Oh the moments, how they slip through our fingers, seemingly lost to fading memory before we can even claim to have felt them. This month on the Ark Review, we are exploring ephemera; those things so tied to the present that simply cannot come with you into the future. Today, Macon Holt explores the ephemeral body and meaningless symbols in Alexandra Kleeman’s “You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine”.
Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, is a book that opens up one of the least discussed but most important issues of our times. It is not Trump, populism, the internet culture wars, racism, sexism or neoliberalism, but instead, it is the abstraction foundational to these and many other seemingly intractable dilemmas. The book doesn’t solve this underlying problem but helps us to see the seemingly innocuous ways in which the tension it causes plays out all around us and the damage it can cause us. It is the conflict between the organisms we are in the world in which we live, and the systems of signs we have designed to overcome their limitations, but that now infringe upon us. But with jokes.
This sounds lofty for a book that proudly boasts a review from Buzzfeed on the first page and that, on the back cover, Vogue calls “Fight Club for girls”. I mean, call me a square, but I think Fight Club is the kind of book that can be enjoyed by both men’s rights activists and females. However, taking this decontextualized remark from the infamous fashion magazine, there is something that can be gleaned from this analysis. Inasmuch as Fight Club is a book about the disjunction between the historical role of men and their relative domestication in modernity, Kleeman’s novel is able to take this a vitally important step further. If the alienated men of Fight Club thought that modernity denied them their biological destiny as hunters and warriors, Kleeman, through an engagement with feminist theory and poststructuralist philosophy, corrects this naive statement. To be a hunter or warrior is not biological destiny, they are the symbols we have put onto behaviours to give the meaning. The only biological destiny here is a frantic search for anything that looks like something to eat that will hopefully keep you alive long enough to rut before you are cut down in your prime and become fertiliser. In cosmic terms, a human life barely qualifies as ephemeral.
…the systems of symbols that constitute language comes illusion of stasis on what has always been ephemeral.
To give a little bit of context about the novel story, the protagonist and narrator, A, is convinced that her flatmate, B, is attempting to become her. B is incredibly feeble and will only eat popsicles so low in calorific content that one could burn them off “just by eating them with vigor”. B feels abandoned whenever A visits her boyfriend C. C is incredibly basic, his greatest pleasures in life are watching Shark Week, watching pornography while having sex with A and his only dream is convincing A to go on the comically horrific sounding game show, That’s My Partner. To C, feelings, concerns and dreams are just obstacles to these fine things; images with immediate pleasant sensations. Thus, they must be managed and diminished. The world of the novel is a satire of life in the suburban sprawl. The town’s residences are mass produced to the point of making navigation near impossible, one supermarket chain, Wally’s, dominates the food supply, cartoon cats sell candy to you on TV, which also sells you self-annihilating beauty products. These boundaries also constrain A’s work as a proof reader, which requires her to correct symbols but not uncover meaning. That said there is something off about A herself, as she seems to readily accept these boundaries as norms on a discursive level, even if in aggregate we can tell she finds them suffocating.
The only odd thing that has happened in the world of the novel was that, a couple of years ago, a significant number of middle-class dads went missing. Many turned up again, months later, dazed and confused, wearing fresh versions of the slacks and polo shirts they disappeared in. When questioned as to where they had been, they only responded in variations of the phrase: Sometimes you’ve just got to be content with the way things are. This foreshadows the book’s third act about a cult trying to take over the town, who believe that the humans are being corrupted by the world of darkness and only eating the right artificial non-nourishing foods can take them towards the light. In other words, they have attempted to collapse human biology and morality into a pure binary signification (There is apparently a theological basis for the claims of this cult, ask Gio).
Kleeman’s book is about the limits of signification for embodied beings in both being healthy and constructing meaning. She opens the book these two oddly similar but importantly different quotes;
“It could be said that the Orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing its image in a signifying fashion (mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc) … At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation capture of a code, surplus value of code, an increasing valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming wasp of the orchid and a becoming orchid of the wasp.”
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
“Blessed is the lion that the human being will devour so that the lion becomes human. And cursed is the human being that the lion devours; and the lion will become human.”
The Gospel According to Thomas.
The D&G quote is one of their most famous. It refers to how, from the perspective of rhizomatic ontology, two seemingly unconnected systems (the evolution of wasps and orchids) can influence one another while not directly entering one another’s systems. The second quote is from a non-canonical Christian text that argues that the essence of the lion can be devoured and transferred to the human thus enhancing it, as the humans are essentially superior. And thus, if it is devoured by a lion, the essence of a human is diminished as the lion is inherently inferior and has usurped the human’s superiority.
The lions and humans in the gospel quote are not their real world referents but symbols. It is not the musculature of the lion’s shoulders that is being referred to here, nor the feeling of a human’s nasal cavity, congested with snot, but their position in the cosmic order; child of God and a beast over which he has dominion. Within such symbol systems, hierarchies are an inevitability, as mastery of these systems can often correspond to an ability to control reality. The control of symbols can put ideas in the heads of others. That is what is happening right now as you read this text. It could be argued that the skill here lies in how closely the intent of the one casting out symbols corresponds to what is understood by the receiver. There are of course fudges in this. If I organize these symbols inadequately, you may think something completely different from what was intended. For example, lion could mean this:
Or it could mean this;
Or it could mean something voiced by Ferris Bueller;
But then, each of these are symbols in and of themselves and, when they meet the mushy grey matter we use to process them, give rise to a whole new set of significations.
This is something that Deleuze and Guattari recognise and frame differently. This transference of characteristics qua characteristics, as the constituents of identity, is the transference of a surplus; something additional to the thing itself, rather than the diminution of an essence from which identity emanates. Simaba’s form takes nothing substantive away from a lion on the savanna, or from the impact of medieval myths. Yes, one can still be killed and eaten by a lion but this is not completely essential annihilation and nor is it the only form of transference, and the surplus remains. The unfortunate victim of the lion has always already influenced those around them and perhaps their works will out-live and exceed them. For D&G, whatever it is that constitutes the person can not be reduced to an essence that is either present or not. The human is the sum of processes that are embedded and inseparable from the processes of the non-human. Some of these processes precede us (season, days, eating) and some of the emerge from our interaction with our environment (building shelter, society). For these thinkers, language is one such process and grants the ability to call a lion a lion, a hunter a hunter and warrior a warrior. It is an important process but one among many. And with the systems of symbols that constitute language comes illusion of stasis on what has always been ephemeral. This is nowhere more evident today then the fraught field of identity.
The orchid is always in process; copyright law, structured through the vested interests of the entertainment industry, is not.
Identity is contextual, who you think you are can be different from day to day, and place to place. Yes, there are seemingly more static tendencies: I can’t convince anyone I really take seriously my time on the bench in the gym, this identity is not one I can easily inhabit. But, in a more general sense, who I am is dependent, to a large extent, on context. In some spaces, I am identified with confidence and in others with timidity. On certain days, I believe I can write an essay such as this, on others, I simply cannot. This may seem a banal truism, but what is significant about it is that our culture is one that prizes the fixedness of symbols and doesn’t recognize the artifice on which such conceptions of reality relies. Thus we attempt to subdue what changes so the symbols of our names can exceed the desires of our beings. This is ridiculous in some ways and sensible in others. But we should bear in mind that the wasp and orchid are not bound by their signification. If the orchid is better served by the bee, then over time it will recode itself as such. The orchid is always in process; copyright law, structured through the vested interests of the entertainment industry, is not.
It is this rigidity that D&G claim has resulted in certain limitations in our understanding of our subjectivity; that it is defined by lack. This is what is presented in Lacanian psychoanalysis with the concept of l’objet petit a, something that has been discussed at length in this publication by Alexander Buk-Swienty. The desire for the l’objet petit a is the desire from something missing and unreachable, because, while we know we want something, that something remains irreducible to the symbols we use to structure our relationship to reality. Conversely, l’objet petit a is too close to the actuality of reality and is thus always confusing and terrifying.
But it is not just obscure French psychoanalyst that thinks this way. When we looks at the operation of consumer capitalism we see the same thing; products that promise to allow you to become your authentic self, to be completed. The new iPhone will really let you be who you want to be until the next one comes out. Your summer vacation will allow to gather all the experiences you need to turn your life into a truly compelling story, which is what you thought last year too. A night in with this box of candy will make you feel a little less lonely before nausea kicks in. Deleuze and Guattari argue that far from this being human nature, this is the function of the mechanisms of capitalism. Capitalism is an engine for the production of lack. They argue this to be a side effect of the very concept of capital itself. Capital is a resource defined by its capacity to make more of itself. It is unsatisfiable.
This is something satirised throughout the novel, with the object of the Kandy Kake a glorious send up of the l’objet petit a, a confectionary, so devoid of nutritional value, so defined by its marketing imagery, you can’t even get fat by eating it. But it is the way this kind of thinking bleeds into our relationships that are often the most tragic. Kleeman narrator says of her boyfriend that “C […] created as much lack in me as he sated.” The symbolic function of the narrator as C’s girlfriend and C and the narrator’s boyfriend is really all they have to offer one another. Any moments of pleasure, safety or intimacy offered by their physical relationship are forcibly sidelined by the labels they fill. So much so that, other than incredibly alienated sex/porn viewing and the watching of Shark Week, the possibility of interpersonal intimacy is made impossible.
When C and the narrator have a fight at the end of the second act, it is because he can no longer tolerate the discrepancy between the person whom he is actually in a relationship with and the kind of symbolic arc he wishes his partner to signify. There are no feelings being felt, not real disappointment or sadness, just a report of an evidential discrepancy that must be addressed if things are to continue. Interestingly, during her periods of forced separation from C, the narrator declares that she misses C’s ability to diminish and contain her feelings and place them is this sort of symbolic framework. However, what she enjoys about this was not how it fits into the framework but how safe it felt to be in the framework. This is similarly the case with her reminiscences of C’s physicality, it is the role he is playing and the role this lets her play that she misses, not the sensations themselves. What she misses is the actions associated with trying to fill a lack not anything of the particular actions themselves. So she joins a cult…
Why then is all of this so important to the problems of our times? As I have discussed previously on the pages of the Ark Review, we live in an age of symbols devoid of referents. Trump is a president as a pure symbol business success, despite having never achieved it. Brexit placed a myriad of grievances at the foot of the exceedingly complex multipurpose signifier of the EU. Here in Denmark, as DF try and play a similar game, think tanks like CEPOS frame the criticism of naive certainty as a symbol of chaos. A chaos that appears to match up with the cascade of images that flow from my phone as I wait for a bus in the Danish summer rain.
“People were such fragile things: the existed only from a certain angle, at a certain scale and spacing.” Alexandra Kleeman.
What Kleeman’s book does is list examples of this same phenomena in a much more banal, and thus more manageable, context. We still feel the force of a semiotic Apocalypse unmooring us from our sense of reality, but we can see more clearly its absurdity. To this, she begins to inject her novel with the critique our symbolic order put forth by Deleuze and Guattari, though also suggests some the possible side effects of abandoning a symbolic order and recklessly picking a new one (see the section in the novel on the cult). This is done with a levity and whimsy that is approachable if a little MFA-y.
There is a freedom in this notion that, rather than being essences in a symbolic order, we emerge out of systems and processes; that we are not cracked and corrupted souls striving for completion. But there is also a sadness as this robs us of the certainty of a world governed by essentializing symbols. A sadness of living with permanent dissonance, where we had been trained to intuit harmony. As Kleeman’s narrator remarks “People were such fragile things: the existed only from a certain angle, at a certain scale and spacing.” The correspondence between our material being and the symbolic abstraction we use to give it meaning is, at best, only ever fleeting. But if we can embrace this, we might be able to stave off some of the worst violence of language that doesn’t stay confined to the page.
“You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine” will be discussed on the next episode of the Ark Audio Book Club, out August 25th.