essays ︎︎︎︎

ABSTRACTS


Spirit, Writer: Nineteenth-Century Mediumship and the Feminist Practice of (De-)Inscription
Feminist Media Histories 
Embodiment
(Forthcoming, April 2020)
Automatic writing, also called spirit writing, introduces a hidden feminist media history that puts into question the role of the author, divisions between automaticity and creativity, legibility and illegibility, and the porosity of the (writing) body. In the nineteenth-century, a predominantly female labour force began channelling spirits and producing scripts that were either authorless or profoundly collaborative, a composition practice not so much about inscribing as de-inscribing. To trace the history and media of spirit writing, I focus predominantly on Irish medium Geraldine Cummins, whose methodology of “stillness” as well as the extraordinary volume of text she “wrote” puts into question the role of bodies who write as well as bodies of writing. Asserting herself as a “transmitter,” Cummins brought her ghosts and guides out of the drawing room of the séance and into the court of law, revealing how the most ordinary tools of writing — pen, paper, the word itself — are not just there to be read, but also encountered as uncanny and talismanic presences. Throughout, I discuss specific techniques of radical listening that nineteenth-century mediums introduced, while opening up the discussion to contemporary manifestations of presence and de-inscription, such as Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present (2010), Rebecca Belmore’s Wave Sound (2017), the backwards writing in Jesse Jones’s Tremble Tremble (2017), and the emerging, illegible scripts of AI. The way that spirit writing shifts discourses around composition iterates Sarah Kember’s question, posed after Hélène Cixous — what can writing still do?

Blood and Tears and Potions and Flame:
Excesses of Transformation in Ari Aster’s Midsommar

Frames Cinema Journal 16
Magical Women, Witches & Healers
(December 2019)
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Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) is rife with fluids. Tears, potions, blood and the incandescent presence of flames flow throughout the film as expressions of grief, vengeance, and pagan otherworlds. Through these excesses, I open a discussion of underworld rites and the magical women who reside there. Banshees, Furies, and the ghostly May Queen herself offer a set of methodologies, such as Keening or the ingestion of entheogens, that play a key role in the movement of Aster’s film while acting as counterpoints to sanctioned emotive containments. In order to discuss these fluidic excesses, I borrow the terms bloom-spaces and shimmerings from affect theory, both of which point towards extreme variation. How do we as individuals express love, or mourning, or grief, or vengeance within a neoliberal affective space that requires us to keep up the appearance of being contained: self-sufficient, self-caring? What does it mean to spill? The concatenation of potions and Keening in Midsommar lies, ultimately, in their abilities to heal; they are expressed as ancient rites which, like the locals in Aster’s Hårga, seem anachronistic, storybook-like, yet are, by the end of the film, the most real, and the most, literally, alive. In the final scene, the viewer is left with Dani, extended by a costume of living, breathing flowers that has become a second skin, her total metamorphosis as vengeful May Queen.   


Villains, Ghosts, and Roses, or How to Speak with the Dead
Open Cultural Studies 3.1
Of Sacred Crossroads
(February 2019)
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If narratives that uphold secular humanism have led to an "unparalleled catastrophe" as Sylvia Wynter notes in an interview with Katherine McKittrick, then it is time to unwrite them. In this essay, I examine the dead as a category that exceeds metaphysical classifications of subject and object and provides alternate possibilities of communication and hybridity. To do so, I call on work by Claire Colebrook, Jacques Derrida, John Durham Peters, Eve Tuck, and Unica Zürn, among others, with the cultural work and words of Sylvia Wynter as a guide and galvanizing force. Here, I repopulate the life/death seam with gorgons, witches, fates, and revenge stories. If ghosts are seen simply as other beings, albeit taboo ones like bacteria, or require alternate cultural narratives like villains, or exist both in the symbolic sphere of the mystical and the so-called natural world like roses, what kinds of methodologies can be opened? What do the dead have to say and how do we listen?

Fire, Earth, Ecstasy: Gossiping with the Gods
Public: Arts/Culture/Ideas 58
Smoke: Figures, Genres, Forms
(Winter 2019)
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Dagmar Atladóttir and Sandra Huber combine practices of Icelandic paganism and contemporary witchcraft, via methodologies of ceramics and automatic writing, to create a God Nail, which attunes to voices between myths, fantasies, and deities. Created with earth and water, and passed through fire in the kiln, the God Nail points to histories of the accused witches burned at the stake during the European witch-hunts as well as the importance of the elements in contemporary witchcraft. Situated within the wildfires that were raging during the summer of their collaboration, the essay also discusses the violence of colonization and capitalism that was unleashed during the “burning times,” the trend of “witchiness,” and the importance of occulted channels of communication, which can act as refrains between the seen and unseen, heard and unheard.

Pornography, Ectoplasm, and the Secret Dancer: A Twin Reading of Naomi Uman’s Removed
Co-written with Hilary Bergen
Screening the Past 43
(April 2018)
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Naomi Uman’s Removed (1999) portrays the sexualized feminine form as a ghostly shimmering. In “removing” the woman from the screen, she in turn highlights the actor’s constant motion as performative. In contrast with the visibility (and overwhelming presence) of male sexuality (erection, ejaculation) in film media, female sexual pleasure cannot often be explicitly seen, and therefore relies upon a kinetic and aural performance of the body—an output that is primarily affective and ephemeral rather than material and enduring. Uman’s work reveals the feminized screen body as always already performative while also enacting a specific type of erasure: the woman on the screen is not completely erased but rather translated into the imaginary. The spectrality of Uman’s work extends beyond a critique of the scopophilic porn gaze; what interests us here is the making-material (through gruelling techniques of handmade cinema) of female sexual presence in order to question the primacy of the visual as a mode of authentication. We see a link between Uman’s work and portrayals of sexual fluid as captured in the 19th–century phenomenon of ectoplasm—a gauzy white substance that emerged from the orifices of female mediums, and was said to be a materialization of the spirit world. This fluid (or media), which had the consistency of semen, yet emerged from a female body, is often brought into discussions around fraudulence—however, our interest in “truth” lies not in the presumed objective view of any camera, but in the embodied and experiential practice of the women whose bodies perform labour (or enact the labour of performance). Uman’s disappeared woman and the mediums whose bodies secrete ectoplasm occupy an uneasy space between presence and absence.