Art, Possession and The Revolutionary Unconscious

Below is an illustrated transcript of a lecture I recently gave at the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm as part of the Xism show and ‘Pig Party’ event curated by Roberto Peyre to coincide with a major Vodou exhibition currently taking place there. I will be writing about the Vodou show and the discussion surrounding it in further posts. I will also post a transcript of the lecture I gave two days later as part of the ‘Sacred Matter and Secular Frames’ symposium organized by Lotten Gustafsson, Curator at the Museum of Ethnography and the National Museum of World Culture.

Thanks to Roberto for the invitation to speak. Roberto and I met – for the second time in fact – at the Ghetto Biennale which took place in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in December 2009. The lecture I will give today is a response to discussions generated since then. It is also something of an up-dated version of a lecture I gave at Goldsmith’s College in London in 1999 which Roberto also happened to attend and a supplement to a talk given at the Brunei gallery, School of African and Oriental Studies in 2004 at the opening of an exhibition celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the foundation of the Haitian Republic. A transcript of that talk can be found here.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to clarify my thoughts on the topics I have been asked to address here. Notions of clarification and clarity are very important in my profession as a lecturer in art theory and critical studies. I don’t always achieve it. But as a teacher I feel an ethical-pedagogical imperative to be as clear, precise and comprehensible in the presentation of ideas as possible. I believe this attraction towards lucidity (or ‘transparency’) operates in the opposite direction to intellectual obfuscation. And in preparing for today’s presentation I have come to see how this pegadogical imperative partakes somehow of the duality of the sacred in ritual magic which, according to Robert Hertz and others, operates through left-handed and right-handed pathways. The sinister left-handed path works in obscurity and darkness while the right-handed path works in light and clear view.

Intellectual obfuscation is an exercise of power that operates by obscuring comprehension, concealing sources and refusing explanation to those not ‘in the know’. In this way its exercise can be associated with those ‘left-handed’ and ‘sinister’ mechanisms of power that work through secrecy, fear and veiled threat. But the sacred power of secrecy is something that must be acknowledged in light of intellectual honesty, even if sometimes the secrets themselves can’t properly be brought to light (for reasons beyond the scope of this presentation). It is important to recognize that the work of the academic has things in common with the work of the sorcerer.


I think the best way to frame today’s presentation is by explaining how I came to be involved in the Ghetto Biennale. I first met Leah Gordon (one of the co-curators of the Ghetto Biennale) in 1998 after I had attended an event called Vodou Nation that she had organized at a club in London with the houngan Egdard Jean Louis and his Société Achade from the Bel Air district of Port-au-Prince. Leah, it turned out, drank regularly in the same pub as myself. I recognized her from the event and struck up a conversation with her there.

At that time I had recently returned from a period of travel in Mexico where, amongst other things, I had been doing research into the activities of a notorious drug-running cult called the Narco-Satanicos which had killed many people in grotesque ritualistic murders in Mexico city and the border town of Matamoros during the late 1980’s. Along with my then partner Ranu Mukherjee, I had, on returning to London, been making a series of art works based on these researches. Although I don’t like to think too much about this particular phase of works these days it is important to mention them today because it helps explain why I have the relationship to Vodou that I have. I will be speaking more about the works on Friday at the ‘Sacred Matter and Secular Frames’ symposium.

In the past I approached Vodou not as an ‘authentic’ religious and cultural practice of the people of Haiti, but instead as something represented/mis-represented in Western popular culture and media, something whose ‘authenticity’ I had no access to. It is for this reason that I am cautious to make the distinction between voodoo spelled with a ‘oo’ ‘oo’ and Vodou spelt with an ‘o’ and an ‘ou’. It is the former ( i.e. Vodou as mis/represented in western popular culture and media) that I have been primarily concerned with. I have recently started to use the term Faudoux to describe the use of voodoo as magical practice in its own right, partly in acknowledgment of the first accounts of vodou made by colonial observers who spelled the word Vaudaux.  I would also like to tenuously propose here that ‘authentic’ Vodou may implicitly contain aspects of Faudoux too. And I am beginning to realize that the three terms – Vodou, Voodoo, and Fauxdoux –  cannot be fully separated from each other.

In the case of the Narco-satanicos cult, the leader was initiated as a santero (a priest of Santeria) and a palero (a priest of Palo Mayombe) in Miami before moving to Mexico where he put his magical skills to work doing limpias (ritual cleansings) and trabajos (ritual workings) for drug-running families there. By the end of his grizzly career Adolfo Constanzo and his cult were combining a diverse mix of African-American religious practices into a hybrid form of sacrificial sorcery that seemed to be an extremely malicious version of the afro-cuban religious practices of Palo Mayombe. I don’t want to talk more about this here. It’s a very grim story which was made into a grim film called Borderland in 2007. All very nasty and not  particularly uplifting spiritually.

The important point to make is that my interest in the cult stemmed from a suspicion that mainstream Mexican media, which was very centrally controlled by the state at that time, had used the story as part of a sensationalist campaign to vilify the practices of Santeria in their country, and that it was, in some way, part of a generalized anti-superstition campaign of the kind periodically waged in Haiti against Vodou. This assumption was predicated on the  idea that the mass media – and particularly the mainstream news media – are themselves systems of magical power used to ‘bind’ populations according to particular dominant belief systems in the interests of those groups which have the most to gain in maintaining the cultural and political status quo. The case of the Narcosatanicos, as it turned out, was much darker and politically complex than this. 

What was interesting in the story however, especially in terms of the relationship between Faudoux, Voodoo, and Vodou, is that the cult had used John Schlessinger’s voodoo horror film The Believers (1987) as a training film, suggesting that the lines between traditional ritual magic, its distorted malefic application and its sensational cinematic misrepresentation had become deeply entangled in this particular case.

Two guiding principles of my research at that time coincided in this complex of authentic, cinematic and sensationalist ‘applications’ of sorcery.

i) Cinema – and mass media in general – can be seen as a form of ritual magic. (This is explicitly in the case of avant-garde filmmakers and ethnographers like Maya Deren and Jean Rouch but it is also and most importantly the case precisely when it is not recognized as such (i.e. when it is engaged simply as news or entertainment)).

ii) Actual ritual violence and representational ritual violence partake of the same terroristic logic of power

These were not spontaneous realizations. They were the conclusions I had come to during the research I undertook between 1991 and 1995 at the Royal College of Art in London.

My doctoral thesis – Revolting Subjects and Epidemic Disorder: Georges Bataille, Heterology  and Broadcast Horror – had examined the phenomena of Video  Nasties, a particularly violent collection of horror films which were banned in the UK in the 1980’s as a reaction to fears of their potential ‘copy-cat’ effect on suggestible young people. On the banned list were films like Driller Killer, Evil  Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Last House on  the Left. What made these films particularly disturbing to viewers and censors alike was their combination of representations of extreme physical violence with themes of sadistic sexual perversion.  But perhaps most importantly, several of the films (notably Faces of Death and Cannibal Holocaust) deliberately challenged the viewer’s ability to distinguish between representations of actual violence and their cinematic simulations.

Research into the censorship of the video nasties led me to two important conclusions that would later inform the Narcosatanicos-related works: i) at the level of the cinematic image there is no way to distinguish between actual and simulated violence and ii) it is only certain kinds of images (i.e. those that represent the transgression of cultural taboos) that have the particular potent effect that makes them considered necessary to prohibit. 

I approached these films from a theoretical perspective derived from the writings of the French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille for whom the issue of sexuality and violence, taboo and transgression, were fundamental concerns.

 Bataille, Lieris and the Sacred Revolution

Georges Bataille, for those who aren’t familiar with his work, was a French writer and thinker who was closely associated with the Parisian Surrealist movement in the mid 20’s and early 30’s. Most famously he was part of a group of dissident Surrealists who broke with Andre Breton after the 2nd Surrealist manifesto in 1927 (including Michel Leiris, Andre Masson and Pierre Klossowski) and went on to edit the avant-garde ethnographic arts journal Documents between 1929-30.

Bataille was not widely read in the English speaking world until the mid 1980’s when many of his works were translated after his rediscovery through the work of other French writers associated with post-structuralism (e.g. Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva). Key works in this revival period were the October 36 Bataille special edition (1986) and Alan Stoekl’s edited collection of Bataille’s Visions of Excess (1986). The group around Bataille at the time of Documents have been associated with what James Clifford in his book The Predicament of Culture: 2oth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (1988) has called ‘ethnographic surrealism’.

Perhaps the most important work in this tradition (one which I know only secondarily as it is yet to be translated into English) is Michel Lieris’ L’Afrique fantôme (1934). Lieris was an ethnographer at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris when he was invited by Marcel Griaule to be the secretary archivist for the major Dakar-Djibouti mission to West Africa, the first French mission in fact. At this time Leiris was in psychoanalysis  (on the advice of Bataille) and the book that Leiris wrote was not therefore a formal academic ethnographic document about the culture he dispassionately observed there, but an account of his own delirious fantasies and responses to the experience of the journey. It is one of the first ethnographic works to explicitly acknowledge and foreground the distorting subjective lens (the ‘Eurocentric colonial gaze’) of the individual engaged in ethnographic ‘research’.

For me, the importance of Leiris critical strategy is to show that we cannot assume an objective, non-libidinal, and non-fantasmatic relationship to the exotic and the other, that such pre-conceptions must be acknowledged if we are to get any where near a non-imperialist mode of inter-cultural engagement and dialogue with people from cultures other than our own. Part of this process requires that we acknowledge and include our anxieties, preconceptions and fantasies about others in our relationships with them. Leiris included his own dreams and the dreams of his colleagues in this account. In one very telling example Marcel Griaulle dreamt about trying to get lions into a museum. I hope Leiris’ example explains my choice to write about voodoo rather than Vodou, as the former is much closer to my own personal and direct experience, something I know directly rather than through imagination alone. As an outsider to the religion one cannot begin to approach Vodou without acknowledging the distorting lens of voodoo.

Like many of his Surrealist colleagues who were beginning to discover the unconscious as revealed by Freud and others, Lieris was interested in trying to access the primitive core of his desires. It is likely that part of his motivation to travel to Africa on this mission was to encounter this Other within the self (see Phyllis Clarck-Taqua ‘In Search of New Skin: Michel Lieris’ Afrique Fantome, Cahiers d’études africaines, 1992).

It is important to note, in light of what we will be talking about here in the next few days, that the Dakar Djibouti mission was primarily intended to gather objects for the collection of Musee de l’Homme in Paris, and that Lieris noted with disdain the way this collecting was conducted by his colleagues. One example of the unethical practices used by the ethnographers led Griaule to discourage Leiris from publishing Phantom Africa. Griaule, who wanted to see a sacred mask of the Kono people in Sudan which was contained in a spectacular hut, was told to do so would require the sacrifice of two chickens per person. Griaule threatened the elders with bribes and threats of punishment under colonial administration in order to avoid this time consuming exchange.

Such observations should also be understood in terms of the Surrealist context which Leiris was leaving behind, one in which the Surrealist object was seen to be something charged with sacred force. (See for example Leiris’ ‘The Sacred in Everyday Life’ in Denis Hollier’s The College of Sociology 1937-39) a very significant text in terms of prospective discussions about the relationship between art objects and ethnographic artifacts in light of the discourse of the sacred). 

The key themes that tie Bataille’s and Leiris’ interests together are: revolutionary surrealism; sacrifice; the sacred; transgression; and the revitalization of communication/community in light of the increasing secularization and instrumentalisation of everyday life within bourgeois capitalism. Michael Richardson, in his book The Absence of Myth, has described the general project of Bataille and his collaborators at this time as an attempt to create a new form of myth for the modern, de-sacralized world. Both Bataille and Lieris had an understanding of the sacred as something contagious and escalatory (laughter, sexuality, tears, fear, violence) and as something intimately bound up with the act of sacrifice, non-productive expenditure and loss. Their notion of a sacred sociology was indebted primarily from the work of Emile Durkheim and his nephew, Marcel Mauss, whose influential work The Gift, was first introduced to Bataille by Alfred Metraux, one of his oldest friends and author of one of the first ethnographic accounts of Haitian Vodou, Voodoo in Haiti (1959/1972 Eng. Trans).

On his return from Africa Lieris joined Bataille in the creation of two groups: The College of Sociology and Acephale. Both organizations were devoted to a re-introduction of the sacred into the world of Parisian intellectual life and revolutionary politics.  What Bataille hoped to achieve was a ‘mobilization’ of the heterogenous, sinister, abject and left-handed powers of the sacred in order to counter the tendencies of imperative sovereignty that throughout Europe were leading to the formation of Fascistic social organizations (see Bataille’s essays ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism’ and ‘The “Old Mole” and the Pre-Fix Sur in the words Surhomme and Surrealist‘ in Alan Stoekl’s Visions of Excess (1985)).

As we will see in the screening which follows, the idea of a sacred revolution, triggered by an act of ritual sacrifice, corresponds closely to the story of the Bwa Kayman ceremony which inaugurated the Haitian revolution.

Demons Through the Ether: Haunted Media and The Terror of Possession

Implicit in the anxieties of the voices that sought to prohibit the circulation of video nasties during the 1980’s was the assumption that exposure to the graphic images of violence contained in them would lead to adverse effects on those viewers who were susceptible to suggestion.

This theme of suggestibility has its roots in the tradition of Mesmerism which emerged with the work of Anton Mesmer in the late 18th century and went on to inform theories of crowd psychology during the 19th and 20th centuries (most note-ably Wilfred Trotter, Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays and principally Gustave le Bon, who famously described those groups most vulnerable to suggestion as ‘women, savages and children’).

Although Mesmer’s practice of Animal-magnetism was intended to put paid to superstitious and mystical accounts of physical disease and mental disorders the supernatural would return via the work of Mesmer’s followers – such as the Marquis de Puysegur (whose brother, as we shall see, brought Mesmerism to St Domingue).

Puysegur’s practice of somnambulism (or automatic sleep) was to give rise to a range of modern spiritual traditions in the 19th century, not least Spiritualistic séances in which mediums channeled to spirits of the deceased.

Since the beginnings of electronic tele-communications Spiritualists have believed that the channels of technology-assisted mass mediation have been vectors of incorporeal supernatural communication (I refer you here to Jeffrey Sconces’s Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (2000) and Erik Davis’ Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (1988)).

The culture of horror in western popular literature and media embodies a systematic repertoire of supernatural entities and processes as fantastical and ‘irrational’ as those contained in so called primitive religions. And it has done so, at least as long as European imperialism has used the myth of primitive superstition and religion to subordinate peoples it needed to dominate economically. But in contemporary Western culture such superstitions are usually imagined to be contained safely within popular folk superstitions and traditions and the imaginary confines of media fantasy and fiction. But there is also a history of anxieties that some kind of possession via electronic media is possible, and such anxieties certainly underpinned the campaign about video nasties.

In an essay I wrote to accompany the ‘Smells Like Vodou Spirit’ show  I argued that fears about losing control of one’s own will to either the influence of a voodoo witchdoctor, hypnotist/mesmerist or a demon/evil spirit is a recurrent element in what I called the voodoo construct. I argued there that possession involves the involuntary relinquishing of subjective agency and calls into question the western notion of subjectivity as a fundamental, singular, authentic domain of the self.

The characterizing of possession as a psycho-pathology in the west (as in multiple personality disorder) depends on this emphatically singular ideal of subjectivity. Like zombies, possession raises uneasy questions about the relationship between soul, consciousness and the body, and the relationship of self and other. 

The point to make here is that the practice of animal-magnetism developed by Anton Mesmer involved a vital stage in the cure called the ‘crisis’ in which patients lost all conscious control of their bodies and fell into convulsion. John Pearson, writing in 1790 described a person on a mesmeric crisis as  “possessed of his senses, yet cease to be an accountable creature”.

At the end of his life Mesmer claimed responsibility for the establishment of the Haitian republic, where, he claimed animal magnetism had become confused with sorcery and the colonial regime ended in a bloodbath.

A preposterous claim, one would think. Not so. More on that later.

Invisible Mirrors, Sacred Revolution and the legend of Bwa Kayman

Back to Bataille and the subject matter of the film I’m about to show.

In his essay on Michelet in Literature and Evil, Bataille restates the 18th century historian’s claim in La Sorciere that sorcery is the religion of the oppressed and as such depends on strong codes of secrecy to protect practitioners from those who would punish them for it.  My current understanding of the history of Vodou in Haiti (and the current exhibition in this museum in particular) has been significantly informed by this hypothesis. 

The legend of Bwa Kayman is the founding myth of Haitian independence from colonial rule. The event took place in August 1791 in the Alligator woods in the mountains of northern Saint-Domingue. The legend tells of how a gathering of revolutionary slaves performed a Vodou ceremony, presided over by the houngan and rebel leader Dutty Boukman, in which a black creole pig was sacrificed by the mambo Marinette and a blood oath sworn to the God of the Blacks and the spirit of Liberty. It was, by necessity, a secret ceremony, the facts about which are still subject to dispute. It is also an exemplary instance of what Bataille proposed as rite of sacred revolution, one that summoned the power of exiled gods and dead ancestors, giving strength and courage to those who would rise up against tyranny and slavery, possessed of the contagious energies of an archaic sacred intimacy with an unbound cosmic conflagration.

Invisible Mirrors tells the story of how, in 2004, shortly before the 200th anniversary of Haitian independence, following the second US-backed ousting of the popular President Jean Francois Aristide, soldiers from the UN  ‘peace-keeping’ force MINUSTAH (the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti), who were responsible for ‘restoring public order’ to the nation, enacted a ceremonial ritual on a replica of the Florentine Boar in downtown Port-au-Prince, in an apparent attempt to magically bind the energy of the national symbol of independence, revolution and resistance.

The video was shot in one take during a taxi journey to the site of the boar and the story of the event is told by Reginald Jean Francois, a Haitian born deportee from the US who now works as the project manager for Cameron Brohman’s Slum Toy project in Cite Soleil, and who witnessed the ritual first hand.


2 Replies to “Art, Possession and The Revolutionary Unconscious”

  1. This is great! Do you have any articles where you discuss Bataille and the abject? My dissertation is on Kristeva’s abject, which is very related. Your understanding of Bataille is great, very deep but accessible. If you could point me towards more of your work like that, or more work like that in general, I would appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: