Charlottesville and our Public Sphere

 

  It’s the shoes. Do you see them? Amid the crowd chaos and red stop signs and cameras and flying bodies there are four empty shoes–three mid-screen and one bottom left. When I came to this picture, I had already seen the tweets and FB posts and Yahoo trending news. I knew a car had plowed through counter-protesters in Charlottesville, even though the driver and death and the number of injured were as yet unreported. The picture was not “news”, then, but something more like evidence. It slotted into my jazzed-up affective state like an amplifier and transmitter, boosting my affective signal and catalyzing my body to post and repost my feelings and reactions. Somehow those four shoes were corpses to me. They stood for death real and intended. They stood for the shock of a violence so unexpected that at least two people ran out of their shoes.

The blood pouring from civil society Saturday challenges the echo chambers of identity politics–or it can if we let it. Bigotry and fascist white supremacy are woven into the fabric of civil society and those of us shocked by it all (white folks, that is) need to own our complicity in it. This post is an attempt to see the “public sphere” that formed around the events of Saturday as a wounding that can reorient white Americans to see ourselves and what we take for granted about “the public” differently, differently enough that we orient ourselves, our discourse, and our practices to antiracist, anti-misogynist, anti-homophobic, anti-antiSemitic, and anti-Islamophobic labor.

For some years now I have wanted religion scholars to rethink the public sphere—to attend to the ways that our sense of being a self, and our sense of being a polis and of being a demos arise today through media, particularly that broad canopy we condense into the moniker, “social media.” These social technologies of public co-existence work in ways to produce publicness, but they depart from familiar narratives of the public written by Rawls and Habermas, and also stray from Anderson’s “imagined communities” driven by print media.

Instead, our public is threaded and bolstered by what I call “affective technologies of mediation in a digitally global world.”

By this phrase I want to evoke how subjects—citizens and noncitizens—construct, enter into, and react against temporary interconnections with each other on a minute-by-minute and hourly basis. These temporary interconnections are conjoined and sustained by web-based media platforms that compress time and space more profoundly than newspapers or television, and that circulate affects in ways that position subjects not as knowers but as feelers, as the clickers of click bait, the posters of repostings that keep affective response moving, flowing until the moment dissolves into other constellations of mediated interconnections.

This mediated flow of affects operates as a network in Latour’s double sense of the term, both as the material infrastructure (servers, software, cell phones, apps) and as that which flows through the infrastructure (affective). This mediated flow of affects also operates as a technology in Foucault’s sense of a matrix of practical reason. In my still-new theorizations, our public today, quite contrary to that articulated by Habermas or Rawls, is a multiply mediated, affective technology; that is, it is a matrix of practical reason dispersed through multiple material networks that enable and accelerate the circulation of affects.

  Chances are, any one reading this posting experienced this affective matrix of practical reason last Saturday as the events in Charlottesville unfolded. But, see, our language needs to change. The events in Charlottesville are materially tied to the media events responding to Charlottesville. An event and its reactions are no longer separable enough to allow for “commentary.” Even this blog posting is not a commentary on the events in Charlottesville but on the event of the events in Charlottesville, on what “Saturday, August 12” was, at least for some of us.

Our Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Reddit scenes delimit public address as the kind of affecognitive discourse Foucault calls “dramatic”; it is the discourse of theater and spectacle. Indeed, Foucault’s entire point about the importance of Kant’s odd sense of Publikum in “What is Enlightenment” is that “public” means for Kant quite precisely the stage or platform on which a certain kind of drama can be staged or performed, where a certain kind of scene can be seen. This staged drama is a kind of normative punctum, an event that functions as a gauntlet thrown down within the boundaries of the Publikum and for the sake of its continued maintenance. Kant’s Publikum establishes and legitimates the infrastructural means by which certain statements can be deployed freely, and it is the very free deployment of these particular (normative) statements that establishes and legitimates the Publikum’s infrastructure.

Making a scene in public may enact the freedom that feeds autonomy, but it is not for Kant itself a representation of Enlightenment. This distinction is important because unlike the pointillistic quality of public interventions, enlightenment is a slow process with an oscillating rhythm that conjoins the systole of sociality to the diastole of historical development. To draw out this rhythm, Foucault distinguishes pedagogical discourse from the dramatics of autonomous action. The drama of autonomy is both preceded by pedagogy and followed by self-reflection, thereby showing inextricable developmental and historical links between the government of others (by teaching them) and the government of self (daring to know for oneself). These two pedagogical moments—being taught and teaching oneself—are hinged by the interruption of public, dramatic discourse as we saw in Charlottesville, or like any event that rips the fabric of everyday life and, by claiming or debating the proper face of universality, exposes the bloody wounds of particularity on the skin of public tissue.[i]

It also is important that for Kant, the significance of the Revolution does not lie in the bloody events of the Revolution itself. “What is significant and constitutes the event with demonstrative, prognostic, and rememorative value,” Foucault writes, “is not the exploits and gesticulations of the revolutionary drama itself.” Rather, “[w]hat is significant is the way in which the Revolution exists as spectacle, the way in which it is greeted everywhere by spectators who are not participants, but observers, witnesses, and who, for better or worse, let themselves be caught up in it” (17).

Today, under the technological aegis of social media, we could restate this “significance of the Revolution” as the material dynamic that constitutes our very publicness: not the bloody action on the streets, but the entranced witness of the spectacle; not activism, but absorption. Foucault foregrounds a specific phrase used by Kant to describe the affective register of witnessing, a register that Kant associates with the sign of real human progress. The phrase is: “a sympathy of aspiration which borders on enthusiasm” (18).

As we saw with the event of the events of Charlottesville, what matters for our sense of publicness and our sense of the possibilities of social transformation–what matters, that is, in the sense of what holds the bodies and actions of the persons involved and what holds and disperses the significance of their material presence and actions–lies not with the punctum of any particular action (not even that one man driving that one car through a crowd), but rather within the crucible of splayed, saturated, relayed, and defensively diverging affective reception that unfurled multiply and nonlinearly in graduated and unpredictable ways.

From Foucault’s reading of Kant it is clear that the material and institutional factors that generate the circulating ground or ‘stage’ of the Publikum are necessary but not sufficient conditions for sustaining a viable ‘public sphere.’ The license to demonstrate, the police and national guard presence, the Constitutional guarantees of the right to assemble and the right to free speech are thus necessary but not sufficient conditions for a viable “public.” The tissue of publicness also requires that readers and spectators “sympathetically,” that is, affectively, absorb and rearticulate the “aspirations” of the dramatic discourses unfolding before their witness.

What Foucault sees (through Kant) as acts of autonomy, truth telling, and revolution, I would rewrite as the rapid threading of publicness through affective technologies of mediation. Through social media, the affecognitive lineaments of our enfleshed social life are dramatized in a flash. The spectator-bodies may refuse this public moment; they may ignore it, seek to kill it, refuse it, counter it, or redeploy it; but for publicness to thrive, its witnesses must absorb events with the tingling affective sympathy that the events are making claims (however contestable) about our shared human conditions of flesh, life, and precarity. To me, this relationship between the image, sound, word or body of the public event, and the body of the spectator positions the flesh of the citizen as a crucial node or switch-point in the circuits of affect and discourse that, through their circulation, constitute the tissue of public sensibility.

On 8/12/17 I saw and participated in just this relationship between the images, sounds, words, norms, and bodies in Charlottesville, and the words and images of the witnessing spectator-bodies. I felt palpably how the flesh of citizens function as crucial nodes and switch-points in the circuits of affect and discourse that, through their circulation, constitute the tissue of public sensibility.

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[i] I worked through Foucault’s lectures on Government of Self and Other a year before reading Katrin Pahl’s lovely book, Tropes of Transport: Hegel and Emotion (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2012), but her argument about the Phenomenology resonates strongly with my reading of Foucault’s Kant. Especially in her Chapter 2, “Pathos,” Pahl argues that Hegel offers a theatrical ‘staging’ of ethical life that requires the presence of both an audience of others and the agony of self-reflection after the passionate public display.

Consciousness, Perception, Body

  Though I do not find the reading pleasant, something about delving into Husserl’s Ideas 1 is akin to a religious investigation. For many of us, such religious investigation begins with a feeling, like that we have when we look up at the summer night sky and track Cygnus arcing down the Milky Way. It is a feeling of trying to stretch beyond our cognitive limits and really grasp that we live and breathe on a tiny planet hurdling around our sun in a backwater corner of one of billions of galaxies, a feeling of trying to match the perceptual data of small bright dots to what we ‘know’ about the universe from physics and astronomy. “What’s it all about?” we might ask, despondently or wonderingly (or both), as the stretch fails and we feel ourselves slough back into crude and infinitesimal finitude.

The question is massive and sublime, but here I’m mainly focused on the feeling. What does it feel like to try to think beyond perception, to think beyond the body? How does it feel to stretch toward God? How does the body feel the limits of its own thinking?

Reading Husserl’s Ideas 1 is unpleasant to me because it involves warping my head into a prolonged, cirque-du-soleil caliber stretch of this sort, and one that continually sloughs into glaring but unacknowledged, Marx-brothers caliber failings. Husserl doesn’t give a whiff about God, but he is trying to get to the unthought conditions of consciousness:

“consciousness considered in its ‘purity’ must be held to be a self-contained complex of being, a complex of absolute being into which nothing can penetrate and out of which nothing can slip, to which nothing is spatiotemporally external and which cannot be within any spatiotemporal complex, which cannot be affected by any physical thing….” (section 49; Kersten transl. p. 112)

The spatiotemporal world of human experience is posited by consciousness as “something identical belonging to motivated multiplicities of appearances,” Husserl maintains: “beyond that it is nothing.” (Ibid.)  Such is the stretch toward purity, toward a pure consciousness detached from (not merely bracketed from) the somatic dimensions that dictate psychology.

Husserl’s failure lies in the fact that the body keeps showing up in Ideas 1, reminding me of that taunt aimed at elementary school children who don’t know the technical word for skin: “Your epidermis is showing!”  I am not setting out to take down Husserlian phenomenology in 1000 words, but wish only to hold focus on what Ideas 1 presents so well, almost against itself: the vibrating edge of flesh desiring to escape fleshed finitude. Another way of animating his question, I think, is to bracket (ha!) his frustrating acrobatics and remain modestly on this side of purity and infinity. How does the body feel consciousness? How does the body feel itself sentient, that is, how does consciousness feel as it is in (and it always is in) a body? How does sentience evidence its own embodied matrix?

I visited Mass MoCA’s James Turrell and Sol LeWitt exhibits last weekend and it seemed to me that both artists were immersed in questions somewhat like these.

 

LeWitt’s large wall installations reduce you to vectors of affective exclamation. Each turn of the gallery leads to another squeak of pleasure. These large works are studies in color, in color juxtaposition, in pattern, in pattern juxtaposition, and in color and pattern juxtaposition. They stand over you and overwhelm you as you walk through the gallery. They draw your body in to see how these massive pieces have been constructed and they push you back to try to ‘take in’ the entire pattern or color spectrum. I would say the wall art is spectacle but it really is the opposite of spectacle; it is superbly logical and measured, pleasing in its symmetries and hues, pleasing by the way those hues and symmetries flood the body with a kind of rhythmic intensity. The intensity slows you down and stops you. It’s mesmerizing, not in a manner that yields hypnotism or loss of self, but in a manner that materializes the power of form and tone to shape bodily comfort, task and concentration; the power of form and tone to catalyze feeling and to reduce thought to the felt pulse of consciousness. This consciousness hovers somewhere between LeWitt’s art and my body, and is dependent on both.

 James Turrell’s art is about light. Color is used, it seems to me, merely to call attention to the materiality and character of light. I saw this purple artwork (above), called “Wedgework”, I believe, and this green one (below).

I also joined about eight other bodies in a nine-minute exhibit called “Perfectly Clear”, which included two periods of strobing light and otherwise a series of changing colors in what felt like a dimensionless room. I felt an irrepressible attraction to these lit spaces, and also a profound disorientation. In the “Wedgework” room, I began to feel nauseated. Turrell’s presentation of the materiality of light is so unlike my own corporeal materiality that I lost cognitive orientation. I sat down and closed my eyes. I tried to shut out this enveloping ‘experience’ that refused my attempts to situate it around the axis of my body. The world went black.The weight of my joints and muscles was oddly noticeable after the weightlessness of light. After-images bounced on my retinas. I felt my breathing in my nose, esophagus and lungs. I felt my heartbeat in my chest. I felt the nausea subside.

LeWitt demonstrates that consciousness can feel like a spooling out from my body and an entangling in form and color. I am not “in” my body when I look at LeWitt, but I am not “beyond” it, either; I am somewhere in between. Turrell, on the other hand, uses the ethereal materiality of light to demonstrate the entanglement of consciousness with the minute particularities of physiology: the weight and jointedness and awkwardness of bodies, their greedy clamor for color to resolve into (with) form, their incessant dependence on the flows of air and blood. I feel the weight of finitude with Turrell, but also the desire for, the beauty of, depthless eternity.

Boleaño’s 2666

  The title is the first clue, I guess. The sequence of four numbers has absolutely no referent in the novel, and for the novel’s readers, its most obvious referent–that of a year–is so far in the future that imagination is rendered sterile. Hungrily, one’s eyes roam to the next obvious referent, the triad “666” or the number of the beast, that familiar apocalyptic creature of the Christian book of Revelations. Future apocalypse? The year of the end of the world? Nothing in the novel portends such a momentous, cosmic reckoning, and yet it’s hard to shed the rather creepy feeling that this text is centrally about time and judgment.

The epigraph is the second clue. It’s from Charles Baudelaire: “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.”  The line is from the first stanza of the seventh section of the poem, “The Voyage” (Le Voyage) of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (Fleurs du mal). The entire stanza reads:

Bitter is the knowledge one gains from voyaging!
The world, monotonous and small, today,
Yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our image:
An oasis of horror in a desert of ennui!

(Amer savoir, celui qu’on tire du voyage!
Le monde, monotone et petit, aujourd’hui,
Hier, demain, toujours, nous fait voir notre image:
Une oasis d’horreur dans un désert d’ennui!)

Perhaps the context matters; perhaps not. Perhaps readers can infer from the context that the epigraph of 2666 refers to an image of humanity (“our image”), as opposed to an image of history or nature, or that the novel marks time as human time when(ever) lush, life-giving horror interrupts the dry severity of boredom. Is horror life-giving? Well, does not horror sell–is it not what is sought and imbibed greedily?  I prefer the coercion embedded in a literal transcription of the French: “The world…makes us see our image.” That which is not human (or at least not self) presses on the human/self willfully, and the effect is like being forced to look in a mirror. What looks back is horror surrounded by boredom–and thus is judged the so-called pinnacle of creation.

But can this judgment really apply to the artless, bumbling, grieving, ordinary, sex-obsessed, and often rather grotesque characters of 2666?

One last clue. The editors of this posthumously published masterpiece have included a postscript that references Boleaño’s 1999 novel, Amulet (the year 1999 standing in a tempting aesthetic inversion, it seems to me, to the year 2666):

“I followed them: I saw them go down Bucareli to Reforma with a spring in their step and then cross Reforma without waiting for the lights to change, their long hair blowing in the excess wind that funnels down Reforma at that hour of the night, turning it into a transparent tube or an elongated lung exhaling the city’s imaginary breath. Then we walked down the Avenida Guerrero; they weren’t stepping so lightly any more [sic], and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic either. Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or in 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” [bold added]

Taking these three ‘clues’ together, I suggest 2666 is a book of the future anterior. Not a book written in the future anterior but a kind of Gedankenexperiment that posits in its characters and its readers a dual temporal receivership. In the present, we are flooded with the boredom of quotidian banality, and yet we know–we know from the way the academics of Book 1 struggle desperately to link the shards of Archimboldi’s life–that most of this banality will drop into oceanic oblivion, leaving for the future mainly the stark, interruptive horrors and, perhaps, the occasional footstep in the sand that marks the paths between these repulsive oases.

In other words, the novel enacts a reflection on history and memory and shows how these archives of human being work against each other. It also is a savage rejection of the image or ideology of human nobility. The narrative works on its readers slowly and steadily, patiently building a pit of unease for us with every page. 

Boleaño’s novel is truly a materpiece. To me, it unspools in almost perfect opposition to Proust’s La Recherche du temps perdu. Proust’s novel pulls us into the sparkling, pulsing grace of the infinitesimal and pushes us lovingly into the task of remembrance. The world, the cosmos, the multitudinous textures and times of life itself open up for us in reading La Recherche2666 pulls us into an equally textured and infinitesimally recounted world, into the gritty, gruesome phenomenology of torture, rape, war, isolation, mental illness, misconstruals, and missed opportunities. It is a necessary counterpart to Proust, and a fitting judgment on the twentieth century (history as horror) and its human denizens (as (un)remembered boredom).

The Academy and Class Diversity

 

This post will be short because the problem it concerns is not new, and the difficulty both of articulating and of destabilizing its comfortable embrace is profound.

To be an academic (and let it be underscored at once that not all academics are intellectuals, and not all intellectuals are academics) is have been accepted into a certain guild. This guild, of late, prides itself on its commitment to diversity. This commitment is good and worthy. Diversity is not my focus here but rather something like the internal limitations of diversity, which pertain to class.

Class is not an easy dynamic for Americans to absorb. (I say “dynamic” because the occupation of a certain socio-economic class is not a “thing”, it is not reified or unidimensional, but rather relational and multidimensional or intersectional.) One American ideology–absurdly assumed in the face of hourly empirical contradiction–is that Americans live in a classless society. Whether our democratic polity actually positions each citizen (and who counts as “citizen”?) as equal before the law and in the voting booth is fodder for another conversation, but clearly, in our mass- culture, image and media-driven civil society, no one is equal to anyone. Jockeying for greater status, distinction, and salary are the game, and not to play is by default to lose.

The competitive qualities of class formation under global capitalism also are fodder for a different conversation; I raise this depiction here only because I want you to imagine something. I want you to imagine that you have a colleague in your department who does not abide by bourgeois business-ethics demeanor as we academics all know it. This colleague doesn’t know the intricacies of Robert’s Rules and would probably scorn them. This colleague is not aware of discursive nuance, or how to defer properly to senior colleagues, how to indicate that delicate balance between fearing and resisting the Dean, and how to bury political commitments in the ever-shifting costumes of accepted buzzwords. This colleague frequently uses cuss words, doesn’t always use an inside voice, and doesn’t always dress in a way that signals professionalism. Then: imagine that the issue on the faculty agenda is (you guessed it) increasing diversity in the department.

This scenario is completely hypothetical. I draw it out to point out that bourgeois class propriety is an internal limit to academic diversity. It is assumed (though this assumption is neither theorized nor discussed) that professors should comport themselves with a professional decorum, discourse, and sensitivity to department hierarchies. In other words, professors should be good bourgeois denizens of academic territory. Not to do so is to upset the apple cart that quietly aligns academic habitus with capitalist habitus. Not to do so would be to open for discussion and theorization the elitism endemic to–indeed essential to the production of– a college education.

But in our age of the 1% vs the 99%, perhaps, just perhaps, it is time for us to face such assumptions head on and at least be brave enough to have a faculty conversation about them. Think about it: an Ivy-league educated and polished male academic can sexually harass and even rape female students over the course of decades and it doesn’t come to light (or its discovery doesn’t result in embarrassing consequences for him) because his habits mesh so well with expected class decorum. But a non-bourgeois scholar, with an accent, crass opinions, and clothes that make your eyebrows squinch…THIS scholar might be barred from an academic career, despite being universally beloved by the undergraduates, particulary undergraduates who come from (you guessed it) diverse demographics.

In the Wake: Christina Sharpe on writing repetition without reification

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 An early scene of Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust features a kaleidoscope. Mr. Snead (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a photographer hired to chronicle an African American family’s 1902 “migration” to the mainland from the Sea Islands off the Georgia coast, visibly revels in the kaleidoscope’s new technology. Exuberantly, he tells Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), Trula (Trula Hoosier) and Yellow Mary (Barbara O. Jones) the word’s etymology: “Kalos, beautiful; eidos, form, and skopein, to see.” He continues,

“If an object is placed between two mirrors, inclined at right angles, an image is formed in each mirror. Then, these mirror images are in turn reflected in the other mirrors, forming the appearance of four symmetrically shaped objects. …It’s beauty, simplicity, and science, all rolled into one small tube.” [transcribed from the DVD]

Beauty, simplicity, and science.

The technical workings of a kaleidoscope aptly describe the entire structuring aesthetic of Daughters, a film that travels complexly through memories and realities of the Peazant family’s African past, Jim Crow present, and African-American future. Just as the objects placed between mirrors in a kaleidoscope roll about in the tube such that their variously reflected juxtapositions create compelling and constantly mutating patterns, so Dash posits, jostles, resituates, and blurs familiar cinematic languages of American Black experience to create true but startling images. Facts, visions, rituals, hopes, and memories imbricate through simple cinematic choices. The effect is stunning.

  This same kaleidoscopic aesthetic structures Christina Sharpe’s recent text, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke, 2016). Slim but elegant and poignant, In the Wake, like Daughters, elicits startling ways of hearing and feeling truths about the Atlantic slave-trade and U.S. chattel-slave economy, traumas that are not simply past and not merely present but complexly both, such that their wake will also complexly—frustratingly, despairingly—continue to shape our national and global futures. Through a carefully crafted repetition of words, images, and episodes, Sharpe pulls readers into the turbulence of her book’s kaleidoscopic roll. Like the words, bodies, photos and events to which she attends, we are rolled round and round, and with each twist of her text, Sharpe throws them and us into a new pattern.

Wake. Wake is the trail of water behind a ship; wake is the marked trajectory of a gun’s recoil; wake is the state of being conscious and aware; wake is the event held before a funeral in celebration of the dead person’s life. This single word-object becomes, in Sharpe’s able hands, a thousand interconnected patterns. And she adds other word-objects to wake’s semantic fullness: ship, hold, and weather–these are the chapters that form the Gestalt and largest objects of her kaleidoscope. “Defend the dead,” “former mother,” “what is the look in her eyes? What do I do with it?”, “partus sequitur ventrem“–these are some of the phrases, names, and events that form the smaller shards of colored glass that roll through Sharpe’s text. You can imagine how simple word-objects can take on breathtaking complexity through Sharpe’s use of a kaleidoscopic technology of juxtaposition, reflection, and rolling repetition.

So much needs to be said about this book, but I start here, with a single observation about aesthetics, primarily because Sharpe herself draws attention to a different and more familiar aesthetic. Halfway through her last chapter (on weather), Sharpe evokes the damage wrought by repetition within contemporary media culture. She is discussing Black annotation and Black redaction as two (further) modalities of “wake work” (113), and yet her passage swerves sharply at the end to announce a clear ethical charge to us:

“We have been reminded by [Sadiya] Hartman and many others that the repetition of the visual, discursive, state, and other quotidian and extraordinary cruel and unusual violences enacted on Black people does not lead to a cessation of violence, nor does it, across or within communities, lead primarily to sympathy or something like empathy. Such repetitions often work to solidify and make continuous the colonial project of violence. With that knowledge in mind, what kinds of ethical viewing and reading practices must we employ, now, in the face of these onslaughts? What might practices of Black annotation and Black redaction offer?” (116, bold added)

The powerful success of Sharpe’s book lies in the fact that its form resists this mass culture reification by offering up an affective pedagogy that pulls readers into the wake of the problem (into its currents and vessels and prisons and atmospheres). Readers are both buoyed and bedraggled by the roll and tumble of her text so that by the time we reach this passage we can hear the anguish and profound challenge of the questions she raises for us here. Her own repetitions are decidedly not reifications, they are not the profit-driven means of anchoring and perpetuating colonial traumas but instead move more like a natural rhythm. They toss us into the churning roll of the “beauty simplicity and science” of a kaleidoscopic aesthetic.

Because Julie Dash compares filmmaking to jazz, inevitably Ralph Ellison’s use of jazz motifs in Invisible Man came to mind as I was reading In the Wake. But what the form of In the Wake really reminds me of is the fourth part of Roberto Bolaño’s 2004 magnum opus2666 (“The Part about the Crimes”). For some 300 pages, Bolaño drags his reader through relentless, agonizingly specific, and detailed descriptions of the murders of 112 women and girls in Santa Teresa, Mexico between 1993 and 1997. Loosely based on the disappeared girls in Ciudad Juárez (where some 340 females were murdered between 1993 and 2003), reading or listening to this part of 2666 is a horrifying fall into helplessness. The pattern of death is interrupted–and therefore spared from reductionism or reification–by the meticulous detail provided by the narrator’s descriptions: The body was wearing this and such, it was positioned in this way, it was found at this hour by these people in this location; the victim had been raped this way, and that way (at one point the narrator wanders into the police lingo for the different number of ways a girl can be raped); the cause of death was this, or maybe that; the girl was identified (or not); the girl had lived at home/run away/worked at a maquiladora/been a prostitute; the girl’s boyfriend/father/stepfather was taken in for questioning; the case was soon shelved as unsolved. The singularities clinging to the repetition are the essence of its grotesque horror, which in the end has less to do with the deaths and more to do with the fungus of impotence and indifference that grows up around them and cheapens a reader’s sense of her own worth, decency, or even agency.

Sharpe’s book, too, leaves us with soggy complicity. But it’s good to be woke  (or at least prodded to be so).

Arts and Sciences: The death of a beautiful relationship

  Earlier this calendar year I attended a university panel on how to teach successfully about climate change. I found the experience deeply unsettling, not because of the persons involved but because of what I take to be prevailing structural and discursive constraints and assumptions. I have allowed the experience to jostle about inside of me until the semester ended, not wanting to appear to criticize any of my colleagues who were involved in the event, who are all lovely persons.

None of the five panelists were humanists, though one was a journalism professor. The presentations were impassioned and factual. But none of them struck at the heart of the obstacles to teaching climate change, which to me involve not only acceptance of the facts but also a fundamental change in how we live our lives in relation to those facts. The structure of the conversations felt to me a victory for what I call neoliberalism’s “age of the algorithm,” that is, the assumption that if we mine the data and churn them through the right equations, then human practice and policies should quickly line up to match their truths. It is an assumption I detest for its reductiveness and the assumption has come to crystallize a resistance in me that shapes the forms and contents of my syllabi.

In light of the panelists’ assumptions and my resistance, I tried ineptly to say something about value, that is, about the labor of discerning what many of us privileged, mostly white, mostly economically well-off U.S. citizens unthinkingly value, and on the need both to bring those values to conscious reflection and to develop ethical, practical, and political supports for transvaluing those values toward more ecological and more globally just values. I was not very articulate, which was odd considering I was teaching this material twice a week to my undergraduates. My class and I had developed a smooth vocabulary and workable set of mantras to help us theorize “value” and transvalue dominate values. We substituted “corporotage” for “ecotage” (since it really is sabotage committed for the sake of corporations), we insisted we needed to think ecological justice alongside any press for human justice and think human justice alongside any press for ecological justice. We agreed that a human body indifferent to ecological justice is a privileged body, and we began tracking the economic interests that fight tooth and nail against environmental regulations.

None of this discursive accomplishment came across in my poorly formed statement to my scientific colleagues. My failure doesn’t matter, really, except for the discursive and cooperative death I think it signals. Many universities remain organized centrally around a core program of “arts and sciences,” a structure that has a long and noble history to it. My attempt to speak into the embrace of this historical relationship felt, to me, more like speaking into a brick wall of resistance. I am not unversed or uninterested in the natural or social sciences. In fact, I used to be a biochemist at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, and I used to think that my labwork would be my entire career. Now, however, it feels that the sciences have no regard and little interest in the contributions that humanists (or humusists, as Haraway suggests) can bring to the conversation or debate. There is no conjunction, no “and” between the arts and sciences today. Is it because humanists do not traffic in “pure” facts, and thus do not count? Has humanistic inquiry become “the part that has no part” of the common task of educating the next generation–the part, as Rancière describes it, that is visible and active but literally not counted as valuable or participatory in the acknowledged dynamics of the socius?

The humanists on the faculty senate felt they had received precisely this message from our Provost this spring when she appeared to assert the administrative goal of ensuring that every undergraduate would obtain a STEM experience during their four years. Indeed, my department chair announced in our faculty meeting that the Dean was seeking humanists willing to incorporate STEM discussions or material into their classes. A humanist outcry ensued, predictably, and it was loud enough to cause the Provost either to back peddle or restate her original intention, depending on one’s interpretation of events. The Provost now assured the senate that the administration will not require all courses to have a STEM component and that she recognizes many pursuits important to a university. Sports are important to many of us, she noted, as are “arts and entertainment.” Her words generated another distressing moment for us humanists, since we do not see ourselves as necessarily sports enthusiasts or teachers of “arts and entertainment.” We are critics, philosophers, cultural theorists, gender and race theorists, writers, poets, and ethicists. We attend to many things, but almost all of what we do involves some attention to valuation as it is developed, lived, and/or politicized.

Let me frankly assert, then, that scientific facts are not, are never, dissociated from values, not in their production and certainly never in their promulgation. Of course, we know from consumer advertising culture that image, fantasy, lure, and promise sell better than mere facts. This knowledge has led me to structure my classes around valuation and transvaluation, and around specific in-class meditations and group work that enable students to articulate what it is they value, what they see and sense in the environment around them, what excites and enrages them about climate change, and what practices and policies are necessary to encourage personal, local, national, and global change.

The natural and social sciences are fact-based, yes; but to communicate their facts successfully, they need to embrace humanistic concern.  If we want that carbon tax, dear colleague, we need to unspool that need in relation to what our students–who are already our citizen-peers–value, desire, and aspire to.

RIP, arts and sciences. You had a long run.

May you rise again one day, like the phoenix.

The Place of Religion in Film

[These are the redacted comments I gave at the opening of the 2017 Ray Smith Symposium, “The Place of Religion in Film.” The conference had a $17,000 budget and participants from 10 countries and 10 US states. I enjoyed all the papers and conversations I heard and I want to thank all the participants, and the plenary speakers, for their high caliber writing and thinking.]

The land on which Syracuse University is built is sacred and stolen land. It is, in fact, the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the People of the Longhouse who form the historic Confederacy made up of Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. For some years now, faculty at S.U. are in the habit of opening conferences, lectures, and workshops with a statement like this about the stolen lands that undergird everyday life at our university. Such collegial insistence to name the violence of the past and to note its persistence in our shared present is amplified by the current social and political situation in the United States. Weekly, if not daily, we hear about assaults and crimes against non-white and non-cis persons, groups, and bodies: incidents of minorities being told to “go back to your own country”, transgendered women murdered, Sikh men murdered, swastikas appearing on school lockers and front lawns, and TSA and ICE officers acting with unusual force. In early March of this year a white supremacy group called “Vanguard America,” which carries the web address of “blood and soil dot org”, organized something they called the “The Texan Offensive” in which they “put up…[white supremacist and anti-Muslim posters] at Texas State University, Rice University, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Dallas, Collin College, Abilene Christian University, and Louisiana State University….”

It may not be true, but it feels as if these acts are occurring in ideological deference to the mounting Federal (and mutating) threat of deportation hanging over immigrants and refugees. And it may not be true, but I’ll warrant a guess that the persons committing these acts strongly wish to forget, deny, or violently erase the history of non-white presence on this land. They wish to forget, deny or violently erase the history of mass genocide of indigenous peoples, the horrors of chattel slavery, and the persistent flow onto this continent of non-white and white immigrants. In this context, to assert vociferously the history of place—to assert that any place is held together by a physical and relational matrix that brims with stories and lives, with factions and contestations, with sacred relationship, with life and death, with joy, and love, and loss—seems today a crucial and necessary act of resistance.

Lately, I have been reflecting on film as a public, as a medium of publicness and a mediation of certain publics. By this I mean not only that a film text can be read and interpreted for its social messages, but also that the success of a film is measured in part by its success in either fitting contemporary discourse on an issue like a glove, or pushing that discourse to change. How does the history of place show itself in the medium of film? How is the sacredness of place displayed and anchored? When I think about the broad rubric of the place of religion in film, I think about the many physical places that evoke religion or take on religious valence in certain films. But then my philosopher proclivities kick in and I wonder about this term place, about its capaciousness and about how its wide pliability speaks also to the wide variability in what counts as historical representation and as cultural memorialization.

Like the concept of religion, the concept of place is multitudinous richly textured. The Stoics, for instance, theorized place as subsisting between the incorporeal void and all that forms the corporeal. Place is not the void and place is not a body, but rather stands as the transition between. Place is where bodies can take shape and do things. This is an unfamiliar and curious sense of place but one that might be fruitful to consider along with particular filmic frames or with Gilles Deleuze’s sense of “camera consciousness.” Religion as this sense of place might be the unthought but felt orientations that are not nothing but also have not yet been actualized into material practices or structures.

These days place is often conjoined and opposed to space, where the latter is something logical or mathematical, while the former is more existential. Space can be Newtonian, that is, the container for experience and events. Or space can be, as it was for Kant, the a priori condition of possibility for human experience. Or we can conceptualize space vis-à-vis the grids of urban and rural territories that mapped and codified the earth’s vastness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the commons was closed and private property expanded. Soon afterwards the oceans became territorialized, and the vastnesses between the planets stood as space’s final frontier.

Place on the other hand slots into the experiential and evental. Space might be open to orienting technologies like cartography, but place orients someone or something in some specific manner. In other words, place is relational. To approach place through the analytical frame of relationship is to suture place to the idiosyncrasies of various and specific histories and memories, both collective and individual. The relational construction of place calls us to attend to the power differentials deployed or suffered in one and the ‘same’ place (but is it the same place?), and to record and reflect on how history and memory differently refract the winners and losers of those power struggles in the lived edges, pits, and vortices of place. Near my home here in Syracuse is an old Roman Catholic Church, the membership of which declined to the point where the parish was unable to maintain it. They sold the building and now Holy Trinity Church is the Mosque of Jesus Son of Mary. What is interesting—not completely surprising, but worthy of reflection—is that some of the former worshippers at Holy Trinity are angry that the crosses have been removed and slowly replaced by crescents. Somehow they could understand and even embrace the pragmatic consequences of generational change and a shrinking budget, but the affective charge of place, of this place as a Christian place, was too strong to keep Islamophobic anger at bay.

Do the history, memory, and power of place require bodily expression? And if so, what is a body? Are there bodies outside of place or are bodies only formed in conformation to specific places? What does it mean to be a body present but out of place? Can the bodily nature of place be sensorially formed between and across bodies, instead of felt inside of bodies? In other words, where does analysis take us if we posit that the experiences that mark space as place might be virtual or affective instead of actual and tangible. How does it matter, and what difference does it make if bodies are theorized as personal and collective (persons in and as a crowd or network or rhizome), or personal and singular (an individual, a self, an autologic subject)?

Because religion entails marking persons and places in particular and various ways and for particular and various ends—though of course religion entails many other things, too—all that I have said about place and bodies pertains as well to the place or placing of religion in film.

dek1 Consider, for instance, the many actual and tangible places that are compelling to analyze as the places of religion in film, such as the monastery in Xavier Beauvois’s 2011 film, Of Gods and Men, or the torii gate in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s 1998 film, After Life. These structures are Eliadean, built to evoke or attest to hierophanies; they are experienced in ways that are both extraordinarily intimate and personal and yet also bearing on collective or universal experience. Consider how religion is sometimes marked or placed much more obliquely and ambivalently, as through the eerie green computer glow in the first of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1989 TV series, Dekalog; or the novitiates’ rituals with and around the statue of Christ in Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 release, Ida; or through the ocean scene between Juan and Little in Barry Jenkins’s stunning release from last year, Moonlight. Light, ritual relationship, elemental interaction—all these might evoke and play with the places of religion. I think, too, of how Buddhist compassion is constructed and placed through the slowly accreting gazes of the Dalai Lama in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, or how something like Christian transcendence is placed between the screen and the viewer through the music of John Tavener in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and of Beethoven in the Coen brothers’ The Man who Wasn’t there. Cinematography, montage, and soundtrack, then, also can demarcate and incarnate the places of religion in film.

Taking quite a different tack, consider how films can show the sedimentation of religious sensibility and practice in places of social conflict such as Ismaël Ferroukhi’s 2011 Free Men (les homes libres), or Abu-Assad’s 2005 Paradise Now, or Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughter’s of the Dust. The religious histories and practices in these films form palpable affective tensions and construct and constrict the social possibilities of their characters. Sometimes, too, religion is placed and moved by elemental forces, such as the wind in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, and also (but differently) in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, or water in many of Terrence Malick’s films, including Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups. Finally, sometimes the place of religion moves with a single object that doesn’t even seem religious, like the parrot in Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp, the mask in Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, or the car in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and Ten.

In each of these examples, the place of religion in film is also about the religiosity of place, with all the depth of history, experiences of violence, and possibilities for compassion that places, placing and religion(s) inhere.

Choose Life: Deuteronomy and Environmentalism

We just passed the sixth Sunday after Epiphany and I find that the well-known injunction from Deuteronomy—“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”—falls easily into the slipstream of the review I am organizing for my religion and nature course. My students and I have read snippets of the early part of the US environmentalist tradition from Emerson, Thoreau and Muir, up through Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. The moral take-away of their texts, it seems to me, could be written in the exact same Deuteronomic words.

For many years the odd injunctions and appeals of scripture, particularly the Tanakh, have made a kind of sense to me in terms of vectors and channels. To live well, to live righteously, entails orienting oneself toward THE LORD by orienting oneself toward Torah; it entails not giving way to the channels of one’s own desires or orienting oneself toward dispositions and goals set by merely human concerns. This vectoral path to righteousness is not ever a call to ignore or disdain human concerns, however. Human concerns simply need to be rightly placed, rightly subordinated to concerns that supersede any one person, one family, or one community. In some passages of Tanakh, the needs of Israel in particular are even subordinated to the nations of the world—a strong reminder that the quality of being chosen by THE LORD is not always congruent with feeling like the favorite child. In all cases, scripture nudges our dense selves to see that we better attend to human concerns when we place them within our more fundamental orientation to God. To love God fully and to love humanity fully are not at all the same thing, but you can’t have one without the other.

To choose life, then, is to choose this fundamental orientation toward God and Torah. To me it’s an incredible moment of scripture—akin (to this Christian writer) to that incredible moment after Gabriel speaks to Mary and then waits for her response. As Luce Irigaray has noted, it’s as if all the cosmos, all of human and non-human being and history stop breathing and tune in rapt attention to hear Mary’s response: will she agree to bear the Christ child? Here in Deuteronomy, Moses channels God’s words with the same unbelievable investment in human agency and the human capacity for covenant. To tell us to choose life means that the choice is a viable choice. This is no sham deal. We hold our fate, the fate of our children, the fate of the word, in our hands.

That is, God (through Moses) tells us to choose life not only for ourselves but also for our descendants, and not only for the promises Moses makes before that congregation but also “so that you may live.” I don’t know the Hebrew, but I love the slight écart or hesitation opened up by that ‘may’. Not: “so that you will live.” Not: “so that you can live.” We are here in the domain of Kant’s third critique, the domain of the aesthetics of judgment and the pedagogies of the sublime. Humans cannot control the future, but we may opt to align ourselves in directions, by dispositions, with commitments that structure our desires, our practices, and our ever-widening networks of relations with the world in ways that give us (and our descendants) better odds.

The environmentalists knew this, too, exceedingly well. To claim that “in wildness is the preservation of the world” (Thoreau) or that “going to the mountains is like going home” (Muir) or that “the cowman has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls and rivers washing the future into the sea” (Leopold) or that “the control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance” (Carson) is—like the scriptural injunction—to recognize the incredible power of human agency and the ethical imperative to align ourselves toward scales and dimensions of reality (toward God, or Gaia, or God in nature) that supersede the rambunctious wiles of our narrow desires.

These thoughts are fruitfully filtered through Thomas Cole’s famous painting, the Oxbow.

cole_thomas_the_oxbow_the_connecticut_river_near_northampton_1836

“Manchester by the Sea”: The Elusiveness of Faith

manchester-sea   It is no news to say this film flattened me with its anguish. The sadness of the film is its primary melody and its harmonic structure. The acting, cinematography, and narrative structure also are stunning but here I want to comment simply and specifically on the plot’s foreclosure and appeal to religion.

Little moments prepared me for the big confusion. “Is that the Lee Chandler?”* the townspeople ask intermittently in stunned amazement. It led me to surmise (correctly) that Lee (Casey Affleck) is a man marked by a past event. Later, the hockey coach (Tate Donovan) notices a man standing by the rink and the players tell him it’s Patrick’s (Lucas Hedge) uncle, Lee Chandler, but “none of what they say about him is true, Coach; it’s all bullshit.” The film never reveals what ‘they’ say, but I could again surmise that this is a man wearing his own kind of scarlet letter. In a subsequent sequence, Lee pokes around his old town for work. After one short exchange with a man Lee clearly knows from the past, Lee exits and the woman in the office rises sharply: “I don’t ever want that man in here again,” she tells the man. The man nods in appeasement. Geez, I thought; what’s up with her? What’s he done to elicit such a vehement response?

maxresdefault-3-1  In one memorable scene, after viewers fully know about the past tragedy, Lee’s ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams) draws out the matrix of event and blame without ever leaving the arena of implication. They stand on a sidewalk with a brick wall behind them and the baby stroller for Randi’s new baby between them. “I said a lot of terrible things to you,” she acknowledges. The emotional strain between the two is palpable, and yet the essence of those “terrible things” remains speculative, and the town’s basic disposition toward Lee is never fleshed out. (It also is shown not to be totalizing since the mother of one of Lee’s nephew’s two girlfriends clearly flirts with him and seems to want to snare him into domesticity.)

Is the elusiveness just good storytelling? Is it simply supposed that there is no reason to fill up with words what good acting and a careful camera can accomplish? Viewers can say that Lee is marked by tragedy and, well, it’s a small town, and small townsfolk are superstitious and they talk. They push him to exile and his own sense of guilt internalizes and depends that exile to existential proportions. And yet…

When Patrick returns from a lunch with his estranged, alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol) and her fiancé, Lee probes him for what it was like. “They’re very Christian,” Patrick responds. Lee drives. Then he turns his head toward Patrick and says, “You know we’re Christian, too.”  “Yea,” says Patrick. “I know.”

But I don’t. The exchange has no empirical correlation to anything in the film and no affective intensity between these men. I can accept the plot’s elusiveness and I can accept the marginalization of faith to a recovering addict, but it’s hard to wrap my head around Lee’s faith declaration, his insistent claiming of faith even though he is the most parched, faithless, and lifeless person in the film. Does the declaration assert the impotence of faith? Surely not.

Faith provides community, balm, resources, forgiveness, and redemption. Faith does not and cannot eradicate pain or assure a life without remorse or guilt, but it can assure you that you are forgiven, and loved. Also, and weirdly, we see faith working in Patrick’s mother—we see her in attempted recovery, in a stable relationship, in a home signaling bourgeois comforts and status. We see her facing down the failures of the past with the ballast of faith, and even though she fails (and the lunch fails), the declaration of faith rings true.

But with Lee? No. If he is Christian (or any faith orientation at all), Lee would not be beat by the tragedy of his past. The best I can suppose is that Lee keeps that door open for Patrick, even as it remains tightly bolted to himself.

For another view on the Christianity in this film, I very much appreciate Chris Barnett’s (Villanova) piece.

*I saw this film once, about 2 weeks ago. I cite the film from memory and could well be misremembering. I apologize in advance and am open to corrections.

 

Fences: The tenses of generation and gender

fences-bar-640  August Wilson’s screenplay of Fences, based on his stage play by the same name, is cinematic but not in terms of spatial expansiveness.

Often when a play is translated to screen the story’s texture and tone expands and intensifies with the camera’s roving attention to and multiplication of location: topography, industry, ecology, street life, farms. Under Denzel Washington’s direction, however, this version of Fences remains constricted to the backyard, where the literal fence is being built, or to other small segments of Troy (D. Washington) and Rose’s (Viola Davis) house, thereby signaling other sorts of fences. Rolling my memory back through the film, I can recall only a few scenes outside of the house.

images   There are the street scenes: children playing outside as Troy and Jim (Stephen Henderson) amble home from work, jawing about this and that; Rose hurrying down to the church with cakes for a bake sale; and Cory (Jovan Adepo) pausing before a Marine recruitment office. Other than those, one brief scene takes place in a hallway where Troy waits to talk to a union rep, one at the church, and a more strained and lingering scene unfolds in a dark, nearly empty bar. (I’m bracketing Gabriel’s (Mykelti Williamson) street scenes because those, too, are filmed almost claustrophobically as if to index how Gabriel is fenced in by his mental illness, even when he is in wide open spaces).

The fenced-in spaces do not render the film static, however. The camera twists and paces within these tight spaces like the repetitive, desperate walk of caged tigers. Yes, the characters move; they sit and walk and stand; they yell and joke and swing and cry. But their bodies don’t suggest agency or practice; rather, the roiling camerawork tracks their emotions, the frantic pacing of their affects.

I was reminded, as I watched, of Elizabeth Povinelli’s comments on tense, and of Orrin Pilkey’s comments on enigmatic shoreline currents. Pilkey is an ocean geologist who has tried and failed to understand what happens to ocean currents as they come to land. Deep ocean currents have been mapped and studied successfully, but the chaos at the shoreline remains elusive. When rolling water meets its limit in land, the predictable patterns shift to a constantly emerging order that cannot be grasped by established scientific methods.

In Economies of Abandonment Povinelli contrasts the incommensurate grammars of time (tense) assumed by the Australian settler colonial government and by her Aboriginal kin and friends. She writes, “the social divisions of tense help shape how social belonging, abandonment, and endurance are enunciated and experienced within late liberalism” (p. 11). “Thus,” she continues, “how various narratives of belonging, abandonment, and endurance are socially enunciated and experienced depends in part on the ways that the relationship between the time of narration and the event narrated, or, put in another way, the event of narration and the narrated event, is grammatically marked” (p. 12).

In legal battles over land and mining claims in Australia, for instance, the contrast between an assumed past (mountains are Not-Life) and an assumed emergence (mountains are Dreaming sites that require ongoing attention and care) shapes legal judgments but hinders substantive understanding between the two tense-users. On a more domestic level, Povinelli argues that “intimate events” are also “performative tense projects”, encounters that map the desire, granting and foreclosure of affirmation, agency, and inheritance. Tense, that is the use of, orientation toward, and assumptions about when events [will] occur[red] grids the possibility of interrelational and intergenerational recognition.

viola  And so: The generational and gender relations in Fences, brilliantly acted and beautifully filmed, indicate ever emerging orders of incommensurate tenses that shape the heartache of being African American in the 1950s…and before…and after.