an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, December 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




Portents of the Real: The Heart’s Filthy Lesson*

Nicholas Ruiz III



There’s always the diamond friendly, sitting in the Laugh hotel…the heart’s filthy lesson…something in our skies, something in our blood…it’s the heart’s filthy lesson…falls upon deaf ears, falls upon dead years…under these cerulean skies, what a fantastic death abyss.[1]

Susan Willis’ collection of essays entitled The Portents of the Real[2] comes at a time when little can be said that has not already been said about terror and its dispersions, spectacle and immersion, heaven and hell and so on.  Snipers, anthrax, soldiers, the debt-economy; indeed, ruminations on all things “terror” as well as 9/11, post- and otherwise have become a bit of commodious fashion.  Then again, what does not transact in such a manner today?  These are the objects of our postmodern legal tender.  Even David Bowie recently asked: “Where do we go from here?”[3]  And even as we pause to ask that question, we have already moved into the flux of new currencies.  Such is the quickened pulse of the trading milieu, that of our chronoscopic society.

             Willis describes the American life’s pulsion and tension as a gamble, but apart from the amusements of Las Vegas and its entertaining analogs, our lives are less in the realm of the gamble, and instead rather deeply ensconced in speculation, and that is a different enterprise entirely.  The art of the gamble lies within the defrayal of responsibility and absence of information, a thing we are not in lack of, but rather suffocated within, an information society.  Speculation is a betting, to be sure—but a betting within the informational divinity of Capital and its currencies.  The slate is never blank, the form is pre-filled and the ledger never to be balanced.  It is true that before the fact, before the concept, before the constructions, indeed before one’s conception and growth into the fetal—we are nothing—but genetic Code, awaiting the meeting between the sex cells of two strangers that will forge our existence as new data, new Code, new life as it were.  At this point we have wagered nothing, we are simply accidents of life’s replicative tensor.  Once we are present we have a stake in the game, but a stake is only gambled when it is left indiscriminately to chance and a lack of information.  Few of us in America are outside of the gaze pouvoir’s mediated data stream, within which we conjecture and plot our course as a function of chance in the backdrop, chance being that indeterminate foliage we can never weed out, though we welcome its favors when it shows its grace.  Everyone has good fortune every now and then.  But to engage that plane of exchange and social stratification is to speculate on the potential returns of our reciprocal deceptions.  To do otherwise is to not do anything at all, which is to be out of circulation, and under the quarantine of a socio-political death.

            In the essay “What Comes Around Goes Around” Willis describes the recent sniper shootings in the Washington suburbs as characteristic of an American ontology of the gamble.  The shootings are:


…a grim counterpoint to all the ways free-market capitalism has made our lives a gamble.  Rocked by accounting scandals, Enron, WorldCom and Tyco have collapsed and with them the futures of many middle-class Americans.  Like a bad hand in poker, our 401k plans have folded.  Sky-rocketing medical expenses have turned seniors into crap shooters who stake their lives on whether or not a particular drug or procedure is “covered.”  And the policy of school choice has turned education into a lottery of Babel with the middle-class opting to play the game of vouchers, charter and home schools. Of the fifty states that comprise the union, most are struggling with budget shortfalls, with California and New York in the hole by billions of dollars.  No wonder forty-six states have created lotteries to patch their budgets.    For a population whose claim on jobs and social services is tenuous, states offer scratch and win tickets for instant cash rewards and lucky lotto numbers for big jackpots.  Of course the odds of winning the lottery are equal to the odds of being shot by a sniper.  But who cares, with the Constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness nowhere in sight, we gamble to make our daily lives work.  Random but fatal, the sniper’s bullet is our proof that the system is really based on the luck of the draw.[4] 


The art of the gamble is the simple view of the art of speculation.  But American power (i.e. the Aristocracy) is a function of Capital and does not have to gamble—its speculative orchestration operates by virtue of its exchange of currencies, and the speculative force of the metaphysics it represents.  The value of the crowd is incidental in all of this, mere political and ontologic strata that are wagered and in that sense, I suppose Willis is correct.  The American masses, most poignantly represented by the military rank and file, are usual subjects of the dominant Code’s archaic reach through History.  Not only in America, but everywhere the living have tread, the speculative rhythm of survival and the crimes that it can sanction constitute the trend that all have followed—the divine terror of the heart’s filthy lesson and the perennial lesson of the real. 

            Willis does illustrate this lesson within the father/son relationship of the DC sniper pair.  Muhammad, the older man of the pair plays “…the altruistic who allowed his protégé son to share in the killing.  Thus, with a twist like the Moebius strip… (he) reveals his fatherly universality as a murderous singularity, which is in no way aberrant because death-dealing force is our nation’s most fundamental truth.”[5]  Clemency, anyone?  The relationship resembles that of the Aristocracy and the masses—as the Baudrillardian Réalité Integral stewarded by the managers and operators of the increasingly engineered process of soft force and light oppression, of which we are all invested without explanation.  An emancipatory current does not flow from all of this, but rather a universalizing tsunami of asexual bliss.  More complicated still is the line Willis draws between the military and civilians; where the military executes the desiring order of Aristocratic jouissance, with the masses legitimizing the “death-dealing force” by support of their leaders via marginal handfuls of votes cast in each mediated election, in turn legitimating the sign of democracy.  The lived indeterminacy of democracy as a sign of self-determination and governance contrasted with the ground-level execution of democracy as a tentacular apparatus of hierarchical class sacrifice bespeaks the mood for our day.  Baudrillard:


Les Maîtres-penseurs de la cause démocratique seraient bien étonnes d’apprendre que le people lui-même est foncièrement anime du principe aristocratique.  Même si son exigence « réelle » est celle de l’égalité, de la liberté et du bien-être, le ressort spiritual de l’aspiration populaire, l’obscur objet de son désir, reste la gloire, la fortune et le sacrifice.[6]


The most fundamental truths cast as “Americana” in Willis’ rendering of the real in actuality cast a dispersion of light upon the referential underbelly of a global milieu that never lives up to the claims of its revolving brands; which is also to say, the source Code of our human globalizing milieu is assuredly, not “American.”

            Some of the dark examples of the heart’s filthy lesson Willis highlights are the brutal photographs taken of the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.  Is it the case that the theory of America (or a theory of the global) cannot support the symbolic weight of torture and its photographic analog?  Do we take the lure that portends that the photographs are nothing but examples of “a few bad apples” of soldiers committing crimes or instead are the images indicative of a wider systemic current in American “culture.”  Perhaps neither.  What polity has not mutilated bodies?  From the French spectacle of tearing bodies apart via horsepower to the Mayan bloodletting practices and live extraction of human hearts for the Deity—Homo sapiens have a long history of tortuous mutilation, of which most domiciles can lay historical, if not contemporary claim.  Only blood’s signification varies.  The innocence of blood is the property of another species. The question is not whether or not to indict America, but rather why we must indict our whole species. 

            Foucault once conveyed, “…by the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, the gloomy festival of punishment was dying out,” and thus ushering in “…the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle.”[7] What Foucault discovered, rather is the transformation of the signification and aesthetics of torture as public spectacle.  We in America (and elsewhere) continue to have viewings of our death penalty executions.  Further, we underwrite infotainment that articulates the most grotesque forms of bodily mutilation and penetration the world has ever seen. But the world gets what the world wants, no?

            I suspect that America is less to blame for the world, than the world is to blame for itself.  If America is obscene in its globalizing exhibition, the world is complicit and collusive in this obscenity.  At any rate, we are collusively animated by the metaphysics of Capital, and though some states have canonized that principle first, most others are busy pirating that canon— in what is far less a Crusade, than a seduction.  Baudrillard:


We are living, in effect, amongst pure forms, in a radical obscenity, that is to say, in the visible, undifferentiated obscenity of figures that were once secret and discrete.  The same is true of the social, which today rules in its pure—i.e. empty and obscene form.  The same for seduction, which in its present form, having lost is elements of risk, suspense and sorcery, takes the form of a faint, undifferentiated obscenity.[8]


Does Willis reflect (and deflect) our reciprocal human perversion, approaching that duel with a drawn sword?  In some respects, but the organic guilt of our puritanical soil often stains the cloth of even our best work.  Still, Willis gathers us around for an interesting divergence from the complicities of the larger swath of literary currency.



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, December 2005, ISSN 1552-5112



* review of Susan Willis, Portents of the Real, New York; Verso (2005)



[1] David Bowie, “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” from the CD Outside, Virgin (1995)

[2] Susan Willis, Portents of the Real, New York; Verso (2005)

[3] David Bowie, “Looking For Satellites” from the CD Earthling, Virgin (1997)

[4] Susan Willis, Portents of the Real, New York; Verso (2005), p54

[5] Ibid, p64

[6] Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories V, 2000-2004, Paris; Galilée (2005), p21;

“The High-thinkers of the democratic cause would be well astonished to learn that the people themselves, importantly animate aristocratic principles.  Even if their real demands are that of equality, liberty and well-being--the spiritual spring of the popular aspiration, the obscure object of their desire, remains glory, the fortune and the sacrifice.”

[7] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, New York; Vintage (1995), p7-8

[8] Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, New York; St. Martin’s Press (1990), p179