Foreign Objekt presents a book reading and panel discussion for David Roden's newly published book, Snuff Memories (Schism Press: 2021), which took place on March 7th, 2021.

 

Panelists: David Roden, Amanda Beech, Martin Rosenberg,               

Romina Wainberg, Corey McCall, and Simon Sellars

In David Roden’s Snuff Memories, an ancient time-war ripples through a demon-haunted cosmos as its characters systematically expunge their humanity. Their ‘posthuman becoming’ pre-empts any possible ethics or sane politics. Instead, desire is weaponized from a bleak, inhuman future. Bodies replicate and unzip across the novella’s pornographic vignettes, remade in erotic rituals of mutation, death, and pain.

Amanda Beech

Amanda Beech is an artist and writer. Her work poses questions and propositions for what a realist art can be in today’s culture; that is, a work that can articulate a comprehension of reality without the terminal mirror of a human identity that is used to picture it.
Beech has shown her artwork internationally including, “Cause and Effect”, Artecambi Gallery, Verona, Italy; “This Time”, a video commission for the Remai Modern, Canada; “Covenant Transport, Move or Die” at The Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, UK; “What Hope Looks Like After Hope”, Homeworks VII Beirut City Forum, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, Lebanon and she has presented work at the Irish and Montreal Biennales. She is a contributing editor of Construction Site for Possible Worlds, 2020 and Cold War Cold World, 2016, Urbanomic and other writing has included, Notes on Art and its Science, Speculative Aesthetics 2016, and Death of Horror, Diseases of the Head, 2020 and many more. Beech is Dean of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts.

Amanda Beech


Snuff Memories

Panel Discussion: David Roden

March 7th, 2021


Snuff is a paradoxical theater of actuality – the organization and performance of pain that is real. In this, it is a dimension of the genre of horror but unlike horror which operates by threatening to collapse the dialectical distinction between artifice and reality, and which therefore maintains some order between them, snuff collapses artifice and life and makes us feel that this is all real, that it not staged. Snuff does this by intimidating reason in excess of horror. This structure has consequences for the political. The theatrical framing of ‘real’ oppression functions as a form of insurance against having to commit to the possibility that pain is actually happening in the world; if the pain of others is staged it is somehow consensual, but also therefore, unreal and we can keep watching. At the same time, this pain has to be understood as real - it is a fact that pain and suffering is happening in front of us. But, seeing this pain as real does not bring us to any kind of social empathy that recognizes the pain of others. Instead, the consolidated identicality of being and image brings us the kinds of ecstatic pleasure of a Judeo-Christian theological dimension.

This violence of snuff therefore is bracketed as a private experience – in the mind - but at the same time, we know that this structure manifests as social and public. It does so as dominance and violence because Snuff bars access to the space of agreements that subtend these images.

In Snuff Memories both theater and pain is real. The theater – the constructed image and the frame for bodies, is now an entangled part of a visceral material and systematized reality. Both body and image are a secularized and ritualized economy that is bound to the world just as other myths and legends, other ritual spaces. Pain as lived is endless and its value is material.

But these relations are not collapsed altogether, in the kinds of collapse between life and theater that we see in the pornographic media of the reality TV show star/celebrity culture today. And at the same time the relation of image and reality is not held apart. It is not constructed in the Modern sense of the horror genre, where reality is exposed at the edges of the image, at the limits of reason: a violence that penetrates the illusion of what is given to knowledge.

Instead, this tension is created in the way things are described in time and space. So, what I see in the aesthetics of the book is how complex abstract assemblages made of self-consciously selected words and phrases prevent conventional disjunctions as well as the satisfaction of conjunctions, between how something is described and what it is. Contestations are established inside and between sentences, phrases, paragraphs and episodes. Pictures are constituted in a cloying assemblage of focused details and close ups, blurred dark establishing shots but also a blurring of space when we move between registers of information. There is a lot of zooming in and out in fragments of concentration, but also a line is followed in one dimensional time.

The identification of the layers of materiality and matter in this text means that reading this is not just to encounter a description of a world in which we are tourists watching from a safe distance - but rather, the empirical highly sensory details of the intimacies of bio-tech bodies, architectural ceramics, or bone dust earth, bring us closer and closer to sense perception. To take this in, the world is held in moments where time stops. Now we get to look, inspect, smell, see and touch. But these empirical scenarios are staged awkwardly, for they are in collision with sporadic interactions, jolts of conversation; this is not a passive view. Through this, a world manifests and we follow down these passages, in and through the disagregation of common sense to other senses. In all of this, we have a story of events occurring subtended by the force of causal time, that weaves itself through matter and sense, where things lead to other things.

These sensible expressions of various antagonized materialities don’t stop at the body. Pictures of industry, docks and the Colonial commerce of the Customs House are interwoven with cultic sacral and religious structures. They are all depicted as operational relics – props, out of time but in the mix of things. They are spaces that act as hubs and stages for interactions and performative parodic sex acts, where sex as materiality is not sensuous but rather, spectacular and displayed, inverted and exposed. It is not equal to empathy, friendship or love but as another violent transaction of plugging in. These events and spaces continue to define the routinization of capitalistic energy as a slow beast – that like the Sadean body has its own infinite mortality that drags on.

In many ways then, I would say that the book explicates the structure of snuff. And, in doing this, the text conjures many stylistic and theoretical referents. It invokes the claustrophobia of the 17th century baroque, the Medievalism of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s book Hard to be A God; the immersive nightmares of Modernity synonymous with Herman Hesse as well as Ernst Junger’s theory and fictions, that witness the annihilation of self in a charismatic violence of society and technology as a form of nature; and the surrealism of Roger Callious’ psychasthenics. But this text does not offer a stoic Jungerian hero that sacrifices himself to the violence of technology as a surrender to the real – a means to overcome the alienation of the individual and abstract technological social forces. Rather, this is the life that refuses the dialectic of life and mortality. Finitude exists but it’s meaning as conditioned upon a specific denotation of humanity is extinct.

Inside the unstable architecture of bodies, we are given a predominantly analogue picture of life that is reminiscent of Cronenberg’s work including VideoDrome that also frequents these pages. For Cronenberg material prosthetics as opposed to special effects establish the aesthetics, but Snuff Memories, things have gone further, for the distinctions between human and artifice are mostly withered away. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between this world, and the smooth world of green screen postproduction special effects that erase the distinctions of matter and fiction, where images land on top of and after the performance of bodies so as to embellish the fantasy of this merging of one image of flesh and tech, of the organic and inorganic, and the lived and the invented. A space which leaves meaning stranded.

It seems important to dwell on the rhetorical and constructed aesthetics of Snuff Memories, because it brings us to question how the binding of humans to the technological and capital persists in the book. Is the human bound to technology and is this technology bound to capital? A picture from Terminator 2 Judgement Day comes to mind. Miles Dyson is about to blow up himself, and the micro-processer (his life’s work) that would lead to the future of sentient machines and the annihilation of the human. To know the future, to believe that his invention establishes this horror means that to prevent it, he must also die. In this moment a contract is written between human and technology that binds them in life and death. This sacrifice is not the end of this relation it is the binding of it and the guarantee for a future where these forces are no longer irreducible.

Together this talk of aesthetics as well as the histories and ideas that they are attached to remind me of how the real as a form of the technological sublime and the alienation of human consciousness, has been imaged by narratives of the human becoming inhuman, and/or evolving into a non-human technologized species across theory and literature. These have moreover narrated the inability for the human to intervene within the relations of human life, reason and capital and like Terminator speak to fate and evolution. These spaces risk forgetting the real altogether, either reinforcing the structure of snuff and its violence, or by realizing a post-snuff world completely dominated by a theology that contains a new species of slavery. Meaning is evacuated; non-representationalist forms dismantle the frame; all is equally unreal, and we are left with oppression as a form of nature in pseudo theological proto fascist systems.

So, a first question is a question of where the text comes from, what it is made of, from times beyond itself. I’ve described snuff as dialectical and as a nonrepresentational structure; the world of snuff and post snuff if you like. These have specific aesthetic tropes and mean different things. I am interested in how the book draws from these structures and images, and depending on what it is structured from, how it works through and possibly against them. What if any, is the conversation with these histories and aesthetics that bind an aesthetics of the non-human or the human under duress to the field of social oppression that gives the real over to capital? Leading from this we can ask where does the text land? Where are we? Another world; another time? Or is this the reality of the now? Or something or somewhere else? These questions all point to the question of the human and the future posthumanism that the book envisages. If technology enables the transcendence of the human, spiritually, politically and biologically, and this transcendence is written as a genealogy or in other words, becoming in this world is disconnected from the human, then what is transcended or evacuated in and as the human and what is left behind? Is the biological determinate of what makes a human a body, including the materiality of the mind destroyed, freed, or is something else denied? hope, justice and society for example? Is the high flex materiality of exploded and morphed bodies correlated to the capacity for the mind to think itself differently? If so, is this a giving up on the autonomy of reason? If it is, then on what level can we take the production of fiction seriously, and the work of the rational imagination? And what ironies do we have to account for further in this gesture to the world after the human?

Another view we can take on this question relates to the question of time and how this is aestheticised inside the book. Snuff Memories speaks to time in various senses; in the way in which the characters move in time, the figure of the Time Pilot, the vigilance of the Clocks, and the fate of planetary death. The book produces various tensions in time, in that whilst the text undetermines the coherence of selves, bodies, communities and associations it still brings us to a place and then takes us somewhere. This place and this somewhere is the space of conceptualizing through a subliminal postmortem of life as we know it. So we can ask how the irreversible process of time, seen in the finitude of planetary death for example and the passing of time in a linear sense seen in the relics of capital etc indicates an evolutionary space. Does this scientific planetary geo-scale of finitude enable an intervention in the space of snuff? I ask this as the book offers differentiated modes of the finite and the infinite; the mortality of the planet, the infinite capacities obtained in time travel as well as the one dimensional time of historic capital, so I am wondering how these multiple frames and temporalities speak to a diagnosis of the political today but also gesture beyond that.

If the book manifests even in fragments, a dialectic between a mortal planet and infinite oppression, then what grounds does the book play in?

So both my questions are questions of the given, but also of the real. In all of this, my interest is in how the practice of writing and the aesthetics that it produces determines new but also connects to given systems of thought. Fiction is not a free space. What determined and determining trajectories permit the contestation of time and space as given, as well as produce counter-factuals in the space of fiction that have traction on reality?
Response to Amanda:


I will begin with Amanda’s observations on the way Snuff Memories frames and re-frames its representations of pain and morphogenesis. Perhaps central to this is her construal of snuff as a genre of pornography that represents pain and death as though simulated, implying an intimidation of reason or abdication in the face of its reality and cruelty. I mention this because my construal is more generic: snuff as a genre or pornography that eroticizes death; but which need not represent real death but death as simulated, imagined or narrated.

This nuance is worth observing because the real operates differently in each case. Where snuff represents the real as simulated perhaps, our attitude is altered towards the spectacle, obdurate within its theatrical frame, terrorizing us with its excrescence; bracketed as private and outside ‘the space of agreement’ which is also the ‘space of reasons.’

Perhaps, as Beech avers, there is an ecstatic moment here, a “consolidated identicality of being and image”, where the distinction between subject and object collapses in phantasmic ecstasy, like Videodrome’s New Flesh. But the identity is consolidated and thus rhetorical and must reflect back on itself, with all the dubious pleasures of distance and control.

However, Snuff Memories remains a work of snuff and operates in that wider sense since its bodies are, with a few interesting exceptions, fictive. It eroticizes death but, in so doing, places the ontological status of the living and the dead in doubt, which is perhaps to make the obvious point that this is the violence of concept horror and concept erotica.

Snuff Memories, as Beech puts it, “refuses the dialectic of life and mortality”. In its fractured, antithetic text “Finitude exists but its meaning as conditioned upon a specific denotation of humanity is extinct.”

This other finitude is exemplified in the very different relationship to death it invokes for characters like the Time Pilot or the Cabalist’s father: one of replication and re-inscription, where the facts of inscribed embodiment and memory are always contingent and dubitable.

These observations connect with Beech’s subsequent analyses of the role of technology, time, and capitalism. Its negotiable, ‘biomorphic’, bodies are enmeshed in technology to the point that the distinction between flesh and machine has eroded. So, they testify to this irreversible bond that she finds exemplified in Dyson’s sacrifice in T2, except that these deaths, unlike Dyson’s, are mostly fungible.

So, Snuff Memories presents this ‘mesh’ of life and death as an irreversible modernity eventuating in a kind of posthuman wasteland (to allude to Martin Rosenberg’s paper) and, ultimately, a planetary death which carries the prospect of some new, but equally debatable, extra-Solar life or ‘unlife’.

One might object that in doing so, it borders on cynicism: naturalizing the actual conditions of planetary capitalism which sustain the political-economic reality behind its posthuman imagery, giving up on the emancipatory risks of reason and science:

“Is the high flex materiality of exploded and morphed bodies correlated to the capacity for the mind to think itself differently? If so, is this a giving up on the autonomy of reason? If it is, then on what level can we take the production of fiction seriously, and the work of the rational imagination? And what ironies do we have to account for further in this gesture to the world after the human?”

I think Beech is right to voice this anxiety. But Snuff Memories doesn’t take the autonomy of reason or thought for granted and, indeed, consistently rejects it by reading anti-naturalist value theory with a pluralist demonology. There is a political insurgency – led by the figure of ‘the Cabalist’; both a ‘human’ and ‘post-human’ woman that Time Pilot addresses in the second person, and the alien, canine figure of the ‘The Dirty Replicator’, a being that, like Skynet, intervenes in the past from the far future, from the dismal shore of a terminal ocean under a sun demolished and exploited by a cloud of ‘basking, violent machines.’

Her war against these conditions is both unconditional and obscene (9). The suspicion is that modernity in both Capitalist and in any speculative ‘post-Capitalist’ forms represents an insurgency against finitude which, as in the case of the failed Prometheans, is at odds with itself: the extension of rational agency exceeding its own ecological limit in the form of the unbound ‘Cthulhoid Prometheus’, the Cuttlefish God, or Anna’s Spike rising ‘needle-deep into a black sky.’ (95)

So, yes, interventions in the spaces of Snuff Memories are possible but they operate within an opening wrought by an irreversible modernity whose trajectory may not be predictable or controllable through reason. Perhaps the nearest the book comes to maintaining the fragile possibility of intervention as a nonetheless rational aesthetic and scientific project is precisely in its aesthetics; and where it is at its most pornographic: in its “focused details and close ups” and “blurred dark establishing shots”, which zoom in and out of the intimate time of the body to the shattering flows of planetary and stellar time. For it is arguable that our greatest challenges are precisely in the aesthetic and cognitive challenges posed by the meshing of immensity and intimacy.