KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Reviews

Gushing: Trunk Books’ Blood

by Dion Kagan , December 13, 20121 Comment

 

Before I knew it I was nursing my babe and the smell of frying onion was wafting up the stairs. Spouse and midwife had stripped the placenta of its membranes on the kitchen cutting-board, and now he was cooking a post-partum dinner.

– Cressida J. Heyes, ‘Afterbirth’, Blood

What does placenta taste like and is there substance to the belief that eating it can alleviate or even prevent post-partum depression? Cressida J. Heyes shares her accumulated wisdom on these questions in a concise essay-memoir in Trunk Books’ new collection on blood. Blood is the second of their body-parts anthologies and it’s an even thicker and richer collection of corporeal traces than the delicate and tangled cultural histories offered in their first collection, Hair.

‘Afterbirth’ is one of over 150 essays, short fictions, photographs, art works, poems and other fragments and ephemera. In such a gushing torrent of bloody meditations, singling out one sticky contribution could make for a somewhat skewed impression of the whole, but ‘Afterbirth’ is emblematic of some key themes. In the cultural mythologies and psychic fantasies that take blood as their central motifs, the themes of birth, death, pain, fertility, menstruation and women’s bodies are recurrent. Leonore Tiefer’s story of the excruciating agony of her menorrhagia fibroids that eventually required a hysterectomy is another example concerned with women, decorum, embodiment and pain – the scary, bloody states and substances that fall into the category of ‘the abject’.

As any good gender studies student will tell you, the abject is the human reaction of disgust to the material body and its forms and processes of putrefaction, transformation and decay. Shit, sweat, tears, phlegm, nail cuttings and skin flakes are all bodily traces that inspire physical and psychic repulsion. Abject bodily functions are what French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva in her famous essay, ‘Powers of Horror‘, identified as material reminders of mortality. They’re substances that threaten to break down the distinction between our own bodies and the bodies of others, and which threaten to break down meaning itself. Blood is the abject fluid par excellence – frightening but also endlessly fascinating because of its links with life and death, health and disease, kinship and otherness. However, if the abject threatens to break down meaning, it also inspires an excess of meanings, and the bloodbath of cultural histories, mythologies and vignettes gathered together in the pages of Blood attest to this.

Raya Darcy, for example, muses on the beloved Showtime series Dexter, whose signature narrative and visual pleasures are derived from the oversaturated, sensual, highly aestheticized spilling of blood. For it’s viewers, she argues, this is a lust of blood, not for blood, and Darcy rejects the anxious critical commonplace that viewers share in a perverse desire to reproduce the vigilante serial killer’s own homicidal violence.

A short essay on heroic images of 9/11 by Randal Rogers draws out this paradoxical relationship that audiences have with images of blood in the aftermath of those events. On the one hand, blood donation became a central means for Americans to participate directly in healing the wounds of the nation. But on the other hand, the spectacle of wounded bloody bodies is too stark a reminder of these wounds, and hence, images of it get cut from these films.

Blood in contemporary culture isn’t always about violence, vampires, serial killers or erotic True Blood-inspired fan fiction, although Trunk’s collection contains all of the above. Interspersed with the gothic, the horrific and the mediated are small droplets of blood-related history, technology and folklore. These provide a clue to the Trunk editors’ broader interest in the anthropology of material things – not just body parts, but the technologies, practices and narratives that envelop them. A series of short entries by Eleanor Farmer serve as good examples. Farmer writes about the mooncup and the origins of the word ‘menstruation’, she describes the forensic substance Lumino, which is used in forensics to detect traces of blood not visible to the human eye, and she recounts the folkloric history behind why garlic has been associated with warding off vampires.

Blood has also been rationalized, medicalised, scientifically scrutinised and thoroughly commodified. Did you know, for example, that Leech saliva contains an anticoagulant called Hirudin, which dilates the blood vessels and stops blood from clotting? Sterilised leeches are biopharmed in Wales, supplied to hospitals and still used in medical procedures aimed at restoring venous circulation, according to another entry by Farmer.

The globalised commodification of blood through both the gift economy of blood donation and the legally financed transactions of plasma, body parts, organs and waste tissue for research and transplants (and the black markets that accompany them) are part of a capitalist tissue economy discussed in two separate essays by Tim Dean and Deborah Stains. These present extraordinary digests on the psychic and political resonances of blood in contemporary culture. What Foucauldians might call ‘biopolitics’ Staines calls ‘the carriage of power through blood’, a process enacted in the quarantining of diseased populations to the more quotidian practices of human prenatal screening, diagnosis and selection. As Stains writes, ‘blood’s evocative form – fluid, mobile, and designed to exchange (oxygen, nutrients, toxins) – is easily assimilated by capitalism and re-packaged for consumption’.

Thinking through the erotic and subcultural implications of sharing HIV positive blood, Dean meditates of the extreme intimacy of blood, which may help forge ethnic, civil and kinship ties, but can also threaten too much closeness. As he writes, ‘the fact that blood carries the traces of others’ presence is a source of desire as well as anxiety’. Both figuratively and in the context of blood borne viruses like HIV, blood emerges as the ultimate metaphor and material substance of interpersonal relationality, group sociality, consanguinity and kinship. This explains why blood has also been central to ideas about race and fears of miscegenation and purity throughout history.

Blood is also something we eat in abundance – insatiably or ambivalently. Rebecca Huntley looks back at the controversy that arose around celebrity chef Gay Bilson’s idea of making a sausage with her own blood that would be served as part of the 1993 Symposium of Australian Gastronomy. Bilson’s concept of the personal blood sausage ‘provoked outrage and horror’ and was interpreted as ‘vampirism, cannibalism [and] recklessness at a time of heightened public fears about AIDS, and food wankery taken to extremes’.

Blood answered a lot of questions I didn’t know I was lusting for answers to. Why are nobles described as having ‘blue blood’? Why is the blood in video games like Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat green? Why doesn’t Edward Cullen from the Twilight novels get his vampiric blood cravings when Bella has her period? Most of these answers are provided in very short pieces, like concise encyclopedia entries of varying genres. They’re very satisfying and the perfect length for reading during the passing of other unmentionable bodily products, which, with some luck, will be the organising theme of the next Trunk anthology. Though the challenge of how to appropriately title that one remains to be seen.

Dion Kagan lectures in sexuality, screen and cultural studies at Melbourne University and is currently researching HIV/AIDS in popular culture.




  • Raya

    Thanks for the great review, Dion – glad you loved my piece on Dexter! (BTW my name is Raya, not Ray).

9781926428239

Abigail Ulman

Cold Feet and Hot Little Hands: Abigail Ulman on writing – and not writing – her first book

Post-book deal, every time I sat down to try to write something, I felt paralysed by some kind of literary stage fright. I had shown my work to other people before – for writing workshops, and submissions to literary journals and competitions – but I had never before written a story while thinking This story is going to be published in a book. Or, more accurately, This story idea is nowhere near good enough to be published in a book. Read more »

9781926428239

Sian Campbell

Girlhood and The Woman-Child in Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands

Each of the stories in Hot Little Hands navigates girlhood in some way, from the lives of high school-age teenagers to those of young twentysomething women. ‘Girl things’ such as horse camp, gymnastics, feminised bodies, clothing, periods, crushes, yoga and gossip weave through the fabric of the text. Though the subject matter is often adult – the girls of Hot Little Hands navigate abortion, sex trafficking, young motherhood, drugs, and deportation – the girls themselves are not… even when they technically are. Read more »

Dont-Try-This-at-Home-_-cover_-FINAL1-300x460

James Tierney

Subscriber Stories: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home

As a subscriber to publisher And Other Stories’ distribution model, I am in the unusual position of reviewing a book – Angela Readman’s short story collection Don’t Try This At Home – that thanks me by name for making its existence possible. Read more »

amy-schumer

Rebecca Shaw

Amy Schumer and the equal right to be funny

I don’t think men should be banned from making jokes about contentious subjects. I am of the belief that anything can and should be laughed about, and if done right, it can be beneficial. But more often, women are doing it right, and women are doing it better. Read more »

womens-home-companion

Kate Iselin

Trivial Pursuits: The media and ‘women’s interests’

Women, especially in public life, exist as a part of men’s worlds – a big part, sure – but still a part. Even as women become more vocal in demanding accurate and respectful representation, we are kept at arms length by a mainstream media which struggles to catch up. Read more »

SGbTsPQ

Rebecca Shaw

Command and Control: Trophy daughters and overprotective dads

There is no doubt that an overprotective parent is better than a parent who couldn’t care less what their child gets up to. And there is no doubt that most overprotective mums and dads are well-meaning. But paternal ‘protectiveness’ shticks often boil down to fathers not wanting their daughters to have sex, and by extension, get pregnant. Read more »

kstew

Joanna di Mattia

Kristen Stewart Through the Looking-Glass

Kristen Stewart is an actress who has been criticised, maligned even, for an acting style that transmits from set to screen as sullen, adolescent, wooden, blank, fidgety and inelegant. But perhaps she’s an actress concerned with authenticity, and the defining feature of her style is to show us herself by appearing like she’s not acting at all. Read more »

it-follows-4

Anwen Crawford

Behind You: The subtler horror of It Follows

I don’t watch many horror films. Lifelong victim of an overactive and slightly morbid imagination, I regularly envisage disasters, natural or otherwise, that might befall me, without requiring the added stimulus of cinema. Read more »

anne-dorval-and-antoine-olivier-pilon-in-xavier-dolans-mommy

Joanna Di Mattia

All About His Mother: Xavier Dolan’s fierce women

Xavier Dolan has created an exuberant body of cinema that privileges women (and others on the margins) as complex, chaotic beings. Dolan’s fierce mothers are cleaved from the pedestal that so much of cinema places them on, so that they may dig around in the dirt that is life. Read more »

Struggle+Street+KEY+IMAGE

Anwen Crawford

Shame and Stigma on Struggle Street

Struggle Street framed poverty as a combination of genetic inheritance and natural disaster – a barrier to be overcome only through ceaseless positive effort. Those who sabotage themselves through bad choices are therefore fair targets for our scorn, while those who gain employment or remain sober deserve praise for overcoming the odds. The deserving and undeserving poor, in other words. What an old story. Read more »

TheSlap_Show

Genevieve Wood

The Slap: What’s lost when a cricket bat becomes a baseball bat?

‘A cricket bat wouldn’t make sense in an American context’, says Tony Ayres, executive producer of the US adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s right, of course – it wouldn’t. But when, in US playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s version, the eponymous slap occurs as the result of a swinging baseball bat, something’s not quite right. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

DUKMRUTRHLU31425064919799

Katie Williams

The Currency of Games: The real world cost of in-game purchases

A new item introduced in World of Warcraft lets players purchase a month of playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for virtual currency. It’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world – and it makes me incredibly uneasy. Read more »

16741557134_5206bec0cd_k

Jane Howard

Dark Side of the Rainbow: Belvoir St Theatre’s The Wizard of Oz

This production of The Wizard of Oz is ‘after L Frank Baum’: after his book, after the 1939 film, and after our collective memories of both. Fragmented, non-narrative, and largely wordless, it relies on our existing knowledge of the text to build a work of images and emotion, and in doing so demands an extreme generosity from the audience. Read more »

Arts House_Image_10c_Oedipus Schmoedipus (post)_Credit – Ellis Parrinder copy

Jane Howard

A Case for Diversity in Theatre

Attracting different audiences to the theatre is about many things. It’s about accessibility for people without high disposable incomes, but it’s also about marketing and publicity; about creating venues which are physically accessible for people with disabilities; and about ensuring the performers on stage are as diverse as we want their audiences to be. Read more »

2909252617_1f456d0c81_b

Jane Howard

A Working-Class Mythology: Ironing boards at the theatre

In theatre, there is perhaps no prop piece more mythologised than the ironing board, which came to signify the birth of contemporary British theatre. Read more »