Archive for the ‘Hysteria’ Category

The students – Megan Reback, Élan Stahl, and Hannah Levinson – used ‘the word’
during a public reading at John Jay High school
in a New York city suburb.

School principal Richard Leprine said the girls
were being punished because they disobeyed
an order not to use ‘the word.’

They used the word

Hang thee, young baggage!
Disobedient wretch.
I tell thee what – get thee to church Thursday
Or never after look me in the face
Speak not, reply not, do not answer me!
My fingers itch …
Out on her.             [Capulet in Romeo and Juliet]

The three girls
were a bit older than Juliet would have been
when she disobeyed

When a student chooses not to follow that directive, consequences follow.
[Leprine in NYTimes, Mar 8, 2007]

The girls said they never made such agreement.   [NYTimes, Mar 8,2007]

Megan, Élan, and Hannah took turns reading an excerpt
from the play; then they read the
offending passage together:

My short skirt is a liberation flag in the
women’s army – they read – I declare
these streets, any streets, my vagina’s
country.   [from Monologues, “My Short Skirt”]

Readings of the play [The Vagina Monologues]
are a common fund-raiser for sexual assault
and battered women’s centres
because [Eve] Ensler
suspends royalty payments for groups combating
violence against women

Plate 1. Francesca Woodman: From Angel series, Rome, 1977. George and Betty Woodman.

Plate 2. Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978. George and Betty Woodman.

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. http://www.aboriginalcuratorialcollective.org/features/bearrobe.html.

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 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).

Image

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).

Image

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.

“How does meaning get into the image?”  Roland Barthes‘ question remains an important one when considering the December 2011 FOX News images of riots that were reported to be taking place in Moscow and how the network was caught out by the public in their use of footage from riots occurring in Greece. The public’s critique of the news and its demand for  “authenticity” is, however, not new.  Nor is the displacement of particular landscapes for particular political purposes.  This is seen in nineteenth century Canadian landscapes, among other spaces, as being artistically represented as an English countryside. Here, Benjamin West’s 1770 painting, The Death of General Wolfe, comes to mind.  Wolfe did not die on the battlefield, nor was he surrounded by military personnel, nor was there a Native American kneeling at his feet (Wolfe, in fact, held an acute disdain for Aboriginal peoples).

The image was constructed to create a national fantasy of unification and to establish a collective mass memory around a military event.   The mechanical reproduction of an “image” at the point of its very operation, as Walter Benjamin argues, is no longer “real.” “Real” can never be reproduced and therefore declarations of its rendered authenticity are impossible. With this said, the suspension of belief in its many creative imaginings remains a compelling device and therefore a lucrative commodity and political strategy to instigate mass consent.  The nineteenth century, for instance, is seen as a social site where there was a massive increase in Western readership of the paper press.  Wilkie Collins called this elusive and temporal demographic  “The Unknown Public.” Wilkie’s foundational (yet problematic) essay was first published in Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words in 1858.  The great subtext of “The Unknown Public” is the political and capital desire and simultaneous fear of the power of individual subjects and their sovereign and unleashed opinions.  The public bodies, particularly during times of conflict, wanted to know and were discerning enough to also know the power of political rhetoric and the methods of propaganda.  One reason for the rise of the institutionalization of the library in the nineteenth century was to take the public out of the coffee houses where lively debates would take place over The Sunday Times and marginalized Penny Presses and move them into libraries where silence was demanded.

C. Wright Mills, in The Power Elite, (1956) asks a question that underpins Barthes’ rhetorical conundrum:  “but who is this public?”  Mills sees the nineteenth century not only as a transformative period in a social visual ontology (the Victorian demand “to see” and “to know”) but as a site where the public was discursively separated into the mass: a shift determined by the power elite.

Mills explains the shift:

Public:

– many people express opinions and receive them.

– small and unauthorized venues of communications.

– outlets for effective action.

– authoritative institutions do not penetrate.

Mass:

– fewer people express opinions and received them.

– venues for communications difficult for individuals to effect.

– opinions controlled by authorities.

– mass has no autonomy from authorities.

Management, control, and surveillance of the elusive and potentially transgressive “public” functioned through and through the nineteenth century industrialized media apparatus and its freshly awakened bedfellow:  illustration.  The co-opting of text and image was and is a shape-shifting technology that continues to morph in its digital manifestations on the internet to accrue the mass.  What remains significant to note is that both media,  illustration and the internet, originate in the military along with its ideologies.  Rather than disqualify a comparison of the technologies as disparate because of their analogue and digital mechanics both rely on their relative cybernetic realities to enable production and reception.  Donna Haraway explains, “Cyborgs are not reverent. … 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 trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism. … But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential” (“Manifesto” 151).

The critique of the FOX falsification of time and space reveals the power elites attempt to homogenize the public demonstrations as an amorphous “mass” that lacks singularity, identification, or agency; moreover, it is, in the case of FOX, the resistance from “the public” that reveals the heterogeneity of the ubiquitous power bases that remain vigilant, uncontrollable, and always demanding to see the ever elusive real.

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.

My mother would tell me this story, a fable, a legend of sorts as I sat on her kitchen floor; the broken linoleum was cool under my crossed legs. I remember tracing the torn bits of the floor with my finger tips; slowly I’d follow the sharp lines, the broken lines like a map that led me to my mother’s stove.

As she cooked, I played with one of her wooden spoons and I’d pull all the pots and pans from out of the open cupboard door beside her bare legs.

As she stirred, I stirred

and I’d watch her saute the onions and garlic; the smoke would rise in an alchemic cloud to the ceiling and disappear;  I’d watch her as the steam made her face turn like a ghost as she lifted the lid from the jasmine rice.

And she would stir.

It was a crazy legend, this story that she would tell.  It made no sense to me at all but I do remember liking the word “volcano” … even as she told the story I would repeat the word – volcano – over and over sometimes without making a sound:  only my lips would move:  vol cane oh.

“The volcano,” she would begin as she tamped the spoon on the edge of her iron pot, “was made by a daughter, a meisje, who, to win the love of her mother, had to dig a sea around the sand upon which she stood — in one night. This would not be an easy task, for you see the sand stretched out for as far as the girl could see until it slipped out over the edge of the world.  And all she had, all this girl could use was half a coconut shell, a klein kop – like this.  And so the girl began to dig; she made a circle, a wide circle.  She dug deep for she knew the sea was running beneath, and as she dug she piled the sand in the centre of the circle to make the volcano; she dug, and she dug,

and she dug

so deep that she stood hip deep in a water of sea and the sand pile had grown into a mountain so great that when she would hold her breath for a moment … she could hear a fire growing in its belly, and its groan beneath her feet.  The girl, you see, was doing very well, but she was doing so well that the gods got angry.  So angry because you see, meisje, they wanted her to fail.

It is here, in the story, that my mother would always look at me; her green eyes so clear and sharp that I thought I could hear them speak, “Meisje, what you must remember is that the gods were only afraid.  They were afraid that this girl, the daughter would make what couldn’t be made by mortals.”

“So the gods began to pound and POUND … pound seed between mortar and pestle. The sound of stone grew so great, so fierce that the dark sky shook.”  And my mother would have her stone and pestle resting in her hands, its centre still with bits of cumin husks. “Like so … the stone against seed against stone.   It was this sound of pounding, the sound of girls in the morning preparing meals around a fire and water boiling hot for washing as the sun would cut the night horizon with light, softening the dark … but you see,  it was a trick.  It was still dark.  The girl still had time but she did not know the trick that was being played.

and the roosters, they too were fooled; they thought the sun, the morning, was rising, ready to come up — so they began to crow

So, the girl, the daughter stood up, climbed out of the sea,  her hand over brow.  She looked at her mountain and then to the east.  The empty cup in her hand. The sky was still dark and filled with the sounds of cocks crowing and gods pounding.  It was then the girl knew the gods were fucking with her.  The gods were always always fucking with her.  The shape of the sky told her that much.  But by then it was too late.

And so the girl never completes the task.  And the daughter dies … longing, a half cup in her hand.   A broken sea of sand and an unfinished mountain was all that remained.

And my mother would stir.  Silent.  And I would follow the lines on the floor like a map, a map that led to my mother’s stove.  And I would for a moment hold my breath, like the girl, the daughter in the story … and it seemed as if the floor moved from somewhere below me and I could hear a fire from somewhere as I looked up at her, the steam rising and then disappearing into nothing.

I never knew what that word meant; the name she always called me:  Meisje.  No clue. But the funny thing is my body knew.  My arms, my legs, my face, my mouth all knew the meaning better than anything else I have ever known.  It felt — warm.  Like the heat from her oven.  Steam from her rice.  Her skin in an August garden.  Even though I never knew what it meant – I always went to her – always went to her — no matter what.

And I remember the two of us standing across from each other, each facing one other; our hands on our hips wanting to know more than anything else in the world the answers to the questions that could only be found in legends, the truth that could only be found in fables of sea and sand that were told to us.

—  excerpt from my play “red bridge”


making for the woods “then the river”
our august skin hears its coolness before we ever did
unlooked-for-band skipping rogue stones on curbless pavement
eight in all swearing loud for the hell of it, loose
and highly flammable

kerosene sloshes as kerosene sloshes
on the move “enough to make a jet engine …”
boasts shushed as porch lights catch hems
of shirtless backs running uncapped lapping
to ignite something anything out of breath
to show them to show them how our hands can

unmake

river mouth at our street’s very end
always unlocked and if it was a noon-time-water we’d see puddle-like-rainbows
float ’n swirl like on jenny’s asphalt black wet driveway just laid
searing leaning into her ’76 firebird.  and jenny’s shining hair

her shining hair …

row of bare foot beasts pour on past midnight
mouth to mouth filling the river full of unlit chemical giddy
shaking wooden matches shake shakeshake percussive pieces
striking one by one under johnny’s front tooth “only takes one, dumb ass”
to set it fine never thought just us could, i mean, burn up a river like that, “damn fine”
sky burnt whiteorange bare feet stomping hair caught faster than fast stomping
crinkling brows melting her two hands away (and she never did come back)

our awed bodies too hot to blink, burst skin doused in standing light baptized
small gods our dry lips
couldn’t pronounce

 

CCM Imperial Mark IV

I’m not the smartest fellow on the block.  That’s what they all tell me and chase me as I ride my electric-blue CCM Imperial Mark IV bicycle with side mirror, reflector pedals, dual-colour saddle seat, and back-wheel spokes clicking the clothes-peg-clipped Hank Aaron baseball card my dad gave me before he left: “For luck, son,” he said, on my thirteenth birthday.  I like gliding smooth and long, sometimes lifting one hand off the handlebar to wave or push my glasses up while riding around the block around the block around the block taking the corners no slowing down         leaning          leaning baseball card clicking for luck for luck for luck frluk frluk fluk fluk fluk fluk fluk. After dinner’s the best time, better than noon when the sun’s high and my back sweats, making my shirt all white cotton-sticky and the Three Deegan Sisters out roamin’ and whippin’ Mrs. Walsh’s old crabapples at anything “they set their goddamn beady eyes on,” my mom says, as she stands on the wood porch, arms crossed with a face mixing a happyworry.  She tries not to show it but I see as I wave and pedal away.  Her chestbreath holds        that I’m in Room One with Miss Sutherland who’s smart and smells real nice and I told my mom to get that kind of perfume but she slapped me and told me that kinda talk was “the seeds of sin, son … the seeds of sin.”   I don’t think Miss Sutherland is sinful.  She just smells like a spring river opening, like when I take my feet off the pedals, legs straight out, goin’ down the hill to the river and the wind makes my glasses go crooked, musses my hair-part to the other side.  That’s what I was doing, going fast, Hank Aaron clicking and I looked into the woods beside The Old Mill and I saw the Three Deegan Sisters in the second-oak-clearing with shovels digging a hole in between the trees. Digging.  I caught only a peek, going so fast and the leaves not-out-full-yet and one of the sisters (I can’t tell which one) saw that I saw, only I swore I didn’t see.   I swore I didn’t see but she kept running after me and even on my electric-blue CCM bicycle it was slow and hard and The Old Mill Road was all up hill and Hank Aaron clicking for luck     ffff ooorrr   lu       ck   ffffor   uck and my legs heavy because I’d been riding around the block, taking all the corners maybe twenty times – no stopping.  I felt her swearing on me, her feet sandpaper quick running, her hand grabbing the back of my shirt my mom pressed this morning and it began to tear top-button choking.  All I could think of, as I stood up pedaling and twisting, was my mom ironing and the smell of Niagara starch to lay my buttonholes down smooth and the ripping stopped as my bicycle crashed down on my leg.  My glasses fell off and all I could see was the three of them, circling out-of-breath blurs, standing over of me. A circling blur, like they where half-erased saying words I can’t say ’cause my mom would take my dad’s belt to me.    Glass crunching under one of the sister’s feet, her blurry hands on her hips lifting something, shaking it and even though it was after dinner my back started to sweat.  “I didn’t see!”  I said loud and tried to stand but one of the Deegan Sisters all blurry put her knee on my hand and called me names Miss Sutherland tells me to “never mind” and they put something in my mouth that tasted like blood and they said if I told they would             they would                You see I can’t tell that bit, not with my mom standing just there, arms crossed, face looking a way I’ve never seen before.  Mom says that from now on it’s best that I just sit right here on the porch’s bottom step, from now on “stay out of trouble” and not hang around the neighborhood trash, from now on just watch the cornerless windless street, hair nicely combed, but all I see are pieces of a baseball card falling through the air and my electric blue bicycle at the bottom of the river, red reflector pedal catching the noontime sun, handle bar streamers pulling long in the current like they were taking all the corners, no slowin’ down

“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

GENTLEMAN:

… 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).

OPHELIA:

[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.”