Thursday, November 21, 2013

Antigone's Answer

In the thirteen years since Judith Butler published Antigone's Claim (having first performed the book as a series of Wellbeck Lectures), the question of what Antigone is claiming – as a woman, and in the aftermath of war – have become ever more pressing. In retrospect, the book seems uncannily prescient of the questions of grievability and vulnerability raised by the events of 9/11 and subsequent imperial wars, as addressed by Butler in her recent work. Both The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya and The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi draw on Antigone (the former more explicitly than the latter) for Afghanistan-set stories of female mourning outside the law.

Moira Buffini's play Welcome to Thebes resituated Sophocles' play in that mythical unnamed country, Africa; making surface reference to (and drawing a charge from association with) the revisioning of tragedy practised by Wole Soyinka, Sarah Kane and Yael Farber, Buffini's conventional drama - like Roy-Bhattacharya's and Rahimi's novels - relies, as an update and relocation, on a creepy, tired notion of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny -- that is, on a EuroWestern sense that contemporary Afghanistan or "Africa" are culturally analogical to ancient (mythic) Greece. These over-theres are cast as primitive, embroiled in the awful, terrible beholden-ness to gods and fate from which our supposed civilisation has supposedly rescued us. It's a melodrama composed out of pity porn, made august by its claim to the classics.

Of course, Greek tragedies are endlessly rewritten and updated, and the century after Freud's Oedipus has proved particularly fruitful for the Theban cycle. Butler recommends Antigone as a post-oedipal position from which to rethink psychoanalysis and ideas of both identity and identification, for example.    Rather than outsideoverthere, Butler puts Antigone in us: not as an archaising exercise, but out of frustration with the deathliness of her narrative. We have responsibility for working things out differently, not just watching endless repetitions and shaking our heads as overtheres repeat our mistakes for our edutainment. Antigone's claim on us is also in us, about us.

A new retelling, The Story of Antigone, by Ali Smith with illustrations by Laura Paoletti, started me thinking about the nature of Antigone's claim; maybe because it's a telling for younger readers, it both makes the issues of Antigone's claim clear (clearer than a highly academic philosophy book) and allows them to resonate in all their complexities. Smith's Antigone is young – only 12 – the youngest sibling of the family, youngest child of Oedipus. Both her innocence and her experience inform her powerful, internal sense of justice: it's not just because she's a child, seeing in black-and-white, that she decides to bury her brother against the king's orders; nor is it just because of the weight of familial trauma. She figures both with her implacable logic and its courage. She asks a lot of herself.

For Butler, Antigone's claim both legal – a cause of action – and a philosophical critique – a proposition – against Creon's agonistic jurisprudence. More than an argument, a claim can be a right, something staked. Perhaps even more curious, for Butler's interest in performativity and destabilising identity, in internet terminology claims-based identity uses statements made by online entities about themselves or their users as authenticating security tokens. Here, technical concepts of security, identity and authority both meet and play out their political equivalents, like a mini-NSA soap opera:
Claims are not what the subject can and cannot do. They are what the subject is or is not. It is up to the application receiving the incoming claim to map the is/is not claims to the may/may not rules of the application. In traditional systems there is often confusion about the differences and similarities between what a user is/is not and what the user may/may not do. Claims-based identity makes that distinction clear. Once the distinction between what the user is/is not and what the user may/may not do is clarified, it becomes apparent that the authentication of what the user is/is not (the claims) are often better handled by a third party than by any individual application. This third party is called the security token service.
Got that? So information technology has literalised Creon's command-control style. Sophocles' play shows what happens when a third party – in this case, the seer Tiresias, who is third-gendered and appears three times in the Theban trilogy – adjudicates what the user may or may not do, based on the service provider's claim about who they are or are not. Tiresias acts as a security token service, telling Creon to save Antigone from a living death, and to bury Polynices with full rights. The tragedy is that this authentication arrives too late: system failure.

Tiresias appears

In her prose retelling (with rhyming verse choral odes), which retains the mythic Thebes as a setting, Smith uses third person (which drama cannot), and begins in a third-party point of view: that of a crow sitting on the main gate of the city. As in Hans Christian Andersen's weirdest story "The Marsh King's Daughter," there is an affinity between a watchful bird and a troublesome daughter who stands outside the law (there, a stork and a princess who turns into a toad at night). In an appendix in which the Crow interviews her, Smith says her choice of observer comes from the play itself, which is full of references to the crows and dogs who scavenge at the feast of death that is any Greek tragedy, and this one – which starts at the end of a battle – in particular.

For the mother crow, human death is a source of nourishment, and human actions a source of entertainment – just as for the audience in the tragic theatre. Rather than catharsis, however, the mother crow spits up a bolus of food to pass on to her chicks: a story. So the crow – scavenging in death – is the (re)writer as well as the audience: Antigone's claim on her is that her body/story be ingested, taken in, processed, laid claim to. Antigone's death demands that the crow claim her. Antigone (is) in us.

Although the story shifts subtly in and out of being aligned with the mother crow's point of view, it ends with an epilogue, one year after the events of the play, in which she tells the story to her chicks as she feeds them. The call-and-response form in which it is presented, with the chicks demanding
"Tell us the story about: the mad black cloud of crows/the tasty body/the time our own mother sat on the hand of the wise Tiresias/the brave still-alive boy who stood up to his father/the piece of pink material that got woven into our nest"
is not only a vivid depiction of how human children engage with storytelling (and a reminder of our adult investment in narrative repetition and its pleasures), but also a model of responsiveness, in which each side of the conversation makes demands on the other, and is heard. This is the opposite of Antigone's negotiation with Creon, in which not only her side of the story, but her narrative structure, is denied by his. Storytelling places teller and listener, Smith's use of form argues, in a relationship of responsibility to each other, conducted via the tropes of the tale.

So displacement could never be enough: the (re)writer/reader needs to take seriously the claim made by the text if she is to act as a security token service, to authenticate the possibility of relationship and of the significant information about life, death and law that flows across it. As well as the dialogic form of the epilogue, the book as a whole creates a dialogue between the text and the illustrations, which shift between full facing-page and embedded in the text. Illustrations are like the family secret of our textual culture: a family member that is ignored. It's there in the work of WJT Mitchell and, in brief, in this thought-provoking discussion of the word/image interaction in children's books by SF Said.

Like the law (unto) itself, the pictures here tell their own version of the story. They tell the reader who does and does not count in the world of the story. Creon only appears once, riding out in pomp: after his declaration against Polynices, he disappears off the side of the page, being represented only by his horse (and finally, when he realises what an idiot he's been, by his horse's arse). The Elders of the Chorus, who are on the side of the status quo, are a faceless flock; instead, there are detailed illustrations of the crow, the dog, a feather, a flower, a piece of pink fabric that links Antigone and Ismene, as well as of the two sisters, Tiresias and Haemon, Creon's son.

Bianca Stone, Antigo    nick

The illustrations take a passionate stand for Antigone: they are on her side. Unlike a conventional staging, they make the story only partially visible. The same is true of Bianca Stone's illustrations in Anne Carson's Antigo     nick (Sophokles), some of which are printed on slightly opaque translucent mylar, thus revealing/concealing the hand-lettered text beneath. Carson's text is entirely dialogic, using the form of the playscript, and she has performed it live, with a rotating cast (including Judith Butler as Creon!)

Anne Carson: Performing Antigonick from Louisiana Channel on Vimeo.

Carson's retelling is also set in mythical Thebes, and hews far closer to the structure of the play, although it includes anachronistic references to speedboats and Freud. Unlike Smith's chorus of Elders, whose awkwardly-rhymed platitudes are an exercise in comic relief, Carson's Chorus are profoundly poetic, and in some sense the narrator of the play, perhaps in response to Hélène Cixous' essay "Collaborative Theatre," which mourns the loss of the chorus from the post-classical stage, and wonders about the chorus – like Smith's crow's eye view – as a figure for democratic conversation and response-ability.

It is the Chorus who are the interpreters for Carson: figure of both (re)writer and reader/viewer.
reads the end of the penultimate choral ode (where the stanza break is actually most of a blank page). It's a painful irony – the Chorus declare victory (Creon has saved Antigone and Haemon in the nick of time) at the moment defeat (oh no, he hasn't) arrives to announce itself. It's easy to think of the Chorus, especially in this moment, as somewhat smug, self-satisfied status quoters – not least as a way of doubly disavowing our own expectations of narrative satisfaction (we feel stupid because we, like the Chorus, want Antigone to survive and she doesn't; and we feel cruel because we really – according to the structural logic in which we have been educated by our culture – want her to die, and she does, and that makes us hate ourselves and feel responsible for her death). But their declaration is a very precise description of the claim made on the spectator: we are standing in / the nick of time.

That is, we are in some sense stand-ins for the historical witnesses (as the Chorus are also our stand-ins on stage); we experience the highlights of the drama, the nicks of time on which the playwright or (re)writer wants us to focus. The sense of 'in'ness coincides with Antigone's claim to be in us: we have to, in another of Butler's phrases, put our bodies on the line, be in the temporality and logic of the play. It could also be read as another kind of claim: can we, as the (offstage) Chorus, stand our bodies in the nick of time? Can we place ourselves between the story as told and its supposedly inevitable ending? Can we look closely at our disavowal in order to change the structural logic and its supposed satisfactions?

The nick of time is an uncomfortable place to be; it is like being in the beak of a crow: sharp, risky. Who would be there? Antigone is the first one to try and place herself therein, between Creon's Law and the law of entropy (time) under which Polynices' body will become the nothing – the lack of a claim-based identity – that Creon wishes it to be. She leaves the city gates in the half-light between night and dawn (a dangerous time for anyone to be about, let alone an unmarried girl traversing a military camp); when caught, she is buried alive, in Creon's casuistical solution to his own law and his own conscience. Time (Death) keeps nicking her, a device that Shakespeare will borrow for the final scenes of both King Lear and Romeo and Juliet.

In Carson's final stand on Antigone's side, Nick becomes a (silent) character, "who continues /////// measuring" at the end of the play (there's that blank-page-gap again). Antigone and Nick share the letters I-N (reversed) in their names; Nick is also the name of Carson's brother, the subject of her work prior to Antigonick, NOX. "in" is one of the final words of Catullus' poem 101, an address to his dead brother, spoken at his grave. The final line of the poem reads "atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale." Carson defines each word of the poem in depth, generally giving (some invented) examples of usage. For "in," she offers only one such, "in noctem death vote," in the exact middle of a long list of relations that "in" can denote.

Those that follow the invented usage could be said to describe Antigone's "death vote," her decision to use the only choice she has to join her brother in death:
in reference to, respecting, with regard to; in proportion to, considering; in comparison with; in accordance with, after, in the style of; so as to become, into; so as to produce or result in; in order to cause, with a view to; in order to make up (a total); for the needs of, for the use against; in expectation of.
This is how, as she says of Inger Christensen's masterwork It, prepositions form "all our raw hopes of relation." 'In' is complicated for Antigone: if she is in the city, she cannot be in the family – and moreover, in herself; she learns that with her father's exile and her brother's desecration. Or rather, she stands "in the nick," in the tension or interval of trying to be both: a good citizen and a good sibling; alive and dead; virgin and bride. She stands for the irresolvable, what both is and isn't, may and may not, for what is beyond "claims-based identity." As Smith tells the crow,
through the whole play, the whole story of Antigone, there are questions which, though they are unspoken, are still there nonetheless, about the borders of things… about wildness and tameness… about what is natural and what isn't, what is spiritual and what isn't.
Antigone, Laura Paoletti
Antigone is the embodiment of these questions, but not of their answer. In fact, what might be most important about her is that she is exactly a claim, not its resolution. That is part of being in: "in uncertainties, Mysteries and doubt," as John Keats said a good reader and writer should be. Updatings are perhaps too busy proposing answers to notice the abyssal complexity of staying in the question, being the person who – after exeunt omnes – "continues /////// measuring" – perhaps "in order to make up (a total)," that is, to invent an ending or solution, to add some more what isn't to what is, and vice versa.

That is to be epi-logos: after the word. There is an after, even to Creon's word, the unbreakable Logos of EuroWestern logocentrism. There's the bird-person who flies off for yet another round of food, for the chicks who will ask for the story again – and gets waylaid interrogating the author, questioning her control of the Logos. Whose point-of-view or appearance makes a nick in the temporal structure of the narrative into/out of which the possibility of change pours.

Monday, November 11, 2013

"The strange event is not the rupture": Being Followed Home By a Wannabe MC While Reading Simon McBurney's Who You Hear It From

"The rupture," McBurney continues, "is what this strange event reveals." He's writing about the three central characters in Theatre de Complicité's The Elephant Vanishes, in an essay collected in Who You Hear It From. A pocket-sized volume, it unfolds (like Complicité's shows) to take in the whole world and fold it up inside your head, where it zings around, making change.

So I was walking home with McBurney's thoughts about never feeling at home, feeling dis/located and dispersed by a rare encounter with someone in my professional life who, three degrees of interrogation/separation, knew members of my family. Worlds collide: is that part of feeling at home in them, or feeling unsafe in them? The rupture – the dislocation of my professional, academic and creative self from my upbringing – is what the strange event reveals.

It's a potent formulation for impact, interruption, crisis. Over the last month, I've been assisting with the creation of an online anthology that looks exactly at the "strange event" and its rupture, Against Rape. Contribution after contribution argues that the rupture – that is, the violent framework of kyriarchy – is what the "strange event" of rape reveals. Rather than seeing rape as an isolated violation, a momentary incursion that creates a private trauma, one that is often characterised as inexpressible, McBurney's reasoning suggests that rape is so traumatic because it brings home the status quo. It's an extreme statement of the micro-aggressions of asymmetrical power that we live with everyday. It means we can't deny or avoid them anymore, nor claim exemption from them. We have to engage with the fact they are structural.

Against Rape header by Lorraine Adams

Of course, the universe being the universe handily delivered me evidence on my walk home (you can't, as Complicité's shows show, make this kind of co-incidence up). A man walking along the street behind me, yelling insults (I sneaked a glance) into his cellphone. Not such a strange event: the incursion of private thoughts and debates into public space. Stranger, though: he wasn't pausing for breath. Moreover, he was rhyming. I rewrite the narrative: a wannabe white MC recording his try-hard flow in the echoey acoustics of the street, with a fireworks backbeat. He was loud, large and audibly high, so I kept my head down and walked. Made myself invisible. But, with two references, he made me feel not just visible but naked in the cold: the smackdown "I squeezed your girlfriend's breast like a rubber duck," and a paranoid reference to "grimy Jews." The rupture is what the strange event reveals: violence shows our vulnerability, hitting us with our capacity to be hurt. Instinct says turn and run. Instinct says turn and shout him down. Rationality kept me walking, steadily. Recorded the phrases in my head until I was home safe.

"Tell me about your fetishisation of rubber ducks."
Except "home safe" is a myth. Not because my (quiet, suburban) neighbourhood can erupt with that kind of violence; to me, growing up with domestic violence, that's a given. Or not just because. But because bricks and mortar, streets and signposts, aren't my home. Why did I feel unsafe, threatened, caught out and contorted? Why, for the same reason I contributed to Against Rape: because language is my home, and I feel responsible towards it. Working for English PEN, I'm steeped in arguments about the difficulties of defining offence. Concepts of hate speech are inadequate because they don't allow for the mobility and fluidity of language, its polyvalence and its contextuality. As for censorship, well: the repressed always returns.

Rehearsing the rhymes in a conversation with friends (many of them poets), I had an insight: the strange event let me see the rupture. This is what I wrote in that conversation:
Actually the creepiest thing about it was its incoherence, in which anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia were like Homeric epithets: just filler, spacing, a way to make the rhyme or beat. There was no argument or logic, just an associative chain in which smackdowns and hate speech are part of the rhythm. You can't argue with that, or refute it. It's a grammar not a vocabulary.
It's a question of syntax, not semantics. The individual lexical units are "strange events," insults flung onto the crisp night air, but in a way they are meaningless. This isn't a particular problem of freestyling, which reflects, perpetuates and partakes of the larger dominant culture of which it's part. Both the "battle" ethic and the syntactical spacing of a few incoherent fragments of argument with put-downs, dismissals and empty threats can be heard any time of day on BBC Parliament. It's the grammar of orature inherited from the Roman law courts, amplified by the dual growth of capitalism and parliament, both espousing ruthless competition and utilitarianism.

So here's the rupture: the sentence of our culture is broken. Subject Verb Object obviously makes someone/thing a subject and someone/thing an object and insists they have a relationship dependent on action and on asymmetric power. That's among the reason Gertrude Stein had a problem with nouns (other than that stable naming is impossible and inflexible) and liked participles or gerundives: they both relieve and point to the pressures of subjectivity and objectification.

Gertrude Stein, photographed by Alvin Langdon Coburn.
A woman not to be told to "Calm down, dear."
But still SVO is the grammar of our grand narratives, of our legal system, of the way we engage with each other, and with cultural texts. It's far from universal: McBurney talks in "The Elephant Vanishes" about how, in Japanese, "particles, not the order, tell you the function of the different [sentence] parts." The more inflected a language (that is, the more single lexical units contain statements of relationality to time and space, and between interested parties), the more flexible its sentence structure.

How do we unfix the sentence structure of EuroWestern culture? To me, this seems both a more challenging and more potentially useful task than trying overtly to alter the meaning of lexical units used as pejoratives. Semantic meaning alters constantly, as the word "queer" demonstrates, through registers of usage. Working to change meaning without changing structure is like, well, any protest, campaign or revolution that changes a detail without changing the system. The inequality that underlies the production of meaning remains – and remains in the hands of power.

From Colorlines' National Coming Out Day portfolio.
Talking about the poet Stesichorus in the introduction to Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson says he was the first to "unlatch" adjectives, to unfix epithets from their Homeric regularity. Homeric bards, reciting their often very long poems, used these fixed epithets to fill regular metrical spaces, to pad out a line, as well as to retain the hieratic, ahistorical quality of the gods and heroes in their epic poems. Stesichorus, too, wrote about gods and heroes, but he was critical of them. He saw them as beings with ethical choices, not just figures on a vase. He fucked his culture's sentence up so badly that, according to legend, Helen cursed him to blindness after he wrote a poem that questioned her role in the Trojan War.

It's a cautionary tale about what happens when the strange event leads you to see the rupture and you realise you can't look away from it, and you can't not point it out to others: you get blinded. Especially if the rupture you point to is what you're supposed to see as structure, the thing that makes sense of everything, the thing that holds it all together. Like Carson and McBurney, I believe that cultural work can make an intervention: it can make the rupture visible and it can provide, or at least speculate on, a new grammar. Better, it can demonstrate that we are capable of understanding multiple, shifting grammars and don't need a fixed one (a "home") at all.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

When Did I Become Us?

Pas de deux by Norman McLaren may be the most beautiful dance film ever made (The Red Shoes has a thing or two to say in that argument but moving on...). It's 13 minutes of minimalist movement, backlit figures appearing as white light and shadow. But it's also a witty and profound joke on the title: there's way more than deux involved in this pas. Light tracery multiplies each dancer's body towards infinity, as they lose and join themselves and each other. 

That sense of multiplicity within the individual - multiplied further when she interacts with any other, so that my relationship with you creates many other mes and yous through our interactions - is one of the reasons I'm fascinated by acting, whether on stage or screen. I'm particularly fascinated by meta-performances, for example Cate Blanchett's 'rehearsal' scene in Elizabeth, and by clones and multiples.

This is a particularly strong trope in the portrayal of female identities in current TV: there's been Dollhouse (which to be fair, had male 'dolls' performing multiple roles as well, but only two significant male doll characters compared to five or six significant female 'doll' characters), United States of Tara (which picks up on that old favourite, multiple personality disorder: rich pickings for Toni Collette, an abysmal shambles in terms of the representation of mental health), and now Orphan Black, which has clones.

These are not the liberatory, goofy, partial, carnal clones promised us by cyborg feminism and Lynn Hershmann Leeson's Teknolust, in which Tilda Swinton gives her ultimate performances as a brilliant scientist and her three cyber-clones who take on material existence. They are the scary, secret-science-experiment clones of Cold War-era science fiction, a step back towards the paranoid fantasies of an era clinging nostalgically to the idea of the unitary self and the unitary nation-state. 

So politically and culturally, it's a bit meh, but there's an undeniable excitement in watching Tatiana Maslany performing the diversity of roles herself. While, like Dollhouse, it can feel a bit Barbie DreamWorld (there's Scientist Clone, Berlin alt.grrl clone, Soccer Mom clone, Cop Clone, Grifter Clone, etc.), it certainly passes the Bechdel Test (or does it? If they're all clones, is it a conversation between one or more women?) with its focus on a group of female characters contesting their relationship to one another - particularly contesting ideas of biology and essentialism. 

By the nature of cloning the show excludes ethnic diversity from the clone community, but the show does attempt to reflect the cosmopolitan transnational mix of most major North American urban centres in other characters (it's shot in Toronto), and the clones do represent a span of class diversity, and - within the limits of televisual femininity - gender diversity. (It would be great, although unlikely, if the show were to include a trans clone character). Both the performances (including the protagonist's Sarah's 'rehearsals' to take on the life of Beth) and the characters raise the question of what it means to look or act 'like' someone, drawing attention to the narrow bands of feminine performativity within given classes, ethnicities, and ages available in our media culture.

Pas de deux and Orphan Black share Canadianness, and I wonder if Canada's "Are we British? French? American? Indigenous? None of the above?" persistent cultural debate lends itself to this kind of imagining of multiplicity, whether utopian/romantic or dystopian. On the other hand, Orphan Black puts us firmly on the side of the clones, not their killer, and positively represents adoption and fostering as part of a familial continuum. And our focal character/clone is Sarah the grifter rather than Soccer Mom or Scientist.   

I thought of Sarah - an English woman with an Irish foster mother, having grown up in Toronto and moved around North America - when reading Adriana Lisboa's Crow Blue this weekend. Like Orphan Black, it's a story about alternative families, quests for identity, transnational migration, and the scope of the Americas. Unlike Orphan Black, it is rooted in historicity: the Communist guerrilla movement of the 1960s and 1970s in Brazil. The protagonist, Vanja, leaves Rio when her mother dies to look for her North American father. The trail is cold, so she stays in Colorado with her step-father, Fernando, whom she's never met, and whom her mother left before she was born. Along the way, she befriends Carlos, her Salvadorean next door neighbour, and meets friends of her mother's, June and Isabel, who are Zuni and Puerto Rican respectively, creating a rich sense of the blended cultures and diverse Latin@ and indigenous communities of the American South West. All the characters have fully-fleshed back stories about their transcultural identities and migratory routes. Like birds, they escape the borders of nationality.

It's this assorted group that sets out to find news of her father, Daniel, who turns out to be living in Ivory Coast (sorry for the spoiler, although it's not really). The wild-bunch quest, ranging over Colorado and into New Mexico, and chronicled by the older Vanja, is deeply reminiscent of a key text of North American identity formation: True Grit. The recent version by the Coen Brothers lends credence to Susan Faludi's argument in Terror Dreams about the centrality of the Western for American identity, particularly post-crisis. Faludi looks at The Searchers, but True Grit shares with the earlier novel/film the father-daughter relationship, and the search into Indian Territory. 

Vanja isn't looking for her father's killer, and Fernando is not a deputy US Marshal - he's a public library security guard, and there's an attendant lack of "true grit" melodrama on their interstate journey. While the history of the American Civil War haunts True Grit (Cogburn and LeBoeuf served under different Confederate commands), it's the suppressed history of Brazil's actions against its Communist organisers that, through Fernando, forms the bedrock of Crow Blue's investigation of memory and identity. It's through storytelling that Fernando becomes a father to Vanja, and Vanja a daughter to Fernando, generating alternate versions of themselves, and a finely-judged, quietist ending (one that again echoes the end of True Grit, with Vanja resolutely single and in mourning) that leaves you pondering the infinitesimal decisions by which we all become, and the infinite possibilities we carry within us.

Perhaps nothing expresses that better than Maya Deren's film Meshes of the Afternoon - to which I can't help but feel that Teknolust is paying homage. Four Tildas = four Mayas; the computer (well, microwave - Leeson's pretty witty like that) screen = the window. Deren's search, like Orphan Black's, takes place in the maze of her own face and its multiple identities. Deren, like Vanja, is an emigrant to the United States, a Russian Jew who was a vocal Socialist at college, and whose husband, Alexander Hamid, had been chased out of Czechoslovakia for his left-wing journalism. They were making the film at a time of political turmoil and anti-immigrant feeling, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Less than a hundred miles from the cottage where they shot the film, Japanese-Americans were being interned. "When Did Us Become I?" the film might ask of the divisive racism that Deren would have witnessed in 1943, as she had earlier as secretary to African-American Katherine Dunham. The film is a plea, like McLaren's and Lisboa's (jury's out on Orphan Black...), for plurality within the self and the state.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Topic of Exchange Between Human Beings

This has been my favourite piece of fiction of the last few weeks: Omar Aziz's "A Discussion Paper on the Local Councils in Syria." Calling Aziz' urgent and practical paper, shared posthumously among revolutionary organisations across Syria, a "fiction" may seem derogatory, as if I were calling it a lie. But I mean the word in its richest sense: an imaginative extension of real circumstances, a carefully-structured narrative of potential change. Signifiers of reportage are common in work published as fiction, from Daniel Defoe's cross-genre work to Jennifer Egan's use of PowerPoint in A Visit from the Goon Squad, setting up a framework for the reader's reality-testing. Even (or perhaps, most especially) speculative fiction employs the language and even layout of the newspaper or the scientific report, as - magisterially - in Christa Wolf's "Self-Experiment: Appendix to a Report" (jstor sign-in required, alas).
But what if we take the reverse proposition for consideration? That part of the work done by essays, science experiments, and even news articles, is that they are fictions: not only in the Frankfurt School sense that they emerge from (and cannot stand outside) social constructions, but if we imagine them as, like all human acts, powerful wish-fears. And beyond that: as proposals for realisation within the imagination first. When we read about a new scientific development or proposal for a government bill, or even the agenda for a meeting, we envision/construct/imagine it ahead of its taking place - or imagine its implications and consequences for ourselves and others. Even watching actuality, we are in the realm of fiction (not as in Baudrillard's negatory "welcome to the desert of the real" take, only): we are interpreting others' emotions, putting forth hypotheses, seeing around the edges of the frame.

It's this imaginative action that I'm so drawn to in Aziz' paper: that it so powerfully connects pragmatic reality with utopian ideology. In particular, the repeated articulation that the actions of revolution form revolutionary subjects. You can't, he suggests, pre-claim yourself as revolutionary, or deny that others are revolutionaries: it's a doing, not a being. In fact, its only being is in action: it finds its form and meaning through the strategic collectivities - talking, thinking, imagining together - that he proposes. We need fictions to help us walk out in fear, and to change the story as told by the government and media.

But most stories of revolution focus only on violent ways of becoming, or on the traumatic violence that causes a collective or individual break, or on the heroic individual (often forged in violence) -- and not on the collective and interconnected social formations that emerge from this, or how. We are socially conformed to narratives shaped and paced by adrenal charge, or to a verisimilitude that is stylised to the point of caricature. Who wants to read a bunch of people sitting around in a room talking - even if what they're talking about is what, as Aziz argues, replaces the security of the state, the fear of whose loss (even though the security itself is unequal and faulty, if not entirely a fantasmatic construction) is what keeps people from engaging in revolutionary action?

Educator Paolo Freire proposed a distinction between organisation and control that's as useful a way of thinking about how an artistic experience works on us as readers/viewers as it is of thinking about how the state works on us. Hard and fast distinctions between fictional and factual writing, with negative and positive values attached respectively, are where state and aesthetic control meet. This is pervasive in Anglocentric thinking (although frequently attributed to totalitarian Soviet 'socialist realism'). The recent, much-hyped-by-liberal-writers findings by Emanuele Castano and David Kidd, that literary fiction improves readers' empathy (compared to genre fiction) is a peculiar example of this: under the guise of claiming value for fiction, it actually solidifies unhelpful distinctions (literary fiction is a genre, and not all of it is well-written or psychologically accurate because it universalises) - but also remands the work of art and literature to the zone of affect.

Or rather, disconnects affective intelligence from political and social intelligence. The idea that fiction makes us feel and factual writing makes us think is a way of preventing us from really doing either. The topic of exchange between human beings is never purely empathic or purely political: it's where subjectivity and sociality meet. We need to think with both.

    Friday, September 06, 2013

    This Future of Yours, When's It Going to Arrive?

    (Or, Some More Trains, In an Attempt to Get Somewhere)

    In Sally Potter's adaptation of Orlando, the future arrives as a train:

    Or rather, in the disjunction between the Romantic hero on a white horse, and the train that blows the steam that mists the shot. It could be a moral painting titled "It's Later than You Think." A few scenes later, Shelmerdine the Romantic hero rides off to take ship for America to foment revolution and create a better future. Evicted, pregnant, abandoned, not to mention legally dead, Orlando asks him wryly, "This future of yours, when's it going to arrive?"

    Orlando's question recurs to me frequently when reading anything futurological, whether science fiction or political theory, with its ecstatic promises and equally ecstatic displacements and evasions. In an alternate draft of the screenplay, Potter had Orlando tell Shelmerdine "The future is in my body!" It's literally true in the sense that she is pregnant (and that she is a time traveller), but it's not an essentialist statement. The body is where the future will take place, every second. Whatever the utopia or apocalypse, it will be bodies going through it: labouring, loving, evolving.

    Maya Borg's beautiful film Future My Love, which tells the story of the end of the filmmaker's relationship interwoven through a history of the Venus Project and other failed futurological utopias, gets this exactly. It asks what we do with imagined futures - at the end of a relationship, but also at a given point in time looking back at past fantasies of the future moment that is our present - that have not come to pass. When a future is past, what does it have to offer? 

    As does Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love series, with its crucial attention to what most science fiction (and indeed, realist fiction) ignores: utilities in the time of revolution. As Paul Graham Raven says, as writers, we need to talk about infrastructure. As he explains in the article, infrastructure fiction is a manifesto for attention to how our lives function in relation and through connection, and the labour that is expended to ensure that. Infrastructure is the great secret, the ultimate conspiracy, both in terms of the invisibility of its labour, and the power that accrues to and flows through it. 

    Trains are a powerful symbol of this: prior to the railroad, a network of ships, horse-drawn vehicles and shanks' pony provided transport. These made their way according to a very vague and relative timetable, largely circadian (ie: the coach will be here around sunset). It was only with the advent of the railroad and its precision timetables that clock time was systematised and regularised, whereas previously individual towns set their clocks according to the sun. Jay Griffiths' Pip Pip details industrial capital's delinkage of time from personal/collective experience of the natural world, and its effect on our embodiment and consciousness. National water provision was a plank of industrial development: it has improved living standards (in tandem with better understanding of biological agents of disease), but has created its own problems, including massive wastage from ageing infrastructure that's too embedded to repair, as well as mass exposure to industrial pollution - as well as the more profound transformation of water into a commodity.

    Similarly, other aspects of infrastructure gradually remove both our relation to, and any responsibility for, our bodies' place in the world. Quite literally, someone else deals with our shit: both the sanitation and construction workers who build and staff sewage treatment plants (and the vast administrative staff), and those whose water is polluted by sewage leaks or flushed plastic. Infrastructure allows most of us to wash our hands of many of the basic aspects of being alive, what Giorgio Agamben calls bare life. Even if we work in infrastructure or utilities, whether as engineers or helpline operators, Fordism has guaranteed that we can only access the limited amount of information necessary to the task at hand. Outsourcing, privatisation and automation together have fragmented knowledge of infrastructure, while consolidating corporate control over the power it offers (and carries).

    Worker-run factories, renationalised utilities (particularly water and minerals), local internets, and other attempts to place hands directly on infrastructure in times of political change. To me, this isn't just a story about control of the means of production, to use Marx' term, but the means of relation - to each other, and to the world. It's a taking of responsibility for the community's wellbeing; and in community, I include all of the living world. Existing infrastructure may be the single greatest problem in engaging people in ecopolitics, although it is also a flashpoint for community organising (particularly around energy and water). It obscures both the power and the responsibilities. 

    In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit explores what happens when infrastructure is overwhelmed by a natural or man-made disaster, and communities are required to find solutions to maintain bare life. She finds that resilience and inventiveness emerge, that people – while often grief-stricken, and frequently disease-stricken – are not passive victims of circumstance, or nostalgists at a loss without state/corporate provision. Alternate systems spring up, not only providing utility, but shared purpose and a renewed sense of interconnections. New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina has provided (and I suspect will continue to provide) US artists with examples and a backdrop for experimenting with such stories: David Simons' series Treme uses the serial form to explore exactly the connectivity created by rebuilding, with the city's musicians as both a focal point for narrative engagement, and vibrant examples of contingent, collaborative community (and in season 3, about how fast entrenched interests return to take over and, yes, "monetize" this reconstruction).

    I wonder if the disintegration of infrastructure, and return of the possibility of relation, is part of the attraction of dystopian, post-apocalyptic fictions? Too frequently, however, post-apocalyptic fiction presents another fantasy, that of totalitarian control, rather than engaging with this less apparently dynamic question. Perhaps a novel about making the trains run – or getting rid of them and finding a replacement – doesn't have the appeal of one about mediagenic young people fighting it out for the amusement of the upper classes. But perhaps the kind of negotiations and relations that might emerge from such an infrastructure fiction offer an intriguing new kind of futurology, along the lines of this new collaborative writing project: one that recognises that all futures are the present for their inhabitants, that bare life is the continuum that does not change, and that the only story we can tell is one we make together.

    Monday, September 02, 2013

    In Train: On Middles

    Maybe it's reading several Thomas the Tank Engine books to my friend's train-loving daughter (probably not, though, given the monotonous classism and sexism and plots) - or maybe a few long journeys this summer - but I seem to have falled in love with trains. Trains as vehicle of the metaphor of narrative, but also trains as insignias or symbols of a certain moment of modernity.

    In my last post, I ended by thinking about the audio recording technology as disruptive of older narrative forms and models of self -- the inner voice made outer, memory turned magnetic. Writing science fiction, I'm intrigued by how realist fiction records and explains (or not) technological innovation, scientific experiment and social debate in its moment, how the coming of change appears when embedded in lived history. Too often, science fiction reads like an issue of Which? magazine, analysing and advertising shiny, with souped-up Basil Expositions giving the skinny to characters who should either a) already have the know-how, or b) don't need it. How to present technological, social, cultural and other imaginings to the reader without PowerPointing them over the head?

    Which is where the trains come in. Three novels I've read in the past week, written throughout the twentieth century, all feature trains as metaphors for both modernity and modernism. There's plenty of fun and thought-provoking material out there about trains and film, but I hadn't given much thought to trains in books. Of course, they provide an ideal setting for locked-room mysteries in both media, but I'm more intrigued by a different narrative effect -- what could be loosely called, one thing after another, a loosening of cause-and-effect, as opposed to the forceful, fateful forward motion associated with the train in cinema.

    Poetics maven Al Filreis posted this quotation from Gertrude Stein today on Facebook:
    I think one naturally is impressed by anything having a beginning a middle and an ending when emerging from adolescence.... American writing has been an escaping not an escaping but an existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding another thing of anything have a beginning and a middle and an ending."
    Particularly intriguing because the first of my train books (not books read on trains: I keep Don Quixote for that -- and three years on, I'm still stuck in Book Two) was Willa Cather's My Antonia, which I'd somehow failed to read despite many Women's Lit classes (and the amazing fact that there was a 1995 TV movie starring Neil Patrick Harris as Jim Burden and Elina Lowensohn as Antonia: yes, Doogie Howser MD + Sofia from Amateur, with Eve Marie Saint and Jason Robards as the elder Burdens. The mind does boggle).

    My Antonia is a novel about beginnings, middles and endings, "an existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding another," a deceptively simple paratactic style in which each chapter focuses on a single incident, moving forwards in time. Each incident has its beginning (often in a previous chapter), its middle - generally an incident of strong emotion or sensation, presented with incredible directness to the reader - and its ending, often faced with or brought about by social strictures that limit the interactions and passionate feeling of the adolescent Jim and Antonia.

    Cather writes from a powerful sense of America-as-adolescent-nation (albeit one whose great indigenous antiquity she explored in In the Professor's House), and the railroad is one emblem of this: in the Prologue, we learn that Jim Burden is now a railroad man, not one of the plutocrats who built it, but a time-and-motion man, travelling the railroads to assess them. On the train in the couse of business, he bumps into an old acquaintance from his home town, to whom he later delivers the memoir that forms the body of the novel. So the book opens with a direct link between Jim and the train - and the story does, too, as Jim's earliest memory of Antonia begins on a train. Jim is travelling from Virginia, where he was born and his parents have both died, to his grandparents in Nebraska, and Antonia and her family are making the final part of their journey from Bohemia.

    Jim and Antonia don't meet on the train: he hears about her from the conductor, but is too shy to see her. Instead, they share a night-time ride in the back of a cart to their homesteads. Later, Antonia falls in love with a train conductor and Jim, ever-fastidious and painfully aware of social divisions, sets aside his feelings for her. The train conductor done her wrong, and at the very end of the book, Jim returns by train and buggy to visit her and her insuperable number of children. As I type this, a disturbing equation arises between Antonia (female principle) as fertile land and men as the railroad who "open her up." Antonia, born in the "old country," becomes both a replacement for and symbol of the indigenous Americans displaced by the settlers in Nebraska.

    As Rebecca Solnit discusses in River of Shadows, her biography of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who worked for railroad baron Leland Stanford, the railroad was instrumental in "opening up" the West, perpetuating displacement and genocide. Many workers - white, Chinese and Native American - died during the building of the railroad, and it destroyed some small communities when it bypassed them. Part of its symbolism, then, is modernity as brutality. But there is also an almost erotic tenderness, a tremulousness, in Jim's relation to the railway, something that undercuts that easy equation. The train is, literally, the engine of the novel, but there are few train journeys between the first and final chapters. People travel by horse and cart, or on foot. And yet it's the train that is suffused with Jim's nostalgia for Antonia, as much as is the landscape, and the train that offers the one-thing-after-the-next structure to the novel. As a railroad man, Jim doesn't travel from A to B, but rather takes linear journeys in a circular and repetitive fashion."An existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding the other thing" cuts against the cut-and-thrust the railroad seems to claim for itself, and for the "manifest destiny" of American modernity.

    The railroad manifests similarly in Intizar Husain's Basti, as an ambivalent marker of the coming of modernity under the shadow of empire. It both connects and disconnects what will become India and Pakistan in the course of the novel, as it connects and disconnects Zakir, the narrator's, past memories from his present.

    Falling between Cather's and Husain's novels - and without the nostalgic framework of either - the train means something quite different to American poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose novel Savage Coast, just republished by the Feminist Press, is based on her own experiences in Spain in 1935. Helen, an American activist travelling to the People's Olympiad, gets stuck on a train between the Spanish border and Barcelona during the General Strike that followed the Popular Front's prevention of a Fascist coup in Catalonia. As the train sits in a small town, it becomes a model League of Nations - generous and querulous, full of shifting alliances around a noble core. The stopped train is a powerful symbol of withheld force (paralleling the Popular Front and its soldiers, mainly seen raising fists in solidarity rather than in action) and a reframing of the narrative of industry and/as "progress" -- later in the book, we learn that the PF is planning to nationalise the American motor car factories around Barcelona.

    Once the novel leaves the train for Barcelona, it becomes more diffuse, although quite moving in its portrayal of confused days and heady nights of political tumult: I imagine you could change the street names, add some mobile phones, and present it as written in Istanbul this year, or Cairo three years ago. Forward motion is both demanded (political change) and impossible (Helen and her friends remain tourists, the plot dictated by the vagaries of consuls and rescue ships), a state that the stilled train symbolised perfectly, not least by holding together its ill-assorted community. Stopped, the train is all middle: beginning and ending are suspended, as the passengers worry at half-translated broadcasts, rumours and contrasting accounts from the townspeople. Incipit, says Peter when they reach Barcelona -- but there's something about the calm before, the dreaming of revolution and the way the exigencies of the stopped train bring the events and emotions into the body, that is truly radical. "An escaping not an escaping": a staying still and expanding. That ever-busy little striver Thomas could learn a lot from Rukeyser.

    Monday, April 01, 2013

    SF in SF, or Julian May, Ellen Ullman and Making Things Up

    Happy seventy-first birthday to Samuel Delany! And congratulations to Mira Grant for her record- (and glass ceiling) busting haul of Hugo nominations. It's going to be a while before I get to her work, though, because I've just discovered Julian May: for once, even starting by reading the first book of a series. One down, fifteen to go.

    That first book, The Many-Coloured Land, was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus and Mythopoeic Fantasy awards in 1982, and was recently -- just this January -- brought back into print and ebook by Tor, 20 years after its last edition. They fanfared the relaunch with a rare interview with May from 1982. Therein, she answers one of the perennial questions fired at writers: where do your ideas come from?
    All those wild, wild ideas – where did they come from? . . . I once estimated that I had read or skimmed nearly fifty thousand volumes in the course of researching my nonfiction juvenile books and writing the seven thousand encyclopedia articles. I read very fast and retain quite a lot of the data. And besides the research I had to do, there were certain other topics I delved into for the sheer hell of it: mythology and folklore; psychology – especially Carl Jung; geology and paleontology, which I’ve always adored; sociology and political studies; history – especially English history, since I’m a keen Anglophile. 
    What May doesn't answer is the implied, more complex question: how do you mesh these ideas to produce characters and narrative? What is the process that takes the 50, 000 volumes of non-fiction and composts them into the Galactic Milieu and the time-gate?

    Science fiction, because it composes its realities very explicitly, foregrounds this question as a genre, whereas literary realism implies an indexical process: you observe the world and the people you meet therein, and translate them to the page. Of course, that's a useful fiction in itself; the world of a realist novel is as selected, invented and constructed as that of an SFF novel, within a framework of constraints, including formal and generic precedents and reader expectations.

    It's been fascinating discovering May in the same week as discovering Ellen Ullman, "the computer programmer who became a novelist." Her new novel, By Blood, is -- in a way -- about programming: set in San Francisco in 1974, before the tech revolution of which Ullman would be a part came to dominate and define the Bay Area, it's about genetic and cultural inheritance; specifically, what does it mean to say one is (or is not) a Jew. Like May's novel, it also asks what it means to learn and research, as the protagonist is a classics professor who turns his skills from commenting on the Eumenides to researching the aftermath of the Holocaust. The effect of knowledge -- and its relation (or otherwise) to self-knowledge -- is of course a theme as old as Oedipus, but both of these novels are working it out in relation to new 20th century constraints and questions.

    Is it co-incidental that this neo-noirish paranoid plunge of a novel, in which the passive protagonist eavesdrops on a therapist and her patient, opens at around the time SF-based SF novelist Philip K. Dick started receiving pink light beam visitations? While Ullman's novel, with its (characters') investment in testimony, witness and evidence, is presented as realist, the fact that it consists of material overheard by an unreliable narrator, and conveyed as oral testimony from person to person, leaves the novel in an unsettling realm where the Freudian theories of fantasy could be said to meet the genre of the same name, as American dreams/nightmares of Old Europe are dreamt and deconstructed.

    Ullman's programming fascination also surfaces in the appearance of recording technologies as bearing witness; an appendix offers a link to a recording of a BBC radio broadcast from Belsen/Celle that the protagonist discovers at a key moment in the narrative. Some narration is delivered via a tape recorder. The novel passes little comment on these technological interventions and what effect they have on narrative as the "old world" of blood heritage and beliefs (such as the genetic inheritance of mental illness, comprehensively disproven) meets the new world of gay bars.

    May's novel deliriously reverses what's implicit and explicit in Ullman by sending 22nd century humans back to the Pliocene, where they encounter a space-faring -- but culturally medieval -- alien race that his hiding out on Earth. Fantasy, science fiction, and palaeontology are mixed together but with a similar question in mind: what, as individuals, societies and species, do we inherit? What do we make for ourselves? Behind "how did you come up with your ideas?" lies this question of the unsettling nature of (self-)invention.