May 20, 2008

The intensity which I wanted

(Painting by Felix Nussbaum).

I had been bothered by a secret weariness
with meter and regular stanzas
grown a little stale. The smooth lines and rhymes
seemed to me affected, a false stress on words and syllables--
fake flowers
in the streets in which I walked.
And yet I found prose
without the burst of song and sudden dancing--
without the intensity which I wanted.
The brand-new verse some Americans were beginning to write--
after the French "free verse," perhaps,
or the irregular rhythms of Walt Whitman,
the English translations of the Hebrew Bible
and, earlier yet, teh rough verse of the Anglo-Saxons--
seemed to me, when I first read it,
not cut to patterns, however cleverly,
nor poured into ready molds,
but words and phrases flowing as the thought;
to be read just as common speech
but for the stopping at the turn of each line--and
and this like a rest in music or a turn in the dance.
(I found it no criticism that to read such verse as prose
was to have a kind of prose,
for that was not to read it as was written.)
--Charles Reznikoff, "Early History of a Writer"

May 17, 2008

Denying al-nakba

The marking of Israel's sixtieth year has also brought the circulation of its shadow, the Palestinian remembrance of al-nakba, or the catastrophe of massive displacement that followed the 1948 war.

Beersheba 1948:

Post-independence Beersheba,
with Leonard Bernstein, November 1948:

Not surprisingly, there is the continued insistence that their independence not be woven tight to the price Palestinians paid then, and pay now. Israel is currently trying to pressure the United Nations to avoid using nakba. This attempt to influence the common "lexicon" is nothing other than trying to banish the very idea of a historical view of the Palestinian plight from general thought. It is indicative of the worst contradictions that saturate the problems in Palestine. Israel's Foreign Minister Livni suggested that the path for a Palestinian today is paved by forgetting yesterday -- saying they will have their own independence day when the word nakba falls from their vocabulary. But Defense Minister Barak reminded every Israeli that "there is no future for a nation that does not know its past." Israel cannot shape the vision of the past from sheer rhetorical gamesmanship. There is too much already written into the land, like the script their security fence and West Bank bypass roads, and the more obscure traces in the shape of deeds for homes lost or the diaried memories of refugees.

That such history might disappear is the revolutionary dream. That the myths of a clean creation must be so obscenely protected is the impulse of weak nationalism. Of course, the past remains, and it seems increasingly present beyond the limited use of emigrants, exiles, and refugees, people who are not so absent as to have their past erased and scattered, but living reminders. The "right of return" for them may be framed in moral terms, as a just insistence, but that is a political matter. It is an object in a struggle for recognition since it, as a right, must be recognized. Without being part of an agreement it has as much substance as the claim that other should not remember their losses, that should agree to displacement. For that decision to forget would also be a political choice and not a human one.

Human catastrophes, however, are not so easily negotiated, and so one begins with recognition that not only are such memories powerful, but that they belong to all of Palestine, whatever its future formations. In other words:
"No national 'right,' as in organic and pre-given. No self-determination, as in self-sufficiency, of nations. To [this] we can add . . . no singular selfhood. Rights . . . relies on a fully rational, monochrome, conception of the person. I must know who I am when I claim them. But if the mind is not its own place? If my claim delves into the depths of my own history, trawling through my dreams and nightmare, to create its own law? The image we have of displaced persons tends to be cast in terms of endurance, survival, the fierce adherence of all human creatures to their own life. It bears no investigation of inner worlds. I suggest instead we see peoples on the move at least partly as sleepwalkers, trundling through each other's dark night."
--Jacqueline Rose, "Displacement in Zion," The Last Resistance

May 15, 2008

Not for Victory

In Israel to help celebrate its 60 years of statehood, George Bush called upon a familiar national symbol for Israelis. As Haaretz reports it:

"In an historic address to Knesset on Thursday, U.S. President George Bush reiterated America's commitment to Israel and said his country was "proud to be Israel's closest ally and best friend."

Bush, on a three-day visit to Israel on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, told a special session of Knesset that "Masada will not fall again," in reference to the Roman-era desert fortress which he visited earlier in the day.

The site is a national symbol in Israel of Jewish fighting spirit and self-sacrifice against powerful enemies and overwhelming odds."

The sacrifice, according to the adopted chronicle by Josephus, was mass suicide. The Jewish revolt led by Bar Kokhba (or Kosiba), and crushed by the counter-insurgency onslaught of the Romans, died by its own hand in the isolated hilltop fortress.

Seeing no way out but through battle or living with the finality of defeat, each took the life of the other in succession until one remained; one left to tell the tale. The hilltop bastion thus became a mass grave and a witness/survivor story of destruction and willed death.

Raised as a special site in the twentieth century's project of developing and promoting a national consciousness, the site of memory and commemoration was finally excavated and "restored" in the 1960s. Masada, as a site and symbol, is a thoroughly modern creation. To invoke it as the standard symbol of national will, and to say at the same time that it will not fall again, both mythologizes the present through the desperate affect of the tragic past and cuts the present free from the painful price held in the story of destruction. The modern nationalist myth uses death as a glorious symbol of sacrifice for the military spirit of the (eternally) besieged nation. The promise made to undo its tragic course, to refuse the hard lessons buried in the myth, comes from a hard, terrifying wish for a final victory.

If Masada exalts the beauty of battle, Yavne stands for the gesture of just escape. In that story Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai is smuggled out of Jerusalem in order to surrender the political center for the sake of a new spiritual one. The Second Temple was destroyed but a place of Jewish learning, Yavne, was established in flight, in the spirit of survival rather than self-sacrifice to the enemy.

Charles Reznikoff's poetry, which always tempers loss with presence, with life and remnant and true remembrance, with the true notion that the saving gesture was not in sacrifice but in continuation through memory and adjustment and adaptation, serves, for today, as antidote to the all this:

Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.

Not for victory
but for the day's work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.

--"Te Deum"

May 4, 2008

Making a Promise: Performance as Political Coercion

More than ten years before 9/11 brought such concerns to the fore, Anthony Kubiak was trying to tease out the nuanced interweave of terror and theater, of violence and its representation, or its seeming collapse, as Artaud would have it in his theater defying (and destroying) theater of cruelty.

Stages of Terror: Terrorism, Ideology, and Coercion as Theatre History appeared during an era when the terrorist-as-media-artist was a concept that had been cemented in spectacles ranging from Entebbe to the Iranian taking of the US embassy in Tehran and the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the infamous scenes from TWA flight 847 in 1985.

He begins by taking on the common insight that is a symbiotic relation between media spectacle and terrorist act. Much of that talk suggested that acts "done for the cameras" -- as a means of gaining a platform -- were being conjured, in part, by the technology of image distribution. But Kubiak saw rightly that the relation was no more solely a symptom of the camera than Jihadi videos are strictly by-products of the internet. There is a deeper history, a more fundamental and intimate connection. Kubiak, therefore, traces the trajectory that emerges through the tragic history of our artistic and political traditions.

"While terrorism is not theater," he writes, "terrorism's affiliation with political coercion as performance is a history whose first impulse is a terror that is theater's moment, a terror that is so basic to human life that it remains largely invisible except as theater. The history of theater's filiation with psychic and political terror is the perfect twin of terror's own history as politics."

There is a complex interweave of the actual and its showing that marks theater and its difficult distinction from what it is not. This was famously identified as the struggle to disentangle authentic acts from what Derrida, describing Artaud's exuberant failure, called the closed cycle of representation (tragic precisely because of representation's inexorable grip and "its gratuitous and baseless necessity"). If representation already has its hooks in us, what happens when an artist like Stelarc shows the body's being by enduring the tortured piercings, and suspends himself as spectacle?

For Kubiak, the risk is that such performance, whatever its critical intentions, could not expose us to the terror as much as further mute its presence by unavoidably pacifying the encounter. In such an economy it is easy for the real pain to disappear into aesthetic packaging. But that does not mean that its effects are harmless on the spectator or the artist, only that there is a displacement from body to mind. For our encounters with a body on hooks or a protester in flames or a distant explosion all, in different ways, feed what he calls a "habit of thought" that orients itself away from is witnessed and toward what is to come, which is the desire for the future encounter. This can surely come in dream or wish or lucid dread. And this helps us see that the Jihadi videos of today are not merely an archive of the destruction, but a promise of what will continue, almost timelessly, ceaselessly, without measure. Surely this is where the supposedly pre-political, or anti-political violence, makes its political claim. The "terrorist" rhetoric claims that such gestures, rituals, exacting and murderous deeds will go on, leaving the actual deaths -- and there is the link to state sponsored actions in the name of "security" -- lost in the imagery proliferation.

Meanwhile we get caught in the loop. It is a bloody and terrifying show of force and counter-force. What the image hides it nonetheless produces, as expectation. "[When terror] becomes less and less experiential and more and more a habit of thought," he writes, the driving and weakened thought "hungers for the experience of real violence," crippled "in the coercive ambience of its endless reproductions."

May 3, 2008

Circulating Terror

"The dreams are anonymous but authentic. Both dreams involve a narrative; they contain action with a beginning and an end, action which, however, never took place in the way in way it was recounted. They are dreams about terror, or more precisely, dreams of terror itself. The terror is not simply dreamed, the dreams are themselves components of the terror. Both recount a vivid inner truth which was not only realized, but was immeasurably outbid by the later reality. . . ."

--Reinhart Koselleck

A recent talk -- "The Death of Politics: Human Rights, New Public Spheres, and the Jihad" -- offered a brief tour of a Jihadi terrorism network, in particular the catalog of small films "it" produces and distributes. What can be understood from this small, yet global exercise of dispersing an archive of "terrorist" acts?

In the few samples shown we hear music and see graphics that announce an opening, and then witness the action. In the first, a military convoy in the distance silently bounces along until there is an explosion under the front of the first vehicle. Another is more intimate. The subject is a rocket launcher. The camera pans over a series of metal cone noses nested in their tubes. Then their launch and excited voices in the background. We don't see the rockets land. There are more and more, some longer form. We see a lush countryside, an "interview" or "profile" of the driver of a car that we see packed carefully with explosives. The end is the destruction of the far-off target.

Of the details, there was no comment during the talk. The films were left to lodge themselves in the imagination; impossible, now, to forget that they are not mere citations in an academic paper, but filaments free-floating all around the world, inspiring imitation, recording "revolution," if that is what it is.

These brief bursts of visuals were framed in the talk, however, by the discourse of human rights, which in the authorial voice of Michael Ignatieff, defines terrorism as anti-politics, and therefore as the opposite of human rights. Ignatieff, now part of the Canadian Parliament, is a defender of human rights as a political project. Above all lofty ideals, for him human rights are an expression of values that do not exist outside the political sphere. As such, they may even marshal violence on the behalf of protecting, or installing, those values. The caveat is that the violence should be used only as a last resort, whatever the variables of that which determines an arrival at that "last" stage. State violence, or politics in the form of "last resort," is seen to achieve the economic and civil stability required for what we call human rights to exist as the dominant "moral intuition."

In such a construction, terrorism is bracketed, simply, as the inverse. Borrowing Ignatieff's language, it is the unjust use of violence; a violence of first resort against civil society -- chiefly with civilians as target; a gesture meant to disrupt a political process with the end-point of potential consensus, one reached in a respected public sphere. It is a vulgar disregard for deliberation.

Even leaving aside, for the moment, the idea of hegemonies at work in the imagined neutral space of a true and just politics, Ignatieff's formula will not, cannot, hold. The small samples of terrorism production shown destroy the distinction. We're reminded, first, that human rights has long used media representations to effect change, to shame the perpetrators, to expose them or at least to show the horrors that must be stopped. We're reminded, next, that in a society of spectacle, perpetrators use cameras, too. The trust in the power of images works for all, and images can come to stand prior to any actualities. In both cases one might act for no other reason than to be seen, acting.

Does the terrorist's violence destroy the public sphere as Ignatieff says? Or does the image become more than what gives rise to the image -- the essence becoming the proliferating images re-assembled in the uncertain "public" sphere that feeds a binding economy of witness? Framed this way, the Jihad seems less the violence as an end in itself than as the substance of images, the easiest currency to persuade, move, inspire, perhaps with purpose, perhaps with gratuitous animus. As the pictures do the work of advocacy in their media sphere, the packaged events present a dream terror: anonymous, authentic, and in narrative form, played out in the mind of the viewer.