Thursday, October 6, 2011

Blood Economies in the Spanish & Revenger's Tragedy

“Fortunes flow to you -
what will you be, a girl?” 
Revengers Tragedy 2.1 167-68

the Body Politic’s “Woman Problem” 
in the Revenger’s Tragedy

If the Body Politic is built on the politics of bodies, then we see in the Revenger’s Tragedy a battle to purge and police the polis against “incontinence” (as expressed by Steven Mullaney in the Place of the Stage: London, Play and Power in Renaissance England) coded through gendered movements of ebb and flows. If the city has been poisoned and is being or is to be punished for its sins, then the Revenger’s Tragedy demonstrates the evils of simply bleeding or flushing out the bad, instead taking issue with the over-flow of wealth, booze and bodies in and out of the city: in short, the body politic has plumbing problems which means, genders the language of the play. They have a woman problem.

By coding men as solid and women as liquid (a concept also expressed in Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Body: Towards a Corporeal Feminism), the problems of the city all come back to the feminine problem of things flowing red: blood, wine and the hot, blushing bodies of women who play the role of “bri(d/b)es” so men may inter-penetrate each other and thus perpetuate their material existence and their fantasies of wholeness.

“In the midst of all their joys they shall sigh blood” (5.2.22) 

Blood for blood is the motivation of the play’s keys players which is condemned by the tragedy’s literally damning ending, suggesting that continence and restraint of the body would be the more virtuous program. This over-flow of blood is itself constantly pinned to women by painting them as the reason for initial transgressions providing that the seductive beauty of a woman cannot be resisted by men and they are compelled to rape or murder them if women do not give over what their beauty has inspired desire for. Likewise women are the intermediaries by which such seductions or manipulations of justice are brought about, leading to the spurring on of vendettas to settle what the law did not. Furthermore, the very act of men penetrating men with their phallic swords, suggesting homosexuality is here tacitly coded as feminine as well and against nature. Murder is a kind of sodomy and the penalty for sodomy is death. Men are not to become women, they are not to flow, as the bodies of women are to be policed.

“I was begot of impudent wine and lust” (1.3.190)

Booze, specifically wine, is a lubricating agent which literally flows into the bloody/bodies of men and women spurring them on to acts deemed sexual incontinence and to murder. The play warns that an intoxicated man is more disposed to do evil but when women are present or even worse are themselves drunk then sin is sure to happen. Once again drink makes a man’s body flow (both in movement as well as through the expulsion of sweat, vomit, defecation and pending his further actions: blood and semen) and thus resulting become disgracefully feminized.

“the blush of many women, whose chaste presence
would e’en call shame up to their cheeks 
and make wanton sinners have good colours” (1.4.7-9)

Blushing is repeated throughout the play as a point in which the virtue and virginity of a woman can be tested. We can see in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish the history of how the body was investigated in such a way as to surrender visible signs of truth when the person’s words could not otherwise be taken as honest. In another of Foucault’s works, the Birth of the Clinic, he discusses how the body, particularly the bodies of dominated/marginalized persons are interrogated for signs of disease. In this case, there is a spiritual disease (sin) but also potentially a physical disease (syphilis) which is being investigated based on the preoccupation with women’s sexuality and flow (as syphilis itself was understood to increase and be spread by flow)---this coded theme of a syphilis ridden London in Early Modern drama is treated in depth in Jonathan Gil Harris’s book Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism and Disease in Shakespeare’s England.

Then there is the un-virtuous flow of the seed into the woman (such as by infidelity via cuckolding or incest) of which the resulting child is a sign of her presumed sexual incontinence; again, it is stressed that even in the case of rape she is implicated by her attractiveness (she somehow “was asking for it”) and that her chastity was somehow so directly tied to the literal state of her body/vagina that even in a case of forced penetration she is dirtied. The resulting child itself, displayed in the play via the discussion of “bastards” are living signs of incontinence and are treated as such; leading them to act out their designated station as incontinent, even flowing feminine bodies (i.e. they spend, drink, seduce and kill).

“Men have no power, angels must work you to it” (2.1.86)

The presumed solitude and impermeability of men proves a problem in a world which needs ties to be made and goods exchanged, thus women are treated as the penetrable and movable middle where males can enter into a pact together; the exchange of a wife, daughter, sister for marriage is seen as a proper way in which men can affirm their physical relationship while neither of them having to physically or metaphorically enter each other. The wife is “one body” with her father and then her husband and so she is used to “bind” the male bodies together through a kind of extra-personal intercourse. In the case of cuckolding and rape, however this “one body” of the man’s is penetrated by another man without his consent and thus feminizes him. The woman is reduced to being the husband’s vagina by which he can issue out children but also himself be taken by another man; thus her benefit and peril to him.

Since she is a “middle-man” and a commodity, it may then be little surprise that the flow of money is also condemned in the same breath as women in the play. Both (as well as booze and blood) are seen to be pleasures which are to be held onto and not spread around (as merchants are want to do it, it is suggested, on all those fronts). Thus the question of money/bribery which threatens to sway the law and the rise of gallants to sway the cultural/courtly life of those whose fortunes are “set” and not based on the “flow” of merchandise becomes a central dilemma in the play. It can be read that the gallants (like the often feminized sailors or actors) are read as the false and incontinent imposters which are a living sign of a diseased economic/estate system. The economy of the city has syphilis; it has a feminine problem with flow, but without women or flow, there would be neither men nor London.

“Wipe your lady from your eye” (1.4.72)

All these issues with feminine inconstancy, it is suggested can be solved if women act as virgins, exemplified by the Virgin Queen Elizabeth. Their bodies flow is to be policed both regarding what enters it (including booze and phalluses) and what leaves it (blood and bastards). If this can be done, if men can avoid becoming women and flowing themselves, the play seems to suggest that virtue and justice may win out.  Of course, the concept of a male body which is totally continent and impenetrable, as well as the failure to address issues in the male homosocial by projecting their dilemmas of incontinence and penetrability, even hybridity onto women is doomed to fall apart. Likewise the premise of Virgin Queen which all women should strive to imitate is doomed to fail as well for the same reason as for men. The city flows and had always done so; materially, conceptually, financially it has always been an ecology. The growth of London may compound and introduce many problems but also develops many of the benefits which many of the flow naysayers may project or root in an idealized past which never existed or into a future Utopia which can never exist.

This tendency to long for an imagined pre-existing impermeability , a desire for a kind of Edenic “lost” wholeness which will one day we will be “restored,” a filling up of a “lack” so as to be whole again is a central concern for psychoanalysis. The Revenger’s Tragedy’s disposition towards women is systemic, in this reading, of some Londoner’s desire to “return to womb,” not in the literal sense but rather to an imagined a time and state of virgin perfection that never existed. This tension, Busse goes on to argue is what propels the fascination with women, flow, blood, booze and blushing even as they wish to be rid of them all: “they body forth abjection even as they attempt to contain it.” In this reading, the bodying forth of the feminized male form (with all its corresponding incontinences) is captured in the female characters performance by cross-dressed male actors. The city is becoming female, as are its citizens.


Blood Economies in the Spanish Tragedy

As in the Revenger’s Tragedy, Kyd sets up a repeated exchange of blood for blood in his play. This exchange seeks to justify the loss of life by sacrificing another body (against its will--- but is willingness the necessary component of a sacrifice or is it not a sacrifice if it is desired?). The result of this exchange is further exchanges of blood, creating an ongoing network of bodies being forfeited for one another.

We can see in the language surrounding these living, dead and undead bodies the anxiety surrounding the unknowability of their worth, the “standard” which serves as the foundation for their being. Without a known standard, the death of a body leaves others uncertain as the exact value of the loss and the proper (or possible) repayment for it. Through the play, three epistemologies of blood (as thing) are performed:  the death-drive (being as nonbeing), blood economies (being as network), and black boxes (being as retreating object).

“To absent yourself and give his fury place” … 
“To love, and fear, and both at once” (III.x.72/93)

Afoot in the play is a shifting game identifying with bodies (as family, friends and fiefs) and alienating them (as villains, monsters and murderers). The identified body is held close as a part of the self or when separate/resistant is spoken of as a love object which will one day be integrated into the self (such as in the case of a lover). The alienated body is cast out, destroyed, imprisoned or murdered. This distinction however is troubled throughout the play because of the failure for the qualities of self and other to ever extricated from one another. Bodies play the role of both other and self, to the self (including and especially ones own body). Thus one can never be sure, for long, whether one loves, or hates a body, or make peace while perceiving both.

The assumption here, among other rationale based on the decision that things which one identifies with (as subject) deserve life and those which is alien deserve death (as object). This is justified based on the further assumption that subjectivity has a standard of being which objects lack. Anxiety (literally “the feeling of death”) arises out the inability the distinguish between subject and object, especially as they relate to the self. The erotic game of sex and murder are then failed attempts to resolve the tension, serving only to defer the revelation of that “standard of being” indefinitely. This anxiety in psychoanalytic terms is the lack, the desire for blood (eros and thanatos) is the death-drive and the “standard” which is not there is the petite object a. What is clarified in these terms is not only that the self erotically desires the destruction of others and the self, but does so out of a desire for a state of “un-death” a return to a baseline “nothingness” which will resolve the tension of being (Zizek: the Monstrosity of Christ).

“for blood with blood shall, while I sit as judge, 
be satisfied, and the law discharged” (

Looking back and closer into the identification and alienation process of the exchange of bodies (both human and non-human, organic and inorganic) we see how they are made of a constant of exchange of things. Money, land, titles, clothes, scarves, armor, swords and humans come together to form a person and are then exchanged to others to keep the ecology of selves alive. At times this exchange is done through friendly gifts, at other times through violent seizures or as court ordered reparations. In any case, things do not stay in one place very long but constantly move between bodies, acting on them as they are acted on (be they inspiring desires, killing, providing courtly pleasures or simply keeping the gears of economic and bodily digestion running).

In this sense, rather than being as the deferral of an inherent nothingness, beings become things through the constant ecstatic motion of exchange. The bodies become a blood economy. While the blood for blood flow in the play may not be “the best” ecology one can imagine, it IS an ecology of things that form a network of relations moving on one another. The blood-exchange keeps things moving and bodies get what they “need” from one another. In this case, the distinction between “living” and “not living” or “subject” and “object” is dissolved, so as the blood in the veins and the blood on a sword (or the sword itself) are revealed to share stations are “actors” in the network. The loss of human life does lose its privileged role but in ecology all things serve as the standard of agency-in/as-being. In other words: blood running through the veins of Horatio or running through the streets/veins of the body politics exemplify different frames/modes of ecological life; with different ethical implications.

“Show him this box, tell him his pardon’s in’t, 
but open’t not, and if thou lovs’t thy life, 
but let him wisely keep his hopes unknown” (III.V, 71-74).

To conclude and bring in a third model for blood-standards, I will dwell on the scene in which Pedrigano is being threatened with torture in order to (a) reveal in his body the truth of his claims and (b) to either purge his sins or reify the tortures of hell he will suffer after his execution (see Foucault’s Disapline and Punish). It is as this time that a messenger carrying a [black] box that is said to hold the T/thing that will save/justify his life; of course they are not able to open and make it disclose this final truth [see Serres/Latour’s black-boxes].

Here we have two objects with contain an unseen truth, a being which is inferred through suggestion and belief, a source at once deep inside and from without (be it in the body or box, or from heaven/hell or sent from the court). The thought in both cases, is that opening these objects would reveal the truth, but in both cases they do/can not. This may be that the standard does not exist or exists in the search for the standard; or it may be that it exists but further in, ever retreating into the body/object [see Harman’s Retreating Objects]. A person can keep digging, keep opening boxes within boxes and bodies within bodies but they will ever be left with both.  The body and the box stand forefront in the scene, visible but not fully present; suggesting but not disclosing their standard of value, being and truth. In this object-oriented ontology reflects the plays captivation of the audience, these things arrest the gaze of onlookers who peer in waiting for a reveal which is not totally differed (insofar as they DO get/see something) but which is never fully present.

So, blood as a queer object: death-drive, blood economy or black box?

Perhaps we have in a sense a trinity or simply three options. One offers an unmoved mover, the second a moving mover and the third a way to mediate between both (at the heart is the retreating object and between these objects a go-between which suggests its present and acts on others).


Blood and Water in the Lusiads

"One of the soldiers with a spear pierced [Christ's] side,
and forthwith came there out blood and water" (John 19:34)

The image that struck me most in my reading of the Lusiads was the repeated dying of rivers and oceans with blood. These scenes cluster within the narrated histories and prophecies of Portugal's conquest. A total of 13 such references exist in Canto Three; 4 times in Canto Four; and 2 notable times in the Divine Predictions in Canto Ten (to name a few).

So why does de Camoes insist on remembering histories where "swords smoked with blood" when "battle became massacre/with deaths, shrieks, blood and stabbing/such a myriad of people perished/that the very flowers changed color" (Canto 4:39-44) or future visions that "the sea will churn/with blood, fire and iron resistance to "make blood run knee-high/in the enemy ships" (Canto 10: 29-33)? Because in looking at Portugal’s past and "future," in order to describe the present, de Camoes finds the immortal thread which runs through them all: fluids.

In some ways, water and blood are natural symbols for the Portuguese: they are the conquerors of the sea. As de Castanheda writes, the old imperial conquests of Persia, Greece, and Rome "were all by land...but this of the Indies was done by sea" (Travel Knowledge 128). De Camoes and the Portuguese could see that the game of empire had changed so that the old game of the land based army and forts were giving way to ships and control of naval routes. By forcing all merchant ships to pass through their barricades and through their ports, the Portuguese squeeze out a hefty profit. Of course this type of conquest and extortion does not come peacefully, as Shankar Raman observes, "the use of force was in fact an implicit assumption from the very beginning" (Travel Knowledge 144).

But the fact of Blood and Water meant more than just a lot of both, as a pair of Transcendental Signifiers, it was through fluid use of rhetoric and Structure that de Camoes and the Portugese claim authority. It's so fluid it smacks of deconstruction. The way in which de Camoes interweaves the past and present empires into his narratives corresponds to how he mixes Greek and Christian divine powers. Greece and Rome are constantly being invoked in relation to Portugal. Likewise Bacchus genuflects to the image of the Holy Spirit. Venus and Hermes each inspire visions of Eden and Christ. Not only is there a kind of implicit emergence happening but merely in their constant grouping, signs are working together to build a flood of associations. Try to map the direct cause and effect and you might come up short, but passively read through the verse and you may find yourself drawn, perhaps because of distraction, into a belief that "yeah, those goes together."

Of course, Christ is himself a potential Bacchus-figure who himself is embodied in the wine of a destroyed (and fermented body) leading to an ecstatic state; and, along with the Holy Spirit, as a kind of Mercury figure situated as a shifting go-between. The mixture of fluid divine bodies, Greek/Roman/Christian, further demonstrate how even divinity may not be transcendent (above) but rather flowing between things.

This fluid movement of authority and narrative (which is characteristic on one level of the Epic, with all its windings) also allows de Camoes to rewrite histories and nature for the Portuguese. Not only do the "oceans quake spontaneously" (2:46) for them, as if in orgasmic excitement for their approach but the winds bow to their command "as it is now the custom of the sea, the sails unfurled, we bellowed: 'God's speed', and the north winds as usual/heard and responded" (5:1).Raman in fact, sees the whole project of telling the history of Europe and Asia from the Portuguese perspective as a kind of white-washing, which "begins to replace ‘native’ histories with its own representations of these histories" (Travel Knowledge 143).

The bait and switch happens in what Raman describes as "rejection of the signifier in favor of the signified" wherein de Camoes rewrites the icons/religions/books/gods of other cultures as shadowy images of the True God that could correctly signify Christ if only they had eyes to see it (Travel Knowledge 139). This is what the critic calls "the gap between the image and what it expose the blindness of the pagan to the hidden truth [and] convert intended evil into good" (Travel Knowledge 139). This sleight of hand (or rather the eye) is exactly how the Portuguese sailors in the Lusiads avoid numerous dangers, seeing the signs of treachery and transforming the circumstance to their benefit. Likewise, it allows for the appropriation of cultural, economic, political and religious systems for "proper" colonial use and conversion.

This disjunction between sign and signifier allows for the justification of Catholic teaching on scripture and religious icons by the Portuguese as another form of instilling authority. A prominent Reformation criticism of the Catholic Church was the worship of idols. In this rereading of signs and signifiers, it is evident that icons, relics, treasures, Cathedrals and the like are all fine, so long as they point to God and are not worshiped for themselves. According to a form of dialectics (which what John Milank suggests is the mode of Protestant/Enlightenment dualism) this would mean worshipping, or justifying one’s self to the “lack” of a transcendent signifier. As a paradox (which Milbank suggests is the traditional Catholic mode) the use of physical, subconscious (or unconscious?) modes of worship in which the mind is allowed to wander or to be changed through acts on the body which the mind is only lightly engaged in, inter-actions of mediation and slippage is allowed to flow. Without full subjective comprehension, one might wake up from the effects of holy water and wine to discover oneself carried in the flow of Portugal's religious currents.


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