First Thesis: a prostate of a name. To name is to exert violence on things. A violence that precedes the question that prompted the birth of philosophy: what are things? Which is to say, what is the being of that which has a name? Nominal violence is wielded by Adam in the first human act according to the biblical story. An ancient confusion draws together act and word: the creative word of God and the first properly human gesture, which is naming.
Venezuela’s baptismal brand, that which makes its name, is a humiliating suffix (uelo/a). The Gulf of Venezuela, forty times larger than Venice, is far from being a small Venice (in fact, the conquistadors were struck dumb while facing the palafittes). Rather, it is a worse Venice, a shitty Venice. The first political decree issued by 21st century socialism was Adamic in nature and was aimed at correcting the name’s defect by adding a fatherly surname: Bolivarian. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. During the last decades of the 20th century, Venezuela agonized in this suffix, as the drunkenness of oil created its thousandth hangover, and national self-esteem registered at a record low. Lieutenant Hugo Chávez, his discourse so similar to that of so many other Bolivarian caudillos before him, stepped in to restore the heroic narrative of the 19th century in the name of the Father. In the name of the father of the nation.
Artist Deborah Castillo’s Lamezuela (2011) was performed in the same area where the conquistadors first laid eyes on the palafittes, by the shores of Maracaibo Lake (previously called the Gulf of Venezuela). The piece’s title is not a simple play on words. The name is what is being named, it is not an image, it is neither metaphor nor metonymy, it is not a figure of speech. If it is language, it is literal language, and the performance performs exactly that: lamer suela, it licks a sole.
What does it mean to do something literally? It is an action that lingers in the threshold that separates word and act, an act that is carried out according to the exact sense of the letter or a letter in the ecstasy of act. “Lamezuela” is the junction of two lexemes, lamer and suela. Placed between the verb lamer and the noun suela, the z reminds us of the gesture’s literalness, its hypertrophy. Venezuela: Lame-zuela. The name itself is morbid. It responds to the violence of the supposed dignity of the name through the paternal surname, by substituting the mnemonic residue, the Venetian signifier, with the verb (or action) lamer, to lick, and duplicating the humiliation of the suffix by pairing it with a sole. If the Republic of Venezuela’s self-esteem was notably low by the end of the past century, the grandiloquence (the oral arrogance) of the new Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is nothing more than this: a lick, and not of just any sole, but of a military boot.
In 2011, Chávez had survived countless assassination attempts, countless coups, attempts at coups, and attempts at attempts. He had been “voted” president for life, the country was swimming in costly oil, the middle class was traveling the world with government subsidized funds, and the poor had a right to almost anything (except to cease being poor). They had “free” (Bolivarian) education, and (Bolivarian) public health, and (Bolivarian) food, and (Bolivarian) housing.
Save for the rise in public violence (the murders committed by both organized and disorganized crime), nothing seemed to foretell the events which would take place soon afterward. This is when a 4-foot, 9-inch tall woman, dressed in stark black, got down on her knees in front of hundreds of bewildered people, and, hands tied behind her back, licked the boots of a soldier during five agonizing minutes as if she were saying: “Lamezuela.”
Second Thesis: Remains that matter. The story of Castillo’s performance could have ended here, and that would have been enough. However, years later, in the midst of a revolt against the Bolivarian revolution, Castillo’s performance ‘came back” in the form of a stencil and spread throughout the streets of the country’s main cities. How do we talk about this return? How is it that an act that belongs to the past, destined—just like every other act—to disappear, haunts the present with such renewed energy?
In his essay “Psychopathic Characters on the Stage,” Freud (1960) suggests that theatre has the same function for adults that games have for children. It is no small thing: children play because they quickly understand that this world is not the stage for the satisfaction of their desires. And so, theatre and games are two forms of revolt. They promise pleasure. But the compensatory pleasure extracted from theatre, just like the one derived from games, does not occur in the intellectual sphere, where the joke does, but in the affective sphere. Also, it depends on suffering. That is, it takes place in the body. In order for this pleasure to take place, a sort of double illusion is needed: a knowledge that everything is fiction, and the assurance of being a spectator, of not being exposed or in danger.
Regarding the orthodox Freudian approach to theatre, there are a few notions I would like to set aside for a moment: the structure of rebellion, its link with suffering and the double nature of theatrical illusion. Because the performance at hand is quite far from being what Freud understood as theatre: here, no one is safe on their seat, and fiction works in a far more complex way. The spec-actor of the performance is a subject in trouble, clueless as to how to symbolize what she sees. In other words, she is not there to look. Her gaze takes her to the inside of what she is seeing. And the body of the performer, here, does not “represent” a role. Its function is perhaps more audacious: to present the body as a living political fiction.
Once the illusion is shattered, we are left with a sort of pure rebellion, not civilizing-cathartic, not indemnifying, not conciliatory. Greek catharsis—neither captivation nor ecstasy—is the middle ground between two extreme affects (terror and pity), and it produces a gaze, an “object,” in order to “think about it”; it constructs a way of being together, an us. By refusing to be the object of the gaze, the performance questions the building strategies of that us, insisting upon its otherness, and interrogating both the formation of subjectivity and what is common to the subjects.
In the words of Peggy Phelan, “Performance employs the body of the performer to pose a question about the inability to pin down the relation between subjectivity and […] body” (2011, 103). Beyond that, there is the incapacity to ensure the relationship. Performance suspends both the social contract and its subjective cohesion.
Once the illusion is broken, there is pain. If, for Freud, theatre “assuages as it were the beginning revolt against the divine order which decreed the suffering” (1960, 145), performance, by breaking the single law of theatre—does not harm the spectator—agitates it. It is dramatic suffering minus the promise of cathartic redemption. And even more, since psychoanalysis—that understands that jouissance is rooted on the body—restricts pain to psychic anguish, “for nobody wants to witness physical suffering who knows how soon the bodily sensations thus stimulated put an end to all mental enjoyment” (145). And here we have a kneeling woman licking the stinking boots of a soldier: that’s it. A woman’s body confronting the entire phallocracy of power wielding the ethics of hurt. Phelan (2011) puts it in these terms:
If Modleski is right in suggesting that the opposition for feminists who write is to be found between the speaking bodies of men and the mute bodies of women, for performance, the opposition is to be found between the body of pleasure and […] the body of pain. (102–103)
All in all, performance introduces an impasse within four intimately linked central Western institutions: gaze, representation, subjectivity, and the notion of community itself, of people in relation to each other. It is not my intention here to prolo(n)g(ue) the intense debate around the relationship between performance and archive, which is immoderately vast and complex. I will simply say that the distinction wants to be ontological, a protest against Western metaphysics of presence and representation, against the empire of the gaze. But occasionally this protest seems to uphold the representative institution, and to keep it intact by refusing to reflect upon other procedures, alternatives to discourse, to what Lacan (1998) would call the “scopic drive,” to phallogocentrism and to history.
In their (not insignificant) desire to differentiate performance from the logic of bone, and in order to establish a sort of inevitably perishable escape, certain theories seem unable to ask how the flesh persists. For instance, in their thinking about that dangerous obsession with the perfect negative (of history, representation, archive), Diana Taylor—who comes from two seemingly mutually exclusive fields, memory and performance—has put forward the notion of repertoire; José Esteban Muñoz, that of “queer acts”; Rebecca Schneider (2011), on the other hand, considers performance an act of presence, a medium of apparition.
The sequence I propose is a minimal addition to this debate. 2011: Deborah Castillo kneels and licks the boots of an anonymous soldier. 2012–2013: the video performance, recorded with the precarious camera of a mobile phone, circulates around the net, with its own discursive logic (that of a moving image), its own political and aesthetic nature. 2014: amidst a new wave of social protests against the Bolivarian government (whose head has been Nicolás Maduro since 2013), a curious silhouette appears on Venezuelan walls and sidewalks: that of a kneeling woman licking the boots of an anonymous soldier. Underneath the image, it is possible to make out the word “Lamezuela”.
And how does this chronology contribute to the debate about performance and archive? It could be argued that a trace is not a document, no more than a remnant is evidence, and that presence cannot be restored. It could be said, after Phelan, that the performance took place in 2011 and that everything that followed is something else entirely, something devoid of a living, durable body. It could be said, after Taylor, that everything that has been related can be part of the performance: action, reproduction, and digital circulation—and, of course, the 2014 stencil.
It is not a matter of taking sides—each of these hypotheses can be more or less easily maintained—but I do believe that certain actions leave traces that are impossible to symbolize or make into images. I believe that certain actions produce a hole in the swarm of the symbolic, on the screen where the image lies, and that through that hole, there seems to be another, deeper hole. These actions leave remnants that matter, not because they reference/substitute/actualize the original, but precisely because they reference the impossible. These actions are neither ephemeral nor lasting, but come precisely to call that distinction into question. They are spectral actions in the sense that Physics understand the term: they distribute, or propagate, the intensity of energy.
And the energy of Lamezuela, like that of every “return,” cannot help but be sexual in the psychoanalytic sense. How can we talk about the lasciviousness of a tongue that licks instead of pronouncing words? What is the link between violence and desire? In other words, how can we explain this violence that (not) only speaks of eroticism? We find in Lamezuela, embodied and full of sense, that enigmatic sentence by Deleuze in Coldness and Cruelty (1991): “The ascent from the human body to the work of art and from the work of art to the Idea must take place under the shadow of the whip” (22).
Third Thesis: the tongue is the punisher of the body. I would like to propose that Lamezuela is a sadomasochistic performance. Not because it could hold a confusion of two essentially asymmetrical clinical frames, not because the iconography of some BDSM practice could be found in it (humiliation, punishment, fetishism), but because in its demonstrative, negative dimension, it has a sadistic vein and in its persuasive, negational dimension, a masochistic vein. The terms are Deleuze’s.
Sadistic vein. Lamezuela, though the monotonous stroking of the tongue against the boot, wants to commit a crime that is fundamentally ideal. It is merely the cold demonstration of another crime, always universal and impersonal that is not, that cannot be represented, and that it somehow aspires to. Let us watch Castillo’s expression, her disaffected apathy. It is the opposite of what, according to Deleuze, Sade disdained in Rétif: the exaltation of the pornographer. The artist confronts the stupid wickedness of the military institution with her own intelligent wickedness. It is a complex operation that I will try to briefly sum up.
According to Deleuze, Sade put forth the idea of two natures: a second nature where death creates life, where disorder contains the seed of a new order, where “the negative can be achieved only as the reverse of positivity” (1991, 27), and a first nature that is the kingdom of radical negation, “an original and timeless chaos solely composed of wild and lacerating molecules” (27).
The sadist would be that subject condemned to pointing towards something impossible, the pure “no” of the second nature (which amounts to denying nature itself), the last delusion of reason. Of course, pleasure plays a role in sadism, but it is the (intellectual) pleasure of demonstrating. When Castillo was invited to participate in the Eleventh Edition of the Velada de Santa Lucía, she was in the midst of carrying out a performance that consisted in dusting art galleries in the guise of a maid. She thought that since the event would take place on the streets, she could clean one of the many Statues of The Liberator that populate the squares and streets of Venezuela. Surprisingly, though, there was not a single Bolívar to be found in the historic neighborhood of Santa Lucía, and this is when she decided to lick a soldier’s boots instead.
I linger on this anecdote because the performer had a point, an idea that not only preceded the action, but also anticipated it and controlled it. She wanted to exert an institutional violence because, as Deleuze puts it, “[t]he sadist is in need of institutions,” (1991, 20). Why? What was the point? What did she wish to say? In truth, this obsession with “the point” and what something aims to say substantially opposes sadism (and this performance), which is language taken to the paroxysmic level of action (subverted, shall we say, against its descriptive function).
In 2011, after slightly more than a decade in power, Chavismo was a discourse-producing machine. The link that the artist establishes between the action of cleaning art galleries or a statue of Bolívar and the act of licking the boots of an unknown soldier is not casual, as it is not personal. It is not about whether Castillo is a sadist and/or a masochist, but about the perception of an impersonal, ideal crime for which a certain institutional order is required. In its sadistic vein, Lamezuela strives to show the violence of reasoning, or rather “reasoning itself is a form of violence” (Deleuze 1991, 23). There was nothing “to say”; instead, it was purely a question of demonstrating something: Deborah Castillo is not a writer.
Masochistic vein. It is not difficult to imagine; it is actually the first thing that comes to mind when we face that image of a woman on her knees, licking the shoes of a man, a soldier. Both humiliation and fetishism belong to the realm of masochism. No, the true question lies somewhere else. Who is being humiliated by this image? What are the political implications of fetishism when it breaks down personal barriers? Better yet: why is Lamezuela’s fetishism political?
It is necessary at this juncture to go back to Deleuze and his reading of Masoch and Freud. For the French philosopher, Masoch’s masochists, just as Sade’s sadists, are forced to talk about the death drive that is “essentially silent” (Deleuze 1991, 30). But if the latter use negation and demonstration to do so, the formers use persuasion and fetishism. During the Velada de Santa Lucía performance, in 2011—and given the absence of an effigy of Bolívar in need of cleaning—Castillo had to convince a soldier to allow her to lick his boots. She attained this by paying him what she describes as a month’s salary for a five-minute performance. This gesture, which was definitely contractual, is what inscribes Lamezuela in the logic of masochism, since:
the masochistic hero appears to be educated and fashioned by the authoritarian woman whereas basically it is he who forms her, dresses her for the part and prompts the harsh words she addresses to him. It is the victim who speaks through the mouth of his torturer, without sparing himself. (Deleuze 1991, 22)
As I have pointed out before, sadism, then, is institutional, whereas masochism is contractual. In order to understand what is at stake in this contract, we need to think about fetishism. Freud (1960) asserts, somehow making fun of himself, that the fetish is a phallic symbol. But right where it would seem that psychoanalysis reveals its immense flatness, he goes on to explain that “the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis” (1927, 152). That is, the refusal of the (paternal) mandate of castration, the disobedience of the (paternal) symbolic order, or the inscription of the phallic mother. The fetishist is the herald of a world where the father has been defeated since the beginning and forevermore. This is where, according to Deleuze (1991), the contract appears:
“the masochist tries to exorcise the danger of the father and to ensure that the temporal order of reality and experience will be in conformity with the symbolic order, in which the father has been abolished for all time. Through the contract, that is through the most rational and temporarily determinate act, the masochist reaches toward the most mythical and the most timeless realms, where the three mother-images dwell.” (66)
Thus, Lamezuela, in its masochistic vein, is a pedagogical performance: that is the most visible dimension of the piece. In 2011, with the caudillo still living and every single pact of national coexistence in shambles, Castillo seemed to propose the necessity of a new alliance with the executioner (the mythical military man, Bolívar, and his different incarnations/updates) in order to finally expiate the atavistic father. The problem is that Lamezuela is not a novel, but an act. And not a “private” act, quite the contrary. There, in the middle of the street, inside the boiling heart of the public sphere, the atavistic father is none other than the State.
And since Castillo is not a writer, but a performer, what is at stake in Lamezuela is much more than the individual family romance. Strictly speaking, the artist does not “say” anything: she is not Sade, nor is she Sacher-Masoch; not even Justine or Severin. If, to Deleuze, “[w]ords are at their most powerful when they compel the body to repeat the movements they suggest” (1991, 17), Castillo’s spectral action would be “violence that does not speak, eroticism that remains unspoken” (22). A non-language or the limits of language. And yet… her instrument is the tongue, a tongue that does not speak, suck, eat, or stay still. In the end, it is a matter of the tongue, the body’s punisher, that is neither inside nor outside, the frontier on which survival, eroticism and speech all simultaneously hinge.
Argument. Lamezuela is both an action that strives to be a word, and a word that strives to be an action: a hole from which nominal signifiers fall, feeling the pull of an unknown weight, the signifiers of a country contemptuously baptized by colonial logic, only to be baptized again by the paternalistic delusion of (another) military dictatorship. It is a spectral action—within the limits of what is lasting, ephemeral as actions are, and reusable as words are. That is, an action that produces a radiation spectre, a remainder of (sexual) energy whose intensity is redistributed.
Lamezuela is a sadomasochistic performance. The sadistic dimension of Lamezuela is the word “Lamezuela” itself, a word that, rebelling against its descriptive function, strives to show the identity between reasoning and violence. The masochistic dimension is action itself: kneeling down to lick the boots of a soldier, not because Castillo belittles herself or the spectators, but because she uses masochism’s method in order to humiliate the Father-State, the one that constantly subjugates, oppresses, subdues—steps on—its citizens. Against the enormous return of the Father-State, the masochistic heroine flogs the image of power within herself. She exorcises the dangers of the State. And in this sense, she comes back and will continue to come back in every protest and demonstration, as things that circulate outside the law are wont to do.
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