December 28, 2006

"A Great Enigma, My Child"

Inconsolable a woman
stands at the window,
a children’s swing
rusts in the wind
--W. G. Sebald, After Nature

At the close of W. G. Sebald’s book-length poem, After Nature, the speaker extends an unusual gesture. Apart from the predominantly solitary travelers who would later populate his work, here a father takes the hand of his daughter, promising to lead her on an “excursion,” one animated with the quiet “resolve / to make a new start.”

This is the Sebaldian sensibility: a route toward the future bound to go the way of the past, unwavering in the acknowledgement of struggle; the fitful exploration of “all kinds of lore.” And so we imagine father and daughter together noting the objects that emerge from the English countryside like archeological birthings, crossing the sites of ancient and modern history, all of it furrowed into the landscape they inhabit, however tentatively, together.

“A great enigma, my child,” he says, filled with the troubling wonder of her inheritance, and his own. This generational communion, at once demanding and assuredly gentle, a mode of love passing through the unavoidable pain, this effort of real recognition is, he says, theirs alone. It cannot be shared. First, because those who live daily on that history-drenched land drift by it all un-noticing—their imaginations immune to the vast reservoir of the past's presence. Certainly worse, they, father and child, will feel alone and cut off from the world as it is, trapped by the brutalizing present and the cold currents that shape life. These currents mirror the scene, the shoreline's "mummuring surge," the ocean’s relentless malevolence, a churning, thoughtless destruction. Sebald gives us the barest hints of this world's menace but we feel it all around us and know, intimately, through his exhausted tone, the destruction sponsored.

All around them, in the most personal and passing ways, the origins of that sponsored destruction: the pestilence of a certain pride, a devouring rapacity. It is the kind rationality activated through moralistic righteousness, or entitlement, or even, pitiably, as a defense mechanism for petty affronts; where there is more proper cause, more stringent images of horror, some thing unattainable becomes cause of the “inconsolable” wounding. So an armoring remoteness bred of obsessive impulses: agape at spectacles, manufacturing cheap and glittering joys, posturing with the worst clich├ęs; banal, alienated, and vulnerable, unable to analyze complexities with feeling, or approach complex feelings through analysis, or engage anything with suppleness, and thereby feel as real the world’s incurable hardships. A destructive arrogance arises. The results are clumsy and cruel. Symptomatic of a desperate loneliness this way of being paradoxically finds solace in the dense, dying encampments of those imagined as like-minded. Apart from this, the father recalls the human failings and their mythic form:
As for the burning city,
in the Vienna Art-Historical Museum
there hangs a painting
by Altdorfer depecting Lot
with his Daughters. On the horizon
a terrible conflagration blazes
Devouring a large city.
. . .
When for the first time I saw
this picture the year before last,
I had the strange feeling
of having seen all of it
before, and a little later, crossing to Floridsdorf
on the Bridge of Peace,
I nearly went out of my mind.

Sebald's German family held this history within it like a cancer. Consequently, the short stories, poems, and novels that emerged from his emigration and returns to Germany bring catastrophe unbearably close, as intimate as a family photo album and his own father's sealed silence.

The father in After Nature remains burdened by that place he held as a child. He is filled with the need to know the texture of the world into which he came. His voice carries the past in multiple layers so dense that the mythic cities on the plain are overlaid with the burning cities of Germany’s defeat, the dark fortresses of torture and annihilation and the all the human-dreamt inhumanity akin to the secret motivations or insensitivities of his family.
And so if there is the myopia of selfishness that this father and daughter are to fear, there is likewise, often entwined, that aggressive militancy in need of its victim, its target, the cause for violence. If Sebald's father could not teach him that, the lesson was learned well enough so that here, in the poem, the father, emigrant and exile, warns the daughter:

warriors even now
on this sandy strip keep their weapons
hidden in grassy bunkers . . .
one great
arsenal as far as your eye can see,
and nothing else but this sky,
the gorse scrub now and then,
an old people’s home,
a prison or an asylum,
an institution for juvenile delinquents. . . .
Inconsolable a woman
stands at the window,
a children’s swing
rusts in the wind, a lonely
spy sits in his Dormobile
in the dunes, his headphones
pulled over his ears.

The only antidote to the alienation and the knowledge of such a condition is the trust in the excursion, the hand in hand gestures that, with whatever solitude they require, bring one, and then another, to the point of truth, however late it comes, with whatever price of pain.
If Sebald was haunted by his own father's inexplicable silence, further haunted by his nation’s refusal to bend to responsibility and truth, in his poem he posits another generation of father and daughter.
They may be bound to the Lear-like wanderings, rummaging through the measure of their state of emigration, the destructive principal from which there is seemingly no escape. "Is this the promised end?" If not the end of sorrows, for they are endless, there is faith in a historical view that feeds the present with its purpose, that may go mad on the bridge of peace but still reaches with love for the daughter. And so, such a going-forth becomes their bond against the tide of all interference. Before them is the solipsism of the spy encased in his mobile home, the desolate woman alone and emptied before the childless swing, and there is then the "Whispering / madness on the heathland" -- the ceaseless production of destruction:

No, here we can write
no postcards, can’t even
get out of the car. Tell me, child,
is your heart as heavy as
mine is, year after year
a pebble bank raised
by the waves of the sea
all the way to the North,
every stone a dead soul
and this sky so grey?

How to be when the past is betrayal and the future promising its poison? "Is this love / nothing now / or all?" The question is reborn continually. No postcards can emerge from that space of communion, for there is only the living gesture of love enacted, tested always in the reception.

As for the greater proof of what remains, the remnants that form the future through which one must pass, it is easy, given Sebald, to imagine the dark and difficult family history yielding to the daughter’s open, questioning heart, should she open at all against the cold abuses of its environment. One imagines, if not postcards that mark a time and place of presence, then letters. One imagines the poem as a letter, a trace of experience the father has written and carefully saved. Yes, letters. They are marked for a future form of the past: as archives of photographs and true words held for a time of just reckoning: letters that testify, that move toward her, even as they wait, idle, dusty, gathering signs of fragility, both of inevitable entropy and hope in the tentative hold, hand in hand.

December 24, 2006

Quiet Restorations

Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares' candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,

restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.

Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.

--Geoffrey Hill, "Christmas Trees"

December 22, 2006

The Crucial Idea of Difference

The perception of difference is the groundroot of criticism (Herbert Blau).

. . . That seductive blurring of the real and its projections runs throughout George Packer’s New Yorker article on anthropologists and the developing U.S. mission for a global counterinsurgency. Clearly the goal of this particular strategy is to project our coming victory to those who can be persuaded or co-opted. We must use our knowledge of their culture—which might be reduced to their systems of imagining—to flood the enemy’s field with information that serves our purpose alone. More than crude propaganda, armed with the right knowledge of culture a military-diplomatic offensive, ever agile and directing responses, may dissuade collaboration and erode the insular networks of family, neighborhood, and community within which insurgents dwell.

After all, those networks have divisions and those divisions can be “exploited.” The understanding of culture offers a more nuanced target for carefully placed information campaigns, which in turn confuse the seeming realities with a new web of fantasy and wish.

One of the anthropologists featured in the piece has the name of a Dickens' character: Montgomery McFate. She has studied the Northern Ireland troubles, and now works within the Defense Department. She is described as drawn to “human conflict and also its realities,” as if the reality of cultural manifestations were somehow avoidable, even when being thought. It is no surprise then that her Army-sponsored apologetic article on “anthropology and counterinsurgency” should confuse the very dimensions within which she is advocating one take action. In McFate's story, in the sixties anthropology abandoned its post and subjected itself to a castrating reflexivity. For her, the knife wielded can easily be named neo-Marxism and the postmodern. These are, she suggests, unreal thought experiments that have cost anthropology its privileged role in the protection of and projection of power, a role to which it might now, rightfully return.

Her history of the discipline draws a tidy lineage of anthropology’s place within the realities of conflict while all the time advocating the operational erasure of those realities. If the esteemed Gregory Bateson could help defeat the Japanese through the dissemination of “black propaganda” or the development of “psychological pressures” what surely counts is that he was willing to take a role in the drama, creating it for the use of national interests.

Theater work found itself, in the sixties, testing its own claims of dramatic participation in realities as it faced with the shift of illusion from the stage to the stage-craft of politics and world affairs. That sense of participation remains a vital issue today, ever more as the distinction between what is real and what is illusion becomes increasingly difficult to parse, even as the anthropologists in the DoD announce their intentions. What is clear, however, is that the need to rigorously guard the distinction remains, and that is a role which scholars in the humanities might rightly inherit as others “fall prey to imitative form.”

Herbert Blau, who penned that last phrase, did so in a book called Blooded Thought: Occasions of Theatre, which appeared in the early eighties, the Cold War still enveloping and Vietnam remaining a haunting presence. He wrote then of a “radical activism” too willing to make life theater and theater life, or the real the effect of illusion, all without critical intervention. When he writes of those “excited by the duplicities, caught in the mirroring game” he was referring to artists and theorists trading tough criticism for celebratory exuberance. We can read these words as applying to the dreamers of counterinsurgency as well.

As for those who work not with discrete cultural systems but study the play of culture, even where the effects are deadly and absolutely real, perhaps what is at stake for us is found in this reminder for vigilance:

“That [duplicitous confusion of life and illusion] is not . . . the deepest game of theatre, whose ontological nature is duplicitous—which is why the most powerful tradition of theatre is to resist its own powers, distrusting its own appearances and critically testing its capacities for self-deception, sometimes by reducing the theatre in theatre and sometimes by increasing it, keeping everything in us alive to the idea of difference, lest we be too easily absorbed into the stream of fantasy.”

December 21, 2006

Sublime Seductions

A recent New Yorker article on the anthropology of insurgencies, Knowing the Enemy, profiles an Australian army captain proficient in analyzing the mechanisms of outlaw organizations and their resistance to governance. That captain, David Kilcullen, is now in the U.S., advising the Pentagon. His suggestions for “winning” the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq counter the Rumsfeldian medley of carpet bombs and technological superiority. Instead they center on an intimate and patient application of cultural literacy.

Defeating insurgencies, his recipe says, requires an intimate understanding the enemies’ social landscapes. In other words, the fight is for control of the meaning of the fight, and the control of the meaning can only be properly disseminated through a finely honed sensitivity to the rhetorical dimensions of the insurgents and their audience. Knowing the terrain means not only fighting efficiently within the communities that house rebel forces, it means having an understanding of a culture that is witness to the battle; thereby better manipulating the dynamics within which the civilians caught in the crossfire choose sides. Anthropological analysis becomes the path to victory.
Which side are you on, boys? The side of empire or the side of resistance? State-sanctioned violence or the ad hoc violence of militias enforcing the strictures of neighborhoods and micro-structures?

To persuade people that your way is the only option available to them combines both cultural empathy and the crude tactic of intimidation. Empathy gives access to the leverage needed to persuade: “‘If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing,’ [Kilcullen says.] Kilcullen was describing a willingness to show local people that supporting the enemy risks harm and hardship.”

While Jean Baudrillard once seemed far too glib for suggesting that the media-drenched spectacles of the first Gulf War meant that the war “did not take place,” Kilcullen’s theory takes seriously the idea that persuasion and appearance have much more effect than the actual events. The practical results of scattering the enemy, “decapitating” terror networks, or pacification through white phosphorus are only important to the degree that they convince a population, for or against. The actions are more real, carnage aside, when they part of an image-repertoire to be mobilized.

Kilcullen describes insurgents as waging precisely such a war of information: a vast representation of resistance and revolution. The insurgency in Iraq, he says, thrives not on the roadside bombs that blow apart Humvees but the video of such acts. Similarly, the Taliban is reasserting itself so successfully in Afghanistan, precisely because they are adept at reclaiming the hearts, minds, and fearful imagination of people rightly afraid, enraged, or opportunistic.

Those culturally produced qualities of mind—emerging from imagining and judging in particular ways—are unlikely to emerge legible to outsiders analytically ill-equipped; hence the need for anthropologists willing to outline the dynamics of the enemy culture. It is hard to imagine young army officers alone adept at anything more than applying what the anthropologist Marshal Sahlins dismisses as a fraudulently universal “commonsense bourgeois realism” (How “Natives” Think). The effect of that would be less the symbolic violence of misreading than the symbolic weight of mindless destruction captured by Joseph Conrad's immemorial image from Heart of Darkness: a ship firing its canon blindly into the Congo's wall of jungle.

In the humanities we have been studying such play of culture and symbol and violence in all its guises long enough to understand well that the innocent phrase “theater of war” means not only the particular space of conflict but often the very nature of the conflict. What for the Pentagon is surely remains a mistaken conflation of rhetoric and reality was for Shakespeare the very emotional substance that shaped action by seeming to shift the weight within conflict. 

 For example, in King Henry IV we see the otherwise irrepressible Hotspur, right before battle, try to claim losses of an ally as advantage for the perception of his independent power:

You strain too far.
I rather of his absence make this use:
It lends a lustre and more great opinion,
A larger dare to our great enterprise,
Than if the earl were here; for men must think,
If we without his help can make a head
To push against a kingdom, with his help
We shall o'erturn it topsy-turvy down.
Yet all goes well, yet all our joints are whole.

As heart can think: there is not such a word
Spoke of in Scotland as this term of fear.

That is followed by Vernon’s report of the more daunting spectacle that comes: the image of Prince Hal (at last) armed and active, that vivid rendering enough to drain away all of Hotspur’s (false and blustery) faith.
Pray God my news be worth a welcome, lord.
The Earl of Westmoreland, seven thousand strong,
Is marching hitherwards; with him Prince John.

No harm: what more?

And further, I have learn'd,
The king himself in person is set forth,
Or hitherwards intended speedily,
With strong and mighty preparation.

He shall be welcome too. Where is his son,
The nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales,
And his comrades, that daff'd the world aside,
And bid it pass?

All furnish'd, all in arms;
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed;
Glittering in golden coats, like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm'd
Rise from the ground like feather'd Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp'd down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.

If the bewitching quality of what can be made present by the straining of perceptions is the very heart of theater, so too, is it the nucleus of terror. Hotspur is defeated right there. And the audience of any proper production, it seems, would have to feel along with him that the power is off-stage, gathering its force like a coming natural disaster.

It is a sublimely seductive moment . . .

December 12, 2006

Tracing Our Little Hands

In a 21st century work on the Holocaust, the categories Catastrophe and Meaning (eds. Moishe Postone and Eric Santner, Stanford UP, 2003) are brought together to form a title and announce a structure. The destruction of European Jews retains its power precisely because it is "an impasse to understanding." It is a catastrophe immune, in many ways, to meaning; thought in ruins. On the other hand, one cannot but attempt to engage it, to think it, to stare into what it is that happened. In our world that happened, and in many ways, continues.

And so too the fascination continues. Inquiry into such horror evolves along with the shifts in its cultural appearance. As generation after generation makes use of this wretched past for its present necessities, scholars, in turn, try to lend meaning by focusing ever-increasingly on what has happened to the Holocaust since it ended: the politics of its representation and the climates within which it is called upon, rejected or denied, diminished in memory or isolated in monument, exalted for its singularity or turned into a minor variation on an immemorial theme.

The impossibility of being content with these meanings leaves thought with its sorry, endless task, something touching on the pitiable. Among the heaped ideas in disciplinary piles, there is either failure or a false conceit. Something is denied either way. There is often the recourse to a weak positivism, reflexive cant, or the tired expressions of learned truisms. Some secure structure lends sanctuary. Without such protections and assumptions there is only the briefest and barest rest at each station.

Those earnestly searching for a calculus to measure the immeasurable can become rightfully exhausted by the Shoah's refusal to yield to the contrivances and narratives, however small. Surely there should be some steadfast formulation, some assuring form for the labor.

"Auschwitz: the impossibility of rest," writes Sarah Kofman in Smothered Words. Kofman's father was killed in Auschwitz. She twice recounts that he was "buried alive" for trying to observe the Sabbath while in the camp. Un-mournable. No rest for him there, no rest for her melancholy. She first approaches this loss that cannot be acknowledged through her readings of Blanchot and Anthelme. In a later work, the autobiographical Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, she takes a different route, one closer to her own being, a being haunted by the history suggested in this self-image:

Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, written just prior to her suicide, is a book saturated with references to writing, drawing, and the demands of shaping and tracing memory. One moment poignantly recalls her father during the war, before his deportation. He sends letters to his lone surviving brother, who was then in Yugoslavia. "When he wrote to him from Paris," Kofman says, "my father drew our little hands on the letters as signatures." Much later, when Kofman's sister travels to Israel,

"she was able to retrieve some photos of my father that we didn't have any longer and to see his letters written in Yiddish with the drawings of our hands. We had forgotten that tender gesture of my father's, and it came back to me then, all of a sudden, that during the entire war I myself had never ceased drawing my hands."

That incessant tracing, making and remaking both one's own hands and holding to the learned gesture itself, is the only option for keeping such a past at hand.

Fittingly, the architect Daniel Libeskind calls on this idea to suggest how he came to imagine Berlin while designing the Jewish Museum there. Wanting to engage the trauma in the public space of today (Germany as it is, a nation inhabiting innumerable places where people lived and died and from which they were torn during the Holocaust), Libeskind situates his museum along the lines of a virtual grid of Berlin. This grid is the imaginable city of the past and the critical interpretation of its present. He writes of conjuring this place:

"I decided to look at the hand of Alfred Doblin, a handprint which he made of his left hand in the 1920s, and in it I saw all the lines which describe Berlin as he saw it. . . . One can see the lifelines of Berlin in that hand: the love lines, the lines of death, the lines of work. That left hand of Doblin's Alexanderplatz is, I believe, the real matrix that continues to hold out the promise of that place."

The promise for the place is an evolving response, including the experience of meeting, as if by turning a city corner, the absence, the loss, and the memorial possibilities within an imagination that decides to linger, to dwell, to see through the restless layers of burial. This is the labor of acknowledgment. It is never finished. That is the task at hand. With each step one may encounter what Libeskind calls the "void," the physical space of trauma, traversed through touch, like a repeated trace of what can never be repeated. Such a reach toward the past is bound to feel insufficient and rightfully anxious.

The small gesture of hands: the image of a pencil moved along paper to serve as a signature for a particular date, a particular assemblage of word and wish during the worst circumstances of separation and fear. What divides the individual acts from those repeatable realms where meaning dwells, where memory binds them together, where present writes the past? "In a line of writing," Giorgio Agamben suggests, "the ductus of the hand passes continually from the common form of the letters to the particular marks that identify its singular presence, and no one, even using the scrupulous rigor of graphology, could ever trace the real division between these two spheres."

December 7, 2006

"Nothing is worse than what we imagine"

"Imagination that is material and dynamic," writes Gaston Bachelard, "enables us to experience a provoked adversity, a psychology of opposition that does not settle for the blow, the shock, but that seeks domination over the very heart of the matter."

In his recent article in the New York Review of Books -- "Iraq: The War of the Imagination" -- Mark Danner outlines the projections that led to the Iraq disaster. There was the wanton desire for an object lesson in retributive force, an American warning meant to reverberate throughout the Middle East. It would be the hammer blow, the shock and awe, and a longstanding reverberating threat. Yoked to this impulse was the idealistic dream of will: a pure, ungovernable ability to assert, a will free from the institutional gravity of politics.

"Nothing is worse than what we imagine," J. M. Coetzee writes in his novel of Empire's horrendous, self-destructive dreams, Waiting for the Barbarians.

December 3, 2006

Anselm Kiefer's Inhabitable Earth

Anselm Kiefer left his home country in 1993. His showing of new work closed out its stay in Paris yesterday. Titled "Fur Paul Celan," and thus devoted to another artist who carried a German "language" to exile in Paris, Kiefer's new collection is described as drawing from the cosmological and the kabbalistic, weaving the mythological with his signature textures.

The centerpiece is an installation. A leaden boat, piled with concrete tablets, or slabs without writing. Where can this boat travel carrying such weight? It belongs to the waters' bottom, calcified, a petrified remainder of an idea, hope, or gesture. Is its descent doomed further by its cargo, or the inability to bear the burden of what it tries to ferry into meaning?

Celan's drowning in the Seine, surely.

"Dysposition, I know
your knives swarming like

closer to the wind than I
nobody sailed,

nobody more than I
was cut by the hail squall
to the seaclear knived

--Paul Celan, "Dysposition"
(trans. Pierre Joris)

Born in Germany, 1945, what kind of cultural wreckage has Kiefer come to recognize as a condition through which he continually passes? "I am not only German," he said when leaving for France. To turn to Celan again, however, surely this is an admission that one never escapes into exile. Something is written into us. Put another way: the nightmare of history is not something from which one escapes, or wakes. How is the nightmare read, though, in the lucidity of creation? The risk of seeing clearly the sea-clarity of an always retreating horizon?

Kiefer's cosmological focus, with its associations of fire and heat and stars distant and figures lost, brings an initial comfort. It is, nevertheless, only a signal of retreat. The same sensation takes on a different quality when the distance is not cosmological but historical--and so he builds books that look like books burnt and unearthed, tokens of some unimaginable before. They are remote and alluring at once. Still and inscrutable they show in their density and weight what remains to be read.

Adjacent to the wrecked-ship for Celan is one of those recognizable figures of a book, this one ashen and blooming. Something wrought and weighty sprouts out of the disaster. The pages decompose into the earth and the soil is "enriched by all this," as Celan once said of the German language and its long, dark passage into "deathbringing speech."

The current "Heaven and Earth" show at San Francisco's MOMA gathers some of those vast wintry landscapes that carry forward Celan's words and places them within a long, representative collection of Kiefer's creations. They are tied thematically and insistently to his current work. He is still underway to some memorial understanding. Describing those older paintings are easy enough since they have all but written their description themselves: furrowed, broken, caked and crackled. Death frozen there. No regeneration in the embedded stalks, cut off at the neck. It is not the case that Kiefer is in any way locked there, retracing the same landscapes, even as Celan returns to over-write his work. Nor is it that he escaped the need to unearth what the earth has absorbed, "enriched by all this." It is an impossible, possibly crushing and sinking burden of reading what cannot be read. One must get closer and closer to it and still it retreats.

The layering of the text onto the earthen images brings the sense of distance and travel back to us. Instead of the celestial and the textual, the quick of ideas that claim the infinite, that think infinity, the distance traversed comes to feel much more like bare feet beating down on frozen ground. That connection with distance and history and the return of what we strain to read into completion and mourning may be ephemeral and receding, but for an instant, like a single line from a broken poem, scrawled in haste, it is there.

"Imagine: your
own hand
has held once
more this
into life re-
piece of
inhabitable earth.

that came toward me,
awake to the name, awake to the hand,
from what cannot be buried."

--Paul Celan, "Denk dir"
(trans. Pierre Joris)

December 1, 2006

Doing Things with Words II

Seven years after "The Meaning of Working through the Past" Adorno was still tending to the German refusal to engage its genocidal past. In a 1967 essay on a past lost to the present, "Education after Auschwitz," he returns to the plaintive attempt to give depth to the 20th century's categorical imperative: never again, Auschwitz.

With angst at the cultural refusal to suffer "all the anxiety that [the reality of Auschwitz] warrants," Adorno confronts the capacity of language to bolster blindness and refuse a life for the horrors. Study the guilty, he says, for the potential for the second Holocaust, whatever its form, will come through the personality far too adaptable to ongoing systems of barbarity. The culture adapts itself to the very conditions which should unsettle it. One should be anxious, fearful of the systemic murder. Instead it is a matter of forgotten history, a cold truth, a blunt fact.

In the current climate Adorno's description of the personality that so frightens him should ring familiar:

"At any cost he wants to conduct supposed, if delusional, Realpolitik. He does not for one second think or wish that the world were any different than it is; he is obsessed by the desire of doing things, indifferent to the content of such action."

Adorno continues:

"People of such a [manipulative character] have, as it were, assimilated themselves to things. This is conveyed very precisely in the expression 'to finish off [fertigmachen,]' just as popular in the world of juvenile rowdies as in the world of the Nazis."

In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann shows us Franz Suchomel, SS Untersturmfuhrer of the Treblinka death camp. With words absent of affect, shame, or any sense of their confessing potential, Suchomel describes, quite vividly, how people were murdered at his camp. The past is exposed but in words that crush it into oblivion. Suchomel is the embodiment, to an uncanny degree, of the very precision Adorno charted as symptomatic and frightful. Of the women whipped into the gas chambers Suchomel says, in an almost musical, performing flatness:

"And always more blows . . .
Always running . . .
That's how they were finished off.
Yes, the technique. You must remember, it had to go fast. And the Blue Squad also had the task of leading the sick and the aged to the 'infirmary,' so as not to delay the flow of people to the gas chambers. Old people would have slowed it down. Assignment to the 'infirmary' was decided by Germans. The Jews of the Blue Squad only implemented the decision, leading the people there or carrying them on stretchers. Old women, sick children, children whose mother was sick, or whose grandmother was very old, were sent along with the grandma, because she didn't know about the 'infirmary.' It had a white flag with a red cross. A passage led to it. Until they reached the end, they saw nothing. Then they'd see the dead in the pit. . . .

They were forced to strip, to sit on a sandbank, and were killed with a shot in the neck. They fell into the pit. There was always a fire in the pit. With rubbish, paper and gasoline, people burn very well."

November 26, 2006

Doing Things with Words

In his essay, "The Meaning of Working Through the Past," (1960) Theodor Adorno teases out the systems of avoidance at work in West Germany after the war. One aspect of denying the past its due consideration is a language of obfuscation that denies the past its immediacy. This language interferes with the critical self-reflection necessary to truly engage with the causes of the murderous disaster. For Adorno, the "mitigating expressions and euphemistic circumlocutions" turn the means of making the past present into a "hollow" discourse, or the death's head of thought. Forgetting becomes a thing done with words and not just a matter of their absence. More than for anything else, Adorno's fame or infamy can be traced back to his 1949 observation that culture turned rancid in the wake of Auschwitz. Then, he wrote:

“Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.”

Later he revised this suggestion, tempering it with the admission that torture demanded its scream, horror its poetic response:

“Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.”

Perhaps no figure has been as closely associated with the phrase "poetry after Auschwitz" than the survivor, Paul Celan. His poetry's euphony may well still strike some as something transcendent if not barbaric. His insistence, however, is on the formulations of language that the dangerous talk of destruction and denial--which Adorno himself recognizes as a primary harbor of fascist tendencies--left in its wake. Accepting the Literature Prize of Bremen in 1958 Celan said of that which remained in the aftermath of "death-bringing speech":
"A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: theyare making toward something.

Toward what? Toward something standing open, occupiable, perhaps toward an addressable Thou, toward an addressable reality.

Such realities, I think, are at stake in a poem. And I also believe that ways of thought like these attend not only my own efforts, but those of other lyric poets in the younger generation. They are the efforts of someone who, overarced by stars that are human handiwork, and who, shelterless in this till now undreamt–of sense and thus most uncannily in the open, goes with his very being to language, stricken by and seeking reality."

Picking up the shards of language, Celan's poetry was never an attempt to return to some lyricism that managed to dwell outside history. Rather it was to move lyricism through the destruction Adorno insisted upon acknowledging. Celan becomes, in this light, a muse of reckoning, a means of making words carry one toward seeing the past in its horror.

November 21, 2006

Seeing the Sacred

The story comes in lovely simplicity and is embodied now in the ritual. Thanks given for a gifts of reprieve, humane encounter, the food of humanity, harvested from grace. The story says Tisquantum, a "native," emerges from the "wilderness," speaks to the Plymouth colonials in English, gives them the gift of harvesting corn, catching eels from the shore, becomes their interpreter and aids in the founding of the peaceful co-existence between the colony and the Wampanoag tribe.

Holocaust historian Omer Bartov recounts the following story of a seemingly grace-laden gesture. In the killing fields of Poland during the German Wehrmacht's push east in World War II anyone Jewish was deemed enemy, rounded up, and put in camps or shot in "actions." (During the war, such atrocities were in a sense hidden. They are still contested by those who wish to keep the reputation of the Wehrmacht safe from the crimes of the SS.) Jewish women in a labor camp outside Kracow are sent on a long march to the showers, bodies ravaged by the abuse, their feet torn apart by the wooden clogs they are forced to wear. Naked and bare the women realized German soldiers were adjacent to the showers, looking away, "perhaps out of embarrassment." Then, Bartov writes:

"one of the soldiers motioned them to come closer. [The women] froze in fear. But one of the young women ventured forward. As she reached the soldier, he took out a first-aid kit and dressed her bloody feet. And so they did with all the other women. This too happened; and although the same soldiers may have had plenty of Jewish blood on their hands, for one sacred moment in that war of genocide and destruction, they reached deep into their own humanity and helped to heal the wounded bodies and souls of a few doomed young women" (emphasis added).

The touch of a humane hand: the scholar writes about it as if we had witnessed something angelic emerging from the wilderness, the mass graves retreating into deep relief of consciousness, our imagination locked only on the scene of touch.

This is a habit of the imagination. Giorgio Agamben’s work on testimony, Remnants of Auschwitz, furnishes a powerful example of just this kind of temptation. At Auschwitz, he reminds us, there were "special teams" of camp inmates called the Sonderkommando, whose task it was to lead fellow Jews into the gas chambers and then dispose of the bodies. Once, during a "break" from this kind of "work"—so grisly as to be wholly unthinkable—there was a game of soccer between the SS men and the Sonderkommando. As if on a village green they played a game while prisoners and guards and the rest of the camp “community” bet, cheered, and watched. What sense can be made of this fact? How do we draw meaning from it? Agamben writes:

"This match might strike someone as a brief pause of humanity in the middle of an infinite horror. I, like the witnesses, instead view this match, this moment of normalcy, as the true horror of the camp. For we can perhaps think that the massacres are over—even if here and now they are repeated, not so far away from us. . . . But that match is never over. . . . It is the perfect and eternal cipher of the 'gray zone,' which knows no time and is every place. Hence the anguish and shame of the survivors . . . . But also hence our shame, the shame of those of us who did not know the camps and yet, without knowing how, are spectators of that match, which repeats itself . . . in the normalcy of everyday life. If we do not succeed in understanding that match, in stopping it, there will never be hope" (26).

For Agamben, “the match” in our time is all but invisible, and as spectators to barbarism we are deeply and continually implicated in what we will not see while focused on our humanity. In order to suggest what the Holocaust might mean, Agamben avoids such temptations, listening to what the survivors, through their witnessing, announce. Given what he calls the “non-coincidence between facts and truth, between verification and comprehension” how are we to understand the function of the survivor who bears the burden of witnessing? His reflections on testimony center around a silence, the unspeakable. This is as much a quality of what happened as it was something imposed upon those who suffered and died, or suffered and survived. This condition of silence is captured in the figure of the Muselmann, or what camp inmates called “The Muslim,” the camp inmate who had crossed an apparent threshold into a living death and who could not therefore grant testimony to their own destruction.
These individuals had become figures, or figuren, the dead who are the complete witnesses to human destruction. Utterly reduced, stripped entirely of humanity, they stood as a mute example of bare, biological life. Primo Levi describes them as the walking corpses present as a staggering realm of non-life. They were, he says, “an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead in them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand” (Survival in Auschwitz; qtd. 44).

In the middle of the invisible war the "sacred" is seized, therefore, with great fervor and necessity. The cruelties recede for an instant and seem, then, like the decay or disruption of the civilized. At the same time, it is impossible not to think of Tisquantum and the systems that stole him away to Europe where he would learn English before teaching the English to avoid starvation. Or the bloody war of 1675 that followed other patterns of barbarity, and generated the new ones that followed, an emergency without end.

November 13, 2006

Image upon Image

"The old forms of communication are not unaffected by the development of new ones, nor do they survive [unscathed] alongside them." (Bertolt Brecht, on film).

Atom Egoyan showed his new film, Citadel, for the first time in the U.S. last weekend, at the University of Chicago. It is framed as a future gift to his son, who at the time of filming, was only 10, too young to absorb what his father was offering him: a portrait of his parents during their trip to Lebanon in 2004. Beirut was the home to his wife, the actress Arsinee Khanjian, before her family's escape from civil war and Egoyan records her return with brief glimpses of what life in Beirut was like before the Israeli air-strikes of this past summer. Egoyan seems to be innocently filming, naively catching family banter and the dense mix of contemporary cityscape, ancient ruins, and regions of war scars, all saturated with lush Mediterranean light.

But because he is more of a theorist of images than one who simply makes them, it does not take long to always be on the alert for what is not in the frame. The camera lens is repeatedly leading to something tight and close . . . always, then, to Egoyan himself. You cannot get away from him. If you want to see the room he shows you a book that he reading. When he pans through a gorgeous library in the early section of the film he comes to rest on his own reflection. Where he once shoots the room now he films his own image. That's all there was, he seems to be saying, and as much as the apparatus of the small, pocket-sized camera makes every object a target and every man, woman, or child a "director," the surfeit of images contained still pushes us back into the problems of seeing and choosing, and focus.

In this way he consistently, or rather compulsively, suggests more about the limitations of images than allowing one to ever settle into the content. Teasing out the provocative possibilities, by quietly drawing attention to what isn't shown, is what he does, whether it is in this home movie, or his feature films like Exotica, Ararat, or The Sweet Hereafter. In this way they are films that are in some sense absent from themselves, hollowed out so that watching them one is perpetually aware of watching a movie. (Even when he and his wife took questions from a large, rather stifled audience in the auditorium after the film's screening, it was impossible not to be aware, all the time: I am watching two filmmakers on a stage in a dulled auditorium. One was neither bored nor captivated. I am here, I am seeing, I am thinking . . .).

Like his character from Ararat, the Armenian-Canadian, Raffi, who travels to Turkey in a desperate attempt to make the landscape of the Armenian Genocide meaningful by filming it, Egoyan works in a kind of perpetual disappointment with what his camera cannot capture, the perversity, as he says at the film's end, that of all the stories circulating through the city streets, he has told his son only one, an internal family drama (about his compulsion to film, and Khanjian's to perform; though she nothing of a starlet--she is beautiful and smart and present and there is thus something strange about watching someone so comfortable in front of the camera, the quiet, steady narcissism of engaging, absorbing eyes).

Egoyan calls his film an act of faith. Here he is telling his son about the civil war from 1975-1990, about the factions within the city, the almost rapid killing that went on, and about the infamous massacres of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila: homeless and displaced persons slaughtered out of revenge and perhaps, simply because it was possible. The details he recites get lost in the sunshine. There is almost no point in gesturing towards that history. It remains something remote, a documentary subject. He edits into this scene on the beach pictures of the war he taped off the television, as if they are what is there, buried in the sand. Image heaped on image, displacement and the struggle to focus. They are dark and muted with static, the war is an invisible thing now, or was until the devastation came again in 2006.

The autofocus latches onto its object mechanically. What are we compelled, by habit, to see? Or what is we choose to make disappear? How do our reflexes lead us or away from what should be closest, to some future focal plane. What you cannot see does not exist. This is a grave problem for Egoyan, who seems always undone by what he cannot see and what becomes the object of focus: out of habit, necessity, obligation, or obliviousness.

November 11, 2006

Cambodia Returns

Throughout Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, the governing question is how we regard, or rather process, images of atrocity. If her work On Photography was devoted to the image itself, the politics of its reception comes to take precedence in this later work, for those images of atrocity are everywhere: perpetual pictures "speaking" on behalf of those in need of protection from the onslaught or terror, torture, endless war. The human rights theorist Michael Ignatieff claims that ideally those in need of protection can appeal for their rights, but what is the appeal held in the scream, or in the stammering translation of traumatic memory, especially when we only hear it through our seeing, sensing it from afar, and even then, through a regard that finds in the appeal, a beautiful picture?

Tuol Sleng is the infamous prison that was run by the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. It was a center for the purging of Ankgar, the Organization of its supposed enemies: torture and carefully coerced, then scrupulously documented, confessions, and finally execution. Some 14,000 persons entered, seven survived. Everyone was photographed prior to their abuse and murder. As the anthropologist Lindsay French says of the images that remain, they are deeply disturbing and yet some are absurdly and arrestingly beautiful. They have appeared in galleries, they are for sale, they migrate in an economy of the image. Printed with care, they take on the accusatory and seductive power of an Avedon series; as if he had left the American West and just kept going to the other side of the world, some far side of experience.

How can these images be processed, imaginatively and psychologically? They play a prominent role in Rithay Panh's documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, a film that brings one prominent survivor, Vann Nath, into "conversation" with several guards from the prison. He sits across from them, piles of photographs and documents on the table. The guards know the crimes they have committed and offer an array of defensive explanations. They remain "victims" and they themselves, they say, cannot "know" or process what happened there, even as they act out the rituals of the prison for Panh's camera. And sitting before the images, or even when forced into a forensic accounting of the murders they are distanced from the horrors; reading the pictures becomes a way of not acknowledging what the pictures show.

When thinking of human rights and their rhetorical necessities, it is hard to calculate the value of witnessing such things. One can stare at the images, one can consider the degradations and the systems of destruction--of human beings, of conscience, of moral injunctions. Even as they suggest some moments about what happened in that country, in that prison, in the aftermath, the images and their originating circumstance seem incredibly, and impossibly, far away. In order to stare, one needs time, and peace, and leaving the space of seeing them there will be a sunlit day, a city nightscape, an afternoon of work in a cafe, sustaining rhythms of safety and contemplation, which always brings with it a certain power and pleasure, no matter the substance of the thought. Of course, the two are always side-by-side, it's just a matter of accepting that fact.

As someone who saw the Tuol Sleng photographs rightly said, the proper absorption of the difficult, dis-heartening, and all the abject cruelties exacts its price. But that price is paid for the knowledge of what the human can do, what Aristotle might remind us to consider in our measure of worldly wisdom, the material that might come into play during the next rhetorical situation, when someone, or someone's image, makes its appeal. Along those lines, Sontag makes the claim that in today's world, no one has the right to be only, safely naive.

Learning to see what is shown and hear the translation of agonies from one dimension to another--often across borders, but more often through historical frames--makes demands. There are so many elements that disrupt our reception, some of them from without, some of them inside ourselves. The old definition of ideology used to be that it forced people to see the world upside down. "People know not what they do." The idea was that if they just learned the truth they would stop being selfish, cruel, heartless, unjust, etc. That definition has since been revised: "People know full well what they do, they just act as if they don't."

This has to do with investment and a willingness to understand--and to be critically engaged with--what one sees and encounters. Reading histories of Cambodia is to be struck by the degree to which those outside Cambodia argued about the truth of what was happening inside the country once it was controlled by the Khmer Rouge. It is true that there were no roaming bands of journalists operating inside the country, and that it took a long time for the realities there to take shape through survivor and refugee testimony. It might be equally true, however, that as Cambodia became a symbol (for a culture divided and at war over Vietnam) that how it was seen, understood, and misunderstood had a great deal to with the investments in seeing, or not seeing, the awfulness that existed there during that time.