September 26, 2008

"Death of an Heir of Sorrows"

So many of the characters he portrayed had a restless want made of bitterness and need. There was the steady beat of an alertness to the century in them, a familiar, fierce ache of protest in the middle of some tangible decay or mood of enclosure. All hustlers, thieves, prisoners, and wounded players. The want faced with the death of some necessary fiction, some beckoning image (as if undoing his own power in the light) proving too weak, too fragile, too pathetic. And so the themes of escaping the binding lure of the American dream, or the binds that made it impossible.

They push back against constant presence of ideologies, the forces that shape what is being represented, as if in his eyes he could demonstrate that the battles were always more than those against actual opposition. The torturers of the prison may embody an evil, but it is already the chain gang, a small institution of delusion, that is the culprit.

Even that figure who was supposed to represent the worst of the new breed was given a line that knowingly nodded to the dark times that come. And so while embodying the evil himself he is able to remind the audience that the blame is beyond him, that it rightly goes beyond any single man's moral character, or barbed-wire heart, all the way to the very stuff of the system at work.

And so the son Hud says to father Homer, who takes the government ordered slaughter of his cattle with a wounded grace, and touch of tragic acceptance:

"This country is run on epidemics, where you been? Price fixing, crooked TV shows, inflated expense accounts. How many honest men you know? Why you separate the saints from the sinners, you're lucky to wind up with Abraham Lincoln. Now I want out of this spread what I put into it, and I say let us dip our bread into some of that gravy while it is still hot."
That performance as Hud may seem notable for its refusal to turn away from the destructive qualities that force a man to devour the gravy regardless of the moral measures that might come before, but more than that, it stands for what drives the compulsion of the rest of the characters, the immeasurable losses that cascade across the screen, decade after decade, insistence after insistence, betrayal after betrayal, cowardly act after cowardly act, refusal after refusal, sorrow after sorrow, in some form or another.

"Death of an Heir of Sorrows," by the Silver Jews. (Courtesy of Ted Barron).

September 25, 2008

In the City of Expectation

I had arrived ... to visit a woman friend. Her house, the city, the language were unfamiliar to me. Nobody was expecting me; no one knew me. For two hours I walked the streets in solitude.

Never again have I seen them so. From every gate a flame darted; each cornerstone sprayed sparks, and every streetcar came toward me like a fire engine. For she might have stepped out of the gateway, around the corner, been sitting in the streetcar. But of the two of us, I had to be, at any price, the first to see the other. For had she touched me with the match of her eyes, I would have gone up like a powder keg.

--Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street

September 20, 2008

In the City of Memory

Dating from the first century BC, the Rhetorica ad Herennium outlines the interconnection of rhetoric and memory. It presents a system for organizing the materials of memory. An orator stores and arranges his knowledge and learning for recall and access, quickly locating within the mental storehouse the necessary fact, fable, or quotation. It describes the need for structures and scenes to ground and secure what is known. With these structures in place, images to be recalled can be placed, just as writing is impressed upon a wax tablet. The scenes and structures make a cosmos in which to wander mentally, street to street, house to house, room to room.

Moreover, each of these loci acts as a theater that disappears under the pull of the drama it nonetheless supports. And contrary to expectations, the drama is defined by images, not words. A thinker such as Walter Ong insists that the written word -- from the Greeks onward -- announces the technology that births philosophy itself. With the abstracted quality of words written down, steadied and made to represent ideas removed from a living present, the perpetual becoming of speaking in oral culture gives way to literate culture's questions of a transcendent abstraction: Being. The word, always at a distance from the particularity of any speaker, is used to form knowledge within; it is absorbed in solitude, made something by the introspective musings. Hence, writing as a technology that structures thought.

The Rhetorica ad Herennium, however, stresses that memory and knowing relies upon remembered images and not studied and steadied words. The images are only like writing. What we see is the "material" presence of recollection, and attached to these, like a comet's tail of reflection, are the words. They appear within the mind only through the associated images of remembrance. In the theater, the visual presence of the actors gives voice to the script, enlivening the words, undeniably, ontologically there, to be seen.

In a famous Russian case study (cited by Mary Carruthers in The Book of Memory), a mnemonist, or performing memory-artist, described his system of memory as a conscious translation of word into picture. Each word becomes a thing in his mind, and each thing is carefully placed in his mental metropolis. Luria, author of the study, writes: "beginning at Mayakovsky Square, [he would] slowly make his way down, distributing his images at houses, gates, stores windows. At times, without realizing how it had happened, he would suddenly find himself back in his home town . . . where he would wind up his trip in the house he had lived in as a child." To call forth a passage he makes his way through imagined streets, looking up at buildings that hold the signs he can recognize and then re-translate back to words.

The imagined loci, and the imagined images, if not properly set could sometimes obscure their purpose. Thus clues were not properly seen, like when the nuances of a drama slip by due to inattention. The mnemonist describes losing images in the background. He makes a pencil too small in the scene, a white egg is placed against a white door. As a corrective he makes the settings less natural, distorting scale, playing with increased contrast, ensuring the elements do not blend too much together.

The weakness of his method were two-fold. One, noise and the speed of his initial perceptions could crowd his placements, intruding upon the necessity of space and time. He needed room: to hear sharp, uncluttered sounds and to imagine buildings and homes defined by alleyways and buffers. Each scene needed its break, the black buffer of a nowhere to accentuate the sharp, distinctive placement of image into scene.

Returning to the idea of theater, his method of placement and recall might best be thought of as Brechtian -- it uses scene and setting and image for another purpose of thought, and built into the system is the room to consider, to gain footing, to know where one is. The spectacular pace of a Mueller piece would, by contrast, would distort and disturb the harmony necessary for orderly recollection. (Mueller may have been Socratic in disposition, ready with innumerable anecdotes and recollected details that could emerge in dialogue, but his works seem intent on crowding out any efficient forms of remembrance. One must hurry through the uses of other texts, like someone taking flight from the police and trying to sightsee along the way.)

The second weakness is therefore connected to the first. How was it the mnemonist was to purge his city of memories he no longer needed? Trained to collect, arrange, and recall, he could not simply shake lose the images and the words attached to them. He tried writing down the words, to externalize them, purge them. No use. He tried to select them from their scene and imagine himself burning them. His solution to the pale Funesian plight was much simpler than he had initially anticipated. He needed only to will them gone. Through an active disregard, he created the necessary space to repopulate his city of memory.

Photos: Shimon Attie, "Between Dreams"; detail of 1511 Venice edition of The Rhetorica; Steven Foster, from his repetition series.

September 19, 2008

One Aftermath

Kathryn Cook's "Memory Denied," product of an Aftermath Project grant for photo-essays of lives in the remnants of war and violence and genocide:

An Armenian mother who escaped, a son who inherited, through a birth in Syria, the displacement, as well as the memories that the mother passed on, but which fade, slip, concretize into talismans of identity.

September 11, 2008

This Mourning

This morning, many will surely go about their day, casting backward glances toward New York in 2001, or with even more historical reckoning, to Chile of 1973, and Allende's overthrow. For a select few, the families who suffered and the individuals whose friends were killed will mourn with more intensity, surely, because of the calendar's turn and the trick of waiting for the day when the release is framed and held open for public remembrance. Will they read the names again this year at ground zero, tolling the bell, and is it left to those individuals alone to wait and listen and hear, in the sound of public address, the enunciation of their loss?

For another set of the self-selected, this is a day of melancholic identification; the day they can again kill off the quivering intelligence of ambivalence, claim the righteous mantle of the most-wounded and still undaunted, insist on the project of eternal ruin and absolute rebuilding, and project always the purest motives of their mad defense. Where does this come from? What motivates the entrenchment? As Wendy Brown thinks through the political manifestation of this, she finds the reflex that inevitably follows the seduction: "Idealizing the lost object as it was never idealized when alive. Straightforward, perhaps, but not simple, for this affect also involves remorse for a past of not loving the object well enough and self-reproach for ever having wished for its death or replacement."

As Brown works through the so-called politics this creates, she pricks the aggressiveness engendered. There is, she says, in the fortressed posture that arises, the gnawing guilt of having been so seduced. Thus the response is to fall in turn for the foul temptation to defend the idealization, and one's right to idealize, "tout court." One idealizes themselves into a crypt, an inescapable hold of the past and a sensibility as a alive and alert as concrete. This is, as Auden wrote in a poem he would later reject for its own assuredness,

The habit-forming pain
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

September 5, 2008

Beyond Gaza

On the same day the Israeli group, Rabbis for Human Rights, sadly marked their twentieth year in operation -- admitting their task as greater and more impossible than ever -- the two ships operated by The Free Gaza Movement returned to Cyprus. Israel did not stop them on their way to Gaza, nor intercept them on their way back to Cyprus. The rationale for the blockade remains "security" and since Free Gaza brought only balloons and hearing aids (perfect props for antagonistic quips about the "hot air" of activists" and the "deafening silence" that for the most part surrounded the event) Israel allowed them to arrive and leave unhindered.

With their ships back in Cyprus, The Free Gaza Movement encourages more ships to sail. What will the next ones bring, both in terms of critical attention to the plight of Gazans and in actual cargo? Israel says it will decide how to handle each ship seeking to dock in Gaza on a case-by-case basis. The standard for intervention is the judgment that the material being brought in constitutes a threat, and that anyone being taken out constitutes an enemy. At what would actual humanitarian aid constitute a threat to the policy of collective punishment? How many sick and dying would be deemed propaganda material? If Israel sees clear to block Fulbright scholars from leaving Gaza to attend U.S. universities, the absurdist calculations of control are bound to unfurl, the blood trickle of 1.3 million people caught in the grip of Erez and Rafah.

Human rights work, therefore, is not defined by the blockade to be run, but in the small acts of pushing against the death-logic of denials, divisions, and distinctions that mark the vulnerable for death. Furthermore, in the end, such work does not meets its enemy in the unjust policy and practice to shout at.

Instead, it seems to work as the spectral haunting of something to come, emerging in injustice's exhaustion, the point at which the strangle-hold -- the bondage to security -- becomes the impossibility of holding fast to the threat.

Last week also marked the death of Abie Nathan, a leftist and twice-jailed Israeli whose work for the defeat of insane boundaries found its perfect symbols in his acts of flight and his pirate radio ship, which broadcast calls for peace and pop music floated into Israel for 21 years. He mistakenly shut it down after the Oslo Accords provided its false promises, but the very idea remains: the floating, ungrounded insistence; the waiting just beyond the horizon of the law; something insistent, always there awaiting a chance to be tapped.