Tag Archives: witness

Tracking @kommons: an experiment in reverse reverse chronology

During a short parenthesis of time this morning, I took my first real crack at Storify, a platform for curating social media that enables, for example, a reshuffling and reordering of tweets in the service of constructing a narrative.  I tried to tell a brief tale about witnessing a chapter in the history of Kommons.com, a startup to which (as readers of this blog will know) I have become attached.  You can find the Storify effort at http://storify.com/makurrah/good-times-kommons, and below.

Tracking @kommons: an experiment in reverse reverse chronology

Storified by Deborah Esch, November 18, 2010 at 11:00
 
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A Storify narrative about witnessing a chapter in the history of @kommons, told through the curation of relevant tweets.

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“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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‘what history teaches,’ part 8

In the text of “Generation,” what constitutes a memorial, a legacy, a historiography is an allegorical reinscription, exemplified in the San Francisco wind and windfall (the latter in both its senses, literal and figurative:  as the material evidence of the wind’s passing, and as a sudden or unexpected acquisition or advantage):  “A hundred years was lost, but the integrity with which their falling rewrote the landscape drew me to their monumental sides again and again to gape.  (The sound they must have made I’m glad I didn’t hear.)  The speed and scale of the devastation excited me even as I mourned the losses:  so big I couldn’t blink away the incontrovertible facts.  I wanted the hugeness and the solidity of the mess, the grim external confirmation, the proud physicality literally shaken to its roots” (86).  The rewritten landscape also serves as the scene of a telling encounter in a San Francisco park “famously – famously! – known for casual sex, though it’s been drastically pruned by AIDS, by which I mean not only that its practitioners have dwindled, but that the censors and jurists early on tried to garden away the underbrush that offered pagan cover to public acts” (87).  [Derek Jarman makes a comparable observation about London’s Hampstead Heath, “where there has been another massacre of holly bushes by the moral guardians.  It’s sad to see the place raped by the city which now condemns the old trees to the bonfire if people make love under their branches” (Smiling in Slow Motion, 177).]  In this park already “pruned” by AIDS and further harassed by the winds,

A man I knew minimally – we never really spoke – approached and kept my eyes.  I’ve seen him for fifteen years along a variety of erotic routes.  He paused to talk about the weather – you do that in San Francisco because you like to show off your luck at living here – and he eyed the tumble of branches, the inviting trouble they’d made.  He thought there might be human cover there too, and chuckled at the fortuitous change.  The place is ghosted – we both knew that – it was nice to contemplate a turn.  “It’s good to see you,” he said pointedly, far more direct than either of us expected, “I mean there’s so few of us left.  It’s good to see you still around,” by which he meant “alive.”  [88]

In the wake of the San Francisco windstorm (it might have been an earthquake), the quasi-strangers come together, by way of an unexpectedly direct address, as witnesses, survivors, veterans – at least as of 1996, the date that punctuates “Generation,” the closing chapter of Unbound:  A Book of AIDS.

Here again, Shurin’s text is dated, and in more senses than one, thanks to the double functioning in English among other languages of the verb “to date”:  Transitively, one dates a text; intransitively, a text dates when it ages, whether well or poorly – in other words, when it acquires a history.  The dating of “Generation,” for example, gives us to read the remarking of a commemorable provenance:  San Francisco, 1996, a year in which the introduction of more effective antiretroviral therapies led some, “contemplat[ing] a turn,” to invoke (not for the first time) the imminent prospect of a cure, in what would soon enough prove a false promise.  Thus the date makes the text newly legible for us, here and now, in our finite outliving of the pandemic.

If reading in the archive of HIV/AIDS demands a reckoning with such dates, it is here a matter of a deliberate practice of dating that bears spectral witness to “the process of history itself disappearing” in an effort to turn it around.

VOICE:  This is a story about becoming a story.  It has to be told.  It has to be put in the past….

It’s a story about becoming the past….

NEY:  It has to be told.

VOICE:  It has to pass through.  Telling turns it around.

It doesn’t disappear.

NEY:  It turns around.

VOICE:  It begins again, and it turns around….

NEY:  It turns into the past….  [“TURNAROUND, a solo dance with voice” (1993)]

At every turn, Unbound:  A Book of AIDS summons those of us who have so far survived what has come to pass to make the effort required to read this receding past even as it threatens to disappear before our eyes.  For “all persons of voice (first, second, and third)” remain at risk:  “given its spatial and temporal dimensions, its structure of relays and delays, no human being is ever safe from AIDS” (Derrida, “Rhetoric of Drugs,” 251).  Now and henceforth, lives depend on our recognition of this overwhelming fact of life.

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‘what history teaches,’ part 5

If City of Men takes citation to a provocative extreme, audaciously rewriting Whitman in his own words (Whitman was of course continually rewriting himself, for example in his ongoing revisions to Leaves of Grass), the citational gesture and its allegorical structure are also crucial to reading Unbound as a poetics and a historiography of AIDS.  In Shurin’s formulation of his project in “Inscribing AIDS:  A Reflexive Poetics” (1995), he proposes to

estrange and reconstitute Whitman’s Civil War vocabulary, pushing images of battle and comradely witness to a newly disoriented wailing point.  In “Human Immune” [1993], the speaking subject inhabits experience from simultaneous locations as if all persons of voice (first, second, and third) are equally at risk.  The poem proceeds formally via an epidemiological model:  each “stanza” inexorably increases in length by one line, an expanding vortex.  Hell is round, the motif…may bear Dante’s centripetal impasse, but also dimensionalizes AIDS from the personal to the historical:  the curve one rounds is also around one, surrounding, a world.  For the gay community, this circumnavigate descent can be read as the process of history itself disappearing.  [74]

In these terms, the history summoned in the culling and grafting, the estranging and reconstituting of citation is itself in the process of disappearing, prematurely, perhaps irrevocably.  “Inscribing AIDS” thus recalls the threat to historiography identified in Walter Benjamin’s fifth thesis On the Concept of History:  “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 concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”  If the witness who reads the process of history itself disappearing is haunted by images of the past (and ghosts abound in Unbound), the text of his testimony is likewise haunted by prior texts that are themselves commemorated even as they are enlisted in a work of commemoration.

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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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