"It’s hard to see the crab at first. It has merged with the grey, rocky background, taken up its texture and muddy colors, almost disappearing – wholly part of the scene. It doesn’t move. It just sits there in the far left corner, its legs and scissors tucked away under its body.
I come by here every day, but I've never seen the crab before. Maybe its a new addition, some sort of strategically placed attribute to fish tank life, a way to get rid of the waste products that gather between the rocks. Maybe he has grown out of the rock, first as a little bump, a minor disturbance, but as it kept growing and growing separating itself from the stony surface, eventually becoming an entity of its own as it fell down, down, down the side and landed in the left corner of the aquarium.
Who am I to say where life begins and where it ends? The pregnancy of the event can be a splitting cell, or a heartbeat, or maybe its starts with the mere shiver, a disturbance in the atmosphere, a small crack in the stone in which something suddenly starts to move."
WHY GREGOR SAMSA COULDN'T GET OUT OF BED
I read The Metamorphosis[i] as a child, and although I was far too young to grasp the subject of metamorphosis as anything other than pure magic – which seemed nothing out of the ordinary - let alone a meaningful literary metaphor, the image of a giant insect lying in bed covered by blankets, its head resting on the pillow is if he were a man, always stuck with me. Hybridism seems to suffer from a state of not belonging; it is mainly defined by what it is not; not human, not animal. The hybrid is a creature prone to loneliness, consumed as it is by shame of its appearance. Post-metamorphosis, Kafka’s protagonist Gregor Samsa keeps to himself in the attic, afraid of how people will react to his new body, and this is how he dies.
In critical discourse the figure of the ‘human’ animal has gained increasing amounts of attention from feminist scholars such as Carol J. Adams and Donna Haraway, who debate the meaning of the animal’s social status as Other (or non-human) in relation to our own sense of self, whether this is a question of politics, anthropology or art. These discourses investigate the animal as a symbol of familiarity and strangeness, a duality that is symbolized in the figure of the family pet[ii] or other domesticated animals. They are almost human, but not quite, which enables us to infantilize or objectify them according to our needs for food or loving company. The inherent ‘hybrid’ social status of the almost human is in constant friction with our sense of ethical responsibility, and is varies uncontrollably. This connection between a hybrid social status and oppression is shared by women throughout history, as their status as almost men – but not quite - provided an excuse for their deferral from humanist discourses: the sciences, voting rights etcetera. The hybrid is a symbol for a destabilization, and in this lays its threat. In cultural historical studies we find literal hybrids in ancient mythology (the Medusa, the Sirens) that mostly occupy themselves with the destruction of wise and brave men, and live in caves or on rocks far away from civilization. In anthropology, the status of almost-human of animal can be interpreted as a form of hybridization. In gender discourse, hybridization is a metaphor for the ways in which gender is not a fixed but rather a fluid state and politics we can view the disintegration of European borders and the merging of cultures as a hybrid process. I argue that central to these investigations lies the ability to re-imagine the concept of a border as not a fixed state but a flexible area of possibility, leading to the destruction of polarized entities and the birth of new identities.
Kafka’s story illustrates the clash between the human and the non human and our inability to cope with the strangeness of the animal body, the hybrid, or half-human/half-animal monster. Historically, as we see in The Metamorphosis, a hybridization of the human and the animal body is often described as a terrifying, escalating, in this case physically paralysing event: a disintegration of the controlled, enlightened individual who has it all sorted into not only literal but symbolic animality. In the context of hybridism, animality has historically been a homonym for destruction of the rational self, a dive into sexual depravity - sometimes even leading to cannibalism – and the degeneration of the civilised subject.[iii] The hybrid body is a body out of control, a body that stepped outside the lines we drew for it, a body that does not obey the rules of humanist logic and social hierarchy that keep us safe.[iv] I am interested in this idea of hybridism as a hiatus, an indefinable, bodily manifestation of social disobedience. Why is the hybrid such a horrific figure, and how can we think of hybrids as useful figures for feminist theory?
In this essay I want to explore the figure and destabilizing force hybrid through the narratives at play in the performance work Realness, a collaboration between artists Kate Spence and Michael Lightborne, which was featured during Sluice Art fair 2015 at the Barge House. The performance revolves around issues of intimacy, desire and temporality. The title is a reference to Spence’s earlier work (Strike a Pose[v]) as well as the film Paris is Burning[vi], in which the concept of ‘realness’ as authenticity is played with and expanded in the African-American and Hispanic drag ballroom scene. As such it questions the representation of the ‘authentic’ female body and the politics of the gaze. However, in this essay I will focus specifically on the ways in which the performance was meaningful in light of feminist investigations of specifically female hybridism as respectively informed by metamorphosis, liminality and abjection and unfold the figure of the ‘monstrous’ hybrid as a feminist trope of empowerment, represented, as I believe, by the performance. I wonder if and how the hybrid is essentially a figure of authenticity, and how Spence’s beautifully terrifying creatures, both reality and fiction, make use of the undermining its strategies in order to destabilize normative, repressive notions on beauty, sexuality and what it means to be a woman.
“'Because they have a hard outer shell (the exoskeleton) that does not grow, they must shed their shells, a process called molting. Just as we outgrow our clothes, crabs outgrow their shells.”[vii] After three days, the crab had disappeared, leaving behind his cracked shell which would now truly become part of the rock, as it slowly degenerated, becoming more and more translucent, breaking up in little pieces, falling between the gravel.'"
PASSING THE LIMIT
In The Metamorphosis Kafka describes the moment shortly after the Gregor Samsa discovers his own transformation from human to insect as a monstrous event that forces him into physical paralyses, unable to get out of bed. The scene is dominated by his distress over the unknown: his own unknown body, his difficulty understanding his new situation, his worries about discovery – which almost resemble sexual shame - and upsetting his employer and his immediate family. Not only is his new body no longer human, it is also of a species commonly perceived to be as good as ‘unconscious’ and disgusting; that of an insect, the lowest on the anthropomorphic awareness/emotional ladder for which we feel the least sympathy.[viii] His physical paralyses can arguably be interpreted as his inability to accept his transformation, as his ‘human’ mind fails to connect with his new, strange body, leaving him stuck in a vulnerable position in which he is utterly powerless. From that point of view, Kafka’s story describes modern man’s fear of destabilisation: of identity, career and family life. These are the things we hold dearest in our neoliberal culture, as we identify financial or artistic success with the ability to be respected, and ultimately loved by others.[ix]
However, more importantly, Kafka’s story introduces the animal body as a way of turning reality upside down, literally and figuratively: Samsa is turned onto his back and can’t roll back over. This experience is axial; the inversion of Samsa’s body from human to animal takes place as he lies down on his back horizontally. Somehow he cannot pacify the two versions of his new identity, which leads him to be paralysed. The ensuing identity crisis ultimately leads to Samsa’s demise, but it enables his family to start living for themselves, as they – now no longer dependent on Samsa as a sole source of income – are forced to pick up their lives again, freed from the economical paralyses they were in before Samsa’s metamorphosis.
The performance similarly plays with an axial transformation by adding the split screen to the performance, which from there onwards plays out on two different planes; that of the subject being viewed, and that of the artist creating new shapes. However, Spence and Lightborne use this axial perspective as a way of refusing the static immobility (paralyses) that Samsa suffers from, but instead enable Spence to manipulate the constraint, direct view of the audience and control her own physical representation. The hybrid creations on the screen are mash-ups of gender, digital and analogue experience, fact and fiction, but above all they are critiques of stable, restrictive, linear identities that show us the generative force of a subject that is defined by its ability to exist in-between. Realness plays with the idea of the body as unstable, generative, and prone to change as a positive, doing away with the idea of becoming hybrid as a terrible event and instead proposing hybridization as a generative process that opens up new possibilities.
An explanation for the friction between the perception of the hybrid as monstrous and generative at the same time could possibly be found in Jacques Derrida’s theory of limitropy; his investigation of the border as a site of possibility and change, which he argues is connected to the strangeness of the animal body. In The Animal Therefore I Am[x], Derrida describes how the inherent ‘otherness’ of animals, the element that so disturbs us and enables us to feel superior, lies rooted in their unawareness of their own nudity. The visual presence of the animal as both naked and not naked at the same time poses a threat to our anthropomorphic sense of logic; it causes a rupture in the field of representation.[xi] Our awareness of ourselves as separated from the rest of the world (the birth of our human consciousness) is connected to sexual difference: the realization that our body was naked and this was a cause for shame, as we saw ourselves as ‘different’ from the rest of the world. In this moment we gave ourselves a name, constructing for the first time a sense of self and other, interior and exterior.[xii] Man is the animal who knows his limits; but the animal does not; they are without limits. Derrida goes on to urge us to investigate what is cultivated on the edges of a limit[xiii], there where two entities meet. The area of the limit - classically seen as a non-space defined by what surrounds it - to Derrida signifies possibility of its own. Limitrophy, he says, is a “transgressal if not transgressive experience.[xiv]” In this way, I see the hybrid as an infectious, transgressal coming together of multiple identities, a performance of limitrophy par excellence. As a figure, the hybrid navigates in between borders, in between sexes, in between good and bad. This connection to limitrophy is where the destabilizing powers of the hybrid originate, but this is also a process of re-imagining, re-connecting, re-growing.
The act of dressing up is the first stage of passing the limit that separates you from the unknown, incorporating the strange into your own appearance. It is no coincidence that dressing up is usually reserved for ritual, children who still believe in magic, the transvestite and the insane. Trespassing the bodily limits of appearance expels you from the norm. By transforming the white, western female body – the idealised sexy blonde stereotype of female submissive sexuality – into all kinds of fantastic creatures that are wholly alien to our perceptions of what a female body should look and behave like, aided by dress-up, Spence and Lightborne use strategies of limitrophy to call into question cliché imagery of femininity as social constructs, while simultaneously claiming a certain animality that is unaware of the limits of the body.
"In Marquez’ story “The story of a very old man with enormous wings’[xv] the arrival of the angel is introduced by the arrival of the crabs, as they crawl out of the sea and flood the city with their white bodies, as they lay dying in the courtyards, sprawling out over the streets, and their corpses in their shells fill the air with a horrible smell. The people in the village spend hours trying to get rid of them, but they keep swarming all around them, an apocalyptic prelude to an event yet unknown, but the people can feel it, quivering in their stomachs: some sort of balance has thoroughly been disturbed."
POLITICS OF FEMALE MONSTROSITY
There is an aspect to the becoming animal, or becoming strange, of specifically the female body that has a sexist narrative. Especially when it comes to female hybrids, the dominant idea seems to be that they are one-dimensional creatures of insanity, hysteria, and carnivorous lust.[xvi] Where male hybrids lose their status and career, female hybrids lose their minds. The taboo on hybridity is a gendered concept. In Skin/ned Politics: Species Discourse and The Limits of the Human in Nandipha Mntambo’s Art, Ruth Lipschitz addresses the idea so present in animal/human hybridism that the proximity of the female to the ‘animal’ as incorporated in one body signifies a debasement or self-violation.[xvii] At the same time, the feminine and the animal share the same ‘non-human’ social status, according to psychoanalysis. “However […] in Freud’s narrative the animal is not just excluded from sociality and subjectivity but gendered. Phrased differently, uninvited to partake of the primal feast, woman is not subject to its guilt. She is thus not transformed into full humanity but condemned to remain on the side of atavistic animality […]” Similar to Derrida’s thesis of the shameless animal, the woman (in Freud’s narrative of the primal feast) is not fully ‘humanized’ and as such could possibly claim to inherently inhabit the figure of the hybrid, which puts the taboo on female sexuality in an interesting light, as it is motivated by its inherent human/animal social conflict.
Does this mean that the natural animal/human hybridity in women’s social status forms the basis for the branding of their sexuality as something abject that needs to be contained, as has been practice for centuries, ranging from treatments of supposed hysteria to contemporary over-sexualisation of ‘girly-ness’? Is the taboo on female sexuality somehow informed by a fear of the female hybrid, the insane flesh eating female vulture? And what can this abject status of female sexuality offer us?
Julia Kristeva point out the relationship between liminality and abjection in The Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection.[xviii] In essence, she argues, our fear of the horrible is motivated by our attraction to it. Distaste and desire are more closely connected that you might think, and they interconnect on the borders of the body; the orifices or the skin, there where the body opens itself up to be affected by the world, but, more symbolically, can pertain to any kind of “boundary, the margin, etc., of an order.”[xix] Furthermore, Kristeva points out the relationship between the abject body and fear of female sexuality more distinctly when she suggests a link between the abject and sexual difference, or the ways in which societies have branded feminine sexuality as deviant, infectious or monstrous as a way of establishing patriarchal power.[xx] Fear of contamination is a large part of abjection; the fear that the abject can somehow be transferred onto ones clean, proper body and affect its wholeness.[xxi] Spence’s hybrids are constructs of partiality, an effect of the falling apart and reassembling of the ‘improper’ female body. Instead of banishing its hybrid qualities, Spence and Lightborne choose to enhance them, using references to sex-work – which suffers a major abject status – as a way of resisting the idea that the explicitly sexual female is without agency.
Barbara Creed takes Kristeva’s theory of abjection further and deploys it as a way to explain the status of the horrific of the feminine hybrid in film, signalling that the abject makes its appearance in film in instances where the body “signifies a collapse of the boundaries between human and animal.” “Thus, abject things are those which highlight the ‘fragility of the law’ and which exist on the other side of the border which separates out the living subject from that which threatens its extinction.” [xxii] The abject figure is a figure that threatens the “symbolic system. It is what escapes that social rationality, that logical order on which a social aggregate is based…”[xxiii] It threatens the idea that the body is autonomous, comprehensible, stable, knowable.
The hybrid figures in Realness do exactly that; they exist (literally) on the other side of a symbolic order, and undermine the idea that the body and identity are fixed states. By using the visual aide of the stripper pole to both address the status of the sex worker as passive and abject, but also deploying it as a visual limit, a splitting into two of the field of vision from direct, analogue view (the dressing up) to the indirect, digital fantasy world that plays on the screen. It transforms the field of vision from horizontal, traditional and analogue to vertical, fantasy and digital. By ‘trespassing’ the limit, literally by dancing on the pole, Spence enables herself to engage with the hybrid possibilities of her female body. In both a literal and a symbolic way, the performance enacts limitrophy, with Spence dancing in and out of her body, capable to live before shame and connect with that taboo, animal part of female sexuality that looks nothing like what we are used to see female sexuality represented as. In Spence and Lightborne’s hands, liminality enables exposure of a hybrid quality of female sexuality that will not be suppressed.
[i] Franz Kafka, "De Gedaanteverwisseling" in Franz Kafka: Verzameld Werk (Dutch title), trans. Nini Brunt, 6th ed. (Amsterdam: Querido, 1963), 676 - 720. Originally published Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1935.
[ii] Marc Shell, “Family Pet,” Representations 15 (Summer 1986): accessed February, 2016, doi: 10.2307/2928388.
[iii] Although specifically Haraway as written about human/cyborg hybridism, I want to focus here on animal/human hybrids, because I hold the anthropological viewpoint that the human body is animal in its origin and as such inherently hybrid from the start, which makes our fear of hybrids all the more interesting.
[iv] When it comes to capital, ‘hybridity’ is used in advertisements for household equipment and environmentally friendly fuel systems, and the plastic surgery industry is soaring as never before. But these are adaptations, partial ‘improvements’ to an existing, solid identity. A car is still a car, a girl still a girl, even more so with double D.
[v] Spence, K. and Lightborne, M., Strike a Pose, performed during Queer Traces, Birmingham, 2015.
[vi] Paris is Burning (1990), dir. Jenny Livingston, [film]. USA: Miramax.
[vii] “Molting, How Crabs Grow” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, accessed February, 2016, http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/Kodiak/shellfish/cultivation/crabGrow.htm
[viii] Stephen Loo and Undine Sellbach, “Eating (with) Insects: Insect Gastronomies and Upside-Down Ethics,” Parallax, no. 1, 19 (2013): 12–28.
[ix] Michel Feher gave a compelling series of lectures on the neoliberal condition at Goldsmiths in 2014 as part of the Operative Thought Series, where he described the transformation of society from one based in romantic idealism to individual success. See Feher, Michel. “Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital,” Public Culture 21:1 2000.
[x] Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” trans. David Wills, Critical Enquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter 2002): 369–418.
[xi] Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), 11.
[xii] Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” 381–384.
[xiii] “Let's allow that word to have both a general and strict sense: what abuts onto limits but also what feeds, is fed, is cared for, raised, and trained, what is cultivated on the edges of a limit.” in Ibid., 397.
[xv] G.G. Márquez, "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," in Leaf Storm, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).
[xvi] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993).
[xvii] Quotations by author Ruth Adele Lipschitz, in “Animality and Alterity: Species Discourse and the Limits of ‘the Human’ in Contemporary South African Art” (PhD dissertation, Goldsmiths University, 2014), 551.
[xviii] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
[xix] Ibid., 66.
[xx] “[…] it is always to be noticed that the attempt to establish a male, phallic power is vigorously threatened by the no less virulent power of the other sex, which is oppressed (recently? Or not sufficiently for the survival needs of society?). That other sex, the feminine, becomes synonymous with a radical evil that is to be suppressed.” Ibid., 70.
[xxi] Ibid., 71.
[xxii] Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, 70.
[xxiii] Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 65