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  • Corpsing; or, The Matter of Black Life
  • David Marriott (bio)


The word “corpsing” (verb) signifies a blunder occurring when, in accordance with the performance of a role, an actor is “put out” of his part. A role that is corpsed is one that exposes the limits of performance and, depending on the metaphor, denotes the “death” of theater, as theater. A role that is corpsed, which is something contrary to the usual performance of a part, is one that evidently does away with an actor’s mastery (of illusion) and no more clearly than when the dis-join between persona and part is exposed. Corpsing therefore raises the more general problem of how any kind of performance can proceed or withhold itself from the possibility of blunder when trying to follow certain rules, or at least how any performance that relies on the ability to properly communicate itself to another can do so without, conversely, also revealing that propriety as artificial and theatrical. For example, the fact that when an actor is corpsed he also reveals the necessary demise of their role, or what is most proper to its performance, it follows that the possibility of blunder—often hilariously—has a force and impetus that cannot be easily borne by the normal codes of performance, except in laughter. So too the fact that corpsing tends to produce a kind of infectious joy at the actor’s expense, at his or her inability to subdue, or subordinate, the corpse (and its affects) to the governance of spectacle, authority, or ego.

But the fact that something so contagious should also compel an actor to give up his part and commit himself to a particular loss of character doesn’t mean that we should lose sight of the fact that corpsing is also spectacle. And while I entirely agree that corpsing is usually determined rhetorically as a kind of excess of body over representation, I also insist that the whole scandal of corpsing (its impure force) lies in this spectacle of what happens when the most self-present mastery [End Page 32] (of representation) comes across that which is both unmasterable and unrepresentable. First, insofar as corpsing reveals a discord, it is not clear from the metaphor whether corpsing denotes a failure to repress or the pleasure of failed repression, a pleasure that is also a death. Hence whatever follows from the failure of performance (that is, from performance itself insofar as we understand the corpse to be expressly, if unwittingly, performed) results also, albeit unconsciously, from the pleasures of failure. Hence the infectiousness of corpsing may quite correctly be said to follow from the spectacle of unmastering, because this spectacle depends especially on the failure of any resistance to manifest itself, insofar as the subject gives in to this failure but not without giving up on the persona of a role as I have just defined it. Second, I have said that this failure does not depend on decision or will but on the unconscious nature of performance, and a general consideration of accident and contingency cannot help us at all in the formation and ordering of particular corpsing events. For corpsing to be an event it must resist the very notion of event (i.e., as something ordered by the terms of performance, for it surpasses those terms). We are also ignorant of the actual motivations and reasons of why people corpse—that is, of why orderly forms of communication and performance succumb and fail, and therefore it is better and indeed necessary for what follows on corpsing and black social death to regard corpsing as radically contingent.

It seems to be only by a metaphor that the word “corpsing” is applied to acting and theater. What is commonly meant by corpsing is a moment by which an actor exceeds the limits of theater and no longer is in command of a role. Corpsing, therefore, seems to have been defined more precisely as the death of theatrical artifice. But corpsing is also evident outside theater; we see it when people fail to live up to or grasp their social roles. Hence the derisive laughter attached to those...