CADY NOLAND – Towards a Metalanguage of Evil

By Cady Noland


There is a meta-game available for use in the United Sates. The rules of the game, or even that there is a game at all, are hidden to some. The uninitiated are called naive or provincial, liars or suckers. To those unabused by an awareness of back door maneuvering, a whole world of deceit remains opaque. Those in the dark are still ripe for exploitation.

The game is a synthesis of tactics, played out in the social arena, in which advantage can be gained in an oblique way. Demonstrations of the game are now available on TV shows like DYNASTY and DALLAS. Cathesis is afforded minorities through Joan Collins or Diahann Carroll in DYNASTY, although with ceremonial structures clearly locking them outside the true hypno-whirlpool of the game. John Forsythe exists for the whole audience as a fossil bearing the contrivancs of the game. Gone is the ritualized cautionary debacle featured during the finale in earlier fictive explorations of the game, such as in the 1966 film, THE OSCAR.

Tabloids already use many of the game’s tactics by foreshortening and cropping celebrities, blowing them up, and, in the case of NATIONAL ENQUIRER television commercials, reducing them to photo-objects and then animating these objects. These papers regularly publish little bits of the rules gleaned from popular psychology books about how to manipulate people. These books have their genesis in the old warhorse, HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, by Dale Carnegie, whose on primogenitor is THE PRINCE by Machiavelli. According to Ethel Spector Person, the psychopath shares the societal sanctioned characteristics of the entrepreneurial male. Their maneuvers are differentiated mostly by decibel, the acts of the psychopath being the “louder”.

The game is a machine composed of interconnecte mechanistic devices. These devices facilitate bad faith interaction… A con or snow job is the site at which X preys upon the hopes, fears, and anxieties of Y for ulterior motives and/or personal gain. The machinations which vehiculate this manipulation can have wide effect—ranging from the aftermath of minor mischief to serial or mass deaths. These machinations exists a priori of X or Y as an indifferent set of tools and could conceivably be picked up by anyone and used against anyone else. As befits the extreme artificiality of these devices, there is no group who is naturally a victim of this abuse. These are mechanistic devices and have nothing to do with nature. There are those who feel that their kind or type is immune to being worked over by X. Some of the most shocking moments in real life and in fiction occur when they are disabused of this synthetic notion. The mayor theme in film noir is that there is never a respite, in this world, from the game and the exploitations. The quintessential narrative through-line in film noir is where a cynical guy, Y, who is wise, gets taken one more time.

The game is a hero system where the organism tries to blow itself up at the expense of a real or imagined antagonist. The clinical psychopath embodies a gross internalization of the game at its most spartan, unpolluted by an internalized other with whom to negotiate.

The purpose of the enlargement or aggrandizement of the organism is to stave off anxiety about finity and death. This expansion, virtual or literal, may entail stockpiling of real supplies or the gathering of narcissistinc supplies implying a triumph over one smallness and the inevitability of one’s own insignificant decay, as Ernest Becker argues in his books, THE DENIAL OF DEATH and THE STRUCTURE OF EVIL.

Although the psychopath displays a chilling fondness for the game, and would always prefer to operate via the game, he stops short of involving himself in the honorific courting of death except by proxy. It is in this way that his internalization of the game diverges from its rules. He is simply not involved in fair play of any sort. Those who would follow the official hero game to the letter, like Ernest Hemingway, will often make sure to have an action death, in order to purchase a symbolic piece of immortality in the process. The psychopath being the machine that it is, cannot imagine that it will cease to function, but in keeping with its obsession with control, it will shortcircuit itself at the last moment if it is unquestionably about to be “offed”. This machine itself does not consider this a matter of heroics; it is done as a last petty gesture.

In real heroics, a personal glamour death is one which highlights risk-taking or maniacal energy and fearlessness on the part of the hero. The suicide deaths of Mark Rothko and Diane Arbus were both action deaths. The death of James Dean was an action death—being an iconographic example, in Thorstein Veblen’s terms, of honorific expenditure—in this case, in terms of James Dean-the hunk, and the Porshe itself.

Death by starvation, withdrawl, mass murder, appropriation, colonization, pornographic death, death by illness, death by natural disaster, any anonymous death in which one did not have, or almost have control, is the opposite, on a polar scale, of the personal or designer death. Death by choice, whether by bonafide suicide or by accident-on-purpose, is the death of choice, being the honorific death.

Being in a plane accident is not a glamour action death, although it is an action death. An action death requires that some acute movement totally skews the physical properties of the world for the person in question. The tabloids regularly feature “near-miss” or “brushes” with action death at the rate of one story per issue. The shuttle disaster was a designer action death. A designer death highlights the trashing of appealing supplies.

The psychopath is rarely suicidal. Although he would pretend to play the game to the last, and he would viciously press a peer to take on genuinely life-threatening risks, the psychopath always saves his own skin. The psychopath may court death, but it is someone else’s. The psychopath leaves a trail littered with the broken, discarded bodies and lives of others, he trashes them, leaving them as rotten matter as he proceeds to his next site. Where he gave the impression of being deeply involved in the life and death struggles he creates around the last victim, he was always vacuous and remote.

The psychopath is often mistakenly called asocial. As Dr. Hervey Cleckley describes him, he is over-socialized, and what is actually witnessed is the unwinding of the works of a bored and petulant machine with a taste for mischief.

Where the psychopath interacts with his target, a strange situation ensues where the interaction on the psychopath’s side exists on a shallow and taut level, and contrary to appearances, is rigid and scripted. On the mark’s side, the interaction exists in a deeper social space which admits some spontaneous response and flexibility. The behavior on the mark’s side is unguarded, and the boundaries which are adhered to have more to do with those which were socially influenced during the conditioning process than the careful, manageable limits required of X’s game.

In her essay, “The Pornographic Imagination”, Susan Sontag contrasts the endlessly reproductive and selfregenerating material of the pornographic novel to the deeply and lushly described social space of the Nineteenth Century novel. If these two structures were knit together, this hybrid would resemble the interaction of X and Y.

The model for the psychopath is a rotten egg or a wormy apple whose skin appears intact. Cleckley made an analogy between psychopathology and a medical disorder called semantic aphasia in which a trauma to or lesion on the brain affects an area which produces meaning, but where the outer apparatus of the tongue and mouth retain their apparent integrity. The patient speaks perfectly formed words and sentences, yet is unable to grasp the meaning of those words. So hidden is the psychopath’s disorder that examination in a clinical setting or courtroom may reveal nothing and function merely as a showcase for a sane, charming, and hearty human being. It is though the ACTIONS of the psychopath in contrast to their hollow and well-chosen words, the yawning canyon between what they do and what they say, that the depth of disturbance and deception must be measured.

In Robert Kegan’s model, the psychopath is arrested in an epistemological era associated with the childhood ages of 6 to 14. This era predates one in which the needs of others become integrated positively in one’s inner world. The battle which would later become a wrestling or struggling with one’s conscience is neither internalized nor abstracted for the 10-year-old or the psychopath. The world is polarized into tow camps: those who would satisfy his needs and those who would thwart them. If one’s needs, like the 10-year-olds, are experienced as all-encompassing and global, then the constant campaigning on one’s own behalf has a type of logic. Seen in this light, the formation of a Nazi Youth Party was an efficacious way of exploiting the ruthlessness of this epistemological era and colonizing the formation of the next, more advanced era, pruning and shaping it to their own ends.

In keeping with Kegan’s model, euphemistic meaning is foreign to the psychopath. In the movie STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, the semantic differences of two men are fought out in a life and death struggle. The first site for the collision of these two eras occurs on a train, where two strangers indicate there is someone whose neck they would like to wring. Where the meaning of the tennis player, a man who plays by the rules, is hypothetical in that it is an impulse tamed internally and vented in the symbolic world of words, the psychopath can only grapple with the logistic of how best to enact the murder, how to take it out of the world of the hypothetical and make it happen. The immature epistemological era, or the ruthless mechanism, is symbolically overcome in the film’s finale when the psychopath is crushed by a merry-go-round gone haywire, an allusion to his malignantly retarded development.

An aficionado of the manipulative character will notice that the potential to discover X at work is sometimes signaled by an almost imperceptible ‘off’ quality in a setting. In Hitchcock’s film, FRENZY, this discoloration is visually realized in the slightly artificial red hair of the psychopathic killer, actor Barry Foster. If Y is a veteran of skirmishes with X, Y will learn to zero in on that which seems ‘off’, go over and over a sequence involving X until the tiny fissure, inconsistency, or flaw is uncovered which belies the humdrum believability of the scenario. In movies like Antonioni’s, BLOW UP, as well as in the film BLOW OUT, it is through the exhumation of photographic images and their repeated screening that Y searches for telling detail. Then it is possible to go back in reverse over the literal pattern of X’s machinations and his attempts at putting forth a bankrupt reality.

When Y has been able to distill the facts of X’s actions, the blueprint of X’s scheme crystallizes and the claustrophobic logic of it is a grim reminder of X’s pettiness—a determination to orchestrate and master people unfortunate enough to crosss X’s path, according to plan.

If Y is familiar with X, little misjudgments during his impersonation of human being become apparent. Particular expressions both verbal and visceral, which are meant to signify the various emotions, seem stilted or contrived. Cases where we have come to expect some affect, such as on the occasion of learning of a friend or relative’s death, X may inadvertently seem remote or cool. Other times, when X is playing at pouring out his heart, he may ‘pour it on too thick’, turning the performance into an unconvincing, maudlin sham.

There is a great deal of performance anxiety in X when he realizes that he may have failed to read the specifications of a situation accurately. When X is caught in a unconvincing display of feeling, and Y ‘calls him on it’, there may be an abrupt change in X’s affect, and perhaps in one of the few times X is ‘on the level’, a seething anger is unveiled, if even just for a telling moment or two. The psychopath is always wearing a mask except when openly aggressive. Oddly, in a psychological projection, the victim is a recipient of X’s rage during a transference in which he is seen as having been responsible for suppressing X’s true expression of himself and having expected him to ‘play the game’. In this case, the anger takes on a righteous affect.

In the psychological thriller, ignition points of volatile rage are indicated in the first cracks or fissures which appear in the intact surface of X. In the film PLAY MISTY FOR ME, the first crack in the psychopath’s façade is in her obscene hatred of strangers and innocent bystanders. In the film ALIENS the psychopathic innards escape and jump from host to host, bursting unexpectedly from their bodies. In the Robert Aldrich film, KISS ME DEADLY, the psychopathic presence is realized in the form of a ‘Pandora’s box’, which contains a vicious toxin.

Abrupt change in affect occurs as the performance fissure opens up—and it is the shocking inconsistency between inner and outer realities which is so horrifying to the actual or the dramaturgical audience.

In the recent film, THE STEPFATHER, the psychopath, in the guise of a real estate agent chats amiably with a psychiatrist who is pretending to be a house hunter, but who is there to gauge the mental health of the ‘real estate agent’. There is a tiny flaw in the performance of the psychiatrist, which in turn causes a major rent in that of the psychopath, who suddenly seizes a two-by-four and bashes the doctor in the face, in a kind of violent minuet of manners. This extreme interaction is a grotesque and overblown parody of getting to know someone, hyper-realized in the space of a few hysterical macromoments.

X may fashion an artifact called ‘the mirror device’ with which to manipulate Y. Using this device, X cynically fashions his tastes and judgments to accord with those of Y, thus winning Y’s trust and approbation. An alignment is formed under false pretenses, but Y, hopefully is none the wiser. Even while X is saying in effect, ‘me too, brother…’ X’s actual feelings are secreted from the interaction. X may not always mirror Y, but may instead mirror a role which is acceptable to Y. For example, X goes to Y’s door in the guise of an electrician come to fix some faulty wiring, when X is not, in fact an electrician. A fictive example of this occurs in LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD. Conning devices are tools. The degree of harm that they do, if any, depends upon the purpose for which they are instrumented. Where ‘the mirror device’ might be used by a parent to encourage a child, or by a psychiatrist as a therapeutic device, it is also used by ambitious students, known otherwise as ‘brown-nosers’ or ‘ass kissers’, who cynically reword the opinions of their teachers in their written and oral work. People also use the ‘mirror device’ to ‘pass’, as Erving Goffman points out. A high school girl may try to hide her intelligence and approximate a bubbly persona instead of going dateless. Goffman details many other versions of ‘passing’ in his book, STIGMA. ‘The mirror device’ is a tool with which to modify Y, and render him more pliable to X’s manipulations. Malignant use of ‘the mirror device’abounded in Nazi Germany. According to Hannah Arenht, one of the sights that struck Adolph Eichmann as being the most horrific was a perfect imitation of the Treblinka railway station. This imitation had been constructed for the express purpose of lulling prisoners into the mistaken impression that they had arrived at a safe and benign destination. The station had been built with patient attention to detail, with contrivances like signs and installations.

In order to function effectively, the rules of ‘the mirror device’ must be slavishly adhered to. Whatever the con, whatever structure it takes, there are particulars, details which make each one unique and have to be filled in along the way. These are the nuances and shadings of the individual con, and they affect the success or failure of the con. The less the variational detail is an index of X’s own preoccupations, the ore likely the con is to succeed. The more X is emotionally disengaged and remote from their interaction with Y, the more likely X is to get and maintain control of Y. ‘The mirror device’ is non-objectification of Y and features an excision of their fears and needs.

As a prelude to building a mirror device and animating it, X must first go on an information hunt. It is empirical findings which best serve his purpose here. The finding and manipulating of this data requires and extreme level of vigilance and dissociation.

If a mirror device is to be erected, there is homework to be done. The edifice of a persona that X must create should be an artifact based on deductions and inferences drawn from information collected about Y. This information might be obtained from records, charts, from Y’s friends and neighbors, or by trailing Y. If the information is to be obtained by open questioning, X might stage a mirror device to get it. For example, he might don a uniform of some sort to fabricate an official capacity. He might dress up as a nurse or a police officer. X might get a friend of Y’s or Y himself drunk or ‘stoned’ under the pretense of mutual relaxation and unfettered camaraderie. Whereas Y might expect X to take a breather from ‘the game’ after passing trough a saloon or dance hall door, X is a calculating machine whose function never slows or lapses. On Y’s side, a previously hostile world—one hostile to satisfying Y’s longings, now seems ready to hear about them. Unfortunately it is only X who is ready to hear them and unquestionably with ulterior purpose. In a state of inebriation, Y may provide all sorts of information unstintingly and with abandon about themselves or about any sport or subject that X steers the conversation towards. Seated with the now loquacious mark, X might certainly be drinking less that he lets on, but if X is a psychopath, there is reason to assume that this maniacal iron control dissipates under the influence.

In this day of abstinence, the AA or NA meeting may prove just as ripe environment for the stalking of information as a bar has in the past. The confessional imperative dominates in one as much as the other, and it is likely, in either case that many participants will relax and ‘open up’.

On a larger, corporate level, the information hunt is called market research. Factors gleaned from market research are weighed against one another in ways which ultimately have concrete effect on huge numbers of individuals. This use of this sort of information to malign effect is catalogued in Mark Dowie’s essay, PINTO MADNESS. In his book, THE FUNCTION OF SOCIAL CONFLICT, sociologist Lewis Coser describes how, in the latter part of this century, the function of the sociologist has come increasingly to be that of trouble-shooter or quasi-market research for corporations and institutions.

During an information hunt, X does well to locate Y’s polar passions. What Y most loves and hates, his greatest hope, his greatest fear. If X is a psychopath armed with this information, it may become the crux of a little game of reward and punishment that X sets up against Y for genuine or imagined transgressions.

Sometimes X’s work is performed on several levels at one time. A classic, if hackneyed example is that of the enterprising artist, X, inviting a rich patron, Y, to ‘come up and see my etchings’. Thus, while trying to enact a sale, he may also feed her a line about her appeal. Casting out several lines at once, seeing which might bite, X may reel in a line if the game seems to be elsewhere. Where an unofficial line cast by X was not openly or tacitly accepted by Y, X may disown a line by claiming that it was cast as a ‘joke’, and not in earnest. If Y is well accustomed to X throwing out several lines and then downing them at whim, Y may try to sidestep this attempted manipulation by refusing to acknowledge that X has cast out any line except the most manifest and official one.

In a multi-level or two-pronged rap X may maintain that there is an official line, that lines are a matter of interpretation and semantics. X may try to disavow that anything ever actually occurs, citing the instability and relativity of people’s perceptions of reality. In these cases, X is sometimes aptly called ‘shifty’, for the constantly shifting lines, creating new ones and disavowing old ones, according to what is momentarily advantageous to him. He is also called sleazy, insincere, opportunistic, corrupt and crooked. His type of talk might be called double-talk, hedging, or in some of its more benign manifestations, hinting or being indirect.

Just as sororities ‘rush’ potential recruits, X may try to over stimulate Y by creating a frantic climate, of a false crisis, which obviates the use of discretion or foresight on the part of Y when making a decision. X may ‘stall’ Y, in much the same way a politician might try to forestall a bill by filibustering.

Things which appear to be benign coincidence, but where X seems to gain a peculiar advantage, may be the product of X’s surreptitious plotting. X may deploy a series of devices to keep Y and a third party, or Z, from meeting—by stalling Y with prosaic catch-ups like the loss of keys, complaints of illness, running out of gas or other sudden, minor emergency.

There are times when X sees that the configuration of elements—be they persons, objects, or events, are in a pattern or environment hostile to the development of his program. X has two choices in this case: he may vacate the situation, or he can wait until shift occurs which makes the environment more adaptable to his plan. A change, however seemingly inconsequential to the outsider, might convince X to move.

Waiting for reconfiguration as a strategy has a relation to the decision to use shock therapy on a mental patient. Here, through the vehicle of electric shock it is hoped that some reconfiguration in the brain may chance to be therapeutic. The doctor, and certainly the patient, has little control over what this reconfiguration might be, but this is a strategy which counts on the luck and good fortune of the shuffle. If X is a psychopath, the one certain thing is that this relatively passive strategy, waiting for reconfiguration, will only be used if it is the last game in town.

THE BONSAI EFFECT (was added for the artist’s installation at Documenta IX, in 1992).

The game depends on investing in things which accrue in value, or in wasting things in an obvious way (but not at your own expense, only to exhibit a genuine surplus).

Minorities are kept busy by “impossible projects.” So committed and tricked into trying to “slay the mythical dragon,” they are effectively out of competition with genuine players in the game. Women are directed to battle and attack their faces and bodies, to struggle with nature and make absurd expenditures of time and money to achieve and maintain beauty. The narrative possibilities are severely foreshortened by the devastating rules. Beauty, if it ever existed, fades, ‘time marches on,’ and the body, like all matter decays. Blacks must try to be as white as possible, and they too must wage a war against their features. Skin whitening, hair straightening, ‘nose-jobs,’ manipulating hair into impossible shapes, dieting, all this pruning suggests that a minority often becomes their own personal bonsai plant…


Dedicated to Professor of Sociology Stephen N. Butler (presently at Earlham College, Richmond Indiana) with whom I studied on an undergraduate level, with affection, gratitude and admiration—the best teacher I ever had.

(published in Balcon No. 4, 1989)        source:  link 1 link 2 link 3