The Severed Head: Capital Visions
(Columbia University Press, 2011)
“The image may be our only remaining link to the sacred; to the terror that death and sacrifice provoke, to the serenity that follows from the pact between sacrificed and sacrificing, and to the joy of representation indisociable from sacrifice.” — Julia Kristeva
“I cannot take my eyes off that severed head,” writes Julia Kristeva in The Severed Head: Capital Visions. “Much as I want to, this is my symptom. Depression, obsession with death, admission of feminine and human distress, castrating drive? I accept all these human, too human hypotheses. I move on from them to imagine a capital moment in the history of the visible.”
This might be Kristeva’s symptom but its etiology is social. Which is why, for all its psychoanalytic, hyper-referential obscurity, The Severed Head, an extended meditation on images of decapitation throughout history, is a timely work.
Susan Sontag has remarked that “being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience.” And over the past decade or so dismemberment has occupied a central place in this ritual observance of displaced violence. Videos of Taliban beheadings are widely disseminated online. Droves of amputees return home from Iraq (vastly improved body armor protects vital organs but not arms or legs). Hooded prisoners, faceless if not headless, allude to the scaffold of an earlier time. Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war creates a living legacy of brutal dismemberment. Decapitated bodies display the terrifying power of rival gangs in Mexico. As the “reconstruction” of Iraq gets underway, reality television shows about plastic surgery proliferate: the violence of the war abroad microcosmically acted out on the bodies of women at home. Graphic depictions of active bonesaws and scalpels, accompanied by the commentary of in-house psychologists, cast dismemberment as a positive choice—a matter of self-improvement.
As if the proliferation of real bodies hacked and blown apart by military conflict were not enough, movies such as Saw and Hostel have extended the horror show into feature-length gore-fests. The real reconstructive surgery on shows such as The Swan is re-fictionalized and made a little bit sexier in the HBO series Nip/Tuck. The disarticulated victims of serial killers provide innumerable plot arcs and an endless stream of quasi-journalistic content for real crime shows. Even if one doesn’t count the autopsy scenes in Law & Order, CSI, and countless spin-offs, American television viewers could spend all 19 of their average weekly television-watching hours looking at dismembered bodies without being accused of pathological behavior.
Perhaps all this gore as entertainment is a misguided attempt to understand and explain that which the news only mentions. The details of real violence are more often than not tactfully omitted by newspapers and television journalism. In the name of discretion and respect for victims the news has, in fact, made a concerted effort not to examine violence at the scale of the body. In the absence of honest dialogues about this proliferation of unnatural death, it makes sense that the object of this repression, the mangled bodies produced by warfare, would return, a little bit baffled, dressed as a doctor or a beauty queen.
These images of mutilation might be our confused efforts to represent that which is fundamentally unrepresented—unspeakable acts that can never be understood in any proper sense by a mere spectator—and to this extent physical violence is a fundamental part of representation itself, both its antithesis and apotheosis.
In a sense, thinking about violent images is to cast questions of representation in their starkest terms, for there is nothing more real, more immediate, and more difficult to communicate than physical pain. As Elaine Scarry has argued, “whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability…physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”
The gap between the real and its representation is most striking here in the case of bodily harm. The most basic structural characteristic of an image, its wholeness or integrity, is itself obscene in the face of physical disintegration. Yet this does not prevent the production of such images, or repress our belief in their explanatory power. Nor does the weakness of representation lessen the importance of images and image-making in the processes of political and personal mourning, explanation, resistance, and healing.
But the obsession with mutilation and decapitation seems to be deeper than this recent cultural tick. It is older than these wars, older than the last wars, or the wars before those. It is certainly older than television. And it is this ancient, one might say primal, relationship to violence and visual representation that Kristeva has set out to explain.
According to Kristeva, representation itself is the result of a psychological wound: the loss of the mother’s body. It is through mourning this body that a person comes to language, begins to signify as compensation for this traumatizing loss.
The infant begins life in a state of autoerotic bliss in which it experiences its body as continuous with its mother. When that unity with the world is first broken, a person must engage in an early act of abstraction. That is, one must see their mother as separate, as a “hallucination” that, in its distance, provides an impetus for speech. The infant must replace the body from which it has been separated with an image—most likely of the mother’s face or head—and then name it. Language is the measure of loss; the sign is “precisely that which symbolizes the object in the absence of the object. That which represents, arbitrarily or through convention, its lost referent.”
The severed head, argues Kristeva, repeats and externalizes this formative vision of the mother’s face/head, and thus represents “a capital moment in the history of the visible. A moment when human beings were not content to copy the surrounding world, but when, through a new intimate vision of their own visionary capacity…they wanted to make visible that subjective intimacy itself: that inner sensibility, that spirituality, that reflective action, that economy of anguish and pleasure, the soul.”
Thus, she argues, the severed head is intimately connected to the development of drawing—an activity that takes place along the “border dividing the visible from the invisible.” Drawing, which “links contemplation to action [and] the drawer to the viewer” must necessarily pass “through an obsession with the head as symbol of the thinking living being,” if it is to represent “that economy of anguish and pleasure, the soul” rather than remain mimetically tied to the exterior world.
Before drawing could be the translation of interior to exterior, something had to indicate that this border or transition existed and could be breached, and this something was the figure of the severed head. Representation does not come from nowhere. Art imitates life but before it can do so, it necessarily imitates death.
Real death, that is. Not the afterlife. Art does not “descend from the metamorphosis of the gods [but] anticipates the religious rituals of which it is part, by elaborating the same powers and the same virtues.” This is confirmed, argues Kristeva, by prehistoric artifacts which appeared “before or simultaneous with the invention of the gods.”
The human need to symbolize appeared quite early, and it arrived in the form of a human head. “The worship of skulls appeared in the earliest times of humanity, since there is evidence of post-mortem decapitation already among the hominids of the Lower Paleolithic…and the Middle Paleolithic.”
There is also evidence of ritual cannibalism from the same period. A ritual that says less about our difference from our ancestors than our similarity with them. “Consuming the brain and carving the skull of the other share in the…logic of transition between visible and invisible, life and death.” For all its barbarity, explains Kristeva, ritual cannibalism not only indicates the perennial importance of the symbolic to human civilization but “through its complexity demonstrates the presence of authentic psychological anxiety among the first humans.”
Counterintuitive though it may be, she argues for “intimacy that is established through these barbaric practices, an intimacy that blends the fear of the other and the beyond with the desire for identification, continuance, and power over one’s own kind and one’s self.”
Looking at death, then, precedes spectacle; it is not enough to dryly observe that regarding the pain of others is a fact of modern American life. The compulsive manner in which we reproduce violent images indicates something much older, much deeper, endemic to human nature or at least human society. If violence itself is not a necessary component of social structures, its ritualized form lies at the heart of social organization. According to Freud at least, ritual cannibalism is a means of overcoming an original tyranny and creating social bonds.
The ritual of eating the head of a “symbolic father/tyrant” is a means of “eliminating his arbitrary nature and…creating…social bonds in place of barbarity: a culture in place of tyranny. From which follow closely the social pact, culture, and interiority of humans capable…of consumption-internalization-assimilation, of deferring their drives.” In other words, decapitation and ritual consumption are central to the original repression that is necessary for society’s civil development, for the deterrence of actual violence. Ritualized violence “permits the suppression of ambivalent desires thus opening the way to moral consciousness, insofar as consciousness is the inner perception of the suppression of certain desires.”
Think of the form that death took during the French Revolution. It wasn’t any kind of execution that was seen as the instrument of democracy but decapitation. Long before the invention of the guillotine, decapitation had become associated with liberatory violence. The stories of Judith and Holofernes and David and Goliath served to justify the excessively violent act of beheading. “The right to sever heads is recognized: just cause justifies all excesses, the just return of the repressed. We cannot overemphasize how reading this text overrode the hypocrisy of a kind of embellished Christianity and initiated a meditation, both literary and pictorial, on liberating violence … An outlet against humiliations suffered, injustices inflicted, everyday death blows.”
The depiction of these biblical stories served to normalize violence by recalling the decapitation of the father/tyrant. The severed head allies these sectarian acts with the primal violence necessary for the formation of society itself. Without this violence, social bonds in general, not just in a Jewish or Christian society, are an impossibility.
Furthermore, if it is by passing through the figure of the severed head that humans began to represent the “soul” rather than simply copying their surroundings, then the act of decapitation lays claim to one of the most basic forms of power—the right to representation. While the act recalls a basic and generalized deposition of tyranny, it is the executioner who, holding the severed head, also holds the right to express his or her desires. One can thus speculate on the causal relationship between the efficiency of decapitation via guillotine and the excessive nature of the “revolutionary Terror” where the severed head, as a symbol of power and symbolic means of overthrowing tyranny, might very well have been its own end and not simply an expedient means.
In Kristeva’s view, “In opposition to the imaginary intimacy with death, which transforms melancholy desire into representation and thought, lies the rational realization of the capital act,” i.e. actual decapitation. “Vision and action are polar opposites here” where “the revolutionary Terror confronts us with that revolting abjection” in the name of democracy. One would like to believe that representation serves as a substitute for action, that symbolism can somehow overcome its terrifying content. But the guillotine, the ultimate example of the conflation of the symbolic and the real, indicates otherwise. If, as Kristeva hopefully suggests in a paraphrase of Jacques Lacan, “the profusion of images and symbols [had] a chance of thwarting temptations to real actions,” American network television would have ended world conflict by now.
In spite of the exhaustive nature of the book, Kristeva ultimately fails to address some of the most important questions that we, as members of an extremely violent culture, saturated with equally violent images, might have. What is the relationship between images and violence? Does one cause the other? Mitigate it? What purpose could all of these pictures possibly serve? They are important questions. As Kristeva herself points out, “if art is a transfiguration, it has political consequences.” This statement is potentially empowering. Unfortunately these consequences might be absolutely reprehensible. For all our ability to explain ourselves we remain subjects of an irredeemably violent world and all of our efforts to explain this violence through images have done little to lessen it in reality.
The severed head might inspire us to speak, but it doesn’t, at the end of the day, have very much to say.
ContributorR. H. Lossin
R. H. LOSSIN is a librarian and writer living in Brooklyn.