1. Orion

    for Ariana Reines

    the Law praises itself
    through repetition
    our gestures mimic its patience
    poorly

    the earth orbits the sun
    the Law fastens the sun
    binds it
    holds it
    within its order

    one, two, three
    everywhere she looked
    punctuating the given 
    Orion 
    you did not return
    I returned
    you waited

    (as my father
    I am already dead) 

    the Law punctures the sky
    when what we call the sky is black 
    when what we call above is black 
    its puncture is the Law
    this is what she saw

    (as my mother
    I am still living)

    the rhythm of the Law
    its hinge
    is broken
    so it is that the Law waits 
    stabbing the turning world
    the broken rhythm of the Law 
    in stasis 

    Orion
    there upon the black 
    of the broken rhythm of the Law 
    you spelled your shape in numbers
    one, two, three
    four corners
    everything receded

    you spelled your depth into the collapse of everything else that might have taken me

    you took me

    Orion
    your stillness was a lie
    imperative
    your turning took the shape of a house
    this house took the shape of an ark
    under its beams the animals turned cageless 
    the fire 
    gathered their hides for the ceremony
    whispers, laughter, wine, and waiting  

    when this waiting became counterpoint
    you turned

    Priestess: this is the parable of the Law. 


  2. 01 Mar 2012   1 note  

  3. 14 Feb 2012   2 notes  
  4. More Beautiful, More Intense? HD’s Poetics of Comparison

    “I will not reason and compare,” writes Blake; “my business is to create.” But poetry is a practice of comparison. That’s what I want to show today through a reading of H.D.’s first book, Sea Garden. Poetry is a practice of immanent measure. It is the creation of comparison. It constructs relations among relative intensities, it weighs these, and it manifests a decision between them. I want to say that this practice of construction, measure, and decision is the most intimate practice of our daily lives, of our sexuality, of our political engagements. We could call this practice “comparison.” Poetry distills it. 

    Blake’s Newton (1795) figures Enlightenment rationality as instrumental measure. Euclidean geometry provides a standard of form which bends the mind and body to its rule. The devices with which one drafts the figures of these standard forms render reason an instrument of conformity. In a word: reason conforms to measure, rather than creating it. This standard of rationality, which we might call instrumental measure, is what Blake rejects in favor of imaginative creation.

    In favor of. Already, the phrase registers the fact that Blake’s formulation is itself a comparison: “I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.” Creation is measured against comparison. Imagination is implicitly measured against reason. And the soul gravitates toward one pole of the relation. Blake’s artistic practice, we could say, tends toward creation rather than comparison. “My tendency is correct,” writes John Cage. And this is what Blake seems to be saying as well. We note that this tendency, this inclination—which is no doubt felt as an immediate affect, the felt inclination of one’s whole being—is also a judgment. It is articulated as a decision between one of two alternatives. What I want to show is that this decision hinges upon the relation of creation and comparison, of affect and reason, to different modalities of measure. 

    We can see that Blake’s whole art is, in fact, a practice of comparison, of measuring relative intensities. He drafts, engraves, and paints differential intensities through exemplary relations among figure, line, and color. Consider, for example, the relation between the figural and compositional energies of two plates, The Ancient of Days and Glad Day.

    In the first, the Demiurge whom Blake names Urizen assumes the same posture as his Newton, bound within a sphere and hunched over looking down in an act of instrumental measure, subjecting the cosmos to the standardized rule of mathematical reason. This is how Blake figures the creation of the material world by God the Father. It is not really a creation at all, but rather of subjugation to the rule of reason, represented here as a patriarch.


    In Glad Day, on the other hand, the figure whom Blake calls Albion extends his limbs to their full extent as the light of creation streams out of his body rather than down from on high. Blake’s Christian humanism figures the immanence of creative energy—imagination—as the human body realizing its own capacities. The relation between these two plates implicitly posits this immanent realization against the subjection of the human to the measure of a higher authority. 

    The construction of such relations is a practice of comparison. It is a practice that subsumes the entirety of Blake’s art, wherein the illustration of his elaborate mythology involves the composition of differences between figures which are indeed types, though of Blake’s own invention. His art involves not only the weighing of relative intensities—registered as compositional energies of figure, line, and color—but also implicit acts of judgment and valuation. A relation of intensities is felt, the soul inclines toward one or the other, and imaginative creation is the construction of this differential inclination in the heat and the craft of composition. It is this practice of comparison not as instrumental measure, but as immanent measure, which Blake calls creation. 

    Such a practice is at the core of H.D.’s art in Sea Garden. In the poem “Sea Violet,” for example:

    The white violet
    is scented on its stalk,
    the sea-violet
    fragile as agate,
    lies fronting all the wind
    among the torn shells
    on the sand bank. 

    The greater blue violets
    flutter on the hill,
    but who would change for these
    who would change for these
    one root of the white sort?

    Violet
    your grasp is frail
    on the edge of the sand-hill,
    but you catch the light—
    frost, a star edges with its fire. 

    Description. Situation. Comparison. Decision. Invocation. The white violet is described as “scented on its stalk,” “fragile as agate.” It is situated on the sand bank, fronting all the wind among the torn shells. It is compared to the blue violets, which are “greater” and which flutter on the hill. But the relative greatness of these blue violets consists only in their size, a standardized metric. The blue violets are larger than the white violet, they are plural, and they are situated more conspicuously. But they are of an inferior intensity. An inclination and a decision upon this point is registered by the insistence of a rhetorical question:

    but who would change for these
    who would change for these
    one root of the white sort? 

    The singularity of the white violet, of the sea violet, is then summoned into the poem through an invocation that erases its epithets, displaces all relation, and renders it absolute rather than relative. Decided upon, the white violet or sea violet is now addressed simply as “Violet,” its singular nomination claiming a line of its own to begin the last stanza. The grasp of the violet is frail—it is tenuous, fragile, at risk—but it catches the light. The work of relation in the poem now turns from  comparison to synthesis as the terrestrial violet catches the celestial light of the sun, and the poem is consumed in the cold white heat of metaphor. 

    frost, a star edges with its fire.  

    The poem works through comparison toward a true relation figured as consummation. The poem weighs relative intensities, negates the very terms of this relation through decision, and explodes into the singularity of metaphorical making: poiesis. “I will not reason and compare; my business is to create,” says Blake, and H.D’s poem ultimately says the same thing—but it arrives at the business of creation through a practice of comparison. 

    My claim is that the making of poiesis, through comparison, is the core of lyric practice. Consider Wordsworth’s famous demonstration: 

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. 

    Continuous as the stars that shine
    And twinkle on the milky way,
    They stretched in never-ending line
    Along the margin of a bay:
    Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
    Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

    The waves beside them danced; but they
    Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
    A poet could not but be gay,
    In such a jocund company:
    I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
    What wealth the show to me had brought:

    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude;
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.

    The lyric “I” comes into relation with a host of golden daffodils, and these, in turn, are are situated in their environment and drawn into relation with its elements through the poetic construction of the lyric speaker. The daffodils are “beside the lake, beneath the trees;” they are “fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” Prepositions—“beside,” “beneath,” “in”—establish relations of contiguity which situate the daffodils within the relational space of the poem. 

    The daffodils are “continuous as” the stars that shine; like these, they “stretched in a never ending line.” Again, terrestrial flowers are figured as the equal of celestial stars, in this case by virtue of their sheer multiplicity (“ten thousand saw I at a glance”) which seems to exceed on all sides the parameters of any determinate count. The waves dance “beside” the daffodils, but whereas the flowers equal the stars in continuity and number, they “outdid” the sparkling waves in glee. The glee of the daffodils exceeds that of the waves. The daffodils are more intense than the waves and they are continuous as the stars. 

    In the past tense, the speaker relates these relations. He relates a scene, configures it, and weighs relative intensities within it through a practice of comparison. In the present tense of the final stanza—the space of powerful emotion recollected in tranquillity—the scene is interiorized, and the pleasure of its incorporation into the bliss of solitude melds the affective life of the heart with the sensory experience of the daffodils through the figure of the dance. Again, the act or practice of lyric consists in a practice of comparison yielding the synthetic singularity of metaphor through the fusion of the outer and inward eye, of sensory experience and affective life.

    I am not really saying anything about this poem we do not already know. To put it concisely: Wordsworth’s lyric subject is the affective synthesis of a sensory singularity. I merely note the practice of comparison which, within the world of the poem, renders the daffodils the singularity that they are. 

    Each of H.D.’s flower poems in Sea Garden—constituting a series that punctuates the collection—expresses a preference. And in each case this preference, in turn, expresses an implicit inclination of affective life through relations among sensory intensities. For example, “Sea Poppies”:

    Amber husk
    fluted with gold,
    fruit on the sand
    marked with a rich grain,

    treasure
    spilled near the shrub-pines
    to bleach on the boulders:

    your stalk has caught root
    among wet pebbles
    and drift flung by the sea
    and grated shells
    and split conch-shells. 

    Beautiful, wide-spread,
    fire upon leaf,
    what meadow yields
    so fragrant a leaf
    as your bright leaf? 

    Or the first two stanzas of “Sea Rose”:

    Rose, harsh rose,
    marred and with stint of petals,
    meager flower, thin,
    sparse of leaf, 

    more precious
    than a wet rose
    single on a stem—
    you are caught in the drift.

    Note the formal density of H.D.’s rendering of the harsh rose in this instance—particularly the important role played by vowel sounds here and throughout her work: “meager flower, thin.”  I do not think I know of another instance of English poetry that concentrates the sense of a line so intensely in a system of phonetic relations as this one. The long open “o” sound in “flower” typifies, if you will, the open softness that one might associate with flowers in general—with the poetic figure of the flower. But this figure and this phoneme are qualified by the pinched, tight vowel sound of “meager,” redoubling the sense a relation between subject (“flower”) and predicate (“meager”) with a relation between phonemic moods. And this relation—its effect—is then registered or expressed by a synthetic term, “thin,” held between commas at the end of the line. It is as though the qualification of “meager” has pinched the open sound of “flower” into a thin “i,” which sublates the relation of “meager” and “flower” not only at the level of the phoneme but also the grapheme, the open space of the “o” pressed together into the narrow line of the “i,” tenuous and abstract, as if having fallen out of the word “stint,” above. The practice of comparison operates not only at the level of meaning or content in H.D.’s poems, but more immediately at the level of sound or form, where their sense resides in its most concentrated state.  

    The language of H.D.’s flower poems obviously carries sexual implications: the fragrance of the wide-spread flower, or the relation of the harsh rose, stint of petals, to the wet rose. The erotic cartography of female anatomy in H.D.’s poems, and the exploration of differential drives and bisexual desires that it performs, has been widely noted. Yet we need to ask not only how sexuality is figured in these poems, but what it is. If we say that sexuality is a psychosomatic field of differential intensities, then we might begin to see how the lyric practice of comparison—the weighing of relative intensities as an act of immanent measure—bears upon the poetic exploration of desire. The field of sexual experience is at once intensely localized and amorphously diffuse. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty says, sexuality “has internal links with the whole active and cognitive being” such that we give our entire lives over to it. “Sexuality is neither transcended in human life,” he writes, “nor bound to its center through unconscious representations. It is at all times present like an atmosphere.” 

    The Oedipal Complex of Freudian theory, for example, is not really a relation of determinate desires. As a phantasy, it is not so much a scenario as a field of affective impulses and inclinations. Such a phantasy saturates the psychosomatic experience of childhood to a degree that is essentially without measure, blurring and eliding the consistency of figures, bodies, or psychological subjects. Or in Freud’s case study of hysteria, Dora “speaks of Frau K’s adorable white body in terms more befitting a lover than a rival.” Freud deduces that within the complex field of her unconscious phantasies, Dora’s desire for Frau K is stronger, more deeply rooted, than her desire for Herr K or her father. But in what does this desire consist? Frau K speaks to Dora, as a child, about the secrets of her marriage. She introduces Dora an illicit catalog of sexual perversions through the pages of a sex manual. When she visits, Dora sleeps in Frau K’s bed with her while Herr K sleeps elsewhere. These intimacies construct a cathexis, a bond and a preferential inclination within which the female voice, the female body, the experience of feminine secrecy and seduction becomes more desirable than the crude bodies and straightforward proposals of male specimens. The phantasy is an affective inclination that subsumes the whole of experience by virtue of its relation to other elements of that experience. There is no “no” in the unconscious, Freud teaches. This is why Melville’s Bartleby says, “I would prefer not to.” And we can say that Dora’s rejection of Herr K does not express a negation but an unconscious preference for his wife. Or not, rather, for his wife, but for the singularity of her adorable white body.

    Thus, the stakes these inclinations, the stakes of the affective singularity of a preference, could not be higher. The field of sexual desire is unmeasured, ambivalent, amorphous, and yet relentlessly determinate. Within the unmeasured field of sexual desire, the poems in Sea Garden take the measure of its determinations. In “The Helmsman,” lesbian eroticism is figured as a forgetful idyll or pastoral retreat, an escape inland from the stringent rigors of the sea:

    O be swift—
    we have always known you wanted us. 

    We fled inland with our flocks,
    we pastured them in hollows,
    cut off from the wind
    and the salt track of the marsh.

     We worshipped inland—
    we stepped past wood-flowers,
    we forgot your tang,
    we brushed wood-grass.

    We wandered from pine-hills
    through oak and scrub-oak tangles,
    we broke hyssop and bramble,
    we caught flower and new bramble-fruit
    in our hair: we laughed
    as each branch whipped back,
    we tore our feet in half buried rocks
    and knotted roots and acorn-cups. 

    We forgot—we worshipped,
    we parted green from green,
    we sought further thickets,
    we dipped our ankles
    through leaf-mould and earth,
    and wood and wood-bank enchanted us—

    and the feel of the clefts in the bark,
    and the slope between tree and tree—
    and a slender path strung field to field
    and wood to wood
    and hill to hill
    and the forest after it.

    We forgot—for a moment
    tree-resin, tree-bark,
    sweat of a torn branch
    were sweet to the taste. 

    We were enchanted with the fields,
    the tufts of course grass
    in the shorter grass—
    we loved all this. 

    But now, our boat climbs—hesitates—drops—
    climbs—hesitates—crawls back—
    climbs—hesitates—
    O be swift—
    we have always known you wanted us.

    The inevitability of a return from the earthly pastoral escape to the tang and the determinate rhythms of the sea is registered by the simple consignment of the inland idyll to the past tense: “we fled,” “we worshipped,” “we wandered,” “we forgot,” “we were enchanted.” But now the circular structure of the poem returns us from the forgetfulness of “we” to the singular determination of “you,” which seems to be the determination of being taken. It is not that “we have always wanted you” but rather, “we have always known you wanted us.” Desire is the desire of the Other, and the poem knows this. “We have always known” this. That there is ultimately no escape from the determination of our desire as the desire of the Other is the poem’s concession to necessity, to fate, to what the Greeks called ananke. Here, preference itself is ephemeral, fleeting, inessential. For a moment “tree-resin, tree-bark, / sweat of a torn branch / were sweet to the taste.” “We loved all this.” But now, what must be is. Inclination, in this poem—the eventual or tendential necessity of a return to sea—is not so much a matter of preference but of destiny. It is not so much the wood and the sea that are compared—let alone lesbian or heterosexual desire—but rather the sporadic contingency of pleasure and the tendential necessity of inclination that are compared. It is through the comparison of contingency and necessity themselves that the truth of one’s desire becomes manifest—whether one likes it or not.

    Let me try to unfold the consequences of this approach to H.D.’s art through a reading of what I consider her most profound and important poem—a poem which encounters, in the course of its articulation, the essential problems and possibilities of lyric craft. The poem is titled “The Gift.”

    Instead of pearls—a wrought clasp—
    a bracelet—will you accept this?

    You know the script—
    you will start, wonder:
    what is left, what phrase, 
    after last night? This:  

    The world is yet unspoiled for you,
    you wait, expectant—
    you are like the children 
    who haunt your own steps 
    for chance bits—a comb
    that may have slipped,
    a gold tassel, unravelled,
    plucked from your scarf,
    twirled by your slight fingers
    into the street—
    a flower dropped.

    Do not think me unaware,
    I who have snatched at you
    as the street-child clutched 
    at the seed-pearls you spilt
    that hot day
    when your necklace snapped.

    Do not dream that I speak
    as one defrauded of delight,
    sick, shaken by each heart-beat
    or paralyzed, stretched at length,
    who gasps:
    these ripe pears 
    are bitter to the taste,
    this spiced wine, poison, corrupt.
    I cannot walk—
    who would walk?
    Life is a scavenger’s pit—I escape—
    I only, rejecting it,
    lying here on this couch. 

    Your garden sloped to the beach,
    myrtle overran the paths,
    honey and amber flecked each leaf,
    the citron-lily head—
    one among many—
    weighed there, over-sweet.

    The myrrh-hyacinth
    spread across low slopes,
    violets streaked black ridges
    through the grass. 

    The house, too, was like this,
    over painted, over lovely—
    the world is like this.  

    Sleepless nights,
    I remember the initiates,
    their gesture, their calm glance.
    I have heard how in rapt thought,
    in vision, they speak
    with another race,
    more beautiful, more intense than this.
    I could laugh—
    more beautiful, more intense? 

    Perhaps that other life
    is contrast always to this.
    I reason:
    I have lived as they 
    in their inmost rites—
    they endure the tense nerves 
    through the moment of ritual.
    I endure from moment to moment—
    days pass all alike,
    tortured, intense.

    This I forgot last night:
    you must not be blamed,
    it is not your fault; 
    as a child, a flower—any flower
    tore my breast—
    meadow-chicory, a common grass-tip,
    a leaf shadow, a flower tint
    unexpected on a winter-branch. 

    I reason:
    another life holds what this lacks,
    a sea, unmoving, quiet—
    not forcing our strength
    to rise to it, beat on beat—
    a stretch of sand,
    no garden beyond, strangling
    with its myrrh-lilies—
    a hill, not set with black violets
    but stones, stones, bare rocks,
    dwarf-trees, twisted, no beauty
    to distract—to crowd
    madness upon madness.

    Only a still place
    and perhaps some out horror
    some hideousness to stamp beauty,
    a mark—no changing it now—
    on our hearts.

    I send no string of pearls,
    no bracelet—accept this. 

    Upon finishing this complex poem we re-enter its construction through the parallelism of its opening and closing couplets:

    Instead of pearls—a wrought clasp—
    a bracelet—will you accept this?

    I send no string of pearls,
    no bracelet—accept this. 

    First, a question, an offering. Later an imperative, perhaps an insistence. A gift is offered and given with either hope or resignation, with confidence or desperation—it is difficult to gauge, precisely, the modality of the tonal shift between the poem’s first gesture and its last. But at least we can say: the poem is a gift. It is offered as it begins; it is given as it ends. It is offered instead of pearls, instead of a necklace or bracelet, though perhaps it replaces or stands in for the scattered seed-pearls, spilt on a street on a hot day. In a typical modernist trope, the work of art is juxtaposed against the commodity. It has another sort of value. We can say: one sort of value is substituted for another, and the poem performs this substitution. The poem is a substitution. And simply in being so, it implies a practice of comparison: this instead of that. The peculiar use value of art, over and against the determinate exchange values of the market. “I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.” 

    The poem begins by substituting itself for pearls, but insofar as it begins it is first of all a substitute for silence. It makes this clear in the second stanza:

    You know the script—
    you will start, wonder: 
    what is left, what phrase 
    after last night? This:

    A dearth of language following a quarrel? Or the insufficiency of phrases relative to the tangible pleasures of bodies? Again, the scenario is ambiguous, but where language ends the poem begins. The poem is a supplement. Its speech emerges from speechlessness. 

    The poem narrates, recalls, characterizes. It describes, through indirections, a you for whom “the world is yet unspoiled” and an I who wants not to be perceived as neurotic and embittered, as “defrauded of delight.” 

    Life is a scavenger’s pit—I escape—
    I only, rejecting it,
    lying here on this couch

    If the world is spoiled, and the speaker knows it, her delight nevertheless remains in tact. Insofar as she rejects the world her delight is not defrauded. Her anxiety, however, seems to reside in the tenuousness of this escape and in the tension of the displacement between the world she rejects and the remainders of her relation to it. The description of that world, for example—poetic language, which ineliminably draws one out of silence into speech. The poem is a sacrifice. It sacrifices the repose of silence to speech, or even communication between an “I” and a “you;” it surrenders the private retreat of “I only” to the act of describing the world that one rejects. 

    The world is spoiled by a cloying modality of beauty that the speaker rejects, yet which the the poem is nevertheless compelled to describe: 

    Your garden sloped to the beach,
    myrtle overran the paths,
    honey and amber flecked each leaf,
    the citron-lily head—
    one among many—
    weighed there, over-sweet.

    The house, too, was like this,
    over painted, over lovely—
    the world is like this. 

    The garden is a synechdoche for a world which is over-sweet, over-lovely, and this is a figure that runs throughout Sea Garden. We find its most stark presentation in “Sheltered Garden,” where this “beauty without strength / chokes out life,” and where its over-ripe sweetness gives way to a stringent, abrasive modality of beauty the speaker finds herself compelled to prefer. 

    O to blot out this garden
    to forget, to find a new beauty
    in some terrible
    wind-tortured place. 

    In “The Gift,” however, the stark contrast between the “wind-tortured place” of some terrible new beauty and the “beauty without strength” of the sheltered garden is complicated by the introduction of a third term: “a still place” neither enervated by stultifying prettiness nor dominated by the agitation of a tortuous wind. “I reason,” the speaker states, violating Blake’s criterion of poetic creation:

    another life holds what this lacks
    a sea, unmoving, quiet—
    not forcing our strength
    to rise to it, beat upon beat—
    a stretch of sand,
    no garden beyond, strangling
    with its myrrh-lilies—
    a hill, not set with black violets
    but stones, stones, bare rocks,
    dwarf-trees, twisted, no beauty
    to distract—to crowd madness upon madness. 

    Only a still place
    and perhaps some outer horror
    some hideousness to stamp beauty,
    a mark—no changing it now—
    on our hearts.

    These stanzas present a distilled summation of the affective, libidinal, or aesthetic cartography of Sea Garden, though the map has been redrawn to make space for a new topos. The “still place” evoked here does not force our strength to to rise to it, beat upon beat, like the sea of “The Helmsman.” Rather, it is “a sea, unmoving, quiet.” Beyond it there is no garden whose beauty “chokes out life,” nor are their black violets for whose multiplicity we would never trade “one root of the white sort.” Rather, there are “stones, stones, bare rocks / dwarf-trees, twisted, no beauty / to distract.” In this poem, then, it is not so much the replacement of one modality of beauty (cloying, sweet, pretty) by another (harsh, astringent, stark) that is at issue. Rather, there is “no beauty / to distract…only a still place,” and the eventual, complex emergence of beauty in the second stanza is not the property of an exterior scene but a relational quality. The “terrible / wind-tortured place” of “Sheltered Garden” is described here as “some outer horror, some hideousness”—stones, bare rocks, dwarf trees—and its function is to “stamp beauty…on our hearts.” The still place, then, is not of itself beautiful. Nor is a new beauty to be sought for directly among the wind-swept rocks. Rather, beauty is marked by the retroactive relation of their exteriority to the still place, and the impression of this mark is inevitable—not sought for, but rather accepted as an inescapable fact of affective life. A structure, one might say. Beauty can neither be objectified in a scene nor subjectively evaded: it is an impression, in a technical sense—a stamp or mark or trace that is the remainder of a relation. 

    The still place evoked in this poem is implicitly associated with “the initiates” introduced in the preceding stanzas:

    Sleepless nights,
    I remember the initiates,
    their gesture, their calm glance.
    I have heard how in rapt thought,
    in vision, they speak
    with another race,
    more beautiful, more intense than this.
    I could laugh—
    more beautiful, more intense?

    Perhaps that other life 
    is contrast always to this.
    I reason:
    I have lived as they 
    in their inmost rites—
    they endure the tense nerves
    through the moment of ritual.
    I endure from moment to moment—
    days pass all alike,
    tortured, intense. 

    Here the practice of comparison in which Sea Garden is engaged attains its most abstract and reflexive atunement. “Another race, / more beautiful, more intense”; “perhaps that other life is contrast always to this”; “I could laugh—more beautiful, more intense?” The superior beauty and intensity of another race is first registered as Utopian, and the Utopia of “that other life” is then drawn into contrast with “this” (which is also the final word of the poem). The tension of initiatic rites, carried through the moment of ritual, is identified through contrast with the neurotic intensity of the speaker who endures the tortured passage of days. 

    Poetry resides in neither ritual nor neurosis, neither the smooth gesture of the initiates nor the trembling hands of the hysteric, neither the calm glance nor distracted gaze. Poetry is the practice of comparison whereby the intensities of this world are drawn into contrast with those of Utopia and the scission produced by their relation is marked as writing. In “The Gift,” lyric recognizes its vocation so precisely that its speaker could laugh, but instead she queries the curious simplicity of the practice she has stumbled upon in the act of speaking: “more beautiful, more intense?”

    Returning to the final lines of the poem—

     I send no string of pearls,
    no bracelet—accept this.

    —we might also hear: except this. In that case we could say: the poem is an exception. It stumbles upon its own singularity in the process of its articulation, even as it marks that singularity through its difference from what it is not (a string of pearls, for example). It is a relative singularity, and if this is not paradoxical it is because poetry is a practice of comparison, one that attains its singular intensities through the relations that it constructs and measures.  

    I only want to say, then, that lyric practice draws out into form and measure that which is most formless, most unmeasured, yet most immediately determinate in every aspect of our lives. We gravitate. We incline. We prefer. We decide. But the minutia of these affective processes and determinations—their stamp upon the heart—is so diffuse and pervasive as to be almost unintelligible, nearly insensible. Preference is so proximate to being that it merely is, and is therefore nearly unsayable. 

    In any practical political engagement, for example, we find ourselves immersed in a field of differential forces that opens up within a given sequence. We do not find that these are “left or “right,” but rather than they are reformist, reactionary, or radical, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, socialist, communist, anarchist, or…whatever. To take a position within such a field is to find ourselves within the current of our inclinations, and to measure their relation to contrasting forces they test themselves against. Within the alignment of these positions—the historical movement of their alignment—we feel our way toward our limits, toward our desire, toward the still place of Utopia and the catastrophe of its occlusion—the present state of things. What we call “the correct line” is that vector along which the mark of the limit is pushed furthest from where it began. But this practice of politics—a practice (like that of erotic life) whereby a field of relative intensities and our disposition toward them is measured, our inclinations are enacted, our preferences are made manifest, our limits are discovered—this practice is not written as such. Poetry distills, and what it distills are the reifications it has dissolved into relations. The dialectic of its formal making is to take that which has been named or measured, to reopen its qualitative composition, and then to take the measure of the relations that are released. 

    What H.D. shows us is that creation is not opposed to reason and comparison—or if it is, that this opposition is true friendship. This apparent opposition is, dialectically, the contradiction of which poiesis is made. The poem is a contradiction. A gift. A substitution. A supplement. A sacrifice. An exception. A contradiction. And at every moment of its unfolding through these modalities of relation, poetry is a practice of comparison.


  5. 07 Feb 2012   0 notes  
  6. In Search of Space

    Matt Borruso, In Search of Space, cut paper collage, 2011

    IN SEARCH OF SPACE
    - for Cynthia Mitchell  

    first we looked north

    beneath the mountains, was there space?

    was there space under the winter?

    would the apparatus take the river?

    all through the fall there had been camping

    all through the autumn leaves were falling

    all through the fall, sleeping among ourselves

    all through the autumn we fed one another

    history was spiraling, we sank into history

    now we were spinning

    credit grew scarce, the people multiplied

    now we were surrounded

    all through the fall we posed these questions

    was this point further than that one?

    how far were we willing?

    what was a body, was this?

    who did we want and what could we not desire? 

    what was a limit, a break, a passage?

    what was a refusal? a commonplace?

    what could we do, and what was a century?

    we were looking north, in search of space

    wind was blowing from the east, toward the open

    this had been happening for centuries

    now the air was pressing back, we were turning to the river

    this had been an easy landscape

    how taken, how measured, how photographed

    all through the fall we were whispering

    all through the autumn, we told ourselves

    now we were turning amid one another, and apart

    now it was solstice and we were writing

    all through the autumn we were struggling

    all through the fall, preoccupied

    all through the autumn, our bodies turning

    all through the fall we were bleeding

    all through the autumn, waiting

    among one another, we were speaking

    among history, something breaking

    all through the summer the city was ending

    for a long time, Paris in ruins

    all through the summer the nineteenth century, finished

    all through the summer the twentieth century, finished

    all through the summer we were filming, we were thinking

    all through the summer the death of Europe

    we were gathering

    now we were learning how to end

    with Europe, with summer, with centuries, with autumn

    we were in search of space

    we were looking under mountains

    we were looking under winter

    was there an opening?

    would the river be there?

    we were looking north in search of space

    learning how to end, and looking

    through summer

    through autumn

    nothing was beginning

    we were learning how to end

    how to gather around the ending

    how to precipitate the ending

    how to care for the ending

    how to speak after the ending

    how to touch what was ending

    how to gather what was ending

    how to lean into the ending

    all through the fall, there were bodies

    all through the autumn there was ending

    we were among this

    now there is duration

    now there is duration

    this is an opening of time

    we are in search of space


  7. 21 Dec 2011   1 note  
  8. Five Theses on Privatization and the UC Struggle

    Nathan Brown, November 15, 2011, UC system-wide strike
    ———————————————————————————- 

    Hello Everyone! 

    It’s beautiful to see so many of you here today. On four day’s notice, this is an incredible turnout. Let’s remember how much we can do in so little time. 

    I’m an English professor, and as some of you know, English professors spend a lot of our time talking about how to construct a “thesis” and how to defend it through argument. So today I’m going to model this way of thinking and writing by using it to discuss the university struggle. My remarks will consist of five theses, and I will defend these by presenting arguments. 

    THESES

    1. Tuition increases are the problem, not the solution.

    2. Police brutality is an administrative tool to enforce tuition increases.

    3. What we are struggling against is not the California legislature, but the upper         administration of the UC system.

    4. The university is the real world.

    5. We are winning.

    THESIS ONE
      Tuition increases are the problem, not the solution.

    In 2005 tuition was $6,312. Tuition is currently $13,218. What the Regents were supposed to be considering this week—before their meeting was cancelled due to student protest—was UC President Yudof’s plan to increase tuition by a further 81% over the next four years. On that plan, tuition would be over $23,000 by 2015-2016. If that plan goes forward, in ten years tuition would have risen from around $6000 to $23,000.

    What happened? 

    The administration tells us that tuition increases are necessary because of cuts to state funding. According to this argument, cuts to state funding are the problem, and tuition increases are the solution. We have heard this argument from the administration and from others many times.

    To argue against this administrative logic, I’m going to rely on the work of my colleague Bob Meister, a professor at UC Santa Cruz and the President of the UC Council of Faculty Associations. Professor Meister has written a series of important open letters to UC students, explaining why tuition increases are in fact the problem, not the solution to the budget crisis. What Meister explains is that the privatization of the university—the increasing reliance on tuition payments (your money) rather than state funding—is not a defensive measure on the part of the UC administration to make up for state cuts. Rather, it is an aggressive strategy of revenue growth: a way for the university to increase its revenue more than it would be able to through state funding.

    This is the basic argument: privatization, through increased enrollments and constantly increasing tuition, is first and foremost an administrative strategy to bring in more revenue. It is not just a way to keep the university going during a time of state defunding. What is crucial to this argument is the way that different sources of funding can be used.

    State funds are restricted funds. This means that a certain portion of those funds has to be used to fund the instructional budget of the university. The more money there is in the instructional budget, the more money is invested in student instruction: money that is actually spent on your education. But private funds, tuition payments, are unrestricted funds. This means there are no restrictions on whether those funds are spent on student instruction, or administrative pay, or anything else.

    What Meister uncovered through his research into the operations of university funding is that student tuition (your money) is being pledged as collateral to guarantee the university’s credit rating. What this allows the university to do is borrow money for lucrative investments, like building contracts or “capital projects” as they are called. These have no relation to the instructional quality of your university education. And the strong credit rating of the university is based on its pledge to continue raising tuition indefinitely, since that tuition can be used as collateral. 

    Restricted state funds cannot be used for such purposes. Their use is restricted in such a way as to guarantee funding for the instructional budget. This restriction is a problem for any university administration whose main priority is not to sustain its instructional budget, but rather to increase its revenues and secure its credit rating for investment projects with private contractors. 

    So for an administration that wants to increase UC revenues and to invest in capital projects (rather than maintaining quality of instruction) it is not cuts to public funding that are the problem; it is public funding itself that is the problem, because public funding is restricted. 

    What is happening as tuition increases is that money is being shifted out of instructional budgets and into private credit markets, as collateral for university investments. Because of this, and because of increased enrollment, as university revenue increases the amount of money spent on instruction, per student, decreases. Meanwhile, students go deeper and deeper into debt to pay for their education. Using tuition payments, the university secures credit for capital projects. In order to pay their tuition, students borrow money in the form of student loans. The UC system thus makes a crucial wager: that students will be willing to borrow more and more money to paying higher and higher tuition. 

    Why would students do so? Because, the argument goes, a university education is an investment in your future—because it will “pay off” down the line. This logic entails an implicit social threat: if you do not take on massive debt to pay for a university degree, you will “fall behind”—you will be at a disadvantage on the job market, and you will ultimately make less money. The fear of “falling behind,” in the future, results in a willingness to pay more in the present, which is essentially a willingness to borrow more, to go further into debt in order to make more money later. 

    But is it actually true that a university degree continues to give students a substantial advantage on the job market? It is now the case that 50% of university students, after graduating, take jobs that do not require a university degree.It used to be the case that there was a substantial income gap between the top twenty percent of earners, who had university degrees, and the bottom 80 percent of earners, who did not. But since 1998, nearly all income growth has occurred in the top 1% of the population, while income has been stagnant for the bottom 99%. This is what it means to be “part of the 99%”: the wealth of a very small segment of the population increases, and you’re not in it. 

    What this means is that the advantage of a university degree is far less substantial than it used to be, though you pay far more for that degree. The harsh reality is that whether or not you have a university degree, you will probably still “fall behind.” We are all falling behind together. The consequence is that students have recently become less willing to take out more and more debt to pay tuition. It is no longer at all clear that the logic of privatization will work, that it is sustainable. And what this means is that the very logic upon which the growth of the university is now based, the logic of privatization, is in crisis, or it will be. Student loan debt is a financial “bubble,” like the mortgage bubble, and it cannot continue to grow indefinitely. 

    To return to my thesis: what this means for our university—not just for students, but especially for students—is that increasing tuition is the problem, not the solution.

    What we have to fight, then, is the logic of privatization. And that means fighting the upper administration of the UC system, which has enthusiastically taken up this logic, not as a defensive measure, but as an aggressive program for increasing revenue while decreasing spending on instruction.

    THESIS TWOPolice brutality is an administrative tool to enforce tuition increases. 

    What happened at UC Berkeley on November 9? Students, workers, and faculty showed up en masse to protest tuition increases. In solidarity with the national occupation movement, they set up tents on the grass beside Sproul Hall, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. The administration would not tolerate the establishment of an encampment on the Berkeley campus. So the Berkeley administration, as it has done so many times over the past two years, sent in UC police, in this case to clear these tents. Faculty, workers, and students linked arms between the police and the tents, and they held their ground. They did so in the tradition of the most disciplined civil disobedience. 

    What happened? 

    Without provocation, UC police bludgeoned faculty, workers, and students. They drove their batons into stomachs and ribcages, they beat people with overhand blows, they grabbed students and faculty by their hair, threw them on the ground, and arrested them. Numerous people were injured. A graduate student was rushed to the hospital and put into urgent care. 

    Why did this happen? Because tuition increases have to be enforced. It is now registered in the internal papers of the Regents that student protests are an obstacle to further tuition increases, to the program of privatization. This obstacle has to be removed by force. Students are starting to realize that they can no longer afford to pay for an “educational premium” by taking on more and more debt to pay ever-higher tuition. So when they say: we refuse to pay more, we refuse to fall further into debt, they have to be disciplined. The form this discipline takes is police brutality, continually invited and sanctioned by UC Chancellors and senior administrators over the past two years. 

    Police brutality against students, workers, and faculty is not an accident—just like it has not been an accident for decades in black and brown communities. Like privatization, and as an essential part of privatization, police brutality is a program, an implicit policy. It is a method used by UC administrators to discipline students into paying more, to beat them into taking on more debt, to crush dissent and to suppress free speech. Police brutality is the essence of the administrative logic of privatization.  

    THESIS THREEWhat we are struggling against is not the California legislature, but the upper administration of the UC system.

    It is not the legislature, but the Office of the President, which increases tuition in excess of what would be necessary to offset state cuts. Again, tuition increases are an aggressive strategy of privatization, not a defensive compensation for state cuts. When we protest those tuition increases, it is the Chancellors of our campuses, not the state legislature, who authorize the police to crush our dissent through physical force. This is why our struggle, immediately, is against the upper administration of the UC system, not against “Sacramento.”

    This struggle against the administration is not about attacking individuals—or not primarily. It is about the administrative logic of privatization, and the manner in which that logic is enforced. We need to hold administrators accountable for this logic—and especially for sending police to brutalize students, workers, and faculty. But more importantly we need to understand and intervene against the logic of privatization itself: a logic which requires tuition increases, which requires police brutality, in order to function. 

    This is why the point is not to talk to administrators. When we occupy university buildings, when we disrupt university business as usual, the administration attempts to defer and displace our direct action by inviting us into “dialogue”—usually the next day, or just…some other time. What these invitations mean, and all they mean, is that the administration wants to get us out of the place where we are now and put us in a situation where we have to speak on their terms, rather than ours. It is the job of the upper administration to push through tuition increases by deferring, displacing, and, if necessary, brutally repressing dissent. The program of privatization depends upon this.

    The capacity of administrators to privatize the university depends on its capacity to keep the university running smoothly while doing so: its capacity to suppress any dissent that disrupts its operations. The task, then, of students, faculty, and workers, is to challenge this logic directly. The task is to make it clear that the university will not run smoothly if privatization does not stop. In many different ways, since the fall of 2009, we have been making this clear.

    THESIS FOURThe university is the real world. 

    The university is not a place “cut off” from the rest of the world or from other political situations. The university is one situation among many in which we struggle against debt, exploitation, and austerity. The university struggle is part of this larger struggle. And as part of this larger struggle, the university struggle is also an anti-capitalist struggle. 

    Within the university struggle, this has been a controversial position. Rather than linking the university struggle to other, larger struggles, many have argued that we need to focus only on university reform without addressing the larger economic and social structures in which the university is included—in which the logic of privatization and austerity is included, and in which the student struggle is included. But to say that the university struggle is an anti-capitalist struggle should now be much less controversial, and it should now be much easier to insist on linking the struggle against the privatization of the university to other anti-capitalist struggles.

    The Occupy Wall Street movement, which has become a national occupation movement, makes this clear. All across the country, from New York to Oakland to Davis, in hundreds of cities and towns, people who have been crushed by debt are rising up against austerity measures that impoverish them further. The national occupation movement and the UC student struggle are parts of the same struggle, which is global. It is articulated across political movements in Greece, in Spain, in Chilé, in the UK, in Tunisia, in Egypt, etc. This is a struggle against the destruction of our future, in the present, by an economic system that can only survive by creating financial bubbles (the housing bubble, the student loan bubble) that eventually have to pop.

    Two years ago, positioning the university as an anti-capitalist struggle was seen as divisive. The argument was that such a position was alienating and that it would inhibit mass participation. But now we see that there is a mass, national movement which is explicitly anti-capitalist, which positions itself explicitly as a class struggle, and, in doing so, struggles against debt and austerity as the interlinking financial logics of a collapsing American economy. Given this context: the only way the university struggle can isolate itself is by failing or refusing to acknowledge that it is also an anti-capitalist struggle, that it is also a class struggle.

    This struggle concerns all of us, faculty as well as students, because the economic logic of privatization, the logic of capitalism, destroys the very texture of social life in our country and around the world, just as it destroys our public universities. 

    “We are all debtors,” said a student at Berkeley as she called for this strike. That is a powerful basis of solidarity

    THESIS FIVEWe are winning.

    Yes, it is true that tuition continues to rise. I am not saying that we have won. But it is also the case that last year state funding was partially restored. This was due to student resistance on our campuses, not in Sacramento. It was due to our struggle against the administrative logic of privatization. Meanwhile, privatization is becoming more and more unsustainable, less and less viable. In the fall of 2009, student resistance became a powerful obstacle to perpetually increasing tuition. It is because of that obstacle that the Regents meeting was cancelled this week. 

    But even more important than these immediate gains is the fact that we have built the largest and most significant student movement in this country since the 1960s. UC Davis has played an important role in building that movement. The 2009 student/faculty walkout was initiated by people on this campus. The occupations of Mrak Hall in November 2009 and the courageous march on the freeway on March 4 2010 have been tremendously inspirational to students struggling on other campuses. Actions like these are the very material of which the student movement consists. Without them it would not exist. 

    So we have built a historically important student movement, and now that movement is linked to the largest anti-capitalist movement in the United States since the 1930s. Students now have the support of a struggle that can be waged on two fronts, on and off campus. To put it mildly, we have many more allies than we did two years ago. 

    At the same time, the UC student movement has made a global impact. The tactic of occupation that was crucial to the movement in the fall of 2009, which spread from campus to campus that November, has now also spread across the country. The occupation of university buildings is a time-honored tactic in student struggles. But by many it was also viewed as a “divisive” or “vanguardist” tactic two years ago. Now, thanks largely to the example of the Egyptian revolution, the occupation of public space has become the primary tactic in a national protest movement supported by some 60% of the American people. The mass adoption of this tactic, the manner in which it has grown beyond the university struggle, is a huge victory for our movement.

    Here is a passage from an influential student pamphlet written in 2009, Communiqué from an Absent Future: On the Terminus of Student Life, which was read by people around the US and translated into six different languages:

    "Occupation will be a critical tactic in our struggle…and we intend to use this tactic until it becomes generalized. In 2001 the Argentine piqueteros suggested the form the people’s struggle there should take: road blockades which brought to a halt the circulation of goods from place to place. Within months this tactic spread across the country without any formal coordination between groups. In the same way repetition can establish occupation as an instinctive and immediate method of revolt taken up both inside and outside the university.”

    People at Adbusters, the Canadian magazine which initially organized the Occupy Wall Street protests, read that student pamphlet and wrote about it in 2009. The tactic that pamphlet called for was put into practice across the UC system, under the slogan “Occupy Everything,” and the goal of spreading that tactic has been unequivocally achieved. Its achievement has had huge political implications for the whole country. So this is also a way in which we are winning.

    Occupation has been and continues to be such an important tactic because it is not limited to the university, but linked to occupations of squares and plazas in cities, and linked to struggles to begin occupying foreclosed properties on a mass scale. The resonance of university occupations with the national occupation movement means that our struggle is growing and expanding. That means we are winning. And the fact that the university struggle can no longer plausibly be considered in isolation from from anti-capitalist struggle broadly conceived is itself a huge victory.

    We cannot simply change “the university” while leaving “the world” the same, because the university is the real world. By changing the university, we change the world. And we have to change the world in order to change the university. 


  9. 15 Nov 2011   31 notes  
  10. On the Night Before the Morning, All Power to the Communes

    We live in a time when tents have become the singular weapon of the people which power cannot tolerate, and against which it does not know how to defend itself. The bureaucrats are in shambles; the “city” and its “police” are at each other’s throats; middling reformists have no idea where to position themselves. Everyone agrees: it’s about to explode. 

    This is the situation as I write on the night before the morning of what will be the second police raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment, announced in a memo leaked this afternoon. It is a situation that devolves, primarily, from the fallout of the first eviction on October 25. Like any important historical sequence, the story of what has happened in this city during past two weeks is harrowing and inspiring, beautiful and unbearable.

    Occupy Oakland has distinguished itself within the US occupation movement by its radicalism—its “intransigent elements,” the City Council likes to say. In defiance of city policies, it makes use of a sound system for its General Assembly and of open flame in its kitchen. Unlike the majority of occupations, and to the chagrin of civic authorities, it refuses to seek permits or to negotiate with the Mayor’s Office, though it is camped directly on its doorstep outside City Hall. “I want to remind you all,” the Mayor’s husband has written in an email to neighborhood organizers with whom he hopes to divide and conquer the occupation, “that OO HAS NO NEGOTIATING TEAM. They are the only ones in the country that do not. You need to know how exasperating this has been for this type of encampment to exist in a city with a progressive mayor who is offering to help but nobody to talk to about it.” Oakland’s “progressive Mayor,” Jean Quan, wants to “help” insofar as she wants to move the Occupation elsewhere, out of plain sight at the main intersection of downtown Oakland, off to some other place where it will not impinge upon the operations of business as usual. Suffice it to say, this is not the sort of help Occupy Oakland is seeking.

    Having authorized a police raid early in the morning on October 25, in which the camp was cleared by some 500 officers using teargas, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets, the Mayor found herself under less literal fire on the morning of October 26. The night after the camp was cleared, well over 1000 protesters marched through downtown Oakland toward the former site of the Occupation, breaking through two police lines on the way. We were met by lines of riot cops determined to deter us from taking back the plaza. After a tense standoff, the police dispersed the crowd with more teargas, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets—only to have to repeat these measures several more times over a long night as the growing crowd regrouped and returned. In the middle of all this, the cops managed to shoot an Iraq War veteran in the head with a teargas canister. As he lay bleeding in the street, they lobbed a flash-bang grenade right in his face as a group of people gathered to help him. Scott Olsen suffered a broken skull and required brain surgery. He still cannot speak as I write this. 

    Expecting a war the following night, thousands returned to the plaza only to find the cops nowhere in sight, with nothing but a paltry wire fence surrounding the lawn where the Occupation had been. The fence was eventually torn down, despite the incoherent hand-wringing of “pacifists” who tried to physically defend the same police barrier they had marched against the night before. The next morning, maintenance crews would arrive to find sections of the fence transformed by the general intellect into two constructivist sculptures.

     Having completely reversed her stance, the Mayor now hypocritically declared “support” for the Occupation, “regretting” the excessive use of force by police. The OPD responded by expressing its “confusion” and denouncing her in print. More consistent and significant positions, however, were being staked out by the regrouped General Assembly. On the night of October 26 in Oakland, 1500 people voted to call a General Strike for the following week, the first in the United States since the Oakland General Strike of 1946. Before the proposal passed, the packed amphitheater waited for the announcement by chanting “Long Live the Oakland Commune.” Out of disaster the night before there was now mass joy, a mass movement in a revolutionary city.

    If it seemed improbable that Occupy Oakland could organize a General Strike with six days notice, then what took place on Nov. 2 was a hugely improbable success. Major unions supported the action and helped to organize workers. Thousands withheld their labor and flocked to Broadway and 14th throughout the day. A Children’s Brigade marched from the public library to the demonstration. Flying pickets shut down banks throughout downtown. The black bloc of an anti-capitalist march destroyed the facades of Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America with impunity, pushing through pacifist “peace police” to attack Whole Foods and write STRIKE in massive letters across its windows with a fire extinguisher. At 4:00pm, a first wave of marchers headed toward the Oakland Port from downtown. At 5:00pm, a second wave followed. In a city of 450,000, some 20,000 to 50,000 people marched on the fifth largest port in the United States that day, completely shutting it down. This was something like a dress rehearsal for mass resource blockades to come: the US proletariat marching en masse across an overpass into the hidden abode where production meets distribution, finding its points of entry and exit, using their bodies to block its passageways. 

    That night, a smaller group took over a building formerly housing the Traveler’s Aid Society, a non-profit center for the homeless which had lost its lease due to cuts in government funding. A dance party broke out inside and outside the building as a crowd gathered and a communiqué was read, renaming the building the Crisis Center.  As nothing else had that day, this drew the attention of the police. Having publicly denounced the Mayor for her earlier flip-flop, the cops had been on a tight leash. Now they amassed in force as occupiers responded by building barricades out of dumpsters and setting them on fire. More teargas was fired; bricks were heaved at lines of riot police; these were answered by rubber bullets. Despite an inspiring readiness to confront the cops with concrete resistance, the crowd was eventually dispersed, one hundred arrests were made, and the building was put back under lock and key. Meanwhile, another Iraq War veteran suffered a ruptured spleen from being beaten with batons. It seems the domestic army of the American Empire is now tasked with destroying the bodies of its imperializing counterparts the moment they come home from war, disenchanted. 

    Over the ten days since the General Strike, tents and resources have continued to flood back into the Occupy Oakland encampment; General Assembly meetings have debated tactics and continued to refuse compromise with the city. The Oakland Commune, as it has come to be called, is now over one month old—“three decades in commune years,” a friend quips. Letters of solidarity arrive from Cairo, met by Egyptian solidarity demos in Oakland. And now the possibility and importance of occupying foreclosed properties, as the winter months approach, is percolating through the national occupation movement. On November 11, 80 people occupied a 10,000 square foot Chrysler Building in Chapel Hill and held it for 48 hours, declaring solidarity with Oakland in the first sentence of their communiqué.

    But today that occupation was evicted by police brandishing handguns and assault rifles, loaded with live rounds and pointed straight at the bodies of occupiers. The problem for the police is that people return to the scene of the crime after being teargassed and shot with rubber bullets. These measures suffice to clear a space temporarily, but it seems they do not terrorize sufficiently to keep people from fighting back. The Oakland Commune is reconstructed, and a building occupied in Oakland becomes a occupied building in Chapel Hill. Perhaps, then, the solution will be to start shooting people with live rounds. But as we’ve seen in Greece and elsewhere, this will only fan the flames of insurrection further. Like capital, power has to grow to sustain itself. This is also true of resistance. The tension and the movement of that contradiction is what is both terrifying and exhilarating about the twenty-first century in the United States, as the world’s largest economy well and truly falls apart, as people have no choice but to resist, and as nobody knows what will happen. 

    As I write this, and as comrades prepare to defend the Oakland Commune later tonight, I watch a video of what happened in Portland yesterday, where thousands of people successfully defended their occupation against eviction, pushing back police lines and forcing them to retreat. In 2011, in what hasn’t been the land of the free for more than 500 years, this is what remains of beauty. 

    - Nathan Brown, November 13, 2011.


  11. 14 Nov 2011   1 note  
  12. Origin and Extinction, Mourning and Melancholia

    Complete piece, with images, on The Tree of Life and Melancholia.


  13. 16 Aug 2011   0 notes  
  14. Hiding Behind the Sun: Melancholia


    KASSANDRA: 
                                      look the
    cup of my pain is already poured
                          out why
                          did you bring me
                                      here was
                                      it for this
                                      was it for this
                          was it for
    - Aiskhylos, Agamemnon, translated by Anne Carson *

    In the Agamemnon of Aiskhylos, Kassandra knows that she will die. It is her own death she mourns, before it happens. She mourns the particularity of a death that distinguishes her from those who will go on living.  

    But yes think oh think of the clear
        nightingale—
        gods put round her a wing
            a life with no sting
               but for me waits
               schismos
               of the double-edged sword: schismos
                                                          means
               a cleaving a cutting a splitting a 
                                             chopping in two

    She laments her imminent separation from the world of the living, which doubles a prior separation from her home. 

    O marriage of Paris so deadly for everyone
        else
    O river of home my Skamander
        I used to dream by your waters
            now soon enough
    back and forth on the banks of the river of
        hell
            I will walk with my song torn open

    The living are distinct from the dead (“everyone / else”) and Kassandra is doubly distinct among the living: first, because her death is imminent; second, because she knows this. Because she is a prophet. Thus she will die when the present catches up with her proleptic knowledge of the future, and what she knows will vanish, in time, into her own death. Death, for the prophet, is the restitution of a rift in time. 

    ***

    In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud describes melancholia as the introjection of a lost object, and of one’s ambivalence toward it. The ego is split, divided, torn open by the internalization of an irrevocable absence. Schismos, Kassandra says. Cleaving: an attachment that cuts. One is divided by that from which one cannot divide oneself, though it is already gone. 

    Elektra is a melancholiac. In the play by Sophocles she has a sister, Chrysothemis, who accommodates herself to the loss of their father. Elektra cannot. 

    You are women of noble instinct
    and you come to console me
    in my pain. 
    I know.
    I do understand.
    But I will not let go this man or this
         mourning.
    He is my father.
    I cannot grieve
    Oh my friends,
    Friendship is a tension. It makes delicate
          demands.
    I ask this one thing: 
    let me go mad in my own way.

    I cannot grieve. Insofar as she will not let go her mourning, she cannot mourn. The work of mourning is inoperative. Insofar as it is without end it cannot begin. Melancholia is this self-negation of mourning, and the vector of this self-negation is the negation of the self: either madness or suicide. These are the only possible terminus of an interminable self-negation. 

    Never
    will I leave off lamenting,
    never. No.
    As long as the stars sweep through heaven.
    As long as I look on this daylight.
    No. 

    Friendship is a tension, and from her friends Elektra asks allowance to go mad in her own way. From herself, as the soliloquy above implies, she seems to want to permission to black out the sun and the stars. There is also a cosmological request implied in this passage: for the stars to stop their courses; for the sun to stop shining. For relief of her condition by some kind of planetary or astral catastrophe. The shattered ego wants a broken heaven and a black sun. Suicide, then, or apocalypse. But if the latter, it could never be revelation; only a negation: “No.” It could only be an annihilation of self and world from which nothing could come. Melancholia is an attachment to an absent past (a lost object) issuing in a rejection of the future and a hatred of the present. The analepsis of the melancholic is not the negation of prolepsis but a negativity internal to it, the “no” of “no future” installing itself in the now. And this is a splitting of the ego, a fracture, or void, torn by the torque of time. Madness: an interior undoing of this fracture, its psychic rupture. Death: an exterior negation of an interior void, the dissolution of its boundary. Death, for the melancholiac, is the dissolution of a rift in time. 

    ***

    Prophecy reverses the temporality of melancholia: the melancholic prophet proleptically interiorizes the future loss of her own life—a loss which, in prophetic time, has already happened, so that it can happen to her, now. She not only lives her being-toward-death, in the existential mode of projective anticipation. Insofar as she already knows when and how she will die, she anticipates nothing. She is not torn between thrownness and projection, between being-in-the-world and being-toward-death, historicality and anticipation. Rather, these have collapsed: what happened yesterday is that she died tomorrow. Their collapse is is not ekstatical but introjective, and this introjection or interiorization structures the melancholic stimmung of prophetic time.

    The melancholic prophet interiorizes an ambivalence toward her own death, a temporal ambivalence which is split, torn, divided, torqued. It is temporally and affectively divided (ambivalent) because the death of the prophet is at once the beginning and the end of melancholy. One loves one’s death because it is the terminus of melancholy; one hates one’s death because it is the origin of melancholy. In a word, death is the telos of melancholy, and this telos is ambivalent. The sharp edge of its ambivalence, carving a difference between the beginning and the end, is knowledge. The proleptic having-happened of ones own death is what one knows, in the present. And death will be the end of this knowing, its coincidence with being nothing. 

    Time is a line upon which a fracture displaces itself: from Aristotle to Heidegger and Deleuze, philosophy has always known this. The moment of my death is that at which I come to know nothing of this displacement, at which I no longer know what becomes of time. Ignorance, says Lacan, is the strongest of the passions. All passion spent, the melancholic prophet is the one who cannot not know, who cannot be ignorant. The ambivalence of the melancholic prophet toward her destiny derives from the fact that her only access to the passion of ignorance is death, oblivion, and thus the dissolution of all passion. The ambivalence of her destiny resides in a complicit tear between knowing and not-knowing, restitution and dissolution. 

    ***

    In Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Justine is such a melancholic prophet. Kassandra / Elektra: Justine. 

    What does she know? What has she lost?  

    The latter is the diagnostic question raised by the Freudian theory of melancholia: what is the lost object that cannot be let go, which has been interiorized along with one’s ambivalence toward it? This question threatens the account of the melancholic prophet offered above with incoherence. For foreknowledge of one’s own death does not necessarily entail a lost object, retrojected into the present tense so as to provoke its ambivalent introjection. One’s own death is a loss without object, since “life” is not an object to be lost. 

    In the case of Melancholia, however, the question begged by Freud’s account yields a precise answer: the lost object is none other than the earth itself. This is a loss that can only be lived proleptically, since the loss of this object, its annihilation, would coincide with the death of any subject to whom it could be lost. As the exterior object is lost, the interiority that could register this loss is annihilated. It is the introjective knowledge of this double eradication, in the present, that precipitates a proleptic melancholy. 

    Thus we can say that the subject of von Trier’s film is not only prophetic melancholia, but the relation between melancholy, prophecy, and extinction. Justine not only knows that she will die, but that her death will coincide with the end of the world. Not only her world, but the world. The annihilation of world, insofar as the existence of life on earth is the condition of possibility for the phenomena of world. Along with everyone else, she will die as the world ends; unlike everyone else, she knows this now. She does not know this as a scientific prediction or a speculative hypothesis, but prophetically: as something that has already happened though it has not happened yet. 

    This is precisely the formal structure of von Trier’s film. It opens with a series of tableau which are not quite still but barely moving, captured in extreme slow-motion. A close-up of Justine’s face as dead sparrows fall to the side of her gaze. A woman carrying a child, running across a golf course as though through quicksand, her feet sinking into the ground. A bride, a boy, a woman on the lawn before a castle at night, walking into the foreground, each figure attended, above, by an astronomical counterpart: a blue planet, a crescent moon, a pale sun. A boy carving bark from a stick with a pocketknife as a woman approaches through the grass. A bride trudging, in profile, across a field in front of a wood, dragging heavy woolen ropes bound to her arms and legs, attached to the trees in the background. A massive blue planet approaching the earth, devouring it in a collision. “Melancholia,” it will come to be called. 

    The beginning of the film thus reveals its ending, makes manifest what will never be perceived (within the world of the film) insofar as it is the end of all perception. For Justine the end of the world will be the negation, the non-being, in the now, of knowing what will be. The seamless folding together of form and content in von Trier’s film is such that the now of this ending is both the beginning and the end of the film. As the incendiary shockwave of a planetary collision devours the frame, as though burning up the screen, the screen cuts to black. Before the end, the melancholic prophet is afflicted not so much by her knowledge of this ending, but by the fact that this knowledge has not yet ended. This structure is recapitulated for the audience not as affliction but as dramatic irony, the narrative tension of a proleptically dissolved suspense. Thus the ending of the film is a kind of metafilmic resolution, the restitution of a rift in time that is also the dissolution of the medium. The earth is destroyed, the screen blacks out, what had already happened has happened. Melancholia is over. The credits role.

    This complicity of prophecy and dramatic irony—content and form fused by proleptic temporality—is the metatheatrical structure of Greek tragedy. It is the structure of anankē. 

    ***

    Like Elektra, Justine has a sister. And like Chrysothemis, Claire councils accomodation to the order of things. A sensible girl, she does not want any “scenes” at Justine’s wedding.

    Here you are again at the doorway, sister,
    telling your tale to the world!
    When will you learn?
    It’s pointless. Pure self-indulgence.
    Yes, I know how bad things are.
    I suffer too—if I had the strength 
    I would show how I hate them.
    But now is not the right time.

    Claire is pragmatic. Justine is inconsolable. She cannot force herself to endure the ceremony of false or inessential or superficial affective attachments because in the dead time of prophecy every attachment is already broken. On their wedding night her husband shows her a picture of an orchard he has just acquired (“I found our plot of land”), imagining that one day they might hang a small swing from an apple tree. “We’ll talk about that when the time comes,” she says, knowing that it won’t. Because it ultimately makes no difference there is no reason to consign one’s life to semblance, and she can’t, even if she has to perform it sometimes. What remains is not so much pessimism as a bitter authenticity. 

    The lost object is what one loves; because it is lost, one hates it. Internalized, the ambivalence of this affective bond gives rise to an irrevocable attachment of self-loathing and narcissism, a riven solipsism as petty and cruel as it is admirable in its loyalty to the truth of what one feels. Disdaining the other, insofar as she does not suffer from this double bind, one is also hated for an intransigent honesty. “You know what I think of your plan?” asks Justine when Claire wants to mark the imminent annihilation of the planet with a glass of wine on the terrace: “I think it’s a piece of shit.”  

    “You appall me,” Elektra tells Chrysothemis. 

    “Sometimes I hate you so much,” Claire replies.  

    Recrimination, refusal to mourn, fidelity to the impossible: these are the hallmarks of melancholic ambivalence. “The earth is evil,” Justine tells her sister. And then, “life on earth is evil,” a sliding precisely expressive of recriminatory identification with the lost object. “We do not need to grieve for it,” she concludes. “Nobody will miss it.” The rejection of mourning for the earth, an introjected hatred of the object that will be lost, also entails an ambivalent longing for the agent of its loss. This is the source of Justine’s erotic identification with the planet, Melancholia, which bears the name of her sickness. It’s the reason she offers herself, naked, to its light. Until the earth is destroyed, Melancholia is the proleptic agent of its loss. After the earth is destroyed, loss itself has been annihilated. There is thus a crossing, a collision, at which the “lost” object gives way to the object, absent any subject or affective investment. The ambivalent introjection of what will be lost is also a longing for the eradication of loss itself. What had been a condition tied to the lost object will simply be an object, Melancholia, and even its name will die with those who knew it. The object destroys both the reason and the capacity for its nomination. 

    One of the veils of inauthenticity that melancholia tears through is denial. Claire’s attachment to the earth is not ambivalent, but immediately positive. Justine “knows things;” but when Claire eventually knows the fate of the earth she cannot incorporate this knowledge. “Nobody one will miss it,” Justine tells her. This is literally true, but for Claire the force of this truth, the destitution of nobody, is unthinkable. “But where would Leo grow up?” she replies. Whereas attachment to her son’s life, which for her is not yet lost, dominates the interior of Claire’s psyche, Justine has already interiorized the extinction of interiority. The impossible structure of her psyche is the introjected erasure of the boundary between interiority and exteriority, a boundary constitutive of affective life. Justine doesn’t just know how many beans the guests poured into a bottle at her wedding; she knows that “We are alone. Life is only on earth. And not for long.” What is unthinkable is not so much that the earth will be destroyed, that “we” will be gone, that “no one” will remain, but that the universe will remain in the absence of experience. This is the unassimilable truth of extinction. 

    ***

    If one thinks of classical tragedy, of Kassandra and Elektra, it is because von Trier’s film evokes the world and the mood of myth. Claire peers through the foliage at her sister’s naked body, stretched out at night across the rocks beside a stream, ravaged by the blue light of a fatal planet. The first half of the film is dominated by ritual, a lavish wedding that will come to nothing because the bride cannot bear pretense. The setting is a palatial estate, on the grounds of which is not a labyrinth but a golf course. Twice, Justine’s horse will not cross the bridge over a river; the third time a golf cart will not do so. (“Nibiru,” an Akkadian word meaning “crossing” or “point of transition,” is the name assigned by doomsday prophets to the hypothetical undiscovered planet from which the film draws its apocalyptic scenario). At the end of the world and the end of modernity, our relation to ritual, to ceremony, to nobility, and to myth is for the most part bathetic. Insofar as Melancholia is a comedy of manners it is also the tragedy of what Adorno would call a damaged life. Frequently amusing, ultimately it isn’t funny. And the ambivalence of the film’s black humor, an ambivalence operative at the level of mode, is also melancholic. 

    The final sequence of the film, however, involves something like a recuperation of ritual, of collective ceremony. Claire’s husband tells their son there will be nowhere to hide if the planets collide. But what he forgets, Justine reminds her nephew, is “the magic cave.” The somewhat menacing tableau at the beginning of the film—a boy carving a branch while a woman with a dire expression approaches from behind, wielding a stick—is in fact a premonition of its most tender scene: Justine distracts her nephew from the coming catastrophe by helping him construct a small teepee in which he and the two sisters will await their death. Whatever comfort remains at the end of the world has nothing to do with the comforts of modernity: the electricity fails, the phone is dead, the car won’t work, a golf cart shuts down. Rather, all that remains is nature and myth: not a glass of wine on the terrace, but the magic cave. Juxtaposed against the fake formalities of the wedding, the authentic ceremony of the film’s conclusion entails a modal dialectic of black comedy and tragic catharsis, the beautiful and the grotesque, jaded nihilistic pessimism and the innocence of magical realism. Apocalypse reveals nothing—other than the comportment we adopt toward it, the resources with which we confront it. 

    ***

    The problem of von Trier’s film is thus ultimately the same as that of Malick’s The Tree of Life: no less than the problem of the relation between matter and spirit. In their treatment of this problem, the two films are practically mirror images. Malick’s film is concerned with the origin of life; von Trier’s with its extinction. The narrative motor of The Tree of Life is analepsis; that of Melancholia is prolepsis. The materialism of Malick’s film is perhaps compromised by its dalliance with religion; that of von Trier’s film by its pseudoscientific scenario. But both are concerned with the affective experience of loss, with the material conditions of possibility for such experience, and with the hope of spiritual restitution through collective ceremony. Perhaps also, at a metafilmic level, through aesthetic experience. 

    In a word, one is a film about mourning; the other is a film about melancholia. 

    And insofar as one is concerned with ancestral time, the other with the time of extinction, both are concerned with the problem of dia-chronicity: of a temporal disjunction between being and thinking. Life and mind, feeling and thinking, have a beginning and an end, and since these do not correspond with that of the cosmos, to think their origin is also to think what remains after their negation: material oblivion. Thus von Trier’s film answers Malick’s, insofar as it is not the affective projection of a world beyond (heaven) that enables something like spiritual restitution, but rather the imminence of the end of the world, without experiential remainder. A confrontation with this ending—at an ontological rather than an existential level—is what makes possible whatever collective communion takes place in Melancholia: the being-in-common of what has not always been and what will not always be. 

    But what does it mean, for a materialist, that at the end of this film the imminence of extinction is the condition of possibility for spiritual restitution? It means that, at the end of modernity, we will not survive the advent of everything we have always wanted, which has been hiding behind the sun. 

    * all block quotations from An Oresteia, trans. Anne Carson (New York: Faber and Faber, 2009)


  15. 15 Aug 2011   0 notes  
  16. The Passion of Modernity: On Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

    Tree of Life






    The true health of spirit consists in the perfection of reminiscence. 
    - Arthur Schopenhauer

    What is the vocation of cinema? To make visible, in time, that which is invisible outside of cinema. This is why it rains indoors in Tarkovsky films: the interior visibility, as image, of what had been invisible (memory, desire) insofar as it remained outside of cinema. Cinema makes visible, as image, its invisible outside. But what then remains invisible, inside of cinema? The experience of cinema, which we carry back outside. A chiasmus, then, of the visible and the invisible, the inside and the outside. Interior rain: memory made image; image, remembered. And the medium of this chiasmus is time. 

    But what of that which, outside of time, cannot be remembered? From the beginning, Terrence Malick’s films have been posing this question. In Badlands (1976): “Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me? If my mom had never met my dad?” 

    And what of that which is neither visible nor invisible, but rather manifest, yet unknown? In Days of Heaven (1978): “This farmer, he didn’t know when he first saw her, or what it was about her that caught his eye. Maybe it was the way the wind blew through her hair.” In The Thin Red Line (1998): “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land with the sea?”In The New World (2005): “Mother, where do you live? In the sky, the clouds, the sea?” Or again:“How much they err that think everyone which has been at Virginia understands or knows what Virginia is.” Malick’s is a cinema of an unknown that is sensed, and the vehicle of this not-knowing is the voice-over, the musing of an unseen speaker, the disembodied question. 

    But what of that which is not only unseen or unknown, but which could never be manifest? That which, in time, is not only prior to memory, but prior to manifestation? Not only prior to the distinction between the visible and the invisible, but prior to sensation, to any capacity for sensible experience? What is the vocation of cinema, if it takes up this question? To make manifest, in time, that which is prior to manifestation. 

    As its epigraph from the Book of Job suggests, this is the task of Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life (2011): “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

    ***

    The Tree of Life circulates around a central, singular event: the death of a son, an event that entails the mourning of that death by a mother, a father, and two brothers. But this event—the fact of a death and the experience of loss, situated at an existential and psychological level—opens onto a meditation upon another event of properly ontological import: the emergence of life on earth. A son dies; he is mourned by his family. And on the anniversary of his death, decades later, the film’s narrative focalization upon the psychological interiority of his older brother gives way to one of the most remarkable “flashbacks” in the history of cinema, even more grandiose than the famous analeptic cut which opens 2001: A Space Odyssey. From outside the office building where the eldest brother works as an architect we return to what seems to be the origin of the cosmos, and from here we follow the expansion of the universe and the formation of our galaxy through the accretion of the earth, millennia of geological time, the self-organization of RNA and DNA molecules, the emergence of mitochondria and multicellular organisms, the evolution of diverse animal species during the Cambrian explosion, the reign and extinction of the dinosaurs, and the beginning of the latest ice age during the Pliocene. We then return to the bildungsroman of the eldest son, following the progress of his family romance up through the years preceding his younger brother’s death.

    The film thus situates not only the mourning of loss but also the development of a family’s affective world within the broadest possible perspective. The particularity of a life that can be lost takes on the universal singularity of a life (Une Vie, in Deleuze’s sense). The scope of a particular loss to be mourned expands to include the emergence of life on earth as the condition of possibility for any affective experience of loss whatever. The implication of this gesture is not so much that “loss” is the essence of life, but rather that the existence of life is the essence of loss. The “meaning” of the affective experience of loss is grounded in the very existence of affectivity or experience, the existence of life, felt or understood as the ontological precondition for the possible negation of affect, sensibility, or experience (the possibility of death).

    Malick’s film is thus one example of an effort to reframe existential questions concerning the relation of life and death as ontological questions concerning the being or non-being of life per se. If it is an important film it’s not only because it is beautifully made, but because of the subtlety with which it exposes the problematic of living being as both physical and metaphysical in scope. The being of “life” is a metaphysical problem because unless life is metaphysical it has no being: it is reducible to the material distribution of organizations and functions that neither warrant nor support a general, encompassing concept. Every vitalist knows this, and that is why, for example, it at least makes sense to recognize the coherence of the Deleuzian concept of A LIFE, even if one does not share his metaphysical commitments. But, on the other hand, if “life” is purely metaphysical it has no being. Life is a physical problem because it characterizes the modality of being of material bodies whose properties and capacities differ from those of non-living bodies: even if, in certain instances, it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to specify just how this is the case.

    In Malick’s film, the ontological and existential problem of “life” is taken up within a Christian framework, which therefore involves him with the problem not only of life but of spirit. We should bear in mind, however, that this framework is not necessarily that of the film itself but rather of the characters whose lives it depicts. If The Tree of Life remains in some sense a profoundly materialist film, it is because the existence of spiritual experience is itself addressed as a problem of material genesis: how does spiritual experience—as an existential fact, as part of a world—come into being within the cosmos? In what sense can we understand the emergence of life as an ontological condition of such experience? And how does the work of mourning pose the question of the relation between spirit, life, and matter, insofar as it involves an affective relation to the material disappearance of a life experienced as a spiritual loss? Malick’s characters respond to the loss of a life by posing spiritual questions and seeking their spiritual resolution. The film’s representation of the “tree of life,” however, the physical genesis of living being, implicitly responds to these questions in explicitly materialist terms. It is a resolutely Darwinian film, but one that includes the facticity of spiritual experience within the process of material genesis that it seeks to make manifest through cinematic representation. 

    Materialism is that philosophical orientation which formulates ontological questions according to the following criterion: given that being is prior to thinking, how can thinking become adequate to being? In Malick’s film, as its title suggests, this problem is crucially conditioned by the mediation of the relation between being and thinking by life, and therefore by affectivity and sensation as conditions of material experience. Moreover, insofar as these conditions (feeling, sensing) give rise to forms of spiritual experience, affectivity not only constitutes the distinction between matter and life or grounds the relation between life and thought, it  also gives rise to a relation between life and spirit. It is thus a spiritual problem which returns us to the tree of life in Malick’s film, to the genesis of affectivity. It is a spiritual problem that returns us to the question of how feeling and sensation first come into being, of how the opacity of being opens onto manifestation for the first time. If affect and sensation first come into being through the existence of life, how can this becoming-sensible itself be made sensible? Which also means: how can it be felt, how can it be made to affect us? And what becomes of cinema in its effort to make manifest that which is prior to manifestation?

    The most obvious fact about Malick’s film, but also perhaps the easiest to overlook in parsing its commitments, is that the capacity of cinema to address these problems is first and foremost a technical capacity. If the spiritual, existential, and ontological questions posed by the voice-over of Malick’s characters might seem to be answered by the “god’s eye view” of the camera—its capacity to frame and render visible the material genesis of the cosmos—we should remember that this is in fact a technical frame. It is a frame enabled by a production team faced with immediately material problems of visual representation solved through the resources of current biological and physical theory, 3D scanners, and CGI special effects. Which also means that these are solved through considerable financial resources: by capital. What has to be thought, in thinking through Malick’s film, is the fact that the gleaming corporate skyscraper of the architectural firm for which Sean Penn’s character works, his late capitalist life-world, is also the context in which a film like this is engineered and paid for. It is not, directly, life or thought or spirit that enables the manifest reconstruction of the material coming-into-being of manifestation; it is the technical capacities of late modernity. In this sense, the true frame of The Tree of Life is not so much a Christian theogany as a late capitalist anabasis, a return to the source of all that modernity allows through its scientific, technological and economic resources. The problem, then, is not only that of the relation between matter, life, and spirit, but how this relation comes to be mediated by technics and by capital

    This is not at all to undermine the integrity of Malick’s project, but rather to think its situation, the manner in which its own conditions of possibility are inscribed in those of cinematic representation at the beginning of the twenty-first century. If the perfection of reminiscence is, for Schopenhauer, the true health of spirit, for cinema the effort to remember everything returns us, at its limit, to the restlessness of spirit afflicting each of Malick’s films: that of a garbage man, a factory worker, a soldier, a colonist, a corporate architect. This is the restlessness not only of what we do not know but also of what we know too well, not only of the beginning but the end, not only of the origin of life but of life under capital. 

    The cinematic perfection of reminiscence is thus the passion of modernity, made manifest.


  17. 22 Jul 2011   0 notes  
  18. Reverse Ghost: On Annabelle (a film by Cynthia Mitchell and Robert Arnold)

                                       not the rain
    Of a nineteenth century day, but the motes
    In the air, the dust
    Here still.
    - George Oppen, Of Being Numerous


    Annabelle
    is a ghost story that undergoes a reversal.

    Someone dies. “He” dies. 

    A body collapses and another hears it fall. 

    She finds his body pressed against the inside of a shower door, so that to open this partition will be to let him fall at her feet. Having fallen, he is naked, tattooed, surprisingly well-built.

    Surprising because before (that afternoon, the only one) he had seemed slight, wispy, ethereal, clean, unmarked. Barely corporeal; barely there. Like a ghost.

    Now that he is dead his body is heavy, the remainder of that lightness, and there is nothing to do but drag that remainder across the floor and onto a bed where it can be touched, regarded, memorized. Where his hair can be cut off and kept. 

    The film opens and closes with a shot of this cutting. Her eye looks through a pair of shears as they divide what can be held onto from what will have to be let go. The sound they make is the texture not only of division, separation, loss, but also the sound of an encounter: the sliding of each blade across the surface of the other, proximity, pressure, friction, heat, silence. The shot is the sound (seen) of the cut between encounter and loss. 

    Across the differential significance of this shot at the beginning and the end of the film, its repetition poses a question. Two people meet. One of them dies (he dies). Then he was a ghost; now he is a body. What was there, in between? 

    Then he was a ghost; now he is a body. What was there, in between? Annabelle constructs this reversal and it poses this question through the mediation of two elements: light and time. That is, through cinema. If the film feels elemental — close to the basic gestures of its medium — it is due to the subtlety with which it foregrounds the handling not only of these primary elements but of their confluence. 

    Toward the end of the film there is an image of what the feeling of this confluence looks like. Two people meet. He is not yet dead. They are in a bedroom for the first time, talking, playing, testing. Somehow he tells her he loves her; she says something careless. This happens all the time, in the movies, but now it is happening here, and we are in a suspension. Nothing stops but everything slows as the camera trades oblique angles between faces, while light pours through the window. Dust motes hang in the air as she leans in to apologize; sun spots dapple the lens. Then he leaves to take a shower, and he’s gone. Just like that, a ghost becomes a body. What was there, in between, were the motes in the air — the dust, here, still. Time materializes as their slow motion drift, their suspension, illuminated. Ghost bodies, suspended in the time in between. 

    Earlier in the film (second shot) it is later (after he dies), and people are talking about ghosts and bodies. Dinner party chatter: economic crises, structural adjustment, primitive accumulation. In America, someone says, people are afraid to lose their jobs, but elsewhere they are dying, and we are killing them. This is a fact as true as the bodies of the dead are figments of the imagination: ghosts. Now they populate the flippant air of the room, crowding in, and she says something true in return: we pretend to care about these ghosts, these “people,” but what I care about is a person. “There is only one person. [Pause] I love one person.” This is how a ghost becomes a body: a singular complicity of death and care.

    At the end he dies. At the beginning (later) they talk about death. Between these brackets, two extended sequences:

    1. A long take in her apartment: having met outside, they come inside. She has to go soon; he says don’t leave me. She cuts him a piece of the cake she made for a party to which she will now not go. He says thank you, and later we will realize that he somehow knows he is going to die, as if the narrative dispersions of cinema, in this film, produce precisely the proleptic and analeptic structures of the unconscious it investigates. He takes off her dress, wraps a scarf around her neck, gives her a coat and opens it around her bare breasts. “This is how I wanted to find you,” he says. And she tilts her head, just back and to the side, as if a slow heat were running up her spine and encountering, just at the nape of her neck, its concurent tracing along the line of her jaw. The material instant of falling in love.

    2. After he has died - but (again) before we see it happen - she talks with a friend about encountering his ghost. But it is not a ghost, she insists; it is his body. She tells of how she saw him, touched him, talked with him, how she kissed him, how she was so happy but how his mouth was ice cold and tasted of copper, blood. A ghost that becomes a body that becomes the body of a ghost. As she speaks (a voice-over) the camera pans across a grey-green surface and then across his face. It follows them together in the city laughing and talking and touching. And through this dream or haunting or obsession the tone is at once warm and metallic, pallid and alluring, characterized by a kind of lightness without light. This must be the lightness of ghosts: dry, matte, suspended — the way blood tastes like copper.

     
    These two sequences center the film, framed by the fragility of two people in a bedroom and the fragility of geopolitics, dust motes and body counts bracketed in turn by cutting shears, the gathering of an unassimilable souvenir. 

    It’s a fifteen minute film that feels overfull of time, as if itself suspended in the substance of its medium. Its displacements of chronology make a space for us to float in also. It is these interstices that render the exchange of ghost and body palpable, insofar as we inhabit the narrative spaces through which their collusion drifts as desire and obsession.    

    It isn’t every parsing of light and time that can include all this. 

    Cinema has always told ghost stories. 

    This one is a different.


  19. 21 Apr 2011   0 notes  
  20. Dear Maria Schneider

    Dear Maria Schneider, 
    I’m writing to you because of your hair. I’m writing to you because once you kneeled in the back seat of a car traveling away from your gaze and you traced rows of trees toward some zero vanishing, green leaves haloing your face in the counter-shot as your arms fell down to your sides and your mouth gathered your smile and your eyes grew serious. You were the Angel of History, and you have never looked more beautiful. That’s why I’m writing you a letter. This is the letter.


    Dear Maria Schneider,
    I understand why he had to die. Despite a popular commentary, the Angel of History is not some ineffectual redeemer. In fact, she kills. He thought history was a game, a sport and a pastime. It isn’t. He had to die because he did not understand violence or what it is for. I don’t say this to reassure you. You are the kind of woman who lets the dead bury the dead. 


    Dear Maria Schneider,
    You were a student of architecture. What were you looking for on that rooftop? You wanted a sky that was not a shelter. A void sky, uncontained and uncontaining. The void raged down on you and muted your small shoulders. What was there to do, among that muteness? When he asked if the architect was crazy, of course you didn’t answer. Everything we see screams void, and you are narrow, lithe. Your body is an evasion of answers. 


    Dear Maria Schneider,
    Where were you before London? Where did you go after the penultimate shot? I think of how you wandered in the dust of the square, how directionless and knowing. It’s as easy to imagine you alone as it is to watch your way among men. Aimless but not unconcerned, cagey but unsuspicious. I guess the dread might press in then, never entirely absent from your face but held, sometimes, at the same distance as you hold a lover. It is never clear quite how far. When you say you recognize him, perhaps it is this dread you recognize as its distance begins to close.

     
    Dear Maria Schneider,
    I don’t care about that other movie. It’s just too obvious, and Bertolucci is a hack. In the film I care about, everything I want to fuck about you is not exhibited but expressed. The careless way you slouch into the passenger seat. How your blouse is more unclothed than flesh. The sly mimicry of your soul by the character your actor plays. How politics means more to you than love. 


    Dear Maria Schneider,
    Fuck capitalism. Fuck capitalism for its tedious images, its interminable slaughter, its glib pharmaceuticals. Fuck surplus value. Fuck debt. Of course you tried to kill yourself, perhaps wanted to nearly always. Why not? You speak of a secret garden and perhaps one exists. But as if it isn’t enough that the body exists under sentence of death, that it is trapped in time, trapped in a mirror, it is also trapped in capital. It’s been killing you since the ’70s—you and everything else it might be possible to love.  


    Dear Maria Schneider,
    Tell me something, what made you so unrestlessly contingent? You asked him (always the same question), “what are you running away from?” Then you followed his instructions. What did you see down that road, behind the future, between parallel lines? Where and how, upon what impossible point, did they converge? If I looked there, if it were possible to inhabit the place formed by your body in that frame, would I be able to see what was there and what was not? If you wrote it down in theses, inscribed the void center of that image in words, what would they say? When you hold the gaze of one man or another, is it there, or is it elsewhere? Is it nowhere? Is it where you are now?


    Dear Maria Schneider,
    I will say it even though there’s nothing there, like a letter to the dead: if you’re passing by this way, send word.


    Yours,
    Nathan 


  21. 06 Feb 2011   0 notes  

  22. 23 Sep 2010   0 notes  

  23. 23 Sep 2010   0 notes  
  24. Nicolas Baier, Planète, Comptoir et Cinémascope, 2003

    Nicolas Baier, Planète, Comptoir et Cinémascope, 2003


  25. 20 Sep 2010   0 notes  

    20 Sep 2010   0 notes  

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