click to buy “Cinesexuality” at Amazon.comCinesexuality’s thesis is premised on a desire to want cinema as a lover. What this might mean alerts us firstly to the fact that the book is a title in the Ashgate series Queer Interventions. While cinesexuality as a phenomenon knows no gender, exceeding both hetero-normative and homosexual frames of reference, it might also be said to queer these binaries in its paradoxical oscillation between the invisible and the all-too-visible. The invisible aspect of cinesexuality derives from MacCormack’s assertion that “[s]pectatorship is an event which cannot be witnessed” (p. 2). This claim might seem obvious in that, at least since radical film theory’s turn to psychoanalysis in the 1970s, the invisibility of psychic tropes such as identification, phantasy, and desire has dominated the scene of spectatorship, although in more recent times, this has been supplanted by attention to socially situated viewers and the ethnography of film audiences. However, MacCormack’s scene of invisibility takes its lead from Felix Guattari’s notion that a-signifying elements (colour, framing, celerity and sound) fracture signification, redirecting our desire toward identificatory dissolution, whereas psychic invisibility always intersected with or was informed by the regimes of signification that MacCormack, along with Guattari, take as repressive. For MacCormack, taking cinema as a lover might

show us a different sexuality not with which we can replace ours, but which affects us and our understanding of the purposes and functions of bodies as they relate to and are regulated by the massacre signification perpetrates upon flesh and desire. (p. 135)

Her claim is that the a-signifying intensities of colours, sounds, gestures and rhythms liberate us from the codes of sexual and other forms of majoritarian identity, to cite a term from Gilles Deleuze and Guattari (1).

This brings me to the side of the all-too-visible. MacCormack is not interested in cinema per se, quickly aligning her use of the term “cinema” with images, not films – the term “images” allows her the span of temporality, from a moment to a marathon, and the span of interconnection between and across films that comprises cinesexual desire. However, it is not just any image, but images of visceral gory spectacles and perverse sexualities in Italian horror that MacCormack proposes as offering the possibilities of self-transformation imbricated in Deleuze and Guattari’s process of becoming. Entering into alliances with the aforementioned a-signifying elements, largely configured in these films around bloody mutating body parts, the spectator engages in a process of becoming-minoritarian, which, in MacCormack’s trajectory, transmogrifies into a becoming-zombie/vampire/demon (2). This is where I have some difficulty with the thesis of the book.

On the one hand, MacCormack claims that these becomings cannot be known, indeed that we need not know what we are becoming in these cinematic alliances, yet, on the other hand, she makes emphatically visceral statements that seem to map cinesexuality onto body-objects of desire. “Becoming through occupying zones of zombieism or other disheveled body configurations is the becoming-flesh of our own bodies, where ‘flesh’ is the larvality of ‘the body’” (p. 113). Admittedly, I have only viewed the more mainstream horror films such as Dario Argento’s that MacCormack initially uses to establish the a-semiotic intensity of colour and sound. So it may be that I am not in a position to judge whether the radical openings and multiplicitious sexualities MacCormack explores in the films of Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, and Antonio Margheriti, to name but a few, provide the masochistic jouissance of self-affection, which enfolds the spectator, substituting Deleuze and Guattari’s Body without Organs for the normative body (3). But, judging by the language MacCormack uses in describing scenes from her chosen films, a language couched in visceral repulsion and attraction, it is difficult to see how these a-semiotic becomings differ from the site of abjection recounted by Julia Kristeva and used in relation to horror film by Barbara Creed (4).

MacCormack is careful to distinguish the oscillation between attraction and repulsion in her images from the site of abjection, as the latter maintains the borders of the self while delving into pre-Oedipal chaos, whereas her “inter-kingdom becomings” are beyond these categories (p. 126). I was puzzled as to how this might be when MacCormack’s fleshy theoretical apparatus constantly flirts with the gore of disarticulated cinematic bodies premised on the necrophile, the zombie, and/or combinations of both, rather than the abstraction of disarticulated form in a strictly Deleuzian sense. She says:

Watching these films can make us sick both physiologically and psychological [sic] “sickos”, and when we are sick we feel the absolute alterity of our body to our sense of volition and willful power over subjectivity. […] What interkingdom can we find within our own planes of the body? The pleasure of the internal made external and the specificity of the joy of excess seen in gore are, far from being the threshold of offence, the moment where subjectivity is available beyond the reified positions culture accepts. (p. 99)

Attempting to think through the contradictions in positioning a Deleuzo-Guattarian Body without Organs in proximity to visceral abjection, I was reminded of the criticisms Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss posed against the reification of bodily fluids and substances in Kristevan abjection, which they contrasted to Georges Bataille’s notion of abjection, l’informe, where the alteration of form occurs through proximity to the centripetal force of the culturally unassimilable (5). While Bataille, though mentioned, isn’t one of MacCormack’s main theoretical partners, the problem of the reification of bodily substances in conjunction with the imperceptible alteration of form in the process of becoming-cinemasochist raises its unresolved head in Cinesexuality. For example, how can the following description of the baroque orgiastic bloodbath undergone by the character Female Cenobite (Barbie Wilde) in Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Tony Randel, 1988) be married with MacCormack’s earlier claim that “content is irrelevant to an extent” (p. 11)? One of the other characters in Hellbound, the neurologist Dr Philip Channard (Kenneth Cranham),

expels one of his stigmata tentacles into the wound in Female Cenobite’s throat, from which blood spurts making unclear from where this effluence is emitting, her wound or his tentacle. […] This vulvic-wound was formerly the site of a seething, bubbling, amorphic language of suffering desire and it is silenced though penetration, however this reterritorialization is not altogether straightforward due to the reticulated tentacle which itself opens up. Pinhead’s death is similarly ambiguous. Channard creates for Pinhead [Doug Bradley] a wound in his throat by slashing his neck. […] For the cinesexual this scene […] offers the fascination of the contradiction of form and trajectory, the majoritarian split open at a highly fetishistic site […] The female’s gory abyss spurts out, the head of pointed pins opens up and we are drawn in. (pp. 90-91)

How different is this mode of spectatorship from Creed’s site of abjection? Describing Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Creed writes how one of the characters, Kane (John Hurt), approaches the rows of eggs in the womb-like chamber of the spaceship:

as he touches it with his gloved hand it opens out, revealing a mass of pulsating flesh. Suddenly the monstrous thing inside leaps up and attaches itself to Kane’s helmet, its tail penetrating Kane’s mouth in order to fertilise itself inside his stomach. (6)

While Creed’s methodology is psychoanalytic and MacCormack’s is philosophically a-psychoanalytic, both refer to psycho-physiological nausea in relation to not dissimilar scenes of penetration and larval fleshy encounters. Perhaps the distinction between MacCormack’s trajectory and Creed’s is the sense of unstoppable transformation that emerges in becoming, whereas abjection continues to haunt the subject structurally, an encounter in art or film providing catharsis. This is a very subtle distinction, one that is easier to glimpse in MacCormack’s attempt to counter fetishistic perversion, which the reification of substances and materials in abjection can lead to.

Orgiastic bloodbaths aside, MacCormack considers film images in general to be unresponsive and thereby generative of the kind of submission the spectator has to undergo in the process of becoming, which paradoxically and interestingly she relates to suspension. In classical fetishism, suspension works to protect the subject/spectator from dissolution – the fetish object in cinema, the image of the woman for example, is erected to ward off anxiety. It is a static object outside of time, although it precariously slips from its place, requiring the subject/spectator to continually re-erect it. In MacCormack’s model of spectatorship as inter-kingdom becoming, the spectator is also imbricated in a scene of suspension, but here suspension is a time not only outside of subject/object and control/threat dualities, but also one that contains its own intrinsic movement. Rather than a relation to an external object suspended in time and space, the spectator enters into a zone of suspension whereby the unresponsive image-object causes him/her to enfold back on him/herself engaging in a process of becoming-other internal to the self, the image-spectator fold. “The spectator is ‘occupied’ by the image rather than the image being colonized – read or known – by the spectator” (p. 48). This is spectatorship as self-affection and links to both Deleuze and Luce Irigaray’s notion of the subject as self-affection, which for Irigaray, as for MacCormack, is feminine, a term some would argue is outside of binary logic. It also links to the Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of the Body without Organs.

For all its contradictions, Cinesexuality is a brave attempt to expand the range of image practices that can be addressed via Deleuzian-influenced scholarship. In this it joins recent attempts by Patricia Pisters, Barbara Kennedy and Anna Powell to move away from predictable examples such as abstract painting or art cinema, which are repeatedly cited to illustrate the affective turn that Deleuze’s work has partly instigated (7). Cinesexuality makes a stab at opening up other classes of the image and other forms of experience to the transformative potential of becoming. While I am not convinced that an image of a zombie body being punctured in the throat by a stigmatic tentacle can give us the sensation of self-affection outside of a capitalist desire for the extreme, Cinesexuality is an impressive example of materialist theory at work, which responds to calls by feminist theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz and Rosi Braidotti to embody theory (8).

The other value of the book is its tentative foray into developing a theory of the ethics of spectatorship, which might allow for ways of thinking beyond the impasse of recognition and equality espoused in most other theories of ethics, even Irigaray’s notion of the between-two. At its most simplistic level, MacCormack alludes to the becoming-zombie encounter as an example of ethical spectatorship on the basis that the image does not offer the usual human/ist paradigms of recognition. MacCormack’s wager is that images of gore and perversion show a more ethical mode of spectatorship because desire is not forced and because the spectator, in confronting a non-responsive other, is thrown into a process (self-affection) whereby the other is discovered within rather than projected outside. This is an inhuman spectatorship and is potentially interesting, but, as a model, it stops short at imagining what a re-articulation of the body might mean as other than oppositional or suspended in an in-between state of becoming. For MacCormack, the outcome would be “[no] race, no gender, no sexuality, just baroque, fleshy, unique, viscera-configuration” (p. 104). To my mind, this state of being, if it can be called that, is still a reactive response to the dictates of the repressive systems it seeks to escape. Guattari states and MacCormack cites:

We can no longer sit idly by as others steal our mouths, our anuses, our genitals, our nerves, our guts, out arteries, in order to fashion parts and works in an ignoble mechanism of production which links capital, exploitation and the family. We can no longer allow others to turn our mucous membranes, our skin, all our sensitive areas into occupied territory […] We want to see frigid, imprisoned, mortified bodies exploded to bits, even if capitalism continues to demand that they be kept in check at the expense of our living bodies. (p. 118)

There is a fine line here between capitalism’s desire that wants us to consume excess and the excess that we might recuperate for some vitalistic space apart from capitalist economy. When MacCormack asks: “Can massacring the body – opening it out, cutting it up post mortem and achieving pleasure from it – end the massacre of the body?” (p. 118), she seems to be espousing an almost homeopathic kind of ethics, but the problem for me is that in capitalism, bodies are already opened up to become desiring-machines seeking endless transformation. Are some transformations more ethically desirable than others? How do we decide? Reading Guattari through MacCormack, I was reminded of 1960s American counter-culture, which attempted to dismantle symbolic systems and engage in primordial self-becoming, a movement whose consequences were self-destructive bodies and narcissistic hedonism. Today we see the increase of practices such as self-harm and eating disorders as methods individuals use to articulate their desire beyond symbolic realms. Are these realms necessarily repressive or might their efficacy be necessary in re-articulating the event of spectatorship beyond recognition? Although these questions go beyond the scope of MacCormack’s book, her final chapter, “The Ecosophy of Spectatorship”, generates them. What do we actually become in the “turbulent incommensurabilities” of inter-kingdom becoming (p. 140)?

Perhaps this question cannot be satisfactorily addressed by theory, which is structurally similar to what it rails against, but only by a shift from theory to practices. Following on from Deleuze and Guattari, MacCormack suggests as much: “We desire zombie spectacles not to be them but to enter into a series of practices with them” (p. 112). Perhaps it is here in the practices of dishevelled and de-structured desire where a site of pleasure that cannot be recuperated by the demands of capitalism to take your pleasure might be found. There is a minute distinction between these two types of desire, but it is a small difference that perhaps makes all the difference.

Cinesexuality, by Patricia MacCormack, Queer Interventions series, Ashgate, Hampshire and Burlington, 2008.

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  1. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987.
  2. In Deleuze and Guattari’s process of becoming, a dismantling of the closed identity characteristic of patriarchal capitalist systems occurs. They add the terms woman, child and animal to becoming, claiming that there can be no becoming-man, as man, being the dominant term, is what Deleuze and Guattari call a molar identity and the force of becoming is to engage the molecular level of being where we find fluidity and change. Needless to say, these adjunctive terms are problematic in the sense that woman, child and animal seem to ascribe these identities to a pre-determined non-subject or devolutionary subject position. See Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.
  3. In Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari make use of the concept of the Body without Organs to describe the experience of schizophrenics, for whom it is surmised that the organs of the body are experienced as pure intensities capable of being linked in destratified ways that override the regimentation and structure of the normative body. Deriving this concept from the playwright Antonin Artaud, Deleuze says: “The body without organs is an affective, intensive, anarchist body that consists solely of poles, zones, thresholds, and gradients. It is traversed by a powerful, nonorganic vitality” (Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco, Verso, London and New York, 1998, p. 131). Interestingly, MacCormack does not define the Deleuzo-Guattarian terms that she uses, presuming some familiarity by the reader.
  4. See Barbara Creed, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection”, Screen, vol. 27, no. 1, January/February, 1986, pp. 44-70.
  5. See Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide, Zone Books, New York, 1997.
  6. Creed, p. 57.
  7. Patricia Pisters, The Matrix of Visual Culture, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2003; Barbara Kennedy, Deleuze and Cinema: The Aesthetics of Sensation, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2000; and Anna Powell, Deleuze and Horror Film, Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
  8. See Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994 and Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies, Routledge, New York and London, 1995.

About The Author

Maria Walsh is a Senior Lecturer in Art History and Theory at Chelsea College of Art and Design, London. She has published essays on the moving image in Screen, Angelaki, Senses of Cinema, filmwaves, and COIL. Her research interests include artist’s film and video, performative writing, feminisms and film phenomenology in a post-Deleuzian framework.