A Radical Cut In The Texture Of Reality.

March 5, 2015

Passage from The Fourth World by Diamela Eltit


When I turned twelve I had my first sexual encounter. Transmuted by the ancestral force of passion, I was on the verge of consummating the act, but I didn’t know then if I was being liberated to experience glory or to experience punishment, for all I wanted was to go further – I had to go much further – until I could fuse hesitation with acceleration, disorder with precision, in the sacred flesh.

It happened on a street. The sky was darkened with clouds. I was walking attentively along a narrow street when I sensed that someone was following me. My heart began to pound, yearning for the secret pleasure that emerged from some part of my brain.

I soon realized that I was not the one being followed, but the one following someone else, someone slender, walking unhurriedly, and seeming to glide along in an affected manner. The equivocal situation made me fear I was hallucinating, but the sound of the steps, the crisp air, and the uneven sidewalk confirmed that I was deeply immersed in a real situation.

I was astonished to realize that not only was I following an unknown person but also I didn’t know why I was doing it. Inexplicably, and in some crucial way, however, that moment pulled me away from the world I knew and pushed me into another in which that hieroglyphic person would make similarity and difference fade into one another.

At one particular moment I lost sight of the figure. Dejected and vexed by inertia, I began to double back, thinking nostalgically about my loss. I felt deprived of some absolute presence, more fundamental than my parents and more mysterious than the sum of my fluctuations.

Sadly, I started back. Of the four roads from which I could choose, each one was as equally possible as it was a mistake. I quickly realized that not only had I lost someone but also, in the search, I had become lost myself.

It would have been absurd to wager on which way I should return. One of those roads would take me home, but if I were to choose the wrong one, it would take me three times as long to get back. It seemed as if I were being punished for letting myself be guided by my impulses. Soon it was going to get dark and the city would become even more dangerous. I had been warned about it so many times that now it seemed like a dream to be exposed to it, just on the edge of twilight and shielded by anonymous, conventional dwellings.

Some curious faces observed me while I stood there, stubborn and rigid, trying to decide which way to go. Becoming desperate, I tried to reconstruct my original route, but each possibility seemed equally valid to me. As I got cold, I became more anxious, so I made a random choice. I had no memories or assumptions that would have convinced me that I should have headed south.

I was facing a long and lonely walk, intensified by fear every step of the way. There was nothing to distract me, except the darkness that was overtaking the sky ever so quickly.

Suddenly, when my miserable condition was too much for me to bear, I saw that same figure standing nearby. I froze, overwhelmed by irrepressible desire. Without thinking, I walked through the darkness, guided only by the scent of another person’s skin near me. I stopped.

I felt myself being pushed up against the stone wall, breathing in unison with the figure that was stroking me. Expert, soft hands ran all over my body and fingers pushed against me in order to remove my clothing. In that public exchange, those hands that traversed my body back and forth found their way to the most stimulated part of me.

Unable to feel the stone wall jabbing my back anymore, I sought a deeper reality once those caresses had prepared me for that moment. Feeling totally outside my body, I tried to touch the other person, but a pair of hands stopped me.

As if in apology, our mouths became fused with the passion of our saliva. My tongue became a sword, seeking not only to wound my rival but also to lick my ally.

Out mouths witnessed a combat of shifting liquids that became desperately and painfully prolonged. My breathing became nasally vulgar as the undulations, domination, and pricking left me out of breath. Unable to continue, I decided to consummate the act, but the figure fled, leaving me stinging against the stone wall.

Then the pain began. A sharp, genital pain, provoked by vigorous and demanding desire. Alone and shameless, I resigned myself to the personal glory that I had assiduously attained for the first time. Satisfaction was measured by the curve of desire and the dimension of abandonment. When the violence of the stones returned, I knew it was over.

The hours it took me to get home were agonizing, for I cursed and cursed the whole way, trying to destroy my sexual vitality. I saw myself as an outcast, I was unworthy of living with my family, and I felt as if my mind and body had been condensed into all the encrusted afflictions of the world.

At intervals, strong surges of well-being helped return me to a state of moderation, reducing the denigrated feeling I had about myself. The accursed sermon of reason incessantly accused me of a perfidious crime whose fine was permanent shame and horror.

I promised to make all kinds of sacrifices, even castration, in order to alleviate that burden; yet something had become hopelessly perverted in me and, deep inside, I had exposed myself to a cynical yet honest life.

I suffered intensely for several days but, little by little, even though I was feeling much anxiety, I concentrated on elucidating exactly what happened in that meeting on the street.

I couldn’t determine who or what seduced me that evening. Despite continually reconstructing that encounter I could never ascertain anything with any proof, even though I know I encountered youthful plentitude in the flesh of a young female beggar or a young male vagabond who, as night approached, performed a charitable act for me.

- Diamela Eltit, The Fourth World/El Cuarto Mundo


March 4, 2015

The Doppelganger


[This text was originally published in SIC #2/The Characters]

You turn the corner and there he is. He’s you but he’s not you. He’s pathetic. He’s you, but if you were someone else he would also be you. He’s the person you see unexpectedly when you’re walking down the street, turn a corner, and suddenly chance upon a version of yourself. But what I’m trying to explain is that it’s him. He’s always the same person. I realize this is not an original idea. Doppelgangers have a considerable history in literature and art, and this year alone there were two feature films about characters encountering their doubles. But he doesn’t need to be original because he’s you and, let’s face it, you’re not so original either.

All of this is only preamble. What’s important is that we try to see things from his perspective. Because he knows that he is in fact himself, but you know that he is also you. If you woke up tomorrow with another face, you might have an intense moment of crisis, but in the end you would still know that you’re yourself. And when you turn the corner to stumble upon him, for him it is a bit like he has just awoke with another face, your face, but he’s used to it. It might have bothered him a long time ago, when all this first began, but now it no longer phases him. He simply glances in your direction, thinking here we go again. He’s accepted the fact that constantly others will approach him, others who view him differently than he views himself.

Over time he has become philosophical about the matter. Everyone believes they have a self and is encouraged to over-invest in this belief. However, since his own self is, on an almost daily basis, undermined by the intense projections of relative strangers, he has no choice but to take the opposite road. He works each day to under-invest in his own sense of self, to see it most clearly where the edges blur and he is indistinguishable from many of those who surround him.

Over time he has come to find a strange comfort in this daily fact. As you turn the corner, stumble upon him, and are disturbed, thrown off-guard by your sudden encounter with some new version of yourself, he takes it all in stride. We are each, perhaps, ourselves. But, at the same time, every street is filled with hundreds of others who might also be us, and if they were, or are, what difference would it really make to each of our lives? All you have to do is turn a corner.


February 26, 2015

Five quotations on suicide


During the decline of Christian moralism few groups have risen so rapidly in the overall estimation of society [as the suicide has.] It was dangerous for Donne to suggest that suicide was sometimes not a sin. It was still daring for Hume to reason that it was sometimes not a crime. Later one had to point out that it was sometimes not simply a sickness of the soul. Now it seems necessary to argue that it is sometimes not a virtue. To paraphrase Freud, what does a suicide want? Not what he gets, surely. Some simply think of death as the absence of their present state, a state which pursues them like a malignant disease and which cannot be otherwise escaped. Others consider it quite positively, as thought to die were to get on in the world. Seventh Heaven, after all, is a most desirable address. Still others spend their life like money, purchasing this or that, but their aim is to buy, not to go broke. Are we to say to them (all and every kind) what we often say to children? no, Freddie, you don’t want a pet boa, you wouldn’t like the way it swallows mice.

It doesn’t follow at all that because it is easy enough to kill yourself, it is easy enough to get, in that case, what you want. Can you really be said to want what you cannot possibly understand? or what you are in abysmal confusion about? or what is provenly contrary to your interests? or is plainly impossible? Is ‘I’d rather be dead’ anything like ‘I want to be a chewed-up marshmallow’; or: ‘I want 6 and 3 to make 10’; or: ‘I want to be a Fiji princess’; or: ‘I want a foot-long-dong’; or: ‘I want that seventh scotch-on-the-rocks’; or ‘I would love to make it with Lena Horne’?
– William H. Gass, The World Within the Word

Suicide is a crime of loneliness, and adulated people can be frighteningly alone. Intelligence does not help in these circumstances; brilliance is almost always profoundly isolating.
– Andrew Solomon

The obsession with suicide is characteristic of the man who can neither live nor die, and whose attention never swerves from this double impossibility.
– E. M. Cioran

The destructive character lives from the feeling not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.
– Walter Benjamin, The Destructive Character

Only the suicide thinks he can leave by the door that is merely painted on the wall.
– Vladimir Holan


February 25, 2015

Wanted: Men Who Love / Against Self-Criticism


I think the article Wanted: Men Who Love by bell hooks and the article Against Self-Criticism by Adam Phillips actually compliment each other quite nicely.


February 22, 2015

Fragment (This book is not reality.)


This book is not reality. No book is reality but this book especially so. Things that happen in reality are often extremely obvious and just as often utterly counter-intuitive. This might also well be the case within the pages of this book but this fact for some reason does not bring this book any closer or farther away from the reality which it is not. Even as I write that this is not reality I have to admit to myself that I don’t actually know what reality is, I don’t know what freedom is, if it is something I want or something I’m only afraid of, I don’t actually know how to change anything but suspect so many things so deeply must change.


February 11, 2015

Tangentially yours — Jacob Wren & Todd Lester in conversation, #4


The conversation so far: #1, #2, #3

Dear Todd,

I kept trying to answer your second letter but then I keep coming back to something that I didn’t quite get around to in your first. (I promise I won’t remain one whole letter behind for the entirety of our correspondence.)

It was the question you ended with: “Do we make it worse for people around the world we purport to care for by ‘taking the bait’ in these situations? Do we assure that they become the homo sacer?” It was a question that continued to haunt me. Then I was reading the remarkable book May ’68 and Its Afterlives by Kristin Ross and she historically reframed the question for me in ways I felt really get to the heart of the matter.

This reframing has to do with the ‘third-worldist’ discourse of the sixties and the backlash of the ‘anti-third-wordist’ discourse that arrived in the eighties. In the French context, much of this sixties discourse took place in and around François Maspero’s bookstore La Joie de Lire. Kristin Ross writes:
In these years dominated by the decomposition of the European empires, Maspero’s bookstore and press took up the task of representing the image of an exploded world where Europe is no longer the center. And, in so doing, La Joie de Lire became a center of sorts in the lives of many militants, an inevitable stopping place along daily trajectories, a place where, particularly during the Algerian period, any number of censored periodicals, state documents, banned books like Alleg’s La question, as well as foreign, difficult to locate, or ephemeral political pamphlets, could be found downstairs; a place that was not just a meeting place, nor even, as Maspero himself called it, “the meeting place for all the contradictions of the left,” but, quite simply, “the liveliest bookstore in Paris.” It was there that many readers found the tools by which, in the words of Claude Liauzu, “to take into consideration the fact that the West was no longer the measure of everything.”
Editions Maspero was the first French press to publish Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre with its preface by Sartre, as well as works by Ben Barka, Giap Cabral, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and others. I think some of the background Ross gives for this endeavor is particularly telling:
…in a 1973 interview [Maspero] recounted a specific event, a great “shock” as he put it, that made him lurch in [this] direction. A student in the mid-1950s in ethnology and a militant member of the Communist Party, Maspero attended the first festival of ethnological film ever screened in Paris. There he watched a Jean Rouch film about hippopotamus hunting among the Dogon. It was less the film itself that jarred Maspero than the interventions by a number of Africans in the audience critiquing the film’s “folkloric” dimensions; they went on to complain about a 1932 law still in place that denied them access to a camera in their own country without the approval of the government. The anecdote is significant in reminding us of one of the most important factors in the development of a third-worldist perspective in postwar France: the sheer number of African, Caribbean, and Asian intellectuals, so many of whom would become loyal clients of La Joie de Lire, living or spending lengthy stays in Paris in those days. For Maspero, it was to this first experience of “meeting” or conjuncture – the film by a French ethnographer and the critique it generated among the “people” it sought to represent – that he later attributed what would become his own commitment to diffusing, making available, a range of works in which people engaged in political struggle represented themselves.
If I understand it correctly this third-worldist perspective was a commitment to the fact that struggles and thinking in other parts of the world – Cuba, Vietnam, Africa, etc. – must be given room and support so they could lead the way. And that Western thinking certainly couldn’t claim to know what was best for anyone, since Western imperialism and capitalism was the main thing that must be fought. (I hope I’m not simplifying too much.)

Cutting ahead to the eighties, to the television show “Le procès de Mai” made in 1988 to mark the twentieth anniversary of May ’68 and hosted by former UEC militant, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, Bernard Kouchner. Describing the program, Ross explains that:
Certain topics are not merely neglected but actively targeted for amnesia, erased from the record. This is the case in one of “Le procès de Mai’s” most striking manipulations, one that occurs quite early in the broadcast. Kouchner, who has just praised the ’68 generation’s “daring to dream” in a tone of high self-satisfaction, switches abruptly, and briefly, into the posture of self-criticism. “But we were navel-gazing, we forgot the outside world, we didn’t see what was happening in the rest of the world, we were folded in on ourselves.” He continues much more triumphantly: “We didn’t know what we would discover only in the following years: the third world, misery.”

In one fell swoop, Kouchner assumes the power to clear away an entire dimension of the movement: its relation to anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles in places like Vietnam, Algeria, Palestine, and Cuba, where Kouchner himself travelled in the early 1960s to interview Castro for the Communist student journal Clarté. Kouchner has conducted a massive clearing of the terrain so that he and his friends can “discover” the third world ten years later, like the first colonial explorers of virgin lands. A whole world disappears – the war in Vietnam, the iconography of Che, Mao, and Ho Chi Min, the efforts of editors like Maspero – which is to say a militant or combative third world, so that another can be heroically “discovered” years later: the third world as figured in the Human Rights discourse, of which Kouchner has by that time emerged as one of the principal spokesmen. Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” as the name for an emergent political agency has been essentially reinvented: the new third world is still wretched, but its agency has disappeared, leaving only the victims of famine, flood or authoritarian state apparatuses.
This shift from the third world revolutionary leading a path for Western emancipatory thinking towards the third world victim desperately needing Western help is something that happened before my time, but Kristin Ross documents it at great length in a manner I found utterly convincing. (I was about to quote her for several more pages then thought better of it.) Foreign assistance can be given and foreign assistance can be taken away, but with your own revolutionary struggle the level of agency might vary but there is always a clear position you can claim as your own. As well, with Western aid I so often have a feeling that one hand gives some token offering while the other hand continues to exploit mercilessly. By this point in history so many revolutionary struggles have been assassinated and undermined that it’s hard to believe they are still viable. But what else is there but the knowledge or hope that everything worthwhile returns. And now there’s a new moment of possibility with Syriza in Greece.

It is now mid-February in Montreal – it is really fucking cold and snow-drenched here, walking home the other day the snow was hitting my face so hard it hurt – so that would most likely make it the time of year in which I find myself most jealous of the fact that you actually had the guts to pick up and move to Brazil. Along with Portugal, Brazil is one of the places I most romanticize in the world. (I’ve been to Portugal but never to Brazil.) (As well, I would also like to go back in time and live within the aisles of La Joie de Lire.) When you speak about your “love for cities that pulse, contract, absorb and accommodate the mobility and dreams of regulars and newcomers alike” I can feel some sort of magic reaching out to me through the computer screen. To this list I might also add: cities that thaw out and melt.

I definitely have more than my fair share of white guilt. I think it’s only this year I’m really trying to think what it would mean to get beyond it a bit. Guilt is certainly conservative if not downright reactionary. Yes, we need to speak out against injustice, but equally important is to find ways to make room for other voices who are also speaking out, perhaps even more intelligently, but for all the usual systematic reasons are not being heard. At a beautiful talk I heard her give last week, Leanne Simpson spoke of “creating communities of co-resistance,” which I felt was especially precise. These are all thoughts I have but I still wonder how far away I am from making them happen. Since, with freeDimensional, you’ve actually done so much more along these lines than me and perhaps, even in this dialog, I should be listening more than talking. I think at the moment I’m slightly possessed by the fervor of the newly converted. ‘The fervor of the newly converted,’ is one of my favorite expressions, if it actually is an expression and not just something I made up. How someone new to a particular topic or question will experience it so much more intensely than those who have lived with it for years, or even for their entire lives.

I have been listening to DJ Haram’s soundcloud page, so full of amazing sounds that cut through this endless winter, mixing Jersey Club with Middle Eastern diasporic instrumentals and so much more. I feel this mix of different cultures and modalities is the future. It is, of course, also the past, present and future. And at the same time I question this feeling. Maybe mixing everything all together creates a sense in which the source cultures become more apolitical, at times even distracting us from the struggles within each culture that are most important.

I have read, and loved reading, Vilém Flusser but didn’t realize he had lived in São Paulo. It reminds me a bit of my fascination with the years Witold Gombrowicz spent in Argentina. Vilém Flusser and Witold Gombrowicz having dinner together is kind of a nice, historically improbable, image. And while I’m being ahistorical, maybe Ernesto Laclau could also join the party. I keep trying to tell myself that things weren’t necessarily better in the past, and what is most important is to try to figure out what can be done starting from exactly now. So perhaps I will end here.

Jacob Wren


January 26, 2015

"It's much darker, much harder, than anything that happened to you…”


I’ve been obsessively listening to the new Belle & Sebastian album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. It’s strange the way I’ve been listening to it. I keep telling myself that it’s actually not so good and then keep pressing play again and again.

There’s a kind of story I tell myself about the album. I have no idea if this story has any relation to reality or is simply pure projection. The story is that it’s an album made by artists overly conscious that their best work is long behind them, who are contemplating what it now means to continue making work when you find yourself in this particular situation, how to keep pushing oneself now that the initial rush of youth and inspiration is long gone. This probably says much more about me than it does about Belle & Sebastian, as Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance has become a kind of stand in for me for the kinds of artistic question I’ve been asking myself for (at least) the past twenty years.

There are a few lines in the song Allie that always hit me pretty hard: “You made a list of all your heroes / And you thought about what they went through / Yeah, you thought about what they went through / It's much darker, much harder, than anything that happened to you…”

And then I was thinking about when I first started listening to Belle & Sebastian. It was most likely 1996, the year If You’re Feeling Sinister came out. They were starting out and I was also starting out. I think about the other bands I listened back then: Pavement, Palace Brothers, Smog, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Silver Jews, Jim O'Rourke, Pulp, Squarepusher. Probably so many others I can’t remember at the moment (it's almost twenty years ago now.) And Belle & Sebastian is the only one I’m still listening to, or at least still listening to their more recent material. Actually, I stopped listening to them for about ten years and just came back to them this past summer. So maybe I’ll come back to some of the other stuff sooner or later as well. (I do really like that Bill Callahan song Riding for the Feeling.)

But I feel there’s something in the way Belle & Sebastian have reinvented themselves starting with 2010’s Write About Love. A way of re-inventing themselves that (for me) admits they’re never going to be as good as they were when they started, but that it’s still possible to do something now, and this something has to do with taking as much time as possible to make each record, with quality control, and with using all of the available resources to make the kind of real start-to-finish albums that perhaps people aren’t making anymore. And yet I still can’t help but feel Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance isn’t actually that good, which is another way of experiencing my constant anxiety that my own work is not as good as it used to be, or won’t be as good in the future as what I'm currently doing now.

Something else: many of the songs speak of Stuart Murdoch’s younger experiences with chronic fatigue syndrome and I had similar experiences, perhaps during the exact same years he did.

Then I read the review in Pitchfork and there was this passage that made me almost angry:
A flippant comment to Pitchfork about how listeners would rather lose themselves in Nina Simone than Beyoncé shows not just a flagrant misunderstanding of how people listen to Beyoncé, but to the artists they love. He means well, but it faintly stinks of snobbery that's gotten other indie acts in trouble when they've tried to explain their theory of pop with, well, a lot of theory. Tom Krell of How to Dress Well raised hackles when he told Pitchfork he wanted to be "pop, but not populist." But what's wrong with trying to appeal to as many people as possible?
What Stuart Murdoch actually said was:
I don’t hear that kind of honesty so much in pop nowadays, because it’s so processed. When I used to listen to records in the '80s as a teenager—by Morrissey or the Slits or the Raincoats—they were singing to you and telling you stuff about life you didn’t know. It was in the lyrics and it was in the feeling. I don’t mean to sound like an old fuddy duddy, but when you have your headphones on and you’re away for a long walk on the countryside, you want to be controlled by Nina Simone—you don’t want to be controlled so much by Beyoncé.
So really I just want to say that I feel there is something wrong with ‘trying to appeal to as many people as possible’ if it’s an end in itself, if it takes over. And if you don’t know the difference between Nina Simone and Beyoncé, between what they represent, than something has really gone wrong with the current state of criticism. They are like different worlds and we need different worlds, now more than ever. I have absolute nothing against Beyoncé, I like listening to Beyoncé (as I’ve previous tweeted I really like that part in Drunk in Love where she sings surfboard several times in a row.) But there is a kind of soul, depth, resistance, rebellion and all-too-human fucked-upness in Nina Simone that I hope can still exist today.

I don’t know if there is nearly enough soul, depth, resistance, rebellion or fucked-upness in Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, but perhaps it’s an album made by people who know what they are missing yet continue trying to get there anyway. Which is the least any of us can do.


January 22, 2015

Past, Present, Future, Etc.


[This text was originally published in The Coming Envelope Issue 8.]

I read this quote from Chantal Akerman. She is speaking about Jean Luc Godard:
You can see him excluding himself from the world in an almost autistic manner. For people like me, who started doing film because of him, it is a terrible fright. And the fact that the long evolution that Godard has been through can lead to this, almost brings me to despair. He was kind of a pioneer, an inventor who didn’t care much about anybody or anything. And that a man at this stage of his life isolates himself, should also be a lesson for us other filmmakers.
And I wondered if the same thing was happening to me. I have been thinking so much about blurring reality and fiction. I feel it is important to do so, that it is our zeitgeist, but am never precisely sure why. Why is it important to blur reality and fiction? It has something to do with a lack of reality in our lives. Gilles Deleuze writes:
The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events that happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film.
In using these quotes it is as if I were trying to bring a piece, a moment, of outside reality into this text. It is still writing, still words on a page, yet it came from somewhere else, not from me. It is as if I think quotations are a small chunk of the world.

As I write, cinema is a little over 100 years old and its relevance already seems to be fading. But perhaps this is only a lull, and some time in the near or distant future cinema will begin its second (or third or forth) life. Writing books, I have often felt that cinema has won, while literature has lost. That reading can never compete with the mesmerizing, dream-state of the screen. But I mean this only for others. For me, I have always preferred to read. In fact, more and more, I find watching movies or television almost unbearable. How can I feel such a strong desire to be contemporary, while simultaneously being so much at odds with my time?

To bring ‘reality’ into a cinematic work is more direct, more straightforward, then attempting to bring reality into a work of literature. You point the camera at a tree, film it, the tree is reality and that reality, at least partly, is now in your film. This might sound stupid, but I’ve always felt this simple fact has so much to do with the energy and allure of film. When I stare at a tree and attempt to describe it in words (something I have no talent for whatsoever), the tree is already filtered both through my own particular subjectivity and through language.

I have always been fascinated by the use of voiceovers in cinema. I see within them a slight anxiety that the image is not enough, that the moving image requires words to add context or generate narrative. The use of background music gives me a similar feeling. Of course, like theatre before it, cinema is an art form that can eat everything: music, stories, pictures, action, the past, present and future. Very simply, I don’t like watching films because I feel I am being manipulated, and that I am far too susceptible to it. I also feel manipulated by books, but never as intensely. It is so much easier to put a book down.

Literature has something to do with time, with changing the nature and experience of time. You spend four years working on a book that takes two weeks to read. You can also spend four years working on a film that takes two hours to watch. But, if its within a single take, three minutes of film takes three minutes to watch, while a single page of a book might take days or weeks to write. Both cinema and literature are ways of playing with time, but within literature I often feel a difference sense of time than the one that most often surrounds me.

I am writing now in the lobby of a cinema. It is 10pm and I have just walked out of a film in the middle. My date is still inside watching and I am sitting here in the lobby. The film was Post Tenebras Lux by the Mexican director Carlos Regayas and it was very good, completely strange and unprecedented, but I had to flee, couldn’t continue. It was as if the stunning pictures in front of me were too hard on my nervous system, inducing panic. So many times in my life I have walked out of films in the middle. In the past ten years I have left in the middle far more often than I’ve made it to the end (and I of course don’t go to films frequently.)

Earlier in Post Tenebras Lux, there was a scene in which a man strangles his dog. The dog is off screen, you do not see anything particularly violent, just the yelps of the dog and a medium close up of the man hitting and swearing. I left just after a later scene where the same man had argued with his wife, stormed out of the room to go feed the dogs. There was a shot of the dogs in their pen just before the man entered. I thought it would be too obvious a choice, on the director’s part, for the man to beat the dogs again. Most of the film so far had been fragmented, one scene barely relating to the next. But the tension I felt at the shot of those dogs, with my nervous system already at its limit, was too much. This slight hint of possible (most likely mild) cinematic violence was too much for me to take, yet people watch considerably more violent films every day, and often seem to take pleasure in the visceral experience of conflict or gore. I am so far from being able to understand this difference I cannot even see it from here, sitting in the empty lobby of the movie theatre, watching the rather loud air conditioning blow a red, semi-transparent table cloth up and then back down over the legs of a folding table.

Post Tenebras Lux is a poetic film (at least the first half of it was) – random scenes of daily life, gorgeously shot, cut together so one is never quite sure how to place oneself in relation to them. As I watched, I had no sense of what might be holding it together. I feel bad walking out, would like to know what happens in the second half and now suspect I never completely will. I am wondering if there are any books I stopped reading in the middle then never picked up again. I have some memory of an Italian novel That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda that I don’t believe I ever finished. This must be twenty years ago. What’s strange was I thought it was an amazing book but couldn’t make it through. I often see it in bookstores and every time think about trying it again. I’m a different reader now, almost certain I would sail through it with ease.

And now it’s the next day and already I think Post Tenebras Lux wasn’t such a good film after all. In the second half, apparently, it became more narrative, with the dog-killer getting shot by a thief, his family rallying around him. The things I had liked about it, how fragmented and discontinuous it felt, now seem like mere formal constraints. On the level of content, upon further reflection, the film seems conventional, another story about a male jerk who is redeemed. Having not seen the entire film, I cannot think any of this with certainty.

As I get older, there are more and more people I don’t particularly like. I spend a great deal of time wondering why this is the case, if it has anything to do with a gradually increasing bitterness that constitutes my inner life. What does it mean to not like other people? That I would prefer to spend the time alone? That I am threatened by them in some way? Or competitive? Life can seem so repetitive: I feel I meet the same people over and over again. And the people I have known for years so rarely surprise me. (I don’t know any of them particularly well.) I wonder if there is some connection between not liking people and not being able to watch movies. The people I don’t like claim to love watching movies, as does practically everyone I meet. Does this love encapsulate some key difference between us? Is their pleasure in watching movies, a pleasure I am unable to share, analogous to a more general, unbridgeable divide?

I find movies manipulative and I find people manipulative. I find movies emotionally draining and I find people emotionally draining. (This reminds me of the following, told to me when I was young to demonstrate a certain kind of logic error: fire engines are red, and communists are red, therefore all communists are fire engines.) All of this has something to do with being too fragile, too vulnerable, somehow not tough enough for the modern world.

My last book, published in 2010, was called Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. There was a moment, before I started, when I thought of making it as a movie instead, but then realized I didn’t have the energy or will to make a film, to raise money, to convince producers and distributors, therefore decided it would work better as a book. Revenge Fantasies is about a group of activists who meet once a week to discuss politics. Because they are living in a dystopian near future, there is one rule for their meetings, that they are there only to talk, only to think together, and not to engage in any acts of civil disobedience or direct resistance, because they fear if they were to do so they might be kidnapped by the government, tortured, killed, that their families might come to harm or worse. I was thinking about Argentina during the disappearances, but also about the direction my paranoia reasonably tells me that much of the Western world is rapidly heading.

As I was finishing a first draft I suddenly went into crisis. What gave me the right to make a book set within an activist milieu, a world I’ve had few experiences with and know very little about. I felt I was writing something too disconnected from reality, my fantasy of an activism in which people got together only to speak about ideas and felt no concurrent pressure or responsibility to act. (Talking about ideas has always been one of my strong suits.) I had turned activism into a discursive art, one that played to my immediate strengths but in the larger world changed nothing. However, when the book was finally released, at least some of my fears were alleviated. A few activists I know liked the book, were enthusiastic about it, told me that for them, though absurd, the tone of the meetings rang true. I had captured some of the spirit of how things are organized, of how people behave in such situations, accurate enough, at times, to make them laugh aloud in recognition. I had fired an arrow in the dark and miraculously hit at least one part of the target.

It is arguable whether or not it is possible to disentangle the idea of progress from the realities of industrial capitalism. Progress is the idea that things will continue to grow, to improve, etc. As has often been mentioned, we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. If we remove the idea of progress from our thinking, how does the future change? In some sense it almost disappears. There is no question that everything repeats, in cycles, over years and over centuries, and yet the idea of progress implicitly averts its gaze from this fact. When something repeats, it is never exactly the same: there is an element of how it was before and an element of difference. Progress focuses on the difference, tradition encourages the similarity. But I find myself imagining something else, more like alchemy, that mixes past and future as if turning lead into gold.

So much of my life, like so many artists in the early 21st century, circles around projects. When asked what I’m working on, invariably I’m always working on something I am only able to refer to as a ‘project.’ I have always known one of the things I like about projects is that they end. If you are in a band, and you don’t want to be in the band anymore, the band has to break up, but a project simply runs its course. A project is agreeing to work on a certain set of questions for a certain period of time. I have often wondered if a project is the opposite of activism. With activism you need to keep fighting forever, since injustice is never solved, it must be fought against ceaselessly. A project ends, while activism must keep going. Of course, each project is followed by another project, the next one. In this sense a project is mainly a way of compartmentalizing time. (Perhaps compartmentalizing it in a way that changes it from political or historical time, into a more apolitical, ahistorical modality.) A project will usually take a couple of months, a longer project might take a few years, but activism is measured in generations. For activism to truly shift society, each generation needs to pick up the struggle then keep pushing. This is clearly impossible without some larger, active sense of cultural memory.

I keep circling round and round this idea that what politics needs today is a different way of thinking about time, that the problem with Marxism is it was working towards victory in the future, while what we need is more like a victory of living together in mutual loneliness, a victory-in-the-present-as-future-that-will-never-come, which sounds frustrating, and probably is. But how to imagine this impossible present-future hybrid as not frustrating, as something good, something desirable, a struggle and strength worth having, as possible. Trying to imagine the things I am not yet able to imagine.

I wish I were a better activist, a better citizen. I’m too defeatist. Whatever I undertake, I always have the overwhelming feeling it will fail. The one exception to this defeatism is art. In art, paradoxically, I often trick myself into thinking that failure is a kind of success. A ‘perfect’ work feels dead and sterile. (Also works that strive towards perfection.) For me, in art, it is only failure, imperfection, vulnerability that opens things up, makes them human, leaves room for the viewer or reader to enter the machine. I try to remind myself that activism too is about failure, is always incomplete. Sometimes I wonder if the only problem is that I like art, at times it still gives me energy, but I’m not particularly sure if I like the world. So much activism has a better world as its goal, so if you don’t like the world activism might reflect this desire to see it fundamentally change. What else do you have to believe, before you can believe that something is worth saving?

Perhaps I have an overly romantic idea of what activism is and means. In interviews, the artist Paul Chan has often stated that he tries to keep his art practice and his activism separate. The main reason he gives is that he wants his art to remain complex, controversial, full of ambiguity; and for activism to succeed you need to simplify the goal, so that everyone can agree, or at least agree enough to more fully work together, push towards the same objective in unison. The ambiguity of art rejects easy consensus, divides viewers, undermines clear solidarity. (Though solidarity is rarely clear or simple.) Activism requires the largest possible coalition to succeed, while art needs only one sufficiently passionate viewer.


January 19, 2015

Tangentially yours - Jacob Wren & Todd Lester in conversation, #2


Read the first letter: Tangentially yours —Jacob Wren & Todd Lester in conversation, #1

Dear Todd,

Wow, you’ve managed to raise a series of questions and complexes that I literally know almost nothing about. There are many, many things I know almost nothing about, so this is not particularly surprising. What is surprising (to me at least) is that I’m now considering writing something on these topics and posting it on the internet.

I spent almost two weeks reading article after article on the Charlie Hebdo situation and could not quite get my thinking around it completely clear. (I did post a very quick thought about it.) But after reading all those articles I started asking myself a different set of questions. Why was I reading all these articles? What did it matter if I had a complex enough understanding of the situation and what did it matter whether my opinions around the questions raised were correct? Did I simply want to add my perspective to the endless opinion machine that is the internet and if so towards what end?

I then had a different kind of thought: what if tomorrow there was a moratorium on white people writing about Charlie Hebdo? What if suddenly every last sentence one could read about it was written by a person of colour or by someone from a different cultural community? How would the discourse change? I don’t mean this would be a solution to anything. Absolutely anyone is equally capable of being wrong about anything. But I am certain that the conversations would have a substantially different texture and feel. It would simply be a different conversation.

The dominant voices establish so much not only in what is said but in how it is said. They are like the polluted air we read about in pollution warnings but on a daily basis often forget we are breathing.

One of the reasons I read so many articles about Charlie Hebdo is I am completely, completely addicted to Facebook. I am very worried about this addiction because in so many ways it has taken over my life, altered how I see the world. I have less and less real life interactions with people, and since I have always found interacting with people difficult I am frightened to the degree in which this reduction feels like a relief. I mostly have Facebook ‘friends’ I have never met in real life. One of these individuals recently wrote to me that it was great to been in touch with another queer writer. I wrote back saying that unfortunately I had to admit I was a straight white male. (Perhaps many people think I’m queer these days because there’s queer content in my most recent book Polyamorous Love Song.) I don’t think I’ve ever publicly written that I’m a straight white male anywhere before and I honestly don’t like doing so now. Since queer is such an open category, I could simply claim it for myself but I feel, in doing do, I would be claiming a kind of artistic cultural capital that I’m pretty sure I haven’t earned.

A few minutes ago I posted this quote from an interview with Jackie Wang:
Perversion is probably more important to me than “orientation.” I’m certainly not a purist when it comes to identity but I do want “queer” to retain its freakish and non-normative edge, and for people to back their aesthetic commitments by embodying that commitment in how they lives their lives. Normal people who write weird shit disappoint me hahahaha.
I posted it because I suddenly felt it was about me. I am a ‘normal’ person who writes weird shit. But I’m not sure anyone who knows me would really say I’m normal. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be anything but normal. I certainly feel extremely queer positive and feel a deep love for queer art and politics. Maybe already I’ve gotten a bit lost.

I’m trying to come back around to that Charlie Hebdo image of a male staffer with a pencil behind his ear and a Muslim man  kissing. The first moment I saw it my very first thought was ‘this is a homophobic cartoon.’ Then I immediately asked myself: How do I know that? Would it make any difference if it was drawn by a gay man or if it was in a queer publication? Can I trust my gut instincts or do I need to know more?

I was sure there was a way for to me to come back around to rape as a war crime and homophobia in other countries, how these things might relate to any given foreign policy. But maybe there’s not. I can’t get past the feeling that my (not well enough informed) thoughts on these matters won’t change anything. But then what will?

I think the main way my thinking has changed in the past few years is I’ve become more and more aware of the degree to which racism is the gasoline of imperialist capitalism. Norway also has oil but if the U.S. were to start bombing Norway I believe the outcry would be much greater. I know I’m not saying anything new but I feel I need to work so much harder to honesty feel this reality. And also to imagine other possibilities.

In the end I fear I’ve avoided writing too much about the things I know nothing about. I’m not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. Writing is strange.