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Body Horror

Olivia Laing and the politics of “bodies in the streets”

Before Lulu died, her sister asked a doctor to arrange a video call so she could see her one last time. A prison guard stationed outside the room would not allow it.

—Justine van der Leun, New York Review of Books, October 2020

In April, my city was occupied—again. It’s a bodily thing: you see soldiers with the same weapons used in mass shootings cradled in their arms, you see their armored transports camouflaged for occupied deserts, and you are overcome. To walk to the grocery store means disgust, fear, revulsion, rage. To enter a boarded-up market means stepping from daylight into a strangled darkness. It means passing convoys of boy soldiers—young and white and male and armed and therefore indistinguishable from domestic terrorists—sent to silence any dissent, any otherness.

Broodingly I thought of Olivia Laing’s newest book, Everybody. Contrasting the shame of growing into her body as a child, Laing recalls how she “went to my first Gay Pride at nine, and the feeling of all those marching bodies on Westminster Bridge lodged inside me too . . . It seemed obvious to me that bodies on the streets were how you changed the world.” I thought, too, of Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, who earlier this year said that, as a term, “activism” has grown synonymous with left-wing politics. Why does no one, he wondered, ever ask conservatives when they decided to become right-wing activists?

To send a military force into an American city is right-wing activism. It is Laing’s “bodies on the streets,” and it is certainly an attempt to change the world—in this case by keeping it unwantedly, unsustainably the same. The body, Laing goes on, is “a device for processing the external world; a conversion machine, hoarding, transforming, discarding, stripping for parts.” If these bodies belong in the streets, it’s worth reflecting on how they are politicized—and to whom they really belong.

“Ideas travel, morph, dwindle, resurge.” As with The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City, Everybody is an intellectual travelogue—“a book about freedom,” as the subtitle has it. At her best, Laing is an enthralled and reverent tourist. Some of her destinations (the Parises, the Venices) are popular, competitive topics—the life and art of David Wojnarowicz, or the oeuvres of Susan Sontag and Maggie Nelson, or art’s relationship with alcoholism—which she nevertheless covers freshly, enthusiastically. And then there are the ice floes, the deserts: in The Lonely City, the paintings of Edward Hopper; or, in Everybody, the life and work of Wilhelm Reich. The brief mentions of Reich in Sontag and Nelson (Laing and I are similar travelers) pale next to Laing’s rich, tender evocation of one of the twentieth century’s most radical and ruined clinical philosophers—a man whose bestselling books were burned by the Eisenhower administration. It remains, Laing adds, “the only nationally sanctioned book burning in American history.”

Reich had been federally harassed for years. Granted, for a medical doctor, his theories about orgone—a supposedly unknown form of biological energy or life force—were more appropriate for philosophers or mystics, yet the state’s decision to “bar Reich from ever again discussing the existence of orgone energy” [emphasis mine], seems perverse and vindictive. Worse was the FDA’s appearance at his residence in Maine, where they “ordered Reich to destroy all his accumulators,” and supervised “screw by screw” until they “smashed them up with axes.” Later, FDA inspectors hauled six tons of Reich’s papers, records, and research to an incinerator. Several of the burned works, Laing notes, “were outside the terms set by the injunction, including The Mass Psychology of Fascism.”

His life’s work destroyed, Reich “degenerated into a drunken bully” and grew psychotic. He had, Laing writes, “long since lost faith in the world around him, experiencing it as a place of attacks and hidden dangers.” After the injunction, he was sent to prison, where he suffered from bodily ailments, “made no friends,” was only permitted visits with his wife and young child three hours per month, and died in total isolation.

That Reich’s “lifelong struggle for freedom culminated in imprisonment,” Laing writes, “is hardly a tragedy confined to him. Anyone who attempts to enlarge the freedoms of the body has to reckon with the institution of the prison, one of the state’s most formidable weapons for limiting and curtailing emancipation movements.” Even the body itself, controlled and monitored, can be turned against the prisoner, “making the most ordinary and modest of habits and obligations an occasion for shame, discomfort, or pain.” In America, these prisons famously out-populate those in all other countries combined—“2.3 million imprisoned bodies.” The facilities built now, Laing notes, are “not furnished with libraries and baseball diamonds” but prioritize “surveillance, punishment, and sensory deprivation.” This is not rehabilitation, Laing writes, but “the business of generating unreformable bodies.”

Discipline, Foucault wrote, “is the unitary technique by which the body is reduced as a ‘political’ force at the least cost and maximized as a useful force.” Techniques used in modern prisons—as well as the state’s greedily punitive attitude in filling them—are what de Lagasnerie means by activism: purposeful actions to elicit a political result. In this case: fewer voters, fewer oppositional activists, fewer ideas, and more controllable, profitable bodies. That this activism constitutes internationally recognized torture hasn’t slowed carceral momentum but accelerated it; it’s as if right-wing activists know they don’t have much time to politically annihilate as many bodies as they can.

Anyone who attempts to enlarge the freedoms of the body has to reckon with the institution of the prison.

Prison—and the culture where prison is an omnipresent, permanent threat for a targeted population overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic and almost exclusively poor—is a traumatic and torturous (and therefore political) environment. In Everybody, Laing mentions Edith Jacobson, whose brief imprisonment by the Nazis led to a lifetime of abolitionism. Her observations betray the torture of incarceration. Prison is, Laing writes,

a series of shocks and deprivations. The dreadful new surroundings, the restriction of day-to-day activities, the loss of personal belongings like clothes and glasses, the severing of familiar relationships and the isolation or horribly enforced contact had, Jacobson thought, a dramatic effect on the prisoner’s psyche, bringing about a catastrophic breach in object relations . . . Prisoners suffered from phobias, panic attacks, anxiety, irritability, insomnia. They forgot names and places. They developed physical symptoms as a consequence of what we would now call traumatic stress: racing hearts, clammy hands, urticaria, thyrotoxicosis, amenorrhea.

This environment, she adds, is supervised and controlled not by those who created it, but by the guards: “Uneducated, unprepared, untrained, it is they who decide day-to-day policy, maintain discipline and mete out punishment. They favor or persecute individuals, creating a sadistic framework that makes it very hard for even the most sturdy of inmates to resist.”

In a more contemporary example, the 2012 Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture found that, in the “black sites” where “enhanced interrogation” took place, “the CIA placed individuals with no applicable experience or training in senior detention and interrogation roles, and provided inadequate linguistic and analytical support . . . Numerous CIA officers had serious documented personal and professional problems—including histories of violence and records of abusive treatment of others.” Some of these soldiers—particularly those involved in the highly publicized torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib—were court-martialed and sentenced. The CIA, however, is still operational. Just as the Minneapolis Police Department, despite one of its own being convicted, is still unaccountable—and still terrorizing the people forced to pay their salaries, to fund their militarized training, to buy their obscene weapons.

Just as, too, there are concentration camps along the southern border of this country, where, right now, children are shivering in shit or being told their parents are dead while we pay inexperienced guards to laugh at them.

In Vienna, Reich was Freud’s protégé—the fiercest of the second-generation psychoanalysts. But his patients formed “a very different clientele,” Laing writes, than Freud’s “wealthy neurasthenics.” They were “industrial laborers, farmers, housewives, and the unemployed . . . Their problems weren’t a result of Oedipal conflict or witnessing the primal scene. They were struggling with poverty, overcrowding, overwork, exhaustion, drunkenness, domestic violence, prostitution, incest, rape, teenage pregnancy, illegal abortions and venereal disease.” Whereas Freud saw “total political neutrality” as “the only way psychoanalysis could survive under Nazi rule,” Reich—in Anna Freud’s disapproving words—“forced psychoanalysis to become political.”

It’s hard not to think of Freud’s by-the-hour “neutrality” while, today, corporations patent and market psychotropic medications designed for us to “cope” with the consequences of right-wing activism, or of therapists and writers telling us to meditate, to breathe, to try yoga, to practice self-affirmation—whatever this week’s Instagrammable therapy may be. “There can be,” as Laing writes, “no possibility of a safe zone, no way of keeping yourself isolated from the world. Life demands exchange, a fact that illness by its nature reveals.” This fact is what discipline tries to erase. The “primary objective of carceral action,” as Foucault wrote, is “coercive individualization, by the termination of any relation that is not supervised by authority or arranged according to hierarchy.” Solitude “is the primary condition of total submission,” which is perhaps why isolating—or individuating—is not only the punishment of choice among jailers, but the fundamental condition of American life, particularly as applied to health and wellness.

Illness, as the current pandemic has made clear, is not personal but political—and so are its metaphors. Contamination and sterility—the foundations of modern germ theory—are easily distorted into “filth” and “purity.” This happens frequently in fascist movements, as Laing notes in observing Philip Guston’s paintings of the KKK: “The white robes are also sexless, while the hoods have no mouths, which is to say no appetite. Everything about them is designed to attest to purity, to differentiate the Klansmen from the animal bodies of the swarm. It’s funny how often this dynamic recurs, in racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia, hatred of the poor and the disabled . . . It makes me wonder if what drives prejudice is at root horror of the body itself.”

While “funny” is not the word I would use to describe the rhetoric of purity in right-wing activism, Laing is right to say that it recurs. However, in its contemporary fear of the body—especially in American society—the concept of “purity” is hardly unique to right-wing talking points. In the tech industry, notions of purity are particularly insidious, and often coterminous with, if not liberal politics, certainly a liberal ethos: “do it all from home!” or “be your best self!” and other gentrified idiocy. The reality of body politics and consumer technology—with smartphones being the most visible example—is not progressive but outright fascist in its targeting of the body’s relationships with everyday experience. Yet rather than the radical embodiment of prison, to replace more and more of one’s social interactions with a textureless “touch screen,” and to cope with the isolating, fragmented, incoherent living conditions of capitalism in general, is to be radically disembodied. And this seemingly voluntary environment of disembodiment in many ways resembles the involuntary tortures of prison, especially with respect to sensory deprivation (touch, taste, smell, and often sound), sensory overload (constant unpatterned visual stimuli), and sleep disturbances. In a 2016 paper published in Extreme Physiology & Medicine, former military SERE psychologist John Leach observes that “isolation, solitary confinement and sensory deprivation lie along a spectrum of diminishing richness of physical and social stimuli.” Describing the experiences of military test subjects during the many capitalist/communist proxy wars of the twentieth century, he adds that “it was believed that techniques of sensory and perceptual deprivation were instrumental in reducing resistance to interrogation, heightening suggestibility and particularly enabling attitude change and indoctrination where it was feared that a person could lose the ability to control his own thoughts and be reduced to repeating”—or retweeting, say—“the thoughts that had been implanted from outside.”

Another study, published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging in 2017, found that “excess social media use in the general population” was associated with “reduced GMV [gray matter volume] in the bilateral amygdala,” a significant part of the brain’s social cognition apparatus. This, of course, would indicate serious social consequences of ubiquitous personalized and disembodying technology, particularly where empathy and its social applications are concerned. Another paper—“The Social Neuroscience of Empathy,” by Tania Singer and Claus Lamm, published in The Year in Cognitive Neuroscience 2009—distinguishes between “top-down” and “bottom-up” empathetic activity in the brain, and suggests that empathy is strictly neither one nor the other but both, an interaction of a two-way circuit. Reduction of GMV in the amygdala, part of the brain’s “bottom up” or sensory-driven empathetic responses (seeing others in pain, for example, or feeling someone’s pelvic contractions as they come), would indicate an interruption or fuzzing of this circuit. Also significant is that “top down” drivers of this circuit—assessing context, analyzing the threat of a situation, or imagining the pain of others in lieu of evident sensory data—rely on “cortical areas associated with executive function, contextual appraisal, and attention.” All are diminished, as Leach points out, by prolonged or intense exposure to “extreme” or “torturous” environments—or, in the context of this essay, by exposure to the conditions of capitalism in the twenty-first century.

To be sensitive to each other, to give each other time and risk walking away “a bit different,” would slow this information down, and its consequent profitability.

Exposed to everyday life in capitalist nations, the empathy circuit—one of the foundations of social cognition and social cohesion—is attacked and corroded in both directions by the intense oscillation of radical embodiment and radical disembodiment, neither of which, for most of us, is within our control.

The circuit metaphor echoes a passage in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, where she riffs on Franco Berardi’s distinction between “connectivity” and “sensitivity.” Connectivity—the primary metric by which consumers are appraised and exploited—prioritizes homogeneity, simplicity, reduction. The body becomes dust on the circuit. Our technological culture has moved to hide it, as Odell points out, behind our own personal sensory deprivation chambers: “As the body disappears, so does our ability to empathize . . . In the environment of our online platforms, ‘that which cannot be verbalized’ is figured as excess or incompatible, although every in-person encounter teaches us the importance of nonverbal expressions of the body, not to mention the very matter-of-fact presence of the body in front of me.” Anyone who’s spent ninety seconds on Twitter at any point over the last several years will understand just how easily this radical disembodiment overrides or erases the brain’s temptation to contextualize, attend to, or imagine the lives and feelings of others. Nor can we see, hear, or feel how we hurt people; the circuit is muted. They are only images—an imagination that our static avatars, frozen in some photogenic stare or goofy grin, do little to dispel. Wired to spread information (or misinformation), our connectivity is optimized for conflict. To be sensitive to each other, to give each other time and risk walking away “a bit different,” would slow this information down, and its consequent profitability.

None of this is new—not after a decade of warnings, books, studies, op-eds, and what I assume, if you’re reading this, are your own feelings of dread and anxiety and shame. But it’s not as if we seem to have much of a choice, especially if any of our income relies on our visibility. Odell, as an example, mentions Jacob S. Hacker’s concept of the “new contract” that “formed between companies and employees in the absence of regulation from the government in the 1970s and 80s . . . passing the task on to individuals to remain competitive as producing bodies. This ‘new contract,’ alongside other missing forms of government protection, closes the margin for refusal and leads to a life lived in economic fear.” In a narrower margin of refusal, the choice to remain in our environments is eroded, if not removed.

All of these methods, according to Leach—including sensory or perceptual deprivation, sleep interruptions, temporal distortions, social humiliations, or even stress positions (which “can encourage an individual to see himself as the cause of his own pain,” something that sounds suspiciously like using our own unaffordable desire for health care against us)—“can form a system designed deliberately to undermine an individual, to disrupt the senses and to disintegrate personality.” But by whose deliberation? Well, whoever’s getting rich off pain. Whoever’s lobbying against, or simply voting against, legislative measures that would make it harder, or impossible, to get rich off pain. The rich, and their apologists, are our torturers.

Walking through my burned and boarded-up and to-this-day rubble-strewn neighborhood, I’ve often thought of another quote from Laing. This one is from The Lonely City, her travelogue of lonely artists in an older New York, in this case Wojnarowicz:

One of David’s strongest memories of his street years was periodic nights of rage, in which he and a buddy would get so choked up with hunger and frustration that they’d walk almost the length of Manhattan island, smashing the glass in every phone box that they passed. Sometimes you can change the psychic space, the landscape of the emotions, by carrying out actions in the physical world.

Most of Laing’s books are dense with artists. Her treatment of Wojnarowicz, her reverence, is among her greatest engagements. His life was art and activism. His body in the street: he did change the psychic space, the “landscape of the emotions,” with his presence.

In Everybody, the artists are rarer, their numbers thinned by theorists and polemicists (for all Laing’s strengths, she cannot do for Andrea Dworkin, a “pro-censorship activist” who “made tactical alliances with right-wing anti-obscenity campaigners,” what she did for, say, the banality of Andy Warhol—that is, ignite compassion). But the artists are here—including Ana Mendieta, whose photographs and performances are among the most brutally bodily in Everybody. What Mendieta captures “is the certainty of bodily change, everything shifting and dissolving, matter on its dance through time.” In her use of blood, simulated rape, and images and poses conjuring death, Mendieta radically embodies not only herself but, via art, her viewers, her audience. We are asked to remember, to believe in, to feel ourselves as bodies. And it is crucial that we are asked.

In February of 2020, before dancing vanished behind screens, the New York Times ran a profile of several dancers influenced or inspired by Matthew Bourne’s all-male version of Swan Lake, particularly as boys. “In traditional ballets,” one observed, “the man is mostly a foil to the ballerina. To see male dancers perform as a group, in a corps de ballet setting, but with great power, grace and sensitivity, was awe-inspiring.” For the first time, he said, he could be “masculine and otherworldly, and also a gate-crashing troublemaker. In ballet, it’s usually the women who get those different dramatic ideas and conceits. I had performed Siegfried with Natalia Osipova as Odette/Odile in the classical Swan Lake about four months before working on [Bourne’s] version, and I remember watching her animalistic qualities in that part, and the way she combined delicacy and power.”

Another dancer noted the ballet’s relationship with his own body: “The choreography is very demanding, very physical, and you need to do a lot of outside training for stamina and stability. The movement is very grounded, it really involves using your plié and your breath—we jump a lot. It takes quite a long time to get used to it and get it into your body.” Dance, like many forms of art (with writing perhaps at the most disembodied end of the spectrum), gets into your body. At some point, every detail of a performance, every movement, no longer requires your conscious attention and regulation. You become, instead, porous with the performance—the environment.

Maybe I’m just gay and horny, but after years of boredom and bewilderment I’m finally interested in dance—largely because of ballets like Bourne’s, or Brendan Fernandes’s art installations where dancers “practice” in confined spaces, as if warming up. Watching Bourne’s stranger and prince attract and repel each other onstage while a row of seated, shirtless swans gently, liquidly preen their arms is exhilarating, particularly because of the environment from which I view it: a culture where men fight as often as they fuck. Each embrace carries a threat of fists, a dynamic that calls to mind the long, slow training sequences in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, where martial arts positions are held and released like a dancer’s allongé and calisthenic stretches taken on the grace of a plié. So, too, do Fernandes’s ropes and bars and arabesques suggest restraint, stress positions, pain, confinement—not only techniques of torture that weaken the body’s resistance but of BDSM experiences that heighten the body’s pleasure. Dance, fucking, and pain are formally similar, but ethically antonymous.

Matter on its dance through time. Dance, at its best, is a dialogical meditation on what Odell would call “sensitivity,” or the encounter of two ambiguous bodies trying to figure one another out. In many dances, the choreography is a negotiation between the artist and the performer, between the body and its surroundings, between the body and its memory; and the dance is what results when sensory information, context, attention, and imagination all meet. Artworks themselves are fugues of patterns—patterns altered, patterns variegated, patterns broken and repaired. Experiencing art is to expose the brain to patterns, to risk or seek refining the brain’s engagement with patterns—and to provoke, with intent, the emotional consequences of losing them.

Perhaps the most important thing about art is that art is a choice. While dance and other arts, like Mendieta’s performances and their photographic records, can be radically embodying; and while literature and cinema, or certain museum installations, can be radically disembodying, these are in no way “extreme” environments because we have chosen them. Their body politics is one of action, not reaction. In choosing art—as in choosing activism—we consent to inhabit or  to vacate our bodies.

If consent is at the core of body politics, where is the language of consent in our resistance to our torturers? Where is the grievance of consent in perhaps the most language-destroying, psychologically debilitating, personality-disintegrating catastrophe in human history?

Today, it is climate change that approximates this torture model, and this lack of consent is a global emergency.

We have not consented to the annihilation of our civilization, nor to be reminded of its supposed inevitability on a daily basis with no resources to challenge it, stop it, or even grasp the immensity of its horror. Writing of nuclear war in the 1980s, Elaine Scarry observed how it “more closely approximates the model of torture than the model of conventional war because it is a structural impossibility that the populations whose bodies are used in the confirmation process can have exercised any consent over this use of their bodies.” Today, it is climate change that approximates this torture model, and this lack of consent is a global emergency that makes previous genocides—which garnered international condemnation, support, aid, and intervention, as well as solicited treaties and conventions—seem offensively quaint; and yet the register of the response is practically a rheumy sigh in the face of watching one’s own child ripped methodically to shreds.

Our resistance, after years of sensory deprivation, social and personal humiliation, neurological maladaptation, and other forms of nonconsensual embodiment and disembodiment, may be weathered, but it is not destroyed. Undoubtedly, it was “bodies in the streets” that brought police and prison abolition from the fringes of the left into the political mainstream in 2020, and it was bodies in the Capitol that made clear, for many disengaged centrists, how serious the right’s activism really is. The beginning of this resistance is reclaiming our relationship with our own embodiment, to recognize our daily manipulations and tortures for what they are and disengage as sovereignly as possible. Part of this is placing one’s own body, yes, in the street, or on the line, or in the courthouse. It is taking an activist stance against torture—against profiting off sickness and death, against a moralized homelessness, against imprisonment, against racist and misogynistic and transphobic and ableist ideas, actions, and policies. But another is refining our engagement with art, where we consent to learn about our bodies and their enmeshment with each other and our planet. Writing of Nina Simone, Laing notes how she “felt the room expand” at hearing her voice: “This what one body can do for another: manifest a freedom that is shared, that slips under the skin.” Our bodies are still here; we need to cultivate and support every tender, urgent reminder that they’re still ours.