Tag Archives: allegory

My “epistemology of media lag argument,” part 2

The link below will take you to Google Books and an extract from a chapter of my first book, In the Event:  Reading Journalism, Reading Theory, which appeared in 1999 as part of the “Meridian:  Crossing Aesthetics” series edited by Werner Hamacher for Stanford University Press.  The material in question, then, appeared in print roughly eleven years ago, which was nearly two years after I had submitted the completed manuscript for publication.  At that time, the machinery of academic book publishing worked slowly, and the lag between submission and light of day was significant. 

 http://books.google.com/books?id=4dM8_FUOxggC&lpg=PP1&dq=In%20the%20event%20deborah%20esch&pg=PA61#v=onepage&q&f=false

In order efficiently to provide a brief context for the specific material I want to recall, I will simply quote from the characterization that appeared – and still appears – on the back of the book.

Assuming the burden of reading imposed by the correlation of the order of language and the order of events, this book argues that the possibility of reading and writing history is tied to the endurance of traces of the past and their coming to legibility, allegorically, at a given time.  Through attentive readings of a range of texts – including theoretical writings, diaries, newspaper reports, and “live” television broadcasts – In the Event elaborates the ways in which allegory disrupts our presumptions of continuity and simultaneity between the image (whatever its medium) and what we take it to represent.

The author demonstrates that a theoretical corpus must be understood not merely as a discrete set of arguments, but as work that takes place in time and on which time itself is at work.  Against the temptation to regard a text (including a text of philosophical aesthetics or critical linguistics) as explained or defined by a fixed temporal context, this book emphasizes the textual operation of time.  This attention to temporality opens the possibility of reading the notoriously difficult and resistant text of television.

Next comes the summary version of the part of the book most relevant to the case I hope to make over several forthcoming posts:  an argument, based on what I think is a telling instance or example, about the illusory nature of the “real-time” Web, aka Web 2.0.

The book’s central chapters analyze the seductions of “live” broadcasting:  an incisive account of news coverage of the [first] Gulf War, for example, reveals how the unproblematic articulation of “live” television with the real has its impulse in a broader realist ideology that finds its opportunity in the failure to reflect on the distances of space and time that characterize the medium….  Here, and throughout the book, the readings argue that what we take to be historical events are actually produced, even constituted, by an array of discursive technologies, including language itself.

[En passant, it has been my experience that copy-blogging one’s own past work leads to more wpm and fewer typos.]

Bear with me as I elaborate, over a series of posts, an argument about the ways in which a version of the realist ideology that underpins common conceptions about “live” broadcasting is also at work, in a manner and to an extent that are mostly unacknowledged, in the vaunting of the “real-time” Web.

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 8)

The viewer of “Untitled” who consults the source text for this inscrutable sequence encounters an unsettling reinscription of the New Testament narrative in the guise of a prospective film – a documentary destined for television – whose resonance with the predicament of the seropositive in our own time is unmistakable.  Carson presents the poem in three parts, the first of which, “DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY:  VOICEOVER,” begins with an acknowledgment of the problematic nature of the project:    

Yes I admit a degree of unease about my    

motives in making    

this documentary.    

Mere prurience of a kind that is all too common nowadays    

in public catastrophes….    

But you can see    

how the pull is irresistible.  The pull to handle horrors    

and to have a theory of them.  [Carson, 87]    

The language of justification here figures the irresistible force – which cannot be seen – at the heart of the wrenching prior narrative.  Subsequently, the voiceover details her “theory” (or his, for the question of gender remains indeterminate here) of the Lazarus story:    

                    But then you get    

someone like Lazarus, a man of no    

particular importance,    

on whom God bestows    

the ultimate benevolence, without explanation, then abandons    

him again to his nonentity.    

We are left wondering, Why Lazarus?    

My theory is    

God wants us to wonder this.    

After all, if there were some quality that Lazarus possessed,    

some criterion of excellence    

by which he was chosen to be called    

back    

from death,    

then we would all start competing to achieve this.    

But if    

God’s gift is simply random, well    

for one thing    

it makes a more interesting TV show.  God’s choice can be seen emerging    

from the dark side of reason    

like a new planet.  No use being historical    

about this planet,    

it is just an imitation.    

As Lazarus is an imitation of Christ.  As TV is an imitation of    

Lazarus.  As you and I are an imitation of    

TV.  [Carson, 88-89]    

Rembrandt

The hypothesis that “the ultimate benevolence,” the unanticipated “gift” of more time, of survival beyond one’s appointed term, is bestowed randomly and unreasonably extends to the scandal of the clinical drug trials, and further to the uneven availability and accessibility of emerging therapies based on economic and geopolitical contingencies.  The mimetic relationships enumerated here (“No use being historical / about this planet, / it is just an imitation. / As Lazarus is an imitation of Christ.  As TV is an imitation of / Lazarus.  As you and I are an imitation of / TV”), which are predicated on the temporal disjunction of allegory, recall Andrews’ earlier endeavors, and in particular Facsimile, whose multiple mediations exploit what is lost in translation, the degradation that accompanies the attenuated reproduction of images that are never the same from one generation to the next.    

Van Gogh

Carson’s voiceover goes on to specify what in the narrative of Lazarus remains exemplary for us, here and now.    

          But my bond with Lazarus goes deeper, indeed    

nausea overtakes me when faced with    

the prospect of something simply beginning all over again.    

….    

Repetition is horrible.  Poor Lazarus cannot have known    

he was an    

imitation Christ,    

but no doubt he realized, soon after being ripped out of his    

warm little bed in the ground,    

his own epoch of repetition just beginning….    

          Or maybe my pity    

is misplaced.  Some people think Lazarus lucky,    

like Samuel Beckett who calls him “Happy Larry” or Rilke    

who speaks of    

that moment in a game    

when “the pure too-little flips over into the empty too-much.”    

Well now I am explaining why my documentary    

focuses entirely on this moment, the flip-over moment.    

Before and after    

don’t interest me.    

You won’t be seeing any clips from home videos of Lazarus    

in short pants racing his sisters up a hill.    

No footage of Mary and Martha side by side on the sofa    

discussing how they manage    

at home    

with a dead one sitting down to dinner.  No panel of experts    

debating who was really the victim here.    

Our sequence begins and ends with that moment of complete    

innocence    

and sport –    

when Lazarus licks the first drop of afterlife off the nipple    

of his own old death.  [Carson, 89-91]    

In the poem’s central section, subtitled “LAZARUS STANDUP:  SHOOTING SCRIPT,” the language is no longer assigned to the director of photography, but rather to the implicit and anonymous screeenwriter:    

Lazarus    

(someone is calling his name) – his name!    

And at the name (which he knew)    

not just a roar of darkness    

the whole skeletal freight    

of him    

took pressure,    

crushing him backward into the rut where he lay    

like a damp    

petal    

under a pile of furniture.    

And the second fact of his humanity began….  [Carson, 93]

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 7)

Biodegradation figures importantly, if obscurely, in the narrative of Lazarus, already alluded to in the line from Anne Carson’s poem cited as the epigraph of “A sort of tomorrow” [“And the second fact of his humanity began”], and again in Derrida’s evocation of the “intense effort of memory” located at the origin of drawing.  Perhaps inevitably, the story of Lazarus (along with other narratives of resurrection and rebirth) has been enlisted as an allegorical precursor by and for those, like Andrews himself, who have been granted a second chance, the new lease – or mortgage – on life afforded by the advent of combination antiretroviral therapies.  In de facto acknowledgement that no static portrait, however mediated, can render the contours of a prior narrative whose own diachrony comprises an unsettling anachrony – life after death, indeed life after four degrading days in the grave – Andrews turned to fresh materials and a reconfiguration of his signature media in his updating of the life and times of Lazarus.  The resulting work, “Untitled” (2000-2001), presents drawings and photocopy transfers of the artist’s own snapshots on vertical strips of transparent mylar that imitate the visual sequencing of analogue film.  In Andrews’ tripartite division of the cinematic succession of images into past, present and future, the narrative begins with a past that is subtitled “The End” (recalling, for readers of this blog, the parenthetical subtitle of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ black-bordered paper stack  of 1990).  The work’s introductory sequence has recourse to the transcultural legend of the phoenix, a story of death and resurrection in which biodegradation is accelerated, aided and abetted in this instance by the artist’s application of a lighted match to a source photograph for earlier work:  an image of an anonymous crowd that figured significantly in his 1998 series hoi polloi.  The image yields, in a matter of several frames, to the destructive force of the flame, until the remaining ashes fade to black.

Subtitled “The First Part of the Second Half,” the central section opens with two mylar strips featuring sgraffito drawings in imitation of the optical soundtrack in analogue film, whose differential position vis-a-vis the image sequence it will accompany is calculated to compensate for the disparate times required for their respective routes through the projector.  The inscription of the optical soundtrack here recalls its precursor in the numerous installations of Facsimile‘s four parts since 1991:  Arrayed beneath the rows of portraits were unfurled player-piano scrolls stamped by the artist with the names of the men and women portrayed and featuring popular songs about love and loss, adumbrating a mute accompaniment.

In “Untitled,” the obscure sequence that marks the place of the optical soundtrack occludes the labour of mediation required to render it.  Andrews first recorded his own voice reading aloud the text of Anne Carson’s “TV Men:  Lazarus,” from the near-contemporaneous volume Men in the Off Hours, into a microphone attached to a computer.  The modulations of his voice were then translated as sine-wave printouts that the artist went on to replicate by hand in the ink-blackened margins of the transparent mylar film strips.  What resulted from a process that might be argued to take its cues from the poem itself (“I put tiny microphones all over the ground / to pick up / the magic / of the vermin in his ten fingers and I stand back to wait / for the miracle”) is modest in appearance (the inaudible soundtrack appears as illegible marginalia) and audacious in conception and ambition (Andrews is seeking, in effect, to draw poetry:  “mixed media,” indeed).

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 5)

Ah!  Wherefore with infection should he live,

And with his presence grace impiety,

That sin by him advantage should achieve,

And lace itself with his society?

Why should false painting imitate his cheek,

And steal dead seeing from his living hue?

Why should poor beauty indirectly seek

Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?

Still readable under the artist’s painstaking whitewash, these lines from the sixty-seventh of Shakespeare’s sonnets afford a point of entry into a body of work that borrows them, with respect, for purposes of its own.  Their consecutive rhetorical questions begin insistently to develop – like a photograph, perhaps – some of the whys and wherefores of the work that inscribes them:  matters of invention and imitation, truth and falsehood, blindness and insight, life and death.  Not reducible to themes, these concerns operate rather as the pivotal topoi around which each component of Andrews’ Sonnets, positioned in a complex constellation with the others, turns.  Each work in this series, while retaining a singular and idiomatic status, offers itself to the viewer as exemplary:  irreplaceable in its form and effects, but addressing (as Shakespeare’s sonnets address, even as they are addressed) broader concerns of a theoretical as well as a practical order.

For brevity’s sake, then, one image (if it is one) may serve as example:  the 1994 diptych that Andrews calls “Picture This,” a composite gouache portrait layered over partially whitewashed photocopies of sonnets forty-eight through sixty-nine.  For the viewer who is of necessity also the reader of this characteristically palimpsestic text, the title’s imperative translates as a pressing question that is not rhetorical:  Picture what?  For the digitalization of the photographic “original” that preceded its systematic manual reduplication in a subtle palette of greys and yellows renders the question of what appears – the who, what, when and where of reference – indeterminate.  In fact, what we see (or think we see, for even at first glance one’s perception of this work depends to an extraordinary extent on one’s relative proximity to or distance from it, fostering a distinct skepsis or doubt) is an effect of the artist’s superimposition of two images, an act that collapses space as well as time in the diptych’s two dimensions.  A photograph of director Jonathan Demme on the set of the 1993 AIDS-themed film Philadelphia, reproduced in the New York Times, is projected, as in a dream or a hallucination, onto a Polaroid portrait of Andrews’ late lover and muse that was staged in the artist’s studio.  The hands, then, do not properly belong to the head, or with it.  They do not reach out in advance of the unseeing eyes, feeling their way forward through space, anticipating some possible contact to come.  [I am indebted here to Derrida’s analysis in Memoirs of the Blind of the function of the hand in a range of drawings of the blind:  “These blind men explore – and seek to foresee there where they do not see, no longer see, or do not yet see.  The space of the blind always conjugates these tenses and times of memory – but simultaneously” (5-6).]  Rather, they frame the gaze of an absent other.  What may first appear as a portrait that, however mediated and manipulated, retains a mimetic relation to its model, emerges instead as an invented tableau.

Most notoriously and explicitly debated in the second preface to Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, the relation between portrait and tableau has generally been presumed, in the western aesthetic tradition at least, to be antithetical, mutually exclusive.  According to this conventional wisdom, an image or a text may imitate a particular referent – a person, place, object or event – and so constitute itself as a portrait of sorts.  The tableau, on the other hand, can lay claim to no specific extra-textual referent and hence is fictive, primarily self-signifying.  Underlying the terms of the distinction is the largely uninterrogated faith of the reader in the possibility of determining the referential status of the work at hand.  When we read an image or a written text, seek to understand it, we assume knowledge of and control over its referential and rhetorical modes (as we do when we read the question in Shakespeare’s sixty-seventh sonnet as rhetorical, rather than as real, and possibly urgent).  As Paul de Man argues in his analysis of the prefatory debate over whether Rousseau’s novel is a portrait or a tableau,

The innumerable writings [and images – Ed.] that dominate our lives are made intelligible by a preordained agreement as to their referential authority; this agreement is merely contractual, never constitutive.  It can be broken at all times and every piece of writing [and every image – Ed.] can be questioned as to its rhetorical mode.  Whenever this happens, what originally appeared to be a document or instrument becomes a text and, as a consequence, its readability is put in question.  The questioning points back to earlier texts and engenders, in its turn, other texts which claim (and fail) to close off the textual field.   [Allegories of Reading, 204]. 

“Picture This,” like the other components of the Sonnets sequence as well as the portraits in Facsimile, unsettles not only the question of its own referential status (in a way that does not allow for the closure of a final reading), but the very logic of mutual exclusion, the either/or that has long governed our understanding of the distinction between portrait and tableau.  No less than Rousseau’s novel, “Such a work can be read as the ‘portrait’ of its own negative gesture.  It follows that, if the work indeed represents objects qui ne sont point, then it is the ‘portrait’ of the subject’s initiation to this knowledge…the portrait of an impossible tableau”  (de Man, Allegories of Reading, 199).

It may be that Andrews’ own initiation to this knowledge is legible in the allegorical self-portrait incorporated in the series under the title “W.”, the cryptic initial that serves as his self-inscription and signature.  It is allegorical in that it “portrays” a certain blindness on the part of the artist to the predicament figured in the work.  Like the beloved in “Picture This,” the bereaved lover depicted here is unseeing, whether wittingly or not.  In this instance, it is a question of neither the “dead seeing” nor the “false painting” cited in Shakespeare’s verses.  Rather, the work is rigorously true to the terms of The Draughtsman’s Contract, enunciated by the draughtsman himself in a memorable speech that draws upon the “ambiguous evidence of an obscure allegory” in Peter Greenaway’s film to situate the figure for the artist “in the space between knowing and seeing.”  It is a contract that proves binding for the viewer as well:  “Painting,” like drawing, “requires a certain blindness…. Perhaps you have taken a great deal on trust”  (London, BFI, 1982).

 

 

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‘what history teaches,’ part 8

In the text of “Generation,” what constitutes a memorial, a legacy, a historiography is an allegorical reinscription, exemplified in the San Francisco wind and windfall (the latter in both its senses, literal and figurative:  as the material evidence of the wind’s passing, and as a sudden or unexpected acquisition or advantage):  “A hundred years was lost, but the integrity with which their falling rewrote the landscape drew me to their monumental sides again and again to gape.  (The sound they must have made I’m glad I didn’t hear.)  The speed and scale of the devastation excited me even as I mourned the losses:  so big I couldn’t blink away the incontrovertible facts.  I wanted the hugeness and the solidity of the mess, the grim external confirmation, the proud physicality literally shaken to its roots” (86).  The rewritten landscape also serves as the scene of a telling encounter in a San Francisco park “famously – famously! – known for casual sex, though it’s been drastically pruned by AIDS, by which I mean not only that its practitioners have dwindled, but that the censors and jurists early on tried to garden away the underbrush that offered pagan cover to public acts” (87).  [Derek Jarman makes a comparable observation about London’s Hampstead Heath, “where there has been another massacre of holly bushes by the moral guardians.  It’s sad to see the place raped by the city which now condemns the old trees to the bonfire if people make love under their branches” (Smiling in Slow Motion, 177).]  In this park already “pruned” by AIDS and further harassed by the winds,

A man I knew minimally – we never really spoke – approached and kept my eyes.  I’ve seen him for fifteen years along a variety of erotic routes.  He paused to talk about the weather – you do that in San Francisco because you like to show off your luck at living here – and he eyed the tumble of branches, the inviting trouble they’d made.  He thought there might be human cover there too, and chuckled at the fortuitous change.  The place is ghosted – we both knew that – it was nice to contemplate a turn.  “It’s good to see you,” he said pointedly, far more direct than either of us expected, “I mean there’s so few of us left.  It’s good to see you still around,” by which he meant “alive.”  [88]

In the wake of the San Francisco windstorm (it might have been an earthquake), the quasi-strangers come together, by way of an unexpectedly direct address, as witnesses, survivors, veterans – at least as of 1996, the date that punctuates “Generation,” the closing chapter of Unbound:  A Book of AIDS.

Here again, Shurin’s text is dated, and in more senses than one, thanks to the double functioning in English among other languages of the verb “to date”:  Transitively, one dates a text; intransitively, a text dates when it ages, whether well or poorly – in other words, when it acquires a history.  The dating of “Generation,” for example, gives us to read the remarking of a commemorable provenance:  San Francisco, 1996, a year in which the introduction of more effective antiretroviral therapies led some, “contemplat[ing] a turn,” to invoke (not for the first time) the imminent prospect of a cure, in what would soon enough prove a false promise.  Thus the date makes the text newly legible for us, here and now, in our finite outliving of the pandemic.

If reading in the archive of HIV/AIDS demands a reckoning with such dates, it is here a matter of a deliberate practice of dating that bears spectral witness to “the process of history itself disappearing” in an effort to turn it around.

VOICE:  This is a story about becoming a story.  It has to be told.  It has to be put in the past….

It’s a story about becoming the past….

NEY:  It has to be told.

VOICE:  It has to pass through.  Telling turns it around.

It doesn’t disappear.

NEY:  It turns around.

VOICE:  It begins again, and it turns around….

NEY:  It turns into the past….  [“TURNAROUND, a solo dance with voice” (1993)]

At every turn, Unbound:  A Book of AIDS summons those of us who have so far survived what has come to pass to make the effort required to read this receding past even as it threatens to disappear before our eyes.  For “all persons of voice (first, second, and third)” remain at risk:  “given its spatial and temporal dimensions, its structure of relays and delays, no human being is ever safe from AIDS” (Derrida, “Rhetoric of Drugs,” 251).  Now and henceforth, lives depend on our recognition of this overwhelming fact of life.

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‘what history teaches,’ part 7

The survivor’s testimony, then, is a matter of response and responsibility.  In “Some Haunting,” the phantom address elicits, by way of response on Shurin’s part, a question – “How do I serve this dead young man?” – that again summons the text of the past, estranging and reconstituting Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men / and women.”  When, as in this instance, reading and writing “the process of history itself disappearing” demand that we translate the hints, the fleeting fragments afforded by the past, poetics and historiography prove inseparable.

Unbound puts “Song of Myself” in quotation marks once more in its final chapter, dated 1996 and entitled “Generation.”  It recounts the aftermath, or more properly the wake, of a windstorm that raged through San Francisco “late in the night of December 12, 1995”:  “The wind tore deep at the earth as if it wanted to get in:  a thousand trees uprooted or broken in Golden Gate Park, hundreds elsewhere pulled out by their hair….  The city whose trees are reaching maturity together woke to a loss that was generational:  not once in a lifetime, but a unified swath of lifetime lost” (85).

Confronted with this violation of life expectancy, Shurin has recourse, again, to Whitman:  “It was grass growing on top of the dying trunk that originally drew my pen, preposterous and fertile like Whitman saw it:  ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. / Tenderly will I use you curling grass, / It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men'” (88).  Resituated in their context in “Song of Myself” (whose several versions are also variously dated, in the ten editions of Leaves of Grass published from 1855 to 1897), the lines resonate further:

A child said What is the grass?  Fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?  I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means….

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

It may be if I had known them I would have loved them.

With the confession that “I do not know what it is,” the tentative reiteration of “I guess” and “it may be,” the “I” in “Song of Myself” speculates from before or beyond certain knowledge, and considers a range of possible responses to the child’s question about the grass.  But Unbound‘s first person, writing and citing in a time of crisis, seizes on Whitman’s “now” – “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” – recognizes and reads it, allegorically, as part of an effort to make sense of the devastating windstorm and what it figures.  As in Whitman’s “Calamus,” the body is here “metaphorized as leaves, roots, blossoms, scented herbage, live oak, moss, vines and buds” – so much windfall in the wake of the savage weather.  [In the final paragraph of “Generation,” Shurin writes:  “A reminiscent wind has whipped up, strewing the gleaming street with papers and leaves, anything that rises.  I imagine a series of substitutions which stand for flight:  black crow, broomstick, milkweed, vapor trail, pterodactyl, red balloon, oak pollen, helicopter, luna moth, dust mote, box kite, June bug, rocket man, gazelle.  The wind takes them all” (89).]  “I pushed the ruin of the storm to mean the ruin I needed.  What constitutes a memorial, a legacy?  Where do the bodies go I don’t see go – no graves, no burning ghats – and how do they reseed a city lost to loss?” (88).

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‘what history teaches,’ part 5

If City of Men takes citation to a provocative extreme, audaciously rewriting Whitman in his own words (Whitman was of course continually rewriting himself, for example in his ongoing revisions to Leaves of Grass), the citational gesture and its allegorical structure are also crucial to reading Unbound as a poetics and a historiography of AIDS.  In Shurin’s formulation of his project in “Inscribing AIDS:  A Reflexive Poetics” (1995), he proposes to

estrange and reconstitute Whitman’s Civil War vocabulary, pushing images of battle and comradely witness to a newly disoriented wailing point.  In “Human Immune” [1993], the speaking subject inhabits experience from simultaneous locations as if all persons of voice (first, second, and third) are equally at risk.  The poem proceeds formally via an epidemiological model:  each “stanza” inexorably increases in length by one line, an expanding vortex.  Hell is round, the motif…may bear Dante’s centripetal impasse, but also dimensionalizes AIDS from the personal to the historical:  the curve one rounds is also around one, surrounding, a world.  For the gay community, this circumnavigate descent can be read as the process of history itself disappearing.  [74]

In these terms, the history summoned in the culling and grafting, the estranging and reconstituting of citation is itself in the process of disappearing, prematurely, perhaps irrevocably.  “Inscribing AIDS” thus recalls the threat to historiography identified in Walter Benjamin’s fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  If the witness who reads the process of history itself disappearing is haunted by images of the past (and ghosts abound in Unbound), the text of his testimony is likewise haunted by prior texts that are themselves commemorated even as they are enlisted in a work of commemoration.

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