Tag Archives: imitation

“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 4)

In both instances [the New York Times editorial and the Boston Globe report], a journalistic appeal to progress in the form of late-breaking bio-medical developments (“The newest AIDS medications,” “recent advances”) operates in effect to overlook, if not to excuse, the unmistakable racism inscribed in language that may or may not simple imitate TV.  (In the scene from “In this White House,” the audible irony in Toby’s response to the question “What’s the problem?” – “They don’t own wristwatches.  They can’t tell time” – has the thinly-veiled racism of the fictional pharmaceutical executives as its target.)  The promising advances signaled by the new treatment regimens (which effectively date this episode of The West Wing, relegating it with dispatch to the cultural archive) may indeed reduce the burden on those who have access to these therapies, whatever their circumstances.  And what such “progress” may mean (and portend) for the millions presently living with HIV/AIDS is difficult to overestimate.  What it emphatically does not mean (as this series of posts attempts to make plain) is that “there is no need to tell time.”

On the contrary, the need – the unavoidable imperative – to tell time has perhaps never been more urgent.  Part and parcel of the work of correlating the order of events and the order of language in the face of the interminability of AIDS, telling time is itself at least a twofold task, as the archive of the pandemic instructs us.

1.  It is first of all a matter of accounting for the multiple specific temporalities inscribed in the virus, in the epidemic-turned-pandemic and in its artifactual remains to date, among which would number not only the episode of The West Wing but also the journalistic reports that speculated on its impact on the subsequent policy debate.  In the latter cases, for example, we are obligated to recognize the time that divides the scripting of “In this White House” from its eventual broadcast, as well as the interval between the episode’s airing and the adoption of its language by American policymakers, which is partly co-extensive with the time of the “recent advances” in treatment regimens cited with the effect of side-stepping the racist overtones of the bureaucrats’ arguments.  Far more importantly, these documents from the archive of the pandemic raise the matter of the (much longer) time between drug development in the west and access to “the newest AIDS medications” in sub-Saharan Africa, and with it that of the (still longer) time between the date assigned to the official inception of HIV/AIDS in North America and any consequential attention to its global impact.  Ultimately, they summon us to reflect on the variable temporalities of what we call human lifetime and on the diversity of the times death takes.  Under the pressure of reading, they remind us that what has become a widely-accepted state of affairs, and indeed a norm – that vastly divergent lifespans can and shall co-exist, that life expectancy of, say, thirty-seven years in some parts of the world can and shall obtain alongside life expectancy of more than double that figure in others, and this for an unspecified period of time to come – is also legible as a damning indictment of a shameful history.  In these and innumerable other instances, the need to tell time translates as the imperative to discern – which is to say, to read – the time in question, the always crucial variable that is never quite the same from one reading to the next.  Only a work of reading attentive to time as the x factor can ground a responsible theoretical consideration of the temporal and historical questions with which the pandemic never ceases to confront us.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 2)

To return to the matter of the “very direct relation…between the minutes of meetings and minutes of agony” (Berger) adumbrated in the episode of The West Wing:  That “time” is the answer to the question Josh poses to the pharmaceutical executives – “What’s the x factor?” – and to its more generalized version – “What’s the problem?” – was underscored in the subsequent scene:

Executive:  I think there’s a more fundamental problem than marginal cost…a hard truth that should be faced.

Toby:  What’s that?

Executive:  If tomorrow we made AIDS medication free to every available patient in your country, as much as they needed for as long as they needed it, it would likely make very little difference in the spread of the epidemic.

Josh:  Why?

Executive:  Anti-HIV drugs are a triple cocktail.  It’s a complicated regimen that requires ten pills to be taken every day at precise times:  two protease inhibitors every eight hours, two combination RT1 pills every twelve hours.

Josh:  What’s the problem?

Following an uncomfortable pause that required no translation, Toby supplied the response that the corporate representatives evidently preferred to leave unspoken:  “They don’t own wristwatches.  They can’t tell time.”

That these lines, uttered with unmistakable irony by an actor portraying a fictional character in a dramatic television series, may however improbably have found an afterlife in other media and left a mark on the contemporary historiography of the pandemic is readable in the headline of a newspaper report published several months after the episode first aired:  “Activists wonder if life imitates television in U.S. policy on AIDS.”  In a sequence of events that may recall, for readers of this blog, the passage from Anne Carson’s “TV Men:  Lazarus” cited in a recent post – “As you and I are an imitation of / TV” – two American officials alluded to the language of “In this White House” in the context of a policy debate about increased global funding for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, and the putative, artificially constructed trade-offs between the two priorities:  a debate with profound consequences for sub-Saharan Africa, home of the vast majority of the estimated 36.1 million people who were living with HIV/AIDS as the bureaucrats argued their positions.  In a report for the Boston Globe that was subsequently picked up by a host of other news organizations, journalist John Donnelly inquired:  “Has The West Wing influenced Washington’s policy on AIDS in Africa?  That’s the question AIDS activists are asking after two senior officials said distribution of AIDS cocktails would be complicated by Africans’ inability to tell time”  (John Donnelly, Boston Globe, June 18, 2001).

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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 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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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 2)

The critical force and historiographical import of Andrews’ project may be traced to Facsimile, a four-part series begun in 1990 and first exhibited in 1991.  A consideration of what the title itself gives us to think affords one opening onto the complexity of this work and the challenges, even the imperatives, it continues to pose for the viewer.  “Facsimile” is first of all the making (from the Latin facere) of a copy or likeness (similis), the work of imitation constitutive of portraiture.  Read through Andrews’ title, the images ranged here are understood to refer themselves to models that they reproduce or represent by way of a particular medium and material:  in this case, drawing on bleached beeswax tablets coated with oil and graphite.  From the first, however, these portraits trouble conventional premises about the fundamentally mimetic relation of art to nature, image to model.  For these “copies” are made not at one, but at several removes from their “originals,” and remarking the specificity of the resulting distances, spatial as well as temporal, is part of the project here.  The “Proud Lives” to which these likenesses recall the viewer are those of men and women now dead, commemorated in a regular feature of that title in the Toronto bi-weekly Xtra!, which publishes photographs of and tributes to members of the community lately lost to HIV-related illness.  Andrews’ images, then, have their antecedents in these photographs, snapshots donated by the survivors.  The multiply-mediated gazes that look out from these portraits do so from a then and there that is divided from our own here and now not just by the passage of time, but more radically by death.  They address the viewer from that other time and place, from a past that remains, in ways to be elaborated and analyzed, determinant for our present and our future.

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