Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Art of Memory


The Art of Memory, explored in a famous book of that name by Frances Yates and later studied more systematically by Mary Carruthers and Anselm Haverkamp, intriguingly binds the verbal and the visual as the mind is able to retain huge troves of archival information by picturing them, associating them with a tangible, visual icon. To extend this parallel into movement and into three dimensions seems both challenging and the next logical step, and this is just what Company SoNoGo's Art of Memory , which I saw last Saturday at 3LD  in Tribeca, accomplished. From the lighting by ‘book-lights’ which filtered light through prisms resembling book covers, to the ‘glass musician’ to the left of the performance space who meticulously and hauntingly sounded out clinks and clanks on an intricately wrought glass instrument, to the set full of old books, this performance called up what it is like to remember the past to have a past, to be burdened by a past. There is a sense of the aura, the aroma; the weight, the gripping presence of memory. In an age so full of transitions and transformations, this was heartening; at a time when so much performance wants to allude to historical or political issues but has trouble meaningfully incarnating that desire on stage, the piece’s genuine achievement of a sense of the archival in a live performance is worth noting. Yet the Art of Memory does not idealize memory; the piece understands Walter Benjamin’s aphorism that every act of civilization is also an act of barbarism, and that memory, with all its nostalgic, redemptive allure, can thus be a double-edged sword. One of the four performers declares in the middle of the 50-minute piece that her shoes were taken by a malevolent princess; this both elicits the trauma of memory—that we can remember bad things, painful things—and also implies that memory, in its privileging of certain objects and associations over others, can be hierarchical, can led to subordination. Neither this nor any other conclusion is so definite; the piece allows room for the viewer to fill in their own dreams or nightmares, making the space around us also include personal and collective pasts. The Art of Memory is running for a few more days—go see it. 

Friday, July 24, 2009

Gates, Obama, Intellectuality


I have spent much of the week thinking about the Henry Louis Gates Jr. incident. I have always admired Gates,  used his work in my dissertation (during which I had a polite and helpful exchange of letters with him) and during the writing of my forthcoming book on theory, in which he figures extensively. I viscerally sympathized with him having to deal with the police, at the end of a long trip (having done that distance from Australia, I know how he must have felt) and finding his door jammed. Very few academics, especially one of Gates’s stature, would be above using “Are you aware who I am >” rhetoric in that circumstances, it is a kind of arrogance that just ocmes with the territory of being a professor, and it is, after all, one of the few things we have—even somebody of Gates’s stature is not well-salaried when compared to the Coco Crisps and Jose Guillllens of the world. Sometimes our cultural capital is our only armor, and if gates was showing off that capital to Sargeant Crowley, it was in a way his professional reflex to do so.

My first reaction to the incident was that it was racial profiling; that the person who made the call should have known their neighbors; and that the police should not have arrested gates unless he was violent, not just agitated or petulant. which again I would not put myself past being if I were in the same circumstance. I still basically feel this way.


I was surprised at how big a story this became—I was interested in it, but I know Gates’s academic work. I was surprised that people who had no stake in Gates’s work became so interested, but clearly, as President Obama implied, it became a barometer of people’s attitudes towards racial profiling and police brutality. It mushroomed very quickly—it was surprising Lynn Sweet asked the question at the end of a press conference that could be instrumental in a pivotal health-care bill, and it was surprising that Obama addressed it so forthrightly and with such a clear admission of his own stake in the matter. Obviously, he himself now wishes he had not said ‘stupidly,” when something like “precipitously” or “heedlessly” would have been fine, but no one who has a had to answer questions about multiple subjects for an hour could say they would be pitch-perfect in their diction and in their nuances of meaning. Police officers have been ragged by the intellectual left for their level of intelligence, and are understandably miffed by that, and by a general left-elite disregard for the police, audible, sadly, even in New York right after 9/11.  Having made an obvious mistake, the Obama White House handled it well with the rapid-response acumen they showed throughout last year’s campaign. What if Obama had offered to have a latte or a Cosmopolitan with Sargeant  Crowley, not a beer….


But what I am interested in is another aspect ot the situation, my Lang colleague Ferentz Lafargue, in a fascinating essay in the Huffington Post, has suggested that town-gown, as much as black-white tensions, may be at the source of the incident—Cambridge, having elected two black mayors in a row, who in addition were successively a gay man and a lesbian, is not necessarily a hidebound racist enclave, but does participate in the historic tension between municipalities and universities that play a huge economic role in them but do not dominate lock, stock and barrel. I would add to this that some of the reactions gates provoked may be reaction provoked in general by intellectuals. I do not mean to invoke the corking ghost of Richard Hofstadter one more time, but we all know the road to popularity in this country is not by appearing overly cerebral, and that for all of Gates’s popularizing and media friendly activities, most people in the US would still perceive him as forbiddingly academic. It is in this regard that I note that, until this incident, Obama has been, strikingly, helped rather than hurt by his evident intellectuality. Unlike past Democratic candidates like Adlai Stevenson, reviled for being an ‘egghead’, Obama’s clear comfort with books and curiosity about what is in them did not hold him back from the top. Part of this is racial—Obama’s intellectuality meant he was not a “black militant,” his conversancy with the mainstream academic tradition meant that he could be counted on to affirm common American values. But some of it may well have been a growing comfort level with people who foreground their intelligence, a concession that expertise and intellectual curiosity are needed in government. The Gates incident  is the first time Obama’s intellectuality—his reposnse to Gates being conditioned not just by his personal friendship with the professor but his knowledge of the value of his work and the regard it has garnered—influenced his reaction to Sweet’s question, and arguably the American people’s reaction to his reaction. This is perhaps a way to explain just how much stemma this story has unexpectedly gotten….

Ensor, Modernity, Nationalism





I saw the Ensor exhibit at MOMA  last week—I was deeply impressed by his idiosyncrasy, his combination of rigorous draftsmanship and adventurous uses of color and imagery, and his wining combination of parody and distortion with a generous embrace of the world as it is. It also struck me as interesting that “Les XX,” the avant-garde movement to which Ensor belonged for some years, was the first organized European avant-garde, and these Belgians were the first set of “modern painters.”, or “painter of modern life” to use the phrase Baudelaire so famously employed of Constantin Guys—the first set of them. The painter of modern life is, by definition, not celebratory of modernity, not a ‘Futurist', not a “modern sublime”,  and Ensor’s paintings of modern life indeed express its dinginess and banality. Yet, importantly, they are not, as the works of so many later modernists were , meant as a critique of industrial modernity. Indeed, Belgium, as a nation, as a compound of French and Flemish that was when Ensor began working, behind only Germany and Italy as the most ‘recent' nation of Europe, owed its national identity to early and successful industrialization, and Ensor’s canvassing of industrial dinginess, though again not overtly celebratory of it, was an affirmation of the everyday modernity of ‘his’ Belgium, and maybe even an attempt to position it as ‘cutting-edge”.


Flash forward over a hundred years. Ensor was  half-Flemish (his father was English) and worked in an artistic environment as French-speaking as Flemish-speaking. Moreover, the entire industrial identity of Belgium, anchored in the ‘Sillon Industrial’ had a French emphasis; the Flemish were seen as rural, ‘having fallen off the turnip truck’ the French were initiates into la vie modern. Ensor’s Ostend, as a beach resort, was hardly part of this as such, but it was not severed form it either. But, lo and behold, the 2009 Ensor exhibition is funded partially by Flanders House, an organization representing specifically Flemish trade and cultural interests in many world cities now including New York.


Without taking sides in Belgium’s internal politics or expressing a preference—which I do not have either way—for Flemish over Walloon nationalism, I must observe that Flemish nationalism is unusual in being so assertive auspicated with postmodernity. It is because Flanders did not industrialize as much as Wallonia did that it was eligible for the information age; it is like the Research Triangle or Silicon Valley as opposed to the Detroit or Cleveland of the Sillon Industrial. Now, nationalism is supposed to be rooted in ancient loyalties, or conversely bound together by modern economic centralization and its communicative appurtenances such as print culture; postmodernism, the information age is supposed to globalize, decenter. Yet Flemish nationalism boasts of how postmodern it is, how globally attuned, how unlike the plodding old Rust Belt of Wallonia. And Ensor’s emphatic embrace of ‘modern life’ in its deromanticized dingy avatar does not fit a nationalism that bundles local self-assertion with a celebratory affirmation of up-to-date business practices and global exchange…on the other hand, perhaps the current economic crisis will make this vision of nationalism itself a back number.

Nonetheless, Flanders House should be thanked for helping mount the show, which I enjoyed and would recommend—free with a New School ID by the way!