Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Friday, January 22, 2010

On "Sleep No More" at the A.R.T.

A bravura re-imagining of the possibilities for the theater, this inventive, deeply atmospheric mash up of Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Macbeth is a combination of a haunted house tour, a dinner party theater production, and the cinematic frissons of David Lynch, whose sensibility may be too strongly infused into the evening.

What Sleep No More does daringly well is plunge the audience into the thick of the spectacle, so that one moves with and alongside the actors. Even the empty rooms, with their tingling uncanniness, carry the traces of what has gone on before or will transpire there shortly. Time is collapsed through a physical montage, a true Eisensteinian dialectic.

And indeed, the structure of the entire event is sustained not merely by allusions to or quotations from film, including, most effectively, soaring film scores, but by the logic of cinema itself. It’s like being an extra in a live-action silent movie. The most effective of these scenes which I witnessed was the final banquet where one by one all the characters assembled and silently conversed, gestured, schemed, cavorted, and finally convulsed into an erotic free-for-all fantasia, all of it in exquisitely timed slow motion – a form of staging that would be incomprehensible without reference to the technology of cinema. Yet it rewrites even that tired trope of the slo-mo dance. And it ends, in a determinedly and satisfying humanist move, with an old-fashioned bit of Aristotelian catharsis – the death of Macbeth – which savors of Grand Guignol, as well.

My own personal close encounter came with a tuxedoed actor who was cartwheeling about by himself in a stairwell. I followed him as he entered a little room whose floor was made to look like a cemetery, strewn with small graves, candles and a saint’s shrine. There he knelt as if in prayer before rising, and turning to me, locking me in his pleading gaze, he extended his open hand toward me in agonizing slow motion. I hesitated a moment, then gave him my hand. He clasped it, drew me in, then turned my hand over as if to read my palm. In a perversely intimate gesture he slipped my hand under his dress jacket and placed it over his heart. I could feel it beating. A perfect stage prop heart. He leaned over and, whispering in my ear, asked, “Am I alive?” Moved, I said “ Yes,” placing my other hand on his shoulder for reassurance. He dropped a shiny trinket on the end of a string into my hand, which later inspection revealed to be a bit of Hanukkah gelt, then off he spun again, arms flung wide, crying out in a stage whisper, “Then I can be born again!” I elected to leave him on his own after that and exited by another door.

Sleep No More is a Gothic hall of mirrors, in which the objects in rooms – statues, old radios, a bath tub lit by a ghostly spot, or a telephone gleaming sinisterly on a small table – take on the resonance of the piece and generate their own echoes. The overwhelming effect is a mixture of claustrophobia and delightful apprehension. The masks the audience members wear blank out personality. We enter a carnival space, but it is a somnolent carnival, attendant on shadows. This formal stricture makes the audience players, too. Eddies and swirls, small flocks and herds, form and re-form, following actors from room to room. A volatile space emerges, in which dramatic energy is produced by the audience as well as the cast.

Yet the gothic, finally, can be too much of a good thing and I found myself longing for some interiority, something beyond the attenuated and crepuscular Lynchian foreboding and the acrobatic pantomimes of tuxedos and evening dress. What I wanted was some language. Even taped voices in an empty room, now and then. Or as Ingrid so brilliantly suggested, a mix of registers – where one comes into a room in the midst of a full-blown Mamet-like tirade. There were one too many scenes of a solitary person – Lady Macbeth, Mrs. Danvers – crawling about on all fours, acting the madwoman.

But to conjure and maintain delirium is a tricky business and maybe the decision to ban dialogue is a wise one. A devotion to a certain species of silence is required if the spell of the haunting is not to be broken. Though the whole may be less than the sum of its parts, what Sleep No More gives one, in the end, is a vivid re-enchantment, a sense of deep mystery and a haunting cavalcade of images and scenes drawn not so much from the unconscious, as from the collective memory of a thousand plays and films. It is theater re-imagined as narcotic.

On Vampires and 9/11

The obvious explanations offered by the media for the rise of popularity in this genre is that it stages the dilemmas and tensions of erotic possibility in enticing and dramatic scenarios, adding a new twist to an old story of love’s dangers and frustrations.

But another theory suggests itself – beyond even the campy crypto-gay themes that these shows often indulge in – and that is the notion that vampirism is the perfect trope for the reified status of intimacy in late capitalism. Vampirism in this sense may be read as a model for the predatory relationship between management and labor, or lover and beloved. As the lover preys on his or her beloved, so capital sucks the life from labor. But instead of producing horror and revulsion, this spectacle has become romantically gratifying on a whole new level of frissons: it has become the norm for relationships, embodying at once their impossibility and the parasitic quality that fuels them.

The vampire, as a figure of transgression, a romantic rebel, has accordingly become the tamest and most wildly popular of heroic types. The “rebellion” – of living outside the daylight world and the laws of time and decay, etc. – has become merely another tired repetition of capital’s exhaustion of the human subject.

Beyond that, the vampire, finally, is another variation on the haunting of postmodernity. A figure of the ruins of culture, the vampire is more ghost than Undead: a revenant who, in the wake of 9/11, takes on a particularly potent symbolic aura. Vampires are tropes for a blasphemous secular resurrection. Their popularity attests to our pervasive anxiety and trauma over terrorist attacks and is likely to continue through this current geopolitical crisis.

On The Terminator

The most arresting visual trope in all three of the Terminator films occurs during the moment of “the reveal.” The Terminator’s human carapace, subjected to hails of bullets, explosions, impacts and fire, is peeled back to show the metal skull beneath the skin. The Terminator’s line could be Iago’s: “I am not what I am.” The most effective of these reveals takes place in No. 2 where the young John Connor commands the cyborg to slice the skin from his forearm and, before the terrified face of Dyson, the CyberDyne scientist, impress on him in the most dramatic terms the reality of his metal infrastructure. As a seeing-is-believing moment, it’s hard to beat.

Yet the conclusion one can draw from these gothic spectacles is not what you might think. The terror of the reveal is not that, underneath the skin, the Terminator is a metal robot. Rather, it’s that underneath all our skins we’re afraid we might find that we’re nothing more than robots ourselves. That all our warm, mammalian impulses are merely grafted onto a mechanical, deterministic base. This is the real ideological message of the Terminator movies: man is always already a machine. What else could we be in a capitalist system that prizes the human as labor unit above all? In this way, the subtext of the Terminator movies anticipates the nightmarish image of humanity enslaved as depicted in the Matrix films.

More than that, though, the image of the Terminator, a machine sent back from the future, confirms the ultimate triumph of capitalism in which all humans will be converted into machines. It is a vision of alienated labor as ubermensch and destiny. The metal skeleton argues for, oddly enough, a biological determinism, marketplace Darwinism run amok. We are nothing more, at bottom, the films say, then a lot of hardwired responses and cold bits of survivalist software.

One of the most visceral pleasures that the Terminator movies provide is that of seeing how the body is wounded; how it suffers wounds with impunity, indeed, without any effort to avoid them. As the carnage progresses, the flesh is frayed, gradually destroyed and stripped away. What results is the spectacle of double-gratification: a kind of perverse striptease accompanied by the slow revelation of indestructibility. The pleasure afforded by multiple bodily penetrations, gaping bloody wounds, makes the body of the Terminator a pornographic one, pierced over and over.

Criticism as Theology

What motivates the critic before all else is love. Criticism is less an act of interpretation, than an erotics of reading, as Sontag knew. The critic writes not to elucidate or correct, not to dispense moral wisdom, but out of love for the strangeness of the beleaguered word. A critic teaches us how to read, which means: how to re-read. An act of devotion, in other words.

Criticism disrupts familiar patterns of reading, just as art itself does. As Geoffrey Hartman says: “the mystery of aesthetic education is in the understanding it gives of liminal or transitional states” (CW 262). Criticism as a secular theological activity is committed to this mystery.

The critic begins out of rupture, a sense of being shattered and haunted by something powerful, and a desire to re-invoke, to re-chant the text and its hold over him, to enter again the force field of its affect and plenitude.

Book reviewing, on the other hand, is concerned with settling opinion, policing boundaries and repressing the eros of reading in favor of the publishing industry’s death whispers.

The critic wants to unsettle opinion. She is more concerned with the questions which reading generates, with its disruptions. The book reviewer is an umpire. Useful, but pedestrian.

On Messages from the Beyond

In a New Yorker profile of a psychic investigator & skeptic named Nickells, he asks: if the dead really can speak to us from beyond, then why don’t they have anything more to say than second-rate pop psychology and banal platitudes?

The history of discourse shifts in mediumistic communication from its modern inception in 1848 in New England with the Miller sisters (sic) would be an interesting one to trace. From that time until the high water mark of the séance in the 1920s, it was always the personal dead who spoke a message of healing and comfort. The popularity of this movement appeared to die out sometime before WWII and did not re-surface in a mass way until the 1970s and the appearance of the Seth material by Jane Roberts. This opened a floodgate of similarly coded messages from “beyond.”

The banal platitudes remained more or less the same – recyclings of various ancient philosophies from neo-Platonism to Hinduism, with the main difference being that this time around the messages were from extra-terrestrial or trans-dimensional “beings” instead of from the earthly dead. This shift in sources, but not in register, can be understood as the response to a need for some authority outside the human yet in some way still recognizable. Hence, the gargling theatrics of J.Z. Knight and others channeling ancient beings or galactic entities whose purported wisdom necessarily suffered from the “translation” into primitive human language.

Channeling itself may be understood as the effort to produce a surplus commodity for the spiritual economy – it comes for free, from “nowhere,” as it were, but gains its value only through re-sale on the market. The Other Side is that portion of human activity that seeks to extricate itself from the mundaneness of ordinary exchange, but can only receive recognition of its worth when it is re-inscribed within that system of exchange.

In fact, there is no Other Side from which the dead speak to us. There is only the Inner Side, where, if we are to learn how to listen to our own most urgent promptings, that which would set us free of the deterministic chain of history, then we must first learn ourselves how to speak. This is why poetry and music and all art will always speak with a greater profundity than anything the so-called Other Side can muster.

Channeling is simply spiritual supply-side economics.

On Living Life to the Fullest

The fatuous injunction to live life to the fullest, to take nothing for granted, to live as though each day were your last, is nothing more than an invitation to a heightened form of sentimentality on the one hand, and on the other, an acknowledgment that the lives we already lead are oppressive, confining and soul-destroying; that the labor we undertake, the routines we must follow, are a kind of prison sentence; and that only by making the effort of a conscious, and indeed, violent, break with that routinized existence can we begin to remember what it is to be capable of absorbing our own experience.

As a poet, I humbly submit that I am already living my life to the fullest. Absorbing experience and re-directing it through language is what I do. “Life to the fullest” is an expression, anyway, that begs for some further examination. Is it a consumerist model of experience that is being promoted here? To live life to the fullest means first admitting that life as it is now is dreadfully and scandalously empty. Hence, the soteriological function of terminal disease as a redemptive trope.


Case in point: the fawning press coverage of “The Last Lecture,” and its the tiresome doling out of the injunction to “live every day to the fullest.”

While this effort to recapture some meaningful form of experience from the iron cage of the matrix is laudable, it begs the question: what do we mean by “full living”? Is it intensity, untrammeled, the unmediated thing in itself? Is it the recovery of experience from the domain of regulated behavior? What would that even look like? The valorization of full living presumes some primal originary space where the bourgeois subject can throw off the chain of reification and participate in some oceanic sense of self that is mysteriously a-historical. It is the final expression of the ideology of self-actualization. Nowhere is this better attested to than in the current vogue in adverts for My-ness. “My body, my biography.” My-ness becomes the trope par excellence for self-consumption and the reification of the perfectible subject.

“Living to the fullest” means: forget that you are constituted from without. Yet the desire to get outside is real and should be honored as genuine resistance. If only it were that simple. As Bunting says: “It easier to die than to remember.”

Thnking The Dead

“The dead” names a category, not of personhood, but of memory. It constitutes the manner in which the trace of their absence is held and re-composed, made to signify as the other who is always near, yet irreparably distant.

Thinking of the dead this way enables us to pose the messianic as an intervention in the construction and reception of memory. It offers a way to name the dead as an order of belonging that cannot be hijacked by ideology, but maintains the power to speak allegorically (as strangely otherwise) from a location outside cultural structures for regulating memory. The dead are not only sheltered within, but provide a touchstone for the singularity of experience itself.

Moreover, as a category that mixes or confuses exile with continuity, the dead can be seen as paralogical ruptures of historical, institutional time brought about by the invasions of singular memory (the forgotten, the repressed, the unpresentable) – in a word, hauntings.

The dead are a form of the sublime.

On Damaged Life

A distinguished scholar recently asked me if I believed, as Benjamin claimed, that civilization and barbarism were inseparable. My flip response was: you got a better theory? But I gave what was an equivocating answer, riddled with some vague hopeful dream of progress. Yes, modernity is bad, but we have made great strides forward and will continue to do so. Hegel’s dream of progress as the continually expanding freedom of consciousness still holds.

If had to answer it again I would forcefully declaim the dream of telos and universal history. The more enlightened we become, the more there is to atone for. As Adorno, glossing Pascal, puts it: “The abundance of real suffering permits no forgetting.” This is the core of dialectical thinking and there really is no getting around it, I’m afraid.

Witness the outpouring of anguish for the victims of the Haitian earthquake. The West mobilizes to send relief and all the palliatives of care are speedily deployed. George Clooney has spoken. George Clooney cares. And who can doubt it? But the larger point is missed: Haiti today is the entire Northern Hemisphere 60 years from now. And who will organize the telethons then?

At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that Benjamin and Adorno’s gloomy pronouncements on culture should never be taken as Absolutes, as tempting as it may be to do so, but as specifically charged statements arising out of a particular historical moment – the 30s and later, for Adorno, the late 50s -- and a particular social situation – being Jewish.

But – have things really gotten better?

Have they?

Or has the amnesia become more pronounced, the drugs even better?

On Tom Twyker's "The International"

Tom Twyker’s smart, well-paced espionage thriller, scripted by Eric Singer, is by no means a perfect film. But it’s the first to have wed the geopolitical worldview of LeCarre with the scathing analysis of international finance performed by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. “The value of a conflict,” an Italian political candidate informs the hero (and the audience) shortly before he is assassinated, “is in the debt that it produces.” This is Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism in a nutshell. Political crises are no longer solely manufactured for purposes of regime change, but in order to enrich banks and investors. Of course, Klein’s take down of the Chicago School and how it was played out in Chile and the UK is considerably more nuanced, but the film gets points for gesturing in this direction.

The extraordinary set-piece that dominates the close of the second act – a vertiginous shoot-out along the winding ramps of the Guggenheim Museum – is an act of audacious vandalism. Bullets spray, bodies dive, spectators crouch in terror while glass art installations shatter and fall through the rotunda’s spiral well. The effect is one of playful destruction: a mockery of high culture values and pretensions and of the museum as a site of privileged voyeurism – not at all unlike a movie theater. What the melee destroys is not so much “priceless” works of art – those hallmarks of unique genius – as the economy of exchange that governs the art world’s marketplace values and dictates our habits for consuming them.

The futility of the ending, embodied in Clive Owen’s exhausted state of unshaven dishevelment, is that the System cannot be brought to heel. Individuals can suffer street justice, but they will only be replaced by others, just as ruthlessly dedicated to the bottom line. As Jameson, Arrighi and Harvey have dismally noted: the totality of world capital has become a kind of self-replicating nanotechnology: a planet-eater, in sci-fi terms. Only the planet in question is not material substrate, but the living biosphere of human labor and human suffering.

History as Geology

The meaning of history can only be expressed in geological terms. Everything else we can say is just teleological daydreaming. Rather than study secular fantasies of transcendence (ala Marx or Hegel) we should examine more closely the patterns of glaciation if we want to quantify the absolute.

And this will inevitably lead to a crushing sense of despair. That we are on the precipice of a 100,000 heat-induced coma. Not sustainable development, Lovelock urges, but sustainable retreat.

Does this mean that we should abandon hope, or that the struggle for universal justice should be forfeited? To say that geology is, in the most real sense, destiny, is not to embrace nihilism, nor should we relinquish volition in the quest to widen possibility and achieve restoration for the oppressed. Which is also now the earth.

(To trust in youth. Because youth means: to live outside of – or before all -- history).

The Messianic

“Only the Messiah himself consummates all history, in the sense that he alone redeems, completes, creates its relation to the Messianic. For this reason nothing historical can relate itself on its own account to anything Messianic. Therefore the Kingdom of God is not the telos of the historical dynamic: it cannot be set as a goal. From the standpoint of history it is not the goal but the end. Therefore the order of the profane cannot be built up on the idea of the Kingdom, and therefore theocracy has no political, but only a religious meaning.” -- Walter Benjamin