the parody of sovereignty
By Rosie Clarke.
(Triple Canopy, Sternberg Press and Tensta Konsthall, 2015)
“A headless man,” wrote Bataille in the June 1936 issue of Acéphale, “like a headless society, is emancipated from control and reason”. He further postulated, “human life is defeated because it serves as the head and reason of the universe. Insofar as it becomes that head and reason it accepts slavery. If it isn’t free, existence becomes empty or neuter, and if it is free, it is a game.” These dichotomies–between freedom and suppression, impotence and vitality–form the foundation of K.D.’s off-kilter novel Headless. Both the concept and artefact of Bataille’s Acéphale–from the Greek , akephalos or “headless”–are used as the framework for K.D.’s investigation of secrecy, privacy and surveillance.
In 2013, seventy-seven years after Bataille’s remarks above, Edward Snowden became a household name, and with him a widespread knowledge of PRISM and mass government surveillance. Territory previously populated by foil hat connoisseurs and dated X-Files characters became unwillingly inhabited by every American using a phone or computer. In an early interview Snowden commented, “a child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem because privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.”
Snowden’s disclosure of global surveillance challenged the notion of privacy that we consider so fundamental to our rights as free citizens. The revelation of PRISM represents the most contemporary iteration of the conflict between secrecy and openness. Itself a secret, PRISM’s covert nature maintained a veil of silence around the clandestine practice of acquiring secrets, thus doubling their secrecy. PRISM is not just a threat to privacy, but to the culture of secret keeping, and consequently the value of secrets in our communications.
Sissela Bok argues “secrecy may accompany the most innocent as well as the most lethal acts; it is needed for human survival, yet it enhances every form of abuse.” Such resounding proof that we were being spied upon by the government caused fingers to hesitate above keyboards, asking Should I say that, and an explosion in proxies and VPNs as we grappled with ways to conceal our online activities. Thus, the global surveillance phenomenon was assimilated not just into the popular lexicon, but also our methods of sharing and withholding information. K.D. manipulates the concepts of privacy and secrecy to great effect, engaging in one of the weightiest debates of contemporary Western society. Headless explores the state of our culture through a many-layered narrative, each level concealing another. At its heart lies the formidable, destructive strength of the play between surveillance and secrecy.
Bataille–whose own alter ego ‘Lord Shithouse’ allowed him to write under a pseudonym–is utilized by K.D. repeatedly throughout Headless, to varying levels of effect. References to The Solar Anus, The Story of the Eye, The Sacrifice of the Gibbon, and the aforementioned The Sacred Conspiracy, undoubtedly add another layer of mystery to K.D.’s already enigmatic book, but it’s hard to tell if they are in place to support the story or as a basis for it. As for Acéphale, in addition to the moniker of Bataille’s journal, this was the secret society he formed with other radicals during the early years of World War II, whose members would meet by a lightning-struck tree in Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche. Their name perhaps originates in the decapitation by guillotine of Louis XVI, which marked the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution, and is noted as ceremonially celebrated by Acéphale’s members. The visual of decapitation features heavily in Headless, and not merely symbolically.
His is certainly a clever inclusion; Bataille’s work is edgy (but not in the Heideggarian sense), erotic but not sexy, and is well-loved by liberal intellectuals and artists–both of whom seem to be the target audience for Headless, published by Triple Canopy in conjunction with the artist book house Sternberg Press and the Stockholm-based center for contemporary art, Tensta Konsthall. Concerned with the protean questions and concerns of contemporary society, Triple Canopy is a multimedia magazine that “resists the atomization of culture,” with a focus on modes of digital art and literature, concentrated on an exploration of how we interact with our world. With that in mind, it seems clear why Headless was an obvious choice for their ‘Immaterial Literature’ project. However, if we believe Triple Canopy’s editor Alexander Provan, who wrote the novel’s preface, his relationship with the author of Headless runs more deeply than the merely professional. From the very beginning notions of secrecy and deception are brought immediately to the fore, as authorial identities are challenged, and with them our conceptions of reality.
In comparison, the factual background of Headless is deceptively simple. In 2007, Swedish conceptual artists Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby initiated collaboration with Jamie Wright, of offshore management firm Sovereign Trust, to form their own offshore company for a project. During research into Bataille’s Acéphale, the Swedes began investigating a company registered to Sovereign in the Bahamas called Headless Ltd., and due to the linguistic similarity, became obsessed with a potential connection. In their quest for answers, Goldin and Senneby recruited novelist and ghostwriter John Barlow, to investigate Headless Ltd. for them, and transcribe his experience as a mystery novel. However, the listed author would be Kara Donnelley, who later became identified as K.D. due to legal threats from her employer, Sovereign.
The Headless project is described as an attempt to “insert the artists’ own fiction into the gears of offshore finance, which is itself a machine for creating and sustaining fictions that impinge on the world.” Barlow was challenged with creating a fictional work that incorporated French philosophy and art theory into a conventional, marketable, thriller, with Barlow himself playing the lead. The subsequent book, Headless, is his account of the peculiar and disturbing events he encounters, which become increasingly stranger and more unbelievable as he delves deeper into the truth behind Headless Ltd. With a cast of characters whose identities are as unpredictable as the plot, K.D. challenges us to keep up with her serpentine storyline, and tongue-twisting terminology.
Significantly, a fundamental aspect of the book’s mystery lies in its author, and the question of K.D.’s true identity. Is K.D. really Kara Donnelly, Sovereign Trust’s Gibraltar-based client service manager? Or is K.D. John Barlow, the writer hired to research and ghostwrite Goldin and Senneby’s project? The third, and most likely, option is that neither K.D. nor John Barlow is responsible, and Headless is written by a third, anonymous party. Considering Provan’s markedly intense investment in the book, we are perhaps to believe that he is more than merely its publisher. That being said, the complexity of details, secrets, and lies that are woven into the matrix of Headless means answering this question is no easy feat.
The enigmatic author of Headless parallels the layers of secrecy permeating throughout, but at a certain point it becomes difficult to summon much interest to discover the truth of this matter. Besides, the author of Headless is largely irrelevant; it is the obvious attempt to conceal her identity which corresponds to, and highlights, the book’s focus on secrecy and surveillance: the fact she is hiding is more important than who she is. Riddled with aliases, meta-fictions, and delusions, Headless struggles to keep itself from caving in on its self-devised rabbit warren of half-truths. Almost every character is hiding their true self; John Barlow is writer and character of both this book and his own; the duplicitous Catherine Banks is also Cara Bustamante, corrupt Bahamian Special Police; other characters are both played by actors and “play” themselves in roles preordained by the fiction.
Despite K.D.’s masked identity, whoever wrote the book has an excellent adeptness for characterisation. With the constant swapping of identities whipping the reader round like a revolving door, we remain involved with Barlow, Banks, et. al, because, despite their slightly ridiculous circumstances, they are presented as very real, fallible people. Banks in particular stands out as the star of Headless; she scathingly considers Barlow “an ass” that “doesn’t have a fucking clue,” and is “sickened by the plodding flow of Barlow’s prose, by his ham-fisted attempts at eloquence, by his irritating use of three-time repetition.” We find it much easier, and more entertaining, to engage with Banks rather than the somewhat pathetic figure of Barlow, the kind of man who “cringes with post-colonial embarrassment” and “spends more time with Wikipedia than with his wife.” Factual or otherwise, he fails to cut much of a heroic figure: more over-the-hill amateur than hardboiled detective.
Electing to introduce this decidedly non-commercial mystery with Triple Canopy editor Provan’s preface, which itself edges into the realm of incredulity, immediately entices the reader to question the actuality of events before the book has even begun. Reading the online version is fruitful, as it includes (apparent) evidence of Headless’s legitimacy; a video interview with Barlow; Headless Ltd.’s certificates of incorporation; stills from surveillance videos mentioned in the book. However, while Provan takes time to explain the history and aim of the Headless project, his involvement appears to transcend that of interested party or publisher.
We are told that, after Barlow approached him via email to discuss Headless, Provan conducted several Skype interviews that quickly descended into scenes of bizarre deception. In line with Goldin and Senneby’s claims, Barlow asserted he was ghostwriting the book for K.D. as a work of fiction starring himself as protagonist. Intrigued by the increasing incoherence and mania of Barlow during their interviews, Provan spontaneously traveled to a small town in Spain to track him down. He located Barlow’s house and, while on his way, unexpectedly encountered him. Barlow, apparently unkeen to chat in person, escaped on foot with Provan giving chase, confronting him on the edge of a cliff in a scene straight out of film noir. Then, upon entering Barlow’s unlocked home–“the entire house felt like a set piece”–he saw a photograph of himself pinned to the wall, worked into Barlow’s post-it note web of Headless. Thus Provan, author of the introduction, becomes character in a novel that stars its ghostwriter. Whether inserting himself as a character is his intention or not, this addition certainly acts as a challenge to find out what on earth is going on.
At thirty-two pages, Provan’s is an unusually long foreword, and appears to give away too much too soon. However, this has the effect of simultaneously throwing us off and drawing us in, eliciting if not excitement then certainly curiosity in the face of such authorial mystery. While the preface introduces us to the factual ambiguity of Headless, moving from synopsis, to discussion, to quasi-fiction, recurring use of a line from The Solar Anus may elucidate the reasoning behind this curious preamble; “It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.” Perhaps the relationship between both Headless and its foreword, and K.D. and Provan, is more intimate than first appears; either one is parodying the other, or both are working to deceive the reader. At one point, while contemplating his role in the matter, Provan ponders “perhaps the artists perceived some connection between the Headless project and Triple Canopy–an amorphous collective entity operating under many guises…”– or, a monster with many heads, and one of them his.
In a counterintuitive editorial move, Provan provides criticisms before we have even reached the first page, quoting the book’s (fictional) editor Amber Burleson’s own doubts about the success of Headless: “The constant see-sawing of probability concerning who might ultimately be pulling the strings is both intriguing and, after a while, slightly bothersome.” Edward Orloff, a (non-fictional) literary agent is said to have remarked, “somehow the whole project felt a bit like a mystery invented for the sake of a mystery.” With such doubts practically implanted in our minds, it’s difficult to approach Headless with much optimism, and it seems detrimental to include these anti-testimonials so early on.
Furthermore, if we remove its many references to Bataille, Lacan and Derrida, and the quasi-intellectual posturing, Headless is, at its core, a fairly unremarkable mystery novel. K.D.’s turns of phrase are reminiscent of a lesser Raymond Chandler: expressions such as “The bus sounds its horn, weak and breathy, like a bugle played badly,” and “the stump of the neck is like a meat n’gristle pizza” evoke the internal monologue of a movie detective. At one point, realization hits Barlow “like a hammer to the head,” a metaphor so unimaginative it could make one wince, but not in sympathy.
Alongside these clichés is much eye-rolling academic verbosity: in the introduction, Goldin and Senneby describe Headless as “artistic investigations into the relationship between site and non-site, the role of fiction in the world economy, and the potential for withdrawal.” The impression this gives is that either Headless does not quite know what it is, or is pretending to that effect. There is unavoidable conflict between its attempt at mass-market fiction, and the gesturing toward sociological literary experiment. The reader is thus left suspended between the comforting familiarity of pulp fiction and the unfamiliar aloofness of art criticism. We are, as Barlow is, mostly perplexe.
That’s not to say that K.D. doesn’t offer astute observations, in particular on the semantic aspect of surveillance and secrecy. Considering the linguistic hypocrisy of “security officers,” Barlow comments: “The very words pull you up short. Security: something to protect, to keep safe, secure. And officers: the hint of enforcement, policemen, guns, restraint.” There is no small irony in our knowledge that the National Security Agency was prying into emails and text messages, using its government status as justification. The NSA’s argument that, in order to keep America safe, it must covertly access potential intelligence–secretly learning our secrets–destroyed our conception of privacy, and demolished the already fragile boundary between public and private. Such a hypersensitivity to the highly relevant question of privacy may be the most successful aspect of Headless.
Reflecting the book’s introduction via an online portal, the internet plays a major role in its proceedings. In Headless, because detective work is conducted on search engines, recorded through blogging, with threats sent via email, the book distances itself from classic mystery literature. The internet is critically involved in the modern landscape of surveillance, acting as both vessel and carrier of personal details. Barlow exclaims, “Google is such a giveaway. You are your Google history!” With targeted ads, we can’t even escape by clearing our cache, and Barlow’s most mundane activity is available to the savvy hacker. At first naïve to the notion of being watched, Barlow is quickly turned on to it, and through him we examine our own relationship with privacy and surveillance. Upon learning that G+S hired a private detective to trail K.D. in Gibraltar, he asks, “Is it morally acceptable to follow someone like this?” before almost immediately cementing his position on the matter: “This is sickening, corrupting…This is out of control. It’s fucking crazy.” Of course, Barlow’s vehement reaction comes from the fear that he himself will be the subject, mirroring our own fears when Snowden went public–not that others were victims of spying, but that our own privacy had been violated.
K.D. is adept at crating dynamic, almost theatrical scenes of discussion, where relative inaction is countered by verbal acrobatics. In one marvellously pretentious passage, a group of academics, writers and critics gather to discuss the Headless project. These are people who throw around terms like “xeno-money” and “legal fiction” with a straight face, commenting that “economy is a fiction” with offhand grace. In the sort of corny, vacuous language common to unexceptional detective novels, a female character is described as having “a dusky glamour to her, the aura of someone who is not afraid”. Despite this, the scene is illuminating in its intentional conceitedness, illustrating self-awareness of the book’s tone and absurdity, and raising the same questions we have regarding the significance of offshore finance to Headless.
While noted as a plot point, it’s worth pointing out that the financial aspect of the book is essentially non-existent, acting as a mirror for themes of secrecy and privacy. In the words of Dr. Angus Cameron–a very real Professor at the University of Leicester– offshore finance represents “a private sort of privacy, which effectively redoubles the withdrawal, because it is not constituted with reference to the public.” It is, perhaps, the epitome of what Bataille wished to rid from the world: inaccessible sovereignty governed by wealth. Willing “the return of Dionysus,” Bataille stated that the headless man is free from sovereignty, becoming his own ruler. The head is
mere reduction to unity, to God, the Fuhrer, the Great Leader. There is nothing but fear and servitude. There must be no masters, no gods, no dictators. The only free life is a headless one. Only death can truly invigorate life. Death gives to life its greatest meaning.
Although framed by Acéphale, Headless never quite reaches this transcendent release from servitude. Whether serving their own purpose, or the will of secret organisations, K.D.’s characters are far from free.
Bataille’s secret society and promotion of individual sovereignty becomes increasingly appealing the more Headless confronts us with how governments abuse their self-appointed power; in Acéphale, he cries:
PARTICIPATE IN THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WORLD AS IT PRESENTLY EXISTS, WITH EYES OPEN WIDE TO THE WORLD WHICH IS YET TO BE.
However, this plea for a new world order, to cast off our blinkers and metaphorical chains of subjugation, is whispered but not embraced passionately enough in Headless to seem heartfelt. Bataille calls for us to rebel; Headless stands behind, nodding in silence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rosie Clarke is a London-based writer and critic who works for Asymptote. Her work has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature and The White Review.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 10th, 2015.