April 27, 2008

Dreams on the Landscape

Martin Weber's photo project, A Map of Latin American Dreams, is build around the terse translations of want written in chalk and positioned in the frame of the photograph. In each image words take their own place in highly staged portraits. They are not merely inscriptions of interiority, the captured character of the subject, but there before us as writing, as something removed, outside, the very force that prompts the scene represented.

The theatrical "drama" of Weber's images comes from these characters of chalk. The characters are two-fold. There is the writing itself, the markings that carry the message -- like "My brother dreams of studying music" (above) and "to have friends" (below). At first glance we assume the message reflects the character's inner desires, their confessional exposure of drives and needs. Staring, seeing more and more, and then less and less, there is the uncanny confusion of where to find the "author" of such a message. What scripting has prompted this scene, this position of the body? What mode of word that has driven history's wreckage (neoliberalism, deindustrialization, free market) also stained the very language -- an idea shared by both Eliot and Celan -- of dreams?

And so the dreamer in Weber's staging is also a character who has been written within in the words of inherited circumstance.

The language in the lush anti-realism of Weber's photographs is that which comes after the dream; an articulation of what has vanished as feeling and remains and now appears not only as an idealization of the wish, a reformation of the dream's content, but as a cue for further action.

Of course the camera, which would have stilled any movement he meant to imply, captures Weber's aesthetic of unrelenting stillness. He is ensuring that the dominant feeling is one of being suspended, caught along a threshold or border of compulsions, memories, living with and against the blood-work of history, language, and self.

(Above, in the picture made along the Mexico/US divide, the dream is "Affection." Here the more universal sense of displacement, and the dream to have land).

April 16, 2008

Living Next to History

Susan Griffin's collection of history, memoir, and tentative speculations, A Chorus of Stones, is built to be incomplete, to be structured as a ruin. As she describes the systems of denial that make up the "private life of war" -- and the war within our private lives -- there is a continual refusal of what was surely so tempting: a fully articulated counter-memory that would, after brushing against the grain, take solace in some newly exposed presence.

If she is an advocate for a particular form of understanding, it is for a feeling of how history lives within us as an all-too often horrific inheritance; for a sense of the complicated uncertainties that mark human experience. The experiences in Griffin's explorations are almost always the kind of projects blighted by fear, fueled by self-loathing, sourced by torment and rage, and misunderstood because of an abject refusal. In other words, where there is a sense of security there is the greatest weakness, when the past is faced as a reality to be mastered, it appears only as a wish or delusion; framed by a cant, a comforting creed, a rush of the ego.

If her writing in A Chorus of Stones can seem too eager to make parallels where none rightly exist -- a set of willful category mistakes -- she is in no way glib about the means of reaching clarity and insight about our condition in the social world. The motivations for cruelty, or the acceptance of what is -- what Adorno calls the coldness which "does not for one second think or wish that the world were any different than it is" ("Education after Auschwitz") -- are too potent to be erased by whatever construction of insight. The effects of such motivations, however, may be tempered by stacking the stones into the ruin, an open-ended work which asks the critical imagination to account, more than is our want, for modernity's grisly traces; traces which scar us, imperceptibly and irrevocably, like the erosion lines on stones.

Griffin is fond of metaphors through which history is metastasized within, moving from the psyche to the X-Ray to the nuclear weapon, images of the molecular destruction of Being. But her insight that it is the need for security which drives the systems of destruction that cloud the world we now inhabit reminds one of a later work, more supple, and that is W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz. For Austerlitz begins with architecture and stonework, the vast mausoleums of modernity's worst impulses, whether it is the colonial barbarity visible in the cool grandeur of the Antwerp train station, or the modern fortresses that grew more and more complex in defense and defiance that they became nothing but elaborate tombs. We enter these, seeking the past, and finding that the expected presence cannot be grasped. It is as if it never were.

The word that echoes is "gentrification," the idea of a pacified space in which to dwell. That is the necessary space of denial and the very Thing with which one must reckon. There, History is the neighbor, the inscrutable otherness of where we reside. The only response to this, says Sebald, says Griffin, is to write, write; to enter into the symbolic restructuring. In Zizek's language, this is what it seems to be to live next to history:

"We need the recourse to performativity, to the symbolic engagement, precisely and insofar as the other whom we encounter is not only the imaginary semblant, but also the elusive absolute Other of the Real Thing with whom no reciprocal exchange is possible. In order to render our coexistence with the Thing minimally bearable, the symbolic order . . . the pacifying mediator, has to intervene." (Slavoj Zizek, The Neighbor)

April 13, 2008

After the Fevers

"No one experiences pleasure like one who is convalescing. His delights are not orgiastic in nature: the flow of his renewed blood resonates with the murmur of streams, the purer breath from his lips with winds in the tree tops. [There is a] childlike nobility for those who have escaped from the depths of night and madness, the madness, namely, of myth."

--Walter Benjamin