Forging A Head and Forging Ahead—Miller’s Head Cases
“Gloria was lying in a pool of blood with her head cut off” (Kristeva 1998, 3). The opening line of Julia Kristeva’s 1996 novel Possessions evokes an uncanny scene of decapitation, as the protagonist, Stephanie Delacour, finds her friend, Gloria Harrison, impeccably dressed in an ivory satin dress with matching shoes, hands manicured, legs tanned, so familiar, yet utterly unfamiliar. All this is captured in the most laconic of ways: “There was nothing missing except her head” (2). Stephanie’s immediate reaction to finding her friend in a pool of blood is all but dramatic. Rather than lamenting the death of her friend, she begins reflecting on the 2,000-year long tradition of representing and painting the severed head of Saint John the Baptist being presented to Salome, from Venetian mosaics to the paintings of Caravaggio, Da Vinci and Raphael, and the poetry of Mallarmé. She reflects on the unique capacity of the artist to represent such horrors, to make visible what the rest of us cannot see, to bring beauty and meaning to what otherwise might seem mundane and meaningless. We are thus quickly removed from the scene of a friend lying, decapitated, in a pool of blood, to a reflection on the aesthetics of decapitation.
To be sure, it is no coincidence that Kristeva chooses to begin her novel here, in an encounter with a decapitated woman, and through her friend’s inner monologue about beheadings in the realm of art. Only two years after the publication of Possessions, in 1998, Kristeva curated an exhibit at the Louvre, Visions Capitales, which showcased artistic representations of severed heads from antiquity to the present. The catalog for the exhibit, authored by Kristeva, appeared in English in 2012 as The Severed Head: Capital Visions, and on the cover we find one of the many representations of Saint John the Baptist’s head being served on a plate, this one painted by Andrea Solario, and on display at the Louvre. In the brief prelude to the text, Kristeva proposes that “the image may be our only remaining link to the sacred,” and suggests [End Page 274] that the many cruel stories behind the severed heads of the exhibition remind us that “a humanity possessed by the urge for death and terrorized by murder acknowledges that it has, in fact, arrived at a fragile and overwhelming discovery: the only resurrection possible may be … representation.”
It is this very idea that motivates Elaine P. Miller’s Head Cases: Julia Kristeva on Philosophy and Art in Depressed Times. Here, art, and particularly uncanny art such as the paintings Kristeva chose for the exhibition at the Louvre, is presented as a beacon of hope in the face of the horrors that define our times. Like Kristeva, Miller views modernity as a time deeply marked by depression and melancholia, and she proposes that works of art and aesthetic experience—and the thought process that follows from that experience—are perhaps the only means by which we can work through not only individual depression but also the melancholia that characterizes our culture as a whole.
At the heart of Miller’s book, and of much of Kristeva’s work, is the image. It is the image that defines modernity understood as a culture of depression, yet it is also the image that serves as a starting point for our capacity to wrestle meaningfully with the depression of our times. On the one hand, Miller thus focuses on a central theme in Kristeva’s work, namely her critique of modernity as a culture of the spectacle, one that proliferates images without content and leaves us numb and motionless, zapping away in front of our televisions or getting lost in a two-dimensional landscape of glossy billboards and idealized representations. The ‘new maladies of the soul’ that Kristeva has brought attention to throughout her work—and that she herself encounters as a practicing psychoanalyst—are symptomatic of this culture where countless and contentless images, as Miller puts it, “make the temporality of everyday existence skip eternally like a needle on a record, repeating without progressing” (7). On the other hand, Miller offers a robust and detailed analysis of how it is that images simultaneously can function as a counter-force to such a culture of the spectacle. Kristeva, she suggests, “accords the artistic image a potentially liberatory effect” in that it can “generate recuperative, if not redemptive, iterations of meaning” (7). Recall the remark from The Severed Head that “the image may be our only remaining link to the sacred,” and that it might offer the only viable path to resurrection. The image, to put it in the Arendtian terms used by Miller, provides the condition for the possibility of a “second birth,” through its capacity to interrupt, reorganize, and fragment the deceptive claim to seamless unity so characteristic of the culture of the spectacle (8). Art, for Kristeva and for Miller, “provides a safe space for reopening the depressed subject or culture up to signification and creation,” in that it has the capacity to offer a middle ground of sorts between the complete asymbolia of depression, on the one hand, and the full coherence of the spectacle, on [End Page 275] the other (14). Put differently, we might say that art and aesthetic experiences offer an alternative to the binary extremes of not being able to imagine anything at all (depression), and being so lost in imagination that we are reduced to a state of distraction (the culture of the spectacle). Either no images, or too many images. Both of these extremes ultimately involve repetition, whereas art opens up a different kind of temporality—a temporality of return, revolt, or, as Miller puts it, afterwardness, or Nachträglichkeit.
Head Cases is largely an effort to elaborate and illustrate—through engagements with a wide array of philosophers and authors and with works of art—this relationship and tension between the image as a mind-numbing spectacle and the image as an anti-dote to such distractions, or a resurrecting force. To elaborate this tension, Miller turns to the work of Walter Benjamin, both to give substance to the idea that we live in depressed times, and to propose that art is the answer to our cultural melancholia. She brings together Kristeva’s early work on individual melancholia in Black Sun and her more recent discussions of national depression in texts such as New Maladies of the Soul, and offers a much needed, eloquent, and illuminating examination of the place and role of melancholia in Kristeva’s oeuvre as a whole.
Miller proposes a homeopathic approach to the issues articulated so far, namely that melancholia is best addressed or combatted through the very act of melancholic writing or creation. “This act of treating a potentially debilitating psychic ailment with a smaller, less lethal dose of the same affliction,” she explains in the introduction, “is what I dub ‘spiritual inoculation’” (17). This concept is central to the overall argument of the book, and means precisely “the intentional exposure to a small dose of an otherwise lethal malady (in this case, melancholia or depression), in order to stave off a more disabling form of the same woe” (22). Herein lies the power of art as that which can fend off, promise an alternative to, and contend with the maladies of modernity: it can do this precisely because of its own semiotic-melancholic underbelly and uncanny strangeness. As Miller notes, the art privileged by Kristeva is uncanny rather than beautiful, “in that it thematizes and intensifies the strangeness at the heart of what seems most familiar to us” (45). The “still life” on the cover of The Severed Head represents a very particular kind of stillness—that of a head severed from its body, served on a plate. John the Baptist looks perfectly calm, yet clearly out of place, his head severed and served like a cake to be consumed, yet the consumption here could hardly be one marked by distraction. As Miller explains both in the introduction and conclusion of her book, losing a head opens up the possibility of creating a head. Suffering can promise and enable creativity, and open up the future. Forging a head, and forging ahead, she argues, is best done “through aesthetic activity [End Page 276] that engages with and through, rather than trying to suppress, anxiety and depression” (185).
Miller performs a tour-de-force both in terms of the conceptual analysis, and in terms of her capacity to put Kristeva into conversation—dense conversation!—with an array of thinkers, such as Hegel, Freud, Proust, Adorno, Benjamin, Arendt, and Klein, to mention only the most canonical of the thinkers put to use here. This kind of analytic strategy—one that identifies a concept or idea and traces its meaning historically, as it is taken up by Kristeva, and as it transpires in conversations between Kristeva and her interlocutors (sometimes actual conversations or engagements, sometimes ones staged by Miller)—is, in my mind, both the strength and the weakness of the book. On the one hand, Miller’s analysis of mourning and melancholia, estrangement, experience, sublimation, forgiveness, and negation (to mention but a few of the concepts she tackles in the book) is incredibly rich, ambitious, and rigorous. The philosophical exchanges she stages are productive, oftentimes unexpected, and almost always thought provoking. They push Kristeva’s work to unprecedented places and shed new light on some central tropes from her oeuvre. But some of the heavy conceptual lifting seems to distract from the central claims made, and runs the risk of being executed at the expense of concrete engagements with works of art. Each chapter does offer some aesthetic analysis, but I would have liked the author to stay with the art works a bit longer rather than forging ahead to the next thinker and encounter. The book feels careful and rushed at once; where the philosophical analysis reaches levels of extreme sophistication, the aesthetic analysis could be richer.
Insofar as the melancholia of our times is both individual and collective, Miller notes, we need art that functions in both of these registers. With this in mind, she turns to monuments and memorial art, which she describes as a “transitional object on a mass level” (15). The issue at stake—an issue that has concerned thinkers like Judith Butler in recent years—is how we can wrestle with human vulnerability and loss in an ethical manner. “How,” Miller asks, “can the loss be witnessed or exposed, rather than repressed, but in such a way that at the same time the healing process and political transformation can begin?” (16) And, like Butler, she is deeply skeptical of the way Americans relate to and represent their past and present suffering and injustices: “In the United States, the process, when it is undertaken at all, seems to be one of disavowal and repression. Either the phenomenon—we might take slavery as an example—is not memorialized at all, or it is commemorated through a grandiose act of atonement that crudely exalts the victims rather than acknowledging the mistakes behind their victimization” (16). Think only of Maya Lin’s celebrated Vietnam Veterans Memorial, raised in Washington DC in 1982, where the many names [End Page 277] of servicemen either killed in action or missing in action have been etched on a dark stone wall sunken into the ground so as to resemble a healing wound. What would it have meant to also include the names of those Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who were killed during the war? How would the encounter with the memorial be different if those names were also included? How would our current discourse about the war be different? Is it even possible to imagine such a memorial?
Miller discusses several examples of so-called countermonuments—monuments that refuse to monolithically commemorate events past in such a way that onlookers are allowed “to move on with their lives while the memorial does the remembering for them” (48). Her discussion of artists such as Esther Shalev-Gerz and Rachel Whiteread is timely, and I am particularly intrigued by the question she raises in a footnote, as to why “no American artist has proposed—or at least been supported in an effort to construct—a countermonument to a comparable moment of the country’s shameful past, such as the institution of slavery or the mass killing of American Indians” (199 n142). Miller is right that no such monument exists—Congress entertained the idea of raising one in 2003, when the National Slave Memorial Act was introduced, but ultimately authorized the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture instead—and she is right that this is a striking fact in light of how many such monuments that can be found in Germany, for example, to commemorate the Holocaust. It would nevertheless be interesting to reflect, in this context, on Kara Walker’s 2014 piece A Subtlety, housed in Brooklyn’s legendary Domino Sugar Factory, featuring a massive sugar-coated sphinx-like black woman as well as several black boys attending her. The curator Nato Thompson refers to the piece as a monument, responding not only to the building and its history, but also, of course, to the history of slavery (the sphinx “has the head of a kerchief-wearing black female, referencing the mythic caretaker of the domestic needs of white families”) as well as our present-day sexualization of the black female body (“her body is a veritable caricature of the overly sexualized black woman, with prominent breasts, enormous buttocks, and protruding vulva that is quite visible from the back”). The piece, like the countermonuments discussed by Miller in the book, is marked by its own disappearance (the melancholically melting molasses of the boys’ limbs are deeply uncanny), and serves to comment on the insidious ways that racism is alive and well in our present rather than turning it into an issue of the past. Specifically, it thematizes the way in which our culture of the spectacle plays a role in perpetuating racist violence, in that Walker invited her audience to take snapshots of themselves posing in front of the sphinx, and the photographs—often depicting white men posing in ways that confirm the sexualization of the black woman embodied by the sphinx—make up what remains of the piece today. [End Page 278]
In conclusion, returning to the image with which I began—the image of Gloria, decapitated, lying in a pool of blood—I wonder, finally, why it is that Miller never engages Kristeva’s novels in her book. In the conclusion, she does take note of the fact that Kristeva speaks little of “the sheer fleshiness of the severed head” in her work, and she suggests that this “is addressed, rather, in Kristeva’s detective novels” (186). But she does not elaborate this claim, nor offer any analysis of the novels. Given her interest in aesthetic creation as such, and particularly in aesthetic creation when it tarries with uncanny registers of our culture, such as the severed head, it is certainly surprising that she would choose not to examine Kristeva’s own aesthetic work—her detective novels—which not only features severed heads but more broadly and very clearly is an attempt at what Miller calls spiritual inoculation.
I wonder what more Miller might have to say about how the novels more immediately convey to the viewer “the sheer fleshiness of the severed head,” as she suggests? As John Lechte puts it in his brief reflections on Possessions, “although the narrative begins with the decapitation of Gloria Harrison in Santa Varvara, the text is far from bodily and is instead excessively cerebral” (129). As we saw, Stephanie’s reaction when encountering her friend Gloria headless in a pool of blood is far from emotional, and her description of the sight is all but fleshy. Remember that she embarked immediately on a lofty reflection on the aesthetics of decapitation. Stephanie explains her reaction in the novel: “here more than anywhere I need art to help me see my way, to retain my common sense, and, if you’ll forgive the expression, to keep my head” (Kristeva 1998, 9). What, I wonder, is the relationship between severing a head, keeping one’s head, forging a head, and forging ahead?
Fanny Söderbäck is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at DePaul University, where she teaches feminist philosophy. She has edited Feminist Readings of Antigone (SUNY Press, 2010) and is a co-editor of the volume Undutiful Daughters: New Directions in Feminist Thought and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). She is also the editor of a special issue of philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism on the topic of birth. She is working on a book manuscript titled Revolutionary Time, which treats the role of time as it appears in the work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. She is the Co-director of the Kristeva Circle. Fanny’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org