This article was written on 25 Feb 2015, and is filled under Film & TV.

The Televisionary Absolute: Thirteen Theses on “American Horror Story” (FX Network, 2011-)

  1. The horror genre tends to the generic: whereas tragic fear depends on, and ultimately reaffirms, a developed sense of self (of status and social position, autonomy, humanity), horror is generic through and through. It threatens the individual before she can find herself or recover herself.


  1. The ironic treatment of horror, so common at present, distances the viewer from the generic force of horror, and thus from the horrifying force of genre itself: from the very fact that the formal elements of genre (the specific differences that allow classification) find their meaning only in relation to a content which, itself tending toward the purely generic, must always remain in some way ineffable.


  1. By qualifying the horror story as American, and thus situating horror within a historical matrix, the title of AHS turns from ironic generality to generic singularity. As the radically generic in its irreducibly historical manifestation, generic singularity is the horror that allows no catharsis, no shock and recovery: what remains horrifying forever and ever. It is the historical (also a kind of story) in the most radical sense: how each epoch singularly constitutes itself as a relation to its untimeliness, its own self-eternalization, its own anachronism.


  1. The contemporary television series tends to develop plot lines that unfold with a subtle balance of tension and resolution over many years, offering a certain degree of closure at the end of each season but leaving much unresolved. This presents a kind of theology of historical time: heroism means staving off catastrophe, “keeping on keeping on,” rather than becoming open to the messianic-revolutionary event. As horrific as the existing order may be, we have no choice but to affirm it, to protect it, to salvage everything joyful and good (love, babies and cute children, naïve lovers, simple pleasures) from the forces of destruction. Yet as if AHS were itself haunting the border between the seriality of television and the dramatic structures of conventional film, each season has a discrete plot line. With the same actors returning in different roles, prohibiting identification of actor and character, a resonance-relation emerges between characters across seasons; an archetypal persona flickers between the actor and her characters, just as a spinning black and white disk brings an impossible color into view. And by mixing historical and conventional time frames without a narrative frame for their mediation, AHS forces the past from the protective, comforting cocoon of its pastness even while exposing the contemporary to the disturbing irruption of a sense for its own anachrony.


  1. Horror is not reduced to the conventionalism of genre, but is analyzed into thematic constellations; generic-singular ideas. These generic-singular ideas constitute themselves in the first instance as the continual displacement of concepts of self-hood, agency, ownership, propriety, temporal and spatial coherence that underlie everyday life. Thus the first season, setting the stage for all that follows, shows us a psychiatrist and his wife and daughter who, moving from Boston to LA, purchase a restored mansion at a bargain price, unaware that it is haunted by its former residences. The horror first of all is this: the United States is the nation that as none before is founded on the dream of limitless expansion. For the new land (as Hegel noted) is indeed the land in which a new epic would become possible; the promise of the terra incognita – the land of the continual promise of new land. Yet at a certain point we run out of space: or we always already have, since the new land was never really new but had prior inhabitants who did not leave peacefully – who indeed never left, who still remain as the living and the ghosts of the living, possessed and dispossessed. The epic promise of America–the rupture of tradition together with the promise of a new space, untroubled by ruins, in which to build a new future–could indeed circumvent tragedy for a time and to a point. But epic turns to horror when epic space collapses in on itself and discovers its limit. Infinite time then compresses into finite space. Space becomes the prison of time. The protagonists arrive at a new place; they have the future ahead of them, they wish to start something new. The new place has room for everyone, for all their possibilities; it promises so much, as suburbia always does. But the past haunts the open. It will not be possible to leave. The hopeful place becomes the future’s prison


  1. The American epic is always a pseudo-epic, even before we have left the Wild West behind and settled down. Epic expansiveness implodes, contracts into itself. The epic reality of the television series does not repose on itself; it grants little in the way of pleasure. The world reveals itself only by way of an investigative trail, there is no pleasure but only truth and judgment, and pleasure, if it is possible at all, is either perverse, narcotic, or, as in the case of Breaking Bad, infinitely deferred. It seems as if it were perturbed and agitated from below; or indeed convulsed from within–unsettled (as in Kafka’s The Burrow) by a mysterious vibration that comes from everywhere and nowhere. Horror is this unlocalizable tremor that crosses through every locality. But this tremor is also the possibilities of the future. And the ritualized and institutionalized suppression of horror – and we could also say: of terror – is precisely what keeps on enforcing and reinforcing the closure of the present.


  1. AHS reaches its greatest insights in the fourth season. The freak show will stand for the radical potential of the theater inherited by bio-political modernity. Not the neo-Classical political theater, but a theater that allows the anomalous, singular–the freakish, in a word–to show itself in its glory, to glorify in itself, as if it were the profoundest expression of the beauty of the natural world.   Whereas the American Morbidity Museum, encasing freaks in glass and formaldehyde, seeks to enforce the opposition between the normal and the abnormal, the freak show allows the freaks to appear among the living, as part of this living, indeed as the very origin and essence of life. The freak theater does not withdraw from life, but intensifies it, delimits it, explodes it into its singular possibilities.


  1. If the freaks in Freak Show exert such a powerful sexual charisma on the world around them, it is because they are oppressed yet not repressed: not because they became free from repression, but because the repressive order of modern life never claimed them. From the beginning, it would have nothing to do with them. Freaks can be hidden away; they can be beaten, tortured, but the subtler interior mechanisms of repression (psychic as well as ontological) cannot even begin with them. With no hope of appearing normal, self-repression loses its sense, and thus they are also lack the fantasy of secret, repressed desires; the fantasy of fantasy.


  1. Broadcast television has produced few images so chilling as when, in the first episode of the fourth season of AHS, Jessica Lange, perched atop a wooden rocket, her face awash in light, sings “Life on Mars?” It is almost twenty years before the song was first released, yet she is wearing the same pale blue suit and saturating eye shadow that David Bowie wore in the original video. Evoking the cinematic life as a life of endless, senseless yet infinitely suggestive, repetition, Bowie’s song, anachronistically presented and as it were torn from its context, is itself anachronistic through and through: the resonant simultaneity of the past (the silent film, early Hollywood), the present, and the future (the already dated sci-fi fantasy of Martian life). But precisely this anachronism, exploited to such amazing effect, is also already of the very essence of those pop-song masterpieces that, not condemned to the ephemeral glory of the hit parade, have come to be played on a kind of infinite repeat loop, becoming exemplary for the very age that, in the moment of their creation, they at once capture and transcend.


  1. The horror film registers, processes, digests, metabolizes those residual anxieties that the TV, this insinuating guest to our most intimate lives, has left behind it. It summons, contains, and expels television’s spectral hauntings by imposing a dramatic (indeed tragic) finality on horror’s generic singularity. AHS is thus a kind of homecoming of American horror to its televisionary source. Horror is no longer to be exorcised – parody and irony are also a kind of exorcism – but indulged. Whereas the horror film holds on to the hope of happy suburban everydayness, AHS is beyond hope and beyond fear. It draws us into the hopelessness (not desperation, but a kind of freedom and innocence and release) of a televisionary paralife, a sideshow to real life, besides (and beside the point of) our lives. There is one life to live, and then there is another life. It glows within us, yet we cannot touch it: it is always there, but what does it mean? Is there life here and there, on the other side of the screen?


  1. Regardless how one could answer this question (and perhaps an answer is also beyond the point), this much must become clear: opposing the epic impulse that continues to drive “quality television,” AHS shuts down the endless-expansion-and-growth-fantasy machine that, refusing the thought of a limit, gathers from our decaying post-industrial urban wastelands the materials for a new Iliad and discovers in the Internet a lawless frontier. There can no longer be a heroism of the terra incognita: the only epic dimension that remains for us is not the Western frontier, not economic growth, not the outer space of science fiction, but the liquid, endlessly flowing and undulating, oceanic space-time of television. The only heroes, as Bowie already knew, are dolphins.


  1. The fourth season ends with Elsa Mars, having dropped dead on set, being led to the next life. Beyond all the dreams of Hollywood, she finds herself back in the freak show. Her friends and minions, including her beloved dwarf, are returned to her. Her sins are forgiven. Didn’t you always tell us, says the bearded lady, that stars never pay? Perhaps this is heaven. Perhaps it is hell. Perhaps it is somewhere, or nowhere, in between. Or perhaps it is what we might the televisionary absolute, beyond all pseudo-epic American fantasies and indeed not only beyond guilt, repression, and hedonistic liberation, but on the other side of shame.

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