Considerations

Failing amidst an army

In conversation with a dear friend recently, she was describing the desire to fail more, which to me sounds like the reciprocal impulse of bravery, a position that makes risk-taking possible. The future may come as we imagine it, or it may come otherwise, but there is only life as it is already if we do nothing. I was reminded of our conversation as I read through the final episode of Juliana Spahr and David Buuck’s An Army of Lovers (2013). Set in five parts, each perhaps related to the others, the central characters wonder at the futility of artistic creation, knowing that music cannot cure disease, that poetry cannot stop the warming of the climate and that performance art cannot end the practice of torture. The book ends with a glorious, extended call to act none-the-less, specifically in collaboration, despite the fact that circumstances may remain unchanged—because in the acting there is an electricity that is transmitted amongst us.

“We want art that makes us wet and driven, driven to flail and whelp and court failures in our impulse to action, again and again, failing with ever more grace and cunning, until futility becomes the magic that when dissolved beneath the tongue of all those ready to bark leads to ever more fruitful inquiries, for our bodies are bored by answers, which is why we wish to striate and rejuvenate the questions, even if in our questioning some of us are led to then ask how might we refuse this, refuse all of this” (139).

And I was reminded of my dear friend and how much I want to fail with her again. That thing between us is its own kind of life, and we can tend to that as a political gesture, encouraging each other to believe that music or poetry or performance can come to bear on the world outside of our intimate connection. Even if it can’t. Or, not in the ways we imagine it.

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Happenings

Sovereignties and Colonialisms

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Today, the third major conference of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association opens in Toronto at York University. Entitled Sovereignties and Colonialisms: Resisting Racism, Extraction and Dispossession, the conference “aims to critique settler colonialism and white supremacy; challenge colonial gender binaries; examine genealogies of anti-Black racism and colonial racial formations; and think about resistance and oppression transnationally, in ways that challenge western hegemony and the travels of racist and colonial methods.” So many amazing minds have gathered to talk about sovereignty and colonialism from a range of perspectives and across a breadth of topics. The full schedule can be accessed here.

On Friday morning, 10:45-12:00 in room ACE 003, I will be participating in a panel called Art, Literature and Representations of Indigeneity with Sean Kennedy (CUNY), who will be speaking about “Indigeneity, Desire, and Refusal: Reconfiguring Literary Studies for Decolonization,” and Katherine Starks (Independent), who will be speaking about “A Holistic Approach to Gregory Scofield’s I Knew Two Métis Women.” I will be talking about the National Gallery of Canada’s Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art exhibition, testing some ideas about the decolonizing potential of cultural institutions, especially ones so closely tied (financially and ideologically) to the Canadian state. (This presentation at CESA is an edited version of a paper I gave in April as part of the University of Toronto’s 5th Annual Graduate English Conference: Memory, Memorialization, and Forgetting.)

The way that Indigenous identification functioned in the context of Sakahàn was not only a claim of being from a place since time immemorial; it also marked an inextricable connection to experiences of colonization. Considering Canada’s colonial history, Sakahàn was aptly situated at the country’s national gallery, an institution which has often acted as a mechanism of colonial subjugation by way of its perpetuation of Eurocentric art-historical values and subsequent omission of artworks and narratives that emerge from other cultural traditions. Unsurprisingly, many of the works within the exhibition were themselves acts of resistance to the gruesome inheritance of colonization and expressions of the ongoing struggles against it.

Theoretically, the exhibition was a gesture of solidarity with the decolonial work that is our living responsibility. And yet, the NGC undid at least some of this work through a repeated gesture: disclaimers that formally distanced the gallery from the politics of the work on display. Focusing on the appearance of the disclaimer directly next to the didactic panel for Nadia Myre’s work For those who cannot speak: the land, the water, the animals and the future generations (2013), I will discuss the responsibilities of curators and institutions in presenting work that directly engages decolonial politics within a colonial context.

Does the presentation of Myre’s work, in and of itself, constitute a moment of cultural self-determination, despite the presence of the disclaimer? Or does the disclaimer in some way neuter the decolonial potential of the work as displayed at the National Gallery?

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Considerations

Weak Dialectics

I am frustrated at the lack of generosity our electronic conversations compel. I am frustrated, in general, that there seems to be a social value to asserting the shortcomings of another’s ideas rather than trying to translate between one way of knowing and another, in order to engage the ideas of another with as much integrity as possible. I’m so fucking mad that we don’t want to have our ideas changed more than we want to induce shame in others. It’s so fucking boring. We are boring.

But thank goodness for reading. I came upon these words is Laura Broadbent’s Interviews (2014), which are drawn from a posthumous interview with Jean Rhys (the text is reconfigured from Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea [1966] and Good Morning Midnight [1939]):

The audience rocks with laughter
at the exhausted, collapsing woman.
It’s so easy to make a person
who hasn’t got anything
seem wrong.

It’s always like that.
When you are tottering,
somebody peculiarly well qualified
comes along and shoves you down.
And stamps on you.

And I think, at least these feelings are real. This is what literature gives me, this is what poetry reveals.

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Considerations

Müller, Heiner

As quoted in Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year, An Index:

The only thing a work of art can achieve is to create the desire for a different state of the world. And this desire is revolutionary.

(What I first read for “Heiner” was “Helen” and came upon Helene Müller, who, according to Wikipedia, was “one of the first European women to put together a major art collection.” Equally plausible that she would have said such a thing, and without know Heiner’s work, I almost prefer my mis-reading to fact.)

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Happenings, SBC

The Oblique Cut, et cetera

Photo courtesy of Jackie Wang.

Photo courtesy of Jackie Wang.

As the final events of SBC’s Talk Show exhibition, which focuses on the art and politics of conversation, this weekend Jackie Wang and I are going to investigate language in a couple different ways: we’ll examine how words can gloss systemic phenomena and how words can be a way into/out of the shadow that runs aside living. We’ll be talking and we’ll be writing, and the whole thing is participatory. There’s still a spot or two left in the workshop, which is free!, so if you wanna get tough on your logic and/or get tough on mine and/or invoke the oblique cut and/or figure out what Jackie means by “the trauma monster,” then you should come join us. All events happen at SBC (#507, 372 Ste-Catherine ouest).

April 24, 7-9 pm, Jackie Wang in conversation with cheyanne turions

Departing from Jackie Wang’s text “Against Innocence; Race, Gender and the Politics of Safety,” Wang and turions will engage the audience in a discussion about the precision of language. As Wang notes in her text, the “social, political, cultural and legal recognition [of Black people in North America] only happens when a person is thoroughly whitewashed, neutralized and made unthreatening…[and that] using ‘innocence’ as the foundation to address anti-Black violence is an appeal to the white imaginary.” Collectively, we will attempt to map how language works to obscure and deflect systemic exercises of power, envisioning tactics to use language more precisely, in order to reveal and dismantle.

Those attending are encouraged to pre-read “Against Innocence,” which can be downloaded from LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism here.

April 25, 11 am-5 pm, The Oblique Cut: A Writing Workshop

Participation in the workshop is limited. To register, please contact SBC Gallery at julia.smith@sbcgallery.ca 

Participation in the workshop is free.

“How can I explain it to you? I’ll try. It’s that I’m perceiving a crooked reality. See through an oblique cut. Only now have I sensed the oblique in life. I used to only see through straight and parallel cuts. I didn’t notice the sly crooked line. Now I sense that life is other.” —Clarice Lispector, Água Viva

Drawing on Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva, Wang will lead a writing workshop that uses Lispector’s idea of the oblique cut as a way of communally exploring the relationship between trauma, the written word, the fleshy body and something Wang calls “the trauma monster.” Together, we will try to enact the cut that casts life as other.

Jackie Wang is a poet, musician and academic, and is the author of the zines On Being Hard FemmeMemoirs of a Queer HapaThe Adventures of Loneberry and The Phallic Titty Manifesto. In her critical essays she writes about queer sexuality, race, gender, the politics of writing, mixed-race identity, prisons and police, the politics of safety and innocence, and revolutionary struggles. She blogs at Ballerinas Dance with Machine Guns and she is currently working on a book or two.

Photo courtesy of SBC Gallery.

Conversation documentation courtesy of SBC Gallery.

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Happenings

Memory, Memorialization, and Forgetting

Memory

Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I will be participating in the English Department’s 5th annual graduate conference at the University of Toronto entitled Memory, Memorialization and Forgetting. It will be my first-ever academic conference and I’m going to try and reason through something that just won’t let go of a piece of my mind.

In 2013, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) did a remarkable thing: they presented an international survey of contemporary Indigenous art entitled Sakahàn.

The way that Indigenous identification functioned in the context of Sakahàn was not only a claim of being from a place since time immemorial; it also marked an inextricable connection to experiences of colonization. Considering Canada’s colonial history, Sakahàn was aptly situated at the country’s national gallery, an institution which has often acted as a mechanism of colonial subjugation by way of its perpetuation of Eurocentric art-historical values and the related omission of artworks and narratives that emerge from other cultural traditions, notably artists and traditions of the Indigenous people of Canada.

Theoretically, the exhibition was a gesture of solidarity with the decolonial work that is our living responsibility as cultural workers, gallery visitors, thinkers and citizens today. And yet, the NGC undid at least some of this work through a repeated gesture: disclaimers that formally distanced the gallery from the politics of the work on display. Focusing on the appearance of a disclaimer directly next to the didactic panel for Nadia Myre’s For those who cannot speak: the land, the water, the animals and the future generations (2013), my presentation will discuss the responsibilities of curators and institutions in presenting work that directly engages decolonial politics within a colonial context. Situating the exhibition within the colonial legacy and institutional memory of the NGC, I will examine what curatorial responsibility might mean.

Come ask me tough questions.

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Considerations, SBC

More Precisely

James Baldwin was 63 years old when he died in 1987, his life bearing witness to significant social upheavals including the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s; the Second World War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War; and the gay liberation movement and the emergence of AIDS. Just eight months before his death, British television host Mavis Nicholson interviewed Baldwin as part of her afternoon show Mavis on Four. In London for a remounting of his play The Amen Corner (1954), Baldwin joined Nicholson amongst a set of empty theatre seats. The footage is raw: a time code ticks the seconds away, noting that the edit begins eight minutes into recording [1]. The conversation shows Baldwin ruminating on shifting distributions of social power and those that remain entrenched. He is irreverent, refusing to be sated by the revolutions he has witnessed for the deliverance he imagines. I cannot be sure why this interview, nearly 30 years old, re-entered circulation in November 2014 [2], but with the title “Civil Rights” it is easy to register its resonance with contemporary events in the United States such as waves of protest against a racist, and specifically anti-Black, police state or the then-anticipated release of Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2014). It seems that Baldwin’s ideas again aggravate, push and prod: this is not yet the world we dream of.

Nicholson is a provocative if somewhat naïve interlocutor, asking frank questions about racialization, religion and sexuality, and Baldwin is an affable subject. And yet, the interview comes to be characterized by his consistent reframing of the assumptions embedded in her prompts. For instance, when Nicholson suggests that the terror Baldwin felt as a young man was because he is Black, he resists: it was because he was despised. The fear he felt was not properly related to the colour of his skin, but to the base reactions it elicited from peers who did not look like him. Baldwin’s point is that the pathology of racism belongs to the inner life of each of us, not to the observable facts of the world. And, while he never says this explicitly, it’s not a generalized racism but white supremacy in particular that allows for the social legibility of such hate, then and now.

This point is taken further when Nicholson tells a story about watching Baldwin’s play the week before the interview was taped and witnessing an interaction between two families. The patriarch of one family she describes as looking “intelligent…well-off…liberal” and the other family she describes as having a crying child and being Black. Nicholson suggests that the inherited history of “racial prejudice” prohibits the man whom she implies is white from telling off the Black family for bringing their child to the theatre. But again Baldwin stops her: “Why don’t you examine what does the word ‘racial’ mean. After all, everybody is a race of one kind or another. We’re not talking about racial prejudice; we talking about the structure of power. The structure of power that has the right and the duty to tell other people who they are for very dubious reasons. After all, one of the reasons I am Black is because I had to be Black in order to justify my slavery. That’s a part of my heritage and a part of yours too. It has nothing to do with race; it’s a way of avoiding history.” Against Nicholson’s proposal that this nearly missed confrontation between families is a moment of post-racial neutering, Baldwin insists that the white man will simply find another way to punish the Black family, a worse way. Perhaps Baldwin meant to imply a direct reaction—an admonishment of parenting capability or a slashed tire—though more likely he was invoking systemic distributions of power—higher rates of incarceration, widespread poverty, obstructed access to education. Seeming to function without leadership, these ongoing phenomena are actually the perfect manifestation of a white supremacist fear of difference. Baldwin knows he is being provocative when he says that “the hardest thing for any human being to do is to forgive someone they know they’ve wronged… [and so] white people live with the nightmare of the nigger they’ve invented.” Patterns of racial discrimination are not ever the proper consequences of whiteness or blackness, but rather a product of social conditioning, where white people are unjustifiably understood as superior to others, and where this unfounded belief then maintains systems of inequality that effect the social, economic and political lives of all other people.

Baldwin refuses what Nicholson calls “racial prejudice.” On his terms, racial prejudice is nothing more than “the most abject cowardice” of those who occupy positions of power—politicians, citizens, the bourgeoisie—to self-reflexively understand their standing as historically informed and arising through subjugation. To the extent that material and political equality is possible, it will involve a recognition of how fear shapes every member of a society, and to address shifting political subjectivities through some kind of embodied relationship to this complex truth. Race is absolutely a lived reality despite the fact that it is not real, at least not biologically as is now generally accepted in scientific fields [3]. And yet, there are countless social consequences tied to our differing historical, linguistic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Racism has become shorthand for acts of fear or hate that unfairly cast their provocation upon the body of the person who must bear their cruelty. Baldwin’s tactic refocuses agency on the perpetrator. He doesn’t say it, but in his persistent refusal of Nicholson’s terms I read a refusal of racism. Racism is a way of describing structures of power, but it is not a thing unto itself, not the way the word is commonly used. More precisely, it is a system predicated upon an insidious kind of make-believe.

In this precision, the complexities between the “you” of Mavis Nicholson and the “I” of James Baldwin (and vice versa) are drawn out, placing the capacity for great social change upon them both as social actors capable of responses based in sentiments other than abject cowardice. However, that this nearly 30-year-old interview still so urgently resonates points to the fact that any real confrontation of racism will require systemic dismantling of white supremacist power structures. We can begin (one place amongst so many) by following Baldwin’s lead and engaging with the repercussions of language. We can consider, at the urging of poet and scholar Jackie Wang in her text Against Innocence, that “social, political, cultural and legal recognition [of Black people in North America] only happens when a person is thoroughly whitewashed, neutralized and made unthreatening…[and that] using ‘innocence’ as the foundation to address anti-Black violence is an appeal to the white imaginary” [4]. We can refuse a rhetoric of innocence that serves to distance the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Pearlie Golden and Kathryn Johnston and Aiyanna Jones and Trayvon Martin and Nizah Morris from the murders of hundreds and hundreds of Black people each year by police officers in the USA. We can map how language works to obscure and deflect systemic exercises of power. We can use language more precisely, in order to reveal. And dismantle.

[1] I am unable to find a more complete version of the interview.

[2] From what I can tell, the footage was not available online until 01 November 2014, published on Youtube by ThamesTv and then circulated amongst aggregation sites. However, the footage remains relatively unseen, registering just over 4500 views as of 24 February 2015.

[3] For discussions on the persistent myth of biological race see Merlin Chowkwanyun’s 2013 article “Race Is Not Biology,” published by The Atlantic here; Agustin Fuentes’s 2012 article “Race Is Real, but not the way Many People Think,” published by Psychology Today here; or UNESCO’s 1950 document “Statement by Experts on Race Problems,” found here.

[4] Jackie Wang, Against Innocence (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 7-8.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the video Civil Rights—James Baldwin—Interview—Mavis on Four (1987). Thanks to Gina Badger and Pip Day for making my thinking stronger.

This text accompanies the exhibition Talk Show, curated by Pip Day.

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