Kaligraphy / Dan Mellamphy

‘A great deal has been written on the subject of serial killers,
[whereas] very little has been written alongside them,
approaching them as they approach us:
without recourse to any of the usual courtesies or mercies, taking what they want,
leaving behind new signatures in what remains’.

‘Do you know how to use that weapon?
That weapon will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it,
and your poetry will now be written with blood’.

This essay was written over the month of December in India, where I travelled for the final funeral-rites of my father-in-law, whose ashes were brought to the triveni sangam of the Ganges, Yamuna, and invisible/mythic Sarasvati. The bulk of it was written on a rooftop in Tollygunge, South Kolkata, in the absence of reference-books and a good internet-connection, under the all-seeing/gora-burning eye of Surya. It was written in the spirit not only of Mata Kali—patroness of Kolkata—but of the philosopher Georges Bataille, whose intellectual biography was written by another Surya and who contributed the entries on Kali, Metamorphosis, Materialism, Misfortune, Formlessness and Slaughterhouses (to name a few) for the journal Documents. My initial proposal (proposed to our excellent editors Edia Connole and Gary Shipley) was to write a piece on serial self-portrayal—online and off—as serial self-betrayal, and on ongoing individuation as multiple murder. The opening paragraph for that vision and version of my contribution had been written the day before my departure on the first of December:

As one tweets, as one posts, as one reifies one’s interpellated identity, one creates a garland of skulls and calls-forth a veritable Kali. The former is an opening-upof oneself to the outside, a kind of prostitution—one which would approach,at its limit, the condition of Madame Edwarda.  

The key concept of the work as it had thus been conceived was to have been a pun on the word ‘portraiture’: namely that of a ‘portraitueur’, of the portrait as a ‘tueur’ or killer. Portrayal, in other words, was going to be read as a betrayal unto death. The present paper is a tad less specific—less specific to portraits—and perhaps much more graphic, strange as that maybe to say. It is concerned with that great matador Mata Kali,and with her particular form (and/or formlessness) of writing, which could be called, after Michel Leiris, la littérature considérée comme une tauromachie, and which I call—in a mightily minotauromachian (that is to say, demonstrably monstrous) fashion—kaligraphy. The black-haired-world-destroyer Kali writes, if I may use such an expression, in a manner akin to the one expressed by Nobody in the white-haired film-director Jarmusch’s Dead Man (a passage that serves as this essay’s second epigraph): her poetry is a poetry written with blood.

Kaligraphy follows no script: it is written not in a straightforward series of statements or sentences, but rather in and as the antithesis of such serial scripting[s]. The serial, as such, finds itself slaughtered—cleaved, cut, chopped, pierced,punctured and perforated—by this severe and severing (what’s more, wholely hol[e]y: sacred, sacrificial) scrawl. Here we have a literal serial killing, killing the serial, breaking any and every arrangement in series, all regular succession[s]. These are murderous words, thudding thug-like into and onto the world, wreaking havoc by dint of being the occasion of and for the in[tro]duction of oblique tangents, occluded slipstreams and occult ‘glissements’ ‘beyond the conventional, […] break[ing] away from approved social norms, roles and expectations’. Why would one wish to write—nevermind read—such a ‘marginal, polluting and socially subversive’ text? (a text that is utterly ‘frightening, dangerous and loathesome’?) … Its ‘strong association with death, violence, pollution and despised marginal social roles […] call[s] into question such normative goods as worldly comfort, securityrespect and honor’, explains David Kinsley, former Chair of Religious Studies at McMaster University and a scholar whose multiple studies of Kali and the Mahavidyas will be the dominant research-resource throughout this essay. Who would wish to identify with, let alone ‘to actually become (in the logic of Tantra)’, anacolyte of such abjection? The sadhu, that’s who. The sadhu or sadhaka, suggests Kinsley, is one who ‘in some fashion finds marginality, social taboos, and the forbidden in general, spiritually refreshing or liberating’.

By subverting, mocking, or rejecting conventional norms and opening onto the realm of the forbidden (the realm of ‘forbidden things’), kaligraphy—the inscription/incarnation of Kali, goddess of destruction— ‘stretch[es] one’s consciousness beyond the conventional [and socially sanctioned]’, thereby ‘liberat[ing] [it] from the inherited, imposed, and probably inhibiting categories of proper and improper, good and bad, polluted and pure’.

The point of kaligraphy is the point, one might say: the puncturing punctum that cuts into the context qua con-job of culture, revealing the kha of khaos—that gushing gap, oozing orifice,or terribly terrific tear in the fabric of phemomena (phenomenal fabrications) which wounds the world ‘as we know it’. Stable forms find themselves fissured, fractured, fragmented, and (via this ‘fragmentation’, ‘fracturing’ or ‘fission’) formidably fluid, bleeding beyond their beseeming boundaries. The perversion of puns might be one possible and particularly appropriate example of such disastrous discursivity or cagastrous cursivity—‘particularly appropriate’, at present, because of the title of this text: this essay on so-called ‘kaligraphy’ (a pun/portmanteau conjoining Kali and caligraphy). The pun is itself a punctum allowing the word[s] it punctures to bleed-out different meanings in the manner of Derridean deconstruction, the linguistic labyrinths of Leiris, and the ‘Library of Babel’ via Jorge-Luis Borges. The punctum, writes Barthes, ‘will break (or punctuate) the studium’i.e. any stable subject of study (…‘I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness’ and the punctum then punctures it—it ‘rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me’):

A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick,this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctua-tion, and because the [studies] of which I am speaking are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled, with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds, are so many points. This […] element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also ‘sting’, ‘speck’, ‘cut’, ‘little hole’—and also ‘a cast of the dice’. A punctum is that accident which pricks me—but also bruises me, is poignant to me.

‘The punctum shows no preference for morality or good taste: the punctum can be ill-bred’, writes Barthes. The punctum, indeed, brings about utter illness, ill-beingsickness unto death, beyond bruises and poignant puncture-marks. And as Kinsley suggests (in the context of what is here called kaligraphy), ‘the first step in man’s spiritual quest’—at least according to the sadhu or sadhaka (acolyte, devotee) of Kali—‘is meditation on this point’: the method of meditation outlined by Bataille, which the latter calls joy before death. ‘Sickness, old age and death are the very texture’—the written text—‘of life, and to think otherwise is to remain hopelessly deluded’: ‘the first step in [the sadhu’s or sadhaka’s] spiritual quest is meditation on this point’. Language considered as a [mino]tauromachia—hearkening here, again, to Leiris—and as the play of paronomasia (puncturing puns), murders the murs-durs (solid structures, stable sidings) of world-weaving words, bringing multiple/myriad meanings down to a level playing-field (‘levelling’ them in the sense of ‘toppling them over’, ‘overturning them’ and/or ‘overthrowing them’: ‘mowing them down’, ‘casting them down’, ‘breaking them down’, et cetera). This ‘level playing-field’ is for our present purposes the Kalikkhetro or ‘field of Kali’: the vast wasteland/cremation-ground where Kali lives in the midst of death and dissolution (‘the cremation-ground [being] the place where the five elements—the pancha mahabhuta—are dissolved’ and where one finds a similar dissolution ‘of attachments, anger, lust, and other binding emotions, feelings or ideas’; ‘the devotee makes her image in his heart and under her influence burns away all limitations and ignorance in thecremation fires’). ‘Although she has an impressive mythology centering on the battlefield—itself a field of death—it is well known that Kali prefers above any other place the cremation-ground’, Kinsley explains.

Kali denotes freedom, particularly freedom from societal norms: she dwells outside the confines of normal society [and hence] prefers the cremation-ground, which is the place avoided by those who live within society. Her loose hair and nudity suggest that she is totally unrestrained, totally free from social and ethical roles or expectations; in the same vein, she is an outsider, beyond convention. She is worshipped by criminals and outcastes. She is unrefined, raw in appearance and habit. And she is powerful, full of energy, perhaps because of being an outsider, a breaker of boundaries and social models.


Just as the pun sets fire to—and/or ‘fires upon’—a given word, revealing in this ignition dimensions otherwise invisible/illisible, so Kali stands upon a supine figure (‘often discernible as Shiva but sometimes said to be an anonymous corpse’) which is itself ‘being consumed in a cremation fire’. ‘The figure she stands upon is often said to be either a corpse or a preta (ghost)and is often shown being cremated’. She herself, of course, ‘haunt[s the] cremation-grounds’ also, but as the creator-destroyer of ghostly apparitions (‘identified with the actual fires of cremation and thus […] the final destructive but purifying force that marks the transition from life to death or from one type of existence to another’). Setting fire to—and/or upon—existents, Kali reveals the existence beyond it, in all its paradoxical confliction, conflagration, contradiction, embracing both its aporia and its porosity: its absolute and absolutely aggressive ambiguity. ‘Ferocious and terrible to behold, the dweller in the cremation-ground, it is Kali who reveals—or is—the world process, the entire creation in all its ambiguity’.

The image of Kali in the cremation-ground […]
fastens one’s attention on those aspects of life
that cannot be avoided and must eventually result in
pain, sorrow and lamentation. As illustrative of maya
[i.e. illusion, delusion, phenomenological perception]
and as the embodiment of uncaring, pulsing prakriti
[i.e. phusis, physics, the force of nature], Kali
forces our attention upon those aspects of life
that cannot be kept at bay or successfully repressed.
She is the mythological embodiment of those three
‘passing sights’ that provoked the Buddha himself
to abandon the world in search of enlightenment—
those same sights that are presupposed in his
‘first noble truth’: sickness, old age, and death.

Kali pokes holes in—and ultimately destroys—our illusions, our delusions, ourego-centric ideas qua ideals of order. ‘Meditation upon Kali as an image of this world calls into question the stability, order, and destiny of the phenomenal world’: ‘she maybe voluptuous and smiling in her later representations, suggesting the dark allure of the world based on not-knowing, but her overall presence—which is frightening— along with her dwelling-place in the cremation-ground clearly mock the ultimate significance of a world grounded in the ego [and ego-structures]’ (‘to ignore death, to pretend that one is physically immortal, to pretend that one’s ego is the center of things, is to provoke Kali’s mocking laughter. To confront or accept death, on the contrary, is to realize a mode of being that can delight and revel in the play of the gods. To accept one’s mortality is to be able to act superfluously, to let go, to be able to sing, dance, and shout’). Hers is the world—or rather, are the worlds—of nobody, of nescioquiddity, and like ‘Nobody’ in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, she knows (and reveals) that the only real poetry is a poetry ‘written with blood’. This is why ‘she is pre-eminently the goddess who is served with blood, who is pleased with blood, who subsists on blood’: ‘her force and power reside in the hot, pumping blood of all creatures—she is reinvigorated when the blood of birth is returned to her in the blood of death; she sustains life and is herself sustained by the giving-back of life’.

Her lolling tongue, her blood-smeared lips and body,
and her bloodied cleaver represent the irreducible truth
that life sustains itself on life, that the throb of life—
the pulsing beat of rushing blood, the insistent flow
of sap—demands an unending stream of life-energy
to go on, that death and decay form the only fertile
ground for the hungry pulse of life. Kali represents
the unrefined, raw, primordial scream of the hungry
infant, while at the same time representing the anguished
laments of the dying who have exhausted themselves
in nourishing and sustaining the next generation. […]
The conclusion to be drawn from the voluptuous
‘wet’ nature of Kali is that the Hindu vision of the divine
is grounded in the irreducible reality of life—in the reality
of sex, birth, growth, decay and death

Hers are the puncta rather than the singular punctum of illusion, delusion, ideas and ideals: hence the multiplicity of severed human hands that form a girdle round her otherwise naked body, the multiple severed heads worn as a garland round her neck, in addition to the ‘freshly-cut human head’ she holds in her left hand and the two others that dangle from her ears as earring adornments. These multiple murders, evidenced by the bloody bejewelling of her body—her girdle, her garland, her earrings, et cetera—‘are in effect punctuat[ions], […] even speckle[s]’ (looking back to Barthes), but in no actual order (‘serial’ or otherwise), even if some suggest that the number of heads hanging round Kali’s neck might be the same as the letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. What we have here is a poubellication (looking back now to Lacan): the presentation qua publication of refuse, remnants, remainders in and on the field qua form of Kali—which brings us (via the remainder, the remains) back to the first of this essay’s two epigraphs, and to the idea expressed in it that we should approach Kali as she would approach us: ‘without recourse to any of the usual courtesies or mercies, taking what [she] want[s],[and] leaving behind new signatures in what remains’.65 Kali appears in various ways, in various forms, and even with various names—indeed, as one of the ten Mahavidyas (perhaps even ‘the primordial or primary Mahavidya, the adi-Mahavidya’), she can appear in and as the multiple forms of Kali, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Bhuvaneshvari, Tripurasundari, Tara, Chinnamasta, Kamala or Matangi. As Kinsley states in his study of theten Mahavidyas, ‘in some cases it seems apparent that the other Mahavidyas originate from Kali or are her differing forms’. For the sake of highlighting the multiple puncta of our Mahavidya—and exploring in so doing the pun-like puncturings of so-called kaligraphy—I would like to compare Kali the beheader with the beheaded beheader Chinnamasta: the Mahavidya who literally loses (that is, lops off) her head.

Here is the Dhyana mantra of Chinnamasta from the Shakta Pramoda (c. 950CE), wherein the key features of the goddess—how she is [kali]graphically presented—are described:

She stands in an aggressive manner with her leg put forward.
She is holding her own severed head in one hand and a sword
in the other. She is naked and happily drinks the blood that
gushes from her headless body. She has three eyes and is
adorned with a blue lotus at her heart. One should meditate
on Chinnamasta, who has the complexion of a red hibiscus
flower. She stands on Kama and Rati, who are joined in
sexual intercourse. To her right is Varini, who is possessed
by rajas guna, who is white in color, with loose hair, and who
holds a sword and a skull-cup. She happily drinks the blood gushing
from the devi’s severed neck. On her left is Dakini,
who also drinks blood flowing from Chinnamasta’s headless
body. She is possessed by tamas guna and enjoys the world
in its state of dissolution.

In hisstudy of Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition, Kinsley describes her as follows: ‘Chinnamasta stands in a cremation-ground on the copulating bodies of Kama and Rati (sometimes Radha and Krsna), the god of sexual lust and his wife. She has decapitated herself with a sword, which she holds in one hand. In her other hand she holds a platter bearing her severed head. Three jets of blood spurt from her neck and stream into the mouths of two female attendants and into the mouth of her own severed head’. Like Kali, she is adorned with a garland of skulls or severed heads, but in her case the ‘freshly-cut human head’ she holds in her left hand is not in fact human but rather her own; from this—her own severed head, which looks rather blissful—she drinks one of the three streams of blood that erupt from her neck, the other two spurting into the mouths of heracolytes. Rather than standing on the corpse of Shiva (revealing herself as a revelation over and above—i.e. beyond the bounds of—Shaivist asceticism, Shiva’s mahayoga), Chinnamasta stands upon the copulating Kama and Rati, who lie on a great lotus-flower that somehow has blossomed in and on the cremation-ground (the former Mahavidya there byrevealing herself as a revelation over and above—i.e. beyond the bounds of—sexual reproduction, generation after generation). ‘Chinnamasta is probably the most dramatic, stunning representation in the Hindu pantheon of the truth that life, sex and death are part of an interdependent,unified system’ as chaotic as it is ordered (or perhaps, indeed, ‘ordered’ by ‘chaos’). ‘The stark contrasts and reversals of what one would normally expect to see in this iconographic scenario—the gruesome decapitation, the copulating couple, the cremation-ground—jolt the viewer into an awareness of the truth that life feeds on death, is nourished by death, necessitates death, and that the ultimate destiny of sex is to perpetuate more life, which in turn will decay and die in order to feed more life’.

Chinnamasta punctures the world as does Kali—kaligraphy—but she does so first and foremost by self-decapitation, i.e. being headless. She is the Acephalic Kali (Kali Acéphale): to pilfer a passage from Bataille’s contribution to Acéphale #1 (June 1936), she ‘has escaped from h[er] head just as the condemned man has escaped from his prison’, ‘loose[d] from the prison-house [along with] the souls of a million lunatics’. A particularly perverse pun that literally and literarily ‘pricks me’ at this point is that of a Mahavidyan Chinnamasturbation: in this case an MC that winds up (‘in the roaring whirling wind’) ‘giving head’ not in a sexual but in an utterly scissiparous way, a way wherein what is ‘written’ is written through the wounding—indeed the complete cleaving—of the ‘writer’, wherein what is ‘written’ flows from this cutting and cleaving with copiousness, conjoining in so doing (in such flowing, in this flowering) the characteristics of copulation and of decapitation (not to mention ‘giving head’ and ‘being headless’) while moving beyond the bounds of both. Thus kaligraphic ‘writing and copulation are bound up with a problematic of traces that Bataille generally introduces through the counterexample of […]scissiparity’, explains Denis Hollier in his study Against Architecture: On the Writings of Georges Bataille (La prise de la Concorde: Essais sur Georges Bataille); ‘the phenomenon of scissiparity thus would realize the unity of eroticism and death if, precisely, the fact that sex does not intervene in the process did not make it impossible to speak of eroticism’. Kaligraphy is in this sense an erotischism: the presence in any given reproduction, in a given representation—representation,form[ul]ation, fornication/coming-into-being—of the latter’s division, dismemberment and dissolution, or as Hollier puts it, ‘the presence in sexual reproduction (insofar as it produces traces) of its other, scissiparity (insofar as it implies an absence or, here, the obliteration of the trace)’. 

Chinnamasta exemplifies kaligraphy’s ‘autre cap’ (stealing this phrase from Jacques Derrida), its living/breathing caput mortuum. She shows, perhaps more than any of the other Mahavidyas, the [w]hole complex of kaligraphy as such: its grotesque perversion, its grotesque vision, emerging out from an absent cranium like Bataille’s jésuve qua œil pinéale …

‘Grotesque’, of course, in the sense of ‘holey’—wholly speckled and shot-through with holes, gratuitously ‘grotto’ed. Puns, come to think of it (lorsque que je viens d’y penser qua pun-say), are linguistic grotesqueries—etymological transgressions, perversions, subversions—as well: they make holes in and through language[s], puncta (using Barthes’s term; or the ‘holes’ of Beckettian logoclasts) from the wounds of which terrible visions, versions and perversions of given statements/states-of-being bleed-forth. Puns puncture, in other words: they wound the world of words, and their ‘work’ works as a kind of blood-letting, a veritable kaligraphy. Puns open up and open onto other directions, other captions (l’autre cap): they decapitate, that is cut off, supposed/purported headings and allow words—words-work[s], the world[s]of words—to lead [/bleed] elsewhere; they slice through any given, posed, proposed set or series of straightforward statements, and are thus a kind of serial-killing in that they laughingly slaughter any set series (and ‘the serial’ as such).



More and more, my language appears to me
like a veil which one has to tear apart
in order to get at those things
(or the nothingness) lying behind it. […]
On the road toward this literature of the non-word, […]
Let’s do as that crazy mathematician who used to apply
a new principle of measurement at each individual step
of the calculation. Word-storming in the name of beauty.
As we cannot eliminate language all at once,
we should at least leave nothing undone
that might contribute to its falling into
disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it,
until what lurks behind it (be it something or nothing)
begins to seep through; I cannot imagine
a higher goal for a writer today.
I am starting a Logoclasts’s League.
I am the only member at present.
The idea is ruptured writing,
so that the void may protrude
like a hernia.

Dan Mellamphy is a lecturer in literature, interdisciplinary theory  and media studies at Western University, co-founder and co-director  of the EGG Electro-Governance Group (egg.uwo.ca), founding director of the Centre for Peripheral Theory (42°58’47.8″n 81°15’25.6″w),  advisory-board member at the Center for Transformative Media (Parsons: The New School for Design), editor of The Digital Dionysus: Nietzsche & the Network-Centric Condition (New York: Punctum Books, 2016) and author of numerous odd-and-sundry publications (works.bepress.com/mellamphy). 

“Kaligraphy” was originally published in Serial Killing: A Philosophical Anthology—eds. Edia Connole &
Gary Shipley (New York: Schism Press, 2015) pp.130-145.


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