Virginia Barratt on the researcher‑body as site for the creation and collection of emic data
I am in France. I have been working towards a presentation related to my research on panic at the Sorbonne, at a conference called Lire Pour Faire. I am anxious, sick with it, actually. My paper is dry and I need wet. The wet of tears, the wet of biochemicals pumping through blood, the wet of fear-piss. I want to vomit and I want to scream. Instead I sit in my room and hyperventilate. I find my friend and disclose my fears to her. I am in a state. She convinces me to do a practice presentation for a group of people who will be kind and supportive. I perform my disquiet and my insecurity and it is painful, and the pain is felt, and there is silence. There is a sitting back, a sinking down, a closing of laptop lids. There is quiet. Sometime after the quiet somebody tells a story and there is talk, feedback, questioning, exchange, confusion. This is where the research happens. Elsewhere, and otherwise, and afterwards.
I don’t know and can never know my panic, and yet I know it more thoroughly than I know my hunger, my sleep, my pain. Every panic is new, every panic needs to be learned over again. Panic is the reviled companion of repetition, a ritual of undoing that is necessary to a sense of self. A sense of self that is always under attack, always disrupted, always at risk. The performative re/production of risk is undertaken in the hope of transforming loss into newness. The new, coming, is the hope of this fallible, frightening, stuttering, sighing, crying, ictic, repetitive exploration.
Stuttering: making the tongue strange, not by using dialogic markers—“he stuttered” following Deleuze, or in my case “she panicked!”—especially if the words preceding this dialogic marker, whether spoken or written, adhere to a linguistics of equilibrium. Nor by declaration. “I declare” was a speech act I performed in front of a Justice of the Peace this morning, and was sufficient unto itself within a system of equilibrium. “I panic” can never be sufficient unto itself as it has no performative function. Only by finding yourself a stranger in your mother(’s) tongue, by following a line of vocality that vibrates with each ragged exhalation, each spike of panic excitation, only by leaping into the syntactical abyss can you make the system of language stutter.
“She panicked” is not a panic, but it is a something.
Ictic [IKTIK!]: Vocalising in fits and starts in ticcing language. ticic. tiicc. ictic. from the Latin ictus, meaning literally “a blow, stroke, thrust.” In prosodic terms, it relates to the beat, rhythm, stress of voices or of speech. I am using the neologistic “ictic” for its phonological value. The “c” is a plosive, sounded as the voiceless velar consonant “k”, and the doubled plosive, along with the denti‑alveolar stop “t” that quickly follows the “c” to perform a stuttering seizure of speech, a way to language (within language) the seizure of a panic. It is a language always proceeding towards a silence, brought about by a stop, where the tongue, either behind the teeth or to the anterior of the mouth, blocks the airflow, creating an intensity behind the tongue and eventually either swallowing itself or voicing a forceful plosive that has lost it’s wording.
The panic is immanent: it is the shape of a seizure bumping into a language, leaping into a body, becoming-sound in an ictic dance of hands, feet, head-reterritorialising as m/emetic contagion, sticky abjection.
Repetition implies return: when one “no” is never enough, and when the urgency of the conditions incites repetition, looping, run‑on words (no becomes nononononoooo o noh oh nono and so on), moving further away from the original word and its meaning and towards an intensity of overstatement that is akin to flight, or to running and stumbling, often back and forwards across the same territory. Stuttering, creating an excess, making redundancy a feature of meaning. The language body opens out because it cannot hold itself together, “bifurcates” along myriad lines of affective meaning, revisiting old wounds, lesions, triggers, terrors. Over and over.
To write this panic that I don’t know, but know too well, is unsettling. To be settled in research is to know, to know beyond a shadow. To be settled is the punctum. “Don’t know” drives us forward towards partial knowing, to ambiguity not certainty. “Don’t know” is about foregrounding the contradictions of languaging, what can never be languaged, of performing the unknowable, of embracing ambiguity. Ambiguities open out, they don’t shut down, they open out to allow us to write towards the unwritable. In the not‑knowing I happen upon a question which glimmers: “Could it be that not‑understanding or wondering is more honest and even less violent than knowing?”
This “happening upon” could be seen as a methodologically related to Debord’s dérive—to be “drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters [found] there”—as part of a wondering, wandering, stumbling method following tangents, taking off at sharp angles, getting turned around, going down blind alleys, coming up against obstacles and dead ends. Getting lost. Situating the researcher-body inside the enabling constraint of impossibility. The sense of wonder and terror that arises.
Maggie MacLure might call this going where the data glows. Allowing yourself to be mesmerised by a glitter, a glimmer. Allowing the eye and the mind to be caught by a peripheral movement that might be a something. Taking a closer look. Experiencing hope, excitement, relief. Allowing the glimmer-glint to grow in intensity and take up residence in the researcher-body as affect. This wonderment, this vibration which you almost-see might become a something, might deviate into language. Might become a trace of a trace. Might become a poem, which is not a panic, but is something.
The punctum of knowing is the end of the line. Wile E. Coyote, indefatigable in his pursuit of the elusive and never-captured Road Runner, is driven by a desire to “know” Road Runner absolutely. The ACME Corporation anvil that “kills” him doesn’t put and end to his wondering, is not the punctum it should be. Coyote regroups, reterritorialises, reanimates! Wile’s obsessive desire to know Road Runner through his stomach is redoubled. There seems to be no comprehension of the repetition that is played out again and again, with the same results, only a certain wild delight in the chase. The two seem more companions-in-chase than adversaries, and committed to a social contract which does not annihilate Wile’s pursuit of the unknowable, and which creates the conditions for never-ending wondering. We suspect that a bellyful of knowing would serve only to annihilate purpose for them both. The Road Runner is always more delicious uneaten.
To wrench meaning from experience in the service of a systemic drive towards metrics, categorisation, reduction, fixing meaning in place through signification could represent one violent, top-down way of oppressing meaning into pre‑ordained frames. The audit-culture shuts down avenues of exploration that are problematic for our desired outcomes, will not-see that which is not in our interests to see rather than following the glow of data or the pull of a fascination, the temptation of an anomaly. The direct line from experience to logos, to thus and therefore, bypasses wonder in favour of the “pedestrian contributions to knowledge of audit-driven approaches such as evidence-based practice and systematic review.” These things might constitute a violence of knowing.
This poem is not a panic, but it is a something. It is production happening elsewhere.
Following Brian Massumi, the poem that is not a panic is a “distorted trace” of panic, since affect exists beyond language, happening to the researcher-body at the level of matter, in an extra-textual” space. According to Massumi, affects hit first the body and then the cognitive faculties. In the grip of panic, I become non-verbal: all leg jitters and arms levitating and balloon hands and swallowing swallowing; all hands with fingers, like small birds, flying upwards and outwards with my thoughts. Bringing these bird-hands to bear upon the page is a domestication I feel mostly incapable of.
To communicate an affect—let’s say panic—after the fact is to re-present voltage, suffocation, time distortion, rising, falling, heat, body dysmorphia, iciness, ordinariness, adrenal exhaustion, despair. You have the unspeakable data. Transmission of the affective data requires experimentation, requires you to find the affective register of language (this might be through poetic experimentation, singing, wailing, dance, excessive vowelling, stuttering, un-writing and so on) and unleash a “creative contagion”, an intense amplification of linguistic redundancy vibrating at a frequency that can enter the bodies of others.
I experiment with the ways panic can reproduce itself, beyond personal devastation, beyond my body laid to waste. How my panic can become knowledge in a way that “transcends solely subjective accounts of affect.” This experimentation is not a performance of panic, but a re‑performance of the affect of panic, an opening to the intensities, flows and flights of panic, as remembered by my body, as site of deterritorialisation, as site of emptiness, as site of cosmic alienation, as site of doubled infinity—travelling inwards and outwards from a shifting point that is both portal and channel.
After I perform the panic in France, and in Germany, and in Toronto, and then in Brisbane a witnessing delegate (well, more than one) asked me why I would create such an exhausting and dangerous performance experiment, and do it again and again. This is how I found my methodology. By opening my thrilled and terrified heart. By crying in public in front of an audience of philosophers and artists. By choking on my words and stuttering. By experiencing the humiliation of my own protracted silence, and the embarrassment of the audience on my behalf. By failing to be well put together. Opening myself to panic and allowing it to enter me was the only way to create affective data and to reterritorialise this affect as a language experiment.
I explained that my site of research is very locally situated. I am the researcher-body. I am the site of production, re-production, research and analysis. I said that to research panic is to do panic. The performance space is my laboratory and the performance is the metamethodology, or the “living experiment” in which “affective influences can be introduced to strengthen and stimulate affective responses.” More than this the laboratory is an assemblage. The performance, the performing body and the researcher-body are in a relationship with the audience, the performance space, other performers, and the cultural inflections of my surroundings. Performing in a lecture room, a theatre, an underground space, at a conference or alone on a plane—all these spaces bring difference to bear upon the performance.
Flight is a panic-space for me as is anywhere that is unheimlich. Waking to the new day is fraught with sub-somatic panics. Night terrors visit in the moonless dark. Out of the blue-black. Panic strikes indiscriminately.
To find myself flying out of my seat at 33,000 feet and stumbling down the aisle of the A380 with hands and feet and tears, to the galley vomiting words like “I am fucking terrified”. Their surprised faces. There’s nothing you can do, says Amy. There’s nothing you can do, you have to find a way around it. I sit in my seat and whisper into my audio recorder for hours:
There’s nothing you can do, there’s nothing you can do, there’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing to be done. There’s nothing you can do.
Productive abjection, digital excrement, that I will later mix down into a barely listenable soundtrack. Barely-listenable being the point. It arises from a barely-survivable place. The soundtrack ends up in a performance in Toronto. People are affected and hug me. People are affected and walk out. People are affected and cry. People are affected and ask “Was that real?” This is an experiment in creative contagion.
The vocalities I employ to perform this panicked experiment are the distillation of affect into a textuality that can in turn trigger affective resonance, a vibration that hums at 10,000 hz, the affect that is coiled, like a spring, inside, like a seed ready to burst, like a hex-in-waiting. This textual experiment reveals the affective register of linguistics, what Simon O’Sullivan might refer to as “a bundle of affects” or, quoting Deleuze and Guattari, “a bloc of sensations, waiting to be reactivated by a spectator or participant.”
Encountering panic as an assemblage that feeds back into itself and amplifies the glimmer of affective data via memesis, going back and forth over the same (and yet never the same) territory is to offer a space to explore ontological security, language coherence, the way we destabilise and, together, transform through destabilising modes of relationality. John Protevi notes that panic, or extreme rage and fear are thoroughly desubjectivising, triggering evacuation from all fixed social and subjective structures, including embodied structures. I am exploring what this means for subjective integrity, understandings of selfhood and ontological security—the sense of trust we have in the continuity of normal routines and social structures which affirm our sense of identity. Can we return (again and again) from this flight to the same subject-occupied-body? Is this terrifying and excremental evacuation of subjectivity a transformational way of knowing the world, and does this flight offer up opportunities for non-normative modes of becoming-beyond-chaos.
How does my data glow? It glows in intensities and flows through veins electrified with panic and glorious incoherence. It glows in unspeakable verbs of undoing.
Today as I was driving my jaw suddenly came adrift.
The sun was in my head, and my head was the sun
I guess there was a storm in a star and
I could see my own glory
In lenticular arcs
I make my mouth round
and perfect OOOOOs emerge
THIS IS NOT A PANIC
- ^ Gilles Deleuze, “He Stuttered ...”, in Gilles Deleuze And The Theatre Of Philosophy, New York and London: Routledge, 2017, p. 27
- ^ Deleuze, “He Stuttered ... “, p. 24
- ^ Kathlees Ossip, ‘Why All Poems Are Political,’ Electric Lit, 2017: https://electricliterature.com/why-all-poems-are-political-47e71402885
- ^ Guy Debord, ‘Theory Of The Dérive,’ Situationist International Online, 1956: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/theory.html
- ^ Maggie MacLure, ‘The Offence Of Theory,’ Journal of Education Policy 25, no. 2, 2010, p. 283
- ^ MacLure, p. 278
- ^ Britta Timm Knudsen and Carsten Stage (eds), Affective Methodologies, p. 4
- ^ Knudsen and Stage, p. 5
- ^ Britta Timm Knudsen, Affective Methodologies: Developing Cultural Research Strategies for the Study of Affect, February 2016. Springer, p. 18
- ^ Simon O’Sullivan, ‘The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art Beyond Representation’, Angelaki 6, no. 3, 2001, p. 126
- ^ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. G. Burchell and H. Tomlinson, London, Verso, 1994, p. 164
Virginia Barratt is a researcher, writer and performer based in Adelaide. She is writing a PhD at Western Sydney University in the Writing and Society Centre and her research interests are panic, affect and deterritorialisation | virginiabarratt.net
Card image: Virginia Barratt, After Ana Mendieta and Me: falling/flying/becoming, paper, sound, video. Installation view, Ballinale Ballina, 2016. Courtesy and © the artist.