Powers of the Bottom

The masochist submits to violence as preparation for acts of violent refusal

What does the masochist have to teach us—about subjectivity, and capitalism, and feminism, and the possibility of a post-sovereign existence? Using online classifieds ads, chatrooms, and email as her theater, poet Cassandra Troyan interrogates the dynamics of power (and sex as an extension of power) that structure our world. Where to maintain a self, to fortify one’s ego, is actually where the problem lies (‘I can’t wait to get away from myself’). And where the constraint and humiliation of the masochist produces the promise of a world beyond the control society where bondage equates grace, and weight elicits happiness charged with a difference (‘Voluminous happiness is never light / if it’s lifted it isn’t true’). Alternating between strategic reappropriation and a brutal lyricism, Troyan’s book Kill Manual assumes a persona total in its world-destroying and creating powers. Relations of intimacy and commons emerge from (to use a phrase of Leo Bersani’s) ‘the prospect of the breakdown of the human itself in sexual intensities.’ Where, during an endgame of austerity plans to expropriate every last resource remaining to human survival, the last thing they can take from us would appear the possibility of giving everything away.

Thom Donovan: Reading over Kill Manual, there are so many things that strike me again as being poignant and urgent for our moment. Most of all, however, I think it is the relationship that you are positing between the masochist and a “post-sovereign” subjectivity that I think it might be important to unpack. Though the book is by no means reducible to a scene of masochism, and does not fall easily into the images and themes that our society has pre-digested of the sadomasochist (picture the “gimp” from Pulp Fiction here; or the fascist aristocrats in Pasolini’s Salo), I think of masochism as a starting point for conceiving a new world. Not only a new world, but a world we might actually wish to live in, that will be what we will have wanted to have been. To what extent does a certain subjunctive or optative mood inhabit the voices permeating (and performing through) your book, pointing to a place beyond our world of egoism, exploitation, and mass incarceration? What conditions of possibility does the masochist open up?

Cassandra Troyan: I want to be able to return the generosity of this question by exploring how the dynamics of a personal practice work in relation to the ideological characteristics of such world-making. I do not want to frame this mode as a political program for queer subjectivity (in agreement with Eve Segdwick’s approach) specifically since I do view it as an alternative route for opening previously blocked spaces of non-normative intimacy and sovereignty. When I first sent you the manuscript that was one of your initial concerns—not wanting to misread my intentions with, or relationship to S/m and the potential discomforts present in deciphering the boundaries between fantasy and lived experience. I think courting this ambiguity serves the work best as it is most similar to the encountering of an event that allows for capacities of intensity and vulnerability otherwise vilified as “too-much-ness” in locations of emotional presence. Lauren Berlant addresses the difficulty of breaking from such forms of self-recognition “since performing and being recognized as emotionally authentic is just as important to the modern sense of being someone as understanding one’s sexual identity is.” I often find the struggle for post-sovereignty is wrapped up in these implications of identity, especially when capitalism continues to capture, dilute, then commodify previously subversive embodiments of being in relation-to (for instance, the whole spectacle of the Fifty Shades Trilogy which now has its own line of sex toys sold at Walgreens, sub-par wine, and compilations of the classical music used in scenes of “submission”.)

For the masochist the relationship to one’s desire is always negotiated through a liminal libidinal space traversing the opposing thresholds of dominance and control. It enables a framework for looking outside the conventional expectation of trauma as a context, mediator, and influence of the masochist’s ‘abberant’ behavior. One of the central hopes in KILL MANUAL is an attempt to rethink the power of the bottom, or what it means to willingly choose to enter spaces of subjugation when multiple domains of life are already operating through mechanisms of policing or force. I think the masochist can teach us about instruments of survival and building new possibilities for reciprocal desire through re-organizing spaces of intimacy, power, and control as they relate to appetites or subjectivities unfit for the habitual spaces of capitalist fantasy. (All of this relates/relies on much of what I have learned from Lauren Berlant’s work, especially in Cruel Optimism.)

The masochist by the nature of submission dominates through the desire to submit and continues to wield that authority until there is a point where the bottom must lose control and desire a loss of control, making it concomitant with desire itself. Thus, the  pain being performed in the masochist scene is the necessary threshold for pleasure, as the masochist must wait for latent pleasure by the promise of pain. An axiom of surrender best noted by D.W. Winnicott, “you have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you”.

Thom Donovan: I am thinking about how much our lives are defined by control, and yet how conversely, and perhaps paradoxically, we often feel “out of control” as the result of our economic and social conditions, whereof one is defined by “precarity,” the fact that a welfare system that was once in place has been all but completely eroded by neoliberalism. Could we read poetry, and aesthetics more generally, as a way of “losing control” productively in an encounter with what Gilles Deleuze referred to after William Burroughs as “societies of control”? I see this redistribution of control in your lyric in particular, which contains an excess—of significance and stress—that presents a breaking forth from control into what Susan Howe may have called “perfect primeval consent” and John Taggart recognized as the formal expression of a “different domination.” Do you feel that lyric, among the other modes that Kill Manual operates within, which include documentary and theater (via social media), transcends societies of control, and to what extent does this involve a reassessment or enactment of previous subjectivities posited through lyric?

Cassandra Troyan: I am invested in the notion of poetry’s potential access to the commons, or its ability through lyric form to foment collectivity, such as in Anne Boyer’s narrativizing of the crowd. “How this voice without words is another poetry. How the remedy of the state is always the crowd. How the state exists to blanket the crowd how poets exist to advertise against the crowd how poetry is often in the service of the state.” The lyric, like the crowd, knows it cannot use its form to subsume these “societies of control,” since it is often used against itself to perpetuate the violence it distains. Because of the threat of collusion, I am drawn to slipperier forms of emotional evocation for the production of new subjectivities.

In my youth, to survive, I conceptualized my pain as a space of “losing control” by turning it into an art. A living art activating a practice giving primacy to rites of sacrifice, the accursed share. Instead of allowing subjugation to manifest as self-destruction or suicide it is about killing the symbolic order, the pacts we make with the image of ourselves as individuals. Almost antinomian, but my pact is not with moral law, instead a resolve to do the unconceivable; the most vile degrading actions, impossible desires, then to use those as your triumph, your pride, your sublime pleasure, is a moment of insurrection.

Like psychotropic drugs, submission is a psychic template that can later be accessed through different invocations since the act does not rely on eroticism’s perpetual inclusion. Rather it is privileging a cry of “I am entering into this exchange because I don’t know what I will receive, or its value,” the interest being in the initial valuelessness of the encounter. Rob Halpern sums up this exchange’s capacity for contradiction perfectly in Music for Porn, “[w]hatever shame I feel in the face of sovereignty is inseparable from this arousal. In a world of love and domination, sex becomes monstrous in just proportion to the monstrosity of that world. The skin, being this endless organ of excitement and abuse, my own private pleasures being mere adjunct of that.”

The presence of the skin within these modes of affective theatricality make cinema the genre I think through most intensely, especially in terms of my own video work. The skin being where subjective affinities are built and congeal through the sensorial force of a viewing experience. I am particularly drawn to the work of filmmakers who have a capacity for making the spectator implicitly active. Constantly moving to attenuate her role as both viewer of the work in the real-time experience, and the projection afterwards in terms of how the film serves to engender new means of making sympathetic identifications with history (such as with Phillip Grandieux, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, or Lucile Hadzihalilovic). Through a recent conversation with poet Brenda Iijima, she has helped me to realize how important the role of titillation is while re-representing or re-encountering hegemonic scenes of patriarchal violence, as a means of moving through by physically activating the body of the spectator to instigate affectively resonant aesthetico-political realms.

Thom Donovan: Could you talk a bit more specifically about the relationship between your text-based work and filmmaking practice, particularly with regards to the filmmakers you mention? I am quite drawn to these filmmakers, yet am often viscerally taken aback by certain moments of negativity and violence in their work, especially as they are often directed towards women. Do you think these modes of aesthetic violence are necessary for mediating real social violence? I personally wonder sometimes if they are not redoubling the objects of our despair rather than offering a means of transformation and healing.

Cassandra Troyan: I refuse to produce life-affirming visions of the present when this present is irrevocably fucked. In a global struggle for capital I think of Silvia Federici’s use of “DEATH-POWER” as the prevailing operative force rather than biopower. The non-indictment of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo are powerful examples of what has been happening for centuries, white supremacy profits from black death and the ability to end those lives freely. Healing, which has been a repeated plea from Obama since Mike Brown’s death, at this moment is a false resolution. Putting salve on a suppurating wound will not fix it.

Violence is one material of this heterogeneous reality, and cinema is built to represent this set of potential contradictions. Catherine Breillat speaks of her filmmaking in this way, “I know why I make films—partly because I want to describe female shame—but beyond that, cinema is a mode of expression that allows you to express all the nuances of a thing while including its opposites. There are things that can’t be quantified mentally; yet they can exist and be juxtaposed…Cinema allows you to film these contradictions.” Here Breillat is talking about shame, but I believe it applies to violence too, in juxtaposition, while relating back to the influence of its present. My work, written and in image, contains a violence that I see as not being superficially produced, but arising out of the conditions of a world entrenched in brutality and corroborated by life’s aggressive circumstances.

I believe there is power and potential in this violence. Within the past several months, reading the wave of women’s accounts of sexual assault and gendered violence in the literary community have helped me recover situations of abuse that I had sublimated. Although triggering, it is through this experience that I could even encounter my trauma to realize I had completely obliterated situations where I had been raped, I had been coerced. Written and visual representations of coercion and rape have helped me to re-contextualize these experiences and congeal them into rage rather than a passive victimization. Certain contemporary filmic depictions (especially Breillat’s Fat Girl) reach to the heart of this issue, to question how much of female sexuality is constantly negotiating compromises of inevitable humiliation. Overall I want less sublimation—of white supremacy, misogyny, state oppression—and more confrontation.

Thom Donovan:  We certainly need a corrective to the rhetoric of healing that has overtaken the mainstream media following public responses to grand juries’ failures to indict Mike Brown’s and Eric Garner’s killers. When I wrote you in the fall, I was thinking of healing more in terms of a discourse in poetry and aesthetics about how art may act therapeutically and/or as medicine. In general I have found myself increasingly persuaded by calls for violent retribution and, perhaps more importantly, intelligently strategized violence against the police state in the past few years, my primary reservation being that certain expressions and modes of violence may only serve to reinforce techniques of state power. If nothing else, there is simply no comparing the violence of looting or rioting with the violence of an economic-legal system that could create such conditions of despair as those that have made possible the range of responses to the ongoing murder of young black men by the police state in the United States.

But to back-up and go a bit deeper into your processes, I was wondering if you might discuss how you work between film and your text-based works? For instance, do the films solve ‘problems’ that you feel the books cannot, and vice versa? Do the books lead to the films and vice versa; in other words, can you recognize distinct movements or progressions between the two mediums? How do “confrontation” and “contradiction” occur across your discrete filmic and text-based projects?

Cassandra Troyan: Or the fact that looting is not even violence but in capitalism the act of smashing a bank window or liberating champagne is transformed into an act of violence by anthropomorphizing objects into innocent victims, an appalling discontinuity for the actual loss of life.

In terms of these processes at the moment, it is hard for me to say. I know how it has functioned for me in the past and sometimes the distinctions are conscious, sometimes they are not. My graduate thesis, which was an experimental feature-length non-narrative film with no spoken dialogue, is a work I view in tandem with my first book, THRONE OF BLOOD. The book explodes into kaleidoscopic forms that if executed in video would be contiguous to the exaggerated world of Ryan Trecartin’s films, (which I greatly admire) but here over-saturation would be performing a disservice to the affective tenor. There has to be enough space for the reader to have a delayed experience without flattening the often intensely subjective spheres within my texts, , such as in DUSK AT THE GALLOWS or WHERE THE SUN NEVER SHINES (inter-textual video works in a similar register to my own include Rachel Rose, Michael Robinson, Fern Silva, Jesse McLean, etc.) For example, if I crank out the rhetoric of a troll for a written project, its displacement and profusion through my usage collapses the original intent of derailment (usually by a troll’s spreading of general racism or sexism). Or, I just end up trolling myself. Within the past year I have become exceedingly skeptical of my role in cultural-production. Lately I keep returning to Debordian idioms of the spectacle, “whose function it is to bury history in culture,” making me cautious about working right now unless it arises naturally out of current struggles. HATRED OF WOMEN is my most recent work because of this necessity.

Cassandra Troyan lives in Chicago. They are the author of three books: THRONE OF BLOOD (Solar Luxuriance), BLACKEN ME BLACKEN ME, GROWLED (Tiny Hardcore Press), and KILL MANUAL (Artifice Books). Recently solo screenings include Artists’ Television Access in San Francisco and Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn.