Quod Nomen Mihi Est?:
Excerpts from a Conversation With Satan
I was 10 years old the first time I was possessed by the devil.
It happened in the small city of Dumaguete on the island of Negros
in the Philippines, where I was attending sixth grade at one of
the oldest American missionary schools in Asia. One night I was
jolted from my sleep in the wee hours of the morning by a terrifying
feeling. I woke to find my room and my body completely out of proportion.
My head and hands felt too big for my body. My heart was racing.
And as I looked around the room my sense of space was becoming monstrous
and strange: my vision felt decentered, like I was floating outside
of myself; everything around me was small and far away, like I was
looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Or maybe it was that
the room was looking at me. It was full of a presence that penetrated
me with a gaze that seemed to come from every direction at once.
I jumped out of bed, ran out of the house, and still barefoot and
in my shorts, began walking instinctively in the direction of sunrise.
I didnt stop or turn around until the sky began to glow a
dull blue and the birds announced the coming dawn.
At the time of this encounter, if anyone had asked the question
What scares you?, I would have answered with a series
of movie titles: Jaws, Helter Skelter, The Amityville
Horror, The Exorcist. The last two of these, The Amityville
Horror and The Exorcist, both entail scenarios of demonic
possession in enclosed domestic spaces, and both scared me so much
that I never dared to watch them. But that didnt stop me from
thinking about them with a kind of morbid fascination, to the point
that I practically reinvented the scenes over in my head. So when
I woke up that night in the Philippines, I recognized my altered
state of consciousness as a sign that the devil had entered me and
I was possessed. After that incident I became afraid of my room,
and of sleeping in the dark, quiet heat of the tropical night. For
what seemed like a long time afterward I dreaded the moment when
all the lights in the house would go off and I would be left alone,
lying awake in my room with Satan waiting for me to drift off to
There is a book that brings me back to the scene of childhood terror:
the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Set in the
late 1800s, at the height of the industrial revolution, Heart of
Darkness follows the trail of Marlow, a young seaman, up the Congo
River where he has been sent by a mining interest called The Company,
to survey the expanding imperial domain of King Leopold of Belgium.
More specifically, he has been sent to look for the enigmatic Kurtz,
a Company agent who has cut contact with the home office, and whose
activities in the furthest reaches of the African jungle are now
a matter of suspicion and doubt. The novel could be read as a fictionalized
travelogue: a geographic and historical account of the events and
landscape during the heyday of European colonial expansion. Yet
as Marlow goes deeper and deeper into the African continent, his
journey becomes as much psychological as geographic. He reaches
his final destination at the end of the book to discover he has
come full circle, facing not a dark secret about the jungle but
a dark truth about himself and the values of his society.
The plot is surely familiar to all by now, if not through Conrads
book, then through the various Hollywood remakes that have come
since: from Orson Welles adaptation for radio, through Francis
Ford Coppolas Apocalypse Now, to his wife Eleanores
subsequent expose on the making of her husbands epic, to Nicolas
Roegs telenovela starring John Malkovitch as Kurtz and Iman
as his jungle bride. More broadly speaking, Heart of Darkness
belongs to an age-old narrative structure that is the basis of every
journey into the unknown, a pattern that extends from Oedipus
to Star Wars, from Medusa and the Sphinx to Aliens,
from Homers Odyssey to Pigafettas journals, Nanook
of the North, South Pacific, Lost Horizons, Jungle
Fever. Many have sought to understand the endurance of this
pattern. There is much to support the theory that the heros
journey is the very spark and engine of the narrative drive itself.
Nor is the jungle setting of Heart of Darkness particularly
new. The homes and bodies of black people, of women, and the poor
have always been the preferred site for the heros transgressions.
Yet two things distinguish Conrads version of the plot, the
first being that it takes place just as the foundations are being
laid for the economic order we live in today. Contemporaneous with
the Philippine American war, Marlows journey up the Congo
and by extension, up all the Congos of the world is
the precise journey into nature that makes global capitalism possible.
The second thing that distinguishes Heart of Darkness is
its psychological depth. Written at about the same time as Sigmund
Freuds early lectures on psychoanalysis, Heart of Darkness
is full of descriptive clues and literary symptoms that provide
a window into the perceptions and phantasms of the Colonial imagination.
The novel stands as a rare case study of the Western psyche at the
dawn of the modern era. Marlow himself narrates: It would
be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals,
on the spot. I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.
And what characterizes this psychological profile? As we follow
Marlow upriver, we find his perception of the jungle becoming increasingly
paranoid. He says, I had... judged the jungle of both banks
quite impenetrable and yet eyes were in it, eyes that had
seen us. Throughout the story the feeling of eyes watching
from the trees grows stronger, until it seems it is not just animals
or people watching but something much bigger, maybe the jungle itself.
The inner truth is hidden luckily, luckily. But I felt
it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching
me at my monkey tricks...
Towards the end of the journey Marlows boat is enveloped by
a dense white fog. As it descends, the crew is filled with fear
because suddenly they are robbed of their power of sight
that primary, if paranoid, sense perception that has kept them centered
on their tenuous course up river, and has protected them from running
aground on the shallow banks. More disturbingly, without the benefit
of a panoramic view it becomes virtually impossible to judge depth
and distance with any accuracy, much less to maintain a safe distance
from the threatening presence in the trees. In this moment of sensory
overload the jungle rushes in, becomes suffocating and tactile,
seeps into the very pores of their skin. Marlow recounts, Our
eyes were of no more use to us than if we had been buried miles
deep in a heap of cotton wool. And it felt like it too choking,
This is an identity crisis in the deepest sense: a face to face
encounter with an other, where the boundary between subject and
object, self and other, narrator and story, Marlow and the jungle
seems to blur and disappear. It is a moment rich with visual resonance:
imagine a mode of perception so paranoid that visual reality seems
to fall apart, and ceases to make sense. In such moments, distinctions
between inside and outside, nationality, religion and language lose
their power to explain. For an artist this is the moment of truth.
In a scene from the 1972 blaxploitation thriller Across 110th
Street, a Mafia don stands at the window of his Central Part
South apartment, looks out across the trees, and says to his son-in-law,
What do you see? The heir apparent answers, Central
Park. To which the don replies, Central Park, si. But
there is also no mans land that separates us from the blacks
in Harlem. In October 1998, as I was preparing to mount an
exhibit at the newly opened gallery The Project on West 126th Street,
I thought about this scene, and about what it would mean to have
denizens of the downtown art world going uptown in search of new
art. Of course, New Yorks bohemians and investors have always
looked to the more exotic parts of town for novel thrills and new
ideas. At this moment it is already too late to buy up property
above the park. Disney is opening a mall right down the street.
Still, when people started asking if it would be safe to go up and
see the show, I knew that they were not referring to the threat
of police harassment.
The central piece in the exhibit was conceived as an extension of
the downtown patrons journey uptown into the Heart of Harlem.
You would come out of the subway on 125th, walk one block north
and two blocks west until you arrived at the gallery. Once inside,
you would go downstairs into the basement and through a dark hallway
to find a wood and glass display case, a replica made from a 1911
photograph in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History.
Inside the case was a little diorama of a jungle scene, and in the
middle of the jungle was a little white tent. The contextual details
of the scene were left purposely minimal. The historical setting
was specific. It could have been any jungle in the world, but it
definitely had to be somewhere in the tropics. And the tent would
indicate that wherever this was, there was somebody there who was
not at home in the terrain.
Moving into a second room, you would then find a large, floor-to-ceiling
movie screen, onto which was projected a life-sized image of a tent
against a leafy background. If you were to move back and forth between
the room with the projection screen and the room with the jungle
diorama, you would realize that you were looking at a live-feed
video signal coming from inside the glass case. This was made possible
via a tiny surveillance camera hidden in the trees, and pointed
at the tent. If you looked hard enough you could even see the peering
eyes of other viewers looking at the diorama, caught on camera and
projected as giants among the trees. Going upstairs again, you would
then find an arrangement of peep-holes set into the wall in a dark
corner of the main gallery space. Looking into the peep holes you
would see another live-feed image of the room downstairs with the
diorama you had just left. If there were people downstairs, you
could observe a flys eye view of the viewers peering at the
little tent in the little jungle of the diorama.
The title of the piece is Perspective Study (After Jeremy Bentham).
Jeremy Bentham was the architect of the Panopticon, the pioneering
18th century prison design that would become the template for the
modern penitentiary, among other things. The central principal of
the Panopticon is total visual access to the inmates every
move. The guard is positioned at the center of a multileveled rotunda;
the prisoners cells are spaced evenly along the inside perimeter.
The front of each cell is made of metal bars so that the captive
is in plain view at all times. The inmates cannot see each other,
only the guard tower. The observer in the tower at the center sees
all. As for the Perspective Study that makes up the rest of the
title, it is a reference to a famous etching by Albrecht Dürer,
the 16th Century artist and proto-naturalist. The etching shows
the artist in his studio surveying the world (a female model) through
the newly invented technology of the Cartesian grid. In the Perspective
Study (After Jeremy Bentham) in Harlem, the viewer is enveloped
and positioned within a web of shifting perspectival lines
a network of ocular relationships, of seeing and being seen. There
is no singular meaning to the work. It merely functions
as a three dimensional schematic diagram for your consideration.
You may note, however, that there is an implied obverse relationship
between the Panopticon and Marlows jungle. The suggestion
is this: that the man who sees and controls all must also be the
most paranoid man alive.
The mechanics of
perception and the formation of identity have always been intimate
bedfellows. At the dawn of Western architecture, the ordering of
space through strict laws of proportion was not just about making
a shapely building; it was a projection of an imagined accord between
individual bodies, social relations, and the natural universe. In
the Renaissance, as many studies have shown, the discovery of linear
one-point perspective and Cartesian space was pivotal in laying
the foundations of modern science. In 1936, Walter Benjamin made
the link explicit in the context of Marxs theory of class
struggle when he wrote, During long periods of history, the
mode of human sense perception changes with humanitys entire
mode of existence.
The matter of human sense perception becomes a question of faith
in the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. In the movie, a
modern family unit in the nations capitol struggles to come
to terms with a rather severe identity crisis on the part of their
daughter, Regan. Regan develops a series of bizarre, and baffling
symptoms: she flies off her bed as though propelled by some unseen
force; she speaks in a voice that is not her own; she pees on the
rug in the middle of a cocktail party and announces to the guests,
Youre all going to die up there; she stabs her
face and genitals with a crucifix, shouting to anyone who will listen,
Let Jesus fuck you. Her head spins 360æ on her neck
in defiance of the fundamental laws of human anatomy. After all
else fails to cure the child, a priest is brought in, Father Karras,
who attempts to discover the identity of the demon by engaging him
in conversation. Father Karras asks, Quod nomen mihi est?
Who are you? To which the devil replies, La plume de ma tante,
the tail feathers of my aunt. Sheer nonsense.
So who is the devil? If we follow Regan and her family closely through
the movie some interesting clues emerge. Before the demon even makes
his appearance, we find that Regan has already been possessed on
two different counts: first by Hollywood, and second by Medicine.
In an early scene of the movie, Regans mother, played by Ellen
Burstyn, goes to tuck her daughter into bed and finds her asleep
with the lights on. Sticking out from under her pillow is a Hollywood
fan magazine. The mother picks it up, at which point we discover
that she is, in fact, a famous movie actress, because there before
us is her face is on the cover of the magazine. Along side her we
also find Regans smiling face, suggesting that by default
she has become a part of the film industry, her life permeated by
her mothers on-screen personality and career.
Later on in the movie as Regan starts to become sick,
she is brought to the hospital where she is subjected to a series
of grueling and invasive medical tests. She is strapped to a metal
bed under fluorescent lights, she is surveilled via closed circuit
TV, she is injected with dyes, brain scanned and x-rayed, and tapped
for spinal fluids. The hospital scenes are in fact some of the most
graphic in the movie. In one particularly terrifying scene, Regan
is strapped to an operating table, and an intravenous needle is
inserted into her neck, sending blood spurting out in spasms. The
needle is then taped down and used to pass a long plastic tube through
her neck and deep into her body.
What are we to make of such images? Are we to see a link between
the media, the medical establishment and the forces of evil? Does
it even make sense to think about technology in religious terms?
From the earliest days of this century, new technologies
from the movie camera to the microscope have been the source
of deep feelings of ambivalence, promising transcendence to a new
level of human consciousness, while at the same time representing
a Pandoras box leading to self-destruction. But the human
propensity for both good and evil is nothing new. Questions of ethics
predate the advent of genetic engineering, just as the idea of community
predates the interactive CD-ROM and the internet. If anything, the
invention of powerful new technologies merely increases the stakes,
multiplies the costs, and heightens the impact of established values
and morals on our daily lives. As Donna Haraway puts it, It
means there has been a deepening of how we turn ourselves, and other
organisms, into instruments for our own end. Like a guilty
wish or an unconscious desire, technology is already deep inside
you. The more you deny and repress its existence, the more it grows,
and grows against you, until it returns as an alien being from another
dimension. This is what for me remains compelling about the movie
The Exorcist: the vision of an evil doubly terrifying because
there is no possibility of shutting it out or running away; no escape
because it is inside you; without recourse, even, to any distinction
between you and it.
The diaspora is not about us, its about Michael Jordan. To
see him soar through the air, a sparkling, shiny creature traveling
at the speed of light, landing in every first, second, and third
world city all at once, is to understand you play a minor role in
a very big game. He has visited more of your extended family than
you could ever dream to. His reach defines the meaning of community
in the television age. In the Philippines, voter turnout for nationwide
local elections in 1996 reached a record low during the airing of
game six of the NBA playoffs (the Bulls won). When Jordan announced
his retirement in January 1999, his life and times were the top
story in the daily news of your home town.
It is no coincidence that black is the color of his skin, the color
that fills the TV screen in your living room. Black has always been
the color to express the depths and furthest frontier of the knowable
universe. Like the scientist-turned-insect in the sci-fi classic
The Fly, Jordan is an experiment in human evolution: an exceptional
talent re-packaged and distributed by Turner Sports and David Stern;
grafted with 16M parts Nike, 5M parts Bijan Cologne, 5M parts Gatorade,
4M parts MCI WorldCom, and 2M parts Rayovac Battery.
Editha Bensi, a working class home maker and mother of five from
the Central Visayan island of Cebu, is another face of the diaspora.
A vial of her blood appeared along side three others on the cover
of the New York Times Magazine on April 26, 1998. Her familys
blood is a genetic gold mine: for generations the mutant gene considered
to be the cause of cleft lip and palate disease has been running
through their veins. Editha Bensis DNA is now part of the
Human Genome Diversity Project, a detailed road map of disease genes
that promises to one day provide an operating schematic for
mankind a detailed picture of who we are and how we work.
For her services she is given a plastic washtub, a beach ball and
a thermos, a fast-food lunch, and candy and cookies for the children.
On the agreement she signs with the project, the stated reason why
she is not paid in cash is that ...money is a means of coercion,
and compliance cannot be truly informed and voluntary if it is purchased.
When the doctors come to take blood samples from Editha Bensis
children, they struggle to free themselves from doctors grip
and run away. Mrs. Bensi explains that they are fighters, that they
have had to be because they are different. And when Operation Smile
arrives with the opportunity for corrective facial surgery, Editha
Bensi flatly refuses. The doctors and her husband attempt to persuade
her, and she snaps, You said it didnt matter how I look.
So why did she agree to give blood to the geneticists? For the good
of medical science? For the benefit of future generations? When
asked, her answer is clear and simple, Because they wanted
it, she says. Because they asked. How often had
she and her family been regarded as the objects of fear, ridicule,
and suspicion. Had she ever been approached before as the bearer
of knowledge, the one holding the key to understanding the world?
On February 4, 1999, about a year after his arrival in New York
City from Guinea, Africa, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Amadou Diallo,
an unarmed twenty-two year old, was murdered in the entryway to
his apartment in the Bronx by four plain clothes policemen. They
said it was a mistake, that they were suffering from Marlows
jungle disease: they panicked in the face of an illusory threat
they thought to be real. A child of the diaspora, Amadou Diallo
was, after all, W.W.B. when they shot him Walking While Black.
There is no mistaking the message written in a shower of forty-one
bullets from four semi-automatic handguns in nine seconds. The letter
of the law has always been written in black ink on white paper.
And the message is this: In the richest city of the richest nation
in the world, we will do anything and stop at nothing to protect
our interests and the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.
On 126th St. in Harlem, just down the street from The Project, there
is an Episcopal church which flies the African liberation flag above
its steps. The meaning is clear if you turn your head to the police
precinct across the street. The new diaspora is not about crossing
national borders, biracial babies, or dual citizenship. There is
no such thing as being in between two cultures, half and half, or
the best of both worlds. It is a battle between good and evil, a
question of morality, a matter of faith. A dense white fog is descending,
your sense of space and time are becoming monstrous and strange.
The devil lives behind your eyes, his name is branded on your flesh,
he is built into the structure of your DNA. He is knocking on your
door. It doesnt matter if you let him in. He is already traveling
in the blood through your veins.