Nathan Lee on David Lynch: Spasms, "The Body Possessed by Media"

by on Sep.17, 2010

Nathan Lee has a really insightful brilliant review of a couple of book about David Lynch in the latest issue of Book Forum. Lee seems to be working out a new theory of spectatorship for a digital age.

In many ways his ideas seem in striking conversation with many of the ideas we’ve been hashing out on this blog (and my old blog), particularly Joyelle’s idea of “the body possessed by media.” (Though of course he hasn’t read what we’ve been writing.)

Here’s Joyelle’s intro to her post about Korean artist Fi-Jae Lee:

“Can a body be possessed by media? It’s a trick (and tricky) question, since a medium, in the occult sense, is supposed to be possessed by others. If an entity can be possessed by a medium, or, worse, by media, it is then opened to all kinds of possession, penetration, contents it cannot contain, overcrowding, doubling up, debility and damage. Deformation and eclipses, ellipses, reemergence and reemergence.”


Lee’s (Nathan, that is, not Fi-Jae) main argument is that we should stop discussing Lynch in term of psychoanalysis and instead focus on the “tactile” qualities of Lynch’s work, or as Lee puts it “the pronounces materialism of his vision.” It is after all an ouevre obsessed with skin and its various forms (including “wrapped in plastic”).

(I see in this a connection to Joyelle’s and mine rejection of traditional “interiority” as the guiding principle of art. See for example my love/hate relationship to Scorcese’s “Shutter Island”.)


Here’s one of the best analyses I’ve seen of Inland Empire: “The tremendous beauty and intelligence of Inland Empire derive from its wild variation of surface, an encyclopedic compendium of digital weird: botch, blur, distortion, fog, seepage, dissolution, mutability, grime. If Mudholland Drive was a movie about being in a movie, Inland Empire explodes this meta-narrative situation across the far less stable media environment of video imaging and the Internet. It makes a clean break with genre touchstones..”

And Lee suggests this interest in the skin-iness is connected to the surfaces of his film, and – significantly – to his use of genre: “This relation of body to texture is no less central to the films… all trade in the forms and surfaces of classic Hollywood – meldodrama, noir, western, The Wizard of Oz – and all of them trace the effort people make to negotiate the (unraveling) fabric of their universe.

This connection between surface and genre bridges Joyelle’s article on “genreless writing” and her ideas of “the body possessed by media” (as well as her interest in genres, or how one needs to go “through genre” to get to the “genreless”).


The finale of this article ends with Lee seeing in Lynch “a new kind of body,” and that body seems a lot like a “body possessed by media”:

“It imagines a new kind of body, one we’re in the process of inventing; a body distributed over networks, caught up in feedback loops, delimited by bandwidth, escaping own the multiplicity of pathways. Even by the standards of the Lynch ouevre, the movieis brazenly circutious, perpetually slipping through its own cracks to coagulate anew then fissure once more… If this seems the opposite of embodiment, that’s partly because our idea of craftmanship remains tied to the analog.”

I talked about this in a recent post I wrote for another web journal (“Out of Nothing”) but it’s not up yet, I think.

Interestingly, Lee manages to (without having read our posts!) bridge Joyelle’s ideas about body possessed media with my own interest in spasms (Here’s my post about Genet, Lady Gaga, Aase Berg, Kenneth Anger and spasmatic aesthetics). Lee uses Deleuze’s writing about Francis Bacon to discuss Lynch:

“The entire series of spasms in Bacon is of this type: scenes of love, of vomiting and excreting, in which the body attempts to escape from itself through one of its organs in order to rejoin the field or material structure.”

This of course is more articulate than I have been, but what I wanted to get at with my discussion of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video was precisely this sense that through the spasms Beyonce’s body seems to become part of the digitial media.


So much of the stuff I read about literature in the age of the Internet and “electronic media” seems conservatively focused on containing art an the body; focusing on art that “comments on”/”critiques” media or uses new media in a very conceptual way to comment on media – precisely so that it won’t challenge the old modernist ideas of how media and art interact (I’m thinking for example about Katherine Hayle’s book on “electronic literature” which explicitly connects electronic literature to old “experimental” or well-recognized and academically digested “avant-garde” forms of writing.).

Lee actually addresses the “rule-iness” of such thinking in another wonderful piece – this one about Rosalind Krauss:

“Billions of videos, hundreds of platforms, and much theorizing later, the uncertainty of video as form is no closer to resolution, and artists continue to mine the self-reflexive, performative strategies employed by the first generation of video artists. Nothing Krauss wrote in 1976 feels out of place when applied to, say, the YouTube hissy fits of Ryan Trecartin. What has changed is the desire to locate an inviolable set of rules, formal or otherwise, underpinning the practice of such an artist. Neither Trecartin’s work nor his audience is much invested in such questions. For Krauss, this is a travesty. For everyone else, it is culture. Deriding this state of affairs in defense of the “serious” in art is more than a little paternalistic, though Krauss would be the first to admit her biases.”


In the Lynch review, Lee suggests that there’s a possible connection between Lynch and the Krauss review and the wider dynamics of the Art World:

“Lynch was a painter before he made movies, and it’s tempting to read his turn to cinema as a means of pursuing a figurative practice against the ascendant Conceptualism and dematerialization of the late-60s avant-garde.”


Anyway, lots of great thinking by Nathan Lee, very insightful (at least for me). Clarifies some of what I’ve been thinking about recently.


Also, please view Robb’s post with Brian Massumi’s quote about Reagan below our post about Meta-Gaga. Again this might be clearer and more insightful than whatever I wrote about spasms.

4 comments for this entry:
  1. Lynch LSD Walks Sprawl Tour | HTMLGIANT

    […] @ Montevidayo, Johannes Göransson posted an excellent consideration of Nathan Lee’s consideration of a few […]

  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    Oh my god!

    That Trecartin is so awesome it brainwashes my face.

    And I’m totally with you on Nathan Lee’s excellent criticism of Lynch–and of Krauss. His critique of Krauss is analogous to the sense of anxiety I see in older (or even just established) critics and scholars dealing with Internet writing– i.e. , “but so much of it is _bad_” or “it’s only internet writing if the writer knows _code_”– the reflexive ruliness and the reaction against the ‘unruliness’ of what’s online– and by ‘online’ i mean in circulation, able to be exchanged (and go defunct/non-functional– and worse, to operate in some kind of technological space not authorized by its author)– all those aspects which turn off critics and scholars = the ‘hyper’ in hypertext. What continually amazes me, on the other hand, is how the art world has made room for Trecartin. That would never happen in poetry. In poetry Trecartin would be constantly called upon to justify the ethics of what is patently an a-ethical space (like Jack Smith’s!!)

  3. Angela Genusa

    Thanks for this post, Johannes. I will look for the Book Forum article and hopefully have something to add to this discussion!

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