Bodies in Hiding

by Emma Wakefield

Age and weight seem to be the two primary aesthetic concerns amongst women. Advertisements, models’ Instagram pages, people’s Facebook pages…all seem to favour specific criteria for what a healthy and happy female body looks like. Should look like. Very few images contain more shapely or mature women and this absence sends the message that plus-size or older women do not fit into the preferred category of ‘the desirable’. Instead, any praise of these demographics (the very term ‘demographic’ a recognition that even apparently left-of-mainstream female body types are targeted as valuable potential ‘markets’) seems to fall under a type of fetishism, placing them as something other or exotic. On the platform of social media, these bodies are ghettoized from public view and feature in esoteric communities and niche markets that discuss these women’s concerns and ways of living as deviating from the norm.


Some weeks ago, I scrolled the Internet for what promised to reverse the first signs of aging. I am on my fifth brutal course of Roaccutane to tame an aggressive form of adult acne. After assessing the swelling, redness and dryness, my dermatologist gently added, “I see the start of crow’s feet around your eyes. It’s very slight. But I do believe you should start thinking about an age preventative. You’re twenty five?”


This felt similar to when my grandmother first told me it was time I went bra shopping. Back then I wasn’t ready to leave childhood and right now I’m not ready to leave young adulthood. Not that the present reservation stopped my searching. Eventually I found a well-reviewed product on a fancy website. Beneath the bottle of liquid collagen was an advert: Are You Skinny-Fat? What did that mean? It transpires that ‘skinny-fat” is a term used to describe someone who appears slender beneath her clothing, but has pockets of fat around the abdomen, under the arms or around the hips. “Skinny-fat” is a contradiction which describes the general population of women who are otherwise healthy. I had no intelligent response except, “Stop telling us what to be!”


But who was my retort aimed at? From adolescence through to early adulthood, my body has been closely monitored. Not by someone in particular, but by an elusive and unnamed collective. I could not place blame on a single source. It was aimed at something dispersed which cannot go by a single name. What I am certain of, is that the repeated projection of preferred images of women in media becomes a negative marketing strategy used to persuade people into an exclusive idea of what is valued as female. Women who regularly go to gym, eat organic food and stay active are praised for their self-discipline and determination. And rightly so, I suppose. However, this particular image does not account for those of the female population who work long hours with a minimum wage, and who cannot afford organic food or a gym membership. Even beyond this, there are many women for whom lack of personal time and resources do not allow for them to prioritize and practice the means of creating a better body-image. And yet regardless, ‘the body’ becomes unduly prioritized when a woman is faced with exclusion and public rejection based on her figure. My unsurprising argument here is that there is something deeply, disturbingly wrong with the media’s ideals for women’s bodies. As this kind of information and imagery streams out into the general public sphere, it becomes accepted as a normative structure.


Here’s where Judith Butler’s ideas are useful to me. Butler speaks to contemporary moral frames and how commonplace ways of living influence the individual. Working closely with Adorno’s framework of morality and ethics, Butler places emphasis on the individual’s critique and internal conflict in response to collective moral behaviour.  Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let’s distinguish between morals and ethics. According to Adorno, ethics refers to a broad structure of rules and maxims that lie within existing social conditions (Butler 5-6). Thus we can say that ethics apply to various institutions and are upheld or followed by a general collective. Schools and workplaces for example, maintain their own ethos regarding behaviour and dress code. Morality however, refers to any set of maxims or rules that is appropriated by the individual in a “living way” (5). That is to say, morality manifests as a personal and subjective code of rules that is taken from a larger ethical structure. We form our moral compass based on our experiences, personal thoughts and reflections on events, as well as environmental influences. Thus in Adorno’s terms, our personal moral code is something we choose to “live out” and perform in the world outside of us. Morality can be cast as an internalization of reality as a personal truth which always stands up to debate. Our moral bearings thus arise in the context of our relationship with ethical codes. To give a moral account of oneself is to recognize that there is an existing prior framework (3), and the ethical frameworks that are imposed on us are challenged when we arrive at moral questions in relation to them.


The policing of women’s bodies is a form of ethical violence which manifests from the collective as well as within the individual through self-infliction. “The ethos refuses to become past, and violence is the way in which it imposes itself upon the present. Indeed, it not only imposes itself upon the present, but also seeks to eclipse the present – and this is precisely one of its violent effects” (5). We can say that the cosmetic industry profits from the insecurities and weaknesses of women who fall prey to this ‘ethical’ code. The skincare brand Olay, for example, features women in their late thirties or early forties in anti-wrinkle cream adverts. Olay does not feature older women - women ranging from ages fifty-five upwards - unless they are notables, like Jane Fonda. In Olay’s strategy, female old age happens younger. Young women are losing their youthful glow every second of every day. Their skin is growing old. And older. Nothing like the fear of a young old age for feeding young women’s anxieties about age and appearance. In targeting society’s thirst for youth, aging women are replaced with inaccurate depictions of what age looks like. True age is thus hidden from view. In reviewing the impact of this marginalization, we can turn to Nixon’s account of ‘slow violence’. In Nixon’s term ‘slow violence’ refers to a systemic violence which occurs gradually and out of sight. It is delayed in its destruction; dispersed across time and space. This kind of violence is not typically recognized as violence at all. Conventionally, violence as we know it is immediate in time, explosive, spectacular in space, and erupts into sensational visibility (Nixon 4).


In advertising, let us address how this form of violence and marginalization manifests. Predominantly, it is expressed through language. If we read through numerous advertisements which target weight and age, we will notice that the same speech patterns can be associated with lexical fields of disease: “Signs and symptoms of age”, “Fat and age prevention”, “Treatments for age and weight gain”, “A cure for aging”. While fat can be associated with disease and the dangers of obesity should not be denied, normal rates of body fat are also targeted in ads as abnormal, all to coax ‘sufferers’ into buying into what cosmetic companies have to offer. The choice of words used in advertisements and magazine articles implies an avoidance and rejection of certain bodies, creating an anxiety around gaining weight or aging. Or both of these fearful situations together!


How might we emancipate ourselves from these stigmas, turning away from following the rules of entrenched, popular belief? Butler states that one cannot will away the powerful condition of the normative. A person needs first to recognize that s/he must reflect on her or his relationship with these norms, so as to negotiate this relationship (Butler 10). Butler invokes Nietzsche in saying that we become conscious of ourselves once we have been inflicted, and we must then assess the cause of our suffering and ask ourselves if we are not partly the cause of that suffering (10). We must therefore also assess if we are complicit in spreading or fueling the norms  around female weight and age that I am discussing, and consider how we might negotiate a moral framework that we can live by. This is not easy. “I offer myself an ‘I’ and try to reconstruct my deeds, showing that the deed attributed to me was or was not, in fact, among them. I am either owning up to myself as the cause of such action, qualifying my causative contribution, or defending myself against the attribution, perhaps locating the cause elsewhere” (11).

Perhaps it’s time for a concrete example. Here’s an illustrative incident from my high-school experience.

My school days took place at a convent where long skirts were mandatory. Sister Bernice, our headmistress, was strict about this rule. She was a stern and terrifying woman in her mid-seventies. Amongst the girls, she was known as the Dinosaur. Ageist? Well, it’s true her nickname described her age and her fear factor. Any girl who violated the dress code was called up to the stage and compelled to perform an energetic aerobic dance in front of the entire assembly. The idea was to force a girl to move as much as possible in her wickedly short skirt, inducing the utter shame of bodily over-exposure. That would teach her. Never again would such a girl transgress. No one questioned this form of public humiliation. It was stated in the school ethos that inappropriate attire would be met with punishment, therefore, whoever was bold enough to violate this code was obliged to accept the consequences.


One of my friends arrived one morning wearing a skirt almost two hands above the knee. She wasn’t being provocative: all her other uniforms were in the wash, and so she’d grabbed a skirt from four years ago. Anne was above average size which of course spurred nasty comments from some of our classmates. One of the meaner mean girls made eye contact with me and smiled as she whispered about Anne. In my weakness, I laughed with her.


It was no surprise that Anne was summoned to the stage for Sister’s familiar dressing down. But what the audience didn’t know, was that Anne was a champion modern dancer. The initial gasp was not from the flashing of her underwear, large thighs or cellulite. From start to finish, the assembled girls were amazed by her skill; drawn in by her rhythm and flexibility, Anne’s spectacular performance silenced every girl (or woman) who’d ever sneered that “fat girls can’t dance”.  Anne’s punishment ended in applause and a standing ovation. Which turned all of us into bad girls in the eyes of the school and we were sent out of the hall that morning without a lunchtime. (Was the plan to starve the disobedient into submission?)


In retrospect, there’s a lot I’ve gained from that experience. Firstly, most of us were unhappy and insecure about our bodies. As girls, we were made to feel insecure. If a wider culture dangerously over-hypes female bodily visibility and its associated sexuality, in the context of the convent school, governed by a conservative and outdated ethos, just as dangerously we were taught to believe that our female bodies were to be hidden and punished for being exposed. I was complicit in shaming my own friend because at the time, I believed that my own body was shameful. What a devastating, circular ‘logic’. Come to think of it, I was also complicit in shaming Sister Bernice about her age, but cruel as she was, I’m prepared to grant myself some grace in this respect.


I’ve given you just one instance that applies to much larger numbers of girls and women who are excluded and assessed based on their supposed lack when it comes to preferred female appearance. Anne’s feisty courage proved to many of us that, girls though we were, we could become women who are more than their bodies. I began to appreciate that to assess a woman based on weight or age is to reduce an individual to something one dimensional.


Which brings me back to the issue of taking responsibility for our contribution to ethical violence: we need to allow ourselves the internal conversation around what moral codes we choose to live by. In a material world, women are still faced with internal conflict regarding their appearance to the world. This is conveyed and reinforced by the messages we receive from media platforms as well as normative social institutions, all of which are involved in claiming truths about The Female Body and how it should look and perform in order to be accepted. When we find ourselves in conflict with these accepted norms, we must search within ourselves, take responsibility for our own actions and consciously devise and resolve within ourselves a moral framework. And then we must commit, however difficult, to enacting this in the world.



Works Cited:


Butler, Judith. “Giving an Account of Oneself”. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2011. Print


Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. England: Harvard University Press. 2011. Print


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ContraPoints on ‘The Aesthetic’

by Jonathan J Galloway

An Unexpected Pastime

One thing I’ve done a surprising amount of recently is watching YouTube videos. That’s partly because my grandmother uses our television to watch old Inspector Poirot DVDs, but in some ways I can’t deny it’s also because in my year as a graduate student of English, reading has become a strangely anxious experience for me.

But nonetheless, YouTube has become an unexpected pastime and I became more invested in YouTube as a media format after I discovered some surprisingly ‘theoretical’ channels. There was, for example, Lindsay Ellis’s short YouTube series, The Whole Plate, where she explains several theoretical lenses (Marxism, Feminism, Queer Theory, to name a few) by applying them in an informed critique of Michael Bay’s Transformers film series. In quite a number of her videos Ellis jokes about trying ‘to make the video essay a thing’, and most of her videos are indeed sustained critiques or analyses of various pop-cultural objects. But, for all this, Ellis’s videos are not in themselves explicitly political: Ellis tackles cultural objects, not political topics, per se. But a lot of YouTube is of course focused on discussing political topics, and the medium can be genuinely informative. One of the political YouTubers I’ve been watching a lot of is Natalie Wynn, better known by her channel name, ContraPoints. Wynn is often considered a spokesperson for part of the contemporary American new-left, and her videos focus on topics such as race, capitalism, ideology, queer identity, and discussing the recent emergence of a new alt-right presence on YouTube. Many of her videos also relate to her personal experience as a trans woman, and these are often conducted loosely in review of or in engagement with certain theoretical frameworks. 

Wynn’s latest video was uploaded on 19 September (2018), titled simply “The Aesthetic | ContraPoints”. The video was in some part controversial amongst Wynn’s usual fanbase at the time of its release, in no small part due to its controversial handling of already controversial subject matter.


Tracy Mounts in ‘Colour Praxis’

Wynn starts off her video with a brief introductory segment. This occurs even before the title screen appears, and features Wynn as “Tracy Mounts”, a character that appears to be in drag or at least visually and performatively styled through the aesthetic of drag. Wynn frequently creates characters for her videos – a point I should emphasise. Through creating several on-screen characters Wynn plays with a sense of ventriloquism, a displacement of her voice that allows her to investigate and engage with different ideas and philosophies in varied ways. Many of her videos feature heated debates between two or more of her created characters, but it is not always necessarily Wynn (or, ContraPoints) herself who is talking.

So, the video opens with Tracy Mounts:

Hi girls! I’m Tracy Mounts, guest host of ContraPoints, the internet show where we talk about sadness, fascism, sexual deviation, cults. This week we’ll be talking about (pops tongue) colours!

Colours! What the fuck are they? …Now according to some so-called experts, colour is really different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. But what about the shadow illusion? Same wavelength, different colours. Some people say I’m a man dressed as a lady, but I’m actually a lady who used to be a man, dressed as a man dressed as a lady. Explain that, Professor Butler. Illusions! What matters more? The way things are, or the way things look?

Here ContraPoints is framing what will be the primary topic of The Aesthetic, namely, that the video concerns the relation between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’ as it bears on transgender identity. When Tracy Mounts refers to herself as “a lady who used to be a man, dressed as a man dressed as a lady”, she is playing with the notion that her drag persona is, in a sense, presenting itself as a gendered illusion: when drag is considered a mode of male queer performativity, a woman performing drag slightly destabilises the performance, and this is considerably complicated when that woman is specifically a trans woman: who is then essentially considered to be historically a man who transitioned into a woman who is now, as a woman, performing a man performing a woman. It’s not necessarily that Mounts’ thinks this example seems to defy Butler’s theories of gender as performativity: rather, it’s a moment in which Mounts stretches the boundaries of the theory, pushing it in a sense towards its limits. The point appears not necessarily to be to refute the theory, but rather to try and test it. A discussion of ‘the aesthetic’, the way things look, as it relates to gender identity is fundamentally a discussion of performativity, and in this way ContraPoints is engaging with the ideas of Judith Butler, but, more importantly, ContraPoints poses the question of gender performativity specifically as it relates to transgender identity. However, as the video develops it becomes clear that the issue at hand is not only performativity, but also that of recognition – but more on that later.

Tracy Mounts then suggests to the audience that we should watch an informational video to learn more. Ominous electronic music plays and the camera zooms in on Mounts’s small television set. Depicted then is a brief segment of ‘The Freedom Report’, a fictional show hosted by another of Wynn’s created characters, Jackie Jackson. Jackson is hosting a debate between a liberal cis woman, Abigail Cockbane, and a radical leftist anarchist trans woman named Tabby – all played by Wynn. The climax of the relatively short segment is that Abigail eventually refers to Tabby as “clearly a biological male in some sort of costume wig” and even goes as far as to purposefully misgender Tabby by referring to her snidely as “sir”. Tabby struggles to respond and says only “that’s a human rights violation – I’ll smash your fucking face”. Abigail Cockbane then uses Tabby’s emotive response as an example to argue that ‘transgender ideology’ is violent towards the liberty of freedom of speech.


I’m trying to help you girl - If you don’t want to get misgendered it helps to fem it up a little”

The remainder of the video consists predominantly of a conversation between Tabby and her friend Justine: taking place after Tabby’s appearance on ‘The Freedom Report’, it appears to be Justine’s attempt to comfort her friend by inviting her for tea.

Justine’s advice to Tabby is essentially that she should consider the way that she is perceived aesthetically as a woman. Justine’s point is that Tabby should work on her ‘performing womanhood’ – it wasn’t that Tabby acted morally wrong in her ‘failed’ debate, instead, Justine claims that “worse, it was aesthetically wrong”. Tabby disapproves of the idea that reality should be taken at surface level, but Justine tries to convince her that even though truth matters, identity itself is situated in the realm of politics, and ‘our America, our Internet’, as the domain of politics, is experiencing itself as an age of aesthetics:

T: This is all you ever say to me. “It’s bad optics, it’s bad aesthetics.” Well is reality better at all to you? Because the reality is that I am a woman, and maybe a bunch of ignorant people don’t think I look like one, but the way things look isn’t all that matters

J: Tabby, this is politics. Have you ever had a conversation with the average voter? Reality plays no role in politics. Politics is aesthetics.

T: “Politics is aesthetics?” That’s literally what fascism is. Have you ever read Benjamin? “Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life” – the military parades, the pageantry – “and communism responds by politicising art”

J: Look, instead of trying to make art into propaganda, why don’t we fight the pageantry of fascism with pageantry of our own? … Look, the point I’m trying to make is that the world we live in is not a philosophical world. Think about Instagram. It’s all about transforming your life into an enviable spectacle. If you cry yourself to sleep every night who cares? No one sees that – they only see the show you’re putting on.

T: Okay but life is not a show.

J: Mmm. Politics is a show. (ominous music starts playing) Look around you Tabby, try to understand what’s happening to the world. The president of the United States is a reality TV star. The 21st century is an aesthetic century. In history there are ages of reason and there are ages of spectacle, and it’s important to know which you’re in. Our America, our Internet, is not ancient Athens – it’s Rome – and your problem is that you think you’re in the forum when you’re really in the circus.

Justine’s point is that in the modern world appearances have become increasingly important. But this underlies another point: namely, that identity exists to a large degree in the public eye, more specifically, that there is some part of the “I” that is not entirely within the subject’s agency alone. This echoes Butler’s idea of recognition: in Ferrarese’s words, “From the outset, the question at the heart of Butler’s thinking is the non-ownership of self: ‘One comes to ‘‘exist’’ by virtue of this fundamental dependency on the address of the Other’” (Ferrarese 761). For Butler there is a (structural) Other that must recognise the subject in order for the subject to even exist as subject.

In some ways it is important to understand that by this point the dominant topic of the video has already become recognition. Although the video does engage with ideas of performativity, the main issue itself progresses towards the idea that the subject’s identity rests in the recognition by the Other. The idea is not necessarily that trans women are all play-acting: rather, ContraPoints establishes a discussion of why performance is important to trans women identities, and that question inevitably has to due with the fragility of identity that lies on the necessity of recognition by the Other.

Justine then goes on to mention a debate between another trans woman YouTuber, Blair White, and ‘that YouTuber with the pink wig’. This is in fact a reference to a debate that ContraPoints had herself engaged in with Blair White (published on 19 April 2017, on Blaire White’s channel, under the title “Heated Debate w/ Genderqueer Feminist”):

J: Do you remember that debate between Blair White and that YouTuber with the pink wig, what was her name? I dunno – she was relevant back in 2017. Anyway, this was before she had transitioned and in that debate Blaire looked like she had two X chromosomes and the other one looked like this awkward dude in an anime wig not looking at the camera. The pink wig lost that debate so bad. It was embarrassing to watch.

T: Not really. I mean, she was right – and her arguments were better.

J: (cackle) Ah, Tabby. Sweetie, honey, angel, darling, princess, baby. Arguments don’t matter. How pretty you are matters.

T: Is this really where you’re going with this?

J: If you’re a transwoman in the public eye, what matters is one thing and one thing only. And its always been the thing that matters.

T: What?

J: The realness. Verisimilitude. You have to look like a fucking woman. We don’t say it in public, but we all know it, and we all feel it.

T: What does it even mean to look like a woman?

J: We all know what it means.

T: I don’t know what it means. Women have a lot of different looks. There are bald women, bearded women, muscular women, wide-shouldered women –

J: And what is society’s opinion of those bald, bearded, wide-shouldered women?

Tabby questions Justine’s ‘idea of womanhood’, but ultimately Justine asserts that there is nonetheless a societal expectation for the performance of womanhood – that is, that there are certain societal (although not necessarily naturalised) conditions for the recognition of womanhood. This is what Butler refers to as ‘the differential distribution of recognizability’:

I want to argue that there are schemes of recognition that determine in a relative sense who will be regarded as a subject worthy of recognition. We can call this the differential distribution of recognizability. As such, we see that issues of power and inequality are central to the articulation of any ‘scene’ of recognition. Moreover, if recognition is fully lacking, that is, a life is unrecognized, is refused recognition, and has no standing before the law, or is deprived of legal rights and protections, then that life is actually imperilled by the lack of recognition (Butler in Willig 140)

In some sense this condition for the possibility of recognition precedes the performative act itself: “the discursive condition of social recognition precedes and conditions the formation of the subject: recognition is not conferred on a subject, but forms that subject” (Butler, Bodies That Matter 226). Justine’s point here is that, ultimately, the recognition of society (the big ‘Other’) does have an influence on the identity of the subject. Women who are not recognised as women in a sense do not ‘exist’ as women in the public eye. If recognition is not granted then the very agency of the subject – the very ‘humanity’ of the subject – is under threat: “Imagine the quite plausible scene in which one is called by a name and one turns around only to protest the name. ... And then imagine that the name continues to force itself upon you, to delineate the space you occupy, to construct a social positionality. . . Indifferent to your protests, the strength of interpellation continues to work” (Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative 33).

Justine then elaborates on what it means for a trans woman to be ‘performing womanhood’. This is also the section in which Judith Butler is herself explicitly referenced:

T: Who puts on that much make up to drink tea at home?

J: Good banter, well done. But transwomen have to overdo it. You need to be so good at make up that every cis woman you know comes to you for advice. (ominous music starts playing) You need to toss our hair and cross your legs. You need to smile, even at people who hate you. Eliminate every aggressive impulse. You must be a blossom floating along the surface of a stream. Your hands are not tools, they are ornaments on the ends of your arms.

T: So you literally are what TERFs[1] think trans women are. Literally a man’s idea of a woman.

J: Well, men have the power, men make the rules, and it’s ultimately men who are the judges of womanhood. So, you can’t really blame me for having to deal with that situation.

T: I can blame you for dealing with it by demanding that we all conform to a bunch of ridiculous stereotypes.

J: Not stereotypes. Performances. You like philosophy so much, haven’t you read Judith Butler? Gender is performance. We're all born naked and the rest is literally drag. Womanhood is not what you are, it's what you do. And trans women have to be virtuosos of womaning.

T: So according to you there's no difference between a trans woman and a drag queen?

J: No, you're misinterpreting what I'm saying. I don't mean performance in the sense of pretending to be something you're not. I mean performance in the sense of everything you do, the way you style yourself, your posture, the way you speak. An authentic performance is just a habitual performance, and nothing more than that.

T: So trans women just starting their transition are pretending to be women?

J: I mean, isn't that kind of what it felt like? You transition the same way you get anywhere in life: you fake it till you make it.

T: So according to you a trans woman is just a full-time drag queen.

J: That's what any woman is.

T: What about gender non-conforming cis women? They're not "doing womanhood" in that way.

J: Well, yeah, that's why those women are marginalized. They're going off the grid of what society recognizes as womanhood. And you don't want to end up like that, do you?

To Justine ‘performing womanhood’ means performing womanhood within a discourse that precedes it. More particularly, performing womanhood is in some senses also to perform a certain discourse – but that is only as much as saying that performativity is a discursive act. To Justine, the ‘idea’ of womanhood exists, in a sense, outside of actual women: that is, womanhood is in part established by the societal recognition of it, and that recognition in turn locates itself within an already established network of power.  Women that are outside the ‘idea of womanhood’, that is, the conditions society has placed for recognition of womanhood – these women are essentially marginalised, that is, that society does not recognise their womanhood as reality.

Tabby seems to be able to accept this, but still argues that a performative theory of gender cannot necessarily account for why trans people exist in the first place:

T: Look, your performance theory doesn't explain why trans people exist in the first place. If gender is just a bunch of learned behaviours, then why did we reject our male upbringing and decide to live as women? What matters is that we identify as women. We can express that identity in different ways, but it's the identity, not the performance, that makes us women.

J: But you can't be a woman without performing womanhood. Without action, and without social recognition, the identity is meaningless. If womanhood is nothing to you but a private daydream, then you may as well do what those assholes say and identify as a helicopter. Because unless you're living womanhood, the identity is literally that meaningless.

T: That's very unfair to pre-transition trans people. Identifying as a woman before you transition is a psychological reality that implies a potential to live your inner truth. No one has ever sincerely identified as a helicopter, it's just a troll example.

J: True. But even if they were sincere there would be no reality to it because helicopter is not an actual social role. Whereas you can become a teacher, a doctor, or a woman. But you have to work to get there, and ultimately, society has to let you.

T: But that analogy means that our womanhood can be revoked at any moment, all it takes is being misgendered.

J: It's scary, but isn't that the situation we're in? Why did you get so angry when that TERF called you "sir"? Isn't it because in that situation she robbed you of your womanhood?

T: That's ridiculous. I am a woman. That's my reality. It doesn't depend on other people's opinions.

J: I know you're a woman. I'm just saying that in that one moment, you effectively had your gender cancelled. Another way of looking at it is gender is aesthetic, not rational. Either you're perceived as a woman or you aren't. There's no reasoning your way into it.

In this section ContraPoints is utilising her two on-screen characters to convey a kind of tension: there is an anxiety between being and being-recognised-as-being. Tabby’s point is ultimately true: performative theory cannot necessarily explain why people identify in certain ways, but then again Justine’s point cuts across any illusion of complete agency in identity. Even the potential to ‘live your truth’ is bound to the same fundamental fragility as the subject’s recognition by the Other. The notion of ‘in that moment effectively having your gender cancelled’ shows exactly that fragility in action: ultimately the identity of the subject does not entirely lie within the agency of the subject. This is a ‘tension’ because ultimately the goal is still to live your inner truth, but doing so fundamentally also means putting your humanity in the hands of the structural Other. In Butler’s words:

We are born into a world in which those conventions are already operating, so we enter those conventions – or they enter us – without a strong sense of choice. Certain quandaries follow: is it myself that I present, when I make use of those conventions that make human subjects recognizable, or am I in some ways making myself interchangeable through the use of those conventions, and even deflecting from what may not be easily expressed within the existing norms that govern who is recognizable and who is not? What part of my speech is thus conformist, and what part is expressive of who I am? Is it possible that these two issues are necessarily confounded? (Butler in Willig 141, my emphasis).


Proximity of Difference

When I originally stumbled onto ContraPoints’s channel I remembered what ‘brought me there’ was an interest in similar kinds of philosophical theory. Wynn often creates content relating to Marxism, Neo-Marxism, Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, and so on – and she usually does so with a refreshingly relevant application based in modern culture[2]. But what kept me watching was in fact a kind of sincerity. Not only did I find her channel to be very informative, but I also found Wynn’s creation of her content to be a very earnest act: as one would say of a film, ‘it has heart’.

My own personal experience of hearing/seeing ContraPoints’s sincere disclosure of the difficulties of trans woman identity in a sense evokes for me another of Butler’s concepts – that of proximity to difference:

When Judith Butler writes about a proximity of difference she is contemplating the value that lies in moments of uncomfortability and unfamiliarity. To Butler this is a moment in which one finds one’s self “disturbed by the proximity of the unfamiliar, the proximity of difference that makes me work to forge new ties of identification and to reimagine what it is to belong to a human community in which common epistemological and cultural grounds cannot always be assumed” (Butler, Precarious Life 38).

For Butler “the very ‘I’ is called into question by its relation to the Other” (Butler, Precarious Life 23), and so, these moments  which unsettle the relation between the ‘I’ and the Other – these moments will always point us back to ourselves, and back to ourselves both as bodies and as body-concepts, and as friends and as lovers, and as individuals and as members of families and communities.

What I mean by this is that for me a lot of ContraPoints videos offer a valuable theoretical point of contact with the ‘big ‘Other’’. I do not mean that I am uncomfortable watching ContraPoint’s videos – I thoroughly enjoy them – but through her own sincere disclosure of her own experiences my own ‘self’ is brought into question: that is, that the “I” watching is called into question by the relation opened up through many of Wynn’s videos. In a sense it is my identity as a cisgendered man in relation to other (gender) identities that has the potential to now become for me a point of inquiry. I am ‘unsettled’ in as far as my reality, and perhaps more specifically, my own personal engagement with theory, is brought into question. Another way to say this is to say that this contact point “challenges the foreclosure of [my] ‘reality’” (Butler in Willig 142). Above all, ContraPoints is a channel that is essentially educative: although I am certain for Natalie Wynn herself the boundaries between entertainment and education are valuably contestable, the fact remains that her videos are, at the end of the day, sincere reflections and responses to elements of modern experience. If I mean that they teach through a proximity to difference, then I only mean that they end up teaching because they are sincere, because they are fundamentally and undeniably human, that is, human life.


[1] ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’

[2] But it should be noted that more often than not this has been predominantly centred around American culture.

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An Account of One’s Pet

by Dirk Strydom

I remember an incident from my youth. I was in one of those inexplicable states of blissful excitement that we probably all experience as children – I was still a very young dog, liking everything, attached to everything. I believed that great things were happening around me, whose focus I was, to which I needed to lend my voice, things that would be condemned to lie languishing on the ground if I didn’t run on their behalf, swing my body around for them – childish fantasies that recede over the years, but at that time they were very strong, I was wholly in thrall to them…

Franz Kafka, ‘Investigations of a Dog’ (4)

It is strange how we keep pets in our homes. They become characters in extensive narratives we create of them, both as objects apart and things coextensive with our own lives. Yet their lives are necessarily outside of these narratives and there is an insurmountable world of difference and incomprehensibility between what we recognise in them and the subjectivity they live out. It is in the light of this that I sense the need to provide answers: What am I? Who precisely are we who feel it necessary to keep a pet in the house? Who is doing this animation of the world from which identities proliferate as if by natural law? Of this animal whose life-workings we cannot possibly penetrate, yet so confidently narrate – is this narration not the markings of a subjectivity that can itself never be sure of where its own boundaries lie and where the world begins? Perhaps the human subject is, as Judith Butler reminds us in a reflection on Hegel, ecstatic in the literal sense of the term – that is, the human subject is always outside itself and trying to delineate its own self from various existences it has in the gazes and discourses exterior to it – and as such, the human subject can never, following each meeting with the other, return to what it was before (Giving an Account of Oneself  27).

In the first chapter of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself (2005), we are walked through the grounding difficulties of giving that titular account. Indeed, it proves to be quite difficult to do so in a manner that is at once concise and honest. And then, if one rambles sincerely, is there not a certain pointedness to one’s experience of self that remains elusive? Through an engagement with various thinkers whose thought addresses the problematic of establishing the ‘I’ and its history – Adorno, Foucault, Nietzsche, Hegel, Cavarero and others in passing – Butler elaborates upon this problematic by considering each thinker’s theoretical framework for its truth content as a form of experience. That is, Butler sketches out the formal preconditions under which each of these conceptions of an account of the self are actualized, both in terms of philosophical conviction and practical realization. In so doing, these conceptions of the self’s emergence are presented as interpretative frameworks to moments of recognition, affirmation and narration of the self, but only precisely that: frameworks; a framework necessarily delineates not only its mode of interpretation, but also that which is interpretable and that which is superfluous. The effectiveness in following through these frameworks is to foreground the heterogeneity of any postulated single event. In each framework of self-emergence, taken by its central problematic, we find an insistence upon an exteriority to the individual that, paradoxically, both drives the quest to found a coherent and transparent self and disallows the achievement of this self – whether this be a life trapped in arbitrary discursive codes preceding and exceeding the subjects, as in Foucault (GAO 15-17); a subject dissembled by its meeting with the other and perpetually forced to reconstitute itself, as in certain readings of Hegel (GAO 27-8); or in Nietzsche (GAO 10-14, 16) (as is similar in Freud), where the constitution of the narrating self is also a violence and a turning against itself in the face of an accusation by a power with jurisdiction over the conditions of one’s life. The “opacity” constituting the subject which emerges and seeks transparency within each interpretative framework is thus made into a condition that must be negotiated by the emerging subject under the fatalism of an endless reconstitution of that opacity (GAO 40).

However, this opacity is also defined by where and what an interpretative framework attempts to see through. The opacity that is struck thus signals a limit to sight: from within a given framework, this limit is understood as the condition of the subject, but from outside this same framework, we can call it the framework’s own short-sightedness. Furthermore, the postulation of an opaque subject also presupposes certain transparencies; but its short-sightedness is also myopic and so certain complications, or opacities, are looked past in order to establish the conditions of the subject’s dividedness or exteriority to itself and the responsive emergences that follow. Essentially, each of the theorists Butler considers provides a history of the opaque subject, each therefore narrating the subject’s potential emergence (and/or the pitfalls thereof) through various modes of self-narration or recognition. It should be noted then that each of these theorists, as themselves being subjects under their own postulated laws of subject-becoming, necessarily develops their narration of the subject’s potentiality by conflict with apparent opacity or exteriority, and thus simply the attempt to theorize bears testimony to the limitations weighing upon narrations of the self – that it must be theorized is already an irretrievable loss.  If each proposed condition of self-emergence is also an effective dialogue with the experience of opacity or the subject’s exteriority to itself, then we can also say, since it is through language that we are lost and endeavour to find ourselves, that opacity is thoroughly heterogeneous; for each search to establish the foundation of a coherent self is in conflict with a particular embodiment of or dialogic meeting with opacity. For this reason, Butler favourably reflects on Nietzsche’s conceptual employ of genealogy, writing: “it may be that to have an origin means precisely to have several possible versions of the origin” and then “[a]ny one of those is a possible narrative, but of no single one can I say with certainty that it alone is true” (GAO 37-8).

The subject then is not merely given as an opaque undifferentiated totality, but strikes a range of opacities in the process of recovering and delineating the self from the experience of a blinding totality in which an “I” knows of itself but not where and when the agency of this “I” begins or ends. To Butler, it is thus important to consider this meeting with the self’s unknowingness, which seems to preclude the possibility of a universally ethical subject, as the fundamental wellspring for ethical reasoning – for our unknowingness exists because we are bound to the other and the social realm of language in ways which disable the emergence of an autonomous “I” (GAO 40). Is the realisation of the radical impossibility of an autonomous subject, often conceived as a fatalism to individual agency and the potential to initiate social change, not precisely the real precondition for any ethical practice? This fact that we are only through others: there is no ethics which does not, however masked and corrupted through myopic desires, implicitly admit to this fact.

And yet there is much to be said on subject emergence and its ethical implications that stretch beyond the enclosure of the human self and the human other, but in which various figures of this relational analytic of being – including mutual recognition and emergence through narration – feature formatively. Plainly speaking, the subject emerges surrounded by non-human elements: the landscape, weather, urban infrastructure, equipment, playthings, other animals, etc.  These non-human elements are also objects within discourse that a subject must recognise as such in order to maintain the recognisability and transparency of a subjectivity that is essentially relational. The mutually formative relation between “You” and “I” is mediated by the ability of each to form a nexus of value and understanding around an object or set of objects. This object may be concrete and material as food in the emergence of the provider and beneficiary or an axe in the emergence of the executioner and the sentenced, but their concreteness, which discourse wishes to narrate, is still compromised in its submission to subjectivity. Moreover, this subjectivity configures itself in accordance with the frustrations that abound from an exteriority which limits its own self-determination. The experienced concreteness of an object or thing out there is hereby a matter qualified by varying degrees and conditions of conceptuality.

Still, I do not want to carry this conversation into a quest for tracing the genealogy of the logos or nomos of the world or its spirit – or even of the things it renders invisible. I do not want to be distracted from the body I live – not here, at least. Rather, my concern here is with giving accounts; the content of an account may be determinately generated from a history and world that precedes and exceeds the subject, rendering the subject into a form of fiction, but that does not veil the real event of the account and its effects that unfold, regardless of its relation to truth or objective history.

Our discourse becomes ever more cyclical when we attempt to add each condition of a subject’s emergence. In this Butler is right in her unwillingness to forego our opacity and continuous meeting with limits in exchange for establishing the conditions of a transparent subject. So it seems appropriate, then, for me briefly to reminisce on an anecdote that concerns matters of giving account that revolve around domestic pets – an everyday fact of our lives that acts as a peculiarly enmeshed interstice of opacities: narrative accountability in the emergence of a subject; the performativity of the subject as an ecstatic life that the audience moulds; the recognition and dislocation of agency, which include matters of punishment; and the history and veils of the domestic itself.

I moved into a new apartment with my partner and from the first day onwards a few cats from the neighbourhood began entering through the windows. From these same windows we were also regular witnesses to their interactions in the adjacent park. One of them, a male ginger kitten who we eventually could conclude was homeless, has since been adopted by us. Another cat, the first to have entered our flat, is an older, weighty, black-and-white creature. Our first impression as this cat slowly walked through the apartment, curiously inspecting our furniture and boxes waiting to be unpacked, was that she was a pregnant female looking for a safe place to give birth. We then also speculated that the young ginger, who we called Victoria Beckham (now Vicky) based on one of his grooming poses, was from the black-and-white cat’s (who we now call OukatOld Cat) previous litter. Were they both stray cats? Or did the black-and-white cat have owners and secretly give birth to a stray litter? It was impossible to tell. It was also possible that both cats had a home, but that Vicky wanted distance from aggressive siblings – he certainly held tightly to the opportunity of shelter we offered. He began asking for food. We, being vegans, had nothing to offer. But soon he began to look and act in an ever more desperate manner. I believed he had no home to return to. Or that perhaps he was lost, straying as unneutered adolescent cats do.

One day we found him chased up a tree by an aggressively panting and unusually muscular ginger cat sitting on a lower branch. The black-and-white cat was also there, pacing up and down on the ground beneath them. The aggressive ginger cat, who we dubbed Vetkat (Fat Cat), left as soon as we came closer. We then thought it all the more likely that Oukat was Vicky’s mother, anxiously weaving around the tree where her kitten was endangered. Yet it was also possible that the other cat, Vetkat, was Vicky’s father, a violent patriarch of sorts. Perhaps then, both males were vying for the attention of Oukat. If Vicky was indeed from Oukats offspring, we were witness to a full display of a feline Oedipal event.

From then, Vicky’s behaviour began to unsettle us: when Oukat came inside, he jumped on her from behind while she ate some of his cat-food. Whether she was truly pregnant or not, his mother or not, it was not pleasant to see his attempts to mate another cat. The immediate conclusion, of course, was that we had to get him neutered as soon as possible. We accepted his behaviour in somewhat binary terms as part of natural cat behaviour and its expression was only so unsightly from the perspective of a society that is ‘unnatural’, but the best response was to afford him the opportunity of better adaption to this form of society which is the concrete reality, now - and regrettably - for the foreseeable future. But then, in a moment of closer inspection, it was revealed to us that Oukat was definitely not Vicky’s mother. He was a neutered tom, overweight and determined to eat as much of Vicky’s food as possible. He was rarely aggressive, and it thus seems he knew how to appear the victim. Of course we began taking the bowl away from Oukat, we understood Vicky to have only been trying to protect his territory, his food. When the food was no longer a given to Oukat, he began taking the offensive against Vicky, and we were indeed proud of “our little boy” when he succeeded in chasing the old victim-playing slouch away. And Vicky’s appointment at the vet was postponed for a month or two

If we are to follow Butler in insisting on the centrality of opacity to the conditions of ethical reasoning, which consequently means our ethics betray reasonability when these ethics depend upon the existence of transparent subjects, we can say that our treatment of these cats constitutes a sort of ethical failure. Of course, our intentions by each reasoning was to establish the best conditions for each cat and we were constantly open and attentive to possible changes in the cats’ narratives, yet quite plainly we held attitudes towards each cat based on pure speculation. We engaged with other living beings in brief glimpses of their lives, the rest of which was a complete opacity, yet we insisted on a continually making transparent possible histories for each in order to establish the conditions of our conduct. In addition, the possible gender and corollary family relations which fueled much of our speculation are perfect evidence that in any performance – and these cats certainly appear to perform – the awaiting audience and the stage itself are louder, larger than actors: “The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene” (“Performance Acts and Gender Constitution” 526). Often this extends so far back that an act itself and the act perceived need not by necessity bear any resemblance to one another. Cats and dogs are implicated in the family and the home. Their true movements are veiled to us, and still further veiled by us in our recycling of pet ownership norms. What I take from Butler then is that the search for an ethical life is not so much a case for us of becoming better actors, but becoming a better audience: an audience which truly permits life to play out in its stark discontinuity and which does not recognise it solely by the appearance of the similar and familiar.


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Finding Fear

by Hanri Hattingh

The sun bakes down. I am standing on the edge of a cliff. My feet are burning on the slab of stone. The Orange River thunders down below. I am afraid. I can’t remember the last time I was afraid of dying.


No, wait. That’s not true. I remember the terror of nearly drowning when I was 11. I remember the panic and the bubbles and the silence. I remember my heartbeat – how it raced and then slowed. I remember my numb fingertips. I haven’t felt that kind of fear in a long, long time.


Depression has filled me with apathy. It has filled me with the wrong kind of numb. The fight-or-flight response means very little to a body which does not care whether it survives or dies, so I have made it my mission to find fear. I take myrcene, a terpene from cannabis to help with my depression and to trigger my adrenal medulla into pumping my veins full of a drug I can’t get via a psychiatrist’s signature and sympathetic tut. I need adrenaline, and if that means jumping off a cliff into a river in Namibia with no guarantee of survival, then so be it.


Let’s be real – I’m not the first struggling twenty-something who risks her life to be alive. We’ve seen it all before. I’m reminded of Logan Lerman’s epic scene in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. You know which one I’m talking about – the “in this moment, I swear, we are infinite” quote tattooed on every hipster’s butt cheek. Lerman is on the back of a speeding truck on a highway in the middle of the night, with his arms spread wide as he delivers this Instagrammable caption.


Adrenaline makes us feel like we can achieve anything. Suicidal tendencies are misinterpreted as wanting to die, when in reality they are part of an attempt at feeling alive. If I were to stand on a speeding truck as Lerman did, I would be terrified. Not knowing if the vehicle was suddenly going to swerve, throwing my body over the rails, onto the hard tarmac… It is for this very reason that I would loosen my hold on the safety bars and yell at the driver to go faster. I will choose fear over apathy any day. Putting my life on the line means that I have one, that I am not dead yet, despite my numb brain telling me otherwise.

So I find that the ending scene of The Perks is a realistic portrayal of living with depression. For many other viewers, perhaps my take is grim. Surely this scene shows that Lerman’s character, Charlie, is alright. He has friends, he got the girl, he went to therapy, and he lived…perhaps even happily ever after. For viewers who have an understanding of mental illness, however, this scene shows that depression is a constant, long-term companion. You have to live with it. Yes, Charlie did get better at life, but his intense desire to feel alive will always follow him, even on the back of a speeding truck. That’s the doppelganger effect for you. It’s terrifying. It’s precarious. It’s…being alive!


Unfortunately, in The Perks, the viewer is distracted from Lerman’s suicidal act of teenage rebellion (and thus, the implication of a not-so-happy ending) by the catchy notes of David Bowie’s hit “Heroes”. I can’t count the number of times people have told me how much they enjoyed The Perks because of the music. “I just love the music in that film! I’m such an old soul.” The same goes for The Breakfast Club. Everybody likes it because of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” – thank you, Pitch Perfect. But when asked about the plot of The Breakfast Club, the answer is usually that the film was quite boring. Nothing happened. The highlight is that the rebel and the pretty redhead end up together.


What about Brian? You know, the geeky kid who lisps his way through the film. Brian is basically manipulated by the other kids to write the essay their teacher set as a form of punishment. And oh, never mind the backstory: he confesses that he is in detention because he tried to commit suicide at school. If writing this down emphasises the brutal absurdity of the situation, in the film plot, Brian’s trauma is quickly forgotten, via a light-hearted dance scene to Karla DeVito’s rhythms in “We Are Not Alone”.


Suicidal tendencies in film, it seems, are easy to forget. Or maybe, just because mental illness is not understood by everybody, it is easier to show the parts we understand and hide the rest behind a hit single. The world is afraid of what it does not understand. Cue: emotionally memorable song.


Just as the suicidal tendencies of the characters in The Perks and The Breakfast Club are promptly dismissed by playing a catchy tune, I mask my own depression behind a childhood trauma. It is easier to explain the gradual process of drowning in somebody’s swimming pool than drowning in a lack of serotonin. This neurotransmitter is responsible for regulating mood and social behaviour, appetite, sleep and memory, and having low levels of serotonin feels like being stuck in Jell-O. How can I explain drowning in Jell-O without sounding like I’m tripping balls?


I’m stuck with an illness that doesn’t look anything like water but drowns me all the same. If that doesn’t make sense, I have proven my point. Depression is hard to understand, and even harder to explain. I can understand why filmmakers try to make depression and suicide relatable by means of catchy songs, because music is something everybody understands.


Art can be used to explain the unexplainable. Where logical reason fails (chemicals in my brain made me drown in Jell-O?), art helps me express this thing that is lodged in my chest. Especially effective is the art of filmmaking. Even in the form of YouTube videos, there is something about ‘motion picture’ and visual storying that explains depression better than I ever can. Maybe it is because film takes this invisible illness and turns it into something physical. It takes the Jell-O and transforms it into a swimming pool; the lack of serotonin into drowning. The language shifts, morphing beyond verbal explanation into affective metaphoric image vocabularies.


Above all, visual language made my parents understand. It made them go, “Oh! You’re not really drowning in gelatine! It’s a metaphor! We get it!”

They kinda don’t, but hey. Film helped them reach a level of understanding, of relating something they can see to something they can’t. I remember showing my mom a YouTube video posted by the World Health Organization’s channel, called I had a black dog, his name was depression. It made her cry, because it was the first time she understood what I’ve been trying to tell her for years. The film clip made the analogy clear to her, without my burdened efforts at explanation. I went home for the December holidays and saw the link to that video saved under Bookmarks on her computer. It has been re-watched many times over four years. The thought comforted me.




I wonder what my mom would say if she saw me on this cliff. If she’d yell at me to get the hell down, or if she’d be here next to me, preparing to take the plunge. There are blisters swelling on the soles of my burning feet, so I should probably stop (over)thinking and get moving. Yet…there’s something about the view up here, about the Mars-like landscape. It’s like something out of a movie.


It also reminds me of Stephen Crane’s poem “In the Desert”:


In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground,

Held his heart in his hands,

And ate of it.


I said, “Is it good, friend?”

“It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it

Because it is bitter,

And because it is my heart.”


I am the creature. I am holding onto my fears and demons of the past, simply because this is what I know. The familiar. Like the makers of The Perks and The Breakfast Club, I am hiding behind what I know, fearing the vacuum of what I don’t. For years and years, depression has been my only friend. Even here, in the desert of another country, it is just the two of us. It cannot be chased away, only acknowledged. I cannot imagine my life without depression. I can not.


If my heart wasn’t bitter, I would not have eaten it. If I was truly alive, I would not have felt the need to jump from a cliff. I would not have felt the need to taste fear. Apathy is a disease and it is ruining me. I cannot run from it, but I can hide it behind adrenaline, even if only for a little while.


I take a step back from the edge of the cliff, preparing myself.

I remember drowning in the pool when I was 11.

The tightness in my chest consuming.

I am going to

take off.

Take it off.

I do not want

to carry it

with me anymore.


If I had a GoPro, I would capture this moment on film – me, soaring off a cliff. Freefalling, and then plunging into the cold, swirling dark green water of the Orange River. I would post the moment on YouTube, a clip of me emerging from the impromptu baptism with a splutter and a gasp. And I would hope someone would understand. The Jell-O and the swimming pool collided. I survived. I drowned in neither.


It is only through film that I can catch the essence and the importance of this moment.


See, I can trace the contour lines of the Namibian landscape with a pencil and fill the sketch with many shades of brown and gold. I can write down what the warm desert wind whispered to me that day. I can catch the spray of water in a photo. I guess I can. But it is only through film that I can say what I want to, without actually saying it: that you cannot heal in the same environment where you got sick. I had to come to Namibia. I had to come to the desert.




There is a reason Stephen Crane found the creature eating of its heart in the desert. The desert is unfamiliar and everlasting. I tried to pinpoint where it started and where it ends, but I lost the horizon between the waves of rippling, heated air.


It is here, in the desert, that I took a bite of my heart.


I forced my memory of drowning to join me in the Orange River, and I watched it disappear in the murky water, gasping, clawing at the surrounding rocks. It is in the desert that I acknowledged the bitterness of it all. The unfairness of the depression that grips me.


It is here, in the Namibian desert, where I learnt to make peace with depression, because it is bitter, and because it is mine.


I guess it is a good thing that I don’t own a GoPro, because the footage would have been shaky, anyway. I won’t ever be able to represent the Orange River through my amateur editing. And maybe any attempt to represent depression is the same - it can’t be depicted; cannot adequately be expressed in any artistic medium. Depression cannot be understood, only experienced.




The Breakfast Club will always remain a boring movie to some, and the music playlist of The Perks may remain the primary reason why most people liked the film. And that is okay. In some cases, ignorance truly is bliss. Yet, the world would be such a different place if everyone had a link to a video saved in their Bookmarks. I do not blame the makers of The Breakfast Club and The Perks of Being a Wallflower for hiding the seriousness of Charlie’s and Brian’s conditions behind popular songs. I do the same.


I can’t look at Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa without my chest caving in on itself, and I still struggle to meet the eyes of people with mangled wrists. Because I know. However, no matter how uncomfortable such knowledge is, the world should not underestimate the seriousness of depression. I would not rebuke a person struggling through an asthma attack, just because I have no problem breathing. The way our minds feel affects the way our hearts feels - so let’s take care of our minds, too.


I need to turn the music down. I need to start listening to my depression (and other people’s) instead of belting out Bowie’s “Heroes”. I should stop hiding from what I don’t understand. Perhaps I should even try again to explain depression candidly without having to make wobbly analogies out of gelatine, though I do remain attached to black dogs.


Representation is hard. Remembering is hard. Having to write about my trauma and re-experience all the emotions is exhausting, and if I can be completely honest, I left writing this until I could delay no longer. (Well, I started, yes. But then I hit a long pause of procrastination, unable to face the end.) Despite my search for adrenaline and fear in Namibia, apathy still clings to the back of my neck. It will always be here. Yet I find myself grabbing at my safety belt when my friend takes a turn a bit too sharply. I check the street both ways, and then again before crossing. Healing happens in layers, and I am slowly but surely fearing death again. That great wave – if it came, I would run. My heart – it is not for my own eating.



I can hear my friends call my name over the thundering river, even though the sound is distorted and battered by echoes. I listen. It is time to get in our canoes again – the sun is nearly gone, and we still need to go through the roughest rapid yet. As we settle into our boat, my rowing partner hands me his GoPro.


“Stick it to the front of the boat,” he commands. “I want some sick footage for my YouTube channel.”


I obey, thinking about how I’d nearly risked my life back at the cliff without a single shot of evidence. The rapids thunder in the distance. One last time, I glance over the plateau surrounding us, trying to commit to memory the awesome view. The scale. The emptiness. The colours. I wish I could do this Namibian landscape justice. I will write poems about this someday. But first, I must survive it. And I dig into the water with my paddle, letting the current sweep us along an unknown path.


Death twitches my ear. “Live”, he says, “I am coming.” – Virgil.

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Horror Unspeakable: Life through the Eyes of Lovecraft and Lithium

by Thomas Taylor

The Whisperer in Darkness


Something has been following me.


A scrawny version of myself that I can’t recognize in pictures anymore, thirteen, walked into a bookstore looking for anything that didn’t have ‘Stephen King’ on its spine. My parents had made a promise when I was younger that I would never have to pay for a book in my life, if I in turn promised to read every single one to the end. A few years later they had to add a caveat – only every second novel could be from the King himself. At first, they were content enough to have a son who read a lot, and then they were struggling to wean me off IT, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining.


I pulled out the thickest thing wedged between Koontz and Lucas. It turned out to be a massive hardcover, with demonic eyes and tentacles like moss that slithered across the front over and all around the sides. TALES OF HORROR, the title declared with that supremely cheap confidence that only pulp novels know how to do right, A COLLECTION OF STORIES FROM H.P. LOVECRAFT.


My mom had reservations at first, seeing something dangerous in the creature’s exaggerated red eyes, but I convinced her. Plus, it was thick enough to last me at least a month or two, meaning good value for money. Which is a fact: my mom got her money’s worth – that book still comes with me every time I move house, and it’s almost a decade later. Of course, the first time I opened the book, things did not seem promising. I was overwhelmed by the archaic terminology and the even stranger mythos that ran through every brief story.

Azathoth, R’leyh, Shoggoth, Ghatanothoa. It was enough to drive you mad.

Then something happened. Not suddenly. Far from it. A slow burn I now know to be all too appropriate when discussing Lovecraft. Maybe it started in the prose of “The Colour Out of Space”, or maybe somewhere in the margins. From realms whose mere existence stun the brain and numb us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs they throw open before our frenzied eyes.


Do you see what I see? Lovecraft would start rambling about the unknown and fear and the fear of the unknown and then the rambling seemed to summon something, and I’d start to get uncomfortable. Not in my room, not anywhere close, but out there in the vast endlessness of what remains unexplored, there was Something. And yes, if it wanted to, Something could easily come here. It could rise. Maybe it didn’t even have to. It could be the size of what we consider to be infinity. It would be malevolent. The mere turn of its head – oh please, let it have something as human as a head – could erase us all.




When I was around the same age, thirteen, my mother followed me into the psychologist’s office. Usually she just dropped me off and picked me up, but for once, there was something serious happening. Those sessions were a chore more than anything else - I’d been branded an unfortunate with ‘learning problems’ by a series of teachers – but I never saw the point. All those hours spent talking about my home life or sculpting my emotions with clay felt like shoveling shit with insurance credits.


Besides, I had a pretty clear idea of the type of person who must see the psychologist: some individual who’d put his feet too deep into the waters of the unknown and wasn’t prepared for the tide to take them. The villains in Stephen King, 0r the protagonists in HP Lovecraft, characters whose fate would always bring them back to the unspeakable depths of a madness unconquerable. But then, all those prejudices were shattered.


Bi-po-lar dis-or-der.


I don’t recall the exact words leading up to the diagnosis; I probably wasn’t paying attention, but I do remember my mother clenching my fist tightly at the sound of those strange six syllables. Yet saying it like that diminishes the terror, it almost sounds pleasant, every sound hopping rhythmically up and down in almost-but-not-quite iambic pentameter.


Then, as the psychologist went deeper into the diagnosis, teasing out the implications, I felt the weight of what had just been discovered. Suddenly every anecdote shared, from the random outbursts, to the moments of pure recklessness at school and at home, to the weeks where I grew far too reserved and slept twice as much as was healthy: it was all there on a rational timeline where the peaks and troughs danced with one another in accusing testament.


Bi-po-lar dis-or-der.


And so, I was put on medication; a low-dosage antidepressant to control something I didn’t quite understand and didn’t quite believe I had. The medication disciplined the possible beast, allaying any immediate urgency, and I started High School, trying to grasp every opportunity to distance myself from those awkward preteen years. I thought I was only bringing with me a stash of horror books and some light acne. Grade 8 to 9 my averages went from desperate 50s to mediocre 60s, and then by the end of Grade 9 I had somehow rallied the academic self-esteem to keep everything nicely over 75% . All those years trudging through King, Poe and Lovecraft had bred a student who could write competently and enjoy the process, signaling a migration from mathematics and physics to the warm arms of English and History. Head over heels, I truly was.


It was a good time. Most of all I remember reading Misery by Stephen King one morning before class. My English teacher walked by, saw what I was reading, and changed my life in one statement.


‘If you can write fiction like you can write an essay,’ she said, ‘then I have no doubt I’ll find your name in a bookstore one day.’


I gave her an awkward smile as she walked off, but her words were etched to the bone. She was right! I could! No, even better, I would one day write a book, and not just any book, a horror book, one that would defy the market expectations for ‘weird fiction’. Some had done it. I could too.


Something was changing.


Who Goes There?


I’m going to be honest – madness is a great plot device. I, too, exploit it here.


For every writer diagnosed with it – and there are many, as you may have heard – there’s double the novels invoking that dark hound Bipolar Disorder for its characterization, its pathos… and its terror. It’s incredibly convenient for the purposes of ‘total’ insanity without total insanity: elevated mood, racing thoughts, obsessive and intrusive imagery, and then an abyss of numbness, of everything reduced to nothing at all; it’s all there to highlight the themes of loss and fragmentation or whatever-have-you in your debut page-turner. Mania turns to Depression, turns to Mania, turns the page, or something like that.


When Bipolar Disorder hit this protagonist hard in Grade 10, the only option was to hit back harder, through the likes of Lithium and SSRIs. Here’s the thing with medications for mental illness: they usually come with a little disclaimer, the very small print on the medical-speak package insert, that they might exacerbate the problem. The explanation requires that you accept the incongruity, the anomaly: Might Help. Might Make Things Worse. Every single SSRI out there will be prescribed with a quick yet firm ‘Oh, also, this has a rare but possible side-effect where your skin destroys itself and you die in the worst agony imaginable’. The science behind it all is lost on me – something in that brain is wonky, here’s something that makes it even wonkier.


It’s a toss-up, a colossal one, and I’m certain that if there is a deity out there, some divinity who’s in charge of all this irony, he finds the fact that anti-depressants cause suicidal thoughts a particularly funny joke in his damned divine comedy. You really can’t write this stuff in real life. I can spit out jargon, but I don’t think anything quite encapsulates the scare of losing weight, losing hair, losing sleep, losing the color in your skin, all these losses replaced by the onset of permanent dark circles like cosmic bruises around your eyes. It feels like selling your body to the devil to keep your soul. Just like those Lovecraftian characters who learned a Little Too Much in the end, whose minds were simply too finite for all the horrors of the universe, I witnessed myself waste away over the next few months. Those wonky drugs pushed me into a depressive phase, but because my manic episodes are particularly extreme, that was a relative victory. Yet people I’d been surrounded by my entire life saw only the results of whatever state I was in and, as people do, they talked.


And yet, Bipolar Disorder has taught me a lot about the vague yet pertinent notion of insanity that runs through my dear horror fiction. ‘Mental illness is poorly portrayed in horror fiction’ seems a vapid conclusion, shocking nobody, and yet I still find myself constructing my own understanding of it all through the language and stories that first exposed me to this ambiguous beast called madness.


With Bipolar Disorder, I think I’ve learned that there is a chasm between ‘mental illness’ in novels, and madness in novels. Bipolar Disorder, with its associations of wild instability and dramatic extremes so similar in theory to the extremity of horror fiction, is really boring at times. That’s obviously no complaint, of course it isn’t, but it’s a part I rarely see mentioned in fiction. Sometimes you manage and mental illness is just making sure you don’t mix up your psychologist appointments, or stay committed to keeping your weight reasonably down on anti-depressants. Some days mental illness is far from murderous rampages and tussling with philosophical notions of mortality on narrow bridges highly-strung in the moonlight. The ordinariness wouldn’t make for particularly exciting stuff to read about, I guess, but it’s important not to omit the tedious banality of it all if we’re getting under the skin of the beast.


Indeed, I long for more fiction on the banality of mental illness. Open the floodgates to a world where our protagonists face strife, terror, horror, pain, monstrosities unimaginable, all the while making sure that they take their mood-stabilizers at 8 in the morning following a light breakfast, and remember that they have a therapist appointment the next Tuesday. Let readers far and wide tap into this truth often unspoken: it’s difficult. Sometimes, though, it’s less difficult, following hard work and dedication to the possibility that this, too, does not write our stories for us.


It’s so appealing to write about mental illness ‘for the sake of it’. Nothing is stopping us. It’s a tool of the macabre and the extreme, the link between existential horror and cosmic horror, the exposition of the villain and the downfall of the hero. Yet I implore us all, for not just the sake of the mentally ill, not only on behalf of the manic and the maniacal, to do better for our stories. Jekyll has had his Hyde, Annie Wilkes has hammered the kneecaps of Paul in Misery, and Hamlet has cried his ambiguous tears. It is time to go deeper, into a realm where things such as Bipolar Disorder can be boring.




I finished my final high school exams before weaning off that dragon called Lithium, and adjusting enough to study a degree in the liberal arts. The first thing I did in university English was Shirley Jackson’s fantastic story “The Lottery”. I’d forgotten that we had to read it before class, but it wasn’t a crisis, most of us did. It’s a short read, so our tutor gave us a piece of the hour to go through it by ourselves. When I got to the ending, that brutal, ridiculously cynical pay-off after pages of careful exposition, I felt my heart racing. How long had it been since I sat down and read a horror story? A year, two maybe? However long it was, whatever I’d forgotten, it was back and bigger than that little room could accommodate.


And then some problems build up over the next few months, flying low in the chasm between gradual and sudden. Then things got bad. I went to a place. Even now, years after the fact, having registered it in every possible context, I still find myself saying it like that. Things got bad. I went to a place. If Hemingway wrote first-person horror, I think that sort of description would be found somewhere in his body of work. Abstract the specifics, the details, any kind of real indication of what and where and most pertinently that elusive why, until it is nothing more than clinical syntax.


I’d never been institutionalized before, and yet I had seen this place in all its forms. This was the end-point, the rock-bottom, the punchline. Bertha Mason had finally been locked in the attic. But the teleology of insanity in horror fiction once again proved incongruent with the lived experience. If I said for a moment that the experience was positive as it happened, I’d be lying. Yet the modern-day inpatient psych ward is perhaps the mostly clearly butchered thing in all of fiction. Nobody wants to be there, nobody wants to be the person who should be there, but those who do will have the pleasure of experiencing one of the most sympathetic divisions in medicine, and even fewer of us will ever know it to be final. You go. You get help. Eventually, you leave.


A Head Full of Ghosts


Days passed. Inside the-place-where-you-go-when-things-get-bad, there weren’t many books, despite a lot of free time to read them. I knew one of the first things I wanted to do when I got out was read The Haunting of Hill House, another Shirley Jackson favourite, but when I did finally get a copy, my brain drowned out any focus, pooling with half a dozen medications I was still unused to, all spilling out in little drops on a Prologue page I couldn’t get past no matter how hard I tried to understand it.


The medication was strong, so strong that it tore an impossible rift between signifier and signified in my mind. It wasn’t just a textual thing, either. When people spoke, their voices would sometimes sound like waves crashing on the shore, clearly apparent but saying what? The world becomes grotesquely primal when language conveys no meaning; nothing but sound in space and symbols on pages.


Victory didn’t come easily; it took months before I could adjust and the central fear during that time was always the possibility that it was all for naught. When it came to reading, I realized that I had to start all the way at one end of the spectrum and work up: flash fiction, short stories, novellas – it was going to be a long time before I could read a novel again.


The stories I’ve chosen to refer to are not coincidental – they all formed a crucial part in my idiosyncratic ‘recovery’. Yet revisiting all the stories felt like more than an attempt to adjust to the medication. Instead, it served as an affirmation about a truth I didn’t know what to do with: I’d been institutionalized, whatever that was supposed to mean; whether it was a momentary lapse in my life or just a natural and necessary moment in a life with Bipolar Disorder. I re-examined the stories I loved, just as I re-examined the world following an experience many hold to be traumatic or final, yet where close turned out to be far less apparent.


As my brain started adjusting to the pool of SSRIs and mood-stabilizers, some six strange months later, I ordered a novel called House of Leaves, recommended by a friend. It would be the first legitimate ‘novel’ I’d commit to in a very long time. And while a lot of things only make sense in retrospect, some reveal themselves in their crucial moments. I would have dropped that book within ten pages at any other time in my life, but this was a different time. A time like no other.


I would love to claim that reading House of Leaves felt like a beginning or the ending of a story, some neat special. A wild, messy recontextualizion of everything that had been read before it, and perhaps everything that had led up to it. The novel is a weird interjection of different narratives of broken people told through perhaps the most experimental style I’ve ever seen in my life, all surrounding some damn film about a family in a house that may or may not even have existed. The novel was terrifying for reasons I’d never encountered before:  a prose style and a narrative form that was so unspecific yet so clear, so apparent, so ever-present yet difficult to understand that it reflected many of my most sensitive feelings about my own life with mental illness. Horror not quite unspeakable, a fearful darkness that made me a nyctophobe by any other name.


I remembered a part of myself that lived for this kind of scary; lived for the highbrow and the pulp in equal measure and knew what he had to do all along. I started writing, fleshy piece by piece, and soon it was just something that etched itself nigh-permanently into my schedule, as much a given as the medication in the evening and the medication in the morning. An hour a day turned to two, Autumn made way for Winter, and then it was all there, a novel, an actual novel written.


Was it any good? Of course not, first drafts rarely are. But looking at it now, I don’t think the draft would’ve worked as well if I hadn’t had the awareness of terms like ‘scary’ and ‘crazy’ and their possible shapes. And it would seem I learned these two counter-intuitively but so effectively: ‘scary’ from my life with Bipolar Disorder, and ‘crazy’ from horror fiction. Today, when I look at what I made – and I’m still editing the draft piece by piece – I am filled, even fulfilled - with the promise that I could do this again simply because I’ve managed it before. I know I wouldn’t have it any other way.


The best part? There’s some scary stuff in that thick piece of work. Not anything that jumps out; nor even moments of abrupt drama or heightened shock. Scary stories aren’t that simple, even when they’re candid and willing to admit that about themselves. It took a very long time before I started seeing them for what they are. They are never content simply to be horror stories, pandering to the scare, the frightnight, the graphic spectacle. They’re also, curiously, romances, sometimes cool and forthright, passionate and unhinged, always learning and changing, just like the reader, always altering even the steadiest preservations and prejudices, faithfully catching and reciprocating the briefest glance from the other side of a dark room. Quietly. Causing disquiet.


So it is not surprising that still, something follows.

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