McKenzie Wark on Sun, 13 Feb 2005 18:14:16 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Indestructible Life [on Bernadette Corporation]

Indestructible Life

A review of:
Bernadette Corporation, Reena Spaulings,
Semiotext(e), New York, 2005

by McKenzie Wark

Both Reena Spaulings the novel, and
Reena Spaulings the character in that
novel, wage war on the self. Both
Reenas are devoted to the struggle to
escape identity, if necessary, through
the production of extreme situations,
those in which the self cannot luxuriate
in its own self-containment. As Reena -
which Reena? - says: "Why do people
making discoveries about this self
always have to be sitting on a sofa with
a giant cup of coffee, a jumbo-tasse, in
a house or loft with hardwood floors?"

These Reenas are multiples. They don't
so much contain multitudes as exude
them, leaking into their scenes. The
novel was written, or so its preface
claims, by 150 writers. What matters
more than whether this is actually true
or not is the disavowal of identity. If
there's an author here, she or he or it
keeps slipping out of reach. Reena
Spaulings the character also slips away,
from her authors, and from her readers.
It is not possible to possess her by
making her the object of an author's
desire, or one's own.

"You can see that she has devoured
tirelessly, inhumanly, way into the
nights, the whole avant-garde corpus.
Books, ideas, movements, figures,
photos, data, other lives. I can almost
tell the place on her body where she
has digested Artaud, Rimbaud. Hers is
an intellectual body of pure capability,
but one that is also open, looking to be
determined from outside, ready to
rewrite everything, to co-write, to be
written on... feature for any Now... co-
efficient of glamour... faceless avant
garde." (154) It's said of a minor
character - so you can imagine what
the major characters are like. Hell on
wheels. Impossible beings. This is not
the least of this books charms.

There is only one place this could take
place. As it says in the preface: "Like
the authors, the New York City
depicted herein finds itself constantly
exposed to the urges of 'communism' -
that is, to a chosen indifference to
private property, a putting-in-common
of the methods and means of urban life
and language." Perhaps this is the last
possible communism. One that can't
really hurt anybody other than its
willing exponents. A communism of the
immaterial, which has no power other
than fleeting images. Reena Spaulings
is dedicated to the pursuit, or rather
the production, of these communal
images, these images of the common.

Reena is a security guard at the
Metropolitan Museum, where she is
discovered by Maris Parings, who is
one of those people New York seems
to breed. Maris is an entrepreneur of
the immaterial. She cuts and pastes
bodies, paring them down and pairing
them with situations to produce the
frisson of desire. A Maris Parings
production is just close enough to the
real thing to give you a jolt; just distant
enough not to kill you.

Maris procures Reena for an
underwear ad. In her photo spreads,
Reena turns out looking "like a freshly
dead thing lying by the side of the
highway." (47) This is the moment of
Reena's promotion from a face in the
night club crowd to a whole new realm
of possibility. "'Now', it occurs to
Reena, 'I'm ready to extend the domain
of pleasures.'" (35)

The money sure comes in handy, too.
Only its funny money. It seems
completely disconnected from any
relation to labor. "Holy shit a little
money is alright. I just think I might
have gotten a little more of it though.
Why is it that when you do so little for
it, no amount of recompense is enough.
Holy shit this is six months' worth of
standing guard at the Met. I just think
that when you're serving time for it, a
sense of reality allows the dollar
amount to remain small and still seem
OK, to trickle in at the same pace as the
hours do,  whereas when you're selling
nothing you're selling an essence which
is priceless. Why is it that essences are
so light? Holy shit its my economy, an
economy of essences." (63)

And so Reena's adventures begin. With
Maris she plans a spectacular event,
trying to short-circuit desire's relation
to the image, cutting out the
commodity. Reena Spaulings finds
communism in desire's relation to the
image, outside of any tiresome dialectic
of subject and object, of identity and
commodity. It's a matter of  "doing
away with contour, doing away even
with your formerly cherished
verticality. That's the kind of change
the world could use more of." (103)

This might sounds more like Arakawa
& Gins than Deleuze & Guattari, only
there's an impediment. There is a world
outside of New York's hipster night
clubs. "There is a general context -
Reena observed as she hopped into a
taxi - capitalism, Empire, whatever...
there's a general context that not only
controls each situation but, even worse,
also tries to ensure that, most of the
time, there is no situation." (136)
Whatever - we don't really have a
name yet for this stage in the evolution
of the commodity form. It isn't your
grandma's capitalism. It's more about
identity and image than labor and
commodity. 'Empire' doesn't quite
cover it, although that may be looking
in the right direction. It's a new regime.
Maybe its more vectoralist than
capitalist, more about controlling the
lines along which images move than
controlling the lines on which things are

If there's a characteristic of all genuine
avant gardes, it is that one way or
another they stage the rejection of the
world as a totality. There can be no half
measures. Concept and affect have to
extract themselves from the given. This
process has a double movement. One
movement is the line of escape, refusal,
rejection: "That the desert of these
times isn't perceived is only one more
proof of the desert." (136) The other
movement produces a new image, one
that cuts across the landscape as given
- and takes it back.  From this second
process of the double movement of
escape and recomposition, one only
ever gets telegrams. Not so much news
from nowhere as emails from
everywhere: "I is had gone." (176);
"shape and defy this world"(176)

Reena Spaulings is a last, late figure of
the avant garde. (They are always late,
when they come, at last...). They have
always cut away and reshaped the
priorities of the times. They always flirt
with the available forms of recognition
but struggle to resist capture. They are
images that the spectacle cannot fully
absorb, and which it desires all the
more for that reason. They are perhaps
only now coming into their own.
Perhaps, far from being over, the avant
garde has not yet really begun. All we
had until now were glimpses of its
underwear. Now that the image is so
central to the commodity form, the time
of the radical assault on and of the
image finally arrives.

It's all legible in the anxieties of the
times. "What Reena really wanted to
know was why - in a nightclub for
example - do we choose, always and
above all, that nothing happens? Is it
because this is how you can experience
the delight of being everywhere and
nowhere, of being there while being
essentially elsewhere, preserving what
we basically are to the point of never
having existed?" (136) Anything but the
situation in which anything might
happen, which nevertheless remains as
a constant, a necessity, a vortex around
which a more manageable desire swirls.
"Funny how individuality makes you
generic." (154) It's a safe thing, identity
(and its endless 'politics'...), with a
double latte on the sofa. But if one
could escape the chunking of desire
into objects and subjects, mediated by
images, one might merge with the
image, one might merge with the truth
of its untruth. "But the really exciting
challenge is to become no one. And
where will you find no ones? In
nowhere. Where things are exploding."

Swanning about in New York nightlife,
Reena bumps into Slavoj Zizek, who
appears to be thinking along these
same lines that Reena and Maris have
discovered by rigorous
experimentation. Zizek offers advice on
how to invoke the sublime within the
heart of the corporate production of
new images of desire to fill its vectors
of diseased communicable
commodification: "One elementary
procedure could be moving forward
from establishing shots of reality to a
disturbing proximity that renders
visible the disgusting substance of
enjoyment, the crawling and glistening
of indestructible life." (146) Although I
guess we won't be seeing that in any
Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues any
time soon.

The first avant garde gesture, rejecting
the world, is always much the same; the
second gesture, which is its restoration
always has to be reinvented, out of
whole cloth. It's a dangerous business.
Set the controls for the heart of the sun.
Push the vortex swirling around the
object of desire toward that impossible,
impassible scene of desire. It might be
more fun than all the endlessly self
conscious work that has taken the place
of an avant garde of action, grace and
danger. More fun to be distributing
"some kind of monstrous but
ungraspable desire all over the place."

There's a tightrope to walk, if one
wants communism - even a powerless,
impossible kind. One's language also
has to avoid merely slipping into orbit,
taking its place in the firmament of
exchangeable signs. Particularly now
that "everything emblematic of a being-
alive that once was, is now available in
a variety of prices and quality." (174)
The trick is in seeing the perfection of
the commodification of the image, the
rise of a vectoralist stage of
commodification, as a new realm of
possibilities rather than just the death
of the old routines. "How regrettable
when people all around the world start
becoming selves, tooth-brushing, anus-
wiping, voting selves, Americans. I
guess it has to happen before anything
else can happen?" (158)

The question mark says it all. It's not
over yet, commodification. History
might be over now, in the
overdeveloped world. Maybe the
European Union is nothing but a giant
retirement home, where an entire
civilization has gone to rot. Maybe
America is just having a mid life crisis -
blondes and fast cars for a fading libido
- with a few spectacular explosions,
weird hobbies and occupations. But
basically the old world is already past
it.: "You are afraid that death is
negative entertainment, or none at all."
(166) Only an hysterical clinging to the
fiction of identity, to the illusion of life
as a bad novel.

Which leaves two possibilities. Maybe
history will happen elsewhere. Let's
face it, that's already the case. The
action shifts to Shanghai, maybe, or
Delhi. Or, something new is only just
starting to present its possibilities, in
the old, old world, beyond the voting
and the ass-wiping. Perhaps the total
occupation of the whole of life by the
commodified object and its double, the
subject in full possession of its identity,
presages its own end.

And perhaps the image is the weak
point. Reena and Maris rediscover the
dada art of the extremist press release.
They promote impossible celebrities,
equipped for total events: "With a
surveyor's eye for clothes and objects,
he captures the weak link in any
system so even repression and laws
become places from which to carve out
new weapons." (173) Quoting Debord,
Reena hurls herself into the "roar of the
cataract of time", munching on a Will to
Powerbar. Once more into the breech
dear friends. "She figures she's got
some talent after all, talent for
something she doesn't know what it
is." (108) To be a professional without
profession - that is the last noble

Reena is not sure if she wants to stay in
New York. She has a point. It's now the
world's oldest city. It's where
spectacular life began, and where one
now clearly sees the outline of its ruins.
Can it be where it ends? Perhaps not.
New York, "you have rid yourself of
danger, excitement, glamour, the
pursuit of life, the possibility of life
even." It has become a city of petty
fabricators of tawdry signs for the great
vortex that surrounds and obscures the
impossible scene of desire. But then
again, maybe its not a bad place to set a
novel about the overturning of the
table of values. Precisely because it is
now a place of fable and memory.

"Is there a dream of ongoing creativity
directly connected to, inclusive of all
your activities - like dancing, writing,
bleeding, social obligations? Are there
priorities? If there is no designated
'leisure' time, but everything is work,
even non-work becomes work." (134)
For Reena Spaulings, this is a two
edged sword, pointing on the one hand
to the abolition of work; on the other, to
the abolition of anything other than
working on one's self as something one
might sell. But perhaps... just perhaps:
in the desire to pursue the
commodification of the self to the bitter
end, one can see the anticipations of the
end of commodification itself. Or as
Reena says, in another email from
everywhere: "Only the impossible is
worth the effort." (190)

McKenzie Wark

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: