Congress of Curious Peoples, New York

In May I'll be in New York, speaking at the 2014 Congress of Curious Peoples. The Congress is a 10-day festival held at Coney Island USA featuring sideshows, performers and nightly lectures. I'm going to be speaking about William Burroughs on a panel dealing with 'Paranormal Technology'. The panel has been put together by Shannon Taggart and features additional talks by Doug Skinner and Anthony Matt. Shannon will also be demonstrating Kirlian photography on the night.

My talk will be about Burroughs and his magickal operations involving the tape recorder. Expect the fall of the Moka Bar, trouble sounds and weird recordings......


Remembering the Images


In one of the last professional photographs taken of Marilyn Monroe by photographer Bert Stern, the actress’s own mark of deletion remains visible in the form of  “a cross drawn onto the contact sheet in magic marker”. Published soon after her unexpected death, the Vogue photograph was maintained despite Monroe’s obvious desire for it not to be printed because by an eerie coincidence the ‘x’ evokes a sepulchral, funereal cross. 

It uncannily expresses the shift in function of the entire sequence, from a celebration (‘Marilyn Says Hello’, the original title) to a memorial (‘Marilyn’s Last Sitting’).1 It signifies that the actress herself is no longer; she has been deleted or placed sous rature, under erasure.2  The image also implicitly says something about photography and recording itself. Speaking on the subject of spectacular production, Peter Whitehead commented that to turn somebody into an image, to fashion them into an icon is to make them “sacred”, but following the etymology of the word, suggests that the process also necessitates a level of “sacrifice”.

Having said this, if we look at the image again, we see that what is printed is in effect Monroe’s distortion or, as Stern stated “destruction”, of her own representation. This positions the adjusted photograph as a kind of detournement, a ‘hi-jacking’ or ‘re-routing’ of a pre-existing image. It is also redolent of the manner in which placing a concept sous rature operates as a deconstructive tool: a strategy of “transformation” involving not the creation of a new language but a “crossing out” of the old as an act of liberation.5 We see a disruptive yet simultaneously creative engagement with the image so as to leave a ‘trace’, a residual marker of the individuality which the production of the image appears to eliminate.

Tempting though it is to claim, this is not to assert that Monroe was in fact a pioneering deconstructivist or member of the Situationist International. However, the intersections established between the photograph and pre-existing methods of visual subversion offer perspectives from which Peter Whitehead’s 1969 film, The Fall can be analysed. The film is a documentary charting the decline of the American counterculture and it amongst other vox pops and vignettes, it features an interview with Stern focusing on his creation and manipulation of the Monroe images. On the basis of this synchronicity, I’d like to argue that Whitehead explicitly employs a process of iconoclasm similar to that implicitly articulated by Stern’s photographs. Specifically, the film places emphasis on the operation of the cinematic cut and the process of editing to establish a cycle of dismemberment and rememberment. Images and objects are successively broken down and reformulated to assert an individual subjectivity in a mediated, postmodern milieu and also to expose ideas of documentary ‘truth’. The film foregrounds cultural memory as a creative construct.

Similarly, this process also extends to Whitehead’s novels particularly his 1990 work Nora and… . Based around the events of May 1968, it shares many of the same themes of The Fall. As a text it also maintains Whitehead’s preoccupation with editing and the inscription of cuts. It is self-consciously presented as a plural textual assemblage and as with The Fall this collation operates as an act of exposure, highlighting the potentially interpolative processes involved in the act of writing. Overall then, when considering The Fall and Nora and… one can see the enactment of that which Whitehead has identified as his “telos”, an attempt to make “the unconscious, conscious”; to highlight that which has not been seen before whilst at the same time revealing underlying mechanisms of production.6


At one point in The Fall there is a brief shot of car seat upon which we see a copy of William Barrett’s Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1961). In this book Barrett describes Heidegger’s concept of verfallenheit or ‘fallingness’, (generally translated as  “falleness”), wherein

at the level of everyday public existence we are each simply one among many. The One is the impersonal and public creature whom each of us is before he/she is an I, a real I […]

So long as we “remain in the womb of this externalised and public existence”, says Barrett, “we are spared the terror and dignity of becoming a self”.7 In an advancement of this, for Heidegger, escape from a sense of fallingness comes from the intellectual exercise of destruktion, what David Arnason has usefully glossed as:  

A combination of a negative analysis of today, the average everyday world and a positive analysis of history that tries to achieve authenticity through the rigorous questioning of accepted authority. Often, this means breaking a word into its component parts in order to trace its history. 8

This process is operative in the structure of Whitehead’s film. The Fall is broken down into three sections. We start with ‘The Image’, a cacophonous montage of social discord and confused artistic responses: protests, riots, and equally chaotic performance pieces. We then move to ‘The Word’, a filmed account of Whitehead’s editing process, an attempt to impose form onto the maelstrom. Then finally we are shown the concluding ‘Synthesis of Word and Image’, which stands as the results of this exercise: Whitehead’s movement into the film itself as a participant. What The Fall makes clear in the first section is that “the everyday world of external objects” enclosing “the one” in Barrett’s understanding of Heidegger is, (in the context of New York, 1968) entirely constituted by images. We see the dominance of Guy Debord’s rendition of the ‘spectacle’ in that “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation”.9 We see ‘reality’ such as it is consistently mediated through television, blurred images and changing channels. Early in the film, Alberta Tirbuzi is framed watching television in such a way that the set appears to superimpose itself over her head.  It seems that no space of difference exists between the individual subject and the content of broadcast media. John Lyle, writing in After-Image at the time of the film’s release observed:

Whitehead has become aware that the media, no matter how honestly used, are a means of insulation from a threatening world. He has experienced their paralysing effect, sitting for a week in front of the television screen watching rioting that he was incapable of either filming or joining although it was happening around him. The media succeed in turning people into objects, people die on screen and it doesn’t matter, because they aren’t people, and death isn’t really death and it won’t happen to me now.10

Whitehead’s meta-cinematic focus upon the process of editing in the second section functions as a counteraction against this initially depicted spectacular paralysis. Whereas destruktion could be read as an attempt to break down the word, in this section we are shown Whitehead consistently attacking the image.

We see sequences already viewed in the earlier part of the film, wound, rewound, cut-up and erased. In particular familiar images are replayed in a new order, the viewer thus being encouraged to make visual links between elements removed from their ‘original’ continuity. The sense of self-consciousness evident in these sequences suggests that Whitehead is essentially detourneing, in the sense of ‘distorting’ and ‘re-routing’, the narrative of his own work in order to create of, “a re-combination of existing sequences”.11 The simulacral material constitutive of a state of “insulating” fallingness becomes a resource for the development of ‘new’ connections. Subsequently, a parallel could be established with the possible interpretation of the Monroe image as Whitehead’s inscription of a cut – like the crossing of the photograph – evokes the active obscurity of concepts when placed sous rature. For Derrida, working after Heidegger’s struggle with the word ‘being’, the crossing of a word is “a strategy of using the only available language while not subscribing to its premises or operating according to the vocabulary of the very thing it delimits”.12 Similarly, Whitehead is at this point in The Fall recognising that the techniques of cinema are instrumental in the production of spectacles yet such is the extent of their penetration into everyday life there exists no other form of communication. Thus, the images themselves become a source of identity formation.

In addition to the generation of new meanings from a pre-existing cinematic resource, Whitehead’s exposure of editing processes, also questions notions of documentary ‘truth’. We are shown image facture and the connection between such a construction and the production of a certain aesthetic effect. A cycle of dismemberment and rememberment is seen to be in operation as an external, phenomenal reality is shown to be cut, spliced and reassembled into a separate visual presentation. From this perspective the film undercuts its own hypothetical  position as an ‘objective’, factual record as it appears to preserve not the depicted events as such, but Whitehead’s subjective perception: his memory of the occurrence. His comments on the making of his 1965 film Wholly Communion (a documentary charting the 1965 Beat poetry reading at the Albert Hall) are helpful in this instance:

Anyone seeing the film who thinks they have at last seen the truth of what did happen are deluded. They have seen the film that also happened that night at the Albert Hall...the film only further proves the selective nature of the medium and can do nothing but exist as another impression of a unique evening. 14

Patrick Ffrench calls this type of exposure an instance of “symptomal form”: the symptom being “an indication of disorder, disease”, that which is taking place under the surface, but, as he explains, “in the psychoanalytic sense it is also the sign of conflict, the overcoming of a repression, of a crossing of boundaries, of a transgression”.15 We are shown the process which functions to produce meaning through montage but at the same time, the manifestation of that which is conventionally invisible also results in the erasure of a diegetic barrier, the line of semblance existing between audience and film, viewing subject and perceived object.

This confusion of boundaries is greatly important for Whitehead. In 1960 whilst attending Cambridge University Cinema Club he saw a selection of war propaganda films, including footage shot by a Nazi film crew inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Profoundly disturbed at what he called the “necessarily absent” nature of “the invisible authors”, Whitehead recognised the film as a work of dispassionate ideology, the communication of “official state truth” via the maintenance of a total separation between subject and object, a “death in life detachment”. Power and control was seen by Whitehead to be generated by the ability to impose lines of separation. In retrospect Whitehead states that seeing this footage prompted him to resolve “never to see a film with the detachment necessary to make objective documentary or convincing fiction films”.16 As we see, this resolution is enacted within The Fall because by creatively revealing the mechanisms of cinematic verisimilitude the implication is conveyed that whilst the camera may not lie, it is never able to give access to the ‘truth’. The presented image is always already a mediated, reconstructed image.


When describing his response to the Warsaw film further, Whitehead stated that what disturbed him most was a shot of a young girl digging in the frozen ground. This image is repeated extensively throughout the novel Nora and…. The narrative concerns Raymond Faulkner, a Cambridge immunologist meeting Nora Flood, the daughter of a famous Psychoanalyst during the Paris ‘events’ of 1968. Nora is attempting to complete from notebooks and manuscripts her father’s last major work, a case study of the enigmatic Frau S who we gradually learn (in parallel with the development of Nora’s textual work) was the young girl in the film footage. Her desire for psychoanalysis is linked to unresolved trauma following this wartime experience. In addition to functioning as an initialising narrative marker, the reference in the text also maintains Whitehead’s conceptual concerns linked to the footage. In particular, focus is constantly placed upon ideas of boundaries, barriers and blockages. These words pepper the text and the concept is also played out structurally as can be seen in the following early passage:

Raymond was standing at the window, gazing intently at the laboratory garden. Inside the high stone wall, the neat flower gardens were laid out in geometrical patterns, resembling an Italian renaissance print. It couldn’t be simpler. Inside the high stone wall there could be no life of any kind. Walls to keep things out and keep things in. The good and the bad, the right and the wrong. Everything singular and separate and alone was defined by those walls. There was no freedom to live, to be a living creature without them. 17

In describing Raymond’s preference for distinction and separation, Whitehead constructs the passage using a series of binaries, inside and outside, good and bad, right and wrong. Similarly there is also a tension between the city and the garden, the urban as opposed to the natural environment. Also as a parallel is made between the layout of the garden and cell construction, the passage implies a wider comparison between the microcosmic body and the macrocosmic social world. It appears that harmony and organization is dependent upon the existence of clearly demarcated lines of difference. Additionally, the initial barrier within the passage, the window through which Raymond gazes “intently” codifies the character as existing at a distance from the world, withdrawn and observant.

Having said this, soon after this passage a correlative to this imagery appears via Whitehead’s use of the revolutionary iconography of upturned cars and physical barricades familiar to the May 68 milieu. Here, the markers of separation and difference linked to Raymond’s sense of harmony become indicative of violence and conflict. Similar language is used to describe the mental blockage of Frau S and the accompanying writer’s block that afflicts both Nora and Raymond. In contrast to this language of opposition, there is an expressed desire for an unmediated communication highlighted through a consistent register of liquidity that includes ‘flow’ (p.30) ‘overspill’ (p.42) ‘stream’ (p.56) and particularly ‘drift’ (p.35).

‘Drift’ is significant because in contrast to notions of detournement in The Fall here we see Nora and… absorbing the language popularly associated with additional Situationist concepts of dérive and psychogeography. Explaining dérive, Debord stated that it was a tactic of drifting through urban landscapes ignoring locks and barriers following a trajectory set only by the subjectivity of the wanderer.

Psychogeography describes the wider field of study in which the derive functions as a primary tool. The psychogeographer makes use of the event that is the dérive to develop an alternative urban topography, a re-formulated “shadow city”. Debord would point to revolutionary activity such as overturned cars and the use of paving stones for projectiles as a manifestation of this radical urban transformation because in the transformation of these objects, the conventional function of the environment is distorted.18 The use of the paving stones especially marks the discovery of la plage, the beach underneath the pavement. This revolutionary slogan is a key image within Whitehead’s own self-conception of the text.19

In addition to this, the process is also evident at a textual level in the novel. Infected by the apparent “virus” (p.86) surrounding analysis, Raymond begins his own act of writing, yet “even when he tried he couldn't write the first words of the narrative” (p.93). He finds himself left with “words dissolving away continuously…losing every part of its obvious meaning” (p.94) rather than encapsulating the concept he wishes to express. This vision of written language in constant recession mirrors Derrida’s notion of language as a trace structure. In Of Grammatology, he proposes that significance is the product of différance, a referential process of deferral whereby each word receives its meaning by virtue of its link to another. Derrida uses the word ‘trace’ in the sense of “track or footprint” to express this function, the status of the sign being both “not there” and “not that”. Subsequently, ‘trace’ does not indicate an instance of permanency or preservation but is constantly defined by a motivating lack. Self-present definition is systemically and functionally withheld.

In opposition to this process, Raymond engages with a pre-existing text: Nora’s annotated copy of The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1953-1957) by Ernest Jones. He copies into a notebook the passages she has underlined in “red ink” (p.95). Due to the fact that when she speaks Nora is said to “hide everything […] reveal nothing”, the annotations allegedly provide access to her emotions, showing Raymond what she finds “significant…provocative” (p.95). As we are told, it was no longer the biography he was reading but her selection of it, he was ‘reading her’, (p.121). Subsequently, like the application of a mark on the Monroe photograph, Nora’s underlinings convey a sense of presence in her absence, rather than a total absence of presence. Just as Whitehead constructs new combinations and sequences from his film footage, so too when writing does he maintain this strategy of illuminating assemblage. Raymond functions as a something of a bricoleur, “making do with things that were perhaps meant for other ends”.21

In doing so, like the exposing use of dismemberment in The Fall, his act is a highlighting and an admission that knowledge is not a systematic tracking down of a single truth but is generated by the free play and multiple interactions of disparate forms of information. We move from trace as a signifier of a lost object to Deleuze and Guattari’s interpretation of tracer meaning “to blaze a trail or to open a road”.22 Whitehead, through Raymond, shows the dismemberment as an act in which creative juxtaposition gives rise to hermeneutic force.   

This process also occurs on another level of the text through Whitehead’s interweaving of references to his own films. The proposed title of Nora’s book is The Blindman, (p.161). This is an explicit signpost leading back to Whitehead’s 1973 film Daddy which uses the image of the Blindman as a key narrative marker. Daddy tangentially gave rise to a sequence of photographs called Baby Doll (1996). Excerpts from this sequence are included as inserts mid way through the novel. Their function is to show the reader the photographs which are intended to accompany Nora’s own text. The implication then is that of an autopoetic functionality, the suggestion that the book we are told is being written is simultaneously the book we are holding in our hands. As with The Fall, Whitehead blurs diegetic levels in the text, constructing the narrative but also recording its process of composition, “exposing the invisible authors”. In the same way that the film used this exposure as a means to oppose the insulating mediation depicted, a similar “rearguard action” occurs in the novel.23 As is indicated by Nora’s “angry” reaction to the “theft of the book with her marks in it” (p.172), Raymond’s attempt at analysis and interpretation comes across as intrusive and violating.  However, as the passage continues, a distinction is made between the roles of cameraman and the editor. Raymond is said to be only “like” a cameraman occupying a voyeuristic position. His role is highlighted specifically as an editor. He is active in “copying out all her quotes, putting them in order, cutting them up, re-editing them like a documentary film, a collage of sentences and phrases” (p.172). Whilst acknowledging Raymond’s intrusion, the passage also functions to re-affirm his creative role. He works at a distance, after the fact, to construct his own ‘reading’ of Nora.

Furthermore, Whitehead here and elsewhere uses a type of free indirect discourse in relation to the narrative voice which has the effect of producing an intermingling of the narrational voice and Nora’s own: “[…] penetrating her mind despite herself, it was quite a clever idea. Good for him. He was improving!” (p.172). This works as a useful analogy to describe the interpretative transitions taking place in Raymond’s mind. When speaking about Nora, the novel suggests that he cannot avoid articulating his own voice. The character is written so that in telling her story he also reveals a lot more information about himself and his own act of interpretation. This whole movement can be summed up with the final phrase of Raymond’s letter, “missing you” (p.172). By conjuring Nora in her absence, Raymond, through his textual work, simultaneously erases her, establishing his own meaning and superimposition. The ‘real’ Nora remains somewhere underneath this erasure, still unknown and unseen.

In interpreting Nora’s text, Raymond’s engagement offers not an illumination of the subject but gives way to a re-organised construction. This mirrors Jack Sargeant’s interpretation of Whitehead’s Baby Doll sequence. Referring to the final image of a young girl before a forest he states that it signifies her “moving off into the real, singing a new world into existence”.25 We see a clear photographic image but rather than designating objective truth, it serves to generate a degree of difference. This approach assumes political significance within the last section of The Fall. The film concludes with the student occupation of Columbia University. Whitehead himself took part in this protest as the only cameraman within the institution. He films the events from the inside in contrast to the majority of much media reportage at the time that watched from outside. At one point in this final reel Whitehead captures the carnival like atmosphere among the students which follows the announcement that the police are about to force their way into the university. 

At this juncture, Whitehead is now a participant in the action he initially set out to record. The result of this increase in subjectivity is that it captures an intimate portrait of a counterculture gleefully and momentarily allowed to exist at the intersection between the police and the university authorities. We are shown what Iain Chambers describes as an atopia:

Another place, a diverse way of inhabiting the world. The utopic is usurped by the heterotopic, the proliferation of space into different places, languages, sounds rhythms. It is a transversal journey, the building of temporal homelands.26

As with the non-objective act of interpretation at work within Nora and … , the result of Whitehead’s involvement when presented within an edited structure produces an alternative vision. Within the context of The Fall, this specific act of “re-working, re-routing”27 carries out a subversive role, presenting a perspective at odds with that cultivated by the conventional media.

Although ‘documentary’ film and novelistic fiction represent different semiotic spheres, Whitehead’s artistic practices allow both Nora and… and The Fall to be considered as ‘texts’. The word has its etymological roots in terms such as “texture” and “weaving”.28 In the same way, Whitehead, through editing and assemblage, creates his structures through the conjunction of pre-existing fragments. To Whitehead, this activity of dismemberment and rememberment constitutes a “Shamanistic” position. He is here referencing the cultural figure who undergoes a dismemberment in order “to move to the other side”, to gain new wisdom.29 At the end of the documentary it is as if Whitehead has inscribed a cut upon himself, allowing his own re-assembly in the film at the point at which he accumulates powerful and unique footage. Within his novel, the exposure of reading and interpretative practices works to subvert cover(t) operations of textual power. We see then that Whitehead does not merely record but actively works with and manipulates images and textual material. His work announces the inability of accessing any kind of truth but also highlights that, to quote Alexander Trocchi, “the acceptance of this could itself be a beginning”.30


1 Bert Stern interviewed in Hans-Michael Koetzle, Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures volume 2 (Italy: Taschen, 2002), pp. 100-111. The actual photograph itself is titled ‘Marilyn Monroe, Crucifix, Last Sitting 1962’.
2 Defined by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Introduction’ in Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology trans by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (USA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p.xvii.
5 Spivak, p. xvii.
6 Whitehead speaking in an interview with James Riley, Kettering, 9th September, 2005.
7 William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (Great Britain: Heinemann, 1961), p.196.
8 David Arnason, ‘Derrida and Deconstruction’ online article (1st March, 2006).
9 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1995), p.5.
10 Extract from John Lyle featured in Peter Whitehead: A Singular Vision (Great Britain: Hathor Publishing, 1996), pp.20-3.
11 Guy Debord and G.J. Wolman, ‘Methods of Detournement’ originally published in Les Levres Nues Number 8, May 1956. Reprinted in Ken Knabb (ed) Situationist International Anthology translated by Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), pp. 20-24.
12 Spivak, p.xvii.
14 Peter Whitehead, ‘Notes on the Filming’ in Wholly Communion (Great Britain: Lorrimer Films, 1965), pp. 10-11.
15 Patrick Ffrench The Cut / Reading Bataille’s Histoire D’Oeil (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp.30-2.
16 Peter Whitehead, ‘The Warsaw Ghetto Film’ (three page article gained from the author, 6th January, 2006).
17 Peter Whithead, Nora and…. (Great Britain: Brookside Press, 1990), p. 8. All subsequent quotations will be drawn from this volume.
18 Debord, ‘The Theory of the Derive’ in Ken Knabb (ed) Situationist International Anthology translated by Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981) pp.30-5.
19 Whitehead speaking in an interview with James Riley, Kettering, 6th January 2006.
21 Ibid, p. xix, see also Dick Hebdidge, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Great Britain: Methuen, 1979), p. 103-4.
22 Brian Massumi commenting upon his translation of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Great Britain, Continuum, 2004), p. xvii.
23 Term ‘rearguard action’ from Aidan Day, ‘Ballard and Baudrillard: Close Reading Crash’ in English vol. 49 (Great Britain: The English Association, Autumn 2000), p.278.
25 Jack Sargeant, ‘Introduction’ in Peter Whitehead, Baby Doll (London: Velvet Publications, 1996), p. 3-5.
26 Iain Chambers, Culture After Humanism: History, Culture, Subjectivity (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 76.
27 Ibid.
28 Etymological connection highlighted by John  D. Caputo in Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida edited with a commentary by John D. Caputo (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), p.88
29 Concept of the Shaman discussed in an Interview with James Riley, Kettering, 9th September 2005.
30 Alexander Trocchi, Cain’s Book (Great Britain: Calder Publications, 1991), p.33.