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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

 

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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.
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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”?

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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.

Yes.

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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).

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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.  This could seem contradictory considering the U.S.A.’s political relationship with Islamic countries at the moment; it might also be seen as hopeful. 

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.

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Simon Goldhill: Love, Sex and Tragedy

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

Interview by STONE GOSSARD and ANDREA HIOTT.

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.

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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.

jilee

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.

 

orchestra

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

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)

Plug-hat.

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?”

 

Notes:

* “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

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.

sarazin

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.

interviews

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.

Vorurteile:
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.“

wedding

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.