Monday, July 17, 2017
An excerpt from Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent by Thomas Glave (2005).
Chapter: "(Re-)Recalling Essex Hemphill: Words to Our Now."
It has been said, and we recall: we were never meant to survive. Not here. No, not then or now. Not in the gorge of a grasping empire poisoned by the recurring venoms of its own antihumanity. Here, now, we can never forget that, as you did not survive, others still are falling. Falling beneath the policeman's baton, or raped by it; expiring in the electric chair, decaying along lonely roads after the body has been chained behind a truck and dragged—the body historically and contemporarily fetishized, sodomized, demonized . . . Such horrors should occur only in the "inner city," someone will say, has said. Not "here." Not in this now.
"But we're in the United States," you doubtless would have said; your seer's most mordant irony confronting misconception, sweeping aside revisionist muddyings of present and past. "In the United States, where these sorts of things always happen. But yes, believe it," you surely would have said, "they always happen here.
"In the United States," you might have said, "where such events are always now. Yes. And always here."
Thursday, July 6, 2017
The first complete English translation of Orikuchi Shinobu’s masterwork, The Book of the Dead is a sweeping historical romance telling a gothic tale of love between a noblewoman and a ghost in eighth-century Japan. Orikuchi is often considered one of the fathers of Japanese folklore studies, and this is the most important novel of his career—and it is a book like no other. We are honored that The Book of the Dead, translated by Jeffrey Angles, appears on the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award in Prose.
An excerpt follows below.
In the shade of the hills to the north of the temple of Manhōzō-in was a hutlike hermitage that had been there for a long time—or at least that is what all of the people in the village believed. Several times it had fallen into ruin, and several times the villagers had fixed it up. There, inside the uninhabited hermitage, stood a statue of Kujaku Myōō. There were villagers in Tagima who occasionally identified the building as Yamadadera, “the temple of mountains and fields.” According to them, it was the oldest of the temple buildings, and early on, when it fell into disrepair, a
high-ranking prince had ordered Manhōzō-in to take over the site, and thus the grand monastery was constructed. Some said the order came from the palace in Asuka, whereas others said that the prince had made the decision on his own accord. In any case, the old, dilapidated building was relocated to the northern corner of the temple complex, where it was rebuilt on a smaller scale.
There was a belief among the yamabushi of Yoshino and Katsuragi that the hermitage was the place where Enokimi Ozunu had founded mountain Buddhism. Whether that is true or not, after the grand monastery of Manhōzō-in burned, the wild, overgrown place was used for religious practice over the next century until the monastery was rebuilt. It was amazing that such an ancient building remained right there in front of everyone’s noses.
The night had already grown deep. The vigorous splashing of the stream in the valley had grown loud in the silence. The water flowed down from between the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami.
It was dark inside the hermitage. In that area, it was uncommon for people to burn wood in a hearth, so when night fell, the local farmers would sleep or stay up and sit in pitch-blackness. But there was a deity housed in the hermitage. Lamps were lit in front of the statue throughout the night to keep the darkness at bay.
Still, the light that glimmered off the statue of Kujaku Myōō was so faint that it was hard to tell if the statue was even there.
A maiden was seated there as if she had forgotten all about sleep.
The high-ranking abbots of Manhōzō-in thought the first order of business was to send a messenger to the city of Nara. They were worried about what her father, Fujiwara no Toyonari, and his family must be feeling. Next, they had to atone for the sin that the young noblewoman had committed by entering the monastery grounds. Women were strictly prohibited from entering, and she had broken that cardinal rule. The temple had been reconstructed only recently, and so not long before, there were so many monks there that the whole place appeared to turn bluish black with the pates of their freshly shaven heads. It was natural for men to be there, but a woman should not be trespassing on purified ground. A simple donation of wealth or property couldn’t possibly atone for her actions. The abbots came to the conclusion that she would have to stay nearby and do quiet penance for an extended period of time. That very day, during the midday hours, the abbots had ordered a messenger to rush to Nara and deliver the news that the young woman had suddenly shown up and violated the sanctity of the monastic grounds.
Meanwhile, the maiden was told to stay in the hermitage. She was told that even if someone came from the capital to get her, she would have to stay there for days while she atoned for breaking the prohibition.
The floor was near the ground, but at least there was one—it wasn’t just dirt. On the other hand, the roof was extremely high and made of simple, ragged thatching. On one side where the wind had torn away the edge of the roof, the sky was visible, offering a view of the stars above. No sooner had she thought the wind had stopped than another gust blew in from the hole in the roof. Something fell, scattering around her—probably accumulated soot spilling from the thatching. For a brief moment, the light in front of the Buddhist statue burned more brightly.
The miserably unkempt space where she was seated was not the only thing the light illuminated. Two mats of woven rice straw were layered on the floor of rough-hewn boards—those mats were for her—but sitting across from her on the wooden floor against the far wall was an old woman.
Calling it a “wall” is perhaps less accurate than identifying it as what it really was—a hanging partition. Someone had hung an odd assortment of multiple layers of rice-straw matting from the rafters, and somehow they managed to block most of the wind. The old woman sat against the hanging partition as if affixed to it. For some time, she had been completely quiet. Not even a single cough left her lips.
The maiden, who was from a noble family, was accustomed to silence; she could go an entire day without speaking and still not feel lonely. Even if she had to stay there in the tiny hermitage in the shadow of the mountains, she could handle it—she wouldn’t let out even a single sigh. When she had been sent there to stay earlier in the day, she knew the old lady had followed her. Still, the old lady had been so quiet that the maiden had forgotten she was there. Right then, when the light flared up, it illuminated the old lady in the same color as the lamplight, and the maiden took in her appearance in a single glance, everything from her body to her face. The maiden had the feeling that she had seen her somewhere before. In fact, she felt warm, sociable feelings well up inside her. She had not met a single other woman since leaving home the previous night. It wasn’t impossible that at some point somewhere she had encountered the old lady seated in front of her. Still, the hunch that she had seen her before wasn’t the only reason the maiden was drawn to her.
When the old lady finally broke the silence, her voice wasn’t what the maiden had expected. It sounded sad and hoarse.
——My lady, you probably don’t know me. Still, would you like to hear what I have to say? I could tell you about things that happened before you were ever born. I’m an old lady, and I know such things.
Once the old lady had opened her mouth, she started speaking as if she might go on forever. It began to dawn on the maiden why she felt she might have seen the old lady before. There were always old women, around the same age as the one seated there, who came and went from her home—the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara clan. There was one, the old woman Nakatomi no Shii, who had come to the ladies’ room where the maiden lived; she entered the room unceremoniously and proceeded without any hesitation to regale them with old stories. The old lady seated there with her had the same countenance. It all made sense. The old woman Shii was one of the clan storytellers in charge of remembering and reciting history, one of only a small handful of storytellers left. Perhaps she was a storyteller for the Fujiwara clan or maybe for the descendants of Tagima no Mahito in the neighboring village of Tagima.
——The Fujiwara clan is now divided into four branches. But that was not the case back in the days of Kamatari. Even during the era of his son Fuhito, the clan was still unified. It was not long afterward that the clan separated from the Nakatomis. Members of the Nakatomi clan were still honored in the Fujiwara villages, but part of the family began to identify with the Fujiwara name.
——Over time, the Fujiwara lineage became involved with the court nobles and the regency. The Nakatomi lineage became associated with Shintō rites. For generations, they have been entrusted with protecting and maintaining shrines. But now is now; back then was back then. I want to tell you the story of a distant ancestor of the Fujiwaras, namely Ame no Oshikumone—the clan god of the Nakatomi family.
——Now the Child of the Sun is in the palace in Nara. Before that, the Child of the Sun was in the palace in Fujiwara, and before that in the palaces in Asuka. (*) Generations of rulers moved the palace within the province of Yamato, deciding upon a new location each time. Long ago, a miracle took place. It involved the Nakatomi clan god and his support, which has benefited generations and generations of rulers. Now, my lady, listen to what I have to say.
——This story took place ages ago in a generation far removed from us. Now, pay attention. As I said, Oshikumone was the distant ancestor of both the Nakatomi and Fujiwara clans. He searched throughout the entire province of Yamato, leaving no stone unturned in his search for the best water to prepare food, rice, and sake for the Child of the Sun. Back in those days, the water throughout the province smelled of minerals and was clouded with dirt, so it wasn’t worthy of being used in the sovereign’s food. Oshikumone prayed to the ancestral gods in the heavens above to teach him where he could find fresh water, but the province lay far below, and the gods couldn’t hear his prayers. Even the mountains were too far below the heavens for the gods to hear. But in the Aogaki Mountains, which border the province of Yamato, there stand the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami. Oshikumone climbed the mountain and stood on top among the clouds—a passageway into the heavens—and prayed. In response, the ancestral gods in the heavens above showed him eight places where the Water of Heaven flows out of Mt. Futakami. Ever since then, the Nakatomis have been coming here for years and years, generation upon generation, to gather the water that has been used to prepare the sovereign’s food. Now, listen carefully . . . .
This tale was part of the history of Tagima no Mahito’s clan. The storyteller spoke as if she were engaged in an ordinary conversation, but when she reached the part of the story about the miracle involving the ancestral god, she stopped abruptly.
The gurgling of the river outside seemed to have grown louder. Most likely, that was the sound of the distant ancestor of the Nakatomis and Fujiwaras as he gathered the water from the eight wells high on the mountain and sent it flowing down the slopes, crashing, swelling, and cascading over rocks. The maiden turned in the direction of the gurgling river and placed her palms together in prayer.
A few moments later, she turned back around. The old woman had drawn closer. When the maiden saw her in the dim light, she was filled with a fear that left her speechless. At the same moment, she also felt a special urgency, thinking the woman was pressing her for something.
A certain look had appeared on the old woman’s face—it was the same look that the old woman Nakatomi no Shii would get as she was about to launch into one of her tales. A spirit seemed to have possessed the elderly storyteller from Tagima, and she began to tremble slightly.
——Up high On the twin peaks
I climb And look
There is Asuka Where birds fly**
Sacred hills Where home lies
So many homes In sight
Rich roofs And gardens
And behold In the cluster of homes
The lodgings Of the Fujiwara minister
What I see So far in the distance
What I await With so much anticipation
Is it the virgin Who comes and goes?
Can I make Her noble ears hear me?
Mimimo no Toji With her bluish horse
I call to her And her younger sisters
So that just one Of her children
Her children’s children Just one maiden
Will come To be my wife
Up high On the twin peaks
In the shaded fields Of Futakami
Where the plants grow The thickets flower
Child scented Of ashibi
I cannot Quite grasp you
Stomping my feet Of ashibi***
I yearn for you Oh, Fujiwara maiden
When the old woman finished singing, she took a deep breath and slumped over as if exhausted. For some time, the only sounds came from the rustling trees and gurgling river.
* “Child of the Sun” (hi no miko) is an old-fashioned honorific phrase indicating the emperor. Before the imperial family established the capital in the city of Nara, in the year 710, the imperial family had moved its residence multiple times following the death of an emperor. It was believed that the death of an important figure brought about ritual impurities in a place, and continuing to reside in the place where a previous emperor had lived and died would result in an inauspicious reign.
** The name Asuka can be written with the characters meaning “flying bird”; hence the poetic description “Asuka, where birds fly.”
*** The first two syllables of the plant name ashibi (Pieris japonica) are a homonym for the word meaning “feet”; hence the association between feet and this shrub, which produces small white flowers in the spring.
Excerpt from The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu, translated by Jeffrey Angles.
Jeffrey Angles is professor of Japanese and translation at Western Michigan University. He is author of Writing the Love of Boys (Minnesota, 2011) and is an award-winning translator of dozens of Japan’s most important writers.
"Jeffrey Angles has given us a smooth, supple translation of this remarkable book, and thanks to him, Orikuchi's glorious evocation of the distant past will live on in our contemporary world. The sounds of the ancient Japanese language may have disappeared, but in this translation, the text has been reborn with all the strength and grandeur of ancient societies everywhere."—Hiromi Ito, author of Killing Kanoko and Wild Grass on the Riverbank
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
BY VIDAR SUNDSTØL
In the old days in Norway—up until the end of the 19th century—the night between the 23rd and 24th of June was the night to harvest any kind of plants that were supposed to hold healing or magical powers. At the same time it was a dangerous night to be wandering around the woods and the fields, since the gateway to the other world was believed to be open, thus making us accessible to an army of unknown beings: some visible, some not.
This duality is perhaps what characterizes the Norwegian Midsummer night more than anything else. The promise of something wonderful, mixed with the threat of horrors unknown.
It was said that if a girl picked seven different kinds of wildflowers on this particular night, then went to bed with the flowers under her pillow, she would dream of her future husband. But then again, who could know whether the dream wasn't just a trick being played by a creature that had slipped through the gateway and now lusted for her?
These beings—imagined or not—were possibly transformed versions of gods and demonlike figures from the pre-Christian era, when the landscapes of Norway were home to a plethora of spiritual beings of whom we know very little today. It's the same hills, the same rivers, creeks, and boulders now as then, but it seems as if it has all stopped speaking to us the way it did to our ancestors.
But then again, perhaps it's all in the eye of the beholder. Or the ear of the listener. Perhaps the landscapes never stopped speaking, it's just that we can't hear them anymore. If that is the case, it means we could be surrounded by whispers and cries without even knowing it. Eyes may glare at us, but we are unable to look back at them. We are like a blind person walking through a room full of monsters, feeling completely safe.
It could be that this is the case. And it could be that Midsummer night is the night when we get our vision back. But we might not like what we see.
In the forthcoming (Fall 2017) The Devil's Wedding Ring, the protagonist—a Norwegian who returns to the old country after many years in the US—is unwillingly sucked into this old and half-forgotten world of superstition and folk beliefs. He realizes too late that these things are not to be trifled with.
The full power of Midsummer is unleashed deep in the ancient woodlands.
RELATED: This video was shot at Eidsborg stave church, where a substantial part of The Devil's Wedding Ring takes place. It shows a reenactment of the medieval ritual connected with the figure of St. Nicholas (locally known as Nikuls). This ritual was carried out every midsummer night for at least six hundred years, and is believed to have roots back to a much older pagan ritual that may have taken place on the same site.
St.Nikuls from Videoarkivet on Vimeo.
The Land of Dreams, the first volume of his acclaimed Minnesota trilogy, published in the United States by the University of Minnesota Press. The other two volumes are Only the Dead and The Ravens. Sundstøl has lived in the United States and Egypt, and now resides with his family in Telemark, the setting for The Devil’s Wedding Ring.
"An intelligent and thoughtful mystery about a man returning to his home country to learn the truth about a friend’s death, and in doing so, he must face ghosts of his own. This pitch-perfect elegy makes for compelling reading, the kind of work that must be savored."
—Allen Eskens, author of The Life We Bury
"Vidar Sundstøl's novels deserve all the praise they have garnered."
Thursday, June 15, 2017
It is not to be expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.
—Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending
BY JULIAN YATES
University of Delaware
Ending books (just like lives), good, bad, or indifferent, is difficult. Eschatology beckons. Come the end, at the moment of the letting go, there’s always an urge to keep writing and to promise more than you should. Surely all those words stacked up behind you mean something. What has all this been for? It’s a moment of pure ideology (which is to say it’s real or anticipates the reality that the words might make).
Different writers handle the problem in different ways. Some don’t handle it at all. One of my favorites is Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1966), whose opening sentence seeks to inoculate the book against the expectation that the words that follow will matter, which, of course, only makes them matter more. Critics are not poets. They don’t actually help. Or, better yet, they help sort out the help poets offer. I am not sure that Kermode or his slippery negative analogy really believes this. Critics may not make sense of lives or the world but the sense they attempt to make still constitutes a “feat” even if it is “lesser” than that to which poets are supposedly bound. The difference maintained here between poiesis (making) and critique (reading, receiving, responding, but only breaking when you have to) entails a sweet evasion to which, like Kermode, part of me tends to cling. What Kermode describes is really a circuit of making and unmaking, all part of the process of somehow making the sense you feel, feel adequate. Kermode’s lines are not immodest even if they play, in part, as a modesty topos, and, in fact, suggest that you may be forgiven for thinking critics poets and poets, critics. Best to be on your guard at endings and beginnings. Do your best to be skeptical and completely naïve—preferably in the same gesture.
In my case, come the end, I was haunted by a sentence that I wanted to write, indeed, I did write, several times, but then, in every iteration, immediately deleted. The cadence was wrong, the sentence at once too little and too much. I shall write that sentence one last time at the end of this post. Allow me to explain.
Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression is an attempt to craft scripts for humanities-based work (aka reading and writing) that simply take it as read that “what we call ‘humanity derives … from a spatial and temporal web of interspecies dependencies.’” How do we read and write now if we just assume that all the texts, all the artifacts we study, come crowded with forms of writing or coding otherwise than human, traces that our own acts erase, obliterate, but also render sensible, knowable, by taking so many others as a substrate for our own acts of inscription. Throughout the book, I assume that our archives and stories are marked by animal, plant, fungal, microbial viral, mineral, or chemical actors. This fundamental shift in what counts as description and reading designates the stakes to the book’s subtitle—“a multispecies impression.” Human forms of writing or coding routinely cohabit with forms of writing and coding otherwise than human that contribute to, constrain, and interrupt the kinds of sense we make.
Methodologically, then, asserting the interspecies basis or multispecies dependency of our lives no longer counts as much of a revelation, output, or thesis. On the contrary, the multispecies basis to our lives functions as a straightforward given or input that requires us to re-describe our objects. I found, for example, that it frequently makes better sense to understand supposedly human conflicts as contests between rival multispecies groups of human, animal, and plant actors. Different kinds of “writing” or coding face off in order to build or occupy different kinds of worlds. And those worlds are built and maintained by differing configurations or matter-metaphors that undergird categories such as “human,” “plant,” “animal,” parceling out and strategically confusing them in the process. I organized the book with an eye to different scales of being or forms of finitude keyed to animal presences (sheep), plants (oranges), and fungi (yeast). But what took me by surprise was the way the categories blurred. Modeled as “stock” sheep morphed into plants and back. By their recruitment of animal actors as a dispersal strategy, oranges grew legs and beaks, hands and feet, went mobile. The airy bubble of yeast’s fermentation offered itself as an icon of what counts for us as the solidity or stability of an infrastructure. The story I was telling became a series of anthropo-zoo-geneses—the co-making of different beings. Problem was that this altered mode of description didn’t seem to offer much more. There did not seem anything particularly progressive or affirmative about a multispecies account or modeling—at least not as such. The scripts I was crafting were just that: scripts. At best, they were entirely neutral.
Come book’s end, the best I thought I could do was have the thing swallow its own tail. Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast begins with a chapter titled “Impression,” which establishes a mode of reading that subsequent chapters enlarge. As the chapters progress, I try to acknowledge the way the arrival of a new plant, animal, or fungal actor (who in truth was there all along) enables certain questions (inscribes) and disables others (erases). Best, then, not to end by kicking over the traces with a set of proclamations about the progressive cast to multispecies modeling. Best, instead, to own up to the neutrality of this word impression, and acknowledge the way impression cohabits with and comes funded by the erasure of other forms of writing and being, human and otherwise. Come the end of the book, all I had to offer was this sense of entanglement, of gain and loss. The book ends with the figure of “an empty page or the flicker of a blank screen,” the necessary fact of my words becoming a surface for someone or something else to “write” on or with. The book ends not with a promise but with an assertion that may or may not hold promise, that “the future, if there is to be one, requires us to imagine another order of world in common, a world that owns its existence as a series of competing, sometimes complementary, sometimes violent, sometimes sustaining multispecies impressions.” That’s the sense my ending sought to make. (I also refuse to show you a painting—but that’s a different story).
The sentence that came and went, went and came, and comes back now, one last time, was this: “Something like a politics might begin here.”
A friend tells me, blithely, in the way that friends can, that I meant “praxis.” I think she’s wrong. I think I just don’t quite know what this thing that is “like a politics” but which knows no polis is yet. Of course, perhaps, that’s what she means by "praxis."
Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression and Error, Misuse, Failure: Object Lessons from the English Renaissance. Yates is professor of English and material culture studies at the University of Delaware.
"Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast promises—and delivers—everything. A microcosmos, it treats sheep, plants, microbes, and Benjamin Franklin’s bread rolls, ranging from pastoral poetry to Philip K. Dick. At every turn, Julian Yates surprised and delighted me. This volume's multimodal capaciousness, equally adept in historiographical, philosophical, biographical, and even genetic frameworks, should entice anyone feeling the slightest temptation towards posthuman and ecological cultural studies."—Karl Steel, Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, CUNY
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
BY SHIRI PASTERNAK
Assistant professor, School for the Study of Canada at Trent University
If Canadians want to understand why some First Nations are sitting out the Canada 150 celebrations, they need look no further than to fifteen community members who took an eight-hour drive from Barriere Lake in Quebec to Toronto on Thursday.
The Algonquins attended the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Copper One mining company to let them know there will be no mining on their territory. They have repeatedly, unequivocally, over the course of six years, notified Copper One that they intend to protect the headwaters of the powerful Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers and the affected lifeworlds of ecosystems and communities downstream.
They were not even permitted to read a statement at the AGM. They were bullied, assaulted, threatened with arrest by police, accused of trespassing, and met with a thick line of “legal counsel” and security blocking their entrance into the meeting. The wonder of it all was the spirit of determination that remained undiminished and even galvanized by Barriere Lake in the face of the junior mining company’s obviously threatened response.
Barriere Lake have witnessed the anguish of other communities whose lands have been affected by mining, including the Secwepemc since the Mount Polley disaster who witnessed the largest tailing pond spill in Canadian history poison hundreds of river systems in their interior BC territory a few years ago.
Prime Minister Trudeau rode a wave of Indigenous support into power, promising for one thing to implement the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to which Canada is a signatory. UNDRIP protects Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent. But these promises have unspooled in a familiar way.
Confederation was a non-event for Indigenous people. They were not in the room when it was signed and they were not invited into the discussion. They are only included in brief mention under the federal head of power in the jurisdictional divisions of power between the federal and provincial governments.
But Canada’s assertion of sovereignty did not extinguish Indigenous peoples’ responsibility to the lands they had been occupying for thousands of years, nor their structures of governance, nor their decision-making authority that did not derive from a foreign power, but from the responsibilities passed down for generations from their ancestors.
The Algonquins have an encyclopedic knowledge of their territory. Their forest management includes food, beverage, medicine, utility, craftwork, ritual, ceremony, and commercial uses, and involves the use of mammals, birds, insects, inanimate objects, fish, flora, and fauna. For example, they know which trees are good for snowshoes and baskets, which fish make the best glue, which insects indicate the best time to hunt sturgeon along the lakeshore. At least 104 plants have been used by the Algonquins for medicine that treats everything from kidney and urinary ailments, including medicines specifically for women to deal with menstruation and childbirth, as well as for treating cancer and diabetes. It is this knowledge, the Algonquins maintain, and their protection of it, that is the source of their jurisdiction.
In 1991, Barriere Lake signed an agreement with Canada and Quebec to co-manage resource use on their lands. Despite being lauded by the United Nations as a trailblazing achievement, both colonial governments failed to honour it. Modeled after a three-figure wampum exchanged between the Algonquins, the French, and the English around 1760, the Trilateral Agreement turned out to be another link in a chain of dishonoured agreements.
Barriere Lake’s vision of co-existence offers a solution to the problem of conflicting Indigenous and Canadian laws. But instead, the governments maligned the community and squirmed out of their obligations. The worst of this treatment involved the destruction of Barriere Lake’s customary governance system in 2010 by ministerial authority of an archaic clause of the Indian Act that had rarely been exercised in almost one hundred years.
On July 1, what will Canadians be celebrating? To live here proudly, we need to respect the Indigenous governance structures that are tied profoundly to the future viability of these lands.
This piece originally appeared on The Media Co-op.
Grounded Authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake against the State. She is assistant professor in the School for the Study of Canada at Trent University. She has held postdoctoral fellowships at the Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and at Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies.
Friday, May 26, 2017
BY JEFF SOLOMON
Assistant professor of English and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University
Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein should not have been famous. Both secured their reputations between the Wilde trials and Stonewall, when the most widely available understandings of homosexuality were inversion and perversion, and when censorship prevented the public discussion of homosexuality except in terms laced with shame, disapproval, and disgust. Yet both Capote and Stein were exclusively gay, with long-standing domestic partnerships that they made no attempt to hide. Both wrote works that directly discussed homosexuality and had a queer aesthetic. And the homosexuality of both was irreducible from their public reputations. Nonetheless, Capote and Stein were mass-market celebrities, well known even to those who had not read their books and those who did not read fiction at all. They earned scorn as well as praise, but their presence was undeniable. At a time when other gay public figures were persecuted for their sexual orientation and either remained closeted or censored, or had their careers stifled by homophobic scandal, Capote and Stein somehow profited from being gay.
Capote’s and Stein’s successes resulted from an oscillation between what I call the “broadly queer” and the “specifically gay”: between a nonsexual queerness that riveted a mass audience and specific signals of homosexuality that were easily understood by those alerted to their own sexual dissidence. I use these terms to distinguish between homosexuality and other traits, behaviors, and phenomena that are degraded or otherwise viewed and treated as counter to the dominant order.
In the twentieth-century United States, male homosexuals were consistently at the bottom of the male scale, thanks to the inversion model, which views homosexuality as the adoption of behavior typical of the opposite sex. By these lights, gay men aped women, a subordinated class, and such aping left them even less valid and less valuable than women themselves. Nonetheless, male privilege still functioned for gay men, and wealth, fame, and other assets might raise their status. Lesbians both shared in the subordination of women and, thanks again to inversion, received especially bad treatment as social outsiders. The act of aping men might be endearing, as such masquerade strove to increase value and might heighten a woman’s femininity if pitched at the right angle. But if such women extended themselves past the purlieus of cuteness and threatened male privilege—if, for instance, tomboys grew into bull dykes—they were badly punished, unless they had other assets that were sufficiently valued by the hegemonic order to excuse their perversion.
Under this regime in the twentieth-century United States, especially before the women’s and gay rights movements, the specifically gay was almost always broadly queer, but the broadly queer was only sometimes specifically gay. Both Capote—an effeminate, precocious southerner who made a show of his strangeness—and Stein—a large Jewish expatriate who was markedly disinterested in being conventionally attractive and who associated with avant-garde artists—were extraordinarily broadly queer in their appearance, behavior, public persona, and the form and content of their writing. This broad queerness interacted in complex ways with their specific homosexuality and with the trope of the decadent, unconventional artist—one way that queerness may be celebrated, or at least tolerated, by the dominant order.
If such flamboyance were readily available as a form of heterosexual passing, then Capote and Stein would not be so unusual. Yet Stein is the only canonical American lesbian writer before the 1980s who directly references homosexuality in both her public face and her work. Though the greater visibility of male homosexuality led to a greater number of publicly gay writers, Capote is nonpareil in the centrality of homosexuality to his public persona. Many pre-Stonewall writers now regarded as publicly gay, such as Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin, were closeted both in their persona and their work until after gay liberation. Although Williams was more than ten years older than Capote, he was not gay “at large” until after Stonewall. Before the 1970s, Williams’s overtly gay-themed work, such as the 1948 collection One Arm and Other Stories (New York: New Directions), was sold only behind the counter at specialized bookstores in a brown paper wrapper. Male gay writers who refused the closet either found their careers forestalled or did not become mass-market celebrities.
Although they sometimes used their notoriety to advance their careers, Capote and Stein were not masterminds who carefully engineered their public personae. Much of their “fabulous potency” was largely beyond their control, and their success, like most fantastic gifts, came at an appreciable cost. Stein’s eventual mass-market triumph with The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas would trigger writer’s block through 1933 and ’34, a grave debility for a writer as productive as Stein, and would cause her to run to her poodle for existential affirmation, as detailed in the sequel, Everybody’s Autobiography: “I am I because my little dog knows me.” And Capote would never recover from his early stardom, which progressively overshadowed his writing, transforming him from a celebrated author into pure celebrity, and then, perhaps, into freeze-dried celebrity crystals, with no liquid in sight.
So Famous and So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein. Solomon is assistant professor of English and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University.
"Balancing biographical accounts with highly salient readings of a number of their works, So Famous and So Gay offers smart, surprising insights into the ways in which Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein achieved cultural prominence in spite of the homophobia that kept other openly gay writers of the period out of mainstream literary culture. A daring, suggestive, and intensely interesting book."
—Lisa Ruddick, University of Chicago
"In So Famous and So Gay, Jeff Solomon amasses a treasure trove archive—literature, reviews, biographies, photographs, interviews—from which he examines the gayness, strangeness, and celebrity that combusted to create the queer precocity of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein. At once critically expansive and insightful, this book is also a good story. Like Stein and Capote, Solomon is an engaging stylist in his own right. Read to learn, read to enjoy (imagine that!)."
—Ken Corbett, author of A Murder Over a Girl
Thursday, May 18, 2017
BY NAMIKO KUNIMOTO
Assistant professor of art history at The Ohio State University
In 1950, Japanese political parties and grassroots organizations began to stand up and fight back against the Reverse Course, the conservative shift in policies of the American Occupation. Art rapidly became an important avenue for protest, and at the forefront of this intersection was the reportage movement. "Reportage painting" (ruporutāju kaiga) referred to a style of politically motivated left-wing art that sought to depict sites of political action, often in a surrealistic style. In Justin Jesty’s words, “Reportage became more than a style: it was a social practice which aimed to realize alternative communities through research and art.” Reportage artists represented events such as the Lucky Dragon Incident, wherein a Japanese tuna-fishing trawler was irradiated by an American hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll, as well as urgent social issues such as impoverishment in rural villages and the Allied Occupation forces’ planned expansion of the Tachikawa airfield into adjacent farmland.
The expansion of the Tachikawa airfield provoked large-scale protests that became known as the Sunagawa Struggle. Popular anger and protest were so vociferous that the plans for the expansion of the base were eventually abandoned, although the governments of the United States and Japan had formally agreed to the development. For Japanese artist Nakamura Hiroshi (born 1932), the expansion of the Tachikawa base resonated deeply. Sunagawa No. 5 (1955) became his most famous artwork, and it helped build momentum for activism in Japan by heightening awareness about political events, by elevating the stakes of the event, and by moving art into the realm of the social – a new and radical turn coming while Japan was still under Allied Occupation.
Nakamura’s painting is a polemical indictment of the pivotal events of the Sunagawa struggle that captivates viewers through the use of montage, the highly animated depiction of bodies, and through its political currency. The title Sunagawa No. 5, for example, rather than referring to a series, ties the work closer to the site of action: “No. 5” makes reference to 5-chome, the fifth block in the district where the protest was taking place. This is where Nakamura himself participated in the demonstrations. At this pivotal time, protests were ongoing from 1955 to 1959. Student activists, residents, and Labor Party members joined forces as never before and clashed with the state police. Sunagawa became a meaningful site in terms of exploring the limits and possibilities of political selfhood in relation to larger issues of political hegemony. The powerful dynamic between art and artists had demonstrated that solidarity could bring about change. This is a dynamic that can be felt in North America today.
Following the election of Donald Trump, activism is similarly growing. The Women’s March of January 21, 2017, has been noted as the biggest march on Washington; but perhaps more importantly, the march brought into the streets millions of people in scores of cities who had never participated in a protest of any kind. The National Humanities Alliance reported that record-breaking calls and letters preserved and even increased funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. These actions show that the people are practicing — practicing to become active voices against the state.
Participating in one protest might not change the world, but is in an act that encourages the mind and the body to shift the terrain of what is considered politically normative. Indeed, in Nakamura’s case, it was participating in the protests at Tachikawa that motivated him to complete a painting. Similarly, art groups today have rapidly formed in response to Trump’s rhetoric and policies. Indecline, an anonymous anarchist street art collective, produced a series of sculptures depicting Donald Trump nude, with a plaque that reads “the emperor has no balls.” Another artist, Illma Gore, has completed a pastel drawing of Trump nude, entitled “Make America Great Again.” Other artists have become, like Nakamura, organized members of artistic wings of the political movement. Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman created an artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms, which encourages artistic protest. Their collaborations have included billboards that display the words “Make America Great Again” superimposed over photographic reproductions of the Selma to Montgomery marches that took place in 1965.
As Jacques Rancière notes, “Art and politics each define a form of dissensus, a dissensual re-configuration of the common experience of the sensible.” Rancière sees genuine art and politics as capable of creating new relations between the visible and the invisible, potentially liberating bodies from their assigned places and breaking with the “natural” order of the sensible. Under these lights, we can recognize the potential explicit and implicit effects of protest art: it expresses the outrage of the people, documents key political events, and shifts the terrain of acceptability and normativity. Just as in 1950s Japan, anti-state artworks today are at once an expression of solidarity and a call to action, one that contributes to the growing movement for change.
The Stakes of Exposure: Anxious Bodies in Postwar Japanese Art and assistant professor of art history at The Ohio State University.
"Kunimoto’s manuscript is exactly what the field of Japanese postwar art needs at this time."
—Alicia Volk, University of Maryland
"Eschewing group-centric approaches, The Stakes of Exposure focuses on four artists whose aesthetic politics figure postwar bodies in struggle, vulnerability, desire, and connection. Namiko Kunimoto's analysis navigates between history, historical art literature, and theoretical touchstones through her lucid readings."
—William Marotti, UCLA
Thursday, May 4, 2017
BY MICHAEL CRAMER
Assistant professor of film history at Sarah Lawrence College
The term “utopia” is most often used to refer to a place (most frequently an imaginary one) as it was in Sir Thomas More’s book of the same name. More’s Utopia (1516), of course, was followed by plenty of other representations of “perfect” societies. There is no single motivation behind such representations: at times they are driven by critical or satirical intent, at others by a practical program that the author seeks to undertake in reality, but in some cases, purely by a desire to imagine what it might be like to live differently, or what the future might hold. Moving beyond the realm of the literary, the term is also frequently applied to a particular orientation or attitude, often pejoratively: one dismisses as “utopian” plans that seem impossible to achieve or that fail to adequately consider the reality of the present in their aspirations for the future.
But what if we were to think of utopia not so much as an imaginary place that can be represented or a future condition to aspire to, but rather as a mode of thinking? In his Valences of the Dialectic, Fredric Jameson explains how one might apply “utopia as method,” a thought process through which “what is currently negative can also be imagined as positive in that immense changing of the valences that is the utopian future” (423). Utopian thinking, then, would entail imagining how what currently exists could, through our imaginative projection of its development or its future, be the basis of something better, the initial condition of a more positive future state. This way of thinking, however, need not be identified with the formulation of actual utopian plans: it is not necessarily a way to decide on a course of political action (although it may be used as such), but rather a way of testing the boundaries of our imaginations, of discovering how our own historical situation determines how we can envision our future, and hence becoming more aware of how ideologically constrained and contingent our sense of what is “reasonable” or even desirable is.
My intervention in Utopian Television: Rossellini, Watkins, and Godard beyond Cinema is to posit that a “utopian method” can be applied not only to speculative thought, but also to artistic practice: to be a utopian in this sense would not mean creating representations of imaginary ideal places or of the future, but rather transforming what exists in a way that imagines what it might be in the future. I argue that Roberto Rossellini, Peter Watkins, and Jean-Luc Godard, in their works for television, are doing precisely that: they identify elements of television that were present in Western Europe in the 1960s—on an institutional level, a technological level, and a formal level—and imagine how these might become components of a different, better kind of television. They take from the institutional structures and discourse constitutive of European television the concept of “public service”—the idea that television should not be seen primarily as a means of entertainment or a lucrative business, but rather a means for education and civic engagement. On a technological level, they draw out the implications of conceiving of the image not as an object but as a transmission, a form of communication that travels from one place to another but also from one individual to another, and consider the possible advantages of its placement in the home. Finally, on a formal level, they imitate the forms that had become typical of television by this time: an emphasis on speech and “talking heads,” but also the sense of proximity to the real, if unfiltered, immediacy characteristic of television news programs.
What makes their works “utopian,” however, is the fact that all three directors alter the meaning and functions of these elements: they detect a potential in television as it exists that is not being fully exploited, that is limited by the current political and ideological conditions in which it exists. Their works thus do not claim to create or represent the future, but enact what Jameson calls “revalencing”: public service becomes not an ill-defined and often hollow concept to serve as cover for the goals of the state/party or an extension of patronizing, universalizing plans to “uplift the masses,” but rather an imperative to critique the state and its policies (as in Watkins’s The War Game) by shocking the spectator with horrific images. Television’s status as a communicative transmission and its placement in the home are used not to create a false sense of intimacy or to function as the extension of state power into the living room (as it was in the hands of Charles de Gaulle), but rather to meditate on the meaning of “communication” and how media usually forbid it, or to invite the viewer to consider how television may function as a disciplinary mechanism (as in Jean-Luc Godard and Anne Marie-Miéville’s two television series, 6 x 2: On and Under Communication and France tour détour deux enfants). The forms developed by television to convey a sense of reality and immediacy are both undermined and exploited by Watkins, insofar as his precise replication of them to depict fictional (or past) events suggests their constructed character while still taking advantage of their aesthetic power. Rossellini, meanwhile, takes television’s affinity for speech to an extreme, replacing the talking heads of newscasters or presenters with lengthy discourses from great scientists and philosophers (in Blaise Pascal and Cartesius, among others), at once imitating television and radically refusing its commitment to short attention spans and easily digestible material.
Television as it exists thus becomes the raw material for the imagining of what it might be: its current characteristics, even if they seem to be largely negative, are not negated but rather dialectically transformed, drawing out their promise. The process, however, remains speculative: in other words, none of the three directors actually changed television’s practices or its character as an institution (and only Rossellini had any conviction that this might be possible). They show us—and here we find another key component of utopianism—an “impossible” television, one that cannot exist, due to a wide variety of economic, political, and ideological factors, on a wider scale than their individual experiments. A utopian television, then, is one that does not exist, or that exists only in something like an imaginary or provisional form. It is the fact that it does not and cannot exist on any wider scale, though, that gives it its critical power, leading us to inquire as to why this might be the case, and to imagine what kind of media we want and need. This lesson is perhaps more relevant than ever today: while the public service, state monopoly model of television that dominated Europe in the 1960s is now a distant memory, media institutions, technologies, and forms are changing faster than ever, opening up new opportunities for rethinking and reinventing the roles they play in our lives. Their development will, of course, depend largely on how they can be monetized most effectively, and those who own and finance them will certainly act in accordance with the profit motive. Rather than rejecting the forms of media that develop in this context though, we would do well to look for their utopian potential, using them to think our way out of them. To do so is in fact necessary to avoid the “bad” kind of utopianism, which would simply imagine that one could, ex nihilo, conjure something better than what exists. Instead, we must look for the raw materials out of which we could fashion that which we wish for within those things that seem, at present, the most hostile to our dreams of a better future. Only when we attempt to do this will we begin to see how much those dreams are bound up with the futures imagined for us by the likes of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, or the Department of Defense—and thus be able to free ourselves from them.
"Both theoretical treatise and intellectual history, Michael Cramer’s intervention matches the utopian vision of its subject as he efficiently and astutely navigates us through the thorny politics of art cinema."
—Karl Schoonover, University of Warwick
"Michael Cramer's fine book explores those paths not taken that define a genre, that interplay between film and TV pioneered by Rossellini in service of a now utopian social pedagogy. Peter Watkins' understudied work, along with Rossellini's experiments—unfamiliar to those who only know him through the early masterpieces—throw a wholly new light on Godard himself, and Cramer's luminous readings of the works are as stimulating as his overall theorization of this new, or perhaps missed, form."
—Fredric Jameson, Duke University
Friday, April 28, 2017
BY SARAH STONICH
Upon the paperback release of Shelter: Off the Grid in the Mostly Magnetic North, author Sarah Stonich answers questions posed by BookFox.
Q. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Both. I’d compare a good session of writing to a long day of stone-stacking or gardening. They are very similar in that you’re left exhausted in the best possible way, with tangible results. One is such a mental endeavor and the other so physical, yet the satisfaction is oddly similar.
Q. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
I was never a young writer—I assumed one couldn’t presume to write before accruing some life first, so didn’t write a word until my late thirties and wasn’t published until after forty. Knowing now that my most satisfying writing is not the product of experience but of imagination, I would tell my younger self to pick up the pen sooner. I would say trust your imagination to drive the work, spare yourself any pretense of control. Ditch the ego and don’t let yourself get in the way of the story.
Q. How important is truth in memoir?
I love Stephen Colbert's term "truthiness" but am alarmed at how honest reportage is labeled "fake news." Truth matters. But, because there are so few facts in a life, memoir may be the single exception where truthiness is acceptable. Can you remember a conversation verbatim? Probably not. Can a writer truthfully portray a story, a person a memory authentically without a list of facts? I think so.
Q. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
As a child I had a sort of epiphany I had no language for. I do my best adult imitation of describing that moment in Shelter—I typed out words, even though there was more to that experience than words can convey.
Q. What memoirs have you read lately?
I’m reading It’s Okay to Laugh: Crying is Cool, Too by Nora McInerny Purmort – a surprisingly uplifting memoir by a young wife and mother whose husband dies of brain cancer. Not the sort of story I’d normally seek out, but my family is currently taking a similar gut-punch. Nora’s story is reminding me there is a perverse nobility and strength that comes with death.
Q. How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Too many—five? Seven? Probably ten. I like to think I will finish some of those half-baked efforts, but since new ideas for books are already elbowing in, the odds narrow.
Q. What does literary success look like to you?
Making a living wage is rare for most writers. Literary "stardom" is a dream. Realistically, success for me is being positively reviewed and acquiring a loyal readership. When something I’ve written has either touched or inspired a reader or made them relate deeply to a character, that feels like success. When readers take the trouble to write or post a review online, that’s even better. Hopefully, my books get read. Since financial security isn’t a realistic goal (buy books!) there is at least consolation knowing my efforts and words aren’t just dissipating into the ether.
Q. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
No – it’s more like play. The act of stringing and juggling words and stories feels like self-indulgence, shirking the very adult and serious business of living. That said, there is the occasional enlightening moment, when the writing teaches me something.
Q. What did you edit out of this book?
Things about my relationship with my husband, which I feel very protective of. And that’s all I’m gonna say!
Q. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
The Dublin stumble of writers pubs. The Twin Cities alone has enough literary history to plot out a great route for a pilgrimage. Canadians have a program called Bookmarks, placing plaques at the locales of literary landmarks to commemorate the books and authors. A few years back a map of MN authors was produced at some expense. If more were invested in a permanent literary trail, we could be a book tourist’s destination.
Q.What’s next for you?
When I finished Vacationland, I didn’t realize it wasn’t finished with me. Several characters wouldn’t let me go, and so that book has expanded into a trilogy. I’m just wrapping up Laurentian Divide and beginning research on book three.
Q. Will you do any events surrounding the paperback release of Shelter: Off the Grid in the Mostly Magnetic North?
I usually enlist other authors and have a conversation surrounding a theme. ‘Paddling, Mushing, and Woodshedding’ will take place at Common Good Books at 7pm on May 18th with Julie Buckles, author of Paddling to Winter, and Blair Braverman, intrepid musher who wrote Welcome to The Goddamn Ice Cube.
Vacationland (Minnesota, 2013), The Ice Chorus, and These Granite Islands (Minnesota, 2013) as well as Fishing with RayAnne (writing as Ava Finch). The founder of WordStalkers.com, she lives in Minneapolis in a repurposed flour mill.
Shelter: Off the Grid in the Mostly Magnetic North is now available in a paperback edition from University of Minnesota Press.