An excerpt from a keynote presentation by Dr Iain Biggs at the ”Locating the Gothic” International conference, Limerick, Ireland, Oct.2014. It can be read in its entirety at http://www.iainbiggs.co.uk/2014/10/locating-the-gothic/
“Before I describe my second edgeland I need to ask how you understand Angela Carter’s claim that: “we live in Gothic times”.
I ask this because my second edge-land is, at least to my mind, the product of a literal enactment of the Gothic. It’s a zone marked by the terror imposed by people in authority onto others already rendered helpless by chronic illness. This is the Gothic zone inhabited by people suffering with ME, and by their families and carers. A zone created by the medical and psychiatric Establishments that neglects and abuses them and that is contested by the same therapeutic impulse that I find in aspects of the Gothic.
I think the award-winning film Voices from the Shadows http://voicesfromtheshadowsfilm.co.uk is animated by that same impulse. By the need to give a face to – and so to face – a situation that is almost unbelievably painful or terrifying. In the case of ME this is abuse – by authority figures whose actions exhibit the exact antithesis of the qualities they publicly claim to embody – of chronically sick individuals without power. In extreme cases these authority figures threaten patients with forcible hospitalisation or with being sectioned and placed in psychiatric units. They threaten this because patients, or their carers, refuse treatments that they know will exacerbate an already chronic illness. And of course individuals have died or taken their own lives when these threats are carried out.
The Gothic nature of the terror here lies in part in a grotesque but deeply institutionalised assumption. Namely that nothing ME sufferers say about their illness can be trusted. Their experience, self-understanding, their entire identity, is regularly dismissed out of hand by those professionally empowered to determine their treatment. Any articulation of their own reality that is at odds with the official view of their illness is, all too often, taken as evidence of a pathological desire to deceive, a wilful attempt to ‘stay sick’.
So I want to argue that ME sufferers live not only in Gothic times but also in a Gothic zone. They are trapped in this liminal zone and, as a consequence, constantly threatened with ‘zombification’ in the sense of being condemned to a kind of living death. Threatened not simply by the chronic nature of the illness itself – as if that were not bad enough – but also by doctors, social services employees, psychologists, the realpolitik of academic research, and the fiscal policies of politicians. ME sufferers are subject to what is – paraphrasing Robert Miles on the Gothic – a process of violent deracination. They’re dispossessed in their identities, bodies and homes. Many are suspended, perhaps permanently, in a deeply frightening condition of violent personal and social rupture and dislocation – one that’s always, horribly, threatening to get worse.
My contention then is that ME sufferers – and of course innumerable others who suffer similar socially sanctioned abuse and neglect – literally live out, on a daily basis,the horror epitomised by a strand within the Gothic. This strand embodies an element of institutionalised sadism within our social system. Sadism animated by fear of cognitive dissonances that cannot be resolved or controlled by the professional authority of those who enact it. And behind this fear is the refusal to acknowledge a failure to progress, a failure to master disease. Ultimately this is a deeper fear – of regression, of the lifeworld as polyverse and, by implication, that Stengers’ divide is wrongly located, that the line between ‘progress’ and ‘regression’ has been wrongly drawn. So there’s a question here. Does all this need to be remapped, both in the context of polytheism as a distinct mode of thought and universal organisation, and of the presence of spectral and futural in the present as evoked by Derrida.
I want to suggest that paying closer attention to the two edgelands I’ve referred to might assist us to re-negotiate or translate across Stengers’ divide. It might strengthen our impulse to use image, the performative and text – both professionally and in day-to-day life – to move more freely back and forth across that divide. Why? So as to give a face to – to help us face – aspects of human suffering denied articulation and authenticity by our mono-ideational, single-minded concept of social evolution – of absurdities like ‘sustainable development’ – and the all-too-often sadistic psychosocial impulses these produces.
Notwithstanding claims from the progressive side of that divide, our world is still saturated with acute and terrible suffering – suffering that’s often denied articulation, subject to social repression, forgetting, marginalisation or denial. Perhaps this suffering – and the cognitive dissonances that it produces – can only be faced, only find a face, in the ambiguous, messy space between fact and fiction, image and data, regression and progression. The liminal fictive worlds that emerge from that space often appear ‘unnatural’. In the case of Toni Morrison’s Beloved this ‘unnaturalness’ includes horrific violence, infanticide, bestiality, and haunting by a being part poltergeist, part revenant, part succubus; yet also and always still, somehow, Beloved. The practical issue here is, then, how to articulate all this through forms of telling or showing that gives horror a knowable form without explaining it away – and as such both allows and requires us to face that horror.