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Abbas Kiarostami’s Digital Turn

April 30, 2018 - 04:41
Tags:  Iran, Film, digital culture, art, photography

A scene from the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s last film, 24 Frames, feels like a visual incarnation of a line from Virginia Woolf: “the waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.” Along a shore, water laps and returns. That movement finds its echo in the image of a cow, lying on its side, slowly breathing in and out. A set of cowbells ringing off screen augurs the arrival of a small herd of cows that tumbles left to right across the screen, paying no attention to the prone figure. As we wonder whether the creature is injured, sleeping or dying, several minutes elapse before it abruptly rises and drags itself off-stage through the waves.

Except that when Abbas Kiarostami was putting together this bucolic scene, there were no beasts stamping the sand, no speckled cow conveniently napping within frame. Instead, Kiarostami found stock footage of a cow on its side and animated it by stretching and contracting the still image on top of the beach. The bovine figure’s heavy respiration turns out to be a digital trick, and that freewheeling, demiurgic sense of composition is the premise behind 24 Frames. Using digital techniques to animate photographs, Kiarostami’s final project asks what happens just before and after a still is taken, what surrounds a photographic epiphany on either side of an instant.

The genesis of the project was Kiarostami’s desire to animate several paintings that had influenced him, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow, but soon evolved to include photographs from his own collection as well as collages of stock video and found images. Each frame begins with a still image, which then begins to move, a technique reminiscent of how the Lumière brothers presented the beginnings of their first films. It was only after the still photograph was displayed that, as Tom Gunning notes, “the projector began cranking and the image moved.” In 24 Frames, the “framing” is also frequently literal. Many sequences are shot through screens: a car door in winter, an open window looking out on a swaying tree, the silhouette of a bird behind a drawn shade in a study. The end result is a  psychic bricolage: a series of twenty-four dream-like animated “images,” each lasting four and a half minutes.

In some scenes, Kiarostami’s digital manipulation is difficult to discern, while in others, he attempts to cover obvious glitches with meteorological phenomena, such as snow effects. He is not after a Hollywood-level of technical perfection and often seems to revel in the artificiality of his scenes. For example, in the fifteenth frame, which is based on an actual photograph Kiarostami had once taken in Paris, six figures, ostensibly visiting from Iran, look at the Eiffel Tower with their backs turned to us. They remain absolutely still, even as the photograph begins to shimmer with the movements and sounds of interpolated passersby. Their preternatural stasis betrays the hybridity of Kiarostami’s idiosyncratic form of animated photography. In this frame, he is reconstructing a past memory; in others, the scenario is fabricated from scratch. In one of the early frames, for example, a black car window is slowly lowered to reveal a pure, snowy landscape. Two black stallions jump playfully among a stand of trees as snow falls. This monochromatic scene is simultaneously real and unreal: its perfectly posed animal protagonists gracefully jumping and flicking their tails on a loop within the quadrant of the car window’s de facto stage. Yet, the fact that this is digital pastiche does not lessen the beauty of the sequence.

While 24 Frames is unlike any of Kiarostami’s previous work, it pays the same careful attention to form that long fascinated the Iranian director. From Close-Up (1990) to And Life Goes On (1992) and Ten (2002), Kiarostami has often been interested in film as a self-consciously constructed work of art. The director sometimes contrasted that quality of filmmaking with photography, a field he was equally familiar with. In a 2002 interview with Youssef Ishaghpour, Kiarostami noted that “je suis le spectateur d’une photographie dans laquelle je ne suis pas intervenu. Je n’ai pas construit la nature, l’appareil a été fabriqué par quelqu’un d’autre. Je n’ai fait qu’appuyer instantanément sur le bouton” [“I am the spectator of a photograph in which I did not intervene. I did not build the nature, the device was fabricated by someone else. I just pressed the button instantly.”] Kiarostami suggests that photography requires less direction from him, unlike film. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes famously correlates that reduced degree of intervention in photography with its certainty: “One day I received from a photographer a picture of myself which I could not remember being taken, for all my efforts; I inspected the tie, the sweater, to discover in what circumstances I had worn them; to no avail. And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where).”

As Kiarostami would no doubt have agreed, Barthes’s distinction—that a photograph always communicates thereness, and therefore, certaintyno longer rings true in our post-analog world. Photographs are just as stageable or subject to manipulation as films are, as 24 Frames so carefully shows us . Indeed, the film pushes the boundary between photography and film to its limit, breaking down the distinction between moment and duration, a feat that would not have been possible without Kiarostami’s openness to digital techniques. Tracing Kiarostami’s passage from analog to digital cameras, Scott Kryzch has commented that some of Kiarostami’s later work depends on the use of digital cameras, even if some of the recurring qualities of his filmsan interest in constant movement,  sequences shot through windows, characters placed in front car seatshave stayed the same. Of Kiarostami’s Ten, he writes: “[A]s we follow Mania through the streets of Tehran and spy on the conversations with her various passengers, our position as spectators becomes comparable to that of the director, who, like us, was absent from the actual recording. In 10 on 10 [sic] Kiarostami describes this free mobility as producing a form of spontaneity never before achieved by actors in his earlier films.”

After our journey across beaches and through forests, among crows, lions, horses, cows and sheep, through landscapes devoid of dialogue and people, the final frame returns us to how 24 Frames itself was conceived: in front of a computer in Kiarostami’s study. A young woman with dreadlocks gently sleeps with her head on a desk in a room surrounded by six windows. The computer screen in front of her shows video editing software, and within that border of menus and controls, a scene of a couple looking into each other’s eyes from William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) advances slowly frame by frame. For all the quiet of this scene, an Andrew Lloyd Webber song blares incongruously in the background. Yet, what strikes us the most is the tempo of this sequence. The frame rate of the couple has been technologically slowed down, to a rate much slower than the actual scene we are watching. The two figures from the old Hollywood film are slowly colliding, coming together in a kiss.

There are almost too many exquisite things happening here to mention: the wry nod by an auteur to American cinema, the human physicality so absent from the rest of the project and the sense of finality by an artist aware that this is his final work. Although Kiarostami’s son Ahmad helped posthumously edit the final project down to twenty-four sequences, he did not alter the overall order of the film. There is something faintly elegiac about this frame, but also refreshingly open to cinema’s technological possibilities, to its persistence into the future. If, as Barthes had remarked, the figures in a photograph are “anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies,” Kiarostami shows us, in his conjuring of digital slowness, how these figures can still tremble, shiver and shake.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Abbas Kiarostami’s Digital Turn

April 30, 2018 - 04:41
Tags:  Iran, Film, digital culture, art, photography

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

A scene from the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s last film, 24 Frames, feels like a visual incarnation of a line from Virginia Woolf: “the waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.” Along a shore, water laps and returns. That movement finds its echo in the image of a cow, lying on its side, slowly breathing in and out. A set of cowbells ringing off screen augurs the arrival of a small herd of cows that tumbles left to right across the screen, paying no attention to the prone figure. As we wonder whether the creature is injured, sleeping or dying, several minutes elapse before it abruptly rises and drags itself off-stage through the waves.

Except that when Abbas Kiarostami was putting together this bucolic scene, there were no beasts stamping the sand, no speckled cow conveniently napping within frame. Instead, Kiarostami found stock footage of a cow on its side and animated it by stretching and contracting the still image on top of the beach. The bovine figure’s heavy respiration turns out to be a digital trick, and that freewheeling, demiurgic sense of composition is the premise behind 24 Frames. Using digital techniques to animate photographs, Kiarostami’s final project asks what happens just before and after a still is taken, what surrounds a photographic epiphany on either side of an instant.

The genesis of the project was Kiarostami’s desire to animate several paintings that had influenced him, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow, but soon evolved to include photographs from his own collection as well as collages of stock video and found images. Each frame begins with a still image, which then begins to move, a technique reminiscent of how the Lumière brothers presented the beginnings of their first films. It was only after the still photograph was displayed that, as Tom Gunning notes, “the projector began cranking and the image moved.” In 24 Frames, the “framing” is also frequently literal. Many sequences are shot through screens: a car door in winter, an open window looking out on a swaying tree, the silhouette of a bird behind a drawn shade in a study. The end result is a  psychic bricolage: a series of twenty-four dream-like animated “images,” each lasting four and a half minutes.

In some scenes, Kiarostami’s digital manipulation is difficult to discern, while in others, he attempts to cover obvious glitches with meteorological phenomena, such as snow effects. He is not after a Hollywood-level of technical perfection and often seems to revel in the artificiality of his scenes. For example, in the fifteenth frame, which is based on an actual photograph Kiarostami had once taken in Paris, six figures, ostensibly visiting from Iran, look at the Eiffel Tower with their backs turned to us. They remain absolutely still, even as the photograph begins to shimmer with the movements and sounds of interpolated passersby. Their preternatural stasis betrays the hybridity of Kiarostami’s idiosyncratic form of animated photography. In this frame, he is reconstructing a past memory; in others, the scenario is fabricated from scratch. In one of the early frames, for example, a black car window is slowly lowered to reveal a pure, snowy landscape. Two black stallions jump playfully among a stand of trees as snow falls. This monochromatic scene is simultaneously real and unreal: its perfectly posed animal protagonists gracefully jumping and flicking their tails on a loop within the quadrant of the car window’s de facto stage. Yet, the fact that this is digital pastiche does not lessen the beauty of the sequence.

While 24 Frames is unlike any of Kiarostami’s previous work, it pays the same careful attention to form that long fascinated the Iranian director. From Close-Up (1990) to And Life Goes On (1992) and Ten (2002), Kiarostami has often been interested in film as a self-consciously constructed work of art. The director sometimes contrasted that quality of filmmaking with photography, a field he was equally familiar with. In a 2002 interview with Youssef Ishaghpour, Kiarostami noted that “je suis le spectateur d’une photographie dans laquelle je ne suis pas intervenu. Je n’ai pas construit la nature, l’appareil a été fabriqué par quelqu’un d’autre. Je n’ai fait qu’appuyer instantanément sur le bouton” [“I am the spectator of a photograph in which I did not intervene. I did not build the nature, the device was fabricated by someone else. I just pressed the button instantly.”] Kiarostami suggests that photography requires less direction from him, unlike film. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes famously correlates that reduced degree of intervention in photography with its certainty: “One day I received from a photographer a picture of myself which I could not remember being taken, for all my efforts; I inspected the tie, the sweater, to discover in what circumstances I had worn them; to no avail. And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where).”

As Kiarostami would no doubt have agreed, Barthes’s distinction—that a photograph always communicates thereness, and therefore, certaintyno longer rings true in our post-analog world. Photographs are just as stageable or subject to manipulation as films are, as 24 Frames so carefully shows us . Indeed, the film pushes the boundary between photography and film to its limit, breaking down the distinction between moment and duration, a feat that would not have been possible without Kiarostami’s openness to digital techniques. Tracing Kiarostami’s passage from analog to digital cameras, Scott Kryzch has commented that some of Kiarostami’s later work depends on the use of digital cameras, even if some of the recurring qualities of his filmsan interest in constant movement,  sequences shot through windows, characters placed in front car seatshave stayed the same. Of Kiarostami’s Ten, he writes: “[A]s we follow Mania through the streets of Tehran and spy on the conversations with her various passengers, our position as spectators becomes comparable to that of the director, who, like us, was absent from the actual recording. In 10 on 10 [sic] Kiarostami describes this free mobility as producing a form of spontaneity never before achieved by actors in his earlier films.”

After our journey across beaches and through forests, among crows, lions, horses, cows and sheep, through landscapes devoid of dialogue and people, the final frame returns us to how 24 Frames itself was conceived: in front of a computer in Kiarostami’s study. A young woman with dreadlocks gently sleeps with her head on a desk in a room surrounded by six windows. The computer screen in front of her shows video editing software, and within that border of menus and controls, a scene of a couple looking into each other’s eyes from William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) advances slowly frame by frame. For all the quiet of this scene, an Andrew Lloyd Weber song blares incongruously in the background. Yet, what strikes us the most is the tempo of this sequence. The frame rate of the couple has been technologically slowed down, to a rate much slower than the actual scene we are watching. The two figures from the old Hollywood film are slowly colliding, coming together in a kiss.

There are almost too many exquisite things happening here to mention: the wry nod by an auteur to American cinema, the human physicality so absent from the rest of the project and the sense of finality by an artist aware that this is his final work. Although Kiarostami’s son Ahmad helped posthumously edit the final project down to twenty-four sequences, he did not alter the overall order of the film. There is something faintly elegiac about this frame, but also refreshingly open to cinema’s technological possibilities, to its persistence into the future. If, as Barthes had remarked, the figures in a photograph are “anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies,” Kiarostami shows us, in his conjuring of digital slowness, how these figures can still tremble, shiver and shake.

Pomes Bitcoineach

April 23, 2018 - 07:24
Tags:  James Joyce, Hiroki Fukai, Philip Larkin, Yu Awaya, Narayana R. Kocherlakota, James Merrill, Blockchain, money, memory, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., poetry, Kay Ryan, Wallace Stevens, terza rima

 

“Money is a kind of poetry.” —Wallace Stevens

“Poetry is a kind of money.” —Kay Ryan

“Money is memory.” —Narayana R. Kocherlakota

“Money was not time.” —James Merrill

“Money, by providing an intermediate level of information between memory and no memory, gives rise to an equilibrium outcome that cannot arise under either memory or no-memory. —Yu Awaya and Hiroki Fukai

I am writing to explain
To those who like this kind of thing
The sweet incentives of blockchain.

What kind of thing? Well if you bring
A taste for versatility                                             5
To what you read or write or sing,

Then dig: it’s like a poem really,
A crystallizing propagation.
If rhyme’s some poems’ currency

Blockchain is money’s rhyme, inflation-             10
Proof, while marking passing time
Through lines that, vectored like narration,

Distribute meaning into rhyme.
As readers mine linguistic ore,
Guessing rhymes first's just sublime —    15

Anticipating more and more
The content form will make its own,
So cryptominers solve a core

Equation — so that those who hone
Their skills at finding wealth create it,                 20
Make cash, which like a fossil bone,

Records the process that will date it.
As each rhyme puts more rhyme in play,
Until the whole network seems fated,

So too a blockchain’s records lay                       25
A matrix down, like terza rima,
That marks down payments and will pay,

As much as anyone could dream, a
Fee that finds and founds the future,
Unfolding in this golden schema.                      30

Its own reward adds to the structure,
Propelling value down a chain....
But if you lose the thread, you’re fucked, your

Ice-nine diamond coal again.

 

NOTES

Title  The Italian means: "The Sweet New Coins"

l. 3 sweet  Compare "Dolce stile nuovo" in Purgatorio XXIV: 27

l. 6 sing  Possibly an echo of a line in Philip Larkin's (1922-85) "Money": "I listen to money singing."

l. 7 dig  Hipster slang for "listen and understand," with an obvious pun on digging as mining, and a possible reference to a poem by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) called "Digging," which is about writing poetry as a kind of mining.

l. 15 guessing...first Part of the pleasure of terza rima and many other forms with triple rhymes, according to Professor Münzen of LMU.  The best examples in English might found in limericks, as in the well known example: "There once was a man from Nantucket," to which line 33 is perhaps an allusion.

l. 34 Ice-nine diamond  Unexplained, though perhaps a reference to the reduplicating triplets of terza rima.  As is well-known, there is no perfectly elegant way to end a terza rima poem, since the middle line of every tercet is unrhymed until another tercet is added to it, which means that every tercet requires a successor.  When a terza rima poem ends with a single line, as here, you get the effect of a sudden collapse in the propagation of the poem.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Pomes Bitcoineach

April 23, 2018 - 07:24
Tags:  James Joyce, Hiroki Fukai, Philip Larkin, Yu Awaya, Narayana R. Kocherlakota, James Merrill, Blockchain, money, memory, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., poetry, Kay Ryan, Wallace Stevens, terza rima

 

“Money is a kind of poetry.” —Wallace Stevens

“Poetry is a kind of money.” —Kay Ryan

“Money is memory.” —Narayana R. Kocherlakota

“Money was not time.” —James Merrill

“Money, by providing an intermediate level of information between memory and no memory, gives rise to an equilibrium outcome that cannot arise under either memory or no-memory. —Yu Awaya and Hiroki Fukai

I am writing to explain
To those who like this kind of thing
The sweet incentives of blockchain.

What kind of thing? Well if you bring
A taste for versatility                                             5
To what you read or write or sing,

Then dig: it’s like a poem really,
A crystallizing propagation.
If rhyme’s some poems’ currency

Blockchain is money’s rhyme, inflation-             10
Proof, while marking passing time
Through lines that, vectored like narration,

Distribute meaning into rhyme.
As readers mine linguistic ore,
Guessing rhymes first's just sublime —    15

Anticipating more and more
The content form will make its own,
So cryptominers solve a core

Equation — so that those who hone
Their skills at finding wealth create it,                 20
Make cash, which like a fossil bone,

Records the process that will date it.
As each rhyme puts more rhyme in play,
Until the whole network seems fated,

So too a blockchain’s records lay                       25
A matrix down, like terza rima,
That marks down payments and will pay,

As much as anyone could dream, a
Fee that finds and founds the future,
Unfolding in this golden schema.                      30

Its own reward adds to the structure,
Propelling value down a chain....
But if you lose the thread, you’re fucked, your

Ice-nine diamond coal again.

 

NOTES

Title  The Italian means: "The Sweet New Coins"

l. 3 sweet  Compare "Dolce stile nuovo" in Purgatorio XXIV: 27

l. 6 sing  Possibly an echo of a line in Philip Larkin's (1922-85) "Money": "I listen to money singing."

l. 7 dig  Hipster slang for "listen and understand," with an obvious pun on digging as mining, and a possible reference to a poem by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) called "Digging," which is about writing poetry as a kind of mining.

l. 15 guessing...first Part of the pleasure of terza rima and many other forms with triple rhymes, according to Professor Münzen of LMU.  The best examples in English might found in limericks, as in the well known example: "There once was a man from Nantucket," to which line 33 is perhaps an allusion.

l. 34 Ice-nine diamond  Unexplained, though perhaps a reference to the reduplicating triplets of terza rima.  As is well-known, there is no perfectly elegant way to end a terza rima poem, since the middle line of every tercet is unrhymed until another tercet is added to it, which means that every tercet requires a successor.  When a terza rima poem ends with a single line, as here, you get the effect of a sudden collapse in the propagation of the poem.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Why Only Art Can Save Us: An Interview with Santiago Zabala

April 19, 2018 - 12:12
Tags:  art, Aesthetics, hermeneutics, politics, Donald Trump, state of emergency

Q: Recently Donald and Melania Trump requested a Vincent van Gogh painting from the Guggenheim, but the museum responded with a counteroffer, Maurizio Cattelan’s America, a gold toilet. I wonder if your book, which also features a work by the Italian artist in the cover, should also be interpreted as a move similar to Nancy Spector’s (the museum’s chief curator), a provocation and intervention in the public sphere. After all, you call for “existential interventions” through art.

SZ: I’m not certain whether Cattelan and Spector wanted to provoke or educate the Trump family. Either way, Cattelan’s America is a serious work of art that, as we can see, has managed to intervene in the public sphere. The sculpture on the cover of my book is called The Ninth Hour (1999) and depicts Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. Recently, Paolo Sorrentino used it in the opening credits of his TV series The Young Pope. The sculpture’s title alludes to the ninth hour of darkness that fell upon all the land when Christ cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—but the book’s title paraphrases Martin Heidegger’s famous response when he was asked whether we could still have any influence now that we are so overpowered by technology: “only a God can still save us.” My intention is to point out, now that God is dead and we are even more overpowered, perhaps it's art’s time to save us. The intervention you refer to has to do with demands of art in the twenty-first century, which are linked to our continued existence, that is, our salvation.

Q: So after the death of God, only art can save us? What is the relation between the absence of emergency and the possibility of art saving us?

SZ: One must distinguish between emergencies and the absence of emergencies. The former has become the axiomatic term through which sovereigns legitimize any imposed order through the framing concept of a “state of exception,” as Carl Schmidt, Walter Benjamin, and Giorgio Agamben have all explained. The absence of emergencies is the result: a world where politics, finance, and privacy have been forced into previously established technological frames. This is why Heidegger (who was the first to point out in the 1940s how the “only emergency is the absence of emergency”) believed emergencies do not arise when something doesn’t function correctly but rather when “everything functions . . . and propels everything more and more toward further functioning.” In a world where we are constantly under surveillance, and even the future is becoming predictable through online data mining, the problem is not those constructed-for-consumption emergencies that we make a loud show of confronting in the blare of the twenty-four-hour news cycle but rather the ones that we ignore. In this condition, the election of Trump, for example, rather than constituting an emergency, seems to be the incarnation of the absence of emergencies—a state of broadcast emergency signals that are meant to drown out the real but absent emergencies, from climate change to civil and human rights. In this condition the goal of art is not rescue us “from emergenciesbut ratherinto emergencies.” Rescuing from necessarily means concealing the essential emergencies that shape the modern world, but rescuing into means thrusting us into these emergencies, that is, saving us by revealing what has been hidden in plain sight. As Hölderlin said: “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” The works of art I explore thrust us into these emergencies.

Q: The twelve artists you discuss are all very different from one another. And the absent emergencies you confront through their works also vary widely. Can we consider your book an attempt to create an interdisciplinary conversation?

SZ: Yes, sure, as long as by “interdisciplinary” you refer to the Geisteswissenschaften, the human sciences, as they are represented in Arcade, for example. While I still have faith in the conversation (as Richard Rorty understood the term) among philosophy, literature, and history, I’m concerned that Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences, are too integrated into Adorno’s “die totale Verwaltung,” the total administrative/organizational system, to contribute freely to the conversation. This does not mean I ignored scientific research. Quite the contrary. I refer to the work of the important marine biologist Judith S. Weis and the glaciologist Eric Rignot to understand the absent emergencies of marine pollution and Antarctica’s glaciers. But I use their research in order to interpret their findings broadly, that is, against the specialization that frames these disciplines. This is why hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation, is so important in the book.

Q: Are you referring to hermeneutics “anarchic” vein?

SZ: Yes. Hermeneutics, as I conceive it against Gadamer’s account, is an adversarial, antagonistic, and dangerous affair. After all, Hermes, as Gerard Bruns explains, was the “many-sided, uncontainable, nocturnal transgressor.” In order to understand works of art that thrust or rescue us into absent emergencies it’s necessary to practice interpretation as an existential intervention; our lives are at stake. This is why the danger each interpretation implies is meant to save us.

Q: Recently, both Silvia Mazzini and Martin Woessner said your book “is not aesthetic, but rather, exquisitely political,” that is, “continues the political struggle” you began in Hermeneutic Communism (coauthored with G. Vattimo). Do you agree?

SZ: If by “political struggle” we refer to an existential resistance, I agree. But just as I don’t see Hermeneutic Communism as a political book, neither is Why Only Art Can Save Us a contribution to aesthetics or to art theory. Instead, they are both attempts to disclose what remains of Being, that is, existence. This does not mean that communism and visual art are not central themes in the books, but they are functional to the emergence of Being, which has always been philosophy’s main concern.

Q: Contrary to Mazzini and Woessner, who wrote favorable reviews, Paul A. Kottman in Public Seminar believes there is a “crisis of authenticity” in academic philosophy and in contemporary art that you share with Cattelan’s work. You are both part of the problem.

SZ: I wish! It would be wonderful if my philosophy could do what Cattelan is doing to contemporary art. As far as authenticity is concerned: I would be much more worried if there wasn’t a crisis. This would imply a return to metaphysics, modernity, or, even worse, logocentrism. The truth is that art can rescue us into this crisis, and philosophy can interpret its meaning. Let’s keep doing both.

Santiago Zabala in conversation with Leonardo Franceschini, a Ph.D. Candidate at the Pompeu Fabra University and Visiting Scholar at East China University of Political Science and Law. 

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Why Only Art Can Save Us: An Interview with Santiago Zabala

April 19, 2018 - 12:12
Tags:  art, Aesthetics, hermeneutics, politics, Donald Trump, state of emergency

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Q: Recently Donald and Melania Trump requested a Vincent van Gogh painting from the Guggenheim, but the museum responded with a counteroffer, Maurizio Cattelan’s America, a gold toilet. I wonder if your book, which also features a work by the Italian artist in the cover, should also be interpreted as a move similar to Nancy Spector’s (the museum’s chief curator), a provocation and intervention in the public sphere. After all, you call for “existential interventions” through art.

SZ: I’m not certain whether Cattelan and Spector wanted to provoke or educate the Trump family. Either way, Cattelan’s America is a serious work of art that, as we can see, has managed to intervene in the public sphere. The sculpture on the cover of my book is called The Ninth Hour (1999) and depicts Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. Recently, Paolo Sorrentino used it in the opening credits of his TV series The Young Pope. The sculpture’s title alludes to the ninth hour of darkness that fell upon all the land when Christ cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—but the book’s title paraphrases Martin Heidegger’s famous response when he was asked whether we could still have any influence now that we are so overpowered by technology: “only a God can still save us.” My intention is to point out, now that God is dead and we are even more overpowered, perhaps it's art’s time to save us. The intervention you refer to has to do with demands of art in the twenty-first century, which are linked to our continued existence, that is, our salvation.

Q: So after the death of God, only art can save us? What is the relation between the absence of emergency and the possibility of art saving us?

SZ: One must distinguish between emergencies and the absence of emergencies. The former has become the axiomatic term through which sovereigns legitimize any imposed order through the framing concept of a “state of exception,” as Carl Schmidt, Walter Benjamin, and Giorgio Agamben have all explained. The absence of emergencies is the result: a world where politics, finance, and privacy have been forced into previously established technological frames. This is why Heidegger (who was the first to point out in the 1940s how the “only emergency is the absence of emergency”) believed emergencies do not arise when something doesn’t function correctly but rather when “everything functions . . . and propels everything more and more toward further functioning.” In a world where we are constantly under surveillance, and even the future is becoming predictable through online data mining, the problem is not those constructed-for-consumption emergencies that we make a loud show of confronting in the blare of the twenty-four-hour news cycle but rather the ones that we ignore. In this condition, the election of Trump, for example, rather than constituting an emergency, seems to be the incarnation of the absence of emergencies—a state of broadcast emergency signals that are meant to drown out the real but absent emergencies, from climate change to civil and human rights. In this condition the goal of art is not rescue us “from emergencies” but rather “into emergencies.” Rescuing from necessarily means concealing the essential emergencies that shape the modern world, but rescuing into means thrusting us into these emergencies, that is, saving us by revealing what has been hidden in plain sight. As Hölderlin said: “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” The works of art I explore thrust us into these emergencies.

Q: The twelve artists you discuss are all very different from one another. And the absent emergencies you confront through their works also vary widely. Can we consider your book an attempt to create an interdisciplinary conversation?

SZ: Yes, sure, as long as by “interdisciplinary” you refer to the Geisteswissenschaften, the human sciences, as they are represented in Arcade, for example. While I still have faith in the conversation (as Richard Rorty understood the term) among philosophy, literature, and history, I’m concerned that Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences, are too integrated into Adorno’s “die totale Verwaldung,” the total administrative/organizational system, to contribute freely to the conversation. This does not mean I ignored scientific research. Quite the contrary. I refer to the work of the important marine biologist Judith S. Weis and the glaciologist Eric Rignot to understand the absent emergencies of marine pollution and Antarctica’s glaciers. But I use their research in order to interpret their findings broadly, that is, against the specialization that frames these disciplines. This is why hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation, is so important in the book.

Q: Are you referring to hermeneutics “anarchic” vein?

SZ: Yes. Hermeneutics, as I conceive it against Gadamer’s account, is an adversarial, antagonistic, and dangerous affair. After all, Hermes, as Gerard Bruns explains, was the “many-sided, uncontainable, nocturnal transgressor.” In order to understand works of art that thrust or rescue us into absent emergencies it’s necessary to practice interpretation as an existential intervention; our lives are at stake. This is why the danger each interpretation implies is meant to save us.

Q: Recently, both Silvia Mazzini and Martin Woessner said your book “is not aesthetic, but rather, exquisitely political,” that is, “continues the political struggle” you began in Hermeneutic Communism (coauthored with G. Vattimo). Do you agree?

SZ: If by “political struggle” we refer to an existential resistance, I agree. But just as I don’t see Hermeneutic Communism as a political book, neither is Why Only Art Can Save Us a contribution to aesthetics or to art theory. Instead, they are both attempts to disclose what remains of Being, that is, existence. This does not mean that communism and visual art are not central themes in the books, but they are functional to the emergence of Being, which has always been philosophy’s main concern.

Q: Contrary to Mazzini and Woessner, who wrote favorable reviews, Paul A. Kottman in Public Seminar believes there is a “crisis of authenticity” in academic philosophy and in contemporary art that you share with Cattelan’s work. You are both part of the problem.

SZ: I wish! It would be wonderful if my philosophy could do what Cattelan is doing to contemporary art. As far as authenticity is concerned: I would be much more worried if there wasn’t a crisis. This would imply a return to metaphysics, modernity, or, even worse, logocentrism. The truth is that art can rescue us into this crisis, and philosophy can interpret its meaning. Let’s keep doing both.

Santiago Zabala in conversation with Leonardo Franceschini, a Ph.D. Candidate at the Pompeu Fabra University and Visiting Scholar at East China University of Political Science and Law. 

White People in Pictures: Forgetting Histories and Kazuo Ishiguro’s "The Buried Giant"

April 2, 2018 - 14:41
Tags:  medieval, contemporary novels, contemporary fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro, Racism, history

Since the release of The Buried Giant (2015), several friends have asked me what I think of the novel. That’s because I’m a medievalist. Without skipping a beat, I’ve replied that I love the novel. But that’s not because I’m a medievalist. Or, as I’ve explained, my reasons for being challenged and enthralled by the loosely Arthurian narrative are not due to its explicit engagements with the period I study. And, though I smirked when an aged Sir Gawain made his appearance, and though I thought it clever that Arthur’s finest knight maintained an affectionate bond with his elderly horse (called Homer in this quest narrative), for me these details simply revealed Ishiguro’s participation in a long literary tradition of representing heroic masculinity. As it turns out, though, and in a way that I could only realize since the novel’s 2015 release, heroic masculinity’s historical trajectory connects points of my past to other pasts in ways that I’ve never before acknowledged.

All along, my enthusiasm for the novel derived from issues that have long made me an Ishiguro fan: the tangled imbrication of history, memory, and identity remains a characteristic concern in a work that many reviewers have treated as a radical departure.[1] Like he does in his earlier novels, Ishiguro continues to think through the effects of scale on the stories we tell: how do local histories get articulated in relation to more extended sequences of events? How do our memories of particular experiences get resignified when they are viewed in a broader historical context? And, finally, how do our ideas about difference change when they are moved from the personal to the national domain? In ways I had not fully admitted to myself, this last question, the relationship between alterity, collectivity, and intimacy, does indeed relate to my area of study, and in ways that make studying and teaching the Middle Ages—in all its fictionalized instantiations—even more crucial in this fraught cultural moment.

Late in the story, when the warrior Wistan asks the young Edmund to “hate the Briton” (242;243; 301), he throws into question the entire history of the novel itself.[2] Since this is a novel that features an aged pair of protagonists who struggle to remember anything about their past, it is an understatement to say that this history is hard-won. If the recollective wanderings of Axl and Beatrice have taught us anything (and this is a novel one must learn to read), it is that the lives we hope we are leading sometimes slip away from us, and that one of our most terrifying challenges is to confront the gap that frequently emerges between the lives we wanted and the lives we lived. Beatrice and Axl wanted to live a life of love, of fidelity, of promises kept.

Their final reckoning, which the novel presents as the most important of their lives, is personal. In every way that counts, they are able to remember their past in a way that remains faithful to the love they believe they’ve shared. This is despite the specter of personal betrayal: memories of infidelity haunt Beatrice, making her dread what she will recall when the mist of forgetfulness lifts and she recovers a full account of their marriage. Through the tenderness of their sustained care for one another, however, Ishiguro’s novel suggests that a continued bond of intimacy will protect the love between Beatrice and Axl, notwithstanding the individual failings that have emerged over time.

Axl, too, is dogged by the past, but the events that return to him almost as waking dreams pose an even greater threat to the love he has shared with Beatrice. When he recalls his experience in Arthur’s court, wherein he served as an ambassador who forwarded a plan for peace between the Britons and Saxons, it is a history of horrific betrayal. Axl assured the leaders of Saxon villages that there would be peace, yet his very identity is upended when he understands that Arthur’s knights have used the cease in hostilities to gain a tactical advantage, and that the king he serves has authorized the slaughter of “their women, children, and elderly, left unprotected after our solemn agreement not to harm them…even the smallest babes” in order, Gawain avers, “for peace to prevail” (212;213). The dragon and the mist she produces is part of Merlin’s design to impose a permanent peace, since, if no one remembers the bloodshed, no one can plot to avenge past wrongs.

It is only in this larger historical context that Wistan’s advice to Edmund makes the slightest bit of sense. Otherwise, how could he instruct the young warrior to be unkind to Britons if the two principal Britons Edmund knows are Beatrice and Axl? The old couple has been unfailingly generous, and they are certainly fonder of him than the villagers who would have seen Edmund killed or exiled on account of the strange bite he bears. They are definitely less treacherous than the scheming monks who seek to murder Edwin and Wistan after taking in the party of beleaguered travelers. If they don’t know that Edmund bears a dragon’s bite, they nevertheless treat his drive to find Merlin’s creature as part of a quest they are willing to join.

The warrior’s instructions to Edwin, however, insist that the kindly old Britons’ participation in history is less than benign. Even if Axl was an agent of good in Arthur’s court, he and Beatrice are complicit in a program of violence that has ensconced their cultural privilege as Britons. If lasting peace benefitted Saxons, as Gawain claims, it did not do so equally, or so Wistan’s desire to kill the dragon indicates. With Wistan’s quest to kill the dragon, along with his program to train Edwin as an agent of vengeance who will revisit recovered wrongs, Ishiguro evokes a larger and more difficult history of racialized oppression, one that is more uncomfortable because it cannot be dismissed as part of Britain’s medieval past.

It might seem obvious that the dragon must be slain, since robbing entire peoples of their collective memories is patently unjust. Beatrice and Axl show, too, the personal stakes of this larger injustice. Yet the violence that the dragon’s death promises to unleash is a complicating aspect of Ishiguro’s medievalized rendering of memory, identity, and history. Wouldn’t it be better, the story asks, for certain aspects of the past to be forgotten? Even if Arthur broke the treaty between peoples, using magic to obscure the slaughter that he and his men undertook against the Saxons, the renewal of common hatred will bring yet more suffering to this fantasized territory. Fears over what we might uncover when we reckon with the past are central to Ishiguro’s novel. These fears, I want to suggest, are not part of a simplified medievalism that Ishiguro uses to obscure his engagement with racialized violence of more recent vintage.[3] In fact, as someone for whom racial violence is part of a recent family history, I can say that Ishiguro’s novel raises terrifying questions about how and when we bring such wrongs to light.

I remember looking through the photos my grandmother kept in a former cake tin, discovering, when I was old enough to notice, a part of my family’s history that is always present and ever hidden: it was a sepia picture of a black man, hanging from a tree by a noose, with a crowd of Sunday-dressed white people fanning out around the murder scene. When I went to my mother, she explained that the photo was of a lynching, and that my teenaged grandfather was somewhere in that crowd. I don’t remember how she presented this story to me, but I do recall how it filled me with shame. I’ve tried to process this part of my family’s history ever since, and, after talking about this episode with a friend, she sent me to the haunting story by James Baldwin, “Going to Meet the Man.”[4]

Baldwin describes the torture and murder of a black man by a white lynch mob in graphic detail, showing the ways that white supremacy and patriarchal privilege converge: the narrator is sexually empowered by the degrading violence he remembers witnessing as a boy. In that instance, the white townspeople dress as if they are going to church, and the narrator recalls that his mother “was more beautiful than he had ever seen her, and more strange. He began to feel a joy he had never felt before” (1760). The young boy, who witnesses this gruesome enactment of white supremacy, knows that the disgusting murder he watches is part of his initiation into a circle of love. The boy is part of a community, one where he experiences love because he assumes a mantle of hatred. As he concludes, “At that moment [the narrator] loved his father more than he had ever loved him. He felt that his father had carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever” (1760-1).[5]

I’m certain my mother offered me a similar invitation when she explained the photo I showed her. Were I to take on the version of whiteness that this photo endorsed, I would be part of “our family,” included in a terrible history held together in violence, secrecy, shame, and affection. Though I struggle to remember her account in this instance, there have been other such invitations, which I’ve sardonically labeled, “Welcome to Whiteness” moments, and I know I’m not alone in being told, often through difficult, traumatic stories of the past, how racial difference works, and how I am supposed to align myself given certain historical divides. In his memoir, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist (2013), Tim Parrish movingly describes his white-supremacism as a teenager as part of pressure to fulfill certain expectations for masculinity prized by his father, grandfather, and other male relatives in south Louisiana.[6] It was only as he grew older that he understood how his love had been coopted to promote a racial hatred he knew he had to abandon.

At the level of personal, family history, my first impulse is to see Wistan’s instructions to Edwin in this light: when the warrior elicits a promise from Edwin, he pressures the young man to perpetuate old hatred in exchange for, and as a sign of, affection: “We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman, and child of their blood. So promise me this. Should I fall before I pass to you my skills, promise me you’ll tend well this hatred in your heart. And should it ever flicker or threaten to die, shield it with care till the flame takes hold again” (242). To live up to the warrior ideal that Wistan instills, furthermore, is to take on certain enmities, even those with which Edwin has no experience, and for which he supposedly has no cause. Edwin puzzles over Wistan’s instructions, “Must I hate a Briton who shares with me his bread?” (242), seemingly confirming their misplaced, outmoded violence. Heroic masculinity passes on a legacy of hatred and violence that continues, perhaps entrenches, old injustices.

Yet Edwin’s personal history suggests another reading as well: the voice of the young man’s “mother,” which the dragon uses to draw Edwin to her over the course of the novel, recounts a disturbing, haunting story of violation that makes Wistan’s instructions personally relevant. Through the dragon’s prompting, “Find the strength and come rescue me,” we learn that Edwin’s mother was taken by a band of men (87, et passim). The voice Edwin hears urges him to rescue her, but, through Wistan’s questioning, it becomes clear she is beyond recovery: “It was Britons took your mother and mine” (242). She was taken by passing Briton men in the same fashion as Wistan’s mother. That these two warriors share this experience as a common point in their personal histories is not coincidental; rather, it suggests a sustained practice, a naturalization of systemic violence—the plunder of bodies viewed as disposable on account of a racialized history of difference—that the Saxons remain subjected to even in this period of “peace” with Britons.

This history of systemic, habitual violation—which in this story is so marginalized that it is never fully articulated—should, I propose, connect The Buried Giant to more recent responses to racial injustice. In a moving address to his son, which, in its form, eloquence, and passion is a tribute to Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), Ta-Nehisi Coates protests “the plunder of black life” that has distinguished white privilege in the U.S (111). Between the World and Me (2015) details the casual, quotidian violence that African-Americans continue to experience, but Coates also identifies the ways that “those Americans who believe that they are white” stake their supremacy on an assumption that no one sees the degradations they perpetrate as meaningful violence (6, et passim), or the kind of violation that might warrant retribution, or at least restitution.[7]

Unlike Wistan, Coates never suggests that the hatred visited upon African-American men be returned in kind; rather, with the defining question that he poses to his son, “how one should live within a black body” (12), he bolsters the profound case he makes for reparations as a belated acknowledgment of slavery as plunder of a fundamentally material kind.[8] With his cautionary advice to his son, “The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are” (99), Coates details the systemic damage that violence against individual bodies perpetrates against an entire people. Importantly, Coates uncovers a structural connection between individual acts of violence and national histories of oppression. This is an idea Coates and Ishiguro share, I want to suggest. If we think it is inapposite or inappropriate to connect an Arthurian tale of legendary betrayal to the lived history of chattel slavery, a return to Edwin’s experiences in Ishiguro’s novel demonstrates why certain histories cannot be suppressed, even in the name of broader peace. The story I’ve presented, above, of a photograph that reveals my family’s history of racial violence, is not really our history at all.

Or, rather, it is not simply or only my family’s history. As Daina Ramey Berry has observed, the fetish objects of white terror are actually artefacts of other family histories, most of which are now lost: the restoration of the skull of Nat Turner to his family comes after “[t]he skull had been kept as a relic, sold and probably handed down through generations, for nearly 185 years.” It is only because Nat Turner is known to history that, as Berry remarks, “Turner’s family will have the opportunity to lay their famous relative to rest.”[9] The photo my family kept attests to the perpetuation of white supremacy through familial histories, but, and I’ve come to see this as more important on account of The Buried Giant, that photo is also the last evidence of what happened to someone’s father, brother, or son. This photo really—or at least equally—should have belonged to someone else, the family of a man whose individual identity is lost to a broader history of racial oppression. 

I don’t know who the man in that picture is, and, even if I could find the photo (my grandmother’s belongings were scattered when her house fell to pieces after her health’s demise—more on that little tidbit of the past in a future post), I don’t know how to find the man’s family. Not coincidentally, I think, Ishiguro deals with this confusion: much of the novel involves Axl and Beatrice’s search for their son, as well as their inability to recall the intimate details that might lead them back to the narrative thread of the life they shared together. Loss, even the most personal loss, happens in the shadow of broader historical events, and Ishiguro’s novel explores an equally important dimension of personal memory and its attendant losses that I don’t even touch in this post.

But again, as I want to suggest, The Buried Giant shows that destruction of families happens as a consequence of broader violence, and it is a larger history of racial oppression in the American south that prevents my complete reckoning with this past. This is because the county where my grandfather grew up—Kemper County, Mississippi—had the second highest rate of documented lynchings in the state between 1877 and 1950.[10] Murders like the one featured in this photo were not unknown, and not uncommon, in this area. The only thing I have come to understand, and again, one might say in an unlikely fashion, is that the white people in pictures from this era should not remain anonymous, lost to the collective haze of cultural memory featured in Ishiguro’s Buried Giant. Covering over such histories might keep the peace, but losing these memories also perpetuates violation.

Wistan urges Edwin to vengeance because the violence against the Saxons has never ceased. When Axl remembers what the Britons did, he knows that war will return to this martial landscape. This is a grim conclusion, but it is one that follows from the systemic, calculated campaign of oppression that the Britons have instituted and maintained across this novel’s history. That Axl recognizes and understands the consequences of this campaign is the most hopeful aspect of this ending. Therefore, by identifying the injustice that extends from Arthur to Merlin to Gawain to the dragon herself, Axl suggests that histories of oppression might be recollected and redressed. Doing so might involve pain—perhaps it will even warrant vengeance—but the violation can stop with a reckoning that refuses to bury difficult elements of a shared past.

Following the election of Donald J. Trump as president, “crunkadelic” at the Crunk Feminist Collective urged white readers to “Get your people.”[11] After the white supremacist march and murder in Charlottesville, people of color have expressed further frustration that the labor—emotional as well as physical—required to change racist attitudes and practices in this country falls on those who continue to be victimized by these very forms of violence. As Sa’iyda Shabazz remarked in a moment of exasperation, “White folks, this is your mess to clean up. Y’all created it. Y’all need to fix it.[12] I suggest that this gathering, this reckoning, requires a longer view, one that addresses how systemic oppression gets mystified—and then forgotten—by those it benefits.

The task of white allies is not, as Shannon Sullivan makes clear in her sharp analysis, Good White People (2014), “to let white people off the racist hook that they’ve hung themselves on” (10). It is, as Sullivan argues, to change whiteness through what she characterizes as a “loving” reassessment and reinscription.[13] This is not to treat whiteness as a source only of benighted shame; instead, it is to acknowledge the painful injustices entailed by whiteness so that these cannot be appropriated by a new generation of white supremacists. In something of an irony, it is to claim those racist histories so that they cannot be redeployed by those seeking to perpetuate the violence and plunder that has characterized whiteness in this country.

Facing up to my family’s perpetuation of racist violence does not excuse me from that history of violence. This is not a redemptive reckoning: white woman gets real about her racist relatives. Rather, it is to say that I’m recalling this past to fight for a new history, one that, as Noel Ignatiev has long argued, might amount to abolishing what we have heretofore thought of as whiteness.[14] Yet, here again, medieval studies is instructive: medievalists—especially those who study “medievalism,” or the reinvention of the Middle Ages for later periods—are fighting the good fight to make sure that white supremacists remain unable to appropriate the field.[15] When white supremacists seek to ground their hatred in the Middle Ages, or use symbols and stories from that era to galvanize their violence, historians, religious studies scholars, and literary critics have all worked to demystify these moves, by calling them out as a practice of racist violence that is deliberately unfaithful to the medieval past.

As a medievalist, and as someone whose relatives are the white people in pictures from our nation’s racist past, I suggest that white allies need to do the same. Not by forgetting, and not by using the mists of myth to obscure the violence entailed by a particular, personal history of violence. In her urgent call to action, “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy,” Dorothy Kim rightly remarks, “Neutrality is not optional.”[16] As The Buried Giant reveals, to conclude with a return to my personally inflected response to Ishiguro’s latest novel, forgetting, mystifying, or covering history in familial or regional myth only serves to perpetuate racialized violence and erase its victims.

[1] For examples, see Neil Gaiman, “Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant,’” (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/books/review/kazuo-ishiguros-the-buried-giant.html); Tom Holland, “The Buried Giant review – Kazuo Ishiguro ventures into Tolkien territory,” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/04/the-buried-giant-review-kazuo-ishiguro-tolkien-britain-mythical-past); and James Wood, “The Uses of Oblivion: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant.” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/the-uses-of-oblivion).

[2] Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (New York: Knopf, 2015). All parenthetical citations are from this edition.

[3] In an extremely helpful post, David Matthews, “Exhuming the Giant” (http://newchaucersociety.org/blog/entry/exhuming-the-giant), sets Ishiguro’s novel in a context of earlier medievalisms and the genre of the novel, concluding, “What critics have missed about The Buried Giant is that we are now far beyond the comforting nostalgia in which so much medievalist narrative was characteristically invested.”

[4] Thanks to Gretchen Woertendyke for helping me make this connection.

[5] James Baldwin, “Going to Meet the Man,” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Ed., Ed. Henry Louis Gates, et. Al. (New York: Norton, 2004). All parenthetical citations are from this edition.

[6] Tim Parrish, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, A Memoir (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 2013).

[7]Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015). All parenthetical citations are from this edition.

[8] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/opinion/nat-turners-skull-and-my-students-purse-of-skin.html

[10] Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. SUPPLEMENT: Lynchings by County, Second Edition (Equal Justice Initiative, 122 Commerce Street,

Montgomery, Alabama 36104. www.eji.org). [p. 5].

[11] http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2016/11/09/get-your-people/

[12] https://theestablishment.co/white-people-we-cant-dismantle-trump-and-racism-without-you-e408d1415739

[13] Shannon Sullivan, Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press 2014).

[14] https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2002/09/abolish-the-white-race.html

[15] https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-racism-middle-ages-toc/

[16] http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/08/teaching-medieval-studies-in-time-of.html.

 

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

White People in Pictures: Forgetting Histories and Kazuo Ishiguro’s "The Buried Giant"

April 2, 2018 - 14:41

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Since the release of The Buried Giant (2015), several friends have asked me what I think of the novel. That’s because I’m a medievalist. Without skipping a beat, I’ve replied that I love the novel. But that’s not because I’m a medievalist. Or, as I’ve explained, my reasons for being challenged and enthralled by the loosely Arthurian narrative are not due to its explicit engagements with the period I study. And, though I smirked when an aged Sir Gawain made his appearance, and though I thought it clever that Arthur’s finest knight maintained an affectionate bond with his elderly horse (called Homer in this quest narrative), for me these details simply revealed Ishiguro’s participation in a long literary tradition of representing heroic masculinity. As it turns out, though, and in a way that I could only realize since the novel’s 2015 release, heroic masculinity’s historical trajectory connects points of my past to other pasts in ways that I’ve never before acknowledged.

All along, my enthusiasm for the novel derived from issues that have long made me an Ishiguro fan: the tangled imbrication of history, memory, and identity remains a characteristic concern in a work that many reviewers have treated as a radical departure.[1] Like he does in his earlier novels, Ishiguro continues to think through the effects of scale on the stories we tell: how do local histories get articulated in relation to more extended sequences of events? How do our memories of particular experiences get resignified when they are viewed in a broader historical context? And, finally, how do our ideas about difference change when they are moved from the personal to the national domain? In ways I had not fully admitted to myself, this last question, the relationship between alterity, collectivity, and intimacy, does indeed relate to my area of study, and in ways that make studying and teaching the Middle Ages—in all its fictionalized instantiations—even more crucial in this fraught cultural moment.

Late in the story, when the warrior Wistan asks the young Edmund to “hate the Briton” (242;243; 301), he throws into question the entire history of the novel itself.[2] Since this is a novel that features an aged pair of protagonists who struggle to remember anything about their past, it is an understatement to say that this history is hard-won. If the recollective wanderings of Axl and Beatrice have taught us anything (and this is a novel one must learn to read), it is that the lives we hope we are leading sometimes slip away from us, and that one of our most terrifying challenges is to confront the gap that frequently emerges between the lives we wanted and the lives we lived. Beatrice and Axl wanted to live a life of love, of fidelity, of promises kept.

Their final reckoning, which the novel presents as the most important of their lives, is personal. In every way that counts, they are able to remember their past in a way that remains faithful to the love they believe they’ve shared. This is despite the specter of personal betrayal: memories of infidelity haunt Beatrice, making her dread what she will recall when the mist of forgetfulness lifts and she recovers a full account of their marriage. Through the tenderness of their sustained care for one another, however, Ishiguro’s novel suggests that a continued bond of intimacy will protect the love between Beatrice and Axl, notwithstanding the individual failings that have emerged over time.

Axl, too, is dogged by the past, but the events that return to him almost as waking dreams pose an even greater threat to the love he has shared with Beatrice. When he recalls his experience in Arthur’s court, wherein he served as an ambassador who forwarded a plan for peace between the Britons and Saxons, it is a history of horrific betrayal. Axl assured the leaders of Saxon villages that there would be peace, yet his very identity is upended when he understands that Arthur’s knights have used the cease in hostilities to gain a tactical advantage, and that the king he serves has authorized the slaughter of “their women, children, and elderly, left unprotected after our solemn agreement not to harm them…even the smallest babes” in order, Gawain avers, “for peace to prevail” (212;213). The dragon and the mist she produces is part of Merlin’s design to impose a permanent peace, since, if no one remembers the bloodshed, no one can plot to avenge past wrongs.

It is only in this larger historical context that Wistan’s advice to Edmund makes the slightest bit of sense. Otherwise, how could he instruct the young warrior to be unkind to Britons if the two principal Britons Edmund knows are Beatrice and Axl? The old couple has been unfailingly generous, and they are certainly fonder of him than the villagers who would have seen Edmund killed or exiled on account of the strange bite he bears. They are definitely less treacherous than the scheming monks who seek to murder Edwin and Wistan after taking in the party of beleaguered travelers. If they don’t know that Edmund bears a dragon’s bite, they nevertheless treat his drive to find Merlin’s creature as part of a quest they are willing to join.

The warrior’s instructions to Edwin, however, insist that the kindly old Britons’ participation in history is less than benign. Even if Axl was an agent of good in Arthur’s court, he and Beatrice are complicit in a program of violence that has ensconced their cultural privilege as Britons. If lasting peace benefitted Saxons, as Gawain claims, it did not do so equally, or so Wistan’s desire to kill the dragon indicates. With Wistan’s quest to kill the dragon, along with his program to train Edwin as an agent of vengeance who will revisit recovered wrongs, Ishiguro evokes a larger and more difficult history of racialized oppression, one that is more uncomfortable because it cannot be dismissed as part of Britain’s medieval past.

It might seem obvious that the dragon must be slain, since robbing entire peoples of their collective memories is patently unjust. Beatrice and Axl show, too, the personal stakes of this larger injustice. Yet the violence that the dragon’s death promises to unleash is a complicating aspect of Ishiguro’s medievalized rendering of memory, identity, and history. Wouldn’t it be better, the story asks, for certain aspects of the past to be forgotten? Even if Arthur broke the treaty between peoples, using magic to obscure the slaughter that he and his men undertook against the Saxons, the renewal of common hatred will bring yet more suffering to this fantasized territory. Fears over what we might uncover when we reckon with the past are central to Ishiguro’s novel. These fears, I want to suggest, are not part of a simplified medievalism that Ishiguro uses to obscure his engagement with racialized violence of more recent vintage.[3] In fact, as someone for whom racial violence is part of a recent family history, I can say that Ishiguro’s novel raises terrifying questions about how and when we bring such wrongs to light.

I remember looking through the photos my grandmother kept in a former cake tin, discovering, when I was old enough to notice, a part of my family’s history that is always present and ever hidden: it was a sepia picture of a black man, hanging from a tree by a noose, with a crowd of Sunday-dressed white people fanning out around the murder scene. When I went to my mother, she explained that the photo was of a lynching, and that my teenaged grandfather was somewhere in that crowd. I don’t remember how she presented this story to me, but I do recall how it filled me with shame. I’ve tried to process this part of my family’s history ever since, and, after talking about this episode with a friend, she sent me to the haunting story by James Baldwin, “Going to Meet the Man.”[4]

Baldwin describes the torture and murder of a black man by a white lynch mob in graphic detail, showing the ways that white supremacy and patriarchal privilege converge: the narrator is sexually empowered by the degrading violence he remembers witnessing as a boy. In that instance, the white townspeople dress as if they are going to church, and the narrator recalls that his mother “was more beautiful than he had ever seen her, and more strange. He began to feel a joy he had never felt before” (1760). The young boy, who witnesses this gruesome enactment of white supremacy, knows that the disgusting murder he watches is part of his initiation into a circle of love. The boy is part of a community, one where he experiences love because he assumes a mantle of hatred. As he concludes, “At that moment [the narrator] loved his father more than he had ever loved him. He felt that his father had carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever” (1760-1).[5]

I’m certain my mother offered me a similar invitation when she explained the photo I showed her. Were I to take on the version of whiteness that this photo endorsed, I would be part of “our family,” included in a terrible history held together in violence, secrecy, shame, and affection. Though I struggle to remember her account in this instance, there have been other such invitations, which I’ve sardonically labeled, “Welcome to Whiteness” moments, and I know I’m not alone in being told, often through difficult, traumatic stories of the past, how racial difference works, and how I am supposed to align myself given certain historical divides. In his memoir, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist (2013), Tim Parrish movingly describes his white-supremacism as a teenager as part of pressure to fulfill certain expectations for masculinity prized by his father, grandfather, and other male relatives in south Louisiana.[6] It was only as he grew older that he understood how his love had been coopted to promote a racial hatred he knew he had to abandon.

At the level of personal, family history, my first impulse is to see Wistan’s instructions to Edwin in this light: when the warrior elicits a promise from Edwin, he pressures the young man to perpetuate old hatred in exchange for, and as a sign of, affection: “We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman, and child of their blood. So promise me this. Should I fall before I pass to you my skills, promise me you’ll tend well this hatred in your heart. And should it ever flicker or threaten to die, shield it with care till the flame takes hold again” (242). To live up to the warrior ideal that Wistan instills, furthermore, is to take on certain enmities, even those with which Edwin has no experience, and for which he supposedly has no cause. Edwin puzzles over Wistan’s instructions, “Must I hate a Briton who shares with me his bread?” (242), seemingly confirming their misplaced, outmoded violence. Heroic masculinity passes on a legacy of hatred and violence that continues, perhaps entrenches, old injustices.

Yet Edwin’s personal history suggests another reading as well: the voice of the young man’s “mother,” which the dragon uses to draw Edwin to her over the course of the novel, recounts a disturbing, haunting story of violation that makes Wistan’s instructions personally relevant. Through the dragon’s prompting, “Find the strength and come rescue me,” we learn that Edwin’s mother was taken by a band of men (87, et passim). The voice Edwin hears urges him to rescue her, but, through Wistan’s questioning, it becomes clear she is beyond recovery: “It was Britons took your mother and mine” (242). She was taken by passing Briton men in the same fashion as Wistan’s mother. That these two warriors share this experience as a common point in their personal histories is not coincidental; rather, it suggests a sustained practice, a naturalization of systemic violence—the plunder of bodies viewed as disposable on account of a racialized history of difference—that the Saxons remain subjected to even in this period of “peace” with Britons.

This history of systemic, habitual violation—which in this story is so marginalized that it is never fully articulated—should, I propose, connect The Buried Giant to more recent responses to racial injustice. In a moving address to his son, which, in its form, eloquence, and passion is a tribute to Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), Ta-Nehisi Coates protests “the plunder of black life” that has distinguished white privilege in the U.S (111). Between the World and Me (2015) details the casual, quotidian violence that African-Americans continue to experience, but Coates also identifies the ways that “those Americans who believe that they are white” stake their supremacy on an assumption that no one sees the degradations they perpetrate as meaningful violence (6, et passim), or the kind of violation that might warrant retribution, or at least restitution.[7]

Unlike Wistan, Coates never suggests that the hatred visited upon African-American men be returned in kind; rather, with the defining question that he poses to his son, “how one should live within a black body” (12), he bolsters the profound case he makes for reparations as a belated acknowledgment of slavery as plunder of a fundamentally material kind.[8] With his cautionary advice to his son, “The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are” (99), Coates details the systemic damage that violence against individual bodies perpetrates against an entire people. Importantly, Coates uncovers a structural connection between individual acts of violence and national histories of oppression. This is an idea Coates and Ishiguro share, I want to suggest. If we think it is inapposite or inappropriate to connect an Arthurian tale of legendary betrayal to the lived history of chattel slavery, a return to Edwin’s experiences in Ishiguro’s novel demonstrates why certain histories cannot be suppressed, even in the name of broader peace. The story I’ve presented, above, of a photograph that reveals my family’s history of racial violence, is not really our history at all.

Or, rather, it is not simply or only my family’s history. As Daina Ramey Berry has observed, the fetish objects of white terror are actually artefacts of other family histories, most of which are now lost: the restoration of the skull of Nat Turner to his family comes after “[t]he skull had been kept as a relic, sold and probably handed down through generations, for nearly 185 years.” It is only because Nat Turner is known to history that, as Berry remarks, “Turner’s family will have the opportunity to lay their famous relative to rest.”[9] The photo my family kept attests to the perpetuation of white supremacy through familial histories, but, and I’ve come to see this as more important on account of The Buried Giant, that photo is also the last evidence of what happened to someone’s father, brother, or son. This photo really—or at least equally—should have belonged to someone else, the family of a man whose individual identity is lost to a broader history of racial oppression. 

I don’t know who the man in that picture is, and, even if I could find the photo (my grandmother’s belongings were scattered when her house fell to pieces after her health’s demise—more on that little tidbit of the past in a future post), I don’t know how to find the man’s family. Not coincidentally, I think, Ishiguro deals with this confusion: much of the novel involves Axl and Beatrice’s search for their son, as well as their inability to recall the intimate details that might lead them back to the narrative thread of the life they shared together. Loss, even the most personal loss, happens in the shadow of broader historical events, and Ishiguro’s novel explores an equally important dimension of personal memory and its attendant losses that I don’t even touch in this post.

But again, as I want to suggest, The Buried Giant shows that destruction of families happens as a consequence of broader violence, and it is a larger history of racial oppression in the American south that prevents my complete reckoning with this past. This is because the county where my grandfather grew up—Kemper County, Mississippi—had the second highest rate of documented lynchings in the state between 1877 and 1950.[10] Murders like the one featured in this photo were not unknown, and not uncommon, in this area. The only thing I have come to understand, and again, one might say in an unlikely fashion, is that the white people in pictures from this era should not remain anonymous, lost to the collective haze of cultural memory featured in Ishiguro’s Buried Giant. Covering over such histories might keep the peace, but losing these memories also perpetuates violation.

Wistan urges Edwin to vengeance because the violence against the Saxons has never ceased. When Axl remembers what the Britons did, he knows that war will return to this martial landscape. This is a grim conclusion, but it is one that follows from the systemic, calculated campaign of oppression that the Britons have instituted and maintained across this novel’s history. That Axl recognizes and understands the consequences of this campaign is the most hopeful aspect of this ending. Therefore, by identifying the injustice that extends from Arthur to Merlin to Gawain to the dragon herself, Axl suggests that histories of oppression might be recollected and redressed. Doing so might involve pain—perhaps it will even warrant vengeance—but the violation can stop with a reckoning that refuses to bury difficult elements of a shared past.

Following the election of Donald J. Trump as president, “crunkadelic” at the Crunk Feminist Collective urged white readers to “Get your people.”[11] After the white supremacist march and murder in Charlottesville, people of color have expressed further frustration that the labor—emotional as well as physical—required to change racist attitudes and practices in this country falls on those who continue to be victimized by these very forms of violence. As Sa’iyda Shabazz remarked in a moment of exasperation, “White folks, this is your mess to clean up. Y’all created it. Y’all need to fix it.[12] I suggest that this gathering, this reckoning, requires a longer view, one that addresses how systemic oppression gets mystified—and then forgotten—by those it benefits.

The task of white allies is not, as Shannon Sullivan makes clear in her sharp analysis, Good White People (2014), “to let white people off the racist hook that they’ve hung themselves on” (10). It is, as Sullivan argues, to change whiteness through what she characterizes as a “loving” reassessment and reinscription.[13] This is not to treat whiteness as a source only of benighted shame; instead, it is to acknowledge the painful injustices entailed by whiteness so that these cannot be appropriated by a new generation of white supremacists. In something of an irony, it is to claim those racist histories so that they cannot be redeployed by those seeking to perpetuate the violence and plunder that has characterized whiteness in this country.

Facing up to my family’s perpetuation of racist violence does not excuse me from that history of violence. This is not a redemptive reckoning: white woman gets real about her racist relatives. Rather, it is to say that I’m recalling this past to fight for a new history, one that, as Noel Ignatiev has long argued, might amount to abolishing what we have heretofore thought of as whiteness.[14] Yet, here again, medieval studies is instructive: medievalists—especially those who study “medievalism,” or the reinvention of the Middle Ages for later periods—are fighting the good fight to make sure that white supremacists remain unable to appropriate the field.[15] When white supremacists seek to ground their hatred in the Middle Ages, or use symbols and stories from that era to galvanize their violence, historians, religious studies scholars, and literary critics have all worked to demystify these moves, by calling them out as a practice of racist violence that is deliberately unfaithful to the medieval past.

As a medievalist, and as someone whose relatives are the white people in pictures from our nation’s racist past, I suggest that white allies need to do the same. Not by forgetting, and not by using the mists of myth to obscure the violence entailed by a particular, personal history of violence. In her urgent call to action, “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy,” Dorothy Kim rightly remarks, “Neutrality is not optional.”[16] As The Buried Giant reveals, to conclude with a return to my personally inflected response to Ishiguro’s latest novel, forgetting, mystifying, or covering history in familial or regional myth only serves to perpetuate racialized violence and erase its victims.

[1] For examples, see Neil Gaiman, “Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant,’” (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/books/review/kazuo-ishiguros-the-buried-giant.html); Tom Holland, “The Buried Giant review – Kazuo Ishiguro ventures into Tolkien territory,” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/04/the-buried-giant-review-kazuo-ishiguro-tolkien-britain-mythical-past); and James Wood, “The Uses of Oblivion: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant.” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/the-uses-of-oblivion).

[2] Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (New York: Knopf, 2015). All parenthetical citations are from this edition.

[3] In an extremely helpful post, David Matthews, “Exhuming the Giant” (http://newchaucersociety.org/blog/entry/exhuming-the-giant), sets Ishiguro’s novel in a context of earlier medievalisms and the genre of the novel, concluding, “What critics have missed about The Buried Giant is that we are now far beyond the comforting nostalgia in which so much medievalist narrative was characteristically invested.”

[4] Thanks to Gretchen Woertendyke for helping me make this connection.

[5] James Baldwin, “Going to Meet the Man,” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Ed., Ed. Henry Louis Gates, et. Al. (New York: Norton, 2004). All parenthetical citations are from this edition.

[6] Tim Parrish, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, A Memoir (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 2013).

[7]Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015). All parenthetical citations are from this edition.

[8] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/opinion/nat-turners-skull-and-my-students-purse-of-skin.html

[10] Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. SUPPLEMENT: Lynchings by County, Second Edition (Equal Justice Initiative, 122 Commerce Street,

Montgomery, Alabama 36104. www.eji.org). [p. 5].

[11] http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2016/11/09/get-your-people/

[12] https://theestablishment.co/white-people-we-cant-dismantle-trump-and-racism-without-you-e408d1415739

[13] Shannon Sullivan, Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press 2014).

[14] https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2002/09/abolish-the-white-race.html

[15] https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-racism-middle-ages-toc/

[16] http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/08/teaching-medieval-studies-in-time-of.html.

 

Whence Newton in the Seventeenth-Century Afro-American Tropics?

March 22, 2018 - 13:21
Tags:  Caribbean, Colonial Period, slavery, medicine, History of Science

Pablo Gómez’s The Experiential Caribbean identifies healers in seventeenth-century Cartagena and Tierra Firme who produced early-modern epistemologies comparable to those of Bacon, Newton and the Royal Society in London and Cambridge. Both groups privileged empiricism over dogma, the materiality of the experiential over the metaphysical, the utilitarian and the pragmatic over the theoretical. Yet Gómez’s Cartageneros thrived in a milieu characterized by death, slavery, deracination, and migration. Cartageneros were also blacks.

Gómez’s Caribbean is one in which tens of thousands of Africans disembarked every year to become household slaves. This was not a society of integrated plantations but of slaves-for-hire in a commercial hub. Cartagenero slaves did not necessarily live under their master’s roof. Slaves were sailors, traders, artisans, and, most important, itinerant healers. This was a world in which first generation African slaves could save, self-purchase manumit, and become vecinos and settlers. Africans could also achieve citizenship by running away to maroon communities. After resisting military campaigns, maroons often signed treaties; ran-away slaves could therefore become vecinos of autonomous towns.

Gómez zeroes in on Cartagenero black healers to demonstrate that these practitioners, called Mohanes, developed languages of the “experiential” to address the cosmopolies that was Cartagena, a veritable Babel where slaves spoke more than 70 languages as they came from all regions of West Africa, from Cacheu to Benguela. There were also Europeans of all nationalities as well as the survivors of a variety of indigenous communities.

These deracinated cosmopolitans, however, could not communicate through the language of dominant medical doctrines. Healers did not seek to explore the black box that was the body. Galenic medicine offered a hydraulic model in which four bodily fluids were in constant transmutation. Diet, climate, sleep, sexual activity, and exercise could alter this hydraulic equilibrium; so too could enemas, leeches, and emetics. Yet Galenic medicine was just one of many models striving for attention among Mohanes in the medical bazaar that was Cartagena. Practitioners were promiscuous in their eclecticism. Practice was not subordinated to the creation of systems; rather systems were subordinated to the specificities and contingencies of each individual case

How did healers communicate to individuals and communities the nature of disease wrecking the body within? Gómez’s contends that black practitioners spoke through the performance of materiality. As bundles of strange objects emerged from cavities onto the surface of bodies, audiences were exposed to the unintelligible mechanics of the body. Practitioners communicated with patients by smelling, tasting, and touching. Mohanes did not seek to be understood by their audiences. They uttered strange sounds in obscure languages. Unintelligibility was the very source of their authority. What most mattered was the materiality of the performance itself.

Gómez emphasizes that healers built huge pharmacopoeias without seeking to identify the universal properties of each drug. Healers manipulated materia medica in the same way that they consumed theories: each substance was deployed to address the individuality of the contingent. In short, there was no search for a language of the universal. The world of Mohanes was a world of particulars.

Yet performance was also a theater of the social. Mohanes cured the body by curing the body polity. Gómez insists that Mohanes were attuned to conflict within communities and saw equilibrium within the body as social peace. Bodily purges in rituals were symbolical exercises to identify troublemakers or to excise miscreants. These healers were powerful because they were dexterous readers of the palimpsest of the social.

Finally, Gómez also argues that authority came from the miraculous and the marvelous. Practitioners built epistemological authority in displays of preternatural power, not supernatural ones. In fact, practitioners adamantly denied any intervention in the realm of the supernatural when providing testimony to the Inquisition.

Remarkably, Christian bishops seeking relief from disease relied on those very black practitioners the bishops themselves had found guilty and condemned. Gómez offers many examples of practitioners that the Inquisition scattered into hospitals all over the urban landscape. Black practitioners used the massive infrastructure of charitable hospices and hostels, originally created to tend to the poor and the infirm, to peddle their wares.

Gómez follows one hundred Mohanes over the course of the seventeenth century through the archives of the Inquisition. Yet Gómez’s is not the story of victimized slaves disciplined by both physical coercion and ideologies of racial subordination. He repurposes documents on alleged black wizards and sorcerers to claim that these healers were among the most creative and powerful intellectuals of the global early-modern period. This upsets powerful and normative historiographies in both Latin American history and the history of science, therein lies the power of this study.

There are patterns, however, that indicate that the black practitioners of his story might have not been as exceptional and as modern as Gómez suggests. He follows some Mohanes whose authority depended on the ability to manipulate the weather through preternatural means. Yet, in seventeenth-century Spanish America, there were pious non-Mohanes who also stopped storms, calmed the seas, and caused ferocious animals to behave like pets. Moreover, these virtuous men and women could also cure. Like the Mohanes, the saintly-pious never sought to provide theoretical models for their actions. Each healing act was singular. The virtuous also acted through the materiality of performance, extracting bundles of objects (including spindles and frogs) from within the bodily cavities of the exorcised. Using a vast pharmacopoeia of unclassifiable individual objects, these men and women cured the ill. The sacristies of parishes, cloisters, and cathedrals acted as pharmacies, housing the materia medica of Catholic Christianity: relics. Churches and cloisters were also sites for the empirical creation of knowledge and healing in the early-modern Atlantic. The modernity of the experiential in the vast global medical markets of America was every bit as Catholic as it was Afro-Caribbean.

Review of Pablo Gómez’s The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic (UNC, 2017).

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Whence Newton in the Seventeenth-Century Afro-American Tropics?

March 22, 2018 - 13:21
Tags:  Caribbean, Colonial Period, slavery, medicine, History of Science

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Pablo Gómez’s The Experiential Caribbean identifies healers in seventeenth-century Cartagena and Tierra Firme who produced early-modern epistemologies comparable to those of Bacon, Newton and the Royal Society in London and Cambridge. Both groups privileged empiricism over dogma, the materiality of the experiential over the metaphysical, the utilitarian and the pragmatic over the theoretical. Yet Gómez’s Cartageneros thrived in a milieu characterized by death, slavery, deracination, and migration. Cartageneros were also blacks.

Gómez’s Caribbean is one in which tens of thousands of Africans disembarked every year to become household slaves. This was not a society of integrated plantations but of slaves-for-hire in a commercial hub. Cartagenero slaves did not necessarily live under their master’s roof. Slaves were sailors, traders, artisans, and, most important, itinerant healers. This was a world in which first generation African slaves could save, self-purchase manumit, and become vecinos and settlers. Africans could also achieve citizenship by running away to maroon communities. After resisting military campaigns, maroons often signed treaties; ran-away slaves could therefore become vecinos of autonomous towns.

Gómez zeroes in on Cartagenero black healers to demonstrate that these practitioners, called Mohanes, developed languages of the “experiential” to address the cosmopolies that was Cartagena, a veritable Babel where slaves spoke more than 70 languages as they came from all regions of West Africa, from Cacheu to Benguela. There were also Europeans of all nationalities as well as the survivors of a variety of indigenous communities.

These deracinated cosmopolitans, however, could not communicate through the language of dominant medical doctrines. Healers did not seek to explore the black box that was the body. Galenic medicine offered a hydraulic model in which four bodily fluids were in constant transmutation. Diet, climate, sleep, sexual activity, and exercise could alter this hydraulic equilibrium; so too could enemas, leeches, and emetics. Yet Galenic medicine was just one of many models striving for attention among Mohanes in the medical bazaar that was Cartagena. Practitioners were promiscuous in their eclecticism. Practice was not subordinated to the creation of systems; rather systems were subordinated to the specificities and contingencies of each individual case

How did healers communicate to individuals and communities the nature of disease wrecking the body within? Gómez’s contends that black practitioners spoke through the performance of materiality. As bundles of strange objects emerged from cavities onto the surface of bodies, audiences were exposed to the unintelligible mechanics of the body. Practitioners communicated with patients by smelling, tasting, and touching. Mohanes did not seek to be understood by their audiences. They uttered strange sounds in obscure languages. Unintelligibility was the very source of their authority. What most mattered was the materiality of the performance itself.

Gómez emphasizes that healers built huge pharmacopoeias without seeking to identify the universal properties of each drug. Healers manipulated materia medica in the same way that they consumed theories: each substance was deployed to address the individuality of the contingent. In short, there was no search for a language of the universal. The world of Mohanes was a world of particulars.

Yet performance was also a theater of the social. Mohanes cured the body by curing the body polity. Gómez insists that Mohanes were attuned to conflict within communities and saw equilibrium within the body as social peace. Bodily purges in rituals were symbolical exercises to identify troublemakers or to excise miscreants. These healers were powerful because they were dexterous readers of the palimpsest of the social.

Finally, Gómez also argues that authority came from the miraculous and the marvelous. Practitioners built epistemological authority in displays of preternatural power, not supernatural ones. In fact, practitioners adamantly denied any intervention in the realm of the supernatural when providing testimony to the Inquisition.

Remarkably, Christian bishops seeking relief from disease relied on those very black practitioners the bishops themselves had found guilty and condemned. Gómez offers many examples of practitioners that the Inquisition scattered into hospitals all over the urban landscape. Black practitioners used the massive infrastructure of charitable hospices and hostels, originally created to tend to the poor and the infirm, to peddle their wares.

Gómez follows one hundred Mohanes over the course of the seventeenth century through the archives of the Inquisition. Yet Gómez’s is not the story of victimized slaves disciplined by both physical coercion and ideologies of racial subordination. He repurposes documents on alleged black wizards and sorcerers to claim that these healers were among the most creative and powerful intellectuals of the global early-modern period. This upsets powerful and normative historiographies in both Latin American history and the history of science, therein lies the power of this study.

There are patterns, however, that indicate that the black practitioners of his story might have not been as exceptional and as modern as Gómez suggests. He follows some Mohanes whose authority depended on the ability to manipulate the weather through preternatural means. Yet, in seventeenth-century Spanish America, there were pious non-Mohanes who also stopped storms, calmed the seas, and caused ferocious animals to behave like pets. Moreover, these virtuous men and women could also cure. Like the Mohanes, the saintly-pious never sought to provide theoretical models for their actions. Each healing act was singular. The virtuous also acted through the materiality of performance, extracting bundles of objects (including spindles and frogs) from within the bodily cavities of the exorcised. Using a vast pharmacopoeia of unclassifiable individual objects, these men and women cured the ill. The sacristies of parishes, cloisters, and cathedrals acted as pharmacies, housing the materia medica of Catholic Christianity: relics. Churches and cloisters were also sites for the empirical creation of knowledge and healing in the early-modern Atlantic. The modernity of the experiential in the vast global medical markets of America was every bit as Catholic as it was Afro-Caribbean.

Review of Pablo Gómez’s The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic (UNC, 2017).

Hiding Spaces: on Aki Kaurismäki's "The Other Side of Hope"

March 6, 2018 - 12:01
Tags:  migration, Film, Aki Kaurismaki, Europe, Postcolonialism

Deadpan, unhurried, and sensitive, Aki Kaurismäki’s 2017 film The Other Side of Hope tells the story of a young Syrian immigrant, Khaled. A stowaway who debarks in Finland accidentally, Khaled is now in search of his livelihood and his sister, who has been separated from him during the journey. Initially the film runs along double plotlines: in addition to Khaled’s story, we also have the plight of Wikstrom, a middle-aged Finnish shirt salesman who decides suddenly to change his life. He leaves his wife to her cigarettes and her nail polish, disposes of his plastic-wrapped merchandise, and gambles his way into a sum sizeable enough to buy himself a restaurant. These two stories converge quite late in the film. Khaled has been sleeping in a dumpster behind Wikstrom’s restaurant after having escaped the state-run reception center when his request for asylum is denied and deportation looms. The restaurant staff find him and take him in. What the New York Times calls “an old-fashioned humanistic fable” unfolds in a world of more-or-less hapless good will, real and unexpected warmth between characters, makeshift and often hilarious arrangements for help and protection against the forces of state and white nationalist violence, and a scruffy terrier. It’s not difficult to see why any viewer would find the movie a “declaration of faith in people and in movies.”

This description of the film hinges on a spatial binary: human decency and hospitality played out in the restaurant space versus the chill or hostile conditions Khaled finds outside it, in the street or the state-run reception center. But this isn’t how Kaurismäki works with space. (It is certainly not how he works with characters: Kaurismäki also emphasizes the networked community formed by the refugees at the center, which results in Khaled’s sister’s eventual arrival in Finland, as well as the unexpected aid of one reception center employee.) For contrast, we can compare the Helsinki of The Other Side of Hope to the Le Havre of Le Havre (2011), Kaurismäki’s previous film and the first of what has unofficially been called his migrant or refugee trilogy. Both cities are northern port cities. The set-up of both films is the same: a certain person arrives in a strange country by ship. But only Le Havre opens onto the expanse of the sea: there are sunrises, gulls, a scene at a windy camp on a grassy cliffside. Helsinki, on the other hand, is markedly claustrophobic. Natural light is rare; from the moment of Khaled’s arrival, the city is most often seen at night. Many scenes take place underground, in cavernous parking garages or labyrinthine train stations. The atmosphere into which Khaled emerges from a shipment of coal feels consistently grimy and sterile, almost no matter where he is. Wikstrom’s life, too, has a similarly drab backdrop. The apartment from which he leaves, stained and stuffy, is in itself reason enough to make a break for it—but to where?

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much light or air anywhere: not in the institutionalized order of the reception center, not in the chilly streets of the city, and not in the austere dimness of its interiors. In other words, an ambient depression seeps pervasively everywhere—even into the restaurant, even though it bears the deceptively chipper name “The Golden Pint.” When we first encounter this space, as Wikstrom decides whether or not to buy it, the cook’s been idle in the kitchen so long that—in a touch of the absurd—he’s been completely cobwebbed-over. At no point in the film does anything served to eat look edible; everything in the restaurant, at least, appears to have been there long past its expiration date. From the shipyard quays to The Golden Pint’s wood paneling and creased tablecloths: this Helsinki is flat, matte, and flimsy, like carpet and plywood erected for a play.

The point of this spatial continuity isn’t that Finland is a singularly dreary country. Rather, these spaces are linked in Kaurismäki’s thorough indictment of a set of institutions: the political, social, economic, and affective mechanisms that work in lockstep against migrants like Khaled wherever they go, despite the actions of well-meaning individuals, wherever these are found. Here again, Le Havre provides a useful contrast. Riffing on the cinematic stereotypes of French social life (the sympathetic café owner, baker, grocer, even police investigator), Kaurismäki points towards the possibility of community life in the café, the home, the street, the small shop, the train platform, the commercial vessel. Shabby but colorful, these are the spaces in which people come together against the law to talk, to scheme, and to hide people. Although there are ominous indications that France is marshaling the full forces of its institutions to “deal with” those who seek asylum or at least temporary respite there, in camps near Calais, the action remains deliberately at the level of the benevolent and intentional individual. Spaces can be carved out—hiding spaces, living spaces—for change and for life.

As in Le Havre, spaces in The Other Side of Hope often become hiding spaces: the possibility of saving evasion isn’t off the table. But we might return to the manifest flimsiness of Kaurismäki’s settings. Things look makeshift and precarious because they are. A closet in a parking garage is a secure sleeping space until it is discovered. The restaurant goes through several more or less disastrous incarnations, becoming a dance hall one night, a doomed sushi spot another. Such quick costume changes are more than gags: there is an important link between the sort of cavalier performance of culinary multiculturalism that leads the Golden Pint to try to save itself via Japanese cuisine, and Khaled’s friend’s admonition to him to put up a cheery face, to smile, because “melancholy ones are the first ones they send back.” The restaurant isn’t the opposite of the reception center but in some sense its double in a different key. Both exist according to the market forces that assign value to bodies and cultures. Both arise or fail according to created demand. Kaurismäki shows how the possibility of cultural and geographical border-crossing is very unevenly distributed along lines of nationality, class, gender, religion, and race: an aging businesswoman won’t take the rest of Wikstrom’s stock because she plans to move to Mexico City, where she will “drink sake and dance the hula hula” (she says, seriously), whereas every single border and cultural difference encountered by Khaled could mean the end of his life.

In other words: Kaurismäki’s Finnish city life is marked by the potential transformation of space at any moment under the saturation of economic, political, and cultural forces. Against the backdrop of this spatial precarity, the “stability” offered by the reception center starts seem absurd: although it’s necessary, what do you do with the consolation of a standard-issue toothbrush and scratchy-looking towel when at any moment this “reception” itself might be revoked? This isn’t just the film’s suggestion. Applications for asylum in Finland fluctuated drastically, rising from 3600 in 2014 to 32,400 in 2015. Now the press releases posted on the Finnish Immigration Service’s website indicate that many reception centers are shutting down. News articles cite decreased demand, although it is difficult to imagine that this means a substantial improvement in the situation.

This brings us to the question of the film’s end, and the future Kaurismäki imagines. Khaled’s prospects are ambiguously hopeful in the last scenes—or are they? Like Jim Jarmusch, to whom he is often compared, Kaurismäki frequently manipulates the odd recurring character, a sort of human motif, to great effect. In The Other Side of Hope, there’s a grey-haired musician, usually a little down on his luck, who sings soulful desperate country songs in Finnish. But there is also a band of white nationalists whose brutal racial violence is almost the film’s last word. There is no place fully reinforced against them. Above all, Kaurismäki emphasizes the general impossibility of safety, of “safe space.” There is no place that is not shot through in some way or another with the economic and political forces that have profited some and displaced many, and continue to do so. This is not only happening in Finland: in the US of early 2018, a film about the inhumanity and pervasive danger of a system that functions to deny asylum and force deportation, even if that film is warm-hearted, should also be deeply unsettling.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Hiding Spaces: on Aki Kaurismäki's "The Other Side of Hope"

March 6, 2018 - 12:01
Tags:  migration, Film, Aki Kaurismaki, Europe, Postcolonialism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Deadpan, unhurried, and sensitive, Aki Kaurismäki’s 2017 film The Other Side of Hope tells the story of a young Syrian immigrant, Khaled. A stowaway who debarks in Finland accidentally, Khaled is now in search of his livelihood and his sister, who has been separated from him during the journey. Initially the film runs along double plotlines: in addition to Khaled’s story, we also have the plight of Wikstrom, a middle-aged Finnish shirt salesman who decides suddenly to change his life. He leaves his wife to her cigarettes and her nail polish, disposes of his plastic-wrapped merchandise, and gambles his way into a sum sizeable enough to buy himself a restaurant. These two stories converge quite late in the film. Khaled has been sleeping in a dumpster behind Wikstrom’s restaurant after having escaped the state-run reception center when his request for asylum is denied and deportation looms. The restaurant staff find him and take him in. What the New York Times calls “an old-fashioned humanistic fable” unfolds in a world of more-or-less hapless good will, real and unexpected warmth between characters, makeshift and often hilarious arrangements for help and protection against the forces of state and white nationalist violence, and a scruffy terrier. It’s not difficult to see why any viewer would find the movie a “declaration of faith in people and in movies.”

This description of the film hinges on a spatial binary: human decency and hospitality played out in the restaurant space versus the chill or hostile conditions Khaled finds outside it, in the street or the state-run reception center. But this isn’t how Kaurismäki works with space. (It is certainly not how he works with characters: Kaurismäki also emphasizes the networked community formed by the refugees at the center, which results in Khaled’s sister’s eventual arrival in Finland, as well as the unexpected aid of one reception center employee.) For contrast, we can compare the Helsinki of The Other Side of Hope to the Le Havre of Le Havre, Kaurismäki’s previous film and the first of what has unofficially been called his migrant or refugee trilogy. Both cities are northern port cities. The set-up of both films is the same: a certain person arrives in a strange country by ship. But only Le Havre opens onto the expanse of the sea: there are sunrises, gulls, a scene at a windy camp on a grassy cliffside. Helsinki, on the other hand, is markedly claustrophobic. Natural light is rare; from the moment of Khaled’s arrival, the city is most often seen at night. Many scenes take place underground, in cavernous parking garages or labyrinthine train stations. The atmosphere into which Khaled emerges from a shipment of coal feels consistently grimy and sterile, almost no matter where he is. Wikstrom’s life, too, has a similarly drab backdrop. The apartment from which he leaves, stained and stuffy, is in itself reason enough to make a break for it—but to where?

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much light or air anywhere: not in the institutionalized order of the reception center, not in the chilly streets of the city, and not in the austere dimness of its interiors. In other words, an ambient depression seeps pervasively everywhere—even into the restaurant, even though it bears the deceptively chipper name “The Golden Pint.” When we first encounter this space, as Wikstrom decides whether or not to buy it, the cook’s been idle in the kitchen so long that—in a touch of the absurd—he’s been completely cobwebbed-over. At no point in the film does anything served to eat look edible; everything in the restaurant, at least, appears to have been there long past its expiration date. From the shipyard quays to The Golden Pint’s wood paneling and creased tablecloths: this Helsinki is flat, matte, and flimsy, like carpet and plywood erected for a play.

The point of this spatial continuity isn’t that Finland is a singularly dreary country. Rather, these spaces are linked in Kaurismäki’s thorough indictment of a set of institutions: the political, social, economic, and affective mechanisms that work in lockstep against migrants like Khaled wherever they go, despite the actions of well-meaning individuals, wherever these are found. Here again, Le Havre provides a useful contrast. Riffing on the cinematic stereotypes of French social life (the sympathetic café owner, baker, grocer, even police investigator), Kaurismäki points towards the possibility of community life in the café, the home, the street, the small shop, the train platform, the commercial vessel. Shabby but colorful, these are the spaces in which people come together against the law to talk, to scheme, and to hide people. Although there are ominous indications that France is marshaling the full forces of its institutions to “deal with” those who seek asylum or at least temporary respite there, in camps near Calais, the action remains deliberately at the level of the benevolent and intentional individual. Spaces can be carved out—hiding spaces, living spaces—for change and for life.

As in Le Havre, spaces in The Other Side of Hope often become hiding spaces: the possibility of saving evasion isn’t off the table. But we might return to the manifest flimsiness of Kaurismäki’s settings. Things look makeshift and precarious because they are. A closet in a parking garage is a secure sleeping space until it is discovered. The restaurant goes through several more or less disastrous incarnations, becoming a dance hall one night, a doomed sushi spot another. Such quick costume changes are more than gags: there is an important link between the sort of cavalier performance of culinary multiculturalism that leads the Golden Pint to try to save itself via Japanese cuisine, and Khaled’s friend’s admonition to him to put up a cheery face, to smile, because “melancholy ones are the first ones they send back.” The restaurant isn’t the opposite of the reception center but in some sense its double in a different key. Both exist according to the market forces that assign value to bodies and cultures. Both arise or fail according to created demand. Kaurismäki shows how the possibility of cultural and geographical border-crossing is very unevenly distributed along lines of nationality, class, gender, religion, and race: an aging businesswoman won’t take the rest of Wikstrom’s stock because she plans to move to Mexico City, where she will “drink sake and dance the hula hula” (she says, seriously), whereas every single border and cultural difference encountered by Khaled could mean the end of his life.

In other words: Kaurismäki’s Finnish city life is marked by the potential transformation of space at any moment under the saturation of economic, political, and cultural forces. Against the backdrop of this spatial precarity, the “stability” offered by the reception center starts seem absurd: although it’s necessary, what do you do with the consolation of a standard-issue toothbrush and scratchy-looking towel when at any moment this “reception” itself might be revoked? This isn’t just the film’s suggestion. Applications for asylum in Finland fluctuated drastically, rising from 3600 in 2014 to 32,400 in 2015. Now the press releases posted on the Finnish Immigration Service’s website indicate that many reception centers are shutting down. News articles cite decreased demand, although it is difficult to imagine that this means a substantial improvement in the situation.

This brings us to the question of the film’s end, and the future Kaurismäki imagines. Khaled’s prospects are ambiguously hopeful in the last scenes—or are they? Like Jim Jarmusch, to whom he is often compared, Kaurismäki frequently manipulates the odd recurring character, a sort of human motif, to great effect. In The Other Side of Hope, there’s a grey-haired musician, usually a little down on his luck, who sings soulful desperate country songs in Finnish. But there is also a band of white nationalists whose brutal racial violence is almost the film’s last word. There is no place fully reinforced against them. Above all, Kaurismäki emphasizes the general impossibility of safety, of “safe space.” There is no place that is not shot through in some way or another with the economic and political forces that have profited some and displaced many, and continue to do so. This is not only happening in Finland: in the US of early 2018, a film about the inhumanity and pervasive danger of a system that functions to deny asylum and force deportation, even if that film is warm-hearted, should also be deeply unsettling.

Privileging your checks

February 27, 2018 - 13:18
Tags:  Wittgenstein, Coleridge, Chess, Pynchon, language games, slab, Philosophical Investigations, philosophy

I am team-teaching a course on the later Wittgenstein this semester with a somewhat skeptical but radically open-minded philosopher. We were discussing language game (2), as it’s called, the one in which a builder says “Slab” to his assistant in just the circumstances where we would say “Bring me a slab.” Wittgenstein wants to show us that “Slab” is no more short for “Bring me a slab” than “Bring me a slab” is long for “Slab.” It is not an elliptical version of our more precise formulation.

This is always a very hard point to get right. Anyhow my philosopher-partner remarked that it was interesting how Wittgenstein always goes to chess for analogies to language games, and it occurred to me that he doesn’t go to chess enough. Because here’s what I think is a very helpful analogy.

When someone says “check” in chess, you might be tempted to take that word as one in Elliptical, properly translated into English as “your king is in danger.” The etymology of the word, though, shows that “check” meant “king,” from Persian (cf. Shah), via (most recently) the Arabic شَا (šāh). (I am following Wiktionary here: the OED offers some different and very interesting etymological byways, but as is the case with the way language develops, different etymological pathways converge and diverge and reconverge — for Wittgensteinian reasons — and the Wiktionary etymology is at least a big part of the story.)

This means that the word “check” means something like “king.” (Something. Like.)  Is that elliptical for “your king is in danger” as “slab” in language game (2) is supposed to be elliptical for the more precise “bring me a slab”? That is, should we say that when I threaten your king and say “check,” I am saying ’”king” as an elliptical way of saying “I am now threatening your king” (or some such more explicit, unpacked, and therefore accurate formulation)? Likewise, when I say “gin” that would mean “all my cards are now in completed sets and so I win the game” (and similarly with mahjong and any other game where the name of the game is also the name of a declaration within the game.)

But check is not elliptical for “your king is in danger.” The king cannot be put in danger. (As Pynchon says “once among nations, as in chess, suicide was illegal.”) “Check” actually means that the king must either move or be defended, either by blocking the piece that can move to the square the king is now on or by taking that piece. The king can’t be put in danger because it can’t be taken. If there is no way to get out of check, then the game is over and the player whose king is in check loses.

To sum up:

1) Check is like slab in language game (2): something that looks like a noun but isn’t one, though our translation of the utterance would contain nouns in our language.

2) There is no natural translation of the word that we could give without knowing how to play chess, since the closest candidate to a natural translation assumes the king could be put into danger, when it can’t. (At least “danger” in chess doesn’t amount to the king’s being put in check.)

What about “mate”? How do we translate that? Again, we might be tempted to say that mate or checkmate means: “I’ve won, I've won” or “You’ve lost,” or “There is no way you can now get out of check so that I have won [or you have lost].”

But the literal meaning of “checkmate” is “the king is dead,” from the Persian مات‎ شاه (šâh mât) (Wiktionary: if they’re accurate, though it doesn’t matter that much, apparently “check” comes from the Arabic but “checkmate,” under the influence of “check” comes directly from the Persian. The actual etymological paths are close enough to each other that what matters is the meaning of the phrase.)

All of this seems to bear Wittgenstein out beautifully in a way familiar enough to us that we can see what would be wrong with trying to find more “accurate” translations for “elliptical” terms like “slab.” Or “check.” Only when you know how to play chess do its terms make sense, and they don’t make sense just because check “means” king. Check means “check.” Teaching someone I might say, well think of it as meaning “your king is in danger.” But once she knows how to go on, how to play, she won’t understand it to mean that. She’ll understand it to mean that she’s in check.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Privileging your checks

February 27, 2018 - 13:18
Tags:  Wittgenstein, Coleridge, Chess, Pynchon, language games, slab, Philosophical Investigations, philosophy

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

I am team-teaching a course on the later Wittgenstein this semester with a somewhat skeptical but radically open-minded philosopher. We were discussing language game (2), as it’s called, the one in which a builder says “Slab” to his assistant in just the circumstances where we would say “Bring me a slab.” Wittgenstein wants to show us that “Slab” is no more short for “Bring me a slab” than “Bring me a slab” is long for “Slab.” It is not an elliptical version of our more precise formulation.

This is always a very hard point to get right. Anyhow my philosopher-partner remarked that it was interesting how Wittgenstein always goes to chess for analogies to language games, and it occurred to me that he doesn’t go to chess enough. Because here’s what I think is a very helpful analogy.

When someone says “check” in chess, you might be tempted to take that word as one in Elliptical, properly translated into English as “your king is in danger.” The etymology of the word, though, shows that “check” meant “king,” from Persian (cf. Shah), via (most recently) the Arabic شَا (šāh). (I am following Wiktionary here: the OED offers some different and very interesting etymological byways, but as is the case with the way language develops, different etymological pathways converge and diverge and reconverge — for Wittgensteinian reasons — and the Wiktionary etymology is at least a big part of the story.)

This means that the word “check” means something like “king.” (Something. Like.)  Is that elliptical for “your king is in danger” as “slab” in language game (2) is supposed to be elliptical for the more precise “bring me a slab”? That is, should we say that when I threaten your king and say “check,” I am saying ’”king” as an elliptical way of saying “I am now threatening your king” (or some such more explicit, unpacked, and therefore accurate formulation)? Likewise, when I say “gin” that would mean “all my cards are now in completed sets and so I win the game” (and similarly with mahjong and any other game where the name of the game is also the name of a declaration within the game.)

But check is not elliptical for “your king is in danger.” The king cannot be put in danger. (As Pynchon says “once among nations, as in chess, suicide was illegal.”) “Check” actually means that the king must either move or be defended, either by blocking the piece that can move to the square the king is now on or by taking that piece. The king can’t be put in danger because it can’t be taken. If there is no way to get out of check, then the game is over and the player whose king is in check loses.

To sum up:

1) Check is like slab in language game (2): something that looks like a noun but isn’t one, though our translation of the utterance would contain nouns in our language.

2) There is no natural translation of the word that we could give without knowing how to play chess, since the closest candidate to a natural translation assumes the king could be put into danger, when it can’t. (At least “danger” in chess doesn’t amount to the king’s being put in check.)

What about “mate”? How do we translate that? Again, we might be tempted to say that mate or checkmate means: “I’ve won, I've won” or “You’ve lost,” or “There is no way you can now get out of check so that I have won [or you have lost].”

But the literal meaning of “checkmate” is “the king is dead,” from the Persian مات‎ شاه (šâh mât) (Wiktionary: if they’re accurate, though it doesn’t matter that much, apparently “check” comes from the Arabic but “checkmate,” under the influence of “check” comes directly from the Persian. The actual etymological paths are close enough to each other that what matters is the meaning of the phrase.)

All of this seems to bear Wittgenstein out beautifully in a way familiar enough to us that we can see what would be wrong with trying to find more “accurate” translations for “elliptical” terms like “slab.” Or “check.” Only when you know how to play chess do its terms make sense, and they don’t make sense just because check “means” king. Check means “check.” Teaching someone I might say, well think of it as meaning “your king is in danger.” But once she knows how to go on, how to play, she won’t understand it to mean that. She’ll understand it to mean that she’s in check.

Walking Along Newtown Creek

February 12, 2018 - 22:46
Tags:  ecology, Water, ecocriticism, nature

An earlier version of this essay was presented at the “Site Specifics” session at #mla18 at noon on Sun Jan 7, when most conference-goers were stuck in long security lines at JFK. All photos are by the author. 

"Imagination is vital to restoration. […]

Can you hear the pungent, salvageable poetry of Newtown Creek composed to a meter both human and nonhuman?"

— Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies (Audio tour, Track 13)

I wanted answers, so I went to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. The short path winds its way through buildings and along polluted waters in the industrial borderlands between Brooklyn and Queens. It traces the forgotten history of maritime Brooklyn, including garbage cans shaped to resemble the barrels built by nineteenth-century coopers. It leads up to a sci-fi view of the “digester eggs,” massive teardrop-shaped machines that process New York City’s human and household waste. It’s a complex, painful, oddly enticing place. I never leave without wanting to come back, in different weather or at a different time of day. I discovered the Nature Walk with the help of the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies, “an art/science framework for hands-on creative inquiry that promotes new ecological paradigms.” I often walk there while listening to the Audio Tour created by Marina Zurkow, Nick Hibbard, and Rebecca Lieberman. Newtown Creek has become my touchstone for a fluid and dynamic Anthropocene, a place of toxicity and access.

A locked gate faced me when I arrived at the Walk early on the afternoon of Dec 14. It was my fifth visit of the fall, and I’d never seen the gate closed before. I’d driven through snow that morning to teach in Queens, but the skies had cleared by noon and I got to the Creek around 3 pm. (I’d not read closely the “weather permitting” language on the website.) Not sure that hopping fences was viable for a quinquagenarian academic, I stood outside the gate, took a picture, and left. That moment of failed entrance has become one of my favorite images of the fall: the locked gate hides the secrets that I haven’t yet entered into.

The next morning I came back early, and my foot was the first to mark the snow on the steps leading down to the water’s edge.

I came to this place of toxicity with two echoing questions, both of which I realized must be answered the same way.

Will it hurt us?

Can we love it?

To both questions: yes. It will hurt us, and we must love it. It’s our future, and a reminder of the ecocidal past we inherit. On raw autumn afternoons, the Creek overfills the imagination with our environmentally damaged now. The place sidles up alongside you, indisputably present but also opaque, making any efforts to respond feel simultaneously urgent and insufficient.

Walking along Newtown Creek performs on a physical level an essential task for the environmental humanities today: moving past green dreams. The smells and sights and textures of this post-industrial land-and-waterscape force upon your body the realization that moving past comfortable pastoral capital-N “Nature” will be a disorienting experience. Poets and theorists have shown us the way we must go. Our environment has long since stopped being happy and humanizable, if it ever really was so. I’m ready to venture beyond the Romantic green that constructs nonhuman environments as passive backgrounds to human striving and resources to be exploited. But what are we supposed to do with the brown spaces left behind after the end of Nature? How do they make us feel? What verses can they contribute to great goddess Natura’s creating hymn?

What I want when I am near the shores of Newtown Creek is what every Nature-lover wants: to be porous. To let some of the inhuman seep into me. But how can we dare porosity there, in that painfully apt and poisonous representation of our Anthropocene future?

My favorite parts of the Walk are the steps that the designer, George Trakas, built to provide access to the water. When I first walked down the steps, around low tide on a warm mid-October afternoon, I stared past mud and garbage into and through emptiness. I walked as far down as I could go, stopping when the next step was covered by three inches of water. I looked down and I saw – nothing. The water lapped the steps in transparent placidness. It didn’t look like anything at all.

I knew there was something more. Beneath the surface, they say, lies “black mayonnaise.” According to the Newtown Creek Field Guide, a booklet that accompanies the Audio Tour, there is a “fifteen – twenty-five foot layer lining Newtown Creek’s bottom….a toxic admixture the consistency of mayonnaise. Oil, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, and incinerated ash are some of the organic and inorganic pollutants that the EPA is quantifying in their Superfund assessment” (5).

My project of returning deliberately to the Creek throughout the fall was to enter into community with the place. I saw many different humans and other creatures. A solitary crewman on a sludge barge, parked in the dead-end of Whale Creek. A hipster fisherman casting for polluted sea bass. Two documentary film-makers from NYU by way of China. A honey locust tree that blazed orange and later didn’t.


My favorite objects were the floatables, which is the EPA’s name for marine trash.

When I look at a plastic floatable hovering inches below the surface on a cold afternoon, I see beauty before poison. I see an undegradable petrochemical solid resting atop ten or fifteen feet of polluted but moving water. Both of these things perch above a thick, invisible swamp of oil mayo. Floating is like flying, in that it holds a body up inside a larger fluid body. The plastic was doing the thing that I wanted to do but dared not – swimming into a damaged future.

Floatables in water produce a jellyfish aesthetic. Our generation is being trained, in part by gorgeous displays in aquariums, to see in jelly-geometries the alien future of our oceans. That’s one reason, perhaps, that these ethereal bits of plastic seem both familiar and dangerous to touch.

I have more questions for the Creek’s mute bottom. I want it to tell stories about transitions, how changes happen in time. I want its hidden mouth to spew ecological truths: that History can be a form of blindness, that the Future embraces toxins, that Now is the bittersweet instant in which what we see and smell and touch exceeds the language we have to express it.

I went to Newtown Creek looking for damage and found multiplicity. I’m waiting for the new paths it will open.

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

Walking Along Newtown Creek

February 12, 2018 - 22:46
Tags:  ecology, Water, ecocriticism, nature

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

An earlier version of this essay was presented at the “Site Specifics” session at #mla18 at noon on Sun Jan 7, when most conference-goers were stuck in long security lines at JFK. All photos are by the author. 

"Imagination is vital to restoration. […]

Can you hear the pungent, salvageable poetry of Newtown Creek composed to a meter both human and nonhuman?"

— Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies (Audio tour, Track 13)

I wanted answers, so I went to the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. The short path winds its way through buildings and along polluted waters in the industrial borderlands between Brooklyn and Queens. It traces the forgotten history of maritime Brooklyn, including garbage cans shaped to resemble the barrels built by nineteenth-century coopers. It leads up to a sci-fi view of the “digester eggs,” massive teardrop-shaped machines that process New York City’s human and household waste. It’s a complex, painful, oddly enticing place. I never leave without wanting to come back, in different weather or at a different time of day. I discovered the Nature Walk with the help of the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies, “an art/science framework for hands-on creative inquiry that promotes new ecological paradigms.” I often walk there while listening to the Audio Tour created by Marina Zurkow, Nick Hibbard, and Rebecca Lieberman. Newtown Creek has become my touchstone for a fluid and dynamic Anthropocene, a place of toxicity and access.

A locked gate faced me when I arrived at the Walk early on the afternoon of Dec 14. It was my fifth visit of the fall, and I’d never seen the gate closed before. I’d driven through snow that morning to teach in Queens, but the skies had cleared by noon and I got to the Creek around 3 pm. (I’d not read closely the “weather permitting” language on the website.) Not sure that hopping fences was viable for a quinquagenarian academic, I stood outside the gate, took a picture, and left. That moment of failed entrance has become one of my favorite images of the fall: the locked gate hides the secrets that I haven’t yet entered into.

The next morning I came back early, and my foot was the first to mark the snow on the steps leading down to the water’s edge.

I came to this place of toxicity with two echoing questions, both of which I realized must be answered the same way.

Will it hurt us?

Can we love it?

To both questions: yes. It will hurt us, and we must love it. It’s our future, and a reminder of the ecocidal past we inherit. On raw autumn afternoons, the Creek overfills the imagination with our environmentally damaged now. The place sidles up alongside you, indisputably present but also opaque, making any efforts to respond feel simultaneously urgent and insufficient.

Walking along Newtown Creek performs on a physical level an essential task for the environmental humanities today: moving past green dreams. The smells and sights and textures of this post-industrial land-and-waterscape force upon your body the realization that moving past comfortable pastoral capital-N “Nature” will be a disorienting experience. Poets and theorists have shown us the way we must go. Our environment has long since stopped being happy and humanizable, if it ever really was so. I’m ready to venture beyond the Romantic green that constructs nonhuman environments as passive backgrounds to human striving and resources to be exploited. But what are we supposed to do with the brown spaces left behind after the end of Nature? How do they make us feel? What verses can they contribute to great goddess Natura’s creating hymn?

What I want when I am near the shores of Newtown Creek is what every Nature-lover wants: to be porous. To let some of the inhuman seep into me. But how can we dare porosity there, in that painfully apt and poisonous representation of our Anthropocene future?

My favorite parts of the Walk are the steps that the designer, George Trakas, built to provide access to the water. When I first walked down the steps, around low tide on a warm mid-October afternoon, I stared past mud and garbage into and through emptiness. I walked as far down as I could go, stopping when the next step was covered by three inches of water. I looked down and I saw – nothing. The water lapped the steps in transparent placidness. It didn’t look like anything at all.

I knew there was something more. Beneath the surface, they say, lies “black mayonnaise.” According to the Newtown Creek Field Guide, a booklet that accompanies the Audio Tour, there is a “fifteen – twenty-five foot layer lining Newtown Creek’s bottom….a toxic admixture the consistency of mayonnaise. Oil, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, and incinerated ash are some of the organic and inorganic pollutants that the EPA is quantifying in their Superfund assessment” (5).

My project of returning deliberately to the Creek throughout the fall was to enter into community with the place. I saw many different humans and other creatures. A solitary crewman on a sludge barge, parked in the dead-end of Whale Creek. A hipster fisherman casting for polluted sea bass. Two documentary film-makers from NYU by way of China. A honey locust tree that blazed orange and later didn’t.


My favorite objects were the floatables, which is the EPA’s name for marine trash.

When I look at a plastic floatable hovering inches below the surface on a cold afternoon, I see beauty before poison. I see an undegradable petrochemical solid resting atop ten or fifteen feet of polluted but moving water. Both of these things perch above a thick, invisible swamp of oil mayo. Floating is like flying, in that it holds a body up inside a larger fluid body. The plastic was doing the thing that I wanted to do but dared not – swimming into a damaged future.

Floatables in water produce a jellyfish aesthetic. Our generation is being trained, in part by gorgeous displays in aquariums, to see in jelly-geometries the alien future of our oceans. That’s one reason, perhaps, that these ethereal bits of plastic seem both familiar and dangerous to touch.

I have more questions for the Creek’s mute bottom. I want it to tell stories about transitions, how changes happen in time. I want its hidden mouth to spew ecological truths: that History can be a form of blindness, that the Future embraces toxins, that Now is the bittersweet instant in which what we see and smell and touch exceeds the language we have to express it.

I went to Newtown Creek looking for damage and found multiplicity. I’m waiting for the new paths it will open.

Distant Reading After Moretti

January 29, 2018 - 11:31
Tags:  digital humanities, Franco Moretti, race, gender, Sexual Harassment

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

What follows is the text of a talk delivered at the 2018 MLA Annual Convention for a panel, “Varieties of Digital Humanities,” organized by Alison Booth and Miriam Posner. Marisa Parham, Alan Liu, and Ted Underwood were the other speakers. (Howard Ramsby was also scheduled to present, but he was unable to attend because of the blizzard.) Ted’s remarks can also be found on his website

I don’t have much time, so I’ll get right to the point—

The question I want to explore today is this: what do we do about distant reading, now that we know that Franco Moretti, the man who coined the phrase “distant reading,” and who remains its most famous exemplar, is among the men named as a result of the #MeToo movement.

I feel deeply for his victims. But given the context of this panel, what I want to focus on, today, is how his actions might prompt us to revisit some more longstanding issues regarding gender, power, and distant reading (which, following Andrew Goldstone, I’ll use in the lowercase-d lowercase-r sense to refer to the subset of computational methods that derive from statistical modeling and computational linguistics that are most commonly applied to analyze texts at scale).

Because sexual harassment is a structural, as well as personal problem, as Sara Ahmed has recently observed. By describing it a structural problem, Ahmed calls attention to how sexual harassment is sustained not only by the harassers themselves, but also by the institutions that shelter them. She explains how the confidential nature of most institutional inquiries ensures that “people remain, networks stay alive, and structures and processes are not put under investigation.” This is in large part because no one outside of the individual actors gets to know what happened, and as a result, the structural nature of the problem never becomes visible.

Ahmed’s work focuses on institutional structures, and academic institutional structures in particular. But the problems associated with ending harassment are not limited to academic structures alone. They also derive from flaws in cultural and conceptual structures as well.

So it’s here that I want to try to apply Ahmed’s lessons of structural power to the problems of power we face—still—with respect to lowercase-d lowercase-r distant reading in DH. Because as surprising as it might have been to some, when the allegations against Moretti surfaced, I don’t think it would be surprising to anyone in this room to bring up the many critiques that have been levied over the years at distant reading, and about how that particular field is, we might say, unwelcoming to women. These include critiques from the early 2010s by Moya BaileyMiriam Posner, and the #transformDH collective about issues of representation in the field; critiques from around that same time by Bethany Nowviskie and others on Twitter that called out distant reading for its unduly masculinized rhetorical positioning; more recent work by Lisa RhodyTanya Clement and Jessica Marie Johnson points out its failure to engage with the conceptual issues that relate to women—most obviously gender, but also sexuality, race, class, and ability, among many others. And then, in recent work by Laura Mandell, we see a critique of the actual computational models of gender that are often deployed when applying distant reading approaches to texts.

(And I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to acknowledge the critiques that have been levied against the #MeToo movement itself, by which I refer to its erasure of the voices of the Black women who did the earliest and most difficult work).

In fact, Ahmed’s structural critique of harassment helps show us how these issues are all related. Generalized racism and sexism, as well as the more specific issue of sexual harassment, each result from the same disparities of power, and other structural inequalities, that enable larger cultures of violence and oppression. There are many ways that this interrelation can be manifested, and structural power reinforced. Not all of these ways are easily explainable, or even traceable to a single source. But here is one example that can be quickly (if somewhat essentially) described: that flaw in prosecution that I mentioned just a minute ago, in which the actors, networks, and systems that enable harassment remain in place? This flaw leads to workplace environments that are unwelcoming (if not outright hostile) to women and other minoritized groups. But it’s those very same people who would otherwise be best positioned to identify and challenge the instances of sexism, or racism, or other forms of oppression that they see—not only in their institutional environments, but also in their scholarly work. Without those voices, conceptual structures, as well as institutional ones, remain securely in place, unchallenged and unchanged.

To put the problem another way: it’s not a coincidence that distant reading does not deal well with gender, or with sexuality, or with race. Gender and sexuality and race are precisely the sorts of concepts that have been exposed and interrogated by attending to non-dominant subject positions. And like literary world systems, or “the great unread,” the problems associated with these concepts, like sexism or racism, are also problems of scale, but they require an increased attention to, rather than a passing over, of the subject positions that are too easily (if at times unwittingly) occluded when taking a distant view.

So, then, what to do about it.

I think we need to start with our corpora. We need to assemble more corpora—more accessible corpora—that perform the work of recovery or resistance. An example: the corpus created by the Colored Conventions Project, which seeks to recover and aggregate evidence that documents the Colored Conventions of the nineteenth-century United States; these were organizing meetings in which Black Americans, both fugitive and free, came together to strategize about how to achieve social and legal justice. By making this corpus available for others to download, the CCP opens up the project of distant reading to texts beyond quote “representative” samples, which tend to reproduce the same inequities of representation that affect our cultural record as a whole.

We also need to rethink how we formulate our models. Instead of first asking what can be modeled—what phenomena we can track at scale—we might instead ask: what might be hidden in this corpus? And are there methods we might use to bring out significant texts, or clusters of words, that the eye cannot see? Another example: for the past several years, I’ve been working on a project that applies a set of distant reading techniques to a corpus of nineteenth-century abolitionist newspapers. I’ve been focused on the issue of gender, and on how the influence of key men and women can be tracked across the corpus in terms of both content and tone. But the limits of named entity recognition, which I used to develop my initial set of actors and events, required that I begin with the actors and events that could be automatically detected—rather than with the influences that could not be reduced to a single, computationally-tractable source. But it’s precisely the forms of influence that cannot be traced to a single point of origin that best reflect the distributed nature of structural power. And modeling those forms of influence is far harder, as I can personally attest. But those models that are increasingly necessary—lest we inadvertently reinscribe the same power relations that we intend to critique.

There are, of course, other things we can do better to connect the project of distant reading to the project of structural critique. But my time is nearly up, so I’ll end with this: it’s not that distant reading can’t do this work—it’s that it’s yet to sufficiently do so. But if we re-commit ourselves to the project of exposing and interrogating power, we could arrive at a form of distant reading that is much more capacious, and much more inclusive, than what we have at the present. Because the view from a distance, is, of course, as much a view from a particular place as a view from up close. And it may very well be that a distant view that is trained on power, and that is self-reflexive about the forces that enable it—cultural and conceptual as well as computational—can contribute, significantly, to the project of dismantling structural power. Indeed, this project of critiquing power and working towards justice is the most pressing project of our time.

Allies with Benefits: Linda Sarsour and the Muslim World in the Age of Trump

January 9, 2018 - 13:42
Tags:  Muslim, Donald Trump, American election, Progressive Politics, Saudi Arabia, Driving Ban

The recent lifting of the ban in Saudi Arabia on women driving is a historic moment not only for Saudi activists, without whose persistence and many sacrifices in the last decades — often painful — the royal decree would never have seen the light of day, but also for millions of women throughout the Muslim world. Despite the deep political rivalry between the two Islamic poles, the Saudi decision's ripple effect is likely to reach the shores of Iran and perhaps enhance the momentum of White Wednesday; a campaign that calls on women and men to wear white scarves or garments on Wednesdays in symbolic protest to the country's mandatory dress code for women imposed by law since the revolution in 1979. The winds of change are also expected to blow north to my birthplace of Baghdad where a considerable number of young girls took to the streets in February pedaling their bicycles in blue jeans at a time when the Iraqi parliament swarms with female members shrouded in black Abayas. One of the brave cyclists said she only wanted to practice a right that her mother and grandmother had taken for granted ages ago before the country started spiraling into a bottomless abyss of tribalism and sectarianism.

Such initiatives would have gotten Liberals in the United States cheering had they taken place just a few years earlier. But the news received only a lukewarm welcome abroad. US Liberals seem to have aligned themselves with quite a different agenda since the election of Donald Trump. His infamous executive order to bar immigrants and travelers from several Muslim-majority countries was too precious an opportunity to miss. America looked around for a Muslim figure to Snapchat or Instagram to rub in the president's face. It didn't really matter what convictions that person held. They only needed to look Muslim and sound Muslim. Oh, and be loud too! And loud was Linda Sarsour.

The self-proclaimed "unapologetic Palestinian-American, born and raised in Brooklyn" has since been invited to talk at nearly every prestigious university and appeared in almost all the major newspapers, magazines, and television networks in the United States. Sarsour has engaged in heated political debates arguing for the competence and benevolence of Sharia or at least her interpretation of it since there is much confusion and ambiguity surrounding the term. Linda has been keen to showcase her perfect Muslim life, including her mother's Maqluba (meat, rice, and fried vegetables) recipe, which the Sarsours offered New York Times readers. The sharing, however, didn't stop there. Wed in an arranged marriage at the age of 17, Linda Sarsour has advocated for the tradition and its validity for Muslim girls living in Western societies. She also finds head-covering a perfectly normal and non-oppressive practice, and has made a statement that banning women from driving is by no means a discriminatory act as long as they (women) get fully-paid maternity leave. Sarsour's regressive opinions, coming from a self-proclaimed "civil rights activist" who is often being introduced as a "feminist" are putting US Liberals' credibility and integrity to the test, and causing harm to real feminist movements by implying that Muslim females are happy to be considered inferior to males and treated as such in their countries.

They are not! I did a quick search in Arabic on Twitter and some results included numerous accusations of her being a terrorist or a Hamas and/or Muslim Brotherhood propagandist. Most of the "unfriendly" sentiments against Sarsour came from educated Arab Muslim females like herself. Only they refused to be deprived of free will in the name of religion. The pragmatic courtship between US Liberals and Sarsour has obviously empowered the latter and given her such extensive exposure we hardly get to listen anymore to the progressive voices that call for reform and gender equality in the Muslim world, like Nawal el Saadawi, Irshad Manji, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Speaking of whom, the Australian and New Zealand tour of the Somali-born Dutch-American author of Infidel was cancelled in April due to "a number of reasons, including security concerns." I may not share Ayaan's radically confrontational approach, but I certainly respect her viewpoints and was looking forward to hearing what she had to say about her journey from Islam to atheism. When I heard about the last-minute cancellation, I was disappointed, but not surprised. I wouldn't be surprised either if an announcement was made that Linda Sarsour is coming to Auckland soon.

This is an edited version of the original article that first appeared in The Dominion Post, New Zealand. 

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

How to Watch Get Out Again

January 9, 2018 - 09:31
Tags:  get out, jordan peele, reader response, louise rosenblatt, transactional theory

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

“At the heart of it is the idea of the poem as an event in the life of the reader.”    – Louise Rosenblatt

[Note: Get Out spoilers ahead.]

In the coming weeks, the blockbuster horror film Get Out (2017) is expected to garner multiple industry accolades, culminating with the Oscar nominations in late January. As part of the promotional campaign for Get Out, Vanity Fair recently created a video featuring writer and director Jordan Peele good-naturedly confirming and debunking over a dozen fan theories about his film, from the main plot being an extended dream sequence to the whole thing being a sequel to Being John Malkovich.

As an English professor, I usually applaud when students dwell on a story this much after finishing it. It’s the gold standard of teaching and learning in my field. Students brought an enthusiasm to our discussion of Get Out that simply wasn’t there for older works. Now, awards season promises to usher millions of uninitiated fans into conversations about the meanings of deer heads and Froot Loops.

This is too bad.

Don’t get me wrong – connecting the dots is a big part of what makes watching Get Out so fun. The problem isn’t with the act of interpretation itself but with what is being interpreted. The antiracist potential of Get Out doesn’t come from a viewer’s ability to decode the film as a product of Peele’s imagination. Rather, it comes from their willingness to see Get Out as an experience borne out of their own imagination – and the limits of it.

After Get Out was submitted for the “Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy” category at the Golden Globes, angry fans responded online, claiming that the decision invalidated their own experience with the film. Get Out could seem like a comedy, they argued, because Hollywood execs failed to see that systemic, intergenerational racism was itself a horror story. Even Peele (who had signed off on the decision) got into the act, tweeting “‘Get Out’ is a documentary.”

When teaching literature – and Get Out certainly falls into that category for me – I remind my students that they should not only pay attention to what the work is trying to do to them but to what they are trying to do to it. This job is harder than unraveling a metaphor because it requires us to be conscious of the assumptions behind our generosity and our fears. We stand to learn the most when interpreting literature as a personal experience and not a thing.

In the Vanity Fair video, one fan theorizes that the storyline of the Armitages as modern-day enslavers is only a product of Rod the TSA agent’s mind. “This is shown by the increasingly eccentric/unrealistic plot,” this fan postulates, which culminates in Rod’s unexpected heroics at the end. Peele admits to “loving” the theory but makes clear that all the horror elements “really happened.” The white people really were that bad, in other words.

Similarly, Allison Williams, who plays Rose Armitage, recently discussed on Late Night with Seth Myers how fans she had met couldn’t accept that her character was as evil as she seems. Rose “literally is a white supremacist,” Williams insists. Yet fans maintained that Rose may have been “hypnotized” or was even “a victim” herself. “And I’m like, no! She’s just evil! How hard is that to accept? She’s bad!” Williams continues, adding “that it is 100% white people that say that to me.”

What state of mind leads fans – white fans in particular – to dream up such feverish theories about the characters and plot, willfully ignoring obvious cues all the while? When this happens, Get Out is clearly no longer the child of Peele’s imagination but that of the viewer’s.

In fairness, Get Out is often framed as an exciting mystery to be solved. The Vanity Fair video, the DVD director’s commentary, and our own friends and colleagues encourage us, above all, to hunt for hidden clues and motives. Rose stops the highway trooper from checking Chris’ ID to avert an official paper trail. Grandpa Walter wants a black body because he’s slower than Jesse Owens. Get Out, however, can offer much more than these simple pleasures of deduction.

Get Out has the potential to inspire viewers to interpret the experience that they created, not Peele. For example, they might consider how they came to give Rose the benefit of the doubt despite her obvious complicity. Or ponder why the party guests resembled only a rude coterie and not an intimidating mob. Or ask why they expected the black detective to tap the power of her institution to save Chris. The same viewers happily sorting themselves into Hogwarts houses are curiously absent from the world of Get Out.

Again, this approach to experiencing Get Out is much harder than reading Jordan Peele’s mind. This is because we must go outside of the film and into our own lives to find the associations we make when we watch it. We need to examine our own location in society to discover how we have been conditioned to assign meanings – and sometimes only one – to familiar sights. A young, attractive white woman. A black government worker. An auction. At its best, Get Out invites us to broaden our associations.

The good news is that we can. “What were your feelings at the end of the film when you thought the police had arrived?” I asked about a hundred students, over 90% of them white. Almost unanimously, they said they were afraid for Chris. “Why? The police were there. The system would work,” I said. They knew I was being facetious, but only some recognized how they were socialized into their worry for Chris. Five years ago, before Mike Brown and Sandra Bland, they might have been relieved for him.

As the buzz surrounding Get Out amplifies through the Oscars ceremony in March, media coverage will cohere around its importance as social commentary. Critics will remind us that the film is about what it feels like to be black in America. But what if white people and non-black people of color saw their responsibility as more than nodding knowingly at microaggressions or bits of cotton stuffing? What if they realized that Get Out can also be about what it feels like to be themselves in America?

Perhaps then they can decide that it isn’t such a great idea to take over the body of a black person after all, good intentions or not. They can see that for as long as there has been a Sunken Place for black people, there has also been a Sunken Place of their own. They can commit to experiencing Get Out – and every relationship beyond – as passengers in the bodies they already inhabit.

Lady Bird, the Iraq War, and Not Quite Nostalgia

January 3, 2018 - 10:58

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

One of the most peculiar qualities of Greta Gerwig’s much-acclaimed film Lady Bird is that—especially for a coming-of-age story, or domestic drama, or whatever you call it—it contains relatively little suspense. Certainly the stories that unfold over the course of the movie are familiarly dramatic. The film follows its high school protagonist, Lady Bird (née Christine, played by Saoirse Ronan), as she navigates the complexities of home, school, friendship, and love. There are frequent flare-ups between high-strung daughter and strong-willed mother; there’s a depressive father; there’s an unexpected breakup following the discovery of a boyfriend in a bathroom with another boy. There’s a good deal of mean-girl maneuvering, and a more or less disastrous loss of virginity. Several sub-plots add melodramas of their own: a vaguely predatory math teacher, a troubled theater teacher with a dark past. In short, tempers, voices, and interpersonal stakes are high.

And yet Lady Bird is rarely tense. Instead, at points the film is snappy—think low-key screwball—and at points meticulously slow. Its slower moments have largely to do with space and place. The film is self-consciously an homage to Sacramento, the city in which Gerwig grew up and from which Lady Bird seeks to escape. The California sun gleams, the road winds, the suburban houses stand, well appointed and green-lawned. The brief portion set in New York contains a classic, gorgeous, West Village stroll. But although Richard Brody wants more like this (“the movie is nearly devoid of vistas,” he writes), its quicker, conversational scenes are equally satisfying. Rather than build suspense, encounters between characters take place at a rhythm that almost makes them into vignettes: they happen, and the film moves on. Or, again obviating the question of suspense, these encounters escalate into slapstick. Take the opening scene. Lady Bird and her mother are driving home from their all-American pre-college college tour. They seem happy and tired, even punchy. They’re sobbing as they finish the audio book of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. They begin to bicker; things escalate; Lady Bird opens the side door and propels herself out of the moving vehicle. Cut to the opening credits, and Lady Bird’s new pink cast. (Something about this combination reminds me of Jacques Tati: like Tati, although in a much different key, Gerwig manages to pull off the slapstick gag while dwelling elegiacally in a place—and time.)

I suspect it is this lack of suspense that leads most viewers and critics to find the movie “quirky,” “loveable,” or “sweet.” It is sweet, and funny. But what if Lady Bird’s main quality isn’t its rose-colored glasses, or its gentle portrayal of friendships, relationships, and family, or its soft, wry nostalgia for awkward adolescence? What if it isn’t exactly a coming-of-age story or domestic drama at all? In addition to being about a particular girl in a particular place, Lady Bird is about a particular moment in historical time. The film takes place from the fall of 2002 to the spring of 2003. I think this is important, and not only because I, too, graduated from high school in the spring of that year.

In 2002-2003, chokers, Dave Matthews Band, and a certain unmistakable ribbed horizontal-stripe mock turtleneck were in. The Internet was around, sort of. While there are a few explicitly political allusions tucked away throughout the movie—a Reagan poster hangs somewhere, and references to 9/11 proliferate—I don’t think anyone mentions Bush by name. The scene that perhaps most firmly roots Lady Bird in historical time, though, is a tiny unremarkable one, somewhere in the middle of the film. Lady Bird is lying on her stomach, on the carpeted floor of her living room. The news is on, and on the news is footage of the US invasion of Iraq. We see the television only briefly, before Lady Bird is interrupted by a phone call. Several scenes after this one contain television screens, or the voices they emit, describing the US invasion, showing those night-vision bombings. With the exception of Lady Bird’s insufferable boyfriend, who barely ever raises his eyes from Howard Zinn, no character in the film comments on the war. But these scenes—especially the first interrupted clip—are startling, the intrusion of bigger-picture reality. After the movie, I remembered the color of that living room carpet.

According to David Harvey, in the book of his essays from 2003 to 2005 gathered under the title The New Imperialism, the days following and after the US invasion of Iraq were “perhaps the first occasion on which global public opinion found some sort of collective voice.” For Harvey, this was also the time at which a form of American imperialism was coming into focus as such, to itself, although it was certainly not its beginning. Both this American self-awareness and this global collective voice of resistance seem far from the film; a general silence surrounds the Iraq War and most other political and economic issues that are not “terrorism.” And yet I think questions of global politics—and what now seems a very American form of violence enacted simultaneously at home and abroad—are at its heart, woven into its unfolding dramas. Above all, Lady Bird’s understated drama lets a different drama show through. Nothing seems seriously wrong with the world except the things that are seriously wrong. It’s in fact not clear whether or not these things can be ignored—although they mostly are—or for how long. Like Lady Bird herself, poised at the moment of transition into uncertainty, this moment seems like a moment of being “before”—before what?

Probably nothing good. Lady Bird conveys a strong sense of economic distress; Lady Bird’s parents are manifestly not doing so well. Laid off from a tech job, her father can’t compete with a younger generation. In one of only a few heavy-handed moments in the movie, this is made clear when he runs into his son at a job interview. The film suggests that Lady Bird’s parents refinance their house to help pay for her college tuition, which probably means that further financial difficulties are in store for them. Widening the scope of our forward looking, there’s no neat way to sum up the relationship between 2003’s Iraq War and today’s global catastrophe scene—except to reaffirm that nothing has ended. In any case, all this is to say that Lady Bird is emphatically not, as one reviewer put it, a “modest cinematic antidote to Trump culture.” It doesn’t show us a moment when things were better. If anything, it’s a moment at which some of us first noticed that things were wrong. For me, the feeling of powerlessness and civic failure that characterized the 2016 election and its aftermath weren’t new or unexpected, in part because I remembered where I had been in March of 2003, watching the news in a high school cafeteria, having some kind of realization about “democracy,” which didn’t seem to be working. I hadn’t wanted this.

At the very end of the film is a shot of Lady Bird, looking off to one side at something we can’t see. Something about the composition of this shot makes me think that she is looking towards the future. Her expression is unreadable. This shot seems to me to be an invitation to make the link I am making—to stretch the scale and duration of its dramas and to find, in the background voices and subtle details of the film, the threads that lead us today, when nothing has been resolved, and much has been exacerbated. What’s unique about Lady Bird is that its nostalgia isn’t quite nostalgia. With a strange gentleness, the film builds itself around the feeling of recognizing the scary present in a past you can still manage to love.

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