Tag Archives: temporality

“The Time We Live”: John Berger, historiographer

At last, some genuine thought brought to bear on the London “riots.”  That it should come from John Berger is no surprise, and no accident.  Here is the link:  http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/john-berger/time-we-live  You can read the text below.

 

The Time We Live

On August 8th the kids were rioting because they had no future, no words and nowhere to go. One of them, arrested for looting, was eleven years old. Watching the pictures of the Croydon riots I wanted to share my reactions with my mother, long since dead, but she wasn’t available, and I knew this was because I couldn’t remember the name of the Department store where we regularly went before hurrying to the cinema. I searched persistently for the name and couldn’t find it. Suddenly it came to me: Kennards. Kennards! Straightaway my mother was there, looking with me at the footage of the Croydon riots. Looting is consumerism stood on its head with empty pockets.

Strange how names – even a distant one like Kennards – can be so intimately attached to a personal physical presence; such names operate like passwords.

* * *

The lake surrounded by mountains is very deep and about 70 km long. The Rhone flows through it. In stormy weather the waves look like those of a sea. Among the fish that breed here is the Arctic Charr – much acclaimed by gourmets. The Charr belongs to the Salmon family. When small it is almost transparent like a blueish silk handkerchief; when large it can weigh 15 kg. As their spawning season approaches, the ventral sides and pectoral fins of the adult males turn an orange-red.

On the southern side of the lake is a town on a hill, and between the hill and lakeside there is space for a small harbour, a promenade with cafés, a swimming pool, a narrow shingle beach, playgrounds, grass banks and palm trees, and on summer days in August these add up to something like a miniature and modest seaside resort.

Those who gather there are on vacation. They have left their everyday lives behind somewhere. Maybe a few kilometres away, maybe hundreds. They have emptied themselves. The etymological root of the word vacation is the Latin vacare, to be empty, to be free.

If you walk there, you have to pick your way – for the space is narrow and very small – between their mostly reclining freedoms. Many of the women and men on vacation are between thirty and fifty. Barefoot, barelegged, lying on towels in the sun or in the shade of trees, some of them swimming with children, others lounging in chairs. No big projects, for the place is too small and their time here too short. (It’s like this that the hours lengthen.) No deadlines. Few words. The world and its vocabulary, which they normally repeat but don’t believe in, have been left behind. To be empty, free. Doing nothing.

Yet not quite. Little blessings arrive which they collect. For the most part these blessings are memories yet it is misleading to say this, for, at the same time, they are promises. They collect the remembered pleasures of promises which cannot apply to the future which they have gladly vacated , but somehow do apply to the brief, empty present.

The promises are wordless and physical. Some can be seen, some can be touched, some can be heard, some can be tasted. Some are no more than messages in the pulse.

The taste of chocolate. The width of her hips. The splashing of water. The length of the daughter’s drenched hair. The way he laughed early this morning. The gulls above the boat. The crow’s feet by the corners of her eyes. The tattoo he made such a row about. The dog with its tongue hanging out in the heat. The promises in such things operate as passwords: passwords towards a previous expectancy about life. And the holidaymakers on the lakeside collect these passwords, finger them, whisper them, and are wordlessly reminded of that expectancy, which they live again surreptitiously.

Very little or nothing in the lives so far lived by the kids in Croydon has confirmed or encouraged any such expectancy. And so they live, isolated but together, in the desperately violent present.

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“Let no thought pass incognito”

As a relative newcomer to blogging, I count myself fortunate in my readership.  Though my stats are nothing to write home about, I have something much more important (to me at least):  a handful of readers apparently willing to think with me.  I was reminded of this by a comment left on a recent post about Walter Benjamin’s writing on newspapers, one that began (auspiciously) by quoting me quoting Benjamin:

“Work itself has its turn to speak.” I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind….

As Benjamin also predicts, again, what was old has become new again. Thank you for turning this up.

For me, this succinct comment resonates like crazy.  The re-citing of Benjamin’s language (in translation, of course) – “Work itself has its turn to speak” – redirects us to a formulation that appears deceptively brief, almost pithy, and yet is anything but.  “I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind” attests that such distilled and difficult thought takes time to unfold, if it is not to vanish irretrievably – succumbing to the threat of disappearance that for Benjamin haunts the dialectical image (a threat that, for blogger and micro-blogger , is part and parcel of reverse chronology).  Indeed, it recalls another passage from Benjamin’s writing, one I cited in a post written at the end of 2009 (http://wp.me/pLpwg-19 ).  “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” part of the volume One-Way Street, lists the following under number 5:  “Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.”  My gentle reader is precisely not letting this thought – “Work itself has its turn to speak” – pass unrecognized.  (And no one on any side of any border I can think of will miss the stringency of Benjamin’s analogy regarding his notebook-keeping practices.)
The final part of the comment is for me likewise galvanizing:  “Thank you for turning this up.”  My assumption (and I of course stand ready to be corrected) is that the “turning up” involved is not so much a cranking of the volume as a given track is played, but rather akin to an archaeologist’s (or, more prosaically still, a researcher’s) practice when it meets with some success.
 
 
 
But as I have written here before, this blog’s project is very much one of “turning up” writing from the proximate or more distant past that might help us to take stock of our own present, particularly when it comes to the unpredictably unfolding trajectories of media, journalism and historiography.  My own working term and concept for this has been curation, and, for better or worse, this blog is unabashedly curatorial, whether serendipitously or by design.
 
It goes without saying that I am not the only one who is thinking in terms of curation these days.  To borrow once again from an earlier post ( http://wp.me/pLpwg-Fy ), let me cite Mashable‘s Pete Cashmore:  “For those adrift in a sea of content, good news:  A ‘curation’ economy is beginning to take shape….” [“Twitter lists and real-time journalism,” http://www.cnn.com/2009/tech/11/04/twitter.lists/index.html ]  Whether its inception is late-breaking or old news, there is little doubt that the curation economy is the site of important work, where it may even transpire that “work itself has its turn to speak.”

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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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“Cc…: CCC,” part 14

I’ve been thinking about the original question Deb posed about how we might read and respond to the “concluding imperative” of Piot’s preface to the UNAIDS report:  Now act!”  Ensuing discussions have raised other questions that are nested in Piot’s injunction (I’m thinking in particular of Gregg’s intervention, which, as Deb notes, takes up the issues of “What,” “Who,” and “When”).  I keep returning, though, to a question (or rather a set of questions) that, to my mind, is at least as urgent as the questions of agency and temporality on which Piot’s imperative invites reflection.  That question is simply this:  “Where?”  Where is the space or field or geography of the action(s) “we” are enjoined to take?

The document in which Piot’s injunction appears is called the Report on the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.  The nominative anachronism of this title is worth remarking, since it takes us back to an earlier time in the history of the naming practices that have enveloped the life of the virus (which, as Cindy Patton has recently reminded us, includes the pre-history before “The Name” of the virus itself).  We all remember the moment in the 1990s when we began to speak of the “HIV/AIDS epidemic” as the “pandemic,” in order to register the emerging consciousness that this was a cluster of epidemics that covered, or would soon come to cover, the entire world.  In the U.S. context, this new nomination has over time had the important and salutary effect of opening the national consciousness about HIV/AIDS.  My sense is that U.S. based global AIDS activists have been able to use the language of an international HIV pandemic to expand the domestic discursive space accorded to HIV.  The recognition that “we are not the world” has enlarged the national conversation about AIDS on issues from U.S. government spending abroad to the drug pricing policies of the transnational pharmaceutical corporations.

This shift in the U.S. public imagination has increasingly made it impossible not to think about HIV/AIDS in international terms.  Surely that is a good thing.  However, it would probably be a mistake to read too much into the broadened public perception of the AIDS crisis in the U.S.  For example, a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of Americans are able to correctly identify Africa as the region of the world with the largest population of people living with HIV/AIDS.  However, only a minority of those surveyed believed that the U.S. government should be more involved than it has been in responding to AIDS in Africa.  To paraphrase Richard Rorty, the “globalization” of the U.S. public’s perception of AIDS has meant little more than an increased interest in “hearing sad and sentimental stories.”  During the first two decades, the “face” of AIDS in the American mind was the headshot of the “ravaged” Rock Hudson or the “courageous” Ryan White; by the third, that “face” belongs to the “frail” South African Nkosi Johnson.  In many ways, the image of the “international AIDS pandemic” in the collective U.S. consciousness serves  much the same purpose as that of “international human rights”:  it is a tool (to borrow again from Rorty) for “manipulating sentiments, [for] sentimental education.”

[Kendall Thomas’ e-mail continues in the following post]

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“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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“Cc…: CCC,” part 11

[John Greyson, in continuation]

In late July [2002], Zackie was scheduled as a plenary speaker at the Barcelona [International AIDS] conference.  (This is very much Jack, TAC and Zackie’s story; I’m only contributing it now because they’re upstairs sleeping, and I’m sure they’ll throw in their corrections at all my errors and misinterpretations!)  Because he was too sick to attend, a video was shot and edited by Jack and his Beat It! crew a couple of nights before.  The tape was couriered to the conference, where it was played on huge monitors to the thousand-odd delegates.

International news teams shot clips off the screen; some broadcasters even carried it live.  The world thus saw Zackie, explaining how HIV and the epidemic had prevented him from addressing the conference in person, live.  It was an unforgettable intervention, rife with urgency:  the real toll of the epidemic, illuminated by technology, portrayed by a voice nearly silenced by AIDS, able to speak only on a screen, thousands of miles and several days distant from the real event.

Because of this mediated moment, the Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkhulu Ndungane, visited Zackie the next week, to convey concern, best wishes and blessings.  Coincidentally, a TV crew was in attendance.  The blessing thus went out live to the nation, a broadcast that was seen by millions, and also by Mandela.  Who picked up the phone and invited himself over for tea.  Which led to the tea party, and discussions of how Mandela’s AIDS foundation and TAC could work together to set up treatment clinics, despite governmental resistance.  Which of course was carried by every TV station and newspaper in the country, and, to a much lesser degree, around the world.  (I myself participated in a bit of real-time posturing, boasting to friends how I was the lucky recipient of the Zackie/Nelson pic, courtesy of Jack’s email J-peg, an hour after the tea party, and hours before the mass media had circulated any images).

In this way, the necessities of illness triggered a chain of reactions, all mediated by miles and technologies and urgency, mediated most of all by the poignancies of time, which resulted in a tangible step forward in the war against AIDS.

In their press release, TAC also called for the meaningful inclusion of PLWAs at every level of decision-making in Africa’s pandemic.  For artists, there has been since the early eighties a related implicit corollary (one that too many institutions and power-brokers have thoughtlessly ignored):  to give special priority to the words and pictures created by PLWAs.  Earlier, we mentioned Andrew Sullivan’s notorious and nonsensical contention that for North American artists, AIDS is now passe.  As much as there is a need for northern artists to continue to vigourously interrogate AIDS and all its meanings, it is equally important that we work right now to hear the voices of African artists, addressing AIDS through myriad paradigms and aesthetic strategies.  The voices are emphatically there – why does the north not hear them more, encourage them more, assist them more?  Why was there so little AIDS work in this year’s Documenta, especially when so much of the show revolved around questions of culture and activism in a global context?  Why aren’t there more commissions, exchanges, exibitions, grants, specifically for African artists addressing HIV/AIDS?  What have we done, or more likely, not done?

Following this, how can northern artists contribute to a meaningful dialogue, without falling back on patronizing missionary tropes?  We all have relationships (so often fraught!) with various institutions, schools, arts centres, granting bodies.  How can they be mobilized?  Art exhibitions:  can these contribute to a truly two-way exchange of aesthetics and ideas?  Video residencies:  what makes these viable and effective?  Should video artists be brought to the Banff Centres and Charles Streets, or should the priority be given to getting more state-of-the-art tech and training to African artists?  Why wasn’t the massive African AIDS series Steps for the Future (whatever limitations it might have), which included episodes by/about Jack, TAC and Zackie, not shown in its entirety in North America?  How can art supplies be collected, shipped and distributed to PLWA artists most effectively?  And so on:  as many questions as there are ideas, but equally, as many things to act on.  Now.

XXX  John

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 1

As I wind down the project of making most of the manuscript of The Brevity of Life public in the form of a series of blog posts, in preparation for some research and writing in a different vein, I feel compelled to add to the chapters already reproduced a final postscript of sorts, which is arguably the most valuable part of the book in its historiographic function.  It takes the form of an e-mail exchange that took place between July and September of 2002, initiated by me and made possible by Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas, who generously agreed to take part.  I will record it in this and the next several posts, under the title “Cc…:  CCC.”  The “Cc” is self-evidently grounded in the structure and operation of a group e-mail exchange.  “CCC” is an acronym for “complex continuing care,” the parlance commonly used in North American tertiary care centers to designate a relative level of medical intervention (relative to “acute care,” for example, or “sub-acute care”).  The process of designating such levels of care involves “RIW,” short for “relative intensity weighting,” and is intimately associated with resource allocation.  In the Canadian public health care system, level-of-care designations derive from an assessment of the clinical and medical supports required to treat a particular “case mix.”

The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future.    

 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever:  A Freudian Impression, 1995, 18

Chiefly on the basis of the five exemplary instances they analyze [Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Derek Jarman, Herve Guibert, Aaron Shurin and Stephen Andrews], the foregoing posts make the case that in order to read what HIV/AIDS makes legible we must first of all and among other things recognize the differential temporalities inscribed in the virus and the epidemic-turned-pandemic, and likewise in their artifactual remains.  The wager that underwrites The Brevity of Life is that only a labour of reading attentive to the multiple specific structures and operations of time enables a responsible reconsideration, now and henceforth, of the grave challenges with which the global crisis persists in confronting us.

In making public the exchange transcribed in the following posts, the participants ask the reader to take account of the complex temporalities that traverse it.  Derek Jarman’s reflections on the difficulty of translating HIV/AIDS, whether in autobiographical or more broadly historiographical terms, onto film may help make legible here a fundamental incommensurability between the multiple temporalities of a pandemic that continues to outstrip our best efforts to make sense of what is occurring today (and what it may portend for the future) and a mode of production – in this case, electronic mail – whose impact over time remains, for us, an open question.  As Derrida observes in Archive Fever,

Electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal.  It is not only a technique, in the ordinary and limited sense of the term:  at an unprecedented rhythm, in quasi-instantaneous fashion, this instrumental possibility of production, of printing, of conservation, and of destruction of the archive must inevitably be accompanied by juridical and thus political transformations.  [17]

With much at stake – psychically, socially, politically – the participants in this exchange accepted the risks entailed in the terms of a tacit contract struck first of all among themselves, but in effect with their eventual readers as well.  The willingness of Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas to take part, in the knowledge that these virtual communications circulated initially among a handful of trusted friends and comrades in the spirit of a conversation would be transcribed and subsequently consigned to the public sphere bespeaks an extraordinary generosity, a readiness to assume the attendant burdens (among them, perhaps,a sense of vulnerability, an unaccustomed hesitancy, an unanticipated resistance to the format) for the sake of the matter at hand.

“I wonder if any of this will be remembered; probably not.”  Jarman’s musing in the journal entry that serves as the epigraph to “Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s Blue, Part 1), brought to bear on e-mail communications, might translate as a kind of optimism according to which we typically assume that the electronic script on which we are increasingly reliant is invariably ephemeral, short-lived, impermanent, never fully realized – indeed, that it is bound to disappear, sooner rather than later, that it is in the process of disappearing even as we hit “Send.”  Our utilization of a postal technology that seems to court oblivion opens up a certain freedom to muse, to hypothesize, to risk the kinds of formulations that may or may not stand the test of time, and do not pretend otherwise.

The participants can only hope, then, that readers of their exchange will respect the terms of the contract on which it rests, however uneasily:  that the latter will assume responsibility for discerning and seeking to negotiate the variable temporalities and rhythms involved, and honour the spirit in which this joint venture was undertaken.

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