The Invention of Monsters/Plays for the Theatre by C Dylan Bassett
Plays Inverse, 2015
Book or Card Set / Plays Inverse
A book must be a body. A book and a body rearranged make a different kind of body, a different being, in space. We do this ourselves, with ourselves, and we do it with the spaces that contain us. Bodies are interfaces, media. Space is also a medium. How different can we be from what contains us, how different from what we contain? Some of us believe in souls. Some follow quantum mechanics. On a certain level it’s hard to say who’s who. My body is made of forces and energies. So is the bed on which I sprawl to write this. So is the notebook, the ink, the book I write about, the body of the author of that book. I am made of what C Dylan Bassett is made of. I enter his book when I read it and write about it. I enter him, as he enters me. We’ve never met.
The Invention of Monsters identifies as “Plays for the Theatre,” and is something other-than what it claims, with the understanding that a) other-than is actually more-than, a both-and rather than a not; and b) we are all other-than what we claim to be, and this is not inappropriate. If the infinitely rearrangeable particles of text comprising the body of this book form “plays,” who/what is playing? How many people are inside each individual body, and how many belong there?
When the music ends the stranger appears onstage in a suit of human hair. The shock of nudity, the actual body. Now that I’m here I could be anybody. (Carnivorous I. I of the graven image.) The role of the boy is played by a skeleton inside a smaller boy. The old woman is played by a younger woman with white hair. Wind is defined as a crooked line, a voice of various proportions. Birds explode into smaller birds.
Now that I’m here I could be anyone. Yes. Sorting out who and what “I” is involves the recognition of all the people on the stage of the self—performing that self collectively—and all of the people within each performer. Speaking for myself: I was born and called female, but now I am male. What does that even mean? Are there still girls in me, and owls, bats, mice, deer, patches of poison ivy, all the food I’ve consumed, diabetes as an entity? So many kinds of blood. So much experience, both within and without my body.
Some of the people that we have been, or that we carry, we don’t want to have in there. They’re not our friends. We don’t want to be what others want us to be, except sometimes we do. Hiding inside others’ demands looks like this: “These are not my cheekbones but I wear them like I always do. I am the tiny person inside my skull.” Or like this: “When I said ‘me’ I meant ‘she,’ though little else in daily life goes unauthorized.” That is, it looks like that on the page. But Bassett here is also showing what it feels like, or what the experience of hiding within expectations is on many levels, including the somatic. The “tiny person inside the skull,” not the whole body. Sometimes the whole body is off-limits from the inside, out-of-bounds for the person, not part of the person.
The “theatre” of these scenes is not separate from the performances making up the individual scraping around inside the world apparatus. To get what’s happening on the stage created by text, all one need do is engage the body itself, and ask of it how it works to host one’s own drama. At the same time, even as we occupy the stage ourselves, we also spectate. We perform the various roles and functions as audience. In the skull’s own playhouse there is a flickering, oddly-lit rendition of the action in these four acts. “We finally have sex but forget to remove our Halloween masks. A stranger watches through the black slats of a chair.” This is staged in the mind. Chair, masks, sex acts, gender(s) of players and stranger, all are up for grabs and change along with the usual elements of production.
See, we could stage this or any other of the “scenes,” in real theatrical life, even in a quite traditional production, if we approach this production outside of its traditional limits. But even the staging that takes place in the mind and body of a reader standing on a subway train mashed up against the door, half-reading and half-covertly watching the other passengers, even that staging is real and legitimate, if not reproducible. That’s why Bassett’s theatrical claim is also true. You want to talk conceptual art? Performance text as a body independent of staging? Okay. How many bodies does a book have? How many have you got? Show me.
The Invention of Monsters has two epigraphs. One of these is a quote from page 171 of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, the sexier second volume of the Anti-Oedipus books. This quote concerns the face, positing that the “dismantling” of the face is necessary to its future. The face must destabilize itself. For now let’s bypass what this means for Deleuze and Guattari; instead, consider why this quote is an appropriate epigraph. There’s a physical reason, because Invention comes in two formats—it has multiple faces. The standard trade-paper book format presents a face and body to meet other faces. It’s accessible enough; we understand text in the book-object. It’s got a somatic language many can still take for granted.
But the second version of Invention is a deck of cards. The first time you open the clear shell and remove the pink mollusk of a book, you’ll see that the entire book is there, the same from page to page/card to card—with one exception. The deck version has an extra card:
And here we have our dismantled face. Here we have an instruction for helping this book to become a body unbounded by the rigidities of socially self-perpetuating structures, limitations and expectations. Bodies of text become locked into, reduced to, functions. Bodies of flesh do too, of course. One way this happens is through the mechanisms of gender, skin color, documentation status, class, sexual identity, abledness, age. This is where various economies intersect, because flesh bodies are reduced to perceived reproductive roles and imagined capacities for sustained labor. Bodies of text are also reduced to roles, functions and labors. When I taught college-level writing and rhetoric, I used to ask students what “work” a given text was doing. I’m guilty too, aren’t I? Culpable in this perpetual narrowing of options. If I still taught in that setting I’d probably ask instead, what does this text perform, in this particular situation?
The recombinant card-deck, dismantled-face version of Invention foregrounds the constant Heraclitan flow of truths, experiences and performances of any given body of text or flesh at any given moment. Similarly, the physical parameters of the card format exposes the necessity of the body of the reader/audience in the process of the book’s being and becoming. The cards sing this truth for themselves, but also for the bound version. Can there be a book without the body of the reader to make that book happen? The book performs something different on the shelf. In the hand it is a new play. In the body as I read, it’s both the experience I have of/give to it, and all my other experiences of it, past and future.
Invention’s four acts all touch back to the experiences of collectively-informed individuality. Here embodiment is a queasy negotiation between socially-decreed roles and personal knowledge of the best-fit body at odds with these roles. Put simply, it is dysphoria from the inside out. But it’s “everybody’s dysphoria.” I get the sense that it’s not just about gender, so no wiggling out of it with a snide, “but I’m comfortable in my body!” Are you? Are you really, dear? Good for you. Stick with me anyway.
When this book is shuffled and re-experienced, gender is not the only somatic ground that shifts. The first read-through of the bound version yields experiences of individual scenes informed by their immediate neighbors. In the card version, these influences are less linear. Taken over time, what started as a line becomes a tremendously variable multidimensional structure of alternatives and choices, readings and becomings. Page 34 isn’t just between 33 and 35 any more; it’s between 12 and 28, for example, and functions as the penultimate text in the book. And taken together, these three cards make a new body within the body, illuminating the whole as much as they perform the very argument of the book itself:
The Invention of Monsters boldly yet subtly performs the drama of life as or within a body. We are allowed very little self-determination over the social functions of our own bodies, within the demands of daily life. None of those self-determined choices is free of consequence. The monsters invented are not ours—not us—or at any rate we’re not their inventors. The monsters are imposed; the monsters come from what we do in reaction to the everyday pressures and forms of violence that shape our bodies whether we want them to or not. If we ourselves are monsters it is because we are living too close to our masks, put on to win acceptance. If the consequence of social acceptance is self-betrayal through conformity, and if we must betray ourselves because anything else is unsafe, then how can we not become monstrous? At work, on the street, navigating bureaucracies and institutions, in the checkout line, we must constantly make choices of resistance or submission that we can’t help but experience in our bodies. Yet how many of these choices would we make if others didn’t force us to them?
The truly monstrous body is the toxic social body, the human “cloud” that self-replicates its own identity by limiting the range of approved choices for bodies, activities, ways of thinking and feeling through life. To claim any identity and perform it means engagement not only with one’s own concepts of what that identity entails, but the concepts of everyone one comes into contact with. When this ever-shifting contact-body comes up against a person who significantly disturbs it, a collective monster awakens—a monster that tells individuals that they are failing to be people in every possible way. The bodies we make, the bodies that change as we move through our days, are never wholly stable—and never entirely ours.