Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007; Michelangelo Antonioni 1912-2007

What are the chances? Bergman one day, Antonioni the next. It's really over, the 20th-century, modernism, all that.

I thought of Antonioni, yesterday, as a point of comparison as I mused on what I might say about Bergman's incomparable films.

About Bergman, it's this: in both the b&w and the color films, I do not think that anyone has succeeded in giving light itself so many variable and ambiguous meanings, such substance. That eternal twilight of the idols, beyond good and evil, on his personal island, etc. . . I cannot but feel impatient, after Bergman, with a film that returns to the Manichean symbolism of neo-noir chiaroscuro. Although it seems perverse to focus solely on the visual with a filmmaker who is so novelistic, so theatrical and psychologically sharp, as in Fanny and Alexander or the Passion of Anna or Persona or Through a Glass Darkly, for instance--still, it's mostly light I'll remember. Everything seems great now, in retrospect, even the early allegorical films.

And Antonioni? No-one, I think, has better fit the dream of Malevich and Picasso and Mondrian to the space of the screen-projection, the dream of abstraction. That qualities might float from free from all substance, migrating somewhere else, somewhere better. That you could refound the world on a color, a shape, a sound, an itch. At the end of The Passenger, that anxious and yet solemn circling of the camera in the dust, so much more of a person than most of us ever get to be. Something sat down in the middle of the bourgeois world--an organ of non-communication, some call it spectacle-- and Antonioni took its picture.

But Antonioni lives on in Taiwan and Hong Kong and China, in the films of Hou-Hsou Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang and Wong-Kar Wai, Antonioni does. Where Bergman is I don't really know.

All the people I mention in this post who are not fictional are men. That's another part of it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

How to Not Think and Dominate People

Over dinner last night, Tim Kreiner and I decided that the proper response to the Sarkozy government's remark that "the French think too much" would be a gesture of American solidarity in non-thought. We could immediately send Bush and the rest of his government to France as special envoys of not-thinking. He could head his own department of sophism, rhetorical misfire, and false commonsense. The new propaganda: a blank page. The new early warning system: 4'33''.

I think I know what "not thinking" means, a special kind of thinking too much, the thought of what is, of the status quo over and over, that complicity stitch. You see: as the baptism-gift of my class, I was given at birth a special certification in not-thinking: no alternatives, no discontent, no political solutions that involve doing things, just the non-thought of the market, the war, grinding away at bodies and lives. But for the fortunate classes, freedom from thought, from necessity! What glories: an underlit Ketamine lounge, where the placid, pacific sounds of TINA and the End of History gurgle away in the background .

Thought: current that leaps the distance between what is and what could be.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Daddy, I'm going to turn you into a plant, and then you can't tell me what to do, and I'll keep you in the house and water you around your eyes.


Daddy, you are a toy! You can't tell me what to do. You are plastic! You are a sidewalk! You are a beard!

Cogito 2.0: I think, therefore I'm spam.

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.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Coolidge, Lowell and the Photo Poem

I can’t shake the idea that Clark Coolidge’s Own Face, the first book from his so-called autobiographical turn, is to some degree an explicit attempt at an experimentalist’s version of the confessional poem. The whole book seems to reverberate with echoes of Robert Lowell.

I am not saying, of course, that the reflexive distinctions we might generate here—experimental vs. confessional—won’t largely hold; but it’s worth considering, if only to irritate those who like their distinctions clean-edged, that there are a number of similarities between Coolidge and Lowell. First off, both are pessimists (or, as the case may be, realists) who situate their poems amidst a culture in decline, post-industrial tableaux of rusting, abandoned factories, quarries and broken concrete structures. I’d even say that both flirt, at times, with a kind of nihilism. And, furthermore, their diction choices and rhythms (quite apart from the very different phrasal and grammatical arrangements) are strikingly similar: heavily Anglo-Saxon, long on consonants and consonance, pulsatile. Perhaps, the common point of departure here is Melville.


. . . Later I reel
in a yell as my cousin takes a bite from my shank
beneath ranchhouse breezy curtains of Marion. On a trudge up
from the gasoline rockpit in the gaze of Judy Lamb,
she carries my pack, my jeans rolled as I step on
pipe. . .

[“Album—a Runthru”]


I picked with a clean finger nail at the blue anchor
on my sailor blouse washed white as a spinnaker.
What in the world was I wishing?
. . . A sail-colored horse browsing in the bullrushes. . .

[“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” ellipses Lowell’s]

Indeed, although I don’t think I’d stake any kind of argument on this— (consider this a series of provisional mental sallies)—without a bit more to go on, there are at least two moments in Own Face that sound like explicit Lowell quotations. For instance, Coolidge’s “a burst the cleat of harp / mark vine wild to hog hill red fox Morman behind the Hilton. . .” seems to invoke Lowell’s brimming iambic line “A red fox stain covers Blue Hill” from his super-famous “Skunk Hour.” Of the same poem, compare these two stanzas:

One round night, I’ll term it that pulling
some depth on my cube. Far from starring the black
books holding meat, the babies that plow
down the chute, unable to grasp still
starring. Not apt to finish I’ll fix the sun
on lock. Then walk down the stairs
in the woods under lights.

[“The New Look Sways”]


One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . .
My mind’s not right.

Perhaps the title of Coolidge’s poem is meant to recall Frank O'Hara's comment about “Skunk Hour”, one that for all its drollery, doesn’t, in its revealingly genteel sense of decorum, actually do much to distinguish O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” from Lowell’s “I myself am hell.” The quote: “I don’t think that anyone has to get themselves to go and watch lovers in a parking lot necking in order to write a poem, and I don’t see why it’s admirable if they feel guilty about it. They should feel guilty. Why are they snooping?” If it is a poem about prohibited gazes, then Coolidge’s “black books holding meat” does much to physicalize the halo of shame which rings the voyeur’s object of desire.

The condition of the gaze, then, is where the two poets part ways. Both of them figure the poem, and the collection of poems, as photo and photo-album. But their takes on the enduring presence of the past, its accessibility or lack thereof, diverge sharply. For Lowell’s Life Studies, the dominant metaphor for memory is travel. The gaze slides into the past like a train crossing the Alps (“Beyond the Alps”) or a boat returning from Europe across the Atlantic (“Sailing Home from Rapallo”). Coolidge’s past is geological, not a destination to which one must travel, but an ossuary which one must sift through, a ruins, a geological record that only exertive, even exhaustive, labor will recover. Time in Lowell is transparent, extensive and empty. In Coolidge, it’s opaque, accretive, and intensive.

Still, despite these differences, the tone and stance of both poets, looking at an empire in decline, a senescent culture, the renewals of which are merely disguised ruination, is basically the same. Emptiness-meaningless and opacity-meaninglessness give way to the same sense of irreversible entropy (a metaphor that both poets find recourse to). In the end, though, Coolidge may have more of a future than Lowell (and I say this as somebody who thinks Lowell is an important and, among many of the poets I know and read, underread poet). His punning sense of the photo-album as a musical album, a "record" that can be played or even “covered,” that is performed may model a more active, less contemplative to our national ruination. This will constitute my only remarks about the day of singed flesh and gunpowder known as the 4th of July.

[*Funny that Kasey wrote something about Coolidge just yesterday, and with a similar polemical drift.]