Sunday, January 24, 2010

A vision of now

By Hayden Carruth, from “The Beginning of the End,” a sequence of poems published posthumously in the Fall 2009 issue of The Sewanee Review.

Here we are, my dears, the autumn of twenty-o-five.
And it’s very strange. The sultry summer lingers
Into October; the foliage that by now was always
Bright is drab and withered; and we are far
Too dry, except where hurricanes rage and floods
Carry off our houses. Is this then our last
Autumn? The radio is insisting, “Log on, log on.”
And then the television is pleading, “Log on now.”
And signs and portents are everywhere, although
They are bewildering, because no one knows how
To interpret them. Persons of faith are tremulous
And unsure, while those of science apparently
Cannot read nature’s peculiar new vocabulary.
Each of us is proceeding at a different pace,
Stumbling or running, aimless or headed straight
To a distant remembered door. The spendthrifts
Sing Auld Lang Syne and tip up goblets of fine
European brandy. Others are creeping and
Wandering, weeping and wondering. For we are
The new refugees, going nowhere. We are this
Old and horrifying pitiful dream come true.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wendell Berry's The Cost of Displacement: Some Further Thoughts

The December/January issue of the Progressive contains an essay by Wendell Berry that is a strict indictment of the homelessness of our culture and its pervading myths about the better place. This is a profoundly important essay diagnosing much of the restlessness of our culture in the throes of an educational leviathan whose knowledge and particular didactic is dislocal, universal, and specifically oriented not towards an economy of life dictated by the needs and land of a particular community, but by desires and attitudes fashioned by the centralization of abstract knowledge in the university, and its dictation of the uses of that knowledge.

Berry's robust essay is faithful to a vision of home that, in its absence from much of the contemporary landscape, no longer can provide a refuge from the abstract dislocation of place and history at home within the university's dictation of identity and social/economic value of human persons, a complete re-narration defined by abstraction and the dead language of specialists.

When the home of the 1930's, situated within a neighborhood of individuals that are familiar with each other's histories and stories, whose labor works to sustain one another and thicken the ground of such a place, is no longer to be returned to, when the home to be returned to lauds the virtues of dislocation, of the engendering of value through capital, in short, when land, family history, and place can no longer be a refuge for most of us from the narration of life on an inhuman scale, my thought is that we become sustained, finding a pseudo-maternal comfort in the post-modern space of global capitalisms' signs of familiarity, its general spaces of uniformity that can be found in Southern Texas, in Upstate New York, in Central Georgia, in Bangkok. We all know how to navigate these spaces expediently, with a know-how and tact that not only do not betray the cost of this re-narration of the familiar, but with an unconsciousness of our own violation, perhaps even a sort of acquiescent reveling in it.

These are not new or particularly novel thoughts. The democratization of space perpetrated by the addictive absorption into technology's glowing spacelessness and timelessness can also form a replacement of the familiar, the familial, cloaked in the anodyne anesthesia of a veil of de-personification so thick that our own history can take on a negative quality, a banality, a null and void blankness to be narrated to by the elasticity of assuming the right to create ourselves by a freedom to embody a vision of ourselves engendered by the privilege of preference, the religion of choice.

I'm reminded of William T. Cavanaugh's discussion of the graduation speech that he would like to give at a University:

“Please don’t go out and change the world. The world has had enough of well-meaning middle class university graduates from the U.S. going out and trying to change the world and the world is dying because of it. . . go home."

The re-imagining and re-narrating of spaces once housing stories and families and histories is still possible, and the hard, immediately reward-less labor of living in the hope of teaching the fidelity of place in the midst of a culture whose virtues are in direct opposition to familial and local fidelity is perhaps the work of the educated. This re-narration cannot happen without a resurrection of the history that once was evident in the means and uses of cultural and economic stability, making up the means of the maintaining of households and neighborhoods. Stories must be dug up and retold. Histories of neighborhoods and the labor that built them must be resuscitated, and responded to, not as vestiges of an untouchable past, but as images of ways of life that command retention and respect.

My grandmother's dill pickles must be made with the same delicate care and respect her movements betrayed, and put into her glass jars once again.

There is a great cost to our hyper-social mobility, to technology and the placeless space's ability to democratize and spread thin, those thick relationships of fidelity that are, by necessity and by virtue, to the exclusion of others, not out of malice, but out of a demand and a hope for intimacy and fidelity, for all. Democratized intimacy ceases to be an intimacy that does not carry with it the cost of our own violation, and the trust that must form to develop intimacy between persons can only be given as undeserved, in a world of hyper social-mobility. We must learn to stop consuming persons and places, and return to re-inhabit and reestablish fidelity where our story finds coherence.

A great portion of we, over-educated children of the baby-boomers have been educated by our elders into believing that doing better and cultivating dreams and desires founded upon the altar of prosperity and our inviolable choice are what is good for us, and a sort of inevitable inheritance of their hard labor to give us this opportunity. Alien to us are taxonomies of value outside of our acquiescence to them, outside of the whimsical self-interest of our own interests. Little outside of us makes claims upon us, makes claims upon the education of our desires, and even here the language of choice reigns, convincing us of the nobility of our own good will, which we could take away and replace with something less noble by which to relegate comparable value to. With the grammar of total choice and self-valuation as final measure come the interchangeable nature of an ethics that is not founded upon fidelity to persons or place, where desire cannot be educated by persons, but by choice. Apart from being separated by our nature, we have now become separated from much that can help remind us of our nature, and educate our desire to embody our nature.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Christenberry and Agee, David Lynch and Interview Project

"If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, philials of odors, plates of food and of excrement."

- James Agee

Serendipity is the only muse I know. A few weeks ago I was asked to speak about "my photography," and during the talk, I relayed a story about losing a friend in an area of the Appalachian Trail outside of Washington, DC on my first spring break from college. A few days after we reunited, in my restlessness, I discovered that the only photographer whose name I knew at the time, William Christenberry, was speaking a mile away from my friend's home at George Mason University. So I had my friend drop me off.

There, sharing the urinal and the sink next to me, this stranger, who later would climb up the side of the stage and begin speaking, stumbled through dark hallways alongside me as we both tried to make it to the auditorium of the arts center. Mr. Christenberry is still one of the few artists whose humility and lack of pretension honor him first as a man, and then, incidentally, as someone who makes objects and photographs. His manner and ways of being are what is to be learned, and this informs his work. I remember that he told me after the lecture that he does not use e-mail, and that he was one of the few close friends of Walker Percy, a novelist whose prescience about the spiritual condition of modern man, seriousness and attention to his craft, seem to render most modern authors blind and spineless. To this day, Christenberry's relentless quoting, throughout his life, of James Agee's journal entry during the writing of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, still makes demands upon, and haunts, all of the artwork or representations I come across. Agee seems to esteem the dirt of the grave of the child in Hale County over any other representation which would choose to comment upon it, speak to it, or mimic it.

I was thinking of Agee's comments above earlier today as I stumbled across David Lynch's Interview Project. The project has single-handedly ennobled my perception of marrying the internet and film, and maybe even art, perhaps for good. Interview Project is a great collection of short interviews with strangers encountered by Lynch's team, asking earnest questions to normal people encountered while traveling on the road. It is indescribably beautiful in its level of candid reception and presentation of individuals, without pretension and seemingly without ulterior motives other than individuals as means and ends unified and embodied before a camera. If you have the chance to watch the short films, please be kind to yourself and do so. Agee would be honored.