March 31, 2009

The Season of Distintegration

God and all angles sing the world to sleep,
Now that the moon is rising in the heat

And rickets are loud again in the grass. The moon
Burns in the mind on lost remembrances.

He lies down and the night wind blows upon him here.
The bell grows longer. This is not sleep. This is desire.

Ah! Yes, desire . . . this leaning on his bed,
This leaning on his elbows on his bed,

Staring, at midnight, at the pillow that is black
In the catastrophic room . . . beyond despair,

Like an intenser instinct. What is it he desires?
But this he cannot know, the man that thinks,

Yet life itself, the fulfillment of desire
In the grinding ric-rac, staring steadily

At a head upon the pillow in the dark,
More than sudarium, speaking the speech

Of absolutes, bodiless, a head
Thick-lipped from riot and rebellious cries,

The head of one of the men that are falling, placed
Upon the pillow to repose and speak,

Speak and say the immaculate syllables
That he spoke only by doing what he did.

God and all angles, this was his desire
Whose head lies blurring here, for this he died.

Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips,
O pensioners, O demagogues and pay-men!

This death was his belief though death is a stone.
This man loved earth, not heaven, enough to die.

The night wind blows upon the dreamer, bent
Over words that are life's voluble utterance.

--Wallace Stevens, "The Men That Are Falling," 1936-37

March 29, 2009

A German Spring

Poverty of experience. This should not be understood to mean that people are yearning for new experience. No, they long to free themselves from experience; they long for a world in which they can make such pure and decided use of their poverty -- their outer poverty, and ultimately also their inner poverty -- that it will lead to something respectable. Nor are they ignorant or inexperienced. Often we could say the opposite. They have "devoured" everything, both "culture and people," and they have had such a surfeit it has exhausted them. . . . Tiredness is followed by sleep, and then it is not uncommon for a dream to make up for the sadness and discouragement of the day -- a dream that shows us in its realized form the simple but magnificent existence for which the energy is lacking in reality.

The existence of Mickey Mouse is such a dream for contemporary man. His life is full of miracles -- miracles that not only surpass the wonders of technology, but make fun of them. For the most extraordinary thing about them is that they all appear, quite without any of his supporters and persecutors, and out of the most ordinary pieces of furniture, as well as from trees, clouds, and the sea. Nature and technology, primitiveness and comfort, have completely merged. And to people who have grown weary of the endless complications of everyday living and to whom the purpose of existence seems to have been reduced to the most relief to find a way of life in which everything is solved in the simplest and most comfortable way, in which a car is no heavier than a straw hat and the fruit on a tree becomes round as quickly as a hot-air balloon. And now we need to step back and keep our distance.

We have become impoverished. We have given up one portion of the human heritage after another, and have often left it at the pawnbroker's for a hundredth of its true value, in exchange for the small change of the "contemporary." The economic crisis is at the door, and behind it is the shadow of the approaching war. Holding on to things has become the monopoly of a few powerful people, who, God knows, are no more human than the many; for the most part, they are more barbaric, but not in the good way.
--Walter Benjamin, "Experience and Poverty," 1934

Photomontage: John Heartfield

March 24, 2009

Another Open Letter

To Lawrence Ferlinghetti on his 90th birthday:

Dear Lawrence,

Yesterday was just another cold March day on the morning Metra commuter from Hyde Park into Chicago until looking down from my second-level seat I saw a man reading a book with a familiar logo at the base of the spine, a figure with outstretched arms. Tales of Ordinary Madness it was. Indeed.

When I am back in San Francisco -- where in grad school I learned by browsing in the basement of City Lights -- I always go in and make sure I buy a book, something like Shepard's Motel Chronicles -- and then take it up to Trieste so I get the first taste of it there. I am devoted to that ritual. But yesterday was the true measure of the gift you've given; a stray look and suddenly the most affirming recognition and I was back "home," and I certainly felt kinship with that stranger, and I have no doubt that such recognition happens over and over, over the whole world, each day.

Happy birthday.

Sincerest regards.

March 17, 2009

Returns to the Island of the Dead

Another year of memory, to the time now dead but forever, it seems, a page to be marked and revised. A galley of promise.

To be dead is to stop believing in
The masterpieces we will begin tomorrow;
To be an exile is to be a coward,
To know that growth has stopped,
That whatever is done is the end;

Correct the proofs over and over,
Rewrite all the old poems again and again,
Tell lies to yourself about your achievement:
Ten printed books on the shelves.
Though you know that no one loves you for
What you have done,
But for what you might do.

And you perhaps take up religion bitterly
Which you laughed at in your youth,
Well not actually laughed
But it wasn't your kind of truth.

--Patrick Kavanagh, "To be Dead"

White Light and Black Sites

Further notes from ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody, 2007:

I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room. The room measured approximately [13 feet by 13 feet]. The room had three solid walls, with the fourth wall consisting of metal bars separating it from a larger room. I am not sure how long I remained in the bed. After some time, I think it was several days, but can't remember exactly, I was transferred to a chair where I was kept, shackled by [the] hands and feet for what I think was the next 2 to 3 weeks. During this time I developed blisters on the underside of my legs due to the constant sitting. I was only allowed to get up from the chair to go [to] the toilet, which consisted of a bucket. Water for cleaning myself was provided in a plastic bottle.
I was given no solid food during the first two or three weeks, while sitting on the chair. I was only given Ensure [a nutrient supplement] and water to drink. At first the Ensure made me vomit, but this became less with time.
The cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold. Very loud, shouting type music was constantly playing. It kept repeating about every fifteen minutes twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes the music stopped and was replaced by a loud hissing or crackling noise.
The guards were American, but wore masks to conceal their faces. My interrogators did not wear masks.
During this first two to three week period I was questioned for about one to two hours each day. American interrogators would come to the room and speak to me through the bars of the cell. During the questioning the music was switched off, but was then put back on again afterwards. I could not sleep at all for the first two to three weeks. If I started to fall asleep one of the guards would come and spray water in my face.

"The state of [legal] exception, which used to be essentially a temporary suspension of the [lawful] order, becomes now a new and stable spatial arrangement inhabited by that naked life that increasingly cannot be inscribed into that order. . . . The camp intended as a dislocating localization is the hidden matrix of politics in which we still live, and we must learn to recognize it in all its metamorphoses. The camp is the fourth and inseparable element that has been added to and has broken up the old trinity of nation (birth), state, and territory."

--Giorgio Agamben, "What is a Camp?" (1994)

March 15, 2009

An Open Letter to John Yoo et al.


1. Main Elements of the CIA Detention Program
1.1 Arrest and Transfer
1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention
1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment
1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.10 Threats
1.3.11 Forced shaving
1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food
1.4 Further elements of the detention regime....

[in conclusion]

The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."
From the International Committee of the Red Cross report: ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody, 2007

March 5, 2009

Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow

As if they had been sent out like two messages in a single bottle, a pair of photographs arrived tonight.

They show an intersection of Brooklyn; a cross of quiet streets hushed by snow.

The first was taken in the day. The cross of street and square of four corners shows the calm commotion of city life in the peripheries. Walkers in pairs, cars moving. You can hear the image, hear the ways tires on snow beautifully murmur. On the corner an awning promises business and something sustaining the busyness. If it had a caption that caption would contain the word "errands."

The other is a night scene of the same space. The snow seems replenished, but still slight over the city, casting the rough gauze of burning streetlight glow into the cloudy night, making earth and sky almost the same color. The awning on the corner shop is dark, emptied of meaning, as if it really is asleep.

There are some distinct footprints on one of the sidewalks. The neighborhood seems to have agreed on the need to turn in, though surely many peek out to see and feel the quiet, as the photographer did before claiming the moment with a click. Only one figure is visible below. Small and remote, a blur of movement becoming shadow that could so easily be missed; a woman, certainly, going home alone, maybe; maybe leaving the restaurant shift behind, or carrying the bar talk with her, the conversation living on in the cold close of a long day.

If the long season of February turned the words brittle and left too little of the mind able to see differently the familiar scenes buried by weather and blurred by numbing repetition, then it surely seemed March might follow just the same until April would become as cruel as promised. But then a glance at a stray cast off image from a city far off presents an image that makes the difference, marking, in its passage, the tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow of living in recognition, which in its petty pace, is all there is.

From Smoke, directed by Wayne Wang and written by Paul Auster: