This paper considers Carson’s rewriting of Heracles’ tragic madness— through the art of collage, an assembling and disassambling of textual fragments, scraps of papers, drawings, chromatic smears, and sketches—as an imagistic site for theorizing the anti-normative materiality, physical and metaphysical, of par-a-noia. I make a case for a materiality of par-a-noia by proposing a comparison with Alain Badiou’s Marxist political formalism. The distinctive formal trait of H of H, verbal and pictorial juxtaposition, invites us to think of par-a-noia as an aesthetico-political radicality located on the edge of a voiding of thought (noein), a radicality that, as I suggest at the end, can be aligned with modes of non-normate cognition, with neuroqueer countersociality.

“The paranoiac invents structures where none exists; the world he sees is a dark diagram of his projective fantasies.”1 With these words, David Kurnick polemically reproduces the simplistic—sometimes dismissive and defensive—characterizations of practitioners of symptomatic or paranoid reading in some complacent methodological justifications of what, after Eve Sedgwick, has been called “reparative” reading.2 For Kurnick, the “reparative”—or, in Patricia Stuelke’s phrase, “the ruse of repair”—relies on a “moralized characterology” of the critic that is the very enemy of queerness, running the risk of reinscribing homonormative or even homophobic modes of thinking.3 The tenured ones among us who are privileged to earn a living from literary-critical or critical-theoretical activities should be wary, as Kurnick puts it, “of introjecting . . . a disavowal of the ways aggression and affection can be bound up in any serious reading,”4 and to aggression and affection I would add trauma and disability—conditions and feelings (painful or “ugly”)integral to the ethical-political force of interpretive work.

In reading Anne Carson’s H of H Playbook (2021)—her reflection on Euripides’ Heracles—I want to push against the shaming of mental illness or neurological difference that is implicit in certain devaluations of paranoid reading. Heracles, in fact, reminds us that para-noein means to be out of one’s mind or, more literally, to place oneself beyond or beside conventional thought, rejecting the way one ought to think in order to acquire or reacquire sanity—the psychological “normality” coinciding with the ostensible civilizing function of the heroic labors and the progress promised by capitalistic subjection. Judith Butler has recently made a case for the role of madness in the political, or for the political as madness, while La Marr Jurelle Bruce has laid the foundation for “a mad methodology,” in his words “a mad ensemble of epistemological modes, political praxes, interpretive techniques, affective dispositions” that “defy the grammars of Reason.”5 In this paper, however, I am interested in Carson’s rewriting of Heracles’ tragic madness—through the art of collage, an assembling and disassembling of textual fragments, scraps of papers, drawings, chromatic smears, and sketches6—as an imagistic site for theorizing the anti-normative materiality, physical and metaphysical, of par-a-noia. I will make a case for a materiality of par-a-noia by proposing a comparison with Alain Badiou’s Marxist political formalism. The distinctive formal trait of H of H, verbal and pictorial juxtaposition, invites us to think of par-a-noia as an aesthetico-political radicality located on the edge of a voiding of thought (noein), a radicality that, as I will suggest at the end, can be aligned with modes of non-normate cognition, with neuroqueer countersociality.

In the second part of Euripides’ Heracles, the eponymous hero—awakened from his infanticidal sleep of reason—spots the human and non-human relics surrounding him, an interobjective assemblage that previews the juxtapositional “decreation”7 of H of H. As though he were waking up in a new world, plunged into a new life like a newborn, Heracles expresses the discovery of his surroundings with extended parataxis—a being in the midst of things (1094–1100):8

ἰδού, τί δεσμοῖς ναῦς ὅπως ὡρμισμένος
νεανίαν θώρακα καὶ βραχίονα
πρὸς ἡμιθραύστῳ λαΐνῳ τυκίσματι
ἧμαι, νεκροῖσι γείτονας θάκους ἔχων;
πτερωτὰ δ’ ἔγχη τόξα τ’ ἔσπαρται πέδῳ,
ἃ πρὶν παρασπίζοντ’ ἐμοῖς βραχίοσιν
ἔσῳζε πλευρὰς ἐξ ἐμοῦ τ’ ἐσῴζετο.

Behold, why do I sit here, with my strong torso and arm anchored by ropes, like a ship, beside a half-broken stony pillar, having a neighbor of corpses as my seat? Scattered on the ground are winged arrows and spears that before, like a shield beside my arms, saved my flanks and were saved by me.

The linguistic texture of Heracles’ rebirth is dominated by an overdetermined sense of beside-ness, of horizontally being by, with his own ruins, or scattered objects, which encompass his dispossessed bodily parts: arms and flanks, like spears and arrows, and especially his torso, verbally indistinguishable from a corselet (θώρακα). Even his seat, or the fact of his being seated, is cast as a “neighbor,” as though, having been coopted into the assemblage, a position or a posture—the occupation of a dramaturgical space but also a graphic space within the script—became an (in)animate prosthesis. There is a sense in which a prepositional semantic shift, from “beyond” to “beside,” can be detected in the aftermath of madness (in tragic Greek, para-noein or para-phronein)—a shift from a journey beyond the reality principle to a sense of being stuck within the physical, an interobjectivity, a remaining on the edge of subjectivity.9 A rendering of Euripides’ play as an assemblage of paper scraps, a crammed an-archival archive of ephemera, H of H imaginatively locates itself in the aftermath of Heracles’ madness; it graphically and texturally reproduces the random parataxis that visualizes his offstage madness, that identifies the event with its aftermath: the murderous act with its archival emanation, an unseen beyondness with a wounded lying by, beside, or on the side.10

Carson’s graphic technique visualizes the parataxis always implicit in reading, a juxtaposition of impressions, of fragmentary thoughts, an imaginary collage of what is and what is not there, a productive adjacency of presence and absence (or beyondness).11 Adjacency also defines the position of the reader in relation to the book—with or into, but also beside, on the side. Readers are, like Heracles himself, placed beside his children’s bodies, which are assimilated to, or merge with, his heroic or para-heroic props (bodily or extra-corporeal prostheses); or, from a different perspective, they are like these props, by his side, his caretakers. In either scenario, readers are brought into the space of interobjectivity in the interval between madness and apparently reacquired sanity. Additionally, like the hero’s objects or Carson’s drawings and her smears of blood-red paint, readers are situated beside Heracles’ lingering madness (anoia)—inhabiting a condition of para-madness, not just as caretakers, but as quasi-mad subjects. In this sense, the layout, or the very conception, of Carson’s H of H can be read as par-anoid—that is, as standing beside, or by the side of anoia (“madness”). But there is another, more theoretically productive reading of paranoia in Carson’s self-identified playbook, which consists of dividing the word into three components: par’ (the contracted form of para); an alpha privative; and the nous in the remaining noia (“thought”). I will now analyze a few examples of Carson’s para-tactical form to explain what I mean.

Rhyme is a formal trope that Carson employs to create possibilities of additional or alternative signification—or of para-signification. For example, in this passage the rhyme between toys and boys assimilates Heracles’ weapons (his toys) to filial corpses, but it also conjures the phrase “boy toy,” a compound (or an intra-paratactical formation) which ironically alludes to his pederastic relationships (with Hylas, Iolaus, and others):

He’s sitting somewhere on a safety valve
up in heaven or down in hell,
having too much fun with his history of toys
to care about a woman and a bunch of boys.

Rhyme can also entail a para-syntax, as we see with bites and sights,12 in which sights becomes a quasi-subject of bites, which we can imaginatively connect with the bite of reality when, in Euripides’ play, Heracles takes sight of his children (1146–62). In the rhyme story/glory/worry (“I am H of H’s father – at least that’s one story. / Zeus claims to be the other (father): there begins H of H’s glory / and a fair amount of worry / ontologically”), we feel an alignment of thoughts that highlights what we can call the paranoid implications of tragic ethics: that fame and glory are dangerous because of the jealousy of a transcendent power. More importantly, these three ideas—the necessary offspring of the excess that constitutes his heroism—surround or lie beside Heracles, like his boys and war toys in the aftermath of his madness. Instead of something that can be understood “ontologically”—the word that seals up this scrap of paper—the rhyme evokes what, following Nahum Chandler, Fred Moten calls a para-ontology.13 The tripling parataxis of these words is visualized by three scraps of paper pasted on a different page, one of which depicts three sets of recumbent figures—suppliants who are already dead bodies, wife, children (and perhaps Heracles too)—one lying beside another, at the beginning of the play (Fig. 1).

FIG. 1:

Text scraps with recumbent figures. Carson 2021.

FIG. 1:

Text scraps with recumbent figures. Carson 2021.

Close modal

Another threefold rhyme, dare/there/care, circulates “air” into the perceptive and imaginative apparatus of readers, channeling environmental thematics that Carson integrates with the Marxist orientation of this book:

But now doesn’t it seem ironic to you,
just as H of H is finally through
with the last of his Labours - the underworld (Cerberus) dare -
his family finds itself on a slippery slope to down there?
Doesn’t Zeus care?

Here Heracles’ labors figure the exploitation and extraction of worker power. Cast as an emblematic ecological disaster, Chernobyl paradoxically brings together the Soviet regime and capitalism. (At a certain point, we read, “Capitalism farts cruelty like gas from a lawnmower.”) When, in Euripides’ play, Heracles wakes up from his slumber, the residue of a manic explosion that is construed as a natural catastrophe, he still seems to be enveloped in a vortex physically internalized as hot breath (πνοὰς θερμάς), his panting, which is referred to as “suspended in the air” (μετάρσι’, 1092–93). Just as the aftermath of the madness places Heracles in a sensory state of atmospheric floating, every scrap of paper pasted on the surface of Carson’s book is, to an extent, suspended in the air, in the void of the page.14

This void on Carson’s page has a poiêtic force, as we see for example in the rhyme between tears and gears (Fig. 2). Tears is the last word of the scrap of paper juxtaposed with yet separated from the one below, whose first line ends with gears. The gap, the void, that separates tears from gears is not inert, for it activates the phonological and semantic ambiguity of the former, which flickers between liquid tears and rupturing tears. The void between the two scraps of paper unsettles the expected rhyming correspondence, the logic of homogenizing sound, and replaces the interpellating insistence of sight with haptic disruption. In the position of tears—located on the edge, close to the void of the page—we can find an enactment of the meaning of paranoia that I hinted at before: a being beside, a voiding of thought. Comparing the ongoing citational collage and slippage in Pseudo-Longinus’s On the Sublime to a documentarian technique as well as to Antonioni’s films, Carson observes that, in a documentary, “You are not swept along by the facts [so] as to forget your own viewing, as you would be in the midst of a story or poem or dramatic film. Instead you insist on seeing the edge of the frame wherever you look. In a good documentary the facts spill over the frame, then spill again.”15

FIG. 2:

An unsettling void in the rhyme tears/gears. Carson 2021.

FIG. 2:

An unsettling void in the rhyme tears/gears. Carson 2021.

Close modal

We encounter the same nexus of thought, void, and politics enacted by H of H’s de-creative making in the work of Alain Badiou. For Badiou, as Robert Luzar puts it, “un-thought is, though intellectually obstructive . . ., necessary for opening the precondition for the possibility of creating infinitely more multiplicities, ideas, and truths.”16 In Badiouan terms, the event that can foster change is seated on the edge of the void between presentation (pure being) and representation (what constrains it). In Peter Hallward’s reading of Badiou, “the void’s edge is composed of elements that do not relate to the rest of the situation, and that remain indiscernible to that situation.”17 What Bruno Bosteels calls the “contingent and unforeseeable supplement to the situation” that is brought about by an event makes the void a space of insurrection.18 And this is how the void—or the voiding of thought that occurs on the edge of a given structure (an a-noia located “beside,” para)—becomes politically charged. According to Alberto Toscano, Badiou’s unthought is, in fact, a “systematic upsurge of inconsistency”—as in the supplemented rhyme gear/tear, which, situated on the edge of a void, opens up the Real of inconsistency.19 Unthought is an excess, an excrescence that, as Toscano puts it, “bring[s] forth into presentation the void that the representation of a situation is calculated to foreclose.”20 The quintessential example of what Badiou calls “situation” is the state—and the capitalistic state of our day, a programmatic foreclosure of the void. Badiou’s “unthought” resonates with “the explosion of thought” that Carson speaks of in describing her “playbook” on the back cover—and, of course, we can read “of” as marking a subjective as well as an objective genitive.

Detailing his labors in an agricultural factory (“I had to scrape and clean and soak and salt and smoke and dry it”), Heracles ends his account with an enjambment that places the word “metallic” on the edge, on the precipice, of an overdetermined void that stretches onto the facing page: “all the while I / worked on the skin, in that metallic.” The result is an “explosion of thought,” or a political “unthought,” which I would call par-a-noia. The machinic, industrial metallic is separated from “stench of lion”—a phrase that occupies the next page, radically autonomous, isolated in the void. It is as though the lion, the victim and at the same time the alter ego of Heracles himself, is pushing back, interrupting its own instrumentalization, discharging an angry, aggressive effluvium, which occupies the air, replacing capitalism’s cruel emissions, subjecting the syntax—and the chain of production—to an irreparable suspension, to a redemptive un-thought. The material para-noia effected by Carson’s play with glued-on scraps, breaks, and blank spaces brings to mind the phrase occupational psychosis, coined by Russian revolutionary Victor Serge and cited by Carson.21 What we see in H of H in general is indeed an occupation, in the sense of a dissensual occupation of space, an ostensibly “crazy” protest that fills (or un-fills) the line or the page with unthought-of, meaningless, or all-too-meaningful juxtapositions, or with emptied-out, depleted, suspended content. “Dumb rhyme,” the phrase on the scrap of paper glued beside Heracles’ overalls, is, in the non-sense of a “mute rhyme,” a suspension, like the uniform of the factory worker, which, unoccupied, occupies the blank space (Fig. 3). Capital is, in Badiou’s words, a “nihilistic potency of which men have succeeded in being the inventors as well as the prey.”22 A counterpart of the props surrounding Heracles when he wakes up, the empty, ghostly suspenders on this page, located in the void, beside, on the edge or the precipice of “sublime” but also “bear,” suspend the thought that capital can (or should) be borne, tolerated, endured. Carson’s material paranoia blocks capital’s “nihilistic potency” through proximity, contact with a cognitive abyss.

FIG. 3:

Overalls in the void. Carson 2021.

In the first part of H of H, just before Iris and Lyssa enter the stage to inflict infanticidal madness on Heracles, the chorus offers advice whose content remains on the edge, held in abeyance by the interruption of a painted rectangle (Fig. 4). What follows the break that suspends “we personally advise” is:

you go read a novel by Jane
Austen – avoiding Mansfield Park whose inane
final paragraph tucks the death of Dr. Grant inbetween
a newlywed hero and heroine.

The striking enjambment between Jane and Austen is enhanced by two others: “inane / final”; “inbetween / a newlywed.” In the juxtaposition of “avoiding” and “inane,” which underscores the etymological link of avoid with void, and, in turn, the semantic link of void with inane, we observe a micro-formalistic mise an abyme of the textual layout, of the arrangements of word and image. The word “paragraph,” yoked to yet unyoked from “inane,” suggests the “besideness” of thought (i.e., “we . . . advise”) to the void, what we can call a paranoid proximity.

FIG. 4:

Links and breaks in the chorus’s advice to H of H. Carson 2021.

FIG. 4:

Links and breaks in the chorus’s advice to H of H. Carson 2021.

Close modal

In Euripides’ Heracles, many characters, like Carson’s chorus, give advice to Heracles, asking him to conform to his heroic identity, to resist the self-destructive excess that is intrinsic to his labors. One of them is Theseus, who employs the verb par-aineô to urge Heracles to bear his misfortunes, that is, to carry on his identity as an endurer of labors (παραινέσαιμ’ ἂν μᾶλλον ἢ πάσχειν κακῶς, 1313).23 We can say that, before Carson’s Heracles becomes insane, the chorus’s advice (paraineô) to read Jane Austen locates itself on the threshold of a void separating it from a constellation of words conjuring para-noeô—a being on the side of, or beside, the voiding of the noetic world of the text and of the readers. In Carson’s playbook, adjacency to Heracles’ mania or para-mania means inhabiting the space of occupational psychosis, fostering or experiencing vicinity to a noetic realm voided of its capitalistic subjection. Heraclean paranoia can serve as an unhinged exhortation from the edge of a world come undone, inviting a non-reparative mode of politics in the aftermath—grounded in juxtaposition rather than reunification. Par-a-noia in Carson’s H of H does not simply invite a mode of reading that has run out of steam—or so we are told.24 It exemplifies an anarchism that, rather than being nervously, frantically on the lookout for enemies, remains firmly situated at the end of the line, at the edge of the abyss, in the vicinity of a negativity (an alpha privative) that is at the same time a point of conjunction and a hindrance. Par-a-noia is the liminal position avoiding and voiding complacency—which, as John Hamilton has recently argued, means to go, pleased, with the plan (in the case of Heracles, the plans of Eurystheus, Hera, Athena, Amphitryon, and Theseus, and of the Euripidean text’s representational level).25 Carson’s rough, uneven page—the opposite of the flat planum of complacency—refuses to go with the plan; it is always on the edge, always voiding itself in multiple, unthought-of motions of adjacency, inbetweenness, and besideness.

Carson’s par-a-noia can be regarded as an aesthetics of neurodiversity beside(s) madness. As Melanie Yergeau has observed, “Autism . . . poses a kind of neuroqueer threat to normalcy, to society’s very essence.”26 Often dismissed as antisociality, a pathological refusal of relationality, neurodiversity can be seen as a demand for expansive countersocialities. “Whereas allistics (or, nonautistics) conceive autism as residential, as that which lies on top (of a brain, of a neuron, of a synapse),” Yergeau continues, “neuroqueer activists portray crip rhetorics that are crabbily and transformatively beside, or co-occurring, or pervading, or creeping.”27 In this passage from H of H, besideness breaks—or “crips”—the layout of the page through the obstructive drawing of a blood-smeared scrap of paper and a repetition that seems to discard the principle of non-contradiction, the foundation of the neurological “norm”:

Brief pause. I’m walking backward into my own myth. I was trying to walk out. I was trying to walk out. 
Brief pause. I’m walking backward into my own myth. I was trying to walk out. I was trying to walk out. 

The repetition of “I was trying to walk out” engenders a displacement, a voiding of linearity that undoes the attempted exit, the walking out. The repetition, the resumption, of “I was trying to walk out” marks a regressive movement, “a walking backward,” which, however, proceeds sideways. The unconventional juxtaposition caused by the void, the spilling of language toward the opposite edge, models “a cripped kind of betweenity,” the phrase that Yergeau uses for what she calls neuroqueer “alternate spaces . . . for inter/relating.”28 A cripped betweenity is what “shred[s] the . . . air” in this moment in which Carson stages the vocal irruption of Hera, the announcement of Heracles’ madness:

I, Iris & Madness, shredding the still air,
plan to part the heart of H of H and break everything in there.

The verb “to part” reflects a “betweenity”: the encounter, or the cripped juxtaposition, of “plan” and “heart.” Just as “part” emerges from a shredding (and recomposition) of “plan” and “heart,” Hera(cles)—Hera and Heracles, H and H—shreds air with the aspiration of H acting as a roughening supplement that breaks or crips breath through juxtaposition, through adjacency. Instead of a condition of being “beside oneself,” a common metaphor of madness, the H of H-air–acles fosters a transformative relational besideness, expressed as a phonetic “stimming,”29 a disruption of neurological as well as atmospheric and political “stilling.” Described as “a cross between a dramaturge’s dream journal and a madman’s diary,”30H of H refashions tragic madness as par-a-noia, an impairment of the “exclusive and exclusionary uniform/ity” that calls itself “policy” (capitalistic-democratic),31 of the consensual cognitive form that disavows its constitutive adjacency to debility, asociality, neuroqueerness.

1.

Kurnick 2020: 367.

2.

Sedgwick 2003: 123–51.

4.

Kurnick 2020: 369.

5.

Butler 2020; Bruce 2021: 9. See also Morales 2022. See also, among others, Berger 2012 on the Lacanian hysteric as the one who can unmask the discourse of the master; see esp. Lacan 2007: 34 and 94.

6.

On Carson’s various practices of poetic and architectural collage, collation, admixture, juxtaposition, co-presence, and symbiosis, see Giannisi 2021: 29. Gurd 2021: 100–101 and Harvey 2021: 111–14 connect Carson’s “cracks, cuts, breaks, gashes, splittings, slicings, rips, tears, canonical intersects, disruptions, etymologies” (mentioned in Carson 2008) with the an-architecture of George Matta-Clark, an experiment in trans*ness (see Halberstam 2018). On Carson’s stain aesthetics, see Jansen 2021b.

8.

See Nersessian 2020: 35: “parataxis might register mere midstness, as being in the thick of discontinuous experience.”

9.

On interobjectivity, see esp. Chen 2011.

10.

This emphasis on besideness is also presupposed in the programmatically paratextual nature of some of Carson’s previous experimental remakes of Greek tragedy, as discussed by Nikolaou 2021. On the anarchivic imaginary of Euripides’ Heracles, see Telò 2020: 113–31.

11.

As Prins 2021: 142 puts it, referring to the layout of Carson’s translation of Sappho (Carson 2002), her “manipulation of typography on a mostly blank page activates . . . the desire of the reader for the missing text: the brackets demarcate the edge of words printed in black on white paper, outlining a negative space for us to imagine the relationship between what we see and what we don’t see, between what once was there and now is gone.” In an interview, Carson describes her working method as a form of adjacency or alongsideness: “I put scholarly projects and so-called creative projects side-by-side in my workspace, and I cross back and forth between them or move sentences back and forth between them, and so cause them to permeate one another” (McNeilly 2003: 14). Giannisi 2021: 31 considers Carson’s discussion of “ad-jective” as “meaning . . . ‘added,’ ‘appended,’ ‘foreign’” in Autobiography of Red (Carson 1998: 6).

12.

M: The time bites.

A: Keep hope in your sights.

13.

See esp. Moten 2013; on para-ontology from a trans* perspective, see Bey 2017.

14.

Giannisi 2021: 33 reads “the space between the sections . . . as an intermediary void . . . in works such as Float, as a repeal of sequence and structure that allows the reader to improvise.”

15.

Carson 2001: 96 (my Italics).

16.

Luzar 2019: 12.

17.

Hallward 2003: 273.

18.

Bosteels 2011: 160.

19.

Toscano 2004: 210.

20.

Toscano 2004: 210.

21.

Serge 2012 [1951]: 117: “It was a frightful and tragic example of occupational psychosis. Leonidov, when I knew him, was in any case definitely half-insane.”

22.

Badiou 1999: 56.

23.

See Telò 2020: 126–28.

24.

After Bruno Latour’s famous “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” (2004), Jane Gallop (2020) has declared the end of post-critique.

26.

Yergeau 2018: 27.

27.

Yergeau 2018: 41.

28.

Yergeau 2018: 86–87.

29.

On stimming as a neurodivergent form of sensory expansiveness, see Nolan and McBride 2015.

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