Colin Fulton: Empty & Hungry

Twin Conscience

On June 11, 1981, Issei Sagawa, a 32-year-old student studying Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne Academy in Paris, invited a fellow student, Renée Hartevelt, over to dinner at his apartment under the pretense of translating some German Romantic poetry for a class they were taking. Upon her arrival, after convincing her to begin reading aloud the high romantic poems, he then shot her in the back of the neck with a rifle while she sat with her back to him at a desk. Sagawa claims to have fainted after the shock of killing her, but awoke realizing that he had no choice but to carry out his desire to eat her.

She had been selected, he claims, for her health and beauty, those characteristics Sagawa believed he lacked. (Sagawa describes himself as a “weak, ugly, and inadequate little man” and claims that he wanted to “absorb her energy”.) His first attempt to bite into her met with failure, so he proceeded to go out shopping for a more appropriate knife. After having sex with the corpse he began his butchering, and for two days Sagawa ate various parts of her body. (He described the meat as “soft” and “odourless.”) He then attempted to dump the mutilated body in a remote lake, but was seen in the act and later arrested by the French police who found parts of the deceased still in his refrigerator.

His wealthy father provided a top lawyer for his defense, and after being held for two years without trial a French judge found him legally insane and unfit to stand trial, and ordered that Sagawa be held indefinitely in a mental institution. The subsequent publicity and macabre celebrity that had by this time arisen around Sagawa’s crime likely contributed to the French authorities’ decision to have him extradited back to his native country. Upon arrival in Japan, he was immediately taken to another mental hospital, where, contrary to the French investigation, examining psychologists all found him to be “sane, but evil,” stating that sexual perversion was the sole provable motivation for the murder. However, Japanese authorities found it to be legally impossible to hold him, because the French government refused to release the case’s incriminatory court documents (which still remain secret) – Sagawa’s case having already been dropped in a France eager to be rid of him. As a result, Sagawa checked himself out of the mental institution on August 12, 1986, and has been a free man ever since.


A few years ago Vice Magazine interviewed Issei Sagawa and produced one of their trademark shock-docs about his story. Sagawa, today unable to find any “honest work” because of his notoriety, still susceptible to cannibalistic and homicidal urges (though he apparently suppresses them through copious masturbation and the hiring of escorts under a fake name) has cashed in the best he can on the murder and defilement of an innocent woman. Yet this former English graduate student is (as he says in the interview, “Georges Bataille believed that the kiss is the beginning of cannibalism and I agree;” one wouldn’t be surprised to hear this at a dinner party among poets) remarkably frank about his paradoxical motivations. “Nobody believes me, but my ultimate intention was to eat her, but not necessarily to kill her. To this day, I still think, ‘If only she had let me taste her, just a little bit…’ If we had spent another evening having dinner and chatting about our families, I never would have been able to kill her. In other words, I can’t project my fantasies onto somebody who is already personified in my mind. That’s why my first candidates were all prostitutes. I had a lot of other female friends as well, but I would never have dreamed of eating them since I considered them human beings with their own individual personalities.” And a quote from the end of the documentary: “Why can’t I feel remorseful for what I’ve done? […] I fear my cannibalism might emerge again. I’m 61 now and I still can’t figure out what this is all about. I don’t even know who I am. Nor the meaning of my life. […] It would have been much easier to die. I really wish they would give me the death sentence. Death is my only hope. Recently, more than the urge to eat someone I have the urge to be killed. I want to die suffering, slowly torn apart alive. Of course, I’d rather be murdered by a beautiful woman than by a man. Yet again: my fantasies.”

I am drawn to the way conscience persists in Sagawa here, a conscience which tarries along with his unconscionable actions and, in a very real way, as far as we can trust him, has kept him alive by giving him a reason to live. My first thought in researching Sagawa – having recently re-read Donato Mancini’s book You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence – was simply “this is the reviewer.” In the reviewer’s case the healing fire is aesthetic conscience, and there is of course a difference in magnitude when comparing their relationship to poetry with cannibalism, but aligning them is all too appropriate. The only structural difference between these types is that the reviewer ‘consumes’ its own in a less literal way: the aesthetic conscience which turns all artistic questions into moral questions (interpreting the ‘is’ of a poem as an ‘ought’ over and over again) bounces back on the wielders, who are themselves poet 90% of the time – their exhortations become lashes of a guiding whip while their declamations become lashes of a punishing whip. And just as the cannibal fattens himself up for the next cannibal, the reviewer-poet tenderizes himself for the reviewer to come.

As you may recall, last November there was a review of You Must Work Harder posted by Alan Reed on Lemon Hound that sparked a pretty substantial comments section discussion. I did my best there to defend Mancini and his text, and don’t feel the need to rearticulate that site-specific defense fully. But before I get into the places I want to go with the aforementioned allegory of cannibal reviewer, I want to remedy some of the interpretative problems which that review may have bequeathed to those who read it. My intention in writing here is therefore less to produce a counter-review and more to share a close reading of the text which uses Reed’s review as an example – so let’s go back and sketch more accurately the foundations of YMWH’s arguments and start from there:

As a by-product of the “Late-Late-Late Capitalist” situation in which we find ourselves, art consumers and producers are forced, consciously or not, to relate to and adjudicate on art objects by way of ‘aesthetic conscience,’ defined by Mancini as “the realm of sensation annexed by morality.” [75] Aesthetic conscience works like an “administrative apparatus” whose task it is to support Ideology, much the same way that a bureaucracy or infrastructure supports the State. (And by defining Ideology as “the basic cognitive, linguistic and affective operating system of any socialized subject” [67] Mancini makes it clear that he does not claim ideological immunity for himself or the kind of poetry he’s interested in (a point that was spectacularly missed in the original review). As he says, both ‘postmodern’ and ‘permamodern’ literatures today moralize aesthetics [84], because aesthetic conscience, with its “empty structure,” is “capable of serving any moral order.” [89] In order to uniformly structure their relationships to this pesky art stuff that keeps on popping up, subjects are supplied, through socialization, with an ‘ideolect’ – a set of implicitly moralizing descriptions, tautological cultural-value terms, as well as dead and thus habitually efficacious metaphors – with which to fill out the emptiness of their aesthetic conscience. Through the acceptance of and participation in this discourse which will result from ideolective circularity, subjects under the sway of aesthetic conscience (again, we all are in this position to some degree) justify and propagate ideology within the field of cultural production. And what is used to train and motivate subjects in said legitimation and propagation? Always a phantasmal and externalised object of desire; the nonexistent and generic ground upon which ideology commands its indentured labourers to build a ziggurat, which, in permanent construction, becomes their home.

The problem for Ideology, however, is that it requires unity, necessity and self-sufficiency to vouchsafe identity for the subject and thus maintain its power, but in reality it possesses none of these things. So the contradictions at every level have to be masked: subjects are supposed to be unified in deliberation when faced with the art object, but contain multiple and often contradictory aesthetic consciences; an ideolect is supposed to be founded on essential virtues, but these too are merely words unable to escape the contingency of their meanings; the homogenous discourse which results from this collusion of aesthetic conscience and ideolect claims to be capable of understanding and valuing all possible instances of art, and yet it fails to accommodate and even recognize the extreme artistic heterogeneity of the present; and all the while, an ideological regime’s desires for its imaginary object become so insatiable that, in order to sate them, the desirer must at once become the desiree while deferring the desired consumption (of itself).


            “Arriving at this place, which is so hard to enter, you thought at last the goal was near and that the worst was behind you. Oh how you stuck with memory! It was extraordinary, I admit. Others totally forget their former life when they arrive. But you’ve kept a small memory inside, a weakened signal you’ve not allowed to fail. Of course, since you’ve allowed many memories to become indistinct, for me it’s as if thousands of miles separated us. I can hardly make you out. It’s difficult for me to imagine that one day I’ll know who you are. But soon, very soon we’ll finally be united. I’ll open my arms and throw them around you—and I’ll move with you through deep secrets. We’ll lose, then find, one another. Nothing will ever come between us again. It’s sad you won’t be present for this happiness!” [Bataille, q. Blanchot: Guilty pp 82]


Big Teeth

With the foundation outlined above we can at begin to dispel a major misunderstanding of You Must Work Harder’s intent. In Reed’s Lemon Hound review, for example, he seems to think that YMWH’s putative target is lyric poetry, and assumes that the text is a manifesto/apologia for postmodern poetry. Mancini does devote a considerable amount of space to the postmodern – one of the most valuable parts of the book for me was his deliberation over why postmodernism as a term is preferable over competing descriptive terms for poetics such as “experimental,” “avant-garde,” “innovative,” and so on. But his reason for investigating the reception of postmodern rather than permamodern (still the kingdom of the lyric, despite many hybridizing ambassadors and spies) poetry is simple: the current configuration of aesthetic conscience has been primed for the permamodern, and if we want to see the inner workings of a faculty we have to look at phenomena which disrupt it, not phenomena which reinforce it. Mancini never gives a strict definition of the postmodern in poetry (why would we want that?), but there are hints dropped here and there: he is talking about a postmodernist poetics sceptical of expression, rejecting communication as the only end to which the poem is never more than a  means [21/205], sceptical of humanism, rejecting the usual division between poet and reader and any dogma prescribing the obligations of each [122], sceptical of essentialism, rejecting myths of progress, myths of Golden Ages, and myths of absolute value [64] . . . this isn’t overly controversial, I would hope.

The smooth-functioning aesthetic conscience found in Canada’s dominant canon-builders (its ideolect of the “craft discourse” turning the poet into an artisan, its fantasy of the “common reader” turning the poet into a servant of nationalist or populist interests) has traditionally found something to fear in the implications of postmodern poetry that it never found in permamodern poetry (which after all is in a large part the result of this hegemony) [195]. But the real story of YMWH is the way that ideological processes have assisted in the successful immunization of the aesthetic conscience against the postmodern – not by outright exclusion of its unintelligibilities, but by a pragmatic and egalitarian insistence that existing ways of reading poetry are in principle capable of understanding anything that calls itself a poem, a violently gifted intelligibility – to the point that the depoliticization of the postmodern argument results in a remainder known as style.

Mancini is the first to point to figures who blur the boundary of the perma- and the post-modern [153], and the first to note that many of Canada’s most recognized and successful poets are in strong senses dual citizens [15]; in my reading, however, this perma/post division is not a reference to “camps” so much as a reference to two entirely different and incompatible temporalities (which all poets are at least in principle able to fall into and out of). The perma reflects a belief in the inevitable continuity of poetic tradition, and the post believes in the possibility of radical scission. (I will elaborate on this when I begin talking about the ways this binary is verified by the ‘behavioural cusp’ model of intuition.) It is precisely because we are socialised by and immersed in ideology that aesthetic conscience turns out to be present in us all, all of us subjects conditioned to respond to the artwork, the poem – both the poem written for permamodernity and the poem written for postmodernity – by way of moral judgements and this moralization’s concomitant solidification of values.

The real issue is that the ways we talk about poetry have failed to diversify at the same rate that poetry itself has diversified [13]. The real situation is that “the artists who make the work are themselves made, at the core of the field of production, by the whole ensemble of those who help ‘discover’ them and consecrate them as ‘known’ and recognized;” [131, q. Bordieu]; it’s the socioeconomic horizons of this messy field that sets down boundaries for what art and criticism can do and say, not the other way around. And the real test for readers of You Must Work Harder comes in those moments – when facing the claim of poetry that is poetry, when reviewing a book that calls itself poetry, when positioning yourself within and against communities and temporalities of poetry – where nothing can be felt other than the pangs of aesthetic conscience, and nothing is more desired than its pleasures. At what cost will you quell or dwell inside the pain of confronting ‘unconfrontable’ writing, the pain of knowing that entities exist out there paying attention to ‘bad’ poetry, the poetry that deceives you and insults you and sickens you and robs you of the very ability to see, let alone read or write or evaluate, poetry? And if the pleasure you were promised as a reviewer becomes nothing but the end of pain?

There is a very early passage in the book where Mancini says that “lyric poetry can only have continued pertinence (if any pertinence at all) within the ideological terms of a contested literary field. Radically non-lyrical alternative poetries have to develop, to give lyric poetry a productively defining antagonist, or there remains no reason for it to exist.” [14] What Mancini is actually saying here is that no poetics will remain vital if it’s allowed to ignore the presence of alternative and even incompatible poetries, and moreover, that when a poetics does become aware of others, the contradictions shouldn’t be treated as problems to be solved by waving away of the “lived differences” that inform our disparate art. Across the perma/post divide, the only thing leading  practitioners and critics to the assimilationist conclusions which are still so prevalent in most Canadian reviewing is an uninterrogated aesthetic conscience: YMWH’s true enemy, and your true enemy.


 “In the case of being tickled, the one [submitting to] their tickling goes from a tranquil state to a convulsive state – tickling is alienation. They undergo it, and are reduced to the impersonality of living substance; the one who is tickled can only escape from their being tickled by opening up to the one who is tickling them [closed off as they are from themselves]. […] Thus, though a sudden tickling exists as a rupture in what could have been communication, within the rupture there is still [bare] communication. But I’m going to offer the following proposition: that the person being tickled – just for fun, or as a joke – could kill the person tickling them at any moment. And that this would be analogous to tickling, [a rupture within the rupture and supportive of an even barer] communication. […] Submission makes us into a non-us, a natural being, but broken and humbled by ourselves so as to no longer be the insubordination we are.” [Bataille: Guilty pp 143 & 135 (heavily modified by me)]


Supper Time

Moving horizontally from Mancini’s book now (a movement which, due to YMWH’s incorporation of tools from the discourses of conscience found in sociology and developmental psychology, I feel I can make) I want to go further with this idea of behaviourism as an unacknowledged informant to literary criticism. Mancini mentions this briefly in reference to John Ruskin’s mythological status as a critic so affectively devoted to his ideals that artwork flying in the face of ‘beauty,’ ‘unity,’ and so on would cause him “literal pain” [83] – Mancini (and the researchers he borrows from) would have us see aesthetic ‘pain’ and the actions of the subject who tries to rid themselves of the pain (by writing a review for example) as socialisation rituals that in fact harden the affective response triggers in both the subject and those who empathize with the subject, rather than dissolving the trigger once and for all. When it returns (as it must for the subject who stays with poetry), aesthetic pain deepens thanks to these behavioural ditches originally carved into subjectivity in order to expedite aesthetic pain’s departure, in order to shorten the duration of sensory attention to art. By ditches I mean tokenistic responses to the work, overattentiveness to paratextual trivialities, alignments of both work and reviewer to groups in ways that save the time/effort of reading: what Mancini calls “phatic position-signals” [26]. And I can’t help but mention the Wittgensteinian take on pain here as well: that the critic’s pains and pleasures do not in fact ‘belong’ to the critic, even though the proprietary individualism most poet-critics feel they express through their deliberations is the supposed source of their authority (that which makes their insights unique or eccentric, instilling their voice with a timbre of opinion that demands listening in isolation from the clamour of the many). Like language for Wittgenstein, aesthetic conscience does not itself train the subject to feel pain in this or that way as a private event – it trains the subject to train themselves, and others, and in doing so reveals ‘pain’ as a social event.

As for the utopian potential that Mancini thinks may still rest in the “empty hunger” of conscience, in truth subservient to no one ideology [242] . . . I feel this statement is hard to parse without a little more recourse to behaviourism. So I want to try applying a term that Mancini doesn’t use, the idea, found in developmental psychology, of the behavioural cusp. If we can never get rid of aesthetic conscience, how can its mercenary impulses be unlocked? In short, the behavioural cusp model directly challenges models of maturation and developmental milestones – take for example the dismissive idea of ‘gateway poets’ one should move on from after learning what they need, for example, or the fatuous idea that training in poetry (early stage) always has to focus on ‘the Tradition’ so that a life in poetry (late stage) can occur in ‘the Contemporary,’ and most importantly, the laissez-faire attitude that “Hey, people are just gonna like what they like!” Behavioural cusps are not landings in a flight of stairs leading to higher and higher levels of brute social competency. Behavioural cusps are stacks of horizons. They are noninevitable ruptures in possibility for the subject. And even though the cusp model explains the way entirely new ranges of behaviour/composition are opened up, and the way wholly unexpected modes of social/poetic intuition are acquired, it also explains the way these possibilities are precluded, beaten back, and appropriated by the normative.

Especially interesting for our purposes is ‘generativeness’ as a factor in the emergence of cusp behaviours: generativeness being the coefficient of a (poetic) environment’s resilience and capacity for the recombination and reinforcement of new behaviours. Highly generative poetic environments encourage the frequent ‘transcendence’ of behavioural cusps because, for whatever reason, the social frame in which they’re discerned need not be sacrificed in the process of crossing it. Poetic environments of low generativeness prohibitively defer the ‘transcendence’ of behavioural cusps because the social frame in which they’re discerned would need to be abandoned in order to do so. And yet, the highly generative environment’s hospitality to the cusp can mask its desire to maintain a context in which cusps are rendered trivially novel, whereas the lowly generative environment’s hostility to the cusp can grant nonconforming behaviours an affective and schismatic power not found in the former. In short, situations of both high and low generativeness (which are distinguished, despite the sociality of the concept, subject by subject and more by institutional perspective than anything) can lead to very different sorts of ‘revolutions.’

Take for example the following diagram, stolen from a 1994 research paper which applied of the behavioural cusp model to choice theory in economics (tantalizingly titled “Sudden Lost Meaning; A Catastrophe?”):

 Sudden Lost Meaning Diagram

 After reading Mancini’s work, the ways this picture might be grafted onto the critical landscape of aesthetic-conscience-rife Canadian literary criticism began to interest me. It can depict in a sense the variable ‘thickness’ of the field of cultural production, in which poetry – the ways our work is read, distributed and grouped, in primarily habitual/behavioural ways –  takes place. Through differential reinforcement across the field (we train animals with food) the field folds itself, and is refolded, and folds again over its refoldings (this is its mastication). Identifiability increases alongside inaccessibility (we can turn the trained animals into food too you know); at the same time, the ‘inaccessible region’ gains volume to the point that it ‘bifurcates’ or divides a range of intuitive responses to what was indigestible (the cow with many stomachs). A range of intuitive behaviours revealed by the reinforcement of one cusp will close off another: a reading opened for you by one way of comporting yourself with the text will close off another (do you want to eat something that never rots?) And for me, not only is this is an accurate description of the way things are, it is the occasion for a book like You Must Work Harder: how do we comport ourselves toward the field’s contingency? How can we accept that we are bodies able to eat bodies? Mancini’s questioning is as informed by aesthetic conscience as it is antagonistic to aesthetic conscience, and the utopian potential is placed in hunger, not taste, because it is the former and not the latter that allows aesthetic conscience to adapt to its threats – aesthetic conscience being the foremost among them.

I feel that the cusp, like pain, is something to be in. If there is a chewing mechanism, it is powered by the cusp, and if the chewing is to stop, we should look to the stacking of horizons (how and what is being served to us) that is the behavioural cusp model of development. In other words, keep your eyes below the dinner table.


“Several figures stood out there with much less distinctness than statues on a cathedral porch. They were of such scale and serenity as to strike me with fear. I’d never seen or imagined beings this perfect, this powerful, this lucidly ironic. One of them rose before me in its majestic and glacial architecture, though seated in a casual position, as if the rows of other figures alongside it in the frieze were waves of clear, purified laughter with no more hindrance and no less violence than breakers in a storm. Standing in front of this stone being, from whom there steamed an inner intoxicating lunar light, in a fit of desperation and the certainty of sharing this mirth that stirred within, I discovered (as I trembled) the power to realize what I wasand laugh. […] And this brought to mind the following line from Vergil: incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem. The sociologist Roger Caillois, citing this line, remained reticent on the meaning, as it is possible to translate ‘begin, infant, to recognize your mother by her laughter’ also as ‘by your laughter’.” [Bataille: Guilty pp 48 & 140]


Projectile Vomit

Much like the cannibal Sagawa, the reviewer, the one with taste who tastes in your place (just a nibble won’t hurt), seeing themselves as a voice in the wilderness possessed of uncommon discernment (selecting both the most delectable cuts of meat and the most painless methods of carving it) walks unhindered and feels no pain (who deserves pain? not ME!). And just as the reviewer re-enacts a butchering of the text by translating his failed reading into an opinion piece, Sagawa keeps starring in gore films that restage his crime again and again: the crime entirely predicated on the victim’s assimilation into an existing structure of conscience and its hunger. The cannibal does not have the desire to eat a person, he is this desire, and confirms his personhood through a depersonalization of the victim. The reviewer does not have the desire to subject poetry to moral evaluation, he is this desire, and entrenches his arbitrarily chosen values through the infinite regress of taste. In both cases the behavioural training that leads to the event – of cannibalism, of reviewing – are singular, one-dimensional, rigid and pure. Both subjects are immobile despite their orbit around the collapsed star of ideology, a black hole “hoping” to engulf anything and everything while somehow remaining exactly and eternally unchanged, self-similar. And stranger still, both the reviewer and Sagawa want to be destroyed – Sagawa ‘lives for’ the punishment he never received, delivered within the terms of his criminal fantasies, just as the reviewer ‘lives for’ the elimination of their very purpose, obtainable only within their fantasy of a perfect canon/pantry that no longer needs policing.

I think I should end this here. Although, following the ripple in this essay that began with Bataille, I can only offer a few summative propositions: First, you are meant to be in pain. Secondly, nothing is food. Third, taste has no future. And last of all – QVID?

Colin Fulton currently lives in Victoria, but he will be joining us at Concordia in Montreal this fall. His first book, Life Experience Coolant, will be published by BookThug in September 2013. Donato Mancini will read this evening at D&Q at 7:30.


Mancini, Donato. You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence. Toronto: Bookthug, 2012.

Bataille, Georges. Guilty. Venice CA: The Lapis Press, 1988.

Kosuga, Tomokazu, trans. Lena Oishi. “Who’s Hungry?” Vice Online: 2009.


Patricia Karathanos, et al. “Sudden Lost Meaning: A Catastrophe?” Management Decision, Vol. 32:1, 1994

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