After reading through the April 08 issue of the CTHEORY newsletter, I found a piece that hit me pretty hard called “Scar Tissue” written by Zlomislic. At the topical level I found it interesting because it deals with a number of old theories on deconstruction, mettanarrative, abjection and the grotesque, but on a deeper level it explores issues of contemporary thought and existence of varying socio-economic levels, including issues of tradition, commercialism and consumption, the solace of death, social constructs of love and security, and of course happiness and its absence. I am going to paste the piece below and provide an analysis following.Briefly, here’s what I would like to bring up as I explicate the piece. Zlomislic talks about the capitalist/technologist postmodern world in terms of facing the “Real” of death (a term Kristeva brings up in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection), the structured existence of millions of Americans and their hope for orgasmic release, the hope in a lastingly residual genius in our society, more of Kristeva’s “Real” of the eventuality of death, and finally the futility of resisting it through social upheaval and reinvention. I believe this reinvention begins with Zlomislic’s proposition of the mixing of high and low artifacts of culture to show their absurdity and illusoriness in the populist’s psyche and hope for happiness. He causes the reader to question the ideal that one can create the perfect view of life using technology, ritual, and bought “things.” Buying ‘things,’ then, becomes an act of quelling the chaos, and therefore empowers the inevitable commodification of and lionizing of goods that are espoused as the cure for sadness that these same goods and beliefs arguably cause, whether they be artisanal foodstuffs, cars, beauty products, holidays, marriage, or image editing computer software. Finally, Zlomislic satirizes the one thing that the postmodern human may still feel some solace in or have hope for: love; love, to Zlomislic is nothing more than a repeated construct of our cultural notions of safety (by extension I would say as a result of commodification, ie, you can’t buy me love, but you certainly can buy me a beautiful house full of nice furniture, expensive audio/visual equipment, and complicated cooking equipment so that we can enact pseudo conversation using these items as a conduit for so-called true and heartfelt exchange).
I am going to take specific stanzas of this piece apart and do a few readings using Jameson’s notion of mettanaritives as they apply to ritual and commercialism, Bakhtin’s notion of carnivalistic outpouring within a community, and Kristeva’s theories of death and how people’s notions of death provide information on their buying and consuming power. I feel that Zlomislic is proposing a wholly new, deconstructionist, and radicalizing way of thinking that hopes to shed the old methods of living, buying, consuming, and thinking that many people in the contemporary world sell themselves to and relish in without a second thought.
Cinema means pulling a uniform over our eyes, warned Kafka
— Paul Virilio, _Open Sky_
You are taken to see but your eyes are not prepared to look at the
spectacle placed gently in front of you like a birthday cake.
It is the dead who blow out the candles as your illusions are cut
The dead devour what still lives even as we eat the recycled remains
of what is planted in the field, delivered to supermarket spouting
forth freshly sprayed.
To live on as one of Prometheus’ children. Shreds of his liver torn
by the eagle to re-grow. We are his scar tissue.
The sweep of the broom over polished concrete stepped on by a
million daily commuters, mute and unthinking, blind to the little
pleasures as they search for the nuclear fusion of the orgasm
A shoulder to sleep on as your head is cradled. But there you
already feel the skeleton underneath the varnished skin dying to
leap through tissue, sinews, frayed nerves and muscle.
The little acts of revenge are sweet especially when you have a key
to the Other’s door. Declare a war against vending machines and
parking meters. Fill their slots with Chuck E. Cheese tokens. The
Real seeps in through the cracks of the imagination to leave its
Left on the doorstep, a letter, a video, a dead mouse; all brought
as a gift. These do not satisfy your hunger.
On TV a horse takes the lead in the Tour de France. A preacher plays
the electric guitar for Jesus who is still smoldering on Golgotha.
It is a fun house ride with death hitching on your admission ticket.
Magnify the details to bring the disaster near. Cut and paste until
you create the ideal Adobe view. Where and when will we meet?
We seek order where chaos rules. The bits are packaged: salad, porn,
apples, cuts of meat, coffee spoons.
The light enters when the illusion becomes tired. The cliche, “I
love you” should be returned with silence. The echo you seek is an
The knock on the door, the ringing of the telephone are all
reminders to stop eating the remainder.
How is this possible when Death nourishes what survives?
Marko Zlomislic is professor of philosophy at Conestoga College,
Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario.
He has recently published _Jacques Derrida’s Aporetic Ethics_ with
Lexington Books and is currently writing a critique of Slavoj
First, I’d like to make quick note on the epigraph. I found the Kafka reference to be a pretty good appetizer to the piece itself, especially Virilio’s use of “uniform,” as popular, commercial culture hopes desperately to make the act of life just that: uniform. That Virilo, a sociologist studying war, made a career of arguing that war drives much if not all of human history provides an ironic note to kick off the piece. Uniformity, taken as soldiers wearing uniform’s, immediately becomes a metaphor for inevitability and movement. Even in hopes to disrupt uniformity, many contemporary clubs and groups still hope for uniformity and rote collusion no matter their purported goals. An example of this is the supposed alternate culture system called the slow food movement, which nobly wishes to subvert the mass producing corporate food industry by empowering people on the singular level. The movement espouses a clear purpose and does so by collecting members at $60 a membership–a fairly exclusionary price levied on the masses who could care less about the politics of taste and who simply want any food on their tables. The sentiment is positive, but transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson would scoff at the exclusionary thought that this homogenizing club mentality has on its participants. I develop this point more when I bring up Jameson’s issue with metanarrative in regard to capitalism.
However, I digress. The first two stanzas deal with tradition as passed down by culture. Yet, Zlomislic is satirizing tradition as nothing more than handed-down commodification in the form of the birthday cake. Ah yes, the birthday cake, baked by a loved one using ornate frosting and the like–quite simply a construct meant to signify the annuity of life but more closely used to represent group-given love for the now one-year-older person. The commodity here is time spent on the cake, whether real time, or the Marxist notion of time spent: money. In short Zlomislic makes the allusion to the year’s passing in a human’s life and the construct of celebrating it joyfully with an icon (the keyword here is icon) of joy and happiness inculcated in us by our environment from our earliest culturally injected memories. This joy and happiness is bought and represented by an icon.
And yes, as he says, the dead are the ones who blow out the candles. Here he is getting at the notion that tradition, again, as personified by the dead, is moving the birthday boy or girl forward, yet from this point forward in the piece the reader seems to get a wrench because, purposefully, Zlomislic no longer makes the birthday cake a happy image. He notes that “illusions are cut into pieces,” just like a cake is divided up into pieces for consumption, only to miraculously reappear the following year as nice and tidy order is restored. But why is illusion and consumption important?
Illusion is a key element in this piece. A birthday cake, an allusion to happiness, growth, joy, gifts, family, and so on, serves then as an illusion for something else: normalcy in culture and the eventual and ironic consumption of purported happiness through rituals. Rituals are a key aspect of retaining order and normalcy, a metanarrative that runs through the celebration of birthdays. Not to say that celebrating birthdays are bad, but they espouse a specific story that holds the participants closely within a stratified, commercialized metanarrative. Birthdays are comprised of a cake, made from store-bought staple ingredients, commonly mixed together and made specially for the birthday boy/girl/man/woman by the objectified housewife; guests are invited and are socially expected to bring a gift, one that they almost always buy from the store; and finally the birthday party is often catered, which of course is a hefty investment, or if it’s not, the “housewife” again must prepare an adequate amount of food or refreshments, requiring her time, which again makes her a contingent part of a capitalist postmodern society.
Therefore, the metanarrative of consumerism becomes a key driving force behind supposed happiness. Jameson, in his book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism exhibits a skepticism for metanarratives on the grounds that they are produced by the very late capitalist environment that initiates and propagates them, or in other words commonly held values are self-propagated by a group. These self-propagated values then become a cultural movement to keep order, to prevent chaos from occurring. Going back to the piece, we read the lines “The dead devour what still lives even as we eat the recycled remains / of what is planted in the field, delivered to supermarket spouting / forth freshly sprayed.” Consumption becomes an image of irony for Zlomislic as he describes what is in essence the metanarrative of eco-stewardship and healthy eating habits. Eco-stewardship comes in the image of recycling, yet this image is subverted; the living do not eat the recycled dead, as horrible an image as this even conjures. Instead the dead–the long deceased, the memories of the past, history itself–come back to feed us, regardless of our so-called good intentions. The supermarket, a historically-based image of the American notion of health, bounty and nourishment (although lately it has become an image for corporate control over American’s eating habits), becomes a simulacrum of the “freshly sprayed,” and problem-solving arrogance that the mettanarrative of eco-stewardship espouses.
Zlomislic brings this point home as he conjures the image of Prometheus, the anti-tyrant, the archetypal giver of technology (fire) to the mortals, stealing it from the gods. Again, Zlomislic turns a culturally conceived positive image into one that stands for a metaphor that shrouds what Jameson would call “reality.” Modern humanity becomes the “scar tissue” of Prometheus’ liver, a symbol of his resulting punishment from the gods, but the scar tissue has not healed or become a solace just as contemporary humans’ condition remains inevitably in stasis and conflict. The next stanza throws more irony into the reader’s field of view. We get scar tissue, then images of the cyclical work that chains most people in America today: “a / million daily commuters, mute and unthinking, blind to the little / pleasures as they search for the nuclear fusion of the orgasm / afterglow.” Chasing careers and their next paycheck in hopes of getting the big orgasm of success, people are content with being automatons in traffic. Yes, the scar tissue remains, hard and obvious, and Prometheus’ parable seems to not have sunk into the contemporary American metanarrative of consumerism.
Later Zlomislic describes the notion that people can change their view of the world quite simply, that they can remake it to their liking using the tools of capitalism: photo editing software made by Adobe can aid someone in revising his or her image in finding a lover. Zlomislic might have added Facebook or Myspace to this line. Tied to the question of “where and when will we meet?” is the quelling of disorder, which shows a continued agitation contemporary humans feel towards the unknowing and the upheaval they fear may happen. Bakhtin, as does Jameson some 40 years later, identifies spheres of dialogue, the heteroglossia that make up the many competing dialects, thought systems, vernaculars, and cultural centers of modern consciousness (you can find more information on dialogics and heteroglossia in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics). Key to these spheres are those that subject a hegemonic rein over others. Capitalism becomes a heteroglot that places its adherents in subjection to its systems and dialects of control. Zlomislic makes this point when he writes, “We seek order where chaos rules. The bits are packaged: salad, porn, / apples, cuts of meat, coffee spoons.” Food and its commercialist paraphernalia, some of the most intimate things a person can utilize and imbibe become something mediated by commerce, by capitalism, and breaking from this commericalist cycle, seeing the ridiculousness of it, laughing at its seriousness, embodying Bakhtin’s carnivalistic behavior is exactly what capitalism hopes consumers not do. To revolt and overturn a system that’s only a system as long as they buy into it, even for a moment, becomes an event that subverts systems of power to cataclysmic extent.
Zlomislic provides more keys to subversion that Bakhtin would identify as carnivalistic: “The light enters when the illusion becomes tired. The cliche, ‘I / love you’ should be returned with silence. The echo you seek is an / old repetition.” The illusion is that of bought happiness, of bought safety, of bought and consumed love. Zlomislic’s commentary on love in contemporary society, then, argues that love has turned to an illusion of completeness and happiness just as the birthday celebration becomes a structured practice of quelling people’s doubt for the disquieting aspects of life. Love, like other normative forms of culture (ie, religion, politics, etc) is safety, collusion, and togetherness with another individual or group, making the individual no longer an individual, but an agent of the body of thought, and in the case that Zlomislic describes, feeding and bolstering the structure of capitalism. But to fit with Bakthin’s notion of capitalism, we must find the upheavel, the overthrow of “natural” order that’s replaced with grotesque order.
Zlomislic peppers the element of upheavel in interesting ways, by using images of death and chaos juxtuposed with images of commercialized order. And to understand how these elemements work I call to Julia Kristeva. Much of Kristeva’s post-structuralist work deals with issues of horror and abjection, and one idea she develops, that of “the Real,” can be used to understand the capitalist/grotesque structure Zlomislic is illustrating (for more of “the Real,” refer to Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection). Zlomislic says, “Left on the doorstep…a dead mouse; …brought as a gift,” then later “It is a fun house ride with death hitching on your admission ticket.” In each of these lines the reader gets the image of death paired with bought things–gifts, rides, tickets–causing the reader a considerable amount of fear, confusion, and dissalusionment as the images rush past. Kristeva’s notion of the real describes how we humans deal with the horrific inevitability of our own deaths. Death is real and cannot be explained away. But also, Kristeva makes a distinction between how we humans deal with knowledge of death, and how we view the symbolism of death. The symbol of the dead mouse on the doorstep is a symbol of quaint gratitude (I am thinking of your mouser dropping it there in exchange for praise), but the dead mouse becomes a symbol of un-quenched appetite, looking back to American culture’s assumed solace in the quenching of consumerist appetite. Although the dead mouse does not “satisfy your hunger,” it is offered as a solution as such, denoting the possibility that it might. Death then, as Kristeva would read it in this piece, becomes an unsettling symbolic image that points towards people’s the inability to buy themselves out of death and also their inability to construct a symbolic meaning for it outside of a commercialized understanding.
Keeping in mind Bakhtin’s notions of subverting power structures, and Kristeva’s notions of human’s attempts at dealing with death we must review the piece’s final lines: “The knock on the door, the ringing of the telephone are all / reminders to stop eating the remainder.” Notifiers of guests, new conversations, and new information, along with the opening of doors, and the creating of human connection is followed by an admonition to become conservative. Odd and aporetic, this paradoxical statement is one Derrida would relish. However, the reminder to stop eating the remainder refers to stopping culture’s robotic and blind forward fall of production and blind consumption. The remainder signifies the largess of consumerism that American’s simply excuse, not as largess, but as the insignificant curlings of the trinkets and baubles that make us happy. (Please remember to throw away all your myriad of wrappers, packaging, tags, bags, and bottles.) And as the piece closes, it is Death that propels the machine, empowering the American goal to prosper and leave a mark on the world, good or bad, destructive or creative. The real of death becomes nothing more than a will and trust fund I suppose. The “this” in the line refers to American’s accepted reality that happiness can be bought and that true feelings can be based on buying and consuming. It’s a good question, one that no one can easily answer. The statement hangs on the presumption that all humans do not need to live a materialistic lifestyle to be really happy.
Zlomislic’s use of satire and irony would make Derrida chuckle with glee as Zlomislic reconstitutes Derrida’s theories on deconstructing culture. Interestingly, many do and have derided this method because of its nihilistic conclusions. Well, sure, that’s a pretty easy gripe. But why are people afraid of a little nihilism? Really, will the world come to a halt if everyone gave up hope in a system of reality that spirals beyond their tolerance for grotesquerie? Yeah, maybe for a few constructive moments. Actually, pulling oneself from the notion that life is set, that humans are static in an irreversible structure of culturally derived and limiting perception that prevents psychic and intellectual thought to move forward, is probably one of the most important exercises humans can do, especially as we humans live in an over-commercialized and individualist-centered existence of hedonism and solipsism. Why not participate in thinking hedonism and social defiance rather than be a taste-bud, a simple receiving mechanism, in the capitalist-driven and controlled form of existence humans unabashadly operate in now?