So Much Depends

What’s left unsaid and undone could be a future too. — Les Wade

Last fall, Christian Hawkey invited a number of writers worldwide to participate in an experiment based on Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (trans. Marc Lowenthal, Wakefield Press, 2010, original French publication 1975). Over three days in October 1974, Perec sat in Place Saint-Sulpice, recording “everything” he saw, in an attempt to capture what he called the “infraordinary” — “what happens when nothing happens.” So, over the same three days in October of last year, less than a week before the one-year anniversary of Occupy Oakland, I made four visits to Oscar Grant Plaza, the location of the Occupy Oakland camps, General Assemblies, and many related actions. I was most interested in how one might even begin to describe/document a place (much less “exhaust” it) so laden with history and memory, not just any history, but a very raw and loaded history of violent contestations over the very public space I was now attempting to observe/record, histories increasingly under erasure as the city worked hard to remove any visible traces of Occupy’s presence in the plaza and downtown environs. Needless to say, the challenge to keep my writing aimed towards the “merely” descriptive/objective would be impossible, just as it would be difficult to document the “what’s-no-longer-there” that is still very much present and palpable in the landscape for those of us who experienced so much time, energy, and collective action at Oscar Grant Plaza.

Six months later, I typed up my notes, cut them into groups of 1-2 sentences, & then went back to Oscar Grant Plaza to “(de)compose” this report. During the middle of a “normal” downtown Oakland workday, I used my strap-on lecturn to perform a mobile site-specific “reading” of the fragments, sprinkling them on the lawn in order to re-order them, to disrupt the chronological, to further shuffle the observational notes already cut-through with all that has happened at OGP (& all it continues to represent) & yet is no longer visible to the kind of infraordinary optics Perec’s project attunes us toward. This is not to suggest that the banalities of everyday life & public space are somehow “less so” than the more extraordinary events of Occupy Oakland & its related offshoots & actions, but rather that the absence of the extraordinary — the events deemed worthy of writing about — still infuses the ‘merely’ ordinary with a kind of tangible vibration beyond what the simple practice of focused (“writerly”) attention already adds to the sensorium. In other words, there’s no longer any presence of Occupy to observe/write about at OGP, & yet I can’t not at all times write/think about Occupy at OGP.

Thus perhaps between every line — in the parataxic scissors cut between each sentence — breathes all that remains unsaid, unwritten, erased, yet still alive & potent, & in the same way, perhaps within the infraordinary of as-yet uncontested/unliberated spaces we might begin to see the potential for extraordinary possibilities.

Oakland : June 2013
[transcript of video text]

People continuing to enter Rotunda. Some big event. Somebody yelling across street in front of Rite Aid, seemingly to no one in particular. Two bikes locked up next to BART stairs. But – what kind of task – meaningless? vs. tasks with use value (cleaning dishes, serving food at the BBQs…). On screen is PDF of Perec’s “Approaches to What?” Said “Controlled burns & formally [formerly?] prohibited plant matter” then repeated it louder. One other person sitting on amphitheater steps, looks like B—, there was sound of loud voice speaking, first I thought he was on the phone, then someone further away, then kept looking around, now realize it’s him, talking to himself. Said “Controlled burns & formally [formerly] prohibited plant matter” then repeated it louder. Walk around perimeter of plaza to front steps. More trash than last night. Security car still parked on ‘stage’ but no one in it. What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what so long we’ve pillaged from others… Sit on plaza steps, two people come up from BART and get on their bikes, one looks like X— from OO/FTP, he seems to recognize me too, but it’s dark, I say hey, he seems to say hey back or the other way around. Otherwise all quiet in plaza. If I turn 150 degrees to my right I can see the Frank Ogawa bust. Getting up to move locations. 8:30 pm.

Pass another guy in dark recess in front of whatever that building is, going through his things. Over to my right a few signs — tho again I know to look for them since I know they’re there, & curious why none over near where I sit. Another couple approaching, he’s white with shorts, in those awful feet-bootie shoes or whatever, in his hands a pair of what look to be climbing shoes. Black guy with black hoodie pulled tight over his head (to stay warm, it looks like) passes, asks me for a cigarette, then as he turns to walk away says, it’s not safe to have that thing out here (meaning my laptop I assume), then later, you could be the police. ‘Nothing’ going on. “Controlled burns & formally [formerly?] prohibited plant matter.” Black man walking slowly by, large green pack, 4 full plastic bags, backwards cap, sets all his shit down on bench. Guy still talking to himself, smoking cig, turns to look at me, wondering if he’s paranoid about me writing & watching. Almost stepped on dead rat, which I didn’t see til I had to turn around to pull PJ, who’d stopped to sniff it, thus pulling on her leash. Now walking behind me, towards BART. She has red hair & a shoulder bag. It’s like the crosswalk beeping never stops — since one way is always green, perhaps. Security cop texting across lawn. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? (Not what but where). (Crosswalk light beeps go). Speakers over by ‘the plaza steps’ (of all the steps those are the steps) — Now out of view so I can’t describe. Noticeable difference b/t who walks thru plaza & who hangs out here. The latter seemingly w/ nowhere else to go. I have a subjective experience. Is that the endotic? Feeling this (writing) is boring — & not ‘good boring’ — & not ‘boring enough’ to become something else — What we need to question in bricks, concrete, glass… Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare. Getting colder. 8:58 pm. Late for the reading.

Crosswalk signal beeps green. Passing woman kicks bottle cap & it registers as sound, 20+ yards away. There’s a party horn in the distance, some kids at the bus stop talking shit, bicyclist goes past. BART is closed. Writing on laptop. Rat runs across lawn to oak tree. Security cop’s car was running. Why. So much depends / on the gray / metal fence / alongside the plaza. To my left sitting on lawn steps, black man w/ plaid flannel shirt, blue cap, with black woman, her sliver bag on ground. I take them to be a couple. The oak tree is lit up from beneath. Get to that later. I ask if he wants me to let them run on lawn so he can chase them, earn his $, he sez “I’m at work, not looking for work.” Sitting on bench alongside OGP lawn / facing south / slight breeze, overcast, colder “than usual” (?), wearing two layers & AK hoodie, jeans & boots. Rat scurries beneath my feet. Emji sits down next to me. 12:55 am.

Want to write that she’s ‘non-descript’ but only cuz they’re now out of view so I can’t describe. &/or maybe ‘non-descript’ means just that – once out of view, hard to recall anything to describe — nothing ‘stands out.’ But the endotic… Partly cloudy. Cold breeze rustling leaves on ground. Maple, I think — lightly brown, gives a little taste of autumn tho not much with the min-palms & oaks. Green tea resting on large concrete planter box to my right, strong smell of piss. ‘T-money’ on bench in black markers. Lots (?) of flies nearby, makes me look for garbage/attractions. This time around, red converse hi-tops, black tights rolled up calves (gray under), red shirt, black leather bag w chain or rhinestones, looks to be either side of 18 (?), walks by me a 3rd time & around corner. (But the humanist focus here? why ANTHROpology?). One approaching me, goes under bench. More arriving — most on lawn — some pecking — sod food? grass seed? They all leave in a flurry but one, who lingers then splits after the rest. Dogs stand up, are curious. Someone walking across plaza with slight limp, walking very fast then slows down. Rat runs out from under tree. Can’t tell if flowers still there. No one has features. Sorry this is so uninteresting. 2:48 pm. Unclear what event might be. Flip side of card is ad for “fashion forward show for the community” Oct 28 @ Oak Metro Opera House $40 turn the card back again to see an OO insignia in corner, above the FB & twitter logos. How phone makes for blinders (obvs). There’s an orange cone on its side 15 yds to my left. Writing with pencil that says THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS. No idea where they are parking cars downtown Sat night. Various lights no in surrounding buildings, but most if not all appear empty of people. Clear sky, cold but not freezing. Don’t recall how crowded any of these places got pre-OO around weekday lunch times, but always shut down on weekends. Have seen 3–4 private security cops. Presume they are protecting lawn & not policing behavior/’lifestyle crimes’. Tho I knew this already so perhaps am ‘seeing’ it now as such only for knowing — & knowing that it’s off limits currently — & that the fence only recently came down — Sprinkler on in 3 corners of lawn, of course brings to mind Lake Quan. Across lawn, next to the oak tree, flowers — shrine? — basket, some sort of vase, one plastic cup w flowers, spilled onto side, maybe a candle? Can see lights on inside 6 different CH windows but no evidence of anyone inside. Wondering if Radio is bugged upstairs. At what point do paranoia jokes become possible? White woman with nametag on black jacket walks by behind me. Small prop plane flies overhead. Man goes downstairs into BART station. They’ve each finished the small rawhides I gave them, it’s 5:15 & there are 10 windows open in City Hall, 25% of total, & the crosswalk is beeping go. Immediately fighting off the objective, as well as memory. White pickup goes by, reminding me that R— called earlier, ½ moon up in SE, vertical sign that reads (vertically) “Oakland City Center” — I’ve pissed there during GA, on building next to it a For Lease sign. I thought he was on the phone, then someone further away, then kept looking around, now realize it’s him. Dogs’ ears are up & rotate to follow sounds in multiple directions. I’ve not exhausted this place. 5:30, took 5 min. break on phone.

Tweet from M— about GA/OOFC but not clear what went down. There are 3 ‘floorlights’ shining up onto the bust of Frank Ogawa. Weird effects. 2 boys on bikes. No one has features. Cloud cover thinning so a bit sunlight, find myself squinting — & thus scowling? — w/o sunglasses, which I didn’t pack. Maybe ‘non-descript’ means just that – once out of view, hard to recall anything to describe — nothing ‘stands out.’ Passed woman w pink bike, Polynesian I believe, one shoe off, black sock, pink h2o bottle that looks like a child’s. 4 different sprinklers now on. Too cold to #makenothinghappen. At least not solo, not now. The amphitheater really does amplify sound, even tho it doesn’t look like it would. He’s got black hair, pants, bubble jacket, backpack, glasses, “it’s like watching the grass grow” he sez (to himself?) — (!) Dogs tied to handrail. Woman w pink bike sitting across corner of lawn, 2 women walk by, blues sneakers maroon pants, both w h2o bottles, green shoulder bag, jeans, red back pack, too far gone, that’s it, that’s — them? Mail truck drives by. Buster yawns. They both turn heads when someone drops something. Now 3 guys at gazebo. ‘Hanging out’ & shooting shit outside door. 5:05. Going to stand & move.

The couple continues on, chatting, she’s shorter than him, red shirt, her hair’s up, he’s got a h2o bottle, she says “no” but I can’t make out the rest, someone whistling in the distance, yelling, from where I sit I count 62 lights on in the plaza, plus 4 beneath oak & one turned off/not functioning. I’ve not yet exhausted this place. Kid walking by talking on phone. “Cartoons can take you places.” Man sleeping in same spot as last night, wrapped in blanket, lying flat on back on pavement next to lawn. “Sketchy” is not an objective description. Difference between bodies in public spaces in day and at night. Walk around CH to piss, through sliver of space between City Hall and Clay St parking garage can see sliver of moon. Flowers are still there. Writing as an aid to presence? Seeing? But then — toss the writing if/since it’s just a tool? Walked to amphitheater. Maybe he’s actually white or mixed, salt-n-pepper beard, my phone vibrates in my jacket pocket. PJ’s sniffing the air. 4:55. 2:44. Feel like I’m just getting started but ‘need to’ (‘should’) split.

Next to me on bench is colorful card for “The Sophisticated Hyphy Show.” & look at that — hosted by Shake Anderson. Asian guy returns, turns out he’s the security guy, gets in his car. Then comes over & asks to pet the dogs. Suddenly pigeons, at least 30. One approaching me, goes under bench. Bright Red shirt on kid — not a kid — man in 40s? — w blue backpack & weird mismatching tie, shirt untucked, long arms, brief eye contact — he half-signs? — is this parataxis? It’s now 1:56. “Get Up, Stand Up” on radio now — does not pass my attention that we’re at OGP listening to this — (who’s ‘we’ Are ‘we’ all ‘listening’ — in the same way?). Man sleeping in sleeping bag on pavement 2 feet from lawn. 2 of the security cops just stand, the other walks around, more social. He has white earphone in one ear. Walkie talkie strapped to belt on side hip. And how to describe what’s not here. It’s 2:18. Dude stops & I turn to watch dog roll on its back, as if scratching on the ‘ground’ — cement? plaza-street? — wrong order — I turn to look, man stops — either way, no causality — Security cops have black caps that read SECURITY in big white letters. Yet resistant to categorize. Sound of bus stopping, that burst of expressed air — brakes? Brief eye contact — he half-signs? — is this parataxis?

Wrong order — I turn to look, man stops — either way, no causality. Had been putting off describing woman sitting nearest me — at 90 degree angle, in red, occasionally talking on earpiece (?) phone – mic — ‘handless mic’ (?) but now she’s gone. Black woman w black jacket, gloves, & wool cap jogs up CH steps & goes inside. It’s not just the tents & camp that are gone, but the smell. My fingers hurt from so much writing. Just realized I am sitting about 10 yards from where I was arrested, almost exactly one year ago. For everything I write — SO WHAT? Why does it matter? Security cops have black caps that read SECURITY in big white letters. Large woman on large bike, smiling. Old Asian woman ‘shuffling’ — red rain jacket, with hood pulled tight around face. Breeze picks up, smell of piss stronger. Watching myself (‘watching’?) as I ‘decide’ who is & isn’t likely homeless among folks here — ‘Nothing’ going on. Woman walks by behind me. Single small bike locked up. Woman asks two other passersby for a light. They have one. Now — ‘back to normal’ — ? No pigeons, no tents. And what counts as ‘objective’ description — or, since I obvs don’t believe in ‘objectivity’ — something approximating ‘mere’ description. Sound of crosswalk signal — ok to cross. Using gender for short hand — why not just person — since for sake of ‘record’ doesn’t matter. Want to put pen down & ‘just’ observe, though then I’d likely daydream or check out. Man walks by reading his cellphone. Security guard talking to 2 other guys outside door. Oh, Running Wolf does have his sage stick burning. Want to write ‘hate that shit.’ Am wearing the same thing I wore this afternoon, tho I did bring another layer if it gets colder. Observation & documentation requires some degree of focus & presence but it’s not like I feel more alive. Dude bikes by CH. Have to text myself or I’ll forget —

What is presence. City Hall — no sign of people. I have a flask of bourbon in my backpack. Just noticed there are 5 flags on CH, not 3. So ‘little activity’ today — compared to what? Not sure if I’m ‘present’ but focus on description — even if ‘soft focus’ — does keep my mind off other shit — the shit week, stress of to-do, fatigue, depression — even now, just making a list doesn’t necessarily trigger them — fire truck sirens approaching. Parked in garage & walked down concrete stairs where I’ve pissed during GAs & nearby #OO actions. Couple is back, woman with red shirt now has h2o bottle, she sez “dude I get you” & “I feel so good right now.” They walk across the lawn, both in short sleeves. Noise amplified by reflection of City Hall, ‘amphitheater’ — sounds reverberated somehow. Dude w red bandana, masked up. Why. Observing myself being observed. Not the same as ‘self-consciousness’ — I’m object, just information, data. As if Perec’s model is the model to work from. “After” P — Am I ‘noticing’ anything? Noting? or just ‘jotting notes’. Why write self-reflection now — it’s happening, always, but not ‘part of the project’. There’s not really shadows here. 2:36. Something approximating ‘mere’ description. Cop car on 14th in front of Walgreens — sticks out as til now been ‘ignoring’ traffic. Get to that later. 2 boys, one woman. young. Leader does the talking. Woman trails behind, seems more aware of immediate surroundings. I’m not stoned, so I’m seeing/sensing this way & not that. Doubtful that these descriptions would give any reliable ‘picture’/map. Clock tower bell tolls 12:45. Emji’s standing & taking notes. There’s not really shadows here. But it’s not like I feel more alive. If you’ve not been to OGP, doubtful that these descriptions wd give any reliable ‘picture’/map. But it’s not like I feel more alive. 3 flags on City Hall — US flag, gold/green OAKLAND flag w/ oak tree and 1838 (?) & what looks like CA state flag — not enough wind. So much I’m leaving out — but not conscious of why choosing what — other than cops, bright clothes, loud sounds, pigeons fly by again, movement. Walking back to truck, pass alley where two women in full-length saris are smoking, what appears to be a pipe or joint, but can’t tell. Someone walks in front of City Hall. Man sleeping in same spot as last night, wrapped in blanket, lying flat on back on pavement next to lawn. No pigeons. No tents. 12:25.

Need to think about why avoiding people. So much minor activity / So much to describe / yet why choose what — in what order? Security cop texting across lawn. What is presence. Am I ‘noticing’ anything? Or just ‘jotting notes’. Looks like maybe some chalkupy — going to walk by before I split. Meanwhile crazy guy split — didn’t notice. Warming up (the weather, not me). Bus on 14th heading E, stops in front of Walgreens. Today — compared to what? Something about this weather, location, guy sleeping near me, the lawn. Immediately fighting off the objective, as well as memory. Guy bikes by behind me, trailing what looks to be a ladder about 12-15’ long, resting length-wise on an apparatus w/ wheels, a large ‘ski bag,’ odd silver/metal ‘fans’ hanging off ladder in back. Polly Jean & Buster here w/ me, leashes tied to bench, we’re facing west, sitting on plaza to north of lawn, near steps where we gathered pre-2nd raid and NYE pre/post Bring the Noise/FTP. They all leave in a flurry but one, who lingers then splits after the rest. Now — ‘back to normal’ — ? Private security guy alone in car parked on amphitheater ‘stage’. Have to remember to soften my gaze. Yet resistant to categorize in writing/describing — it’s shorthand — Reflection of passing car lights on glass doors to City Hall make them appear as if opening. Pigeons back. Dog barks behind me. And how to describe what’s not here. Going to stand & move.

Overcast, w dark orange glow. Getting colder. Black guy walking by, rat runs out in front of him, guy stomps foot and laughs “did you see that?” Grass is spotty — mostly green & trimmed/cut, but some lighter almost-yellow. Otherwise all quiet in plaza. Across 14th woman in a high-waisted long skirt, looks by the way she’s walking that she’s in uncomfortable heels. 12:39 — time goes by ‘quickly’ — compared to — ? Cliché but plaza does feel stagey. The security guards look bored. 2:04. Taking break to trade texts w/ J— about X.

I don’t recall rats at the camp but there must have been? Need to think how/why Perec’s ‘isn’t’/ ‘What he leaves out makes the music’. “14th & Bway” will always signify to me in very specific ways. Is that the endotic? My phone sez Berkeley considering ban on homelessness. Double long bus drives down 14 towards Bway, stops in front of Walgreens, another behind it. Still ‘putting off’ describing people. Observing myself being observed. Not the same as ‘self-consciousness’ — I’m object, just information, data. Banner hangs over front door: Oakland Fire Dept / Salutes / Fire Prevention Week. Sorry this is so uninteresting. Brief eye contact — he half-signs? — is this parataxis? OGP only exists as a potent site after the event. The rats are always larger than I think they … ‘should be’ — ? As if life reveals itself only by way of the spectacular… W/o the camp some of the cats ‘back to’ crazy hippies. Sod is fairly new — tho I knew this already so perhaps am ‘seeing’ it now as such only for knowing — & knowing that it’s off limits currently — & that the fence only recently came down — & that it might go up again pre-#O25 — nobody knows tho that’s the word —Hella pigeons, all clustered — maybe guy sitting there just threw them something? Plane overhead. Lone Asian woman now walking other way — ‘back’? — across plaza, white plastic bag swinging from left hand. 2 guys open door to green gazebo. Somebody coughs — a ‘hacking cough.’ Continually comparing this writing to similar models/styles. 8 Asian women walk by, in clusters of 2’s & 4’s — just off work? It’s 4:48. Holding Perec booklet between left forefinger & middle finger, left thumb holding notebook open. Noticed her — or decided of all the people to ‘write about’ (v ‘describe’?) her 1st cuz she strode on grass. Thought for a sec I saw Melvyn. Wanted to go talk w/ him, get a temp check. Black woman w shorts & holding plastic bag talking w/ security cop. Pigeon wings flapping — they’re gone. There’s Running Wolf. No sign of sage. Again, feels like this is uninteresting but it’s something to focus on. Tasks. The sound of my backpack zipper reminds me of camping — opening the tent ‘door’ — very slight breeze — more like the moderate chill in the air is just letting itself be known as such — as the night air around me. Have to text myself or I’ll forget — dogs seem bored — &/or I’m projecting. Kids gone from amphitheater. 2 men exit City H while I’m describing sign & flags but in both cases I miss seeing them ‘actually’ exit. How to describe what’s not here — not just the camp, but ‘everything’ that could be but isn’t. Sadness. Or: saudadé. Still curious why OPD never staged raids from down there. Lots of folks ‘lingering’ — hanging out? On or around ‘main steps’. Person of indeterminate gender walks by, swinging arms. So much minor activity / So much to describe / yet why choose what — in what order? Sound of bird or rat nearby.

Loud car engine draws my attention — then another — it’s a truck on Bway, now a large US Food semi going south on Bway. Asian man sweeping leaves out from of (closed) Rotisserie Deli. Red light flashing slowly on top of building one block or so ‘over’ (14th & Clay?). Taking break to trade texts w/ J— about XX. Unclear what event might be. Trying to figure out how to describe the music now — I think it was the trumpets that drew my attention to it. Then he splits to go on his rounds. Why write self-reflection now — it’s happening, always, but not ‘part of the project’. Now — ‘back to normal’ — ?


A Manifesto for Discomfortable Writing

(Outside, glorious illusions) – An Antena Collaboration


Dis-ease is useful to me, or the dis-abling of habituated practices of language. The idea of something not working, something not being sayable or reproducible, (re)printable, carries its own charge.
— Myung Mi Kim

Peoples who do not know each other should get to know each other in a hurry, like those who are about to struggle side by side.
— José Martí

What good is art when people everywhere don’t have enough to eat?
— M., member of Revolutionary Autonomous Communities,
a mutual aid food organization in Los Angeles

Seeing things, the alternative seeing of things, the seen and seeing alternative, which a certain deployment of crisis is meant to police, is the crisis of genuine disclosure and generative disruption.
— Fred Moten

• To make common currency uncommon.

• To make us strangers in a place we thought was home. To find spaces for listening inside strangeness.

• To refuse complacency and allow risk to alight inside our own bodies.

• Thinking is doing. Doing is thinking.

• We write discomfortably because we are probably wrong, yet compelled to learn. To learn from our errors.

• We are language workers in a workspace made of language. We are using language to push language into wild, unsettling, discomfortable forms. This process might be painful. This process might be joyous. This process will be infinite.

• Language and world are inseparable. Language and action are inseparable. We use language to think about the world: the world being language. We turn our minds and bodies to the language we are using: aware of the constant constraints and impositions of that language upon us. The language being the world, its multiple and multiplicitous brutalities. The perpetual brutalities of an unjust language. The perpetual possibilities of justice in language.

• We use the term “writing” to refer to a range of forms of aesthetic work and practice. If writing is a form of art, then we insist on the cohabitating inverse: art is a form of writing. We embrace the different materials and techniques that various forms of art-making and organizing entail: the discomfortable welcomes them all.

• Criticality is the seeing of the window and the frame and the smudges on the glass, as well as the landscape, cityscape, or humanscape outside the window. Criticality is the seeing of our own seeing, accounting for our own position, stance, perspective, history, infrastructure, substructure.

• Criticality is not optional.

• Discomfortable writing unsettles the complacent eye and opens it to the unexpected, the real and the hyper-real and the sub-real: the conditions of the world as it is and the potentials of the world as it might be.

• We reject the automatic. Automaticity is unquestioning acceptance of the conditions and brutalities of the world-as-it-is. To automatically act is to automatically collude.

• We embrace the everyday. Repetition, routine, and ritual also contain sparks of discomfortableness. The foundations of daily life are a springboard into the stratospheres of the discomfortable. The discomforts of daily life are the texture of our resistance.

• We are not averse to good rhythm, but we distrust language that is too fluid, too easeful, too smooth. Without the snags, the surface becomes slick and we slide into so-called comprehension without pausing to question or remember how much we do not know.

• Capital traffics in the smooth, the cool, the easy. Capital is not interested in reminding us that there is more to learn; in fact, capital colludes to soothe us into thinking we already know everything, to produce a sense of normality, expectedness, regularity in a world that is anything but.

• Capital is also famously obsessed with the new and the next. We insist that its aim is not learning, but consumption and assimilation, with its attendant leveling of difference. Discomfortable writing rejects assimilation, preferring to linger in moments of rupture, to dwell in the snags, seeing what we would not, could not see, seeing our own seeing.

• If our work does not question the terms of the status quo, it is the status quo. The murderous status quo. Our context is an avant-garde that has throughout history aligned itself with revolutionary political movements.

• It is our responsibility to make the world as we wish to experience it—to create the conditions of our resistance, our solidarity, and our irrepressible liberation even as we acknowledge the very real and concrete effects of living in a world where injustice is institutionalized and enforced via all kinds of subterranean and overt violence.

• We have no patience for the divide between art practice and political practice. We have endless patience for doing the hard imaginative and practical work of building a more humane and just world. We are here to dismantle the master’s house!

• Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Yvonne Rainer: “You can dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools, if you expose the tools.” Antena: “The master’s house began to collapse on its own long ago. Use any and all tools you can get your hands on and speed the process. Demolish the master’s house carefully enough to recycle the building materials and make tiny houses for everybody. With any leftover materials, we’ll make small books.”

• Discomfortable aesthetic work is necessary if we are to imagine and begin to build a new world. Art is more than graphics to accompany our slogans. Poetry can imagine new possibilities within language. Poetry and other non-conforming forms of writing can create discomfort, manifest expressions of our distress and dysfunction in the context of unjust structures. Our work is made of attempts and failures and further attempts: we will learn to think, dream, and imagine differently and it will not be easy. Our work is ongoing.

• All language is in conversation with other language. Writing is not a purely individual pursuit: it emerges out of communities, movements, relationships. We read and write in order to interact not only with other individuals but also with other formations, other systems of thought, other histories. We need to hear and experience things that are far outside our comfort zone. We need to question the very divisions between zones, between comforts, between persons.

• We want to invoke a curriculum of contemporary and historic discomfortable writing by people of color, feminist and queer authors, and by writers of all orientations and backgrounds who are queering language and dismantling systems of privilege. We believe in a pedagogy grounded in humility, open-source sharing, intellectual instigation and political activation.

• Our reading practices—and hence our editorial and programming and teaching practices—should reflect the demographics of the world. And if not the world, than at least our neighborhood, our corner of the world. Most corners of the world are more heterogeneous than might meet the unsuspecting eye.

• We advocate for books to be radically available: whether they live on the Internet, in libraries or bookstores, in homes, in kiosks on the street, in free boxes outside infoshops. Wherever. Whenever. For whomever.

• Discomfortable writing should exist in public. With bookstores closing their doors, and libraries shut down due to “austerity” measures, it is up to all of us to get these books into the world, where people can encounter them unexpectedly and be inspired by them. Make pamphlets! Write manifestos! Steal photocopies wherever possible and make books!

• Revolutionary rewritings need radical re-readers anywhere and everywhere. Open source is the only source.

• We stand (or sit resolutely) for the small, the tiny, the little, the under, the refused and the refuse, and also the oversized awkwardly gigantic in this svelte world of normalcies. We reject industrial, commercial models of literary production. We have an anti-industrial complex.

• While enthusiastically intellectual (and against rampant USAmerican anti-intellectualism), we are opposed to gates and their keepers and literary-academic elitism. We prefer to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

• We don’t accept or seek to proffer the same old definitions, strictures and restrictions of an inherited, white, USAmerican or European avant-garde. What constitutes “experimental” or “innovative” or “adventurous” work is structured by feeling, by sentiment, by history, by historical oppressions, by networks of communication and legacies of conflict. By place and time and context and the vastly textured skein of what it is to be a particular person in a particular place.

• There is no vacuum within which discomfortable practice can be judged. There is no judgment that can encompass the discomfortable.

• We use the term “discomfortable” to remind ourselves that this process might not feel good. Discomfortable writing makes us uneasy and functions in un-easy ways. Discomfortable writing makes demands, posits imperatives. To think differently, it is imperative that we find different language(s).

• We live in a slow space, an insistently snail’s pace. Our work with language is necessarily slow, effortful, considered, non-accidental, and not automatic. To work consistently in more than one language and between languages is slow and often awkward. To write something in one language and then take the time to translate it into another language means waiting, means collaborating, means multiple attempts. We believe in this slow process. Labor takes time and we believe in the time that it takes. Discomfortable time.

• We demand discomfortable time.

• Participation in a complex intellectual and political dialogue with many different kinds of readers/thinkers/speakers is a slower, less visible kind of change than other forms of agitation. We believe discomfortable language is its own form of activism or (dis)organizing—disorganizing the structures of institutionalized non-consensual domination and subservience that are embedded in the textures of our language.

• We believe discomfortable writing and speaking are in fact practiced all the time by all kinds of people. You don’t need a college degree to do discomfortable language. Often, the most discomfortable language has been marginalized for being “improper” or “lesser” or “slang.” All of these forms throw a wrench into the machine of language standardization and dominance.

• We reject the imperialism of English, its constructions and syntax. Discomfortable writing enthusiastically undermines the dominant structures of English and the structures of English-language dominance.

• Language justice work enables us to listen fluidly-not-fluidly to things we cannot readily hear: frequencies that are beyond our comprehension without the tools language justice provides. Discomfortable writing enables us to listen fluidly-not-fluidly to things we do not always attend: the scaffolding of the ways language functions to buttress ideology or silence dissent.

• The space of writing is a laboratory, a place to create unexpected combinations of like and unlike things and explore the results, a place to make attempts and embrace failures and extend investigations without regard to a clear sense of destination or outcome.

• We refuse to rest on our laurels. In fact, we don’t have any laurels! We have asses, and we are willing to work them off. We will be stubborn but not intransigent. We will be open to suggestion, persuasion, whim, and acceptance of the errors of our ways. We will look back and we will look forward.

• We are not post-anything. We are and we continue to be, without a clear break; we become complicit and resistant and insist on motion. We believe in interruption, stoppage, open-endedness. Nothing is over. Everything is over. We have barely begun. We are in the midst of the midst.


Myung Mi Kim, “Ear Turned Toward the Emergent,” Close Listening, Jacket2, February 19, 2012.

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984. Text of “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” is available at:

José Martí, “Nuestra América,” originally published in La Revista Ilustrada de Nueva York, January 10, 1891 and El Partido Liberal, Mexico, January 30, 1891.

Fred Moten, “necessity, immensity, and crisis (many edges/seeing things),” Floor Issue #1, 2011.

Revolutionary Autonomous Communities, conversation in MacArthur Park, June 16, 2013.

Trajan’s Hollow


POCKET LANDSCAPES – Trajan’s Monument to Poché

1_Piranesi_Colonna Traiana
Figure 1: Piranesi, Giovanni Battista. Colonna Traiana, 1758

Standing amidst the cacophony of Rome’s Piazza Venezia, Trajan’s Column slips easily into the lively frenzy of tourist and city buses, excavation sites (both archaeological and infrastructural), and traffic (pedestrian, auto, and motorino). As anywhere in Rome, these networks of transit, commerce, and artifacts are layered as thickly above the streets as they are buried beneath them. Through this earth rich with aggregate imperial desires, Mussolini carved an axis connecting his Palazzo Venezia office (and underground bunker) with the Roman colosseum, revealing and dividing two sets of ancient cellular plazas, the Imperial Fora and the Republican Fora. Along this axis, anchored by the column, sits Trajan’s Market, an imperial complex carved into the side of one of Rome’s celebrated hills.

In the voids left by both Trajan and Mussolini, the bombast of imperial power feels equal in scale and determination. But while Mussolini’s cut through the strata of this city intentionally obliterates certain histories (the medieval) in favor of a singular view of history (imperial conquest), a reading of Trajan’s Column as material artifact offers an alternate condition where a simultaneity of locational reference and experience are contained and anchored by a single edifice (and its artifice). Trajan (emperor from 98 CE to 117 CE) remains notable for extending the frontier of the Empire to its farthest limits, orienting formerly “barbarian” lands towards Rome. The celebrated column was erected to commemorate Trajan’s conquest of Dacia (modern-day Romania), a calculated act of rational, if viscous, expansion, completely in keeping with the centralizing tendencies of Rome. However, the column also unwittingly acts as a monument to the simultaneity and opacity of place—a contrasting alternative to the hierarchical ethos of the dictum “All roads lead to Rome.”

The column embodies, epitomizes, and ultimately monumentalizes the contradiction between Rome’s desire to locate through centering and the persistence of the unknowable (but not placeless) space of the city. This material sense of the known vs. the unknown can be easily related to the multiple understandings of the architectural term poché. From an architectural perspective, poché includes not only the “pockets” of thickness contained within massive masonry walls, but also the types of functions that are sometimes buried within, such as staircases, servants’ quarters, secret corridors, etc. Because it is hidden, literally or experientially, poché denies an understanding of dimension, geometry, orientation, and ultimately of location itself. The drawing techniques found in Giambattista Nolli’s 1738 map of Rome clearly demonstrate several different understandings of this term. At the level of representation techniques, poché is the intense repetition of hand-engraved lines used as infill within an outlined form to produce a field of gray. In his famous plan of Rome, Nolli’s rendering of the Pantheon reveals a differentiation between two different tones of poché, the darker used to represent true mass or thickness such as the stone masonry of the Pantheon’s at moments 20-foot-thick walls. The lighter tone of poché is used almost everywhere else and ambiguously refers to a condition of opacity, which may be one of solid material thickness, or may indicate a conceptual thickness—spaces either unknown or off-limits to the public.

Figure 2:  Nolli, Giambattista. Map of Rome (detail), 1748

The experience of Trajan’s Column shifts between these different conditions of poché. The chiseling techniques used to excavate the stairs and apertures within the shaft create a chiaroscuro microlandscape of texture: at each moment where outside light pierces through the windows, an intense field of pattern much like Nolli’s engraving techniques is created. This association with landscape connects the thick marble drum to the quarries of its origin in Carrara. More significantly, within this extensively documented city, the interiority of the column is not only literally hidden from view, but exists as a material lacuna in the consciousness of Romans and tourists alike. Conceptually, the nomenclature of the “column” seems to register only as an architectural element, denying the possibility of internal habitable space. More mass than void, Trajan’s Column oscillates between architecture and architectural marker—between fissure and monolith.

While the slender column operates as a spatial marker like the myriad other obelisks, fountains, and statues that mark the center of so many of Rome’s piazzas, it could also be seen as a compression of all the material contained within its purview, as if it replicated the centripetal tendencies of the Empire, gathering and compressing so much mass from afar. Trajan’s Column shares a similar diagram as Hadrian’s Mausoleum (now the Castel Sant’ Angelo): a massive cylinder with internal helical ramp. But while Trajan constructed what would become the resting place of his ashes in 113 CE, 17 years before his second cousin’s mausoleum broke ground, it could be imagined as a dwarf-star version of the latter, condensing all the material of the grand earthen drum while maintaining the central void excavated to house the body of the Emperor. The variable densities implied here would offer a radically different take on Nolli’s map of Rome.

window matrix_alignedWith this conceptual density locked within its marble walls, more than any other monument in Rome (and perhaps the world), Trajan’s Column operates as a monument to and tower of excavation. With the exception of the significant and much discussed act of stacking 20 drums of marble, each weighing 2 tons, the power and nuance of this monument is due to the successive removal and reduction of material—from the quarrying of the marble, to the voiding of the internal spiral stair, the carving of the 43 window apertures, and the chiseling of the bas-relief frieze. While assembly seems to connect to location through desire or will, excavation is more rooted in material acceptance and exigency—embodying the readiness to work with that which is found rather than imposing that which is desired (through the literal importation and assembly of disparate elements). In Bachelard’s subterranean space of the cellar, the act of excavation connects each individual location through the common medium of soil; here, the abstractions of geometry, geography, and distance are swallowed by the maw of the earth. What better way to connect the aspirations of the tower to the actuality of the earth (albeit an earth originally 250 miles away in Carrara), while its narrative describes the conquest of a landscape (and people) over a thousand miles away?

Figure 3: Every window of Trajan’s Column. Images: Andrew Riggsby

Like so many other archaeological spaces, the column offers a thick buffer against the harsh light and sound of the contemporary city, although here, rather than descending into the damp must of the historical dig, we instead spiral upward, simultaneously leaving the earth while becoming more aware of its cool, massive solidity. This projection of excavation out of the earth allows for a simultaneity of vision afforded by elevation (the ostensible raison d’etre of the column) and by perforation: it is a tunnel with a view. But the set of windows offers an experience quite different from the aerial one, as the column drum could be understood to operate as a thickened zoetrope, filtering out the gestalt of its context while assembling an animated coral-like aggregation of fragments, vignettes, and details. The overexposed cityscape of contemporary Rome is glimpsed through a radial mineral sponge—the baroque domes of Santa Maria di Loreto and Santissimo Nome di Maria, the turn-of-the-century classicism of the Altare della Patria (Il “Vittoriano”)—as jump cuts framed through the deep marble proscenia.

Figure 4: Zoetrope views from within the column. Click to open GIF in separate window. Images: Michael J. Waters

Figure 5: Exterior view of window in the column. Image: Joshua G. Stein

As the embrasure expands each window aperture from exterior graphic rectangle to capacious wedge of interior space, the pattern of chisel marks highlighted by the oblique light raking across the stone surfaces creates a set of miniature mineral landscapes. As these interior pocket grottos encounter the exterior bas-relief, itself an illustrated narrative of territory and its acquisition, they maneuver themselves into the gaps between soldiers’ bodies, stretching to stand in for a cavalryman’s shield, or morphing into the background of the relief’s vernacular architecture. At other moments, the specific location of a window aperture in relationship to the assembly of the columns’ giant stacked drums creates an intersection of window and seam, one slowly eroding into the next over the millennia. These local “aberrations” produce a set of similarly sized rectangular apertures, each uniquely modified according to its context within the unfolding story of conquest and within the tectonic assembly of the monument—so that an expert scholar of the column could locate his or her exact location within this speculative zoetrope based solely on the signature profile of each window aperture.

Figures 6 & 7: Embrasure and texture within the column windows. Images: Joshua G. Stein

Rome itself operates both as a center of fait accompli rational planning celebrated by historians and as a subterranean labyrinth of fluid potentiality. The liquid association here is apt, as the massive earthen heterogeneity of this deeply layered city is in fact due to the walls of Rome operating as a mold into which the Tiber would deposit successive layers of material history, trapping and burying millennia of artifacts of all scales within this urban-scaled “cast.” The hidden spaces of the city—ancient aqueducts and sewers, the thickened double-shelled domes of the baroque, and the secretive spaces of sects and curiae, off-limits to the public—conspire to create an extensive complex of irrational, unknowable spaces equal to those more clearly hierarchically ordered. Trajan’s Column constitutes an appropriate, albeit unintentional, monument to the dual nature of this city—studied, interpreted, and idealized and yet persistently thick, opaque, and massy. While the column’s observation platform surveys and surveils through a rational understanding of territory, its material presence connects us to the less rational underworld extending just below the surface of that very terrain.

Epilogue – Trajan’s Hollow

8_JK_Trajans Hollow
Figure 8: Trajan’s Hollow, a revision of one drum of the original column. Image: Jason Kwong

This alternate reading of Trajan’s Column was extrapolated from the artifact left to us, existing quite independently of the possible desires of its architect, Appolodorus of Damascus. Trajan’s Hollow, an ongoing project initiated at the American Academy in Rome, attempts to extend this trajectory through a series of intensely material “reproductions” of the column, each exploring an aspect of the above agenda in a way the original could not. If the material of history could be used as a filter through which to reinterpret the current surrounding context, would our understanding of empire and territory shift? Although the “place” of the kingdom of Dacia was obliterated, or at least buried, by the gerrymandering of military and political conquest, misreading Trajan’s Column could introduce a porosity to the Roman notion of imperial space so that it might be infiltrated by the subjective space of the topos. This intense interiority, focused more toward experience than governable dichotomies of inside or outside, might offer a simultaneity of idealized abstractions and specific material events.


Made without Hands


Gilbert Hage’s book 242 cm2 (Underexposed Books, 2012) presents twenty-two landscape photographs that were taken in 2006, in the aftermath of the latest Israeli war on Lebanon; each of these photographs is 242 cm2 in area and is titled “242 cm2.” Why did he title each thus? What made him consider that each of these photographs had to be in a one-to-one reproduction ratio in relation to its referent? Did he try to zoom in on them but failed to successfully do so notwithstanding that according to the technical specs of his camera, he should have been able to do it? Whether he tried to or not, one cannot zoom in on such objects—thus they are auratic natural objects!1 While moving away after taking one of these photographs, did Hage have a similar impulse to the one a spectator is likely to feel when having ostensibly concluded looking at Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533) he or she moves away toward the right to leave the room in the National Gallery in London: to turn and look again at the object? Did he yield to the impulse? What would he have seen then if “242 cm2” is a rigorous title of the photograph that is 242 cm2 in area? If he could still at that distance discern the specific “small” piece of land he photographed, and distinguish it from the surrounding ostensibly largely similar landscape, he would have seen that that piece of land would have overlapped part of what was the adjoining area! Toward any of these 242 cm2 zones that Gilbert Hage photographed, one cannot move without either undergoing a lapse of consciousness only to find oneself at the right distance from it, the one from which it would occupy 242 cm2 of one’s field of vision; or becoming entranced, thus concurrently not moving, again since, irrespective of one’s movement, it continues to occupy 242 cm2 of one’s field of vision. As with an anamorphosis, where there is one point of view from which it becomes clear what the anamorphic stain or smudge is, there is a specific distance from which the part-object that is the referent of one of these Hage photographs (themselves part-objects: an image that can only be in a one-to-one reproduction ratio in relation to its referent functions as a part-object) appears to be fully part of the landscape, fitting seamlessly in it: the distance from which it covers exactly 242 cm2 of the field of vision (it is when standing at this distance to that spot that one may naively assume that one has taken a normal photograph in terms of its relation to its referent); at all other distances, it does not fit seamlessly in the landscape to which one has presumed it belongs, but is too small or too big for the relative size one expects it to have, either leaving a blank between it and the surrounding landscape (this blank acts as a frame) or else overlapping part of the latter (this sort of anomaly would have been easier to notice had the photographed area been, say, 10,424 cm2—how lucky Hage happened to be, or how intuitively prudent he was, to have photographed a smaller area!). Is Lebanon bigger than one of these 242 cm2 zones that Hage photographed? It is bigger than one of them from the reference frame of someone close enough to these zones; as one moves away (in trance) from them, while they continue to occupy 242 cm2 of one’s field of vision, the rest of Lebanon appears smaller and smaller, until, past a certain distance, it appears to be as small as and then, as one’s distance to them becomes even larger, smaller than the sum of these 242 cm2 zones that are ostensibly part of it, and then, as one’s distance to it becomes still larger, smaller than a single one of these 242 cm2 zones. Indeed, from a certain distance, Lebanon, with its 10,424 square kilometers, about which Lebanese nationalists (chief among them Bachir Gemayel, the one-time commander of the Lebanese Forces militia, who was imposed as president of Lebanon by the Israeli occupation forces only to be assassinated three weeks into his term) stood their ground and stuck to their guns, would look tinier than the various 242 cm2 zones Hage photographed in that country, since these maintain their size of 242 cm2 in the field of vision from any distance. I would term the referents of these Hage photos icons. Hence I consider that one would be well advised to look for icons in Lebanon less, if at all, in that country’s many Orthodox churches than in the referents of the photographs of Gilbert Hage’s book 242 cm2. Hage’s “242 cm2” photographs are indexical representations of icons, but they are not themselves icons2 (for the photographs of these 242 cm2 zones to prove to be themselves icons, they have to continue to occupy 242 cm2 of the field of vision irrespective of one’s movement toward or away from them; this is not the case with Hage’s photographs). Hage’s photographs of these 242 cm2 zones are far more deserving of becoming iconic, this time in the sense of “very famous and well known, and believed to represent a particular idea” (Macmillan Dictionary), than such frequently photographed and filmed touristic attractions as Raouche’s Pigeons’ Rock in Beirut and the cedars in Lebanon and on the Lebanese flag.

One can find Gilbert Hage’s book here at the artist’s website.


1. A line in my book What Were You Thinking? (Berlin: Berliner Künstlerprogramm/DAAD, 2011) appears to imply that black holes and their event horizons from the reference frame of an outside observer are the only natural objects that have aura: “If there is a natural object that has aura, it is the black hole and its event horizon from the reference frame of an outside observer” (pp. 27–28).

2. Were the referent of one of these 242 cm2 photos titled “242 cm2” to be filmed, the filmmaker has to specify on which screening format (for example the huge screen of an IMAX theater, a large TV screen or a small computer screen) it is to be shown exclusively or make different versions for the various screening formats so that the image of the object continues to be 242 cm2.

Feeling Center

A Place for A Rose



Photograph by Frank J. Thomas, Pasadena Art Museum, 1969

In 1958, Jay DeFeo began work on The Rose. It is a monumental work of art that explodes from its center, evoking a feeling of deep time within a palpable present. Said to embody the entire history of art, beginning with the first bang of inspiration, the painting was originally called the The Death Rose, then The White Rose, and finally The Rose. While many of DeFeo’s works are part of a series, a triptych, or a pair, The Rose stands alone, embodying successive forms and evolving visions.

With a passion equal to religious fanaticism, DeFeo threw herself into the creation of The Rose, transfiguring herself and her environment through the practice of making. More than just a final product, The Rose exemplifies a manner of creation. In an oral history she gave in the 1970s, DeFeo is quoted as saying, “…when I started The Rose, I had no notion of the rose about it. The title came later. It was just a painting. All I knew about it was that it was going to have a center.”1

The central locus of The Rose served not only to anchor the painting itself but also the activity around it. In artwork by fellow artists in San Francisco at the time—Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman, and DeFeo’s husband, Wally Hedrick—The Rose appears as a constant backdrop to the events that unfolded in DeFeo and Hedrick’s apartment and the nearby gallery they ran called Six Gallery. In photos taken by friends, The Rose even acts as a second presence, another figure in the room with its own depth and emotion.

The painting itself is three dimensional and massive. The final version measures in at 128 7/8 x 92 1/4 x 11 inches and weighs close to a ton. It was built up over eight years through the continual application, removal, and reapplication of layers and layers of paint, until not only the canvas was completely covered, but areas of the walls and floors of the apartment as well. A small yellow piece of company stationary, from the local paint shop from which DeFeo bought her industrial grade paint, estimated that DeFeo purchased over five thousand dollars worth of white paint alone.2 It was the lead in that white paint that is sometimes blamed for the physical and psychological problems that afflicted DeFeo after she stopped working on The Rose.

Three trends define DeFeo’s art practice: it is personal; it shows the struggle of its creation; and it is fractured. All of these are present in the The Rose. But unlike some of her other works, The Rose grounds itself in its strong center. Like a photosensitive canvas for feelings, the painting captures the sentiment and history of DeFeo and the world around her, her own personal narrative becoming tangled up in the long history of the painting itself. The final iteration of The Rose is almost bulbous, as if the canvas is overburdened and needs to expunge some great desire or expression beyond the constraints of its surface, to push the envelope so to speak. In his essay, “Jay DeFeo: The Transcendental Rose,” Robert Berg suggests that we can see The Rose as a giant womb, pregnant with life and creation, a being about to be born. Despite its emotionally laden form, its representation was borne out of an almost technical act of creation: emotions and passions were applied, with the paint, to each successive layer simply through the passage of time connected to a daily practice of working on the canvas.

Scholarship on DeFeo’s work occasionally focuses on her status as a woman during the Beat Era or the religious undertones of her work. More common however, are the discussions that highlight her personal struggles after the completion of The Rose, as she endeavored to find a museum to purchase the painting after its removal from her Fillmore Street apartment in San Francisco. Had DeFeo been able to finish The Rose in time for the 1959/60 MOMA show, Sixteen Americans, her career might have taken off and her story might have been quite different. DeFeo could have nurtured a career in New York, traveling to museum openings and making new works of art, but that would have taken her away from her work on The Rose, which she wanted to finish before starting anything new.

Viewing The Rose next to photos of its earlier iterations, the final version seems to lack some of the vigor and vibrancy that permeated earlier incarnations. Rather than pregnant, it looks bloated, sagging in the middle. Rather than taking its final form as a completed piece, the moment in which the piece was finally finished, we can instead understand it as simply a place to stop, the last pass of many successive passes. When Hedrick and DeFeo were evicted from their apartment, the space to continue working on The Rose was simply no longer available, and the conditions that allowed for DeFeo’s eight years of focused practice on a single painting disappeared along with it.

Place, and more specifically, the centering of her art practice in long hours of work and the space of her apartment, was crucial to the creation of The Rose. Installed in the bay window of DeFeo’s Fillmore flat, the canvas was expanded early on, after which it filled the entire area of the bay window. The side lighting created by the placement of the canvas proved essential to how the painting developed and was appreciated. Museums that exhibit the piece today sometimes attempt to recreate the effects of that side lighting within the gallery. In order to remove The Rose from the Fillmore apartment, a section underneath the bay window had to be removed as well. In a short film Bruce Conner made of the day The Rose was removed, “The White Rose” (1967), one of the final images is of DeFeo sitting in the hole left by the removal of the giant canvas. Next to her is one of the old and dead Christmas trees that DeFeo collected, marking (or filling) the void left by the sudden removal of the painting.

Following DeFeo’s eviction, it was years before a new home was found for The Rose. It travelled first to Southern California, and then back to San Francisco, before making its way to New York. It was stored in obscure gallery spaces and even behind a false-wall in a conference room of the San Francisco Art Institute. Only years later did the Whitney Museum finally conserve and then acquire the painting.

There is something poignant about The Rose’s need for a home. In the numerous letters Jay DeFeo wrote to curators and art critics in the hope of finding a place for her masterpiece, the desperation is almost palpable.3  Where The Rose had first been a site for inspiration and artistic practice, it later became a burden. Unable to continue working on it, DeFeo was determined to find a place for it, perhaps as a means for letting it go.

DeFeo’s letters also express a feeling of dislocation in her own life as she struggled to ground her practice after years of focused attention on a single painting. In a series of letters DeFeo wrote to Bruce Conner, the well known artist and DeFeo’ close friend and colleague, she explains how her later works were hampered by the confined spaces of her living situation; walls got in the way of the big canvas she wanted to make.

Tracing some of the trajectories of DeFeo’s work through representations by the artists who knew her reveals the centrality of place in DeFeo’s work, and perhaps nowhere as much as with The Rose. This offers a kind of counter narrative to the constant roving that is so endemic of the Beat generation’s search for truth. Rather than looking here and there, DeFeo simply dove right into the intense labor of the right here, right now. It was a process highly dependent on place and a routine made possible only by returning to the same spot and the same canvas day after day.

The proximity of other artists in the area around her Fillmore apartment meant that DeFeo could, even from her spot in front of her painting, engage in a vibrant community of art practitioners. Not far from their apartment, DeFeo’s husband, Wally Hedrick, ran the famous Six Gallery. It was in the Six Gallery that Ginsberg first publicly read his poem “Howl.” DeFeo invited her friends and colleagues into her studio, and they, in turn, drew inspiration from her work and creativity. The results of these exchanges now make up part of the oeuvres of Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, and Wally Hedrick, all of whom have works that feature DeFeo and The Rose, often in relationship to one another.

In a set of photos by Wallace Berman, DeFeo is shown in front of an early stage of The Rose. The underlying cruciform of the painting is much more apparent than in later versions, mirrored in Berman’s photo by DeFeo’s own outstretched body. Because the light is not centered on DeFeo’s heart but at her head, The Rose also reads as a halo, an expansion from her mind, rather than her heart. Rather than fusing DeFeo and The Rose, Berman’s photo puts them into relation with one another, at times mirroring, at times embracing, depending on whether DeFeo is facing toward or away from The Rose.

There is another famous and poignant image of DeFeo and The Rose, this time captured by Bruce Conner in his film, “The White Rose,” mentioned above. The painting and the section below the bay window have just been removed and the canvas laid on the ground. Once the canvas had been covered with material to protect it for transport, DeFeo laid on top of it. The shot feels like a private moment just before the painting is taken away and suggests another reading of The Rose: a kind of death image. In a eulogy written for DeFeo in 1994, Bruce Conner wrote: “[The Rose] was a masterpiece of spirit and transformation that almost destroyed [DeFeo] through lead poisoning and its dominance over her relationship to the conscious world.” The destructive process of DeFeo’s work is also what gives The Rose its vitality. The process of revisiting the same objects again and again, in new media, with new light, of tearing things apart and then putting them back together again, suggests a kind of seeing and bringing things into being that is dynamic, destructive, and regenerative.

DeFeo is quoted as saying that you cannot understand her work except in its totality.4 In other words, it is not in any one image that we can find the artistic center of DeFeo’s oeuvre; rather it is in the space between them, within the place of her practice. To give expression to the intangible space that unites DeFeo’s work, during the showing of the Whitney Museum’s retrospective of Jay DeFeo at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012), a famous drawing DeFeo made of her own eyes was placed across the gallery space from The Rose. The tension between the two pieces in the exhibit hall was palpable. The eyes are huge, and were made before she began work on The Rose. Visitors to the gallery were thus caught between the processes of seeing and making; the eyes of one canvas big enough to envisage the magnificence of the other. DeFeo’s work is precisely in the ether of the creative process, in the space between projects. The Rose, today, is just a frozen moment of a much longer practice of artistic creation.

Returning again to the work of Bruce Conner and his film “The White Rose,” several shots are dedicated to the footstool DeFeo sat on while working on The Rose. In the film, the footstool is the only furniture in the room. Caught in the light coming in through the windows on either side of The Rose, the scene looks as if it is from some bygone era; rustic, diminutive, and unchanging. As the camera moves closer to the footstool, we can see that it is caked with paint, remnants of the long hours spent working there. The small footstool looks weathered, and it is easy to imagine DeFeo returning to the spot marked by that seat, night and day, to work. In a 1994 essay about Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner writes:

I asked for, and received, the footstool [DeFeo] used when painting the ROSE for seven years. She attached a note to the footstool. It said: For Bruce
love, Jay
(“we are not what
we seem”)5



It is a final declaration of the importance of place at the heart of Jay DeFeo’s art practice, of the long hours painting, sitting, entering, and feeling center.



1. Quote taken the Oral History Interview of Jay DeFeo conducted by Paul Karlstrom; Session 3: January 23, 1976. Smithsonian Institute. Copied here from The Jay DeFeo Trust website:

2. Bancroft Library holdings: Bruce Connor collection.

3. These letters can be found in the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, within the holdings of Bruce Connors correspondences concerning Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose,” circa 1930-1996.

4. Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective. Whitney Museum exhibition on show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA), 2012.

5. 1994 essay on DeFeo [Became the text for the Kohn Turner Gallery Announcement of a show for Jay DeFeo “Drawings and Photo Collages from the 1970s.” The outside image being of the tripod].



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———. “The white rose.” s.n, 1965.

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Tolerance, Translation, and Ecstacy

A Future

“God brought things into being in order that the divine goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because the divine goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, God produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting in one in the representation of divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifest and divided; and hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly and represents it better than any single creature whatever.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1:47:1

“…all suprahistorical kinship of languages rests in the intention underlying each language as a whole—an intention, however, which no single language can attain by itself but which is realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other: pure language.”
Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”

In this passage from the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas insists that the “whole” of creation “participates in the divine goodness more perfectly” than any “single creature whatever.” The partiality of creation is not a flaw since “goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifest and divided.” The potential amorality of this proposition is precluded by both an appeal to recto ratio, which follows “eternal law,” and the formal—not manifest—models for behavior exemplified by certain members of the animal kingdom. Nonetheless, Aquinas, an apologist for Christian ethics during an age of increased intolerance by the church and laity toward ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, cannot completely ignore the philosophical foundations for tolerance in regard to the hierarchical and egalitarian map of creation. Already implicit in the comparatives “more perfectly” and “better,” degrees (but also kinds) of goodness can be attributed to and discerned in certain types of animal and human behavior. And because the good, qualitatively and quantitatively, is apparently immutable, if not omnipotent, certain types of animal and human behavior—specifically, animal and human sexuality—can be dismissed less as intrinsically evil than as abusive, the consequence of corrupted “natures,” already implied by “degrees” of the good in humans and animals. Only recto ratio is both “natural” and incorruptible. Thus, Aquinas’s concept of “human nature” suggests a bifurcated and graduated scale of goodness: uncorrupted good (recto ratio) and corrupted goods (e.g., postlapsarian heterosexual acts “redeemed” by monogamous constraints). Consequently, heterosexual promiscuity, consequence of an already corrupted good, serves as a formal condition for an analysis of homosexual acts, which can only be condemned, within this comparative and logical method, on the basis of their being more corrupt than heterosexual promiscuity. While the latter can hypothetically promote the good via procreation, however illegitimate, homosexual acts, even if monogamous, cannot serve as a form of procreation, thus precluding the promotion of the good. Theologically, the monogamous foreclosure of the good is more abusive than the promiscuous promotion of the good; philosophically, however, homosexual monogamy is a “better” alternative than heterosexual promiscuity since, for the state, political and social order is of the utmost concern. This alternative would seem to follow from Aquinas’s repeated concern for the welfare of orphans and single mothers, a concern both humane in general and philosophical in particular (i.e., the social and political disorder embodied in the categories “orphan” and “single mother”). However, Aquinas explicitly condemns homosexual acts as “more” sinful than heterosexual promiscuity; here, the theologian trumps the philosopher. Thus, Aquinas’s discourse on homosexuality is, in effect, both a concession to and a rejection of popular sentiment of the period insofar as two views of the subject may be gleaned from his remarks, one explicit (homosexual acts are sinful because they do not promote the good), one implicit (homosexual acts do not promote social disorder via illegitimate children and single mothers).

However problematic such formulations presented for Aquinas and other medieval Christian scholars, the human predicament—both animal and divine—implicitly called for moderation in all spheres of life. And if moderation in behavior was not exactly a homology for tolerance in belief, it certainly seemed to logically preclude certain kinds of intolerance. For unlike the scholarly concern with degrees of goodness, types of sin, and the consequent relation between behavior and belief, intolerance elides the problem of belief and hypostatizes behavior, conflating and treating both as one. Observation orients reason, and the consequences of erecting knowledge on the basis of what can be observed by the naked or prostheticized eye constitutes in toto what we might, for convenience’s sake, simply call the history of Western modernity, understood as positivism, up to the 19th century.

Despite the power this orientation continues to hold over various spheres of Western cultures, the concern with belief, with motivation, has never been entirely conflated with, or successfully linked to, behavior. Moreover, as the divide between belief and behavior widened during the partial secularization of Western states, mechanistic metaphors for the body and mind gave way to the return of, and fascination with, doppelgangers, doubles, and twins, facilitating the development of psychology as a field of scientific investigation, a development which posed a particular threat to the hegemony philosophy and theology had heretofore enjoyed in all matters related to human belief and behavior. Consequently, and increasingly, the problem of how to ascertain the nature of the relation between “inner” and “outer” spheres—in short, the problem of other minds vis-a-vis the origin of human society—became a problem of translation, literally and figuratively. To the degree translation depends on reconciling “inner” meaning with “outer” rhetoric, inner “thought” with outer “act,” it presupposes the possibility, if not inevitability, of inaccuracies and mistakes. Our willingness to read and accept in good faith not only translated works but also all modes of oral and written communication depends on certain degrees of tolerance. It would not be going too far to say that translation, given its foundation in the possibility of inaccuracy and mistake, presupposes tolerance, not only for a putative addresser but also for both the addressee and the medium. As we know, the inability to tolerate inaccuracies and mistakes can paralyze oneself during, say, the dissertation process, during the writing of an academic book, or during the writing of an essay for a class. Outside the academic division, however, the tolerance for inaccuracies and mistakes tends to drop significantly (which is not to minimize or erase the history of academic intolerance even within the spectral realm of “ideas”), presumably because the stakes in the “real world” are perceived to be greater than those in the ivory tower. And because the stakes are perceived to be so great, inaccuracies and mistakes tend to get conflated into the theologically overloaded term, error.

Even though the word error never appears as such in “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin’s presuppositions and elisions in his essay demonstrate that errors of translation presuppose the possibility of a final translation. Indeed, one can easily imagine the Tower of Babel looming behind Benjamin’s rhetoric as an allegory for the condition for the possibility of translation. The relationship he establishes between an original work and its translation is homologous to the relationship Aquinas establishes between divine good and created goods. Dispelling the philological superstition that the “kinship” of world languages implies their “likeness” to one another, Benjamin insists that kinship resides only in the separate and different “intentions” of languages. Collectively, these intentions comprise “pure language.” Since languages are constantly disappearing, altering, or coming into being, any given language can only gesture toward the pure language from which it derives. Thus, “… any translation of a work originating in a specific stage of linguistic history represents, in regard to a specific aspect of its content, translation into all other languages.”1 However, “bad” translations attempt to reproduce the “meaning” of the original language. In doing so, bad translations render themselves superfluous clones in relation to the original languages. On the other hand, “good” translations reproduce the “intention” of the original language and, in doing so, “echo” the intended effect or signification of the original. This “echo” constitutes what Benjamin calls the “afterlife” of the original. I need to stress that the life and afterlife of the original work are not metaphors for Benjamin; he means life and afterlife in their most literal senses. Thus, Benjamin’s use of “intention” refers less to the “motive” of a biological creature than it does to a living force of necessity within language itself. The consequences of this linguistic animism are numerous. As his reading of Marx, for example, demonstrates, the hermeneutics of interpretation retains, for Benjamin, its theological sense of unveiling or uncovering. Thus, “bad” translations are no longer simply “bad.” They perforce constitute the error of occultation, simulacra that perform a kind of identity theft, gesturing neither to pure language nor to the original. Here, error is always a mode of mimicry which, like ventriloquism, collapses time and space. Unlike “good” translations that uphold the rigorous distinctions between themselves and the originals, bad translations literally confuse things, conflate differences, erasing specific histories and cultures. Bad translations are thus a mode of intolerance, an inability or unwillingness to accept, in general, differentiation.

Benjamin’s intolerance for the intolerance that bad translations enact is founded on his general concern for the erasure of cultures and histories by modernity. Thus he treats translation the way he treats mechanical reproduction: a necessity that is itself an index of historical change as political progress and cultural decline. This narrative of simultaneous ascent and descent orients Benjamin’s entire theory of translation. Bad translations are errant translations because they betray the afterlife of an original language that has either died, however extant, or has disappeared into oblivion. Otherwise, there is no reason a bad translation, having aborted the afterlife of the original, cannot itself be translated with reference to the original language. But even if the original language has vanished from history, leaving only a bad translation as its stillborn afterlife, cannot that bad translation still be translated? And if translated well, that is, as an echo of the intention of the original bad translation, is that not a good translation? However “bad” the afterlife of the original bad translation, or even the afterlife of the original itself, either or both may be redeemed in the future by a “good” translation. In short, Benjamin’s failure to consider the implicit radicality in innumerable, promiscuous translations of a translation or original betrays his attachment to, his nostalgia for, the original, extant, dead or vanished. Yet his own analysis of the impassable temporal barrier between the original and its translation entails the most radical modes of tolerance since no one can ever say when the “best,” much less the “”last,” translation of a translation or an original will occur. Benjamin arrests this promiscuous indeterminacy at the end of his essay when he offers “Holy Scripture” as the template for all translation: pure language as the beginning and end of all languages.

Not only does Benjamin rein in the potentially promiscuous afterlife of an original. He also limits the originals that qualify for translation when he writes that only “certain works” have the “essential feature” of “translatability.” Although we might presume that bad translations would be among those works that don’t measure up for translation, this enigmatic qualification is never spelled out. At this point in the essay we find ourselves amidst the occult, perhaps because “translatability” is less an “essential feature” of “certain works” than the product of historical forces fused into a mode of necessity for a future reader no author or work can ever foresee or predetermine. In other words, just as all creation partakes of the good and collectively mimics the divine good, an implication Aquinas must circumvent by appealing to the necessity of corruptibility, so too all “originals,” because they partake of pure language, are theoretically translatable. Indeed, for Aquinas and Benjamin, we must translate ad infinitum, not in spite but because of the risk of error, for it is only through the transformations translation performs on an original that its error-free afterlife is even possible. That error-free future afterlife is only possible because the original’s birth is simultaneously its separation from God, from pure language. The original is born in error, and just as original sin must be translated into a good toward the divine good, so too the sin of the original must be translated into its afterlife toward pure language. For both, then, translation demands tolerance and intolerance. Intolerance must expel, bracket or neutralize error because it presupposes narration toward the social, the cultural or the political, good, a towarding always, however, vulnerable to error. At the same time this vulnerability to error demands tolerance at each moment and point along its trajectory toward the good since error, the original condition, is inescapable. Translation is indebted to tolerance and intolerance—tolerance for the possibility, intolerance for the manifestation, of error.

In evoking the possible and the manifest, we have returned to Aquinas and the problem of condition and behavior: sexuality and sexual acts. His dilemma is also a problem of translation, not only how to apply moral norms to animal behavior and translate animal behavior into normative mores, but also how to translate scholastic insights into canon law while calibrating canon law vis-à-vis scholarly research. It is not mere coincidence that medieval interest in the challenges of translation in its specific and general modes coincides with the obsession with “error” in all its permutations (rhetorical, grammatical, moral, social, theological, etc.), permutations often seen not as homologies but as linked to one another in a causal chain. In relation to these necessarily incomplete but potent concepts of translation and error, which led to calls for both tolerance (for example, Aquinas’ attempt to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy and Catholic theology) and intolerance (for example, the Inquisition), I want to uphold the radicality implicit in Aquinas’ insight regarding the intrinsic, if modulated, goodness suffusing what he calls creation, a radicality which exceeds its theological origins and parameters. In other words, Aquinas’ rhetoric on legitimate procreation as always oriented toward the future determined by the good opens up the possibility of retaining and affirming what this theological move must displace: an illegitimate future no longer necessarily determined by the good, an illegitimate future “for” which radical modes of toleration—not faith—will have been the offspring of an equally radical ethos. This illegitimate future is homologous with Benjamin’s “bad” translations.

At first glance, this emphasis on the future of illegitimacy, an illegitimate future, hardly seems radical since the recuperation of illegitimacy for legitimate ends is a central motif in theological narratives. One might hear variations on this thesis on any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday in a house of worship. Yet it is precisely the radicalism within this narrative that accounts for its rise and suppression as various “heresies.” Because this radicalism is prior to its recuperation at the “end” of the narrative, it is also the a priori condition for the narrative as such. Put another way, it is precisely when the possibility of the illegitimate everywhere present and yet always to come as the legitimate—in short, the narrative of recuperation—appears on the horizon of Western history that tolerance enters the rhetoric of politicians, theologians and philosophers as a way to manage, by liberal accommodation, its potentially disruptive effects. This is why tolerance gives rise to, and the uses of toleration arise from, the Enlightenment as religious pluralism even as cultural differences initiate the identity politics of Western modernity.

In the most general sense, then, the concept of tolerance is inseparable from crisis management, itself a kind of translation. At least as early as the Edict of Toleration (311 A.D.) issued by Galerius, Roman magistrates, having failed to exterminate the Christian pestilence, deployed Latin magnanimity as legal and ethical cover for a kind of Cold War détente: “wherefore, for our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the republic may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may continue to live securely in their homes.” While it is true that almost all the pre-Enlightenment discussions of tolerance concerned the possibility, desirability, or limits of religious dissent. Political dissent increasingly became a concern of Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Hume, Locke and Kant. Ten years ago the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was amended by a short statement on “Tolerance and Diversity: A Vision for the 21st Century,” signed by Mary Robinson and Nelson Mandela less than a week before September 11, 2001. I need remind only some of you that Xavier’s president, Michael Graham, issued a similar call for tolerance when he, in the context of the April 2001 riot in Cincinnati, chose “diversity” as the inaugural theme for the first Academic Day, held on September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on that Tuesday morning occurred three months to the day after the execution of Timothy McVeigh, architect of what had been, six years earlier, the most deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil. South of the border, exactly twenty-eight years earlier, on September 11, 1973, Chilean president Salvador Allende committed “suicide” during a military coup widely believed to have been orchestrated, in part, by the CIA. In linking the literary-philosophical histories of tolerance in the West with these traumatic consequences of intolerance that occurred on a specific date, thus conjuring up the “uncanny” in both its psychoanalytic and political modes, I am pointing toward a problem of translation—for example, between signification and rhetoric—as a problem of knowledge. And the problem of knowledge is, here, a problem of temporality, how we envision what is to come: the future as fulfillment of prophecy punctuated by significant dates read as signs, or a future as the unknown, the indeterminate, the impossible which never arrives. This second interpretation is implicit in Aquinas’s vision of a universe whose every part is not only “necessary” but also “good” even if the rhetoric and explicit thesis of the Summa Theologiae endorses only the first interpretation. This first interpretation, like Galerius’ edict, is a mode of what I will call liberal tolerance.

What are some of the presumptions of liberal tolerance as traditionally understood? First, prior to the Enlightenment, religion, like politics, is a public concern however private its tenets or practices. Thus Galerius issues a public decree permitting Christians to practice their faith “in their homes.” Moreover, the sphere of politics within the West presupposes some degree of secularization: hence the church-state alliance. A second presumption of liberal tolerance is that the religious or political entity being tolerated is a quantitative or qualitative minority: the former generally applies to political groups, the latter to religious groups. Finally, while liberal tolerance presupposes a conflict between political or religious belief systems, those being tolerated are generally presumed to be in error (religious minorities) or simply mistaken (political groups). Given the above, I will not have recourse to what I call “soft” tolerance, that “I’m Okay-You’re Okay” drivel so American in its circumvention of conflict based on real, intractable differences.

So let me approach the issue from a perspective alluded to above: the problem of tolerance as a problem of knowledge and temporality. If the conundrum of tolerance is due to problems of knowledge and temporality, then the subjunctive mood, the conditional voice, might very well be the articulation of more radical modes of tolerance: I might be okay, you might be okay.  Might could be understood here as a future possibility unlimited by present probabilities, a future until—not for—the “end” of time. Here, then, radical tolerance presupposes an ideal norm which is not a world of tolerable beliefs and creeds but rather an interminable suspending of belief, poised among stereotypes and clichés, which is to say, between fundamentalism and ecumenicalism. It is a twilight zone which must—I repeat, must—appear as indifference even though this mode of tolerance is radically differential since it affirms the temporal limits between “now” and “then,” to say nothing of “here” and “there.” This mode of tolerance is not deferred belief, a moment of suspension in anticipation of signs—for example, dates—that signal the advent of the apocalypse, the advent or return of a messianic era, religious or political. And though this mode of radical tolerance is the creed of the agnostic, it remains haunted by a spectral Gnosticism, a determinate theism. However distant from belief, however far “away” or “thrown,” this mode of tolerance remains in orbit around history, which is to say, around belief, around intolerance. Not that belief and intolerance are synonyms but that belief is the condition for the possibility of both intolerance and liberal tolerance. Radical tolerance, however, is mercurial, agnostic, though it never escapes the centripetal pull of belief and intolerance. Radical tolerance offers no predicates for evaluating belief, past, present or future, it cannot judge. Radical tolerance thus mimics the cynic, though it is far from cynicism. Given the above, radical tolerance is often understood as somehow worse than intolerance, prejudice, and bigotry since those beliefs, however fueled by fear or paranoia, at least seem more “alive,” more passionate, more “real,” than the steady-state humdrum of indifference falsely but understandably associated with radical tolerance. Because radical tolerance, strictly speaking, cannot be disambiguated, it can never be the foundation of an ethos, of a relationship to others, be they animal, mineral or flora—even though, like all modes of tolerance and intolerance, it is absolutely inconceivable without ethics. Thus radical tolerance can easily be mistaken for a kind of bad faith, a bad translation of ethical and moral responsibility. It must embrace this risk.

What, then, is radical tolerance? It is first and last a philosophical, ethical, and aesthetic relationship to a future always to come. To put it in quasi-theological terms, it is the promulgation and defense of the good everywhere present but yet to come. It can be glimpsed in the most ordinary of relationships, that which, for example, imbues a parent with the unconditional care of its offspring, however conditioned by subjective and objective interests. It is the mode of tolerance Aquinas displays when he maintains the distinction between philosophy and theology (for example, the universe as possibly infinite vs. the universe as necessarily finite) even if, in the end, both disciplines remain supervened by teleology. Radical tolerance is unending patience, unqualified love.

Consider the ecstatic aestheticism of the 19th c. British Romantic poet John Keats, an aestheticism encapsulated in what he called negative capability. Negative capability goes beyond all concepts of the good, beyond, that is, teleology in general. In a letter to his brothers, Keats, who admired Shakespeare as the quintessential “Man of Achievement,” proffers negative capability as the sine qua non of “genius”: “At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In another letter Keats suggests that this quality distinguishes the poet from the philosopher because it renders the former simultaneously poetic and unpoetic: “poetical character… has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character and enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet… A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity, he is continually filling some other body.” Keats’s evacuation of the poetical “self” is Aquinas’s creation writ human. Keats’s rhetoric encompasses Aquinas’ good in an aesthetic of creativity which supervenes both creation and procreation. Yet because the poet is also “the most unpoetical of anything in existence,” Keats’s poet is also Benjamin’s translator who, “outside facing the wooded ridge,” is dragged into “the language forest.” Benjamin distinguishes “The Task of the Translator” from that of the poet whose “intention is spontaneous, primary, graphic” while “that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational.” The radical receptivity and ceaseless movement at the center of negative capability calls into question the rigidity of these demarcations. For Keats, the poet may be as much a translator as he is a creator; he stands both outside and in the middle of the language forest as he mimics the translator shuttling back and forth between languages.

The issue here is not whether Keats himself ever lived up to his standards, how well he did or did not read Shakespeare. The “state of mind” implicit in his rhetoric entails tolerance in its most radical, and I would say, agonistic forms of doubt and uncertainty, especially in the face of implacable knowledge: September 11th, for example, whatever the year. Implicit in Keats’s negative capability, implicit in Aquinas’s creation, in Benjamin’s pure language, tolerance is radically ateleological. It presupposes no eventual resolution of doubt and conflict into absolute knowledge or social and cultural harmony. It presupposes no determinate scientific, religious, or political ends.

But if one is not seeking knowledge or understanding, why then inhabit others? Why invoke the ecstatic? Why a leap if not a leap of faith? For Keats, aesthetic pleasure, the pleasures of forms, various and different, is the beginning and end of this pursuit. The intrinsic pleasures of inhabiting, however imaginatively, multiple manifolds are central to Keats’s sense of the purpose, the end, if you will, of negative capability. What does any of this have to do with radical tolerance? Is there an aesthetic of ecstasy at the core of these modes of tolerance?

There is a tension in the terms Keats uses in these letters, specifically between the “Man of Achievement” and negative capability. The former seems to be premised on an active agent creating and forging objects while the latter appears to demand passivity, a refusal of agency. Indeed, in the two letters I cited above, Keats delineates these two strains of his thinking when he affirms those capable of “being in uncertainties, doubts, Mysteries, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” as well as those “continually filling some other body.” In these separate tendencies we see Keats’s radical fusion of perception and imagination in the service of the ecstatic. Still, were we to translate Keats’s entire project into a mode of civility founded on an ethos, it would appear to depend less on the decidedly non-ecstatic notion of liberal tolerance, traditionally understood, than it would on a kind of radical pseudo- or faux-sympathy. This is neither pre-20th century sympathy, which depends on a transcendental moral sense, nor 20th-21st century sympathy understood as an affective or ethical faculty. Radical tolerance cannot be boxed in by the absolute. To circumvent the universal/accidental dialectics of theology and philosophy, it must fall short of the absolute while remaining a step ahead of mere contingency, open to a future it cannot orient in advance. That is, radical modes of tolerance will always be subject to intolerance and—not but—will never become a form of intolerance only to the extent they remain open to a future no matter what happens before “then”—which, like the last translation, never arrives.

Since I began by linking this radical mode of tolerance to Aquinas’s sense of divine totality as absolutely and relatively good and to Benjamin’s theory of translation supervened by pure language, I cannot claim that radical tolerance is some kind of exorbitant loophole that allows one to completely escape the theological grounds that orient, for example, Aquinas’ interpretations of human sexuality vis-a-vis “nature” or Benjamin’s distinctions between “bad” and “good” translations. Although the future, by definition, never arrives, radical tolerance would still seem to be dependent on the hope for social or cultural goods, however deferred. How long, then, is long enough? How much must we tolerate before we decide enough is enough and become intolerant with, as we say, a clear conscience? Is the difference between liberal and radical tolerance merely a matter of dates and eternity? Again: radical tolerance cannot answer to a date—September 11, 1973 or September 11, 2001. To do so, to limit it to a date or dates, is to concede in advance that what was once deemed tolerance was, in fact, the hedging of bets, the most traditional and liberal enactment of this term: I’m Okay-You’re Okay until. Not even all-out war can justify the shift from radical tolerance to liberal tolerance, much less intolerance since, within just the brief history of the 20th century, allies became enemies became allies became enemies and so forth, illustrating that not even nationalist or cultural enmity that leads to the slaughter of thousands or millions is sufficient as the limit-case of tolerance. Little wonder, then, that to the extent ideology falters against the expediency of politics as usual or the bulwark of economic utilitarianism which renders cultural differences and social conflicts impotent, if not moot, radical tolerance stands toe-to-toe with intolerance only on the contested fields of religious belief and human sexuality. And as we know, the former supervenes the latter with various degrees of tolerance, tolerance until, since what is at stake is the—not a—future.

Sexuality and religion are of universal concern because they together justify “life” and war “now” and/or “later.” For example, revenge is mine, saith the Lord, and so peaceful co-existence “now” is possible. Conversely, I come not to bring peace but to divide brother from brother; war must be waged until the end of time. Both positions, pacifist and militant, entail procreation as the end of sexuality. As long as we continue to repopulate the planet, we can continue to kill or be killed in the name of a father. And in order to assure the “right” kinds of procreation, sexuality must be patrolled by every institution of human society. Thus the universal taboo against incest, for example, is inextricable from the accretion of power in every imaginable form: social, political, cultural, etc. It explains why, as one example among many, homosexual practices are tolerated in Greek and Roman antiquity as well as in many indigenous cultures so long as they do not interfere with—indeed, functions as practice for—the reproduction of heteronormative power. The critical function of women, of mothers, of female sexuality, is obvious here. Some biologists tell us that promiscuity is hardwired into males as a kind of instinct for self-preservation. Hence girls and women that refuse to serve the community, the family, the state, etc. represent the highest form of threat, not to human existence per se, but to patrilineal hegemony. This is why the problem of heterosexual promiscuity and homosexual relations are so often linked in Christian, Judaic, and Islamic traditions. Aside from problems of lineage and survival, human sexuality raises the specter of choice and consent in relation to custom and law, one reason the medievalists in particular were concerned with, fascinated by, both bestiaries and bestiality. I said above that radical tolerance cannot answer to dates, to war as vengeance or provocation. Tolerance, however radical, does answer to choice and consent because, in the end, tolerance melds choice and consent: one chooses, consents to, a future one, by definition, will never live to see. This is why those difficult questions delineated above might answer to, could answer to, the problem of choice and consent. But in normal parlance the problem of choice and consent is generally tied to religion and human sexuality. Having dealt with the former to some extent, let’s consider what might be understood as the very limit of all modes of tolerance, a sexual practice mentioned in the Summa Theologiae: bestiality.

Strictly speaking, within the parameters of U.S. law, bestiality is rape since no animal can consent to sexual relations with a human being. But since the law presupposes not just sentience but also the ability to “reason” for participants in a sexual relation, voluntary or not, one might well wonder if an animal could be raped. Consent, in American jurisprudence, implies sentience, and sentience, applicable to animals and humans, is a necessary but insufficient condition for consent. Only human adolescents—after a determined age—can make “reasonable” choices. In this context bestiality, as a form of intra-species sexual trespassing, serves as the limit-case, the endpoint, of that spectrum of tolerable sexual practices since no animal, no matter how old, can make reasonable choices, can consent to sexual relations with a human being. At the other end, so to speak, of this spectrum is sado-masochism, precisely because it too conjures up that ghostly concept of “consent.” I qualify consent with these nebulous terms—conjure, ghost—because, in truth, we still do not know what “reasonable choice” or “consent” might mean in the context of these specific sexual practices. In other words, the moment we choose a radical mode of tolerance we recognize it is we, not “them,” who may be mistaken, may be, one day, in error. Thus, unlike the choice to be intolerant or liberally tolerant, the choice to be radically tolerant can only be made, never justified. The unknown future can never serve as a predicate for the present. Or vice versa. On the other hand, intolerance, like liberal tolerance, can always be justified; its future is known, preconceived, if never assured. Thus intolerance is literally a pre-emptive strike, a refusal of translation (and the risk of error it entails). Liberal tolerance is détente, a peace treaty, a willingness to translate and thus assume the risk of mistake, perhaps even of error. Radical tolerance remains open to peace and to war and is willing to not only translate but also be translated into the good, a good, or no good, an afterlife indefinitely deferred. Only on this condition is radical tolerance not, in the end, a veil for radical intolerance.

In the possible absence, then, of either an absolute or contingent good, why endorse radical tolerance? What good could possibly come of it if no good, however hoped for, can ever arrive once and for all time? The only answer to this question is another question, a cliché laden with radical possibility: who—or what—knows? One will have had to open oneself to the ecstatic pleasures of the universe as it unfolds within the purview of our modes of knowledge, however partial, however partisan. In invoking the future anterior, I want to designate the impossible “time” to which radical tolerance belongs, a time both “then” (past) and “then” (future) but still at odds with the timelessness of religious eschatology or philosophical teleology. One will have had to—the tense of negative capability. One will have had to—not for the sake of knowledge per se but for the sake of an aesthetic ecstasy. Nailed to an ethos, radical tolerance will have turned ecstatically toward the blank face of what I have been calling a future.

Which is to also say, a future everywhere present but yet to come. Which is to say, the canny but radical experiences of many teachers every day. These are teachers who teach their disciplines because they love them, find pleasure in them, and if they have faith, religious or secular, it is a faith without an object, without an end in sight. Sufficient to the day would be the pleasures thereof. Regardless of the rhetoric of any academy, secular or religious, or any discipline, vocational or liberal, students, in the best of cases, in the most tolerant of environments, experience a toleration so radical, so ateleological, that they—along with parents and legislators—often find it intolerable. That is to say, they refuse the responsibility of translation, which can take a lifetime to accomplish. For academics, at our most tolerant, teach with incomplete knowledge, indefinite ends. Worse, say some, though better, I say, we do not always know what we are saying, how or if we are being heard and, most importantly, what results from the things we say in and outside the classroom. Not even our students know what they are learning, and when they do it is rarely what we believe we are teaching. Like it or not, everything we say and do remains open to a future we—students, parents, and legislators—can never know, can never determine, a future that may have already—who or what knows?—exceeded the human adventure.

Other September 11 events: This year on September 11, India will mark the 105th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi launching the modern nonviolent resistance movement. On September 11, 1990, Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack was assassinated in Guatemala City after being stalked for two weeks prior to her death by a U.S.-backed military death squad in retaliation for her work to expose and document the destruction of rural indigenous communities by U.S.-backed state forces and allied paramilitary groups. On September 11, 1993, in the midst of the U.S.-backed coup in Haiti, Antoine Izméry was dragged out of a church by coup forces and murdered in broad daylight. He had been commemorating a massacre of parishioners at the Saint-Jean Bosco Church that had occurred five years earlier on September 11, 1988.


1. Important differences aside, this idea of translation resonates with Bakhtin’s relationship between heteroglossia and dialogics and Saussure’s langue and parole distinctions. Fred Evans’ notion of a “multivoiced” world is another version of this concept.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Brian Davies and Brian Leftow (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflection, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969).

Fred Evans, “The Clamour of Voices: Neda, Barack and Social Philosophy,” forthcoming in Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy, 2013.

(Outside, glorious illusion)

A Collaborative Experiment in Discomfortable Writing


Original lines:

Virginia Lucas: Afuera la ilusión gloriosa cometa reventando el viento / diciendo en sacudidas; afuera la libertad

Rachel Levitsky: At the boundary / where they meet. // Rooms lost and stolen / dirty under the desk.

Improvised interpreted poem:

glorious illusion
a comet exploding
in the wind
shaken things—
out with liberty!
—lost things
under the desk.
Today I want
to feel. Today
I want to kill.
Outside. Outside
the prisoners
against the wall.
The repeated wall.
The wall
of repeated
action. The wall.
I want to get rid
of education.
I want to get rid
of bad manners.
a wall. Today
I would like for us
to share
that thing
that is
to flee.

This improvised discomfortable text-generating experiment is based on a repeating, spiraling practice of collaborative interpretation and addition, for which we invented a few key constraints to guide us. We began with one text fragment in Spanish, chosen by one of us without the other’s knowledge: in this instance, by Uruguayan poet and queer studies innovator, Virginia Lucas. This text was immediately interpreted into English by the listener, who then added one text fragment in English—in this instance, by New York poet and recuperative strategist, Rachel Levitsky. After the reading and initial interpretation of each of our “found” texts, every time one of us “interpreted,” we added a line or two of our own devising, for a total of five sets of improvised “interpretations.” Our rules were that we had to take new notes on a new sheet of paper or cover our old notes every time we were interpreting (to avoid simply transferring notes and/or memorizing text blocks) and that we could return to the same original text by Lucas or Levitsky if we wanted to include more lines of theirs rather than improvised lines of our own.

While this experiment is grounded in interpretation techniques, it differs significantly from professional interpreting and in fact violates many of the central guidelines of the practice. In our professional lives, we would never perform live interpretations of poetry—it’s just impossible. Rather, if a speaker is going to read a poem as part of their presentation, we request that they provide a translation of that material to us in advance. Additionally, in almost all instances of interpretation, we’d be aware of the context of the speaker’s comments, which would usually follow a basic logic and create a fairly legible linear narrative; context and logic are turned upside down when we oblige ourselves to interpret improvised lines that may or may not have some relationship (often neither logical nor linear) to the preceding lines. Finally, in our practice as interpreters, we would never, ever embellish or improvise based on what we are interpreting—quite the contrary, we would do our very best to transmit the message as directly as possible, and as closely to what we heard as possible, with no omissions and no additions.

We broke key rules of interpreting. We invented new constraints for the experiment. The process was eminently discomfortable. And the result: a discomfortable text.

We are the ones in question

An experiment in CALLING TO SITE by Lyn Hejinian and Christopher Patrick Miller

A Note on Procedure: What follows is an experiment in call and response.  The basic constraints were that one of us could ask the other a question and the other would respond in five lines followed by another question.  The impetus was to have the opportunity to ask and respond to questions at once intimate and expansive that don’t seem accessible in ordinary conversation,  perhaps because it seems too much to ask of another.  To remain in the question, we found, is a difficult process and often leads us to places, attitudes, or styles of discourse where, some time later, we don’t recognize the person who troubled to speak and be present there.

Does your place of birth suit your imagination of yourself?

My stone, my stanza, my heap of salvage metal. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. We sank beneath your wisdom like a stone. The way I would walk around the edge of our property, or what I thought was our property, trying the gaps and recombinations the weight of a certain person may cause. Whatever I was born into, I always had the sense that it was falling apart, that birth was falling apart with the people who willed it into being, and now I call that birth New England and describe its various qualities of superstition, reticent candor, and narrowed vigilance from the stranger who visits, who is always visiting, for longer than he may have been willing to admit at the outset.

Do you find the personal wherever, or whenever, you resist it?

The personal was what I was educated to become, myself, albeit nameless, as a personal person, though not my own. We have and get had, and acceding to that is a social bargain I personally can’t ascribe to. As of when, you ask (or might ask)—you, a person, particular and unique and known to me with a pronounced name—when did I resist it, but that assumes that I do. “I” could be anyone’s, anyone—the sort of thing John Wayne might say, though not of a river crossing or mules. The interiorization of self-reflection is a political, social, thing.

What is required for you to feel that you are somewhere?

Lamps seem the closest thing we get to living with apostrophe, vital animations we come home to, watch others approach, and reach to quiet when our bodies would love something other than this day. I mention this about lamps and apostrophe because they are a mere coincidence—light and the things it lights occurring together—which is the shortest definition I can manage for home. How we feel light is another question and gets us into the fray of skin, memory, entropy, time travel, etc. Driving up the dark road we may be surprised so few people are home at 7pm on a Tuesday evening and then maybe we realize that the power is probably out on the road and that we are confident the sun must rise tomorrow so everyone is new to the habits they have waiting in the form of furniture and music and food. Feeling this one is our home, feeling for a switch, our bodies hum with the decadent rhythms of hope and explanation.

Has there ever been a moment when you have doubted the continuity of who you are?

I don’t see how anyone who has consciousness of history, or consciousness of being a participant in the eventfulness of reality, can avoid experiencing him- or herself as becoming, at key junctures, markedly and perhaps lastingly discontinuous with whom he or she had been. Indeed, according to Whitehead’s metaphysics, we (along with all other real things) are each a sequence of events, and different at each site of our eventfulness. The real question is, how does one feel for the switch, the event-shift switch, which is not connected to a lamp, but to circuits of the brain, the mind, the social, the senses. I switch to a different language, and to a different sensorium.

The language of poetry is a language of metamorphosis. If so, what can or do you, as yourself, believe in?

Belief is looking into the multiple faces or stomachs of doubt as they surface recurrently, like objects you thought were drifting in someone else’s ocean, with some errant race of alligators, but float back and show us the swollen bellies of their numbers, cluttering the coasts. We learn how to talk to them, to instruct them, and to strain them from the waters and then, in turning, mistake this process for some personalization of such doubts and the waters as safe for swimming. Leviathan into a behemoth, mermaids into priests or professors. Isn’t it funny too how well crowded our coasts are, how we set up overlooking the oceans in houses that, like Nietzsche’s gay real estate, draw as much color from the monster of the sea as they do from the shifting cataclysms and buckles of land. I myself have never lived in such a house, only visited them, and often dream of the discarded lives revolving in the oceanic vortices of garbage and such privileged vantages of faith.

Can one visit a friend, a home, or a place, that one believes in and still address it as a doubt?

I believe in almost everything that exists in the present and almost nothing in the future. I’m rampantly gullible, but everything projects its own doubt forward and into its path. The significant events in the life of the perceptions unfold as experiences of belief or of doubt, but doubt isn’t the same as disbelief; doubt doesn’t negate belief (though it does make fun of gullibility), it isn’t even a failure of belief. Doubt expands belief into its ramifications. During the visit you ask me to imagine (to “a friend, a home, or a place”), belief and doubt are bound together in the fact that the visited scene has the holding power that we call temporality.

Do you ever feel that you are being visited by ideas?

In fact, by which I mean in bone the being of spirit is, that is the only way I feel by way of ideas: visited, alongside, with, inaccessible in part. Cora Diamond has this notion of companionable thinking, a thinking with or alongside something (in her case with “animal life” that is not antagonistic or at variance from human life) that may still be sought as company because its consumption or reproduction lies outside of reasonable bounds. We seem to believe that ideas are much more easily reproduced, made self-identical. Listening to a program this morning where economists were anthropomorphizing the market all over the place, even describing its “psychology,” and spinning prognostications from Ben Bernanke and the Fed Reserve’s recent announcement to stop buying assets, I was struck by how ideas like inflation or cash reserves are for them not companionable figurations/ideas but markers of how their expertise is generative of their realities, the reality they take everyone else’s necessities to be dictated by. As Marx taught me, I do not just believe in a different premise for social reality, but I believe that being social enables me to be visited by ideas from other forms of life, realms of necessity, and tremors in the voices that would declare them.

Given your gullibility, a quality I think we share, do you ever worry that you (and I) lose (y)our ability, at times, to sort the concretions of the present from the seductions of endless indeterminacy?

Why make a distinction between the “concretions of the present” and the “seductions of endless indeterminacy”? Aren’t the former the very sources and terms of the latter? This may be precisely what the Federal Reserve and the other makers and mongers of monetary policy don’t understand—or won’t: that the present is the site at which history presents the future as what might be, and as what might be beyond determination. All the present is is things changing, shifting position, becoming and ceasing to be eventful, etc., but also with the peculiar characteristic that, despite its momentariness, nothing of or in the present disappears, no true negation of event is possible, whatever happens will never not ever have happened, etc.; all closures are illusory, all compensation is futile—or am I being gullible? Well—no need to answer that question—more pressing is the awareness that one would have to be gullible indeed to believe that yielding to the seductions of endless indeterminacy is entirely distinct from a death wish. W.J.T. Mitchell (in What do Pictures Want?) says that the term totem, derived from Ojibway, properly means “a relative of mine,” and with that in mind, I ask you this, my real question:

Insofar as you undertake “companionable thinking,” are there terms/images of thought that are totemic for you?

Maybe the strongest totem for me, what I have been calling lately my tendency toward a community-effect, is the collective pronoun: we. And maybe there is a death wish lurking in this social positivism, what Lee Edelman-via-Freud might call a drive that leads us to act the unraveling of normative reproducibility of nature by a non-reproducible discontinuity, an impersonal rift in the archive, that can also lead to disastrous moments of shared desire amidst linguistic and representational ruin. But this too seems a fetish of non-reproducibility and non-normative response, a denial that we don’t act beneficially, for ourselves and others, as we “ought” to act all the time, sometimes knowing full well such a normativity is provisional at best. What seems to me lacking in so many accounts of the turns to a productive confusion, shifting revaluations of the present, and truth-as-suspension of coercive and exploitative social mechanisms (these being examples of what “indeterminacy” is sometimes a short-hand for) is an account for how such revolutionary potential enables direct responses to our varied, but shared, histories. The fact that I so often rediscover my totem, “we,” signifies for me both a desire and a failure to not explode indeterminacy but apply it, set it to work, so that elaborate compacts like trust can have a more definite speech.

If we were to end here, how would I know where I began and you ended?



necessity, immensity, and crisis (many edges/seeing things)

There’s a more than critical criticism that’s like seeing things—a gift of having been given to love things and how things look and how and what things see. It’s not that you don’t see crisis—cell blocks made out of the general meadow, and all the luxurious destitution and ge(n)ocidal meanness, the theft of beauty and water, the policing of everyday people and their everyday chances. It’s just that all this always seems so small and contingent against the inescapable backdrop of constant escape—which is the other crisis, that is before the first crisis, calling it into being and question. The ones who stay in that running away study and celebrate its violently ludic authenticity, the historicity that sends us into the old-new division and collection of words and sets, passing on and through, as incessant staging and preparation. This necessity and immensity of the alternative surrounds and aerates the contained, contingent fixity of the standard.

The alternative, and the ones who stand (in) for it, can only be defended in what Mario Pedrosá calls its “experimental exercise,” which happens everyday, and in the recognition of its exercise, which is what I think Marx refers to when he speaks, in “Communism and Private Property,” of the everyday engagement in criticism that is an essential part of a communist way of life, and which sometimes he more than critically enacts when he engages in critique, in the elaboration of a general theory of crisis, and in the urgent address of specific instances of crisis. Questions concerning the theory and actuality of crisis are no less urgent now because crisis is always with us. Seeing things doesn’t hide the crisis that critique discloses; rather, it locates it more precisely, within a general tendency for upheaval that it constitutes. Seeing things, the alternative seeing of things, the seen and seeing alternative, which a certain deployment of crisis is meant to police, is the crisis of genuine disclosure and generative disruption.

The crisis of deprivation on a global scale is a function of policing that responds to a global ecologic of generation that regulative power brutally (mis)understands as a crisis of law. This is to say that crisis is not only a function of policing but that it has a policing function; it is also to say that crisis is ongoing, generative resistance to the regulation, the policing, that it generates. This poor description of the interplay of policing and crisis is trying reverently to disclose a reversal that already animates Policing the Crisis, the classic attendance of Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts to the range and force of the generative social and aesthetic upheaval of the alternative in England since World War II. Hall and his fellows analyze the ideological manufacture of crisis as a mode of interpretive regulation. The racialization of already extant criminal activity allows its epidermalized “novelty” to be interpreted as crisis. But the criminalization of that activity, in its relation to the normalization of modes of propriation whose brutality and scale dwarf any and every instance of “mugging,” is the real problem because, in the end, it was never about this or that instance or collection of instances of law breaking; it was, rather, about the social self-defense of jurisgenerative capacity of which mugging can be said to be a particular manifestation, noteworthy not because of its brutality or venality or degeneracy but only because its enactment of self-defense through (re)propriative acts are susceptible to a condition in which they reinforce the brutal axioms of ownership and exception.

Criticism, the capacity to see things in their branching and unfolding and generative differentiation, attends to generation while critique, as Marx deploys it, attends to the regulation and policing of generation and while degenerate critique, which seems to be deployed today almost everywhere in the normal human sciences, is driven by its own implicit claims of national identity or political subjectivity that have themselves been made subject to a force, and been understood by way of a logic, of degeneration implying a mystery of loss and of what was lost. Here’s where the neoliberal lament regarding “the crisis of democracy” (which was, according to Samuel Huntington and his fellows, a function of there being too much democracy) can be understood as the animating trace of certain folks, claiming to be on the left, whose lament of the current loss of “our democracy” is driven by nostalgic fantasies of a democracy that supposedly was held within the structure of, rather than resistance to, American exclusion. It’s not coincidence that this convenient repression of American exclusion is usually accompanied by an assertion of American exception which either takes the form of an invocation of “our” best intentions or, more pragmatically, as the assertion of a right to do just about anything in the name of national defense, whose complete detachment from imperial aggression is sanctioned by the serial invocation of crisis.

When people respond to the suppression of the alternative—and Hall and his fellows brilliantly illuminate how state interpretation of the alternative as crisis is a fundamental element of that suppression—the word riot is deployed in order to augment that suppression; but when suppression of the alternative is more (im)properly understood as a response to the alternative it also becomes possible to understand that with regard to the insistent previousness of the alternative it is more accurate to say, over Sly Stone’s growl or Joe Strummer’s sneer, that there is, and already has been, a riot going on. This is about the anoriginary force of tumultuous derangement, a generative sociopoesis given in and as everyday sensuality. To rise to the defense of this sacred, ordinary, generative violence—to protect it from the ongoing murder—is often to risk a kind of appropriation of the very propriative force one seeks to combat with an otherwise animating fugitivity. Such uprising can take the form of burnin’ and lootin’ but, even more easily, such appropriation can take the form of a critical account of the justificatory causes of burnin’ and lootin’. Meanwhile, what always remains or, more precisely, what must be understood as the irreducible remainder that animates such physical acts as well as such critical accounts, are everyday and everynight things. It’s not about the looting of loot or the assault of persons who take shape as shops and wares, or about the insurgents’ loss of or exclusion from citizenship or belonging that supposedly makes the former inevitable; it is, rather, all about insurgence as the performative declaration of what we are and what we have and what we give. Put another way, the seemingly infinite production of crisis finds its limit in the infinite rehearsal of generative capacity, in the open field of a generative grammar, in the fecundity of a range of generative principles, all of which reveal the sclerotic constraints that are fostered by an empiricist attitude whose structuring force in the determination of Anglo-American intellectual identity can be traced back to a certain valorization of the grasp, and the philosophical nomination of the possessive individual to the office of manager of the enclosure, by way of the bloody fingerprints of a transcendental subject who is unable or unwilling to see things but who can neither let things go nor pass things on.

The riot that’s goin’ on is a party for self-defense. The question concerning its causes, its sources, shouldn’t be left to liberal or neoliberal pundits and prime ministers, even when their more or less racist and ageist elitism leads them to say, with a kind of ignorant and imprecise accuracy, that the causes are cultural. What they don’t mean is that culture is the imprecise word we give to regenerative resources of insurgent social life. There’s another way of living that exhausts imposed arrangements. It’s where and how people fight. When seemingly random and unorganized acts of self-defense erupt against the violence of the state and capital, the only important question is how to maintain their connection to the social field they are meant to defend. This is a question concerning the corrosive, reconstructive force of certain practices that Michael Herzfeld thinks of in terms of “cultural intimacy—the recognition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of common sociality, the familiarity with the bases of power that may at one moment assure the disenfranchised a degree of creative irreverence and at the next moment reinforce the effectiveness of intimidation.” But what if we begin to consider, against the grain and over the edge of whatever combination of the critique of authenticity and the appeal to upright, paralytic sovereign recitations of the citizen consumer, that the social poetics Herzfeld is after is an undercommon intellectual project that begins to emerge precisely when the distinction between insiders and outsiders breaks down, when a certain kind of communal claim is made in a certain kind of walking down certain city streets, and when that claim is given in and as an active disruption of the nation-state, in and as a kind of masque in which the very habits of the damned are taken on and, thereby, altered in their free, constant and already given alteration. Meanwhile, we confront the emergence of new black acts—of the kind E. P. Thompson describes in Whigs and Hunters—now outlawing autonomous cybersocial organization for self-defense emerge under the self-regulating cover of the ones who internalize the embarrassment they refuse, the generativity non-citizens claim.

The notion that crisis lies in the ever more brutal interdiction of our capacity to represent or be represented by the normal is as seductive, in its way, as the notion that such interdiction is the necessary response to our incapacity for such representation. Their joint power is held in the fact that whether abnormality is a function of external imposition or of internal malady it can only be understood as pathological. Such power is put in its accidental place, however, by the ones who see, who imaginatively misunderstand, the crisis as our constant disruption of the normal, whose honor is given in and protected by its representations, with the ante-representational generativity that it spurns and craves. This is the crisis that is always with us; this is the crisis that must be policed not just by the lethal physical brutality of the state and capital but also by the equally deadly production of a discourse that serially asserts that the crisis that has befallen us must overwhelm the crisis that we are; that crisis follows rather than prompts our incorporative exclusion.

There’s a connection between poetry and violence that Amiri Baraka, among others, began to explore by way of these terms and which now needs to be re-explored in the full awareness that Baraka’s movement extended, rather than disavowed, that antinomian opening of the field that can be traced back through Charles Olson and Sun Ra, Emily Dickinson and Harriet Jacobs, Anne Hutchinson and Tituba, and beyond. The poetics of the open field, especially when performed in the narrow cell, was always tied to the sociopoetics of riot, of generative differentiation as a kind of self-care, of expropriative disruption as a kind of self-defense, of seeing things as a performed social theory of mind. Baraka took it out, and sometimes tried to take it home, which drove it through him and even further out, in the name of an enformant poetics, spreading the news and the new in the giving and taking of form, as lemons, and people, piled on steps, disarrayed inappropriately against every propriative and counter-propriative intention that claims to have put them there. We still enact, because we desire and cannot live without, the immense poetry of war, by which Wallace Stevens meant and didn’t mean a poetics of social pregnancy, the international, anti-national embarrassment of seeing things and making things. The poetics of the alternative is funereal and venereal, surviving in denotative self-defense and the righteous distortions it enacts in rough advent. There’s a This is England poetics, a Luv ‘n Haight poetics, miving without moving in and against the brutal smallness of imposed needs and nationalized histories with the kind of out lyricism that only comes from being constrained to be somewhere else, that will have already come from the other side to keep on going, that had already come with those of us who are the other things we see.



Silent Salute of Poetry

[excerpt] Silent Salute of Poetry [excerpt]

Translated by Koichiro Yamauchi and Steve Redford

March 11th. Shinchi Station. Its bare face was attacked by a tsunami.

Shinchi Station. Like other stations, it has carried lives, connected hearts, spun the time.

April 24th. The view toward Soma City is perfectly clear.  Have we seen such a blue sky since the quake? Since then, no.

Blue sky, have you forgotten all about the quake?

What lies deep in the blue sky?  The bottom of the warm ocean? The Blue brothers. The sky and ocean.

What grave face did the station put on to greet our lives? What gentle look did it give us when it guaranteed our departures and returns? What solemn expression did it have when it saw off the beginning and met the ending of each day? The station’s name was Shinchi Station.

Running like the wind across the springtime countryside and mountain fields. Because the plants, the flowers are sprouting, budding, the thin tips of twigs are inviting the season.  Feeling the breathing of storm, light, and clouds. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is resounding. I’m a speeding conductor.

What’s a silent salute?  What’s a silent salute of poetry? Whizzing over the mountain fields, over the countryside, across the bottom of the blue sky, my mind turns furiously. What’s the meaning of a silent salute? What does it mean for poetry to salute silently? The storm, the light and the clouds. A break in the clouds. A deer’s cry.

What does the bridge try to connect from this shore to that shore?  What does the bridge try to convey from this shore to that shore? What does the bridge try to bring from that shore to this shore? Crossing a bridge, crossing a bridge…

Chasing the light. Chasing the wolf-shaped light. Chasing the wind-shaped light. Chasing the road-shaped light.  Chasing the light shaped like you. The light shaped like the heart is dazzling. Chasing the light shaped like paddies and fields. Chasing the world-shaped light. Embracing (in my arms) the prayer-shaped light.  The spring blue sky.

Nobody’s here, an attendant-less platform. A nobody’s-here, attendant-less platform. Shinchi Station, a nobody’s-here, attendant-less platform.

The railroad track, ignoring the real rail, is bent. Where does it lead? Where does it return? The bent track is seeking an entirely different destination.

On an attendant-less platform, the silhouette of no man. Everyone stares at a destination. Going to Sendai? Iwaki? Everyone stares at a destination. All destinations are entirely different.

The track is winding around the station. Around the station, the track is winding. It’s the first time I’ve seen the track winding around the station.  A first-time spectacle. A white dragon.

A god, embodied in a train, passed by? A devil, embodied in a train, passed by?  The present, feverish moment passed by?  The destination of a lost track, the destination of a lost train, the destination of a lost wind. The wind blows fiercely.

The platform I never got off at.  Standing there now, I realized one thing. Stepping down, the wind in my face, the sound of the waves in my ears, I realized…

A tsunami has come.

A Blue Note record was on the platform at Shinchi Station. How many times was this Jazz record played, spun? How many times did you spin it, play it?

A tilting utility pole is saluting silently.

Did the station quit as a station? The station did quit as a station. The station, too, repents. The station, too, is full of regret. The station, too, has lost itself.

An electric fan has fallen over.  The wind is gone. A silent salute.

Good night.