Tag: Bobby Sands

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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The Body Possessed by Media 2: Hunger’s Dirty Protest; or Everything Ascending into Heaven Smells Rotten; or, Bobby Sands, Matthew Barney, Fi Jae Lee, Atrocity Kitsch and Male Anorexia

by on Aug.23, 2010

When I watched Hunger, British artist Steve McQueen’s art movie about Irish dirty-protest-leader/hunger striker Bobby Sands, I freakin’ could not believe how much the Bobby Sands figure (as played by Michael Fassbender) reminded me,visually, of Matthew Barney in the Cremaster cycle. Even for an obviously debased Irish Catholic like me,  this is a sacrilegious thought. How could the body of Saint Bobby Sands twin with the body of an narcissistic anally-fixated bulimic art god?

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands

[Wikipedia moment: Bobby Sands is an incredibly interesting (still notorious?) figure—an IRA member who, in various prisons, protested in order that he and his comrades be classified as political prisoners rather than criminals. First they refused to wear prisoner’s uniforms, going naked and/or wearing blankets instead; then they refused to bathe and smeared their prison walls with shit (the ‘dirty protest’); finally they began a hunger strike, of which Sands died. In freakin’ 1981, people. During the hunger strike he was also somehow elected to the British Parliament on the “Anti- H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner’ ticket—H Block referred to the ‘H’ shape of the Maze Prison in which the Hunger strike was taking place]

Sands flummoxed the British government with his blanket protest, dirty protest and hunger strike—these rejections of health and hygiene upended the Foucauldian prerogatives of both the prison regime and the British subjugation of Irish bodies as metonym for their subjugation of Ireland as a plantation, colony, etc. The protests went outside and around the value hierarchies culminating in the whole pure white bodies of Thatcher and the Queen and also activated the immemorial English condemnation of Irish as animals, savages, heathens, etc. The mortification of Sands’s body was also an easy match with Roman Catholic ideas of martyrdom, saints, and the physical mortification of the devout.

Hunger’s Dirty Protest

However , a Wikipedia-informed saint’s-life of Bobby Sands and a movie ‘about’ Bobby Sands are two different things.  What struck me about the movie is how deliciously it indulged in the visual breakdown of Sands’s (Fassbender’s) body—since he’s at least half naked throughout, one can observe he is at first attractively (male-ly) muscled, his cheekbones grow more pronounced; his muscles shrivel; bones appear beneath his skin, bed sores appear—rather than an interiority, it’s as if the body continually has more surfaces to reveal. The whole movie is Sands’s/Fassbender’s body. The flights of birds, the falls of light, the truncheons, the prison structure—all seem to emanate from or return to this body. The much praised mise-en-scene is like a bodily fluid. Sands’s body changes form and hosts other media—it never disappears. It cannot be erased from this movie because it is the movie—the medium through which it progresses.

Bed Sores

The same might be said for Matthew Barney’s oeuvre—his body is the ultimate material, the ‘matrix’ or mother material, through which and from which all the media move and pour. The beads, the vaseline, the flesh that falls away and continually reforms itself in bodies that signal hybrity—of man, animal, god, petroleum product—the tendency of bodies to break down, be consumed or consume themselves so that all physical gestures seem like a species of devourment, defecation or eructation. Gestation and the physical development of sexual differentiation in the womb allegedly provide the underlying structure of the Cremaster cycle, but this is overdetermination is also a kind of oversaturation—the very site of sexual difference inscribed within and shot through with and indeterminate from the continually reconfiguring material of the maternal body… itself indistinguishable from the ‘male’ body of Matthew Barney.

A Cremaster

Hunger and Cremaster link to Fi Jae Lee’s work in that the body is possessed by media but is never obliterated by it despite the violence done to it by media possession (and by becoming a medium). Instead, it multiplies, splits open to reveal new surfaces, digests itself, becomes porous to fluid, breaks down and reforms, extrudes new media and materials. Unlike actual anorexia or bulimia, this logic doesn’t end in death, but makes a zone there in which to continually reconfigure or recapitulate itself.


(Fi Jae Lee, Everything Ascending into Heaven Smells Rotten)

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