Archive for the ‘Semiotics’ Category

Kim Anderson, Métis writer and scholar, explains that “Native women [have] historically been equated with the land.  The Euro-constructed image of Native women therefore mirrors Western attitudes towards the earth.  Sadly, this relationship has typically developed within the context of control, conquest, possession, and exploitation” (100). Emma LaRocque borrows from Sarain Stump‘s poetry in There Is My People Sleeping when explaining the significance of hearing the voices that break the violent continuity of this ever present colonial misrepresentation:

I was mixing the stars and sand
In front of him
But he couldn’t understand
I was keeping the lightening of
The thunder in my purse
Just in front of him
But he couldn’t understand
And I have been killed a thousand times
Right at his feet

“Culture forms our beliefs” as Gloria Anzaldua argues, and “we perceive the version of reality that it communicates. Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through the culture” (38). Stereotypes are not spontaneous phenomena; they require what John Durham Peters calls “the zone of intelligibility” (208) where a meeting of minds can take place – this takes time. But where does “the zone” or what Wilkie Collins used as his essay title, “The Unknown Public,” occur?  How does it happen? What are the power configurations at work and how are the images and their inscribed knowledge transmitted and what is their material and psychic impact?  When describing the representation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada’s nineteenth-century, historian, Lyle Dick explains “from the time of Confederation, the media has generated images of Canada, its constituent peoples and regions, exerting a wide-ranging impact on the country’s culture. To study these images, especially in the key period after 1867, is to witness the nation-state in the process of its ideological construction” (1).[1]

Image

Plate 1

The nineteenth-century newspapers in America, Britain, and Canada were the most ubiquitous agent of popular education (Anderson and Robertson 2011; Benjamin 1968; Brake 2009; Burke 2005) and as such constructed events using established stereotyped colonial ideologies to organize a meeting of minds or “imagined communities” among strangers (Anderson, “Imagined” 6). European whiteness mobilized the stereotype of the so-called “wild savage” and held within it the noble, the child, the feminine, and the enemy. Nancy Black argues that to determine a sovereign state there must be an enemy and it manifested in the Western illustrated press into the figure of “The Indian” (130). Understanding that the nation’s communication systems were saturated with the figure of  “The Indian,” in its multiple formations, begins to address Daniel Francis’ question:  “How did I begin to believe in the Imaginary Indian?” (18).  Francis’s query opens further questions concerning the shaping of a national consciousness that contributed to a unifying ideology that Eva Mackey calls Canadian-Canadians (3) or as Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson describe as “imagined Canadiana” (9).

How then is the mythical continuity of a unified “Canada” ruptured in the 2013 counter movement Idle No More; moreover, how does the present leadership of Chief Theresa Spence disrupt (in her demand to speak with the Prime Minister of Canada concerning land, governance, social and economic policies) the historical national framework that has endeavoured to make absent and silence Aboriginal women and girls: (in)actions that continue to wage an ignored colonial violence against them, and even in the real and statistical atrocities, that mark the evidence of their missingness and murders, their names are erased. What violence then, it must be asked, does the Prime Minister’s refusal to speak to Chief Theresa Spence continue to advocate and authorize?

It was not surprising to read the biased article reported by the CBC, a Canadian Crown corporation owned by the federal state: “Review of troubled Northern Ontario reserve’s finances says federal funds spent without records” If the audit report, that the CBC coverage presents inaccurately, is actually read it is clear that the audit conclusions criticize, in fact, the federal government’s department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s (AANDC) management, or rather mismanagement, of the Attawapiskat funding. The media and its “timely” slandering of Chief Theresa Spence’s leadership is a stark reminder (if indeed one needs to be reminded) of the colonial strategies and stereotypes that continue to be deployed by the government through the media when they are confronted with acts of resistance.

The line of attack is not new. The foundational media strategy is rooted as far back as the c1493 Basel woodcut, “Epistola de insulis nuper inventis” [“Concerning islands recently discovered”], from Columbus’ letters and the advent of print production; yet, its stronghold, within the material and psychic spaces of growing nationalism and printing press technology in Canada, is made by the mid-nineteenth century.

In the July 16, 1885 edition of The Regina Leader newspaper, for instance, under the headline Telegraphic News – Ottawa  – “Supplementary Estimates Brought Down,” paper editor and owner, Nicholas Flood Davin summarizes the federal budget report for the North West; the article proves insightful particularly when bearing in mind the ignored petitions and the grievances brought forward against the federal government by the Métis peoples, Aboriginal Nations, and white settlers concerning not only land, but also the social anxiety and violence by increased and aggressive policing along with an upswing in the government’s implementation of irresponsible and malignant policies that created the foundations of inadequate health, economic, educational, and social systems on Reserves – issues demanded to be constitutionally addressed and recognized in the Métis Bill of Rights (1869 and 1885).  Sound familiar? The report includes the 1885 federal budget forecasting $250,000 earmarked to the North West Mounted Police, $50,000 toward land surveys, $660,000 for the CPR, and $6,000 to the “Half-breeds” (1). The report on one level reflects the government’s exclusive priorities: security, ‘acquisition’ of land, military transportation and communication technologies through the North West specifically adhering to colonial objectives, while on another appeasing the apparent needs and sentiments of the Victorian settlers by disseminating propaganda that security is enforced, land is organized, mobility and communication services are accessible, and that the Métis, with Riel charged with high treason, were, according to their the under-funding, “disappearing,” and the Aboriginal Nations (not allotted a funding budget line) were not present at all. It was the era of the “Vanishing Indian” and similar to the 2013 CBC coverage, the numbers were presented to do colonial ideological legwork. Conventional to the Leader’s format, the article is followed by a travel narrative entitled “The North West as, a Home, for the Small Farmer” and on the following page, the headline “The End of the Rebellion.”

In the same issue, the article “The Mounted Police – The Report of the Commissioner” replicates the geographical specialization of race, the implementation of government policies in the Indian Act, as well as how the policies were not accepted by the Aboriginal communities but were instead forced upon them in the issuing of discipline and punishment through state policing.  In the report, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald condemns “the indiscriminate camping of Indians in the vicinity of towns and villages in the North West … Indians should not be allowed to leave their reserves without a permit from a local Indian agent.” The report

pointed out that the introduction of such a system [The Indian Act] would be  tantamount to a breach of confidence with the Indians generally, inasmuch as from the outset the Indians had been led to believe that compulsory residence on reservations would not be required of them, and that they would be at liberty to travel about for legitimate hunting and trading purposes … that discretionary power, according to circumstance should be vested in the officers of police, was wise and sound … The camping of Indians near towns is an unmitigated nuisance, and if they are to be allowed to wander off their reserves without even the small check of a permit from the local agent, what is the good of having reserves at all?

Davin’s extract taken from the House of Commons invites his readers into the sovereign zone of intelligibility as it reinforces the mapping of racialized spatial hierarchies and authorizes “community” surveillance as a “wise and sound” method to maintain security while it segregates boundary lines between the civilized “towns and villages,” and individuals from Native communities as “unmitigated nuisance.”  Within the loaded colonial tropology of “if they are to be allowed to wander” metaphorically transfers as it reduces the Aboriginal population as deviant and must be kept confined and more specifically aligned with the state protocols of incarceration. In 2012, with the prison population overwhelmed with individuals of Aboriginal descent, the nineteenth government policy as a racist template continues to have catastrophic implications: “Aboriginal people are four per cent of the Canadian population, but 20 per cent of the prison population … one in three women in federal prisons is Aboriginal and over the last 10 years representation of Aboriginal women in the prison system has increased by 90 per cent.”[2] Moreover, the imperial euphemism of discretionary power issued by the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) elides the colonial violence in the rhetoric of security; the police did not protect the rights and interests of the Indigenous population but, rather, collaborated closely with eastern business interests who paid their salaries.[3] By 1883, 70% of the Métis and more than 50% of the Native English (“Half-breeds”) had seen the lands they occupied in 1870 patented to others mostly Ontario Orangemen newcomers.[4]

The public slandering of Chief Theresa Spence in the national media, and the Prime Minister’s explicit disrespect in his refusal to meet with her as a leader of a community, within the nation of Canada, that has not only been mismanaged by its federal agents (as identified in the audit report) but has also been sanctioned into a state of crisis because of the AANDC’s delinquent and negligent methods, reflects how Harper continues in the colonial footsteps of his nineteenth century Conservative predecessor.

Macdonald_Nov20_1885

Plate 2

There was another figure who led, with others, two movements of resistance, whose leadership was also disparaged in the press, and who articulated his response to the nineteenth century Canadian federal government concerning parallel issues that remain to be addressed in 2013. To follow is one instance among many:

The only things I would like to call your attention to, before you retire to deliberate are:
1st. That the House of Commons, Senate, and ministers of the Dominion who makes laws for this land and govern it are no representation whatever of the people of the North-West.
2ndly. That the North-West Council generated by the federal Government has the great defect of its parent.
3rdly. The number of members elected for the Council by the people make it only a sham representative legislature and no representative Government at all. British civilization, which rules to day the world, and the British constitution has defined such Government as this which rules the North West Territory is an irresponsible Government, which plainly means that there is no responsibility, and by the science which as been shown here yesterday you[] are compelled to admit it, there is no responsibility, it is insane. (Louis Riel, Prisoner’s Address, 1885)

The Idle No More movement is also not a recent phenomena but a continuum of 500 years of resistance. Perhaps then, in the news media’s eagerness and the government’s colonial anxiety that attempt to misrepresent and undermine, once again, Aboriginal peoples issues, demands and leadership, make evident just how powerful Spence’s counter movement, and a growing solidarity, is.

List of Illustrations

Plate 1
“Canada West” (c. 1923-1925)
Immigration Poster
Issued under the direction of N. James Alexander Robb,
Minister of Immigration and Colonization, Ottawa, Canada

Plate 2
Glenbow Museum.  Edgar Dewdney Fond.
“J.A. Macdonald to Dewdney.” Correspondence with Sir John A. Macdonald – 1878-1888.
Series 8. M-320-p.587. On-line.

[1] Dick, Lyle. Manitoba History, 48. Autumn/Winter 2004/2005. Web. April 30 2012. http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/48/nationalism.shtml

[2] Carolyn Bennett. “Aboriginal People Need Solutions, Not More Jail Time.” The Huffington Post. December 11, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/hon-carolyn-bennett/aboriginal-crime_b_1923856.html

[3] Metis Culture 1875-1885.”1883.” Retrieved from http://www.telusplanet.net/public/dgarneau/metis50.htm

[4] Metis Culture 1875-1885. Retrieved from -http://www.telusplanet.net/public/dgarneau/metis50.htm

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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).

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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.

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).

Imagine it’s two a.m. Eirin Moure sits in front of a second storey window in an empty house on Toronto’s Winnett Avenue.  It’s mid winter. The air is cold, the wind colder.  She opens the window a crack, to let in some air.   She sips from her glass as she sifts through Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s manuscript.  Translations into transelations into transcreations.

Maybe a little tipsy, maybe a little tired, absolutely a little cheeky, she begins to see, without thinking,  “What, me, guard sheep?” (3). Read further.  Pessoa’s long-ago pastoral countryside is transformed by an urban grid, as Moure makes accessible histories that were paved over.  When I finished reading Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, pen marked up the pages, dog-ears bent the corners, and I realized that Moure’s transelation is a process of unlearning – an allegory for poetic seeing.

Turning the pages, I’m reminded of a time when l peeled away layers of wallpaper in a room I rented in an old Toronto semi.  With history, patterns and poetry at my feet, I had to begin at the beginning to answer the question:  What is this?  Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person is a translation from the Portuguese book of poetry O Guardador de Rebanhos (1914) by Fernando Pessoa written through one of his heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro.  Moure translated each of Pessoa’s poem-lines in a chant-like response.  Several themes, including metapoetics, emerge in Moure’s translation/mediation/deflection.

Initially, I questioned Moure’s motives in translating another author’s work and then claiming an ownership.  Although, Moure has altered voice, as well as phrasing, the original meaning of Pessoa’s poetry remains.  However, Moure’s work is more than a translation – it’s her twenty-first century response to Pessoa’s twentieth century work; she had become a pupil of seeing, an apprentice of unlearning under Pessoa’s tutelage (viii).  For Moure, history and memory are bound to language and translation; for example, the Galician language, which refers to “a lost chunk of the Portuguese nation,” became Moure’s (125).

Moure insists that “I want this book to be judged not just as my poetry but as translations of Pessoa” (ix), translations that are whimsical with an urban, sharp-witted snap that contrasts Pessoa’s pastoral earnestness.  For example, Moure refers to Christ as “too urbane to fake out” (25); she twists nature “because sunlight is fab” (15), and she kicks-a-can at not-seeing because “thinking bugs me” (3). Moure’s transcreation urbanizes Pessoa; his lines become a grid guiding Moure to see outside her Winnett Avenue window.

While Moure does deflect from a direct translation, she is faithful to Pessoa’s vision in her refusal to translate the word choses (thing), which is central to Pessoa’s objectivism.  Sheep are like Pessoa’s thoughts; he doesn’t keep them, he sees them ¹.  In translating, Moure’s thoughts connect to Pessoa’s, and textually in the very object of the book, the poets live side by side, neighbours who call out to each other, across an alley, in a poetic banter.

“Rhymes get on my nerves, Rarely” is Moure’s transcreation of Pessoa’s metapoetics, questioning the methods, ethics, and aesthetics of the genre: “what do you think of those two trees rhymes?” (47). Moure recalls that “when they filled in the ravine, they buried the bridge too.  I unburied it with Pessoa” (ix).  Moure unburies the poetry’s infrastructure, as well as a poet’s “learning to unlearn” (67).  Pessoa sees things as concrete: “they have colour and form // and existence, barely” (71).  In response, Moure conveys the poet’s intimate struggle with the contours before them when writing concrete poetry: “how hard it is to shake off, and see only the visible!” (71), a struggle that keeps me wanting to know the buried bridges I cross over.

Some of Pessoa’s lines are translated verbatim, others are Moure’s deflection of what she sees and does not see; for instance, a manhole cover is not just a manhole cover, a foundry stamp gives it history and below it flow time and politics (vii).   Although Moure uses concrete imagism, she rattles Pessoa’s argument that “what we see of things are the things” (67).  Moure’s translation interrogates the geographical tensions that problematize what we see in historical and global narratives, such as “missiles // fired over high seas by satellite into Iraq” (33).

Urbanity for Moure and modernity for Pessoa distort the divinity in internal rhythms:  paving over its nature (23).  Poetic elation reached Pessoa and Moure in a divine form of ecstasy.  Moure observes how “it set my heart murmur going” (viii), and Pessoa wrote thirty of the forty-nine poems in a possessed fervor (vii).  For Moure, urban sprawl translates into non-seeing: “Downtown, huge mansions lock sight away // Obscure the horizon, flatten sight and wrench us far from the sky” (23).  But as Moure sees a neighbour throw lasagna to the crows (79), I wonder if a poet’s poetry would (be)come without the tension between traffic and pastures?

While reading Moure’s work, I was taken with the desire to see. I decided to use Moure’s “Rhymes get on my nerves” (47) as my guide.  I opened my winter window to let in some air:

What do I think of those two trees rhymes?
Like my two hands, rarely
equal, one beside the other
snow on branches has no colour but all colour
my way of writing is imperfect like trees, I am
just here, seeing two rhymes
two hands, that are mine

I realize that “the hard bit is to know how to see” (67); how to translate life’s details that get buried or wallpapered.  Sheep’s Vigil is a lesson in poetics to get over the “hard bit,” learning that “plunging into thought” (67) can confine poetry instead of opening a window to let in a bit of snow.   Moure’s final poem sits alone:  “everywhere I learned to see again” (123), illustrating a writer’s reawakening.  No longer with her guide, Moure is seeing, “sure of all, sure of nothing” (123).

¹ Jonathan Griffin, Selected Poems: Fernando Pessoa.  (Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1974) 75.

Erín Moure (Eirin Moure) is one of Canada’s most eminent and respected poets, and a translator from French, Spanish, Galician, and Portuguese. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Furious, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for Domestic Fuel, and the AM Klein Poetry Prize for Little Theatres(which has also been published in Spain in Galician translation as Teatriños), Moure has published twelve books of poetry, including A Frame of the Book, co-published in the U.S. by Sun and Moon Press, and five books of poetry in translation, including Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person by Fernando Pessoa, shortlisted for the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and the 2002 City of Toronto Book Prize. Moure lives in Montreal.


It’s as simple as this: I found your letter in a bread box, a paper folded lengthwise three times. A missing page, Oma, with your voice pressed on tissue blue writing paper – the same colour as the sea it crossed over.  A paper folded in between love letters, divorce papers, and a pencil sketch of a ship’s graphite lines fading into fog. The letter is a story, a mother’s mother’s story.

I always see you standing right there: your back to me in your small kitchen on Havenstraat in Holland. Your waist is wrapped with your long white tea towel. Stained with the colour of meals. You lean into the counter, feet slippered. You’re chopping something (but I can’t quite see what) and a pan simmers smoky the smell of cooking onions and garlic and trassie memorized on my tongue. The back screen door is open and the hanging green blue copper batik fabric is tied back to let in a cool summer breeze and your five, no six dogs, in. Misha, your old black lab, pushes heavy into your leg, that’s all, just a push and walks nails across floor into another room.

You don’t know I’m here, do you? How could you know that I am here, now, with all these things on my lap, listening to something written, something that comes in from the outside and waits

for your back to turn, our mouths to speak.

“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.

My 1974 Honda Café Racer has a kick-start; it’s not a common feature especially as my only option to start my motorcycle and is not generally preferred over the (highly coveted by me) electric start, a feature that takes a mere push of a thumb to get you and your  bike on your way. Instead, my kick-start takes the crazy-assed physical effort of my entire body to start the engine and usually ends with me tearing off layers of my clothing, while apologizing to all the over-the-shoulder glances with their fancy-pants electric starters.  It’s a bit of a showdown between it and me. Those who have ever tried to kick start a cold engine in the morning, or stalled in the middle lane in mid-afternoon traffic, or got a kick-back shin bruising when the ignition timing is off, know what I mean. It’s a beast.

However, a beautiful moment occurs when I finally, finally get my motorcycle to idle (which usually results in me high five-ing anyone who is still waiting). The sound is indeed sweet. It purrs. It’s a rough purr mind you much like a beat up alley cat that has found some summer sun on a patch of cracked asphalt. I wait patiently. Listening. It tells me when it’s ready. I wait because I know that in its idleness there is movement. The engine is coming to life, a mechanical resuscitation by the fuel that’s injecting and flowing through its system. Food for its parts. It needs to idle otherwise it is just pieces of metal and chain, an empty shell, nothing more.

My bike is in the garage right now. I’ll be painting the battery tray, readjusting my clutch, changing my left mirror, and replacing a burnt out signal light.  Like me, it’s overwintering, waiting for patches of warm sun.