Jack the Ripper, Performance, Participation, Fans and Trolls

During the autumn of 1888, the period of the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel, London, an ephemeral canon of “Ripper letters” was established, notably the so-called “Dear Boss” letter delivered on September 27th, the “Saucy Jacky” postcard of October 1st that inspired Spinal Tap’s vaudeville music hall period, and the “From Hell” letter with its peripheral matchbox-worth of kidney delivered on October 16th, as mopped up by graphic novelist Alan Moore. These are relatively well-known. Yet, perhaps more interesting are the hundreds of other letters, certainly fakes, forgeries, and hoaxes, purporting to be from Jack the Ripper, evidence of a concerted participatory culture of scrawlers inserting themselves into the case, interfering with an already bewildered constabulary, and entering into the persona of the Ripper himself. Many of these were tabloid fabrications, Victorian click-bait, hysterical epistles from Fleet Street hacks, but many of them came from a quasi-literate underground of fanatics and fantasists.

The other canonical inscription of the Ripper autumn is the ghoulish graffito left at Goulston Street, recorded in several differing police accounts, but alluding to London’s Jewish community that, variously, would or would not “blamed for nothing.” Graffiti are important here, as ejaculatory exclamations, in their ‘territorial pissing’ aspect, when they are simply a tag, a spray of identity and presence (or, truly absence, because the graffiti artist is never ‘there’). This is what separates graffiti from murals. It’s no accident that certain types of inscription, pornographic, violent, identifications, belong so predominantly to pubescent males who are alienated and intimidated by their environment and seek to reassert themselves in such phallic action. Jack the Ripper was an inhabitable fantasy, a cipher through whom ‘ordinary’ Londoners could participate in sexual violence and perversions of justice, encouraged by the newspapers. Certainly, hundreds of writers sought and exploited this kind of anonymous notoriety; a private masturbatory fame, depending on secrecy, sharing sordid notes. In contemporary terms, this is called trolling.

When I was a teenager, we shared school books, paperbacks of Shakespeare’s plays, and the various texts of the literary canon. Invariably, these would have been defaced by a previous student: a giant biro penis drawn across King Lear’s death, fuck written across an entire page of The Lord of the Flies, various obscenities, genital marginalia, racism, graffiti, and outbursts. The work of defacing was passed on, and gradually a kind of hysterical palimpsest of overwriting developed. This response truly belonged to adolescence, intuitions of inferiority, intimidation, and identity re-asserted through sexually violent inscription. The same is true for the City, all spatially or aesthetically dictatorial or forbidding forms that encourage relatively useless territorial pissing from their subjects. Classical civilization was no different. These are atavistic responses to monumental forms. Now, the largest of these monumental forms is the Internet.

sickert

The Camden Town Murder, painting by Walter Sickert

More than a decade ago, I properly and publically destroyed a paperback of Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed. I ripped her book to shreds at a reading in response to Cornwell’s acquisition and destruction of a number of paintings by Camden Town artist Walter Sickert. Cornwell damaged and destroyed Sickert’s paintings in her vain attempt to prove that the painter was the Ripper, a highly performative forensic search for Sickert’s DNA, to finger him as an author of Ripper correspondence, and to identify him as the killer. My destruction of her cheap paperback was minor, futile, in comparison to the defacing of one of our important modernist painters. Nevertheless, I am proud of the performance. Walter Sickert entered the frame of the Ripper murders two decades after the killings, through a quartet of melancholy post-impressionist narrative paintings, and studies, known collectively as the Camden Town Murder, referencing the murder of Emily Dimmock in 1907. From these, Cornwell and others have projected Sickert back into the earlier Whitechapel Ripper murders. One of the many flaws in Cornwell’s argument (developed from earlier theorizing about Sickert) is that his participation is not anonymous. To the extent that he enters into the participatory culture of comment and insinuation, he does so while identifying himself, not effacing nor erasing. So, a vital aspect of identification/impersonation is absent. The point of the more than six hundred Ripper letters is missed. Whatever the ambivalence of the paintings, Sickert was not trolling.

Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Deleuze and Guattari, and others have written about the inherent violence of inscription, of writing anything within the monumental structure of culture. Diego de Landa, Adolf Hitler, and Ray Bradbury provide the results of the same monumental structures turning against inscription deemed degenerate. Between these poles of writing as violence and violence committed against writing: taboo, a reasonable distaste for book-burning, the sanctity of written speech. Obviously, the Internet is the site for ejaculatory transgression, pornographic defacing, impersonation, anonymous violence done through and to writing, to text and hypertext. It is both Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Borges’ Library of Babel, but even in its high-technological interface, it is more primal than either. The Internet, further, amplifies the ambivalence of the written speech, of inscription, propaganda, fanaticism, and trolling. On the same spectrum as trolling, fan culture, fandom, the fanaticism that encourages participation and (ir)reverent territorial pissing, performance and (mis)identification also has in its lineage the Ripper letters. Much has been written, most of it vituperative and distant, about the results, the products, the qualities of both fandom and trolldom, but perhaps not enough about the drive to participate in the first place. I’m not writing about aesthetics, or morality.

It doesn’t take much reading of the Harry Potter fan fiction community, or any other, to discover analogous threads of identification, vicarious sexual violence, and iconoclasm, as well as adoration, homage and wish-fulfillment in what is referred to, without irony, as ‘slash’ fiction. Slash originally refers to the / used in the construction of sexual relationships created by fans that are not present in the source material, beginning with the Tom of Finland-esque ‘Kirk/Spock’ erotica that emerged from the postmodern context. ‘Slash’ also contains the violence of anonymous personification, slasher movies, Ripper letters… Today, this is a feature of Internet participatory culture – the inevitable construction of a twee Naked Lunch of pedophilia, rape (openly tagged as “Rape” “Non-Con(sensual)” “Underage”), of, say, Harry, Hermione, Malfoy, and Snape in sub-Sadean scenes of (b)anal sex… These are message boards of predation, both real and imagined. These transgressive fan fictions publish in parallel with more harmless, but still mostly anonymous entries into the fan canon. The primary interventions of the fan/troll spectrum are romantic and/or sexual, the adolescent consummation of unrequited or non-existent relationships, both naïve and abusive. Sometimes, these relationships exist within the source text, through bad writing and poorly conceived narrative relationships, like the incestuous relationship between Luke Skywalker and his sister in George Lucas’s first (ultra-structuralist) Star Wars films.

It is still the autumn of 1888. It is still earlier than 1888. There is nothing new about any of this. As we know, Classical culture and Mediterranean mythology contain as much lurid bestiality as a convention of Bronies, enough rapes to inspire a frat house… those fancy Greek names to hide behind… Are fandom and trolling forms of classicism, then? Yes, particularly as they relate to graffiti, monumental structures and the threat of impotence in their presence. Fandom’s creative expanse on the Internet is a response to franchises and copyright, and therefore to disenfranchisement and a desperate desire to inscribe absence at the ironic point of cultural-structural narrowness – Yes, the Internet algorithmically narrows experience. Anonymous participation in and détournement of epic franchises are responses dictated by laws governing both intellectual property and sex. The scale and relative lack of regulation of the Internet both preserves and encourages transgressive participation and (re)production, just as the relative inadequacy of the Metropolitan Police, the prurience of newspapers, and the lack of forensics did for the participants in the Ripper correspondence. One was safe to send a piece of kidney through the Royal Mail, and perhaps, to live vicariously in a serial slasher. Fans and trolls are engendered, repressed, encouraged and protected by the ironies of the structure. Through algorithms, that culture-structure presents a tighter straightjacket, the outbursts are perhaps more controlled. The “Dear Boss”, “Saucy Jacky”, and “From Hell” correspondences may not be authentic, but they might be more authentic performances.

James Reich is the author of Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2016); Bombshell; and I, Judas, (Soft Skull Press). He is chair of the Creative Writing and Literature department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.