Le déluge (1911) – Léon-François Comerre

Morbid tableaux like this one flood their subjects’ postures with the ecstasies of static: of, that is, staying still, and of having everything drowned out. Wherever rain marks bodies in Le déluge, they howl, or shrink into horrific (self-)cradling amidst the apocalyptic weather; they wail, or splay (ambivalently or fervently) into exposure to self-dramatizing entreaty; they roar, or arch back, out of the crowd, onto something approaching neutral sensation.

Begin with the howling dog. It’s set between the composition’s center — a body cradling itself — and the figural group’s lowest right edge — a serenely unconscious mother still holding her wailing child.

Move from the wailing child’s mouth to its repetition in the mouth of the woman furthest left melodramatically gasping and clutching at nothing as she sinks into the flood.

Then move along a line from her gasping mouth straight up to the roaring mouth of the lion.

At the middle of that line you’ll find the androgyne described, above, as arching back onto the oblivious sensations of rain. Apocalypse takes ecstasy; this figure is out of it: outside the tableau of horror, but also thereby coordinating one of the tableau’s outsides. Namely, a final line of figures beginning with the lioness’s cryptic indifference, through the androgyne, and coming to rest at the drowned body at bottom; (the other floating corpses I’ll exclude from this line, for now).

Why should the above itinerary through the painting’s composition come to rest at the drowned body in the closest foreground?

What we find, here, is the water line. It underlines the compositional field or tells us our orientation to the picture plane. It presses against the painting’s fourth wall — and this is part of how we know it’s a tableau.[1] Seeing the water line puts us out of the picture. As if to seal the scene behind glass, not the way a vitrine does, but like a terrarium — as if the scene were sealed off but noise from inside could still be felt vibrating against the wall separating it from us.

Maybe this enclosure promises something like the self-distantiation that allows the sublime to give pleasure; maybe it promises the tableau’s aesthetic autonomy.[2] Its biblical sourcing (almost a Peaceable Kingdom, if the menagerie hadn’t gone so extinct) could reinforce this work by putting the scene into an allegorical / typological beyond. However the scene enframes itself, though, the effect is basically the same: show the borders of a world-engulfing event.

But why would it need to? Doesn’t the picture plane already formally assert its ontological autonomy from or incommunicability with the spectatorial world?

Several orifices – linking the child’s wailing to the drowning woman’s gasping to the lion’s roaring – collect at the edges of the tableau’s systemic enclosure. 

It is the “ordinary seriality” of weather, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick tells us, that lets it “offer a kind of daily, ground-tone pulsation of mémoire involuntaire.”[3] Making demands on the elements, she finds, asks for satisfaction not from any discrete object’s action, but rather from an environment’s “reliable ability to resist pressure from [the subject] or damage by it” (28). It is from D.W. Winnicott’s work on transitional objects and Barbara Johnson’s use of that work in “Using People: Kant with Winnicott” that Sedgwick draws these terms; Winnicott, she notes, gives the name “‘holding environment'” to this set of “satiable object relations” (28-9). Neither of psychoanalysis’s classical drives (pleasure / death) need be invoked to account for the unspooling of “existential urgency” in the “terror attached to survival.” If analysis is to fully describe that terror (or any affect, really) in its own “qualitative intensity,” then libido ought not be conflated with drive as such. (And neither should the death drive). Not libido, but the drive to live through and thereby keep making demands on a holding environment’s attrition or unyielding tendency toward chaos: not the death drive, but the “existential functions” are what should “represent drive in its existential urgency” (29). 

What happens if that seriality builds to an event of the weather’s systemic autonomy from any human need to be held? In Le déluge,  what we see is not the weather’s absorptive capacity – its ability to not act, but simply passively take damage and make it dissipate – but rather the inevitability of its own laws at work beyond human survival. No redemptive promise holds these naked bodies together, (even if we can parse this death as unfolding its own kind of negative of utopia), just their shared occupation of high enough ground to survive for a little longer.[4] 

Seeing this painting now, one cannot help but see a catastrophic effect of climate change. Perhaps call this the tragedy of the atmospheric commons. What generates the effect is, after all, a kind of systemic presumption: to advance endlessly into a speculative future, as capital thinks it will, is to presume the environment’s serial continuity. And, if not an absolute cushion against human damage, then, at least, one fantasmatically spongy enough to recover so long as each subject commits to indefinitely recycle their commitment to commodity chains (neither reduction nor reuse inhabits / encodes public space the way recycling bins do). 

[1] John Bender and Michael Michael Marrinan’s The Culture of Diagram (2010) finds in Diderot a formulation of tableau in which the scene seals itself off from its viewing public.

[2] A subject’s subsumptive recognition that it retains its sovereignty over what’s happening, for Kant, is what generates the negative pleasures of the sublime. I would describe this as a form of self-distantiation insofar as it consolidates sovereignty by dissociating from the person’s actual paralysis by a scene. Aesthetic autonomy is from Theodor Adorno; what’s interesting about the aesthetic autonomy of tableau is that it escapes the logic of the everyday not exactly by asserting a closed system of “immanent consistency” but rather by joining up with other such closed systems — tableau, in other words, conventionalizes affects by inserting their intensities into a codified set of passions, and by conventionalizing them lends the scene an immanent consistency from without.

[3] From The Weather in Proust (2011)

[4] Jose Esteban Muñoz’s engagement with Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno’s conversations about utopia in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) is behind this formulation; also behind the above thing about apocalypse taking ecstasy.

four Imps, one demon, and fiends

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse” (1845) induces from contrapurposive action “a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness.” Induction thus parts ways with the deductive logic of phrenology, which can only make up “organs” (of e.g. “alimentiveness” or “amativeness”) to account for actions that “further the objects of humanity.” What phrenology’s deductive logic cannot account for is, however, that sphere of action for which no “necessity” — no drive toward an “object” — can be said to initiate or sustain the action. Indeed, the “primitive impulse” this rejoinder insists on is actually one that goes against necessity or against what should be done.

Narrativizing this impulse means, oddly, deducing it: from the above theory of perverseness, a narrating instance emerges. Voicing the theory is a man awaiting trial for murder. As the voice takes on a body, it retroactively grounds the preceding discourse in an explanatory purpose — to “explain to you why I am here,” or to “assign to you something that shall have at least the faint aspect of a cause for me wearing these fetters.” What makes this shift from bodiless theory to fettered explanation deductive is the sense that the latter is a case of the former, and hence exemplifies its laws. And yet, insofar as the personification of the voice bears retroactive force, it would also seem that we should read back from the scene of confession to inductively reason from that instance to the theory of perverseness.

“An imp of ink” – in 1896 used to describe “The Gargoyle” in Gobolinks: or, Shadow Pictures. That same year The Dial quotes this phrase in a review:

The Somethings created by Mrs. Ruth McEnery Stuart and Mr. Albert Bigelow Paine out of the imp of inkare often surprising and sometimes not inartistic. Gargoyles, prehistoric animals, and many unclassified creatures which the authors term Gobolinks,” have been collected for the amusement of children. To these pictured gobolinks are attached some quaint rhymes, which some times have a sort of Emily Dickinson brevity and freshness.


It is the “typesetting machine” that suffers from “heterophemy” in “The Imp of the Press: His Doings and Undoings As the Reviser Sees Them” (1898).

In The Booklover and His Books (1917), Harry Lyman Koopman returns to the scene of printing set up in #3, writing

The Imp of the Perverse, when he descends upon the printing office, sometimes becomes the Imp of the Perverted. Here his achievements will not bear reproducing. Suffice it to say that in point of indecency he displays the same superhuman ingenuity as in his more innocent pranks. His indecencies are all, indeed, in print, but fortunately scattered, and it wold be a groveling nature that should seek to collect them; yet the absence of this chapter from the world’s book of humor means the omission of a comic strain that neither Aristophanes nor Rabelais has surpassed. Even as I write, a newspaper misprint assures me that typesetting machines are no protection against the Imp of the Perverted. Perhaps we may be pardoned the reproduction of one of the mildest of these naughtinesses. A French woman novelist had written: “To know truly what love is, we most go out of ourselves” (sortir de soi). The addition of a single letter transformed this eminently respectable sentiment into the feline confession: “To know truly what love is, we must go out nights” (sortir de soir).

James Clerk Maxwell’s thought experiment in Theory of Heat (1871), usually metonymized as “Maxwell’s demon,” imagines an entity not unlike these imps:

One of the best established facts in thermodynamics is that it is impossible in a system enclosed in an envelope which permits neither change of volume nor passage of heat, and in which both the temperature and the pressure are every where the same, to produce any inequality of temperature or of pressure without the expenditure of work. This is the second law of thermodynamics, and it is undoubtedly true as long as we can deal with bodies only in mass, and have no power of perceiving or handling the separate molecules of which they are made up. But if we conceive a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are still as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what at present impossible to us. For we have seen that the molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, a and n, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from a to b, and only the slower ones to pass from B to A. H e will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics.

This is only one of the instances in which conclusions which we have drawn from our experience of bodies consisting of an immense number of molecules may be found not to be applicable to the more delicate observations and experiments which we may suppose made by one who can perceive and handle the individual molecules which we deal with only in large masses.

How does the imp’s agency lend consistency both to the confession of a crime (by Poe’s narrator) and to the French woman novelist’s inadvertent “feline confession” of desire?

Maybe the imp of the perverse names something as simple as “the unconscious”: what’s repressed won’t stay back; it has to interpose itself for the very reason it’s kept back.

What this account fails to tell us, though, is anything about the cosmology (or demonology) that displaces “perverseness” outside the confessional subject or subject of linguistic action (but outside in the way a parasite is) before sexology implants “perversion” or “inversion” in subjects of sexual desire.

Maxwell’s ad hoc cosmology — serving only to figure a theoretical problem — suggests that the demon would break the Second Law of Thermodynamics if it could only perceive matter out quickly enough. It breaks the law by not letting matter diffuse evenly. That is, it circumvents the entropic drift of gas molecules between chamber A and B by discerning their trajectories. It thereby creates an order. Maybe the imp of the perverse, or even more saliently the imp of the press, does something similar: that is, instead of letting signifiers do their work, it turns on their drive dimension — or, perhaps, their autopoietic capacities.

And I’ll note finally too that Maxwell’s scenario models a form of attention to the series of “just noticeable differences” that make up (in aggregate) what Nicholas Dames calls “discontinuous form.” Just noticeable difference is a technical term developed by the German psychophysicist E.H. Weberin the mid 1860s.

Note too the racialization of drug use via the figure of the “fiend”; see this Atlas Obscura article about the “cigarette fiend”  and the aggressive fantasy of this ad for “Topsy Tobacco”  (n.d. as far as I’ve searched, but clearly post-1852).

Not only flesh, or not only reading, may be set working by machines reading (or machines assessing, diagnosing, encrypting); so too may interlocutory situations. Searching for the citations that spiderweb out of D.A. Miller’s “Cage aux folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White” (1986) — 104 in total, says google —  mounts a fleeting collection. (Perhaps the kind of discussion commodities have with one another, or perhaps interlacing conversations attached to names).

Where would it take us if we were to put all 104 in a footnote? Rabbit-holes sprint toward totality but never really get there.

A possible technique: build a database collating every citation, (Miller’s essay, by the way, is merely exemplary of how a close reading may generate research), topic model its distributions of self-description (perhaps looking to organize them by the publisher’s topic headings or perhaps just by whatever clusters around the citation in each case, with a radius of, say, 250 words), and abstract, from those topic models, a summary of critical engagements out of context — not in order to replace, much less try to subsume under an average, those conversations (many of which, to be sure, head in completely different directions), but simply to retrieve one distillate among others of a provisional totality.

One technophobia might posit that kind of automation fearfully, as so many or too many automatisms. Too much data-hoarding and too little analysis. Quicksand for the poetics of talking with the living.

One technophilia might single out (passionately) sites of automatic becoming. Another swirl (entropically) around sites of automatized becoming. Where does that move you? Into magnetisms.



“passive aggressive” is a phrase the OED dates to 1945 at the earliest.

“passive aggression” appears in a 1905 article by Theodore Waters in Pearson’s Magazine titled “How DeOro Won the Pool Championship”:

It required the closest watching on the part of the referee to be sure that no scratch was made, and yet in all that time the object-ball seemed not to move an eighth of an inch.  It was delicacy of touch of the highest order; it was a magnificent combination of mechanical skill and intellectual endeavor, the very refinement of passive aggression; but it was nerve racking to look upon, and the assembly was to be pardoned the deeply expressive sigh of relief to which it gave utterance when DeOro, having determined upon a last brilliant stroke for victory, announced his intention of putting the ball into the far corner pocket.



parts of a thought about hoarding / dissipation

Accumulation is damaging but also already pitched toward dissipation.

Damaging in its appropriative overdrive – most intense, perhaps, when “dead labor” sucks the life out of every possible hour.[1] Marx elsewhere in the first volume of Capital (1867) sketches a theory of hoarding that would distinguish that vampiric lust for flesh from “lusts of the flesh,” which, he points out, the hoarder must “sacrifice … to his gold fetish.” To hoard is to feel the prick of an “antagonism” between gold’s two propositions:

1. “qualitative boundlessness”: money, “because it is directly convertible into any             other commodity,” seems to have “no bounds to its efficacy.”

2. “quantitative limits”: money always takes the form of a discrete “sum,” and so “has only a limited efficacy.”

Lust sacrificed to this antagonism yields to its drive to accumulate “quantitative limits” endlessly, as if thereby to catch up (and, of course, perpetually fail to catch up) with “qualitative boundlessness.” What distinguishes lust for flesh from lusts of the flesh lies in how each takes sensation. If the latter takes flesh as the “means of enjoyment” through which sensation circulates, the former enjoys it as a raw material that, once rendered into money, may convert any sensation into any other whatsoever.

But indulging a fetish for gold does not just mean restraining lust, nor does it simply displace it onto the gleam of pure exchange-value.[2] That displacement serves, rather, the abstract (or dead) lust of capital itself, which uses hoards as “conduits for the supply or withdrawal of money to or from the circulation.”[3]

Dissipative as it lets attention rove objectlessly, along currents of air, as in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Not to say air can’t build pressures of its own; an “imposthume” full of reading squirts out prose gushing (sometimes as if from the mouth of Democritus Jr.) with self-effacements and hyperbolic malice. Satirical masking – effervescent, chatty, but still cutting with ridicule – makes writing a therapeutic apparatus, almost confessional were it not squeezed from archival performances (nothing deeply referential about assembling oneself through quotation).

Seventeenth-century hoarding – as figured by Harpagon in Moliére’s L’Avare (1688) – poses as a site of dissipation insofar as his autoaffective split into both guardian of and threat to his own hoard makes him laughably mechanical. “Rends-moi mon argent, coquin… (Il se prend lui-même le bras.) Ah, c’est moi.”

Some two centuries after the Anatomy, another scholar, Thomas De Quincey will assert a “project of living with ruin,” as Rei Terada calls it – or in an “abyss of divine enjoyment … bought for a penny,” as De Quincey calls it in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) – that, in Terada’s reading, admits neither of repression (as trauma) nor repair (as defense).[4]


It’s worth noting here that in requiring support from the elements, the subject also lays a claim on their reliable ability to resist pressure from it or damage by it. In Barbara Johnson’s paraphrase of Winnicott, “The object becomes real because it survives, because it is outside the subject’s range of omnipotent control.”17 Elsewhere in his book Balint uses air and even fire, in addition to water and earth, to exemplify the “friendly substances” for this purpose. “It is difficult to say,” for ex- ample, “whether the air in our lungs or in our guts is us, or not us; and it does not even matter. We inhale the air, take out of it what we need, and after putting into it what we do not want to have, we exhale it, and we do not care at all whether the air likes it or not. It has to be there for us in adequate quantity and quality”—adequate, Balint would empha- size, as opposed to infinite.18


[1] “Capital is dead labour that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” – page 85 in this — https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-I.pdf

[2] contra Renu Bora’s argument in “Outing Texture,” I think.

[3] At this point it’s worth noting, but not yet worth dilating on, a potentially enormous network of discourses about the hydraulics of desire / appetite in proximity to Marx’s hydraulic figure for capital’s desire. One resource is Kyla Wazana Tompkin’s work on Sylvester Graham in Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (2012).

[4] Rei Terada, “Living a Ruined Life: De Quincey Beyond the Worst”


73. What astonishment is
This surprise has great power to steer the spirits in the brain’s cavities towards the place ·in the brain· that contains the impression of the object of wonder—so much power that it sometimes it drives all the spirits to that place, and gets them to be so busy preserving this impression that none of them carry on through to the muscles. . . . The upshot is that the whole body remains as still as a statue. This is what we commonly call ‘being astonished’. Astonishment is an excess of wonder, and it is always bad because the body’s immobility means that the person can perceive only one side of the wondered-at object, namely the side first presented to him. ·If he weren’t outright astonished he could turn the object over, walk around it, or the like, thus learning more about it·.

  • René Descartes, in Les passions de l’âme (1649)

57. If some mystical art lovers who think of every criticism as a dissection and every dissection as destruction of pleasure were to think logically, then “wow” would be the best criticism of the greatest work of art. To be sure, there are critiques that say nothing more, but only take much longer to say it.

  • Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum fragments (1798-1800)

What if we think of these modes of being in the world–Warhol’s liking of things, his “wows” and “gees,” and O’Hara’s poetry being saturated with feelings of fun and anticipation–as a mode of utopian feeling but also hope’s methodology?

  • José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009)

hyperbolic topology

Questions about animatedness might be found in Treehouse of Horror VI. Schematically:

1. “Attack of the 50 ft Eyesores” — personified brands come to life first through the failure of the actual commodity (a donut) to live up to the advertised fantasy of the commodity (a “colossal,” larger than life donut). Just looking sustains their rampaging animacy; they’re only put to rest when everyone turns away.


2. “Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace” — allusive overdrive frames our opening encounter with a character’s (Bart’s) interior, via a dream rendered in an explicitly cartoonish style — the character becomes more like a person insofar as its dreams assume the exaggerated proportions of cartoon physics. (And the temporality of animated metadiegesis, itself premised on “misprinted calendars” dating the overt conspiracy of the “true story” to “the 13th hour of the 13th day of the 13th month.”) What does this physics tell us about the oblique racialization (or maybe only stereotyping) of Willie, one of the show’s recurring characters and, in this episode, its main antagonist?


3. “Homer3” – tour de force extrapolation of cartoon physics, staged first as an escape from the two-dimensional diegesis into a self-consciously expensive 3D render in a Tron-like space nobody has seen, then as the partialization of the 3D body as that space collapses, and finally as the 3D body’s transposition into video from an indexically real space. (Professor Frink, one of this episode’s many “eggheads,” calls the study of three-dimensional space “hyperbolic topology.”) In flight from the queer meatiness of Patty and Selma — Selma “baking like a meatloaf under this wet wool” and Patty sucking dead hermit crabs out of their shells — Homer ends up, in the episode’s and segment’s final scene, entering a shop advertising “Erotic Cakes.”


Note the obvious first: from the first segment to the third, the episode enacts a trajectory from the “colossal donut” to “Erotic Cakes.” Its narrative problematic, one might say, begins with a strictly orificial (that is to say, non-genital) desire and ends with an object that converts genitally organized desire into orificial desire. Or, put differently, it begins with a desire that’s hyperbolically literal in its construal of advertising’s phantasmatic claim on consumers and ends with a commodity that offers consumers the chance to literally eat a fantasy object – and this appeal is met with indifferent / distracted desire, as just enough consolation for the loss of the two-dimensional world.

How, then, does Selma’s perverse identification with / Patty’s gross consumption of meat cut through this trajectory? And what does it mean that this tangent also, within the segment, coordinates cuts from two-dimensional to three-dimensional diegetic spaces?