Amanda Beech

Amanda Beech’s – presentation text and image of Sanity Assasin (2009) that was screened


  • Horror as an experience and an image
  • Horror as the condition that describes the limits of our mastery, the edge of reason, the place at which we no longer control our environment, or our future.
  • Horror as the description of a negative space that stands for that we do not have access to.

So horror becomes emblematic of the nothing. It is here when we see that horror is a referential term, capable of invoking this relation to the inaccessible or non-relational. But, in its referential capacities, we can start to look at some problems within the category of horror. This is where I can cite scepticism, finitude and myth as the standards of horror that horror itself cannot escape. The Real Horror then is that horror cannot be real, and will result in camp, kitsch and formula, because its aim is contradictory. A key problem of horror then, as something that references the infinite, is that it asks us how we can speak of this ‘being beyond’ without reproducing this as presence without reconditioning it to another form of finitude. This is where the image of horror must live out its own contradiction, for an image must – if it follows the standard of horror – refer to and invoke the unsayable, the unfilmable, the unrepresentable and the unconscious – let us say the anti-image. This reminds me of a theological schema that would tell us that images are the work of the devil, since their illusions are capable of a domination we cannot imagine, precisely because they replicate the world we know.

This schema of representation holds within it the problem of a formal hierarchy in as much as it dictates a formula of the real where, “the more ambiguous the image, then the more it resists meaning, and duly the closer to reality it becomes”. In Critical Theory, we have seen the identification with language itself as the place of the beyond, where language as our essential technology is understood as alienating and beyond our control, despite it being made by us. This paradox lies at the heart of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, where we see core connections between the image, its ability to manifest power and its (albeit) negatively construed correlation to reality. Adorno and Horkheimer’s work looks to how this dimension of language-power figures a crude, barbaric and miasmic nature in a kind of post-political reality that desublimates individual identities to the equivalence of an animalistic totality. The base of the operation is Hollywood, and as we know this highlights a deeper irony where these two sides have shared a mutual popularisation. So, for Adorno real horror is the horror of the given, where a doorknob contains within it the absolute horrors of Auschwitz.

This image of world beyond us, in fact is a story that narrates our relationship to ourselves and the world of the given: it narrates our alienation from ourselves. Here, the impossibility of knowing self becomes correlative to the impossibility of knowing reality. Self and reality share a terminus that means that the image can only be for us and by us. If we follow this logic through, this means that we are back to the old cliché that the greatest fear is our own nature! The many horror films that use mirrors to tell us this are to many to mention. Here the big error is easy to spot: an ontological relativity is produced despite claiming its empirical impossibility. This is where we encounter the space of horror that resides in a mistaken understanding of subjectivity, reality and the image. What we see emerging here is a central problem; the de-ontologised real of our reality, namely a conception of a post-metaphysical world, is correlated to the forces in our lives that we identify as dominant and pervasive, and beyond our mastery.

So, why must this be the case? If we seek to speak about realism that is a vista of the non relational possibility of entitles, and where the image does not reside within the illustrational, then surely we must overcome the tendency to essentialise the real
to the image whether this be metaphysical or immanent, because by doing so we guarantee that there are types of existence that we cannot say anything about. I’m wondering where the knowledge sits that can make such a claim, and it is here where
the arrogance of this epistemology envinces this as its singular and grounding illusion.

Crucially, for Adorno and Horkheimer, a knowledge that knows the dialectic is capable of transcending the horrors of similitude, but it is here where this knowledge is expressed where we encounter a key problem. This is centrally because this knowledge is married to a form of mysticism, and significantly this is most evident when it comes to an understanding of art. Here art’s re-politicised form is correlated to what is considered to be its essential nature; that is, art’s politics is conditioned upon the natural ambiguity of the image.

And, it’s important to dwell for a moment on the contradiction that this twofold status of the image produces. On the one hand the image is considered as the site of a constructed reality that takes the form of nature, and on the other hand it is considered as the means to transcending it. It is the prime symbolic referent to dominance in the world of the given and it has the ability to invoke the fact of in-access to a deeper unconditioned reality. To achieve this double operation of truth telling and deceit the image is compelled to become the primary figure for a politics that it claimed it had no access to in the first place. It is asked to be both the guarantee and cause for political transformation. In thinking these asymmetrical demands together the image is mystified further towards a concept of a deeper concept-less nature. Problematically, such a conception of the image can only serve to set the limitations both for itself and politics.

So, to make some early conclusions; the first point I’d like to make about these approaches to meaning is that they assume too quickly that the work of producing meaning is tied to a theory of causation.

Secondly, at the same time and in direct contradiction to this, they assume that the image is naturally free.

If we take these two points together, the image can only be understood as mutually weak and special or evil and banal, a tool for power, but at the same time the figure for freedom. In this schema the last stop for the image is unreason. Ironically, it is such a statement that has defined the conditions of art’s politics for generations.

Thirdly, what is common and also worth focussing on when we look across these materialisms, which try to think through the conditions of the world without us, is that they all are subtended by an impoverished theory of meaning. Here we begin to see in much sharper distinction between an image of knowledge that illustrates our relation to language as a form of knowledge and the intended but failed aim to think contingent reality.

The same problem of nature is as present in dialectical approaches to the image as much as in phenomenology, where the embodiment of the image as affect holds within it the attempt to be free from the conditions of representation. Therefore, I want to argue that this understanding of a politics of the real that finds its home in a world of affect, phenomena and experience, nevertheless remains inspired by scepticism. This is why we get so many art works telling us that a nonrepresentational image can achieve this reality through embodying it as a form of nature, but a representational image cannot because it cannot escape its mediating function. We can see this when, built into this logic of horror is the notion that the image can allow us to access a reality only if it is unfettered by the heaviness of the world of the given. An effect of this paradoxical thinking against the image with the image is that the empirical world is made strange, since this presence of the nothing is immanent to it, lurks within it and is something that happens to us. Our given reality has an alienating quality that we cannot fathom. So, we live with a dilemma of the image, we cannot trust the given, but that is all we know.

This strangeness is harnessed in a non-representationalist culture where reality is the manufacturing of the relativity of chaos in the world of the given and is represented to us very often in an aesthetics of dissonance, arrhythmic atonal music, base materialism, punk and other visions of affectual excess. These images are first and most obviously problematic because they are understood easily as genres, the very categorisation they had hoped to dispense with. This tendency to genre happens because their claim to nature falls within standard understandings of the relation between accessing reality and political instrumentality. By this I mean that the realism of embodied affect links this understanding of nature to the essence of democracy.

Integral to this logic is that the image is set against thought, and vice versa, and this distinction is claimed when the image is endowed with two aspects: on the one hand the inherent inaccessibility of reality is naturalised to the image as a property of it, and on the other hand, the image can also draw this out in forms of representation. This process underscores a separating out of reason and the imagination. We can think a world that is beyond us but as soon as we begin to picture it, it we are only capable of describing this relation in dialectical form. What happens as a result of this is that images that are interested in horror tend to describe the paradox of this given nature, in forms of self-conscious descriptions of the finitude of the image and its tendency towards relationality. Images and stories spring from this that tell us about the torsion of knowledge, where the condition of contradiction becomes the figuration of horror. This space of contradiction dwells on subjective experience and takes pleasure in describing the limits of what it means to be human. And, in aspiring to invoke an unmeasured nature beyond us, a world that we cannot master, the image ends up as a weird reflection; the mirror of our nature. It finds its form in a Kantian-style psychosis of mimetic compulsive gestures that resides in the pleasure of a twisted and masochistic anthropocentricism. In such case, the tension established in phenomena is matched to an underlying reality.

Therefore the types of image that respond to horror in this way must be poetic. They must master the rhetoric of presence and absence in a match of tensions in an aesthetics of constraint. In the face of this, trying to reinstate the finite aspects of the image as forms of potentiality is made impossible here precisely because of the distinction that is made between the nature of the image and its operations. Just to rehearse this then: the horror that describes the real of the image as non relational entities where the being and appearance of images are distinct abstract and chaotic remains significantly different to the horror that is used to describe this relation which relies upon an aesthetics of the abstract, chaotic and that results in the thing it had hoped to overcome, that is furthering the life of stable forms of representation.

Collecting these thoughts together we can see that the consequences of horror already point us to: a) an impoverished theory of the image, b) the necessity of the image and c) the split between reason and the imagination. It also requires that we must rethink not only these normative distinctions between expressing the nature of an image and its operations but to ask if these qualities of the image should be a subject that art is interested in expressing and focussing upon anyway, since this approach to a philosophy of the image enjoys its finitude certainly too much for me – with respect both to philosophy and politics.

Horror in this way is always naive, since it dwells within the subjective, the finite whilst aiming beyond it. In that sense it pictures the edges of the human, its borders and its outline, a kind of abstract portraiture in a fun-house mirror. Horror struggles to move past its connection to finitude and most particularly a conception of finitude that sits within a theory of knowledge as becoming. In this way, it’s hard to see horror outside of a theory of scepticism and also outside of a conservative genre.

What is common and also worth focussing on when we look across these approaches to materialise a world that is not for us, is that they all are subtended by an impoverished theory of meaning. Here we begin to see in much sharper distinction the difference between an image of knowledge that illustrates our relation to language as a form of knowledge and the intended but failed aim to think contingent reality.

– How can we move past the contradiction that we are claiming access to something that we also claim we have no access to in the first place. And would this be a real horror? Well no, because the conjunction of reality and horror deny the very claims of realism, that is the radical unbinding that contingency in an absolute sense potentialises. Real Horror then is an oxymoron. It prevents us from thinking a world that is not for us, because it problematically assumes that this world is a world without us. In this sense it cannot escape its core humanism. It also misses the opportunity that we can talk about a world that is not for us and that this may not be situated in an aesthetics of torsion, but may also be unified and unilateral. So what is difficult about a theory of horror is that it redraws the primacy of finitude to our focus – whether this is written as transcendence or immanence – where a finitude that haunts us remains as the hinge to the door of our becoming. In that sense we are not ‘after finitude’ at all, and even worse the world of the given is now more standardised than ever.

Picturing a world that is outside of human access then risks sustaining the distinction between fact and fiction. This distinction serves to secularise this de-ontologised world to the realms of private fantasy. I’d like to think that we can assume a thought of a anti-humanist realism that can think language as capable of meaning, can think after finitude as a dimension of the non-tragic, and is capable of a language that can compete against the dominance of humanism. This is a language that is a harder materialism, that produces different facts and with that different laws. A language that is capable of meeting the requirements of the unknown.

Photo image: Amanda Beech, Sanity Assassin (2009), Installation view. Courtesy of Spike Island. Photo: Stuart Bunce.

~ by caryncoleman on November 4, 2010.

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