On Being-Hated: Banks Violette, Pharmakon, Karaoke.
Let’s start with where I am. It could be anywhere. I’m on a train to Philadelphia, I’m on a plane back to New York. I’ve just moved to Oakland. I’m wearing a pair of fingerless leather gloves and there’s a slim choker around my neck loose enough that the buckle’s constantly slipping over to the front.
Author’s note 3/10/2015: Please note that this post has been edited to reflect its indebtedness to Mitchel Civello’s essay “Insane Class Problem: Juggalos and the Performance of White Poverty” — I apologize deeply for this oversight and am grateful to be in conversation with his thoughts on performances of being-hated.
Let’s start with where I am. It could be anywhere. I’m on a train to Philadelphia, I’m on a plane back to New York. I’ve just moved to Oakland. I’m wearing a pair of fingerless leather gloves and there’s a slim choker around my neck loose enough that the buckle’s constantly slipping over to the front. I’m idling it with my fingers, the leather soft from where I’ve worn it away. “Vintage?” a friend asks, poking fun at me. “Just gothy,” I say in return. “Gotta be a hard bitch. How else am I gonna believe in anything.”
It’s twelve degrees in New York and I’m feral. The last few months in Oakland have made me soft but I’d forgotten how the cold makes me want to bite back because the world is tearing at me. I’m swearing all the time, I’m snapping at everyone, nothing will settle. But everything stops when the wind comes and cold air catches me hard in the face — a hostility that forces a complete shutdown of my outer sensorium, keeps me embalmed in my own oblivion. In that moment the universe hates me. It’s what I like about fucking: the ability to lose myself in a performance of my own self-directed hatred.
What does it really mean to perform being-hated? In February 1969, the artist Lee Lozano began a piece she titled General Strike Piece, a gradual withdrawal from the art world that shifted across different planes throughout the course of her life, increasing in intensity in Boycott Piece (1971, a permanent hiatus from speaking to other women), and culminating in Dropout Piece, an experiment in total anonymity that ended with her own unmarked grave. I’ve always loved art that comes at a high cost to the artist, that forages for unconventional intimacy within the very processes it is compulsory for one to engage in. Work that subjects itself intentionally and extremely to the conditions of a reality that seeks to destroy it.
Lozano’s work was so entwined with the actual conditions of her life — of misogyny and art-world-economy, of being-hated — that it went largely unnoticed. But what if hyper-materialized performances of being-hated could become a method of, as she says, “TOTAL REVOLUTION SIMULTANEOUSLY PERSONAL AND PUBLIC”?
Over the next three months, I plan to investigate hatred, or more specifically, being-hated not as an affect or emotion, but as geometry or grammar, as aesthetic form with political proposition. José Esteban Muñoz notes in Cruising Utopia that an essential quality of queer utopia is “disappointment… the hangover that follows hope,” (111) that it is this structuring quality that prevents blind optimism. What if engaging in performances of being-hated could be a mode of expressing disappointment with the status quo at the same time as articulating a radical commitment to possibility — the possibility of an affective generosity: a cruel but crucial intensity?
Sara Ahmed in her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion notes that the circulation of hate is economic. Rather than reside as an essential quality of a person, it “circulates between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement” (44). In other words, hatred is a social affect of difference moving between individuals and objects. As Mitchel Civello notes, people are “not the originator of emotions, but just one stop along their route.” For him, hatred does not emerge from one person and travel along a fateful path into another — “it just feels like it does.” Rather, disparity can be what dictates where affect lands and how it interacts with subjects, reinforcing actual social divisions.
Indeed, feeling hated might be transient and delicate, but when one performs being-hated, one (according to Ahmed) “assumes the character of the negative. That transformation of this body into the body of the hated, in other words, leads to the enclosure or sealing of [oneself] within a figure of hate” (57). When you are hated, you are no longer a person, just a vessel for trapped affect that can no longer circulate within the social. You become someone else’s effigy, affectively shut-off and ready-to-burn. However, perhaps we could say too that performing being-hated — intentionally inhabiting this socially constructed, sealed body — is an abstraction that also detains the hated person in a moment of existence. From heavy leather jackets to tattoos, subcultural markers tend to also become visual calcifications of form, stiff materialization without which there is only reason to flee, or worse still, no reason not to die. Another word for existence is survival. Maybe without performing being-hated, whatever bullshit pain you feel is only a fucking compromise. Maybe performing being-hated is a simple case of desiring better, wanting different.
I’m standing in a gallery, The Saatchi in London. I’m standing in front of Banks Violette’s 2004 piece Hate Them and it’s damp between the tops of my thighs. Hate Them is a massive structure built out of common musical elements: a sound stage, parts of a drum kit. Hanging from this metal skeleton, interspersed at regular intervals are glossy black fangs, iconic and foreboding. Known for his sculptures that make use of subcultural iconography — heavy metal, youth culture, biker gangs — Violette’s unexpectedly austere sculptures don’t make use of a kitschy appropriation of violence or transgressive shock, nor are they straightforward translations of low to high culture. Rather, in his ability to re-invest belief in these forms that have already been ironized, strip-mined of meaning. Hate Them is an abstraction, a funerary structure for a site of unconventional and previously held beliefs, a conceptual construct outlining what has been leeched of meaning, and transformed into a cemetery of intuition. Which is to say, this is where feelings go to die.
Like Ahmed’s hated body, always already sealed off, this piece doesn’t tell me — like neo-romantic conceptions of subculture tend to insist — that feeling is believing. Rather, geometric and stately, it suspends its own internal violence, shutting me out and emanating vibratory tensions that make me feel a strange mixture of resistant and reverent; that make it feel sanctimonious rather than transcendent. It’s sullen and brutal: You believed; you made me like this, it taunts, this is all you get. It’s a beautiful blame game, a minimalist joke. I’m reminded that Malevich’s first exhibition of Suprematist paintings were displayed exactly the way an orthodox Catholic altar would have been arranged, with his first black square painting where Christ’s image would have been. A relic in a church is nothing without the prayers of pilgrims breathing life into it while it remains cased in glass, stubbornly silent. Hating those who hate you, hating them back by amplifying the abstract violence they’ve done to you. Laughing in the face of an aloof visual art culture and its own utter failure to translate, interact with, even eliminate the affects of hated bodies, Banks Violette makes me wet.
The thing about choosing to perform being-hated is that affect is forced outward and always comes back. It must be circulated and bring you something in return; you’re just never sure what it’ll be. Sometimes, like in S/M, the self-hatred comes back as kindness. If you’re lucky, it’s love. Ahmed writes that affects “not only create the borders between selves and others, but also ‘give’ others meaning and value in the very act of apparent separation” (29). As Civello notes, the thing is that “affects must be shared, whether by two people on a couch, by a group or even globally,” but like all forms of sharing — miscommunication, an imbalance in the giving and taking of it — becomes not just a risk, but an integral aspect of its function.
It’s night in Oakland and we’re at a noise show at the Night Light. Margaret Chardiet a.k.a. Pharmakon is playing; her latest album Bestial Burden is a short but guttural reaching into the depths of bodily failure. Of her body’s own inability to emit — after a traumatic and difficult surgery — the habitual scale of her musical register. Noise shows are minefields of hated bodies. Black (only black), combat boots, shaved heads, carefully taken apart band tees patched onto neo-Nazi clothing — it’s a small, male-dominated scene that I’m already always outside of. I’m there with my friend Grace, and the opening acts are terrible. The first dude screams “MAKE THEM PAY” between undifferentiated walls of bad concrete sound, every worst noise stereotype, and Grace turns to me rolling her eyes. Boys are so boring. Another friend texts me that we are okay people and this shouldn’t be happening to us. We agree that we should start a campaign relieving all cis men of the right to scream on any occasion, that they should pay $1,000 for every minute of microphone use and that tonight’s travesties will require invoices mailed to them written in menstrual blood.
Margaret is standing on stage, shielding her eyes against the stage lights and asking if her feedback amp is working. “Let’s get this show on the road,” someone yells. Margaret doesn’t give him a second of her time. The thing about noise is, there is no gray area between good and bad. Elaine Gchats me that it’s true, its lack of form can give people an excuse to think that their random, loud self-expression is important. There is music that demands you instinctively know the reason it exists and then there is all that other stuff being produced by someone else who is using noise as an excuse to uncritically scream about feelings that no one gives a shit about. So sue me; I will never not enjoy fake-whispering “godddd, I hate that band,” out loud at shows, my voice a languid and consumptive drawl. Margaret sweeps two batteries off the table with her hand, without looking to see where they land. Even in set-up, her every gesture is graceful, complete, confrontational. The performance is devastating. Brutally low notes build slowly, but get muffled when they’re set against an embroidery of other, higher, delicate registers. When she hits the notes that are too high, too loud, my head hurts and I swoon. Unlike the blunt aggressiveness of the performances that came before her, this hostility is demure and deliberate, located in the precise movements of her fingers as she tweaks buttons, shifts pedals, always on the beat. Hands have always supplied the first sacrificial substitutions in the wake of death: in place of burnt widows and other human sacrifices, hands were decorated and abbreviated. I watch these fingers berate her instruments in a kind of resentful caress. Never coming to a stop, Margaret’s nimble fingers seem unapologetic, a vengeful refusal of mourning in the face of being-woman, being-hated.
When Margaret screams, she doubles over in one inhumanly rapid movement, an immediate possession. It’s a demonic transformation into a figure of pain turned feral and assaultive, striding back and forth across the floor. She demands the audience face what they’ve created: this unquestionably feminine body they’ve betrayed, a body that has become traitorous for giving itself over to rage. But it’s not without tenderness either. Wandering into the audience, Margaret forces her face against individual members of the audience. It’s so close, too close it short circuits the interplay between audience and musician. Unlike Violette’s sculptures, she doesn’t emanate, remote and aloof, instead she forces an encounter with her performance of being-hated that is too much to handle. She activates a permeability that is not so much destructive as it is overwhelmingly intimate. Margaret wanders towards a dude from one of the terrible opening acts, standing with his arms crossed, ambivalent and shut off. She rests her head on his chest and shrieks, her mouth grotesque and abysmal, her long blonde hair an angelic haze around the both of them. Margaret invites him in.
Ahmed writes that “hate then cannot be opposed to love.” Instead, “the subject comes attached to the other through hatred, as an attachment that returns the subject to itself… hate sustains the object through its mode of attachment” (50). In other words, the subject and hated object, because of their relationality, mutually create each other. Even if your own self-hatred is imaginary, or the hatred directed to you is a societal fantasy, the effects of it are quite real (Civello).
Performances of being-hated necessarily bind the hater and the hated in a perpetual union — they change each other, for better or for worse.
It’s night in New York and we’re at karaoke. “People really love to sing together,” is the refrain in Brandon Brown’s new book Top 40, an Oakland epic, the place to which I have to return to in 48 hours. It’s New York, so everyone’s telling me that people don’t hate in Oakland but I don’t know how not to. People do love singing together, but I’m there with an old lover, I’m wearing a leather skirt and we’ve chosen terrible old emo pop punk (if you can even call it that) together: “Hands Down” by Dashboard Confessional, “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus. I do the girl parts; the falsetto’s too high for him, the low notes too low for me, and our voices break together, an unbearable mix of whiny and shrill, breathy and sweet and young. My head spins when I hear the high notes, my hair’s in my face and I’m shrieking the bridge trembling with adolescent nostalgia.
I can’t look him in the face because my eyes are shut too tight and all the breath in my body is drifting outside of me, heavy and fractured in the air. We’re locked away in our own performances of being-hated. This boy hates me for the damage I’ve done him and vice versa. But performing being-hated together is a transitory moment that cannot be repeated, or swallowed, or held down, or remedied; caught in the broken high note of a double second, I feel ripped open. Dick Hebdige once wrote that “if a style is really to catch on, if it is to become genuinely popular, it must say the right things at the right time. It must anticipate or encapsulate a mood, a moment” (123). Our love is a style but right now it’s out of fashion. Because we hate each other, because we learned how to be-hated together, I will be in love with this boy the rest of my life. I touch his cheek with my hand, still in its leather glove and he doesn’t say “touch me,” he says “touch me with that glove again.”
I do, my sealed body reaching out for his. I can feel the heat of his skin seeping through the leather; I become permeable. I would kill myself for him, he’d be willing to kill the president for me. One day that gum he likes is going to come back in style. I realize that although hatred can be shared, performing being-hated together towards an audience means affective courses could be changed with the ebb and flow of fragile safeguards like vulnerability, intimacy, abjection. As a symptom of reiterating pain, affective performances of being-hated can be, should be, the impetus for benevolence, adroitness, gratitude. To have these return to you. Because who wants to be a part of this shitty fucking world — being-hated, together, is the sense of us against the world.
I put a cigarette out on my wrist to memorialize a beautiful moment and my skin breaks open, shriveling away in pain. An old lover texts me unprompted that he is home safe because he knows my greatest fear is that everyone I love will die in an accident on their way home, careless with the promise of imminent safety. Participating in performances of being-hated is always necessarily also a witnessing. I bike home and the record in my ears is Pharmakon’s Bestial Burden, Margaret’s desperate coughing laying over my steady breaths, the skritchy, panicked sounds of her lungs tessellating over the rigidity of my own. There is no form of hating, or hatred that is not also doubled, that is not also a methodology for looking in. I put my hand in my pants and almost make myself come.
Jane Chardiet, an integral member of the Pharmakon tour and NY noise music scene suffered a medical emergency while on tour this month and had to be flown home to have intrusive surgery.
Please consider donating to the GoFundMe to help with her overwhelming medical bills since Jane is not currently insured. Or, consider attending a benefit show that her friends and collaborators have organized at Saint Vitus (Brooklyn) on 4/2 to help with her expenses.