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date: 24 January 2018

Wound Culture

Summary and Keywords

The concept of a “wound culture” was introduced, in the later 1990s, to provide an alternative description of contemporary society, and, more exactly, to set out an alternative account of the modern and contemporary forms of crime and violence, and the forms of media and institutions, proper to this type of world. In short, the concept redescribed new species and scenes of death and life in a public culture in which addictive and spectacular bodily violence has become public spectacle. Moreover, the paradoxes of self-amplified violence make visible wound culture’s autotropic, or self-turned, character. They raise the question of how we live in, and with, autotropic violence, and how such a world renders its own reality comprehensible to itself. Self-torn forms of life and death become perspicuous, and appear on countless stages throughout our self-reporting world. These are some of the forms though which wounds communicate, and some of the modes in which wound culture itself becomes a medium.

Keywords: wound culture, trauma, systems epoch, suspense, control-climates, autotropic (self-turned) life, autogeny (self-actualization), Scientology

The Concept of a Wound Culture

The concept of a “wound culture” was introduced, in the later 1990s, to provide an alternative description of contemporary society, and, more exactly, to set out an alternative account of the modern and contemporary forms of crime and violence, and the forms of media and institutions, proper to this type of world (Seltzer, 1998). In short, the concept redescribed new species and scenes of death and life

in a public culture in which addictive violence has become public spectacle. The convening of the public around scenes of violence—the rushing to the scene of the accident, the milling around the point of impact—has come to make up a wound culture: the public fascination with torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound.

(Seltzer, 1998)

It is not hard to see that woundscapes have a central place in a culture in which repetitive violence, and its reenactment zones, have become a captivating, and ecumenical, spectacle. Crime scenes provide crucial sites where private desire and public fantasy cross. In a wound culture, the very notion of sociality is bound to the excitations of the torn and opened body, the torn and exposed individual, as collective theater: these are demarcation zones and mass-public meeting points of what may be described as the official world and its suspenseful and spectacular forms of death and life. Continuously redrawing chalk white outlines along its edges, a wound culture comes to itself via these overlit and violent, and yet extremely formal, reenactment arenas.

The generalized state of risk and imperilment, chronic suspendedness, and self-solicited fusions of thrill and panic, mark wound culture’s primary staging area: the scene of the crime. In the contemporary epoch of social systems, and its actor-networks, wound scenarios are where bodies and systems are seen to dock on to each other. The captive mood-systems of a wound culture in this way collate violence to its serial enactments. The scene of the crime is part of what the novelist David Foster Wallace called “the new millennium’s passion for standing live witness to things . . . to be part of a live crowd, watching”—and, above all, a passion for live-witnessing woundscapes: “traffic accidents,” “sewer-gas explosions,” crime scenes, “milling in rings around the impact” (Wallace, 1996). These are scenes of suspended life. Suspense—suspendedness—is one of a wound culture’s primary aesthetic categories, and its primary mode of perception and apprehension, action and reenactment.

Such a redescription is perhaps by now familiar enough. The wound spectacle—the crime scene, the accident site, the atrocity exhibition—has by now become (as Emile Durkheim terms it) a social fact. At the very same time, wound culture, and the sociality of the wound, take on the form of (in Hans Blumenberg’s terms) an “absolute metaphor”—a way of seeing and a way of acting that seems already posed by the very grounds of our own existence. The series of accounts of a wound culture, on a wide range of fronts, in the last two decades, have progressively put in place a sense of the wounded attachments, immunity systems, and graphic, choreographed, and forensically gridded zones of danger and self-endangerment that make it up and set it in motion (Brown, 1995; Esposito, 2008; Sloterdijk, 2013).

The premises of a wound culture, however, are by no means limited to the scene of the crime. The presupposition of a wound culture, for example, provides the image-funds of the recent figuration of the Anthropocene—the geological epoch of the human—as a universal that emerges from, and is premised on, a shared sense of disaster, doom, or catastrophe. This posits, in effect, the globalized wound culture of our daily planet, and that is what in part lends this characterization its current charisma. It is a naming event that brand-names this epoch as our own, albeit at the moment of its self-cancellation. It will be necessary to return this ironic form of self-realization via self-extinction. For the moment, note simply that, since the current and sixth extinction is in effect a human product, this is a matter of assisted extinction, or extermination: extinction as serial violence on the level of species. Hence we find, broadcast across the bandwidth of factual and fictional media, the strange fascinations with “the age of extinction” and with the possibility that “humanity will disappear in the course of competing with its own products” (Luhmann, 2013). The congregation of these premises has perhaps by now accrued to the concept of a wound culture what Alexander Kluge calls “the precision of rough ideas” (Kluge, 1983).

The spectacle of the wounded body has, of course, always had its lurid attractions. Yet that attraction has mutated in the contemporary period, a period that can be described as the epoch of social systems (Seltzer, 2016). For one thing, the wound is no longer the mark, or stigmata, of the sacred or heroic. It is the stigma, or icon, of the everyday openness of every body. For another, this is a culture centered on trauma, Greek for wound—and, yet, a culture in which people wear their damage like badges of identity, or fashion accessories. Along these lines, the trauma has surfaced as an index of the “psycho-social” (Seltzer, 1998). The burgeoning of trauma as explanation—and the wholesale, at times glib, transferal of psychoanalytic categories to social and cultural fields—is clear enough too.

The generalization of trauma-attribution has several consequences, with respect to the characterization of actors and of actions. Trauma is one way to see, but also to parry, the repetition-automatisms and reenactment practices and programs that define the serialized economy and society of the second machine age—the second industrial revolution, also known as the control revolution and information revolution. (The rule of production and consumption in the second machine might well be the trauma a priori, “First, of all, repeat. Then, reenact.”)

The produced and syndicated spectacle of the torn and open body means the conversion of bodies into information (Seltzer, 2007). And the conversion of bodies into information is at the same time the opening of the torn and private body, the torn and private person, to the uses, policies, and attractions of technologies of observation and control. The term forensics, it will be recalled, derives from “forum” or publicness. Hence, it is along these lines, at once traumatic and forensic, that the excitations of the wound enter into the self-accounting of a modernizing society. That’s to say that trauma-attribution is one way to record, but also to misrecognize, the generalized character of the “secondhand nonexperience” that defines the risk society, and spreads across its social and institutional fields. (The model of action in risk society might well be the black box. and its slogan of action, “Accidentally on purpose” (Beck, 1992).) Traumatophilia, in short, is one way to misrecognize the uncertain or suspended, the complex and out-sourced or black-boxed agencies of the epoch of social systems, as the working parts and way-stations of the contemporary pathological public sphere and its lurid yet everyday woundscapes.

Wound culture emerges at the dark intersection of all these strands. Such a culture of the wound emerges not merely, but not least, in the over-communicative scene of the crime: the lethal space in which violence, serialized and relayed across a proliferating media union, is theater for the living. As the great cartographer of contemporary violence and its zoned enclaves J. G. Ballard expresses it, in the official world a “bureaucracy of crime” takes form, and, from its alphabets of unreason, appears “a new vocabulary of violence and sensation” (Ballard, 1996). The bureaucracy of crime erects countless stages to screen-test, to install, and to reenact sensational violence. Yet it is precisely here, in this media-communicative union, that another and crucial component of a wound culture, in the epoch of social systems, comes into view.

The Suspended World

The crux of the matter is that wound culture is not merely a description of a modern society: it is the description that society applies to itself. The living concept of a wound culture, that is to say, is bound up through and through with the reflexive and self-descriptive character of modern social systems, including the mass media, and social media, forms of communication that encradle it. We live in a society that, as the social systems theorist Niklas Luhmann has observed, relentlessly observes itself, and then too observes that: “It would be difficult to deny that in our present historical circumstances we are very concerned about not simply what modern society is but how it observes and describes itself and its environment” (Luhmann, 2002). Or, in the science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem’s more user-friendly terms: “In the Eolithic age there were no seminars on whether to invent the Paleolithic” (Lem, 1984).

A modern society—which is to say, a continuously self-monitoring, auto-updating, and modernizing one—is what Durkheim (inaugurating modern sociology, and so indicating a society on the way to self-description) described as the “almost sui generis” character of a modern-turned social organization. This is to indicate the programmatic itinerary, and inventorying imagination, of a self-organizing society. This is to indicate too its self-investigative will and so wall-to-wall forensic drive.

Death and life in a wound culture may then be represented, or epitomized, by spectacles of crime, trauma, and the wound. Yet that is because such spectacles are also working models of a modernity that is in a perpetual state of self-created suspense. Such a state of suspense is, more exactly, a situation of self-suspendedness: its suspended state is the effect of its own moment-to-moment practices. Suspense, mystery, and crime fiction or visual display then is the voice of this autogenic (self-induced), self-stressed, and suspended state at its purest. It is in this sense that the operational programs of a wound culture open to the general self-description of a contemporary world, without releasing a generalized fascination with the crime and violence zones that incite and reignite it.

This reignition state is one reason why the suspense-crime writer Patricia Highsmith, in her early novel Strangers on a Train, posits contemporary life as “precarious life.” If the notion of “precarity” has recently spread in a range of cultural and literary studies, this is at least in part that it points to, even as it hypostatizes, the suspense imperative of a contemporary society: a precarious life perceived, above all, as a state of autogenous peril or violence.

Hence the point not to be missed is that the violence of a wound culture is autotropic, or self-turned, violence: self-solicited or self-stimulated, self-staged or self-suspended. The world of a wound culture is a world that comes to itself by reporting its own conditions: unceasingly reporting a violence suspended in its premonition and induced in its preemption. This makes for our contemporary ecologies of self-conditioning and self-endangerment that are at the same time (as Luhmann has traced) “ecologies of ignorance” (Luhmann, 1998). The premise of a self-reporting world is that of a world from day to day suspended in ignorance or (in its root sense) stupidity: if we always and every day need to know, we know, again and again, that we don’t know. Stupidity-correction is the modus operandi of crime and mystery fiction. These genres that combine ignorance and danger in states of suspense: they couple crime to self-created and self-resolved mysteries.

There is a today a turn on the part of corporations, for instance, to narrative and “stories”—to “controlling the narrative” as policy management. (The new-managerial styles of public universities today have adopted the same storifying tendencies, under the sign of “the public humanities.”) There is a distinct history (as R. John Williams has recently shown) to the adaptation of systems theory and control techniques to the protocols of a reflexive modernity (Williams, 2016). The cybernetic conception of nature as an animated information system—at once computational and organizational, aesthetic and spiritual—generalizes circular causality. Hence, in effect, actor-network theory and its complexes appear to be, as it were, business as usual. That opens to a world of scenarios, and to a world in which the reporting of the news is the news reported, so that this itself emerges as news. (Hence scenario/narrative generation as policy in the humanities has not merely become a big business; it is, as Tom McCarthy, for example, sets out in his recent novel, Satin Island, synced to big business and its corporate-managerial life-systems style (T. McCarthy, 2015). These are stories of a self-staging and self-realizing world, and a reflexive cast and form of crime and suspense stories tell this story at its purest.

The crime story, orbiting the wound, projects and resolves uncertainties on its own terms. It is autonomous in its root sense, “a law onto itself.” The crime story does so, crucially, via an appeal to the wounded and torn body as index of reality in a reflexive world. A wound culture thus satisfies the “reality hunger” (as David Shields puts it) of a world that at the same time seems to be not merely a world of effects but a world made up of special effects. In effect, unmoored effects are sutured to affects (if one may still use this over-generalized, if highly marketable, term). They are synced via the “body-to-body” analogies of erotic and thrill-kill stories. These sex-violence stories thus stage and expose reality hunger, and its self-shaped imperatives, at every point.

This ecology of self-endangerment is visible across a widening range of fields and institutional practices. That not least in that it presupposes and includes its continuous self-monitoring. Yet what exactly it evidences cannot be understood apart from how a modern society operates and how it observes its operations: how we inhabit this circuit, and its paradoxes. Put simply, a modern world realizes itself by staging its own conditions. That is how a modern world makes itself appear in the world.

We are familiar by now with the idea of a reflexive modernity (Giddens, 1991) and we are becoming familiar too with the enclaved, self-conditioned, air-conditioned character of an ensphered modern life (Sloterdijk, 2013). That is, we have entered into the autogenous atmosphere of a greenhouse world, one that posits and reenacts its own self-determination.

A wound culture then is premised on the two-sided character of that self-determination: its self-turned and autotropic character. The crime or thriller story—factual or fictional, true or false crime—epitomizes that. The bipolar character of a wound culture sometimes plays on the very surface of these stories. We might say that the recent series Homeland names precisely this—and not merely in its shorthand elevation of bipolar disorder to explanatory principle of American foreign policy. Viewing the viewed world, via ubiquitous cell phones and surveillance videos, as a televisual series, there is perpetual oscillation between domestic and foreign locations in the continuous switchboard between psychic and global woundscapes, personal and professional-institutional fronts. A bipolar worldview set out via a repeating spectacle of torn bodies and minds: a sociology of wounds, internal and external, each soliciting the other. In this way, compulsively exteriorized inner states become indistinguishable from world states. Hence what is restaged on innumerable stages is the tightly wound and self-enclosed world, one that—self-incited—winds itself up to see where it goes, and reports that.

Recall that Durkheim’s inauguration of a modern sociology was a study on the sociology of suicide: self-determination as its own self-imposed limit, and so lifting, or suspending, external constraints. The presupposition of a reflexive modernity is the ongoing turning of hetero-restrictions into self-restrictions. This is the silent logic of the Anthropocene and part of its current fascination. This is the situation of what the microsociologist Erving Goffman calls “our indoor social life”: the world-global theater in which a wound culture takes stage.

Scenarios of Extinction and Self-Extinction

The world as woundscape. One of the opening epigraphs of Elizabeth Kolbert’s in her recent bestseller, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, comes from the biologist E. O. Wilson: “If there is danger in the human trajectory, it is not so much in the survival of our own species as in the fulfilment of the ultimate irony of organic evolution: that in the instant of achieving self-understanding through the mind of man, life has doomed its most beautiful creations.” For Kolbert, and Wilson, the “irony” of the sixth extinction is that mass extinction in the “Anthropocene,” or epoch of the human, is itself anthropogenic, or humanly-caused. Yet this may be seen as a version of what the novelist W. G. Sebald called “the natural history of destruction”: a destruction that seems to have “long been foreshadowed by the complex physiology of human beings, the development of their hypertrophied minds, and their technological methods of production” (Sebald, 2004). Hence the outworking of a planetary scene of the crime is not, or not merely, ironic, or even an ultimate irony. It is systemic: it posits a self-determination that has realized, and exteriorized, itself in the world.

Extinction now, self-cancellation and self-inflation may, on this count, share the same logic. The attraction to extinction narrative today (think of the countless variants of mass attractions such as the popular movie Transformers: Age of Extinction) is at least in part neither ironic nor cautionary but charismatic and triumphalist. The emergence of mass extinction, or rather the witnessing and inventorying of mass extinction, in science writing and popular entertaining, here carries the logic of the inventorying of a self-descriptive and so self-staging world. Here the endangered species list, like the most wanted list, is paradigmatic: lists are the first form of writing and, under the conditions of bureaucracy (literally, rule by desks) evolve into list-shaped control signs (Vismann, 1998). In that background extinction in the Anthropocene has been replaced, in the foregrounding of the human order, by what we might call (on the model of assisted suicide) assisted extinction, self-elimination and self-inflation appear as the two sides of a horseshoe, opposed on part of their surface but communicating on another.

This is the triumphalism that Elias Canetti in Crowds and PowerMann und Macht—calls the “survival as passion.” The “moment of survival,” as Canetti describes it, “is the moment of power”:

Horror at the sight of death turns into satisfaction that it is someone else [or something else] who is dead. The dead man lies on the ground while the survivor stands. It is as though there had been a fight and the one had struck down the other. The lowest form of survival is killing . . . . The satisfaction in survival, which is a kind of pleasure, can become a dangerous and insatiable passion. It feeds on its occasions. The larger and more frequent the heaps of dead which a survivor confronts, the stronger and more insistent becomes his need for them . . . .There are others with them who succumb to the danger and this affords them the continually repeated pleasure of survival, which is what they really need and what they can no longer do without.

(Canetti, 1962)

Here we may be reminded that the archaic root of the word “life” is lib, the term for what remains: what continues, or persists, particularly after battle or war, and so what goes on in its aftermath. Life, on this view, is the remains of the day. It also looks like the playing out (in Orson Scott Card’s science-fictional terms) of an “ender’s game” (albeit this time on a not-at-all science-fictional stage).

Such eliminationist woundscapes—what the novelist Cormac McCarthy in post-apocalyptic The Road calls the “cauterized terrain” of an order of life “perfectly evolved to meet its own end”—are then central ways of staging a self-staged world (C. McCarthy, 2007). The derelict and suspended world in The Road has contracted to the world interior of a father and son—“each the other’s world entire”—who push down the road a battered shopping cart, containing their bare provisions, on a thoroughly consumed Earth: as if going down the same road that led to the disaster in the first place. This is the world interior of capital in dereliction.

In the novelist Stephen Crane’s 1890s war story, The Red Badge of Courage, the red badge is the wound, the torn body as social insignia. In Crane’s short story, “Death and the Child,” the narrator describes a marching file of wounded soldiers in these words: the soldiers “were bandaged with the triangular kerchief upon which one could still see through the bloodstains the little explanatory pictures illustrating the ways to bind various wounds. ‘Fig. 1.’—‘Fig. 2.’—‘Fig. 7.’” In these various but collaborative ways, the torn body is bound both to its self-depiction and its self-production. In Red Badge, death in war is systemic industrial production; the intent is to observe violence and war and so to observe the war-production machine: “He must go close and see it produce corpses.” Or, as the German commentator on mechanic war as inner experience, Ernst Jünger put it, the modern soldier is “the day laborer of death.” The mecha violence in Japanese anime—continued in films such as Pacific Rim, among many others—mainstreams this way of seeing world wars on interworld scales and explosive wound spectacles.

Combining industrial and war production, perpetual war—and suspended, or cold, war—is the mise en scene of a wound culture. Here again it is necessary to indicate how the tendency toward a self-illustration that enters into the act is then a working model of a social system that from moment to moment installs itself in recording its own actions. Hence recording reenters the actions, continuously rotating script, program, and record. The bloodstain, the explanatory illustration, scenic reenactment: this is the logic of action in the system epochs. That logic is nowhere clearer than its mediagenic woundscapes, battlefields, and crime wars.

The Natural History of Artificial Life Forms

Wound culture is then symptom and sign of an autotropic social life and its action zones. There is, of course, a longer history to this autotropic world and to the self-stimulative conditions and transitional syndromes that make up its self-curved spaces. In his recent account On Deep History and the Brain, the historian Daniel Lord Smail traces in some resonant detail the emergence and spreading of autotropic commodities from the long 18th century on: self-stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine, chili pepper, opiates, tobacco, chocolate, sugar, gossip, sports, music, new media, religiosity, recreational drugs, sex for fun, and pornography. Last and not least—or most—is crime and suspense novel reading and related forms of literary pleasure: what in the 19th century came to be called “a reading world.” These are versions of what a contemporary observer called “the controlled use of the uncontrollable” (Smail, 2008).

Here is the biological component of that self-incitation. Smail is entranced by the example of the snorting horse: “Horses who get bored or lonely while isolated in a paddock sometimes take pleasure in startling themselves. A lively snort causes a chemical feedback that induces a startle reflex and an exciting wash of neurochemicals.” He, the horse, mimics the conditions that would naturally stimulate a startle reflex. For Smail, this feedback pleasure is like the self-stimulative history he traces, with the difference, of course, that “the horse cannot say to himself, ‘I feel like getting startled,’” or report that thought to others. Hence the self-turned world is a second-nature between history and natural history (at once deep history and deep history).

The concept of a wound culture, in short, is bound up through and through not merely with the presupposition of self-observation but with its correlate, the presupposition of self-curved lives and their curricula vitae or career paths. That imperative is amplified and electrified by scenes of barely controlled, or uncontrollable, bodily states and their self-startling, and self-stimulative, character. The reflexive action zones of the systems epoch thus take on addictive and so serially reenactive form, including such self-stressed recreational, or autonomous, practices.

The simple description of that self-reflexivity—feedback—is most graphically, one may say, literalized in horror-crime stories, in that the horror genre literalizes ways of thinking and feeling in physical and corporeal form of violence and shows them out there in the world. The cannibalism of popular shows such as The Walking Dead or novels such as The Road are, among other things, ways of depicting the feedback loops of self-producing world and its autogenous atmosphere. This is hyper-literalized in crime-horror novels such as Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, in which characters again and again—and, at times, literally—are led to cannibalize themselves. This too is the inner form of the enclosed spaces and feedback logic of the crime-horror movie series Saw—in which self-enclaving and self-wounding, incitations to self-turned violence, are staged again and again, and then again.

Seriality—among other things, including turning from narrative to living in the loop—translates feedback into an aesthetic or formal category. Put simply, in such popular stagings of a self-reflexive and serial violence in the systems epoch, cannibalism is feedback with a human face, albeit a torn and estranged one. These are stories of wounding that take place in what computer graphic artists call “the uncanny valley”—the narrow interval between the nearly human and the barely human.

Such is the case because catastrophic violence marks the point where nature and history, bodies and social systems, refer back to each other as two sides of a tautology. The self-endangered world is of necessity always patrolling the dikes of made culture, and, in doing so, managing the catastrophes their construction sets in motion. The effect, as we have seen, is to neutralize the distinction between history and natural history. This neutralization intimates that, as W. G. Sebald traces in detail, the biological reflexes setting off both construction and destruction foreshadowed in the intermingling of physiology, cognition, and technological modes of production.

Crime stories set out, and stage, this playback situation in high relief (to borrow the title of Raymond Chandler’s last novel Playback. James M. Cain’s crime novels The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity are several among innumerable others.) The violence enclaves, the locked rooms, and the air-conditioned enclosures of a wound culture, are overlit and self-illuminated spaces— working models of disincarnated life and its self-stress points.

Consider this prototypical one, from crime-suspense writer Patricia Highsmith’s extraordinary novel from her Ripley series, Ripley’s Game. The novel is centered on wounded bodies, their professional-institutional settings, and the at once aesthetic and gamelike form of a self-solicited violence. Here is a scale, and working, model of the fusion of physiology and technology, biotech life in a “laboratory of the future”:

The hospital was a vast assembly of buildings set among trees and pathways lined with flowers. Karl had again driven them. The wing of the hospital where Jonathan had to go looked like a laboratory of the future—rooms on either side of a corridor as in a hotel, except that these rooms held chromium chairs or beds and were illuminated by fluorescent or variously colored lamps. There was a smell not of disinfectant but as of some unearthly gas, something Jonathan had known under the X-ray machine which five years ago had done him no good with the leukemia. It was the kind of place where layman surrendered utterly to the omniscient specialists, Jonathan thought, and at once he felt weak enough to faint. Jonathan was walking at that moment down a seemingly endless corridor of sound-proofed floor surface.

(Highsmith, 1974)

The type of society at work, or in play, here could not be more clearly delineated. It indicates what death and life—or, as we now say, “existential”—situations look like in this framed, assembled, and intramural world, its pathways outlined with transplants, and artifact-nature. This is, as it were, a working model of antiseptic modernity and its indoor social life. Via damaged and wounded states, it holds a mirror up to second nature. Hence these are institutional sites that erect and stage the natural history of artificial forms of life.

No Pain, No Gain: The Rise of the Planet of the Professionals

These scenarios are, not least, professional spaces. It is necessary to underscore how a wound culture is bound to the logic of an ubiquitous and disinhibited professionalism: a cradle-to-grave officialism. Max Weber, it will be recalled, in “Science as Profession” [Wissenschaft als Beruf] described the academic-professional vocation in terms of a systemic blindness to all that is outside its practiced expertness. He traced, in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, its more general and ultimate outcome of this unremitting and blindly internalized activity: its ultimate refinement to, purely and simply, “the irrational sense of having done one’s job well” (Weber, 1978). Or, as Robert Ludlum puts it in his suspense novel, The Bourne Identity, describing the secret agent and perpetually reborn killer Bourne’s attempts at self-description and self-identification: “It was not professional, and if he had learned anything about himself during the past 48 hours it was that he was a professional. Of what he had no idea, but the status was not debatable” (Ludlum, 2010).

The riskscapes of wound culture, its stress-points and mood-systems, are at the very same time constituent parts of the emergent systems-state, and its life-supporting (or life-withdrawing) institutions. These laboratories of the future, are the islands, the bureaucratic archipelagoes, of the official world. Ego-boosterism and the panic/thrill of suspended states meet in these persons in space, ego-technic acrobats, or free-floating professionals. (Hence we all know what any film or novel called “The Professionals” will take as its expert-lethal subjects, and undebatable work-ethical premises.)

It is not possible to understand the emergence of a wound culture and its situations at the present time without the presupposition of such personal-professional training in the epoch of social systems. That professionalism is most perspicuous in Bourne-like disinhibition training in an ongoing and relentless self-stressing: perpetually torn and reborn or reincarnative bodies, self-exposure and self-boosterism at its limits. These suspense stories provide spectacles of the controlled use of the uncontrollable in the strange enclaves of an undebatable professionalism. Such action heroes are experts in navigating ecologies of self-endangerment. They are the functionaries and operatives of perfectly rational irrational systems. Actor-network heroes in thrillers stage the continuous solicitation of torn bodies and torn lives, states of suspense that are self-suspended states, and unceasing, auto-stimulative displays of professional acrobatics, its human pyramids and upward mobilities. Or, consider this exchange in the current Showtime series Homeland, an exchange that encapsulates an alternately breathless expose of wounds, psychic and physical and its sheer workaday professionalism, and psycho-dispassionate work ethics: “‘Checking names off a kill list for living?’ ‘It’s a job.’”

These are anecdotes of an enclaved life meeting its own ends: autotropic life and death, on the planet of the professionals. Take, for another and iconic example, this remarkable episode recounted in Paul Auster’s inside-out murder mystery novel The New York Trilogy:

“In a book I once read by Peter Freuchen,” Fanshawe writes, “the famous Arctic explorer describes being trapped by a blizzard in northern Greenland. Alone, his supplies dwindling, he decided to build an igloo and wait out the storm. Many days passed. Afraid, above all, that he would be attacked by wolves—for he heard them prowling hungrily on the roof of his igloo—he would periodically step outside and sing at the top of his lungs in order to frighten them away. But the wind was blowing fiercely, and no matter how hard he sang, the only thing he could hear was the wind. If this was a serious problem, however, the problem of the igloo itself was much greater. For Freuchen began to notice that the walls of his little shelter were gradually closing in on him. Because of the particular weather conditions outside, his breath was literally freezing to the walls, and with each breath the walls became that much thicker, the igloo became that much smaller, until eventually there was almost no room left for his body. It is surely a frightening thing, to imagine breathing yourself into a coffin of ice, and to my mind considerably more compelling than, say, The Pit and the Pendulum by Poe. For in this case it is the man himself who is the agent of his own destruction, and further, the instrument of that destruction is the very thing he needs to keep himself alive.”

(Auster, 2006, p. 300)

Here we encounter the paradoxes of the drive “to endow the outside world as a whole with a magical immanence,” and the “tendency to make both nature and culture indoor affairs: the limit case of the internal climate of what Peter Sloterdijk calls the world interior of capital” (Sloterdijk, 2013).

In Auster’s retelling of the arctic explorer’s strange drive to self-exposure turned outside in, self-conditioning overturns into self-interment, or (with apologies to Poe) premature self-burial. Here a literalized hetero-constriction becomes self-constriction, self-determination self-termination, carried by an impulse for self-reported action taken to its endpoint. Here too the externalization of spirit or anima (breath) is counterspirit to a dialectics of self-realization: a snow-domed version of the double-logic of a wound culture.

The coffin of ice is the counterpart, and inversion, of the crystal palaces and ferro-vitreous stations and mirror-walled skyscrapers of modernizing processes bound to hyper-productive and suspenseful modes of life, scenarios of men encapsulated in space, and of the autogenous atmosphere of the systems epoch.

Dioramas of the Systems Epoch

Wound culture, described in these terms, makes it possible to see this epoch of self-determination, and self-termination, along somewhat different lines than those traced in a range of recent descriptions of a closure of the bourgeois half-millennium and the crystallization of the systems epoch. It makes it possible, that is, to redescribe closure in the twin senses carried by the recent baptism of the epoch of social systems or the world interior of capitalism as an epoch of our own, the Anthropocene (the human achievement, or catastrophe, of planetary-transforming activity). That designation makes it possible to redescribe “the one-world state” and “world interior of capital” in epoch-geological terms.

Yet if that redescription is not entirely indifferent to the operation of social and economic systems and institutions, it is generally not attuned to their specification. The current autotropic epoch is bound up through and through with the bipolar organization of the long modernity and its stockpile, or arsenal, of image-funds. “When it comes to man-made catastrophes,” the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk observes, “the 20th century was the most instructive period in world history. It demonstrated the greatest disaster complexes came about in the form of projects that were meant to gain control of the course of history from a single center of action . . . the final battle for world domination” (Sloterdijk, 2014).

In factual and fictional form—for instance, in the epochal fiction of J. G. Ballard—this is a matter of the long modernity: the age of exploration, invasion, settlement, clearing, and unearthing, now achieving, or enduring, manifest destinies. A wound culture is sign-posted by Ballardian scenarios of an advanced modernity in dereliction: like a deserted stage at the end of a performance, or the abandoned pieces of giant sculpture, or a now-stationary and action-suspended carousel. It is staged in atrocity exhibitions and in gated communities, dioramic and enwalled states of a new millennialism.

What comes into focus at this point then are the severance events, transitional syndromes, and self-turned tendencies of a wound culture: a relentless mentality of planning and staging that puts pressure on itself, and so prepares and brings into view how it is attuned to its own obsolescence. The image-funds of a wound culture thus display the alternately complex and lurid ways in which our culture “renders its own reality comprehensible to itself”—and submits to the pressures that induces (Luhmann, 2013).

Here is the American novelist Cormac McCarthy on such scenographies, in a radiant passage from his novel The Crossing: “Across the pieced land they watched a man turning the earth with an ox yoked by its horns to a singlehanded plow. The plow was of a type that was old in Egypt and was little more than a treeroot. They mounted up and rode on” (C. McCarthy, 1995). An extraordinary condensation of history—that is, history as natural history—marks these contracted lines: observing the species that singlehandedly, if violently, yokes history and natural history together, and, collaterally, enacts, depicts, and watches that.

This is a small diorama of the crossing in history and natural history, a bit of anthropocenic theater. Such scenes indicate then that this term, the Anthropocene, may less tell a new story than correlate a long-unfolding one to the observation and depiction that now enter into it. The contractions of history and natural history, in these stories of a self-turned world—and, hence, of an overturned or torn earth—are then two-sided or rival stories of a wound culture. This is the turned earth as “scabland,” to use another of McCarthy’s terms (this one from The Road). The planet’s cauterized terrain is, at the same time, a worked world and a planetary scene of the crime and so generalized a forensic zone. This is why, extinction in vogue, it has become possible to present “the age of extinction” as an assisted extinction, or serial violence at the level of the species, and on a global scale.

Across a range of popular culture—from the exuberant experiments in shattering bodies and shattered worlds in Japanese anime to popular novels and films in the zombie genre (from, say, Max Brooks’s novel World War Z to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One) torn bodies and torn landscapes, natural and unnatural histories, merge into an estranged reenactment of the present. The walking wounded and walking dead are its vagrant or revenant pedestrians. Its scarred and revenant migrants appear as the sidelined populations in motion across an overturned world.

These zones of a wound culture are thus precincts of a self-administered official world and its contemporary unrest and stress phenomena—the enclaved spaces, technological forms of controlled and repeating motions, its time zones and clocked lives. These traffic zones sample space, time, and motion in wound culture, and its ego-technic media. That is to say, these zones depend on systemic media of body and message transport, and the personal-professional step systems and ubiquitized training systems of life plans and planned lives. The systems-internal scenarios—erected on the countless stages of a self-staged world—make up the autogenous atmosphere of an ensphered life, and self-condition the very air you breathe and every breath you take.

Control Climates: Death from the Air

Put simply, this is how a modernizing world sets itself in motion and keeps going. Modernity, as some have suggested, is at the bottom of a traffic problem. Systemic and scheduled, repeatable and reversible motions set the stage for a repurposing, as they say: for as system-borne violence, a playback-violence that may take the form of terror from the air, an air war, too. Consider, for example, the 1995 terrorist attacks on the Tokyo metro system, detailed in Haruki Murakami’s extraordinary description of it and its implications, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. The account begins with these words:

The date is Monday 20 March 1995. It is a beautiful clear spring morning. There is still a brisk breeze and people are bundled up in coats. Yesterday was Sunday, tomorrow is the Spring Equinox, a national holiday. Sandwiched right in the middle of what should have been a long weekend, you’re probably thinking, “I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.” No such luck. You get up at the normal time, wash, dress, breakfast, and head for the subway station. You board the train, crowded as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. It promises to be a perfectly run-of-the-mill day. Until five men in disguise poke at the floor of the carriage with the sharpened tip of umbrellas, puncturing some plastic bags filled with a strange liquid.

(Murakami, 2001)

The planet of the professionals, in rotary motion inside the highly articulated and well-patrolled caverns of underworld transit—what the novelist Teju Cole, in Open City, instancing the New York underground, calls its “moveable catacombs.” Planetary time (the equinox, the sun day), official time (the weekday and weekend), the stationary carousel of the transit system, repeatedly rotating from the station: these mark the ordinary modern annihilation of space by time and repeated repeating. The transit systems of an official world are also, we know, the systems-internal order of the “normal accident,” which then previews states of ordinary exception.

The routine commuting between home and world is here turned to homeland terror. The transit carousel of thronged bodies in climate controlled, enclaved spaces turns to gas chambers. More than that, the deadly air is carried throughout the network, the disaster spread by the very plans constructed to support and carry life.

Death from the air (as Peter Sloterdijk, among others, has traced) is a defining attribute of the second modernization—whether the poison gas of World War I, the gas chambers and air war of World II, or autogenous, planetary climate change. But death-from-the-air scenarios include too the scaling of the highest peaks on the planet, enabled by encapsulated oxygen; it includes the self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCUBA gear) of undersea exploration; it extends too to the vulnerable capsules of men suspended in space. These artificial environments of suspended life and death are working parts of the infrastructure of an autotropic world and a wound culture, and its transit media. These media at once obviate and prepare the cataclysms their own construction and routine running may set in motion.

Contemporary actor-network theory, it may then be observed, is in effect a rapt description of ordinary life in the epoch of social systems, and its countless transit and transfer stations, and hence the continuous reassemblages of the epoch of social systems. These are scale models of a self-modeling and self-propelled life, its time-trials and repetitive exercises, its distributive agencies. Hence the underground network, then, becomes too the self-staging area of what J. G. Ballard calls “ordinary cataclysms and dooms” and what Patricia Highsmith calls our “tales of natural and unnatural catastrophes.”

It is not hard to see that what Charles Perrow calls “the normal accident” has become abnormally normal in the second, or reflexive, modernity. The crash, and its technoculture of the wound, has been anatomized in remarkable detail in Ballard’s stories: “atrocity exhibitions” that wed technology to the affections. Paul Virilio too has concisely captured the double, or reversible, logic of the modern accident:

In classic Aristotelian philosophy, substance is necessary and the accident is relative and contingent. At the moment, there’s an inversion: the accident is becoming necessary and substance relative and contingent. Every technology produces, provokes, programs a specific accident. For example: when they invented the railroad, what did they invent? An object that allowed you to go fast, which allowed you to progress—a vision a la Jules Verne, positivism, evolutionism. But at the same time they invented the railway catastrophe. The invention of the boat was the invention of shipwrecks. The invention of the steam engine and the locomotive was the invention of derailments. The invention of the highway was the invention of three hundred cars colliding in five minutes. The invention of the airplane was the invention of the plane crash.

(Virilio & Lotringer, 1997)

The Scientological Turn of Wound Culture

Yet the transformer-logic of modern transit systems is not merely a matter of ironic reversal of doing to undoing. These disaster complexes couple the drive to world domination to technologies of self-domination. Both are premised on an autotropic, self-stimulated, catastrophism—a catastrophism, and this is the point not to be missed, at once within and without. Hence there is another dimension to the Tokyo gas attack, for example, and to the spectacular nature of a wound culture. There is, for one thing, a compulsive extroversion of feelings and purposes in such cases: in short, a violent anthropotechnics, or art with humans. That extroversion is bound up, through and through, with the ego-technical media and the innovations, but also the spiritual techné and aspirational or self-surpassment techniques, of the second machine age.

A strange, but strangely familiar, techno-spiritualism—a direct fusion of technology and esotericism—contours, for example, the Tokyo attacks. The Aum Shinrikyo organization or cult behind the terrorist event not only funded its operations largely via computer and software sales. Beyond that, this highly bureaucratized and media-driven organization aimed for the development of “a mode of communication without any [external] medium” and for the total “informationalization of the body.” Disciplinary-spiritual personal training formed a core part of its program: a self-curation that took the form of violent self-correction, via pain-ascetics and electroshock “therapy.” It amounts, in effect, to a pathologized version of what the anthropologist Gregory Bateson called “the cybernetics of the self” (Bateson, 2000).

The extroversion of awareness via cultural techniques; the articulation of pain-ascetics and its mood-systems; the programmed unity of individuals outside themselves: all enter into what might be described as the scientological turn of a contemporary wound culture. The goal of science fiction, Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard tells us, is “to take men to the stars.” Scientology combines science fiction, psychology fiction, and religion fiction into ascetic-technical exercises in cosmic self-boosterism. The central program is the extroversion of reflexivity via record and monitoring machines (the electropsychometer, or E-meter, in scientological auditing). Scientology brings not merely news from the stars: it brings personal trainers—anthropotechnical experts—to the stars. It is a reincarnation program: “Live, Die, Repeat” (as the announcement for the film Edge of Tomorrow, starring the world’s foremost Scientologist, Tom Cruise, puts it).

In Hubbard’s science fiction, the planet is itself a woundscape, with its own at once autogenous and lethal atmosphere. But these topographies are at the same time psychotopographies: the scarred terrain is the individual’s own wounded psychic and torn bodily state. Take, for example, this passage from Hubbard’s highly popular novel Battlefield Earth:

It was a startling sight. The grandeur of the scene in this thin, cold air made one feel small . . . .Out of a river, a thin, silver thread in the depths far below, reared a reddish, massive wall of rock rising sheer and raw. Narrowly across from it was its echoing face. Down through the eons, the river finding a softer strata between the two faces, had gnawed its turbulent way to make at last this gigantic knife slice in the all but inpregnable stone. A thousand feet deep, a hundred yards wide, the enormous wound gaped.

(Hubbard, 1982)

These face-landscape fusions could not be more explicit in the literature, and self-promotional programs, of Scientology, not least in that relentless self-promotion—cosmic ego-boosterism—is its space program. Hence the lurid bestseller that launched this program, Dianetics, announces, at the start, that “Dianetics is an adventure. It is an exploration into Terra Incognita, the human mind, that vast and hitherto unknown realm half an inch back of our foreheads” (Hubbard, 1950). The logic of space travel, journeys into terra incognita inside and out, means that interior states and outer space continuously switch places. If the dream of science fiction is to take men to the stars, here inner and outer space each “echo” the other. It has been suggested that the best way to discredit the very idea of religion is to start one oneself. But it’s just that self-starting itself that structures, we have seen, the logic and practices of a wound culture and its autotropisms. Hence what Hubbard’s monitoring and training systems are designed above all to “going clear” are what he calls “autogenic (self-generated) diseases.”

In short, the program of Dianetics is one form—fusing technology and spirit—of the ego-technics of a wound culture. Here it enfolds sci-fi and psy-fi forms: pain clearing via esoteric technologies of ego-projection. These techniques and “training patterns” are at once shock-absorbers and self-amplifiers. In this way, a cybernetics of the self is recalibrated for self-curved evolution: “shock and pain” are to be “erased and refilled automatically, through a step program involving “photographic recall,” examining and internally editing “moving pictures,” accruing “computational ability,” “recording,” “refilling,” “monitoring,” and so deletion or “clearing.” The great discovery, we are informed, is that “it chances that Man is a self-determined organism to the outermost limit that any form of life can be.” This the model of self-turned or autotropic life at its purest—and as world principle. Damage, pain, injury, wounding; the “shock of accidents”; the “pain of injuries”; the “deliriums of illness”; the “evil of physical pain”: all that blows “the fuses of the analytic mind” are to be cleared to the outermost limit—in effect, a clear-cutting of the life-world (Hubbard,1950).

The point not to be missed is that the scientological turn in and of wound culture is not at all limited to its official training programs. There is something more than a bid for scientific aura in the recent captivation of a range of humanities and social science interests by the sciences—at times in the form of popular science writing or “stories”—informed hearsay. “Interdisciplinarity” may then take the form of a professional amateurism, which has its own allure. There is too a scientological component, stripped of its cosmologies, in the self-determination, or self-realization, industry. That may take the form of an ascetic training in self-risk, wound-clearance, and vertical mobility: Buddhism for self-boosters, and so what might be described as a commitment to selfless self-devotion. There is, we have seen, a distinctly scientological component too in popular suspense/crime novels and films such as the Bourne series, and many others.

The self-stressed and technically-enhanced identity programs of such presentations provide models not merely for Scientology-lite movements of behavior modification (EST or its corporate-friendly spin-offs) but for new ontogenic conditioning, say, from the e-meter to the Fitbit, and proliferating forms of cellular connectivity and self-auditing: that is, self-conditioning and curated evolution.

Disinhibition Training

That is to say, crime-suspense fictions, for example, may take the form of entrancing or violent thought experiments in recovering, or cognitive-mapping, interior states from the perception of external acts and their effects. The observer of the iconic anthropotechnic agent Jason Bourne’s actions, for example, in the novels or films that bear his laboratory-produced rebirth name, is always a step or two behind in perceiving and processing what he senses and acts on. But so is he, as his effect on the world searches for its cause. He is literally self-taught via violence feedback: this is autodidactic neuroscience as stress-testing. Paperback science coupled to self-wounding. It is in part a lesson in understanding media and information flows or floods, the supercommodity of information. But felt on the body via a strange and torturous asceticism—exteriorization exercises and self-projection scenarios.

These personal training regimens combine “massive shocks” and “instruments of hysteria”: ascetic discipline as a relentless training in self-disinhibition. That includes a series of what the novelist Ludlum calls “exercises”: “verbal exercises,” strength and endurance exercises, and, in effect, worldview exercises. Central here are exercises in self-stressing and its observation. Or, as Bourne’s personal trainer puts it: “We’re combining two stresses . . . .Whenever you observe a stress situation and you have the time, do your damndest to project yourself into it” (Ludlum, 2010). This is the idiom of the life-counseling industry and its practices: the turning of stress to self-persuasive activity, via observation and alert time management, and its unremitting re-stressing.

Such scenarios—what might called (with apologies to Bruno Latour) Scientology in action—stage the hyperproductivity of the world interior of capitalism; its ceaseless flows of currency, traffic, information, and bodies, its amplification practices—across the lurid, shifting, and turbulent cityscapes and seascapes of the thriller. These are the observation and reenactment zones, the solicited-stress situations, the accelerative violence that define such spaces; the rapid transit through wild woundscapes that reincarnates, or serializes, its actors. These are scenarios of reincarnation through bodily violence. Or—to adapt the terms of one the great Japanese anime versions of that, Neon Genesis Evangelion—these are scenographies of a neon technology of autogenesis.

A final example of the ego-technic media of a wound culture and its implications. At the close of Tom McCarthy’s most recent novel Satin Island, a strange torture scene is related, one that joins bodily movements, electrical shocks, and the dubious machine that coordinates them: “this modulator or detector. It had a small screen on it, that had lines running across it: wave-lines, like you might get on earth-quake predicting machines, or on those other ones that show stock-market prices as they fluctuate.” The torture session takes the form of a “strange ballet being choreographed,” one synced to “the modulating sound of the machine and my own corresponding sequences of postures.” A sort of Scientology e-meter, with its “training patterns” collating bodies and machines, stress exercises and readouts—and linking them, in turn, to the planetary shocks of earthquakes and the “shock doctrines” of global stock markets. This is a primal scene, or perhaps template, of a wound culture and the choreographic forms of its ego-technic media.

These are some of the paradoxes of self-amplified violence that mark wound culture’s self-turned character. Hence the art and media of a wound culture raise the question of “how we live in, and with, this type of circular network” (Luhmann, 2013). They bring into focus how such a world renders its own reality comprehensible to itself—and, in doing so, syncs reporting and performing its operations. Via the controlled use of uncontrollable bodily states, via its self-stimulative character, self-torn and self-born forms of life and death become perspicuous, and its installations appear on countless stages throughout a self-reporting and official world. The contemporary phenomena of autogenic stress, enclaves of self-endangerment and self-management, and so continuously solicited suspense: these are some of the forms through which wounds communicate, and some of the modes in which wound culture itself becomes a medium.


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