Friday, April 19, 2013

Embodying an Eunuch, or Absence as a Positive Being


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The following is a transcript of a talk on ABSENCE
from the Medieval Bodies Conference at Catholic University
on April 19, 2013
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Into the Dark

Absence touches us in ways that are hard to say and may be impossible to see. It gets under our skin, rewires us, lives like shards in our heart and calls to us on sleepless nights when we think we are alone. Then we step outside look into the darkness and wonder. To ponder the night skies is to study the past; a history that lives with us today in the light of stars removed in time and space, many of whom may have long since vanished from sight. We bask each night in the visible and invisible presence of absent but very real ghosts of our universe’s deep life. The light and hidden forces of these bodies whisper to us of old friends and forgotten stories. No longer relying on our ocular impulses, our empiricism, determinism and atomic absolutes, the multiplicity of sensors, mathematics, and relativity which we now reach out in the world tell shocking tales. 

In the beginning, scientists now think, moments after the big-bang all the matter in the universe collided with all the anti-matter, obliterating everything; except a tiny fraction that held on to existence. From tiny part of the original mass, all things in our cosmos have been created (Exploritorium.edu). There is power is parts, power to persist as well as power to relate the story of all that is no longer with us; to manifest absence without becoming reduced to nothing. Now as we explore higher up and further into the heavens, we discover that instead of a void space, the darkness shines with background light, radiation left over from the initial expansion of the universe, as well as a host of black holes, dark matter and dark forces (Science.NASA.gov). 

We live now in a world enraptured by invisible energies moving information, connecting people, and radiating us down to our cells and seeing is no longer believing. Our angels have returned. It behooves us, as a result, to reread our ancient theaters. By returning to these stages with sensitivity to dark mysteries, those things took for nothing because they did not appear to us according to the imperial empirical gaze & enlightened subjectivity.

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Nothing Comes From Nothing

On a show night, walking alone through darkened catwalks of my highschool auditorium, fixing a few gels that had come undone in the giant light fixtures, I could feel my invisibility to the actors taking center stage below. Margins, shadows, backstage were my prerogative. Only certain bodies are certain times are given the vibrancy to announce their presence in the here and now, while the rest of us depart for the wings. In the theater hierarchy, these background workers and actors may seem like non-entities, but our disappearance doesn’t mean that we no longer have parts to play, but we retreat into the background, forgotten, letting our absence speak for us.

Man, we are told, is a product of the theater of Enlightenment; but his rise depended on absenting of his earlier (darker) twins: the part-Men, Eunuchs. Their presence has long been read from Reformation preachers to Psychoanalysis’s in negative terms; as a lack; a pre-amble; an empty signifier. An Atheist Christian, Slavoj Zizek marks a trajectory in Christianity in the Monstrosity of Christ

“In the succession of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism each new term is a subdivision, split off from a previous unity. This triad of Universal-Particular-Singular…[in which] Protestantism, finally the only authority is the text itself, and the wager is on every believer’s direct contact with the Word of God as delivered in the text; the mediator (the particular disappears, withdraws into insignificance, enabling the believer to adopt a position of a “universal singular”) (28).

Zizek affirms that this move from collective void to singular nothingness is manifest in God:  “the abyss of Godhead, the Origin-Source of everything, and the abyss of the poverty of man [meets in Christ] (36-37). By God becoming Man & dying he goes from one kind of nothingness to another, we can see through the lens of an Atheist Protestant, the lack inherent in the god-man, who in “taking upon himself (not the sins, but) the suffering of humanity, he confronts the Father with the meaninglessness of it all” (57). 

Evident in this is the Protestant compulsion to abject the material and the particular, combined with the Modernist compulsion to see and see through things, coming together to arrive at nothingness at either end; the self is void as is the Other. Even in this though, the “other” is voided first, so as to affirm the self as a kind of empty past; just as Medieval Eunuchs embody a “dark age” before the rise of the enlightened took the stage. 

An ocular impulse to unveil has gone awry; seeing through things has made everything invisible. Seeing nothing in the darkness that is whole and stable, we have fallen into nihilism. We have a lack where we once had bodies and a void occupying the space that used to house worlds; all because we made the mistake of conflating appearances (epistemology) with existence (ontology). We took castration as annihilation, and then we cut ourselves into oblivion. 

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The Sound of Absence

Walking the catwalks across of four pre-modern theaters, we might find a proliferation of parts whereby Eunuchs are made, performed & embodied to re-present absence in the shadows: in the surgeon's amphitheater, he evidences the exchanges forms of the body; in the markets, as a slave, he evidences the exchangeability and convertibility of the human as capital. in the church choirs of Christians as well as holy spaces of Muslims, particularly in Jerusalem where the tradition continues today (Scholtz 200); operating house budgets, watching over other servants, particularly members of harems (Scholtz 229-232); and on the stage, the eunuch represents the artificial human, both in what he is and what he represents constructed by his relationship with technology. 

Already parted and partially removed, the eunuch keeps things moving but remains somewhere between the present and absent, the present and past, the visible and the invisible. Indeed when a eunuch is in the room, people tend to ignore him as a non-presence, but once his services are desired, he is called to and suddenly he steps forward and appears. To be a Eunuch qua Eunuch is to be part, not a whole. Eunuch translates out of Latin as "the gatekeeper," as the one that waits in the threshold to the bedroom; the site of intercourse. Doors may as well be an exit as an entrance. The embodied eunuch stands in defiance at the threshold to the human, forever pre-human, becoming, relational. Eunuch’s open up the human as a set of changing parts.

A few hundred years before I lurked in all black behind the stage of my high-school auditorium, the dark bodies of eunuchs prowled the back-stair-ways of an early modern manor, keeping the estate running while their master’s diner in the front room. They remained ever a bell’s call away. In a Church a eunuch choir stand behind a wall ready to sing Mass when called by the Priest. On another stage, actors embodying the part of a eunuch colored their skin and stood in the wings playing instruments, ready to perform their part at the call of the lead-actors.

In the 17th C. play, Selimanus, the eunuch is not seen on the cast-list or stage direction, but when Bajazet commands, “Eunuchs, play me some music while I sleep,” the text tells us that from somewhere out of sight, we hear “Music within” (88. Ix. 32-33). A call and a response is all that is given to announce to us their presence. If we are hearing their music, they must exist somewhere, off-stage or out of sight. Or, because this is a night scene, they may be hiding closer somewhere nearby in the darkness. We may be shocked by this sudden assertion of presence in the absence. Have the eunuchs always been there? Will they ever leave? What else may exist unseen and unknown in the dark? 

Absence embodies what Graham Harman calls “retreating” where the being of “real objects” withdraws from all “sensual objects” (language, senses, thought) emitting an “allure” suggested by the “sensual qualities” (95-107). Darkness, writes Ian Bogost, marks this distance between the real & sensual. In darkness we retreat into ourselves. The eunuch’s call, or song, first echoed in Byzantine Choirs, spread by the late medieval period: 

"When a boy is castrated before puberty, his voice never breaks, or deepens the usual octave. Physiologically, such eunuchs don’t develop the Adam’s apple typical of adult males; the position, form, and plasticity remain the same as a boy’s, but the rib cage disproportionally expands, and in combination these…characteristics produce a unique vocal register" (Scholtz, 38-39)

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Things Unseen

These calls from the darkness, these forms of music performance became synonymous with castrated bodies for Shakespeare who references eunuch singers in a Midsummer Nights Dream, Twelfth Night, Two Noble Kinsmen, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline to name a few.

On Shakespeare’s stage we hear Anthony & Cleopatra calling on their Eunuch:

Cleopatra: Thou, eunuch Mardian!
Mardian: What's your Highness' pleasure?
Cleopatra: Not now to hear thee sing; I take no pleasure/In aught an eunuch has. 
(I.v.531-534).

This exchange functions like a song resonating between bodies to affirm mutual presence. However, what happens, such as in the scene noted above, when the eunuch does not sing? In his first as well as in his last scene, at Anthony and Cleopatra’s death, Mardian remains present on stage but is darkly silent. His voice removed, he retreats from our senses but stubbornly exists On the borderlands of existence, where non-presence flirts with non-being, Absence instead retreats across time, space, and into itself. 

A call may cause it to resonance and act, as the eunuch-like figure of Ariel does in the Tempest in various stage directions, performing but not always appearing. Many such pre-modern eunuchs seem to demonstrate powers of invisible presence, a lurking in darkness, to be called to appear and disappear while perhaps never really leaving. Combined with their power of song, the eunuch’s off-stage presence in absence is evidently key to his function. He operates the background for us, connecting the visible with the invisible, making things move as if by magic. In this way, Ariel, while never called an eunuch, is and does what a eunuch does to a fantastic extreme. 

Calling Ariel from his invisibility, Prospero invokes him to exhibit his presence: “Come away, servant, come. I am ready now./ Approach, my Ariel, come”. (I.ii.305-311). Embodying the absent party of an eunuch, Ariel steps from the darkness a total of twelve times, having so enchanted Prospero’s to continually call for his absent servant & to reveal his dependence on all the parts & bodies that imperial gazes won’t see. Ariel mocks such a master’s paranoid occularity by appearing in overly-sensual magnificence: invisible, playing and singing; loaden with glistering apparel; [with] Thunder and lightning (III.iii.1626);

While Mardian performs the retreating darkness of absent bodies, Ariel embodies the plurality, diversity & magnificence of all that exists out of sight that might overwhelm us with presence.

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Inarticulate Parts

Flash forward a couple hundred years, back to my high-school auditorium. From the catwalk, I can see the play beginning down below. I put on a head-set so I can hear the other techies lurking like shadows in the darkness backstage, ready to all play their parts when the show calls for it. But not everything we do and are, especially in the shadows, are brought to light. What isn’t seen but is heard and shared among us are my pending transition. Having begun coming out as a transwoman to a choice few in this community has sparked a lot of questions but the main one I get is: do I plan on bottom surgery. One set of genitals would become absent and in embodying a eunuch, I would be moving towards taking on another part as another appeared. 

There are cut-off points to identity, but as absence makes clear, some things change while others remain. Being absent is ontologically different than lacking being, although they may appear alike. If there was nothing in the darkness, we would never step into it, and yet we must. The darkness of our own bodies mark what exists beyond our knowing as proof of things yet unseen:

"Body is not mute, but it is inarticulate; it does not use speech but it begets it...the challenge is to hear. Hearing is difficult not only because listeners have trouble facing what is being said as a possibility or a reality in their own lives. Hearing is also difficult because… they are also told on the edge of speech.…it is told in the silences that speech cannot penetrate or illuminate" (Wounded Storyteller 2-3)

Unlike the void that can only exist as a singularity, absence is a multiplicity and perpetually generates more and more absence. A void by definition does not exist, things fill the space of what is removed from our world and one of those things is Absence. Like a ghost or gravestone, it becomes present for us so that we might mourn and relate to what is no longer present for us. 

Eunuchs are defined by castration, by what it has made him into: scar-tissue. Cauterization over a rupture in existence, eunuchs seal over a lack by becoming present as an absence. He inhabits the space of what is no longer with us, so that when we see nothing & nihilistically reach out with grief-stricken blindness, we may touch & remember: bodies matter; remember: we are not alone; remember: “there is a part of me that never left a part of you” (Neon Trees, Still Young).

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