Response to “Power of Possession”
By Matt King
We are not ourselves. Not entirely, not only. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have it, we are already several, “quite a crowd” even between you and me.1 For Diane Davis, we have no self to speak of outside or before our relations with others; we can only extract a sense of self from a more fundamental relationality.2 These writers were not simply invited to join me here or summoned for rhetorical effect – when the subject of possession arose, they possessed my thoughts, inserting and asserting themselves, their voices insistently inciting citation. More voices murmur at the edges, their words slipping past my defenses and settling in among mine. This writing exceeds me, the words opening holes for the crowd to crawl through. Around the dinner table, the conversation is lively.
Not only are we several, we are possessed by things beyond our control. Some of these things have names like “the social” or “the unconscious” or “the other,” although naming can mislead us into thinking these things are themselves. Even to be self-possessed is still to be possessed, that confidence and control not so much a mastery over outside forces and internal emotions as a giving over to the “self,” a masterful and mastering invention possessing us at the expense of our other inhabitants, their voices drowned out and sacrificed so that the self might be sufficient. The self possesses us so that others might not, self-presence always belying another sort of absence. There’s no getting outside this loop; we can only substitute one sort of possession for another: make peace and noise with our several inhabitants or silence them in the name of self-possession.
As the title suggests, in “Power of Possession,” Virginia Warner examines how dynamics of possession and possession narratives have been used as mechanisms of power, dominance, and subjugation. Taking up the genre of exorcism films, Warner deftly explicates the trope of possession as a means of demonizing female sexuality and maturity and then controlling it through exorcism, with male authority figures reclaiming possession of the female body. As Warner notes, the trope stages control over women’s bodies as a battle between demons and men, denying the possibility that women might have authority over their own bodies and sexuality. The video also explores how this trope ignores the very real threat of men asserting power and possession of women through rape, noting how exorcism rituals function as a form of sublimated sexual violence.
The exorcism genre thus speaks to a fundamental fear of the other, who can only be figured as demonic, and an unwillingness to cede power to others – in this case, girls and women whose sexuality threatens the Catholic hierarchy. Its narratives open another means of establishing self-possession and control at the expense of the crowds inhabiting our psychic and social landscapes. All this speaks to a dysfunctional relationship with possession: this sense of self-possession, of self-control and self-containment, of what properly constitutes the self and the social order, articulates itself against those other forms of possession and inhabitation that define us in our multiplicity, that make us several. The genre embodies a failure to enact a responsible, livable, mutually beneficial relationship with our inhabiting others.
While focusing on a single genre, the power and success of Warner’s analysis lends itself to other films and applications. Staying with the Catholic Church for a moment, we might consider whether a film like Spotlight belongs in the exorcism genre. Capturing the story of Boston Globe reporters uncovering sexual abuse in the local Catholic Archdiocese, Spotlight offers a photographic negative of the exorcism film. Here, female sexuality does not threaten the symbolic order of the Church; instead, a violent and horrific confusion of sexuality and authority manifests in the sexual abuse of children by priests. In this story, journalists serve as a sort of civic exorcist, not casting out an evil but exposing it so that the children and the community might work toward justice and healing. In Spotlight, the moral authority of the Church, the ground upon which all exorcism films rest, falls away, revealing an inhabiting corrosion underneath and complementing Warner’s insights.
The question of possession and inhabitation goes beyond religious exorcisms and the Catholic Church as well. It resonates, for example, with our current political moment, haunting our identity as a nation. We see this fear of possession, of an inhabiting otherness, in concerns over immigrants, over those who assert the value of black lives, over the presence of transgender men and women in the military and the bathroom. We see this fear in the ongoing reality of white supremacy, where even a liberal affinity for diversity and multiculturalism can express itself through new forms of possessing and inhabiting black bodies, as Jordan Peele’s Get Out explores in another twist on the exorcism film.
While Warner’s tight focus illuminates a chilling dynamic in the exorcism genre, showing the power of possession narratives as tools for controlling women, their bodies, and their sexuality, her video helps us come to terms with the threat of possession more generally. If the dynamics of possession constitute our being in the world, if we cannot help but be a crowd, inhabited by others, then our predicament is not so much a question of whether we are possessed but by whom, by what, on what terms, and toward what ends. The real threat comes in those – our “selves,” our institutions, our cultural narratives – that would silence and control the crowds of others toward their own ends of self-possession.
1 A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 3.
2 Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010.