Soon to be reborn as a “learning center.”
I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see Fred Herzog‘s Vancouver Photographs, which are indeed a fascinating record of something like peripheral modernity in full colour 1950s and 1960s Kodachrome. At precisely the time that the city must have felt like a true Finis Terrae–long after it had lost its role as waystation of Empire, and before the invention of a “Pacific Rim”–it also boasted more neon lights than any other city in North America.
But I was also very much taken by the exhibition “Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre”. The contention here is that the manifestly staged images of a Cindy Sherman or Vancouver’s own Jeff Wall, from its very inception photography has been intimately tied to performativity.
Against the notion of the photograph as snapshot, a moment frozen from an ongoing temporal flux, the exhibition argues that photography has equally often conjured up an event, a scene that would not exist but for the technology’s power of organization and arrangement. This is photography as literally composition: a marshalling of resources to produce a particular narrative or affective effect.
Yet the piece that most struck me was not a photograph, but a film, which plays precisely with the fine line between snap and event, around an investigation into one of the West’s most iconic painterly images. Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcázar imagines Velásquez’s Las Meninas as both composition and interruption.
In what is apparently one long take, a beautifully choreographed 360 degree steadicam pan, Sussman presents us with the figures who inhabit Las Meninas before and after they take up the pose portrayed in Velásquez’s painting.
On the one hand, we’re waiting for everything to fall in place, for the King and Queen to take up position, the Infanta to step forward, the courtiers to take up their positions, including the shadowy figure in the doorway at the back of the room. Slowly we see the various components arrange themselves, inexorably forming the famous image. On the other hand, the moment of the “snap!” in which briefly we have Las Meninas is shown in all its contingency, placed back into the flow of time full of many other potential narratives, many other instants that (had they too been frozen) would have implied other stories, other affects.
What’s presented is a process that comes to seem accidental and inevitable at the same time. Running in a continuous loop, it’s as though the complex flux of people and perspectives had endlessly to resolve into that one single moment, as though we were backstage of what is already perhaps the most famous of “backstage” images. (And the film respects that aspect of the painting… we never see the image that the artist himself is painting.) But we also are presented with other moments, and so other images. As a whole, the film is a mesmerizing and fascinating performance.
I’ve been implicitly upbraided for not writing enough about posthegemony on this here “Posthegemony” blog. But everything’s connected…
I’m reading Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins (for which see also Dominick LaCapra’s review, as well as Peter Cramer’s). Here, Readings argues that the operative principle of the University is now “excellence,” a concept that replaces the previous guiding concept of “culture,” which itself succeeded the Kantian vision of “reason.”
But the characteristic of the University of Excellence is that it lacks any concrete referent: “excellence has no concept to call its own” (24); “excellence is clearly a purely internal unit of value that effectively brackets all questions of reference or function” (27). Whereas the University of Culture was tied to the nation state and to national culture as its object and the national subject as its product, the University of Excellence is contextless and its students merely “consumers” (53); the university’s goal is now that “of producing a subject who is no longer tied to the nation-state, who can readily move to meet the demands of the global market” (49).
At the same time, therefore, ideology is replaced by administration: “the University is no longer primarily an ideological arm of the nation-state but an autonomous bureaucratic corporation” (40). Accounting becomes the sole measure of accountability: “the language in which global discussions are to be conducted is not that of cultural conflict but of economic management” (30).
My own institution’s “trek” is a good example of the University of Excellence’s self-expression. After all, unlike the Great Trek from which the metaphor is taken (a referent that is of course obscured or denied), the university’s trek lacks any specific goal: Trek 2000 seamlessly becomes Trek 2010 because the vision’s logic is essentially circular; “what [is] already an excellent university” is exhorted to “create a working environment dedicated to excellence”. Excellence is both presupposed and an endlessly shifting, perpetually unachievable target.
Moreover, though the call to create “global citizens” appears to provide some kind of ethical or political impulse, in fact it’s best seen as the definitive break from a national project as Readings describes it.
It’s true that there’s an irony here, in that Canadians believe themselves to be already the specific incarnation of model global citizens: who, after all, are more global and more civic-minded than they? But this is only an instance of the crisis of Canadian identity, in an epoch in which (as Douglas Coupland endlessly laments) Canadianness survives only as a souvenir, a half-remembered relic of purported white middle-class civility realized après coup as a function of what’s by now a merely decorative consumer culture.
The circularity of the institution’s mission is best illustrated by the anecdote told by the university’s president at the launch of Trek’s corporate vision, an anecdote presented as an inspiring vision of hope and humility. At an event at the city’s Downtown Eastside, a community that’s also Canada’s poorest postcode, “at the close of the session, a 10 year old boy [. . .] came up to me and said meekly, ‘Dr. Piper, I want to thank UBC for coming to my school this week—and I just want you to know that I want to come to UBC when I grow up.’” No, not “I want to be a lawyer/doctor/tycoon” or “I want to work for social justice” or “I want to be proud of my neighborhood” or any of the other ambitions (good or bad) that one might imagine that the university could foster, and that the University of Culture once encouraged.
Rather, the institution becomes its own raison d’être: the goal of the university comes to be simply to generate (a “meek”) desire for the institution even among those who are statistically least likely ever to be granted admission to it.
My institution has taken the notion of a “trek” as the organizing metaphor for its mission statement and medium to long-term goals, appealling thereby to a previous “refoundation,” a 1922 student-led demostration “now known as the Great Trek”.
Strictly speaking, the university had been founded in 1908 with the passage of the relevant Act of establishment and incorporation. Shortly thereafter, a site for the new university was identified: Point Grey, a promontory on the outskirts of the city. But when in 1915 the university opened for business, it was in the city itself, as construction continued at the promised site of Point Grey. Then in October 1922, some 1,500 students made their way from downtown to Point Grey, occupying and hanging banners from the still incomplete buildings, “as a symbolic gesture to lay claim to the unfinished campus”. It is this demonstration that came to be known as the “great trek.” And in 1925 the Point Grey campus finally opened.
But to call this a “trek” is curious terminology. Indeed, if the word was used in 1922 to describe student claims to Point Grey, it would antecede by almost twenty years the OED‘s first reference to “trek” being used outside of Africa.
For “trek” is a South African word, and any mention of a “Great Trek” in 1922 could only invoke the Boer founding myth of the Great Trek of 1835 to 1838. This was “a landmark in an era of expansionism and bloodshed, of land seizure and labour coercion”: up to 12,000 Afrikaners, Dutch settlers living in the Southern Cape under British jurisdiction, hitched their wagons and headed North and East in search of their very own “promised land.” These “Voertrekkers” thereby also sought to secure the white dominance and racial separation that they felt British policies were underminding.
The Trek’s key episode was the Battle of Blood River, in which 3,000 Zulu warriors were killed at the cost of only slight injuries to three of the Boers. The Trekkers took this as “a sign from God that they were indeed a chosen people”. In 1949 the Apartheid state inaugurated the Blood River monument at the site of the battle, and the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, symbolic legitimation for a nation built on the myth of racial superiority incarnated in the trek and its triumphal massacre.
Surely then these same resonances of a chosen people’s resistance to a colonial authority felt to be insufficiently expansionist would also have been in the air in 1920s British Columbia?
Point Grey has been, we are also told, “home to the Musqueam band since ‘time immemorial'”. At the turn of the twentieth century, to identify the land as some rural Arcadia full of natural splendour and the requisite peace for higher education and learning was necessarily also to erase an entire history of indigenous population and colonial dispossession.
But the repressed always returns. The decidedly unusual choice of the term “Great Trek” marks the coincidence and commonality between the aims and desires of two sets of white colonizers, each anxious to construct for themselves the idea of a “promised land” in the face of indigenous resistance on the one hand, and what was felt as bureaucratic accommodation on the other.
One might also wonder what metaphoric or symbolic work the term’s contemporary resurrection accomplishes.
Gabriel García Márquez‘s Cien años de soledad is a long, sprawling novel that lacks much in the way of a conventional plot. Rather, it is full of events and incidents, digressions and flashbacks or flashforwards, not least the famous flashforward with which the book opens:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (9)
In fact, in a further complication, this is a double flashforward: both to the story of the discovery of ice, recounted some twenty pages later; and to the story of Aureliano Buendía facing the firing squad, which will not be told for another several hundred pages.
But what does appear even in this opening sentence is one of the threads that connects and gives some sense to what might otherwise appear to be a jumble of narrative excess. For in what we take to be his final moments, by recalling the transmission of knowledge from father to son the colonel also highlights the theme of inheritance, of what is passed down from generation to generation. In short, of genealogy.
For there’s no surprise that some editions of the novel include a family tree. Cien años de soledad is (among other things) a family saga. One of its central concerns is they ways in which sons and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters, and even great-grandsons and great-grand-daughters, have, face up to, take responsibility for, or negotiate what they have inherited from their forebears.
Still early on in the novel, for instance, we see how José Arcadio Buendía (Aureliano’s father) destroys or uses up his wife’s inheritance–a trove of colonial gold coins previously buried under the matrimonial bed (11)–in his misguided zeal for alchemical progress.
Equally, José Arcadio and his wife, Úrsula, fear that their very marriage may set trouble in store for their offspring. In that they are cousins, and they have heard that other cousins in the family who married gave birth to a child with a pig’s tail, they fear their children will likewise be monstrous. For months after their wedding, Úrsula refuses to allow the relationship to be consummated, out of fear for what might issue. They only start to reproduce after a neighbour, Prudencio Aguilar, mocks José Arcadio for his failure to bed his own wife. “If you bear iguanas, we’ll raise iguanas,” José Arcadio tells her.
Yet indirectly the future has already been set for the couple’s descendants. Spurred in defence of his honour to kill Prudencio Aguilar, José Arcadio has as a result to take Úrsula off in the founding Exodus that establishes the community of Macondo.
So Macondo is troubled from the start by the question of inheritance, of legitimacy, and the ways in which the sins of the fathers (and mothers) may be visited upon the sons (and daughters).
In other words, the novel is also troubled from the start by the ways in which, whether through incest or adultery or any number of other complications, the family tree soon becomes as unruly a structure as the narrative profusion that it is in part designed to contain and control.
Genealogy, intended to produce order and secure legitimate inheritance, is equally a source of disorder and confusion as Aureliano follows Arcadio but is followed in turn by other Arcadios and other Aurelianos. It becomes increasingly hard to keep up. The family tree is soon lost to the multitudinous forest.
Felisberto Hernández‘s short story “Las Hortensias” explores an uncanny modernity of couples and doubles and life-like mass reproduction.
The story centres around a childless couple, Horacio and María, who live in a suburban house next to a factory whose machinic hum pervades their lives and the narrative. Partly perhaps as a substitute for the child that they cannot have (44), and also (we’re told) partly because of his fears of mortality and particularly of the possibility his wife might pre-decease him (20), Horacio acquires a collection of life-size dolls that he has arranged in a series of tableaux vivants.
But one doll in particular becomes rapidly an object of obsession for them both. This is Hortensia, made in the likeness of his wife (whose middle name is Hortensia), who stands in for wife, child, sister, and increasingly Horacio’s lover.
At the outset María colludes in the imaginative play with which Horacio gives life to Hortensia. But there’s something slightly sinister about the “surprises” she likes to play on her husband by switching roles with the doll, dressing her in her own clothing and providing her with animate qualities at the same time as she herself takes on increasingly doll-like roles. Soon collusion turns to jealousy as Horacio takes this simulation a stage further, having Hortensia fitted with veins through which warm water can be piped for additional verosimilitude, and fixing his desire ever more firmly on the mannequin.
Meanwhile, other doubles are equally troubling: for instance, the household’s servants include a pair of twins, one of whom is also named María, whom María (the wife) feels she has to hide from her husband’s gaze; and the couple keep the mirrors in their house shrouded, as their reflections provoke anxiety in Horacio however much he also “very much liked to discover the confusion of people and things that mirrors provoked” (51). There’s a sense from the start that such reflections and imitations are always likely to get out of hand, and to lead towards madness. Horacio feels himself surrounded by disturbing signs, above all the sense that “the dolls had their secrets,” that they are “full of omens,” and that they appeared to be “hypnotized beings carrying out unknown missions or lending themselves to unsavoury designs” (22).
More substitutions follow: María attacks Hortensia, though the couple both worry about the notion that a doll, supposedly inanimate, could be “killed.” Then Horacio swaps Hortensia first for a blonde doll and ultimately for a black one who turns out to be his wife, providing him with yet another of her surprises.
Unable or unwilling to trust his own senses, and with the feeling that his desire has become delirious (increasingly [un]fixed on part objects–the dolls’ detached limbs floating in a tank), Horacio himself becomes ever more of an automaton: he scarcely moves, “his eyes fixed as though they were glass, his silence that of a doll” (77). In a final breakdown, in terror at one last surprise on the part of his wife, one last substitution in which she plays the part of a doll, we find him setting off across the flowerbeds “heading towards the sound of the machines” (80).
Horacio has definitively abandoned human reproduction centered around the closed world of the domestic couple, to ally himself with the infinitely more productive (if also more disturbing) world of the factory. In the proliferation of representations that modernity allows, any distance between sign and thing has (for him) broken down. So why not enter fully into the world of things, abandoning pretensions to puppet mastery, to some kind of transcendent humanity?
There’s so much that could be said about this photograph, winner of the World Press Photo prize for portraiture. The expressions on the couple’s faces; the distinct ways in which they hold themselves. And then there’s the caption…
“Wounded US Marine returns home from Iraq to marry”via Interbreeding.
[Update: More, from Majikthise, including links to the full gallery of pictures, and the comment “The groom’s ambiguous expression is a metaphor for the all the ways that war changes people. [. . .] Maybe the Marine is literally a different person than his finacee agreed to marry.”]
The guiding metaphor and plot device for Coelho’s The Alchemist is the journey or quest. Shepherd boy Santiago is told he has to voyage to the Egyptian pyramids in pursuit of his Personal Legend and to discover a treasure that awaits him there. But at the same time, this journey is a red herring: upon finally arriving at the Pyramids he realizes that in fact the treasure is to be found right back where he started, buried underneath the ruined church in southern Spain in which we first found him.
Of course, there’s a touch here of Eliot’s sentiments in the Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
But I think there’s more to it than that, something specifically associated with the pleasures of the middlebrow.
Because I’m struck also by how many of those who report to have liked The Alchemist associate it with travel. Take Ashea’s account, for instance:
The first time I read it was in a hammock, in the rainforest in Guatemala with an overfed Spider monkey in my lap (long story but I assure you its true) and the second time while backpacking through Cambodia
and Gillian’s response: “That’s cool that you read it while you were also travelling, I bet that would totally make a difference.” And I’m sure it would, not merely because this is “beach” literature. Rather because this is a literature of transport.
Jan Radway in A Feeling for Books outlines the system of evaluation for middlebrow literature precisely in these terms: a book is valued if it provides “a feeling of transport and betweenness, a feeling of being suspended between the self and the world, a state where the one flowed imperceptibly into the other, a place where clear boundaries and limits were obscured” (117). Surely sitting in a hammock with a monkey in your lap is also a pretty good approximation of precisely this same suspension between self and world. The exoticism of Coelho’s frankly Orientalist vision is a good fit with the common desire of backpackers to find themselves by losing themselves a little bit, by resituating themselves (ourselves) in a slightly overwhelming, slightly intoxicating environment of (more or less) manageable difference.
Yet this desire to lose yourself or be carried away by literature is very different from the instincts inculcated in academic and professional analysis. As Radway points out, however much recent theory has celebrated the “pleasure of the text”, still “academic professionals tend to construe the reading process as one marked explicitly by labor” (108); the “standard practice in English [but, I’d add, not only English] education seem[s] to dictate disapproval of this sort of readerly absorption in supposedly bad books” (121).
Radway describes the middlebrow (exemplified for her by the Book of the Month club) as caught between these twin desires, as a search for “hybrid books” that combine both “education and sensual pleasure” (113). And surely The Alchemist sets out to be hybrid in precisely this way: providing both the pleasure of the quest, an absorption in difference and transport to different worlds, and also a claim to educate, to facilitate self-help.
More generally, Bad Latin American literature (which I’m increasingly tempted to suggest is almost all Latin American literature in translation) finds its niche in this precarious middlebrow compromise between delight and instruction. Is it to be condemned for never quite living up to its literary pretensions, or to be praised for providing both pleasures (the sensual and the intellectual), if always in attenuated form?
Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) presents itself as a fusion of cookbook and novel. Each of its twelve chapters opens with a list of ingredients and the instructions for making a given dish: Tortas de navidad, Pastel Chabela, Codornices en pétalos de rosas, and so on. But it’s hard to tell how seriously these recipes are to be taken, and soon enough the cookbook discourse is replaced by a novelistic account of the lives and loves of a Mexican family in the early twentieth century.
To use the appropriate culinary metaphor, the brief snippets of recipe are mere stylistic garnish; they provide the decorative fiction that this book is in fact (as its narrator suggests in its closing pages) a cookbook that has been handed down from great-aunt to great-niece, and that contains “this love story embedded in it” (247).
Yet the relationship between food and life, food and love, is central to the novel. Tita, the protagonist, is born and brought up in the kitchen, and it’s to cooking that she turns when she seeks solace or refuge, or to express herself and vent her emotions. Hence the food that she serves, and the recipes that the book contains, are an extension of her personality and her primary means of relating with the world, with often dramatic effects.
For Tita has been prohibited other social outlets. By family tradition, the last-born daughter is condemned to remain at home, and is to dedicate herself to serving the widowed mother in all her whims and demands. Tita is therefore unable to wed her sweetheart, Pedro, who promptly decides that the next best thing is to take up with his beloved’s elder sister, Rosaura. Insult added to injury, Pedro’s marriage to Rosaura leaves Tita feeling “like the quail” that she herself is cooking: “broken in body and soul” (48).
The book’s dominant trope consists in such comparisons: on hearing of her sister’s marriage, Tita’s cheeks burn red “like the color of the apples in front of her” on the kitchen table (13); seeing Pedro, she “understood exactly what the dough for a doughnut must feel on its contact with the boiling oil” (15); later, “like the saying goes, her skin turned to goose bumps” (24); she feels as abandoned as “a chile en nogada left behind on a tray after a banquet” (57); put to looking after her nephew, she ensures he is “wrapped up like a taco” (74); she leaves home but without words “to express what was cooking inside her” (108); on her mother’s death, she feels “fresh like a lettuce” (137); and when Pedro does embrace her, “her body shook like jelly” (140).
Indeed, it’s a simile that gives the book its title. We’re told that, angry at the prospect that her niece will have to bear a similar burden of looking after her own mother, “Tita was literally ‘like water for chocolate'” (151).
Tita’s not, of course, literally “like water for chocolate” (a Mexican expression meaning “at boiling point”). But there’s something revealing about this mistake: Esquivel’s book consistently literalizes the figurative comparisons upon which it depends. Its drive is to join cooking and life so completely that there should be no distance between the two. And it’s this fear of figuration that subtends Esquivel’s brand of magical realism.
So it’s not good enough to suggest that Tita is so embroiled in the world of the kitchen that it’s as though she had been born there: she has to be literally born among the pots and pans, “among the vapours of a noodle soup that was on the boil” (4). And as a premonition of the obstacles that her life will face, it’s not sufficient that the tears that attend her birth should be metaphorical: they have to be an “overwhelming torrent [. . .] that washed over the table and the kitchen floor” (4). And so on for another 250 pages.
Como agua para chocolate proceeds by means of a stubborn literalization of emotion. If a dinner is made “with love,” it has to be literally infused by the blood of the enamoured, and then to produce immediately physical symptoms in those who consume it. Passion has to make itself evident in lights, sounds, and smells. Arguments must be literally to the death, as characters die of flatulence, their disgust made flesh.
This is a cartoon world in which nothing can go without saying; everything has to be spelled out and embodied, made sensual and tactile. All of which is well and good in some ways. But doesn’t it show a basic misunderstanding of the ways in which literature works? And isn’t it an irony that a genre celebrated for its creativity turns in the end on an inability to leave anything to the imagination?
Marta Brunet‘s “Piedra callada” is a chilling little tale of long-guarded resentment, terse conversation, and sudden violence; it’s reminiscent somewhat of a Flannery O’Connor short story, but with southern Chile standing in for the US Deep South. Two implacable wills face off against each other: the mother, Eufrasia, who has opposed from the start her daughter’s marriage to a lowly, sullen peon; and the son-in-law, Bernabé, who refuses to be parted from his children following his wife’s death.
Or rather, this is not so much a “face off” as the mother knows that to get her way she might have to proceed “by short cuts, clambering around, biding her time, if the direct route was made arduous and full of obstacles” (39). Hence she is consistently seen only in profile (e.g. 46, 54, 60, 64) as she half turns away, seeking to slip to one side or another, looking askance at her surroundings: “The old woman, always turned to one side [siempre de perfil], observed [Bernabé] out of the corner of her eye” (59).
There is something aslant or crooked also about the son-in-law: his eyes, for instance (40), and he too takes in the changes Eufrasia has wrought by looking at them only indirectly (49). But his characteristic movements are less from side to side than up and down. In the presence of hacendado and mother-in-law alike he hangs his head, slouching as though admitting defeat ahead of time (40, 58). And when his ill-named wife Esperanza (“Hope”) dies, it’s “as though his head had all of a sudden buried itself in his shoulders” (50).
Increasingly, Bernabé’s anger literally swells up from deep within his body, his arms, his hands. But it’s not for nothing that even Esperanza, pleading to be allowed to marry him, has to admit that he’s clumsy, heavy, slow-witted [lerdo] (36, 37). Eufrasia by contrast is “prodigiously agile, quicker in thought than he” and also quicker to move: she “side-step[s] immediately,” leaving him behind when threatened (60).
Neither of these two rivals is distinguished by their use of language. Bernabé is taciturn to the point of dumbness, managing only a grunt or two for the most part, and “drowning in words” when he is called upon to say more (62). Eufrasia’s silences, by contrast, are part and parcel of the long game that she’s playing as she watches and waits for her opportunity to strike.
And when strike she does, it’s to force Bernabé likewise to step off to one side: but here this involves his slipping and falling; unlike her, he’s lost if he cannot move ahead and straight. Eufrasia wins out (was there ever really any doubt that she would?), though in a chilling final paragraph that reminds us how imperceptible her wayward track has been, she leaves the door open “because as far as the others were concerned, the man might still return” (65).