the ante of violence. In order to represent
realistically the horrors of the human body, one has to come back to the
real life. Breaking Bad, as an authentic work of art, manages to achieve
that goal.
Breaking Bad is a television drama series created and produced by
Vince Gilligan. The series is produced by Sony Pictures Television and
broadcast in the United States and Canada on the cable network AMC. It
premiered on January 20, 2008, and completed its first seven-episode
season on March 9, 2008.
Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) is a 50-year-old high-school
chemistry teacher. He has a pregnant wife and a son suffering from
cerebral palsy. In the pilot episode, Walter is diagnosed with terminal lung
cancer. The diagnosis causes a change in his mild-mannered nature. He
decides that in order to provide for his family after his death he will use
his extensive knowledge of chemistry to manufacture and distribute crystal
Throughout the three completed seasons, one will find few scenes
which could be described as graphic. Even if a killing is shown, there is
little or no blood. Nevertheless, many viewers refer to the series as
shocking and deeply disturbing. I believe that this apparent paradox
reflects the emerging of a certain new trend in transgressive cinema and
television. By means of an entirely different set of tools and cinematic
resources, some productions attempt at transgressing the borders by
representing the real body, without resorting to escapist anaesthetization.
The series might be described as transgressive on two separate levels.
Firstly, it violates the unwritten law of genre cinema which states that a
criminal character needs to be eventually punished. In order to restore the
status quo and to reinforce the paradigm of a law-abiding society, a
villaineven the one with good intentionscan never be allowed a happy
ending, unless he atones for his crimes. Even though film producers no
longer have to follow the Hays Code, some of its regulations are still in
force. In the second section, titled the Working Principals, the Code makes
reference to crime, wrong-doing, criminal, and evil and cautions
that films should not enlist audience sympathy for any of these elements of
a story (Prince 30).
In Breaking Bad, the protagonist becomes involved in one of the most
serious and most despised crimes of our times, which is drug manufacture
and distribution. Nevertheless, he is presented to the audience as

Dagmara Zajc


unfortunate and desperate, or intelligent and resourceful, rather than as a

cold-blooded criminal. The story does indeed enlist audience sympathy,
even though Walter is never caught. Moreover, because of his intelligence
and hard work, he is quite successful in realizing his version of the
(subverted) American Dream.
Breaking Bad is thus similar to other subversive and controversial TV
series which have recently gained popularity with the viewers and critics
alike. One of such shows is Weeds, in which Nancy Botwin turns to selling
marijuana to support her family after her husband unexpectedly dies. The
other one is Dexter, a series which has received quite a lot of critical (and
academic) attention for its transgressive quality. The fact that the
protagonists of all three shows actually enjoy their criminal activity is both
fascinating and controversy-inspiring. Even if Walter White initially
dislikes and sometimes regrets breaking bad, he still experiences
moments of pure excitement and adrenaline thrill.
In his book titled Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions
of Doing Evil, Jack Katz makes a connection between a transgressive and
criminal act:
The study of crime has been preoccupied with a search for background
forces, usually defects in the offenders psychological backgrounds or
social environments, to the neglect of the positive, often wonderful
attractions within the lived experience of criminality. The novelty of this
book lies in its focus on the seductive qualities of crimes: those aspects in
the foreground of criminality that make its various forms sensible, even
sensuously compelling, ways of being. (3)

In other words, many people commit criminal acts because they choose
to. According to Chris Jenks, If the transgressive act and the criminal act
are often compounded, which in an increasingly governed society they
inevitably are, then it is essential that the element of choice is elected as a
sovereign principle (176).
Apart from exploring the dangerous, anti-paradigm themes such as
crime which actually pays, Breaking Bad may be described as
transgressive on yet another level. Far from being graphic in its depiction
of death and violence, the series still produces a deeply disturbing effect.
While watching Breaking Bad, one can sense the dark, peculiar atmosphere
which could be described as profoundly unsettling. The disturbing
experience has been very well described by Stephen King:
The first thing we see in the second season of Breaking Bad is an eyeball
floating in a swimming pool while sirens rise and intermingle in the


Breaking Bad on TV: Transgression and the Return of the Body

background. Police sirens? Fire sirens? Both? Theres no way to tell for
sure. The eye is sucked into a circulation duct and we sink deeper,
discovering a soaked one-eyed pink teddy bear that is somehow worse than
a dead body. Episode 2 begins with a leisurely panning shot of a desert
wasteland littered with discarded toys, home appliances, and spent
cartridge casings. In the background, something is churning frantically. It
sounds like a washing machine but turns out to be a car, shuddering in
mechanical death spasms. It is the most disturbing sequence Ive seen on
film since Dean Stockwell's Blue Velvet lip-synch of In Dreams.

The first thing we notice about the series is that it evokes a profound
sense of discomfort. In Breaking Bad, the scenes of violenceor
foreshadowing violenceare presented in a manner which is highly
original. First of all, the camera does not allow us the full view of what is
happening: what we often get are but glimpses of the represented events.
Still, Breaking Bad is not Blair Witch Project: even though the camera is
at times moving, the image is never out of focus.
The picture that gets through often seems too sharp and too clear:
Gilligans idea for introducing the uncanny is shooting predominantly in
close-ups. In Breaking Bad, we are not allowed a broader view to take in
at our leisure: there is no possibility of visually distancing oneself from the
fictitious events. Instead, the display frames are cramped and claustrophobic,
creating the atmosphere of unpleasant, unavoidable intimacy. The viewer
often finds himself under the impression of being sucked into a crime
What is more, high contrast is used throughout the series, infusing the
image with a sense of striking clarity. In the scene of Walter getting his
lungs X-rayed (second episode of season two), there is a close-up of his
naked body set out with bright, unnatural light. The viewer is forced to
face the hyper-realistic view of the actors ageing skin, which could be
described as parchment-like and disturbingly white. Even though the scene
does not involve graphic violence of any kind, it confronts the viewer with
the inescapableand horriblereality of the biological: the body
corrupted by time and disease.
The destabilizing atmosphere of closeness is still intensified at the
sound level. Unlike in many TV productions, background sounds are not
removed or artificially suppressed. On the contrarythey are yet
enhanced in order to equally engage both sight and hearing. As a result, a
simple sound of an object falling to the ground comes through as an
unpleasant and disconcerting sensation. Certain sounds simply refuse to
remain inconspicuous and come through as the elements dominating a

Dagmara Zajc


particular sequence. In the X-ray scene, the whirring of medical machinery

is recorded as loud as the actors voices throughout the episode.
In all the sequences described, sound and vision are used to evoke the
other senses and seem to invite a haptic gaze. In Cinema and Sensation:
French Film and the Art of Transgression, Martine Beugnet develops this
term, firstly used by Gilles Deleuze in his work on Francis Bacon. In
haptic visuality, the distancing effect of perspective is defeated (Beugnet
3). In Breaking Bad, this destabilizing quality may be observed from the
very first scenes.
Beugnet begins her study with an analysis of the opening sequences of
two French films. Even though they are quite different from Breaking Bad,
the following comment seems equally relevant in the context of the
opening sequences of the series three seasons:
Rather than establish an informative context and give viewers the elements
necessary to orientate themselves and piece together the beginnings of a
story, these early sequences focus on those fundamental qualities of the
cinema that come before, yet tend to be overruled by its representative and
narrative functions: those variations in movement and in light, in color and
in sound tonalities that make up the films endlessly shifting compositions.

Beugnet also refers to the work by Laura Marks, titled The Skin of the
Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, in which the
author describes the phenomenon of haptic gaze: Haptic images can give
the impression of seeing for the first time, gradually discovering what is in
the image rather than coming to the image already knowing what it is.
Several such works represent the point of view of a disoriented traveler
unsure how to read the world in which he has found himself (178).
Beugnet goes on to suggest that there is an inherently transgressive
element to this kind of filmmaking. Allowing oneself to be physically
affected by an art work and opening oneself up to sensory awareness is to
relinquish the will to gain full mastery over it, choosing intensity and
chaos over rational detachment (3). When such detachment is made
difficult, the border between subject and object may collapse.
If we consider the conventional conception of the relation between the
observer and the observed, theoretically the observers self stands as a
separate entity. In the case of Breaking Bad, however, the effect of looking
and listening takes on a mimetic quality, similarly to the films discussed
by Beugnet. This particular quality is indicative of an involvement with
the object of the gaze that pre-empts or supersedes this state of detached
self-awareness (5). The intensity and physicality of the described


Breaking Bad on TV: Transgression and the Return of the Body

sequences are echoed in the deep involvement, which is conveyed by the

sensuous and tactile quality of the shots []. Put into words, this
expressive style [] evokes a sensual and mimetic connection, where the
border between subject and object collapses (5). The scenes of actual
death and violence in Breaking Bad may serve to illustrate the series
transgressive quality in the context of haptic visuality.
Walter has considerable knowledge when it comes to chemistry; still,
he is nothing more than a beginner criminal. As a consequence, another
element distinguishing Breaking Bad from other film and TV productions
could be described as the particularly realistic representation of the
protagonists struggles. For a simple high-school chemistry teacher, the
life of crime proves to be as difficult as an average viewer would expect.
Even though Walter is determined, he is equally lost and confused
once he goes over to the dark side. Starting a drug laboratory, becoming
successful at cooking high-quality crystal meth, and finally successfully
opposing (and killing) some local cartel members, is usually presented as a
result of luck and pure coincidence rather than Walters intelligence or
abilities. Far from being self-confident and unperturbed, the protagonist is
on the verge of a nervous breakdown most of the time. It is not easy to
establish a meth lab; it is even more difficult to start selling the product.
Most importantly, however, it is not easy to actually kill a man.
The first man Walter kills in the pilot episode dies from chemical
poisoning. From this moment on, the unfortunate chemistry teacher makes
use of his skills several times throughout the series. For instance, in
episode six of season one, he wreaks havoc in the local drug-dealers
office, using fulminated mercury to cause a small explosion. Whenever
Walter attempts at killing someone, he either fails (as with Tuco in season
two) or barely makes it (drug dealers in season two, gangsters threatening
Jesse in season three). Most of the time it takes up all of his
resourcefulness simply to stay alive. One notable exception is the third
episode of the series, in which Walter finds himself forced to kill a drug
dealer with his own hands. In the analysis of the sequence in more detail,
certain mechanisms are revealed which help to build the series original
approach to horror on screen.
The gangster is one of the two men poisoned by Walter in the meth-lab
RV. Not only does the man survive the poisoning; he also manages to
escape from the car. He is finally recaptured and brought to the basement
of Jesses house, and the partners in crime agree that Walter should be the
one to kill him. Walter considers suffocating the man, but ends up serving
him a sandwich and providing makeshift toiletries instead. Sensing doubt
and weakness, the drug dealer attempts to convince his captor to let him

Dagmara Zajc


go. Walter deliberately stalls the killing, jotting down the pros and cons of
going through with the deed.
Even though he comes up with a number of arguments in support of
clemency, the sole entry in the kill him column helps his decision:
Hell kill your entire family if you let him go. Walter decides to make
the doomed man another sandwich, and collapses on the basement floor
while delivering it, shattering the plate. After regaining consciousness, the
protagonist reveals to the dealer that he suffers from lung cancer, as he
picks up the plate shards, leaving to make yet another sandwich. Upon
returning, Walter attempts to get to know the gangster, who still tries to
talk him out of the killing. Walter acknowledges that he is indeed looking
for a good reason to spare the dealers life.
The gangster tells the protagonist about his life and aspirations. The
two make an emotional connection, and the dealer suggests that Walter is
not cut out for murder. The latter finally decides to let the dealer live, and
goes upstairs to get the key to the bicycle lock securing the man to a pole.
Upstairs, a sudden inspiration prompts Walter to piece the broken plate
back together, and he realizes a large knife-shaped shard is missing from
the plates remains. Back downstairs, the dealer stands quietly as Walter
approaches, hesitating briefly. As Walter grasps the lock, he asks the
gangster if he was going to stab him with the broken piece of plate once he
was set free. As the dealer is frantically trying to stab him, Walter pulls
back on the lock. After a minute or two, the flailing gangster finally
The killing sequence is not an elegant, metaphorical spectacle of Park
Chan Wooks Sympathy for Lady Vengeance; it has nothing to do with
gore aesthetics either. The reality is not filtered by any kind of established
cinematic convention. In spite of this fact, or rather, precisely because of
it, the viewers instinctive reaction would be to shy away from the screen.
The sound, camerawork, lighting, and the mise-en-scne all work together
to create a claustrophobic and deeply unsettling atmosphere. The story
behind the incident is in itself quite disturbing: the viewer can almost feel
the unfortunate dealers tangible despair in the last moments of his life.
On the one hand, the sequence could not be described as aesthetically
pleasing. On the other hand, it does not rely on simple mechanisms of
revulsion, used by gore productions. It is a horrifying and gruesome scene
which requires the audience to participate by shamelessly assaulting all
their senses: at the same time, there is hardly any blood. Still, the sequence
makes the viewer want to turn away from the screen, similarly to both
killing sequences in Kielowskis Sixth Commandment.


Breaking Bad on TV: Transgression and the Return of the Body

One of the reasons behind this sequences destabilizing effect is its

realism. Nevertheless, it is not the traditional, zero-degree-style realism.
Throughout Breaking Bad, it is achieved through haptic visuality and
through transgressing the subject/object border. To quote Beugnet once
If the affective and creative force of the cinema, its capacity to trigger our
senses, imagination and thought, derived partly from the effect of
verisimilitude of its animated photographic recording, it would only be
fully realized if the effet the reel was put into the service of
defamiliarisation rather than harnessed to narrative requirements [...]. Only
if spectators were immersed in the world created by the film itself would
their senses and mind be challenged (and, by extension, their
understanding and experience of realityvisible and invisiblequestioned
and enriched). (22)

Throughout Breaking Bad, the horror of the body in pain is not

aesthetisized with the gloomy pomp of the Burkean sublime. Painful
realism is employed instead, as we are being brutally stripped of the
delusion of being above the biological. Breaking Bad uses strategies of
subversion not through the simple rejection of dominating culture, but by
presenting a realistic account of a human body dragged into a stream of
horrific events. The series attempts to go beyond the over-psychologizing
of horror by breaking with the removal consensus: the body returns,
reminding us of our neglected, marginalized organic life.

Works cited
Bergson, Henri. 2005. Creative Evolution. New York: Barnes & Noble
Beugnet, Martine. 2007. Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art
of Transgression. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Giligan, Vince, dir. 2008. Breaking Bad. USA: High Bridge
Productions, Gran Via Productions, Sony Pictures Television,
American Movie Classics (AMC).
Jenks, Chris. 2003. Transgression. London: Routledge.
Katz, Jack. 1988. Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions of
Doing Evil. New York: Basic Books.
King, Stephen. Breaking Bad: A Review. In Entertainment Weekly,
March 6, 2009.,,20263453,00.html.
August 10, 2009.

Dagmara Zajc


Marks, Laura U. 2000. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema,

Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham: Duke University Press.
Morgan, Jack. 2002. The Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature and Film.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Prince, Stephen. 2003. Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating
Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968. New Brunswick: Rutgers
University Press.




Everything mocked.
(The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 14 March 1927)

The Foucauldian notion of transgression is central to much postmodern

fiction, and it has often been read as a drama of liberation since its most
general assumption is that of challenging the predetermined or existing
limits. Foucault puts forward a thesis presupposing that
at the root of sexuality, of the movement that nothing can ever limit
(because it is, from its birth and in its totality, constantly involved with the
limit), and at the root of this discourse on God which Western culture has
maintained for so long [] a singular experience is shaped: that of
transgression. Perhaps one day it will seem as decisive for our culture, as
much a part of its soil, as the experience of contradiction was at an earlier
time for dialectical thought. (33)

This concept of transgression as both a resistance to and a rejection of

established norms was adopted by feminist theorists who focused on the
transgression of gender binaries. The idea of gender transgression
provided them with a great opportunity of putting an end to the boundary
between the concepts of manhood and womanhood generated by
Western culture. Consequently, gender has acquired the status of an
arbitrary convention, which is supported by Simone de Beauvoirs claim:
One is not born a woman, but, rather becomes one (301).
This arbitrariness of gender, which brings about the possibility of
becoming a woman, is the primary focus of Sally Potters film adaptation
of Virginia Woolfs novel Orlando, wherein gender begins to be perceived
as a socio-culturally constructed category which is neither fixed nor
immutable. On the contrary, it can be defined as a process of becoming.

Barbara Chya


Yet, this process always takes place under a kind of compulsion. Thus, it
may be assumed that we are inevitably prisoners of gender. Therefore,
an escape from gender understood as an oppressive phenomenon is sought.
This can be achieved by means of transgressing the barrier of social and
bodily conventions.
Hence, in Virginia Woolfs Orlando the problem arising around gender
identity and its subsequent implications finds the answer in androgyny as a
manifestation of gender-in-between. Androgyny, perceived as an attempt
of gender transgression, approves of polymorphous sexuality both
physically and mentally, giving proof that gender is only a performance.
Virginia Woolfs perception of androgyny, developed in her essay A Room
of Ones Own (1929), constitutes a healthy balance and a union between
the masculine and feminine elements in a single body, which implies an
original opportunity of liberation. Orlandos sex transformation, which
leads to the transgression of sex/gender boundaries, is indisputably the
central event in his/her growth as a human since [t]he complete human
being [] should embrace within a flexible self all manner of so-called
male and female impulses (Rosenthal 137). The supporters of such a
claim consider androgyny to be a perfect way of achieving full humanity
since it necessitates breaking the traditional norms and conventions which
restrict each individual to being only a man or a woman. Thus, Orlando
embodies a mixture of man and woman, one being uppermost and then
the other (Woolf 2003, 93).
Consequently, in the film adaptation Potter uses Orlandos androgynous
appearance to dismantle and deconstruct the prevailing gender roles which
are rooted in Western culture and society. The sexual confusion and
ambiguity are partly built by the fact that Orlandos male incarnation and
the female one are played by a woman (Tilda Swinton). Thus, casting
Swinton, who, though with slightly androgynous look, is transparently
female redirects the significance of the films introductory claim about
Orlandos indisputable maleness: There can be no doubt about his sex,
despite the feminine appearance that every young man of the time aspires
to. The same refers to the books introductory statement: HEFOR
THERE COULD BE NO DOUBT of his sex, though the fashion of the
time did something to disguise it [. . .] (Woolf 2003, 5). This purposeful
physical ambiguity of Orlando reveals the misleading character of
masculinity and femininity. The conclusion may be that not only are
masculinity and femininity superficial, but there is also much relativity to
In her presentation of gender as performance, Potter points out the
mutuality between gender identity and social identity. Her perception of


Transgression in Sally Potters Film Adaptation of Woolfs Orlando

gender as a social costume is literally demonstrated by the use of clothing.

It may be observed that when Orlando returns to England as a woman,
her dress is used as a powerful symbol of her womanhood and the
constraints and limitations that it imposes. As a woman in the seventeenth
century, Orlando must curb her sense of adventure and her inquiring
mind (Nelmes 299). The scene in which Orlando, dressed for the first
time in a crinoline dress of an enormous size, walks along the corridors of
her mansion and stumbles clumsily over various pieces of furniture on her
way symbolizes a womans life in a complicated system of socio-cultural
constraints. This walk takes on the proportions of a peculiar steeplechase
track full of obstacles which Orlando has to overcome in order to bring out
her femininity. That is a very visual metaphor which reveals the truth
about the social trappings of gender identity. It may also be stated that in
this way Potter echoes the sentiments of Woolfs narrator that it is clothes
that wear us and not we them (2003, 92).
Undoubtedly, costume and masquerade are the key elements deployed
by Potter to demonstrate the arbitrariness and performativity of gender.
The idea of gender as performance is derived from Judith Butlers theory
wherein performativity is meant to describe a fluid and culturally imbued
sense of gender as opposed to a biologist understanding of sex. This theory
is based on the Lacanian notion that every act is to be constructed as a
repetition, the repetition of what cannot be recollected, of the irrecoverable,
and on Jacques Derridas assumption that every act is itself a recitation,
the citing of a prior chain of acts which are implied in the present act and
which perpetually drain any present act of its presentness (qtd. in Butler
244). In reference to gender, performativity means that gender is created
through sustained socio-cultural performances. Thus, it is not a pre-given
category but it becomes established as a repetition of acts. Hence, Butler
asserts that transgression on the level of dress and performance is able to
bring down the binary gender division.
In Potters film, Swinton negotiates gender and lacking any consistent
and core gender identity, Swintons cross-dressing becomes, not a trendy
fashion choice, but a conspicuous visible site of play and spectacle
(Humm 168). The techniques of masquerade and cross-dressing are not
restricted exclusively to the use of clothes, but they also refer to the sociocultural meanings generated by them. Thus, it may be assumed that if we
consider clothing to be a costume, then gender, conventionally denoted by
it, can also be merely a costume or even a corset which crams individuals
into rigid frames assigned to them by society and culture. This is
metaphorically illustrated in a scene depicting a maid who puts a tightly
laced up corset and numerous layers of clothes on a stiffly standing

Barbara Chya


Orlando. The scene proves that the categories of man and woman are
burdened with the socio-cultural context.
In the novel, Woolfs main attempt is to challenge the established
norms and conventions in order to question the dominant and stereotypical
gender constructions. Consequently, Orlando undergoes a transformation
from male to female, which is the central event in his/her development of
self-awareness. In Potters film, Orlando becomes a woman in a shocked
reaction to the masculine demands of war. He rejects the master narrative
of militarism, and that is the moment when Orlando realizes he cannot,
will not be a man in the sense he is being asked to (Dargis qtd. in Humm
164). The character of Orlando experiences a sex/gender change in order
to reveal the complex mechanisms that govern the way in which an
individual functions in a society determined by a set of characteristic
privileges and constraints ascribed to the traditional notions of man and
woman. After a long sleep, Orlando changes his sex and becomes a
woman, which serves to justify the claim that sex is as much a convention
as gender, or any other role imposed by society. When Orlando awakes,
he/she is renewed and reborn from one existence into another. In the scene
in which Orlando sees her female figure in the mirror for the first time, her
new identity is being established. On discovering that now she is a
woman, Orlando declares to her mirror reflection: Same person. No
difference at all. Then she turns her head and adds looking directly into
the camera: Just a different sex. The sudden bodily change of Orlando
which transforms him into a woman does not seem to affect either the
protagonists character or identity: Orlando had become a woman there is
no denying to it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as
he had been (Woolf 2003, 67).
This nearly simplistic depiction of the whole process of gender
transgression, at least in comparison with the same scene described in
Woolfs novel, may illustrate how thin the line between a man and a
woman is. Crucially important is the fact that transcending gender binaries
leads to diversity. Consequently, there are multiple Orlandos, as Woolf
writes: Then she called hesitatingly, as if the person she wanted might not
be there, Orlando?. For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different
times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there
notHeaven help usall having lodgement at one time or another in the
human spirit? Some say two thousand and fifty-two (2003, 152). This
gender instability is characteristic of postmodernism which, in contrast to
modernism, allows for multiple identities. Consequently, this enables to
establish a new sense of multiple gender, which is constantly at the heart


Transgression in Sally Potters Film Adaptation of Woolfs Orlando

of both the novel and the film. Yet, it should be notified that this diversity
does not result in confusion, but in a richer unity.
In the film, this unity of masculinity and femininity becomes clearly
visible in the bedroom scene between Orlando and her lover, Shelmerdine.
The scene diminishes the importance of their separate physicality either as
a man or a woman. This happens due to a long take of the camera which
shows pieces of a naked body that cannot be unambiguously identified as
either male or female since they form a unity. The next take presents the
lovers lying in an affectionate embrace in bed. The specific arrangement of
their embracing arms gives an impression as if Orlando and Shelmerdine
have become one. Yet, it should be noticed that, though the lovers
represent unity between masculine and feminine elements, they are not
one as any particular man and woman. They are one beyond this gender
binary division. Moreover, Orlando who holds Shelmerdine in her arms is
still the Orlando who held Sasha, the Russian princess, in his. This is the
gender transitivity that is always present in the character of Orlando.
The issue of gender identity is the leading motif throughout the film, in
which Potters main attempt is aimed at uncovering the double (or even
multiple) nature of gender. In the opening scene introducing Orlando, the
viewers are assured of his indisputable masculinity by voiceover.
However, quite playfully, the same scene presents a woman in the role of
Orlando, who is supposed to be male. The physical beauty of Swinton
(slight, fine-featured and with a white complexion) suggests that her
masculinity is only a performance. Maggie Humm remarks that Swintons
extraordinarily luminous and unmarked complexion and studied
performance of a non-masculine yet non-feminised male draws attention
to the instability of traditional gender motifs (165). Consequently,
Orlando turns out to be either both a man and a woman or neither of them.
Yet, one does not contradict the other. This daring assumption may find
the answer once again in androgyny, which, on the one hand, allows for
the coexistence of masculine and feminine elements in a single body but,
on the other hand, it presupposes freedom from any sex/gender binary
In the context of both the novel and the film the concept of androgyny
constitutes a representation of gender as an unstable and entirely
metaphysical construct. Although Orlando undergoes a sex change, his/her
gender remains ambiguous. It is even as if the sex change were to
symbolise the marriage of the feminine and the masculine in the figure of
Orlando. Moreover, not only does androgyny call into question the
conventional assumptions about gender but it also questions the
assumptions about language itself by challenging the theory of meaning.

Barbara Chya


In particular, it calls into question the notion that words get their meanings
from things they refer to. Thus, it may be stated that androgyny reflects
sexual ambiguity as well as textual one. It threatens the stable categories
and rigid classifications. In reference to gender, androgyny undermines
above all the fixed gender polarities.
The arbitrary nature of gender makes it only a kind of convention
which one may or may not choose. This conventional character of gender
as a persons choice becomes evident in the film in a scene in which
Shelmerdine allows for the possibility of a double gender saying to
Orlando: You might choose not to be a real man at all say if I was a
woman. This allowance on the side of Shelmerdine, or even his
confession, confirms the assumption that all gendered selves can be read
as a series of performances. Thus, gender is only a masquerade, which
consequently results in a collapse of confidence in fixed gender norms and
a subsequent destabilisation of substantive identity. This, in turn, disturbs
the traditional perception of sex/gender, which for instance leads to
uncertainty and suspicion reflected in Orlandos words: You are a
woman, Shel!, to which Shelmerdine replies: You are a man, Orlando!
(Woolf 2003, 124). This is the most intense moment of their relationship
when Orlando and Shelmerdine recognise the presence of the opposite sex
in the other, which proves again sex/gender transitivity. Potter herself
explains that it is not that the book so much explores sexual identity as
dissolves them, and its that kind of melting and shifting where nothing is
ever what it seems for male or female (qtd. in Nelmes 299). Thus, this
recurrent ambiguity disrupts the established notions of gender refuting the
conventional categorisation of femininity and masculinity. Therefore, both
Shel and Sasha, the female lover of Orlando, wear certain traits of
ambiguity. Shelmerdine is characterised as a man as strange and subtle as
a woman (Woolf 2003, 127), while Sasha is at first vaguely described as
a person, whatever the name or sex (Woolf 2003, 17).
This gender ambiguity of Sasha, the Russian princess, is made evident
at her first encounter with Orlando: Legs, hands, carriage, were a boys,
but no boy ever had a mouth like that; no boy had those breasts; no boy
had eyes which looked as if they had been fished from the bottom of the
sea (Woolf 2003, 17). Sasha represents for Orlando not so much a lover
as an androgynous muse. In fact, she offers an alternative to the
conventional perception of gender as she personifies the third space, that
is a third sex uniting the virtues of power and beauty that Orlando has
been seeking. The fact that she manages to escape the traditional
categories of gender and eventually becomes unrepresentable in
conventional modes of discourse makes Orlando feel an insatiable desire to


Transgression in Sally Potters Film Adaptation of Woolfs Orlando

posses her not only physically but also in language: Ransack the language
as he might, words failed him. He wanted another landscape, and another
tongue (Woolf 2003, 22). However, Sasha seems to evade any kind of
either bodily or linguistic categorisation. Thus, although [i]mages,
metaphors of the most extreme and extravagant twined and twisted in his
mind Orlando is unable to capture Sasha in language since language is
insufficient to grasp her essence (Woolf 2003, 17). In terms of that
paradigm Sasha exists outside the boundaries of any linguistic system.
Instead she is embedded in ambiguity, which is reflected in the blurring of
her gender.
This ambiguity of the sexual identity of both Orlandos lovers, Sasha
and Shelmerdine, becomes even more evident and literally visible in the
film due to Potters purposeful choice of casting Billy Zane and Charlotte
Valandrey who wear certain resemblance to each other. Not only
physically do they seem to resemble each other, but they have also
strikingly similar smiles. Hence, they appear to be like two incarnations,
or even twin avatars, which embody the male and female aspects of
Orlandos ideal lover. The difficulty in ascertaining without doubt or
confusion the sexual identity of Shelmerdine and Sasha proves the
rightness of Woolfs statement: Different though the sexes are, they
intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one to the other takes
place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness,
while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above (2003,
All the masquerade and cross-dressing are an evident sign of gender
transgression. The sex/gender change of Orlando gives a clear example of
bodily transgression. The scene in which Orlando surveys her naked
female body for the first time calls up an association with Sandro
Botticellis The Birth of Venus, which depicts the pagan goddess of love
who, emerging from the sea as a fully grown woman, arrives at the
seashore. The resemblance between the film scene and the painting cannot
be denied since not only does the physical appearance of Swinton, that is
her white skin, slender body and long titian-coloured hair, call instantly to
mind Botticellis Venus, but also their posture and the arrangement of
arms are exactly the same. This unquestionable resemblance between
Botticellis Venus and Potters Orlando gives the sex/gender change the
significance of a peculiar rebirth from one existence into another.
What is more, Orlandos transformation from male to female acquires
a deeper meaning when analysed in reference to its social consequences
since the bodily transgression, namely the very aspect of sex transformation,
is of course imaginative. However, due to its importance as a starting point

Barbara Chya


in the discussion on sexual/gender identity and its socio-cultural

implications, it should not be undervalued on any account. Orlandos
transformation from a man to a woman provides an ideal point for
observing numerous social inequalities. For both before and after the
gender change, Orlando experiences many restraints caused by the sociocultural circumstances which make him/her live against the nature of
his/her character and will in a world governed by widespread norms of
social behaviour. Annette Kuhn, in Womens Pictures: Feminism and
Cinema, puts forward the claim that Potters film shows the pressure to
be defined, in social terms, as either male or female [] and that gender
identity assumed brings its own, often momentous, consequences (235).
Undoubtedly, the truth is that Orlando exposes contemporary notions of
gender to be socially and culturally determined.
For feminist theorists the story of Orlando presents primarily womens
oppression in a world based on social inequalities. Orlandos life serves as
an excuse to uncover all these inequalities, [f]or who is better qualified to
document the abuses of a sexist society than a woman who spent the first
part of her life gaily perpetuating those abuses as a thoughtless male?
(Rosenthal 137). As far as the feminist aspect of Orlando is concerned, the
historical moments in which both the novel was written (1929) and the
film was directed (1992) are surely not without importance. While the first
decades of the twentieth century witnessed womens advancement,
feminisation of the urban scene and the consequent destabilisation of
identity, the 1990s opened the third wave feminism. Therefore, Orlando
may be read, at least to some extent, as a manifestation of womens
liberation, especially when taking under consideration Woolfs biography
together with all the prejudices concerning the nature and capability of
women against which she struggled all her life.
Nevertheless, no artistic work must be read solely by the biography of
its author. Though Orlando, both the film and the novel, approaches the
issue of femininity, it does not pass over the question of masculinity. In
fact, Orlando constitutes an expression of the way in which masculinity
and femininity intermingle. The character of Orlando symbolises the unity
of masculinity and femininity, but also an escape from both of them. Yet
above all, the sex/gender transgression of Orlando shows an individuals
quest for identity: Orlando [] is launched into a flight or quest for the
other, the female other, the unknown. Transgression of the sexual divide
lets Orlando into the secrets of the world of the other sex, but cannot
supply the ultimate truth or answer to his or her quest (Brown 110).
The key issue which both Woolf and Potter raise is that personal
identity is independent from bodily conventions. As Woolf writes: The


Transgression in Sally Potters Film Adaptation of Woolfs Orlando

change of sex, though it altered their [Orlandos] future, did nothing

whatever to alter their identity (2003, 67). This proves that the essential
self lies beyond ones sex and that gender does not necessarily have to be
convergent with it. The transitivity of Orlandos gender creates a new kind
of subjectivity, the primary feature of which is the freedom of choice,
which provides the possibility of transgressing gender binaries. Woolf
expresses her conviction that the true self is not affected by any external
factors, either bodily, social or cultural ones, in the claim that it was a
change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a womans dress and
a womans sex (2003, 92). Consequently, the androgynous Orlando
becomes a symbol of the more unified self or a resolution to the problem
of true self as opposed to conventional self. Thus, it may be concluded that
gender, whether perceived as a union of masculinity and femininity or an
escape from them, is always an expression of an individuals independent

Works cited
Beauvoir, Simone de. 1974. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. New
York: Vintage.
Brown, Richard. 1989. Perhaps she had not told him all the story:
Observations on the Topic of Adultery in Some Modern Literature. In
European Joyce Studies 1: Joyce, Modernity, and its Mediation, eds.
Fritz Senn and Christine van Boheemen. Amsterdam; Atlanta: Rodopi.
Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of
Sex. New York; London: Routledge.
Foucault, Michel. 1977. A Preface to Transgression. In Language,
Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel
Foucault, ed. D. F. Bouchard. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Humm, Maggie. 1997. Feminism and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP;
Bloomington: Indiana UP.
Kuhn, Annette. 1994. Womens Pictures: Feminism and Cinema. 2nd ed.
London; New York: Verso.
Nelmes, Jill, ed. An Introduction to Film Studies. 2nd ed. London:
Routledge, 1999.
Potter, Sally, dir. 1992. Orlando. UK: Adventure Pictures.
Rosenthal, Michael. 1979. Virginia Woolf. London: Routledge & Kegan
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of Ones Own. 1989. New York: Harcourt Brace

Barbara Chya


. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. 1976-1984. 5 vols. Eds. Anne Olivier

Bell and Andrew McNeille. New York: Harcourt.
. 2003. Orlando: A Biography. Ware: Wordsworth Classics.


Almost from the very beginning of cinema, various forms of apparition,

monster, somnambulist and vampire have haunted the screen. Over a
century after the arrival of the Lumire brothers Cinematograph, these
characters from the darkened auditorium have won such ineffaceable
popular recognition that they have wiped their literary originals from
popular consciousness. This is certainly the case with Mary Shelleys
Frankenstein and Bram Stokers Dracula, horror movie favourites, novels
whose adaptations and variations are so numerous that they have created a
history and consolidated a myth of their own.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the appropriation by cinema of
one of the most potent Victorian vampire stories, Carmilla by Joseph
Sheridan Le Fanu. The evasiveness of the main character, achieved
through ambiguity and subtlety of presentation, at first generated a variety
of literary responses in other vampire stories, its most successful
reverberation being the above-mentioned Dracula by Bram Stoker, a
novel overtly acknowledging its predecessor. Since the advent of cinema,
many film adaptations of the story have been produced. These were
launched in 1932 by Vampyr, directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer and
released in England as The Strange Adventures of David Gray, followed in
1960 by a French-Italian co-production directed by Roger Vadim, Et
Mourir de Plaisir, known in England and the US as Blood and Roses. The
third film version of Carmilla, entitled La Maldicion de los Karnsteins
and released in England as Crypt of Horror, a Spanish-Italian coproduction directed by Thomas Miller (alias Calillo Mastrocinque),
appeared in 1962. Adaptations of Le Fanus story are said to have
culminated in 1970 with Hammer Films The Vampire Lovers, which
formed part of the renowned Karnstein Trilogy (McNally 217, 221, 223).
Since then, Carmilla has been adapted for the screen more than ten
times, seldom faithfully, with the exception of Gabrielle Beaumonts
episode for a horror anthology television series in 1990, which nonetheless

Agnieszka owczanin


reset it in the post-Civil-War South of the US. With only a few exceptions,
the majority of productions merely allude to Carmilla; they augment and
distort the original storys subtle lesbian eroticism and make play with
gore and overt physicality, which, though cinematically effective, are
absent in Le Fanu.
The enduring strength of myths lies partly in their polysemic nature.
The appeal of the vampire myth and its inexhaustible capaciousness
results from its universal applicability; whenever it emerges it is always
seized by an overwhelming amount of meaning because the monster can
stand for everything that our culture has to repressthe proletariat,
sexuality, other cultures, alternative ways of living, heterogeneity, the
Other (Dolar qtd. in Gelder 52). Carmilla embodies symbols of
psychological repression anticipating the work of Freud (Barclay 30), its
lesbian vampirism powered by an undercurrent of matriarchy seeping
through a crust of male homosociality, and, thanks to its plasticity, it has
been appropriated and retold by cinema in a variety of ways. This
plasticity bends to new social conditions, the collective subconscious of its
audiences, thus becoming, as all horror films do in supplying a negotiable
pleasure, a barometer of contemporary culture whilst satisfying the
demands of an audience looking for gore devoid of lore.
The main focus of this paper is Roger Vadims Blood and Roses, 1960,
a film loosely adapted from Carmilla. I also refer to two other films that
borrow from Le Fanus story, Hammer Films The Vampire Lovers, 1970,
and the recent Lesbian Vampire Killers, 2009, which throw Vadims film
into stylistic and temporal relief. Since all vampire stories feature the
victim and the victimised, the perpetrator and the abused, blood running in
intimate, erotic contexts, and often endespecially in such Victorian
examples as Carmillawith a restoration of order desired by an
established male power, they tell us something about the cultural
allocation of gender and its concomitant anxieties. The three cinematic
adaptations of Carmilla under analysis, made in three different decades
(and separated by a span of half a century), mould the literary original in
their own way, revealing a distinct historical take on those anxieties with
distinct cinematic aesthetics.
Blood and Roses by Roger Vadim, a director associated with the
French New Wave, successfully combines the cinematic spirit of this
movement with the gothic atmosphere of the original story. In a similar
manner to Le Fanu, creator of the first literary female vampire whose
sexuality ruptures Victorian assumptions about femininity, Vadim is a
director recognized for bringing to post-war French cinema the image of a
youthful, modern woman, a signifier of subversive sexual freedom


Cinematic Carmillas: Projecting Subversion

(Darke 415). The story and the film present a reality that operates within
established social and gender codes, yet both also crack and loosen these
codes. Unacknowledged forces are glimpsed, their repressed potency
splintering through to the surface of a polished male hegemony and its
rational uniformity.
From the very beginning, the film prompts the audience to exult in the
unprecedented, the unknown and the repressed. It opens with a visually
striking scene in which the camera, placed in a plane cockpit, offers an
exhilarating view of a disappearing runway during takeoff. This, first of
all, places the action unmistakably in contemporary times. Second, it
offers unmatched views, unfamiliar to most spectators, who, even if they
have flown, are unlikely to have seen what a pilot sees; all that is available
to us passenger-spectators is the curtailed eye of a porthole, severely
limiting our view. This opening long-shot scene, with its novelty and
strangeness, is an undeniable thrill, even for twenty first-century viewers,
but it must have had an even stronger impact on audiences fifty years ago.
As the plane begins its takeoff the narrator speaks in voice-over, and, as in
the literary original, it is a first-person female, though at this stage she is
outside the diegetic world. This voyeuristic positioning, a disembodied
character in the imminence of the skies, makes her hover above the story;
at the same time, the sombreness of her voice conveys omniscience and
unwavering control. This unearthly, soft, velvety voice speaks with a
foreign accent, and tells us that its owner is taking this journey in time
from the past. This temporal manipulation is an interesting subversion of
gothic novel convention, where action is always shifted to the past.
Finally, the affective dimension of the scene relies on schemas relating to
erotic experience. From the very beginning, the rapid ascent has erotic
implications, which echo those of the original short story. Additionally,
the rising movement of the planethe next shot displays its full sleek,
streamlined shapeconnotes phallic imagery.
But running over this rising plane-phallus image is the female voiceover; the visible and the tangible are distinguished from the evasive,
elusive yet controlling power; the male is contrasted with the female,
nature with technology, the soft and curved shapes of the clouds envelop
the shiny machinery. Vadims reading of Le Fanus story acknowledges
yet undercuts dichotomies, blurring a straightforward black-and-white,
male-imposed stereotypical polarisation, and generic codes seem literally
to be sent flying.
In comparison with the literary original, the familial configuration is
altered; Carmilla (played by Annette Stroyberg-Vadim) is the cousin of
Leopoldo, who is about to marry Georgia. During their engagement party,

Agnieszka owczanin


Carmilla is lured to the Karnsteins tombs, and at this stage the unearthly
voice-over is embodied and becomes intra-diegetic: Carmilla is killed and
replaced by her vampire lookalike, Millarca. An interesting extension of
the transgressive nature of eroticism in the original story is the
introduction of Leopoldos incestuous relationship with Carmilla. Unlike
her literary prototype, Carmilla-Millarca here is of a quiet, submissive,
almost tragic nature, and erotically stimulates both Leopoldo and his
fiance. The relationship between Leopoldo and Carmilla dates back to
their childhood and in its continuity and familiarity enacts certain flavours
of Laura and Carmillas prototypical first encounter, thus mirroring the
storys Freudian uncanny effect, though transmuting lesbian familiarity
into incestuous experience. The dramatic irony which rests on the
audiences knowledge of Carmilla and Leopoldos relationship is suddenly
broken when Georgia, his fiance, discloses her awareness of Carmillas,
now Millarcas, love for him. This disclosure seems to stimulate Millarcathe-vampire into intimacy with Georgia. In their contact there is no
exploitive physicality, the scene taking place in a greenhouse full of
luscious greenery, and suggestive rather of paradisal, primeval elements.
The film makes full use of cinematic technique for transmitting its
meaning. The original storys evasiveness and ambiguity is enacted by
long shots and slow fluid camera movements (cinematography by Claude
Renoir). As in the story, an intoxicating atmosphere is obliquely
suggested; rather than explicitly shown, the vampiric abuse takes place
off-screen. It is in shifts and manipulation of the viewing gaze and in the
placing of the camera that the films meaning is best carried across, Vadim
demonstrating the correlation between the inconceivability of the
presented situations for the phallocentric homosocial network and the
possibility of a more holistic, female vision. This alternative
vampiric/feminine perspective is enacted in the very patriarchal locale, the
social framework, of a heterosexual standpoint.
Film female characters are stereotypically presented here as the
beautiful objects of male desire, conforming to the expected emblematic
sex kitten image, often characteristic of New Wave films. For example,
in the first scene, which takes place in the Karstein castle, Carmilla is
introduced as a beautiful character, a pretty, slim blonde in a tight-fitting
black dress; Georgia, too, is made to embody a paradigmatic object of the
male gaze. Later close-ups of Carmillas face, showing her sensuous lips
and wistful eyes, illustrate her erotic yet melancholic nature. However,
there is something more at work here. It is Carmilla who, in her quietness
and withdrawal, her beautiful fluidity of movement, contrasts with the
male showiness and verbosity of Leopoldo and unassumingly earns


Cinematic Carmillas: Projecting Subversion

attention that goes beyond her looks. Her aura aligns her with the
mysteriousness and softness of the opening voice-over, making her central
in this scene.
When she is encouraged to tell the tragic story of Millarca she becomes
so engrossed in the tale that she enters a near-hypnotic trance. With her
words she mesmerises other members of the party, but also the audience,
for whom her narrative is accompanied by a change in point of view. The
camera now adopts the perspective of the deceased Millarca and gazes at
the gathered company through a dreamlike, otherworldly blurred lens.
Thus the disembodied gaze of a ghost, its subjectivity of vision, becomes
ours. Effortlessly, the audience is positioned physically and psychically as
the ghost, Carmillas voice-over narration being the only link with
diegesis. This manoeuvre not only gives us access to Carmillas so-far
enclosed inner world but also makes possible a plurality of vision,
disinterring other ways of seeing. Nothing is what it seems; the same
room, the same company of characters may be perceived differently,
depending on who views them. It is Carmilla who grants us access to this
super-reality; she is the one who sees and feels more than the rest of the
company. This cinematographic manoeuvre demonstrates the verisimilitude
of reality blanketed by the other characters and thus establishes an
interesting perspective of dramatic irony for spectators; they no longer
identify with the perspective of the phallocentric order, as Mulvey
would have it (199). By playfully juggling with cultural expectations and
cinematic conventions of mainstream cinema Vadim ultimately subverts
them. Though their starting point is meant to connote to-be-looked-atness (Mulvey 203) and passivity and they do conform to the expectations
of the male gaze, these sex-kittens have an autonomy, visual and
narrative, that outstrips male desire, which is also a desire to control. This
male gaze proves to be pathetically limited and therefore incapable of
denying women human agency.
The positioning of the camera also underscores spectatorial distancing.
The characters are often seen from above, or through window panes.
When Leopoldo leaves the coroners after identification of the body of
Millarcas first victim, he is driven home by his servant, and we see them
en face, the camera on the bonnet. The scene takes place in a heavy
downpour, symbolically representing the familys doom and the ensuing
tragedy. But the focus is on the fast regular movement of the windscreen
wipers, which in an obsessive, fanatical way wipe off the pouring rain as if
wanting to erase the work of the elements. And in these few square inches
of windshield they do their job, the rain is wiped away, and Leopoldos
clear, singular, male vision is possible. After this brief close-up through

Agnieszka owczanin


the cleared windscreen we cut to a panoramic shot in which the car is a

tiny spot beneath tumultuous skies. Leopoldo, tucked into his machine, is
depicted as insignificant and the windscreen wipers and their frenzied
movement as pathetic.
No matter how hard he tries, Leopoldos world will never be the same;
neither will his fiances, Georgias. His is marked by incest, hers by the
lesbian touch. When Carmilla gives Georgia the first kiss, the confounded
fiance stares out of the window, the camera is outside, she is blurred by
the streams of rain flowing down the glass, and we know she will never be
the same again. She turns her back on the warmth and the security of a
world furnished and directed by her father and her future husband and
chooses instead to gaze into the chilling but thrilling wild unknown.
More significantly, however, the forces of nature are aligned with the
inner desires, the individual compulsions of the characters. They are not
necessarily to be seen as an alternative to, but as an integral part of,
reality. Disavowing or erasing them is like cancelling part of the self;
ultimately, such self-denial, self-duping can have only fatal consequences.
And this is exactly what happens to Leopoldo, who says: I dont know
what would have happened to me if I hadnt met Georgia. She saved me.
She saved me from myself. In his conventionality and righteousness
Leopoldo attempts to regain integrity by marrying Georgia, thus
obliterating his inner incestuous desires for cousin Carmilla. His attempts
prove futile and pathetic; in the last scene, on the way back from his
honeymoon, he is seen sitting next to Millarca. Three months into their
wedding he has not realised that the vampire has impersonated Georgia
and he has been duped.
The script also introduces another hidden realm; in a surreal vision it
makes us privy to Georgias dream. Just as nature is made to embody the
repressed, so the dream stands for a haven of the unwanted and dreaded.
Georgia is on the verge of getting married and the dream features
repressed fears of its consequences: loss of virginity and pregnancy. An
interesting spectatorial situation is constructed here, the audience
becoming voyeurs in the intimate sphere of her life as she becomes voyeur
of herself. In her dream Georgia is like a visitor summoned by Millarcas
victim, Lisa, who, outside, swims towards the French window of her
bedroom, from above, in an upside down position. Georgia opens the door,
but the water remains outside and she plunges with the visitor into the
unknown. Then, lost in the topography of her own dream, on her own, she
enters a long tunnel, at the end of which she is taken to what seems a
gynaecological ward. There she finds Carmilla stretched out on a bed and


Cinematic Carmillas: Projecting Subversion

a sinister procession of midwives with bloody gloves. The dream is black

and white, which makes the redness of blood startling.
Paris to Rome in eighty minutes was inconceivable for Millarca; in the
opening voice-over she says that this journey used to take two months.
The inconceivable is made possible in the time of jets and rockets, as
Millarca puts it, and peopled by wise men: doctors, judges, coroners,
pyrotechnicians. Installed in contemporary reality, Millarca says ironically
that in such a world it is hard to believe in the world of the spirit. Yet
the film flaunts its own technology to make the impossible possible and
effects a shift from normality to the point of view of a vampire several
hundred years old, then to that of a dream. Thanks to such shifts in the
viewing gaze, spectators are able to see more than any character in the
film, apart from the unearthly vampire Millarca, and to experience their
alternative visions. Roger Vadim said:
Sometimes, a strange, complex, undefined universe projects into the fringe
of our lives. Some of us, without knowing why, discern it or sense its
existence for a brief moment. Without mentioning the supernatural, this
may be merely one unexplored aspect, inconceivable today, of that
material domain which is known to us for such a short time. Mankind has
defined this domain in three dimensions and every day it breaks the rules
which for a brief moment seem to be rigid. (7)

Cinema allows the fusion of vampiric otherness and normality, a

questioning of the unshakable nature of patriarchal heterosexual normality.
Otherness lurks within all; it merely takes on different formsincestuous
fascination, homoeroticismor is transmuted by different channels, like
the surreal realms of the unconscious where unexpressed anxieties can find
their outlet.
Exactly ten years later, in 1970, Hammer Films, in cooperation with
American International, released one of their best-known productions, an
adaptation of Carmilla entitled The Vampire Lovers, directed by Roy
Ward Baker. It was released at the beginning of a new decade, when
swinging London was in its full late swing, the dominance of youth in pop
culture was an undisputed fact, as was an avowedly promiscuous society.
Audiences were becoming more seasoned in horror movies and thus more
demanding. 1968 saw the Theatres Act passed, which abolished
censorship on the stage in the UK. British Board of Film Censors had to
adapt to these changes and its Chairman at the time, John Trevelyan,
introduced a new certificate, AA, for films suitable only for people over
fourteen. The result was immediatecomedies got bawdier, dramas more
licentious, thrillers more graphically violent (McKay 185).

Agnieszka owczanin


Consequently, in comparison with Vadims New Wave continental

interpretation of Carmilla, Hammers The Vampire Lovers is visually
much bolder and sexually more explicit. The scent of a woman is replaced
here by her piercing fangs; tight but concealing dresses, a hidden
sensuality, are supplanted by heavier make-up and transparent nightgowns
exposing cleavages; the facade of pubescent feminine innocence gives
way to overt Lolita-like lust. Symbolism and understatement yield to
directness. Blood now trickles far below the neckline, and we see
decapitation and stakes piercing breasts.
But, aesthetic values aside, the film is an important step forward in
many respects, and not only for Hammer gothic. It consolidates a new
cycle of horror films produced by Hammer Studios and initiated by the
1967 Frankenstein Created Woman, a response to Roger Vadims 1958
And God Created Woman. These films make women pivots of the
narrative. After male-centred horror films featuring Frankenstein or
Dracula, the 1970s Hammer productionsthough still, as McKay notices,
gratuitously exploitative of women (178)embrace and in their own
way comment on female empowerment (185) and the burgeoning spirit
of womanhood (178).
The film opens with one of the vampire killers on guard, his sword
erect, waiting for the appearance of the vampire. But when she finally
advances, gliding towards him, barefooted, blonde hair flowing over the
low neck of her flimsy nightie, he is mesmerised and lets her put her arms
around him. She seductively opens her mouth, fangs dripping with blood
(but whose blood is it?) aiming for his flesh. A sudden close-up focuses on
the vampires half-exposed breast pressing against the mans torso and a
wooden cross which, this very moment, slips from beneath his coat. The
angular, firm verticality of the cross is contrasted with the almost iconic
curvature and softness of the breast. We can read the cross as half-sword,
half-phallus: it almost ruptures the breast, and this close-up is a metonymy
for the whole films sexual battleground. Carmilla and her victims flow
and are full of curves, discernible under their see-through clothes. But
theirs is also the world of books and brooches, literature and art,
juxtaposed with the rigid world of generals, fathers, doctors and butlers
the world of drink, business and science, initiative, power and control. In a
world where men are always fully dressed, buttoned up neck to toes, their
boots clicking even in the bedroom, where men slap maids and believe
that nothing short of sex will do, female eroticism is symbolised by bare
feet and curvaceous bodies which finally relinquish corsets.
The essential difference in weight, in perspective between the above
films lies in a relocation from continental avant-garde alternative cinema


Cinematic Carmillas: Projecting Subversion

to mainstream, Hammer-cum-Hollywood co-production. By toying with

patriarchy, Vadims film offers an adventurous subversion of certain
cinematographic and ideological tropes of mainstream cinema; Bakers
film enforces them in a much more radical way than Le Fanus story,
stripping it of its wistful homoerotic ambiguity. Here the tastes and
expectations of the 1970s audiencebrought up in an era of unabashed
nudity in which beauty pageants still topped the television ratings, in
which even Shakespearean actresses would send photographs of
themselves in bikinis to casting directors (McKay 181)restructure the
literary original. Female nudity in The Vampire Lovers panders to male
wishes, within and beyond the film, the gratuitous acres of cleavage
(McKay 182) going far beyond a straightforward narrative function; they
are a display of cheesy eroticism built-in to satisfy the spectators
voyeuristic fantasy (Mulvey 210). At the beginning of the film there is a
scene in which a man leaves a local pub to urinate, and as he begins to
unzip, his lecherous gaze meets a vampire, who remains out of frame. The
man and his gaze dominate the scene, and symbolically represent the
films aesthetics catering for the pleasure of such male gaze. The films
focus is on the effect the female object produces, on the satisfaction of
erotic contemplation derived from male belief in the governance of the
necessarily subordinate female body.
So lesbian vampirism is present, but apparently not in order to
acknowledge variant forms of sexuality or to give full flesh to
psychologically rounded characters. Carmillas attachment to Emma is not
exclusive; she seduces Emmas governess, and the butler, scenes which
for the most part are just a pretext for full female nudity. True, they also
make the female character the engine of action, but the only empowered
women are the vampires and the governess; the vampires are an anomaly
outside culture, and the governess occupies the curious position of a
woman in-between femininity and masculinity. Not really a mother-figure,
as she never displays affection for Emma, she is more of a guardian, a
woman of knowledge, a realm with which Emma, a less questionable
example of femininity, gets easily bored. The governess follows the
stereotypical behavioural codes of a lesbian: she has a strong, stark
demeanour, her posture and dark hair make her closer in appearance to the
empowered mother of Carmilla, the vampire baroness, and she
emasculates the butler by taking full control of the household in the
absence of the father. It is this least feminine of women who is depicted
as empowered and sexually liberated. But even she falls into a hysterical
fit when Carmilla discards her for Emma.

Agnieszka owczanin


Here, unlike in earlier horror movies, it is the woman who becomes the
predatoras McKay acknowledges, in the early 1970s Hammer women
started to take centre stage in a way that they did at no other studio
(179)and here the female bursts from restraining corsets, but as we see
too, female sexuality is portrayed as a malignant and unnatural force.
Female liberation and initiative are powerful but of short duration, not
acknowledged in their full right, but coded as iniquitous aberration,
provoking men first to condescending smiles, then united retaliation.
Female eroticism is viewed through a homophobic, patriarchal, Victorian
looking-glass. Women kiss, make love and fume in this film. But in the
end normality, understood as a return to patriarchal order, is restored; men
save the world by eliminating the dark powers of a destabilising vampiric,
feminine underground. Independent, unorthodox sexuality is curbed and
confined to the grave; a pack of men, guardians of respectability, perform
their ritual of driving a stake through the heart of the vampire, then
remove her head.
The barons sister, the generals and Mortons daughters all die under
their guardians noses, under the supervision of their male friend doctors,
who do not bother to take their patients relations into account. They do
not listen to them but patronisingly declare that their gradual loss of
vitality is due to anaemia, a female affliction common with young girls,
[] and a few old ones too. The womens night visitations are also
attributed to this cause: when body weakens, mind gets active, needs
some iron, that is all and so a drop of port is prescribed as a remedy. Such
an imperious attitude reveals the position of the paternal figure. Dramatic
irony, which allows us to witness what happens behind closed bedroom
doors, also makes us smirk at the mens obdurate bigotry. Unlike Le
Fanus story and Vadims interpretation, Bakers film ends with the total
obliteration of the female characters. Wifeless, daughterless, these
victorious men survive, but all that remains for them is their homosocial
However, viewed today, forty years after its release, it seems that this
film too has its tongue in its cheek. Polarisation of sexual difference is
taken to its limits and produces a visual hyperbole that is bemusing rather
than gratifying, with its decapitated blonde heads, comical rather than
terrifying. Literally speaking, visual melodrama rides on colour; Hammer
Films pioneered the use of lurid colour, red and blue especially
(Gelder 99). Visually, Vadims film is much closer to the atmosphere of
the literary original, black and white on screen somehow shadowing black
print on paper. Colour, which is often a signature of verisimilitude on
screen, is in Bakers film unnaturally saturated and thus becomes another


Cinematic Carmillas: Projecting Subversion

trajectory of excess and exhaustion. In the final scene where the general,
the baron and the doctor arrive at the Karnsteins tombs to annihilate
Carmilla, the baron recounts his opening of successive coffins and
piercing the whole family of vampires with a stake, one by one. He failed
to execute Carmilla for the simple reason that he was exhausted.
Tediousness, a strict method and the sheer effort of the procedure similarly
kill the potential and the drama of the scene. Also leaving the half-erect
stake sunk in Carmillas womb is a gratuitous enactment of the usual
climactic vampire-film moment, which by the 1970s must have been
viewed by the Hammer viewers as commonplace, if not household
(considering the fact that ninety per cent of British households had by then
access to TV, McKay 218). Similarly, the Venus-like image of Carmilla
getting out of a bath-tub in full-frontal nudity departs exploitatively from
the story, and this, along with the films narrative and historical
incoherence is likely to whimsically distance us from the film today.
In her analysis of camp Susan Sontag draws our attention to changes in
aesthetic perception afforded by the passage of time and attributes to it
change in reading and evaluation of a work of art:
Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now
because we are too close to it, because it resembles too closely our own
everyday fantasies, the fantastic nature of which we dont perceive. We are
better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own. [...] It is
simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary
detachmentor arouses a necessary sympathy. [...] Time liberates the
work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp
sensibility. (113)

That is why the film seems to wink, but only at the contemporary
audience. The displays of love and lore, authentic in the 1970s, are now
camp, bad to the point of being enjoyable in the 2010s. The seriousness
with which the film was made is now recognised as a seriousness that
fails (Sontag 112).
If The Vampire Lovers is campand pure examples of Camp are
unintentional; they are dead-seriousthen Phil Claydons 2009 Lesbian
Vampire Killers is an example of camping, that is Camp which knows
itself to be Camp (Sontag 110). Here, flesh, sex, lips and tongues are used
to very different effect than in the Hammer film, where eroticism is still
delicate, though also, as has been noted, deliberate, obvious (one is
tempted to say hammering), and meant to titillate the viewer with no
filters of irony and doublethink, those being owned more by the presentday viewer. Genuine camp, such as The Vampire Lovers, does not mean

Agnieszka owczanin


to be funny (Sontag 111); Lesbian Vampire Killers, as an example of

camping, does. Here, nubile flesh is cloaked in an aura of pastiche and
self-reflexivity; while watching it one feels none of the voyeurs mixed
arousal and discomfort, and its graphic quality is somehow chaste.
Claydons film borrows very lightly from Le Fanus original story,
sometimes appearing to be little more than a postmodern horror romp
(making numerous references to earlier horror films and Hollywood
filming conventions), with gratuitous rather than integral narrative usage
of the character Carmilla herself.
Women are indeed presented for the male gaze, wearing shorts,
plunging v-necks, Wonderbras, and making an Ibiza of Norfolk, where the
action takes place. Their male-stamped female beauty is accentuated by
their foreignnessthey are a mixture of Swedish, German, and other
placeless Europeansan othering atop womans putative otherness in
line with the original Carmillas unknown origin, and perhaps with Ingrid
Pitts Hungarian accent from the Hammer version. But on the other hand,
in this film it is women who initiate action, and resolve crises, and they are
on the side of both light and darkness too. The powerful undoers of evil in
this genre are men, thus, here, a patriarchal closed circle is ruptured. It is a
woman who dumps one of the two main heroes in the opening scene; it is
his female boss who fires the other. It is a woman who helps the two upto-date malethat is puerile, crude and haplessmen escape the clutches
of the vampire lesbians, and she does so by behaving in a way that is more
masculine than any other man in the film. If there is subversion in
Claydons film, it works mainly through its mocking reference to earlier
films in the horror/lesbian genre. But it also works through the women,
who are simultaneously moulded by male authors yet do things that throw
certain ideas of femaleness into disarray. It may sound contradictory, but
the film manages to transgress whilst simultaneously holding some
expectations in place.
Of course, a knowingness about film conventions and genres is, with
the last film, matched by a knowingness about sexual politics. By 2010,
the empowerment of women, a term used in this essay, is also going to
be something in the cultural air that surrounds a group of British film
makers. Perhaps Lesbian Vampire Killers is a camp game with a whole
field of political correctness. The way it puts its tongue in its cheek is
important. The film is sly, but it is not reactionary. No matter how
cardboard its characters, what we see is malevolent empowered femininity
in an attempt to overturn asinine masculinity. We laugh at the joke of it
all, but we do not laugh women back into their parlours.


Cinematic Carmillas: Projecting Subversion

The genre of gothic is hardly exhausted; its continuation as film proves

it. Through the vampire metaphor it always seems to make some sort of
comment on the times in which it is made, and this is to do with more than
the expected paraphernalia of damsels, vampires and isolated villages.
Ever since its earliest parodies, such as Jane Austens Northanger Abbey,
this genres aesthetics, and tone, and, most importantly, its room for selfreflexivity, have proved almost boundless.
This is all helped by gothics optimum position between high and low
culture, and by the plethora of versions of itself it can refer to, bouncing
older codes into new shape. Mainstream or avant-garde, high or low,
conservative or subversive, camp or campinggothic accommodates it
all. One can gauge gothics breadth from the breadth of responses to it.
Look at LVK; two poles
Lesbian Vampire Killers is just pitiful playground humour []. Clearly
aware of its own artistic shortcomings [] a script that might have been
jotted on the back of a beer mat []. (Huddleston)

or did not lickit (Time Out), and:

SEEN! ITS A MUST SEE! It was hilarious start to finish. Dont believe its
bad just coz some critic said so. Its Brilliant. (Time Out)

It all depends on who views it and when they view it.

Works cited
Baker, Roy Ward, dir. 1970. The Vampire Lovers. USA, UK: American
Internaltional-Hammer Film.
Barclay, Glen St John. 1978. Anatomy of Horror: The Masters of Occult
Fiction. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Claydon, Phil, dir. 2009. Lesbian Vampire Lovers. UK: Vivendi
Darke, Chris. 2007. The French New Wave. In Introduction to Film
Studies, ed. Jill Nelmes. London: Routledge.
Gelder, Ken. 1994. Reading the Vampire. London: Routledge.
Huddleston, Tom. Lesbian Vampire Killers review. Time Out London
Issue 2013, March 19-25, 2009.
reviews/%2086884/lesbian_vampire_killers.html. March 24, 2010.
McKay, Sinclair. 2008. A Thing of Unspeakable Horror. The History of
Hammer Films. London: Aurum Press.

Agnieszka owczanin


McNally, Raymond T., Florescu Radu. 1979. In Search of Dracula. A

True History of Dracula and Vampire Legends. London: New English
Mulvey, Laura. 1986. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In
Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip
Rosen. New York: Columbia University Press.
Sontag, Susan. 1982. Notes on Camp. In A Susan Sontag Reader.
Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Time Out. User reviews. Time Out London Issue 2013, March 19-25,
vampire_ killers.html. March 24, 2010.
Vadim, Roger, dir. 1960. Blood and Roses. France, Italy: Paramount
. 1963. Foreword. In The Vampire. An Anthology. London: Pan



Born in d just a year before the outbreak of WWII, Jerzy

Skolimowski is a true Renaissance man: a filmmaker, playwright,
scriptwriter, painter, actor, poet, and even an amateur boxer. He is
believed to be one of the most interesting voices of not only Polish but
also European cinema. His films made in the 60s, such as Rysopis
(Identification Marks: None), Walkower (Walkover), and Bariera (Barrier),1
immediately established him as a valid member of the New Wave
movement. Skolimowskis first important achievements, however, were
his contributions to two scripts: he collaborated on the script of Innocent
Sorcerers (1960) for Andrzej Wajda and co-authored Roman Polaskis
international hit Knife in the Water (1961).2 At the time of his
collaboration with Polaski, he was preparing for his entry exams to d
National Film School. Hamle (Little Hamlet), a 9-minute black and white
film from 1959/1960, was his first short film project completed under the
premises of the school.
The film was made in 1959/1960, three years after the October
Revolution which initiated the so-called Gomukas thawviewed as a
time of change with loosening relationships between Poland and the

In Britain he is mostly known as the director of Moonlighting (1982) starring

Jeremy Irons and of a very experimental feature Shout (1978) starring Alan Bates.
His last feature was the internationally acclaimed Essential Killing (2010).
Skolimowski and Polaski have more in common than a screenplay co-written at
the beginning of their careers. Both were pushed to leave the country after their
films were censored by the authorities. Both had parents killed in concentration
camps during the war: Polaskis mother in Auschwitz, Skolimowskis father, as
one of the conspirators against Hitler, in a German concentration camp.

Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus


USSR, demands for national government, and authorities seeming

permissiveness towards expressions of discontent in artistic form. As the
d Film Schools website informs us, 1956 brought noticeable changes
to the school. A certain amount of political freedom allowed for the
creation of modern educational programs which took into consideration
the accomplishments of world cinemawithout focusing on proper
political ideology. The fact that society became more liberal can be seen,
for instance, in the achievements of the d National Film School with
Polaskis Knife in the Water made in 1961 or in the creation of such
controversial movies as Andrzej Wajdas Ashes and Diamonds made in
1958. The 1960s were the period of the so-called little stabilisation.
While it offered an opportunity for self-examination, it also brought into
the open the need to take a moral stand and form opinions and judgments
about the surrounding post-war reality. Skolimowskis Hamle seems to
be just such an attempt. Interestingly, within four years of its completion,
Jan Kott would publish his influential Shakespeare our Contemporary. In
the preface to the 1987 edition, Kott claims that Hamlet has always been a
very Polish play. Kotts interpretation of the play, just like Skolimowskis
vision of it, was influenced by the events of 1956 and the period of destalinisation. Kotts chapter on Hamlet opens with his account of a
performance in Krakw in 1956 of the Hamlet, as he calls it, of Polish
October Revolution. Skolimowskis Hamle, thought different in many
ways from Hamlet of the mid-century, also uses the basis of
Shakespeares tragedy to depict, this time on camera, the situation he
witnessed and equally contested.
It is important to emphasise that Hamle seems to be the first in
Skolimowskis many later musings on Shakespeares title hero. In fact, the
protagonists in Skolimowskis early works, often significantly played by
the director himself, are all Hamlet-like. Ewa Mazierska calls them
nonconformists rather than outsiders (3). On the one hand, they are
ambitious, perceptive, talented, unique, and full of fantastical ideas; on the
other, their passivity and uncompromising nature result in many wasted
opportunities, unfinished projects, and unrealised dreams. While, in many
ways, their non-activity helps them avoid morally difficult choices,
primarily, it helps them keep their sanity and individuality intact and
escape from the cogs of the machine of the system. Mazierska agrees with
the general opinion that neither Skolimowski nor his characters, who
function as his alter ego, like mixing with the crowd but instead remain
detached, and that they would rather give up on any advantages society
offers them and accept loneliness and suffering, than betray their views
and values (2). Thus, even though on the surface they appeared above


Skolimowskis Hamle and Totalitarian Regime

suspicion, in their characters indecisiveness, passivity, inability to blend

in and a refusal to comply, Skolimowskis 60s films were highly
politically charged. Hamle, often dismissed as a film joke, belongs to this
Hamle is a student exercise shot in the mode of a silent film with
plenty of slapstick comedy and actors playing their parts in grotesque
mannerisms. While there is no dialogue as such, this is not an entirely
silent film as the soundtrack is provided by a lyrical song which together
with Shakespeares subtext stitch the narrative together:
Dramat jest jeli kto cigle si waha
I jeli rce w polityce macza
I gdy mu mio we wszystkim
Dramat jest, dramat jest,

Tragedy happens when one constantly

And meddles with politics,
And is disturbed by love,
Tragedy happens, tragedy happens...
(broken record)

Ofelka musi zapozna si z wod

eby wypeni wskazania Szekspira
Gdy goy ppek jest podstaw wiata
Chyli si przed nim najwspanialsza lira
Oraz satyra i kamera

Ofelka needs to get acquainted with

To fulfil Shakespeares requirements.
When a naked navel becomes the
worlds foundation
The greatest lyre bows to it,
and so does satire, and the camera

Motywy zbrodni s jak zawsze bahe

Na to sposoby niezwykle wymylne
Zdradziecka bro oraz zdradziecki

Crime motives are trivial, as usual,

But means of killing are extremely
Treacherous weapon and treacherous

Tylko Ofelka ubiera to w kwiaty

Id do klasztoru, Ofelko, id

Only Ofelka dresses it up in flowers.

Go to the nunnery, Ofelka, go

Straszliwa szykuje si draka

Draka si szykuje straszliwa

What a kerfuffle
What a kerfuffle

Bicie po gbie i oko za oko

Polityczne mistyfikacje wok
I zdrada godzi znw w niewinnych
Nawet Laercio sam te siebie gubi
Oraz szefow
I szefa te

A punch in the kisser and an eye for an

Political mystifications are all around,
And betrayal, again, harms the innocent
Even Laercio brings about his own
As well as Szefowas

Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus


And Szefs, too

Oto nadchodzi chwiejc si puenta
Zdrowie i przyja wszystko tu
Oto nadchodzi Fortynbraz zwycizca
On tu najwyszym tej prasy cenzorem
I sytuacji i ludzi te
Reszta jest milczeniem, reszta jest
milczeniem, reszta je

Here comes, stumbling, the punchline:

Health and friendship are all but an
illusion here
Here comes Fortynbras, the victor
He is here the supreme censor of the
Of situation and of people
The rest is silence ... (records broken)

Jan Kott refers to the young characters of Shakespeares play as boys

and a girl. Skolimowski goes further. The names of Hamlet, Ophelia and
Laertes are given in their diminutive versions. This tool immediately
separates them from the more grown-up characters, establishes them as
suspended in the state between childhood and adulthood, and explains
their characteristics: Hamles innocence and idealism, Ofelkas infantile
carelessness and ignorance, Laercios gullibility and irrational anger. Their
clownish behaviour throughout the film helps to hide the seriousness of
their fate under the guise of comedy and parody but also turns them all
into the victims of the plotting of the more mature characters: Szef
(Male Boss) and Szefowa (Female Boss), whose names do not follow
Shakespeares text, as well as Fortinbras (the only character of
Shakespearean name).
As to the characters of Szef and Szefowa, their function in the film
seems to partially duplicate that of Claudius and Gertrude. Szef is a
boorish character dressed in a proletariat cap and vest, Szefowaa
voluptuous femme fatale. Their names in Polish are immediately
associated with the common way of addressing delicatessen managers or
shop assistants during Communist Poland on whose mercy depended the
to be or not to be of Polish shoppers who after hours of queuing for
scarcely available and strictly rationed products could only hope for
leftovers from behind the counter.
Finally, Fortinbras is referred to as the supreme censor of the press, of
situations and of people. He is wearing a military uniform, which
designates his status of authority and symbolises power politics, and, as in
Hamlet, he is the ultimate power coming from the outside to take control
over the kingdom devastated by betrayal, treason and murder. The fact that
his is the only unaltered Shakespearean name additionally stresses the fact
that he comes from an alien realm: he is neither trivialised by a diminutive
name form, nor localised by a Polish name equivalent.


Skolimowskis Hamle and Totalitarian Regime

The setting, bearing an expressionistic tinge, is a post-holocaust

wasteland. This simple setting is heavy with meaning: it denotes material
deficiencies as well as spiritual bareness. The newspapers signify the everpresence of propaganda, but the fact that they lie around neglected and
useless may also be indicative of the miserable condition of freedom of
speech. Finally, the abundance of vodka bottles suggests that drinking is
the only outlet for misery and despair, and stupor the only way to cope
with the surrounding reality. In such a landscape a tragedy is more than
likely to happen.
The themes of hesitation, politics and betrayed love introduced by the
prologue are clearly Shakespearean. Skolimowski, however, uses this
pretext to comment on the reality of Communist Poland. Hesitation
becomes a point of departure to contrast two forms of opposition of the
society to the Partys regimesilent acceptance and thoughtless compliance
versus informed scepticism, subversion and rebellion. Betrayed love
comes to signify betrayal of the country, of humanity and of all moral
values. The looming tragedy is naturally the tragedy of the whole country
and at the same time that of all its individual citizens.
Shakespeares Hamlet is a story of revenge, love and politics, and
Skolimowskis film takes some of those themes further to tell a tale about
friendships going awry, betrayal of alliances, and lack of mutual trust in
the face of constant, never-ending war. In the games played by the
characters and primarily in the acute portrayal of distribution of power and
organisation of this little community, we can clearly see a reflection of the
communist regime, which can be understood in terms of warwar that is
boiling up within the society and that maintains an absurd status quo.
When Michel Foucault in the series of lectures entitled Society Must
Be Defended reverses Clausewitzs statement and claims that power is war
only conducted through other means, his observations very accurately
portray the power games of the political reality of communism and can
serve as a point of reference in discussing the problem of domestic war
underlying the illusory state of peace as well as methods of resistance.
First of all, he points to the fact that in a so called time of peace:
political conflicts, conflicts regarding power, for power and against
authorities, modifications in the power systemthe scales tipping in one
or the other side, overthrowing the government, etc.the whole reality of
a political system should be interpreted as the continuation of war [...] as a
series of episodes, twists and turns and ups and downs of the same war.

All quotations from Foucault are translated by the authors.

Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus


The political system of Communist Poland, and other countries of the

communist block, perfectly illustrates this observation. As artificial as the
newly established borders,4 the new order of state and institutions was
only a change of occupant: the defeated Nazi Germany retreated, and the
victorious Red Army took over.
When Foucault points out that the state of peace and order in society is
but a cover for oblivion, illusion and lies (59), the communist reality
meets Shakespeares Elsinore. Underneath the false pretence of things
being neat, harmonious and, most importantly, legal, there is the tension of
conflicting sides: there are two hostile camps of opposing creeds and aims
fighting for maintaining or seizing the power necessary to keep or
implement their laws and order.
Skolimowski, thus, uses the cover of Shakespearean themes to
comment on the Polish communist reality of his times. Hamles state of
mindcorresponding to Hamlets brooding melancholybecomes the
quintessence of the subversive element, as the propaganda used to call
any attempt at independent thought. Tragedy happens, the narrator
informs us, when one constantly hesitatesinstead of uncritically
accepting the Partys ideologyand meddles with politicsinstead of
keeping their head downand is disturbed by lovepossibly to be read
as love of freedom, love of independence. Hamles dangerous status is
stressed by several factors. The fact that he attempts to read newspapers
suggests his involvement in current affairs and genuine interest in
knowledge. His reading the newspapers is first contrasted with the attitude
of the others to whatever is in the papersOfelka playfully stops him
from reading while Laercio, Szef and Szefowa sit together drinking vodka,
the Polish opiate for the masses of those times, doing nothing. The
theme of reading reappears at the end of the film upon Fortinbrass arrival.
This time again the characters seem to be hardly interested in reading, and
only treat it as an empty ritual. Bearing in mind that an ignorant crowd is
easier to manipulate and control, Hamles reading must be seen not only
as a manifestation of his social and political commitment but even as an
act of social and political activism, or even rebellion.
The status of Hamle is reinforced by the fact that he is sitting on a
swinging platform. The swinging of the platform combined with the
narrators tragedy happens when one constantly hesitates comments on
the danger of instability, scepticism, and thoughtfulness. Stability of the

The absurd deal of giving to the USSR traditionally Polish Eastern borderland
and in compensation getting a belt of German land resulted in massive tragedies of
the displaced civilians of all involved nations.


Skolimowskis Hamle and Totalitarian Regime

Partys supremacy and permanence of the illusion of peace depend on

people who go with the flow and do not ask questions.
Finally, Hamle is positioned above the others and apart from the
others, illustrating the binary structure of society. It is always two groups,
two categories of people, two armies facing each other (59), says
Foucault explaining the phenomenon of the ongoing war. But Hamle is
not only the other army, ensuring the division into us and them. He is
also the minority asking for marginalisation and eventual annihilation. A
good, harmonious and healthy society tolerates no subversive elements
everything that is other must be purged.5
The reaction of Laercio, Szef and Szefowa to Hamle comments on the
relationship between the communist regime and the subversive element.
The Party cannot tolerate anybody who stands out. Szef and Szefowa have
no real reason to set Laercio on Hamle other than simply wanting to get
rid of anyone who stands out. As the narrator tells us, crime motives are
trivial. The ways in which the communist regime deals with the
unwanted, the fancy ways of killing mentioned in the song, are worth
stressing. Szef gives Laercio a knuckleduster (the song a few moments
later, when the fight actually begins, comments in slang: a punch in the
kisser), and gives a signal by smashing a bottleanother treacherous
weapon. Here, Shakespeare also offers a nice commenting cover. The
treacherous weapon and the treacherous drink that Szef prepares in line
with Hamlet offer a tricky play on wordsin Polish zdradziecki
(treacherous) sounds very much like radziecki (Soviet).
The slapstick sequence of the fight offers blatant symbolism under the
guise of heavy parody. Among prime comic gags, including the skull
routine, there are obvious allusions to the two forces tearing Poland apart:
Hamle in artificial moustache acts out a parody of Hitler, and there is a
painted star on the walla symbol of the Soviet occupant. The narrator
talks very straight-forwardly about political mystifications and betrayal.
Laercio, lost and confused as to where his anger comes from, clearly
cannot tell who is a friend and who is a foe. Duped into this absurd fight
he chases Hamle up and down the stairs of the dilapidated building, their
caricatured characters and grotesque behaviour emphasising the
pointlessness of their struggle. Hamle, aware of this, tries to avoid
confrontation, unwilling to fight somebody who should be his ally, not

See Foucaults comments on internal racism and the mechanisms of constant

purification (70).

Magdalena Cielak and Agnieszka Rasmus


The closing sequence hardly needs explanation. The superior and

controlling position of Fortinbras is stressed by his uniform, his behaviour
and the narrators comment. Also, the POV shots emphasise his
controlling gaze. All characters sit quietly in their places, immobile and
silent. Fortinbras is like Foucaults police that ensure silent hygiene of an
ordered society (88). The fact that the whole film is silent may stand for
the silent order of authority that, in accordance with its function and best
interest, stifles and camouflages all manifestations of incongruity,
rebellion, war (Foucault 84).
Subversion operates in Hamle in several ways. Firstly, alluding to the
political reality of Poland occupied by the Soviet regime, it shows the
tension and conflicts boiling underneath the idealised vision of the thriving
Peoples Republic of Poland. The dilapidating skeleton of a building
reveals the truth about the state of the countrywhat officially was
presented as an idyllic state of prosperity is in fact a land of emptiness and
disintegration. The building site Skolimowski chooses for the films
setting portrays the state of Poland. It reeks of poverty and misery,
commenting on both the empty shelves of Polish shops and on the spiritual
vacuum of the people anaesthetised by vodka and fed with propaganda. In
this world, the ones who hold power oppress the ones who dare to think
for themselves using the weapons of manipulation and betrayal. But even
those in charge turn out to be only puppets, unaware of the fact that the
seeming peace and order they maintain is but a state of serfdom, as in this
conflict the ultimate enemy comes from outside.6
Still, it is tempting to strike an optimistic note here suggesting
Skolimowskis trust in society. In the end, in confrontation with
Fortinbras, Szef turns out to be cowardly and weak, which diminishes his
status as the oppressor. The look on Szefowas face is enigmatic
perhaps stubborn, perhaps bored, but clearly non-cooperative. Laercio,
reading onierz (Soldier), gives Fortinbras an angry glance; Ofelka, in
turn, with her naked navel, silly smile and artificial flowers, proves to be
the ultimate tool of disarmamenteven Fortinbras, the victor, the
supreme censor of the press, of situations and of people, melts down to
her charm. Finally, the subversive element, Hamle, also promises an
optimistic continuation. His face over the magazine Przyja (Friendship)
is a mask of determination and resistance: his war is not yet over.

The lines Betrayal, again, harms the innocent ones./Even Laercio brings about
his own undoing,/As well as Szefowas,/And Szefs, too suggest that
Skolimowski sees Szef and Szefowa as victims of manipulations rather than


Skolimowskis Hamle and Totalitarian Regime

Moreover, Hamle itself becomes a rebellious voice and a weapon. The

films subversive potential, visible in the level of parody, allusion, and
symbolism, makes it a strong voice of opposition to the communist
regime. Its innocent attire of a harmless joke and the Shakespearean
smokescreen helped it meander through censorship. Thus, a film exercise,
made officially under the premises of the d National Film School,
communicates blatantly anti-establishment content, engaging in a war with
censorship, propaganda, dominating ideology, history and politicsthe
peaceful and legal mechanisms of the communist regimeand
through its very existence wins one small but victorious battle with the

Works cited
Foucault, Michel. 1998. Trzeba broni spoeczestwa (Society Must Be
Defended). Trans. Magorzata Kowalska. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo
Jerzy Skolimowski, dir. 1959/1960. Hamle (Little Hamlet). September 10, 2009.
Kott, Jan. 1990. Szekspir Wspczesny (Shakespeare Our Contemporary).
Krakw: Wydawnictwo Literackie.
The d Film School. September 10, 2009.
Mazierska Ewa. 2010. Jerzy Skolimowski. The Cinema of the
Nonconformist. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

The hopes of the late-1950s for major political change in the country were soon
replaced with increasing disillusionment in the 1960s. As a consequence, in 1967,
after his film Rce do gry (Hands Up!) was shelved by censorship, Jerzy
Skolimowski decided to leave the country for free Europe. His next few films were
not politically involved.



The more detached the work is from its origins, the more
dehumanized the work, the more it leads us into the open,
where a totally unique being can be brought forth. In this sense,
truth arises out of nothing that is not time, but detachment and
detachment brings to light the characteristics of an alienation
that is not oriented by presence. (Olkowski-Laetz 104)

In his essay Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger traces the
issue of detachment, alienation and separation from representation. This is
a lack, deformation or travesty of an origin that enables transgression of
distinguishable features of various forms. The process of defamiliarization
increases difficulty and length of the viewers reception, leading eventually
to a production of completely new readings. Open to a plurality of
interpretations and a series of relations, the work of art does not conform
to traditional conventions. It moves through several layers at once,
reworks space and time connections, adopts an extreme attitude to an
artistic vision and finally produces a new revaluation of formerly accepted
values. Such conditions are in opposition to the signification system. They
are ready to open a space for thought and the possibility of other logics
and grammars (Olkowski-Laetz 102). In the light of this, the supposed
truth comes out of the arteries of different meanings as formerly
subjugated individuals have now an opportunity to oppose or evade
normative behaviour and pluralize meanings of social experience and
relations. The empowerment of previously unprivileged groups aims to
blur social distinctions, exerting a tremendous effect upon the social state
and furthering an equality of expression.


Transgressive Aesthetics of Social and Cultural Decline

Such transgression of traditional patterns of structure that leads to

changes in formal mechanisms and perceptual reception is apparent in
Derek Jarmans The Last of England, released in 1987. The film goes
beyond aesthetic norms through formal experiment and repetitive codes to
imply a social and cultural critique of the eighties in Great Britain. The
director defines the social and cultural complexities of the decade, evoking
a visionary response to a country shattered and fragmented by harsh
divisions and conflicts of life under Thatcherism. Jarmans dystopian eye
views an urban battleground characterized by deterioration and constant
uprising of underprivileged groups. This echoes the reality where by the
day frustration with the state grew and instead of becoming an economic
miracle, Thatcherism resulted in widening economic disproportions,
leaving England socially and economically divided. In his memoirs At
Your Own Risk: a Saints Testament, Jarman emphasizes that the eighties
was a time when all that was rotten bubbled to the surface. If you were not
at the receiving end of the mayhem, you could be unaware of it (194).
However, this social injustice did not touch everybody. As indicated in the
film, the impoverished, homeless, drug-addicted, queer or peripherally
ethnic faced the most abject conditions, whereas the unconcerned
bourgeois class was beyond any sense of physical risk or social violence
(Humphrey 211). It is worth highlighting that the initial title of the film
suggested by the director was The Dead Sea, as this period for him was
associated with a collapse of Victorian values.1 As Tony Peake
summarizes, it was a particularly loaded phrase taken from one of
Thatchers many hectoring speeches to the nation which emphasized the
postindustrial decline, whose stagnant waters erode the crumbling cities
(367). Eventually, the film was released under the title The Last of
England, after Ford Madox Browns painting of a Victorian couple
leaving the shores of Great Britain for a new future in an unknown
destination. In this sense, Jarmans production is a continuation of the
theme of rejection and marginalization of minorities in England and their
search for social inclusion.
Apart from its strident social criticism, Jarmans film distances itself
from mainstream productions and oscillates between accumulation and
deterioration of cinematic imagery. In this way, The Last of England was
meant to attract criticism of the establishment. The structure of the film,

Jarman notes in his journal that after being called The Dead Sea and The
Victorian Values, the suggestion was GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm), and, finally,
The Last of England was chosen as it emphasized the relation between the dying
culture of England and the destruction of the human body through AIDS
(Humphrey 213).

Justyna Stpie


without a clearly accentuated narrative pattern, resembles a collage of

visual ambiguities generated by a diversity of juxtaposed pictures. The
Last of England exemplifies a postmodern transgressive cinema that works
through its engagement in a figural spectacle. In comparison to modernist
cinema, Jarmans film positions the viewer as a nomadic subject, making
representation of the real more problematic to us (Lash 498). In such
conditions, the concentration is on the form itself and on the possibilities it
unveils. This paper analyzes the transgressive aesthetics that contributes to
gradual disorientation of viewers. For John Hill:
The Last of England crosses a number of boundariesbetween documentary
and fiction, realism and expressionism, the personal and political, high
and low cultureto create a form of hybrid cinema in which a diversity
of aesthetic means is employed to challenge, or make strange our
perceptions of both past and present. (211)

I shall demonstrate that those transgressive methods of representation, a

form of visual collage and auditory fragments conferring a sense of
timelessness (Dillon 165) become tools for Jarman to illustrate the haunting
past and contemporary decline of the nation. In this process, subversive
language helps Jarman to reassess traditional values and cinematic
techniques, thereby transcending artistic differences and boundaries.
The critical diagnosis of England drawn by Jarman may be directly
linked with the directors personal life. As Jarman emphasizes, the film
was partly directed against the climate of homophobia which followed the
wake of the discovery of the HIV virus as well as growing intolerance
towards non-straight sexualities and ethnic minorities (Dillon 165). The
cinematic strategies used in the film flow from Jarmans struggle with the
virus and a desire to find some affirmative sense of life. In this respect, onscreen despair expresses a restless angst about status and the role of
authorship. For Daniel Humphrey, the film enacts the dialectic of trauma
in which the issues of referentiality, historical memory, and subjectivity
become spectacularly foregrounded and problematized (209). Those
aspects are inextricably linked with a sense of economic disproportion,
frustration and deprivation, and fear of a neo-conservative politics and
rapidly growing nationalism. The directors artistic life is influenced by
images of a social landscape driven by unemployment and poverty. What
proof do you need? The world is curling up like an autumn leaf?asks
the narrator in one of the first scenes of the film. As Chris Lippard and
Guy Johnson notice in their essay Private Public, Public Space: The
Politics of Sickness and the Films of Derek Jarman, the result of the
artistic treatment is a widely personal film that implicates Jarman as a


Transgressive Aesthetics of Social and Cultural Decline

kind of cinematic archeologist delving into a lost past, someone seeking an

irredeemable place amid the shards of contemporary ruin (285). All those
elements are interwoven into Jarmans visual language, creating a picture
of social hysteria and paranoia. This is further enriched by a distinctive use
of sound, which builds tension between particular scenes and somehow
detaches viewers from the presented material, challenging traditional
techniques of representing the state and its symbols.
From the initial scenes of The Last of England, viewers are confronted
with a picture of destitution and chaos. A blue tint dominates the opening
scene where we see the director working on a manuscript, a kind of a diary
in which he writes commentaries about the subsequent scene. The scene
opens with following words: imprisoned memories prowl thro the dark.
They scatter like rats. Dead souls rat a patta into the silence (Dillon
167). The voice of the narrator introduces us to the artistic creation of
English wastelands through the usage of poems read out in voice-over.
The words flood from Jarmans mind, subsequently becoming a projection
of motion pictures. As there is no single dialogue in the film, the poetic
words in the form of memories, dreams, and fantasies are powerful
commentaries on the mosaic of the presented images. The text is
constructed out of prose poems printed in Jarmans Kicking the Pricks,
titled 4AM and Imperial Embers (167). Against this background
emerges the image of a young manSpring, one of the main heroes of the
filminitially shooting heroin and masturbating on the top of Caravaggios
painting Love Triumphant. On the spot, Spring becomes a spirit of the
places shown in the production, signifying a contemporary genius loci, a
figure of decay and poetic creation. While wandering through an urban
landscape, he takes us on a journey to restore the other beyond the
already written codes of society. This concords nicely with what Deleuze
and Guattari name the other space; Spring belongs to nomads who exist
on the fringe of settled civilizations. Here, landscape terms describe issues of
misplacement, both as social and psychological categories, and Spring does
not move in a smooth space towards a dwelling, but dwells by moving
(Bahtsetzis 1). In this manner, the audience is also set into motion together
with the changing, fragmented images representing places that are difficult
to define. The rapid editing and penetrating sound heighten the effect of
detachment. As those fast shots are not in a linear order and lack a proper
narration it is extremely difficult for us to identify with the main hero. The
bricollaged pieces contribute to our frustration and a sense of disgust felt
from the very beginning. While examining the segments teeming with
violence and sexuality we feel an ambivalent reaction that only adds to our
visual discomfort. As time goes by, a sense of timelessness grows.

Justyna Stpie


In the scenes with Spring there is a visible movement of the

protagonist from the exterior into the interior, which is repeated in
subsequent fragments of the film. Spring carries a lit torch through dark,
cavernous rooms as if he was looking for an imaginary spot. He often
escapes from the outer space and hides in derelict buildings, switching off
the nightmares of reality by shooting heroin. Drugs help him flee from the
mess and decay of broken glass and concrete, urban noise, walls and
fences that divide social areas. Even though we visit real sites in Londons
Docklands, it is extremely difficult to identify them as the scenes build a
kind of symbolic space deprived of any communal experiences
(Humphrey 212). Jarman hints at his own defamiliarization of urban space
by the following words: my teacher said, there are more walls in England
than Berlin Johnny, What were we to do in those crumbling acres, die of
boredom? (Dillon 170). The words pinpoint hidden divisions under the
supposed economic development promised by the Conservative government.
Contrary to expectations, the majority of the society feels a destitution and
spiritual impoverishment. Jarman strategically places homemade video
fragments which present his childhood and scenes from the Royal
Familys life. The images shown in those fragments suggest that the walls
separate those unprivileged living in the margins from those celebrating
the Windsors and exhausted institutions (Dillon 171). As the narrator
points out, the presented world is your world, beavering away at its own
destruction, services the profit machine, and creaks to a halt, not with a
bang (170), emphasizing the difference in perception of the existing
reality and its cultural representations. There is no denying the fact that
certain things are visible only to those who want to see the decline. For
others, as the homemade scenes show, the outer world resembles an idyllic
land devoid of the destructive implications of pessimism and social
The second part of The Last of England is organized around scenes of
people being rounded up by soldiers/terrorists who ambiguously represent
the state authority. These images are contrasted with the urban shots,
resembling dream allegories and home movie material which taken
together create a kind of kinetic patterns based on contrasts of colour,
sound, shape and movement. The same scenes with soldiers appear out of
nowhere repeatedly in the film. In this sense, the soldiers are even more
terrifying for their lack of a direct relation to other images presented in the
previous scenes of the filmic collage. They take power over the rest of the
presented material. The images refer to the land where poppies and
corncockle have long been forgotten (Jarman 1987) and violence has
become the main form of expression. The Last of England refers here to


Transgressive Aesthetics of Social and Cultural Decline

the Falklands War, which ended with the victory of Great Britain, and a
subsequent breath of militarism and nationalism of the country. Here,
patriotism can be associated with pointless deaths, aggression and social
terror that dominated the divided England, enriching the visual material of
the directors apocalyptic vision.
The soldiers are introduced by a series of machine guns, leading a
group of people from some interior spaces to a balcony. There is some
artificiality in the soldiers behaviour. They appear to perform some kind
of oppression at the dictate of society. Furthermore, it is difficult to
identify clearly the victims, who appear to be displaced people, contemporary
recluses who live against the frames imposed by society. Spring and
Spencer Leigh, the second major character of Jarmans vision, belong to
this group. The combination of scenes, with their varied contexts, speaks
against the growth of English nationalism and populist response to race,
immigration, sexuality and other artistic ideologies (Hill 15). These
elements dominate the second part of the film where hostages await their
execution and the terrorists dance around a bonfire. The scene becomes so
powerful visually that it reminds us of strange television footage of war,
leaving us with an impression of visual closure. Here, Jarman contrasts
darkness with the light coming from the torches and the ritualistic dances
of naked people. The dance scene is enriched by weird creatures that join
the trance-like circle. The madness of patriotism ends with the subversion
of the symbol of the Union Jack, which becomes only a piece of cloth on
which two soldiers have sexual intercourse. All these motifs encircle the
wider spectacle of terror. As Steven Dillon notices, conventionally
beautiful images of sunsets accompany the terrorists, but now these
sunsets connote the withdrawing of the light, the end of things, the last of
England (175).
The viewers thoughts have been set adrift and wander through the
multiplicity of forms, unable to distinguish past, present, or future. The
parody of aesthetic and cultural forms presented by Jarman belongs to
other places and to other times. As Dorothea Olkowski-Laetz asserts,
embedded in the postmodern sensibility, a wide range of formless forms
and objects available for nameless utilizations highlight the despair that
nothing will happen in the dismantling of time (113). This is clearly
indicated in a wedding procession scene, a parody of the Royal Wedding,
taking place in a deserted warehouse. The images of gathered and
costumed people express grotesque elements that subvert the elevated
social ceremony and ritual. Cross-dressers, photographers, a baby in a
pram covered with tabloid headlines, a chimney sweep straight out of
Victorian times, and the recordings of audio material from the Royal

Justyna Stpie


wedding of Charles and Diana all transgress ossified cultural forms and
puncture the artificiality of the public sphere. Nonetheless, for Steven
Dillon, there seems to be no hope as the private realm suggested by
naked bodies and Spring in former segments of the film, is also adrift,
despairing and terrorized (181).
The first of the concluding scenes with a dancing Tilda Swinton aptly
summarizes the directors apocalyptic construct and his meditation on the
monumentality of life through performance. The act of cutting and eating
the pieces of the wedding dress implies a rejection of cultural artifices and
the desperate position of a contemporary abject. The weeping and whirling
figure becomes an adequate response to the fragmented, disturbed
montage of the depicted state of the nation. It will be a rejection of
conservative views on family, tradition, patriarchalism and order;
structures through which the government meant to renew the spirit of the
nation are instead a hindrance to individualism. In fact, the dance may be
read as a powerful gesture of defiance against the death, destruction, and
the absence of human instincts the film has portrayed (Hill 159). These
shots are contrasted with a scene of a boat leaving British shores in an
unknown direction. The scene which, as already noted, refers to Ford
Madox Browns The Last of England, seems to be the final response to the
state of the nation as presented by Jarman. Here the assembled people,
who also signify contemporary recluses, do not rebel against the
conditions of ruined life but simply choose exodus. According to Steven
Dillon, water brings some tranquility, thereby indicating a transition into a
new order. As the people move, the fire in the foreground slowly burns
out, leaving the terror behind (Dillon 179). There is a new direction,
though it involves departure from British shores.
The streams of blurred images have a temporal character in Jarmans
vision. The systematic usage of anachronisms illustrates the directors
fascination with a frame-within-the-frame narrative. This generic
combination of narrative discontinuity with documentary subjects and
techniques, namely urban wasteland, home movies, and a handheld
camera, as well as the play with sound and colour all contribute to the
effect that The Last of England is beyond directly recognizable world,
time and genre (Dillon 185). In such conditions, the transgressive
aesthetics displays a history of trauma, both personal and public, rewritten
by Jarman. In other words, the film exists at the edge of ecstasy and decay,
reflecting continually deconstructed images that present the cruel and
hidden facts of the state apparatus at work. We are confronted with an
apocalyptic vision of an endless repetition of the horrors from which a
constructed subject wants to escape (Caruth 17). The amalgamation and


Transgressive Aesthetics of Social and Cultural Decline

intensification of pictures and varied discourses, and the disruptive power

of audio-visual shock enabled Jarman to explore the margins of civilized
world and the limits of cinematic representation in which time is not a
linear progression but a divergent and differentiating becoming
(Colebrook 54). Having presented the figures of aggression and
destitution, Jarman unleashes the picture of a disunified and incoherent
nation, a complex tissue in which every element should be treated with
equal attention. The state should respond to the new challenges of a
heterogeneous society and adapt to a country that is going through social
and cultural crisis.

Works cited
Bahtsetzis, Sotirios. Place: a Philosophical Vocabulary. 22 September, 2009.
Caruth, Cathy. 1996. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and
History. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins.
Colebrook, Claire. 2002. Cinema: perception, time and becoming. Gilles
Deleuze. London and New York: Routledge, 29-54.
Dillon, Steven. 2004. Derek Jarman and the Lyric Film: The Mirror and
the Sea. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Hill, John. 1999. British Cinema in the Eighties: Issues and Themes.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Humphrey, Daniel. Authorship, history and the dialectics of trauma:
Derek Jarmans The Last of England. In Screen 44.2 (2003): 209-216.
Jarman, Derek, dir. 1987. The Last of England. Anglo International Films.
. 1992. At Your Own Risk. A Saints Testament. London: Hutchinson.
Lash, Scott. 1991. Sociology of Postmodernism. London, New York:
Lippard Chris and Guy Johnson. 1993. Private Public, Public Space: The
Politics of Sickness and the Films of Derek Jarman. In British Cinema
and Thatcherism, ed. Lester D. Friedman. London: UCL Press, 278293.
Olkowski-Laetz, Dorothea. 1990. A Postmodern Language in Art. In
Postmodernism and the Arts, ed. Hugh J. Silverman. New York and
London: Routledge, 101-119.
Peake, Tony. 1999. Derek Jarman. London: Little, Brown & Company.


EMILIA BOROWSKA is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University

of London. Her thesis focuses on the engagement of postmodern American
writers with Western revolutionary tradition and investigates how fiction
and contemporary theories of the event rethink the failure of radical
politics. She has published on post-Cartesian negotiations of subjectivity,
alternative views of space and strategies of resistance in the works of Gayl
Jones, Kathy Acker and William T. Vollmann.
TIM BRIDGMAN is a senior lecturer at the University of d, Poland.
His current research focuses on the role of literature in the development of
digital literature. His previous research centred on improvised and
experimental music in both digital and non-digital formats.
BARBARA CHYA is a PhD candidate at the University of Opole. She is
the author of an article Beyond Language: Music and Costume in Jane
Campions The Piano (1993), published in Kwartalnik Opolski.
Currently, she is working on her doctoral thesis concerned with the legacy
of post-colonialism in Australian literature and film, with main interest in
the issue of cultural identity.
NINA CZARNECKA-PAKA is a PhD candidate in the Department of
American Literature and Culture at the University of d. She is the
author of Sex and the City and the Taboos about Female Sexuality
published in Polish Journal for American Studies Vol. 5 (2011). In her
research, she investigates female archetypes in American literature and
film. Currently, she is working on her doctoral dissertation Looking for the
Feminine HeroicWestern Action Chicks versus Female Heroes in
Native American Tradition.
JACEK FABISZAK teaches history of English literature at the School of
English, Adam Mickiewicz University, Pozna. His research interests
include English Renaissance theatre and drama and their televisual and
filmic transpositions. He is the author of Polish Televised Shakespeares
(Pozna: Motivex, 2005) and Shakespeares Drama of Social Roles (Pia



2001). He also co-authored Szekspir. Leksykon [Shakespeare. A lexicon]

and co-edited Czytanie Szekspira [Reading Shakespeare].
MICHAEL GODDARD is a lecturer in media studies at the University of
Salford. His current research centres on Polish and European cinema and
media. He has just completed a book on the cinema of the Chilean-born
filmmaker Ral Ruiz. He is now conducting a research project, Radical
Ephemera, examining radical media ecologies in the 1970s in relation to
social movements.
MARTIN HALL is an Associate Dean at the University of Bolton, UK,
having previously been Senior Lecturer in Film and Media Studies. He is
the author of Time and the Fragmented Subject in Minority Report,
Rhizomes Issue 8 and has presented conference papers on gender, identity
and temporality. Currently, he is working on the relationship between
psychoanalytic theory and history.
AGNIESZKA OWCZANIN teaches British literature and culture at the
University of d. She has published articles on Defoe, Smollett, Sterne,
Radcliffe, Lewis, Le Fanu. Her main areas of academic interest are the
diversities and paradoxes of the 18th century, and the potentialities of the
aesthetics of the Gothic genre in literature and film. She is one of the
editors of a literary journal Dekadentzya.
MAGORZATA MYK, PhD, teaches American literature at d
University, Poland. Her recent articles include: Figurations of Nomadic
Subjectivity in Nicole Brossards Picture Theory (RIAS) and
Transfiguring Encounters with Joanna Russs The Female Man (Utah
Foreign Language Review). Currently, she is working on a book on postgender horizons and identity politics in the work of Lyn Hejinian, Carla
Harryman, Leslie Scalapino, and Thalia Field.
KATARZYNA POLOCZEK, PhD, works as a senior lecturer at the
University of d. Her area of specialisation is gender studies, Irish
studies, contemporary poetry, fiction and modern culture. Together with dr
Goszczyska, she has co-edited two essay collections: Changing Ireland:
Transformations and Transitions in Irish Literature and Culture (d
University Press, 2010) and The Playful Air of (Light)ness in Irish
Literature and Culture (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011). Currently
she is working on her post-doctoral book on the most recent generation of
Irish women poets.

Against and Beyond


PAWE SCHREIBER, PhD, teaches British and American literature at

Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz, Poland. His PhD thesis dealt
with post-war British historical drama. Currently, he is exploring the
representations of Central and Eastern Europe in British drama since the
JUSTYNA STPIE is a PhD candidate in the Department of British
Literature and Culture at the University of d. Her research focuses on
the visual arts of the sixties in Great Britain with respect to the mass
culture and popular media development. Her theoretical interests place a
particular emphasis on forms of postmodern culture. She has published
essays on popular culture, literature, film and visual arts.
DAGMARA ZAJC is a PhD candidate at the Jagiellonian University in
Krakw, Poland. She also teaches at State Higher Vocational School in
Tarnw. Her primary research interest is the development of American
Gothic and horror fiction. She is the author of an article Gothic
Underground: Reading Caves, Pits and Dungeons. The Example of
Charles Brockden Browns Wieland in rda Humanistyki Europejskiej.
Iuvenilia Philologorum Cracoviensium (3/2011).

60s, 1, 22, 26, 48, 51, 166, 168

abjection, 3, 116-118, 120, 129
abnormality, 71, 117
Acker, Kathy, 2, 6-8, 11-14, 17-19,
Adamik, Kasia, 104, 109, 112
adaptation, 106, 122, 140-141, 156
Adorno, Theodor W. and
Horkheimer, Max, 3, 7-9, 17-18
aesthetics, 1-3, 6-7, 9, 14-15, 18, 24,
29, 31, 103, 105, 107, 109, 129,
135, 151, 158, 162, 177, 181,
alienation, 47, 75, 109, 175
androgyny, 108, 141, 144
Anthems, 32, 34
avant-garde, 3, 50, 86-87, 157, 162

Bacon, Francis, 15, 19, 133
Baker, Roy Ward, 156, 158-159,
Bakhtin, Mikhail, 87
Bataille, Georges, 51, 87, 90
Bergman, Ingmar, 2, 54-60, 62-65
binarism, 66, 71, 77-79
Blood and Guts in High School, 12,
Blood and Roses, 150, 151, 163
Bowie, David, 15-16
Breaking Bad, 3, 126, 130-134, 136
Butler, Judith, 3, 73, 81, 142, 148

Camp, 3, 160, 163
Campbell, Lorne, 92, 98-99
capitalism, 7-12, 14, 17, 87, 90
Carmilla, 3, 150-151, 156-157,
castration, 72, 118, 120, 122
Cherry Blossom, 2, 92-94, 96-101
Claydon, Phil, 160-162
commodification, 9, 13-14, 18
consumerism, 14, 16
consumption, 9, 13, 23, 32, 87, 89
Cool Kids of Death, 33

death, 11, 37-38, 41, 45-48, 50-51,
76, 87, 92-93, 96, 128, 130-132,
134, 181
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix,
2-3, 7, 10-11, 13, 17-18, 178
Derrida, Jacques, 47, 52, 54, 63, 64,
deterritorialization, 10, 13-15
Devils, Rats and Piggies, 25
documentary, 94-97, 100, 177, 181
Don Quixote, 6, 13
Dziekaski, Robert, 92-94, 96

emigration, 93, 96, 100
Empire of the Senseless, 14, 17-18
eroticism, 62, 151, 153, 157-160
experimentation, 15, 22-27, 29

Against and Beyond

Falklands War, 27, 180
Fall, The, 2, 20, 23-24, 27-29, 33,
fascism, 7-9, 16
Fear and Whiskey, 26, 34
femininity, 67, 77, 121, 124, 141142, 144-145, 147-148, 151,
158, 161
feminism, 1, 147
femme fatale, 120, 169
Foucault, Michel, 1-4, 49, 52, 54,
57, 64, 122, 140, 148, 170-174
French New Wave, 3, 151, 162
Freud, Sigmund, 40, 45, 48-49, 5153, 118, 151

gaze, 3, 39, 54, 111, 133, 153-156,
158, 161, 173
gender, 1-3, 6, 38, 50, 56, 66-72, 74,
77-78, 80, 107, 122, 140-148,
151-152, 184
Gilligan, Vince, 130, 132
Gordons, The, 2, 20, 29-30, 32, 34
gore, 3, 127, 129, 135, 151
Goth, 6, 7, 11, 14-16, 18-19
gothic, 2, 16, 151-152, 157, 162
Goths, 6, 9, 11, 15-16
Great Expectations, 13
Grosvenor, Catherine, 92, 98, 101

Hamle, 166-168, 173-174
Hamlet, 3, 167, 169-170, 172
Hammer (Films, Studios), 150-151,
Hayles, N. Katherine, 84-90
hegemony, 2, 6, 8-9, 16, 31, 86-87,
95, 152
Hollywood, 3, 108, 127, 137, 158,


horror, 3, 116-124, 127, 129, 134,

136, 150-151, 156-157, 159,
161, 185
human body, 15, 127, 130, 136, 176

illusion, 36, 63, 95, 105, 117, 168,
immigration, 92, 94, 96-97, 100,
Internet, 14, 124
intersexuality, 70, 78

Jagger, Mick, 37, 39, 50-51
Jarman, Derek, 3, 176-182
Jarzyna, Grzegorz, 103, 109, 111
Joy Division, 16, 18, 20, 23-24, 29

Kafka, Franz, 13, 19
Kielowski, Krzysztof, 135
Kott, Jan, 167, 169, 174
Kristeva, Julia, 3, 116-118, 120, 125

Lacan, Jacques, 37-44, 46-47, 49,
Laibach, 2, 20, 24, 29, 31-34
Last of England, The, 3, 176-179,
Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan, 3, 150152, 159, 161
Lesbian Vampire Killers, 151, 160162
liberation, 49, 96, 140-141, 147, 159
Lichtenstein, Mitchell, 116, 122-125



d National Film School, 3, 166167, 174

Performance, 2, 36-37, 48, 50-52,

62, 65
Persona, 2, 54-56, 58-59, 61, 64-65
Polaski, Roman, 166-167
popular culture, 3, 8-9, 21, 24, 27,
108, 185
Postmodernism, 17-18, 87, 143, 182
post-punk, 1-2, 20-24, 26, 29, 32
Potter, Sally, 3, 140-148
Presley, Elvis, 16
proletariat, 8, 27, 151, 169
propaganda, 8, 18, 95, 170-171,
psychoanalysis, 2-3, 36-37, 48-49,
Puenzo, Lucia, 67
punk, 1-2, 6, 11, 13, 16, 20-27, 2930, 32
Punks, 6, 9, 11-13, 16
Pussy, King of the Pirates, 14

Madonna, 16
mainstream, 1, 7, 11-15, 154, 158,
162, 176
Manson, Marilyn, 2, 6-8, 14-19
masculinity, 11, 39, 42, 67, 77, 121,
141, 144-145, 147-148, 158, 161
mass culture, 6-8, 14, 185
mass media, 87, 89
Mechanical Animals, 15-16
Mekons, The, 2, 6, 20, 24-27, 29, 34
mise-en-scne, 37, 111, 135
modernism, 27, 143
monster, 121-123, 150-151
Montfort, Nick, 88, 90-91
Mulvey, Laura, 154, 158, 163

nationalism, 28, 177, 180
Nazi, 16, 31, 171
new media, 1-2, 84-91
New Wave, 153, 157, 166
Nirvana, 21
normality, 88, 117, 156, 159
nostalgia, 20-21
Nunn, Trevor, 106, 111, 113

Opus Dei, 31, 34
Orlando, 3, 140-141, 147, 149
Other, The, 3, 42-43, 49-50, 54, 5658, 60, 116, 121, 123, 151

realism, 103, 108, 130, 136, 177
regime, 1, 12, 22, 31-32, 87, 170,
revolution, 1, 8, 13, 17, 28, 31
Roeg, Nicolas, 36

Self, 3, 56-58, 60, 67, 70, 78, 81
Sex Pistols, The, 11, 13, 21-22, 33
sexuality, 1, 14, 42, 44, 62, 74, 77,
119, 122, 127, 129, 140-141,
151, 158-159, 178, 180
Shakespeare, William, 2, 25, 102,
105-107, 112-113, 167-172, 174,

Against and Beyond

Skolimowski, Jerzy, 3, 166-167,
169-171, 173-174
slasher film, 120, 122, 128
Sontag, Susan, 55-56, 59, 61, 64,
160, 163
subculture, 1, 6-7, 11, 21
Swinton, Tilda, 141-142, 144, 146,

taboo, 1, 87, 117-118, 121, 129
Taming of the Shrew, The, 102, 105
Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz, 2, 92,
Teeth, 3, 116, 119, 122-124
television theatre, 2, 102-106, 109110, 112
Tempest, The, 102-107, 112
Thatcher, Margaret, 27, 176
Thatcherism, 1, 27, 176, 182
The Gordons Volume II, 30
The Quality of Mercy is not Strnen,
trauma, 59, 71, 122, 177, 181-182
Traverse Theatre, 2, 92, 97, 101
Treasure Island, 13


Vadim, Roger, 150-159, 163
vagina dentata, 3, 116, 118-119,
vampire, 15, 118-119, 150-151,
153, 155-163
Vampire Lovers, The, 150-151, 156158, 160, 162
violence, 14, 38-39, 44-45, 47, 49,
61, 73, 117, 130-132, 134, 176,
Volk, 33-34

Wajda, Andrzej, 166-167
war, 26, 36, 49, 143, 151, 166-167,
170, 172-174, 180, 185
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, 88, 90-91
Warlikowski, Krzysztof, 102, 104106, 108-109, 111-112
We Are Time, 32
Woolf, Virginia, 3, 140-143, 145149

XXY, 2, 66-69, 72, 75, 77-79