Tuesday, June 30, 2015

21st-century speculations

Excited to teach a course on these searching, striving, playful, experimental, sly and enchanting books this fall.

Roberto Bolaño
By Night in Chile

Helen Oyeyemi
Boy, Snow, Bird

Can Xue
The Last Lover
Kuzhali Manickavel
Things We Found During the Autopsy

Karen Joy Fowler
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Friday, June 19, 2015

dancing on a sheet of ice

I just finished the novel Five Spice Street by Can Xue. It's the story of Madam X, who sells peanuts, stares into a microscope, completely loses her sight and hearing (maybe), gets them back (if relevant), creates miracles, attracts devotees, has an affair, or many, or none at all, and is adored, reviled, deified and trashed by the people of Five Spice Street.

Can Xue is "the only woman associated with the male-dominated avant-garde school that emerged in China around 1985." She cites Kafka, Calvino, Borges, and Dante as inspirations, and has written about all of them. She has published at least three novels, fifty novellas, 120 short stories, and six books of criticism (those numbers are from 2009). She describes her thirty-year career as "an experiment without an escape route."

Madam X spends a lot of time at her microscope, yet she's struggling to get away from it. "I sometimes think: why don't I create a miracle? Creation would be much more interesting than research!" Madam X creates miracles without trying and also by trying extremely hard. Her relationship to Five Spice Street is that of an artist to the public. They think she's disgusting, alluring, a sex maniac, a corrupter of youth and morals, and also "the wave of the future." Meanwhile Madam X muses: "Just think how fragile people are: how is it possible to be a genius?"

Madam X jumps up on the table. Her eyes shoot beams of saffron light. Asked to give a speech, she threatens to turn somersaults, and when people insist, she does in fact turn somersaults.

A long, convoluted, hallucinatory novel, full of commentary from people with half names or no names, from Mr. Q, Dr. A, the widow with the ample body, the young coal worker, the widow with the felt hat. A feeling of being unmoored, adrift among these characters without character, in a story that builds in such a weird way that it seems to be going nowhere. But who is more utterly adrift than Madam X? In the chapter called "Madam X Is Up a Creek," her feet are stuck to thin, cracking ice in a kind of dream. "Must this drama end? Finally, do I--this woman who sells peanuts--have to grit my teeth and hold out until the end, and flip my body--wounded all over by arrows--into the sea? Wait, I still want to do something whimsical: I want to dance on this sheet of ice. It's so bright! So bright!"

A novel that's off-putting and mesmerizing at the same time. Into a commentary that seems to go on almost forever in the service of almost nothing, a surreal image falls like a thunderclap. Madam X's sister remembers X as a child:

"My sister used to be a charming, gentle little girl. The peach blossoms were brilliantly red. Then, suddenly, she threw Mother's spectacles into the mountain stream. Afterwards, we ran and ran until she leapt into the air, and I heard only her footsteps--tita, tita--overhead. In private, Papa and Mama said she had two calcium carbide lamps for eyes. Sometimes, her slender fingers would turn into a hawk's talons--very sharp and truly frightening. Mama was always grabbing her and cutting her nails until her fingers bled."

Can Xue is a pseudonym that means both "the purest snow at the top of a high mountain" and "the dirty snow that refuses to melt."

Sunday, June 7, 2015

recent reads

Ladan Osman's poetry collection The Kitchen-Dweller's Testimony evokes a domestic space threatened by invading creatures: ants, spiders, worms. At times these are the forces of an unwelcoming America, of race hatred. An immigrant family can't find the key to their new community, a job, a way in: "The next day dozens of dead flying ants covered our patio." But small creatures also represent another kind of force.

One night, a black spider in my pillowcase.
"God sent me here to protect you."
"Okay," I said. "Come on in."
"Who are you talking to?" my husband asked.
I told him a spider with the most beautiful voice
would be sleeping with us from now on.

The poet, too, is a small creature dwelling uncomfortably in domestic space: a scared, resourceful, tenacious kitchen-dweller. It seems so important that the collection opens with the scene of a poetry reading (Claudia Rankine's, at the University of Chicago in 2011). And that the poet, having left behind the kitchens and backyards and dumpsters and sheds of her childhood, is also a spider here, a stranger. "My voice is small as it asks/ What will it matter to them if I make a book?" I like these raw moments in Ladan Osman's work. "It's me who's getting ugly." "I just need to ventilate." "Yes, I have been disgusting so much." The spider's beautiful voice.

This is the first book I've read by Antoine Volodine, although I've already read a book by Manuela Draeger, which is one of the heteronyms of a French writer who also writes as Antoine Volodine. Writers consists of seven short pieces on writers who belong to the post-exotic world (something I will not try to discuss until I've read the book, which I see has just been released in English!!!). They have created "a literature that has no name," a literature characterized, to judge from the stories in Writers, by marginalization, disappearance, crime, imprisonment, and death. Several of the writers are political prisoners and/or patients in psychiatric hospitals. But they don't just reject the state and society, they reject writing--or rather, they reject being writers. Mathias Olbane doesn't bother to complete his stories and uses his work as toilet paper. Linda Woo writes in abbreviations and a private language. Bogdan Tarassiev employs "particular literary strategies, which…consist of evacuating all hope of notoriety and, on the contrary, finding a way for his texts to survive in the least flashy way possible, in scorning the hostile environment that surrounds them and in dreaming of hypothetical readers, located in the future and in the beyond." Nikita Kouriline "wasn't called to be a writer."

Something here about opposition, about how to be a revolutionary artist. For these writers, step one is refusing recognition by the public. Step two is drawing a careful distinction between writing and activism. These writers aren't in prison for penning manifestoes, they're in prison for pulling triggers. Writing is a truly underground project: latent, occult, peristaltic, thrown out with the trash. It's not about "the voice that vociferates," says Maria Three-Thirteen in a weird nude prison interview, it's about the image. "Whether it is extinguished or not, whether it means something or not, in the end, and when I say the end it's really the end, only the image counts."

Poet Joyelle McSweeney brings together a diverse group of writers and artists in this exuberant book about holes and decay and art in the Anthropocene. You can get an idea of her project in this essay, which describes the Necropastoral as "a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of 'nature' which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects." It's Wilfred Owen's great pocks and scabs of plagues, it's Aimé Césaire's putrefying force of crepuscular surroundings, it's Kim Hyesoon's nights of vomit and overflowing toilets. It's also Andy Warhol's Marilyns and Yayoi Kusama's polka dots and the entire practice of translation and wow it's so many things, so many things that it threatens to dissolve and become just sort of art in general or life in general for humans at whatever time. (If you read the comments on any article about the Anthropocene you will find somebody saying "yawn, this is just the human condition.") I don't think the concept falls apart altogether, but I do think the overarching argument for the Necropastoral may be the least interesting thing about this book. Much more compelling to me is McSweeney's grimly ecstatic vision, which sees holes everywhere. I love her range, the way she throws together artists from different places and times. I like her language:

What Art conducts: itself: Art: its potential: its fecundity: its contaminatoriness; in and of itself: its viral mediumicity: its monstrosity; its sound; its vibration; its stutter; its contagion; flightlike or fluid; its inhuman Influence.

I like her evident desire to be an Anthropocene artist. I like the way she places herself here.

Saturday, May 9, 2015


Edward Burtynsky's paintings of quarries: 
images of anthroturbation or scarring of the earth

I went to the conference "Approaching the Anthropocene: Perspectives from the Humanities and Fine Arts" at UC Santa Barbara. We were artists, writers, scholars of art and literature, anthropologists, economists, activists, filmmakers, philosophers. We came to find out what sorts of things the others were saying about the end of the world. Here are some of those things:

very small

Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint lead workshops on fermentation as part of their Edible Ecologies project. Here is a world you can eat and it becomes you and you become it: a "collaborative hack," Nadir says, between fruits, vegetables, microbes, and humans.

very large
Mishka Henner works with satellite photos of industrial farms. He alters the colors for emphasis, but doesn't change anything else. The "waste lagoon" pictured here is not quite that green, but it is a waste lagoon. Henner's work was shown in Erin E. Wiegand's talk “Visualizing the Factory Farm: Undercover Video, Activist Drones, and Satellite Art.”

very invisible
The Invisible-5 project is an audio tour that uses oral histories to document the struggle for environmental justice along Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. In her talk on the project, Sarah Jane Pinkerton explained that the downloadable audio tour might tell you, for example, that the fog you're driving through is made of pesticides.

The problem of invisibility came up in several talks, such as Erin Wiegand's, mentioned above, and Julie Koppel Maldonado's presentation "Resisting the Forces of the Anthropocene: The Transformation of Places, Communities, and Lifeways." Like the creators of Invisible-5, Maldonado collects oral histories, this time in tribal communities in coastal Louisiana whose land, once it's under water--that is, once it's invisible--becomes the property of the state.

very absent

Yukihisa Isobe has marked the old course of the Shinano River with yellow flags, showing how it's been altered by dams and other human interventions. This installation, called "Where Has the River Gone?", was discussed in Brad Monsma's talk "Distributed Agency and the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale."

very slow

It's important to note that the principle behind the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field is satoyama: humans are part of nature. The event offers an "absolutely inefficient" approach to art--works are spread out rather than centralized, and emphasize the relationship between humans and the landscape in deep time.

very absent and also present

Bryan Rasmussen's paper "Icons of Loss: Hiroshi Sugimoto's Art of the Anthropocene" discussed Sugimoto's arresting and eerie photographs of museum dioramas. How the colorful, fake, 3D diorama becomes at once more ghostly and more immediate when reproduced as a black-and-white photograph.

very dead and also alive

In her talk "Doing Philosophy: Art as Ethical Testing Ground for the Anthropocene," Kayla Anderson argued that while some artists express awareness of the Anthropocene with what she calls "destructive narratives," which simulate action, others adopt "constructive narratives," which stimulate thinking. Among the latter is Jae Rhim Lee, whose Mushroom Death Suit is pictured here. Anderson was on the same panel as Nadir and Peppermint, and the Mushroom Death Suit, like the Edible Ecologies project, could be called a collaborative hack between the human and the nonhuman. Basically, a death hack. There was a relaxed, chummy attitude toward death at this conference. "When you see solutions in our work, it's a poetic gesture," Nadir said. "We actually don't think we're going to survive."

There was also a lot of discussion about thinking and doing and what art is for. At one point Anderson used the term "thinktivist." The role of art in the Anthropocene, she said, is to conduct experiments, raise questions, and "provoke dark discussions" in order to enliven critical thinking. Leila Nadir quoted Ricardo Dominguez on the difference between activism and art: that activism tends to break the law, while art creates a disturbance in the law. It's the difference between the effective and the affective, Dominguez says in this completely amazing interview conducted by Nadir in 2012. 

I leave you with this still from Nadir and Peppermint's video project "Late Anthropocene." In their talk it had the subtitle "A Geologic Feeling." This describes our state when we left the conference--mine, anyway. Very geologic. Very feeling.

Monday, May 4, 2015

how not to be phony

I read this story in an essay by Andre Dubus ("A Hemingway Story," 1999) and I thought it was great. This happened in the sixties. Dubus was Vonnegut's neighbor, and one day Vonnegut was going to pick Ralph Ellison up at the airport and asked Dubus if he wanted to go along. Of course Dubus said yes. When he got in the car, he noticed a copy of Invisible Man lying on the front seat.

"Are you going to leave the book there?" he asked. And Vonnegut said: "I'm teaching it. I thought it'd be phony to take it out of the car."

I love that! The way Vonnegut is so sensitive to phoniness that he would rather look phony by leaving the book in the car than be phony by taking it out.

The whole story is interesting actually. They go to the airport, and they're wondering how they're going to recognize Ellison, when they realize he'll probably be the only black person on the plane. And he is. He couldn't be phony about that if he tried. And of course that's what Invisible Man is about--the hypervisibility of blackness, and how it acts as a screen, an erasure, totally phony.

Apparently Ellison's wife didn't like to fly. She came by train. So after hanging out and having a few drinks and quoting Hemingway, Vonnegut and Dubus settle Ellison in his room and get ready to pick up Mrs. Ellison. "How will we recognize her?" Vonnegut asks.

Ellison says his wife is wearing a gray dress and carrying a beige raincoat. And then he smiles and adds: "And she's colored."

Another example of how not to be phony.

(I still wonder how Fanny Ellison felt about the whole situation, and whether she thought these guys were phony or not.)

Friday, May 1, 2015

ex machina, pharmacopornographia

I'm reading Testo Junkie, an amazing theory book/diary by Beatriz Preciado (Paul B. Preciado). Have you seen Ex Machina? It is exactly about what Preciado calls the pharmacopornographic era, that is, the era we're living in. Look:

"In this period of the body's technomanagement, the pharmocopornographic industry synthesizes and defines a specific mode of production and consumption, a masturbatory temporization of life, a virtual and hallucinogenic aesthetic of the living object, an architecture that transforms inner space into exteriority and the city into interiority and 'junkspace' by means of mechanisms of immediate auto-surveillance and ultra rapid diffusion of information, a continuous mode of desiring and resisting, of consuming and destroying, of evolution and self-destruction."

This paragraph is a distillation of Ex Machina. Almost too perfect. Technomanagement of the body (downloads, upgrades). Pharmacopornography (the soft brain & soft body of Nathan's desire), masturbatory temporization of life (NATHAN'S ENTIRE EXISTENCE), virtual & hallucinogenic aesthetic of the living object (AVA), architecture (Nathan's house! inner space as workspace), the city as interiority (Ava's dream! her entire interiority is the city, for her to have an inner life is to stand on a street corner) (also JUNKSPACE, read the essay linked above, here is a line from it: "Junkspace features the office as the urban home, a meeting-boudoir: desks become sculptures, the workfloor is lit by intimate downlights," okay, if we remove the word urban this is a perfect description of Nathan's house). IMMEDIATE AUTO-SURVEILLANCE: Nathan's vids of himself with his dolls. Ultra rapid diffusion of information: the "blue book" search engine, also Ava's brain. Desiring, resisting, consuming, destroying, evolution, self-destruction: every moment of the film is at least one of these.

More Preciado that is also exactly Ex Machina:

"Pharmacopornographic capitalism is ushering in a new era in which the most interesting kind of commerce is the production of the species as species, the production of its mind and its body, its desires and its affects. Contemporary biocapitalism at the same time produces and destroys the species."

And also:

"Pharmacopornographic biocapitalism does not produce things. It produces movable ideas, living organs, symbols, desires, chemical reactions, and affects. In the fields of biotechnology and pornocommunication, there are no objects to produce; it's a matter of inventing a subject and producing it on a global scale."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

poetry is a way of life

Poetry is a way of life, not a career. A career means you solicit the powerful and the famous. A way of life means you live where you are with the people around you. A career means you become an authority. A way of life means you stay a student, even if you teach for a living. A career means your life increasingly comes from your art. A way of life means your art continues to arise from your life. Careerism feeds off of the theoretical, the fancified, the complicated, the coded, and the overwrought; all forms of psychological cowardice. A way of life is nourished by the practical, the unadorned, the complex, and a direct approach to the mysterious.

                                ~ Marvin Bell, "Homage to the Runner: Bloody Brain Work" (1993)