Industrial 1: Coummunication

COUM’s notoriety hit its height just as the British economy hit an all time low. Was there any connection? Some newspapers thought so. With the economic and social crisis identified at the end of 1973 refusing to go away, commentators kept themselves busy looking for the latest signs of the Nation’s declining standards. By the end of 1976 both COUM and the sinking value of the pound would be taken as proof of the near terminal condition of the once Great Britain. [1]

COUM Transmissions were a performance art group formed in Kingston-Upon-Hull in the late 1960s. At once a self-engineered artistic success and failure, the group’s reputation ricocheted between rising stars of the art world and hated arbiters of moral panic. Their most notorious work, Prostitution, was exhibited at the ICA in London in 1976. Billed as a retrospective of the group’s work prior to moving onto new projects, the exhibition became a national scandal after being denounced in various newspapers and magazines, even triggering a parliamentary debate on the acceptable purview of public funding for the arts. During the debate, Nicholas Fairbairn, the Conservative MP for Kinross and West Perthshire, called the group “wreckers of civilisation”—a label that affectionately stuck. Fairbairn has since been posthumously accused of child sex offences.

As discussed by Simon Ford in his history of the group, quoted above, many saw the group’s performances as just another symptom of national socio-economic and moral decline, but this is to downplay COUM’s cunning approach towards their art practice and its reception, and their thoughtful subversions of the political conventions of British society at the time. The group consistently stayed one step ahead of their audiences, hurling all their hopes and fears back at them with a wicked sense of humour and a grim sincerity. Despite the diverse and spontaneous nature of their performances, the group are best known now for their controversies. COUM founding member Cosey Fanni Tutti addressed this reputation in a 2013 interview with The Quietus:

There were no shock tactics. That would imply a kind of script, a contrivance that would be incompatible with our improvisational approach. Public self-discovery in the form of art actions or music performances can shock. That’s just the way it was/is. […] The fact that people called what we did transgressive was at times surprising. We were just doing what we found interesting and putting it out there… communication, but not in its usual format. A more interesting way to instigate dialogue.

The Prostitution exhibition in particular revealed the lengths COUM were prepared to go to to put their unusual communication into practice. Through both its title and its content, Prostitution explored COUM’s consistent entanglements of typically dichotic relationships between people, practices and perspectives—performer and audience; artist and arts council; criminal and academic; outsider and insider; us and them; man and woman; servitude and self-expression; the universal and the particular… Central to the exhibition were photographs of Cosey Fanni Tutti. First published in pornographic magazines, these photographs were recontextualised for the exhibition and presented as “magazine actions”. Sex work and modelling were reframed as performance art, subverting the relationship between photographer and model; viewer and subject. The works were censored immediately with outrage over their display accumulating even prior to the exhibition’s installation and opening. Other exhibits included maggot-ridden used tampons, syringes and other props that had been used by the group during previous performances, but the photographs of Cosey were the main target of much of the press’s ire. In order to skirt around censorship laws, it was decided that the photographs would be exhibited in a separate room only accessible to paying members of the ICA. [2] Press cuttings were presented in their place on the walls of the gallery, charting the coverage of the exhibition each day as its reception devolved from art world controversy to national moral panic. Cosey writes in her recently published autobiography:

The explosive media response to the exhibition was totally unexpected but ironically fed well into our show, which was primarily based on how COUM was perceived by others and how our image was at times distorted. What a gift, what a spontaneous collaborative work, forming itself via the media day after day after day. We seized on the new material and me and Chris [Carter] went to the ICA each day to collect the press cuttings, photocopy them and pin them to the wall of the gallery alongside the existing documentation. What had set out to be a retrospective exhibition had been transformed into an evolving show that was increasing in size as the press fed their own hysteria. [3]


Alongside the press cuttings, COUM included their own corrections highlighting the press’s tendency to exaggerate, misreport and plainly lie about the group, their intentions and their practices, taking the subversions instigated by Cosey in her photographs and making them once again active by folding them within the exhibition itself. Whilst Prostitution is still mythologised for its use of pornographic imagery, in reality the press cuttings and corrections became the exhibition’s central materials, as the most active and accessible part of an exhibition that otherwise presented inactive or censored documents of past performances. Despite this, Prostitution was shut down after just four days and one performance as the threat of further violence from the press, the public and “obscenity” charges from the Crown Prosecution service loomed over the exhibition.

By this time, the group had already decided to swap the art world for the music industry, believing to form a band was a better way of communicating their message. They settled on a definitive four-person lineup and changed their name to Throbbing Gristle. There were no more exhibitions under the name COUM Transmissions until February 2017 when a second retrospective of the group’s work inaugurated the newly-opened Humber Street Gallery in Kingston-Upon-Hull.

Presented as part of Hull’s 2017 City of Culture programme, the exhibition was curated by Cosey Fanni Tutti and Andrew Wheatley, of Cabinet Gallery, London, with an events programme organised by online music magazine The Quietus. Split across two levels, the first floor of the exhibition featured a series of recent video interviews with former members of the group that explored their personal experiences of COUM as a way of life.

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The second floor featured a vast collection of documentation of the group’s past activities including photographs, posters, objects, props, and correspondences. It should be noted that these correspondences made up the majority of the exhibition’s materials—letters, postcards, mail art: just a fragment of a vast archive of communications and transmissions. Exhibited in twenty-two vitrines that filled much of the available floor space, these materials attempted to clarify a project that has suffered from decades of mythologising by both fans and detractors alike.

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Prior to the exhibition taking place I had wondered: What is at stake today when we exhibit works that engage explicitly with social taboos? What problems arise when curating this kind of work today? Whilst questions of curating might seem impotent and infuriating in light of art world posturing and over-saturation, Cosey’s own involvement as a curator of her own works in 2017 is a particularly important development, allowing her to regain control over the work’s reception (to an extent)—a courtesy that has previously not always been afforded to her. “Curating” here can be better understood as a careful act of questioning; of communicating (“but not in its usual format”) and this is where COUM have always revealed themselves most potently. I’d like to argue that, despite appearances, these practices of coummunication are what make COUM eminently ethical, requiring all those who come into contact with their work to continue its project.

Misunderstandings of the work have nonetheless remained prevalent. Adrian Searle, art critic for The Guardian, was unfortunately unimpressed by the exhibition (and the city of Hull in general) in his review of the City of Culture programme’s opening festivities. After regurgitating the usual COUM legends and gruesome tales he wrote:

Whatever they did may well have been anarchic, subversive and even shocking, but the shock has evaporated … What the exhibition lacks is precisely what made COUM interesting – that is to say, what they actually did. Much went unrecorded or was lost. You had to have been there. Sadly, being here now is not enough.

Searle is correct when he says that COUM are no longer shocking. In today’s political climate, it’s hard to be shocked by anything. “Donald Trump is a member of COUM Transmissions—you know that, don’t you?” joked Spydeee Gasmantell during a panel discussion with former members of COUM held over the exhibition’s opening weekend. The audience laughed but President Donald Trump is a strangely fitting honorary addition to COUM’s lineup—he certainly communicates unusually. Rather than the political normalisation of COUM’s artistic practices leading to a dulling of their project, it emphasises its untimely nature and updates the stakes of the work, necessitating a closer reading than ever before.

Georges Bataille is likewise an untimely figure, as relevant now as ever before. Like COUM, Bataile was a figure who ricocheted between success and failure; a man who consistently faced up to social taboos in order to transcend the trappings of his present situation. He is also best known for his controversies.

Born in France in 1897, Bataille was a writer of philosophy, literature, sociology, economics and anthropology—to name but a few of his interests. He was a librarian specialising in medieval manuscripts and numismatics, an organiser of public lectures and the founder of infamous academic journal and secret society Acéphale, which reportedly disbanded when the group refused Bataille’s request to be used as a, or to otherwise engage in the practice of, human sacrifice—the details remain unclear. He is most famous for his works of pornographic literature and writings on eroticism.

Bataille has previously been invoked alongside COUM but not with the close reading he deserves. Commenting on a compendium dedicated to Bataille that featured her poetry, Cosey has said:

I was interested in [Bataille’s] work, but not as a point of reference with regard to my own work. It’s just good to know there are others of a similar transgressive mindset and who are so exquisitely creative and evocatively expressive.

He was notably, like COUM (and Cosey in particular), similarly ethicallyminded.

In his book On Nietzsche Bataille writes at length on “communication”—always in inverted commas. In the book’s second part—Summit and Decline—he writes of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as the “summit of evil” and notes the necessity of the event’s violence in giving Christian holy communion its communicative foundation. Bataille’s “communication” is, however, separate from Christian communion. Having at one time considered entering the priesthood, the influence of Christian thought on his writing should not be understated but the crucifixion is nevertheless used here more for its cultural centrality and as a familiar reference point for his more general theory of “communication” in a secular mode. Bataille writes:

The events [of the crucifixion] took place as if the creatures could only communicate with their Creator through a wound lacerating integrity. [4]

This is how Bataille believes people communicate with each other even outside the context of Christianity. He continues:

the “communication” of being is assured by evil. The human being without evil would be folded onto himself, enclosed in his independent sphere. But the absence of “communication”—empty solitude—would be without any doubt a greater evil.

[…] But “communication” cannot take place without wounding or defiling the beings, is itself guilty. The good, in whatever way one envisions it, is the good of beings, but in wanting to attain it, we must ourselves question—in the night, through evil—the very being in relation to which we want it. 

A fundamental principle is expressed as follows: “Communication” cannot take place between one full and intact being and another: it wants beings who question being in themselves, who place their being at the limit of death, of nothingness. The moral summit is the moment of risk, of the suspension of the being beyond itself, at the limit of nothingness. [5]

For Bataille, communication is a necessary evil, refounding the thought of other more explicit ethicists. Emmanuel Levinas, for instance, writes that the fundamental ethical act is seeing the face of the other as a command not to kill. [6] Bataille attempts to remove any religious, commanding orientation from this thought and adds to this formulation a rupturing of the self. Levinas’ face-to-face encounter and the beginning of dialogue becomes, through Bataille, a double-bind; a recognising of the vulnerability of the other and a making-vulnerable of the self. To communicate, then, is to both risk and threaten annihilation—perhaps even a libidinal desire for both. COUM echo this thought through a praxis of putting themselves at risk in order to provoke others into thinking, conversing and acting differently; in order to escape the social expectations that normalise a life of capitalist servitude.

The following statement, written by Cosey Fanni Tutti for the Sydney Biennial and featured in the Humber Street exhibition, contains echoes of the above passage from On Nietzsche:

It is wrong to seek oneself in isolation when the world is proportionately city built, each full of people. One must live in the environment of the day and make that environment as free as possible, to as many people as possible. This is COUM. To give to people what they already have, but that which has been buried by years of varying human ideals and standards. All COUM asks is that people once more work with themselves, their feelings and in doing so, become aware of others. [7]

COUM’s ruptures, here at least, sound pleasant relative to Bataille’s wounding and defiling but they are ruptures nonetheless. The provocations through which these ruptures of self take place are pervasive for both, present in their public actions and everyday uses of language. This is expressed immediately through the name “COUM”—a play on words with no fixed pronunciation. Whilst most choose to say “coom” rather than “cum”, to read the word nevertheless forces an awareness of social expectations. Regardless of the choice made, COUM is always already “cum”—the latin word for “with” as well as the modern word for ejaculation. It is a word containing all the linguistic foldings of Bataille’s philosophies of eroticism and community.

The complicity of language in the works of both makes the implications of their actions always immediate. To infect language as the very basis of human communication is to have implications that go all the way to the root of experience and existence, both interior and exterior. Bataille’s book Inner Experience deals with the former explicitly. He explores the “banal felicity” of authentic inner experience as being “obviously distinct from projects, from discourse.” [8] This is not to discount “communication”—again, in inverted commas. Bataille refers to the importunity and servility of discourse and discusses “communication” instead as a way of being. This formulation makes it impossible to write about Bataille and COUM in a bubble: to read either as a purely academic exercise; to enter into “discourse” with them alone is to miss the point. Each project asks to be—sincerely—lived.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his scathing review of Inner Experience, criticised the mysticism of Bataille’s thought in this way. [9] He believed that for Bataille to root his thought in unavowable experience was nothing more than a lazy convenience. He went on to point to, deconstruct and ridicule the paradox of making something as tangible and definitive as a book about something so ephemeral and elusive. Bataille, in his response to Sartre, highlights the very continuation of the paradox that Sartre instigates through this communication of his own feelings. Sartre’s review, which Bataille says “moved” him, permits Bataille “to begin again” the anguish from which his book originally emerged. (COUM’s sincerity too is lost in the sparse documentation available which likewise is entangled in the paradox of being unable to capture itself.)

On the paradox of the book Bataille writes:

The certainty of the readers’ inconsistency, the friability of the most astute constructions constitutes the profound truth of books. Since appearances limit it, what truly exists is no longer the growth of lucid thought but its dissolution in common opacity. The apparent immobility of a book deludes us: each book is also the sum of the misunderstandings that it occasions. [10]

Bataille translator Stuart Kendall highlights an instance where the sincerity of Bataille’s thought was made explicitly known to his peers. In his introduction to On Nietzsche Kendall describes a lecture given by Bataille on sin and the discussion that followed it. (This lecture would later become, after some revisions, the previously quoted “Summit and Decline” section of On Nietzsche.) The philosopher and Nietzsche translator Maurice de Gandillac, in attendance, is reported to have commented:

“[…] if there were those among us who might occasionally doubt the profoundly authentic character of your experience and of your whole book, this suspicion has absolutely been dispelled by the tone even of our conversation.” […] Arthur Adamoc observed: “It is very rare, in our day, to simply hear a man speak with an intonation that is truly his own, that conveys a personal message.” Skeptical before his thought, Bataille’s listeners were convinced by his intonation, his sincerity, his way of being in the world. [11]

To capture such sincerity now—in the relatively academic framework I am now painfully aware that I have been constructing—is a difficult task, perhaps even a futile one. In exploring their work I feel a demand to make myself vulnerable in my experiences of the exhibition and its surrounding events, in the hope this will better reveal the stakes of the exhibition and the thinking it provoked in me. It is in the attempt; the process that their ethics is revealed. Whilst Bataille’s approach “opens the issues of his concern to the illumination and ventilation of what has been excluded from disciplinary discourse” [12], I cannot hope and do not wish to match or imitate Bataille’s approach to thought and writing. It is also not my intention to follow his lead in subverting academic convention. If COUM’s work is no longer shocking, the folding of subjective experience within academic writing (especially when presented on a blog) most certainly isn’t either. Again, this is not to say that the politics of the personal are dulled but rather demand a closer reading than ever before.

To write in this manner is nonetheless a challenge to do well. In order to communicate this ethics I feel I must make myself vulnerable but nonetheless leave space for you, the reader, to place yourself within this thinking. To communicate sincerely, here, I must do so in a way that is true to my own way of being whilst nonetheless challenging myself and, perhaps, you also. It is my hope that the wound I open here , on this blog (both generally and in the posts on this topic that are to follow), is capable of being entered and helps to articulate further the ethical stakes of this unusual and incomplete exhibition.

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When Adrian Searle declared “you had to be there” in his review of the Humber Street exhibition, he seemed to desire some sort of digestible statement; a concrete, predetermined narrative. However, I suspect his expectations are informed by the very myths and reductions that have plagued COUM for decades. A letter from the exhibition, titled Postal Love Affair, posted above, captures the reality more clearly. It reads:

Dear Kitten,

Hot lips. I send you my very own blooo outline of my very own body. To do with what you will. It does not coumpensate for that soft, warm flesh that quivers under your finger tips, but it is all yours. And more.

Yes, soon there will be more. I must go now, I am distracted. The vibrator used to be my refuge but now I need more. Just to touch…….

Yours all over,

Cosey xxxx

COUM sought to repeatedly engender the strangely erotic tension of interrupted gestures. One of the group’s more well-known advertorial aphorisms declared that “COUM guarantee disappoint”. In this way, their approach is both tantric and tortu(r)ous. The desire to want to be there, as Searle expresses, is surely the emotional affect of this guarantee in its very incompleteness. That is not to say that COUM are above criticism, but, like Sartre to Bataille, Searle’s reasoning is already purposefully folded within COUM’s representations of itself.

Any document of the group is intentionally incomplete and it is this incompletion that makes COUM so compelling; that brings their coummunity into existence. Likewise with Bataille, whether dead or simply inactive, their incompleteness demands the conversation be continued. Paul Mann writes of Bataille’s legacy as an “exquisite corpse” [13]—referring to the playful act of collective assemblage popularised by the Surrealists—and this is an apt formulation for COUM also: to write on either necessitates a mutant continuation of their projects.

The incompleteness of Bataille’s exquisite corpse is emphasised by the number and nature of the texts that have been written “about” him since his death. The question of how well many of these texts have grasped the true implications of his “community” is another matter. Central to much of his thought is not only the question of “communication” but also “community”—and indeed the com- prefix more generally. Outside his writings, Bataille explored notions of communication and community through his instigation of the groups Acéphale and the College of Sociology. Many of the experiences had amongst these groups necessarily elude capture and, with regards to Acéphale in particular (and similarly to COUM), many of their activities went unrecorded. Bataille’s encounters with other communities were arguably best explored through his entangled fictions, letters and diaries. Jason Kemp Winfree writes:

The obsession with community in Bataille’s work can thus be divided, heuristically at least, between a practice and a knowledge, or better still, between a revolutionary practice and a theoretical inquiry, a heterogeneous zone of disruption and a homogenous understanding directed toward an account of the heterological itself. [14]

For COUM, no such attempt at division has been made. Whilst community for Bataille was an obsession that has since been written about at length, COUM have previously appeared in just one unreliable tome. Simon Ford’s Wreckers of Civilisation is arguably the starting point for COUM research—understandably, since it was, until very recently, the only book of its kind on the group. Its scope is impressive but it is nonetheless an attempt at an objective and historicised account of a group that actively resist objectification and historicisation. Whilst it is a detailed account of their public activities, it is nonetheless superficial as an account of the group’s spirit.

COUM may retain a certain unpopularity but they nevertheless share with Bataille a “negative community”—a community of those who have no community—and one that is still somewhat intact thanks to a lack of canonisation and over-theorising. A particularly apt extension of this concept comes from Bataille’s close friend Maurice Blanchot. In his book The Unavowable Community Blanchot writes of the “exigency of community”, which Bataille kept raw through his “own infidelity, the necessary mutation which forced him to be unceasingly an other while remaining himself and to develop other exigencies which resisted becoming united either because they responded to the changes of history or to experiences, which, not wanting to repeat themselves, had become exhausted.” [15] The community of the posthumous Bataille, however, falters precisely through the repetitive academic attempts to define it.

COUM (and the group’s later shifting formations) remain open. Their often violent infidelity was at its peak during COUM’s most active years during the 60s and 70s. Cosey Fanni Tutti, in a recent interview on BBC Radio 4, discussed the forever-brawling “pockets of different groups of people [in Hull]—Mods, Rockers, then turned into skinheads and Hell’s Angels and then the peace-loving hippies who didn’t want to fight at all.” COUM interacted with all these groups and more. Genesis P-Orridge had come to the city to study at Hull University where he received both awards and accusations of obscenity for his literary activities. According to Simon Ford, “by the time he left Hull P-Orridge was a fully initiated member of The Nomads, the local Chapter of the Hell’s Angels.” [17] Together COUM sought an active entanglement of Hull’s academic and criminal factions and a perpetuation of communal tensions. The connections of the other members of the group only expand the group’s collective associations and so the infidelity of their coummunity is well established.

Here the necessity of the alternative spelling of coummunity is revealed. It is much like Bataille’s “communication” in inverted commas in that it suggests a communication and community that the words themselves cannot do justice. As Andrew J. Mitchell and Jason Kemp Winfree explain:

In the face of an entire set of tired contemporary invocations of “community” in the service of global capital and power — the world community, the intelligence community, the business community — Bataille’s thought stands as an outrage if not a crime. But it is no less an affront to the progressive or utopian revolutionary desire for the restoration of a lost social order, one that would heroically or salvifically put an end to the ostentatious expenditures of capital. For it is not an extant community to which one belongs or from which one receives one’s meaning that is invoked by Bataille; he privileges no nation, religion, or ethnicity. Rather, what is most exceptional in this thinking of community resists conceptualization as positive appropriation, and it is this that leads [Jean-Luc] Nancy to speak in terms of ‘‘inoperativity” and Blanchot to intimate the “unavowable,” even where these formulations falter or say too much. As these determinations attest in all their care and difficulty, Bataille’s obsession with community is an attraction to what the concept of ‘community’ has never been able to grasp. [18]

COUM were active participants in various cultural spheres—the art world, the theatre world, their local communities. Their mail art practices brought them to the attention of many diverse, global communities. The group’s performative practices were also not unique by the standards of 1970s performance art. Some of performance art’s most controversial pieces had their premiere performances during this decade—Chris Burden’s Shoot (1974), Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 10 (1973), Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972) and Joseph Bueys’ I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) to name but a few of the most well-known examples, and COUM were particularly influenced by the Viennese Actionists—but all these connections and associations still fail to grasp what it meant to be COUM; to be a part of their coummunity.

Many of the actions mentioned above, each controversial in their own way, nevertheless took place within the relative confines of the art world. To reduce COUM to any particular sphere of influence, particularly one focused on cultural production (transgressive or otherwise), is to do them a disservice. Their boundless infidelity is perhaps what made them so unpopular with the more explicitly defined institutions of the art world and the state. By encouraging a cross-pollination between communities, COUM became gatekeepers of various social ruptures, making them the focus of various socio-political frustrations—the group maintain that they left Hull for London due to a sustained campaign of harassment by the police who took issue not only with their practices but also their associations. The tensions that these associations reveal, though, help to illustrate a principle of insufficiency central to Bataille’s conception of community. Bataille writes in his essay The Labyrinth:

At the basis of human life there exists a principle of insufficiency. In isolation, each man sees the majority of others as incapable or unworthy of “being.” […] The sufficiency of each being is endlessly contested by every other. Even the look that expresses love and admiration comes to me as a doubt concerning my reality. A burst of laughter or expression of repugnance greets each gesture, each sentence or each oversight through which my profound insufficiency is betrayed—just as sobs would be the response to my sudden death, to a total and irremediable omission. [19]

Whilst life is painted as an experience of incessant turmoil and conflict, human life without communication would be the very denial of human nature. Expanding on this principle of insufficiency, Blanchot writes:

A being, insufficient as it is, does not attempt to associate itself with another being to make up a substance of integrity. The awareness of insufficiency arises from the fact that it puts itself in question, which question needs the other or another to be enacted. Left on its own, a being closes itself, falls asleep and calms down. [20]

COUM’s lack of structural integrity is one of their defining (as well as undefinable) characteristics. A “being” in this sense can perhaps be extended to any attempt at a formal totalisation, its theatrical insufficiency echoing the Antonin Artaud and his “body without organs” famously invoked by Deleuze and Guattari. There is an insufficiency to all beings—whether that be the human being or the body politic. Whilst Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti alone enacted some of the group’s most violent performances, the enduring porosity of the group becomes a questioning of itself that demands an equal questioning of the integrity of the groups they come into contact with. They always were and remain an incomplete body enacting instances of incomplete communication at all scales, creating ruptures within language as well as larger social structures.

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In one notebook from the exhibition, art becomes an acronym—the “Ability to Receive and Transmit”. To abbreviate their name to COUM is not to forget the importance of the word “Transmissions”. Transmission, in this sense, is an almost medical contamination between selfhoods; ipseities. Paul Mann, in his essay on Bataille, writes:

One must experience one’s ipseity autoaggressively through the other, indeed through one’s aggression toward the other. Communication is precisely the contest, the confrontation of ipseities. Writing is thus communication in two senses: a proper sign of the individual’s meaningless ipseity, discovering itself by throwing itself against another; and a fatal breach of the organism’s integrity, expressing and expending itself. [21]

Mann’s use of the word “autoaggressive” suggests a behavioral equivalent of “autoimmune”—a word that generally refers to a disease “caused by antibodies … produced against substances naturally present in the body”—echoing Cosey’s previously quoted statement that COUM wish to give “to people what they already have, but that which has been buried by years of varying human ideals and standards.” But these transmissions are nonetheless folded within COUM’s way of being. Art may very well be the ability to receive and transmit but the boundaries of art in itself for COUM remain undefined, much like coummunication; coummunity; life itself. For Bataille also

communication does not name […] a transmission passed between the two poles of sender and recipient, each of which would precede the communication. Rather, “existence is communication” as it finds itself overstepping its own bounds, itself, reaching toward the other: “everything in me gives itself to others!” [22]

It is not hard to see, then, how coummunication was diagnosed as the transmission of a social disease that threatened to wreck civilisation. Whilst the desire to communicate may be an inherently ethical desire, it is left open to the possibility that it may be rejected by the receiving body. Sometimes communications break down, making explicit the act’s complicity with evil—“Communication in the most fundamental sense is […] an expropriation of the self without the security or certainty or regularity of knowledge.” [23]

Mann continues:

Writing is the impossible communication of the impossible. What Bataille wants to communicate is an infectious and a fatal disease. He sought a writing, a pensée [thought], that would be the very dépense [expenditure] it described. […] But can dépense be communicated? Can it be given in a text, or is the text never more than a substitute, a surrogate, a parody of a convulsive experience it can never finally comprehend? Has Bataille’s writing sacrificed itself, expelled itself through its pineal eye, burned itself up in its own glorious sunlight? Has it communicated its death as death? […] Do his readers become the community he envisioned by witnessing his sacrifice and being present at his second death, his philosophical death, or do they reassemble his body for another use, return his gift to the restrictive economy, and hence ruin everything sacred about him? [24]

Here, Mann’s essay reads like an exquisite corpse in itself. This paragraph in particular is a collage of Bataillean terms spanning the breadth of his oeuvre. It demonstrates well how Bataille’s work remains slippery and cumbersome to handle. Mann’s text is so dense here that it is hard to say whether it ruins Bataille or not. Mann suggests that “Bataille critics tend at a certain point to become self-critics of their appropriation of Bataille.” [25] Discourse surrounding COUM seems to have no similar self-awareness but Simon Ford’s history of COUM is precisely a reassemblage that ruins everything “sacred” about the group. Did the Humber Street exhibition, by presenting a series of openings; of letters and their replies; fragments of wider, longer conversations, allow for the sacred to once again contaminate their project? Is it possible to write on COUM, here, now, on this blog, without ruining their project? Are such questions worth pursuing in this style?

Let’s see.

Part 2 →

[1] Simon Ford. Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle. (London: Black Dog Publishing, 1999), pg. 6.4

[2] To this day, the ICA still charges a one-day “membership fee” on entry to its exhibitions. At the time of the Prostitution exhibition, this meant the gallery could operate under the laws of a “private members’ club”, allowing more freedom with regards to the work it could display.

[3] Cosey Fanni Tutti. Art Sex Music. (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), pg. 206

[4] Georges Bataille. On Nietzsche, trans. Stuart Kendall. (New York: SUNY Press), pg. 32

[5] Ibid., pg. 33

[6] See: Emmanuel Levinas. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. 2 ed. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1979); Emmanuel Levinas. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985)

[7]  Cosey Fanni Tutti. For Sydney Biennial Catalogue—STATEMENT by COSEY FANNI TUTTI for COUM TRANSMISSION. Exhibited at “COUM Transmissions”. Humber Street Gallery, Kingston-Upon-Hull. Curated by Cosey Fanni Tutti and Cabinet Gallery, London. Letter dated September 1978.

[8] Georges Bataille. Inner Experience, trans. Stuart Kendall. (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), pg. 113

[9] Quoted at length in “Response to Jean-Paul Sartre (Defense of Inner Experience)” in Georges Bataile. On Nietzsche, trans. Stuart Kendall. (New York: SUNY Press), pgs. 173-180

[10] Georges Bataile. On Nietzsche, trans. Stuart Kendall. (New York: SUNY Press), pg. 177

[11] Stuart Kendall. “Translator’s Introduction” in Georges Bataille. On Nietzsche. (New York: SUNY Press), pg. xvii

[12] “Editor’s Preface” in The Obsessions of Georges Bataille: Community and Communication, ed. Andrew J Mitchell and Jason Kemp Winfree. (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), pg. x

[13] Paul Mann. “The Exquisite Corpse of Georges Bataille”. Masocriticism. (New York: SUNY Press, 1999), pgs. 51-70

[14] Jason Kemp Winfree. “The Contestation of Community” in The Obsessions of Georges Bataille, ed. Andrew J Mitchell and Jason Kemp Winfree. (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), pg. 32

[15] Maurice Blanchot. The Unavowable Community. (New York: Station Hill Press, 1988), pg. 4

[16] Not only Throbbing Gristle but also Psychic TV, Chris & Cosey, Carter Tutti, Carter Tutti Void, CTI, Coil, X-TG and a myriad of other collaborations and projects, some of which are (to varying degrees) still active today.

[17] Simon Ford. Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle. (London: Black Dog Publishing, 1999), pg. 3.7

[18] Andrew J Mitchell and Jason Kemp Winfree. “Editor’s Introduction: Communication and Community” in The Obsessions of Georges Bataille: Community and Communication. (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), pg. 1

[19] Georges Bataille. “The Labyrinth” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pg. 172

[20] Maurice Blanchot. The Unavowable Community, trans. Pierre Joris. (New York: Station Hill Press, 1988), pg. 5

[21] Paul Mann. “The Exquisite Corpse of Georges Bataille.” Masocriticism. (New York: SUNY Press), pg. 59

[22] Andrew J Mitchell and Jason Kemp Winfree. “Editor’s Introduction: Communication and Community” in The Obsessions of Georges Bataille: Community and Communication. (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), pg. 9

[23] Ibid.

[24] Paul Mann. “The Exquisite Corpse of Georges Bataille.” Masocriticism. (New York: SUNY Press, 1999), pg. 60

[25] Ibid., pg. 63


  1. Cosey has an exhibition on atm at Cabinet in Vauxhall … Closes on the 3rd … Her film Harmonic COUMaction is amazing – beautifully and eerily crafted.

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