Against Death and Boredom

Philippa Snow, Which As You Know Means Violence: On Self-Injury as Art and Entertainment

Repeater, 120pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781913462468

reviewed by Katherine Franco

If you walked into the storefront at 3 Mercer Street on 29 November 1975, you would have received a glass of wine from the artist Lil Picard. You would then have been encouraged to spit this wine on writer Kathy Acker’s naked body. The activity goes by the name of Tasting & Spitting, a performance piece by Picard and starring Acker in Lower Manhattan.

Acker is, of course, pissed at Picard by the performance’s end: for appropriating Acker’s moniker the ‘Black Tarantula’ within the performance and without permission, for using Acker as sex object for the sake of Picard’s legacy. But Acker is most disgusted at the audience’s disgust. ‘Now all that happened was spitting,’ Acker says, on hearing that some of Lil’s friends vomited following the spectacle. ‘I mean, come on . . . really there are worse atrocities.’

There are indeed worse atrocities, which is perhaps why we stage these ones. That doctrine might underpin most spectacles of self-injury or theatre of catastrophe. It is why Philippa Snow’s recent release, Which As You Know Means Violence: On Self-Injury as Art and Entertainment, is a useful tool in theorising and reading performances like the one at 3 Mercer Street. Spitting is a common practice throughout the performances in Snow’s monograph, as well as ones that risk one’s livelihood in more severe ways. In Which As You Know Means Violence, we go from Jackass to Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present at MoMA. Buster Keaton is there, too, as well as trans performance artist Nina Arsenault and YouTuber Logan Paul.

What makes a successful critical monograph on self-injury and violence? It should probably historicise the genre’s relationship to gender, race, and class, as Snow’s work does through considering these movements as symptoms of white post-9/11 imperialism. Jackass, according to Snow, ‘too obviously resembles a post 9/11 show, with its giddy violence sometimes mirroring the helpless, hopeless mania that follows serious trauma’. Which As You Know Means Violence mostly revolves around practitioners and performances in the US, despite Snow’s own location in the UK. Snow’s library of references or forebears — Susan Sontag, Hilton Als, Eileen Myles — throughout the book also offers a distinctly American tradition and context.

Snow’s monograph is interested in how and why representations of self-injury and cruelty are productive parodies of a whole, self-contained, and fulfilled body. She particularly attends to trans representations of self-injury and cruelty, likening Arsenault’s performance of the feminine to queer artist Cajsa von Zeipel. ‘Her adoption of, and subsequent dismantling of, hyper-feminine attributes might be interpreted as a generous act of martyrdom for trans and cis women alike,’ Snow writes, ‘the former often unfairly yoked to a conventional image of femininity as a matter of life and death as well as of conformity, desirability, and professional advancement’. Snow’s monograph is not a theoretical account of biopolitics and violence in contexts of US empire — you can turn elsewhere for that — but more of an attempt to understand why individuals utilise self-violence to rebel against those contexts. For the most part, Snow focusses less on gruelling instances of self-injury but instead the comedic, pathetic, or humiliating. She elucidates how comedy, to quote Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, is ‘always a pleasure-spectacle of form’s self-violation’.

Snow’s case studies all involve a level of self-consciousness and will to survival. They are ‘pleasure-spectacles’, by which I mean they necessarily involve the violation of form, by which I also mean the body. This book is less about Isabelle Huppert’s Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher, for instance, leaning over the tub to cut her genitals — although Snow did write on Michael Haneke’s film for Artforum — but more about Keaton’s death-defying stunts. It’s self-injury with an attention toward survival, or the performance of survival. It’s what Snow calls the ‘deathlessness’ of director Harmony Korine’s ‘commitment to the joke’. Yes, there is a risk of death there, but that itself might be deathlessness. If survived, it renders you eternal and awesome. (As when we see Keaton survive his famous stunt in Steamboat Bill, Jr.) These case studies, despite their violent nature, are distinctly unsuicidal. 

An effort at perfectible practice or pace, more than pain, lies at the centre of most of the performances. Abramović and Chris Burden don’t mutilate themselves as a result of self-hatred but to consider the human body and its limits. Snow gives us terms for the ‘the grace and violence’ of Korine and Keaton. (It’s worth quoting Snow’s entire description of Keaton in full: ‘He repudiates the sin of boringness by being unpredictable, the chaos of him rippling across what was previously lifeless as if something very heavy — as heavy as love, or God, or the iron door of a bank vault — had been tossed into a lake.’) Korine, Keaton, Abramović, Knoxville: they do anything to condemn ‘the sin of boringness’.

Snow’s career in cultural criticism perhaps most consistently attends to what Hunter S. Thompson called ‘freak power’. That might not be obvious from her by-lines on the Gossip Girl and Sex and the City reboots. But it doesn’t take long to realise that an analysis of the smoothest, most normative cultural object is just another way into a consideration of the ‘freakish’. In holding up a looking glass to the most seemingly glossy surface, Snow implicitly asks: Why? And why not otherwise? Why is SATC’s Samantha not weirder? (As Snow asked in her LA Review of Books review of And Just Like That in January.) Why are things, generally, not weirder? Which As You Know Means Violence takes up the question in the context of works that do dare to be weird.

Snow is adept at historicising her cases in the context of their communities. Her final chapter on disability is crucial to the monograph. Any discussion of ‘freak power’, or freakery, that fails to attend to the disabled body in the wake of Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s landmark Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body is missing something. Discussing writer and artist Bob Flanagan, who lived with cystic fibrosis for decades, Snow reminds us that what we call the performance of self-injury, or body in crisis, passes as daily life for a good number of individuals. Flanagan’s ‘refusal to entirely condemn cystic fibrosis and its effect on his quality of life, choosing instead to see it as. . . “empowering” is not just defiant’, Snow writes, ‘but punk, turning affliction into enlightening material’. Valuations like ‘quality of life’ are suddenly thrown into question: how can one begin to criticise or define self-injury, if some bodies inhabit perpetually precarious states anyway?

In an unfortunately timely turn, Snow’s monograph concludes with a discussion of the late Peter Schjeldahl’s essay, ‘The Art of Dying’. Schjeldahl’s essay was a reference point for Snow even before his death in October 2022. Snow connects Schjeldahl’s own ‘pre-emptive eulogy’ to his reverence for the work of Burden and Flanagan’s Pain Journal. If writing about Johnny Knoxville or Keaton requires writing about individuals whose stunts outlive audience expectations, Snow more earnestly turns toward those who do so without choice. ‘Both men, captured in full, passionate flow about their respective endeavours,’ Snow writes about Flanagan and Schjeldahl, ‘cannot help but impress audiences with their tireless strength’. That was a kind of performance with which Acker also became familiar by the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer around two decades after Tasting & Spitting. What one sees as the performance of self-injury is mere reality to another. 

What I like most about Snow’s monograph is her assertion of grace. She doesn’t make the case for the grace of performances of self-injury to romanticise pain or harm or suicide. Instead, Snow uses these cases to remind us that an unstable body is regular to the lives of disabled, sick, or queer individuals. There is grace in the survival not of one’s allegedly ‘failed’ body but rather the survival of institutions that render that body undesirable, unliveable, or grotesque. The body, we are reminded in these case studies, is an apparatus for social critique. 

‘Going on may be what death does for a living,’ Snow writes toward the end of Which You Know Means Violence, ‘but the same can be said of the greatest art, the soundest theory, the most evocative writing — a body of work can, after all, outlast a body’. The unassuming parentheses in which Snow writes this phrase in the last chapter are apt. Snow’s prose isn’t too worried about outliving something but is more interested in going on. That’s a much punchier goal.

Katherine Franco is a writer and artist. Her work is published by Pilot Press, Jacket2, and SPAM, among others.