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The father, the sovereign and the ghost: constructions of representative agency in Poppy Z. Brite's novel drawing blood.

Representative Masculinity and Literature

[1] Clemens Spahr and Philipp Loffler have recently characterized literature as a "laboratory to fathom the possibilities and limits of conceptions of collectivity." Literature, they argue, helps imagine "new collectives, new forms of coexistence that reach across and challenge traditional group designations such as nation, culture, gender, or ethnicity" (2012, 161). This essay engages in the question how a collective's imagined properties influence the ways in which literary protagonists can represent collectivity, and how this affects the construction of protagonists' gender.

[2] In U.S. American literature, the construction of protagonists who stand for a larger collective traditionally draws on Enlightenment concepts of representative agency, a construction of agency that is not gender-neutral but specifically references representative masculinity (Hayden 2004, 51; Schulting 1997). Thomas Hobbes' construction of the state of nature in Leviathan (1651) may serve to illustrate this aspect. Hobbes imagines the state of nature as a state of origin for any legitimate sovereign order. Humanity's properties in the state of nature directly inform "good" sovereign order, good because it takes into consideration the "natural" properties of humanity carved out by the state of nature fiction. Man in the state of nature is, therefore, a constitutive figure to imagine legitimate collectives, and has traditionally been referenced as a backdrop to protagonist constructions in Western literature.

[3] In contrast to earlier medieval formations (Greenblatt 2011 [2012, 200-201]), Hobbes does not imagine man in the state of nature as an atomized individual. Instead, man in the state of nature is already a figure representative of a family collective, and thus a quasi-sovereign ruler in his own right (Eggers 2008, 44). As Wendy Brown has explained, the "prepolitical" members of this pater familias' family (women-and-children) exist only in relation to him, and do not have any access to political representation in their own right. They are characterized by passivity and absolute submission to the pater familias' constitutive will. Representative masculinity, in this sense, means two things: first, the pater familias' legitimate claim to sovereignty regulates family members' conduct among themselves--violently, if need be--and second, that he sovereignly decides on behalf of the family in his interaction with other representative men (Brown 1995, 181). In Hobbes, the male body of the monarch is simply a direct continuation of paternal representative masculinity in the state of nature, as the sovereign represents patres familias in the same way as they represent their families.

[4] In American literature, this basic model has been translated into various constructions of protagonists as "representative" of collectives, although the range of prepolitical entities that can be represented by "man" has been strongly expanded. Not just women and children, but also territories, institutions, nations, "races," movements, subcultures and abstract categories such as "justice" or "humanity" can be constructed as the prepolitical collectives that make a given male protagonist representative, and that assign larger meaning to all of his actions. A good illustration of this notion is Herman Melville's story Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) which systematically strips all forms of representative agency from the protagonist only to position him, in the last sentence, as a representative of humanity as a whole.

[5] Judith Butler has emphasized that, because of the dual nature of the representative man's prerogative to speak for and to use violence against the prepolitical collective represented by him, the most meaningful relationships that emerge from the state of nature model are in fact relationships between representative men, and it is indeed these relationships that American literature often focuses on (Fluck, "Historical Novel"). According to Butler, representative men's relations revolve around the notions of friendship, rivalry, and succession; they are "based in homosocial desire (what Irigaray punningly calls "hommo-sexuality"), a repressed and, hence, disparaged sexuality, a relationship between men which is, finally, about the bonds between men, but which takes place through the heterosexual exchange and distribution of women [and through other symbolic expressions]" (1990, 40-41; emphasis in original). The "symbolic expressions" that I have added here generally refer to traditional forms of claiming representative masculinity that are derived from this basic construction, such as being a breadwinner, using violence to protect and to abuse, making constitutive decisions "for the greater good," as well as shaping and specifying modes of self-expression for male children who will one day become representative men in their own right.

[6] This patriarchic model of representative agency for protagonists has been problematized from various points of view. The best-known literary approaches that do so include a conscious construction of classic representative protagonists as female--for example, in the writing of Monique Wittig, but also in the novels of authors such as Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton--or in the deconstruction of representative masculinity as a means to dramatize a fundamental fragmentation of the world at large--for example, in the novels of Toni Morrison, Salvador Plascencia or Luisa Valenzuela. All of these writers complicate the state of nature's model of heteronormative patriarchy, and often exhibit an experimental take on language and narrative structure in doing so.

[7] In this essay, I discuss a novel that follows a different approach. Rather than destabilizing or substituting the notion of traditional representative masculinity for protagonists, Poppy Z. Brite's novel Drawing Blood (1993) instead focuses on constructing a new kind of collective that is to be represented, and that requires protagonists to transform themselves into an entity capable of representing it. Male protagonists consciously have to give up traditional forms of representative masculinity in order to be able to stand for this new collective, and have to become non-individualist, gender-inclusive entities instead. Significantly, this collective is constructed in reference to a hypothetical locus of origin that stands in direct rivalry to the state of nature.

[8] Poppy Z. Brite has been outspoken about the "gender dysphoria" that informed his perspective as a writer throughout his career (1998). Especially his early novels--including his second novel, Drawing Blood, which will be discussed here--were carefully constructed in a manner that allowed an extension of masculinity to persons who were otherwise denied recognition as "men." In 2010, the same year that Brite announced a "retirement" from fiction writing after more than fifteen books (2010), he began to receive treatment for gender reassignment to legally and physically "become" a man. While I do not mean to overstate this biographic information as an explanatory framework for Brite's novels as texts, it serves to substantiate my interest in reading his work against the backdrop of representative masculinity. Brite's perspective as a man has never been broadly accepted by audiences and critics. Instead, he has largely been identified as a heterosexual woman writing about gay men. For example, S. T. Joshi concludes a book chapter on Brite's first three publications with a comment about the "interesting phenomenon" that apparently, "straight women find homosexuality as fascinating as straight men find lesbianism" (2004, 208). This statement summarizes, for the most part, the questionable standard of critical analysis in terms of Brite and gender. Analyses such as Joshi's dismiss Brite's perspective as the expression of a female desire that imitates constructions of lesbian pornography aimed at men. In this vein, Joshi affirms the heterosexual matrix as the sole thinkable framework to make Brite's writing understood. In view of Brite's identity as a man, however, it makes sense to assume that he did not want to challenge representative masculinity as such, but was instead interested in reformulating what representative masculinity can mean--that he was, in other words, at least temporarily invested in delinking the notion of masculinity from traditional heteronormative frameworks. In this sense, I argue, Drawing Blood has become an interesting reformulation of representative agency that can be potentially delinked from masculinity in general.

Ghosts, Haunted by Representative Men

[9] Drawing Blood (1993 [1994], henceforward abbreviated as DB), is a commercially oriented cyberpunk horror novel that relies on the skillful mixture and manipulation of genre traditions. The novel is a love story between two men with a history of abuse who are self-destructive outcasts until their love for each other frees them from the haunting forces of traditional representative masculinity.

In the novel, Brite makes a conscious and explicit difference between men who reproduce traditional representative masculinity unproblematically (e.g. DB 29-31, 131, 151), and men who are tortured by the corset of representative masculinity and its available symbolic expressions. The tortured set of men is made up of persons whose identities, experiences and/or desires do not correspond with the symbolic expressions made available by traditional representative masculinity. Tortured men are, for instance, rural closet gays (DB 281-282) or the protagonists themselves who identify their own abusive fathers as the core examples of traditional representative masculinity (DB 360).

[10] The traumatic impact of nightmarish, brutal fathers and sinister, authoritarian U.S. authorities (DB 53, 151) is especially addressed by the protagonists' fear that the violent abuse of others might be the only way that men--and thus, they themselves--can express love and creativity towards others. The abusive father-sovereigns' practices of killing and torturing those they represent are explicitly recognized in Drawing Blood as acts informed by love and care (DB 89, 155, 188, 348); the fathers' creativity, too, is expressed in the many ways they find to objectify and humiliate their families (198, 201, 290, 338). Abuse is thus firmly positioned as the core symbolic expression of traditional representative men's love and creativity in the novel.

[11] The protagonists of Drawing Blood reject abuse--and thus by implication, the individualist, heteronormative, patriarchal modes of being a man that they identify as the central source of abuse. At the same time, they do not know any other way of being in the world as men. Therefore they shy away from meaningful human interaction on general principle, and maintain a near-invisible outsider position that is both described as childlike and deathlike in the novel. This ghost position, as I will call it, describes a position of radical withdrawal into an existence as a quasi-prepolitical (i.e. childlike) figure: while their actions remain informed by their abusive fathers and primarily respond to these representative men, domineering and abusive representative men only exist in their memories--in the novel's present, the protagonists' actions are never "decided" by another agent who can claim representation over them. They are, in this sense, perpetually haunted by representative masculinity.

[12] The narrative problems arising from such a ghost position are twofold. First, a prepolitical entity without a representative agent is unthinkable within the state of nature fiction; second, the position of the protagonists as men suggest that any expression of their will can directly draw them back into the fold of traditional representative masculinity. In Brite's novel, the male protagonists either have to find a new father to represent them, or they themselves have to find a collective to represent. Almost throughout the text, Drawing Blood's plot suggests the protagonists' tragic but inevitable return to an abusive father figure, or alternatively their reproduction of the fathers' abusive violence over a family. However, the novel's actual project turns out to be the creation of a third option: the creation of a non-heteronormative form of agency that renders the notions of passivity and victimhood thinkable for representative agents. Such alternative representative agency is significantly not based on an origin in the state of nature, but on an origin in the haunted house. Embracing the world of ghosts may, according to Brite, free men from the corset of traditional representative masculinity, and help formulate different ways of being representative agents.

[13] Significantly, the first "character" that is introduced in the novel is the haunted house which will later become the source of the protagonists' new representative identity. In the prologue, famous comic artist Bobby McGee kills his wife and younger son in a house at the outskirts of the fictional small town of Missing Mile, North Carolina, commits suicide directly thereafter, and leaves only his firstborn son Trevor alive to discover the bodies. The plot of the core narrative, which takes place twenty years later, can be roughly divided into two halves: one before the protagonists Trevor and Zach become lovers, and one thereafter, when the plot begins to narrate the lovers' joint passage from a ghost position towards an alternative representative position. Brite uses a parallel chapter structure that introduces the protagonists in their respective characteristic settings, and increasingly intertwines their fates over the course of the story. At the onset of the core narrative, Trevor, now himself a deeply isolated comic artist with violent tendencies, returns to Missing Mile to face his past. A parallel narrative strand focuses on the hacker Zach, an amoral local of New Orleans. Zach strictly separates love and sex because he fears reproducing the abusive marriage of his parents, especially the manipulative behavior of his father. Now a professional manipulator of computer systems, Zach is targeted by the government for having committed unspeakable computer crimes, and leaves New Orleans for the first time in his life. Both Trevor and Zach end up in Missing Mile, meet in the murder house (now an overgrown haunted house) and become lovers, immediately sensing that they can save each other from the torturous implications of their respective pasts.

[14] Especially in the first half of the plot, the protagonists wrestle with the threatening violence of the two arch-examples of representative masculinity, the father and the sovereign, and try at all costs not to reproduce their threatening violence. As was mentioned, the novel's structure suggests the failure of this project almost until the very end: things happen because they are "supposed" to happen in a tragic inevitability expressed by haunting. All characters of the novel are haunted by some unspecific presence or each other in zig-zagging cross-references, and the accelerating structure of chapters evokes the reading expectation of a moment of final catastrophe.

[15] By the final pages of the novel, however, the protagonists eventually discover that the catastrophe suggested by sinister omens and the narrative construction of haunting in the novel can, in fact, be averted. Significantly, all steps of their relationship that help avert this catastrophe happen inside the haunted house, where they find the means to understand the implications of their exposure to abusive fathers and sovereigns. Trevor and Zach meet here, recognize each other here, confess to each other here, and make love to each other here. The second half of the novel maintains the original mode of sinister haunting, but it is interlaced with descriptions of the protagonists' healing process as lovers and artists. Eventually, shortly before Zach's government persecutors arrive in Missing Mile and thereby enforce the couple's departure from the United States, Trevor and Zach enter Birdland, a parallel universe hidden inside the haunted house which signifies the protagonists' torturous investment in the symbolic expressions of traditional representative masculinity. After their return, Trevor almost kills Zach in a literal reproduction of his father's massacre of his family, but is manipulated by Zach into stopping the violence. This final confrontation with each other "exorcizes" Birdland from the haunted house and the notion of traditional representative masculinity from the lovers' relationship. Trevor and Zach can now flee to Jamaica where they live happily ever after.

[16] Through this brief plot summary, it has become evident that there are two interacting levels of "ghostliness" in the novel: a position of torturous reproduction of representative masculinity linked to the parallel universe of Birdland, and a child position of unconditional love linked to the haunted house itself. These positions, as well as their interaction and implications, will be discussed in more detail now.

Ghost Identities and Representative Personae

[17] How is a ghost position sustainable for men who are alone and whose lives are therefore based on their own sovereign decisions? In the first half of the novel, both protagonists have established a supplementary persona with a name and an individuality of its own that acts as a layer of detachment between them and the world, and that allows them to refrain from meaningful human interaction that may result in abuse. Trevor has an artist persona (Trevor Black); Zach has a hacker persona (Lucio). Both personae reproduce aspects of the abusive sovereign-father. Trevor has been left alive by his father specifically to step into his footsteps as an artist, and he indeed attempts to reclaim his family by assuming an artist persona in imitation of and rivalry to his father (DB 12, 100). This rivalry is illustrated, for example, by Trevor's act of drawing his mother and assigning to her his own pen surname rather than her married name at the bottom of the drawing (DB 52). As Brite explicitly suggests, Trevor's artist persona gives the relationship of dead father and ghostlike son the additional dimension of brothers in spirit (DB 327). This brotherhood is expressed in Trevor's reproduction of his father's choices; next to assuming a comic artist persona recognized by the same professional realm that still celebrates his father (DB 261-262), it was already mentioned that he attempts to kill Zach in the same ways and in the same rooms that his father had killed his own family (DB 354-357). Yet even though the relationship between him and his father constitutes the novel's central conflict, Trevor is not exclusively haunted by a pater familias. He also suffers from the failure of a less visible but equally influential sovereign paternity. The orphanage where he spent his youth after the massacre is characterized as a punitive and indifferent institution, a place that "seemed to have no color, no texture" (DB 54), and that has caused Trevor to develop the "social skills [of a] space alien" (DB 133). The memory of Trevor's family in the novel is reduced to the vision of brutal murder; he relates to them first from an orphanage portrayed as a nightmare made up of grey corridors, and then from an endless succession of Greyhound buses. Both of these post-family positions make him inherently fleeting and hardly existent to anyone he meets (DB 55, 110), a death-like isolation that ensures his father's continued power over him (DB 56, 143).

[18] Zach, on the other hand, is the offspring of a sadistic father who had abused Zach's mother to the point of insanity, and who had molded her into an accomplice to his domestic crimes (DB 89). Paralleling his father's behavior towards his family, Zach's main characteristic as a figure is his inclination for amoral manipulation. Betrayed in his childhood both by parents and by institutions such as the church (DB 40-41), Zach has invented the cyberspace personality of the outlaw Lucio. As a full-time hacker, he creates subtle and profitable changes in the world's most sensitive databases. This positions him as a professional invader who penetrates the order and abuses its structure for his own amusement and profit, an outlaw image quite in accord with traditional notions of representative masculinity. Zach generally behaves towards computers, databases and human bodies in gendered, "system-penetrating" ways (DB 42, 47-48, 118, 120; Cavallaro 2000, 131), and treats sex as an essentially shame-filled form of commodified exchange (DB 83-84; 98). Throughout the novel, he is haunted by the representative men he has interacted with as Lucio. Zach perceives the government and large corporations--Secret Service, FBI, NSA, Southern Bell--as a single "shadowy, faceless, infinitely sinister They that seemed a peculiarly American archetype of terror" (DB 74). In all descriptions of "Them," Brite employs traditional cultural tropes of regimes as haunting presences (DB 72, 151, 194; Gordon 1997 [2004, 124-125]). Reversely, Agent Cover, who hunts Zach in representation of the government--and who is, not incidentally, a breadwinner husband in a traditional family constellation (DB 226)--finds that the extent of Zach's hacker exploits is rejected as unthinkable even by other hackers and his own fellow agents (DB 192, 223). Even Zach's closest friend and potential lover Eddie associates him with "unspeakable presences [that] waited within those wires" (DB 192), which may, in the context of the specific passage, refer simultaneously to Zach's deeply isolated existence (DB 198) and to Lucio's entanglement with his antagonists, the "spooks" (DB 382). Zach's ghostlike position is not so much defined by a death-like isolation from the world, as in Trevor's case, but by acts of manipulation that are explicitly constructed as the expressions of a spiritual state of death in the novel (DB 169, 351, 392, 332).

[19] For both protagonists, their methods of maintaining a ghostlike position--namely, by the creation of supplementary personae they can hide behind--turn out to be self-destructive because their strategies do not resolve the lurking threat of "slipping" into a reproduction of the abusive father-sovereign--to give up the artificial separation of ghost identity and traditional masculine persona in order to "become" the persona for good. The problem of slipping is most clearly dramatized in the construction of Birdland, the parallel universe pocketed inside the haunted house. Trevor explains that Birdland is "where no one else could touch you, [...] the place you went when the real world scared you away" (DB 53). However, Birdland as a space feeds on blood and violence, and is deeply informed by the shaping hand of the father-sovereign (DB 109). The real function of Birdland is to dramatize the catastrophe the lovers are threatened by and eventually manage to avoid. The nature of this catastrophe is illustrated by the only comic Trevor draws in the course of the novel: a panel on the musicians Charlie "Bird" Parker and his companion (a mixture of Walter Brown and Dizzy Gillespie) who insist on returning to the United States and facing the violent and hostile South they had originally escaped from, even though a comfortable life would have been waiting for them in Europe (DB 289). When Parker and his companion, who stand for Trevor and Zach (DB 321, 384), are killed in the comic during a raid by racist police officers, they return as zombies to destroy their attackers (DB 108, 144-145). This vision, which is dictated to Trevor by his father's ghost (DB 144), is one of perpetual reciprocal terror and violence--when the ghost interacts with the world that has forced it outside of itself, the only way it can interact is in a manner of vengeful violence reproductive of the abusive masculinity that had originally transformed the abused child into the ghostlike man. Brite suggests that a ghostlike man is always in danger of "slipping," of returning to the realm of traditional representative masculinity and its abusive symbolic expressions. It is this danger that Birdland stands for, and that the protagonists are faced with until they "exorcize" both Birdland and their artist/hacker personae at the end of the novel. Their final confrontation is indeed the last time they consider each other an anatomy lesson to be learned (DB 201, 355) or a system to be hacked (DB 161, 357).

[20] As the novel's structure of criss-crossing haunting illustrates, the protagonists' every encounter with a fellow person is primarily an encounter with yet another embodiment of the patriarchal structure they seek to avoid (DB 115, 125, 332). Hopelessly intertwined with traditional notions of representative masculinity, both protagonists spend the second half of the novel understanding that their respective lover is a person rather than yet another provocation to slip. Trevor and Zach initially take each other for ghosts from the past when they first meet at the haunted house (160-164), and only slowly begin to recognize that instead, they are ghostlike to the sovereign-father in the same way. Their first recognition as soul mates (DB 170) foreshadows the logic of their relationship as something that is not inevitably "supposed to happen," but as something inherently different (DB 166-167, 189) that requires inherently different expressions of will (DB 210, 213, 346). Only after they have begun to carve out the difference between a beloved soul mate and an embodiment of patriarchic haunting, they are able to characterize their own previous behavior as the result of a "machine," a "program," a tragic pattern (DB 357, 359) that amounts to nothing larger than doing a failed order's "dirty work" (DB 360). They are thus able to break with the pattern (DB 254) and find symbolic expressions of masculinity that are their own as ghosts, not their personae's reproductions of abusive representative masculinity (DB 297, 307, 360, 401).

The Haunted House as a Space of Origin

[21] Trevor's and Zach's new, alternative representative masculinity originates in the haunted house, "a place where no boundaries are drawn" (DB 143) and where, consequently, other symbolic expressions can be formed than those offered by traditional representative masculinity. In the context of such a plot, the significance of the haunted house necessarily has to differ from conventional haunted house settings because the house itself is not the actual space of terror. The haunted house in Drawing Blood is instead a space of liberation and resolution. The protagonists' love is constituted by the haunted house much more than the nature of their respective ghosts is, and it is their love that in fact relies on the haunted house as a space of origin. The protagonist's project in this ghostly space is "to melt each other's souls to molten temperatures and let them flow together into an alloy that could withstand the world" (DB 385). In this context, Trevor and Zach are repeatedly characterized as brothers (DB 372), twin brothers (DB 189), or Siamese twins (DB 309). Their increasing identification as one collective entity is further indicated by the recurring images of spiritual and bodily mergence between the lovers in the haunted house (DB 207, 216-217, 284, 385). In this sense, Butler's hommo-sexual brothers who are separated by repressive homosocial relations allowing them only the most distanced, most violent, and most commodified forms of intimacy are merged into a collective. The protagonists cease to require symbolic expressions inside their primary relationship. Instead, a pair of pathologically distanced hommo-sexual brothers merges into one harmonious entity; the haunting and the haunted become so indistinguishable that new symbolic expression can be assigned to the couple as a new representative entity.

[22] Because the father and the sovereign as central embodiments of representative masculinity in literature rely on narrative realizations of heteronormativity, Brite's first step towards making an alternative form of representative agency thinkable is to destabilize gender binaries within both the haunted house and Birdland. The diffusion of gender boundaries begins with Brite's use of the haunted house genre itself, which is historically associated with female rather than male protagonists, and tends to address in this context a problematization of the repressive authorities represented by father and sovereign specifically (Cavallaro 2000, 185). The haunted house as the locus of the protagonists' love is different from but intertwined with the ghostly parallel universe of Birdland, a hardboiled city world that feeds on "the blood of artists" (DB 349). In its setup within the novel, Birdland as a space is directly derived from conventional constructions of cyberspace: not only is its general architecture reminiscent of the aesthetics of popular 1990s computer adventure games (the left-or-right-or-door choices in terms of walking direction, the clue-based conversations with Birdland characters, and the setup of the protagonists' respective fathers as final enemies), but Zach very explicitly experiences Birdland as cyberspace (DB 329). Cyberspace as a literary space is directly associated with femininity (the term "matrix" goes back to the term "womb"), an association Brite repeatedly refers to especially in relation to Zach (DB 35, 140, 189, 190). While the association with femininity is less pronounced in the cyberpunk tradition than in the haunted house tradition, cyberspace is still configured in this genre as an inherently hybrid space that offers the radical subversion of all categories (Heuser 2003, xxv). Both the haunted house and cyberspace are thus particularly suitable genre spaces to help subvert the symbolic expressions of traditional representative masculinity.

[23] While these two ghostly spaces allow a destabilization and reconfiguration of symbolic expressions that help constitute representative agency, the specific form of love presented in the novel challenges heteronormative conceptualizations of collectivity as such. In this context, the protagonists' narrative construction as children is central, as is emphasized by their childlike appearances (DB 67), their inexperienced clumsiness (DB 63, 257-258), and of course most glaringly in the reference to broken homes as the origin of their ghostlike existence. On a structural level, the characterization of their absolute love as a love between children cites a familiar literary trope from Gothic fiction. "[I]n their innocence," Georges Bataille writes of the characters Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, "they placed their indestructible love for one another on another level, and indeed perhaps this love can be reduced to the refusal to give up an infantile freedom which had not been amended by the laws of society or of conventional politeness," a condition that amounts to a state of "innocent sovereignty" located somewhere between the realm of the rational world and the realm of death (1957 [2001], 18). In Wuthering Heights, the anxieties of such a ghostlike state of loving can only be resolved by transforming the lovers themselves into ghosts by the end of the novel (Bronte 1847 [1964, 350]). In Drawing Blood, something related happens on the level of representative masculinity. The lovers do not become ghosts--they have been ghosts already--but, as entities capable of symbolic expression against the backdrop of their origin in the haunted house, they become representatives of the ghost world in the real world by the end of the novel.

[24] The protagonists' capability to represent a collective is linked to their construction as abused children specifically. By the time of the novel's writing, abused children had already been introduced to literature as a discernible representable collective, most notably in the context of hardboiled fiction. Reading Brite's novels, it is difficult not to note the strong influence of the hardboiled genre on his writing. Like Raymond Chandler, Brite combines fast-paced wisecracking with little regard for minor corpses unaccounted for; like Chester Himes, Brite has a particular strength for sex scenes that dramatize character constellation; and like Andrew Vachss in the Burke series' construction of "children of the secret," Brite uses the abused child as a basis for alternative structures of representation. In concert with an "innocent sovereignty" based on the childhood position, Vachss proposes the idea of a family made up of all races, genders, ages and criminal affiliations whose shared history of abuse renders them a discernible collective that forms the legitimating background for his own protagonist's vengeance against perpetrators--a strategy that is essentially equivalent to the zombie vengeance in Trevor's comic on Charlie Parker (Vachss 1991 [1992, 32]).

[25] Of course, vengeance against the perpetrators is the very strategy that Brite dismisses as reproductive of abusive representative masculinity. However, the comparison of Vachss and Brite illustrates an important point about childhood and representation in contemporary American genre literature: namely, that the subjection to violence in childhood creates ties to other victims of violence in defiance of the father-sovereign, and that the position of shared victimhood constitutes an already established basis for the creation of alternative collectives and their legitimate representation. In Vachss, the failure of the father-sovereign is compensated by the outlaw avenger who haunts the father-sovereign and thus enables other victims to develop unproblematic representative masculinity within the world, introducing a project of healing that is only possible over several generations (Vachss 2008, 187-189). The representative masculinity informed by the sovereign-father is not actually questioned in Vachss' Burke series (Dietze 1997, 175-176); as a result, the protagonist himself "slips" at one point and kills one of his own, an event that fundamentally challenges the legitimacy of his own position as a righteous avenger. Indeed, this event constitutes the turning point in the series that initiates an inter-generational healing process as an alternative to the protagonist's own strategy of violent vengeance (Vachss 1994 [1995, 3-4]).

[26] In Drawing Blood, the haunted house is referenced as an alternative world in its own right which has been created by the father-sovereign's violent abuse but can only be accessed by ghosts --namely, the lovers themselves and by extension all ghostlike persons in the world (hackers, underground traders, magicians, artists, and the disaffected youths that frequent the clubs). With the inherent subversion of existing definitional boundaries suggested by the genre contexts of the haunted house and cyberpunk, Drawing Blood allows a much more radical departure from traditional representative masculinity than anything Vachss' protagonists are able to do in their remarkably analogous efforts (Vachss 1991 [1992, 263]). Brite's protagonists are able to refer to the realm of the haunted house where "infantile freedom" from traditional representative masculinity actually exists, where it is a reality that can be referenced and represented, where a stable collective of fellow victims can be imagined without the threat of slipping back into violence.

[27] In their climatic confrontation with their nightmarish fathers in Birdland, it turns out that Trevor was in fact the first ghost of the haunted house and had saved his own life from the hands of his father, thus defying him in this constitutive moment of his past rather than remaining at his mercy (DB 353). For Trevor, this severs all representational ties between father and son, and he begins to draw without any reference to Birdland and his artist persona (DB 402). Zach, on the other hand, faces his own mortality and henceforward uses his hacker skills sparingly and for benevolent causes only (DB 394, 399). Instead of hacking, he takes up reggae music and assumes the stage name "Dario" (DB 400). An epilogue to the novel states in the clearest terms that these new symbolic expressions based on their new representative position towards the haunted house rather than Birdland are sustainable.

[28] Drawing Blood's neutralization of the haunting forces of traditional representative masculinity is essentially based on a reconfiguration of the characters' origin--a new "order born of chaos, meaning born of void" (DB 238). I have initially referred to Hobbes' notion of the state of nature; the fiction of the state of nature has been central to Enlightenment philosophy because it was able to suggest a point of origin informed by, but decidedly not identical to, the theological framework of Christianity. Significantly, the state of nature has always been associated with the notion of absolute freedom from all restraints (Geier 2012, 27), a decisive parallel to the "infantile freedom" of the world of ghostly childhood love. Like the state of nature especially in Hobbes, Brite's world of ghosts epitomized by the haunted house is inherently past-based yet constantly interacts with the present; it is indicative of the novel's concept of universal human nature outside of brutish oppression; and it has political consequences in the sense that it critically interrogates the exclusions and anxieties produced by traditional representative masculinity, exposing them effectively as false dichotomies.

[29] In parallel to the state of nature as a state constitutive of traditional representative masculinity, Brite suggests the local history of the haunted house as a "natural" source of origin for those persons who are, for whatever reason, bound to fail at representing traditional masculinity. As individuals exposed to the world, Drawing Blood's protagonists had been informed by an origin of violence and abuse, and were thus forced to withdraw into a ghost position. Together, however, they have been able to claim the ghost world as their rightful common point of origin, and are thus able to use a state of nature-constellation to meet traditional representatives of the father-sovereign at eye level. They spatialize the state of nature in the haunted house and are thus able to reformulate the state of nature fiction's constellations on these grounds.

Drawing Conclusions

[30] The interesting propositions made in Drawing Blood remain incomplete within Poppy Z. Brite's writing. Aspects that stand out as potentially problematic are, for instance, Drawing Blood's suggestion of flight as the only viable alternative to violence, especially because the ways of fleeing suggested here correspond so neatly with escape fantasies of the "carefree consumer and unrepentant hedonist" (Fluck "Multiple Identities," 45) that are directly tied in with a neoliberal form of self-discipline based on the rigorous management of conflicting identities. The imperative of integrating diverse identities coherently, rather than subjection to a single oppressive identity, may, as Winfried Fluck has argued, become a new source of torturous haunting under such circumstances ("Multiple Identities"). How, one could question, can Brite's representatives of a ghost world be understood in the context of such a neoliberal habitus? Are the representatives of a ghost world part of the neoliberal habitus, or can this dimension, too, be undermined by reference to the haunted house, if only because the ghost world cannot be essentialized in the way lifestyles and origins within the world can?

[31] One could also discuss as problematic Brite's insistence on romantic love as the central basis for inclusive representative agency. I have suggested that the notion of romantic love can be a vehicle for alternative forms of representation because it evokes the notion of unconditional childhood love; also, when compared directly with Hobbes' notion of the state of nature, or even Vachss' lonely avenger of abused children, Brite's insistence on two representative men that interact with each other as well as the world constitutes an interesting and potentially far-reaching deviation from the other models' construction of only one representative man that interacts with the world. However, Brite's vision of absolute love also maintains potentially problematic undertones. This implication is substantiated in the novel after Drawing Blood. Exquisite Corpse (1996) is a romance between serial killers that dramatizes the predatory implications of absolute love, meaning, in effect, that the merging of soul mates ends in cannibalism and thus a return to one-man-representation: "[After having eaten him,] I wanted only to keep Jay's meat in me as long as I could, to process and assimilate as much of him as possible. When I awoke, he would be with me always, and all the world's pleasures would be ours to revel in. This time I was not corpse, but larva" (1996 [1997, 238]). This later novel excludes the notion of unconditional belonging in favor of predatory intimacy. Emily Bronte and Andrew Vachss both include children, and thus the possibility of unconditional belonging, in their visions of ghostly love and collectivity--in contrast, Brite increasingly refuses the notion of an intimacy that exceeds the violent romantic couple (1996 [1997, 90-91]).

[32] After Exquisite Corpse, Brite has generally developed into a writer of gay subculture fiction (meaning primarily the Liquor series of the 2000s), novels that become extremely cozy in their perspective on traditional representative masculinity. The Liquor series' protagonists have blissfully harmonious relationships that are deeply embedded in structures of traditional masculinity. Along with their author, they simply shrug off the reproduction of traumatizing exclusion. An exemplary case is the construction of a female sous chef in Brite's novel Prime (2005): "The sous chef [...] had introduced herself as Sugar, and Rickey [the protagonist] had taken an instant dislike to her. Unlike a lot of male cooks, he had nothing against women in the kitchen, but he thought some of them went around with chips on their shoulders. He couldn't really blame them after seeing some of the crap they had to endure, but it didn't make them very pleasant to work with" (2005, 110). Later in the novel, Sugar is singled out as a target for fierce verbal abuse by Rickey because "she needs to learn some respect for her superiors" (2005, 145). After having been disciplined into a cog in the wheel instead of the potential successor to the chef, Sugar as a character is banished to the background and remains virtually invisible for the rest of the novel. As is conceivable from this example, Brite actively portrays the haunting of women by representative masculinity as unproblematic and appropriate.

[33] In my view, these questions and qualifications do not diminish but rather specify the potential analytical value of representative agency linked to the haunted house as a space of origin and the ghost world as an imagined collective in Drawing Blood. As Brite's own complex position towards masculinity indicates, and Avery Gordon has more specifically suggested in the context of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who represent the disappeared in an authoritarian regime (1997, 108-113), a representative position that references the ghost world is inherently open to persons of all genders or perceived genders as representative agents. The strength and persuasiveness of this position lies in its ability to reference an imaginary origin set up in parallel to, and in rivalry with, the deeply and explicitly gendered state of nature as an explanatory framework of the nature of humanity and desirable constructions of collectivity (Butler 1990, 36). The inherent complicatedness of the ghost world that resists essentialization is furthermore linked to a collective (the couple, the mothers) as representative of this realm rather than to the individual pater familias or sovereign. The representatives of a ghost world are inherently complex, multifaceted, and many.

[34] As Drawing Blood has demonstrated, the representative of a ghost world as well as the ghost world itself remain inextricably linked to representative masculinity because their complexities directly result from damage done by structures and behaviors based on traditional representative masculinity. Representing the ghost world constitutes, in this sense, a third position that cannot be imagined outside of the context of traditional representative masculinity. At the same time, this may precisely constitute its value within Western culture, as it is able to claim relationships, realms, and philosophical questions for itself that the reference to man in a state of nature cannot explain--and it can potentially do so at eye level with those older formations.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. I thank Kevin Floyd, Janna Odabas and Birte Wege for their suggestions in response to early drafts of this essay, as well as the Graduate School of North American Studies (Freie Universitat Berlin) and the DFG for their support.


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Contributor's Note

SONJA SCHILLINGS is a graduate student with the Graduate School of North American Studies at the Freie Universitat Berlin, Germany. She is currently completing her dissertation entitled Hostis Humani Generis and the Narrative Construction of Legitimate Violence. She has published articles on topics ranging from agency in dystopian fiction to the construction of 'evil' spaces in contemporary U.S.
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Author:Schillings, Sonja
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Date:Mar 22, 2014
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