Tag Archives: testimony

“Cognitive Surplus,” indeed

Yesterday’s mail delivery brought my pre-ordered copy of Clay Shirky’s volume Cognitive Surplus:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  Having learned a good deal from Clay’s writings, lectures and interviews, I’ve looked forward to reading another book-length offering.  Sure enough, I was rewarded (almost in passing) as early as page 15.

In the context of my efforts to bring an “epistemology of media lag” argument to bear on contemporary claims for the so-called “real-time” Web, I was particularly gratified to read, in the book’s first chapter, Clay’s account of one example of individual members of society “voluntarily making and sharing things” by way of social media.

To pick one example, a service called Ushahidi was developed to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence in Kenya.  In December 2007 a disputed election pitted supporters and opponents of President Mwai Kibaki against one another.  Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan political activist, blogged about the violence when the Kenyan government banned the mainstream media from reporting on it.  She then asked her readers to e-mail or post comments about the violence they were witnessing on her blog.  The method proved so popular that her blog, Kenyan Pundit, became a critical source of first-person reporting.  The observations kept flooding in, and within a couple of days Okolloh could no longer keep up with it.  She imagined a service, which she dubbed Ushahidi (Swahili for “witness” or “testimony”), that would automatically aggregate citizen reporting (she had been doing it by hand), with the added value of locating the reported attacks on a map in near-real time [emphasis added].  She floated the idea on her blog, which attracted the attention of the programmers Erik Hersman and David Kobia.  The three of them got on a conference call and hashed out how such a service might work, and within three days, the first version of Ushahidi went live.

Mindful of Clay’s own creativity and generosity, I would humbly propose an amendment to the final clause:  make that near-live.

Postscript:  The bio on the jacket-flap enumerates Clay’s consulting gigs, which include BP, for whom he did work on “network design.”  On day 57 of the spill, with a newly publicized flow rate of 35,000-60,000 barrels per day, as Obama is about to address the world from the Oval Office on events unfolding in the Gulf, it would seem that someone missed the boat.

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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 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 4)

If these portraits are of lives lost, of friends and comrades no longer accessible to perception, the relation of image to model in this instance cannot be conceived according to the representational criteria of mimetic fidelity.  Fidelity to memory is of another order, and operates otherwise.

The manual translation that produced these pixelated portraits (the marks were left by a jeweler’s screwdriver applied to the oil- and graphite-coated beeswax) was not that of a hand following the prescription of a model.  The movement of memory left these traces, so many notations for future reference.  Facsimile documents what was virtually a state of emergency in an affected community – the artist’s own – in the early 1990s, respecting the specificity of individual instances even as it locates them in a geographical and historical context.  The series format itself attests to this history’s unfolding over a critical time:  The quasi-mechanical enumeration, case by case, is not dialectically resolved, comes only arbitrarily to a close, and could conceivably go on indefinitely.

But how can a crisis go on indefinitely?  The portraits ranged in Facsimile‘s four parts address this question both to members of the community in question and to those at some distance (spatial or temporal) from it, who may imagine themselves untouched, even immune.  As Thomas Keenan notes in a conversation published in 1991 under the title “The AIDS Crisis is Not Over” (a text that, like Facsimile, retains all its pertinence decades after the fact),

There’s a way in which the telling of the story, the testimony of the affected community, functions or can be received as an accusation, by those who thought they were uninvolved.  The testimony is an address, which means that it’s a provocation to a response.  And that’s what they don’t want to give.  They don’t want to respond to the person who has called – for responsibility.  When someone says “I don’t want to hear about it”… they are telling the truth.  They are creating themselves as something insulated in its generality from the specificity of the address, by disavowing any involvement with the one who appeals.  [American Imago, 1991]

In the commemorative portraits gathered under Andrews’ resonant title, the appeal comes to the viewer not only from before and beyond the grave, but from the moment at hand.  It is a call to recollection and to responsibility, one that we ignore at our own risk.

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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 3

If Unbound is “weighted toward witness,” this attribute of the text attests to its author’s “cursed rare privilege” – his chance to have been the intimate observer of, and at times actor in, or party to, the experiences he commemorates, and further to have survived them.  For by definition, one testifies only when one has (so far) outlived what has come to pass.  The work’s status as the testament of a survivor opens its reflexive poetics onto, turns it into, historiography.  But this history-writing itself takes specific forms in language that make their own non-negotiable demand on writer as well as reader:  “to pay attention – poetics – as if one’s life depended on it.”  As we read in “Notes from Under,” “So, a cloud of attendant issues and their griefs.  Among friends – dead, dying, or scared, the sorrowful healthy – testimony:  what I have seen that you must now know, see, for I have been surrounded and among my friends in adversity creating a life, their rising and falling beauties, death and tests and imagined fulfilled acts that have unleashed instructions upon us, the uninitiated” (14-15).  The address that inscribes a prior address, bearing the word allegorically for, to and from the other (“I let them speak” [35]), delivers in the first instance not meaning, but the force of a testimony whose I/thou structure Shurin locates in the ubiquitous obituaries of the time (“and it’s hard to be impersonal when people are calling each other sweetie across that gulf” [15]), and that is for him the “only proper usage; what signifies is that the form functions while including the dead” (15).  And that testimony’s imperative mode – “what I have seen that you must now know, see” – recalls the pivotal demand, or command, addressed by the I to the you in the second line of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “And what I assume you shall assume.”

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‘what history teaches,’ part 2

Unbound‘s project, however, is not strictly bound by the laws and limits that the designation “reflexive poetics” would appear to institute.  For one thing, as “a book of AIDS,” with all the force of the partative, it does not simply thematize; it also refers.  Its language lays claim to factual and undeniable referents in countless human bodies (it is of course in and on these bodies that HIV/AIDS first offers itself for reading, and first demands to be read), and to a host of others in the material events that constitute the history of the epidemic-turned-pandemic.

But it is not only the all too obvious referential function of Shurin’s language that opens his “reflexive poetics” onto a historiographical dimension.  It is also the rhetorical function of a text that, again in its own terms, is “weighted toward witness” – structured, that is, as testimony addressed out of and as of a certain date.  And it derives what authority it may claim from prior testimony:  “Authority? – not mine, but an urge toward the integration of fear and immutable fact, and a heart for consequence.  Who could have moved me to this end but the men whose names are mentioned here, who were my informants and guides, and whose natural affectional alliances made an epidemic based on love and desire possible?  It soon became clear that for me writing about AIDS was weighted toward witness.  Such participation’s cursed rare privilege is offered to you” (8).  Here as elsewhere, Unbound apostrophizes the reader, willing or unwilling recipient of its uncompromising address (an address on the order of the paradigmatic apostrophe in the chilling final line of Keats’ “This living hand, now warm and capable”:  “See, here it is, I hold it towards you”).  More fundamentally, the grammar here signals that this testimony is offered, delivered, or at any rate promised to one who remains indeterminate, unnamed in the text:  it is perhaps the lover, perhaps the stranger, for with the other, as with AIDS, it comes to the same.  [Cf. Jacques Derrida, “Shibboleth” in Midrash and Literature, ed. Hartman and Budick, 344].

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