Brant Fulton: Journey Through Vietnam

February 10, 2005

Last night finished quite brilliantly despite the earlier misgivings. After gladly returning the motos, my friend Harry and I went on our usual evening time walkabout in search of a meal or new vista. As the hour was late, we didn’t stand much chance of acquiring dinner. Nonetheless, we chose one of three or four adjoining sparsely populated outdoor establishments in which to try our luck. Instantly, we were besieged in rounds; first, by a jovial sloshed Tet celebrant who hugged me several times, second, by an equally embarrassed friend coming to the rescue of his sloppy pal, and third, and most importantly, by an exceptionally beautiful waitress.

Upon making eye contact with the waitress, we both visibly demurred. I felt a hiccup somewhere in my otherwise empty cavernous ribcage. In fairly decent English she apologetically began to explain what we already suspected: the late hour combined with the fact that Tet was well underway meant no food for anyone tonight. Nonplussed, we gladly ordered beers. Beer is food. Minutes later however, she approached us carrying menus as if her earlier denial of our request for nourishment never occurred. She tentatively held one end of my men after handing it to me and ventured: “Would you like to try a Hoi An specialty?” That specialty ended up being some of the best food Vietnam had to offer.

Time passed and our attention fell to the oddly fragrant air that stirred off of the lagoon. A footbridge disappeared into the darkness. The hum of a moto reverberated beneath the corrugated sheet-metal roof, headlights cast shadows against our nearly empty beer bottles, and then magically our waitress appeared again, balancing a tray of two large porcelain bowls. To our surprise, despite the late hour, despite this being the
most sacred of holidays, and despite the already offered and consumed local dish, she had taken it upon herself to enlist a nearby kitchen (the family kitchen perhaps, or that of a neighbor) and prepared two heaping bowls of fresh pho for us. We were speechless, but oddly not very surprised, for the hospitality and graciousness of the Vietnamese had blossomed in every room, at every bus stop, and along every road of our journey.

After sating ourselves on this bounty, after a couple more beers, and our realization that a Chris Rock comedy was blaring in translation from the TV; the waitress came back to talk. She told us that she was a university student but was spending the Tet holidays with her family and helping out at the restaurant. Her smile, radiating shyly beneath alert, warm eyes, was as genuine for us as it must be for any of her familial elders. When she took her leave, it was with an assured air, as if we were old friends or neighbors, and would naturally see one another again in the future. Privately, I was futilely planning such a future. Along the quiet, contented walk towards the formerly state run Binh Minh Hotel, we came across two caged monkeys sleeping peacefully in each other’s arms.


February 11, 2005

We started early with cafes at 6 a.m., then gathered our packs and took two motos west to Vinh Dien. We’d heard that we could catch a bus there to Kon Tum. After a few un-deliberated turns, we found ourselves on a crowded chicken bus that we hoped was heading in the right direction. As we spoke the name of our destination, the bus burst into hilarity. This bus was going nowhere near Kon Tum.

Moving in the direction of whatever fate had to provide, it became clear that our destiny was often linked to the unmitigated kindness of strangers. Within moments, an older passenger made his way to our side. He spoke nearly unidentifiable English but was determined to help. After some gesturing, some smiles, and some spontaneously agreed upon vocabulary, he made it clear that we would need to link to another bus to get to Kon Tum. After a few more awkward but friendly moments, it came out that he also spoke German, thus he and Harry (who is American but fluent in German) were able to gab for ages. When our new friend returned to his seat, Harry told me that his German had been quite impossible as well, but sufficient enough to confirm that he would return in an hour’s time to usher us off the bus at the correct stop. To our amazement, he not only came back to usher us off at the right stop, he also got out with us, insisting on helping us with our detour.

Thanks to him, we made our way to the bus that would take us to Kon Tum. Except this was no bus at all but rather a fully occupied mid-80s minivan. Approaching, we noticed that 12 people or more drooped within its steaming interior, a space made to fit no more than 7. Seeing the state of things, Harry and I prepared to wait for another bus, but our new drivers found this attitude absurd. They snatched our bags and tossed them into a luggage hold already occupied by three young uniformed soldiers. None of the passengers seemed even the slightest bit daunted by our intrusion. Amidst unconcerned whistling and singing, Harry and I squeezed ourselves through the door and into a row. The young man at my right lay his head on my shoulder and slept.

It wasn’t long before the driver made a sudden U-turn, going back to pick up a few pedestrians he’d spotted who needed a ride. Harry and I laughed in disbelief. A family of four climbed into the van. Where they found space, I cannot say, but things were just getting started. It wasn’t long before we stopped again, this time to pick up a couple of elderly Buddhist nuns who found it hilarious to be traveling with two six-foot tall hulking white boys. It was only then that the others seemed to notice us. Suddenly the entire van was humming with laughter and witticisms. Incredulous – absolutely incredulous – were the next twenty minutes, as we stopped four or five more times to take on even more passengers – a total of thirty-four in all! Among them; the world’s smallest and oldest couple, several teenage girls, and a pack or two of kids. This was a banner day for all aboard. The tales, I’m sure, were repeated mirthfully over dinner for days to come. Yet I knew that Harry and I were likely the only occupants who would carry this experience with us as a full-fledged memory. We were a phenomenon, and honored to be so. At such close range, and smothered in such warm and palpable cheer and goodwill, I felt an empathy and sense of belonging the likes of which I have never before experienced. Despite the ever-present cloud of cigarette smoke and the acutely real danger that this voyage engendered, I couldn’t recall having ever been happier.


Tet Nguyen Dan, is the lunar New year Festival and it is the most important Vietnamese holiday.


Monia Filipe: Eine andere Perspektive

A not-so-German look at three German films.

Even though I grew up in Portugal, the fall of the Berlin Wall had a very lasting effect on me. I was still quite young then and had a difficult time understanding how one city could be cut in half. I imagined it must have been sliced the way I’d watched my mother slice a piece of fruit or bread for our breakfast. For days I questioned my father over this city, eventually convincing him to go out and buy a map of Berlin for me. I needed to see the division for myself.

Looking back now, I imagine this as the first moment in my continued fascination with Berlin. I suppose it was inevitable that the map would not be enough for me and I would have to see this place for myself. Though I’ve lived here for over two years now, I recently found myself searching my local video store for films made around or about this particular moment in time. I ended up with Lichter, Sonnenallee and Herr Lehmann. Though I’m quite sure my view of these films is relative to my own history and understanding, I do think they are films that an international audience can identify with, each in their own ways, because they remind us that nothing is ever really as black and white as ”one side” and ”the other”.

Politically, much has been made of the difficulties involved in reuniting East and West Germany. The two ideas of East and West have been discussed in Cold War terms: opposing forces that could scarcely be reconciled, with the Wall as the great divider. But these three films reveal that the lines in people’s lives are perhaps never drawn that neatly. What they do point out is that relationships and the small details of our indivdual existence are what occupy our thoughts most on a day to day basis. These are the things that tell us whether we are happy or sad, tense, relaxed, or otherwise. Though of course the political and national condition in which we find ourselves – which side of the metaphorical wall we live on etc. – is crucial, ultimately our real stories are played out in much more personal contexts.

The first film, Lichter, was made in 2003 by Hans-Christian Schmid, and begins with the flight of a group of refugees left in Polish territory. Thinking they’ve just arrived in Germany, they follow what they believe to be the lights („Lichter”) of Berlin. It doesn’t take long for them to discover they’re much farther away from their destiny than they had hoped. As they go their separate ways, they meet people who challenge their desire to emigrate as well as those who propel them closer to their eventual destination. Through these relationships, the people come to question something a bit larger than just simply what geographic place they fit into. This personal search still resonates today: drawing boundaries on the land doesn’t always help people figure out where they really belong.

Going back several decades, the 2nd film Sonnenallee is a comedic portrait of East Germany in the 1970’s. Director Leander Haußmann tells the story of a group of teenagers and their families, most of which live on a divided street (called Sonnenallee) which runs through East and West Berlin. Micha, a 17-year-old boy, lives in the East, listens to the Rolling Stones, and is deeply in love with Miriam, a beautiful girl who doesn’t even know that he exists. Nothing else matters to him – not the Wall, not the Soviet Union, not the West – nothing but the girl. These kids are in the East but their concerns are universal: music, romance, adrenaline. Though subtle metaphorical parallels run through the plot (kids spying on the teens from the West, a love letter flying out of someone’s hand and into a forbidden zone), the Wall is not something that is always on the minds of those living around it. Life is light and funny and full of drama for these kids. In fact, after watching the film one isn’t quite sure if the East was really that bad a place to grow up afterall.

Herr Lehmann, another film by Leander Haußmann, takes place in 1989 in Herr Lehmann’s Kreuzberg SO36, a
neighborhood in West Berlin. The action bubbles up from the neighborhood’s microcosm of philosophers, artists, gays, straights, cocaine addicts, and other defenders of an alternative way of living. Like Micha of Sonnenallee, the main character of this movie, Herr Lehmann, is obsessed with his own problems and love affairs and fails to take any notice of the dynamic life around him. Even the fall of the Wall, which occurs on his otherwise uneventful birthday, fails to make much of an impression. The Wall is an unwanted distraction. He would prefer to remain closeted with his own trivial problems than be drawn into a dialogue about the future of his society. Politics are a part of his life, but not the only part, or even the primary focus.

What I didn’t understand about the Wall as a kid was how it was possible to draw a line through the middle of a city. As an adult, what I don’t understand is how it is possible to draw a defintion of a person based soley on their geographical location. Lichter, Sonnenalle, and Herr Lehman are stories of divided lands but they are also stories of people trying to live normal lives and figure out who they are individually. Where they are is an important factor, but so is who they are with and what they desire.

For more information about these films and their directors, take a look at:



Immanuel Kant & Brad Bassler


A discussion of Kant, the sky, and the ways in which we come to find a sense of personal orientation in our lives.

by Dr. Brad Bassler

In his essay, “What Does It Mean To Be Oriented In Thinking?,” Kant asks us to consider the following thought experiment: first imagine a viewer looking at the stars in the sky, then take away the body and imagine only the viewer’s consciousness of the sky. Next imagine that by some miraculous event the positions of the stars were reversed from the eastern edge to the western edge of the firmament. Failing the orientation provided by a body in terms of which we may distinguish left from right, Kant claims, the disembodied viewer would be in no position to perceive any changes in the configurations of the stars. As Kant puts it, we require a subject-oriented perspective, in terms of which we distinguish left from right, in order to orient our topography and distinguish direction. Distinctions such as east, west, north, and south are not to be found as such in the landscape itself, but only in the subject’s orientation to the landscape.

Analogously, Kant suggests, in the absence of those needs and assumptions which orient us, our capacity to reason remains undirected. If our “body” of needs and assumptions is not there, our reason has no direction. Kant sees reason as an “objective” faculty, and it is only in the presence of our subject oriented needs and desires that we can use our capacity to reason in an oriented way, in a way that is directed. Refusing to acknowledge our needs and desires does not make them go away, but tends rather to smuggle them into our picture of reason itself. When this happens we will appeal to reason to argue for what we want without recognizing that that is what we are doing. Hence we are better off to recognize our needs and acknowledge them for what they are in the beginning since, in either case, they play their part.

Equally, however, we should not abandon reason in an unregulated pursuit of our needs and desires. This emphasis on freedom to the exclusion of rational constraint produces what Kant calls “Schwärmerei,” enthusiasm. In this case also, but for the opposite reason, our tendency will be to inflict our needs and desires on others without any concern for how it might affect them.

To evade both of these extremes, Kant proposes the following maxim: ”To make use of one’s own reason means nothing more than to ask oneself, in the case of anything that one is asked to assume, whether one would indeed find it practicable to make the reason why one assumes something or the rule that follows from what one assumes into the general principle of one’s use of reason.”

Kant’s maxim opens out onto the related question: would we want the reasons we are giving for our own actions to be the general rules which others use also? As Hans Blumenberg points out, the freedom which Kant promotes is “not an arbitrary but a lawful freedom”: one which recognizes that in using reason we (collectively) always depend on a multitude of assumptions which are needed to fill out our orientation in the world, the world in which we live together. These needs must be socially integrated in a coherent way, and the capacity to make the reasons for our own assumptions the reasons for everyone else’s assumptions as well provides a picture in which everyone’s lawful freedom can be integrated together harmoniously.

But, in fact, the ways in which we find ourselves oriented in the world speak to many different dimensions of the human experience, and we possess these orientations in ways which are often not compatible. Differences in orientation, such as religious, political, or sexual orientation, lead to some of the deepest problems facing a society which seeks the promotion of freedom within the context of the rule of law. Freedom of religious and political expression, and the personal freedoms associated with sexual orientation and practices are, within reasonable limits not specifiable in advance, a necessary condition for a free society, but the protection of these freedoms equally opens up a ground for political, religious, social and ethnic contestation.

Although it provides nothing like a universal solution to this dilemma, Kant’s notion of charting a middle path between rational dogmatism and anarchic freedom is a good one. It suggests that we would do well to bring our various forms of worldly orientation into proximity with Kant’s question by asking: when I enlist my rational capacity to express or argue for the needs associated with my self-orientation, am I using these capacities in a way I would warrant for others as well, particularly for those whom I find have self-orientations different from my own or in potential conflict with them? Kant gives the philosophical orientation which this question indicates a name: he calls it an “enlightened” orientation. But how does this philosophically “enlightened” orientation bear on the various non-philosophical orientations mentioned? More generally: what is a philosophical orientation, and what bearing does it have on the way we live our lives?

These are large questions, not to be answered here. But a start can be made. Once we recognize that we all enlist our capacity to reason both in expressing and in defending our various senses of self-orientation, it is clear that Kant’s philosophical notion of selforientation is not disconnected from our senses of political, religious, sexual and ethnic orientation. But Kant’s conception of philosophical self-orientation solely in terms of an appeal to our capacity to reason, while not obviously mistaken, is almost certainly too narrow. For more broadly, our philosophical response to our condition in the world finds expression not just in explaining and reasoning, but also in questioning and wondering.

In this latter regard, perhaps the strangest aspect of our various political, religious, sexual and social orientations is how we find ourselves thrown into them. I did not choose to grow up in the United States or in the Protestant church. I did not choose my racial or ethnic affiliation, nor did I choose to grow up in a predominantly heterosexual and largely homophobic society. Perhaps even more pressingly, the extent over which we may make choices about these orientations later in life is largely unclear. I have left the Protestant church, but not the United States. This bald way of stating the facts, however, conveys none of the sense of my ambivalence about both. And in general, such facts fail to capture what is interesting about our choices regarding such alignments and refusals of alignment.

In such a complicated context, a broad notion of philosophical orientation may prove fruitful. Considering our own rational orientation with concern to how it might compare with our ideal standard of rational orientation for others is not a bad place to start.Simply put: how do we find ourselves in the world? What bearing
does our locatedness in the world –fleshed out in terms of the environments we inhabit – have on our experience? These are philosophical questions, and questions that may help us find our ways, individually and collectively, in the world we inhabit together. These questions do not lead us to a narrow focus on the employment of our rational faculties in the way advocated in Kant’s enlightenment project. Rather, they suggest a broader forum for communication which may help us to become more conscious of the values we adopt, the needs which lie behind them, and the difficulties of integrating them in a way which ensures freedom within a harmonious social context. In all of these ways, they inherit and develop the vision of philosophical orientation we already find expressed by Kant, and suggest that a consideration of philosophical orientation can be a productive tool for improving our common condition of living together, in this world.



Kamran Acbar: Turning Back Time

19-year old Kamran Acbar was forced to flee his homeland in order to escape being drafted into a war that eventually took the lives of thousands.

Written by Kamran Acbar, Translated by Ines Lorenzen.

The Iran-Iraq War, also called the First Persian Gulf War, or the Imposed War in Iran, was a war between the armed forces of Iraq and Iran lasting from September 1980 to August 1988. More than 100,000 Iranians died of Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons during the eight-year war with Iraq.

When I was 19 years old, I fled from Iran to escape being drafted into war. It was my mother’s wish that I leave. For different reasons, my two older brothers did not have to join the army. My mother had been able to keep her first two sons at home but I was sure to have been drafted. My mother suffered from diabetes and her doctor told me that stress would worsen her condition. She was already close to losing her eyesight and the air of our country was becoming so thick with stress that it seemed the only chance we had was to act against its futility.

We decided it would be better for me to leave the country than stay and fight in the war. My cousin, two friends and I managed to find a guide who was prepared to help us leave. For a sum of money, he agreed to take us to Turkey where we would be safe. One night around 10 p.m., we set off from Teheran in a BMW sportscar. It took us two days to get to the border. We spent the first night in the car, the second night we took a room. Eventually we reached the border region. We spent yet another night in the car, and the next morning two border police officers woke us. They asked us why we were sleeping in the car, and we told them we were from Turkey on our way home. Since we were Persians, we escaped being searched. After this encounter, we immediately continued our drive to the border. On arriving there we again took a room and got some sleep.

Around midnight we were supposed to hike across the hills to reach Turkey. Each one of us carried only one small bag for the journey, but my cousin eventually became so weak that he could no longer carry his bag and was had to leave it behind. We had been without food or drink for several days at that point. After a considerable hike we came to a river. We were terrified and followed our leader’s instructions blindly. It was only seven degrees Celsius, and we shed our shoes and clothes. We took our bundles and swam through the freezing cold river, more than 50 feet across. Finally we reached the mountain. Our guide announced that he would give us a sign, indicating when we should run. Imagine it like this: police were patrolling the border day and night on the lookout for fugitives. If we’d been caught by the Irani police, they’d have shot us dead on the spot. The Turks would have sent us home. Only the villagers from the border region were allowed to move freely between Iran and Turkey; but it was obvious who belonged to them and who didn’t – strangers looked and dressed differently.

In the middle of our journey, we also learned that the border police had increased. At this point we had been on the road for five days. We were hungry, thirsty and exhausted. We hid in a cave. It was awfully cold; we tried to keep each other warm and took turns sleeping. We couldn’t light a campfire since that would have been too suspicious. All we had left to eat were some nuts we’d been carrying in our bags. They fell down to the ground. We ate madly in the dark, scooping them up from the ground. The next morning we realized that the ground had been littered with sheep droppings as well. Apparently we’d been eating everything without even noticing the difference. The next day, our guide brought us some bread. We broke icicles off the ceiling of the cave for water. Around 1 a.m. we finally left again. We were told to run. Not to talk, not to stop, just to run. So we ran for our life. My cousin fell and hurt himself, and he had to be supported. It was so dark we could hardly see the footpath in front of us. Finally we reached Turkey. We were safe. Wearily we set up our camp. In the morning, we continued our journey to a Turkish village. On the way we saw a pack of enormous dogs. They looked as large as calves. We reached the village and were brought to a small room with a tiny window where we hid for five days.

We weren’t allowed to turn on the light and stayed in the dark the entire time. We weren’t allowed to leave the room, not even to go to the toilet. We caught our excrements in newspaper and threw them out the window. For meals, someone brought us potatoes and tea. We never knew if it was morning, noon or night; the food was always the same. On day 5, we were allowed to continue by car. When we left the room, it was nighttime, but everything was white. Snow had fallen, and we were blinded by its brightness after so many days of darkness.
First we traveled to Ankara, then to Istanbul. About six months after that, I obtained a residence permit. My father came to visit me in Turkey, as he had left Iran just before the Iran-Iraq war began. The war was a nightmare Chemical weapons were used. The telephone services broke down and I had no contact with my family whatsoever. My father sent me money, but it seemed to have gotten lost in the mail. I hardly had enough money to get by. Until communication with Iran started working again, lots of people invited me to dinner; otherwise, I probably would have starved. Some time later, my father’s money reached me after all. I stayed in Turkey for two years where I managed eventually to learn the language and find a job. Things began to brighten: I earned some good money and met a lot of interesting people.

In Iran, I had started pilot school. I wanted to finish my training, but it just wasn’t possible in Turkey. That’s when I decided to go to Germany, taking a train via Yugoslavia and Austria. I wasn’t allowed to enter Germany immediately and they imprisoned me in Austria until the authorities had thouroughly checked my identity. After three weeks – eight of which I spent behind bars – I continued my journey, making it into Hildesheim where I finally settled. It was possible for me to get a passport there. For the first time, I was allowed to travel anywhere I wanted – anywhere that is except to see my family in Iran. Draft dodgers faced the death sentence so it was not possible for me to return. I knew pilot school would be expensive in Germany, so I decided to get a job and work for as long as it took to save the money. As time passed, my life took a direction of its own and I gradually abandoned my plan. Today I own and manage a clothing store, something I had never imagine for myself but all the same enjoy. It took 17 years before the laws in Iran changed and I was allowed to return home and see my family.

Going back was like a dream to me. Surreal. Even today, I still hardly believe it happened. Fifty people picked me up from the airport. Everything had changed and was hardly recognizable with my memory. My nephew, who I remembered as a tiny three year old boy, was now 21 and a foot taller than me. My parents’ hair had gone white. The broad streets of my childhood now seemed very narrow. At first, I refused to acknowledge these changes. It was too strange to mix the past with the present. I wanted to go back to the past. I wanted to turn back time.



The Iran-Iraq War, also called the First Persian Gulf War, or the Imposed War in Iran, was a war between the armed forces of Iraq and Iran lasting from September 1980 to August 1988. More than 100,000 Iranians died of Saddam Hussein’s Chemical and Biological weapons during the eight-year war with Iraq.


Brendan Dougherty: At Home in Ausland

Historically free of institutions, inhibitions, and money, something about Berlin’s awkward-cool works well for the artists, painters, writers, and musicians who end up staying.

Berlin has long been known as a destination for the rouges of the world, especially the rouges of Germany. Historically free of institutions, inhibitions, and money, something about Berlin’s awkward-cool works well for the artists, painters, writers and musicians who end up staying. Ausland, a performance space in Prenzlauerberg, has become one of the meeting places for such people. The word “Ausland” means “foreign country” in German. This reflects the ideologies of the founders of the space, but also suggests a more general longstanding attitude of seeing Berlin as a city distinct from the remainder of the country that surrounds it.

Ausland is located in the basement of a house that was bought just after the fall of the Wall. Over the years, this large concrete room has steadily gained its reputation as an international venue for those who play either too loud or too soft for anywhere else. It’s built for improvisational, experimental, brash and somewhat brainy creation, but don’t expect any intense conversation ‘til the performance is over, the DJ is playing, and minds are well lubricated (the shots of whisky are measured liberally and generously).

A good part of the program at Ausland is dedicated to improvised music – a style that has been slowly developing for the past 40 years or so, first appearing in the 1960’s in England when artists such as AMM, Evan Parker, and Derek Bailey began defining a new type of music that relied less on traditional compositions and more on a unique vocabulary created by each individual musician. In this form, musicians eliminate, or rather combine, the old roles of ‘inspired creator’ and ‘dutiful musician’. These are the people who stretch instruments to their limits, be it a laptop, an acoustic instrument, or some found object. At times this use of extended instrumental techniques can be extreme, leading to such things as drum sets played with feathers or guitars strummed with various vibrating devices and tools. At a recent festival held at Ausland to celebrate the anniversary of the Zarek Music Label, there was a performance that involved dropping multiple sorts of fireworks into varioussized water coolers. The performers reacted to each other’s previous move by choosing different explosives – and thus different sounds – to create the thrilling cumulative piece.

The rest of the festival remained true to this “anything can happen” mood. Even if one was familiar with the names on the bill, one could never quite be sure what might happen once they got up on stage. But this random element did not lower the caliber of the music that was presented. Everything (with the exception of an electronicist who could never quite get control of her homemade microphones) was well played and professional. Though not every performance at Ausland is a success, this is taken in stride, as even the generally critical audience tends to allow for failure in the name of experimentalism. I asked Andrea Ermke, one of the people responsible for the program at Ausland, how the venue was able to stay true to this organic feeling while still attracting some of the most interesting performers and audiences around. “It’s love for the music,” she told me

“No one is getting any money for it so it’s a commitment thing, completely.” I asked her who she would like to see playing next at Ausland and her wish list was impressive: rogue improvising vocalist Phil Minton, extreme indie rockers Shellac, and the ever-mysterious and revered Wu-Tang Clan. I’m pretty sure they’d all feel at home at Ausland.



Nick Fowler: Chase Reprise

You sit back down nude, this time Indian style. You’re making good decisions. Like all your favorite things, the posture’s both uncomfortable and comforting. It recalls a lost world, of kindergarten symmetry, of surrender, of waiting. Obviously, you want to get this one right. You’re posing for your last picture. You’ve turned – or really, because you’ve barely moved since you woke up three afternoons ago, you’ve left all the lights off. The little candle in front of you is thrashing, when it drowns you revive it. You keep replacing the shotgun with a cigarette. You’re sick of all this symbolism, but even more of the solipsism that, like a torch song stalks a broken heart, would have you believe you’re attracting these symbols, that you’ve reached a centripetal level of perception, center stage, that innermost ring in which all is resolved (calls it quits, the long lost passport reappears). That in your transcendent despair you’ve become a kind of Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine. A metaphor magnet.
You’re in the imagination room. Where else.
Imagine all the people.
And you try to. A last gesture, embracing friends and enemies,
all-forgiving as a Pope, as a Coke commercial.
Imagine all the people.
But guess what, you can see only one; it’s your dad’s favorite song.
This is not about forgiveness, but revenge.
You do another speedball. Outside, the day takes a last breath before dusk. There’s that cool logic in the air. Citrus clarity. Some of which you actually seem to possess. Alone here, in your dome in the sky.

Which you realize, in this closing couplet of serotonic epiphany, is the perfect emblem to cinch your conceit; a big white seashell, yanked out of context, then displayed up on a shelf—outward symbol of harmony, but full of infinite roar.

Or maybe you’re reaching here.

At any rate, unless the market keeps soaring at the rate you’d banked on, the massive mortgage you’ve leveraged will break you. It would appear other things have broken you.

The laws of work don’t apply now. Which brings you back to the adolescent existential dilemmas: if space and time aren’t infinite, but infinitely expanding, then what’s beyond them? You see your failure to comprehend nothing is a refusal to believe in it. Like the threat of terrorism. The problem, as always, is egocentric; nothing offends your sense of self. But only empirically; you can’t stomach the thought of your imagination as a preset of cells. Dimly, you suspect the hole you can’t fill in yourself is one in the space/time continuum through which you’ll slip and find that self waiting, cured. That all this rationalization might only be a survival tactic is only more evidence there’s a reason for survival. Or else why would the world go to such trouble to keep believing in itself? Which is why, coming full circle to that innermost circle, you haven’t pulled the trigger. Your failing at this ultimate failure is the final contra passo.
Or maybe you’re just scared.

Listen to the waxy silence.
Inside it, the diligent clock in the hall chews time, like it’s celery. And that seems about right, right? Growing up they never told you how boring it’d be, how you’d spend your life wishing you were somewhere and someone else. Or maybe that’s just you. Or maybe, no. Maybe, despite all your strokes, on a Darwinian level your brain’s way past its due date; maybe this despair’s only a sort of frantic ennui, because all of these chemicals— your memories, your wisdoms—have been too long embalmed by elixirs. Maybe time is trying to tell you something.

The clock in the hall reminisces, striking chimes.
It strikes you: How little you know yourself. How much less you did each year.

You see you’ve defined yourself by setting limits and then breaking them. That you’ve confused exploration with violation. That your madness is an ever expanding detachment from this second self you’ve come to call you. That there’s probably power in this, but that you’ve lost the will to yoke it.

Before it was always vanity that saved you. So you stagger to the triptych medicine chest mirror. Your final performance, paranoid panorama, infinite hall of reflections, where illusion and origin lose sight of each other.
Endless you. A million ghouls. Man of rags.
The drooling toothpaste tube is unbearably messy. You run cold water over your burn. You’ll miss all this self-pity most of all. It’s sustained you this long. It’s all the longing you’re tired of, but it did keep you living. To live is to long, to live is too long.

Just go back and do it.
Sit down. Root the pacifier back in your mouth. The taste of steel is: deeply alien, sterile, boring. You’re certain the several organ-donor forms you’ve filled out over the years will fail to find those organs.

You cock the gun. You’ve never gone this far and you get an orgasmic little shiver. How can something so counterintuitive feel so inevitable?
This is it, this is it. The last moment of consciousness. This is it.
Maybe you should give it another year, you’re just not famous enough is all.
But isn’t fame the artist’s enemy? Shouldn’t you have the sixth sense, the uncommon courtesy, to know when to implode already? Maybe you shouldn’t end it here in Lullabiss either, it’d be so much more appropriate to dissolve in Demerol and Bleecker Street rain. Don’t you owe it to Manhattan to let it know what
it’s done to you, to lose on home turf?
No. You can do this. You deserve this.
Outside, the crickets have forgotten how to scream.
The sun leaks through the Venetians.
You open them up. A last look at the world. The approaching darkness is a finger being lifted to lips. Annabelle’s bike in the driveway leans on its crutch. On the patio, her slingshot’s a man who’s thrown up his hands.
Enough. Stop turning the world into you. Where did that ever get you? That world was full of too many things. Things you didn’t own or understand. Remember? That was the problem.
It was artistic. The space between what you always heard in your head and what you were able to express. The unspeakable possibility.

It’s nearly dark. You nodded off.
You were drooling down the barrels.
Will your father cry?
You’re not crying. That water’s too deep.
You’ve labored under lots of things, mostly self-imposed, and one of them is no longer illusion. You know your crimes. You’ve found guilt instructive. And it’s not that you’re nostalgic for the person you don’t want to be again. You’re nostalgic for the life you didn’t lead. You didn’t give enough gifts. You didn’t have enough laughs. You weren’t so kind.
The artist thinks he can revise what he’s written. He believes in erasers. That the past can make him happy, instead of only wistful. Life is short, but regret is forever. This is it.
Since you were two, through sexual charm and keen helplessness, you’d managed to turn a few degrees away from the onrushing moment, to dodge the final fact, as now you struggle to get outside your skull before he sees it on the wall, your thumb searching the gunstock’s gridiron for encoded signs…you have to finally face it.
This is it.
In the distance, twinkling in the canyon, people are chanting Happy Birthday, then the disappointed applause.
You begin to squeeze the trig–and suddenly, cinematically, your truest friend comes wobbling
into the Imagination Room. Her paper-thin ears full of dusk. Favoring a front paw, she sits down beside you. From the buzz and thud against a distant window, you realize she’s been beestung.
“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry,” you pull her onto your lap. “I know. It’s not fair.”

And you’re flooded with tenderness, for her, for yourself, but then all for your father.
After the passage of some unaccountable seconds, the dog is standing with her front paws on your chest. Licking your tears. Almost laughing, you’re almost able to forgive the fact that it’s only for the salt. You take her front paw and you stroke it. Until you can no longer feel it. Or your own burned palm. In fact, you feel nothing. And now the tune comes to you. The one you’ve been waiting all your life to write. Only now it writes you.
It is a reprise. A return to an ordering instinct. It’s been waiting. Conspiring. Now released, it has value. And like everything sane, it seems it had nothing to do with you. As you sing it, the voice echoing through your vast
empty shell is not your own. But then slowly you realize you are channeling, yourself. That it’s the first thing you’ve owned. That all of it’s out of your hands now. Exempted, exalted, you imagine, drifting, as white light hums in your veins, this song whispering to a million imaginations, forever ago, to the cave man taming his fire, to Leibniz dreaming calculus, to Michaelangelo freeing slaves from his marble.


David Bulter: I met direction…

I met direction the other day while I was thinking with my eyes closed but not sleeping

Nothing { life begins—movement—life ends } Nothing
Nothingness ends ] life interrupts [ Nothingness begins
no movement-birth-lifetime of movement-death-no movement

Movement cannot exist without direction. Movement must begin in -or be sustained through- an item
or aim. This object or item must be created, born, or allowed the time to have consciousness. Or
non-consciousness). Here the term “non-consciousness” is used to highlight the point at which consciousness
could begin if the item had the capacity. There is a point where it could begin to develop
into something conscious, but it does not, and so there is one thing sustained: existence; and therefore
the capacity for movement. Potential. This does not necessarily have to be a movement we are
familiar with, nor does it have to be a movement that follows the rules of human reason. It is an
unconscious item in nature and therefore will not always act consciously. Movement can be ‘from
point A to point B’. It can be ‘the process by which a baby grows until it is no longer a baby’, or ‘how
a cell progresses’. Movement can be described as a change. Ideas can move. Your ideas change. You
rearrange them, record them, forget them, or ignore them completely. Ideas improve, deepen, grow,
evolve. An idea is like a small creation in your head that is allowed movement. If it is growing, learning,
advancing, or dying, it has direction. So direction can be observed directly (a racing Indy car) or
implied (our understanding of nanotechnology increases) but it doesn’t yield to standard methods of
Does movement need direction and an object to exist?
Can direction exist without movement or an object?
Imagine for a moment that the universe is frozen: time stops along with all celestial objects; and does
direction still continue? Does direction still exist?
If you watch a video of a wine glass falling from a table, you can pause the tape as the glass is in midair.
The glass’s movement would be suspended but its direction would still exist.
Likewise, if you stop a small child on his way to the ocean and ask him “Where are you going?” he’ll
respond “I’m going to the ocean” or “The ocean.” Even though your question is keeping him from
moving towards his destination, his response still describes his current direction. No matter how you
phrase the question, his answer will be that he is going to the ocean. It is easy here to confuse the
destination with direction, but direction is a mode for arriving at a destination.
If you put these questions on a larger scale, you’ll ask yourself: where am I going? Here is where you
will find your direction.
One day I observed direction in its singularity. I saw it free from everything in this world. Pure as a
diamond. Purer. I can recall every detail to the point of feeling. But my descriptions are inadequate.
Its form is absolute and distinct. The scientist in me wants to call it dense, disgustingly dense. It is
tremendously solid but also, by its very nature, fluid and ever changing. Its body is infinite like water,
solid as a train’s endless inertia. It does not fit into our vocabulary. Direction keeps no time. It
resembles a steel cylinder that never stops and has no scale. It travels immeasurably, running its own
course against a white background. Not white, blank. It has soaked up the reflections of all its
objects. It’s color mocks the world like chrome. There’s no room for it.


Shreekumar Varma: After-Life

Chellamma died with a prayer on her lips. Her husband lay down beside her and covered himself. He was soon fast asleep.

That morning, as she’d swept the tailor-shop owner’s front yard, his wife had swooped down on Chellamma and shouted, “Stop coming if you can’t even do this properly!” She was known for her evil tongue. Chellamma continued to sweep. When she ate an unripe mango for lunch behind the kitchen, the little boy saw her and reported to his mother who resumed her shouting.

The tailor-shop owner then sent for her and she had to get him coal for the irons. It was inevitable. He placed a flat palm on her hip, and once there it wasn’t so flat any more. He stared at her breasts with open hunger and she stood still, waiting for him to let her go. She found herself becoming more and more impatient with such men now that she was with child.

After that there were three more houses. She liked the third one the best. There was a new little baby who had transformed the house. The master wasn’t coming home drunk any more and his wife wasn’t so finicky about Chellamma’s work. She held the little one in her arms and saw her own future. She knew things were going to be different.

That night she served her husband and finally stretched out, exhausted. Her prayer rose unsteadily. Tomorrow she would wake up to another life full of the same old certainties.

Shreekumar Varma is an Indian author, playwright, newspaper columnist and poet, known for the novels Lament of Mohini (Penguin, 2000), Maria’s Room (Harper Collins, 2010), Devil’s Garden: Tales Of Pappudom(Puffin, 2006), The Magic Store of Nu-Cham-Vu (Puffin, 2009) and the historical book for children, Pazhassi Raja: The Royal Rebel (Macmillan, 1997).


The Berlin Column

She looks hopelessly outmoded, the overweight woman in a shabby sweater, sitting at her window in a Prenzlauer Berg tenement house and gazing at the spectacle below. Who knows what’s running through her mind at the sight of all those fancy cafés and coffeeshops, the hat makers and wine dealers and luxury bathroom furnishers that have cropped up in recent years, shaping these streets into Berlin’s most coveted neighborhood. Cultivated and trendy, these parts are possessed by female twenty- to thirty-somethings pushing their ultimate fashion statement: the baby carriage. Recklessly plowing the pleasant tree-lined sidewalks, mercy is bestowed on the equal-minded only — those wobbling multitudes of expecting woman. Other dwellers are pressed by Mother Nature to make way.

Prenzlauer Berg’s prolific atmosphere surely belies the country’s concern with dwindling population growth numbers, what’s more, the quarter’s nation-wide status as the stronghold of procreation is a statistical fact. In the fifteen years following German reunification, the once barren neighborhood was developed by Western junior colonialists from a no man’s Bohemia into the swelling idyll of an educated elite,  featuring walking distance facilities and an acute lack of variety. Bite-sized Thai food and a new Alessi bathtub plug do a pretty elegant job sending unemployment, senior citizens, and Muslim households down the drain of the collective consciousness.

On the weekends, the popular Kollwitzplatz market emits an aroma of health food, while right next door, handouts fastened to the fence of the local playground with its vegetableshapedjungle-gyms offer „poetic theater nights and art history lectures for 3 to 5-year-olds“. Parents in Retro-Seventies sunglasseslounge by the sandbox, making sure their offspring refrain from poetically cracking each other’s skulls with a wood-carved shovel.

The neighborhood spurs a zealous nostalgia on which salespeople capitalize, selling hand-crafted toys and other overpriced goods along with a squeaky-clean conscience. It seems as if the flood of TV and junk food, depressions and tsunamis is rerouted by some giant’s benevolent hand to other, less fortunate parts of the earth.

So, is this the new Nirvana of family values? The place to be fruitful and multiply? The fat camp of post-feminist delights? Open your mind and join the club? Sure enough, no one keeps these hip and skinny women from self-realization — that is, parading the streets and publicizing their progeny, making the place appear like an unstoppable merry-go-round. Who knows if they get into a spin cleaning the house as well, or if the mopping’s left to the multi-lingual nanny? What comes next when the art historians leave for kindergarten? And what about those dads in designer trainers, spending their freelance lunch breaks basking with their buggies in the sun? Are they really a new breed of men, or just as significant as the smoothly renovated fronts stripped of war-time bullet holes?

Apparently, it’s up to the females to brave the Big Questions of human improvement. „Educated women in Prenzlauer Berg with child(ren)“ are regularly sought by sociology majors for assessments. Perhaps in a few years, non-fiction will enlighten us – or, in few years more, the traumatized will come out and speak for themselves.

–Monika Schmalz


Lisa Fitzhugh on Art and Health

What is the relationship between the arts and the health of that society that fosters them? If we define the arts as the people, projects, organizations, ideas and philosophies that cultivate creative expression, then I believe the relationship between the health of a society and its art is deeply correlated.

You probably want me to prove this statement in a quantifiable way – to demonstrate this correlation through historical trends, to show how increased investments or emphasis in the arts has produced vibrant,healthy cultures and how reductions in these investments have diminished the health of the same. But I’m not a scientist or a researcher: I am someone who works in the arts and I am someone who founded a project that brings teaching artists into low-income communities to work with young people. I want to come to this subject from a personal angle, from the angle of my own experience, from a particular point inside a particular society. I want to talk about what I see, because from my angle, it looks like we’ve failed to realize how important creativity really is to the health of our communities. We’ve gotten stuck in a worldview that’s too mechanistic for our own good: we’ve gotten into the habit of seeing the fruits of the scientific method as preeminent. Which also means that we’ve started to believe that anything we cannot see or touch simply does not exist. Emotions, in particular, we’ve learned to look on with deep suspicion. Many of us have forgotten how it feels to create something.

Though such a logical and Newtonian approach has of course had its positive uses, we should understand its negative affect as well. Being tied to a method-based way of seeing the world numbs our spirit and devalues our most powerful, albeit non-quantifiable, human experience – our emotions. We should remember that there is more than one way to find the truth. As Einstein said so well, “Everything that is counted, may not count. Everything that counts, can not be counted”. After all, being logical is not always the same thing as being creative. Being creative demands that a person pull from inside of him or herself to understand his or her unique response to the world. The things we create are the things that illuminate our core being, that bring out whatever truth inside us is still unencumbered by others’ ideas, biases, demands, hopes or projections. Creativity can help us peel back all the dulling layers that have been applied to us from the society around us, from all those external expectations and stresses and rules. Creativity can help us breathe again.

Elliot Eisner, a professor of Education and Art at Stanford University for almost 40 years, has written and researched extensively on the subject of how artistic creation relates to the shaping of our minds. Originally trained as a painter, Dr. Eisner‘s research and teaching centers on the ways in which
schools might be improved through incorporating the arts early on in their curriculum. In his essay Ten Lessons the Arts Teach, Eisner points out how art-making can teach us to explore the unexpected, to recognize that problems can havemore than one solution, and to make decisions in the absence of a rule. Creative acts can reveal that neither words nor numbers exhaust what we can learn through experience, and that language does not have to define the limits of our cognition.

As Eisner’s work suggests, creativity can give us more space to breathe, more room to move and to grow, and more confidence to connect with those around us. Creativity is part of our nature. Creative expression has been a driving force for eons, and it finds its outlet in the songs, poetry, architecture, designs and rituals of all the world’s cultures. In its most transcendent form, creativity connects us all and reminds us of our shared mythology as living beings on this planet. When this sort of creative expression is silenced or marginalized, violence and depression often take their place. As one of our students at ArtsCorps, Thomas Timmons, said, “if you don’t get out what’s inside, you’re gonna go boom one day.” And boom we go. Just look at the incredibly high tolerance of violence in the United States, our inability to deal with such fears, and our increasing dependence on pharmaceuticals to ease psychological illness.

I believe that our most powerful experiences are related to our soul and our spirit — not to our intellects alone. Nurturing our children, connecting with a stranger on the street, listening to a beautiful piece of music, falling in love – these experiences are what make a life precious; these experiences add texture to what would otherwise only be a matter of fulfilling our basic urges. It is the spiritual and soul-side of experience that requires us to be creative, to use something of our own to connect to the world outside of us in a unique way.

So why do we dismiss the creative side of ourselves so readily? Why do we not demand more support for initiatives that honor this fundamental human need, especially for our young people? Why should public education in the U.S. be limited only to cultivation of the left brain and not include a rich arts curriculum for the right brain as well? And why not in every public school? Why shouldn’t the study of the creative side of life be just as important in our early years as the study of the methodological?

We have to be careful not to succumb to someone else’s vision of the world and instead realize that we help to create that very same world ourselves. It is by imagining a new reality that a new reality finds its ability to exist. And to imagine anything, we have to be creative. It’s not always about providing a logical argument: sometimes its just about asking the obvious questions. We have to look inside and see what it is we want to ask, what it is that we need to feel whole, then we have go to outside and try to make that happen. To quote Einstein again: “The greatness of an artist lies in the building of an inner world, and in the ability to reconcile this inner world with the outer.” Creativity is about just that sort of reconciliation.

Lisa Fitzhugh is founder and Executive Director of Arts Corps, an award-winning arts education program targeted at underserved communities in Seattle Washington. For more information about this project, visit www.artscorps.org



Tim Robbins: Our Better Self

By director, actor, and playwright Tim Robbins, 2005.

So here we are again. A new year faces us, a clear message has been sent to Washington – and some might say the world – by the people of the United States. Get out of Iraq. And the idiot drunk of a president says, “I hear you. So we’ll send more troops.” And the opposition parties who should be representing the voice of the American people by shouting it from the rooftops are instead talking about how they have to vote to support the troops, grumbling about the president but proposing nothing close to withdrawal. “If we don’t increase troop levels then we can always be blamed for losing the war”. And so it goes. And so we will stay. And remain targets for very angry people. There will be no voice that is standing up to say that we were wrong. There will be no apologies. There will be no reparations. We have too much invested in our lie to admit it was a lie. And so we will equivocate, and stall, and more will die, and on and on. But we will keep our pride. And we won’t show the weakness of a man apologizing. We won’t have the look on our face of the guilty being led to jail. We will not pay for our crimes in any way. No one will jeer at us from beneath the gallows. Why? Well… we meant well.
I found a letter I wrote to a friend recently. It was written on an old typewriter in late 2001. I don’t know why I wrote it on a manual typewriter. Maybe I wanted to go backwards, find a Luddite inspired way to proceed.

Here it is:

Greetings from our wounded city. I hope the road has treated you well and that you are healthy, happy and loved. This has been a wild and disturbing few months since I saw you last. I was in L.A. when the madness happened, drove home the next day, made it in 2 days. What a terrible feeling to be so far away when something so catastrophic happens a mile from your children. They, like so many kids in New York, I suppose, have had terrible dreams and a perspective now on life that is unlike anything we grew up with. I was watching something with Miles and the actor said something about a future where our children are safe and Miles, his voice dripping with cynicism, said, “That would be nice.” Eva, my 16 year old was trapped in Brooklyn on the 11th. They had closed the bridges and she couldn’t get home from school. Jack wept and worried when the next bombs would come. Susan lost a very good friend in one of the planes, made all the more horrible by actually witnessing her death from the street. When I got back from L.A. I went to volunteer, wound up cooking burgers for relief workers, met people from all over the country who had gotten in cars the moment it happened to be here to help. People were sleeping in cots in shelters, or in their cars helping in whatever way they could, often for 20-hour shifts. I was really inspired by the sense of community, of collectivism, of the unified focus to help, to survive, to persevere. Later that week I went down to Ground Zero to serve food there.

The scope of the thing was immense. The size of the area of destruction, the smell of burning toxins, steel, flesh, the tempest in the eyes of the volunteers who had pulled too many body parts out of the rubble, who had lost friends, brothers, fathers, and were still searching vainly for survivors, the collective anguish, the life stories of thousands floating in the fetid air, unspoken. The city carries a heavy weight, millions with a subconscious unable to grasp what it is to witness mass murder, others wanting to forget, still others carrying a dangerous, dormant fury. It has been disheartening to see this wonderful sense of community begin to dissolve into arguments over who deserves how much from which relief funds, as unity degenerates into fodder for politicians speeches, for heart tweaking advertisements. I get a terrible sense of foreboding as we move away from the generosity and compassion of the moments after the tragedy into a strange new moment. We are now marketing our grief. I’m afraid we are losing something precious. In using our grief to sell products, and worse, war, we are trading in our soul for… what?

At the time, writing this above, I didn’t know what we were trading our soul in for. I’m still not sure. But what I’ve come to realize is that it wasn’t us that were trading in anything. Our leaders were the clear brokers of that deal. And they didn’t just trade it in. They made an industry of our grief, so much so that I’m sure you’re already sick of me dredging up my emotions of that time. I don’t blame you. I don’t think Bush or Blair or Guliani or McCain has been able to utter three sentences in a public speech without bringing up that fateful day. Poor poor pitiful us. 9-11 9-11 9-11. A litany, a chant, that has led to the moral righteousness you now see us spreading throughout the Mideast. Observing the behavior of our leaders in the past few years I am reminded of when my children were younger, of the fear-based worldview of the pre-pubescent, the terror of middle school, the hysteria and gossip, the black and white morality, the inability to accept responsibility, the hateful divisions, the ‘with us or against us’ schoolyard tussles. In this post 9-11 world, in a time when we have needed mature, levelheaded, adult leadership, we have been led instead by a screaming pack of hysterical prepubescent girls (with all apologies to hysterical prepubescent girls).

Christopher Isherwood once wrote: “The Europeans hate us because we’ve retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate.” That certainly has been true for the past 6 years. But instead of contemplating our possessions, our way of life, we have been contemplating our grief. The advertisements worked on us and we bought the product day after day. The top rated television show, ’24’, posits a world of constant threat of terrorist attack. Our leaders and our media don’t talk of hope and inspiration but of fear and cynical distrust. An illusion has been created, much like the illusions that kept Big Brother in power in Orwell’s 1984. We have now come to live in our fiction. But the real world is entirely different. I had a unique opportunity to discover this in the lead up to the Iraq war. Having openly spoken out against the war I was roundly attacked in the media. Newspapers, television pundits called me, and others who had the temerity to question the administration, traitors, Saddam lovers, terrorist supporters, anti- Semites. The cacophony of voices was quite intimidating and had I lived in a rural or suburban area I probably would have been cowed into silence. But I live in New York and had to face this hatred directly on the streets. Or so I thought. What followed in the weeks and months following this media excoriation opened my eyes to a disturbing truth. Everywhere I went I was met with support. Whether it was the “God bless you. Keep talking” from the old woman on the streets of New York or the “Give ‘em hell, Tim We’re with you” from the redneck at the state fair in Florida, I came to realize that the real voice of the United States was opposed to this war from the start, or if not opposed to it, at least mature enough to support another person’s right to oppose it. The real American citizen understood that debate and dialogue were necessary before such an important decision. But there could be no debate when there were so many lies floating about. Only now, as the child-like hysteria and shrieking panic has died down, and as more adults try to take the dangerous toys out of the children’s hands, have we come to understand that this war was a terrible idea sold by a very small amount of neoconservatives through an enormous megaphone. The only majority these ideologues ever had was in the media: all the networks, all the major newspapers, all the cable news programs acted as the advertising arm of the government in selling this war. The American people were inconsequential. They weren’t part of the equation. They were sold an illusion and were cowed into silence by intimidation. In the ensuing years those people have slowly and steadily found their voice and the courage to use it again. And so we see the results in our recent elections. And from the chattering classes come phrases like “democracy works” and “the people have spoken”. The democrats talk of raising the minimum wage and fixing the health care system. But it would be a grave mistake for the people of the United States to believe that their real voice has been heard. We are, despite the recent vote, still living in our fiction. We are still living in Orwell’s Oceania, where truth has been turned on its ear, where black is white, day is night, and ignorance is strength. We live in a country that allows impeachment for a president that lied about an extra marital affair but reacts with contempt at the idea that lying about war is a punishable offense. The hundreds of thousands of dead, injured, and uprooted by this unnecessary invasion should just get over it. We meant well. There is no crime in lies that lead to death, only in lies that lead to semen stains. As long as this fiction, this absurd, diabolically criminal fiction is accepted we will remain in our prepubescent hysteria, wallowing in the pit that we allowed our leaders to dig us into, looking up at a mountain of twisted steel, breathing in the smoldering acrid air of our own failure, our own betrayal of our better adult.

Tim Robbins was born in 1958 in California. He is an actor, director, and scriptwriter who achieved his first widespread success in 1988 with his role alongside Susan Sarandon in the movie Bull Durham. Robert Altman later cast him in the title role in his movie The Player which went on to win him the Best Actor award at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. He enjoyed even greater success with his role in The Shawshank Redemption, a movie adapted from a Stephen King novel and nominated for seven Oscars. Robbins is also a well-respected director whose films include Bob Roberts (1992), Dead Man Walking (1995), and The Cradle Will Rock (1999). In 2004, Robbins won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River.

Clément Rosset & Raphaël Enthoven

The Philosophy of the Double. 

Parallel universes, globalization, and the awkwardness of Derrida.

Interview by Raphaël Enthoven.  Artwork by Clarina Bezzola

Born in the 1930’s and a graduate of the prestigious l’École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Clément Rosset received his doctorate in Philosophy before his 20th birthday (the same day, incidentally, that his first book was also reviewed by Le Monde). In the years that followed, Rosset spent the majority of his career at the University of Nice, retiring early to explore the theme of “the double” in a series of books, each one shorter, wittier, and more incisive than the last.

Although Rosset is less-read today than he deserves, he still maintains the unique position of being both a cult philosopher and a trusted figure in French society. In his most recent book entitled “Phantasmagories”, Rosset, who is also known as ‘the happy sage’, summed up his reflections on a subject he began exploring 30 years ago in The Real and The Double.  In a dozen different works, all peppered with amusing stories, Rosset has painted the picture of a bewildered humanity incapable of accepting the tragic indifference of the world, and the joyful simplicity of all things.

ENTHOVEN: Is your philosophy the philosophy of a single idea?

ROSSET: I’d have to take that as a compliment, as not everyone can claim such a thing. But remember that “single idea” is not the same thing as a “single thought” in the way most people today would understand it. Rather, it is one idea which encompasses everything; an open, hospitable idea, so to speak. It concerns a flaw of human nature: to escape the fear of death, human beings flee from reality and worship something that is not there. In place of the world as it is, we invent a “duplicate“ or a “double”, a parallel universe which functions as a phantom rival to the world that exists, a desperate compensation for the suffering that is associated with an acceptance of reality.
This “duplicate” takes on all kinds of forms, from the cuckolded husband who, because he cannot bear the truth, persuades himself that his wife is faithful, to the critic of globalization who thinks “another world” is possible, and finally including the metaphysical philosopher who proves that reality, as in “real life”, is always “somewhere else”.

Are Plato and opponents of globalization on the same side?

Up to the point that Plato is a genius – which, as far as I know, José Bové cannot claim for himself – it is obvious that Platonic metaphysics, dictated by the rejection of the only world that we have (this world as incomplete, as a place which exposes us to death, uncertainty and the loss of all desires) presents itself as the desperate, defeated love of that which the world is not.

Plato spends his time wondering how he can step out of time in order to enter into eternity. He spends his life denying that there is life before death.  This notion becomes so persuasive that Socrates, in his last hour, makes life into a disease that only death can cure in the end. For its own part, radical criticism of globalization proves nothing other than the refusal to truly act upon the world. Because, after all, you don’t create a new world by mowing down fields of genetically modified corn (at best you might give your career a boost), and you don’t make your everyday routine any more palatable by verbally conjuring up a brighter future. Therefore there is only a gradual distinction between the Platonic will which subordinates our unclean world to a diaphanous universe and the insane fantasy that “another world” (without injustice or exploitation of humans by humans) is “possible”.  So the greatest thinker of the West and those activists destroying GM cornfields share the same denial of reality in favor of a fateful imaginary ideal.

Why fateful?

Cioran said: “Give me a different world, or I will suffocate!” But critics of globalization would still suffocate in that other world they conjure up in their wishful thinking. If that ideal (“other world”) were ever to become reality, its advocates would immediately claim it had lost its way and it would become a caricature of itself. The reason that the “other world” always remains just a “possibility” which is forever deferred is because its realization or creation would be enough to discredit it. The failure of Communism, for example, was due less to a faulty interpretation of Karl Marx’s writings than to the unavoidable corruption of any utopia that happens as soon as that utopia tries to become manifest. It can be attempted again, and it may well be attempted again, but it won‘t work any better for the effort. An ideal must, by definition, remain apart from the world, as otherwise it would be nothing more than reality. And it is for this reason that a revolutionary mindset is necessarily irresponsible. It also explains why any doctrine of redemption, any doctrine which is consistent from the first shot of the starting pistol, has a paradoxical condition in order to be effective: namely, that that starting pistol never actually be fired – as is demonstrated by the non-arrival of the Messiah in the Jewish religion, for example.

To sum up then: an ideal, as its name suggests, is not something of this world, but rather a nothing which allows reality to be conveniently denigrated…

Yes. But the fact that the ideal is not of this world doesn’t mean that it exists somewhere else. Appearances may deceive, but they don’t necessarily conceal reality. Yet what does not exist can still take on a form which agrees with both our regrets and our expectations, in the same way that a prostitute allows herself to be called by a name that excites her customer…

Not everyone has the insight to be able to admit the world is the way it is. As Parmenides says: “One must say and think what is there, since what exists, exists, and what does not exist, does not.”  And yet strangely there is nothing more difficult to accept than this obvious fact, this tautology. The disadvantage of the real is that it exists and that one has to live with it, whereas the advantage of the “double” lies not only in the fact that it does not exist, but even more in the fact that it doesn’t have to exist in order for us to believe in it. Believing himself to be bold, the critic of globalization is intoxicated by his own daring and doesn’t notice that he is not thinking (or that he thinks like everyone else). The human imagination exhausts itself in a certain way in this inability — in which most people are stuck — to not think about the fact that they don’t have any real thoughts at all. As Pascal says: “Why is it that a limping person does not irritate us but a limping mind does, very much? A person who limps sees that the rest of us walk straight. A limping mind, on the other hand, believes it is we who limp.”

In other words, this desire for another world is not so much a desire for something different as it is a rejection of this world…

Exactly right. The desire for another world is the desire for nothing, and it is as futile as it is persistent. Another world, but which one? This kind of obsession is always very imprecise. Among its advocates, the objective itself pales in comparison to the desire to have an objective, like the Romantics who confuse us – privileged to suffer – with their hysterical prohibition of any means of fulfilling our desire. In the case of the critics of globalization the issue becomes more pressing since their other world – in my opinion – belongs to the category of the “murderous double” which reflects an artificial reality in order to make reality disappear. This category extends from the “better world” of anti-globalization rhetoric to Tom Ripley, the eponymous character from “The Talented Mr. Ripley“ who, after murdering Philip Greenleaf and assuming his identity, tries to make the original disappear by dumping the corpse in the sea. At least that’s what Ripley thinks. In reality, the corpse of his victim gets stuck on the outside of the yacht where he was killed and turns up again at the end of the film when the boat is heaved into the dock. The moral is: however deeply a “double” can bury reality, it will come to light in the end no matter what. Just as dreams belong to life, reality encompasses even those moving and pitiable attempts we make to go beyond it. But no-one escapes a prison without walls. It is pointless to bemoan the passing of a golden age or to hope for the return of a classless society. Reality will not return because it is already there.

The fact that the object of belief is not the desire for another world but rather a loathing of this world – isn’t this exactly what was behind the majority “no” vote in the referendum on the European Constitution last year?

Of course. In the lopsided battle between reason and demagoguery, a “no” had the decided advantage over a “yes” in that it refused one thing without offering any alternative. In other words, it’s easy to get a majority of votes if the goal is just to contradict. A contradiction cannot be challenged: its entire reason for being is simply to question what is there. On the other hand, it’s much more difficult — and more courageous — to try to improve the world than to just flush the whole thing down the toilet. During the EU constitutional campaign, Daniel Cohn-Bendit came out with an astoundingly perfect slogan: “It is better to have half of something than a whole nothing.“ I can’t add anything to that, but one has to admit that the advocates of a „yes“ vote, with their concrete and sadly realistic suggestions, rather paled in comparison to the enthusiastic “no” voters. If that “no” were anything other than the expression of a radical and inconsistent rejection of reality itself, then today the “no” voters would be feeling a bit confused about the fact that their victory did nothing to either help the situation of suffering people or expand French sovereignty.  But no… If the vote were to be taken again, most probably the “no” would win once more, since that was not the problem; the “no” voters were too preoccupied in saying “no” to see anything beyond it. Their objective was not so much to change any one thing than everything or nothing all at once, which comes to the same thing. Truly, the irresolvable problem which reality presents to human beings lies in its extreme simplicity.

This acceptance of simplicity that so few are capable of, is also expressed in your writing. There is no jargon at all…

Well, I try. Probably that is the reason why Derrida showed me such open antipathy.

What do you mean?

If good philosophy can be defined as expressing complicated things in a simple way, then Derrida did the exact opposite: He wrote in hieroglyphs and used smoking neologisms to break down open doors. By the way, it was a misunderstanding at the very beginning which earned me his hatred: Every time that I would sit having a coffee with Louis Althusser in the bar across from the École Normale, we would see Derrida coming, obviously keen to join our conversation. For a long time I thought he was one of the cleaners in charge of the halls at the school who happened to be interested in philosophy. And because there’s nothing harder to set aside than a first impression, I admit that I never changed my opinion about him. I remember one day a colleague at the university showed me a book by Derrida and asked me: “As a philosopher yourself, can you tell me whether this is a joke or whether he really means it?” To this day I don’t know the answer to that question. Schopenhauer said, in order to conceal a lack of real thought, some philosophers surround themselves “with an imposing apparatus of long, compound words, interlocking sentences, unending snippets and unheard-of expressions. Taken together, it results in a highly complex type of jargon which suggests being well-read.“

In other words: why be simple, when awkwardness works too?

Yes, or even: Why see simply, when you can see “double”?


Franco Morretti: Sentences of Trees

interview by Andrea Hiott, 2007

In conversation with Franco Moretti – Stanford intellecutal, dissident theorist, harbinger historian.

One might call Franco Moretti a literary theorist or critic, yet the way he illudes and illustrates the life of a text is more akin to that of a scientist.  Indeed, Moretti’s distinguishing characteristics as an academic writer are visibly inspired as much by biology or cartography as they are by Marx or Marquez. His books use models outside of literature (graphs, maps, charts and trees) to discuss the masterpieces and the margins of a discipline he heretically suggests is among the most backwards in the academy.  Placing literature into charts and trees has not always proven popular with other theorists – many criticize Moretti for shifting emphasis away from close reading.  While detailed reading has been the norm in liteary criticism, only a limited number of books find room in that discussion.  Moretti’s work suggests a way of digesting a much wider range of information and still coming up with something valuable.

PULSE: It is unusual for literature to be associated with many of the natural and scientific models you’ve used in your recent work. When did you first become interested in these larger models (biological, evolutionary, etc.)?

MORETTI: I think the single most important moment for me was in the mid-70s.  There was a very short-lived episode – in France and in Italy – known as the Crisis of Marxism.  And as a young Marxist, I was very struck by certain critiques – that’s when I read Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery for instance – and suddenly I thought well, Marxism is supposed to be a science of society but perhaps it has not really modeled itself on the natural sciences at all, and that’s when I became more interested in studying these things myself.

What did you read first?

I think Darwin, but one reads a lot before knowing exactly what part it’s all going to play.  In that sense, there was another important moment as well – much later – when I was researching literary tests for Atlas of the European Novel.  I suddenly realized how many texts were there that had never been used – this wider pool of information.  Of course everyone knows that there are many more books than just the select ones that are studied, but the relevance of this fact really hit me then.  It was amazing for me to have this realization, to really think about how little of the field we study – only one percent – such a small number of what actually exists in terms of literature.  Doing this research, I was confronted with these hundreds of names that I had never heard of, and this made me realize that I wanted to find some way to study a much larger field than the one that was currently being studied.  To do this, it was necessary to have much stricter models, like the natural models; otherwise a person gets lost.

It’s an interesting combination: maps, Darwin, graphs – and then literature.  Do you think there has been a more obvious connection between disciplines in the past few years, a more interdisciplinary awareness of how one field is affecting another?

A little bit, yes, this has indeed happened.  But the difficult thing is not so much being aware of what happens, but in finding fruitful ways of combining the expertise.  I’m not sure that has happened, but I know a lot of people would say that it’s begun to occur on a more regular basis. People may feel more inclined to use other disciplines when discussing their own, but learning another discipline is like learning another language.  It’s perfectly possible but it takes a lot of time and energy.

Henri Bergson said that all forms of life carry the essential characteristics of most other forms of life within them.  Do you think that’s true; does that idea apply to literature?

If it’s true – and I think it is – that we’ve only studied one percent of literature, then in the future we should be prepared to find very different things – not necessarily better, most certainly worse in my opinion, but different, and interesting because of those differences.  In order to recognize what is different and to understand it on its own terms, you have to keep as open a mind as possible.  That quote by Bergson seems to prepare a researcher – how can I put it – to never be surprised.  If everything is a microcosm of everything else, then it somehow ends up all being similar.  But it’s true that we do work in this associative way, incorporating what is familiar: it’s very hard to enter a new field and not recognize immediately what would already be familiar to you.  But I don’t think that is the way to proceed, because then we are not open to the things we might have missed at first, to the differences.

Speaking of differences, can you explain what is meant these days by the term “world literature”?

I think the term, in the way most people would use it today, does not have to do with the study of literature but with the production of literature.  Goethe invented the term, and then Marx and Engels picked it up in The Communist Manifesto.  What Goethe meant by “Weltliteratur“ was an extension of the ideal of the Enlightenment – something surpassing the narrowness of national mentality, something which somehow resembles nature, common to all cultures, and for Marx and Engels, it came to mean something like the product of all cultures.  In “Conjectures“, I tried to sit down and say “ok what does it look like now, this world literature“, and it turns out that one of the possibilities is that it ends up being the literature of some very powerful countries that then gets exported to all the others.  And there is nothing utopian about this; it is quite the opposite.

But isn’t literature also a way we discover foreign cultures?

The idea of writing for a world market is a very complex subject.  For instance, many African critics or Asian critics view their writers who try to do this – who try to reach a world audience – very bitterly.

Writers who try to be exotic because the world wants to think of them as exotic?

Yes.  There’s a study for instance done by Wendy Griswald on the Nigerian novel.  Nigerian novels – say from the fifties to the seventies – were published in two places: in London and in Nigeria.  But what the audience got in those two places was entirely different.  In Nigeria, the novels that were most often published were romances and crime stories.  In London, the stories that were most often published were village stories.  It’s somehow natural that people in London would be more interested in the village life of Nigeria simply because they had no idea of it, but then of course they are getting their ideas in a way that could be considered manipulative.

Cultural products aren’t always just a sign of a culture and its opinions; sometimes they are the tools that form it.  Do you think literature strengthens opinions, or does it form them?

I think the historical function of literature has been to strengthen the consensus about the world as it is, but this is something that most literary theorists would be uncomfortable with, the idea being that literature challenges those ideas rather than reinforcing them.  It’s complicated and probably not only one way or the other, but in the end, literature is really about pleasure. And how can pleasure not somehow be complicit with what already is.  Still, there are novels that change mass perceptions. When “A Hundred Years of Solitude“ was published, all of a sudden for an enormous number of people Latin America became a reality in a way that it had not been before.  It became an imaginative presence in their minds.  Or after “Midnight’s Children“ by Rushdie, that happened with India.  It will happen with China at some point soon too I imagine.

What do you think we are trying to understand when we read literary theory?

For me the point of literary criticism is the same as the point of cultural history: trying to understand how culture contributes to all these societies together – behaviors, values, whatever – which doesn’t mean that one has to endorse those values or behaviors, only to understand how it all works and fits together.  It’s a part of history.  For me, it’s a matter of how incredibly well-organized and interesting the system of cultural conformity and consensus can be, and how connected to pleasure and the way we arrange our experience it is.

But isn’t there a responsibility in writing theory as you do, because of how it contributes to an overall understanding of value?

I’ll tell you the way I see that responsibility.  The most important idea is clarity.  I want to write in a way that can be understood even by those who don’t have all this specialized knowledge.  Clarity for me is the basis of a democratic culture.  Obscurity has played a prominent part in history because if you don’t understand what the person is saying you are somehow confirmed that their knowledge is superior.  I don’t like this idea because I don’t think it contributes anything positive – or anything at all – to our condition.

Do you think we can be aware that we are creating a new perspective as we are creating it?

Maybe “we” can, but “I” can’t.  When I go to see a movie alone, for instance, I always sit in the last row of the theatre because I want to try to recognize the patterns.

You could be doing the same with your work.  By recognizing and applying these natural patterns, you might be creating a new and viable way of looking at literature.

Maybe.  I don’t know.

It’s possible.



Dubravka Ugresic & Michelle Standley

On Building and Destroying the Ties that Bind

There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. Repeating these words, Dorothy closes her eyes and begins to click her red ruby slippers. One, two, three clicks of her heels and she finds herself returned to the safe confines of her Kansas farmhouse. Her journey away from home and into the Land of Oz turns out to have been a mere dream. But for Tanja Lucic, the narrator and main character of Dubravka Ugresic’s latest novel, “The Ministry of Pain“, no magical slippers and no amount of wishing can return her to her home: it no longer exists. Franco Tudjman, SlobodanMilosevic, and their followers, have made mince meat of thecountry she once called home – Yugoslavia. Ugresic once called Yugoslavia home too. Similar to her fictional creation, Tanja, and thousands of other Yugoslavs, Ugresic fled after hostilities broke out in the early 1990s. “We had scampered out of the country,” Tanja explains, “like ratsdeserting a sinking ship.”

With her country of origin erased from the map, commentators often do not know where to place Ugresic. She is frequently labeled either as a Croatian or an ex-Yugoslav writer. Yet, Ugresic is cut in the mold of a traditional central European intellectual: in addition to being well-versed in European letters, she is comfortable in several languages and is as likely to be spotted in her adopted home of Amsterdam as she is in Berlin or at a North American university. Over the years she has received numerous prizes for both her fiction and essay writing, including the Austrian State Prize for literature and Italy’s prize for best foreign author, the Premi Lettario. Like Joseph Roth, whose longing for the Hapsburg Empire filled his novels and short stories, Ugresic’s work is preoccupied with loss. Unlike Roth, however, who chronicled the last days of the empire carved up by the First World War, Ugresic dwells on life post-dissolution. In her novels, “The Ministry of Pain“ and “The Museum of Unconditional Surrender“, she uses the voice of a melancholy female narrator to explore the ongoing state of displacement and nostalgia into which many former Yugoslavs fell during the Balkan Wars. In “The Ministry of Pain“, after fleeing Zagreb and parting ways with her husband, Tanja Lucic accepts a temporary position at the University of Amsterdam. As a guest lecturer of Yugoslav literature, Tanja is confronted with “the absurdity of [her] situation.” She is assigned to teach a classroom of ex-Yugoslav refugees “a subject that no longer exist[s].” Instead of sticking to a traditional syllabus Tanja asks the students to play a game in which they create a virtual “Yugonostalgic” museum. Together they recollect the salvageable parts of the Yugoslav everyday: television shows, songs, food, poetry and remembered images and encounters with the former Yugoslav leader Tito.

In an exchange of emails, I asked Ugresic to share her thoughts on why these rather common aspects of a community play such an important role in her novels. Her answer surprised me. Pieces of the everyday, she maintains, create the sense of unity among ex-Yugoslavs. Not shared ideology, she replied, but “trivial things make the strongest bonds: food, songs, popular culture, etc… Fragments of popular culture are the strongest glue.” In “The Ministry of Pain“ Tanja and her students, though of diverse ethnic origin, bond together over drinks while fondly reminiscing about old Yugoslav folk and rock songs and the national anthem. Through scenes like this one, Ugresic paints a vivid picture of how Yugonostalgia, similar to its East German counterpart Ostalgia, can bring ex-Yugoslavs together through shared memories of popular and material culture. Ugresic is right in pointing out that various forms of culture may unify an otherwise diverse group. But ties based on nostalgia have an inherent weakness: they only surface in the aftermath of a lost world of experience. That is, members of this potential community do not recognize their mutual interests until the very things that might have brought them together have already disappeared. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Ugresic confirmed this supposition when I pointed out that in “The Ministry of Pain“ the meaning of “we” is constantly redefined. At times Tanja uses a more narrow defi nition of “we”: it refers only to those from the former Yugoslavia. When Tanja sees her students, who were all Yugoslav refugees, for the fi rst time she instantly recognized them as “[her] people.” “‘Our people’ had an invisible slap on their faces…The ourness came through in a certain strained melancholy in their features,” she observes. In other parts of the novel, however, “we” refers to everyone from the former socialist countries of Europe. In one passage, Tanja weeps uncontrollably upon watching “The Unbearable Lightness of Being“, which includes a cinematic depiction of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. “I wept in my innermost being over the imaginary tangled web that bore the arbitrary label of Eastern, Central, East-Central, Southeastern Europe, the other Europe. I couldn’t keep them straight: the millions of Russians who had disappeared into Stalin’s camps, the millions who had perished in the Second World War, but also the ones who had occupied the Czechs and the Czechs who were occupied by the Russians – and the Bulgarians who fed the Russians and the Poles and the Romanians, and the former Yugoslavs, who basically occupied themselves.“

Tanja is not the only ex-Yugoslav in the novel who feels connected with members of “the other Europe.” A Bosnian man, who Tanja met in Berlin, describes how he used to spend his entire refugee allowance on a Russian prostitute. She is worth it, he claims, “Because she’s a Russian, one of us. I wouldn’t throw my dough away on a German girl. Those German girls have no soul. Not like ours.” Considering the history of mutual animosity between such groups as Poles and Russians, Hungarians and Romanians, it is surprising to see all the former socialist countries of Europe lumped together in one group like this. Even the Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, was careful to exclude certain inhabitants of communist Europe—most pointedly Russians—from his definition of central Europe, which he famously defi ned as “a shared fate.” With this history in mind, I was skeptical that members of “the other Europe” recognized themselves as part of a group while the communist system was still intact. So I pressed Ugresic on this, asking her: Do you think that Poles and Ukrainians or Romanians and Hungarians feel a sense of solidarity when confronted with each other? Ugresic acknowledged that during communism she did not feel that there was astrong sense of solidarity, despite offi cial slogans that had boasted otherwise. “Yugoslavs,” she pointed out, “thought that they were better than others. The same concerned Poles and Romanians.” These groups “thought that their life was better and that they were better.” Only once the system that had “made them quite similar” had disappeared did she see any evidence of “solidarity” or rather a “recognition of the same past.” In other words, it was only in the shadow of a world gone by that ties emerged between members of the former socialist Europe. Real “solidarity,” Ugresic believes, will come in the future. “It will come from the young people, historians, sociologists, etc. It will come when [their] inferiority complex, personal and collective, is completely gone.” Shared nostalgia for a world gone by is only one means of forging bonds. Perhaps there are other forms of unity, based not on the past but on experiences in the present.

The common fate of statelessness, I suggested to Ugresic, can also bring people together. As the French philosopher Ernst Renan pointed out as early as 1882 “suffering in common unifies more than joy does.” I wondered if this resonated with Ugresic’s experience as an exile. “Not necessarily.” she answered. “It could be the opposite.” Having just fled your country of origin the last thing you want to do is join your countrymen somewhere else. After all, you left because you rejected membership in that community. Still many people tend to turn to their fellow expatriates after their initial arrival in a new place. As she put it, “I would say that people depend on each other in the first phase of their exile. A bit later, if conditions get normal, they tend to live their own life, independent of [their national] community.” Do bonds forged through the common experience of exile ever go beyond national, religious, or ethnic ties? In her current home of Amsterdam, I wanted to know, did she feel a link with non- European refugees? “My story is a bit different,” she reflected, “I didn’t have a refugee experience, or refugee status.” She chose to live in Amsterdam. When she arrived in the Netherlands the ex-Yugoslav community was already settled. She was a newcomer and more like a guest. Another reason she does not necessarily feel a connection with non-European refugees is because there are “completely different experiences of exile. In that respect, Yugoslav refugees, for instance, had incomparably better status than refugees from Africa or Asia.” She therefore advised caution when discussing “exile” as “not to hurt the feelings of those who really suffered.” Particularly in the context of the newly expanded borders of the European Union, where can we find hope for creating ties that bind? Deeply entrenched prejudices and hardened stereotypes present formidable obstacles to potential unity between members of the “old” and “new” Europe. As Ugresic once wrote in a satirical essay about stereotypes, “Prejudices are the European past, present and future.” Curious as to whether she still maintained this position I asked her if she thought that the EU project, with such initiatives as the Erasmus student exchange program, could help to break down age-old European stereotypes. Ugresic replied that, on the one hand, there has been improvement in this area. “On the other hand, you never know: unemployment, social insecurity and media could bring the worst stereotypes back at any moment.”

The ties that bind are often fragile and easily torn asunder in times of acute economic and political crisis. However, Ugresic’s own story makes clear that it is perhaps never too late to build ties of belonging in a new community. Ugresic, like many of those ex-Yugoslavs who were cast adrift when their former homeland disappeared, has learned to make peace with her new country. She responded affi rmatively when I asked her if she considered Amsterdam home. “Yes, I do,” she replied, “with all the feelings one could have when the notion of home is in question. These feelings include a wish to run away, to return, a feeling of claustrophobia, a feeling of security… True, all those emotions are gentler now; they are not so strong and sharp as they used to be.”

The author Dubravka Ugresic was born in 1949 in Kutina, Yugoslavia, today Croatia. She worked at the Insitute for the Theory of Literature at the University of Zagreb for many years. Ugresic lives in Amsterdam now, spending a lot of time teaching in the US as well. Her books include “Steffi e Speck in the Jaws of Life“, “The Museum of Uncontional Surrender“ (1998), and “The Ministry of Pain“ (2005).

Die Schriftstellerin Dubravka Ugresic wurde 1949 in Kutina, Jugoslawien, dem heutigen Kroatien, geboren. Heute lebt sie zwischen Amsterdam und den USA, wo sie als Privatdozentin tätig ist. Zuletzt erschienen ihre Romane „Das Museum der bedingungslosen Kapitulation“ (1998) „Lesen verboten“ (2002) und „Das Ministerium der Schmerzen“ (2005).


Coleman Barks & Andrea Hiott: Rumi

Interview by Andrea Hiott, 2006. 

Artwork by Ann van Poperingen.

A Discussion of Love and Poetry with Renowned Rumi Translator Coleman Barks

Sufi mystic and poet Jalaluddin Rumi was born in a small town in present-day Afghanistan on September 30th, 1207.   His poetry is the poetry of love – erotic love, divine love, the love of friendship, an annihilating love.  His words are an ocean, always rhythmic, always changing.  Relationship consumes him.  When speaking about his meeting with Shams – the most pivotal friendship of his life – Rumi says, “I was raw, then I got cooked, now I am burned.”  It is a fire of the heart, and comes from a burn that is endless.

Coleman Barks first began translating Rumi’s poetry in 1976 after his friend, the poet Robert Bly, handed him a stack of scholarly translations by a Cambridge Islamisist and told him: “These poems need to be released from their cages.”  Barks’ work is a matter of transforming Rumi’s poems into free verse, rewriting them in the tradition of Walt Whitman or William Carlos Williams, in American English.  Because of Coleman Barks’ translations, Rumi is now the most popular poet in the United States. 

PULSE: By the tone of your translations, it’s easy to imagine that you enjoyed delving into them as you worked.  It also seems that that this type of translation is intuitive rather than something studied or learned. Is that true?

COLEMAN: Yeah, I suppose. When I first began to do this in the fall of 1976, I would walk downtown after teaching classes, mostly classes in Modern American Poetry, and sit at a café and begin working on these poems.  Perhaps because it was so different from what I’d been doing all day, it felt more like a release than like work to me, a release into a space of freedom.  I loved being there in the space that these poems inhabit.  I’ve never taught Rumi and I never want to.  I never want to explain what these poems are about, because they are something to be experienced, like a friendship, or silence, or love.

That echoes what he writes about for me.

Yes. It does. He’s always trying to put you in that shared place of inwardness, into whatever the heart is – the Qutb as the Sufis call it – into that mysterious place that his poems come from and live through.

That place of connection or silence or feeling almost appears impossible to describe linguistically.  Perhaps it can only be triggered, suggested?

Well you can’t really put any experience into exact words. R-o-s-e is not what we use it to signify. There’s always an awkwardness to language when trying to approximate the living world.  It’s impossible.  And on top of that, there’s the impossibility of bringing medieval works of an enlightened master through my mind and into American English.  It’s absurd but some things are going to be done regardless of their impossibility.

It’s not easy to talk about what makes a good translation.  Or why one person would prefer one poet’s style or work to another’s.  It comes down to connection, but that’s a vague linguistic concept as well.

Well, there’s something to be transmitted in a poem, and if that is transmitted, then the poem is working: it’s a transmitter from presence to presence.  Rumi says that you must listen for presences inside poems. You must let the poems take you where they will, follow their private hints and never leave the premises.

What do you think that is, ‘the presence’?

Well it’s both individual and cosmic.  It’s the mystery I think of – of –

– of why two people connect – of why anything connects?

Right.  And nobody knows why.  The Sufis say it is God’s sweetest secret – how someone gets attracted to someone else, how two presences coincide with each other and mix.

Maybe we don’t want to know the answer.

Yeah (laughing), it just gets partially said in all our love songs and all our poems and plays.  And so that’s what is ultimately so illusive and frustrating and glorious about the whole fact of loving.

It’s an interaction, so I guess there are never two static parts that can be defined.

It’s a living thing, yes. But you can find images that do some of the work for you.  Images let you feel what it’s like inside. They carry the information and the feeling and the tone.

Of course different images are suggested depending on the reader.

Frost’s poem for instance: Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening. You stop by different woods than I do.

And it’s a different time of evening.  But getting back to Rumi, something about his poetry that I especially connect with is its constant hint of movement.  He seems to speak of a universal movement, something that it is a part of everyone and everything. Do you feel that conveyed in his writing?

He seems to think everything is moving, yes.  The metaphor he uses a lot is an ocean that has no shore: it’s always in motion and always separating itself out from itself in the way that water evaporates and rain comes and that same drop of water is then a part of the ocean again.  That process of continual changing and exchange is a celebration in Rumi.  It’s what the poems embody, particularly the long poem that he wrote over the last 12 years of his life.  That poem is an oceanic field of stories and jokes and all sorts of interruptions. It deals with so many things simultaneously that the fluid structure of it seems to rather gradually and chaotically become an image for what the soul is outside of time.  The poem must be read linearly but you feel a kind of synchronicity happening, a simultaneity that is happening inside the poem itself.  Is this making any sense?

It sounds like you’re trying to describe life.

Well, it’s just as chaotic as consciousness.  So, it’s a form, or a model, for the psyche – not as an individual thing but as a field, or as interweaving fields, of stories and voices.  It’s like a crowd, a community of soul growth happening before your eyes.  Actually, I don’t think we’re even capable of understanding such an artwork fully at the moment.

Maybe not, but the more we come to know of our own lives, the more we might be able to understand what he was conveying with his.  When Rumi speaks about “the ecstasy” or “burning the forms,” do you think he’s speaking about the experience of feeling one’s connection or absorption in this movement, with feeling that one is a drop in the ocean or the ocean itself or…?

The feeling of intensity that he calls burning or longing – well, this is a strange thing to try to phrase but – he says it is somehow the same as what it is longing for: the intensity is part of its same mystery, that ocean of being.  The longing is what the longing is longing for.  As a grammar, it almost disintegrates.

Well this is what confuses me, because it seems that we constantly want this melting or longing or ecstasy and yet we are always inside of it.

Well we have the sense of being separated, so we have grief and we have fullness and they’re all part of the same package of deep being. They aren’t necessarily to be ranked.  For the Sufis, separation and bewilderment are just as good as union.  Everything is God for them.  They say that there is no reality but God; there is only God.  So whatever is passing through you is the motion, the divine. All motion is from the mover, they say.

So it’s passing through you but it’s also you.

The image he has is the guesthouse.  All these emotions – even ecstatic love – pass through you. So you are the host, but you are also the emptiness.  There’s something here that connects with Buddhism – there is an emptiness and a vast space that is inhabited by emotions as they come through. Sometimes they are burning and sometimes they are cold.  Sometimes they are thoughtful.  Sometimes those emotions are intensely rational, and sometimes they’re just gibberish.

So can love be seen as a goal?

It seems that it’s sort of built into the initial impulse, so that the question and the answer are the same thing.  It’s in every exchange.

Would you say that love is the main theme of Rumi’s work?

I would.  Love as the dissolving of the personal into the Divine.  The image takes many forms.  It’s the net inside the windstorm.  There’s a little bit of the ocean inside the fish, which is what takes him to the ocean.  It’s all just different forms that the movement takes, the attraction. It takes one out towards the center – out of oneself and into the center of oneself.  The more you talk about this the more it turns to dust in your mouth.

But I love that impossibility – movement being obscurely reflected by its inability to be reflected.  Or whatever. Yeah, it does turn to dust.

But Rumi says that same thing in every other sentence.  He says: This is not saying it: this cannot be said.


Simon Goldhill: Love, Sex and Tragedy

An interview with Cambridge author Simon Goldhill about how the ancient world still influences modern lives.


In the opening chapter of Love, Sex, and Tragedy, Goldhill asks the following questions: “How does the past form our identity today?  How much are our sexual desires and our perceptions of our bodies the product of cultural expectations…?  How should we understand the role of religion in society, especially with regard to marriage and family? What does it mean to be a citizen of democracy?”

By tracing back our modern conceptions of these questions to their Greek and Roman origins, Goldhill ultimately finds that there are a few things (love, sex, religion, politics) that we have always used to define the relationship between our selves and the outside world.

Pulse: Was the West the main audience you had in mind while writing this book?  Can understanding our past help us be more tolerant of differing cultures?

Inevitably if you write in English and come from Cambridge, your main audience will be the English-speaking world. And it is specifically the West‘s understanding of itself and its past that I am addressing. However, a lot depends on what you think of as the West: South America? India? Australia? Part of the understanding I hope for is a political understanding of a term like “democracy” which directly affects how the West interrelates with other cultures. I am also interested in the West‘s own fictions of its past – which have been crucial in forming imperial attitudes. I think understanding one‘s own culture is a crucial part of understanding oneself.  At the same time, I am deeply suspicious of nationalism, which has so scarred the 20th century and seems likely to scar the twenty-first as well. Still, an understanding of our origin might give us a critical distance from any more murderous commitments to nationalist myths.

We live in a world where information and possibilities seem infinite.  Many people feel overwhelmed as they attempt to sort through these choices and piece together an identity.  Can this problem be traced to our ancient roots?

There is a great deal of information these days, but how much of it is reliable, informed, and significant? The intention of “Love, Sex, and Tragedy“ is to talk about forgetting as much as remembering the past, that is, to talk about how a willful ignorance has been as important as a conscious invention of the past when it comes to how we construct our cultural identities, as well as in helping us to see the hidden forces that create those identities. For instance, it is fascinating for me to see the degree to which Christian attitudes are adopted by many who do not think of themselves as Christian, and do not realize the polemical force of those ideas. The world we live in has deep roots in the past, but at the same time, the way people in the past thought about such basic ideas as “the person“, the “self“, “relationships“, and “community“ is often profoundly different from today. Trying to trace the dynamic between difference and similarity here is the job of critical thinking.

Many international problems today are products of one culture’s desire to protect its history and to have that history respected by others.  Can identification with our past be harmful?

Understanding one‘s own history – as opposed to adopting one form of the past as an ideology – should make anyone more aware of the contingencies of one‘s own beliefs. This for me is not a weak liberal doubt, but a strong sense of self-critique. Being “open to diverse histories of others“ does not mean, however, being uncritical of the Other. It is a sad fact that many oppressed groups (and many others too!) invent naïve and ideological versions of their own past, which become naïve and ideological oppressions in themselves. One should read the past critically, read the claims about the past even more critically, and remain constantly aware of how the past is a source of manipulation as well as authorization; ideology as well as identity; distorting violence as well as cultural strength.

One of the questions you pose and discuss in the book is: how much are our sexual desires and our perceptions of our bodies the product of cultural expectations, or a true sign of nature?  First, could you define what you mean by “a true sign of nature”?  Secondly, do you think that by understanding the cultural roots of our ideas about what is and is not attractive, we might be able to be more comfortable with the (often unattainable) ideals expressed in modern society?

By a “true sign of nature“ I mean the fantasy that an idea of the body or of sexual behavior could be fully and completely and truly grounded in nature. I call it a fantasy because all our ideas of nature are culturally produced. The trouble with self-awareness is that it doesn’t always affect how others treat you! That is, you can be aware of precisely how cultural models are produced, but if you are constantly treated as ugly, then that also has an effect on you. But at least you will know why… Is that more comfortable? Perhaps. I am not sure my aim is to make people more comfortable…

I think looking at the past‘s polemics and their continuing influence can open a space to think critically about what we mean by such central terms in our lives. This in turn may produce different forms of relationship, and different sets of attitudes. It is a slow process, but it is already happening. I do not know if the new forms will be more truthful, but there is at least a chance that they will be less distorting.

In your opinion, how is our current understanding of Democracy different from the way it was perceived in ancient Athens?

Our understanding is completely different in that we do not understand the importance of participation. Direct democracy demanded the involvement of citizens at all levels. Aristotle defined the essence of democracy as the duty/right to hold office and to bear arms: that is a democrat must be part of the political system and fight for the state. The principle of ancient democracy is that a collective of citizens will together make a better decision than one human. We have adopted the Platonic critique of democracy and think we need experts to make decisions for us. But what are the criteria for the politicians‘ expertise? How do we test it?

Aren’t we always having a conversation with our past by comparing how it was to how it is now? Isn’t that how we try to find our balance?

Yes, we must be in conversation with the past. Today, the buzz words of so much modern political and educational thought are “relevance“, “progress“ etc. By which is meant having less and less real knowledge about the past, and thinking that only things “like me“ count. So we are constantly told that young black girls need to read books about young black girls. I find this a horrific disempowerment. (They should be reading “Antigone“!) It is also a failure of thinking about the other creatively. Thinking properly about the past should force one into recognition of one‘s own otherness. It should also bring you into contact with what you are not, so you can explore the boundaries of what you can be.


Johan Fornas: The Struggle to Define Culture

Johan Fornäs discusses Raymond Williams, Paul Ricoeur and the current state of cultural theory

Interview by Andrea Hiott, 2007

It’s hard to get into a discussion about the arts these days without also getting into a discussion about culture and cultural theory – but what do we really mean by these terms?  Is cultural theory a discipline in the same way we consider philosophy or sociology to be a discipline, or does it swallow and include them?  Is culture made from tradition, ideology, geography, creativity, or from something spiritual?  Can any one term encompass such a mass of potential uses?

PULSE: What is the difference between “culture” and “cultural theory”?

FORNÄS: The concept of culture has an immense range of meanings in current discourses. No definition is more “correct” than the others, and several ways of using the term are even difficult to do without, from the ontological relation of culture to nature, via the anthropological ways of living of various peoples or subgroups, to the aesthetic practices and institutions of the cultural sector.

Each of these perspectives on culture also has its deficits. The traditional aesthetic view of culture as confined to the arts and perhaps also entertainment is still used in much of cultural policy but fails to take into account the aesthetic forms that are produced and used in everyday life.  On the other hand, the widespread tendency to divide the world into discrete cultural units called “cultures” – which is inherent in much of identity politics and communitarian theory – easily leads to a very problematic hypostasis or reification: “a culture” as something unitary and homogenous, sharply distinguished from other cultures.  It is true that certain human practices strive to form these kinds of strict communities, in various forms of fundamentalism and sectarianism for instance, but there is always a leakage between such categories and I am suspicious of political claims that focus on such collective labelling.

The first widespread anthropological definition of culture was formulated by Birmingham’s Raymond Williams in his early book Culture and Society (1958) as “a whole way of life” in opposition to an elitist conception of culture as confined to the fine arts.  This formula became very popular in early British cultural studies.  By the end of his life, however, in Culture (1981), Williams became convinced that this definition, “derived primarily from anthropology”, was not really useful, at least not for “highly developed and complex societies” in which “there are so many levels of social and material transformation that the polarized ‘culture’–‘nature’ relation becomes insufficient”.  Instead, he preferred to see culture as a “realized signifying system”.  This is in line with the concept of culture that has been used in hermeneutics by Paul Ricoeur, among social anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz and Ulf Hannerz, and also in cultural studies by Williams’ successor in Birmingham, Stuart Hall.

I too prefer to regard culture not as any fixed unit but as a level of interaction in human society constructed and reproduced by processes of communication. To me, cultural theory is simply the open set of theories that focus on this level of interaction.  It takes the symbolic realm of meanings and interpretations seriously, focusing on the triangular interplay between multiple texts, subjects and contexts whereby processes of interaction and interpretation give rise to meanings, identities and social worlds.  This hermeneutic understanding, inspired by Ricoeur’s work, is for me the most useful ground for understanding culture and cultural theory.

Do you think there is a point where the study of culture (the consciousness culture has of itself) and the creation of culture touch?  Do you see this relationship as traditionally dialectical, or as something more parallel or linear?

This has been understood as a basic difference between human and natural sciences, in that only the former (humans) can become part of their own object of study.  This dichotomy has been somehow softened in recent decades.  From the Heisenberg uncertainty principle onwards, modern physics is actually less sure of the independence of observer and observed, and with biology and genetics, the line is even thinner.

From the other side, Ricoeur’s late modern critical hermeneutics deconstructs the absolute difference between explanation (Erklären) and understanding (Verstehen) that Wilhelm Dilthey once made the basis of a radical epistemological difference between the two academic spheres.  In all spheres of knowledge, interpretation is always a spiral movement between these two moments: the synthesising creativity of understanding and the analytical validation of explanation.  But of course this dialectics is particularly apparent in the study of culture, since scientific work can itself be classified as belonging to precisely this sphere.

You ask if dialectics, parallelism or linearity is the best term for this relation between culture and the study of culture. What I just said contradicts any idea of parallelism, in that culture and science are never completely separated. It is also hard to conceive of this relation as a unilinear one. It is obvious from a kind of materialist perspective that changes in cultural life affect cultural theory. Modern cultural theory is not possible without modern society and its cultural forms – including that of cultural research.  But the reverse direction of influence is just as manifest because cultural theories belong to the self-reflection of societies.  They are quickly integrated in the repertoire of concepts and models for self-understanding that in turn make specific forms of cultural practice possible or dominant.  So, yes, the interrelation may be conceived as dialectical – though a more open-ended kind of dialectics, more Benjamin than Hegel, in that the two societal praxis fields influence each other mutually but never really give rise to any kind of reconciling synthesis.

It seems that the artist’s consciousness of cultural theory has grown over the past ten years.  An example of this would be the fact that many art bookshops (Tate Modern in London for instance) now carry a wide array of books on “Cultural Theory” and many artists, writers, and filmmakers now read Derrida or Bhabha or Deleuze as a means to, or even explanation of, their creations.  How do you think the artist’s consciousness of cultural studies has changed in the past few years?

There have always been crosscurrents between artistic and scientific work. Still, you may be right that the intensity and complexity of this interaction has increased. One sign is the many efforts to develop new forms of artistic research or mixtures of artistic and academic forms of study. In the field of media studies, there is a similar blurring of the borders between academic and journalistic research.

It is in any case fascinating to see how fast concepts from cultural studies move into public debate. For instance, young people quickly incorporate ideas of identity work, subcultures and moral panics into their own self-understanding and self-presentation. Avant-garde artists are also quick to assimilate poststructuralist terminologies, and exhibition catalogue texts seem often to be almost directly copied from the writings of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Homi Bhabha. This has surely happened since long, but the speed of such processes may be accelerating, as well as the intensity and breadth of these exchanges. There are not only strong links between science and the fine arts, but also between high theory and low culture.

This may possibly be interpreted as a facet of the increasing reflexivity of society. Reflexivity has several different aspects.  One is the general tendency for society’s institutions and practices to be increasingly geared towards solving problems created by themselves rather than overcoming obstacles of an external nature. This societal or contextual reflexivity has been discussed (though not under this precise label) by Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and others. Another aspect, analysed by Thomas Ziehe, concerns the individual subjects who are increasingly self-referential, i.e. feel an increasing urge – and have growing capacities – to thematise their own identities. This subjective reflexivity in turn interacts with what may be called a media or textual reflexivity, discussed by Linda Hutcheon, Jay David Bolter and others, whereby mediated texts and genres increasingly thematise each other, increasing the awareness of their own mediational character, developing a kind of self-mirroring hypermediacy. Culturalisation thus implies a “reflexivisation” on all of the three levels – the contextual, the subjective and the textual.

In Cultural Theory and Late Modernity, you write:  “All communication is a meeting around common understandings, but it is also always a conversation between voices which are necessarily different.” In your opinion, what part does the recognition of differences play in cultural theory?  Do you believe the study of culture can lead people of differing traditions to a more peaceful coexistence?

These words seem too big to me these days. There is a kind of inflation in good will making me a bit hesitant to subscribe to such grand slogans.  I do welcome this intention of recognizing difference, but there are also many ways to misuse such slogans. Take for instance the European Union with its motto “united in diversity” and its many efforts to explain how the EU wants to create peace, love and understanding in the world.  I definitely favour such intentions rather than any clash of civilizations or defense of an empire’s greatness against its neighbours. But there is much self-delusion and hypocrisy in such declarations, and it may often be good to inject a grain of salt by retaining a critical distance and never forget how cultural theory is also deeply implicated in power games at various levels.

Still, I do still stand for those words you quoted.  It is interesting to note that whereas, on the one hand, the term “symbol” derives from words denoting something thrown together – the combination of a sign and what it signifies – the term “discourse”, on the other hand, signifies something running apart.  If culture and communication are defined by something intersubjectively shared (from interpretive communities and generic codes to specific textual bodies), then it is important to understand that they would have no purpose if there were no (social as well as textual) differences. There would be no sense in dialogues between identical interlocutors.

But from this to any belief that cultural theory could save the world from racism or war is too long a step. The reflexive dialectics between theory and practice mentioned before imply that theory shares a responsibility for the course of the world but not that it is the sole saviour of mankind. This would be a gross exaggeration of the role of cultural theory in society.


Ji Lee & Michele Sala

Angewandte Kunst, Please Enjoy

From Adolf Loos to Hal Foster to Nicolas Bourriard to Ji Lee –can an artist be a designer? Can design be a form of art?  Von Adolf Loos über Hal Foster und Nicolas Bourriaud bis zu Ji Lee – können Künstler Designer sein? Kann Design als Kunstform gelten?

In the late 1980s the biggest argument concerning the theory of Design was over the difference between Art and Design itself. Pure Modern Designers taught design students about applied art – the ‘applied’ turning the holy idea of creativity into something useful, the noblest non-art. But such a definition of Design has never quite fit: designers have always played a fundamental role in the history of art as well, remaining as likely to propose a problem as they are to solve it. Nowadays Design seems to have won its own society. In his essay “Design and Crime” (2002, Verso), Hal Foster quotes the infamous attack launched by Adolf Loos (“Ornament and Crime”, 1908) on the Modern project of Gesamtkunstwerk (total-artwork), in order to analyse the problems raised by design’s ubiquitous penetration into contemporary life.

“Products are not anymore thought of as objects to be produced, but as information to be manipulated”, writes Foster, claiming that design now abets a perfect circle of production and consumption, informing buyers’ needs and ideas, and creating a world that does not leave enough “running room” for user’s subjectivity. The idea of the artist-as-engineer is gone, and the industrial designer now rules a world where he works according to the client’s interests rather than as a craftsmen. In such a scenario, the work of Ji Lee constitutes quite a paradox. Ji Lee is both a designer and an artist. He designs ads, but he also fights them. Four years ago, Ji – then working at one of the world’s biggest ad agencies, Saatchi and Saatchi – began The Bubble Project (www.thebubbleproject.com) plastering blank bubbles on top of commercial ads all over New York City and letting pedestrians fill in the blank spaces with their own comments. “The goal is to counterattack the media messages we receive”, says Ji, “in order to convert the corporate monologue into a true public dialogue”. But can such contradictions really coexist?

MICHELE: Your bubbles generate opportunities for social relationships, what Nicolas Bourriaud quoted Marx by calling social interstices. Or, to borrow another of Bourriaud’s terms, it could be said that you provoke people to become ‘semionauts’, linking different contexts to a common co-text. Do you ever think about the relationship between art and design in such terms?

LEE: People often ask me: “Are you a designer or an artist?” or “Is this an art project or a design project?” Of course these questions made me think and the conclusion I reached is that I’m both designer and an artist. I’m a designer when I’m doing projects for clients. I’m an artist when I’m doing my personal projects. The two worlds compliment and influence each other: creatively and economically.

Do you think there’s a way in which The Bubble Project helps people take back a bit of that “running room” that Hal Foster was talking about?

The Bubble Project instantly transforms boring and intrusive corporate monologues placed in public spaces into fun public dialogues. People are for the most part passive recipients of these media messages. The Bubbles shift this platform upside down by giving people the opportunity to become active participants, thus empowering them to face the media. In a bigger picture, it also serves as a glitch in the matrix, an interruption in the routine of daily life.

What kind of message would you like to read on your bubbles? Have you seen any particular homogeneity in the messages written by the passers-by? Do you see any particular ‘direction’ to what they write? I’m trying to understand how people actually use this “running room” or new space that the bubbles open.

I believe all messages are valid. The fact that someone stops from his or her routine to look at the bubbles placed on top of the ads, thinks about something different, takes a pen and fills in the bubble is what counts. In this short moment, the person breaks out from the routine of the daily pattern and becomes a creative and an individual thinker. So it’s the context, rather than the content, that matters to me.

I’m a facilitator and at the same time I’m an observer. As a facilitator and the creator of this context, I have absolutely no judgement or preference about different content inside the bubbles. Anything is valid. As an individual observer like any other passer-by, I have my personal opinions and preferences about the contents. My only rule in doing the Bubble Project is that I never fill in the bubbles myself.

As for common topics inside the bubbles, the most popular one is sex. I think this is obvious, because most people feel oppressed sexually and the anonymity of the bubbles allows them to break out of that oppression. But otherwise there is a wide range of expressions, as wide as life itself. After looking at them for a while, I realized some bubbles formed natural groupings by subjects soI divided them into 8 different categories: Social Commentary, Media & Fashion, Politics & Religion, Sex & Drugs, Art & Philosophy, Humor and Personal Messages.

Some believe that what defines Art and Design is the artistic intention for the former, and the presence of a client for the latter. You don’t have a pure artistic intention, not even a real client. Can your work still be called ‘applied art’?

I‘m a designer when I‘m solving specific problems for clients, and I‘m an artist when I‘m doing my own projects. I create art because it gives me a deep satisfaction that my design projects can‘t provide. At the same time, these two worlds complement each other because I end up applying some of the lessons and tools learned from my design experience to my art projects and vice versa.

As far as ‘artistic intention’, I don’t know what that phrase actually means. Artistic intention sounds like a method or a preconceived plan. Art is not about a method to me. Art is about personal expression and an urge to do it. I’m not concerned about defining myself or defining the things I do. I’m interested in messing up the numbing comfort of the mindless routine, and having a lot of fun while I’m doing it.


Ji Lee was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to São Paulo, Brazil when he was 10 years old. He attended university at Parson’s School of Desgin and now lives and works in New York City. He won the NY Book Award in 2004 for his book of 3-D Alphabet called Univers Revolved, and the World Changing Ideas Award in 1999 for his work at Saatchi & Saatchi. A book has also just been published about his most recent work, The Bubble Project, where Lee places speech bubbles on ads across NYC and allows the passer-by to fi ll the empty space. www.thebubbleproject.com, www.pleaseenjoy.com

Michele Sala is an Italian designer who, in 2005, at the time of this interview, was researching postmodernism and the history of graphic design at Parson’s School of Design, also in NYC.



Kim Cascone & Brendan Dougherty

One Man Orchestra

The club is full. All eyes in the room are focused on the man on stage. The man’s eyes are fixed on the screen of a laptop. He makes subtle movements with his fingertips as he stares at the machine, his face bathed in a pale light. Perhaps reminiscent of a science fiction book from the 1950s – these events happen every night in cities all across the world. The laptop musician is a new breed of artist stemming from various origins – the academic electronic music world, the dance club DJ scenes and, some would say, the improvisation of jazz music as well. Even though the glowing Apple adorns the stages of mainstream performers like Radiohead and Bjork, many critics and listeners still insist that there are problems with the way this new variety of musician relates to the conventions of live performance. Audiences ask: “What are these sounds? Where are they coming from? And what are we watching?” As a member of this new musical community, I wanted to address some of these questions. And who better to ask than one of the original laptop musicians, Kim Cascone? Not only is Cascone an influential musician, he’s also the founder of the well-known electronic music label Silent Records and has collaborated with a number of renowned artists in various disciplines, such as Japanese noise collective Merzbow, filmmaker David Lynch, sound artist Keith Rowe, and new wave legend Thomas Dolby. I met with Kim in Berlin to ask him about some of the questions people have when it comes to making music with a computer. To start off, I had him compare his instrument, a laptop with self-programmed, music-making programs called “patches”, with a traditional acoustic instrument.

CASCONE: Well it’s kind of like comparing a spacecraft with a go-cart. With traditional instruments you’re hardwired into a familiar sound vocabulary; there’s a certain expectation that happens. If it’s a saxophone, then it reinforces that sound – that‘swhat a saxophonist does, that‘s what it sounds like – so you expect all the notes to sound a certain way. But with a laptop it’s really open, it sounds like whatever you focus on. For instance I could construct a patch recreating all the sounds happening in this room right now just by recording them and layering them.

DOUGHERTY: But if there is no common voice, what prevents artists and audiences from being overwhelmed by so many sounds and possibilities?

Well there are still signature sounds that people naturally walkinto. For a while there were the ‘clicks and cuts’ – using glitch as a rhythmic marker – then there were also the styles that were more collage or guitar-oriented. Now the Internet and new ways of sharing music has created a deluge of material. You have to sort through terabytes of music until you get to a piece that might be good. I don‘t think we’re seeing the true potential of the laptop being used right now, but there are a few artists who are paving a new way through all this material, people who are trying to invent new languages.

To go further into this language idea – in some genres, acoustic jazz for example, there is a set reference. People either go against that set language or they add to it, but its always there. Does computer music have a referential language?

I think every genre of music has its base sounds. In computer music, there are the sounds of the artists who were pioneers, the sounds of Jean-Claude Risset or Matthews for instance. They all had their algorithms. Whether it was with additive synthesis or linear predictive coding or with FM, all these technologies have developed a dictionary of words and phrases that people have latched onto.

How about the visual aspect of this music? Do you think that’s one of the major differences between laptop performance and acoustic performances?

There’s a lot of history that goes into performance as an art form. The original songwriters were like troubadours and minstrels that roamed the countryside. They not only sang songs but learned songs from other regions. They transcribed and customized them into their own language and their own aesthetic – that‘s how music traveled. And it was still entertaining. Then later opera came along and really spectacularised the idea of performance. Much later, with electro-acoustic music, or what was then called acousmatic, the music became the performance rather than having a performance to a piece of music. There was a shift from the foreground to the background. And I think that shift is what laptop music suffers from – if you want to use the word suffer – because it isn’t about someone getting up there and playing a guitar with their teeth or setting it on fire or any of those sorts of spectacular signs or signifi ers that we’re used to in pop culture. It’s more about the music and the idea of the composer. People have a hard time weaning themselves off of the spectacular portion of performance. That‘s why I think more people find laptop music to be boring or more difficult to relate to than other kinds.

I read an interview where you talked about the gestural theater, the notion that music performance needs to carry a visual counterpart. Do you view visuals as a negative aspect of a performance?

No, not at all: it‘s purely valid. I don‘t have any problem with going and seeing a performer and there being some kind of gestural theatre. I don‘t dismiss it. I don‘t fi lter it. I enjoy it for what it is, but the laptop’s a different thing. You cant expect the same kind of gestural theatre from an instrument that is mostly software based. Computer music relies on micro-movements to change states rather than relying on grand gestures. When someone is playing the saxophone, he or she obviously emotes and presses keys and there’s a certain pressure in the jaw and so on. All that goes into the theatre of the performance in acoustic music, but you don’t have that interaction when you’re using a computer.

I know you often use background visuals as a part of your performance. Is that a substitute for the visual theatre of an acoustic instrument?

It’s hard. I often feel like I’m cheating because I’m trying to replace a type of traditional theatre for people. I sort of transfer it behind me, putting images on the wall or whatever, rather than just saying “Look this is what the music is about”. It’s really about me controlling a bit of software, developing music in real time. It’s about a laptop, not a saxophone or a guitar. That‘s my instrument and that‘s how I perform.


Kim Cascone studied electronic music at Berklee College of Music, Boston and worked since the late 70‘s in electronics. In the late 80‘s Cascone was assistant music editor for David Lynch‘s films ‚Twin Peaks‘ and ‚Wild At Heart‘. In 1986 Cascone founded the record label Silent Records, where he released first results of his project PGR. In 1995 he started work on a triology called Blue Cube. Cascone now releases music on Sub Rosa, Mille Plateaux and runs a small vanity label called Anechoic.


Eivind Nesterud: Meet You at the Corner

From Godard to Bergson to Borges to Beckett to Pietroiusti, and then back to Bergson again – Eivind Nesterud collects images and inspirations in a montage that becomes its own form of art.

Artwork by Claire Davis.

Vivre Sa Vie (1962) by Jean Luc Godard, is a movie divided into 12 chapters. In the 11th chapter the main character Nana, played by Anna Karena, is introduced as “the unwitting philosopher”. Brice Parain in the role of himself, is introduced as “the philosopher”. The 11th chapter goes something like this:
Nana in a café.

She asks Parain to buy her a drink.
Nana sits down with Parain, then she says that she suddenly does not know what to say.

Parain asks if she has read The Three Musketeers. She has not. So he tells her this story about one of the musketeers, from the book Twenty Five Years Later. Porthos, one of the musketeers, is going to blow up a building. He has placed a bomb in the cellar and ignites it. He starts to run away, but then he stops, and starts to think; “How is it possible to put one foot in front of another?” This thought paralyses him. The bomb explodes and the building falls over him, but he is very strong, so he is able to hold up the building all through the next the day. Then he cannot hold it up anymore and the building crushes him. Nana asks why he told her this story. “No reason, just to talk” he replies. Nana thinks The Three Musketeers story is beautiful. She says that it is also frightening. Parain replies: “It’s frightening but it gives a clue. We are only able to speak well after we renounce living for a while. It’s the price we pay”.

Parain: Speaking is a sort of resurrection and life with speech is different from life without
it. So, to live with words you must go through the death of life without them. I don’t know
if I’m explaining myself … there’s an asceticism, which means that you can only speak well
when you look at life with detachment.

Nana: But you can’t live everyday life with, I don’t know, with …

Parain: With detachment? That’s why we swing between silence and speech. We swing between
the two because life is such that we go from everyday life into another life which is much higher
because it’s a thinking life. But this thinking life involves the killing of life that is too mundane.

Brice Parain was a linguistic philosopher, he wrote a book called Researches into the Nature and Function
of Language (1942) he also wrote a play called Black on White, produced in 1962, from which he
quotes, in his discussion with Nana, ‘We haven’t yet found the means to live without speaking’. Jean
Luc Godard invited him to answer questions in Vivre Sa Vie because he had “a crisis of language.” It
is nice that Godard decided to film Brice Parain answering questions about language in
such a direct way. Instead of filming it, I am sure Godard could have just asked Parain if he could buy him a drink and they could have discussed his “crisis” and left it at that.

Brice Parain was twenty years old in 1917. Maybe he went to some lectures by Henri Bergson. During a studio visit not so long ago I learned that James Joyce and T.S Eliot used to go and listen to Bergson.
I mention Bergson because I am going to quote him later.

If I met Brice Parain in a café, first I would sit down at his table. Then I would say to him: “A lot of things are difficult Brice”, he would reply, “Yes, I know Eivind, it’s hard work.” Samuel Beckett would be there too, but he would not be seated at our table. He would be sitting at a table close by, and he would say: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” And on the second fl oor of this café, there would be a gallery. In this gallery there would be a work by Bas Jan Ader. A wall text: “Thoughts Unsaid Then Forgotten”, and the room would be dark except for some flowers in a vase by the floor.

Enough of this.

I want to do a work about piano tuning. I would like to see a piano being tuned. I guess art is a good excuse to learn about a lot of different stuff. I will probably not learn how to tune a piano, so right now I just want to see a piano being tuned. I wonder how long it takes to tune a piano? For all I know maybe piano tuners compete between themselves, in very murky clubs, and to get into these clubs you need a very specially pitched tuning fork that was made in a small village somewhere. You would strike the tuning fork against your hand, because striking the tuning fork against a hard surface can damage it. Then you would put the vibrating tuning fork against the door, and then the doorman would let you in. If there is a Piano Tuning World Championship, count me in. I’ll be there on the very first row. I do not guess that art is a good excuse to learn about a lot of stuff, I think it is. But I do not like the word “excuse”… can I say “means”? I am finding it a bit hard to write this text. That’s what I like about chapter 11 in Vivre Sa Vie, the difficulties of putting one foot in front of the other.

Swinging between silence and speech.

To and fro.
In the book Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges, he says that Bradley said “one of the effects of poetry is that it gives us the impression not of discovering something new, but of remembering something we have forgotten.”

A chuckle.

With movies I really enjoy, I often want to quote from them or imitate scenes or phrases. And I know that if I am feeling a bit down, any movie that Bill Murray is in will make me feel better. I only know one phrase by heart, from a movie Bill Murray is in: “Swamp leaches everyone! Check for swamp leaches! Nobody else got hit. Am I the only one who got hit? What’s the deal?” That quote is from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, directed by Wes Anderson (2004). Some artworks I want to do or repeat, not very seriously, just for my own amusement. But amusement is pretty serious. And by repeating I don’t mean that I get interior decoration ideas from Dan Flavin. I will give an example, I promise. I once wanted a bed designed by Donald Judd because I once saw and sat in one. It was not an original; it was a copy. I thought it was nice. I don’t want a Judd bed anymore. I think at the time I did not want the bed so much as the person sitting next to me in it.

Here is my example:
I am now going to do a performance. I am not in the mood for an audience or answering questions,
so I shall have to leave this room where I am sitting right now. I will attempt to repeat an action and
to teach myself a manual skill. Adieu, but I will be back.
Hello. This was my little hallway performance: I removed my jumper without taking off my dark blue
duffel coat. It was quite difficult, but I managed to do it in about 3 minutes.

In the work Practical Skills by Cesare Pietroiusti (2002), anyone who wanted to could teach something to the artist, a manual skill, or something using one’s hands. Each lesson was only to be received once and was to last for the duration of one hour. In return, the people who taught Cesare Pietroiusti something would receive a lesson from him taken from a previously compiled list of his manual skills. He received eighteen lessons. Here are some of the skills he was taught: Anne taught him to cut hair, Carolyn taught him to use Photoshop, Stacey taught him to transfer an image from a photocopy onto another surface, Josh taught him to play basketball and Evan taught him to remove his vest without taking off his overcoat.

I prefer to write short descriptive texts when writing about my own work. Like this:

Windmill work:
I bought a toy windmill in a shop, and placed it on a large plinth. It was installed close to an open window, whenever a rush of wind came through the open window, the windmill turned.

A Bench for Rooseum’s Turbine Hall:
There would be a bench, made of plywood or MDF or both, placed in the middle of Rooseum’s Turbine Hall. The dimensions of the bench would be determined by the dimensions of Rooseum’s ceiling tiles. The dimensions of the ceiling tiles are: 119cm x 119cm and 119cm x 89cm. Some of the ceiling tiles in the turbine hall would be taken down and placed against part of the bench, leaning like books on a shelf. The number of tiles taken down would also determine the dimensions of the bench. The bench can be viewed as a sculpture, as well as support for the displaced architectural elements, and as a watch station to sit and contemplate the space and other works of art.

Spaghetti thrown at a wall and sticking to it.

A video: “Satori in the Studio”.
In it I explain the concept of satori from Zen Buddhism. Satori literary means awakening. I demonstrate how one can reach satori through meditation and shock. Someone basically hits people while they are meditating. Although this is not exactly true. “The Master Administers the Keisaku, (awakening stick), which symbolizes the sudden awakening into enlightenment. During long periods of meditation, the mind may lose its sharpness and clarity; however, an expert slap with the keisaku brings the mind back into focus, paring concentration to a fi ne hone. Even the sound of a slap may help practitioners to awaken to their own true nature.” Wow.

“If poetry introduces the strange, it does so by means of the familiar. The poetic is the familiar dissolving into the strange, and ourselves with it. It never dispossesses us entirely, for the words, the images (once dissolved) are charged with emotions already experienced, attached to objects which link them to the known.”– Georges Bataille “The Inner Experience”.

The quote above makes me a bit dizzy.
An observation shared: Haiku poems often describe daily situations. At their best they can give the reader a new experience of a well-known situation. Being given a new view on a daily situation could perhaps result in a smile or even laughter.
Here is a haiku for you:
The first soft snow!
Enough to bend the leaves
Of the jonquil low.
–Matsuo Basho, (1644-1694)


The book Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic by Henri Bergson, published by Green
Integer, is a small book and it fits very well into the back pocket of my jeans. On the cover there’s a picture of Bergson. He is wearing a hat, but the picture is cropped so you can only see the brim of the hat. I found the whole picture on the Internet. Bergson is wearing a bowler hat.

Bergson quote: “You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape men have given it, the human caprice whose mold it has assumed.” An object altered or an experience tilted, something strangely familiar. I dreamt about the short story The Congress by Jorge Luis Borges last night. I cannot really say that The Congress of The World haunted me in my sleep, because it wasn’t a nightmare. That would have been nice though. The dream was more about how to explain why I want to have it in this text.

The Congress of The World:
The Congress is a about a group of people who meet in a café in Buenos Aires every Saturday. It is a kind of club, and they call this club The Congress. Their aim is to be The Congress of the whole world. It is a difficult and expensive endeavor. Some of the members travel to Europe to do research. Ferri, the narrator in the story, travels to London, where he falls in love and stays much longer than he is supposed to stay.

One member in The Congress suggests that for their library, they need the classical works of all nations and all languages. For example, they order thirty-four hundred copies of Don Quixote in different editions. They also order bound volumes of the daily press, old account books, Chinese Encyclopedias and the atlases of Justus Perthes. During a meeting it is suggested that the president of the congress, don Alejandro Glencoe “might represent not only cattlemen but also Uruguayans, and also humanity’s great forerunners, and also men with red beards, and also those seated in armchairs.” Nora Erfjord was the secretary of The Congress and the only one who received a salary. She was a full time employee and her workload was staggering. All the other members had day jobs. Nora Erfjord was also Norwegian. “Would she represent secretaries, Norwegian womanhood, or more obviously – all beautiful women?” and “Would a single engineer be enough to represent all engineers – including all those from New Zealand?”

They spend a lot of money. The president of The Congress is the one providing the money. He has to sell all his property to fi nance the expenses. In the end, they decide to call the whole thing off. It is not really all of them that decide; it is the president. They burn the enormous book collection they have gathered, and that night they go for a tour of the city. They are like undeveloped photographs and the city that night is the place where they will be processed. Every impression of that night is etched into their memory – “a couple of men dancing together at a right-angled street, a church yard with black and white tiles and a grilled iron fence.” The Congress lasted for about 4 years, and then it ended with a tour of a city. Their last night together and its impressions was
the fruit of their labor.

Now I do not think this part about “The Congress” is very clear, not crystal, I have not yet managed to explain why I want it in this text. Could I say that each impression that night was like a keisaku stick, hitting the narrator? I’d like to see keisaku sticks, and I would like to make some of them too. To be a revealing agent. “It seems as though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and unruffled.” Or, to put it in other words, a soul that is detached for a moment, an onlooker instead of a partaker. Then one brings back what one saw or learned from one’s position as onlooker, and partakes again. Back and forth.

Try to go for:
“A search for the enrichment of our perceptive assumptions” To be a pebble in someone’s shoe or the hair in someone’s soup, or a quick kiss on someone’s cheek. It is a matter of logistics, the planning and implementation of a complex task. I will say micro-logistics Bergson on art: “What is the aim of art if not to show us, in nature and in the mind, outside us and inside us, things which did not explicitly strike our senses and consiousness?”



* “At that point I felt an importunate tap, almost a punch, on my upper arm, from Charles’s direction. I turned to him. He was sitting in a fairly normal position on his chair now, except that he had one knee tucked under him ‘What did one wall say to the other wall?’ he asked shrilly. ‘It’s a riddle!’ J.D Salinger, For Esmé – With Love and Squalor and other stories, Penguin Books, London, 1994.
* Thich Thien-An, Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, Dharma Publishing, Los Angeles, 1975.
* Henri Bergson, Laughter – An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Green Integer, Los Angeles, 1999.


Anna Rohleder: At Sunset

At sunset the smell of sandalwood incense wafts up from the downstairs portico, where our neighbor is doing pooja in front of her sacred tulsi plant, the pot decorated with a smiling goddess. The call to prayer sounds from a nearby mosque. Men go strolling in the lanes, their hands behind their backs, their colorfully patterned lungis fluttering at their ankles. At the transition from day to evening, India spreads her mysteries once more.

Like most international travelers I arrived in India for the first time in the middle of the night. It was hot, and there were people everywhere I looked: not just milling in crowds inside and outside the airport, but lying in neat rows on the pavement and even sleeping under the sinks in the bathroom. I met an older Western man who quoted me a line from Siddartha by way of friendly advice: “I can wait, I can sit, I can fast.”

That I fell in love with the place on first sight was no less a surprise to anyone else who had me pegged as a Europhile, high-culture type. Aside from a dilettantish interest in meditation and yoga that are fairly standard components of the New York lifestyle, I was never much of an Orientalist. But the way India seduced me was not by appealing to my intellect, but rather by delivering a massive hit to my senses and capturing my imagination.

In the morning of my first day in the country I saw a man pushing a cartload of grapes down the road. They glowed in the sun’s rays like heaps of amber jewels. It was the first of many moments which crystallized the utter exotic strangeness of everyday life in this country: rows of scribes clattering away on manual typewriters, taking dictation from their clients sitting next to them on the pavements: huge trucks moving building debris, but painted with the names of gods, demon masks, lotuses and eagles, and hung with garlands of f lowers. Even animals were different from the West: I was taken aback to see dogs climbing over high walls or curled in a ball asleep, a hair’s breadth from traffic passing on the road. Cows, of course, I was prepared for, but not ones wearing curly-tippedblue shoes.

Over and over again, I would ask myself: am I seeing that, or is it a dream? Plants I’d known as small, tame residents of windowsills and desks at home I now encountered as tall trees or luxuriant vines. In the markets, men sat drinking tea and chatting next to the f layed carcasses of goats, the boiled skull and hooves like some sinister talisman beside them. The boundary between life and death, spirit and matter, seemed tenuous at best, and people were communicating with those other realms all the time. A half-naked priest dashed coconuts with all his might on the ground beside a temple. A woman passing a bull in a market reached out to touch the bull’s f lank, and then to bless herself. Penitents carrying brightly-colored vessels of holy water from the Ganges marched in a long line down the road.

Experiencing this coexistence of mental realities is a challenge for most Westerners. Some deny it; some abhor it; some embrace it; few fail to be marked somehow by the encounter. Years before I went to India, an artist told me, “As soon as you get off the plane, you’ll have the head of an elephant.” At the time I thought he was mad, but now I concede his point. Because if you’re open to the gods and goddesses, they have a way of getting into your head and making you see things with different eyes. When I went back to New York, I found myself yearning for India like I’d yearn for an absent lover. I would go to Indian neighborhoods just to walk around with my eyes half-closed, breathing in the smell of incense and food cooking. I started listening to ghazals, the most melancholy and poignant of love songs. It was a true Oriental romance, the kind of love that characters in medieval Urdu literature warn one another about: “What will you gain from listening to my story?” asks one such lovelorn traveler. “You will only leave your home and your country, your property and your wealth to wander about, getting nothing out of life.”

Had someone given me such advice, it would have fallen on deaf ears. After a year and a half of pining away, I decided there was nothing to do but go back. I quit my well-paid, secure, easy job in Manhattan, gave up my cheap, spacious apartment in a trendy part of Brooklyn, and sold off or gave away most of my possessions. My second time in India found me falling in love again, only this time with a person, which was the cleverest of clever ways the gods could have devised to make me stay.


Paul Sarazin, Foreign Home

The Russian Germans

There are three people sitting in a room together eating crumble cake and drinking coffee – one is from London, one from a small town in Kazakhstan, and one from Siberia – and all three of them are speaking German. The two ladies from Siberia and Kazakhstan are Spätaussiedler and, well, German is their mother tongue. And the Londoner (that‘s me) speaks decent German because he studied it in London. All reasonable enough. But you might be wondering just what I mean by “Spätaussiedler”? Perhaps it’s best translated into English with the expression “Russian Germans”, but this still leaves out a lot of the story…

Russian Germans can be thought of as Germans whose ancestors migrated to Russia, many of which have now migrated to Germany again. Today more than 2 million Russian Germans live in Germany, many of them having migrated in and after 1989. Many of these Russian Germans, even while speaking perfect German, are still sworn at as Russians by others in Germany. Today it is difficult to determine their status but this complicated history stretches back over more than 200 years.

In 1763, the first Germans travelled from the Holy Roman Empire and its dukedoms to Russia because the Russian Tsar Katharina II decided Germans should colonize Russia. The settlement of Germans in Russia began with Katharina’s invitation manifesto on 22nd July 1763 when Germans from Hessen and the Rhineland settled in the Volga area (Volga steps/ Volgograd), known today as the former Soviet Union. This colonization spread towards Petersburg and the Black Sea, until a total of 104 such colonies had been founded in the Volga area. One reason, amongst others, that so many Germans migrated was the privileges they received at the time – privileges including freedom of religion, tax exemption, exemption from military service and state support for resettlement. Life was fine at first, but the situation of the Germans in Russia worsened in the 1880s when Slavophiles feared a Germanisation of Wolhynien, Podolien and the areas around Kiev, and the initial privileges given to the Germans were taken away. Times were dark until a provisional government relieved the situation around 1917 and introduced civil rights for all citizens in the area. They could not, however, avoid the politics of collectivisation, and by 1931 more than 95 percent of private property on the Volga had been nationalized.

Changes of power in the Soviet Union also exerted a massive influence on the Russian Germans’ status and comfort. Stalin was convinced these German colonies represented a major danger to Russia’s stability. As early as 1934 the Soviet authorities began compiling lists of Germans living in the Soviet Union that should be deported. The situation reached its climax on August 30th 1941 when all Russian Germans were forced to leave the Volga area. The decision was quick and drastic: only 48 hours before having to depart, Russian Germans were told that they must leave and issued a small card allowing them to take a maximum of 50 kg luggage.

In total 400,000 Volga Germans, 80,000 Germans from other areas, and 25,000 people from Georgia and Azerbaijan were driven to Siberia, Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. Upon arrival in these locations, they were told they could no longer leave the region, regardless of the reason. Speaking German was also forbidden (although many spoke it at home nonetheless) and all Germans wishing to be issued with German passports lost other rights in the new society. Although this was naturally a very difficult time for the Volga Germans, it was not until October 1988 – when Chancellor Kohl met with Gorbatchov to discuss the situation of these Russian Germans – that the idea of issuing exit visas for them became a possibility. After many long discussions, the visas were eventually granted and people were allowed to come back to Germany, thus beginning the new migration in 1989. But by that time coming “home” was not so easy either. Many of these people considered themselves German even as they were growing up and living in the former Soviet Union. But once they had the chance to live in Germany, the Russian Germans were often discriminated against by the “real” Germans because of their past in Russia.

Such a situation raises some difficult questions about national identity. One must ask: does one have a different national identity if they are from a country but did not grow up there? Is “being German” defined by a bloodline or is it defined by society and language? How many years can a person be absent from a country without losing their ties to it? And what about the third person in the room? What about me? I live in Germany and speak German, but I was born in the UK. Does that mean I will always be English? If I stay in Germany for the rest of my life and many years later the grandchildren of my children want to return to the UK, will they still be welcome there? Or will they have the same problems the Russian Germans have faced? These are all complex questions, questions that I may not have the answers to at the moment but questions that nonetheless promise to present themselves more and more to all of us in the future. They are questions we must continue discussing. And perhaps one way of doing that is to look at groupssuch as the Russian Germans and understand their current and past situation. If we can understand how these people have constructed their identity, we can better understand how to deal with similar problems in our fast-approaching international future.

This article summarizes Chapters 4 and 5 in Sarasin’s book “Fremde Heimat Deutschland – Eine diskursanalystische Studie über die nationale Identität der deutschstämmigen Spätaussiedler aus der ehemaligen Sowjetunion”. It can be ordered in all bookstores in Germany or direct from the publishers at www.jhjj.de.


Dune Johnson, On Stereotypes

Relating Fiction to Fact

by Dune Johnson and the ICD interns, 2007

The day I set out from the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (icd) with some other interns to do these interviews, the excitement in our group was palpable. Our goal: to mingle with natives and tourists alike, asking them each the same few questions in the hopes of finding out how a diverse group of individuals thought the world viewed their cultures. We’d spent a lot of time composing questions that would aid us in our quest to understand the images people held of foreign cultures, but in order to find people from differing walks of life, we ultimately had to use our own stereotypes: Does he look Italian? Does she sound foreign? I found myself thinking: “How can we objectively interview these people if we have to use stereotypes to find them?” The truth is, we all have ideas in our heads about how and why people are different from us. These ‘stereotypes’ are not inherently bad, and they often possess at least a kernel of truth. After all, it is these perceived differences that inspire us to learn about and visit other countries in the first place. If these differences didn’t exist, we might not have to deal with stereotypes, but then we’d also all be the same! It is important to remember that whatever idea we have of a foreign culture, it is merely one facet amongst many, and one that surely does not apply to all persons belonging to that group. People are always more complex than the one or two clear images we carry around of them in our heads. We have to be willing to let those images change and adapt as we familiarize ourselves with a culture’s truer complexities. There is a slim line between a benign stereotype and a malicious prejudice; so we must tread carefully, and remember to cherish and accept the differences, for it is they that set us apart.

An dem Tag, als ich mich mit den anderen Praktikanten vom icd zu diesen Interviews aufmachte, war die Anspannung in unserer Gruppe deutlich zu spüren. Unsere Mission: Wir wollten uns unters Volk mischen, um sowohl Einheimischen als auch Touristen ein paar Fragen zu stellen – in der Hoffnung, herauszufinden, was eine bunt zusammengewürfelte Gruppe von Individuen glaubt, welches Bild von ihren jeweiligen Kulturen in den Köpfen der Menschheit existiert. Wir hatten viel Zeit damit verbracht, Fragen zu formulieren, die uns bei unserer Suche nach den verschiedenen Vorstellungen – „Images“ – fremder Kulturen helfen sollten. Um aber erst einmal Menschen verschiedener Herkunft zu finden, mussten wir uns letztendlich unserer eigenen Stereotypen bedienen: Sieht der italienisch aus? Klingt sie wie eine Ausländerin? Und ich erwischte mich bei dem Gedanken: „Wie können wir diese Leute objektiv interviewen, wo wir doch unsere Stereotype (Klischees) brauchen, um sie zu finden?“ Tatsächlich haben wir alle Vorstellungen davon im Kopf, wie und warum sich Leute von uns unterscheiden. Diese ‚Stereotypen‘ sind an sich nichts Schlechtes und nicht selten ist ein Körnchen Wahrheit an der Sache. Immerhin sind es diese wahrgenommenen Unterschiede, die uns anregen, in ein fremdes Land zu reisen und mehr darüber herauszufinden. Würden diese Unterschiede nicht bestehen, müssten wir uns zwar nicht mit Stereotypen herumschlagen, aber dann wären wir auch alle gleich! Wir dürfen nicht vergessen, dass alle Vorstellungen, die wir von einer fremden Kultur haben, nichts weiter sind als eine Facette von vielen und sicher nicht auf alle Personen in dieser Gruppe zutreffen. Menschen sind immer vielschichtiger als die ein oder zwei klaren Bilder, die wir von ihnen im Kopf haben. Wir müssen dazu bereit sein, diese Bilder zu ändern und anzupassen, wenn wir uns näher mit der wahren Vielschichtigkeit einer Kultur beschäftigen. Es ist nur ein schmaler Grat zwischen Stereotyp und Vorurteil. Wir müssen also behutsam sein und die Unterschiede anerkennen und schätzen, denn sie machen uns schließlich aus.

Andere Menschen, andere Sitten?

Übersetzt von ANDREAS JANDL

The questions we asked:

What do others think of you?

What stereotypes do you think people associate with your culture, and do you agree with them?

Glauben Sie, es ist förderlich für Kulturen, diese mehr miteinander zu mixen?

Do you think it would be a good idea for cultures to mix more with one another?

The Answers:

Jorge, Spain: „Well, I guess people think we are all running around like bullfighters. No, actually I don’t think there are so many prejudices about our culture. I think that for the most part we are internationally respected. It depends on the person. But I like to know a lot about other cultures. It’s better to know a little bit of everything, don’t you think?“

Andreas, Berlin: „Ich glaube, wir sind hier in einer absoluten Multi-Kulti-Stadt. Es hat schon angefangen.“

Maija, Latvia: „Not always, because when cultures get mixed they also disappear.“

Nadine, Deutschland: „Ich glaube, dass die Tendenz generell da ist. Das ist eine Schattenseite der Globalisierung, aber ich bin sicher, dass gerade in Europa die einzelnen Kulturnationen überleben werden, allein wegen der Sprache. Und hoffentlich werden wir nicht erleben, dass alles zu einem Brei wird wie in Amerika. Aber das ist ja der europäische Integrationsgedanke: in Vielfalt vereint.“

Sasha, Moskau: „Ich glaube, wir haben nicht wirklich die Wahl. Also müssen wir versuchen, es so hinzukriegen, dass es gut wird, nicht wahr?:

Seiphemo, Südafrika: „Es gibt definitiv Vorurteile über Afrikaner, gute und schlechte. Entspannt und lässig sein, tanzen und das Leben genießen sind die guten. Nicht viel arbeiten und Kriminalität wären einige der schlechten. In Wahrheit arbeiten wir in Afrika sehr hart und sind eng verbunden mit Tradition und Kultur, aber wir leben in der Sonne, also wird auch viel gespielt!“

Stephen, USA: „They think we’re loud and noisy, arrogant, and that we all wear baseball caps. But I think in every country there are people who are insular and people who are ignorant. There are prejudices everywhere. But Americans don’t leave their country as much as Europeans. I mean, in America I could go a thousand miles and still not leave my country. It’s so huge, but with more exposure to other countries, there will inevitably be more openness.“

Monka, Deutschland: „Ich glaube, die Leute halten uns für Perfektionisten, die immer schwer arbeiten und sehr ernst sind. Die Leute hier arbeiten wirklich schwer, aber Berlin ist auch eine Stadt der Künstler und des Experimentierens.“

Andreas, Germany: „Ich denke mal, ganz gravierend wird noch sein: Nationalsozialismus und die Geschichte mit dem Dritten Reich. Das wird uns, glaube ich, ewig nachhängen.“

Milos, Slowakei: „Ich glaube, über die Slowakei denken nicht so viele Leute nach. Viele denken, das ist Slowenien oder Russland. Aber jetzt wohne ich in Berlin. Das ist eine gute Stadt. Man kann hier gut leben.“


Brad Bassler: Moldavian Folk Wedding

I saw a group of Moldavian square-dance musicians
At a countryside wedding performing a Beethoven sonata,
Dressed in studded leather jackets. The wine was lovely,
And freely flowed. None of the visitors to this event
Seemed fully aware of its confectious atmosphere of trust,
But enjoyed it, amidst old disputes and bitter squabbles.
The music came in layers, arose like steam off the river
Which ran through the center of town, next to the church.
No one noticed when the river disappeared, the steeple
Gleamed greenly for a moment, and the temple vaporized.
It was the inside of a blistering heat, this side of eternity.
There were no more lost children, no worries about etiquette.
Everything stopped in mid-sentence. And the execution was
Complete: not a speck missing. What if you had wanted
To cover it on the evening news? But it would not be wrapped
For cultural dissemination. There are some clothes best left
In the giant wardrobe. I mean the freestanding kind we used
Before the advent of walk-in closets. Sometimes a temporary
Shortage of memory keeps me from writing straight through.
The end is unimaginable. We can never make it seems so near.


Adam Green: Scene a Few Miles to the West of Nod

We come up in silence. In bright still air. That slight bleached out look which you get in dreams or cut-aways to the far off past. The quiet air of the country punctured softly by birds. Before us a field. It is a large brown field, wide and still, in the channels and rhythm of a recent ploughing. Across the ridges and troughs of its dug up earth, brought to the surface, tiny worms lie scattered. They are squirming a little in the sudden air, the colour of flesh against the dark new soil, thousands and thousands across the whole wide field. Near the eastern edge we see the ground is disturbed. There are marks of footprints, two sets side by side then a zone of chaos. Like a fight has taken place. There are no worms in this section. There is only the earth and the odd straggle of a root, tiny and white and thin like hair. In the disturbance of the soil two distinct circular dents stand out, a body‘s width apart, as though someone has fallen heavy to knees. There seems like there could be a pattern to the constellation of steps and the relation to the dents but it falls away. The sun all around is a flood of light, the angle of morning. The air is very still. Beyond the nearby fence sheep graze in groups, heads down to the grass. In the blue sky above birds start to descend.

End of scene.


Claire Saponia: The pacifist Pacifist

I don’t want to fight this because

fighting this is also war.

So what is the peaceful pacifist

supposed to do? Equanimously

sit cross-legged, eyes closed and

lightly smiling at atrocity and its

allies? Do I let enemies maul each

other and then me, should I

accidentally get in the way? Do I

love them, all the same, sit tight,

ommm and hope for the best?

I have no special reason to get

hysterical. We live sufficiently apart

for me to delete you from my wad

of preoccupations. I simply have to

sell off the TV, carefully avoiding a

morning tendency towards BBC

online, Radio Four, Guardian-Buxton

Spring deals at WH Smiths – in all

national railway stations – and a

history of serious guilt complexes. I

could start eating animals again,

maybe even on a daily basis. I could

take up judo or kung fu in the name of

self-defence, christen the world a dojo.

My dojo. I could build a cyclone B

plant for fun and tell all the journals

I no longer read: this is how it’s done.

I could write about these adventures

and invent some others, like the one

where I met Gandhi and we secretly

took Elevenses in his back garden.

And then I became him.

And we copied ourselves into myriad

Gandhis because the elevenses we

took were actually aphrodisiacs and

love got all randy on an empty stomach.

How different it would have been had

love multiplied relative to us.

– – – –

a break from respite

just as long as both

sides bleed; hostages

of mind and body,

hijackers of mind

and body,

no new ideas are required.


Lydia Stryk: American Tet

Scene: Jim alone in his garden

(American Tet takes place in the spring of 2004, the first anniversary of the Iraq War—a moment in time in the ongoing conflagration.)

JIM: The thing about nature is. That nothing dies. Or death–being dead– just doesn’t apply. Nothing dies. You can kill it. Starve it. Drown it. Torture it. But it comes back to life. Or forget life. It just comes back. It’s there again. Forget then. It’s here. That’s why gardening reminds me of war. Fighting a war. They’re that close. Feeding, starving, nurturing, poisoning, raising, cutting down. I would basically be considered a killer. If you would ask my daughter. A life-long professional killer. For thirty years I got paid for organizing and implementing effective destruction of a given enemy. And now I’m a gardener. I’ve killed men, women and children. In cold blood. From no further away than I am standing from you. I’ve scorched fields and defoliated forests. And I have all kinds of medals to prove it. Life is not a value I believe in personally. Life is in fact without value. It’s just a force. Everything lives to live. That’s all. Last year, Elaine and I stopped moving. Finally. Neither of us comes from here. Neither of us likes it here, particularly. But neither of us could stomach ever moving again. I’m still young. But I’m sick. So I took a part-time desk job. The misty winds of Agent Orange have destroyed my lungs. Elaine thought it would be good for me—therapeutic, she would say—to make myself a little garden. So I did. Here in the backyard next to the shed. I have my corpses lined up here. My seeds here. Sometimes when I am gardening I think of the past. Or my family. That crazy daughter of mine. Of Danny over in Iraq. But mostly, I tend to stop thinking. Which is why gardening is such good therapy. You’ve got one bare hand in the cool wet soil. The other around the root of a tree. You lay it in there. Fill that hole up. The bed? The grave? Or you’re pulling up a weed with strong, deep roots. And there’s a moment, when it gives in, gives up, and then you have the whole damn thing in your hand, you can feel it trembling. Is it alive in that moment, or dead? That’s the mystery. And the fact is. I don’t know if I’m alive or dead. This is my little secret. No one knows this. The confusion of the gardener. And the soldier.

End of scene.


Joel Vega: The Fifth and Careful Season

Beyond October, before the lure

Of orange, the swarm flies across

Nevada’s skies.

Listen, the talebearer says,

Listen as they drag the weight

Of distances from as far as Peru

And Cebu.

Head, thorax, abdomen,

Two antennae, six legs.

Lepidoptera. Scaly wings

Open (inhale) close (exhale)

The dusty breath

Of mute birds.

What is an army of itinerant moths?

A catapulted piece of the moon,

Flung to earth from the Sea of Tranquility.

But ours is a season of agitation

When guns in an arid land

Hound orphans, their pain looming,

Bigger than a mountain.

Tonight, the moths seek shelter

In mossy ribs of fallen logs,

Their wings encoding

Secret trajectories of storms.

What we hear though is neither

Typhoon nor hurricane

But the solid rain

Of ricocheting bullets

Hissing in the dark.


Harvey Pekar: Comic of the Real

Article and interview by Erich Christiansen, 2009.

Harvey Pekar is one of the true pioneers of the comic book art form. Since the early 1970’s, his monthly series, American Splendor, along with a more recent group of graphic novels, have broken new ground—by coming down to earth. After the myth-creating fantasy of the first half of the century, followed by the frenzied taboo-breaking of the underground comix of the 1960’s, Pekar extended what comics could do by using the medium to tell stories of his own life as a file clerk in the V.A. hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Rather than superheroes saving the galaxy, he chronicles the battles, victories, defeats, and impasses that ordinary people face in everyday life. And, as often happens in real life, his stories have no clear resolution, but instead provide a glimpse into the real moments that make up our existence.

Pekar and his work were brought to mainstream attention by a feature film, also called American Splendor, in which he was played by Paul Giamatti. More recently he has gone back in time to tell stories of his own childhood and adolescence, as in 2005’s The Quitter, which tells, among other things, the story of his life as a street fighter in tough neighborhoods.

But Pekar is no narcissist; although autobiographical, his writing is always conscious of being part of a larger world. Take, for example, Our Cancer Year, co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner (creator of political comics, like Real War). This book chronicles his fight with cancer—while against the backdrop of the Persian Gulf War that was then taking place. As the opening lines put it, “This is a story about a year when someone was sick, about a time when it seemed that the rest of the world was sick, too. It’s a story about feeling powerless and trying to do too much…” And Pekar has used his art to tell other peoples’ stories, too. One of these was that of Robert McNeil, a black Vietnam veteran with whom Pekar worked, whose story became the subject of Unsung Hero (originally serialized in the pages of American Splendor). Pekar shows how global events intersect with individual lives. For example, in 2007, Pekar published Macedonia, the story of graduate student Heather Roberson, who goes to Macedonia to do research into how that country was able to avoid its ethnic tensions becoming an armed civil war. Her goal was to show how wars can be prevented, how violence is not an inevitable part of international politics. During her journey, she talks to various government officials and international volunteers, all working to resolve long-standing conflicts between the Macedonian ethnic majority and the traditionally marginalized Albanian minority. She gains hope from their struggles and dedication, which at the same time is tempered by the recalcitrance of age-old ethnic prejudices that she also encounters.

Pulse: Was part of the appeal of this project for you the fact that this topic dealt specifically with ethnic violence—seeing as how you grew up Jewish, and also lived in some areas and through some eras marked by racial turmoil?

Pekar: That might have been an element to it, but I’ll tell ya, what really excited me was the fact that I didn’t know a lot of this information until I met the woman that I write about. I thought it was interesting and I thought that people didn’t know it, and I wanted to bring it to their attention.

The inquiry in this book was about preventing war per se; that is, armed conflict between armed forces. But in The Quitter, you also write very eloquently about fighting on the street, to gain respect, both from others and yourself. So do you think there are parts of life in which violence is acceptable, or at least unavoidable?

I really don’t think so. I don’t think I was right in doing the things that I described. I mean, I fought to build up my reputation and stuff like that. But I should have just let people alone.

One of the parts of ‚Macedonia‘ that struck me was about the Albanian fighters giving up their arms. Because the main question was, how are they going to rely on the government to protect them when it never has before? Would you say that this reflects at all on something like the gun control issue in this country, or are they two completely different things?

I don’t know if it’s completely different, but if you’re a minority population and there’s a real danger that you’re gonna be attacked by a majority, I can see more reason for maybe wanting a gun then.

I was just thinking in terms of people who live in safe neighborhoods where they don’t feel the need to own a gun and defend themselves. It seems like it’s easier to be pro-gun control when you live in that kind of area than when you live in a high-crime area.

That’s possibly true. I can understand why you say it seems, but actually, probably more people are killed that carry guns than that don’t carry them. They’re prone to violence; they’ve already got the gun with them, if somebody messes with them, they just shoot them. I mean, in some areas, that’s kind of commonplace.

What do you think the contribution of art is to these issues? Specifically, what’s the advantage of telling this story through comics, over telling it through an essay or article? And what can comics offer that other arts forms can’t?

I don’t know if it has any advantage. Let me tell you why I got into comics. First of all, I happen to think that comics are serious, and prose and movies and television, I mean, they’re all on the same level. As I’ve often said, comics are words and pictures, and you can do anything with words and pictures.

So the reason that I got into comics, was—frankly, it had a lot to do with opportunism. I mean, by the time I started into comics, which is in 1972, I had already been a jazz critic since 1959. I had ambitions to be a bigger name and everything like that, probably a lot of people do, although not too many will admit it. I had got sick of comics when I was around eleven years old because they were so predictable, I mean, y’know, they’re for kids… the superhero stuff and that crap, so I got sick of it. But then in my early 20’s Robert Crumb moved to Cleveland, around the corner from where I lived. I became acquainted with him and I saw some of his stuff. What I was primarily interested in was meeting another guy who was a jazz record collector, ‘cuz the more jazz record collectors I knew, the more I could trade with, and the bigger collection I would have. Crumb’s roommate, though, said “Man, you really oughtta take a look at some of Robert’s work, ‘cuz it’s really good, y’know.” And more to be polite than anything else, I said “Ok.” When I saw this stuff, it was really good—it was parody, y’know? Sorta like Mad, in a way. It was good to see Crumb just tackle people directly. And then I thought, Jesus Christ, you can do anything in comics. Why shouldn’t you be able to do all kinds of stuff? Comics are used in an extremely limited way, although they’re not implicitly, limited. So I thought… o.k., realism, I mean there was no realistic movement in comics like there were in other art forms. There’s so much not done here, if I could just take a shot at something new I might get a footnote in history. But fortunately it did work out better for me than that.

You made your reputation writing about the very personal, everyday battles and triumphs. Do you think it’s especially important now, given the current world situation, to tell ordinary people’s stories in that way?

Well, I don’t know if it’s more important; it’s certainly as important. I mean, it’s autobiography, and autobiography is a big deal, whether it’s in film, or prose, or what, comics. When I started I had a few reasons for writing autobiographically. One was that, I was really interested in talking about mundane events that really could mark a person—but rarely get talked about. I thought that was one failing of comics that should be dealt with. That was one reason and another was—although I don’t know if this is anywhere near as important —before I did comics I used to be like a class clown or a street corner comedian. And I used to tell stories about myself and my friends.

I just think it’s really striking how, in your work, you don’t really have a distinction between the personal and the political. You talk about the results of these big global things, like the Vietnam War or the Persian Gulf War, but as they impact ordinary people. For example, you didn’t set out to try to tell the comic book story of the Vietnam War, but you talked to this co-worker that you had, and you got his story and preserved it.

I had special access to this guy. And he had a real interesting story, a unique story, and like a zillion other people with fascinating stories, his wasn’t told. So I thought I’d like to get this one in the books.

One thing I keep getting when I talk to people who have been through the kinds of ethnic conflicts you write about, is the stumbling block around the question of hope. There just seems to be this cynicism about whether a situation that has gone on for so long can ever get any better. And this element was present in your book too, especially when you portray people with lingering ethnic suspicions. So I guess the question is: how do you cultivate hope? I know that’s a big question, but I assume there must have been some kind of optimism that inspired you to take on this project in the first place.

Yeah, well, I guess the main hope I have is that people will finally come to their senses. I mean, I was just thinking about it, about how a multitude of ethnic groups have gotten together in the United States and for the most part, with some notable exceptions, have gotten along well. But when you have two [groups of] people fighting over the same area, it can go on for centuries and centuries. In the States, when all these people were coming from all over the world, I guess it just seemed too overwhelming to start trouble, with one group against another against another. But when two ethnic groups have been at each others’ throats for centuries, they demonize each other, and tell lies about each other.

While I was reading ‚Macedonia‘, I had Ornette Coleman’s song “Peace” in my head. That’s because of the contrast between the title and the uneasiness, the irresolution of the music. And in the situation described in the book, there’s a will toward peace, but it’s on the edge, always tentative, never quite resolved. What do you think?

I think that people are afraid to take the last step. They’re afraid to trust each other. Like this thing in, Israel/Palestine is just insane. It’s just insane! I mean, being Jewish and seeing what the Jewish people are doing over there, it’s so obviously self-defeating. And here I am being brought up to think that Jewish people are really smart and all that, and yet [over there] they’re tryin’ to lord over a buncha people who don’t like them, that never have accepted them, and that are more numerous than the Jews. Oh, it’s just insane.


Susan Griffin: Feminine and Masculine

A discussion on war and conflict with eco-feminist author Susan Griffin

Susan Griffin is a poet, essayist, and playwright. She was born in Los Angeles California in 1943. The Second World War and the holocaust are events that have had a lasting effect on her thinking, threading in and out of many of her books. Her writing has been described as a body of work which “draws distinctions between the destruction of nature, the diminishment of women and racism, and which traces the causes of war to denial in both private and public life”. Her book Woman and Nature has become the pivotal and founding text of eco-feminist ideas. At the same time, Women and Nature is a prose poem that moves away from traditional conventions of sociological writing. Her book about memory and war, A Chorus of Stones, incorporates new combinations of memoir and biography. A Chorus of Stones was a finalist for both the National Book Award as well as for the Pulitzer Prize. Ms. Griffin has been named by Utne reader as one of the 100 most important visionaries for the new millennium. She has also been the recipient of a Macarthur Grant for Peace and International Cooperation.

Pulse: Reading your book Women and Nature (1978), and being of the generation that grew up after that book was written, it can seem that the challenges women in most Western societies once faced have changed. Many of our experiences as women in the West have been free and full of opportunities due to strong and clear voices like yours that came before and paved the way for us. While we sense the power in your writing and thoughts, there is also a part of us that has a hard time seeing women through this book’s lens. Have things really changed, or are we naïve to react in such a way?

Griffin: Largely because of the women’s movement, there has been a great deal of progress. But we cannot take that change for granted. Not that many years ago the idea that women are equal to men was ridiculed and yet many also denied that women were facing inequality. Now, in the same way that racism has ceased to be socially acceptable, so has sexism. But in many cases, the change is only on the surface. You need to look at real indications, such as pay scales and boards of directors and the number of women in powerful governmental positions and even more importantly, from my point of view, how great an influence feminist values and attitudes (as opposed to the traditional values of masculinity) are being heard in the public arena.

Would you describe the relationship between women and men as one of conflict?

I don’t feel women and men are, on a deeper level, in conflict at all. We have been placed in conflict by history and various institutions. But that is not the real story. Instead we are both suffering from a system of values that is called masculine but really only serves might and power.

We need to look at the question of how discrimination against women is connected with environmental destruction, which is the subject matter of Woman and Nature. Both philosophically and psychologically, the denigration of women is tied to the denigration of matter, of the material world and the earth. This denigration is founded on the separation of spirit from matter. Once nature (matter) and women (who are associated with matter) are stripped of spiritual meaning (which is to say any meaning at all) we become raw material to be used or abused with impunity. These ideas are deeply embedded in our culture. They are consciously believed by some and unconsciously by many others, both men and women. If we want full equality we need to address and change these ideas, which are also, by the way, psychological structures that encourage denial (so dangerous in the age of global warming) and scapegoating of all kinds, including racism.

Do you think it is idealistic to imagine that one day we might be able to see ourselves as both feminine and masculine, that we might be able to recognize that those two things are distinct parts of being human and that each human knows them both?

I don’t think that is idealistic. In fact, it is realistic because that is who we really are. And until we begin to see that what we call masculine and feminine are social constructs that contain qualities that we all have, that are human, we will continue to suffer both individually and as a society from a kind of fracture, a painful and destructive split, in which our reason is not really reasonable and in which we do not learn from our emotions.

Expanding on this a bit: in reading your work, one understands that perhaps it is man’s own emotion that he sees in women, and it is this that he both wants to access in himself and yet also fears. It is a state of „no control” and so he craves to be seduced by it and yet finds it difficult to accept. What are your current thoughts are about this, and, as women, don’t we do this too?

Yes. I expand on this at length in a book I wrote on pornography which is called ‚Pornography and Silence‘. It is not a book that calls for censorship so much as a deeper understanding of what is really going on in pornography, which as a genre provides a classic example of projection. I suppose I ought to write something about this apart from the subject of pornography because some people have misread that book as being anti-sexual. In fact, it is pornography that is anti-sexual, covertly expressing fear (if not terror) toward sexual experience precisely because one cannot be in control of sexual desire, pleasure or orgasm. This explains the appeal of all those corny chains and restraints etc.

Do you see ways in which denial is related to this idea of man fearing emotion, and women being taught to fear it too?

Yes. As a culture we often respond to loss and death by denying feeling and with attempts to exert power and dominate. This may seem rational until you see how often we respond like the Bush administration did to 9/11. After being attacked by Al Qaeda, he launched an invasion of Iraq, a country that in fact was itself in conflict with Al Qaeda. An analogous situation would be when a man loses his job and then beats his wife. I am not saying that you should just sit around ‘feeling’ and do nothing in response to a crisis. But until you allow yourself to know your own emotions, you cannot respond in a constructive way.

Your work is about moving beyond the boundaries of form and perception. Do you think these boundaries are real? Do we set our own limits? Create our own forms?

We are always creating forms and repeating the forms we have been given. Even the most creative forms are made from old forms. Take jazz for instance which mixes African music and Spanish rhythms with classical opera and African American spirituals: jazz itself constantly creates new kinds of music.

Are boundaries real? Some are. The walls of the human cell constitute a very intelligent boundary that can detect what will be nutritious or what will be harmful. Those walls only let in the good stuff. One of the reasons that toxic radiation is so harmful to the body is that in addition to being harmful to DNA and cellular functioning, it destroys cellular boundaries. So some boundaries, as long as they are not rigid, are vital to our survival. But other boundaries are imagined. The idea that women are inferior in math and science is a boundary we need to move past. There was a well known author who served on the board of NEA for a while who openly said he would not give grants to women writers because he said we had inferior minds. That is a boundary that we need to get past. Having the courage to cross such boundaries is important. But boundary crossing can also become a fetish; it can become empty, as in a product such as Proctor and Gamble’s “all new” detergent.

Do you think it is sometimes necessary to go to extremes in order to break these delusions of denial?

I have to know what you are calling extreme to answer that question. In other words, I can’t answer it in the abstract. One person’s extreme is another person’s bright idea. If you are talking, for instance, about using violence toward other human beings for social change, I would say I am against that. Though I am not against self-defense. It’s sometimes very hard to draw that line and one should never draw it abstractly as in ‘that person or country or company or organization’ is going to harm me one day so I’d better initiate an attack. Abstraction will lead you to do things you will regret and that are, in the flesh, often cruel if not immoral.

Is seeing a situation clearly and specifically sometimes a matter of accepting it, of looking at it without judgment? Do we have to do this before it will change?

Acceptance does not imply stupidity. Acceptance means that you have simply taken in the reality of what is, and though this may seem easy, it is not. Depending on how traumatic or painful an event or a situation is, it can take years to accept the reality of it. Judgment often gets in the way of acceptance. It’s a covert way of appearing to master a situation. But I am not categorically opposed to judgment. I believe some actions — the abuse of children, the bombing of unarmed civilians, torture — are wrong and those who do these things ought to be brought to justice. We must declare collectively that these actions are wrong, as we did in the Nuremberg trials. In fact, bringing perpetrators to justice often helps bystanders or even victims to accept the reality of painful events. Acceptance, not without but separated from judgment, can be important if you want to understand larger social patterns that create immoral acts. And added to this mix, discernment is crucial. To refine your perceptions, to look carefully, to use the same intelligence the walls of your cells do in differentiating one thing from another.

Do you think we create conflict as a way of finding knowledge?

I don’t think we create conflict in order to know. I think conflict can arrive from ignorance. Then conflict is just reality knocking. And in this way, a conflict can create us, at least if it gives us an opportunity to know ourselves.

How do you see the relationship between living from this place of radical honesty and our ability to widen our boundaries, increase perspective and understanding in our private lives and perhaps also in the wider world?

I like this phrase “living from a place of radical honesty.” Authenticity. It’s much like the experience of hearing a note that is right on pitch. In that state, you often open your heart, feel more deeply, and see more clearly. So of course you do widen your boundaries: It’s a natural part of that state of mind.

Would you say this is the main meaning of our lives? To awaken like this?

Yes. And to love.

You write that the word secret has an erotic edge. If we live in this kind of honest and lucid state, without secrets, is there still eroticism? Is there still mystery? Isn’t this something we need as well?

Of course. The world is an erotic place. We are fields of energy. We are always exchanging our selves, our breath, our consciousness, with trees and air and the sun and water and other people and the food we eat. Every sound we hear vibrates in our own bodies. Every thing we see becomes part of us. The more we are honest, which means being present to ourselves, the more alive we are to the world, the more we feel this Eros. So of course there is mystery. The mystery of otherness which comes from respect, from really taking in existence. The mystery that a tree exists, for instance. All the science I have ever learned about trees does not erase the mystery of its being. Nor has that science erased the mystery of my own being either. But I love these mysteries. They are not the same as secrets. Because you feel them and know them and even swim in these mysteries. They do not occlude love (as secrets do), they invite it.

That’s beautiful! To realize that mystery invites love, and secrets occlude it. In that sense, secrets also lead to denial. And in politics, as you suggest, it is often denial that people follow because it gives them a false sense of control. In accepting the truth and the mystery, in not denying it, are we left feeling unsafe?

Well, yes. When you give up denial, you will feel unsafe. But then another kind of safety builds. It is more like a state of trust. Not in fate or some god who will always make things go your way but in existence itself, the depth and profundity of it all. This is a far more realistic sense of safety, and you realize over time it is also more reliable and you don’t have to sacrifice either your intelligence or the full dimensionality of your emotions to have it.

You write: “There are events in our lives that we cannot understand because we keep a part of what we know away from understanding.“ Would war be impossible if we didn’t keep this part away from understanding? Is this the same idea as not denying the masculine and feminine within ourselves?

Yes. But who is the “we” here? War is not an event caused by individuals. Our part in it may be just to have relinquished power to a dictator or an unwise leader—such as we had on 9/11.

I can’t answer your other question here because it would take too long. I wrote a whole book about it (Chorus of Stones). Only I will say that gender is basically a system of denial and it’s a system that I believe came from war and in turn helps to aid and abet war. Briefly, the qualities which are supposed to be masculine are really the qualities of a good and loyal soldier—not feeling, denying fear, being tough, aggressive etc. You need to make men into good solders if you’re going to build an empire. So our idea of masculinity got invented to make soldiers. Our ideas of femininity I think got invented from the separation I mentioned between meaning and matter, but also from the need to keep the home fires burning, to have someone to create a place that is peaceful, yet at the same time stripped of any meaning in the polis or public sphere; a place that doesn’t threaten the war makers, where the wounded, tired soldiers can go to repair. And where we can preserve that which is really at the core of human experience – feeling, sensuality, mutual sustenance, nurturance.

As you write, the desire to avoid humiliation and shame plays a very big role in politics. Is this the biggest cause of conflict?

No. But it is underrated. Especially among political leaders. It inhibits courage. And it’s a common feeling in a society based on competition and rank and domination. We all have it.

William Blake talks about how brothels are built with the bricks of religion. Do you think it is our suppression of emotion that causes us to have to contend with humiliation and shame? If we were living honestly, in touch with our desires and emotions, would there even be any such thing as shame?

That’s a great question. I think it should stand by itself, speak for itself. The question is true.

As we discussed our questions for you here, I began wondering what your thoughts are in terms of the role or existence of paradox. It comes up a lot in your work: the way both one thing and it’s opposite is somehow true: war is about tradition, but it is also the way we advance (physically, technologically); we want to connect to the world and people around us and yet fearing this connection, we see ourselves as alone…

I actually love paradoxes. I remember when I learned this world as a girl, I tried to use it as much as possible. And probably still do. Paradoxes are not intrinsically bad. I believe our current view of the physical universe is paradoxical – that matter is made of both particle and waves at the same time. War is a tradition yes, but it is also an orientation, an approach. It is in us, in a sense, and we live in a culture that supports that tendency or that possibility more than others. For this reason, I don’t think the innovation that comes from war and the tradition of war is a real paradox. They belong to the same intent.

Freud talked about paradoxes being explained in the unconscious. But also, opposites are attractive (and attract each other as in positive and negative charges). Two strong colors against each other are very exciting to behold.

In your books, you write very beautifully about Germany and its history. I’m wondering if the subject of war led you to Germany, or if it was your experience with Germany that led you to the subject of war?

War came first and then Germany. I grew up in a generation shadowed by the holocaust, which was still happening in the year I was born, 1943. So ever since I learned about the holocaust, which was when I was about 7 years old, I turned my thoughts to this history, with anguish but also with the desire to learn. This must have been intensified because I was adopted by a Jewish family. Most of my family of birth came from Scotch, Irish and Welch backgrounds, but there were some German ancestors and some who were probably Jewish though they “passed” as gentile. Probably because of the war, no one talked very much then about German ancestry. In that period many people demonized Germans, including me. Once I began writing about nuclear weapons, I naturally wanted to know if there was a connection between these weapons and the holocaust and I found one in concentration camp Dora. After that I made several trips to Germany and made deep connections with several German men and women with whom I felt empathy in response to the stories they told me. So in a sense war brought me to demonize, whereas trying to understand war brought me to connection and compassion.

Interview by Andrea Hiott, 2010.