Anachronism and Degeneracy

by on Dec.15, 2010

Right now I’m working out an idea regarding the revolutionary anachronism of degeneracy. Specifically, I’m looking at the 2008 film Hunger which treated the death of Bobby Sands in the Long Kesh hunger strike of 1981, and at the hunger strikers’ anachronstic tactics.

By going ‘on the blanket’ (refusing to wear prison uniforms) and performing the ‘dirty protest’ (smearing the walls of their cells with shit and refusing to bathe), the prisoners performed a kind of willful degeneracy, an anachronistic manipulation of time that moved time backwards to confront British power at the ideological zero point of historical oppression, in the very person of their atavistic doubles. That is, the British had long conceived of the Irish as sub- or non-human, wild, clothed in tatters, unable to feed themselves or lived civilized; this is all satirized in Swift’s Modest Proposal, which proposes Irish women as breeding stock, Irish children as chattle for consumption.

In making his film of the prisoners’ strike and Sands’s death, McQueen brings a particular ocularity to the event– which in fact was enclosed behind prison walls, communicated to the public through smuggled writings. As both McQueen and the actor Michael Fassbender note in interviews in the DVD, only a single small, grainy, few inch square photo of Sands, pre-imprisonment, ran in newspapers during the strike. The particular ocularity he proposes brings a second level of ‘degeneracy’ to the prisoners– that of the degenerate artists. As the prisoners make an installation of their prison cells or shape waste into sluices and dams to flood the corridors with waste, their acts recall the processual films of 20th century artists such as Jackson Pollock or Ana Mendieta. Moreover, the twisted, wasting, white bodies of these prisoners recall the portrayal of the body in the work of Egon Schiele and in such art movements as the Decadence, Symbolists, and Cubists, all labeled as ‘degenerate’ art by the Nazis because their portrayal of the bodies did not accord with the hygeinic regime, but also because by not partaking of Greco Roman representations of the body it refutes the temporal imaginings of the Nazi regime.

Historical time moves forward; degenerate time moves backwards.

Degeneracy then– bodily, moral, artistic, generic, formal– is a kind of active anachronism, resistant to the regimes of power and temporality.

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