The Poisonous Mushroom as Uncanny symbol of Queer Reclamation, 2016.



Scene: Two Queers, partners, a trans woman, Nicki Green (NG) and a cis man, BJ (BJ) stand in a turquoise kitchen and discuss The Uncanny[1] while cooking dinner together.[2] Allan deSouza (AdS) is the professor of the class for which the conversation was transcribed and later annotated. Allan edited the paper, and is therefore written into the the conversation using his edits and responded to in ways that intend to maintain the integrity of the original conversation.

NG: The thing that I'm thinking about is that The Uncanny is centered around the physical relationship with an object that might or might not be alive.

AdS: Can you expand on this?

NG: Sure. In The Uncanny, Freud talks about “favorable conditions for generating feelings of the uncanny if intellectual uncertainty is aroused as to whether something is animate or inanimate” (141) That uncertainty is what is evocative of this feeling. This is interesting but I’m not sure it’s what I'm making right now. In my studio, I'm making these big mushrooms that are a reference to a human body in their scale but are clearly not human in their appearance. What’s so exciting about fungi is that they’re more animal than plant, but I don't think that's common knowledge, that people don't actually know that.

BJ: But don't people see fungus as a separate thing? Like a mold?

NG: I think when people think of fungus, they think of a plant or bacteria and liken it to a plant, but people don't know that in the evolution of organisms, plants and animals diverged and fungus was yet another divergence from the animal kingdom and not the plant kingdom, so fungal tissue is more skin than it is plant cellulose.[3] Maybe people don't know that inherently, but mushrooms' inbetweenness is what's so uncanny for people, that kind of inability to place it.

BJ: But mushrooms themselves are uncanny?

NG: Well, I think people think mushrooms are abject. That their slimy, bodily secretion-qualities read as more abject than uncanny, but I guess I'm wondering if the uncanny qualities are related to its implacable form?

AdS: Why implacable?

NG: Their unrecognizability, how one is often unable to place fungi into the discerning categories of plant or animal.

BJ: Well, most people look at the world through the lens of capitalism and think of mushrooms as food, delicacies, and medicine or they look at them as poisonous and this fuels their revulsion of them.[4] Will you set a timer for the oven?

AdS: How is this through the lens of capitalism?

BJ: They are objects to be bought or sold, they enter multiple specialized markets and are really expensive.

NG: (sets oven timer) I guess the whole thing with Julius Streicher’s book The Poisonous Mushroom[5] is about its potential lethal quality, that it could kill you and that potential is threatening and that's the metaphor that's being used in the book, that a poisonous mushroom looks like any other mushroom and could creep up and kill you, and you don't know for sure, but it looks like an edible mushroom, it passes as an edible mushroom...

AdS: I’m interested in this point on passing; what are the different implications of someone trans “passing:” also could you talk about “passing by?” See Sara Ahmed on Fear. Chapter 3.[6]

NG: Passing is a really complicated concept in relation to transness because it’s born out of extreme violence to those who “look trans,” and so passing as cis literally becomes a matter of life or death.[7] This happens in Jewish communities too, though; Jews finding ways to look less Jewish, it may be thought of as an aesthetic thing now, but for so long this was embedded in Jews’ ability to escape Nazi persecution. Ahmed says that “fear involves an anticipation of hurt or injury” (65) in relation to the “passing by” of a body that evokes fear, I wonder if this anticipation of injury is threatening to one’s maleness or masculinity, or even to the idea of static binary gender as a whole. In terms of Jewishness and Streicher’s book, the idea of poisonousness is a direct reference to a fear of injury (to the purity of the Aryan race.)

BJ: The Poisonous Mushroom is propaganda, right? That thing is written from a perspective of ignorance, or to an audience that's ignorant.

AdS: Propaganda is not dependent on ignorance, but on self-interest, in order to function effectively.

NG: …the self-interest of maintaining power.

BJ: There are so many different kinds of mushrooms, so many kinds of mushrooms that look poisonous, that's how nature designs it, so people stay away from it and they can easily identify them as poisonous, and that's a design you see everywhere in nature, something is dangerous and looks dangerous, it's bright or colorful, and then there's ordinary looking mushrooms that will kill you too...

NG: ...but I think the thing I'm interested in is the use of the metaphor of the poisonous mushroom and regardless of whether or not it's propaganda, its a discussion of deceit, the trope of the deceitful transsexual[8], being tricked into having sex with a “man,” or in this case, being tricked into consuming something that will kill you, take over your body or your community.[9]

BJ: It's important to note that when it comes to trans people and that story of trans deceit, we’re talking about a false concept, it's not based in reality, it's a theory that cis people come up with to justify their violence against trans people the same way the Nazis came up with the poisonous mushroom theory as a way to teach kids and to justify their violence against Jews.

NG: To justify their anti-Semitism!

AdS: But the argument is not really between truth and falsity; fact or fiction. One doesn’t overcome propaganda by presenting “facts,” since emotions (of fear/hate) are the currency through which propaganda operates

NG: I totally agree. In hindsight, we can see how “false” this and many other pieces of propaganda are, but it seems like the effectiveness of propaganda is rooted in how well the material can evoke these feelings of fear and hate, not in how “true” the content may be.

BJ: This is different from an actual mushroom that happens to exist in nature and happens to be poisonous, it exists not because it wants to enact violence but because it's designed that way, its deceptive quality depends on perspective.

AdS: That design question again, nature is not a designing intelligence! Maybe we should talk about mimicry?

NG: The way that we think thing about design in nature is most definitely a projection, an anthropomorphizing of nature’s consciousness. There is the question of survival tactics as inherent biological functioning though. In terms of mimicry, I have a friend, Craig Calderwood, an artist who makes a lot of work about queerness in non-human animals and plants, and has been making work about the bee orchid, ophrys apifera, that mimics the shape/coloring of bees so male bees will be attracted to them and then they can force these male bees to pollinate them. Craig is making parallels to trans women here, mimicry as a biological function and evolutionary tactic is really fascinating…

BJ: The mushroom is only poisonous [deceitful] from the perspective of the people who are telling the story. A trans woman deceiving a cis guy only deceives the guy because he tells it in court that way.

AdS: “I was misled by my own desire (fixated on an imaginary object of desire), therefore the object of desire/the other subject of desire deceived me?”

NG: It’s so fucked up. This makes me think about relational theory, the way that queerness functions in a binary; I'm me, not you, or you're you, not me, and your otherness, or not-me-ness reinforces my me-ness. Does that make sense? The idea that my queerness is only queer because there is a normy standard to compare it to. Without that normy standard my queerness doesn't exist. So, I need that, my queerness is reliant on that relationship. [10]

Ads: How else can you think about this? Can it be examined from the perspective of what queerness does, rather than what it is?

NG: I’m not sure, maybe how queerness sets apart marginalized people and offers a generative space for community? It’s that complicated idea of otherness or queerness functioning in relation to normativity, and the problem, sort of blanketing that happens with generalizing identities. The identification with this community also creates a space for empowerment and organizing that couldn’t exist without it, though. I’m also thinking about what I mentioned earlier, how queerness (or Jewishness) is visible or tangible evidence de-centering the cis or hetero or goyim life experience, it destabilizes the power system set in place.

BJ: Yeah, Nicki, your ideas of queerness are only individual viewpoints, not everyone’s reality. You're the person you are, you do the things you do, you act the way you do, dress the way you do, you choose to see yourself through the lens of queer identity, you'd still wear the same clothes, even if there was no normative standard, you'd still be who you are...

AdS: Not very convincing…

NG: But the very essence of queerness is its otherness, queerness is non-normative, the removal from a normative, hetero, cis, square, norm. Queer by its definition is about its outsideness and it exists in relation to straightness…

BJ: Queerness is also a political thing, though, to be othered in reaction to the norm, and active (as opposed to static) other. My queerness is making a point, because the world doesn't allow me to just be.

NG: I think intentionality is almost besides the point. Whether or not you place yourself as other, you exist as an other simply because you don't fit into the norm. Does that make sense? It’s a culture or community born out of exclusion.

BJ: That’s what I'm saying, the identity is a reaction to the experience of being other. Like, I'm not normal, so I need to be something else. Queerness is not a passive thing, it’s a fabricated thing out of necessity, it's actively engaging with the act of being queer. To bring it back to mushrooms though, this point of mushrooms just being mushrooms, nature just being nature, and seeing the mushroom as something uncanny, we are choosing to see the mushroom in a certain lens that's being fabricated, not the universal reality. The way the Nazis sees the Jews as poisonous mushrooms is one lens.

AdS: This whole discussion of what queerness is/does needs expanding. And you have to question BJ’s resort to “reality.” And you’re not talking here about the “reality” of mushrooms, you’re talking about them as a signifier, of what kind of “sticky” sign they can be and how that sign is mobilized to different uses.

NG: The way Jewishness is a queer identity or queer race, othered race, what I'm interested in is the overlapping of Jewishness and transness. When I think of transness, there's the complicated fluid externalized gender, whether it stays fluid, as in, if the person ultimately settles on a static gender presentation, is irrelevant. But that break in static gender as the norm is what can read as uncanny, I think. It shakes up the assumption that gender is binary, legible and unwavering, and the visibly trans body is tangible proof of that shaking.

AdS: You need to break from this idea that identifications just are, but look to what they do. Jewishness can be a queer identity, as can another identification in certain circumstances. But would you/could you make the case for Jewishness as queer in relation to the state of Israel, and to Zionism? If Jewishness in these instances is queered, what of the Palestinians? This is a specific case, but in general you can’t treat identifications as monolithic and unchanging, as “just is.”

NG: I agree. This is a good point. Maybe this is the trap (pun intended[11]) of Otherness. These factors most definitely complicate otherness, and depict, particularly in the case of Jewishness and Israel, the way that Otherness is always moving and shifting in relation to other (Othered) bodies and communities. What becomes even more complicated is the way that for all of these identities (Palestinian included) their otherness is reinforced by extreme violence, the way that trans bodies are murdered so intensely, the use of overkill is a common practice for the extermination of both kinds of bodies, both Jewish and trans. [12]

AdS: Don’t treat these as homogenous “communities,” as though everyone within them thinks, looks, believes, acts the same. While I think you’re making important connections between Jewishness and transness, they are not equivalent, and you need to be more careful in your developing argument. What, for example, are the differences between, say, Rosa von Praunheim’s “Army of Lovers” and the IDF? And don’t forget that there were/are queer Nazis (including the one interviewed in Army of Lovers)

NG: I think what's interesting is the homoerotic undertone of this violence, but also the bodily fascination that is centered around that overkill. Like [artist] Elan Margolis has been doing all this research about the homoerotic nature of the way that anti-Semitic Germans talk about Jewish people, that there's this fear of and eroticizing of what Jews do to gentile boys, there’s this whole narrative of young German boys and the ritual sacrifice of their bodies and the consumption of their foreskin. [13]

BJ: There's a specific word for that, a blood [libel].... Jewish people taking babies and drinking their blood, they take the [freshly circumcised] penis into the mouth as a way to clean the blood. That's what it’s all about though, people being vaguely aware of something and spinning it into a horror story to serve their own propaganda.

NG: I mean what I'm curious about is if there's a relationship to the uncanny and indecipherability.[14] What I'm reading is about the uncanny centered in the physical bodily or emotional reaction of being in the presence of something or someone where you can't tell if it is or isn't alive. That's what the show [Mike Kelley's The Uncanny] is about, objects that flirt with that line of animate or inanimate.

BJ: But nobody goes into an art show thinking what they're seeing is actually alive. It's the mimicking of something that you know represents a live thing, but exaggerating the features so you go “this cannot be a real thing,” a distortion of the truth that invokes fear, taking a ritual and twisting it so it invokes fear.

NG: The theory that Mike Kelley-through-Freud is discussing is less about fear and more about the not knowing of something that you're experiencing. You see a mannequin, you know it's not real, but because it mimics human scale, color, it almost becomes animate, and because it flirts with that realness, it gives the viewer an uncanny experience. He talks about how, for this show, he's only showing objects that are body size or bigger and nothing smaller because the experience of people interacting with dolls gives people the opportunity to project onto them…

(timer goes off)

BJ: Food's done, want to watch a movie?

AdS: Which one?

NG: Wegener’s Der Golem!



[1]          I am currently infatuated with Freud's theory of The Uncanny, but especially a publication inspired by this text: a hard-to-find exhibition catalog published by the Tate Liverpool in 2004, which hosted the first of two incarnations of a show-within-a-show curated by artist Mike Kelley. The show he curated contained visual art, non-art objects such as medical dummies, and what Kelley describes as “harems” (massive collections of fetish objects such as tchotchkes, business cards, magazine tear-outs, etc.) All of these objects were meant to invoke or reference an uncanny experience for a viewer.

AdS: How do business cards invoke the uncanny?


NG: Well, it’s actually not about the cards per say, but about the act of collecting or the collection itself. John C. Welchman in his catalog essay “On the Uncanny in Visual Culture” says of Kelley’s marble and postcard collections in the show, “Looking from one to the other to another produces a compressed sensation of sameness-in-difference that is like an incubated version of the uncanny.” (47) The uncanny experience is more so about the repetition and the sheer volume of objects than the objects as individual entities.

My infatuation with this concept was spawned earlier in the year by a realization that the uncanny experiences I vividly remember from childhood (mainly from rubber Halloween masks) continue to have an effect on me today (primarily with objects such as mannequins, but also contemporary art that plays with these qualities) and does, in fact, have a long history of theoretical analysis.

[2]          One should note that the turquoise kitchen where these two Queers reside is a space containing years of accumulated décor and ephemera from the lives of other Queers in San Francisco, not unlike the homosexual domestic space discussed by Michael Hatt in his article "Space, Surface, Self: Homosexuality and The Aesthetic Interior." He describes the home as an “attempt to create spaces where private desire and public self were integrated, where all one's experience could be invoked and unified.” (105) While the setting for this conversation does not explicitly come up as a topic of conversation, it is important to identify the significance of the domestic space where two queer people discuss art and world-making, as this conversation and subsequent interjections reveal the politics and mortality of queer bodies and an implied importance of the safe, queer home where one is able to perform a both public and private iteration of self.  This “world-making” is also discussed by art historian Julia Bryan Wilson in her essay Glitter and Grit, where she explores these topics through the lens of the 70's San Francisco performance troupe The Cockettes. The predecessors in my apartment were heavily inspired by The Cockettes, and I continue to discover plastic flowers, doilies and glitter encrusted accessories almost ten years later.

[3]   In his 2005 book Mycelium Running, mycologist Paul Stamets describes fungi’s evolution as the first organism to secrete enzymes and acids to decompose biological material for the purpose of nutrient absorption. This process of an external stomach would eventually evolve to become some of the first animals on the planet. (3)

[4]   I'm reminded of the Netflix food series Cooked, where food writer Michael Pollan discusses fermentation on the final episode. He's discussing the scent of brevibacterium linens, the bacteria responsible for the “stinky sock” smell of some cheeses. He describes many people's combined repulsion of and desire for this food as “The Erotics of Disgust.” He explains that “disgust is one of the primary human emotions, an instinctive reaction to something that offends our sense of taste and could be dangerous.” (38min) This dual repulsion/attraction experience might be applied to the interactions human can have with mushrooms, a fear from the understanding of the organism's wildness and potential lethality, but also a fascination in the beautiful, fruiting form and delicacy-status in foodie communities.

[5]   Another major informant of my current work is the “Third Reich Original” children's book Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom) in which a German mother and her child are mushroom hunting and the mother uses the metaphor of a Jew as a poisonous mushroom to explain to her child the reasons why one should feel empowered to hate and physically suppress Jews. The book contains many anecdotes of archetypal predatory Jews in secular German society, but this first anecdote introducing the poisonous mushroom metaphor (and functioning as the only reference to this concept) has sent me into a frenzy researching mushrooms and considering the multitude of ways it can be reclaimed as a symbol of empowerment. For example; the idea of covert community organization (mycelial networks as the largest living organisms on earth,) the radical rejection of binary gender/sex and reproduction (non-gendered organisms utilizing asexual reproduction,) their existence in hostile environments (ability to filter toxic waste materials,) etc.

[6] “If fear had an object, then fear could be contained by the object. When the object of fear threatens to pass by, then fear can no longer be contained by an object. Fear in its very relationship, in the very intensity of its directedness towards that object, is intensified by the loss of its object.” (Ahmed 65) BJ links this to the concealing of monsters in horror films, and the way that keeping the fear from being linked to a tangible object creates a nebulous threat of harm. If trans people and Jews pass as cis or goyim, those fearful of these bodies cannot locate that fear, which only heightens the emotion. The question, though, is the distinction between “passing” and “passing by.” Passing by refers to the recognition of the object of fear to invoke the anticipation of harm, whereas the idea of passing refers to an invisibility and non-objectified, more nebulous fear. In the context of horror films, the monster’s tangibility is always hinted at even if it’s trail is situated in residual material or the absence of bodies as the result of an abduction. This “passing by” effect, then, could be created through the minimal ways in which a trans person or a Jew might become legible as such, breaking their passability. In a sense, their androgynousness or visible ethnicity is evidence of the fluid and nuanced-nature of gender and race.

[7] Passing could also be thought of as assimilating though, and this happens a lot with trans women, it’s called “going stealth” and there are many capitalist industries around this, beyond the specialized surgical field of Facial Feminization Surgery, the production company “Deep Stealth Productions” created a series of videos helping trans women pass more seamlessly, the most famous titled “Finding Your Female Voice” opens the 2005 film Transamerica.

[8]   Julia Serano's 2007 text Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity was a groundbreaking collection of theoretical essays describing Serano's experience transitioning genders and the effect contemporary visual culture had on her notions of femininity. In it, she describes a binary, one I find reductive, but has stuck with me none-the-less. This binary is that of the pathetic and deceptive transsexual, articulating trans women's presentation in relation to cis men's desire (or lack thereof) for their (our) bodies. A discussion of deception inherently refers to passing politics and the way one does or does not receive the day-to-day safety yet potential lethality it affords.

[9] An example of this from the text Radical Mycology by Peter McCoy: “Ophiocordyceps campnotirufipedis is well appreciated for its ability to create ‘zombie ants.’ Once an ant is infected, it will climb far beyond their normal range to the top of the tree canopy and bite down on a leaf. Soon after, the fungus mummifies the insect from the inside until, hours later, a mushroom erupts from the insect’s head, releasing spores to rain down across the forest.” (52)

[10] In his book Poetics of Relation, Édouard Glissant states “Thought of the Other cannot escape its own dualism until the time when differences become acknowledged. From that point on, thought of the Other “comprehends” multiplicity, but mechanically and still taking the subtle hierarchies of a generalizing universal as its basis.” (17)

[11] “Trap” is a term used in gamer/nerd communities and also in trans porn communities to describe a trans woman who passes well enough to deceive and “trap” the cis men who are attracted to them (into having sex with them.) The origin of this term is unclear, but it seems to have developed on the web forum 4chan from a meme of the Star Wars character Admiral Ackbar who says “Watch out! It’s a Trap!” in Return of the Jedi. The meme was used in response to an image posted in a forum thread of trans porn performer Bailey Jay at a comics convention, and the concept went viral. Today, this term is used by Chasers (those who fetishize and “chase” trans women) and as a self-identification for trans women who desire to and potentially achieve seamless passability.

[12]         Overkill is both a disturbing and intriguing way to think about how queer and trans bodies are removed from the world. In his paper “Near Life, Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture,” theorist Eric Stanley describes overkill as the “temporality of violence, the biological time when the heart stops pushing and pulling blood, yet the killing is not finished, suggests the aim is not simply the end of a specific life, but the ending of all queer life.” (9)

[13]         The parallels I'm interested in drawing here most obviously cross with the Jewish Holocaust and the atrocities that were enacted on Jewish bodies in concentration camps. The mutilating of a body seems to express a release, sexual or otherwise, but also a fascination of the limits of the body's capacity for life.


            Stanley goes on to state “The penetrative violence, the moments when [Christopher] Gaines was thrusting his knife into [Scotty Joe] Weaver’s body, stages a kind of terrorizing sexualized intimacy...This tender hostility of ravaging love and tactile brutality may be an opening for the task of facing the question scribed on the bathroom wall, “What if it feels good to kill or mutilate homos?”'(12)


            The notorious status of concentration camp horrors (I often think of the use of human, specifically Jewish skin as material for lamps and clothing) suggests what may seem like a contradictory reaction to repulsion, but a morbid, literal dissection of the othered body as a way to more fully control and understand the victim (or the communities or identities that the victims represent.) This fascination has been repeated throughout history with practically every kind of othered body, black bodies and women’s bodies in particular.

[14]         In his text The Uncanny, Freud summarizes the first act of Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffman, where a young boy named Nathaniel, grows up in fear of his mother's story of The Sand-Man who takes children's eyes at night. Freud feels that Nathaniel's “intellectual uncertainty,” as theorized by E. Jentsch, is what evokes for Nathaniel and for the audience an uncanny experience. Through the first act, Nathaniel's perpetual fear of and seemingly paranoid feelings of uncertainty whether particular pedestrians, family friends, etc. could be The Sand-Man, potentially links itself to the idea of bodies that are both potentially lethal (Poisonous Mushrooms; Jews, Queers) and also bodies that physiologically/racially exist in a grey area (looking (Ashkenazically) Jewish, appearing androgynous, both deviations from a normative understanding of whiteness and of binary gender respectively.) These deviations cause one to do a double take, potentially creating an uncanny experience through one's intellectual uncertainty of the ways these bodies challenge what one may know to be recognizable, true, authentic and safe.

AdS: What is it to turn to the mother’s arms, and what substitutes for mother?

NG: Uncanny is semantically referring to the German word Unheimlich meaning “unhomely.” Ahmed’s description of turning to the mother’s arms refers to a need for homeliness (Heimlich) but what one receives instead is this feeling of the uncanny.



Works Cited:


Earth. Cooked. Dist. Jigsaw Productions, 2016. Netflix. Web. 10 June 2016.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. London: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.

Glissant, Edouard. Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. The University of Michigan Press, 2010. Print.

Gruenberg, Christoph, and Mike Kelley. Mike Kelley: The Uncanny. Liverpool: Tate Liverpool, 2004. Print.

Hatt, Michael. "Space, Surface, Self: Homosexuality and The Aesthetic Interior." Visual Culture In Britain 8.1 (2007): 105-128. Art Source. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.

Hiemer, Ernst. Der Giftpilz. Nuremberg: Struermer-Verlag, 1938. Print.

McCoy, Peter. Radical Mycology. Portland: Chthaeus Press, 2016. Print.

Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2007. Print.

Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005. Print

Stanley, Eric. “Near Life, Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture.” ocial Text. 29 (2011) Web. 6 June 2014.