Narcissus Revolts

by Maria Walsh
19 June 2013

Oreet Ashery’s travelling troupe of 8 performers exchange the purity of their white garb for the seeming innocence of flesh. They adopt languorous poses that betray the fashionable litheness of their youthful light-skinned bodies. Behind them, a screen projects other naked bodies cavorting in the countryside and media sound bites about Geert Wilders extreme right-wing Party for Freedom, all accompanied by a rip roaring sound track.

I see an allegory of Narcissus [1]  abandoned to either reactive acts of passive consumption or political terrorism, the two faces of narcissism as a defensive structure against Others: internal involution and the desire to extinguish the self; or external projection of rage and hatred in acts of aggression. Part-agit-prop, part-epic theatre, Ashery’s inverse mimicry of Wilders extremism exposes the connection between these two faces under the law of capital. I respond with a short fable based on my direct experience of the work and its multifarious references.[2]

Narcissus is in revolt against the law. Unable to find his/her reflection in a system which puts strictures on the means of success that it guarantees and the means of resistance that it allows, S/he is withdrawing from revolution. S/he is going back to Eden to re-find the lost paradise of polymorphously perverse nature in a last ditch attempt to escape the anaemic paralysis of consumer capitalism in which S/he is abandoned without body, without substance other than the smooth veneer of mannequin skin.

Build a boat and sail away to a land of milk and honey where we can cavort with animals, making unholy alliances with flora and fauna, our bodies dispersed into multiple erotogenic zones undisciplined by the false gods of armour or uniform, the Nation, the Race, the Body. But there is no paradise in Eden, the other side of the mirror a psychotic inverse of the crime and violence generated by the constitution of the law.

Narcissus is revolting. The release from the signifier of domination [3] promised by unholy alliances has failed, revealing a horrible emptiness at the heart of the commune. Yes, it seemed fun for awhile, unleashing a metonymic chain ofsignifiance [4] in which an eye becomes an ass becomes a mouth becomes a constellation of stars under which body parts and orifices are re-arranged as propositions for new sexual relations. But Narcissus is not alone in the garden, his/her idealised loves being accompanied by the death throes of civilisation which unreflectively and insidiously install themselves in his/her new couplings, forcing them to turn in on themselves. Terror emerges in the cries and trances that spin the abject Narcissuses into ever-decreasing circles until they spin out of orbit or eat each other up.

Shamans or cannibals, depersonalisation cannot offer a sustainable alternative to Narcissus and his right-wing reign of territorial aggression. Although the desire to escape from wielding the projection-idealisation couplet that sanctions torture, rape and murder is understandable, hedonistic martyrs or masochists won’t save us from the internal negativity of being. Unable to negotiate our destructive proclivities, we separate the world into clean and unclean. Unclean are those dirty foreign others, the ones who come knocking on Europe’s doors or the ones who are exterminated as scapegoats so that the clean bodies of purity and strength can prevail. What can we do when our lives are stolen by human gods who outlaw nihilism yet transpose its negativity into the heart of social institutions? When protest is considered vandalism by a society that refuses to represent the limits of its borders, is retreat to the margins the only option?

Appropriate the ‘Party for Freedom’. Create an inverse effigy that wears its hat and dons its uniform. Decommission the rituals of scapegoating that sustain the reign of Narcissus in his deathly armoured vehicles. Expose the loss of lost nature that Narcissus defends himself against in his vendetta against the unclean others whose bodies he uses for his own (dis)satisfaction. Offer the suggestion that there is a portal of possibility, a liminal space in which the victim and the executioner that inhabit the narcissistic subject can tolerate each other. Narcissus reclaimed in all his primal ambiguity [5]  as the destroyer of gods and the purveyor of transformative idylls.


[1]‘Narcissus’ is a figure of Western subjectivity much discussed in psychoanalytic literature which some would claim is the structure of the Western psyche.
[2] More information on the works multifarious historical and contemporary references can be found in TJ Demos essay.
[3] In Western patriarchal capitalism, this is the phallus 
[4] Signifiance is Julia Kristeva’s term for the signifying process as it encompasses both symbolic functioning and the production of poetic language connected to the drives.
[5] Kristeva maintains that, as opposed to the defence mechanisms of secondary narcissism which result in the defensive structures of self aggrandisement or impoverishment that I have alluded to here, Western society needs to attend to the primary narcissism of the emerging subject in which relations to others are based on idealising affinity rather than the negative identification of difference. Identity could then be expanded to incorporate its excluded otherness, which might ultimately produce different relations to capital not based on scarcity and competition and the imposition of the will on others outside the self.