Historical Unicorn Perversions

Even the most ferocious critics of psychoanalysis have to admit there is something perverse about little girls and unicorns--or more to the point, that there is nothing at all perverse about this relationship inasmuch as it signals all the component instincts converging on their "proper" goal of hetero-genital sexuality. Like Bobby Sherman, David Cassidy, and the Brothers Hanson and Jonas, the unicorn is a mythical animal that doesn't really exist, at least not in a way that would have any real implications in disrupting one's latency period. Wiki tells us that Leonardo da Vinci once wrote the following about these beasts: The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it. Who in the early seventies didn't wish David Cassidy might fall asleep in their lap?

Still, there is something a little disturbing about this particular image, a poster that invites kids to finish it by applying the proper magic-marker colors. Of course, there is the simple irony of an ode to "fantasy" that encourages children to obey all the rules of a coloring book. Here is a mass produced template to practice how creativity and fantasy are done. Then again, I'm told kids actually like to follow rules, so perhaps this should be regarded more as a disciplinary technology than as a first art-school project (not that those identities can't intersect once again later in life).

If the unicorn remains the displaced libdinal object of choice for the girl-identified swingset crowd, what is more disturbing is this creature's bizarre ability to persist outside of history. The "fantasy" proferred above is a strangely antiquated pastiche of a mythical creature, medieval astronomy, Victorian pastoralism, and good old-fashioned monarchism. What does it say about the world of fantasy (and phantasy) that our youth are still inculcated in this bullshit in the 21st century? And, in all fairness, the androcentric obsession with the medieval, from Lord of the Rings to Black Sabbath, is not much different--an equally phallic phantasy life projected deep into the netherregions of European history. Small wonder that Renaissance Fairs have become, along with Star Trek fandom, a powerful emblem of adult regression, a world where the sexes engage in highly coded play-acting designed, precisely like "courtly love," to go nowhere--above the frock or below it. "Thou art a comely lass" is a phrase with layers of plausible deniablity attached to it, a sexual overture so ritualistically displaced as to insure that no one could actually take it seriously.

The unicorn invites us to interrogate whether the foundational structures of phantasy/desire do indeed exist on some other terrain--historical and psychical--or instead if these structures are simply hostage to a rote replication of children's culture from century to century. At this point in history, why should any child even know what a unicorn is, much less desire to color one in as a celebration of "fantasy?" Aren't there other things for children to fantasize about, things that might be more in-line with our own contemporary moment? Or failing that, with at least some early iteration of modernity? Perhaps adults, in remembering what they enjoyed as children, simply keep passing down the same tired fantasy world from generation to generation. Then again, I doubt there are many 10-year olds out there today listening to Bobby Sherman, so perhaps the unicorn does have some privileged hold on the pre-pubescent unconscious. This splitting would be significant in and of itself--a terrain of pop-desire that is slavishly tied to reigning historical codes of the cool and the cute, and another that seems to be the product of some weird spell Merlin cast over early adolescence hundreds of years ago.

Satan v. Jane Eyre

Many readers of Jane Eyre finish the novel thinking Rochester is pretty much still an asshole and deserves his bum leg and blindness. Bronte tells us he recovers his sight in time to see his first child, but I'm sure many still prefer imagining him wandering around the house befuddled and completely at Jane's mercy.

Men would remain assholes in the twentieth-century, of course, allowing Charlotte Bronte's basic architecture in Jane Eyre (naive young girl + older sophisticated man + mysterious presence in the house = lust/fear/loathing/passion) to inform all manner of popular romances. Jane Eyre was remade about 50 times in the old studio system, from Hitchcock and du Maurier's straight-forward copy in Rebecca (1941) to Val Lewton's horror-inflected I Walked with a Zombie (1943).

The remakes of Jane Eyre often make the Rochester character a bit more sinister--the original's constant brooding amplified into a creepier, more murderous menace. Pictured here is a version that goes for broke, transforming Rochester into what many always believed he was anyway: Satan. Published by Avon press in 1972, Lord Satan does little to disguise its relationship to Jane Eyre, even attributing the manuscript to a "Louisa Bronte," who one assumes the reader is supposed to take as a distant relative of some kind, perhaps even a long-lost fourth sister. All the elements are here for the titillation that comes with fantasizing about courting a mysteriously threatening (and possibily half-goat) man: the 17-year-old Adrienne, "Lord Satan" himself, and the apparent ghost of Lord Satan's mother wandering the halls of "Castle Caudill." As in the original, much of the book would appear to involve Adrienne attempting to understand the mysterious personal and domestic relationships around her. Despite her marriage to a man known as LORD SATAN, Adrienne is unsure if her vivid memories of satanic rituals and black masses are real or only dreams. Eventually she begins to suspect her husband (again, LORD SATAN) might be a witch. Plucky Jane she is not, it would seem.

Perhaps such a bizarre transposition of Jane Eyre was inevitable, especially in the early 1970s when Lucifer was riding high on the popcult terrain. The Exorcist wouldn't be out for another year, but Anton LaVey's Church of Satan in San Francisco had, by 1970, already revived a genre pretty much moribund since Joris-Karl Huysmans' La-Bas (1891). On the other side of the Gothic's softer than softcore romances, Satan was enjoying a spirited revival in the adult film/book industry as well (including such memorable porno-rags as Bitchcraft and Nudity in Witchcraft).

If you look closer at the cover of Lord Satan, however, there is a small logo indicating the book is not a singular offering to the Dark One but is actually part of a series. It is, Avon proudly trumpets with a goat-head stamp, "A Satanic Gothic." I'm not sure exactly how many of these Avon published, but I have found listings for at least three more titles: Island of Fear (1973), The Twisted Tree (1979), and The Mark of the Rope (1972).

Gothics are notorious for the specificity of their branding--but "a Satanic Gothic?" As the current Twilight series demonstrates, fantasizing about vampire sex is now acceptable even among teenagers (as it was in the late 60s' with Dark Shadows). But Satan? Would a mainstream press have the horns to publish such a series today? Probably not--and we are poorer as a culture for the absence of such a possibility. Some regard Studio 54 or Plato's Retreat as the ultimate emblems of sexual excess in the 1970s. But what could be more truly perverse than teen girls and housewives going to the corner drugstore and buying a mass market book to indulge the more occult dimensions of their desire, stories that use the soft-focus plotting of the gothic romance to encode our culture's ultimate master/slave story?

Bad Credit: The Next Generation

I don't have any kids, but I've been told by those who do that at a certain age children want to do everything their parents are doing. I assume this is the age most girls get "life-like" baby dolls foisted on them, so they can better imitate Mom/Dad as they attend to a newer addition to the family. It also explains such counter-intuitive toys of labor as lawn-mowers, vacuum cleaners, and EZ Bake ovens.

The toy pictured here, however, truly seems to be the example that unravels the entire genre. Bad enough kids learn to internalize anxiety over unkempt lawns and collapsing soufflees before hitting grade school--now they apparently must also practice for their destinies as overdrawn ATM jockeys.

Particularly alarming here, seen in the close-up detail, is the simulation of various recognizable credit overlords ("Virsa"), all the better to train children in the iconography of their adult servitude. Ostensibly this is a "piggy bank" updated for the 21st century (note the coin slot)--but notice also how a fake (one assumes) camera eye watches the child as s/he places the allowance money into the terminal. What better way to introduce pre-schoolers to the harsh reality that money, credit, and video surveillance are but competing mediums for disciplining the fully functional deadbeat adult sujbect? It's also a great way to open a dialogue with your child about crime--"that camera is there in case bad people carjack daddy and steal his ATM card."

Here's hoping the next installments in this toy series are a baby pawn shop, toddler plasma bank, and kidz action bankruptcy lawyer.

Bodies Without Organs or Butts

When psychiatry's most famous schizophrenic, Daniel Schreber, was in the depths of his most acute psychosis, he began to believe that certain parts of his anatomy had become compromised or were completely absent. At various moments he believed that he lived without a stomach, lungs, or bladder, that his ribs were crushed and his larnyx "eaten out" by some nefarious force. Such delusions about body parts are common in psychosis, leading the DSM-IV to produce an entire diagnostic category for such ideation: the somatic delusion.

Digging through some used books recently, I found a title that would catch the eye of any boy aged 8 to 80, The Day My Butt Went Psycho. The book, it turns out, is the first in a "butt triology" written by Australian kid's author, Andy Griffiths. The series has apparently been extremely successful in its explicit mission to give young boys a reason to quit playing video games and pick up a book. Wikipedia describes the plot:

Zack Freeman's butt is constantly detaching itself from his body and running off. One night, when he follows his butt, he learns that there is a plot by butts to take over the world. Specifically, the butts plan to create a huge, world-wide fart by building up a massive quantity of methane gas in the "Buttcano". When the Buttcano blows, all humans will be unconscious. While they are unconscious, the butts will seize their chance and switch places with their heads.

This odd historical parallel in absent organ (anatomy?) stories raises a number of interesting questions:

*What exactly are the links between the "magical thinking" of infantile narcissism and the psychotic delusions of adulthood?

*Is the Scholastic Book Service, fresh from transforming a generation of kids into future witches, now turning its attention to cultivating the next wave of schizophrenia?

*Can young boys be compelled to read only if it involves some strange mixture of Dadaism, paranoia, and the abject?

*How exactly would a cadre of rebellious butts "switch places" with our heads, and if they did so, what would become of our heads? What would replace our former butts?

I can't say that I will ever read The Day My Butt Went Psycho, but I am happy to file it next to my copy of Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. Both are guides to logics wholly alien to the putatively rational mind--the sophomoric and the psychotic.

Tailgating 5-15-09

O Brother, O Sister

ABC's thoroughly noxious drama of class preening, Brothers and Sisters, has just completed another season. In honor of its continuing excellence in chronicling the trials and tribulations of witty, white, rich Californians, I'm reposting here a piece that originally appeared in the UCLA student e-journal, Mediascape.


In my opinion, with so many problems facing the world today, having an interest in comedy is politically irresponsible, perhaps even a bit morally reprehensible. As Graydon Carter famously proclaimed in the wake of 9/11, there is no place for irony in the new century. Everyone enjoys a good laugh, certainly, but with a nation at war, the economy in shambles, and the polar bear recently added to the list of endangered species, we have entered an age when only television drama-serious, important, and earnest television drama-can adequately address the complexities of life in America today.

That's why I'm so appreciative of Brothers and Sisters, ABC's recent hit series about the Walker clan-a proud family of vintners headed by matriarch Sally Field. After the tragic cancellation of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the nation worried if there would ever be another series up to the challenge of giving voice to the rich, white, highly educated, and extremely loquacious of Southern California. Thankfully, a plucky band of writers and producers has looked deep in the well of universal American experience to give us Brothers and Sisters, which as you can tell from the title, is a family melodrama.

The rest of this piece can be read on Mediascape.

Stalin, Snogging, and Sexploitation

I just returned from London where I was speaking at a conference on the Undead. Three items of interest from the trip:

Walking through the Holborn area on May 1st, I happened upon the annual May Day Parade through central London. As orthodox Communist protests go in the early 21st century, it was an extremely impressive spectacle. Luckily, I was with a London resident who was able to identify the various factions involved, and whom needed to be separated from whom. The parade was unexpectedly dominated by Turks and Kurds who apparently use the streets of London to conduct their homeland ideological/geographical warfare by proxy.

The entire affair seemed rather quaint in its own way--rather like a walking museum of the Left's greatest hits; that is, until the Stalinists showed up. Incredibly, two groups (admittedly smaller ones) passed by with placards of Stalin. I snapped this particular photo as Stalin and his dwindling minions passed by the local Krispy Kreme donut emporium. I was tempted to ask them their "take" on Stalin. Misunderstood? Didn't go far enough in instituting his "reforms?" In the end, however, it didn't seem worth getting in a shouting match. And really, I was probably less appalled that they supported Stalin than I was amazed that they didn't realize what holding up a Stalin sign would signify to the crowd.

Interestingly, the main topical issue of concern in the parade was the current economic crisis and the bailout of various global financial concerns. In this, the Marxists (Stalinist and otherwise) were in complete agreement with the far fringes of the American right--an alliance that Marx himself (or at least Gramsci) would have found both interesting and potentially useful.

On BBC-3, meanwhile, a new "makeover" show has hit the airwaves that adds a novel twist to the genre. Snog, Marry, or Avoid seeks out women (and on rare occassions, men) who suffer a most particular form of "bad taste," dressing like extremely OTT (over-the-top) bar trash. The humiliation begins with producers showing a picture of the woman to random men on the street and asking them if they would "snog" (British slang for anything from "making out" to a one-night stand), marry, or avoid the girl in question. Of course, the women all think they are excellent candidates for snogging and marriage, but cruelly discover most men choose to ignore them for their "massive fake tits" and "hooker make-up." In what is apparently an even more humilating quiz, men choose if they would buy the girl "jewelry, dinner, or a kebab." From the reaction of the humiliated women, having a man buy you a "kebab" is apparently one step away from tipping a prostitute.

The woman then faces POD (Personal Overhaul Device)--a futuristic camera lens accompanied by the disembodied voice of a most proper English woman who assesses the woman's look and continues the insults. Recommendations are then made, not for a "make-over" but a "make-under"--an attempt to transform the woman's trashy "fake" look into something more "natural."

The best part of the series is that it comes from the BBC, and truly, the producers do approach the show as if they are fulfilling a public mandate by ridding the nation of some form of noxious pollution. But the show also--to continue the Marxist theme--demonstrates that there is nothing more enjoyable on TV today than passing judgement on the inability of others to successfully negotiate the codes of "proper" consumption.

The highlight of the trip, however, was the opportunity to see Viva, a remarkable new film by L.A. based artist Anna Biller. The film lovingly recreates the look, feel, and logic of sexploitation cinema at the threshold of the industry's move into hardcore--that strange moment when adult cinema still couldn't show explicit sexual activity and so displaced it into a weird world where everyone is a swinger and all anyone ever talks about is screwing. Entertainment Weekly describes it as "Fetishistically Spot-On...A Truly Sexy Movie," which is exactly the stupid shit you would expect a cub reporter at Entertainment Weekly to say when confronted with full frontal nudity, no matter how archly presented. Actually, the film is less about carnal lust than cinephilic desire. Without really referencing Joe Sarno, Doris Wishman, or Herschell Gordon Lewis explicitly, Biller has nevertheless recreated with an almost uncanny accuracy the dialogue, mise-en-scene, lighting, blocking, and narrative logic of the era (to the point of even lighting the film's many outdoor pool scenes with high-key three point lighting). In fact, the retro-verisimilitude is so perfect that had the negative been dragged across the floor a few times (a la Tarantino/Rodriguez's Grindhouse), one might be easily fooled that Viva was really made in 1972.

There's a subtle political critique at work across the film about the genre's foundations in an often retarded form of male fantasy (brutish breast manipulation is a recurring theme). But what makes the film special is its apparent affection for the truly bizarre look and logic of these films, which even then were probably more about conspicuous leisure than conspicuous copulation--a point made as the eponymous Viva spends her private time in the bathtub leafing through interior design magazines.

The trailer can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8G9DeyG9R80