Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Transformation

Perhaps because I am easily fatigued and often fatuous, I like the word indefatigable, its too-many syllables beaded along a quick, trochaic string. I also like Juliana Spahr’s new book, The Transformation, an indefatigable memoir-of-sorts, although the term memoir fits this work about as well as it does A la recherche du temps perdu.

There is a remarkable patience to this book, a perseverance rare in this age of point-and-click blandishments. And yet, how different her indefatigableness is from its modernist predecessors: Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” for instance, or Stein’s steadying, spreading repetitions. This is not the indefatigableness that Sianne Ngai incisively dubs “stuplimity.” Not a tirelessness that assaults, that tires her out, as a fisherman might reel in a swordfish and let it dive hundreds of feet, reel it in and let it dive, until it can dive no more and is hauled onto the deck of the ship and clubbed to death. This book is not like that.

As much as The Transformation displays many of the markers of this tradition, style here is not necessarily a form of resistance, not a way of enforcing the art object’s autonomy. Rather, it’s a way of not foreclosing thought (Lyn’s resistance to closure), of not prematurely deciding. I can think of no other work right now that displays the same patience in exhaustively detailing the million political ambivalences that ramify around even the smallest action, nor can I think of one that does a better job of detaching ambivalence (or “negative capability”) from a kind of quietism. Nor can I recall a work that is as untiring in greeting each political situation with a willingness to rethink even the most foundational of presupposition. That’s to say, I’m embarrassed by how unembarrassed this book is.

Lately, there have been many thinkers on the left who like to, umm, talk shit about relativism, which also usually involves a critique of identity-politics and multiculturalism. Some of these critiques are subtle and interesting—Alain Badiou’s, for instance—and some are plainly the idiotic result of that conservative psychosis (Hitchensitis, Lyotarditis) that often afflicts writers on the left who don’t, like, take a chill-pill every once in a while: Walter Benn Michaels, for instance, whose factota are even known to haunt the comments-field of Ron Silliman’s blog. As I often feel with good writing, Spahr’s book, resistant as it is to “theory,” provides a useful counter to these positions, reminding me that Marxism was, first of all, a form of relativism, one that tied the things that could and would be thought to the relative positions and practices of the thinkers within the absolute but perhaps also ineffable field of history. And so, in The Transformation, the contradictions that must be enumerated and the political positions—nationalism, for instance—that must be countenanced and lent support in Hawaii, are precisely the positions that must be rethought in post-911 New York. Each situation requires its own ethos, its own particular mode of responding.

Despite or maybe because of its contraindication here, and following some of the discussion on Josh's blog about aesthetics and ethics, I’m reminded of Badiou’s own notion (in Ethics: an Essay on the Understanding of Evil) of a non-normative ethics (and hence, a kind of anti-ethics in his definition)—that is, an ethics not based upon norms or protocols but one where, in the aftermath of a significant “event,” certain resistant forms of relating stabilize and come into being, certain individual and collective subjects to which anyone can claim allegiance. Ethics, in this formulation, involves remaining faithful to these subjects in a positive, affirmative manner. The only thing that is un-ethical in such a situation is either, on the one hand, losing faith when it is still possible to continue under the aegis of the event or, on the other hand, trying to force such inter-relationships through norms and protocols rather than through voluntaristic allegiance.

In Spahr’s book, there are, broadly, three such events: the advent of her love relationship with two other people (and the triangle’s “indefatigable” self-affirmation in the face of others’ bafflement); the U.S. colonization of Hawaii, and the resistance that it requires or makes possible; and the attacks of 9/11 which, as we know, reshuffle existing political formulations and require for the left a deep reconsideration of its political strategies.

The triangular relationship, which is the center of the book, and carries over from the second situation to the third, forms a kind of model for this ethics, I think. A form of ambivalence—a both-meaning—that precisely doesn’t mean lacking conviction or lacking the will to act. If it is an ethics, it is not one that sets down norms, rules or procedures but rather that seeks to find ways that one might persevere within a particular situation. In this it’s a powerful and moving model of the kinds of open-ended vigilance and fortitude that the present state of the disaster requires.


Speaking of which, if you haven’t read already, do look at this disturbing summary of the conclusions drawn from The Nation’s extensive interviews with current and former Iraq War soldiers. That the American occupation involves the continuous, ubiquitous killing, maiming and humiliating of millions of Iraqis will no doubt not surprise most of my readers, but it’s probably some of the best evidence of the extent and progressive worsening of these atrocities. A good thing to point to if you’re in conversation with someone who wants to claim that such events are rare—that is, someone who only reads mainstream new sources.

Needless to say, another reason we shouldn’t need for an immediate withdrawal and not the absurd troop-reduction-and-extensive-bombing plan we would likely get with Colonels Clinton and Obama (both of whom just signed off on an attack on Iran last week). Here’s hoping a real anti-war movement manifests.

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