by Caleigh Stephens
Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts is a work of the internet age, telling its stories through posts on message-boards, reviews, and forums. The novel follows an online community engrossed by tales of a young prostitute named ‘Brad’ and that which is inflicted upon him. The shocking images of sex and violence make the boundary between life and death more fraught, in line with theories of the grotesque and abject. However, thanks to technological mediation and a hanging onto of systems of identity and modern morality, such borders are re-constituted so that they uphold hegemonic modes of thought.
To understand this work, I’ll be discussing different possible theoretical interpretations of the aesthetics of the work. In order to figure out the ultimate resonances of the grotesque images, I’ll be employing and interrogating the aesthetic theories of Mikhail Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva. Both Bakhtin and Kristeva are interested in images which sink into the dirt, into death, and into the disgusting—mirroring the images of Cooper. However, it is also necessary to consider what isolates The Sluts from the rich world of medieval peasantry that Bakhtin considers, and the 19th and 20th century depictions of rot which fascinate Kristeva. The images of Cooper are tied up in their technological mediation, existing only on internet forums which are mired in discussions of morality and perversity. While the degradation present in the novel seems to break down identity and personhood a la the grotesque or abject, the discursive nature of the forums and the spectacle that envelops them make it so that dominant ideology is reconstituted rather than shed. To describe this process, I will turn to Michel Foucault’s work on the pathologization of sex and death and Guy Debord’s description of spectacular life and fragmentation in modern culture.
The Sluts is a barrage of disturbing and destructive imagery. Its swirling stories and reviews left by commentators always circle the same elements: sex, violence, and death. The work is utterly obsessed by the lower strata of the body and by its degradation. As a result, the body is frequently in a state of injury or on the cusp of death. One message sent by a character reads: “I want to fill your stomach with my come and piss. I want to punch you in the stomach until you throw up, then make you lick the vomit off the floor. I want to beat you until you piss and shit and vomit blood” (Cooper, 84). There is a fascination with the interior life of the body, and an equation with sex and degradation. Sex is violent, sex is bloody, sex is excrement, sex is death.
Much of the imagery in the novel can be easily described with a term used by Mikhail Bakhtin to depict the folk humor in Rabelais—the ‘material bodily principle’. Bakhtin writes that the material bodily principle consists of exaggerated “images of the human body with its food, drink, defecation, and sexual life” (Bakhtin, 18), and argues that it plays a large role in Rabelais and other medieval works. The ultimate goal of such images is to facilitate a degradation to the material level. The body is relocated in its functions, and in the earth. To degrade is to locate the body in “the life of the belly and the reproductive organs” (Bakhtin, 21), and distinguish from the individual, face, and head. The images of Rabelais tap into Bakhtin’s ‘carnivalesque’, a turning over of the ideological bounds of medieval society via the existence of bodily centered and joyous carnival.
Another key part of the ‘grotesque realism’ that Bakhtin recognizes is depictions of a sex that are equally tied to birth and death. Bakhtin writes that “the grotesque image reflects a phenomenon in transformation, an as yet unfinished metamorphosis, or death and birth, growth and becoming” (Bakhtin, 24). Here, Bakhtin points to constant change, as it holds life, death, sex, and birth simultaneously. In this, the image of the death that gives birth, of procreation and disintegration, become central. Sex is not only related to the creation of life, but to its end and to the dirt.
In this way, we can see Cooper following threads that are present in Rabelais. The tales of ‘pissfloods’ and ‘codpieces’ in Rabelais’ Gargantua are a precursor to the obsessions with bodily functions and genitalia in The Sluts. In its concern with the body and degradation, Cooper’s work seems to have more in common with grotesque realism than the novel and its high-minded emphasis on the upper bodily topography. However, there is necessarily a gap between grotesque realism and the grotesque and realist images of The Sluts due to a loss of medieval meaning in modern works. Bakhtin writes that modern written works have lacked a “regenerative ambivalence”, so that all “modern forms of degradation could not, of course, preserve their former immensely important meaning” (Bakhtin, 21). In this interpretation the negativity of The Sluts is an absence. The regeneration inherent in Rabelais is what separates the work tonally from Cooper.
The Sluts lacks the humor of grotesque realism as it is solely interested in the dark and depraved, preoccupied by proximity to death rather than metamorphosis. In this way, it more resembles the aesthetic-emotional push-pull of abjection, as detailed by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror. The bodily images of sex, violence, defecation, and death in The Sluts invoke the abject at every turn. Kristeva points to these images, and their relationship with desire, as representing abjection. She writes, “These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being” (Kristeva, 3). Images of vomit and corpses convey a life at the edge of death, constantly fighting it off. Cooper’s characters are consistently at, and occasionally crossing, this border. The abject in The Sluts comes from its representation of a life that is constantly infected with death, and the desire therein.
The abject brings forth a push-pull of forces, described by Kristeva as “a vortex of summons and repulsion” (Kristeva, 1), which mirror the experiences of desire, horror, and disgust felt by the online community members. A large part of this appeal comes from the transgressiveness offered by abject imagery. Just as Rabelais’ grotesque realism challenged strict hierarchies, Cooper’s work opposes social norms and the relationship between sex, death, and life. Kristeva writes that it is not a lack of hygiene which causes the abject—but imagery that “disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva, 4). The meltdown of boundaries and borders caused by the bodily images of the abject ultimately lead to a form of redemption. Kristeva argues that “abjection is a resurrection that has gone through a death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance” (Kristeva, 15). Through the dissolution of the individual, and the dissolution of the constructed orders of the world, the sublime can be found. This sublime is different that the cyclicity of Bakhtin’s grotesque realism. Rather than destruction and new life coexisting, as in Rabelais, the act of viewing the abject makes one transcend the momentum towards death, via destruction of the death drive.
The first result of the destructive images in The Sluts is similar to that in Bakhtin’s Rabelais and in Kristeva’s abject—there is a dissociation from individual and movement into life of the body. In The Sluts, there is a destruction of personhood—the body is a body only. However, there is none of the redemption or regeneration offered by folk humor or abjection. Instead of meeting the sublime, the characters meet their own moral failings. When one forum-poster wishes to see a pornographic snuff film he asks the community: “Does that make me an amoral monster? That’s a serious question” (Cooper, 125). Characters meet images of destruction and the body with discourse which funnels the abject emotions into discrete categories. The body parts that are emphasized are sectioned off, rather than reintegrated with the whole. After the individual is dissolved via destructive images, it is immediately rebuilt and co-opted by societal ideology.
Foremost in The Sluts, is the presence of a modern conception of sexuality, which departs from the medieval in its obsession with the social function and utility of sex. In History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that there was an emergence of discourses surrounding sex which pathologized ‘deviancy’ and sought to bring sex within control, “rendering it morally acceptable and technically useful” (Foucault, 21). In this, sex is abstracted so that it can be rationalized—no longer connected to the earth and the cycle of life. Instead, sex is re-emphasized as being related to life and procreation only. Foucault writes that this sprung from “the endeavor to expel from reality the forms of sexuality that were not amenable to the strict economy of reproduction: to say no to unproductive activities, to banish casual pleasures, to reduce or exclude practices whose object was not procreation” (Foucault, 36). Such practices include homosexuality and all sex which has anything but a utilitarian aim.
The Sluts, in many ways, is a catalog of sex practices that depart from the moral and rational logic that arose in the 19th century. One interest throughout the novel, is the ‘breeding’ fetish, in which HIV positive men attempt to spread the virus through risky sex. Forum-posters dig up the profile of one poster, ‘Zack Young’, on bareback sex websites, which reads: “Gorgeous poz top seeks cute, slender, 18-20 year old neg bottoms for breeding” (Cooper, 160). The appropriation of the word breeding as a reference to procreation, in order to refer to spreading of deadly disease, betrays an interest in the discursive elements of sex. The eschewing of ‘productive’ sexuality is still interested in referring to what it claims to negate. There is a specific obsession in sex which is most ‘perverse’, and with sex that has been medicalized. Later on in Zack Young’s profile, he writes that he is seeking a “serious relationship with a cute, 18-20 year old poz bottom into pneumonia scenes, death dance, lesion wearing, and grave chase. I pay for room, board, medical bills…funeral?” (Cooper, 16). The sex that Young seeks is hurtling towards death, coated by sickness, and made appealing by its rejection of society.
However, unlike in Rabelaisian folk humor, there is an awareness of oddity in sex and the body. The very idea of ‘perversion’ is a recent invention, with newly constructed degeneracies that are highly visible in The Sluts. Foucault writes that an emphasis on technology of health and pathology “radiated discourses aimed at sex, intensifying people’s awareness of it as a constant danger, and this in turn created a further incentive to talk about it” (Foucault, 31). The institution of sexual identities and categories allowed increased dialogue about sex—though within compartmentalized, discursive categories. We see in The Sluts a fascination with speaking about sex alienated from the body, sex that emphasizes its divergence from the ‘norm’. The transgression of The Sluts is that it leans into those exact sexual qualities, and yet, this identification of ‘perversity’ means that no lines have been crossed in actuality.
This becomes evident in the treatment of Brad throughout the novel. At different intervals, forum posters attempt to diagnose him and discover his tragic backstory in order to understand his situation. An early review of Brad by the violent “Brian” reads: “After reading the first three reviews of Brad, I was convinced that his physical and behavioral problems were the result of an undiagnosed brain tumor” (Cooper, 15). Brad’s sorry state, which is what makes him so attractive, is also something to be diagnosed, medicalized, and examined. This desire is acted out later when one poster claims to be a medical doctor and describes his castration of Brad in immense detail. There are two types of people in the world of The Sluts—those beset by sickness, and sickos.
This discursive element is important, as the vast majority of the novel takes place through conversations and stories told on the Internet—so that desires are discussed, but rarely acted upon. Through this element and through the technology that the novel is mediated by, Cooper affirms sex as alienated from the body and from life cycles. While the images of the novels are of the abject, it does not liberate itself from social boundaries—rather it reinforces the existence of such distinctions.
What we are given in The Sluts is the spectacular image of transgression and the carnivalesque. Debord’s concept of the spectacle, outlined in Society of the Spectacle, is integral here—because we see the images of the carnival, the images of sex and death tied, but not the actual thing. Debord defines the spectacle as follows: “Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is the affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance” (Debord, § 10). In the proliferation of modern media, the representations in art and culture become life—promising more than life could ever give, and delivering on nothing. In The Sluts, we are treated only to appearances of transgression, without any material or lived transgression itself. This is largely due to the format of the novel. The novel takes place through internet messageboards, with anonymized posters spinning tales with varying levels of veracity. A life on the internet is a voyeuristic half-life, with spectators consuming the tales of sex and Brad.
Multiple times throughout the novel, characters point out the fantasy element of their engagement with the world. One writes: “We’re obsessed with Brad and Brian because the murder thing gives us a boner, and because Brad or Brian or whoever the genius is behind this ridiculous scam knows just how to fuck with our heads. This whole thing is just sick porn and we’ve all been implicated. Brad’s probably a real person, but the Brad we’re all obsessed with is a fantasy” (Cooper, 111). However, a large part of the novel is dedicated to truth-finding. There’s a desire for the Brad saga to be ‘real life’, to actually be witness to a murder, to actually sleep with Brad. The commentators ask each other—which of the events, characters, and accounts are real? Was Stevie Sexed actually murdered? Could all of the posters be accounts leading to the same person?
For Debord, separation and disconnect are the largest side effects of the modern spectacular society. The connection that the posters find with the celebrity-like characters is imaginary, the community itself is imaginary. Debord writes that within the modern spectacle “all community and all critical sense are dissolved during this movement in which the forces that could grow by separating are not yet reunited” (Debord, § 25). As we are alienated from the material and from life, via economic and cultural mechanisms, community is lost, and spectacular logic takes over rationality. The images of sex and death are reinterpreted through that which upholds current society, and lose their regeneration.
This is evident in the lack of joyousness that comes through in The Sluts. Debord writes, “What hides under the spectacular oppositions is a unity of misery. Behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other, all of them built on real contradictions which are repressed” (Debord, § 62). The Sluts presents false oppositions—appearing to oppose hegemonic ideas of sex, life, and death, while upholding those same structures.
The Sluts is a work at the fringes, this much is true. In a world utterly obsessed with life, and horrified by all that which does not immediately preserve or bring forth life, the work explores the pleasure of the edge of death. The work is marked by its grotesque images of the body, and the aesthetic features of the novel greatly inform the emotional resonances. If there is life to be found in The Sluts, it is within the moments closest to death, closest to the individual as a fragile and damaged and borderless body.
The Sluts, however, engages with societal norms and the spectacle in such a way that the full promise of the abject and grotesque can never be fully realized. This is because Cooper is making discursive moves, but not grounding the material body principle in the material or the body. Once the body is broken down, it is reconstituted within the same social ideology as before. One reason for this reconstitution is that the ‘transgression’ of the images become an obsession for our interlocuters. The images are filtered through levels of discourse, tied up in 19th century ideals of sexual utility and perversity, and as a result the work only displays the appearance of subversion. The other, more pervasive reason is that the novel describes the apotheosis of Debord’s spectacle—a fragmented populace living a life mediated solely by technology and mass media. The repulsive stories that the posters tell are inseparable from the mediums that they are told in and have no connection to a grounded life. They are mere appearances.
It is as Debord writes: “Although the present age presents its time to itself as a series of frequently recurring festivities, it is an age that knows nothing of real festivals” (Debord, § 154). It is impossible to engage in the carnivalesque, if there is no carnival.
Caleigh Stephens is a Fourth Year English student at the University of Chicago.
Cooper, Dennis. The Sluts. 1st ed., Carroll & Graf, 2005.
Bakhtin, M. Rabelais and His World. Trans. H. Iswolsky, vol. 241, Indiana University Press, 1984.
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle (1976). Black & Red, 2016.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books Ed. Vintage Books, 1990.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press, 1982.