On Possession and Being Possessed: Writing About Tourette’s Syndrome


To write about Tourette’s Syndrome invokes two things for me: the deep ocean and the devil. The anthropologist Stefan Helmreich writes that, “because of sound’s seemingly instantaneous arrival, underwater sound is perceived by the untrained ear as emanating from within one’s own body.” [1] What is believed to be the earliest documented account of Tourette culminates in exorcism. Let’s say there’s a demon. I know it’s indivisible from me, but also irreducible to me, like my body, an aspect or iteration of me that may or may not also be me. This is what motivates my poetics: an obsession with self-interception and its inevitable excesses.

“To ‘sound’ something,” Helmreich writes, “is to seek to ascertain its depth, as for example, when oceanographers sound to find the ocean floor.” [2] It is to find a limit, “the point at which an identity uncouples from itself and shades or snaps into something else.” [3] The tic marks a limit where my body sounds most dissonant from me. But I’ve found that limit, the many flavors of its expression. I find it over and over, in my nose and throat, sometimes in my forearms or right ass cheek and in my neck for many years. I do not exist without constantly sounding myself. To write this, I must noise into it, siting the limit as a condition of interference.

These poems interfere with the form of the case study. A case can suggest an exterior or receptacle, as well as a peculiarity so marked it becomes exemplary: the former something that holds (from capere, “to take, to hold”), the latter something to be held (from cadere, “to fall, sink, settle down, decline, perish”). A case study functions as a reference. It is evidence of a phenomenon to be explained. By studying this example, something is to be gained: an understanding, a story, a status. Instead of gain, I’m interested in intensity, in what Michel Serres calls “the Demon, prosopopoeia of noise,” [4] whether that demon is understood as literal (as in “An Account…”) or figurative (as in the etiologies in this and other “Case” poems). 

The case is something possessed. Jean-Martin Charcot, who directed the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris in the late nineteenth century, suggested that the maladie des tics be named after his mentee, Gilles de la Tourette. The case comes to be possessed by the names attributed to it. This syndrome, expressed as a possessive—Tourette’s Syndrome—comes to be possessed by its namesake. Madame de D. possesses little more than an abbreviated name or pseudonym. She is possessed by “convulsive contractions” in a flurry of adjectives and, at the same time, “a lack” that manifests as an excess.

The poems noise in different forms. “Case I” and the other poems in that series work with erasure and remix. In the poem, the words shift from their original positions: if I were a sculptor, these poems would be enzymatic, each word or phrase a point that folds into contact with another. Latent in the case of the case study is this mutated counter-text, not to mention all the others there could have been (and still could be).

“An Account…” turns more towards textual superimposition. The graphic cramping strains legibility, such that language approximates a sort of visual noise (when I read this poem, I read the italicized text over a recording of the non-italicized text, so this could also be called a polyphony). The use of all-caps is a nod to the music of Lingua Ignota, specifically the song “O Ruthless Great Divine Director” with respect to the cadence of that text. Retrospectively, I also see a sort of translation that is “possessed by demonism…neither pious nor commemorative,” [5] to quote Haroldo de Campos. “Satan’s semiological sin,” he writes, is “the trespassing of the signical limits.” [6] Maybe this is being too excessive to be meaningful, a matter of compromised legibility. Or maybe having a foot over the thresholds of legibility is meaning in excess, a meaning excessively.

Douglas Kearney says he often makes his “poems to make a way through what I often perceive as mess.” [7] I make my poems because a case is a mess obfuscating its messiness. I want mess as much as I wish I didn’t. And this wish is something worth messing with, noising into.


[1] Stefan Helmreich. “An Anthropologist Underwater: Immersive Soundscapes, Submarine Cyborgs, and Transductive Ethnography,” American Ethnology 34, no. 4 (November 2007): 624.

[2] Helmreich, Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), x.

[3] Helmreich, Sounding the Limits of Life, 16.

[4] Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 56.

[5] Haroldo de Campos, Deus e o diabo no Fausto de Goethe [God and the Devil in Goethe’s Faust] (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1981): 209. My translation.

[6] Haroldo de Campos, “MEPHISTOFAUSTIAN TRANSLUCIFERATION (Contribution to the semiotics of poetic translation,” trans. Gabriela Suzanna Wilder and Haroldo de Campos, Disposito 7, no. 19-20 (1982): 182. 

[7] Douglas Kearney, Mess and Mess and (Blacksburg: Noemi Press, 2015), 29.

Works Cited

Haroldo de Campos. “Transluciferação Mefistofáustica.” In Deus e o Diabo no Fausto de Goethe, 179-209. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1981.
———“MEPHISTOFAUSTIAN TRANSLUCIFERATION (Contribution to the semiotics of poetic translation).” Translated by Gabriela Suzanna Wilder and Haroldo de Campos. Disposito 7, no. 19/21: 181-187. 1982. https://libproxy.berkeley.edu/login?qurl=https://www.jstor.org/stable/41491236.

Stefan Helmreich “An Anthropologist Underwater: Immersive Soundscapes, Submarine Cyborgs, and Transductive Ethnography.” American Ethnologist 34, no. 4: 621-641. 2007. https://doi.org/10.1525/ae.2007.34.4.621.
———Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Douglas Kearney. Mess and mess and. Blacksburg: Noemi Press, 2015.

Michel Serres. The Parasite. Translated by Lawrence R. Schehr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2007

Justin Greene is a poet, editor, and translator currently based in Berkeley, California. His poetry can be found in DIAGRAM, Zoeglossia, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere, and his critical work and translations appear or are forthcoming in Anthropology News and Revista Rosa. He studies the publication, editing, and translation of leftist magazines in São Paulo, Brazil.