Friday, November 18, 2011

In Tents/Intense, or Why Be Outside When You Could Be Inside?

1. In Tents
You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23: 42-43)
If you want to save souls - and who doesn't - then a tent seems to be the best kind of temporary structure. It is a metaphor for this provisional life of ours - without foundations and likely to blow over. It is a romance with the elements. The wind blows, the tent billows, who here feels lost and alone? Answer - all of us…
In a tent you feel sympathy with others even when you don't know them. The fact of being in a tent together is a kind of bond. (Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? p.71)
October in the Jewish suburbs where I grew up was Tent City, so it felt entirely appropriate that Occupy the London Stock Exchange should pitch itself outside the Tabernacle on the intermediate weekend of Sukkot (Tabernacles).

Sukkot was as close as I got to camping, on the reckoning that Jews had had their fill of nomadic life long ago. All those patriarchs and matriarchs welcoming angels at their tent flaps were a thing of the past. We were intent on settlement, presented as the natural desire of a people forced into exile repeatedly, and then much mocked for their wandering, to stop, and be safe. Unlike the Pentecostal sect in which Jeanette Winterson grew up, Jews don't do tent revivalism or metaphors for provisional life.

But once a year, a little like middle-class kids heading to Glastonbury to 'rough it', we ate all our meals (with added daddy-long-legs dressing) under cover of leaves. With much swearing at his tools (hallmark of the bad craftsman) my father would erect the requisite booth. Hadar trees (Biblically mandated) being in short supply in North London, pine uprights and cross braces not dissimilar from the materials of our flatpack self-assembly beds were substituted, draped in a double thickness of flyblown plastic sheeting. As the trees in our garden were generally losing their leaves by this point in the year, leafy branches were purchased at the garden centre to create the 'roof.'

The letter imitating (and thus diminishing) the spirit, one could say. There was nothing natural about our sukkah; the natural world was something to be feared, despised and bug-sprayed, the opposite of culture, domesticity and divinity. God, of course, created the animals, mountains, etc - but that was just the prototype. Jewish life 2.0 took place indoors, estranged not only from nomadic, but also agricultural, life, smoothly assimilated into the post-industrial West. The prayer book held blessings to be recited on seeing certain animals and on seeing the little folk, and I only learned the latter. It seemed more likely to me.

But for seven days, that world-building aeon, we suffered the wind and rain and late, last insect life, claggy inside our plastic booth like overcoated end-of-pier mermaids. And on Shemini Atzeret, we returned - with abject gratitude - to the warm embrace of the dining room. Saved from the outside world for another year. It seemed inevitable, and appropriate, that the Great Storm of 1987 should occur as Shemini Atzeret slept into Simchat Torah. Sukkahs, held together with last year's nails and a prayer, were scattered to the four winds while their owners rested in the knowledge that they no longer had to eat in them.

The overall message being 'outside bad, inside good.' Outside the house, outside the community, outside God's embrace, you are lost to the wind, and a tent is no protection. Homemaking was the task of the Jewish woman, with the traditional tools of the exorcist: bread crumbs, books and candles. That warm, bosomy fantasy of home is emotively exemplified in Primo Levi's poem 'If This is a Man', which opens with an address to 'You who live safe / In your warm houses' ('Voi che vivete sicuri / Nelle vostre tiepidi case'), in contrast to those exposed and expelled from the domestic as a sign of the human.

But because Levi is an excoriatingly honest writer, he makes clear that the safety of those warm houses is a fantasy, one that is at once dependent on (ignoring) the exclusion of others from the boundaries of security, and on the precarious and temporary nature of that security itself.

God had the right idea, after all (not something I readily admit): a week of eating dinner in a booth should remind us that the security we seek and cherish is provisional, haphazard, and exclusionary. That we should live the 'precarious life' of vulnerability and dependability to others that Judith Butler advocates. Instead, it made us flee back into the consoling embrace of sofas, sideboards and second dishwashers, into the pretence that four brick walls could not be blown down by the Big Bad Wolf.

No wonder the temporary tent cities erected across the globe are freaking out the settled folk. As Jay Griffiths points out in Wild: An Elemental Journey, the animosity between settlers and nomads is perhaps the oldest violent binary in human history. The tent cities of the Occupy movement are like those of Sukkot: voluntary, intentionally provisional, intensely visible and highly symbolic. They quote the form of, but are not, the residential tent cities of necessity/desperation that are called 'shanty towns' or not called anything at all but swept away, as the Toronto municipal government did for the visit of the IOC in 2001.

That's not to say they are not pragmatic and useful: some Occupations have worked to provide housing and shelter for many people living on the streets (although this has also been a source of some conflict within the core Occupy movement, which is largely from the settled middle class; thanks to Maysie for linking to this excellent article from POOR magazine on the settled/settler attitudes operative at many of the Occupations; more on that at the end), as well as a free meeting place for discussion and connection that is increasingly hard to organise or discover in our increasingly privatised cities - the libraries and Workers' Institutes that Winterson remembers from her childhood in Accrington being slowly erased or, more insidiously, institutionalised into pay-to-play.

Perhaps Occupy, wherever it stands, is more like a revivalist tent than it cares to admit: a centre of charismatic speaking, gatheration, community feeling, action plans for saving souls, and the pragmatic and attractive benison of tea and sandwiches. A carnivalesque relief from the burden of maintaining our belief in the sanctity of property and the safety of houses. A moment of making a home in each other, while feeling the wind and rain on our faces. At John Kinsella's reading at Tent City University, unlit and unheated, I found myself experiencing a fierce ecstasy (ex-stasis, standing outside) at the sound of the rain, at the billow of the canvas Winterson describes, at the provisional rawness of the moment and the solid warmth of the crowd inside. Kinsella's work speaks fiercely and precisely about the living world (acknowledging the problems and possibilities of that term, ie: defiantly not a 'nature' poet, as he writes here) and our interconnections with it: it's a knowing un-pastoral engaged with the astonishing violence of the settled towards what unsettles them, be it animal, vegetable or human Other(ed).

While there's nothing to cheer or relish in the sadistic violence of police action against Occupiers, there is something ecstatic about the collapsible, moveable, resituable nature of this movement and its camps. The symbolic work of the carnival or revival is to be temporary and provisional and contingent, flexible and unexpected. 'We Shall Not Be Moved' as a song of protest re-interpreted to imply reclaiming all space as public, not putting down roots in a single spot and self-kettling into the illusion of stability.

2. Outside In
There was a person in me - a piece of me - however you want to describe it - so damaged that she was prepared to see me dead to find peace.
That part of me, living alone, hidden, in a filthy abandoned lair, had always been able to stage arid on the rest of the territory…
The lost furious vicious child living alone in the bottom bog wasn't the creative Jeanette - she was the war casualty. She was the sacrifice. She hated me. She hated life. (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? p.71)
But here's the thing: we all need to be held. In Sandrine Bonnaire's beautiful documentary about her sister, who is living with autism, Elle s'appelle Sabine, the therapist at the care centre (which Sandrine shamed the French government into co-funding after her earlier investigations revealed the brutalising conditions in which Sabine had been imprisoned for several years), tells Sandrine that (and I paraphrase) she interprets autism as a disorder in which a person struggles, more than normal, to sense the boundaries between self and world. They live completely without walls.

Temple Grandin, the celebrated animal psychologist and an autism sufferer, thinks similarly. Studying cattle as they massed together, she realised that there was something profoundly comforting to her, as well, in the idea of being 'cow crushed': having her head gently but firmly immobilised. Sabine's therapist argues that some of the key 'anti-social' behaviours associated with autism can be read, compassionately, as sufferers attempting (and failing) to find limits, boundaries that will stand. Autism is an amplification of both the necessity and impossibility of finding safety, something we all experience.

As Winterson reveals in her memoir, adoption can be another similar amplification. She writes movingly of her struggle to redefine and then create a home -- at once bricks-and-mortar, and interpersonal -- never more so than when she says that, after childhood experiences of being locked in a coal cellar and of having no privacy in her own bedroom, she only feels at home in her house with the doors wide open. Winterson's solution, her route to plenitude, is fascinating because paradoxical. It's a poem: to feel safe behind an open door.

To me this is a heart-striking way of thinking through the vexed question of outside and inside that we experience in the home as a manifestation of the body, and which informs not only domestic and relational negotiations, but the very idea (I think) of property and its 'proper' protection. We build walls to shelter from the storm -- but the very existence of those walls reminds us that we are not, and cannot be, safe (because the storm is inside us). So we put locked doors in the walls. Then we alarm them. Then we build electrified iron fences around our properties, with armed guards outside them: each gesture that should make us feel safe(r) simultaneously reminding us that we feel unsafe. Freud says that's how the fetish works, constantly reminding us of the lack we want it to supply.

I thought about the fetish of the house a lot while watching Andrea Arnold's adaptation of Wuthering Heights, which - like Winterson's memoir - is a story of adoption, something that had never occurred to me before encountering the two texts concurrently. Arnold's 'controversial' casting of two dark-skinned British Caribbean actors to play Heathcliff (the controversy's utter risibility being that this casting is textually accurate) intensifies and crystallises the novel's passionate politics of love as the freedom from all oppressions, not least by focusing the viewer on Heathcliff's difference, his outsiderness. His inability to find and trust boundaries (both because they have been taken away, and because they are later used to exclude him) is performed in the film through a behaviour that is common for people living with autism: head-banging, a literal attempt to reimpose boundaries on the frightened and flailing self.

As an adoptee (Mr. Earnshaw finds him on the streets of Liverpool), Heathcliff -- like Winterson -- is hungry for a home. The film suggests that he finds this home (safety) initially in a relationship with Catherine, and in the space of the moors where they are equals in, and equalled by, the force of the land and elements. Arnold's adaptation traces, subtly through costume, light and framing, the shift that occurs as Catherine is coerced into increasing identification with the domestic space of Wuthering Heights and then -- as her only possible escape from poverty and oppression -- with the wealthier domestic space of Thrushcross Grange, which, with its higher walls and refined wallpaper, appears to promise her security.

Heathcliff, in exact opposition, is forced out of the house and into the stables, and into a labouring relation with (or rather, in alienation from) the land. What had once been an affective, ecstatic identification -- Heathcliff, moor, horse, wind, rain, desire -- is brutally inverted by Hindley's assertion of his power. Afraid, Hindley takes the associative chain and puts it in its cultural place: outside bad, animal bad, desire bad, Heathcliff bad. In turn, driven by Catherine's choice (that is not a choice: her coercive consent) to marry Edgar Linton for his money and property, Heathcliff becomes fixated on the values Hindley values. His revenge, when it comes, is propertied: he buys Wuthering Heights out from under the drunken Hindley, and (although Arnold leaves the unto-the-second-generation aspect out of the film) attains control of Thrushcross Grange through his daughter by Isabella Linton. Then he neglects both.

The film ends with Heathcliff, having bought Hindley's son's birthright after breaking into the house the previous night, walking away from it. A film that's almost obsessively conscious of framing shots through windows, door frames, cracks, takes off into the moors for the final time (which is, in ritual time, the first and forever. Momentarily secure in his ownership of the Heights, Heathcliff also secures ownership of his memories of himself and Cathy playing un-house on the moors. It's an uneasy and untriumphant ending, a vicious revenge fantasy that Arnold does her best to unromanticise.

Instead, she admits Heathcliff, in his grief for Catherine, to a temporary reprieve in his turning-away to the moors. And, in making him the point of view character of the film -- often framed in tight close-ups -- she brings us into the painfully uneasy, almost unnavigable relationship for Heathcliff between being held and being trapped. Central to this is the wall that borders Wuthering Heights, a marker between domestic and wild space. It's a tumbledown thing when young Heathcliff arrives, jumpable but jumbled enough to hide behind on the wild side. It's the only wall to his and Cathy's 'home', the divide they cross to come together.

When Hindley assumes ownership of the Heights, he sets Heathcliff and Joseph to rebuilding the wall. In a scene that places slavery squarely in the heart of the English literary canon, Arnold has Heathcliff pounding rocks with a sledgehammer, building the wall that will keep him in/out. Defiant, Heathcliff downs tools to run about with Cathy, but this adventure leads them to the Lintons' house and a higher wall to scale -- a wall they fail to reach on the return in time to avoid the Lintons' dogs. While neither wall offers much physical challenge to the young, strong Heathcliff (and he continues to use the over-the-wall route to Thrushcross once he's a legitimate visitor), the social boundary of class and race hierarchy that they signify remains impassable. Until he buys his own walls.

Winterson's description of her destructive, unheld, abandoned, angry aspect applies to Heathcliff too: the part of him that is a "war casualty" returns, takes over, makes him destroy the possibility of love-freedom. It's an anguishing spectacle (bewildering that so many people find it romantic). Arnold's version is unblinking on the bitter unstoppable replication of degradation and oppression. But the film also asks, not least in its casting choice, what other option does Heathcliff have? Beaten, spat at, abused, unhoused, made wild and degraded, what tools or skills or hopes has Heathcliff been given to do anything but aspire to unseat and replace his tormentors?

That's the most frightening spectre the film offers: our society. Full of "lost furious vicious child[ren]," myself included, oppressed by walls that exclude us, and by walls that trap us, and by those that promise a safety whose lack they point to insistently.

3. Unbuilding the Wall

In Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, the protagonist Shevek, a brilliant physicist, is lured from his revolutionary anarchist society to the fraught capitalist society that his parents left behind by the promise of research funding, time and space. It's a fantasy that, for those of us toiling in the bottom rungs of academia, is increasingly and apparently threadbare. Not only has the corporate university torn away the veils draping research in romantic notions of high-minded independence and social good, but the walls of the university themselves are utterly pervious. As students and faculty at Berkeley and UC Davis have encountered this week on their own campuses, the university is a walled institution, and will do whatever it takes to protect its walls.

On his return -- possibly to death or disgrace -- Shevek comes with only one idea in mind: to unbuild walls. Specifically and literally the wall around the space port that had long prevented any curious anarchists from travelling off-planet to visit the decadent society on the planet that gleams in their night sky. But what that might open up is left open. What we're left with is Shevek, in orbit around his home, planning to land publicly and to meet protestors and supporters with 'open hands.' As Judith Butler has argued, one thing the Occupy movement has demonstrated is that there is no such given as public space or the commons (the other side of the nostalgic/utopian fantasy of complete intimate/domestic security is that of complete public freedom): public space occurs where bodies declare themselves to be public, and that is a risky business.

Metaphorically and affectively, the walls we internalise -- our fears of abandonment and invasion, our sore lack of boundaries -- which we build outside us, and which are never high enough. And those walls persist in at Occupy: as a number of indigenous activists have pointed out, Wall Street has been Occupied for four centuries: as Ray Cook writes in 'A Haudenosaunee Observation of Occupy Wall Street' (thanks again to Maysie for this link).
The children of the West (Americans) are fighting amongst themselves (again) over distribution of a wealth that does not belong to them, a wealth derived from Indigenous lands. The opportunity to redefine wealth based on a more realistic view of the earth and an understanding of man’s place may be now.
What's necessary is Decolonize Wall Street / Oakland / Toronto / Vancouver (where the decolonisation struggle has become immediately and pressingly centred on the Keystone Pipeline) / Melbourne -- and even St. Paul's, in multiple complex ways. It's not just a change of vocabulary: to decolonise, rather than occupy, is to rethink the Eurowestern-dominated language of political protest at the same time as rethinking ideas of settlement, security and possession.

We need to know, and acknowledge fully, the history of the ground we stand on (which is never an island) in order to decolonise it. I'm reading The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe with my students at Middlesex this week; re-reading it, as I loved her books at about the same time I was grizzling miserably in a sukkah. While all the stern bivouacing adventures she puts her characters through never really filled me with the call of the wild, re-reading the book I have a startling sense of recognition: it's a book that's dramatically and passionately against colonisation (even as it has a Roman soldier as a main character) and slavery. The Britons have a coherent, complex culture (not the painted, child-killing savagery seen in the film), one that even Romans might opt into. The book made me think about Britain as a (multiply) colonised, as well as colonising, country: Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans. In our historical fantasy, the loss of the commons has been, since the Levellers of the English Civil War, associated with the Norman invasion. Can the British Empire be read as an acting-out of the scars of colonisation?

The great skyline of London, from Hawksmoor's and Wren's churches via the British Museum and Tate Modern to the execrable Shard, is funded by, and founded on, British imperial ambitions (much as the great era of the English novel was concurrent with Empire, and few readings are, like Arnold's, bold and brave enough to look that imbrication squarely in the face). London glistens with money made in slave-trading and plantation-owning (both, in their day, supported by and enriching the Church), and now the new imperial hegemony of financial trading, which politicians on all sides are so revoltingly keen to keep in London. London is in urgent need of decolonising, as much by recognising this heritage as by the important investigative work by Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keillor (Robinson in Ruins) into the creeping colonisation of both city and countryside by the military-industrial-financial complex.Occupy LSX shifted from its original target of Paternoster Square because that land is privately-owned and thus has bigger-better-stronger walls.

So the invisible walls of capital are left unbroached while the visible walls, a rainbow of slogans, protests, mantras, shouts of joy, sit ecstatically outside St. Paul's. But the walls remain.

4. Armour
Water resounds like stock epithets, strains
at our neglected gutters – tomorrow
score-marks of run-off, potholes dusty hollows:
the ground, a gullet, swallows the rain.  (John Kinsella, 'Gullet,' Armour)
John Kinsella's latest collection, nominated for this year's TS Eliot prize, is called Armour. It's a strange title for a collection by an anarchist-pacifist poet. Hidden inside the bristling exterior of the word is its root: arm, the body part that has become militarised, a metaphor older than the Roman occupation of Britain. The body part we use to grasp, but also to hug; to punch, but also to help. Strong in and of itself, its strength extended by the fetishes of armour and weapons. How, the book asks, can we refind our arm (note the first-person plural: the arm as shared vulnerability and mutual assistance, as never possessed by the fiction of the 'I') under the armour?

Sitting under the rain in the tent at Occupy St. Paul's, listening to Kinsella's open field compositions crossed by rail lines and songlines and atomic scars and toxic salt pans and family journeys and bird migrations and long memories, I was scared. Scared by the intensity of Tent City. It's not just the numinous aura of the bells of St. Paul's, or the shadowy twilight in the unlit tent, or the silent, focused listening of the people huddled on cushions (different in quality from any other poetry reading I've been to: seeking something different in the listening). It's the thought of uncovering our arms and unbuilding walls, person by person.

And also of putting our arms to work building new kinds of walls: shelter is a paramount animal need. Walls can protect, gather, offer communion -- but they can also be an armour of exclusion. Is it possible to have one without the other? A house that is defined as home by its open door? To carry, even within brick walls, the thought that this is but a booth? At the end of Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love series, the Chinese army arrives in revolutionary England with its secret weapon: a nanoculture that produces a living fabric called di. The walls of the Chinese occupation are alive. They billow as a tent billows. They are provisional. They are a recognition of where magic meets technology. They are a utopian dream.

But we are all made of living fabric. We are di. Maybe we can't build houses that can change shape and move, can fold down and be erected and expanded at need. But within ourselves, we can make an inside that is open to the outside. Uncovered arms, released from flak jackets and badges and wristwatches and bags and all the other forms of armour (defensive aggression) we carry. Arnold's Wuthering Heights stops before the end of the book with the hope that Heathcliff can recall himself: that outside, on the moors, he can be free enough in himself (of others' oppression) to stop the cycle. To grant others' freedom. If Heathcliff -- beaten, abused, degraded -- can go outside, leave the 'filthy abandoned lair' that is deep inside the fantasy of home, can't we?

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