Archive for October, 2012

Where a Blade Becomes Horizon by Simone Muench

by on Oct.31, 2012

This riveting film-poem — a screaming, stabbing, puking compendium of some of the most intensely discomfiting moments from horror films captioned with poetry from a variety of sources — was presented by poet and horror aficionado Simone Muench at last year’s Printers Ball in Chicago. I share it with you on this All Hallow’s Eve (tw for violence, gore, vomit). The supermeta eye sequence around 7′ is particularly exciting.

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Preliminary Notes From The Conference on The Unstable and [de] Mutable Boundaries Between Meteorological Atrocities and Human Political Economies with Bodies-as-Subjects Coming Into Being As They Are

by on Oct.29, 2012

In New York City everything is quiet and we are locked in our downtown apartments with candles and books and nothing to do but wait for something to happen, and hope it doesn’t. Like countless barricaded thinkers before us, yesterday evening, as we prepared for the storm, Seth Oelbaum, Stephanie Berger, and I held a relentless and exhausting conference on The Unstable and [de] Mutable Boundaries Between Meteorological Atrocities and Human Political Economies with Bodies-as-Subjects Coming Into Being As They Are.

Following Seth’s opening address and a reading from D&G’s Rhizome, I presented my position on Logs: The Diminished but not Diluted Potentatalities of Rhizomatic Laws and Other Deleuizan “Things,” a talk inspired by the large tree directly in the path of several windows in the apartment where we stayed last night (we’ve since moved slightly more inland). The crux of the argument centered around concepts of romanticism and body-performativity versus the actual fallibility of human bodies as, at a crisis-point, non-performative entities. Guest panelist Joyelle McSweeney commented, “Oh think of me as that branch,” which was posited as having the potential to come through the living room window.

The whole point of the rhizome is a sort of megaconsciousness of natural form; this is how weather comes to acquire subjectivity. What’s particularly frightening about the weather as having subjectivity is that it has consciousness without emotion; a storm is a sociopath, totally unconcerned with the consciousnesses of the subjects it attacks. As was mentioned in the panel on Weathery Cinematic Structures of Where The Heart Is, or, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, Country Music, survival in the face of a disaster seems mediated primarily by the those same catchwords of the contemporary literary conversation: melodrama, and sincerity.

Because we happen to be, as we are, two girls and a boy holed up in wait for a disaster, because Stephanie is shopping online for dresses and Seth is writing and I am checking the weather obsessively, as though knowledge of a flood might stop it (it won’t), we can’t help making the Melancholia metaphor on an almost hourly basis, wherein I am, bizarrely and unexpectedly, Charlotte Gainsbourg rather than Kirsten Dunst. A lot has been said about the film, its relevance, and its overdetermination of events. But the crisis, distant and baroque as it might seem, is a real crisis; a crisis of bodies. Actual bodies which speak and are subject to the whims of a thing as heartless as weather, at the moment between when everything is fine and everything is not, reach a point at which they can no longer perform.

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Spectres of Rape: On Hypothetical (Female) Bodies, 'Welfare Queens', and the 2012 Campaign

by on Oct.26, 2012

[I was going to put a picture of Richard Mourdock here, but I prefer to promulgate this spectre of Alternate Future Gender and Race Relations. Click here for the moving picture.]

Ken’s post below on male body language and affect our current election cycle and Sarah’s post below about “Mother’s Substance” together point to a strange spectre haunting the 2012 election cycle: The spectre of rape.

The only woman’s body that seems of interest to contemporary right wing politicians and the media who follow them is the raped impregnated women’s body. This body is of course shot through with hypotheticity, because this body only comes into the ‘being’ of media visibility in the discourse of these particular, right-wing, antichoice men.

A feminist of either gender who chose to discuss such bodies in terms of their actuality, in terms of statistics, the availability of legal services or actual health care (even maternity care, let a lone abortion services) does not receive such media platforms. When an actual woman who uses contraception (Sandra Fluke) becomes visible, she immediately becomes synonymous with that other favorite misogynist spectre, slut. Similarly, the only real policies anti-choice politicians have enacted regarding actually raped women is to deny them services– legal services such as rape kits or medical services such as emergency contraception.

Yet it is there, in the body of ‘hypothetical’ ‘rape’ that the true battleflag of anti-choice absolutism must be planted, because if the ban holds here, it holds everywhere. Women who might have become pregnant through consensual sex or ‘illegitimate rape’ sex go without mention; as if we all agree that they must of course be forced to carry those pregnancies to term.

Non-pregnant women and their concerns about living from day to day, caring for themselves and/or their families, are also not allotted non-ludicrous space in the discourse (binders full of women?).

But the impregnated raped woman, who is always hypothetical, a hypothetical spectre, not an actual raped woman, girl, toddler, or infant, must be constantly evoked and invoked—and also made to carry her hypothetical pregnancy to term, giving birth to the baby, who is somehow not hypothetical but enjoys ‘personhood’.

What makes this whole economy even more ‘hypothetical’ is that the rapist is never mentioned by these right wing male politicians; the impregnator is never mentioned; the male is never mentioned; criminality or legal situation is never mentioned. All that is mentioned is the pregnancy and the rape—as if rape is the absolute (though hypothetical) circumstance which gathers women into its murky wing; all other bodies are contingent, are made more or less actual, in relation to this circumstance of rape.

It does not seem surprising to me that God and rape then begin rhyming in these anti-choice minds—because God is the absolute and the hypothetical to which all human bodies are contingent.

Rape-pregnancy is  a positive; it is the holy double of its unholy double, abortion. Pregnancy redeems rape, identifies it as part of God’s plan.

Finally I would like to contrast the spectre of ‘rape’ in this cycle to the spectre of the ‘welfare queen’ during Reagan’s campaign. Both these spectres are evoked in order to discipline real women through the enactment of actual,punitive laws, laws that will control these hypothetical bodies. In the case of the welfare queen, lawless libidinousness and the fearful ‘luxury’ of poverty was cravenly concocted and deployed, because it Orwellianly inverted the real state of things, the radical disempowerment of the impoverished, and particularly the black female impoverished body. 30 years later, the politicians are not even bothering with the political sophistication of Orwellian inversion; instead, the spectre of the raped woman, her radical disempowerment, is the preferred female spectre; it is the only visibility of women in right-wing politics.

If the black ‘welfare queen’ had to be punished, then the ‘raped’ pregnant woman, this most coerced of women must be coerced further, to the very hypothetical limit of a white male politicians imaginations, because she is woman itself.

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by on Oct.25, 2012

A few weeks ago Danielle posted a link on Facebook to this post by Anne Boyer, which I found tremendously moving and familiar, and in the process of simply commenting below Danielle’s link it soon became apparent that I had more to say than a comment could accommodate, and that I should take the opportunity instead to submit to you, dear Montevidayans, my extended maternal manifesta, as presented below. In the process of fleshing out this post (which, in my mind, dovetails into an ecstatic endorsement of Lucas de Lima’s new chapbook Ghostlines, its resonance with South American myths about bird mothers, women shamans, and the Anáposo ceremony, along with LdL’s elegiac transfiguration and re-imagination of the archetypal holy trinity, among other things), I became waylaid. First, by a lengthy and consuming visit with my newly-widowed mother. And then, by finding myself the subject of a bona fide censuring over a poem—inspired by the curious outrage over use of the word “vagina” among Michigan congressmen—that was published in the magazine Revolver. I was asked by Revolver’s editors to write a statement about this event, which you can find here:

Poets, much less walking vaginas, are rarely consulted in matters as vital to families as the safety and honor of our capitalist economy. But perhaps poetry—like menstruating, defecating, vomiting, sweating, lactating, emoting, birth-giving women—constitutes a filtering system of sorts, with its own innate algorithms and ethic of protection. By unwittingly violating the decorum of Google and its family of advertisers in my poem’s efforts to pin the ironic ironic vagina on the Elephant (or Donkey—same diff), “Decorum of the House” managed to plumb a few gold nuggets from the bowels of The System…

It’s basically raining vaginas in my neck of the woods, I can only hope the same is true for all of you.


I was 23 when my daughter was born, 4 weeks early (though perfectly healthy), during a vaginal delivery that was miraculously accomplished without medication or other interventions despite its taking place, due to her prematurity, in an operating room among masked & blue-gowned ghosts. My post-partum nurse was so annoyed by my insistent demands to initiate breastfeeding with my very own brand new infant daughter (who seemed completely out of my hands, as if I had to *earn* her back from the hospital’s custody) that she finally pushed us into a supply closet near to where other nurses had spent what seemed like hours bathing the mother slop from the body of my baby, and essentially “taught me” how to nurse by shoving my baby’s head onto my breast before abandoning me to sit, bloody & throbbing, on a stool surrounded by mops and buckets.

Later, when I refused to let the nurses retire my baby to the nursery, and even brought her into my hospital bed with me to sleep and sustain our nearness, I’d wake to them attempting to remove her to the plastic “crib” and wheel her out of my room, threatening me with various bullshit tenets about the dangers of co-sleeping and hospital liability. Which is no offense against nurses—my sisters are nurses, excellent ones, like many others I’ve met. But this is the way I remember my (mostly glorious and transcendent) experience of birthing my baby in a hospital.

It took about 8 years to pay off the slack not covered by my insurance—which was granted me through my work as a medical secretary—for an event (childbirth) I could have accomplished in the relative comfort and freedom of my own home. That was 22 years ago; there were no working midwives at my prenatal clinic or any other that I knew of, nor were resources or knowledge about birthing alternatives readily available or discussed by anyone I came into contact with. And I don’t mean to insist that homebirth is preferable or safer in every instance, but I would argue that most pregnancies and consequent deliveriesespecially if emancipated from the traditional onslaught of media and medical propaganda—could proceed with success, if not at home then certainly a homier place than a hospital.

One need look no further than The Farm, and its resident midwife Ida Mae Gaskin, for an example of how this works within a larger, intentional community. It wasn’t until the Farm’s 200th birth that they felt compelled by a medical crisis to transport a laboring mother to the hospital where a necessary and life-saving c-section was performed.

Reliable statistics on maternal and infant mortality are hard to come by (although this report by Amnesty International is a good place to start); stats on how hospital births compare to midwife-assisted homebirths are even muckier, varying wildly depending on the agenda of the administering agency. Regardless of statistics, a fundamental reality can’t be overlooked: if childbirth was such a tenuous event, necessitating such extreme technological assistance (at such exorbitant cost), then how could humans have managed to overpopulate, dominate, and inflict profound ecological devastation across the entire planet and its atmosphere? Why are countries with the least access to medical technology (much less car seats, food, shelter, water, etc) so overrun by masses of starving babies?

The truth is (actually I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s my suspicion), you are more likely to die just walking down the street than you are birthing or being born without medical assistance. Pregnancy is not a disease, nor is childbirth a medical crisis. Occasionally, yes, there are clear risks that can be moderated and overcome by medical technology. And certainly unforeseen dilemmas emerge during childbirth that could result in bodily damage if not death, whether one births at a hospital or in manger.

However, in my experience and from fairly extensive research and training, each medical intervention introduced during labor tends to provoke a secondary intervention, which leads to a third and fourth intervention, and so on, and more often than not a c-section concludes the process. All of this is much more complicated than I’m prepared to go into at this moment, and no doubt is a deeply contentious situation. But at the end of the day, there is nothing more natural or inevitable than birth (except maybe death).

For the first 10 years of her life, I was my daughter’s single mother—like Anne Boyer, barely getting by (never more than a step away from possible crisis or destitution), working, ironically, as a medical transcriptionist while going to school full-time and milking what I could from federal financial aid—and though no one ever threatened to take my daughter away from me, I was constantly made to feel afraid it might happen if I, her mother, asserted anything too radical about my maternal ethic, or showed myself to be too vulnerable or not a good enough capitalist. I was, basically, poor, and a single mother, which states of being, in the eyes of some, pretty much constitute criminal behavior.

Now I’m a doula, and I’ve worked with many pregnant & parent teens who are legitimately poor and often homeless—22 years later, not much has changed. As a doula I feel my primary function is to radically demystify and deconstruct the net of terror cast over the heart of the pregnant woman, to work toward liberating her from it and convincing her that inevitably the mechanism of her instinct will prevail, and is ancient and real and steadfast.

My own mother, married to a doctor, was prescribed both diet pills and the synthetic estrogen Diethylstilbestrol when she was pregnant with me, and aggressively dissuaded from breastfeeding. Post-industrial maternity remains subjected to the disempowering & fiscal-centric authority of the patriarchy, which authority in fact is fake, and seems driven almost entirely, at base, by its hatred and horror of motherhood. This macrocosmic social phenomenon is enforced by the symbolic narrative of most hospital births, in which the act of delivery is assigned to the doctor/midwife, who “delivers” the infant—her puffy red face barely visible from within the bandage swaddle of hospital-logo’d receiving blanket and tiny cap—into the arms of the often immobile (post-epidural, or C-section, plus painfully stitched, post-episiotomy or abdominal incision), IV’d, still-bloody, half-naked-&-humiliated-in-hospital-logo’d-institutional-garb, ill-equipped to leave the premises, mother. Who, also, must consent to all kinds of regulations regarding vaccinations, invasive testing and procedures, certifications, insurance, conditional oversights re: the acquiring of all the proper equipment (car seat, formula, etc—you may have arrived in a Honda Civic, but you basically need at least a minivan to haul everything delivered by the hospital back home), all these performed upon or deemed “in the best interest of” her infant before they are together “allowed” to walk out of the hospital.

Furthermore, a mother typically isn’t given the option of seeing much less maintaining possession of her & her baby’s placenta, which is tossed with all the other bioshit into hazardous waste; nor, in general, is she given any indication whatsoever that she herself is the heroine of the story who quite logically should be the decider of everything.

I seethe to imagine the horrific injustices inflicted upon women & infants during childbirth, and how intimately and fundamentally these abuses impact the quality of motherhood, childhood, and the whole of society into which these infants are theretofore unleashed. When you can’t even say the word “vagina” in mixed company without causing people to recoil or want to arrest you, despite the fact that the vagina is the very portal through which most humans enter the world (unless delivered by c-section, which by all counts is nearing on average about 40% here in the U.S.), compounded by recent political rhetoric claiming ethical authority over the reproductive and sexual experience of the  female body (in terms of access to birth control and abortion, ludicrous assumptions about the female body’s response to rape, etc), how can one deny the extent to which mothers and maternity are systematically reviled? Add to that the fact that the U.S. is ranked 50th in the world for maternal mortality among hospital births (with black women nearly four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women), despite spending $100 billion annually on the medical treatment of pregnancy and childbirth. Yet the dark force of legislative and media manipulation over pregnant women and mothers, alongside a total lack of economic value or social status placed upon their maternal purpose, prevents them from fully realizing the obvious and innate power they naturally possess….. And don’t even get me started on the role of oxytocin in all of this, the so-called “love hormone”—often undermined by its synthetic analog pitocin—the absence of which, in the birth process, it’s been argued, could account in part (if combined with routine circumcision, say, among other factors like enforced poverty, demoralizing and self-annihilating media representations, the institution of standardized market-friendly test-enforced data in place of public education of “the whole child,” the dearth of access to psychological mentoring toward individual self-realization and growth as well as the development of relational tools toward conflict resolution and bonding as a collective, etc etc etc) for the prevalence of dread, anxiety, economic disparity, rape, addiction, greed, personal violence, and war: the building blocks of global patriarchal empire.

Peace on Earth begins with Birth! And, not to change the subject, but the dismantling of the patriarchy—which is necessary for our, and other species’, survival, in terms of global empire and the absolute exaltation of capital and corporate personhood over life liberty and the pursuit of happiness—can only come about through both a willingness to abandon the current system to its inevitable collapse (and the sooner the better if you ask me, which is why, generally speaking, I decline to participate in the “democratic process” of presidential politics in voting for one evil, however “lesser,” than another—not to get too tangential, but no one can convince me to suck it up and throw my support toward a guy who boasts about how much drill-baby-drill he’s accomplished on public lands, and authorizes the use of drones, and refuses to address environmental catastrophe, and with all seriousness claims some practically religious pride in the patriotic murdering of “terrorists,” and almost everything else he says no matter how eloquently he might say it), but that dismantling also entails the radical healing and reinvention of fatherhood.

Additionally, it might be useful to remember that traditional healers have maintained an active, mostly uncertified/unlicensed and underground presence for thousands of years, and continue to exchange and expand the tools and knowledge of their ancient systems and lineage. Young people everywhere are dropping out of college to apprentice on organic farms, or with herbalists and radical doulas and midwives and bodyworkers and acupuncturists and curanderas and anarchist movements of all sorts. The resources we need to ensure our reproductive freedom and consummate health await us regardless of any federal or state legislation. If we could just indulge ourselves with a cold, hard analysis, we might realize that such legislation and its legislators not only can’t dance, they can’t overpower us without our consent.  All we have to do, essentially, is refuse.

These rantings, and more, will be revisited in the coming days when I draw your attention to the revolutionary queer maternity and mystical poetics of our very own Lucas de Lima as introduced in his glorious chapbook Ghostlines. Stay tuned (and, if possible, be patient, since my inner work toward patriarchal demolition involves a re-imagination and biorhythmic realignment of a conventional perception of time.) Until then:

P.S. I have a secret hope that you all will feel moved to share your own birth story, or any story or thoughts, in the comments below to keep the labial flames on high.



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Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh, Uh (On Affect and the Presidential Election)

by on Oct.24, 2012

Dear fellow over-educated effete lefty election addicts, now that the Presidential debates are over, you may have noticed a curiously nihilistic tone of the pundit responses. After each debate, the adjudication of the debates’ victor and loser had less to do with any actual policy difference between the two candidates, than about stranger and more shamanic: the candidates’ affect.

By this I mean not the old Cartesian saw that electoral politics is all horse race, no policy, but that presidential politics is the genre of melodramatic performance, a documentation of the more mundane and charismatic surfaces of the body. Characters distinguish themselves via distinctive mannerisms, the press leaning forward to transcribe every blink and grimace, every mark and noise. Think of Nixon’s perspiration and the famous Esquire cover featuring Tricky Dick getting lipstick applied, the now incorrect proverb that the tallest Presidential candidate wins, the misogynistic tracking of Hillary’s hairstyles in the ‘90s, Howard Dean’s career-ending screech, John Edwards’s bouffant, and Sarah Palin’s hostess-like winks at the camera. Precisely because electoral politics is so stage-managed, we read these debates (funded and controlled, as they are by an organization funded by the two parties) as a way of mediating the true Presidential selves between their campaign machines and us, the studio audience. Unlike campaign commercials, which present President as product–improvisational sparring, Biden’s gaffes, and uncovered misstatements like Romney’s 47% video, these things show us the symptoms that hide under the veneer of the utterly controlled body. They suggest the President not as self, but as a body that cannot help but be human, a body that one can have a beer with. We may amend Tip O’Neill’s dictum and say that all politics is surface. Or to paraphrase one poet, politics is a body that is always deep, but deepest at its surface.

As the candidates’ bodies were scanned by millions of global eyes, eagerly hunched before Twitter, they were assessed as to whether they in fact “look Presidential” (whatever that means). In “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins,” Eve Sedgwick talks about the crude yet oddly curious biological essentialism of a doctor named Tomkins, who notes the density of neural firing and suggests that this bodily affect can be read backwards into different emotions–like laughter, joy, fear, and interest. We might view these debates as operating in a similar vein for the body politic: the candidates emit bodily affect, which is then interpreted outwards as the spikes and valleys of network news undecided voters trendlines. We assess blinks, grimaces, eye contact, hand gestures, postures, spasms, interruptions. These gestures–Biden’s carnivalesque interruptions, his uncontrollable and excessive body, Paul Ryan’s water-drinking and oversized coat, Romney’s blinking and his adoring dachshund gazes, Obama’s inability to be aggressive (lest he be seen as an Angry Black Man)–are divined as omens about power. In fact, both the Daily Beast and the New York Times even went so far as to hire body language experts. The paradoxically mechanizing commentary reads like Kraftwerk writing the play-by-play to a Pokemon battle:

“Obama shows an endearing HEAD-TILT-SIDE to Romney’s vertically held head.”

“Obama uses COMPRESSED-LIPS cue. Disagrees.”

“Romney shows Dan Quayle’s ADAMS-APPLE-JUMP as Obama talks about Obamacare. Fear.”

I’d like to declare that I am heretofore embarking on a Conceptual Poetics project in which I hire a body language expert to follow me around for a week, endlessly transcribing descriptions like “Chen CHEWS a bagel while perspiring. Ennui.”

After the first debate, someone created this Youtube Supercut of all of Obama’s hesitations during the first debate, a video titled ‘Uh.’ This tick of Obama’s has oddly become the only consistent affect across various comedians’ impressions of him and in fact the lack of bodily presence of both candidates has been somewhat of a problem for impressionists.

“I think Obama is a lot tougher,” [Saturday Night Live writer Jim] Downey said. “What helps us is people who are goofy or have some loose threads.” Downey sees the president as something like a European jewel thief in a 1950’s heist movie: “He’s just so smooth. There are no toeholds to grab onto.” Romney isn’t much easier to mock. “He’s perfectly well-spoken. It’s not that he’s inarticulate. He can be a little clueless. He’s a guy who’s an awkward first date.”

The candidates’ imperviousness to imitation suggests one thing that most debate coverage missed: part of the electoral challenge is that both Obama and Romney are competent, pragmatist technocrats, both efficient without possessing the conviction to be effective, and both totally disconnected from their bodies. Both narcissist white-collar service professionals educated at Harvard Law School and surrounded by advisers from high finance, Romney and Obama are incorporeal candidates, the shapeshifting ghosts of transnational flows of capital. (Doug Henwood recently commented that Romney believes in money, Obama believes in nothing.) When Clint Eastwood and the New Yorker depicted Obama as an empty chair, they were onto something: the distant, nebulous, decentralized world of his policies, a swarm of drone attacks rather than large Navy fleets. This is why Romney needed to be “humanized”: he is the 21st century finance professional par excellence, an ends-vs-means-assessing automaton who believes he has no ideology other than money. Consider his gaffe about women in binders: on its face, aside from being untrue, Romney’s assertion that he reviewed a binder full of qualified applicants is actually a fairly model process for diversity hires, which is why it originally proposed by the Dems. The reason it was a gaffe is because Romney’s phrasing suggested that he himself knew so few qualified women that they could only be data–in other words, he had exorcised them from their bodies.

Let us return to the audience for these bodies: the so-called low-information undecided voter, essentially the citizen before citizenship, the voter at the most base, animal level and therefore most susceptible to base shows of bodily strength and power. I would argue that these voters are what Zizek called “the subject supposed to believe.” What is important is not whether or not we ourselves believe something, but that elsewhere, there is still the proper still-ideological person (the subject supposed to believe) who does believe it, like the nun in Delillo’s White Noise who claims her only role is to believe so the rest of us can stop believing or the electronic monk in Douglas Adams who believes for us, just as a VCR watches shows for us. Because these voters are the only voters who matter in the Presidential electoral calculus, the only role of the pundit or the quant is not to critique the candidates’ policies, but to intuit the leanings of these inaccessible bodies in places like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida. Actual political debate is forever deferred and replaced with a secondhand observation of opinion. Because these undecided swing state voters are the only voters are the only citizens who are really allowed to have political impact, there is a way where they are the only people who are allowed to have political beliefs.


1. Rather fittingly, few humans have ever called Mitt Romney handsome, but it has been proven via scientific study.

2. DAVID BROMWICH on Paul Ryan’s self-presentation.  “Where Obama projected the calm consciousness of a grave but unnamed mission, Ryan’s self-love is more recognisably American-boyish. He radiates ambition, healthy ambition, as if ambition were one of those permitted substances you could take at the gym to enhance performance. He has a lean and hungry look even when he smiles; and a relentless eagerness also, which will wear on people over time. His constant demeanour is cocksure; his face never registers reflection. Listening to other people is a formality, for Ryan, to be endured before he springs his answers. And how the answers pour out! There is an attractive, efficient speed in the way he works, but also a kind of deadness. And the deadness is there in his eyes – the hard eyes of the self-fulfilled and self-justified, clean of mind and clean of body, a whole mental mansion trip-wired against invasion by entities seeking pity and bearing excuses.”

3. A more affect theory take on Clint Eastwood at the RNC.

4. A passage from Sergio De La Pava’s experimental novel, A NAKED SINGULARITY: (on identification numbers for defendants in a court house)

“The numbers then attached to a body, one that by then had traversed the entirety of a creaking assembly line, and as a result the body staed in.

[bod-y (bðd’ē) n., pl. –ies. 9. CJS. Inarguably odious term by N.Y.C. Department of Correction and other court personnel to denote incarcerated criminal defendant: There are three hundred bodies in the system so we should be busy. He’s bringing the next batch of bodies down, I’ll let you know if your guy’s one of them.]”

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The Veil: Laura Mullen's Parapornographic Bride

by on Oct.23, 2012

At a recent panel on “the poetics of kitsch” at the Poet’s House in NYC with Sianne Ngai, Daniel Tiffany and Joyelle, I talked, among other things, about this video by Laura Mullen.

I talked about Timothy Morton’s idea of a “Dark Ecology”:

“… a sugary sentimentality whose gaze is down, as opposed to the sublime upward gaze of the masculine mountain-climber…. The Ancient Mariner and Frankenstein are gothic and tacky. The tacky is the anaesthetic (unaesthetic) property of kitsch: glistening, plasticized, inert, tactile, sticky… […] Beyond its cutenesss (a reified version of Kantian beauty), an element in kitsch ecological imagery maintains this abejction, a formless, abject element, Bataille’s informe… The bourgeois subject would rule forever if fascination and horror always resulted in spitting out the disgusting object. Ecological art is duty bound to hold the slimy in view.” (Ecology Without Nature, 158-159)

I talked about the way that “surrealism” is used as a stand in for kitsch in a lot of discussions (“soft surrealism,” “candy surrealism,” glittering surrealism, sticky surrealism, cute surrealism…). Now obviously I use “surrealism” in a very loose way to represent this kind of sugariness that is so reviled by so many in contemporary poetry.

So I discussed “The Veil” as “surrealist,” not in any traditional sense. Though the question-and-answer rhetoric of the piece obviously invokes all those Exquisite Corpse games of Surrealism (Maybe “Exquisite Bride”). The video asks us to imagine all of the rubble as possible “veils,” that most precious and virginal of objects, and as a result, to see the catastrophic landscape as a kind of bride. The speaker denies that it’s the veil, but implicitly we’re asked to imagine this debris as the veil, to at least entertain the possibility. The veil generates monstrous brides in our heads.

In this video I love the way the veil, that occluding, feminine object par excellence here does not hide but moves out into the urban rubble of Louisiana; (continue reading…)

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Luis Bravo to read at Notre Dame Today!

by on Oct.22, 2012

Revolutionary Uruguayan poet Luis Bravo will read his poetry today at 4:30 at the Hesbergh Library, the special collections reading room. Make sure you come if you live in the area.

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The Freakish Light of Velázquez's "Las meninas"

by on Oct.22, 2012

I am drawn today to “Las meninas,” surely one of the most mystifying leertexts of the Western canon.  I’m thinking about a standard interpretation of this painting:  how it registers, absorbs, and destroys itself as well as the viewer, who is figured as the king in the doorway, the “Master” of the gaze.

Then there are the girls aglow beneath all that empty dark space.  Isn’t their gaze at least as penetrating as the painter’s?

If the painting occupies us like a phallus as it closes the distance between viewer and canvas, I’m tempted to ask,

but what about the children? 

For me, the girls are the excessive remainder of the image.  They are the violent birthing of  seedlings commanded by the sun, or perhaps a fluorescent bulb.   As Genet wrote, “the violence of a bud bursting forth–against all expectation and against every impediment–always moves us.”  Having already decentered all adults within the frame, men and women alike, the girls and their dog thus radiate a frightening possibility.  What if their gaze were about to break off; what if their secretive canine-child alliance were pregnant with us as its commandments.  Guided only by the misty promise of emergence and incipience, of a feeling of suspension at the cusp of revelation, we are lucky to embody such birth again and again without ever growing up.  This is, I think, the call of arrested development.  As the painting devours me, must I not always push out of its belly/doorway, compelled to ‘throw shade’ back at its gaze by emitting my own optic blast:  (continue reading…)

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Kitsch is Deadly: The Dangerous Male Beauty of Osama Bin Laden and Willa Cather's "Paul"

by on Oct.19, 2012

From the Runwayward Blog:

From John Le Carre’s analysis of Osama Bin Laden, “We Have Already Lost” (from 2001) (Jasbir Puar drew our attention to this):

The stylized television footage and photographs of this bin Laden suggest a man of homoerotic narcissism, and maybe we can draw a grain of hope from that. Posing with a Kalashnikov, attending a wedding or consulting a sacred text, he radiates with every self-adoring gesture an actor’s awareness of the lens. He has height, beauty, grace, intelligence and magnetism, all great attributes, unless you’re the world’s hottest fugitive and on the run, in which case they’re liabilities hard to disguise.

But greater than all of them, to my jaded eye, is his barely containable male vanity, his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight. And, just possibly, this trait will be his downfall, seducing him into a final dramatic act of self-destruction, produced, directed, scripted and acted to death by Osama Bin Laden himself.

“Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather:

It was Paul’s afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanors. He had been suspended a week ago, and his father had called at the Principal’s office and confessed his perplexity about his son. Paul entered the faculty room suave and smiling. His clothes were a trifle outgrown, and the tan velvet on the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn; but for all that there was something of the dandy about him, and he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black four-in-hand, and a red carnation in his buttonhole. This latter adornment the faculty somehow felt was not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy under the ban of suspension.

Paul was tall for his age and very thin, with high, cramped shoulders and a narrow chest. His eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy, and he continually used them in a conscious, theatrical sort of way, peculiarly offensive in a boy. The pupils were abnormally large, as though he were addicted to belladonna, but there was a glassy glitter about them which that drug does not produce.

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Poetical Effusion (a Seminar)

by on Oct.17, 2012

Just for fun I thought I’d post the description I just wrote up for my Spring seminar here at the Iowa School for sensitive plants.

 Poetical Effusion: On Theatricality, Form and Affect


“I have repented of many things,” wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “but I have never repented of my first poetical Effusion.”

This course will be an inquiry into the enigmatic matter of affect in art, affect’s palpability and obscurity, its ephemeral/ineradicable effects. We will consider how different forms, genres, performances and media stage affect; how various forms, genres and media either fail or succeed (or over-succeed) in transmitting specific affects;  and how affect can work like an uncanny force pushing through form, media and material to upend, destroy, or reconstitute the text , the performance, and/or the world.  Topics along the way will likely include the problem of pain and the porousness of the body; doubles, substances, solutions and substitutes; trash and stuff; kitsch; palpability and obscurity; interiority and exteriority; gender, drag and impersonation; memory and memory-holes; artifice and sincerity; costumes, masks, sets, sound, and other ‘special’ effects.

Course reading/viewing will include classical and contemporary drama, prose genres, poetry, film, video, and theory. Likely texts include classic and modern plays such as Medea, Philocetes, Duchess of Malfi, The Changeling, and contemporary plays by Genet, Soyinka, Dürrenmatt, Heiner Mueller, Sarah Kane and Johannes Göransson; prose by Kathy Acker, Freud, Poe, Marguerite Duras, Cesar Aira, and Clarice Lispector; poetry by Ronaldo Wilson, Raul Zurita, Chales Baudelaire, Tytti Heikkinen, Hiromi Ito, and Sylvia Plath; and films and video by Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Ryan Trecartin, Steve Roggenbuck, and Nathalie Djurberg. Possible sources for our theory armature may include the Brothers Grimm, Brett Walker’s Toxic Archipelago, Elaine Scarry’s Body in Pain, and religious art and martyrology, as well as literary theory and essays by Daniel Tiffany, Brian Massumi, Bhabha, Cixous, Barthes,  Kristeva, Clement, and Kim Hyesoon.

This seminar will be run on a discussion based model; participants will be responsible for leading discussion in pairs, troikas, or other arrangements on various weeks. Attendance is mandatory. See you there! Goth attire welcome but not required.

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Hot Goss of the Day: Bishop on Lispector's Primitiveness

by on Oct.17, 2012

M.I.A. in her burka.

I was skimming Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector when I found some hot literary goss to share–a page right out of the binder full of women.  After Elizabeth Bishop translated and hung out with Clarice Lispector in Brazil, she wrote the following in correspondence with Robert Lowell:

 “She’s the most non-literary writer I’ve ever known, and ‘never cracks a book’ as we used to say–She’s never read anything, that I can discover–I think she’s a ‘self-taught’ writer, like a primitive painter.”

Bishop called Lispector’s novels “NOT good,” though she liked her short stories.  She added, “Actually I think [Lispector]  is better than J.L. Borges–who is good, but not all that good!  The only South American reading I really care for is anthropology and the old chronicles, anyway–and maybe Pablo Neruda, when he isn’t being too violently anti-U.S.”

Moser goes on to say:

In one sense, Bishop was spectacularly off the mark.  Clarice’s higher education, her work as a journalist, her experience in the foreign service, her knowledge of languages, and her practice living on three continents made her, apart from her own artistic achievement, one of the most sophisticated women of her generation, and not only in Brazil.  She was widely and deeply read, as the numerous allusions in her writing and correspondence prove.  Autran Dourado, one of Brazil’s leading novelists and intellectuals, recalls long Sundays spent with Clarice in complicated philosophical discussions ranging from Spinoza to Nietzsche.

In another sense, however, being a “primitive painter,’ “the most non-literary writer I’ve ever known,” was a goal of Clarice’s.  She placed no value on learnedness or sophistication.  From Naples she had written Natércia Freire of her impatience with diplomatic life:  “At the end of it all you end up ‘educated.’  But that’s not my style.  I never minded being ignorant.”  She was interested in a different kind of knowledge, one that had nothing to do with advanced reading or philosophy.  Suspecting that the answers to the “mute and intense question” that had troubled her as an adolescent–“what is the world like?  and why this world?”– could not be discovered intellectually, she sought a higher kind of understanding.  “You ought to know,” a Spanish cabbalist muttered at the end of the thirteenth century, “that these philosophers whose wisdom you are praising, end where we begin.”

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Specter, Mirror, Melancholia, Zero: Poetry/Translation as placeholder, double, regurgitation, and excess

by on Oct.15, 2012

(*I’ll get back to this print later, I promise)

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with translating Korean poems, and the recent posts on transfiguration and zero got me thinking about the idea of zero in relation to art, poetry, and translation.


Spirit Calling

O the name that shattered into pieces!

O the name that dissolved into air!

O the name without a holder despite the calling!

O the name which I will die calling!


The one word remaining in the heart

Was never spoken even till the end

O the one that I loved!

O the one that I loved!


The red sun is hanging on the tip of the west-mountain

The herds of deer are crying out of sorrow

From the top of the mountain that is fallen off and landed

I call out your name


Overwhelmed with sorrow I call out

Overwhelmed with sorrow I call out

The calling sound may glide across

But the gap between the sky and the land is too wide


Even if I will turn into a rock fixated on this spot

O the name I will be calling until that moment!

O the one that I loved!

O the one that I loved!


Above is my translation of 초혼(招魂) Spirit Calling by Kim Sowol. This poem may seem like a simple (and a little melodramatic) eulogy for the loved one, but what makes this poem haunting is the ritual of number involved in this poem.

To give some context for this poem: Spirit calling,초혼(招魂) is a Korean shamanistic ritual that starts from deathbed right after the one expected to die ceases to breathe. The person that is considered closest to the dying person then alone climbs to the top of the roof on which he/she holds a piece of clothing that belongs to the dying in the left hand, grabs his/her own waist with the right hand, and calls out the name of the dying three times facing north, hoping that the dying person’s spirit in the air/limbo will come back to the dying body in the room.

From the first two lines of this poem that tell us that the name is now “shattered into pieces” and “dissolved into air” we can tell that this poem starts from the moment of zero, after the spirit calling has failed, the signified is no more, and the name/signifier is nothing more than air/breath wasted. Yet the speaker of the poem goes on to cry out the broken name and its brokenness—signified-lessness—three times and one more, ending with fourth time— which is an excess beyond the three times, the number of completion, the number the ritual asks for. Not only the fourth time of calling out is excess on its own, the fourth call speaks of the speaker him/herself dying, the unnecessary death, excess. However, the excess strangely invites absence back into the poem: The act of spirit calling becomes a prophecy of another death, the death of the speaker, returning the poem to death/lack/zero.

(continue reading…)

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Animal inside (or: the Cogito in space)

by on Oct.12, 2012

“Very probably the sheep found its way into the Boss. That would have been in 1936. And for the next forty years or so, the sheep remained lodged in the Boss. There inside, it must have found a pasture. A birch forest.” from A Wild Seep Chase, by Haruki Murakami

“…so that he doesn’t exist, he only howls…” from Animalinside, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann

Recently, I’ve been reading Animalinside, the wonderfully weird book by the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai. He was inspired by a series of paintings by Max Neumann. Or rather, as I understand it, the painter came up with an image, the writer responded with a prose piece, the painter made a painting based on the prose piece, which the writer then wrote about, etc. This process interests me. There’s a long tradition (Platonic Forms, etc.) that sets up the Concept (and by implication, language) as being higher than image. We can see traces of this even in some of the rhetoric behind Language writing and Conceptual writing, and it underpins many of the arguments behind Conceptual Art as a whole. Concept is greater than image.

Of course, there’s a great deal of anti-conceptual thought (the mystic tradition, Spinoza, Artaud, Beckett…) that tries to undermine this hierarchy, and Deleuze’s notion of the concept highlights its own fictional, anti-foundationalist status, and becomes the antithesis of the Platonic concept.

The Deleuzean concept is within the plane of immanence, whereas the concept in Plato (and in some of the rhetoric of Conceptual art/writing) is transcendent.

But this process between Krasznahorkai and Neumann undermines the transcendental, Platonic concept in two ways. First, the writing is in the tradition of Artaud and Beckett: it wiggles, it shapeshifts, it spits in one direction and finds the spit landing on its own face in the other direction. It’s the language of meat and ghosts.

Another way they undermine it is by undermining the hierarchy of language/image. It doesn’t replace one with the other, and create a new hierarchy. In fact, it undercuts the idea that such a hierarchy is even possible. Both the process of making this work and the process of reading it/looking at it creates an infinite play between language and image. One leads the other further down the rabbit hole.

I say all this to emphasize how important the images are in Animalside. I’ve read some reviews that barely mention the images at all, or treat the images as nothing more than illustrations for the writing. But the book is hybrid in the most literal sense of that word.


An image of a feline-like creature in silhouette, a black panther with legs but no arms, or at least no arms that the viewer can see, as if the arms are a secret, or a knife drawn back into its handle, and another figure in silhouette, a figure that looks like a man or a woman with a bat, and a curved yellowish form between the two, the animal and human figure, the leaping feline and the defensive man or woman, a curved strip of yellow that could be an air funnel or a paper structure or a robe appearing miraculously in space, a robe winding in on itself.

And the words below: I have no idea, no ears, no teeth, no tongue, no brain tissue, no hair, no lungs, no heart, no bowels, no cock, no voice, no smell…

In Descartes’ Meditations, when he comes up with the idea that self-consciousness is the one element we can trust, the one element that proves we aren’t dreaming or mad or being deluded by an evil genie, what’s often left out is how empty this “I” is. This is not the “I” of the self with its memories and storage-shed of information. After all, memories could be an illusion too. No, this “I” is empty, it could be anywhere, it could be attached to another body, another time period. The “I” is phantomlike and not the substantial self. Beckett pushes the logic of this ghost “I” further. His Not-I is the Cartesian I that exists right before Descartes brings in his version of the ontological argument for God, and by doing so regains world, self, memory, etc., based on the idea that God by definition is good, and not a deceiver. Beckett stays with that former “I.” The “I” that exists in the dark (or not even the dark, since that too is a defined space). The “I” in Animalinside is much like that: an “I” not of substance, but of nothingness. Not this and not that. Not idea and not body.

Later, the Animalinside says: I am alone, endlessly alone, so incredibly alone that apart from me there isn’t anyone else at all, I am here, but even I am not completely here, because at this moment I’m in the middle of a leap, I am as a matter of fact enclosed within this arc, the arc I happen to be leaping into right now…

This is followed by an image of a reddish sky or space in which four of the feline-like creatures, the armless panthers, are leaping, some about to reach the pinnacle of the arc, and some already descending from that pinnacle.

There is no here: at least it’s impossible to be “completely here.” The “I” is already missing from each space, already moving or being moved someplace else. It is hard to tell if the leap is voluntary, or if it’s instinctual, or mechanical, or something Animalinside does for no reason, and yet cannot stop from doing.



In Murakami, there’s the sheep that gets lodged in the soul of Boss, and the zookeeper who appears to switch sizes with the elephant in “The Elephant Vanishes.” And there’s his famous charater of the Sheep Man, who is described as wearing a sheepskin costume, with a leather mask, but who has two very real horns, as if he is both a man playing the role of a sheep, and a sheep who wants to dress up like a sheep in order to look like a man in a costume. He speaks with unbroken words: “Woolgetsinmyeyes,” for example. It’s unclear if he speaks like that in order to sound sheep-like, or if he speaks like that because he is so sheep he has no choice. Or if it’s a little of both.


Just as Descartes’ empty “I” can — when we leave it suspended in space, bracketed in that moment before Descartes moves toward the ontological argument — leads to the great rambling voices of Beckett, so can it also lead to Deleuzian schizophrenia. If the “I” is not a self, it can become nomadic, it can move into the orbit of strangers, cars (as in Ballard’s Crash), or animals (the concept of “becoming-animal”). Francis Bacon, I think, is one of the great painters of the “becoming-animal.” He doesn’t paint animal/human hybrids, but rather paints the human figure free from the humanizing aspects of the facial expression. His figures lean and squat and wrestle. Even as they sit, they move and swirl. He paints the human as animal rather than the “human animal.”


Since moving to West Virginia, to a small town on the Potomac River, I’ve had encounters with animals in a way I never did in Chicago, or Memphis, or even in Iowa City. One night, while taking out the trash, I saw a pair of eyes flicker in the wooded area behind the house. For a second I thought they were human eyes, looking at me. It was an uncanny feeling, realizing that it was an animal instead.

And a few weeks back, I heard some sort of howling around three in the morning. It sounded like a teenager pretending to be a wolf. But I think it was a dog howling along a nearby creek. Or maybe it was a teenager. But that wavering back and forth was unsettling, as if the teenager kept slipping into the voice of the dog, and the dog kept slipping into the form of the teenager.

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