Archive for the ‘Foucault’ Category

On August 9, 2011 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired an interview with West Indian writer, broadcaster, and  civil liberties campaigner Darcus Howe concerning the London riots. The “on the street” interview positioned Howe in the foreground with a burnt out building and fire truck in the background. Howe, when attempting to give context to the riots specifically about the treatment of West Indian youth, was continually interrupted and the BBC interviewer who, through her questioning, not only mispronounced his name but also represented Howe as being an active agent in the violence associated with the riots. To follow is an excerpt from the interview:

Interviewer: “Marcus Dowe (sic) are you shocked about what you seen there last night?”

Howe: “No, not at all … I have been living in London for 50 years … but what I am certain about is that something very serious was going to happen in this country … the political leaders had no idea, the police had no idea but if you look at young blacks and the whites with a discerning eye and the careful hearing they would tell us what is happening in this country…”

Interviewer: “If I can stop you Mr. Howe … You say you are not shocked so does this mean you condone what was happening in your community last night?”

Howe: “Of course not … what I am concerned about more than anything else … is a young man Mark Duggan … and a few yards away from where he lives a police officer blew his head off, blew his face off … [over talking by interviewer] … let me finish … “

Interviewer: “Mr. Howe we have to wait for the official inquiry before we can say things like that … we are going to wait for the police report on it …

Howe: (continuing) “They have been stopping and searching young blacks for no reason at all …”

Interviewer: Mr. Howe … that may well have happened but that is not an excuse to go out rioting …

Howe: “… I don’t call it rioting. I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people … “

Interviewer: “Mr. Howe, you are not a stranger to riots yourself I understand? You have taken part in them yourself … ?

Howe: “I have never taken part in a single riot. I have been in demonstrations that ended up in a conflict and have some respect for an old West Indian negro instead of accusing me of being a rioter … Have some respect … you sound like an idiot.

Interview cut off.

The BBC interview excerpt crystallizes what Michel Foucault describes as a “historical irruption,” (2002, 31) a discontinuity in the “fixed” continuity of a colonial narrative that classifies and demarcates the civilized and the savage. It also reveals the media as an agent of the law in its sanctioning the authority to the interviewer to reprimand Howe’s criminal accusations against the police as unauthorized without “official inquiry,” yet simultaneously privileges the interviewer to accuse Howe as a rioter. Norman Fairclough would describe the interviewer as a “gatekeeper” (45) and the framework within which the interview takes place presents how, as Stuart Hall explains, “meaning floats” and that it cannot be finally fixed. However, attempting to ‘fix’ it is the work of a representational practice, which intervenes in the many potential meanings of an image in an attempt to privilege one” (228). The “meaning” of images, in this interview, is mobilized by sovereign forces (government owned media) to create “the civilized.” Howe’s speaking against the master narrative by demanding respect, invalidating the law, undermining the sovereign authority of a British media force, and revealing state ignorance of West Indian youth resistance provides a catalyst from which to question, as Foucault suggests “those divisions or groupings with which we have become so familiar” (2002, 24). The BBC interview exemplifies Ericson, Baranek, and Chan’s argument that “the news media and law also share an affinity in claiming that their policing is in the public interest. The basis of this claim is the appearance of neutrality. The consequence of this claim is that the news media and law are able to accomplish a degree of legitimacy and authority for their own institutions, while also selectively underpinning or undercutting legitimacy and authority of other social institutions” (7). The dividing line is thus established, to maintain order, between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” and is reflected in the “Eurocentric binarism” (Hall 160) of the civilized and savage. What is particular about news is that it is “fundamentally a discourse of morality, procedure, and hierarchy, providing symbolic representations of order in these terms” (Ericson et al 5). From fifteenth-century European contact onward a wide spectrum of media continues to work in tandem with legal frameworks to disseminate the discourse of the savage-other in order to reinforce an apparatus of the civilized or as Robert A. Williams describes as the “will of Empire.”

Amber-Dawn Bear Robe reflects upon how this “will” is countered in the work of Rebecca Belmore:

Kaja Silverman used the term suturing in reference to cinematography. In films narratives are stitched together, but in a structure that hides the suturing process to give the illusion a clean, un-spliced story. These narratives have been sutured to naturalize and support myths that are ingrained in the North American psyche. Silverman argues that in order to expose the illusion of truths and power relations in western society, the sutures must be made visible” (Silverman 1983).

Bear Robe describes Belmore’s work as revealing “The spaces between the stitches, the blank moments that create the dominant moments (binary opposites) are also valuable signifiers. The moments in between are not usually witnessed by the audience. Exposing the suture marks results in exposing the construction of the story, the myth and lies behind the image.”

Howe’s explicit counter conduct against government propaganda runs parallel to Belmore’s desire to “release the figure from a suffocating ideology” (Bear Robe 1).

“Through powerful images that implicate the body, performances that address history and memory, and gestures that evoke a sense of place, Rebecca Belmore is known for creating multi-disciplinary works that reveal a long-standing commitment to the politics of identity and representation.”

Bear Robe, Amber-Dawn. “Rebecca Belmore’s Performance of Photography.” Aboriginal Curatorial Collective. Web. 2012.

Ericson, Richard Victor, Patricia M. Baranek, Janet B. L. Chan.  Representing Order: Crime, Law, and Justice in the News Media.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Fairclough, Norman. Language and Power. Second Edition. London: Longman, 2001.

Foucault, Michel Archeology of Knowledge. Oxon: Routledge, 2002.

Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London:  Open University, 1997.

Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Williams, Robert A. The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of  Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

The Canadian “War Measures Act,” passed in 1914, is a sovereign order that decides the necessity of a state of emergency to authorize the government to suspend all civil liberties and by-pass parliamentary debate. The order, which defines sovereignty as well as “the enemy,” creates a no-man’s land or a state of exception where all laws, as well as constitutional formations are dissolved.  The sovereign, unconstrained by law, is thereby  able to implement military actions against the designated “enemy” and when decided, will act to reestablish order, civility, and “the norm”: “The sovereign must decide both that a situation is exceptional and what to do about the exception in order to be able to create or recover a judicial order when the existing one is threatened by chaos” (Schmitt xx).

The Act was implemented three times in Canadian History: during World War I with the represented threat of Germans and Communists (for instance, Leon Trotsky was arrested in Halifax), during World War II with the detention in Interment Camps of those “identified” as Japanese or others marked as spies, and in 1970 during the Quebec October Crisis which was sanctioned as “a state of apprehended insurrection” (a euphemism that only Trudeau could come up with).

In 1988, through the process of liberal democracy, the Act was repealed and replaced with “The Emergency Act. ” The change in the Act differs from the original in that it is now subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that a declaration of a state of emergency must be reviewed by Parliament.

With this said, it is crucial to understand what exactly sovereignty is and how it is defined by identifying “the enemy,”  by declaring a state of emergency, and more significantly its ability to make exceptions.

Carl Schmitt, a German legal and political thinker, who, although let’s face it has a rather unsavoury past, remains instructive when deconstructing the concrete meaning of sovereignty.  Schmitt defines sovereignty as “he who decides the exception” (5).  The sovereign has the absolute, dictatorial and unlimited quality of the decision.  Yet, the paradox of sovereignty is that the law is the judicial norm and without it the exception to it could not exist and thus nor could sovereignty. Therefore, the sovereign exists both inside and outside of the law. Schmitt’s political and theological touchstone is Thomas Hobbes and is reflected in Schmitt’s assertion that “the one who has authority can demand obedience – and it is not always the legitimate sovereign who possesses the authority” (xxxix).  The caveat is significant.

In an analysis of sovereignty Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy is also salient, particularly in a study of sovereignty’s many guises.  For example, a core tenet of liberal democracy is that power is to be checked by power.  This is made evident, for instance, in the change in the War Measures Act and the move to demonstrate and “show” its citizens that the government is accountable to and for the public’s safety.  However, with the sovereign’s exception in mind, how then does the Canadian Emergency Act, as law, really function and how is it implemented and against whom?  It is indeed difficult to believe that an Act that determines a sovereign’s force has only been declared three times? How then does the Act manifest in Canada and what are its latent enforcements?

But first consider examples of legislated States of Emergency in a comparison between  Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution (which Schmitt had a hand in producing) and the Canadian “Declaration of a Public Order Emergency”:

If, in the German Reich, public security and order are considered disturbed or endangered, the Reichspräsident may undertake necessary measure to restore public security and order, and if necessary my intervene with the aid of armed forces.  For this purpose he may suspend, temporarily, in part or entirely, the basic rights as provided in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153. (Schmitt xivi)

and the Canadian “Emergency Act”:

(1) When the Governor in Council believes, on reasonable grounds, that a public order emergency exists and necessitates the taking of special temporary measures for dealing with the emergency, the Governor in Council, after such consultation as is required by section 25, may, by proclamation, so declare.

2) A declaration of a public order emergency shall specify
(a) concisely the state of affairs constituting the emergency;
(b) the special temporary measures that the Governor in Council anticipates may be necessary for dealing with the emergency; and (c) if the effects of the emergency do not extend to the whole of Canada, the area of Canada to which the effects of the emergency extend.[1]

(1) Nothing in a declaration of a public order emergency or in any order or regulation made pursuant thereto shall be construed or applied so as to derogate from, or to authorize the derogation from, the control or direction of the government of a province or a municipality over any police force over which it normally has control or direction.

(2) Where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is used or employed in a province or municipality pursuant to an arrangement under section 20 of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act, subsection (1) applies in respect of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, subject to the terms and conditions of the arrangement.

Present in both Acts is the word “necessary” which ultimately is deemed by the sovereign alone.  The move from legitimate to dictatorial is indeed slippery.

Interestingly, in 1914 the Canadian sovereign State ‘s “War Measures Act,” similar to Germany’s Article 48 “State of Emergency Act,” was used against Germans in Canada.

The police action against protestors in Montreal poses an interesting contemporary example, among a league of others including continuing resistances by Aboriginal nations against the federal government, and post 9/11 surveillance, detentions and torture.  Does the sovereign state make exceptions to the rule of law by circumventing the legislated “State of Emergency” when it decides what action is necessary to maintain public “safety”?  What nuanced tactics does it use to maintain order when dealing “with an emergency,” and to demand obedience? Does the act of giving the police force additional power without parliamentary review, or being subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, form an exception that by-passes the messy implementation of the Emergency Act and most certainly public scrutiny?  What is the norm? Is the enemy always already a subject who counters not only the laws of civil conduct but also anyone who resists the sovereign’s order of obedience?  Schmitt would say yes and so would Hobbes. It is therefore important to understand the prerogative of the sovereign’s political authority; its Machiavellian exponents, as well as its ongoing power to make exceptions to laws; and more crucially to be aware of the liberal democratic guises that shroud the beast of sovereignty.

[1] Canada. Department of Justice. “Declaration of a Public Order Emergency.” See Act in its entirety at

Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

The alignment of spectacle with the political subject rather than citizen is a strong one, and for good reason. Grounded in political history, it reoccurs every time the public gets drawn to a major media event such as the Super Bowl or the outbreak of war. (Hariman and Lucaites 299)

The public execution is to be understood not only as a judicial but also as a political ritual. It belongs, even in minor cases, to the ceremonies by which power is manifested. (Foucault 47)

… where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulpher, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn way, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds … ‘Finally, he was quartered,’ recounts the Gazette de’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints … It is said that, though he was always a great swearer, no blasphemy escaped his lips; but the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often repeated: ‘My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!’ The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St. Paul’s who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient. …” (Foucault 3)

In the opening pages of Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes in excruciating detail the eighteenth-century torture and execution of Robert-François Damiens. Foucault, as John Durham Peters explains in his book Courting the Abyss, “rigorously refuses to contain the spectacle of the broken body” (88), and instead “Foucault stages a theatre of cruelty, leaving the reader with the unpalatable option of assuming that he is taking a sadistic glee in the torture and inviting the reader to enjoy the show” (88).

But why, as Peters asserts, would Foucault refuse to contain the spectacle?  Perhaps, here, Foucault is undertaking something else as he lifts the veil of spectacle to make present the political infrastructure of how the body is used to “perform ceremonies, to emit signs” (25).  The declarative “signs”of discipline and punishment have always already been impressed in the individual subjects through multiple social pedagogies and when disseminated through mediated formations harness collective publics, celebrate a meeting of minds even with an inclusion of dissent, and create, what Benedict Anderson calls, imaginary communities. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites explain this intelligibility of the signs as a foundation that begins to construct the icon within an aura of spectacle to engage a “direct audience response … which … provide[s] a public audience with sufficient means for contending with potentially unmanageable events” (25).


Spectators at a Public Execution (Kentucky, 1936)

Hariman and Lucaites suggest that media functions through and through this manifestation of power by creating emotional scenarios that not only secure the readers’ everyday habits such as eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, or taking out the trash but also activate “vital repertories of social behaviour”  that include sharing, archiving, and responding (34). Here, I am interested in Michael Warner’s suggestion that “the particular character of a public is that it is a space of discourse organized by discourse.  It is self-creating and self-organized; and herein lies its power, as well as its elusive strangeness” (68-9).

The media facilitates the intimate distance for its readership, a space wherein the practice of punitive action “between the ‘serene’ search for truth and the violence … cannot be entirely effaced from punishment” (Foucault 56). The media’s authority bolstered by naturalized public assumptions of civility support the utopic “search for truth” while it leads the reader into the gallows of punitive action, hand-in-hand to witness, vicariously, the spectacle of execution. The public is present while it maintains a comfortable and congregational distance.

Foucault explains that by the nineteenth-century, as a product of Enlightenment, a distance became necessary between the criminal and justice and “as a result of this new restraint, a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warden, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalist; by their very presence near the prisoner, they sing the praises that the law needs” (Foucault 11).


Execution of Ruth Snyder by Electric Chair (New York, 1928).  The iconic photo was taken with a camera hidden in the photographer’s clothing and published the next day in the New York Daily News.


Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House, 1977.

Hariman, Robert and John Louis Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Peters, John Durham. Courting the Abyss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Warner, Michael.  Public and Counterpublics.  New York: Zone Books, 2002.

Humans are odd beasts especially when confronted with acts of transgression.  When, for example, a rogue force unhinges the ideological glue that was so carefully applied to “fix” a specific social narrative.   Unpredictable. Unorthodox.  Dangerous.   Three words that share a commonality among Green Eggs and Ham , Mein Kampf, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover along with thousands of other books that earned the status of banned.

But what exactly does it mean when a book is banned?   The banning of books has a long reach in history including Thalia  by Arius in 250 AD and more recently Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto’s Fist Fight in Heaven.

The etymology of the word ban is from Old English bannan or “to summon, command, proclaim” or from the German bannen “banish, expel, curse” and originally from bha “to speak publicly.”  In the late 14th century, Old Norse banna was “to curse, prohibit … to speak or a threat.”  In Old French ban was “outlawry and banishment” and the Germanic root is “banish, bandit, and contraband.”  Implicit in the word’s language formation is the circulating power between, among, and within both the sovereign and the outlaw.

But how does it slip from the strategic minds of those who mark an object as outlawed or as banned that they are actually highlighting an already existing discourse and by branding it with the Scarlet Letter provokes instead, as if by magic, a desire for it?  Hawthorne’s book, by the way, was also banned.  An outlaw, of course, is a misnomer in that by marking something or someone as transgressor or “outside of” they remain always and more potently “inside” as a threat to the status quo.  The Panopticon it seems, in its social architecture, will imprison those who watch and those who are watched.  To ban is to recognize and to authorize an object’s power – it has the power to change to shift to effect to affect.  The book is an object, a container filled with ideas and actions that are already circulating and have been circulating in other networks: from kitchens, to alleys, to libraries, classrooms, pubs, bedrooms, fields, living rooms, emails, graffiti, canvasses, music, t-shirts or no shirts,  footwear, theft, charity, hacking, poisoning, hair styles, marginalia, picket lines, fires, buses, marches, leaving, bearing witness, to undocumented silences that say so much more than that which lies between any published covers.  Why then is “the book” so dangerous?  Perhaps because it forces individuals to slow down as explained in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:  “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly”(9).

The written word is proof. Permanent.  A testament. An entry point. Social evidence. Militaristic in its very technology.  A public declaration.  Gutenberg did not only unleash the medium of print production but also a material potential of mass distribution to an unknown public, as Wilkie Collins categorized the growing demographic when criticizing nineteenth century penny press readers, who could escape marshaled codes of conduct by transgressing, without surveillance, in their own imaginations and their own will to think about stuff.  Censorship is a state praxis of population control that enables fallacies such as unification, democracy, and security by delineating “the enemy” be it in a book, individual, group, or nation, but alternatively it also earmarks distinct and very real anxieties operating through and through social systems.

The recent banning of books in Arizona relating to Mexican-American history along with cutting Ethnic Studies by the Tucson Unified School District is an example of a very real social and political anxiety and fear that manifests in the 1,951 mile long barrier wall that travels across the U.S. Mexican border.  It remains unsurprising that the state of the wall is called Operation Gatekeeper and that Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is among the books on the state’s banned list.  Freire espouses a teaching philosophy that encourages students to think critically and for themselves by removing social hierarchies and educational barriers.

To ban anything or anyone by any measure makes socially explicit the relevancy and power of that which is cast out, while simultaneously revealing the fear and anxiety of those who dictate the order.  The book is an object filled with static visual codes that are animated in the act of reading and thinking:  a potentially dangerous action when individuals are left to their own devices to interpret words and meanings for themselves (The Reformation remains a significant example) or call into question state narratives held in place by a vast range of ideologies. Alas, what the history of book banning does make evident is that illicit books will be read and evaluated regardless perhaps to a greater degree than books that enter the status quo unchallenged.  Humans are odd beasts especially in their desire to know (and more dangerously) that which they are forbidden to know or to do which includes the reading of the banned and the outlawed because it lets loose, especially in the unwatched confines of the mind, our desires, transgressions, and fears.

[T]hough all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? (Areopatitica, John Milton, 1644)

Among the titles included in the recent Arizona school banning is Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  The figures of Prospero and Caliban have undoubtedly released yet another post colonial allegory in Mexican-American relations, as well as inject new meaning into Caliban singing:  “Ban, Ban, Ca-Caliban” (2.2.).

Other notable banned books include:

All Quiet on the Western Front (Enrich Maria Remarque, 1929)

Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)

Areopatitica (John Milton, 1644)

Black Beauty (Anna Sewell, 1877)

Candide (Voltaire, 1759)

Catch 22 (Joseph Heller, 1961)

The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003)

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939)

Big River, Big Sea – Untold Stories of 1949 (Lung Ying-tai, 2009)

The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century)

The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank, 1947)

A Feast for the Seaweeds (Haidar Haidar, 1983)

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1973)

Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss, 1960)

The Country Girls (Edna O’Brien, 1960)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence, 1928)

Mein Kampf (Adolf Hitler, 1925)

July’s People (Nadine Gordimer, 1981)

The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka, 1915)

American Psycho (Bret Easton Eillis, 1991)

The Rights of Man (Thomas Paine, 1791)

Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller, 1934)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)

Operation Dark Heart (Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, 2010)

The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer, 1948)

Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs, 1959)

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties (Areopatitica, John Milton, 1644).

Are we witnessing in the twenty-first century Occupation of Space a sixteenth-century counter conduct palimpsest?

The opening line in Jean Bodin’s “On Sovereignty,” in his Six books of the Commonwealth, describes sovereignty as “that absolute and perpetual power vested in a commonwealth” (25). Bodin’s book was published in 1576, and similar to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), his tract was in response to the outbreak of civil war that plagued his country. Hobbes and Bodin, though their respective experiences occurred less than a century apart, had a distinct fear of anarchy and social division, both were resolute in their call for an absolute sovereign who under which all subjects would be controlled by the state through their complete submission to the sovereign’s authority. Bodin’s tract is comparable to Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince published in 1532 as a how-to manual, or a political pedagogy of sorts, for sovereign figures to effectively control the state. In circulation during Bodin’s writing, The Prince is considered to have had an influence in Bodin’s political notions of sovereignty.  Bodin, however, differs from Machiavelli’s manifesto in his insistence that even though the commonwealth must follow the sovereign’s ordering of natural and divine law, the sovereign’s power was not arbitrary and the sovereign should strive for amenity; in contrast, Machiavelli’s project was in the art of war and tailored for a more autonomous sovereign body. As Foucault points out, during “the sixteenth century we enter the age of forms of conducting, directing and government” (231).  This is reflected in the penchant of philosophers to write strategic tracts on how to conduct a subject: “the sovereign who rules and exercises his sovereignty now finds himself responsible for, entrusted with, and assigned new tasks of conducting [men]” (Foucault “Security,” 231). Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is a beast, a mythical figure originating in the Hebrew Bible and with a lengthy description in the King James version, Job 41: “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook? (Norton).

Shakespeare also utilized the figure of the Leviathan in A Mid Summer Night’s Dream, yet in a benevolent context reflecting upon its monstrosity, its remarkable speed and suggests that a subject might overtake it:

Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.
I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes (2.1.174).

“The Leviathan” is captured in a particular performativity, a fable, and in a contained literary and visual state marks a division of bodies in the manufacturing of the sovereign while simultaneously making known the singularity of the beast – a prototype that continues to have significant impact.

The Hobbesian model is based on the urgency to avoid civil war and chaos within the state.  Hobbes believed, as Ian Shapiro points out in his Introduction to the Leviathan “Reading Hobbes Today,” that the state of nature “is terrible – depicted in perhaps the most frequently quoted of his memorable lines as a world in which life is ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’” (xix).  Hobbes believes that all subjects in the commonwealth must cede their judgment and submit to the prescribed conduct of the sovereign who is infused with divine law and judgment. If this conduct is countered, the Leviathan will return to the state of nature leaving individuals as singular subjects with no protection and security.  The images are significant here because in the seventeenth century frontispiece, for example (Plate 1), the body of the monster Leviathan, an automat, is constructed with the docile bodies, as a unity, creating a commonwealth.  Faces turned inward – individuality subsumed, and subjectified, in order to maintain the polis, and the good life.  As Derrida remarks when considering Hobbes:  “Sovereignty causes fear, and fear makes the sovereign” (40).  Something, however, is absent in this image; or, rather veiled: la bête (148). The beast, as Derrida argues, is impossible to translate but the wolf, a beast, in French is loup which also means a black velvet mask worn by women during masked balls (Derrida, “Beast,” 6).  It could also be a visor, similar to that worn by Hamlet’s ghost, or the veil that possibly cloaks the truth. Wolf as loup. The image of the beast. The beast for Hobbes is internalized in the sovereign, a unifying sensibility that requires all the power forces of the commonwealth to sustain it.  Significant, is what this fable is teaching.  The Leviathan, as beast, is unregistered.  Erased. The sovereign is coded divine; the state of nature is subtracted from the new ideology. What becomes apparent in the Hobbesian discourse is the need for an enemy in order for the sovereign body to be sustained, not unlike an Aristotelian tragedy, or a fable. For the sovereign every subject is a potential enemy and the potential enemy is the beast.

The biblical reference would be understood by the seventeenth century audience, this is crucial in order for the state to ensure obedience and instill the elements of fear of the beast that haunts the sovereign’s body: “the element of fabulation, in which the analogies between the beast and the sovereign, find their resources and their schema” (Derrida, “Beast,” 80).  A change takes place in the nineteenth-century in the image of the Leviathan created by Gustave Doré. In Plate 2, the Leviathan returns to its biblical origins seemingly drowning in the chaotic state of nature. Gustave Doré was a prolific nineteenth-century illustrator who produced among his many works Milton’s Paradise LostThe Bible (1866), as well the figure of the Leviathan, and Perrault’s Fairy Tales that include “Little Red Riding Hood.[1]

Here, Derrida’s comment on fables is apt:  “The fables themselves show that the essence of political force and power where that power makes the law” (“Beast,” 217).  Derrida delineates the lengthy lineage of the beast who is often portrayed as the “wolf” and how it walks across the stage for Hobbes, Rousseau as a self-proclaimed werewolf, Plato’s wolf-tyrant, as well, among others, La Fountaine’s Fables, fables illustrated, incidentally, by Gustave Doré (another wolf crosses the stage).

The sovereign in this space is represented explicitly as the enlightened divine law in the act of disciplining the beast that has turned rogue (a word created by Shakespeare).  The moral of the fable, recounted in wolves and sea monsters, is that obedience is a necessity;  the United States military and global sovereign forces in 2011 calls any counter conduct by alternative sovereign states, specifically the civil occupation of space as rogue, or perhaps Hobbes might have call it the contemporary Leviathan, unleashed.

Bodin, Jean. On Sovereignty.  Ed. Julian H. Franklin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Derrida, Jacques. The Beast & the Sovereign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. Society must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-76. New York: Picador, 2003.

…, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1977-78. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

–, History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1990.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan; or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Shapiro, Ian. “Reading Hobbes Today.” Leviathan; or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill by Thomas Hobbes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

 [1] It is noted that Dore also illustrated The Tempest by William Shakespeare in 1860.

There may be solemn duty; and if it come we must not shrink from it…I shall be prepared. I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing – Mina Harker, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

“Diskursmaschinegewehr,” a word from Dracula’s Legacy (DraculasVermächtnis: Technische Schriften) by Friedrich Kittler, is Kittler’s 1993 wordplay to signal the late nineteenth-century social anxiety related to modernity, machines, and media – a triumvirate of consumption generated by the ink fabric carriage return of the typewriter or Kittler’s “discourseweaponmachine.”  Kittler’s critical appropriation is addressing Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel and Stoker’s object of choice, the typewriter, for his radical protagonist/stenographer, Mina Harker.  Embracing the vampiric technology and her role as the New Woman, Harker totally takes down (in not a few key strokes) not only the figure of Dracula but the epistolary framework of Stoker’s narrative.  Mina was, indeed, a post-Gutenberg proto-cyborg.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - featuring Mina Harker

Harker’s ontological hybridity of machine and organism is explained, in part, by Donna Haraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto“:

Cyborgs are  not reverent; they do not re-member the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connection — they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party.  The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and partriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism.  But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their father, after all, are inessential. (151)

The Remington typewriter (1873), developed by the company that manufactured guns for the Civil War, is, in its very infrastructure, a discursive weapon of war, and was utilized as a frontline industrialized device in the proliferation of military communications and its handmaiden:  nineteenth-century media.  In April 2011, Godrej and Boyce, the last typewriter factory in the world announced that it would be closing its doors but the “discourseweaponmachine” does not falter:  during the nineteenth-century another data communication system, the telegraph, ran parallel to the typewriter and established the foundational apparatus for the twentieth-century world:  the internet. The inter-networking systems expanded in the 1950s with cyber gateways and bridges leading to mainframes held in the United States Department of Defense and its “Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network.

I feel not unconnected to Mina Harker, as a fellow cyborg, as I enter data into the machine and wonder if the twenty-first century’s pop cult fanaticism for Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Diaries et. al. is perhaps a continuum of the anxieties/fears/desires that were prevalent in the nineteenth-century: social, ecological, and economic cannibalism, the virtual fangs of Ebay consumerism, and the ever firing neo-engine discourse of the Military Industrial Complex?  As McLuhan explains in The Gutenberg Galaxy: “That every generation poised on the edge of massive change should later seem oblivious of the issues and the imminent event would seem to be natural enough.  But it is necessary to understand the power and thrust of technologies to isolate the sense and thus to hypnotize society (272).

If you’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, read it again.  If you have not:  Read it; the film versions unfortunately do not include Harker’s cyborg intervention and also exclude significant layers of cultural, social, and economic symbolism that remain ever-present in the contemporary discourseweaponmachine.  To follow:  Nosferatu (1922); Dracula with Bela Lugosi (1931).

“Memory is for me always fresh, in spite of the fact that the object being remembered is done and past” (Toni Morrison, 213).

In Dionne Brand’s novel At The Full and Change of the Moon food and memory are connected both figuratively and literally, rooted in to Marie Ursula’s acts of revolt and carried forward to her descendants.  As Erica Johnson points out, “as a source of psychological and transgenerational haunting, the horror of Marie Ursule’s story continues to have undeniably real effects on individual lives.  No longer is the question of accuracy the most important with regard to memory, for whether the event is recalled or not, it acts upon Marie Ursule and her descendants” (8).

Moon - Antares sequence of the medieval Castle of Sümeg in Hungary

Marie Ursule (“queen of malingerings and sabotages”) gathered the ingredients: methodically.  In an act of counter conduct, she plans and follows through in a mass suicide with her fellow slaves. Ursule, however, makes sure there is one survivor, her four-year-old daughter, Bola, who is taken away to another part of the island and then carries with her the weight of a memory she doesn’t remember.

Food is an oral element. The infusion of food develops multiple physical dimensions and celebrates “this is where I came from” and “this is where I am.”  Food enables the symbiosis between the two states:  accessing a traumatic past and the control of the present by articulating embedded memories of place and history.   As Susan Brison suggests in her essay “Trauma and Memory,” “the past is not simply there in memory, but it must be articulated to become memory” (42) and the process of articulation is shaped partly by the power dynamics that enter the discourse.

When considering the representation of “women who poison” it is important to recognize in Brand’s novel that the character of Marie Ursule shifts the balance of power in her act of poisoning and her representation differs from the colonial trope of women. The difference is in the articulation of motive, the counter-trope of food as medicine to heal her condition of slavery under her oppressors: “and in her goings about she discovered medicines that cure all sickness.  And life was a sickness itself” (297).  A striking image of women empowered by food in the course of subversion, resistance and social change occurs in Brand’s novel with Ursule countering the myth of victimization and resisting her oppressor, even in her death:  “meeting under curtains of heavy rains or unrelenting night, they had told Marie Ursule of the most secret way to ruin.  Woorara they called it, their secret to rigour and breathlessness” (2).  Consequently, Brand binds Marie Ursule to the land, a relationship of  respect and love that instills in her a power to wield it and send it forward into the future:

Wandering when she could wander, Marie Ursule husbanded the green twigs, the brown veins, the sticky bitterness, the most sanguine of plants.  She loved their stems, their surprise of leaves as veined as her palms, their desperate bundles of berries, their hang of small flowers, and most of all the vine itself, its sinewed grace.  She ground the roots to their arresting sweetness, scraped the bark for its abrupt knowledge.  She had though of other ways, bitter cassava, manchineel apples, but their agonies could last for days.  Woorara, the Caribs had told her, was simple and quick, though it had taken her years to collect.  And wait. (2)

“Starved with remembering” is a critical configuration since there is an inability for the protagonists to return to the primary location, a lament that simulates the inability to return to the location where memory is made.  A memory that boils, cooks, changes, cools, and comes from the same place but is no longer accessible.  Brand twists the metaphor of starved to articulate that the act of remembering is never completely fulfilling.   As well, the rock in the ocean that figures prominently in Brand’s novel, I found to double as a symbol of exile, as well as reclaimed territory:   “the rock out there seems another land, her own” (59); it is not connected, yet is wholly connected to the earth and the future.  A place of escape (60) “where she had succumbed to tastes and smells and the sharp graze and cool sting of the body” (62). From here, Bola loved to “put a warm stone in her mouth to comfort her hunger” (57).  Erica Johnson studies the corporeal and psychological impact of trauma that transcends the primal location of the event through the lives of subsequent generations and she refers to a phantom that circulates memory and knowledge or “a direct empathy with the unconscious … matter of a parental object … the phantom is alien to the subject who harbors it … the diverse manifestations of the phantom … we call haunting” (8).  Food narratives reveal how the edible is one of the diverse manifestations that arise in both metaphorical or practical applications.   Unforgetting the origin of the food-associated-rituals is essential to Sri Owen who retraced her roots in Northern Sumantra and imparts that Indonesian food is on the endangered species list:  “this is what made me want to contribute, in my own small way, to the work of saving ‘traditional’ food ways from oblivion,” keeping the ritual alive for subsequent generations (3).

Tamarind Tree

In Brand’s novel, Tamarindus Indica or the tamarind tree figures significantly and is a place where one of Bola’s children, Samuel, finds sanctuary: “he sat under this tree everyday.  A tree perhaps brought here from Africa in the seventeenth century.  Probably brought here by his great-great grandmother” (73).  Brand also shows how the seed of the tree passes through the body before sown into the ground (75). A core element in Brand’s narrative is the link between land/place to culture, memory, identity, survival and self and how this element is articulated.

As Diane McGee suggests, “in a complex of ways, food and the systems surrounding it make up an important text, one by which we – consciously or unconsciously – live our lives” (23).

Transgenerational memory and food are reflected in Brand’s work and represented with the plantation slaves detesting the estate food: “they didn’t want to see another estate and they didn’t want their children to see it either.  They hated cacao, they hated coffee, they hated cane.  If they could pass this hatred on in a chromosome they did, their hatred was so physical” (64). Interestingly, even though they wanted their children to “hate” these foods their descendants eat cacao throughout the novel.  Symbolically even “hated” history is consumed and constructs a parallel of how memories are chosen (and not chosen), and how food is ingested as an unconscious communion with the past.  Although the enslaved want their descendants to be detached from any food related to their violent history – their children are irrevocably linked to it.  They consume their history, their exile, whether realized or not – the past is present in food.

North Coast of Trinidad

“For her memory to thicken” is a metaphor Brand draws upon as an allusion to cooking and memory (23).  Something on the fire simmering, shifting, stirring.  Food is organic and individual relationships to it change, decay, renew, yet remain a memory to thicken.  For example, in Brand’s novel, when Bola licks the sand that came in an envelope she decides “maybe this was my mother’s way of taking me to the sea” to the place her great grandfather was born (284).  Food and place become a language, and as a discourse can illuminate, dominate or subvert collective memory.  As Mieke Bal imparts, redefining is also essential in the work of memorization.

Susan Brison suggests, “the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (49). Food makes accessible the silent gaps in history, creates a narrative path to otherwise inaccessible passages and makes memory tangible, offering those who are starved with remembering some nourishment.  “Life will continue,” as Bola imparts. ” No matter what it seems, and even after that someone will remember you.  And even after that it could be just the whiff or thoughts of things you loved'” (Brand 298).


Bal, Mieke, Jonathan Crewe and Leo Spitzer, eds. Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.

Brand, Dionne. Full and Change of the Moon. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Brison, Susan J. “Trauma Narratives and the Remaking of the Self.” Bal, Crewe and Spitzer. 39-53.

Johnson, Erica. “Unforgetting Trauma: Dionne Brand’s Haunted Histories.” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal. V2.11. (Spring 2004): 1+.

McGee, Diane. Writing the Meal:  Dinner in the Fiction of Early Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001

Morrison, Toni “Memory, Creation and Writing” as featured in The Anatomy of Memory: An Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Owen, Sri. Indonesian Regional Cooking. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Five women portray different fragments of Ophelia


… says she hears
There’s tricks i’ the world, and hems, and beats her heart,
Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt
That carry but half sense. Her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection; they yawn at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts,
Which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there might be thought,
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily. (Hamlet 4.5.4)

The word “nothing” appears thirty-one times in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The etymology of “nothing” is from nan or “not one” and “thing.” Shakespeare teased out the irony of the word endlessly in his plays: “this nothing’s more than matter.” Ophelia, for instance, verbally spars with Hamlet in a bawdy exchange just before the dumb play:

HAMLET: Do you think I meant country matters?
OPHELIA: I think nothing, my lord
HAMLET: That’s fair thought to lie between maids’ legs. (3.2.110)

Shakespeare’s Norton Oxford Edition explains that “rustic doings” or “country” is a well-known pun on the word “cunt” and the wordplay continues in the following lines when the word “nothing” suggests a woman’s genitals which is often linked to the shape of “0” or zero (a ubiquitous Shakespearean trope), or “No Thing:” the “thing” here representing male genitals and to have “No Thing” (3.2.109) as Hamlet rejoins, is to have a vagina.  The female body is, from antiquity, linked to madness.

But why does this matter?

“Matter,” from Middle English, or matere from Anglo-French and Latin materia is “matter” as a physical substance, as well as mater, or mother; matter is also “something to be proved in law” or “the indeterminate subject of reality … [and] the formless substratum of all things which exists only potentially and upon which form acts to produce realities” (Merriam 1).

So this “nothing” is more than some thing; more than physical substance; more than material being; more than what we know, see, and hear and is the uncontainable and unpredictable action (and their potential meanings) witnessed by Laertes, and the court, upon seeing his sister Ophelia in the midst of her mad-songs. Ophelia is saying more that what appears to be just no sense. Ophelia is in the open court.  She is public. She will not be silenced as a no thing but instead engages in a counter discourse among the powers of the court and weaves the crimes, tricks, and transgressions that the sovereign(s) have committed: but you have to listen closely.

What are the implications if the (mater) as feminine, instead of being denoted as vulnerable and ineffectual, is to be coded as powerful in a mode of counter conduct; not solely as a resistance to her subjugation but asserting the self within and putting pressure inside the field of multiple forces and varying agents which include the pater? Ophelia’s immobilized self contained in the misogynistic court is now mobile, and unwieldy:  “… it [madness] is also the most rigorously necessary form of the qui pro quo in the dramatic economy, for it needs no external element to reach a true resolution.  It has merely to carry its illusion to the point of truth” (Foucault, “Madness” 34).

“Indeed would make one think there might be thought.” (Hamlet 4.5)

Elaine Showalter explains that during the late nineteenth century Dr. Charles Bucknill, president of the Medico-Psychological Association, remarked “Ophelia is the very type of class of cases by no means uncommon. Every mental physician of moderately extensive experience must have seen many Ophelias. It is a copy from nature, after the fashion of Pre-Raphaelite School” (86). Ophelia’s body is reduced to object for cultural, social and economic reproduction or to what Lacan calls “the object Ophelia” enabling sovereign control and further patriarchal, totalitarian agendas (Showalter, “Representing” 77).


[sings] By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do’t, if they come to‘t;
By Cock, they are to blame,
Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed’ (4.5.58)

Ophelia uses, for example, “By Gis” instead of Christ, and “By Cock instead of God; her linguist hybridism turns words into seemingly incoherent sequences while they do the work to replicate the chaos and hypocrisy within her castle’s and society’s stone walls – a proto-feminist move that turns Ophelia’s hysteria into counter conduct. She is not adhering to patriarchal syntactic language structures – she is creating her own lexicon. She speaks of betrayal – on all counts. Ophelia also breaks the contract with the King as his “pretty lady” (4.5.40) by answering him with the reclamation of her body: “Nay, pray you, mark” (4.5.28).

Nancy Fraser identifies, in her epistemological description, of how the space that Ophelia is addressing is gendered: “the republicans drew on classical traditions that cast femininity and publicity as oxymoron; the depth of such traditions can be gauged in the etymological connection between ‘public’ and ‘pubic,’ a graphic trace of the fact that in the ancient world possession of a penis was a requirement for speaking in public (a similar link is preserved, incidentally in the etymological connection between ‘testimony’ and ‘testicle,’ as well as ‘dissemination’)” (114). A new reading could examine the apparatus of court conduct and identify Ophelia’s “madness” as a counter conduct, an autonomy and power to speak that which cannot be spoken, do that which cannot be done.  Ophelia, then, as a sovereign body and bare life, is able to act above and outside the law (see Agamben) and is unrestrained, an independent rogue state and therefore represented through the King’s sovereign-lens as mad.

c. 1485, Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc appears in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I, and her depiction, depending through which lens she is viewed, is either a holy maid from God or transgressing whore from hell.  England lost the war, largely due to the might and military intelligence of Joan, and therefore Shakespeare depicts the French warrior as a witch and a hysterical “fallen woman” who is deservedly burned at the stake:  “Strumpet, the words condemn thy brat and thee” (5.6.84).

The English respond to this powerful but disarmingly down-to-earth peasant girl by calling her a witch and a whore.  Much of their language concerning Joan is filled with bawdy double meanings, beginning with their play on the word pucelle, meaning “maid” or “virgin” in French, but sounding like”puzzel,” English slang for “whore.” From the first time he meets her in battle, Talbot assumes that Joan’s powers can come only from witchcraft, rather than from a heavenly or merely human source.  Joan’s circumstances invite this kind of denigration.  She is an unmarried woman who has turned soldier and assumed the garments of a man.  In the early modern period, to dress like a man was often read as a violation of woman’s assigned place in the gender hierarchy and … such women were easily assumed to be sexually transgressive, as well as vulnerable to the temptations of the devil. (293).

Shakespeare effectively changes Joan of Arc from a powerful French female warrior into a frightened and ineffectual practitioner of witchcraft who is hunted by fiends: an effective portrayal to stage a spectacle to bolster English pride with military propaganda. Nice job.

An authentic portrait of Jeanne d’Arc does not exist today – nothing.

If  Shakespeare’s “nothing” is to be read, at best, only as a silenced and contained object, Ophelia, Joan of Arc, and all those who activated modes of counter conduct, remain at most in the state of feminized hysteria and epitomize, as the result of a sovereign’s authority (and its literary agents), “nothing,” zero, and remain as tragic icons to be burned or drowned: “this structure is one of neither drama nor knowledge; it is the point where history is immobilized in the tragic category which both establishes and impugns it” (Foucault “Madness” xii).

Let’s instead listen (and read) closely to what is, and is not being said beyond the silent static images because “this nothing is indeed more than matter.”

On March 12, 2008, at the Robert Gill Theatre in Toronto, I spoke with Guillermo Verdecchia about his play Fronteras Amercianas (American Borders) and its relationship to memory, theatre, and the archive.  To follow is an excerpt from the interview and from his play.

The end of the US-Mexico fence in California

GV: The play started as a letter. I went back to Argentina many years ago as I was traveling. I was figuring out what this experience … a stranger in a place that in some ways was very familiar of this notion of a return home, this notion of trying to make sense … of where I lived, imagined, or some interior way I always felt that I wasn’t fully here and part of my imaginary and part of my memory was situated elsewhere. I have a memory that was passed from generation, from my family collective and culture that doesn’t sit well with the collective or social memories that are found here, in Canada or North America. This experience of being dislocated and yet knowing that returning to Argentina was the solution … it was the experience of returning and feeling, “Oh my god.” So in returning there was this working through it. That is where the play comes through, on one level. On another, it is comes from what it means to be an American, to be on this continent. What are the modes of being on this continent? Who gets to speak? Who represents who? (“Interview”)

Fronteras Americanas is a one-person show about a man divided by cultural borders that manifest in the live theatre of cultural memory through timelines, multimedia, and physical and emotional journeys home. In the play, Verdecchia is the “straight guy” against the anti-hero, Wideload, a constructed hyperbolic array of stereotypes designed to deflate defamatory archetypes through shrewd and witty commentary on culture and sentimental departures (Karenda 10). Verdecchia sees his character(s) as a border-line, as a conflation of space in the pop and political culture, not so much as a binary but as a negotiation, a working-with and through in order to reveal the violence, as well as the amnesia that is bracketed in racist representations. As “a direct descendent of Tupac Amaru, Pancho Villa, Dona Flor, Pedro Navaja, Sor Juana and Speedy Gonzalez, Wideload is the reveal that Verdecchia is after in his work ” (Verdecchia “Fronteras” 23). Wideload is a manifestation of the popular archive or “the store,” a space that “sustains power” as it disseminates through mass culture the representations of Latino American culture, specifically male identity.  Borders, geography, and body are articulated in the process of theatre by Verdecchia’s transgressing and foraging from multiple archives.

American Borders

In Archive Fever, Derrida reveals the assumed veracity of the constructed catalogue or “that there could be no archiving without titles (hence without names and without the archontic principles of legitimization, without laws, without criteria of classification and of hierarchization, without order and without order, in the double sense of the word)” (40). The notion that there could be no archiving without titles delineates the process of classification, and the subsequent power in how material is made and not made accessible, and who decides.  The archive, in its very structure of bordering off culture through authorization and classification, stratifies the object, subject, and culture. Verdecchia is clear that the archive creates and orders privilege:

GV: I could go to the library and get things out or I could go to the Research Library and look stuff up … that’s fantastic; however, it is not the be all or the end all of knowledge, or of understanding, or the ways of knowing. The problem of course is that we have, or the West or generally in the world, we’ve validated a certain kind of knowing … we validate … the archive over embodied … knowing, not transmitted through writing: “That’s not really a document! But if you had a letter, if you had a letter that would be really good.” And of course that raises a lot of historical questions because up until a certain point in our history most people couldn’t write, so those documents that were extrapolated from a culture … are only the elite strata of a culture … because those were the 10% or less of the people who could actually write things down.” (“Interview”)

What is culturally privileged as archival ironically doesn’t necessarily represent what was or is. Matthew Reason argues that theatre provides a challenge or a resistance to the authoritative “permanency” of the archive:  “stage detritus presents an ‘archive’ able to create and recreate the multiple appearance of the performance. In the accumulation of these traces it is as if an immediate archive of the production is established: here is the shaky and incomplete evidence of what happened” (88). Where then does the archive of theatre exist if it is “shaky and incomplete”? Diane Taylor suggests “the West has forgotten about the many parts of the world that elude its explanatory grasp. Yet, it remembers the need to cement the centrality of its position as the West by creating and freezing the non-West as always other, ‘foreign,’ and unknowable. Domination by culture, by ‘definition,’ by claims to originality and authenticity has functioned in tandem with military and economic supremacy” (Taylor 12). The “freezing,” then, is a project of the institutionalized archive to maintain “the object” for supremacy that ultimately serves the economic and capitalist payoff in the form of Cultural Property Certification and the issuing of the federal tax receipt to the donor, who once again represents a small, yet powerful, elite. It is in the theatre, then, where there is a melting of the “freezing” of objectified culture, the live and living performances of its various formations in all its shaky detritus.

GV: That is one of the things that attracted me about the theatre was that it left no traces. There was something about that [aspect] that really appealed to me. I love the temporality … the flaring up like a light and then it’s gone. It’s very anti-archival, but you know, I wish I could make something to point to. Like, ‘I made that bridge!’  Instead, I make the thing that happened for a few hours, for a few weeks.” (“Interview”)

As both a scholar and a playwright, Verdecchia utilizes the archive, as well as performance to put pressure on the cultural, and institutionalized “keeping” of information. By couching his performances with multimedia, he is able to access other sites of memory, other public archives that have become naturalized into the contemporary Western lexicon of representation.

GV: Part of my process is that I have to know everything before I can write … I’ve got to assimilate to get to the beginning of what I want to get to. The timeline is an idiosyncratic history … I’ve chosen preposterous markers that appeal to me … part of the timeline is … the dialogue between history and art … I come back and forth between certain historic events and its construction of history and how it is meaningful to me.
SM: There is also a safety with the timeline, right?  A collective comfort?
GV: I do want to unsettle it [the comfort] … there are markers that should be known … or that there were cities being built in 5,000 BCE.   Like Das Kapital … it’s not a marker that we would stick into a cultural timeline … it’s kinda rude to mention Marx or capitalism but I stick it in … right next to Confederation … and it’s the utter absurdity of history. (“Interview”)

The absurdity of history through its agents, as Verdecchia states, are the keepers of the archives who categorize by way of massive reduction the “key” moments in time. Reason’s argument about the impossibility to capture “live” theatre in the archives echoes the inability to capture the “live theatre” in everydayness. Archives at best act as a filter through which most of what is passes (84-5). The filter managed by institutional mandates, then, has the “sustained power” to decide what cultural memory is and what is forgotten.

Gloria Anzaldúa, in “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” insists “that borders are experienced primarily as psychological conflict, and those who wish to negotiate them experience a kind of dual identity” (63). The borders, she remarks, are not translatable in the natural world: the skin of the earth is seamless. / The sea cannot be fenced, / el mar does not stop at borders” (“The Homeland, Aztlan” 3).

Verdecchia is haunted by his cultural memory “it still speaks to me” and begs as Marcellus implores Horatio: “Thou art a Scholler, speake to it, Horatio” (Hamlet 1.1.51).  Verdecchia dares to speak to the phantom; however, he departs from Derrida’s assertion that the phantom is to have the last word” (39). The haunting that Verdecchia cannot fully articulate draws in another level of archive: the body, his DNA. Theatre becomes a space in which the archive is activated, a fluid dispersal of polyphonic (re)memory, concrete documents that are enacted on the stage through the process of body, the articulation of the archive, without sea walls, and remain unpredictable.


The anxiety that haunts Verdecchia and informs his work as an Argentinean is the cultural trauma of the “thirty thousand disappeared who were tortured and murdered, ten thousand were women, hundreds of them pregnant. They were killed as soon as they gave birth. Their children, born in captivity, were also disappeared – not killed, in this case but adopted by military families (Taylor 169).

GV: It’s part of my memory, my cultural memory. It’s a significant part of my memory where … I live it. I would have been exactly the right age to be on the receiving end or the giving end. My family was almost entirely untouched. I have friends who were disappeared. My identity and my memory and that experience of political experience … that is a significant part of my … self imagining as a Latin American and that’s a bit weird and a bit troubling … There is something about it that’s not great … that’s not right … and that is what this moment speaks to. I wanted to see. I wanted to be close to the … it’s a hoary trope … Those are horrific and stupid cliques and what do you know, I subscribe to them. It’s a big part of my imagination. It’s complicated.

The following is an excerpt from Fronteras Americanas (American Borders). Verdecchia listened to this music, a Tango, Verano Porteno, Astor Piazzolla, over and over again while writing this section of the play.  The Tango remains in the play as a stage direction. I suggest (because I’m bossy) that you play the music and read the section out loud:

Let it “flare up like a light and then it’s gone.”

[Music: Verano Porteno, Astor Piazzolla]

It is music for exile, for the preparations, the significations of departure, for the symptoms of migration. It is the languishing music of picking through your belongings and deciding what to take.

It is two a.m. music of smelling and caressing books none of which you can carry – books you leave behind with friends who say they’ll always be here when you want them when you need them – music for a bowl of apples sitting on your table, apples you have not yet eaten, apples you cannot take – you know they have apples there in that other place but not these apples, not apples like these – You eat your last native apple and stare at what your life is reduced to – all the things you can stick into a sack. It will be cold, you will need boots, you don’t own boots except these rubber ones – will they do? You pack them, you pack a letter from a friend so you will not feel too alone.

Music for final goodbyes for one last drink and a quick hug as you cram your cigarettes into your pocket and run to the bus, you run, run, your chest heaves, like the bellows of the bandoneon. You try to watch intently to emblazon in your mind these streets, these corners, those houses, the people, their smells, even the lurching bus fills you with a kind of stupid happiness and regret – Music for the things you left behind in that room: a dress, magazines, some drawings, two pairs of shoes and blouses too old to be worn any more … four perfect apples.

Music for cold nights under incomprehensible stars, for cups of coffee and cigarette smoke, for a long walk by the river where you might be alone or you might meet someone. It is music for encounters in shabby stairways, the music of lovemaking in a narrow bed, the tendernesses, the caress, the pull of strong arms and legs.

Music for men and women thin as bones.

Music for your invisibility.

Music for a letter that arrives telling you that he is very sick.

Music for your arms that ache from longing from wishing he might be standing at the top of the stairs waiting to take the bags and then lean over and kiss you and even his silly stubble scratching your cold face would be welcome and you only discover that you’re crying when you try to find your keys –

Music for a day in the fall when you buy a new coat and think perhaps you will live here for the rest of your life, perhaps it will be possible, you have changed so much, would they recognize you? would you recognize your country? would you recognize yourself?” (58-60)



Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Living Languages: Contexts for Reading and Writing. Ed. Nancy       Buffington, Marvin Diogenes, and Clyde Moneyhun. New Jersey: Blair Press, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.  Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: UCP, 1996.

Reason, Matthew. “Archive or Memory?: The Detritus of Live Performance.” NTQ. 19:1 (Feb 2003).

Taylor, Diana.  The Archive and The Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas.  London: Duke, 2003.

Verdecchia, Guillermo. Fronteras Americanas (American Borders). Talonbooks, 1997.

… , Interview with Sorouja Moll. Personal interview. Robert Gill Theatre, Toronto. 12 March 2008.

"Dulle Griet (Mad Meg)," c. 1562 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

My mother’s wooden spoon hangs
on a nail.
A thin leather string twists
against the unpainted kitchen wall
below her crucifix.
Like any other wood spoon, it hangs
upside down, dries
new stains,
and smells like everything.

Black electrical tape mends its centre
from when she had to defend
herself; she lets me taste from it;
she says: “it gives me a good grip now, see?”  
Her face smiles, stable 
as pressed cotton.

Into her garden
bare feet across wet grass
she bends, sits
cross legged in fresh turned soil.
A mound of earth between her legs
cool in the rhubarb’s shadow
june leaves as big as her body, she rips
testing rumours of poison.

She adores her elemental fire
her mountain ghosts.
She digs.

She digs

Nails full of planet
(looks over her shoulder) she
wooden spoons into the ground
upright standing
the root will take, right?

“It was a tree once”:
a laurel wood like match sticks
good for setting fires, good
for wooden spoons
to make cakes, meals, children behave, behind the bamboo fences.
Ironwood alder chestnut walnut
ash poplar koa
she likes the way “cocobolo”
makes her lips

lignum vitae, carved
into something else:
an implement
a shallow bowl at a handle’s end
but it’s still a tree

(her knees circles of dirt)
in between tomatoes peas cucumbers

dig digdig

A ceremony of spoons, her
quiet declarations, her rites
of necessary things and
Mad Meg’s inclination to run the bulwarked streets headlong to answer the measureless mouth …

She pats the earth: “there
there,” as the neighbours wonder

how far she will go?