A Fire in My Belly: The Wound Media of David Wojnarowicz

by on Dec.03, 2010

Lucas’s discussion of David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in My Belly” brings our attention to a key term: vulnerability. What does this term mean? It derives from the Latin word vulnus, wound. I’ve been thinking lately about how wounds are a type of media—they are a spectacle on the body, they mark a site of violence (they are a memorial site?), they present a surface or image of uncertain depth and mark both a site of entry and of exit. They shed issues of blood, pus, water (if you’re Jesus). Sacred wounds represent the mediumicity of the wound par excellence– the fluid that flows from Jesus wounds can make its own images (as when Veronica wiped his face and his image was transferred to her cloth) and the stigmata itself is constantly remarking itself on the skin surface of saints, showing them to have been pierced by the Holy Spirit, showing them to have a surfeit of grace which leaks from the wounds; transferred to cloth, this fluid from saint’s wounds creates holy icons. Moreover, the vulnerability of wound-media has both a micro and macrocosmic effect; that is, a hyperbolic, excessive effect; when a stigmata appears there is a piercing of the membrane separating earth and heaven.

We can track the vulnerability in “Fire in My Belly” by the way the medium itself functions, with a choppy montage which makes the viewer aware of the cuts. The palpable cuts make us aware of the violence inherent in the video-making process itself. The violence is what allows the Art to flow from image to image, piercing and rupturing each one in turn, turning each image into the wound which then pours Art forth into the next image. This flow of Art through the wound of the image is made material through the motifs of violence/fire/blood/spilling/gesture/motion/showers of money which engulf or flow out of the various images. By the end where the man smashes the plaster statue (is that what it is?) the shattering of this inanimate object makes visual the blow of violence and force. In fact, the presence of so many non-animated figures (corpses, dolls, statues, paintings, puppet) nevertheless seemingly animated by a flow of violence creates an uncanny tidal accumulative force to the piece, which in turn makes the actual moving bodies seem hyperanimated, antic as ants.

Everything is vulnerable to the violence, that is, to the Art, to the force of the flow. Everything is animated by it, to the point of overflow, combustion or frenzy. The montage of the piece could easily be seen as a succession of stigmatas. The repeated piercing word “unclean” both pierces the membrane of ambient sound and image with a kind of pointed aural violence and underscores that the word stigmata comes from stigma, a mark or stain, and that everything is vulnerable to being marked or stained by Art. In fact, perhaps it is this vulnerability that marks an entity as sacred. Moreover, the coming-into-Art of the Artist’s own body is a kind of incarnation. Jesus comes into a human body; Heaven comes into earthly affairs; Wojnarawicz comes into the film, and is cut and sutured by the flow of Art (literally, when the lips are sown and formally, as part of the montage-function.) He becomes another site through which Art’s violence can flow. He becomes an icon of vulnerability.

It’s this expenditure, this total flow, this vulnerability, which makes this a work worthy of suppression. Its continuous violence can harm other images and systems. It’s the lavishness of this expenditure, this violence that the politicians unwittingly highlight when they call this work an affront to Christmas (Eric Cantor), to the American family (John Boehner). Boehner’s spokesperson said,” American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy”. But what he means, is that they deserve less— to be less affected, less motivated, less vulnerable to Art’s renovating, corruscating flow. However, as always happens, efforts to suppress this video have only ensured its replication, duplication, viral movement through virtual media, far beyond those happy families who could have visited it in ant-like ‘person’ in the Smithsonian.

:, , , , , ,
8 comments for this entry:
  1. Tom DeBeauchamp

    Worthiness of suppression is an excellent yardstick.

    Vulnerability has a nice set of definitions. Here it’s beautifully sensitive. We’re all woundable, we’re all wounded, we’re all of puncturable, damagable substances. Not just our bodies, but the bodies of our thought, our cultures. All that we call sacred is vulnerable to the ingress of time, etc. There’s an approach to this that’s almost loving.

    There’s another sort of vulnerability the white knights of the “American Family” fear. It’s the same vulnerability, of course, but it’s set up against the armor of the woundable, puncturable, damagable substances. These white knights are saying we’re safe in this panic room, free from the punctures, etc. How dare you, with taxpayer money, breach our walls and spread your disease.

    Disease is an easy metaphor, but it’s almost more fun to think of these white knights on a foreign planet, shut up in their oxygenated chambers with their servants and children, eating special cereals from the homeland, watching the Nutcracker on VHS when what happens but a David Wojnarowicz wind breaks the airlock and lets in the true atmosphere.

    There’s one thought that these white knights represent the center, the standard, and that Art only affects them. Art’s a disease to sicken their flesh, but Art’s also a kind of weather, a flow flowing independent of which codes find the center.

    It’s also, sadly, a flow flowing independent of the orifices (to use your terminology from elsewhere, JM) responsible for its release.

  2. Tom DeBeauchamp

    Also, and not to distance the discussion from the evil of the Catholic league (as opposed to the Evil of Art), it’s interesting to think of the way this video, and others like it, “go viral” after experiencing conventional repression.

    The Work of Art in the Age of Exponentially Reproducing Orifices. At what point–assuming it hasn’t already–does this become a part of radical poetics? Obviously, we’re already talking about dissemination, but it seems that there’s a way of constructing it that reminds me of Johannes’s thread on filters.

    It isn’t that I think Wojnarowicz had this intent, to go viral, etc. It’s rather a different design for the orifice of art, many openings spread across geographic points, but with each opening a separate filter.

  3. rawr

    I too can inflate misleading definitions and inject circular arguments into a supposition of confusing language. I can dress in black and surround myself with half-stone Tisch drop-outs and collectively we can share in the smoke blowing up our own asses. Point is- the work is weak, inappropriate for this gallery and its traditional fair. I find it rather anemic in its attempt to portray homosexual prostitution, anti-Christian sentiment, and frustration at the late-80’s government response to the first decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Let me spare you the reflexive defense retort- I get “it,” appreciate good work when it is expressed, and have to admit my belief that this work is deliberately salacious and invective of Wojnarowicz’s view of his own sexuality. He hated himself, the values and experiences that formed him, and all the low-budget capture of sloppy archetypes cannot dispel this.

    Try that on for size, pun excluded.

  4. Lucas


    I have the right DW piece for you! Its subjects are a little more than half-stone:



  5. Joyelle McSweeney

    rawr, of all the things you and I can cheerfully (or bitterly) diagree about, I’m most unclear on what you mean by ‘Try that on for size’. What’s the pun on–size? or Try? Am I supposed to be intimidated by your recycling of the cliched critiques leveled against gay men (‘he hated himself,the values and experiences that formed him’)? Are you suggesting that I’ll fall over in shock because I’ve never been disagreed with before, or noone’s ever employed received arguments against my points of view before?

    In the case of this video I don’t see hatred of Day of the Dead rituals, or self-hatred- I see a series of images forming an interface with catastrophe, an actual catastrophe that has since unfolded most of the world. When born agains envision the end of the world, a Rapture that will leave massive traffic jams in the cities or on interstates, are we to imagine that they hate cars and cities and interstates? The born agains I’ve known like cars and drive on interstates. They just imagine this as the location that will provide a tableau for the rapture; in other words, this string of images and associations, many received from movies and novels, provides a kind of membrane on the Apocalypse. I think DW’s piece erects a membrane like this but with a different vocabulary.

  6. Tasha Matsumoto


    I’ve been thinking about wounds and media a lot recently as well. I recently had surgery on my hand (never handle a knife handle after drinking a handle, I learned), and the sutures in my skin are wrapped within an unwieldy cast that makes typing quite difficult. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between textual bodies/physical bodies, but hitherto this physical constraint, I had never_felt_this relationship palpably before.

    As a writer, I produce language physically; as if a pianist, I must make my fingertips flail to produce my art. My words are how I touch the world. This is not a metaphor: my words are not as unique as fingerprints, my words are the fingerprints themselves, physical residue, what I leave behind, the invisible traces I leave upon all that I touch. Words are the excrement left by my body, and when my hand is bound, this constipation/constriction produces silence. My writing as the sound of one-handed clapping–the cloth binding my flowing wound also binds the flow of my words.

    Again, I’ve been thinking about McLuhan’s _The Medium is the Message_(or mess/age, mass/age)–or most relevant to me now,_The Medium is the MAssage_. The medium is the hand that touches, the tactile connective site between two bodies, the author and the reader, the intercourse of discourse.

    My hand produces my language, and because my hand is damaged and diseased, it will produce a damaged and diseased language. My hand is bloated and distended, as are my words, and I paw at the keyboard, pressing letters I didn’t mean to choose, an excess of parasitic graphemes clinging to what I meant to say, noise and alphabetical detritus.

    Though this all stems from a seeping, sutured cut on my hand, I feel less “wounded” and more like an amputee, with my limited hand use. All language is sign language (physically, semiotically), and we are all amputees. Language is like a phantom pain for a lost limb.

    This comment is kind of digressive, but my wound on my body and the subsequent obsession thereof is something that is physically and psychologically trapping me. Supplanting the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” is Acker’s “My body aches and aches and I remember who I am” (Blood & Guts).

    Wonderful post–it’s incubated a lot of thoughts.


  7. Animal/Criminal/Fag - Montevidayo

    […] when President Obama called him his favorite TV character) is particularly striking in light of his vulnerability.  While the drug-dealing residents of East and West Baltimore cluster in gangs—with the gangs […]

  8. The Gorgeous Epic and Engorgement of the Potatoesque - Montevidayo

    […] both its vulnerability and annihilation, the potato resists […]