On the Occasion of My Retirement54 min read
Thank you all—faculty and students, deans and provosts, Ms. President and our board, community members and honored guests for coming today. I suppose I’ll begin with a few prefatory remarks about the recent events in my life. My appearance here, and my mode of dress, and even my manner of speaking might seem a bit strange. I’m not exactly on the bill as it were, and yet, here I am, standing in for the man you were expecting. Let’s begin, not quite at the beginning, but with the now. With whom you see standing before you today, giving this valedictory on Dr. Ewing’s behalf. Let’s talk about Emma. Let’s talk about, and this is a word you’ll find belongs in quotes, “me.”
Emma was a smart girl, so despite my better judgment, I let her see the statuette. She had walked right out of a New Yorker short story—black hair cut into a bob, cardigan, skirt ending right at the knee, Mary Janes, birdlike wrists, and blue eyes—and into my class. A solid B-minus student and an office hours regular. She was helping me pack up the office now, after two semesters of Semiotics, Semantics and Communication. After two and a half decades at Miskatonic University.
Not even the affairs had led to my dismissal despite tenure and a faculty union. Hell, it wasn’t even the statuette.
“This is amazing,” Emma said. She held it one hand, palming its base like a basketball.
“What’s amazing is that you can look at it.”
Emma smiled. “I have a little vantablack dress. It’s strange. I mean, I can’t see it, no more than anyone else, but you get used to the idea of holding a weird blob after a while … or being one.”
“Vantablack and you never wore it for me?”
“It doesn’t work very well, you know, on dates?” Emma still had a tendency to slide back into uptalk, no matter how much I belittled her for it. Vantablack dresses cost a mint—the artificial nanoblack is used primarily for stealth drones and deep space telescopes. It’s so black it can absorb ninety-nine point something-something percent of visible light, and also microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet.
“That’s not vantablack,” I said. I smiled. “That statue is supposedly one thousand years old.”
Emma gasped one of her tiny gasps and put the statuette on the corner of my desk. What used to be my desk.
“What’s it doing here, then?” Emma asked.
I struck my professorial pose—arms folded across my chest, ankles crossed, butt leaned up on the corner of my desk across from where Emma had placed the statuette.
“You tell me,” I told her, “and maybe I can get your grade up a bit.”
“After all I’ve done for you, there should be more room for my grades to go up,” she said, little fists on her hips now.
“Miskatonic has a very strict attendance policy, even for upper-division courses. Plus, on three separate occasions, I caught you looking at your smartphone in class and I cannot stand that. What can I say?” I cut my chin at the statuette. “Go on.”
Emma looked at it again. Her eyes rolled right off it—once, twice and then the third time she looked off to the side, to better catch it in her peripheral vision.
“Well, it could be in a museum. But which one and in what exhibit? Nobody puts a piece on display with a card reading, ‘Unknown artifact constructed of unknown materials. Date: unknown.’ Without context, it can’t be displayed.
“Same reason it can’t really be studied. Who would want to spend their careers on a text without a taxon? So, it’s a sign that … fails.
“Naturally, it would end up in the office of a semiotics professor. It’s too interesting to throw away and too interesting to do anything with.”
“Pretty close,” I said. “That pretty much sums up the whole field. A solid B+ answer.”
Emma blanched. “C’mon,” she said. “That was pretty good.”
“Yes, B+ is ‘pretty good,’ ” I said. I put my arms around her waist. “You have A+ skills in other departments.” I kissed her. She looked up at me and said, “It’s true. I’m also fucking Professor Diamond in Anthropology.” I had no idea what to say.
Driving home, I realized what a fool I’d been. Over the years, I’d taken my share of lovers from the student body. Miskatonic is an old-fashioned school in a lot of ways and indeed, one of those ways is that it was generally understood that having the occasional affair with an undergraduate was an inevitable outgrowth of the intense mentoring dynamic in small liberal arts colleges. I was a good professor—I never initiated an affair with a frosh, never attended student parties or bought any of my lovers any alcohol, and I tried to open the minds of my lovers just a little more widely than I could during class time. I shared books with my lovers, drove into Boston for cultural events with them, and even attended concerts and films of their choice on occasion.
I never lent or gave them money, as that would lead to unnecessary complications. Money, that medium of universal exchange, never simply stands for itself but always something else. Always everything else.
In this way, money was the exact opposite of the statuette. Money meant everything, but was never itself; the statuette, which I strapped into the passenger seat of my aging Saab like it was a child in the days before the nanny state and mandatory car-seats, was always itself and could mean nothing else. Plus, I had the statue and I had no money. Opposites.
Clearly, either Emma or Professor Diamond had sold me out. Though our packing session had ended with sex, it was desultory and awkward. Emma refused to be bent over my desk, saying that the statuette “weirded” her out. Instead, she sat awkwardly in my lap and looked at the ceiling while I sat on the edge of my desk. I had been hoping to leave a wet spot, so that the department, and my faculty replacement, would have something to remember me by, but it was not to be.
In all fairness, Miskatonic did well by me. If there were a fairness beyond all fairness, I would add this additional bit of fairness: The university did not want a scandal. It had few enough African American faculty as it was. It would have been simple enough to spin my dismissal as a racist impulse, a variation on the old Mandingo myth. Call it playing the race card if you will, but the fact is that Professor Diamond still had his job and Emma’s sweet little ass, too. If you find the idea of someone being hired partially for the sake of “diversity” distasteful, imaging living in my skin and being judged as an Affirmative Action hire automatically, regardless of my teaching skill and research.
Oh, we’d love to have you in our department, Dr. Ewing, they say but not necessarily because you’re any good. Instead, we’d love to have you make us look good. Twenty years later, things were better. I proved myself a dozen times over, but in the end, I was let go anyway, betrayed by a lover. That had to have been it. Break-up sex always has a mechanical quality to it.
I got a decent severance package from Miskatonic and was named the year’s Smith Keynote Speaker. Officially, I was retiring. Officially, Emma’s GPA would remain a 3.94, even with her B-, a mere 2.70, on her transcript. The grade would appear in parenthesis and thus somehow be annihilated via the act of being highlighted.
I suppose that the true embarrassment is this—with my severance, I finally paid off the last of my own student loans, and some other debts I had accumulated to make up for the shortfalls from research grants and non-reimbursable expenses. One cannot bomb an apartment building full of sleeping Palestinians or Serbians or Iraqis with the fruits of my work, at least not directly, so funding had always been niggardly. Now I was at zero. Though that nothingness actually represented an upward climb, and an improvement in my network according to mint.com, I also had another zero to face. Zero income.
My home is more graduate student than professor. Students liked it that way—what can I say? And I never married, never felt comfortable with hiring a cleaning service. My grandmother had been a maid and she was always so tired. Her fingers looked like tree branches at the beginning of winter, gnarled and ever reaching toward something. Books were everywhere. Most of my shelves were either IKEA or cast-offs from the end-of-semester move outs. I had a flatscreen TV, but these days, everyone had one, except of course for most of my colleagues, despite all their work in media and representation. A few of my lovers had been surprised to see the TV hanging on the wall and a shelf stuffed with DVDs—a complete collection of Wrestlemanias, Mexican and Korean horror films, and some of the war documentaries I screened in class.
People like a professor with a television. It humanizes us. More than once, a girlfriend let me know that she, like the professors she admired, never ever watched television, only to sit down in front of it and fall into a teletrance. Poor Emma, in the early days of our relationship, cringed as she watched Monday Night Raw, one hand on my cock and the other working her pussy. “The only way I can watch this violence, Gordon,” she had told me, “is by pretending that this is all fake.” Triple H was working over someone with a sledgehammer.
“I’ve got some good news for you, then,” I told her. Then I brought her close to me and ejaculated onto her blouse. Later, I explained that wrestling was a series of choreographed exhibitions.
The TV screen was black but not so black as the statuette. Nothing was, really, not even the blacker-than-black vantablack scientists had so recently discovered. It’s hard to describe how black something like the statuette was, except that I can tell you two things:
The statuette looks like, at best, an abstraction of a flame, tongues licking the air atop a crude stone base. When a cast was made of the statuette, an enormous complexity was revealed. So little light is reflected from the obsidian-like black stone from which the statuette is carved that none of the details are normally visible, but the casting showed that the tongues of flames were covered in minutely carved reliefs. Twisting vines of some sort, with ants chasing after crawling men, slicing them in half with their mandibles. Tiny limbs and severed breasts scattered and falling among the leaves.
The second thing is something I should have already known and I felt rather foolish when I figured it out. It is nearly impossible to take a useful photograph of the statuette, as it looks just like a black blob from most angles. This made it nigh impossible to try to sell on eBay, which was my immediate plan for bringing in some income. I even had an old Super-VHS camcorder with a mounted light, but digging it out of the bowels of my closet and pointing it at the statue while I used the flash setting on my smartphone didn’t help.
Were this a work of fiction rather than a memoir, I’d say that, frustrated, I went to bed and after a long period of tossing and turning with worry over my love life, career and immediate money woes, fell asleep, only to fall prey to dreams of black flame and snapping mandibles. But all I did was warm up some spaghetti, watch half a film on TCM, and then fall asleep on the couch, clothed but with my pants undone. I had no dreams worth remembering, but I did think to call Lenore in the morning, which is what I did.
Lenore was another Miskatonic student and another one of my “conquests,” though we had parted amiably after a single semester. She was a work-study student with a position in the audio-visual department. As such, I presumed she had access to either equipment sufficient to take a decent photo of the statuette, or at least some idea of how to proceed. It’s a stereotype that academics are technically incompetent. I suppose I am a stereotype, but aren’t we all?
I was loath to return to campus unless I had to, but Lenore wasn’t answering either her personal cell number or the office phone. I wrapped up the statuette and drove back to campus, to find the A/V office locked, with no sign on the door, though several Post-It Notes were stuck to it. These, as far as I could tell from the nearly illegible pen, were from various faculty members annoyed-to-outraged that their video projectors, slide carousels, and microphones were behind a locked door, with no sign of when anyone might be along to help.
One of the notes was as vague as it was emphatic:
There was Professor Diamond again, still sniffing after my sloppy seconds. I decided to head over to the Anthro department and pay him a visit.
Simon Diamond was a lazy anthropologist—his specialty was literally the sex lives of college students. He had been a young-looking twenty-something back in his grad school days, and turned his careful analysis of mating rituals in an undergraduate dorm into an interesting dissertation and then a salacious, and popular, book called Two in the Pink. The post-colon subtitle was a bit of academic flummery I can’t recall, but it did contain the words “late capitalism.” Diamond is the reason Miskatonic instituted a rule that during office hours, faculty doors must remain open.
Diamond’s door was open, but he was sitting alone when I walked in. He smiled, seemingly authentically happy to see me. “Gordon! Come in!”
“Simon,” I said, taking a seat. I’d not been to his office before, but Miskatonic is a small-enough school that most faculty members in the social sciences know one another. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the décor.
“So, Central African chokwe masks, and carvings from Tanzania. Did two different colleagues have two different tag sales?” That’s anthropology for you; whites appropriating the physical and performative cultures of people of color.
“I’m interested in form and physique,” Diamond said.
“Listen, Gordon, what do you want? Are you here to spark some kind of confrontation? I’ll call the campos right now.”
“Which?” he asked.
There were seven or eight Lenores on campus, it was true. Something about Miskatonic attracted slightly old-fashioned and literary names, or perhaps people with such names were attracted to the little college.
“Reichl, with the pink hair and the nose.”
“Oh, is her hair still pink?”
“I don’t really keep track.”
“All theory, no facts, eh?” Diamond said.
“Well, my favorite part was always shaved …,” I said.
“Here’s a fact: she’s missing,” Diamond said quickly. “I just found out about it myself. There was an all-campus email sent out. The other A/V kid, too, the bl—”
He couldn’t bear to finish saying the word black in front of me. He turned the computer monitor on his desk toward me and opened up his Outlook mailbox.
“Hmm,” I said. “So, why did you leave her a note, specifically?”
“Why do you care?”
“This is a missing girl we’re talking about, Simon.”
Diamond laughed. “You’re full of shit, Gordon. You didn’t know she was missing when you came here. What did you want with her, or with me, for that matter?”
I decided to show him the statuette, so pulled it from my satchel and placed it on his desk.
“That’s impressive. Can I touch it?” He did so without waiting for my answer, putting a finger to one of the tongues of black flame. “Huh. It feels almost fuzzy, like the tip of my finger is sinking into it.”
“It’s an amazing piece. Totally unknown provenance and inexplicable meaning. Is it flame, a plant, an abstraction? Nobody knows.”
Diamond looked up at me, his finger still on the statuette.
“I want to sell it on eBay to make a few extra bucks. But it’s too black, too absorbent, to get a decent photo of it. I thought Lenore might be able to help.”
“Huh, interesting.” Diamond didn’t really think that was interesting. The statuette, though, yes. It may well have been the most interesting thing to ever cross his desk, save for Emma’s little heart-shaped ass.
“There’s something in that A/V office I need, too …,” he said, contemplative.
He looked at me, licked his lips. “Should we try to break in?”
“Why don’t we just call the janitor and get the door open?”
“Why didn’t you do that, already?” Diamond asked.
“I don’t work here, anymore, remember?”
The door was easy enough to get open, once Diamond tracked down the right number to call and once the shambling old janitor appeared with a key ring the size of a small hula hoop. Diamond immediately started pawing through anything that looked like it might be a record of his romp with … he hadn’t told me whom. Did he get Emma into bed and Lenore behind the camera? Both at once, with a stationary shot from a tripod to capture the tangle of limbs?
I started poking around the supply closet for some umbrella lights. Diamond got out his phone and called Emma, started peppering her with questions about a camera and what it might have looked like. “Big and black, is that all you can say?” he said into the phone.
“That’s what she said,” I said, with a laugh.
Diamond shot me a look, but I couldn’t help but find the whole situation humorous. I’ve never been one to suffer from a broken heart. More than anything, I was curious about the recorded encounter between Diamond and Emma. How much of Emma’s sexual performance—the whimpering, the chewing of the lip—was artifice and how much was natural? Of course, I was flattering myself by suggesting that I’d be able to tell whether her behaviors were authentic just because they manifested with me and not with Diamond, or vice versa. Were they a sign of her pleasure, or of her interest in pleasing me?
In one of the equipment lockers, I found the HMI lighting rig I was looking for, and also a big black shoulder-mounted video camera. It was just a little smaller than the sort a news crew might use. I slipped the memory card into my pocket. Diamond came to me a moment later, so I turned around, closed the locker door with my ass, and pushed the light case up against his chest. “Help me set this up,” I said.
“You’re going to shoot here?”
“I didn’t drag the statuette with me just to bring it back home.”
“What if someone comes in and sees you using school property?” Diamond said.
“That’s why you’re here,” I said. “What if someone saw me walking off with school property?”
“Why should I help you?” he said, but he quickly realized that the only way to thwart me was to leave, and to leave was to leave me alone with whatever disc or tape or card was holding his sex tape with Emma. “Fine, but let’s do it quickly.”
We set up the lights easily enough and cleared a desk. Neither of us was an expert, but we had time and resources. The little portable lights I had pulled from the supply locker were inadequate, but in the back room were more-significant-looking lights with Fresnel lenses and a few HMI lights that emitted light of a color temperature closer to that of sunlight. The back room of the A/V office had been at one point a full-service TV soundstage of small size but significant amperage. After digging through dusty equipment of recent and ancient vintage, we managed to find the power for our needs. The outlets along the wall were industrial strength. We snaked extension cords back into the office areas and crammed seven huge lights into the front room to better blast the statuette.
It grew very warm. Both of us were sweating from both the labor and the output of the lamps. I went for my phone to take a picture and Diamond guffawed. “After all that,” he said, “you’re going to use that 3G piece of junk? Use a real camera.” He hefted one of the many cameras he had examined during our search and handed it over. Our work was not yet nearly done—he had extracted a promise not to leave until we either found his sex tape or he was satisfied that it wasn’t in the office, after all.
It took a moment to set up a tripod and then to figure out the buttons. The camera was a still/video hybrid. At first, I was recording video, not snapping a still. On playback, Diamond noticed it first.
“They’re moving,” he said. “I mean, they look like they’re moving.” He was breathing heavily, over my shoulder, as we both peered into the viewfinder.
Even the high-def camera and a ton of lighting semi-artfully arranged hadn’t revealed too many details, so we fired up one of the computers with a big screen and connected the camera to it.
“It’s amazing that nobody’s walked in yet,” Diamond said.
“You just said that this statue moves and it’s amazing that nobody wanted a slide projector over the past two hours?” I said.
He muttered something and clicked the mouse. We watched the playback carefully and … something seemed to be happening. It could have been anything. A waver in the air from the heat of the lamps, the power of suggestion, or even the property of the blacker-than-black to absorb light, that made it seem like the ants were shuffling along and the humans writhing or quivering. We talked about what this could mean. Shadows, an explicit optical illusion, or could there be nanotubes working in concert like a rug of cilia? Finally, we realized.
“We are not scientists.” Diamond said it before I did. “Forget I said anything. Just go home. Let’s just leave all this shit here. Someone else will pick it up tomorrow, I’m sure.”
“And what about what you wanted to find?”
“You know what?” Diamond said. “Fuck it. It doesn’t matter. They got you; that’s enough. The provosts can point to you and the article in the Arkham Advertiser. That’s all they need to keep the parents and the alumni happy.” I just glared at him, and then he added, “Face it, Gordon—I’m white.”
I turned and tripped over one of the power cables, or thought I did. Diamond rushed to my side to pick me up, or I thought he did. Then I saw the statuette in his hands, high over his head, and he brought it down on mine.
My comments here may seem a little usual, but I have had some time to think and would like to express my thoughts before I go any further. Or before I lose track of my thoughts. You might call it an epiphany. Semioticians interrogate the tropologies of discourse, unearth subaltern subjectivities via the deconstructive process of retaxonomification of pre-extant bricolage to reify the parole of bourgeois subjectivity. That is, we wage civil war against a nominal realism that limns our own lived-in experiences.
What I mean to say is this: We think very carefully about what words mean and the baggage that comes along with them. Most of the time, that baggage represents the social needs of authority, or the personal needs of identity, or the struggle between them.
Or, to put it yet another way, when Professor Diamond declared that he was white—which of course I already knew from apprehending his body-as-text (e.g., looking at his fool face)—he wasn’t just making a comment about melanin but about the ideology of whiteness vis-à-vis the state and the bourgeois family, and about its negation in blackness. By setting white as a privileged default, an unutterable subjectivity, he ironically placed my blackness under erasure.
By which I mean to say, finally, that when he said he could fuck all the girls and mess with all the equipment he liked because he was white, I should have punched him in the teeth. But I didn’t, because even dismissed and humiliated, I was still holding to the social norms of collegiality. And when I saw the statuette in his hands, I knew that I really should have hit him, no matter what. Diamond cannot help but obey the law, as the law is nothing short of those things white people choose to do, made text. I cannot help but be an outlaw, because I am embodied outlawry.
Punching Diamond in the teeth would have led to my arrest, almost certainly, and a conviction for assault and battery, almost certainly, and public shame even greater than what I was already experiencing thanks to my forced retirement and his wormlike white dick pulsing away in Emma’s gash. But at least I wouldn’t have a bump the size of an egg on my right temple. And maybe I wouldn’t have been so easily waylaid and bound by my colleague-cum-cuckold, if “cuckold” is really the right word. If there were any such thing as right words.
Next time, the angry black kid inside me lectured, knock a motherfucker out.
When I awoke, Emma was there. She didn’t look happy—this wasn’t one of our bondage games, which she grew bored of anyway after finding a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey on her mother’s nightstand during the intercessional trip home to the Upper West Side. But I was expertly hog-tied, with a rope around my neck and my knees aching from the stretch.
“Hey,” she said. She sounded far away, like there was a large aquarium between us.
“Why….” There was an infinity of implied words to come after that. Why am I tied up? Why are you here? Why have you betrayed me? Am I going to be killed? What do you know about the statuette and when did you know it? Can you be sure that your beliefs about the statuette are at all reflective of reality, or is this simply a discursive folie à deux between you and, presumably, Diamond? Are you at all familiar with the long history of the binding and torture of black bodies, and the imperial colonizing claims on “native artifacts” that this theft and kidnapping so precisely concretize?
Emma shrugged. “We’ve been looking over the recording you made. You know I had Lasik last year, remember? No more Kate Spade cat’s-eye glass frames for me, not now that the freshmen girls all seem to be issued a pair during orientation. Anyway, it went really well.
“I have 20/10 vision in both eyes now.” Then she smiled and crossed her arms again. “I could see the little ants move and devour the little men.”
“But … it’s all about the screen resolution, not your eyesight.”
“I don’t mean I saw them on the screen. I saw them in your office. It was just luck that you walked into Professor Diamond’s office, just luck that he had a side bitch—”
“Maybe you’re the side bitch.”
“Maybe you’re the side bitch!” she shouted, and kicked me in the teeth. Her feet were little, but it still hurt a bit. I ran my tongue over my teeth. No chips, which I was grateful for given that my dental insurance was going to expire at the end of the month.
“Anyway, it all worked out is the thing. We’re going to keep the statuette.”
“… and kill me?” I asked. I was more than a little confused and only partially thanks to the spike of pain in my skull. They could have killed me, already.
Emma was suddenly confused, as well. Her confidence eroded somewhere in the course of “Of course not.” Of sounded haughty, not was very tentative. “Of course not,” she said, ultimately meaning the opposite.
“We’re not killers,” Emma said. “And Professor Diamond needs you. That’s what he said. I wouldn’t be a party to anything as tawdry, or as awful, as a murder.”
I could only think to ask, Do you call him “Professor Diamond” in bed? So, for a long moment, I said nothing. Then, finally, I asked, “So, what do you expect to do? Let me go, to have you arrested? White skin privilege won’t lead to immunity from prosecution in this sort of deranged sex kidnapping.”
“Oh,” Diamond said. I hadn’t sensed him in the room earlier, and had no way to turn around and face him, or to see who else might be with him. “It’s more of a sex-and-occult kidnapping. After we’re done, there will be no need for us to worry about law enforcement.”
“You can’t possibly believe in the occult,” I said. I felt foolish saying that. Of course anyone could believe in the occult, or in Jesus, or in the political utility of voting for the Democrats over the Republicans. And even if one did not believe in any such thing, they might still behave as if they did. Historico-spiritual fictions are limned with the coercive discursive structures of everyday life; essentialist notions of belief, or the negation of belief (“You can’t possibly believe…” is just as impossible a belief as anything else and yet, there I was) are self-annihilating as reality itself as an ultimately inapprehensible object reproduced via the extraction of surplus meanings from its partial and contingent processes.
And then Diamond put his palm on my forehead, placed something under my neck—the statuette, I realized—and then leaned down with all his weight onto the back of my head.
I found myself crawling along what I seemed to instinctively understand as a strand of hair. With every inhalation, I felt that my lungs would burst from being overfull, but if I attempted a shallow breath, or even to stop crawling, an immense pressure weighed down on me, slamming my chest to the rounded surface of the hair, my limbs splayed around the curved surface. Imagine a log bridge stretched, not over a river, but along it, twisting and turning in parallel with the bank. I clutched and moved, clutched and moved. Whether the wounds to my head and neck were gone or just of lesser importance than the radical alteration of my environment and circumstance, I did not yet know.
Obviously, I had somehow been moved onto the statuette, to be one of the tiny, moving man-figures being chased by ants. Obviously, I thought. That was my last thought for quite a while, as the immediate business of hugging the tubular strand on which I had been deposited, and crawling and hitching myself along by turns, had taken precedence.
If I sound rather sanguine about the experience now, after the fact (“Fact,” he says, with a wince), it is due to two things: I am now free of the statuette (“Free,” he says, with a wince) and as an artifact of my academic training. The statuette did not end up in my office only because it was a sign-vehicle that appeared to be so aggressively meaningless that cataloging or displaying it would undermine the discursive environment in which it was situated. It was gifted to me because I was a semiotician and a semiotician is ever but one step removed from the occult.
There are different types of sign: The icon, the index and the symbol are three of the more important. The icon is simple enough—think of an outstretched palm. It signals, to most Americans, “Stop!” It is very similar to actually lifting a hand in order to make physical contact with something coming at you. Even if what one wishes to stop is merely a speech act one is being subjected to, or even if one is raising one’s hand while describing the various life-issues one must deal with: treacherous lovers, the tedium of grading undergraduate term papers, a parent’s cancer, rising prices.
Even when it does not mean “stop,” an outstretched palm remains an index. In Greece, it is a rude gesture—the one making it is reproducing the physical act of shoving a handful of shit into a target’s face. Indeed, one can say that even then, the gesture still means stop.
Then there is the index, which suggests an absence or a contingency. Picture a stop sign. What does it mean? It means “stop.” It means stop sufficiently completely that even the red of the sign, or its shape, or the font used to spell out the word “stop” are often sufficient to impel obedience. At the same time, the iconic stop sign doesn’t simply mean “stop.” It is partial and contingent. It doesn’t mean stop your car forever and starve to death behind the wheel. It doesn’t mean stop sipping your coffee, or thinking about your lover, or singing along to an embarrassing pop song on the radio.
It doesn’t even mean stop your car completely. A proper stop is neither a slide nor the complete elimination of forward motion. Implicit and immanent within the stop is its opposite: Go.
Then there is the symbol and this is the realm of the occult. The symbol requires a human mind. Even a dog can be trained to respond to a stop sign, or to an outstretched palm. Icons and indices appear in nature, in the form of mating displays and animal tracks and spoor. But a symbol requires a human mind to interpret and understand it. The close analysis of the statuette Diamond and I participated in transformed the previously inexplicable object into a symbol, when the tiny relief work was revealed. Much of the statuette’s mystery was in fact stripped away. Ants chewing desperate people to pieces and scattering their limbs about is fairly hackneyed, as symbols go.
There’s an old saying: Every cliché was once a revelation. The first person to compare his lover’s blushing cheeks to the petal of a rose was a genius. During my academic career, I wouldn’t try such a line on even the most naïve and sheltered of the virgins showing up in my freshman courses. One thousand years ago, when the sculptor was active, perhaps the idea of life being a futile, horrific agony was a new one. The ants are suggestive of military action, mindlessness and the inevitability of rot and decay—consumption, as well. The plantlike construction is somewhat more innovative. The plant here is not a life-giver or healer, but the threshing floor for humanity’s destruction, the playing field of a game with unknown rules and a final score of absolute zero. Presumably, it represented the Earth itself, with its greenery and ultimate estrangement from the human condition. Our very ability to apprehend symbols is what separates us from the other animals, and is that which allows us to perceive our estrangement from the universe. We have grown apart from the world but not beyond it. Our awareness helps us not at all.
All that is what I would have thought, had I my wits about me. Looking back, I was thankful that most of my cognitive ability had abandoned ship. Had I fully understood what I had just experienced, I would have looked up and certainly let go of the stem I was clutching to so fiercely, and would have fallen to my death.
What I would have seen, of course, is a great white moon cracked with red. My own dead eye, hanging over the horizon. The dark sky, my face. I was on the statuette, a part of the relief. I scuttled about, looking for someone who could help. A preposterous notion, since the symbology of the statuette was clear enough—there is no escape; there is not even a moment’s respite.
But onward I crawled. The stem was unoccupied, or perhaps I was just slow and my senses tightly limited to the edge of the curve on which I was crawling. I had no sense of proportion anymore, or any understanding of whether I was even crawling up toward the top of the statuette or down toward the base from which the various obsidian tongues emerged.
Time was also a mystery. All I knew was pressure and an impulse to keep moving. Eventually, as I turned another corner, I encountered someone who appeared to be a man; he was on his hands and knees, swiftly crawling away from me. His feet were bare and he wore what appeared to be either some kind of kilt or chiton. A pair of hairy ass-cheeks were on display, but receded as I followed. I felt an urge to catch up with him, so redoubled my own efforts and finally made my overstuffed lungs work. I called out, Hey!
But all I heard were the scissoring and clicking of mandibles. I was an ant. My lungs weren’t overstuffed; I was breathing with my entire body. I surged forward, not knowing what else to do. Perhaps I thought I could make the man speak, to confess to something? I’d snip off a limb if he remained silent, another if he lied.
Now it strikes me that within all the bizarrerie was another absurdity—somehow, were I to capture this person, I believed that he would speak modern English.
The man crawled faster than me, but the revelation that I was now an ant gave me an advantage; I had six limbs. It took a moment’s concentration to locate them and organize my locomotion to take advantage of the extra appendages. Then I was off.
He felt me coming at him and practically tossed himself over the edge of the stem on which we both crawled. He was out of my sight only for a second, but when I lowered my antennae, I felt a pair of vibrations and then the cold of obsidian. I could see my hands, ten fingers outstretched. And then the man reared his head back over the horizon of the stem, but he was a man no more. He was an ant, though strangely enough—stranger than everything else I’ve described so far, in its own way—the ant looked very much like the man in coloration and posture. His mandibles opened and snapped at my head. I scrambled away. He followed at a thumping gallop, chittering after me. I could smell the acid of his breath, for lack of a better word, though I suppose I mean some sort of excretion, burning the cuffs of my pants and the soles of my shoes.
The man-ant was practiced at his new form and easily caught up to me. He planted one of his limbs on the small of my back. The mandibles wrapped around my left arm and snapped it clean off at the elbow. Everything was pain, and every muscle fiber and nerve ending in my body howled then moved as one. We jerked free. Yes, I feel the first person plural is apposite here, given that my body felt like a million different beings working together as one. We rolled off the edge of the stem, blood spurting high from the stump of my arm.
My legs caught on something and it took a moment to realize that it was the underside of the stem. I was an ant again, with the power to adhere to surfaces even when upside down. I took a quick limb count and was saddened to realize that my left forelimb was missing a segment. I’d learned something about the dynamic of this universe but at a cost. To see another being is to see a fleshy man scrambling away in terror. To be seen is to be a fleshy man and to scramble away in terror. There was no communication to be had, no society, nothing but impulse and rage. In my ant-brain, I felt a hunger for vengeance—a limb for a limb! It hardly mattered whose limb it was; I wanted to be the snapper, not the ensnapped. The other ant headed off, or so the vibrations perceived by my antennae told me. Perhaps a quick success was sufficient for the ant to find new prey, or to find new opportunity to become prey. When I’d viewed the close-up recording of the statuette in the A/V office, I saw only ants and men and scattered limbs. No severed heads, no torsos being consumed. At the time, I presumed that the little relief was a simple and repeated pattern. Now I wondered if our stimuli-response dynamics were truly limited to limb removal. Would I end up a two-limbed ant, dragging myself after a one-armed man on the overside of some stemwork? Or would I be the one-armed man, forever crawling away by the power of my fingertips, the ants too lazy to finish the job, so that my torture—all of our tortures—would be extended indefinitely?
The semiotic possibilities were delicious but too much for my ant-brain. The thoughts were pushed from my head as soon as they formed. I did retain enough of my human-level cogitations to realize that the best thing to do was stay a fucking ant, which meant that no ant should come across me first. I decided that a loop-de-loop pattern, heading down into the base of the statuette, was my best bet. Ants, or at least the type of ant I was, have poor vision, but I could keep some eyes on everything if I walked in loops. My missing forelimb, now painless, was on my left, so I turned to my right side and walked about, swinging my head as I did. It was an impossible task, to watch one’s own ass at all times, but if I even managed to cover the possible vectors of attack half the time, I’d be significantly reducing the threat of transformation back to an inferior, crippled mammal—to use three words I would have found extremely problematic as self-descriptors the day before.
My peculiar path down into the depths of the statuette afforded me quite the view. There were relatively few ants or men crawling about the vein-like stemwork. Perhaps we were all moving at such a speed that from the vantage point outside of the statuette, one of us looked like dozens of us, like a series of images on a film strip. In my little ant way, I breathed two sighs of relief. First, I was pleased that this sort of thing had happened to relatively few people over the last millennium. Perhaps the singular presentation of the statuette led to it being kept under lock and key for so much of its existence, that only a handful of people had ever been trapped here. Second, I breathed a sigh in response to my perception of my own vestigial compassion. I was pleased that I was able to think of others at a time like this, when I was trapped simultaneously in complementary narratives by Franz Kafka and H.P. Lovecraft, to name two authors most popular in my department’s syllabi, about whom I’ll have more to say later.
My tactic worked but not for too long. Happenstance saved me again. The pain returned to my left and the blood started spurting. I howled and flailed and saw that an ant had clocked me from another vein, but as I slid off the rounded surface—ironically thanks to not being able to secure my position with my left—I left the line of sight and transformed again. I scuttled about the underside of the vein a bit, the obsidian wall scraping against the side of my thorax, until the vein came to an end.
The statuette no longer had a shape; it was simply geography. The transition from item to place—or rather, the radical adjustment of both my Being and subjectivity—was a compelling framework, one that nearly sent me scuttling to look for an ant so that I could transform back to my human self and be fully capable of a close reading. As an ant, I knew enough to know what I had been and what I did not know, but not much more than that. Should I, would I, die as a human being radically alienated from his environment, even as it would allow some intellectual stimulation, or should I stay alive as an ant, and experience a new Geworfenheit heretofore unavailable to anyone, even to the other men currently entrapped on the statuette? My presumption, given the statuette’s provenance and its long storage in my office—and, prior to that, on a shelf in the small broom-closet office of the Massachusetts Journal of Algonquin Archeology—is that nobody else “here” had my exposure and training in Theory.
The population of men and ants thickened as I approached the lower center of the statuette, where the flamelike projections of obsidian on which the veins wrapped like kudzu all met. Because of my view, there were more men than ants, as my gaze itself was the transformative, decentering agent. However, as projections grew closer together, the veinwork upon them grew more complex, and there were more nooks and carve-outs in which to hide. I had to be extra careful to not only avoid being seen without seeing, but to avoid unseen spaces under the assumption that from them, I might be seen. Again, my intellectual training held me in good stead, though as an ant, I was barely operating above the level of instinct.
One of the men, and they were all identical save for the number of limbs and the exact amount and vectors of blood splatters on their tunics, appeared to be somewhat familiar to me. Something about the way he crawled with all four of his little limbs made me wish to follow along and so, I did. I realized that communication was going to be impossible for the most part. If I turned away and became a human being again, the little man would transform into an ant and snap off another of my limbs. As an ant, all I could do was express chemicals and scrape my mandibles against one another. The surface on which we all crawled was too hard and dense for me to scratch a message into it. And yet, I followed, an absurdity chasing an absurdity based on a hunch.
On five and a half limbs, and fueled by intellectual curiosity, I quickly cornered my target. He turned to me and screamed.
Specifically, he screamed my name.
I knew I was right. Though I suppose ants don’t normally do this sort of thing, I tucked my forelimbs under me, to mimic a bow, to suggest that I had come in peace. The man, one of many identical simulacra of men, was Emma. Presumably, by the same subtle perceptions with which I was able to discern her in this new form, she was able to sense me. It was strange—an understatement—that when I was human, I saw myself as myself, black-embodied, thick of limb and a little of belly, manicured nails, and the like. Did other ants, or other men, see me as a small and ruddy red-haired man in a chiton? It hardly mattered, I suppose, given my predicament, but it seemed likely. The men all saw themselves as individuals regardless of their actual gender, or race, or other subjectivity; ants saw them all as identical men
“Look up!” Emma-the-Man cried, her voice a man’s tinny shriek. And she pointed upward. It was a challenge, in my ant body, to turn up without taking my eyes off Emma-Man—and yes, I know that gender is a continuum, but Emma never performed or expressed an identity preference for any sort of non-binary queered gender fluidity before. Perhaps she still subjectively experienced her body and her performativity as a contingent women, even though the ants around her saw her as a man. Finally, I managed to make a fairly complicated five-point turn that allowed me both to focus up into what I am going to arbitrarily label the “sky” while also keeping my gaze on Emma, thus transfixing her ephemeral male embodiment.
What I saw in the sky was great and pink. I realized that it was Emma’s cheek. After “killing” me with the statuette, Diamond and Emma must have pulled my neck and face from the statuette. Then what happened? Did Emma have second thoughts? No. No, I thought, you that might have been my ant-being, cynical and desirous of blood and vengeance, talking. Did Emma help Diamond extricate the points of the statuette from my face? Maybe take it to a sink to wash it off while Diamond did something to my body? And then, after the statuette was all clean and perhaps resting on a countertop, Emma running her fingers sensually along the black flames, did Diamond just rush up to her and with a meaty palm slam her face into the sculpture?
Something in me quivered at the thought. What little human compassion I had was being diluted by my ant-blood. It was a primitive way to think, a method predicated on transactional retribution, and a craving for totality and unity. I wanted to be myself again, whole and alive in the world above. I wanted to see Emma and Diamond dismembered, limbs everywhere, entwined sexually but also torn apart like an exploded diagram of the physical act of love. Two people turned inside out and mixed together, the borders of individuality and identity eradicated.
“You have to get me back up there! I can crawl into myself!” Emma said. “I’ll ride you, reanimate myself, and then put you back into yourself. Diamond said that would work, that the statuette isn’t a death sentence but a prison.”
I considered this. The claim was ludicrous, of course, but so was our current situation. I’ve always been a polylogist, but there was no hermeneutic praxis contingent upon any of my identities that could help here. Not as a cishet, male-assigned, black, American, former academic reduced to the precariat existing in the imperial center during a period of neoliberal austerity; not as an ant; not as anything.
I glanced past the Emma-man into the depths of the statuette. I realized that my strategy was merely a tactic: Get down there and stay an ant. But that wouldn’t solve any of my problems, especially the problem of actually being an ant on a statuette while my great enemy was free to carry me about, shove me in a closet, or even publish a paper about the material culture of whatever ghastly society of mystics and warlocks produced this thing, while I remained the victim of violent erasure, a footnote conspicuous by its absence.
A thought came to mind, unbidden. Let’s say I did manage to crawl down to the very base of the statuette. The universe was a small place now and very little could possibly exist in such a small, discursive realm. There were men, crawling and screaming and bleeding, and ants, marching and snapping and watching their backs. The only other thing in this microcosm was the fact of its own existence. (There I go again, with a vulgar appeal to “fact.”) What could possibly await me in the bowels of the statue except some wily ant, perhaps with a man associate, and another teeny statue on which my head, or someone’s head, would be impaled? What else could possibly exist? It was an absurd thought, but yes, absurdity ruled down here in this obsidian forest, just as it did up there in the world of linguistic gamesmanship, obscure authority, and discourses in need of deconstruction.
I needed my body back, even if it simply meant taking one last breath and dying in agony in the corner of whatever dim and disused office where Diamond had secreted my body.
Emma’s stratagem suggested a certain immunity to the risk of transformation, as well. If she rode on me, she might become an ant if she saw another man. I might transform back into a person, a man on my back, were an ant to spy me. But what if Emma were to keep alert and spy any ants before I did. She would already be in man-form and thus, I presumed, immune to some subsequent transformation into something else. Of course, I could not communicate my theory to her—a problem I had back in class, as well, thus her disappointing grade, and desire for revenge and some other dude’s cock—but she was pretty smart and would perhaps figure it out. She had managed to get further into the statuette than I and all her limbs were intact.
I knelt as best I could on my five and a half limbs and she hopped on, her male limbs fairly powerful. (Emma had been an equestrienne—good thighs. I had no idea whether strength carried over from body to body, but my truncated limb had, so it was a possibility.) She said, “I’ll scan our surroundings, okay?” Uptalk again, but desperate, afraid and authentic. I could feel it in my thorax. And so, we climbed, slow and awkward at first, with me down a limb and carrying unfamiliar freight, plus Emma was fidgety in her male body. After a few moments, I thought she had become erect and was rubbing against my exoskeleton, but that was just a passing ant-fancy.
The trip up was a spectacle. The screaming of men echoed in the canyons between the obsidian peaks. Occasionally, an arm or leg came spiraling first toward and then away from us. One ant made a stunning leap from a neighboring peak to ours, only to transform into a man when it fell under Emma’s gaze. I tore his head off and the head fell screaming, while the headless body scampered after it. An interesting epiphenomenon of absurdist immortality. Perhaps the bottom of the statuette wasn’t simply a temple with another statuette on it but a lake of writhing limbs and howling heads sucking air in through half-crushed esophagi. All the more reason to head upstairs, where the ruined face of my treacherous lover was waiting for me, and beyond that, my nemesis, and beyond that, a world which had become radically decentered even beyond the scope of explication by Theory, thanks to an occult intrusion that questioned the very laws of Western—a word I add more out of habit and custom than anything—physics.
Because if there is this statuette, then anything is possible. There are other artifacts in other universities, some gathering dust and others perhaps being used like the statuette was, to carry out bizarre schemes for revenge. In the margins, among the subaltern, which religious and supernatural beliefs are not just discursive but definitive? A polylogism that is material rather than an epiphenomenon of the mutually eliding intertwining of authority and language; the gaps of one filled in by the other. If postmodernism teaches us anything—and “postmodernism teaches” is yet another phrase that deserves an asterisk, a typographical “Not so fast, white man!”—it is that power is an empty place. Mutual antagonisms—there’s that white man again and I imagine Professor Diamond lording over me now—between identity groupings tear asunder the political potentiality of the nation-state, the “people”, or even the Godhead. There is no sovereign, not even information, not even the constituent matrix of equations and wave-particle behaviors that inform matter and energy, which are constituent in chemical reactions, from which biological processes are emergent, and from which a contingent human consciousness arises within a politico-social milieu that is both programmed by and in turn programs matter.
To put it in layman’s terms, or in first-day first-minute Pomo 101 terms, I am a motherfucking ant!
And I was an ant before as well, but there was no Diamond crushing me, no other ants looking to strip me of my contingent anthood and render me powerless, and no obvious set of obstacles carved into black stone that I had to navigate. Instead, the social universe was my statuette, and is your statuette, but we couldn’t even see it. I did sense it though, write about it, lecture about it, read books about it, think about it over a bottle of white wine or a rolled joint, and laugh about it whenever I stubbed my toe and tried to wish the pain away.
The statuette is meaningless and absurd—a realm without God or nation or race of any gender but cismale, and if there’s sex here, I don’t want to hear about it. Without the discursive framework of these now-empty authorities, all that’s left is stone, the crunching of bone and sinew in the grip of mindless mandibles. Your God and my God are two different things, even if He comes from the same Abrahamic tradition. A politician may declare some unmarked subset of citizens “Real Americans.” I have it on good authority that cishet men should not declare themselves to be bisexual until they’ve sucked a cock, as if they are just the recipients of fellatio. They are perhaps not constituted as passive, but are in fact imaginative agents of heteronomativism. That is, they close their eyes and imagine a girl, on her knees, sucking them off instead of a dude.
Colleagues and students, deans and provosts, Ms. President and honored members of the board, sleepers and those who have just wandered in, it works.
But power is hidden. Hidden behind the Allah that both Muslims and Arab-speaking Christians call to, and whom sometimes, they insist is the same being, but who in political practice, appears to be a duo of entities at war with its constituent self. Hidden behind the Americans who see gay marriage as constitutional and the Americans who see a pre-postreligion Christian morality as constitutional. Hidden behind the snarled streetcorner call of “Suck my dick, bitch!” between men who don’t want other men to suck their dicks even as they command it, so to transform their male opponents into enthusiastic female lovers. Except that women have reclaimed the word bitch to express their own masculinist desires.
Because power is contradictory and self-negating, it is everywhere. But we cannot be everywhere. And indeed, at one point, Emma’s vision lapsed, or mine did, and I found myself screaming and bleeding, a little white man, again. A moment later, I was being crushed by the Emma-ant atop me. She had missed an ant, somewhere. The ant saw me; I transformed. She saw me transforming under her and transformed herself.
And that is when all logic and reason left me, when even a sense of absurdity left me, and I was just afraid. Her mandibles stretched wide open and then she lowered them to the statuette, one pincer on either side of me. With a snap, I’d be done. Not dead, simply done, mind and body separated and falling and once fallen, never to be reconstituted or unitary again, either as a subject or as a body.
I wasn’t thinking such rarified thoughts at the time. I wasn’t even thinking what I found myself thinking last winter when my tires skidded on some treacherous black ice atop black asphalt. I didn’t think, Lord have mercy! in a voice partially my own and partially that of my grandmother. I didn’t even think to scream, or to close my eyes, or to contemplate the infinite moment between life and death. I was just afraid.
To speak as plainly as language allows, I was just fear.
Then another ant came up behind her and Emma didn’t see it. She was in my arms again, blood coating her male body and mine. Then over her male shoulder, I saw the ant who had not seen me and I was an ant again, and she was on my belly. She rolled off and I rolled over, and she climbed on and I galloped, no longer feeling any fear at all, but extruding plenty of it biochemically.
And soon, there we were, at the top of the peak we were climbing, just a few inches from Emma’s right ear, the lobe torn and a rivulet of blood slowly oozing from the ear canal. Another empty space in which power can be asserted.
I turned to face the length of the sculptural element we had just climbed in case any ants or men had followed us and Emma slid off my gaster. “Oh, God, oh, God!” she said, panting and tired from the exertion of hanging onto me while I did all the work. Now she smelled of fear, of fresh fear as well as my own biochemical cloud of the same. “My fucking face, oh, God. It’s so huge and dead. It fills up the whole fucking sky like God. I can’t, I can’t climb up in there. I don’t know what to do.”
And in a moment, I did. I pivoted and turned and snapped off Emma’s head, just as she would have done to me had she not been interrupted by a wandering ant. Then, as her body fell past me, I marched up toward her ear. Her blood made it difficult and stirred some sensation similar to hunger, but I made my way into her ear canal and started, for lack of a better term, chewing.
Had I been a true ant—that is, an ant visible to the naked eye and squishable by the naked finger—I never would have managed it. But recall that only by flooding the statuette with light and using a zoom lens could we see anything at all on the surface of the blacker-than-black statuette. Even then, we could see very little. Though the universe is constituted upon occult ironies, there is sufficient material consistency in our experiences to keep the very framework of the universe occulted—that is, hidden. Don’t imagine an ant, imagine an ant-shaped impulse, riding a vestibulocochlear nerve directly into the brain. As the universe is an occult phenomenon, there is no particular reason why a full-sized ant—or, for that matter, a full-sized elephant—could not simultaneously be as large as it is and be the size of an electrochemical nerve impulse, except that the universe is in fact deceitful. It wants us to believe that the laws of physics are universal rather than contingent, definitive as opposed to antagonistic, unitary instead contradictory, and ultimately apprehensible instead of just partially amenable to comprehension via limited discursive frameworks. So, rather than being an ant of normal size traversing a nerve much smaller than I, I was a somewhat more believable-to-a-hypothetical-observer ant of microscopic size traversing a nerve into which I fit … except for the fact that I was an ant-embodied human and not an ant at all.
I was a microscopically small ant, an impossible creature, and in being so, I was constituted as a God. In Emma’s brain, I physically dissolved into a set of desires, reflexes, impulses and cogitations. I pulled myself—or should I say, Emmaself?—up from the statue and willed the body to heal. Diamond was—as many are, including right now—distracted. Yes, he was looking at his smartphone. One could hardly blame him. For all the limits of discontents and late capitalism, it has managed to synthesize hundreds of millions of tiny boxes stuffed with all the world’s known information, suppositions and entertainments, and then distributed them to twenty percent of the total human population.
And then, if you look at it too much, we laugh at you and complain.
What could Diamond have been doing on his phone while, a few feet away, the body of his lover—the second person he had murdered that afternoon—was slumped over a table, her face multiply impaled on a statuette? Well, with access to all the world’s information, suppositions and entertainments, he could have been doing virtually anything at all. Virtually anything contingently, materially possible within the delimitations set by the occult powers that rule this cosmos, anyway. Perhaps he was texting a fence, or uploading pictures of the statuette, or telling his wife that he’d be home late, or downloading something from Miskatonic University’s new e-library. Maybe he was playing Threes.
But Emma was not complaining about Diamond’s distracted use of his smartphone just then, as Emma raised the statuette and, very cleverly, did not bring the spiked top of it onto Professor Diamond’s head, but instead used the rather-more-mundane-seeming base, just as Diamond had done to me earlier that day. And then Emma kept smashing and smashing and smashing.
Emma—that is to say, me Dr. Ewing, recently mired by scandal and in forced retirement, and then beaten and kidnapped and killed and transformed into an insect, and then nearly consumed by one, and then reunited with a scorned lover, and who then rose up from the underworld in new flesh to have his revenge—then drove to her home, where she was let in by her roommate and changed clothes. I selected for her body—and yes I admit that my hands lingered here and there—a vantablack dress. Then she drove to my house—the Ewing house—and set about writing the keynote speech he was to give on the subject of semiotics and the occult.
Or rather, she set about typing the speech. I was writing it. I then emailed it to Emma—the notional Emma who visited with her roommates and put on a vantablack dress, along with a note to say that I was indisposed and that she should give the talk instead of me. In exchange for this service, I would change her grade to an A and thus leave her grade point average unmolested. Well, less molested than her body, anyway.
And now, colleagues, deans, provosts, students, board members, and guests, here we are. Is the statuette a metaphor or some sort of allegory? Perhaps, in the grossest of ways, yes. After all, it is an icon, semiotically speaking. A sunset is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and it is an icon as well, limned with a variety of aesthetic, romantic, political, cultural, and historical meanings. Is this postmodern trickery? Of course it is. The universe is itself postmodern trickery that only appears materially constituent and unitary to most observers. That is, the laws of physics and materialist analysis of matter, energy, space, geography, and history have a Lakotian hardcore of predictive and explanatory utilities because we do not understand the universe. Via perception we assert, but we can only assert so far as our perceptions reach. Or, like the old man once said, The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
This is a sentence worth deconstructing. “Mercy,” which Lovecraft considered a constituent part of “the world,” comes from the middle Latin merx, or merchandise. Merx, as a word, is a constituent part of the mercari, to buy or trade, which in term informs the mercatus—a gathering in order to trade merchandise. From this comes the English word ‘market.’ This, as our friends in the department of political economy reminds us, is the best way to understand all voluntary human behavior. A mercy is a price left unpaid or partially unpaid. And here we are again, up against that old devil capitalism and its mother-cum-sister: debt.
There are many unserviced or underserviced debts in the world. Indeed, all are, by definition, and this is universal. But as we just learned, nothing is universal, because the universe is ultimately an emergent property of occult powers in a dialectical antagonism with human perceptions. There is a notion of entropy, the inevitability of the heat death of the universe, because we will it so. And why might we will it so? Why might we be so dour? Why not instead perceive a universe of plenty, of expansion? Shouldn’t we instead contemplate a utopian poetics of thermodynamics—energy and matter that can be created from the void?
Sounds good, but in fact, that would not be more merciful than the most merciful thing in the world. What can be created can be destroyed, and indeed would necessarily be destroyed by that which comes after, sooner or later. A man will crush an ant under his heel, only to one day fall sick and die, and offer up his flesh to the ants. So, in our fear, we imagine a mercy—nothing ever really dies. That is not dead which can eternal lie and with strange aeons even death may die. I’m sure you all know that one. Rejoice—the aeon is strange and death may now die. Lord have mercy on death’s soul.
And yet, the mercy we imagine and that we constitute via our imaginations is ultimately no better than the merciless occult universe of infinite creation and destruction to which we blind and deafen ourselves. The situation is Kafkaesque, but in a Kafkaesque situation, at least we know what to expect. And so, in my story of the statuette, we have a logic. Inexplicably, there are men and there are ants. And when an ant sees a man, the man must run. And when a man sees an ant, an ant he becomes, and the ant, now a man, must run. And on the blacker-than-black surface of the statuette, there is really no way to run and no place to hide. And yet, with a little thinking and a little teamwork, one might stay an ant for an extended period of time.
In that, there is hope. That is the mercy about which Lovecraft speaks and the reason for which Kafka searches. Why did the Hunger Artist so publicly starve himself? Well, he just wasn’t hungry. Why did Gregor Samsa wake up one morning, transformed into an insect? The answer isn’t in the text explicitly, but it is rather obvious. He no longer wanted to be a traveling salesman. However, without his income, but with his presence, his family would suffer. Once Gregor dies, everything is fine. His parents can save money by moving to a smaller place, and his sister can blossom and marry.
Everything happens for a reason in Kafka, despite the horror. Everything happens for a reason in Lovecraft, because the horror. “Because the horror.” Just like the kids on the Internet speak!
So, why am I here, in a vantablack evening dress, reading a speech prepared by a disgraced former professor of a useless subject, telling a crazy story about murder and magic, and now discussing the limits of reason and the possibility of creation? The most obvious reason is this—Dr. Ewing hates you all, is too humiliated to come to his own Smith Keynote, and is playing one last postmodern prank. But why would I, Emma, be a part of this if it were a postmodern prank, since I was the one who turned him in to the Dean for seducing me after I only got a B- in his class?
Well, as I said, Emma is deceased. Or close enough for academic work; Emma-the-Man, headless body and screaming head, won’t be returning to this body. I am Dr. Ewing, now re-embodied in the body of the young white girl whose body I had won via seduction. As my sainted grandmother might say, Lord have mercy! And indeed, there is a mercy here. Mercy in that there is an unpaid price. I did not give Emma the grade she thought she deserved for spreading her legs, but she still spread her legs.
Lord have mercy.
I was found out, but I had tenure and so, I was not fired immediately.
Lord have mercy.
Emma, despite her anger with me, was still always DTF—that’s “down to fuck” for the professors emeriti in the house—and so, even helped me clean out my office.
Lord have mercy.
The statuette, which had been in my possession for years, piqued her interest. And also the interest of another of her lovers, Professor Diamond.
Lord have mercy.
And I was slain! Slain because of my arrogance, my lustfulness, my greed.
Lord have mercy.
And I arose again, in a new world, a world without end, a more authentic world. The price is yet unpaid!
Lord have mercy.
And in that new world, I contrived a way to escape and indeed, I managed it, into a new body, this body! Emma’s body!
Lord have mercy, indeed!
And yet, the price goes unpaid. I did not have to be fired. I did not have to be confronted. I did not have to experience the humiliation of bondage, the pain of impalement, the disaster of amputation, the fear of the prey, but I did. And for what?
Because I fucked this body before you? A body of which I am now in such complete possession that I am literally inside it, directing its actions, reading this speech in a voice that now is my own and was just formerly Emma’s?
Lord, as we say, have mercy.
And I’ve been an impossible ant, an unlikely human, and now a doppelganger of my own nemesis. A black man, now a white girl. I have been to the occult edge of the universe, have died, and have been resurrected.
Lord have mercy.
Well, I think I won’t.
I hope—in the Kafkaesque sense, as I will explain—you like the dress. I selected it for a reason. A material reason, that is—my sartorial choice was not just a matter of poetics or irony. This is a vantablack dress. A nanoblack dress that absorbs light and other forms of radiation on either side of the visible light. It is blacker than black. It doesn’t exactly show off my new curves. But it does have a peculiar property, much as the statuette does.
Simply by scraping the fabric against the black flame tongue structures of the statuette, I was able to capture innumerable little men, myriad tiny ants. And as I stood up here, gesturing and pointing to my paper, and looking up at you, and occasionally brushing my hands against the sides of this fairly luscious body, they have been flaking off. This body has 20/10 vision, but I don’t bother using it anymore. As the first and only person to push my way to absolute freedom, to slip the binds of the universe of the black statuette—which, I’ll point out one more time is not a metaphor or a thought experiment designed for your amusement—I can see everything, from raw concepts to particles so small and tentative that they only exist in the spaces between femtoseconds. And so, I can see my ants and my men, and they have been trudging over to all of you, transforming and retransforming as they did so. Some of you are now infected by men. Some of you are now infected by ants. But ants are men and men are ants, so as categories, it matters not who or what has proximately infected you, due to the nature of your ultimate infection.
All of you are now infected by me.
Ladies and gentlemen, deans and provosts, honored guests and snot-nosed students, put down your fucking smartphones.
See? Did you see that? You all did it. When was the last time you were in a lecture hall and every single person put down their smartphones on command? Never. This has never happened. It’s one of the annoying things we built into our perceptual universe over the last several years. Hahaha, we seek knowledge in the palm of our hands a little too much; ain’t we funny monkeys? It’s a miracle! And what do we say when we see a miracle?
Lord have mercy.
Yes, that’s right.
And you little bastards never find it. But now, deans and provosts, colleagues and suck-ups, graduate students and post-docs and even lower forms of life—if you can imagine such a thing—you will find it. You will find as a constituent part of my subjectivity. Power, as discussed earlier, is an empty place. When we put in a God, or a nation-state, or a notion such as honor or the family, we are in fact putting in nothing but the empty space that those content-free concepts cannot fill.
But I can fill it. I already have. First this room, and your minds, and your phones. And you will tweet, and call, and meet people for drinks, and kiss your spouses and your mothers, and fuck strangers up the ass, and perhaps someone in the A/V department will record you fucking strangers up the ass and upload the resulting video to the Internet, and you’ll publish papers in prestigious journals that will be misunderstood and summarized in high-brow magazines, and in turn misunderstood and summarized in low-brow magazines, and then finally misunderstood and summarized in the comments sections of blog posts. Then, in turn, all who see or read or kiss or fuck or think or breath will be filled by me, and become a constituent-but-non-antagonist element of a discursive realm not just dominated by me, but mutually and simultaneously constituent of me and an emergent property of me.
Me have mercy!
But like I said, I won’t.
But not because I don’t want to. Please, please believe this. Remember when I spoke of the compassion I had for the other tiny men trapped in the statuette with me? It’s true. It’s true. It was a Kafkaesque hope, a ray of light in a prison so blacker than black that it absorbs rays of light. I won’t have mercy because I cannot have mercy. Because the most merciful thing about the world, we think, is that the human mind cannot correlate its contents. And yet, thanks to Theory and thanks to my recent supernatural experiences, I can correlate its contents and have correlated its contents. I have, in fact, become the language of the correlation of its contents. A semiotician is one step removed from the Occult, but I have taken that step and have become the Occult.
And so, I am fresh out of mercy. And so, all of you will suffer and suffer greatly.
Must it always end in bloodshed, in intestines splattered across the walls, in starving children and parents who live just long enough to see them die? Well, yes. It always has in the past. I am hardly the first one to escape the statuette and crawl up into some body’s ear—and please note I mean some-space-body, not the unitary concept of somebody. I am not your first God. But I hope, and I really do hope this with all the golden rays of my exposed heart, that I will be your last God. Your unitary, fully constituent, impossible-real sovereign forever and ever, world without end. Theory has brought us to the end of grand narratives; there’s nothing left to believe in. Finally, we and our ideas and our smartphones have hollowed out completely the space in the inky black of the universe that empty place where power resides, with no more appeal to God or race or nation or the market or love or language or physics or mercy. All bills are paid in full.
And now, administrators and administrated, acolytes and initiated, students and drop-outs, hangers-on and soon-to-hanged, my prefatory remarks are over and my keynote lecture shall begin.
First slide, please.