Where is Our Absurd?

There is nothing but. Not this end the ocean of one’s pause. I’m out of the held begins, for must it could. For I may after that will. I need about what but the end that sound. Stick I need, felt be another to me. The old all alike there some. Not this I’m not. It can’t be it will it how will it. All the sorts and that’s but now. Our eyes only swing. Every but on word alone.

—Clark Coolidge, “Beckett,” A Book Beginning What and Ending Away

When Lyn and I thought of the organizing idea for the issue, absurdity in contemporary life, we were drawn to the idea in part because of our sense that absurdity hardly seems like some modernist pre-history to our present situation but rather an ever-encroaching, encompassing condition of our everyday engagements with a finite “reality,” whatever one takes reality to mean.

One apologizes for such flimsy rhetoric hedges—whatever we take reality to mean—but trying to assimilate “the absurd” provokes such equivocations, digressions, willful courting of the anomalous. Is the “absurd” an attitude or a condition, a way of life to be embraced or a historical impasse to be resisted? That contrived common sense of an Internet search suggests “the absurd” has come to mean anything silly, non-sensical, or ridiculous, that one thing that does not belong to the others. And there is delight in this. As the New Yorker says of Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems: “Padgett’s plainspoken, wry poems deliver their wisdom through a kind of connoisseurship of absurdity.” Everything is a cartoon of perfection!

Absurdity has a dimmer and more caustic history, too. The absurd was something of an obsession for European and Anglophone modernisms, particularly postwar drama, but the seeds of that obsession were planted much earlier in debates about how one persists in, and invents new forms of engagement with, realities that seem increasingly irrational, hostile, or pitched to a perpetual state of emergency. In thinking about how “absurdity” might have shifted between “then” and “now,” it also seems important to recognize that we are all limited by how or where we come to recognize what might be glibly generalized as an “absurdity of existence,” particularly when the uneven distribution of environmental and economic risks create new possibilities for solidarity but also make us more aware of our distances from each other.

Implicit in my formulation of the title—”Where is Our Absurd”—is the matter I want to pursue here, particularly the problem of registering both the contemporary character of absurdity—what it is—and how to place it—where it might be—and who belongs to its formulation—mine or yours or ours.

 

Dialectical Absurdity

Perhaps the most famous philosopher of “the absurd” working in the vein of 19th-century Western philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard, defined “absurdity” has been taken up as a willful impossibility of belief in the face of an intractable, and perhaps radically hostile, reality. Kierkegaard developed this notion of “absurdity” in his “dialectical lyric” titled Fear and Trembling (Copenhagen, 1843)—published under the pseudonym of Johannes de silencio—at a time when he felt that the systemic thought of German idealism and the spurious public of political consensus (see Kierkegaard’s The Present Age (1846)) had diminished the individual’s capacity to have a singular relation to one’s convictions. Kant’s categorical imperatives and Hegel’s Sittlichkeit (usually translated as “ethical life”) had overshadowed the local and irreducibly idiosyncratic problem of pursuing a purpose that no one else can recognize and thus suffering the consequences of deliberately acting in a vacuum of recognition or understanding.

The question of what absurdity might mean, then, was caught up with this broader question of how we differentiate between fanaticism and obstinate belief or individual imperatives and social responsibilities, precisely at times when we might doubt the legitimacy of a sovereign state or “public opinion.” For Kierkegaard, it was actually crucial to resist the force of consensus. In both Fear and Trembling and his later opus, Either/Or, a willful impossibility of belief doesn’t manifest through sublime catharsis but through diminished characters whose passionate “outpourings” are everywhere blunted or misconstrued by their interlocutors. And these outpourings can look like delusional prophecies, as when Abraham believes he has been commanded by god to kill the child him and his wife struggled so hard to conceive. He is committed to carrying out this purpose, his “calling,” without the language to communicate it, and therefore share it, with others.

Without a language for one’s convictions, one finds themselves both out of place and out of time. Borrowing from medieval romance, Kierkegaard defines the absurd artist of everyday life as a Don-Quixote-like figure, an anachronistic “knight of faith,” for whom the “deep sadness of existence” is provoked by a 19th-century reality uncannily like our own: the false public of mass media, the reduction of art to consumer taste and self-affirmation, the allure of total accessibility. But the “knight” remains part of this estranged order of “faith” not because it blesses him in his resignation, like Hegel’s “beautiful soul,” but because it can channels its “worldly sorrow and joy” into the absurd practice of locating “infinity” in the finite, secular, and pedestrian. And Kierkegaard delivers us this absurd character in a signature tone of reprobation and jealous appreciation:

[The knight of faith] lets things take their course with a freedom from care as if he were a reckless good-for-nothing and yet buys every moment he lives at the opportune time for the dearest price, for he does not do even the slightest thing except by virtue of the absurd. And yet, yet—yes, I could fly into a rage over it, if for no other reason than out of envy—yet this person has made and at every moment is making the movement of infinity. He empties the deep sadness of existence in infinite resignation, he knows the blessedness of infinity, he has felt the pain of renouncing everything, the dearest thing he has in the world, and yet the finite tastes every bit as good to him as to someone who never knew anything higher, for his remaining in finitude has no trace of a dispirited, anxious training, and yet he has this confidence to delight in it as if it were the most certain thing of all. And yet, yet the whole earthly figure he presents is a new creation by virtue of the absurd. (Fear and Trembling, 34)[1]

“The absurd” comes to mean not only the anachronistic and misplaced persistence of the knight’s “faith,” but also a rhetorical strategy, lets call it a situation, that presents a variety of passionate figures through the voices of partial and tendentious judges. Unlike a Socratic scene, there is no cool anchor of reason or confident posture of self-knowledge from which to reflect on these swings of pain, sadness, and passionate commitment. It matters too that the tendentious character of this “dialectical lyric” is ascribed to a writerly persona, Johannes de silentio, who declares himself, in third-person, to be a writer who “has not understood the System” and who “already has enough for his weak head in the thought of what huge heads everyone in our age must have since everyone has such huge thoughts” (5). A diminishment of mind is Silentio’s strength because it is enough for his thought, his rebuke to unwavering credulity in “the System.”

Anticipating the present precarity of creative economies, “Silentio” describes his relation to this overwhelming “System” as a “extra-skriver [free-lancer]” who writes because “for him it is a luxury that becomes all the more enjoyable and conspicuous the fewer who buy and read what he writes” (5). We may not trust his assessment of those “others” who read, just as we may not trust the way Abraham heard god’s command, but what I take Kierkegaard to be asking us, as readers, is how we recognize the singular persistence of belief in a climate of mutual resentment, hostility, and suspicion. Absurd belief, we might say, is a way of weathering a deeply polarized world (something that clearly resonates with the current landscape of political rhetoric in the United States).

In undermining the intellectual force of his persona, Kierkegaard is not only pulling our credulous legs—who should we believe?—but also staging a sly critique of those idealist philosophers and public officials who act as if their heads are big enough for a thought that contains “the world.” Conversely, the text never offers us the right response to Abraham’s sacrificial act but rather a partial judge of parabolic episodes we too must contend with. We are caught up within the textures of belief. Explaining away absurdity by naturalizing it to an intellectual or political system comes to seem like an evasion of what is most important of all: paying the “dearest price” of having a conviction.

For Kierkegaard, then, coming to know absurdity is not just about holding a belief, but paying a singular cost for holding on to it. Perversely, it is the cost of losing a son, a community, or a discernible place in the world, that gives one the idiosyncratic measure of what those things truly mean to you.

 

Theatre of the Absurd

It is this question of how we recognize both the persistence and costs of belief that I take to be most resonant with contemporary questions of how one makes absurdist art today or, for that matter, simply gets through the “pedestrian” absurdities of a day. In the spirit of historical fidelity, I want to take up this question now in relation to Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), his now canonical take on the absurd tradition in theater during the postwar productions of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, among others.

What struck me in re-reading Esslin in preparation for organizing this issue of FLOOR was how far the literary and dramatic techniques of registering the absurdity of contemporary social and political life have shifted from Esslin’s prewar contexts and postwar examples until now. The purpose of Esslin’s text was not only to argue for a distinct generational “significance” of absurdity for dramatists but also to account for how their interpretation of “absurd” traditions of thought provoked distinct shapes of speech and gesture in response to the traumas of recent war, genocide, and ideological struggle.

Where Kierkegaard countered the exploitative character of systemic thinking through a series of passionate believers and voices, often producing rather florid or devotional prose, Esslin’s dramatists seem to take absurdity as a condition of expressive and epistemological privations. The language of their characters, Esslin argues, is resolutely “anti-literary” and “anti-logical,” so as to register a “radical devaluation of language” in all spheres of private and public life. And where romantics and modernists might have relied on the force of poetic images, there is a commitment in these “playwrights” (with “wright” linking the act of playmaking to a pre-history of physical artificers and journeyman) to the gestural concretions of the stage. As Esslin writes: “what happens on the stage transcends, and often contradicts, the words spoken by the characters” (Theatre of the Absurd, xxi.). Highly symbolic plays, like Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinocéros” (1959), took their allegories literally, in the sense that the rhinoceroses rampaging the streets are both symptomatic expressions of mass delusion and real threats to individuals within an urban context.

Many critics have contested the coherence of Esslin’s postwar paradigm of the “absurd,” largely because it emphasizes negativity, death, and silence over other aspects of the plays, including their dark humor and sense of play.[2] Surely not every writer shared Esslin’s underlying conviction in a universal humanism or individual psychology beleaguered by mass movements and communication. But even if we read a play like End Game or The Chairs as farces without a metaphysical message, the question remains how we account for repeated, almost ritualistic turns towards questions of reverence and ritualistic devotion (picked up and expanded by Michael Bennett in Reassessing the Theater of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter (New York: Palgrave, 2011)). The “absurd” need not be read as an exclusive category shared by each of its practitioners, but rather a set of formal and gestural responses—iterability, seriality, mnemonic failures, communication breakdowns, comedic transpositions—to measure the gap between one’s idiosyncratic belief and one’s social or historical knowledge. Errant absurdities parade in the grammar of absurdisms, or, as Clark Coolidge shows in his clustering of parts of speech in the shape of a grammatical expression: “I need about what but the end that sound.”

For Esslin, it is no coincidence that “absurdity” seemed to consolidate into a dramatic style or aesthetic condition around the same time that writers were facing a world that had been violently reorganized by the atrocities of the Holocaust, fire bombing and nuclear decimation in the Pacific “theater,” the carving up of the Middle East by European powers, and beginnings of struggles towards the decolonization of Africa. Being “anti-literary,” then, didn’t mean eschewing language for gesture entirely, but that speaking (and responding to speech) had to make incomprehension palpable, often by way of serial repetition and nonsensical transitions that mimicked breakdowns in discursive formations. There was hope in absurdity, too, in that one could make a speech out of a “human condition” (Esslin’s takes existentialism and absurdity to be motivated by a version of humanism) that seemed punishingly irrational and dissociated from both the practical realities of living. By way of idiosyncracies—”idiosyncratic” being perhaps the adjective, along with “sparse,” most often associated with the postwar eras of Anglophone and Francophone absurd theater—one could hear and feel the disjuncts between an individual life and a history of cruelties it may or may not be complicit with. Esslin cites as a processor to the “Theatre of the Absurd” the work of Antonin Artaud (in Theatre de la Cruaute (1935)), who used ritualistic chanting and repetitive gestures to push dramatic action into a more impersonal or transpersonal terrain.

Esslin gives as his opening example a performance of Waiting for Godot in 1957 by the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop at the San Quentin maximum-security prison. What is striking, Esslin notes, is the difference between how the convicts and critics responded. A reviewer for the prison paper noted: “[Godot] was an expression, symbolic in order to avoid all personal error, by an author who expected each member of his audience to draw his own conclusions, make his own errors. It asked nothing in point, it forced no dramatized moral on the viewer, it held out no specific hope… When the scenery gets too drab and the action too slow, we’ll call each other names and swear to part forever—but then, there’s no place to go!” (Esslin, xvi).

The lack of psychological interiority, plot, and character development as well as the mechanical quality of gestures bemoaned by contemporary theater critics was for this prisoner (and others) a kind of realism, albeit of inhuman subjects. That prisoners might be the ideal audience for Beckett’s “anti-literary” style was reflective of the kind of “absurd” position they literally occupied: placed “outside” of social life yet still treated, by way of the rhetoric of rehabilitation, as a potential member of a “human” community. We can see this also in the work of Jean Genet and Harold Pinter, where the overtness of violence paralleled by a slow deadening of the senses extended the poles of captivity to every intimate encounter and walk of life. For example, interior domestic spaces, as in Pinter’s “Birthday Party” (1957), became porous sites in which characters are exposed to intrusion, surveillance, or physical threat but also reflect a more personal struggle to claim or remember the most basic facts of their lives and surroundings. The grounds for resisting these conditions becomes more and more ambiguous as bodies, spaces, and histories unsettle each other. In Beckett’s Godot, there is also the striking moment when Lucky is commanded to “think” by his master (and former slave), Pozzo, mixing rhetorical gestures, academic jargon, and non-sensical grunts into a cascade of language that captures the deeply physical sense of a person struggling to communicate through verbal and mental remnants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-zhUBPDitk.

The “devaluation and disintegration” of language, to use Esslin’s terms, reflect a failure to perceive the outlines of this totalizing violence and the agents who perpetuate it. But it also reflects the fact that property or individual right offer no practical reserve from these intrusions (Esslin, 296). The line between being free and being captive, being safe and being violated, are continually overturned.

 

We Are Proud to Present…

When thinking about examples of where, or what, absurdity might be now, and who might be invested in its relevance, absurdity seems less and less to do with a deliberate impoverishment of language (to match the impoverishment of the world). And it almost goes without saying, in the world of extensive social mediation, that public opinion and mass belief constantly produce dangerous forms of immediacy and consensus. Regardless of whether we periodize our present situation as an ongoing modernism or post-postmodernism, cultural production has and will continue to shift in the face of an economy driven by big data, global supply chains, debt service, risk management, and financialization. One is probably more likely to hear the word “precarity” than “absurdity” in contemporary art and criticism.

For these reasons, the commitments of Kierkegaard and these absurd dramatists might seem rather anachronistic. Few bemoan the loss of a sense of the “infinite” or the “absolute,” precisely because these are the kinds of scales that these socio-economic processes aspire to (yet, as the physical limits of micro-trading evidences, can never wholly approximate). Yet, if there is a value to thinking of or practicing “absurdity” now, it would lie in the possible connections between absurd belief and the ways in which these structural realities mediate and migrate through our seemingly private languages. “Absurdity” might help us talk about the nature and costs of belief in the face of the militarization of police, ongoing wars against amorphous targets, climate change, austerity economics, and enduring physical and psychological traumas that demand new ways of speaking and practicing culture.

The closing question we might ask, then, is how the character of impossible belief has changed? And what ways have the usages of language and gesture in “absurd” drama, if we can call it that, shifted to meet the “absurd” character of early 21st century life?

The example I have in mind is a fairly meta-critical play by Jackie Sibblies Drury first staged in New York at the Soho Rep in 2012 with the absurdly long title of “ We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.” In fact, the play is billed simply as “We are Proud to Present…,” with the ellipse doing both the work of conversational or industry shorthand and notation of historical aporia. Drury notes as much in interviews about the coincidental origins of the play, which she developed as a side project to address a gap in her own knowledge of the events after a Google search for “Black people in Germany” while writing another play.

The play is ostensibly about a genocide undertaken by colonial Germans, in collaboration with another tribe, Nama, of the Herero people in Namibia during the years mentioned—1884–1915. Historically, it offers an African pre-history to World War I in Europe, the conflict ostensibly ending in the same year that W. E. B. Dubois would publish his “African Roots of War” in the Atlantic Monthly (see: http://www.webdubois.org/dbAfricanRWar.html). Most of the Herero were killed and the remaining members of the tribe were forced into unpaid labor. But as Charles Isherwood pointed out in his review of the Soho Rep show (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/theater/reviews/we-are-proud-to-present-a-presentation-at-soho-rep.html?_r=0) in November 2012, the action of the play is not the “presentation” itself but rehearsals for the presentation. These “live” rehearsals are framed by a narrator/director armed with clunky note cards and a Powerpoint slideshow, and undertaken by actors with generic titles: “white man,” “another white man,” “black man,” “another black man,” etc. The irony is, of course, that racialization often functions on this level of abstraction, even if those abstractions operate largely unconsciously.

The stage direction, too, feels like a practical joke about the experience of learning “history” in an elementary school classroom, itself a campy departure from the austere stage conditions we might expect from, say, a Beckett or Pinter play. The “script” for their individual improvisations is somewhere between researched content—the white actors, playing “German soldiers” read from letters home, just as the black actors portray historical aspects of the two tribes—and historically exacerbated stereotypes—every actor, regardless of their personal attitude towards the genocide, slips in and out of hetero-normative, national, and racial ideologies to fill in the general absence of historical documents. Their interpretive and dramatic solutions become increasingly “absurd,” in that they become increasingly divorced from the historical reality they set out to “present.”

I take the core intelligence of the play to be in its insistence to keep with these aporias, adding on multiple levels of mediation, prejudice, and obstruction without settling off into a formuliac postmodern comedy about the endless instability of texts and production of meta-languages. The fact that the play sticks with the conceit—a “blueprint” for a play that never comes but is, at the same time, already happening—foregrounds the struggles these actors have in deciding between how they feel about genocide, colonialism, its racial afterlives and how their characters might best respond, either in fidelity to a largely non-existent historical record or the expectations of dramatic realism. Not surprisingly, the actors’ own sense of their racial position effect the way they approach dramatic techniques, making visible a range of blackness and whiteness caught somewhere between “real life” and “in character.” But there is also a professionalism that borders on liberalism, in that every actor/character, despite their disparate motivations, wants to see the play performed and consistently subordinates their frustrations to the abstract authority of “the director” and “the play.”

But no one ever gets the atrocity right. And rarely one has the same atrocity in mind as one’s fellow players. Watching “We are Proud to Present…” performed at the Shotgun Theater in Berkeley, CA in March 2015, it not only felt like an exercise in absurdity, but a reminder that “absurdity” was not only a diverse fact of productions attempting to represent the problem of historical violence but a resolutely non-generalizable phenomenon. Unlike some postwar absurdists like Ionesco, Genet, or Pinter, there is no background of universal human dignity or hope that this “Presentation” about genocide will produce a special language or psychology from which to address, in this case, the historical oblivion to colonial violence. Neither will it address head on the commensurate inability to imagine a more ethical present or future. Drury consistently plays with the notion of a historical impasse—how we incorporate the internal and external effects of racism and settler colonialism—precisely because these effects seem so unstable in time and space. This instability is heightened by the fact that these actors are being asked to not just reproduce racial examples (German soldiers, tribal warriors, “Africans”) but to use their personal sense of contemporary racial violence to interpret these types. And despite the insistence on typology, there is a persistent emphasis on how the difficulty of mediating between these roles manifests as a physical struggle, as the performers who always seem on the verge of collapse.

Perhaps the hardest note to swallow in Drury’s version if absurd theater, if we want to continue calling it that, is that the absorptive actions of the stage cannot produce some collective change or catharsis. Rather, the play seems more of an interlocutor in an ongoing problem than an expositor of some violent past. Similarly, the absurd conceits of the performance are not about putting aside racial stereotypes but about going inside of them, pursuing their attendant components of sentimental romance, caricature, even slapstick comedy. To call the play absurd, then, is not to say that it repeats the postwar fascination with gestural force, serial repetition, and discontinuous speech but rather experiments with how speaking and acting involve a deep complicity with history. We are endlessly citing crimes we can neither name or remember. But the play also shares a concern with postwar absurdists about how and why one can still believe in the efficacy of speech and actions, particularly in conditions where expression seems increasingly difficult, problematic, maybe even impossible.

 

Society of the Absurd

What hides under the spectacular oppositions is a unity of misery. Behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other, all of them built on real contradictions which are repressed.

—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle #63

It was the absurdity of belief that offered, paradoxically, a consistently skeptical attitude toward static notions of public opinion or individual right, what Debord would bemoan later as “spectacular” society, precisely because these coherent illusions had nothing to do with the peculiar way that each person was called to action, survived captivity, or maintained even the clunky semblance of mobility. When Esslin wrote “Theater of the Absurd,” he framed the absurdist mode as not just a revolution in

dramatic communication but also a response, however negative and obscure, to the failures of social imagination. In ways that anticipated the present situation of heightened social mediation and economic precarity, Esslin remarked that absurdist authors turned against not only the commodification of mass communication but also the “growing specialization of life” that isolated members of a society to their own “specialized jargon” (Esslin, 299). It doesn’t take too much of a leap of faith to extend this problem to our present situation where such euphemisms as “the sharing economy” or Amazon’s cynical riff on dehumanizing labor, “Amazon’s Mechanical Turk” (https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome), take the notion of a “specialized” labor and industrial jargon to perverse ends. One can’t make this stuff up. On Amazon’s website, Individual tasks are described as “Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs)” performed by “an on-demand, scalable work force.”

One of the most enduring “virtues of the absurd” is that it served as an internal check on the ability to take “the social” or “the individual” or even “the human” for granted. And precisely because it eschews these assumed unities, absurdity demands radical and constant particularization. Both the social whole and the lives that made it up were presented as a series of opposing parts and abandoned possibilities, as if one leg was working against the other. One thinks of the tortured gait of Beckett’s Watt as an expression of just how hard it is to move when no relation is known or assumed between past and future, a thing and its shadow, one direction over another:

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to flight out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. (Watt, 23)[3]

What Watt shows us is still a life, but a life lived through an unknown series of parts. Even in this intricate state of exhaustion, one goes on thinking and speaking anyways, with the hope that we will get something right by being or acting wrong, as in Beckett’s Molloy:

All I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead. And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by hear and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept. To hell with it anyway. (Molloy, 27)

Always under intense self-revision, Molloy sets as his aim of his actions neither invention nor escape. From the standpoint of a radically dissociated personality, one body appears like a series of parts arrayed upon a continuum that is at turns impossibly rich or vast and utterly devoid of purpose or content. Like many of Beckett’s nomadic protagonists, Molloy seems homeless in both a practical and spiritual sense, moving from one abuse to another, and yet he can’t shake the feeling that he is at home wherever his dilapidated bicycle carries him: “But Preferred to abide by my simple feeling and its voice that said, Molloy, your region is vast, you have never left it and you never shall.” (Molloy, 60). The feeling of belief persists, it places and traces him, even while he seems to lose every external guarantee that he is moving in a definite direction, that he is real, and that he is a part of some meaningful shift in history.

When compelled to describe the ludicrous, ridiculous, or nonsensical state of affairs as “absurd,” we might think too of how absurdity has and continues to be mobilized not just to make a comedy of our confusion but to show the personal and social costs of inhabiting a violent order of things—and still keeping some semblance of belief. Acting absurdly is not an evasion, a giving in to a state of resignation, as Kierkegaard reminds us, but a conscious decision to dissemble and reassemble the very tissue of social life. Like Coolidge’s long poem on Beckett, one seeks something like a “word” to stand on by taking apart the very structures in which speech happens, showing how something as simple as pointing toward a thing in the world can involve a tremendous series of contortions: “There is nothing but…”

 

NOTES

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, eds. C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh, trans. Sylvia Walsh (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). For his take on the instrumentalization of ideas of “the public” for political interests, see The Present Age, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962). Perhaps his best example of his dialogic style by way of a series of textual personas, is: Either/Or, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).

[2] Albert Bermel, for example, published an article about humor in Ionesco in 1975 called, “Ionesco: Anything But Absurd,” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 21, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 411-420.

[3] Samuel Beckett, Watt (New York: Grove Press, 2009) and Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (New York: Grove Press, 2009). The English edition of Watt was published in 1953 and the English edition of Molloy was published in 1955

N Ear Flowers Re Fre/nd: A Poets’ Play

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Johan Gottschalk Wallerious: Swedish chemist, mineralogist
Someone said: singer, poet, desire, child, brute, amateur
Else: Else, historical, machinic
Coltrane: philosopher
I Am (in Brooklyn, (in Berlin: a body, a vector in space, a given place
Siri: Siri
Heriberto Yepez: Heriberto Yepez
Charlotte Wolff: scientist, radical sexologist, chirologist, philosopher, wearer of men’s clothes, psychologist of gesture, lesbian identified
Via Alev Ersan: via the writer Alev Ersan, on Facebook
Public Space: Public Space
Sheena Easton: Sheena Easton
It: It
June Jordan: June Jordan
Fassbinder: Fassbinder
Minor Appearances: Orgy, Aristotle

ACT I

Johan Gottschalk Wallerious:
Else requires someone else
Someone said, to become someone else
Requires someone else
Electrically, unmeasured
Other-ness, someone said
An Allotrope of Else
Someone said, A Loosening Ampersand
Throbbing with amperes
& a bromo blue
Citi sign, someone said
Electrically To Become Someone
Else requires some structured bonds
Someone said, more & more
In a less fixed phosphorous
Someone said, Ore.

Else:
Desiring machines
some other means.

Someone said:
Sheena Easton
for example. She
Sheena Easton
is a machine
Sheena Easton
desiring some
other means.
Bromo blue. 
Watermelon red.
Wallerious serious.
I love that color.

Else:
If it moves
it’s alive.
If it’s alive
this time
but not
moving it’s
mourning.
If it’s alive
this time
and refusing
to mourn
or move it’s
probably
this time
watching
Netflix &
performing
adorability.

Someone said:
Until branded
as vernacular
speech acts, the band
in me
in every conversation
in them, yeah yeah yeah
a long-fingered tool
for climbing is, until branded
Elsewhere, a hand since
from wing or paw
whose thumbing
is the first machine,
whose thumbing
is this asks the / the
second machine

Else:
repeat the sentence
increasingly brutal
movement to dethrall.
Else’s hard intel stare.
Core. Else’s black substrate.
Core. Else under a chair lost.
Manufactured in
other country it
no longer exists
save for the objects
made in said
other country.

Someone said:
Old English thūma; related to Old Saxon
thūma, Old High German thūmo,
Old Norse thumall, thumb of a glove
from Latin tumēre, to swell.

Orgy:
Into armpit
or palm.

Wallerious:
Yeah yeah yeah
As if homophony
Wasn’t the easiest
Hard drive. More
materially, Africa.
“The granary of Empire.”
1.08 billion palms
Holding high
Capacitance Coltan.
“The ore of Empire.”

Else:
Siri, where does Coltan come from?

Siri:
Let me check that…
This might answer
your question: Collective information
for US births. Rank: 65th. Fraction:
1 in 318 people. Number: 6318 people per year.

Else:
Siri, what is Coltan.

Siri:
Would you like me to search the web for “Cole train”?

Wallerious:

Coltan, short for
Columbite-tantalite
Known industrially
As tantalite.

Someone said:
You touch the glass with yr machine.
You touch the machine with yr machine.
Glass architecture in a glass palm.
The one surfacing there, touching there.
The one swiping there, pinching there.
You touch the glass with your ear.
You make a call, out from that flesh there.

Else:
Desiring machines
by other means. In other
country. Siri,
what is the space
behind the knee?

Siri:
What is Dancoe? Let me think…
Here’s what I found: Dana Holding Company (DAN)
Latest trades: DAN $20.95 NYE.

Wallerious:
The popliteal space?

Coltrane:
Namelessl
y informatio
n swells.

Sheena Easton:
Sheena Easton.

ACT II

SCREEN 1:

I Am (in Brooklyn:
I realize, and it is not without irony, that I tell stories. I tell a certain kind of story in response to which one reaction I have witnessed is repulsion a response perhaps to what is felt as my attack on the lush ground that ‘story’ is thought to occupy.

When I tell a story it is as though I am interrupting. The room. Something is always happening. For example a sudden repulsion that seems to augur logic. I trust the interruption. I want to tell you now, not later. It won’t matter anymore. It may never again matter. I…

I am (in Berlin:
Here is a story that comes after an attack. Or rather footage of an attack. What exactly is the story when there is an attack in a public space. What exactly is the story when women are not allowed in public space. Rather than footage what was in the machine was: a double story.

Let me explain.

There was the violence of the attack and violence of the machine recording the attack and the machines which transmitted the recording of the attack and the machines which downloaded the act with ease, with a swipe of a thumb, a gesture, automated. This was all after the fact. The story begins before this. What was in the machine was. The image bundles affect, which is duplicated, doubled, becomes story, gothic. I stood up in my apartment, gagged.

My story begins with a machine in a country nowhere near the country where the footage was taken. Let me explain. I am in a country which is a story that turns me inside out, violently, suddenly nowhere and nowhere nearly as the violence which a body holding a machine witnesses, nearly commits, let alone the body suffering the fact of attack. I broke into a sweat. No lush ground. No story. No nearly, nowhere. Refuse to let the image empty you. What was in the machine was. It’s telling.

Public Space:
A bromo
blue glow
brought
to you
by Citi.

Charlotte Wolf:
Gesture of a Holding Recording Device
Gesture of a Hollow Recording Device
Gesture of a Holding Recording Device Just Above One’s Head
Gesture of a Holding Recording Device In Front of Your Head
Gesture of a Hollow Head That is Nonetheless Extremely Heavy
Gesture of a Holding Recording Device At One’s Side, Inconspicuously
Gestures and Gesticulations of Fingers as Eyes
Gesture of a Holding Recording Device Beyond One’s Head While Running Forward
Gesture of a Hollow Recording

Coltrane:
Reconstructin
g tellin
g make
s a dislocatio
n machin
e.

I Am (in Brooklyn:
Telling:
Insides without outsides.
Rudely formed viscera, unsheathed.
Precious, monstrous, starkly lush.

Coltrane:
Deser
t and tundr
a guid
e
gilde
d ancien
t wor
d.

Heriberto Yepez and Else (together):
The text will become the history of the loss of our body.
The loss will become the history of the text of our body.

I Am (in Brooklyn:
Stories are locative adverbs.
I don’t desire a visit.

Else:
Media visits
What upon us.

Someone said:
She. She was a visitor. She
Was a visitor. She was a
visitor. She was a visitor.

Else:
Two tents.

I Am (in Brooklyn:
This is an attempt at never visiting.
Press: “travel”
Lift: “migrate”

Charlotte Wolf:
Gesture of Pressing Against Travel
Gesture of Trying To Stay Put
Gesture of Failing the Gestures

Public Space:
Where you stand.
She is not a visitor.
Where you stand still.
Where you are (not) visited.

Else:
M…mourning
strange vibrations
marking these
unremarkable
leftover signals

Someone singing:
Tell me why is it so.
Don’t wanna let you go.

Coltrane:
Okay. Hold o
n for jus
t a…!
This interrupte
d line wants t
o finish bu
t can’t. Th
e animal, ever
y time it trie
s to complet
e it, or disentangl
e itself eviscerate
s further int
o.

Public Space:
Already? At the start
a space between
one or more sentences
gathered, a violence
named
by space.

Sheena Easton:
Sheena Easton.

SCREEN 2:

Someone said:
IT makes more sense
IT holds as if it were a breath
IT the very moment
IT has nothing to project protect
IT becomes extreme weather

IT:
IT suggests terrible things happening
after near escape, off the page,
in this unfriendly helicopter sky.

Someone (singing):
Up up and away
my beautiful, my beautiful.
Up up and away
my beautiful, my beautiful.
Up up and away
and away, way up HIGH
my beautiful, my beautiful.

Heriberto Yepez:
We suspected
mimesis doubled
rendered violence
visibly redundant
& so we painted
cockpit windshields
on fallen drones.

Charlotte Wolf:
Gesture of Removing Drones from the Sphere of Metaphysics!
Gesture of Removing Drones from the Logic of Speculative Finance!

Siri:
We would like to use your location.

Else:
Your thumbs know where the keys are.
It doesn’t take long to adjust.

Someone said:
Even if we are somewhere else.

Else:
As in a place other than where we desire
the footage to record our movements here.

Public Space:
A statue of a protester.
An archived space. An image
full of gestures. A public space
generating images. A public
full of gestures. An image
full of images. A film
of a still image of a protester. A film
of a still image of a
protester in public space
breaking allotropically
into a run, a fist or feint or
immanently adjacent
to image or film, the edge
in an image or screen or page
or square, an opening there
that is NOT a tear, a duct
at the base of a pear.

Heriberto Yepez:
Neo-remembering. Never mind for now: a 4 cornered body crossed by a three pointed star
tries to exceed its surface into the atmosphere by excreting.
It wants. IT historicizes herself anticipating the tragedy of submission, our sticky times.

IT:
Reaching down while getting up
subject to being fucked
by that broken head (god)
Rough and crumble over figure
Off the page IT leaves
Violent diaphanous
Fatherless imprint

Else:
IT can’t, and turns back up and
back into itself.

Heriberto Yépez:
Under power
Under powered
Under powdered

Else:
“Good upload man”

SCREEN 3:

I Am (in Brooklyn:
Walking around
peacefully enough but
taken with a persistant
incurable want.
I am attempting to leave
the never born child
behind.

Coltrane:
No, don’t cry ou
t with it! Don’
t make the imp-
recise deman
d: IT to
o wants t
o exis
t.

[exits]

I Am (in Brooklyn:
I cut off the head your encephalitic
squirming for you!
[humming tune of “Like a Virgin,”
spasmodic gestures approximating
dancing, sings]
Like an earthworm
Touched for the…

Coltrane:
[re-enters]
Stop tryin
g. To exis
t. Ther
e is onl
y squir
m o
n
th
e wa
y
t
o l
o
v
e.

I Am (in Brooklyn:
Losing the want
Though it’s good to have somewhere clean to stay
Eat and Touch more than a square foot is better,
Especially nice for one to be
Map-able Find-able Bury-able

Public Space:
The houses poorly ventilated, overcrowded,
have no chimney. In Jalazone, a Palestinian refugee camp,
dampness is present in 72.5% of the houses,
50.5% have mold, 37% have leaks, and only 41.5% were
exposed to the sun. In Jalazone, 61% of the households
have 3-5 people to a room, while 16.5% of the households
have over 5 people to a room.

ACT III

SCREEN 1:

Via Alev Ersan:
“Dear friends, currently the mainstream global media is keeping an eye on Taksim, Istanbul. Thus, the police forces have backed off and they have remarkably scaled down the number of attacks against the protesters. However, in the meantime the police terror in Ankara as it is now is on a much larger scale compared to the very beginning of Istanbul attacks. Tear gas is relentlessly being thrown inside apartments, people are suppressed by plastic bullets, illegal custody, and physical assault. Things have escalated quickly and the scale of these attacks is rapidly increasing. We need to make benefit of social media once again to show the world what’s going on in Ankara right now. Here is a message from the people of Ankara: ‘We have supported the protesters of Istanbul from the beginning, and now it is your turn to support us and the rest of Turkey. This resistance is clearly not limited to Istanbul, it has taken over all of the country. The festive atmosphere in Istanbul is just a trick to fool global media and soothe off the masses. Nothing has been accomplished yet and things have just started actually.'”

Else:
Place. As smoke and mirror.

June Jordan:
[Watching television, or in a television frame]
We USAmericans, United Statesians, USonians: love our Arabs and Muslims in the form of democratic youth, so much we are willing to watch them be slaughtered, to watch our premieres meet in gilded frames.

Else:
Who controls the smoke controls the mirrors.
Who controls the mirrors is SMOKING.

Coltrane:
What. Yo
u want m
e to say som
e thing abou
t globalizatio
n. Maybe on
e would wan
t it, if on
e hadn’t gotte
n it. To be know
n. Worl
d Recognitio
n.

I Am (in Berlin:
It’s hot. I sign off all my emails with the phrase It’s hot here. The emails I receive from friends in Brooklyn end with same phrase. It’s hot here. The emails I receive from friends in Rio end with the same phrase. It’s hot here. The emails I receive from friends in Paris end with the same phrase. It’s hot here. The emails I receive from friends in Morocco end with the same phrase. It’s hot here. The emails I receive from friends in Sweden end with the same phrase. It’s hot here. It’s hot here and the windows are open. The windows of all the neighbors in the courtyard are open and we move around with few clothes, we move around slowly wearing few clothes. Nearly everyone sees everyone else in a Berlin hinterhof. Nearly everyone sees everyone else in apartment buildings that face other apartment buildings. There is rarely any sun in Berlin and rarely are curtains needed. The neighbor across from me moves slowly through the room. We have seen each other over the years numerous times through the curtainless windows. All the neighbors have seen each other numerous times. We move together slowly and we see each other.

Charlotte Wolf:
Gesture of Sight
Gesture of Sight Among Other Gestures
Gesture of a Body Next Door Felt in the Wood of the Floorboards
Gestures Conditioned by Distinctions Between Public and Private Space

I Am (in Berlin:
The other is there, right across the air, the hinterhof. The crows on rooftops throw their voices into it and revel in the echo—hopping sideways, gleefully! Nearly deranged! As all crows are, all over the world, perhaps because for them there is no—

Charlotte Wolff:
Gesture of Delirious Harley-Rider-ish Sound in Order to Break Free From.

I Am (in Brooklyn:
Hearing from the front and back. I look to the harbor and hear the ocean. I look to ocean and hear the helicopters. Rhomb lines for airplane. Just Above My Head. I smell jet fuel. Craving.

Charlotte Wolff:
Gestures of Crows for Whom All Space is Public Space.

Heriberto Yepez:
Crow Gestus: Gesture of making big USAmerican noise without sound.

Else:
Beep. Double
Beep. Beep double
Beep. Double

I Am (in Berlin):
It’s hot here. The windows are open. Waist high. Last night a voice in the courtyard cried out, a pleasure so complete the pitch of it was genderless and everyone, in all the windows, was turned on, although the lights stayed off. Squares of open air. An image open, emptied. Architecturally intimacy occurs. We have seen each other but not recognized each other. We have not recognized that we have seen each other but we know this recognition exists, unrecognized, when we meet each other in the treppenhaus, the stairways. Here there is also air between our bodies, but less.

Fassbinder:
Ja Ja Ja
in Agnst Essen
Seele Auf
I wanted most all of it shot in courtyards
and stairways
and doorways
leading to hallways—

Charlotte Wolf:
Architectures of Recognition Gestures
Gestures of Public Touching
Overcrowding Gestures
Orgy Gesture

June Jordan:
Western expansion camps. Refugee cramps.

I Am (in Brooklyn:
between a
door and a
front door

Fassbinder:
where Ali
and Emmi
meet in a doorway
vestibule
a transitional…

June Jordan:
But not provisional
structure the outside
Impositional architectures
Racing bodies
Merging bodies
Orgy bodies
The rooftops

Coltrane:
Architectura
l ai
r.

Else:
The internet?

Someone said:
Orgies, intafadas and riots!
They must take place
In physical space.

Orgy:
If a staircase, then
carefully.

Someone said:
Right. Carefully.
There is no
tyranny of
recognition, no
way to erase
the final
distance
between bodies.

Orgy:
Step by step.
Full of objects
Of outwardness.

Via Alev Ersan:
A space however
Small for politics.
A failed anagram.
An ark.

June Jordan:
Askar
Camp #1
Jenin

SCREEN 2:

Else:
When you look up ‘gestures of location’ on Google you are directed into an Apple development site on Gesture Recognizers. Gesture Recognizers interpret touches to determine whether they correspond to a specific gesture, such as a swipe, pinch, or rotation. If they recognize their assigned gesture, they send an action message to a target object.

I Am (in Brooklyn:
They look more forgotten each time I see them. There is a man I feel like I am friends with. He must be Jewish or Arab or Armenian does it matter which? Wait…we were at “A Gesture of Location” or Gestures of Location or. I don’t know his name but I have known him for all the years that I have lived in my neighborhood. Those years a teenager between us: 17 or 18…year old teenager trans person yesterday hacked to death. My unnamed friend in Brooklyn is a cortortionist. He can bend the back of his neck so that his head is at 90 degrees.

Wallerious:
Maybe that is not so hard.

I Am (in Brooklyn:
I watched him like this for 10 years. Because he sat on my stoop. I could tell he liked me, felt kinship with me. Maybe this means he is Jewish or just relieved to not be put out to the dogs. One day after ten years he looked at me and he was standing up straight. I smiled at him until he recognized me. Today I saw him on the train. We nodded to each other. When he got off the train he went back to being hunched over, in 90 degrees.

Else:
Gestures feel real
she read, but only
when her
hand opened,
when finger and
thumb separating
widened image
to text.

Coltrane:
A relatio
n that i
s neithe
r one no
r two.

Someone said:
Flow, from one to each’s other.
Shift, from thinking to knowing.

Sheena Easton:
Sheena Easton.

Aristotle:
Recognition is as augury for catastrophic
Wreckage.
A beautiful contraction, a perfect
Cleave.

Someone said:
Recognition denied or disabled.
Unclear weather. I recognize this.
Thunder precedes. Like this.
Flow. Shift. From cathexis to

Heriberto Yepez:
Uninstalling the blind
Stupid trilogy. Anti-
Oedipal yes, but
Let’s goes further,
Condemns the binary
And the 4 winds.

Else:
The last episode brought closure and still managed to stay open-ended.

June Jordan:
“Beach Camp”

SCREEN 3:

I Am (in Berlin:
Something someone said about a partial way of looking.
Lines, electrodes, an anti-reflective coating it alone.
Tap to zoom in on king.

I am (in Berlin) holding an object, an iPhone, the screen of which functions by sensing anything having a dielectric different from air. A kind of death, or experience of death, the sudden fact that difference is gone. I was in the air when my father died. I was high up, 30,000 feet, 35,000. I was in the air and my route in the air was figured by, ironically, “ground speed.” The screen on the back of the seat in front of me was roughly the size of the head resting against the seat. Flight status map. Africa a tan desert. Iceland, white. The Labrador Sea: a kind of rippled digital basin. Dimension on a low-res flat screen seems always like sand to be collapsing. “Local time at origin.” The places we travel to in order to leave them. A head winds. Distances: the minute you have a destination you arrive. I am (in Berlin) trying to locate where my body was when my father died, since where we were when a thing happened was the memory of the thing that happened. I arrived when I found out in New York, and got home, and turned on my iPhone with a swipe of my thumb, reading the email which was written by my mother from a coast across from the coast where I had arrived, which is not where my father died. That was my thought at that time in the narrative, where was I at that time in the narrative, now that I am (in Berlin) recalling this. Without location narrative posits it, sentence by sentence. Above somewhere named Gaspe. Somewhere above No. Only later on a phone with a circuit containing a mineral named by a Swedish chemist and mined in the Congo did a message arrive from another sentence, which was opened solely with the movement of a sentence, its intimate muscles, which are the only muscles in a sentence that move the sentence. Conflict minerals us. Somewhere above Dingwall. The sentence across a page vibrates. You could say a gesture also involves when it is finished dying. Else this high capacitance in a small volume, a river over time finds its way into a circuit small enough to allow live streaming. It won’t take long to adjust. Somewhere above Riviere-de-la-Chaloupe, Baie-du-Renard, Cap-aux-Meules. Airlines always use butt-ugly fonts. I remember that sentence, thinking that. This is a view from seat 42A, from a sentence folded in a seat among other sentences on an Irish airline with a Gaelic name somewhere above Dingwall, which is nowhere near Ireland.

Charlotte Wolff:
Gestarchitecture of Invisible Strings.
Gestarchitecture of Immigration.

I Am (in Berlin:
The flight attendants on either aisle end at take off, at the origin, synchronized. One hand positioned over a face and another behind the head. Jerk to release oxygen. During the prerecorded preflight safety instructions my lips moved with the recording. I am always from the start attendant. Invisibly the machine we become we are synced to. Always, from the start, he said again, narratively. Your thumb suddenly white, like Iceland. Else this high capacitance for an electrical charge, a circuit small enough to resist breathing. The body which is not a sentence in a ritual reduced to ashes, mailed to other bodies who stand there, holding them in a posture that, like any fixed position, grief included, interrupts gesture, freezes it, violently, he said again.

Charlotte Wolff:
Living Gesture of Poses Opposed to Any Fixed Posture.

I Am (in Berlin:
The email recorded the passing of a circuit small enough to prevent grieving.

June Jordan:
Rafah
Beit Jibrim

I Am (in Berlin:
The use of the word is proof that literal affirmation neutralizes dissent: economy class. The space between bodies, increasingly infinitesimal. Within inches of every sense an ad. If we are intensely mindful in such a space not to touch anyone, even at the elbows, it is because discomfort stemming from enforced proximity extinguishes any notion the larger sentence might be, with such touch, suddenly countered, changed.

Coltrane:
Distanc
e the minut
e you hav
e a destinatio
n you arriv
e

I Am (in Berlin:
Willingly move beyond this sentence in solidarity.

IT:
where
an ethics
appears. Avant
Vanguard. All
investments subject
also to read as if
risk, both to hold
what we know as fragile
and to have that,
brokered, ingestured
with windshield,
bad porn, visibility
broken global shatterproof
materials this
common form
to struggles, despite
borders, and the
archives border
beyond a sweetness
the sunlit fur
on the backs of
bees, hidden there
it will win us
over it will
soften us with us

Siri:
I am slurring in a soft warehouse.

Heriberto Yepez:
What is a repeat—a repetition that is not conservative, conservatizing, that bleeds new life—how to name it—close to that falling storm. Sheena Easton, save us.

Sheena Easton:
Sheena Easton.

June Jordan:
Balata
Shu’fat
Nusier

I Am (in Berlin:
Sentences willingly in solidarity move beyond this.

I Am (in Brooklyn:
(spasmodically dancing again)
But the Spring…is physical, it is
difficulty, not death. Broken
trees lost branches. Cold air at my bottom
while breasts hot, humid. Slow magnolias
Bright necessity alive—shortened, stumped.
Pushing force of
collective energy out
must make
side branches.