Tag Archives: memory

“Cc…: CCC,” part 13

Hi  all,

John, your invocation of Stuart Marshall’s effort to historicize the epidemic in his 1987 videotape brought to mind your own indelible contributions in this regard, notably Zero Patience, which dates from 1993.  As Paula Treichler writes of your film in How to Have Theory in an Epidemic, “Early in Greyson’s musical…the character of Sir Richard Burton performs an ode to empirical science:  ‘A culture of certainty,’ he sings, ‘will wipe out every doubt.’  But by the end of the film, virtually every apparent certainty has been called into question, including some of the most treasured certainties of AIDS treatment activism.  The character of George, losing his sight from CMV, is also losing patience with treatment orthodoxies, no matter whose they are.  But even as his poignant refrain asserts this condition of radical uncertainty – ‘I know I know I know I know that I don’t know’ – Greyson’s story of the stories of the epidemic never lets us forget what we do know:  That a narrative can be powerfully persuasive, that a democratic technoculture must find ways to acknowledge the power of competing narratives, and that, for all the power of narrative, this epidemic leaves hundreds of thousands of people dead.”  She goes on to remark that, as the film unfolds, the various codes and conventions that have characterized the historiography of the epidemic “are self-consciously framed, contrasted, and denaturalized:  repeatedly called ‘tales,’ ‘stories,’ and ‘histories,’ they are used and manipulated to furnish data for grant proposals, fed to the media, distorted by the media, juxtaposed to other stories, told differently by different people, espoused and repudiated, hammed up, camped up, acted out, politicized, ridiculed, idealized, and discredited.  In this sense, they represent competing regimes of credibility…placed in visible collision.”

In the aftermath of writing The Brevity of Life, this recalls for me the threat to historiography formulated by Walter Benjamin in his fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “The true image of the past flits by.  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 threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  Like the dancing shadows John invoked in his last message to us, flitting around the hearth of the virus, whose company presumably includes a number of more and less helpful, useful, risky analogies.  As William Haver notes in his admirable essay “Interminable AIDS,” “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification.”  Witness Zackie’s video phantom addressing the conference delegates and the world from the screens temporarily erected in Barcelona for the occasion.

And John’s question – “Do we learn from history, or do we do history a disservice by recasting its specificity into a generalized metaphor for today’s agendas, today’s needs?” – resonates with Gertrude Stein’s singular history lesson, the final line of her poem “If I told him”:  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches.”  If, as Gregg contends (with Benjamin), “A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history,” we urgently need to attend to what HIV/AIDS has to tell us, to teach us, about our understanding of history.  For example, as Gregg also points out, “When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S. [in 2002], all illusions of progress disintegrate.”  Hence our received understanding of what Benjamin calls “the historical progress of mankind” is radically undercut by the material events that constitute the history of the pandemic to date, and in particular is shown to rely on a notion of our progression through a homogeneous, empty time.

More later, I hope.

Deborah

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 5)

2.  As the examples enlisted in the foregoing posts eloquently demonstrate, the need to tell time is also the need to attest, to testify in words and images not just to a time that is, as Derek Jarman has it, “all awry,” but to an unfolding history that depends upon such testimony for its own survival in collective memory.  The tasks of writing and reading the historiography of HIV/AIDS were outlined in advance by Walter Benjamin, who summoned us, prospective readers of his theses “On the Concept of History,” to recognize in the image of the past what urgently concerns our own present, lest it disappear, perhaps irretrievably.  

Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus"

Writing decades later in his capacity as witness to the pandemic’s devastation, Aaron Shurin likewise proposes to read and record “the process of history itself disappearing,” in an effort to “turn it around.”  Like Herve Guibert’s autothanatographical roman, like the giveaway paper stacks and candy spills proffered by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, like Stephen Andrews’ “Untitled” (2000-2001), with its poignant and pointed citation of Jarman’s Blue, Shurin’s Unbound can claim to be of AIDS, with the full force of the partitive. 

Invoking “the oracular remark of the greatest of poets,” which has itself effectively disappeared, leaving our posterity only the barest, most prosaic traces of its former glory, Seneca ventures in “De brevitate vitae” that “‘It is but a small part of life we really live.’  Indeed, all the rest is not life, but merely time.”  The foregoing posts drawn from the manuscript of The Brevity of Life urge with all due humility that it is time that we have interminably to tell in our attempts to reckon with what we have come (only belatedly) to call AIDS.

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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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‘what history teaches,’ part 6

The epigraph to the essay “Some Haunting,” dated 1994, cites the Joyce of Ulysses alluding to the Shakespeare of Hamlet:  “He is a ghost, a shadow now, the wind by Elsinore’s rocks or what you will, the sea’s voice, a voice heard only in the heart of him who is the substance of his shadow” (66).  The quotation opens Shurin’s evocation of his own ghosts (if they are his):

I’m no longer afraid these AIDS apparitions might be real (they’ve lost the advantage of surprise), but my subsequent clench at the gut or failing of the knees shows a terror more truculent than fear of the Impossible.  (The Impossible?  What, anymore, is that?)  These particular visitations – these “voices heard in the heart of him” – pursue.  They know my name, and my whole shaken body responds to their address….  The ghosts who walk in my city (my ghostly city) are cast as vividly as any childhood stored in a dipped madeleine – with that fleeting precision memory affords, and the rubbed-out edges it requires.  And they rise just as suddenly….  They flash and seize….  These visions are gone in the next shift of wind, of course….  Too late for me, who have been stuck by recognition, a madeleine-rush of memory that comes, alas, too frequently to be savored, but whose measure is too steady to be ignored.

I am haunted.  [66-67]**

The ghost, the shadow, the wind, the sea’s voice – always just gone – that pursue Shurin and address him by name again figure a demand made by the past on the present:  pay attention as if your life depended on it, recognize as your own concern what threatens to disappear irretrievably.  The sheer force of this demand disrupts the complacency of memory and amnesia alike.  As William Haver observes in the context of his own consideration of Unbound, “The ghost is the figure of what we can never quite forget altogether, but also of that which memory can never satisfactorily recover:  the figure of the impossibility of forgetting what we have forgotten.  The ghost is the figure of what disrupts every attempt at historiographical pacification” (unpublished ms., 12).  And the same claim might be made for citation:  for example, the citation of the past readable in a photograph of the author and his friends at the Gay Freedom Day celebration in Golden Gate Park in 1975.  Contemplating an image of the past twenty years later under the title “Shifting Paradise,” Shurin writes:

…one no longer knows the actual from the iconic – the icon becomes the actual!  Where physical distance blurs temporal distance refines.  This much has not shifted:  on a shelf a lucite frame encodes the past in a photo – unregenerate – as a paradise of pure loss.

But something has shifted:  the resonant image, gingerly holding its chemical colors against the fading power of sunlight, remains the same, but the very nature of paradise has changed.  Even while – eyes dewy – focused back on primal beauty, the unforeseen – HIV – transfigures sight, beholder and beheld.  “This sceptered isle,” Shakespeare’s Gaunt has said, “This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection.”  The magic island is flooded in a breakaway recursive tide; what did not hold – infected – returns to the image of origin.  (78)***

What follows this reflection on the fading photograph that cites a paradise now irretrievably lost is a parenthetical quotation from Gertrude Stein, the concluding lines of a remarkable poem with the hypothetical title “If I Told Him” (and the more assured subtitle “A Completed Portrait of Picasso”):  “Let me recite what history teaches.  History teaches” (78).  This history lesson, in the form of a citation that itself inscribes, or performs, citation, quoting itself as it unfolds, delivers not meaning, but what Unbound elsewhere terms “enactment” (35), demarcating the properly ethical dimension of its poetics and its historiography.

__________

** The haunting of the survivor is powerfully figured by John Greyson in “Overtaken,” Alphabet City 7 (“Social Insecurity”), 2000, 68-79.

*** In In the Event:  Reading Journalism, Reading Theory, I propose that “the photographic image takes place in the mode of a pledge:  Everything may be preserved for history.  But if what is preserved is in the process of disappearing, perhaps what is kept is only the promise”  (Stanford UP, 1999, 3).

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