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.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
"Flying Funny": The unusual gravity-defying first act of improv theater's founding father, Dudley Riggs.
Now we know it as Improvisational Theater.
The father of improvisation and founder of the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis in 1958, Dudley Riggs grew up in the circus. His parents were circus performers and as a young boy, Dudley was thrown into the exciting, adrenaline-fueled world of performance. His younger years were spent mostly on the road until he reached college age, settling by chance in Minnesota and floating an idea he had held in his head for some time about applying the Freudian technique of "free association" to theatrical performance. A friend told him to lay off "improvisation"—that was the territory of jazz music.
This idea took on many iterations, all of which are detailed in Dudley's new memoir, Flying Funny: My Life without a Net, which includes a foreword by Al Franken. On Wednesday, April 19, the University of Minnesota Press and the Brave New Workshop hosted an evening to celebrate the book's publication and the wondrous early life Dudley lived that led to the Brave New Workshop's successful creation and evolution into the longest running satirical comedy theater in the United States.
|Brave New Introduction: University of Minnesota |
Press director Doug Armato introduces Dudley Riggs
to the stage, apologizing for bringing a
scripted speech (gasp!) to an improvisational theater.
|A circus-style juggling act before Dudley Riggs|
takes the stage.
|Riggs on stage with Brave New Workshop's co-owner|
|A full house.|
|After the Q&A with Sweeney, Brave New Workshop performers|
improvised scenes inspired by chapter titles from Riggs' memoir:
"The Circus at War," "Clown Diplomacy," and "Never Let Them Know
You Can Drive a Semi."
|A post-Q&A reception with classic slides from Riggs' career.|
|Autographing new books, hot off the presses.|
|207 East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis was the original|
location Riggs selected for his theater.
|The Brave New Workshop would go through a few more location changes,|
including two locations in Uptown Minneapolis,
before arriving at its current location in downtown Minneapolis.
Check our website for more Flying Funny events.
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
BY NORA MURPHY
“We’re just Potato Famine Irish,” declared my grandfather when, as a child, I asked him about our family’s roots in Ireland. A Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, his word sank heavily into my heart and lodged there for decades. They didn’t resurface until decades later, when I began working at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
Surrounded by Native colleagues with visible roots that grounded them in this land, I learned that "Minnesota" is a Dakota word, that the cradleboard my friend was making for her grandson was just like the one her ancestors would have made. These lessons rekindled my curiosity about my family’s past. But I also began to feel a disturbing dis-ease—an intuitive sense that something was not right. It’s taken nearly twenty years to begin to understand this dis-ease. While reconnection and healing have begun, the work is ongoing. This journey is the subject of my new memoir, White Birch, Red Hawthorn.
The longer I worked in the Native community, the more I began to see two sources of the dis-ease in my heart. One source was the loss of connection to ancestral homelands. Though I’m not 100% Irish, three of my grandparents were Irish and it is the culture with which my family identifies the most.
Why didn’t my Grandfather Murphy know about his family’s Irish heritage? Why didn’t we know the names and birthplaces of our ancestors? Was it shameful to be “just Potato Famine Irish”? The erasure of our backstory left me feeling exiled, outside of the circle of belonging. My heart wanted in, not only for myself, but for my children.
Denial was a second source of my dis-ease—the denial of the harm that European American families like mine participated in and caused to our Native American hosts when they settled here. Since then the generational layers of denial, an inheritance passed along by pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps upward mobility, hardens the heart.
This hard heart numbs itself to the reality of past and present suffering in Native communities all across America. By not responding to this pain, I realized that I was negating the basic human instinct of compassion. The more I saw, the less comfortable I was with maintaining old shields of denial and the more human I wanted to become.
White Birch, Red Hawthorn names some of the pain that European immigrants like my family caused to the three main tribes in Minnesota—the Dakota, the Ojibwe, and the Ho-Chunk. It explores the worldview of dominion inherited in stories by American icons like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Paul Bunyan, Henry David Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold. It suggests pathways for reconnection to Ireland.
Each step required lifting layers of lies and touching raw wounds trapped for generations. Only then could I begin to glimpse the possibility of healing. This possibility demanded that once I had a clearer view of the truth, I needed to look beyond facts and find a new way of living. This new way asks us to set down dominion and step back into the circle of humanity.
Above all, this journey toward healing is not over. Standing Rock is just one recent example of how our country continues to harm Native tribes and lands. Even so, I feel hopeful. Each one of us can play a part in lifting the dis-ease of denial and exile. We can examine the stories we’ve inherited, set down the conqueror’s tools, and begin to listen. It’s not easy, but every step counts.
White Birch, Red Hawthorn. She is a fifth-generation Irish Minnesotan. She was born and lives in Imniża Ska, the white cliffs overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers in St. Paul. She has worked and volunteered in the Native community since 1995 and has published five previous books—children’s histories, short stories, and a memoir about women’s textiles, Knitting the Threads of Time.
"Nora Murphy defines her work as cultural outsider: she listens, she doesn’t try to fix anything, and she resists the urge to dominate. She has accomplished the difficult task of writing from what she has learned of people unlike herself, not about them. Harder still, she has learned to love another culture and yet understand it does not belong to her."
—Heid Erdrich, author of Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper
"White Birch, Red Hawthorn is not only educational, with the stories of the struggles that have been inflicted on American Indians, but also an inspirational story of Nora Murphy’s path to discover her Irish ancestry."
—Mary LaGarde, Executive Director, Minneapolis American Indian
"Nora Murphy displays incredible bravery—she asks hard questions and points out the elephant in the room. She creates language to say the things left unsaid."
—Wambdi Wapaha, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation