Friday, 15 July 2011

The Name of the Beast: Monstrosity and Self in Michael Gira's The Consumer.

(It should be noted that in this essay I'm only examining the second half of Gira's book, consisting of short stories from the mid-80s - not the longer first half).

The Consumer is an apt title for Gira's collection of short stories and meditative self-lacerations. The consumer not in terms of consumerism, but of consumption: that which consumes, katabolically dissolving and appropriating into itself, which stops at nothing to annihilate and integrate all that is before it. The book anyway is grotesque – but in the most beautiful possible way. Austere, laconic and surreal in style, its pages are filled with violence, disgust and abuse. Recurrent themes emerge across the stories from different angles: cannibalism, castration, rape, suicide, stench and a bizarre fascination with the Ouroboros-style physical loop.

It has been easy for reviewers to characterise The Consumer as filled with self-hatred. However, it is not as simple as this. The absence of any coherent self is reiterated throughout the book. The question which one feels while reading it, is a constantly repeated refrain of “What am I?”. The narrator - who switches easily between male and female, victim and aggressor, in search of boundaries - keeps pressing, pushing and flailing, while the forms we would assume dictate the cleavage of self and other dissolve around him.

The necessary implication of selfhood, that of establishing boundaries, hovers like a vulture over every piece. The boundaries between abuser or abused, perpetrator of violence or victim of it, are constantly questioned: the one who is suffering is perpetuating their suffering as a means of controlling the other; the abuser is in fact assaulting himself. Thus everyone in the book is a victim; even the perpetrators. The victim is always complicit in their subjugation and often the aggressor is clearly not the master of the situation or even their own actions. Sometimes it seems that there are no characters at all – only situations, playing themselves out.

The concealed crux of the book is naming – or rather the lack of names. There are none, no character in the book is named, other than occasional titles: 'the cop', 'the worker', 'my grandmother', etc. This only becomes clear over time, as one becomes increasingly entrapped in the book's world where identity is so difficult to establish. We find ourselves also lost in a claustrophobic space where there seems to be nothing but the extended plane of heaving flesh. The absence of names indicates the absence of sufficient identity, and one feels that the narrator is actually in search of the containment that names provide. If only he or she could find some title other than you, me, he and she, some way of identifying individuals in a specific way, the need for boundaries would be satisfied.

In Initiate, the narrator crawls toward a furnace while being kicked and beaten by a cop. Eventually he collapses, unable even to explain his failure to move. He wakes, castrated and branded, suspended in front of a mirror and unable to look away from his disintegrating corpse. The cops slice meat from his thigh and eat it. Finally he muses, “I'm happy to have them eating me. Eventually I'll disappear. As I dissipate, they'll grow stronger. I'll feel myself pouring into them.” Likewise in Blind, the narrator's leg is painlessly hacked off and consumed before she is violated. As her assaulters bark like dogs, she is consumed, erased, by a redness, a heat into which she disappears.

Even when not consumed, the body is equated with meat, “Meat that eats and shits, moves when pushed, sleeps when tired, nothing else” he writes in Some Weaknesses, moments before slitting the cop's throat. This intrusion of the knife is the only thing which temporarily breaks the spell of mindlessness, and the cop awakens momentarily in surprise and, “For a second, he's not meat.”

Of course, all bodies are meat, and in The Consumer there is nothing but bodies: to talk of spirits or souls here would be a blasphemy. But the meaning of being eaten is more than this base physicality: it is, as the book's title suggests, consumption. The desire to be consumed, to be annihilated; to be eradicated within another - or conversely by another from within, because Gira recognises that the consumer is also seeking oblivion, seeking a state of blankness which can be overwritten by the objects he appropriates. The consumer is passive: a mere vessel, he does not merely make void that which he consumes but is himself voided by it.

The same is expressed in the theme of stench: often the narrator is obliterated by another's odour, or their own smell reaches out to infect the environment, as a virtual extension of their body. “I want my world, my body, to consist of her smell. After it has become me, I'll be held enclosed, like an insect in a huge fist, and crushed.” (The Caregiver). In A Grave the narrator acts like a disease, corrupting and consuming the space they inhabit until it is impossible to tell where the human ends and the bed or walls begin. For the lust-crazed narrator of Defeated, “The world's an immediate extension of my thoughts, my self hatred.” In lack of the simple solidity that names confer, it is impossible to grasp self- and other-hood. Without boundaries, all becomes one single, skinless entity. In the single paragraph meditation, “The Ideal Worker”, the narrator appears hollowed out and vacuous as he waits for instruction: “My only ambition is to become more pliable, more inert.” The superior dominates the worker and ultimately will “wipe my mind clean”.

“I'm malleable, shaped, soft.” (Defeated) The narrator is always pushing to find a point of resistance that never comes, a concrete wall, anything real and not fluid. Experiments with control, submission and domination are attempts to find where one begins and another ends. But this certainty is never given, and boundaries are never found. A Man takes this to its logical extreme, where physical boundaries between the body and the environment disappear, and the narrator seeks identification with another, in the process “ruining my awareness of myself.” Prior to this, the body is an alien presence, something uncontrollable, but whose very controllability reinforces its alien nature. When literally consumed by the woman's body, he can no longer tell who contains who or whether he or she ever existed, and concludes that paradoxically, “I'm using her body to kill my body.” This fluidity returns in The Boss: “He's not himself, he doesn't belong to himself. He's watching his boundaries dissolve as I control him.”. The narrator often turns in toward themselves, sealed as a kind of Ouroboros, as in Another Trap (“I'm a small thing, plotting suicide, sucking my toes.”), the heroine of A Trap who sucks her own nipples and the proposed fellatio-suicide of Bastard, (“If I had a cock I could suck it, committing suicide by poisoning myself on my own sperm.”). However, this is restated metaphorically in A Screw where “Everything else is superfluous...I need nothing, no one”. Here we can see that when as so often, the abuser experiences the effect of their attacks, they sense through the other and form an intellectual Ouroboros, the only remaining sentience and whose actions can only affect themselves.

As anyone who reads the book will know, I have not been completely truthful. The book has one named character: Jennifer, in Daydreams. The shock of encountering a named person is jarring and conspicuous among the other texts and the effect of it is immediately obvious: Jennifer is a person, she is someone, not just a body, not just meat. We assume that 'Jennifer' has a life, friends and family and goes on holidays abroad. The recognition of Jennifer is shocking too for the reason that she is distant: all the other characters have appeared in claustrophobic proximity, slippery and in a constant state of flux as they perpetually violate and compromise each other - but Jennifer is contained and withdrawn. She is impenetrable, the name seems to form a wall between her essence and the narrator. She does not extend beyond it yet exists in projection behind it. Because she retains this integrity, actual interaction is possible - if unwanted: she repeatedly asks, “are you alright?” to the annihilation-seeking narrator who deflects her attentions. He had returned to the reality of his office job to find himself standing cruciform on his desk, staring into the fluorescent bulb centimetres from his face.

The absence of names on the other hand reduces characters to the behavioural moment. They have no history because they have no identity, and they have no internality because there is no criteria of differentiation between them and other bodies. The fluidity which is often expressed physically is also mental, as the narrator in A Contract finds it impossible even to tell whether his emotions are his own or are manipulations, whether his desires are natural or implanted and whether his memories are accurate. “When a thought comes into my mind, it warps and stretches out of its initial shape, changes into something else before I have a chance to recognize it as something I've made. I presume that I remember things but I'm not certain. I don't know if what I'm thinking is random (mine) or what I'm supposed to be thinking in order to satisfy their desires, to fulfil the prescribed influence of the environment they've put me in.” Thus while the other is often experienced as self, self is also experienced as other. Not only have boundaries disintegrated but internal consistency and integrity has broken down, because there is no external pressure to keep it together as a unity: “I have to second guess myself as well as them”, the invisible them who never appear but must be presumed to be in control of the environment and actions of the creature with whom he is locked into a destructive and sadistic performance. So, the boundaries of the self are constantly challenged, and while the self is always compromised and disempowered, it yet extends beyond its own confines. The I consumes everything and yet this I is an alien even to the one who should claim it. The relation between action and intention are endlessly questioned and reiterated, as the narrator questions whether they could have instigated their own, or asserts that another's are under their control. The desire for separation is made explicit in Money's Flesh, which claims “I want you to hold me down, keep me back, keep me away from the part of yourself where you exist.”, and yet “I want you to annihilate my perception of myself when you fuck me, treating me like flesh between your fingers.” This is the logical end of the desire to find boundaries: membranes are damaged in the search for some solid, impenetrable thing, abuse is sought as a method of locating that which suffers it and ultimately the questionable selfhood must be annihilated if that is the only way to prove that it ever existed. Boundaries are so fragile that even a glance is experienced as rape (Caregiver and Some Weaknesses).

The search for self is the search for other, because for one to have any meaning it must be contiguous with the other. The role of naming in this is very interesting: A name is meaningless if no one knows it. A name can only be used of another, it requires multiplicity, and effectively creates identity. The paper I submitted for Bamidbar will investigate these issues of the magical power of naming further.

1 comment:

Ayin said...

An extended, revised version of this piece (with added Nietzsche) has been published as part of Monstrous Reflections: