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“We revel here, serving no one [. . .]” May 19, 2013

by Jed M

While the grand title might suggest a turn to things ancient and eternal—and, on some registers, of course, it does—Saint Genet's Paradisiacal Rites, like Jean Genet himself, demands that we attend to the present and the particular, to dirt and blood and saliva and breath, to small, shared intimacies and cruelties and the large, sweeping movements in which they are played out and repeated, just beyond our control.

In a famous passage in The Thief's Journal, Genet writes of being abused by Spanish police when they discover a tube of vaseline in his pocket. The little “sign of abjection” that reveals he has sex with men is vested with a strange power: it brings him violence and ridicule, but he is convinced “it would be able to exasperate all the police in the world; it would draw upon itself contempt, hatred, white and dumb rages.” Meditating on the strength of that symbol—a symbol that is thoroughly material, that holds a sticky substance that he imagines spread across the bodies of his lovers—he decides he would sooner “shed blood than deny that silly object.” Paradisiacal Rites, too, meditates on sources of abjection and connection and the rituals through which they are made and unmade. These rituals, like the hypnotic power they hold over us, are both spectacular and banal, cruel and caring. They might take the form of spitting in a lover's face, being sent to wander into a field, creating or caressing a wound, or being held by another only to be put on display. Or, as in the sprawling, vibrant and vibrating party that erupts roughly in the middle of Paradisiacal Rites, the ritual might be a scene of degradation that is repeated, compulsively, in such a way that it becomes clear that debasement and cruelty are multi-directional and uncontainable—they overspill their boundaries and consume and elaborate their perpetrators, victims and observers alike.

If Genet is everywhere here—in the admixture of desire, sex, and violence, the impulses toward cruelty and humiliation, and the crossing of spaces of fantasy with spaces of death—so, too, are Georges Bataille, Walter Benjamin and perhaps others (Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Hortense Spillers, Etienne Balibar, Michael Taussig) whose disparate works limn the forces of subjection, violence, belonging, desire, magic, and cruelty that shape our lives. These forces formed the backdrop of the Implied Violence (IV) show at the Frye Art Museum in 2011, and Paradisiacal Rites amplifies the excess and richness explored there. Bodies remain the vehicle for the questions, here: bodies moving through space and sound, suspended in space and sound but working, sculpturally, surreptitiously, and slightly asynchronously against that suspension; bodies underground, under bodies, under spinning corpses; bodies disinterred, made animate, instrumentalized for others' purposes and wills; queer bodies, sounding themselves in spotlights and in the dark, sliding and stuttering diagonally through fields and alleys; gendered, raced bodies, held collectively and held down, held up by ropes and hands; repeating bodies confounded by their longings and the impossibility of knowing those longings outside of the systems and structures they would oppose; reveling, revealing bodies, surrounded by sound; bodies adorned with gold, blood, wine, semen, dirt, spit, smoke; possessed and dispossessed bodies, scarred and stained and scrubbed, suffering and celebrating; laboring, tense bodies, on the edge of release; faceless, frail ghosts of bodies, not quite bodies; unquiet bodies, masked or naked, exuberant or exhausted, drunk or monastic, breathing into balloons, lost in the grass and found and lost again.

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