Subjective detumescence

Text: Rosalind E. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (pp.155-6)
Photos: Francesca Woodman

It was up to the group that formed around Bataille and his magazine Documents to conceive of a doubling that would not be the generator of form. For example, Roger Caillois on animal mimicry. The insect becomes the double of its background. The moth’s wings imitate shriveled leaves. The caterpillar’s body is indistinguishable from arching twigs. The praying mantis fashions itself as so many emerald blades of grass. Entomological wisdom calls this phenomenon protective coleration. The prey is in hiding, having acted in relation to its predator. If it has passed from figure against ground to ground on ground, it is in order, by outsmarting its tracker, to hold itself intact.

Callois does not agree. The animal’s camouflage does not serve its life, he says, because it occurs in the realm of vision, whereas animal hunting takes place in the medium of smell. Mimicry is not adaptive behavior; instead, it is a peculiarly psychotic yielding to the call of “space.” It is a failure to maintain the boundaries between inside and outside, between, that is, figure and ground. A slackening of the contours of its own integrity, of its self-possession, it is, as Denis Hollier calls it, a case of “subjective detumescence.” The body collapses, deliquesces, doubles the space around it in order to be possessed by its own surrounds. It is this possession that produces a double that is in effect an effacement of the figure. Ground on ground.

Caillois compares this to the experience of schizophrenics. “Space seems for these dispossessed souls to be a devouring force,” he says. “It ends by replacing them. The body then desolidifies with his thoughts, the individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself from any point whatever of space. He feels himself becoming space…. He is alike, not like something but simply like. And he invents spaces of which he is ‘the convulsive possession.'”

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