Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Does "Persepolis" Help us Understand About #Jan25?

In a moment when the world's eyes are fixed on Egypt, what does a book about Iran have to teach us about politics, media, and representation of revolution?

Marjane Satrapi's celebrated graphic memoir Persepolis tells the story of the author's childhood and early-adulthood in Iran during the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath. News outlets have been comparing the historic protests across Egypt to the period between 1978 and 1980 when the Shah was overthrown. The conversation in news media outlets this week has often centered on whether the Obama Administration is making the same mistakes dealing with Egypt that Carter made during the Iranian crisis.

Yet Satrapi's book does not exactly provide us with a clear perspective on how to view America's role in the political and cultural turmoil in Iran. The book portrays historical events, but that's not why it is essential reading. I don't even know if it's helpful to compare the Egyptian protests to Iran (and Persepolis did help me get a basic understanding of some of the crucial differences between Arab and Persian contexts). Rather, Satrapi interweaves the personal with the political, giving us a picture of how ordinary life adapts to and works through moments of national and cultural trauma. Moreover, it conveys this narrative in what is probably the most appropriate form to the task of portraying revolution: graphic narrative.

Brainwashed: "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and Anonymity as a Commodity

Nominated for an Academy Award in the category of "Best Documentary," Exit through the Gift Shop purports to tell the story of Banksy, the well-known British King of Street Art. We're told right from the start that this is "A Banksy Film," but over the course of the film's manic ninety minutes, it evolves into a biopic of Thierry Guetta. Guetta's fortuitous relationship with Space Invader--an early Street Art celebrity--and his relentless obsession with capturing constant footage of his everyday life make him a kind of videographic mascot for an ever-larger group of artists. Guetta gains the trust of a circle of international Street Artists, and from the income generated by what appears to be a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles, is able to follow them around and document everything. After a series of good luck, Guetta (so we are led to believe) develops a friendship with Banksy himself...and the film shifts.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The New New Topographics.....Nostalgia for the Suburban

So, do we want to move back to the suburbs or not? Because I've been getting mixed signals lately, and I'm trying to think through what might or might not be the opening salvo in a renaissance of suburban longing (if there has already been a full-blown renaissance in suburban longing, please someone fill me in).

Arcade Fire's 2010 widely acclaimed album The Suburbs pines for an idyllic return to the simplicity of low expectations, wide lawns, and strip malls. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out if they're being serious or not. But I thought it might be interesting to consider the album next to the 1975 photography exhibition "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape," if only because it takes as its subject the very scenes of 1970's suburban life that Arcade Fire sings so moonily about (incidentally, a new collection of essays to be published by the U of C Press in February reconsiders the show, so I'm trying to get my shots in here quickly)

The images in "New Topographics" portrayed trailer parks, decrepit factories in the exurbs, blank urban spaces, and parking lots. Though it would eventually become one of the most influential bodies of landscape photography in history, the show flopped when it first appeared. The images marked a major departure from previous modes of photography in their simple descriptions of scenes. They did not seem to overtly judge, and yet there was an undeniable snarkiness to the pictures. Audiences seemed not to "get it." It didn't help that the Eastman House was featuring the work of university-trained photographers--a maligned crop of academic practitioners that allegedly lacked the natural talent thought to be necessary for authentic picture-making.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Onslaught of the "Best Books About 9/11"

It's inevitable. Come September, we will be awash in a national project of stock-taking--a look back at the previous ten years on the anniversary of the September attacks of 9/11/2001. It seems useful to think about what will be the value of these collective considerations. I wonder whether the two camps that formed in the wake of the attacks have softened a bit. There were those who believed 9/11 changed essentially everything, and those who believed 9/11 changed essentially nothing--is it time that we all agree that neither is the case, but that something happened? If we can, I think we can move on to helpful questions about what art and literature is doing to help us think about the politics and culture of "The Post-9/11 Moment" as a historically bound phase in American identity. Deborah Eisenberg's wonderful collection Twilight of the Superheroes helps us understand what it means to move beyond a nationally post-traumatic stage and move to work 9/11 into something like a collectivized memory (even though you probably won't see it on Top Ten Books About 9/11 lists that are guaranteed to materialize).

Ten years after "the events of 9/11," I think two pertinent questions have evolved, both of which help us understand how cultural/national trauma gets absorbed at the level of individuals

What was the post-9/11 moment? What was special about American politics and culture during a period that followed 9/11/2001? How were particular strategies and tactics mobilized to achieve certain cultural and political objectives? How did these strategies and tactics wane over time? Is the post-9/11 moment something that could ever end?

How did the Post-9/11 Moment structure our thinking about the "event" itself? This is related to the possibility of ever being anything other than Post-Traumatic in the wake of the attacks. The "Post-9/11 Moment" might be thought of as a period that begins with standardized modes of national grief and moves to the recent past, where 9/11 is taken as a kind of given in the American consciousness. Perhaps the Post-9/11 moment was the period during which this shift took place.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Wells Tower Says Some Things

A few months back, I got a chance to exchange emails with Wells Tower. Below, find answers to some of my questions in full. Author of the collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and recipient of a 2010-2011 New York Public Library Fellowship, Tower is currently working on his first novel. Here he talks about the supposed "death of the novel," the "rise of the short story," ordinary life...and Pliny the Younger. His collection was among the best reviewed (it got the unheard-of honor of being TWICE reviewed in the New York Times). You can listen to him read the hilarious and violent and beautiful Viking title story here, and read one of the best travel essays (about visiting Iceland with his father here). But first, here's the interview:

1) Writers from Philip Roth to James Wood have been warning us about the "death of the novel" for almost fifty years. What kind of credence, if any, do you give to these kinds of claims (that the novel is obsolete, dehumanized, hysterical, and incapable of "keeping up")?

We hear the same thing about literature generally, and I don't buy it. Prophesies of the novel's death are a kindred vanity to the Evangelicals' claim that the Rapture, any day now, is upon us. It's fun to feel like the last of something. And, sure, video games outsell literary novels by a dispiriting proportion, but unless we somehow cease to use language to make sense of the world, I am sure that people will continue to write novels that matter. (Way more after the jump...)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Remembering the "Other" Black Writers


While trying to wrap one's head around the mindbending legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is important to remember black writers and artists who fit outside the dominant and often patronizing paradigms of black cultural production inculcated during things like "Black History Month." Growing up, I was taught to believe in a single cohesive narrative that explains how the leaders of black culture (to use an already fraught term) contributed to bringing the end of institutionalized racism in America. When reading Their Eyes were Watching God, Native Son, Invisible Man, and Go Tell it on the Mountain, the narrative was often oversimplified: black writers wrote books that overtly protested segregationist practices, and did so in a single unified voice. The truth is, of course, much richer and more complicated, but also more difficult to teach.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hedi Kaddour's "The Bus Driver" and Ordinary Life

The Bus Driver: Hedi Kaddour

What has gotten into the bus driver
Who has left his bus, who has sat down
On a curb on the Place de l'Opera
Where he slips into the ease of being
Nothing more than his own tears? The passersby
Who bend over such a shared and
Presentable sorrow would like him
To tell them that the wind used to know
How to come out of the woods toward a woman's dress,
Or that one day his brother said to him,
Even your shadow wants nothing to do with you.
His feet in a puddle, the bus driver
Can only repeat, This work is hard
And people aren't kind.

-- from A Walk in the City, Treason (YUP 2010), translated by Marilyn Hacker

Like 35 Shots, Hedi Kaddour's amazing collection Treason explores the lives of characters confronting breakdowns in the flows and rhythms of their routines. I don't want to sound like a broken record citing recent French art for doing this kind of thing so well, but I thought this poem could be fun to think of next to Denis's film , especially because Lionel drives trains and the bus driver in Kaddour's get it (apparently there's just something super ordinary about working in public transportation in Paris).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why it's Important to Start Using the Past Tense when it Comes to Hipsters

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="560" caption="Photo Credit: New York Magazine"][/caption]

Last October, Mark Greif published an appraisal of hipster culture in New York Magazine.  Greif is one of the founders of the supposedly-annoying magazine and online journal N+1.  I don't know enough about it to say whether I like the pubication or not (although characterizations of it as an elitist and pseudo-academic journal lead me to the assumption--if I am to be honest with myself--that I would probably dig it).  But I do think that the conceit of the article--assigning the past tense to consider hipster culture as a historically bound phenomenon--is a useful one.   

Some notes on "The Bell Jar," Richard Powers, and Evolving Definitions of Mental Life

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="286" caption="Yes I accidentally bought an edition meant for "young readers." I'm owning it."][/caption]

In an effort to make up for more than a few literary and personal-life-ish oversights, I finally read The Bell Jar this week.  From there, I turned back to some of the more famous poems in Ariel, making what I think is a common bonehead mistake when reading Plath.  It becomes incredibly difficult when reading Path's work not to consider biography as overdetermining every detail in her fiction and poetry.  Maybe it's partially her fault, sure.  The Bell Jar is so close to autobiographical that Plath famously prevented its publication in the United States and insisted upon releasing it under a pseudonym in Great Britain.  But I do want to try to put all of that aside.  To say that Plath's story is tragic (and even to suggest, as a friend put it, that Ted Hughs pulled of the most dastardly murder in the history of modern letters) does miss the point of this novel: namely, that Esther Greenwood is probably one of of the most distinctive characters in mid-20th Century American fiction.  I don't have the ability or background to articulate what the novel meant for the feminist movement, although Esther's observations about men and relationships are scathing and often hilarious.

Ordinary Life in "35 Shots"

We need more movies like Claire Denis's 35 Rhums. Beautiful in its composition, and subtle in the exploration of its themes, the film takes us on a ride (literally--we are moved around the city and banlieue-scapes of Paris in trains, taxis, buses, motorcycles, and vans) through the ordinary lives of its characters. Denis's exploration of the familiar seems so spot-on not only because of the understated way in which she deals with interruptions in the ordinary, but also the diligence and precision with which she records the everyday as an emotionally charged ground for exploration. By painstakingly documenting small daily rituals and routines, Denis's film helps us see how variations in the smallest facets of life become the record of momentous and often tragic events.Much of the emotional intensity of 35 Shots is staged in the apartment that Lionel shares with his daughter Jo, where the rhythms of daily life rule the action. Lionel takes off shoes in the hallway; Jo puts laundry in the machine and puts her headphones on to study; she prepares dinner and the two eat togehter. The film repeats these scenes over and again, to the extent that they condition our experience of the narrative. We see Lionel enter the apartment every night either after work or drinking with friends. We see him take off his shoes and walk down the hallway of his apartment to his bedroom. We see him put on his robe and get ready to take his shower. We become, in effect, sensitized to the fact that these are repeated actions, and can begin to look for variations in the manner that he carries out the routine. Instead of asking whether certain actions in the film will take place, we come to expect them, and in turn ask how the routines will change in response to events that take place outside of the apartment.

In this domestic space, we notice the subtlest variations, which stand out as a record of how characters manage the impact of events in the outside world. The way that Lionel takes off his shoes becomes an index of his state of sobriety. We notice that the only seated meal that Jo and her father share is the first in the film--a formal recognition of Lionel's unexpectedly thoughtful gift of the rice cooker (in every subsequent meal, they are standing). On nights when Lionel is particularly tired or affected by some event of the day, he forgoes the shower. Jo listens at the bathroom door for subtle variations in the noises her father is making as he bathes. They become signifiers of his emotional state.

Jo manages this domestic space, and attempts to control it by constantly cleaning and cooking. Despite Lionel's request that she stop trying to take care of him and live her own life, Jo feels compelled to make the home as blank a space as possible for the staging of everyday life. In turn, her impulse to clear the apartment of clutter is set off against Noe's penthouse, which is riddled with clothing, old furniture, garbage, and eventually his dead cat. He is constantly out of milk--unable to keep the kitchen supplied with what is necessary to have a smooth daily routine. Though he tries to remove the debris from his life, he eventually decides instead to sell the place. It is too fraught with memories. In essence, it can never be a space of simple domestic life because it is packed with objects that carry emotionally charged associations.

If the apartment becomes the place where characters find sanctuary--or perhaps, most often seek comfort--in rhythms, the outside world becomes a set of sites that resist the search for flow that is nevertheless constant. The film opens with an extended sequence of trains, shot from both the inside of a cab and from Lionel's perspective on the side of a track. Day turns to night. The trains move along and lights come on. Sometimes the noise of the trains passing is the smooth sliding of steel wheels on track. Sometimes we see the cab jerk to the side as it passes over a switch. We look for the reassurance of rhythm in the portrayal of commutes and labor. But there are only momentary sensations of in-flowness, punctuated by Lionel's cigarettes and by shots of commuters banging into Jo and causing her to wince. It seems significant that Jo and Lionel only seem comfortable in the outside world when they are experiencing a kind of domesticized rhythm together: sharing the motion of the motorbike, or in the comfort of their awesome little van--which contains a kitchen and enough space to share a meal. To feel in tune with the world, they must take their domestic space with them.

Jo insists that she could "live exactly like this," with her father; but of course, it is the interruptions in the rhythms of simple domestic life that drive the action of most of the film--and in effect, drive Jo precisely away from the life she shares with her father. The film suggests that while routine and ritual help us find comfort in the world, only interruption and exception drive us forward. That is: only interruptions in the narrative of routine can create forward motion that drives the plot. When Gabrielle's taxi breaks down and the group must miss the concert, Lionel spends the night with a bartender and Jo reacts by trying to strip the apartment of memories of her mother. The characters are forced to stop moving, and in doing so, must confront what is in front of them. This happens again toward the climax of the film. Rene's suicide on the RER tracks not only causes Lionel to stop his train, but also serves as the catalyst for Lionel and Jo to take a trip to Germany and visit the grave of Methilde.

I wonder whether Denis has set up a dichotomy between repetitive and forward motion, or if my reading of these two types of experiences in the world are necessarily set apart from one another in the film. Does ordinary experience require interruption for the reevaluation of self? Considering the final scene, I'm not exactly sure. Lionel celebrates the end of his current domestic life with his daughter by drinking the 35 Shots of Rum--a ritual whose origin goes unstated but which has a special significance for him. Here, Lionel turns to ritual in a case of celebration. It is the fusion of the repeatable or traditional and the exemplary or spectacular event. It is joy for his daughter and nostalgia for their already-lost life together that fuses the two.