Tag Archives: Lazarus

“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 9)

This partial, elliptical restoration of what remains inaudible and illegible in the lines scratched in the margins of “The First Part of the Second Half” yields the formidable task of reading Andrews reading Carson reading the scriptural account of Lazarus.  At every turn, the event in question – which is not represented but figured – is a resurrection, among whose incalculable effects is an unsettling in the order and the measure of time.  What Carson’s director of photography, translating and paraphrasing Rilke, terms “the flip-over moment” relegates chronological time – “Before and after” – to virtual irrelevance; hence this impossible documentary (“Our sequence”) purports to open and close with the time (“that moment”) of a singular upheaval. 

The radical disordering of the time of lived experience as well as that of narrative succession leaves us with discontinuous, heterogeneous moments, each exerting a certain “pressure,” each with an again incalculable bearing on us, now. 

We know the difference now 

(life or death). 

For an instant it parts our hearts.  [Carson, 95] 

The poem’s first-person plural here inscribes the reader in a claim to “know the difference” (the interposed parentheses that demarcate “life or death” signal an interruption in the unfolding of the utterance itself), a claim tied to a moment (“now”) that is of necessity itself different with every reading.  And because it is impossible to determine in strictly grammatical terms whether to assign “now” to “know” or to “difference,” the difference in question may also differ from one reading to the next.  For another “instant,” a time with no measurable duration, the difference “parts our hearts,” engendering a further difference, not between but within us, each of us.  The effect here is perhaps akin to the disturbance that Derrida locates in Maurice Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death, which is also a remarkable (autobiographical, autothanatographical) reinscription of the Lazarus narrative. 

A disturbance in the measure of time and a paradox of these instants, which are so many heterogeneous times.  Neither synchrony nor diachrony, an anachrony of all instants…. There is not a single time, and since there is not a single time, since one instant has no common measure with any other because of death, by reason of death interposed, in the interruption of reason by death, so to speak, because of the cause of the death there can be no chronology or chronometry.  One cannot, even when one has recovered a sense of the real, measure time.  And thus the question returns, how many times:  how much time?  how much time?  how much time?   [Derrida, Demeure, 94] 

The pressing question posed (how many times?), though not answered, in and through the story of Lazarus and its allegorical reinscription (Blanchot’s, Carson’s, Andrews’) is quantitative, a matter of duration:  How much time?  How long a reprieve from a death that will be – when it comes to stay, as it surely will – premature?  In each instance, the uncertain response is figured and refigured as “a sort of tomorrow, a sort of postscript,” for “this remainder that remains…will have been but a short sequel of sorts, a fallout, a consequence”  (Derrida, Demeure, 94). 

Maurice Blanchot

"Men in the Off Hours"

"Self-Portrait as After Image," 2009

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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 3)

If at the time of the portraits’ rendering the models were absent from the artist’s field of vision, they were vividly “present” to his memory.  Indeed, Facsimile makes a compelling case, by and for example, for locating the origin of drawing as such in memory rather than in perception – or more precisely in a perception that partakes, from the first, of memory, “an intense effort of memory that evokes and calls back to life – a memory that says to everything ‘Arise, Lazarus'”  (Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind:  The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, 1993, 48).  Baudelaire agrues the same case in “L’art mnemonique”:  “tous les bons et vrais dessinateurs dessinent d’apres l’image ecrit dans leur cerveau, et non d’apres la nature” [“all good and true draughtsmen draw from the image written in their brain, and not from nature”].  The conceptual figuring of memories, including those of past perceptions, as images inscribed in the mind leaves little room for nostalgia and its attendant pathos, and Andrews’ portraits are remarkably free of both.

A number of further mediations involved here, to which the series’ title likewise recalls us, remain to be reckoned with.  Prior to undertaking the first part of Facsimile, the artist was absent from Toronto, away from home and his habitual locus of production, and he first received the source images via transatlantic fax.  The painstaking sgraffito portraits are thus copies (the drawings) of copies (the faxed images) of copies (the photocopies), of copies (the newsprint) of copies (the half-tones) of copies (the snapshots) of an ever-receding original, and indeed their deliberate visual recitation of already degraded images conveys to the viewer an unmistakable sense of the wearing-away of what they nonetheless powerfully evoke, and with it a reminder of the inevitable lapses that compromise the work of memory.  As critic and curator Annette Hurtig observes,

The likenesses thus produced repeat the inadequacies of the faxed images.  Their imperfections protest memory’s failures.  Andrews’ loving, meditative replications, with their varying degrees of image degeneration, make Facsimile a figure for the unreliability of memory, as well [as] a metaphor for and an enactment of grieving.  A visual elegy for friends, loved-ones and a beloved lost to AIDS, Facsimile laments the way the limitations of memory leave us doubly bereft.

“Facsimile,” then, also designates the technology of reproduction and transmission that inhabits the portraits, both in their resemblance, especially from a distance, to the fleeting registrations of a laser printer, and more fundamentally as a condition of their very possibility.  Andrews’ series thus inscribes a long history of thinking technology as prosthesis, on the model of an extension of the human body, a supplement to its physical limitations, as well as the ambivalence that has shadowed this history.  The technology that extends the body’s force, provisionally compensating for its frailties and shortcomings, of course also confirms these failings, recalling them to reluctant and fallible memory.  The ultimate vulnerability of the body is death, that limit with which technology has always been intimately linked.

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 1)

“And the second fact of his humanity began.” 

 —  Anne Carson, “TV Men:  Lazarus” in Men in the Off Hours, 2000, 93.

 

What, over time, will remain, in what form and under what conditions?  It is fair to say that Stephen Andrews’ aesthetic trajectory over the course of two decades and more was set in motion and guided by these questions, or versions thereof.  His inquiries have yielded a body of work that prompts renewed reflection on a process  that humankind has perhaps come to take for granted:  the biodegradation that is the eventual fate of things cultural as well as natural.  The complex interplay of image, medium and material that characterizes Andrews’ practice asks the viewer to gauge the consequences of biodegradability both for the semantic content of the work and for its material support.  And if all art arguably makes a similar demand, the stakes are perhaps raised when, as in Andrews’ oeuvre, the content comprises a range of concerns (among them love, fear, dependency, death, mourning, survival) for which the acronyms HIV/AIDS may serve as shorthand, and when the material support (including beeswax, latex, parchment, animal tissue) is obviously, even deliberately, vulnerable to the effects of time.

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