Radical Objects

Brenna Lee


This essay examines components of art, feminism, and radical passivity in relation to and conjunction with The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker by Michael du Plessis. This theory was constructed through a revisiting and psychogeographic mapping of specific sites in du Plessis’s text, set mostly in Boulder, Colorado. I spent time at these sites; I sat, watched, dreamed. I became the voyeur; the marker and the marked. I became culpable. I shifted objects, events, and time. I straddled the boundary of active and passive. In our exchange, these sites birthed and enacted as much agency as passivity.

Through an engagement with place that highlights the necessity of analyzing the conjunction of self and other, or self as other, we begin to examine ourselves and what it means to function in a society implemented by current patriarchal structures. Within this framework, we acknowledge and absorb limits through questioning the distinction of causality. Particularly, to explore what it means to work toward the habitation of a borderless space, of an in-between sphere that dissolves binaries of death and life, subject and object, active and passive, author and reader, girl and doll.

SITE ONE: The Ramsey House; 755 15th Street, Boulder, Colorado

It is strange to witness a haunted house in the same way that it is strange to witness a haunted body; the pregnant woman, the swallowed trauma of internalized patriarchy manifested as the girl archetype, the melancholic, the way that these bodies inhabit the grid. This haunted location is less a dark looming castle à la Shirley Jackson and more the seedy underbelly of a perfect American suburb in the vein of David Lynch. The house is quintessentially Coloradan, a rustic Tudor with one-hundred year old staircases. The house would like to move on. This is obvious. Partially remodeled and re-inhabited thrice since the Ramsey family by residents who ignore the creaking basement, the cold corners, instead taking comfort in statistic and money. Past resident Carol Schuler-Milner, who lived in the house from 2004 to 2010, said that “she believed having people live in the house and create good memories there has helped the people of Boulder to move on” (Miller). While living in the house, Schuler-Milner contracted a flesh-eating virus.  Everyone has different ideas of what good memories make.

The house was never sold and eventually taken off the market after two hundred and forty-four days. The listing for the home currently claims: “Elegance of past generations combined with modern updates make this home unique. Huge rooms, great light and an over-sized, gated lot on a fine street just a short walk from CU and Chautauqua” (Miller).

The house wants to move on, but it cannot. It has seen too much. Memory can be its own form of suffering. Yet, it still exists and is numbed by its own existence in everyday life. An object to be ignored, to pass on the way to work.  At night the walls continually replay the memories of the doll-girl on loop, projecting them onto every surface. The house returns cyclically to its gaping wound, drawn in by its lonely attractors as though caught in the pull of gravity. This return to trauma proves pointless in the end. It cannot heal itself. The wound is too big, and it seeps.

The neighborhood is serene. The houses are in perfect rows with perfect trees and perfect teeth. Their eyes gawk and stare, unrelenting. They watch. Plastic cheeks rouged and synthetic hair quaffed and curled. The houses are dolls. They see everything. They cannot forget. They cannot act. The doll-object can only be acted upon. In his 1928 novel Nadja, Andre Breton says, “Tell me whom you haunt and I’ll tell you who you are.”

The haunted house is the doll-object as place. The girl trapped in the attic or basement. This house is expectant. Boulder is this dollhouse. It is full of dolls. They are different and the same. Their boundaries blur. There is the baby doll, with blinking lashes and painted on purity.  The Barbie doll, with cartoonish proportions and perpetually pointed feet. The sex doll with gaping pink mouth that spreads like the sea. The voo-doo doll, a physical manifestation of the cursed body.  There is the marionette and the dummy and the puppet. There is the fragile paper doll and the maternal matroyshka, its labyrinth layers incubating what is both stunted and gorgeous. There are Goth dolls and boy dolls and cross-dressing dolls. There are scarecrows. There are gargoyles.  The porcelain collector dolls that live a life of imposed voyeurism and spectacle behind thick glass.

The doll-object can not only be embodied by the girl but also by place via projected agency. This idea can be seen in many fictional locations (Valley of the Dolls, The Island of Misfit Toys) in addition to actual locations including Boulder, Colorado and La Isla de la Munecas, or The Island of the Dolls.

It is through the possession of the doll-object that the observer agrees to the doll-object as an inhabitable vessel. “In cases of obsession, the tormented subject is unable to identify the presence of a persecuting spirit. Possession occurs when the spirit manifests itself clearly” (Baskin 242). Therefore, the doll becomes a location, as well as an object, to be acted upon.  To inhabit the doll is to inhabit the location of the doll, to have awareness of its interaction within and on the grid. This is particularly apparent when bearing witness to The Island of the Dolls, located in the canals south of Mexico City.  Not actually an island, this floating garden’s entire mass is covered with dolls, rotting, limbs missing, bugs nesting in their hollow parts. Dolls crucified on trees. Dolls sunbathe on rocks. Dolls watch.

The man who lived on the island for fifty years collected the dolls, fishing their parts out of the canals as their bloated silicone figures floated by. A young girl haunted him. She died in the canals, mysteriously drowned. The dolls were for her. A sacrifice, a bribe to ease her suffering and his own. He drowned in the same canal as his ghost girl. No one around to bear witness but the dolls. These dolls are now the sole inhabitants of the island. The island has become the doll.  The Ramsey house has shifted into the possessed doll. And Boulder, with all of its industrious innocence, is where dolls go to die, and then live again. It is a vessel. It is the android, the robot. Boulder is the zombie doll that eats brains and bodies and regurgitates them, a grotesque and ecstatic inverted re-birthing. Boulder is the doll that refuses to die, to grow up, an eternal Never-never land obsessively hiding its underbelly of yellow rot.

SITE TWO: University of Colorado Visual Arts Complex

Upon first glance, this gothic building on the hill calls to mind the strange dream doll houses of visual artist Stacey Steers. Dark and foreboding, and at the same time intricately lovely, distant. It looks as though the only inhabitant of the building is sleep or old age, or perhaps long-forgotten minor fairy tale characters. Bluebeard’s corpse-wives beneath the floorboards, pulsating with dead matter. I imagine the rooms filled, like Steers’s creations, with beautiful decay. A rocking chair, an oversized quail egg, a petrified moth with wings spread wide, a quiet exhibition. The moth, once active with flight and breath, now resigned to exist only in the limbic state of the eternally passive. In this way, the objects within the doll house, though non-human in form, become the doll-object.

The passivity within the doll-object is amplified in The Memoirs by imbuing passivity with agency/subjectivity in order to tell the story of the object, but at times taking it away again and thereby invoking radical passivity by refusing to subscribe to the binaries of agent/passive, subject/object. This is done in The Memoirs by splitting the inhabitants of one doll, switching agency so completely and abruptly between JonBenet and Kathy Acker, as well as Acker’s performance of H.P. Lovecraft, William Burroughs, O, and many others, that the agency of the doll becomes a projected performance towards an irrevocably interconnected mediumistic state. Here, JonBenet is Kathy Acker Doll performing/channeling H.P. Lovecraft, straddling the boundaries of identity, of the “I”:

She (he) was so sure of herself (himself), she (he) fucked everyone she (he) could get her (his) hands on. There were plenty of them, thinks Kathy Acker about H.P. Lovecraft, regardless of sexual gender. At the same time, because she (he) was sexually ambiguous, she (he) looked sexually innocent. She (He) always said that she (he) wasn’t a whore, she (he) never got near sex. She (he) didn’t even feel. She (he) might have fucked here and there, now and then, but that didn’t matter. In fact, it didn’t really happen. Who could be more androgynous? (du Plessis 29)

It also incites radical passivity in the sheer present-ness of the doll-object. The novella is packed with dolls. Dolls go to school with other dolls, have romantic relationships, possess the body of the same doll, dream of being other dolls. Dolls that die. The doll body produces passivity just by existing. Therefore, to engage with a text inhabited and haunted almost solely by doll-objects results in the manifestation of radical passivity.

Brooklyn-based performance and installation artist Amber Hawk Swanson began utilizing radical passivity in her project Amber Doll in 2007, when she had a sex doll made to her exact measurements and likeness and dubbed her Amber, creating a doubling of self, a Lacanic mirror image of being. Amber and Amber Doll engaged in a series of experiments together, mostly involving leaving Amber Doll unattended in public spaces, under the surveillance of a video camera. The duo also partook in correlating tattoos, Amber’s saying “bully” and Amber doll’s reading “prey.”  In their last experiment, Amber Doll was left unattended in a casket. “By the exhibition’s end,” Swanson writes in her artist’s statement, “Amber Doll’s nose had been cut off and the tears in her face had grown deeper. Further damage to her face and body occurred after the exhibition during shipping leaving her nearly destroyed” (Milks). It is in the constant shifting of roles between Amber Hawk Swanson and Amber Doll that we again see the blurriness of the binary and realize radical passivity.

It is in both The Memoirs and in Hawk Swanson’s doll project that we see the doll-object as self, as the girl. We project our image onto theirs, thereby extending ourselves to performing the doll object, which is an agency made of our own desires but also our unconscious internalization of the patriarchal male gaze, of the woman as object to be acted upon. The viewer does this because the doll body, in all of its glorious passivity, allows for accommodation, for vessel-being. This means taking on the projected (and reversely projected, as if a mirror inside a mirror or a snow globe) role of good mother, baby, or, even a vessel for sexual desire.

It is here that Butler’s theory enters and frames the causality of vessel being and performance of identity. “For it is a production, usually in response to a request, to come out or write in the name of an identity which, once produced, sometimes functions as a politically efficacious phantasm” (Butler 1707). Butler specifically refers to the complicated danger of the internalization and then performance of identity/gender/object labels instilled by patriarchal society. Butler goes on to say, “Identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rally points for a liberatory contestation of the very oppression” (Butler 1701).

At the same time, this performance of girl-object also destabilizes the very category created by patriarchy, which is then internalized and ultimately performed by the vessel. “What ‘performs’ does not exhaust the ‘I’; it does not lay out in visible terms the comprehensive content of that ‘I,’ for if the performance is ‘repeated,’ there is always the question of what differentiates from each other the moments of identity that are repeated. And if the ‘I’ is the effect of a certain repetition, one which produces the semblance of a continuity of coherence, then there is no ‘I’ that precedes the gender that it is said to perform; the repetition, and the failure to repeat, produce a string of performances that constitute and contest the coherence of that ‘I’” (Butler 1711). Thus, it is in our shifting performance as/of doll-object that we are not merely adhering to the roles placed upon us, but are also embodying and enacting a chaotic rebellion against the role itself. The typical definition of “objectification” connotes a kind of flattening:

The thing in question, a woman, is rendered property, non-autonomous response-unit, sexual pleasure machine, stroke-dude’s-ego machine. But this view, which attempts to explain the way objects labeled women are viewed by other objects labeled men (or more precisely a system of culture that distorts and limits the vision of all), fails to embrace the reality that on the physical plain we are all objects in a world of objects to be used and enjoyed, to use and enjoy. (Durbin)

This dichotomy is certainly evident in the mass produced and commoditized sex doll of today, but also in its reflection in art. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s sculpture Death II exhibits two sex dolls cast in bronze, painted to appear plastic, and engaged in simultaneous oral sex atop an inflated raft. By acknowledging the doll-object as a sex object to be acted upon, to project into and use as a vessel of one’s own desires, this sculpture extends voyeurism even farther, especially by its juxtaposed placement in the sterile museum. This points to one problem in the performance of object. It also leads to another problem, which is the way that a subject treats the object. “Certain bodies are oppressed not by ‘thingification,’ but by the specific mode of intelligibility with which the thing and other things are treated” (Kim 105). The object has limitless potential in form, and is not only limited to doll-object, but also cyborg, robot, alien, animal, and place. It is ingrained in contemporary Western culture that the object is not and can never be the subject and, therefore, is not even to be considered.

SITE THREE: Boulder Creek

It is an unusually warm day in late winter and the trail is full of people, cyclists, ducks. I walk through slushy clumps of packed snow, stomped down by the soles of broad boots. There is a garbage bag along the side of the trail, alone, abandoned. It is surrounded by coyotes. Wild wolf-dogs that scavenge, that cannot resist entering into human society, lured by the forgotten sack of dripping Mexican food. The creek-goers are startled, upset. They call the papers. They call the police. They call animal control. They walk in opposite directions wringing their hands as washcloths, trying to rinse off the dirt of the wild, of animal-object encounter. I watch. They eat. Hysteria rises. They have become object. They have become projected fears. Their children taken from their beds at night. Cannibals that cook their bones. The people transform into half-animal half-human, howling at the creek, screaming in discomfort as a state of object-being settles into water.

An essential component to radical passivity is awareness and acceptance of the state of object-being. The reader witnesses and agrees to this state in The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker when we read “I would do anything to please him. That’s what dolls do, that’s why we’re here, silly reader” (du Plessis 53). “The ethics of passivity is to recognize the unmodifiable aspect of object being that enables a subject to become an object to be acted upon, and to actualize the other within the self” (Kim 95). In this way, acceptance of object-being can lead to existential actualization.

The link between object being, doll-object and girl can be clearly seen as performance and art in the work of Australian artist Kirstin Hudson, who creates interconnectivity through the material female body. Hudson is interested in the conceptual potential of sugar and tends to work with the medium in proximity to the body. In one performance, Hudson wore a gown composed completely of cotton candy. As the candy gown dissolved, a grotesque and gory scene began to manifest. The gown melted away to what appeared to be atrophied tissue on the mute, immutable Hudson, who stared blankly, keeping her body rigid, becoming the doll while recording a fragmented violence against the female body, the doll girl.

To acknowledge the state of object-being is to acknowledge the power of the object, the power  that can be held by the object. “Never forget that an object might transform her indefinitely. Just as any thing in the physical world might mutate, melt, morph, die and be born, crawl, and then fly” (Durbin). This occurs in The Memoirs through objects’ interaction with other objects.  The JonBenet/ Kathy Acker doll engages in their love affair with the Little Lord Fauntleroy doll, doll-objects alienate other doll-objects, kill and be killed by other doll-objects, though these objects tend to shift between subject and object, blurring the periphery of agency and power even further.

There is a vigilante awareness that accompanies the acceptance of object being, which further smears the lines of agent/passive, object/subject, dominant/submissive. The resulting self-actualization (or verge of) can result in the manifestation of a compound female subjectivity for the doll-object, the girl (Milks). The discomfort caused by this shift can result in the severing of agency, where the essential (Simone de Beauvoir’s vacillation between pour-soi and en-soi) can mutate into the negative (mental illness such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia).

In other words, acknowledging and complying with the state of object-being can prove so uncomfortable a space for the doll-object to inhabit that an identity crisis ensues, resulting in a split object identity that has the ability to shift into a form of compound female subjectivity in cases of the doll-girl object. We see this in The Memoirs quite literally as JonBenet and Kathy Acker share a solitary doll body, a shifting consciousness. However, this can apply to all doll-objects, even the ones that possess only singular identities. The owner of the doll in this case projects her own agency onto the doll-object, resulting in the actualization of self with other, identity crisis, and finally a compound subjectivity. “Once, I loved you, but you gave me so little that I had to make you up. Once I’d made you up, you no longer existed as such. You’d become my fiction, my invention, my doll, and of course, I had to break up with you” (du Plessis 55). This, in the end, is why all dolls must die.

SITE FOUR: Flagstaff Mountain/ Stephen King’s Pet Sematary/ The Star on the Hill/ JonBenet-Doll’s Grave.

The wind renders into sharp angles on top of the mountain. It pierces the body.  I stand on the lookout, where the small town of Boulder looks even smaller and is mainly swallowed by the red tiled rooftops of the University of Colorado’s campus. It is daytime and months past the Christmas season. The star is dim but still there, enormous and looming in its rounded points. I have fantasies of spray painting it black. Of breaking apart the tubing and reshaping them into pentagrams, into wilting vulvas, into the goddess Devi’s writhing arms. It is here JonBenet the doll is put to rest after her death in a doll school shooting. It is here we intersect with the stories of others, as is always true of life and death, of the personal and impersonal so often utilized in conceptual appropriation. She is buried in Stephen King’s cemetery, located beneath the looming star, where she speaks from beyond the grave:

They’d buried me in the pet cemetery. Colorado needed its sacrificial victim, its little blonde curly headed lamb of God so much that they had to bring me back to life. And that’s where Christianity doesn’t work. Only Stephen King does. So they buried me in the Pet Cemetery, the ancient Native American burial ground in the foothills above Boulder. That’s the same place where every Christmas Boulder puts up a huge star of white electric bulbs for everyone to see this is a Christian state. Where Christmas means big light bulb stars looming over the Boulder snowglobe. Where Christmas means little murdered girls, cuter than the Lamb of God. I guess they confuse Christmas with Good Friday, the Nativity with the Resurrection. (du Plessis 96)

It is here that she is reborn as zombie; decaying, lovely, and finally grown. She descends upon Boulder: “I’m the resurrected JonBenet and I’ve come to take my revenge on the town that made me, that dreamt me, that killed me” (du Plessis 98). The discussion of doll death again brings us to the threshold of objectivity and subjectivity. If a doll must die, then it holds the ability to die, and, therefore, must also first be alive. However, the politics of transformation for the doll are complicated.  “A woman can, anytime she likes, enter the world of objects, by virtue of her cultural relegation to that world. Again, when I say world of objects I mean the physical world, our world. Being object, a woman is generally closer to this world and its ornamentation, and therefore closer to death, the ultimate fate of any glittering box or bee” (Durbin). The doll is ultimately an object and, therefore, can only live through death, as in the case of a burial in which the materials of the doll will be distributed into the earth, thus consecrating a transformative birth. JonBenet doll’s acute awareness of this fact, of her necessary mortality, again straddles the agentive and passive. “And so I did, that is, I did become real. And so I died. For only what can die is real” (du Plessis 94). Du Plessis writes speaking through JonBenet doll or Kathy Acker doll or JonBenet speaking though Kathy Acker or Kathy Acker speaking through JonBenet. Therefore, the doll implicitly holds this knowledge, bringing to light the possibility of object consciousness, of the object as catalyst to something larger. “If we are objects fused to other objects fused to other objects then our life goes beyond this one tiny body, this one prescribed gender, this one old sad song” (Durbin). It is here that one finds doll-object as a potential form of interconnectivity, as a possibility for  liberation instead of oppression.

All dolls must die so that they can become real, so they can become self and other and, therefore, a whole being. The girl-doll must die in order to achieve this same state of reality. The girl-doll must live in this constant state of conflict. She must learn to both cradle and kill the doll inside. To hold herself as material object made from all other material objects but to also recognize the swallowed patriarchal ideals living in her stomach and to vomit them back out into space. This is why the girl-doll must die, so she can then transform and re-birth. The girl as zombie.  Zombie as doll, as girl, as regenerated material, the pulsating dead matter. “We are dolls, remember, so being free doesn’t mean anything” (du Plessis 51). In order to break our restraints we must acknowledge them. This is the final step in dissolving the binary. Smash it. Destroy it. There is no difference between any of these objects. We all become the doll-girl-animal-cyborg-alien-zombie-earth. We are dirt. We are dead. We are disgusting.  We are unbound; borderless. Our objectivity unraveled and shining. The seed to be planted, the radical. The universe becomes the doll house and all of its inhabitants doll.


I would like to extend my gratitude to Michael Du Plessis, whose book The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker has been an inimitable lens through which to view and formulate this theory. I used Du Plessis’s writing as a map, his locations as vectors. And thus, began retracing his steps, looking again at his psychogeographic mapping of Colorado, specifically Boulder, many years after the original writing of the text. This somatic practice of revisiting, of trying to reenact the past and place, was only made more surreal by the city of Boulder, which has changed very little in both physical and social structure during the period between the writing of the book and the writing of this text. In ways it is a doll city, frozen in time. This process became even stranger still through recent and publicized developments in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, still open and unsolved seventeen years later. The book continues to evolve past the page.

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