Felix Bernstein’s Response to Vanessa Place, Slavoj Žižek, Trisha Low, and more
Beyond Vampires and Zombies
An Essay by Felix Bernstein
Vanessa Place’s latest manifesto “Zombie Poetry” accurately frames her modus operandi: to glorify (and sanitize) Freud’s death drive (in which, doomed to never get what you want, satisfactory pleasure becomes impossible), over and against eros (the principle of maximizing pleasure). She provides a didactic demonstration of the death drive by casting herself in the role of Thanatos, a self-proclaimed undead zombie, feeding off (appropriating) the naïve pleasure of those feebleminded creatures who attempt to maximize pleasure, lecturing us that our notion of satisfaction and of mastery is a lie. Place is largely influenced by the famous schtick of Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is a master of belittling the part of us that believes we will find fulfilling objects. His refrain, like the song, is you can’t get what you want but you can get what you need, with this kicker: what you need is an unpleasant excess in the object of your desire that serves as a reminder/remainder of that which is denied in sexual relationships. This unpleasant excess, so-named “the kernel of the real,” can be found as the remainder of fantasies and mathematical equations To extract this rem(a)inder, you must read between the lines of speech, strictly under the Lacanian rubric. Then you will always find this same truth: the split subject, barred from accessing its full desire; in other words, the truth is the failure of desire. And this truth will always be delivered, for it is universally applicable.
For Place, those ‘poets’ who have not taken the conceptual turn that she prescribes, are in the thrall of a silly fantasy that our words might matter before they are decoded, analyzed, or appropriated by a master-analyst. . This is her charge against those poets who have not sufficiently removed themselves from the craft of voicing desire. But also, more troubling, the voices that Place appropriates (the dumb college jokes, the early feminist dogmas, the victim’s testimony) all are framed as being (in their original utterances) naively unaware of the critical discourse into which she is happy to drag them. Those who take on the ‘voices of others,’ be they infused by the traditions of Language or Flarf or New York School poetics [or romanticism or camp or punk] will for Place indulge in an ideological fantasy that does not properly recognize or critique itself. But we all indulge a bit now and then, don’t we? And so it is only human (in the ‘living breathing’ sense) that now, in “Zombie Poetry” when the prospect of Place herself losing relevance enters the scene, that she can finally ask us to be concerned about the personal, the tragic, and the autobiographical, at the expense of the comic and universal. Now, she begs, we ought to look at her particular case, her particular deadpan style, her “I’m melting” bathos, and feel for her! That is, we ought to feel for the woman who is unfeeling.
Indeed, those who do feel for Place now, those who do still recognize her as a mother to their art, but refuse to follow her dogmatically, even those followers, she ridicules for being stupid enough to ‘pay her’ to fulfill this role. By her own calculations, it is inconsequential whether or not one ‘likes’ Vanessa Place, for ‘liking’ is merely a dumb, naïve, response, suitable for social media. It only matters whether or not one is driven to her. And she will, indeed, find that many will be driven her way. And driven by a death drive that is, unlike the one late Freud describes, vaguely pleasant. That is because it is nothing other than a performance of death drive, in the skilled manner of Place or Zizek, it is intelligible, hip, ironic, and stripped of any great dangers. It is in fact more optimistic, gung-ho, communal, and ego-affirming than those arts that indulge openly in true eros. It does not threaten civilization or even make us better understand its discontents. Rather, such performance of thanatos smoothly valorizes what might otherwise have been disruptive, if it were rendered with aesthetic brilliance instead of uncompromising didactic un-deadness.
The vampiric persona has long been iconic of positive, sympathetic, communal identification with the death drive. This identification goes beyond “Garbo is the best” because it is also ” “Garbo’s coldness is our coldness.” Even when nakedly announced in Freudian terms, the death drive is often used as communally binding tool; for example, Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, a revered book in the literary academy (not to mention in the cults around Freud, Zizek, and Lacan). The art world and the pop world, epitomized by Warhol or Lady Gaga, respectively, has found numerous ways to cash in on such glamorous thanatos; but too often the result is art that has zero stakes in its self-conscious display of determinately empty signifiers. Such vampiric signifying feeds on the flesh of signifiers, styles, and dialects that remains alive for those “others” from whom they are appropriated. The vampire thrives via the necrotizing of living symbols for the purpose of galvanizing cash and social mobility. This is why Claire Bishop can praise ‘dark, critical, negativity’ in art (and find Conceptual Poetry to be perfectly negative), all the while, attempting unabashedly to usher these ‘negative’ new forms of art in to the halls of high commodities, with her critical stamp of approval writ large. Of course, such ‘negativity,’ as Zizek or Place or Gaga or Warhol offers, is only as ‘negative’ as it is completely intelligible to art audiences, and it will be forever intelligible because it has no ambivalence about using the signifier, ruthlessly, to prove its point (which is, after all, nothing more than to show that the empty signifier trumps what is conservatively viewed to be an authentic display of desire). But maybe the simplest example to look to, for now, is Twilight, where young Bella, ambivalent about how to register affect, ends up choosing the learned, urbane, death drive of the vampires over and against the dumb, rural, pleasure principle of the werewolves. Which one would you pick? It must be hard being a young post-feminist!
Perhaps, Bella might have been better off choosing what young poet Trisha Low calls ‘post-conceptual narcissism,’ eschewing the two reductive options for speech provided by feminist theory: speech in an ‘authentic elsewhere’ of the primitive, wild (the psychobabble of the pre-linguistic, the ‘fullness’ of the unsplit subject) and speech with a deadpan, ironic, performative mastery of the letters, styles, and artifices of the high symbolic order (a writing that is always under erasure). Low opts instead for a middle ground, which in Lacanian terms would be nothing other than the Imaginary, that which is between the Real and the Symbolic, in which the messy ‘mirror stage’ of ego fabrication, imitation, differentiation, and fantasy takes place. Lacan rightfully aside, what Low calls this, among other things, is the “not-not me,” a regurgitated, messy, mixture of cultural fantasies.
To make art from a place where one is vulnerable to influence, where one does not quite have ironic mastery, that stage that can so easily be dismissed as complicit or even complacent with ‘ideological fantasies’ is an inherently less fashionable ‘gesture,’ and as a ‘gesture’ it is less radical by orthodox Marxist standards. It is not an “act,” such as the kind Badiou and Zizek praise, with all its arrogance, near impossibility, and extreme violence. It is rather playfulness, the kind that gives Derrida’s ‘play of signifiers’ a good name. That is to say, it has not become a homogenous institutionally controlled ‘play’ but nor is it a ‘free play,’ that claims full-out anarchy. It is rather dialectically moving between constraint and freedom. This is a kind of playing that has not been recently valorized, for better or worse. The easy-signification of banner-happy identity politics has for the most part seeped in to all subcultural or countercultural aesthetics, case in point, being the necessity or intelligible signification (typically achieved using the tools of appropriation, irony, and assimilation) in queer culture, such as can be found in the academy around Lady Gaga (from her monster fans on twitter to the ones who rule queer theory departments). Low proposes a type of play where, unlike in Lacan, the “dead letter” (the unrequited fantasy) is not delivered to the feeding, vampric analyst-critic-master. Which does not mean that the subject is barred from communication but only that communication never fully congeals into institutional positivity and presence. This follows the messianic Derrida, who holds out for an unspeakable presence and yet still strategically and creatively uses the materials at hand to make something of that unspeakability known, without cashing in on in it.
The Zizekian method in which desire is only discovered vis-à-vis the Symbolic requires that we have intelligible signification and master analysts. Thus Zizek is eager to study the hyper-legible Freudian illustrations of Hitchcock but not the murky territories of experimental film of the same periods. The critical analyst is privileged and the intelligible artwork suits his fancies. And artmakers, especially in the hip circles of the art-world, pride themselves on having internalized these critical insights. Work that is intelligibly queer, intelligibly conceptual, intelligibly networkable, intelligibly negative, intelligibly Lacanian is the work that thrives right now. And all of this is smoothed over by the fact put forward by Zizek and, I think, accepted by many within hip art discourses: that singularity and genius comes from the odd tick/stuttering/excess that peeps through your particular appropriation, your particular repetition. To keep this scenario going, therefore, one must follow dead models (even actually claim to be dead) and receive your accolades of ‘genius’ based on the singularity of your deadness. That is, you are classified based on what sort of zombie you are, and rewarded based on how much of a zombie you are. But this is a misleading scenario because it neglects the work that is done by artists from the bottom-up, who do not follow top-down structures, who do not appropriate ironically, who do not achieve or even want to achieve critical distance. Of course, plenty of poets work from the ground up and this method is even detailed by a few writers included in, I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, which Place co-edited. But this requires a certain risk (let’s call it the risk of collage) that appropriation does not take. One risk means giving up the notion of genius ‘singularity’ that is projected upon those who perform the death drive (who go from positing a desired object to tripping over the kernel in that object that denies satisfaction from them; and then hobbling on again, all the while, claiming to be satisfied with the kernel that trips them up, always knowing it before they find it..so that in the end it becomes a tool for them to maximize pleasure and provides none of the uncomfortably of Freud’s death drive). Those like Place and Zizek, who go out of their way to perform this perpetual loss of the object, really perform a metaphysical conjuring trick: transforming actual loss into an intelligible gain. Their gain is the purported illusion that they have a singular genius that makes them distinct from the muck of their own (all our own) fantasies.
All of this is not to merely make the perhaps all too obvious point that “the structuralist makes a map of relations among nodes in a network, but then treats this map as if it were itself a real and abiding thing such that these relations are abiding and eternal. The entities inhabiting the network then get treated as epiphenomena of this map of relations, such that it is the structure that is real and the entities populating the network that are illusions.”
This is not to propose that the fix to conceptual poetry is post-conceptual schizopoetics. This is not a repetition of the post-structuralist move from a notion of a structure/network that determines the subject to one where the subject determines the structure/network. I am not arguing that we amend networks, structures, and dogmas so that they become more mobile and fluid, inclusive and porous, more human, queer, and affective. This seems, in all, a trite way of sweetening the network. It seems basically in line, in total, with the regime of neoliberalism. So this is not to argue for a return to affect, for a redoubling of queerness, for a new sincerity or new romanticism. This argument can be found in plenty of rebuttals to conceptual art and poetry since the 1970s. More recently, David Joselit’s After Art can be seen to make a similar move in praising artists who utilize networks in their art in queer/political ways; that is, artists who take the network into their own hands. This still means that artists with privileged access and abilities to network succeed and moreover that these allegedly disruptive ‘new media’ forms are just converted into newly prized art objects.
I’m interested in seeing art that may or may not even know that networks exist, as well as art, that does use structures and networks but not for the goal of intelligible signification, self-promotion, social mobility, and coolness. Something, perhaps, like the work of Lonely Christopher, whose dangerously romantic elegies have little in common with the posh stylings of his contemporaries in queer writing. Most, however, rather than digging deep, milk everything they can out of pre-given models such as Gaga feminism, queer theory, network, conceptual, and/or structural art. Models that have ceased to work not only because of their reductively formulaic way they are enacted but also, more importantly, because they have become all too easily applicable to end-goals of self-promotion, social mobility, coolness, apology, explanation, intelligibility, difficulty stripped of real difficulty, positive communal bonding over alleged negativity, the apology for negativity, as well as the belittling of non-ironic unsplit subjects and fantasies of pleasure that are undecoded and undecodable.
What is needed now is to move beyond ‘stating’ the obvious (be it, “otherness and affect exist!” or “otherness and affect don’t exist!”), and to construct vis-à-vis your own language and theory something that is actually aesthetically compelling and significantly difficult. And difficulty may be difficult but it is not impossible, like some violent unbelievable Marxist act. It is merely difficult, in that it requires deference to a set of aesthetic propositions and rules, to a rigorously personal Taste, that most theoreticians (and many artists) do no seem capable of putting together, deferring instead to pre-given formulas. In this way, the taste-inflected stylings of a theoretician along the lines of Sianne Ngai or a poet-essayist like Trisha Low are able to go the necessary extra mile of providing fantastical illustration within the material fact of words without reducing one to the other. And then, the Imaginary, or the not-not-me, (the not-Symbolic, the not-Real), stops being merely posited, and starts to breathe, not under erasure or in quotations due to a heavy awareness of symbolic structure, it does not have to pretend to be dead or undead, it can really breathe. And, though zombies may run a lot faster now, and we don’t breathe as good as Charles Olson, we aren’t out of breath yet.
Postscript: Though Lacan admitted that psychoanalytic discourse was not cleanly unlinked to institutional power, he nonetheless wrote that the discourse of psychoanalysis was not a master’s discourse, since the psychoanalyst’s power is stripped during the session, making him an enabling projective device (an object of desire) for the analysand to recognize and overcome his own Imaginary fantasies (for instance, the fantasy of a stable ego). The emphasis on the structure of the session, the topology of the unconscious, and the structure of language (that is the emphasis on the symbolic) will lead to the discovery of the Real, as that which exceeds the scenario, and eventually the diminishment of the Imaginary ego, which is now rendered impossibly foolish for having ever imagined a stable ego, a stable symbolic structure, or a ‘real’ that manifests as anything other than excess, lack, and negativity. This in itself becomes an overarching meta-structure with an overarching master that is not to be discussed in the analytic session. It is this sneaky meta-master that Place gleefully appropriates from Lacan’s schemas in her self-presentation as zombie. That is a Zombie, who diminishes the Imaginary ego to a merely superfluous fantasy, and attempts to wield power solely through Symbolic Mastery and the inevitable negative unsettling Real pinprick that comes with it. This is why to argue that Place has ‘no affect’ or ‘an excess of affect’ are flipsides of the same characteristic, the singular gestalt that is the-Symbolic-modified-by-the-Real and/or the-Real-modified-by-the-Symbolic. This gestalt can be seen as a key ingredient of Zizek’s work but also in much of the writing in queer theory and affect studies, which derives this ingredient not from Lacan so much as from Roland Barthes, whose description of the studium-punctum (or in Lacanese ‘symbolic-real’) effect in Camera Lucidia has become a compulsory model for most queer/affect writings. The studium-punctum effect is when a writer observes an object in terms of its historical structure (the studium, the symbolic), and its pricking enigma (its punctum, the real), with the punctum, usually, being prized far above the studium. The difference between this practice and the practice of Place’s work (which clearly provides a text heavily saturated with exaggeratedly structural studiums and exaggeratedly pricking punctums) is the fact that in queer theory a highly visible living, breathing ego mediates the discovery of the punctum. This ego is not denied but valorized, almost as a badge of honor. However, when the language of the queer theorist becomes so mechanical and repetitive as to become, paradoxically, nothing more than dull studium, the ego seems to vanish from these texts, and they become a pure topology of the unconscious, a repetitive mathematical symbolic structure that overflows with queer enigmas, that are simultaneously contained through hypostasis back into the dull metastructure of queer theory. And this, the stale side of affect studies and queer theory, provides texts that exaggeratedly perform the role of Zombie, nearly as well as Place does. These texts even look and sound fairly similar to Place’s own manifestos. With the exception being, of course, that Place flaunts and exaggerates her ruthless, repetitive, reductive, structuralism while a queer theorist would be loath to admit it.
 For more on this see the postscript at the end of this piece
 Trisha Low’s essay “4Real: On Authenticity Influence and Post-Conceptual Narcissism” can be read in her aptly titled book Purge, found at trollthread.tumblr.com
 Derrida does not deny the existence of any real presence, as many incorrectly purport him to do.
 An interesting, though dogmatically formalistic champion of collage over appropriation in found art is William Wees in the book Recycled Images (1993).
A summary of Badiou’s work in relation to structures and networks.
Felix Bernstein has produced multiple short videos for YouTube since his satirical Coming Out Video in 2008. Since then he’s embodied characters ranging from Amy Winehouse to Lamb Chop. His critical writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail and his first narrative film Unchained Melody debuted at Anthology Film Archives in September. He is currently writing a book length overview of hip academic radicalism (from Queer Theory to Žižek) and its intersections with the artworld, popculture, and avant-garde poetry.